A.P. Chekhov - Home
"SOMEONE came from the Grigoryevs' to fetch a book, but I said
you were not at home. The postman brought the newspaper and two
letters. By the way, Yevgeny Petrovitch, I should like to ask
you to speak to Seryozha. To-day, and the day before yesterday,
I have noticed that he is smoking. When I began to expostulate
with him, he put his fingers in his ears as usual, and sang
loudly to drown my voice."
Yevgeny Petrovitch Bykovsky, the prosecutor of the circuit
court, who had just come back from a session and was taking off
his gloves in his study, looked at the governess as she made her
report, and laughed.
"Seryozha smoking . . ." he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I
can picture the little cherub with a cigarette in his mouth!
Why, how old is he?"
"Seven. You think it is not important, but at his age smoking is
a bad and pernicious habit, and bad habits ought to be
eradicated in the beginning."
"Perfectly true. And where does he get the tobacco?"
"He takes it from the drawer in your table."
"Yes? In that case, send him to me."
When the governess had gone out, Bykovsky sat down in an
arm-chair before his writing-table, shut his eyes, and fell to
thinking. He pictured his Seryozha with a huge cigar, a yard
long, in the midst of clouds of tobacco smoke, and this
caricature made him smile; at the same time, the grave, troubled
face of the governess called up memories of the long past,
half-forgotten time when smoking aroused in his teachers and
parents a strange, not quite intelligible horror. It really was
horror. Children were mercilessly flogged and expelled from
school, and their lives were made a misery on account of
smoking, though not a single teacher or father knew exactly what
was the harm or sinfulness of smoking. Even very intelligent
people did not scruple to wage war on a vice which they did not
understand. Yevgeny Petrovitch remembered the head-master of the
high school, a very cultured and good-natured old man, who was
so appalled when he found a high-school boy with a cigarette in
his mouth that he turned pale, immediately summoned an emergency
committee of the teachers, and sentenced the sinner to
expulsion. This was probably a law of social life: the less an
evil was understood, the more fiercely and coarsely it was
The prosecutor remembered two or three boys who had been
expelled and their subsequent life, and could not help thinking
that very often the punishment did a great deal more harm than
the crime itself. The living organism has the power of rapidly
adapting itself, growing accustomed and inured to any atmosphere
whatever, otherwise man would be bound to feel at every moment
what an irrational basis there often is underlying his rational
activity, and how little of established truth and certainty
there is even in work so responsible and so terrible in its
effects as that of the teacher, of the lawyer, of the writer. .
And such light and discursive thoughts as visit the brain only
when it is weary and resting began straying through Yevgeny
Petrovitch's head; there is no telling whence and why they come,
they do not remain long in the mind, but seem to glide over its
surface without sinking deeply into it. For people who are
forced for whole hours, and even days, to think by routine in
one direction, such free private thinking affords a kind of
comfort, an agreeable solace.
It was between eight and nine o'clock in the evening. Overhead,
on the second storey, someone was walking up and down, and on
the floor above that four hands were playing scales. The pacing
of the man overhead who, to judge from his nervous step, was
thinking of something harassing, or was suffering from
toothache, and the monotonous scales gave the stillness of the
evening a drowsiness that disposed to lazy reveries. In the
nursery, two rooms away, the governess and Seryozha were
"Pa-pa has come!" carolled the child. "Papa has co-ome. Pa! Pa!
"Votre pre vous appelle, allez vite!" cried the governess,
shrill as a frightened bird. "I am speaking to you!"
"What am I to say to him, though?" Yevgeny Petrovitch wondered.
But before he had time to think of anything whatever his son
Seryozha, a boy of seven, walked into the study.
He was a child whose sex could only have been guessed from his
dress: weakly, white-faced, and fragile. He was limp like a
hot-house plant, and everything about him seemed extraordinarily
soft and tender: his movements, his curly hair, the look in his
eyes, his velvet jacket.
"Good evening, papa!" he said, in a soft voice, clambering on to
his father's knee and giving him a rapid kiss on his neck. "Did
you send for me?"
"Excuse me, Sergey Yevgenitch," answered the prosecutor,
removing him from his knee. "Before kissing we must have a talk,
and a serious talk . . . I am angry with you, and don't love you
any more. I tell you, my boy, I don't love you, and you are no
son of mine. . . ."
Seryozha looked intently at his father, then shifted his eyes to
the table, and shrugged his shoulders.
