A.P. Chekhov -
IT happened not so long ago in the Moscow
circuit court. The jurymen, left in the court for the night,
before lying down to sleep fell into conversation about strong
impressions. They were led to this discussion by recalling a
witness who, by his own account, had begun to stammer and had
gone grey owing to a terrible moment. The jurymen decided that
before going to sleep, each one of them should ransack among his
memories and tell something that had happened to him. Man's life
is brief, but yet there is no man who cannot boast that there
have been terrible moments in his past.
One juryman told the story of how he was nearly drowned; another
described how, in a place where there were neither doctors nor
chemists, he had one night poisoned his own son through giving
him zinc vitriol by mistake for soda. The child did not die, but
the father nearly went out of his mind. A third, a man not old
but in bad health, told how he had twice attempted to commit
suicide: the first time by shooting himself and the second time
by throwing himself before a train.
The fourth, a foppishly dressed, fat little man, told us the
"I was not more than twenty-two or twenty-three when I fell head
over ears in love with my present wife and made her an offer.
Now I could with pleasure thrash myself for my early marriage,
but at the time, I don't know what would have become of me if
Natasha had refused me. My love was absolutely the real thing,
just as it is described in novels -- frantic, passionate, and so
on. My happiness overwhelmed me and I did not know how to get
away from it, and I bored my father and my friends and the
servants, continually talking about the fervour of my passion.
Happy people are the most sickening bores. I was a fearful bore;
I feel ashamed of it even now. . . .
"Among my friends there was in those days a young man who was
beginning his career as a lawyer. Now he is a lawyer known all
over Russia; in those days he was only just beginning to gain
recognition and was not rich and famous enough to be entitled to
cut an old friend when he met him. I used to go and see him once
or twice a week. We used to loll on sofas and begin discussing
"One day I was lying on his sofa, arguing that there was no more
ungrateful profession than that of a lawyer. I tried to prove
that as soon as the examination of witnesses is over the court
can easily dispense with both the counsels for the prosecution
and for the defence, because they are neither of them necessary
and are only in the way. If a grown-up juryman, morally and
mentally sane, is convinced that the ceiling is white, or that
Ivanov is guilty, to struggle with that conviction and to
vanquish it is beyond the power of any Demosthenes. Who can
convince me that I have a red moustache when I know that it is
black? As I listen to an orator I may perhaps grow sentimental
and weep, but my fundamental conviction, based for the most part
on unmistakable evidence and fact, is not changed in the least.
My lawyer maintained that I was young and foolish and that I was
talking childish nonsense. In his opinion, for one thing, an
obvious fact becomes still more obvious through light being
thrown upon it by conscientious, well-informed people; for
another, talent is an elemental force, a hurricane capable of
turning even stones to dust, let alone such trifles as the
convictions of artisans and merchants of the second guild. It is
as hard for human weakness to struggle against talent as to look
at the sun without winking, or to stop the wind. One simple
mortal by the power of the word turns thousands of convinced
savages to Christianity; Odysseus was a man of the firmest
convictions, but he succumbed to the Syrens, and so on. All
history consists of similar examples, and in life they are met
with at every turn; and so it is bound to be, or the intelligent
and talented man would have no superiority over the stupid and
"I stuck to my point, and went on maintaining that convictions
are stronger than any talent, though, frankly speaking, I could
not have defined exactly what I meant by conviction or what I
meant by talent. Most likely I simply talked for the sake of
" 'Take you, for example,' said the lawyer. 'You are convinced
at this moment that your fiance is an angel and that there is
not a man in the whole town happier than you. But I tell you:
ten or twenty minutes would be enough for me to make you sit
down to this table and write to your fiance, breaking off your
" 'Don't laugh, I am speaking seriously,' said my friend. 'If I
choose, in twenty minutes you will be happy at the thought that
you need not get married. Goodness knows what talent I have, but
you are not one of the strong sort.'
" 'Well, try it on!' said I.
" 'No, what for? I am only telling you this. You are a good boy
and it would be cruel to subject you to such an experiment. And
besides I am not in good form to-day.'
"We sat down to supper. The wine and the thought of Natasha, my
beloved, flooded my whole being with youth and happiness. My
happiness was so boundless that the lawyer sitting opposite to
me with his green eyes seemed to me an unhappy man, so small, so
grey. . . .
" 'Do try!' I persisted. 'Come, I entreat you!
"The lawyer shook his head and frowned. Evidently I was
beginning to bore him.
" 'I know,' he said, 'after my experiment you will say, thank
you, and will call me your saviour; but you see I must think of
your fiance too. She loves you; your jilting her would make her
suffer. And what a charming creature she is! I envy you.'
