NEW YEAR’S EVE. Nellie, the daughter of a landowner and general, a young and pretty girl, dreaming day and night of being married, was sitting in her room, gazing with exhausted, half-closed eyes into the looking-glass. She was pale, tense, and as motionless as the looking-glass.
The non-existent but apparent vista of a long, narrow corridor with endless rows of candles, the reflection of her face, her hands, of the frame — all this was already clouded in mist and merged into a boundless grey sea. The sea was undulating, gleaming and now and then flaring crimson. . . .
Looking at Nellie’s motionless eyes and parted lips, one could hardly say whether she was asleep or awake, but nevertheless she was seeing. At first she saw only the smile and soft, charming expression of someone’s eyes, then against the shifting grey background there gradually appeared the outlines of a head, a face, eyebrows, beard. It was he, the destined one, the object of long dreams and hopes. The destined one was for Nellie everything, the significance of life, personal happiness, career, fate. Outside him, as on the grey background of the looking-glass, all was dark, empty, meaningless. And so it was not strange that, seeing before her a handsome, gently smiling face, she was conscious of bliss, of an unutterably sweet dream that could not be expressed in speech or on paper. Then she heard his voice, saw herself living under the same roof with him, her life merged into his. Months and years flew by against the grey background. And Nellie saw her future distinctly in all its details.
Picture followed picture against the grey background. Now Nellie saw herself one winter night knocking at the door of Stepan Lukitch, the district doctor. The old dog hoarsely and lazily barked behind the gate. The doctor’s windows were in darkness. All was silence.
“For God’s sake, for God’s sake!” whispered Nellie.
But at last the garden gate creaked and Nellie saw the doctor’s cook.
“Is the doctor at home?”
“His honour’s asleep,” whispered the cook into her sleeve, as though afraid of waking her master.
“He’s only just got home from his fever patients, and gave orders he was not to be waked.”
But Nellie scarcely heard the cook. Thrusting her aside, she rushed headlong into the doctor’s house. Running through some dark and stuffy rooms, upsetting two or three chairs, she at last reached the doctor’s bedroom. Stepan Lukitch was lying on his bed, dressed, but without his coat, and with pouting lips was breathing into his open hand. A little night-light glimmered faintly beside him. Without uttering a word Nellie sat down and began to cry. She wept bitterly, shaking all over.
“My husband is ill!” she sobbed out. Stepan Lukitch was silent. He slowly sat up, propped his head on his hand, and looked at his visitor with fixed, sleepy eyes. “My husband is ill!” Nellie continued, restraining her sobs. “For mercy’s sake come quickly. Make haste. . . . Make haste!”
“Eh?” growled the doctor, blowing into his hand.
“Come! Come this very minute! Or . . . it’s terrible to think! For mercy’s sake!”
And pale, exhausted Nellie, gasping and swallowing her tears, began describing to the doctor her husband’s illness, her unutterable terror. Her sufferings would have touched the heart of a stone, but the doctor looked at her, blew into his open hand, and — not a movement.
“I’ll come to-morrow!” he muttered.
“That’s impossible!” cried Nellie. “I know my husband has typhus! At once . . . this very minute you are needed!”
“I . . . er . . . have only just come in,” muttered the doctor. “For the last three days I’ve been away, seeing typhus patients, and I’m exhausted and ill myself. . . . I simply can’t! Absolutely! I’ve caught it myself! There!”
And the doctor thrust before her eyes a clinical thermometer.
“My temperature is nearly forty. . . . I absolutely can’t. I can scarcely sit up. Excuse me. I’ll lie down. . . .”
The doctor lay down.
“But I implore you, doctor,” Nellie moaned in despair. “I beseech you! Help me, for mercy’s sake! Make a great effort and come! I will repay you, doctor!”
“Oh, dear! . . . Why, I have told you already. Ah!”
Nellie leapt up and walked nervously up and down the bedroom. She longed to explain to the doctor, to bring him to reason. . . . She thought if only he knew how dear her husband was to her and how unhappy she was, he would forget his exhaustion and his illness. But how could she be eloquent enough?
