Between nine and ten on a dark September evening the only son of the district doctor, Kirilov, a child of six, called Andrey, died of diphtheria. Just as the doctor’s wife sank on her knees by the dead child’s bedside and was overwhelmed by the first rush of despair there came a sharp ring at the bell in the entry.
All the servants had been sent out of the house that morning on account of the diphtheria. Kirilov went to open the door just as he was, without his coat on, with his waistcoat unbuttoned, without wiping his wet face or his hands which were scalded with carbolic. It was dark in the entry and nothing could be distinguished in the man who came in but medium height, a white scarf, and a large, extremely pale face, so pale that its entrance seemed to make the passage lighter.
“Is the doctor at home?” the newcomer asked quickly.
“I am at home,” answered Kirilov. “What do you want?”
“Oh, it’s you? I am very glad,” said the stranger in a tone of relief, and he began feeling in the dark for the doctor’s hand, found it and squeezed it tightly in his own. “I am very . . . very glad! We are acquainted. My name is Abogin, and I had the honour of meeting you in the summer at Gnutchev’s. I am very glad I have found you at home. For God’s sake don’t refuse to come back with me at once. . . . My wife has been taken dangerously ill. . . . And the carriage is waiting.”
From the voice and gestures of the speaker it could be seen that he was in a state of great excitement. Like a man terrified by a house on fire or a mad dog, he could hardly restrain his rapid breathing and spoke quickly in a shaking voice, and there was a note of unaffected sincerity and childish alarm in his voice. As people always do who are frightened and overwhelmed, he spoke in brief, jerky sentences and uttered a great many unnecessary, irrelevant words.
“I was afraid I might not find you in,” he went on. “I was in a perfect agony as I drove here. Put on your things and let us go, for God’s sake. . . . This is how it happened. Alexandr Semyonovitch Paptchinsky, whom you know, came to see me. . . . We talked a little and then we sat down to tea; suddenly my wife cried out, clutched at her heart, and fell back on her chair. We carried her to bed and . . . and I rubbed her forehead with ammonia and sprinkled her with water . . . she lay as though she were dead. . . . I am afraid it is aneurism . . . . Come along . . . her father died of aneurism.”
Kirilov listened and said nothing, as though he did not understand Russian.
When Abogin mentioned again Paptchinsky and his wife’s father and once more began feeling in the dark for his hand the doctor shook his head and said apathetically, dragging out each word:
“Excuse me, I cannot come . . . my son died . . . five minutes ago!”
“Is it possible!” whispered Abogin, stepping back a pace. “My God, at what an unlucky moment I have come! A wonderfully unhappy day . . . wonderfully. What a coincidence. . . . It’s as though it were on purpose!”
Abogin took hold of the door-handle and bowed his head. He was evidently hesitating and did not know what to do – whether to go away or to continue entreating the doctor.
“Listen,” he said fervently, catching hold of Kirilov’s sleeve. “I well understand your position! God is my witness that I am ashamed of attempting at such a moment to intrude on your attention, but what am I to do? Only think, to whom can I go? There is no other doctor here, you know. For God’s sake come! I am not asking you for myself. . . . I am not the patient!”
A silence followed. Kirilov turned his back on Abogin, stood still a moment, and slowly walked into the drawing-room. Judging from his unsteady, mechanical step, from the attention with which he set straight the fluffy shade on the unlighted lamp in the drawing-room and glanced into a thick book lying on the table, at that instant he had no intention, no desire, was thinking of nothing and most likely did not remember that there was a stranger in the entry. The twilight and stillness of the drawing-room seemed to increase his numbness. Going out of the drawing-room into his study he raised his right foot higher than was necessary, and felt for the doorposts with his hands, and as he did so there was an air of perplexity about his whole figure as though he were in somebody else’s house, or were drunk for the first time in his life and were now abandoning himself with surprise to the new sensation. A broad streak of light stretched across the bookcase on one wall of the study; this light came together with the close, heavy smell of carbolic and ether from the door into the bedroom, which stood a little way open. . . . The doctor sank into a low chair in front of the table; for a minute he stared drowsily at his books, which lay with the light on them, then got up and went into the bedroom.
