Today we have a story worth 1633 words: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/036.html
Smirnov, a land surveyor, gets off a train and looks to hire a cab. Already he has apprehension on how long the journey will take based on a potential driver’s drunkenness and quality of the horse. When he is told he has to hire a peasant his predilection for exaggerated working class antipathy increases. Chekhov gives more details in this story than he has in a while. I particularly liked how a hitched mare reacts to each stroke from the driver Klim’s “whip made of cord” before she jerkily walks down the road. Smirnov marvels “at the capacity of Russian drivers for combining a slow tortoise-like pace with a jolting that turns the soul inside out.” Much like a timid tourist in a foreign city, Smirnov is scared of being robbed. To compensate and deter the cabman from attacking him, he blusters on in a comical way about his fighting abilities, the three revolvers he doesn’t have, and how a party of armed friends will join him soon. What’s brilliant about the story is that we don’t know much about the driver, Klim, except he has “a very sturdy, sullen-looking pock-marked’ appearance and wears bark-shoes. I don’t think readers share Smirnov’s fears, but I’d wager that they also didn’t expect Klim to believe the surveyor’s hyperbole. This is partly by design because Chekhov only let us see Klim as Smirnov does. When Klim jumps off the cart, fleeing for his life and shouting for help, I nearly laughed aloud. It was brilliant and I didn’t see it coming. Words have effect, but the reader will discount everything that Smirnov says because we know his inner thoughts. Klim does not have this insight available. When the driver reappears two hours later, Smirnov does what other Chekhov characters have done to characters of a lower class they have wronged: instead of admitting blame, he claims it was a misunderstood joke. “But I was joking, my dear man! I swear to God I was joking!” At the cost of humiliating a peasant, Smirnov now gets to travel the rest of the way with his mind at peace.
Today we have a story about Smirnov, the land surveyor, trying to visit the estate of a general in a remote part of Russia. There are no post-horses (cabmen?) in the town that opens the story. Instead he must convince one of the local peasants to take him. He stumbles upon a “very sturdy, sullen-looking mock-marked peasant” named Klim. It is when the two set out for the remote estate, that Chekhov turns to an old habit of making his characters jump to conclusions. This time, Smirnov over does it and begins to worry that Klim may have ulterior motives. After all, “a child of nature like that has only to move a finger and it would be all up with one!” To overcome his fears, he begins to lie overtly about guns he doesn’t have, colleagues that are not pursuing them, and fights he has never won in an attempt to dissuade Klim from taking advantage of him. When Klim abruptly turns off the path toward a forest, Smirnov’s concerns are internally justified and his bravado continues. Just when Smirnov believes his imagination has predicted his fate, Klim jumps suddenly off the cart and runs toward the forest yelling for help. Justifiably, Klim was concerned about Smirnov’s motives given all of the talk about guns, friends in pursuit, and fighting prowess. The huge misunderstanding is eventually resolved with Smirnov calling lovingly into the forest, “Klimushka…dear fellow! Where are you, Klimushka?” Klim reasons that if Smirnov had wanted to rob him he would have made off with the cart and horse by then anyway. The two reunite and continue their journey as it had begun in the beginning…this time with a new understanding of intentions. This story illustrates what has become a familiar pattern of Chekhov only this time he calls it out in the title. Numerous stories in our line-up to-date have dealt with the issues of false assumptions and tend to rely on punch-line endings that are highly predictable. There are a few that stand-out as decent (e.g. Boots) but most leave me wishing for more substance.