In Exile by Anton Tchekoff
Old Simeon, whose nickname was Brains, and a young Tartar, whose
name nobody knew, were sitting on the bank of the river by a wood-fire.
The other three ferrymen were in the hut. Simeon who was an old man of
about sixty, skinny and toothless, but broad-shouldered and healthy,
was drunk. He would long ago have gone to bed, but he had a bottle in
his pocket and was afraid of his comrades asking him for vodka. The
Tartar was ill and miserable, and, pulling his rags about him, he went
on talking about the good things in the province of Simbirsk, and what
a beautiful and clever wife he had left at home. He was not more than
twenty-five, and now, by the light of the wood-fire, with his pale,
sorrowful, sickly face, he looked a mere boy.
Of course, it is not a paradise here, said Brains, you see,
water, the bare bushes by the river, clay everywherenothing else....
It is long past Easter and there is still ice on the water and this
morning there was snow....
Bad! Bad! said the Tartar with a frightened look.
A few yards away flowed the dark, cold river, muttering, dashing
against the holes in the clayey banks as it tore along to the distant
sea. By the bank they were sitting on, loomed a great barge, which the
ferrymen call a karbass. Far away and away, flashing out,
flaring up, were fires crawling like snakeslast year's grass being
burned. And behind the water again was darkness. Little banks of ice
could be heard knocking against the barge.... It was very damp and
The Tartar glanced at the sky. There were as many stars as at home,
and the darkness was the same, but something was missing. At home in
the Simbirsk province the stars and the sky were altogether different.
Bad! Bad! he repeated.
You will get used to it, said Brains with a laugh. You are young
yet and foolish; the milk is hardly dry on your lips, and in your folly
you imagine that there is no one unhappier than you, but there will
come a time when you will say: God give every one such a life! Just
look at me. In a week's time the floods will be gone, and we will fix
the ferry here, and all of you will go away into Siberia and I shall
stay here, going to and fro. I have been living thus for the last
two-and-twenty years, but, thank God, I want nothing. God give
everybody such a life.
The Tartar threw some branches onto the fire, crawled near to it and
My father is sick. When he dies, my mother and my wife have
promised to come here.
What do you want your mother and your wife for? asked Brains.
Just foolishness, my friend. It's the devil tempting you, plague take
him. Don't listen to the Evil One. Don't give way to him. When he talks
to you about women you should answer him sharply: 'I don't want them!'
When he talks of freedom, you should stick to it and say: 'I don't want
it. I want nothing! No father, no mother, no wife, no freedom, no home,
no love! I want nothing.' Plague take 'em all.
Brains took a swig at his bottle and went on:
My brother, I am not an ordinary peasant. I don't come from the
servile masses. I am the son of a deacon, and when I was a free man at
Rursk, I used to wear a frock coat, and now I have brought myself to
such a point that I can sleep naked on the ground and eat grass. God
give such a life to everybody. I want nothing. I am afraid of nobody
and I think there is no man richer or freer than I. When they sent me
here from Russia I set my teeth at once and said: 'I want nothing!' The
devil whispers to me about my wife and my kindred, and about freedom
and I say to him: 'I want nothing!' I stuck to it, and, you see, I live
happily and have nothing to grumble at. If a man gives the devil the
least opportunity and listens to him just once, then he is lost and has
no hope of salvation: he will be over ears in the mire and will never
get out. Not only peasants the like of you are lost, but the nobly born
and the educated also. About fifteen years ago a certain nobleman was
sent here from Russia. He had had some trouble with his brothers and
had made a forgery in a will. People said he was a prince or a baron,
but perhaps he was only a high officialwho knows? Well, he came here
and at once bought a house and land in Moukhzyink. 'I want to live by
my own work,' said he, 'in the sweat of my brow, because I am no longer
a nobleman but an exile.' 'Why,' said I. 'God help you, for that is
good.' He was a young man then, ardent and eager; he used to mow and go
fishing, and he would ride sixty miles on horseback. Only one thing was
wrong; from the very beginning he was always driving to the post-office
at Guyrin. He used to sit in my boat and sigh: 'Ah! Simeon, it is a
long time since they sent me any money from home.' 'You are better
without money, Vassili Sergnevich,' said I. 'What's the good of it? You
just throw away the past, as though it had never happened, as though it
were only a dream, and start life afresh. Don't listen to the devil,' I
said, 'he won't do you any good, and he will only tighten the noose.
