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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"The Schoolmistress" by Anton Chekhov, Full Text in English; from "The Schoolmistress and Other Stories" (1897) by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

Young Anton Chekhov, in 1882



THE SCHOOLMISTRESS

AT half-past eight they drove out of the town.

The highroad was dry, a lovely April sun was shining warmly, but the
snow was still lying in the ditches and in the woods. Winter, dark,
long, and spiteful, was hardly over; spring had come all of a sudden.
But neither the warmth nor the languid transparent woods, warmed by the
breath of spring, nor the black flocks of birds flying over the huge
puddles that were like lakes, nor the marvelous fathomless sky, into
which it seemed one would have gone away so joyfully, presented anything
new or interesting to Marya Vassilyevna who was sitting in the cart. For
thirteen years she had been schoolmistress, and there was no reckoning
how many times during all those years she had been to the town for her
salary; and whether it were spring as now, or a rainy autumn evening, or
winter, it was all the same to her, and she always--invariably--longed
for one thing only, to get to the end of her journey as quickly as could
be.

She felt as though she had been living in that part of the country for
ages and ages, for a hundred years, and it seemed to her that she knew
every stone, every tree on the road from the town to her school. Her
past was here, her present was here, and she could imagine no other
future than the school, the road to the town and back again, and again
the school and again the road....

She had got out of the habit of thinking of her past before she became
a schoolmistress, and had almost forgotten it. She had once had a father
and mother; they had lived in Moscow in a big flat near the Red Gate,
but of all that life there was left in her memory only something vague
and fluid like a dream. Her father had died when she was ten years old,
and her mother had died soon after.... She had a brother, an officer;
at first they used to write to each other, then her brother had given up
answering her letters, he had got out of the way of writing. Of her old
belongings, all that was left was a photograph of her mother, but it had
grown dim from the dampness of the school, and now nothing could be seen
but the hair and the eyebrows.

When they had driven a couple of miles, old Semyon, who was driving,
turned round and said:

“They have caught a government clerk in the town. They have taken him
away. The story is that with some Germans he killed Alexeyev, the Mayor,
in Moscow.”

“Who told you that?”

“They were reading it in the paper, in Ivan Ionov’s tavern.”

And again they were silent for a long time. Marya Vassilyevna thought of
her school, of the examination that was coming soon, and of the girl and
four boys she was sending up for it. And just as she was thinking about
the examination, she was overtaken by a neighboring landowner called
Hanov in a carriage with four horses, the very man who had been examiner
in her school the year before. When he came up to her he recognized her
and bowed.

“Good-morning,” he said to her. “You are driving home, I suppose.”

This Hanov, a man of forty with a listless expression and a face that
showed signs of wear, was beginning to look old, but was still handsome
and admired by women. He lived in his big homestead alone, and was not
in the service; and people used to say of him that he did nothing at
home but walk up and down the room whistling, or play chess with his
old footman. People said, too, that he drank heavily. And indeed at the
examination the year before the very papers he brought with him smelt of
wine and scent. He had been dressed all in new clothes on that occasion,
and Marya Vassilyevna thought him very attractive, and all the while
she sat beside him she had felt embarrassed. She was accustomed to see
frigid and sensible examiners at the school, while this one did not
remember a single prayer, or know what to ask questions about, and
was exceedingly courteous and delicate, giving nothing but the highest
marks.

“I am going to visit Bakvist,” he went on, addressing Marya Vassilyevna,
“but I am told he is not at home.”

They turned off the highroad into a by-road to the village, Hanov
leading the way and Semyon following. The four horses moved at a walking
pace, with effort dragging the heavy carriage through the mud. Semyon
tacked from side to side, keeping to the edge of the road, at one time
through a snowdrift, at another through a pool, often jumping out of the
cart and helping the horse. Marya Vassilyevna was still thinking
about the school, wondering whether the arithmetic questions at the
examination would be difficult or easy. And she felt annoyed with
the Zemstvo board at which she had found no one the day before. How
unbusiness-like! Here she had been asking them for the last two years
to dismiss the watchman, who did nothing, was rude to her, and hit
the schoolboys; but no one paid any attention. It was hard to find the
president at the office, and when one did find him he would say with
tears in his eyes that he hadn’t a moment to spare; the inspector
visited the school at most once in three years, and knew nothing
whatever about his work, as he had been in the Excise Duties Department,
and had received the post of school inspector through influence. The
School Council met very rarely, and there was no knowing where it met;
the school guardian was an almost illiterate peasant, the head of
a tanning business, unintelligent, rude, and a great friend of the
watchman’s--and goodness knows to whom she could appeal with complaints
or inquiries....

