A country house on a terrace. In front of it a garden. In an
avenue of trees, under an old poplar, stands a table set for tea,
with a samovar, etc. Some benches and chairs stand near the
table. On one of them is lying a guitar. A hammock is swung near
the table. It is three o'clock in the afternoon of a cloudy day.
MARINA, a quiet, grey-haired, little old woman, is sitting at the
table knitting a stocking.
No, I don't drink vodka every day, and besides, it is
too hot now. [A pause] Tell me, nurse, how lo ng have we known
MARINA [Thoughtfully] Let me see, how long is it? Lord--help me
to remember. You first came here, into our parts--let me
think--when was it? Sonia's mother was still alive--it was two
winters before she died; that was eleven years
ago--[thoughtfully] perhaps more.
Oh, yes. You were handsome and young then, and now you
are an old man and not handsome any more. You drink, too.
Yes, ten years have made me another man. And why?
Because I am overworked. Nurse, I am on my feet from dawn till
dusk. I know no rest; at night I tremble under my blankets for
fear of being dragged out to visit some one who is sick; I have
toiled without repose or a day's freedom since I have known you;
could I help growing old? And then, existence is tedious, anyway;
it is a senseless, dirty business, this life, and goes heavily.
Every one about here is silly, and after living with them for two
or three years one grows silly oneself. It is inevitable.
[Twisting his moustache] See what a long moustache I have grown.
A foolish, long moustache. Yes, I am as silly as the rest, nurse,
but not as stupid; no, I have not grown stupid. Thank God, my
brain is not addled yet, though my feelings have grown numb. I
ask nothing, I need nothing, I love no one, unless it is yourself
alone. [He kisses her head] I had a nurse just like you when I
was a child.
No. During the third week of Lent I went to the epidemic
at Malitskoi. It was eruptive typhoid. The peasants were all
lying side by side in their huts, and the calves and pigs were
running about the floor among the sick. Such dirt there was, and
smoke! Unspeakable! I slaved among those people all day, not a
crumb passed my lips, but when I got home there was still no rest
for me; a switchman was carried in from the railroad; I laid him
on the operating table and he went and died in my arms under
chloroform, and then my feelings that should have been deadened
awoke again, my conscience tortured me as if I had killed the
man. I sat down and closed my eyes--like this--and thought: will
our descendants two hundred years from now, for whom we are
breaking the road, remember to give us a kind word? No, nurse,
they will forget.
Yes, very much so. [He yawns] Ever since the Professor
and his wife have come, our daily life seems to have jumped the
track. I sleep at the wrong time, drink wine, and eat all sorts
of messes for luncheon and dinner. It isn't wholesome. Sonia and
I used to work together and never had an idle moment, but now
Sonia works alone and I only eat and drink and sleep. Something
MARINA [Shaking her head] Such a confusion in the house! The
Professor gets up at twelve, the samovar is kept boiling all the
morning, and everything has to wait for him. Before they came we
used to have dinner at one o'clock, like everybody else, but now
we have it at seven. The Professor sits up all night writing and
reading, and suddenly, at two o'clock, there goes the bell!
Heavens, what is that? The Professor wants some tea! Wake the
servants, light the samovar! Lord, what disorder!
HELENA, SEREBRAKOFF, and SONIA go into the house. TELEGIN sits
down at the table beside MARINA.
There goes our learned scholar on a hot, sultry day like
this, in his overcoat and goloshes and carrying an umbrella!
He is trying to take good care of his health.
How lovely she is! How lovely! I have never in my life
seen a more beautiful woman.
Do you know, Marina, that as I walk in the fields or in
the shady garden, as I look at this table here, my heart swells
with unbounded happiness. The weather is enchanting, the birds
are singing, we are all living in peace and contentment--what
more could the soul desire? [Takes a glass of tea.]
No, it is all stale. I am just the same as usual, or
perhaps worse, because I have become lazy. I don't do anything
now but croak like an old raven. My mother, the old magpie, is
still chattering about the emancipation of woman, with one eye on
her grave and the other on her learned books, in which she is
always looking for the dawn of a new life.
The Professor sits in his library from morning till
night, as usual--
"Straining the mind, wrinkling the brow,
We write, write, write,
Or hope of praise in the future or now."
Poor paper! He ought to write his autobiography; he would make a
really splendid subject for a book! Imagine it, the life of a
retired professor, as stale as a piece of hardtack, tortured by
gout, headaches, and rheumatism, his liver bursting with jealousy
and envy, living on the estate of his first wife, although he
hates it, because he can't afford to live in town. He is
everlastingly whining about his hard lot, though, as a matter of
fact, he is extraordinarily lucky. He is the son of a common
deacon and has attained the professor's chair, become the
son-in-law of a senator, is called "your Excellency," and so on.
