IN a smoking-compartment of the mail-train from Petrograd to Moscow sat a young lieutenant, Klimov by name. Opposite him sat an elderly man with a clean-shaven, shipmaster’s face, to all appearances a well-to-do Finn or Swede, who all through the journey smoked a pipe and talked round and round the same subject.
“Ha! you are an officer! My brother is also an officer, but he is a sailor. He is a sailor and is stationed at Kronstadt. Why are you going to Moscow?”
“I am stationed there.”
“Ha! Are you married?”
“No. I live with my aunt and sister.”
“My brother is also an officer, but he is married and has a wife and three children. Ha!”
The Finn looked surprised at something, smiled broadly and fatuously as he exclaimed, “Ha,” and every now and then blew through the stem of his pipe. Klimov, who was feeling rather unwell, and not at all inclined to answer questions, hated him with all his heart. He thought how good it would be to snatch his gurgling pipe out of his hands and throw it under the seat and to order the Finn himself into another car.
“They are awful people, these Finns and … Greeks,” he thought. “Useless, good-for-nothing, disgusting people. They only cumber the earth. What is the good of them?”
And the thought of Finns and Greeks filled him with a kind of nausea. He tried to compare them with the French and the Italians, but the idea of those races somehow roused in him the notion of organ-grinders, naked women, and the foreign oleographs which hung over the chest of drawers in his aunt’s house.
The young officer felt generally out of sorts. There seemed to be no room for his arms and legs, though he had the whole seat to himself; his mouth was dry and sticky, his head was heavy and his clouded thoughts seemed to wander at random, not only in his head, but also outside it among the seats and the people looming in the darkness. Through the turmoil in his brain, as through a dream, he heard the murmur of voices, the rattle of the wheels, the slamming of doors. Bells, whistles, conductors, the tramp of the people on the platforms came oftener than usual. The time slipped by quickly, imperceptibly, and it seemed that the train stopped every minute at a station as now and then there would come up the sound of metallic voices:
“Is the post ready?”
It seemed to him that the stove-neater came in too often to look at the thermometer, and that trains never stopped passing and his own train was always roaring over bridges. The noise, the whistle, the Finn, the tobacco smoke—all mixed with the ominous shifting of misty shapes, weighed on Klimov like an intolerable nightmare. In terrible anguish he lifted up his aching head, looked at the lamp whose light was encircled with shadows and misty spots; he wanted to ask for water, but his dry tongue would hardly move, and he had hardly strength enough to answer the Finn’s questions. He tried to lie down more comfortably and sleep, but he could not succeed; the Finn fell asleep several times, woke up and lighted his pipe, talked to him with his “Ha!” and went to sleep again; and the lieutenant could still not find room for his legs on the seat, and all the while the ominous figures shifted before his eyes.
At Spirov he got out to have a drink of water. He saw some people sitting at a table eating hurriedly.
“How can they eat?” he thought, trying to avoid the smell of roast meat in the air and seeing the chewing mouths, for both seemed to him utterly disgusting and made him feel sick.
A handsome lady was talking to a military man in a red cap, and she showed magnificent white teeth when she smiled; her smile, her teeth, the lady herself produced in Klimov the same impression of disgust as the ham and the fried cutlets. He could not understand how the military man in the red cap could bear to sit near her and look at her healthy smiling face.
After he had drunk some water, he went back to his place. The Finn sat and smoked. His pipe gurgled and sucked like a galoche full of holes in dirty weather.
“Ha!” he said with some surprise. “What station is this?”
“I don’t know,” said Klimov, lying down and shutting his mouth to keep out the acrid tobacco smoke.
“When do we get to Tver.”
“I don’t know. I am sorry, I … I can’t talk. I am not well. I have a cold.”