“He really is handsome,” she thought, glancing at Hanov.

The road grew worse and worse.... They drove into the wood. Here
there was no room to turn round, the wheels sank deeply in, water
splashed and gurgled through them, and sharp twigs struck them in the
face.

“What a road!” said Hanov, and he laughed.

The schoolmistress looked at him and could not understand why this queer
man lived here. What could his money, his interesting appearance, his
refined bearing do for him here, in this mud, in this God-forsaken,
dreary place? He got no special advantages out of life, and here, like
Semyon, was driving at a jog-trot on an appalling road and enduring
the same discomforts. Why live here if one could live in Petersburg or
abroad? And one would have thought it would be nothing for a rich man
like him to make a good road instead of this bad one, to avoid enduring
this misery and seeing the despair on the faces of his coachman and
Semyon; but he only laughed, and apparently did not mind, and wanted no
better life. He was kind, soft, naive, and he did not understand this
coarse life, just as at the examination he did not know the prayers.
He subscribed nothing to the schools but globes, and genuinely regarded
himself as a useful person and a prominent worker in the cause of
popular education. And what use were his globes here?

“Hold on, Vassilyevna!” said Semyon.

The cart lurched violently and was on the point of upsetting; something
heavy rolled on to Marya Vassilyevna’s feet--it was her parcel of
purchases. There was a steep ascent uphill through the clay; here in the
winding ditches rivulets were gurgling. The water seemed to have gnawed
away the road; and how could one get along here! The horses breathed
hard. Hanov got out of his carriage and walked at the side of the road
in his long overcoat. He was hot.

“What a road!” he said, and laughed again. “It would soon smash up one’s
carriage.”

“Nobody obliges you to drive about in such weather,” said Semyon
surlily. “You should stay at home.”

“I am dull at home, grandfather. I don’t like staying at home.”

Beside old Semyon he looked graceful and vigorous, but yet in his walk
there was something just perceptible which betrayed in him a being
already touched by decay, weak, and on the road to ruin. And all at once
there was a whiff of spirits in the wood. Marya Vassilyevna was filled
with dread and pity for this man going to his ruin for no visible cause
or reason, and it came into her mind that if she had been his wife or
sister she would have devoted her whole life to saving him from ruin.
His wife! Life was so ordered that here he was living in his great house
alone, and she was living in a God-forsaken village alone, and yet
for some reason the mere thought that he and she might be close to one
another and equals seemed impossible and absurd. In reality, life was
arranged and human relations were complicated so utterly beyond all
understanding that when one thought about it one felt uncanny and one’s
heart sank.

“And it is beyond all understanding,” she thought, “why God gives
beauty, this graciousness, and sad, sweet eyes to weak, unlucky, useless
people--why they are so charming.”

“Here we must turn off to the right,” said Hanov, getting into his
carriage. “Good-by! I wish you all things good!”

And again she thought of her pupils, of the examination, of the
watchman, of the School Council; and when the wind brought the sound
of the retreating carriage these thoughts were mingled with others. She
longed to think of beautiful eyes, of love, of the happiness which would
never be....

His wife? It was cold in the morning, there was no one to heat the
stove, the watchman disappeared; the children came in as soon as it
was light, bringing in snow and mud and making a noise: it was all so
inconvenient, so comfortless. Her abode consisted of one little room and
the kitchen close by. Her head ached every day after her work, and
after dinner she had heart-burn. She had to collect money from the
school-children for wood and for the watchman, and to give it to
the school guardian, and then to entreat him--that overfed, insolent
peasant--for God’s sake to send her wood. And at night she dreamed of
examinations, peasants, snowdrifts. And this life was making her grow
old and coarse, making her ugly, angular, and awkward, as though she
were made of lead. She was always afraid, and she would get up from
her seat and not venture to sit down in the presence of a member of
the Zemstvo or the school guardian. And she used formal, deferential
expressions when she spoke of any one of them. And no one thought her
attractive, and life was passing drearily, without affection, without
friendly sympathy, without interesting acquaintances. How awful it would
have been in her position if she had fallen in love!