But I'll tell you something; the man has been writing on art for
twenty-five years, and he doesn't know the very first thing about
it. For twenty-five years he has been chewing on other men's
thoughts about realism, naturalism, and all such foolishness; for
twenty-five years he has been reading and writing things that
clever men have long known and stupid ones are not interested in;
for twenty-five years he has been making his imaginary mountains
out of molehills. And just think of the man's self-conceit and
presumption all this time! For twenty-five years he has been
masquerading in false clothes and has now retired absolutely
unknown to any living soul; and yet see him! stalking across the
earth like a demi-god!
Yes, I do. Look at the success he has had with women!
Don Juan himself was not more favoured. His first wife, who was
my sister, was a beautiful, gentle being, as pure as the blue
heaven there above us, noble, great-hearted, with more admirers
than he has pupils, and she loved him as only beings of angelic
purity can love those who are as pure and beautiful as
themselves. His mother-in-law, my mother, adores him to this day,
and he still inspires a sort of worshipful awe in her. His second
wife is, as you see, a brilliant beauty; she married him in his
old age and has surrendered all the glory of her beauty and
freedom to him. Why? What for?
Because such fidelity is false and unnatural, root and
branch. It sounds well, but there is no logic in it. It is
thought immoral for a woman to deceive an old husband whom she
hates, but quite moral for her to strangle her poor youth in her
breast and banish every vital d esire from her heart.
TELEGIN [In a tearful voice] Vanya, I don't like to hear you
talk so. Listen, Vanya; every one who betrays husband or wife is
faithless, and could also betray his country.
No, allow me, Vanya. My wife ran away with a lover on
the day after our wedding, because my exterior was
unprepossessing. I have never failed in my duty since then. I
love her and am true to her to this day. I help her all I can and
have given my fortune to educate the daughter of herself and her
lover. I have forfeited my happiness, but I have kept my pride.
And she? Her youth has fled, her beauty has faded according to
the laws of nature, and her lover is dead. What has she kept?
HELENA and SONIA come in; after them comes MME. VOITSKAYA
carrying a book. She sits down and begins to read. Some one hands
her a glass of tea which she drinks without looking up.
SONIA [Hurriedly, to the nurse] There are some peasants waiting
out there. Go and see what they want. I shall pour the tea.
[Pours out some glasses of tea.]
MARINA goes out. HELENA takes a glass and sits drinking in the
I have come to see your husband. You wrote me that he
had rheumatism and I know not what else, and that he was very
ill, but he appears to be as lively as a cricket.
He had a fit of the blues yesterday evening and
complained of pains in his legs, but he seems all right again
And I galloped over here twenty miles at break-neck
speed! No matter, though, it is not the first time. Once here,
however, I am going to stay until to-morrow, and at any rate
sleep _quantum satis._
Oh, splendid! You so seldom spend the night with us. Have
you had dinner yet?
Don't mind, Monsieur Ivan, we will drink cold tea, then.
I beg your pardon, my name is not Ivan, but Ilia,
ma'am--Ilia Telegin, or Waffles, as I am sometimes called on
account of my pock-marked face. I am Sonia's godfather, and his
Excellency, your husband, knows me very well. I now live with
you, ma'am, on this estate, and perhaps you will be so good as to
notice that I dine with you every day.
He is our great help, our right-hand man. [Tenderly] Dear
godfather, let me pour you some tea.
Yes, but strange. He refutes the very theories
which he defended seven years ago. It is appalling!
There is nothing appalling about it. Drink your tea,
It seems you never want to listen to what I have
to say. Pardon me, Jean, but you have changed so in the last year
that I hardly know you. You used to be a man of settled
convictions and had an illuminating personality---
Oh, yes. I had an illuminating personality, which
illuminated no one. [A pause] I had an illuminating personality!
You couldn't say anything more biting. I am forty-seven years
old. Until last year I endeavoured, as you do now, to blind my
eyes by your pedantry to the truths of life. But now--Oh, if you
only knew! If you knew how I lie awake at night, heartsick and
angry, to think how stupidly I have wasted my time when I might
have been winning from life everything which my old age now
MME. VOITSKAYA [To her son] You speak as if your former
convictions were somehow to blame, but you yourself, not they,
were at fault. You have forgotten that a conviction, in itself,
is nothing but a dead letter. You should have done something.
Done something! Not every man is capable of being a
writer _perpetuum mobile_ like your Herr Professor.
ASTROFF [Annoyed] Thank you. There is nothing for it, then, but
to go. [Looking around him for his cap] Damn it, this is
Yes, it is too bad, really. You must come back to dinner
from the factory.
