A.P. Chekhov -
THE town was a little one, worse than a
village, and it was inhabited by scarcely any but old people who
died with an infrequency that was really annoying. In the
hospital and in the prison fortress very few coffins were
needed. In fact business was bad. If Yakov Ivanov had been an
undertaker in the chief town of the province he would certainly
have had a house of his own, and people would have addressed him
as Yakov Matveyitch; here in this wretched little town people
called him simply Yakov; his nickname in the street was for some
reason Bronze, and he lived in a poor way like a humble peasant,
in a little old hut in which there was only one room, and in
this room he and Marfa, the stove, a double bed, the coffins,
his bench, and all their belongings were crowded together.
Yakov made good, solid coffins. For peasants and working people
he made them to fit himself, and this was never unsuccessful,
for there were none taller and stronger than he, even in the
prison, though he was seventy. For gentry and for women he made
them to measure, and used an iron foot-rule for the purpose. He
was very unwilling to take orders for children's coffins, and
made them straight off without measurements, contemptuously, and
when he was paid for the work he always said:
"I must confess I don't like trumpery jobs."
Apart from his trade, playing the fiddle brought him in a small
The Jews' orchestra conducted by Moisey Ilyitch Shahkes, the
tinsmith, who took more than half their receipts for himself,
played as a rule at weddings in the town. As Yakov played very
well on the fiddle, especially Russian songs, Shahkes sometimes
invited him to join the orchestra at a fee of half a rouble a
day, in addition to tips from the visitors. When Bronze sat in
the orchestra first of all his face became crimson and
perspiring; it was hot, there was a suffocating smell of garlic,
the fiddle squeaked, the double bass wheezed close to his right
ear, while the flute wailed at his left, played by a gaunt,
red-haired Jew who had a perfect network of red and blue veins
all over his face, and who bore the name of the famous
millionaire Rothschild. And this accursed Jew contrived to play
even the liveliest things plaintively. For no apparent reason
Yakov little by little became possessed by hatred and contempt
for the Jews, and especially for Rothschild; he began to pick
quarrels with him, rail at him in unseemly language and once
even tried to strike him, and Rothschild was offended and said,
looking at him ferociously:
"If it were not that I respect you for your talent, I would have
sent you flying out of the window."
Then he began to weep. And because of this Yakov was not often
asked to play in the orchestra; he was only sent for in case of
extreme necessity in the absence of one of the Jews.
Yakov was never in a good temper, as he was continually having
to put up with terrible losses. For instance, it was a sin to
work on Sundays or Saints' days, and Monday was an unlucky day,
so that in the course of the year there were some two hundred
days on which, whether he liked it or not, he had to sit with
his hands folded. And only think, what a loss that meant. If
anyone in the town had a wedding without music, or if Shahkes
did not send for Yakov, that was a loss, too. The superintendent
of the prison was ill for two years and was wasting away, and
Yakov was impatiently waiting for him to die, but the
superintendent went away to the chief town of the province to be
doctored, and there took and died. There's a loss for you, ten
roubles at least, as there would have been an expensive coffin
to make, lined with brocade. The thought of his losses haunted
Yakov, especially at night; he laid his fiddle on the bed beside
him, and when all sorts of nonsensical ideas came into his mind
he touched a string; the fiddle gave out a sound in the
darkness, and he felt better.
On the sixth of May of the previous year Marfa had suddenly been
taken ill. The old woman's breathing was laboured, she drank a
great deal of water, and she staggered as she walked, yet she
lighted the stove in the morning and even went herself to get
water. Towards evening she lay down. Yakov played his fiddle all
day; when it was quite dark he took the book in which he used
every day to put down his losses, and, feeling dull, he began
adding up the total for the year. It came to more than a
thousand roubles. This so agitated him that he flung the
reckoning beads down, and trampled them under his feet. Then he
picked up the reckoning beads, and again spent a long time
clicking with them and heaving deep, strained sighs. His face
was crimson and wet with perspiration. He thought that if he had
put that lost thousand roubles in the bank, the interest for a
year would have been at least forty roubles, so that forty
roubles was a loss too. In fact, wherever one turned there were
losses and nothing else.
