“I would save it from a burning house before everything else I've ever read."
—David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas
First published in 1891, this morality tale pits a scientist, a government worker, his mistress, a deacon, and a physician against one another in a verbal battle of wits and ethics that explodes into a violent contest: the duel. When Laevsky, a lazy youth who works for the government, tires of his dependent mistress, Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, Von Koren, the scientist,… See more details below
First published in 1891, this morality tale pits a scientist, a government worker, his mistress, a deacon, and a physician against one another in a verbal battle of wits and ethics that explodes into a violent contest: the duel. When Laevsky, a lazy youth who works for the government, tires of his dependent mistress, Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, Von Koren, the scientist, delivers a scathing critique of Loevsky’s egotism, forcing the young man to examine his soul. The Duel is a tale of human weakness, the possibility of forgiveness, and a man’s ultimate ability to change his ways. It is classic Chekhov, revealing the multifaceted essence of human nature.
“I would save it from a burning house before everything else I've ever read."
—David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas
It was eight o’clock in the morning—the time when the officers, the local officials, and the visitors usually took their morning dip in the sea after the hot, stifling night, and then went into the pavilion to drink tea or coffee. Ivan Andreitch Laevsky, a thin, fair young man of twenty-eight, wearing the cap of a clerk in the Ministry of Finance and with slippers on his feet, coming down to bathe, found a number of acquaintances on the beach, and among them his friend Samoylenko, the army doctor.
With his big cropped head, short neck, his red face, his big nose, his shaggy black eyebrows and grey whiskers, his stout puffy figure and his hoarse military bass, this Samoylenko made on every newcomer the unpleasant impression of a gruff bully; but two or three days after making his acquaintance, one began to think his face extraordinarily good-natured, kind, and even handsome. In spite of his clumsiness and rough manner, he was a peaceable man, of infinite kindliness and goodness of heart, always ready to be of use. He was on familiar terms with every one in the town, lent every one money, doctored every one, made matches, patched up quarrels, arranged picnics at which he cooked shashlik1 and an awfully good soup of grey mullets. He was always looking after other people’s affairs and trying to interest some one on their behalf, and was always delighted about something. The general opinion about him was that he was without faults of character. He had only two weaknesses: he was ashamed of his own good nature, and tried to disguise it by a surly expression and an assumed gruff- ness; and he liked his assistants and his soldiers to call him “Your Excellency,” although he was only a civil councillor.2
“Answer one question for me, Alexandr Daviditch,” Laevsky began, when both he and Samoylenko were in the water up to their shoulders. “Suppose you had loved a woman and had been living with her for two or three years, and then left off caring for her, as one does, and began to feel that you had nothing in common with her. How would you behave in that case?”
“It’s very simple. ‘You go where you please, madam’—and that would be the end of it.”
“It’s easy to say that! But if she has nowhere to go? A woman with no friends or relations, without a farthing, who can’t work . . .”
“Well? Five hundred roubles down or an allowance of twenty-five roubles a month—and nothing more. It’s very simple.”
“Even supposing you have five hundred roubles and can pay twenty-five roubles a month, the woman I am speaking of is an educated woman and proud. Could you really bring yourself to offer her money? And how would you do it?”
Samoylenko was going to answer, but at that moment a big wave covered them both, then broke on the beach and rolled back noisily over the shingle. The friends got out and began dressing.
“Of course, it is difficult to live with a woman if you don’t love her,” said Samoylenko, shaking the sand out of his boots. “But one must look at the thing humanely, Vanya. If it were my case, I should never show a sign that I did not love her, and I should go on living with her till I died.”
He was at once ashamed of his own words; he pulled himself up and said:
“But for aught I care, there might be no females at all. Let them all go to the devil!”
The friends dressed and went into the pavilion. There Samoylenko was quite at home, and even had a special cup and saucer. Every morning they brought him on a tray a cup of coffee, a tall cut glass of iced water, and a tiny glass of brandy. He would first drink the brandy, then the hot coffee, then the iced water, and this must have been very nice, for after drinking it his eyes looked moist with pleasure, he would stroke his whiskers with both hands, and say, looking at the sea:
“A wonderfully magnificent view!”
