A.P. Chekhov - Talent
AN artist called Yegor Savvitch, who was spending his summer
holidays at the house of an officer's widow, was sitting on his
bed, given up to the depression of morning. It was beginning to
look like autumn out of doors. Heavy, clumsy clouds covered the
sky in thick layers; there was a cold, piercing wind, and with a
plaintive wail the trees were all bending on one side. He could
see the yellow leaves whirling round in the air and on the
earth. Farewell, summer! This melancholy of nature is beautiful
and poetical in its own way, when it is looked at with the eyes
of an artist, but Yegor Savvitch was in no humour to see beauty.
He was devoured by ennui and his only consolation was the
thought that by to-morrow he would not be there. The bed, the
chairs, the tables, the floor, were all heaped up with cushions,
crumpled bed-clothes, boxes. The floor had not been swept, the
cotton curtains had been taken down from the windows. Next day
he was moving, to town.
His landlady, the widow, was out. She had gone off somewhere to
hire horses and carts to move next day to town. Profiting by the
absence of her severe mamma, her daughter Katya, aged twenty,
had for a long time been sitting in the young man's room. Next
day the painter was going away, and she had a great deal to say
to him. She kept talking, talking, and yet she felt that she had
not said a tenth of what she wanted to say. With her eyes full
of tears, she gazed at his shaggy head, gazed at it with rapture
and sadness. And Yegor Savvitch was shaggy to a hideous extent,
so that he looked like a wild animal. His hair hung down to his
shoulder-blades, his beard grew from his neck, from his
nostrils, from his ears; his eyes were lost under his thick
overhanging brows. It was all so thick, so matted, that if a fly
or a beetle had been caught in his hair, it would never have
found its way out of this enchanted thicket. Yegor Savvitch
listened to Katya, yawning. He was tired. When Katya began
whimpering, he looked severely at her from his overhanging
eyebrows, frowned, and said in a heavy, deep bass:
"I cannot marry."
"Why not?" Katya asked softly.
"Because for a painter, and in fact any man who lives for art,
marriage is out of the question. An artist must be free."
"But in what way should I hinder you, Yegor Savvitch?"
"I am not speaking of myself, I am speaking in general. . . .
Famous authors and painters have never married."
"And you, too, will be famous -- I understand that perfectly.
But put yourself in my place. I am afraid of my mother. She is
stern and irritable. When she knows that you won't marry me, and
that it's all nothing . . . she'll begin to give it to me. Oh,
how wretched I am! And you haven't paid for your rooms, either!
. . . ."
"Damn her! I'll pay."
Yegor Savvitch got up and began walking to and fro.
"I ought to be abroad!" he said. And the artist told her that
nothing was easier than to go abroad. One need do nothing but
paint a picture and sell it.
"Of course!" Katya assented. "Why haven't you painted one in the
"Do you suppose I can work in a barn like this?" the artist said
ill-humouredly. "And where should I get models?"
Some one banged the door viciously in the storey below. Katya,
who was expecting her mother's return from minute to minute,
jumped up and ran away. The artist was left alone. For a long
time he walked to and fro, threading his way between the chairs
and the piles of untidy objects of all sorts. He heard the widow
rattling the crockery and loudly abusing the peasants who had
asked her two roubles for each cart. In his disgust Yegor
Savvitch stopped before the cupboard and stared for a long
while, frowning at the decanter of vodka.
"Ah, blast you!" he heard the widow railing at Katya. "Damnation
The artist drank a glass of vodka, and the dark cloud in his
soul gradually disappeared, and he felt as though all his inside
was smiling within him. He began dreaming. . . . His fancy
pictured how he would become great. He could not imagine his
future works but he could see distinctly how the papers would
talk of him, how the shops would sell his photographs, with what
envy his friends would look after him. He tried to picture
himself in a magnificent drawing-room surrounded by pretty and
adoring women; but the picture was misty, vague, as he had never
in his life seen a drawing-room. The pretty and adoring women
were not a success either, for, except Katya, he knew no adoring
woman, not even one respectable girl. People who know nothing
about life usually picture life from books, but Yegor Savvitch
knew no books either. He had tried to read Gogol, but had fallen
asleep on the second page.
