From Russian Silhouettes: More Stories of Russian Life, by Anton Tchekoff, translated from the Russian by Marian Fell. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, October, 1915.
A Trifle from Real Life
By Anton Chekhov
NIKOLAI ILITCH BIELAYEFF was a young gentleman of St. Petersburg, aged thirty-two, rosy, well fed, and a patron of the race-tracks. Once, toward evening, he went to pay a call on Olga Ivanovna with whom, to use his own expression, he was dragging through a long and tedious love-affair. And the truth was that the first thrilling, inspiring pages of this romance had long since been read, and that the story was now dragging wearily on, presenting nothing that was either interesting or novel.
Not finding Olga at home, my hero threw himself upon a couch and prepared to await her return.
"Good evening, Nikolai Ilitch!" he heard a child's voice say. "Mamma will soon be home. She has gone to the dressmaker's with Sonia."
On the divan in the same room lay Aliosha, Olga's son, a small boy of eight, immaculately and picturesquely dressed in a little velvet suit and long black stockings. He had been lying on a satin pillow, mimicking the antics of an acrobat he had seen at the circus. First he stretched up one pretty leg, then another; then, when they were tired, he brought his arms into play, and at last jumped up galvanically, throwing himself on all fours in an effort to stand on his head. He went through all these motions with the most serious face in the world, puffing like a martyr, as if he himself regretted that God had given him such a restless little body.
"Ah, good evening, my boy!" said Belayeff. "Is that you? I did not know you were here. Is mamma well?"
Aliosha seized the toe of his left shoe in his right hand, assumed the most unnatural position in the world, rolled over, jumped up, and peeped out at Bielayeff from under the heavy fringes of the lampshade.
"Not very," he said shrugging his shoulders. "Mamma is never really well. She is a woman, you see, and women always have something the matter with them."
From lack of anything better to do, Belayeff began scrutinizing Aliosha's face. During all his acquaintance with Olga he had never bestowed any consideration upon the boy or noticed his existence at all. He had seen the child about, but what he was doing there Belayeff, somehow, had never cared to think.
Now, in the dusk of evening, Aliosha's pale face and fixed, dark eyes unexpectedly reminded Belayeff of Olga as she had appeared in the first pages of their romance. He wanted to pet the boy.
"Come here, little monkey," he said, "and let me look at you!"
The boy jumped down from the sofa and ran to Bielayeff.
"Well," the latter began, laying his hand on the boy's thin shoulder. "And how are you? Is everything all right with you?"
"No, not very. It used to be much better."
"In what way?"
"That's easy to answer. Sonia and I used to learn only music and reading before, but now we have French verses, too. You have cut your beard!"
"So I noticed. It is shorter than it was. Please let me touch it--does that hurt?"
"No, not a bit."
"Why does it hurt if you pull one hair at a time, and not a bit if you pull lots? Ha! Ha! I'll tell you something. You ought to wear whiskers! You could shave here on the sides, here, and here you could let the hair grow--"
The boy nestled close to Belayeff and began to play with his watch-chain.
"Mamma is going to give me a watch when I go to school, and I am going to ask her to give me a chain just like yours-- Oh, what a lovely locket! Papa has a locket just like that; only yours has little stripes on it, and papa's has letters. He has a portrait of mamma in his locket. Papa wears another watch-chain now made of ribbon."
"How do you know? Do you ever see your papa?"
Aliosha blushed deeply at being caught telling a fib and began to scratch the locket furiously with his nail. Belayeff looked searchingly into his face and repeated:
"Do you ever see your papa?"
"Come, tell me honestly! I can see by your face that you are not telling the truth. It's no use quibbling now that the cat is out of the bag. Tell me, do you see him? Now then, as between friends!"
"You won't tell mamma?" he asked.
"What an idea!"
"Oh, you insufferable child! What do you take me for?"
Aliosha glanced around, opened his eyes wide, and said:
"For heaven's sake don't tell mamma! Don't tell a soul, because it's a secret. I don't know what would happen to Sonia and Pelagia and me if mamma should find out. Now, listen. Sonia and I see papa every Thursday and every Friday. When Pelagia takes us out walking before dinner we go to Anfel's confectionery and there we find papa already waiting for us. He is always sitting in the little private room with the marble table and the ash-tray that's made like a goose without a back."
"What do you do in there?"
"We don't do anything. First we say how do you do, and then papa orders coffee and pasties for us. Sonia likes pasties with meat, you know, but I can't abide them with meat. I like mine with cabbage or eggs. We eat so much that we have a hard time eating our dinner afterward so that mamma won't guess anything."
"What do you talk about?"
