A.P. Chekhov - Happiness
A FLOCK of sheep was spending the night on
the broad steppe road that is called the great highway. Two
shepherds were guarding it. One, a toothless old man of eighty,
with a tremulous face, was lying on his stomach at the very edge
of the road, leaning his elbows on the dusty leaves of a
plantain; the other, a young fellow with thick black eyebrows
and no moustache, dressed in the coarse canvas of which cheap
sacks are made, was lying on his back, with his arms under his
head, looking upwards at the sky, where the stars were
slumbering and the Milky Way lay stretched exactly above his
The shepherds were not alone. A couple of yards from them in the
dusk that shrouded the road a horse made a patch of darkness,
and, beside it, leaning against the saddle, stood a man in high
boots and a short full-skirted jacket who looked like an
overseer on some big estate. Judging from his upright and
motionless figure, from his manners, and his behaviour to the
shepherds and to his horse, he was a serious, reasonable man who
knew his own value; even in the darkness signs could be detected
in him of military carriage and of the majestically
condescending expression gained by frequent intercourse with the
gentry and their stewards.
The sheep were asleep. Against the grey background of the dawn,
already beginning to cover the eastern part of the sky, the
silhouettes of sheep that were not asleep could be seen here and
there; they stood with drooping heads, thinking. Their thoughts,
tedious and oppressive, called forth by images of nothing but
the broad steppe and the sky, the days and the nights, probably
weighed upon them themselves, crushing them into apathy; and,
standing there as though rooted to the earth, they noticed
neither the presence of a stranger nor the uneasiness of the
The drowsy, stagnant air was full of the monotonous noise
inseparable from a summer night on the steppes; the grasshoppers
chirruped incessantly; the quails called, and the young
nightingales trilled languidly half a mile away in a ravine
where a stream flowed and willows grew.
The overseer had halted to ask the shepherds for a light for his
pipe. He lighted it in silence and smoked the whole pipe; then,
still without uttering a word, stood with his elbow on the
saddle, plunged in thought. The young shepherd took no notice of
him, he still lay gazing at the sky while the old man slowly
looked the overseer up and down and then asked:
"Why, aren't you Panteley from Makarov's estate?"
"That's myself," answered the overseer.
"To be sure, I see it is. I didn't know you -- that is a sign
you will be rich. Where has God brought you from?"
"From the Kovylyevsky fields."
"That's a good way. Are you letting the land on the part-crop
"Part of it. Some like that, and some we are letting on lease,
and some for raising melons and cucumbers. I have just come from
A big shaggy old sheep-dog of a dirty white colour with woolly
tufts about its nose and eyes walked three times quietly round
the horse, trying to seem unconcerned in the presence of
strangers, then all at once dashed suddenly from behind at the
overseer with an angry aged growl; the other dogs could not
refrain from leaping up too.
"Lie down, you damned brute," cried the old man, raising himself
on his elbow; "blast you, you devil's creature."
When the dogs were quiet again, the old man resumed his former
attitude and said quietly:
"It was at Kovyli on Ascension Day that Yefim Zhmenya died.
Don't speak of it in the dark, it is a sin to mention such
people. He was a wicked old man. I dare say you have heard."
"No, I haven't"
"Yefim Zhmenya, the uncle of Styopka, the blacksmith. The whole
district round knew him. Aye, he was a cursed old man, he was! I
knew him for sixty years, ever since Tsar Alexander who beat the
French was brought from Taganrog to Moscow. We went together to
meet the dead Tsar, and in those days the great highway did not
run to Bahmut, but from Esaulovka to Gorodishtche, and where
Kovyli is now, there were bustards' nests -- there was a
bustard's nest at every step. Even then I had noticed that Yefim
had given his soul to damnation, and that the Evil One was in
him. I have observed that if any man of the peasant class is apt
to be silent, takes up with old women's jobs, and tries to live
in solitude, there is no good in it, and Yefim from his youth up
was always one to hold his tongue and look at you sideways, he
always seemed to be sulky and bristling like a cock before a
hen. To go to church or to the tavern or to lark in the street
with the lads was not his fashion, he would rather sit alone or
be whispering with old women. When he was still young he took
jobs to look after the bees and the market gardens. Good folks
would come to his market garden sometimes and his melons were
whistling. One day he caught a pike, when folks were looking on,
and it laughed aloud, 'Ho-ho-ho-ho!' "
"It does happen," said Panteley.
The young shepherd turned on his side and, lifting his black
eyebrows, stared intently at the old man.
"Did you hear the melons whistling?" he asked.
