The Kiss and Other Stories/The Princess

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For works with similar titles, see The Princess.
For other English-language translations of this work, see The Princess (Chekhov).


THE PRINCESS

THROUGH the wide, the so-called "Red" gates of the monastery of N. came a calèche drawn by four well-fed, well-bred horses. While it was still far away the senior monks and lay brethren, grouped near the nobles' half of the monastery inn, guessed from the coachman and horses that the visitor was their well-known princess, Vera Gavriilovna.

An aged footman jumped down from the box and helped the princess to alight. The princess raised her dark veil, came up to the senior monks to receive their blessing, nodded kindly to the lay brethren, and went to her rooms.

"Well, were you longing to see your princess?" she said to the monks who carried her luggage. "It's a whole month since I've been here. But here I am, at last! . . . And where is the Father Archimandrite? Heavens, I burn with impatience! Wonderful, wonderful old man! You should be proud to have such an Archimandrite!"

When the Archimandrite appeared, the princess exclaimed joyfully, crossed her arms on her breast, and bent her head for his blessing.

“No, no! Let me kiss it!” she cried, seizing his hand and kissing it greedily thrice. “How glad, how glad I am, holy father, to see you at last! You, of course, have forgotten your princess; but I have all along been living my real life in this delightful monastery. How charming everything! Do you know, in this life for God, far from the world's vanities, there is a peculiar charm, holy father, a charm which I feel with my whole soul, but cannot express in words!”

The princess's cheeks grew red and tears came into her eyes. She spoke with passion and without pausing, and the seventy-year-old Archimandrite, serious, ugly, and bashful, kept silence, or interjected abruptly, as a soldier —

“Exactly so, your Excellency . . . I hear . . . I understand. . . .”

“How long will you honour us by staying?” he asked at last.

“Only to-night. In the morning I must drive over to Claudia Nikolaievna — we haven't met for ages. But after to-morrow I shall return, and stay three or four days. I want to rest my soul with you, holy father.”

The princess liked to stay in the monastery of N. Within the last two years she had come to love it so dearly that she drove over nearly every summer month, staying sometimes two days, sometimes three, sometimes all the week. The timid lay brethren, the silence, the low ceilings, the smell of cypress, the modest food, the cheap window curtains — all these touched her, awak-ened joyful emotions, and inclined her to meditation and kindly thoughts. Hardly had she been in her rooms half an hour before it seemed that she, too, had grown timid and modest, and that she smelt of cypress; the past dwindled away and lost its meaning; and the princess began to feel that despite her twenty-nine years, she was very like the old Archimandrite, and had been bom, as he, not for wealth and worldly greatness, but for a silent life, veiled from the world outside, a life of twilight, twilight as the rooms. . . .

So it is. Into the dark cell of an ascetic lost in prayer breaks some unexpected sun-ray; a bird perches near the window and sings its song: the grim ascetic cannot but smile, and in his heart, under the heavy burden of remorse, as from under a stone, springs a fountain of quiet, sinless joy. The princess felt that she brought hither some such consolation as the sun-ray, or the bird. Her happy, affable smile, her kindly looks, her voice, her humour, her figure — little, graceful, dressed in simple black — ^these must indeed awaken in these simple, severe people feelings of emotion and charm. “God has sent us an angel!” must be the thought of the monks. And, feeling that this must indeed be the thought of all, she smiled still more kindly, and tried to look like a bird.

Having taken tea and rested, the princess went for a walk. The sun had set. The monastery garden breathed to the princess moist odours of newly watered mignonette ; the even chanting of the monks borne from the chapel was pleasant, yet sad. The vesper service had begun. The dark windows with little hospitable lamps, the shadows, the old monk with the mug seated in the porch near the image — all expressed such deep, unrebelling restfulness that the princess, somehow, felt that she wanted to cry.

And outside the gates, on the path between wall and birches, evening had already fallen. The air darkened swiftly, swiftly. The princess walked down the path, sat on a bench, and thought.

