THE little town of B——, consisting of two or three crooked streets, was sound asleep. There was a complete stillness in the motionless air. Nothing could be heard but far away, outside the town no doubt, the barking of a dog in a thin, hoarse tenor. It was close upon daybreak.
Everything had long been asleep. The only person not asleep was the young wife of Tchernomordik, a qualified dispenser who kept a chemist’s shop at B——. She had gone to bed and got up again three times, but could not sleep, she did not know why. She sat at the open window in her nightdress and looked into the street. She felt bored, depressed, vexed . . . so vexed that she felt quite inclined to cry—again she did not know why. There seemed to be a lump in her chest that kept rising into her throat. . . . A few paces behind her Tchernomordik lay curled up close to the wall, snoring sweetly. A greedy flea was stabbing the bridge of his nose, but he did not feel it, and was positively smiling, for he was dreaming that every one in the town had a cough, and was buying from him the King of Denmark’s cough-drops. He could not have been wakened now by pinpricks or by cannon or by caresses.
The chemist’s shop was almost at the extreme end of the town, so that the chemist’s wife could see far into the fields. She could see the eastern horizon growing pale by degrees, then turning crimson as though from a great fire. A big broad-faced moon peeped out unexpectedly from behind bushes in the distance. It was red (as a rule when the moon emerges from behind bushes it appears to be blushing).
Suddenly in the stillness of the night there came the sounds of footsteps and a jingle of spurs. She could hear voices.
“That must be the officers going home to the camp from the Police Captain’s,” thought the chemist’s wife.
Soon afterwards two figures wearing officers’ white tunics came into sight: one big and tall, the other thinner and shorter. . . . They slouched along by the fence, dragging one leg after the other and talking loudly together. As they passed the chemist’s shop, they walked more slowly than ever, and glanced up at the windows.
“It smells like a chemist’s,” said the thin one. “And so it is! Ah, I remember. . . . I came here last week to buy some castor-oil. There’s a chemist here with a sour face and the jawbone of an ass! Such a jawbone, my dear fellow! It must have been a jawbone like that Samson killed the Philistines with.”
“M’yes,” said the big one in a bass voice. “The pharmacist is asleep. And his wife is asleep too. She is a pretty woman, Obtyosov.”
“I saw her. I liked her very much. . . . Tell me, doctor, can she possibly love that jawbone of an ass? Can she?”
“No, most likely she does not love him,” sighed the doctor, speaking as though he were sorry for the chemist. “The little woman is asleep behind the window, Obtyosov, what? Tossing with the heat, her little mouth half open . . . and one little foot hanging out of bed. I bet that fool the chemist doesn’t realise what a lucky fellow he is. . . . No doubt he sees no difference between a woman and a bottle of carbolic!”
“I say, doctor,” said the officer, stopping. “Let us go into the shop and buy something. Perhaps we shall see her.”
“What an idea—in the night!”
“What of it? They are obliged to serve one even at night. My dear fellow, let us go in!”
“If you like. . . .”
The chemist’s wife, hiding behind the curtain, heard a muffled ring. Looking round at her husband, who was smiling and snoring sweetly as before, she threw on her dress, slid her bare feet into her slippers, and ran to the shop.
On the other side of the glass door she could see two shadows. The chemist’s wife turned up the lamp and hurried to the door to open it, and now she felt neither vexed nor bored nor inclined to cry, though her heart was thumping. The big doctor and the slender Obtyosov walked in. Now she could get a view of them. The doctor was corpulent and swarthy; he wore a beard and was slow in his movements. At the slightest motion his tunic seemed as though it would crack, and perspiration came on to his face. The officer was rosy, clean-shaven, feminine-looking, and as supple as an English whip.
“What may I give you?” asked the chemist’s wife, holding her dress across her bosom.
“Give us . . . er-er . . . four pennyworth of peppermint lozenges!”
Without haste the chemist’s wife took down a jar from a shelf and began weighing out lozenges. The customers stared fixedly at her back; the doctor screwed up his eyes like a well-fed cat, while the lieutenant was very grave.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen a lady serving in a chemist’s shop,” observed the doctor.
“There’s nothing out of the way in it,” replied the chemist’s wife, looking out of the corner of her eye at the rosy-cheeked officer. “My husband has no assistant, and I always help him.”
“To be sure. . . . You have a charming little shop! What a number of different . . . jars! And you are not afraid of moving about among the poisons? Brrr!”
The chemist’s wife sealed up the parcel and handed it to the doctor. Obtyosov gave her the money. Half a minute of silence followed. . . . The men exchanged glances, took a step towards the door, then looked at one another again.
“Will you give me two pennyworth of soda?” said the doctor.
Again the chemist’s wife slowly and languidly raised her hand to the shelf.
“Haven’t you in the shop anything . . . such as . . .” muttered Obtyosov, moving his fingers, “something, so to say, allegorical . . . revivifying . . . seltzer-water, for instance. Have you any seltzer-water?”
“Yes,” answered the chemist’s wife.
“Bravo! You’re a fairy, not a woman! Give us three bottles!”
