AT eight o’clock on the evening
of the twentieth of May all the six batteries of the
N Reserve Artillery Brigade halted
for the night in the village of Myestetchki on their
way to camp. When the general commotion was at
its height, while some officers were busily occupied
around the guns, while others, gathered together in
the square near the church enclosure, were listening
to the quartermasters, a man in civilian dress, riding
a strange horse, came into sight round the church.
The little dun-coloured horse with a good neck and
a short tail came, moving not straight forward, but
as it were sideways, with a sort of dance step, as
though it were being lashed about the legs. When
he reached the officers the man on the horse took
off his hat and said:
“His Excellency Lieutenant-General
von Rabbek invites the gentlemen to drink tea with
him this minute. . . .”
The horse turned, danced, and retired
sideways; the messenger raised his hat once more,
and in an instant disappeared with his strange horse
behind the church.
“What the devil does it mean?”
grumbled some of the officers, dispersing to their
quarters. “One is sleepy, and here this
Von Rabbek with his tea! We know what tea means.”
The officers of all the six batteries
remembered vividly an incident of the previous year,
when during manoeuvres they, together with the officers
of a Cossack regiment, were in the same way invited
to tea by a count who had an estate in the neighbourhood
and was a retired army officer: the hospitable
and genial count made much of them, fed them, and
gave them drink, refused to let them go to their quarters
in the village and made them stay the night. All
that, of course, was very nice nothing
better could be desired, but the worst of it was,
the old army officer was so carried away by the pleasure
of the young men’s company that till sunrise
he was telling the officers anecdotes of his glorious
past, taking them over the house, showing them expensive
pictures, old engravings, rare guns, reading them
autograph letters from great people, while the weary
and exhausted officers looked and listened, longing
for their beds and yawning in their sleeves; when
at last their host let them go, it was too late for
Might not this Von Rabbek be just
such another? Whether he were or not, there was
no help for it. The officers changed their uniforms,
brushed themselves, and went all together in search
of the gentleman’s house. In the square
by the church they were told they could get to His
Excellency’s by the lower path going
down behind the church to the river, going along the
bank to the garden, and there an avenue would taken
them to the house; or by the upper way
straight from the church by the road which, half a
mile from the village, led right up to His Excellency’s
granaries. The officers decided to go by the
“What Von Rabbek is it?”
they wondered on the way. “Surely not the
one who was in command of the N
cavalry division at Plevna?”
“No, that was not Von Rabbek,
but simply Rabbe and no ‘von.’”
“What lovely weather!”
At the first of the granaries the
road divided in two: one branch went straight
on and vanished in the evening darkness, the other
led to the owner’s house on the right. The
officers turned to the right and began to speak more
softly. . . . On both sides of the road stretched
stone granaries with red roofs, heavy and sullen-looking,
very much like barracks of a district town. Ahead
of them gleamed the windows of the manor-house.
“A good omen, gentlemen,”
said one of the officers. “Our setter is
the foremost of all; no doubt he scents game ahead
of us! . . .”
Lieutenant Lobytko, who was walking
in front, a tall and stalwart fellow, though entirely
without moustache (he was over five-and-twenty, yet
for some reason there was no sign of hair on his round,
well-fed face), renowned in the brigade for his peculiar
faculty for divining the presence of women at a distance,
turned round and said:
“Yes, there must be women here;
I feel that by instinct.”
On the threshold the officers were
met by Von Rabbek himself, a comely-looking man of
sixty in civilian dress. Shaking hands with his
guests, he said that he was very glad and happy to
see them, but begged them earnestly for God’s
sake to excuse him for not asking them to stay the
night; two sisters with their children, some brothers,
and some neighbours, had come on a visit to him, so
that he had not one spare room left.
The General shook hands with every
one, made his apologies, and smiled, but it was evident
by his face that he was by no means so delighted as
their last year’s count, and that he had invited
the officers simply because, in his opinion, it was
a social obligation to do so. And the officers
themselves, as they walked up the softly carpeted
stairs, as they listened to him, felt that they had
been invited to this house simply because it would
have been awkward not to invite them; and at the sight
of the footmen, who hastened to light the lamps in
the entrance below and in the anteroom above, they
began to feel as though they had brought uneasiness
and discomfort into the house with them. In a
house in which two sisters and their children, brothers,
and neighbours were gathered together, probably on
account of some family festivity, or event, how could
the presence of nineteen unknown officers possibly
At the entrance to the drawing-room
the officers were met by a tall, graceful old lady
with black eyebrows and a long face, very much like
the Empress Eugenie. Smiling graciously and majestically,
she said she was glad and happy to see her guests,
and apologized that her husband and she were on this
occasion unable to invite messieurs les officiers
to stay the night. From her beautiful majestic
smile, which instantly vanished from her face every
time she turned away from her guests, it was evident
that she had seen numbers of officers in her day,
that she was in no humour for them now, and if she
invited them to her house and apologized for not doing
more, it was only because her breeding and position
in society required it of her.
