- The Schoolmistress
AT half-past eight they drove out of the
The highroad was dry, a lovely April sun was shining warmly, but
the snow was still lying in the ditches and in the woods.
Winter, dark, long, and spiteful, was hardly over; spring had
come all of a sudden. But neither the warmth nor the languid
transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black
flocks of birds flying over the huge puddles that were like
lakes, nor the marvelous fathomless sky, into which it seemed
one would have gone away so joyfully, presented anything new or
interesting to Marya Vassilyevna who was sitting in the cart.
For thirteen years she had been schoolmistress, and there was no
reckoning how many times during all those years she had been to
the town for her salary; and whether it were spring as now, or a
rainy autumn evening, or winter, it was all the same to her, and
she always -- invariably -- longed for one thing only, to get to
the end of her journey as quickly as could be.
She felt as though she had been living in that part of the
country for ages and ages, for a hundred years, and it seemed to
her that she knew every stone, every tree on the road from the
town to her school. Her past was here, her present was here, and
she could imagine no other future than the school, the road to
the town and back again, and again the school and again the
road. . . .
She had got out of the habit of thinking of her past before she
became a schoolmistress, and had almost forgotten it. She had
once had a father and mother; they had lived in Moscow in a big
flat near the Red Gate, but of all that life there was left in
her memory only something vague and fluid like a dream. Her
father had died when she was ten years old, and her mother had
died soon after. . . . She had a brother, an officer; at first
they used to write to each other, then her brother had given up
answering her letters, he had got out of the way of writing. Of
her old belongings, all that was left was a photograph of her
mother, but it had grown dim from the dampness of the school,
and now nothing could be seen but the hair and the eyebrows.
When they had driven a couple of miles, old Semyon, who was
driving, turned round and said:
"They have caught a government clerk in the town. They have
taken him away. The story is that with some Germans he killed
Alexeyev, the Mayor, in Moscow."
"Who told you that?"
"They were reading it in the paper, in Ivan Ionov's tavern."
And again they were silent for a long time. Marya Vassilyevna
thought of her school, of the examination that was coming soon,
and of the girl and four boys she was sending up for it. And
just as she was thinking about the examination, she was
overtaken by a neighboring landowner called Hanov in a carriage
with four horses, the very man who had been examiner in her
school the year before. When he came up to her he recognized her
"Good-morning," he said to her. "You are driving home, I
This Hanov, a man of forty with a listless expression and a face
that showed signs of wear, was beginning to look old, but was
still handsome and admired by women. He lived in his big
homestead alone, and was not in the service; and people used to
say of him that he did nothing at home but walk up and down the
room whistling, or play chess with his old footman. People said,
too, that he drank heavily. And indeed at the examination the
year before the very papers he brought with him smelt of wine
and scent. He had been dressed all in new clothes on that
occasion, and Marya Vassilyevna thought him very attractive, and
all the while she sat beside him she had felt embarrassed. She
was accustomed to see frigid and sensible examiners at the
school, while this one did not remember a single prayer, or know
what to ask questions about, and was exceedingly courteous and
delicate, giving nothing but the highest marks.
"I am going to visit Bakvist," he went on, addressing Marya
Vassilyevna, "but I am told he is not at home."
They turned off the highroad into a by-road to the village,
Hanov leading the way and Semyon following. The four horses
moved at a walking pace, with effort dragging the heavy carriage
through the mud. Semyon tacked from side to side, keeping to the
edge of the road, at one time through a snowdrift, at another
through a pool, often jumping out of the cart and helping the
horse. Marya Vassilyevna was still thinking about the school,
wondering whether the arithmetic questions at the examination
would be difficult or easy. And she felt annoyed with the
Zemstvo board at which she had found no one the day before. How
unbusiness-like! Here she had been asking them for the last two
years to dismiss the watchman, who did nothing, was rude to her,
and hit the schoolboys; but no one paid any attention. It was
hard to find the president at the office, and when one did find
him he would say with tears in his eyes that he hadn't a moment
to spare; the inspector visited the school at most once in three
years, and knew nothing whatever about his work, as he had been
in the Excise Duties Department, and had received the post of
school inspector through influence. The School Council met very
rarely, and there was no knowing where it met; the school
guardian was an almost illiterate peasant, the head of a tanning
business, unintelligent, rude, and a great friend of the
watchman's -- and goodness knows to whom she could appeal with
complaints or inquiries . . . .
