A.P. Chekhov -
My Friend's Story
DMITRI PETROVITCH SILIN had taken his degree and entered the
government service in Petersburg, but at thirty he gave up his
post and went in for agriculture. His farming was fairly
successful, and yet it always seemed to me that he was not in
his proper place, and that he would do well to go back to
Petersburg. When sunburnt, grey with dust, exhausted with toil,
he met me near the gates or at the entrance, and then at supper
struggled with sleepiness and his wife took him off to bed as
though he were a baby; or when, overcoming his sleepiness, he
began in his soft, cordial, almost imploring voice, to talk
about his really excellent ideas, I saw him not as a farmer nor
an agriculturist, but only as a worried and exhausted man, and
it was clear to me that he did not really care for farming, but
that all he wanted was for the day to be over and "Thank God for
I liked to be with him, and I used to stay on his farm for two
or three days at a time. I liked his house, and his park, and
his big fruit garden, and the river -- and his philosophy, which
was clear, though rather spiritless and rhetorical. I suppose I
was fond of him on his own account, though I can't say that for
certain, as I have not up to now succeeded in analysing my
feelings at that time. He was an intelligent, kind-hearted,
genuine man, and not a bore, but I remember that when he
confided to me his most treasured secrets and spoke of our
relation to each other as friendship, it disturbed me
unpleasantly, and I was conscious of awkwardness. In his
affection for me there was something inappropriate, tiresome,
and I should have greatly preferred commonplace friendly
The fact is that I was extremely attracted by his wife, Marya
Sergeyevna. I was not in love with her, but I was attracted by
her face, her eyes, her voice, her walk. I missed her when I did
not see her for a long time, and my imagination pictured no one
at that time so eagerly as that young, beautiful, elegant woman.
I had no definite designs in regard to her, and did not dream of
anything of the sort, yet for some reason, whenever we were left
alone, I remembered that her husband looked upon me as his
friend, and I felt awkward. When she played my favourite pieces
on the piano or told me something interesting, I listened with
pleasure, and yet at the same time for some reason the
reflection that she loved her husband, that he was my friend,
and that she herself looked upon me as his friend, obtruded
themselves upon me, my spirits flagged, and I became listless,
awkward, and dull. She noticed this change and would usually
"You are dull without your friend. We must send out to the
fields for him."
And when Dmitri Petrovitch came in, she would say:
"Well, here is your friend now. Rejoice."
So passed a year and a half.
It somehow happened one July Sunday that Dmitri Petrovitch and
I, having nothing to do, drove to the big village of Klushino to
buy things for supper. While we were going from one shop to
another the sun set and the evening came on -- the evening which
I shall probably never forget in my life. After buying cheese
that smelt like soap, and petrified sausages that smelt of tar,
we went to the tavern to ask whether they had any beer. Our
coachman went off to the blacksmith to get our horses shod, and
we told him we would wait for him near the church. We walked,
talked, laughed over our purchases, while a man who was known in
the district by a very strange nickname, "Forty Martyrs,"
followed us all the while in silence with a mysterious air like
a detective. This Forty Martyrs was no other than Gavril
Syeverov, or more simply Gavryushka, who had been for a short
time in my service as a footman and had been dismissed by me for
drunkenness. He had been in Dmitri Petrovitch's service, too,
and by him had been dismissed for the same vice. He was an
inveterate drunkard, and indeed his whole life was as drunk and
disorderly as himself. His father had been a priest and his
mother of noble rank, so by birth he belonged to the privileged
class; but however carefully I scrutinized his exhausted,
respectful, and always perspiring face, his red beard now
turning grey, his pitifully torn reefer jacket and his red
shirt, I could not discover in him the faintest trace of
anything we associate with privilege. He spoke of himself as a
man of education, and used to say that he had been in a clerical
school, but had not finished his studies there, as he had been
expelled for smoking; then he had sung in the bishop's choir and
lived for two years in a monastery, from which he was also
expelled, but this time not for smoking but for "his weakness."
