Peasant Wives, Anton Chekhov
In the village of Reybuzh, just facing the church, stands a two-storeyed house with a stone foundation and an iron roof. In the lower storey the owner himself, Filip Ivanov Kashin, nicknamed Dyudya, lives with his family, and on the upper floor, where it is apt to be very hot in summer and very cold in winter, they put up government officials, merchants, or landowners, who chance to be travelling that way. Dyudya rents some bits of land, keeps a tavern on the highroad, does a trade in tar, honey, cattle, and jackdaws, and has already something like eight thousand roubles put by in the bank in the town.His elder son, Fyodor, is head engineer in the factory, and, as the peasants say of him, he has risen so high in the world that he is quite out of reach now. Fyodor’s wife, Sofya, a plain, ailing woman, lives at home at her father-in-law’s. She is for ever crying, and every Sunday she goes over to the hospital for medicine. Dyudya’s second son, the hunchback Alyoshka, is living at home at his father’s. He has only lately been married to Varvara, whom they singled out for him from a poor family. She is a handsome young woman, smart and buxom. When officials or merchants put up at the house, they always insist on having Varvara to bring in the samovar and make their beds.
One June evening when the sun was setting and the air was full of the smell of hay, of steaming dung-heaps and new milk, a plain-looking cart drove into Dyudya’s yard with three people in it: a man of about thirty in a canvas suit, beside him a little boy of seven or eight in a long black coat with big bone buttons, and on the driver’s seat a young fellow in a red shirt.
The young fellow took out the horses and led them out into the street to walk them up and down a bit, while the traveller washed, said a prayer, turning towards the church, then spread a rug near the cart and sat down with the boy to supper. He ate without haste, sedately, and Dyudya, who had seen a good many travellers in his time, knew him from his manners for a businesslike man, serious and aware of his own value.
Dyudya was sitting on the step in his waistcoat without a cap on, waiting for the visitor to speak first. He was used to hearing all kinds of stories from the travellers in the evening, and he liked listening to them before going to bed. His old wife, Afanasyevna, and his daughter-in-law Sofya, were milking in the cowshed. The other daughter-in-law, Varvara, was sitting at the open window of the upper storey, eating sunflower seeds.
“The little chap will be your son, I’m thinking?” Dyudya asked the traveller.
“No; adopted. An orphan. I took him for my soul’s salvation.”
They got into conversation. The stranger seemed to be a man fond of talking and ready of speech, and Dyudya learned from him that he was from the town, was of the tradesman class, and had a house of his own, that his name was Matvey Savitch, that he was on his way now to look at some gardens that he was renting from some German colonists, and that the boy’s name was Kuzka. The evening was hot and close, no one felt inclined for sleep. When it was getting dark and pale stars began to twinkle here and there in the sky, Matvey Savitch began to tell how he had come by Kuzka. Afanasyevna and Sofya stood a little way off, listening. Kuzka had gone to the gate.
“It’s a complicated story, old man,” began Matvey Savitch, “and if I were to tell you all just as it happened, it would take all night and more. Ten years ago in a little house in our street, next door to me, where now there’s a tallow and oil factory, there was living an old widow, Marfa Semyonovna Kapluntsev, and she had two sons: one was a guard on the railway, but the other, Vasya, who was just my own age, lived at home with his mother. Old Kapluntsev had kept five pair of horses and sent carriers all over the town; his widow had not given up the business, but managed the carriers as well as her husband had done, so that some days they would bring in as much as five roubles from their rounds.
“The young fellow, too, made a trifle on his own account. He used to breed fancy pigeons and sell them to fanciers; at times he would stand for hours on the roof, waving a broom in the air and whistling; his pigeons were right up in the clouds, but it wasn’t enough for him, and he’d want them to go higher yet. Siskins and starlings, too, he used to catch, and he made cages for sale. All trifles, but, mind you, he’d pick up some ten roubles a month over such trifles. Well, as time went on, the old lady lost the use of her legs and took to her bed. In consequence of which event the house was left without a woman to look after it, and that’s for all the world like a man without an eye. The old lady bestirred herself and made up her mind to marry Vasya. They called in a matchmaker at once, the women got to talking of one thing and another, and Vasya went off to have a look at the girls. He picked out Mashenka, a widow’s daughter. They made up their minds without loss of time and in a week it was all settled. The girl was a little slip of a thing, seventeen, but fair-skinned and pretty-looking, and like a lady in all her ways; and a decent dowry with her, five hundred roubles, a cow, a bed. . . . Well, the old lady — it seemed as though she had known it was coming — three days after the wedding, departed to the Heavenly Jerusalem where is neither sickness nor sighing. The young people gave her a good funeral and began their life together. For just six months they got on splendidly, and then all of a sudden another misfortune. It never rains but it pours: Vasya was summoned to the recruiting office to draw lots for the service. He was taken, poor chap, for a soldier, and not even granted exemption. They shaved his head and packed him off to Poland. It was God’s will; there was nothing to be done. When he said good-bye to his wife in the yard, he bore it all right; but as he glanced up at the hay-loft and his pigeons for the last time, he burst out crying. It was pitiful to see him.
“At first Mashenka got her mother to stay with her, that she mightn’t be dull all alone; she stayed till the baby — this very Kuzka here — was born, and then she went off to Oboyan to another married daughter’s and left Mashenka alone with the baby. There were five peasants — the carriers — a drunken saucy lot; horses, too, and dray-carts to see to, and then the fence would be broken or the soot afire in the chimney — jobs beyond a woman, and through our being neighbours, she got into the way of turning to me for every little thing. . . . Well, I’d go over, set things to rights, and give advice. . . . Naturally, not without going indoors, drinking a cup of tea and having a little chat with her. I was a young fellow, intellectual, and fond of talking on all sorts of subjects; she, too, was well-bred and educated. She was always neatly dressed, and in summer she walked out with a sunshade. Sometimes I would begin upon religion or politics with her, and she was flattered and would entertain me with tea and jam. . . . In a word, not to make a long story of it, I must tell you, old man, a year had not passed before the Evil One, the enemy of all mankind, confounded me. I began to notice that any day I didn’t go to see her, I seemed out of sorts and dull. And I’d be continually making up something that I must see her about: ‘It’s high time,’ I’d say to myself, ‘to put the double windows in for the winter,’ and the whole day I’d idle away over at her place putting in the windows and take good care to leave a couple of them over for the next day too.
” ‘I ought to count over Vasya’s pigeons, to see none of them have strayed,’ and so on. I used always to be talking to her across the fence, and in the end I made a little gate in the fence so as not to have to go so far round. From womankind comes much evil into the world and every kind of abomination. Not we sinners only; even the saints themselves have been led astray by them. Mashenka did not try to keep me at a distance. Instead of thinking of her husband and being on her guard, she fell in love with me. I began to notice that she was dull without me, and was always walking to and fro by the fence looking into my yard through the cracks.
“My brains were going round in my head in a sort of frenzy. On Thursday in Holy Week I was going early in the morning — it was scarcely light — to market. I passed close by her gate, and the Evil One was by me — at my elbow. I looked — she had a gate with open trellis work at the top — and there she was, up already, standing in the middle of the yard, feeding the ducks. I could not restrain myself, and I called her name. She came up and looked at me through the trellis. . . . Her little face was white, her eyes soft and sleepy-looking. . . . I liked her looks immensely, and I began paying her compliments, as though we were not at the gate, but just as one does on namedays, while she blushed, and laughed, and kept looking straight into my eyes without winking. . . . I lost all sense and began to declare my love to her. . . . She opened the gate, and from that morning we began to live as man and wife. . . .”
The hunchback Alyoshka came into the yard from the street and ran out of breath into the house, not looking at any one. A minute later he ran out of the house with a concertina. Jingling some coppers in his pocket, and cracking sunflower seeds as he ran, he went out at the gate.
“And who’s that, pray?” asked Matvey Savitch.
“My son Alexey,” answered Dyudya. “He’s off on a spree, the rascal. God has afflicted him with a hump, so we are not very hard on him.”
“And he’s always drinking with the other fellows, always drinking,” sighed Afanasyevna. “Before Carnival we married him, thinking he’d be steadier, but there! he’s worse than ever.”
“It’s been no use. Simply keeping another man’s daughter for nothing,” said Dyudya.
Somewhere behind the church they began to sing a glorious, mournful song. The words they could not catch and only the voices could be heard — two tenors and a bass. All were listening; there was complete stillness in the yard. . . . Two voices suddenly broke off with a loud roar of laughter, but the third, a tenor, still sang on, and took so high a note that every one instinctively looked upwards, as though the voice had soared to heaven itself.
Varvara came out of the house, and screening her eyes with her hand, as though from the sun, she looked towards the church.
“It’s the priest’s sons with the schoolmaster,” she said.
Again all the three voices began to sing together. Matvey Savitch sighed and went on:
“Well, that’s how it was, old man. Two years later we got a letter from Vasya from Warsaw. He wrote that he was being sent home sick. He was ill. By that time I had put all that foolishness out of my head, and I had a fine match picked out all ready for me, only I didn’t know how to break it off with my sweetheart. Every day I’d make up my mind to have it out with Mashenka, but I didn’t know how to approach her so as not to have a woman’s screeching about my ears. The letter freed my hands. I read it through with Mashenka; she turned white as a sheet, while I said to her: ‘Thank God; now,’ says I, ‘you’ll be a married woman again.’ But says she: ‘I’m not going to live with him.’ ‘Why, isn’t he your husband?’ said I. ‘Is it an easy thing? . . . I never loved him and I married him not of my own free will. My mother made me.’ ‘Don’t try to get out of it, silly,’ said I, ‘but tell me this: were you married to him in church or not?’ ‘I was married,’ she said, ‘but it’s you that I love, and I will stay with you to the day of my death. Folks may jeer. I don’t care. . . .’ ‘You’re a Christian woman,’ said I, ‘and have read the Scriptures; what is written there?’
“Once married, with her husband she must live,” said Dyudya.
” ‘Man and wife are one flesh. We have sinned,’ I said, ‘you and I, and it is enough; we must repent and fear God. We must confess it all to Vasya,’ said I; ‘he’s a quiet fellow and soft — he won’t kill you. And indeed,’ said I, ‘better to suffer torments in this world at the hands of your lawful master than to gnash your teeth at the dread Seat of Judgment.’ The wench wouldn’t listen; she stuck to her silly, ‘It’s you I love!’ and nothing more could I get out of her.
“Vasya came back on the Saturday before Trinity, early in the morning. From my fence I could see everything; he ran into the house, and came back a minute later with Kuzka in his arms, and he was laughing and crying all at once; he was kissing Kuzka and looking up at the hay-loft, and hadn’t the heart to put the child down, and yet he was longing to go to his pigeons. He was always a soft sort of chap — sentimental. That day passed off very well, all quiet and proper. They had begun ringing the church bells for the evening service, when the thought struck me: ‘To-morrow’s Trinity Sunday; how is it they are not decking the gates and the fence with green? Something’s wrong,’ I thought. I went over to them. I peeped in, and there he was, sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, his eyes staring like a drunken man’s, the tears streaming down his cheeks and his hands shaking; he was pulling cracknels, necklaces, gingerbread nuts, and all sorts of little presents out of his bundle and flinging them on the floor. Kuzka — he was three years old — was crawling on the floor, munching the gingerbreads, while Mashenka stood by the stove, white and shivering all over, muttering: ‘I’m not your wife; I can’t live with you,’ and all sorts of foolishness. I bowed down at Vasya’s feet, and said: ‘We have sinned against you, Vassily Maximitch; forgive us, for Christ’s sake!’ Then I got up and spoke to Mashenka: ‘You, Marya Semyonovna, ought now to wash Vassily Maximitch’s feet and drink the water. Do you be an obedient wife to him, and pray to God for me, that He in His mercy may forgive my transgression.’ It came to me like an inspiration from an angel of Heaven; I gave her solemn counsel and spoke with such feeling that my own tears flowed too. And so two days later Vasya comes to me: ‘Matyusha,’ says he, ‘I forgive you and my wife; God have mercy on you! She was a soldier’s wife, a young thing all alone; it was hard for her to be on her guard. She’s not the first, nor will she be the last. Only,’ he says, ‘I beg you to behave as though there had never been anything between you, and to make no sign, while I,’ says he, ‘will do my best to please her in every way, so that she may come to love me again.’ He gave me his hand on it, drank a cup of tea, and went away more cheerful.
” ‘Well,’ thought I, ‘thank God!’ and I did feel glad that everything had gone off so well. But no sooner had Vasya gone out of the yard, when in came Mashenka. Ah! What I had to suffer! She hung on my neck, weeping and praying: ‘For God’s sake, don’t cast me off; I can’t live without you!’ ”
“The vile hussy!” sighed Dyudya.
“I swore at her, stamped my foot, and dragging her into the passage, I fastened the door with the hook. ‘Go to your husband,’ I cried. ‘Don’t shame me before folks. Fear God!’ And every day there was a scene of that sort.
“One morning I was standing in my yard near the stable cleaning a bridle. All at once I saw her running through the little gate into my yard, with bare feet, in her petticoat, and straight towards me; she clutched at the bridle, getting all smeared with the pitch, and shaking and weeping, she cried: ‘I can’t stand him; I loathe him; I can’t bear it! If you don’t love me, better kill me!’ I was angry, and I struck her twice with the bridle, but at that instant Vasya ran in at the gate, and in a despairing voice he shouted: ‘Don’t beat her! Don’t beat her!’ But he ran up himself, and waving his arms, as though he were mad, he let fly with his fists at her with all his might, then flung her on the ground and kicked her. I tried to defend her, but he snatched up the reins and thrashed her with them, and all the while, like a colt’s whinny, he went: ‘He — he — he!’ ”
“I’d take the reins and let you feel them,” muttered Varvara, moving away; “murdering our sister, the damned brutes! . . .”
“Hold your tongue, you jade!” Dyudya shouted at her.
” ‘He — he — he!’ ” Matvey Savitch went on. “A carrier ran out of his yard; I called to my workman, and the three of us got Mashenka away from him and carried her home in our arms. The disgrace of it! The same day I went over in the evening to see how things were. She was lying in bed, all wrapped up in bandages, nothing but her eyes and nose to be seen; she was looking at the ceiling. I said: ‘Good-evening, Marya Semyonovna!’ She did not speak. And Vasya was sitting in the next room, his head in his hands, crying and saying: ‘Brute that I am! I’ve ruined my life! O God, let me die!’ I sat for half an hour by Mashenka and gave her a good talking-to. I tried to frighten her a bit. ‘The righteous,’ said I, ‘after this life go to Paradise, but you will go to a Gehenna of fire, like all adulteresses. Don’t strive against your husband, go and lay yourself at his feet.’ But never a word from her; she didn’t so much as blink an eyelid, for all the world as though I were talking to a post. The next day Vasya fell ill with something like cholera, and in the evening I heard that he was dead. Well, so they buried him, and Mashenka did not go to the funeral; she didn’t care to show her shameless face and her bruises. And soon there began to be talk all over the district that Vasya had not died a natural death, that Mashenka had made away with him. It got to the ears of the police; they had Vasya dug up and cut open, and in his stomach they found arsenic. It was clear he had been poisoned; the police came and took Mashenka away, and with her the innocent Kuzka. They were put in prison. . . . The woman had gone too far — God punished her. . . . Eight months later they tried her. She sat, I remember, on a low stool, with a little white kerchief on her head, wearing a grey gown, and she was so thin, so pale, so sharp-eyed it made one sad to look at her. Behind her stood a soldier with a gun. She would not confess her guilt. Some in the court said she had poisoned her husband and others declared he had poisoned himself for grief. I was one of the witnesses. When they questioned me, I told the whole truth according to my oath. ‘Hers,’ said I, ‘is the guilt. It’s no good to conceal it; she did not love her husband, and she had a will of her own. . . .’ The trial began in the morning and towards night they passed this sentence: to send her to hard labour in Siberia for thirteen years. After that sentence Mashenka remained three months longer in prison. I went to see her, and from Christian charity I took her a little tea and sugar. But as soon as she set eyes on me she began to shake all over, wringing her hands and muttering: ‘Go away! go away!’ And Kuzka she clasped to her as though she were afraid I would take him away. ‘See,’ said I, ‘what you have come to! Ah, Masha, Masha! you would not listen to me when I gave you good advice, and now you must repent it. You are yourself to blame,’ said I; ‘blame yourself!’ I was giving her good counsel, but she: ‘Go away, go away!’ huddling herself and Kuzka against the wall, and trembling all over.
“When they were taking her away to the chief town of our province, I walked by the escort as far as the station and slipped a rouble into her bundle for my soul’s salvation. But she did not get as far as Siberia. . . . She fell sick of fever and died in prison.”
“Live like a dog and you must die a dog’s death,” said Dyudya.
“Kuzka was sent back home. . . . I thought it over and took him to bring up. After all — though a convict’s child — still he was a living soul, a Christian. . . . I was sorry for him. I shall make him my clerk, and if I have no children of my own, I’ll make a merchant of him. Wherever I go now, I take him with me; let him learn his work.”
All the while Matvey Savitch had been telling his story, Kuzka had sat on a little stone near the gate. His head propped in both hands, he gazed at the sky, and in the distance he looked in the dark like a stump of wood.
“Kuzka, come to bed,” Matvey Savitch bawled to him.
“Yes, it’s time,” said Dyudya, getting up; he yawned loudly and added:
“Folks will go their own way, and that’s what comes of it.”
Over the yard the moon was floating now in the heavens; she was moving one way, while the clouds beneath moved the other way; the clouds were disappearing into the darkness, but still the moon could be seen high above the yard.