"He really is handsome," she thought, glancing at Hanov.
The road grew worse and worse. . . . They drove into the wood.
Here there was no room to turn round, the wheels sank deeply in,
water splashed and gurgled through them, and sharp twigs struck
them in the face.
"What a road!" said Hanov, and he laughed.
The schoolmistress looked at him and could not understand why
this queer man lived here. What could his money, his interesting
appearance, his refined bearing do for him here, in this mud, in
this God-forsaken, dreary place? He got no special advantages
out of life, and here, like Semyon, was driving at a jog-trot on
an appalling road and enduring the same discomforts. Why live
here if one could live in Petersburg or abroad? And one would
have thought it would be nothing for a rich man like him to make
a good road instead of this bad one, to avoid enduring this
misery and seeing the despair on the faces of his coachman and
Semyon; but he only laughed, and apparently did not mind, and
wanted no better life. He was kind, soft, nave, and he did not
understand this coarse life, just as at the examination he did
not know the prayers. He subscribed nothing to the schools but
globes, and genuinely regarded himself as a useful person and a
prominent worker in the cause of popular education. And what use
were his globes here?
"Hold on, Vassilyevna!" said Semyon.
The cart lurched violently and was on the point of upsetting;
something heavy rolled on to Marya Vassilyevna's feet -- it was
her parcel of purchases. There was a steep ascent uphill through
the clay; here in the winding ditches rivulets were gurgling.
The water seemed to have gnawed away the road; and how could one
get along here! The horses breathed hard. Hanov got out of his
carriage and walked at the side of the road in his long
overcoat. He was hot.
"What a road!" he said, and laughed again. "It would soon smash
up one's carriage."
"Nobody obliges you to drive about in such weather," said Semyon
surlily. "You should stay at home."
"I am dull at home, grandfather. I don't like staying at home."
Beside old Semyon he looked graceful and vigorous, but yet in
his walk there was something just perceptible which betrayed in
him a being already touched by decay, weak, and on the road to
ruin. And all at once there was a whiff of spirits in the wood.
Marya Vassilyevna was filled with dread and pity for this man
going to his ruin for no visible cause or reason, and it came
into her mind that if she had been his wife or sister she would
have devoted her whole life to saving him from ruin. His wife!
Life was so ordered that here he was living in his great house
alone, and she was living in a God-forsaken village alone, and
yet for some reason the mere thought that he and she might be
close to one another and equals seemed impossible and absurd. In
reality, life was arranged and human relations were complicated
so utterly beyond all understanding that when one thought about
it one felt uncanny and one's heart sank.
"And it is beyond all understanding," she thought, "why God
gives beauty, this graciousness, and sad, sweet eyes to weak,
unlucky, useless people -- why they are so charming."
"Here we must turn off to the right," said Hanov, getting into
his carriage. "Good-by! I wish you all things good!"
And again she thought of her pupils, of the examination, of the
watchman, of the School Council; and when the wind brought the
sound of the retreating carriage these thoughts were mingled
with others. She longed to think of beautiful eyes, of love, of
the happiness which would never be. . . .
His wife? It was cold in the morning, there was no one to heat
the stove, the watchman disappeared; the children came in as
soon as it was light, bringing in snow and mud and making a
noise: it was all so inconvenient, so comfortless. Her abode
consisted of one little room and the kitchen close by. Her head
ached every day after her work, and after dinner she had
heart-burn. She had to collect money from the school-children
for wood and for the watchman, and to give it to the school
guardian, and then to entreat him -- that overfed, insolent
peasant -- for God's sake to send her wood. And at night she
dreamed of examinations, peasants, snowdrifts. And this life was
making her grow old and coarse, making her ugly, angular, and
awkward, as though she were made of lead. She was always afraid,
and she would get up from her seat and not venture to sit down
in the presence of a member of the Zemstvo or the school
guardian. And she used formal, deferential expressions when she
spoke of any one of them. And no one thought her attractive, and
life was passing drearily, without affection, without friendly
sympathy, without interesting acquaintances. How awful it would
have been in her position if she had fallen in love!
