A.P. Chekhov - The Beggar
"KIND sir, be so good as to notice a poor, hungry man. I have
not tasted food for three days. I have not a five-kopeck piece
for a night's lodging. I swear by God! For five years I was a
village schoolmaster and lost my post through the intrigues of
the Zemstvo. I was the victim of false witness. I have been out
of a place for a year now."
Skvortsov, a Petersburg lawyer, looked at the speaker's tattered
dark blue overcoat, at his muddy, drunken eyes, at the red
patches on his cheeks, and it seemed to him that he had seen the
"And now I am offered a post in the Kaluga province," the beggar
continued, "but I have not the means for the journey there.
Graciously help me! I am ashamed to ask, but . . . I am
compelled by circumstances."
Skvortsov looked at his goloshes, of which one was shallow like
a shoe, while the other came high up the leg like a boot, and
"Listen, the day before yesterday I met you in Sadovoy Street,"
he said, "and then you told me, not that you were a village
schoolmaster, but that you were a student who had been expelled.
Do you remember?"
"N-o. No, that cannot be so!" the beggar muttered in confusion.
"I am a village schoolmaster, and if you wish it I can show you
documents to prove it."
"That's enough lies! You called yourself a student, and even
told me what you were expelled for. Do you remember?"
Skvortsov flushed, and with a look of disgust on his face turned
away from the ragged figure.
"It's contemptible, sir!" he cried angrily. "It's a swindle!
I'll hand you over to the police, damn you! You are poor and
hungry, but that does not give you the right to lie so
The ragged figure took hold of the door-handle and, like a bird
in a snare, looked round the hall desperately.
"I . . . I am not lying," he muttered. "I can show documents."
"Who can believe you?" Skvortsov went on, still indignant. "To
exploit the sympathy of the public for village schoolmasters and
students -- it's so low, so mean, so dirty! It's revolting!"
Skvortsov flew into a rage and gave the beggar a merciless
scolding. The ragged fellow's insolent lying aroused his disgust
and aversion, was an offence against what he, Skvortsov, loved
and prized in himself: kindliness, a feeling heart, sympathy for
the unhappy. By his lying, by his treacherous assault upon
compassion, the individual had, as it were, defiled the charity
which he liked to give to the poor with no misgivings in his
heart. The beggar at first defended himself, protested with
oaths, then he sank into silence and hung his head, overcome
"Sir!" he said, laying his hand on his heart, "I really was . .
. lying! I am not a student and not a village schoolmaster. All
that's mere invention! I used to be in the Russian choir, and I
was turned out of it for drunkenness. But what can I do? Believe
me, in God's name, I can't get on without lying -- when I tell
the truth no one will give me anything. With the truth one may
die of hunger and freeze without a night's lodging! What you say
is true, I understand that, but . . . what am I to do?"
"What are you to do? You ask what are you to do?" cried
Skvortsov, going close up to him. "Work -- that's what you must
do! You must work!"
"Work. . . . I know that myself, but where can I get work?"
"Nonsense. You are young, strong, and healthy, and could always
find work if you wanted to. But you know you are lazy, pampered,
drunken! You reek of vodka like a pothouse! You have become
false and corrupt to the marrow of your bones and fit for
nothing but begging and lying! If you do graciously condescend
to take work, you must have a job in an office, in the Russian
choir, or as a billiard-marker, where you will have a salary and
have nothing to do! But how would you like to undertake manual
labour? I'll be bound, you wouldn't be a house porter or a
factory hand! You are too genteel for that!"
"What things you say, really . . ." said the beggar, and he gave
a bitter smile. "How can I get manual work? It's rather late for
me to be a shopman, for in trade one has to begin from a boy; no
one would take me as a house porter, because I am not of that
class. . . . And I could not get work in a factory; one must
know a trade, and I know nothing."
"Nonsense! You always find some justification! Wouldn't you like
to chop wood?"
"I would not refuse to, but the regular woodchoppers are out of
"Oh, all idlers argue like that! As soon as you are offered
anything you refuse it. Would you care to chop wood for me?"
"Certainly I will. . ."
"Very good, we shall see. . . . Excellent. We'll see!"
Skvortsov, in nervous haste; and not without malignant pleasure,
rubbing his hands, summoned his cook from the kitchen.
"Here, Olga," he said to her, "take this gentleman to the shed
and let him chop some wood."
The beggar shrugged his shoulders as though puzzled, and
irresolutely followed the cook. It was evident from his
demeanour that he had consented to go and chop wood, not because
he was hungry and wanted to earn money, but simply from shame
and amour propre, because he had been taken at his word. It was
clear, too, that he was suffering from the effects of vodka,
that he was unwell, and felt not the faintest inclination to
Skvortsov hurried into the dining-room. There from the window
which looked out into the yard he could see the woodshed and
everything that happened in the yard. Standing at the window,
Skvortsov saw the cook and the beggar come by the back way into
the yard and go through the muddy snow to the woodshed. Olga
scrutinized her companion angrily, and jerking her elbow
unlocked the woodshed and angrily banged the door open.
