a doctor’s visit. by anton chekhov.
“Tamara was lonely and she saw the devil.”
Before daylight this morning I read Chekhov’s short story A Doctor’s Visit. My favourite line referenced Lermontov.
I have no particular interest in Lermontov’s devil or Tamara’s seeing of it…it’s the way the sentence is structured by Chekhov that makes it so wonderful and interesting. I can’t remember which literary technique this sort of word coupling exemplifies. But it’s one I’ve always loved – and it’s very difficult to pull off. I’ve managed it a few times (at least I think I have) and that’s mostly down to listening to my grandfather’s speech patterns and turns of phrase.
“That Ansie is as cross-eyed as can be, but she can play a fiddle better than any man.”
Mark Twain used it often and with great effect and my grandfather’s commentary on Ansie is much more Twain than Chekhov, but you see my point.
Chekhov was a doctor who treated the poor for free and made his modest living writing short stories, novels, and plays (several of which were directed by Stanislavski). A Doctor’s Visit, one of Chekhov’s shorter short stories, is very Dickensian. Very Chekhov. And very good.
I’ve copied the entire thing onto my blog if you’d like to read it. I really think you should.
A Doctor’s Visit by Anton Chekhov
A DOCTOR’S VISIT
THE Professor received a telegram from the Lyalikovs’ factory; he was asked to come as quickly as possible. The daughter of some Madame Lyalikov, apparently the owner of the factory, was ill, and that was all that one could make out of the long, incoherent telegram. And the Professor did not go himself, but sent instead his assistant, Korolyov.
It was two stations from Moscow, and there was a drive of three miles from the station. A carriage with three horses had been sent to the station to meet Korolyov; the coachman wore a hat with a peacock’s feather on it, and answered every question in a loud voice like a soldier: “No, sir!” “Certainly, sir!”
It was Saturday evening; the sun was setting, the workpeople were coming in crowds from the factory to the station, and they bowed to the carriage in which Korolyov was driving. And he was charmed with the evening, the farmhouses and villas on the road, and the birch-trees, and the quiet atmosphere all around, when the fields and woods and the sun seemed preparing, like the workpeople now on the eve of the holiday, to rest, and perhaps to pray. . . .
He was born and had grown up in Moscow; he did not know the country, and he had never taken any interest in factories, or been inside one, but he had happened to read about factories, and had been in the houses of manufacturers and had talked to them; and whenever he saw a factory far or near, he always thought how quiet and peaceable it was outside, but within there was always sure to be impenetrable ignorance and dull egoism on the side of the owners, wearisome, unhealthy toil on the side of the workpeople, squabbling, vermin, vodka. And now when the workpeople timidly and respectfully made way for the carriage, in their faces, their caps, their walk, he read physical impurity, drunkenness, nervous exhaustion, bewilderment.
They drove in at the factory gates. On each side he caught glimpses of the little houses of workpeople, of the faces of women, of quilts and linen on the railings. “Look out!” shouted the coachman, not pulling up the horses. It was a wide courtyard without grass, with five immense blocks of buildings with tall chimneys a little distance one from another, warehouses and barracks, and over everything a sort of grey powder as though from dust. Here and there, like oases in the desert, there were pitiful gardens, and the green and red roofs of the houses in which the managers and clerks lived. The coachman suddenly pulled up the horses, and the carriage stopped at the house, which had been newly painted grey; here was a flower garden, with a lilac bush covered with dust, and on the yellow steps at the front door there was a strong smell of paint.
“Please come in, doctor,” said women’s voices in the passage and the entry, and at the same time he heard sighs and whisperings. “Pray walk in. . . . We’ve been expecting you so long . . . we’re in real trouble. Here, this way.”
Madame Lyalikov–a stout elderly lady wearing a black silk dress with fashionable sleeves, but, judging from her face, a simple uneducated woman–looked at the doctor in a flutter, and could not bring herself to hold out her hand to him; she did not dare. Beside her stood a personage with short hair and a pince-nez; she was wearing a blouse of many colours, and was very thin and no longer young. The servants called her Christina Dmitryevna, and Korolyov guessed that this was the governess. Probably, as the person of most education in the house, she had been charged to meet and receive the doctor, for she began immediately, in great haste, stating the causes of the illness, giving trivial and tiresome details, but without saying who was ill or what was the matter.