"Hear them I didn't, the Lord spared me," sighed the old man,
"but folks told me so. It is no great wonder . . . the Evil One
will begin whistling in a stone if he wants to. Before the Day
of Freedom a rock was humming for three days and three nights in
our parts. I heard it myself. The pike laughed because Yefim
caught a devil instead of a pike."
The old man remembered something. He got up quickly on to his
knees and, shrinking as though from the cold, nervously
thrusting his hands into his sleeves, he muttered in a rapid
"Lord save us and have mercy upon us! I was walking along the
river bank one day to Novopavlovka. A storm was gathering, such
a tempest it was, preserve us Holy Mother, Queen of Heaven. . .
. I was hurrying on as best I could, I looked, and beside the
path between the thorn bushes -- the thorn was in flower at the
time -- there was a white bullock coming along. I wondered whose
bullock it was, and what the devil had sent it there for. It was
coming along and swinging its tail and moo-oo-oo! but would you
believe it, friends, I overtake it, I come up close -- and it's
not a bullock, but Yefim -- holy, holy, holy! I make the sign of
the cross while he stares at me and mutters, showing the whites
of his eyes; wasn't I frightened! We came alongside, I was
afraid to say a word to him -- the thunder was crashing, the sky
was streaked with lightning, the willows were bent right down to
the water -- all at once, my friends, God strike me dead that I
die impenitent, a hare ran across the path . . . it ran and
stopped, and said like a man: 'Good-evening, peasants.' Lie
down, you brute!" the old man cried to the shaggy dog, who was
moving round the horse again. "Plague take you!"
"It does happen," said the overseer, still leaning on the saddle
and not stirring; he said this in the hollow, toneless voice in
which men speak when they are plunged in thought.
"It does happen," he repeated, in a tone of profundity and
"Ugh, he was a nasty old fellow," the old shepherd went on with
somewhat less fervour. "Five years after the Freedom he was
flogged by the commune at the office, so to show his spite he
took and sent the throat illness upon all Kovyli. Folks died out
of number, lots and lots of them, just as in cholera. . . ."
"How did he send the illness?" asked the young shepherd after a
"We all know how, there is no great cleverness needed where
there is a will to it. Yefim murdered people with viper's fat.
That is such a poison that folks will die from the mere smell of
it, let alone the fat."
"That's true," Panteley agreed.
"The lads wanted to kill him at the time, but the old people
would not let them. It would never have done to kill him; he
knew the place where the treasure is hidden, and not another
soul did know. The treasures about here are charmed so that you
may find them and not see them, but he did see them. At times he
would walk along the river bank or in the forest, and under the
bushes and under the rocks there would be little flames, little
flames. . . little flames as though from brimstone. I have seen
them myself. Everyone expected that Yefim would show people the
places or dig the treasure up himself, but he -- as the saying
is, like a dog in the manger -- so he died without digging it up
himself or showing other people."
The overseer lit a pipe, and for an instant lighted up his big
moustaches and his sharp, stern-looking, and dignified nose.
Little circles of light danced from his hands to his cap, raced
over the saddle along the horse's back, and vanished in its mane
near its ears.
"There are lots of hidden treasures in these parts," he said.
And slowly stretching, he looked round him, resting his eyes on
the whitening east and added:
"There must be treasures."
"To be sure," sighed the old man, "one can see from every sign
there are treasures, only there is no one to dig them, brother.
No one knows the real places; besides, nowadays, you must
remember, all the treasures are under a charm. To find them and
see them you must have a talisman, and without a talisman you
can do nothing, lad. Yefim had talismans, but there was no
getting anything out of him, the bald devil. He kept them, so
that no one could get them."
The young shepherd crept two paces nearer to the old man and,
propping his head on his fists, fastened his fixed stare upon
him. A childish expression of terror and curiosity gleamed in
his dark eyes, and seemed in the twilight to stretch and flatten
out the large features of his coarse young face. He was
"It is even written in the Scriptures that there are lots of
treasures hidden here," the old man went on; "it is so for sure.
. . and no mistake about it. An old soldier of Novopavlovka was
shown at Ivanovka a writing, and in this writing it was printed
about the place of the treasure and even how many pounds of gold
was in it and the sort of vessel it was in; they would have
found the treasures long ago by that writing, only the treasure
is under a spell, you can't get at it."
"Why can't you get at it, grandfather?" asked the young man.
"I suppose there is some reason, the soldier didn't say. It is
under a spell . . . you need a talisman."
