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A Problem
Anton Chekhov
THE strictest measures were taken that the Uskovs' family secret might not leak out and
become generally known. Half of the servants were sent off to the theatre or the circus; the
other half were sitting in the kitchen and not allowed to leave it. Orders were given that no
one was to be admitted. The wife of the Colonel, her sister, and the governess, though they
had been initiated into the secret, kept up a pretence of knowing nothing; they sat in the
dining-room and did not show themselves in the drawing-room or the hall.
Sasha Uskov, the young man of twenty-five who was the cause of all the commotion, had
arrived some time before, and by the advice of kind-hearted Ivan Markovitch, his uncle,
who was taking his part, he sat meekly in the hall by the door leading to the study, and
prepared himself to make an open, candid explanation.
The other side of the door, in the study, a family council was being held. The subject under
discussion was an exceedingly disagreeable and delicate one. Sasha Uskov had cashed at
one of the banks a false promissory note, and it had become due for payment three days
before, and now his two paternal uncles and Ivan Markovitch, the brother of his dead
mother, were deciding the question whether they should pay the money and save the family
honour, or wash their hands of it and leave the case to go for trial.
To outsiders who have no personal interest in the matter such questions seem simple; for
those who are so unfortunate as to have to decide them in earnest they are extremely
difficult. The uncles had been talking for a long time, but the problem seemed no nearer
"My friends!" said the uncle who was a colonel, and there was a note of exhaustion and
bitterness in his voice. "Who says that family honour is a mere convention? I don't say that
at all. I am only warning you against a false view; I am pointing out the possibility of an
unpardonable mistake. How can you fail to see it? I am not speaking Chinese; I am
speaking Russian!"
"My dear fellow, we do understand," Ivan Markovitch protested mildly.
"How can you understand if you say that I don't believe in family honour? I repeat once
more: fa-mil-y ho-nour fal-sely un-der-stood is a prejudice! Falsely understood! That's what
I say: whatever may be the motives for screening a scoundrel, whoever he may be, and
helping him to escape punishment, it is contrary to law and unworthy of a gentleman. It's
not saving the family honour; it's civic cowardice! Take the army, for instance. . . . The
honour of the army is more precious to us than any other honour, yet we don't screen our
guilty members, but condemn them. And does the honour of the army suffer in
consequence? Quite the opposite!"
The other paternal uncle, an official in the Treasury, a taciturn, dull-witted, and rheumatic
man, sat silent, or spoke only of the fact that the Uskovs' name would get into the
newspapers if the case went for trial. His opinion was that the case ought to be hushed up
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from the first and not become public property; but, apart from publicity in the newspapers,
he advanced no other argument in support of this opinion.
The maternal uncle, kind-hearted Ivan Markovitch, spoke smoothly, softly, and with a
tremor in his voice. He began with saying that youth has its rights and its peculiar
temptations. Which of us has not been young, and who has not been led astray? To say
nothing of ordinary mortals, even great men have not escaped errors and mistakes in their
youth. Take, for instance, the biography of great writers. Did not every one of them gamble,
drink, and draw down upon himself the anger of right-thinking people in his young days? If
Sasha's error bordered upon crime, they must remember that Sasha had received practically
no education; he had been expelled from the high school in the fifth class; he had lost his
parents in early childhood, and so had been left at the tenderest age without guidance and
good, benevolent influences. He was nervous, excitable, had no firm ground under his feet,
and, above all, he had been unlucky. Even if he were guilty, anyway he deserved indulgence
and the sympathy of all compassionate souls. He ought, of course, to be punished, but he
was punished as it was by his conscience and the agonies he was enduring now while
awaiting the sentence of his relations. The comparison with the army made by the Colonel
was delightful, and did credit to his lofty intelligence; his appeal to their feeling of public
duty spoke for the chivalry of his soul, but they must not forget that in each individual the
citizen is closely linked with the Christian. . . .
"Shall we be false to civic duty," Ivan Markovitch exclaimed passionately, "if instead of
punishing an erring boy we hold out to him a helping hand?"
