Lady NN’s Story
by Anton Chekhov, translated by Zooey Park
Nine years ago, once before evening during haymaking, I and Pyotr Sergeyich, the position-correcting judicial investigator, rode to the station to get the mail. The weather was fabulous, but on the way back we heard a peal of thunder, and saw an angry black cloud coming right at us. The cloud was approaching us and we were approaching it.
Against the background of it, our house and church were white and the tall poplars were silvered. It smelled of rain and mown hay. My companion was on a roll. He laughed and talked all sorts of nonsense. He said that it would be nice if along the way we suddenly came upon some medieval castle with turrets, with moss on it and owls, so that we’d hide there from the rain and eventually be killed by a thunderbolt…
But now the first wave ran through the rye and the oat field, the winds rushed, and the dust swirled in the air. Pyotr Sergeyich laughed and spurred his horse on.
“Good!” he shouted. “Very good!”
I, infected by his gaiety and from the thought that I was going to get soaked to the bone and could be killed by lightning, also began to laugh.
This whirlwind and fast riding, when you’re suffocated by the wind and feel like a bird, excite and tickle the chest. When we rode into our courtyard there was no longer any wind, and large raindrops pounded the grass and on the roofs. Near the stable there wasn’t a soul.
Pyotr Sergeyich himself unbridled the horses and led them to the stalls. Waiting for him to finish, I stood at the threshold and looked at the slanting streaks of rain; the cloying, exciting smell of hay was felt more strongly here than in the field; the clouds and rain made it twilight.
“What a blow!” Pyotr Sergeyich said, coming up to me after one very strong, rolling thunderclap when it seemed the sky had cracked in half. “What was that?”
He stood next to me on the threshold and, panting from the fast ride, looked at me. I noticed that he was admiring me.
“Natalia Vladimirovna,” he said, “I’d give everything just to stand like this and look at you longer. Today you’re beautiful.”
His eyes looked rapturous and pleading, his face was pale, and on his beard and moustache glistened raindrops, which also seemed to look at me with love.
“I love you,” he said. “I love you, and I’m happy to see you. I know you can’t be my wife, but I don’t want anything, I don’t need anything, just know that I love you. Be silent, don’t answer, don’t pay attention, but just know that you’re dear to me, and let me look at you.”
His delight infected me. I looked at his inspired face, listened to his voice which was mixed with the noise of the rain and, as if spellbound, couldn’t move.
I wanted endlessly to look at his shining eyes and listen.
“You’re silent — and wonderful!” said Pyotr Sergeyich. “Keep silent.”
I felt good. I laughed with pleasure and ran through the pouring rain to the house; he also laughed and, leaping, ran after me.
Both of us noisily, like children, wet, out of breath, pounding on the stairs, flew into the rooms. My father and brother, who weren’t used to seeing me laughing and cheerful, looked at me in surprise and began to laugh too.
The storm clouds were gone, the thunder had stopped, and the raindrops still glistened on Pyotr Sergeyich’s beard. All evening before dinner he sang, whistled, played noisily with the dog, chasing her through the rooms so that he almost knocked down a person with the samovar. And at dinner he ate a lot, talked nonsense and assured us that when you eat fresh cucumbers in winter, you smell spring in your mouth.
Going to bed, I lit a candle and opened my window wide, and an undefined feeling took possession of my soul. I remembered that I was free, healthy, a noble, rich, that I was loved, and most importantly, that I was a noble and rich — noble and rich — how good that was, my God!… Then, shivering in bed from the slight cold that crept up to me from the garden with the dew, I tried to understand whether I loved Pyotr Sergeyich or not… And not understanding anything, I fell asleep.
