A.P. Chekhov -
OLENKA, the daughter of the retired
collegiate assessor, Plemyanniakov, was sitting in her back
porch, lost in thought. It was hot, the flies were persistent
and teasing, and it was pleasant to reflect that it would soon
be evening. Dark rainclouds were gathering from the east, and
bringing from time to time a breath of moisture in the air.
Kukin, who was the manager of an open-air theatre called the
Tivoli, and who lived in the lodge, was standing in the middle
of the garden looking at the sky.
"Again!" he observed despairingly. "It's going to rain again!
Rain every day, as though to spite me. I might as well hang
myself! It's ruin! Fearful losses every day."
He flung up his hands, and went on, addressing Olenka:
"There! that's the life we lead, Olga Semyonovna. It's enough to
make one cry. One works and does one's utmost, one wears oneself
out, getting no sleep at night, and racks one's brain what to do
for the best. And then what happens? To begin with, one's public
is ignorant, boorish. I give them the very best operetta, a
dainty masque, first rate music-hall artists. But do you suppose
that's what they want! They don't understand anything of that
sort. They want a clown; what they ask for is vulgarity. And
then look at the weather! Almost every evening it rains. It
started on the tenth of May, and it's kept it up all May and
June. It's simply awful! The public doesn't come, but I've to
pay the rent just the same, and pay the artists."
The next evening the clouds would gather again, and Kukin would
say with an hysterical laugh:
"Well, rain away, then! Flood the garden, drown me! Damn my luck
in this world and the next! Let the artists have me up! Send me
to prison! -- to Siberia! -- the scaffold! Ha, ha, ha!"
And next day the same thing.
Olenka listened to Kukin with silent gravity, and sometimes
tears came into her eyes. In the end his misfortunes touched
her; she grew to love him. He was a small thin man, with a
yellow face, and curls combed forward on his forehead. He spoke
in a thin tenor; as he talked his mouth worked on one side, and
there was always an expression of despair on his face; yet he
aroused a deep and genuine affection in her. She was always fond
of some one, and could not exist without loving. In earlier days
she had loved her papa, who now sat in a darkened room,
breathing with difficulty; she had loved her aunt who used to
come every other year from Bryansk; and before that, when she
was at school, she had loved her French master. She was a
gentle, soft-hearted, compassionate girl, with mild, tender eyes
and very good health. At the sight of her full rosy cheeks, her
soft white neck with a little dark mole on it, and the kind,
nave smile, which came into her face when she listened to
anything pleasant, men thought, "Yes, not half bad," and smiled
too, while lady visitors could not refrain from seizing her hand
in the middle of a conversation, exclaiming in a gush of
delight, "You darling!"
The house in which she had lived from her birth upwards, and
which was left her in her father's will, was at the extreme end
of the town, not far from the Tivoli. In the evenings and at
night she could head the band playing, and the crackling and
banging of fireworks, and it seemed to her that it was Kukin
struggling with his destiny, storming the entrenchments of his
chief foe, the indifferent public; there was a sweet thrill at
her heart, she had no desire to sleep, and when he returned home
at day-break, she tapped softly at her bedroom window, and
showing him only her face and one shoulder through the curtain,
she gave him a friendly smile. . . .
He proposed to her, and they were married. And when he had a
closer view of her neck and her plump, fine shoulders, he threw
up his hands, and said:
He was happy, but as it rained on the day and night of his
wedding, his face still retained an expression of despair.
They got on very well together. She used to sit in his office,
to look after things in the Tivoli, to put down the accounts and
pay the wages. And her rosy cheeks, her sweet, nave, radiant
smile, were to be seen now at the office window, now in the
refreshment bar or behind the scenes of the theatre. And already
she used to say to her acquaintances that the theatre was the
chief and most important thing in life and that it was only
through the drama that one could derive true enjoyment and
become cultivated and humane.
