The Kiss and Other Stories/Woe

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For other English-language translations of this work, see Grief (Chekhov).
Anton Chekhov1616352The Kiss and Other Stories — Woe1908Robert Edward Crozier Long


THE turner, Grigori Petroff, long reputed the cleverest craftsman and most shiftless muzhik in all Galtchink canton, drove his old woman to the Zemstvo hospital. It was a good thirty versts, on an impossible road, a road too bad for the driver of the mail-car, much less for ne'er-do-well turner Grigori. In the turner's face beat a sharp, icy wind; around whirled white snow-clouds, and it was hard to say whether the snow came from heaven or from earth. The snow concealed fields, telegraph posts, and trees; and when the strongest gusts blew in Grigori's face, he could hardly see the yoke. The exhausted mare barely tottered along. All its strength seemed spent in dragging its hoofs out of the deep snow, and shaking its head. The turner was in a hurry. He fidgeted restlessly on his seat, and occasionally whipped his mare.

“Don't cry, Matrena!” he stammered. “Bear it a little longer! We'll soon, God grant, be at the hospital, and then you'll . . . Pavl Ivanuitch'll give you a powder, or let your blood; perhaps he'll rub some sort of spirit into you. Pavl Ivanuitch will do his best. . . . He'll shout, and stamp his feet, but he'll do his best. . . . He's a first-rate doctor, he knows his business, may God be good to him! . . . The minute we arrive he'll run out of his lodgings and look at you. ‘What!’ he'll shout at me. ‘Why didn't you come before ? Do you think I am a dog to waste all day with you devils? Why didn't you come in the morning? Begone! Come back tomorrow!’ And I will answer, ‘Mister doctor I Pavl Ivanuitch! Your honour! . . .’”

The turner whipped his horse, and without looking at his old woman, continued to mutter —

“‘Your honour ! Truly before God ! ... on my oath, I started at daybreak. . . . How could I get here sooner when God . . . the Mother of God was angry and sent such a storm? You can see for yourself! Even with a good horse I couldn't get here in time, and, as you can see for yourself, mine is not a horse, but a disgrace! ‘And Pavl Ivanuitch will frown and shout, ‘I know you ! Always the same excuse! You, in particular, Grisha! I've known you for years. You stopped five times at a drink-shop!’ And I shall answer him, ‘Your honour ! Don't think me a ruffian! My old woman is giving her soul to God; she's dying! Do you think I'd go near a drink-shop? May they be cursedj these drink-shops!’ Then Pavl Ivanuitch will tell them to take you into the hospital. And I shall bow to the ground. ‘Pavl Ivanuitch! Your honour! I thank you humbly! Forgive us — fools, anathemas; don't condemn us, poor muzhiks! You ought to kick us out of the hall! Yet you come out to meet us, and wet your legs in the snow!’

“And Pavl Ivanuitch will look as if he wanted to hit me, and say, ‘Don't throw yourself at my feet, fool ! You'd do better to drink less vodka and have pity on your wife. You ought to be flogged!’ ‘That's God's truth, Pavl Ivanuitch, may I be flogged; may God flog me! But why not throw myself at your feet? You are our benefactor, our own father! Your honour! It is the truth, before God; spit in my face if I lie: as soon as my Matrena, this same Matrena, gets well, I will make anything your honour wants. A cigar-case, if you wish it, of yellow birch . . . a set of croquet balls, nine-pins — I can make them like the best foreign ones. . . . I will make them all for you. I won't charge a kopeck. In Moscow such cigar-cases cost four roubles. I won't take a kopeck.’ And the doctor will laugh and say to me, ‘Well, well . . . agreed! I'm sorry for you. Only it's a pity you're such a drunkard!’ I know how to manage with these gentlemen ! There's no man on earth I can't stand up to. Only may God keep us from losing the road! Akh, my eyes are full of snow.”

And the turner muttered without cease. As if to dull the pain of his own feelings, he babbled on mechanically. But many as the woi'ds on his lips, there were still more thoughts and problems in his head. Woe had come upon the turner suddenly, unexpectedly; and now he could not recover his self-possession. Till now he had lived peacefully in drunken apathy, insensible to sorrow and to joy; and now he had been struck an intolerable blow. The shiftless, drunken lie-abed suddenly found himself busy, tormented, and, it seemed, in conflict with Nature herself.

The turner remembered that his sorrows began only yesterday. When, di-unk as usual, he had returned to his home the night before, and, by virtue of old custom, abused his wife and shook his fists at her, the old woman looked at him as she had never looked before. Formerly her old eyes expressed martyrdom, and the affection of a much-beaten, badly-fed dog; this night she looked at him morosely, steadfastly, as only saints and dying women look. With these unaccustomed eyes, all the trouble began. The frightiened turner borrowed a neighbour's horse, and was driving the old woman to hospital in the hope that Pavl Ivanuitch with powders and ointments would restore to his wife her old expression.