Here in the bedroom reigned a dead silence. Everything to the smallest detail was eloquent of the storm that had been passed through, of exhaustion, and everything was at rest. A candle standing among a crowd of bottles, boxes, and pots on a stool and a big lamp on the chest of drawers threw a brilliant light over all the room. On the bed under the window lay a boy with open eyes and a look of wonder on his face. He did not move, but his open eyes seemed every moment growing darker and sinking further into his head. The mother was kneeling by the bed with her arms on his body and her head hidden in the bedclothes. Like the child, she did not stir; but what throbbing life was suggested in the curves of her body and in her arms! She leaned against the bed with all her being, pressing against it greedily with all her might, as though she were afraid of disturbing the peaceful and comfortable attitude she had found at last for her exhausted body. The bedclothes, the rags and bowls, the splashes of water on the floor, the little paint-brushes and spoons thrown down here and there, the white bottle of lime water, the very air, heavy and stifling — were all hushed and seemed plunged in repose.
The doctor stopped close to his wife, thrust his hands in his trouser pockets, and slanting his head on one side fixed his eyes on his son. His face bore an expression of indifference, and only from the drops that glittered on his beard it could be seen that he had just been crying.
That repellent horror which is thought of when we speak of death was absent from the room. In the numbness of everything, in the mother’s attitude, in the indifference on the doctor’s face there was something that attracted and touched the heart, that subtle, almost elusive beauty of human sorrow which men will not for a long time learn to understand and describe, and which it seems only music can convey. There was a feeling of beauty, too, in the austere stillness. Kirilov and his wife were silent and not weeping, as though besides the bitterness of their loss they were conscious, too, of all the tragedy of their position; just as once their youth had passed away, so now together with this boy their right to have children had gone for ever to all eternity! The doctor was forty-four, his hair was grey and he looked like an old man; his faded and invalid wife was thirty-five. Andrey was not merely the only child, but also the last child.
In contrast to his wife the doctor belonged to the class of people who at times of spiritual suffering feel a craving for movement. After standing for five minutes by his wife, he walked, raising his right foot high, from the bedroom into a little room which was half filled up by a big sofa; from there he went into the kitchen. After wandering by the stove and the cook’s bed he bent down and went by a little door into the passage.
There he saw again the white scarf and the white face.
“At last,” sighed Abogin, reaching towards the door-handle. “Let us go, please.”
The doctor started, glanced at him, and remembered. . . .
“Why, I have told you already that I can’t go!” he said, growing more animated. “How strange!”
“Doctor, I am not a stone, I fully understand your position . . . I feel for you,” Abogin said in an imploring voice, laying his hand on his scarf. “But I am not asking you for myself. My wife is dying. If you had heard that cry, if you had seen her face, you would understand my pertinacity. My God, I thought you had gone to get ready! Doctor, time is precious. Let us go, I entreat you.”
“I cannot go,” said Kirilov emphatically and he took a step into the drawing-room.
Abogin followed him and caught hold of his sleeve.
“You are in sorrow, I understand. But I’m not asking you to a case of toothache, or to a consultation, but to save a human life!” he went on entreating like a beggar. “Life comes before any personal sorrow! Come, I ask for courage, for heroism! For the love of humanity!”
“Humanity – that cuts both ways,” Kirilov said irritably. “In the name of humanity I beg you not to take me. And how queer it is, really! I can hardly stand and you talk to me about humanity! I am fit for nothing just now. . . . Nothing will induce me to go, and I can’t leave my wife alone. No, no. . .”
Kirilov waved his hands and staggered back.
“And . . . and don’t ask me,” he went on in a tone of alarm. “Excuse me. By No. XIII of the regulations I am obliged to go and you have the right to drag me by my collar . . . drag me if you like, but . . . I am not fit . . . I can’t even speak . . . excuse me.”
“There is no need to take that tone to me, doctor!” said Abogin, again taking the doctor by his sleeve. “What do I care about No. XIII! To force you against your will I have no right whatever. If you will, come; if you will not — God forgive you; but I am not appealing to your will, but to your feelings. A young woman is dying. You were just speaking of the death of your son. Who should understand my horror if not you?”