When the officers went into the big
dining-room, there were about a dozen people, men
and ladies, young and old, sitting at tea at the end
of a long table. A group of men was dimly visible
behind their chairs, wrapped in a haze of cigar smoke;
and in the midst of them stood a lanky young man with
red whiskers, talking loudly, with a lisp, in English.
Through a door beyond the group could be seen a light
room with pale blue furniture.
“Gentlemen, there are so many
of you that it is impossible to introduce you all!”
said the General in a loud voice, trying to sound
very cheerful. “Make each other’s
acquaintance, gentlemen, without any ceremony!”
The officers some with
very serious and even stern faces, others with forced
smiles, and all feeling extremely awkward somehow
made their bows and sat down to tea.
The most ill at ease of them all was
Ryabovitch a little officer in spectacles,
with sloping shoulders, and whiskers like a lynx’s.
While some of his comrades assumed a serious expression,
while others wore forced smiles, his face, his lynx-like
whiskers, and spectacles seemed to say: “I
am the shyest, most modest, and most undistinguished
officer in the whole brigade!” At first, on going
into the room and sitting down to the table, he could
not fix his attention on any one face or object.
The faces, the dresses, the cut-glass decanters of
brandy, the steam from the glasses, the moulded cornices all
blended in one general impression that inspired in
Ryabovitch alarm and a desire to hide his head.
Like a lecturer making his first appearance before
the public, he saw everything that was before his
eyes, but apparently only had a dim understanding
of it (among physiologists this condition, when the
subject sees but does not understand, is called psychical
blindness). After a little while, growing accustomed
to his surroundings, Ryabovitch saw clearly and began
to observe. As a shy man, unused to society,
what struck him first was that in which he had always
been deficient namely, the extraordinary
boldness of his new acquaintances. Von Rabbek,
his wife, two elderly ladies, a young lady in a lilac
dress, and the young man with the red whiskers, who
was, it appeared, a younger son of Von Rabbek, very
cleverly, as though they had rehearsed it beforehand,
took seats between the officers, and at once got up
a heated discussion in which the visitors could not
help taking part. The lilac young lady hotly
asserted that the artillery had a much better time
than the cavalry and the infantry, while Von Rabbek
and the elderly ladies maintained the opposite.
A brisk interchange of talk followed. Ryabovitch
watched the lilac young lady who argued so hotly about
what was unfamiliar and utterly uninteresting to her,
and watched artificial smiles come and go on her face.
Von Rabbek and his family skilfully
drew the officers into the discussion, and meanwhile
kept a sharp lookout over their glasses and mouths,
to see whether all of them were drinking, whether all
had enough sugar, why some one was not eating cakes
or not drinking brandy. And the longer Ryabovitch
watched and listened, the more he was attracted by
this insincere but splendidly disciplined family.
After tea the officers went into the
drawing-room. Lieutenant Lobytko’s instinct
had not deceived him. There were a great number
of girls and young married ladies. The “setter”
lieutenant was soon standing by a very young, fair
girl in a black dress, and, bending down to her jauntily,
as though leaning on an unseen sword, smiled and shrugged
his shoulders coquettishly. He probably talked
very interesting nonsense, for the fair girl looked
at his well-fed face condescendingly and asked indifferently,
“Really?” And from that uninterested “Really?”
the setter, had he been intelligent, might have concluded
that she would never call him to heel.
The piano struck up; the melancholy
strains of a valse floated out of the wide open
windows, and every one, for some reason, remembered
that it was spring, a May evening. Every one was
conscious of the fragrance of roses, of lilac, and
of the young leaves of the poplar. Ryabovitch,
in whom the brandy he had drunk made itself felt, under
the influence of the music stole a glance towards the
window, smiled, and began watching the movements of
the women, and it seemed to him that the smell of
roses, of poplars, and lilac came not from the garden,
but from the ladies’ faces and dresses.
Von Rabbek’s son invited a scraggy-looking
young lady to dance, and waltzed round the room twice
with her. Lobytko, gliding over the parquet floor,
flew up to the lilac young lady and whirled her away.
Dancing began. . . . Ryabovitch stood near the
door among those who were not dancing and looked on.
