- Three Years
IT was dark, and already lights had begun to
gleam here and there in the houses, and a pale moon was rising
behind the barracks at the end of the street. Laptev was sitting
on a bench by the gate waiting for the end of the evening
service at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. He was
reckoning that Yulia Sergeyevna would pass by on her way from
the service, and then he would speak to her, and perhaps spend
the whole evening with her.
He had been sitting there for an hour and a half already, and
all that time his imagination had been busy picturing his Moscow
rooms, his Moscow friends, his man Pyotr, and his writing-table.
He gazed half wonderingly at the dark, motionless trees, and it
seemed strange to him that he was living now, not in his summer
villa at Sokolniki, but in a provincial town in a house by which
a great herd of cattle was driven every morning and evening,
accompanied by terrible clouds of dust and the blowing of a
horn. He thought of long conversations in which he had taken
part quite lately in Moscow -- conversations in which it had
been maintained that one could live without love, that
passionate love was an obsession, that finally there is no such
love, but only a physical attraction between the sexes -- and so
on, in the same style; he remembered them and thought mournfully
that if he were asked now what love was, he could not have found
The service was over, the people began to appear. Laptev
strained his eyes gazing at the dark figures. The bishop had
been driven by in his carriage, the bells had stopped ringing,
and the red and green lights in the belfry were one after
another extinguished -- there had been an illumination, as it
was dedication day -- but the people were still coming out,
lingering, talking, and standing under the windows. But at last
Laptev heard a familiar voice, his heart began beating
violently, and he was overcome with despair on seeing that Yulia
Sergeyevna was not alone, but walking with two ladies.
"It's awful, awful!" he whispered, feeling jealous. "It's
At the corner of the lane, she stopped to say good-bye to the
ladies, and while doing so glanced at Laptev.
"I was coming to see you," he said. "I'm coming for a chat with
your father. Is he at home?"
"Most likely," she answered. "It's early for him to have gone to
There were gardens all along the lane, and a row of lime-trees
growing by the fence cast a broad patch of shadow in the
moonlight, so that the gate and the fences were completely
plunged in darkness on one side, from which came the sounds of
women whispering, smothered laughter, and someone playing softly
on a balalaika. There was a fragrance of lime-flowers and of
hay. This fragrance and the murmur of the unseen whispers worked
upon Laptev. He was all at once overwhelmed with a passionate
longing to throw his arms round his companion, to shower kisses
on her face, her hands, her shoulders, to burst into sobs, to
fall at her feet and to tell her how long he had been waiting
for her. A faint scarcely perceptible scent of incense hung
about her; and that scent reminded him of the time when he, too,
believed in God and used to go to evening service, and when he
used to dream so much of pure romantic love. And it seemed to
him that, because this girl did not love him, all possibility of
the happiness he had dreamed of then was lost to him forever.
She began speaking sympathetically of the illness of his sister,
Nina Fyodorovna. Two months before his sister had undergone an
operation for cancer, and now every one was expecting a return
of the disease.
"I went to see her this morning," said Yulia Sergeyevna, "and it
seemed to me that during the last week she has, not exactly
grown thin, but has, as it were, faded."
"Yes, yes," Laptev agreed. "There's no return of the symptoms,
but every day I notice she grows weaker and weaker, and is
wasting before my eyes. I don't understand what's the matter
"Oh dear! And how strong she used to be, plump and rosy!" said
Yulia Sergeyevna after a moment's silence. "Every one here used
to call her the Moscow lady. How she used to laugh! On holidays
she used to dress up like a peasant girl, and it suited her so
Doctor Sergey Borisovitch was at home; he was a stout, red-faced
man, wearing a long coat that reached below his knees, and
looking as though he had short legs. He was pacing up and down
his study, with his hands in his pockets, and humming to himself
in an undertone, "Ru-ru-ru-ru." His grey whiskers looked
unkempt, and his hair was unbrushed, as though he had just got
out of bed. And his study with pillows on the sofa, with stacks
of papers in the corners, and with a dirty invalid poodle lying
under the table, produced the same impression of unkemptness and
untidiness as himself.
"M. Laptev wants to see you," his daughter said to him, going
into his study.
