The Kiss

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The Kiss by Anton Chekhov is a short story that intricately explores themes of loneliness, the longing for connection, and the transformative power of a single, unexpected moment. Here is a retelling. Enjoy

At 8 p.m. on May 20th, all six units of the N—- Reserve Artillery Brigade made a pit stop in Myestetchki village, gearing up for camp. Amid the hustle, with some officers tinkering around the guns and others huddled in the square by the church, taking in every word from the quartermasters, a guy in plain clothes showed up on a quirky horse, stealing the scene right beside the church.

This little dun horse, sporting a decent neck and a bobbed tail, moved in a peculiar sidestep, almost like it was dodging invisible obstacles, rather than walking straight.

Riding up to the officers, the man tipped his hat, announcing, “Lieutenant-General von Rabbek cordially invites you to join him for tea right away.”

With a quirky turn and a dance-like retreat, the horse and its rider made a swift exit, vanishing behind the church as quickly as they had appeared.

“What’s this all about?” some officers grumbled, heading off to their billets. “We’re dead on our feet, and this Von Rabbek wants to play host with his ‘tea’.”

The memory of last year’s invitation from a count, similarly out of the blue during maneuvers, lingered with the officers. That count, a former army man with a penchant for hospitality, had treated them to a lavish evening, insisting they stay the night, only to bombard them with endless tales of his glory days, tours of his mansion, and exhibitions of his prized possessions, leaving them desperately yawning for their beds, their escape to sleep thwarted by dawn.

Could Von Rabbek be another such insufferable host? Regardless, politeness dictated they attend. Sprucing up in fresh uniforms, the officers set out to find Von Rabbek’s residence.

Locals directed them to two routes from the church square: a lower path meandering behind the church down to the river, then along to the garden leading to the house, or an upper route straight past the church, leading directly to the granaries near Von Rabbek’s place.

Opting for the direct approach, the officers took the upper path. On their walk, the officers pondered over which Von Rabbek might be hosting them. “Could it be the one who led the N—- cavalry at Plevna?”

“No, that was Rabbe, without the ‘von’,” someone corrected.

The weather was delightful, a topic that briefly shifted their musings as they approached the split in the road near the granaries. One path disappeared into the night, while the other led right to the master’s house.

They veered right, instinctively lowering their voices as the imposing stone granaries with their somber red roofs flanked them, resembling the barracks of a town more than anything else. The lit windows of the manor promised a warm welcome ahead.

“Looks like we’re in luck, gentlemen,” quipped an officer, hinting at the anticipation of good company. “Our vanguard has a nose for these things.”

Lieutenant Lobytko, leading the pack without a trace of facial hair despite his age, known for his uncanny ability to sense the presence of women, confidently assured, “There are definitely ladies present; I can feel it.”

They were greeted at the door by Von Rabbek himself, a dignified man in his sixties. His handshake was warm, his welcome genuine, yet he regretfully informed them that due to a house full of visiting relatives and friends, he couldn’t offer them accommodation for the night.

Though the General was polite, his demeanor lacked the enthusiasm of their previous host. The officers, ascending the plush staircase, sensed the formality of their invitation – a gesture of obligation rather than genuine desire. The bustling servants, lighting the way, underscored a sense of intrusion into a private gathering.

In the drawing-room, a tall, elegant lady, reminiscent of the Empress Eugénie, greeted them with a smile that was both grand and ephemeral. Her words echoed her husband’s regrets about the accommodations, her smile fading with each turn, revealing a courtesy born of social expectation rather than personal inclination.

It was clear: though the officers were received with all due politeness, their unexpected presence was hardly a cause for joy in a home already brimming with its own guests and celebrations.

When the officers entered the spacious dining room, they encountered a mixed assembly of guests already engaged in the leisure of tea at the table’s end. Amidst them, a young man with flamboyant red whiskers stood out, his voice cutting through the air with a pronounced lisp, speaking English amidst a cloud of cigar smoke.

Beyond this lively group, through an open doorway, glimpses of a room adorned with pale blue furnishings hinted at the elegance of the house.

