(Chekhov’s story appeared in Russia Beyond, 2/23/2021.)
Anton Chekhov. WOLF BAITING
Translated by Dan Biktashev
It is said that we live in the nineteenth century. Do not be fooled, reader.
On Wednesday, the 6th of January, in the European city of Moscow, a capital city at that, in the galleries overlooking the summer horse-racing track, sat a tightly packed crowd, jostling for position and trampling each other’s toes as they lapped up the spectacle. The spectacle itself, and even its description, is an anachronism… Are we even fit to describe it? We, who have exchanged brute force for ideas; we, the emotional, teary lot of suit-wearers and theatre-goers, and liberals et tutti quanti – are we fit to describe this spectacle known as wolf baiting? I ask you, are we?
It would appear that we are. We must describe it, for we cannot help it.
Let me begin by saying that I am not a hunter. In all my life I have not killed an animal. I confess I have killed a number of fleas, but even then no hounds were involved; it was always a fair, one-on-one fight. The only firearms I am acquainted with are the tin cap guns I would buy my children as gifts for New Year. A hunter I am not, and I must beg forgiveness if I distort anything in my retelling, as non-experts are wont to. In what follows I will try to avoid touching upon matters that could allow me to flaunt my ignorance of hunting terms. Instead, I will tell you about this spectacle as the public would, i.e. in a superficial manner born of nothing deeper than a first impression…
It is the first hour. Behind the gallery are stagecoaches, luxurious sleds, and coachmen. Commotion and bustle abound… The sheer number of carriages is such that not crowding is impossible. Congregating in the galleries are men decked out in lambswool and the fur of raccoons, beavers and foxes; each professing expertise with horses, dogs, hawks, hounds, or other miscellaneous beasts. These men are freezing, but also burning with impatience.
Ladies also congregate there, of course. You cannot have a spectacle without the ladies. Unusual for baiting many of the ladies gathered today are quite fair-looking. There are at least as many of them as men, and they, too, are burning with impatience.
In the upper galleries one can glimpse an occasional gymnasium cap – students have come to watch the spectacle, and they are burning with impatience. Among the other spectators (burning with impatience) are the connoisseurs, fanciers, and self-styled critics who have come to the Khodynka Field all the way on foot and, for lack of a rouble to pay the entrance fee, have lined up along the fences, knee-deep in snow.
In the arena are a number of carts laden with wooden crates. Inside the crates, the heroes of the day are enjoying the rest of their lives: the wolves. In all likelihood they are not burning with impatience…
As the crowd waits for the baiting to commence, it admires the Russian beauties riding about the arena on lovely horses… The most devoted and vicious of hunters are arguing about the hounds participating in today’s baiting. To a man, everyone is holding a poster of the event; the ladies also have a set of opera glasses.
“There is no pastime more pleasant than hunting,” an old man with a peaked cap and a wispy fluff of a beard confides to his neighbour; to all appearances he is a nobleman who fell on hard times a long time ago. “None more pleasant indeed… We would always set out on a hunt at first light… Sometimes with ladies, too…”
“There is no sense in going hunting with ladies,” his neighbour interrupts.
“It’s not proper to curse in the presence of ladies. And what’s a hunt if you can’t curse?”
“Not much, I’ll give you that. But the ladies who went hunting with us were not above cursing at all… Mariya Karlovna, who was Baron Glanzer’s daughter, I don’t mind telling you, now could curse with the best of them! ‘You brazen-faced wretch,’ she would begin, and then proceed… with all manner of gosh and golly, dash and damn even… She was ever the bane of all low-ranking gentry’s lives… quick to anger, and to make use of her whip…”
“Mother, are the wolves in the crates?” a boy from the local gymnasium, who is wearing an extremely oversized cap, asks a woman with large ruddy cheeks.
“Can’t they jump out?”
“Oh, you! Stop that! Enough of your silly questions… Wipe your nose! Next time, try asking something clever. Why must you always ask about silly things!”
There is some motion in the arena. Six or so men, or shall we say, disciples of the hunting order, are carrying one of the crates. Now they put it down in the middle of the arena. The audience becomes excited.
“Good sir, whose pack goes first?”
“Mozharov’s. Hmmm… no, not Mozharov’s. Sheremetyev’s, I should think!”
“No, no, not Sheremetyev’s at all! Look at the hounds, they are Mozharov’s. And the black dog? It’s Mozharov’s! Or maybe not? Hmmm Yes, yes, yes, gentlemen, that yonder pack is Sheremetyev’s! Yes, Sheremetyev’s. Mozharov’s pack is over there.”
The men are pounding on the crate with a mallet. The crowd’s impatience is ad maximum… Now the men back off. One tugs on a rope, the walls of the wooden prison are pulled down, and a grey wolf – the most revered of all Russian animals – is revealed to the crowd. The wolf looks around, gets up and starts running… Sheremetyev’s pack race after it, followed by a Mozharov dog in breach of the correct order, in turn followed by the pack’s huntsman with a dagger in his hand…
The wolf does not get two full sazhens before it is dead… The dogs have performed well, and so has the huntsman… “Bravooo!” cries the crowd, “braaavo! Bravo! Why’d Mozharov sic his dog out of order? Mozharov, boo! Braa… vvvoo!” Then another wolf goes through the same ordeal.