A.P. Chekhov -
The Old House
(A Story told by a Houseowner)
THE old house had to be pulled down that a new one might be
built in its place. I led the architect through the empty rooms,
and between our business talk told him various stories. The
tattered wallpapers, the dingy windows, the dark stoves, all
bore the traces of recent habitation and evoked memories. On
that staircase, for instance, drunken men were once carrying
down a dead body when they stumbled and flew headlong downstairs
together with the coffin; the living were badly bruised, while
the dead man looked very serious, as though nothing had
happened, and shook his head when they lifted him up from the
ground and put him back in the coffin. You see those three doors
in a row: in there lived young ladies who were always receiving
visitors, and so were better dressed than any other lodgers, and
could pay their rent regularly. The door at the end of the
corridor leads to the wash-house, where by day they washed
clothes and at night made an uproar and drank beer. And in that
flat of three rooms everything is saturated with bacteria and
bacilli. It's not nice there. Many lodgers have died there, and
I can positively assert that that flat was at some time cursed
by someone, and that together with its human lodgers there was
always another lodger, unseen, living in it. I remember
particularly the fate of one family. Picture to yourself an
ordinary man, not remarkable in any way, with a wife, a mother,
and four children. His name was Putohin; he was a copying clerk
at a notary's, and received thirty-five roubles a month. He was
a sober, religious, serious man. When he brought me his rent for
the flat he always apologised for being badly dressed;
apologised for being five days late, and when I gave him a
receipt he would smile good-humouredly and say: "Oh yes, there's
that too, I don't like those receipts." He lived poorly but
decently. In that middle room, the grandmother used to be with
the four children; there they used to cook, sleep, receive their
visitors, and even dance. This was Putohin's own room; he had a
table in it, at which he used to work doing private jobs,
copying parts for the theatre, advertisements, and so on. This
room on the right was let to his lodger, Yegoritch, a locksmith
-- a steady fellow, but given to drink; he was always too hot,
and so used to go about in his waistcoat and barefoot. Yegoritch
used to mend locks, pistols, children's bicycles, would not
refuse to mend cheap clocks and make skates for a quarter-rouble,
but he despised that work, and looked on himself as a specialist
in musical instruments. Amongst the litter of steel and iron on
his table there was always to be seen a concertina with a broken
key, or a trumpet with its sides bent in. He paid Putohin two
and a half roubles for his room; he was always at his
work-table, and only came out to thrust some piece of iron into
On the rare occasions when I went into that flat in the evening,
this was always the picture I came upon: Putohin would be
sitting at his little table, copying something; his mother and
his wife, a thin woman with an exhausted-looking face, were
sitting near the lamp, sewing; Yegoritch would be making a
rasping sound with his file. And the hot, still smouldering
embers in the stove filled the room with heat and fumes; the
heavy air smelt of cabbage soup, swaddling-clothes, and
Yegoritch. It was poor and stuffy, but the working-class faces,
the children's little drawers hung up along by the stove,
Yegoritch's bits of iron had yet an air of peace, friendliness,
content. . . . In the corridor outside the children raced about
with well-combed heads, merry and profoundly convinced that
everything was satisfactory in this world, and would be so
endlessly, that one had only to say one's prayers every morning
and at bedtime.
Now imagine in the midst of that same room, two paces from the
stove, the coffin in which Putohin's wife is lying. There is no
husband whose wife will live for ever, but there was something
special about this death. When, during the requiem service, I
glanced at the husband's grave face, at his stern eyes, I
thought: "Oho, brother!"
It seemed to me that he himself, his children, the grandmother
and Yegoritch, were already marked down by that unseen being
which lived with them in that flat. I am a thoroughly
superstitious man, perhaps, because I am a houseowner and for
forty years have had to do with lodgers. I believe if you don't
win at cards from the beginning you will go on losing to the
end; when fate wants to wipe you and your family off the face of
the earth, it remains inexorable in its persecution, and the
first misfortune is commonly only the first of a long series. .
. . Misfortunes are like stones. One stone has only to drop from
a high cliff for others to be set rolling after it. In short, as
I came away from the requiem service at Putohin's, I believed
that he and his family were in a bad way.
And, in fact, a week afterwards the notary quite unexpectedly
dismissed Putohin, and engaged a young lady in his place. And
would you believe it, Putohin was not so much put out at the
loss of his job as at being superseded by a young lady and not
by a man. Why a young lady? He so resented this that on his
return home he thrashed his children, swore at his mother, and
got drunk. Yegoritch got drunk, too, to keep him company.
Putohin brought me the rent, but did not apologise this time,
though it was eighteen days overdue, and said nothing when he
took the receipt from me. The following month the rent was
brought by his mother; she only brought me half, and promised to
bring the remainder a week later. The third month, I did not get
a farthing, and the porter complained to me that the lodgers in
No. 23 were "not behaving like gentlemen."
These were ominous symptoms.
Picture this scene. A sombre Petersburg morning looks in at the
dingy windows. By the stove, the granny is pouring out the
children's tea. Only the eldest, Vassya, drinks out of a glass,
for the others the tea is poured out into saucers. Yegoritch is
squatting on his heels before the stove, thrusting a bit of iron
into the fire. His head is heavy and his eyes are lustreless
from yesterday's drinking-bout; he sighs and groans, trembles
"He has quite put me off the right way, the devil," he grumbles;
"he drinks himself and leads others into sin."
Putohin sits in his room, on the bedstead from which the
bedclothes and the pillows have long ago disappeared, and with
his hands straying in his hair looks blankly at the floor at his
feet. He is tattered, unkempt, and ill.
