Chekhov's "The Story of a Lady"


Translated by A. M. O'Hara and Elena Zakryzhevskaya.


[This article was first published in print in issue 2 of sugarcane in October 2018, which was made possible by the generous financial support of The Alumni Friends of the University of Queensland.]


The Russian writer and doctor Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860–1904) was born in Tagranrog, a southern port city of the Russian Empire. Most famous today for his plays, such as Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, or The Seagull, Chekhov wrote this short story in 1887, the same year he formulated this famous dramatic principle: "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If, in the first chapter, a rifle is hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter, it absolutely must go off".

Nine years ago, one evening during the hay harvest, Pyotr Sergyeich, the Acting Examining Magistrate, and I rode on horseback to the station to fetch the post.


The weather was magnificent, but, on the journey home, peals of thunder could be heard, and we spied an angry, black cloud drifting straight towards us. The cloud was coming closer to us, and we to it.


In the background our house and a church glimmered white and tall poplars shone silver. The scent of rain and freshly cut hay hung in the air. My fellow traveller was in fine form: he laughed and talked of trifles. He said that it wouldn’t be half bad if, upon our way, we suddenly stumbled across some medieval castle, with jagged battlements, a moss covering, and owls, in which we could shelter from the rain and, in the end, be killed by a thunderbolt…

The first wave rolled through the fields of rye and oats, the wind rushed, and dust whirled in the air. Pyotr Sergyeich started to laugh and spurred his horse onwards. “Wonderful!” he cried. “How splendid!” I, infected with his cheerfulness, also burst into laughter at the thought that, in a moment, I would be wet to my knees and liable to be struck-dead by lightning.


This vortex and the swift ride, when one is breathless from the wind and feels like a bird, sets one’s chest aflutter with elation. When we entered through our door, the wind had passed though the strong spray of rain beat across the grass and the roof. Not a soul could be seen near the stables.


Pyotr Sergyeich himself unbridled the horses and led them to the stalls. Waiting until he finished, I stood by the doorway and watched the slanting streaks of rain; the sugary, arousing smell of hay was stronger here than in the field; the clouds and the rain brought an early twilight.


“What a crash!” said Pyotr Sergyeich, coming closer to me after one particularly powerful thunderclap, when it seemed as if the sky would split in two.


“What do you say to that?” He stood by the doorway, breathing heavily from the ride, and gazed at me. I observed in him a look of admiration. “Natalya Vladimirovna”, he began, “I would give everything if only to stay here a while longer and look at you. Today you are lovely.” His eyes lingered with rapture and pleading, his face was pale. His beard and moustache glittered with raindrops that also, it seemed, looked at me lovingly.


“I love you,” he said. “I am in love with you and happy that I see you. I know that you cannot be my wife, but I don’t want anything, I don’t need anything, only you must know that it is you I love. Be silent, don’t reply or pay attention, but only know that you are dear to me, and let me watch you.”


His delight affected me. I looked into his inspired face, heard his voice, which was mingled with the din of the rain, and stood motionless as if under the sway of a spell. I wanted to gaze into his gleaming eyes without end and listen. “You are silent — excellent!” said Pyotr Sergyeich. “Don’t say a thing.” I was happy.


I began to laugh with joy, and ran through the torrential rain to the house; he also broke into laughter and bounded after me.


Both of us were as loud as children — drenched and breathless, we flew into the room. My father and brother, unaccustomed to seeing me so happy, looked at me with surprise and also began to laugh.


The dark clouds passed and the storm quietened, but in the beard of Pyotr Sergyeich still the raindrops shone. The whole evening until dinner he sang, whistled, and played noisily with the dog, chasing it around the room so that he almost bowled over the man with the samovar. At dinner he ate heartily, spoke of silly trifles, and assured us that when a man eats fresh cucumbers in winter he can taste spring in his mouth.


Lying down to sleep, I lit a candle and opened my window wide, and felt an indefinable feeling seize my soul. I remembered that I was free, healthy, noble, rich, and loved, but, most importantly, that I was noble and rich — rank and riches — how good it was, my God! Then, tucking myself into bed away from the gentle cold that made its way to me from the garden, I tried to understand whether I loved Pyotr Sergyeich or not… I understood nothing and drifted off to sleep.


