The First Class Passenger by Anton Chekov
Translated by Constance Garrett
A FIRST-CLASS passenger who had just dined at the station and
drunk a little too much lay down on the velvet-covered seat,
stretched himself out luxuriously, and sank into a doze. After a
nap of no more than five minutes, he looked with oily eyes at
his _vis-a-vis,_ gave a smirk, and said:
"My father of blessed memory used to like to have his heels
tickled by peasant women after dinner. I am just like him, with
this difference, that after dinner I always like my tongue and my
brains gently stimulated. Sinful man as I am, I like empty
talk on a full stomach. Will you allow me to have a chat with
"I shall be delighted," answered the _vis-a-vis._
"After a good dinner the most trifling subject is sufficient to
arouse devilishly great thoughts in my brain. For instance, we
saw just now near the refreshment bar two young men, and you
heard one congratulate the other on being celebrated. 'I
congratulate you,' he said; 'you are already a celebrity and are
beginning to win fame.' Evidently actors or journalists of
microscopic dimensions. But they are not the point. The question
that is occupying my mind at the moment, sir, is exactly what is
to be understood by the word _fame_ or _charity_. What do you
think? Pushkin called fame a bright patch on a ragged garment; we
all understand it as Pushkin does -- that is, more or less
subjectively -- but no one has yet given a clear, logical
definition of the word. . . . I would give a good deal for such a
"Why do you feel such a need for it?"
"You see, if we knew what fame is, the means of attaining it
might also perhaps be known to us," said the first-class
passenger, after a moment's thought. I must tell you, sir, that
when I was younger I strove after celebrity with every fiber of
my being. To be popular was my craze, so to speak. For the sake of
it I studied, worked, sat up at night, neglected my meals. And I
fancy, as far as I can judge without partiality, I had all the
natural gifts for attaining it. To begin with, I am an engineer
by profession. In the course of my life I have built in Russia
some two dozen magnificent bridges, I have laid aqueducts for
three towns; I have worked in Russia, in England, in Belgium. . .
. Secondly, I am the author of several special treatises in my
own line. And thirdly, my dear sir, I have from a boy had a
weakness for chemistry. Studying that science in my leisure
hours, I discovered methods of obtaining certain organic acids,
so that you will find my name in all the foreign manuals of
chemistry. I have always been in the service, I have risen to the
grade of actual civil councilor, and I have an unblemished
record. I will not fatigue your attention by enumerating my works
and my merits, I will only say that I have done far more than some
celebrities. And yet here I am in my old age, I am getting ready
for my coffin, so to say, and I am as celebrated as that black dog
yonder running on the embankment."
"How can you tell? Perhaps you are celebrated."
"H'm! Well, we will test it at once. Tell me, have you ever heard
the name Krikunov?"
The _vis-a-vis_ raised his eyes to the ceiling, thought a minute,
"No, I haven't heard it, . . ." he said.
"That is my surname. You, a man of education, getting on in
years, have never heard of me -- a convincing proof! It is
evident that in my efforts to gain fame I have not done the right
thing at all: I did not know the right way to set to work, and,
trying to catch fame by the tail, got on the wrong side of her."
"What is the right way to set to work?"
"Well, the devil only knows! Talent, you say? Genius?
Originality? Not a bit of it, sir!. . . People have lived and
made a career side by side with me who were worthless, trivial,
and even contemptible compared with me. They did not do one-tenth
of the work I did, did not put themselves out, were not
distinguished for their talents, and did not make an effort to be
celebrated, but just look at them! Their names are continually in
the newspapers and on men's lips! If you are not tired of
listening I will illustrate it by an example. Some years ago I
built a bridge in the town of K. I must tell you that the
dullness of that scurvy little town was terrible. If it had not
been for women and cards I believe I should have gone out of my
mind. Well, it's an old story: I was so bored that I got into an
affair with a singer. Everyone was enthusiastic about her, the
devil only knows why; to my thinking she was -- what shall I say?
-- an ordinary, commonplace creature, like lots of others. The
hussy was empty-headed, ill-tempered, greedy, and what's more,
she was a fool.