"What have I done to you?" he asked in perplexity, blinking. "I
haven't been in your study all day, and I haven't touched
"Natalya Semyonovna has just been complaining to me that you
have been smoking. . . . Is it true? Have you been smoking?"
"Yes, I did smoke once. . . . That's true. . . ."
"Now you see you are lying as well," said the prosecutor,
frowning to disguise a smile. "Natalya Semyonovna has seen you
smoking twice. So you see you have been detected in three
misdeeds: smoking, taking someone else's tobacco, and lying.
"Oh yes," Seryozha recollected, and his eyes smiled. "That's
true, that's true; I smoked twice: to-day and before."
"So you see it was not once, but twice. . . . I am very, very
much displeased with you! You used to be a good boy, but now I
see you are spoilt and have become a bad one."
Yevgeny Petrovitch smoothed down Seryozha's collar and thought:
"What more am I to say to him!"
"Yes, it's not right," he continued. "I did not expect it of
you. In the first place, you ought not to take tobacco that does
not belong to you. Every person has only the right to make use
of his own property; if he takes anyone else's . . . he is a bad
man!" ("I am not saying the right thing!" thought Yevgeny
Petrovitch.) "For instance, Natalya Semyonovna has a box with
her clothes in it. That's her box, and we -- that is, you and I
-- dare not touch it, as it is not ours. That's right, isn't it?
You've got toy horses and pictures. . . . I don't take them, do
I? Perhaps I might like to take them, but . . . they are not
mine, but yours!"
"Take them if you like!" said Seryozha, raising his eyebrows.
"Please don't hesitate, papa, take them! That yellow dog on your
table is mine, but I don't mind. . . . Let it stay."
"You don't understand me," said Bykovsky. "You have given me the
dog, it is mine now and I can do what I like with it; but I
didn't give you the tobacco! The tobacco is mine." ("I am not
explaining properly!" thought the prosecutor. "It's wrong! Quite
wrong!") "If I want to smoke someone else's tobacco, I must
first of all ask his permission. . . ."
Languidly linking one phrase on to another and imitating the
language of the nursery, Bykovsky tried to explain to his son
the meaning of property. Seryozha gazed at his chest and
listened attentively (he liked talking to his father in the
evening), then he leaned his elbow on the edge of the table and
began screwing up his short-sighted eyes at the papers and the
inkstand. His eyes strayed over the table and rested on the
"Papa, what is gum made of?" he asked suddenly, putting the
bottle to his eyes.
Bykovsky took the bottle out of his hands and set it in its
place and went on:
"Secondly, you smoke. . . . That's very bad. Though I smoke it
does not follow that you may. I smoke and know that it is
stupid, I blame myself and don't like myself for it." ("A clever
teacher, I am!" he thought.) "Tobacco is very bad for the
health, and anyone who smokes dies earlier than he should. It's
particularly bad for boys like you to smoke. Your chest is weak,
you haven't reached your full strength yet, and smoking leads to
consumption and other illness in weak people. Uncle Ignat died
of consumption, you know. If he hadn't smoked, perhaps he would
have lived till now."
Seryozha looked pensively at the lamp, touched the lamp-shade
with his finger, and heaved a sigh.
"Uncle Ignat played the violin splendidly!" he said. "His violin
is at the Grigoryevs' now."
Seryozha leaned his elbows on the edge of the table again, and
sank into thought. His white face wore a fixed expression, as
though he were listening or following a train of thought of his
own; distress and something like fear came into his big staring
eyes. He was most likely thinking now of death, which had so
lately carried off his mother and Uncle Ignat. Death carries
mothers and uncles off to the other world, while their children
and violins remain upon the earth. The dead live somewhere in
the sky beside the stars, and look down from there upon the
earth. Can they endure the parting?
"What am I to say to him?" thought Yevgeny Petrovitch. "He's not
listening to me. Obviously he does not regard either his
misdoings or my arguments as serious. How am I to drive it
The prosecutor got up and walked about the study.
"Formerly, in my time, these questions were very simply
settled," he reflected. "Every urchin who was caught smoking was
thrashed. The cowardly and faint-hearted did actually give up
smoking, any who were somewhat more plucky and intelligent,
after the thrashing took to carrying tobacco in the legs of
their boots, and smoking in the barn. When they were caught in
the barn and thrashed again, they would go away to smoke by the
river . . . and so on, till the boy grew up. My mother used to
give me money and sweets not to smoke. Now that method is looked
upon as worthless and immoral. The modern teacher, taking his
stand on logic, tries to make the child form good principles,
not from fear, nor from desire for distinction or reward, but
While he was walking about, thinking, Seryozha climbed up with
his legs on a chair sideways to the table, and began drawing.
