A young lieutenant called Klimov was travelling from Petersburg to Moscow in a smoking carriage of the mail train. Opposite him was sitting an elderly man with a shaven face like a sea captain’s, by all appearances a well-to-do Finn or Swede. He pulled at his pipe the whole journey and kept talking about the same subject:
“Ha, you are an officer! I have a brother an officer too, only he is a naval officer. . . . He is a naval officer, and he is stationed at Kronstadt. Why are you going to Moscow?”
“I am serving there.”
“Ha! And are you a family man?”
“No, I live with my sister and aunt.”
“My brother’s an officer, only he is a naval officer; he has a wife and three children. Ha!”
The Finn seemed continually surprised at something, and gave a broad idiotic grin when he exclaimed “Ha!” and continually puffed at his stinking pipe. Klimov, who for some reason did not feel well, and found it burdensome to answer questions, hated him with all his heart. He dreamed of how nice it would be to snatch the wheezing pipe out of his hand and fling it under the seat, and drive the Finn himself into another compartment.
“Detestable people these Finns and . . . Greeks,” he thought. “Absolutely superfluous, useless, detestable people. They simply fill up space on the earthly globe. What are they for?”
And the thought of Finns and Greeks produced a feeling akin to sickness all over his body. For the sake of comparison he tried to think of the French, of the Italians, but his efforts to think of these people evoked in his mind, for some reason, nothing but images of organ-grinders, naked women, and the foreign oleographs which hung over the chest of drawers at home, at his aunt’s.
Altogether the officer felt in an abnormal state. He could not arrange his arms and legs comfortably on the seat, though he had the whole seat to himself. His mouth felt dry and sticky; there was a heavy fog in his brain; his thoughts seemed to be straying, not only within his head, but outside his skull, among the seats and the people that were shrouded in the darkness of night. Through the mist in his brain, as through a dream, he heard the murmur of voices, the rumble of wheels, the slamming of doors. The sounds of the bells, the whistles, the guards, the running to and fro of passengers on the platforms, seemed more frequent than usual. The time flew by rapidly, imperceptibly, and so it seemed as though the train were stopping at stations every minute, and metallic voices crying continually:
“Is the mail ready?”
“Yes!” was repeatedly coming from outside.
It seemed as though the man in charge of the heating came in too often to look at the thermometer, that the noise of trains going in the opposite direction and the rumble of the wheels over the bridges was incessant. The noise, the whistles, the Finn, the tobacco smoke — all this mingling with the menace and flickering of the misty images in his brain, the shape and character of which a man in health can never recall, weighed upon Klimov like an unbearable nightmare. In horrible misery he lifted his heavy head, looked at the lamp in the rays of which shadows and misty blurs seemed to be dancing. He wanted to ask for water, but his parched tongue would hardly move, and he scarcely had strength to answer the Finn’s questions. He tried to lie down more comfortably and go to sleep, but he could not succeed. The Finn several times fell asleep, woke up again, lighted his pipe, addressed him with his “Ha!” and went to sleep again; and still the lieutenant’s legs could not get into a comfortable position, and still the menacing images stood facing him.
At Spirovo he went out into the station for a drink of water. He saw people sitting at the table and hurriedly eating.
“And how can they eat!” he thought, trying not to sniff the air, that smelt of roast meat, and not to look at the munching mouths — they both seemed to him sickeningly disgusting.
A good-looking lady was conversing loudly with a military man in a red cap, and showing magnificent white teeth as she smiled; and the smile, and the teeth, and the lady herself made on Klimov the same revolting impression as the ham and the rissoles. He could not understand how it was the military man in the red cap was not ill at ease, sitting beside her and looking at her healthy, smiling face.
When after drinking some water he went back to his carriage, the Finn was sitting smoking; his pipe was wheezing and squelching like a galosh with holes in it in wet weather.
“Ha!” he said, surprised; “what station is this?”
“I don’t know,” answered Klimov, lying down and shutting his mouth that he might not breathe the acrid tobacco smoke.
“And when shall we reach Tver?”
“I don’t know. Excuse me, I . . . I can’t answer. I am ill. I caught cold today.”
