At five o’clock one Sunday afternoon in summer, Volodya, a plain, shy, sickly-looking lad of seventeen, was sitting in the arbor of the Shumihins’ country villa, feeling dreary. His despondent thought flowed in three directions. In the first place, he had next day, Monday, an examination in mathematics; he knew that if he did not get through the written examination on the morrow, he would be expelled, for he had already been two years in the sixth form and had two and three-quarter marks for algebra in his annual report. In the second place, his presence at the villa of the Shumihins, a wealthy family with aristocratic pretensions, was a continual source of mortification to his amour-propre. It seemed to him that Madame Shumihin looked upon him and his maman as poor relations and dependents, that they laughed at his maman and did not respect her.
He had on one occasion accidently overheard Madame Shumihin, in the verandah, telling her cousin Anna Fyodorovna that his maman still tried to look young and got herself up, that she never paid her losses at cards, and had a partiality for other people’s shoes and tobacco. Every day Volodya besought his maman not to go to the Shumihins’, and drew a picture of the humiliating part she played with these gentlefolk. He tried to persuade her, said rude things, but she — a frivolous, pampered woman, who had run through two fortunes, her own and her husband’s, in her time, and always gravitated towards acquaintances of high rank — did not understand him, and twice a week Volodya had to accompany her to the villa he hated.
In the third place, the youth could not for one instant get rid of a strange, unpleasant feeling which was absolutely new to him. . . . It seemed to him that he was in love with Anna Fyodorovna, the Shumihins’ cousin, who was staying with them. She was a vivacious, loud-voiced, laughter-loving, healthy, and vigorous lady of thirty, with rosy cheeks, plump shoulders, a plump round chin and a continual smile on her thin lips. She was neither young nor beautiful — Volodya knew that perfectly well; but for some reason he could not help thinking of her, looking at her while she shrugged her plump shoulders and moved her flat back as she played croquet, or after prolonged laughter and running up and down stairs, sank into a low chair, and, half closing her eyes and gasping for breath, pretended that she was stifling and could not breathe.
She was married. Her husband, a staid and dignified architect, came once a week to the villa, slept soundly, and returned to town. Volodya’s strange feeling had begun with his conceiving an unaccountable hatred for the architect, and feeling relieved every time he went back to town.
Now, sitting in the arbor, thinking of his examination next day, and of his maman, at whom they laughed, he felt an intense desire to see Nyuta (that was what the Shumihins called Anna Fyodorovna), to hear her laughter and the rustle of her dress. . . . This desire was not like the pure, poetic love of which he read in novels and about which he dreamed every night when he went to bed; it was strange, incomprehensible; he was ashamed of it, and afraid of it as of something very wrong and impure, something which it was disagreeable to confess even to himself.
“It’s not love,” he said to himself. “One can’t fall in love with women of thirty who are married. It is only a little intrigue. . . . Yes, an intrigue. . . .”
Pondering on the “intrigue,” he thought of his uncontrollable shyness, his lack of moustache, his freckles, his narrow eyes, and put himself in his imagination side by side with Nyuta, and the juxtaposition seemed to him impossible; then he made haste to imagine himself bold, handsome, witty, dressed in the latest fashion.
When his dreams were at their height, as he sat huddled together and looking at the ground in a dark corner of the arbour, he heard the sound of light footsteps. Some one was coming slowly along the avenue. Soon the steps stopped and something white gleamed in the entrance.
“Is there any one here?” asked a woman’s voice.
Volodya recognized the voice, and raised his head in a fright.
“Who is here?” asked Nyuta, going into the arbor. “Ah, it is you, Volodya? What are you doing here? Thinking? And how can you go on thinking, thinking, thinking? . . . That’s the way to go out of your mind!”
Volodya got up and looked in a dazed way at Nyuta. She had only just come back from bathing. Over her shoulder there was hanging a sheet and a rough towel, and from under the white silk kerchief on her head he could see the wet hair sticking to her forehead. There was the cool damp smell of the bath-house and of almond soap still hanging about her. She was out of breath from running quickly. The top button of her blouse was undone, so that the boy saw her throat and bosom.
