A Nervous Breakdown by Anton Chekov
Translated by Constance Garrett
A MEDICAL student called Mayer, and a pupil of the Moscow School
of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture called Rybnikov, went
one evening to see their friend Vassilyev, a law student, and
suggested that he should go with them to S. Street. For a long
time Vassilyev would not consent to go, but in the end he put on
his greatcoat and went with them.
He knew nothing of fallen women except by hearsay and from books,
and he had never in his life been in the houses in which they
live. He knew that there are immoral women who, under the
pressure of fatal circumstances -- environment, bad education,
poverty, and so on -- are forced to sell their honor for money.
They know nothing of pure love, have no children, have no civil
rights; their mothers and sisters weep over them as though they
were dead, science treats of them as an evil, men address them
with contemptuous familiarity. But in spite of all that, they do
not lose the semblance and image of God. They all acknowledge
their sin and hope for salvation. Of the means that lead to
salvation they can avail themselves to the fullest extent.
Society, it is true, will not forgive people their past, but in
the sight of God St. Mary of Egypt is no lower than the other
saints. When it had happened to Vassilyev in the street to
recognize a fallen woman as such, by her dress or her manners,
or to see a picture of one in a comic paper, he always remembered
a story he had once read: a young man, pure and self-sacrificing,
loves a fallen woman and urges her to become his wife; she,
considering herself unworthy of such happiness, takes poison.
Vassilyev lived in one of the side streets turning out of
Tverskoy Boulevard. When he came out of the house with his two
friends it was about eleven o'clock. The first snow had not long
fallen, and all nature was under the spell of the fresh snow.
There was the smell of snow in the air, the snow crunched softly
under the feet; the earth, the roofs, the trees, the seats on the
boulevard, everything was soft, white, young, and this made the
houses look quite different from the day before; the street
lamps burned more brightly, the air was more transparent, the
carriages rumbled with a deeper note, and with the fresh, light,
frosty air a feeling stirred in the soul akin to the white,
youthful, feathery snow. "Against my will an unknown force,"
hummed the medical student in his agreeable tenor, "has led me to
these mournful shores."
"Behold the mill . . ." the artist seconded him, "in ruins now. .
"Behold the mill . . . in ruins now," the medical student
repeated, raising his eyebrows and shaking his head mournfully.
He paused, rubbed his forehead, trying to remember the words, and
then sang aloud, so well that passers-by looked round:
"Here in old days when I was free,
Love, free, unfettered, greeted me."
The three of them went into a restaurant and, without taking off
their greatcoats, drank a couple of glasses of vodka each. Before
drinking the second glass, Vassilyev noticed a bit of cork in his
vodka, raised the glass to his eyes, and gazed into
it for a long time, screwing up his shortsighted eyes. The
medical student did not understand his expression, and said:
"Come, why look at it? No philosophizing, please. Vodka is given
us to be drunk, sturgeon to be eaten, women to be visited, snow
to be walked upon. For one evening anyway live like a human
"But I haven't said anything . . ." said Vassilyev, laughing. "Am
I refusing to?"
There was a warmth inside him from the vodka. He looked with
softened feelings at his friends, admired them and envied them.
In these strong, healthy, cheerful people how wonderfully
balanced everything is, how finished and smooth is everything in
their minds and souls! They sing, and have a passion for the
theatre, and draw, and talk a great deal, and drink, and they
don't have headaches the day after; they are both poetical and
debauched, both soft and hard; they can work, too, and be
indignant, and laugh without reason, and talk nonsense; they are
warm, honest, self-sacrificing, and as men are in no way inferior
to himself, Vassilyev, who watched over every step he took and
every word he uttered, who was fastidious and cautious,
and ready to raise every trifle to the level of a problem. And
he longed for one evening to live as his friends did, to open
out, to let himself loose from his own control. If vodka had to
be drunk, he would drink it, though his head would be splitting
next morning. If he were taken to the women he would go. He would
laugh, play the fool, gaily respond to the passing advances of
strangers in the street. . . .
He went out of the restaurant laughing. He liked his friends --
one in a crushed broad-brimmed hat, with an affectation of
artistic untidiness; the other in a sealskin cap, a man not poor,
though he affected to belong to the Bohemia of learning. He
liked the snow, the pale street lamps, the sharp black tracks
left in the first snow by the feet of the passers-by. He liked
the air, and especially that limpid, tender, naive, as it were
virginal tone, which can be seen in nature only twice in the
year -- when everything is covered with snow, and in spring on
bright days and moonlight evenings when the ice breaks on the
"Against my will an unknown force,
Has led me to these mournful shores,"
he hummed in an undertone.
And the tune for some reason haunted him and his friends all the
way, and all three of them hummed it mechanically, not in time
with one another.
Vassilyev's imagination was picturing how, in another ten
minutes, he and his friends would knock at a door; how by little
dark passages and dark rooms they would steal in to the women;
how, taking advantage of the darkness, he would strike a match,
would light up and see the face of a martyr and a guilty smile.
The unknown, fair or dark, would certainly have her hair down and
be wearing a white dressing-jacket; she would be panic-stricken
by the light, would be fearfully confused, and would say: "For
God's sake, what are you doing! Put it out!" It would all be
dreadful, but interesting and new.