"Ru-ru-ru-ru," he hummed louder than ever, and turning into the
drawing-room, gave his hand to Laptev, and asked: "What good
news have you to tell me?"
It was dark in the drawing-room. Laptev, still standing with his
hat in his hand, began apologising for disturbing him; he asked
what was to be done to make his sister sleep at night, and why
she was growing so thin; and he was embarrassed by the thought
that he had asked those very questions at his visit that
"Tell me," he said, "wouldn't it be as well to send for some
specialist on internal diseases from Moscow? What do you think
The doctor sighed, shrugged his shoulders, and made a vague
gesture with his hands.
It was evident that he was offended. He was a very huffy man,
prone to take offence, and always ready to suspect that people
did not believe in him, that he was not recognised or properly
respected, that his patients exploited him, and that his
colleagues showed him ill-will. He was always jeering at
himself, saying that fools like him were only made for the
public to ride rough-shod over them.
Yulia Sergeyevna lighted the lamp. She was tired out with the
service, and that was evident from her pale, exhausted face, and
her weary step. She wanted to rest. She sat down on the sofa,
put her hands on her lap, and sank into thought. Laptev knew
that he was ugly, and now he felt as though he were conscious of
his ugliness all over his body. He was short, thin, with ruddy
cheeks, and his hair had grown so thin that his head felt cold.
In his expression there was none of that refined simplicity
which makes even rough, ugly faces attractive; in the society of
women, he was awkward, over-talkative, affected. And now he
almost despised himself for it. He must talk that Yulia
Sergeyevna might not be bored in his company. But what about?
About his sister's illness again?
And he began to talk about medicine, saying what is usually
said. He approved of hygiene, and said that he had long ago
wanted to found a night-refuge in Moscow -- in fact, he had
already calculated the cost of it. According to his plan the
workmen who came in the evening to the night-refuge were to
receive a supper of hot cabbage soup with bread, a warm, dry bed
with a rug, and a place for drying their clothes and their
Yulia Sergeyevna was usually silent in his presence, and in a
strange way, perhaps by the instinct of a lover, he divined her
thoughts and intentions. And now, from the fact that after the
evening service she had not gone to her room to change her dress
and drink tea, he deduced that she was going to pay some visit
"But I'm in no hurry with the night-refuge," he went on,
speaking with vexation and irritability, and addressing the
doctor, who looked at him, as it were, blankly and in
perplexity, evidently unable to understand what induced him to
raise the question of medicine and hygiene. "And most likely it
will be a long time, too, before I make use of our estimate. I
fear our night-shelter will fall into the hands of our pious
humbugs and philanthropic ladies, who always ruin any
Yulia Sergeyevna got up and held out her hand to Laptev.
"Excuse me," she said, "it's time for me to go. Please give my
love to your sister."
"Ru-ru-ru-ru," hummed the doctor. "Ru-ru-ru-ru."
Yulia Sergeyevna went out, and after staying a little longer,
Laptev said good-bye to the doctor and went home. When a man is
dissatisfied and feels unhappy, how trivial seem to him the
shapes of the lime-trees, the shadows, the clouds, all the
beauties of nature, so complacent, so indifferent! By now the
moon was high up in the sky, and the clouds were scudding
quickly below. "But how na?e and provincial the moon is, how
threadbare and paltry the clouds!" thought Laptev. He felt
ashamed of the way he had talked just now about medicine, and
the night-refuge. He felt with horror that next day he would not
have will enough to resist trying to see her and talk to her
again, and would again be convinced that he was nothing to her.
And the day after -- it would be the same. With what object? And
how and when would it all end?
At home he went in to see his sister. Nina Fyodorovna still
looked strong and gave the impression of being a well-built,
vigorous woman, but her striking pallor made her look like a
corpse, especially when, as now, she was lying on her back with
her eyes closed; her eldest daughter Sasha, a girl of ten years
old, was sitting beside her reading aloud from her reading-book.
"Alyosha has come," the invalid said softly to herself.
There had long been established between Sasha and her uncle a
tacit compact, to take turns in sitting with the patient. On
this occasion Sasha closed her reading-book, and without
uttering a word, went softly out of the room. Laptev took an
historical novel from the chest of drawers, and looking for the
right page, sat down and began reading it aloud.
