Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse/In a Foreign Land
ANTON CHEKHOV: IN A FOREIGN LAND.
It is Sunday, at noon. Kamyshev, a landed proprietor, is sitting at home in his dining-room, at a sumptuously appointed table, and is slowly breakfasting. His meal is shared by Monsieur Champune, a dapper, clean-shaven old Frenchman. This Champune was once employed by Kamyshev as a tutor; he taught his children deportment, good pronunciation, and dancing. Later on, when Kamyshev's children had grown up and become lieutenants, Champune remained something in the nature of a masculine governess. The duties of the whilom tutor are not onerous. He has to dress decently, reek of scents, listen to Kamyshev's empty chatter, eat, drink, sleep,—and beyond that, apparently, nothing. In return, be receives board, lodging, and an indefinite salary.
Kamyshev is eating and, as usual, babbling vapidly. "Confound it?" says he, wiping away the tears which he has provoked through eating a morsel of ham, thickly smeared with mustard. "Whew! It's got into my head and all my joints. Your French mustard couldn't do that, not even if you swallowed a whole pot of it."
"Some like French mustard, and some Russian," remarks Champune mildly.
"Nobody likes French mustard, except the French. But give what you like to a Frenchman,—he'll eat it all up; frogs and rats and cockroaches. Ugh! For instance, you don't like this ham because it's Russian; but give you roasted glass and say it's French, and you'll begin to eat and smack your lips. Your idea is, that all Russian things are rotten."
"I don't say so!"
"All Russian things are rotten, but French,—oh, c'est très joli! Your idea is, that there's no better country than France, but my idea is,—well, what is France, honestly speaking? A chunk of earth! Send our local police official there, and within a month he'll ask to be transferred; no room to move! You can travel through all your France in a single day, but in our country you go out of the gate,—no end to be seen. You travel and travel. . . . .
"Yes, monsieur, Russia is a tremendous country."
"That it is! Your idea is, that there's no better people than the French. An educated, intelligent nation! So civilised! I'll grant you, the French are all educated, good-mannered. Quite so. A Frenchman will never lapse into boorish behaviour. He'll bring a lady a chair at the proper moment, he won't eat crabs with a fork, he won't spit on the floor, but he hasn't that spirit. . . . . No, that spirit isn't in him. I can't make it clear to you, but,—how shall I put it?—a Frenchman is lacking in something or other. . . ." (the speaker waves his fingers about) "something or other . . . something juristic. I remember reading somewhere that you've all got an acquired intelligence from books, while our intelligence is innate. If you instruct a Russian properly in the sciences, there's not one of your professors can equal him."
"That may be" says Champune, as though against his will.
"No, not may be, but it is so! It's no good scowling about it, I'm speaking the truth. Russian intelligence is an inventive intelligence. Only, of course, they don't give him free play, and he's not good at bragging. He invents something and smashes it up or gives it to the children to play with, while your Frenchman invents some rubbish and shouts it from the housetops. Just lately our coachman Yona carved a man out of wood; you pull this man by a thread, and it does something indecent. But Yona doesn't brag about it. In general, I don't care for the French. I'm not speaking about you, but in general. An immoral nation. From the outside, they are just like men, but they live like dogs. Take, for example now, marriage. If a man here gets married, he sticks to his wife and there's an end of the matter. But the Lord only knows what you do. The man sits all day in the café, and his wife crams the house full of Frenchmen and then for the cancan.
"That's untrue!" Champune cannot keep himself from saying. "In France domestic life is very highly esteemed."
"We know all about that domestic life! You ought to be ashamed of yourself for defending it. But it must be said in all fairness: A swine remains a swine. All thanks to the Germans for having beaten them. My goodness me, thanks to them. God prosper them for it."
"If that is so, monsieur, I don't understand," says the Frenchman, leaping up with his eyes flashing, "if you hate the French, why you keep me here."
"Where am I to put you, then?"
"Dismiss me, and I'll go back to France."
"Wha-a-t? Do you think they'd let you into France now? Why, you're a traitor to your country. Sometimes you call Napoleon a great man, sometimes Gambetta. The devil himself couldn't make you out."
"Monsieur !" says Champune in French, spluttering and crumpling his serviette in his hands, "A greater insult than you have just flung upon my feelings, not even my enemy could think of. We are done with each other." And striking up a tragic attitude, the Frenchman daintily throws his serviette upon the table and departs in a dignified manner.
About three hours later, the table is laid afresh, and the dinner is served. Kamyshev sits down alone to dinner. After his preliminary glass of spirits, he is seized with a craving for vapid chatter. He wants to gossip and he has no auditor.
"What is Alphonse Ludovicovitch doing?" he asks the flunkey.
"He's packing his trunk, sir."
"What tomfoolery, Heaven help us!" says Kamyshev, and goes to the Frenchman.
Champune is sitting in the middle of his room on the floor, and with trembling hands is packing his trunk with washing, scent-bottles, prayer-books, braces, neckties. His whole air of respectability, the trunk, the bed, and the table give the impression of something elegant and womanish. From his big blue eyes large tears are falling on to the trunk.
"Where are you off to?" asks Kamyshev, after looking on a little.
The Frenchman is silent.
"Do you want to go away?" continues Kamyshev. "Well, just as you please. I won't stop you. But there's one curious thing ; how can you get along without a passport? That's what puzzles me. You know, I've lost your passport. I put it away somewhere among some papers, and its got lost. And they're strict about passports here. You won't manage to go five versts before they'll collar you."
Champune lifts up his head and looks at Kamyshev mistrustfully.
"Oh, yes. You'll see. They'll tell by your face that you've got no passport, and they’ll want to know at once who you are, Alphonse Champune? We know these Alphonse Champunes. Would you mind stepping this way for a short journey?"
“What should I joke for? A lot of good it would be to me! But just notice this one thing. Please don't whine afterwards and write letters. I won't lift a finger, when they lead you past here in manacles."
Champune jumps up, and pale, with eyes wideopen, he begins to pace across the room.
"Why do you treat me like this?" he says, clutching at his head in desperation. "Good Heavens! Oh, cursed be the hour in which the pernicious idea entered by mind to leave my native land?
"Come, come, come! It was only a little joke on my part!" remarks Kamyshey, mitigating his tone. "What a queer chap, not to understand a joke. There's no talking to you."
"My dear friend," whimpers Champune, pacified by Kamyshev’s tone, "I swear to you, I am attached to Russia, to you, and to your children. To leave you would be as hard for me as to die. But every word of yours cuts into my heart."
"Oh, you queer fellow! If I abuse the French, why on earth should you feel insulted? There are heaps of people we abuse, and supposing all of them were to feel insulted? You are a queer fellow, really! Just follow the example of Lazar Isakitch, my tenant. Sometimes I call him this, sometimes that, Jew one day, scab another, and make a pig's ear with my coat-tail, and pull him by the earlocks. He doesn’t feel insulted."
"But what a servile creature he is. For a kopeck he'll put up with any degradation."
"Well, well, well . . . Nevermind. Let's go in to dinner. Peace and harmony!"
Champune powders his tear-stained face and follows Kamyshev into the dining-room. The first course is served in silence; after the second, the same performance begins again, and thus Champune's tribulations have no end.