Matvey Savitch said a prayer, facing the church, and saying good-night, he lay down on the ground near his cart. Kuzka, too, said a prayer, lay down in the cart, and covered himself with his little overcoat; he made himself a little hole in the hay so as to be more comfortable, and curled up so that his elbows looked like knees. From the yard Dyudya could be seen lighting a candle in his room below, putting on his spectacles and standing in the corner with a book. He was a long while reading and crossing himself.
The travellers fell asleep. Afanasyevna and Sofya came up to the cart and began looking at Kuzka.
“The little orphan’s asleep,” said the old woman. “He’s thin and frail, nothing but bones. No mother and no one to care for him properly.”
“My Grishutka must be two years older,” said Sofya. “Up at the factory he lives like a slave without his mother. The foreman beats him, I dare say. When I looked at this poor mite just now, I thought of my own Grishutka, and my heart went cold within me.”
A minute passed in silence.
“Doesn’t remember his mother, I suppose,” said the old woman.
“How could he remember?”
And big tears began dropping from Sofya’s eyes.
“He’s curled himself up like a cat,” she said, sobbing and laughing with tenderness and sorrow. . . . “Poor motherless mite!
Kuzka started and opened his eyes. He saw before him an ugly, wrinkled, tear-stained face, and beside it another, aged and toothless, with a sharp chin and hooked nose, and high above them the infinite sky with the flying clouds and the moon. He cried out in fright, and Sofya, too, uttered a cry; both were answered by the echo, and a faint stir passed over the stifling air; a watchman tapped somewhere near, a dog barked. Matvey Savitch muttered something in his sleep and turned over on the other side.
Late at night when Dyudya and the old woman and the neighbouring watchman were all asleep, Sofya went out to the gate and sat down on the bench. She felt stifled and her head ached from weeping. The street was a wide and long one; it stretched for nearly two miles to the right and as far to the left, and the end of it was out of sight. The moon was now not over the yard, but behind the church. One side of the street was flooded with moonlight, while the other side lay in black shadow. The long shadows of the poplars and the starling-cotes stretched right across the street, while the church cast a broad shadow, black and terrible that enfolded Dyudya’s gates and half his house. The street was still and deserted. From time to time the strains of mu sic floated faintly from the end of the street — Alyoshka, most likely, playing his concertina.
Someone moved in the shadow near the church enclosure, and Sofya could not make out whether it were a man or a cow, or perhaps merely a big bird rustling in the trees. But then a figure stepped out of the shadow, halted, and said something in a man’s voice, then vanished down the turning by the church. A little later, not three yards from the gate, another figure came into sight; it walked straight from the church to the gate and stopped short, seeing Sofya on the bench.
“Varvara, is that you?” said Sofya.
“And if it were?”
It was Varvara. She stood still a minute, then came up to the bench and sat down.
“Where have you been?” asked Sofya.
Varvara made no answer.
“You’d better mind you don’t get into trouble with such goings-on, my girl,” said Sofya. “Did you hear how Mashenka was kicked and lashed with the reins? You’d better look out, or they’ll treat you the same.”
“Well, let them!”
Varvara laughed into her kerchief and whispered:
“I have just been with the priest’s son.”
“It’s a sin!” whispered Sofya.
“Well, let it be. . . . What do I care? If it’s a sin, then it is a sin, but better be struck dead by thunder than live like this. I’m young and strong, and I’ve a filthy crooked hunchback for a husband, worse than Dyudya himself, curse him! When I was a girl, I hadn’t bread to eat, or a shoe to my foot, and to get away from that wretchedness I was tempted by Alyoshka’s money, and got caught like a fish in a net, and I’d rather have a viper for my bedfellow than that scurvy Alyoshka. And what’s your life? It makes me sick to look at it. Your Fyodor sent you packing from the factory and he’s taken up with another woman. They have robbed you of your boy and made a slave of him. You work like a horse, and never hear a kind word. I’d rather pine all my days an old maid, I’d rather get half a rouble from the priest’s son, I’d rather beg my bread, or throw myself into the well. . .
“It’s a sin!” whispered Sofya again.
“Well, let it be.”
Somewhere behind the church the same three voices, two tenors and a bass, began singing again a mournful song. And again the words could not be distinguished.
“They are not early to bed,” Varvara said, laughing.
And she began telling in a whisper of her midnight walks with the priest’s son, and of the stories he had told her, and of his comrades, and of the fun she had with the travellers who stayed in the house. The mournful song stirred a longing for life and freedom. Sofya began to laugh; she thought it sinful and terrible and sweet to hear about, and she felt envious and sorry that she, too, had not been a sinner when she was young and pretty.
In the churchyard they heard twelve strokes beaten on the watchman’s board.
“It’s time we were asleep,” said Sofya, getting up, “or, maybe, we shall catch it from Dyudya.”
They both went softly into the yard.
“I went away without hearing what he was telling about Mashenka,” said Varvara, making herself a bed under the window.
“She died in prison, he said. She poisoned her husband.”
Varvara lay down beside Sofya a while, and said softly:
“I’d make away with my Alyoshka and never regret it.”
“You talk nonsense; God forgive you.”
When Sofya was just dropping asleep, Varvara, coming close, whispered in her ear:
“Let us get rid of Dyudya and Alyoshka!”
Sofya started and said nothing. Then she opened her eyes and gazed a long while steadily at the sky.
“People would find out,” she said.
“No, they wouldn’t. Dyudya’s an old man, it’s time he did die; and they’d say Alyoshka died of drink.”
“I’m afraid . . . God would chastise us.”
“Well, let Him. . . .”
Both lay awake thinking in silence.
“It’s cold,” said Sofya, beginning to shiver all over. “It will soon be morning. . . . Are you asleep?”
“No. . . . Don’t you mind what I say, dear,” whispered Varvara; “I get so mad with the damned brutes, I don’t know what I do say. Go to sleep, or it will be daylight directly. . . . Go to sleep.”
Both were quiet and soon they fell asleep.
Earlier than all woke the old woman. She waked up Sofya and they went together into the cowshed to milk the cows. The hunchback Alyoshka came in hopelessly drunk without his concertina; his breast and knees had been in the dust and straw — he must have fallen down in the road. Staggering, he went into the cowshed, and without undressing he rolled into a sledge and began to snore at once. When first the crosses on the church and then the windows were flashing in the light of the rising sun, and shadows stretched across the yard over the dewy grass from the trees and the top of the well, Matvey Savitch jumped up and began hurrying about:
“Kuzka! get up!” he shouted. “It’s time to put in the horses! Look sharp!”
The bustle of morning was beginning. A young Jewess in a brown gown with flounces led a horse into the yard to drink. The pulley of the well creaked plaintively, the bucket knocked as it went down. . . .
Kuzka, sleepy, tired, covered with dew, sat up in the cart, lazily putting on his little overcoat, and listening to the drip of the water from the bucket into the well as he shivered with the cold.
“Auntie!” shouted Matvey Savitch to Sofya, “tell my lad to hurry up and to harness the horses!”
And Dyudya at the same instant shouted from the window:
“Sofya, take a farthing from the Jewess for the horse’s drink! They’re always in here, the mangy creatures!
In the street sheep were running up and down, baaing; the peasant women were shouting at the shepherd, while he played his pipes, cracked his whip, or answered them in a thick sleepy bass. Three sheep strayed into the yard, and not finding the gate again, pushed at the fence.
Varvara was waked by the noise, and bundling her bedding up in her arms, she went into the house.
“You might at least drive the sheep out!” the old woman bawled after her, “my lady!”
“I dare say! As if I were going to slave for you Herods!” muttered Varvara, going into the house.
Dyudya came out of the house with his accounts in his hands, sat down on the step, and began reckoning how much the traveller owed him for the night’s lodging, oats, and watering his horses.
“You charge pretty heavily for the oats, my good man,” said Matvey Savitch.
“If it’s too much, don’t take them. There’s no compulsion, merchant.”
When the travellers were ready to start, they were detained for a minute. Kuzka had lost his cap.
“Little swine, where did you put it?” Matvey Savitch roared angrily. “Where is it?”
Kuzka’s face was working with terror; he ran up and down near the cart, and not finding it there, ran to the gate and then to the shed. The old woman and Sofya helped him look.
“I’ll pull your ears off!” yelled Matvey Savitch. “Dirty brat!”
The cap was found at the bottom of the cart.
Kuzka brushed the hay off it with his sleeve, put it on, and timidly he crawled into the cart, still with an expression of terror on his face as though he were afraid of a blow from behind.
Matvey Savitch crossed himself. The driver gave a tug at the reins and the cart rolled out of the yard.
The Lottery Ticket, Anton Chekhov
IVAN DMITRITCH, a middle-class man who lived with his family on an income of twelve hundred a year and was very well satisfied with his lot, sat down on the sofa after supper and began reading the newspaper.
“I forgot to look at the newspaper today,” his wife said to him as she cleared the table. “Look and see whether the list of drawings is there.”
“Yes, it is,” said Ivan Dmitritch; “but hasn’t your ticket lapsed?”
“No; I took the interest on Tuesday.”
“What is the number?”
“Series 9,499, number 26.”
“All right . . . we will look . . . 9,499 and 26.”
Ivan Dmitritch had no faith in lottery luck, and would not, as a rule, have consented to look at the lists of winning numbers, but now, as he had nothing else to do and as the newspaper was before his eyes, he passed his finger downwards along the column of numbers. And immediately, as though in mockery of his scepticism, no further than the second line from the top, his eye was caught by the figure 9,499! Unable to believe his eyes, he hurriedly dropped the paper on his knees without looking to see the number of the ticket, and, just as though some one had given him a douche of cold water, he felt an agreeable chill in the pit of the stomach; tingling and terrible and sweet!
“Masha, 9,499 is there!” he said in a hollow voice.
His wife looked at his astonished and panicstricken face, and realized that he was not joking.
“9,499?” she asked, turning pale and dropping the folded tablecloth on the table.
“Yes, yes . . . it really is there!”
“And the number of the ticket?”
“Oh yes! There’s the number of the ticket too. But stay . . . wait! No, I say! Anyway, the number of our series is there! Anyway, you understand….”
Looking at his wife, Ivan Dmitritch gave a broad, senseless smile, like a baby when a bright object is shown it. His wife smiled too; it was as pleasant to her as to him that he only mentioned the series, and did not try to find out the number of the winning ticket. To torment and tantalize oneself with hopes of possible fortune is so sweet, so thrilling!
“It is our series,” said Ivan Dmitritch, after a long silence. “So there is a probability that we have won. It’s only a probability, but there it is!”
“Well, now look!”
“Wait a little. We have plenty of time to be disappointed. It’s on the second line from the top, so the prize is seventy-five thousand. That’s not money, but power, capital! And in a minute I shall look at the list, and there–26! Eh? I say, what if we really have won?”
The husband and wife began laughing and staring at one another in silence. The possibility of winning bewildered them; they could not have said, could not have dreamed, what they both needed that seventy-five thousand for, what they would buy, where they would go. They thought only of the figures 9,499 and 75,000 and pictured them in their imagination, while somehow they could not think of the happiness itself which was so possible.
Ivan Dmitritch, holding the paper in his hand, walked several times from corner to corner, and only when he had recovered from the first impression began dreaming a little.
“And if we have won,” he said–“why, it will be a new life, it will be a transformation! The ticket is yours, but if it were mine I should, first of all, of course, spend twenty-five thousand on real property in the shape of an estate; ten thousand on immediate expenses, new furnishing . . . travelling . . . paying debts, and so on. . . . The other forty thousand I would put in the bank and get interest on it.”
“Yes, an estate, that would be nice,” said his wife, sitting down and dropping her hands in her lap.
“Somewhere in the Tula or Oryol provinces. . . . In the first place we shouldn’t need a summer villa, and besides, it would always bring in an income.”
And pictures came crowding on his imagination, each more gracious and poetical than the last. And in all these pictures he saw himself well-fed, serene, healthy, felt warm, even hot! Here, after eating a summer soup, cold as ice, he lay on his back on the burning sand close to a stream or in the garden under a lime-tree. . . . It is hot. . . . His little boy and girl are crawling about near him, digging in the sand or catching ladybirds in the grass. He dozes sweetly, thinking of nothing, and feeling all over that he need not go to the office today, tomorrow, or the day after. Or, tired of lying still, he goes to the hayfield, or to the forest for mushrooms, or watches the peasants catching fish with a net. When the sun sets he takes a towel and soap and saunters to the bathing shed, where he undresses at his leisure, slowly rubs his bare chest with his hands, and goes into the water. And in the water, near the opaque soapy circles, little fish flit to and fro and green water-weeds nod their heads. After bathing there is tea with cream and milk rolls. . . . In the evening a walk or vint with the neighbors.
“Yes, it would be nice to buy an estate,” said his wife, also dreaming, and from her face it was evident that she was enchanted by her thoughts.
Ivan Dmitritch pictured to himself autumn with its rains, its cold evenings, and its St. Martin’s summer. At that season he would have to take longer walks about the garden and beside the river, so as to get thoroughly chilled, and then drink a big glass of vodka and eat a salted mushroom or a soused cucumber, and then–drink another. . . . The children would come running from the kitchen-garden, bringing a carrot and a radish smelling of fresh earth. . . . And then, he would lie stretched full length on the sofa, and in leisurely fashion turn over the pages of some illustrated magazine, or, covering his face with it and unbuttoning his waistcoat, give himself up to slumber.
The St. Martin’s summer is followed by cloudy, gloomy weather. It rains day and night, the bare trees weep, the wind is damp and cold. The dogs, the horses, the fowls–all are wet, depressed, downcast. There is nowhere to walk; one can’t go out for days together; one has to pace up and down the room, looking despondently at the grey window. It is dreary!
Ivan Dmitritch stopped and looked at his wife.
“I should go abroad, you know, Masha,” he said.
And he began thinking how nice it would be in late autumn to go abroad somewhere to the South of France . . . to Italy . . . to India!
“I should certainly go abroad too,” his wife said. “But look at the number of the ticket!”
“Wait, wait! . . .”
He walked about the room and went on thinking. It occurred to him: what if his wife really did go abroad? It is pleasant to travel alone, or in the society of light, careless women who live in the present, and not such as think and talk all the journey about nothing but their children, sigh, and tremble with dismay over every farthing. Ivan Dmitritch imagined his wife in the train with a multitude of parcels, baskets, and bags; she would be sighing over something, complaining that the train made her head ache, that she had spent so much money. . . . At the stations he would continually be having to run for boiling water, bread and butter. . . . She wouldn’t have dinner because of its being too dear. . . .
“She would begrudge me every farthing,” he thought, with a glance at his wife. “The lottery ticket is hers, not mine! Besides, what is the use of her going abroad? What does she want there? She would shut herself up in the hotel, and not let me out of her sight. . . . I know!”
And for the first time in his life his mind dwelt on the fact that his wife had grown elderly and plain, and that she was saturated through and through with the smell of cooking, while he was still young, fresh, and healthy, and might well have got married again.
“Of course, all that is silly nonsense,” he thought; “but . . . why should she go abroad? What would she make of it? And yet she would go, of course. . . . I can fancy. . . . In reality it is all one to her, whether it is Naples or Klin. She would only be in my way. I should be dependent upon her. I can fancy how, like a regular woman, she will lock the money up as soon as she gets it. . . . She will look after her relations and grudge me every farthing.”
Ivan Dmitritch thought of her relations. All those wretched brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles would come crawling about as soon as they heard of the winning ticket, would begin whining like beggars, and fawning upon them with oily, hypocritical smiles. Wretched, detestable people! If they were given anything, they would ask for more; while if they were refused, they would swear at them, slander them, and wish them every kind of misfortune.
Ivan Dmitritch remembered his own relations, and their faces, at which he had looked impartially in the past, struck him now as repulsive and hateful.
“They are such reptiles!” he thought.
And his wife’s face, too, struck him as repulsive and hateful. Anger surged up in his heart against her, and he thought malignantly:
“She knows nothing about money, and so she is stingy. If she won it she would give me a hundred roubles, and put the rest away under lock and key.”
And he looked at his wife, not with a smile now, but with hatred. She glanced at him too, and also with hatred and anger. She had her own daydreams, her own plans, her own reflections; she understood perfectly well what her husband’s dreams were. She knew who would be the first to try to grab her winnings.
“It’s very nice making daydreams at other people’s expense!” is what her eyes expressed. “No, don’t you dare!”
Her husband understood her look; hatred began stirring again in his breast, and in order to annoy his wife he glanced quickly, to spite her at the fourth page on the newspaper and read out triumphantly:
“Series 9,499, number 46! Not 26!”
Hatred and hope both disappeared at once, and it began immediately to seem to Ivan Dmitritch and his wife that their rooms were dark and small and low-pitched, that the supper they had been eating was not doing them good, but Lying heavy on their stomachs, that the evenings were long and wearisome. . . .
“What the devil’s the meaning of it?” said Ivan Dmitritch, beginning to be ill-humored. ‘Wherever one steps there are bits of paper under one’s feet, crumbs, husks. The rooms are never swept! One is simply forced to go out. Damnation take my soul entirely! I shall go and hang myself on the first aspen-tree!”
The Thief, Fyodor Dostoevsky
One morning, just as I was about to leave for my place of employment, Agrafena (my cook, laundress, and housekeeper all in one person) entered my room, and, to my great astonishment, started a conversation.
She was a quiet, simple-minded woman, who during the whole six years of her stay with me had never spoken more than two or three words daily, and that in reference to my dinner — at least, I had never heard her.