Nina Fyodorovna was born in Moscow of a merchant family. She and
her two brothers had spent their childhood and early youth,
living at home in Pyatnitsky Street. Their childhood was long
and wearisome; her father treated her sternly, and had even on
two or three occasions flogged her, and her mother had had a
long illness and died. The servants were coarse, dirty, and
hypocritical; the house was frequented by priests and monks,
also hypocritical; they ate and drank and coarsely flattered her
father, whom they did not like. The boys had the good-fortune to
go to school, while Nina was left practically uneducated. All
her life she wrote an illegible scrawl, and had read nothing but
historical novels. Seventeen years ago, when she was twenty-two,
on a summer holiday at Himki, she made the acquaintance of her
present husband, a landowner called Panaurov, had fallen in love
with him, and married him secretly against her father's will.
Panaurov, a handsome, rather impudent fellow, who whistled and
lighted his cigarette from the holy lamp, struck the father as
an absolutely worthless person. And when the son-in-law began in
his letters demanding a dowry, the old man wrote to his daughter
that he would send her furs, silver, and various articles that
had been left at her mother's death, as well as thirty thousand
roubles, but without his paternal blessing. Later he sent
another twenty thousand. This money, as well as the dowry, was
spent; the estate had been sold and Panaurov moved with his
family to the town and got a job in a provincial government
office. In the town he formed another tie, and had a second
family, and this was the subject of much talk, as his illicit
family was not a secret.
Nina Fyodorovna adored her husband. And now, listening to the
historical novel, she was thinking how much she had gone through
in her life, how much she had suffered, and that if any one were
to describe her life it would make a very pathetic story. As the
tumour was in her breast, she was persuaded that love and her
domestic grief were the cause of her illness, and that jealousy
and tears had brought her to her hopeless state.
At last Alexey Fyodorovitch closed the book and said:
"That's the end, and thank God for it. To-morrow we'll begin a
Nina Fyodorovna laughed. She had always been given to laughter,
but of late Laptev had begun to notice that at moments her mind
seemed weakened by illness, and she would laugh at the smallest
trifle, and even without any cause at all.
"Yulia came before dinner while you were out," she said. "So far
as I can see, she hasn't much faith in her papa. 'Let papa go on
treating you,' she said, 'but write in secret to the holy elder
to pray for you, too.' There is a holy man somewhere here. Yulia
forgot her parasol here; you must take it to her to-morrow," she
went on after a brief pause. "No, when the end comes, neither
doctors nor holy men are any help."
"Nina, why can't you sleep at night?" Laptev asked, to change
"Oh, well, I don't go to sleep -- that's all. I lie and think."
"What do you think about, dear?"
"About the children, about you . . . about my life. I've gone
through a great deal, Alyosha, you know. When one begins to
remember and remember. . . . My God!" She laughed. "It's no joke
to have borne five children as I have, to have buried three. . .
Sometimes I was expecting to be confined while my Grigory
Nikolaitch would be sitting at that very time with another
woman. There would be no one to send for the doctor or the
midwife. I would go into the passage or the kitchen for the
servant, and there Jews, tradesmen, moneylenders, would be
waiting for him to come home. My head used to go round. . . . He
did not love me, though he never said so openly. Now I've grown
calmer -- it doesn't weigh on my heart; but in old days, when I
was younger, it hurt me -- ach! how it hurt me, darling! Once --
while we were still in the country -- I found him in the garden
with a lady, and I walked away. . . I walked on aimlessly, and I
don't know how, but I found myself in the church porch. I fell
on my knees: 'Queen of Heaven!' I said. And it was night, the
moon was shining. . . ."
She was exhausted, she began gasping for breath. Then, after
resting a little, she took her brother's hand and went on in a
weak, toneless voice:
"How kind you are, Alyosha! . . . And how clever! . . . What a
good man you've grown up into!"
At midnight Laptev said good-night to her, and as he went away
he took with him the parasol that Yulia Sergeyevna had
forgotten. In spite of the late hour, the servants, male and
female, were drinking tea in the dining-room. How disorderly!
