The Kiss and Other Stories/The Head Gardener's Tale

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For other English-language translations of this work, see The Head Gardener's Story (Chekhov).
The Kiss and Other Stories  (1908)  by Anton Chekhov, translated by Robert Edward Crozier Long
The Head Gardener's Tale


THE HEAD GARDENER'S TALE

THE sale of flowers from the greenhouses on Count N.'s estate was attended by few: I, a neighbouring country gentleman, and a young timber-merchant. While the workmen carried out our handsome purchases and packed them in carts, we sat at the greenhouse door, and talked away on every theme imaginable. Indeed, on that warm April morning, to sit in the garden, hear the birds, and see the flowers, restored to freedom, basking in the sun, was more than delightful.

The packing was superintended by the gardener, Mikhail Karlovitch, a worthy old man, with a fat, clean-shaven face. Mikhail Karlovitch wore a waist-coat of fur, and worked in his shirt-sleeves. He kept silence severely, and listened intently to our conversation, waiting for some one to say something new. We all considered him a German, though as a fact his father was a Swede and his mother Russian, and he professed the orthodox faith. He spoke Russian, Swedish, and German, read much in all three languages, and knew no greater pleasure than to be lent some new book, or talked to, for instance, about Ibsen.

He had his weaknesses, innocent, most of them, enough: he called himself head gardener, though he had no juniors; his expression was always needlessly elated and grave; he tolerated no contradiction, and expected others to listen seriously and attentively.

“That young fellow, there, I may tell you, is a pretty rascal,” said my neighbour, pointing to a swarthy, gipsy-like workman who drove a water-cart past. “Only last week he was tried for robbery and acquitted. The jury found him insane, though you can see from his snout he's as healthy as a bull. It seems to have become the fashion in Russia lately to acquit criminals, and explain their crimes by mental abnormality. These acquittals, this general weakness and condonation, will have a bad effect. They demoralise the masses ; they blunt the sense of justice. People get used to seeing crime go unpunished. Shakespeare put it aptly when he wrote that ‘Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied.’”

“That's true,” consented the timber-merchant. “Murder and incendiarism have increased since these acquittals began. Ask the muzhiks.”

The gardener Mikhail Karlovitch turned to us and said —

“Do you know, gentlemen, that I always welcome these acquittals? I feel no fear for the cause of morals and justice when I hear the verdict: Not Guilty. On the contrary, I am deh'ghted. Even when reason tells me that the jurymen have made a mistake, even then I rejoice. I put it to you, gentlemen; if judges and jurymen put more faith in men — than in clues, speeches, and articles put in evidence, is not this faith in men a higher thing than all practical considerations? Such faith is accessible only to the few — to those who understand and feel Christ.”

“It's a good thought,” I said.

“And not a new thought. I remember some time long ago hearing a legend on this theme. And a very fine legend,” said the gardener, smiling. “I was told it by my late grandmother, my father's mother, a wonderful old woman! She told it in Swedish: in Russian it's less effective, less classical, so to speak.”

We asked him to tell us the story, and forget the rudeness of the Russian language. Flattered and content, he lighted a cigarette, looked angrily at the workmen, and began: —

“To a little town, somewhere, there came an old, solitary, ugly man, by name Thompson — or Wilson — the name doesn't count. His profession was a good one: he cured the sick. He was morose and uncommunicative, and spoke only when his work required it. He paid no visits, confined his intercourse to silent bows, and lived as modestly as a hermit. The eicplanation was that he was a scholar; and in those days scholars were different from ordinary men. They spent their days and nights in meditation, in reading books, and in curing the sick; they looked on everything else as worthless, and had no time to speak needless words. The townspeople understood this thoroughly, and did their best not to waste his time with visits and empty gossip. They rejoiced that God at last had sent them a man who could cure their complaints, and were proud to have among them such a remarkable man.

"'He knows everything,' they said.

"But that was not enough. They might have added, 'He loves every one.' For in this man's breast beat a good, an angel's heart. He forgot that the townspeople were no kin of his, that they were strangers to him; and he loved them as his children, and for their sake was ready to lay down his own life. He suffered, indeed, from consumption; he coughed; yet when they summoned him to some ailing townsman he forgot his own complaints, sacrificed himself, and, panting, hurried up steep hills. He ignored heat and cold; he despised hunger and thirst. He took no fees, and—stranger than all—when his patients died, he followed their coffins to the grave and wept with their kinsmen.