"It won't burn, drat the thing!" the widow bawled down below, as
she set the samovar. "Katya, give me some charcoal!"
The dreamy artist felt a longing to share his hopes and dreams
with some one. He went downstairs into the kitchen, where the
stout widow and Katya were busy about a dirty stove in the midst
of charcoal fumes from the samovar. There he sat down on a bench
close to a big pot and began:
"It's a fine thing to be an artist! I can go just where I like,
do what I like. One has not to work in an office or in the
fields. I've no superiors or officers over me. . . . I'm my own
superior. And with all that I'm doing good to humanity!"
And after dinner he composed himself for a "rest." He usually
slept till the twilight of evening. But this time soon after
dinner he felt that some one was pulling at his leg. Some one
kept laughing and shouting his name. He opened his eyes and saw
his friend Ukleikin, the landscape painter, who had been away
all the summer in the Kostroma district.
"Bah!" he cried, delighted. "What do I see?"
There followed handshakes, questions.
"Well, have you brought anything? I suppose you've knocked off
hundreds of sketches?" said Yegor Savvitch, watching Ukleikin
taking his belongings out of his trunk.
"H'm! . . . Yes. I have done something. And how are you getting
on? Have you been painting anything?"
Yegor Savvitch dived behind the bed, and crimson in the face,
extracted a canvas in a frame covered with dust and spider webs.
"See here. . . . A girl at the window after parting from her
betrothed. In three sittings. Not nearly finished yet."
The picture represented Katya faintly outlined sitting at an
open window, from which could be seen a garden and lilac
distance. Ukleikin did not like the picture.
"H'm! . . . There is air and . . . and there is expression," he
said. "There's a feeling of distance, but . . . but that bush is
screaming . . . screaming horribly!"
The decanter was brought on to the scene.
Towards evening Kostyliov, also a promising beginner, an
historical painter, came in to see Yegor Savvitch. He was a
friend staying at the next villa, and was a man of
five-and-thirty. He had long hair, and wore a blouse with a
Shakespeare collar, and had a dignified manner. Seeing the
vodka, he frowned, complained of his chest, but yielding to his
friends' entreaties, drank a glass.
"I've thought of a subject, my friends," he began, getting
drunk. "I want to paint some new . . . Herod or Clepentian, or
some blackguard of that description, you understand, and to
contrast with him the idea of Christianity. On the one side
Rome, you understand, and on the other Christianity. . . . I
want to represent the spirit, you understand? The spirit!"
And the widow downstairs shouted continually:
"Katya, give me the cucumbers! Go to Sidorov's and get some
kvass, you jade!"
Like wolves in a cage, the three friends kept pacing to and fro
from one end of the room to the other. They talked without
ceasing, talked, hotly and genuinely; all three were excited,
carried away. To listen to them it would seem they had the
future, fame, money, in their hands. And it never occurred to
either of them that time was passing, that every day life was
nearing its close, that they had lived at other people's expense
a great deal and nothing yet was accomplished; that they were
all bound by the inexorable law by which of a hundred promising
beginners only two or three rise to any position and all the
others draw blanks in the lottery, perish playing the part of
flesh for the cannon. . . . They were gay and happy, and looked
the future boldly in the face!
At one o'clock in the morning Kostyliov said good-bye, and
smoothing out his Shakespeare collar, went home. The landscape
painter remained to sleep at Yegor Savvitch's. Before going to
bed, Yegor Savvitch took a candle and made his way into the
kitchen to get a drink of water. In the dark, narrow passage
Katya was sitting, on a box, and, with her hands clasped on her
knees, was looking upwards. A blissful smile was straying on her
pale, exhausted face, and her eyes were beaming.
"Is that you? What are you thinking about?" Yegor Savvitch asked
"I am thinking of how you'll be famous," she said in a
half-whisper. "I keep fancying how you'll become a famous man. .
. . I overheard all your talk. . . . I keep dreaming and
dreaming. . . ."
Katya went off into a happy laugh, cried, and laid her hands
reverently on her idol's shoulders.
Gogol: Nikolay V. Gogol (1809-1852), writer famous for the novel
Dead Souls (1842)
Herod: there were two infamous Herods in the Bible, but the
author probably is thinking of the Herod who ordered the
Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:13-21)