A Russian short story by: Anton P Chekov
Abridged and translated by: Subodh Das
In my lifetime I have seen many houses, big and small, stone houses and wooden houses. I particularly remember one house. This, however, was not a house of normal size, but a small house with one storey and three windows. It was horribly similar to a small hunched old lady in a cap. The house was colored white and covered with tiled roof. The house was buried in green mulberry, acacia, and poplar trees. Its wide door stands by the side of other green wide doors and faces the Moskobskaya Street. Seldom does anybody walk along this street.
The windows of this house are never opened because the inmates of the house do not like light and fresh air. People, who constantly live among mulberry and acacia trees are indifferent to nature. Around the house in the earthly paradise live merry birds. Inside the house it is hot and stuffy during summer, during winter it is warm as in a (Russian) bath-house, it is full of fumes and is tiresome.
Long ago I went to this house for the first time on business. I conveyed regards from the house owner, Colonel Chikamasov, to his wife and daughter. I have an excellent memory of this first visit. Indeed it is difficult not to remember.
As I entered the hall I was greeted by a small woman of about forty years, who stared at me with a terrified and amazed look. I was a stranger, a guest, a young man – that was enough to drive the inmates of the house into amazement and terror. I had neither an axe nor a revolver in my hand, I smiled in a friendly manner but I was met with uneasiness.
– Whom do I have the honor and pleasure to see?- the woman asked me with a trembling voice, whom I came to know as the owner of the house, Mrs. Chikamasova.
I explained who I was and the purpose of my visit. Terror and amazement changed into a piercing and joyful “Ah”! As an echo this “Ah” was transmitted from the hall to the drawing room, from the drawing room to the kitchen and so on to the very cellar. Soon the entire house was filled with different joyful voices of “Ah”. In about five minutes I sat down on a large, soft, warm divan in the drawing room and now the entire Moskovskaya Street gasped.
There was a smell of moth powder and new shoes, which were lying on a chair beside me. They were wrapped in a small handkerchief. On the windows there were small geranium, muslin curtains. The curtains were full of flies. On the wall there was a portrait of some Bishop painted in oil and covered with glass with a broken corner. Then there were portraits of ancestors with yellow gypsy faces. On a chair there were thimbles, reels of threads and an unfinished stocking. There were patterns on the floor. In the adjoining room two disturbed old ladies picked up pattern and pieces of cloth from the floor.
Excuse me, things are in terrible disorder here – said Mrs. Chikamasova.
Mrs. Chikamasova conversed with me and embarrassedly looked askance at the door, beyond which the old ladies collected the patterns. The door too somewhat embarrassedly opened one moment and closed the other.
– What do you want? Mrs. Chikamasova appealed to the door.
– Where is my necktie, which my father sent me? – asked a woman’s voice in French from beyond the door.
– Ah, Maria…We have a person here, who is little known to us….Ask Lukeria (the cook).
Soon the door opened and I saw a tall slim girl about nineteen years old in a long muslin dress with a gold belt, from which hung a mother-of-pearl fan. She entered, wished and blushed.
– My daughter!…said Mrs. Chikamasova – And this Manechka (diminutive of Maria) is a young man, who…
I introduced myself and expressed my astonishment at the great number of patterns. The mother and daughter dropped their eyes.
– Recently we had a fair here – said mother. At the fair we always buy cloths and then embroider them the whole year until the next fair. We do this all by ourselves because my husband Pyotr Semyonovich does not earn enough.
– Who will wear so many things? You are only two.
– Ah…is it really too much to wear? These are not for us to wear. They are trousseau!
– Ah mama, what are you saying? said daughter and blushed. – Our guest may really think…I wont ever marry! Never!
She said this and at the word “marriage” her eyes lit up.
