The Bet and Other Stories/Misfortune

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For other English-language translations of this work, see Misfortune (Chekhov).


MISFORTUNE


Sophia Pietrovna, the wife of the solicitor Loubianzev, a handsome young woman of about twenty-five, was walking quickly along a forest path with her bungalow neighbour, the barrister Ilyin. It was just after four. In the distance, above the path, white feathery clouds gathered; from behind them some bright blue pieces of cloud showed through. The clouds were motionless, as if caught on the tops of the tall, aged fir trees. It was calm and warm.

In the distance the path was cut across by a low railway embankment, along which at this hour, for some reason or other, a sentry strode. Just behind the embankment a big, six-towered church with a rusty roof shone white.

"I did not expect to meet you here," Sophia Pietrovna was saying, looking down and touching the last year's leaves with the end of her parasol. "But now I am glad to have met you. I want to speak to you seriously and finally. Ivan Mikhailovich, if you really love and respect me I implore you to stop pursuing me! You follow me like a shadow—there's such a wicked look in your eye—you make love to me—write extraordinary letters and . . . I don't know how all this is going to—end Good Heavens! What can all this lead to?"

Ilyin was silent. Sophia Pietrovna took a few steps and continued:

"And this sudden complete change has happened in two or three weeks after five years of friendship. I do not know you any more, Ivan Mikhailovich."

Sophia Pietrovna glanced sideways at her companion. He was staring intently, screwing up his eyes at the feathery clouds. The expression of his face was angry, capricious and distracted, like that of a man who suffers and at the same time must listen to nonsense.

"It is annoying that you yourself can't realise it!" Madame Loubianzev continued, shrugging her shoulders. "Please understand that you're not playing a very nice game. I am married, I love and respect my husband. I have a daughter. Don't you really care in the slightest for all this? Besides, as an old friend, you know my views on family life . . . on the sanctity of the home, generally."

Ilyin gave an angry grunt and sighed:

"The sanctity of the home," he murmured, "Good Lord!"

"Yes, yes. I love and respect my husband and at any rate the peace of my family life is recious to me. I'd sooner let myself be killed than be the cause of Anrey's or his daughter's unhappiness. So, please, Ivan Mikhailovich, for goodness' sake, leave me alone. Let us be good and dear friends, and give up these sighings and gaspings which don't suit you. It's settled and done with! Not another word about it. Let us talk of something else!"

Sophia Pietrovna again glanced sideways at Ilyin. He was looking up. He was pale, and angrily he bit his trembling lips. Madame Loubianzev could not understand why he was disturbed and angry? but his pallor moved her.

"Don't be cross. Let's be friends," she said, sweetly.

"Agreed! Here is my hand."

Ilyin took her tiny plump hand in both his, pressed it and slowly raised it to his lips.

"I'm not a schoolboy," he murmured. "I'm not in the least attracted by the idea of friendship with the woman I love."

"That's enough. Stop! It is all settled and done with. We have come as far as the bench. Let us sit down . . ."

A sweet sense of repose filled Sophia Pietrovna's soul. The most difficult and delicate thing was already said. The tormenting question was settled and done with. Now she could breathe easily and look straight at Ilyin. She looked at him, and the egotistical sense of superiority that a woman feels over her lover caressed her pleasantly. She liked the way this big strong man with a virile angry face and a huge black beard sat obediently at her side and hung his head. They were silent for a little while. "Nothing is yet settled and done with," Ilyin began. "You are reading me a sermon. 'I love and respect my husband . . . the sanctity of the home. . . .' I know all that for myself and I can tell you more. Honestly and sincerely I confess that I consider my conduct as criminal and immoral. What else? But why say what is known already? Instead of sermonizing you had far better tell me what I am to do."

"I have already told you. Go away."

"I have gone. You know quite well. I have started five times and half-way there I have come back again. I can show you the through tickets. I have kept them all safe. But I haven't the power to run away from you. I struggle frightfully, but what in Heaven's name is the use? If I cannot harden myself, if I'm weak and faint-hearted. I can't fight nature. Do you understand? I cannot! I run away from her and she holds me back by my coattails. Vile, vulgar weakness."

Ilyin blushed, got up, and began walking by the bench:

"How I hate and despise myself. Good Lord, I'm like a vicious boy—running after another man's wife, writing idiotic letters, degrading myself. Ach!" He clutched his head, grunted and sat down.