The doctor and the governess were sitting talking while the lady of the house stood motionless at the door, waiting. From the conversation Korolyov learned that the patient was Madame Lyalikov’s only daughter and heiress, a girl of twenty, called Liza; she had been ill for a long time, and had consulted various doctors, and the previous night she had suffered till morning from such violent palpitations of the heart, that no one in the house had slept, and they had been afraid she might die.
“She has been, one may say, ailing from a child,” said Christina Dmitryevna in a sing-song voice, continually wiping her lips with her hand. “The doctors say it is nerves; when she was a little girl she was scrofulous, and the doctors drove it inwards, so I think it may be due to that.”
They went to see the invalid. Fully grown up, big and tall, but ugly like her mother, with the same little eyes and disproportionate breadth of the lower part of the face, lying with her hair in disorder, muffled up to the chin, she made upon Korolyov at the first minute the impression of a poor, destitute creature, sheltered and cared for here out of charity, and he could hardly believe that this was the heiress of the five huge buildings.
“I am the doctor come to see you,” said Korolyov. “Good evening.”
He mentioned his name and pressed her hand, a large, cold, ugly hand; she sat up, and, evidently accustomed to doctors, let herself be sounded, without showing the least concern that her shoulders and chest were uncovered.
“I have palpitations of the heart,” she said, “It was so awful all night. . . . I almost died of fright! Do give me something.”
“I will, I will; don’t worry yourself.”
Korolyov examined her and shrugged his shoulders.
“The heart is all right,” he said; “it’s all going on satisfactorily; everything is in good order. Your nerves must have been playing pranks a little, but that’s so common. The attack is over by now, one must suppose; lie down and go to sleep.”
At that moment a lamp was brought into the bed-room. The patient screwed up her eyes at the light, then suddenly put her hands to her head and broke into sobs. And the impression of a destitute, ugly creature vanished, and Korolyov no longer noticed the little eyes or the heavy development of the lower part of the face. He saw a soft, suffering expression which was intelligent and touching: she seemed to him altogether graceful, feminine, and simple; and he longed to soothe her, not with drugs, not with advice, but with simple, kindly words. Her mother put her arms round her head and hugged her. What despair, what grief was in the old woman’s face! She, her mother, had reared her and brought her up, spared nothing, and devoted her whole life to having her daughter taught French, dancing, music: had engaged a dozen teachers for her; had consulted the best doctors, kept a governess.
And now she could not make out the reason of these tears, why there was all this misery, she could not understand, and was bewildered; and she had a guilty, agitated, despairing expression, as though she had omitted something very important, had left something undone, had neglected to call in somebody–and whom, she did not know.
“Lizanka, you are crying again . . . again,” she said, hugging her daughter to her. “My own, my darling, my child, tell me what it is! Have pity on me! Tell me.”
Both wept bitterly. Korolyov sat down on the side of the bed and took Liza’s hand.
“Come, give over; it’s no use crying,” he said kindly. “Why, there is nothing in the world that is worth those tears. Come, we won’t cry; that’s no good. . . .”
And inwardly he thought:
“It’s high time she was married. . . .”
“Our doctor at the factory gave her kalibromati,” said the governess, “but I notice it only makes her worse. I should have thought that if she is given anything for the heart it ought to be drops. . . . I forget the name. . . . Convallaria, isn’t it?”
And there followed all sorts of details. She interrupted the doctor, preventing his speaking, and there was a look of effort on her face, as though she supposed that, as the woman of most education in the house, she was duty bound to keep up a conversation with the doctor, and on no other subject but medicine.
Korolyov felt bored.
“I find nothing special the matter,” he said, addressing the mother as he went out of the bedroom. “If your daughter is being attended by the factory doctor, let him go on attending her. The treatment so far has been perfectly correct, and I see no reason for changing your doctor. Why change? It’s such an ordinary trouble; there’s nothing seriously wrong.”
He spoke deliberately as he put on his gloves, while Madame Lyalikov stood without moving, and looked at him with her tearful eyes.
“I have half an hour to catch the ten o’clock train,” he said. “I hope I am not too late.”
“And can’t you stay?” she asked, and tears trickled down her cheeks again. “I am ashamed to trouble you, but if you would be so good . . . . For God’s sake,” she went on in an undertone, glancing towards the door, “do stay to-night with us! She is all I have . . . my only daughter. . . . She frightened me last night; I can’t get over it. . . . Don’t go away, for goodness’ sake! . . .”