"But do you suppose the public understands that?" she used to
say. "What they want is a clown. Yesterday we gave 'Faust Inside
Out,' and almost all the boxes were empty; but if Vanitchka and
I had been producing some vulgar thing, I assure you the theatre
would have been packed. Tomorrow Vanitchka and I are doing
'Orpheus in Hell.' Do come."
And what Kukin said about the theatre and the actors she
repeated. Like him she despised the public for their ignorance
and their indifference to art; she took part in the rehearsals,
she corrected the actors, she kept an eye on the behaviour of
the musicians, and when there was an unfavourable notice in the
local paper, she shed tears, and then went to the editor's
office to set things right.
The actors were fond of her and used to call her "Vanitchka and
I," and "the darling"; she was sorry for them and used to lend
them small sums of money, and if they deceived her, she used to
shed a few tears in private, but did not complain to her
They got on well in the winter too. They took the theatre in the
town for the whole winter, and let it for short terms to a
Little Russian company, or to a conjurer, or to a local dramatic
society. Olenka grew stouter, and was always beaming with
satisfaction, while Kukin grew thinner and yellower, and
continually complained of their terrible losses, although he had
not done badly all the winter. He used to cough at night, and
she used to give him hot raspberry tea or lime-flower water, to
rub him with eau-de-Cologne and to wrap him in her warm shawls.
"You're such a sweet pet!" she used to say with perfect
sincerity, stroking his hair. "You're such a pretty dear!"
Towards Lent he went to Moscow to collect a new troupe, and
without him she could not sleep, but sat all night at her
window, looking at the stars, and she compared herself with the
hens, who are awake all night and uneasy when the cock is not in
the hen-house. Kukin was detained in Moscow, and wrote that he
would be back at Easter, adding some instructions about the
Tivoli. But on the Sunday before Easter, late in the evening,
came a sudden ominous knock at the gate; some one was hammering
on the gate as though on a barrel -- boom, boom, boom! The
drowsy cook went flopping with her bare feet through the
puddles, as she ran to open the gate.
"Please open," said some one outside in a thick bass. "There is
a telegram for you."
Olenka had received telegrams from her husband before, but this
time for some reason she felt numb with terror. With shaking
hands she opened the telegram and read as follows:
"IVAN PETROVITCH DIED SUDDENLY TO-DAY. AWAITING IMMATE
INSTRUCTIONS FUFUNERAL TUESDAY."
That was how it was written in the telegram -- "fufuneral," and
the utterly incomprehensible word "immate." It was signed by the
stage manager of the operatic company.
"My darling!" sobbed Olenka. "Vanka, my precious, my darling!
Why did I ever meet you! Why did I know you and love you! Your
poor heart-broken Olenka is alone without you!"
Kukin's funeral took place on Tuesday in Moscow, Olenka returned
home on Wednesday, and as soon as she got indoors, she threw
herself on her bed and sobbed so loudly that it could be heard
next door, and in the street.
"Poor darling!" the neighbours said, as they crossed themselves.
"Olga Semyonovna, poor darling! How she does take on!"
Three months later Olenka was coming home from mass, melancholy
and in deep mourning. It happened that one of her neighbours,
Vassily Andreitch Pustovalov, returning home from church, walked
back beside her. He was the manager at Babakayev's, the timber
merchant's. He wore a straw hat, a white waistcoat, and a gold
watch-chain, and looked more a country gentleman than a man in
"Everything happens as it is ordained, Olga Semyonovna," he said
gravely, with a sympathetic note in his voice; "and if any of
our dear ones die, it must be because it is the will of God, so
we ought have fortitude and bear it submissively."
After seeing Olenka to her gate, he said good-bye and went on.
