Difficult People by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Constance Garnett
YEVGRAF IVANOVITCH SHIRYAEV, a small farmer, whose father, a parish
priest, now deceased, had received a gift of three hundred acres of land
from Madame Kuvshinnikov, a general's widow, was standing in a corner
before a copper washing-stand, washing his hands. As usual, his face
looked anxious and ill-humoured, and his beard was uncombed.
"What weather!" he said. "It's not weather, but a curse laid upon us. It's
He grumbled on, while his family sat waiting at table for him to have
finished washing his hands before beginning dinner. Fedosya Semyonovna,
his wife, his son Pyotr, a student, his eldest daughter Varvara, and three
small boys, had been sitting waiting a long time. The boys—Kolka,
Vanka, and Arhipka—grubby, snub-nosed little fellows with chubby
faces and tousled hair that wanted cutting, moved their chairs
impatiently, while their elders sat without stirring, and apparently did
not care whether they ate their dinner or waited....
As though trying their patience, Shiryaev deliberately dried his hands,
deliberately said his prayer, and sat down to the table without hurrying
himself. Cabbage-soup was served immediately. The sound of carpenters'
axes (Shiryaev was having a new barn built) and the laughter of Fomka,
their labourer, teasing the turkey, floated in from the courtyard.
Big, sparse drops of rain pattered on the window.
Pyotr, a round-shouldered student in spectacles, kept exchanging glances
with his mother as he ate his dinner. Several times he laid down his spoon
and cleared his throat, meaning to begin to speak, but after an intent
look at his father he fell to eating again. At last, when the porridge had
been served, he cleared his throat resolutely and said:
"I ought to go tonight by the evening train. I out to have gone before; I
have missed a fortnight as it is. The lectures begin on the first of
"Well, go," Shiryaev assented; "why are you lingering on here? Pack up and
go, and good luck to you."
A minute passed in silence.
"He must have money for the journey, Yevgraf Ivanovitch," the mother
observed in a low voice.
"Money? To be sure, you can't go without money. Take it at once, since you
need it. You could have had it long ago!"
The student heaved a faint sigh and looked with relief at his mother.
Deliberately Shiryaev took a pocket-book out of his coat-pocket and put on
"How much do you want?" he asked.
"The fare to Moscow is eleven roubles forty-two kopecks...."
"Ah, money, money!" sighed the father. (He always sighed when he saw
money, even when he was receiving it.) "Here are twelve roubles for you.
You will have change out of that which will be of use to you on the
After waiting a little, the student said:
"I did not get lessons quite at first last year. I don't know how it will
be this year; most likely it will take me a little time to find work. I
ought to ask you for fifteen roubles for my lodging and dinner."
Shiryaev thought a little and heaved a sigh.
"You will have to make ten do," he said. "Here, take it."
The student thanked him. He ought to have asked him for something more,
for clothes, for lecture fees, for books, but after an intent look at his
father he decided not to pester him further.
The mother, lacking in diplomacy and prudence, like all mothers, could not
restrain herself, and said:
"You ought to give him another six roubles, Yevgraf Ivanovitch, for a pair
of boots. Why, just see, how can he go to Moscow in such wrecks?"
"Let him take my old ones; they are still quite good."
"He must have trousers, anyway; he is a disgrace to look at."
And immediately after that a storm-signal showed itself, at the sight of
which all the family trembled.
Shiryaev's short, fat neck turned suddenly red as a beetroot. The colour
mounted slowly to his ears, from his ears to his temples, and by degrees
suffused his whole face. Yevgraf Ivanovitch shifted in his chair and
unbuttoned his shirt-collar to save himself from choking. He was evidently
struggling with the feeling that was mastering him. A deathlike silence
followed. The children held their breath. Fedosya Semyonovna, as though
she did not grasp what was happening to her husband, went on:
"He is not a little boy now, you know; he is ashamed to go about without
Shiryaev suddenly jumped up, and with all his might flung down his fat
pocket-book in the middle of the table, so that a hunk of bread flew off a
plate. A revolting expression of anger, resentment, avarice—all
mixed together—flamed on his face.
"Take everything!" he shouted in an unnatural voice; "plunder me! Take it
all! Strangle me!"
He jumped up from the table, clutched at his head, and ran staggering
about the room.
"Strip me to the last thread!" he shouted in a shrill voice. "Squeeze out
the last drop! Rob me! Wring my neck!"
The student flushed and dropped his eyes. He could not go on eating.
Fedosya Semyonovna, who had not after twenty-five years grown used to her
husband's difficult character, shrank into herself and muttered something
in self-defence. An expression of amazement and dull terror came into her
wasted and birdlike face, which at all times looked dull and scared. The
little boys and the elder daughter Varvara, a girl in her teens, with a
pale ugly face, laid down their spoons and sat mute.
Shiryaev, growing more and more ferocious, uttering words each more
terrible than the one before, dashed up to the table and began shaking the
notes out of his pocket-book.
"Take them!" he muttered, shaking all over. "You've eaten and drunk your
fill, so here's money for you too! I need nothing! Order yourself new
boots and uniforms!"
The student turned pale and got up.
"Listen, papa," he began, gasping for breath. "I... I beg you to end this,
"Hold your tongue!" the father shouted at him, and so loudly that the
spectacles fell off his nose; "hold your tongue!"
"I used... I used to be able to put up with such scenes, but... but now I
have got out of the way of it. Do you understand? I have got out of the
way of it!"
"Hold your tongue!" cried the father, and he stamped with his feet. "You
must listen to what I say! I shall say what I like, and you hold your
tongue. At your age I was earning my living, while you... Do you know what
you cost me, you scoundrel? I'll turn you out! Wastrel!"
"Yevgraf Ivanovitch," muttered Fedosya Semyonovna, moving her fingers
nervously; "you know he... you know Petya...!"
"Hold your tongue!" Shiryaev shouted out to her, and tears actually came
into his eyes from anger. "It is you who have spoilt them—you! It's
all your fault! He has no respect for us, does not say his prayers, and
earns nothing! I am only one against the ten of you! I'll turn you out of
The daughter Varvara gazed fixedly at her mother with her mouth open,
moved her vacant-looking eyes to the window, turned pale, and, uttering a
loud shriek, fell back in her chair. The father, with a curse and a wave
of the hand, ran out into the yard.
This was how domestic scenes usually ended at the Shiryaevs'. But on this
occasion, unfortunately, Pyotr the student was carried away by
overmastering anger. He was just as hasty and ill-tempered as his father
and his grandfather the priest, who used to beat his parishioners about
the head with a stick. Pale and clenching his fists, he went up to his
mother and shouted in the very highest tenor note his voice could reach:
"These reproaches are loathsome! sickening to me! I want nothing from you!
Nothing! I would rather die of hunger than eat another mouthful at your
expense! Take your nasty money back! take it!"
The mother huddled against the wall and waved her hands, as though it were
not her son, but some phantom before her. "What have I done?" she wailed.
Like his father, the boy waved his hands and ran into the yard. Shiryaev's
house stood alone on a ravine which ran like a furrow for four miles along
the steppe. Its sides were overgrown with oak saplings and alders, and a
stream ran at the bottom. On one side the house looked towards the ravine,
on the other towards the open country, there were no fences nor hurdles.
Instead there were farm-buildings of all sorts close to one another,
shutting in a small space in front of the house which was regarded as the
yard, and in which hens, ducks, and pigs ran about.
Going out of the house, the student walked along the muddy road towards
the open country. The air was full of a penetrating autumn dampness. The
road was muddy, puddles gleamed here and there, and in the yellow fields
autumn itself seemed looking out from the grass, dismal, decaying, dark.
On the right-hand side of the road was a vegetable-garden cleared of its
crops and gloomy-looking, with here and there sunflowers standing up in it
with hanging heads already black.
Pyotr thought it would not be a bad thing to walk to Moscow on foot; to
walk just as he was, with holes in his boots, without a cap, and without a
farthing of money. When he had gone eighty miles his father, frightened
and aghast, would overtake him, would begin begging him to turn back or
take the money, but he would not even look at him, but would go on and
on.... Bare forests would be followed by desolate fields, fields by
forests again; soon the earth would be white with the first snow, and the
streams would be coated with ice.... Somewhere near Kursk or near
Serpuhovo, exhausted and dying of hunger, he would sink down and die. His
corpse would be found, and there would be a paragraph in all the papers
saying that a student called Shiryaev had died of hunger....
A white dog with a muddy tail who was wandering about the vegetable-garden
looking for something gazed at him and sauntered after him.
He walked along the road and thought of death, of the grief of his family,
of the moral sufferings of his father, and then pictured all sorts of
adventures on the road, each more marvellous than the one before—picturesque
places, terrible nights, chance encounters. He imagined a string of
pilgrims, a hut in the forest with one little window shining in the
darkness; he stands before the window, begs for a night's lodging.... They
let him in, and suddenly he sees that they are robbers. Or, better still,
he is taken into a big manor-house, where, learning who he is, they give
him food and drink, play to him on the piano, listen to his complaints,
and the daughter of the house, a beauty, falls in love with him.
Absorbed in his bitterness and such thoughts, young Shiryaev walked on and
on. Far, far ahead he saw the inn, a dark patch against the grey
background of cloud. Beyond the inn, on the very horizon, he could see a
little hillock; this was the railway-station. That hillock reminded him of
the connection existing between the place where he was now standing and
Moscow, where street-lamps were burning and carriages were rattling in the
streets, where lectures were being given. And he almost wept with
depression and impatience. The solemn landscape, with its order and
beauty, the deathlike stillness all around, revolted him and moved him to
despair and hatred!
"Look out!" He heard behind him a loud voice.
An old lady of his acquaintance, a landowner of the neighbourhood, drove
past him in a light, elegant landau. He bowed to her, and smiled all over
his face. And at once he caught himself in that smile, which was so out of
keeping with his gloomy mood. Where did it come from if his whole heart
was full of vexation and misery? And he thought nature itself had given
man this capacity for lying, that even in difficult moments of spiritual
strain he might be able to hide the secrets of his nest as the fox and the
wild duck do. Every family has its joys and its horrors, but however great
they may be, it's hard for an outsider's eye to see them; they are a
secret. The father of the old lady who had just driven by, for instance,
had for some offence lain for half his lifetime under the ban of the wrath
of Tsar Nicolas I.; her husband had been a gambler; of her four sons, not
one had turned out well. One could imagine how many terrible scenes there
must have been in her life, how many tears must have been shed. And yet
the old lady seemed happy and satisfied, and she had answered his smile by
smiling too. The student thought of his comrades, who did not like talking
about their families; he thought of his mother, who almost always lied
when she had to speak of her husband and children....
Pyotr walked about the roads far from home till dusk, abandoning himself
to dreary thoughts. When it began to drizzle with rain he turned
homewards. As he walked back he made up his mind at all costs to talk to
his father, to explain to him, once and for all, that it was dreadful and
oppressive to live with him.
He found perfect stillness in the house. His sister Varvara was lying
behind a screen with a headache, moaning faintly. His mother, with a look
of amazement and guilt upon her face, was sitting beside her on a box,
mending Arhipka's trousers. Yevgraf Ivanovitch was pacing from one window
to another, scowling at the weather. From his walk, from the way he
cleared his throat, and even from the back of his head, it was evident he
felt himself to blame.
"I suppose you have changed your mind about going today?" he asked.
The student felt sorry for him, but immediately suppressing that feeling,
"Listen... I must speak to you seriously... yes, seriously. I have always
respected you, and... and have never brought myself to speak to you in
such a tone, but your behaviour... your last action..."
The father looked out of the window and did not speak. The student, as
though considering his words, rubbed his forehead and went on in great
"Not a dinner or tea passes without your making an uproar. Your bread
sticks in our throat... nothing is more bitter, more humiliating, than
bread that sticks in one's throat.... Though you are my father, no one,
neither God nor nature, has given you the right to insult and humiliate us
so horribly, to vent your ill-humour on the weak. You have worn my mother
out and made a slave of her, my sister is hopelessly crushed, while I..."
"It's not your business to teach me," said his father.
"Yes, it is my business! You can quarrel with me as much as you like, but
leave my mother in peace! I will not allow you to torment my mother!" the
student went on, with flashing eyes. "You are spoilt because no one has
yet dared to oppose you. They tremble and are mute towards you, but now
that is over! Coarse, ill-bred man! You are coarse... do you understand?
You are coarse, ill-humoured, unfeeling. And the peasants can't endure
The student had by now lost his thread, and was not so much speaking as
firing off detached words. Yevgraf Ivanovitch listened in silence, as
though stunned; but suddenly his neck turned crimson, the colour crept up
his face, and he made a movement.
"Hold your tongue!" he shouted.
"That's right!" the son persisted; "you don't like to hear the truth!
Excellent! Very good! begin shouting! Excellent!"
"Hold your tongue, I tell you!" roared Yevgraf Ivanovitch.
Fedosya Semyonovna appeared in the doorway, very pale, with an astonished
face; she tried to say something, but she could not, and could only move
"It's all your fault!" Shiryaev shouted at her. "You have brought him up
"I don't want to go on living in this house!" shouted the student, crying,
and looking angrily at his mother. "I don't want to live with you!"
Varvara uttered a shriek behind the screen and broke into loud sobs. With
a wave of his hand, Shiryaev ran out of the house.
The student went to his own room and quietly lay down. He lay till
midnight without moving or opening his eyes. He felt neither anger nor
shame, but a vague ache in his soul. He neither blamed his father nor
pitied his mother, nor was he tormented by stings of conscience; he
realized that every one in the house was feeling the same ache, and God
only knew which was most to blame, which was suffering most....
At midnight he woke the labourer, and told him to have the horse ready at
five o'clock in the morning for him to drive to the station; he undressed
and got into bed, but could not get to sleep. He heard how his father,
still awake, paced slowly from window to window, sighing, till early
morning. No one was asleep; they spoke rarely, and only in whispers. Twice
his mother came to him behind the screen. Always with the same look of
vacant wonder, she slowly made the cross over him, shaking nervously.
At five o'clock in the morning he said good-bye to them all
affectionately, and even shed tears. As he passed his father's room, he
glanced in at the door. Yevgraf Ivanovitch, who had not taken off his
clothes or gone to bed, was standing by the window, drumming on the panes.
"Good-bye; I am going," said his son.
"Good-bye... the money is on the round table..." his father answered,
without turning round.
A cold, hateful rain was falling as the labourer drove him to the station.
The sunflowers were drooping their heads still lower, and the grass seemed
darker than ever.