Gooseberries by Anton Tchekoff
From early morning the sky had been overcast with clouds; the day
was still, cool, and wearisome, as usual on grey, dull days when the
clouds hang low over the fields and it looks like rain, which never
comes. Ivan Ivanich, the veterinary surgeon, and Bourkin, the
schoolmaster, were tired of walking and the fields seemed endless to
them. Far ahead they could just see the windmills of the village of
Mirousky, to the right stretched away to disappear behind the village a
line of hills, and they knew that it was the bank of the river;
meadows, green willows, farmhouses; and from one of the hills there
could be seen a field as endless, telegraph-posts, and the train,
looking from a distance like a crawling caterpillar, and in clear
weather even the town. In the calm weather when all Nature seemed
gentle and melancholy, Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin were filled with love
for the fields and thought how grand and beautiful the country was.
Last time, when we stopped in Prokofyi's shed, said Bourkin, you
were going to tell me a story.
Yes. I wanted to tell you about my brother.
Ivan Ivanich took a deep breath and lighted his pipe before
beginning his story, but just then the rain began to fall. And in about
five minutes it came pelting down and showed no signs of stopping. Ivan
Ivanich stopped and hesitated; the dogs, wet through, stood with their
tails between their legs and looked at them mournfully.
We ought to take shelter, said Bourkin. Let us go to Aliokhin. It
is close by.
They took a short cut over a stubble-field and then bore to the
right, until they came to the road. Soon there appeared poplars, a
garden, the red roofs of granaries; the river began to glimmer and they
came to a wide road with a mill and a white bathing-shed. It was
Sophino, where Aliokhin lived.
The mill was working, drowning the sound of the rain, and the dam
shook. Round the carts stood wet horses, hanging their heads, and men
were walking about with their heads covered with sacks. It was wet,
muddy, and unpleasant, and the river looked cold and sullen. Ivan
Ivanich and Bourkin felt wet and uncomfortable through and through;
their feet were tired with walking in the mud, and they walked past the
dam to the barn in silence as though they were angry with each other.
In one of the barns a winnowing-machine was working, sending out
clouds of dust. On the threshold stood Aliokhin himself, a man of about
forty, tall and stout, with long hair, more like a professor or a
painter than a farmer. He was wearing a grimy white shirt and rope
belt, and pants instead of trousers; and his boots were covered with
mud and straw. His nose and eyes were black with dust. He recognised
Ivan Ivanich and was apparently very pleased.
Please, gentlemen, he said, go to the house. I'll be with you in
The house was large and two-storied. Aliokhin lived down-stairs in
two vaulted rooms with little windows designed for the farm-hands; the
farmhouse was plain, and the place smelled of rye bread and vodka, and
leather. He rarely used the reception-rooms, only when guests arrived.
Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin were received by a chambermaid; such a pretty
young woman that both of them stopped and exchanged glances.
You cannot imagine how glad I am to see you, gentlemen, said
Aliokhin, coming after them into the hall. I never expected you.
Pelagueya, he said to the maid, give my friends a change of clothes.
And I will change, too. But I must have a bath. I haven't had one since
the spring. Wouldn't you like to come to the bathing-shed? And
meanwhile our things will be got ready.
Pretty Pelagueya, dainty and sweet, brought towels and soap, and
Aliokhin led his guests to the bathing-shed.
Yes, he said, it is a long time since I had a bath. My
bathing-shed is all right, as you see. My father and I put it up, but
somehow I have no time to bathe.
He sat down on the step and lathered his long hair and neck, and the
water round him became brown.
Yes. I see, said Ivan Ivanich heavily, looking at his head.
It is a long time since I bathed, said Aliokhin shyly, as he
soaped himself again, and the water round him became dark blue, like
Ivan Ivanich came out of the shed, plunged into the water with a
splash, and swam about in the rain, flapping his arms, and sending
waves back, and on the waves tossed white lilies; he swam out to the
middle of the pool and dived, and in a minute came up again in another
place and kept on swimming and diving, trying to reach the bottom. Ah!
how delicious! he shouted in his glee. How delicious! He swam to the
mill, spoke to the peasants, and came back, and in the middle of the
pool he lay on his back to let the rain fall on his face. Bourkin and
Aliokhin were already dressed and ready to go, but he kept on swimming
Delicious, he said. Too delicious!
You've had enough, shouted Bourkin.
