A.P. Chekhov - A Problem
THE strictest measures were taken that the Uskovs' family secret
might not leak out and become generally known. Half of the
servants were sent off to the theatre or the circus; the other
half were sitting in the kitchen and not allowed to leave it.
Orders were given that no one was to be admitted. The wife of
the Colonel, her sister, and the governess, though they had been
initiated into the secret, kept up a pretence of knowing
nothing; they sat in the dining-room and did not show themselves
in the drawing-room or the hall.
Sasha Uskov, the young man of twenty-five who was the cause of
all the commotion, had arrived some time before, and by the
advice of kind-hearted Ivan Markovitch, his uncle, who was
taking his part, he sat meekly in the hall by the door leading
to the study, and prepared himself to make an open, candid
The other side of the door, in the study, a family council was
being held. The subject under discussion was an exceedingly
disagreeable and delicate one. Sasha Uskov had cashed at one of
the banks a false promissory note, and it had become due for
payment three days before, and now his two paternal uncles and
Ivan Markovitch, the brother of his dead mother, were deciding
the question whether they should pay the money and save the
family honour, or wash their hands of it and leave the case to
go for trial.
To outsiders who have no personal interest in the matter such
questions seem simple; for those who are so unfortunate as to
have to decide them in earnest they are extremely difficult. The
uncles had been talking for a long time, but the problem seemed
no nearer decision.
"My friends!" said the uncle who was a colonel, and there was a
note of exhaustion and bitterness in his voice. "Who says that
family honour is a mere convention? I don't say that at all. I
am only warning you against a false view; I am pointing out the
possibility of an unpardonable mistake. How can you fail to see
it? I am not speaking Chinese; I am speaking Russian!"
"My dear fellow, we do understand," Ivan Markovitch protested
"How can you understand if you say that I don't believe in
family honour? I repeat once more: fa-mil-y ho-nour fal-sely un-der-stood
is a prejudice! Falsely understood! That's what I say: whatever
may be the motives for screening a scoundrel, whoever he may be,
and helping him to escape punishment, it is contrary to law and
unworthy of a gentleman. It's not saving the family honour; it's
civic cowardice! Take the army, for instance. . . . The honour
of the army is more precious to us than any other honour, yet we
don't screen our guilty members, but condemn them. And does the
honour of the army suffer in consequence? Quite the opposite!"
The other paternal uncle, an official in the Treasury, a
taciturn, dull-witted, and rheumatic man, sat silent, or spoke
only of the fact that the Uskovs' name would get into the
newspapers if the case went for trial. His opinion was that the
case ought to be hushed up from the first and not become public
property; but, apart from publicity in the newspapers, he
advanced no other argument in support of this opinion.
The maternal uncle, kind-hearted Ivan Markovitch, spoke
smoothly, softly, and with a tremor in his voice. He began with
saying that youth has its rights and its peculiar temptations.
Which of us has not been young, and who has not been led astray?
To say nothing of ordinary mortals, even great men have not
escaped errors and mistakes in their youth. Take, for instance,
the biography of great writers. Did not every one of them
gamble, drink, and draw down upon himself the anger of
right-thinking people in his young days? If Sasha's error
bordered upon crime, they must remember that Sasha had received
practically no education; he had been expelled from the high
school in the fifth class; he had lost his parents in early
childhood, and so had been left at the tenderest age without
guidance and good, benevolent influences. He was nervous,
excitable, had no firm ground under his feet, and, above all, he
had been unlucky. Even if he were guilty, anyway he deserved
indulgence and the sympathy of all compassionate souls. He
ought, of course, to be punished, but he was punished as it was
by his conscience and the agonies he was enduring now while
awaiting the sentence of his relations. The comparison with the
army made by the Colonel was delightful, and did credit to his
lofty intelligence; his appeal to their feeling of public duty
spoke for the chivalry of his soul, but they must not forget
that in each individual the citizen is closely linked with the
Christian. . . .
"Shall we be false to civic duty," Ivan Markovitch exclaimed
passionately, "if instead of punishing an erring boy we hold out
to him a helping hand?"
Ivan Markovitch talked further of family honour. He had not the
honour to belong to the Uskov family himself, but he knew their
distinguished family went back to the thirteenth century; he did
not forget for a minute, either, that his precious, beloved
sister had been the wife of one of the representatives of that
name. In short, the family was dear to him for many reasons, and
he refused to admit the idea that, for the sake of a paltry
fifteen hundred roubles, a blot should be cast on the escutcheon
that was beyond all price. If all the motives he had brought
forward were not sufficiently convincing, he, Ivan Markovitch,
in conclusion, begged his listeners to ask themselves what was
meant by crime? Crime is an immoral act founded upon ill-will.