“Given the crowd, formal introductions will be a challenge!” General Von Rabbek announced with a booming voice, masking his effort to inject cheerfulness into the situation. “Please, acquaint yourselves informally!”

The officers, with expressions ranging from stern to uncomfortably polite smiles, awkwardly navigated their greetings and settled down for tea.

Among them, Ryabovitch, the diminutive officer with spectacles and angular whiskers, felt particularly out of his element. His appearance screamed of a man unaccustomed to such gatherings, his shy demeanor setting him apart as perhaps the most unobtrusive member of the brigade.

Initially overwhelmed, he struggled to process the bustling scene around him—a whirlwind of faces, elegant attire, and the gleam of cut-glass decanters, all blurring into a daunting spectacle.

Gradually acclimating, Ryabovitch’s gaze shifted from the overall chaos to the boldness displayed by his hosts and fellow guests—a trait he found himself enviously lacking.

The Von Rabbeks, alongside their family and guests, deftly wove the officers into a lively debate over the comparative comforts of military branches, a discussion that seemed both alien and uninteresting to Ryabovitch yet fascinatingly executed.

As the evening progressed to the drawing room, Ryabovitch observed the interactions with a mix of admiration and critique, particularly noting the spirited discussion led by a young woman in lilac about the merits of different military services—a topic she passionately defended with what appeared to Ryabovitch as rehearsed enthusiasm.

The transition from tea to the drawing room revealed a gathering enriched with the presence of young ladies and married women, confirming Lieutenant Lobytko’s earlier intuition.

The atmosphere lightened, conversations flowed, and the piano’s melancholic waltz underscored the realization that spring was upon them, bringing with it the fragrant promises of roses, lilac, and young poplar leaves.

For Ryabovitch, the effects of the brandy and the evocative power of music conjured an enchanting illusion, blending the floral scents of the garden with the allure of the ladies, transforming the evening into a sensory feast that transcended the physical space of the Von Rabbek’s drawing room.

Von Rabbek’s son led a dance with a slender young lady, their swift waltz setting the tone for the evening. Lobytko, with a flair for dramatics, promptly swept the lady in lilac into the dance.

The room came alive with movement and music, a stark contrast to Ryabovitch’s stationary position by the door, a silent observer amidst the revelry. Never having danced, let alone held a woman close, Ryabovitch was both fascinated and intimidated by the ease with which his peers engaged in such intimacies.

His self-consciousness, accentuated by his physical insecurities, had long been a source of inner turmoil. Yet, as he watched, his envy gave way to a tender melancholy, a resignation to his observer’s role in these social rituals.

The evening’s shift to billiards saw Ryabovitch trailing behind a group led by young Von Rabbek, wandering through the expansive home to a secluded billiard room.

Despite his lack of interest in the game, he lingered, an unnoticed spectator to the players’ banter and jests. Soon feeling superfluous, Ryabovitch decided to retreat to the drawing room, only to find himself lost in the mansion’s labyrinthine corridors.

His accidental detour led him into a dark, secluded space, where a sudden, unexpected encounter transformed his night. Mistaken for another in the dim light, Ryabovitch was abruptly embraced and kissed by a woman whose identity remained a mystery, her swift departure leaving him in a whirl of confusion and exhilaration.

This fleeting moment of intimacy, so alien to his usual experience, ignited a cascade of emotions within him, erasing his habitual self-doubt and timidity.

Reentering the drawing room, Ryabovitch was a changed man, his heart racing with a newfound confidence. The encounter had bestowed upon him a sense of liberation, dispelling his lifelong insecurities.

Now, amid the ongoing festivities, he felt an urge to engage with life more fully, to embrace the joy and spontaneity he had always observed from the sidelines. Even a passing interaction with Von Rabbek’s wife elicited from him a smile so genuine and unguarded, it prompted a look of surprise from the lady herself.

For the first time, Ryabovitch felt visible, vital, and vibrantly alive, his accidental kiss having awakened in him a boldness he never knew he possessed.

Ryabovitch’s evening at Von Rabbek’s house transformed into a sequence of unfamiliar yet thrilling interactions, culminating in his spontaneous conversation with the General’s wife. His compliment about the house led to a brief exchange that further warmed him to his hosts and the splendid atmosphere they cultivated.