You want money now, but in a little while you will want something else,
and then more and more. If,' said I, 'you want to be happy you must
want nothing. Exactly.... If,' I said, 'fate has been hard on you and
me, it is no good asking her for charity and falling at her feet. We
must ignore her and laugh at her.' That's what I said to him.... Two
years later I ferried him over and he rubbed his hands and laughed.
'I'm going,' said he, 'to Guyrin to meet my wife. She has taken pity on
me, she says, and she is coming here. She is very kind and good.' And
he gave a gasp of joy. Then one day he came with his wife, a beautiful
young lady with a little girl in her arms and a lot of luggage. And
Vassili Andreich kept turning and looking at her and could not look at
her or praise her enough. 'Yes, Simeon, my friend, even in Siberia
people live.' Well, thought I, all right, you won't be content. And
from that time on, mark you, he used to go to Guyrin every week to find
out if money had been sent from Russia. A terrible lot of money was
wasted. 'She stays here,' said he, 'for my sake, and her youth and
beauty wither away here in Siberia. She shares my bitter lot with me,'
said he, 'and I must give her all the pleasure I can for it....' To
make his wife happier he took up with the officials and any kind of
rubbish. And they couldn't have company without giving food and drink,
and they must have a piano and a fluffy little dog on the sofabad
cess to it.... Luxury, in a word, all kinds of tricks. My lady did not
stay with him long. How could she? Clay, water, cold, no vegetables, no
fruit; uneducated people and drunkards, with no manners, and she was a
pretty pampered young lady from the metropolis.... Of course she got
bored. And her husband was no longer a gentleman, but an exilequite a
different matter. Three years later, I remember, on the eve of the
Assumption, I heard shouts from the other bank. I went over in the
ferry and saw my lady, all wrapped up, with a young gentleman, a
government official, in a troika.... I ferried them across, they got
into the carriage and disappeared, and I saw no more of them. Toward
the morning Vassili Andreich came racing up in a coach and pair. 'Has
my wife been across, Simeon, with a gentleman in spectacles?' 'She
has,' said I, 'but you might as well look for the wind in the fields.'
He raced after them and kept it up for five days and nights. When he
came back he jumped on to the ferry and began to knock his head against
the side and to cry aloud. 'You see,' said I, 'there you are.' And I
laughed and reminded him: 'Even in Siberia people live.' But he went on
beating his head harder than ever.... Then he got the desire for
freedom. His wife had gone to Russia and he longed to go there to see
her and take her away from her lover. And he began to go to the
post-office every day, and then to the authorities of the town. He was
always sending applications or personally handing them to the
authorities, asking to have his term remitted and to be allowed to go,
and he told me that he had spent over two hundred roubles on telegrams.
He sold his land and mortgaged his house to the money-lenders. His hair
went grey, he grew round-shouldered, and his face got yellow and
consumptive-looking. He used to cough whenever he spoke and tears used
to come to his eyes. He spent eight years on his applications, and at
last he became happy again and lively: he had thought of a new dodge.
His daughter, you see, had grown up. He doted on her and could never
take his eyes off her. And, indeed, she was very pretty, dark and
clever. Every Sunday he used to go to church with her at Guyrin. They
would stand side by side on the ferry, and she would smile and he would
devour her with his eyes. 'Yes, Simeon,' he would say. 'Even in Siberia
people live. Even in Siberia there is happiness. Look what a fine
daughter I have. You wouldn't find one like her in a thousand miles'
journey.' 'She's a nice girl,' said I. 'Oh, yes.' ... And I thought to
myself: 'You wait.... She is young. Young blood will have its way; she
wants to live and what life is there here?' And she began to pine
away.... Wasting, wasting away, she withered away, fell ill and had to
keep to her bed.... Consumption. That's Siberian happiness, plague take
it; that's Siberian life.... He rushed all over the place after the
doctors and dragged them home with him. If he heard of a doctor or a
quack three hundred miles off he would rush off after him. He spent a
terrific amount of money on doctors and I think it would have been much
better spent on drink. All the same she had to die. No help for it.
