A.P. Chekhov - Frost
A "POPULAR" fte with a philanthropic object had been arranged
on the Feast of Epiphany in the provincial town of N----. They
had selected a broad part of the river between the market and
the bishop's palace, fenced it round with a rope, with fir-trees
and with flags, and provided everything necessary for skating,
sledging, and tobogganing. The festivity was organized on the
grandest scale possible. The notices that were distributed were
of huge size and promised a number of delights: skating, a
military band, a lottery with no blank tickets, an electric sun,
and so on. But the whole scheme almost came to nothing owing to
the hard frost. From the eve of Epiphany there were twenty-eight
degrees of frost with a strong wind; it was proposed to put off
the fte, and this was not done only because the public, which
for a long while had been looking forward to the fte
impatiently, would not consent to any postponement.
"Only think, what do you expect in winter but a frost!" said the
ladies persuading the governor, who tried to insist that the
fte should be postponed. "If anyone is cold he can go and warm
The trees, the horses, the men's beards were white with frost;
it even seemed that the air itself crackled, as though unable to
endure the cold; but in spite of that the frozen public were
skating. Immediately after the blessing of the waters and
precisely at one o'clock the military band began playing.
Between three and four o'clock in the afternoon, when the
festivity was at its height, the select society of the place
gathered together to warm themselves in the governor's pavilion,
which had been put up on the river-bank. The old governor and
his wife, the bishop, the president of the local court, the head
master of the high school, and many others, were there. The
ladies were sitting in armchairs, while the men crowded round
the wide glass door, looking at the skating.
"Holy Saints!" said the bishop in surprise; "what flourishes
they execute with their legs! Upon my soul, many a singer
couldn't do a twirl with his voice as those cut-throats do with
their legs. Aie! he'll kill himself!"
"That's Smirnov. . . . That's Gruzdev . . ." said the head
master, mentioning the names of the schoolboys who flew by the
"Bah! he's all alive-oh!" laughed the governor. "Look,
gentlemen, our mayor is coming. . . . He is coming this way. . .
. That's a nuisance, he will talk our heads off now."
A little thin old man, wearing a big cap and a fur-lined coat
hanging open, came from the opposite bank towards the pavilion,
avoiding the skaters. This was the mayor of the town, a
merchant, Eremeyev by name, a millionaire and an old inhabitant
of N----. Flinging wide his arms and shrugging at the cold, he
skipped along, knocking one golosh against the other, evidently
in haste to get out of the wind. Half-way he suddenly bent down,
stole up to some lady, and plucked at her sleeve from behind.
When she looked round he skipped away, and probably delighted at
having succeeded in frightening her, went off into a loud, aged
"Lively old fellow," said the governor. "It's a wonder he's not
As he got near the pavilion the mayor fell into a little
tripping trot, waved his hands, and, taking a run, slid along
the ice in his huge golosh boots up to the very door.
"Yegor Ivanitch, you ought to get yourself some skates!" the
governor greeted him.
"That's just what I am thinking," he answered in a squeaky,
somewhat nasal tenor, taking off his cap. "I wish you good
health, your Excellency! Your Holiness! Long life to all the
other gentlemen and ladies! Here's a frost! Yes, it is a frost,
bother it! It's deadly!"
Winking with his red, frozen eyes, Yegor Ivanitch stamped on the
floor with his golosh boots and swung his arms together like a
"Such a damnable frost, worse than any dog!" he went on talking,
smiling all over his face. "It's a real affliction!"
"It's healthy," said the governor; "frost strengthens a man and
makes him vigorous. . . ."
"Though it may be healthy, it would be better without it at
all," said the mayor, wiping his wedge-shaped beard with a red
handkerchief. "It would be a good riddance! To my thinking, your
Excellency, the Lord sends it us as a punishment -- the frost, I
mean. We sin in the summer and are punished in the winter. . . .
Yegor Ivanitch looked round him quickly and flung up his hands.
"Why, where's the needful . . . to warm us up?" he asked,
looking in alarm first at the governor and then at the bishop.
"Your Excellency! Your Holiness! I'll be bound, the ladies are
frozen too! We must have something, this won't do!"
Everyone began gesticulating and declaring that they had not
come to the skating to warm themselves, but the mayor, heeding
no one, opened the door and beckoned to someone with his crooked
finger. A workman and a fireman ran up to him.