No, I won't be able to do that. It will be too late. Now
where, where-- [To the WORKMAN] Look here, my man, get me a glass
of vodka, will you? [The WORKMAN goes out] Where--where-- [Finds
his cap] One of the characters in Ostroff's plays is a man with a
long moustache and short wits, like me. However, let me bid you
good-bye, ladies and gentlemen. [To HELENA] I should be really
delighted if you would come to see me some day with Miss Sonia.
My estate is small, but if you are interested in such things I
should like to show you a nursery and seed-bed whose like you
will not find within a thousand miles of here. My place is
surrounded by government forests. The forester is old and always
ailing, so I superintend almost all the work myself.
I have always heard that you were very fond of the woods.
Of course one can do a great deal of good by helping to preserve
them, but does not that work interfere with your real calling?
God alone knows what a man's real calling is.
You are still young, not over thirty-six or seven, I
should say, and I suspect that the woods do not interest you as
much as you say they do. I should think you would find them
No, the work is thrilling. Dr. Astroff watches over the
old woods and sets out new plantations every year, and he has
already received a diploma and a bronze medal. If you will listen
to what he can tell you, you will agree with him entirely. He
says that forests are the ornaments of the earth, that they teach
mankind to understand beauty and attune his mind to lofty
sentiments. Forests temper a stern climate, and in countries
where the climate is milder, less strength is wasted in the
battle with nature, and the people are kind and gentle. The
inhabitants of such countries are handsome, tractable, sensitive,
graceful in speech and gesture. Their philosophy is joyous, art
and science blossom among them, their treatment of women is full
of exquisite nobility---
VOITSKI [Laughing] Bravo! Bravo! All that is very pretty, but it
is also unconvincing. So, my friend [To ASTROFF] you must let me
go on burning firewood in my stoves and building my sheds of
You can burn peat in your stoves and build your sheds of
stone. Oh, I don't object, of course, to cutting wood from
necessity, but why destroy the forests? The woods of Russia are
trembling under the blows of the axe. Millions of trees have
perished. The homes of the wild animals and birds have been
desolated; the rivers are shrinking, and many beautiful
landscapes are gone forever. And why? Because men are too lazy
and stupid to stoop down and pick up their fuel from the ground.
[To HELENA] Am I not right, Madame? Who but a stupid barbarian
could burn so much beauty in his stove and destroy that which he
cannot make? Man is endowed with reason and the power to create,
so that he may increase that which has been given him, but until
now he has not created, but demolished. The forests are
disappearing, the rivers are running dry, the game
is exterminated, the climate is spoiled, and the earth becomes
poorer and uglier every day. [To VOITSKI] I read irony in your
eye; you do not take what I am saying seriously, and--and--after
all, it may very well be nonsense. But when I pass
peasant-forests that I have preserved from the axe, or hear the
rustling of the young plantations set out with my own hands, I
feel as if I had had some small share in improving the climate,
and that if mankind is happy a thousand years from now I will
have been a little bit responsible for their happiness. When I
plant a little birch tree and then see it budding into young
green and swaying in the wind, my heart swells with pride and
I--[Sees the WORKMAN, who is bringing him a glass of vodka on a
tray] however--[He drinks] I must be off. Probably it is all
nonsense, anyway. Good-bye.
He goes toward the house. SONIA takes his arm and goes with him.
ASTROFF and SONIA go into the house. HELENA and VOITSKI walk over
to the terrace.
You have behaved shockingly again. Ivan, what sense was
there in teasing your mother and talking about _perpetuum
mobile?_ And at breakfast you quarreled with Alexander again.
Really, your behaviour is too petty.
You hate Alexander without reason; he is like every one
else, and no worse than you are.
If you could only see your face, your gestures! Oh, how
tedious your life must be.
It is tedious, yes, and dreary! You all abuse my husband
and look on me with compassion; you think, "Poor woman, she is
married to an old man." How well I understand your compassion! As
Astroff said just now, see how you thoughtlessly destroy the
forests, so that there will soon be none left. So you also
destroy mankind, and soon fidelity and purity and self-sacrifice
will have vanished with the woods. Why cannot you look calmly at
a woman unless she is yours? Because, the doctor was right, you
are all possessed by a devil of destruction; you have no mercy on
the woods or the birds or on women or on one another.
That doctor has a sensitive, weary face--an interesting
face. Sonia evidently likes him, and she is in love with him, and
I can understand it. This is the third time he has been here
since I have come, and I have not had a real talk with him yet or
made much of him. He thinks I am disagreeable. Do you know, Ivan,
the reason you and I are such friends? I think it is because we
are both lonely and unfortunate. Yes, unfortunate. Don't look at
me in that way, I don't like it.
How can I look at you otherwise when I love you? You are
my joy, my life, and my youth. I know that my chances of being
loved in return are infinitely small, do not exist, but I ask
nothing of you. Only let me look at you, listen to your voice--