“I have come to you, sir,” she suddenly began, “about the renting out of the little spare room.”
“What spare room?”
“The one that is near the kitchen, of course; which should it be?”
“Why do people generally take lodgers? Because.”
“But who will take it?”
“Who will take it! A lodger, of course! Who should take it?”
“But there is hardly room in there, mother mine, for a bed; it will be too cramped. How can one live in it?”
“But why live in it! He only wants a place to sleep in; he will live on the window-seat.”
“How is that? What window-seat? As if you did not know! The one in the hall. He will sit on it and sew, or do something else. But maybe he will sit on a chair; he has a chair of his own — and a table also, and everything.”
“But who is he?”
“A nice, worldly-wise man. I will cook for him and will charge him only three rubles in silver a month for room and board —–”
At last, after long endeavor, I found out that some elderly man had talked Agrafena into taking him into the kitchen as lodger. When Agrafena once got a thing into her head that thing had to be; otherwise I knew I would have no peace. On those occasions when things did go against her wishes, she immediately fell into a sort of brooding, became exceedingly melancholy, and continued in that state for two or three weeks. During this time the food was invariably spoiled, the linen was missing, the floors unscrubbed; in a word, a lot of unpleasant things happened. I had long ago become aware of the fact that this woman of very few words was incapable of forming a decision, or of coming to any conclusion based on her own thoughts; and yet when it happened that by some means there had formed in her weak brain a sort of idea or wish to undertake a thing, to refuse her permission to carry out this idea or wish meant simply to kill her morally for some time. And so, acting in the sole interest of my peace of mind, I immediately agreed to this new proposition of hers.
“Has he at least the necessary papers, a passport, or anything of the kind?”
“How then? Of course he has. A fine man like him — who has seen the world — He promised to pay three rubles a month.”
On the very next day the new lodger appeared in my modest bachelor quarters; but I did not feel annoyed in the least — on the contrary, in a way I was glad of it. I live a very solitary, hermit-like life. I have almost no acquaintance and seldom go out. Having led the existence of a moor-cock for ten years, I was naturally used to solitude. But ten, fifteen years or more of the same seclusion in company with a person like Agrafena, and in the same bachelor dwelling, was indeed a joyless prospect. Therefore, the presence of another quiet, unobtrusive man in the house was, under these circumstances, a real blessing.
Agrafena had spoken the truth: the lodger was a man who had seen much in his life. From his passport it appeared that he was a retired soldier, which I noticed even before I looked at the passport.
As soon as I glanced at him, in fact.
Astafi Ivanich, my lodger, belonged to the better sort of soldiers, another thing I noticed as soon as I saw him. We liked each other from the first, and our life flowed on peacefully and comfortably. The best thing was that Astafi Ivanich could at times tell a good story, incidents of his own life. In the general tediousness of my humdrum existence, such a narrator was a veritable treasure. Once he told me a story which has made a lasting impression upon me; but first the incident which led to the story.
Once I happened to be left alone in the house, Astafi and Agrafena having gone out on business. Suddenly I heard some one enter, and I felt that it must be a stranger; I went out into the corridor and found a man of short stature, and notwithstanding the cold weather, dressed very thinly and without an overcoat.
“What is it you want?”
“The Government clerk Alexandrov? Does he live here?”
“There is no one here by that name, little brother; good day.”
“The porter told me he lived here,” said the visitor, cautiously retreating toward the door.
“Go on, go on, little brother; be off!”
Soon after dinner the next day, when Astafi brought in my coat, which he had repaired for me, I once more heard a strange step in the corridor. I opened the door.
The visitor of the day before, calmly and before my very eyes, took my short coat from the rack, put it under his arm, and ran out.
Agrafena, who had all the time been looking at him in open-mouthed surprise through the kitchen door, was seemingly unable to stir from her place and rescue the coat. But Astafi Ivanich rushed after the rascal, and, out of breath and panting, returned empty-handed. The man had vanished as if the earth had swallowed him.
“It is too bad, really, Astafi Ivanich,” I said. “It is well that I have my cloak left. Otherwise the scoundrel would have put me out of service altogether.”
But Astafi seemed so much affected by what had happened that as I gazed at him I forgot all about the theft. He could not regain his composure, and every once in a while threw down the work which occupied him, and began once more to recount how it had all happened, where he had been standing, while only two steps away my coat had been stolen before his very eyes, and how he could not even catch the thief. Then once more he resumed his work, only to throw it away again, and I saw him go down to the porter, tell him what had happened, and reproach him with not taking sufficient care of the house, that such a theft could be perpetrated in it. When he returned he began to upbraid Agrafena. Then he again resumed his work, muttering to himself for a long time — how this is the way it all was — how he stood here, and I there, and how before our very eyes, no farther than two steps away, the coat was taken off its hanger, and so on. In a word, Astafi Ivanich, though he knew how to do certain things, worried a great deal over trifles.
“We have been fooled, Astafi Ivanich,” I said to him that evening, handing him a glass of tea, and hoping from sheer ennui to call forth the story of the lost coat again, which by dint of much repetition had begun to sound extremely comical.
“Yes, we were fooled, sir. It angers me very much. though the loss is not mine, and I think there is nothing so despicably low in this world as a thief. They steal what you buy by working in the sweat of your brow — Your time and labor — The loathsome creature! It sickens me to talk of it — pfui! It makes me angry to think of it. How is it, sir, that you do not seem to be at all sorry about it?”
“To be sure, Astafi Ivanich, one would much sooner see his things burn up than see a thief take them. It is exasperating!”
“Yes, it is annoying to have anything stolen from you. But of course there are thieves and thieves — I, for instance, met an honest thief through an accident.”
“How is that? An honest thief? How can a thief be honest, Astafi Ivanich?”
“You speak truth, sir. A thief cannot be an honest man. There never was such. I only wanted to say that he was an honest man, it seems to me, even though he stole. I was very sorry for him.”
“And how did it happen, Astafi Ivanich?”
“It happened just two years ago. I was serving as house steward at the time, and the baron whom I served expected shortly to leave for his estate, so that I knew I would soon be out of a job, and then God only knew how I would be able to get along; and just then it was that I happened to meet in a tavern a poor forlorn creature, Emelian by name. Once upon a time he had served somewhere or other, but had been driven out of service on account of tippling. Such an unworthy creature as he was! He wore whatever came along. At times I even wondered if he wore a shirt under his shabby cloak; everything he could put his hands on was sold for drink. But he was not a rowdy. Oh, no; he was of a sweet, gentle nature, very kind and tender to everyone; he never asked for anything, was, if anything, too conscientious — Well, you could see without asking when the poor fellow was dying for a drink, and of course you treated him to one. Well, we became friendly, that is, he attached himself to me like a little dog — you go this way, he follows — and all this after our very first meeting.
“Of course, he remained with me that night; his passport was in order and the man seemed all right. On the second night also. On the third he did not leave the house, sitting on the window-seat of the corridor the whole day, and of course he remained over that night too. Well, I thought, just see how he has forced himself upon you. You have to give him to eat and to drink and to shelter him. All a poor man needs is some one to sponge upon him. I soon found out that once before he had attached himself to a man just as he had now attached himself to me; they drank together, but the other one soon died of some deep-seated sorrow. I thought and thought: What shall I do with him? Drive him out — my conscience would not allow it — I felt very sorry for him: he was such a wretched, forlorn creature, terrible! And so dumb he did not ask for anything, only sat quietly and looked you straight in the eyes, just like a faithful little dog. That is how drink can ruin a man. And I thought to myself: Well, suppose I say to him: ‘Get out of here, Emelian; you have nothing to do in here, you come to the wrong person; I will soon have nothing to eat myself, so how do you expect me to feed you? ‘ And I tried to imagine what he would do after I’d told him all this. And I could see how he would look at me for a long time after he had heard me, without understanding a word; how at last he would understand what I was driving at, and, rising from the window-seat, take his little bundle — I see it before me now — a red-checked little bundle full of holes, in which he kept God knows what, and which he carted along with him wherever he went; how he would brush and fix up his worn cloak a little, so that it would look a bit more decent and not show so much the holes and patches — he was a man of very fine feelings! How he would have opened the door afterward and would have gone forth with tears in his eyes.
“Well, should a man be allowed to perish altogether? I all at once felt heartily sorry for him; but at the same time I thought: And what about me? Am I any better off? And I said to myself: Well, Emelian, you will not feast overlong at my expense; soon I shall have to move from here myself, and then you will not find me again. Well, sir, my baron soon left for his estate with all his household, telling me before he went that he was very well satisfied with my services, and would gladly employ me again on his return to the capital. A fine man my baron was, but he died the same year.
“Well, after I had escorted my baron and his family a little way, I took my things and the little money I had saved up, and went to live with an old woman I knew, who rented out a corner of the room she occupied by herself. She used to be a nurse in some well-to-do family, and now, in her old age, they had pensioned her off. Well, I thought to myself, now it is good-by to you, Emelian, dear man, you will not find me now! And what do you think, sir? When I returned in the evening — I had paid a visit to an acquaintance of mine — whom should I see but Emelian sitting quietly upon my trunk with his red-checked bundle by his side. He was wrapped up in his poor little cloak, and was awaiting my home-coming. He must have been quite lonesome, because he had borrowed a prayer-book of the old woman and held it upside down. He had found me after all! My hands fell helplessly at my sides. Well, I thought, there is nothing to be done. Why did I not drive him away first off? And I only asked him: ‘Have you taken your passport along, Emelian?’ Then I sat down, sir, and began to turn the matter over in my mind: Well, could he, a roving man, be much in my way? And after I had considered it well, I decided that he would not, and besides, he would be of very little expense to me. Of course, he would have to be fed, but what does that amount to? Some bread in the morning and, to make it a little more appetizing, a little onion or so. For the midday meal again some bread and onion, and for the evening again onion and bread, and some kvass, and, if some cabbage-soup should happen to come our way, then we could both fill up to the throat. I ate little, and Emelian, who was a drinking man, surely ate almost nothing: all he wanted was vodka. He would be the undoing of me with his drinking; but at the same time I felt a curious feeling creep over me. It seemed as if life would be a burden to me if Emelian went away. And so I decided then and there to be his father-benefactor. I would put him on his legs, I thought, save him from perishing, and gradually wean him from drink. Just you wait, I thought. Stay with me, Emelian, but stand pat now. Obey the word of command!
“Well, I thought to myself, I will begin by teaching him some work, but not at once; let him first enjoy himself a bit, and I will in the meanwhile look around and discover what he finds easiest, and would be capable of doing, because you must know, sir, a man must have a calling and a capacity for a certain work to be able to do it properly. And I began stealthily to observe him. And a hard subject he was, that Emelian! At first I tried to get at him with a kind word. Thus and thus I would speak to him: ‘Emelian, you had better take more care of yourself and try to fix yourself up a little.
“‘Give up drinking. Just look at yourself, man, you are all ragged, your cloak looks more like a sieve than anything else. It is not nice. It is about time for you to come to your senses and know when you have had enough.’
“He listened to me, my Emelian did, with lowered head; he had already reached that state, poor fellow, when the drink affected his tongue and he could not utter a sensible word. You talk to him about cucumbers, and he answers beans. He listened, listened to me for a long time, and then he would sigh deeply.
“‘What are you sighing for, Emelian?’ I ask him.
“‘Oh, it is nothing, Astafi Ivanich, do not worry. Only what I saw to-day, Astafi Ivanich — two women fighting about a basket of huckleberries that one of them had upset by accident.
“‘Well, what of that?’
“‘And the woman whose berries were scattered snatched a like basket of huckleberries from the other woman’s hand, and not only threw them on the ground, but stamped all over them.’
“‘Well, but what of that, Emelian?’
“‘Ech!’ I think to myself, ‘Emelian! You have lost your poor wits through the cursed drink!’
“‘And again,’ Emelian says, ‘a baron lost a bill on the Gorokhova Street — or was it on the Sadova? A muzhik saw him drop it, and says, “My luck,” but here another one interfered and says, “No, it is my luck! I saw it first. . . .”‘
“‘And the two muzhiks started a fight, Astafi Ivanich, and the upshot was that a policeman came, picked up the money, handed it back to the baron, and threatened to put the muzhiks under lock for raising a disturbance.’
“‘But what of that? What is there wonderful or edifying in that, Emelian?’
“‘Well, nothing, but the people laughed, Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘E-ch, Emelian! What have the people to do with it?’ I said. ‘You have sold your immortal soul for a copper. But do you know what I will tell you, Emelian?’
“‘What, Astafi Ivanich?’
“‘You’d better take up some work, really you should. I am telling you for the hundredth time that you should have pity on yourself!’
“‘But what shall I do, Astafi Ivanich? I do not know where to begin and no one would employ me, Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘That is why they drove you out of service, Emelian; it is all on account of drink!’
“‘And to-day,’ said Emelian, ‘they called Vlass the barkeeper into the office.’
“‘What did they call him for, Emelian?’ I asked.
“‘I don’t know why, Astafi Ivanich. I suppose it was needed, so they called him.’
“‘Ech,’ I thought to myself, ‘no good will come of either of us, Emelian! It is for our sins that God is punishing us!’
“Well, what could a body do with such a man, sir!
“But he was sly, the fellow was, I tell you! He listened to me, listened, and at last it seems it began to tire him, and as quick as he would notice that I was growing angry he would take his cloak and slip out — and that was the last to be seen of him! He would not show up the whole day, and only in the evening would he return, as drunk as a lord. Who treated him to drinks, or where he got the money for it, God only knows; not from me, surely! . . .
“‘Well,’ I say to him, ‘Emelian, you will have to give up drink, do you hear? you will have to give it up! The next time you return tipsy, you will have to sleep on the stairs. I’ll not let you in!’
“After this Emelian kept to the house for two days; on the third he once more sneaked out. I wait and wait for him; he does not come! I must confess that I was kind of frightened; besides, I felt terribly sorry for him. What had I done to the poor devil! I thought. I must have frightened him off. Where could he have gone to now, the wretched creature? Great God, he may perish yet! The night passed and he did not return. In the morning I went out into the hall, and he was lying there with his head on the lower step, almost stiff with cold.
“‘What is the matter with you, Emelian? The Lord save you! Why are you here?’
“‘But you know, Astafi Ivanich,’ he replied, ‘you were angry with me the other day; I irritated you, and you promised to make me sleep in the hall, and I — so I — did not dare — to come in — and lay down here.’
“‘It would be better for you, Emelian,’ I said, filled with anger and pity, ‘to find a better employment than needlessly watching the stairs!’
“‘But what other employment, Astafi Ivanich?’
“‘Well, wretched creature that you are,’ here anger had flamed up in me, ‘if you would try to learn the tailoring art. Just look at the cloak you are wearing! Not only is it full of holes, but you are sweeping the stairs with it! You should at least take a needle and mend it a little, so it would look more decent. E-ch, a wretched tippler you are, and nothing more!’
“Well, sir! What do you think! He did take the needle — I had told him only for fun, and there he got scared and actually took the needle. He threw off his cloak and began to put the thread through; well, it is easy to see what would come of it; his eyes began to fill and reddened, his hands trembled! He pushed and pushed the thread — could not get it through: he wetted it, rolled it between his fingers, smoothed it out, but it would not — go! He flung it from him and looked at me.
“‘Well, Emelian!’ I said, ‘you served me right! If people had seen it I would have died with shame! I only told you all this for fun, and because I was angry with you. Never mind sewing; may the Lord keep you from sin! You need not do anything, only keep out of mischief, and do not sleep on the stairs and put me to shame thereby!’
“‘But what shall I do, Astafi Ivanich; I know myself that I am always tipsy and unfit for anything! I only make you, my be — benefactor, angry for nothing.’
“And suddenly his bluish lips began to tremble, and a tear rolled down his unshaven, pale cheek, then another and another one, and he broke into a very flood of tears, my Emelian. Father in Heaven! I felt as if some one had cut me over the heart with a knife.
“‘E-ch, you sensitive man; why, I never thought! And who could have thought such a thing! No, I’d better give you up altogether, Emelian; do as you please.’
“Well, sir, what else is there to tell! But the whole thing is so insignificant and unimportant, it is really not worth while wasting words about it; for instance, you, sir, would not give two broken groschen for it; but I, I would give much, if I had much, that this thing had never happened! I owned, sir, a pair of breeches, blue, in checks, a first-class article, the devil take them — a rich landowner who came here on business ordered them from me, but refused afterward to take them, saying that they were too tight, and left them with me.
“Well, I thought, the cloth is of first-rate quality! I can get five rubles for them in the old clothes market place, and, if not, I can cut a fine pair of pantaloons out of them for some St. Petersburg gent, and have a piece left over for a vest for myself. Everything counts with a poor man! And Emelian was at that time in sore straits. I saw that he had given up drinking, first one day, then a second, and a third, and looked so downhearted and sad.
“Well, I thought, it is either that the poor fellow lacks the necessary coin or maybe he has entered on the right path, and has at last listened to good sense.
“Well, to make a long story short, an important holiday came just at that time, and I went to vespers. When I came back I saw Emelian sitting on the window-seat as drunk as a lord. Eh! I thought, so that is what you are about! And I go to my trunk to get out something I needed. I look! The breeches are not there. I rummage about in this place and that place: gone! Well, after I had searched all over and saw that they were missing for fair, I felt as if something had gone through me! I went after the old woman — as to Emelian, though there was evidence against him in his being drunk, I somehow never thought of him!
“‘No,’ says my old woman; ‘the good Lord keep you, gentleman, what do I need breeches for! can I wear them? I myself missed a skirt the other day. I know nothing at all about it.’
