My Life -
Autumn came on, rainy, dark, and muddy. The season of
unemployment set in, and I used to sit at home out of work for
three days at a stretch, or did various little jobs, not in the
painting line. For instance, I wheeled earth, earning about
fourpence a day by it. Dr. Blagovo had gone away to Petersburg.
My sister had given up coming to see me. Radish was laid up at
home ill, expecting death from day to day.
And my mood was autumnal too. Perhaps because, having become a
workman, I saw our town life only from the seamy side, it was my
lot almost every day to make discoveries which reduced me almost
to despair. Those of my fellow-citizens, about whom I had no
opinion before, or who had externally appeared perfectly decent,
turned out now to be base, cruel people, capable of any dirty
action. We common people were deceived, cheated, and kept
waiting for hours together in the cold entry or the kitchen; we
were insulted and treated with the utmost rudeness. In the
autumn I papered the reading-room and two other rooms at the
club; I was paid a penny three-farthings the piece, but had to
sign a receipt at the rate of twopence halfpenny, and when I
refused to do so, a gentleman of benevolent appearance in
gold-rimmed spectacles, who must have been one of the club
committee, said to me:
"If you say much more, you blackguard, I'll pound your face into
And when the flunkey whispered to him what I was, the son of
Poloznev the architect, he became embarrassed, turned crimson,
but immediately recovered himself and said: "Devil take him."
In the shops they palmed off on us workmen putrid meat, musty
flour, and tea that had been used and dried again; the police
hustled us in church, the assistants and nurses in the hospital
plundered us, and if we were too poor to give them a bribe they
revenged themselves by bringing us food in dirty vessels. In the
post-office the pettiest official considered he had a right to
treat us like animals, and to shout with coarse insolence: "You
wait!" "Where are you shoving to?" Even the housedogs were
unfriendly to us, and fell upon us with peculiar viciousness.
But the thing that struck me most of all in my new position was
the complete lack of justice, what is defined by the peasants in
the words: "They have forgotten God." Rarely did a day pass
without swindling. We were swindled by the merchants who sold us
oil, by the contractors and the workmen and the people who
employed us. I need not say that there could never be a question
of our rights, and we always had to ask for the money we earned
as though it were a charity, and to stand waiting for it at the
back door, cap in hand.
I was papering a room at the club next to the reading-room; in
the evening, when I was just getting ready to go, the daughter
of Dolzhikov, the engineer, walked into the room with a bundle
of books under her arm.
I bowed to her.
"Oh, how do you do!" she said, recognizing me at once, and
holding out her hand. "I'm very glad to see you."
She smiled and looked with curiosity and wonder at my smock, my
pail of paste, the paper stretched on the floor; I was
embarrassed, and she, too, felt awkward.
"You must excuse my looking at you like this," she said. "I have
been told so much about you. Especially by Dr. Blagovo; he is
simply in love with you. And I have made the acquaintance of
your sister too; a sweet, dear girl, but I can never persuade
her that there is nothing awful about your adopting the simple
life. On the contrary, you have become the most interesting man
in the town."
She looked again at the pail of paste and the wallpaper, and
"I asked Dr. Blagovo to make me better acquainted with you, but
apparently he forgot, or had not time. Anyway, we are acquainted
all the same, and if you would come and see me quite simply I
should be extremely indebted to you. I so long to have a talk. I
am a simple person," she added, holding out her hand to me, "and
I hope that you will feel no constraint with me. My father is
not here, he is in Petersburg."
She went off into the reading-room, rustling her skirts, while I
went home, and for a long time could not get to sleep.
That cheerless autumn some kind soul, evidently wishing to
alleviate my existence, sent me from time to time tea and
lemons, or biscuits, or roast game. Karpovna told me that they
were always brought by a soldier, and from whom they came she
did not know; and the soldier used to enquire whether I was
well, and whether I dined every day, and whether I had warm
clothing. When the frosts began I was presented in the same way
in my absence with a soft knitted scarf brought by the soldier.
