The Cook's Wedding (Chekhov/Fell)
GRISHA, a little urchin of seven, stood at the kitchen door with his eye at the keyhole, watching and listening. Something was taking place in the kitchen that seemed to him very strange and that he had never seen happen before. At the table on which the meat and onions were usually chopped sat a huge, burly peasant in a long coachman's coat. His hair and beard were red, and a large drop of perspiration hung from the tip of his nose. He was holding his saucer on the outstretched fingers of his right hand and, as he supped his tea, was nibbling a lump of sugar so noisily that the goose-flesh started out on Grisha's back. On a grimy stool opposite him sat Grisha's old nurse, Aksinia. She also was drinking tea; her mien was serious and at the same time radiant with triumph. Pelagia, the cook, was busy over the stove and seemed to be endeavouring to conceal her face by every possible means. Grisha could see that it was fairly on fire, burning hot, and flooded in turn with every colour of the rainbow from dark purple to a deathly pallor. The cook was constantly catching up knives, forks, stove-wood, and dish-rags in her trembling hands, and was bustling about and grumbling and making a great racket without accomplishing anything. She did not once glance toward the table at which the other two were sitting, and replied to the nurse's questions abruptly and roughly without ever turning her head in their direction.
"Drink, drink, Danilo!" the nurse was urging the driver. "What makes you always drink tea? Take some vodka ! "
And the nurse pushed the bottle toward her guest, her face assuming a malicious expression.
"No, ma'am, I don't use it. Thank you, ma'am," the driver replied. " Don't force me to drink it, goody Aksinia ! "
"What's the matter with you ? What, you a driver and won't drink vodka? A single man ought to drink ! Come, have a little !"
The driver rolled his eyes at the vodka and then at the malicious face of the nurse, and his own face assumed an expression no less crafty than hers.
"No, no; you'll not catch me, you old witch!" he seemed to be saying,
"No, thank you; I don't drink," he answered aloud. "That foolishness won't do in our business. A workman can drink if he wants to because he never budges from the same place, but we fellows live too much in public. Don't we now? Supposing I were to go into an inn and my horse were to break away, or, worse still, supposing I were to get drunk and, before I knew it, were to go to sleep and fall off the box? That's what happens!"
"How much do you make a day, Danilo?"
"That depends on the day. There are days and days. A coachman's job isn't worth much now. You know yourself that drivers are as thick as flies, hay is expensive, travellers are scarce and are always wanting to go everywhere on horseback. But, praise be to God, we don't complain. We keep ourselves clothed and fed and we can even make some one else happy—(here the driver cast a look in Pelagia's direction)—if they want us to!"
Grisha did not hear what was said next. His mamma came to the door and sent him away to the nursery to study.
"Be off to your lessons, you have no business to be here!" she exclaimed.
On reaching the nursery, Grisha took up "Our Mother Tongue," and tried to read, but without success. The words he had just overheard had raised a host of questions in his mind.
"The cook is going to be married," he thought. "That is strange. I don't understand why she wants to be married. Mamma married papa and Cousin Vera married Pavel Andreitch, but papa and Pavel Andreitch have gold watch-chains and nice clothes and their boots are always clean. I can understand any one marrying them. But this horrid driver with his red nose and his felt boots—ugh ! And why does nursie want poor Pelagia to marry ? "
When her guest had gone, Pelagia came into the house to do the housework. Her excitement had not subsided. Her face was red and she looked startled. She scarcely touched the floor with her broom and swept out every corner at least five times. She lingered in the room where Grisha's mamma was sitting. Solitude seemed to be irksome to her and she longed to pour out her heart in words and to share her impressions with some one.
"Well, he's gone!" she began, seeing that mamma would not open the conversation.
"He seems to be a nice man," said mamma without looking up from her embroidery. "He is sober and steady looking."
"My lady, I won't marry him!" Pelagia suddenly screamed. " I declare I won't ! "
"Don't be silly, you're not a baby! Marriage is a serious thing, and you must think it over carefully and not scream like that for no reason at all. Do you like him?"
"Oh, my lady!" murmured Pelagia in confusion. "He does say such things—indeed he does !"
"She ought to say outright she doesn't like him," thought Grisha.
"What a goose you are ! Tell me, do you like him ? "
"He's an old man, my lady ! Нее, hee !"
"Listen to her !" the nurse burst out from the other end of the room. "He isn't forty yet! You mustn't look a gift-horse in the mouth ! Marry him and have done with it!"
"I won't marry him ! I won't, I won't ! " screamed Pelagia.
"Then you're a donkey, you are! What in the world are you after, anyhow ? Any other woman but you would be down on her knees to him, and you say you won't marry him ! She's running after Grisha's tutor, she is, my lady; she's setting her cap at him ! Ugh, the shameless creature !"