He had never once danced in his whole life, and he
had never once in his life put his arm round the waist
of a respectable woman. He was highly delighted
that a man should in the sight of all take a girl
he did not know round the waist and offer her his
shoulder to put her hand on, but he could not imagine
himself in the position of such a man. There were
times when he envied the boldness and swagger of his
companions and was inwardly wretched; the consciousness
that he was timid, that he was round-shouldered and
uninteresting, that he had a long waist and lynx-like
whiskers, had deeply mortified him, but with years
he had grown used to this feeling, and now, looking
at his comrades dancing or loudly talking, he no longer
envied them, but only felt touched and mournful.
When the quadrille began, young Von
Rabbek came up to those who were not dancing and invited
two officers to have a game at billiards. The
officers accepted and went with him out of the drawing-room.
Ryabovitch, having nothing to do and wishing to take
part in the general movement, slouched after them.
From the big drawing-room they went into the little
drawing-room, then into a narrow corridor with a glass
roof, and thence into a room in which on their entrance
three sleepy-looking footmen jumped up quickly from
the sofa. At last, after passing through a long
succession of rooms, young Von Rabbek and the officers
came into a small room where there was a billiard-table.
They began to play.
Ryabovitch, who had never played any
game but cards, stood near the billiard-table and
looked indifferently at the players, while they in
unbuttoned coats, with cues in their hands, stepped
about, made puns, and kept shouting out unintelligible
The players took no notice of him,
and only now and then one of them, shoving him with
his elbow or accidentally touching him with the end
of his cue, would turn round and say “Pardon!”
Before the first game was over he was weary of it,
and began to feel he was not wanted and in the way.
. . . He felt disposed to return to the drawing-room,
and he went out.
On his way back he met with a little
adventure. When he had gone half-way he noticed
he had taken a wrong turning. He distinctly remembered
that he ought to meet three sleepy footmen on his way,
but he had passed five or six rooms, and those sleepy
figures seemed to have vanished into the earth.
Noticing his mistake, he walked back a little way
and turned to the right; he found himself in a little
dark room which he had not seen on his way to the billiard-room.
After standing there a little while, he resolutely
opened the first door that met his eyes and walked
into an absolutely dark room. Straight in front
could be seen the crack in the doorway through which
there was a gleam of vivid light; from the other side
of the door came the muffled sound of a melancholy
mazurka. Here, too, as in the drawing-room, the
windows were wide open and there was a smell of poplars,
lilac and roses. . . .
Ryabovitch stood still in hesitation.
. . . At that moment, to his surprise, he heard
hurried footsteps and the rustling of a dress, a breathless
feminine voice whispered “At last!” And
two soft, fragrant, unmistakably feminine arms were
clasped about his neck; a warm cheek was pressed to
his cheek, and simultaneously there was the sound
of a kiss. But at once the bestower of the kiss
uttered a faint shriek and skipped back from him,
as it seemed to Ryabovitch, with aversion. He,
too, almost shrieked and rushed towards the gleam
of light at the door. . . .
When he went back into the drawing-room
his heart was beating and his hands were trembling
so noticeably that he made haste to hide them behind
his back. At first he was tormented by shame and
dread that the whole drawing-room knew that he had
just been kissed and embraced by a woman. He
shrank into himself and looked uneasily about him,
but as he became convinced that people were dancing
and talking as calmly as ever, he gave himself up
entirely to the new sensation which he had never experienced
before in his life. Something strange was happening
to him. . . . His neck, round which soft, fragrant
arms had so lately been clasped, seemed to him to be
anointed with oil; on his left cheek near his moustache
where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint
chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops,
and the more he rubbed the place the more distinct
was the chilly sensation; all over, from head to foot,
he was full of a strange new feeling which grew stronger
and stronger . . . . He wanted to dance, to talk,
to run into the garden, to laugh aloud. . . .
He quite forgot that he was round-shouldered and uninteresting,
that he had lynx-like whiskers and an “undistinguished
appearance” (that was how his appearance had
been described by some ladies whose conversation he
had accidentally overheard). When Von Rabbek’s
wife happened to pass by him, he gave her such a broad
and friendly smile that she stood still and looked
at him inquiringly.
“I like your house immensely!”
he said, setting his spectacles straight.
The General’s wife smiled and
said that the house had belonged to her father; then
she asked whether his parents were living, whether
he had long been in the army, why he was so thin, and
so on. . . . After receiving answers to her questions,
she went on, and after his conversation with her his
smiles were more friendly than ever, and he thought
he was surrounded by splendid people. . . .
