Yakov!” Martha cried. “I am dying!” Yakov just looked at his wife. He did not move. He did not say a word. He continued to look glum. Not because she was sick and dying but because he was overwhelmed by his losses.
Yakov was a coffin-maker by trade. He was also a good violinist. So apart from the meagre income he made making coffins he would also occasionally get some money by playing the violin at weddings. However, what he made was enough only to meet his basic needs. It was nothing compared to what he always dreamt of making.
Even though there were many elderly people in his village they were not dying as often as he wished. So, he could not make much money, making coffins. When the police inspector of his village became very sick he dreamt of making and selling an expensive coffin for his funeral. However, things did not turn out the way he had anticipated. To save him from death the relatives of the police inspector took him to a faraway place for better medical treatment. But he died soon and was buried there.
Since Yakov lost his opportunity to make a coffin for the police inspector he counted 10 rubles as his loss. That made him remember the other losses he had incurred during the year. There were weddings in the village to which he was not invited to play the violin, fetching him losses running into hundreds of rubles. There was a Jewish orchestra in the village to which sometimes he was invited to play the violin. But, lately, they too were not calling him. That again meant the loss of hundreds of rubles!
When he added up all the figures he found out he had lost more than 1,000 rubles for that year. Then it dawned on him that he had also lost the interest which he could have received from the bank for that lost amount of 1,000 rubles. And the interest would have been about 40 rubles. He added the 40 rubles to his lost amount! When he became aware of the terrible losses he had suffered he began to perspire and let out a long sigh of despair.
“Yakov!” Martha cried again. “I am dying!” Turning to her he looked at her face which was unusually joyful and bright at that time. ‘She must be happy to die as it would end all her misery,’ Yakov said to himself. As he continued to look at her, he sadly remembered that he had neither ever said a tender word to her nor bought her anything to make her happy. He also felt a sharp pang of guilt for not allowing her to have tea and insisting that she be satisfied with drinking hot water. He recalled how she had always cooked and cleaned for him without complaint for fifty years of their life together.
At crack of dawn the next day, Yakov took Martha to the village hospital on horseback. “Put a cold bandage around her head,” the doctor ordered after examining Martha who was shivering with fever. The doctor was sure Martha was going to die soon. So, he did not bother to give her any medicine. Yakov was sad the doctor did not try to make her well.
Since Martha was going to die soon Yakov decided to make a coffin for her. He took her measurement and made her a cheap coffin for which he wrote in his account book three rubles as its expense. Martha died the following morning and he buried her without spending much money for which he patted himself on the back. However, while leaving the cemetery he was hit with an avalanche of memories which made him shudder.
He remembered with distress the times he had mistreated her or failed to say a kind or tender word to her any time during their fifty years of life together. He regretted that he had never shown any gratitude to her for the cooking and cleaning she had done for him over the years. The weight of his guilt made him die soon after Martha’s death. This is how the sad story of Yakov ends in the short story by famous Russian novelist Anton Chekhov titled ‘Rothschild’s Fiddle.’
Yakov was always unhappy about the money he was unable to make in his life. Moreover, he was unusually troubled about the way people were spending money for themselves. That is why he ordered his wife not to have tea which he thought was a waste of money. When we read the story of Yakov we might wonder whether there are people such as Yakov in this world.
When we take an account of our life, is it always about our money and wealth? If it is so, we are not much different from Yakov. There were many things in his life about which Yakov should have taken an account like his love for his wife or the success of his family life. He should also have taken an account of the good deeds in his life which as a normal human being he was expected to do. However, his focus was always on money and wealth which resulted in forgetting his duties and responsibilities in life.
The temptation to go after the material is overwhelming. If that is what happens in our life then no matter how much money we make we will end up with terrible losses in our life. And the account of our life will be an account of heavy losses with no gain. So, let us make sure that we will always hold on to a value system which lays more emphasis on right living and less attention to material things in life.