A Dreary Story
As a rule she is lying on the sofa or in a lounge-chair reading.
Seeing me, she raises her head languidly, sits up, and shakes
"You are always lying down," I say, after pausing and taking
breath. "That's not good for you. You ought to occupy yourself
"I say you ought to occupy yourself in some way."
"With what? A woman can be nothing but a simple workwoman or an
"Well, if you can't be a workwoman, be an actress."
She says nothing.
"You ought to get married," I say, half in jest.
"There is no one to marry. There's no reason to, either."
"You can't live like this."
"Without a husband? Much that matters; I could have as many men
as I like if I wanted to."
"That's ugly, Katya."
"What is ugly?"
"Why, what you have just said."
Noticing that I am hurt and wishing to efface the disagreeable
impression, Katya says:
"Let us go; come this way."
She takes me into a very snug little room, and says, pointing to
"Look . . . I have got that ready for you. You shall work here.
Come here every day and bring your work with you. They only
hinder you there at home. Will you work here? Will you like to?"
Not to wound her by refusing, I answer that I will work here,
and that I like the room very much. Then we both sit down in the
snug little room and begin talking.
The warm, snug surroundings and the presence of a sympathetic
person does not, as in old days, arouse in me a feeling of
pleasure, but an intense impulse to complain and grumble. I feel
for some reason that if I lament and complain I shall feel
"Things are in a bad way with me, my dear -- very bad. . . ."
"What is it?"
"You see how it is, my dear; the best and holiest right of kings
is the right of mercy. And I have always felt myself a king,
since I have made unlimited use of that right. I have never
judged, I have been indulgent, I have readily forgiven every
one, right and left. Where others have protested and expressed
indignation, I have only advised and persuaded. All my life it
has been my endeavour that my society should not be a burden to
my family, to my students, to my colleagues, to my servants. And
I know that this attitude to people has had a good influence on
all who have chanced to come into contact with me. But now I am
not a king. Something is happening to me that is only excusable
in a slave; day and night my brain is haunted by evil thoughts,
and feelings such as I never knew before are brooding in my
soul. I am full of hatred, and contempt, and indignation, and
loathing, and dread. I have become excessively severe, exacting,
irritable, ungracious, suspicious. Even things that in old days
would have provoked me only to an unnecessary jest and a
good-natured laugh now arouse an oppressive feeling in me. My
reasoning, too, has undergone a change: in old days I despised
money; now I harbour an evil feeling, not towards money, but
towards the rich as though they were to blame: in old days I
hated violence and tyranny, but now I hate the men who make use
of violence, as though they were alone to blame, and not all of
us who do not know how to educate each other. What is the
meaning of it? If these new ideas and new feelings have come
from a change of convictions, what is that change due to? Can
the world have grown worse and I better, or was I blind before
and indifferent? If this change is the result of a general
decline of physical and intellectual powers -- I am ill, you
know, and every day I am losing weight -- my position is
pitiable; it means that my new ideas are morbid and abnormal; I
ought to be ashamed of them and think them of no consequence. .
"Illness has nothing to do with it," Katya interrupts me; "it's
simply that your eyes are opened, that's all. You have seen what
in old days, for some reason, you refused to see. To my
thinking, what you ought to do first of all, is to break with
your family for good, and go away."
"You are talking nonsense."
"You don't love them; why should you force your feelings? Can
you call them a family? Nonentities! If they died today, no one
would notice their absence tomorrow."
Katya despises my wife and Liza as much as they hate her. One
can hardly talk at this date of people's having a right to
despise one another. But if one looks at it from Katya's
standpoint and recognizes such a right, one can see she has as
much right to despise my wife and Liza as they have to hate her.
"Nonentities," she goes on. "Have you had dinner today? How was
it they did not forget to tell you it was ready? How is it they
still remember your existence?"
"Katya," I say sternly, "I beg you to be silent."
"You think I enjoy talking about them? I should be glad not to
know them at all. Listen, my dear: give it all up and go away.
Go abroad. The sooner the better."
"What nonsense! What about the University?"