The children were not in bed, but were there in the dining-room,
too. They were all talking softly in undertones, and had not
noticed that the lamp was smoking and would soon go out. All
these people, big and little, were disturbed by a whole
succession of bad omens and were in an oppressed mood. The glass
in the hall had been broken, the samovar had been buzzing every
day, and, as though on purpose, was even buzzing now. They were
describing how a mouse had jumped out of Nina Fyodorovna's boot
when she was dressing. And the children were quite aware of the
terrible significance of these omens. The elder girl, Sasha, a
thin little brunette, was sitting motionless at the table, and
her face looked scared and woebegone, while the younger, Lida, a
chubby fair child of seven, stood beside her sister looking from
under her brows at the light.
Laptev went downstairs to his own rooms in the lower storey,
where under the low ceilings it was always close and smelt of
geraniums. In his sitting-room, Panaurov, Nina Fyodorovna's
husband, was sitting reading the newspaper. Laptev nodded to him
and sat down opposite. Both sat still and said nothing. They
used to spend whole evenings like this without speaking, and
neither of them was in the least put out by this silence.
The little girls came down from upstairs to say good-night.
Deliberately and in silence, Panaurov made the sign of the cross
over them several times, and gave them his hand to kiss. They
dropped curtsies, and then went up to Laptev, who had to make
the sign of the cross and give them his hand to kiss also. This
ceremony with the hand-kissing and curtsying was repeated every
When the children had gone out Panaurov laid aside the newspaper
"It's not very lively in our God-fearing town! I must confess,
my dear fellow," he added with a sigh, "I'm very glad that at
last you've found some distraction."
"What do you mean?" asked Laptev.
"I saw you coming out of Dr. Byelavin's Just now. I expect you
don't go there for the sake of the papa."
"Of course not," said Laptev, and he blushed.
"Well, of course not. And by the way, you wouldn't find such
another old brute as that papa if you hunted by daylight with a
candle. You can't imagine what a foul, stupid, clumsy beast he
is! You cultured people in the capitals are still interested in
the provinces only on the lyrical side, only from the paysage
and Poor Anton point of view, but I can assure you, my boy,
there's nothing logical about it; there's nothing but barbarism,
meanness, and nastiness -- that's all. Take the local devotees
of science -- the local intellectuals, so to speak. Can you
imagine there are here in this town twenty-eight doctors?
They've all made their fortunes, and they are living in houses
of their own, and meanwhile the population is in just as
helpless a condition as ever. Here, Nina had to have an
operation, quite an ordinary one really, yet we were obliged to
get a surgeon from Moscow; not one doctor here would undertake
it. It's beyond all conception. They know nothing, they
understand nothing. They take no interest in anything. Ask them,
for instance, what cancer is -- what it is, what it comes from."
And Panaurov began to explain what cancer was. He was a
specialist on all scientific subjects, and explained from a
scientific point of view everything that was discussed. But he
explained it all in his own way. He had a theory of his own
about the circulation of the blood, about chemistry, about
astronomy. He talked slowly, softly, convincingly.
"It's beyond all conception," he pronounced in an imploring
voice, screwing up his eyes, sighing languidly, and smiling as
graciously as a king, and it was evident that he was very well
satisfied with himself, and never gave a thought to the fact
that he was fifty.
"I am rather hungry," said Laptev. "I should like something
"Well, that can easily be managed."
Not long afterwards Laptev and his brother-in-law were sitting
upstairs in the dining-room having supper. Laptev had a glass of
vodka, and then began drinking wine. Panaurov drank nothing. He
never drank, and never gambled, yet in spite of that he had
squandered all his own and his wife's property, and had
accumulated debts. To squander so much in such a short time, one
must have, not passions, but a special talent. Panaurov liked
dainty fare, liked a handsome dinner service, liked music after
dinner, speeches, bowing footmen, to whom he would carelessly
fling tips of ten, even twenty-five roubles. He always took part
in all lotteries and subscriptions, sent bouquets to ladies of
his acquaintance on their birthdays, bought cups, stands for
glasses, studs, ties, walking-sticks, scents, cigarette-holders,
pipes, lap-dogs, parrots, Japanese bric-?brac, antiques; he had
silk nightshirts, and a bedstead made of ebony inlaid with
mother-of-pearl. His dressing-gown was a genuine Bokhara, and
everything was to correspond; and on all this there went every
day, as he himself expressed, "a deluge" of money.