Despite his usual reticence, the unexpected kiss in the dark room had kindled a newfound sense of belonging and ease among the people around him, though his mind continued to race with questions about the identity of his mysterious kisser.

As the night progressed to supper, Ryabovitch found himself lost in thought, trying to piece together the enigma of the kiss. He speculated about the possible scenarios that led to such an intimate, mistaken encounter, wondering about the woman’s identity.

His gaze wandered among the female guests, imagining who she could be, but no definitive conclusion presented itself. Each attempt to match the kiss to a face remained futile, leaving him with a composite image of an idealized woman, an amalgam of features drawn from those present, yet belonging to no one in particular.

The departure from the manor was marked by a congenial farewell from their hosts, with Von Rabbek expressing genuine warmth as the officers made their way through the garden and into the night.

The tranquil walk back, under the starlit sky, sparked a contemplative mood among the officers, pondering their future prospects of domesticity and hospitality.

Their musings were momentarily interrupted by a shared admiration for a nightingale’s undisturbed song, a moment of communal appreciation for nature’s indifference to human presence.

Back at their quarters, the night’s experiences lingered with Ryabovitch, the memory of the kiss enveloping him in a cocoon of joy and wonderment. The physical sensations left by the encounter were vivid, mingling with his fantasies of the women he had observed throughout the evening.

As his roommates settled in, each absorbed in their own routines, Ryabovitch lay awake, ensnared by the mystery and delight of his unexpected adventure.

Lobytko’s fruitless quest for beer and his subsequent attempt to rally Ryabovitch for a late-night excursion highlighted the mundane frustrations and camaraderie typical of their military life.

Yet, for Ryabovitch, the night had transcended these ordinary concerns, ushering him into a dream-filled sleep where the joy of the unexpected kiss continued to resonate, a tender, foolish, but exquisitely delightful aberration in his orderly life.

This singular moment of affection, misplaced yet profoundly affecting, had gifted him a glimpse into a more vibrant, emotionally rich existence, leaving an indelible mark on his soul.

Waking to a new day, Ryabovitch found the vivid sensations from the previous night’s encounter had faded, yet the joy within him surged unabated, amplified by the morning’s golden glow and the lively street sounds.

The mundane military chatter and the commanding voice of Lebedetsky, his battery commander, discussing everyday concerns contrasted sharply with the inner tumult of excitement and wonder Ryabovitch experienced.

This juxtaposition highlighted the ordinariness of military life against the backdrop of his extraordinary personal moment.

As the brigade resumed its journey, passing by the Von Rabbek residence now silent and veiled behind closed blinds, Ryabovitch’s thoughts lingered on the unknown woman, her imagined sleeping form casting a spell of enchantment over him.

The vivid mental image of her room, intertwined with the scents of morning and the remnants of last night’s encounter, brought a profound sense of closeness to someone he realized he knew nothing about.

His last look at Myestetchki was imbued with a melancholy realization of parting from a place that had unexpectedly become dear to him, a poignant moment that marked the beginning of his return to the routine of military life.

The procession of the brigade, with its detailed military order and the familiar sight of cannons and soldiers, failed to interest Ryabovitch as it once might have. His mind was elsewhere, wrapped in the warmth of his dreams and the lingering mystery of the kiss.

The military precision and the well-known reasons for each element of the procession now seemed distant and dull to him. In contrast, his imagination was vividly alive, painting scenarios of intimacy, conflict, and reunion with the unseen woman who had so briefly entered his life.

This daydreaming transformed the mundane march into a canvas for his fantasies, blending elements of reality with the allure of the unknown.

Ryabovitch’s thoughts evolved from attempts to rationalize the kiss as a mere trivial adventure into a surrender to whimsical dreams and possibilities. His mental dalliance with the imagined figures of the young lady in lilac, the fair girl in black, and an entirely fictional beloved, showcases a profound shift within him.