She thought how good it would be to settle for life in this monastery, where all was silent and resigned as the summer night; to forget for ever her ingrate, dissolute prince, her great estates, the creditors who troubled her every day, her misfortunes, her maid Dasha, on whose face she had only that mprning seen an impudent grin. How good it would be to sit out life on this bench and peer between birch-trunks into the valley where the evening mist wandered in patches about; and far, far overhead, in a black, veil-like cloud, rooks flew home to their nests; to watch the two lay brethren, one on a piebald horse, the other on foot, who drove in the horses for the night, both enjoying freedom and playing like little children — their young voices rang loudly through the motionless air, and she could hear every word. How good to sit alone and lend ear to the stillness ; now a breeze blew and shook the tree-tops; now a frog rustled in last year's grass; now, beyond the wall, a clock struck the quarters. To sit here, motionless; to listen; to think, to think, to think.

An old woman with a wallet passed down the path. The princess thought that she would stop this old woman and say something kindly, something; helpful, and from the heart. But the woman did not look round, and disappeared at a turn in the path.

A little later a tall, grey-bearded man, in a straw hat, came down the path. When he reached the princess he took off his hat and bowed, and from the bald forehead and sharp, humped nose the princess saw that it was Doctor Mikhail Ivanovitch, five years ago her employé at Dubovki. She remembered bearing that this doctor's wife had died a year before, and she wished to show her sympathy and to console him.

“Doctor, you did not recognise me, I think?” she said, smiling kindly.

“Yes, princess, I did,” he euiswered. He raised his hat again.

“Thanks; I thought you had forgotten your princess. People remember only their enemies; they forget their friends. You came to pray!”

“I stay here every Saturday night — professionally. I am the monastery doctor.” “And how are you?” asked the princess, with a sigh. “I heard that you lost your wife. How sad!”

“Yes, princess; it was very sad for me.”

“What can we do? We must bear our sufferings meekly. Without God's will not one hair falls from a man's head.”

“Yes, princess.”

The princess's sighs and kindly, affable smile were met by the doctor coldly and drily. And his expression was cold and dry.

“What shall I say to him?” thought the princess.

“What ages since we last met!” she said at last. “Five whole years ! How much has happened, what changes have taken place— it frightens me to think of them! You know that I'm married . . . from a countess become a princess. And that I've already managed to part from my husband. . . .”

“Yes, I heard.”

“God sent me many trials. You have no doubt heard, too, that I am nearly ruined. To pay my unhappy husband's debts they sold Dubovki and Kiriakovo and Sophino. I have kept only Baranovo and Mikhailtsevo. It frightens me to look back; how many changes; how many misfortunes; how many mistakes!”

“Yes, princess, the mistakes were many.”

The princess reddened. She knew her mistakes; they were so intimate that she only could think and speak of them. But, unable to restrain herself, she asked —

“Of what mistakes do you speak?”

“You mentioned them yourself, therefore you must know.” The doctor spoke with a laugh. “Why dwell on them?”

“No; tell me, doctor. I shall be grateful. And, please, no ceremony; I love to hear the truth.”

“I am not your judge, princess.”

“Not my judge? But from your tone it's certain you know something. What is it?”

“If you insist, I'll tell you. But I am a bad hand at explaining myself, and may be misunderstood. . . .”

The doctor thought a moment, and began —

“There were many mistakes, but the greatest, in my opinion, was the general spirit which . . . reigned on all your estates. You see, I cannot express myself. What I want to say is that it was not love, but aversion to men which showed itself in everything. On this aversion was built your whole life system — aversion to human voices, to faces, to heads, to steps . . . in one word, to all that constitutes a man. At your doors and staircases stood overfed, insolent, idle lackeys whose business it was to keep out any one badly dressed; in your hall were high-backed chairs so that the footmen at your balls and receptions should not stain the walls with the backs of their heads ; the rooms had thick carpets to deaden human footsteps; every one who entered was warned to speak as softly and as little as possible, and that he should say nothing which might affect unpleasantly the imagination or nerves. And in your own room you gave no man your hand or asked him to sit, just as now you have neither given me your hand nor asked me to sit . . .”

“Please sit down if you will,” said the princess, extending her hand, with a smile. “You should not be angry over such trifles.”

