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The Murder - A.P. Chekhov



Late one evening a foreign steamer stopped in the roads of Du in Sahalin and asked for coal. The captain was asked to wait till morning, but he did not want to wait over an hour, saying that if the weather changed for the worse in the night there would be a risk of his having to go off without coal. In the Gulf of Tartary the weather is liable to violent changes in the course of half an hour, and then the shores of Sahalin are dangerous. And already it had turned fresh, and there was a considerable sea running.

A gang of convicts were sent to the mine from the Voevodsky prison, the grimmest and most forbidding of all the prisons in Sahalin. The coal had to be loaded upon barges, and then they had to be towed by a steam-cutter alongside the steamer which was anchored more than a quarter of a mile from the coast, and then the unloading and reloading had to begin -- an exhausting task when the barge kept rocking against the steamer and the men could scarcely keep on their legs for sea-sickness. The convicts, only just roused from their sleep, still drowsy, went along the shore, stumbling in the darkness and clanking their fetters. On the left, scarcely visible, was a tall, steep, extremely gloomy-looking cliff, while on the right there was a thick impenetrable mist, in which the sea moaned with a prolonged monotonous sound, "Ah!. . . ah!. . . ah!. . . ah! . . ." And it was only when the overseer was lighting his pipe, casting as he did so a passing ray of light on the escort with a gun and on the coarse faces of two or three of the nearest convicts, or when he went with his lantern close to the water that the white crests of the foremost waves could be discerned.

One of this gang was Yakov Ivanitch, nicknamed among the convicts the "Brush," on account of his long beard. No one had addressed him by his name or his father's name for a long time now; they called him simply Yashka.

He was here in disgrace, as, three months after coming to Siberia, feeling an intense irresistible longing for home, he had succumbed to temptation and run away; he had soon been caught, had been sentenced to penal servitude for life and given forty lashes. Then he was punished by flogging twice again for losing his prison clothes, though on each occasion they were stolen from him. The longing for home had begun from the very time he had been brought to Odessa, and the convict train had stopped in the night at Progonnaya; and Yakov, pressing to the window, had tried to see his own home, and could see nothing in the darkness. He had no one with whom to talk of home. His sister Aglaia had been sent right across Siberia, and he did not know where she was now. Dashutka was in Sahalin, but she had been sent to live with some ex-convict in a far away settlement; there was no news of her except that once a settler who had come to the Voevodsky Prison told Yakov that Dashutka had three children. Sergey Nikanoritch was serving as a footman at a government official's at Du, but he could not reckon on ever seeing him, as he was ashamed of being acquainted with convicts of the peasant class.

The gang reached the mine, and the men took their places on the quay. It was said there would not be any loading, as the weather kept getting worse and the steamer was meaning to set off. They could see three lights. One of them was moving: that was the steam-cutter going to the steamer, and it seemed to be coming back to tell them whether the work was to be done or not. Shivering with the autumn cold and the damp sea mist, wrapping himself in his short torn coat, Yakov Ivanitch looked intently without blinking in the direction in which lay his home. Ever since he had lived in prison together with men banished here from all ends of the earth -- with Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Georgians, Chinese, Gypsies, Jews -- and ever since he had listened to their talk and watched their sufferings, he had begun to turn again to God, and it seemed to him at last that he had learned the true faith for which all his family, from his grandmother Avdotya down, had so thirsted, which they had sought so long and which they had never found. He knew it all now and understood where God was, and how He was to be served, and the only thing he could not understand was why men's destinies were so diverse, why this simple faith which other men receive from God for nothing and together with their lives, had cost him such a price that his arms and legs trembled like a drunken man's from all the horrors and agonies which as far as he could see would go on without a break to the day of his death. He looked with strained eyes into the darkness, and it seemed to him that through the thousand miles of that mist he could see home, could see his native province, his district, Progonnaya, could see the darkness, the savagery, the heartlessness, and the dull, sullen, animal indifference of the men he had left there. His eyes were dimmed with tears; but still he gazed into the distance where the pale lights of the steamer faintly gleamed, and his heart ached with yearning for home, and he longed to live, to go back home to tell them there of his new faith and to save from ruin if only one man, and to live without suffering if only for one day.

The cutter arrived, and the overseer announced in a loud voice that there would be no loading.

"Back!" he commanded. "Steady!"

They could hear the hoisting of the anchor chain on the steamer. A strong piercing wind was blowing by now; somewhere on the steep cliff overhead the trees were creaking. Most likely a storm was coming.


Eve of the Annunciation: Annunciation Day was March 25

light: final words of a priest's prayer at end of the night services

read the epistle in church: the usual order was for a selection of the Epistles followed by a selection from the Gospels

dry food: a diet with no liquids or hot foods

lesser fasts: fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays

St. Peter's fast: the fast from Trinity until St. Peter's day, June 29 (Julian Calendar); depending on when Trininty fell, the fast could last from 8 days to 6 weeks

eat Lenten oil: oil that has no animal fat

Mount Athos: a Greek Orthodox monastery in Greece; no females, even female animals, are premitted there

twelve great holy days: the 12 major holidays of the Russian Orthodox Church

Molokanism: a religious sect that arose around 1765; their name comes from their practice of drinking milk during Lent

Day of Forgiveness: the last Sunday before Lent, when Orthodox Russians asked each other to forgive them

voice crying in the wilderness: Isaiah 40:3

Alexander I: Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) became Tsar in 1801

Old Believer: someone who adhered to the ritual of the Russian Orthodox Church as practiced before the 17th century reforms

Flagellant: a religious sect that arose in the 17th century; they repudiated priests and much of the Orthodox Church, and tended to favor clean, white clothes

thy brother: Matthew 5:24

camel: see Matthew 19:24

Marya's poor orphans: the Office of the Instituions of the Empress Mariya was a foundation in memory of the Empress Mariya Feodorovna (1759-1829) which administered girls' schools and orphanages throughout Russia

Yegory's Day: April 23

I didn't know you, so you'll be rich: Russian folklore is that failure to recognize a person whom one knows means that the person will become rich

Du in Sahalin: Du was a small coal-mining town; Sakhalin, in the Russian Far East, was an island used as a penal colony

Gulf of Tartary: body of water separating Sakhalin from the mainland

Yashka: an insulting nickname, similar to the names masters used for their serfs

settler: convicts usually had to stay in the area of the prison even after completing their sentences; other settlers were exiles who never actually served prison time

The best stories:
The Cherry Orchard
Lady with Lapdog
Uncle Vanya
Ward Six
Death of a Government Clerk
The Steppe




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