It was early spring. We had been traveling for more than twenty-four hours. Passengers with tickets for various places along the way had been boarding and leaving our carriage, but there were four of us who had been on the train from the very start—a weary-faced lady, neither beautiful nor young, wearing a hat and mannish overcoat, who smoked cigarettes; her companion, a talkative man of forty, with neat new luggage; and thirdly, a rather short and very reserved gentleman with prematurely gray curly hair, with very nervous mannerisms, and with extraordinarily brilliant eyes which kept roving from object to object. He wore an old overcoat with a lamb’s-wool collar, quite obviously made by an expensive tailor, and a high lamb’s-wool hat. Under his overcoat, when it was thrown open, were visible a sleeveless kaftan1 and an embroidered Russian shirt. He had a peculiar habit: from time to time he produced strange noises like a cough or like a laugh begun and suddenly broken off. During the whole journey, he carefully avoided all acquaintance and conversation with the other passengers. If anyone spoke to him, he replied briefly and stiffly; for the most part he either read, smoked, gazed out the window, ate some food he took out of his old bag, and drank tea.
It seemed to me that he was oppressed by his loneliness, and several times I was tempted to speak with him, but whenever our eyes met—as often happened, since we sat diagonally opposite each other—he turned back to his book or looked out of the window.
Just before the evening of our second day, during a stop at a large station, this nervous gentleman left the carriage to get some hot water with which to make himself some tea. The gentleman with the neat new luggage—a lawyer, I afterward learned—went out with the cigarette-smoking lady in the mannish overcoat to drink tea in the station. During their absence, several new persons entered our carriage, among them a tall, closely shaven, wrinkled old man, evidently a merchant, wearing a coat of polecat fur and a cloth cap with a huge vizor. He sat down opposite the lawyer’s seat and immediately entered into conversation with a young man, apparently a merchant’s clerk, who entered the carriage at the same station.
I was sitting diagonally opposite, and since the train was stationary and no one was passing between us, I could hear snatches of their conversation.
The merchant first mentioned that he was on his way to his estate, which was situated only one station distant. Then, as usual, they began to talk about prices, about trade, and about the current state of business in Moscow. After that, their conversation turned to the Fair at Nizhni-Novgorod.
The clerk began to tell about the merrymaking of a rich merchant whom both of them knew at the Fair, but the old man interrupted to tell about the merrymakings which had taken place in former times at Kunavin and which he himself had enjoyed. He was evidently proud of the share he had taken in them, for with manifest delight he related how he and this same common acquaintance had once got drunk at Kunavin and played such tricks that he had to tell about them in a whisper. The clerk burst out in hearty laughter which filled the whole carriage, and the old man laughed too, revealing two yellow teeth.
Not expecting to hear anything interesting, I got up to go out on the platform till the train should start. At the door I met the lawyer and the lady, talking in a very animated manner as they walked.
“You won’t have much time,” said the sociable lawyer. “The second bell will ring in a moment.”
And, in fact, I did not even have time to walk to the end of the carriage before the bell rang. When I got back to my place the lively conversation between the lawyer and the lady was still going on. The old merchant sat facing them silently and sternly, occasionally showing his disapproval by chewing on his teeth.
“. . . whereupon she explained to her husband bluntly,” the lawyer was saying with a smile as I passed them, “that she could not and, moreover, would not, live with him, since . . .”
And he proceeded to tell something more which I could not hear. Behind me came other passengers, then came the conductor, followed by a porter bustling through, and there was so much noise for a time that I could not hear what they were talking about.
When it grew quieter the lawyer’s voice was heard again, but the conversation had evidently gone over from a particular instance to general considerations. The lawyer was saying that the question of divorce was now occupying general attention in Europe and that the phenomenon was appearing more and more frequently in Russia.
Noticing that his voice alone was heard, the lawyer cut his words short and turned to the old man.
“It wasn’t so in old times, was it?” he remarked, smiling pleasantly.
The old man was about to make some answer, but just then the train started, and, taking off his cap, he crossed himself and began to whisper a prayer. The lawyer, turning his eyes away, waited politely. Having finished his prayer and crossed himself three times, the old man put on his cap and pulled it down, and began to speak.
“The same thing took place, sir, in old times, only less frequently,” said he. “At the present time it can’t help happening. People have grown cultured!”
The train, moving along more and more rapidly, thundered so loudly I could hardly hear. But since the discussion interested me, I moved to a nearer seat. My neighbor, the nervous bright-eyed gentleman, was also evidently much interested, and he listened, but without moving from his place.
“In what respect are we ill-educated?” asked the lady, with a scarcely perceptible smile. “Do you mean that it would be better for men and women to get married as they used to in old times, when the bride and bridegroom never even saw each other before the wedding?”
