What's to be done? A romance/II

What's to be done? A romance.  (1909)  by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, translated by Benjamin R. Tucker
First Consequences of the Imbecile Act.

First Consequence of the Imbecile Act.

The same day, towards eleven o'clock in the morning, in a little country-house on the island of Kamennoy,[1] a young woman sat sewing and humming a singularly bold French song;

Sous nos guenilles, nous sommes
De courageux travailleurs;
Nous voulons pour tous les hommes
Science et destins meilleurs.
Etudions, travaillons,
La force est à qui saura;
Etudions, travaillons,
L'abondance nous viendra!
Ah! ça ira! ça ira! ça ira!
Le peuple en ce jour répète:
Ah! ça ira! ça ira! ça ira!
Qui vivra verra!

Et qui de notre ignorance
Souffre donc? N'est-ce pas nous?
Qu'elle vienne, la science
Qui nous affranchira tous!
Nous plions sous la douleur;
Mais, par la fraternité,
Nous hâterons le bonheur
De toute l'humanité.
Ah! ça ira! &c.

Faisons l'union féconde
Du travail et du savoir;
Pour être heureux, en ce monde,
S'entr'aimer est un devoir.
Instruisons-nous, aimons-nons,
Nous sommes frères et sœurs;
Travaillons chacun pour tous;
Devenons toujours meilleurs.
Ah! ça ira! &c.

Oui, pour vaincre la misère,
Instruisons-nous, travaillons;
Un paradis de la terre,
En nous aimant, nous ferons.
Travaillons, aimons, chantons,
Tous les vrais biens nous aurons;
Un jour vient où nous serons
Tous heureux, instruits, et bons.
Ah! ça ira! ça ira! ça ira!
Le peuple en ce jour répète:
Ah! ça ira! ça ira! ça ira!
Qui vivra verra!
Done vivons!
Ça bien vite ira!
Ça viendra!
Nous tous le verrons!

The melody of this audacious song was gay; there were two or three sad notes in it, but they were concealed beneath the general character of the motive; they entirely disappeared in the refrain and in the last couplet. But such was the condition of the mind of the songstress that these two or three sad notes sounded above the others in her song. She saw this herself, started, and tried to sustain the gay notes longer and glide over the others. Vain efforts! her thought dominated her in spite of herself, and the sad notes always prevailed over the others.

It was easy to see that the young woman was trying to repress the sadness which had taken possession of her, and when, from time to time, she succeeded and the song then took its joyous pace, her work doubled in rapidity; she seemed, moreover, to be an excellent seamstress. At this moment the maid, a young and pretty person, entered.

"See, Macha,"[2] the young lady said to her, "how well I sew! I have almost finished the ruffles which I am embroidering to wear at your wedding."

"Oh! there is less work in them than in those which you desired me to embroider."

"I readily believe it! Should not the bride be more beautifully adorned than her guests?"

"I have brought you a letter, Véra Pavlovna."

Véra Pavlovna took the letter with an air of perplexity which depicted itself in her face. The envelope bore the city stamp.

"He is then at Moscow!" she whispered,—and she hastily broke open the letter and turned pale.

"It is not possible! . . . . . . I did not read it right. . . . . . . The letter does not say that!" she cried, letting her arms fall by her sides.

Again she began to read. This time her eyes fixed themselves on the fatal paper, and those beautiful clear eyes became dimmer and dimmer. She let the letter fall upon her work-table, and, hiding her head in her hands, she burst into sobs.

"What have I done? What have I done?" she cried, despairingly. "What have I done?"

"Vérotchka!"[3] suddenly exclaimed a young man, hurrying into the room; "Vérotchka! What has happened to you? And why these tears?"

"Read!" . . . She handed him the letter. Véra Pavlovna sobbed no longer, but remained motionless as if nailed to her seat, and scarcely breathing.

The young man took the letter; he grew pale, his hands trembled, and his eyes remained fixed for a long time upon the text, though it was brief. This letter was thus framed:

"I disturbed your tranquillity: I quit the scene. Do not pity me. I love you both so much that I am quite content in my resolution. Adieu."

Absorbed for a moment in his sadness, the young man then approached the young woman, who still was motionless and in a seeming lethargy, and, taking her hand:

"Vérotchka!" . . .

But the young woman uttered a cry of terror, and, rising, as if moved by an electric force, she convulsively repulsed the young man, separating herself from him.

"Back! Do not touch me! You are covered with blood! Leave me!"

She continued to recoil, making gestures of terror and waving her arms in space as if to repel an object of fear. Suddenly she staggered and sank into an arm-chair, her head in her hands.

"It is also on me, his blood! on me especially! You are not guilty . . . . it is I, I alone! What have I done? What have I done?"

And her sobs redoubled.

"Vérotchka," said the young man, timidly; "Vérotchka, my beloved!"

"No, leave me," she answered, with a trembling voice, as soon as she could get breath. "Do not speak to me! In a moment you will find me calmer; leave me."

He went into his study, and sat down again at the writing-table where a quarter of an hour before he had been so calm and happy. He took up his pen, and, after the article which he had begun, he permitted himself to write: "It is in such moments that one must retain self-possession. I have will, and it will all pass over, it will all pass over. But will she bear it? Oh! it is horrible! Happiness is lost!"

"Shall we talk together now, beloved?" said an altered voice, which tried to appear firm.

"We must separate," continued Véra Pavlovna, "we must separate! I have decided upon it. It is frightful; but it would be more frightful still to continue to live in each other's sight. Am I not his murderer? Have I not killed him for you?"

"But, Vérotchka, it is not your fault."

"Do not try to justify me, unless you wish me to hate you. I am guilty. Pardon me, my beloved, for taking a resolution so painful to you. To me also it is painful, but is the only one that we can take. You will soon recognize it yourself. So be it, then! I wish first to fly from this city, which would remind me too vividly of the past. The sale of my effects will afford me some resources. I will go to Tver, to Nijni,[4] I know not where, and it matters little. I will seek a chance to give singing-lessons; being in a great city, I shall probably find one; or else I will become a governess. I can always earn what is necessary. But in case I should be unable to get enough, I will appeal to you. I count then on you; and let that prove to you that you are ever dear to me. And now we must say farewell . . . . farewell forever! Go away directly; I shall be better alone; and tomorrow you can come back, for I shall be here no longer. I go to Moscow; there I will find out what city is best adapted to my purpose. I forbid your presence at the depot at the time of my departure. Farewell, then, my beloved; give me your hand that I may press it a last time before we separate forever."

He desired to embrace her; but she thrust him back forcibly, saying:

"No! that would be an outrage upon him. Give me your hand; do you feel with what force I press it? But adieu!"

He kept her hand in his till she withdrew it, he not daring to resist.

"Enough! Go! Adieu!"

And after having encircled him with a look of ineffable tenderness, she retired with a firm step and without turning back her head.

He went about, dazed, like a drunken man, unable to find his hat, though he held it in his hand without knowing it; at last, however, he took his overcoat from the hall and started off. But he had not yet reached the gateway when he heard footsteps behind him. Doubtless it was Macha. Had she vanished? He turned around; it was——Véra Pavlovna, who threw herself into his arms and said, embracing him with ardor:

"I could not resist, dear friend; and now farewell forever!"

She ran rapidly away, threw herself upon her bed, and burst into tears.



  1. An island in the vicinity of St. Petersburg, full of country houses, where citizens of St. Petersburg go to spend their summers.
  2. Macha is the diminutive of Maria.
  3. Vérotchka is the diminutive of Véra.
  4. Nijni Novgorod.