He wanted to tell her that he had a great deal of work in Moscow, that his family were expecting him home; it was disagreeable to him to spend the evening and the whole night in a strange house quite needlessly; but he looked at her face, heaved a sigh, and began taking off his gloves without a word.
All the lamps and candles were lighted in his honour in the drawing-room and the dining-room. He sat down at the piano and began turning over the music. Then he looked at the pictures on the walls, at the portraits. The pictures, oil-paintings in gold frames, were views of the Crimea–a stormy sea with a ship, a Catholic monk with a wineglass; they were all dull, smooth daubs, with no trace of talent in them. There was not a single good-looking face among the portraits, nothing but broad cheekbones and astonished-looking eyes. Lyalikov, Liza’s father, had a low forehead and a self-satisfied expression; his uniform sat like a sack on his bulky plebeian figure; on his breast was a medal and a Red Cross Badge. There was little sign of culture, and the luxury was senseless and haphazard, and was as ill fitting as that uniform.
The floors irritated him with their brilliant polish, the lustres on the chandelier irritated him, and he was reminded for some reason of the story of the merchant who used to go to the baths with a medal on his neck. . . .
He heard a whispering in the entry; some one was softly snoring. And suddenly from outside came harsh, abrupt, metallic sounds, such as Korolyov had never heard before, and which he did not understand now; they roused strange, unpleasant echoes in his soul.
“I believe nothing would induce me to remain here to live . . .” he thought, and went back to the music-books again.
“Doctor, please come to supper!” the governess called him in a low voice.
He went into supper. The table was large and laid with a vast number of dishes and wines, but there were only two to supper: himself and Christina Dmitryevna. She drank Madeira, ate rapidly, and talked, looking at him through her pince-nez:
“Our workpeople are very contented. We have performances at the factory every winter; the workpeople act themselves. They have lectures with a magic lantern, a splendid tea-room, and everything they want. They are very much attached to us, and when they heard that Lizanka was worse they had a service sung for her. Though they have no education, they have their feelings, too.”
“It looks as though you have no man in the house at all,” said Korolyov.
“Not one. Pyotr Nikanoritch died a year and a half ago, and left us alone. And so there are the three of us. In the summer we live here, and in winter we live in Moscow, in Polianka. I have been living with them for eleven years–as one of the family.”
At supper they served sterlet, chicken rissoles, and stewed fruit; the wines were expensive French wines.
“Please don’t stand on ceremony, doctor,” said Christina Dmitryevna, eating and wiping her mouth with her fist, and it was evident she found her life here exceedingly pleasant. “Please have some more.”
After supper the doctor was shown to his room, where a bed had been made up for him, but he did not feel sleepy. The room was stuffy and it smelt of paint; he put on his coat and went out.
It was cool in the open air; there was already a glimmer of dawn, and all the five blocks of buildings, with their tall chimneys, barracks, and warehouses, were distinctly outlined against the damp air. As it was a holiday, they were not working, and the windows were dark, and in only one of the buildings was there a furnace burning; two windows were crimson, and fire mixed with smoke came from time to time from the chimney. Far away beyond the yard the frogs were croaking and the nightingales singing.
Looking at the factory buildings and the barracks, where the workpeople were asleep, he thought again what he always thought when he saw a factory. They may have performances for the workpeople, magic lanterns, factory doctors, and improvements of all sorts, but, all the same, the workpeople he had met that day on his way from the station did not look in any way different from those he had known long ago in his childhood, before there were factory performances and improvements. As a doctor accustomed to judging correctly of chronic complaints, the radical cause of which was incomprehensible and incurable, he looked upon factories as something baffling, the cause of which also was obscure and not removable, and all the improvements in the life of the factory hands he looked upon not as superfluous, but as comparable with the treatment of incurable illnesses.
“There is something baffling in it, of course . . .” he thought, looking at the crimson windows. “Fifteen hundred or two thousand workpeople are working without rest in unhealthy surroundings, making bad cotton goods, living on the verge of starvation, and only waking from this nightmare at rare intervals in the tavern; a hundred people act as overseers, and the whole life of that hundred is spent in imposing fines, in abuse, in injustice, and only two or three so-called owners enjoy the profits, though they don’t work at all, and despise the wretched cotton. But what are the profits, and how do they enjoy them? Madame Lyalikov and her daughter are unhappy–it makes one wretched to look at them; the only one who enjoys her life is Christina Dmitryevna, a stupid, middle-aged maiden lady in pince-nez.