He had walked all over two provinces, had presented petitions to
the Consistory, and to various government offices, and had been
four times on his trial. At last, being stranded in our
district, he had served as a footman, as a forester, as a
kennelman, as a sexton, had married a cook who was a widow and
rather a loose character, and had so hopelessly sunk into a
menial position, and had grown so used to filth and dirt, that
he even spoke of his privileged origin with a certain scepticism,
as of some myth. At the time I am describing, he was hanging
about without a job, calling himself a carrier and a huntsman,
and his wife had disappeared and made no sign.
From the tavern we went to the church and sat in the porch,
waiting for the coachman. Forty Martyrs stood a little way off
and put his hand before his mouth in order to cough in it
respectfully if need be. By now it was dark; there was a strong
smell of evening dampness, and the moon was on the point of
rising. There were only two clouds in the clear starry sky
exactly over our heads: one big one and one smaller; alone in
the sky they were racing after one another like mother and
child, in the direction where the sunset was glowing.
"What a glorious day!" said Dmitri Petrovitch.
"In the extreme . . ." Forty Martyrs assented, and he coughed
respectfully into his hand. "How was it, Dmitri Petrovitch, you
thought to visit these parts?" he asked in an ingratiating
voice, evidently anxious to get up a conversation.
Dmitri Petrovitch made no answer. Forty Martyrs heaved a deep
sigh and said softly, not looking at us:
"I suffer solely through a cause to which I must answer to
Almighty God. No doubt about it, I am a hopeless and incompetent
man; but believe me, on my conscience, I am without a crust of
bread and worse off than a dog. . . . Forgive me, Dmitri
Silin was not listening, but sat musing with his head propped on
his fists. The church stood at the end of the street on the high
river-bank, and through the trellis gate of the enclosure we
could see the river, the water-meadows on the near side of it,
and the crimson glare of a camp fire about which black figures
of men and horses were moving. And beyond the fire, further
away, there were other lights, where there was a little village.
They were singing there. On the river, and here and there on the
meadows, a mist was rising. High narrow coils of mist, thick and
white as milk, were trailing over the river, hiding the
reflection of the stars and hovering over the willows. Every
minute they changed their form, and it seemed as though some
were embracing, others were bowing, others lifting up their arms
to heaven with wide sleeves like priests, as though they were
praying. . . . Probably they reminded Dmitri Petrovitch of
ghosts and of the dead, for he turned facing me and asked with a
"Tell me, my dear fellow, why is it that when we want to tell
some terrible, mysterious, and fantastic story, we draw our
material, not from life, but invariably from the world of ghosts
and of the shadows beyond the grave."
"We are frightened of what we don't understand."
"And do you understand life? Tell me: do you understand life
better than the world beyond the grave?"
Dmitri Petrovitch was sitting quite close to me, so that I felt
his breath upon my cheek. In the evening twilight his pale, lean
face seemed paler than ever and his dark beard was black as
soot. His eyes were sad, truthful, and a little frightened, as
though he were about to tell me something horrible. He looked
into my eyes and went on in his habitual imploring voice:
"Our life and the life beyond the grave are equally
incomprehensible and horrible. If any one is afraid of ghosts he
ought to be afraid, too, of me, and of those lights and of the
sky, seeing that, if you come to reflect, all that is no less
fantastic and beyond our grasp than apparitions from the other
world. Prince Hamlet did not kill himself because he was afraid
of the visions that might haunt his dreams after death. I like
that famous soliloquy of his, but, to be candid, it never
touched my soul. I will confess to you as a friend that in
moments of depression I have sometimes pictured to myself the
hour of my death. My fancy invented thousands of the gloomiest
visions, and I have succeeded in working myself up to an
agonizing exaltation, to a state of nightmare, and I assure you
that that did not seem to me more terrible than reality. What I
mean is, apparitions are terrible, but life is terrible, too. I
don't understand life and I am afraid of it, my dear boy; I
don't know. Perhaps I am a morbid person, unhinged. It seems to
a sound, healthy man that he understands everything he sees and
hears, but that 'seeming' is lost to me, and from day to day I
am poisoning myself with terror. There is a disease, the fear of
open spaces, but my disease is the fear of life. When I lie on
the grass and watch a little beetle which was born yesterday and
understands nothing, it seems to me that its life consists of
nothing else but fear, and in it I see myself."
