A.P. Chekhov -
VANKA ZHUKOV, a boy of nine, who had been for
three months apprenticed to Alyahin the shoemaker, was sitting
up on Christmas Eve. Waiting till his master and mistress and
their workmen had gone to the midnight service, he took out of
his master's cupboard a bottle of ink and a pen with a rusty
nib, and, spreading out a crumpled sheet of paper in front of
him, began writing. Before forming the first letter he several
times looked round fearfully at the door and the windows, stole
a glance at the dark ikon, on both sides of which stretched
shelves full of lasts, and heaved a broken sigh. The paper lay
on the bench while he knelt before it.
"Dear grandfather, Konstantin Makaritch," he wrote, "I am
writing you a letter. I wish you a happy Christmas, and all
blessings from God Almighty. I have neither father nor mother,
you are the only one left me."
Vanka raised his eyes to the dark ikon on which the light of his
candle was reflected, and vividly recalled his grandfather,
Konstantin Makaritch, who was night watchman to a family called
Zhivarev. He was a thin but extraordinarily nimble and lively
little old man of sixty-five, with an everlastingly laughing
face and drunken eyes. By day he slept in the servants' kitchen,
or made jokes with the cooks; at night, wrapped in an ample
sheepskin, he walked round the grounds and tapped with his
little mallet. Old Kashtanka and Eel, so-called on account of
his dark colour and his long body like a weasel's, followed him
with hanging heads. This Eel was exceptionally polite and
affectionate, and looked with equal kindness on strangers and
his own masters, but had not a very good reputation. Under his
politeness and meekness was hidden the most Jesuitical cunning.
No one knew better how to creep up on occasion and snap at one's
legs, to slip into the store-room, or steal a hen from a
peasant. His hind legs had been nearly pulled off more than
once, twice he had been hanged, every week he was thrashed till
he was half dead, but he always revived.
At this moment grandfather was, no doubt, standing at the gate,
screwing up his eyes at the red windows of the church, stamping
with his high felt boots, and joking with the servants. His
little mallet was hanging on his belt. He was clasping his
hands, shrugging with the cold, and, with an aged chuckle,
pinching first the housemaid, then the cook.
"How about a pinch of snuff?" he was saying, offering the women
The women would take a sniff and sneeze. Grandfather would be
indescribably delighted, go off into a merry chuckle, and cry:
"Tear it off, it has frozen on!"
They give the dogs a sniff of snuff too. Kashtanka sneezes,
wriggles her head, and walks away offended. Eel does not sneeze,
from politeness, but wags his tail. And the weather is glorious.
The air is still, fresh, and transparent. The night is dark, but
one can see the whole village with its white roofs and coils of
smoke coming from the chimneys, the trees silvered with hoar
frost, the snowdrifts. The whole sky spangled with gay twinkling
stars, and the Milky Way is as distinct as though it had been
washed and rubbed with snow for a holiday. . . .
Vanka sighed, dipped his pen, and went on writing:
"And yesterday I had a wigging. The master pulled me out into
the yard by my hair, and whacked me with a boot-stretcher
because I accidentally fell asleep while I was rocking their
brat in the cradle. And a week ago the mistress told me to clean
a herring, and I began from the tail end, and she took the
herring and thrust its head in my face. The workmen laugh at me
and send me to the tavern for vodka, and tell me to steal the
master's cucumbers for them, and the master beats me with
anything that comes to hand. And there is nothing to eat. In the
morning they give me bread, for dinner, porridge, and in the
evening, bread again; but as for tea, or soup, the master and
mistress gobble it all up themselves. And I am put to sleep in
the passage, and when their wretched brat cries I get no sleep
at all, but have to rock the cradle. Dear grandfather, show the
divine mercy, take me away from here, home to the village. It's
more than I can bear. I bow down to your feet, and will pray to
God for you for ever, take me away from here or I shall die."
Vanka's mouth worked, he rubbed his eyes with his black fist,
and gave a sob.
"I will powder your snuff for you," he went on. "I will pray for
you, and if I do anything you can thrash me like Sidor's goat.
And if you think I've no job, then I will beg the steward for
Christ's sake to let me clean his boots, or I'll go for a
shepherd-boy instead of Fedka. Dear grandfather, it is more than
I can bear, it's simply no life at all. I wanted to run away to
the village, but I have no boots, and I am afraid of the frost.
