A.P. Chekhov - Art
A GLOOMY winter morning.
On the smooth and glittering surface of the river Bystryanka,
sprinkled here and there with snow, stand two peasants, scrubby
little Seryozhka and the church beadle, Matvey. Seryozhka, a
short-legged, ragged, mangy-looking fellow of thirty, stares
angrily at the ice. Tufts of wool hang from his shaggy sheepskin
like a mangy dog. In his hands he holds a compass made of two
pointed sticks. Matvey, a fine-looking old man in a new
sheepskin and high felt boots, looks with mild blue eyes upwards
where on the high sloping bank a village nestles picturesquely.
In his hands there is a heavy crowbar.
"Well, are we going to stand like this till evening with our
arms folded?" says Seryozhka, breaking the silence and turning
his angry eyes on Matvey. "Have you come here to stand about,
old fool, or to work?"
"Well, you . . . er . . . show me . . ." Matvey mutters,
"Show you. . . . It's always me: me to show you, and me to do
it. They have no sense of their own! Mark it out with the
compasses, that's what's wanted! You can't break the ice without
marking it out. Mark it! Take the compass."
Matvey takes the compasses from Seryozhka's hands, and,
shuffling heavily on the same spot and jerking with his elbows
in all directions, he begins awkwardly trying to describe a
circle on the ice. Seryozhka screws up his eyes contemptuously
and obviously enjoys his awkwardness and incompetence.
"Eh-eh-eh!" he mutters angrily. "Even that you can't do! The
fact is you are a stupid peasant, a wooden-head! You ought to be
grazing geese and not making a Jordan! Give the compasses here!
Give them here, I say!"
Seryozhka snatches the compasses out of the hands of the
perspiring Matvey, and in an instant, jauntily twirling round on
one heel, he describes a circle on the ice. The outline of the
new Jordan is ready now, all that is left to do is to break the
ice. . .
But before proceeding to the work Seryozhka spends a long time
in airs and graces, whims and reproaches. . .
"I am not obliged to work for you! You are employed in the
church, you do it!"
He obviously enjoys the peculiar position in which he has been
placed by the fate that has bestowed on him the rare talent of
surprising the whole parish once a year by his art. Poor mild
Matvey has to listen to many venomous and contemptuous words
from him. Seryozhka sets to work with vexation, with anger. He
is lazy. He has hardly described the circle when he is already
itching to go up to the village to drink tea, lounge about, and
babble. . .
"I'll be back directly," he says, lighting his cigarette, "and
meanwhile you had better bring something to sit on and sweep up,
instead of standing there counting the crows."
Matvey is left alone. The air is grey and harsh but still. The
white church peeps out genially from behind the huts scattered
on the river bank. Jackdaws are incessantly circling round its
golden crosses. On one side of the village where the river bank
breaks off and is steep a hobbled horse is standing at the very
edge, motionless as a stone, probably asleep or deep in thought.
Matvey, too, stands motionless as a statue, waiting patiently.
The dreamily brooding look of the river, the circling of the
jackdaws, and the sight of the horse make him drowsy. One hour
passes, a second, and still Seryozhka does not come. The river
has long been swept and a box brought to sit on, but the drunken
fellow does not appear. Matvey waits and merely yawns. The
feeling of boredom is one of which he knows nothing. If he were
told to stand on the river for a day, a month, or a year he
would stand there.
At last Seryozhka comes into sight from behind the huts. He
walks with a lurching gait, scarcely moving. He is too lazy to
go the long way round, and he comes not by the road, but prefers
a short cut in a straight line down the bank, and sticks in the
snow, hangs on to the bushes, slides on his back as he comes --
and all this slowly, with pauses.
"What are you about?" he cries, falling on Matvey at once. "Why
are you standing there doing nothing! When are you going to
break the ice?"
Matvey crosses himself, takes the crowbar in both hands, and
begins breaking the ice, carefully keeping to the circle that
has been drawn. Seryozhka sits down on the box and watches the
heavy clumsy movements of his assistant.
"Easy at the edges! Easy there!" he commands. "If you can't do
it properly, you shouldn't undertake it, once you have
undertaken it you should do it. You!"
A crowd collects on the top of the bank. At the sight of the
spectators Seryozhka becomes even more excited.
"I declare I am not going to do it . . ." he says, lighting a
stinking cigarette and spitting on the ground. "I should like to
see how you get on without me. Last year at Kostyukovo, Styopka
Gulkov undertook to make a Jordan as I do. And what did it
amount to -- it was a laughing-stock. The Kostyukovo folks came
to ours -- crowds and crowds of them! The people flocked from
all the villages."
"Because except for ours there is nowhere a proper Jordan . . ."
"Work, there is no time for talking. . . . Yes, old man . . .
you won't find another Jordan like it in the whole province. The
soldiers say you would look in vain, they are not so good even
in the towns. Easy, easy!"
Matvey puffs and groans. The work is not easy. The ice is firm
and thick; and he has to break it and at once take the pieces
away that the open space may not be blocked up.
But, hard as the work is and senseless as Seryozhka's commands
are, by three o'clock there is a large circle of dark water in
"It was better last year," says Seryozhka angrily. "You can't do
even that! Ah, dummy! To keep such fools in the temple of God!
Go and bring a board to make the pegs! Bring the ring, you crow!