"Hold on, Vassilyevna!"
Again a sharp ascent uphill. . . .
She had become a schoolmistress from necessity, without feeling
any vocation for it; and she had never thought of a vocation, of
serving the cause of enlightenment; and it always seemed to her
that what was most important in her work was not the children,
nor enlightenment, but the examinations. And what time had she
for thinking of vocation, of serving the cause of enlightenment?
Teachers, badly paid doctors, and their assistants, with their
terribly hard work, have not even the comfort of thinking that
they are serving an idea or the people, as their heads are
always stuffed with thoughts of their daily bread, of wood for
the fire, of bad roads, of illnesses. It is a hard-working, an
uninteresting life, and only silent, patient cart-horses like
Mary Vassilyevna could put up with it for long; the lively,
nervous, impressionable people who talked about vocation and
serving the idea were soon weary of it and gave up the work.
Semyon kept picking out the driest and shortest way, first by a
meadow, then by the backs of the village huts; but in one place
the peasants would not let them pass, in another it was the
priest's land and they could not cross it, in another Ivan Ionov
had bought a plot from the landowner and had dug a ditch round
it. They kept having to turn back.
They reached Nizhneye Gorodistche. Near the tavern on the
dung-strewn earth, where the snow was still lying, there stood
wagons that had brought great bottles of crude sulphuric acid.
There were a great many people in the tavern, all drivers, and
there was a smell of vodka, tobacco, and sheepskins. There was a
loud noise of conversation and the banging of the swing-door.
Through the wall, without ceasing for a moment, came the sound
of a concertina being played in the shop. Marya Vassilyevna sat
down and drank some tea, while at the next table peasants were
drinking vodka and beer, perspiring from the tea they had just
swallowed and the stifling fumes of the tavern.
"I say, Kuzma!" voices kept shouting in confusion. "What there!"
"The Lord bless us!" "Ivan Dementyitch, I can tell you that!"
"Look out, old man!"
A little pock-marked man with a black beard, who was quite
drunk, was suddenly surprised by something and began using bad
"What are you swearing at, you there?" Semyon, who was sitting
some way off, responded angrily. "Don't you see the young lady?"
"The young lady!" someone mimicked in another corner.
"We meant nothing . . ." said the little man in confusion. "I
beg your pardon. We pay with our money and the young lady with
"Good-morning," answered the schoolmistress.
"And we thank you most feelingly."
Marya Vassilyevna drank her tea with satisfaction, and she, too,
began turning red like the peasants, and fell to thinking again
about firewood, about the watchman. . . .
"Stay, old man," she heard from the next table, "it's the
schoolmistress from Vyazovye. . . . We know her; she's a good
"She's all right!"
The swing-door was continually banging, some coming in, others
going out. Marya Vassilyevna sat on, thinking all the time of
the same things, while the concertina went on playing and
playing. The patches of sunshine had been on the floor, then
they passed to the counter, to the wall, and disappeared
altogether; so by the sun it was past midday. The peasants at
the next table were getting ready to go. The little man,
somewhat unsteadily, went up to Marya Vassilyevna and held out
his hand to her; following his example, the others shook hands,
too, at parting, and went out one after another, and the
swing-door squeaked and slammed nine times.
"Vassilyevna, get ready," Semyon called to her.
They set off. And again they went at a walking pace.
"A little while back they were building a school here in their
Nizhneye Gorodistche," said Semyon, turning round. "It was a
wicked thing that was done!"
"They say the president put a thousand in his pocket, and the
school guardian another thousand in his, and the teacher five
"The whole school only cost a thousand. It's wrong to slander
people, grandfather. That's all nonsense."
"I don't know, . . . I only tell you what folks say."
But it was clear that Semyon did not believe the schoolmistress.