"With papa? Oh, about everything. He kisses us and hugs us and tells us the funniest jokes. Do you know what? He says that when we grow bigger he is going to take us to live with him. Sonia doesn't want to go, but I wouldn't mind. Of course it would be lonely without mamma, but I could write letters to her. Isn't it funny, we might go and see her then on Sundays, mightn't we? Papa says, too, he is going to buy me a pony. He is such a nice man! I don't know why mamma doesn't ask him to live with her and why she won't let us see him. He loves mamma very much. He always asks how she is and what she has been doing. When she was ill he took hold of his head just like this--and ran about the room. He always asks us whether we are obedient and respectful to her. Tell me, is it true that we are unfortunate?"
"H'm--why do you ask?"
"Because papa says we are. He says we are unfortunate children, and that he is unfortunate, and that mamma is unfortunate. He tells us to pray to God for her and for ourselves."
Aliosha fixed his eyes on the figure of a stuffed bird, and became lost in thought.
"Well, I declare--" muttered Belayeff. "So, that's what you do, you hold meetings at a confectioner's? And your mamma doesn't know it?"
"N-no. How could she? Pelagia wouldn't tell her for the world. Day before yesterday papa gave us pears. They were as sweet as sugar. I ate two!"
"H'm. But--listen to me, does papa ever say anything about me?"
"About you? What shall I say?" Aliosha looked searchingly into Belayeff's face and shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing special," he answered.
"Well, what does he say, for instance?"
"You won't be angry if I tell you?"
"What an idea! Does he abuse me?"
"No, he doesn't abuse you, but, you know, he is angry with you. He says that it is your fault that mamma is unhappy, and that you have ruined mamma. He is such a funny man! I tell him that you are kind and that you never scold mamma, but he only shakes his head."
"So he says I have ruined her?"
"Yes--don't be angry, Nikolai Ilitch !"
Belayeff rose and began pacing up and down the room.
"How strange this is--and how ridiculous!" he muttered shrugging his shoulders and smiling sarcastically. "It is all his fault and yet he says I have ruined her! What an innocent baby this is! And so he told you I had ruined your mother?"
"Yes, but--you promised not to be angry!"
"I'm not angry and--and it is none of your business anyway. Yes, this is--this is really ridiculous! Here I have been caught like a mouse in a trap, and now it seems it is all my fault!"
The door-bell rang. The boy tore himself from Belayeff's arms and ran out of the room. A moment later a lady entered with a little girl. It was Aliosha's mother, Olga Ivanovna. Aliosha skipped into the room behind her, singing loudly and clapping his hands. Belayeff nodded and continued to walk up and down.
"Of course!" he muttered. "Whom should he blame but me? He has right on his side! He is the injured husband."
"What is that you are saying?" asked Olga Ivanovna.
"What am I saying? Just listen to what your young hopeful here has been preaching. It appears that I am a wicked scoundrel and that I have ruined you and your children. You are all unhappy, and I alone am frightfully happy. Frightfully, frightfully happy!"
"I don't understand you, Nikolai. What is the matter?"
"Just listen to what this young gentleman here has to say!" cried Belayeff pointing to Aliosha.
Aliosha flushed and then grew suddenly pale and his face became distorted with fear.
"Nikolai Ilitch!" he whispered loudly. "Hush!" Olga Ivanovna looked at Aliosha in surprise, and then at Belayeff, and then back again at Aliosha.
"Ask him!" Belayeff continued. "That idiot of yours, Pelagia, takes them to a confectioner's and arranges meetings there between them and their papa. But that isn't the point. The point is that papa is the victim, and that I am an abandoned scoundrel who has wrecked the lives of both of you!"
"Nikolai Ilitch!" groaned Aliosha. "You gave me your word of honour!"
"Leave me alone!" Belayeff motioned to him impatiently. "This is more important than words of honour. This hypocrisy, these lies are intolerable!"
"I don't understand!" cried Olga Ivanovna, the tears glistening in her eyes. "Listen, Aliosha," she asked, turning to her son. "Do you really see your father?"
But Aliosha did not hear her, his eyes were fixed with horror on Belayeff.
"It cannot be possible!" his mother exclaimed, "I must go and ask Pelagia."
Olga Ivanovna left the room.
"But Nikolai Ilitch, you gave me your word of honour!" cried Aliosha trembling all over.
Belayeff made an impatient gesture and went on pacing the floor. He was absorbed in thoughts of the wrong that had been done him, and, as before, was unconscious of the boy's presence: a serious, grown-up person like him could not be bothered with little boys. But Aliosha crept into a corner and told Sonia with horror how he had been deceived. He trembled and hiccoughed and cried. This was the first time in his life that he had come roughly face to face with deceit; he had never imagined till now that there were things in this world besides pasties and watches and sweet pears, things for which no name could be found in the vocabulary of childhood.