A.P. Chekhov - A Dreary Story
From the Notebook of an Old Man
THERE is in Russia an emeritus Professor
Nikolay Stepanovitch, a chevalier and privy councillor; he has
so many Russian and foreign decorations that when he has
occasion to put them on the students nickname him "The Ikonstand."
His acquaintances are of the most aristocratic; for the last
twenty-five or thirty years, at any rate, there has not been one
single distinguished man of learning in Russia with whom he has
not been intimately acquainted. There is no one for him to make
friends with nowadays; but if we turn to the past, the long list
of his famous friends winds up with such names as Pirogov,
Kavelin, and the poet Nekrasov, all of whom bestowed upon him a
warm and sincere affection. He is a member of all the Russian
and of three foreign universities. And so on, and so on. All
that and a great deal more that might be said makes up what is
called my "name."
That is my name as known to the public. In Russia it is known to
every educated man, and abroad it is mentioned in the
lecture-room with the addition "honoured and distinguished." It
is one of those fortunate names to abuse which or to take which
in vain, in public or in print, is considered a sign of bad
taste. And that is as it should be. You see, my name is closely
associated with the conception of a highly distinguished man of
great gifts and unquestionable usefulness. I have the industry
and power of endurance of a camel, and that is important, and I
have talent, which is even more important. Moreover, while I am
on this subject, I am a well-educated, modest, and honest
fellow. I have never poked my nose into literature or politics;
I have never sought popularity in polemics with the ignorant; I
have never made speeches either at public dinners or at the
funerals of my friends. . . . In fact, there is no slur on my
learned name, and there is no complaint one can make against it.
It is fortunate.
The bearer of that name, that is I, see myself as a man of
sixty-two, with a bald head, with false teeth, and with an
incurable tic douloureux. I am myself as dingy and unsightly as
my name is brilliant and splendid. My head and my hands tremble
with weakness; my neck, as Turgenev says of one of his heroines,
is like the handle of a double bass; my chest is hollow; my
shoulders narrow; when I talk or lecture, my mouth turns down at
one corner; when I smile, my whole face is covered with
aged-looking, deathly wrinkles. There is nothing impressive
about my pitiful figure; only, perhaps, when I have an attack of
tic douloureux my face wears a peculiar expression, the sight of
which must have roused in every one the grim and impressive
thought, "Evidently that man will soon die."
I still, as in the past, lecture fairly well; I can still, as in
the past, hold the attention of my listeners for a couple of
hours. My fervour, the literary skill of my exposition, and my
humour, almost efface the defects of my voice, though it is
harsh, dry, and monotonous as a praying beggar's. I write
poorly. That bit of my brain which presides over the faculty of
authorship refuses to work. My memory has grown weak; there is a
lack of sequence in my ideas, and when I put them on paper it
always seems to me that I have lost the instinct for their
organic connection; my construction is monotonous; my language
is poor and timid. Often I write what I do not mean; I have
forgotten the beginning when I am writing the end. Often I
forget ordinary words, and I always have to waste a great deal
of energy in avoiding superfluous phrases and unnecessary
parentheses in my letters, both unmistakable proofs of a decline
in mental activity. And it is noteworthy that the simpler the
letter the more painful the effort to write it. At a scientific
article I feel far more intelligent and at ease than at a letter
of congratulation or a minute of proceedings. Another point: I
find it easier to write German or English than to write Russian.