The friends turned out of Trubnoy Square into Gratchevka, and
soon reached the side street which Vassilyev only knew by
reputation. Seeing two rows of houses with brightly lighted
windows and wide-open doors, and hearing gay strains of pianos
and violins, sounds which floated out from every door and
mingled in a strange chaos, as though an unseen orchestra were
tuning up in the darkness above the roofs, Vassilyev was
surprised and said:
"What a lot of houses!"
"That's nothing," said the medical student. "In London there are
ten times as many. There are about a hundred thousand such women
The cabmen were sitting on their boxes as calmly and
indifferently as in any other side street; the same passers-by
were walking along the pavement as in other streets. No one was
hurrying, no one was hiding his face in his coat-collar, no one
shook his head reproachfully. . . . And in this indifference to
the noisy chaos of pianos and violins, to the bright windows and
wide-open doors, there was a feeling of something very open,
insolent, reckless, and devil-may-care. Probably it was as gay
and noisy at the slave-markets in their day, and people's faces
and movements showed the same indifference.
"Let us begin from the beginning," said the artist.
The friends went into a narrow passage lighted by a lamp with a
reflector. When they opened the door a man in a black coat, with
an unshaven face like a flunkey's, and sleepy-looking eyes, got
up lazily from a yellow sofa in the hall. The place smelt like a
laundry with an odor of vinegar in addition. A door from the hall
led into a brightly lighted room. The medical student and the
artist stopped at this door and, craning their necks, peeped into
"Buona sera, signori, rigolleto -- hugenotti -- traviata!" began
the artist, with a theatrical bow.
"Havanna -- tarakano -- pistoleto!" said the medical student,
pressing his cap to his breast and bowing low.
Vassilyev was standing behind them. He would have liked to make a
theatrical bow and say something silly, too, but he only smiled,
felt an awkwardness that was like shame, and waited impatiently
for what would happen next.
A little fair girl of seventeen or eighteen, with short hair, in
a short light-blue frock with a bunch of white ribbon on her
bosom, appeared in the doorway.
"Why do you stand at the door?" she said. "Take off your coats
and come into the drawing-room."
The medical student and the artist, still talking Italian, went
into the drawing-room. Vassilyev followed them irresolutely.
"Gentlemen, take off your coats!" the flunkey said sternly; "you
can't go in like that."
In the drawing-room there was, besides the girl, another woman,
very stout and tall, with a foreign face and bare arms. She was
sitting near the piano, laying out a game of patience on her lap.
She took no notice whatever of the visitors.
"Where are the other young ladies?" asked the medical student.
"They are having their tea," said the fair girl. "Stepan," she
called, "go and tell the young ladies some students have come!"
A little later a third young lady came into the room. She was
wearing a bright red dress with blue stripes. Her face was
painted thickly and unskillfully, her brow was hidden under her
hair, and there was an unblinking, frightened stare in her eyes.
As she came in, she began at once singing some song in a coarse,
powerful contralto. After her a fourth appeared, and after her a
fifth. . . .
In all this Vassilyev saw nothing new or interesting. It seemed
to him that that room, the piano, the looking-glass in its cheap
gilt frame, the bunch of white ribbon, the dress with the blue
stripes, and the blank indifferent faces, he had seen before and
more than once. Of the darkness, the silence, the secrecy, the
guilty smile, of all that he had expected to meet here and had
dreaded, he saw no trace.
Everything was ordinary, prosaic, and uninteresting. Only one
thing faintly stirred his curiosity -- the terrible, as it were
intentionally designed, bad taste which was visible in the
cornices, in the absurd pictures, in the dresses, in the bunch
of ribbons. There was something characteristic and peculiar in
this bad taste.
"How poor and stupid it all is!" thought Vassilyev. "What is
there in all this trumpery I see now that can tempt a normal man
and excite him to commit the horrible sin of buying a human being
for a rouble? I understand any sin for the sake of splendor,
beauty, grace, passion, taste; but what is there here? What is
there here worth sinning for? But . . . one mustn't think!"
"Beardy, treat me to some porter!" said the fair girl, addressing
Vassilyev was at once overcome with confusion.
"With pleasure," he said, bowing politely. "Only excuse me,
madam, I . . . I won't drink with you. I don't drink.
Five minutes later the friends went off into another house.
"Why did you ask for porter?" said the medical student angrily.
"What a millionaire! You have thrown away six roubles for no
reason whatever -- simply waste!"
"If she wants it, why not let her have the pleasure?" said
Vassilyev, justifying himself.
"You did not give pleasure to her, but to the 'Madam.' They are
told to ask the visitors to stand them treat because it is a
profit to the keeper."
"Behold the mill . . ." hummed the artist, "in ruins now. . . ."
Going into the next house, the friends stopped in the hall and
did not go into the drawing-room. Here, as in the first house, a
figure in a black coat, with a sleepy face like a flunkey's, got
up from a sofa in the hall. Looking at this flunkey, at
his face and his shabby black coat, Vassilyev thought: "What
must an ordinary simple Russian have gone through before fate
flung him down as a flunkey here? Where had he been before and
what had he done? What was awaiting him? Was he married? Where
was his mother, and did she know that he was a servant here?"
