A Dreary Story - V
There are terrible nights with thunder, lightning, rain, and wind, such as are called among the people “sparrow nights.” There has been one such night in my personal life.
I woke up after midnight and leaped suddenly out of bed. It seemed to me for some reason that I was just immediately going to die. Why did it seem so? I had no sensation in my body that suggested my immediate death, but my soul was oppressed with terror, as though I had suddenly seen a vast menacing glow of fire.
I rapidly struck a light, drank some water straight out of the decanter, then hurried to the open window. The weather outside was magnificent. There was a smell of hay and some other very sweet scent. I could see the spikes of the fence, the gaunt, drowsy trees by the window, the road, the dark streak of woodland, there was a serene, very bright moon in the sky and not a single cloud, perfect stillness, not one leaf stirring. I felt that everything was looking at me and waiting for me to die....
It was uncanny. I closed the window and ran to my bed. I felt for my pulse, and not finding it in my wrist, tried to find it in my temple, then in my chin, and again in my wrist, and everything I touched was cold and clammy with sweat. My breathing came more and more rapidly, my body was shivering, all my inside was in commotion; I had a sensation on my face and on my bald head as though they were covered with spiders’ webs.
What should I do? Call my family? No; it would be no use. I could not imagine what my wife and Liza would do when they came in to me.
I hid my head under the pillow, closed my eyes, and waited and waited.... My spine was cold; it seemed to be drawn inwards, and I felt as though death were coming upon me stealthily from behind.
“Kee-vee! kee-vee!” I heard a sudden shriek in the night’s stillness, and did not know where it was—in my breast or in the street—“Kee-vee! kee-vee!”
“My God, how terrible!” I would have drunk some more water, but by then it was fearful to open my eyes and I was afraid to raise my head. I was possessed by unaccountable animal terror, and I cannot understand why I was so frightened: was it that I wanted to live, or that some new unknown pain was in store for me?
Upstairs, overhead, some one moaned or laughed. I listened. Soon afterwards there was a sound of footsteps on the stairs. Some one came hurriedly down, then went up again. A minute later there was a sound of steps downstairs again; some one stopped near my door and listened.
“Who is there?” I cried.
The door opened. I boldly opened my eyes, and saw my wife. Her face was pale and her eyes were tear-stained.
“You are not asleep, Nikolay Stepanovitch?” she asked.
“What is it?”
“For God’s sake, go up and have a look at Liza; there is something the matter with her....”
“Very good, with pleasure,” I muttered, greatly relieved at not being alone. “Very good, this minute....”
I followed my wife, heard what she said to me, and was too agitated to understand a word. Patches of light from her candle danced about the stairs, our long shadows trembled. My feet caught in the skirts of my dressing-gown; I gasped for breath, and felt as though something were pursuing me and trying to catch me from behind.
“I shall die on the spot, here on the staircase,” I thought. “On the spot....” But we passed the staircase, the dark corridor with the Italian windows, and went into Liza’s room. She was sitting on the bed in her nightdress, with her bare feet hanging down, and she was moaning.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” she was muttering, screwing up her eyes at our candle. “I can’t bear it.”
“Liza, my child,” I said, “what is it?”
Seeing me, she began crying out, and flung herself on my neck.
“My kind papa!...” she sobbed—“my dear, good papa... my darling, my pet, I don’t know what is the matter with me.... I am miserable!”
She hugged me, kissed me, and babbled fond words I used to hear from her when she was a child.
“Calm yourself, my child. God be with you,” I said. “There is no need to cry. I am miserable, too.”
I tried to tuck her in; my wife gave her water, and we awkwardly stumbled by her bedside; my shoulder jostled against her shoulder, and meanwhile I was thinking how we used to give our children their bath together.
“Help her! help her!” my wife implored me. “Do something!”
What could I do? I could do nothing. There was some load on the girl’s heart; but I did not understand, I knew nothing about it, and could only mutter:
“It’s nothing, it’s nothing; it will pass. Sleep, sleep!”
To make things worse, there was a sudden sound of dogs howling, at first subdued and uncertain, then loud, two dogs howling together. I had never attached significance to such omens as the howling of dogs or the shrieking of owls, but on that occasion it sent a pang to my heart, and I hastened to explain the howl to myself.
“It’s nonsense,” I thought, “the influence of one organism on another. The intensely strained condition of my nerves has infected my wife, Liza, the dog—that is all.... Such infection explains presentiments, forebodings....”
When a little later I went back to my room to write a prescription for Liza, I no longer thought I should die at once, but only had such a weight, such a feeling of oppression in my soul that I felt actually sorry that I had not died on the spot. For a long time I stood motionless in the middle of the room, pondering what to prescribe for Liza. But the moans overhead ceased, and I decided to prescribe nothing, and yet I went on standing there....
There was a deathlike stillness, such a stillness, as some author has expressed it, “it rang in one’s ears.” Time passed slowly; the streaks of moonlight on the window-sill did not shift their position, but seemed as though frozen.... It was still some time before dawn.
But the gate in the fence creaked, some one stole in and, breaking a twig from one of those scraggy trees, cautiously tapped on the window with it.
“Nikolay Stepanovitch,” I heard a whisper. “Nikolay Stepanovitch.”
I opened the window, and fancied I was dreaming: under the window, huddled against the wall, stood a woman in a black dress, with the moonlight bright upon her, looking at me with great eyes. Her face was pale, stern, and weird-looking in the moonlight, like marble, her chin was quivering.
“It is I,” she said—“I... Katya.”
In the moonlight all women’s eyes look big and black, all people look taller and paler, and that was probably why I had not recognized her for the first minute.
“What is it?”
“Forgive me!” she said. “I suddenly felt unbearably miserable... I couldn’t stand it, so came here. There was a light in your window and... and I ventured to knock.... I beg your pardon. Ah! if you knew how miserable I am! What are you doing just now?”
“Nothing.... I can’t sleep.”
“I had a feeling that there was something wrong, but that is nonsense.”
Her brows were lifted, her eyes shone with tears, and her whole face was lighted up with the familiar look of trustfulness which I had not seen for so long.
“Nikolay Stepanovitch,” she said imploringly, stretching out both hands to me, “my precious friend, I beg you, I implore you.... If you don’t despise my affection and respect for you, consent to what I ask of you.”
“What is it?”
“Take my money from me!”
“Come! what an idea! What do I want with your money?”
“You’ll go away somewhere for your health.... You ought to go for your health. Will you take it? Yes? Nikolay Stepanovitch darling, yes?”
She looked greedily into my face and repeated: “Yes, you will take it?”
“No, my dear, I won’t take it,” I said. “Thank you.”
She turned her back upon me and bowed her head. Probably I refused her in a tone which made further conversation about money impossible.
“Go home to bed,” I said. “We will see each other tomorrow.”
“So you don’t consider me your friend?” she asked dejectedly.
“I don’t say that. But your money would be no use to me now.”
“I beg your pardon...” she said, dropping her voice a whole octave. “I understand you... to be indebted to a person like me... a retired actress.... But, good-bye....”
And she went away so quickly that I had not time even to say good-bye.