Authors: Anton Chekhov
MARYA WAS UNHAPPY, and said that she wanted to die. But life as she found it was quite to Fekla's taste: she liked the poverty, and the dirt, and the never-ceasing bad language. She ate what she was given without picking and choosing, and could sleep comfortably anywhere; she emptied the slops in front of the steps: threw them, in fact, from the threshold, though in her own naked feet she had to walk through the puddle. And from the first day she hated Olga and Nikolai for no reason save that they loathed this life.
“We'll see what you're going to eat here, my nobles from Moscow!” she said maliciously. “We'll see!”
Once on an early September morning, Fekla, rosy from the cold, healthy, and good-looking, carried up the hill two pails of water; when she entered the hut Marya and Olga sat at the table and drank tea.
“Tea . . . and sugar!” began Fekla ironically. “Fine ladies you are!” she added, setting down the pails. “A nice fashion you've got of drinking tea everyday! See that you don't swell up with tea!” she continued, looking with hatred at Olga. “You got a thick snout already in Moscow, fatbeef!”
She swung round the yoke and struck Olga on the shoulder. The two women clapped their hands and exclaimedâ
After which Fekla returned to the river to wash clothes, and all the time cursed so loudly that she was heard in the hut.
The day passed, and behind it came the long autumn evening. All sat winding silk, except Fekla, who went down to the river. The silk was given out by a neighbouring factory; and at this work the whole family earned not more than twenty kopecks a week.
“We were better off as serfs,” said the old man, winding away busily. “In those days you'd work, and eat, and sleep . . . each in its turn. For dinner you'd have
and porridge, and for supper again
and porridge. Gherkins and cabbage as much as you liked; and you'd eat freely, as much as you liked. And there was more order. Each man knew his place.”
The one lamp in the hut burned dimly and smoked. When any worker rose and passed the lamp a black shadow fell on the window, and the bright moonlight shone in. Old Osip related slowly how the peasants lived before the Emancipation; how in these same villages where all to-day lived penuriously there were great shooting parties, and on such days the muzhiks were treated to vodka without end; how whole trains of carts with game for the young squire were hurried off to Moscow; how the wicked were punished with rods or exiled to the estate in Tver, and the good were rewarded. And grandmother also spoke. She remembered everything. She told of her old mistress, a good, God-fearing woman with a wicked, dissolute husband; and of the queer marriages made by all the daughters; one, it appeared, married a drunkard; another a petty tradesman; and the third was carried off clandestinely (she, grandmother, then unmarried, helped in the adventure): and all soon afterwards died of grief as did, indeed, their mother. And, remembering these events, grandmother began to cry.
When a knock was heard at the door all started.
“Uncle Osip, let me stay the night!”
Into the hut came the little, bald old man, General Zhukoff's cook, whose cap was burnt in the fire. He sat and listened, and, like his hosts, related many strange happenings. Nikolai, his legs hanging over the stove, listened; and asked what sort of food was eaten at the manor-house. They spoke of
cutlets, soups of various kinds, and sauces; and the cook, who, too, had an excellent memory, named certain dishes which no one eats nowadays; there was a dish, for instance, made of ox-eyes, and called “Awake in the morning.”
“And did you cook cutlets
” asked Nikolai.
Nikolai shook his head reproachfully, and saidâ
“Then you are a queer sort of cook.”
The little girls sat and lay on the stove, and looked down with widely opened eyes; there seemed to be no end to themâlike cherubs in the sky. The stories delighted them; they sighed, shuddered, and turned pale sometimes from rapture, sometimes from fear; and, breathless, afraid to move, they listened to the stories of their grandmother, which were the most interesting of all.
They went to bed in silence; and the old men, agitated by their stories, thought how glorious was youth, whichâhowever meagre it might beâleft behind it only joyful, living, touching recollections; and how terribly cold was this death, which was now so near. Better not think of it! The lamp went out. And the darkness, the two windows, bright with moonshine, the silence, the cradle's creak somehow reminded them that life was now past, and that it would never return. They slumbered, lost consciousness; then suddenly some one jostled their shoulders, or breathed into their cheeksâand there was no real sleep; through their heads crept thoughts of death; they turned round and forgot about death; but their heads were full of old, mean, tedious thoughts, thoughts of need, of forage, of the rise in the price of flour; and again they remembered that life had now passed by, and that it would never return.
“O Lord!” sighed the cook.
Some one tapped cautiously at the window. That must be Fekla. Olga rose, yawned, muttered a prayer, opened the inner door, then drew the bolt in the hall. But no one entered. A draught blew and the moon shone brightly. Through the open door, Olga saw the quiet and deserted street, and the moon itself, swimming high in the sky.