Abogin’s voice quivered with emotion; that quiver and his tone were far more persuasive than his words. Abogin was sincere, but it was remarkable that whatever he said his words sounded stilted, soulless, and inappropriately flowery, and even seemed an outrage on the atmosphere of the doctor s home and on the woman who was somewhere dying. He felt this himself, and so, afraid of not being understood, did his utmost to put softness and tenderness into his voice so that the sincerity of his tone might prevail if his words did not. As a rule, however fine and deep a phrase may be, it only affects the indifferent, and cannot fully satisfy those who are happy or unhappy; that is why dumbness is most often the highest expression of happiness or unhappiness; lovers understand each other better when they are silent, and a fervent, passionate speech delivered by the grave only touches outsiders, while to the widow and children of the dead man it seems cold and trivial.
Kirilov stood in silence. When Abogin uttered a few more phrases concerning the noble calling of a doctor, self-sacrifice, and so on, the doctor asked sullenly: “Is it far?”
“Something like eight or nine miles. I have capital horses, doctor! I give you my word of honour that I will get you there and back in an hour. Only one hour.”
These words had more effect on Kirilov than the appeals to humanity or the noble calling of the doctor. He thought a moment and said with a sigh: “Very well, let us go!”
He went rapidly with a more certain step to his study, and afterwards came back in a long frock-coat. Abogin, greatly relieved, fidgeted round him and scraped with his feet as he helped him on with his overcoat, and went out of the house with him.
It was dark out of doors, though lighter than in the entry. The tall, stooping figure of the doctor, with his long, narrow beard and aquiline nose, stood out distinctly in the darkness. Abogin’s big head and the little student’s cap that barely covered it could be seen now as well as his pale face. The scarf showed white only in front, behind it was hidden by his long hair.
“Believe me, I know how to appreciate your generosity,” Abogin muttered as he helped the doctor into the carriage. “We shall get there quickly. Drive as fast as you can, Luka, there’s a good fellow! Please!”
The coachman drove rapidly. At first there was a row of indistinct buildings that stretched alongside the hospital yard; it was dark everywhere except for a bright light from a window that gleamed through the fence into the furthest part of the yard while three windows of the upper storey of the hospital looked paler than the surrounding air. Then the carriage drove into dense shadow; here there was the smell of dampness and mushrooms, and the sound of rustling trees; the crows, awakened by the noise of the wheels, stirred among the foliage and uttered prolonged plaintive cries as though they knew the doctor’s son was dead and that Abogin’s wife was ill. Then came glimpses of separate trees, of bushes; a pond, on which great black shadows were slumbering, gleamed with a sullen light – and the carriage rolled over a smooth level ground. The clamor of the crows sounded dimly far away and soon ceased altogether.
Kirilov and Abogin were silent almost all the way. Only once Abogin heaved a deep sigh and muttered:
“It’s an agonizing state! One never loves those who are near one so much as when one is in danger of losing them.”
And when the carriage slowly drove over the river, Kirilov started all at once as though the splash of the water had frightened him, and made a movement.
“Listen – let me go,” he said miserably. “I’ll come to you later. I must just send my assistant to my wife. She is alone, you know!”
Abogin did not speak. The carriage swaying from side to side and crunching over the stones drove up the sandy bank and rolled on its way. Kirilov moved restlessly and looked about him in misery. Behind them in the dim light of the stars the road could be seen and the riverside willows vanishing into the darkness. On the right lay a plain as uniform and as boundless as the sky; here and there in the distance, probably on the peat marshes, dim lights were glimmering. On the left, parallel with the road, ran a hill tufted with small bushes, and above the hill stood motionless a big, red half-moon, slightly veiled with mist and encircled by tiny clouds, which seemed to be looking round at it from all sides and watching that it did not go away.
In all nature there seemed to be a feeling of hopelessness and pain. The earth, like a ruined woman sitting alone in a dark room and trying not to think of the past, was brooding over memories of spring and summer and apathetically waiting for the inevitable winter. Wherever one looked, on all sides, nature seemed like a dark, infinitely deep, cold pit from which neither Kirilov nor Abogin nor the red half-moon could escape.
