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.
By Anton Chekhov
"HERE, Pavel, Pavel!" Pelagia Ivanovna cried, rousing her husband from a nap. "Do go and help Stepa! He is sitting there crying again over his lessons. It must be something he can't understand."
Pavel Vasilitch got up, made the sign of the cross over his yawning mouth, and said meekly:
"Very well, dear."
The cat sleeping beside him also jumped up, stretched its tail in the air, arched its back, and half-closed its eyes. The mice could be heard scuttling behind the hangings. Having put on his slippers and dressing-gown, Pavel Vasilitch passed into the dining-room all ruffled and heavy with sleep. A second cat that had been sniffing at a plate of cold fish on the window-sill jumped to the floor as he entered, and hid in the cupboard.
"Who told you to go smelling that?" Pavel Vasilitch cried with vexation, covering the fish with a newspaper. "You're more of a pig than a cat!"
A door led from the dining-room into the nursery. There, at a table disfigured with deep gouges and stains, sat Stepa, a schoolboy of ten with tearful eyes and a petulant face. He was hugging his knees to his chin and swaying backward and forward like a Chinese idol with his eyes fixed angrily on the schoolbook before him.
"So you're learning your lessons, eh?" asked Pavel Vasilitch, yawning and taking his seat at the table beside him. "That's the way, sonny. You've had your play and your nap, and you've eaten your pancakes, and to-morrow will be Lent, a time of repentance; so now you're at work. The happiest day must have an end. What do those tears mean? Are your lessons getting the better of you? It's hard to do lessons after eating pancakes! That's what ails you, little sonny!"
"Why do you laugh at the child?" calls Pelagia Ivanovna from the next room. "Show him how to do his lessons, instead of making fun of him! Oh, what a trial he is! He'll be sure to get a bad mark to-morrow!"
"What is it you don't understand?" asked Pavel Vasilitch of Stepa.
"This here, how to divide these fractions," the boy answered crossly. "The division of fractions by fractions."
"H'm, you little pickle, that's easy, there's nothing about it to understand. You must do the sum right, that's all. To divide one fraction by another you multiply the numerator of the first by the denominator of the second in order to get the numerator of the quotient. Very well. Now the denominator of the first--"
"I know that already!" Stepa interrupted him, flicking a nutshell off the table. "Show me an example."
"An example? Very well, let me have a pencil. Now, then, listen to me. Supposing that we want to divide seven-eighths by two-fifths. Very well, then the proposition is this: we want to divide these two fractions by one another-- Is the samovar boiling?"
"I don't know."
"Because it's eight o'clock and time for tea. Very well, now listen to me. Supposing that we divide seven-eighths not by two-fifths, but by two, that is by the numerator only. What is the answer?"
"Splendid! Good boy! Now, then, sonny, the trick is this: as we have divided--let me see--as we have divided it by two, of course--wait a minute, I'm getting muddled myself. I remember when I was a boy at school we had a Polish arithmetic master named Sigismund Urbanitch, who used to get muddled over every lesson. He would suddenly lose his wits while he was in the midst of demonstrating a proposition, blush to the roots of his hair, and rush about the classroom as if the devil were after him. Then he would blow his nose four or five times and burst into tears. But we were generous to him, we used to pretend not to notice it, and would ask him whether he had the toothache. And yet we were a class of pirates, of cutthroats, I can tell you, but, as you see, we were generous. We boys weren't puny like you when I was a youngster; we were great big chaps, you never saw such great strapping fellows! There was Mamakin, for instance, in the third grade. Lord! What a giant he was! Why, that colossus was seven feet high! The whole house shook when he walked across the floor and he would knock the breath out of your body if he laid his hand on your shoulder. Not only we boys, but even the masters feared him. Why Mamakin would sometimes--"
Pelagia Ivanovna's footsteps resounded in the next room. Pavel Vasilitch winked at the door and whispered:
"Mother's coming, let's get to work! Very well, then, sonny," he continued, raising his voice. "We want to divide this fraction by that one. All right. To do that we must multiply the numerator of the first by--"
"Come in to tea!" called Pelagia Ivanovna.
Father and son left their arithmetic and went in to tea. Pelagia Ivanovna was already seated at the dining-table with the silent aunt and another aunt who was deaf and dumb and old granny Markovna, who had assisted Stepa into the world. The samovar was hissing and emitting jets of steam that settled in large, dark shadows upon the ceiling. The cats came in from the hall, sleepy, melancholy, their tails standing straight up in the air.
"Do have some preserves with your tea, Markovna!" said Pelagia Ivanovna turning to the old dame. "To-morrow will be Lent, so you must eat all you can."
