Fiction 7 min read

Laughter

First published in 1901 in The Courier.

I

At half past six I was certain that she would come, and I was hopelessly happy. My overcoat was fastened by a single top loop and was flapping from the cold wind, but I did not feel the cold; my head was proudly thrown back, and my student’s cap was sitting fully on my nape; in relation to the male passersby, my eyes expressed patronage and prowess, in relation to the women: challenge and tenderness—even though for four days now I have loved her alone, I was still so young, and my heart was so rich that I could not remain completely indifferent to other women. And my steps were quick, brave, flitting.

And a quarter to seven my overcoat was fastened by two buttons, and I was looking only at the women, without the challenge and tenderness, but rather with disgust. I needed only one woman, the others could go to hell—their resemblance to her was only getting in the way and adding uncertainty and a sharp fitfulness to my movements. And five minutes to seven I felt hot.

Two minutes to seven I felt cold.

Precisely at seven I became convinced that she was not going to come.

At half past eight I presented the most pitiful creature in the world. My overcoat was completely buttoned up, my collar was up, and my cap was pulled down over my nose, which had turned blue; the hair on my temples, my mustache and my eyebrows were whitened by frost, and my teeth were tapping lightly against each other. By my shuffling gait and my bent back I could be taken for a still vigorous old man, making his way back to an almshouse after paying someone a visit.

And she’s the one who caused all this! Damn… no, don’t… maybe they didn’t let her go, or maybe she was ill, or died. Died! And here I am cursing.

II

“Yevgenia Nikolayevna is also there today,” a fellow student told me, without any ulterior motive: he could not know that I was waiting for Yevgenia Nikolayevna in the frost from seven to half past eight.

“Oh really!…” I replied thoughtfully, but what came out in my head was: “Oh damn…”

By “there” he meant the party at the Polzovs’. I have never visited the Polzovs before. But today I will be there.

“Gentlemen!” I cried merrily. “Today is Christmas; today everyone is having fun—and so will we.”

“But how?” one responded joylessly.

“But where?” continued another.

“We’re going to dress up and go around all the parties,” I decided.

And they, these unfeeling people, they really cheered up. They were shouting, jumping and singing. They thanked me and counted the amount of cash they had. And half an hour later we were gathering all the lonely, bored students around the city, and, when we had ten cheerfully jumping devils, we went to the barber’s—which was also a costume shop—and filled it with the cold, youth and laughter.

I needed something gloomy, beautiful, with a tint of elegant melancholy, and so I asked:

“Give me the costume of a Spanish noble.”

It seems that this was a very long noble because the dress has covered me up completely without a trace, which made me feel very lonely, like in a vast and empty hall. Having exited the costume, I asked for something else.

“Would you like a clown? Motley, with bells.”

“A clown!” I exclaimed contemptuously.

“Well, how about a bandit. With this hat and a dagger.”

A dagger! This suits my intentions. Sadly, the bandit, whose dress I was given, had barely reached adulthood. More likely it was a spoiled eight-year-old boy. His hat was not big enough to cover the back of my head, and they had to pull me out of the velvet trousers as from a snare. The pageboy was no good—he was all covered in spots, like a tiger. The monk was full of holes.

“What’s taking you so long? It’s late!” my already dressed comrades hurried me.

There was only one costume left: a Chinese noble.

“Give me the Chinese!” I waved my hand, and I was given the Chinese. God knows what that was! I’m not talking about the costume itself. I will remain silent about the idiotic colorful boots which were too small for me, they went half way in and then, the rest of them, the most substantial part, stuck out like two strange appendages on both sides of the foot. Neither will I mention the pink scrap of cloth that covered my head in the form of a wig and attached to my ears with a piece of string, from which the latter rose up and became like those of a bat.

But the mask!

This was, if I can put it this way, an abstract physiognomy. It had a nose, eyes and a mouth, and all this was correct, all in its place, but there was nothing human in it. A human being cannot be as calm even in the grave. It expressed neither sadness, nor joy, nor wonder—it was decidedly expressionless. It would look at you directly and calmly—and an irresistible laughter would overtake you. My comrades rolled on the sofas with laughter, fell powerlessly onto chairs and waved their arms.

“This is going to be the most original mask,” they said.