As regards my present manner of life, I must give a foremost
place to the insomnia from which I have suffered of late. If I
were asked what constituted the chief and fundamental feature of
my existence now, I should answer, Insomnia. As in the past,
from habit I undress and go to bed exactly at midnight. I fall
asleep quickly, but before two o'clock I wake up and feel as
though I had not slept at all. Sometimes I get out of bed and
light a lamp. For an hour or two I walk up and down the room
looking at the familiar photographs and pictures. When I am
weary of walking about, I sit down to my table. I sit
motionless, thinking of nothing, conscious of no inclination; if
a book is lying before me, I mechanically move it closer and
read it without any interest -- in that way not long ago I
mechanically read through in one night a whole novel, with the
strange title "The Song the Lark was Singing"; or to occupy my
attention I force myself to count to a thousand; or I imagine
the face of one of my colleagues and begin trying to remember in
what year and under what circumstances he entered the service. I
like listening to sounds. Two rooms away from me my daughter
Liza says something rapidly in her sleep, or my wife crosses the
drawing-room with a candle and invariably drops the matchbox; or
a warped cupboard creaks; or the burner of the lamp suddenly
begins to hum -- and all these sounds, for some reason, excite
To lie awake at night means to be at every moment conscious of
being abnormal, and so I look forward with impatience to the
morning and the day when I have a right to be awake. Many
wearisome hours pass before the cock crows in the yard. He is my
first bringer of good tidings. As soon as he crows I know that
within an hour the porter will wake up below, and, coughing
angrily, will go upstairs to fetch something. And then a pale
light will begin gradually glimmering at the windows, voices
will sound in the street. . . .
The day begins for me with the entrance of my wife. She comes in
to me in her petticoat, before she has done her hair, but after
she has washed, smelling of flower-scented eau-de-Cologne,
looking as though she had come in by chance. Every time she says
exactly the same thing: "Excuse me, I have just come in for a
minute. . . . Have you had a bad night again?"
Then she puts out the lamp, sits down near the table, and begins
talking. I am no prophet, but I know what she will talk about.
Every morning it is exactly the same thing. Usually, after
anxious inquiries concerning my health, she suddenly mentions
our son who is an officer serving at Warsaw. After the twentieth
of each month we send him fifty roubles, and that serves as the
chief topic of our conversation.
"Of course it is difficult for us," my wife would sigh, "but
until he is completely on his own feet it is our duty to help
him. The boy is among strangers, his pay is small. . . .
However, if you like, next month we won't send him fifty, but
forty. What do you think?"
Daily experience might have taught my wife that constantly
talking of our expenses does not reduce them, but my wife
refuses to learn by experience, and regularly every morning
discusses our officer son, and tells me that bread, thank God,
is cheaper, while sugar is a halfpenny dearer -- with a tone and
an air as though she were communicating interesting news.
I listen, mechanically assent, and probably because I have had a
bad night, strange and inappropriate thoughts intrude themselves
upon me. I gaze at my wife and wonder like a child. I ask myself
in perplexity, is it possible that this old, very stout,
ungainly woman, with her dull expression of petty anxiety and
alarm about daily bread, with eyes dimmed by continual brooding
over debts and money difficulties, who can talk of nothing but
expenses and who smiles at nothing but things getting cheaper --
is it possible that this woman is no other than the slender
Varya whom I fell in love with so passionately for her fine,
clear intelligence, for her pure soul, her beauty, and, as
Othello his Desdemona, for her "sympathy" for my studies? Could
that woman be no other than the Varya who had once borne me a
I look with strained attention into the face of this flabby,
spiritless, clumsy old woman, seeking in her my Varya, but of
her past self nothing is left but her anxiety over my health and
her manner of calling my salary "our salary," and my cap "our
cap." It is painful for me to look at her, and, to give her what
little comfort I can, I let her say what she likes, and say
nothing even when she passes unjust criticisms on other people
or pitches into me for not having a private practice or not
Our conversation always ends in the same way. My wife suddenly
remembers with dismay that I have not had my tea.
"What am I thinking about, sitting here?" she says, getting up.
"The samovar has been on the table ever so long, and here I stay
gossiping. My goodness! how forgetful I am growing!"
She goes out quickly, and stops in the doorway to say:
"We owe Yegor five months' wages. Did you know it? You mustn't
let the servants' wages run on; how many times I have said it!
It's much easier to pay ten roubles a month than fifty roubles
every five months!"
As she goes out, she stops to say:
"The person I am sorriest for is our Liza. The girl studies at
the Conservatoire, always mixes with people of good position,
and goodness knows how she is dressed. Her fur coat is in such a
state she is ashamed to show herself in the street. If she were
somebody else's daughter it wouldn't matter, but of course every
one knows that her father is a distinguished professor, a privy
And having reproached me with my rank and reputation, she goes
away at last. That is how my day begins. It does not improve as
it goes on.