They went to the house. And only when the lamp was lit in the large
drawing-room up-stairs, and Bourkin and Ivan Ivanich, dressed in silk
dressing-gowns and warm slippers, lounged in chairs, and Aliokhin
himself, washed and brushed, in a new frock coat, paced up and down
evidently delighting in the warmth and cleanliness and dry clothes and
slippers, and pretty Pelagueya, noiselessly tripping over the carpet
and smiling sweetly, brought in tea and jam on a tray, only then did
Ivan Ivanich begin his story, and it was as though he was being
listened to not only by Bourkin and Aliokhin, but also by the old and
young ladies and the officer who looked down so staidly and tranquilly
from the golden frames.
We are two brothers, he began, I, Ivan Ivanich, and Nicholai
Ivanich, two years younger. I went in for study and became a veterinary
surgeon, while Nicholai was at the Exchequer Court when he was
nineteen. Our father, Tchimasha-Himalaysky, was a cantonist, but he
died with an officer's rank and left us his title of nobility and a
small estate. After his death the estate went to pay his debts.
However, we spent our childhood there in the country. We were just like
peasant's children, spent days and nights in the fields and the woods,
minded the house, barked the lime-trees, fished, and so on.... And you
know once a man has fished, or watched the thrushes hovering in flocks
over the village in the bright, cool, autumn days, he can never really
be a townsman, and to the day of his death he will be drawn to the
country. My brother pined away in the Exchequer. Years passed and he
sat in the same place, wrote out the same documents, and thought of one
thing, how to get back to the country. And little by little his
distress became a definite disorder, a fixed ideato buy a small farm
somewhere by the bank of a river or a lake.
He was a good fellow and I loved him, but I never sympathised with
the desire to shut oneself up on one's own farm. It is a common saying
that a man needs only six feet of land. But surely a corpse wants that,
not a man. And I hear that our intellectuals have a longing for the
land and want to acquire farms. But it all comes down to the six feet
of land. To leave town, and the struggle and the swim of life, and go
and hide yourself in a farmhouse is not lifeit is egoism, laziness;
it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without action. A man
needs, not six feet of land, not a farm, but the whole earth, all
Nature, where in full liberty he can display all the properties and
qualities of the free spirit.
My brother Nicholai, sitting in his office, would dream of eating
his own schi, with its savoury smell floating across the
farmyard; and of eating out in the open air, and of sleeping in the
sun, and of sitting for hours together on a seat by the gate and gazing
at the field and the forest. Books on agriculture and the hints in
almanacs were his joy, his favourite spiritual food; and he liked
reading newspapers, but only the advertisements of land to be sold, so
many acres of arable and grass land, with a farmhouse, river, garden,
mill, and mill-pond. And he would dream of garden-walls, flowers,
fruits, nests, carp in the pond, don't you know, and all the rest of
it. These fantasies of his used to vary according to the advertisements
he found, but somehow there was always a gooseberry-bush in every one.
Not a house, not a romantic spot could he imagine without its
'Country life has its advantages,' he used to say. 'You sit on the
veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and
everything smells good ... and there are gooseberries.'
He used to draw out a plan of his estate and always the same things
were shown on it: (a) Farmhouse, (b) cottage, (c)
vegetable garden, (d) gooseberry-bush. He used to live meagrely
and never had enough to eat and drink, dressed God knows how, exactly
like a beggar, and always saved and put his money into the bank. He was
terribly stingy. It used to hurt me to see him, and I used to give him
money to go away for a holiday, but he would put that away, too. Once a
man gets a fixed idea, there's nothing to be done.
Years passed; he was transferred to another province. He completed
his fortieth year and was still reading advertisements in the papers
and saving up his money. Then I heard he was married. Still with the
same idea of buying a farmhouse with a gooseberry-bush, he married an
elderly, ugly widow, not out of any feeling for her, but because she
had money. With her he still lived stingily, kept her half-starved, and
put the money into the bank in his own name. She had been the wife of a
postmaster and was used to good living, but with her second husband she
did not even have enough black bread; she pined away in her new life,
and in three years or so gave up her soul to God. And my brother never
for a moment thought himself to blame for her death. Money, like vodka,
can play queer tricks with a man. Once in our town a merchant lay
dying. Before his death he asked for some honey, and he ate all his
notes and scrip with the honey so that nobody should get it. Once I was
examining a herd of cattle at a station and a horse-jobber fell under
the engine, and his foot was cut off. We carried him into the
waiting-room, with the blood pouring downa terrible businessand all
the while he kept on asking anxiously for his foot; he had twenty-five
roubles in his boot and did not want to lose them.
Keep to your story, said Bourkin.
After the death of his wife, Ivan Ivanich continued, after a long
pause, my brother began to look out for an estate. Of course you may
search for five years, and even then buy a pig in a poke. Through an
agent my brother Nicholai raised a mortgage and bought three hundred
acres with a farmhouse, a cottage, and a park, but there was no
orchard, no gooseberry-bush, no duck-pond; there was a river but the
water in it was coffee-coloured because the estate lay between a
brick-yard and a gelatine factory. But my brother Nicholai was not
worried about that; he ordered twenty gooseberry-bushes and settled
down to a country life.
Last year I paid him a visit. I thought I'd go and see how things
were with him. In his letters my brother called his estate Tchimbarshov
Corner, or Himalayskoe. I arrived at Himalayskoe in the afternoon. It
was hot. There were ditches, fences, hedges, rows of young fir-trees,
trees everywhere, and there was no telling how to cross the yard or
where to put your horse. I went to the house and was met by a
red-haired dog, as fat as a pig. He tried to bark but felt too lazy.
Out of the kitchen came the cook, barefooted, and also as fat as a pig,
and said that the master was having his afternoon rest. I went in to my
brother and found him sitting on his bed with his knees covered with a
blanket; he looked old, stout, flabby; his cheeks, nose, and lips were
pendulous. I half expected him to grunt like a pig.
We embraced and shed a tear of joy and also of sadness to think
that we had once been young, but were now both going grey and nearing
death. He dressed and took me to see his estate.
'Well? How are you getting on?' I asked.
'All right, thank God. I am doing very well.'
He was no longer the poor, tired official, but a real landowner and
a person of consequence. He had got used to the place and liked it, ate
a great deal, took Russian baths, was growing fat, had already gone to
law with the parish and the two factories, and was much offended if the
peasants did not call him 'Your Lordship.' And, like a good landowner,
he looked after his soul and did good works pompously, never simply.
What good works? He cured the peasants of all kinds of diseases with
soda and castor-oil, and on his birthday he would have a thanksgiving
service held in the middle of the village, and would treat the peasants
to half a bucket of vodka, which he thought the right thing to do. Ah!
Those horrible buckets of vodka. One day a greasy landowner will drag
the peasants before the Zembro Court for trespass, and the next, if
it's a holiday, he will give them a bucket of vodka, and they drink and
shout Hooray! and lick his boots in their drunkenness. A change to good
eating and idleness always fills a Russian with the most preposterous
self-conceit. Nicholai Ivanich who, when he was in the Exchequer, was
terrified to have an opinion of his own, now imagined that what he said
was law. 'Education is necessary for the masses, but they are not fit
for it.' 'Corporal punishment is generally harmful, but in certain
cases it is useful and indispensable.'
'I know the people and I know how to treat them,' he would say.
'The people love me. I have only to raise my finger and they will do as
And all this, mark you, was said with a kindly smile of wisdom. He
was constantly saying: 'We noblemen,' or 'I, as a nobleman.' Apparently
he had forgotten that our grandfather was a peasant and our father a
common soldier. Even our family name, Tchimacha-Himalaysky, which is
really an absurd one, seemed to him full-sounding, distinguished, and
But my point does not concern him so much as myself. I want to tell
you what a change took place in me in those few hours while I was in
his house. In the evening, while we were having tea, the cook laid a
plateful of gooseberries on the table. They had not been bought, but
were his own gooseberries, plucked for the first time since the bushes
were planted. Nicholai Ivanich laughed with joy and for a minute or two
he looked in silence at the gooseberries with tears in his eyes. He
could not speak for excitement, then put one into his mouth, glanced at
me in triumph, like a child at last being given its favourite toy, and
'How good they are!'
He went on eating greedily, and saying all the while:
'How good they are! Do try one!'
It was hard and sour, but, as Poushkin said, the illusion which
exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths. I saw a happy man,
one whose dearest dream had come true, who had attained his goal in
life, who had got what he wanted, and was pleased with his destiny and
with himself. In my idea of human life there is always some alloy of
sadness, but now at the sight of a happy man I was filled with
something like despair. And at night it grew on me. A bed was made up
for me in the room near my brother's and I could hear him, unable to
sleep, going again and again to the plate of gooseberries. I thought:
'After all, what a lot of contented, happy people there must be! What
an overwhelming power that means! I look at this life and see the
arrogance and the idleness of the strong, the ignorance and bestiality
of the weak, the horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding,
drunkenness, hypocrisy, falsehood.... Meanwhile in all the houses, all
the streets, there is peace; out of fifty thousand people who live in
our town there is not one to kick against it all. Think of the people
who go to the market for food: during the day they eat; at night they
sleep, talk nonsense, marry, grow old, piously follow their dead to the
cemetery; one never sees or hears those who suffer, and all the horror
of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet,
peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of
statistics; so many go mad, so many gallons are drunk, so many children
die of starvation.... And such a state of things is obviously what we
want; apparently a happy man only feels so because the unhappy bear
their burden in silence, but for which happiness would be impossible.
It is a general hypnosis. Every happy man should have some one with a
little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are
unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or
later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall himillness,
poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now
neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer, and
the happy go on living, just a little fluttered with the petty cares of
every day, like an aspen-tree in the windand everything is all
That night I was able to understand how I, too, had been content
and happy, Ivan Ivanich went on, getting up. I, too, at meals or out
hunting, used to lay down the law about living, and religion, and
governing the masses. I, too, used to say that teaching is light, that
education is necessary, but that for simple folk reading and writing is
enough for the present. Freedom is a boon, I used to say, as essential
as the air we breathe, but we must wait. YesI used to say so, but now
I ask: 'Why do we wait?' Ivan Ivanich glanced angrily at Bourkin. Why
do we wait, I ask you? What considerations keep us fast? I am told that
we cannot have everything at once, and that every idea is realised in
time. But who says so? Where is the proof that it is so? You refer me
to the natural order of things, to the law of cause and effect, but is
there order or natural law in that I, a living, thinking creature,
should stand by a ditch until it fills up, or is narrowed, when I could
jump it or throw a bridge over it? Tell me, I say, why should we wait?
Wait, when we have no strength to live, and yet must live and are full
of the desire to live!
I left my brother early the next morning, and from that time on I
found it impossible to live in town. The peace and the quiet of it
oppress me. I dare not look in at the windows, for nothing is more
dreadful to see than the sight of a happy family, sitting round a
table, having tea. I am an old man now and am no good for the struggle.
I commenced late. I can only grieve within my soul, and fret and sulk.
At night my head buzzes with the rush of my thoughts and I cannot
sleep.... Ah! If I were young!
Ivan Ivanich walked excitedly up and down the room and repeated:
If I were young.
He suddenly walked up to Aliokhin and shook him first by one hand
and then by the other.
Pavel Konstantinich, he said in a voice of entreaty, don't be
satisfied, don't let yourself be lulled to sleep! While you are young,
strong, wealthy, do not cease to do good! Happiness does not exist, nor
should it, and if there is any meaning or purpose in life, they are not
in our peddling little happiness, but in something reasonable and
grand. Do good!
Ivan Ivanich said this with a piteous supplicating smile, as though
he were asking a personal favour.
Then they all three sat in different corners of the drawing-room and
were silent. Ivan Ivanich's story had satisfied neither Bourkin nor
Aliokhin. With the generals and ladies looking down from their gilt
frames, seeming alive in the firelight, it was tedious to hear the
story of a miserable official who ate gooseberries.... Somehow they had
a longing to hear and to speak of charming people, and of women. And
the mere fact of sitting in the drawing-room where everythingthe lamp
with its coloured shade, the chairs, and the carpet under their
feettold how the very people who now looked down at them from their
frames once walked, and sat and had tea there, and the fact that pretty
Pelagueya was nearwas much better than any story.
Aliokhin wanted very much to go to bed; he had to get up for his
work very early, about two in the morning, and now his eyes were
closing, but he was afraid of his guests saying something interesting
without his hearing it, so he would not go. He did not trouble to think
whether what Ivan Ivanich had been saying was clever or right; his
guests were talking of neither groats, nor hay, nor tar, but of
something which had no bearing on his life, and he liked it and wanted
them to go on....
However, it's time to go to bed, said Bourkin, getting up. I will
wish you good night.
Aliokhin said good night and went down-stairs, and left his guests.
Each had a large room with an old wooden bed and carved ornaments; in
the corner was an ivory crucifix; and their wide, cool beds, made by
pretty Pelagueya, smelled sweetly of clean linen.
Ivan Ivanich undressed in silence and lay down.
God forgive me, a wicked sinner, he murmured, as he drew the
clothes over his head.
A smell of burning tobacco came from his pipe which lay on the
table, and Bourkin could not sleep for a long time and was worried
because he could not make out where the unpleasant smell came from.
The rain beat against the windows all night long.