A.P. Chekhov -
MORNING. Brilliant sunshine is piercing
through the frozen lacework on the window-panes into the
nursery. Vanya, a boy of six, with a cropped head and a nose
like a button, and his sister Nina, a short, chubby,
curly-headed girl of four, wake up and look crossly at each
other through the bars of their cots.
"Oo-oo-oo! naughty children!" grumbles their nurse. "Good people
have had their breakfast already, while you can't get your eyes
The sunbeams frolic over the rugs, the walls, and nurse's
skirts, and seem inviting the children to join in their play,
but they take no notice. They have woken up in a bad humour.
Nina pouts, makes a grimace, and begins to whine:
"Brea-eakfast, nurse, breakfast!"
Vanya knits his brows and ponders what to pitch upon to howl
over. He has already begun screwing up his eyes and opening his
mouth, but at that instant the voice of mamma reaches them from
the drawing-room, saying: "Don't forget to give the cat her
milk, she has a family now!"
The children's puckered countenances grow smooth again as they
look at each other in astonishment. Then both at once begin
shouting, jump out of their cots, and filling the air with
piercing shrieks, run barefoot, in their nightgowns, to the
"The cat has puppies!" they cry. "The cat has got puppies!"
Under the bench in the kitchen there stands a small box, the one
in which Stepan brings coal when he lights the fire. The cat is
peeping out of the box. There is an expression of extreme
exhaustion on her grey face; her green eyes, with their narrow
black pupils, have a languid, sentimental look. From her face it
is clear that the only thing lacking to complete her happiness
is the presence in the box of "him," the father of her children,
to whom she had abandoned herself so recklessly! She wants to
mew, and opens her mouth wide, but nothing but a hiss comes from
her throat; the squealing of the kittens is audible.
The children squat on their heels before the box, and,
motionless, holding their breath, gaze at the cat. . . . They
are surprised, impressed, and do not hear nurse grumbling as she
pursues them. The most genuine delight shines in the eyes of
Domestic animals play a scarcely noticed but undoubtedly
beneficial part in the education and life of children. Which of
us does not remember powerful but magnanimous dogs, lazy
lapdogs, birds dying in captivity, dull-witted but haughty
turkeys, mild old tabby cats, who forgave us when we trod on
their tails for fun and caused them agonising pain? I even
fancy, sometimes, that the patience, the fidelity, the readiness
to forgive, and the sincerity which are characteristic of our
domestic animals have a far stronger and more definite effect on
the mind of a child than the long exhortations of some dry, pale
Karl Karlovitch, or the misty expositions of a governess, trying
to prove to children that water is made up of hydrogen and
"What little things!" says Nina, opening her eyes wide and going
off into a joyous laugh. "They are like mice!"
"One, two, three," Vanya counts. "Three kittens. So there is one
for you, one for me, and one for somebody else, too."
"Murrm . . . murrm . . ." purrs the mother, flattered by their
After gazing at the kittens, the children take them from under
the cat, and begin squeezing them in their hands, then, not
satisfied with this, they put them in the skirts of their
nightgowns, and run into the other rooms.
"Mamma, the cat has got pups!" they shout.
Mamma is sitting in the drawing-room with some unknown
gentleman. Seeing the children unwashed, undressed, with their
nightgowns held up high, she is embarrassed, and looks at them
"Let your nightgowns down, disgraceful children," she says. "Go
out of the room, or I will punish you."
But the children do not notice either mamma's threats or the
presence of a stranger. They put the kittens down on the carpet,
and go off into deafening squeals. The mother walks round them,
mewing imploringly. When, a little afterwards, the children are
dragged off to the nursery, dressed, made to say their prayers,
and given their breakfast, they are full of a passionate desire
to get away from these prosaic duties as quickly as possible,
and to run to the kitchen again.
Their habitual pursuits and games are thrown completely into the
The kittens throw everything into the shade by making their
appearance in the world, and supply the great sensation of the
day. If Nina or Vanya had been offered forty pounds of sweets or
ten thousand kopecks for each kitten, they would have rejected
such a barter without the slightest hesitation. In spite of the
heated protests of the nurse and the cook, the children persist
in sitting by the cat's box in the kitchen, busy with the
kittens till dinner-time. Their faces are earnest and
concentrated and express anxiety. They are worried not so much
by the present as by the future of the kittens. They decide that
one kitten shall remain at home with the old cat to be a comfort
to her mother, while the second shall go to their summer villa,
and the third shall live in the cellar, where there are ever so
"But why don't they look at us?" Nina wondered. "Their eyes are
blind like the beggars'."