“Who's there?” she cried.
“I!” came a voice. “It's I.”
Near the door, pressing close to the wall, stood Fekla, naked as she was born. She shuddered from the cold, her teeth chattered; and in the bright moonlight she was pale, pretty, and strange. The patches of shade and the moonlight on her skin stood out sharply; and plainest of all stood out her dark eyebrows and her young, firm breast.
“Some impudent fellows across the river undressed me and sent me off in this wayâas my mother bore me! Bring me something to put on.”
“Go into the hut yourself!” whispered Olga, with a shudder.
“The old ones will see me.”
And as a fact grandmother got restless, and growled; and the old man asked, “Who is there?” Olga brought out her shirt and petticoat and dressed Fekla; and the two women softly, and doing their best to close the doors without notice, went into the hut.
“So that's you, devil?” came an angry growl from grandmother, who guessed it was Fekla. “May you be . . . night walker . . . there's no peace with you!”
“Don't mind, don't mind,” whispered Olga, wrapping Fekla up. “Don't mind, my heart!”
Again silence. The whole family always slept badly; each was troubled by something aggressive and insistent; the old man by a pain in the back; grandmother by worry and ill-temper; Marya by fright; the children by itching and hunger. And to-night the sleep of all was troubled; they rolled from side to side, wandered, and rose constantly to drink.
Fekla suddenly cried out in a loud, rough voice; but soon mastered herself, and merely sobbed quietly until at last she ceased. Now and then from beyond the river were heard the church chimes; but the clock struck strangely; and at first beat struck five, and later three.
“O Lord!” sighed the cook.
From the light in the windows it was hard to judge whether the moon still shone or whether dawn had come. Marya rose and went out; and she was heard milking the cows and shouting “Stand!” Grandmother also went out. It was still dark in the hut, but everything could be seen.
Nikolai, who had spent a sleepless night, climbed down from the stove. He took from a green box his evening dresscoat, put it on, and going over to the window, smoothed the sleeves and the folds, and smiled. Then he took off the coat, returned it to the box, and lay down.
Marya returned, and began to light the stove. Apparently she was not yet quite awake. Probably she still dreamed of something, or recalled the stories of last night, for she stretched herself lazily before the stove and saidâ
“No, we're better in freedom.”
IN THE VILLAGE arrived “the gentleman,” as the peasants called the superintendent of police. Every one knew a week ahead the day and cause of his arrival. For though Zhukovo had only forty houses, it owed in arrears to the Imperial Treasury and the Zemstvo
more than two thousand roubles.
The superintendent stopped at the inn, drank two glasses of tea, and then walked to the
hut, where already waited a crowd of peasants in arrears. The
Antip Siedelnikoff, despite his youthâhe was little over thirtyâwas a stern man who always took the side of the authorities, although he himself was poor and paid his taxes irregularly. It was clear to all that he was flattered by his position and revelled in the sense of power, which he had no other way of displaying save by sternness. The
feared and listened to him; when in the street or at the inn he met a drunken man he would seize him, tie his hands behind his back, and put him in the village gaol; once, indeed, he even imprisoned grandmother for several days, because, appearing at the
instead of her husband, she used abusive language. The
had never lived in town and read no books; but he had a copious collection of learned words and used them so liberally that people respected him, even when they did not understand.
When Osip with his tax book entered the
hut, the superintendent, a thin, old, grey-whiskered man in a grey coat, sat at a table in the near corner and made notes in a book. The hut was clean, the walls were decorated with pictures from magazines, and in a prominent place near the ikon hung a portrait of Alexander of Battenberg, ex-Prince of Bulgaria. At the table, with crossed arms, stood Antip Siedelnikoff.
“This man, your honour, owes 119 roubles,” he said when it came to Osip's turn. “Before Holy Week, he paid a rouble, since then, nothing.”
The superintendent turned his eyes on Osip, and askedâ
“What's the reason of that, brother?”
“Your honour, be merciful to me . . .” began Osip in agitation. “Let me explain . . . this summer . . . Squire Liutoretzky . . . âOsip,' he says, âsell me your hay. . . . Sell it,' he says. . . . I had a hundred poods for sale, which the women mowed. . . . Well, we bargained. . . . All went well, without friction. . . .”
He complained of the
and now and again turned to the muzhiks as if asking for support; his flushed face sweated, and his eyes turned bright and vicious.
“I don't understand why you tell me all that,” said the superintendent. “I ask
. . . it's
I ask, why you don't pay your arrears? None of you pay, and I am held responsible.”
“I'm not able to.”
“These expressions are without consequence, your honour,” said the
magniloquently. “In reality, the Tchikildeyeffs belong to the impoverished class, but be so good as to ask the others what is the reason. Vodka and impudence . . . without any comprehension.”