"And now comes your lack of sincerity into the bargain," he continued with bitterness. "If you don't think I am playing a nice game—why are you here? What drew you? In my letters I only ask you for a straightforward answer: Yes, or No; and instead of giving it me, every day you contrive that we shall meet 'by chance' and you treat me to quotations from a moral copy-book."

Madame Loubianzev reddened and got frightened. She suddenly felt the kind of awkwardness that a modest woman would feel at being suddenly discovered naked.

"You seem to suspect some deceit on my side," she murmured. "I have always given you a straight answer; and I asked you for one today."

"Ah, does one ask such things? If you had said to me at once 'Go away,' I would have gone long ago, but you never told me to. Never once have you been frank. Strange irresolution. My God, either you're playing with me, or. . . ."

Ilyin did not finish, and rested his head in his hands. Sophia Pietrovna recalled her behaviour all through. She remembered that she had felt all these days not only in deed but even in her most intimate thoughts opposed to Ilyin's love. But at the same moment she knew that there was a grain of truth in the barrister's words. And not knowing what kind of truth it was she could not think, no matter how much she thought about it, what to say to him in answer to his complaint. It was awkward being silent, so she said shrugging her shoulders:

"So I'm to blame for that too?"

"I don't blame you for your insincerity," sighed Ilyin. "It slipped out unconsciously. Your insincerity is natural to you, in the natural order of things as well. If all mankind were to agree suddenly to become serious, everything would go to the Devil, to ruin."

Sophia Pietrovna was not in the mood for philosophy; but she was glad of the opportunity to change the conversation and asked:

"Why indeed?"

"Because only savages and animals are sincere. Since civilisation introduced into society the demand, for instance, for such a luxury as woman's virtue, sincerity has been out of place."

Angrily Ilyin began to thrust his stick into the sand. Madame Loubianzev listened without understanding much of it; she liked the conversation. First of all, she was pleased that a gifted man should speak to her, an average woman, about intellectual things; also it gave her great pleasure to watch how the pale, lively, still angry, young face was working. Much she did not understand; but the fine courage of modern man was revealed to her, the courage by which he without reflection or surmise solves the great questions and constructs his simple conclusions.

Suddenly she discovered that she was admiring him, and it frightened her.

"Pardon, but I don't really understand," she hastened to say. "Why did you mention insincerity? I entreat you once more, be a dear, good friend and leave me alone. Sincerely, I ask it."

"Good—I'll do my best. But hardly anything will come of it. Either I'll put a bullet through my brains or . . . I'll start drinking in the stupidest possible way. Things will end badly for me. Everything has its limit, even a struggle with nature. Tell me now, how can one struggle with madness? If you've drunk wine, how can you get over the excitement? What can I do if your image has grown into my soul, and stands incessantly before my eyes, night and day, as plain as that fir tree there? Tell me then what thing I must do to get out of this wretched, unhappy state, when all my thoughts, desires, and dreams belong, not to me, but to some devil that has got hold of me? I love you, I love you so much that I've turned away from my path, given up my career and my closest friends, forgot my God. Never in my life have I loved so much."

Sophia Pietrovna, who was not expecting this turn, drew her body away from Ilyin, and glanced at him frightened. Tears shone in his eyes. His lips trembled, and a hungry, suppliant expression showed over all his face.

"I love you," he murmured, bringing his own eyes near to her big, frightened ones. "You are so beautiful. I'm suffering now; but I swear I could remain so all my life, suffering and looking into your eyes, but . . . Keep silent, I implore you."

Sophia Pietrovna as if taken unawares began, quickly, quickly, to think out words with which to stop him. "I shall go away," she decided, but no sooner had she moved to get up, than Ilyin was on his knees at her feet already. He embraced her knees, looked into her eyes and spoke passionately, ardently, beautifully. She did not hear his words, for her fear and agitation. Somehow now at this dangerous moment when her knees pleasantly contracted, as in a warm bath, she sought with evil intention to read some meaning into her sensation. She was angry because the whole of her instead of protesting virtue was filled with weakness, laziness, and emptiness, like a drunken man to whom the ocean is but knee-deep; only in the depths of her soul, a little remote malignant voice teased: "Why don't you go away? Then this is right, is it?"

Seeking in herself an explanation she could not understand why she had not withdrawn the hand to which Ilyin's lips clung like a leech, nor why, at the same time as Ilyin, she looked hurriedly right and left to see that they were not observed.

The fir-trees and the clouds stood motionless, and gazed at them severely like broken-down masters who see something going on, but have been bribed not to report to the head. The sentry on the embankment stood like a stick and seemed to be staring at the bench. "Let him look!" thought Sophia Pietrovna.