“But am I angry?” laughed the doctor. He took off his hat, waved it, and continued hotly. “I tell you frankly I have long been waiting a chance to tell you everything — everything. . . . That is, I want to say that you look on your fellow-creatures much as Napoleon, who regarded them as food for cannon, with this difference: that Napoleon at least had ideas, but you — except aversion — have nothing.”

“I have aversion to men?” smiled the princess, shrugging her shoulders in surprise. “I?”

“Yes; you! You want facts.? Listen! In Mikhailtsevo living on alms ai'e three of your former cooks, who lost their sight in your kitchens from the heat. Every one healthy, strong, and handsome on your tens of thousands of acres is taken by you or your friends as footman, lackey, coachman. All these two-legged creatures are brought up in . . . lackeyism, overfed, coarsened, robbed of the image of God. . . . Young doctors, agriculturists, teachers, intelligent workmen of all kinds, my God, are torn from work, from honest toil, and bribed with a bit of bread to play in various dolls' comedies which would make any decent man blush! No young man can serve with you three years without turning into a hypocrite, a flatterer, an informer. . . . Is that right? Your Polish stewards, those base spies, all these Gaetans and Casimirs who gallop from morning to night over your tens of thousands of acres, and for your benefit alone suck blood out of every stone! . . . Excuse me for speaking incoherently, but that doesn't matter. The common people, in your opinion, are not human beings. Yes, and the princes, counts, and bishops who visit you, you look on as decorations and not as living men. But the chief thing . . . the thing that angers me most of all, is that you have property worth a million, yet do for your fellow-creatures nothing!”

Surprised, frightened, offended, the princess sat still. She was at a loss what to say or do. Never before had she been spoken to in that tone. The doctor's unpleasant, angry voice, his awkward, stammering words, hammered in her ears ; and it seemed from his gesticulations that he would strike her in the face with his hat.

“That is untrue!” she said gently and appealingly. “I have done much good to people, and you yourself know it.” “Delightful!” cried the doctor. “So you mean to say you regard your charitable work seriously, as something useful, not as a dolls' comedy? It was a comedy from beginning to end, a farce of love-my-neighbour. a farce so transparent that even children and stupid muzhik-women saw through it. Take your — what do you call it? — your hospital for homeless old women, in which you forced me to play the role of chief physician while you yourself played the rôle of patroness! O Lord our God, what a comical institution! You built a house with parquet floors, set a weathercock on the roof, and collected ten old village women, and set them to sleep under frieze counterpanes, between sheets of Dutch linen, and eat sugar-candy!”

The doctor laughed loudly into his hat, and stammered quickly —

“A comedy! The servants kept the sheets and counterpanes under lock and key to prevent the old women soiling them — let them sleep, old devil's pepper-castors, on the floor! And the old women daren't sit on their beds, or wear their jackets, or walk on the polished floor! All was kept for show, and hidden away as if the women were thieves; and the old women were fed and clothed secretly by charity, and day and night prayed to God to save them from prison, from the soul-saving exhortations of the well-fed rascals whom you commissioned to look after them. And the higher authorities, what did they do? It's too delightful for words. On two evenings a week up there galloped thirty-five thousand couriers to announce that to-morrow the princess — that is you — would visit the home. Which meant that to-morrow I must neglect my patients, dress myself up, and go on parade. Very well! I would arrive. The old women would sit in a row in clean, new dresses and wait. Near them would walk that retired garrison rat — the inspector — with his sugary, informer's grin. The old women would yawn and look at one another, afraid even to grumble! And we would all wait. Then up gallops the under-steward, half an hour later the senior steward, then the factor, then some one else, and yet another . . . gallopers without end! And all with the same severe, ceremonial faces! We would wait and wait, stand on one leg, then on the other, look at our watches — all this, of course, in dead silence, for we all hated one another. A whole hour would pass, then another hour, at last a caliche would appear far off, and . . . and . . .”

The doctor laughed dryly, and continued in a thin tenor —

“Down you'd get from your carriage; and the old witches, at a signal from the garrison rat, would sing, ‘How glorious is our Lord in Zion, The tongue cannot express . . .’ It was too delightful!”

