A.P. Chekhov - Too Early!
THE bells are ringing for service in the village of Shalmovo.
The sun is already kissing the earth on the horizon; it has
turned crimson and will soon disappear. In Semyon's pothouse,
which has lately changed its name and become a restaurant -- a
title quite out of keeping with the wretched little hut with its
thatch torn off its roof, and its couple of dingy windows -- two
peasant sportsmen are sitting. One of them is called Filimon
Slyunka; he is an old man of sixty, formerly a house-serf,
belonging to the Counts Zavalin, by trade a carpenter. He has at
one time been employed in a nail factory, has been turned off
for drunkenness and idleness, and now lives upon his old wife,
who begs for alms. He is thin and weak, with a mangy-looking
little beard, speaks with a hissing sound, and after every word
twitches the right side of his face and jerkily shrugs his right
shoulder. The other, Ignat Ryabov, a sturdy, broad-shouldered
peasant who never does anything and is everlastingly silent, is
sitting in the corner under a big string of bread rings. The
door, opening inwards, throws a thick shadow upon him, so that
Slyunka and Semyon the publican can see nothing but his patched
knees, his long fleshy nose, and a big tuft of hair which has
escaped from the thick uncombed tangle covering his head. Semyon,
a sickly little man, with a pale face and a long sinewy neck,
stands behind his counter, looks mournfully at the string of
bread rings, and coughs meekly.
"You think it over now, if you have any sense," Slyunka says to
him, twitching his cheek. "You have the thing lying by unused
and get no sort of benefit from it. While we need it. A
sportsman without a gun is like a sacristan without a voice. You
ought to understand that, but I see you don't understand it, so
you can have no real sense. . . . Hand it over!"
"You left the gun in pledge, you know!" says Semyon in a thin
womanish little voice, sighing deeply, and not taking his eyes
off the string of bread rings. "Hand over the rouble you
borrowed, and then take your gun."
"I haven't got a rouble. I swear to you, Semyon Mitritch, as God
sees me: you give me the gun and I will go to-day with Ignashka
and bring it you back again. I'll bring it back, strike me dead.
May I have happiness neither in this world nor the next, if I
"Semyon Mitritch, do give it," Ignat Ryabov says in his bass,
and his voice betrays a passionate desire to get what he asks
"But what do you want the gun for?" sighs Semyon, sadly shaking
his head. "What sort of shooting is there now? It's still winter
outside, and no game at all but crows and jackdaws."
"Winter, indeed," says Slyunka, hooing the ash out of his pipe
with his finger, "it is early yet of course, but you never can
tell with the snipe. The snipe's a bird that wants watching. If
you are unlucky, you may sit waiting at home, and miss his
flying over, and then you must wait till autumn. . . . It is a
business! The snipe is not a rook. . . . Last year he was flying
the week before Easter, while the year before we had to wait
till the week after Easter! Come, do us a favour, Semyon
Mitritch, give us the gun. Make us pray for you for ever. As
ill-luck would have it, Ignashka has pledged his gun for drink
too. Ah, when you drink you feel nothing, but now . . . ah, I
wish I had never looked at it, the cursed vodka! Truly it is the
blood of Satan! Give it us, Semyon Mitritch!"
"I won't give it you," says Semyon, clasping his yellow hands on
his breast as though he were going to pray. "You must act
fairly, Filimonushka. . . . A thing is not taken out of pawn
just anyhow; you must pay the money. . . . Besides, what do you
want to kill birds for? What's the use? It's Lent now -- you are
not going to eat them."
Slyunka exchanges glances with Ryabov in embarrassment, sighs,
and says: "We would only go stand-shooting."
"And what for? It's all foolishness. You are not the sort of man
to spend your time in foolishness. . . . Ignashka, to be sure,
is a man of no understanding, God has afflicted him, but you,
thank the Lord, are an old man. It's time to prepare for your
end. Here, you ought to go to the midnight service."
The allusion to his age visibly stings Slyunka. He clears his
throat, wrinkles up his forehead, and remains silent for a full
"I say, Semyon Mitritch," he says hotly, getting up and
twitching not only in his right cheek but all over his face.
"It's God's truth. . . . May the Almighty strike me dead, after
Easter I shall get something from Stepan Kuzmitch for an axle,
and I will pay you not one rouble but two! May the Lord chastise
me! Before the holy image, I tell you, only give me the gun!"
"Gi-ive it," Ryabov says in his growling bass; they can hear him
breathing hard, and it seems that he would like to say a great
deal, but cannot find the words. "Gi-ive it."
"No, brothers, and don't ask," sighs Semyon, shaking his head
mournfully. "Don't lead me into sin. I won't give you the gun.
It's not the fashion for a thing to be taken out of pawn and no
money paid. Besides -- why this indulgence? Go your way and God
Slyunka rubs his perspiring face with his sleeve and begins
hotly swearing and entreating. He crosses himself, holds out his
hands to the ikon, calls his deceased father and mother to bear
witness, but Semyon sighs and meekly looks as before at the
string of bread rings. In the end Ignashka Ryabov, hitherto
motionless, gets up impulsively and bows down to the ground
before the innkeeper, but even that has no effect on him.