"The University, too. What is it to you? There's no sense in it,
anyway. You have been lecturing for thirty years, and where are
your pupils? Are many of them celebrated scientific men? Count
them up! And to multiply the doctors who exploit ignorance and
pile up hundreds of thousands for themselves, there is no need
to be a good and talented man. You are not wanted."
"Good heavens! how harsh you are!" I cry in horror. "How harsh
you are! Be quiet or I will go away! I don't know how to answer
the harsh things you say!"
The maid comes in and summons us to tea. At the samovar our
conversation, thank God, changes. After having had my grumble
out, I have a longing to give way to another weakness of old
age, reminiscences. I tell Katya about my past, and to my great
astonishment tell her incidents which, till then, I did not
suspect of being still preserved in my memory, and she listens
to me with tenderness, with pride, holding her breath. I am
particularly fond of telling her how I was educated in a
seminary and dreamed of going to the University.
"At times I used to walk about our seminary garden . . ." I
would tell her. "If from some faraway tavern the wind floated
sounds of a song and the squeaking of an accordion, or a sledge
with bells dashed by the garden-fence, it was quite enough to
send a rush of happiness, filling not only my heart, but even my
stomach, my legs, my arms. . . . I would listen to the accordion
or the bells dying away in the distance and imagine myself a
doctor, and paint pictures, one better than another. And here,
as you see, my dreams have come true. I have had more than I
dared to dream of. For thirty years I have been the favourite
professor, I have had splendid comrades, I have enjoyed fame and
honour. I have loved, married from passionate love, have had
children. In fact, looking back upon it, I see my whole life as
a fine composition arranged with talent. Now all that is left to
me is not to spoil the end. For that I must die like a man. If
death is really a thing to dread, I must meet it as a teacher, a
man of science, and a citizen of a Christian country ought to
meet it, with courage and untroubled soul. But I am spoiling the
end; I am sinking, I fly to you, I beg for help, and you tell me
'Sink; that is what you ought to do.' "
But here there comes a ring at the front-door. Katya and I
recognize it, and say:
"It must be Mihail Fyodorovitch."
And a minute later my colleague, the philologist Mihail
Fyodorovitch, a tall, well-built man of fifty, clean-shaven,
with thick grey hair and black eyebrows, walks in. He is a
good-natured man and an excellent comrade. He comes of a
fortunate and talented old noble family which has played a
prominent part in the history of literature and enlightenment.
He is himself intelligent, talented, and very highly educated,
but has his oddities. To a certain extent we are all odd and all
queer fish, but in his oddities there is something exceptional,
apt to cause anxiety among his acquaintances. I know a good many
people for whom his oddities completely obscure his good
Coming in to us, he slowly takes off his gloves and says in his
"Good-evening. Are you having tea? That's just right. It's
Then he sits down to the table, takes a glass, and at once
begins talking. What is most characteristic in his manner of
talking is the continually jesting tone, a sort of mixture of
philosophy and drollery as in Shakespeare's gravediggers. He is
always talking about serious things, but he never speaks
seriously. His judgments are always harsh and railing, but,
thanks to his soft, even, jesting tone, the harshness and abuse
do not jar upon the ear, and one soon grows used to them. Every
evening he brings with him five or six anecdotes from the
University, and he usually begins with them when he sits down to
"Oh, Lord!" he sighs, twitching his black eyebrows ironically.
"What comic people there are in the world!"
"Well?" asks Katya.
"As I was coming from my lecture this morning I met that old
idiot N. N---- on the stairs. . . . He was going along as usual,
sticking out his chin like a horse, looking for some one to
listen to his grumblings at his migraine, at his wife, and his
students who won't attend his lectures. 'Oh,' I thought, 'he has
seen me -- I am done for now; it is all up. . . .' "
And so on in the same style. Or he will begin like this:
"I was yesterday at our friend Z. Z----'s public lecture. I
wonder how it is our alma mater -- don't speak of it after dark
-- dare display in public such noodles and patent dullards as
that Z. Z---- Why, he is a European fool! Upon my word, you
could not find another like him all over Europe! He lectures --
can you imagine? -- as though he were sucking a sugar-stick --
sue, sue, sue; . . . he is in a nervous funk; he can hardly
decipher his own manuscript; his poor little thoughts crawl
along like a bishop on a bicycle, and, what's worse, you can
never make out what he is trying to say. The deadly dulness is
awful, the very flies expire. It can only be compared with the
boredom in the assembly-hall at the yearly meeting when the
traditional address is read -- damn it!"