At supper Ryabovitch ate mechanically
everything offered him, drank, and without listening
to anything, tried to understand what had just happened
to him. . . . The adventure was of a mysterious
and romantic character, but it was not difficult to
explain it. No doubt some girl or young married
lady had arranged a tryst with some one in the dark
room; had waited a long time, and being nervous and
excited had taken Ryabovitch for her hero; this was
the more probable as Ryabovitch had stood still hesitating
in the dark room, so that he, too, had seemed like
a person expecting something. . . . This was
how Ryabovitch explained to himself the kiss he had
“And who is she?” he wondered,
looking round at the women’s faces. “She
must be young, for elderly ladies don’t give
rendezvous. That she was a lady, one could tell
by the rustle of her dress, her perfume, her voice.
. . .”
His eyes rested on the lilac young
lady, and he thought her very attractive; she had
beautiful shoulders and arms, a clever face, and a
delightful voice. Ryabovitch, looking at her,
hoped that she and no one else was his unknown. .
. . But she laughed somehow artificially and
wrinkled up her long nose, which seemed to him to
make her look old. Then he turned his eyes upon
the fair girl in a black dress. She was younger,
simpler, and more genuine, had a charming brow, and
drank very daintily out of her wineglass. Ryabovitch
now hoped that it was she. But soon he began to
think her face flat, and fixed his eyes upon the one
“It’s difficult to guess,”
he thought, musing. “If one takes the shoulders
and arms of the lilac one only, adds the brow of the
fair one and the eyes of the one on the left of Lobytko,
then . . .”
He made a combination of these things
in his mind and so formed the image of the girl who
had kissed him, the image that he wanted her to have,
but could not find at the table. . . .
After supper, replete and exhilarated,
the officers began to take leave and say thank you.
Von Rabbek and his wife began again apologizing that
they could not ask them to stay the night.
“Very, very glad to have met
you, gentlemen,” said Von Rabbek, and this time
sincerely (probably because people are far more sincere
and good-humoured at speeding their parting guests
than on meeting them). “Delighted.
I hope you will come on your way back! Don’t
stand on ceremony! Where are you going? Do
you want to go by the upper way? No, go across
the garden; it’s nearer here by the lower way.”
The officers went out into the garden.
After the bright light and the noise the garden seemed
very dark and quiet. They walked in silence all
the way to the gate. They were a little drunk,
pleased, and in good spirits, but the darkness and
silence made them thoughtful for a minute. Probably
the same idea occurred to each one of them as to Ryabovitch:
would there ever come a time for them when, like Von
Rabbek, they would have a large house, a family, a
garden when they, too, would be able to
welcome people, even though insincerely, feed them,
make them drunk and contented?
Going out of the garden gate, they
all began talking at once and laughing loudly about
nothing. They were walking now along the little
path that led down to the river, and then ran along
the water’s edge, winding round the bushes on
the bank, the pools, and the willows that overhung
the water. The bank and the path were scarcely
visible, and the other bank was entirely plunged in
darkness. Stars were reflected here and there
on the dark water; they quivered and were broken up
on the surface and from that alone it could
be seen that the river was flowing rapidly. It
was still. Drowsy curlews cried plaintively on
the further bank, and in one of the bushes on the
nearest side a nightingale was trilling loudly, taking
no notice of the crowd of officers. The officers
stood round the bush, touched it, but the nightingale
went on singing.
“What a fellow!” they
exclaimed approvingly. “We stand beside
him and he takes not a bit of notice! What a
At the end of the way the path went
uphill, and, skirting the church enclosure, turned
into the road. Here the officers, tired with
walking uphill, sat down and lighted their cigarettes.
On the other side of the river a murky red fire came
into sight, and having nothing better to do, they
spent a long time in discussing whether it was a camp
fire or a light in a window, or something else. . .
. Ryabovitch, too, looked at the light, and he
fancied that the light looked and winked at him, as
though it knew about the kiss.
On reaching his quarters, Ryabovitch
undressed as quickly as possible and got into bed.
Lobytko and Lieutenant Merzlyakov a peaceable,
silent fellow, who was considered in his own circle
a highly educated officer, and was always, whenever
it was possible, reading the “Vyestnik Evropi,”
which he carried about with him everywhere
were quartered in the same hut with Ryabovitch.
Lobytko undressed, walked up and down the room for
a long while with the air of a man who has not been
satisfied, and sent his orderly for beer. Merzlyakov
got into bed, put a candle by his pillow and plunged
into reading the “Vyestnik Evropi.”
“Who was she?” Ryabovitch
wondered, looking at the smoky ceiling.