The Finn knocked his pipe against the window-frame and began talking of his brother, the naval officer. Klimov no longer heard him; he was thinking miserably of his soft, comfortable bed, of a bottle of cold water, of his sister Katya, who was so good at making one comfortable, soothing, giving one water. He even smiled when the vision of his orderly Pavel, taking off his heavy stifling boots and putting water on the little table, flitted through his imagination. He fancied that if he could only get into his bed, have a drink of water, his nightmare would give place to sound healthy sleep.
“Is the mail ready?” a hollow voice reached him from the distance.
“Yes,” answered a bass voice almost at the window.
It was already the second or third station from Spirovo.
The time was flying rapidly in leaps and bounds, and it seemed as though the bells, whistles, and stoppings would never end. In despair Klimov buried his face in the corner of the seat, clutched his head in his hands, and began again thinking of his sister Katya and his orderly Pavel, but his sister and his orderly were mixed up with the misty images in his brain, whirled round, and disappeared. His burning breath, reflected from the back of the seat, seemed to scald his face; his legs were uncomfortable; there was a draught from the window on his back; but, however wretched he was, he did not want to change his position. . . . A heavy nightmarish lethargy gradually gained possession of him and fettered his limbs.
When he brought himself to raise his head, it was already light in the carriage. The passengers were putting on their fur coats and moving about. The train was stopping. Porters in white aprons and with discs on their breasts were bustling among the passengers and snatching up their boxes. Klimov put on his great-coat, mechanically followed the other passengers out of the carriage, and it seemed to him that not he, but some one else was moving, and he felt that his fever, his thirst, and the menacing images which had not let him sleep all night, came out of the carriage with him. Mechanically he took his luggage and engaged a sledge-driver. The man asked him for a ruble and a quarter to drive to Povarsky Street, but he did not haggle, and without protest got submissively into the sledge. He still understood the difference of numbers, but money had ceased to have any value to him.
At home Klimov was met by his aunt and his sister Katya, a girl of eighteen. When Katya greeted him she had a pencil and exercise book in her hand, and he remembered that she was preparing for an examination as a teacher. Gasping with fever, he walked aimlessly through all the rooms without answering their questions or greetings, and when he reached his bed he sank down on the pillow. The Finn, the red cap, the lady with the white teeth, the smell of roast meat, the flickering blurs, filled his consciousness, and by now he did not know where he was and did not hear the agitated voices.
When he recovered consciousness he found himself in bed, undressed, saw a bottle of water and Pavel, but it was no cooler, nor softer, nor more comfortable for that. His arms and legs, as before, refused to lie comfortably; his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, and he heard the wheezing of the Finn’s pipe. . . . A stalwart, black-bearded doctor was busy doing something beside the bed, brushing against Pavel with his broad back.
“It’s all right, it’s all right, young man,” he muttered. “Excellent, excellent . . . goo-od, goo-od . . . !”
The doctor called Klimov “young man,” said “goo-od” instead of “good” and “so-o” instead of “so.”
“So-o . . . so-o . . . so-o,” he murmured. “Goo-od, goo-od . . . ! Excellent, young man. You mustn’t lose heart!”
The doctor’s rapid, careless talk, his well-fed countenance, and condescending “young man,” irritated Klimov.
“Why do you call me ‘young man’?” he moaned. “What familiarity! Damn it all!”
And he was frightened by his own voice. The voice was so dried up, so weak and peevish, that he would not have known it.
“Excellent, excellent!” muttered the doctor, not in the least offended. . . . “You mustn’t get angry, so-o, so-o, so-s. . . .”
And the time flew by at home with the same startling swiftness as in the railway carriage. The daylight was continually being replaced by the dusk of evening. The doctor seemed never to leave his bedside, and he heard at every moment his “so-o, so-o, so-o.” A continual succession of people was incessantly crossing the bedroom. Among them were: Pavel, the Finn, Captain Yaroshevitch, Lance-Corporal Maximenko, the red cap, the lady with the white teeth, the doctor. They were all talking and waving their arms, smoking and eating. Once by daylight Klimov saw the chaplain of the regiment, Father Alexandr, who was standing before the bed, wearing a stole and with a prayer-book in his hand. He was muttering something with a grave face such as Klimov had never seen in him before. The lieutenant remembered that Father Alexandr used in a friendly way to call all the Catholic officers “Poles,” and wanting to amuse him, he cried:
“Father, Yaroshevitch the Pole has climbed up a pole!”