And at once an abrupt transition:
"Three years ago -- Nikolay Stepanovitch here will remember it
-- I had to deliver that address. It was hot, stifling, my
uniform cut me under the arms -- it was deadly! I read for half
an hour, for an hour, for an hour and a half, for two hours. . .
. 'Come,' I thought; 'thank God, there are only ten pages left!'
And at the end there were four pages that there was no need to
read, and I reckoned to leave them out. 'So there are only six
really,' I thought; 'that is, only six pages left to read.' But,
only fancy, I chanced to glance before me, and, sitting in the
front row, side by side, were a general with a ribbon on his
breast and a bishop. The poor beggars were numb with boredom;
they were staring with their eyes wide open to keep awake, and
yet they were trying to put on an expression of attention and to
pretend that they understood what I was saying and liked it.
'Well,' I thought, 'since you like it you shall have it! I'll
pay you out;' so I just gave them those four pages too."
As is usual with ironical people, when he talks nothing in his
face smiles but his eyes and eyebrows. At such times there is no
trace of hatred or spite in his eyes, but a great deal of
humour, and that peculiar fox-like slyness which is only to be
noticed in very observant people. Since I am speaking about his
eyes, I notice another peculiarity in them. When he takes a
glass from Katya, or listens to her speaking, or looks after her
as she goes out of the room for a moment, I notice in his eyes
something gentle, beseeching, pure. . . .
The maid-servant takes away the samovar and puts on the table a
large piece of cheese, some fruit, and a bottle of Crimean
champagne -- a rather poor wine of which Katya had grown fond in
the Crimea. Mihail Fyodorovitch takes two packs of cards off the
whatnot and begins to play patience. According to him, some
varieties of patience require great concentration and attention,
yet while he lays out the cards he does not leave off
distracting his attention with talk. Katya watches his cards
attentively, and more by gesture than by words helps him in his
play. She drinks no more than a couple of wine-glasses of wine
the whole evening; I drink four glasses, and the rest of the
bottle falls to the share of Mihail Fyodorovitch, who can drink
a great deal and never get drunk.
Over our patience we settle various questions, principally of
the higher order, and what we care for most of all -- that is,
science and learning -- is more roughly handled than anything.
"Science, thank God, has outlived its day," says Mihail
Fyodorovitch emphatically. "Its song is sung. Yes, indeed.
Mankind begins to feel impelled to replace it by something
different. It has grown on the soil of superstition, been
nourished by superstition, and is now just as much the
quintessence of superstition as its defunct granddames, alchemy,
metaphysics, and philosophy. And, after all, what has it given
to mankind? Why, the difference between the learned Europeans
and the Chinese who have no science is trifling, purely
external. The Chinese know nothing of science, but what have
they lost thereby?"
"Flies know nothing of science, either," I observe, "but what of
"There is no need to be angry, Nikolay Stepanovitch. I only say
this here between ourselves. . . I am more careful than you
think, and I am not going to say this in public -- God forbid!
The superstition exists in the multitude that the arts and
sciences are superior to agriculture, commerce, superior to
handicrafts. Our sect is maintained by that superstition, and it
is not for you and me to destroy it. God forbid!"
After patience the younger generation comes in for a dressing
"Our audiences have degenerated," sighs Mihail Fyodorovitch.
"Not to speak of ideals and all the rest of it, if only they
were capable of work and rational thought! In fact, it's a case
of 'I look with mournful eyes on the young men of today.' "
"Yes; they have degenerated horribly," Katya agrees. "Tell me,
have you had one man of distinction among them for the last five
or ten years?"