"Yakov!" Marfa called unexpectedly. "I am dying."
He looked round at his wife. Her face was rosy with fever,
unusually bright and joyful-looking. Bronze, accustomed to
seeing her face always pale, timid, and unhappy-looking, was
bewildered. It looked as if she really were dying and were glad
that she was going away for ever from that hut, from the
coffins, and from Yakov. . . . And she gazed at the ceiling and
moved her lips, and her expression was one of happiness, as
though she saw death as her deliverer and were whispering with
It was daybreak; from the windows one could see the flush of
dawn. Looking at the old woman, Yakov for some reason reflected
that he had not once in his life been affectionate to her, had
had no feeling for her, had never once thought to buy her a
kerchief, or to bring her home some dainty from a wedding, but
had done nothing but shout at her, scold her for his losses,
shake his fists at her; it is true he had never actually beaten
her, but he had frightened her, and at such times she had always
been numb with terror. Why, he had forbidden her to drink tea
because they spent too much without that, and she drank only hot
water. And he understood why she had such a strange, joyful face
now, and he was overcome with dread.
As soon as it was morning he borrowed a horse from a neighbour
and took Marfa to the hospital. There were not many patients
there, and so he had not long to wait, only three hours. To his
great satisfaction the patients were not being received by the
doctor, who was himself ill, but by the assistant, Maxim
Nikolaitch, an old man of whom everyone in the town used to say
that, though he drank and was quarrelsome, he knew more than the
"I wish you good-day," said Yakov, leading his old woman into
the consulting room. "You must excuse us, Maxim Nikolaitch, we
are always troubling you with our trumpery affairs. Here you see
my better half is ailing, the partner of my life, as they say,
excuse the expression. . . ."
Knitting his grizzled brows and stroking his whiskers the
assistant began to examine the old woman, and she sat on a
stool, a wasted, bent figure with a sharp nose and open mouth,
looking like a bird that wants to drink.
"H------m . . . Ah! . . ." the assistant said slowly, and he
heaved a sigh. "Influenza and possibly fever. There's typhus in
the town now. Well, the old woman has lived her life, thank God.
. . . How old is she?"
"She'll be seventy in another year, Maxim Nikolaitch."
"Well, the old woman has lived her life, it's time to say
"You are quite right in what you say, of course, Maxim
Nikolaitch," said Yakov, smiling from politeness, "and we thank
you feelingly for your kindness, but allow me to say every
insect wants to live."
"To be sure," said the assistant, in a tone which suggested that
it depended upon him whether the woman lived or died. "Well,
then, my good fellow, put a cold compress on her head, and give
her these powders twice a day, and so good-bye. Bonjour."
From the expression of his face Yakov saw that it was a bad
case, and that no sort of powders would be any help; it was
clear to him that Marfa would die very soon, if not to-day,
to-morrow. He nudged the assistant's elbow, winked at him, and
said in a low voice:
"If you would just cup her, Maxim Nikolaitch."
"I have no time, I have no time, my good fellow. Take your old
woman and go in God's name. Goodbye."
"Be so gracious," Yakov besought him. "You know yourself that
if, let us say, it were her stomach or her inside that were bad,
then powders or drops, but you see she had got a chill! In a
chill the first thing is to let blood, Maxim Nikolaitch."
But the assistant had already sent for the next patient, and a
peasant woman came into the consulting room with a boy.
"Go along! go along," he said to Yakov, frowning. "It's no use
"In that case put on leeches, anyway! Make us pray for you for
The assistant flew into a rage and shouted:
"You speak to me again! You blockhead. . . ."
