ANTON CHEKHOV short Story THE BLACK MONK full English TEXT EN
The black monk
(Ru: Chyorny monakh)
Short Russian story
Russian literature – Russian writers
text translated into English
” The Black Monk “ (Russian: Chyorny monakh) is a short story by Anton Chekhov, written in 1893 while Chekhov was living in the village of Melikhovo. It was first published in 1894.
The short story “The Black Monk” is considered an autobiographical work by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov.
The mental excitement that torments and at the same time makes the protagonist of the short story “The Black Monk” happy is similar to the mental excitement of the writer Anton Chekhov, as well as the tuberculosis that kills the protagonist is the same pathology suffered by Anton Chekhov that led to him death.
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The Black Monk
(Ru: Chyorny monakh)
Andrej Vasil’ič Kovrin, who held a master’s degree at the University, had exhausted himself, and had upset his nerves. He did not send for a doctor, but casually, over a bottle of wine, he spoke to a friend who was a doctor, and the latter advised him to spend the spring and summer in the country.
Very opportunely a long letter came from Tanya Pesotsky, who asked him to come and stay with them at Borissovka. And he made up his mind that he really must go.
To begin with — that was in April — he went to his own home, Kovrinka, and there spent three weeks in solitude; then, as soon as the roads were in good condition, he set off, driving in a carriage, to visit Pesotsky, his former guardian, who had brought him up, and was a horticulturist well known all over Russia.
The distance from Kovrinka to Borissovka was reckoned only a little over fifty miles. To drive along a soft road in May in a comfortable carriage with springs was a real pleasure.
Pesotsky had an immense house with columns and lions, off which the stucco was peeling, and with a footman in swallow-tails at the entrance. The old park, laid out in the English style, gloomy and severe, stretched for almost three-quarters of a mile to the river, and there ended in a steep, precipitous clay bank, where pines grew with bare roots that looked like shaggy paws; the water shone below with an unfriendly gleam, and the peewits flew up with a plaintive cry, and there one always felt that one must sit down and write a ballad. But near the house itself, in the courtyard and orchard, which together with the nurseries covered ninety acres, it was all life and gaiety even in bad weather.
Such marvellous roses, lilies, camellias; such tulips of all possible shades, from glistening white to sooty black — such a wealth of flowers, in fact, Kovrin had never seen anywhere as at Pesotsky’s. It was only the beginning of spring, and the real glory of the flower-beds was still hidden away in the hot-houses. But even the flowers along the avenues, and here and there in the flower-beds, were enough to make one feel, as one walked about the garden, as though one were in a realm of tender colours, especially in the early morning when the dew was glistening on every petal.
What was the decorative part of the garden, and what Pesotsky contemptuously spoke of as rubbish, had at one time in his childhood given Kovrin an impression of fairyland.
Every sort of caprice, of elaborate monstrosity and mockery at Nature was here. There were espaliers of fruit-trees, a pear-tree in the shape of a pyramidal poplar, spherical oaks and lime-trees, an apple-tree in the shape of an umbrella, plum-trees trained into arches, crests, candelabra, and even into the number 1862 — the year when Pesotsky first took up horticulture.
One came across, too, lovely, graceful trees with strong, straight stems like palms, and it was only by looking intently that one could recognise these trees as gooseberries or currants. But what made the garden most cheerful and gave it a lively air, was the continual coming and going in it, from early morning till evening; people with wheelbarrows, shovels, and watering-cans swarmed round the trees and bushes, in the avenues and the flower-beds, like ants…
Kovrin arrived at Pesotsky’s at ten o’clock in the evening. He found Tanya and her father, Yegor Semyonitch, in great anxiety. The clear starlight sky and the thermometer foretold a frost towards morning, and meanwhile Ivan Karlovitch, the gardener, had gone to the town, and they had no one to rely upon. At supper they talked of nothing but the morning frost, and it was settled that Tanya should not go to bed, and between twelve and one should walk through the garden, and see that everything was done properly, and Yegor Semyonitch should get up at three o’clock or even earlier.
Kovrin sat with Tanya all the evening, and after midnight went out with her into the garden. It was cold. There was a strong smell of burning already in the garden. In the big orchard, which was called the commercial garden, and which brought Yegor Semyonitch several thousand clear profit, a thick, black, acrid smoke was creeping over the ground and, curling around the trees, was saving those thousands from the frost.
Here the trees were arranged as on a chessboard, in straight and regular rows like ranks of soldiers, and this severe pedantic regularity, and the fact that all the trees were of the same size, and had tops and trunks all exactly alike, made them look monotonous and even dreary. Kovrin and Tanya walked along the rows where fires of dung, straw, and all sorts of refuse were smouldering, and from time to time they were met by labourers who wandered in the smoke like shadows. The only trees in flower were the cherries, plums, and certain sorts of apples, but the whole garden was plunged in smoke, and it was only near the nurseries that Kovrin could breathe freely.
“Even as a child I used to sneeze from the smoke here,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “but to this day I don’t understand how smoke can keep off frost.”
“Smoke takes the place of clouds when there are none . . .” answered Tanya.
“And what do you want clouds for?”
“In overcast and cloudy weather there is no frost.”
“You don’t say so.”
He laughed and took her arm. Her broad, very earnest face, chilled with the frost, with her delicate black eyebrows, the turned-up collar of her coat, which prevented her moving her head freely, and the whole of her thin, graceful figure, with her skirts tucked up on account of the dew, touched him.
“Good heavens! she is grown up,” he said. “When I went away from here last, five years ago, you were still a child. You were such a thin, longlegged creature, with your hair hanging on your shoulders; you used to wear short frocks, and I used to tease you, calling you a heron. . . . What time does!”
“Yes, five years!” sighed Tanya. “Much water has flowed since then. Tell me, Andryusha, honestly,” she began eagerly, looking him in the face: “do you feel strange with us now? But why do I ask you? You are a man, you live your own interesting life, you are somebody. . . . To grow apart is so natural! But however that may be, Andryusha, I want you to think of us as your people. We have a right to that.”
“I do, Tanya.”
“On your word of honour?”
“Yes, on my word of honour.”
“You were surprised this evening that we have so many of your photographs. You know my father adores you. Sometimes it seems to me that he loves you more than he does me. He is proud of you. You are a clever, extraordinary man, you have made a brilliant career for yourself, and he is persuaded that you have turned out like this because he brought you up. I don’t try to prevent him from thinking so. Let him.”
Dawn was already beginning, and that was especially perceptible from the distinctness with which the coils of smoke and the tops of the trees began to stand out in the air.
“It’s time we were asleep, though,” said Tanya, “and it’s cold, too.” She took his arm. “Thank you for coming, Andryusha. We have only uninteresting acquaintances, and not many of them. We have only the garden, the garden, the garden, and nothing else. Standards, half-standards,” she laughed. “Aports, Reinettes, Borovinkas, budded stocks, grafted stocks. . . . All, all our life has gone into the garden.
I never even dream of anything but apples and pears. Of course, it is very nice and useful, but sometimes one longs for something else for variety. I remember that when you used to come to us for the summer holidays, or simply a visit, it always seemed to be fresher and brighter in the house, as though the covers had been taken off the lustres and the furniture. I was only a little girl then, but yet I understood it.”