"I don't know how it is with the other professors, but I can't
remember any among mine."
"I have seen in my day many of your students and young
scientific men and many actors -- well, I have never once been
so fortunate as to meet -- I won't say a hero or a man of
talent, but even an interesting man. It's all the same grey
mediocrity, puffed up with self-conceit."
All this talk of degeneration always affects me as though I had
accidentally overheard offensive talk about my own daughter. It
offends me that these charges are wholesale, and rest on such
worn-out commonplaces, on such wordy vapourings as degeneration
and absence of ideals, or on references to the splendours of the
past. Every accusation, even if it is uttered in ladies'
society, ought to be formulated with all possible definiteness,
or it is not an accusation, but idle disparagement, unworthy of
I am an old man, I have been lecturing for thirty years, but I
notice neither degeneration nor lack of ideals, and I don't find
that the present is worse than the past. My porter Nikolay,
whose experience of this subject has its value, says that the
students of today are neither better nor worse than those of the
If I were asked what I don't like in my pupils of today, I
should answer the question, not straight off and not at length,
but with sufficient definiteness. I know their failings, and so
have no need to resort to vague generalities. I don't like their
smoking, using spirituous beverages, marrying late, and often
being so irresponsible and careless that they will let one of
their number be starving in their midst while they neglect to
pay their subscriptions to the Students' Aid Society. They don't
know modern languages, and they don't express themselves
correctly in Russian; no longer ago than yesterday my colleague,
the professor of hygiene, complained to me that he had to give
twice as many lectures, because the students had a very poor
knowledge of physics and were utterly ignorant of meteorology.
They are readily carried away by the influence of the last new
writers, even when they are not first-rate, but they take
absolutely no interest in classics such as Shakespeare, Marcus
Aurelius, Epictetus, or Pascal, and this inability to
distinguish the great from the small betrays their ignorance of
practical life more than anything. All difficult questions that
have more or less a social character (for instance the migration
question) they settle by studying monographs on the subject, but
not by way of scientific investigation or experiment, though
that method is at their disposal and is more in keeping with
their calling. They gladly become ward-surgeons, assistants,
demonstrators, external teachers, and are ready to fill such
posts until they are forty, though independence, a sense of
freedom and personal initiative, are no less necessary in
science than, for instance, in art or commerce. I have pupils
and listeners, but no successors and helpers, and so I love them
and am touched by them, but am not proud of them. And so on, and
so on. . . .
Such shortcomings, however numerous they may be, can only give
rise to a pessimistic or fault-finding temper in a faint-hearted
and timid man. All these failings have a casual, transitory
character, and are completely dependent on conditions of life;
in some ten years they will have disappeared or given place to
other fresh defects, which are all inevitable and will in their
turn alarm the faint-hearted. The students' sins often vex me,
but that vexation is nothing in comparison with the joy I have
been experiencing now for the last thirty years when I talk to
my pupils, lecture to them, watch their relations, and compare
them with people not of their circle.
Mihail Fyodorovitch speaks evil of everything. Katya listens,
and neither of them notices into what depths the apparently
innocent diversion of finding fault with their neighbours is
gradually drawing them. They are not conscious how by degrees
simple talk passes into malicious mockery and jeering, and how
they are both beginning to drop into the habits and methods of
"Killing types one meets with," says Mihail Fyodorovitch. "I
went yesterday to our friend Yegor Petrovitch's, and there I
found a studious gentleman, one of your medicals in his third
year, I believe. Such a face! . . . in the Dobrolubov style, the
imprint of profound thought on his brow; we got into talk. 'Such
doings, young man,' said I. 'I've read,' said I, 'that some
German -- I've forgotten his name -- has created from the human
brain a new kind of alkaloid, idiotine.' What do you think? He
believed it, and there was positively an expression of respect
on his face, as though to say, 'See what we fellows can do!' And
the other day I went to the theatre. I took my seat. In the next
row directly in front of me were sitting two men: one of 'us
fellows' and apparently a law student, the other a
shaggy-looking figure, a medical student. The latter was as
drunk as a cobbler. He did not look at the stage at all. He was
dozing with his nose on his shirt-front. But as soon as an actor
begins loudly reciting a monologue, or simply raises his voice,
our friend starts, pokes his neighbour in the ribs, and asks,
'What is he saying? Is it elevating?' 'Yes,' answers one of our
fellows. 'B-r-r-ravo!' roars the medical student. 'Elevating!