"Soon he became such a needed part of the town's life that people wondered how they had lived before he came. They were grateful beyond words. Old and young, good and bad, honest and thieves — in one word, all — respected him and knew his worth. The town and neighbourhood had not one man who would do this benefactor a wrong, or even think of such. When he left his house his doors and windows lay open, for he knew that the most abandoned thief would not offend him. Sometimes, following his work of mercy, he crossed hills and forests full of hungry vagabonds. But he felt at ease. Once indeed by night when he returned from a sick-bed he was attacked by robbers in a wood. But when they saw his face they took off their caps respectfully and offered him food. When he said that he was not hungry they gave him a warm cloak and led him safe to town, happy that Fate had sent them a chance to show their gratitude to their benefactor. And, further — you can imagine it — my grandmother added that even horses, cows, and dogs knew him, and showed their joy when they saw him,

“But one fine day this man, whose holiness, it seemed, guarded him from all evil, whom even robbers respected — one fine day this man was found murdered. Bloody, with battered skull, he lay in a ravine, and his pale face expressed amazement. Yes; not fear, but merely surprise was his feeling when he saw his executioner before him. You can imagine the grief of the people of the town and neighbourhood! ‘What man,’ they asked themselves in despair, ‘what man could possibly kill our friend?’ The magistrates who held the inquest and saw the good man's body came to this conclusion. ‘Here,’ they said, ‘we have all the signs of murder. But as there exists not on earth a man who would kill our doctor, this can be no case of murder; and the marks on his body are a mere accident. It is plain that the doctor fell into the ravine in the darkness and dashed himself to death,’

“And this opinion was shared by all the town. They buried their doctor, and no one thenceforth spoke of his death as a crime. That a man should exist so infamous as to kill their friend they refused to believe. Even infamy has its limits? Is it not so?

“But not long afterwards — you may imagine it — chance pointed to the murderer. A notorious ne'er-do-well and evil-liver, who had been more than once in gaol, was caught in a drink-shop selling for liquor the doctor's snuff-box and watch. When taxed with the crime he lost his head and told transparent lies. They searched his house and found in his bed a blood-stained shirt and the doctor's lancet, which was set with gold. What further clues were wanted? He was put in gaol. The townspeople were horrified, but they continued to say —

“‘Incredible! It is impossible. Be sure there is no mistake; circumstantial evidence like this often leads to injustice!’

"On trial the murderer obstinately denied his guilt. Everything told against him, and to find him innocent was as hard as to find this earth black. But the judges seemed to have gone out of their minds; they weighed every item of evidence a dozen times; they looked incredulously at the witnesses, they turned red, and drank water. . . . The trial began at early morning and ended only at night.

"'Prisoner!' began the presiding judge, turning to the murderer. 'The court has found you guilty of the murder of Doctor N., and condemns you . . .'

"He intended to say 'to be hanged till you are dead,' but the paper on which the verdict was written dropped from his hand, he rubbed the sweat from his forehead, and cried out—

"'No! May God visit it on me if I judge unjustly, but I swear that this man is innocent! I will not admit the thought that there is a man on earth who would kill our friend the doctor! There is no man alive who would fall so low!"

"'There is no such man alive!' cried the other judges.

"'There is none!' echoed the crowd in court. 'Release him.'

"So the murderer was dismissed in peace, and not one man censured the judges for injustice. And God, added my grandmother, for such faith in his creatures forgave the townspeople all their sins. For He rejoices to think that man is indeed His image, and grieves when, forgetting their human worth, men judge men as dogs. It may be, the verdict of acquittal caused the townspeople harm; but, on the other hand, reflect on the beneficent influence of this deep faith in men, this faith which never lies dead, which fosters our most generous feelings, and inspires us to love and respect our fellow-men. And that is a great thing.”

Mikhail Karlovitch said no more. My neighbour was about to reply, but the old gardener with a gesture indicating that he disliked contradiction returned to the carts, and, with his old grave expression, resumed his work.