That he might not spoil official paper nor touch the ink, a heap
of half-sheets, cut on purpose for him, lay on the table
together with a blue pencil.
"Cook was chopping up cabbage to-day and she cut her finger," he
said, drawing a little house and moving his eyebrows. "She gave
such a scream that we were all frightened and ran into the
kitchen. Stupid thing! Natalya Semyonovna told her to dip her
finger in cold water, but she sucked it . . . And how could she
put a dirty finger in her mouth! That's not proper, you know,
Then he went on to describe how, while they were having dinner,
a man with a hurdy-gurdy had come into the yard with a little
girl, who had danced and sung to the music.
"He has his own train of thought!" thought the prosecutor. "He
has a little world of his own in his head, and he has his own
ideas of what is important and unimportant. To gain possession
of his attention, it's not enough to imitate his language, one
must also be able to think in the way he does. He would
understand me perfectly if I really were sorry for the loss of
the tobacco, if I felt injured and cried. . . . That's why no
one can take the place of a mother in bringing up a child,
because she can feel, cry, and laugh together with the child.
One can do nothing by logic and morality. What more shall I say
to him? What?"
And it struck Yevgeny Petrovitch as strange and absurd that he,
an experienced advocate, who spent half his life in the practice
of reducing people to silence, forestalling what they had to
say, and punishing them, was completely at a loss and did not
know what to say to the boy.
"I say, give me your word of honour that you won't smoke again,"
"Word of hon-nour!" carolled Seryozha, pressing hard on the
pencil and bending over the drawing. "Word of hon-nour!"
"Does he know what is meant by word of honour?" Bykovsky asked
himself. "No, I am a poor teacher of morality! If some
schoolmaster or one of our legal fellows could peep into my
brain at this moment he would call me a poor stick, and would
very likely suspect me of unnecessary subtlety. . . . But in
school and in court, of course, all these wretched questions are
far more simply settled than at home; here one has to do with
people whom one loves beyond everything, and love is exacting
and complicates the question. If this boy were not my son, but
my pupil, or a prisoner on his trial, I should not be so
cowardly, and my thoughts would not be racing all over the
Yevgeny Petrovitch sat down to the table and pulled one of
Seryozha's drawings to him. In it there was a house with a
crooked roof, and smoke which came out of the chimney like a
flash of lightning in zigzags up to the very edge of the paper;
beside the house stood a soldier with dots for eyes and a
bayonet that looked like the figure 4.
"A man can't be taller than a house," said the prosecutor.
Seryozha got on his knee, and moved about for some time to get
comfortably settled there.
"No, papa!" he said, looking at his drawing. "If you were to
draw the soldier small you would not see his eyes."
Ought he to argue with him? From daily observation of his son
the prosecutor had become convinced that children, like savages,
have their own artistic standpoints and requirements peculiar to
them, beyond the grasp of grown-up people. Had he been
attentively observed, Seryozha might have struck a grown-up
person as abnormal. He thought it possible and reasonable to
draw men taller than houses, and to represent in pencil, not
only objects, but even his sensations. Thus he would depict the
sounds of an orchestra in the form of smoke like spherical
blurs, a whistle in the form of a spiral thread. . . . To his
mind sound was closely connected with form and colour, so that
when he painted letters he invariably painted the letter L
yellow, M red, A black, and so on.
Abandoning his drawing, Seryozha shifted about once more, got
into a comfortable attitude, and busied himself with his
father's beard. First he carefully smoothed it, then he parted
it and began combing it into the shape of whiskers.
"Now you are like Ivan Stepanovitch," he said, "and in a minute
you will be like our porter. Papa, why is it porters stand by
doors? Is it to prevent thieves getting in?"
The prosecutor felt the child's breathing on his face, he was
continually touching his hair with his cheek, and there was a
warm soft feeling in his soul, as soft as though not only his
hands but his whole soul were lying on the velvet of Seryozha's
He looked at the boy's big dark eyes, and it seemed to him as
though from those wide pupils there looked out at him his mother
and his wife and everything that he had ever loved.