And Vassilyev could not help particularly noticing the flunkey in
each house. In one of the houses -- he thought it was the fourth
-- there was a little spare, frail-looking flunkey with
a watch-chain on his waistcoat. He was reading a newspaper, and
took no notice of them when they went in. Looking at his face
Vassilyev, for some reason, thought that a man with such a face
might steal, might murder, might bear false witness. But the
face was really interesting: a big forehead, gray eyes, a little
flattened nose, thin compressed lips, and a blankly stupid and at
the same time insolent expression like that of a young harrier
overtaking a hare. Vassilyev thought it would be nice to touch
this man's hair, to see whether it was soft or coarse. It must be
coarse like a dog's.
Having drunk two glasses of porter, the artist became suddenly
tipsy and grew unnaturally lively.
"Let's go to another!" he said peremptorily, waving his hands. "I
will take you to the best one."
When he had brought his fri ends to the house which in his
opinion was the best, he declared his firm intention of dancing a
quadrille. The medical student grumbled something about their
having to pay the musicians a rouble, but agreed to be his
_vis-a-vis_. They began dancing.
It was just as nasty in the best house as in the worst. Here
there were just the same looking-glasses and pictures, the same
styles of coiffure and dress. Looking round at the furnishing of
the rooms and the costumes, Vassilyev realized that this was not
lack of taste, but something that might be called the taste, and
even the style, of S. Street, which could not be found
elsewhere--something intentional in its ugliness, not accidental,
but elaborated in the course of years. After he had been in eight
houses he was no longer surprised at the color of the dresses, at
the long trains, the gaudy ribbons, the sailor dresses, and the
thick purplish rouge on the cheeks; he saw that it all had to be
like this, that if a single one of the women had been dressed
like a human being, or if there had been one decent engraving on
the wall, the general tone of the whole street would have
"How unskillfully they sell themselves!" he thought. "How can
they fail to understand that vice is only alluring when it is
beautiful and hidden, when it wears the mask of virtue? Modest
black dresses, pale faces, mournful smiles, and darkness would
be far more effective than this clumsy tawdriness. Stupid things!
If they don't understand it of themselves, their visitors might
surely have taught them. . . ."
A young lady in a Polish dress edged with white fur came up to
him and sat down beside him.
"You nice dark man, why aren't you dancing?" she asked. "Why are
you so dull?"
"Because it is dull."
"Treat me to some Lafitte. Then it won't be dull."
Vassilyev made no answer. He was silent for a little, and then
"What time do you get to sleep?"
"At six o'clock."
"And what time do you get up?"
"Sometimes at two and sometimes at three."
"And what do you do when you get up?"
"We have coffee, and at six o'clock we have dinner."
"And what do you have for dinner?"
"Usually soup, beefsteak, and dessert. Our madam keeps the girls
well. But why do you ask all this?"
"Oh, just to talk. . . ."
Vassilyev longed to talk to the young lady about many things. He
felt an intense desire to find out where she came from, whether
her parents were living, and whether they knew that she was here;
how she had come into this house; whether she were cheerful and
satisfied, or sad and oppressed by gloomy thoughts; whether she
hoped some day to get out of her present position. . . . But he
could not think how to begin or in what shape to put his
questions so as not to seem impertinent. He thought
for a long time, and asked:
"How old are you?"
"Eighty," the young lady jested, looking with a laugh at the
antics of the artist as he danced.
All at once she burst out laughing at something, and uttered a
long cynical sentence loud enough to be heard by everyone.
Vassilyev was aghast, and not knowing how to look, gave a
constrained smile. He was the only one who smiled; all the
others, his friends, the musicians, the women, did not even
glance towards his neighbor, but seemed not to have heard her.
"Stand me some Lafitte," his neighbor said again.
Vassilyev felt a repulsion for her white fur and for her voice,
and walked away from her. It seemed to him hot and stifling, and
his heart began throbbing slowly but violently, like a hammer --
one! two! three!
"Let us go away!" he said, pulling the artist by his sleeve.
"Wait a little; let me finish."
While the artist and the medical student were finishing the
quadrille, to avoid looking at the women, Vassilyev scrutinized
the musicians. A respectable-looking old man in spectacles,
rather like Marshal Bazaine, was playing the piano; a young man
with a fair beard, dressed in the latest fashion, was playing the
violin. The young man had a face that did not look stupid nor
exhausted, but intelligent, youthful, and fresh. He was dressed
fancifully and with taste; he played with feeling. It was
a mystery how he and the respectable-looking old man had come
here. How was it they were not ashamed to sit here? What were
they thinking about when they looked at the women?
If the violin and the piano had been played by men in rags,
looking hungry, gloomy, drunken, with dissipated or stupid faces,
then one could have understood their presence, perhaps. As it
was, Vassilyev could not understand it at all. He recalled the
story of the fallen woman he had once read, and he thought now
that that human figure with the guilty smile had nothing in
common with what he was seeing now. It seemed to him that he was
seeing not fallen women, but some different world quite apart,
alien to him and incomprehensible; if he had seen this world
before on the stage, or read of it in a book, he would not have
believed in it. . . .
The woman with the white fur burst out laughing again and uttered
a loathsome sentence in a loud voice. A feeling of disgust took
possession of him. He flushed crimson and went out of the room.