“‘Well,’ I asked, ‘has anyone called here?’
“‘No one called,’ she said. ‘I was in all the time; your friend here went out for a short while and then came back; here he sits! Why don’t you ask him?’
“‘Did you happen, for some reason or other, Emelian, to take the breeches out of the trunk? The ones, you remember, which were made for the landowner?’
“‘No,’ he says, ‘I have not taken them, Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘What could have happened to them?’ Again I began to search, but nothing came of it! And Emelian sat and swayed to and fro on the window-seat.
“I was on my knees before the open trunk, just in front of him. Suddenly I threw a sidelong glance at him. Ech, I thought, and felt very hot round the heart, and my face grew very red. Suddenly my eyes encountered Emelian’s.
“‘No,’ he says, ‘Astafi Ivanich. You perhaps think that I — you know what I mean — but I have not taken them.’
“‘But where have they gone, Emelian?’
“‘No,’ he says, ‘Astafi Ivanich, I have not seen them at all.’
“‘Well, then, you think they simply went and got lost by themselves, Emelian?’
“‘Maybe they did, Astafi Ivanich.’
“After this I would not waste another word on him. I rose from my knees, locked the trunk, and after I had lighted the lamp I sat down to work. I was remaking a vest for a government clerk, who lived on the floor below. But I was terribly rattled, just the same. It would have been much easier to bear, I thought, if all my wardrobe had burned to ashes. Emelian, it seems, felt that I was deeply angered. It is always so, sir, when a man is guilty; he always feels beforehand when trouble approaches, as a bird feels the coming storm.
“‘And do you know, Astafi Ivanich,’ he suddenly began, ‘the leech married the coachman’s widow today.’
“I just looked at him; but, it seems, looked at him so angrily that he understood: I saw him rise from his seat, approach the bed, and begin to rummage in it, continually repeating: ‘Where could they have gone? Vanished, as if the devil had taken them!’
“I waited to see what was coming; I saw that my Emelian had crawled under the bed. I could contain myself no longer.
“‘Look here,’ I said. ‘What makes you crawl under the bed?’
“‘I am looking for the breeches, Astafi Ivanich,’ said Emelian from under the bed. ‘Maybe they got here somehow or other.’
“‘But what makes you, sir (in my anger I addressed him as if he was — somebody), what makes you trouble yourself on account of such a plain man as I am; dirtying your knees for nothing!’
“‘But, Astafi Ivanich — I did not mean anything — I only thought maybe if we look for them here we may find them yet.’
“‘Mm! Just listen to me a moment, Emelian!’
“‘What, Astafi Ivanich?’
“‘Have you not simply stolen them from me like a rascally thief, serving me so for my bread and salt?’ I said to him, beside myself with wrath at the sight of him crawling under the bed for something he knew was not there.
“‘No, Astafi Ivanich.’ For a long time he remained lying flat under the bed. Suddenly he crawled out and stood before me — I seem to see him even now — as terrible a sight as sin itself.
“‘No,’ he says to me in a trembling voice, shivering through all his body and pointing to his breast with his finger, so that all at once I became scared and could not move from my seat on the window. ‘I have not taken your breeches, Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘Well,’ I answered, ‘Emelian, forgive me if in my foolishness I have accused you wrongfully. As to the breeches, let them go hang; we will get along without them. We have our hands, thank God, we will not have to steal, and now, too, we will not have to sponge on another poor man; we will earn our living.’
“Emelian listened to me and remained standing before me for some time, then he sat down and sat motionless the whole evening; when I lay down to sleep, he was still sitting in the same place.
“In the morning, when I awoke, I found him sleeping on the bare floor, wrapped up in his cloak; he felt his humiliation so strongly that he had no heart to go and lie down on the bed.
“Well, sir, from that day on I conceived a terrible dislike for the man; that is, rather, I hated him the first few days, feeling as if, for instance, my own son had robbed me and given me deadly offense. Ech, I thought, Emelian, Emelian! And Emelian, my dear sir, had gone on a two weeks’ spree. Drunk to bestiality from morning till night. And during the whole two weeks he had not uttered a word. I suppose he was consumed the whole time by a deep-seated grief, or else he was trying in this way to make an end to himself. At last he gave up drinking. I suppose he had no longer the wherewithal to buy vodka — had drunk up every copeck — and he once more took up his old place on the window-seat. I remember that he sat there for three whole days without a word; suddenly I see him weep; sits there and cries, but what crying! The tears come from his eyes in showers, drip, drip, as if he did not know that he was shedding them. It is very painful, sir, to see a grown man weep, all the more when the man is of advanced years, like Emelian, and cries from grief and a sorrowful heart.
“‘What ails you, Emelian?’ I say to him.
“He starts and shivers. This was the first time I had spoken to him since that eventful day.
“‘It is nothing — Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘God keep you, Emelian; never you mind it all. Let bygones be bygones. Don’t take it to heart so, man!’ I felt very sorry for him.
“‘It is only that — that I would like to do something — some kind of work, Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘But what kind of work, Emelian?’
“‘Oh, any kind. Maybe I will go into some kind of service, as before. I have already been at my former employer’s, asking. It will not do for me, Astafi Ivanich, to use you any longer. I, Astafi Ivanich, will perhaps obtain some employment, and then I will pay you for everything, food and all.’
“‘Don’t, Emelian, don’t. Well, let us say you committed a sin; well, it is all over! The devil take it all! Let us live as before — as if nothing had happened!’
“‘You, Astafi Ivanich, you are probably hinting about that . But I have not taken your breeches.’
“‘Well, just as you please, Emelian!’
“‘No, Astafi Ivanich, evidently I cannot live with you longer. You will excuse me, Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘But God be with you, Emelian,’ I said to him; ‘who is it that is offending you or driving you out of the house? Is it I who am doing it?’
“‘No, but it is unseemly for me to misuse your hospitality any longer, Astafi Ivanich; ’twill be better to go.’
“I saw that he had in truth risen from his place and donned his ragged cloak — he felt offended, the man did, and had gotten it into his head to leave, and — basta .
“‘But where are you going, Emelian? Listen to sense: what are you? Where will you go?’
“‘No, it is best so, Astafi Ivanich, do not try to keep me back,’ and he once more broke into tears; ‘let me be, Astafi Ivanich, you are no longer what you used to be.’
“‘Why am I not? I am just the same. But you will perish when left alone — like a foolish little child, Emelian.’
“‘No, Astafi Ivanich. Lately, before you leave the house, you have taken to locking your trunk, and I, Astafi Ivanich, see it and weep — No, it is better you should let me go, Astafi Ivanich, and forgive me if I have offended you in any way during the time we have lived together.’
“Well, sir! And so he did go away. I waited a day and thought: Oh, he will be back toward evening. But a day passes, then another, and he does not return. On the third — he does not return. I grew frightened, and a terrible sadness gripped at my heart. I stopped eating and drinking, and lay whole nights without closing my eyes. The man had wholly disarmed me! On the fourth day I went to look for him; I looked in all the taverns and pot-houses in the vicinity, and asked if anyone had seen him. No, Emelian had wholly disappeared! Maybe he has done away with his miserable existence, I thought. Maybe, when in his cups, he has perished like a dog, somewhere under a fence. I came home half dead with fatigue and despair, and decided to go out the next day again to look for him, cursing myself bitterly for letting the foolish, helpless man go away from me. But at dawn of the fifth day (it was a holiday) I heard the door creak. And whom should I see but Emelian! But in what a state! His face was bluish and his hair was full of mud, as if he had slept in the street; and he had grown thin, the poor fellow had, as thin as a rail. He took off his poor cloak, sat down on my trunk, and began to look at me. Well, sir, I was overjoyed, but at the same time felt a greater sadness than ever pulling at my heart-strings. This is how it was, sir: I felt that if a thing like that had happened to me, that is — I would sooner have perished like a dog, but would not have returned. And Emelian did. Well, naturally, it is hard to see a man in such a state. I began to coddle and comfort him in every way.
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘Emelian, I am very glad you have returned; if you had not come so soon, you would not have found me in, as I intended to go hunting for you. Have you had anything to eat?’
“‘I have eaten, Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘I doubt it. Well, here is some cabbage soup — left over from yesterday; a nice soup with some meat in it — not the meagre kind. And here you have some bread and a little onion. Go ahead and eat; it will do you good.’
“I served it to him; and immediately realized that he must have been starving for the last three days — such an appetite as he showed! So it was hunger that had driven him back to me. Looking at the poor fellow, I was deeply touched, and decided to run into the nearby dram-shop. I will get him some vodka, I thought, to liven him up a bit and make peace with him. It is enough. I have nothing against the poor devil any longer. And so I brought the vodka and said to him: ‘Here, Emelian, let us drink to each other’s health in honor of the holiday. Come, take a drink. It will do you good.’
“He stretched out his hand, greedily stretched it out, you know, and stopped; then, after a while, he lifted the glass, carried it to his mouth, spilling the liquor on his sleeve; at last he did carry it to his mouth, but immediately put it back on the table.
“‘Well, why don’t you drink, Emelian?’
“‘But no, I’ll not, Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘You’ll not drink it!’
“‘But I, Astafi Ivanich, I think — I’ll not drink any more, Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘Is it for good you have decided to give it up, Emelian, or only for to-day?’
“He did not reply, and after a while I saw him lean his head on his hand, and I asked him: ‘Are you not feeling well, Emelian?’
“‘Yes, pretty well, Astafi Ivanich.’
“I made him go to bed, and saw that he was truly in a bad way. His head was burning hot and he was shivering with ague. I sat by him the whole day; toward evening he grew worse. I prepared a meal for him of kvass, butter, and some onion, and threw in it a few bits of bread, and said to him: “Go ahead and take some food; maybe you will feel better!’
“But he only shook his head: ‘No, Astafi Ivanich, I shall not have any dinner to-day.’
“I had some tea prepared for him, giving a lot of trouble to the poor old woman with whom I rented a part of the room — but he would not take even a little tea.
“Well, I thought to myself, it is a bad case. On the third morning I went to see the doctor, an acquaintance of mine, Dr. Kostopravov, who had treated me when I still lived in my last place. The doctor came, examined the poor fellow, and only said: ‘There was no need of sending for me; he is already too far gone; but you can give him some powders which I will prescribe.’
“Well, I didn’t give him the powders at all, as I understood that the doctor was only doing it for form’s sake; and in the meanwhile came the fifth day.
“He lay dying before me, sir. I sat on the window-seat with some work I had on hand lying on my lap. The old woman was raking the stove. We were all silent, and my heart was breaking over this poor, shiftless creature, as if he were my own son whom I was losing. I knew that Emelian was gazing at me all the time: I noticed from the earliest morning that he longed to tell me something, but seemingly dared not. At last I looked at him, and saw that he did not take his eyes from me, but that whenever his eyes met mine, he immediately lowered his own.
“‘What if my cloak should be carried over to the old clothes market, would they give much for it, Astafi Ivanich?’
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘I do not know for certain, but three rubles they would probably give for it, Emelian.’ I said it only to comfort the simple-minded creature; in reality they would have laughed in my face for even thinking to sell such a miserable, ragged thing.
“‘And I thought that they might give a little more, Astafi Ivanich. It is made of cloth, so how is it that they would not wish to pay more than three rubles for it?’
“‘Well, Emelian, if you wish to sell it, then of course you may ask more for it at first.’
“Emelian was silent for a moment, then he once more called to me.
“‘What is it, Emelian?’
“‘You will sell the cloak after I am gone; no need of burying me in it; I can well get along without it; it is worth something, and may come handy to you.’
“Here I felt such a painful gripping at my heart as I cannot even express, sir. I saw that the sadness of approaching death had already come upon the man. Again we were silent for some time. About an hour passed in this way. I looked at him again and saw that he was still gazing at me, and when his eyes met mine he immediately lowered his.
“‘Would you like a drink of cold water?’ I asked him.
“‘Give me some, and may God repay you, Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘Would you like anything else, Emelian?’
“‘No, Astafi Ivanich, I do not want anything, but I—-‘
“‘You know that—-‘
“‘What is it you want, Emelian?’
“‘The breeches — You know — It was I who took them — Astafi Ivanich.’
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘the great God will forgive you, Emelian, poor, unfortunate fellow that you are! Depart in peace.’
“And I had to turn away my head for a moment because grief for the poor devil took my breath away and the tears came in torrents from my eyes.
“I looked at him, saw that he wished to tell me something more, tried to raise himself, and was moving his lips — He reddened and looked at me — Suddenly I saw that he began to grow paler and paler; in a moment he fell with his head thrown back, breathed once, and gave his soul into God’s keeping.”
The Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol
In the department of … but it is better not to name the department. There is nothing more irritable than all kinds of departments, regiments, courts of justice and, in a word, every branch of public service. Each separate man nowadays thinks all society insulted in his person. They say that, quite recently, a complaint was received from a justice of the peace, in which he plainly demonstrated that all the imperial institutions were going to the dogs, and that his sacred name was being taken in vain; and in proof he appended to the complaint a huge volume of some romantic composition, in which the justice of the peace appears about once in every ten lines, sometimes in a drunken condition. Therefore, in order to avoid all unpleasantness, it will be better for us to designate the department in question as a certain department.
So, in a certain department serves a certain official—not a very prominent official, it must be allowed—short of stature, somewhat pockmarked, rather red-haired, rather blind, judging from appearances, with a small bald spot on his forehead, with wrinkles on his cheeks, with a complexion of the sort called sanguine. … How could he help it? The Petersburg climate was responsible for that. As for his rank—for with us the rank must be stated first of all—he was what is called a perpetual titular councillor, over which, as is well known, some writers make merry and crack their jokes, as they have the praiseworthy custom of attacking those who cannot bite back.
His family name was Bashmachkin. It is evident from the name, that it originated in bashmak (shoe); but when, at what time, and in what manner, is not known. His father and grandfather, and even his brother-in-law, and all the Bashmachkins, always wore boots, and only had new heels two or three times a year. His name was Akakii Akakievich. It may strike the reader as rather singular and far-fetched; but he may feel assured that it was by no means far-fetched, and that the circumstances were such that it would have been impossible to give him any other name; and this was how it came about.
Akakii Akakievich was born, if my memory fails me not, towards night on the 23d of March. His late mother, the wife of an official, and a very fine woman, made all due arrangements for having the child baptized. His mother was lying on the bed opposite the door: on her right stood the godfather, a most estimable man, Ivan Ivanovich Eroshkin, who served as presiding officer of the senate; and the godmother, the wife of an officer of the quarter, a woman of rare virtues, Anna Semenovna Byelobrushkova. They offered the mother her choice of three names—Mokiya, Sossiya or that the child should be called after the martyr Khozdazat. “No,” pronounced the blessed woman, “all those names are poor.” In order to please her, they opened the calendar at another place: three more names appeared—Triphilii, Dula and Varakhasii. “This is a judgment,” said the old woman. “What names! I truly never heard the like. Varadat or Varukh might have been borne, but not Triphilii and Varakhasii!” They turned another page—Pavsikakhii and Vakhtisii. “Now I see,” said the old woman, “that it is plainly fate. And if that’s the case, it will be better to name him after his father. His father’s name was Akakii, so let his son’s be also Akakii.” In this manner he became Akakii Akakievich.
They christened the child, whereat he wept, and made a grimace, as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular councillor. In this manner did it all come about. We have mentioned it, in order that the reader might see for himself that it happened quite as a case of necessity, and that it was utterly impossible to give him any other name. When and how he entered the department, and who appointed him, no one could remember. However much the directors and chiefs of all kinds were changed, he was always to be seen in the same place, the same attitude, the same occupation—the same official for letters; so that afterwards it was affirmed that he had been born in undress uniform with a bald spot on his head.
No respect was shown him in the department. The janitor not only did not rise from his seat when he passed, but never even glanced at him, as if only a fly had flown through the reception-room. His superiors treated him in a coolly despotic manner. Some assistant chief would thrust a paper under his nose without so much as saying, “Copy,” or, “Here’s a nice, interesting matter,” or any thing else agreeable, as is customary in well-bred service. And he took it, looking only at the paper, and not observing who handed it to him, or whether he had the right to do so: he simply took it, and set about copying it.
The young officials laughed at and made fun of him, so far as their official wit permitted; recounted there in his presence various stories concocted about him, and about his landlady, an old woman of seventy; they said that she beat him; asked when the wedding was to be; and strewed bits of paper over his head, calling them snow. But Akakii Akakievich answered not a word, as though there had been no one before him. It even had no effect upon his employment: amid all these molestations he never made a single mistake in a letter.
But if the joking became utterly intolerable, as when they jogged his hand, and prevented his attending to his work, he would exclaim, “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” And there was something strange in the words and the voice in which they were uttered. There was in it a something which moved to pity; so that one young man, lately entered, who, taking pattern by the others, had permitted himself to make sport of him, suddenly stopped short, as though all had undergone a transformation before him, and presented itself in a different aspect. Some unseen force repelled him from the comrades whose acquaintance he had made, on the supposition that they were well-bred and polite men. And long afterwards, in his gayest moments, there came to his mind the little official with the bald forehead, with the heart-rending words, “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” And in these penetrating words, other words resounded—“I am thy brother.” And the poor young man covered his face with his hand; and many a time afterwards, in the course of his life, he shuddered at seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed in delicate, refined worldliness and, O God! even in that man whom the world acknowledges as honorable and noble.