"Drink it up, make haste or you will be late for school," the
old woman urges on Vassya, "and it's time for me, too, to go and
scrub the floors for the Jews. . . ."
The old woman is the only one in the flat who does not lose
heart. She thinks of old times, and goes out to hard dirty work.
On Fridays she scrubs the floors for the Jews at the crockery
shop, on Saturdays she goes out washing for shopkeepers, and on
Sundays she is racing about the town from morning to night,
trying to find ladies who will help her. Every day she has work
of some sort; she washes and scrubs, and is by turns a midwife,
a matchmaker, or a beggar. It is true she, too, is not
disinclined to drown her sorrows, but even when she has had a
drop she does not forget her duties. In Russia there are many
such tough old women, and how much of its welfare rests upon
When he has finished his tea, Vassya packs up his books in a
satchel and goes behind the stove; his greatcoat ought to be
hanging there beside his granny's clothes. A minute later he
comes out from behind the stove and asks:
"Where is my greatcoat?"
The grandmother and the other children look for the greatcoat
together, they waste a long time in looking for it, but the
greatcoat has utterly vanished. Where is it? The grandmother and
Vassya are pale and frightened. Even Yegoritch is surprised.
Putohin is the only one who does not move. Though he is quick to
notice anything irregular or disorderly, this time he makes a
pretence of hearing and seeing nothing. That is suspicious.
"He's sold it for drink," Yegoritch declares.
Putohin says nothing, so it is the truth. Vassya is overcome
with horror. His greatcoat, his splendid greatcoat, made of his
dead mother's cloth dress, with a splendid calico lining, gone
for drink at the tavern! And with the greatcoat is gone too, of
course, the blue pencil that lay in the pocket, and the
note-book with "Nota bene" in gold letters on it! There's
another pencil with india-rubber stuck into the note-book, and,
besides that, there are transfer pictures lying in it.
Vassya would like to cry, but to cry is impossible. If his
father, who has a headache, heard crying he would shout, stamp
with his feet, and begin fighting, and after drinking he fights
horribly. Granny would stand up for Vassya, and his father would
strike granny too; it would end in Yegoritch getting mixed up in
it too, clutching at his father and falling on the floor with
him. The two would roll on the floor, struggling together and
gasping with drunken animal fury, and granny would cry, the
children would scream, the neighbours would send for the porter.
No, better not cry.
Because he mustn't cry, or give vent to his indignation aloud,
Vassya moans, wrings his hands and moves his legs convulsively,
or biting his sleeve shakes it with his teeth as a dog does a
hare. His eyes are frantic, and his face is distorted with
despair. Looking at him, his granny all at once takes the shawl
off her head, and she too makes queer movements with her arms
and legs in silence, with her eyes fixed on a point in the
distance. And at that moment I believe there is a definite
certainty in the minds of the boy and the old woman that their
life is ruined, that there is no hope. . . .
Putohin hears no crying, but he can see it all from his room.
When, half an hour later, Vassya sets off to school, wrapped in
his grandmother's shawl, he goes out with a face I will not
undertake to describe, and walks after him. He longs to call the
boy, to comfort him, to beg his forgiveness, to promise him on
his word of honour, to call his dead mother to witness, but
instead of words, sobs break from him. It is a grey, cold
morning. When he reaches the town school Vassya untwists his
granny's shawl, and goes into the school with nothing over his
jacket for fear the boys should say he looks like a woman. And
when he gets home Putohin sobs, mutters some incoherent words,
bows down to the ground before his mother and Yegoritch, and the
locksmith's table. Then, recovering himself a little, he runs to
me and begs me breathlessly, for God's sake, to find him some
job. I give him hopes, of course.
"At last I am myself again," he said. "It's high time, indeed,
to come to my senses. I've made a beast of myself, and now it's
He is delighted and thanks me, while I, who have studied these
gentry thoroughly during the years I have owned the house, look
at him, and am tempted to say:
"It's too late, dear fellow! You are a dead man already."
From me, Putohin runs to the town school. There he paces up and
down, waiting till his boy comes out.
"I say, Vassya," he says joyfully, when the boy at last comes
out, "I have just been promised a job. Wait a bit, I will buy
you a splendid fur-coat. . . . I'll send you to the high school!
Do you understand? To the high school! I'll make a gentleman of
you! And I won't drink any more. On my honour I won't."
And he has intense faith in the bright future. But the evening
comes on. The old woman, coming back from the Jews with twenty
kopecks, exhausted and aching all over, sets to work to wash the
children's clothes. Vassya is sitting doing a sum. Yegoritch is
not working. Thanks to Putohin he has got into the way of
drinking, and is feeling at the moment an overwhelming desire
for drink. It's hot and stuffy in the room. Steam rises in
clouds from the tub where the old woman is washing.
"Are we going?" Yegoritch asks surlily.
My lodger does not answer. After his excitement he feels
insufferably dreary. He struggles with the desire to drink, with
acute depression and . . . and, of course, depression gets the
best of it. It is a familiar story.
Towards night, Yegoritch and Putohin go out, and in the morning
Vassya cannot find granny's shawl.
That is the drama that took place in that flat. After selling
the shawl for drink, Putohin did not come home again. Where he
disappeared to I don't know. After he disappeared, the old woman
first got drunk, then took to her bed. She was taken to the
hospital, the younger children were fetched by relations of some
sort, and Vassya went into the wash-house here. In the day-time
he handed the irons, and at night fetched the beer. When he was
turned out of the wash-house he went into the service of one of
the young ladies, used to run about at night on errands of some
sort, and began to be spoken of as "a dangerous customer."
What has happened to him since I don't know.
And in this room here a street musician lived for ten years.
When he died they found twenty thousand roubles in his feather
Nota bene: literarly, note well