At supper he kept sighing and shaking his head.
"Yes, everything on this earth has an end," he said softly,
screwing up his dark eyes. "You will fall in love and suffer.
You will fall out of love; you'll be deceived, for there is no
woman who will not deceive; you will suffer, will be brought to
despair, and will be faithless too. But the time will come when
all this will be a memory, and when you will reason about it
coldly and look upon it as utterly trivial. . . ."
Laptev, tired, a little drunk, looked at his handsome head, his
clipped black beard, and seemed to understand why women so loved
this pampered, conceited, and physically handsome creature.
After supper Panaurov did not stay in the house, but went off to
his other lodgings. Laptev went out to see him on his way.
Panaurov was the only man in the town who wore a top-hat, and
his elegant, dandified figure, his top-hat and tan gloves,
beside the grey fences, the pitiful little houses, with their
three windows and the thickets of nettles, always made a strange
and mournful impression.
After saying good-bye to him Laptev returned home without
hurrying. The moon was shining brightly; one could distinguish
every straw on the ground, and Laptev felt as though the
moonlight were caressing his bare head, as though some one were
passing a feather over his hair.
"I love!" he pronounced aloud, and he had a sudden longing to
run to overtake Panaurov, to embrace him, to forgive him, to
make him a present of a lot of money, and then to run off into
the open country, into a wood, to run on and on without looking
At home he saw lying on the chair the parasol Yulia Sergeyevna
had forgotten; he snatched it up and kissed it greedily. The
parasol was a silk one, no longer new, tied round with old
elastic. The handle was a cheap one, of white bone. Laptev
opened it over him, and he felt as though there were the
fragrance of happiness about him.
He settled himself more comfortably in his chair, and still
keeping hold of the parasol, began writing to Moscow to one of
"DEAR PRECIOUS KOSTYA,
"Here is news for you: I'm in love again! I say again, because
six years ago I fell in love with a Moscow actress, though I
didn't even succeed in making her acquaintance, and for the last
year and a half I have been living with a certain person you
know -- a woman neither young nor good-looking. Ah, my dear boy,
how unlucky I am in love. I've never had any success with women,
and if I say again it's simply because it's rather sad and
mortifying to acknowledge even to myself that my youth has
passed entirely without love, and that I'm in love in a real
sense now for the first time in my life, at thirty-four. Let it
stand that I love again.
"If only you knew what a girl she was! She couldn't be called a
beauty -- she has a broad face, she is very thin, but what a
wonderful expression of goodness she has when she smiles! When
she speaks, her voice is as clear as a bell. She never carries
on a conversation with me -- I don't know her; but when I'm
beside her I feel she's a striking, exceptional creature, full
of intelligence and lofty aspirations. She is religious, and you
cannot imagine how deeply this touches me and exalts her in my
eyes. On that point I am ready to argue with you endlessly. You
may be right, to your thinking; but, still, I love to see her
praying in church. She is a provincial, but she was educated in
Moscow. She loves our Moscow; she dresses in the Moscow style,
and I love her for that -- love her, love her. . . . I see you
frowning and getting up to read me a long lecture on what love
is, and what sort of woman one can love, and what sort one
cannot, and so on, and so on. But, dear Kostya, before I was in
love I, too, knew quite well what love was.
"My sister thanks you for your message. She often recalls how
she used to take Kostya Kotchevoy to the preparatory class, and
never speaks of you except as poor Kostya, as she still thinks
of you as the little orphan boy she remembers. And so, poor
orphan, I'm in love. While it's a secret, don't say anything to
a 'certain person.' I think it will all come right of itself,
or, as the footman says in Tolstoy, will 'come round.' "
When he had finished his letter Laptev went to bed. He was so
tired that he couldn't keep his eyes open, but for some reason
he could not get to sleep; the noise in the street seemed to
prevent him. The cattle were driven by to the blowing of a horn,
and soon afterwards the bells began ringing for early mass. At
one minute a cart drove by creaking; at the next, he heard the
voice of some woman going to market. And the sparrows twittered
the whole time.