"Wait a minute, we are coming too!" the artist shouted to him.
"While we were dancing," said the medical student, as they all
three went out into the street, "I had a conversation with my
partner. We talked about her first romance. He, the hero, was an
accountant at Smolensk with a wife and five children. She was
seventeen, and she lived with her papa and mamma, who sold soap
"How did he win her heart?" asked Vassilyev.
"By spending fifty roubles on underclothes for her. What next!"
"So he knew how to get his partner's story out of her," thought
Vassilyev about the medical student. "But I don't know how to."
"I say, I am going home!" he said.
"Because I don't know how to behave here. Besides, I am bored,
disgusted. What is there amusing in it? If they were human beings
-- but they are savages and animals. I am going; do as you like."
"Come, Grisha, Grigory, darling. . ." said the artist in a
tearful voice, hugging Vassilyev, "come along! Let's go to one
more together and damnation take them! . . . Please do, Grisha!"
They persuaded Vassilyev and led him up a staircase. In the
carpet and the gilt banisters, in the porter who opened the door,
and in the panels that decorated the hall, the same S. Street
style was apparent, but carried to a greater perfection, more
"I really will go home!" said Vassilyev as he was taking off his
"Come, come, dear boy," said the artist, and he kissed him on the
neck. "Don't be tiresome. . . . Gri-gri, be a good comrade! We
came together, we will go back together. What a beast you are,
"I can wait for you in the street. I think it's loathsome,
"Come, come, Grisha. . . . If it is loathsome, you can observe
it! Do you understand? You can observe!"
"One must take an objective view of things," said the medical
Vassilyev went into the drawing-room and sat down. There were a
number of visitors in the room besides him and his friends: two
infantry officers, a bald, gray-haired gentleman in spectacles,
two beardless youths from the institute of land-surveying, and a
very tipsy man who looked like an actor. All the young ladies
were taken up with these visitors and paid no attention to
Only one of them, dressed _a la Aida,_ glanced sideways at him,
smiled, and said, yawning: "A dark one has come. . . ."
Vassilyev's heart was throbbing and his face burned. He felt
ashamed before these visitors of his presence here, and he felt
disgusted and miserable. He was tormented by the thought that he,
a decent and loving man (such as he had hitherto considered
himself), hated these women and felt nothing but repulsion
towards them. He felt pity neither for the women nor the
musicians nor the flunkeys.
"It is because I am not trying to understand them," he thought.
"They are all more like animals than human beings, but of course
they are human beings all the same , they have souls. One must
understand them and then judge. . . ."
"Grisha, don't go, wait for us," the artist shouted to him and
The medical student disappeared soon after.
"Yes, one must make an effort to understand, one mustn't be like
this. . ." Vassilyev went on thinking.
And he began gazing at each of the women with strained attention,
looking for a guilty smile. But either he did not know how to
read their faces, or not one of these women felt herself to be
guilty; he read on every face nothing but a blank expression of
everyday vulgar boredom and complacency. Stupid faces, stupid
smiles, harsh, stupid voices, insolent movements, and nothing
else. Apparently each of them had in the past a romance with an
accountant based on underclothes for fifty roubles, and looked
for no other charm in the present but coffee, a dinner of three
courses, wines, quadrilles, sleeping till two in the afternoon. .
Finding no guilty smile, Vassilyev began to look whether there
was not one intelligent face. And his attention was caught by one
pale, rather sleepy, exhausted-looking face. . . . It was a dark
woman, not very young, wearing a dress covered with spangles;
she was sitting in an easy-chair, looking at the floor lost in
thought. Vassilyev walked from one corner of the room to the
other, and, as though casually, sat down beside her.
"I must begin with something trivial," he thought, "and pass to
what is serious. . . ."
"What a pretty dress you have," and with his finger he touched
the gold fringe of her fichu.
"Oh, is it? . . ." said the dark woman listlessly.
"What province do you come from?"
"I? From a distance. . . . From Tchernigov."
"A fine province. It's nice there."
"Any place seems nice when one is not in it."
"It's a pity I cannot describe nature," thought Vassilyev. "I
might touch her by a description of nature in Tchernigov. No
doubt she loves the place if she has been born there."
"Are you dull here?" he asked.
"Of course I am dull."
"Why don't you go away from here if you are dull?"
"Where should I go to? Go begging or what?"
"Begging would be easier than living here."
How do you know that? Have you begged?"
"Yes, when I hadn't the money to study. Even if I hadn't anyone
could understand that. A beggar is anyway a free man, and you are
The dark woman stretched, and watched with sleepy eyes the
footman who was bringing a trayful of glasses and seltzer water.
"Stand me a glass of porter," she said, and yawned again.
"Porter," thought Vassilyev. "And what if your brother or mother
walked in at this moment? What would you say? And what would they
say? There would be porter then, I imagine. . . ."
All at once there was the sound of weeping. From the adjoining
room, from which the footman had brought the seltzer water, a
fair man with a red face and angry eyes ran in quickly. He was
followed by the tall, stout "madam," who was shouting in a
"Nobody has given you leave to slap girls on the cheeks! We have
visitors better than you, and they don't fight! Impostor!"
