The Pipe by Anton Chekhov
MELITON SHISHKIN, a bailiff from the Dementyev farm, exhausted by the
sultry heat of the fir-wood and covered with spiders' webs and
pine-needles, made his way with his gun to the edge of the wood. His Damka—a
mongrel between a yard dog and a setter—an extremely thin bitch
heavy with young, trailed after her master with her wet tail between her
legs, doing all she could to avoid pricking her nose. It was a dull,
overcast morning. Big drops dripped from the bracken and from the trees
that were wrapped in a light mist; there was a pungent smell of decay from
the dampness of the wood.
There were birch-trees ahead of him where the wood ended, and between
their stems and branches he could see the misty distance. Beyond the
birch-trees someone was playing on a shepherd's rustic pipe. The player
produced no more than five or six notes, dragged them out languidly with
no attempt at forming a tune, and yet there was something harsh and
extremely dreary in the sound of the piping.
As the copse became sparser, and the pines were interspersed with young
birch-trees, Meliton saw a herd. Hobbled horses, cows, and sheep were
wandering among the bushes and, snapping the dry branches, sniffed at the
herbage of the copse. A lean old shepherd, bareheaded, in a torn grey
smock, stood leaning against the wet trunk of a birch-tree. He stared at
the ground, pondering something, and played his pipe, it seemed,
"Good-day, grandfather! God help you!" Meliton greeted him in a thin,
husky voice which seemed incongruous with his huge stature and big, fleshy
face. "How cleverly you are playing your pipe! Whose herd are you
"The Artamonovs'," the shepherd answered reluctantly, and he thrust the
pipe into his bosom.
"So I suppose the wood is the Artamonovs' too?" Meliton inquired, looking
about him. "Yes, it is the Artamonovs'; only fancy... I had completely
lost myself. I got my face scratched all over in the thicket."
He sat down on the wet earth and began rolling up a bit of newspaper into
Like his voice, everything about the man was small and out of keeping with
his height, his breadth, and his fleshy face: his smiles, his eyes, his
buttons, his tiny cap, which would hardly keep on his big, closely-cropped
head. When he talked and smiled there was something womanish, timid, and
meek about his puffy, shaven face and his whole figure.
"What weather! God help us!" he said, and he turned his head from side to
side. "Folk have not carried the oats yet, and the rain seems as though it
had been taken on for good, God bless it."
The shepherd looked at the sky, from which a drizzling rain was falling,
at the wood, at the bailif's wet clothes, pondered, and said nothing.
"The whole summer has been the same," sighed Meliton. "A bad business for
the peasants and no pleasure for the gentry."
The shepherd looked at the sky again, thought a moment, and said
deliberately, as though chewing each word:
"It's all going the same way.... There is nothing good to be looked for."
"How are things with you here?" Meliton inquired, lighting his cigarette.
"Haven't you seen any coveys of grouse in the Artamonovs' clearing?"
The shepherd did not answer at once. He looked again at the sky and to
right and left, thought a little, blinked.... Apparently he attached no
little significance to his words, and to increase their value tried to
pronounce them with deliberation and a certain solemnity. The expression
of his face had the sharpness and staidness of old age, and the fact that
his nose had a saddle-shaped depression across the middle and his nostrils
turned upwards gave him a sly and sarcastic look.
"No, I believe I haven't," he said. "Our huntsman Eryomka w as saying that
on Elijah's Day he started one covey near Pustoshye, but I dare say he was
lying. There are very few birds."
"Yes, brother, very few.... Very few everywhere! The shooting here, if one
is to look at it with common sense, is good for nothing and not worth
having. There is no game at all, and what there is is not worth dirtying
your hands over—it is not full-grown. It is such poor stuff that one
is ashamed to look at it."
Meliton gave a laugh and waved his hands.
"Things happen so queerly in this world that it is simply laughable and
nothing else. Birds nowadays have become so unaccountable: they sit late
on their eggs, and there are some, I declare, that have not hatched them
by St. Peter's Day!"
"It's all going the same," said the shepherd, turning his face upwards.
"There was little game last year, this year there are fewer birds still,
and in another five years, mark my words, there will be none at all. As
far as I can see there will soon be not only no game, but no birds at
"Yes," Meliton assented, after a moment's thought. "That's true."
The shepherd gave a bitter smile and shook his head.
"It's a wonder," he said, "what has become of them all! I remember twenty
years ago there used to be geese here, and cranes and ducks and grouse—clouds
and clouds of them! The gentry used to meet together for shooting, and one
heard nothing but pouf-pouf-pouf! pouf-pouf-pouf! There was no end to the
woodcocks, the snipe, and the little teals, and the water-snipe were as
common as starlings, or let us say sparrows—lots and lots of them!
And what has become of them all? We don't even see the birds of prey. The
eagles, the hawks, and the owls have all gone.... There are fewer of every
sort of wild beast, too. Nowadays, brother, even the wolf and the fox have
grown rare, let alone the bear or the otter. And you know in old days
there were even elks! For forty years I have been observing the works of
God from year to year, and it is my opinion that everything is going the
"To the bad, young man. To ruin, we must suppose... The time has come for
God's world to perish."