She talked a long while and with great feeling. For some reason the idea came into his head that in the course of the summer he might grow fond of this little, weak, talkative creature, might be carried away and fall in love; in their position it was so possible and natural! This thought touched and amused him; he bent down to her sweet, preoccupied face and hummed softly:
” ‘Onyegin, I won’t conceal it;
I madly love Tatiana. . . .’ ”
By the time they reached the house, Yegor Semyonitch had got up. Kovrin did not feel sleepy; he talked to the old man and went to the garden with him. Yegor Semyonitch was a tall, broad-shouldered, corpulent man, and he suffered from asthma, yet he walked so fast that it was hard work to hurry after him. He had an extremely preoccupied air; he was always hurrying somewhere, with an expression that suggested that if he were one minute late all would be ruined!
“Here is a business, brother . . .” he began, standing still to take breath. “On the surface of the ground, as you see, is frost; but if you raise the thermometer on a stick fourteen feet above the ground, there it is warm. . . . Why is that?”
“I really don’t know,” said Kovrin, and he laughed.
“H’m! . . . One can’t know everything, of course. . . . However large the intellect may be, you can’t find room for everything in it. I suppose you still go in chiefly for philosophy?”
“Yes, I lecture in psychology; I am working at philosophy in general.”
“And it does not bore you?”
“On the contrary, it’s all I live for.”
“Well, God bless you! . . .” said Yegor Semyonitch, meditatively stroking his grey whiskers. “God bless you! . . . I am delighted about you . . . delighted, my boy. . . .”
But suddenly he listened, and, with a terrible face, ran off and quickly disappeared behind the trees in a cloud of smoke.
“Who tied this horse to an apple-tree?” Kovrin heard his despairing, heart-rending cry. “Who is the low scoundrel who has dared to tie this horse to an apple-tree? My God, my God! They have ruined everything; they have spoilt everything; they have done everything filthy, horrible, and abominable. The orchard’s done for, the orchard’s ruined. My God!”
When he came back to Kovrin, his face looked exhausted and mortified.
“What is one to do with these accursed people?” he said in a tearful voice, flinging up his hands. “Styopka was carting dung at night, and tied the horse to an apple-tree! He twisted the reins round it, the rascal, as tightly as he could, so that the bark is rubbed off in three places. What do you think of that! I spoke to him and he stands like a post and only blinks his eyes. Hanging is too good for him.”
Growing calmer, he embraced Kovrin and kissed him on the cheek.
“Well, God bless you! . . . God bless you! . . .” he muttered. “I am very glad you have come. Unutterably glad. . . . Thank you.”
Then, with the same rapid step and preoccupied face, he made the round of the whole garden, and showed his former ward all his greenhouses and hot-houses, his covered-in garden, and two apiaries which he called the marvel of our century.
While they were walking the sun rose, flooding the garden with brilliant light. It grew warm. Foreseeing a long, bright, cheerful day, Kovrin recollected that it was only the beginning of May, and that he had before him a whole summer as bright, cheerful, and long; and suddenly there stirred in his bosom a joyous, youthful feeling, such as he used to experience in his childhood, running about in that garden. And he hugged the old man and kissed him affectionately.
Both of them, feeling touched, went indoors and drank tea out of old-fashioned china cups, with cream and satisfying krendels made with milk and eggs; and these trifles reminded Kovrin again of his childhood and boyhood. The delightful present was blended with the impressions of the past that stirred within him; there was a tightness at his heart; yet he was happy.
He waited till Tanya was awake and had coffee with her, went for a walk, then went to his room and sat down to work. He read attentively, making notes, and from time to time raised his eyes to look out at the open windows or at the fresh, still dewy flowers in the vases on the table; and again he dropped his eyes to his book, and it seemed to him as though every vein in his body was quivering and fluttering with pleasure.
In the country he led just as nervous and restless a life as in town. He read and wrote a great deal, he studied Italian, and when he was out for a walk, thought with pleasure that he would soon sit down to work again. He slept so little that every one wondered at him; if he accidentally dozed for half an hour in the daytime, he would lie awake all night, and, after a sleepless night, would feel cheerful and vigorous as though nothing had happened.
He talked a great deal, drank wine, and smoked expensive cigars. Very often, almost every day, young ladies of neighbouring families would come to the Pesotskys’, and would sing and play the piano with Tanya; sometimes a young neighbour who was a good violinist would come, too. Kovrin listened with eagerness to the music and singing, and was exhausted by it, and this showed itself by his eyes closing and his head falling to one side.
One day he was sitting on the balcony after evening tea, reading. At the same time, in the drawing-room, Tanya taking soprano, one of the young ladies a contralto, and the young man with his violin, were practising a well-known serenade of Braga’s. Kovrin listened to the words — they were Russian — and could not understand their meaning. At last, leaving his book and listening attentively, he understood: a maiden, full of sick fancies, heard one night in her garden mysterious sounds, so strange and lovely that she was obliged to recognise them as a holy harmony which is unintelligible to us mortals, and so flies back to heaven.
Kovrin’s eyes began to close. He got up, and in exhaustion walked up and down the drawing-room, and then the dining-room. When the singing was over he took Tanya’s arm, and with her went out on the balcony.
“I have been all day thinking of a legend,” he said. “I don’t remember whether I have read it somewhere or heard it, but it is a strange and almost grotesque legend. To begin with, it is somewhat obscure. A thousand years ago a monk, dressed in black, wandered about the desert, somewhere in Syria or Arabia. . . . Some miles from where he was, some fisherman saw another black monk, who was moving slowly over the surface of a lake. This second monk was a mirage. Now forget all the laws of optics, which the legend does not recognise, and listen to the rest. From that mirage there was cast another mirage, then from that other a third, so that the image of the black monk began to be repeated endlessly from one layer of the atmosphere to another.
So that he was seen at one time in Africa, at another in Spain, then in Italy, then in the Far North. . . . Then he passed out of the atmosphere of the earth, and now he is wandering all over the universe, still never coming into conditions in which he might disappear. Possibly he may be seen now in Mars or in some star of the Southern Cross. But, my dear, the real point on which the whole legend hangs lies in the fact that, exactly a thousand years from the day when the monk walked in the desert, the mirage will return to the atmosphere of the earth again and will appear to men. And it seems that the thousand years is almost up. . . . According to the legend, we may look out for the black monk to-day or to-morrow.”
“A queer mirage,” said Tanya, who did not like the legend.
“But the most wonderful part of it all,” laughed Kovrin, “is that I simply cannot recall where I got this legend from. Have I read it somewhere? Have I heard it? Or perhaps I dreamed of the black monk. I swear I don’t remember. But the legend interests me. I have been thinking about it all day.”
Letting Tanya go back to her visitors, he went out of the house, and, lost in meditation, walked by the flower-beds. The sun was already setting. The flowers, having just been watered, gave forth a damp, irritating fragrance. Indoors they began singing again, and in the distance the violin had the effect of a human voice. Kovrin, racking his brains to remember where he had read or heard the legend, turned slowly towards the park, and unconsciously went as far as the river. By a little path that ran along the steep bank, between the bare roots, he went down to the water, disturbed the peewits there and frightened two ducks. The last rays of the setting sun still threw light here and there on the gloomy pines, but it was quite dark on the surface of the river.
Kovrin crossed to the other side by the narrow bridge. Before him lay a wide field covered with young rye not yet in blossom. There was no living habitation, no living soul in the distance, and it seemed as though the little path, if one went along it, would take one to the unknown, mysterious place where the sun had just gone down, and where the evening glow was flaming in immensity and splendour.