The doctor laughed in a bass note, and waved his arm to imply that amusement forbade him to continue. His laugh was hard and heavy as the laugh of a bad man, and his teeth ground together. His voice, his face, his glittering, somewhat impudent eyes, showed how deeply he despised the princess, her home, and the old women. In what he had said so awkwardly and rudely, there was nothing really laughable, but he laughed with content, even with pleasure.

“And the school?” he resumed, out of breath with laughter. “Do you remember your attempt to teach the muzhiks' children? You must have taught them nicely, for soon all the boys ran away, and had to be flogged and bribed to go back to your school. And remember how you tried to feed unweaned children out of bottles — with your own hands! — while their mothers worked in the fields! You wandered about the village weeping that there were no children to be had — their mothers had taken them with them to the fields. And then the headman ordered them to leave their children behind for your amusement! Too delightful for words! All fled your bene&ctions as mice flee cats! And why? Not because people are ignorant and thankless as you imagined, but because in all your undertakings — forgive my frankness — there was not one spark of love or mercy. Only a wish to amuse yourself with living dolls! Nothing more! . . . A woman who doesn't know a man from a lapdog should not busy herself with charity. There is a great difference, I assure you, between men and lapdogs!” The princess's heart beat quickly; the hammering rang in her ears; and again it seemed that the doctor would strike her with his hat. He spoke quickly, passionately, and without impressiveness; he stammered and gesticulated too much; and all she realised was that she listened to a rude, ill-tempered, ill-bred man; what he wanted to say and what he said, she failed to understand.

“Go away!” she said in a tearful voice, lifting her hands as if to ward off the doctor's hat. “Go away!”

“And how did you behave to your employés?” continued the doctor excitedly. “You treated them not as human beings, but worse than outcasts are treated. Allow me, for instance, to ask you why you got rid of me? I served faithfully ten years, first your father, then yourself, and I served honestly, without holiday or rest. I earned the love of all for a hundred versts around; and then . . . suddenly, one fine day, I am told I am wanted no more. And why? To this day I don't know. I, a doctor of medicine, a noble, a graduate of Moscow, the father of a family, I, it appears, am such an insignificant underling that I can be thrown out by the scruff of the neck without a word of explanation! Why make ceremony with me? I heard later that my wife, without my knowledge, went to you three times to petition for me, and that you did not receive her once. And she cried, I was told, in the hall. And for that I will never forgive her, never! never!”

The doctor stopped, and, grinding his teeth, tried to find something more vindictive and painful. The moment he succeeded, his cold, frowning face shone with pleasure.

“Take your relations with this monastery!” he began eagerly. “You spare no one, and the holier the place the more certain it is to suffer from your charity and angel ways. Why do you come here? What do you want with these monks, let me ask? What is Hecuba to you, and you to Hecuba? Again the same broad farce, the same pose, the same scoffing at human souls, and nothing more ! You do not believe in these monks' God; your heart has a god of its own discovered at spiritualist seances; on the Church's mysteries you look condescendingly, you ignore the services, you sleep till mid-day. . . . Why do you come here? . . . Why to a strange monastery with your own private god, imagining the monastery thinks it a great honour? Ask yourself, if nothing else, what your visits cost these monks! It pleased you to come here to-day, so two days ago a horseman had to be sent ahead to warn the monks. They spent all yesterday preparing your rooms, and waiting. To-day comes your advance-guard, an impudent serving-maid who fusses about the yard, asks questions, orders people about. . . . I cannot tolerate it. The monks wasted all to-day looking out for you. If you're received without proper ceremony, woe to every one! You would complain to the Bishop. ‘Your holiness, the monks don't love me! True, I am a great sinner; but I am so unhappy!’ Already one monastery got a reprimand on your account. The Archimandrite here is a busy, studious man; he has not a moment free; yet you send for him to your rooms! No respect even for age and rank! . . . If you did a lot for this monastery, there might be some excuse. But all this time the monks have not had a hundred roubles from you!

When the princess was troubled, puzzled, or offended; when she was at a loss what to do, she usually wept. And here at last she covered her face, and cried a thin, childish cry. The doctor held his peace, and looked at her. His face darkened.