"What is it exactly you are frightened of?" I asked.
"I am afraid of everything. I am not by nature a profound
thinker, and I take little interest in such questions as the
life beyond the grave, the destiny of humanity, and, in fact, I
am rarely carried away to the heights. What chiefly frightens me
is the common routine of life from which none of us can escape.
I am incapable of distinguishing what is true and what is false
in my actions, and they worry me. I recognize that education and
the conditions of life have imprisoned me in a narrow circle of
falsity, that my whole life is nothing else than a daily effort
to deceive myself and other people, and to avoid noticing it;
and I am frightened at the thought that to the day of my death I
shall not escape from this falsity. To-day I do something and
to-morrow I do not understand why I did it. I entered the
service in Petersburg and took fright; I came here to work on
the land, and here, too, I am frightened. . . . I see that we
know very little and so make mistakes every day. We are unjust,
we slander one another and spoil each other's lives, we waste
all our powers on trash which we do not need and which hinders
us from living; and that frightens me, because I don't
understand why and for whom it is necessary. I don't understand
men, my dear fellow, and I am afraid of them. It frightens me to
look at the peasants, and I don't know for what higher objects
they are suffering and what they are living for. If life is an
enjoyment, then they are unnecessary, superfluous people; if the
object and meaning of life is to be found in poverty and
unending, hopeless ignorance, I can't understand for whom and
what this torture is necessary. I understand no one and nothing.
Kindly try to understand this specimen, for instance," said
Dmitri Petrovitch, pointing to Forty Martyrs. "Think of him!"
Noticing that we were looking at him, Forty Martyrs coughed
deferentially into his fist and said:
"I was always a faithful servant with good masters, but the
great trouble has been spirituous liquor. If a poor fellow like
me were shown consideration and given a place, I would kiss the
ikon. My word's my bond."
The sexton walked by, looked at us in amazement, and began
pulling the rope. The bell, abruptly breaking upon the stillness
of the evening, struck ten with a slow and prolonged note.
"It's ten o'clock, though," said Dmitri Petrovitch. "It's time
we were going. Yes, my dear fellow," he sighed, "if only you
knew how afraid I am of my ordinary everyday thoughts, in which
one would have thought there should be nothing dreadful. To
prevent myself thinking I distract my mind with work and try to
tire myself out that I may sleep sound at night. Children, a
wife -- all that seems ordinary with other people; but how that
weighs upon me, my dear fellow!"
He rubbed his face with his hands, cleared his throat, and
"If I could only tell you how I have played the fool in my
life!" he said. "They all tell me that I have a sweet wife,
charming children, and that I am a good husband and father. They
think I am very happy and envy me. But since it has come to
that, I will tell you in secret: my happy family life is only a
grievous misunderstanding, and I am afraid of it." His pale face
was distorted by a wry smile. He put his arm round my waist and
went on in an undertone:
"You are my true friend; I believe in you and have a deep
respect for you. Heaven gave us friendship that we may open our
hearts and escape from the secrets that weigh upon us. Let me
take advantage of your friendly feeling for me and tell you the
whole truth. My home life, which seems to you so enchanting, is
my chief misery and my chief terror. I got married in a strange
and stupid way. I must tell you that I was madly in love with
Masha before I married her, and was courting her for two years.