"She ate and drank a vast amount, slept till five o clock in the
afternoon -- and I fancy did nothing else. She was looked upon as
a cocotte, and that was indeed her profession; but when people
wanted to refer to her in a literary fashion, they called her an
actress and a singer. I used to be devoted to the theatre, and
therefore this fraudulent pretense of being an actress made me
furiously indignant. My young lady had not the slightest right to
call herself an actress or a singer. She was a creature entirely
devoid of talent, devoid of feeling -- a pitiful creature one may
say. As far as I can judge she sang disgustingly. The whole charm
of her 'art' lay in her kicking up her legs on every suitable
occasion, and not being embarrassed when people walked into her
dressing-room. She usually selected translated vaudevilles, with
singing in them, and opportunities for disporting herself in male
attire, in tights. In fact it was -- ough! Well, I ask your
attention. As I remember now, a public ceremony took place to
celebrate the opening of the newly constructed bridge. There was
a religious service, there were speeches, telegrams, and so on. I
hung about my cherished creation, you know, all the while afraid
that my heart would burst with the excitement of an author. Its
an old story and there's no need for false modesty, and so I will
tell you that my bridge was a magnificent work! It was not a
bridge but a picture, a perfect delight! And who would not have
been excited when the whole town came to the opening? 'Oh,' I
thought, 'now the eyes of all the public will be on me! Where
shall I hide myself?' Well, I need not have worried myself, sir
-- alas! Except the official personages, no one took the
slightest notice of me. They stood in a crowd on the river-bank,
gazed like sheep at the bridge, and did not concern themselves to
know who had built it. And it was from that time, by the way,
that I began to hate our estimable public -- damnation take
them! Well, to continue. All at once the public became agitated;
a whisper ran through the crowd, . . . a smile came on their
faces, their shoulders began to move. 'They must have seen me,' I
thought. A likely idea! I looked, and my singer, with a train of
young scamps, was making her way through the crowd. The eyes of
the crowd were hurriedly following this procession. A whisper
began in a thousand voices: 'That's so-and-so. . . . Charming!
Bewitching!' Then it was they noticed me. . . . A couple of
young milksops, local amateurs of the scenic art, I presume,
looked at me, exchanged glances, and whispered: 'That's her
lover!' How do you like that? And an unprepossessing individual
in a top-hat, with a chin that badly needed shaving, hung round
me, shifting from one foot to the other, then turned to me with
"'Do you know who that lady is, walking on the other bank? That's
so-and-so. . . . Her voice is beneath all criticism, but she has
a most perfect mastery of it! . . .'
" 'Can you tell me,' I asked the unprepossessing individual, 'who
built this bridge?'
" 'I really don't know,' answered the individual; some engineer,
" 'And who built the cathedral in your town?' I asked again.
" 'I really can't tell you.'
"Then I asked him who was considered the best teacher in K., who
the best architect, and to all my questions the unprepossessing
individual answered that he did not know.
" 'And tell me, please,' I asked in conclusion, with whom is that
" 'With some engineer called Krikunov.'
"Well, how do you like that, sir? But to proceed. There are no
minnesingers or bards nowadays, and celebrity is created almost
exclusively by the newspapers. The day after the dedication of
the bridge, I greedily snatched up the local _Messenger,_ and
looked for myself in it. I spent a long time running my eyes over
all the four pages, and at last there it was -- hurrah! I began
reading: 'Yesterday in beautiful weather, before a vast concourse
of people, in the presence of His Excellency the Governor of the
province, so-and-so, and other dignitaries, the ceremony of the
dedication of the newly constructed bridge took place,' and so
on. . . . Towards the end: Our talented actress so-and-so, the
favorite of the K. public, was present at the dedication looking
very beautiful. I need not say that her arrival created a
sensation. The star was wearing . . .' and so on. They might have
given me one word! Half a word. Petty as it seems, I actually
cried with vexation!
"I consoled myself with the reflection that the provinces are
stupid, and one could expect nothing of them and for celebrity
one must go to the intellectual centers -- to Petersburg and to
Moscow. And as it happened, at that very time there was a work
of mine in Petersburg which I had sent in for a competition. The
date on which the result was to be declared was at hand.
"I took leave of K. and went to Petersburg. It is a long journey
from K. to Petersburg, and that I might not be bored on the
journey I took a reserved compartment and -- well -- of course, I
took my singer. We set off, and all the way we were eating,
drinking champagne, and -- tra-la--la! But behold, at last we
reach the intellectual center. I arrived on the very day the
result was declared, and had the satisfaction, my dear sir, of
celebrating my own success: my work received the first prize.
Hurrah! Next day I went out along the Nevsky and spent seventy
kopecks on various newspapers. I hastened to my hotel room, lay
down on the sofa, and, controlling a quiver of excitement, made
haste to read. I ran through one newspaper -- nothing. I ran
through a second -- nothing either; my God! At last, in the
fourth, I lighted upon the following paragraph: 'Yesterday the
well-known provincial actress so-and-so arrived by express in
Petersburg. We note with pleasure that the climate of the South
has had a beneficial effect on our fair friend; her charming
stage appearance. . .' and I don't remember the rest! Much lower
down than that paragraph I found, printed in the smallest type:
first prize in the competition was adjudged to an engineer
called so-and-so.' That was all! And to make things better, they
even misspelt my name: instead of Krikunov it was Kirkutlov. So
much for your intellectual center! But that was not all. . . . By
the time I left Petersburg, a month later, all the newspapers
were vying with one another in discussing our incomparable,
divine, highly talented actress, and my mistress was referred to,
not by her surname, but by her Christian name and her father's. .
"Some years later I was in Moscow. I was summoned there by a
letter, in the mayor's own handwriting, to undertake a work for
which Moscow, in its newspapers, had been clamoring for over a
hundred years. In the intervals of my work I delivered five
public lectures, with a philanthropic object, in one of the
museums there. One would have thought that was enough to make one
known to the whole town for three days at least, wouldn't one?
But, alas! not a single Moscow gazette said a word about me
There was something about houses on fire, about an operetta,
sleeping town councilors, dr unken shop keepers -- about
everything; but about my work, my plans, my lectures -- mum. And
a nice set they are in Moscow! I got into a tram. . . . It was
packed full; there were ladies and military men and students of
both sexes, creatures of all sorts in couples.
"'I am told the town council has sent for an engineer to plan
such and such a work!' I said to my neighbor, so loudly that all
the tram could hear. 'Do you know the name of the engineer?'
"My neighbor shook his head. The rest of the public took a
cursory glance at me, and in all their eyes I read: 'I don't
"'I am told that there is someone giving lectures in such and
such a museum?' I persisted, trying to get up a conversation. 'I
hear it is interesting.'
"No one even nodded. Evidently they had not all of them heard of
the lectures, and the ladies were not even aware of the existence
of the museum. All that would not have mattered, but imagine, my
dear sir, the people suddenly leaped to their feet and struggled
to the windows. What was it? What was the matter?
"'Look, look!' my neighbor nudged me. 'Do you see that dark man
getting into that cab? That's the famous runner, King!'
"And the whole tram began talking breathlessly of the runner who
was then absorbing the brains of Moscow.
"I could give you ever so many other examples, but I think that
is enough. Now let us assume that I am mistaken about myself,
that I am a wretchedly boastful and incompetent person; but apart
from myself I might point to many of my contemporaries, men
remarkable for their talent and industry, who have nevertheless
died unrecognized. Are Russian navigators, chemists, physicists,
mechanicians, and agriculturists popular with the public? Do our
cultivated masses know anything of Russian artists,
sculptors, and literary men? Some old literary hack,
hard-working and talented, will wear away the doorstep of the
publishers' offices for thirty-three years, cover reams of paper,
be had up for libel twenty times, and yet not step beyond his
ant-heap. Can you mention to me a single representative of our
literature who would have become celebrated if the rumor had not
been spread over the earth that he had been killed in a duel,
gone out of his mind, been sent into exile, or had cheated at
The first-class passenger was so excited that he dropped his
cigar out of his mouth and got up.
"Yes," he went on fiercely, "and side by side with these people I
can quote you hundreds of all sorts of singers, acrobats,
buffoons, whose names are known to every baby. Yes!"
The door creaked, there was a draught, and an individual of
forbidding aspect, wearing an Inverness coat, a top-hat, and blue
spectacles, walked into the carriage. The individual looked round
at the seats, frowned, and went on further.
"Do you know who that is?" there came a timid whisper from the
furthest corner of the compartment.
That is N. N., the famous Tula cardsharper who was had up in
connection with the Y. bank affair."
"There you are!" laughed the first-class passenger. He knows a
Tula cardsharper, but ask him whether he knows Semiradsky,
Tchaykovsky, or Solovyov the philosopher -- he'll shake his head.
. . . It swinish!"
Three minutes passed in silence.
"Allow me in my turn to ask you a question," said the _vis-a-vis_
timidly, clearing his throat. Do you know the name of Pushkov?"
"Pushkov? H'm! Pushkov. . . . No, I don't know it!"
"That is my name,. . ." said the _vis-a-vis,_, overcome with
embarrassment. "Then you don't know it? And yet I have been a
professor at one of the Russian universities for thirty-five
years, . . . a member of the Academy of Sciences, . . . have
published more than one work. . . ."
The first-class passenger and the _vis-a-vis_ looked at each
other and burst out laughing.