The nearer the carriage got to its goal the more impatient Abogin became. He kept moving, leaping up, looking over the coachman’s shoulder. And when at last the carriage stopped before the entrance, which was elegantly curtained with striped linen, and when he looked at the lighted windows of the second storey there was an audible catch in his breath.
“If anything happens . . . I shall not survive it,” he said, going into the hall with the doctor, and rubbing his hands in agitation. “But there is no commotion, so everything must be going well so far,” he added, listening in the stillness.
There was no sound in the hall of steps or voices and all the house seemed asleep in spite of the lighted windows. Now the doctor and Abogin, who till then had been in darkness, could see each other clearly. The doctor was tall and stooped, was untidily dressed and not good-looking. There was an unpleasantly harsh, morose, and unfriendly look about his lips, thick as a negro’s, his aquiline nose, and listless, apathetic eyes. His unkempt head and sunken temples, the premature greyness of his long, narrow beard through which his chin was visible, the pale grey hue of his skin and his careless, uncouth manners – the harshness of all this was suggestive of years of poverty, of ill fortune, of weariness with life and with men. Looking at his frigid figure one could hardly believe that this man had a wife, that he was capable of weeping over his child.
Abogin presented a very different appearance. He was a thick-set, sturdy-looking, fair man with a big head and large, soft features; he was elegantly dressed in the very latest fashion. In his carriage, his closely buttoned coat, his long hair, and his face there was a suggestion of something generous, leonine; he walked with his head erect and his chest squared, he spoke in an agreeable baritone, and there was a shade of refined almost feminine elegance in the manner in which he took off his scarf and smoothed his hair. Even his paleness and the childlike terror with which he looked up at the stairs as he took off his coat did not detract from his dignity nor diminish the air of sleekness, health, and aplomb which characterized his whole figure.
“There is nobody and no sound,” he said going up the stairs. “There is no commotion. God grant all is well.”
He led the doctor through the hall into a big drawing-room where there was a black piano and a chandelier in a white cover; from there they both went into a very snug, pretty little drawing-room full of an agreeable, rosy twilight.
“Well, sit down here, doctor, and I . . . will be back directly. I will go and have a look and prepare them.”
Kirilov was left alone. The luxury of the drawing-room, the agreeably subdued light and his own presence in the stranger’s unfamiliar house, which had something of the character of an adventure, did not apparently affect him. He sat in a low chair and scrutinized his hands, which were burnt with carbolic. He only caught a passing glimpse of the bright red lamp-shade and the violoncello case, and glancing in the direction where the clock was ticking he noticed a stuffed wolf as substantial and sleek-looking as Abogin himself.
It was quiet. . . . Somewhere far away in the adjoining rooms someone uttered a loud exclamation:
“Ah!” There was a clang of a glass door, probably of a cupboard, and again all was still. After waiting five minutes Kirilov left off scrutinizing his hands and raised his eyes to the door by which Abogin had vanished.
In the doorway stood Abogin, but he was not the same as when he had gone out. The look of sleekness and refined elegance had disappeared – his face, his hands, his attitude were contorted by a revolting expression of something between horror and agonizing physical pain. His nose, his lips, his moustache, all his features were moving and seemed trying to tear themselves from his face, his eyes looked as though they were laughing with agony.
Abogin took a heavy stride into the drawing-room, bent forward, moaned, and shook his fists.
“She has deceived me,” he cried, with a strong emphasis on the second syllable of the verb. “Deceived me, gone away. She fell ill and sent me for the doctor only to run away with that clown Paptchinsky! My God!”
Abogin took a heavy step towards the doctor, held out his soft white fists in his face, and shaking them went on yelling:
“Gone away! Deceived me! But why this deception? My God! My God! What need of this dirty, scoundrels trick, this diabolical, snakish farce? What have I done to her? Gone away!”
Tears gushed from his eyes. He turned on one foot and began pacing up and down the drawing-room. Now in his short coat, his fashionable narrow trousers which made his legs look disproportionately slim, with his big head and long mane he was extremely like a lion. A gleam of curiosity came into the apathetic face of the doctor. He got up and looked at Abogin.