“How open, how free, how still it is here!” thought Kovrin, walking along the path. “And it feels as though all the world were watching me, hiding and waiting for me to understand it. . . .”
But then waves began running across the rye, and a light evening breeze softly touched his uncovered head. A minute later there was another gust of wind, but stronger — the rye began rustling, and he heard behind him the hollow murmur of the pines. Kovrin stood still in amazement. From the horizon there rose up to the sky, like a whirlwind or a waterspout, a tall black column. Its outline was indistinct, but from the first instant it could be seen that it was not standing still, but moving with fearful rapidity, moving straight towards Kovrin, and the nearer it came the smaller and the more distinct it was. Kovrin moved aside into the rye to make way for it, and only just had time to do so.
A monk, dressed in black, with a grey head and black eyebrows, his arms crossed over his breast, floated by him. . . . His bare feet did not touch the earth. After he had floated twenty feet beyond him, he looked round at Kovrin, and nodded to him with a friendly but sly smile. But what a pale, fearfully pale, thin face! Beginning to grow larger again, he flew across the river, collided noiselessly with the clay bank and pines, and passing through them, vanished like smoke.
“Why, you see,” muttered Kovrin, “there must be truth in the legend.”
Without trying to explain to himself the strange apparition, glad that he had succeeded in seeing so near and so distinctly, not only the monk’s black garments, but even his face and eyes, agreeably excited, he went back to the house.
In the park and in the garden people were moving about quietly, in the house they were playing — so he alone had seen the monk. He had an intense desire to tell Tanya and Yegor Semyonitch, but he reflected that they would certainly think his words the ravings of delirium, and that would frighten them; he had better say nothing.
He laughed aloud, sang, and danced the mazurka; he was in high spirits, and all of them, the visitors and Tanya, thought he had a peculiar look, radiant and inspired, and that he was very interesting.
After supper, when the visitors had gone, he went to his room and lay down on the sofa: he wanted to think about the monk. But a minute later Tanya came in.
“Here, Andryusha; read father’s articles,” she said, giving him a bundle of pamphlets and proofs. “They are splendid articles. He writes capitally.”
“Capitally, indeed!” said Yegor Semyonitch, following her and smiling constrainedly; he was ashamed. “Don’t listen to her, please; don’t read them! Though, if you want to go to sleep, read them by all means; they are a fine soporific.”
“I think they are splendid articles,” said Tanya, with deep conviction. “You read them, Andryusha, and persuade father to write oftener. He could write a complete manual of horticulture.”
Yegor Semyonitch gave a forced laugh, blushed, and began uttering the phrases usually made us of by an embarrassed author. At last he began to give way.
“In that case, begin with Gaucher’s article and these Russian articles,” he muttered, turning over the pamphlets with a trembling hand, “or else you won’t understand. Before you read my objections, you must know what I am objecting to. But it’s all nonsense . . . tiresome stuff. Besides, I believe it’s bedtime.”
Tanya went away. Yegor Semyonitch sat down on the sofa by Kovrin and heaved a deep sigh.
“Yes, my boy . . .” he began after a pause. “That’s how it is, my dear lecturer. Here I write articles, and take part in exhibitions, and receive medals. . . . Pesotsky, they say, has apples the size of a head, and Pesotsky, they say, has made his fortune with his garden. In short, ‘Kotcheby is rich and glorious.’ But one asks oneself: what is it all for? The garden is certainly fine, a model. It’s not really a garden, but a regular institution, which is of the greatest public importance because it marks, so to say, a new era in Russian agriculture and Russian industry. But, what’s it for? What’s the object of it?”
“The fact speaks for itself.”
“I do not mean in that sense. I meant to ask: what will happen to the garden when I die? In the condition in which you see it now, it would not be maintained for one month without me. The whole secret of success lies not in its being a big garden or a great number of labourers being employed in it, but in the fact that I love the work. Do you understand? I love it perhaps more than myself. Look at me; I do everything myself. I work from morning to night: I do all the grafting myself, the pruning myself, the planting myself. I do it all myself: when any one helps me I am jealous and irritable till I am rude.
The whole secret lies in loving it — that is, in the sharp eye of the master; yes, and in the master’s hands, and in the feeling that makes one, when one goes anywhere for an hour’s visit, sit, ill at ease, with one’s heart far away, afraid that something may have happened in the garden. But when I die, who will look after it? Who will work? The gardener? The labourers? Yes? But I will tell you, my dear fellow, the worst enemy in the garden is not a hare, not a cockchafer, and not the frost, but any outside person.”
“And Tanya?” asked Kovrin, laughing. “She can’t be more harmful than a hare? She loves the work and understands it.”
“Yes, she loves it and understands it. If after my death the garden goes to her and she is the mistress, of course nothing better could be wished. But if, which God forbid, she should marry,” Yegor Semyonitch whispered, and looked with a frightened look at Kovrin, “that’s just it. If she marries and children come, she will have no time to think about the garden. What I fear most is: she will marry some fine gentleman, and he will be greedy, and he will let the garden to people who will run it for profit, and everything will go to the devil the very first year! In our work females are the scourge of God!”
Yegor Semyonitch sighed and paused for a while.
“Perhaps it is egoism, but I tell you frankly: I don’t want Tanya to get married. I am afraid of it! There is one young dandy comes to see us, bringing his violin and scraping on it; I know Tanya will not marry him, I know it quite well; but I can’t bear to see him! Altogether, my boy, I am very queer. I know that.”
Yegor Semyonitch got up and walked about the room in excitement, and it was evident that he wanted to say something very important, but could not bring himself to it.
“I am very fond of you, and so I am going to speak to you openly,” he decided at last, thrusting his hands into his pockets. “I deal plainly with certain delicate questions, and say exactly what I think, and I cannot endure so-called hidden thoughts. I will speak plainly: you are the only man to whom I should not be afraid to marry my daughter. You are a clever man with a good heart, and would not let my beloved work go to ruin; and the chief reason is that I love you as a son, and I am proud of you. If Tanya and you could get up a romance somehow, then — well! I should be very glad and even happy. I tell you this plainly, without mincing matters, like an honest man.”
Kovrin laughed. Yegor Semyonitch opened the door to go out, and stood in the doorway.
“If Tanya and you had a son, I would make a horticulturist of him,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “However, this is idle dreaming. Goodnight.”
Left alone, Kovrin settled himself more comfortably on the sofa and took up the articles. The title of one was “On Intercropping”; of another, “A few Words on the Remarks of Monsieur Z. concerning the Trenching of the Soil for a New Garden”; a third, “Additional Matter concerning Grafting with a Dormant Bud”; and they were all of the same sort. But what a restless, jerky tone! What nervous, almost hysterical passion!
Here was an article, one would have thought, with most peaceable and impersonal contents: the subject of it was the Russian Antonovsky Apple. But Yegor Semyonitch began it with “Audiatur altera pars,” and finished it with “Sapienti sat”; and between these two quotations a perfect torrent of venomous phrases directed “at the learned ignorance of our recognised horticultural authorities, who observe Nature from the height of their university chairs,” or at Monsieur Gaucher, “whose success has been the work of the vulgar and the dilettanti.” “And then followed an inappropriate, affected, and insincere regret that peasants who stole fruit and broke the branches could not nowadays be flogged.
“It is beautiful, charming, healthy work, but even in this there is strife and passion,” thought Kovrin, “I suppose that everywhere and in all careers men of ideas are nervous, and marked by exaggerated sensitiveness. Most likely it must be so.”