Vanya, too, is perturbed by this question. He tries to open one
kitten's eyes, and spends a long time puffing and breathing hard
over it, but his operation is unsuccessful. They are a good deal
troubled, too, by the circumstance that the kittens obstinately
refuse the milk and the meat that is offered to them. Everything
that is put before their little noses is eaten by their grey
"Let's build the kittens little houses," Vanya suggests. "They
shall live in different houses, and the cat shall come and pay
them visits. . . ."
Cardboard hat-boxes are put in the different corners of the
kitchen and the kittens are installed in them. But this division
turns out to be premature; the cat, still wearing an imploring
and sentimental expression on her face, goes the round of all
the hat-boxes, and carries off her children to their original
"The cat's their mother," observed Vanya, "but who is their
"Yes, who is their father?" repeats Nina.
"They must have a father."
Vanya and Nina are a long time deciding who is to be the
kittens' father, and, in the end, their choice falls on a big
dark-red horse without a tail, which is lying in the
store-cupboard under the stairs, together with other relics of
toys that have outlived their day. They drag him up out of the
store-cupboard and stand him by the box.
"Mind now!" they admonish him, "stand here and see they behave
All this is said and done in the gravest way, with an expression
of anxiety on their faces. Vanya and Nina refuse to recognise
the existence of any world but the box of kittens. Their joy
knows no bounds. But they have to pass through bitter, agonising
Just before dinner, Vanya is sitting in his father's study,
gazing dreamily at the table. A kitten is moving about by the
lamp, on stamped note paper. Vanya is watching its movements,
and thrusting first a pencil, then a match into its little
mouth. . . . All at once, as though he has sprung out of the
floor, his father is beside the table.
"What's this?" Vanya hears, in an angry voice.
"It's . . . it's the kitty, papa. . . ."
"I'll give it you; look what you have done, you naughty boy!
You've dirtied all my paper!"
To Vanya's great surprise his papa does not share his partiality
for the kittens, and, instead of being moved to enthusiasm and
delight, he pulls Vanya's ear and shouts:
"Stepan, take away this horrid thing."
At dinner, too, there is a scene. . . . During the second course
there is suddenly the sound of a shrill mew. They begin to
investigate its origin, and discover a kitten under Nina's
"Nina, leave the table!" cries her father angrily. "Throw the
kittens in the cesspool! I won't have the nasty things in the
house! . . ."
Vanya and Nina are horrified. Death in the cesspool, apart from
its cruelty, threatens to rob the cat and the wooden horse of
their children, to lay waste the cat's box, to destroy their
plans for the future, that fair future in which one cat will be
a comfort to its old mother, another will live in the country,
while the third will catch rats in the cellar. The children
begin to cry and entreat that the kittens may be spared. Their
father consents, but on the condition that the children do not
go into the kitchen and touch the kittens.
After dinner, Vanya and Nina slouch about the rooms, feeling
depressed. The prohibition of visits to the kitchen has reduced
them to dejection. They refuse sweets, are naughty, and are rude
to their mother. When their uncle Petrusha comes in the evening,
they draw him aside, and complain to him of their father, who
wanted to throw the kittens into the cesspool.
"Uncle Petrusha, tell mamma to have the kittens taken to the
nursery," the children beg their uncle, "do-o tell her."
"There, there . . . very well," says their uncle, waving them
off. "All right."
Uncle Petrusha does not usually come alone. He is accompanied by
Nero, a big black dog of Danish breed, with drooping ears, and a
tail as hard as a stick. The dog is silent, morose, and full of
a sense of his own dignity. He takes not the slightest notice of
the children, and when he passes them hits them with his tail as
though they were chairs. The children hate him from the bottom
of their hearts, but on this occasion, practical considerations
"I say, Nina," says Vanya, opening his eyes wide. "Let Nero be
their father, instead of the horse! The horse is dead and he is
alive, you see."
They are waiting the whole evening for the moment when papa will
sit down to his cards and it will be possible to take Nero to
the kitchen without being observed. . . . At last, papa sits
down to cards, mamma is busy with the samovar and not noticing
the children. . . .
The happy moment arrives.
"Come along!" Vanya whispers to his sister.
But, at that moment, Stepan comes in and, with a snigger,
"Nero has eaten the kittens, madam."
Nina and Vanya turn pale and look at Stepan with horror.
"He really has . . ." laughs the footman, "he went to the box
and gobbled them up."
The children expect that all the people in the house will be
aghast and fall upon the miscreant Nero. But they all sit calmly
in their seats, and only express surprise at the appetite of the
huge dog. Papa and mamma laugh. Nero walks about by the table,
wags his tail, and licks his lips complacently . . . the cat is
the only one who is uneasy. With her tail in the air she walks
about the rooms, looking suspiciously at people and mewing
"Children, it's past nine," cries mamma, "it's bedtime."
Vanya and Nina go to bed, shed tears, and spend a long time
thinking about the injured cat, and the cruel, insolent, and