But Father Alexandr, a light-hearted man who loved a joke, did not smile, but became graver than ever, and made the sign of the cross over Klimov. At night-time by turn two shadows came noiselessly in and out; they were his aunt and sister. His sister’s shadow knelt down and prayed; she bowed down to the ikon, and her grey shadow on the wall bowed down too, so that two shadows were praying. The whole time there was a smell of roast meat and the Finn’s pipe, but once Klimov smelt the strong smell of incense. He felt so sick he could not lie still, and began shouting:
“The incense! Take away the incense!”
There was no answer. He could only hear the subdued singing of the priest somewhere and some one running upstairs.
When Klimov came to himself there was not a soul in his bedroom. The morning sun was streaming in at the window through the lower blind, and a quivering sunbeam, bright and keen as the sword’s edge, was flashing on the glass bottle. He heard the rattle of wheels — so there was no snow now in the street. The lieutenant looked at the ray, at the familiar furniture, at the door, and the first thing he did was to laugh. His chest and stomach heaved with delicious, happy, tickling laughter. His whole body from head to foot was overcome by a sensation of infinite happiness and joy in life, such as the first man must have felt when he was created and first saw the world. Klimov felt a passionate desire for movement, people, talk. His body lay a motionless block; only his hands stirred, but that he hardly noticed, and his whole attention was concentrated on trifles. He rejoiced in his breathing, in his laughter, rejoiced in the existence of the water-bottle, the ceiling, the sunshine, the tape on the curtains. God’s world, even in the narrow space of his bedroom, seemed beautiful, varied, grand. When the doctor made his appearance, the lieutenant was thinking what a delicious thing medicine was, how charming and pleasant the doctor was, and how nice and interesting people were in general.
“So-o, so, so. . . Excellent, excellent! . . . Now we are well again. . . . Goo-od, goo-od!” the doctor pattered.
The lieutenant listened and laughed joyously; he remembered the Finn, the lady with the white teeth, the train, and he longed to smoke, to eat.
“Doctor,” he said, “tell them to give me a crust of rye bread and salt, and . . . and sardines.”
The doctor refused; Pavel did not obey the order, and did not go for the bread. The lieutenant could not bear this and began crying like a naughty child.
“Baby!” laughed the doctor. “Mammy, bye-bye!”
Klimov laughed, too, and when the doctor went away he fell into a sound sleep. He woke up with the same joyfulness and sensation of happiness. His aunt was sitting near the bed.
“Well, aunt,” he said joyfully. “What has been the matter?”
“Really. But now I am well, quite well! Where is Katya?”
“She is not at home. I suppose she has gone somewhere from her examination.”
The old lady said this and looked at her stocking; her lips began quivering, she turned away, and suddenly broke into sobs. Forgetting the doctor’s prohibition in her despair, she said:
“Ah, Katya, Katya! Our angel is gone! Is gone!”
She dropped her stocking and bent down to it, and as she did so her cap fell off her head. Looking at her grey head and understanding nothing, Klimov was frightened for Katya, and asked:
“Where is she, aunt?”
The old woman, who had forgotten Klimov and was thinking only of her sorrow, said:
“She caught typhus from you, and is dead. She was buried the day before yesterday.”
This terrible, unexpected news was fully grasped by Klimov’s consciousness; but terrible and startling as it was, it could not overcome the animal joy that filled the convalescent. He cried and laughed, and soon began scolding because they would not let him eat.
Only a week later when, leaning on Pavel, he went in his dressing-gown to the window, looked at the overcast spring sky and listened to the unpleasant clang of the old iron rails which were being carted by, his heart ached, he burst into tears, and leaned his forehead against the window-frame.
“How miserable I am!” he muttered. “My God, how miserable!”
And joy gave way to the boredom of everyday life and the feeling of his irrevocable loss.