It would be difficult to find another man who lived so entirely for his duties. It is saying but little to say that he served with zeal: no, he served with love. In that copying, he saw a varied and agreeable world. Enjoyment was written on his face: some letters were favorites with him; and when he encountered them, he became unlike himself; he smiled and winked, and assisted with his lips, so that it seemed as though each letter might be read in his face, as his pen traced it. If his pay had been in proportion to his zeal, he would, perhaps, to his own surprise, have been made even a councillor of state. But he served, as his companions, the wits, put it, like a buckle in a button-hole.
Moreover, it is impossible to say that no attention was paid to him. One director being a kindly man, and desirous of rewarding him for his long service, ordered him to be given something more important than mere copying; namely, he was ordered to make a report of an already concluded affair, to another court: the matter consisted simply in changing the heading, and altering a few words from the first to the third person. This caused him so much toil, that he was all in a perspiration, rubbed his forehead, and finally said, “No, give me rather something to copy.” After that they let him copy on forever.
Outside this copying, it appeared that nothing existed for him. He thought not at all of his clothes: his undress uniform was not green, but a sort of rusty-meal color. The collar was narrow, low, so that his neck, in spite of the fact that it was not long, seemed inordinately long as it emerged from that collar, like the necks of plaster cats which wag their heads, and are carried about upon the heads of scores of Russian foreigners. And something was always sticking to his uniform—either a piece of hay or some trifle. Moreover, he had a peculiar knack, as he walked in the street, of arriving beneath a window when all sorts of rubbish was being flung out of it: hence he always bore about on his hat melon and watermelon rinds, and other such stuff.
Never once in his life did he give heed to what was going on every day in the street; while it is well known that his young brother official, extending the range of his bold glance, gets so that he can see when any one’s trouser-straps drop down upon the opposite sidewalk, which always calls forth a malicious smile upon his face. But Akakii Akakievich, if he looked at anything, saw in all things the clean, even strokes of his written lines; and only when a horse thrust his muzzle, from some unknown quarter, over his shoulder, and sent a whole gust of wind down his neck from his nostrils, did he observe that he was not in the middle of a line, but in the middle of the street.
On arriving at home, he sat down at once at the table, supped his cabbage-soup quickly and ate a bit of beef with onions, never noticing their taste, ate it all with flies and anything else which the Lord sent at the moment. On observing that his stomach began to puff out, he rose from the table, took out a little vial with ink and copied papers which he had brought home. If there happened to be none, he took copies for himself, for his own gratification, especially if the paper was noteworthy, not on account of its beautiful style, but of its being addressed to some new or distinguished person.
Even at the hour when the gray Petersburg sky had quite disappeared, and all the world of officials had eaten or dined, each as he could, in accordance with the salary he received, and his own fancy; when all were resting from the departmental jar of pens, running to and fro, their own and other people’s indispensable occupations and all the work that an uneasy man makes willingly for himself, rather than what is necessary; when officials hasten to dedicate to pleasure the time that is left to them—one bolder than the rest goes to the theater; another, into the streets, devoting it to the inspection of some bonnets; one wastes his evening in compliments to some pretty girl, the star of a small official circle; one—and this is the most common case of all—goes to his comrades on the fourth or third floor, to two small rooms with an ante-room or kitchen, and some pretensions to fashion, a lamp or some other trifle which has cost many a sacrifice of dinner or excursion—in a word, even at the hour when all officials disperse among the contracted quarters of their friends, to play at whist, as they sip their tea from glasses with a kopek’s worth of sugar, draw smoke through long pipes, relating at times some bits of gossip which a Russian man can never, under any circumstances, refrain from, or even when there is nothing to say, recounting everlasting anecdotes about the commandant whom they had sent to inform that the tail of the horse on the Falconet Monument had been cut off—in a word, even when all strive to divert themselves, Akakii Akakievich yielded to no diversion.
No one could ever say that he had seen him at any sort of an evening party. Having written to his heart’s content, he lay down to sleep, smiling at the thought of the coming day—of what God might send to copy on the morrow. Thus flowed on the peaceful life of the man, who, with a salary of four hundred rubles, understood how to be content with his fate; and thus it would have continued to flow on, perhaps, to extreme old age, were there not various ills sown among the path of life for titular councillors as well as for private, actual, court and every other species of councillor, even for those who never give any advice or take any themselves.
There exists in Petersburg a powerful foe of all who receive four hundred rubles salary a year, or thereabouts. This foe is no other than our Northern cold, although it is said to be very wholesome. At nine o’clock in the morning, at the very hour when the streets are filled with men bound for the departments, it begins to bestow such powerful and piercing nips on all noses impartially that the poor officials really do not know what to do with them. At the hour when the foreheads of even those who occupy exalted positions ache with the cold, and tears start to their eyes, the poor titular councillors are sometimes unprotected. Their only salvation lies in traversing as quickly as possible, in their thin little overcoats, five or six streets, and then warming their feet well in the porter’s room, and so thawing all their talents and qualifications for official service, which had become frozen on the way.
Akakii Akakievich had felt for some time that his back and shoulders suffered with peculiar poignancy, in spite of the fact that he tried to traverse the legal distance with all possible speed. He finally wondered whether the fault did not lie in his overcoat. He examined it thoroughly at home, and discovered that in two places, namely, on the back and shoulders, it had become thin as mosquito-netting: the cloth was worn to such a degree that he could see through it, and the lining had fallen into pieces.
You must know that Akakii Akakievich’s overcoat served as an object of ridicule to the officials: they even deprived it of the noble name of overcoat, and called it a kapota. In fact, it was of singular make: its collar diminished year by year, but served to patch its other parts. The patching did not exhibit great skill on the part of the tailor, and turned out, in fact, baggy and ugly. Seeing how the matter stood, Akakii Akakievich decided that it would be necessary to take the overcoat to Petrovich, the tailor, who lived somewhere on the fourth floor up a dark staircase, and who, in spit of his having but one eye, and pock-marks all over his face, busied himself with considerable success in repairing the trousers and coats of officials and others; that is to say, when he was sober, and not nursing some other scheme in his head.
It is not necessary to say much about this tailor: but, as it is the custom to have the character of each personage in a novel clearly defined, there is nothing to be done; so here is Petrovich the tailor. At first he was called only Grigorii, and was some gentleman’s serf: he began to call himself Petrovich from the time when he received his free papers, and began to drink heavily on all holidays, at first on the great ones, and then on all church festivals without discrimination, wherever a cross stood in the calendar. On this point he was faithful to ancestral custom; and, quarrelling with his wife, he called her a low female and a German.
As we have stumbled upon his wife, it will be necessary to say a word or two about her; but, unfortunately, little is known of her beyond the fact that Petrovich has a wife, who wears a cap and a dress; but she cannot lay claim to beauty, it seems—at least, no one but the soldiers of the guard, as they pulled their mustaches, and uttered some peculiar sound, even looked under her cap when they met her.
Ascending the staircase which led to Petrovich—which, to do it justice, was all soaked in water (dishwater), and penetrated with the smell of spirits which affects the eyes, and is an inevitable adjunct to all dark stairways in Petersburg houses—ascending the stairs, Akakii Akakievich pondered how much Petrovich would ask, and mentally resolved not to give more than two rubles. The door was open; for the mistress, in cooking some fish, had raised such a smoke in the kitchen that not even the beetles were visible.
Akakii Akakievich passed through the kitchen unperceived, even by the housewife, and at length reached a room where he beheld Petrovich seated on a large, unpainted table, with his legs tucked under him like a Turkish pasha. His feet were bare, after the fashion of tailors as they sit at work; and the first thing which arrested the eye was his thumb, very well known to Akakii Akakievich, with a deformed nail thick and strong as a turtle’s shell. On Petrovich’s neck hung a skein of silk and thread, and upon his knees lay some old garment. He had been trying for three minutes to thread his needle, unsuccessfully, and so was very angry with the darkness, and even with the thread, growling in a low voice, “It won’t go through, the barbarian! you pricked me, you rascal!”
Akakii Akakievich was displeased at arriving at the precise moment when Petrovich was angry: he liked to order something of Petrovich when the latter was a little downhearted, or, as his wife expressed it, “when he had settled himself with brandy, the one-eyed devil!” Under such circumstances, Petrovich generally came down in his price very readily, and came to an understanding, and even bowed and returned thanks. Afterwards, to be sure, his wife came, complaining that her husband was drunk, and so had set the price too low; but, if only a ten-kopek piece were added, then the matter was settled. But now it appeared that Petrovich was in a sober condition, and therefore rough, taciturn, and inclined to demand, Satan only knows what price. Akakii Akakievich felt this, and would gladly have beat a retreat, as the saying goes; but he was in for it. Petrovich screwed up his one eye very intently at him; and Akakii Akakievich involuntarily said, “How do you do, Petrovich!”
“I wish you a good-morning, sir,” said Petrovich, and squinted at Akakii Akakievich’s hands, wishing to see what sort of booty he had brought.
“Ah! I … to you, Petrovich, this”—It must be known that Akakii Akakievich expressed himself chiefly by prepositions, adverbs, and by such scraps of phrases as had no meaning whatever. But if the matter was a very difficult one, then he had a habit of never completing his sentences; so that quite frequently, having begun his phrase with the words, “This, in fact, is quite” … there was no more of it, and he forgot himself, thinking that he had already finished it.
“What is it?” asked Petrovich, and with his one eye scanned his whole uniform, beginning with the collar down to the cuffs, the back, the tails and button-holes, all of which were very well known to him, because they were his own handiwork. Such is the habit of tailors: it is the first thing they do on meeting one.
“But I, here, this, Petrovich, … an overcoat, cloth … here you see, everywhere, in different places, it is quite strong … it is a little dusty, and looks old, but it is new, only here in one place it is a little … on the back, and here on one of the shoulders, it is a little worn, yes, here on this shoulder it is a little … do you see? this is all. And a little work” …
Petrovich took the overcoat, spread it out, to begin with, on the table, looked long at it, shook his head, put out his hand to the window-sill after his snuff-box, adorned with the portrait of some general—just what general is unknown, for the place where the face belonged had been rubbed through by the finger, and a square bit of paper had been pasted on. Having taken a pinch of snuff, Petrovich spread the overcoat out on his hands, and inspected it against the light, and again shook his head; then he turned it, lining upwards, and shook his head once more; again he removed the general-adorned cover with its bit of pasted paper, and, having stuffed his nose with snuff, covered and put away the snuff-box, and said finally, “No, it is impossible to mend it: it’s a miserable garment!”
Akakii Akakievich’s heart sank at these words.
“Why is it impossible, Petrovich?” he said, almost in the pleading voice of a child: “all that ails it is, that it is worn on the shoulders. You must have some pieces.” …
“Yes, patches could be found, patches are easily found,” said Petrovich, “but there’s nothing to sew them to. The thing is completely rotten: if you touch a needle to it—see, it will give way.”
“Let it give way, and you can put on another patch at once.”
“But there is nothing to put the patches on; there’s no use in strengthening it; it is very far gone. It’s lucky that it’s cloth; for, if the wind were to blow, it would fly away.”
“Well, strengthen it again. How this, in fact” …
“No,” said Petrovich decisively, “there is nothing to be done with it. It’s a thoroughly bad job. You’d better, when the cold winter weather comes on, make yourself some foot-bandages out of it, because stockings are not warm. The Germans invented them in order to make more money. [Petrovich loved, on occasion, to give a fling at the Germans.] But it is plain that you must have a new overcoat.”
At the word new, all grew dark before Akakii Akakievich’s eyes, and everything in the room began to whirl round. The only thing he saw clearly was the general with the paper face on Petrovich’s snuff-box cover. “How a new one?” said he, as if still in a dream: “why, I have no money for that.”
“Yes, a new one,” said Petrovich, with barbarous composure.
“Well, if it came to a new one, how, it” …
“You mean how much would it cost?”
“Well, you would have to lay out a hundred and fifty or more,” said Petrovich, and pursed up his lips significantly. He greatly liked powerful effects, liked to stun utterly and suddenly, and then to glance sideways to see what face the stunned person would put on the matter.
“A hundred and fifty rubles for an overcoat!” shrieked poor Akakii Akakievich—shrieked perhaps for the first time in his life, for his voice had always been distinguished for its softness.
“Yes, sir,” said Petrovich, “for any sort of an overcoat. If you have marten fur on the collar, or a silk-lined hood, it will mount up to two hundred.”
“Petrovich, please,” said Akakii Akakievich in a beseeching tone, not hearing, and not trying to hear, Petrovich’s words, and all his “effects,” “some repairs, in order that it may wear yet a little longer.”
“No, then, it would be a waste of labor and money,” said Petrovich; and Akakii Akakievich went away after these words, utterly discouraged. But Petrovich stood long after his departure, with significantly compressed lips, and not betaking himself to his work, satisfied that he would not be dropped, and an artistic tailor employed.
Akakii Akakievich went out into the street as if in a dream. “Such an affair!” he said to himself: “I did not think it had come to” … and then after a pause, he added, “Well, so it is! see what it has come to at last! and I never imagined that it was so!” Then followed a long silence, after which he exclaimed, “Well, so it is! see what already exactly, nothing unexpected that … it would be nothing … what a circumstance!” So saying, instead of going home, he went in exactly the opposite direction without himself suspecting it.
On the way, a chimney-sweep brought his dirty side up against him, and blackened his whole shoulder: a whole hatful of rubbish landed on him from the top of a house which was building. He observed it not; and afterwards, when he ran into a sentry, who, having planted his halberd beside him, was shaking some snuff from his box into his horny hand—only then did he recover himself a little, and that because the sentry said, “Why are you thrusting yourself into a man’s very face? Haven’t you the sidewalk?” This caused him to look about him, and turn towards home.
There only, he finally began to collect his thoughts, and to survey his position in its clear and actual light, and to argue with himself, not brokenly, but sensibly and frankly, as with a reasonable friend, with whom one can discuss very private and personal matters. “No,” said Akakii Akakievich, “it is impossible to reason with Petrovich now: he is that … evidently, his wife has been beating him. I’d better go to him Sunday morning: after Saturday night he will be a little cross-eyed and sleepy, for he will have to get drunk, and his wife won’t give him any money; and at such a time, a ten-kopek piece in his hand will—he will become more fit to reason with, and then the overcoat, and that.” …
Thus argued Akakii Akakievich with himself, regained his courage, and waited until the first Sunday, when, seeing from afar that Petrovich’s wife had gone out of the house, he went straight to him. Petrovich’s eye was very much askew, in fact, after Saturday: his head drooped, and he was very sleepy; but for all that, as soon as he knew what the question was, it seemed as though Satan jogged his memory. “Impossible,” said he: “please to order a new one.” Thereupon Akakii Akakievich handed over the ten-kopek piece. “Thank you, sir; I will drink your good health,” said Petrovich: “but as for the overcoat, don’t trouble yourself about it; it is good for nothing. I will make you a new coat famously, so let us settle about it now.”
Akakii Akakievich was still for mending it; but Petrovich would not hear of it, and said, “I shall certainly make you a new one, and please depend upon it that I shall do my best. It may even be, as the fashion goes, that the collar can be fastened by silver hooks under a flap.”
Then Akakii Akakievich saw that it was impossible to get along without a new overcoat, and his spirit sank utterly. How, in fact, was it to be accomplished? Where was the money to come from? He might, to be sure, depend, in part, upon his present at Christmas; but that money had long been doled out and allotted beforehand. He must have some new trousers, and pay a debt of long standing to the shoemaker for putting new tops to his old boots, and he must order three shirts from the seamstress, and a couple of pieces of linen which it is impolite to mention in print—in a word, all his money must be spent; and even if the director should be so kind as to order forty-five rubles instead of forty, or even fifty, it would be a mere nothing, and a mere drop in the ocean towards the capital necessary for an overcoat: although he knew that Petrovich was wrong-headed enough to blurt out some outrageous price, Satan only knows what, so that his own wife could not refrain from exclaiming, “Have you lost your senses, you fool?”
At one time he would not work at any price, and now it was quite likely that he had asked a price which it was not worth. Although he knew that Petrovich would undertake to make it for eighty rubles, still, where was he to get the eighty rubles? He might possibly manage half; yes, a half of that might be procured: but where was the other half to come from? But the reader must first be told where the first half came from. Akakii Akakievich had a habit of putting, for every ruble he spent, a groschen into a small box, fastened with lock and key, and with a hole in the top for the reception of money. At the end of each half-year, he counted over the heap of coppers, and changed it into small silver coins. This he continued for a long time; and thus, in the course of some years, the sum proved to amount to over forty rubles.
Thus he had one half on hand; but where to get the other half? where to get another forty rubles? Akakii Akakievich thought and thought, and decided that it would be necessary to curtail his ordinary expenses, for the space of one year at least—to dispense with tea in the evening; to burn no candles, and, if there was anything which he must do, to go into his landlady’s room, and work by her light; when he went into the street, he must walk as lightly as possible, and as cautiously, upon the stones and flagging, almost upon tiptoe, in order not to wear out his heels in too short a time; he must give the laundress as little to wash as possible; and, in order not to wear out his clothes, he must take them off as soon as he got home, and wear only his cotton dressing-gown, which had been long and carefully saved.
To tell the truth, it was a little hard for him at first to accustom himself to these deprivations; but he got used to them at length, after a fashion, and all went smoothly—he even got used to being hungry in the evening; but he made up for it by treating himself in spirit, bearing ever in mind the thought of his future coat. From that time forth, his existence seemed to become, in some way, fuller, as if he were married, as if some other man lived in him, as if he were not alone, and some charming friend had consented to go along life’s path with him—and the friend was no other than that overcoat, with thick wadding and a strong lining incapable of wearing out. He became more lively, and his character even became firmer, like that of a man who has made up his mind, and set himself a goal. From his face and gait, doubt and indecision—in short, all hesitating and wavering traits—disappeared of themselves.