His neck still felt as though he had
been anointed with oil, and there was still the chilly
sensation near his mouth as though from peppermint
drops. The shoulders and arms of the young lady
in lilac, the brow and the truthful eyes of the fair
girl in black, waists, dresses, and brooches, floated
through his imagination. He tried to fix his
attention on these images, but they danced about, broke
up and flickered. When these images vanished altogether
from the broad dark background which every man sees
when he closes his eyes, he began to hear hurried
footsteps, the rustle of skirts, the sound of a kiss
and an intense groundless joy took possession
of him . . . . Abandoning himself to this joy,
he heard the orderly return and announce that there
was no beer. Lobytko was terribly indignant,
and began pacing up and down again.
“Well, isn’t he an idiot?”
he kept saying, stopping first before Ryabovitch and
then before Merzlyakov. “What a fool and
a dummy a man must be not to get hold of any beer!
Eh? Isn’t he a scoundrel?”
“Of course you can’t get
beer here,” said Merzlyakov, not removing his
eyes from the “Vyestnik Evropi.”
“Oh! Is that your opinion?”
Lobytko persisted. “Lord have mercy upon
us, if you dropped me on the moon I’d find you
beer and women directly! I’ll go and find
some at once. . . . You may call me an impostor
if I don’t!”
He spent a long time in dressing and
pulling on his high boots, then finished smoking his
cigarette in silence and went out.
“Rabbek, Grabbek, Labbek,”
he muttered, stopping in the outer room. “I
don’t care to go alone, damn it all! Ryabovitch,
wouldn’t you like to go for a walk? Eh?”
Receiving no answer, he returned,
slowly undressed and got into bed. Merzlyakov
sighed, put the “Vyestnik Evropi” away,
and put out the light.
“H’m! . . .” muttered
Lobytko, lighting a cigarette in the dark.
Ryabovitch pulled the bed-clothes
over his head, curled himself up in bed, and tried
to gather together the floating images in his mind
and to combine them into one whole. But nothing
came of it. He soon fell asleep, and his last
thought was that some one had caressed him and made
him happy that something extraordinary,
foolish, but joyful and delightful, had come into his
life. The thought did not leave him even in his
When he woke up the sensations of
oil on his neck and the chill of peppermint about
his lips had gone, but joy flooded his heart just
as the day before. He looked enthusiastically
at the window-frames, gilded by the light of the rising
sun, and listened to the movement of the passers-by
in the street. People were talking loudly close
to the window. Lebedetsky, the commander of Ryabovitch’s
battery, who had only just overtaken the brigade,
was talking to his sergeant at the top of his voice,
being always accustomed to shout.
“What else?” shouted the commander.
“When they were shoeing yesterday,
your high nobility, they drove a nail into Pigeon’s
hoof. The vet. put on clay and vinegar; they
are leading him apart now. And also, your honour,
Artemyev got drunk yesterday, and the lieutenant ordered
him to be put in the limber of a spare gun-carriage.”
The sergeant reported that Karpov
had forgotten the new cords for the trumpets and the
rings for the tents, and that their honours, the officers,
had spent the previous evening visiting General Von
Rabbek. In the middle of this conversation the
red-bearded face of Lebedetsky appeared in the window.
He screwed up his short-sighted eyes, looking at the
sleepy faces of the officers, and said good-morning
“Is everything all right?” he asked.
“One of the horses has a sore
neck from the new collar,” answered Lobytko,
The commander sighed, thought a moment,
and said in a loud voice:
“I am thinking of going to see
Alexandra Yevgrafovna. I must call on her.
Well, good-bye. I shall catch you up in the evening.”
A quarter of an hour later the brigade
set off on its way. When it was moving along
the road by the granaries, Ryabovitch looked at the
house on the right. The blinds were down in all
the windows. Evidently the household was still
asleep. The one who had kissed Ryabovitch the
day before was asleep, too. He tried to imagine
her asleep. The wide-open windows of the bedroom,
the green branches peeping in, the morning freshness,
the scent of the poplars, lilac, and roses, the bed,
a chair, and on it the skirts that had rustled the
day before, the little slippers, the little watch on
the table all this he pictured to himself
clearly and distinctly, but the features of the face,
the sweet sleepy smile, just what was characteristic
and important, slipped through his imagination like
quicksilver through the fingers. When he had ridden
on half a mile, he looked back: the yellow church,
the house, and the river, were all bathed in light;
the river with its bright green banks, with the blue
sky reflected in it and glints of silver in the sunshine
here and there, was very beautiful. Ryabovitch
gazed for the last time at Myestetchki, and he felt
as sad as though he were parting with something very
near and dear to him.