After a long night spent in cheerless, unprofitable thoughts which prevented him from sleeping, and seemed to intensify the darkness and sultriness of the night, Laevsky felt listless and shattered. He felt no better for the bathe and the coffee.
“Let us go on with our talk, Alexandr Daviditch,” he said. “I won’t make a secret of it; I’ll speak to you openly as to a friend. Things are in a bad way with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna and me . . . a very bad way! Forgive me for forcing my private affairs upon you, but I must speak out.”
Samoylenko, who had a misgiving of what he was going to speak about, dropped his eyes and drummed with his fingers on the table.
“I’ve lived with her for two years and have ceased to love her,” Laevsky went on; “or, rather, I realised that I never had felt any love for her. . . . These two years have been a mistake.”
It was Laevsky’s habit as he talked to gaze attentively at the pink palms of his hands, to bite his nails, or to pinch his cuffs. And he did so now.
“I know very well you can’t help me,” he said. “But I tell you, because unsuccessful and superfluous people like me find their salvation in talking. I have to generalise about everything I do. I’m bound to look for an explanation and justification of my absurd existence in somebody else’s theories, in literary types—in the idea that we, upper-class Russians, are degenerating, for instance, and so on. Last night, for example, I comforted myself by thinking all the time: ‘Ah, how true Tolstoy is,3 how mercilessly true!’ And that did me good. Yes, really, brother, he is a great writer, say what you like!”
Samoylenko, who had never read Tolstoy and was intending to do so every day of his life, was a little embarrassed, and said:
“Yes, all other authors write from imagination, but he writes straight from nature.”
“My God!” sighed Laevsky; “how distorted we all are by civilisation! I fell in love with a married woman and she with me. . . . To begin with, we had kisses, and calm evenings, and vows, and Spencer,4 and ideals, and interests in common. . . . What a deception! We really ran away from her husband, but we lied to ourselves and made out that we ran away from the emptiness of the life of the educated class. We pictured our future like this: to begin with, in the Caucasus, while we were getting to know the people and the place, I would put on the Government uniform and enter the service; then at our leisure we would pick out a plot of ground, would toil in the sweat of our brow, would have a vineyard and a field, and so on. If you were in my place, or that zoologist of yours, Von Koren, you might live with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna for thirty years, perhaps, and might leave your heirs a rich vineyard and three thousand acres of maize; but I felt like a bankrupt from the first day. In the town you have insufferable heat, boredom, and no society; if you go out into the country, you fancy poisonous spiders, scorpions, or snakes lurking under every stone and behind every bush, and beyond the fields—mountains and the desert. Alien people, an alien country, a wretched form of civilisation—all that is not so easy, brother, as walking on the Nevsky Prospect5 in one’s fur coat, arm-in-arm with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, dreaming of the sunny South. What is needed here is a life and death struggle, and I’m not a fighting man. A wretched neurasthenic, an idle gentleman. . . . From the first day I knew that my dreams of a life of labour and of a vineyard were worthless. As for love, I ought to tell you that living with a woman who has read Spencer and has followed you to the ends of the earth is no more interesting than living with any Anfissa or Akulina.6 There’s the same smell of ironing, of powder, and of medicines, the same curl-papers every morning, the same self-deception.”
“You can’t get on in the house without an iron,” said Samoylenko, blushing at Laevsky’s speaking to him so openly of a lady he knew. “You are out of humour to-day, Vanya, I notice. Nadyezhda Fyodorovna is a splendid woman, highly educated, and you are a man of the highest intellect. Of course, you are not married,” Samoylenko went on, glancing round at the adjacent tables, “but that’s not your fault; and besides . . . one ought to be above conventional prejudices and rise to the level of modern ideas. I believe in free love myself, yes. . . . But to my thinking, once you have settled together, you ought to go on living together all your life.”
“I will tell you directly,” said Samoylenko. “Eight years ago there was an old fellow, an agent, here—a man of very great intelligence. Well, he used to say that the great thing in married life was patience. Do you hear, Vanya? Not love, but patience. Love cannot last long. You have lived two years in love, and now evidently your married life has reached the period when, in order to preserve equilibrium, so to speak, you ought to exercise all your patience. . . .”