All day afterwards she heard his sedately dignified voice, and
whenever she shut her eyes she saw his dark beard. She liked him
very much. And apparently she had made an impression on him too,
for not long afterwards an elderly lady, with whom she was only
slightly acquainted, came to drink coffee with her, and as soon
as she was seated at table began to talk about Pustovalov,
saying that he was an excellent man whom one could thoroughly
depend upon, and that any girl would be glad to marry him. Three
days later Pustovalov came himself. He did not stay long, only
about ten minutes, and he did not say much, but when he left,
Olenka loved him -- loved him so much that she lay awake all
night in a perfect fever, and in the morning she sent for the
elderly lady. The match was quickly arranged, and then came the
Pustovalov and Olenka got on very well together when they were
Usually he sat in the office till dinner-time, then he went out
on business, while Olenka took his place, and sat in the office
till evening, making up accounts and booking orders.
"Timber gets dearer every year; the price rises twenty per
cent," she would say to her customers and friends. "Only fancy
we used to sell local timber, and now Vassitchka always has to
go for wood to the Mogilev district. And the freight!" she would
add, covering her cheeks with her hands in horror. "The
It seemed to her that she had been in the timber trade for ages
and ages, and that the most important and necessary thing in
life was timber; and there was something intimate and touching
to her in the very sound of words such as "baulk," "post,"
"beam," "pole," "scantling," "batten," "lath," "plank," etc.
At night when she was asleep she dreamed of perfect mountains of
planks and boards, and long strings of wagons, carting timber
somewhere far away. She dreamed that a whole regiment of
six-inch beams forty feet high, standing on end, was marching
upon the timber-yard; that logs, beams, and boards knocked
together with the resounding crash of dry wood, kept falling and
getting up again, piling themselves on each other. Olenka cried
out in her sleep, and Pustovalov said to her tenderly: "Olenka,
what's the matter, darling? Cross yourself!"
Her husband's ideas were hers. If he thought the room was too
hot, or that business was slack, she thought the same. Her
husband did not care for entertainments, and on holidays he
stayed at home. She did likewise.
"You are always at home or in the office," her friends said to
her. "You should go to the theatre, darling, or to the circus."
"Vassitchka and I have no time to go to theatres," she would
answer sedately. "We have no time for nonsense. What's the use
of these theatres?"
On Saturdays Pustovalov and she used to go to the evening
service; on holidays to early mass, and they walked side by side
with softened faces as they came home from church. There was a
pleasant fragrance about them both, and her silk dress rustled
agreeably. At home they drank tea, with fancy bread and jams of
various kinds, and afterwards they ate pie. Every day at twelve
o'clock there was a savoury smell of beet-root soup and of
mutton or duck in their yard, and on fast-days of fish, and no
one could pass the gate without feeling hungry. In the office
the samovar was always boiling, and customers were regaled with
tea and cracknels. Once a week the couple went to the baths and
returned side by side, both red in the face.
"Yes, we have nothing to complain of, thank God," Olenka used to
say to her acquaintances. "I wish every one were as well off as
Vassitchka and I."
When Pustovalov went away to buy wood in the Mogilev district,
she missed him dreadfully, lay awake and cried. A young
veterinary surgeon in the army, called Smirnin, to whom they had
let their lodge, used sometimes to come in in the evening. He
used to talk to her and play cards with her, and this
entertained her in her husband's absence. She was particularly
interested in what he told her of his home life. He was married
and had a little boy, but was separated from his wife because
she had been unfaithful to him, and now he hated her and used to
send her forty roubles a month for the maintenance of their son.
And hearing of all this, Olenka sighed and shook her head. She
was sorry for him.
"Well, God keep you," she used to say to him at parting, as she
lighted him down the stairs with a candle. "Thank you for coming
to cheer me up, and may the Mother of God give you health."
And she always expressed herself with the same sedateness and
dignity, the same reasonableness, in imitation of her husband.
As the veterinary surgeon was disappearing behind the door
below, she would say:
"You know, Vladimir Platonitch, you'd better make it up with
your wife. You should forgive her for the sake of your son. You
may be sure the little fellow understands."
And when Pustovalov came back, she told him in a low voice about
the veterinary surgeon and his unhappy home life, and both
sighed and shook their heads and talked about the boy, who, no
doubt, missed his father, and by some strange connection of
ideas, they went up to the holy ikons, bowed to the ground
before them and prayed that God would give them children.