But is the will of man free? Philosophy has not yet given a
positive answer to that question. Different views were held by
the learned. The latest school of Lombroso, for instance, denies
the freedom of the will, and considers every crime as the
product of the purely anatomical peculiarities of the
"Ivan Markovitch," said the Colonel, in a voice of entreaty, "we
are talking seriously about an important matter, and you bring
in Lombroso, you clever fellow. Think a little, what are you
saying all this for? Can you imagine that all your thunderings
and rhetoric will furnish an answer to the question?"
Sasha Uskov sat at the door and listened. He felt neither
terror, shame, nor depression, but only weariness and inward
emptiness. It seemed to him that it made absolutely no
difference to him whether they forgave him or not; he had come
here to hear his sentence and to explain himself simply because
kind-hearted Ivan Markovitch had begged him to do so. He was not
afraid of the future. It made no difference to him where he was:
here in the hall, in prison, or in Siberia.
"If Siberia, then let it be Siberia, damn it all!"
He was sick of life and found it insufferably hard. He was
inextricably involved in debt; he had not a farthing in his
pocket; his family had become detestable to him; he would have
to part from his friends and his women sooner or later, as they
had begun to be too contemptuous of his sponging on them. The
future looked black.
Sasha was indifferent, and was only disturbed by one
circumstance; the other side of the door they were calling him a
scoundrel and a criminal. Every minute he was on the point of
jumping up, bursting into the study and shouting in answer to
the detestable metallic voice of the Colonel:
"You are lying!"
"Criminal" is a dreadful word -- that is what murderers,
thieves, robbers are; in fact, wicked and morally hopeless
people. And Sasha was very far from being all that. . . . It was
true he owed a great deal and did not pay his debts. But debt is
not a crime, and it is unusual for a man not to be in debt. The
Colonel and Ivan Markovitch were both in debt. . . .
"What have I done wrong besides?" Sasha wondered.
He had discounted a forged note. But all the young men he knew
did the same. Handrikov and Von Burst always forged IOU's from
their parents or friends when their allowances were not paid at
the regular time, and then when they got their money from home
they redeemed them before they became due. Sasha had done the
same, but had not redeemed the IOU because he had not got the
money which Handrikov had promised to lend him. He was not to
blame; it was the fault of circumstances. It was true that the
use of another person's signature was considered reprehensible;
but, still, it was not a crime but a generally accepted dodge,
an ugly formality which injured no one and was quite harmless,
for in forging the Colonel's signature Sasha had had no
intention of causing anybody damage or loss.
"No, it doesn't mean that I am a criminal . . ." thought Sasha.
"And it's not in my character to bring myself to commit a crime.
I am soft, emotional. . . . When I have the money I help the
poor. . . ."
Sasha was musing after this fashion while they went on talking
the other side of the door.
"But, my friends, this is endless," the Colonel declared,
getting excited. "Suppose we were to forgive him and pay the
money. You know he would not give up leading a dissipated life,
squandering money, making debts, going to our tailors and
ordering suits in our names! Can you guarantee that this will be
his last prank? As far as I am concerned, I have no faith
whatever in his reforming!"
The official of the Treasury muttered something in reply; after
him Ivan Markovitch began talking blandly and suavely again. The
Colonel moved his chair impatiently and drowned the other's
words with his detestable metallic voice. At last the door
opened and Ivan Markovitch came out of the study; there were
patches of red on his lean shaven face.
"Come along," he said, taking Sasha by the hand. "Come and speak
frankly from your heart. Without pride, my dear boy, humbly and
from your heart."
Sasha went into the study. The official of the Treasury was
sitting down; the Colonel was standing before the table with one
hand in his pocket and one knee on a chair. It was smoky and
stifling in the study. Sasha did not look at the official or the
Colonel; he felt suddenly ashamed and uncomfortable. He looked
uneasily at Ivan Markovitch and muttered:
"I'll pay it . . . I'll give it back. . . ."
"What did you expect when you discounted the IOU?" he heard a
"I . . . Handrikov promised to lend me the money before now."
Sasha could say no more. He went out of the study and sat down
again on the chair near the door.