“You believe in your old agent; to me his words are meaningless. Your old man could be a hypocrite; he could exercise himself in the virtue of patience, and, as he did so, look upon a person he did not love as an object indispensable for his moral exercises; but I have not yet fallen so low. If I want to exercise myself in patience, I will buy dumbbells or a frisky horse, but I’ll leave human beings alone.”
Samoylenko asked for some white wine with ice. When they had drunk a glass each, Laevsky suddenly asked:
“Tell me, please, what is the meaning of softening of the brain?”
“How can I explain it to you? . . . It’s a disease in which the brain becomes softer . . . as it were, dissolves.”
“Is it curable?”
“Yes, if the disease is not neglected. Cold douches, blisters. . . . Something internal, too.”
“Oh! . . . Well, you see my position; I can’t live with her: it is more than I can do. While I’m with you I can be philosophical about it and smile, but at home I lose heart completely; I am so utterly miserable, that if I were told, for instance, that I should have to live another month with her, I should blow out my brains. At the same time, parting with her is out of the question. She has no friends or relations; she cannot work, and neither she nor I have any money. . . . What could become of her? To whom could she go? There is nothing one can think of. . . . Come, tell me, what am I to do?”
“H’m! . . .” growled Samoylenko, not knowing what to answer. “Does she love you?”
“Yes, she loves me in so far as at her age and with her temperament she wants a man. It would be as difficult for her to do without me as to do without her powder or her curl-papers. I am for her an indispensable, integral part of her boudoir.”
Samoylenko was embarrassed.
“You are out of humour to-day, Vanya,” he said. “You must have had a bad night.”
“Yes, I slept badly. . . . Altogether, I feel horribly out of sorts, brother. My head feels empty; there’s a sinking at my heart, a weakness. . . . I must run away.”
“There, to the North. To the pines and the mushrooms, to people and ideas. . . . I’d give half my life to bathe now in some little stream in the province of Moscow or Tula; to feel chilly, you know, and then to stroll for three hours even with the feeblest student, and to talk and talk endlessly. . . . And the scent of the hay! Do you remember it? And in the evening, when one walks in the garden, sounds of the piano float from the house; one hears the train passing. . . .”
Laevsky laughed with pleasure; tears came into his eyes, and to cover them, without getting up, he stretched across the next table for the matches.
“I have not been in Russia for eighteen years,” said Samoylenko. “I’ve forgotten what it is like. To my mind, there is not a country more splendid than the Caucasus.”
“Vereshtchagin has a picture7 in which some men condemned to death are languishing at the bottom of a very deep well. Your magnificent Caucasus strikes me as just like that well. If I were offered the choice of a chimney-sweep in Petersburg or a prince in the Caucasus, I should choose the job of chimney-sweep.”
Laevsky grew pensive. Looking at his stooping figure, at his eyes fixed dreamily at one spot, at his pale, perspiring face and sunken temples, at his bitten nails, at the slipper which had dropped off his heel, displaying a badly darned sock, Samoylenko was moved to pity, and probably because Laevsky reminded him of a helpless child, he asked:
“Is your mother living?”
“Yes, but we are on bad terms. She could not forgive me for this affair.”
Samoylenko was fond of his friend. He looked upon Laevsky as a good-natured fellow, a student, a man with no nonsense about him, with whom one could drink, and laugh, and talk without reserve. What he understood in him he disliked extremely. Laevsky drank a great deal and at unsuitable times; he played cards, despised his work, lived beyond his means, frequently made use of unseemly expressions in conversation, walked about the streets in his slippers, and quarrelled with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna before other people—and Samoylenko did not like this. But the fact that Laevsky had once been a student in the Faculty of Arts, subscribed to two fat reviews, often talked so cleverly that only a few people understood him, was living with a well-educated woman—all this Samoylenko did not understand, and he liked this and respected Laevsky, thinking him superior to himself.