The superintendent made a note, and said to Osip in a quiet, even voice, as if he were asking for waterâ
Soon afterwards he drove away; and as he sat in his cheap tarantass
and coughed, it was plain, even from the appearance of his long, thin back, that he had forgotten Osip, and the
and the arrears of Zhukovo, and was thinking of his own domestic affairs. He had hardly covered a verst before Antip Siedelnikoff was carrying off the Tchikildeyeff samovar; and after him ran grandmother, and whined like a dog.
“I won't give it! I won't give it to you, accursed!”
walked quickly, taking big steps; and grandmother, stooping and fierce and breathless, tottered after him; and her green-grey hair floated in the wind. At last she stopped, beat her breast with her fists, and exclaimed, with a whine and a sobâ
“Orthodox men who believe in God!
they're wronging me! Kinsmen, they've robbed me. Oi, oi, will no one help me!”
“Grandmother, grandmother!” said the
severely, “have some reason in your head!”
With the loss of the samovar, things in the Tchikildeyeffs' hut grew even worse. There was something humiliating and shameful in this last privation, and it seemed that the hut had suddenly lost its honour. The table itself, the chairs, and all the pots, had the
seized them, would have been less missed. Grandmother screamed, Marya cried, and the children, listening, began to cry also. The old man, with a feeling of guilt, sat gloomily in the corner and held his tongue. And Nikolai was silent. As a rule grandmother liked him and pitied him; but at this crisis her pity evaporated, and she cursed and reproached him, and thrust her fists under his nose. She screamed that he was guilty of the family's misfortunes and asked why he had sent so little home, though he boasted in his letters that he earned fifty roubles a month at the Slaviansky Bazaar. Why did he come home, and still worse, bring his family? If he died whence would the money come for his funeral? . . . And it was painful to look at Nikolai, Olga and Sasha.
The old man grunted, took his cap, and went to the
It was getting dark. Antip Siedelnikoff, with cheeks puffed out, stood at the stove and soldered. It was stifling. His children, skinny and unwashedânot better than the Tchikildeyeffs'âsprawled on the floor; his ugly, freckled wife wound silk. This, too, was an unhappy, Godforsaken family; alone Antip was smart and good-looking. On a bench in a row stood five samovars. The old man prayed towards the Battenberg prince, and beganâ
“Antip, show the mercy of God: give me the samovar! For the love of God!”
“Bring me three roubles, and then you'll get it.”
“I haven't got them.”
Antip puffed out his cheeks, the fire hummed and hissed, and the samovars shone. The old man fumbled with his cap, thought a moment, and repeatedâ
“Give it to me!”
seemed quite black and resembled a wizard; he turned to Osip and said roughly and quicklyâ
“All depends from the Rural Chief. In the administrative session of the twenty-sixth of this month you can expose the causes of your dissatisfaction verbally or in writing.”
Not one of these learned words was understood by Osip, but he felt contented, and returned to his hut.
Ten days later the superintendent returned, stayed about an hour, and drove away. It had turned windy and cold, but though the river was frozen, there was no snow, and the state of the roads was a torture to every one. On Sunday evening the neighbours looked in to see and talk with Osip. They spoke in the darkness; to work was a sin, and no one lighted the lamp. News was exchanged, chiefly disagreeable. Three houses away the hens had been taken in payment of arrears and sent to the cantonal office, and there they died of starvation; sheep had also been taken, and while they were being driven away tied with ropes and transferred to fresh carts at each village one had died. And now they discussed the question, Who was responsible?
“The Zemstvo!” said Osip. “Who else?”
“Of course, the Zemstvo!”
They accused the Zemstvo of everythingâof arrears, of oppression, of famines, although not one of them knew exactly what the Zemstvo was. And that rule had been observed since wealthy peasants with factories, shops, and houses were elected as Zemstvo members, and being discontented with the institution, thenceforth in their factories and inns abused the Zemstvo.
They complained of the fact that God had sent no snow, and that though it was time to lay in firewood, you could neither drive nor walk upon the frozen roads. Fifteen years before, and earlier, the small-talk of Zhukovo was infinitely more entertaining. In those days every old man pretended he held some secret, knew something, and waited for something; they talked of rescripts with gold seals, redistribution of lands, and hidden treasures, and hinted of things mysterious; to-day the people of Zhukovo had no secrets; their life was open to all; and they had no themes for conversation save need, and forage, and the absence of snow. . . .
For a moment they were silent. But soon they remembered the hens and dead sheep, and returned to the problem, Who was responsible?
“The Zemstvo!” said Osip gloomily. “Who else?”