“Why don’t you say something?” said Nyuta, looking Volodya up and down. “It’s not polite to be silent when a lady talks to you. What a clumsy seal you are though, Volodya! You always sit, saying nothing, thinking like some philosopher. There’s not a spark of life or fire in you! You are really horrid! . . . At your age you ought to be living, skipping, and jumping, chattering, flirting, falling in love.”
Volodya looked at the sheet that was held by a plump white hand, and thought. . . .
“He’s mute,” said Nyuta, with wonder; “it is strange, really. . . . Listen! Be a man! Come, you might smile at least! Phew, the horrid philosopher!” she laughed. “But do you know, Volodya, why you are such a clumsy seal? Because you don’t devote yourself to the ladies. Why don’t you? It’s true there are no girls here, but there is nothing to prevent your flirting with the married ladies! Why don’t you flirt with me, for instance?”
Volodya listened and scratched his forehead in acute and painful irresolution.
“It’s only very proud people who are silent and love solitude,” Nyuta went on, pulling his hand away from his forehead. “You are proud, Volodya. Why do you look at me like that from under your brows? Look me straight in the face, if you please! Yes, now then, clumsy seal!”
Volodya made up his mind to speak. Wanting to smile, he twitched his lower lip, blinked, and again put his hand to his forehead.
“I . . . I love you,” he said.
Nyuta raised her eyebrows in surprise, and laughed.
“What do I hear?” she sang, as prima-donnas sing at the opera when they hear something awful. “What? What did you say? Say it again, say it again. . . .”
“I . . . I love you!” repeated Volodya.
And without his will’s having any part in his action, without reflection or understanding, he took half a step towards Nyuta and clutched her by the arm. Everything was dark before his eyes, and tears came into them. The whole world was turned into one big, rough towel which smelt of the bathhouse.
“Bravo, bravo!” he heard a merry laugh. “Why don’t you speak? I want you to speak! Well?”
Seeing that he was not prevented from holding her arm, Volodya glanced at Nyuta’s laughing face, and clumsily, awkwardly, put both arms round her waist, his hands meeting behind her back. He held her round the waist with both arms, while, putting her hands up to her head, showing the dimples in her elbows, she set her hair straight under the kerchief and said in a calm voice:
“You must be tactful, polite, charming, and you can only become that under feminine influence. But what a wicked, angry face you have! You must talk, laugh. . . . Yes, Volodya, don’t be surly; you are young and will have plenty of time for philosophizing. Come, let go of me; I am going. Let go.”
Without effort she released her waist, and, humming something, walked out of the arbor. Volodya was left alone. He smoothed his hair, smiled, and walked three times to and fro across the arbor, then he sat down on the bench and smiled again. He felt insufferably ashamed, so much so that he wondered that human shame could reach such a pitch of acuteness and intensity. Shame made him smile, gesticulate, and whisper some disconnected words.
He was ashamed that he had been treated like a small boy, ashamed of his shyness, and, most of all, that he had had the audacity to put his arms round the waist of a respectable married woman, though, as it seemed to him, he had neither through age nor by external quality, nor by social position any right to do so.
He jumped up, went out of the arbor, and, without looking round, walked into the recesses of the garden furthest from the house.
“Ah! only to get away from here as soon as possible,” he thought, clutching his head. “My God! as soon as possible.”
The train by which Volodya was to go back with his maman was at eight-forty. There were three hours before the train started, but he would with pleasure have gone to the station at once without waiting for his maman.
At eight o’clock he went to the house. His whole figure was expressive of determination: what would be, would be! He made up his mind to go in boldly, to look them straight in the face, to speak in a loud voice, regardless of everything.
He crossed the terrace, the big hall and the drawing-room, and there stopped to take breath. He could hear them in the dining-room, drinking tea. Madame Shumihin, maman, and Nyuta were talking and laughing about something.
