An artist called Yegor Savvitch, who was spending his summer holidays at the house of an officer’s widow, was sitting on his bed, given up to the depression of morning. It was beginning to look like autumn out of doors. Heavy, clumsy clouds covered the sky in thick layers; there was a cold, piercing wind, and with a plaintive wail the trees were all bending on one side. He could see the yellow leaves whirling round in the air and on the earth. Farewell, summer! This melancholy of nature is beautiful and poetical in its own way, when it is looked at with the eyes of an artist, but Yegor Savvitch was in no humour to see beauty. He was devoured by ennui and his only consolation was the thought that by to-morrow he would not be there. The bed, the chairs, the tables, the floor, were all heaped up with cushions, crumpled bed-clothes, boxes. The floor had not been swept, the cotton curtains had been taken down from the windows. Next day he was moving, to town.
His landlady, the widow, was out. She had gone off somewhere to hire horses and carts to move next day to town. Profiting by the absence of her severe mamma, her daughter Katya, aged twenty, had for a long time been sitting in the young man’s room. Next day the painter was going away, and she had a great deal to say to him. She kept talking, talking, and yet she felt that she had not said a tenth of what she wanted to say. With her eyes full of tears, she gazed at his shaggy head, gazed at it with rapture and sadness. And Yegor Savvitch was shaggy to a hideous extent, so that he looked like a wild animal. His hair hung down to his shoulder-blades, his beard grew from his neck, from his nostrils, from his ears; his eyes were lost under his thick overhanging brows. It was all so thick, so matted, that if a fly or a beetle had been caught in his hair, it would never have found its way out of this enchanted thicket. Yegor Savvitch listened to Katya, yawning. He was tired. When Katya began whimpering, he looked severely at her from his overhanging eyebrows, frowned, and said in a heavy, deep bass:
“I cannot marry.”
“Why not?” Katya asked softly.
“Because for a painter, and in fact any man who lives for art, marriage is out of the question. An artist must be free.”
“But in what way should I hinder you, Yegor Savvitch?”
“I am not speaking of myself, I am speaking in general. . . . Famous authors and painters have never married.”
“And you, too, will be famous — I understand that perfectly. But put yourself in my place. I am afraid of my mother. She is stern and irritable. When she knows that you won’t marry me, and that it’s all nothing . . . she’ll begin to give it to me. Oh, how wretched I am! And you haven’t paid for your rooms, either! . . . .”
“Damn her! I’ll pay.”
Yegor Savvitch got up and began walking to and fro.
“I ought to be abroad!” he said. And the artist told her that nothing was easier than to go abroad. One need do nothing but paint a picture and sell it.
“Of course!” Katya assented. “Why haven’t you painted one in the summer?”
“Do you suppose I can work in a barn like this?” the artist said ill-humouredly. “And where should I get models?”
Some one banged the door viciously in the storey below. Katya, who was expecting her mother’s return from minute to minute, jumped up and ran away. The artist was left alone. For a long time he walked to and fro, threading his way between the chairs and the piles of untidy objects of all sorts. He heard the widow rattling the crockery and loudly abusing the peasants who had asked her two roubles for each cart. In his disgust Yegor Savvitch stopped before the cupboard and stared for a long while, frowning at the decanter of vodka.
“Ah, blast you!” he heard the widow railing at Katya. “Damnation take you!”
The artist drank a glass of vodka, and the dark cloud in his soul gradually disappeared, and he felt as though all his inside was smiling within him. He began dreaming. . . . His fancy pictured how he would become great. He could not imagine his future works but he could see distinctly how the papers would talk of him, how the shops would sell his photographs, with what envy his friends would look after him. He tried to picture himself in a magnificent drawing-room surrounded by pretty and adoring women; but the picture was misty, vague, as he had never in his life seen a drawing-room. The pretty and adoring women were not a success either, for, except Katya, he knew no adoring woman, not even one respectable girl. People who know nothing about life usually picture life from books, but Yegor Savvitch knew no books either. He had tried to read Gogol, but had fallen asleep on the second page.