“Hold on, Vassilyevna!”

Again a sharp ascent uphill....

She had become a schoolmistress from necessity, without feeling any
vocation for it; and she had never thought of a vocation, of serving the
cause of enlightenment; and it always seemed to her that what was most
important in her work was not the children, nor enlightenment, but the
examinations. And what time had she for thinking of vocation, of serving
the cause of enlightenment? Teachers, badly paid doctors, and their
assistants, with their terribly hard work, have not even the comfort of
thinking that they are serving an idea or the people, as their heads are
always stuffed with thoughts of their daily bread, of wood for the fire,
of bad roads, of illnesses. It is a hard-working, an uninteresting life,
and only silent, patient cart-horses like Mary Vassilyevna could put up
with it for long; the lively, nervous, impressionable people who talked
about vocation and serving the idea were soon weary of it and gave up
the work.


Semyon kept picking out the driest and shortest way, first by a meadow,
then by the backs of the village huts; but in one place the peasants
would not let them pass, in another it was the priest’s land and they
could not cross it, in another Ivan Ionov had bought a plot from the
landowner and had dug a ditch round it. They kept having to turn back.

They reached Nizhneye Gorodistche. Near the tavern on the dung-strewn
earth, where the snow was still lying, there stood wagons that had
brought great bottles of crude sulphuric acid. There were a great many
people in the tavern, all drivers, and there was a smell of vodka,
tobacco, and sheepskins. There was a loud noise of conversation and
the banging of the swing-door. Through the wall, without ceasing for a
moment, came the sound of a concertina being played in the shop.
Marya Vassilyevna sat down and drank some tea, while at the next table
peasants were drinking vodka and beer, perspiring from the tea they had
just swallowed and the stifling fumes of the tavern.

“I say, Kuzma!” voices kept shouting in confusion. “What there!” “The
Lord bless us!” “Ivan Dementyitch, I can tell you that!” “Look out, old
man!”

A little pock-marked man with a black beard, who was quite drunk, was
suddenly surprised by something and began using bad language.

“What are you swearing at, you there?” Semyon, who was sitting some way
off, responded angrily. “Don’t you see the young lady?”

“The young lady!” someone mimicked in another corner.

“Swinish crow!”

“We meant nothing...” said the little man in confusion. “I beg
your pardon. We pay with our money and the young lady with hers.
Good-morning!”

“Good-morning,” answered the schoolmistress.

“And we thank you most feelingly.”

Marya Vassilyevna drank her tea with satisfaction, and she, too,
began turning red like the peasants, and fell to thinking again about
firewood, about the watchman....

“Stay, old man,” she heard from the next table, “it’s the schoolmistress
from Vyazovye.... We know her; she’s a good young lady.”

“She’s all right!”

The swing-door was continually banging, some coming in, others going
out. Marya Vassilyevna sat on, thinking all the time of the same
things, while the concertina went on playing and playing. The patches of
sunshine had been on the floor, then they passed to the counter, to the
wall, and disappeared altogether; so by the sun it was past midday. The
peasants at the next table were getting ready to go. The little man,
somewhat unsteadily, went up to Marya Vassilyevna and held out his hand
to her; following his example, the others shook hands, too, at parting,
and went out one after another, and the swing-door squeaked and slammed
nine times.

“Vassilyevna, get ready,” Semyon called to her.

They set off. And again they went at a walking pace.

“A little while back they were building a school here in their Nizhneye
Gorodistche,” said Semyon, turning round. “It was a wicked thing that
was done!”

“Why, what?”

“They say the president put a thousand in his pocket, and the school
guardian another thousand in his, and the teacher five hundred.”

“The whole school only cost a thousand. It’s wrong to slander people,
grandfather. That’s all nonsense.”