"Here, run off to Savatin," he muttered, "and tell him to make
haste and send here . . . what do you call it? . . . What's it
to be? Tell him to send a dozen glasses . . . a dozen glasses of
mulled wine, the very hottest, or punch, perhaps. . . ."
There was laughter in the pavilion.
"A nice thing to treat us to!"
"Never mind, we will drink it," muttered the mayor; "a dozen
glasses, then . . . and some Benedictine, perhaps . . . and tell
them to warm two bottles of red wine. . . . Oh, and what for the
ladies? Well, you tell them to bring cakes, nuts . . . sweets of
some sort, perhaps. . . . There, run along, look sharp!"
The mayor was silent for a minute and then began again abusing
the frost, banging his arms across his chest and thumping with
his golosh boots.
"No, Yegor Ivanitch," said the governor persuasively, "don't be
unfair, the Russian frost has its charms. I was reading lately
that many of the good qualities of the Russian people are due to
the vast expanse of their land and to the climate, the cruel
struggle for existence . . . that's perfectly true!"
"It may be true, your Excellency, but it would be better without
it. The frost did drive out the French, of course, and one can
freeze all sorts of dishes, and the children can go skating --
that's all true! For the man who is well fed and well clothed
the frost is only a pleasure, but for the working man, the
beggar, the pilgrim, the crazy wanderer, it's the greatest evil
and misfortune. It's misery, your Holiness! In a frost like this
poverty is twice as hard, and the thief is more cunning and
evildoers more violent. There's no gainsaying it! I am turned
seventy, I've a fur coat now, and at home I have a stove and
rums and punches of all sorts. The frost means nothing to me
now; I take no notice of it, I don't care to know of it, but how
it used to be in old days, Holy Mother! It's dreadful to recall
it! My memory is failing me with years and I have forgotten
everything; my enemies, and my sins and troubles of all sorts --
I forget them all, but the frost -- ough! How I remember it!
When my mother died I was left a little devil -- this high -- a
homeless orphan . . . no kith nor kin, wretched, ragged, little
clothes, hungry, nowhere to sleep -- in fact, 'we have here no
abiding city, but seek the one to come.' In those days I used to
lead an old blind woman about the town for five kopecks a day .
. . the frosts were cruel, wicked. One would go out with the old
woman and begin suffering torments. My Creator! First of all you
would be shivering as in a fever, shrugging and dancing about.
Then your ears, your fingers, your feet, would begin aching.
They would ache as though someone were squeezing them with
pincers. But all that would have been nothing, a trivial matter,
of no great consequence. The trouble was when your whole body
was chilled. One would walk for three blessed hours in the
frost, your Holiness, and lose all human semblance. Your legs
are drawn up, there is a weight on your chest, your stomach is
pinched; above all, there is a pain in your heart that is worse
than anything. Your heart aches beyond all endurance, and there
is a wretchedness all over your body as though you were leading
Death by the hand instead of an old woman. You are numb all
over, turned to stone like a statue; you go on and feel as
though it were not you walking, but someone else moving your
legs instead of you. When your soul is frozen you don't know
what you are doing: you are ready to leave the old woman with no
one to guide her, or to pull a hot roll from off a hawker's
tray, or to fight with someone. And when you come to your
night's lodging into the warmth after the frost, there is not
much joy in that either! You lie awake till midnight, crying,
and don't know yourself what you are crying for. . . ."
"We must walk about the skating-ground before it gets dark,"
said the governor's wife, who was bored with listening. "Who's
coming with me?"
The governor's wife went out and the whole company trooped out
of the pavilion after her. Only the governor, the bishop, and
the mayor remained.
"Queen of Heaven! and what I went through when I was a shopboy
in a fish-shop!" Yegor Ivanitch went on, flinging up his arms so
that his fox-lined coat fell open. "One would go out to the shop
almost before it was light . . . by eight o'clock I was
completely frozen, my face was blue, my fingers were stiff so
that I could not fasten my buttons nor count the money. One
would stand in the cold, turn numb, and think, 'Lord, I shall
have to stand like this right on till evening!' By dinner-time
my stomach was pinched and my heart was aching. . . . Yes! And I
was not much better afterwards when I had a shop of my own. The
frost was intense and the shop was like a mouse-trap with
draughts blowing in all directions; the coat I had on was,
pardon me, mangy, as thin as paper, threadbare. . . . One would
be chilled through and through, half dazed, and turn as cruel as
the frost oneself: I would pull one by the ear so that I nearly
pulled the ear off; I would smack another on the back of the
head; I'd glare at a customer like a ruffian, a wild beast, and
be ready to fleece him; and when I got home in the evening and
ought to have gone to bed, I'd be ill-humoured and set upon my
family, throwing it in their teeth that they were living upon
me; I would make a row and carry on so that half a dozen
policemen couldn't have managed me. The frost makes one spiteful
and drives one to drink."