The old man put on his cap and began gazing at the sky.
"It's a pity," he sighed, after a brief silence. "O God, what a pity! Of
course it is God's will; the world was not created by us, but yet it is a
pity, brother. If a single tree withers away, or let us say a single cow
dies, it makes one sorry, but what will it be, good man, if the whole
world crumbles into dust? Such blessings, Lord Jesus! The sun, and the
sky, and the forest, and the rivers, and the creatures—all these
have been created, adapted, and adjusted to one another. Each has been put
to its appointed task and knows its place. And all that must perish."
A mournful smile gleamed on the shepherd's face, and his eyelids quivered.
"You say—the world is perishing," said Meliton, pondering. "It may
be that the end of the world is near at hand, but you can't judge by the
birds. I don't think the birds can be taken as a sign."
"Not the birds only," said the shepherd. "It's the wild beasts, too, and
the cattle, and the bees, and the fish.... If you don't believe me ask the
old people; every old man will tell you that the fish are not at all what
they used to be. In the seas, in the lakes, and in the rivers, there are
fewer fish from year to year. In our Pestchanka, I remember, pike used to
be caught a yard long, and there were eel-pouts, and roach, and bream, and
every fish had a presentable appearance; while nowadays, if you catch a
wretched little pikelet or perch six inches long you have to be thankful.
There are not any gudgeon even worth talking about. Every year it is worse
and worse, and in a little while there will be no fish at all. And take
the rivers now... the rivers are drying up, for sure."
"It is true; they are drying up."
"To be sure, that's what I say. Every year they are shallower and
shallower, and there are not the deep holes there used to be. And do you
see the bushes yonder?" the old man asked, pointing to one side. "Beyond
them is an old river-bed; it's called a backwater. In my father's time the
Pestchanka flowed there, but now look; where have the evil spirits taken
it to? It changes its course, and, mind you, it will go on changing till
such time as it has dried up altogether. There used to be marshes and
ponds beyond Kurgasovo, and where are they now? And what has become of the
streams? Here in this very wood we used to have a stream flowing, and such
a stream that the peasants used to set creels in it and caught pike; wild
ducks used to spend the winter by it, and nowadays there is no water in it
worth speaking of, even at the spring floods. Yes, brother, look where you
will, things are bad everywhere. Everywhere!"
A silence followed. Meliton sank into thought, with his eyes fixed on one
spot. He wanted to think of some one part of nature as yet untouched by
the all-embracing ruin. Spots of light glistened on the mist and the
slanting streaks of rain as though on opaque glass, and immediately died
away again—it was the rising sun trying to break through the clouds
and peep at the earth.
"Yes, the forests, too..." Meliton muttered.
"The forests, too," the shepherd repeated. "They cut them down, and they
catch fire, and they wither away, and no new ones are growing. Whatever
does grow up is cut down at once; one day it shoots up and the next it has
been cut down—and so on without end till nothing's left. I have kept
the herds of the commune ever since the time of Freedom, good man; before
the time of Freedom I was shepherd of the master's herds. I have watched
them in this very spot, and I can't remember a summer day in all my life
that I have not been here. And all the time I have been observing the
works of God. I have looked at them in my time till I know them, and it is
my opinion that all things growing are on the decline. Whether you take
the rye, or the vegetables, or flowers of any sort, they are all going the
"But people have grown better," observed the bailiff.
"In what way better?"
"Cleverer, maybe, that's true, young man; but what's the use of that? What
earthly good is cleverness to people on the brink of ruin? One can perish
without cleverness. What's the good of cleverness to a huntsman if there
is no game? What I think is that God has given men brains and taken away
their strength. People have grown weak, exceedingly weak. Take me, for
instance... I am not worth a halfpenny, I am the humblest peasant in the
whole village, and yet, young man, I have strength. Mind you, I am in my
seventies, and I tend my herd day in and day out, and keep the night
watch, too, for twenty kopecks, and I don't sleep, and I don't feel the
cold; my son is cleverer than I am, but put him in my place and he would
ask for a raise next day, or would be going to the doctors. There it is. I
eat nothing but bread, for 'Give us this day our daily bread,' and my
father ate nothing but bread, and my grandfather; but the peasant nowadays
must have tea and vodka and white loaves, and must sleep from sunset to
dawn, and he goes to the doctor and pampers himself in all sorts of ways.
And why is it? He has grown weak; he has not the strength to endure. If he
wants to stay awake, his eyes close—there is no doing anything."
"That's true," Meliton agreed; "the peasant is good for nothing nowadays."
"It's no good hiding what is wrong; we get worse from year to year. And if
you take the gentry into consideration, they've grown feebler even more
than the peasants have. The gentleman nowadays has mastered everything; he
knows what he ought not to know, and what is the sense of it? It makes you
feel pitiful to look at him.... He is a thin, puny little fellow, like
some Hungarian or Frenchman; there is no dignity nor air about him; it's
only in name he is a gentleman. There is no place for him, poor dear, and
nothing for him to do, and there is no making out what he wants. Either he
sits with a hook catching fish, or he lolls on his back reading, or trots
about among the peasants saying all sorts of things to them, and those
that are hungry go in for being clerks. So he spends his life in vain. And
he has no notion of doing something real and useful. The gentry in old
days were half of them generals, but nowadays they are—a poor lot."