The Finn knocked out his pipe against the window-frame and began to talk of his brother, the sailor. Klimov paid no more attention to him and thought in agony of his soft, comfortable bed, of the bottle of cold water, of his sister Katy, who knew so well how to tuck him up and cosset him. He even smiled when there flashed across his mind his soldier-servant Pavel, taking off his heavy, close-fitting boots and putting water on the table. It seemed to him that he would only have to lie on his bed and drink some water and his nightmare would give way to a sound, healthy sleep.
“Is the post ready?” came a dull voice from a distance.
“Ready,” answered a loud, bass voice almost by the very window.
It was the second or third station from Spirov.
Time passed quickly, seemed to gallop along, and there would be no end to the bells, whistles, and stops. In despair Klimov pressed his face into the corner of the cushion, held his head in his hands, and again began to think of his sister Katy and his orderly Pavel; but his sister and his orderly got mixed up with the looming figures and whirled about and disappeared. His breath, thrown back from the cushion, burned his face, and his legs ached and a draught from the window poured into his back, but, painful though it was, he refused to change his position…. A heavy, drugging torpor crept over him and chained his limbs.
When at length he raised his head, the car was quite light. The passengers were putting on their overcoats and moving about. The train stopped. Porters in white aprons and number-plates bustled about the passengers and seized their boxes. Klimov put on his greatcoat mechanically and left the train, and he felt as though it were not himself walking, but some one else, a stranger, and he felt that he was accompanied by the heat of the train, his thirst, and the ominous, lowering figures which all night long had prevented his sleeping. Mechanically he got his luggage and took a cab. The cabman charged him one rouble and twenty-five copecks for driving him to Povarska Street, but he did not haggle and submissively took his seat in the sledge. He could still grasp the difference in numbers, but money had no value to him whatever.
At home Klimov was met by his aunt and his sister Katy, a girl of eighteen. Katy had a copy-book and a pencil in her hands as she greeted him, and he remembered that she was preparing for a teacher’s examination. He took no notice of their greetings and questions, but gasped from the heat, and walked aimlessly through the rooms until he reached his own, and then he fell prone on the bed. The Finn, the red cap, the lady with the white teeth, the smell of roast meat, the shifting spot in the lamp, filled his mind and he lost consciousness and did not hear the frightened voices near him.
When he came to himself he found himself in bed, undressed, and noticed the water-bottle and Pavel, but it did not make him any more comfortable nor easy. His legs and arms, as before, felt cramped, his tongue clove to his palate, and he could hear the chuckle of the Finn’s pipe…. By the bed, growing out of Pavel’s broad back, a stout, black-bearded doctor was bustling.
“All right, all right, my lad,” he murmured. “Excellent, excellent…. Jist so, jist so….”
The doctor called Klimov “my lad.” Instead of “just so,” he said “jist saow,” and instead of “yes,” “yies.”
“Yies, yies, yies,” he said. “Jist saow, jist saow…. Don’t be downhearted!”
The doctor’s quick, careless way of speaking, his well-fed face, and the condescending tone in which he said “my lad” exasperated Klimov.
“Why do you call me ‘my lad’?” he moaned. “Why this familiarity, damn it all?”
And he was frightened by the sound of his own voice. It was so dry, weak, and hollow that he could hardly recognise it.
“Excellent, excellent,” murmured the doctor, not at all offended. “Yies, yies. You mustn’t be cross.”
And at home the time galloped away as alarmingly quickly as in the train…. The light of day in his bedroom was every now and then changed to the dim light of evening…. The doctor never seemed to leave the bedside, and his “Yies, yies, yies,” could be heard at every moment. Through the room stretched an endless row of faces; Pavel, the Finn, Captain Taroshevich, Sergeant Maximenko, the red cap, the lady with the white teeth, the doctor. All of them talked, waved their hands, smoked, ate. Once in broad daylight Klimov saw his regimental priest, Father Alexander, in his stole and with the host in his hands, standing by the bedside and muttering something with such a serious expression as Klimov had never seen him wear before. The lieutenant remembered that Father Alexander used to call all the Catholic officers Poles, and wishing to make the priest laugh, he exclaimed:
“Father Taroshevich, the Poles have fled to the woods.”