"The lawyer sighed, sipped his wine, and began talking of how
charming my Natasha was. He had an extraordinary gift of
description. He could knock you off a regular string of words
about a woman's eyelashes or her little finger. I listened to
him with relish.
" 'I have seen a great many women in my day,' he said, 'but I
give you my word of honour, I speak as a friend, your Natasha
Andreyevna is a pearl, a rare girl. Of course she has her
defects -- many of them, in fact, if you like -- but still she
"And the lawyer began talking of my fiance's defects. Now I
understand very well that he was talking of women in general, of
their weak points in general, but at the time it seemed to me
that he was talking only of Natasha. He went into ecstasies over
her turn-up nose, her shrieks, her shrill laugh, her airs and
graces, precisely all the things I so disliked in her. All that
was, to his thinking, infinitely sweet, graceful, and feminine.
"Without my noticing it, he quickly passed from his enthusiastic
tone to one of fatherly admonition, and then to a light and
derisive one. . . . There was no presiding judge and no one to
check the diffusiveness of the lawyer. I had not time to open my
mouth, besides, what could I say? What my friend said was not
new, it was what everyone has known for ages, and the whole
venom lay not in what he said, but in the damnable form he put
it in. It really was beyond anything!
"As I listened to him then I learned that the same word has
thousands of shades of meaning according to the tone in which it
is pronounced, and the form which is given to the sentence. Of
course I cannot reproduce the tone or the form; I can only say
that as I listened to my friend and walked up and down the room,
I was moved to resentment, indignation, and contempt together
with him. I even believed him when with tears in his eyes he
informed me that I was a great man, that I was worthy of a
better fate, that I was destined to achieve something in the
future which marriage would hinder!
" 'My friend!' he exclaimed, pressing my hand. 'I beseech you, I
adjure you: stop before it is too late. Stop! May Heaven
preserve you from this strange, cruel mistake! My friend, do not
ruin your youth!'
"Believe me or not, as you choose, but the long and the short of
it was that I sat down to the table and wrote to my fiance,
breaking off the engagement. As I wrote I felt relieved that it
was not yet too late to rectify my mistake. Sealing the letter,
I hastened out into the street to post it. The lawyer himself
came with me.
" 'Excellent! Capital!' he applauded me as my letter to Natasha
disappeared into the darkness of the box. 'I congratulate you
with all my heart. I am glad for you.'
"After walking a dozen paces with me the lawyer went on:
" 'Of course, marriage has its good points. I, for instance,
belong to the class of people to whom marriage and home life is
"And he proceeded to describe his life, and lay before me all
the hideousness of a solitary bachelor existence.
"He spoke with enthusiasm of his future wife, of the sweets of
ordinary family life, and was so eloquent, so sincere in his
ecstasies that by the time we had reached his door, I was in
" 'What are you doing to me, you horrible man?' I said, gasping.
'You have ruined me! Why did you make me write that cursed
letter? I love her, I love her!'
"And I protested my love. I was horrified at my conduct which
now seemed to me wild and senseless. It is impossible,
gentlemen, to imagine a more violent emotion than I experienced
at that moment. Oh, what I went through, what I suffered! If
some kind person had thrust a revolver into my hand at that
moment, I should have put a bullet through my brains with
" 'Come, come . . .' said the lawyer, slapping me on the
shoulder, and he laughed. 'Give over crying. The letter won't
reach your fiance. It was not you who wrote the address but I,
and I muddled it so they won't be able to make it out at the
post-office. It will be a lesson to you not to argue about what
you don't understand.'
"Now, gentlemen, I leave it to the next to speak."
The fifth juryman settled himself more comfortably, and had just
opened his mouth to begin his story when we heard the clock
strike on Spassky Tower.
"Twelve . . ." one of the jurymen counted. "And into which
class, gentlemen, would you put the emotions that are being
experienced now by the man we are trying? He, that murderer, is
spending the night in a convict cell here in the court, sitting
or lying down and of course not sleeping, and throughout the
whole sleepless night listening to that chime. What is he
thinking of? What visions are haunting him?"
And the jurymen all suddenly forgot about strong impressions;
what their companion who had once written a letter to his
Natasha had suffered seemed unimportant, even not amusing; and
no one said anything more; they began quietly and in silence
lying down to sleep.
zinc vitriol: zinc sulfate, a colorless crystalline powder used
as a wood preserver and a dietary supplement
Demosthenes: 383-211 BC, the most famous orator among the
Odysseus was a man of the firmest convictions, but he succumbed
to the Syrens: In Book XII of Homer's The Odyssey Odysseus is
bound to the mast of the ship by his men as they pass the Syrens
so that he can hear their song but remain safe