Yegor Ivanitch clasped his hands and went on:
"And when we were taking fish to Moscow in the winter, Holy
Mother!" And spluttering as he talked, he began describing the
horrors he endured with his shopmen when he was taking fish to
Moscow. . . .
"Yes," sighed the governor, "it is wonderful what a man can
endure! You used to take wagon-loads of fish to Moscow, Yegor
Ivanitch, while I in my time was at the war. I remember one
extraordinary instance. . . ."
And the governor described how, during the last Russo-Turkish
War, one frosty night the division in which he was had stood in
the snow without moving for thirteen hours in a piercing wind;
from fear of being observed the division did not light a fire,
nor make a sound or a movement; they were forbidden to smoke. .
Reminiscences followed. The governor and the mayor grew lively
and good-humoured, and, interrupting each other, began recalling
their experiences. And the bishop told them how, when he was
serving in Siberia, he had travelled in a sledge drawn by dogs;
how one day, being drowsy, in a time of sharp frost he had
fallen out of the sledge and been nearly frozen; when the
Tunguses turned back and found him he was barely alive. Then, as
by common agreement, the old men suddenly sank into silence, sat
side by side, and mused.
"Ech!" whispered the mayor; "you'd think it would be time to
forget, but when you look at the water-carriers, at the
schoolboys, at the convicts in their wretched gowns, it brings
it all back! Why, only take those musicians who are playing now.
I'll be bound, there is a pain in their hearts; a pinch at their
stomachs, and their trumpets are freezing to their lips. . . .
They play and think: 'Holy Mother! we have another three hours
to sit here in the cold.' "
The old men sank into thought. They thought of that in man which
is higher than good birth, higher than rank and wealth and
learning, of that which brings the lowest beggar near to God: of
the helplessness of man, of his sufferings and his patience. . .
Meanwhile the air was turning blue . . . the door opened and two
waiters from Savatin's walked in, carrying trays and a big
muffled teapot. When the glasses had been filled and there was a
strong smell of cinnamon and clove in the air, the door opened
again, and there came into the pavilion a beardless young
policeman whose nose was crimson, and who was covered all over
with frost; he went up to the governor, and, saluting, said:
"Her Excellency told me to inform you that she has gone home."
Looking at the way the policeman put his stiff, frozen fingers
to his cap, looking at his nose, his lustreless eyes, and his
hood covered with white frost near the mouth, they all for some
reason felt that this policeman's heart must be aching, that his
stomach must feel pinched, and his soul numb. . . .
"I say," said the governor hesitatingly, "have a drink of mulled
"It's all right . . . it's all right! Drink it up!" the mayor
urged him, gesticulating; "don't be shy!"
The policeman took the glass in both hands, moved aside, and,
trying to drink without making any sound, began discreetly
sipping from the glass. He drank and was overwhelmed with
embarrassment while the old men looked at him in silence, and
they all fancied that the pain was leaving the young policeman's
heart, and that his soul was thawing. The governor heaved a
"It's time we were at home," he said, getting up. "Good-bye! I
say," he added, addressing the policeman, "tell the musicians
there to . . . leave off playing, and ask Pavel Semyonovitch
from me to see they are given . . . beer or vodka."
The governor and the bishop said good-bye to the mayor and went
out of the pavilion.
Yegor Ivanitch attacked the mulled wine, and before the
policeman had finished his glass succeeded in telling him a
great many interesting things. He could not be silent.
the Feast of Epiphany: January 6 (January 19 in pre-1918 Russia)
twenty-eight degrees of frost: 31 degrees below zero F.
The frost did drive out the French: Napoleon invaded Russia on
June 24, 1812, but the severe winter and lack of supplies forced
a costly retreat the folowing November
during the last Russo-Turkish War: 1877-1878