“There is another point,” said Laevsky, shaking his head. “Only it is between ourselves. I’m concealing it from Nadyezhda Fyodorovna for the time. . . . Don’t let it out before her. . . . I got a letter the day before yesterday, telling me that her husband has died from softening of the brain.”
“The Kingdom of Heaven be his!” sighed Samoylenko. “Why are you concealing it from her?”
“To show her that letter would be equivalent to ‘Come to church to be married.’ And we should first have to make our relations clear. When she understands that we can’t go on living together, I will show her the letter. Then there will be no danger in it.”
“Do you know what, Vanya,” said Samoylenko, and a sad and imploring expression came into his face, as though he were going to ask him about something very touching and were afraid of being refused. “Marry her, my dear boy!”
“Do your duty to that splendid woman! Her husband is dead, and so Providence itself shows you what to do!”
“But do understand, you queer fellow, that it is impossible. To marry without love is as base and unworthy of a man as to perform mass without believing in it.”
“But it’s your duty to.”
“Why is it my duty?” Laevsky asked irritably.
“Because you took her away from her husband and made yourself responsible for her.”
“But now I tell you in plain Russian, I don’t love her!”
“Well, if you’ve no love, show her proper respect, consider her wishes. . . .”
“ ‘Show her respect, consider her wishes,’ ” Laevsky mimicked him. “As though she were some Mother Superior! . . . You are a poor psychologist and physiologist if you think that living with a woman one can get off with nothing but respect and consideration. What a woman thinks most of is her bedroom.”
“Vanya, Vanya!” said Samoylenko, overcome with confusion.
“You are an elderly child, a theorist, while I am an old man in spite of my years, and practical, and we shall never understand one another. We had better drop this conversation. Mustapha!” Laevsky shouted to the waiter. “What’s our bill?”
“No, no . . .” the doctor cried in dismay, clutching Laevsky’s arm. “It is for me to pay. I ordered it. Make it out to me,” he cried to Mustapha.
The friends got up and walked in silence along the sea-front. When they reached the boulevard, they stopped and shook hands at parting.
“You are awfully spoilt, my friend!” Samoylenko sighed. “Fate has sent you a young, beautiful, cultured woman, and you refuse the gift, while if God were to give me a crooked old woman, how pleased I should be if only she were kind and affectionate! I would live with her in my vineyard and . . .”
Samoylenko caught himself up and said:
“And she might get the samovar8 ready for me there, the old hag.”
After parting with Laevsky he walked along the boulevard. When, bulky and majestic, with a stern expression on his face, he walked along the boulevard in his snow-white tunic and superbly polished boots, squaring his chest, decorated with the Vladimir cross on a ribbon,9 he was very much pleased with himself, and it seemed as though the whole world were looking at him with pleasure. Without turning his head, he looked to each side and thought that the boulevard was extremely well laid out; that the young cypress-trees, the eucalyptuses, and the ugly, anæmic palm-trees were very handsome and would in time give abundant shade; that the Circassians10 were an honest and hospitable people.
“It’s strange that Laevsky does not like the Caucasus,” he thought, “very strange.”
Five soldiers, carrying rifles, met him and saluted him. On the right side of the boulevard the wife of a local official was walking along the pavement with her son, a schoolboy.
“Good-morning, Marya Konstantinovna,” Samoylenko shouted to her with a pleasant smile. “Have you been to bathe? Ha, ha, ha! . . . My respects to Nikodim Alexandritch!”
And he went on, still smiling pleasantly, but seeing an assistant of the military hospital coming towards him, he suddenly frowned, stopped him, and asked:
“Is there any one in the hospital?”
“No one, Your Excellency.”
“No one, Your Excellency.”
“Very well, run along. . . .”
Swaying majestically, he made for the lemonade stall, where sat a full-bosomed old Jewess, who gave herself out to be a Georgian, and said to her as loudly as though he were giving the word of command to a regiment:
“Be so good as to give me some soda-water!”