And so it appears that all these five blocks of buildings are at work, and inferior cotton is sold in the Eastern markets, simply that Christina Dmitryevna may eat sterlet and drink Madeira.”
Suddenly there came a strange noise, the same sound Korolyov had heard before supper. Some one was striking on a sheet of metal near one of the buildings; he struck a note, and then at once checked the vibrations, so that short, abrupt, discordant sounds were produced, rather like “Dair . . . dair . . . dair. . . .” Then there was half a minute of stillness, and from another building there came sounds equally abrupt and unpleasant, lower bass notes: “Drin . . . drin . . . drin. . .” Eleven times. Evidently it was the watchman striking the hour. Near the third building he heard: “Zhuk . . . zhuk . . . zhuk. . . .” And so near all the buildings, and then behind the barracks and beyond the gates. And in the stillness of the night it seemed as though these sounds were uttered by a monster with crimson eyes–the devil himself, who controlled the owners and the work-people alike, and was deceiving both.
Korolyov went out of the yard into the open country.
“Who goes there?” some one called to him at the gates in an abrupt voice.
“It’s just like being in prison,” he thought, and made no answer.
Here the nightingales and the frogs could be heard more distinctly, and one could feel it was a night in May. From the station came the noise of a train; somewhere in the distance drowsy cocks were crowing; but, all the same, the night was still, the world was sleeping tranquilly. In a field not far from the factory there could be seen the framework of a house and heaps of building material:
Korolyov sat down on the planks and went on thinking.
“The only person who feels happy here is the governess, and the factory hands are working for her gratification. But that’s only apparent: she is only the figurehead. The real person, for whom everything is being done, is the devil.”
And he thought about the devil, in whom he did not believe, and he looked round at the two windows where the fires were gleaming. It seemed to him that out of those crimson eyes the devil himself was looking at him–that unknown force that had created the mutual relation of the strong and the weak, that coarse blunder which one could never correct. The strong must hinder the weak from living –such was the law of Nature; but only in a newspaper article or in a school book was that intelligible and easily accepted. In the hotchpotch which was everyday life, in the tangle of trivialities out of which human relations were woven, it was no longer a law, but a logical absurdity, when the strong and the weak were both equally victims of their mutual relations, unwillingly submitting to some directing force, unknown, standing outside life, apart from man.
So thought Korolyov, sitting on the planks, and little by little he was possessed by a feeling that this unknown and mysterious force was really close by and looking at him. Meanwhile the east was growing paler, time passed rapidly; when there was not a soul anywhere near, as though everything were dead, the five buildings and their chimneys against the grey background of the dawn had a peculiar look–not the same as by day; one forgot altogether that inside there were steam motors, electricity, telephones, and kept thinking of lake-dwellings, of the Stone Age, feeling the presence of a crude, unconscious force. . . .
And again there came the sound: “Dair . . . dair . . . dair . . . dair . . .” twelve times. Then there was stillness, stillness for half a minute, and at the other end of the yard there rang out.
“Drin . . . drin . . . drin. . . .”
“Horribly disagreeable,” thought Korolyov.
“Zhuk . . . zhuk . . .” there resounded from a third place, abruptly, sharply, as though with annoyance–”Zhuk . . . zhuk. . . .”
And it took four minutes to strike twelve. Then there was a hush; and again it seemed as though everything were dead.
Korolyov sat a little longer, then went to the house, but sat up for a good while longer. In the adjoining rooms there was whispering, there was a sound of shuffling slippers and bare feet.
“Is she having another attack?” thought Korolyov.
He went out to have a look at the patient. By now it was quite light in the rooms, and a faint glimmer of sunlight, piercing through the morning mist, quivered on the floor and on the wall of the drawing-room. The door of Liza’s room was open, and she was sitting in a low chair beside her bed, with her hair down, wearing a dressing-gown and wrapped in a shawl. The blinds were down on the windows.
“How do you feel?” asked Korolyov.
“Well, thank you.”
He touched her pulse, then straightened her hair, that had fallen over her forehead.
“You are not asleep,” he said. “It’s beautiful weather outside. It’s spring. The nightingales are singing, and you sit in the dark and think of something.”
She listened and looked into his face; her eyes were sorrowful and intelligent, and it was evident she wanted to say something to him.