“I assure you!” said Nyuta. “I could not believe my eyes! When he began declaring his passion and — just imagine! — put his arms round my waist, I should not have recognized him. And you know he has a way with him! When he told me he was in love with me, there was something brutal in his face, like a Circassian.”
“Really!” gasped maman, going off into a peal of laughter. “Really! How he does remind me of his father!”
Volodya ran back and dashed out into the open air.
“How could they talk of it aloud!” he wondered in agony, clasping his hands and looking up to the sky in horror. “They talk aloud in cold blood . . . and maman laughed! . . . Maman! My God, why didst Thou give me such a mother? Why?”
But he had to go to the house, come what might. He walked three times up and down the avenue, grew a little calmer, and went into the house.
“Why didn’t you come in in time for tea?” Madame Shumihin asked sternly.
“I am sorry, it’s . . . it’s time for me to go,” he muttered, not raising his eyes. “Maman, it’s eight o’clock!”
“You go alone, my dear,” said his maman languidly. “I am staying the night with Lili. Goodbye, my dear. . . . Let me make the sign of the cross over you.”
She made the sign of the cross over her son, and said in French, turning to Nyuta:
“He’s rather like Lermontov . . . isn’t he?”
Saying good-bye after a fashion, without looking any one in the face, Volodya went out of the dining-room. Ten minutes later he was walking along the road to the station, and was glad of it. Now he felt neither frightened nor ashamed; he breathed freely and easily.
About half a mile from the station, he sat down on a stone by the side of the road, and gazed at the sun, which was half hidden behind a barrow. There were lights already here and there at the station, and one green light glimmered dimly, but the train was not yet in sight. It was pleasant to Volodya to sit still without moving, and to watch the evening coming little by little. The darkness of the arbor, the footsteps, the smell of the bath-house, the laughter, and the waist — all these rose with amazing vividness before his imagination, and all this was no longer so terrible and important as before.
“It’s of no consequence. . . . She did not pull her hand away, and laughed when I held her by the waist,” he thought. “So she must have liked it. If she had disliked it she would have been angry . . . .”
And now Volodya felt sorry that he had not had more boldness there in the arbor. He felt sorry that he was so stupidly going away, and he was by now persuaded that if the same thing happened again he would be bolder and look at it more simply.
And it would not be difficult for the opportunity to occur again. They used to stroll about for a long time after supper at the Shumihins’. If Volodya went for a walk with Nyuta in the dark garden, there would be an opportunity!
“I will go back,” he thought, “and will go by the morning train to-morrow. . . . I will say I have missed the train.”
And he turned back. . . . Madame Shumihin, Maman, Nyuta, and one of the nieces were sitting on the verandah, playing vint. When Volodya told them the lie that he had missed the train, they were uneasy that he might be late for the examination day, and advised him to get up early. All the while they were playing he sat on one side, greedily watching Nyuta and waiting. . . . He already had a plan prepared in his mind: he would go up to Nyuta in the dark, would take her by the hand, then would embrace her; there would be no need to say anything, as both of them would understand without words.
But after supper the ladies did not go for a walk in the garden, but went on playing cards. They played till one o’clock at night, and then broke up to go to bed.
“How stupid it all is!” Volodya thought with vexation as he got into bed. “But never mind; I’ll wait till to-morrow . . . to-morrow in the arbour. It doesn’t matter. . . .”
He did not attempt to go to sleep, but sat in bed, hugging his knees and thinking. All thought of the examination was hateful to him. He had already made up his mind that they would expel him, and that there was nothing terrible about his being expelled. On the contrary, it was a good thing — a very good thing, in fact. Next day he would be as free as a bird; he would put on ordinary clothes instead of his school uniform, would smoke openly, come out here, and make love to Nyuta when he liked; and he would not be a schoolboy but “a young man.” And as for the rest of it, what is called a career, a future, that was clear; Volodya would go into the army or the telegraph service, or he would go into a chemist’s shop and work his way up till he was a dispenser. . . . There were lots of callings. An hour or two passed, and he was still sitting and thinking. . . .
