"The Nightingale’s Benefit Performance" by Anton Chekhov (1883)

by Anton Chekhov

A group of people gathers on a grassy hillside to listen to a concert. It begins with the singing of the cuckoo, then a wide variety of creatures join in, and after an intermission the star of the evening gives a performance that reduces the audience, human and natural, to a stunned and appreciative silence. But the concerts ends on a sadder note.

This charming short story was written while Chekhov was still studying for his medical degree [1].

It has been translated here specially for this site.



THE NIGHTINGALE’S BENEFIT PERFORMANCE

We took our places on the bank of the river. Ahead of us the brown clay bank descended steeply, and beyond our backs there was a wide grove. We sat on the soft, young grass, with our hands on our heads and our feet free to go where we pleased. We took off our spring coats but we didn’t pay the twenty kopecks for keeping them because, thank God, there weren’t any attendants near us. The grove, the sky and the field were flooded with moonlight far into the distance where and a red light was silently flickering. The air was quiet, clear and fragrant... Everything favoured the star performer. All he had to do was to not abuse our patience and to get started. But he didn’t start...

While waiting for him we listened to the other singers, according to the programme.

The evening began with the singing of the cuckoo. It lazily crowed somewhere far away in the grove, and after crowing about ten times, it fell silent. Immediately two falcons flew over our heads with sharp squeaks. Then the contralto of an oriole, a well-known singer, burst out seriously. We listened to it with pleasure and would have continued to listen for a long time if it hadn’t been for the rooks flying through the night... In the distance the black cloud of them appeared, moved towards us and descended on the grove with its cawing. The cloud didn’t cease its cawing for a long time.

When the rooks cawed, the frogs living in their government lodgings in the reeds began rumbling as well, and for a whole half hour the concert hall was full of many different sounds that soon merged into one. Somewhere a drowsy thrush cried out. A river hen and a reed warbler accompanied him.

An intermission of silence followed, occasionally broken by the singing of crickets sitting in the grass near the audience. At the intermission our patience had reached its climax: we were beginning to grumble about the star performer.

As the moon rose up and stopped in the sky above the grove, it was his turn. He appeared in a young maple tree, then fluttered over into the thorn bush, twirled his tail and became motionless. He was wearing a grey jacket... he generally ignores the public and appears in front of them as naked as a sparrow – shame on you, young man! the public’s not there for you, but you’re there for the public! He sat in silence for three minutes without moving... But then the treetops rustled, the breeze blew, the crickets crackled louder and he performed his first trill to the accompaniment of the orchestra. He sang. I cannot undertake to describe that singing, I will only say that the orchestra fell silent with excitement and froze when the artist, slightly raising his beak, whistled and showered the grove with clicks and shots... And the strength and bliss in his voice... Anyway, I’m not going to take away the bread from the poets, let them write about it. He sang, and an attentive silence reigned all around. Only the trees grumbled angrily and the wind hissed when an owl wanted to muffle the artist...

When the sky grew grey, the stars faded and the singer’s voice grew faint and tender – and the Count’s cook appeared at the edge of the grove. Bending down and holding his hat with his left hand, he crept along silently. In his right hand he was holding a basket. He glided between the trees and soon disappeared into the thicket. The singer sang some more and then stopped. We were getting ready to leave.

“There he is, the rascal!” we heard someone’s voice and soon we saw the cook. The Count’s cook was coming towards us laughing merrily and showing us what he had in his fist. The head and the tail of the performer that he’d just caught were sticking out of his fist. The poor artist! God save anyone from such a collection!

“Why did you catch him?” we asked the cook.

“Into the cage!”

A corncrake cried out pitifully in the morning air and the grove rumbled as it lost its singer. The cook shoved the rose-lover into the basket and ran merrily towards the village.

We, too, dispersed.


Footnotes

[1The Nightingale’s Benefit Performance (Russian title: Бенефис соловья : Рецензия) was first published in the humorous magazine "Shards" (Осколки) on May 21, 1883.