A hubbub arose. Vassilyev was frightened and turned pale. In the
next room there was the sound of bitter, genuine weeping, as
though of someone insulted. And he realized that there were real
people living here who, like people everywhere else, felt
insulted, suffered, wept, and cried for help. The feeling of
oppressive hate and disgust gave way to an acute feeling of pity
and anger against the aggressor. He rushed into the room where
there was weeping. Across rows of bottles on a marble-top table
he distinguished a suffering face, wet with tears, stretched out
his hands towards that face, took a step towards the table, but
at once drew back in horror. The weeping girl was drunk.
As he made his way though the noisy crowd gathered about the fair
man, his heart sank and he felt frightened like a child; and it
seemed to him that in this alien, incomprehensible world people
wanted to pursue him, to beat him, to pelt him with filthy
words. . . . He tore down his coat from the hatstand and ran
Leaning against the fence, he stood near the house waiting for
his friends to come out. The sounds of the pianos and violins,
gay, reckless, insolent, and mournful, mingled in the air in a
sort of chaos, and this tangle of sounds seemed again like an
unseen orchestra tuning up on the roofs. If one looked upwards
into the darkness, the black background was all spangled with
white, moving spots: it was snow falling. As the snowflakes came
into the light they floated round lazily in the air like
down, and still more lazily fell to the ground. The snowflakes
whirled thickly round Vassilyev and hung upon his beard, his
eyelashes, his eyebrows. . . . The cabmen, the horses, and the
passers-by were white.
"And how can the snow fall in this street!" thought Vassilyev.
"Damnation take these houses!"
His legs seemed to be giving way from fatigue, simply from having
run down the stairs; he gasped for breath as though he had been
climbing uphill, his heart beat so loudly that he could hear it.
He was consumed by a desire to get out of the street as quickly
as possible and to go home, but even stronger was his desire to
wait for his companions and vent upon them his oppressive
There was much he did not understand in these houses, the souls
of ruined women were a mystery to him as before; but it was clear
to him that the thing was far worse than could have been
believed. If that sinful woman who had poisoned herself was
called fallen, it was difficult to find a fitting name for all
these who were dancing now to this tangle of sound and uttering
long, loathsome sentences. They were not on the road to ruin, but
"There is vice," he thought, "but neither consciousness of sin
nor hope of salvation. They are sold and bought, steeped in wine
and abominations, while they, like sheep, are stupid,
indifferent, and don't understand. My God! My God!"
It was clear to him, too, that everything that is called human
dignity, personal rights, the Divine image and semblance, were
defiled to their very foundations -- "to the very marrow," as
drunkards say -- and that not only the street and the stupid
women were responsible for it.
A group of students, white with snow, passed him laughing and
talking gaily; one, a tall thin fellow, stopped, glanced into
Vassilyev's face, and said in a drunken voice:
"One of us! A bit on, old man? Aha-ha! Never mind, have a good
time! Don't be down-hearted, old chap!"
He took Vassilyev by the shoulder and pressed his cold wet
mustache against his cheek, then he slipped, staggered, and,
waving both hands, cried:
"Hold on! Don't upset!"
And laughing, he ran to overtake his companions.
Through the noise came the sound of the artist's voice:
"Don't you dare to hit the women! I won't let you, damnation take
you! You scoundrels!"
The medical student appeared in the doorway. He looked from side
to side, and seeing Vassilyev, said in an agitated voice:
"You here! I tell you it's really impossible to go anywhere with
Yegor! What a fellow he is! I don't understand him! He has got up
a scene! Do you hear? Yegor!" he shouted at the door. Yegor!"
"I won't allow you to hit women!" the artist's piercing voice
sounded from above. Something heavy and lumbering rolled down the
stairs. It was the artist falling headlong. Evidently he had been
He picked himself up from the ground, shook his hat, and, with an
angry and indignant face, brandished his fist towards the top of
the stairs and shouted:
"Scoundrels! Torturers! Bloodsuckers! I won't allow you to hit
them! To hit a weak, drunken woman! Oh, you brutes! . . ."
"Yegor! . . . Come, Yegor! . . ." the medical student began
imploring him. "I give you my word of honor I'll never come with
you again. On my word of honor I won't!"
Little by little the artist was pacified and the friends went
"Against my will an unknown force," hummed the medical student,
"has led me to these mournful shores."
"Behold t he mill," the artist chimed in a little later, "in
ruins now. What a lot of snow, Holy Mother! Grisha, why did you
go? You are a funk, a regular old woman."
Vassilyev walked behind his companions, looked at their backs,
"One of two things: either we only fancy prostitution is an evil,
and we exaggerate it; or, if prostitution really is as great an
evil as is generally assumed, these dear friends of mine are as
much slaveowners, violators, and murderers, as the inhabitants
of Syria and Cairo, that are described in the 'Neva.' Now they
are singing, laughing, talking sense, but haven't they just been
exploiting hunger, ignorance, and stupidity? They have -- I have
been a witness of it. What is the use of their humanity, their
medicine, their painting? The science, art, and lofty sentiments
of these soul-destroyers remind me of the piece of bacon in the
story. Two brigands murdered a beggar in a forest; they began
sharing his clothes between them, and found in his wallet a piece
of bacon. 'Well found,' said one of them, 'let us have a bit.'