Towards three o’clock, when it was beginning to get light, the door creaked cautiously and his maman came into the room.
“Aren’t you asleep?” she asked, yawning. “Go to sleep; I have only come in for a minute. . . . I am only fetching the drops. . . .”
“Poor Lili has got spasms again. Go to sleep, my child, your examination’s to-morrow. . . .”
She took a bottle of something out of the cupboard, went to the window, read the label, and went away.
“Marya Leontyevna, those are not the drops!” Volodya heard a woman’s voice, a minute later. “That’s convallaria, and Lili wants morphine. Is your son asleep? Ask him to look for it. . . .”
It was Nyuta’s voice. Volodya turned cold. He hurriedly put on his trousers, flung his coat over his shoulders, and went to the door.
“Do you understand? Morphine,” Nyuta explained in a whisper. “There must be a label in Latin. Wake Volodya; he will find it.”
Maman opened the door and Volodya caught sight of Nyuta. She was wearing the same loose wrapper in which she had gone to bathe. Her hair hung loose and disordered on her shoulders, her face looked sleepy and dark in the half-light. . . .
“Why, Volodya is not asleep,” she said. “Volodya, look in the cupboard for the morphine, there’s a dear! What a nuisance Lili is! She has always something the matter.”
Maman muttered something, yawned, and went away.
“Look for it,” said Nyuta. “Why are you standing still?”
Volodya went to the cupboard, knelt down, and began looking through the bottles and boxes of medicine. His hands were trembling, and he had a feeling in his chest and stomach as though cold waves were running all over his inside. He felt suffocated and giddy from the smell of ether, carbolic acid, and various drugs, which he quite unnecessarily snatched up with his trembling fingers and spilled in so doing.
“I believe maman has gone,” he thought. “That’s a good thing . . . a good thing. . . .”
“Will you be quick?” said Nyuta, drawling.
“In a minute. . . . Here, I believe this is morphine,” said Volodya, reading on one of the labels the word “morph . . .” “Here it is!”
Nyuta was standing in the doorway in such a way that one foot was in his room and one was in the passage. She was tidying her hair, which was difficult to put in order because it was so thick and long, and looked absent-mindedly at Volodya. In her loose wrap, with her sleepy face and her hair down, in the dim light that came into the white sky not yet lit by the sun, she seemed to Volodya captivating, magnificent. . . . Fascinated, trembling all over, and remembering with relish how he had held that exquisite body in his arms in the arbor, he handed her the bottle and said:
“How wonderful you are!”
She came into the room.
“What?” she asked, smiling.
He was silent and looked at her, then, just as in the arbor, he took her hand, and she looked at him with a smile and waited for what would happen next.
“I love you,” he whispered.
She left off smiling, thought a minute, and said:
“Wait a little; I think somebody is coming. Oh, these schoolboys!” she said in an undertone, going to the door and peeping out into the passage. “No, there is no one to be seen. . . .”
She came back.
Then it seemed to Volodya that the room, Nyuta, the sunrise and himself — all melted together in one sensation of acute, extraordinary, incredible bliss, for which one might give up one’s whole life and face eternal torments. . . . But half a minute passed and all that vanished. Volodya saw only a fat, plain face, distorted by an expression of repulsion, and he himself suddenly felt a loathing for what had happened.
“I must go away, though,” said Nyuta, looking at Volodya with disgust. “What a wretched, ugly . . . fie, ugly duckling!”
How unseemly her long hair, her loose wrap, her steps, her voice seemed to Volodya now! . . .
” ‘Ugly duckling’ . . .” he thought after she had gone away. “I really am ugly . . . everything is ugly.”
The sun was rising, the birds were singing loudly; he could hear the gardener walking in the garden and the creaking of his wheelbarrow . . . and soon afterwards he heard the lowing of the cows and the sounds of the shepherd’s pipe. The sunlight and the sounds told him that somewhere in this world there is a pure, refined, poetical life. But where was it? Volodya had never heard a word of it from his maman or any of the people round about him.
