A.P. Chekhov -
Death of a Government Clerk
ONE fine evening, a no less fine government clerk called Ivan
Dmitritch Tchervyakov was sitting in the second row of the
stalls, gazing through an opera glass at the Cloches de
Corneville. He gazed and felt at the acme of bliss. But
suddenly. . . . In stories one so often meets with this "But
suddenly." The authors are right: life is so full of surprises!
But suddenly his face puckered up, his eyes disappeared, his
breathing was arrested . . . he took the opera glass from his
eyes, bent over and . . . "Aptchee!!" he sneezed as you
perceive. It is not reprehensible for anyone to sneeze anywhere.
Peasants sneeze and so do police superintendents, and sometimes
even privy councillors. All men sneeze. Tchervyakov was not in
the least confused, he wiped his face with his handkerchief, and
like a polite man, looked round to see whether he had disturbed
any one by his sneezing. But then he was overcome with
confusion. He saw that an old gentleman sitting in front of him
in the first row of the stalls was carefully wiping his bald
head and his neck with his glove and muttering something to
himself. In the old gentleman, Tchervyakov recognised Brizzhalov,
a civilian general serving in the Department of Transport.
"I have spattered him," thought Tchervyakov, "he is not the head
of my department, but still it is awkward. I must apologise."
Tchervyakov gave a cough, bent his whole person forward, and
whispered in the general's ear.
"Pardon, your Excellency, I spattered you accidentally. . . ."
"Never mind, never mind."
"For goodness sake excuse me, I . . . I did not mean to."
"Oh, please, sit down! let me listen!"
Tchervyakov was embarrassed, he smiled stupidly and fell to
gazing at the stage. He gazed at it but was no longer feeling
bliss. He began to be troubled by uneasiness. In the interval,
he went up to Brizzhalov, walked beside him, and overcoming his
"I spattered you, your Excellency, forgive me . . . you see . .
. I didn't do it to . . . ."
"Oh, that's enough . . . I'd forgotten it, and you keep on about
it!" said the general, moving his lower lip impatiently.
"He has forgotten, but there is a fiendish light in his eye,"
thought Tchervyakov, looking suspiciously at the general. "And
he doesn't want to talk. I ought to explain to him . . . that I
really didn't intend . . . that it is the law of nature or else
he will think I meant to spit on him. He doesn't think so now,
but he will think so later!"
On getting home, Tchervyakov told his wife of his breach of good
manners. It struck him that his wife took too frivolous a view
of the incident; she was a little frightened, but when she
learned that Brizzhalov was in a different department, she was
"Still, you had better go and apologise," she said, "or he will
think you don't know how to behave in public."
"That's just it! I did apologise, but he took it somehow queerly
. . . he didn't say a word of sense. There wasn't time to talk
Next day Tchervyakov put on a new uniform, had his hair cut and
went to Brizzhalov's to explain; going into the general's
reception room he saw there a number of petitioners and among
them the general himself, who was beginning to interview them.
After questioning several petitioners the general raised his
eyes and looked at Tchervyakov.
"Yesterday at the Arcadia, if you recollect, your Excellency,"
the latter began, "I sneezed and . . . accidentally spattered .
. . Exc. . . ."
"What nonsense. . . . It's beyond anything! What can I do for
you," said the general addressing the next petitioner.
"He won't speak," thought Tchervyakov, turning pale; "that means
that he is angry. . . . No, it can't be left like this. . . . I
will explain to him."
When the general had finished his conversation with the last of
the petitioners and was turning towards his inner apartments,
Tchervyakov took a step towards him and muttered:
"Your Excellency! If I venture to trouble your Excellency, it is
simply from a feeling I may say of regret! . . . It was not
intentional if you will graciously believe me."
The general made a lachrymose face, and waved his hand.
"Why, you are simply making fun of me, sir," he said as he
closed the door behind him.
"Where's the making fun in it?" thought Tchervyakov, "there is
nothing of the sort! He is a general, but he can't understand.
If that is how it is I am not going to apologise to that
fanfaron any more! The devil take him. I'll write a letter to
him, but I won't go. By Jove, I won't."
So thought Tchervyakov as he walked home; he did not write a
letter to the general, he pondered and pondered and could not
make up that letter. He had to go next day to explain in person.
"I ventured to disturb your Excellency yesterday," he muttered,
when the general lifted enquiring eyes upon him, "not to make
fun as you were pleased to say. I was apologising for having
spattered you in sneezing. . . . And I did not dream of making
fun of you. Should I dare to make fun of you, if we should take
to making fun, then there would be no respect for persons, there
would be. . . ."
"Be off!" yelled the general, turning suddenly purple, and
shaking all over.
"What?" asked Tchervyakov, in a whisper turning numb with
"Be off!" repeated the general, stamping.
Something seemed to give way in Tchervyakov's stomach. Seeing
nothing and hearing nothing he reeled to the door, went out into
the street, and went staggering along. . . . Reaching home
mechanically, without taking off his uniform, he lay down on the
sofa and died.
Tchervyakov: the name is similar to chervyak (worm)
stalls: orchestra seats
Cloches de Corneville: The Chimes of Normandy (1877), a comic
operetta by Jean Robert Planquette (1848-1903)
the interval: the intermission