Short Reads

The Penguin Great Loves series

Love is the singular emotion that all humans rely on most…and crave endlessly, no matter what the cost. United by this theme of love, the nine titles in the Penguin Great Loves collection include tales of blissful and all-encompassing, doomed and tragic, erotic and absurd, seductive and adulterous, innocent and murderous love.

Ring in the spring by reading excerpts from Leo Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, Thomas Hardy's A Mere Interlude, and Stendhal's Cures for Love and discover this series of books under 250 pages.

Love can be murderous

This took place in early spring. It was the second uninterrupted day of our journey. Every so often passengers who were only going short distances would enter the railway carriage and leave it again, but there were three people who, like myself, had boarded the train at its point of origin and were still traveling: a plain, elderly lady with an exhausted-looking face, who was smoking cigarettes and was dressed in a hat and coat that might almost have been those of a man; her companion, a talkative man of about forty, with trim, new luggage; and another man who was rather small of stature and whose movements were nervous and jerky—he was not yet old, but his curly hair had obviously turned grey prematurely, and his eyes had a peculiar light in them as they flickered from one object to another. He was dressed in an old coat that looked as though it might have been made by an expensive tailor; it had a lambskin collar, and he wore a tall cap of the same material. Whenever he unfastened his coat, a long-waisted jacket and a Russian embroidered shirt came into view. Another peculiar thing about this man was that every now and again he uttered strange sounds, as if he were clearing his throat or beginning to laugh, but breaking off in silence.

Throughout the entire duration of the journey this man studiously avoided talking to any of the other passengers or becoming acquainted with them. If anyone spoke to him he would reply curtly and abruptly; he spent the time reading, looking out of the window, smoking or taking from his old traveling-bag the provisions he had brought with him and then sipping tea or munching a snack.

I had the feeling that his solitude was weighing him down, and I tried several times to engage him in conversation. Each time our eyes met, however, which was frequently, as we were sitting obliquely opposite one another, he would turn away and start reading his book or gazing out of the window.

Shortly before evening on that second day, the train stopped at a large station, and the nervous man stepped outside, fetched some boiling water and made tea for himself. The man with the smart luggage, a lawyer, as I later discovered, went to have a glass of tea in the station buffet with his traveling companion, the cigarette-smoking lady in the man's coat.

During their absence several new passengers entered the carriage. They included a tall, clean-shaven old man whose face was creased all over in wrinkles; he was evidently a merchant, and he wore a polecat fur sat down opposite the places temporarily vacated by the lawyer and the lady, and immediately launched into a conversation with a young man who looked like a salesclerk and who had also entered the carriage at this station.

My seat was diagonally opposite theirs, and since the train was not in motion I could, when no one was passing down the carriage, overhear snatches of what they were saying. The merchant started off by telling the other man that he was on his way to visit his estate, which lay just one stop down the line; then, as such men always do, they began to discuss trade and prices, the current state of the Moscow market, and eventually, as always, they arrived at the subject of the Nizhny Novgorod summer fair. The salesclerk embarked on a description of the drinking and antics of a certain rich merchant they both knew, but the old man would not hear him out; instead, he began to talk about the jamborees he himself had taken part in at Kunavino in days gone by. Of his role in these he was evidently proud, and it was with open delight that he related how once, when he and this same mutual acquaintance had been drunk together in Kunavino, they had got up to some mischief of a kind that he could only describe in whispers. The salesclerk's guffaw filled the entire carriage, and the old man laughed along with him, exposing a couple of yellow teeth to view.

Not expecting to hear anything of interest, I rose and left my seat with the aim of taking a stroll along the platform until it was time for the train to depart. In the doorway I bumped into the lawyer and the lady, who were chattering animatedly to one another as they found their way back to their seats.

‘You won't have time,’ the talkative lawyer said to me. ‘The second bell's going to go any minute now.’

And so it was: before I had even reached the end of the line of carriages the bell rang. When I got back to my seat I found the lawyer and the lady deep in energetic conversation. The old merchant sat opposite them in silence, looking severely in front of him and chewing his teeth from time to time in disapproval.

‘So then she just told her husband straight out,’ the lawyer was saying with a smile as I made my way past him. ‘She said she couldn't and wouldn't live with him any more, because…’

And he began to say something else, something I could not make out. More passengers came trooping in behind me; then the guard walked down the carriage, followed by a porter in a tremendous hurry, and for quite a long time there ensued such an uproar that no conversation could possibly be heard. When things had quieted down again and I could once more hear the lawyer's voice, the conversation had evidently passed from the particular to the general.

The lawyer was saying that the question of divorce was very much the object of public discussion in Europe just now, and that cases of this type were cropping up in our own country with an ever-increasing degree of frequency. Noticing that his voice had become the only one in the carriage, the lawyer cut short his homily and turned to the old man.

‘There was none of that sort of thing in the old days, was there?’ he said, smiling affably.

The old man was about to reply, but at that moment the train began to move and, taking off his cap, he began crossing himself and reciting a prayer in a whisper. The lawyer waited politely, averting his gaze. When he had finished his prayer and his thrice-repeated crossing of himself, the old man put his cap fairly and squarely back on his head, rearranged himself in his seat, and began to speak.

‘Oh there was, sir. It's just that there wasn't so much of it, that's all,’ he said. ‘You can't expect anything else nowadays. They've all gotten that well educated.’

As the train began to gather speed it kept rattling over points, and it was not easy to hear what he was saying. I was interested, however, and I shifted my seat so as to be closer to him. The interest of my neighbour, the nervous man with the light in his eyes, had also plainly been aroused, and he continued to listen while staying where he was.