Laevsky’s not loving Nadyezhda Fyodorovna showed itself chiefly in the fact that everything she said or did seemed to him a lie, or equivalent to a lie, and everything he read against women and love seemed to him to apply perfectly to himself, to Nadyezhda Fyodorovna and her husband. When he returned home, she was sitting at the window, dressed and with her hair done, and with a preoccupied face was drinking coffee and turning over the leaves of a fat magazine; and he thought the drinking of coffee was not such a remarkable event that she need put on a preoccupied expression over it, and that she had been wasting her time doing her hair in a fashionable style, as there was no one here to attract and no need to be attractive. And in the magazine he saw nothing but falsity. He thought she had dressed and done her hair so as to look handsomer, and was reading in order to seem clever.
“Will it be all right for me to go to bathe to-day?” she said.
“Why? There won’t be an earthquake whether you go or not, I suppose. . . .”
“No, I only ask in case the doctor should be vexed.”
“Well, ask the doctor, then; I’m not a doctor.”
On this occasion what displeased Laevsky most in Nadyezhda Fyodorovna was her white open neck and the little curls at the back of her head. And he remembered that when Anna Karenin got tired of her husband, what she disliked most of all was his ears,11 and thought: “How true it is, how true!”
Feeling weak and as though his head were perfectly empty, he went into his study, lay down on his sofa, and covered his face with a handkerchief that he might not be bothered by the flies. Despondent and oppressive thoughts always about the same thing trailed slowly across his brain like a long string of waggons on a gloomy autumn evening, and he sank into a state of drowsy oppression. It seemed to him that he had wronged Nadyezhda Fyodorovna and her husband, and that it was through his fault that her husband had died. It seemed to him that he had sinned against his own life, which he had ruined, against the world of lofty ideas, of learning, and of work, and he conceived that wonderful world as real and possible, not on this sea-front with hungry Turks and lazy mountaineers sauntering upon it, but there in the North, where there were operas, theatres, newspapers, and all kinds of intellectual activity. One could only there—not here—be honest, intelligent, lofty, and pure. He accused himself of having no ideal, no guiding principle in life, though he had a dim understanding now what it meant. Two years before, when he fell in love with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, it seemed to him that he had only to go with her as his wife to the Caucasus, and he would be saved from vulgarity and emptiness; in the same way now, he was convinced that he had only to part from Nadyezhda Fyodorovna and to go to Petersburg, and he would get everything he wanted.
“Run away,” he muttered to himself, sitting up and biting his nails. “Run away!”
He pictured in his imagination how he would go aboard the steamer and then would have some lunch, would drink some cold beer, would talk on deck with ladies, then would get into the train at Sevastopol and set off. Hurrah for freedom! One station after another would flash by, the air would keep growing colder and keener, then the birches and the fir-trees, then Kursk, Moscow. . . .
In the restaurants cabbage soup, mutton with kasha, sturgeon, beer, no more Asiaticism, but Russia, real Russia. The passengers in the train would talk about trade, new singers, the Franco-Russian entente;12 on all sides there would be the feeling of keen, cultured, intellectual, eager life. . . . Hasten on, on! At last Nevsky Prospect, and Great Morskaya Street, and then Kovensky Place,13 where he used to live at one time when he was a student, the dear grey sky, the drizzling rain, the drenched cabmen. . . .
“Ivan Andreitch!” some one called from the next room. “Are you at home?”
“I’m here,” Laevsky responded. “What do you want?”
Laevsky got up languidly, feeling giddy, walked into the other room, yawning and shuffling with his slippers. There, at the open window that looked into the street, stood one of his young fellow-clerks, laying out some government documents on the window-sill.
“One minute, my dear fellow,” Laevsky said softly, and he went to look for the ink; returning to the window, he signed the papers without looking at them, and said: “It’s hot!”
“Yes. Are you coming to-day?”
“I don’t think so. . . . I’m not quite well. Tell Sheshkovsky that I will come and see him after dinner.”
The clerk went away. Laevsky lay down on his sofa again and began thinking:
“And so I must weigh all the circumstances and reflect on them. Before I go away from here I ought to pay up my debts. I owe about two thousand roubles. I have no money. . . . Of course, that’s not important; I shall pay part now, somehow, and I shall send the rest, later, from Petersburg. The chief point is Nadyezhda Fyodorovna. . . . First of all we must define our relations. . . . Yes.”