Yakov flew into a rage too, and he turned crimson all over, but
he did not utter a word. He took Marfa on his arm and led her
out of the room. Only when they were sitting in the cart he
looked morosely and ironically at the hospital, and said:
"A nice set of artists they have settled here! No fear, but he
would have cupped a rich man, but even a leech he grudges to the
poor. The Herods!"
When they got home and went into the hut, Marfa stood for ten
minutes holding on to the stove. It seemed to her that if she
were to lie down Yakov would talk to her about his losses, and
scold her for lying down and not wanting to work. Yakov looked
at her drearily and thought that to-morrow was St. John the
Divine's, and next day St. Nikolay the Wonder-worker's, and the
day after that was Sunday, and then Monday, an unlucky day. For
four days he would not be able to work, and most likely Marfa
would die on one of those days; so he would have to make the
coffin to-day. He picked up his iron rule, went up to the old
woman and took her measure. Then she lay down, and he crossed
himself and began making the coffin.
When the coffin was finished Bronze put on his spectacles and
wrote in his book: "Marfa Ivanov's coffin, two roubles, forty
And he heaved a sigh. The old woman lay all the time silent with
her eyes closed. But in the evening, when it got dark, she
suddenly called the old man.
"Do you remember, Yakov," she asked, looking at him joyfully.
"Do you remember fifty years ago God gave us a little baby with
flaxen hair? We used always to be sitting by the river then,
singing songs . . . under the willows," and laughing bitterly,
she added: "The baby girl died."
Yakov racked his memory, but could not remember the baby or the
"It's your fancy," he said.
The priest arrived; he administered the sacrament and extreme
unction. Then Marfa began muttering something unintelligible,
and towards morning she died. Old women, neighbours, washed her,
dressed her, and laid her in the coffin. To avoid paying the
sacristan, Yakov read the psalms over the body himself, and they
got nothing out of him for the grave, as the grave-digger was a
crony of his. Four peasants carried the coffin to the graveyard,
not for money, but from respect. The coffin was followed by old
women, beggars, and a couple of crazy saints, and the people who
met it crossed themselves piously. . . . And Yakov was very much
pleased that it was so creditable, so decorous, and so cheap,
and no offence to anyone. As he took his last leave of Marfa he
touched the coffin and thought: "A good piece of work!"
But as he was going back from the cemetery he was overcome by
acute depression. He didn't feel quite well: his breathing was
laboured and feverish, his legs felt weak, and he had a craving
for drink. And thoughts of all sorts forced themselves on his
mind. He remembered again that all his life he had never felt
for Marfa, had never been affectionate to her. The fifty-two
years they had lived in the same hut had dragged on a long, long
time, but it had somehow happened that in all that time he had
never once thought of her, had paid no attention to her, as
though she had been a cat or a dog. And yet, every day, she had
lighted the stove had cooked and baked, had gone for the water,
had chopped the wood, had slept with him in the same bed, and
when he came home drunk from the weddings always reverently hung
his fiddle on the wall and put him to bed, and all this in
silence, with a timid, anxious expression.
Rothschild, smiling and bowing, came to meet Yakov.
"I was looking for you, uncle," he said. "Moisey Ilyitch sends
you his greetings and bids you come to him at once."
Yakov felt in no mood for this. He wanted to cry.
"Leave me alone," he said, and walked on.
"How can you," Rothschild said, fluttered, running on in front.
"Moisey Ilyitch will be offended! He bade you come at once!"
Yakov was revolted at the Jew's gasping for breath and blinking,
and having so many red freckles on his face. And it was
disgusting to look at his green coat with black patches on it,
and all his fragile, refined figure.
"Why are you pestering me, garlic?" shouted Yakov. "Don't
The Jew got angry and shouted too:
"Not so noisy, please, or I'll send you flying over the fence!"
"Get out of my sight!" roared Yakov, and rushed at him with his
fists. "One can't live for you scabby Jews!"