And so the Pustovalovs lived for six years quietly and peaceably
in love and complete harmony.
But behold! one winter day after drinking hot tea in the office,
Vassily Andreitch went out into the yard without his cap on to
see about sending off some timber, caught cold and was taken
ill. He had the best doctors, but he grew worse and died after
four months' illness. And Olenka was a widow once more.
"I've nobody, now you've left me, my darling," she sobbed, after
her husband's funeral. "How can I live without you, in
wretchedness and misery! Pity me, good people, all alone in the
She went about dressed in black with long "weepers," and gave up
wearing hat and gloves for good. She hardly ever went out,
except to church, or to her husband's grave, and led the life of
a nun. It was not till six months later that she took off the
weepers and opened the shutters of the windows. She was
sometimes seen in the mornings, going with her cook to market
for provisions, but what went on in her house and how she lived
now could only be surmised. People guessed, from seeing her
drinking tea in her garden with the veterinary surgeon, who read
the newspaper aloud to her, and from the fact that, meeting a
lady she knew at the post-office, she said to her:
"There is no proper veterinary inspection in our town, and
that's the cause of all sorts of epidemics. One is always
hearing of people's getting infection from the milk supply, or
catching diseases from horses and cows. The health of domestic
animals ought to be as well cared for as the health of human
She repeated the veterinary surgeon's words, and was of the same
opinion as he about everything. It was evident that she could
not live a year without some attachment, and had found new
happiness in the lodge. In any one else this would have been
censured, but no one could think ill of Olenka; everything she
did was so natural. Neither she nor the veterinary surgeon said
anything to other people of the change in their relations, and
tried, indeed, to conceal it, but without success, for Olenka
could not keep a secret. When he had visitors, men serving in
his regiment, and she poured out tea or served the supper, she
would begin talking of the cattle plague, of the foot and mouth
disease, and of the municipal slaughterhouses. He was dreadfully
embarrassed, and when the guests had gone, he would seize her by
the hand and hiss angrily:
"I've asked you before not to talk about what you don't
understand. When we veterinary surgeons are talking among
ourselves, please don't put your word in. It's really annoying."
And she would look at him with astonishment and dismay, and ask
him in alarm: "But, Voloditchka, what am I to talk about?"
And with tears in her eyes she would embrace him, begging him
not to be angry, and they were both happy.
But this happiness did not last long. The veterinary surgeon
departed, departed for ever with his regiment, when it was
transferred to a distant place -- to Siberia, it may be. And
Olenka was left alone.
Now she was absolutely alone. Her father had long been dead, and
his armchair lay in the attic, covered with dust and lame of one
leg. She got thinner and plainer, and when people met her in the
street they did not look at her as they used to, and did not
smile to her; evidently her best years were over and left
behind, and now a new sort of life had begun for her, which did
not bear thinking about. In the evening Olenka sat in the porch,
and heard the band playing and the fireworks popping in the
Tivoli, but now the sound stirred no response. She looked into
her yard without interest, thought of nothing, wished for
nothing, and afterwards, when night came on she went to bed and
dreamed of her empty yard. She ate and drank as it were
And what was worst of all, she had no opinions of any sort. She
saw the objects about her and understood what she saw, but could
not form any opinion about them, and did not know what to talk
about. And how awful it is not to have any opinions! One sees a
bottle, for instance, or the rain, or a peasant driving in his
cart, but what the bottle is for, or the rain, or the peasant,
and what is the meaning of it, one can't say, and could not even
for a thousand roubles. When she had Kukin, or Pustovalov, or
the veterinary surgeon, Olenka could explain everything, and
give her opinion about anything you like, but now there was the
same emptiness in her brain and in her heart as there was in her
yard outside. And it was as harsh and as bitter as wormwood in
Little by little the town grew in all directions. The road
became a street, and where the Tivoli and the timber-yard had
been, there were new turnings and houses. How rapidly time
passes! Olenka's house grew dingy, the roof got rusty, the shed
sank on one side, and the whole yard was overgrown with docks
and stinging-nettles. Olenka herself had grown plain and
elderly; in summer she sat in the porch, and her soul, as
before, was empty and dreary and full of bitterness. In winter
she sat at her window and looked at the snow. When she caught
the scent of spring, or heard the chime of the church bells, a
sudden rush of memories from the past came over her, there was a
tender ache in her heart, and her eyes brimmed over with tears;
but this was only for a minute, and then came emptiness again
and the sense of the futility of life. The black kitten, Briska,
rubbed against her and purred softly, but Olenka was not touched
by these feline caresses. That was not what she needed. She
wanted a love that would absorb her whole being, her whole soul
and reason -- that would give her ideas and an object in life,
and would warm her old blood. And she would shake the kitten off
her skirt and say with vexation:
"Get along; I don't want you!"