"Most likely we interrupted the woman drinking her coffee,"
thought Skvortsov. "What a cross creature she is!"
Then he saw the pseudo-schoolmaster and pseudo-student seat
himself on a block of wood, and, leaning his red cheeks upon his
fists, sink into thought. The cook flung an axe at his feet,
spat angrily on the ground, and, judging by the expression of
her lips, began abusing him. The beggar drew a log of wood
towards him irresolutely, set it up between his feet, and
diffidently drew the axe across it. The log toppled and fell
over. The beggar drew it towards him, breathed on his frozen
hands, and again drew the axe along it as cautiously as though
he were afraid of its hitting his golosh or chopping off his
fingers. The log fell over again.
Skvortsov's wrath had passed off by now, he felt sore and
ashamed at the thought that he had forced a pampered, drunken,
and perhaps sick man to do hard, rough work in the cold.
"Never mind, let him go on . . ." he thought, going from the
dining-room into his study. "I am doing it for his good!"
An hour later Olga appeared and announced that the wood had been
"Here, give him half a rouble," said Skvortsov. "If he likes,
let him come and chop wood on the first of every month. . . .
There will always be work for him."
On the first of the month the beggar turned up and again earned
half a rouble, though he could hardly stand. From that time
forward he took to turning up frequently, and work was always
found for him: sometimes he would sweep the snow into heaps, or
clear up the shed, at another he used to beat the rugs and the
mattresses. He always received thirty to forty kopecks for his
work, and on one occasion an old pair of trousers was sent out
When he moved, Skvortsov engaged him to assist in packing and
moving the furniture. On this occasion the beggar was sober,
gloomy, and silent; he scarcely touched the furniture, walked
with hanging head behind the furniture vans, and did not even
try to appear busy; he merely shivered with the cold, and was
overcome with confusion when the men with the vans laughed at
his idleness, feebleness, and ragged coat that had once been a
gentleman's. After the removal Skvortsov sent for him.
"Well, I see my words have had an effect upon you," he said,
giving him a rouble. "This is for your work. I see that you are
sober and not disinclined to work. What is your name?"
"I can offer you better work, not so rough, Lushkov. Can you
"Then go with this note to-morrow to my colleague and he will
give you some copying to do. Work, don't drink, and don't forget
what I said to you. Good-bye."
Skvortsov, pleased that he had put a man in the path of
rectitude, patted Lushkov genially on the shoulder, and even
shook hands with him at parting.
Lushkov took the letter, departed, and from that time forward
did not come to the back-yard for work.
Two years passed. One day as Skvortsov was standing at the
ticket-office of a theatre, paying for his ticket, he saw beside
him a little man with a lambskin collar and a shabby cat's-skin
cap. The man timidly asked the clerk for a gallery ticket and
paid for it with kopecks.
"Lushkov, is it you?" asked Skvortsov, recognizing in the little
man his former woodchopper. "Well, what are you doing? Are you
getting on all right?"
"Pretty well. . . . I am in a notary's office now. I earn
"Well, thank God, that's capital. I rejoice for you. I am very,
very glad, Lushkov. You know, in a way, you are my godson. It
was I who shoved you into the right way. Do you remember what a
scolding I gave you, eh? You almost sank through the floor that
time. Well, thank you, my dear fellow, for remembering my
"Thank you too," said Lushkov. "If I had not come to you that
day, maybe I should be calling myself a schoolmaster or a
student still. Yes, in your house I was saved, and climbed out
of the pit."
"I am very, very glad."
"Thank you for your kind words and deeds. What you said that day
was excellent. I am grateful to you and to your cook, God bless
that kind, noble-hearted woman. What you said that day was
excellent; I am indebted to you as long as I live, of course,
but it was your cook, Olga, who really saved me."
"How was that?"
"Why, it was like this. I used to come to you to chop wood and
she would begin: 'Ah, you drunkard! You God-forsaken man! And
yet death does not take you!' and then she would sit opposite
me, lamenting, looking into my face and wailing: 'You unlucky
fellow! You have no gladness in this world, and in the next you
will burn in hell, poor drunkard! You poor sorrowful creature!'
and she always went on in that style, you know. How often she
upset herself, and how many tears she shed over me I can't tell
you. But what affected me most -- she chopped the wood for me!
Do you know, sir, I never chopped a single log for you -- she
did it all! How it was she saved me, how it was I changed,
looking at her, and gave up drinking, I can't explain. I only
know that what she said and the noble way she behaved brought
about a change in my soul, and I shall never forget it. It's
time to go up, though, they are just going to ring the bell."
Lushkov bowed and went off to the gallery.
Zemstvo: a district council with locally elected members
pothouse: low-class pub
a billiard-marker: one who keeps score in billiard games
amour propre: conceit, vanity
ring the bell: in Russian theaters three bells were rung, and
the curtain went up on the third bell