He thought of Tanya, who was so pleased with Yegor Semyonitch’s articles. Small, pale, and so thin that her shoulder-blades stuck out, her eyes, wide and open, dark and intelligent, had an intent gaze, as though looking for something. She walked like her father with a little hurried step. She talked a great deal and was fond of arguing, accompanying every phrase, however insignificant, with expressive mimicry and gesticulation. No doubt she was nervous in the extreme.
Kovrin went on reading the articles, but he understood nothing of them, and flung them aside. The same pleasant excitement with which he had earlier in the evening danced the mazurka and listened to the music was now mastering him again and rousing a multitude of thoughts. He got up and began walking about the room, thinking about the black monk. It occurred to him that if this strange, supernatural monk had appeared to him only, that meant that he was ill and had reached the point of having hallucinations. This reflection frightened him, but not for long.
“But I am all right, and I am doing no harm to any one; so there is no harm in my hallucinations,” he thought; and he felt happy again.
He sat down on the sofa and clasped his hands round his head. Restraining the unaccountable joy which filled his whole being, he then paced up and down again, and sat down to his work. But the thought that he read in the book did not satisfy him. He wanted something gigantic, unfathomable, stupendous. Towards morning he undressed and reluctantly went to bed: he ought to sleep.
When he heard the footsteps of Yegor Semyonitch going out into the garden, Kovrin rang the bell and asked the footman to bring him some wine. He drank several glasses of Lafitte, then wrapped himself up, head and all; his consciousness grew clouded and he fell asleep.
Yegor Semyonitch and Tanya often quarrelled and said nasty things to each other.
They quarrelled about something that morning. Tanya burst out crying and went to her room. She would not come down to dinner nor to tea. At first Yegor Semyonitch went about looking sulky and dignified, as though to give every one to understand that for him the claims of justice and good order were more important than anything else in the world; but he could not keep it up for long, and soon sank into depression. He walked about the park dejectedly, continually sighing: “Oh, my God! My God!” and at dinner did not eat a morsel. At last, guilty and conscience-stricken, he knocked at the locked door and called timidly:
And from behind the door came a faint voice, weak with crying but still determined:
“Leave me alone, if you please.”
The depression of the master and mistress was reflected in the whole household, even in the labourers working in the garden. Kovrin was absorbed in his interesting work, but at last he, too, felt dreary and uncomfortable. To dissipate the general ill-humour in some way, he made up his mind to intervene, and towards evening he knocked at Tanya’s door. He was admitted.
“Fie, fie, for shame!” he began playfully, looking with surprise at Tanya’s tear-stained, woebegone face, flushed in patches with crying. “Is it really so serious? Fie, fie!”
“But if you knew how he tortures me!” she said, and floods of scalding tears streamed from her big eyes. “He torments me to death,” she went on, wringing her hands. “I said nothing to him . . . nothing . . . I only said that there was no need to keep . . . too many labourers . . . if we could hire them by the day when we wanted them. You know . . . you know the labourers have been doing nothing for a whole week. . . . I . . . I . . . only said that, and he shouted and . . . said . . . a lot of horrible insulting things to me. What for?”
“There, there,” said Kovrin, smoothing her hair. “You’ve quarrelled with each other, you’ve cried, and that’s enough. You must not be angry for long — that’s wrong . . . all the more as he loves you beyond everything.”
“He has . . . has spoiled my whole life,” Tanya went on, sobbing. “I hear nothing but abuse and . . . insults. He thinks I am of no use in the house. Well! He is right. I shall go away to-morrow; I shall become a telegraph clerk. . . . I don’t care. . . .”
“Come, come, come. . . . You mustn’t cry, Tanya. You mustn’t, dear. . . . You are both hot-tempered and irritable, and you are both to blame. Come along; I will reconcile you.”
Kovrin talked affectionately and persuasively, while she went on crying, twitching her shoulders and wringing her hands, as though some terrible misfortune had really befallen her. He felt all the sorrier for her because her grief was not a serious one, yet she suffered extremely. What trivialities were enough to make this little creature miserable for a whole day, perhaps for her whole life! Comforting Tanya,
Kovrin thought that, apart from this girl and her father, he might hunt the world over and would not find people who would love him as one of themselves, as one of their kindred. If it had not been for those two he might very likely, having lost his father and mother in early childhood, never to the day of his death have known what was meant by genuine affection and that naïve, uncritical love which is only lavished on very close blood relations; and he felt that the nerves of this weeping, shaking girl responded to his half-sick, overstrained nerves like iron to a magnet. He never could have loved a healthy, strong, rosy-cheeked woman, but pale, weak, unhappy Tanya attracted him.
And he liked stroking her hair and her shoulders, pressing her hand and wiping away her tears. . . . At last she left off crying. She went on for a long time complaining of her father and her hard, insufferable life in that house, entreating Kovrin to put himself in her place; then she began, little by little, smiling, and sighing that God had given her such a bad temper. At last, laughing aloud, she called herself a fool, and ran out of the room.
When a little later Kovrin went into the garden, Yegor Semyonitch and Tanya were walking side by side along an avenue as though nothing had happened, and both were eating rye bread with salt on it, as both were hungry.
Glad that he had been so successful in the part of peacemaker, Kovrin went into the park. Sitting on a garden seat, thinking, he heard the rattle of a carriage and a feminine laugh — visitors were arriving. When the shades of evening began falling on the garden, the sounds of the violin and singing voices reached him indistinctly, and that reminded him of the black monk. Where, in what land or in what planet, was that optical absurdity moving now?
Hardly had he recalled the legend and pictured in his imagination the dark apparition he had seen in the rye-field, when, from behind a pine-tree exactly opposite, there came out noiselessly, without the slightest rustle, a man of medium height with uncovered grey head, all in black, and barefooted like a beggar, and his black eyebrows stood out conspicuously on his pale, death-like face. Nodding his head graciously, this beggar or pilgrim came noiselessly to the seat and sat down, and Kovrin recognised him as the black monk.
For a minute they looked at one another, Kovrin with amazement, and the monk with friendliness, and, just as before, a little slyness, as though he were thinking something to himself.
“But you are a mirage,” said Kovrin. “Why are you here and sitting still? That does not fit in with the legend.”
“That does not matter,” the monk answered in a low voice, not immediately turning his face towards him. “The legend, the mirage, and I are all the products of your excited imagination. I am a phantom.”
“Then you don’t exist?” said Kovrin.
“You can think as you like,” said the monk, with a faint smile. “I exist in your imagination, and your imagination is part of nature, so I exist in nature.”
“You have a very old, wise, and extremely expressive face, as though you really had lived more than a thousand years,” said Kovrin. “I did not know that my imagination was capable of creating such phenomena. But why do you look at me with such enthusiasm? Do you like me?”
“Yes, you are one of those few who are justly called the chosen of God. You do the service of eternal truth. Your thoughts, your designs, the marvellous studies you are engaged in, and all your life, bear the Divine, the heavenly stamp, seeing that they are consecrated to the rational and the beautiful — that is, to what is eternal.”
“You said ‘eternal truth.’ . . . But is eternal truth of use to man and within his reach, if there is no eternal life?”
“There is eternal life,” said the monk.
“Do you believe in the immortality of man?”