"To think of thrashing him . . ." he mused. "A nice task to
devise a punishment for him! How can we undertake to bring up
the young? In old days people were simpler and thought less, and
so settled problems boldly. But we think too much, we are eaten
up by logic. . . . The more developed a man is, the more he
reflects and gives himself up to subtleties, the more undecided
and scrupulous he becomes, and the more timidity he shows in
taking action. How much courage and self-confidence it needs,
when one comes to look into it closely, to undertake to teach,
to judge, to write a thick book. . . ."
It struck ten.
"Come, boy, it's bedtime," said the prosecutor. "Say good-night
"No, papa," said Seryozha, "I will stay a little longer. Tell me
something! Tell me a story. . . ."
"Very well, only after the story you must go to bed at once."
Yevgeny Petrovitch on his free evenings was in the habit of
telling Seryozha stories. Like most people engaged in practical
affairs, he did not know a single poem by heart, and could not
remember a single fairy tale, so he had to improvise. As a rule
he began with the stereotyped: "In a certain country, in a
certain kingdom," then he heaped up all kinds of innocent
nonsense and had no notion as he told the beginning how the
story would go on, and how it would end. Scenes, characters, and
situations were taken at random, impromptu, and the plot and the
moral came of itself as it were, with no plan on the part of the
story-teller. Seryozha was very fond of this improvisation, and
the prosecutor noticed that the simpler and the less ingenious
the plot, the stronger the impression it made on the child.
"Listen," he said, raising his eyes to the ceiling. "Once upon a
time, in a certain country, in a certain kingdom, there lived an
old, very old emperor with a long grey beard, and . . . and with
great grey moustaches like this. Well, he lived in a glass
palace which sparkled and glittered in the sun, like a great
piece of clear ice. The palace, my boy, stood in a huge garden,
in which there grew oranges, you know . . . bergamots, cherries
. . . tulips, roses, and lilies-of-the-valley were in flower in
it, and birds of different colours sang there. . . . Yes. . . .
On the trees there hung little glass bells, and, when the wind
blew, they rang so sweetly that one was never tired of hearing
them. Glass gives a softer, tenderer note than metals. . . .
Well, what next? There were fountains in the garden. . . . Do
you remember you saw a fountain at Auntie Sonya's summer villa?
Well, there were fountains just like that in the emperor's
garden, only ever so much bigger, and the jets of water reached
to the top of the highest poplar."
Yevgeny Petrovitch thought a moment, and went on:
"The old emperor had an only son and heir of his kingdom -- a
boy as little as you. He was a good boy. He was never naughty,
he went to bed early, he never touched anything on the table,
and altogether he was a sensible boy. He had only one fault, he
used to smoke. . . ."
Seryozha listened attentively, and looked into his father's eyes
without blinking. The prosecutor went on, thinking: "What next?"
He spun out a long rigmarole, and ended like this:
"The emperor's son fell ill with consumption through smoking,
and died when he was twenty. His infirm and sick old father was
left without anyone to help him. There was no one to govern the
kingdom and defend the palace. Enemies came, killed the old man,
and destroyed the palace, and now there are neither cherries,
nor birds, nor little bells in the garden. . . . That's what
This ending struck Yevgeny Petrovitch as absurd and nave, but
the whole story made an intense impression on Seryozha. Again
his eyes were clouded by mournfulness and something like fear;
for a minute he looked pensively at the dark window, shuddered,
and said, in a sinking voice:
"I am not going to smoke any more. . . ."
When he had said good-night and gone away his father walked up
and down the room and smiled to himself.
"They would tell me it was the influence of beauty, artistic
form," he meditated. "It may be so, but that's no comfort. It's
not the right way, all the same. . . . Why must morality and
truth never be offered in their crude form, but only with
embellishments, sweetened and gilded like pills? It's not
normal. . . . It's falsification . . . deception . . . tricks .
. . ."
He thought of the jurymen to whom it was absolutely necessary to
make a "speech," of the general public who absorb history only
from legends and historical novels, and of himself and how he
had gathered an understanding of life not from sermons and laws,
but from fables, novels, poems.
"Medicine should be sweet, truth beautiful, and man has had this
foolish habit since the days of Adam . . . though, indeed,
perhaps it is all natural, and ought to be so. . . . There are
many deceptions and delusions in nature that serve a purpose."
He set to work, but lazy, intimate thoughts still strayed
through his mind for a good while. Overhead the scales could no
longer be heard, but the inhabitant of the second storey was
still pacing from one end of the room to another.
Votre pre vous appelle, allez vite!: Your father is calling
you, go at once.
official paper: legal documents had to be on special paper
bearing the Imperial Russian seal (a form of taxation)