The next morning I saw mottled spots of sunlight tremble on my bed, along with the shadows of lime trees, and my memory vividly resurrected the events of yesterday. Life seemed to me to be rich, diverse, and full of delight. Humming, I dressed quickly and ran out to the garden…


Then what? Then, nothing. During winter, when we lived in the city, Pyotr Sergyeich came to see us from time to time. Village acquaintances are endearing only in the country and in summer; in the city and in winter, they fully lose half their charm. When one has tea with them in the city, it seems that they are dressed in borrowed frock coats and that they stir their tea with a spoon for too long. In the city, Pyotr Sergyeich sometimes spoke of love, but altogether unlike how he had in the village. In the city, we more strongly felt the wall that lay between us: I was noble and rich and he was poor, not even a noble, the son of a deacon, an Acting Examining Magistrate and that was all; both of us — I, owing to my youth, and he, God only knows why, — considered that wall to be high and insurmountable and he, when he joined us in the city, smiled feebly and criticised the upper classes, and was gloomily silent when somebody else was in the drawing room. There is no such thing as a wall that one cannot break through, but the heroes of modern novels, as far as I know, are too timid, sluggish, lazy, and undemanding, far too accustomed to thinking of themselves as unfortunate individuals, for their superfluous lives had deceived them; instead of struggling, they only criticise, labelling society trite and forgetting that their own critiques descend, little by little, into platitudes.


I was adored, and the prospect of happiness drew near, almost as if it stood shoulder to shoulder with me; I lived in a state of contentment and satisfaction, not trying to understand myself, not knowing for what I waited, nor what I wanted out of life, but nonetheless time continued to pass and pass… People passed me with their own loves, bright days and warm nights twinkled by, nightingales sang, and the smell of hay — and all this sweet and wonderful reminiscence, like it did for everyone else, passed quickly, unappreciated and without a trace, like fog... But where is it all?


Father died and I became older; all that I liked, caressed, gave me hope — the roar of the rain, the rolling thunder, thoughts about happiness, conversations about love — all of this became a single memory, and I see ahead a flat, desert-like expanse: upon this open plane not a single soul stirred and there, on the horizon, it is dark and frightening.


The bell rings… Pyotr Sergyeich entered. When I see trees in winter I remember how they were green during summer, and I whisper: “O, my darlings!”


But when I see people with whom I have spent spring, I become sad and flushed, and I whisper the same.


He had already been here for a long while, by the patronage of my father, who had transferred him to the city. He had aged a little and was a touch haggard. He had long ceased to explicate on the subject of love, did not speak flippantly, no longer enjoyed his posting, seemed ill and disappointed with something, for he had waved goodbye to life and lived unwillingly. Thus he sat by the fireplace; silently he gazed at the flames... I, knowing not what to say, asked:


“And what?”

“Nothing…” he answered.

And again, silence. The red light of the fire danced across his morose face.


My memories came flooding back, and suddenly my shoulders trembled, my head sank, and I began to weep loudly. I felt unbearably sorry for this person and myself, and desperately began to want that which had passed, and what life now denied us. Now, I no longer thought about my wealth or rank.


I sobbed loudly, took a dram of whiskey, and muttered: “My God, my God, my life has perished…”


But he simply sat there, silent, and did not say to me: “Don’t cry!” He understood that I needed to cry and that the time had come for such things. I looked into his eyes and saw that he pitied me; and I also began to pity him and grew irritated with this timid washout, who was unable to sort out his own life, or mine.


When I saw him to the front door, I thought he put on his fur overcoat in a deliberately slow way. Twice he silently kissed my hand and held my teary gaze. I thought now he remembered the storm, the streaks of rain, our laughter, and my face as it was then. I could see that he wanted to tell me something, and that he would have been glad to do so, but he only shook his head and firmly shook my hand. May God be with him!


Having led him out, I returned to the parlour and sat by the hearth. The red coals turned to ashes and began to die out. The frost angrily rattled against the window, and the wind began to sing as it blew through the flue of the fireplace.


The maid entered and, thinking that I had fallen asleep, called out to me…

About the translators: A. M. O'Hara has degrees in Law and Russian. Elena Zakryzhevskaya is a PhD candidate at Moscow State University.

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sugarcane 2020. ISSN 2208-3952.