I asked her to marry me five times, and she refused me because
she did not care for me in the least. The sixth, when burning
with passion I crawled on my knees before her and implored her
to take a beggar and marry me, she consented. . . . What she
said to me was: 'I don't love you, but I will be true to you. .
. .' I accepted that condition with rapture. At the time I
understood what that meant, but I swear to God I don't
understand it now. 'I don't love you, but I will be true to
you.' What does that mean? It's a fog, a darkness. I love her
now as intensely as I did the day we were married, while she, I
believe, is as indifferent as ever, and I believe she is glad
when I go away from home. I don't know for certain whether she
cares for me or not -- I don't know, I don't know; but, as you
see, we live under the same roof, call each other 'thou,' sleep
together, have children, our property is in common. . . . What
does it mean, what does it mean? What is the object of it? And
do you understand it at all, my dear fellow? It's cruel torture!
Because I don't understand our relations, I hate, sometimes her,
sometimes myself, sometimes both at once. Everything is in a
tangle in my brain; I torment myself and grow stupid. And as
though to spite me, she grows more beautiful every day, she is
getting more wonderful. . . I fancy her hair is marvellous, and
her smile is like no other woman's. I love her, and I know that
my love is hopeless. Hopeless love for a woman by whom one has
two children! Is that intelligible? And isn't it terrible? Isn't
it more terrible than ghosts?"
He was in the mood to have talked on a good deal longer, but
luckily we heard the coachman's voice. Our horses had arrived.
We got into the carriage, and Forty Martyrs, taking off his cap,
helped us both into the carriage with an expression that
suggested that he had long been waiting for an opportunity to
come in contact with our precious persons.
"Dmitri Petrovitch, let me come to you," he said, blinking
furiously and tilting his head on one side. "Show divine mercy!
I am dying of hunger!"
"Very well," said Silin. "Come, you shall stay three days, and
then we shall see."
"Certainly, sir," said Forty Martyrs, overjoyed. "I'll come
It was a five miles' drive home. Dmitri Petrovitch, glad that he
had at last opened his heart to his friend, kept his arm round
my waist all the way; and speaking now, not with bitterness and
not with apprehension, but quite cheerfully, told me that if
everything had been satisfactory in his home life, he should
have returned to Petersburg and taken up scientific work there.
The movement which had driven so many gifted young men into the
country was, he said, a deplorable movement. We had plenty of
rye and wheat in Russia, but absolutely no cultured people. The
strong and gifted among the young ought to take up science, art,
and politics; to act otherwise meant being wasteful. He
generalized with pleasure and expressed regret that he would be
parting from me early next morning, as he had to go to a sale of
And I felt awkward and depressed, and it seemed to me that I was
deceiving the man. And at the same time it was pleasant to me. I
gazed at the immense crimson moon which was rising, and pictured
the tall, graceful, fair woman, with her pale face, always
well-dressed and fragrant with some special scent, rather like
musk, and for some reason it pleased me to think she did not
love her husband.
On reaching home, we sat down to supper. Marya Sergeyevna,
laughing, regaled us with our purchases, and I thought that she
certainly had wonderful hair and that her smile was unlike any
other woman's. I watched her, and I wanted to detect in every
look and movement that she did not love her husband, and I
fancied that I did see it.
Dmitri Petrovitch was soon struggling with sleep. After supper
he sat with us for ten minutes and said:
"Do as you please, my friends, but I have to be up at three
o'clock tomorrow morning. Excuse my leaving you."
He kissed his wife tenderly, pressed my hand with warmth and
gratitude, and made me promise that I would certainly come the
following week. That he might not oversleep next morning, he
went to spend the night in the lodge.
Marya Sergeyevna always sat up late, in the Petersburg fashion,
and for some reason on this occasion I was glad of it.
"And now," I began when we were left alone, "and now you'll be
kind and play me something."
I felt no desire for music, but I did not know how to begin the
conversation. She sat down to the piano and played, I don't
remember what. I sat down beside her and looked at her plump
white hands and tried to read something on her cold, indifferent
face. Then she smiled at something and looked at me.