As I am drinking my tea, my Liza comes in wearing her fur coat
and her cap, with her music in her hand, already quite ready to
go to the Conservatoire. She is two-and-twenty. She looks
younger, is pretty, and rather like my wife in her young days.
She kisses me tenderly on my forehead and on my hand, and says:
"Good-morning, papa; are you quite well?"
As a child she was very fond of ice-cream, and I used often to
take her to a confectioner's. Ice-cream was for her the type of
everything delightful. If she wanted to praise me she would say:
"You are as nice as cream, papa." We used to call one of her
little fingers "pistachio ice," the next, "cream ice," the third
"raspberry," and so on. Usually when she came in to say
good-morning to me I used to sit her on my knee, kiss her little
fingers, and say:
"Creamy ice . . . pistachio . . . lemon. . . ."
And now, from old habit, I kiss Liza's fingers and mutter:
"Pistachio . . . cream . . . lemon. . ." but the effect is
utterly different. I am cold as ice and I am ashamed. When my
daughter comes in to me and touches my forehead with her lips I
start as though a bee had stung me on the head, give a forced
smile, and turn my face away. Ever since I have been suffering
from sleeplessness, a question sticks in my brain like a nail.
My daughter often sees me, an old man and a distinguished man,
blush painfully at being in debt to my footman; she sees how
often anxiety over petty debts forces me to lay aside my work
and to walk up and down the room for hours together, thinking;
but why is it she never comes to me in secret to whisper in my
ear: "Father, here is my watch, here are my bracelets, my
earrings, my dresses. . . . Pawn them all; you want money . .
."? How is it that, seeing how her mother and I are placed in a
false position and do our utmost to hide our poverty from
people, she does not give up her expensive pleasure of music
lessons? I would not accept her watch nor her bracelets, nor the
sacrifice of her lessons -- God forbid! That isn't what I want.
I think at the same time of my son, the officer at Warsaw. He is
a clever, honest, and sober fellow. But that is not enough for
me. I think if I had an old father, and if I knew there were
moments when he was put to shame by his poverty, I should give
up my officer's commission to somebody else, and should go out
to earn my living as a workman. Such thoughts about my children
poison me. What is the use of them? It is only a narrow-minded
or embittered man who can harbour evil thoughts about ordinary
people because they are not heroes. But enough of that!
At a quarter to ten I have to go and give a lecture to my dear
boys. I dress and walk along the road which I have known for
thirty years, and which has its history for me. Here is the big
grey house with the chemist's shop; at this point there used to
stand a little house, and in it was a beershop; in that beershop
I thought out my thesis and wrote my first love-letter to Varya.
I wrote it in pencil, on a page headed "Historia morbi." Here
there is a grocer's shop; at one time it was kept by a little
Jew, who sold me cigarettes on credit; then by a fat peasant
woman, who liked the students because "every one of them has a
mother"; now there is a red-haired shopkeeper sitting in it, a
very stolid man who drinks tea from a copper teapot. And here
are the gloomy gates of the University, which have long needed
doing up; I see the bored porter in his sheep-skin, the broom,
the drifts of snow. . . . On a boy coming fresh from the
provinces and imagining that the temple of science must really
be a temple, such gates cannot make a healthy impression.
Altogether the dilapidated condition of the University
buildings, the gloominess of the corridors, the griminess of the
walls, the lack of light, the dejected aspect of the steps, the
hat-stands and the benches, take a prominent position among
predisposing causes in the history of Russian pessimism. . . .
Here is our garden . . . I fancy it has grown neither better nor
worse since I was a student. I don't like it. It would be far
more sensible if there were tall pines and fine oaks growing
here instead of sickly-looking lime-trees, yellow acacias, and
skimpy pollard lilacs. The student whose state of mind is in the
majority of cases created by his surroundings, ought in the
place where he is studying to see facing him at every turn
nothing but what is lofty, strong and elegant. . . . God
preserve him from gaunt trees, broken windows, grey walls, and
doors covered with torn American leather!