There was a faint elusive smell of scent about it, and I guessed
who my good fairy was. The scarf smelt of lilies-of-the-valley,
the favourite scent of Anyuta Blagovo.
Towards winter there was more work and it was more cheerful.
Radish recovered, and we worked together in the cemetery church,
where we were putting the ground-work on the ikon-stand before
gilding. It was a clean, quiet job, and, as our fellows used to
say, profitable. One could get through a lot of work in a day,
and the time passed quickly, imperceptibly. There was no
swearing, no laughter, no loud talk. The place itself compelled
one to quietness and decent behaviour, and disposed one to
quiet, serious thoughts. Absorbed in our work we stood or sat
motionless like statues; there was a deathly silence in keeping
with the cemetery, so that if a tool fell, or a flame spluttered
in the lamp, the noise of such sounds rang out abrupt and
resonant, and made us look round. After a long silence we would
hear a buzzing like the swarming of bees: it was the requiem of
a baby being chanted slowly in subdued voices in the porch; or
an artist, painting a dove with stars round it on a cupola would
begin softly whistling, and recollecting himself with a start
would at once relapse into silence; or Radish, answering his
thoughts, would say with a sigh: "Anything is possible! Anything
is possible!" or a slow disconsolate bell would begin ringing
over our heads, and the painters would observe that it must be
for the funeral of some wealthy person. . . .
My days I spent in this stillness in the twilight of the church,
and in the long evenings I played billiards or went to the
theatre in the gallery wearing the new trousers I had bought out
of my own earnings. Concerts and performances had already begun
at the Azhogins'; Radish used to paint the scenes alone now. He
used to tell me the plot of the plays and describe the tableaux
vivants which he witnessed. I listened to him with envy. I felt
greatly drawn to the rehearsals, but I could not bring myself to
go to the Azhogins'.
A week before Christmas Dr. Blagovo arrived. And again we argued
and played billiards in the evenings. When he played he used to
take off his coat and unbutton his shirt over his chest, and for
some reason tried altogether to assume the air of a desperate
rake. He did not drink much, but made a great uproar about it,
and had a special faculty for getting through twenty roubles in
an evening at such a poor cheap tavern as the Volga.
My sister began coming to see me again; they both expressed
surprise every time on seeing each other, but from her joyful,
guilty face it was evident that these meetings were not
accidental. One evening, when we were playing billiards, the
doctor said to me:
"I say, why don't you go and see Miss Dolzhikov? You don't know
Mariya Viktorovna; she is a clever creature, a charmer, a
simple, good-natured soul."
I described how her father had received me in the spring.
"Nonsense!" laughed the doctor, "the engineer's one thing and
she's another. Really, my dear fellow, you mustn't be nasty to
her; go and see her sometimes. For instance, let's go and see
her tomorrow evening. What do you say?"
He persuaded me. The next evening I put on my new serge
trousers, and in some agitation I set off to Miss Dolzhikov's.
The footman did not seem so haughty and terrible, nor the
furniture so gorgeous, as on that morning when I had come to ask
a favour. Mariya Viktorovna was expecting me, and she received
me like an old acquaintance, shaking hands with me in a friendly
way. She was wearing a grey cloth dress with full sleeves, and
had her hair done in the style which we used to call "dogs'
ears," when it came into fashion in the town a year before. The
hair was combed down over the ears, and this made Mariya
Viktorovna's face look broader, and she seemed to me this time
very much like her father, whose face was broad and red, with
something in its expression like a sledge-driver. She was
handsome and elegant, but not youthful looking; she looked
thirty, though in reality she was not more than twenty-five.
"Dear Doctor, how grateful I am to you," she said, making me sit
down. "If it hadn't been for him you wouldn't have come to see
me. I am bored to death! My father has gone away and left me
alone, and I don't know what to do with myself in this town."
Then she began asking me where I was working now, how much I
earned, where I lived.
"Do you spend on yourself nothing but what you earn?" she asked.