"You are dull without your friend," she said.
"It would be enough for friendship to be here once a month, but
I turn up oftener than once a week."
Saying this, I got up and walked from one end of the room to the
other. She too got up and walked away to the fireplace.
"What do you mean to say by that?" she said, raising her large,
clear eyes and looking at me.
I made no answer.
"What you say is not true," she went on, after a moment's
thought. "You only come here on account of Dmitri Petrovitch.
Well, I am very glad. One does not often see such friendships
"Aha!" I thought, and, not knowing what to say, I asked: "Would
you care for a turn in the garden?"
I went out upon the verandah. Nervous shudders were running over
my head and I felt chilly with excitement. I was convinced now
that our conversation would be utterly trivial, and that there
was nothing particular we should be able to say to one another,
but that, that night, what I did not dare to dream of was bound
to happen -- that it was bound to be that night or never.
"What lovely weather!" I said aloud.
"It makes absolutely no difference to me," she answered.
I went into the drawing-room. Marya Sergeyevna was standing, as
before, near the fireplace, with her hands behind her back,
looking away and thinking of something.
"Why does it make no difference to you?" I asked.
"Because I am bored. You are only bored without your friend, but
I am always bored. However . . . that is of no interest to you."
I sat down to the piano and struck a few chords, waiting to hear
what she would say.
"Please don't stand on ceremony," she said, looking angrily at
me, and she seemed as though on the point of crying with
vexation. "If you are sleepy, go to bed. Because you are Dmitri
Petrovitch's friend, you are not in duty bound to be bored with
his wife's company. I don't want a sacrifice. Please go."
I did not, of course, go to bed. She went out on the verandah
while I remained in the drawing-room and spent five minutes
turning over the music. Then I went out, too. We stood close
together in the shadow of the curtains, and below us were the
steps bathed in moonlight. The black shadows of the trees
stretched across the flower beds and the yellow sand of the
"I shall have to go away tomorrow, too," I said.
"Of course, if my husband's not at home you can't stay here,"
she said sarcastically. "I can imagine how miserable you would
be if you were in love with me! Wait a bit: one day I shall
throw myself on your neck. . . . I shall see with what horror
you will run away from me. That would be interesting."
Her words and her pale face were angry, but her eyes were full
of tender passionate love. I already looked upon this lovely
creature as my property, and then for the first time I noticed
that she had golden eyebrows, exquisite eyebrows. I had never
seen such eyebrows before. The thought that I might at once
press her to my heart, caress her, touch her wonderful hair,
seemed to me such a miracle that I laughed and shut my eyes.
"It's bed-time now. . . . A peaceful night," she said.
"I don't want a peaceful night," I said, laughing, following her
into the drawing-room. "I shall curse this night if it is a
Pressing her hand, and escorting her to the door, I saw by her
face that she understood me, and was glad that I understood her,
I went to my room. Near the books on the table lay Dmitri
Petrovitch's cap, and that reminded me of his affection for me.
I took my stick and went out into the garden. The mist had risen
here, too, and the same tall, narrow, ghostly shapes which I had
seen earlier on the river were trailing round the trees and
bushes and wrapping about them. What a pity I could not talk to
In the extraordinarily transparent air, each leaf, each drop of
dew stood out distinctly; it was all smiling at me in the
stillness half asleep, and as I passed the green seats I
recalled the words in some play of Shakespeare's: "How sweetly
falls the moonlight on yon seat!"
There was a mound in the garden; I went up it and sat down. I
was tormented by a delicious feeling. I knew for certain that in
a moment I should hold in my arms, should press to my heart her
magnificent body, should kiss her golden eyebrows; and I wanted
to disbelieve it, to tantalize myself, and was sorry that she
had cost me so little trouble and had yielded so soon.