"But . . . But listen," she said at last with despair in her voice. "What will this lead to? What will happen afterwards?"

"I don't know. I don't know," he began to whisper, waving these unpleasant questions aside.

The hoarse, jarring whistle of a railway engine became audible. This cold, prosaic sound of the everyday world made Madame Loubianzev start.

"It's time, I must go," she said, getting up quickly. "The train is coming. Andrey is arriving. He will want his dinner."

Sophia Pietrovna turned her blazing cheeks to the embankment. First the engine came slowly into sight, after it the carriages. It was not a bungalow train, but a goods train. In a long row, one after another like the days of man's life, the cars drew past the white background of the church, and there seemed to be no end to them.

But at last the train disappeared, and the end car with the guard and the lighted lamps disappeared into the green. Sophia Pietrovna turned sharply and not looking at Ilyin began to walk quickly back along the path. She had herself in control again. Red with shame, offended, not by Ilyin, no! but by the cowardice and shamelessness with which she, a good, respectable woman allowed a stranger to embrace her knees. She had only one thought now, to reach her bungalow and her family as quickly as possible. The barrister could hardly keep up with her. Turning from the path on to a little track, she glanced at him so quickly that she noticed only the sand on his knees, and she motioned with her hand at him to let her be.

Running into the house Sophia Pietrovna stood for about five minutes motionless in her room, looking now at the window then at the writing table. . . ." You disgraceful woman," she scolded herself; "disgraceful!" In spite of herself she recollected every detail, hiding nothing, how all these days she had been against Ilyin's love-making, yet she was somehow drawn to meet him and explain; but besides this when he was lying at her feet she felt an extraordinary pleasure. She recalled everything, not sparing herself, and now, stifled with shame, she could have slapped her own face.

"Poor Andrey," she thought, trying, as she remembered her husband, to give her face the tenderest possible expression—" Varya, my poor darling child, does not know what a mother she has. Forgive me, my dears. I love you very much . . . very much! . . ."

And wishing to convince herself that she was still a good wife and mother, that corruption had not yet touched those "sanctities" of hers, of which she had spoken to Ilyin, Sophia Pietrovna ran into the kitchen and scolded the cook for not having laid the table for Andrey Ilyitch. She tried to imagine her husband's tired, hungry look, and pitying him aloud, she laid the table herself, a thing which she had never done before. Then she found her daughter Varya, lifted her up in her hands and kissed her passionately; the child seemed to her heavy and cold, but she would not own it to herself, and she began to tell her what a good, dear, splendid father she had.

But when, soon after, Andrey Ilyitch arrived, she barely greeted him. The flow of imaginary feelings had ebbed away without convincing her of anything; she was only exasperated and enraged by the lie. She sat at the window, suffered, and raged. Only in distress can people understand how difficult it is to master their thoughts and feelings. Sophia Pietrovna said afterwards a confusion was going on inside her as hard to define as to count a cloud of swiftly flying sparrows. Thus from the fact that she was delighted at her husband's arrival and pleased with the way he behaved at dinner, she suddenly concluded that she had begun to hate him. Andrey Ilyitch, languid with hunger and fatigue, while waiting for the soup, fell upon the sausage and ate it greedily, chewing loudly and moving his temples.

"My God," thought Sophia Pietrovna. "I do love and respect him, but . . . why does he chew so disgustingly."

Her thoughts were no less disturbed than her feelings. Madame Loubianzev, like all who have no experience of the struggle with unpleasant thought, did her best not to think of her unhappiness, and the more zealously she tried, the more vivid Ilyin became to her imagination, the sand on his knees, the feathery clouds, the train. . . .

"Why did I—idiot—go today?" she teased herself. "And am I really a person who can't answer for herself?"

Fear has big eyes. When Andrey Ilyitch had finished the last course, she had already resolved to tell him everything and so escape from danger.

"Andrey, I want to speak to you seriously," she began after dinner, when her husband was taking off his coat and boots in order to have a lie down.

"Well?"

"Let's go away from here!"

"How—where to? It's still too early to go to town."

"No. Travel or something like that."

"Travel," murmured the solicitor, stretching himself. "I dream of it myself, but where shall I get the money, and who'll look after my business."

After a little reflection he added:

"Yes, really you are bored. Go by yourself if you want to."

Sophia Pietrovna agreed; but at the same time she saw that Ilyin would be glad of the opportunity to travel in the same train with her, in the same carriage. . . .

