A.P. Chekhov - The Marshal's Widow
ON the first of February every year, St. Trifon's day, there is
an extraordinary commotion on the estate of Madame Zavzyatov,
the widow of Trifon Lvovitch, the late marshal of the district.
On that day, the nameday of the deceased marshal, the widow
Lyubov Petrovna has a requiem service celebrated in his memory,
and after the requiem a thanksgiving to the Lord. The whole
district assembles for the service. There you will see Hrumov
the present marshal, Marfutkin, the president of the Zemstvo,
Potrashkov, the permanent member of the Rural Board, the two
justices of the peace of the district, the police captain,
Krinolinov, two police-superintendents, the district doctor,
Dvornyagin, smelling of iodoform, all the landowners, great and
small, and so on. There are about fifty people assembled in all.
Precisely at twelve o'clock, the visitors, with long faces, make
their way from all the rooms to the big hall. There are carpets
on the floor and their steps are noiseless, but the solemnity of
the occasion makes them instinctively walk on tip-toe, holding
out their hands to balance themselves. In the hall everything is
already prepared. Father Yevmeny, a little old man in a high
faded cap, puts on his black vestments. Konkordiev, the deacon,
already in his vestments, and as red as a crab, is noiselessly
turning over the leaves of his missal and putting slips of paper
in it. At the door leading to the vestibule, Luka, the
sacristan, puffing out his cheeks and making round eyes, blows
up the censer. The hall is gradually filled with bluish
transparent smoke and the smell of incense.
Gelikonsky, the elementary schoolmaster, a young man with big
pimples on his frightened face, wearing a new greatcoat like a
sack, carries round wax candles on a silver-plated tray. The
hostess, Lyubov Petrovna, stands in the front by a little table
with a dish of funeral rice on it, and holds her handkerchief in
readiness to her face. There is a profound stillness, broken
from time to time by sighs. Everybody has a long, solemn face. .
The requiem service begins. The blue smoke curls up from the
censer and plays in the slanting sunbeams, the lighted candles
faintly splutter. The singing, at first harsh and deafening,
soon becomes quiet and musical as the choir gradually adapt
themselves to the acoustic conditions of the rooms. . . . The
tunes are all mournful and sad. . . . The guests are gradually
brought to a melancholy mood and grow pensive. Thoughts of the
brevity of human life, of mutability, of worldly vanity stray
through their brains. . . . They recall the deceased Zavzyatov,
a thick-set, red-cheeked man who used to drink off a bottle of
champagne at one gulp and smash looking-glasses with his
forehead. And when they sing "With Thy Saints, O Lord," and the
sobs of their hostess are audible, the guests shift uneasily
from one foot to the other. The more emotional begin to feel a
tickling in their throat and about their eyelids. Marfutkin, the
president of the Zemstvo, to stifle the unpleasant feeling,
bends down to the police captain's ear and whispers:
"I was at Ivan Fyodoritch's yesterday. . . . Pyotr Petrovitch
and I took all the tricks, playing no trumps. . . . Yes, indeed.
. . . Olga Andreyevna was so exasperated that her false tooth
fell out of her mouth."
But at last the "Eternal Memory" is sung. Gelikonsky
respectfully takes away the candles, and the memorial service is
over. Thereupon there follows a momentary commotion; there is a
changing of vestments and a thanksgiving service. After the
thanksgiving, while Father Yevmeny is disrobing, the visitors
rub their hands and cough, while their hostess tells some
anecdote of the good-heartedness of the deceased Trifon Lvovitch.
"Pray come to lunch, friends," she says, concluding her story
with a sigh.
The visitors, trying not to push or tread on each other's feet,
hasten into the dining-room. . . . There the luncheon is
awaiting them. The repast is so magnificent that the deacon
Konkordiev thinks it his duty every year to fling up his hands
as he looks at it and, shaking his head in amazement, say:
"Supernatural! It's not so much like human fare, Father Yevmeny,
as offerings to the gods."