Tea, sugar, cookies and butter were brought. Then we ate raspberry with seeds. At seven in the evening a six-course supper was served. During supper I heard a loud yawn, someone loudly yawned in the adjacent room. With astonishment I looked at the door: Only men could yawn in such a manner. This is my husband’s brother…Igor
Semyonovich…- explained Mrs. Chikamasova, – He has been living with us since last year. Please excuse him, he cannot join us. He is shy of strangers… They are getting assembled at the Monastery…He was distressed at his work…That is why he drinks out of grief.
After supper Manechka had shown me a pouch, which she had embroidered for her father. When I pretended that I was surprised at her work, she blushed again and whispered something into her mother’s ear. This brightened her and she suggested that I go with her to the storeroom. In the storeroom I saw about five numbers of large trunks and a large number of small trunks and boxes.
– These are trousseau! whispered the mother to me. – We have stitched ourselves.
I looked at these sullen trunks and started to take leave from the hospitable hostesses. They made me promise that I shall come sometime again.
I kept my word after seven years from my first visit. They immediately recognized me…Well my visit was a great event to the inmates of the house, and events at a place, where they were few are remembered for a long time. When I entered the drawing room, the mother, who grew heavier and greyer, crawled on the floor and cut something from a blue material. The daughter sat on the divan and worked on embroidery. The same patterns, the same smell of moth powder, the same portrait with broken glass. All the same there were changes. Beside the portrait of Bishop hung the portrait of Pyotr Semyonovich, and the ladies were in mourning. Pyotr Semyonovich died a week after his promotion to general.
Chikmasova started recollecting and shed a few tears.
– We are in great grief – said she. Pyotr Semyonovich has died. We are left orphans
and we have to look after us ourselves.. And Igor Semyonovich is alive, but we cannot say anything good of him. He is not accepted in the monastery. And he now drinks more. I have complaints about him. Several times he opened the trunks and…collected Manechka;s trousseau. He has removed everything from two trunks! If he continues like this, my Manechka will be left with no trousseau at all…
– What are you saying, mama!- said Manechka and was embarrassed. I shall never, never get married.
In the hall flashed by a small male figure with a large bald and in brown frock coat, in galosh rather than in high boots.
“Most probably Igor Semyonovich”, – I thought.
I looked at the mother and daughter: they both aged a lot and grew thin. The mother’s head was shot with silver, and the daughter withered, faded and it appeared that the mother was older than the daughter by not more than five years.
I want to grieve! The old lady told me, forgetting that she had already told me about this, – from us Igor Semyonovich has taken everything we stitched and embroidered. My Manechka is left with no trousseau!
Manechka again blushed, but did not utter a single word.
– We have to do the work all over again, a well we are not rich! We are orphans!
– We are orphans! Repeated Manechka.
Last year fate brought me to the familiar small house. When I entered the drawing room I saw the old lady Chikamasova. She was clad entirely in black, she sat on the divan and was stitching something. By her side sat a little old man in brown frockcoat wearing galoshes instead of high boots. The little man saw me, jumped up and ran away from the drawing room.
In response to my greetings the old lady smiled and said:
– I am glad to see you again.
– What are you stitching? I asked a little later.
– This is a small shirt, I shall stitch it and I shall take to the priest to conceal, or else Igor Semyonovich will take away. I shall now conceal everything at the priest’s place, she said in a whisper.
She glanced at her daughter’s portrait, which stood before her on the table, sighed and said:
– We are orphans!
Where is the daughter? Where is Manechka? I did not inquire. I did not want to ask the old lady, who was in deep mourning. As long as I sat in the room, Manechka did not come to me, I did not hear her voice, her quiet bashful steps…everything was clear. My heart was so heavy.
Subodh Das is retired from the Indian Navy and holds a degree in Russian language. He has translated many technical documents from Russian and now translates Russian literature as a hobby.
More posts by this author:
- Abanibabus Unplanned Expenditure
- Abanibabus Unplanned Expenditure
- The Night Visitor (an excerpt from The Conch Bearer by Chitra Divakaruni)
- The Human Brain
- A Primer on Climate Change and Global Warming – Part I