The Student by Anton Chekhov
AT first the weather was fine and still. The thrushes were calling, and in
the swamps close by something alive droned pitifully with a sound like
blowing into an empty bottle. A snipe flew by, and the shot aimed at it
rang out with a gay, resounding note in the spring air. But when it began
to get dark in the forest a cold, penetrating wind blew inappropriately
from the east, and everything sank into silence. Needles of ice stretched
across the pools, and it felt cheerless, remote, and lonely in the forest.
There was a whiff of winter.
Ivan Velikopolsky, the son of a sacristan, and a student of the clerical
academy, returning home from shooting, walked all the time by the path in
the water-side meadow. His fingers were numb and his face was burning with
the wind. It seemed to him that the cold that had suddenly come on had
destroyed the order and harmony of things, that nature itself felt ill at
ease, and that was why the evening darkness was falling more rapidly than
usual. All around it was deserted and peculiarly gloomy. The only light
was one gleaming in the widows' gardens near the river; the village, over
three miles away, and everything in the distance all round was plunged in
the cold evening mist. The student remembered that, as he went out from
the house, his mother was sitting barefoot on the floor in the entry,
cleaning the samovar, while his father lay on the stove coughing; as it
was Good Friday nothing had been cooked, and the student was terribly
hungry. And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind
had blown in the days of Rurik and in the time of Ivan the Terrible and
Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty
and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery,
the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of
oppression—all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and
the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better. And he did not
want to go home.
The gardens were called the widows' because they were kept by two widows,
mother and daughter. A camp fire was burning brightly with a crackling
sound, throwing out light far around on the ploughed earth. The widow
Vasilisa, a tall, fat old woman in a man's coat, was standing by and
looking thoughtfully into the fire; her daughter Lukerya, a little
pock-marked woman with a stupid-looking face, was sitting on the ground,
washing a caldron and spoons. Apparently they had just had supper. There
was a sound of men's voices; it was the labourers watering their horses at
"Here you have winter back again," said the student, going up to the camp
fire. "Good evening."
Vasilisa started, but at once recognized him and smiled cordially.
"I did not know you; God bless you," she said.
"You'll be rich."
They talked. Vasilisa, a woman of experience, who had been in service with
the gentry, first as a wet-nurse, afterwards as a children's nurse,
expressed herself with refinement, and a soft, sedate smile never left her
face; her daughter Lukerya, a village peasant woman, who had been beaten
by her husband, simply screwed up her eyes at the student and said
nothing, and she had a strange expression like that of a deaf mute.
"At just such a fire the Apostle Peter warmed himself," said the student,
stretching out his hands to the fire, "so it must have been cold then,
too. Ah, what a terrible night it must have been, granny! An utterly
dismal long night!"
He looked round at the darkness, shook his head abruptly and asked:
"No doubt you have been at the reading of the Twelve Gospels?"
"Yes, I have," answered Vasilisa.
"If you remember at the Last Supper Peter said to Jesus, 'I am ready to go
with Thee into darkness and unto death.' And our Lord answered him thus:
'I say unto thee, Peter, before the cock croweth thou wilt have denied Me
thrice.' After the supper Jesus went through the agony of death in the
garden and prayed, and poor Peter was weary in spirit and faint, his
eyelids were heavy and he could not struggle against sleep. He fell
asleep. Then you heard how Judas the same night kissed Jesus and betrayed
Him to His tormentors. They took Him bound to the high priest and beat
Him, while Peter, exhausted, worn out with misery and alarm, hardly awake,
you know, feeling that something awful was just going to happen on earth,
followed behind.... He loved Jesus passionately, intensely, and now he saw
from far off how He was beaten..."
Lukerya left the spoons and fixed an immovable stare upon the student.
"They came to the high priest's," he went on; "they began to question
Jesus, and meantime the labourers made a fire in the yard as it was cold,
and warmed themselves. Peter, too, stood with them near the fire and
warmed himself as I am doing. A woman, seeing him, said: 'He was with
Jesus, too'—that is as much as to say that he, too, should be taken
to be questioned. And all the labourers that were standing near the fire
must have looked sourly and suspiciously at him, because he was confused
and said: 'I don't know Him.' A little while after again someone
recognized him as one of Jesus' disciples and said: 'Thou, too, art one of
them,' but again he denied it. And for the third time someone turned to
him: 'Why, did I not see thee with Him in the garden to-day?' For the
third time he denied it. And immediately after that time the cock crowed,
and Peter, looking from afar off at Jesus, remembered the words He had
said to him in the evening.... He remembered, he came to himself, went out
of the yard and wept bitterly—bitterly. In the Gospel it is written:
'He went out and wept bitterly.' I imagine it: the still, still, dark,
dark garden, and in the stillness, faintly audible, smothered sobbing..."
T he student sighed and sank into thought. Still smiling, Vasilisa
suddenly gave a gulp, big tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and she
screened her face from the fire with her sleeve as though ashamed of her
tears, and Lukerya, staring immovably at the student, flushed crimson, and
her expression became strained and heavy like that of someone enduring
The labourers came back from the river, and one of them riding a horse was
quite near, and the light from the fire quivered upon him. The student
said good-night to the widows and went on. And again the darkness was
about him and his fingers began to be numb. A cruel wind was blowing,
winter really had come back and it did not feel as though Easter would be
the day after to-morrow.
Now the student was thinking about Vasilisa: since she had shed tears all
that had happened to Peter the night before the Crucifixion must have some
relation to her....
He looked round. The solitary light was still gleaming in the darkness and
no figures could be seen near it now. The student thought again that if
Vasilisa had shed tears, and her daughter had been troubled, it was
evident that what he had just been telling them about, which had happened
nineteen centuries ago, had a relation to the present—to both women,
to the desolate village, to himself, to all people. The old woman had
wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter
was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was
passing in Peter's soul.
And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to
take breath. "The past," he thought, "is linked with the present by an
unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another." And it seemed to him
that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one
end the other quivered.
When he crossed the river by the ferry boat and afterwards, mounting the
hill, looked at his village and towards the west where the cold crimson
sunset lay a narrow streak of light, he thought that truth and beauty
which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the
high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had
evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly
life, indeed; and the feeling of youth, health, vigour—he was only
twenty-two—and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of
unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and
life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous, and full of lofty meaning.