"They are badly off nowadays," said Meliton.
"They are poorer because God has taken away their strength. You can't go
Meliton stared at a fixed point again. After thinking a little he heaved a
sigh as staid, reasonable people do sigh, shook his head, and said:
"And all because of what? We have sinned greatly, we have forgotten God..
and it seems that the time has come for all to end. And, after all, the
world can't last for ever—it's time to know when to take leave."
The shepherd sighed and, as though wishing to cut short an unpleasant
conversation, he walked away from the birch-tree and began silently
reckoning over the cows.
"Hey-hey-hey!" he shouted. "Hey-hey-hey! Bother you, the plague take you!
The devil has taken you into the thicket. Tu-lu-lu!"
With an angry face he went into the bushes to collect his herd. Meliton
got up and sauntered slowly along the edge of the wood. He looked at the
ground at his feet and pondered; he still wanted to think of something
which had not yet been touched by death. Patches of light crept upon the
slanting streaks of rain again; they danced on the tops of the trees and
died away among the wet leaves. Damka found a hedgehog under a bush, and
wanting to attract her master's attention to it, barked and howled.
"Did you have an eclipse or not?" the shepherd called from the bushes.
"Yes, we had," answered Meliton.
"Ah! Folks are complaining all about that there was one. It shows there is
disorder even in the heavens! It's not for nothing.... Hey-hey-hey! Hey!"
Driving his herd together to the edge of the wood, the shepherd leaned
against the birch-tree, looked up at the sky, without haste took his pipe
from his bosom and began playing. As before, he played mechanically and
took no more than five or six notes; as though the pipe had come into his
hands for the first time, the sounds floated from it uncertainly, with no
regularity, not blending into a tune, but to Meliton, brooding on the
destruction of the world, there was a sound in it of something very
depressing and revolting which he would much rather not have heard. The
highest, shrillest notes, which quivered and broke, seemed to be weeping
disconsolately, as though the pipe were sick and frightened, while the
lowest notes for some reason reminded him of the mist, the dejected trees,
the grey sky. Such music seemed in keeping with the weather, the old man
and his sayings.
Meliton wanted to complain. He went up to the old man and, looking at his
mournful, mocking face and at the pipe, muttered:
"And life has grown worse, grandfather. It is utterly impossible to live.
Bad crops, want.... Cattle plague continually, diseases of all sorts....
We are crushed by poverty."
The bailiff's puffy face turned crimson and took a dejected, womanish
expression. He twirled his fingers as though seeking words to convey his
vague feeling and went on:
"Eight children, a wife... and my mother still living, and my whole salary
ten roubles a month and to board myself. My wife has become a Satan from
poverty.... I go off drinking myself. I am a sensible, steady man; I have
education. I ought to sit at home in peace, but I stray about all day with
my gun like a dog because it is more than I can stand; my home is hateful
Feeling that his tongue was uttering something quite different from what
he wanted to say, the bailiff waved his hand and said bitterly:
"If the world's going to end I wish it would make haste about it. There's
no need to drag it out and make folks miserable for nothing...."
The old man took the pipe from his lips and, screwing up one eye, looked
into its little opening. His face was sad and covered with thick drops
like tears. He smiled and said:
"It's a pity, my friend! My goodness, what a pity! The earth, the forest,
the sky, the beasts of all sorts—all this has been created, you
know, adapted; they all have their intelligence. It is all going to ruin.
And most of all I am sorry for people."
There was the sound in the wood of heavy rain coming nearer. Meliton
looked in the direction of the sound, did up all his buttons, and said:
"I am going to the village. Good-bye, grandfather. What is your name?"
"Luka the Poor."
"Well, good-bye, Luka! Thank you for your good words. Damka, ici!"
After parting from the shepherd Meliton made his way along the edge of the
wood, and then down hill to a meadow which by degrees turned into a marsh.
There was a squelch of water under his feet, and the rusty marsh sedge,
still green and juicy, drooped down to the earth as though afraid of being
trampled underfoot. Beyond the marsh, on the bank of the Pestchanka, of
which the old man had spoken, stood a row of willows, and beyond the
willows a barn looked dark blue in the mist. One could feel the approach
of that miserable, utterly inevitable season, when the fields grow dark
and the earth is muddy and cold, when the weeping willow seems still more
mournful and tears trickle down its stem, and only the cranes fly away
from the general misery, and even they, as though afraid of insulting
dispirited nature by the expression of their happiness, fill the air with
their mournful, dreary notes.
Meliton plodded along to the river, and heard the sounds of the pipe
gradually dying away behind him. He still wanted to complain. He looked
dejectedly about him, and he felt insufferably sorry for the sky and the
earth and the sun and the woods and his Damka, and when the highest
drawn-out note of the pipe floated quivering in the air, like a voice
weeping, he felt extremely bitter and resentful of the impropriety in the
conduct of nature.
The high note quivered, broke off, and the pipe was silent.