State-Councillor Sharamykin’s drawing-room is wrapped in a pleasant half-darkness. The big bronze lamp with the green shade, makes the walls, the furniture, the faces, all green, couleur “Nuit d’Ukraine.” Occasionally a smouldering log flares up in the dying fire and for a moment casts a red glow over the faces; but this does not spoil the general harmony of light. The general tone, as the painters say, is well-sustained.
Sharamykin sits in a chair in front of the fireplace, in the attitude of a man who has just dined. He is an elderly man with a high official’s grey side whiskers and meek blue eyes. Tenderness is shed over his face, and his lips are set in a melancholy smile. At his feet, stretched out lazily, with his legs towards the fire-place, Vice-Governor Lopniev sits on a little stool. He is a brave-looking man of about forty. Sharamykin’s children are moving about round the piano; Nina, Kolya, Nadya, and Vanya. The door leading to Madame Sharamykin’s room is slightly open and the light breaks through timidly. There behind the door sits Sharamykin’s wife, Anna Pavlovna, in front of her writing-table. She is president of the local ladies’ committee, a lively, piquant lady of thirty years and a little bit over. Through her pince-nez her vivacious black eyes are running over the pages of a French novel. Beneath the novel lies a tattered copy of the report of the committee for last year.
“Formerly our town was much better off in these things,” says Sharamykin, screwing up his meek eyes at the glowing coals. “Never a winter passed but some star would pay us a visit. Famous actors and singers used to come… but now, besides acrobats and organ-grinders, the devil only knows what comes. There’s no aesthetic pleasure at all…. We might be living in a forest. Yes…. And does your Excellency remember that Italian tragedian?… What’s his name?… He was so dark, and tall…. Let me think…. Oh, yes! Luigi Ernesto di Ruggiero…. Remarkable talent…. And strength. He had only to say one word and the whole theatre was on the qui vive. My darling Anna used to take a great interest in his talent. She hired the theatre for him and sold tickets for the performances in advance…. In return he taught her elocution and gesture. A first-rate fellow! He came here… to be quite exact… twelve years ago…. No, that’s not true…. Less, ten years…. Anna dear, how old is our Nina?”
“She’ll be ten next birthday,” calls Anna Pavlovna from her room. “Why?”
“Nothing in particular, my dear. I was just curious…. And good singers used to come. Do you remember Prilipchin, the tenore di grazia? What a charming fellow he was! How good looking! Fair… a very expressive face, Parisian manners…. And what a voice, your Excellency! Only one weakness: he would sing some notes with his stomach and would take re falsetto — otherwise everything was good. Tamberlik, he said, had taught him…. My dear Anna and I hired a hall for him at the Social Club, and in gratitude for that he used to sing to us for whole days and nights…. He taught dear Anna to sing. He came — I remember it as though it were last night — in Lent, some twelve years ago. No, it’s more …. How bad my memory is getting, Heaven help me! Anna dear, how old is our darling Nadya?”
“Twelve… then we’ve got to add ten months…. That makes it exact… thirteen. Somehow there used to be more life in our town then…. Take, for instance, the charity soirees. What enjoyable soirees we used to have before! How elegant! There were singing, playing, and recitation…. After the war, I remember, when the Turkish prisoners were here, dear Anna arranged a soiree on behalf of the wounded. We collected eleven hundred roubles. I remember the Turkish officers were passionately fond of dear Anna’s voice, and kissed her hand incessantly. He-he! Asiatics, but a grateful nation. Would you believe me, the soiree was such a success that I wrote an account of it in my diary? It was, — I remember it as though it had only just happened, — in ’76,… no, in ’77…. No! Pray, when were the Turks here? Anna dear, how old is our little Kolya?”
“I’m seven, Papa!” says Kolya, a brat with a swarthy face and coal black hair.
“Yes, we’re old, and we’ve lost the energy we used to have,” Lopniev agreed with a sigh. “That’s the real cause. Old age, my friend. No new moving spirits arrive, and the old ones grow old…. The old fire is dull now. When I was younger I did not like company to be bored…. I was your Anna Pavlovna’s first assistant. Whether it was a charity soiree or a tombola to support a star who was going to arrive, whatever Anna Pavlovna was arranging, I used to throw over everything and begin to bustle about. One winter, I remember, I bustled and ran so much that I even got ill…. I shan’t forget that winter…. Do you remember what a performance we arranged with Anna Pavlovna in aid of the victims of the fire?”
“What year was it?”
“Not so very long ago…. In ’79. No, in ’80, I believe! Tell me how old is your Vanya?”
“Five,” Anna Pavlovna calls from the study.
“Well, that means it was six years ago. Yes, my dear friend, that was a time. It’s all over now. The old fire’s quite gone.”
Lopniev and Sharamykin grew thoughtful. The smouldering log flares up for the last time, and then is covered in ash.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (29 January 1860-15 July 1904) was a great Russian short-story writer, playwright and physician. His career as a dramatist produced four classics and his best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics. Chekhov practiced as a doctor throughout most of his literary career: “Medicine is my lawful wife,” he once said, “and literature is my mistress.”
Chekhov had at first written stories only for financial gain, but as his artistic ambition grew, he made formal innovations which have influenced the evolution of the modern short story. His originality consists in an early use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, later adopted by James Joyce and other modernists, combined with a disavowal of the moral finality of traditional story structure. He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.
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