“Yes, of course. A grand, brilliant future is in store for you men. And the more there are like you on earth, the sooner will this future be realised. Without you who serve the higher principle and live in full understanding and freedom, mankind would be of little account; developing in a natural way, it would have to wait a long time for the end of its earthly history. You will lead it some thousands of years earlier into the kingdom of eternal truth — and therein lies your supreme service. You are the incarnation of the blessing of God, which rests upon men.”
“And what is the object of eternal life?” asked Kovrin.
“As of all life — enjoyment. True enjoyment lies in knowledge, and eternal life provides innumerable and inexhaustible sources of knowledge, and in that sense it has been said: ‘In My Father’s house there are many mansions.’ ”
“If only you knew how pleasant it is to hear you!” said Kovrin, rubbing his hands with satisfaction.
“I am very glad.”
“But I know that when you go away I shall be worried by the question of your reality. You are a phantom, an hallucination. So I am mentally deranged, not normal?”
“What if you are? Why trouble yourself? You are ill because you have overworked and exhausted yourself, and that means that you have sacrificed your health to the idea, and the time is near at hand when you will give up life itself to it. What could be better? That is the goal towards which all divinely endowed, noble natures strive.”
“If I know I am mentally affected, can I trust myself?”
“And are you sure that the men of genius, whom all men trust, did not see phantoms, too? The learned say now that genius is allied to madness. My friend, healthy and normal people are only the common herd. Reflections upon the neurasthenia of the age, nervous exhaustion and degeneracy, et cetera, can only seriously agitate those who place the object of life in the present — that is, the common herd.”
“The Romans used to say: Mens sana in corpore sano.”
“Not everything the Greeks and the Romans said is true. Exaltation, enthusiasm, ecstasy — all that distinguishes prophets, poets, martyrs for the idea, from the common folk — is repellent to the animal side of man — that is, his physical health. I repeat, if you want to be healthy and normal, go to the common herd.”
“Strange that you repeat what often comes into my mind,” said Kovrin. “It is as though you had seen and overheard my secret thoughts. But don’t let us talk about me. What do you mean by ‘eternal truth’?”
The monk did not answer. Kovrin looked at him and could not distinguish his face. His features grew blurred and misty. Then the monk’s head and arms disappeared; his body seemed merged into the seat and the evening twilight, and he vanished altogether.
“The hallucination is over,” said Kovrin; and he laughed. “It’s a pity.”
He went back to the house, light-hearted and happy. The little the monk had said to him had flattered, not his vanity, but his whole soul, his whole being. To be one of the chosen, to serve eternal truth, to stand in the ranks of those who could make mankind worthy of the kingdom of God some thousands of years sooner — that is, to free men from some thousands of years of unnecessary struggle, sin, and suffering; to sacrifice to the idea everything — youth, strength, health; to be ready to die for the common weal — what an exalted, what a happy lot! He recalled his past — pure, chaste, laborious; he remembered what he had learned himself and what he had taught to others, and decided that there was no exaggeration in the monk’s words.
Tanya came to meet him in the park: she was by now wearing a different dress.
“Are you here?” she said. “And we have been looking and looking for you. . . . But what is the matter with you?” she asked in wonder, glancing at his radiant, ecstatic face and eyes full of tears. “How strange you are, Andryusha!”
“I am pleased, Tanya,” said Kovrin, laying his hand on her shoulders. “I am more than pleased: I am happy. Tanya, darling Tanya, you are an extraordinary, nice creature. Dear Tanya, I am so glad, I am so glad!”
He kissed both her hands ardently, and went on:
“I have just passed through an exalted, wonderful, unearthly moment. But I can’t tell you all about it or you would call me mad and not believe me. Let us talk of you. Dear, delightful Tanya! I love you, and am used to loving you. To have you near me, to meet you a dozen times a day, has become a necessity of my existence; I don’t know how I shall get on without you when I go back home.”
“Oh,” laughed Tanya, “you will forget about us in two days. We are humble people and you are a great man.”
“No; let us talk in earnest!” he said. “I shall take you with me, Tanya. Yes? Will you come with me? Will you be mine?”
“Come,” said Tanya, and tried to laugh again, but the laugh would not come, and patches of colour came into her face.
She began breathing quickly and walked very quickly, but not to the house, but further into the park.
“I was not thinking of it . . . I was not thinking of it,” she said, wringing her hands in despair.
And Kovrin followed her and went on talking, with the same radiant, enthusiastic face:
“I want a love that will dominate me altogether; and that love only you, Tanya, can give me. I am happy! I am happy!”
She was overwhelmed, and huddling and shrinking together, seemed ten years older all at once, while he thought her beautiful and expressed his rapture aloud:
“How lovely she is!”
Learning from Kovrin that not only a romance had been got up, but that there would even be a wedding, Yegor Semyonitch spent a long time in pacing from one corner of the room to the other, trying to conceal his agitation. His hands began trembling, his neck swelled and turned purple, he ordered his racing droshky and drove off somewhere. Tanya, seeing how he lashed the horse, and seeing how he pulled his cap over his ears, understood what he was feeling, shut herself up in her room, and cried the whole day.
In the hot-houses the peaches and plums were already ripe; the packing and sending off of these tender and fragile goods to Moscow took a great deal of care, work, and trouble. Owing to the fact that the summer was very hot and dry, it was necessary to water every tree, and a great deal of time and labour was spent on doing it. Numbers of caterpillars made their appearance, which, to Kovrin’s disgust, the labourers and even Yegor Semyonitch and Tanya squashed with their fingers. In spite of all that, they had already to book autumn orders for fruit and trees, and to carry on a great deal of correspondence. And at the very busiest time, when no one seemed to have a free moment, the work of the fields carried off more than half their labourers from the garden.
Yegor Semyonitch, sunburnt, exhausted, ill-humoured, galloped from the fields to the garden and back again; cried that he was being torn to pieces, and that he should put a bullet through his brains.
Then came the fuss and worry of the trousseau, to which the Pesotskys attached a good deal of importance. Every one’s head was in a whirl from the snipping of the scissors, the rattle of the sewing-machine, the smell of hot irons, and the caprices of the dressmaker, a huffy and nervous lady. And, as ill-luck would have it, visitors came every day, who had to be entertained, fed, and even put up for the night. But all this hard labour passed unnoticed as though in a fog.
Tanya felt that love and happiness had taken her unawares, though she had, since she was fourteen, for some reason been convinced that Kovrin would marry her and no one else. She was bewildered, could not grasp it, could not believe herself. . . . At one minute such joy would swoop down upon her that she longed to fly away to the clouds and there pray to God, at another moment she would remember that in August she would have to part from her home and leave her father; or, goodness knows why, the idea would occur to her that she was worthless — insignificant and unworthy of a great man like Kovrin — and she would go to her room, lock herself in, and cry bitterly for several hours.
When there were visitors, she would suddenly fancy that Kovrin looked extraordinarily handsome, and that all the women were in love with him and envying her, and her soul was filled with pride and rapture, as though she had vanquished the whole world; but he had only to smile politely at any young lady for her to be trembling with jealousy, to retreat to her room — and tears again. These new sensations mastered her completely; she helped her father mechanically, without noticing peaches, caterpillars or labourers, or how rapidly the time was passing.