“Go to the Zemstvo doctor,” she heard Stepan Lukitch’s voice.
“That’s impossible! He lives more than twenty miles from here, and time is precious. And the horses can’t stand it. It is thirty miles from us to you, and as much from here to the Zemstvo doctor. No, it’s impossible! Come along, Stepan Lukitch. I ask of you an heroic deed. Come, perform that heroic deed! Have pity on us!”
“It’s beyond everything. . . . I’m in a fever. . . my head’s in a whirl . . . and she won’t understand! Leave me alone!”
“But you are in duty bound to come! You cannot refuse to come! It’s egoism! A man is bound to sacrifice his life for his neighbour, and you. . . you refuse to come! I will summon you before the Court.”
Nellie felt that she was uttering a false and undeserved insult, but for her husband’s sake she was capable of forgetting logic, tact, sympathy for others. . . . In reply to her threats, the doctor greedily gulped a glass of cold water. Nellie fell to entreating and imploring like the very lowest beggar. . . . At last the doctor gave way. He slowly got up, puffing and panting, looking for his coat.
“Here it is!” cried Nellie, helping him. “Let me put it on to you. Come along! I will repay you. . . . All my life I shall be grateful to you. . . .”
But what agony! After putting on his coat the doctor lay down again. Nellie got him up and dragged him to the hall. Then there was an agonizing to-do over his goloshes, his overcoat. . . . His cap was lost. . . . But at last Nellie was in the carriage with the doctor. Now they had only to drive thirty miles and her husband would have a doctor’s help. The earth was wrapped in darkness. One could not see one’s hand before one’s face. . . . A cold winter wind was blowing. There were frozen lumps under their wheels. The coachman was continually stopping and wondering which road to take.
Nellie and the doctor sat silent all the way. It was fearfully jolting, but they felt neither the cold nor the jolts.
“Get on, get on!” Nellie implored the driver.
At five in the morning the exhausted horses drove into the yard. Nellie saw the familiar gates, the well with the crane, the long row of stables and barns. At last she was at home.
“Wait a moment, I will be back directly,” she said to Stepan Lukitch, making him sit down on the sofa in the dining-room. “Sit still and wait a little, and I’ll see how he is going on.”
On her return from her husband, Nellie found the doctor lying down. He was lying on the sofa and muttering.
“Doctor, please! . . . doctor!”
“Eh? Ask Domna!” muttered Stepan Lukitch.
“They said at the meeting . . . Vlassov said . . . Who? . . . what?”
And to her horror Nellie saw that the doctor was as delirious as her husband. What was to be done?
“I must go for the Zemstvo doctor,” she decided.
Then again there followed darkness, a cutting cold wind, lumps of frozen earth. She was suffering in body and in soul, and delusive nature has no arts, no deceptions to compensate these sufferings. . . .
Then she saw against the grey background how her husband every spring was in straits for money to pay the interest for the mortgage to the bank. He could not sleep, she could not sleep, and both racked their brains till their heads ached, thinking how to avoid being visited by the clerk of the Court.
She saw her children: the everlasting apprehension of colds, scarlet fever, diphtheria, bad marks at school, separation. Out of a brood of five or six one was sure to die.
The grey background was not untouched by death. That might well be. A husband and wife cannot die simultaneously. Whatever happened one must bury the other. And Nellie saw her husband dying. This terrible event presented itself to her in every detail. She saw the coffin, the candles, the deacon, and even the footmarks in the hall made by the undertaker.
“Why is it, what is it for?” she asked, looking blankly at her husband’s face.
And all the previous life with her husband seemed to her a stupid prelude to this.
Something fell from Nellie’s hand and knocked on the floor. She started, jumped up, and opened her eyes wide. One looking-glass she saw lying at her feet. The other was standing as before on the table.
She looked into the looking-glass and saw a pale, tear-stained face. There was no grey background now.
“I must have fallen asleep,” she thought with a sigh of relief.
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
Cover: Alvise Bittente, “La realtà è una sorpresa dentro un sacchetto di patatine…unta”, 2014, Rotring rapidograph pen, black India ink, collages on white paper (A4).