A.P. Chekhov -
The Father of a Family
Translated from the Russian by Marian Fell
THIS is what generally follows a grand loss at cards or a drinking-bout, when his indigestion begins to make itself felt. Stepan Jilin wakes up in an uncommonly gloomy frame of mind. He looks sour, ruffled, and peevish, and his grey face wears an expression partly discontented, partly offended, and partly sneering. He dresses deliberately, slowly drinks his vichy water, and begins roaming about the house.
"I wish to goodness I knew what br-rute goes through here leaving all the doors open!" he growls angrily, wrapping his dressing-gown about him and noisily clearing his throat. "Take this paper away! What is it lying here for? Though we keep twenty servants, this house is more untidy than a hovel! Who rang the bell? Who's there?"
"Aunty Anfisa, who nursed our Fedia," answers his wife.
"Yes, loafing about, eating the bread of idleness!"
"I don't understand you, Stepan; you invited her here yourself and now you are abusing her!"
"I'm not abusing her. I'm talking! And you ought to find something to do, too, good woman, instead of sitting there with your hands folded, picking quarrels with your husband! I don't understand a woman like you, upon my word I don't! How can you let day after day go by without working? Here's your husband toiling and moiling like an ox, like a beast of burden, and there you are, his wife, his life's companion, sitting about like a doll without ever turning your hand to a thing, so bored that you must seize every opportunity of quarrelling with him. It's high time for you to drop those schoolgirlish airs, madam! You're not a child nor a young miss any longer. You're a woman, a mother! You turn away, eh? Aha! You don't like disagreeable truths, do you?"
"It's odd you only speak disagreeable truths when you have indigestion!"
"That's right, let's have a scene; go ahead!"
"Did you go to town yesterday or did you play cards somewhere?"
"Well, and what if I did? Whose business is it? Am I accountable to any one? Don't I lose my own money? All that I spend and all that is spent in this house is mine, do you hear that? Mine!"
And so he persists in the same strain. But Jilin is never so crotchety, so stern, so bristling with virtue and justice, as he is when sitting at dinner with his household gathered about him. It generally begins with the soup. Having swallowed his first spoonful, Jilin suddenly scowls and stops eating.
"What the devil--" he mutters. "So I'll have to go to the café for lunch--"
"What is it?" asks his anxious wife. "Isn't the soup good?"
"I can't conceive the swinish tastes a person must have to swallow this mess! It is too salty, it smells of rags, it is flavoured with bugs and not onions! Anfisa Pavlovna!" he cries to his guest. "It is shocking! I give them oceans of money every day to buy food with, I deny myself everything, and this is what they give me to eat! No doubt they would like me to retire from business into the kitchen and do the cooking myself!"
"The soup is good to-day," the governess timidly ventures.
"Is it? Do you find it so?" inquires Jilin scowling angrily at her. "Every one to his taste, but I must confess that yours and mine differ widely, Varvara Vasilievna. You, for instance, admire the behavior of that child there (Jilin points a tragic forefinger at his son) . You are in ecstasies over him, but I--I am shocked! Yes, I am--"
Fedia, a boy of seven with a delicate, pale face, stops eating and lowers his eyes. His cheeks grow paler than ever.
"Yes, you are in ecstasies, and I am shocked. I don't know which of us is right, but I venture to think that I, as his father, know my own son better than you do. Look at the way he is sitting! Is that how well-behaved children should hold themselves? Sit up!"
Fedia raises his chin and sticks out his neck and thinks he is sitting up straighter. his eyes are filling with tears.
"Eat your dinner! Hold your spoon properly! Don't dare to snuffle! Look me in the face!"
Fedia tries to look at him, but his lips are quivering and the tears are trickling down his cheeks.
"Aha, so you're crying? You're naughty and that makes you cry, eh? Leave the table and go and stand in the corner, puppy!"
"But--do let him finish his dinner first!" his wife intercedes for the boy.
"No--no dinner! Such a--such a naughty brat has no right to eat dinner!"
Fedia makes a wry face, slides down from his chair, and takes his stand in a corner.
"That's the way to treat him," his father continues. "If no one else will take charge of his education I must do it myself. I won't have you being naughty and crying at dinner, sir! Spoiled brat! You ought to work, do you hear me? Your father works, and you must work, too! No one may sponge on others. Be a man, a M-A-N!"
"For Heaven's sake, hush!" his wife beseeches him in French. "At least don't bite our heads off in public! The old lady is listening to every word, and the whole town will know of this, thanks to her."
"I'm not afraid of the public!" retorts Jilin in Russian. "Anfisa Pavlovna can see for herself that I'm speaking the truth. What, do you think I ought to be satisfied with that youngster there? Do you know how much he costs me? Do you know, you worthless boy, how much you cost me? Or do you think I can create money and that it falls into my lap of its own accord? Stop bawling! Shut up! Do you hear me or not? Do you want me to thrash you, little wretch?"
Fedia breaks into piercing wails and begins sobbing.
"Oh, this is absolutely unbearable!" exclaims his mother, throwing down her napkin and getting up from the table. "He never lets us have our dinner in peace. That's where that bread of yours sticks!"
She points to her throat and, putting her handkerchief to her eyes, leaves the dining-room.
"Her feelings are hurt," mutters Jilin, forcing a smile. "She has been too gently handled, Anfisa Pavlovna, and that's why she doesn't like to hear the truth. We are to blame!"
Several minutes elapse in silence. Jilin catches sight of the dinner-plates and notices that the soup has not been touched. He sighs deeply and glares at the flushed and agitated face of the governess.
"Why don't you eat your dinner, Varvara Vasilievna?" he demands. "You're offended, too, are you? I see, you don't like the truth either. Forgive me, but it is my nature never to be hypocritical. I always hit straight from the shoulder. (A sigh.) I see, though, that my company is distasteful to you. No one can speak or eat in my presence. You ought to have told me that sooner so that I could have left you to yourselves. I am going now."
Jilin rises and walks with dignity toward the door. He stops as he passes the weeping Fedia.
"After what has happened just now you are fr-ee!" he says to him with a lofty toss of the head. "I shall no longer concern myself with your education. I wash my hands of it. Forgive me if, out of sincere fatherly solicitude for your welfare, I interfered with you and your preceptresses. At the same time, I renounce forever all responsibility for your future."
Fedia wails and sobs more loudly than ever. Jilin turns toward the door with a stately air and walks off into his bedroom.
After his noonday nap Jilin is tormented by the pangs of conscience. He is ashamed of his behaviour to his wife, his son, and Anfisa Pavlovna, and feels extremely uncomfortable on remembering what happened at dinner. But his egotism is too strong for him and he is not man enough to be truthful, so he continues to grumble and sulk.
When he wakes up the following morning he feels in the gayest of moods and whistles merrily at his ablutions. On entering the dining-room for breakfast he finds Fedia. The boy rises at the sight of his father and gazes at him with troubled eyes.
"Well, how goes it, young man?" Jilin asks cheerfully as he sits down to table. "What's the news, old fellow? Are you all right, eh? Come here, you little roly-poly, and give papa a kiss."
Fedia approaches his father with a pale, serious face and brushes his cheek with trembling lips. Then he silently retreats and resumes his place at the table.