An Incident (Chekhov)

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An Incident
by Anton Chekhov, translated by Marian Fell

IT was morning. Bright rays of sunlight were streaming into the nursery through the lacy curtain that the frost had drawn across the panes of the windows. Vania, a boy of six with a shaven head and a nose like a button, and his sister Nina, a chubby, curly-haired girl of four, woke from their sleep and stared crossly at one another through the bars of their cribs.

"Oh, shame, shame!" grumbled nursie. "All good folks have had breakfast by now and your eyes are still half-closed !"

The sun's rays were chasing each other merrily across the carpet, the walls, and the tail of nursie's dress, and seemed to be inviting the children to a romp, but they did not notice the sun, they had waked in a bad humour. Nina pouted, made a wry face, and began to whine:

"Tea, nursie, I want my tea!"

Vania frowned and wondered how he could manage to quarrel and so find an excuse to bawl. He was already winking his eyes and opening his mouth when mamma's voice came from the dining-room saying:

"Don't forget to give the cat some milk; she has kittens now !"

Vania and Nina pulled long faces and looked dubiously at one another; then they both screamed, jumped out of bed, and scampered into the kitchen as they were, barefooted and in their little nightgowns, filling the air with shrill squeals as they ran.

"The cat has kittens! The cat has kittens!" they shrieked.

Under a bench in the kitchen stood a box, the same box which Stepan used for carrying coal when fires were lighted in the fire-places. Out of this box peered the cat. Profound weariness was manifested in her face, and her green eyes with their narrow black pupils wore an expression both languid and sentimental. One could see from her mien that if "he," the father of her children, were but with her, her happiness would be complete. She opened her mouth wide and tried to mew but her throat only emitted a wheezing sound. The squeaking of her kittens came from inside the box.

The children squatted down on their heels near the box, motionless, holding their breath, their eyes riveted on the cat. They were dumb with wonder and amazement and did not hear their nurse as she grumblingly pursued them. Unaffected pleasure shone in the eyes of both.

In the lives and education of children domestic animals play a useful if inconspicuous part. Who does not remember some strong, noble watch-dog of his childhood, some petted spaniel, or the birds that died in captivity? Who does not recall the stupid, arrogant turkeys, and the meek old tabby-cats that were always ready to forgive us even when we stepped on their tails for fun and caused them the keenest pain ? I sometimes think that the loyalty, patience, capacity for forgiveness, and fidelity of our domestic animals have a far greater and more potent influence over the minds of children than the long discourses of some pale, prosy German tutor or the hazy explanations of a governess who tries to tell them that water is compounded of oxygen and hydrogen.

"Oh, how tiny they are!" cried Nina, staring at the kittens round-eyed and breaking into a merry peal of laughter — "They look like mice!"

"One, two, three — " counted Vania. "Three kittens. That means one for me and one for you and one for some one else."

"Murrm-murr-r-r-m," purred the cat, flattered at receiving so much attention. "Murr-r-m."

When they were tired of looking at the kittens, the children took them out from under the cat and began squeezing and pinching them; then, not satisfied with this, they wrapped them in the hems of their night-gowns and ran with them into the drawing-room.

Their mother was sitting there with a strange man. When she saw the children come in not dressed, not washed, with their nightgowns in the air she blushed and looked sternly at them.

"For shame! Let your nightgowns down!" she cried. "Go away or else I shall have to punish you !"

But the children heeded neither the threats of their mother nor the presence of the stranger. They laid the kittens down on the carpet and raised their voices in shrill vociferation. The mother cat roamed about at their feet and mewed beseechingly. A moment later the children were seized and borne off into the nursery to be dressed and fed and to say their prayers, but their hearts were full of passionate longing to have done with these prosaic duties as quickly as possible and to escape once more into the kitchen.

Their usual games and occupations faded into the background.

By their arrival in the world the kittens had eclipsed everything else and had taken their place as the one engrossing novelty and passion of the day. If Vania or Nina had been offered a ton of candy or a thousand pennies for each one of the kittens they would have refused the bargain without a moment's hesitation. They sat over the kittens in the kitchen until the very moment for dinner, in spite of the vigorous protests of their nurse and of the cook. The expression on their faces was serious, absorbed, and full of anxiety. They were worrying not only over the present, but also over the future of the kittens. They decided that one should stay at home with the old cat to console its mother, the second should go to the cottage in the country, and the third should live in the cellar where there were so many rats.

"But why don't they open their eyes?" Nina puzzled. "They are blind, like beggars!"