And so it was, day after day and year after year, and no joy,
and no opinions. Whatever Mavra, the cook, said she accepted.
One hot July day, towards evening, just as the cattle were being
driven away, and the whole yard was full of dust, some one
suddenly knocked at the gate. Olenka went to open it herself and
was dumbfounded when she looked out: she saw Smirnin, the
veterinary surgeon, grey-headed, and dressed as a civilian. She
suddenly remembered everything. She could not help crying and
letting her head fall on his breast without uttering a word, and
in the violence of her feeling she did not notice how they both
walked into the house and sat down to tea.
"My dear Vladimir Platonitch! What fate has brought you?" she
muttered, trembling with joy.
"I want to settle here for good, Olga Semyonovna," he told her.
"I have resigned my post, and have come to settle down and try
my luck on my own account. Besides, it's time for my boy to go
to school. He's a big boy. I am reconciled with my wife, you
"Where is she?' asked Olenka.
"She's at the hotel with the boy, and I'm looking for lodgings."
"Good gracious, my dear soul! Lodgings? Why not have my house?
Why shouldn't that suit you? Why, my goodness, I wouldn't take
any rent!" cried Olenka in a flutter, beginning to cry again.
"You live here, and the lodge will do nicely for me. Oh dear!
how glad I am!"
Next day the roof was painted and the walls were whitewashed,
and Olenka, with her arms akimbo walked about the yard giving
directions. Her face was beaming with her old smile, and she was
brisk and alert as though she had waked from a long sleep. The
veterinary's wife arrived -- a thin, plain lady, with short hair
and a peevish expression. With her was her little Sasha, a boy
of ten, small for his age, blue-eyed, chubby, with dimples in
his cheeks. And scarcely had the boy walked into the yard when
he ran after the cat, and at once there was the sound of his
gay, joyous laugh.
"Is that your puss, auntie?" he asked Olenka. "When she has
little ones, do give us a kitten. Mamma is awfully afraid of
Olenka talked to him, and gave him tea. Her heart warmed and
there was a sweet ache in her bosom, as though the boy had been
her own child. And when he sat at the table in the evening,
going over his lessons, she looked at him with deep tenderness
and pity as she murmured to herself:
"You pretty pet! . . . my precious! . . . Such a fair little
thing, and so clever."
" 'An island is a piece of land which is entirely surrounded by
water,' " he read aloud.
"An island is a piece of land," she repeated, and this was the
first opinion to which she gave utterance with positive
conviction after so many years of silence and dearth of ideas.
Now she had opinions of her own, and at supper she talked to
Sasha's parents, saying how difficult the lessons were at the
high schools, but that yet the high school was better than a
commercial one, since with a high-school education all careers
were open to one, such as being a doctor or an engineer.
Sasha began going to the high school. His mother departed to
Harkov to her sister's and did not return; his father used to go
off every day to inspect cattle, and would often be away from
home for three days together, and it seemed to Olenka as though
Sasha was entirely abandoned, that he was not wanted at home,
that he was being starved, and she carried him off to her lodge
and gave him a little room there.