It was almost the same with Yegor Semyonitch. He worked from morning till night, was always in a hurry, was irritable, and flew into rages, but all of this was in a sort of spellbound dream. It seemed as though there were two men in him: one was the real Yegor Semyonitch, who was moved to indignation, and clutched his head in despair when he heard of some irregularity from Ivan Karlovitch the gardener; and another — not the real one — who seemed as though he were half drunk, would interrupt a business conversation at half a word, touch the gardener on the shoulder, and begin muttering:
“Say what you like, there is a great deal in blood. His mother was a wonderful woman, most high-minded and intelligent. It was a pleasure to look at her good, candid, pure face; it was like the face of an angel. She drew splendidly, wrote verses, spoke five foreign languages, sang. . . . Poor thing! she died of consumption. The Kingdom of Heaven be hers.”
The unreal Yegor Semyonitch sighed, and after a pause went on:
“When he was a boy and growing up in my house, he had the same angelic face, good and candid. The way he looks and talks and moves is as soft and elegant as his mother’s. And his intellect! We were always struck with his intelligence. To be sure, it’s not for nothing he’s a Master of Arts! It’s not for nothing! And wait a bit, Ivan Karlovitch, what will he be in ten years’ time? He will be far above us!”
But at this point the real Yegor Semyonitch, suddenly coming to himself, would make a terrible face, would clutch his head and cry:
“The devils! They have spoilt everything! They have ruined everything! They have spoilt everything! The garden’s done for, the garden’s ruined!”
Kovrin, meanwhile, worked with the same ardour as before, and did not notice the general commotion. Love only added fuel to the flames. After every talk with Tanya he went to his room, happy and triumphant, took up his book or his manuscript with the same passion with which he had just kissed Tanya and told her of his love. What the black monk had told him of the chosen of God, of eternal truth, of the brilliant future of mankind and so on, gave peculiar and extraordinary significance to his work, and filled his soul with pride and the consciousness of his own exalted consequence.
Once or twice a week, in the park or in the house, he met the black monk and had long conversations with him, but this did not alarm him, but, on the contrary, delighted him, as he was now firmly persuaded that such apparitions only visited the elect few who rise up above their fellows and devote themselves to the service of the idea.
One day the monk appeared at dinner-time and sat in the dining-room window. Kovrin was delighted, and very adroitly began a conversation with Yegor Semyonitch and Tanya of what might be of interest to the monk; the black-robed visitor listened and nodded his head graciously, and Yegor Semyonitch and Tanya listened, too, and smiled gaily without suspecting that Kovrin was not talking to them but to his hallucination.
Imperceptibly the fast of the Assumption was approaching, and soon after came the wedding, which, at Yegor Semyonitch’s urgent desire, was celebrated with “a flourish” — that is, with senseless festivities that lasted for two whole days and nights. Three thousand roubles’ worth of food and drink was consumed, but the music of the wretched hired band, the noisy toasts, the scurrying to and fro of the footmen, the uproar and crowding, prevented them from appreciating the taste of the expensive wines and wonderful delicacies ordered from Moscow.
One long winter night Kovrin was lying in bed, reading a French novel. Poor Tanya, who had headaches in the evenings from living in town, to which she was not accustomed, had been asleep a long while, and, from time to time, articulated some incoherent phrase in her restless dreams.
It struck three o’clock. Kovrin put out the light and lay down to sleep, lay for a long time with his eyes closed, but could not get to sleep because, as he fancied, the room was very hot and Tanya talked in her sleep. At half-past four he lighted the candle again, and this time he saw the black monk sitting in an arm-chair near the bed.
“Good-morning,” said the monk, and after a brief pause he asked: “What are you thinking of now?”
“Of fame,” answered Kovrin. “In the French novel I have just been reading, there is a description of a young savant, who does silly things and pines away through worrying about fame. I can’t understand such anxiety.”
“Because you are wise. Your attitude towards fame is one of indifference, as towards a toy which no longer interests you.”
“Yes, that is true.”
“Renown does not allure you now. What is there flattering, amusing, or edifying in their carving your name on a tombstone, then time rubbing off the inscription together with the gilding? Moreover, happily there are too many of you for the weak memory of mankind to be able to retain your names.”
“Of course,” assented Kovrin. “Besides, why should they be remembered? But let us talk of something else. Of happiness, for instance. What is happiness?’
When the clock struck five, he was sitting on the bed, dangling his feet to the carpet, talking to the monk:
“In ancient times a happy man grew at last frightened of his happiness — it was so great! — and to propitiate the gods he brought as a sacrifice his favourite ring. Do you know, I, too, like Polykrates, begin to be uneasy of my happiness. It seems strange to me that from morning to night I feel nothing but joy; it fills my whole being and smothers all other feelings. I don’t know what sadness, grief, or boredom is. Here I am not asleep; I suffer from sleeplessness, but I am not dull. I say it in earnest; I begin to feel perplexed.”
“But why?” the monk asked in wonder. “Is joy a supernatural feeling? Ought it not to be the normal state of man? The more highly a man is developed on the intellectual and moral side, the more independent he is, the more pleasure life gives him. Socrates, Diogenes, and Marcus Aurelius, were joyful, not sorrowful. And the Apostle tells us: ‘Rejoice continually’; ‘Rejoice and be glad.’ ”
“But will the gods be suddenly wrathful?” Kovrin jested; and he laughed. “If they take from me comfort and make me go cold and hungry, it won’t be very much to my taste.”
Meanwhile Tanya woke up and looked with amazement and horror at her husband. He was talking, addressing the arm-chair, laughing and gesticulating; his eyes were gleaming, and there was something strange in his laugh.
“Andryusha, whom are you talking to?” she asked, clutching the hand he stretched out to the monk. “Andryusha! Whom?”
“Oh! Whom?” said Kovrin in confusion. “Why, to him. . . . He is sitting here,” he said, pointing to the black monk.
“There is no one here . . . no one! Andryusha, you are ill!”
Tanya put her arm round her husband and held him tight, as though protecting him from the apparition, and put her hand over his eyes.
“You are ill!” she sobbed, trembling all over. “Forgive me, my precious, my dear one, but I have noticed for a long time that your mind is clouded in some way. . . . You are mentally ill, Andryusha. . . .”
Her trembling infected him, too. He glanced once more at the arm-chair, which was now empty, felt a sudden weakness in his arms and legs, was frightened, and began dressing.
“It’s nothing, Tanya; it’s nothing,” he muttered, shivering. “I really am not quite well . . . it’s time to admit that.”
“I have noticed it for a long time . . . and father has noticed it,” she said, trying to suppress her sobs. “You talk to yourself, smile somehow strangely . . . and can’t sleep. Oh, my God, my God, save us!” she said in terror. “But don’t be frightened, Andryusha; for God’s sake don’t be frightened. . . .”
She began dressing, too. Only now, looking at her, Kovrin realised the danger of his position — realised the meaning of the black monk and his conversations with him. It was clear to him now that he was mad.
Neither of them knew why they dressed and went into the dining-room: she in front and he following her. There they found Yegor Semyonitch standing in his dressing-gown and with a candle in his hand. He was staying with them, and had been awakened by Tanya’s sobs.
“Don’t be frightened, Andryusha,” Tanya was saying, shivering as though in a fever; “don’t be frightened. . . . Father, it will all pass over . . . it will all pass over. . . .”
Kovrin was too much agitated to speak. He wanted to say to his father-in-law in a playful tone: “Congratulate me; it appears I have gone out of my mind”; but he could only move his lips and smile bitterly.
At nine o’clock in the morning they put on his jacket and fur coat, wrapped him up in a shawl, and took him in a carriage to a doctor.
Summer had come again, and the doctor advised their going into the country. Kovrin had recovered; he had left off seeing the black monk, and he had only to get up his strength. Staying at his father-in-law’s, he drank a great deal of milk, worked for only two hours out of the twenty-four, and neither smoked nor drank wine.
On the evening before Elijah’s Day they had an evening service in the house. When the deacon was handing the priest the censer the immense old room smelt like a graveyard, and Kovrin felt bored. He went out into the garden. Without noticing the gorgeous flowers, he walked about the garden, sat down on a seat, then strolled about the park; reaching the river, he went down and then stood lost in thought, looking at the water.
The sullen pines with their shaggy roots, which had seen him a year before so young, so joyful and confident, were not whispering now, but standing mute and motionless, as though they did not recognise him. And, indeed, his head was closely cropped, his beautiful long hair was gone, his step was lagging, his face was fuller and paler than last summer.
He crossed by the footbridge to the other side. Where the year before there had been rye the oats stood, reaped, and lay in rows. The sun had set and there was a broad stretch of glowing red on the horizon, a sign of windy weather next day. It was still. Looking in the direction from which the year before the black monk had first appeared, Kovrin stood for twenty minutes, till the evening glow had begun to fade. . . .
When, listless and dissatisfied, he returned home the service was over. Yegor Semyonitch and Tanya were sitting on the steps of the verandah, drinking tea. They were talking of something, but, seeing Kovrin, ceased at once, and he concluded from their faces that their talk had been about him.
“I believe it is time for you to have your milk,” Tanya said to her husband.
“No, it is not time yet . . .” he said, sitting down on the bottom step. “Drink it yourself; I don’t want it.”
Tanya exchanged a troubled glance with her father, and said in a guilty voice:
“You notice yourself that milk does you good.”
“Yes, a great deal of good!” Kovrin laughed. “I congratulate you: I have gained a pound in weight since Friday.” He pressed his head tightly in his hands and said miserably: “Why, why have you cured me? Preparations of bromide, idleness, hot baths, supervision, cowardly consternation at every mouthful, at every step — all this will reduce me at last to idiocy. I went out of my mind, I had megalomania; but then I was cheerful, confident, and even happy; I was interesting and original. Now I have become more sensible and stolid, but I am just like every one else: I am — mediocrity; I am weary of life. . . . Oh, how cruelly you have treated me! . . . I saw hallucinations, but what harm did that do to any one? I ask, what harm did that do any one?”
“Goodness knows what you are saying!” sighed Yegor Semyonitch. “It’s positively wearisome to listen to it.”
“Then don’t listen.”
The presence of other people, especially Yegor Semyonitch, irritated Kovrin now; he answered him drily, coldly, and even rudely, never looked at him but with irony and hatred, while Yegor Semyonitch was overcome with confusion and cleared his throat guiltily, though he was not conscious of any fault in himself. At a loss to understand why their charming and affectionate relations had changed so abruptly, Tanya huddled up to her father and looked anxiously in his face; she wanted to understand and could not understand, and all that was clear to her was that their relations were growing worse and worse every day, that of late her father had begun to look much older, and her husband had grown irritable, capricious, quarrelsome and uninteresting.
She could not laugh or sing; at dinner she ate nothing; did not sleep for nights together, expecting something awful, and was so worn out that on one occasion she lay in a dead faint from dinner-time till evening. During the service she thought her father was crying, and now while the three of them were sitting together on the terrace she made an effort not to think of it.
“How fortunate Buddha, Mahomed, and Shakespeare were that their kind relations and doctors did not cure them of their ecstasy and their inspiration,” said Kovrin. “If Mahomed had taken bromide for his nerves, had worked only two hours out of the twenty-four, and had drunk milk, that remarkable man would have left no more trace after him than his dog. Doctors and kind relations will succeed in stupefying mankind, in making mediocrity pass for genius and in bringing civilisation to ruin. If only you knew,” Kovrin said with annoyance, “how grateful I am to you.”
He felt intense irritation, and to avoid saying too much, he got up quickly and went into the house. It was still, and the fragrance of the tobacco plant and the marvel of Peru floated in at the open window. The moonlight lay in green patches on the floor and on the piano in the big dark dining-room.
Kovrin remembered the raptures of the previous summer when there had been the same scent of the marvel of Peru and the moon had shone in at the window. To bring back the mood of last year he went quickly to his study, lighted a strong cigar, and told the footman to bring him some wine. But the cigar left a bitter and disgusting taste in his mouth, and the wine had not the same flavour as it had the year before. And so great is the effect of giving up a habit, the cigar and the two gulps of wine made him giddy, and brought on palpitations of the heart, so that he was obliged to take bromide.
Before going to bed, Tanya said to him:
“Father adores you. You are cross with him about something, and it is killing him. Look at him; he is ageing, not from day to day, but from hour to hour. I entreat you, Andryusha, for God’s sake, for the sake of your dead father, for the sake of my peace of mind, be affectionate to him.”
“I can’t, I don’t want to.”
“But why?” asked Tanya, beginning to tremble all over. “Explain why.”
“Because he is antipathetic to me, that’s all,” said Kovrin carelessly; and he shrugged his shoulders. “But we won’t talk about him: he is your father.”
“I can’t understand, I can’t,” said Tanya, pressing her hands to her temples and staring at a fixed point. “Something incomprehensible, awful, is going on in the house. You have changed, grown unlike yourself. . . . You, clever, extraordinary man as you are, are irritated over trifles, meddle in paltry nonsense. . . . Such trivial things excite you, that sometimes one is simply amazed and can’t believe that it is you. Come, come, don’t be angry, don’t be angry,” she went on, kissing his hands, frightened of her own words. “You are clever, kind, noble. You will be just to father. He is so good.”
“He is not good; he is just good-natured. Burlesque old uncles like your father, with well-fed, good-natured faces, extraordinarily hospitable and queer, at one time used to touch me and amuse me in novels and in farces and in life; now I dislike them. They are egoists to the marrow of their bones. What disgusts me most of all is their being so well-fed, and that purely bovine, purely hoggish optimism of a full stomach.”
Tanya sat down on the bed and laid her head on the pillow.
“This is torture,” she said, and from her voice it was evident that she was utterly exhausted, and that it was hard for her to speak. “Not one moment of peace since the winter. . . . Why, it’s awful! My God! I am wretched.”
“Oh, of course, I am Herod, and you and your father are the innocents. Of course.”
His face seemed to Tanya ugly and unpleasant. Hatred and an ironical expression did not suit him. And, indeed, she had noticed before that there was something lacking in his face, as though ever since his hair had been cut his face had changed, too. She wanted to say something wounding to him, but immediately she caught herself in this antagonistic feeling, she was frightened and went out of the bedroom.
Kovrin received a professorship at the University. The inaugural address was fixed for the second of December, and a notice to that effect was hung up in the corridor at the University. But on the day appointed he informed the students’ inspector, by telegram, that he was prevented by illness from giving the lecture.
He had hæmorrhage from the throat. He was often spitting blood, but it happened two or three times a month that there was a considerable loss of blood, and then he grew extremely weak and sank into a drowsy condition. This illness did not particularly frighten him, as he knew that his mother had lived for ten years or longer suffering from the same disease, and the doctors assured him that there was no danger, and had only advised him to avoid excitement, to lead a regular life, and to speak as little as possible.
In January again his lecture did not take place owing to the same reason, and in February it was too late to begin the course. It had to be postponed to the following year.