Rothschild, half dead with terror, crouched down and waved his
hands over his head, as though to ward off a blow; then he leapt
up and ran away as fast as his legs could carry him: as he ran
he gave little skips and kept clasping his hands, and Yakov
could see how his long thin spine wriggled. Some boys, delighted
at the incident, ran after him shouting "Jew! Jew!" Some dogs
joined in the chase barking. Someone burst into a roar of
laughter, then gave a whistle; the dogs barked with even more
noise and unanimity. Then a dog must have bitten Rothschild, as
a desperate, sickly scream was heard.
Yakov went for a walk on the grazing ground, then wandered on at
random in the outskirts of the town, while the street boys
"Here's Bronze! Here's Bronze!"
He came to the river, where the curlews floated in the air
uttering shrill cries and the ducks quacked. The sun was blazing
hot, and there was a glitter from the water, so that it hurt the
eyes to look at it. Yakov walked by a path along the bank and
saw a plump, rosy-cheeked lady come out of the bathing-shed, and
thought about her: "Ugh! you otter!"
Not far from the bathing-shed boys were catching crayfish with
bits of meat; seeing him, they began shouting spitefully,
"Bronze! Bronze!" And then he saw an old spreading willow-tree
with a big hollow in it, and a crow's nest on it. . . . And
suddenly there rose up vividly in Yakov's memory a baby with
flaxen hair, and the willow-tree Marfa had spoken of. Why, that
is it, the same willow-tree -- green, still, and sorrowful. . .
. How old it has grown, poor thing!
He sat down under it and began to recall the past. On the other
bank, where now there was the water meadow, in those days there
stood a big birchwood, and yonder on the bare hillside that
could be seen on the horizon an old, old pine forest used to be
a bluish patch in the distance. Big boats used to sail on the
river. But now it was all smooth and unruffled, and on the other
bank there stood now only one birch-tree, youthful and slender
like a young lady, and there was nothing on the river but ducks
and geese, and it didn't look as though there had ever been
boats on it. It seemed as though even the geese were fewer than
of old. Yakov shut his eyes, and in his imagination huge flocks
of white geese soared, meeting one another.
He wondered how it had happened that for the last forty or fifty
years of his life he had never once been to the river, or if he
had been by it he had not paid attention to it. Why, it was a
decent sized river, not a trumpery one; he might have gone in
for fishing and sold the fish to merchants, officials, and the
bar-keeper at the station, and then have put money in the bank;
he might have sailed in a boat from one house to another,
playing the fiddle, and people of all classes would have paid to
hear him; he might have tried getting big boats afloat again --
that would be better than making coffins; he might have bred
geese, killed them and sent them in the winter to Moscow Why,
the feathers alone would very likely mount up to ten roubles in
the year. But he had wasted his time, he had done nothing of
this. What losses! Ah! What losses! And if he had gone in for
all those things at once -- catching fish and playing the
fiddle, and running boats and killing geese -- what a fortune he
would have made! But nothing of this had happened, even in his
dreams; life had passed uselessly without any pleasure, had been
wasted for nothing, not even a pinch of snuff; there was nothing
left in front, and if one looked back -- there was nothing there
but losses, and such terrible ones, it made one cold all over.
And why was it a man could not live so as to avoid these losses
and misfortunes? One wondered why they had cut down the birch
copse and the pine forest. Why was he walking with no reason on
the grazing ground? Why do people always do what isn't needful?
Why had Yakov all his life scolded, bellowed, shaken his fists,
ill-treated his wife, and, one might ask, what necessity was
there for him to frighten and insult the Jew that day? Why did
people in general hinder each other from living? What losses
were due to it! what terrible losses! If it were not for hatred
and malice people would get immense benefit from one another.
In the evening and the night he had visions of the baby, of the
willow, of fish, of slaughtered geese, and Marfa looking in
profile like a bird that wants to drink, and the pale, pitiful
face of Rothschild, and faces moved down from all sides and
muttered of losses. He tossed from side to side, and got out of
bed five times to play the fiddle.