Fire gleamed in his eyes: occasionally, the boldest and most daring ideas flitted through his mind; why not, in fact, have marten fur on the collar? The thought of this nearly made him absent-minded. Once, in copying a letter, he nearly made a mistake, so that he exclaimed almost aloud, “Ugh!” and crossed himself. Once in the course of each month, he had a conference with Petrovich on the subject of the coat—where it would be better to buy the cloth, and the color, and the price—and he always returned home satisfied, though troubled, reflecting that the time would come at last when it could all be bought, and then the overcoat could be made.
The matter progressed more briskly than he had expected. Far beyond all his hopes, the director appointed neither forty nor forty-five rubles for Akakii Akakievich’s share, but sixty. Did he suspect that Akakii Akakievich needed an overcoat? or did it merely happen so? at all events, twenty extra rubles were by this means provided. This circumstance hastened matters. Only two or three months more of hunger—and Akakii Akakievich had accumulated about eighty rubles. His heart, generally so quiet, began to beat.
On the first possible day, he visited the shops in company with Petrovich. They purchased some very good cloth—and reasonably, for they had been considering the matter for six months, and rarely did a month pass without their visiting the shops to inquire prices; and Petrovich said himself, that no better cloth could be had. For lining, they selected a cotton stuff, but so firm and thick, that Petrovich declared it to be better than silk, and even prettier and more glossy. They did not buy the marten fur, because it was dear, in fact; but in its stead, they picked out the very best of cat-skin which could be found in the shop, and which might be taken for marten at a distance.
Petrovich worked at the coat two whole weeks, for there was a great deal of quilting: otherwise it would have been done sooner. Petrovich charged twelve rubles for his work—it could not possibly be done for less: it was all sewed with silk, in small, double seams; and Petrovich went over each seam afterwards with his own teeth, stamping in various patterns.
It was—it is difficult to say precisely on what day, but it was probably the most glorious day in Akakii Akakievich’s life, when Petrovich at length brought home the coat. He brought it in the morning, before the hour when it was necessary to go to the department. Never did a coat arrive so exactly in the nick of time; for the severe cold had set in, and it seemed to threaten increase. Petrovich presented himself with the coat as befits a good tailor. On his countenance was a significant expression, such as Akakii Akakievich had never beheld there. He seemed sensible to the fullest extent that he had done no small deed, and that a gulf had suddenly appeared, separating tailors who only put in linings, and make repairs, from those who make new things.
He took the coat out of the large pocket-handkerchief in which he had brought it. (The handkerchief was fresh from the laundress: he now removed it, and put it in his pocket for use.) Taking out the coat, he gazed proudly at it, held it with both hands, and flung it very skilfully over the shoulders of Akakii Akakievich; then he pulled it and fitted it down behind with his hand; then he draped it around Akakii Akakievich without buttoning it. Akakii Akakievich, as a man advanced in life, wished to try the sleeves. Petrovich helped him on with them, and it turned out that the sleeves were satisfactory also. In short, the coat appeared to be perfect, and just in season.
Petrovich did not neglect this opportunity to observe that it was only because he lived in a narrow street, and had no signboard, and because he had known Akakii Akakievich so long, that he had made it so cheaply; but, if he had been on the Nevsky Prospect, he would have charged seventy-five rubles for the making alone. Akakii Akakievich did not care to argue this point with Petrovich, and he was afraid of the large sums with which Petrovich was fond of raising the dust. He paid him, thanked him, and set out at once in his new coat for the department. Petrovich followed him, and, pausing in the street, gazed long at the coat in the distance, and went to one side expressly to run through a crooked alley, and emerge again into the street to gaze once more upon the coat from another point, namely, directly in front.
Meantime Akakii Akakievich went on with every sense in holiday mood. He was conscious every second of the time, that he had a new overcoat on his shoulders; and several times he laughed with internal satisfaction. In fact, there were two advantages—one was its warmth; the other, its beauty. He saw nothing of the road, and suddenly found himself at the department. He threw off his coat in the ante-room, looked it over well, and confided it to the especial care of the janitor. It is impossible to say just how every one in the department knew at once that Akakii Akakievich had a new coat, and that the “mantle” no longer existed. All rushed at the same moment into the ante-room, to inspect Akakii Akakievich’s new coat. They began to congratulate him, and to say pleasant things to him, so that he began at first to smile, and then he grew ashamed.
When all surrounded him, and began to say that the new coat must be “christened,” and that he must give a whole evening at least to it, Akakii Akakievich lost his head completely, knew not where he stood, what to answer, and how to get out of it. He stood blushing all over for several minutes, and was on the point of assuring them with great simplicity that it was not a new coat, that it was so and so, that it was the old coat. At length one of the officials, some assistant chief probably, in order to show that he was not at all proud, and on good terms with his inferiors, said, “So be it: I will give the party instead of Akakii Akakievich; I invite you all to tea with me to-night; it happens quite apropos, as it is my name-day.”
The officials naturally at once offered the assistant chief their congratulations, and accepted the invitation with pleasure. Akakii Akakievich would have declined; but all declared that it was discourteous, that it was simply a sin and a shame, and that he could not possibly refuse. Besides, the idea became pleasant to him when he recollected that he should thereby have a chance to wear his new coat in the evening also.
That whole day was truly a most triumphant festival day for Akakii Akakievich. He returned home in the most happy frame of mind, threw off his coat, and hung it carefully on the wall, admiring afresh the cloth and the lining; and then he brought out his old, worn-out coat, for comparison. He looked at it, and laughed, so vast was the difference. And long after dinner he laughed again when the condition of the “mantle” recurred to his mind. He dined gayly, and after dinner wrote nothing, no papers even, but took his ease for a while on the bed, until it got dark. Then he dressed himself leisurely, put on his coat, and stepped out into the street.
Where the host lived, unfortunately we cannot say: our memory begins to fail us badly; and everything in St. Petersburg, all the houses and streets, have run together, and become so mixed up in our head, that it is very difficult to produce anything thence in proper form. At all events, this much is certain, that the official lived in the best part of the city; and therefore it must have been anything but near to Akakii Akakievich.
Akakii Akakievich was first obliged to traverse a sort of wilderness of deserted, dimly lighted streets; but in proportion as he approached the official’s quarter of the city, the streets became more lively, more populous, and more brilliantly illuminated. Pedestrians began to appear; handsomely dressed ladies were more frequently encountered; the men had otter collars; peasant wagoners, with their grate-like sledges stuck full of gilt nails, became rarer; on the other hand, more and more coachmen in red velvet caps, with lacquered sleighs and bear-skin robes, began to appear; carriages with decorated coach-boxes flew swiftly through the streets, their wheels scrunching the snow.
Akakii Akakievich gazed upon all this as upon a novelty. He had not been in the streets during the evening for years. He halted out of curiosity before the lighted window of a shop, to look at a picture representing a handsome woman, who had thrown off her shoe, thereby baring her whole foot in a very pretty way; and behind her the head of a man with side-whiskers and a handsome mustache peeped from the door of another room. Akakii Akakievich shook his head, and laughed, and then went on his way. Why did he laugh? Because he had met with a thing utterly unknown, but for which every one cherishes, nevertheless, some sort of feeling; or else he thought, like many officials, as follows: “Well, those French! What is to be said? If they like anything of that sort, then, in fact, that” … But possibly he did not think that. For it is impossible to enter a man’s mind, and know all that he thinks.
At length he reached the house in which the assistant chief lodged. The assistant chief lived in fine style: on the staircase burned a lantern; his apartment was on the second floor. On entering the vestibule, Akakii Akakievich beheld a whole row of overshoes on the floor. Amid them, in the centre of the room, stood a samovar, humming, and emitting clouds of steam. On the walls hung all sorts of coats and cloaks, among which there were even some with beaver collars or velvet facings. Beyond the wall the buzz of conversation was audible, which became clear and loud when the servant came out with a trayful of empty glasses, cream-jugs, and sugar-bowls. It was evident that the officials had arrived long before, and had already finished their first glass of tea.
Akakii Akakievich, having hung up his own coat, entered the room; and before him all at once appeared lights, officials, pipes, card-tables; and he was surprised by a sound of rapid conversation rising from all the tables, and the noise of moving chairs. He halted very awkwardly in the middle of the room, wondering, and trying to decide, what he ought to do. But they had seen him: they received him with a shout, and all went out at once into the ante-room, and took another look at his coat. Akakii Akakievich, although somewhat confused, was open-hearted, and could not refrain from rejoicing when he saw how they praised his coat. Then, of course, they all dropped him and his coat, and returned, as was proper, to the tables set out for whist. All this—the noise, talk, and throng of people—was rather wonderful to Akakii Akakievich. He simply did not know where he stood, or where to put his hands, his feet, and his whole body. Finally he sat down by the players, looked at the cards, gazed at the face of one and another, and after a while began to gape, and to feel that it was wearisome—the more so, as the hour was already long past when he usually went to bed. He wanted to take leave of the host; but they would not let him go, saying that he must drink a glass of champagne, in honor of his new garment, without fail.
In the course of an hour, supper was served, consisting of vegetable salad, cold veal, pastry, confectioner’s pies, and champagne. They made Akakii Akakievich drink two glasses of champagne, after which he felt that the room grew livelier: still, he could not forget that it was twelve o’clock, and that he should have been at home long ago. In order that the host might not think of some excuse for detaining him, he went out of the room quietly, sought out, in the ante-room, his overcoat, which, to his sorrow, he found lying on the floor, brushed it, picked off every speck, put it on his shoulders, and descended the stairs to the street.
In the street all was still bright. Some petty shops, those permanent clubs of servants and all sorts of people, were open: others were shut, but, nevertheless, showed a streak of light the whole length of the door-crack, indicating that they were not yet free of company, and that probably domestics, both male and female, were finishing their stories and conversations, leaving their masters in complete ignorance as to their whereabouts.
Akakii Akakievich went on in a happy frame of mind: he even started to run, without knowing why, after some lady, who flew past like a flash of lightning, and whose whole body was endowed with an extraordinary amount of movement. But he stopped short, and went on very quietly as before, wondering whence he had got that gait. Soon there spread before him those deserted streets, which are not cheerful in the daytime, not to mention the evening. Now they were even more dim and lonely: the lanterns began to grow rarer—oil, evidently, had been less liberally supplied; then came wooden houses and fences: not a soul anywhere; only the snow sparkled in the streets, and mournfully darkled the low-roofed cabins with their closed shutters. He approached the place where the street crossed an endless square with barely visible houses on its farther side, and which seemed a fearful desert.
Afar, God knows where, a tiny spark glimmered from some sentry-box, which seemed to stand on the edge of the world. Akakii Akakievich’s cheerfulness diminished at this point in a marked degree. He entered the square, not without an involuntary sensation of fear, as though his heart warned him of some evil. He glanced back and on both sides—it was like a sea about him. “No, it is better not to look,” he thought, and went on, closing his eyes; and when he opened them, to see whether he was near the end of the square, he suddenly beheld, standing just before his very nose, some bearded individuals—of just what sort, he could not make out. All grew dark before his eyes, and his breast throbbed.
“But of course the coat is mine!” said one of them in a loud voice, seizing hold of the collar. Akakii Akakievich was about to shout for the watch, when the second man thrust a fist into his mouth, about the size of an official’s head, muttering, “Now scream!”
Akakii Akakievich felt them take off his coat, and give him a push with a knee: he fell headlong upon the snow, and felt no more. In a few minutes he recovered consciousness, and rose to his feet; but no one was there. He felt that it was cold in the square, and that his coat was gone: he began to shout, but his voice did not appear to reach to the outskirts of the square. In despair, but without ceasing to shout, he started on a run through the square, straight towards the sentry-box, beside which stood the watchman, leaning on his halberd, and apparently curious to know what devil of a man was running towards him from afar, and shouting. Akakii Akakievich ran up to him, and began in a sobbing voice to shout that he was asleep, and attended to nothing, and did not see when a man was robbed. The watchman replied that he had seen no one; that he had seen two men stop him in the middle of the square, and supposed that they were friends of his; and that, instead of scolding in vain, he had better go to the captain on the morrow, so that the captain might investigate as to who had stolen the coat.
Akakii Akakievich ran home in complete disorder: his hair, which grew very thinly upon his temples and the back of his head, was entirely disarranged; his side and breast, and all his trousers, were covered with snow. The old woman, mistress of his lodgings, hearing a terrible knocking, sprang hastily from her bed, and, with a shoe on one foot only, ran to open the door, pressing the sleeve of her chemise to her bosom out of modesty; but when she had opened it, she fell back on beholding Akakii Akakievich in such a state.
When he told the matter, she clasped her hands, and said that he must go straight to the superintendent, for the captain would turn up his nose, promise well, and drop the matter there: the very best thing to do, would be to go to the superintendent; that he knew her, because Finnish Anna, her former cook, was now nurse at the superintendent’s; that she often saw him passing the house; and that he was at church every Sunday, praying, but at the same time gazing cheerfully at everybody; and that he must be a good man, judging from all appearances.
Having listened to this opinion, Akakii Akakievich betook himself sadly to his chamber; and how he spent the night there, any one can imagine who can put himself in another’s place. Early in the morning, he presented himself at the superintendent’s, but they told him that he was asleep. He went again at ten—and was again informed that he was asleep. He went at eleven o’clock, and they said, “The superintendent is not at home.” At dinner-time, the clerks in the ante-room would not admit him on any terms, and insisted upon knowing his business, and what brought him, and how it had come about—so that at last, for once in his life, Akakii Akakievich felt an inclination to show some spirit, and said curtly that he must see the superintendent in person; that they should not presume to refuse him entrance; that he came from the department of justice, and, when he complained of them, they would see.
The clerks dared make no reply to this, and one of them went to call the superintendent. The superintendent listened to the extremely strange story of the theft of the coat. Instead of directing his attention to the principal points of the matter, he began to question Akakii Akakievich. Why did he return so late? Was he in the habit of going, or had he been, to any disorderly house? So that Akakii Akakievich got thoroughly confused, and left him without knowing whether the affair of his overcoat was in proper train, or not.
All that day he never went near the court (for the first time in his life). The next day he made his appearance, very pale, and in his old “mantle,” which had become even more shabby. The news of the robbery of the coat touched many; although there were officials present who never omitted an opportunity, even the present, to ridicule Akakii Akakievich. They decided to take up a collection for him on the spot, but it turned out a mere trifle; for the officials had already spent a great deal in subscribing for the director’s portrait, and for some book, at the suggestion of the head of that division, who was a friend of the author: and so the sum was trifling.
One, moved by pity, resolved to help Akakii Akakievich with some good advice at least, and told him that he ought not to go to the captain, for although it might happen that the police-captain, wishing to win the approval of his superior officers, might hunt up the coat by some means, still, the coat would remain in the possession of the police if he did not offer legal proof that it belonged to him: the best thing for him would be to apply to a certain prominent personage; that this prominent personage, by entering into relations with the proper persons, could greatly expedite the matter.
As there was nothing else to be done, Akakii Akakievich decided to go to the prominent personage. What was the official position of the prominent personage, remains unknown to this day. The reader must know that the prominent personage had but recently become a prominent personage, but up to that time he had been an insignificant person. Moreover, his present position was not considered prominent in comparison with others more prominent. But there is always a circle of people to whom what is insignificant in the eyes of others, is always important enough. Moreover, he strove to increase his importance by many devices; namely, he managed to have the inferior officials meet him on the staircase when he entered upon his service: no one was to presume to come directly to him, but the strictest etiquette must be observed; the “Collegiate Recorder” must announce to the government secretary, the government secretary to the titular councillor, or whatever other man was proper, and the business came before him in this manner. In holy Russia, all is thus contaminated with the love of imitation: each man imitates and copies his superior. They even say that a certain titular councillor, when promoted to the head of some little separate court-room, immediately partitioned off a private room for himself, called it the Audience Chamber, and posted at the door a lackey with red collar and braid, who grasped the handle of the door, and opened to all comers; though the audience chamber would hardly hold an ordinary writing-table.
The manners and customs of the prominent personage were grand and imposing, but rather exaggerated. The main foundation of his system was strictness. “Strictness, strictness, and always strictness!” he generally said; and at the last word he looked significantly into the face of the person to whom he spoke. But there was no necessity for this, for the half-score of officials who formed the entire force of the mechanism of the office were properly afraid without it: on catching sight of him afar off, they left their work, and waited, drawn up in line, until their chief had passed through the room. His ordinary converse with his inferiors smacked of sternness, and consisted chiefly of three phrases: “How dare you?” “Do you know to whom you are talking?” “Do you realize who stands before you?”
Otherwise he was a very kind-hearted man, good to his comrades, and ready to oblige; but the rank of general threw him completely off his balance. On receiving that rank, he became confused, as it were, lost his way, and never knew what to do. If he chanced to be with his equals, he was still a very nice kind of man—a very good fellow in many respects, and not stupid: but just the moment that he happened to be in the society of people but one rank lower than himself, he was simply incomprehensible; he became silent; and his situation aroused sympathy, the more so, as he felt himself that he might have made an incomparably better use of the time. In his eyes, there was sometimes visible a desire to join some interesting conversation and circle; but he was held back by the thought, Would it not be a very great condescension on his part? Would it not be familiar? and would he not thereby lose his importance? And in consequence of such reflections, he remained ever in the same dumb state, uttering only occasionally a few monosyllabic sounds, and thereby earning the name of the most tiresome of men.