When I grow up big I will take care of you for this, and not let
anyone annoy you, and when you die I will pray for the rest of
your soul, just as for my mammy's."
"Moscow is a big town. It's all gentlemen's houses, and there
are lots of horses, but there are no sheep, and the dogs are not
spiteful. The lads here don't go out with the star, and they
don't let anyone go into the choir, and once I saw in a shop
window fishing-hooks for sale, fitted ready with the line and
for all sorts of fish, awfully good ones, there was even one
hook that would hold a forty-pound sheat-fish. And I have seen
shops where there are guns of all sorts, after the pattern of
the master's guns at home, so that I shouldn't wonder if they
are a hundred roubles each. . . . And in the butchers' shops
there are grouse and woodcocks and fish and hares, but the
shopmen don't say where they shoot them."
"Dear grandfather, when they have the Christmas tree at the big
house, get me a gilt walnut, and put it away in the green trunk.
Ask the young lady Olga Ignatyevna, say it's for Vanka."
Vanka gave a tremulous sigh, and again stared at the window. He
remembered how his grandfather always went into the forest to
get the Christmas tree for his master's family, and took his
grandson with him. It was a merry time! Grandfather made a noise
in his throat, the forest crackled with the frost, and looking
at them Vanka chortled too. Before chopping down the Christmas
tree, grandfather would smoke a pipe, slowly take a pinch of
snuff, and laugh at frozen Vanka. . . . The young fir trees,
covered with hoar frost, stood motionless, waiting to see which
of them was to die. Wherever one looked, a hare flew like an
arrow over the snowdrifts. . . . Grandfather could not refrain
from shouting: "Hold him, hold him . . . hold him! Ah, the
When he had cut down the Christmas tree, grandfather used to
drag it to the big house, and there set to work to decorate it.
. . . The young lady, who was Vanka's favourite, Olga Ignatyevna,
was the busiest of all. When Vanka's mother Pelageya was alive,
and a servant in the big house, Olga Ignatyevna used to give him
goodies, and having nothing better to do, taught him to read and
write, to count up to a hundred, and even to dance a quadrille.
When Pelageya died, Vanka had been transferred to the servants'
kitchen to be with his grandfather, and from the kitchen to the
shoemaker's in Moscow.
"Do come, dear grandfather," Vanka went on with his letter. "For
Christ's sake, I beg you, take me away. Have pity on an unhappy
orphan like me; here everyone knocks me about, and I am
fearfully hungry; I can't tell you what misery it is, I am
always crying. And the other day the master hit me on the head
with a last, so that I fell down. My life is wretched, worse
than any dog's. . . . I send greetings to Alyona, one-eyed
Yegorka, and the coachman, and don't give my concertina to
anyone. I remain, your grandson, Ivan Zhukov. Dear grandfather,
Vanka folded the sheet of writing-paper twice, and put it into
an envelope he had bought the day before for a kopeck. . . .
After thinking a little, he dipped the pen and wrote the
To grandfather in the village.
Then he scratched his head, thought a little, and added:
Konstantin Makaritch. Glad that he had not been prevented from
writing, he put on his cap and, without putting on his little
greatcoat, ran out into the street as he was in his shirt. . . .
The shopmen at the butcher's, whom he had questioned the day
before, told him that letters were put in post-boxes, and from
the boxes were carried about all over the earth in mailcarts
with drunken drivers and ringing bells. Vanka ran to the nearest
post-box, and thrust the precious letter in the slit. . . .
An hour later, lulled by sweet hopes, he was sound asleep. . . .
He dreamed of the stove. On the stove was sitting his
grandfather, swinging his bare legs, and reading the letter to
the cooks. . . .
By the stove was Eel, wagging his tail.
Vanka: a dimutive of the name Ivan
mallet: a Russian night watchman used a wooden noisemaker to
signal his presence, thus alerting his employer that he was on
duty and also warning potential troublemakers that the grounds
Kashtanka: a common name for a dog in Russian
star: it was a common Christmas custom in rural Russia to go in
procession from house to house carrying a star symbol while
telling stories and singing religious songs
get me a gilt walnut: a nut wrapped in gold foil as a Christmas
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