And before him on the road lay nothing
but long familiar, uninteresting pictures. . . .
To right and to left, fields of young rye and buckwheat
with rooks hopping about in them. If one looked
ahead, one saw dust and the backs of men’s heads;
if one looked back, one saw the same dust and faces.
. . . Foremost of all marched four men with sabres this
was the vanguard. Next, behind, the crowd of
singers, and behind them the trumpeters on horseback.
The vanguard and the chorus of singers, like torch-bearers
in a funeral procession, often forgot to keep the
regulation distance and pushed a long way ahead. .
. . Ryabovitch was with the first cannon of the
fifth battery. He could see all the four batteries
moving in front of him. For any one not a military
man this long tedious procession of a moving brigade
seems an intricate and unintelligible muddle; one
cannot understand why there are so many people round
one cannon, and why it is drawn by so many horses
in such a strange network of harness, as though it
really were so terrible and heavy. To Ryabovitch
it was all perfectly comprehensible and therefore uninteresting.
He had known for ever so long why at the head of each
battery there rode a stalwart bombardier, and why
he was called a bombardier; immediately behind this
bombardier could be seen the horsemen of the first
and then of the middle units. Ryabovitch knew
that the horses on which they rode, those on the left,
were called one name, while those on the right were
called another it was extremely uninteresting.
Behind the horsemen came two shaft-horses. On
one of them sat a rider with the dust of yesterday
on his back and a clumsy and funny-looking piece of
wood on his leg. Ryabovitch knew the object of
this piece of wood, and did not think it funny.
All the riders waved their whips mechanically and
shouted from time to time. The cannon itself
was ugly. On the fore part lay sacks of oats
covered with canvas, and the cannon itself was hung
all over with kettles, soldiers’ knapsacks,
bags, and looked like some small harmless animal surrounded
for some unknown reason by men and horses. To
the leeward of it marched six men, the gunners, swinging
their arms. After the cannon there came again
more bombardiers, riders, shaft-horses, and behind
them another cannon, as ugly and unimpressive as the
first. After the second followed a third, a fourth;
near the fourth an officer, and so on. There
were six batteries in all in the brigade, and four
cannons in each battery. The procession covered
half a mile; it ended in a string of wagons near which
an extremely attractive creature the ass,
Magar, brought by a battery commander from Turkey paced
pensively with his long-eared head drooping.
Ryabovitch looked indifferently before
and behind, at the backs of heads and at faces; at
any other time he would have been half asleep, but
now he was entirely absorbed in his new agreeable thoughts.
At first when the brigade was setting off on the march
he tried to persuade himself that the incident of
the kiss could only be interesting as a mysterious
little adventure, that it was in reality trivial,
and to think of it seriously, to say the least of it,
was stupid; but now he bade farewell to logic and
gave himself up to dreams. . . . At one moment
he imagined himself in Von Rabbek’s drawing-room
beside a girl who was like the young lady in lilac
and the fair girl in black; then he would close his
eyes and see himself with another, entirely unknown
girl, whose features were very vague. In his
imagination he talked, caressed her, leaned on her
shoulder, pictured war, separation, then meeting again,
supper with his wife, children. . . .
“Brakes on!” the word
of command rang out every time they went downhill.
He, too, shouted “Brakes on!”
and was afraid this shout would disturb his reverie
and bring him back to reality. . . .
As they passed by some landowner’s
estate Ryabovitch looked over the fence into the garden.
A long avenue, straight as a ruler, strewn with yellow
sand and bordered with young birch-trees, met his
eyes. . . . With the eagerness of a man given
up to dreaming, he pictured to himself little feminine
feet tripping along yellow sand, and quite unexpectedly
had a clear vision in his imagination of the girl
who had kissed him and whom he had succeeded in picturing
to himself the evening before at supper. This
image remained in his brain and did not desert him
At midday there was a shout in the
rear near the string of wagons:
“Easy! Eyes to the left! Officers!”
The general of the brigade drove by
in a carriage with a pair of white horses. He
stopped near the second battery, and shouted something
which no one understood. Several officers, among
them Ryabovitch, galloped up to them.
“Well?” asked the general,
blinking his red eyes. “Are there any sick?”
Receiving an answer, the general,
a little skinny man, chewed, thought for a moment
and said, addressing one of the officers:
“One of your drivers of the
third cannon has taken off his leg-guard and hung
it on the fore part of the cannon, the rascal.
He raised his eyes to Ryabovitch and went on:
“It seems to me your front strap is too long.”