A little later he was considering whether it would not be better to go to Samoylenko for advice.
“I might go,” he thought, “but what use would there be in it? I shall only say something inappropriate about boudoirs, about women, about what is honest or dishonest. What’s the use of talking about what is honest or dishonest, if I must make haste to save my life, if I am suffocating in this cursed slavery and am killing myself?. . . One must realise at last that to go on leading the life I do is something so base and so cruel that everything else seems petty and trivial beside it. To run away,” he muttered, sitting down, “to run away.”
The deserted seashore, the insatiable heat, and the monotony of the smoky lilac mountains, ever the same and silent, everlastingly solitary, overwhelmed him with depression, and, as it were, made him drowsy and sapped his energy. He was perhaps very clever, talented, remarkably honest; perhaps if the sea and the mountains had not closed him in on all sides, he might have become an excellent Zemstvo14 leader, a statesman, an orator, a political writer, a saint. Who knows? If so, was it not stupid to argue whether it were honest or dishonest when a gifted and useful man—an artist or musician, for instance—to escape from prison, breaks a wall and deceives his jailers? Anything is honest when a man is in such a position.
At two o’clock Laevsky and Nadyezhda Fyodorovna sat down to dinner. When the cook gave them rice and tomato soup, Laevsky said:
“The same thing every day. Why not have cabbage soup?”
“There are no cabbages.”
“It’s strange. Samoylenko has cabbage soup and Marya Konstantinovna has cabbage soup, and only I am obliged to eat this mawkish mess. We can’t go on like this, darling.”
As is common with the vast majority of husbands and wives, not a single dinner had in earlier days passed without scenes and fault- finding between Nadyezhda Fyodorovna and Laevsky; but ever since Laevsky had made up his mind that he did not love her, he had tried to give way to Nadyezhda Fyodorovna in everything, spoke to her gently and politely, smiled, and called her “darling.”
“This soup tastes like liquorice,” he said, smiling; he made an effort to control himself and seem amiable, but could not refrain from saying: “Nobody looks after the housekeeping. . . . If you are too ill or busy with reading, let me look after the cooking.”
In earlier days she would have said to him, “Do by all means,” or, “I see you want to turn me into a cook”; but now she only looked at him timidly and flushed crimson.
“Well, how do you feel to-day?” he asked kindly.
“I am all right to-day. There is nothing but a little weakness.”
“You must take care of yourself, darling. I am awfully anxious about you.”
Nadyezhda Fyodorovna was ill in some way. Samoylenko said she had intermittent fever, and gave her quinine; the other doctor, Ustimovitch, a tall, lean, unsociable man, who used to sit at home in the daytime, and in the evenings walk slowly up and down on the sea-front coughing, with his hands folded behind him and a cane stretched along his back, was of the opinion that she had a female complaint, and prescribed warm compresses. In old days, when Laevsky loved her, Nadyezhda Fyodorovna’s illness had excited his pity and terror; now he saw falsity even in her illness. Her yellow, sleepy face, her lustreless eyes, her apathetic expression, and the yawning that always followed her attacks of fever, and the fact that during them she lay under a shawl and looked more like a boy than a woman, and that it was close and stuffy in her room—all this, in his opinion, destroyed the illusion and was an argument against love and marriage.
The next dish given him was spinach with hard-boiled eggs, while Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, as an invalid, had jelly and milk. When with a preoccupied face she touched the jelly with a spoon and then began languidly eating it, sipping milk, and he heard her swallowing, he was possessed by such an overwhelming aversion that it made his head tingle. He recognised that such a feeling would be an insult even to a dog, but he was angry, not with himself but with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, for arousing such a feeling, and he understood why lovers sometimes murder their mistresses. He would not murder her, of course, but if he had been on a jury now, he would have acquitted the murderer.
“Merci, darling,” he said after dinner, and kissed Nadyezhda Fyodorovna on the forehead.
Going back into his study, he spent five minutes in walking to and fro, looking at his boots; then he sat down on his sofa and muttered:
“Run away, run away! We must define the position and run away!”