When the footman came to wake him for the morning train, he pretended to be asleep. . . .
“Bother it! Damn it all!” he thought.
He got up between ten and eleven.
Combing his hair before the looking-glass, and looking at his ugly face, pale from his sleepless night, he thought:
“It’s perfectly true . . . an ugly duckling!”
When maman saw him and was horrified that he was not at his examination, Volodya said:
“I overslept myself, maman. . . . But don’t worry, I will get a medical certificate.”
Madame Shumihin and Nyuta waked up at one o’clock. Volodya heard Madame Shumihin open her window with a bang, heard Nyuta go off into a peal of laughter in reply to her coarse voice. He saw the door open and a string of nieces and other toadies (among the latter was his maman) file into lunch, caught a glimpse of Nyuta’s freshly washed laughing face, and, beside her, the black brows and beard of her husband the architect, who had just arrived.
Nyuta was wearing a Little Russian dress which did not suit her at all, and made her look clumsy; the architect was making dull and vulgar jokes. The rissoles served at lunch had too much onion in them — so it seemed to Volodya. It also seemed to him that Nyuta laughed loudly on purpose, and kept glancing in his direction to give him to understand that the memory of the night did not trouble her in the least, and that she was not aware of the presence at table of the “ugly duckling.”
At four o’clock Volodya drove to the station with his maman. Foul memories, the sleepless night, the prospect of expulsion from school, the stings of conscience — all roused in him now an oppressive, gloomy anger. He looked at maman’s sharp profile, at her little nose, and at the raincoat which was a present from Nyuta, and muttered:
“Why do you powder? It’s not becoming at your age! You make yourself up, don’t pay your debts at cards, smoke other people’s tobacco. . . . It’s hateful! I don’t love you . . . I don’t love you!”
He was insulting her, and she moved her little eyes about in alarm, flung up her hands, and whispered in horror:
“What are you saying, my dear! Good gracious! the coachman will hear! Be quiet or the coachman will hear! He can overhear everything.”
“I don’t love you . . . I don’t love you!” he went on breathlessly. “You’ve no soul and no morals. . . . Don’t dare to wear that raincoat! Do you hear? Or else I will tear it into rags.”
“Control yourself, my child,” maman wept; “the coachman can hear!”
“And where is my father’s fortune? Where is your money? You have wasted it all. I am not ashamed of being poor, but I am ashamed of having such a mother. . . . When my schoolfellows ask questions about you, I always blush.”
In the train they had to pass two stations before they reached the town. Volodya spent all the time on the little platform between two carriages and shivered all over. He did not want to go into the compartment because there the mother he hated was sitting. He hated himself, hated the ticket collectors, the smoke from the engine, the cold to which he attributed his shivering. And the heavier the weight on his heart, the more strongly he felt that somewhere in the world, among some people, there was a pure, honorable, warm, refined life, full of love, affection, gaiety, and serenity. . . . He felt this and was so intensely miserable that one of the passengers, after looking in his face attentively, actually asked:
“You have the toothache, I suppose?”
In the town maman and Volodya lived with Marya Petrovna, a lady of noble rank, who had a large flat and let rooms to boarders. maman had two rooms, one with windows and two pictures in gold frames hanging on the walls, in which her bed stood and in which she lived, and a little dark room opening out of it in which Volodya lived. Here there was a sofa on which he slept, and, except that sofa, there was no other furniture; the rest of the room was entirely filled up with wicker baskets full of clothes, cardboard hat-boxes, and all sorts of rubbish, which maman preserved for some reason or other. Volodya prepared his lessons either in his mother’s room or in the “general room,” as the large room in which the boarders assembled at dinner-time and in the evening was called.
