A Problem by Anton Chekhov

To prevent the skeleton in the Uskoff family cup-board escaping into the street, the most rigorous measures were taken. One half of the servants was packed off to the theatre and circus, and the other half sat imprisoned in the kitchen. Orders were given to admit no one. The wife of the culprit’s uncle, her sister, and the governess, although initiated into the mystery, pretended that they knew nothing whatever about it; they sat silently in the dining-room, and dared not show their faces in the drawing-room or hall. Sasha Uskoff, aged twenty-five, the cause of all this upheaval, arrived some time ago; and on the advice of kind-hearted Ivan Markovitch, his maternal uncle, sat demurely in the corridor outside the study door, and prepared himself for sincere, open-hearted confession. On the other side of the door the family council was being held. The discussion ran on a ticklish and very disagreeable subject. The facts of the matter were as follows. Sasha Uskoff had discounted at a bankers a forged bill of exchange, the term of which expired three days before; and now his two paternal uncles, and Ivan Markovitch, an uncle on his mother’s side, were discussing the solemn problem: should the money be paid and the family honour saved, or should they wash their hands of the whole matter, and leave the law to take its course?

To people unconcerned and uninterested such questions seem very trivial, but for those with whom the solution lies they are extraordinarily complex. The three uncles had already had their say, yet the matter had not advanced a step.

“Heavens!” cried the Colonel, a paternal uncle, in a voice betraying both weariness and irritation. “Heavens! who said that family honour was a prejudice? I never said anything of the kind. I only wanted to save you from looking at the matter from a false standpoint—to point out how easily you may make an irremediable mistake. Yet you don’t seem to understand me! I suppose I am speaking Russian, not Chinese!”

“My dear fellow, we understand you perfectly,” interposed Ivan Markovitch soothingly.

“Then why do you say that I deny family honour? I repeat what I have said! Fam—ily hon—our falsely under—stood is a pre—ju—dice! Falsely under—stood, mind you! That is my point of view. From any conviction whatever, to screen and leave unpunished a rascal, no matter who he is, is both contrary to law and unworthy of an honourable man. It is not the saving of the family honour, but civic cowardice. Take the Army, for example! The honour of the Army is dearer to a soldier than any other honour. But we do not screen our guilty members … we judge them! Do you imagine that the honour of the Army suffers thereby? On the contrary!”

The other paternal uncle, an official of the Crown Council, a rheumatic, taciturn, and not very intelligent man, held his peace all the time, or spoke only of the fact that if the matter came into court the name of the Uskoffs would appear in the newspapers; in his opinion, therefore, to avoid publicity it would be better to hush up the matter while there was still time. But with the exception of this reference to the newspapers, he gave no reason for his opinion.

But kind-hearted Ivan Markovitch, the maternal uncle, spoke fluently and softly with a tremula in his voice. He began with the argument that youth has its claims and its peculiar temptations. Which of us was not once young, and which of us did not sometimes go a step too far? Even leaving aside ordinary mortals, did not history teach that the greatest minds in youth were not always able to avoid infatuations and mistakes. Take for instance the biographies of great writers. What one of them did not gamble and drink, and draw upon himself the condemnation of all right-minded men? While on the one hand we remembered that Sasha’s errors had overstepped the boundary into crime, on the other we must take into account that Sasha hardly received any education; he was expelled from the gymnasium when in the fifth form; he lost his parents in early childhood, and thus at the most susceptible age was deprived of control and all beneficent influences. He was a nervous boy, easily excited, without any naturally strong moral convictions, and he had been spoiled by happiness. Even if he were guilty, still he deserved the sympathy and concern of all sympathetic souls. Punished, of course, he must be; but then, had he not already been punished by his conscience, and the tortures which he must now be feeling as he awaited the decision of his relatives. The comparison with the Army which the Colonel had made was very flattering, and did great honour to his generous mind; the appeal to social feelings showed the nobility of his heart. But it must not be forgotten that the member of society in every individual was closely bound up with the Christian.

“And how should we violate our social duty,” asked Ivan Markovitch, “if instead of punishing a guilty boy we stretch out to him the hand of mercy?” Then Ivan Markovitch reverted to the question of the family honour. He himself had not the honour to belong to the distinguished family of Uskoff, but he knew very well that that illustrious race dated its origin from the thirteenth century, and he could not forget for a moment that his beloved, unforgotten sister was the wife of a scion of the race. In one word—the Uskoff family was dear to him for many reasons, and he could not for a moment entertain the thought that for a paltry fifteen hundred roubles a shadow should be cast for ever upon the ancestral tree. And if all the arguments already adduced were insufficiently convincing then he, in conclusion, asked his brothers-in-law to explain the problem: What is a crime? A crime was an immoral action, having its impulse in an evil will. So most people thought. But could we affirm that the human will was free to decide? To this important question science could give no conclusive answer. Metaphysicians maintained various divergent theories. For instance, the new school of Lombroso refused to recognise free-will, and held that every crime was the product of purely anatomical peculiarities in the individual.

“Ivan Markovitch!” interrupted the Colonel imploringly. “Do, for Heaven’s sake, talk sense. We are speaking seriously about a serious matter … and you, about Lombroso! You are a clever man, but think for a moment—how can all this rattle-box rhetoric help us to decide the question?”

Sasha Uskoff sat outside the door and listened. He felt neither fear nor shame nor tedium—only weariness and spiritual vacuity. He felt that it did not matter a kopeck whether he was forgiven or not; he had come here to await his sentence and to offer a frank explanation, only because he was begged to do so by kindly Ivan Markovitch. He was not afraid of the future. It was all the same to him, here in the corridor, in prison, or in Siberia.

“Siberia is only Siberia—the devil take it!”

Life has wearied Sasha, and has become insufferably tedious. He is inextricably in debt, he has not a kopeck in his pocket, his relatives have become odious to him; with his friends and with women he must part sooner or later, for they are already beginning to look at him contemptuously as a parasite. The future is dark.

Sasha, in fact, is indifferent, and only one thing affects him. That is, that through the door he can hear himself being spoken of as a scoundrel and a criminal. All the time he is itching to jump up, burst into the room, and, in answer to the detestable metallic voice of the Colonel, to cry:

“You are a liar!”

A criminal—it is a horrid word. It is applied as a rule to murderers, thieves, robbers, and people incorrigibly wicked and morally hopeless. But Sasha is far from this…. True, he is up to his neck in debts, and never attempts to pay them. But then indebtedness is not a crime, and there are very few men who are not in debt. The Colonel and Ivan Markovitch are both in debt.

“What on earth am I guilty of?” asked Sasha. He had obtained money by presenting a forged bill. But this was done by every young man he knew. Khandrikoff and Von Burst, for instance, whenever they wanted money, discounted bills with forged acceptance of their parents and friends, and when their own money came in met them. Sasha did exactly the same thing, and only failed to meet his bill owing to Khandrikoff’s failure to lend the money which he had promised. It was not he, but circumstance which was at fault. … It was true that imitating another man’s signature was considered wrong, but that did not make it a crime but merely an ugly formality, a manoeuvre constantly adopted which injured nobody; and Sasha when he forged the Colonel’s name had no intention of causing loss to anyone.

“It is absurd to pretend that I have been guilty of a crime,” thought Sasha. “I have not the character of men who commit crimes. On the contrary, I am easy-going and sensitive … when I have money I help the poor….”

While Sasha reasoned thus, the discussion continued on the other side of the door.

“But, gentlemen, this is only the beginning!” cried the Colonel. “Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we let him off and pay the money! He will go on still in the same way and continue to lead his unprincipled life. He will indulge in dissipation, run into debt, go to our tailors and order clothes in our names. What guarantee have we that this scandal will be the last? As far as I am concerned, I tell you frankly that I do not believe in his reformation for one moment.”

The official of the Crown Council muttered something in reply. Then Ivan Markovitch began to speak softly and fluently. The Colonel impatiently shifted his chair, and smothered Ivan Markovitch’s argument with his detestable, metallic voice. At last the door opened, and out of the study came Ivan Markovitch with red spots on his meagre, clean-shaven face. “Come!” he said, taking Sasha by the arm. “Come in and make an open-hearted confession. Without pride, like a good boy … humbly and from the heart.”

Sasha went into the study. The official of the Crown Council continued to sit, but the Colonel, hands in pockets, and with one knee resting on his chair, stood before the table. The room was full of smoke and stiflingly hot. Sasha did not look at either the Colonel or his brother, but suddenly feeling ashamed and hurt, glanced anxiously at Ivan Markovitch and muttered:

“I will pay … I will give….”

“May I ask you on what you relied when you obtained the money on this bill?” rang out the metallic voice.

“I … Khandrikoff promised to lend me the money in time.”

Sasha said nothing more. He went out of the study and again sat on the chair outside the door. He would have gone away at once had he not been stifled with hatred and with a desire to tear the Colonel to pieces or at least to insult him to his face. But at this moment in the dim twilight around the dining-room door appeared a woman’s figure. It was the Colonel’s wife. She beckoned Sasha, and, wringing her hands, said with tears in her voice:

“Alexandre, I know that you do not love me, but … listen for a moment! My poor boy, how can this have happened P It is awful, awful! For Heaven’s sake beg their forgiveness … justify yourself, implore them!”

Sasha looked at her twitching shoulders, and at the big tears which flowed down her cheeks; he heard behind him the dull, nervous voices of his exhausted uncles, and shrugged his shoulders. He had never expected that his aristocratic relatives would raise such a storm over a paltry fifteen hundred roubles. And he could understand neither the tears nor the trembling voices.

An hour later he heard indications that the Colonel was gaining the day. The other uncles were being won over to his determination to leave the matter to the law.

“It is decided!” said the Colonel stiffly. “Basta!” But having decided thus, the three uncles, even the inexorable Colonel, perceptibly lost heart.

“Heavens!” sighed Ivan Markovitch. “My poor sister!”

And he began in a soft voice to announce his conviction that his sister, Sasha’s mother, was invisibly present in the room. He felt in his heart that this unhappy, sainted woman was weeping, anguishing, interceding for her boy. For the sake of her repose in the other world it would have been better to spare Sasha. Sasha heard someone whimpering. It was Ivan Markovitch. He wept and muttered something inaudible through the door. The Colonel rose and walked from corner to corner. The discussion began anew….

The clock in the drawing-room struck two. The council was over at last. The Colonel, to avoid meeting a man who had caused him so much shame, left the room through the antechamber. Ivan Markovitch came into the corridor. He was plainly agitated, but rubbed his hands cheerfully. His tear-stained eyes glanced happily around him, and his mouth was twisted into a smile.

“It is all right, my boy!” he said to Sasha. “Heaven be praised! You may go home, child, and sleep quietly. We have decided to pay the money, but only on the condition that you repent sincerely, and agree to come with me to the country to-morrow, and set to work.”

A minute afterwards, Ivan Markovitch and Sasha, having put on their overcoats and hats, went downstairs together. Uncle Ivan muttered something edifying. But Sasha didn’t listen; he felt only that something heavy and painful had fallen from his shoulders. He was forgiven—he was free! Joy like a breeze burst into his breast and wrapped his heart with refreshing coolness. He wished to breathe, to move, to live. And looking at the street lamps and at the black sky he remembered that to-day at “The Bear,” Von Burst would celebrate his name-day. A new joy seized his soul.

“I will go!” he decided.

But suddenly he remembered that he had not a kopeck, and that his friends already despised him for his penuriousness. He must get money at all cost. “Uncle, lend me a hundred roubles!” he said to Ivan Markovitch.

Ivan Markovitch looked at him in amazement, and staggered back against a lamp-post.

“Lend me a hundred roubles!” cried Sasha, impatiently shifting from foot to foot, and beginning to lose his temper. “Uncle, I beg of you … lend me a hundred roubles!”

His face trembled with excitement, and he nearly rushed at his uncle.

“You won’t give them?” he cried, seeing that his uncle was too dumfounded to understand. “Listen, if you refuse to lend them, I’ll inform on myself to-morrow. I’ll refuse to let you pay the money. I’ll forge another to-morrow!”

Thunderstruck, terror-stricken, Ivan Markovitch muttered something incoherent, took from his pocket a hundred-rouble note, and handed it silently to Sasha. And Sasha took it and hurriedly walked away. And sitting in a droschky, Sasha grew cool again, and felt his heart expand with renewed joy. The claims of youth of which kind-hearted uncle Ivan had spoken at the council-table had inspired and taken possession of him again. He painted in imagination the coming feast, and in his mind, among visions of bottles, women, and boon companions, twinkled a little thought:

“Now I begin to see that I was in the wrong.”

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