“What shall I write?” said Yegor, and he dipped his pen in the ink.
Vasilisa had not seen her daughter for four years. Her daughter Yefimya had gone after her wedding to Petersburg, had sent them two letters, and since then seemed to vanish out of their lives; there had been no sight nor sound of her. And whether the old woman were milking her cow at dawn, or heating her stove, or dozing at night, she was always thinking of one and the same thing—what was happening to Yefimya, whether she were alive out yonder. She ought to have sent a letter, but the old father could not write, and there was no one to write.
This terse wintry story is among the last Chekov wrote. It does not include the lightness and glad tidings that we recognize in the usual Christmas story, although maybe that it makes it truer to Christmas as lived. The version here is from The Witch, and Other Stories, which is available at Project Gutenberg.
But now Christmas had come, and Vasilisa could not bear it any longer, and went to the tavern to Yegor, the brother of the innkeeper’s wife, who had sat in the tavern doing nothing ever since he came back from the army; people said that he could write letters very well if he were properly paid. Vasilisa talked to the cook at the tavern, then to the mistress of the house, then to Yegor himself. They agreed upon fifteen kopecks.
And now—it happened on the second day of the holidays, in the tavern kitchen—Yegor was sitting at the table, holding the pen in his hand. Vasilisa was standing before him, pondering with an expression of anxiety and woe on her face. Pyotr, her husband, a very thin old man with a brownish bald patch, had come with her; he stood looking straight before him like a blind man. On the stove a piece of pork was being braised in a saucepan; it was spurting and hissing, and seemed to be actually saying: “Flu-flu-flu.” It was stifling.
“What am I to write?” Yegor asked again.
“What?” asked Vasilisa, looking at him angrily and suspiciously. “Don’t worry me! You are not writing for nothing; no fear, you’ll be paid for it. Come, write: ‘To our dear son-in-law, Andrey Hrisanfitch, and to our only beloved daughter, Yefimya Petrovna, with our love we send a low bow and our parental blessing abiding forever.’”
“Written; fire away.”
“‘And we wish them a happy Christmas; we are alive and well, and I wish you the same, please the Lord… the Heavenly King.’”
Vasilisa pondered and exchanged glances with the old man.
“‘And I wish you the same, please the Lord the Heavenly King,’” she repeated, beginning to cry.
She could say nothing more. And yet before, when she lay awake thinking at night, it had seemed to her that she could not get all she had to say into a dozen letters. Since the time when her daughter had gone away with her husband much water had flowed into the sea, the old people had lived feeling bereaved, and sighed heavily at night as though they had buried their daughter. And how many events had occurred in the village since then, how many marriages and deaths! How long the winters had been! How long the nights!
“It’s hot,” said Yegor, unbuttoning his waistcoat. “It must be seventy degrees. What more?” he asked.
The old people were silent.
“What does your son-in-law do in Petersburg?” asked Yegor.
“He was a soldier, my good friend,” the old man answered in a weak voice. “He left the service at the same time as you did. He was a soldier, and now, to be sure, he is at Petersburg at a hydropathic establishment. The doctor treats the sick with water. So he, to be sure, is house-porter at the doctor’s.”
“Here it is written down,” said the old woman, taking a letter out of her pocket. “We got it from Yefimya, goodness knows when. Maybe they are no longer in this world.”
Yegor thought a little and began writing rapidly:
“At the present time,” he wrote, “since your destiny through your own doing allotted you to the Military Career, we counsel you to look into the Code of Disciplinary Offences and Fundamental Laws of the War Office, and you will see in that law the Civilization of the Officials of the War Office.”
He wrote and kept reading aloud what was written, while Vasilisa considered what she ought to write: how great had been their want the year before, how their corn had not lasted even till Christmas, how they had to sell their cow. She ought to ask for money, ought to write that the old father was often ailing and would soon no doubt give up his soul to God … but how to express this in words? What must be said first and what afterwards?
“Take note,” Yegor went on writing, “in volume five of the Army Regulations soldier is a common noun and a proper one, a soldier of the first rank is called a general, and of the last a private….”
The old man stirred his lips and said softly:
“It would be all right to have a look at the grandchildren.”
“What grandchildren?” asked the old woman, and she looked angrily at him; “perhaps there are none.”
“Well, but perhaps there are. Who knows?”