She pondered and looked at her husband, who was full fed but still languid. For some reason her eyes stopped on his feet, tiny, almost womanish, in stupid socks. On the toe of both socks little threads were standing out. Under the drawn blind a bumble bee was knocking against the window pane and buzzing. Sophia Pietrovna stared at the threads, listened to the bumble bee and pictured her journey . . . Day and night Ilyin sits opposite, without taking his eyes from her, angry with his weakness and pale with the pain of his soul. He brands himself as a libertine, accuses her, tears his hair; but when the dark comes he seizes the chance when the passengers go to sleep or alight at a station and falls on his knees before her and clasps her feet, as he did by the bench . . .

She realised that she was dreaming . . .

"Listen. I am not going by myself," she said. "You must come, too!"

"Sophochka, that's all imagination!" sighed Loubianzev. "You must be serious and only ask for the possible . . ." "You'll come when you find out!" thought Sophia Pietrovna.

Having decided to go away at all costs, she began to feel free from danger; her thoughts fell gradually into order, she became cheerful and even allowed herself to think about everything. Whatever she may think or dream about, she is going all the same. While her husband still slept, little by little, evening came . . .

She sat in the drawing-room playing the piano. Outside the window the evening animation, the sound of music, but chiefly the thought of her own cleverness in mastering her misery gave the final touch to her joy. Other women, her easy conscience told her, in a position like her own would surely not resist, they would spin round like a whirlwind; but she was nearly burnt up with shame, she suffered and now she had escaped from a danger which perhaps was non-existent! Her virtue and resolution moved her so much that she even glanced at herself in the glass three times.

When it was dark visitors came. The men sat down to cards in the dining-room, the ladies were in the drawing room and on the terrace. Ilyin came last, he was stern and gloomy and looked ill. He sat down on a corner of the sofa and did not get up for the whole evening. Usually cheerful and full of conversation, he was now silent, frowning, and rubbing his eyes. When he had to answer a question he smiled with difficulty and only with his upper lip, answering abruptly and spitefully. He made about five jokes in all, but his jokes seemed crude and insolent. It seemed to Sophia Pietrovna that he was on the brink of hysteria. But only now as she sat at the piano did she acknowledge that the unhappy man was not in the mood to joke, that he was sick in his soul, he could find no place for himself. It was for her sake he was ruining the best days of his career and his youth, wasting his last farthing on a bungalow, had left his mother and sisters uncared for, and, above all, was breaking down under the martyrdom of his struggle. From simple, common humanity she ought to take him seriously. . . .

All this was clear to her, even to paining her. If she were to go up to Ilyin now and say to him "No," there would be such strength in her voice that it would be hard to disobey. But she did not go up to him and she did not say it, did not even think it . . . The petty selfishness of a young nature seemed never to have been revealed in her as strongly as that evening. She admitted that Ilyin was unhappy and that he sat on the sofa as if on hot coals. She was sorry for him, but at the same time the presence of the man who loved her so desperately filled her with a triumphant sense of her own power. She felt her youth, her beauty, her inaccessibility, and—since she had decided to go away—she gave herself full rein this evening. She coquetted, laughed continually, she sang with singular emotion, and as one inspired. Everything made her gay and everything seemed funny. It amused her to recall the incident of the bench, the sentry looking on. The visitors seemed funny to her, Ilyin's insolent jokes, his tie pin which she had never seen before. The pin was a little red snake with tiny diamond eyes; the snake seemed so funny that she was ready to kiss and kiss it.

Sophia Pietrovna, nervously sang romantic songs, with a kind of half-intoxication, and as if jeering at another's sorrow she chose sad, melancholy songs that spoke of lost hopes, of the past, of old age. . . . "And old age is approaching nearer and nearer," she sang. What had she to do with old age?

"There's something wrong going on in me," she thought now and then through laughter and singing.

At twelve o'clock the visitors departed. Ilyin was the last to go. She still felt warm enough about him to go with him to the lower step of the terrace. She had the idea of telling him that she was going away with her husband, just to see what effect this news would have upon him.

The moon was hiding behind the clouds, but it was so bright that Sophia Pietrovna could see the wind playing with the tails of his overcoat and with the creepers on the terrace. It was also plain how pale Ilyin was, and how he twisted his upper-lip, trying to smile.

"Sonia, Sonichka, my dear little woman," he murmured, not letting her speak. "My darling, my pretty one."

In a paroxysm of tenderness with tears in his voice, he showered her with endearing words each tenderer than the other, and was already speaking to her as if she were his wife or his mistress. Suddenly and unexpectedly to her, he put one arm round her and with the other hand he seized her elbow.