When I go to my own entrance the door is flung wide open, and I
am met by my colleague, contemporary, and namesake, the porter
Nikolay. As he lets me in he clears his throat and says:
"A frost, your Excellency!"
Or, if my great-coat is wet:
"Rain, your Excellency!"
Then he runs on ahead of me and opens all the doors on my way.
In my study he carefully takes off my fur coat, and while doing
so manages to tell me some bit of University news. Thanks to the
close intimacy existing between all the University porters and
beadles, he knows everything that goes on in the four faculties,
in the office, in the rector's private room, in the library.
What does he not know? When in an evil day a rector or dean, for
instance, retires, I hear him in conversation with the young
porters mention the candidates for the post, explain that such a
one would not be confirmed by the minister, that another would
himself refuse to accept it, then drop into fantastic details
concerning mysterious papers received in the office, secret
conversations alleged to have taken place between the minister
and the trustee, and so on. With the exception of these details,
he almost always turns out to be right. His estimates of the
candidates, though original, are very correct, too. If one wants
to know in what year some one read his thesis, entered the
service, retired, or died, then summon to your assistance the
vast memory of that soldier, and he will not only tell you the
year, the month and the day, but will furnish you also with the
details that accompanied this or that event. Only one who loves
can remember like that.
He is the guardian of the University traditions. From the
porters who were his predecessors he has inherited many legends
of University life, has added to that wealth much of his own
gained during his time of service, and if you care to hear he
will tell you many long and intimate stories. He can tell one
about extraordinary sages who knew everything, about remarkable
students who did not sleep for weeks, about numerous martyrs and
victims of science; with him good triumphs over evil, the weak
always vanquishes the strong, the wise man the fool, the humble
the proud, the young the old. There is no need to take all these
fables and legends for sterling coin; but filter them, and you
will have left what is wanted: our fine traditions and the names
of real heroes, recognized as such by all.
In our society the knowledge of the learned world consists of
anecdotes of the extraordinary absentmindedness of certain old
professors, and two or three witticisms variously ascribed to
Gruber, to me, and to Babukin. For the educated public that is
not much. If it loved science, learned men, and students, as
Nikolay does, its literature would long ago have contained whole
epics, records of sayings and doings such as, unfortunately, it
cannot boast of now.
After telling me a piece of news, Nikolay assumes a severe
expression, and conversation about business begins. If any
outsider could at such times overhear Nikolay's free use of our
terminology, he might perhaps imagine that he was a learned man
disguised as a soldier. And, by the way, the rumours of the
erudition of the University porters are greatly exaggerated. It
is true that Nikolay knows more than a hundred Latin words,
knows how to put the skeleton together, sometimes prepares the
apparatus and amuses the students by some long, learned
quotation, but the by no means complicated theory of the
circulation of the blood, for instance, is as much a mystery to
him now as it was twenty years ago.
At the table in my study, bending low over some book or
preparation, sits Pyotr Ignatyevitch, my demonstrator, a modest
and industrious but by no means clever man of five-and-thirty,
already bald and corpulent; he works from morning to night,
reads a lot, remembers well everything he has read -- and in
that way he is not a man, but pure gold; in all else he is a
carthorse or, in other words, a learned dullard. The carthorse
characteristics that show his lack of talent are these: his
outlook is narrow and sharply limited by his specialty; outside
his special branch he is simple as a child.
"Fancy! what a misfortune! They say Skobelev is dead."
Nikolay crosses himself, but Pyotr Ignatyevitch turns to me and
"What Skobelev is that?"
Another time -- somewhat earlier -- I told him that Professor
Perov was dead. Good Pyotr Ignatyevitch asked:
"What did he lecture on?"