"May you choke with my gun, you devil," says Slyunka, with his
face twitching, and his shoulders, shrugging. "May you choke,
you plague, you scoundrelly soul."
Swearing and shaking his fists, he goes out of the tavern with
Ryabov and stands still in the middle of the road.
"He won't give it, the damned brute," he says, in a weeping
voice, looking into Ryabov's face with an injured air.
"He won't give it," booms Ryabov.
The windows of the furthest huts, the starling cote on the
tavern, the tops of the poplars, and the cross on the church are
all gleaming with a bright golden flame. Now they can see only
half of the sun, which, as it goes to its night's rest, is
winking, shedding a crimson light, and seems laughing gleefully.
Slyunka and Ryabov can see the forest lying, a dark blur, to the
right of the sun, a mile and a half from the village, and tiny
clouds flitting over the clear sky, and they feel that the
evening will be fine and still.
"Now is just the time," says Slyunka, with his face twitching.
"It would be nice to stand for an hour or two. He won't give it
us, the damned brute. May he. . . "
"For stand-shooting, now is the very time . . ." Ryabov
articulated, as though with an effort, stammering.
After standing still for a little they walk out of the village,
without saying a word to each other, and look towards the dark
streak of the forest. The whole sky above the forest is studded
with moving black spots, the rooks flying home to roost. The
snow, lying white here and there on the dark brown plough-land,
is lightly flecked with gold by the sun.
"This time last year I went stand-shooting in Zhivki," says
Slyunka, after a long silence. "I brought back three snipe."
Again there follows a silence. Both stand a long time and look
towards the forest, and then lazily move and walk along the
muddy road from the village.
"It's most likely the snipe haven't come yet," says Slyunka,
"but may be they are here."
"Kostka says they are not here yet."
"Maybe they are not, who can tell; one year is not like another.
But what mud!"
"But we ought to stand."
"To be sure we ought -- why not?"
"We can stand and watch; it wouldn't be amiss to go to the
forest and have a look. If they are there we will tell Kostka,
or maybe get a gun ourselves and come to-morrow. What a
misfortune, God forgive me. It was the devil put it in my mind
to take my gun to the pothouse! I am more sorry than I can tell
Conversing thus, the sportsmen approach the forest. The sun has
set and left behind it a red streak like the glow of a fire,
scattered here and there with clouds; there is no catching the
colours of those clouds: their edges are red, but they
themselves are one minute grey, at the next lilac, at the next
In the forest, among the thick branches of fir-trees and under
the birch bushes, it is dark, and only the outermost twigs on
the side of the sun, with their fat buds and shining bark, stand
out clearly in the air. There is a smell of thawing snow and
rotting leaves. It is still; nothing stirs. From the distance
comes the subsiding caw of the rooks.
"We ought to be standing in Zhivki now," whispers Slyunka,
looking with awe at Ryabov; "there's good stand-shooting there."
Ryabov too looks with awe at Slyunka, with unblinking eyes and
"A lovely time," Slyunka says in a trembling whisper. "The Lord
is sending a fine spring . . . and I should think the snipe are
here by now. . . . Why not? The days are warm now. . . . The
cranes were flying in the morning, lots and lots of them."
Slyunka and Ryabov, splashing cautiously through the melting
snow and sticking in the mud, walk two hundred paces along the
edge of the forest and there halt. Their faces wear a look of
alarm and expectation of something terrible and extraordinary.
They stand like posts, do not speak nor stir, and their hands
gradually fall into an attitude as though they were holding a
gun at the cock. . . .
A big shadow creeps from the left and envelops the earth. The
dusk of evening comes on. If one looks to the right, through the
bushes and tree trunks, there can be seen crimson patches of the
after-glow. It is still and damp. . . .
"There's no sound of them," whispers Slyunka, shrugging with the
cold and sniffing with his chilly nose.
But frightened by his own whisper, he holds his finger up at
some one, opens his eyes wide, and purses up his lips. There is
a sound of a light snapping. The sportsmen look at each other
significantly, and tell each other with their eyes that it is
nothing. It is the snapping of a dry twig or a bit of bark. The
shadows of evening keep growing and growing, the patches of
crimson gradually grow dim, and the dampness becomes unpleasant.
The sportsmen remain standing a long time, but they see and hear
nothing. Every instant they expect to see a delicate leaf float
through the air, to hear a hurried call like the husky cough of
a child, and the flutter of wings.
"No, not a sound," Slyunka says aloud, dropping his hands and
beginning to blink. "So they have not come yet."
"You are right there."
The sportsmen cannot see each other's faces, it is getting
"We must wait another five days," says Slyunka, as he comes out
from behind a bush with Ryabov. "It's too early!"
They go homewards, and are silent all the way.
pothouse: low-class pub