She went on, replying, after the fashion of many women, not to her neighbor’s words but to the words she thought he would say. “People didn’t know whether they would love each other or not. They just married whoever fell to their lot, and often they were miserable their whole lives long! So you think that our old way was the best, do you?” she continued, addressing her remarks mainly to me and the lawyer, and least of all to the old man with whom she was talking.
“We have already become very cultured,” repeated the merchant, looking scornfully at the lady and leaving her question unanswered.
“I should like to know how you explain the connection between culture and matrimonial quarrels,” said the lawyer with a slight smile.
The merchant was about to say something but the lady interrupted him.
“No, those days are gone,” she said. But the lawyer interrupted her.
“Let him say what he thinks.”
“The nonsense of culture!” said the old man resolutely.
“People who do not love each other marry and then wonder that they don’t get along,” said the lady hastily, glancing at the lawyer and then at me and even at the clerk, who had got up and, standing with his elbow on the back of the chair, was listening to the conversation with a smile. “Animals can be paired off in this way as their master may wish, but men and women have individual preferences and attachments,” she said, evidently wanting to say something severe to the old merchant.
“When you speak this way, madame,” said the old man, “you are wrong. Animals are brutes, but man has a law.”
“But how can one live with a man when there is no love?” insisted the lady, eager to express an opinion which apparently seemed to her very novel.
“In former times they did not discuss this,” said the old man in a magisterial tone. “It is only a recent development. For the least reason the wife cries out, ‘I will leave you.’ Even among the peasants this new behavior has come into fashion. ‘Here,’ says the peasant’s wife, ‘here are your shirts and drawers, but I am going off with Vanka; his hair is curlier than yours.’ Reasoning is no help. For a woman the first thing needed is fear.”
The clerk, suppressing a smile, looked at the lawyer and at the lady and at me, ready either to laugh at or to approve the merchant’s argument according to the way the others received it.
“Fear of what?” asked the lady.
“Why, fear of her husband of course—that kind of fear.”
“But, my dear sir, the day for that sort of thing has long passed,” said the lady with no little sharpness.
“No, madame, the time for that can never be passed. Eve was created out of man’s rib, and so it will remain till the end of time,” said the old man, nodding his head so sternly and triumphantly that the clerk instantly decided that the victory was on the merchant’s side and he burst out into loud laughter.
“Yes, that is the way you men decide,” said the lady, not yielding and looking at us. “You give yourselves full liberty but you want to keep the women locked up. For you, of course, all things are permitted.”
“It is not a matter of permission. The fact is that man is not the childbearer in the family; it is the woman who is the fragile vessel,” suggested the merchant. The positiveness of the merchant’s tone evidently impressed his hearers, and even the lady felt crushed but still she would not give in.
“Yes, but I think you will agree that a woman is a human being and has feelings as well as a man. Well, then, what is she going to do if she does not love her husband?”
“Not love her husband?” exclaimed the merchant in a savage tone, making a grimace with his lips and his eyebrows. “Don’t worry, she’ll come to love him.” This unexpected argument especially pleased the clerk, who grunted his agreement.
“But that is not so. She may not come to love him,” insisted the lady. “And if there is no love, then they ought not to be compelled to continue.”
“But if a woman is false to her husband, what then?” asked the lawyer.
“That is not to be supposed,” said the old man. “He must make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“But if it does happen, what then? It has happened . . .”
“Yes, there are cases, but not among us,” said the old man.
All were silent. The clerk leaned forward a little more, and not wishing to be left out of the conversation, began with a smile. “Well, there was a scandal in the home of a fine young fellow in our company. It was very hard to decide about it. The woman was very fond of amusements, and she began to play the devil; but her husband was a reasonable and cultured man. At first she flirted with one of the clerks. Her husband argued kindly with her, but she would not stop. She did all sorts of underhanded things and even stole her husband’s money. He flogged her, but it did no good. She only acted worse. Then she had an affair with an unchristened Jew. What could he do? He turned her out, and now he lives like a bachelor and she is a woman-about-town.”
“That’s because he was a fool,” said the old man. “If at the very beginning he had not given her her head, but had given her a good sound scolding, she would have been all right, I tell you! A woman must not have her own way at first. Don’t trust a horse in the field or your wife in your house.”
At this moment the conductor came along to take up the tickets for the next station, and the old man gave him his.
“Yes,” said he, “we’ve got to restrain the female sex or else everything will go to ruin.”
“But you were just telling how you married men enjoyed yourselves at the Fair at Kunavin,” said I, unable to restrain myself.
“That was a personal matter,” said the merchant, and he lapsed into silence.
When the whistle sounded, the merchant got up, took his bag from under the seat, put on his coat, and, lifting his cap, went out to the platform.
Excerpted from The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy. Copyright © 2003 by Leo Tolstoy. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.