He lay down on the sofa and recalled again that Nadyezhda Fyodorovna’s husband had died, perhaps, by his fault.
“To blame a man for loving a woman, or ceasing to love a woman, is stupid,” he persuaded himself, lying down and raising his legs in order to put on his high boots. “Love and hatred are not under our control. As for her husband, maybe I was in an indirect way one of the causes of his death; but again, is it my fault that I fell in love with his wife and she with me?”
Then he got up, and finding his cap, set off to the lodgings of his colleague, Sheshkovsky, where the Government clerks met every day to play vint15 and drink beer.
“My indecision reminds me of Hamlet,” thought Laevsky on the way. “How truly Shakespeare describes it! Ah, how truly!”
For the sake of sociability and from sympathy for the hard plight of newcomers without families, who, as there was not an hotel in the town, had nowhere to dine, Dr. Samoylenko kept a sort of table d’hôte. At this time there were only two men who habitually dined with him: a young zoologist called Von Koren, who had come for the summer to the Black Sea to study the embryology of the medusa, and a deacon called Pobyedov, who had only just left the seminary and been sent to the town to take the duty of the old deacon who had gone away for a cure. Each of them paid twelve roubles a month for their dinner and supper, and Samoylenko made them promise to turn up at two o’clock punctually.
Von Koren was usually the first to appear. He sat down in the drawing-room in silence, and taking an album from the table, began attentively scrutinising the faded photographs of unknown men in full trousers and top-hats, and ladies in crinolines and caps. Samoylenko only remembered a few of them by name, and of those whom he had forgotten he said with a sigh: “A very fine fellow, remarkably intelligent!” When he had finished with the album, Von Koren took a pistol from the whatnot, and screwing up his left eye, took deliberate aim at the portrait of Prince Vorontsov,16 or stood still at the looking-glass and gazed a long time at his swarthy face, his big forehead, and his black hair, which curled like a negro’s, and his shirt of dull-coloured cotton with big flowers on it like a Persian rug, and the broad leather belt he wore instead of a waistcoat. The contemplation of his own image seemed to afford him almost more satisfaction than looking at photographs or playing with the pistols. He was very well satisfied with his face, and his becomingly clipped beard, and the broad shoulders, which were unmistakable evidence of his excellent health and physical strength. He was satisfied, too, with his stylish get-up, from the cravat, which matched the colour of his shirt, down to his brown boots.
While he was looking at the album and standing before the glass, at that moment, in the kitchen and in the passage near, Samoylenko, without his coat and waistcoat, with his neck bare, excited and bathed in perspiration, was bustling about the tables, mixing the salad, or making some sauce, or preparing meat, cucumbers, and onion for the cold soup, while he glared fiercely at the orderly who was helping him, and brandished first a knife and then a spoon at him.
“Give me the vinegar!” he said. “That’s not the vinegar—it’s the salad oil!” he shouted, stamping. “Where are you off to, you brute?”
“To get the butter, Your Excellency,” answered the flustered orderly in a cracked voice.
“Make haste; it’s in the cupboard! And tell Daria to put some fennel in the jar with the cucumbers! Fennel! Cover the cream up, gaping laggard, or the flies will get into it!”
And the whole house seemed resounding with his shouts. When it was ten or fifteen minutes to two the deacon would come in; he was a lanky young man of twenty-two, with long hair, with no beard and a hardly perceptible moustache. Going into the drawing-room, he crossed himself before the ikon, smiled, and held out his hand to Von Koren.
“Good-morning,” the zoologist said coldly. “Where have you been?”
“I’ve been catching sea-gudgeon in the harbour.”
“Oh, of course. . . . Evidently, deacon, you will never be busy with work.”
“Why not? Work is not like a bear; it doesn’t run off into the woods,”17 said the deacon, smiling and thrusting his hands into the very deep pockets of his white cassock.
“There’s no one to whip you!” sighed the zoologist.
Another fifteen or twenty minutes passed and they were not called to dinner, and they could still hear the orderly running into the kitchen and back again, noisily treading with his boots, and Samoylenko shouting:
“Put it on the table! Where are your wits? Wash it first.”
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