He would have been glad to go away altogether at once, but he
was choking with hatred and he awfully wanted to remain, to tear
the Colonel to pieces, to say something rude to him. He sat
trying to think of something violent and effective to say to his
hated uncle, and at that moment a woman's figure, shrouded in
the twilight, appeared at the drawing-room door. It was the
Colonel's wife. She beckoned Sasha to her, and, wringing her
hands, said, weeping:
"Alexandre, I know you don't like me, but . . . listen to me;
listen, I beg you. . . . But, my dear, how can this have
happened? Why, it's awful, awful! For goodness' sake, beg them,
defend yourself, entreat them."
Sasha looked at her quivering shoulders, at the big tears that
were rolling down her cheeks, heard behind his back the hollow,
nervous voices of worried and exhausted people, and shrugged his
shoulders. He had not in the least expected that his
aristocratic relations would raise such a tempest over a paltry
fifteen hundred roubles! He could not understand her tears nor
the quiver of their voices.
An hour later he heard that the Colonel was getting the best of
it; the uncles were finally inclining to let the case go for
"The matter's settled," said the Colonel, sighing. "Enough."
After this decision all the uncles, even the emphatic Colonel,
became noticeably depressed. A silence followed.
"Merciful Heavens!" sighed Ivan Markovitch. "My poor sister!"
And he began saying in a subdued voice that most likely his
sister, Sasha's mother, was present unseen in the study at that
moment. He felt in his soul how the unhappy, saintly woman was
weeping, grieving, and begging for her boy. For the sake of her
peace beyond the grave, they ought to spare Sasha.
The sound of a muffled sob was heard. Ivan Markovitch was
weeping and muttering something which it was impossible to catch
through the door. The Colonel got up and paced from corner to
corner. The long conversation began over again.
But then the clock in the drawing-room struck two. The family
council was over. To avoid seeing the person who had moved him
to such wrath, the Colonel went from the study, not into the
hall, but into the vestibule. . . . Ivan Markovitch came out
into the hall. . . . He was agitated and rubbing his hands
joyfully. His tear-stained eyes looked good-humoured and his
mouth was twisted into a smile.
"Capital," he said to Sasha. "Thank God! You can go home, my
dear, and sleep tranquilly. We have decided to pay the sum, but
on condition that you repent and come with me tomorrow into the
country and set to work."
A minute later Ivan Markovitch and Sasha in their great-coats
and caps were going down the stairs. The uncle was muttering
something edifying. Sasha did not listen, but felt as though
some uneasy weight were gradually slipping off his shoulders.
They had forgiven him; he was free! A gust of joy sprang up
within him and sent a sweet chill to his heart. He longed to
breathe, to move swiftly, to live! Glancing at the street lamps
and the black sky, he remembered that Von Burst was celebrating
his name-day that evening at the "Bear," and again a rush of joy
flooded his soul. . . .
"I am going!" he decided.
But then he remembered he had not a farthing, that the
companions he was going to would despise him at once for his
empty pockets. He must get hold of some money, come what may!
"Uncle, lend me a hundred roubles," he said to Ivan Markovitch.
His uncle, surprised, looked into his face and backed against a
"Give it to me," said Sasha, shifting impatiently from one foot
to the other and beginning to pant. "Uncle, I entreat you, give
me a hundred roubles."
His face worked; he trembled, and seemed on the point of
attacking his uncle. . . .
"Won't you?" he kept asking, seeing that his uncle was still
amazed and did not understand. "Listen. If you don't, I'll give
myself up tomorrow! I won't let you pay the IOU! I'll present
another false note tomorrow!"
Petrified, muttering something incoherent in his horror, Ivan
Markovitch took a hundred-rouble note out of his pocket-book and
gave it to Sasha. The young man took it and walked rapidly away
from him. . . .
Taking a sledge, Sasha grew calmer, and felt a rush of joy
within him again. The "rights of youth" of which kind-hearted
Ivan Markovitch had spoken at the family council woke up and
asserted themselves. Sasha pictured the drinking-party before
him, and, among the bottles, the women, and his friends, the
thought flashed through his mind:
"Now I see that I am a criminal; yes, I am a criminal."
Lombroso: Ceasare Lombroso (1836-1909) was an Italian
criminologist who suggested that criminals can be identified by
certain physical characteristics
name-day: Russians celebrate the feast day of the saint after
whom they are named