A.P. Chekhov - Misery
"To whom shall I tell my grief?"
THE twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling
lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and
lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses' backs, shoulders,
caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a
ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as
the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him
it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to
shake it off. . . . His little mare is white and motionless too.
Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like
straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny
gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who
has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray
landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights,
of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.
It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged. They came
out of the yard before dinnertime and not a single fare yet. But
now the shades of evening are falling on the town. The pale
light of the street lamps changes to a vivid color, and the
bustle of the street grows noisier.
"Sledge to Vyborgskaya!" Iona hears. "Sledge!"
Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an
officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.
"To Vyborgskaya," repeats the officer. "Are you asleep? To
In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends
cakes of snow flying from the horse's back and shoulders. The
officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the
horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more
from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes
her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets
of. . . .
"Where are you shoving, you devil?" Iona immediately hears
shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. "Where
the devil are you going? Keep to the r-right!"
"You don't know how to drive! Keep to the right," says the
A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian
crossing the road and brushing the horse's nose with his
shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his
sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on
thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one
possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was
"What rascals they all are!" says the officer jocosely. "They
are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under
the horse's feet. They must be doing it on purpose."
Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips. . . . Apparently he
means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.
"What?" inquires the officer.
Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out
huskily: "My son . . . er . . . my son died this week, sir."
"H'm! What did he die of?"
Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:
"Who can tell! It must have been from fever. . . . He lay three
days in the hospital and then he died. . . . God's will."
"Turn round, you devil!" comes out of the darkness. "Have you
gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!"
"Drive on! drive on! . . ." says the officer. "We shan't get
there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!"
The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and
with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round
at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is
apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at
Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled
up on the box. . . . Again the wet snow paints him and his horse
white. One hour passes, and then another. . . .
Three young men, two tall and thin, one short and hunchbacked,
come up, railing at each other and loudly stamping on the
pavement with their goloshes.
"Cabby, to the Police Bridge!" the hunchback cries in a cracked
voice. "The three of us, . . . twenty kopecks!"
Iona tugs at the reins and clicks to his horse. Twenty kopecks
is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it
is a rouble or whether it is five kopecks does not matter to him
now so long as he has a fare. . . . The three young men, shoving
each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge, and all
three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be
settled: Which are to sit down and which one is to stand? After
a long altercation, ill-temper, and abuse, they come to the
conclusion that the hunchback must stand because he is the
"Well, drive on," says the hunchback in his cracked voice,
settling himself and breathing down Iona's neck. "Cut along!
What a cap you've got, my friend! You wouldn't find a worse one
in all Petersburg. . . ."
"He-he! . . . he-he! . . ." laughs Iona. "It's nothing to boast
"Well, then, nothing to boast of, drive on! Are you going to
drive like this all the way? Eh? Shall I give you one in the
"My head aches," says one of the tall ones. "At the Dukmasovs'
yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us."
"I can't make out why you talk such stuff," says the other tall
one angrily. "You lie like a brute."
"Strike me dead, it's the truth! . . ."
"It's about as true as that a louse coughs."
"He-he!" grins Iona. "Me-er-ry gentlemen!"
"Tfoo! the devil take you!" cries the hunchback indignantly.
"Will you get on, you old plague, or won't you? Is that the way
to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it her
Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering
voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees
people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to
be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he
chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is
overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a
certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting
till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says:
"This week . . . er. . . my. . . er. . . son died!"
"We shall all die, . . ." says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping
his lips after coughing. "Come, drive on! drive on! My friends,
I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us
"Well, you give him a little encouragement . . . one in the
"Do you hear, you old plague? I'll make you smart. If one stands
on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you
hear, you old dragon? Or don't you care a hang what we say?"
And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.
"He-he! . . . " he laughs. "Merry gentlemen . . . . God give you
"Cabman, are you married?" asks one of the tall ones.
"I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the
damp earth. . . . He-ho-ho!. . . .The grave that is! . . . Here
my son's dead and I am alive. . . . It's a strange thing, death
has come in at the wrong door. . . . Instead of coming for me it
went for my son. . . ."
And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that
point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank
God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks,
Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear
into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence
for him. . . . The misery which has been for a brief space eased
comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever.
With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona's eyes stray
restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of
the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who
will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and
his misery. . . . His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If
Iona's heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would
flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has
found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one
would not have found it with a candle by daylight. . . .
Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to
"What time will it be, friend?" he asks.
"Going on for ten. . . . Why have you stopped here? Drive on!"
Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives
himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to
people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up,
shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the
reins. . . . He can bear it no longer.
"Back to the yard!" he thinks. "To the yard!"
And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to
trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big
dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are
people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona
looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets
that he has come home so early. . . .
"I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, even," he thinks.
"That's why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his
work, . . . who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had
enough to eat, is always at ease. . . ."
In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat
sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.
"Want a drink?" Iona asks him.
"May it do you good. . . . But my son is dead, mate. . . . Do
you hear? This week in the hospital. . . . It's a queer
business. . . ."
Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees
nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already
asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself. . . . Just as
the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech.
His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really
talked to anybody yet . . . . He wants to talk of it properly,
with deliberation. . . . He wants to tell how his son was taken
ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died.
. . . He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the
hospital to get his son's clothes. He still has his daughter
Anisya in the country. . . . And he wants to talk about her too.
. . . Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought
to sigh and exclaim and lament. . . . It would be even better to
talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at
the first word.
"Let's go out and have a look at the mare," Iona thinks. "There
is always time for sleep. . . . You'll have sleep enough, no
fear. . . ."
He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is
standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather. .
. . He cannot think about his son when he is alone. . . . To
talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and
picture him is insufferable anguish. . . .
"Are you munching?" Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes.
"There, munch away, munch away. . . . Since we have not earned
enough for oats, we will eat hay. . . . Yes, . . . I have grown
too old to drive. . . . My son ought to be driving, not I. . . .
He was a real cabman. . . . He ought to have lived. . . ."
Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:
"That's how it is, old girl. . . . Kuzma Ionitch is gone. . . .
He said good-by to me. . . . He went and died for no reason. . .
. Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to
that little colt. . . . And all at once that same little colt
went and died. . . . You'd be sorry, wouldn't you? . . ."
The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master's
hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.
To whom shall I tell my grief?: Beginning line from an anonymous
15th or 16th century religious poem
yard: where the horse, cabby , and cab are all based
dinnertime: Russian usually eat this meal anywhere from 12 to 3
Vyborgskaya: section of Petersburg north of the Neva river
Police Bridge: bridge in downtown Petusky
stand: the coachman sat on the front box, two passengers sat
behind the coachman; a third passenger had to stand between the
driver and the seated passengers
you old dragon: lit., Serpent, Son of Woe; a winged monster in
benches: being peasants from the country-side, cab-drivers lived
in bachelor barracks provided by the cab company