“Excuse me, where is the patient?” he said.
“The patient! The patient!” cried Abogin, laughing, crying, and still brandishing his fists. “She is not ill, but accursed! The baseness! The vileness! The devil himself could not have imagined anything more loathsome! She sent me off that she might run away with a buffoon, a dull-witted clown, an Alphonse! Oh God, better she had died! I cannot bear it! I cannot bear it!”
The doctor drew himself up. His eyes blinked and filled with tears, his narrow beard began moving to right and to left together with his jaw.
“Allow me to ask what’s the meaning of this?” he asked, looking round him with curiosity. “My child is dead, my wife is in grief alone in the whole house. . . . I myself can scarcely stand up, I have not slept for three nights. . . . And here I am forced to play a part in some vulgar farce, to play the part of a stage property! I don’t . . . don’t understand it!”
Abogin unclenched one fist, flung a crumpled note on the floor, and stamped on it as though it were an insect he wanted to crush.
“And I didn’t see, didn’t understand,” he said through his clenched teeth, brandishing one fist before his face with an expression as though some one had trodden on his corns. “I did not notice that he came every day! I did not notice that he came today in a closed carriage! What did he come in a closed carriage for? And I did not see it! Noodle!”
“I don’t understand . . .” muttered the doctor. “Why, what’s the meaning of it? Why, it’s an outrage on personal dignity, a mockery of human suffering! It’s incredible. . . . It’s the first time in my life I have had such an experience!”
With the dull surprise of a man who has only just realized that he has been bitterly insulted the doctor shrugged his shoulders, flung wide his arms, and not knowing what to do or to say sank helplessly into a chair.
“If you have ceased to love me and love another — so be it; but why this deceit, why this vulgar, treacherous trick?” Abogin said in a tearful voice. “What is the object of it? And what is there to justify it? And what have I done to you? Listen, doctor,” he said hotly, going up to Kirilov. “You have been the involuntary witness of my misfortune and I am not going to conceal the truth from you. I swear that I loved the woman, loved her devotedly, like a slave! I have sacrificed everything for her; I have quarreled with my own people, I have given up the service and music, I have forgiven her what I could not have forgiven my own mother or sister. . . I have never looked askance at her. . . . I have never gainsaid her in anything. Why this deception? I do not demand love, but why this loathsome duplicity? If she did not love me, why did she not say so openly, honestly, especially as she knows my views on the subject? . . .”
With tears in his eyes, trembling all over, Abogin opened his heart to the doctor with perfect sincerity. He spoke warmly, pressing both hands on his heart, exposing the secrets of his private life without the faintest hesitation, and even seemed to be glad that at last these secrets were no longer pent up in his breast. If he had talked in this way for an hour or two, and opened his heart, he would undoubtedly have felt better. Who knows, if the doctor had listened to him and had sympathized with him like a friend, he might perhaps, as often happens, have reconciled himself to his trouble without protest, without doing anything needless and absurd. . . . But what happened was quite different.
While Abogin was speaking the outraged doctor perceptibly changed. The indifference and wonder on his face gradually gave way to an expression of bitter resentment, indignation, and anger. The features of his face became even harsher, coarser, and more unpleasant. When Abogin held out before his eyes the photograph of a young woman with a handsome face as cold and expressionless as a nun’s and asked him whether, looking at that face, one could conceive that it was capable of duplicity, the doctor suddenly flew out, and with flashing eyes said, rudely rapping out each word:
“What are you telling me all this for? I have no desire to hear it! I have no desire to!” he shouted and brought his fist down on the table. “I don’t want your vulgar secrets! Damnation take them! Don’t dare to tell me of such vulgar doings! Do you consider that I have not been insulted enough already? That I am a flunkey whom you can insult without restraint? Is that it?”
Abogin staggered back from Kirilov and stared at him in amazement.
“Why did you bring me here?” the doctor went on, his beard quivering. “If you are so puffed up with good living that you go and get married and then act a farce like this, how do I come in? What have I to do with your love affairs? Leave me in peace! Go on squeezing money out of the poor in your gentlemanly way. Make a display of humane ideas, play (the doctor looked sideways at the violoncello case) play the bassoon and the trombone, grow as fat as capons, but don’t dare to insult personal dignity! If you cannot respect it, you might at least spare it your attention!”