The chemist’s wife hurriedly sealed up the soda and vanished through the door into the darkness.
“A peach!” said the doctor, with a wink. “You wouldn’t find a pineapple like that in the island of Madeira! Eh? What do you say? Do you hear the snoring, though? That’s his worship the chemist enjoying sweet repose.”
A minute later the chemist’s wife came back and set five bottles on the counter. She had just been in the cellar, and so was flushed and rather excited.
“Sh-sh! . . . quietly!” said Obtyosov when, after uncorking the bottles, she dropped the corkscrew. “Don’t make such a noise; you’ll wake your husband.”
“Well, what if I do wake him?”
“He is sleeping so sweetly . . . he must be dreaming of you. . . . To your health!”
“Besides,” boomed the doctor, hiccupping after the seltzer-water, “husbands are such a dull business that it would be very nice of them to be always asleep. How good a drop of red wine would be in this water!”
“What an idea!” laughed the chemist’s wife.
“That would be splendid. What a pity they don’t sell spirits in chemist’s shops! Though you ought to sell wine as a medicine. Have you any vinum gallicum rubrum?”
“Well, then, give us some! Bring it here, damn it!”
“How much do you want?”
“Quantum satis. . . . Give us an ounce each in the water, and afterwards we’ll see. . . . Obtyosov, what do you say? First with water and afterwards per se. . . .”
The doctor and Obtyosov sat down to the counter, took off their caps, and began drinking the wine.
“The wine, one must admit, is wretched stuff! Vinum nastissimum! Though in the presence of . . . er . . . it tastes like nectar. You are enchanting, madam! In imagination I kiss your hand.”
“I would give a great deal to do so not in imagination,” said Obtyosov. “On my honour, I’d give my life.”
“That’s enough,” said Madame Tchernomordik, flushing and assuming a serious expression.
“What a flirt you are, though!” the doctor laughed softly, looking slyly at her from under his brows. “Your eyes seem to be firing shot: piff-paff! I congratulate you: you’ve conquered! We are vanquished!”
The chemist’s wife looked at their ruddy faces, listened to their chatter, and soon she, too, grew quite lively. Oh, she felt so gay! She entered into the conversation, she laughed, flirted, and even, after repeated requests from the customers, drank two ounces of wine.
“You officers ought to come in oftener from the camp,” she said; “it’s awful how dreary it is here. I’m simply dying of it.”
“I should think so!” said the doctor indignantly. “Such a peach, a miracle of nature, thrown away in the wilds! How well Griboyedov said, ‘Into the wilds, to Saratov’! It’s time for us to be off, though. Delighted to have made your acquaintance . . . very. How much do we owe you?”
The chemist’s wife raised her eyes to the ceiling and her lips moved for some time.
“Twelve roubles forty-eight kopecks,” she said.
Obtyosov took out of his pocket a fat pocket-book, and after fumbling for some time among the notes, paid.
“Your husband’s sleeping sweetly . . . he must be dreaming,” he muttered, pressing her hand at parting.
“I don’t like to hear silly remarks. . . .”
“What silly remarks? On the contrary, it’s not silly at all . . . even Shakespeare said: ‘Happy is he who in his youth is young.’”
“Let go of my hand.”
At last after much talk and after kissing the lady’s hand at parting, the customers went out of the shop irresolutely, as though they were wondering whether they had not forgotten something.
She ran quickly into the bedroom and sat down in the same place. She saw the doctor and the officer, on coming out of the shop, walk lazily away a distance of twenty paces; then they stopped and began whispering together. What about? Her heart throbbed, there was a pulsing in her temples, and why she did not know. . . . Her heart beat violently as though those two whispering outside were deciding her fate.
Five minutes later the doctor parted from Obtyosov and walked on, while Obtyosov came back. He walked past the shop once and a second time. . . . He would stop near the door and then take a few steps again. At last the bell tinkled discreetly.
“What? Who is there?” the chemist’s wife heard her husband’s voice suddenly. “There’s a ring at the bell, and you don’t hear it,” he said severely. “Is that the way to do things?”
He got up, put on his dressing-gown, and staggering, half asleep, flopped in his slippers to the shop.
“What . . . is it?” he asked Obtyosov.
“Give me . . . give me four pennyworth of peppermint lozenges.”
Sniffing continually, yawning, dropping asleep as he moved, and knocking his knees against the counter, the chemist went to the shelf and reached down the jar.
Two minutes later the chemist’s wife saw Obtyosov go out of the shop, and, after he had gone some steps, she saw him throw the packet of peppermints on the dusty road. The doctor came from behind a corner to meet him. . . . They met and, gesticulating, vanished in the morning mist.
“How unhappy I am!” said the chemist’s wife, looking angrily at her husband, who was undressing quickly to get into bed again. “Oh, how unhappy I am!” she repeated, suddenly melting into bitter tears. “And nobody knows, nobody knows. . . .”
“I forgot fourpence on the counter,” muttered the chemist, pulling the quilt over him. “Put it away in the till, please. . . .”
And at once he fell asleep again.