"Happy man!" she sighed. "All the evil in life, it seems to me,
comes from idleness, boredom, and spiritual emptiness, and all
this is inevitable when one is accustomed to living at other
people's expense. Don't think I am showing off, I tell you
truthfully: it is not interesting or pleasant to be rich. 'Make
to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness' is said,
because there is not and cannot be a mammon that's righteous."
She looked round at the furniture with a grave, cold expression,
as though she wanted to count it over, and went on:
"Comfort and luxury have a magical power; little by little they
draw into their clutches even strong-willed people. At one time
father and I lived simply, not in a rich style, but now you see
how! It is something monstrous," she said, shrugging her
shoulders; "we spend up to twenty thousand a year! In the
"One comes to look at comfort and luxury as the invariable
privilege of capital and education," I said, "and it seems to me
that the comforts of life may be combined with any sort of
labour, even the hardest and dirtiest. Your father is rich, and
yet he says himself that it has been his lot to be a mechanic
and an oiler."
She smiled and shook her head doubtfully: "My father sometimes
eats bread dipped in kvass," she said. "It's a fancy, a whim!"
At that moment there was a ring and she got up.
"The rich and well-educated ought to work like everyone else,"
she said, "and if there is comfort it ought to be equal for all.
There ought not to be any privileges. But that's enough
philosophizing. Tell me something amusing. Tell me about the
painters. What are they like? Funny?"
The doctor came in; I began telling them about the painters,
but, being unaccustomed to talking, I was constrained, and
described them like an ethnologist, gravely and tediously. The
doctor, too, told us some anecdotes of working men: he staggered
about, shed tears, dropped on his knees, and, even, mimicking a
drunkard, lay on the floor; it was as good as a play, and Mariya
Viktorovna laughed till she cried as she looked at him. Then he
played on the piano and sang in his thin, pleasant tenor, while
Mariya Viktorovna stood by and picked out what he was to sing,
and corrected him when he made a mistake.
"I've heard that you sing, too?" I enquired.
"Sing, too!" cried the doctor in horror. "She sings exquisitely,
a perfect artist, and you talk of her 'singing too'! What an
"I did study in earnest at one time," she said, answering my
question, "but now I have given it up."
Sitting on a low stool she told us of her life in Petersburg,
and mimicked some celebrated singers, imitating their voice and
manner of singing. She made a sketch of the doctor in her album,
then of me; she did not draw well, but both the portraits were
like us. She laughed, and was full of mischief and charming
grimaces, and this suited her better than talking about the
mammon of unrighteousness, and it seemed to me that she had been
talking just before about wealth and luxury, not in earnest, but
in imitation of someone. She was a superb comic actress. I
mentally compared her with our young ladies, and even the
handsome, dignified Anyuta Blagovo could not stand comparison
with her; the difference was immense, like the difference
between a beautiful, cultivated rose and a wild briar.
We had supper together, the three of us. The doctor and Mariya
Viktorovna drank red wine, champagne, and coffee with brandy in
it; they clinked glasses and drank to friendship, to
enlightenment, to progress, to liberty, and they did not get
drunk but only flushed, and were continually, for no reason,
laughing till they cried. So as not to be tiresome I drank
"Talented, richly endowed natures," said Miss Dolzhikov, "know
how to live, and go their own way; mediocre people, like myself
for instance, know nothing and can do nothing of themselves;
there is nothing left for them but to discern some deep social
movement, and to float where they are carried by it."
"How can one discern what doesn't exist?" asked the doctor.
"We think so because we don't see it."
"Is that so? The social movements are the invention of the new
literature. There are none among us."
An argument began.
"There are no deep social movements among us and never have
been," the doctor declared loudly. "There is no end to what the
new literature has invented! It has invented intellectual
workers in the country, and you may search through all our
villages and find at the most some lout in a reefer jacket or a
black frock-coat who will make four mistakes in spelling a word
of three letters. Cultured life has not yet begun among us.