“Excuse me, what does all this mean?” Abogin asked, flushing red.
“It means that it’s base and low to play with people like this! I am a doctor; you look upon doctors and people generally who work and don’t stink of perfume and prostitution as your menials and mauvais ton; well, you may look upon them so, but no one has given you the right to treat a man who is suffering as a stage property!”
“How dare you say that to me!” Abogin said quietly, and his face began working again, and this time unmistakably from anger.
“No, how dared you, knowing of my sorrow, bring me here to listen to these vulgarities!” shouted the doctor, and he again banged on the table with his fist. “Who has given you the right to make a mockery of another man’s sorrow?”
“You have taken leave of your senses,” shouted Abogin. “It is ungenerous. I am intensely unhappy myself and . . . and . . .”
“Unhappy!” said the doctor, with a smile of contempt. “Don’t utter that word, it does not concern you. The spendthrift who cannot raise a loan calls himself unhappy, too. The capon, sluggish from over-feeding, is unhappy, too. Worthless people!”
“Sir, you forget yourself,” shrieked Abogin. “For saying things like that . . . people are thrashed! Do you understand?”
Abogin hurriedly felt in his side pocket, pulled out a pocket-book, and extracting two notes flung them on the table.
“Here is the fee for your visit,” he said, his nostrils dilating. “You are paid.”
“How dare you offer me money?” shouted the doctor and he brushed the notes off the table on to the floor. “An insult cannot be paid for in money!”
Abogin and the doctor stood face to face, and in their wrath continued flinging undeserved insults at each other. I believe that never in their lives, even in delirium, had they uttered so much that was unjust, cruel, and absurd. The egoism of the unhappy was conspicuous in both. The unhappy are egoistic, spiteful, unjust, cruel, and less capable of understanding each other than fools. Unhappiness does not bring people together but draws them apart, and even where one would fancy people should be united by the similarity of their sorrow, far more injustice and cruelty is generated than in comparatively placid surroundings.
“Kindly let me go home!” shouted the doctor, breathing hard.
Abogin rang the bell sharply. When no one came to answer the bell he rang again and angrily flung the bell on the floor; it fell on the carpet with a muffled sound, and uttered a plaintive note as though at the point of death. A footman came in.
“Where have you been hiding yourself, the devil take you?” His master flew at him, clenching his fists. “Where were you just now? Go and tell them to bring the victoria round for this gentleman, and order the closed carriage to be got ready for me. Stay,” he cried as the footman turned to go out. “I won’t have a single traitor in the house by to-morrow! Away with you all! I will engage fresh servants! Reptiles!”
Abogin and the doctor remained in silence waiting for the carriage. The first regained his expression of sleekness and his refined elegance. He paced up and down the room, tossed his head elegantly, and was evidently meditating on something. His anger had not cooled, but he tried to appear not to notice his enemy. . . . The doctor stood, leaning with one hand on the edge of the table, and looked at Abogin with that profound and somewhat cynical, ugly contempt only to be found in the eyes of sorrow and indigence when they are confronted with well-nourished comfort and elegance.
When a little later the doctor got into the victoria and drove off there was still a look of contempt in his eyes. It was dark, much darker than it had been an hour before. The red half-moon had sunk behind the hill and the clouds that had been guarding it lay in dark patches near the stars. The carriage with red lamps rattled along the road and soon overtook the doctor. It was Abogin driving off to protest, to do absurd things. . . .
All the way home the doctor thought not of his wife, nor of his Andrey, but of Abogin and the people in the house he had just left. His thoughts were unjust and inhumanly cruel. He condemned Abogin and his wife and Paptchinsky and all who lived in rosy, subdued light among sweet perfumes, and all the way home he hated and despised them till his head ached. And a firm conviction concerning those people took shape in his mind.
Time will pass and Kirilov’s sorrow will pass, but that conviction, unjust and unworthy of the human heart, will not pass, but will remain in the doctor’s mind to the grave.