“Does this happen to you often?” he said.
She moved her lips, and answered:
“Often, I feel wretched almost every night.”
At that moment the watchman in the yard began striking two o’clock. They heard: “Dair . . . dair . . .” and she shuddered.
“Do those knockings worry you?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Everything here worries me,” she answered, and pondered. “Everything worries me. I hear sympathy in your voice; it seemed to me as soon as I saw you that I could tell you all about it.”
“Tell me, I beg you.”
“I want to tell you of my opinion. It seems to me that I have no illness, but that I am weary and frightened, because it is bound to be so and cannot be otherwise. Even the healthiest person can’t help being uneasy if, for instance, a robber is moving about under his window. I am constantly being doctored,” she went on, looking at her knees, and she gave a shy smile. “I am very grateful, of course, and I do not deny that the treatment is a benefit; but I should like to talk, not with a doctor, but with some intimate friend who would understand me and would convince me that I was right or wrong.”
“Have you no friends?” asked Korolyov.
“I am lonely. I have a mother; I love her, but, all the same, I am lonely. That’s how it happens to be. . . . Lonely people read a great deal, but say little and hear little. Life for them is mysterious; they are mystics and often see the devil where he is not. Lermontov’s Tamara was lonely and she saw the devil.”
“Do you read a great deal?”
“Yes. You see, my whole time is free from morning till night. I read by day, and by night my head is empty; instead of thoughts there are shadows in it.”
“Do you see anything at night?” asked Korolyov.
“No, but I feel. . . .”
She smiled again, raised her eyes to the doctor, and looked at him so sorrowfully, so intelligently; and it seemed to him that she trusted him, and that she wanted to speak frankly to him, and that she thought the same as he did. But she was silent, perhaps waiting for him to speak.
And he knew what to say to her. It was clear to him that she needed as quickly as possible to give up the five buildings and the million if she had it–to leave that devil that looked out at night; it was clear to him, too, that she thought so herself, and was only waiting for some one she trusted to confirm her.
But he did not know how to say it. How? One is shy of asking men under sentence what they have been sentenced for; and in the same way it is awkward to ask very rich people what they want so much money for, why they make such a poor use of their wealth, why they don’t give it up, even when they see in it their unhappiness; and if they begin a conversation about it themselves, it is usually embarrassing, awkward, and long.
“How is one to say it?” Korolyov wondered. “And is it necessary to speak?”
And he said what he meant in a roundabout way:
“You in the position of a factory owner and a wealthy heiress are dissatisfied; you don’t believe in your right to it; and here now you can’t sleep. That, of course, is better than if you were satisfied, slept soundly, and thought everything was satisfactory. Your sleeplessness does you credit; in any case, it is a good sign. In reality, such a conversation as this between us now would have been unthinkable for our parents. At night they did not talk, but slept sound; we, our generation, sleep badly, are restless, but talk a great deal, and are always trying to settle whether we are right or not. For our children or grandchildren that question– whether they are right or not–will have been settled. Things will be clearer for them than for us. Life will be good in fifty years’ time; it’s only a pity we shall not last out till then. It would be interesting to have a peep at it.”
“What will our children and grandchildren do?” asked Liza.
“I don’t know. . . . I suppose they will throw it all up and go away.”
“Where? . . . Why, where they like,” said Korolyov; and he laughed. “There are lots of places a good, intelligent person can go to.”
He glanced at his watch.
“The sun has risen, though,” he said. “It is time you were asleep. Undress and sleep soundly. Very glad to have made your acquaintance,” he went on, pressing her hand. “You are a good, interesting woman. Good-night!”
He went to his room and went to bed.
In the morning when the carriage was brought round they all came out on to the steps to see him off. Liza, pale and exhausted, was in a white dress as though for a holiday, with a flower in her hair; she looked at him, as yesterday, sorrowfully and intelligently, smiled and talked, and all with an expression as though she wanted to tell him something special, important–him alone. They could hear the larks trilling and the church bells pealing. The windows in the factory buildings were sparkling gaily, and, driving across the yard and afterwards along the road to the station, Korolyov thought neither of the workpeople nor of lake dwellings, nor of the devil, but thought of the time, perhaps close at hand, when life would be as bright and joyous as that still Sunday morning; and he thought how pleasant it was on such a morning in the spring to drive with three horses in a good carriage, and to bask in the sunshine.