“I don’t know,... I only tell you what folks say.”

But it was clear that Semyon did not believe the schoolmistress. The
peasants did not believe her. They always thought she received too large
a salary, twenty-one roubles a month (five would have been enough), and
that of the money that she collected from the children for the firewood
and the watchman the greater part she kept for herself. The guardian
thought the same as the peasants, and he himself made a profit off
the firewood and received payments from the peasants for being a
guardian--without the knowledge of the authorities.

The forest, thank God! was behind them, and now it would be flat, open
ground all the way to Vyazovye, and there was not far to go now. They
had to cross the river and then the railway line, and then Vyazovye was
in sight.

“Where are you driving?” Marya Vassilyevna asked Semyon. “Take the road
to the right to the bridge.”

“Why, we can go this way as well. It’s not deep enough to matter.”

“Mind you don’t drown the horse.”

“What?”

“Look, Hanov is driving to the bridge,” said Marya Vassilyevna, seeing
the four horses far away to the right. “It is he, I think.”

“It is. So he didn’t find Bakvist at home. What a pig-headed fellow he
is. Lord have mercy upon us! He’s driven over there, and what for? It’s
fully two miles nearer this way.”

They reached the river. In the summer it was a little stream easily
crossed by wading. It usually dried up in August, but now, after the
spring floods, it was a river forty feet in breadth, rapid, muddy, and
cold; on the bank and right up to the water there were fresh tracks of
wheels, so it had been crossed here.

“Go on!” shouted Semyon angrily and anxiously, tugging violently at the
reins and jerking his elbows as a bird does its wings. “Go on!”

The horse went on into the water up to his belly and stopped, but at
once went on again with an effort, and Marya Vassilyevna was aware of a
keen chilliness in her feet.

“Go on!” she, too, shouted, getting up. “Go on!”

They got out on the bank.

“Nice mess it is, Lord have mercy upon us!” muttered Semyon, setting
straight the harness. “It’s a perfect plague with this Zemstvo....”

Her shoes and goloshes were full of water, the lower part of her dress
and of her coat and one sleeve were wet and dripping: the sugar and
flour had got wet, and that was worst of all, and Marya Vassilyevna
could only clasp her hands in despair and say:

“Oh, Semyon, Semyon! How tiresome you are really!...”

The barrier was down at the railway crossing. A train was coming out
of the station. Marya Vassilyevna stood at the crossing waiting till
it should pass, and shivering all over with cold. Vyazovye was in sight
now, and the school with the green roof, and the church with its crosses
flashing in the evening sun: and the station windows flashed too, and
a pink smoke rose from the engine... and it seemed to her that
everything was trembling with cold.

Here was the train; the windows reflected the gleaming light like the
crosses on the church: it made her eyes ache to look at them. On the
little platform between two first-class carriages a lady was standing,
and Marya Vassilyevna glanced at her as she passed. Her mother! What a
resemblance! Her mother had had just such luxuriant hair, just such a
brow and bend of the head. And with amazing distinctness, for the first
time in those thirteen years, there rose before her mind a vivid picture
of her mother, her father, her brother, their flat in Moscow, the
aquarium with little fish, everything to the tiniest detail; she heard
the sound of the piano, her father’s voice; she felt as she had been
then, young, good-looking, well-dressed, in a bright warm room among her
own people. A feeling of joy and happiness suddenly came over her,
she pressed her hands to her temples in an ecstacy, and called softly,
beseechingly:

“Mother!”

And she began crying, she did not know why. Just at that instant Hanov
drove up with his team of four horses, and seeing him she imagined
happiness such as she had never had, and smiled and nodded to him as
an equal and a friend, and it seemed to her that her happiness, her
triumph, was glowing in the sky and on all sides, in the windows and on
the trees. Her father and mother had never died, she had never been a
schoolmistress, it was a long, tedious, strange dream, and now she had
awakened....

“Vassilyevna, get in!”

And at once it all vanished. The barrier was slowly raised. Marya
Vassilyevna, shivering and numb with cold, got into the cart. The
carriage with the four horses crossed the railway line; Semyon followed
it. The signalman took off his cap.

“And here is Vyazovye. Here we are.”



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