I believe if Patti had sung in his very ear, if a horde of
Chinese had invaded Russia, if there had been an earthquake, he
would not have stirred a limb, but screwing up his eye, would
have gone on calmly looking through his microscope. What is he
to Hecuba or Hecuba to him, in fact? I would give a good deal to
see how this dry stick sleeps with his wife at night.
Another characteristic is his fanatical faith in the
infallibility of science, and, above all, of everything written
by the Germans. He believes in himself, in his preparations;
knows the object of life, and knows nothing of the doubts and
disappointments that turn the hair of talent grey. He has a
slavish reverence for authorities and a complete lack of any
desire for independent thought. To change his convictions is
difficult, to argue with him impossible. How is one to argue
with a man who is firmly persuaded that medicine is the finest
of sciences, that doctors are the best of men, and that the
traditions of the medical profession are superior to those of
any other? Of the evil past of medicine only one tradition has
been preserved -- the white tie still worn by doctors; for a
learned -- in fact, for any educated man the only traditions
that can exist are those of the University as a whole, with no
distinction between medicine, law, etc. But it would be hard for
Pyotr Ignatyevitch to accept these facts, and he is ready to
argue with you till the day of judgment.
I have a clear picture in my mind of his future. In the course
of his life he will prepare many hundreds of chemicals of
exceptional purity; he will write a number of dry and very
accurate memoranda, will make some dozen conscientious
translations, but he won't do anything striking. To do that one
must have imagination, inventiveness, the gift of insight, and
Pyotr Ignatyevitch has nothing of the kind. In short, he is not
a master in science, but a journeyman.
Pyotr Ignatyevitch, Nikolay, and I, talk in subdued tones. We
are not quite ourselves. There is always a peculiar feeling when
one hears through the doors a murmur as of the sea from the
lecture-theatre. In the course of thirty years I have not grown
accustomed to this feeling, and I experience it every morning. I
nervously button up my coat, ask Nikolay unnecessary questions,
lose my temper. . . . It is just as though I were frightened; it
is not timidity, though, but something different which I can
neither describe nor find a name for.
Quite unnecessarily, I look at my watch and say: "Well, it's
time to go in."
And we march into the room in the following order: foremost goes
Nikolay, with the chemicals and apparatus or with a chart; after
him I come; and then the carthorse follows humbly, with hanging
head; or, when necessary, a dead body is carried in first on a
stretcher, followed by Nikolay, and so on. On my entrance the
students all stand up, then they sit down, and the sound as of
the sea is suddenly hushed. Stillness reigns.
I know what I am going to lecture about, but I don't know how I
am going to lecture, where I am going to begin or with what I am
going to end. I haven't a single sentence ready in my head. But
I have only to look round the lecture-hall (it is built in the
form of an amphitheatre) and utter the stereotyped phrase, "Last
lecture we stopped at . . ." when sentences spring up from my
soul in a long string, and I am carried away by my own
eloquence. I speak with irresistible rapidity and passion, and
it seems as though there were no force which could check the
flow of my words. To lecture well -- that is, with profit to the
listeners and without boring them -- one must have, besides
talent, experience and a special knack; one must possess a clear
conception of one's own powers, of the audience to which one is
lecturing, and of the subject of one's lecture. Moreover, one
must be a man who knows what he is doing; one must keep a sharp
lookout, and not for one second lose sight of what lies before
A good conductor, interpreting the thought of the composer, does
twenty things at once: reads the score, waves his baton, watches
the singer, makes a motion sideways, first to the drum then to
the wind-instruments, and so on. I do just the same when I
lecture. Before me a hundred and fifty faces, all unlike one
another; three hundred eyes all looking straight into my face.