Ivan Markovitch talked further of family honour. He had not the honour to belong to the
Uskov family himself, but he knew their distinguished family went back to the thirteenth
century; he did not forget for a minute, either, that his precious, beloved sister had been the
wife of one of the representatives of that name. In short, the family was dear to him for
many reasons, and he refused to admit the idea that, for the sake of a paltry fifteen hundred
roubles, a blot should be cast on the escutcheon that was beyond all price. If all the motives
he had brought forward were not sufficiently convincing, he, Ivan Markovitch, in
conclusion, begged his listeners to ask themselves what was meant by crime? Crime is an
immoral act founded upon ill-will. But is the will of man free? Philosophy has not yet given
a positive answer to that question. Different views were held by the learned. The latest
school of Lombroso, for instance, denies the freedom of the will, and considers every crime
as the product of the purely anatomical peculiarities of the individual.
"Ivan Markovitch," said the Colonel, in a voice of entreaty, "we are talking seriously about
an important matter, and you bring in Lombroso, you clever fellow. Think a little, what are
you saying all this for? Can you imagine that all your thunderings and rhetoric will furnish
an answer to the question?"
Sasha Uskov sat at the door and listened. He felt neither terror, shame, nor depression, but
only weariness and inward emptiness. It seemed to him that it made absolutely no
difference to him whether they forgave him or not; he had come here to hear his sentence
and to explain himself simply because kind-hearted Ivan Markovitch had begged him to do
so. He was not afraid of the future. It made no difference to him where he was: here in the
hall, in prison, or in Siberia.
"If Siberia, then let it be Siberia, damn it all!"
He was sick of life and found it insufferably hard. He was inextricably involved in debt; he
had not a farthing in his pocket; his family had become detestable to him; he would have to
part from his friends and his women sooner or later, as they had begun to be too
contemptuous of his sponging on them. The future looked black.
Sasha was indifferent, and was only disturbed by one circumstance; the other side of the
door they were calling him a scoundrel and a criminal. Every minute he was on the point of
jumping up, bursting into the study and shouting in answer to the detestable metallic voice
of the Colonel:
"You are lying!"
"Criminal" is a dreadful word -- that is what murderers, thieves, robbers are; in fact, wicked
and morally hopeless people. And Sasha was very far from being all that. . . . It was true he
owed a great deal and did not pay his debts. But debt is not a crime, and it is unusual for a
man not to be in debt. The Colonel and Ivan Markovitch were both in debt. . . .
"What have I done wrong besides?" Sasha wondered.
He had discounted a forged note. But all the young men he knew did the same. Handrikov
and Von Burst always forged IOU's from their parents or friends when their allowances
were not paid at the regular time, and then when they got their money from home they
redeemed them before they became due. Sasha had done the same, but had not redeemed
the IOU because he had not got the money which Handrikov had promised to lend him. He
was not to blame; it was the fault of circumstances. It was true that the use of another
person's signature was considered reprehensible; but, still, it was not a crime but a generally
accepted dodge, an ugly formality which injured no one and was quite harmless, for in
forging the Colonel's signature Sasha had had no intention of causing anybody damage or
"No, it doesn't mean that I am a criminal . . ." thought Sasha. "And it's not in my character
to bring myself to commit a crime. I am soft, emotional. . . . When I have the money I help
the poor. . . ."
Sasha was musing after this fashion while they went on talking the other side of the door.
"But, my friends, this is endless," the Colonel declared, getting excited. "Suppose we were
to forgive him and pay the money. You know he would not give up leading a dissipated life,
squandering money, making debts, going to our tailors and ordering suits in our names! Can
you guarantee that this will be his last prank? As far as I am concerned, I have no faith
whatever in his reforming!"
The official of the Treasury muttered something in reply; after him Ivan Markovitch began
talking blandly and suavely again. The Colonel moved his chair impatiently and drowned
the other's words with his detestable metallic voice. At last the door opened and Ivan
Markovitch came out of the study; there were patches of red on his lean shaven face.
"Come along," he said, taking Sasha by the hand. "Come and speak frankly from your heart.
Without pride, my dear boy, humbly and from your heart."
Sasha went into the study. The official of the Treasury was sitting down; the Colonel was
standing before the table with one hand in his pocket and one knee on a chair. It was smoky
and stifling in the study. Sasha did not look at the official or the Colonel; he felt suddenly
ashamed and uncomfortable. He looked uneasily at Ivan Markovitch and muttered:
"I'll pay it . . . I'll give it back. . . ."