“And listen, Matrena,” he stammered. “If Pavl Ivanuitch asks do I ever beat you, say no, never! For I will never beat you again! I swear it. I never did beat you out of anger. I beat you only casually! I am sorry for you now. Another man would pay no attention to you, but I take you to hospital. . . . I do my best. But the storm, the storm, Lord God, Thy will! May God keep us from losing the road! Does your side hurt? Matrena, why don't you answer? I ask, does your side hurt?

“Why is it the snow doesn't melt on her face?” he asked himself, feeling a cold wind on his back and frozen legs. “My snow thaws, but hers. . . . It's strange!”

He could not understand why the snow on his wife's face did not thaw, why her face was drawn-out, severe, and serious, and had turned the colour of dirty wax.

“You are a fool!” muttered the turner. “I spoke to you from my conscience, before God! . . . and you haven't the manners to answer. . . . Fool! If you're not more careful, I won't take you to Pavl Ivanuitch!”

The turner dropped the reins, and thought. He could not make up his mind to look at his wife. He was nervous; and soon his wife's unmannerly silence frightened him. At last, to end his uncertainty, without looking at his wife, he felt her icy hand. The uplifted hand fell, as a whip.

“She's dead, I suppose. An adventure!”

And the turner wept. He wept less from grief than vexation. He reflected how quickly everything happens in this world ; how he had hardly entered into his woe ere the woe was past. He hardly seemed to have had time to live with his wife, speak to her, feel for her, and now she was dead. True, they had lived together forty years, but the forty years had fled away like a mist. What with drink, poverty, and quarrels, life had passed away unlived. And, what was bitterest of all, the old woman died at a moment when he felt that he pitied her, could not live without her, and was guilty before her.

“And she even went out and begged,” he remembered. “I sent her myself to beg bread. An adventure! She ought to have lived another ten years. She thought, I suppose, that I'm really a bad lot. Mother in heaven, where am I driving to? It's no more a case of cure, but of funerals. Turn back.”

The turner turned back and flogged his horse with all his might. The road grew worse and worse. He could no longer see even the yoke. Sometimes the sledge drove into young fir-trees, sometimes something dark scratched the turner's hands and flashed past his eyes. But he saw nothing except a whirling field of white.

“To live over again!” he said to himself. He remembered that forty years ago Matrena was young, pretty, and gay, and that she came from a prosperous home. It was his reputation as craftsman that won her. And, indeed, he had every qualification for living well. But soon after marriage he began to drink, he sprawled all day on the stove, and, it seemed to him, he had slept ever since. He remembered his wedding-day, but of what followed he could recall nothing save that he drank, sprawled, fought. And so passed forty years.

The white snow-clouds turned slowly grey. Evening was near.

"Where am I going?" asked the turner. "I ought to be taking her home, and here I am still going to hospital! I am going crazy!"

The turner again pulled round his horse and again flogged it. The mare strained all her strength, snorted, and broke into a trot. Behind the turner something tapped, tapped, tapped; and though he dared not look around, he knew that it was his wife's head banging against the back of the sledge. As the air darkened the wind blew colder and sharper.

"To live over again!" thought the turner. "To get new tools, to take orders, to give money to the old woman. . . . Yes!"

He dropped the reins. A moment later he tried to find them, but failed. His hands no longer obeyed him.

"It is all the same," he thought. "She will go on herself. She knows the road. To sleep a bit now. . . . Then the funeral, a mass. . . ."

He closed his eyes and slumbered. A moment later, as it seemed to him, the horse stopped. He opened his eyes and saw before something dark, a cabin or hayrick.

He tried to get out of the sledge to find out where he was, but his body was numbed with such pleasant indolence that he felt he would sooner freeze than move. And he fell restfully asleep.

He awoke in a big room with red walls. Through the window came bright sun-rays. The turner saw men before him, and he obeyed his first instinct to show himself off as a serious man, a man with ideas.

“Have a mass served, brothers!” he began. “Tell the priest . . .”

“That is all right!” came back voices. “Lie down!”

Batiushka! Pavl Ivanuitch!” said the turner in amazement. He saw the doctor before him. “Your honour! Benefactor!”

He wished to jump up and throw himself at the doctor's feet. But his hands and feet no longer obeyed him.

“Your honour, where are my legs? Where are my hands?”

“Good-bye to your legs and hands ! They're frozen off, that's all. Well, well . . . there's no use crying. You are old . . , glory be to God . . . sixty years' life is enough!”

“Forgive me, your honour! If you could give me five or six years!”

“Why do you want them?”

“The horse isn't mine. I must return it! . . . The old woman must be buried. . . . Akh, how quickly things happen in this world! Your honour! Pavl Ivanuitch! A cigar-case of birchwood of the first quality! I will make you croquet-balls . . .

The doctor waved his hand and went out of the room.

The turner was dead.