There's the same savagery, the same uniform boorishness, the
same triviality, as five hundred years ago. Movements, currents
there have been, but it has all been petty, paltry, bent upon
vulgar and mercenary interests -- and one cannot see anything
important in them. If you think you have discerned a deep social
movement, and in following it you devote yourself to tasks in
the modern taste, such as the emancipation of insects from
slavery or abstinence from beef rissoles, I congratulate you,
Madam. We must study, and study, and study and we must wait a
bit with our deep social movements; we are not mature enough for
them yet; and to tell the truth, we don't know anything about
"You don't know anything about them, but I do," said Mariya
Viktorovna. "Goodness, how tiresome you are to-day!"
"Our duty is to study and to study, to try to accumulate as much
knowledge as possible, for genuine social movements arise where
there is knowledge; and the happiness of mankind in the future
lies only in knowledge. I drink to science!"
"There is no doubt about one thing: one must organize one's life
somehow differently," said Mariya Viktorovna, after a moment's
silence and thought. "Life, such as it has been hitherto, is not
worth having. Don't let us talk about it."
As we came away from her the cathedral clock struck two.
"Did you like her?" asked the doctor; "she's nice, isn't she?"
On Christmas day we dined with Mariya Viktorovna, and all
through the holidays we went to see her almost every day. There
was never anyone there but ourselves, and she was right when she
said that she had no friends in the town but the doctor and me.
We spent our time for the most part in conversation; sometimes
the doctor brought some book or magazine and read aloud to us.
In reality he was the first well-educated man I had met in my
life: I cannot judge whether he knew a great deal, but he always
displayed his knowledge as though he wanted other people to
share it. When he talked about anything relating to medicine he
was not like any one of the doctors in our town, but made a
fresh, peculiar impression upon me, and I fancied that if he
liked he might have become a real man of science. And he was
perhaps the only person who had a real influence upon me at that
time. Seeing him, and reading the books he gave me, I began
little by little to feel a thirst for the knowledge which would
have given significance to my cheerless labour. It seemed
strange to me, for instance, that I had not known till then that
the whole world was made up of sixty elements, I had not known
what oil was, what paints were, and that I could have got on
without knowing these things. My acquaintance with the doctor
elevated me morally too. I was continually arguing with him and,
though I usually remained of my own opinion, yet, thanks to him,
I began to perceive that everything was not clear to me, and I
began trying to work out as far as I could definite convictions
in myself, that the dictates of conscience might be definite,
and that there might be nothing vague in my mind. Yet, though he
was the most cultivated and best man in the town, he was
nevertheless far from perfection. In his manners, in his habit
of turning every conversation into an argument, in his pleasant
tenor, even in his friendliness, there was something coarse,
like a divinity student, and when he took off his coat and sat
in his silk shirt, or flung a tip to a waiter in the restaurant,
I always fancied that culture might be all very well, but the
Tatar was fermenting in him still.
At Epiphany he went back to Petersburg. He went off in the
morning, and after dinner my sister came in. Without taking off
her fur coat and her cap she sat down in silence, very pale, and
kept her eyes fixed on the same spot. She was chilled by the
frost and one could see that she was upset by it.
"You must have caught cold," I said.
Her eyes filled with tears; she got up and went out to Karpovna
without saying a word to me, as though I had hurt her feelings.
And a little later I heard her saying, in a tone of bitter
"Nurse, what have I been living for till now? What? Tell me,
haven't I wasted my youth? All the best years of my life to know
nothing but keeping accounts, pouring out tea, counting the
halfpence, entertaining visitors, and thinking there was nothing
better in the world! Nurse, do understand, I have the cravings
of a human being, and I want to live, and they have turned me
into something like a housekeeper. It's horrible, horrible!"
She flung her keys towards the door, and they fell with a jingle
into my room. They were the keys of the sideboard, of the
kitchen cupboard, of the cellar, and of the tea-caddy, the keys
which my mother used to carry.
"Oh, merciful heavens!" cried the old woman in horror. "Holy
Before going home my sister came into my room to pick up the
keys, and said:
"You must forgive me. Something queer has happened to me