"Had you ever seen this Danilo before to-day?" her mistress asked Pelagia.
"How could I have seen him before to-day? This was the first time. Aksinia picked him up somewhere—bad luck to him ! Why must I have him thrown at my head?"
That day the whole family kept their eyes fixed on Pelagia's face as she was serving the dinner and teased her about the driver. Pelagia blushed furiously and giggled with confusion.
"What a shameful thing it must be to get married !" thought Grisha. "What a horribly shameful thing!"
The whole dinner was too salty, blood was oozing from the half-cooked chickens, and, to complete the disaster, Pelagia kept dropping the knives and forks and dishes as if her hands had been a pair of rickety shelves. No one blamed her, however, for every one knew what her state of mind must be.
Once only did papa angrily throw down his napkin and exclaim to mamma:
"What is this craze you have for match-making? Can't you let them manage it for themselves If they want to get married?"
After dinner the neighbouring cooks and maids kept flitting in and out of the kitchen, and were whispering together there until late in the evening. Heaven knows how they had scented the approaching wedding ! Waking up at midnight, Grisha heard his nurse and the cook murmuring together in his nursery behind the curtain. The nurse was trying to convince the cook of something, and the latter was alternately sobbing and giggling. When he fell asleep, Grisha saw in his dreams Pelagia being spirited away by the Evil One and a witch.
Next day quiet reigned once more, and from that time forward life in the kitchen jogged on as if there were no such thing in the world as a driver. Only nurse would don her new shawl from time to time and sally forth for a couple of hours, evidently to a conference, with a serious and triumphant expression on her face. Pelagia and the driver did not see one another, and if any one mentioned his name to her she would fly into a rage and exclaim:
"Bad luck to him ! As if I ever thought of him at all—ugh!"
One evening, while Pelagia and the nurse were busily cutting out clothes in the kitchen, mamma came in and said:
"Of course you may marry him, Pelagia, that is your own affair, but I want you to understand that I can't have him living here. You know I don't like to have men sitting in the kitchen. Remember that ! And I can't ever let you go out for the night."
"What do you take me for, my lady?" screamed Pelagia. "Why do you cast him into my teeth? Let him fuss all he wants to ! What does he mean by hanging himself round my neck, the—"
Looking into the kitchen one Sunday morning, Grisha was petrified with astonishment. The room was packed to overflowing; the cooks from all the neighbouring houses were there with the house porter, two constables, a sergeant in his gold lace, and a boy named Filka. This Filka was generally to be found hanging about the wash-house playing with the dogs, but to-day he was washed and brushed and dressed in a gold-tinsel cassock and was carrying an icon in his hands. In the middle of the kitchen stood Pelagia in a new gingham dress with a wreath of flowers on her head. At her side stood the driver. The young couple were flushed and perspiring, and were blinking their eyes furiously.
"Well, it's time to begin," said the sergeant after a long silence.
A spasm passed over Pelagia's features and she began to bawl. The sergeant picked up a huge loaf of bread from the table, pulled the nurse to his side, and commenced the ceremony. The driver approached the sergeant and flopped down on his knees before him, delivering a smacking kiss on his hand. Pelagia went mechanically after him and also flopped down on her knees. At last the outside door opened, a gust of white mist blew into the kitchen, and the assembly streamed out into the courtyard.
"Poor, poor woman!" thought Grisha, listening to the cook's sobs. "Where are they taking her. Why don't papa and mamma interfere?"
After the wedding they sang and played the concertina in the laundry until night. Mamma was annoyed because nurse smelled of vodka and because, with all these weddings, there never was any one to put on the samovar. Pelagia had not come in when Grisha went to bed that night.
"Poor woman, she is crying out there somewhere in the dark," he thought. "And the driver is telling her to shut up!"
Next morning the cook was back in the kitchen again. The driver came in for a few minutes. He thanked mamma, and, casting a stern look at Pelagia, said:
"Keep a sharp eye on her, my lady ! And you, too, Aksinia, don't let her alone; make her behave herself. No nonsense for her ! And please let me have five roubles of her wages, my lady, to buy myself a new pair of hames."
Here, then, was a fresh puzzle for Grisha ! Pelagia had been free to do as she liked and had been responsible to no one, and now suddenly, for no reason at all, along came an unknown man who seemed somehow to have acquired the right to control her actions and her property ! Grisha grew very sad. He was on the verge of tears and longed passionately to be kind to this woman, who, it seemed to him, was a victim of human violence. He ran into the storeroom, picked out the largest apple he could find there, tiptoed into the kitchen, and, thrusting the apple into Pelagia's hand, rushed back as fast as his legs could carry him.