Making a few other tedious remarks,
the general looked at Lobytko and grinned.
“You look very melancholy today,
Lieutenant Lobytko,” he said. “Are
you pining for Madame Lopuhov? Eh? Gentlemen,
he is pining for Madame Lopuhov.”
The lady in question was a very stout
and tall person who had long passed her fortieth year.
The general, who had a predilection for solid ladies,
whatever their ages, suspected a similar taste in his
officers. The officers smiled respectfully.
The general, delighted at having said something very
amusing and biting, laughed loudly, touched his coachman’s
back, and saluted. The carriage rolled on. . .
“All I am dreaming about now
which seems to me so impossible and unearthly is really
quite an ordinary thing,” thought Ryabovitch,
looking at the clouds of dust racing after the general’s
carriage. “It’s all very ordinary,
and every one goes through it. . . . That general,
for instance, has once been in love; now he is married
and has children. Captain Vahter, too, is married
and beloved, though the nape of his neck is very red
and ugly and he has no waist. . . . Salrnanov
is coarse and very Tatar, but he has had a love affair
that has ended in marriage. . . . I am the same
as every one else, and I, too, shall have the same
experience as every one else, sooner or later. . .
And the thought that he was an ordinary
person, and that his life was ordinary, delighted
him and gave him courage. He pictured her and
his happiness as he pleased, and put no rein on his
When the brigade reached their halting-place
in the evening, and the officers were resting in their
tents, Ryabovitch, Merzlyakov, and Lobytko were sitting
round a box having supper. Merzlyakov ate without
haste, and, as he munched deliberately, read the “Vyestnik
Evropi,” which he held on his knees. Lobytko
talked incessantly and kept filling up his glass with
beer, and Ryabovitch, whose head was confused from
dreaming all day long, drank and said nothing.
After three glasses he got a little drunk, felt weak,
and had an irresistible desire to impart his new sensations
to his comrades.
“A strange thing happened to
me at those Von Rabbeks’,” he began, trying
to put an indifferent and ironical tone into his voice.
“You know I went into the billiard-room. . .
He began describing very minutely
the incident of the kiss, and a moment later relapsed
into silence. . . . In the course of that moment
he had told everything, and it surprised him dreadfully
to find how short a time it took him to tell it.
He had imagined that he could have been telling the
story of the kiss till next morning. Listening
to him, Lobytko, who was a great liar and consequently
believed no one, looked at him sceptically and laughed.
Merzlyakov twitched his eyebrows and, without removing
his eyes from the “Vyestnik Evropi,” said:
“That’s an odd thing!
How strange! . . . throws herself on a man’s
neck, without addressing him by name. .. . She
must be some sort of hysterical neurotic.”
“Yes, she must,” Ryabovitch agreed.
“A similar thing once happened
to me,” said Lobytko, assuming a scared expression.
“I was going last year to Kovno. . . . I
took a second-class ticket. The train was crammed,
and it was impossible to sleep. I gave the guard
half a rouble; he took my luggage and led me to another
compartment. . . . I lay down and covered myself
with a rug. . . . It was dark, you understand.
Suddenly I felt some one touch me on the shoulder
and breathe in my face. I made a movement with
my hand and felt somebody’s elbow. . . .
I opened my eyes and only imagine a woman.
Black eyes, lips red as a prime salmon, nostrils breathing
passionately a bosom like a buffer. . .
“Excuse me,” Merzlyakov
interrupted calmly, “I understand about the
bosom, but how could you see the lips if it was dark?”
Lobytko began trying to put himself
right and laughing at Merzlyakov’s unimaginativeness.
It made Ryabovitch wince. He walked away from
the box, got into bed, and vowed never to confide again.
Camp life began. . . . The days
flowed by, one very much like another. All those
days Ryabovitch felt, thought, and behaved as though
he were in love. Every morning when his orderly
handed him water to wash with, and he sluiced his
head with cold water, he thought there was something
warm and delightful in his life.
In the evenings when his comrades
began talking of love and women, he would listen,
and draw up closer; and he wore the expression of
a soldier when he hears the description of a battle
in which he has taken part. And on the evenings
when the officers, out on the spree with the setter Lobytko at
their head, made Don Juan excursions to the “suburb,”
and Ryabovitch took part in such excursions, he always
was sad, felt profoundly guilty, and inwardly begged
her forgiveness. . . . In hours of leisure
or on sleepless nights, when he felt moved to recall
his childhood, his father and mother everything
near and dear, in fact, he invariably thought of Myestetchki,
the strange horse, Von Rabbek, his wife who was like
the Empress Eugenie, the dark room, the crack of light
at the door. . . .