But Father Alexander, usually a gay, light-hearted man, did not laugh and looked even more serious, and made the sign of the cross over Klimov. At night, one after the other, there would come slowly creeping in and out two shadows. They were his aunt and his sister. The shadow of his sister would kneel down and pray; she would bow to the ikon, and her grey shadow on the wall would bow, too, so that two shadows prayed to God. And all the time there was a smell of roast meat and of the Finn’s pipe, but once Klimov could detect a distinct smell of incense. He nearly vomited and cried:
“Incense! Take it away.”
There was no reply. He could only hear priests chanting in an undertone and some one running on the stairs.
When Klimov recovered from his delirium there was not a soul in the bedroom. The morning sun flared through the window and the drawn curtains, and a trembling beam, thin and keen as a sword, played on the water-bottle. He could hear the rattle of wheels—that meant there was no more snow in the streets. The lieutenant looked at the sunbeam, at the familiar furniture and the door, and his first inclination was to laugh. His chest and stomach trembled with a sweet, happy, tickling laughter. From head to foot his whole body was filled with a feeling of infinite happiness, like that which the first man must have felt when he stood erect and beheld the world for the first time. Klimov had a passionate longing for people, movement, talk. His body lay motionless; he could only move his hands, but he hardly noticed it, for his whole attention was fixed on little things. He was delighted with his breathing and with his laughter; he was delighted with the existence of the water-bottle, the ceiling, the sunbeam, the ribbon on the curtain. God’s world, even in such a narrow corner as his bedroom, seemed to him beautiful, varied, great. When the doctor appeared the lieutenant thought how nice his medicine was, how nice and sympathetic the doctor was, how nice and interesting people were, on the whole.
“Yies, yies, yies,” said the doctor. “Excellent, excellent. Now we are well again. Jist saow. Jist saow.”
The lieutenant listened and laughed gleefully. He remembered the Finn, the lady with the white teeth, the train, and he wanted to eat and smoke.
“Doctor,” he said, “tell them to bring me a slice of rye bread and salt, and some sardines….”
The doctor refused. Pavel did not obey his order and refused to go for bread. The lieutenant could not bear it and began to cry like a thwarted child.
“Ba-by,” the doctor laughed. “Mamma! Hush-aby!”
Klimov also began to laugh, and when the doctor had gone, he fell sound asleep. He woke up with the same feeling of joy and happiness. His aunt was sitting by his bed.
“Oh, aunty!” He was very happy. “What has been the matter with me?”
“I say! And now I am well, quite well! Where is Katy?”
“She is not at home. She has probably gone to see some one after her examination.”
The old woman bent over her stocking as she said this; her lips began to tremble; she turned her face away and suddenly began to sob. In her grief, she forgot the doctor’s orders and cried:
“Oh! Katy! Katy! Our angel is gone from us! She is gone!”
She dropped her stocking and stooped down for it, and her cap fell off her head. Klimov stared at her grey hair, could not understand, was alarmed for Katy, and asked:
“But where is she, aunty?”
The old woman, who had already forgotten Klimov and remembered only her grief, said:
“She caught typhus from you and … and died. She was buried the day before yesterday.”
This sudden appalling piece of news came home to Klimov’s mind, but dreadful and shocking though it was it could not subdue the animal joy which thrilled through the convalescent lieutenant. He cried, laughed, and soon began to complain that he was given nothing to eat.
Only a week later, when, supported by Pavel, he walked in a dressing-gown to the window, and saw the grey spring sky and heard the horrible rattle of some old rails being carried by on a lorry, then his heart ached with sorrow and he began to weep and pressed his forehead against the window-frame.
“How unhappy I am!” he murmured. “My God, how unhappy I am!”
And joy gave way to his habitual weariness and a sense of his irreparable loss.