I was almost about to cry, but, when I took a look in the mirror, even I was overtaken by laughter. Yes, this was going to be the most original mask.

“Under no circumstances do we take off our masks,” my comrades agreed along the way. “Let’s give our word.”

“Word! Word!”

III

This was positively the most original mask. Whole crowds followed me around, they spun me, pushed me, pinched me—and when, exhausted, I would angrily turn around to face my pursuers, they would be seized by an irresistible laughter. A roaring cloud of laughter surrounded me and pressed me and followed me all the way, and I could not break out of this ring of insane mirth. There were moments when even I was seized by it: I shouted, sang, danced, and the whole world would spin in my eyes, as if I was drunk. Oh how far away from me this world was! Oh how lonely I was under this mask!

Finally they left me alone. I looked at her with anger and fear, with spite and tenderness, and said:

“It’s me.”

Her thick eyelashes slowly rose up with surprise, a whole sheaf of black rays splashed at me—and in reply I heard a laughter, ringing, merry, bright, like a spring sun.

“Yes, it’s me. It’s me!” I repeated and smiled. “Why didn’t you come today?”

But she was laughing. She was laughing merrily.

“I’m so exhausted. My heart was so pained,” I pleaded for an answer.

But she was laughing. The black glitter of her eyes faded, and her smile kept growing brighter. It was the sun, but a scorching sun, merciless, cruel.

“What’s with you?”

“It’s you?” she uttered, restraining herself. “You’re so… funny!”

My shoulders drooped, and my head dropped, and there was so much despair in my pose. And while she was looking at the merry young couples racing past us with a fading dusk of a smile on her face, I said:

“It’s shameful to laugh. Don’t you sense a living, suffering face under my funny mask—after all, the only reason I put it on is to see you. Why didn’t you come?”

She quickly turned towards me with an objection on her lovely, smiling lips—and a cruel laughter overpowered her. Gasping for breath, almost crying, covering her face with a fragrant lacy shawl, with difficulty she uttered:

“Look… at yourself. In the mirror behind you… Oh, just look at yourself!…”

Furrowing my eyebrows, clenching my teeth from the pain, with a cold face, from which blood had flowed away, I looked in the mirror—an idiotically-calm, imperturbably-indifferent, inhumanly still physiognomy was looking back at me. And I… I burst out laughing. And with laughter that had not yet cooled, but already with the trembling of a swelling anger, with the insanity of despair, I began speaking, almost shouting:

“You must not laugh!”

And, when she fell silent, I continued speaking in a whisper to her of my love. And never before did I speak so well, because never before was I so much in love. Of the pain of waiting, of the poisonous tears of insane jealousy and longing, I spoke of my soul, where everything was love. And I saw how her lowered eyelashes cast a thick shadow on her paled cheeks.

I saw how the reflection of a blazing fire was cast through their matte whiteness and how the whole of the pliant body was powerlessly bowing towards me. She was dressed as a goddess of the night and, all mysterious, like a haze, dressed in a black lace, shining with diamonds of the stars, she was beautiful, like a forgotten dream of a remote childhood. I spoke—and tears swelled in my eyes, and my heart was beating with joy. And I saw, I finally saw, how a lovely, pitiful smile parted her lips, and how her eyelashes trembled and rose. Slowly, timidly, with infinite trust she turned to me her little head, and… Never before have I heard such laughter!

“No, no, I can’t…” she was almost moaning and, throwing back her heard, erupted with a sonorous cascade of laughter.

Oh, if only I were given a human face for just a minute! I bit my lips, tears flowed down my heated face, and this, this idiotic physiognomy, in which everything was correct, the nose, the eyes and the lips, continued gazing with an imperturbable indifference, terrifying in its absurdity. And when, hobbling on my colorful legs, I was leaving, for a long time a ringing laughter could be heard, as if a silver trickle of water was falling from a massive height and breaking with joyous song against solid rock.

IV

Dispersing over the whole of the sleepy street, disturbing the stillness of the night with our cheerful, excited voices, we were walking home, and my comrade was saying to me:

“You’ve had colossal success. I’ve never seen people laugh like this… Wait, what are you doing? Why are you ripping your mask? Guys, he’s gone mad! Look, he’s tearing up his costume! He’s crying!”