To this prominent personage, our Akakii Akakievich presented himself, and that at the most unfavorable time, very inopportune for himself, though opportune for the prominent personage. The prominent personage was in his cabinet, conversing very, very gayly with a recently arrived old acquaintance and companion of his childhood, whom he had not seen for several years. At such a time it was announced to him that a person named Bashmachkin had come. He asked abruptly, “Who is he?” “Some official,” they told him. “Ah, he can wait! this is no time,” said the important man. It must be remarked here, that the important man lied outrageously: he had said all he had to say to his friend long before; and the conversation had been interspersed for some time with very long pauses, during which they merely slapped each other on the leg, and said, “You think so, Ivan Abramovich!” “Just so, Stepan Varlamovich!” Nevertheless, he ordered that the official should wait, in order to show his friend—a man who had not been in the service for a long time, but had lived at home in the country—how long officials had to wait in his ante-room.
At length, having talked himself completely out, and more than that, having had his fill of pauses, and smoked a cigar in a very comfortable arm-chair with reclining back, he suddenly seemed to recollect, and told the secretary, who stood by the door with papers of reports, “Yes, it seems, indeed, that there is an official standing there. Tell him that he may come in.” On perceiving Akakii Akakievich’s modest mien, and his worn undress uniform, he turned abruptly to him, and said, “What do you want?” in a curt, hard voice, which he had practised in his room in private, and before the looking-glass, for a whole week before receiving his present rank.
Akakii Akakievich, who already felt betimes the proper amount of fear, became somewhat confused: and as well as he could, as well as his tongue would permit, he explained, with a rather more frequent addition than usual of the word that, that his overcoat was quite new, and had been stolen in the most inhuman manner; that he had applied to him, in order that he might, in some way, by his intermediation, that … he might enter into correspondence with the chief superintendent of police, and find the coat.
For some inexplicable reason, this conduct seemed familiar to the general. “What, my dear sir!” he said abruptly, “don’t you know etiquette? Where have you come to? Don’t you know how matters are managed? You should first have entered a complaint about this at the court: it would have gone to the head of the department, to the chief of the division, then it would have been handed over to the secretary, and the secretary would have given it to me.” …
“But, your excellency,” said Akakii Akakievich, trying to collect his small handful of wits, and conscious at the same time that he was perspiring terribly, “I, you excellency, presumed to trouble you because secretaries that … are an untrustworthy race.” …
“What, what, what!” said the important personage. “Where did you get such courage? Where did you get such ideas? What impudence towards their chiefs and superiors has spread among the young generation!” The prominent personage apparently had not observed that Akakii Akakievich was already in the neighborhood of fifty. If he could be called a young man, then it must have been in comparison with some one who was seventy. “Do you know to whom you speak? Do you realize who stands before you? Do you realize it? do you realize it? I ask you!” Then he stamped his foot, and raised his voice to such a pitch that it would have frightened even a different man from Akakii Akakievich.
Akakii Akakievich’s senses failed him; he staggered, trembled in every limb, and could not stand; if the porters had not run in to support him, he would have fallen to the floor. They carried him out insensible. But the prominent personage, gratified that the effect should have surpassed his expectations, and quite intoxicated with the thought that his word could even deprive a man of his senses, glanced sideways at his friend in order to see how he looked upon this, and perceived, not without satisfaction, that his friend was in a most undecided frame of mind, and even beginning, on his side, to feel a trifle frightened.
Akakii Akakievich could not remember how he descended the stairs, and stepped into the street. He felt neither his hands nor feet. Never in his life had he been so rated by any general, let alone a strange one. He went on through the snow-storm, which was howling through the streets, with his mouth wide open, slipping off the sidewalk: the wind, in Petersburg fashion, flew upon him from all quarters, and through every cross-street. In a twinkling it had blown a quinsy into his throat, and he reached home unable to utter a word: his throat was all swollen, and he lay down on his bed. So powerful is sometimes a good scolding!
The next day a violent fever made its appearance. Thanks to the generous assistance of the Petersburg climate, his malady progressed more rapidly than could have been expected: and when the doctor arrived, he found, on feeling his pulse, that there was nothing to be done, except to prescribe a fomentation, merely that the sick man might not be left without the beneficent aid of medicine; but at the same time, he predicted his end in another thirty-six hours. After this, he turned to the landlady, and said, “And as for you, my dear, don’t waste your time on him: order his pine coffin now, for an oak one will be too expensive for him.”
Did Akakii Akakievich hear these fatal words? and, if he heard them, did they produce any overwhelming effect upon him? Did he lament the bitterness of his life?—We know not, for he continued in a raving, parching condition. Visions incessantly appeared to him, each stranger than the other: now he saw Petrovich, and ordered him to make a coat, with some traps for robbers, who seemed to him to be always under the bed; and he cried, every moment, to the landlady to pull one robber from under his coverlet: then he inquired why his old “mantle” hung before him when he had a new overcoat; then he fancied that he was standing before the general, listening to a thorough setting-down, and saying, “Forgive, your excellency!” but at last he began to curse, uttering the most horrible words, so that his aged landlady crossed herself, never in her life having heard anything of the kind from him—the more so, as those words followed directly after the words your excellency. Later he talked utter nonsense, of which nothing could be understood: all that was evident, was that his incoherent words and thoughts hovered ever about one thing—his coat.
At last poor Akakii Akakievich breathed his last. They sealed up neither his room nor his effects, because, in the first place, there were no heirs, and, in the second, there was very little inheritance; namely, a bunch of goose-quills, a quire of white official paper, three pairs of socks, two or three buttons which had burst off his trousers, and the “mantle” already known to the reader. To whom all this fell, God knows. I confess that the person who told this tale took no interest in the matter. They carried Akakii Akakievich out, and buried him. And Petersburg was left without Akakii Akakievich, as though he had never lived there. A being disappeared, and was hidden, who was protected by none, dear to none, interesting to none, who never even attracted to himself the attention of an observer of nature, who omits no opportunity of thrusting a pin through a common fly, and examining it under the microscope—a being who bore meekly the jibes of the department, and went to his grave without having done one unusual deed, but to whom, nevertheless, at the close of his life, appeared a bright visitant in the form of a coat, which momentarily cheered his poor life, and upon whom, thereafter, an intolerable misfortune descended, just as it descends upon the heads of the mighty of this world! …
Several days after his death, the porter was sent from the department to his lodgings, with an order for him to present himself immediately (“The chief commands it!”). But the porter had to return unsuccessful, with the answer that he could not come; and to the question, Why? he explained in the words, “Well, because: he is already dead! he was buried four days ago.” In this manner did they hear of Akakii Akakievich’s death at the department; and the next day a new and much larger official sat in his place, forming his letters by no means upright, but more inclined and slantwise.
But who could have imagined that this was not the end of Akakii Akakievich—that he was destined to raise a commotion after death, as if in compensation for his utterly insignificant life? But so it happened, and our poor story unexpectedly gains a fantastic ending.
A rumor suddenly spread throughout Petersburg that a dead man had taken to appearing on the Kalinkin Bridge, and far beyond, at night, in the form of an official seeking a stolen coat, and that, under the pretext of its being the stolen coat, he dragged every one’s coat from his shoulders without regard to rank or calling—cat-skin, beaver, wadded, fox, bear, raccoon coats; in a word, every sort of fur and skin which men adopted for their covering. One of the department employés saw the dead man with his own eyes, and immediately recognized in him Akakii Akakievich: nevertheless, this inspired him with such terror, that he started to run with all his might, and therefore could not examine thoroughly, and only saw how the latter threatened him from afar with his finger.
Constant complaints poured in from all quarters, that the backs and shoulders, not only of titular but even of court councillors, were entirely exposed to the danger of a cold, on account of the frequent dragging off of their coats. Arrangements were made by the police to catch the corpse, at any cost, alive or dead, and punish him as an example to others, in the most severe manner: and in this they nearly succeeded; for a policeman, on guard in Kirushkin Alley, caught the corpse by the collar on the very scene of his evil deeds, for attempting to pull off the frieze coat of some retired musician who had blown the flute in his day.
Having seized him by the collar, he summoned, with a shout, two of his comrades, whom he enjoined to hold him fast, while he himself felt for a moment in his boot, in order to draw thence his snuff-box, to refresh his six times forever frozen nose; but the snuff was of a sort which even a corpse could not endure. The policeman had no sooner succeeded, having closed his right nostril with his finger, in holding half a handful up to the left, than the corpse sneezed so violently that he completely filled the eyes of all three. While they raised their fists to wipe them, the dead man vanished utterly, so that they positively did not know whether they had actually had him in their hands at all. Thereafter the watchmen conceived such a terror of dead men, that they were afraid even to seize the living; and only screamed from a distance, “Hey, there! go your way!” and the dead official began to appear, even beyond the Kalinkin Bridge, causing no little terror to all timid people.
But we have totally neglected that certain prominent personage, who may really be considered as the cause of the fantastic turn taken by this true history. First of all, justice compels us to say, that after the departure of poor, thoroughly annihilated Akakii Akakievich, he felt something like remorse. Suffering was unpleasant to him: his heart was accessible to many good impulses, in spite of the fact that his rank very often prevented his showing his true self. As soon as his friend had left his cabinet, he began to think about poor Akakii Akakievich. And from that day forth, poor Akakii Akakievich, who could not bear up under an official reprimand, recurred to his mind almost every day. The thought of the latter troubled him to such an extent, that a week later he even resolved to send an official to him, to learn whether he really could assist him; and when it was reported to him that Akakii Akakievich had died suddenly of fever, he was startled, listened to the reproaches of his conscience, and was out of sorts for the whole day.
Wishing to divert his mind in some way, and forget the disagreeable impression, he set out that evening for one of his friends’ houses, where he found quite a large party assembled; and, what was better, nearly every one was of the same rank, so that he need not feel in the least constrained. This had a marvellous effect upon his mental state. He expanded, made himself agreeable in conversation, charming: in short, he passed a delightful evening. After supper he drank a couple of glasses of champagne—not a bad recipe for cheerfulness, as every one knows. The champagne inclined him to various out-of-the-way adventures; and, in particular, he determined not to go home, but to go to see a certain well-known lady, Karolina Ivanovna, a lady, it appears, of German extraction, with whom he felt on a very friendly footing.
It must be mentioned that the prominent personage was no longer a young man, but a good husband, and respected father of a family. Two sons, one of whom was already in the service, and a good-looking, sixteen-year-old daughter, with a rather retroussé but pretty little nose, came every morning to kiss his hand, and say, “Bonjour, papa.” His wife, a still fresh and good-looking woman, first gave him her hand to kiss, and then, reversing the procedure, kissed his. But the prominent personage, though perfectly satisfied in his domestic relations, considered it stylish to have a friend in another quarter of the city. This friend was hardly prettier or younger than his wife; but there are such puzzles in the world, and it is not our place to judge them.
So the important personage descended the stairs, stepped into his sleigh, and said to the coachman, “To Karolina Ivanovan’s,” and, wrapping himself luxuriously in his warm coat, found himself in that delightful position than which a Russian can conceive nothing better, which is, when you think of nothing yourself, yet the thoughts creep into your mind of their own accord, each more agreeable than the other, giving you no trouble to drive them away, or seek them. Fully satisfied, he slightly recalled all the gay points of the evening just passed, and all the mots which had made the small circle laugh. Many of them he repeated in a low voice, and found them quite as funny as before; and therefore it is not surprising that he should laugh heartily at them.
Occasionally, however, he was hindered by gusts of wind, which, coming suddenly, God knows whence or why, cut his face, flinging in it lumps of snow, filling out his coat-collar like a sail, or suddenly blowing it over his head with supernatural force, and thus causing him constant trouble to disentangle himself. Suddenly the important personage felt some one clutch him very firmly by the collar. Turning round, he perceived a man of short stature, in an old, worn uniform, and recognized, not without terror, Akakii Akakievich. The official’s face was white as snow, and looked just like a corpse’s. But the horror of the important personage transcended all bounds when he saw the dead man’s mouth open, and, with a terrible odor of the grave, utter the following remarks:
“Ah, here you are at last! I have you, that … by the collar! I need your coat. You took no trouble about mine, but reprimanded me; now give up your own.” The pallid prominent personage almost died. Brave as he was in the office and in the presence of inferiors generally, and although, at the sight of his manly form and appearance, every one said, “Ugh! how much character he has!” yet at this crisis, he, like many possessed of an heroic exterior, experienced such terror, that, not without cause, he began to fear an attack of illness.
He flung his coat hastily from his shoulders, and shouted to his coachman in an unnatural voice, “Home, at full speed!” The coachman, hearing the tone which is generally employed at critical moments, and even accompanied by something much more tangible, drew his head down between his shoulders in case of an emergency, flourished his knout, and flew on like an arrow. In a little more than six minutes the prominent personage was at the entrance of his own house.
Pale, thoroughly scared, and coatless, he went home instead of to Karolina Ivanovna’s, got to his chamber after some fashion, and passed the night in the direst distress; so that the next morning over their tea, his daughter said plainly, “You are very pale to-day, papa.” But papa remained silent, and said not a word to any one of what had happened to him, where he had been, or where he had intended to go.
This occurrence made a deep impression upon him. He even began to say less frequently to the under-officials, “How dare you? do you realize who stands before you?” and, if he did utter the words, it was after first having learned the bearings of the matter. But the most noteworthy point was, that from that day the apparition of the dead official quite ceased to be seen; evidently the general’s overcoat just fitted his shoulders; at all events, no more instances of his dragging coats from people’s shoulders were heard of.
But many active and apprehensive persons could by no means reassure themselves, and asserted that the dead official still showed himself in distant parts of the city. And, in fact, one watchman in Kolomna saw with his own eyes the apparition come from behind a house; but being rather weak of body—so much so, that once upon a time an ordinary full-grown pig running out of a private house knocked him off his legs, to the great amusement of the surrounding public coachmen, from whom he demanded a groschen apiece for snuff, as damages—being weak, he dared not arrest him, but followed him in the dark, until, at length, the apparition looked round, paused, and inquired, “What do you want?” and showed such a fist as you never see on living men. The watchman said, “It’s of no consequence,” and turned back instantly. But the apparition was much too tall, wore huge mustaches, and, directing its steps apparently towards the Obukhoff Bridge, disappeared in the darkness of the night.
Yermolai and the Miller's Wife, Ivan Turgenev
One evening I went with the huntsman Yermolai “stand-shooting.” . . . But perhaps all my readers may not know what “stand-shooting” is. I will tell you.
A quarter of an hour before sunset in springtime you go out into the woods with your gun, but without your dog. You seek out a spot for yourself on the outskirts of the forest, take a look round, examine your caps, and glance at your companion. A quarter of an hour passes; the sun has set, but it is still light in the forest; the sky is clear and transparent; the birds are chattering and twittering; the young grass shines with the brilliance of emerald. . . . You wait. Gradually the recesses of the forest grow dark; the blood-red glow of the evening sky creeps slowly on to the roots and the trunks. of the trees, and keeps rising higher and higher, passes from the lower, still almost leafless branches, to the motionless, slumbering tree-tops. . . . And now even the topmost branches are darkened; the purple sky fades to dark-blue. The forest fragrance grows stronger; there is a scent of warmth and damp earth; the fluttering breeze dies away at your side. The birds go to sleep—not all at once—but after their kinds; first the finches are hushed, a few minutes later the warblers, and after them the yellow buntings. In the forest it grows darker and darker. The trees melt together into great masses of blackness; in the dark-blue sky the first stars come timidly out. All the birds are asleep. Only the redstarts and the nuthatches are still chirping drowsily. . . . And now they, too, are still. The last echoing call of the peewit rings over our heads; the oriole’s melancholy cry sounds somewhere in the distance; then the nightingale’s first note. Your heart is weary with suspense, when suddenly—but only hunters can understand me—suddenly in the deep hush there is a peculiar croaking and whirring sound, the measured sweep of swift wings is heard, and the snipe, gracefully bending its long beak, sails smoothly from behind a dark bush to meet your shot.
That is the meaning of “stand-shooting.”
And so I had gone out stand-shooting with Yermolai. But excuse me, reader: I must first introduce you to Yermolai.
Picture to yourself a tall gaunt man of forty-five, with a long thin nose, a narrow forehead, little grey eyes, a bristling head of hair, and thick sarcastic lips. This man wore, winter and summer alike, a yellow nankin coat of foreign cut, but with a sash round the waist; he wore blue pantaloons and a cap of astrakhan, presented to him in a merry hour by a spendthrift landowner. Two bags were fastened on to his sash, one in front, skilfully tied into two halves, for powder and for shot; the other behind for game; wadding Yermolai used to produce out of his peculiar, seemingly inexhaustible cap. With the money he gained by the game he sold, he might easily have bought himself a cartridge-box and powder-flask; but he never once even contemplated such a purchase, and continued to load his gun after his old fashion, exciting the admiration of all beholders by the skill with which he avoided the risks of spilling or mixing his powder and shot. His gun was a single-barrelled flint-lock, endowed, moreover, with a villainous habit of “kicking.” It was due to this that Yermolai’s right cheek was permanently swollen to a larger size than the left. How he ever succeeded in hitting anything with this gun, it would take a shrewd man to discover—but he did. He had, too, a setter-dog, by name Valetka, a most extraordinary creature. Yermolai never fed him. “Me feed a dog!” he reasoned; “why, a dog’s a clever beast; he finds a living for himself.” And certainly, though Valetka’s extreme thinness was a shock even to an indifferent observer, he still lived and had a long life; and in spite of his pitiable position he was not even once lost, and never showed an inclination to desert his master. Once indeed, in his youth, he had absented himself for two days, on courting bent, but this folly was soon over with him. Valetka’s most noticeable peculiarity was his impenetrable indifference to everything in the world. . . . If it were not a dog I was speaking of, I should have called him “disillusioned.” He usually sat with his cropped tail curled up under him, scowling and twitching at times, and he never smiled. (It is well known that dogs can smile, and smile very sweetly.) He was exceedingly ugly; and the idle house-serfs never lost an opportunity of jeering cruelly at his appearance; but all these jeers, and even blows, Valetka bore with astonishing indifference. He was a source of special delight to the cooks, who would all leave their work at once and give him chase with shouts and abuse, whenever, through a weakness not confined to dogs, he thrust his hungry nose through the half-open door of the kitchen, tempting with its warmth and appetizing smells. He distinguished himself by untiring energy in the chase, and had a good scent; but if he chanced to overtake a slightly wounded hare, he devoured it with relish to the last bone, somewhere in the cool shade under the green bushes, at a respectful distance from Yermolai, who was abusing him in every known and unknown dialect.