'What do you mean? How can you?' cried the other in horror. 'Have
you forgotten that to-day is Wednesday?' And they would not eat
it. After murdering a man, they came out of the forest in the
firm conviction that they were keeping the fast. In the same way
these men, after buying women, go their way imagining that they
are artists and men of science. . . ."
"Listen!" he said sharply and angrily. "Why do you come here? Is
it possible -- is it possible you don't understand how horrible
it is? Your medical books tell you that every one of these women
dies prematurely of consumption or something; art tells you that
morally they are dead even earlier. Every one of them dies
because she has in her time to entertain five hundred men on an
average, let us say. Each one of them is killed by five hundred
men. You are among those five hundred! If each of you in the
course of your lives visits this place or others like it two
hundred and fifty times, it follows that one woman is killed for
every two of you! Can't you understand that? Isn't it horrible to
murder, two of you, three of you, five of you, a foolish, hungry
woman! Ah! isn't it awful, my God!"
"I knew it would end like that," the artist said frowning. "We
ought not to have gone with this fool and ass! You imagine you
have grand notions in your head now, ideas, don't you? No, it's
the devil knows what, but not ideas. You are looking at me
now with hatred and repulsion, but I tell you it's better you
should set up twenty more houses like those than look like that.
There's more vice in your expression than in the whole street!
Come along, Volodya, let him go to the devil! He's a fool and an
ass, and that's all. . . ."
"We human beings do murder each other," said the medical student.
"It's immoral, of course, but philosophizing doesn't help it.
At Trubnoy Square the friends said good-by and parted. When he
was left alone, Vassilyev strode rapidly along the boulevard. He
felt frightened of the darkness, of the snow which was falling in
heavy flakes on the ground, and seemed as though it would cover
up the whole world; he felt frightened of the street lamps
shining with pale light through the clouds of snow. His soul was
possessed by an unaccountable, faint-hearted terror. Passers-by
came towards him from time to time, but he timidly moved to one
side; it seemed to him that women, none but women, were coming
from all sides and staring at him. . . .
"It's beginning," he thought, "I am going to have a breakdown."
At home he lay on his bed and said, shuddering all over: "They
are alive! Alive! My God, those women are alive!"
He encouraged his imagination in all sorts of ways to picture
himself the brother of a fallen woman, or her father; then a
fallen woman herself, with her painted cheeks; and it all moved
him to horror.
It seemed to him that he must settle the question at once at all
costs, and that this question was not one that did not concern
him, but was his own personal problem. He made an immense effort,
repressed his despair, and, sitting on the bed, holding his head
in his hands, began thinking how one could save all the women he
had seen that day. The method for attacking problems of all kinds
was, as he was an educated man, well known to him. And, however
excited he was, he strictly adhered to that method. He recalled
the history of the problem and its literature, and for a quarter
of an hour he paced from one end of the room to the other trying
to remember all the methods practiced at the present time for
saving women. He had very many good friends and acquaintances
who lived in lodgings in Petersburg. . . . Among them were a good
many honest and self-sacrificing men. Some of them had attempted
to save women. . . .
"All these not very numerous attempts," thought Vassilyev, "can
be divided into three groups. Some, after buying the woman out of
the brothel, took a room for her, bought her a sewing-machine,
and she became a semptress. And whether he wanted to or
not, after having bought her out he made her his mistress; then
when he had taken his degree, he went away and handed her into
the keeping of some other decent man as though she were a thing.
And the fallen woman remained a fallen woman. Others, after
buying her out, took a lodging apart for her, bought the
inevitable sewing-machine, and tried teaching her to read,
preaching at her and giving her books. The woman lived and sewed
as long as it was interesting and a novelty to her, then getting
bored, began receiving men on the sly, or ran away and went back
where she could sleep till three o'clock, drink coffee, and have
good dinners. The third class, the most ardent and
self-sacrificing, had taken a bold, resolute step. They had
married them. And when the insolent and spoilt, or stupid and
crushed animal became a wife, the head of a household, and
afterwards a mother, it turned her whole existence and attitude
to life upside down, so that it was hard to recognize the fallen
woman afterwards in the wife and the mother. Yes, marriage was
the best and perhaps the only means."
"But it is impossible!" Vassilyev said aloud, and he sank upon
his bed. "I, to begin with, could not marry one! To do that one
must be a saint and be unable to feel hatred or repulsion. But
supposing that I, the medical student, and the artist mastered
ourselves and did marry them -- suppose they were all married.
What would be the result? The result would be that while here in
Moscow they were being married, some Smolensk accountant would be
debauching another lot, and that lot would be streaming here to
fill the vacant places, together with others from Saratov,
Nizhni-Novgorod, Warsaw. . . . And what is one to do with the
hundred thousand in London? What's one to do with those in
The lamp in which the oil had burnt down began to smoke.
Vassilyev did not notice it. He began pacing to and fro again,
still thinking. Now he put the question differently: what must be
done that fallen women should not be needed? For that, it was
essential that the men who buy them and do them to death should
feel all the immorality of their share in enslaving them and
should be horrified. One must save the men.
"One won't do anything by art and science, that is clear . . ."
thought Vassilyev. "The only way out of it is missionary work."
And he began to dream how he would the next evening stand at the
corner of the street and say to every passer-by: "Where are you
going and what for? Have some fear of God!"
