Short Story Classics: The Shoemaker And The Devil, By Anton Chekhov
It was Christmas Eve. Marya had long been snoring on the stove; all the paraffin in the little lamp had burnt out, but Fyodor Nilov still sat at work. He would long ago have flung aside his work and gone out into the street, but a customer from Kolokolny Lane, who had a fortnight before ordered some boots, had been in the previous day, had abused him roundly, and had ordered him to finish the boots at once before the morning service.
“It’s a convict’s life!” Fyodor grumbled as he worked. “Some people have been asleep long ago, others are enjoying themselves, while you sit here like some Cain and sew for the devil knows whom. . . .”
To save himself from accidentally falling asleep, he kept taking a bottle from under the table and drinking out of it, and after every pull at it he twisted his head and said aloud:
“What is the reason, kindly tell me, that customers enjoy themselves while I am forced to sit and work for them? Because they have money and I am a beggar?”
He hated all his customers, especially the one who lived in Kolokolny Lane. He was a gentleman of gloomy appearance, with long hair, a yellow face, blue spectacles, and a husky voice. He had a German name which one could not pronounce. It was impossible to tell what was his calling and what he did. When, a fortnight before, Fyodor had gone to take his measure, he, the customer, was sitting on the floor pounding something in a mortar. Before Fyodor had time to say good-morning the contents of the mortar suddenly flared up and burned with a bright red flame; there was a stink of sulphur and burnt feathers, and the room was filled with a thick pink smoke, so that Fyodor sneezed five times; and as he returned home afterwards, he thought: “Anyone who feared God would not have anything to do with things like that.”
When there was nothing left in the bottle Fyodor put the boots on the table and sank into thought. He leaned his heavy head on his fist and began thinking of his poverty, of his hard life with no glimmer of light in it. Then he thought of the rich, of their big houses and their carriages, of their hundred-rouble notes. . . . How nice it would be if the houses of these rich men — the devil flay them! — were smashed, if their horses died, if their fur coats and sable caps got shabby! How splendid it would be if the rich, little by little, changed into beggars having nothing, and he, a poor shoemaker, were to become rich, and were to lord it over some other poor shoemaker on Christmas Eve.
Dreaming like this, Fyodor suddenly thought of his work, and opened his eyes.
“Here’s a go,” he thought, looking at the boots. “The job has been finished ever so long ago, and I go on sitting here. I must take the boots to the gentleman.”
He wrapped up the work in a red handkerchief, put on his things, and went out into the street. A fine hard snow was falling, pricking the face as though with needles. It was cold, slippery, dark, the gas-lamps burned dimly, and for some reason there was a smell of paraffin in the street, so that Fyodor coughed and cleared his throat. Rich men were driving to and fro on the road, and every rich man had a ham and a bottle of vodka in his hands. Rich young ladies peeped at Fyodor out of the carriages and sledges, put out their tongues and shouted, laughing:
Students, officers, and merchants walked behind Fyodor, jeering at him and crying:
“Drunkard! Drunkard! Infidel cobbler! Soul of a boot-leg! Beggar!”
All this was insulting, but Fyodor held his tongue and only spat in disgust. But when Kuzma Lebyodkin from Warsaw, a master-bootmaker, met him and said: “I’ve married a rich woman and I have men working under me, while you are a beggar and have nothing to eat,” Fyodor could not refrain from running after him. He pursued him till he found himself in Kolokolny Lane. His customer lived in the fourth house from the corner on the very top floor. To reach him one had to go through a long, dark courtyard, and then to climb up a very high slippery stair-case which tottered under one’s feet. When Fyodor went in to him he was sitting on the floor pounding something in a mortar, just as he had been the fortnight before.
“Your honor, I have brought your boots,” said Fyodor sullenly.
The customer got up and began trying on the boots in silence. Desiring to help him, Fyodor went down on one knee and pulled off his old, boot, but at once jumped up and staggered towards the door in horror. The customer had not a foot, but a hoof like a horse’s.
“Aha!” thought Fyodor; “here’s a go!”