Yermolai belonged to one of my neighbours, a landlord of the old style. Landlords of the old style don’t care for game, and prefer the domestic fowl. Only on extraordinary occasions, such as birthdays, namedays, and elections, the cooks of the old-fashioned landlords set to work to prepare some long-beaked birds, and, falling into the state of frenzy peculiar to Russians when they don’t quite know what to do, they concoct such marvellous sauces for them that the guests examine the proffered dishes curiously and attentively, but rarely make up their minds to try them. Yermolai was under orders to provide his master’s kitchen with two brace of grouse and partridges once a month. But he might live where and how he pleased. They had given him up as a man of no use for work of any kind—”bone lazy,” they called him. Powder and shot, of course, they did not provide him, following precisely the same principle in virtue of which he did not feed his dog. Yermolai was a very strange kind of man; heedless as a bird, rather fond of talking, awkward and vacant-looking; he was excessively fond of drink, and never could sit still long; in walking he shambled along, and rolled from side to side; and yet he got over fifty miles in the day with his rolling, shambling gait. He exposed himself to the most varied adventures: spent the night in the marshes, in trees, on roofs, or under bridges; more than once he had got shut up in lofts, cellars, or barns; he sometimes lost his gun, his dog, his most indispensable garments; got long and severe thrashings; but he always returned home after a little while, in his clothes, and with his gun and his dog. One could not call him a cheerful man, though one almost always found him in an even frame of mind; he was looked on generally as an eccentric. Yermolai liked a little chat with a good companion, especially over a glass, but he would not stop long; he would get up and go. “But where the devil are you going? It’s dark out of doors.” “To Chaplino.” “But what’s taking you to Chaplino, ten miles away?” “I am going to stay the night at Sofron’s there.” “But stay the night here.” “No, I can’t.” And Yermolai, with his Valetka, would go off into the dark night, through woods and watercourses, and the peasant Sofron very likely did not let him into his place, and even, I am afraid, gave him a blow to teach him “not to disturb honest folks.” But none could compare with Yermolai in skill in deep-water fishing in springtime, in catching crayfish with his hands, in tracking game by scent, in snaring quails, in training hawks, in capturing the nightingales who had the greatest variety of notes. . . . One thing he could not do, train a dog; he had not patience enough. He had a wife, too. He went to see her once a week. She lived in a wretched, tumble-down little hut, and led a hand-to-mouth existence, never knowing overnight whether she would have food to eat on the morrow; and in every way her lot was a pitiful one. Yermolai, who seemed such a careless and easy-going fellow, treated his wife with cruel harshness; in his own house he assumed a stern and menacing manner; and his poor wife did everything she could to please him, trembled when he looked at her, and spent her last farthing to buy him vodka; and when he stretched himself majestically on the stove and fell into an heroic sleep, she obsequiously covered him with her sheepskin. I happened myself more than once to catch an involuntary look in him of a kind of savage ferocity; I did not like the expression of his face when he finished off a wounded bird with his teeth. But Yermolai never remained more than a day at home, and away from home he was once more the same “Yermolka,” (i.e., the shooting cap), as he was called for a hundred miles round, and as he sometimes called himself. The lowest house-serf was conscious of being superior to this vagabond—and perhaps this was precisely why they treated him with friendliness; the peasants at first amused themselves by chasing him and driving him like a hare over the open country, but afterwards they left him in God’s hands, and when once they recognized him as “queer,” they no longer tormented him, and even gave him bread and entered into talk with him. . . . This was the man I took as my huntsman, and with him I went stand-shooting to a great birch wood on the banks of the Ista.
Many Russian rivers, like the Volga, have one bank rugged and precipitous, the other bounded by level meadows; and so it is with the Ista. This small river winds extremely capriciously, coils like a snake, and does not keep a straight course for half a mile together; in some places, from the top of a sharp declivity, one can see the river for ten miles, with its dykes, its pools and mills, and the gardens on its banks, shut in with willows and thick flower-gardens. There are fish in the Ista in endless numbers, especially roaches (the peasants take them in hot weather from under the bushes with their hands); little sandpipers flutter whistling along the stony banks, which are streaked with cold clear streams; wild ducks dive in the middle of the pools, and look round warily; in the coves under the overhanging cliffs herons stand out in the shade. . . . We stood in ambush nearly an hour, killed two brace of wood snipe, and, as we wanted to try our luck again at sunrise (stand-shooting can be done as well in the early morning), we resolved to spend the night at the nearest mill. We came out of the wood and went down the slope. The dark-blue waters of the river ran below; the air was thick with the mists of night. We knocked at the gate. The dogs began barking in the yard.
“Who is there?” asked a hoarse and sleepy voice.
“We are hunters; let us stay the night.” There was no reply. “We will pay.”
“I will go and tell the master—Sh! curse the dogs! Go to the devil with you!”
We listened as the workman went into the cottage; he soon came back to the gate. “No,” he said; “the master tells me not to let you in.”
“He is afraid; you are hunters, you might set the mill on fire; you’ve firearms with you, to be sure.”
“But what nonsense!”
“We had our mill on fire like that last year; some fish-dealers stayed the night, and they managed to set it on fire somehow.”
“But, my good friend, we can’t sleep in the open air!”
“That’s your business.” He went away, his boots clacking as he walked.
Yermolai promised him various unpleasant things in the future. “Let us go to the village,” he brought out at last, with a sigh. But it was two miles to the village:
“Let us stay the night here,” I said, “in the open air—the night is warm; the miller will let us have some straw if we pay for it.”
Yermolai agreed without discussion. We began again to knock.
“Well, what do you want?” the workman’s voice was heard again; “I’ve told you we can’t.”
We explained to him what we wanted. He went to consult the master of the house, and returned with him. The little side gate creaked. The miller appeared, a tall, fat-faced man with a bull neck, round-bellied and corpulent. He agreed to my proposal. A hundred paces from the mill there was a little out-building open to the air on all sides. They carried straw and hay there for us; the workman set a samovar down on the grass near the river, and, squatting on his heels, began to blow vigorously into its pipe. The embers glowed, and threw a bright light on his young face. The miller ran to wake his wife, and suggested at last that I myself should sleep in the cottage; but I preferred to remain in the open air. The miller’s wife brought us milk, eggs, potatoes and bread. Soon the samovar boiled, and we began drinking tea. A mist had risen from the river; there was no wind; from all round came the cry of the corn-crake, and faint sounds from the mill-wheels of drops that dripped from the paddles and of water gurgling through the bars of the lock. We built a small fire on the ground. While Yermolai was baking the potatoes in the embers, I had time to fall into a doze. I was waked by a discreetly subdued whispering near me. I lifted my head; before the fire, on a tub turned upside down, the miller’s wife sat talking to my huntsman. By her dress, her movements, and her manner of speaking, I had already recognized that she had been in domestic service, and was neither peasant nor city-bred; but now for the first time I got a clear view of her features. She looked about thirty; her thin, pale face still showed the traces of remarkable beauty; what particularly charmed me was her eyes, large and mournful in expression. She was leaning her elbows on her knees, and had her face in her hands. Yermolai was sitting with his back to me and thrusting sticks into the fire.
“They’ve the cattle-plague again at Zheltukhina,” the miller’s wife was saying; “father Ivan’s two cows are dead—Lord have mercy on them!”
“And how are your pigs doing?” asked Yermolai, after a brief pause.
“You ought to make me a present of a sucking pig.”
The miller’s wife was silent for a while, then she sighed.
“Who is it you’re with?” she asked.
“A gentleman from Kostomarovo.”
Yermolai threw a few pine twigs on the fire; they all caught fire at once, and a thick white smoke came puffing into his face.
“Why didn’t your husband let us into the cottage?”
“Afraid! the fat old tub! Arina Timofeyevna, my darling, bring me a little glass of spirits.”
The miller’s wife rose and vanished into the darkness. Yermolai began to sing in an undertone:
When I went to see my sweetheart,
I wore out all my boots. . .
Arina returned with a small flask and a glass. Yermolai got up, crossed himself, and drank it off at a draught. “Good!” was his comment.
The miller’s wife sat down again on the tub.
“Well, Arina Timofeyevna, are you still ill?”
“What is it?”
“My cough troubles me at night.”
“The gentleman’s asleep, it seems,” observed Yermolai after a short silence. “Don’t go to a doctor, Arina; it will be worse if you do.”
“Well, I am not going.”
“But come and pay me a visit.”
Arina hung down her head dejectedly.
“I will drive my wife out for the occasion,” continued Yermolai. “Upon my word, I will.”
“You had better wake the gentleman, Yermolai Petrovich; you see, the potatoes are done.”
“Oh, let him snore,” observed my faithful servant indifferently; “he’s tired with walking, so he sleeps sound.”
I turned over in the hay. Yermolai got up and came to me. “The potatoes are ready; will you come and eat them?”
I came out of the out-building; the miller’s wife got up from the tub and was going away. I addressed her:
“Have you kept this mill long?”
“It’s two years since I came on Trinity Day.”
“And where does your husband come from?”
Arina had not caught my question.
“Where’s your husband from?” repeated Yermolai, raising his voice.
“From Belev. He’s a Belev townsman.”
“And are you too from Belev?”
“No, I’m a serf; I was a serf.”
“Zvyerkov was my master. Now I am free.”
“Weren’t you his wife’s lady’s maid?”
“How did you know? Yes.”
I looked at Arina with redoubled curiosity and sympathy.
“I know your master,” I continued.
“Do you?” she replied in a low voice, and her head drooped.
I must tell the reader why I looked with such sympathy at Arina. During my stay at Petersburg I had become by chance acquainted with Mr. Zvyerkov. He had a rather influential position, and was reputed a man of sense and education. He had a wife, fat, sentimental, lachrymose and spiteful—an ordinary and disagreeable creature; he had, too, a son, the very type of the young swell of today, pampered and stupid. The exterior of Mr. Zvyerkov himself did not prepossess one in his favour; his little mouse-like eyes peeped slyly out of a broad, almost square face; he had a large, sharp nose, with distended nostrils; his close-cropped grey hair stood up like a brush above his furrowed brow; his thin lips were forever twitching and smiling mawkishly. Mr. Zvyerkov’s favourite position was standing with his short legs wide apart and his podgy hands in his trouser pockets. Once I happened somehow to be driving alone with Mr. Zvyerkov in a coach out of town. We fell into conversation. As a man of experience and of judgement, Mr. Zvyerkov began to try to set me in “the path of truth.”
“Allow me to observe to you,” he piped at last: “all you young people criticize and form judgements on everything at random; you have little knowledge of your own country; Russia, young gentlemen, is an unknown land to you; that’s where it is!. . . You are forever reading German. For instance, now you say this and that and the other about anything; for instance, about the house serfs. . . . Very fine; I don’t dispute it’s all very fine; but you don’t know them; you don’t know the kind of people they are.” (Mr. Zvyerkov blew his nose loudly and took a pinch of snuff.) “Allow me to tell you as an illustration one little anecdote; it may perhaps interest you.” (Mr. Zverkov cleared his throat.) “You know, doubtless, what my wife is; it would be difficult, I should imagine, to find a more kind-hearted woman, you will agree. For her waiting-maids, existence is simply a perfect paradise, and no mistake about it. . . . But my wife has made it a rule never to keep married serving-maids. Certainly it would not do; children come—and one thing and the other—and how is a lady’s maid to look after her mistress as she ought, to fit in with her ways; she is no longer able to do it; her mind is on other things. One must look at things through human nature. Well, we were driving once through our village, it must be—let me be correct—yes, fifteen years ago. We saw, at the bailiff’s, a young girl, his daughter, very pretty indeed; something even—you know—something of the good servant in her manners. And my wife said to me: ‘Koko’—you understand, of course, that is her pet name for me—’let us take this girl to Petersburg; I like her, Koko. . . .’ I said, ‘Let us take her, by all means.’ The bailiff, of course, was at our feet; he could not have expected such good fortune, you can imagine. . . . Well, the girl, of course, cried violently. Of course, it was hard for her at first; the parental home . . . and that sort of thing . . . there was nothing surprising in that. However, she soon got used to us: at first we put her in the maidservants’ room; they trained her, of course. And what do you think? The girl made wonderful progress; my wife became simply devoted to her, promoted her at last above the rest to wait on herself . . . observe. . . . And one must do her the justice to say, my wife had never such a maid, absolutely never; attentive, modest, and obedient—simply all that could be desired. My wife was very good to her; she even spoilt her, I must confess; she dressed her well, fed her from our own table, gave her tea to drink, and so on, as you can imagine! So she waited on my wife like this for ten years. Suddenly, one fine morning, picture to yourself, Arina—her name was Arina—rushes unannounced into my study and flops down at my feet. That’s a thing, I tell you plainly, I can’t endure. No human being ought ever to lose sight of his personal dignity. Am I not right? ‘What do you want?’ ‘Your honour, Alexander Silitch, I beseech a favour of you.’ ‘What favour?’ ‘Let me be married.’ I must confess I was taken aback. ‘But you know, you fool, your mistress has no other lady’s maid?’ ‘I will wait on Mistress as before.’ ‘Nonsense! Nonsense! Your mistress can’t endure married serving-maids.’ ‘Malanya could take my place.’ ‘Don’t argue with me.’ ‘I obey your will.’ I must confess it was quite a shock. I assure you, I am like that; nothing wounds me so—nothing, I venture to say, wounds me so deeply as ingratitude. I need not tell you—you know what my wife is: an angel upon earth, goodness inexhaustible. One would fancy even the worst of men would be ashamed to hurt her. Well, I sent Arina away. I thought, perhaps, she would come to her senses; I was unwilling, do you know, to believe in wicked, black ingratitude in anyone. What do you think? Within six months she thought fit to come to me again with the same request. And here I must confess I turned her out in a temper and threatened to tell my wife about it. I felt revolted. But imagine my amazement when, some time later, my wife comes to me in tears, so agitated that I felt positively alarmed. ‘What has happened?’ ‘Arina. . . . You understand. . . . I am ashamed to tell it.’ ‘Impossible! Who is the man?’ ‘Petrushka, the footman.’ My indignation broke out then. I am like that. I don’t like half-measures! Petrushka—well, he wasn’t to blame. We might flog him, but in my opinion he was not to blame. Arina. . . . Well, well, well! What more’s to be said? I gave orders, of course, that her hair should be cut off, she should be dressed in sackcloth, and sent back to the village. My wife was deprived of an excellent lady’s maid; but there was no help for it: immorality cannot be tolerated in a household in any case. Better to cut off the infected member at once. There, there! now you can judge the thing for yourself—you know that my wife is . . . yes, yes, yes! indeed! . . . an angel! She had grown attached to Arina, and Arina knew it, and had the face to. . . . Eh? no, tell me . . . eh? And what’s the use of talking about it. Anyway, there was no help for it. I, indeed—I, in particular, felt hurt, felt wounded for a long time by the ingratitude of this girl. Whatever you say—it’s no good to look for feeling, for heart, in these people! You may feed the wolf as you will; he has always a hankering for the woods. It was a good lesson! But I only wanted to give you an example. . . .”
And Mr. Zvyerkov, without finishing his sentence, turned away his head, and, wrapping himself more closely into his cloak, manfully repressed his involuntary emotion. The reader now probably understands why I looked with sympathetic interest at Arina.
“Have you long been married to the miller?” I asked her at last.
“How was it? Did your master allow it?”
“They bought my freedom.”
“Who is that?”
“My husband.” (Yermolai smiled to himself.) “Has my master perhaps spoken to you of me?” added Arina, after a brief silence.
I did not know what reply to make to her question.
“Arina!” cried the miller from a distance. She got up and walked away.
“Is her husband a good fellow?” I asked Yermolai.
“Have they any children?”
“There was one, but it died.”
“How was it? Did the miller take a liking to her? Did he give much to buy her freedom?”
“I don’t know. She can read and write; in their business it’s of use. I suppose he liked her.”
“And have you known her long?”
“Yes. I used to go to her master’s. Their house isn’t far from here.”
“And do you know the footman Petrushka?”
“You mean Pyotr Vasilyevich? Of course, I knew him.”
“Where is he now?”
“He was sent for a soldier.”
We were silent for a while.
“She doesn’t seem well?” I asked Yermolai at last.
“I should think not! Tomorrow, I say, we shall have good sport. A little sleep now would do us no harm.”
A flock of wild ducks swept whizzing over our heads, and we heard them drop down into the river not far from us. It was now quite dark, and it began to be cold; in the thicket sounded the melodious notes of a nightingale. We buried ourselves in the hay and fell asleep.