It is a clear winter noon… The frost is thick; it crackles, and silver flakes of ice are gathering on Nadenka’s locks by her temples and on her face, as she holds me by the hand. We stand on a high mountain. Its sloping surface stretches from our feet all the way to the ground, and the sun gazes into the slope like in a mirror. Near us is a small sled, its seat upholstered with bright red cloth.
“Let’s slide down, Nadezhda Petrovna!” I implore. “Just one time! I assure you that we will be safe and sound.”
But Nadenka is scared. The whole expanse from the tips of her small boots to the foot of the icy mountain seems to her a frightening, immeasurably deep chasm. As she looks down, her insides are paralyzed and her breath stops in her throat – and that’s when I only suggest we sit down in the sled! What would happen if she risked flying off into the abyss? She would die, lose her mind.
“I beg you!” I say. “No need to be scared! You should understand that it is simply faint-heartedness, cowardice!”
Nadenka finally concedes, and by her face I see that she does so imagining her death. I sit her down, pale and trembling, into the sled, embrace her, and together we dash downwards into the abyss.
The sled flies like a bullet. The air is split as we pass, and it beats into our faces, roars, whistles in our ears, rips, pinches painfully out of spite, as if to tear our heads off. We are left with no strength to breathe from the pressure of the wind. It seems the devil himself has clasped us with his claws and with a roar drags us into hell. The surrounding objects merge into one long, running blur… In just one more moment, it seems, we’ll perish!
“I love you, Nadenka!” I say in a low voice.
The sled begins to gradually slow down, the roar of the wind and the hum of the runners are no longer as frightening, our breathing evens out, and we are finally at the bottom. Nadenka is neither dead nor alive. She is pale, hardly breathing… I help her get up.
“I will never go again, not for anything,” she says looking at me with wide eyes filled with fear. “Not for the world! I almost died!”
A little later she comes to her senses and now questioningly peeks at my eyes: was it I who said the four words or did she imagine hearing them in the clamor of the wind? Meanwhile I am standing next to her, smoking, and carefully examining my glove.
She takes me by the hand, and for a long while we stroll around the mountain. The mystery obviously won’t let her stay still. Were these words said or not? Yes or no? Yes or no? This is a question of vanity, honor, life, happiness, a very important question, the most important question in the world. Nadenka impatiently, sadly, with a penetrating gaze, peers into my face, answers awkwardly, waits for me to speak first. Oh, what a game on this lovely face, what a game! I see how she struggles with herself, she needs to say something, ask something, but she cannot find the words, she is uneasy, frightened, her happiness prevents her….
“You know what?” she says without looking at me.
“What?” I ask.
“Let’s go… one more time.”
We go up the mountainside. Again I sit the pale, trembling Nadenka into the sled, again we fly into the frightening abyss, again the wind roars and the runners hum, and again at the noisiest and most exciting moment, I say in a low voice:
“I love you, Nadenka!”
When the sled stops, Nadenka looks back over the mountain we have just ridden down, then for a long time scrutinizes my face, listens for some clue in my voice which is passionless and apathetic, and entirely, entirely, even her muff and hood, her entire figure expresses utmost perplexity. And on her face is written:
“What is the matter? Who said those words? Was it him or have I imagined it?”
The suspense worries her, angers her. The poor girl cannot keep up the conversation, frowns, is ready to cry.
“Shall we go home?” I ask.
“But I… I like these rides,” she says, blushing. “Should we go one more time?”
She “likes” these rides, yet as she sits down in the sled she is, as before, pale, barely breathing from fear, trembling.
We descend for the third time and I can see how she looks into my face, watches my lips. But I put a kerchief to my lips, cough, and, when we reach the center of the mountain, manage to utter:
“I love you, Nadenka!”