The first thing should have been to cross himself, then to leave everything and run downstairs; but he immediately reflected that he was meeting a devil for the first and probably the last time, and not to take advantage of his services would be foolish. He controlled himself and determined to try his luck. Clasping his hands behind him to avoid making the sign of the cross, he coughed respectfully and began:
“They say that there is nothing on earth more evil and impure than the devil, but I am of the opinion, your honor, that the devil is highly educated. He has — excuse my saying it — hoofs and a tail behind, but he has more brains than many a student.”
“I like you for what you say,” said the devil, flattered. “Thank you, shoemaker! What do you want?”
And without loss of time the shoemaker began complaining of his lot. He began by saying that from his childhood up he had envied the rich. He had always resented it that all people did not live alike in big houses and drive with good horses. Why, he asked, was he poor? How was he worse than Kuzma Lebyodkin from Warsaw, who had his own house, and whose wife wore a hat? He had the same sort of nose, the same hands, feet, head, and back, as the rich, and so why was he forced to work when others were enjoying themselves? Why was he married to Marya and not to a lady smelling of scent? He had often seen beautiful young ladies in the houses of rich customers, but they either took no notice of him whatever, or else sometimes laughed and whispered to each other: “What a red nose that shoemaker has!” It was true that Marya was a good, kind, hard-working woman, but she was not educated; her hand was heavy and hit hard, and if one had occasion to speak of politics or anything intellectual before her, she would put her spoke in and talk the most awful nonsense.
“What do you want, then?” his customer interrupted him.
“I beg you, your honor Satan Ivanitch, to be graciously pleased to make me a rich man.”
“Certainly. Only for that you must give me up your soul! Before the cocks crow, go and sign on this paper here that you give me up your soul.”
“Your honor,” said Fyodor politely, “when you ordered a pair of boots from me I did not ask for the money in advance. One has first to carry out the order and then ask for payment.”
“Oh, very well!” the customer assented.
A bright flame suddenly flared up in the mortar, a pink thick smoke came puffing out, and there was a smell of burnt feathers and sulphur. When the smoke had subsided, Fyodor rubbed his eyes and saw that he was no longer Fyodor, no longer a shoemaker, but quite a different man, wearing a waistcoat and a watch-chain, in a new pair of trousers, and that he was sitting in an armchair at a big table. Two foot men were handing him dishes, bowing low and saying:
“Kindly eat, your honor, and may it do you good!”
What wealth! The footmen handed him a big piece of roast mutton and a dish of cucumbers, and then brought in a frying-pan a roast goose, and a little afterwards boiled pork with horse-radish cream. And how dignified, how genteel it all was! Fyodor ate, and before each dish drank a big glass of excellent vodka, like some general or some count. After the pork he was handed some boiled grain moistened with goose fat, then an omelette with bacon fat, then fried liver, and he went on eating and was delighted. What more? They served, too, a pie with onion and steamed turnip with kvass.
“How is it the gentry don’t burst with such meals?” he thought.
In conclusion they handed him a big pot of honey. After dinner the devil appeared in blue spectacles and asked with a low bow:
“Are you satisfied with your dinner, Fyodor Pantelyeitch?”
But Fyodor could not answer one word, he was so stuffed after his dinner. The feeling of repletion was unpleasant, oppressive, and to distract his thoughts he looked at the boot on his left foot.
“For a boot like that I used not to take less than seven and a half roubles. What shoemaker made it?” he asked.
“Kuzma Lebyodkin,” answered the footman.
“Send for him, the fool!”
Kuzma Lebyodkin from Warsaw soon made his appearance. He stopped in a respectful attitude at the door and asked:
“What are your orders, your honor?”
“Hold your tongue!” cried Fyodor, and stamped his foot. “Don’t dare to argue; remember your place as a cobbler! Blockhead! You don’t know how to make boots! I’ll beat your ugly phiz to a jelly! Why have you come?”
“What money? Be off! Come on Saturday! Boy, give him a cuff!”
But he at once recalled what a life the customers used to lead him, too, and he felt heavy at heart, and to distract his attention he took a fat pocketbook out of his pocket and began counting his money. There was a great deal of money, but Fyodor wanted more still. The devil in the blue spectacles brought him another notebook fatter still, but he wanted even more; and the more he counted it, the more discontented he became.