The lunch is certainly exceptional. Everything that the flora
and fauna of the country can furnish is on the table, but the
only thing supernatural about it, perhaps, is that on the table
there is everything except . . . alcoholic beverages. Lyubov
Petrovna has taken a vow never to have in her house cards or
spirituous liquors -- the two sources of her husband's ruin. And
the only bottles contain oil and vinegar, as though in mockery
and chastisement of the guests who are to a man desperately fond
of the bottle, and given to tippling.
"Please help yourselves, gentlemen!" the marshal's widow presses
them. "Only you must excuse me, I have no vodka. . . . I have
none in the house."
The guests approach the table and hesitatingly attack the pie.
But the progress with eating is slow. In the plying of forks, in
the cutting up and munching, there is a certain sloth and
apathy. . . . Evidently something is wanting.
"I feel as though I had lost something," one of the justices of
the peace whispers to the other. "I feel as I did when my wife
ran away with the engineer. . . . I can't eat."
Marfutkin, before beginning to eat, fumbles for a long time in
his pocket and looks for his handkerchief.
"Oh, my handkerchief must be in my greatcoat," he recalls in a
loud voice, "and here I am looking for it," and he goes into the
vestibule where the fur coats are hanging up.
He returns from the vestibule with glistening eyes, and at once
attacks the pie with relish.
"I say, it's horrid munching away with a dry mouth, isn't it?"
he whispers to Father Yevmeny. "Go into the vestibule, Father.
There's a bottle there in my fur coat. . . . Only mind you are
careful; don't make a clatter with the bottle."
Father Yevmeny recollects that he has some direction to give to
Luka, and trips off to the vestibule.
"Father, a couple of words in confidence," says Dvornyagin,
"You should see the fur coat I've bought myself, gentlemen,"
Hrumov boasts. "It's worth a thousand, and I gave . . . you
won't believe it . . . two hundred and fifty! Not a farthing
At any other time the guests would have greeted this information
with indifference, but now they display surprise and
incredulity. In the end they all troop out into the vestibule to
look at the fur coat, and go on looking at it till the doctor's
man Mikeshka carries five empty bottles out on the sly. When the
steamed sturgeon is served, Marfutkin remembers that he has left
his cigar case in his sledge and goes to the stable. That he may
not be lonely on this expedition, he takes with him the deacon,
who appropriately feels it necessary to have a look at his
horse. . . .
On the evening of the same day, Lyubov Petrovna is sitting in
her study, writing a letter to an old friend in Petersburg:
"To-day, as in past years," she writes among other things, "I
had a memorial service for my dear husband. All my neighbours
came to the service. They are a simple, rough set, but what
hearts! I gave them a splendid lunch, but of course, as in
previous years, without a drop of alcoholic liquor. Ever since
he died from excessive drinking I have vowed to establish
temperance in this district and thereby to expiate his sins. I
have begun the campaign for temperance at my own house. Father
Yevmeny is delighted with my efforts, and helps me both in word
and deed. Oh, ma chre, if you knew how fond my bears are of me!
The president of the Zemstvo, Marfutkin, kissed my hand after
lunch, held it a long while to his lips, and, wagging his head
in an absurd way, burst into tears: so much feeling but no
words! Father Yevmeny, that delightful little old man, sat down
by me, and looking tearfully at me kept babbling something like
a child. I did not understand what he said, but I know how to
understand true feeling. The police captain, the handsome man of
whom I wrote to you, went down on his knees to me, tried to read
me some verses of his own composition (he is a poet), but . . .
his feelings were too much for him, he lurched and fell over . .
. that huge giant went into hysterics, you can imagine my
delight! The day did not pass without a hitch, however. Poor
Alalykin, the president of the judges' assembly, a stout and
apoplectic man, was overcome by illness and lay on the sofa in a
state of unconsciousness for two hours. We had to pour water on
him. . . . I am thankful to Doctor Dvornyagin: he had brought a
bottle of brandy from his dispensary and he moistened the
patient's temples, which quickly revived him, and he was able to
be moved. . . ."
nameday: Russians typically celebrate the feast day of the saint
after whom they are named
zemstvo: a district council with locally elected members
iodoform: an antiseptic
ma chre,: my dear