‘But what's wrong with education?’ said the lady, with a scarcely perceptible smile. ‘Was it really better to get married in the old way, with the bride and bridegroom never even setting eyes on one another beforehand?’ she continued, replying, as many women do, not to what the person she was addressing had actually said, but to what she thought he was going to say. ‘You didn't know whether you were even going to like the man, let alone whether you'd be able to love him; you got married to the first man who came along and spent all the rest of your life in misery. Do you think that was better?’ she said, making it clear that her words were addressed primarily to the lawyer and myself, and only in the last instance to the old man with whom she was talking.

‘They've all gotten that well educated,’ repeated the old merchant, surveying the lady contemptuously and letting her question go unanswered.

‘I'd like to hear you explain the connection you see between education and marital discord,’ the lawyer said, with a faint smile.

The merchant was about to say something, but the lady cut in before him.

‘No, those days have gone,’ she said. But the lawyer would not allow her to continue.

‘Just a moment, let him say what's on his mind’.

‘Education leads to nothing but a lot of silliness,’ said the old man, firmly.

‘People who don't love one another are forced to get married, and then everyone wonders why they can't live in harmony together,’ said the lady hurriedly, turning an appraising eye on the lawyer, myself and even on the salesclerk, who had risen out of his seat and was leaning his elbows on its back, listening to the conversation with a smile. ‘After all, it's only animals that can be mated at their masters' will; human beings have inclinations and attachments of their own,’ she went on, apparently from a desire to say something wounding to the merchant.

‘You're wrong there, missus,’ Said the old man. ‘The true difference is that an animal's just an animal, but human beings have been given a law to live by.’

‘Very well, but how are you supposed to live with someone you don't love?’ asked the lady, still in a hurry to express her opinions, which doubtless seemed brand-new to her.

‘People didn't make such a fuss about all that in the old days,’ said the merchant in a serious voice. ‘That's all just come in lately. First thing you hear her say nowadays in "I'm leaving you." It's a fashion that's caught on even among the muzhiks. “Here you are,” she says; “here's your shirts and trousers, I'm off with Vanka, his hair's curlier than yours.” And it's no good arguing with her. Whereas what ought to come first for a woman is fear.’

The salesclerk looked first at the lawyer, then at the lady, and finally at me; he was only just keeping back a smile, and was preparing to treat what the merchant had said with either ridicule or approval, according to how it went down.

‘What sort of fear?’ asked the lady.

‘Fear of her hu-u-usband, of course. That kind of fear.’

‘Well, my dear man, those days have gone, I'm afraid,’ said the lady, with an edge of malice in her voice.

‘No, missus, those days can never be gone. Eve, the woman, was created from the rib of man, and so she will remain until the end of time,’ said the old man, with such a stern and triumphant shake of his head that the salesclerk at once decided that victory was on the side of the merchant, and he burst into loud laughter.

‘That's only the way you menfolk see it,’ said the lady, not ceding defeat, and giving us all an appraising look. ‘You've granted yourselves freedom, but you want to keep women locked up in a tower. Meanwhile you've decided you're going to allow yourselves anything you want.’

‘No one's decided anything of the kind. It's just a home profits from a man's endeavours, and a woman is a fragile vessel,’ the merchant continued earnestly.

The merchant's solemn, earnest tone of voice was evidently having a persuasive effect on his audience. Even the lady appeared to have had some of the wind taken out of her sails, through she showed no sign of giving up the struggle.

‘Yes, well, but I think you would agree that a woman is a human being, and that she has feelings just as a man has, wouldn't you? So what's she supposed to do if she doesn't love her husband?’

‘If she doesn't love him?’ echoed the merchant darkly, making a grimace with his lips and eyebrows. ‘She'd better love him.’

The salesclerk seemed to find this line of argument particularly attractive, and he made a noise of approval.

‘Oh, no she hadn't,’ said the lady. ‘If there's no love there in the first place, you can't force it.’

‘And what if the wife's unfaithful to the husband?’ asked the lawyer.

‘That musn't happen,’ said the old man. ‘You have to be on the look-out for that kind of thing.’

‘But what if it does happen? It does, after all.’

‘There's some as it happens to, but not the likes of us,’ said the old man.

No one ventured anything for a while. The salesclerk shifted a little closer. Apparently not wishing to be left out of things, he gave a smile and said: ‘Oh, but it does, you know. There was a scandal with one of our lads. It wasn't easy to tell whose fault it was, either.

Married a loose woman, he did. She started her flirting around, but he was the homely type, and he had a bit of education. First jump she had was with one of the clerks in the office. The lad tried to make her see reason, but there was no stopping her. All kinds of filthy tricks she got up to. Started stealing his money. So he beat her. Didn't do any good, she just went from bad to worse. She started playing around—if you'll pardon the expression—with a heathen, a Jew he was. What was the lad supposed to do? He threw her out. Now he lives as a bachelor, and she walks the streets.’

‘So he was an idiot,’ said the old man. ‘If he'd never given her any leeway in the first place but had kept her properly reined in, she'd no doubt still be living with him to this day. You musn't allow them any freedom from the word go. Never trust a horse in the paddock or a wife in the home.’

At this moment the guard arrived to take the tickets for the next station. The old man gave up his ticket.

‘Yes, you have to rein them in early on, those womenfolk, otherwise it all goes to pot.’

‘But what about that story you were telling us just then about those married men going on the spree in kunavino?’ I could not resist asking.

‘That's something altogether different,’ said the merchant, and lapsed into silence.

When the whistle blew he got up, fetched his traveling-bag from under his seat, drew his overcoat tightly around him and, raising his cap to us, went out on the brake platform.

Love can be heartbreaking»

Love can be incurable»

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