Markovna helped herself to a large spoonful of jam, raised it to her lips, and swallowed it with a sidelong glance at Pavel Vasilitch. Next moment a sweet smile broke over her face, a smile almost as sweet as the jam itself.
"These preserves are perfectly delicious!" she exclaimed. "Did you make them yourself, Pelagia Ivanovna, dearie?"
"Yes, of course, who else could have made them? I do everything myself. Stepa, darling, was your tea too weak for you? Mercy, you've finished it already! Come, hand me your cup, sweetheart, and let me give you some more."
"That young Mamakin I was telling you about, sonny," continued Pavel Vasilitch, turning to Stepa, "couldn't abide our French teacher. 'I'm a gentleman!' he used to exclaim. 'I won't be lorded over by a Frenchman!' Of course he used to be flogged for it, and badly flogged, too. When he knew he was in for a thrashing he used to jump through the window and take to his heels, not showing his nose in school after that for five or six days. Then his mother would go to the head master and beg him for pity's sake to find her Mishka and give the scoundrel a thrashing, but the head master used to say: 'That's all very well, madam, but no five of our men can hold that fellow!'"
"My goodness, what dreadful boys there are in the world!" whispered Pelagia Ivanovna, fixing terrified eyes on her husband. "His poor mother!"
A silence followed--Stepa yawned loudly as he contemplated the Chinaman on the tea-caddy whom he had seen at least a thousand times before. Markovna and the two aunts sipped their tea primly from their saucers. The air was close and oppressive with the heat of the stove. The lassitude that comes to the satiated body when it is forced to continue eating was depicted on the faces and in the movements of the family. The samovar had been taken away and the table had been cleared, but they still continued to sit about the board. Pelagia Ivanovna jumped up from time to time and ran into the kitchen with a look of horror on her face to confer with the cook about supper. The aunts both sat motionless in the same position, dozing with their hands folded on their chests and their lack-lustre eyes fixed on the lamp. Markovna kept hiccoughing every minute and asked each time:
"I wonder what makes me hiccough? I don't know what I could have eaten or drunk--hick!"
Pavel Vasilitch and Stepa leaned over the table side by side with their heads together, poring over the pages of the Neva Magazine for the year 1878.
"'The monument to Leonardo da Vinci in front of the Victor Emmanuel Museum at Milan.' Look at that, it's like a triumphal arch! And there are a man and a lady, and there are some more little people--"
"That looks like one of the boys at our school," Stepa said.
"Turn over the page-- 'The Proboscis of the House Fly as Seen through the Microscope.' Goodness what a fly! I wonder what a bedbug would look like under the microscope, eh? How disgusting!"
The ancient hall clock coughed rather than struck ten times, as if it were afflicted with a cold. Into the dining-room came Anna the cook and fell flop at her master's feet.
"Forgive me my sins, master, for Christ's sake!" she cried and got up again very red in the face.
"Forgive me mine, too, for Christ's sake!" answered Pavel Vasilitch calmly.
Anna then fell down at the feet of every member of the family in turn and asked forgiveness for her sins, omitting only Markovna, who, not being high-born, was unworthy of a prostration.
Another half-hour passed in silence and peace. The Neva was tossed aside onto the sofa and Pavel Vasilitch, with one finger raised aloft, was reciting Latin poetry he had learned in his youth. Stepa was watching his father's finger with its wedding-ring and dozing as he listened to the words he could not understand. He rubbed his heavy eyes with his fist but they kept closing tighter and tighter each time.
"I'm going to bed!" he said at last, stretching and yawning.
"What? To bed?" cried Pelagia Ivanovna. "Won't you eat your meat for the last time before Lent?"
"I don't want any meat."
"Have you taken leave of your senses?" his startled mother exclaimed. "How can you say that? You won't have any meat after to-night for the whole of Lent!"
Pavel Vasilitch was startled, too.
"Yes, yes, sonny," he cried. "Your mother will give you nothing but Lenten fare for seven weeks after to-night. This won't do. You must eat your meat!"
"But I want to go to bed!" whimpered Stepa.
"Then bring in the supper quick!" cried Pavel Vasilitch in a flutter. "Anna, what are you doing in there, you old slow-coach? Come quick and bring in the supper!"
Pelagia Ivanovna threw up her hands and rushed into the kitchen as if the house were afire.
"Hurry! Hurry!" rang through the house. "Stepa wants to go to bed! Anna! Oh, heavens, what is the matter? Hurry!"
In five minutes the supper was on the table. The cats appeared once more, stretching and arching their backs, with their tails in the air. The family applied themselves to their meal. No one was hungry, all were surfeited to the point of bursting, but they felt it was their duty to eat.