The peasants did not believe her. They always thought she
received too large a salary, twenty-one roubles a month (five
would have been enough), and that of the money that she
collected from the children for the firewood and the watchman
the greater part she kept for herself. The guardian thought the
same as the peasants, and he himself made a profit off the
firewood and received payments from the peasants for being a
guardian -- without the knowledge of the authorities.
The forest, thank God! was behind them, and now it would be
flat, open ground all the way to Vyazovye, and there was not far
to go now. They had to cross the river and then the railway
line, and then Vyazovye was in sight.
"Where are you driving?" Marya Vassilyevna asked Semyon. "Take
the road to the right to the bridge."
"Why, we can go this way as well. It's not deep enough to
"Mind you don't drown the horse."
"Look, Hanov is driving to the bridge," said Marya Vassilyevna,
seeing the four horses far away to the right. "It is he, I
"It is. So he didn't find Bakvist at home. What a pig-headed
fellow he is. Lord have mercy upon us! He's driven over there,
and what for? It's fully two miles nearer this way."
They reached the river. In the summer it was a little stream
easily crossed by wading. It usually dried up in August, but
now, after the spring floods, it was a river forty feet in
breadth, rapid, muddy, and cold; on the bank and right up to the
water there were fresh tracks of wheels, so it had been crossed
"Go on!" shouted Semyon angrily and anxiously, tugging violently
at the reins and jerking his elbows as a bird does its wings.
The horse went on into the water up to his belly and stopped,
but at once went on again with an effort, and Marya Vassilyevna
was aware of a keen chilliness in her feet.
"Go on!" she, too, shouted, getting up. "Go on!"
They got out on the bank.
"Nice mess it is, Lord have mercy upon us!" muttered Semyon,
setting straight the harness. "It's a perfect plague with this
Zemstvo. . . ."
Her shoes and goloshes were full of water, the lower part of her
dress and of her coat and one sleeve were wet and dripping: the
sugar and flour had got wet, and that was worst of all, and
Marya Vassilyevna could only clasp her hands In despair and say:
"Oh, Semyon, Semyon! How tiresome you are really! . . ."
The barrier was down at the railway crossing. A train was coming
out of the station. Marya Vassilyevna stood at the crossing
waiting till it should pass, and shivering all over with cold.
Vyazovye was in sight now, and the school with the green roof,
and the church with its crosses flashing in the evening sun: and
the station windows flashed too, and a pink smoke rose from the
engine . . . and it seemed to her that everything was trembling
Here was the train; the windows reflected the gleaming light
like the crosses on the church: it made her eyes ache to look at
them. On the little platform between two first-class carriages a
lady was standing, and Marya Vassilyevna glanced at her as she
passed. Her mother! What a resemblance! Her mother had had just
such luxuriant hair, just such a brow and bend of the head. And
with amazing distinctness, for the first time in those thirteen
years, there rose before her mind a vivid picture of her mother,
her father, her brother, their flat in Moscow, the aquarium with
little fish, everything to the tiniest detail; she heard the
sound of the piano, her father's voice; she felt as she had been
then, young, good-looking, well-dressed, in a bright warm room
among her own people. A feeling of joy and happiness suddenly
came over her, she pressed her hands to her temples in an
ecstacy, and called softly, beseechingly:
And she began crying, she did not know why. Just at that instant
Hanov drove up with his team of four horses, and seeing him she
imagined happiness such as she had never had, and smiled and
nodded to him as an equal and a friend, and it seemed to her
that her happiness, her triumph, was glowing in the sky and on
all sides, in the windows and on the trees. Her father and
mother had never died, she had never been a schoolmistress, it
was a long, tedious, strange dream, and now she had awakened. .
"Vassilyevna, get in!"
And at once it all vanished. The barrier was slowly raised.
Marya Vassilyevna, shivering and numb with cold, got into the
cart. The carriage with the four horses crossed the railway
line; Semyon followed it. The signalman took off his cap.
"And here is Vyazovye. Here we are."
title: a correct translation is "In the Cart"
the Red Gate: triumphal arch erected in Moscow for the
coronation of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna in 1742
zemstvo: a district council with locally elected members