And so the mystery remains a mystery! Nadenka is silent, she is thinking of something… As I accompany her from the mountainside she tries to walk more slowly, delays her steps, and waits in case I might speak those words. And I can see how her soul suffers, how she makes an effort to stop herself from saying:
“It cannot be that the wind said them! And I do not want it to be the wind!”
The next day in the morning I receive a note: “If you are going to the slope today, take me along. N.” And after this day, I go there with Nadenka every day, and, flying down in the sled, I always say the same words in a low voice:
“I love you, Nadenka!”
Soon Nadenka gets accustomed to that phrase, like one would to wine or morphine. She cannot live without it. To tell the truth, flying off the mountain is still frightening but now the fear and danger impart a special charm to the words of love, the words that still incite a mystery and torment the soul. The suspects are the same two: the wind and I… Whichever of the two confesses his love to her she does not know, but it appears she no longer cares; it does not matter from what vessel one drinks so long as one gets drunk.
One day at noon I set forth to the mountain by myself; merging with the crowd, I see how Nadenka comes to the mountain, how she seeks me with her eyes… Then she tremulously goes up… It is frightening to go alone, oh, so frightening! She is pale as snow, trembling, she walks as if to her death, but on she walks without looking back, resolutely. Clearly she has decided to find out once and for all: will those marvelous sweet words still be heard when I am not there? I see how she, pale, with her mouth open from terror, sits down into the sled, closes her eyes, and, seemingly parting with the earth, takes off. “Zhhhh” hum the runners. Whether Nadenka hears those words or not, I do not know… I only see how she rises from the sled, bleary, weak. And from her face it is obvious that she herself does not know if she has heard anything. As she was going down, fear took away her ability to hear well, differentiate sounds, understand…
The spring month of March approaches… The sun becomes more tender. Our icy mountain darkens, loses its splendor, and melts at last. We stop sledding. Poor Nadenka now has nowhere to hear those words and there’s nobody left to voice them, as the wind can be heard no longer, while I prepare to leave for St. Petersburg, for a long while, perhaps forever.
Once, before departure, about two days prior, at dusk I sit in the garden which is separated by a tall fence with nails from the yard where Nadenka lives… It is still cold, there is still some snow under manure, the trees are dead but it already smells like spring, and, as they settle for the night, the rooks shriek noisily. I walk over to the fence and for a long time peer into a crack. I see how Nadenka comes out onto the doorstep and directs a sorrowful, yearning gaze toward the sky… The spring wind blows directly into her pale, crestfallen face… It reminds her of that wind which roared on the mountain when she heard those four words, and her face becomes melancholy, melancholy; a tear slides down her cheek… And the poor girl extends both arms, as if asking that wind to bring her those words again. And I, waiting also for the wind, say in a low voice:
“I love you, Nadenka!”
My goodness, what happens to Nadenka! She cries out, her whole face smiles, and she stretches her arms towards the wind – happy, joyous, so beautiful.
And I go off to finish my packing….
That was a long time ago. Now Nadenka is already married; whether she was married off or chose herself to do so does not matter; her husband is the secretary of a noble tutor and she now has three children. The times when we used to go to the mountainside together some time ago, and how the wind brought her the words “I love you, Nadenka,” are not forgotten; for her this is now the happiest, the most touching and beautiful memory in her life…
And now, having grown up, I can no longer understand why I said those words, what possessed me to joke in that way…
By Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
translated, from the Russian, by Mariya Lipmanovich
Mariya Lipmanovich is studying Spanish and Comparative Literature with concentration in Russian Literature at New York University. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) was a prolific Russian short story writer and dramatist. His prominent works include Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, and Three Sisters, among many others.
Endnote: “A Little Prank” was first published in the magazine “The Cricket” 1886, N10. For the collected edition, A. P. Chekhov revised this story; in the magazine’s editorial office “A Little Prank” had a different end:
“I walk out of the bushes, and, not letting Nadenka lower her hands nor open her mouth in surprise, I run to her and…
But here allow me to get married.”