“Forgive me, princess,” he said in a restrained voice. “I forgot myself, and gave way to wicked feelings. That was not right.”

And with a confused cough, and his hat still in his hand, he walked quickly away.

The sky was already strewn with stars. The moon, it seemed, rose behind the monastery, for the sky above the roof was pale, transparent, and tender. Bats flew noiselessly past the white monastery walls.

The clock slowly struck three-quarters. It was a quarter to eight. The princess rose, and walked slowly to the gate. She was offended, and cried; and it seemed that trees and stars and bats felt pity for her, and that the clock, chiming musically, showed its compassion. She wept; and thought how good it would be to enter the monastery for life; on still summer evenings she would walk alone the garden paths, offended, insulted, uncomprehended on earth, with only God and the stars in heaven to see the sufferer's tears. In the chapel the vesper service continued. The princess stopped and listened to the chanting; how fine these voices sounded in the motionless, dark air! How sweet to weep and suffer, and listen to these hymns!

When she returned to her rooms she looked at her tear-stained face in a mirror, powdered it, and sat down to supper. The monks knew how she loved pickled sterlet, little mushrooms, Malaga, and simple honey gingerbread which smelt of cypress in the mouth; and each time she came they laid before her these. As she ate the mushrooms and drank the Malaga, the princess thought that she would soon be ruined and forsaken ; that the stewards, agents, clerks, and maids for whom she had done so much would betray her, and speak to her insolently; that the whole world would fall upon her, condemn her, turn her to scorn; and that she would give up her title, luxury, society, and retire to this monastery, uttering to no one a word of reproach ; that she would pray for her enemies; that suddenly all would understand her, and beg for forgiveness, but it would be too late. . . .

After supper she fell upon her knees in the ikon-corner and read two chapters of the Gospel. Her maid got ready her room, and she went to bed. The princess stretched herself under the white counterpane, sighed sweetly and deeply, as people sigh after tears, then closed her eyes and went to sleep.

She awoke next morning, and looked at her watch: it was half-past eight. Across the carpet fell a narrow, bright belt of light, which came from the window but barely lighted the room. Behind the black curtains buzzed flies.

“It is early,” she said to herself, and closed her eyes.

She stretched herself, surrendered herself to the feeling of comfort and cosiness; and recalled last night's meeting with the doctor and the thoughts which had lulled her to sleep; and she remembered that she was unhappy. Her husband in St. Petersburg, her stewards, doctors, neighbours, official friends, all returned to her. A long line of faces swept through her imagination. She smiled softly, and thought that if all these men could read her heart and understand her, she would have them at her feet.

A quarter of an hour before midday she called her maid.

“Come, dress me, Dasha!” she said lazily. “No . . . first tell them to harness the horses. I am going to Claudia Nikolaievna's.”

Once outside her rooms the bright daylight made her blink; and she smiled with pleasure — the day was wonderfully fine. She looked through her blinking eyes at the monks who crowded on the steps to see her oft; she nodded her head kindly and said —

“Good-bye, my friends! For two days only!”

It was a pleasant surprise also that the doctor came to see her off. His face was pale and severe.

“Princess!” he began, with a guilty smile, taking off his hat. “I have been waiting for you. . . . Forgive me. . . . An evil, revengeful feeling carried me away last night, and I talked . . . nonsense to you. . . . I ask your pardon!”

The princess again smiled kindly, and offered her hand. The doctor kissed it, and reddened.

Doing her best to look like a bird, the princess swept into the carriage, and nodded her head to all. In her heart again reigned joy, warmth, and brightness ; and she felt that her smile was more than ever caressing and tender. As the carriage rolled through the yard, then by the dusty road past huts and gardens, past long carters' teams, past strings of pilgrims on their way to prayer, she continued to blink and smile. What greater joy, she reflected, than to bring with oneself warmth and light and comfort, to forgive offences, to smile kindly to foes. The road-side peasants bowed, the caUche rocked easily; its wheels raised whirls of dust borne by the wind upon the golden rye; and the princess felt that she rocked not on the carriage cushions but on the clouds above, and that she herself was a light, transparent cloud.

“How happy I am!” she whispered, closing her eyes. “How happy I am!”