Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
DefectiveByDesign.org

Title: The Kiss
Author: Anton Chekhov
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0700881.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: July 2007
Date most recently updated: July 2007

Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this
file.

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at
http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html

To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Kiss
Author: Anton Chekhov

translated by Constance Black Garnett




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 sleep.

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 upper way.

"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 be
welcome?

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 Eugénie. 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 words.

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 received.

"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 next her.

"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 rascal!"

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 sleep.

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 to them.

"Is everything all right?" he asked.

"One of the horses has a sore neck from the new collar," answered
Lobytko, yawning.

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 again.

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. Reprimand him."

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 imagination.

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 Eugénie, 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 path.

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 away.

"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.



THE END



This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia