The Man in a Shell

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

ON THE outskirts of the village of Mironositzkoe two belated huntsmen had settled for the night in the barn belonging to the Elder, Prokofy. They were the veterinary, Ivan Ivanych, and the high school teacher, Burkin. Ivan Ivanych had a rather queer double surname -- Chimsha-Himalaisky -- which did not suit him at all, and he was known as Ivan Ivanych all over the province. He lived on a stud-farm near the town, and had gone out shooting to breathe some fresh air. As for Burkin, the high school teacher, he spent every summer at Count P 's,and had long been thoroughly at home in the district.

They did not sleep. Ivan Ivanych, a tall, spare old man with long mustaches, was sitting outside the door, smoking a pipe in the moonlight. Burkin was Iying inside on the hay, and could not be seen for the darkness.

They were telling each other stories. Among other things, they spoke of the Elder's wife, Mavra, a healthy and by no means stupid woman, observing that she had never been beyond her native village, had never seen a city or a railway in her life, and had spent the last ten years hugging street at night.

"There's nothing remarkable about that!" said Burkin. "There are not a few people in the world, temperamentally unsociable, who try to withdraw into a shell like a hermit crab or a snail. Perhaps it is a manifestation of atavism, a return to the time when man's ancestor was not yet a gregarious animal and lived alone in his lair, or perhaps it is only one of the varieties of human character who knows? I am no naturalist, and it is not my business to settle such questions; I only mean to say that people like Mavra are by no means rare. Why, not to go far afield, there was Belikov, a colleague of mine, a teacher of Greek, who died in our town two months ago. You have heard of him, no doubt. The curious thing about him was that he wore rubbers, and a warm coat with an interlining, and carried an umbrella even in the finest weather. And he kept his umbrella in its cover and his watch in a gray chamois case, and when he took out his penknife to sharpen his pencil, his penknife, too, was in a little case; and his face seemed to be in a case too, because it was always hidden in his turned-up collar. He wore dark spectacles and a sweater, stuffed his ears with cotton-wool, and when he got into a cab always told the driver to put up the hood. In short, the man showed a constant and irrepressible inclination to keep a covering about himself, to create for himself a membrane, as it were, which would isolate him and protect him from outside influences. Actuality irritated him, frightened him, kept him in a state of continual agitation, and, perhaps to justify his timidity, his aversion for the present, he would always laud the past and things that had never existed, and the dead languages that he taught were in effect for him the same rubbers and umbrella in which he sought concealment from real life.

"'Oh, how sonorous, how beautiful the Greek language is!' he would say, with a saccharine expression; and as though to prove his point, he would screw up his eyes and, raising one finger, utter: 'Anthropos!'

"His thoughts, too, Belikov tried to tuck away in a sheath. The only things that were clear to him were Government regulations and newspaper notices in which something was forbidden. When some ruling prohibited high school students from appearing on the streets after nine o'clock at night, or some article censured carnal love, this he found clear and definite: it was forbidden, and that was that. But there was always a doubtful element for him, something vague and not fully expressed in any sanction or permission. When a dramatic club or a reading-room or a teahouse was licensed in the town, he would shake his head and say in a low voice:

"'Of course, it's all very well, but you can't tell what may come of it.'

"Any infringement of the rules, any deviation or departure from them, plunged him into gloom, though one would have thought it was no concern of his. If one of his colleagues was late for the thanksgiving service, or if rumors reached him of some prank of the high school boys, or if one of the female members of the staff had been seen late in the evening in the company of an officer, he would become very much agitated and keep saying that one couldn't tell what might come of it. At faculty meetings he simply crushed us with his cautiousness, his suspiciousness, and his typical remarks to the effect that the young people in the girls' as well as in the boys' high school were unruly, that there was much noise in the classrooms, that it might reach the ears of the authorities, that one couldn't tell what might come of it, and that it would be a good thing if Petrov were expelled from the second form and Yegorov from the fourth. And what do you think, with his sighs, his moping, the dark spectacles on his pale little face, a little face like a polecat's, you know, he weighed us all down, and we submitted, reduced Petrov's and Yegorov's marks for conduct, detained them, and in the end expelled them both.

"He had a peculiar habit of visiting our lodgings. He would call on some teacher, would sit down, and remain silently staring, as though he were trying to detect something. He would sit like this in silence for an hour or two and then leave. This he called 'maintaining good relations with his colleagues'; and it was obvious that making these calls and sitting there like that was painful to him, and that he went to see us simply because he considered it his duty to his colleagues. We teachers were afraid of him. And even the principal was afraid of him. Would you believe it, our teachers were all thoughtful, decent people, brought up on Turgenev and Shchedrin, yet this little man, who always wore rubbers and carried an umbrella, had the whole high school under his thumb for fully fifteen years! The high school? The whole town! Our ladies did not get up private theatricals on Saturdays for fear he should find it out, and the clergy dared not eat meat in Lent or play cards in his presence. Under the influence of people like Belikov the whole town spent ten to fifteen frightened years. We were afraid to speak out loud, to write letters, to make acquaintances, to read books, to help the poor, to teach people how to read and write. . .."

Ivan Ivanych coughed, as a preliminary to making some remark, but first lighted his pipe, gazed at the moon, and then said, between pauses:

"Yes, thoughtful, decent people, readers of Shchedrin and Turgenev,of Buckle and all the rest of them, yet they knuckled under and put up with it-that's just how it is."

"Belikov and I lived in the same house," Burkin went on, "on the same floor, his door facing mine; we often saw each other, and I was acquainted with his domestic arrangements. It was the same story: dressing-gown, nightcap, blinds, bolts, prohibitions and restrictions of all sorts, and, 'Oh, you can't tell what may come of it!' Lenten fare didn't agree with him, yet he could not eat meat, as people might say that Belikov did not keep the fasts, and he ate perch fried in butter-not a Lenten dish, yet one could not call it meat. He did not keep a female servant for fear people might think evil of him, but instead employed an old man of sixty, called Afanasy, half-witted and given to drinking, who had once been an orderly and could cook after a fashion. This Afanasy was usually standing at the door with folded arms; he would sigh deeply and always mutter the same thing:

"'The likes of them is thick as hops hereabouts!'

"Belikov's bedroom was tiny and boxlike; his bed was curtained. When he went to bed he drew the bed clothes over his head; it was hot and stuffy; the wind rattled the closed doors; a humming noise came from the stove and the sound of sighs from the kitchen, ominous sighs-And he lay under the quilt, terrified. He was afraid that something might happen, that Afanasy would murder him, that thieves would break in, and he had bad dreams all night long, and in the morning when we went to school together, he was downcast and pale, and it was plain that the place, swarming with people, towards which he was going, filled his whole being with dread and aversion, and that walking beside me was disagreeable to a man of his unsociable temperament.

"'How noisy the classrooms are,' he used to say, as though trying to find an explanation for his distress. 'It's an outrage.'

"And imagine, this teacher of Greek-this man in a shell-came near to getting married."

Ivan Ivanych glanced rapidly into the barn, and said, "You are joking!"

"Yes, strange as it seems, he nearly got married. A new teacher of geography and history, a certain Mihail Savvich Kovalenko, a Ukrainian, was assigned to our school. He did not come alone, but with his sister, Varenka. He was a tall, dark young man with huge hands, and one could see from his face that he spoke in a deep voice, and, in fact, his voice seemed to come out of a barrel: 'Boom, boom, boom!' She was not so young, about thirty, but she too was tall, well built, with black eyebrows and red cheeks-in a word, she was not a girl but a peach, and so lively, so noisy; she was always singing Little Russian songs and laughing. At the least provocation, she would go off into ringing laughter: 'Ha-ha-ha!' We first got well acquainted with the Kovalenkos, I remember, at the principal's nameday party. Among the morose, emphatically dull pedagogues who attend even a name-day party as a duty, we suddenly saw a new Aphrodite risen from the foam; she walked with her arms akimbo, laughed, sang, danced. She sang with feeling 'The Winds Are Blowing' and then another Ukrainian song and another, and she fascinated us all, all, even Belikov. He sat down beside her and said with a saccharine smile:

" 'The Little Russian tongue reminds one of ancient Greek in its softness and agreeable sonority.'

"That flattered her, and she began telling him with feeling and persuasiveness that they had a farm in the Gadyach district, and that her Mummy lived there, and that they had such pears, such melons, such kabaki! The Little Russians call a pumpkin kabak [Russian for tavern], while their taverns they call shinki, and they make a borshch with tomatoes and eggplant in it, 'which is so delicious-ever so delicious!'

"We listened, and listened, and suddenly the same idea occurred to all of us:

"'It would be a good thing to marry them off,' the principal's wife whispered to me.

"For some reason we all recalled that our friend Belikov was unmarried, and it seemed strange to us now that we had failed to notice it before, and in fact had completely lost sight of so important a detail in his life. What was his attitude towards women? How had he settled for himself this vital problem? Until then we had had no interest in the matter; perhaps we had not even admitted the idea that a man who wore rubbers in all weathers and slept behind curtains was capable of love.

"'He is way past forty and she is thirty,' the principal's wife clarified her idea. 'I believe she would marry him.'

'What isn't done in the provinces out of boredom, how many useless and foolish things! And that is because what is necessary isn't done at all. What need was there, for instance, for us to make a match for this Belikov, whom one could not even imagine as a married man? The principal's wife, the inspector's wife, and all our high school ladies, grew livelier and even better looking, as though they had suddenly found an object m life, The principal's wife would take a box at the theater, and lo and behold! Varenka would be sitting m it. fanning herself, beaming and happy, and beside her would be Belikov, a twisted little man, looking as though he had been pulled out of his lodging by pincers. I would give an evening party and the ladies would insist on my inviting Belikov and Varenka. In short, the machine was set in motion. It turned out that Varenka was not averse to matrimony. Her life with her brother was not very cheerful: they did nothing but argue and quarrel with one another for days on end. Here is a typical scene: Kovalenko strides down the street, a tall, husky fellow, in an embroidered shirt, a lock of hair falling over his forehead from under his cap, in one hand a bundle of books, in the other a thick, knotted stick; he is followed by his sister, also carrying books.

"'But you haven't read it, Mihailik!' she is arguing loudly. 'I tell you, I swear you haven't read it at all!'

"'And I tell you I have read it,' bellows Kovalenko, banging his stick on the sidewalk.

"'Oh, my goodness, Mihailik, why are you so cross? We are only discussing principles.'

"'I tell you that I have read it!' Kovalenko shouts, more loudly than ever.

"And at home, if there was an outsider present, there was sure to be a fusillade. She must have been fed up with such a life and longed for a home of her own. Besides, there was her age; there was no time left to pick and choose; she was apt to marry anybody, even a teacher of Greek. Come to think of it, most of our young ladies don't care whom they marry so long as they do marry. Be that as it may, Varenka began to show an unmistakable inclination for Belikov.

"And Belikov? lie used to call on Kovalenko just as he did on the rest of us. He would arrive, sit down, and go on sitting there in silence. He would sit quietly, and Varenka would sing to him 'The Winds Are Blowing' or would stare at him pensively with her dark eyes, or would suddenly go off into a peal of laughter-'Haha-ha!'

"In amorous affairs and in marrying, suggestion plays a great part. Everybody-both his colleagues and the ladies-began assuring Belikov that he ought to get married, that there was nothing left for him in life but to get married; we all felicitated him, and with solemn faces delivered ourselves of various platitudes, such as 'Marriage is a serious step.' Besides, Varenka was goodlooking and attractive; she was the daughter of a civil councilor, she owned a farm; above all, she was the first woman who had treated him cordially and affectionately. His head was turned, and he decided that he really ought to get married."

"Well, at that point," said Ivan Ivanych, "you should have taken away his rubbers and umbrella."

"Just fancy, that proved to be impossible. He put Varenka's portrait on his table, kept calling on me and talking about Varenka, and about family life, saying that marriage was a serious step. He went frequently to the Kovalenkos, but he did not alter his habits in the least. On the contrary, his decision to get married seemed to have a deleterious effect on him. He grew thinner and paler and seemed to retreat further into his shell.

" 'I like Varvara Savvishna,' he would say to me, with a faint and crooked smile, 'and I know that everyone ought to get married, but-you know, all this has happened so suddenly-One must think it over a little.'

"'What is there to think over?' I would say to him. 'Get married-that's all.'

"'No; marriage is a serious step; one must first weigh the impending duties and responsibilities-so that nothing untoward may come of it. It worries me so much that I don't sleep nights. And I must confess I am afraid: she and her brother have such a peculiar way of thinking; they reason so strangely, you know, and she has a very impetuous disposition. You get married, and then, there is no telling, you may get into trouble.'

"And he did not propose; he kept putting it off, to the great vexation of the principal's wife and all our ladies; he kept weighing his future duties and responsibilities, and meanwhile he went for a walk with Varenka almost every day-possibly he thought that this was the proper thing under the circumstances-and came to see me to talk about family life. And in all probability he would have ended by proposing to her, and would have made one of those needless, stupid marriages thousands of which are made among us out of sheer boredom and idleness, if it had not been for a kolossalischer Skandal.

"I must tell you that Varenka's brother conceived a hatred of Belikov from the first day of their acquaintance and couldn't endure him.

"'I don't understand,' he used to say to us, shrugging his shoulders, 'I don't understand how you can put up with that informer, that nasty mug. Ugh! how can you live here? The atmosphere you breathe is vile, stifling! Are you pedagogues, teachers? No, you are piddling functionaries; yours is not a temple of learning but a I police station, and it has the same sour smell. No, brothers, I will stay with you for a while, and then I will go to my farm and catch crayfish there and teach Ukrainian brats. I will go, and you can stay here with your Judas-blast him!'

"Or he would laugh till tears came to his eyes, his laughter now deep, now shrill, and ask me, throwing up his hands, 'What does he come here for? What does he want? He sits and stares.'

"He even gave Belikov a nickname, 'The Spider.' Of course, we avoided talking to him about his sister's planning to marry 'The Spider.' And when, on one occasion, the principal's wife hinted to him what a good thing it would be if his sister settled down with such a substantial, universally respected man as Belikov, he frowned and grumbled:

"'It's none of my business; let her marry a viper if she likes. I don't care to meddle in other people's affairs.'

"Now listen to what happened next. Some wag drew a caricature of Belikov walking along under his umbrella, wearing his rubbers, his trousers tucked up, with Varenka on his arm; below there was the legend 'Anthropos in love.' The artist got the expression admirably, you know. He must have worked more than one night, for the teachers of both the boys' and the girls' high schools, the teachers of the theological seminary, and the government officials all received copies. Belikov received one, too. The caricature made a very painful impression on him.

"We left the house together; it was the first of May, a Sunday, and all of us, the boys and the teachers, had agreed to meet at the high school and then to walk to a grove on the outskirts of the town. We set off, and he was green in the face and gloomier than a thundercloud.

"'What wicked, malicious people there are!' he said, and his lips quivered.

"I couldn't help feeling sorry for him. We were walking along, and all of a sudden -- imagine! -- Kovalenko came rolling along on a bicycle, and after him, also on a bicycle, Varenka, flushed and exhausted, but gay and high-spirited.

"'We are going on ahead,' she shouted. 'What lovely weather! Just too lovely!'

"And they both vanished. Belikov turned from green to white, and seemed petrified. He stopped short and stared at me.

"'Good heavens, what is this?' he asked. 'Can my eyes be deceiving me? Is it proper for high school teachers and ladies to ride bicycles?'

"'What's improper about it?' I asked. 'Let them ride and may it do them good.'

"'But you can't mean it,' he cried, amazed at my calm. 'What are you saying?'

"And he was so shocked that he refused to go farther and returned home.

"Next day he was continually twitching and rubbing his hands nervously, and it was obvious from the expression of his face that he was far from well. And he left before the school day was over, for the first time in his life. And he ate no dinner. Towards evening he wrapped himself up warmly, though it was practically summer weather, and made his way to the Kovalenkos'. Varenka was out; he found only her brother at home.

"'Please sit down,' Kovalenko said coldly, frowning. He had a sleepy look; he had just taken an after-dinner nap and was in a very bad humor.

"Belikov sat in silence for about ten minutes, and then began, 'I have come to you to relieve my mind. I am very, very much troubled. Some malicious fellow has drawn a caricature of me and of another person who is close to both of us. I regard it as my duty to assure you that I had nothing to do with it. I have given no grounds for such an attack-on the contrary, I have always behaved as a respectable person would.'

"Kovalenko sat there sulking without a word. Belikov waited a while, and then went on in a low, mournful voice ; 'And I have something else to say to you. I have been in the service for years, while you have entered it only lately, and I consider it my duty as an older colleague to give you a warning. You ride a bicycle, and that pastime is utterly improper for an educator of youth.'

"'Why so?' asked Kovalenko in his deep voice.

"'Surely that needs no explanation, Mihail Savvich- surely it is self-evident! If the teacher rides a bicycle, what can one expect of the pupils? The only thing left them is to walk on their heads! And so long as it is not explicitly permitted, it should not be done. I was horrified yesterday! When I saw your sister, everything went black before my eyes. A lady or a young girl on a it's terrible!'

" 'What is it you wish exactly?'

"'All I wish to do is to warn you, Mihail Savvich. You are a young man, you have a future before you, you must be very, very careful of your behavior, and you are so neglectful, oh, so neglectful! You go about in an embroidered shirt, are constantly seen in the street carrying books, and now the bicycle, too. The principal will learn that you and your sister ride bicycles, and then it will reach the Trustee's ears. No good can come of that.'

" 'It's nobody's business if my sister and I do bicycle,' said Kovalenko, and he turned crimson. 'And whoever meddles in my private affairs can go to the devil!'

"Belikov turned pale and got up.

" 'If you speak to me in that tone, I cannot continue,' he said. 'And I beg you never to express yourself in that manner about our superiors in my presence; you should be respectful to the authorities.'

"'Have I said anything offensive about the authorities?' asked Kovalenko, looking at him angrily. 'Please leave me in peace. I am an honorable man, and do not care to talk to gentlemen of your stripe. I hate informers!'

"Belikov fidgeted nervously and hurriedly began putting on his coat, with an expression of horror on his face. It was the first time in his life he had been spoken to so rudely.

"'You can say what you please,' he declared, as he stepped out of the entry onto the staircase landing. 'Only I must warn you: someone may have overheard us, and lest our conversation be misinterpreted and harm come of it, I shall have to inform the principal of the contents of our conversation-in a general way. I am obliged to do so.'

"'Inform him? Go, make your report and be damned to you!'

"Kovalenko seized him from behind by the collar and gave him a shove, and Belikov rolled noisily downstairs, rubbers and all. The staircase was high and steep, but he arrived at the bottom safely, got up, and felt his nose to see whether his spectacles were intact. But just as he was rolling down the stairs, Varenka came in, accompanied by two ladies; they stood below, staring, and this was more dreadful to Belikov than anything else. I believe he would rather have broken his neck or both legs than have been an object of ridicule. Why, now the whole town would hear of it; it would come to the principal's ears, it would reach the Trustee. Oh, there was no telling what might come of it! There would be another caricature, and it would all end in his being ordered to retire from his post.

"When he got up, Varenka recognized him and, looking at his ludicrous face, his crumpled overcoat, and his rubbers, not grasping the situation and supposing that he had fallen by accident, could not restrain herself and burst into laughter that resounded throughout the house:

" 'Ha-ha-ha!'

"And this reverberant, ringing 'Ha-ha-ha!' put an end to everything: to the expected match and to Belikov's earthly existence. He did not hear what Varenka was saying; he saw nothing. On reaching home, the first thing he did was to remove Varenka's portrait from the table; then he went to bed, and he never got up again.

"Two or three days later Afanasy came to me and asked whether the doctor should not be sent for, as there was something wrong with his master. I went in to see Belikov. He lay silent behind the curtains, covered with a quilt; when you questioned him, he answered 'yes' and 'no' and nothing more. He lay there while Afanasy, gloomy and scowling, hovered about him, sighing heavily and reeking of vodka like a tavern.

"A month later Belikov died. We all went to his funeral-that is, all connected with both high schools and with the theological seminary. Now when he was lying in his coffin his expression was mild, pleasant, even cheerful, as though he were glad that he had at last been put into a case that he would never leave again. Yes he had attained his ideal! And as though in his honor, it was cloudy, rainy weather on the day of his funeral, and we all wore rubbers and carried umbrellas. Varenka, too, was at the funeral, and when the coffin was lowered into the grave, she dropped a tear. I have noticed that Ukrainian women always laugh or cry- there is no intermediate state for them.

"I confess, it is a great pleasure to bury people like Belikov. As we were returning from the cemetery we wore discreet Lenten faces; no one wanted to display this feeling of pleasure-a feeling like that we had experienced long, long ago as children when the grownups had gone out and we ran about the garden for an hour or two, enjoying complete freedom. Ah, freedom, freedom! A mere hint, the faintest hope of its possibility, gives wings to the soul, isn't that true?

"We returned from the cemetery in good humor. But not more than a week had passed before life dropped into its old rut, and was as gloomy, tiresome, and stupid as before, the sort of life that is not explicitly forbidden, but on the other hand is not fully permitted; things were no better. And, indeed, though we had buried Belikov, how many such men in shells were left, how many more of them there will be!"

"That's the way it is," said Ivan Ivanych, and lit his pipe.

"How many more of them there will be!" repeated Burkin.

The high school teacher came out of the barn. He was a short, stout man, completely bald, with a black beard that nearly reached his waist; two dogs came out with him.

'What a moon!" he said, looking up.

It was already midnight. On the right could be seen the whole village, a long street stretching far away for some three miles. Everything was sunk in deep, silent slumber; not a movement, not a sound; one could hardly believe that nature could be so still. When on a moonlight night you see a wide village street, with its cottages, its haystacks, and its willows that have dropped off to sleep, a feeling of serenity comes over the soul; as it rests thus, hidden from toil, care, and sorrow by the nocturnal shadows, the street is gentle, sad, beautiful, and it seems as though the stars look down upon it kindly and tenderly, and as if there were no more evil on earth, and all were well. On the left, where the village ended, the open country began; the fields could be seen stretching far away to the horizon, and there was no movement, no sound in that whole expanse drenched with moonlight.

"Yes, that's the way it is," repeated Ivan Ivanych, "and isn't our hying in the airless, crowded town, our writing useless papers, our playing vint--isn't all that a sort of shell for us? And this spending our lives among pettifogging, idle men and silly, unoccupied women, our talking and our listening to all sorts of poppycock- isn't that a shell, too? If you like, I will tell you a very instructive story."

"No; it's time to turn in," said Burkin. "Tomorrow's another day."

They went into the barn and lay down on the hay. And they were both covered up and had dozed off when suddenly there was the sound of light footsteps- tap, tap. Someone was walking near the barn, walking a little and stopping, and a minute later, tap, tap again. The dogs began to growl.

"That's Mavra," said Burkin.

The footsteps died away.

"To see and hear them lie," said Ivan Ivanych, turning over on the other side, "and to be called a fool for putting up with their lies; to endure insult and humiliation, and not dare say openly that you are on the side of the honest and the free, and to lie and smile yourself, and all for the sake of a crust of bread, for the sake of a warm nook, for the sake of a mean, worthless rank in the service-no, one cannot go on living like that!"

"Come, now, that's a horse of another color, Ivan Ivanych," said the teacher. "Let's go to sleep."

And ten minutes later Burkin was asleep. But Ivan Ivanych kept sighing and turning from one side to the other; then he got up, went outside again, and seating himself near the door, lighted his pipe.