"My dear one, my beauty," he began to whisper, kissing the nape of her neck; "be sincere, come to me now."

She slipped out of his embrace and lifted her head to break out in indignation and revolt. But indignation did not come, and of all her praiseworthy virtue and purity, there was left only enough for her to say that which all average women say in similar circumstances:

"You must be mad."

"But really let us go," continued Ilyin. "Just now and over there by the bench I felt convinced that you, Sonia, were as helpless as myself. You too will be all the worse for it. You love me, and you are making a useless bargain with your conscience."

Seeing that she was leaving him he seized her by her lace sleeve and ended quickly:

"If not to-day, then to-morrow; but you will have to give in. What's the good of putting if off? My dear, my darling Sonia, the verdict has been pronounced. Why {hws|post|postpone}} postpone the execution? Why deceive yourself?"

Sophia Pietrovna broke away from him and suddenly disappeared inside the door. She returned to the drawing-room, shut the piano mechanically, stared for a long time at the cover of a music book, and sat down. She could neither stand nor think. . . . From her agitation and passion remained only an awful weakness mingled with laziness and tiredness. Her conscience whispered to her that she had behaved wickedly and foolishly to-night, like a mad-woman; that just now she had been kissed on the terrace, and even now she had some strange sensation in her waist and in her elbow. Not a soul was in the drawing-room. Only a single candle was burning. Madame Loubianzev sat on a little round stool before the piano without strirring as if waiting for something, and as if taking advantage of her extreme exhaustion and the dark a heavy unconquerable desire began to possess her. Like a boa-constrictor, it enchained her limbs and soul. It grew every second and was no longer threatening, but stood clear before her in all its nakedness.

She sat thus for half an hour, not moving, and not stopping herself from thinking of Ilyin. Then she got up lazily and went slowly into the bed-room. Andrey Ilyitch was in bed already. She sat by the window and gave herself to her desire. She felt no more "confusion." All her feelings and thoughts pressed lovingly round some clear purpose. She still had a mind to struggle, but instantly she waved her hand impotently, realising the strength and the determination of the foe. To fight him power and strength were necessary, but her birth, upbringing and life had given her nothing on which to lean.

"You're immoral, you're horrible," she tormented herself for her weakness. "You're a nice sort, you are!"

So indignant was her insulted modesty at this weakness that she called herself all the bad names that she knew and she related to herself many insulting, degrading truths. Thus she told herself that she never was moral, and she had not fallen before only because there was no pretext, that her day-long struggle had been nothing but a game and a comedy. . . .

"Let us admit that I struggled," she thought, "but what kind of a fight was it? Even prostitutes struggle before they sell themselves, and still they do sell themselves. It's a pretty sort of fight. Like milk, turns in a day." She realised that it was not love that drew her from her home nor Ilyin's personality, but the sensations which await her. . . . A little week-end type like the rest of them.

"When the young bird's mother was killed," a hoarse tenor finished singing.

If I am going, it's time, thought Sophia Pietrovna. Her heart began to beat with a frightful force.

"Andrey," she almost cried. "Listen. Shall we go away? Shall we? Yes?"

"Yes. . . . I've told you already. You go alone."

"But listen," she said, "if you don't come too, you may lose me. I seem to be in love already."

"Who with?" Andrey Ilyitch asked.

"It must be all the same for you, who with," Sophia Pietrovna cried out.

Andrey Ilyitch got up, dangled his feet over the side of the bed, with a look of surprise at the dark form of his wife.

"Imagination," he yawned.

He could not believe her, but all the same he was frightened. After having thought for a while, and asked his wife some unimportant questions, he gave his views of the family, of infidelity. . . . He spoke sleepily for about ten minutes and then lay down again. His remarks had no success. There are a great many opinions in this world, and more than half of them belong to people who have never known misery.

In spite of the late hour, the bungalow people were still moving behind their windows. Sophia Pietrovna put on a long coat and stood for a while, thinking. She still had force of mind to say to her sleepy husband:

"Are you asleep? I'm going for a little walk. Would you like to come with me?"

That was her last hope. Receiving no answer, he walked out. It was breezy and cool. She did not feel the breeze or the darkness but walked on and on. . . . . An irresistible power drove her, and it seemed to her that if she stopped that power would push her in the back. "You're an immoral woman," she murmured mechanically. "You're horrible."

She was choking for breath, burning with shame, did not feel her feet under her, for that which drove her along was stronger than her shame, her reason, her fear. . . .