An Anonymous Story
- Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
With my head wet from the snow, and gasping for breath, I ran to
my room, and immediately flung off my swallow-tails, put on a
reefer jacket and an overcoat, and carried my portmanteau out
into the passage; I must get away! But before going I hurriedly
sat down and began writing to Orlov:
"I leave you my false passport," I began. "I beg you to keep it
as a memento, you false man, you Petersburg official!
"To steal into another man's house under a false name, to watch
under the mask of a flunkey this person's intimate life, to hear
everything, to see everything in order later on, unasked, to
accuse a man of lying -- all this, you will say, is on a level
with theft. Yes, but I care nothing for fine feelings now. I
have endured dozens of your dinners and suppers when you said
and did what you liked, and I had to hear, to look on, and be
silent. I don't want to make you a present of my silence.
Besides, if there is not a living soul at hand who dares to tell
you the truth without flattery, let your flunkey Stepan wash
your magnificent countenance for you."
I did not like this beginning, but I did not care to alter it.
Besides, what did it matter?
The big windows with their dark curtains, the bed, the crumpled
dress coat on the floor, and my wet footprints, looked gloomy
and forbidding. And there was a peculiar stillness.
Possibly because I had run out into the street without my cap
and goloshes I was in a high fever. My face burned, my legs
ached. . . . My heavy head drooped over the table, and there was
that kind of division in my thought when every idea in the brain
seemed dogged by its shadow.
"I am ill, weak, morally cast down," I went on; "I cannot write
to you as I should like to. From the first moment I desired to
insult and humiliate you, but now I do not feel that I have the
right to do so. You and I have both fallen, and neither of us
will ever rise up again; and even if my letter were eloquent,
terrible, and passionate, it would still seem like beating on
the lid of a coffin: however one knocks upon it, one will not
wake up the dead! No efforts could warm your accursed cold
blood, and you know that better than I do. Why write? But my
mind and heart are burning, and I go on writing; for some reason
I am moved as though this letter still might save you and me. I
am so feverish that my thoughts are disconnected, and my pen
scratches the paper without meaning; but the question I want to
put to you stands before me as clear as though in letters of
"Why I am prematurely weak and fallen is not hard to explain.
Like Samson of old, I have taken the gates of Gaza on my
shoulders to carry them to the top of the mountain, and only
when I was exhausted, when youth and health were quenched in me
forever, I noticed that that burden was not for my shoulders,
and that I had deceived myself. I have been, moreover, in cruel
and continual pain. I have endured cold, hunger, illness, and
loss of liberty. Of personal happiness I know and have known
nothing. I have no home; my memories are bitter, and my
conscience is often in dread of them. But why have you fallen --
you? What fatal, diabolical causes hindered your life from
blossoming into full flower? Why, almost before beginning life,
were you in such haste to cast off the image and likeness of
God, and to become a cowardly beast who backs and scares others
because he is afraid himself? You are afraid of life -- as
afraid of it as an Oriental who sits all day on a cushion
smoking his hookah. Yes, you read a great deal, and a European
coat fits you well, but yet with what tender, purely Oriental,
pasha-like care you protect yourself from hunger, cold, physical
effort, from pain and uneasiness! How early your soul has taken
to its dressing-gown! What a cowardly part you have played
towards real life and nature, with which every healthy and
normal man struggles! How soft, how snug, how warm, how
comfortable -- and how bored you are! Yes, it is deathly
boredom, unrelieved by one ray of light, as in solitary
confinement; but you try to hide from that enemy, too, you play
cards eight hours out of twenty-four.
"And your irony? Oh, but how well I understand it! Free, bold,
living thought is searching and dominating; for an indolent,
sluggish mind it is intolerable. That it may not disturb your
peace, like thousands of your contemporaries, you made haste in
youth to put it under bar and bolt. Your ironical attitude to
life, or whatever you like to call it, is your armour; and your
thought, fettered and frightened, dare not leap over the fence
you have put round it; and when you jeer at ideas which you
pretend to know all about, you are like the deserter fleeing
from the field of battle, and, to stifle his shame, sneering at
war and at valour. Cynicism stifles pain. In some novel of
Dostoevsky's an old man tramples underfoot the portrait of his
dearly loved daughter because he had been unjust to her, and you
vent your foul and vulgar jeers upon the ideas of goodness and
truth because you have not the strength to follow them. You are
frightened of every honest and truthful hint at your
degradation, and you purposely surround yourself with people who
do nothing but flatter your weaknesses. And you may well, you
may well dread the sight of tears!
"By the way, your attitude to women. Shamelessness has been
handed down to us in our flesh and blood, and we are trained to
shamelessness; but that is what we are men for -- to subdue the
beast in us. When you reached manhood and all ideas became known
to you, you could not have failed to see the truth; you knew it,
but you did not follow it; you were afraid of it, and to deceive
your conscience you began loudly assuring yourself that it was
not you but woman that was to blame, that she was as degraded as
your attitude to her. Your cold, scabrous anecdotes, your coarse
laughter, all your innumerable theories concerning the
underlying reality of marriage and the definite demands made
upon it, concerning the ten sous the French workman pays his
woman; your everlasting attacks on female logic, lying, weakness
and so on -- doesn't it all look like a desire at all costs to
force woman down into the mud that she may be on the same level
as your attitude to her? You are a weak, unhappy, unpleasant
Zinaida Fyodorovna began playing the piano in the drawing-room,
trying to recall the song of Saint Sa?s that Gruzin had played.
I went and lay on my bed, but remembering that it was time for
me to go, I got up with an effort and with a heavy, burning head
went to the table again.
"But this is the question," I went on. "Why are we worn out? Why
are we, at first so passionate so bold, so noble, and so full of
faith, complete bankrupts at thirty or thirty-five? Why does one
waste in consumption, another put a bullet through his brains, a
third seeks forgetfulness in vodka and cards, while the fourth
tries to stifle his fear and misery by cynically trampling
underfoot the pure image of his fair youth? Why is it that,
having once fallen, we do not try to rise up again, and, losing
one thing, do not seek something else? Why is it?
"The thief hanging on the Cross could bring back the joy of life
and the courage of confident hope, though perhaps he had not
more than an hour to live. You have long years before you, and I
shall probably not die so soon as one might suppose. What if by
a miracle the present turned out to be a dream, a horrible
nightmare, and we should wake up renewed, pure, strong, proud of
our righteousness? Sweet visions fire me, and I am almost
breathless with emotion. I have a terrible longing to live. I
long for our life to be holy, lofty, and majestic as the heavens
above. Let us live! The sun doesn't rise twice a day, and life
is not given us again -- clutch at what is left of your life and
save it. . . ."
I did not write another word. I had a multitude of thoughts in
my mind, but I could not connect them and get them on to paper.
Without finishing the letter, I signed it with my name and rank,
and went into the study. It was dark. I felt for the table and
put the letter on it. I must have stumbled against the furniture
in the dark and made a noise.
"Who is there?" I heard an alarmed voice in the drawing-room.
And the clock on the table softly struck one at the moment.