“It won’t burn, drat the thing!” the widow bawled down below, as she set the samovar. “Katya, give me some charcoal!”
The dreamy artist felt a longing to share his hopes and dreams with some one. He went downstairs into the kitchen, where the stout widow and Katya were busy about a dirty stove in the midst of charcoal fumes from the samovar. There he sat down on a bench close to a big pot and began:
“It’s a fine thing to be an artist! I can go just where I like, do what I like. One has not to work in an office or in the fields. I’ve no superiors or officers over me. . . . I’m my own superior. And with all that I’m doing good to humanity!”
And after dinner he composed himself for a ” rest.” He usually slept till the twilight of evening. But this time soon after dinner he felt that some one was pulling at his leg. Some one kept laughing and shouting his name. He opened his eyes and saw his friend Ukleikin, the landscape painter, who had been away all the summer in the Kostroma district.
“Bah!” he cried, delighted. “What do I see?”
There followed handshakes, questions.
“Well, have you brought anything? I suppose you’ve knocked off hundreds of sketches?” said Yegor Savvitch, watching Ukleikin taking his belongings out of his trunk.
“H’m! . . . Yes. I have done something. And how are you getting on? Have you been painting anything?”
Yegor Savvitch dived behind the bed, and crimson in the face, extracted a canvas in a frame covered with dust and spider webs.
“See here. . . . A girl at the window after parting from her betrothed. In three sittings. Not nearly finished yet.”
The picture represented Katya faintly outlined sitting at an open window, from which could be seen a garden and lilac distance. Ukleikin did not like the picture.
“H’m! . . . There is air and . . . and there is expression,” he said. “There’s a feeling of distance, but . . . but that bush is screaming . . . screaming horribly!”
The decanter was brought on to the scene.
Towards evening Kostyliov, also a promising beginner, an historical painter, came in to see Yegor Savvitch. He was a friend staying at the next villa, and was a man of five-and-thirty. He had long hair, and wore a blouse with a Shakespeare collar, and had a dignified manner. Seeing the vodka, he frowned, complained of his chest, but yielding to his friends’ entreaties, drank a glass.
“I’ve thought of a subject, my friends,” he began, getting drunk. “I want to paint some new . . . Herod or Clepentian, or some blackguard of that description, you understand, and to contrast with him the idea of Christianity. On the one side Rome, you understand, and on the other Christianity. . . . I want to represent the spirit, you understand? The spirit!”
And the widow downstairs shouted continually:
“Katya, give me the cucumbers! Go to Sidorov’s and get some kvass, you jade!”
Like wolves in a cage, the three friends kept pacing to and fro from one end of the room to the other. They talked without ceasing, talked, hotly and genuinely; all three were excited, carried away. To listen to them it would seem they had the future, fame, money, in their hands. And it never occurred to either of them that time was passing, that every day life was nearing its close, that they had lived at other people’s expense a great deal and nothing yet was accomplished; that they were all bound by the inexorable law by which of a hundred promising beginners only two or three rise to any position and all the others draw blanks in the lottery, perish playing the part of flesh for the cannon. . . . They were gay and happy, and looked the future boldly in the face!
At one o’clock in the morning Kostyliov said good-bye, and smoothing out his Shakespeare collar, went home. The landscape painter remained to sleep at Yegor Savvitch’s. Before going to bed, Yegor Savvitch took a candle and made his way into the kitchen to get a drink of water. In the dark, narrow passage Katya was sitting, on a box, and, with her hands clasped on her knees, was looking upwards. A blissful smile was straying on her pale, exhausted face, and her eyes were beaming.
“Is that you? What are you thinking about?” Yegor Savvitch asked her.
“I am thinking of how you’ll be famous,” she said in a half-whisper. “I keep fancying how you’ll become a famous man. . . . I overheard all your talk. . . . I keep dreaming and dreaming. . . .”
Katya went off into a happy laugh, cried, and laid her hands reverently on her idol’s shoulders.