Vania, too, was perturbed by this phenomenon. He set to work to open the eyes of one of the kittens, and puffed and snuffled over his task for a long time, but the operation proved to be unsuccessful. The children were also not a little worried because the kittens obstinately refused all meat and milk set before them. Their grey mother ate everything that was put under their little noses.

"Come on, let's make some little houses for the kitties ! " Vania suggested. " Then they can live in their own separate homes and the old kitty can come and visit them."

They put hat-boxes in various corners of the kitchen, and the kittens were transferred to their new homes. But this family separation proved to be premature. With the same imploring, sentimental look on her face, the cat made the round of the boxes and carried her babies back to their former nest.

"Kitty is their mother," Vania reflected. "But who is their father?"

"Yes, who is their father.?" Nina repeated.

"They must have a father," both decided.

Vania and Nina debated for a long time as to who should be the father of the kittens. At last their choice fell upon a large dark-red horse with a broken tail who had been thrown into a cupboard under the stairs and there lay awaiting his end in company with other rubbish and broken toys. This horse they dragged forth and set up beside the box.

" Mind now ! " the children admonished him. " Stand there and see they behave themselves ! "

Shortly before dinner Vania was sitting at the table in his father's study dreamily watching a kitten that lay squirming on the blotting-paper under the lamp. His eyes were following each movement of the little creature and he was trying to force first a pencil and then a match into its mouth. Suddenly his father appeared beside the table as if he had sprung from the floor.

"What's that." Vania heard him ask in an angry voice.

"It's — it's a little kitty, papa."

"I'll show you a little kitty ! Look what you've done, you bad boy, you've messed up the whole blotter!"

To Vania's intense surprise, his papa did not share his affection for kittens. Instead of going into raptures and rejoicing over it with him, he pulled Vania's ear and shouted:

"Stepan ! Come and take this nasty thing away !"

At dinner, too, a scandal occurred. During the second course the family suddenly heard a faint squeaking. A search for the cause was made and a kitten was discovered under Nina's apron.

"Nina, leave the table at once!" cried her father angrily. "Stepan, throw the kittens into the slop-barrel this minute ! I won't have such filth in the house!"

Vania and Nina were horrified. Apart from its cruelty, death in the slop-barrel threatened to deprive the old cat and the wooden horse of their children, to leave the box deserted, and to upset all their plans for the future, that beautiful future in which one cat would take care of its old mother, one would live in the country, and the third would catch rats in the cellar. The children began to cry and to beg for the lives of the kittens. Their father consented to spare them on condition that the children should under no circumstances go into the kitchen or touch the kittens.

When dinner was over, Vania and Nina roamed disconsolately through the house, pining for their pets. The prohibition to enter the kitchen had plunged them in gloom. They refused candy when it was offered them and were cross and rude to their mother. When their Uncle Peter came in the evening they took him aside and complained to him of their father who wanted to throw the kittens into the slop-barrel.

"Uncle Peter," they begged. "Tell mamma to have the kittens brought into the nursery ! Do tell her!"

"All right, all right!" their uncle consented to get rid of them.

Uncle Peter seldom came alone. There generally appeared with him Nero, a big black Dane with flapping ears and a tail as hard as a stick. He was a silent and gloomy dog, full of the consciousness of his own dignity. He ignored the children and thumped them with his tail as he stalked by them as if they had been chairs. The children cordially hated him, but this time practical considerations triumphed over sentiment.

"Do you know what, Nina." said Vania, opening his eyes very wide. "Let's make Nero their father instead of the horse ! The horse is dead and he is alive."

They waited all the evening for the time to come when papa should sit down to his whist and Nero might be admitted into the kitchen. At last papa began playing. Mamma was busy over the samovar and was not noticing the children — the happy moment had come !

"Come on!" Vania whispered to his sister.

But just then Stepan came into the room and announced with a smile:

"Madame, Nero has eaten the kittens!"

Nina and Vania paled and looked at Stepan in horror.

"Indeed he has!" chuckled the butler. "He has found the box and eaten every one !"

The children imagined that every soul in the house would spring up in alarm and fling themselves upon that wicked Nero. But instead of this they all sat quietly in their places and only seemed surprised at the appetite of the great dog. Papa and mamma laughed. Nero walked round the table wagging his tail and licking his chops with great self-satisfaction. Only the cat was uneasy. With her tail in the air she roamed through the house, looking suspiciously at every one and mewing pitifully.

"Children, it's ten o'clock! Go to bed!" cried mamma.

Vania and Nina went to bed crying and lay for a long time thinking about the poor, abused kitty and that horrid, cruel, unpunished Nero.