In the morning he got up with an effort and went to the
hospital. The same Maxim Nikolaitch told him to put a cold
compress on his head, and gave him some powders, and from his
tone and expression of face Yakov realized that it was a bad
case and that no powders would be any use. As he went home
afterwards, he reflected that death would be nothing but a
benefit; he would not have to eat or drink, or pay taxes or
offend people, and, as a man lies in his grave not for one year
but for hundreds and thousands, if one reckoned it up the gain
would be enormous. A man's life meant loss: death meant gain.
This reflection was, of course, a just one, but yet it was
bitter and mortifying; why was the order of the world so
strange, that life, which is given to man only once, passes away
He was not sorry to die, but at home, as soon as he saw his
fiddle, it sent a pang to his heart and he felt sorry. He could
not take the fiddle with him to the grave, and now it would be
left forlorn, and the same thing would happen to it as to the
birch copse and the pine forest. Everything in this world was
wasted and would be wasted! Yakov went out of the hut and sat in
the doorway, pressing the fiddle to his bosom. Thinking of his
wasted, profitless life, he began to play, he did not know what,
but it was plaintive and touching, and tears trickled down his
cheeks. And the harder he thought, the more mournfully the
The latch clicked once and again, and Rothschild appeared at the
gate. He walked across half the yard boldly, but seeing Yakov he
stopped short, and seemed to shrink together, and probably from
terror, began making signs with his hands as though he wanted to
show on his fingers what o'clock it was.
"Come along, it's all right," said Yakov in a friendly tone, and
he beckoned him to come up. "Come along!"
Looking at him mistrustfully and apprehensively, Rothschild
began to advance, and stopped seven feet off.
"Be so good as not to beat me," he said, ducking. "Moisey
Ilyitch has sent me again. 'Don't be afraid,' he said; 'go to
Yakov again and tell him,' he said, 'we can't get on without
him.' There is a wedding on Wednesday. . . . Ye---es! Mr.
Shapovalov is marrying his daughter to a good man. . . . And it
will be a grand wedding, oo-oo!" added the Jew, screwing up one
"I can't come," said Yakov, breathing hard. "I'm ill, brother."
And he began playing again, and the tears gushed from his eyes
on to the fiddle. Rothschild listened attentively, standing
sideways to him and folding his arms on his chest. The scared
and perplexed expression on his face, little by little, changed
to a look of woe and suffering; he rolled his eyes as though he
were experiencing an agonizing ecstasy, and articulated,
"Vachhh!" and tears slowly ran down his cheeks and trickled on
his greenish coat.
And Yakov lay in bed all the rest of the day grieving. In the
evening, when the priest confessing him asked, Did he remember
any special sin he had committed? straining his failing memory
he thought again of Marfa's unhappy face, and the despairing
shriek of the Jew when the dog bit him, and said, hardly
audibly, "Give the fiddle to Rothschild."
"Very well," answered the priest.
And now everyone in the town asks where Rothschild got such a
fine fiddle. Did he buy it or steal it? Or perhaps it had come
to him as a pledge. He gave up the flute long ago, and now plays
nothing but the fiddle. As plaintive sounds flow now from his
bow, as came once from his flute, but when he tries to repeat
what Yakov played, sitting in the doorway, the effect is
something so sad and sorrowful that his audience weep, and he
himself rolls his eyes and articulates "Vachhh! . . ." And this
new air was so much liked in the town that the merchants and
officials used to be continually sending for Rothschild and
making him play it over and over again a dozen times.
Yakov Matveyitch: a more formal way of addressing him
just cup her: an outdated medical treatment in which blood is
removed by placing evacuated glass cups on the skin; bleeding
the patient by cupping, applying leeches, or cutting was
accepted medical practice from the middle ages until the middle
of the 19th century
The Herods: Herod was a mild curse word meaning tyrant or
St. John the Divine's: May 8
St. Nikolay the Wonder-worker's: May 9