On the thirty-first of August he went
back from the camp, not with the whole brigade, but
with only two batteries of it. He was dreaming
and excited all the way, as though he were going back
to his native place. He had an intense longing
to see again the strange horse, the church, the insincere
family of the Von Rabbeks, the dark room. The
“inner voice,” which so often deceives
lovers, whispered to him for some reason that he would
be sure to see her . . . and he was tortured by the
questions, How he should meet her? What he would
talk to her about? Whether she had forgotten the
kiss? If the worst came to the worst, he thought,
even if he did not meet her, it would be a pleasure
to him merely to go through the dark room and recall
the past. . . .
Towards evening there appeared on
the horizon the familiar church and white granaries.
Ryabovitch’s heart beat. . . . He did not
hear the officer who was riding beside him and saying
something to him, he forgot everything, and looked
eagerly at the river shining in the distance, at the
roof of the house, at the dovecote round which the
pigeons were circling in the light of the setting sun.
When they reached the church and were
listening to the billeting orders, he expected every
second that a man on horseback would come round the
church enclosure and invite the officers to tea, but
. . . the billeting orders were read, the officers
were in haste to go on to the village, and the man
on horseback did not appear.
“Von Rabbek will hear at once
from the peasants that we have come and will send
for us,” thought Ryabovitch, as he went into
the hut, unable to understand why a comrade was lighting
a candle and why the orderlies were hurriedly setting
samovars. . . .
A painful uneasiness took possession
of him. He lay down, then got up and looked out
of the window to see whether the messenger were coming.
But there was no sign of him.
He lay down again, but half an hour
later he got up, and, unable to restrain his uneasiness,
went into the street and strode towards the church.
It was dark and deserted in the square near the church
. . . . Three soldiers were standing silent in
a row where the road began to go downhill. Seeing
Ryabovitch, they roused themselves and saluted.
He returned the salute and began to go down the familiar
On the further side of the river the
whole sky was flooded with crimson: the moon
was rising; two peasant women, talking loudly, were
picking cabbage in the kitchen garden; behind the kitchen
garden there were some dark huts. . . . And everything
on the near side of the river was just as it had been
in May: the path, the bushes, the willows overhanging
the water . . . but there was no sound of the brave
nightingale, and no scent of poplar and fresh grass.
Reaching the garden, Ryabovitch looked
in at the gate. The garden was dark and still.
. . . He could see nothing but the white stems
of the nearest birch-trees and a little bit of the
avenue; all the rest melted together into a dark blur.
Ryabovitch looked and listened eagerly, but after
waiting for a quarter of an hour without hearing a
sound or catching a glimpse of a light, he trudged
back. . . .
He went down to the river. The
General’s bath-house and the bath-sheets on
the rail of the little bridge showed white before him.
. . . He went on to the bridge, stood a little,
and, quite unnecessarily, touched the sheets.
They felt rough and cold. He looked down at the
water. . . . The river ran rapidly and with a
faintly audible gurgle round the piles of the bath-house.
The red moon was reflected near the left bank; little
ripples ran over the reflection, stretching it out,
breaking it into bits, and seemed trying to carry it
“How stupid, how stupid!”
thought Ryabovitch, looking at the running water.
“How unintelligent it all is!”
Now that he expected nothing, the
incident of the kiss, his impatience, his vague hopes
and disappointment, presented themselves in a clear
light. It no longer seemed to him strange that
he had not seen the General’s messenger, and
that he would never see the girl who had accidentally
kissed him instead of some one else; on the contrary,
it would have been strange if he had seen her. . .
The water was running, he knew not
where or why, just as it did in May. In May it
had flowed into the great river, from the great river
into the sea; then it had risen in vapour, turned into
rain, and perhaps the very same water was running
now before Ryabovitch’s eyes again. . . .
What for? Why?
And the whole world, the whole of
life, seemed to Ryabovitch an unintelligible, aimless
jest. . . . And turning his eyes from the water
and looking at the sky, he remembered again how fate
in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed
him, he remembered his summer dreams and fancies,
and his life struck him as extraordinarily meagre,
poverty-stricken, and colourless. . . .
When he went back to his hut he did
not find one of his comrades. The orderly informed
him that they had all gone to “General von Rabbek’s,
who had sent a messenger on horseback to invite them.
. . .”
For an instant there was a flash of
joy in Ryabovitch’s heart, but he quenched it
at once, got into bed, and in his wrath with his fate,
as though to spite it, did not go to the General’s.
‘ANNA ON THE NECK’