Egoism seems to be the quality which offends Tchehov most. He is no more in love with it when it masquerades as virtue than when it parades as vice. An Artist’s Story—a beautiful sad story, which might almost have been written by Turgenev—contains a fine critical portrait of a woman absorbed in the egoism of good works. She is always looking after the poor, serving on committees, full of enthusiasm for nursing and education. She lacks only that charity of the heart which loves human beings, not because they are poor, but because they are human beings. She is by nature a “boss.” She “bosses” her mother and her younger sister, and when the artist falls in love with the latter, the stronger will of the woman of high principles immediately separates lovers so frivolous that they had never sat on a committee in their lives. When, the evening after the artist confesses his love, he waits for the girl to come to him in the garden of her house, he waits in vain. He goes into the house to look for her, but does not find her. Then through one of the doors he overhears the voice of the lady of the good works:
“‘God ... sent ... a crow,’” she said in a loud, emphatic voice, probably dictating—“’God sent a crow a piece of cheese.... A crow ... A piece of cheese ... Who’s there?” she called suddenly, hearing my steps.
me, I cannot come out to open this minute; I’m
Dasha her lesson.”
“Is Ekaterina Pavlovna in the garden?”
“No, she went away with my sister this morning to our aunt in the province of Penza. And in the winter they will probably go abroad,” she added after a pause. “’God sent ... the crow ... a piece ... of cheese....’ Have you written it?”
I went into the hall
and stared vacantly at the pond and the
village, and the sound reached me of “A piece of cheese ... God
sent the crow a piece of cheese.”
And I went back by the way I had come here for the first time—first from the yard into the garden past the house, then into the avenue of lime-trees.... At this point I was overtaken by a small boy who gave me a note.
“I told my sister everything and she insisted on my parting from you,” I read. “I could not wound her by disobeying. God will give you happiness. Forgive me. If only you knew how bitterly my mother and I are crying!”
The people who cannot wound others—those are the people whose sharp pangs we feel in our breasts as we read the stories of Tchehov. The people who wound—it is they whom he paints (or, rather, as Mr. Garnett suggests, etches) with such felicitous and untiring irony. But, though he often makes his people beautiful in their sorrow, he more often than not sets their sad figures against a common and ugly background. In Anyuta, the medical student and his mistress live in a room disgusting in its squalor: