The Shoemaker and the Devil by Anton Chekov
Translated by Constance Garrett
IT was Christmas Eve. Marya had long been snoring on the stove;
all the paraffin in the little lamp had burnt out, but Fyodor
Nilov still sat at work. He would long ago have flung aside his
work and gone out into the street, but a customer from Kolokolny
Lane, who had a fortnight before ordered some boots, had been in
the previous day, had abused him roundly, and had ordered him to
finish the boots at once before the morning service.
"It's a convict's life!" Fyodor grumbled as he worked. "Some
people have been asleep long ago, others are enjoying themselves,
while you sit here like some Cain and sew for the devil knows
whom. . . ."
To save himself from accidentally falling asleep, he kept taking
a bottle from under the table and drinking out of it, and after
every pull at it he twisted his head and said aloud:
"What is the reason, kindly tell me, that customers enjoy
themselves while I am forced to sit and work for them? Because
they have money and I am a beggar?"
He hated all his customers, especially the one who lived in
Kolokolny Lane. He was a gentleman of gloomy appearance, with
long hair, a yellow face, blue spectacles, and a husky voice. He
had a German name which one could not pronounce. It was
impossible to tell what was his calling and what he did. When, a
fortnight before, Fyodor had gone to take his measure, he, the
customer, was sitting on the floor pounding something in a
mortar. Before Fyodor had time to say good-morning the contents
of the mortar suddenly flared up and burned with a bright red
flame; there was a stink of sulphur and burnt feathers, and the
room was filled with a thick pink smoke, so that Fyodor sneezed
five times; and as he returned home afterwards, he
thought: "Anyone who feared God would not have anything to do
with things like that."
When there was nothing left in the bottle Fyodor put the boots on
the table and sank into thought. He leaned his heavy head on his
fist and began thinking of his poverty, of his hard life with no
glimmer of light in it. Then he thought of the rich,
of their big houses and their carriages, of their hundred-rouble
notes. . . . How nice it would be if the houses of these rich men
-- the devil flay them! -- were smashed, if their horses died, if
their fur coats and sable caps got shabby! How splendid it would
be if the rich, little by little, changed into beggars having
nothing, and he, a poor shoemaker, were to become rich, and were
to lord it over some other poor shoemaker on Christmas Eve.
Dreaming like this, Fyodor suddenly thought of his work, and
opened his eyes.
"Here's a go," he thought, looking at the boots. "The job has
been finished ever so long ago, and I go on sitting here. I must
take the boots to the gentleman."
He wrapped up the work in a red handkerchief, put on his things,
and went out into the street. A fine hard snow was falling,
pricking the face as though with needles. It was cold, slippery,
dark, the gas-lamps burned dimly, and for some reason there was
a smell of paraffin in the street, so that Fyodor coughed and
cleared his throat. Rich men were driving to and fro on the road,
and every rich man had a ham and a bottle of vodka in his hands.
Rich young ladies peeped at Fyodor out of the carriages and
sledges, put out their tongues and shouted, laughing:
Students, officers, and merchants walked behind Fyodor, jeering
at him and crying:
"Drunkard! Drunkard! Infidel cobbler! Soul of a boot-leg!
All this was insulting, but Fyodor held his tongue and only spat
in disgust. But when Kuzma Lebyodkin from Warsaw, a
master-bootmaker, met him and said: "I've married a rich woman
and I have men working under me, while you are a beggar and have
nothing to eat," Fyodor could not refrain from running after him.
He pursued him till he found himself in Kolokolny Lane. His
customer lived in the fourth house from the corner on the very
top floor. To reach him one had to go through a long, dark
courtyard, and then to climb up a very high slipp ery stair-case
which tottered under one's feet. When Fyodor went in to him he
was sitting on the floor pounding something in a mortar, just as
he had been the fortnight before.
"Your honor, I have brought your boots," said Fyodor sullenly.
The customer got up and began trying on the boots in silence.
Desiring to help him, Fyodor went down on one knee and pulled off
his old, boot, but at once jumped up and staggered towards the
door in horror. The customer had not a foot, but a hoof like a
"Aha!" thought Fyodor; "here's a go!"
The first thing should have been to cross himself, then to leave
everything and run downstairs; but he immediately reflected that
he was meeting a devil for the first and probably the last time,
and not to take advantage of his services would be foolish. He
controlled himself and determined to try his luck. Clasping his
hands behind him to avoid making the sign of the cross, he
coughed respectfully and began:
"They say that there is nothing on earth more evil and impure
than the devil, but I am of the opinion, your honor, that the
devil is highly educated. He has -- excuse my saying it -- hoofs
and a tail behind, but he has more brains than many a student."
"I like you for what you say," said the devil, flattered. "Thank
you, shoemaker! What do you want?"
And without loss of time the shoemaker began complaining of his
lot. He began by saying that from his childhood up he had envied
the rich. He had always resented it that all people did not live
alike in big houses and drive with good horses. Why, he asked,
was he poor? How was he worse than Kuzma Lebyodkin from Warsaw,
who had his own house, and whose wife wore a hat? He had the same
sort of nose, the same hands, feet, head, and back, as the rich,
and so why was he forced to work when others were enjoying
themselves? Why was he married to Marya and not to a lady
smelling of scent? He had often seen beautiful young ladies in
the houses of rich customers, but they either took no notice of
him whatever, or else sometimes laughed and whispered to each
other: "What a red nose that shoemaker has!" It was true that
Marya was a good, kind, hard-working woman, but she was not
educated; her hand was heavy and hit hard, and if one had
occasion to speak of politics or anything intellectual before
her, she would put her spoke in and talk the most awful nonsense.
"What do you want, then?" his customer interrupted him.
"I beg you, your honor Satan Ivanitch, to be graciously pleased
to make me a rich man."
"Certainly. Only for that you must give me up your soul! Before
the cocks crow, go and sign on this paper here that you give me
up your soul."
"Your honor," said Fyodor politely, "when you ordered a pair of
boots from me I did not ask for the money in advance. One has
first to carry out the order and then ask for payment."
"Oh, very well!" the customer assented.
A bright flame suddenly flared up in the mortar, a pink thick
smoke came puffing out, and there was a smell of burnt feathers
and sulphur. When the smoke had subsided, Fyodor rubbed his eyes
and saw that he was no longer Fyodor, no longer a shoemaker, but
quite a different man, wearing a waistcoat and a watch-chain, in
a new pair of trousers, and that he was sitting in an armchair at
a big table. Two foot men were handing him dishes, bowing low and
"Kindly eat, your honor, and may it do you good!"
What wealth! The footmen handed him a big piece of roast mutton
and a dish of cucumbers, and then brought in a frying-pan a roast
goose, and a little afterwards boiled pork with horse-radish
cream. And how dignified, how genteel it all was! Fyodor ate,
and before each dish drank a big glass of excellent vodka, like
some general or some count. After the pork he was handed some
boiled grain moistened with goose fat, then an omelette with
bacon fat, then fried liver, and he went on eating and was
delighted. What more? They served, too, a pie with onion and
steamed turnip with kvass.
"How is it the gentry don't burst with such meals?" he thought.
In conclusion they handed him a big pot of honey. After dinner
the devil appeared in blue spectacles and asked with a low bow:
"Are you satisfied with your dinner, Fyodor Pantelyeitch?"
But Fyodor could not answer one word, he was so stuffed after his
dinner. The feeling of repletion was unpleasant, oppressive, and
to distract his thoughts he looked at the boot on his left foot.
"For a boot like that I used not to take less than seven and a
half roubles. What shoemaker made it?" he asked.
"Kuzma Lebyodkin," answered the footman.
"Send for him, the fool!"
Kuzma Lebyodkin from Warsaw soon made his appearance. He stopped
in a respectful attitude at the door and asked:
"What are your orders, your honor?"
"Hold your tongue!" cried Fyodor, and stamped his foot. "Don't
dare to argue; remember your place as a cobbler! Blockhead! You
don't know how to make boots! I'll beat your ugly phiz to a
jelly! Why have you come?"
"What money? Be off! Come on Saturday! Boy, give him a cuff!"
But he at once recalled what a life the customers used to lead
him, too, and he felt heavy at heart, and to distract his
attention he took a fat pocketbook out of his pocket and began
counting his money. There was a great deal of money, but Fyodor
wanted more still. The devil in the blue spectacles brought him
another notebook fatter still, but he wanted even more; and the
more he counted it, the more discontented he became.