But suddenly I heard heavy footsteps. A man of medium height
appeared in the avenue, and I recognized him at once as Forty
Martyrs. He sat down on the bench and heaved a deep sigh, then
crossed himself three times and lay down. A minute later he got
up and lay on the other side. The gnats and the dampness of the
night prevented his sleeping.
"Oh, life!" he said. "Wretched, bitter life!"
Looking at his bent, wasted body and hearing his heavy, noisy
sighs, I thought of an unhappy, bitter life of which the
confession had been made to me that day, and I felt uneasy and
frightened at my blissful mood. I came down the knoll and went
to the house.
"Life, as he thinks, is terrible," I thought, "so don't stand on
ceremony with it, bend it to your will, and until it crushes
you, snatch all you can wring from it."
Marya Sergeyevna was standing on the verandah. I put my arms
round her without a word, and began greedily kissing her
eyebrows, her temples, her neck. . . .
In my room she told me she had loved me for a long time, more
than a year. She vowed eternal love, cried and begged me to take
her away with me. I repeatedly took her to the window to look at
her face in the moonlight, and she seemed to me a lovely dream,
and I made haste to hold her tight to convince myself of the
truth of it. It was long since I had known such raptures. . . .
Yet somewhere far away at the bottom of my heart I felt an
awkwardness, and I was ill at ease. In her love for me there was
something incongruous and burdensome, just as in Dmitri
Petrovitch's friendship. It was a great, serious passion with
tears and vows, and I wanted nothing serious in it -- no tears,
no vows, no talk of the future. Let that moonlight night flash
through our lives like a meteor and -- basta!
At three o'clock she went out of my room, and, while I was
standing in the doorway, looking after her, at the end of the
corridor Dmitri Petrovitch suddenly made his appearance; she
started and stood aside to let him pass, and her whole figure
was expressive of repulsion. He gave a strange smile, coughed,
and came into my room.
"I forgot my cap here yesterday," he said without looking at me.
He found it and, holding it in both hands, put it on his head;
then he looked at my confused face, at my slippers, and said in
a strange, husky voice unlike his own:
"I suppose it must be my fate that I should understand nothing.
. . . If you understand anything, I congratulate you. It's all
darkness before my eyes."
And he went out, clearing his throat. Afterwards from the window
I saw him by the stable, harnessing the horses with his own
hands. His hands were trembling, he was in nervous haste and
kept looking round at the house; probably he was feeling terror.
Then he got into the gig, and, with a strange expression as
though afraid of being pursued, lashed the horses.
Shortly afterwards I set off, too. The sun was already rising,
and the mist of the previous day clung timidly to the bushes and
the hillocks. On the box of the carriage was sitting Forty
Martyrs; he had already succeeded in getting drunk and was
muttering tipsy nonsense.
"I am a free man," he shouted to the horses. "Ah, my honeys, I
am a nobleman in my own right, if you care to know!"
The terror of Dmitri Petrovitch, the thought of whom I could not
get out of my head, infected me. I thought of what had happened
and could make nothing of it. I looked at the rooks, and it
seemed so strange and terrible that they were flying.
"Why have I done this?" I kept asking myself in bewilderment and
despair. "Why has it turned out like this and not differently?
To whom and for what was it necessary that she should love me in
earnest, and that he should come into my room to fetch his cap?
What had a cap to do with it?"
I set off for Petersburg that day, and I have not seen Dmitri
Petrovitch nor his wife since. I am told that they are still
privileged class: he only qualifies as a "hereditary honorary
citizen," not a gentleman, although he is still a step above
peasants and other members of the lower classes
Prince Hamlet: Hamlet, III,2, 66-68; part of the famous "To be
or not to be" soliloquy
thou: use the intimate form of "you" which Russians use with
children, close relatives, and pets
yon seat: Russian slight mistranslation of "How sweet the
moonlight sleeps upon this bank!" The Merchant of Venice, V, 1,
basta!: stop it; enough