And er . . . get some bread somewhere. . . and some cucumbers,
Matvey goes off and soon afterwards comes back, carrying on his
shoulders an immense wooden ring which had been painted in
previous years in patterns of various colours. In the centre of
the ring is a red cross, at the circumference holes for the
pegs. Seryozhka takes the ring and covers the hole in the ice
"Just right . . . it fits. . . . We have only to renew the paint
and it will be first-rate. . . . Come, why are you standing
still? Make the lectern. Or--er--go and get logs to make the
cross . . ."
Matvey, who has not tasted food or drink all day, trudges up the
hill again. Lazy as Seryozhka is, he makes the pegs with his own
hands. He knows that those pegs have a miraculous power: whoever
gets hold of a peg after the blessing of the water will be lucky
for the whole year. Such work is really worth doing.
But the real work begins the following day. Then Seryozhka
displays himself before the ignorant Matvey in all the greatness
of his talent. There is no end to his babble, his fault-finding,
his whims and fancies. If Matvey nails two big pieces of wood to
make a cross, he is dissatisfied and tells him to do it again.
If Matvey stands still, Seryozhka asks him angrily why he does
not go; if he moves, Seryozhka shouts to him not to go away but
to do his work. He is not satisfied with his tools, with the
weather, or with his own talent; nothing pleases him.
Matvey saws out a great piece of ice for a lectern.
"Why have you broken off the corner?" cries Seryozhka, and
glares at him furiously. "Why have you broken off the corner? I
"Forgive me, for Christ's sake."
"Do it over again!"
Matvey saws again . . . and there is no end to his sufferings. A
lectern is to stand by the hole in the ice that is covered by
the painted ring; on the lectern is to be carved the cross and
the open gospel. But that is not all. Behind the lectern there
is to be a high cross to be seen by all the crowd and to glitter
in the sun as though sprinkled with diamonds and rubies. On the
cross is to be a dove carved out of ice. The path from the
church to the Jordan is to be strewn with branches of fir and
juniper. All this is their task.
First of all Seryozhka sets to work on the lectern. He works
with a file, a chisel, and an awl. He is perfectly successful in
the cross on the lectern, the gospel, and the drapery that hangs
down from the lectern. Then he begins on the dove. While he is
trying to carve an expression of meekness and humility on the
face of the dove, Matvey, lumbering about like a bear, is
coating with ice the cross he has made of wood. He takes the
cross and dips it in the hole. Waiting till the water has frozen
on the cross he dips it in a second time, and so on till the
cross is covered with a thick layer of ice. It is a difficult
job, calling for a great deal of strength and patience.
But now the delicate work is finished. Seryozhka races about the
village like one possessed. He swears and vows he will go at
once to the river and smash all his work. He is looking for
His pockets are full of ochre, dark blue, red lead, and
verdigris; without paying a farthing he rushes headlong from one
shop to another. The shop is next door to the tavern. Here he
has a drink; with a wave of his hand he darts off without
paying. At one hut he gets beetroot leaves, at another an onion
skin, out of which he makes a yellow colour. He swears, shoves,
threatens, and not a soul murmurs! They all smile at him, they
sympathise with him, call him Sergey Nikititch; they all feel
that his art is not his personal affair but something that
concerns them all, the whole people. One creates, the others
help him. Seryozhka in himself is a nonentity, a sluggard, a
drunkard, and a wastrel, but when he has his red lead or
compasses in his hand he is at once something higher, a servant
Epiphany morning comes. The precincts of the church and both
banks of the river for a long distance are swarming with people.
Everything that makes up the Jordan is scrupulously concealed
under new mats. Seryozhka is meekly moving about near the mats,
trying to control his emotion. He sees thousands of people.
There are many here from other parishes; these people have come
many a mile on foot through the frost and the snow merely to see
his celebrated Jordan. Matvey, who had finished his coarse,
rough work, is by now back in the church, there is no sight, no
sound of him; he is already forgotten. . . . The weather is
lovely. . . . There is not a cloud in the sky. The sunshine is
The church bells ring out on the hill . . . Thousands of heads
are bared, thousands of hands are moving, there are thousands of
signs of the cross!
And Seryozhka does not know what to do with himself for
impatience. But now they are ringing the bells for the
Sacrament; then half an hour later a certain agitation is
perceptible in the belfry and among the people. Banners are
borne out of the church one after the other, while the bells
peal in joyous haste. Seryozhka, trembling, pulls away the mat .
. . and the people behold something extraordinary. The lectern,
the wooden ring, the pegs, and the cross in the ice are
iridescent with thousands of colors. The cross and the dove
glitter so dazzlingly that it hurts the eyes to look at them.
Merciful God, how fine it is! A murmur of wonder and delight
runs through the crowd; the bells peal more loudly still, the
day grows brighter; the banners oscillate and move over the
crowd as over the waves. The procession, glittering with the
settings of the ikons and the vestments of the clergy, comes
slowly down the road and turns towards the Jordan. Hands are
waved to the belfry for the ringing to cease, and the blessing
of the water begins. The priests conduct the service slowly,
deliberately, evidently trying to prolong the ceremony and the
joy of praying all gathered together. There is perfect
But now they plunge the cross in, and the air echoes with an
extraordinary din. Guns are fired, the bells peal furiously,
loud exclamations of delight, shouts, and a rush to get the
pegs. Seryozhka listens to this uproar, sees thousands of eyes
fixed upon him, and the lazy fellow's soul is filled with a
sense of glory and triumph.
a Jordan: the ceremony not only celebrates Epiphany, but also
involves blessing the river, an important source of fish for the
Sergey Nikititch: a repectful form of address
Epiphany morning: January 6 (January 19 in pre-1918 Russia),
celebrates the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to
the Gentiles as represented by the Magi