“And thereby you can judge,” Yegor hurried on, “what is the enemy without and what is the enemy within. The foremost of our enemies within is Bacchus.” The pen squeaked, executing upon the paper flourishes like fish-hooks. Yegor hastened and read over every line several times. He sat on a stool sprawling his broad feet under the table, well-fed, bursting with health, with a coarse animal face and a red bull neck. He was vulgarity itself: coarse, conceited, invincible, proud of having been born and bred in a pot-house; and Vasilisa quite understood the vulgarity, but could not express it in words, and could only look angrily and suspiciously at Yegor. Her head was beginning to ache, and her thoughts were in confusion from the sound of his voice and his unintelligible words, from the heat and the stuffiness, and she said nothing and thought nothing, but simply waited for him to finish scribbling. But the old man looked with full confidence. He believed in his old woman who had brought him there, and in Yegor; and when he had mentioned the hydropathic establishment it could be seen that he believed in the establishment and the healing efficacy of water.
Having finished the letter, Yegor got up and read the whole of it through from the beginning. The old man did not understand, but he nodded his head trustfully.
“That’s all right; it is smooth…” he said. “God give you health. That’s all right…”
They laid on the table three five-kopeck pieces and went out of the tavern; the old man looked immovably straight before him as though he were blind, and perfect trustfulness was written on his face; but as Vasilisa came out of the tavern she waved angrily at the dog, and said angrily, “Ugh, the plague.”
The old woman did not sleep all night; she was disturbed by thoughts, and at daybreak she got up, said her prayers, and went to the station to send off the letter.
It was between eight and nine miles to the station.
Dr. B. O. Mozelweiser’s hydropathic establishment worked on New Year’s Day exactly as on ordinary days; the only difference was that the porter, Andrey Hrisanfitch, had on a uniform with new braiding, his boots had an extra polish, and he greeted every visitor with “A Happy New Year to you!”
It was the morning; Andrey Hrisanfitch was standing at the door, reading the newspaper. Just at ten o’clock there arrived a general, one of the habitual visitors, and directly after him the postman; Andrey Hrisanfitch helped the general off with his great-coat, and said: “A Happy New Year to your Excellency!”
“Thank you, my good fellow; the same to you.”
And at the top of the stairs the general asked, nodding towards the door (he asked the same question every day and always forgot the answer): “And what is there in that room?”
“The massage room, your Excellency.”
When the general’s steps had died away Andrey Hrisanfitch looked at the post that had come, and found one addressed to himself. He tore it open, read several lines, then, looking at the newspaper, he walked without haste to his own room, which was downstairs close by at the end of the passage. His wife Yefimya was sitting on the bed, feeding her baby; another child, the eldest, was standing by, laying its curly head on her knee; a third was asleep on the bed.
Going into the room, Andrey gave his wife the letter and said: “From the country, I suppose.”
Then he walked out again without taking his eyes from the paper. He could hear Yefimya with a shaking voice reading the first lines. She read them and could read no more; these lines were enough for her. She burst into tears, and hugging her eldest child, kissing him, she began saying—and it was hard to say whether she were laughing or crying.
“It’s from granny, from grandfather,” she said. “From the country … The Heavenly Mother, Saints and Martyrs! The snow lies heaped up under the roofs now … the trees are as white as white. The boys slide on little sledges… and dear old bald grandfather is on the stove … and there is a little yellow dog … My own darlings!”
Andrey Hrisanfitch, hearing this, recalled that his wife had on three or four occasions given him letters and asked him to send them to the country, but some important business had always prevented him; he had not sent them, and the letters somehow got lost.
“And little hares run about in the fields,” Yefimya went on chanting, kissing her boy and shedding tears. “Grandfather is kind and gentle; granny is good, too—kind-hearted. They are warm-hearted in the country, they are God-fearing… and there is a little church in the village; the peasants sing in the choir. Queen of Heaven, Holy Mother and Defender, take us away from here!”
Andrey Hrisanfitch returned to his room to smoke a little till there was another ring at the door, and Yefimya ceased speaking, subsided, and wiped her eyes, though her lips were still quivering. She was very much frightened of him—oh, how frightened of him! She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sound of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.
Andrey Hrisanfitch lighted a cigarette, but at that very moment there was a ring from upstairs. He put out his cigarette, and, assuming a very grave face, hastened to his front door.
The general was coming downstairs, fresh and rosy from his bath.
“And what is there in that room?” he asked, pointing to a door.
Andrey Hrisanfitch put his hands down swiftly to the seams of his trousers, and pronounced loudly: “Charcot douche, your Excellency!”