A.P. Chekhov - Who Was To Blame?
As my uncle Pyotr Demyanitch, a lean, bilious collegiate
councillor, exceedingly like a stale smoked fish with a stick
through it, was getting ready to go to the high school, where he
taught Latin, he noticed that the corner of his grammar was
nibbled by mice.
"I say, Praskovya," he said, going into the kitchen and
addressing the cook, "how is it we have got mice here? Upon my
word! yesterday my top hat was nibbled, to-day they have
disfigured my Latin grammar. . . . At this rate they will soon
begin eating my clothes!
"What can I do? I did not bring them in!" answered Praskovya.
"We must do something! You had better get a cat, hadn't you?"
"I've got a cat, but what good is it?"
And Praskovya pointed to the corner where a white kitten, thin
as a match, lay curled up asleep beside a broom.
"Why is it no good?" asked Pyotr Demyanitch.
"It's young yet, and foolish. It's not two months old yet."
"H'm. . . . Then it must be trained. It had much better be
learning instead of lying there."
Saying this, Pyotr Demyanitch sighed with a careworn air and
went out of the kitchen. The kitten raised his head, looked
lazily after him, and shut his eyes again.
The kitten lay awake thinking. Of what? Unacquainted with real
life, having no store of accumulated impressions, his mental
processes could only be instinctive, and he could but picture
life in accordance with the conceptions that he had inherited,
together with his flesh and blood, from his ancestors, the
tigers (vide Darwin). His thoughts were of the nature of
day-dreams. His feline imagination pictured something like the
Arabian desert, over which flitted shadows closely resembling
Praskovya, the stove, the broom. In the midst of the shadows
there suddenly appeared a saucer of milk; the saucer began to
grow paws, it began moving and displayed a tendency to run; the
kitten made a bound, and with a thrill of blood-thirsty
sensuality thrust his claws into it.
When the saucer had vanished into obscurity a piece of meat
appeared, dropped by Praskovya; the meat ran away with a
cowardly squeak, but the kitten made a bound and got his claws
into it. . . . Everything that rose before the imagination of
the young dreamer had for its starting-point leaps, claws, and
teeth. . . The soul of another is darkness, and a cat's soul
more than most, but how near the visions just described are to
the truth may be seen from the following fact: under the
influence of his day-dreams the kitten suddenly leaped up,
looked with flashing eyes at Praskovya, ruffled up his coat, and
making one bound, thrust his claws into the cook's skirt.
Obviously he was born a mouse catcher, a worthy son of his
bloodthirsty ancestors. Fate had destined him to be the terror
of cellars, store-rooms and cornbins, and had it not been for
education . . . we will not anticipate, however.
On his way home from the high school, Pyotr Demyanitch went into
a general shop and bought a mouse-trap for fifteen kopecks. At
dinner he fixed a little bit of his rissole on the hook, and set
the trap under the sofa, where there were heaps of the pupils'
old exercise-books, which Praskovya used for various domestic
purposes. At six o'clock in the evening, when the worthy Latin
master was sitting at the table correcting his pupils'
exercises, there was a sudden "klop!" so loud that my uncle
started and dropped his pen. He went at once to the sofa and
took out the trap. A neat little mouse, the size of a thimble,
was sniffing the wires and trembling with fear.
"Aha," muttered Pyotr Demyanitch, and he looked at the mouse
malignantly, as though he were about to give him a bad mark.
"You are cau--aught, wretch! Wait a bit! I'll teach you to eat
Having gloated over his victim, Poytr Demyanitch put the
mouse-trap on the floor and called:
"Praskovya, there's a mouse caught! Bring the kitten here!
"I'm coming," responded Praskovya, and a minute later she came
in with the descendant of tigers in her arms.
"Capital!" said Pyotr Demyanitch, rubbing his hands. "We will
give him a lesson. . . . Put him down opposite the mouse-trap .
. . that's it. . . . Let him sniff it and look at it. . . .
That's it. . . ."
The kitten looked wonderingly at my uncle, at his arm-chair,
sniffed the mouse-trap in bewilderment, then, frightened
probably by the glaring lamplight and the attention directed to
him, made a dash and ran in terror to the door.
"Stop!" shouted my uncle, seizing him by the tail, "stop, you
rascal! He's afraid of a mouse, the idiot! Look! It's a mouse!
Look! Well? Look, I tell you!"
Pyotr Demyanitch took the kitten by the scruff of the neck and
pushed him with his nose against the mouse-trap.
"Look, you carrion! Take him and hold him, Praskovya. . . . Hold
him opposite the door of the trap. . . . When I let the mouse
out, you let him go instantly. . . . Do you hear? . . .
Instantly let go! Now!"
My uncle assumed a mysterious expression and lifted the door of
the trap. . . . The mouse came out irresolutely, sniffed the
air, and flew like an arrow under the sofa. . . . The kitten on
being released darted under the table with his tail in the air.
"It has got away! got away!" cried Pyotr Demyanitch, looking
ferocious. "Where is he, the scoundrel? Under the table? You
wait. . ."
My uncle dragged the kitten from under the table and shook him
in the air.
"Wretched little beast," he muttered, smacking him on the ear.
"Take that, take that! Will you shirk it next time? Wr-r-r-etch.
. . ."
Next day Praskovya heard again the summons.
"Praskovya, there is a mouse caught! Bring the kitten here!"
After the outrage of the previous day the kitten had taken
refuge under the stove and had not come out all night. When
Praskovya pulled him out and, carrying him by the scruff of the
neck into the study, set him down before the mouse-trap, he
trembled all over and mewed piteously.
"Come, let him feel at home first," Pyotr Demyanitch commanded.
"Let him look and sniff. Look and learn! Stop, plague take you!"
he shouted, noticing that the kitten was backing away from the
mouse-trap. "I'll thrash you! Hold him by the ear! That's it. .
. . Well now, set him down before the trap. . . ."
My uncle slowly lifted the door of the trap . . . the mouse
whisked under the very nose of the kitten, flung itself against
Praskovya's hand and fled under the cupboard; the kitten,
feeling himself free, took a desperate bound and retreated under
"He's let another mouse go!" bawled Pyotr Demyanitch. "Do you
call that a cat? Nasty little beast! Thrash him! thrash him by
When the third mouse had been caught, the kitten shivered all
over at the sight of the mousetrap and its inmate, and scratched
Praskovya's hand. . . . After the fourth mouse my uncle flew
into a rage, kicked the kitten, and said:
"Take the nasty thing away! Get rid of it! Chuck it away! It's
no earthly use!"
A year passed, the thin, frail kitten had turned into a solid
and sagacious tom-cat. One day he was on his way by the back
yards to an amatory interview. He had just reached his
destination when he suddenly heard a rustle, and thereupon
caught sight of a mouse which ran from a water-trough towards a
stable; my hero's hair stood on end, he arched his back, hissed,
and trembling all over, took to ignominious flight.
Alas! sometimes I feel myself in the ludicrous position of the
flying cat. Like the kitten, I had in my day the honour of being
taught Latin by my uncle. Now, whenever I chance to see some
work of classical antiquity, instead of being moved to eager
enthusiasm, I begin recalling, ut consecutivum, the irregular
verbs, the sallow grey face of my uncle, the ablative absolute.
. . . I turn pale, my hair stands up on my head, and, like the
cat, I take to ignominious flight.
collegiate councillor: Rank 6 in the Russian civil service scale
vide Darwin: see Charles Darwin, the 19th century English
biologist best know for his theory of evolution
ut consecutivum: in order
ablative absolute: a part of Latin grammar