"What did you expect when you discounted the IOU?" he heard a metallic voice.
"I . . . Handrikov promised to lend me the money before now."
Sasha could say no more. He went out of the study and sat down again on the chair near the
He would have been glad to go away altogether at once, but he was choking with hatred and
he awfully wanted to remain, to tear the Colonel to pieces, to say something rude to him.
He sat trying to think of something violent and effective to say to his hated uncle, and at
that moment a woman's figure, shrouded in the twilight, appeared at the drawing-room
door. It was the Colonel's wife. She beckoned Sasha to her, and, wringing her hands, said,
"Alexandre, I know you don't like me, but . . . listen to me; listen, I beg you. . . . But, my
dear, how can this have happened? Why, it's awful, awful! For goodness' sake, beg them,
defend yourself, entreat them."
Sasha looked at her quivering shoulders, at the big tears that were rolling down her cheeks,
heard behind his back the hollow, nervous voices of worried and exhausted people, and
shrugged his shoulders. He had not in the least expected that his aristocratic relations would
raise such a tempest over a paltry fifteen hundred roubles! He could not understand her
tears nor the quiver of their voices.
An hour later he heard that the Colonel was getting the best of it; the uncles were finally
inclining to let the case go for trial.
"The matter's settled," said the Colonel, sighing. "Enough."
After this decision all the uncles, even the emphatic Colonel, became noticeably depressed.
A silence followed.
"Merciful Heavens!" sighed Ivan Markovitch. "My poor sister!"
And he began saying in a subdued voice that most likely his sister, Sasha's mother, was
present unseen in the study at that moment. He felt in his soul how the unhappy, saintly
woman was weeping, grieving, and begging for her boy. For the sake of her peace beyond
the grave, they ought to spare Sasha.
The sound of a muffled sob was heard. Ivan Markovitch was weeping and muttering
something which it was impossible to catch through the door. The Colonel got up and
paced from corner to corner. The long conversation began over again.
But then the clock in the drawing-room struck two. The family council was over. To avoid
seeing the person who had moved him to such wrath, the Colonel went from the study, not
into the hall, but into the vestibule. . . . Ivan Markovitch came out into the hall. . . . He was
agitated and rubbing his hands joyfully. His tear-stained eyes looked good-humoured and
his mouth was twisted into a smile.
"Capital," he said to Sasha. "Thank God! You can go home, my dear, and sleep tranquilly.
We have decided to pay the sum, but on condition that you repent and come with me
tomorrow into the country and set to work."
A minute later Ivan Markovitch and Sasha in their great-coats and caps were going down
the stairs. The uncle was muttering something edifying. Sasha did not listen, but felt as
though some uneasy weight were gradually slipping off his shoulders. They had forgiven
him; he was free! A gust of joy sprang up within him and sent a sweet chill to his heart. He
longed to breathe, to move swiftly, to live! Glancing at the street lamps and the black sky,
he remembered that Von Burst was celebrating his name-day that evening at the "Bear," and
again a rush of joy flooded his soul. . . .
"I am going!" he decided.
But then he remembered he had not a farthing, that the companions he was going to would
despise him at once for his empty pockets. He must get hold of some money, come what
"Uncle, lend me a hundred roubles," he said to Ivan Markovitch.
His uncle, surprised, looked into his face and backed against a lamp-post.
"Give it to me," said Sasha, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other and beginning to
pant. "Uncle, I entreat you, give me a hundred roubles."
His face worked; he trembled, and seemed on the point of attacking his uncle. . . .
"Won't you?" he kept asking, seeing that his uncle was still amazed and did not understand.
"Listen. If you don't, I'll give myself up tomorrow! I won't let you pay the IOU! I'll present
another false note tomorrow!"
Petrified, muttering something incoherent in his horror, Ivan Markovitch took a hundred-
rouble note out of his pocket-book and gave it to Sasha. The young man took it and walked
rapidly away from him. . . .
Taking a sledge, Sasha grew calmer, and felt a rush of joy within him again. The "rights of
youth" of which kind-hearted Ivan Markovitch had spoken at the family council woke up
and asserted themselves. Sasha pictured the drinking-party before him, and, among the
bottles, the women, and his friends, the thought flashed through his mind:
"Now I see that I am a criminal; yes, I am a criminal."
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