And for six months Sasha had lived in the lodge with her. Every
morning Olenka came into his bedroom and found him fast asleep,
sleeping noiselessly with his hand under his cheek. She was
sorry to wake him.
"Sashenka," she would say mournfully, "get up, darling. It's
time for school."
He would get up, dress and say his prayers, and then sit down to
breakfast, drink three glasses of tea, and eat two large
cracknels and a half a buttered roll. All this time he was
hardly awake and a little ill-humoured in consequence.
"You don't quite know your fable, Sashenka," Olenka would say,
looking at him as though he were about to set off on a long
journey. "What a lot of trouble I have with you! You must work
and do your best, darling, and obey your teachers."
"Oh, do leave me alone!" Sasha would say.
Then he would go down the street to school, a little figure,
wearing a big cap and carrying a satchel on his shoulder. Olenka
would follow him noiselessly.
"Sashenka!" she would call after him, and she would pop into his
hand a date or a caramel. When he reached the street where the
school was, he would feel ashamed of being followed by a tall,
stout woman, he would turn round and say:
"You'd better go home, auntie. I can go the rest of the way
She would stand still and look after him fixedly till he had
disappeared at the school-gate.
Ah, how she loved him! Of her former attachments not one had
been so deep; never had her soul surrendered to any feeling so
spontaneously, so disinterestedly, and so joyously as now that
her maternal instincts were aroused. For this little boy with
the dimple in his cheek and the big school cap, she would have
given her whole life, she would have given it with joy and tears
of tenderness. Why? Who can tell why?
When she had seen the last of Sasha, she returned home,
contented and serene, brimming over with love; her face, which
had grown younger during the last six months, smiled and beamed;
people meeting her looked at her with pleasure.
"Good-morning, Olga Semyonovna, darling. How are you, darling?"
"The lessons at the high school are very difficult now," she
would relate at the market. "It's too much; in the first class
yesterday they gave him a fable to learn by heart, and a Latin
translation and a problem. You know it's too much for a little
And she would begin talking about the teachers, the lessons, and
the school books, saying just what Sasha said.
At three o'clock they had dinner together: in the evening they
learned their lessons together and cried. When she put him to
bed, she would stay a long time making the Cross over him and
murmuring a prayer; then she would go to bed and dream of that
far-away misty future when Sasha would finish his studies and
become a doctor or an engineer, would have a big house of his
own with horses and a carriage, would get married and have
children. . . . She would fall asleep still thinking of the same
thing, and tears would run down her cheeks from her closed eyes,
while the black cat lay purring beside her: "Mrr, mrr, mrr."
Suddenly there would come a loud knock at the gate.
Olenka would wake up breathless with alarm, her heart throbbing.
Half a minute later would come another knock.
"It must be a telegram from Harkov," she would think, beginning
to tremble from head to foot. "Sasha's mother is sending for him
from Harkov. . . . Oh, mercy on us!"
She was in despair. Her head, her hands, and her feet would turn
chill, and she would feel that she was the most unhappy woman in
the world. But another minute would pass, voices would be heard:
it would turn out to be the veterinary surgeon coming home from
"Well, thank God!" she would think.
And gradually the load in her heart would pass off, and she
would feel at ease. She would go back to bed thinking of Sasha,
who lay sound asleep in the next room, sometimes crying out in
"I'll give it you! Get away! Shut up!"
Tivoli: a pleasure resort near Rome and also an amusement
park in Copenhagen
darling: the Russian word is Dushechka, a diminutive made from
Dusha, which means "darling" or "dear"; Poggioli notes that the
-echka ending implies "an insinuation of pettiness and a nuance
of indulgent scorn"
Faust Inside Out: a Russian translation of a French parody of
the 1859 opera Faust by Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Orpheus in Hell: operetta by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)
fufuneral: the Russian word for "funeral" in the telegram is
misprinted to look like the Russian word for "to laugh"
weepers: white bands worn on the cuffs of mourning clothes
I'll give it you!: I'll fix you!