On reaching home he lay down on his sofa and put the quilt over him to stop his shivering. The cardboard hat-boxes, the wicker baskets, and the other rubbish, reminded him that he had not a room of his own, that he had no refuge in which he could get away from his mother, from her visitors, and from the voices that were floating up from the “general room.” The satchel and the books lying about in the corners reminded him of the examination he had missed. . . . For some reason there came into his mind, quite inappropriately, Mentone, where he had lived with his father when he was seven years old; he thought of Biarritz and two little English girls with whom he ran about on the sand. . . . He tried to recall to his memory the color of the sky, the sea, the height of the waves, and his mood at the time, but he could not succeed. The English girls flitted before his imagination as though they were living; all the rest was a medley of images that floated away in confusion.
“No; it’s cold here,” thought Volodya. He got up, put on his overcoat, and went into the “general room.”
There they were drinking tea. There were three people at the samovar: maman; an old lady with tortoiseshell pince-nez, who gave music lessons; and Avgustin Mihalitch, an elderly and very stout Frenchman, who was employed at a perfumery factory.
“I have had no dinner to-day,” said maman. “I ought to send the maid to buy some bread.”
“Dunyasha!” shouted the Frenchman.
It appeared that the maid had been sent out somewhere by the lady of the house.
“Oh, that’s of no consequence,” said the Frenchman, with a broad smile. “I will go for some bread myself at once. Oh, it’s nothing.”
He laid his strong, pungent cigar in a conspicuous place, put on his hat and went out. After he had gone away maman began telling the music teacher how she had been staying at the Shumihins’, and how warmly they welcomed her.
“Lili Shumihin is a relation of mine, you know,” she said. “Her late husband, General Shumihin, was a cousin of my husband. And she was a Baroness Kolb by birth. . . .”
“Maman, that’s false!” said Volodya irritably. “Why tell lies?”
He knew perfectly well that what his mother said was true; in what she was saying about General Shumihin and about Baroness Kolb there was not a word of lying, but nevertheless he felt that she was lying. There was a suggestion of falsehood in her manner of speaking, in the expression of her face, in her eyes, in everything.
“You are lying,” repeated Volodya; and he brought his fist down on the table with such force that all the crockery shook and maman’s tea was spilt over. “Why do you talk about generals and baronesses? It’s all lies!”
The music teacher was disconcerted, and coughed into her handkerchief, affecting to sneeze, and maman began to cry.
“Where can I go?” thought Volodya.
He had been in the street already; he was ashamed to go to his schoolfellows. Again, quite incongruously, he remembered the two little English girls. . . . He paced up and down the “general room,” and went into Avgustin Mihalitch’s room. Here there was a strong smell of ethereal oils and glycerin soap. On the table, in the window, and even on the chairs, there were a number of bottles, glasses, and wineglasses containing fluids of various colors. Volodya took up from the table a newspaper, opened it and read the title Figaro. . . There was a strong and pleasant scent about the paper. Then he took a revolver from the table. . . .
“There, there! Don’t take any notice of it.” The music teacher was comforting maman in the next room. “He is young! Young people of his age never restrain themselves. One must resign oneself to that.”
“No, Yevgenya Andreyev; he’s too spoilt,” said maman in a singsong voice. “He has no one in authority over him, and I am weak and can do nothing. Oh, I am unhappy!”
Volodya put the muzzle of the revolver to his mouth, felt something like a trigger or spring, and pressed it with his finger. . . . Then felt something else projecting, and once more pressed it. Taking the muzzle out of his mouth, he wiped it with the lapel of his coat, looked at the lock. He had never in his life taken a weapon in his hand before. . . .
“I believe one ought to raise this . . .” he reflected. “Yes, it seems so.”
Avgustin Mihalitch went into the “general room,” and with a laugh began telling them about something. Volodya put the muzzle in his mouth again, pressed it with his teeth, and pressed something with his fingers. There was a sound of a shot. . . . Something hit Volodya in the back of his head with terrible violence, and he fell on the table with his face downwards among the bottles and glasses. Then he saw his father, as in Mentone, in a top-hat with a wide black band on it, wearing mourning for some lady, suddenly seize him by both hands, and they fell headlong into a very deep, dark pit.
Then everything was blurred and vanished.