In the evening the evil one brought him a full-bosomed lady in a
red dress, and said that this was his new wife. He spent the
whole evening kissing her and eating gingerbreads, and at night
he went to bed on a soft, downy feather-bed, turned from side to
side, and could not go to sleep. He felt uncanny.
"We have a great deal of money," he said to his wife; "we must
look out or thieves will be breaking in. You had better go and
look with a candle."
He did not sleep all night, and kept getting up to see if his box
was all right. In the morning he had to go to church to matins.
In church the same honor is done to rich and poor alike. When
Fyodor was poor he used to pray in church like this: "God,
forgive me, a sinner!" He said the same thing now though he had
become rich. What difference was there? And after death Fyodor
rich would not be buried in gold, not in diamonds, but in the
same black earth as the poorest beggar. Fyodor would burn in the
same fire as cobblers. Fyodor resented all this, and, too, he
felt weighed down all over by his dinner, and instead of prayer
he had all sorts of thoughts in his head about his box of money,
about thieves, about his bartered, ruined soul.
He came out of church in a bad temper. To drive away his
unpleasant thoughts as he had often done before, he struck up a
song at the top of his voice. But as soon as he began a policeman
ran up and said, with his fingers to the peak of his cap:
"Your honor, gentlefolk must not sing in the street! You are not
Fyodor leaned his back against a fence and fell to thinking: what
could he do to amuse himself?
"Your honor," a porter shouted to him, "don't lean against the
fence, you will spoil your fur coat!"
Fyodor went into a shop and bought himself the very best
concertina, then went out into the street playing it. Everybody
pointed at him and laughed.
"And a gentleman, too," the cabmen jeered at him; "like some
cobbler. . . ."
"Is it the proper thing for gentlefolk to be disorderly in the
street?" a policeman said to him. "You had better go into a
"Your honor, give us a trifle, for Christ's sake," the beggars
wailed, surrounding Fyodor on all sides.
In earlier days when he was a shoemaker the beggars took no
notice of him, now they wouldn't let him pass.
And at home his new wife, the lady, was waiting for him, dressed
in a green blouse and a red skirt. He meant to be attentive to
her, and had just lifted his arm to give her a good clout on the
back, but she said angrily:
"Peasant! Ignorant lout! You don't know how to behave with
ladies! If you love me you will kiss my hand; I don't allow you
to beat me."
"This is a blasted existence!" thought Fyodor. "People do lead a
life! You mustn't sing, you mustn't play the concertina, you
mustn't have a lark with a lady. . . . Pfoo!"
He had no sooner sat down to tea with the lady when the evil
spirit in the blue spectacles appeared and said:
"Come, Fyodor Pantelyeitch, I have performed my part of the
bargain. Now sign your paper and come along with me!"
And he dragged Fyodor to hell, straight to the furnace, and
devils flew up from all directions and shouted:
"Fool! Blockhead! Ass!"
There was a fearful smell of paraffin in hell, enough to
suffocate one. And suddenly it all vanished. Fyodor opened his
eyes and saw his table, the boots, and the tin lamp. The
lamp-glass was black, and from the faint light on the wick came
clouds of stinking smoke as from a chimney. Near the table stood
the customer in the blue spectacles, shouting angrily:
"Fool! Blockhead! Ass! I'll give you a lesson, you scoundrel! You
took the order a fortnight ago and the boots aren't ready yet! Do
you suppose I want to come trapesing round here half a dozen
times a day for my boots? You wretch! you brute!"
Fyodor shook his head and set to work on the boots. The customer
went on swearing and threatening him for a long time. At last
when he subsided, Fyodor asked sullenly:
"And what is your occupation, sir?"
"I make Bengal lights and fireworks. I am a pyrotechnician."
They began ringing for matins. Fyodor gave the customer the
boots, took the money for them, and went to church.
Carriages and sledges with bearskin rugs were dashing to and fro
in the street; merchants, ladies, officers were walking along the
pavement together with the humbler folk. . . . But Fyodor did not
envy them nor repine at his lot. It seemed to him now that rich
and poor were equally badly off. Some were able to drive in a
carriage, and others to sing songs at the top of their voice and
to play the concertina, but one and the same thing, the same
grave, was awaiting all alike, and there was nothing in life for
which one would give the devil even a tiny scrap of one's soul.