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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Anton Chekhov (1860–1904)


From “Humorous Stories”

THE ARTIST, Yegor Savich, who in the summer months boards with the widow of an officer, is sitting on the bed in his room in a state of extreme melancholy. Without, heavy rain-clouds are passing over the sky, and a cold, damp wind is drifting through the trees with plaintive sobbing. The air is full of yellow, faded leaves. Good-by, summer! This sadness of Nature is, in its way, beautiful and poetic, but Yegor Savich is not now in the mood for beauty. He is frightfully bored, and his only comfort lies in the thought that to-morrow he will have left the place. Bed, chairs, table, floor—all are covered with piles of pillows, rugs, and boxes. The curtains and blinds have been taken from the windows, and everything is in a state of disorder; for to-morrow they move back to town.

The lady of the house is not at home; she has gone somewhere to arrange for the moving. Her daughter Katya, a girl of twenty, is taking advantage of the absence of her strict mama by sitting the whole time in the young man’s room. The artist is going to leave to-morrow, and she has still much to say to him. She talks and talks, yet she feels that she has not yet said the tenth part of what she must say. Sorrowfully and tenderly, her eyes filled with tears, she gazes at his untidy head. And untidy Yegor certainly is—fearfully and brutally untidy. His hair hangs down to his shoulders, his beard sprouts from his ears and nose, and even over his collar. His eyes are almost hidden under his thick, overhanging brows—all the hair so dense and luxuriant that if a fly ever lost his way in it he would not find his way out before the Day of Judgment.

Yegor Savich listens to Katya’s words, and yawns. When Katya bursts into tears, he looks at her suspiciously from under his hanging brows, frowns until his forehead becomes a mass of long wrinkles, and speaks in a heavy, funereal bass:

“I cannot marry you.”

“Why?” asks Katya timidly.

“Because no painter, and especially no man who lives for art, should marry. An artist must be free.”

“I would not hinder you in any way, Yegor Savich.”

“I am speaking not of myself alone, but in general. Great writers and artists never marry.”

“And you will be a great man, I understand that perfectly. But put yourself in my place for a moment. I am so afraid of mama. She is so strict, and has such a bad temper. If she knew that you were not going to marry me, she would certainly kill me at once. Oh, think of it! And then, you haven’t paid your rent yet!”

“To the devil with it! I’ll pay it some time.”

Yegor Savich gets up and begins to walk up and down the room.

“I must go abroad,” says he. And then the artist explains how easy it would be for him to travel abroad. All he had to do was to paint a picture and sell it.

“Of course!” agrees Katya. “But why didn’t you paint one this summer?”

“Do you think a man can paint in this hovel?” breaks out the artist angrily. “And where do you think I could have found a model?”

Somewhere on the floor below a door slams. Katya, who had been momentarily expecting the return of her mother, jumps up from her chair and runs away. The artist remains alone. For a long time he paces the floor, picking his way through the mass of heaped-up articles. He can hear the widow moving crockery and reviling the porters, who have asked two rubles for the job. Full of bitterness, Yegor Savich stops before the sideboard and gazes reflectively at the brandy-bottle.

“If only some one did kill you,” he hears the widow yell, as she falls upon the unlucky Katya, “it would be no great loss!”

The artist drinks a glass of brandy, and the black clouds that have been hovering over his soul brighten as though the sun has commenced to shine through them, and he feels as though his internal organs were laughing in chorus. He falls into a reverie. In fancy he sees his progress to greatness. His mind cannot quite clearly make out the subjects of his future pictures, but he sees distinctly what the newspapers say about him; his photographs are for sale in the shop-windows, and his colleagues are enviously looking round after him in the street. He strains his imagination violently to see himself sitting in some elegant drawing-room, surrounded by beautiful admirers; but this part of his dream takes a rather vague and uncertain shape, for never in his life has he seen a drawing-room, nor do the beautiful admirers stand out with the distinctness that he would like, for since the day of his birth he has never known a beautiful admirer, nor even a passably good-looking young woman. People who do not know life from personal experience usually picture it to themselves from books, but Yegor Savich had read no books. It is true that he had once started to read one by Gogol, but he had fallen asleep at the second page.