My object is to dominate this many-headed monster. If every
moment as I lecture I have a clear vision of the degree of its
attention and its power of comprehension, it is in my power. The
other foe I have to overcome is in myself. It is the infinite
variety of forms, phenomena, laws, and the multitude of ideas of
my own and other people's conditioned by them. Every moment I
must have the skill to snatch out of that vast mass of material
what is most important and necessary, and, as rapidly as my
words flow, clothe my thought in a form in which it can be
grasped by the monster's intelligence, and may arouse its
attention, and at the same time one must keep a sharp lookout
that one's thoughts are conveyed, not just as they come, but in
a certain order, essential for the correct composition of the
picture I wish to sketch. Further, I endeavour to make my
diction literary, my definitions brief and precise, my wording,
as far as possible, simple and eloquent. Every minute I have to
pull myself up and remember that I have only an hour and forty
minutes at my disposal. In short, one has one's work cut out. At
one and the same minute one has to play the part of savant and
teacher and orator, and it's a bad thing if the orator gets the
upper hand of the savant or of the teacher in one, or vice
You lecture for a quarter of an hour, for half an hour, when you
notice that the students are beginning to look at the ceiling,
at Pyotr Ignatyevitch; one is feeling for his handkerchief,
another shifts in his seat, another smiles at his thoughts. . .
. That means that their attention is flagging. Something must be
done. Taking advantage of the first opportunity, I make some
pun. A broad grin comes on to a hundred and fifty faces, the
eyes shine brightly, the sound of the sea is audible for a brief
moment. . . . I laugh too. Their attention is refreshed, and I
can go on.
No kind of sport, no kind of game or diversion, has ever given
me such enjoyment as lecturing. Only at lectures have I been
able to abandon myself entirely to passion, and have understood
that inspiration is not an invention of the poets, but exists in
real life, and I imagine Hercules after the most piquant of his
exploits felt just such voluptuous exhaustion as I experience
after every lecture.
That was in old times. Now at lectures I feel nothing but
torture. Before half an hour is over I am conscious of an
overwhelming weakness in my legs and my shoulders. I sit down in
my chair, but I am not accustomed to lecture sitting down; a
minute later I get up and go on standing, then sit down again.
There is a dryness in my mouth, my voice grows husky, my head
begins to go round. . . . To conceal my condition from my
audience I continually drink water, cough, often blow my nose as
though I were hindered by a cold, make puns inappropriately, and
in the end break off earlier than I ought to. But above all I am
My conscience and my intelligence tell me that the very best
thing I could do now would be to deliver a farewell lecture to
the boys, to say my last word to them, to bless them, and give
up my post to a man younger and stronger than me. But, God, be
my judge, I have not manly courage enough to act according to my
Unfortunately, I am not a philosopher and not a theologian. I
know perfectly well that I cannot live more than another six
months; it might be supposed that I ought now to be chiefly
concerned with the question of the shadowy life beyond the
grave, and the visions that will visit my slumbers in the tomb.
But for some reason my soul refuses to recognize these
questions, though my mind is fully alive to their importance.
Just as twenty, thirty years ago, so now, on the threshold of
death, I am interested in nothing but science. As I yield up my
last breath I shall still believe that science is the most
important, the most splendid, the most essential thing in the
life of man; that it always has been and will be the highest
manifestation of love, and that only by means of it will man
conquer himself and nature. This faith is perhaps naive and may
rest on false assumptions, but it is not my fault that I believe
that and nothing else; I cannot overcome in myself this belief.
But that is not the point. I only ask people to be indulgent to
my weakness, and to realize that to tear from the
lecture-theatre and his pupils a man who is more interested in
the history of the development of the bone medulla than in the
final object of creation would be equivalent to taking him and
nailing him up in his coffin without waiting for him to be dead.
Sleeplessness and the consequent strain of combating increasing
weakness leads to something strange in me. In the middle of my
lecture tears suddenly rise in my throat, my eyes begin to
smart, and I feel a passionate, hysterical desire to stretch out
my hands before me and break into loud lamentation. I want to
cry out in a loud voice that I, a famous man, have been
sentenced by fate to the death penalty, that within some six
months another man will be in control here in the
lecture-theatre. I want to shriek that I am poisoned; new ideas
such as I have not known before have poisoned the last days of
my life, and are still stinging my brain like mosquitoes. And at
that moment my position seems to me so awful that I want all my
listeners to be horrified, to leap up from their seats and to
rush in panic terror, with desperate screams, to the exit.
It is not easy to get through such moments.
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