A new arrival made the round one day:
a young lady, with small dog, and a beret;
and people talked and guessed and wondered who.
In Yalta now for nearly fourteen days,
Dimitri Gurov had picked up its’ ways,
and he too was curious for something new.
He saw her walking on the beach, from his chair
in the sidewalk café. She wore a beret
and a small white dog followed her everywhere.
After that he saw her several times a day
in the park or on the square: that same beret,
walking alone, the small dog trotting near.
No one knew her, and she simply became
“The lady with the dog” for lack of a name.
“It’s plain she has no friends or husband here,”
Dimitri thought, “It couldn’t hurt at all
if she and I should prove congenial…”
Though not yet forty, Gurov was the father
of teenage sons and a twelve year-old daughter.
Marriage happened to him young, his second year
in college, and now his wife looked sixty.
She was tall and dignified, erect, austere,
and had black eyebrows. She constantly
read books, and always wrote in modern spelling.
“I am a thinking person,” she would claim,
and she called her husband by his full name.
Dimitri found her narrow, unappealing
and dumb. She nearly always had her say
around the house, because he stayed away.
In the years since he had first stepped out on her
he’d lost count, and somehow this dishonor
to the wife extended to the sex as well.
In his opinion, ‘female’ ranked with ‘vermin;’
‘The Lower Breed’ was his pet name for women.
He felt that all his life he’d gone through hell
with them; that his past justified his creed,
and yet, he was lost without this ‘lower breed.’
Around men, a dull, stale feeling always blocked
his inner self; he was bored and never talked,
but with women Dimitri felt free…
He knew how to behave and what to say
and even handled silence gracefully.
His character, in an elusive way,
charmed women. His looks, his every action,
had an indefinable attraction
which drew them on, as he well knew, and he
was drawn to them, just as irresistably.
Now Gurov knew, from frequent bitter lessons,
an affair, (especially with the decent kind)
which seems adventurous at first and lessens
the monotony of life, will soon unwind
in complicated ways, causing pain
for all, and problems no one can explain.
(The worst are those who always change their mind
and can’t get a move on, in short, the Moscow kind)
but each new lovely woman that he met
made him hunger for life, and he’d forget
the sorry past. Love seemed like a new thing,
and it was all so simple and amusing.
And so one afternoon, in the cafe
in the park, the lady with the beret
walked slowly to a table and took a seat
near Gurov, who’d just begun to eat.
Dimitri could tell, by the way she wore her hair,
her clothes, her walk, her general air,
that she was upper class, a husband somewhere,
new in town, and becoming more aware
of what her situation tended toward:
she was young, and alone, and also bored…
The stories told of immorality
among the Yalta set could hardly be
less true, and Gurov held them in contempt,
as fictions made by those who’d love to be
what they condemn, but shrink from the attempt,
but when this girl sat down not ten feet away,
it brought to mind the things he’d heard them say,
of easy conquests, picnics for the day
in mountain fields…. A thought began to tempt
Dimitri: an affair, quick and quickly done,
a romance with a stranger, with someone
whose very name he lacked– beyond control
at once, the thought of it possessed his soul.
He lured the dog his way, and then he scowled,
shaking his finger when it came; it growled,
he teased again.
She looked at him and dropped
her eyes. “He doesn’t bite,” she said and stopped,
“Could I offer him a bone?”
he asked. She nodded. In a friendly tone,
he went on, “You’ve been here for awhile?”
“About five days,” she said.
have somehow managed two full weeks,” he sighed,
and then their talk was briefly set aside.
“Time flies,” the lady said, looking away,
“and yet it’s boring!”
“That’s what they all say,”
said Gurov, “and yet these very people live
for years on end in God-forsaken holes
like Belyov or Zhidra and never give
a thought to boredom, but, you set these souls
in Yalta– ‘Oh the dust!’ they cry, ‘le ennui!’
you’d think they spent each winter ‘a Paris!'”
They finished eating silently,
like strangers, but, when through, quite naturally
departed side by side; and there arose
that playful kind of talk you find in those
who are content and free, who hardly care
in which direction words or steps might bear.
They strolled along and talked about the strange
effects that night and ocean can arrange,
how lilac sea and lunar gold exchange.
They described the sultry night, which also led
to talk of daytime heat. Dimitri said:
he’d majored in Linguistics but somehow
had gotten into banking; lived in Moscow;
had trained to sing in opera, but threw it in;
and owned two houses…
She had been,
he learned, brought up in Petersburg, but since
her marriage two years past her residence
had been in the town of X–. She planned to spend
another month, although that would depend
on her husband, who might come down.
He worked in government, perhaps a Crown
department, or just some local bureau…
She laughed herself, amused she didn’t know.
And Gurov got a name from her as well,
which was Anna.
Later, back in his hotel,
he thought of her, and it seemed a certainty
they’d meet again next day. It had to be.
As he got in to bed he thought how recently
she’d been at school; the shy and awkward way
she laughed or talked with strangers gave it away.
His daughter’s age almost, she was now alone
in circumstances she had never known:
men followed her, or watched, or spoke to her
with one intention, plain, though not expressed–
intentions she could hardly fail to guess.
He thought of her neck, delicate and slender,
her lovely grey eyes.
He was thinking, when sleep came,
“There’s something pathetic about her, all the same.”
(End of Chapter One)
© 2009 Edmund Pickett
(This poem may be copied or forwarded, as long as you retain the copyright notice and author’s name.)
There are five more chapters I haven’t versified. Of course Gurov’s hopes for a quick anonymous affair don’t pan out. He and Anna become far more involved than that. I recommend that you finish the story in Chekhov’s prose version, and I hope you will then read all his stories, preferably in translation by Constance Garnett.
Anton Chekhov was not only one of the best writers who ever lived, he was one of the best human beings, and his short life, which ended just before the Russian revolution of 1917, is worth knowing. Reviews of some of the best books about him are here.