By now he was living not with Tanya, but with another woman, who was two years older than he was, and who looked after him as though he were a baby. He was in a calm and tranquil state of mind; he readily gave in to her, and when Varvara Nikolaevna — that was the name of his friend — decided to take him to the Crimea, he agreed, though he had a presentiment that no good would come of the trip.
They reached Sevastopol in the evening and stopped at an hotel to rest and go on the next day to Yalta. They were both exhausted by the journey. Varvara Nikolaevna had some tea, went to bed and was soon asleep. But Kovrin did not go to bed.
An hour before starting for the station, he had received a letter from Tanya, and had not brought himself to open it, and now it was lying in his coat pocket, and the thought of it excited him disagreeably. At the bottom of his heart he genuinely considered now that his marriage to Tanya had been a mistake. He was glad that their separation was final, and the thought of that woman who in the end had turned into a living relic, still walking about though everything seemed dead in her except her big, staring, intelligent eyes — the thought of her roused in him nothing but pity and disgust with himself.
The handwriting on the envelope reminded him how cruel and unjust he had been two years before, how he had worked off his anger at his spiritual emptiness, his boredom, his loneliness, and his dissatisfaction with life by revenging himself on people in no way to blame.
He remembered, also, how he had torn up his dissertation and all the articles he had written during his illness, and how he had thrown them out of window, and the bits of paper had fluttered in the wind and caught on the trees and flowers. In every line of them he saw strange, utterly groundless pretension, shallow defiance, arrogance, megalomania; and they made him feel as though he were reading a description of his vices. But when the last manuscript had been torn up and sent flying out of window, he felt, for some reason, suddenly bitter and angry; he went to his wife and said a great many unpleasant things to her.
My God, how he had tormented her! One day, wanting to cause her pain, he told her that her father had played a very unattractive part in their romance, that he had asked him to marry her. Yegor Semyonitch accidentally overheard this, ran into the room, and, in his despair, could not utter a word, could only stamp and make a strange, bellowing sound as though he had lost the power of speech, and Tanya, looking at her father, had uttered a heart-rending shriek and had fallen into a swoon. It was hideous.
All this came back into his memory as he looked at the familiar writing. Kovrin went out on to the balcony; it was still warm weather and there was a smell of the sea. The wonderful bay reflected the moonshine and the lights, and was of a colour for which it was difficult to find a name. It was a soft and tender blending of dark blue and green; in places the water was like blue vitriol, and in places it seemed as though the moonlight were liquefied and filling the bay instead of water. And what harmony of colours, what an atmosphere of peace, calm, and sublimity!
In the lower storey under the balcony the windows were probably open, for women’s voices and laughter could be heard distinctly. Apparently there was an evening party.
Kovrin made an effort, tore open the envelope, and, going back into his room, read:
“My father is just dead. I owe that to you, for you have killed him. Our garden is being ruined; strangers are managing it already — that is, the very thing is happening that poor father dreaded. That, too, I owe to you. I hate you with my whole soul, and I hope you may soon perish. Oh, how wretched I am! Insufferable anguish is burning my soul. . . . My curses on you. I took you for an extraordinary man, a genius; I loved you, and you have turned out a madman. . . .”
Kovrin could read no more, he tore up the letter and threw it away. He was overcome by an uneasiness that was akin to terror. Varvara Nikolaevna was asleep behind the screen, and he could hear her breathing. From the lower storey came the sounds of laughter and women’s voices, but he felt as though in the whole hotel there were no living soul but him. Because Tanya, unhappy, broken by sorrow, had cursed him in her letter and hoped for his perdition, he felt eerie and kept glancing hurriedly at the door, as though he were afraid that the uncomprehended force which two years before had wrought such havoc in his life and in the life of those near him might come into the room and master him once more.
He knew by experience that when his nerves were out of hand the best thing for him to do was to work. He must sit down to the table and force himself, at all costs, to concentrate his mind on some one thought. He took from his red portfolio a manuscript containing a sketch of a small work of the nature of a compilation, which he had planned in case he should find it dull in the Crimea without work. He sat down to the table and began working at this plan, and it seemed to him that his calm, peaceful, indifferent mood was coming back.
The manuscript with the sketch even led him to meditation on the vanity of the world. He thought how much life exacts for the worthless or very commonplace blessings it can give a man. For instance, to gain, before forty, a university chair, to be an ordinary professor, to expound ordinary and second-hand thoughts in dull, heavy, insipid language — in fact, to gain the position of a mediocre learned man, he, Kovrin, had had to study for fifteen years, to work day and night, to endure a terrible mental illness, to experience an unhappy marriage, and to do a great number of stupid and unjust things which it would have been pleasant not to remember.
Kovrin recognised clearly, now, that he was a mediocrity, and readily resigned himself to it, as he considered that every man ought to be satisfied with what he is.
The plan of the volume would have soothed him completely, but the torn letter showed white on the floor and prevented him from concentrating his attention. He got up from the table, picked up the pieces of the letter and threw them out of window, but there was a light wind blowing from the sea, and the bits of paper were scattered on the windowsill. Again he was overcome by uneasiness akin to terror, and he felt as though in the whole hotel there were no living soul but himself. . . . He went out on the balcony. The bay, like a living thing, looked at him with its multitude of light blue, dark blue, turquoise and fiery eyes, and seemed beckoning to him. And it really was hot and oppressive, and it would not have been amiss to have a bathe.
Suddenly in the lower storey under the balcony a violin began playing, and two soft feminine voices began singing. It was something familiar. The song was about a maiden, full of sick fancies, who heard one night in her garden mysterious sounds, so strange and lovely that she was obliged to recognise them as a holy harmony which is unintelligible to us mortals, and so flies back to heaven. . . . Kovrin caught his breath and there was a pang of sadness at his heart, and a thrill of the sweet, exquisite delight he had so long forgotten began to stir in his breast.
A tall black column, like a whirlwind or a waterspout, appeared on the further side of the bay. It moved with fearful rapidity across the bay, towards the hotel, growing smaller and darker as it came, and Kovrin only just had time to get out of the way to let it pass. . . . The monk with bare grey head, black eyebrows, barefoot, his arms crossed over his breast, floated by him, and stood still in the middle of the room.
“Why did you not believe me?” he asked reproachfully, looking affectionately at Kovrin. “If you had believed me then, that you were a genius, you would not have spent these two years so gloomily and so wretchedly.”
Kovrin already believed that he was one of God’s chosen and a genius; he vividly recalled his conversations with the monk in the past and tried to speak, but the blood flowed from his throat on to his breast, and not knowing what he was doing, he passed his hands over his breast, and his cuffs were soaked with blood. He tried to call Varvara Nikolaevna, who was asleep behind the screen; he made an effort and said:
He fell on the floor, and propping himself on his arms, called again:
He called Tanya, called to the great garden with the gorgeous flowers sprinkled with dew, called to the park, the pines with their shaggy roots, the rye-field, his marvellous learning, his youth, courage, joy — called to life, which was so lovely. He saw on the floor near his face a great pool of blood, and was too weak to utter a word, but an unspeakable, infinite happiness flooded his whole being.
Below, under the balcony, they were playing the serenade, and the black monk whispered to him that he was a genius, and that he was dying only because his frail human body had lost its balance and could no longer serve as the mortal garb of genius.
When Varvara Nikolaevna woke up and came out from behind the screen, Kovrin was dead, and a blissful smile was set upon his face.
Anton Chekhov – The Black Monk
Ru: Chyorny monakh (1894)
short Russian story – Russian literature
Full text translated into English