Then it was all up with him. He thought of hanging himself, and of
trying to escape to Russia. That would be the end of him. He would try
to escape: he would be caught, tried, penal servitude, flogging.
Good! Good! muttered the Tartar with a shiver.
What is good? asked Brains.
Wife and daughter. What does penal servitude and suffering matter?
He saw his wife and his daughter. You say one should want nothing. But
nothingis evil! His wife spent three years with him. God gave him
that. Nothing is evil, and three years is good. Why don't you
Trembling and stammering as he groped for Russian words, of which he
knew only a few, the Tartar began to say: God forbid he should fall
ill among strangers, and die and be buried in the cold sodden earth,
and then, if his wife could come to him if only for one day or even for
one hour, he would gladly endure any torture for such happiness, and
would even thank God. Better one day of happiness than nothing.
Then once more he said what a beautiful clever wife he had left at
home, and with his head in his hands he began to cry and assured Simeon
that he was innocent, and had been falsely accused. His two brothers
and his uncle had stolen some horses from a peasant and beat the old
man nearly to death, and the community never looked into the matter at
all, and judgment was passed by which all three brothers were exiled to
Siberia, while his uncle, a rich man, remained at home.
You will get used to it, said Simeon.
The Tartar relapsed into silence and stared into the fire with his
eyes red from weeping; he looked perplexed and frightened, as if he
could not understand why he was in the cold and the darkness, among
strangers, and not in the province of Simbirsk. Brains lay down near
the fire, smiled at something, and began to say in an undertone:
But what a joy she must be to your father, he muttered after a
pause. He loves her and she is a comfort to him, eh? But, my man,
don't tell me. He is a strict, harsh old man. And girls don't want
strictness; they want kisses and laughter, scents and pomade. Yes....
Ah! What a life! Simeon swore heavily. No more vodka! That means
bedtime. What? I'm going, my man.
Left alone, the Tartar threw more branches on the fire, lay down,
and, looking into the blaze, began to think of his native village and
of his wife; if she could come if only for a month, or even a day, and
then, if she liked, go back again! Better a month or even a day, than
nothing. But even if his wife kept her promise and came, how could he
provide for her? Where was she to live?
If there is nothing to eat; how are we to live? asked the Tartar
For working at the oars day and night he was paid two copecks a day;
the passengers gave tips, but the ferrymen shared them out and gave
nothing to the Tartar, and only laughed at him. And he was poor, cold,
hungry, and fearful.... With his whole body aching and shivering he
thought it would be good to go into the hut and sleep; but there was
nothing to cover himself with, and it was colder there than on the
bank. He had nothing to cover himself with there, but he could make up
In a week's time, when the floods had subsided and the ferry would
be fixed up, all the ferrymen except Simeon would not be wanted any
longer and the Tartar would have to go from village to village, begging
and looking for work. His wife was only seventeen; beautiful, soft, and
shy.... Could she go unveiled begging through the villages? No. The
idea of it was horrible.
It was already dawn. The barges, the bushy willows above the water,
the swirling flood began to take shape, and up above in a clayey cliff
a hut thatched with straw, and above that the straggling houses of the
village, where the cocks had begun to crow.
The ginger-coloured clay cliff, the barge, the river, the strange
wild people, hunger, cold, illnessperhaps all these things did not
really exist. Perhaps, thought the Tartar, it was only a dream. He felt
that he must be asleep, and he heard his own snoring.... Certainly he
was at home in the Simbirsk province; he had but to call his wife and
she would answer; and his mother was in the next room.... But what
awful dreams there are! Why? The Tartar smiled and opened his eyes.
What river was that? The Volga?
It was snowing.
Hi! Ferry! some one shouted on the other bank. Karba-a-ass!
The Tartar awoke and went to fetch his mates to row over to the
other side. Hurrying into their sheepskins, swearing sleepily in hoarse
voices, and shivering from the cold, the four men appeared on the bank.