From being a passive observer of his life and surroundings, he has become an active participant in his own narrative of romance and possibility. The mundane reality of military life, represented by the unremarkable progression of the brigade and its cannons, now serves as a mere backdrop to the rich inner world Ryabovitch has begun to explore, spurred by a chance encounter that has awakened him to the joys and mysteries of life and love.

Ryabovitch’s journey with his brigade, interspersed with mundane commands and routine military observations, served as a backdrop to his inner transformation. His fleeting encounter at Von Rabbek’s residence continued to envelop him in a cocoon of daydreams, significantly altering his perception of himself and his life.

The shout of “Brakes on!” during their descent seemed like an intrusion into his reverie, a reminder of the world outside his newfound inner joy. As they passed by another estate, the sight of a birch-lined avenue triggered a vivid image of the mysterious girl, solidifying her presence in his mind and intertwining her with his sense of identity and future.

The encounter with the brigade’s general, marked by routine inquiries and the general’s attempt at humor, contrasted sharply with Ryabovitch’s internal world. It highlighted the mundane and often superficial interactions that make up daily life, yet Ryabovitch found a newfound solace in the ordinariness of his experience.

The realization that what he felt was a universal experience, shared even by those he saw as unremarkable or uninspiring, filled him with a sense of belonging to the broader human condition. This realization emboldened him, encouraging him to indulge further in his fantasies without restraint.

In the evening, as the officers settled down, Ryabovitch’s attempt to share his experience highlighted the chasm between his inner transformation and the external world.

Lobytko’s skepticism and Merzlyakov’s clinical interpretation of the incident underscored the inability of others to grasp the depth of change Ryabovitch had undergone.

The disbelief and mockery from his comrades led Ryabovitch to a silent vow of reticence about his inner world, a world that had become a sanctuary of dreams and emotions stirred by the brief encounter.

The days that followed were imbued with a sense of being in love, a profound alteration in Ryabovitch’s day-to-day existence. Ordinary moments were charged with a new warmth, and conversations about love drew him in, as they now spoke to a part of his experience that was vividly real to him.

Even as he partook in the officers’ escapades, a sense of guilt and a longing for forgiveness from the unseen girl marked his internal moral compass, showing how deeply the incident had affected him.

Ryabovitch’s journey back, fueled by a blend of anticipation and fantasy, epitomizes the often bittersweet nature of returning to a place of significant personal memory.

The intense longing to revisit the scene of his unexpected kiss speaks to a deeper desire for connection and meaning, a theme that resonates with anyone who has ever sought to recapture a moment of unexpected joy or serendipity.

As the familiar landmarks of his brief encounter with mystery and romance come into view, Ryabovitch’s heart races, underscoring the powerful pull of place and memory in shaping our emotions and expectations.

The absence of a welcoming party from the Von Rabbeks heightens Ryabovitch’s sense of unease, transforming his eager anticipation into a nagging dread that perhaps the moment that has grown so significant in his mind holds no such importance for the other party involved.

This shift from hopeful anticipation to uneasy waiting captures a universal human experience—the fear that what we hold dear may not be reciprocated or even remembered by others.

Ryabovitch’s solitary walk through the village and his vigil at the garden gate serve as poignant metaphors for his internal journey. The once vibrant and promising setting now appears dark and still, mirroring Ryabovitch’s transition from the warmth of hopeful fantasy to the cold reality of absence and silence.

His actions, touching the bath-sheets and gazing at the moon’s reflection in the river, are aimless attempts to connect with the past, underscored by his realization of the futility of such efforts.

The running water of the river, indifferent and continuous, becomes a symbol of life’s ceaseless, often inscrutable movement—unaffected by human desires or disappointments.

Ryabovitch’s contemplation of the water’s cycle reflects his recognition of the larger, impersonal forces at play in the world, a realization that deepens his sense of isolation and insignificance.

Upon learning that his comrades have been invited to the General’s without him, Ryabovitch experiences a fleeting surge of hope, quickly extinguished by his decision to remain behind.

This choice marks a definitive step away from the allure of the past and the fantasies that have sustained him. In opting out of the visit, Ryabovitch is not only expressing his frustration with the unpredictability of fate but also making a stand for his dignity and self-respect, refusing to chase after a moment that has slipped through his fingers.

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