And when in the morning I saw the trembling sun spots and the shadows of lime branches on my bed, yesterday’s events vividly revived in my memory. Life seemed to me rich, diverse, full of charm. Humming, I dressed quickly and ran out into the garden…
And then what happened? And then — nothing. In the winter when we lived in town, Pyotr Sergeyich occasionally came to us. Countryside acquaintances are only charming in the country and in the summer, but in town and in winter, they lose half their charm. When you give them tea in town, it seems that they’re wearing someone else’s coat and they stir their tea with a spoon for too long. And in town, Pyotr Sergeyich sometimes talked about love, but it didn’t come out at all like in the country. In town we felt more strongly the wall that was between us: I was a noble and rich, and he was poor — he wasn’t even a noble by birth, but the son of a deacon — and he was a position-correcting judicial investigator and only that. Both of us — I through being young and he, God knows why — considered this wall very high and thick, and when he visited us in town, he smiled tightly and criticized the upper class, and was sullenly silent when he had someone in the living room with him. There is no wall that can’t be broken through, but the heroes of the modern novel, so far as I know them, are too timid, sluggish, lazy and suspicious, and too soon put up with the idea that they are unlucky ones, that their personal life has deceived them; instead of fighting, they only criticize, calling the world vulgar and forgetting that their very criticism gradually turns into vulgarity.
I was loved, happiness was close, and seemed to live shoulder to shoulder with me; I lived happily, not trying to understand myself, not knowing what I expected and what I wanted from life, and time passed and passed… People passed by me with their love, clear days and warm nights flashed by, nightingales sang, there was the smell of hay, and all this, sweet and amazing in memories, passed me as with everyone quickly, without a trace, unappreciated, and disappeared like a mist… Where is it all?
My father died, I grew old; everything that pleased, caressed, gave hope — the sound of rain, peals of thunder, thoughts of happiness, conversations about love — all that became a memory, and I see a flat, deserted distance ahead: on the plain there isn’t a single living soul, and out there it’s dark and scary on the horizon…
Here’s the bell… It was Pyotr Sergeyich who came. When I see trees in winter and remember how they turned green for me in the summer, I whisper:
“Oh, my dears!”
And when I see the people with whom I spent my spring, I feel sad and warm and whisper the same thing.
He was transferred to town long ago under the patronage of my father. He’s aged a little, a bit haggard. He has long since stopped declaring his love, no longer talks nonsense, doesn’t like his work, is ill with something, disappointed with something, has given up on life and lives unwillingly.
Here he sat down by the fireplace; silently looking at the fire… I, not knowing what to say, asked:
“Nothing…” he answered.
And again silence. The red light from the fire leapt on his sad face.
I remembered the past, and suddenly my shoulders trembled, my head bowed and I wept bitterly. I felt unbearably sorry for myself and this person, and passionately wanted what had passed and what life now denied us. And now I no longer thought about being a noble and how rich I was.
I was sobbing loudly, squeezing my temples, and muttering:
“My God, my God, life’s over…”
And he sat there, silent, and didn’t tell me: ”Don’t cry.” He understood that it was necessary to cry and that the time had come for that. I could see in his eyes that he was sorry for me; and I, too, was sorry for him and vexed at this timid unlucky one who couldn’t manage to arrange either my life or his.
When I saw him off, it seemed to me that he was deliberately putting on his coat in the hall for a long time. He kissed my hand once or twice in silence and looked at my tear-stained face for a long time. I think that at that moment he was remembering the thunderstorm, the streaks of rain, our laughter, my face at that time. He wanted to say something to me and would’ve been glad to say it, but he didn’t say anything, just shook his head and shook my hand firmly. God be with him!
After seeing him off, I returned to the study and sat down again on the carpet in front of the fireplace. The red embers turned to ash and began to fade. The frost started pounding even more angrily on the window, and the wind began to sing about something in the chimney.
The maid came in and, thinking I’d fallen asleep, called out to me…
About the Translator
Zooey Park is a Korean-American filmmaker and has shown his work in several festivals. He has a law degree and a Master’s in film/video production from Syracuse University.
position-correcting Confirming or changing one’s view of the case after examining the evidence.