“If it won’t burn, I’ll make it burn!” snarls the widow somewhere below, engaged in heating the teakettle. “Katya, bring some more coal!”

The castle-building artist feels the necessity of communicating to some one else his hopes and dreams. He goes down-stairs to the kitchen, where the fat widow and Katya are so busy. There he seats himself on a bench near the kettle, and begins to talk:

“What a fine thing it is to be an artist! Wherever I want to go, there I go! What I wish to do, that I do. I need fill no office, plow no field. I have no duties and no master. I am my own master. Above all, my work is for the improvement of the human race!”

After the midday meal he throws himself upon his bed. He usually sleeps until evening, but to-day he is interrupted. Early in the afternoon he feels some one pulling at his leg. He opens his eyes and sees his friend Uklekin, the landscape-painter, who has spent the whole summer in the Kostroma province.

“Ah!” he joyfully shouts, “whom do I see?”

And now begins a torrent of hand-shakings and questions.

“Well, what have you brought with you? You must have a trunkful of sketches,” says Yegor Savich, and looks on while Uklekin unpacks his bag.

“Oh, I have a few things with me. And you—have you painted anything?”

Yegor Savich stoops down behind the bed, and, red in the face, brings out a linen frame covered with dust and cobwebs.

“Here—a girl at the window after the farewell from her lover,” he says. “In three sittings—not nearly finished.”

The picture represents Katya, who, however, is hardly even drawn in outline, sitting at an open window; through the window are to be seen a rail fence and a violet background. Uklekin does not like the picture.

“Hm—there is a good deal of light and—and expression,” he says. “You have the illusion of distance pretty well, but that fence literally cries to Heaven—it shrieks!”

The brandy-bottle appears upon the scene.

Toward evening Yegor Savich is visited by his colleague and neighbor, the historical painter Kostylov, a small man of about thirty-three, who likewise is a beginner with splendid hopes. He has long hair, a blouse and collar like Shakespeare, and his motions are studied and impressive. When he sees the bottle of brandy he knits his brows, and complains about the weakness of his chest, but is finally seduced by the persuasions of his friends, and drinks a glass or two.

“I have a fine idea for a picture, my friends,” he says, after he has drunk himself into a slightly intoxicated state. “I am going to paint a Nero, or a Herod, or some other tyrant of the kind, you understand, and contrast him with the idea of Christianity—on one side Rome, on the other, you understand, Christianity. I will paint the spirit of it, you understand—the spirit!”

And below, the widow cries, quite appropriately, “Katya, bring the bottle here! You blockhead, go to Sidorov’s and get some beer!”

The colleagues, all three of them, stamp about from one end of the room to the other, like wild beasts in a cage. They talk unceasingly, enthusiastically, in chorus; all three are excited, inspired. To hear them, you would imagine that they held wealth, fame, and the future in their hands. And it occurs to none of them that time is flying; that day by day life is ebbing away; that they have long been eating the bread of strangers, and as yet have done nothing; that all three of them are victims of that relentless law which says that out of the hundred who begin, only two or three may succeed, and all the rest will go to earth. They are content and happy, and look the future boldly in the face.

At two o’clock in the morning Kostylov takes his leave, straightens his Shakespeare collar, and goes home. The landscape-artist is to stay overnight with the other painter. Before he goes to bed, Yegor Savich takes the lamp and goes into the kitchen for a drink of water. In the dark, narrow hall Katya is sitting on a trunk, her hands resting on her knees, staring into vacancy. Her pale, rather coarse face is transfigured by a sweet smile, and her eyes are shining.

“What! you here?” asks Yegor Savich. “What are you mooning about?”

“I am thinking of the time when you will be famous,” she replies, half whispering. “I can see clearly before me how great a man you will soon be. I heard everything you said in there. I am dreaming—dreaming.”

Katya breaks into a happy laugh, then she gives a gentle sob, and devoutly folds her hands on the shoulder of her divinity.