After their sleep, the river from which there came a piercing blast,
seemed to them horrible and disgusting. They stepped slowly into the
barge.... The Tartar and the three ferrymen took the long, broad-bladed
oars, which in the dim light looked like a crab's claw, and Simeon
flung himself with his belly against the tiller. And on the other side
the voice kept on shouting, and a revolver was fired twice, for the man
probably thought the ferrymen were asleep or gone to the village inn.
All right. Plenty of time! said Brains in the tone of one who was
convinced that there is no need for hurry in this worldand indeed
there is no reason for it.
The heavy, clumsy barge left the bank and heaved through the
willows, and by the willows slowly receding it was possible to tell
that the barge was moving. The ferrymen plied the oars with a slow
measured stroke; Brains hung over the tiller with his stomach pressed
against it and swung from side to side. In the dim light they looked
like men sitting on some antediluvian animal with long limbs, swimming
out to a cold dismal nightmare country.
They got clear of the willows and swung out into mid-stream. The
thud of the oars and the splash could be heard on the other bank and
shouts came: Quicker! Quicker! After another ten minutes the barge
bumped heavily against the landing-stage.
And it is still snowing, snowing all the time, Simeon murmured,
wiping the snow off his face. God knows where it comes from!
On the other side a tall, lean old man was waiting in a short
fox-fur coat and a white astrachan hat. He was standing some distance
from his horses and did not move; he had a stern concentrated
expression as if he were trying to remember something and were furious
with his recalcitrant memory. When Simeon went up to him and took off
his hat with a smile he said:
I'm in a hurry to get to Anastasievka. My daughter is worse again
and they tell me there's a new doctor at Anastasievka.
The coach was clamped onto the barge and they rowed back. All the
while as they rowed the man, whom Simeon called Vassili Andreich, stood
motionless, pressing his thick lips tight and staring in front of him.
When the driver craved leave to smoke in his presence, he answered
nothing, as if he did not hear. And Simeon hung over the rudder and
looked at him mockingly and said:
Even in Siberia people live. L-i-v-e!
On Brains's face was a triumphant expression as if he were proving
something, as if pleased that things had happened just as he thought
they would. The unhappy, helpless look of the man in the fox-fur coat
seemed to give him great pleasure.
The roads are now muddy, Vassili Andreich, he said, when the
horses had been harnessed on the bank. You'd better wait a couple of
weeks, until it gets dryer.... If there were any point in goingbut
you know yourself that people are always on the move day and night and
there's no point in it. Sure!
Vassili Andreich said nothing, gave him a tip, took his seat in the
coach and drove away.
Look! He's gone galloping after the doctor! said Simeon, shivering
in the cold. Yes. To look for a real doctor, trying to overtake the
wind in the fields, and catch the devil by the tail, plague take him!
What queer fish there are! God forgive me, a miserable sinner.
The Tartar went up to Brains, and, looking at him with mingled
hatred and disgust, trembling, and mixing Tartar words up with his
broken Russian, said:
He good ... good. And you ... bad! You are bad! The gentleman is a
good soul, very good, and you are a beast, you are bad! The gentleman
is alive and you are dead.... God made man that he should be alive,
that he should have happiness, sorrow, grief, and you want nothing, so
you are not alive, but a stone! A stone wants nothing and so do you....
You are a stoneand God does not love you and the gentleman he does.
They all began to laugh: the Tartar furiously knit his brows, waved
his hand, drew his rags round him and went to the fire. The ferrymen
and Simeon went slowly to the hut.
It's cold, said one of the ferrymen hoarsely, as he stretched
himself on the straw with which the damp, clay floor was covered.
Yes. It's not warm, another agreed.... It's a hard life.
All of them lay down. The wind blew the door open. The snow drifted
into the hut. Nobody could bring himself to get up and shut the door;
it was cold, but they put up with it.
And I am happy, muttered Simeon as he fell asleep. God give such
a life to everybody.
You certainly are the devil's own. Even the devil don't need to
Sounds like the barking of a dog came from outside.
Who is that? Who is there?
It's the Tartar crying.
Oh! he's a queer fish.
He'll get used to it! said Simeon, and at once he fell asleep.
Soon the others slept too and the door was left open.