The old man spoke with warmth, as though he were pouring out his
soul before the overseer. He talked through his nose and, being
unaccustomed to talk much and rapidly, stuttered; and, conscious
of his defects, he tried to adorn his speech with gesticulations
of the hands and head and thin shoulders, and at every movement
his hempen shirt crumpled into folds, slipped upwards and
displayed his back, black with age and sunburn. He kept pulling
it down, but it slipped up again at once. At last, as though
driven out of all patience by the rebellious shirt, the old man
leaped up and said bitterly:
"There is fortune, but what is the good of it if it is buried in
the earth? It is just riches wasted with no profit to anyone,
like chaff or sheep's dung, and yet there are riches there, lad,
fortune enough for all the country round, but not a soul sees
it! It will come to this, that the gentry will dig it up or the
government will take it away. The gentry have begun digging the
barrows. . . . They scented something! They are envious of the
peasants' luck! The government, too, is looking after itself. It
is written in the law that if any peasant finds the treasure he
is to take it to the authorities! I dare say, wait till you get
it! There is a brew but not for you!"
The old man laughed contemptuously and sat down on the ground.
The overseer listened with attention and agreed, but from his
silence and the expression of his figure it was evident that
what the old man told him was not new to him, that he had
thought it all over long ago, and knew much more than was known
to the old shepherd.
"In my day, I must own, I did seek for fortune a dozen times,"
said the old man, scratching himself nervously. "I looked in the
right places, but I must have come on treasures under a charm.
My father looked for it, too, and my brother, too -- but not a
thing did they find, so they died without luck. A monk revealed
to my brother Ilya -- the Kingdom of Heaven be his -- that in
one place in the fortress of Taganrog there was a treasure under
three stones, and that that treasure was under a charm, and in
those days -- it was, I remember, in the year '38 -- an Armenian
used to live at Matvyeev Barrow who sold talismans. Ilya bought
a talisman, took two other fellows with him, and went to
Taganrog. Only when he got to the place in the fortress,
brother, there was a soldier with a gun, standing at the very
spot. . . ."
A sound suddenly broke on the still air, and floated in all
directions over the steppe. Something in the distance gave a
menacing bang, crashed against stone, and raced over the steppe,
uttering, "Tah! tah! tah! tah!" When the sound had died away the
old man looked inquiringly at Panteley, who stood motionless and
"It's a bucket broken away at the pits," said the young shepherd
after a moment's thought.
It was by now getting light. The Milky Way had turned pale and
gradually melted like snow, losing its outlines; the sky was
becoming dull and dingy so that you could not make out whether
it was clear or covered thickly with clouds, and only from the
bright leaden streak in the east and from the stars that
lingered here and there could one tell what was coming.
The first noiseless breeze of morning, cautiously stirring the
spurges and the brown stalks of last year's grass, fluttered
along the road.
The overseer roused himself from his thoughts and tossed his
head. With both hands he shook the saddle, touched the girth
and, as though he could not make up his mind to mount the horse,
stood still again, hesitating.
"Yes," he said, "your elbow is near, but you can't bite it.
There is fortune, but there is not the wit to find it."
And he turned facing the shepherds. His stern face looked sad
and mocking, as though he were a disappointed man.
"Yes, so one dies without knowing what happiness is like . . ."
he said emphatically, lifting his left leg into the stirrup. "A
younger man may live to see it, but it is time for us to lay
aside all thought of it."
Stroking his long moustaches covered with dew, he seated himself
heavily on the horse and screwed up his eyes, looking into the
distance, as though he had forgotten something or left something
unsaid. In the bluish distance where the furthest visible
hillock melted into the mist nothing was stirring; the ancient
barrows, once watch-mounds and tombs, which rose here and there
above the horizon and the boundless steppe had a sullen and
death-like look; there was a feeling of endless time and utter
indifference to man in their immobility and silence; another
thousand years would pass, myriads of men would die, while they
would still stand as they had stood, with no regret for the dead
nor interest in the living, and no soul would ever know why they
stood there, and what secret of the steppes was hidden under
The rooks awakening, flew one after another in silence over the
earth. No meaning was to be seen in the languid flight of those
long-lived birds, nor in the morning which is repeated
punctually every twenty-four hours, nor in the boundless expanse
of the steppe.
The overseer smiled and said:
"What space, Lord have mercy upon us! You would have a hunt to
find treasure in it! Here," he went on, dropping his voice and
making a serious face, "here there are two treasures buried for
a certainty. The gentry don't know of them, but the old
peasants, particularly the soldiers, know all about them. Here,
somewhere on that ridge [the overseer pointed with his whip]
robbers one time attacked a caravan of gold; the gold was being
taken from Petersburg to the Emperor Peter who was building a
fleet at the time at Voronezh. The robbers killed the men with
the caravan and buried the gold, but did not find it again
afterwards. Another treasure was buried by our Cossacks of the
Don. In the year '12 they carried off lots of plunder of all
sorts from the French, goods and gold and silver. When they were
going homewards they heard on the way that the government wanted
to take away all the gold and silver from them. Rather than give
up their plunder like that to the government for nothing, the
brave fellows took and buried it, so that their children,
anyway, might get it; but where they buried it no one knows."