Bravo!' He had gone to the theatre, you see, the drunken
blockhead, not for the sake of art, the play, but for elevation!
He wanted noble sentiments."
Katya listens and laughs. She has a strange laugh; she catches
her breath in rhythmically regular gasps, very much as though
she were playing the accordion, and nothing in her face is
laughing but her nostrils. I grow depressed and don't know what
to say. Beside myself, I fire up, leap up from my seat, and cry:
"Do leave off! Why are you sitting here like two toads,
poisoning the air with your breath? Give over!"
And without waiting for them to finish their gossip I prepare to
go home. And, indeed, it is high time: it is past ten.
"I will stay a little longer," says Mihail Fyodorovitch. "Will
you allow me, Ekaterina Vladimirovna?"
"I will," answers Katya.
"Bene! In that case have up another little bottle."
They both accompany me with candles to the hall, and while I put
on my fur coat, Mihail Fyodorovitch says:
"You have grown dreadfully thin and older looking, Nikolay
Stepanovitch. What's the matter with you? Are you ill?"
"Yes; I am not very well."
"And you are not doing anything for it. . ." Katya puts in
"Why don't you? You can't go on like that! God helps those who
help themselves, my dear fellow. Remember me to your wife and
daughter, and make my apologies for not having been to see them.
In a day or two, before I go abroad, I shall come to say
good-bye. I shall be sure to. I am going away next week."
I come away from Katya, irritated and alarmed by what has been
said about my being ill, and dissatisfied with myself. I ask
myself whether I really ought not to consult one of my
colleagues. And at once I imagine how my colleague, after
listening to me, would walk away to the window without speaking,
would think a moment, then would turn round to me and, trying to
prevent my reading the truth in his face, would say in a
careless tone: "So far I see nothing serious, but at the same
time, collega, I advise you to lay aside your work. . . ." And
that would deprive me of my last hope.
Who is without hope? Now that I am diagnosing my illness and
prescribing for myself, from time to time I hope that I am
deceived by my own illness, that I am mistaken in regard to the
albumen and the sugar I find, and in regard to my heart, and in
regard to the swellings I have twice noticed in the mornings;
when with the fervour of the hypochondriac I look through the
textbooks of therapeutics and take a different medicine every
day, I keep fancying that I shall hit upon something comforting.
All that is petty.
Whether the sky is covered with clouds or the moon and the stars
are shining, I turn my eyes towards it every evening and think
that death is taking me soon. One would think that my thoughts
at such times ought to be deep as the sky, brilliant, striking.
. . . But no! I think about myself, about my wife, about Liza,
Gnekker, the students, people in general; my thoughts are evil,
petty, I am insincere with myself, and at such times my theory
of life may be expressed in the words the celebrated Araktcheev
said in one of his intimate letters: "Nothing good can exist in
the world without evil, and there is more evil than good." That
is, everything is disgusting; there is nothing to live for, and
the sixty-two years I have already lived must be reckoned as
wasted. I catch myself in these thoughts, and try to persuade
myself that they are accidental, temporary, and not deeply
rooted in me, but at once I think:
"If so, what drives me every evening to those two toads?"
And I vow to myself that I will never go to Katya's again,
though I know I shall go next evening.
Ringing the bell at the door and going upstairs, I feel that I
have no family now and no desire to bring it back again. It is
clear that the new Araktcheev thoughts are not casual, temporary
visitors, but have possession of my whole being. With my
conscience ill at ease, dejected, languid, hardly able to move
my limbs, feeling as though tons were added to my weight, I get
into bed and quickly drop asleep.
And then -- insomnia!