He would turn to the apathetic cabmen and say to them: "Why are
you staying here? Why aren't you revolted? Why aren't you
indignant? I suppose you believe in God and know that it is a
sin, that people go to hell for it? Why don't you speak? It is
true that they are strangers to you, but you know even they have
fathers, brothers like yourselves. . . ."
One of Vassilyev's friends had once said of him that he was a
talented man. There are all sorts of talents -- talent for
writing, talent for the stage, talent for art; but he had a
peculi ar talent -- a talent for _humanity_. He possessed an
extraordinarily fine delicate scent for pain in general. As a
good actor reflects in himself the movements and voice of others,
so Vassilyev could reflect in his soul the sufferings of others.
When he saw tears, he wept; beside a sick man, he felt sick
himself and moaned; if he saw an act of violence, he felt as
though he himself were the victim of it, he was frightened as a
child, and in his fright ran to help. The pain of others worked
on his nerves, excited him, roused him to a state of frenzy, and
Whether this friend were right I don't know, but what Vassilyev
experienced when he thought this question was settled was
something like inspiration. He cried and laughed, spoke aloud the
words that he should say next day, felt a fervent love for those
who would listen to him and would stand beside him at the corner
of the street to preach; he sat down to write letters, made vows
to himself. . . .
All this was like inspiration also from the fact that it did not
last long. Vassilyev was soon tired. The cases in London, in
Hamburg, in Warsaw, weighed upon him by their mass as a mountain
weighs upon the earth; he felt dispirited, bewildered, in
the face of this mass; he remembered that he had not a gift for
words, that he was cowardly and timid, that indifferent people
would not be willing to listen and understand him, a law student
in his third year, a timid and insignificant person; that
genuine missionary work included not only teaching but deeds. . .
When it was daylight and carriages were already beginning to
rumble in the street, Vassilyev was lying motionless on the sofa,
staring into space. He was no longer thinking of the women, nor
of the men, nor of missionary work. His whole attention was
turned upon the spiritual agony which was torturing him. It was a
dull, vague, undefined anguish akin to misery, to an extreme form
of terror and to despair. He could point to the place where the
pain was, in his breast under his heart; but he could not
compare it with anything. In the past he had had acute toothache,
he had had pleurisy and neuralgia, but all that was insignificant
compared with this spiritual anguish. In the presence of that
pain life seemed loathsome. The dissertation,
the excellent work he had written already, the people he loved,
the salvation of fallen women -- everything that only the day
before he had cared about or been indifferent to, now when he
thought of them irritated him in the same way as the noise of
the carriages, the scurrying footsteps of the waiters in the
passage, the daylight. . . . If at that moment someone had
performed a great deed of mercy or had committed a revolting
outrage, he would have felt the same repulsion for both actions.
Of all the thoughts that strayed through his mind only two did
not irritate him: one was that at every moment he had the power
to kill himself, the other that this agony would not last more
than three days. This last he knew by experience.
After lying for a while he got up and, wringing his hands, walked
about the room, not as usual from corner to corner, but round the
room beside the walls. As he passed he glanced at himself in the
looking-glass. His face looked pale and sunken, his
temples looked hollow, his eyes were bigger, darker, more
staring, as though they belonged to someone else, and they had an
expression of insufferable mental agony.
At midday the artist knocked at the door.
"Grigory, are you at home?" he asked.
Getting no answer, he stood for a minute, pondered, and answered
himself in Little Russian: "Nay. The confounded fellow has gone
to the University."
And he went away. Vassilyev lay down on the bed and, thrusting
his head under the pillow, began crying with agony, and the more
freely his tears flowed the more terrible his mental anguish
became. As it began to get dark, he thought of the agonizing
night awaiting him, and was overcome by a horrible despair. He
dressed quickly, ran out of his room, and, leaving his door wide
open, for no object or reason, went out into the street. Without
asking himself where he should go, he walked quickly along
Snow was falling as heavily as the day before; it was thawing.
Thrusting his hands into his sleeves, shuddering and frightened
at the noises, at the trambells, and at the passers-by, Vassilyev
walked along Sadovoy Street as far as Suharev Tower; then to the
Red Gate; from there he turned off to Basmannya Street. He went
into a tavern and drank off a big glass of vodka, but that did
not make him feel better. When he reached Razgulya he turned to
the right, and strode along side streets in which he had never
been before in his life. He reached the old bridge by which the
Yauza runs gurgling, and from which one can see long rows of
lights in the windows of the Red Barracks. To distract his
spiritual anguish by some new sensation or some other pain,
Vassilyev, not knowing what to do, crying and shuddering, undid
his greatcoat and jacket and exposed his bare chest to the wet
snow and the wind. But that did not lessen his suffering either.
Then he bent down over the rail of the bridge and looked down
into the black, yeasty Yauza, and he longed to plunge down head
foremost; not from loathing for life, not for the sake of
suicide, but in order to bruise himself at least, and by one pain
to ease the other. But the black water, the darkness, the
deserted banks covered with snow were terrifying. He shivered and
walked on. He walked up and down by the Red Barracks, then turned
back and went down to a copse, from the copse back to the bridge
"No, home, home!" he thought. "At home I believe it's better. . ."