"I have heard of those treasures," the old man muttered grimly.
"Yes . . ." Panteley pondered again. "So it is. . . ."
A silence followed. The overseer looked dreamily into the
distance, gave a laugh and pulled the rein, still with the same
expression as though he had forgotten something or left
something unsaid. The horse reluctantly started at a walking
pace. After riding a hundred paces Panteley shook his head
resolutely, roused himself from his thoughts and, lashing his
horse, set off at a trot.
The shepherds were left alone.
"That was Panteley from Makarov's estate," said the old man. "He
gets a hundred and fifty a year and provisions found, too. He is
a man of education. . . ."
The sheep, waking up -- there were about three thousand of them
-- began without zest to while away the time, nipping at the
low, half-trampled grass. The sun had not yet risen, but by now
all the barrows could be seen and, like a cloud in the distance,
Saur's Grave with its peaked top. If one clambered up on that
tomb one could see the plain from it, level and boundless as the
sky, one could see villages, manor-houses, the settlements of
the Germans and of the Molokani, and a long-sighted Kalmuck
could even see the town and the railway-station. Only from there
could one see that there was something else in the world besides
the silent steppe and the ancient barrows, that there was
another life that had nothing to do with buried treasure and the
thoughts of sheep.
The old man felt beside him for his crook -- a long stick with a
hook at the upper end -- and got up. He was silent and
thoughtful. The young shepherd's face had not lost the look of
childish terror and curiosity. He was still under the influence
of what he had heard in the night, and impatiently awaiting
"Grandfather," he asked, getting up and taking his crook, "what
did your brother Ilya do with the soldier?"
The old man did not hear the question. He looked absent-mindedly
at the young man, and answered, mumbling with his lips:
"I keep thinking, Sanka, about that writing that was shown to
that soldier at Ivanovka. I didn't tell Panteley -- God be with
him -- but you know in that writing the place was marked out so
that even a woman could find it. Do you know where it is? At
Bogata Bylotchka at the spot, you know, where the ravine parts
like a goose's foot into three little ravines; it is the middle
"Well, will you dig?"
"I will try my luck. . ."
"And, grandfather, what will you do with the treasure when you
"Do with it?" laughed the old man. "H'm! . . . If only I could
find it then. . . . I would show them all. . . . H'm! . . . I
should know what to do. . . ."
And the old man could not answer what he would do with the
treasure if he found it. That question had presented itself to
him that morning probably for the first time in his life, and
judging from the expression of his face, indifferent and
uncritical, it did not seem to him important and deserving of
consideration. In Sanka's brain another puzzled question was
stirring: why was it only old men searched for hidden treasure,
and what was the use of earthly happiness to people who might
die any day of old age? But Sanka could not put this perplexity
into words, and the old man could scarcely have found an answer
An immense crimson sun came into view surrounded by a faint
haze. Broad streaks of light, still cold, bathing in the dewy
grass, lengthening out with a joyous air as though to prove they
were not weary of their task, began spreading over the earth.
The silvery wormwood, the blue flowers of the pig's onion, the
yellow mustard, the corn-flowers -- all burst into gay colours,
taking the sunlight for their own smile.
The old shepherd and Sanka parted and stood at the further sides
of the flock. Both stood like posts, without moving, staring at
the ground and thinking. The former was haunted by thoughts of
fortune, the latter was pondering on what had been said in the
night; what interested him was not the fortune itself, which he
did not want and could not imagine, but the fantastic,
fairy-tale character of human happiness.
A hundred sheep started and, in some inexplicable panic as at a
signal, dashed away from the flock; and as though the thoughts
of the sheep -- tedious and oppressive -- had for a moment
infected Sanka also, he, too, dashed aside in the same
inexplicable animal panic, but at once he recovered himself and
"You crazy creatures! You've gone mad, plague take you!"
When the sun, promising long hours of overwhelming heat, began
to bake the earth, all living things that in the night had moved
and uttered sounds were sunk in drowsiness. The old shepherd and
Sanka stood with their crooks on opposite sides of the flock,
stood without stirring, like fakirs at their prayers, absorbed
in thought. They did not heed each other; each of them was
living in his own life. The sheep were pondering, too.
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