And he went back. When he reached home he pulled off his wet coat
and cap, began pacing round the room, and went on pacing round
and round without stopping till morning.
When next morning the artist and the medical student went in to
him, he was moving about the room with his shirt torn, biting his
hands and moaning with pain.
"For God's sake!" he sobbed when he saw his friends, "take me
where you please, do what you can; but for God's sake, save me
quickly! I shall kill myself!"
The artist turned pale and was helpless. The medical student,
too, almost shed tears, but considering that doctors ought to be
cool and composed in every emergency said coldly:
"It's a nervous breakdown. But it's nothing. Let us go at once to
"Wherever you like, only for God's sake, make haste"
"Don't excite yourself. You must try and control yourself."
The artist and the medical student with trembling hands put
Vassilyev's coat and hat on and led him out into the street.
"Mihail Sergeyitch has been wanting to make your acquaintance for
a long time," the medical student said on the way. "He is a very
nice man and thoroughly good at his work. He took his degree in
1882, and he has an immense practice already. He treats students
as though he were one himself."
"Make haste, make haste! . . ." Vassilyev urged.
Mihail Sergeyitch, a stout, fair-haired doctor, received the
friends with politeness and frigid dignity, and smiled only on
one side of his face.
"Rybnikov and Mayer have spoken to me of your illness already,"
he said. "Very glad to be of service to you. Well? Sit down, I
beg. . . ."
He made Vassilyev sit down in a big armchair near the table, and
moved a box of cigarettes towards him.
"Now then!" he began, stroking his knees. "Let us get to work. .
. . How old are you?"
He asked questions and the medical student answered them. He
asked whether Vassilyev's father had suffered from certain
special diseases, whether he drank to excess, whether he were
remarkable for cruelty or any peculiarities. He made similar
inquiries about his grandfather, mother, sisters, and brothers.
On learning that his mother had a beautiful voice and sometimes
acted on the stage, he grew more animated at once, and asked:
"Excuse me, but don't you remember, perhaps, your mother had a
passion for the stage?"
Twenty minutes passed. Vassilyev was annoyed by the way the docto
r kept stroking his knees and talking of the same thing.
"So far as I understand your questions, doctor," he said, "you
want to know whether my illness is hereditary or not. It is not."
The doctor proceeded to ask Vassilyev whether he had had any
secret vices as a boy, or had received injuries to his head;
whether he had had any aberrations, any peculiarities, or
exceptional propensities. Half the questions usually asked by
doctors of their patients can be left unanswered without the
slightest ill effect on the health, but Mihail Sergeyitch, the
medical student, and the artist all looked as though if Vassilyev
failed to answer one question all would be lost. As he received
answers, the doctor for some reason noted them down on a slip of
paper. On learning that Vassilyev had taken his degree in natural
science, and was now studying law, the doctor pondered.
"He wrote a first-rate piece of original work last year, . . ."
said the medical student.
"I beg your pardon, but don't interrupt me; you prevent me from
concentrating," said the doctor, and he smiled on one side of his
face. "Though, of course, that does enter into the diagnosis.
Intense intellectual work, nervous exhaustion. . . . Yes, yes. .
. . And do you drink vodka?" he said, addressing Vassilyev.
Another twenty minutes passed. The medical student began telling
the doctor in a low voice his opinion as to the immediate cause
of the attack, and described how the day before yesterday the
artist, Vassilyev, and he had visited S. Street.
The indifferent, reserved, and frigid tone in which his friends
and the doctor spoke of the women and that miserable street
struck Vassilyev as strange in the extreme. . . .
"Doctor, tell me one thing only," he said, controlling himself so
as not to speak rudely. "Is prostitution an evil or not?"
"My dear fellow, who disputes it?" said the doctor, with an
expression that suggested that he had settled all such questions
for himself long ago. "Who disputes it?"
"You are a mental doctor, aren't you?" Vassilyev asked curtly.
"Yes, a mental doctor."
"Perhaps all of you are right!" said Vassilyev, getting up and
beginning to walk from one end of the room to the other.
"Perhaps! But it all seems marvelous to me! That I should have
taken my degree in two faculties you look upon as a great
achievement; because I have written a work which in three years
will be thrown aside and forgotten, I am praised up to the skies;
but because I cannot speak of fallen women as unconcernedly as of
these chairs, I am being examined by a doctor, I am called mad,
I am pitied!"
Vassilyev for some reason felt all at once unutterably sorry for
himself, and his companions, and all the people he had seen two
days before, and for the doctor; he burst into tears and sank
into a chair.
His friends looked inquiringly at the doctor. The latter, with
the air of completely comprehending the tears and the despair, of
feeling himself a specialist in that line, went up to Vassilyev
and, without a word, gave him some medicine to drink; and then,
when he was calmer, undressed him and began to investigate the
degree of sensibility of the skin, the reflex action of the
knees, and so on.
And Vassilyev felt easier. When he came out from the doctor's he
was beginning to feel ashamed; the rattle of the carriages no
longer irritated him, and the load at his heart grew lighter and
lighter as though it were melting away. He had two prescriptions
in his hand: one was for bromide, one was for morphia. . . . He
had taken all these remedies before.
In the street he stood still and, saying good-by to his friends,
dragged himself languidly to the University.