A.P. Chekhov -
The Chemist's Wife
THE little town of B----, consisting of two
or three crooked streets, was sound asleep. There was a complete
stillness in the motionless air. Nothing could be heard but far
away, outside the town no doubt, the barking of a dog in a thin,
hoarse tenor. It was close upon daybreak.
Everything had long been asleep. The only person not asleep was
the young wife of Tchernomordik, a qualified dispenser who kept
a chemist's shop at B----. She had gone to bed and got up again
three times, but could not sleep, she did not know why. She sat
at the open window in her nightdress and looked into the street.
She felt bored, depressed, vexed . . . so vexed that she felt
quite inclined to cry -- again she did not know why. There
seemed to be a lump in her chest that kept rising into her
throat. . . . A few paces behind her Tchernomordik lay curled up
close to the wall, snoring sweetly. A greedy flea was stabbing
the bridge of his nose, but he did not feel it, and was
positively smiling, for he was dreaming that every one in the
town had a cough, and was buying from him the King of Denmark's
cough-drops. He could not have been wakened now by pinpricks or
by cannon or by caresses.
The chemist's shop was almost at the extreme end of the town, so
that the chemist's wife could see far into the fields. She could
see the eastern horizon growing pale by degrees, then turning
crimson as though from a great fire. A big broad-faced moon
peeped out unexpectedly from behind bushes in the distance. It
was red (as a rule when the moon emerges from behind bushes it
appears to be blushing).
Suddenly in the stillness of the night there came the sounds of
footsteps and a jingle of spurs. She could hear voices.
"That must be the officers going home to the camp from the
Police Captain's," thought the chemist's wife.
Soon afterwards two figures wearing officers' white tunics came
into sight: one big and tall, the other thinner and shorter. . .
. They slouched along by the fence, dragging one leg after the
other and talking loudly together. As they passed the chemist's
shop, they walked more slowly than ever, and glanced up at the
"It smells like a chemist's," said the thin one. "And so it is!
Ah, I remember. . . . I came here last week to buy some
castor-oil. There's a chemist here with a sour face and the
jawbone of an ass! Such a jawbone, my dear fellow! It must have
been a jawbone like that Samson killed the Philistines with."
"M'yes," said the big one in a bass voice. "The pharmacist is
asleep. And his wife is asleep too. She is a pretty woman,
"I saw her. I liked her very much. . . . Tell me, doctor, can
she possibly love that jawbone of an ass? Can she?"
"No, most likely she does not love him," sighed the doctor,
speaking as though he were sorry for the chemist. "The little
woman is asleep behind the window, Obtyosov, what? Tossing with
the heat, her little mouth half open . . . and one little foot
hanging out of bed. I bet that fool the chemist doesn't realise
what a lucky fellow he is. . . . No doubt he sees no difference
between a woman and a bottle of carbolic!"
"I say, doctor," said the officer, stopping. "Let us go into the
shop and buy something. Perhaps we shall see her."
"What an idea -- in the night!"
"What of it? They are obliged to serve one even at night. My
dear fellow, let us go in!"
"If you like. . . ."
The chemist's wife, hiding behind the curtain, heard a muffled
ring. Looking round at her husband, who was smiling and snoring
sweetly as before, she threw on her dress, slid her bare feet
into her slippers, and ran to the shop.
On the other side of the glass door she could see two shadows.
The chemist's wife turned up the lamp and hurried to the door to
open it, and now she felt neither vexed nor bored nor inclined
to cry, though her heart was thumping. The big doctor and the
slender Obtyosov walked in. Now she could get a view of them.
The doctor was corpulent and swarthy; he wore a beard and was
slow in his movements. At the slightest motion his tunic seemed
as though it would crack, and perspiration came on to his face.
The officer was rosy, clean-shaven, feminine-looking, and as
supple as an English whip.
"What may I give you? asked the chemist's wife, holding her
dress across her bosom.
"Give us . . . er-er . . . four pennyworth of peppermint
Without haste the chemist's wife took down a jar from a shelf
and began weighing out lozenges. The customers stared fixedly at
her back; the doctor screwed up his eyes like a well-fed cat,
while the lieutenant was very grave.
"It's the first time I've seen a lady serving in a chemist's
shop," observed the doctor.
"There's nothing out of the way in it," replied the chemist's
wife, looking out of the corner of her eye at the rosy-cheeked
officer. "My husband has no assistant, and I always help him."
"To be sure. . . . You have a charming little shop! What a
number of different . . . jars! And you are not afraid of moving
about among the poisons? Brrr!"
The chemist's wife sealed up the parcel and handed it to the
doctor. Obtyosov gave her the money. Half a minute of silence
followed. . . . The men exchanged glances, took a step towards
the door, then looked at one another again.
"Will you give me two pennyworth of soda?" said the doctor.
Again the chemist's wife slowly and languidly raised her hand to
"Haven't you in the shop anything . . . such as . . ." muttered
Obtyosov, moving his fingers, "something, so to say, allegorical
. . . revivifying . . . seltzer-water, for instance. Have you
"Yes," answered the chemist's wife.
"Bravo! You're a fairy, not a woman! Give us three bottles!"
The chemist's wife hurriedly sealed up the soda and vanished
through the door into the darkness.
"A peach!" said the doctor, with a wink. "You wouldn't find a
pineapple like that in the island of Madeira! Eh? What do you
say? Do you hear the snoring, though? That's his worship the
chemist enjoying sweet repose."
A minute later the chemist's wife came back and set five bottles
on the counter. She had just been in the cellar, and so was
flushed and rather excited.
"Sh-sh! . . . quietly!" said Obtyosov when, after uncorking the
bottles, she dropped the corkscrew. "Don't make such a noise;
you'll wake your husband."
"Well, what if I do wake him?"
"He is sleeping so sweetly . . . he must be dreaming of you. . .
. To your health!"
"Besides," boomed the doctor, hiccupping after the
seltzer-water, "husbands are such a dull business that it would
be very nice of them to be always asleep. How good a drop of red
wine would be in this water!"
"What an idea!" laughed the chemist's wife.
"That would be splendid. What a pity they don't sell spirits in
chemist's shops! Though you ought to sell wine as a medicine.
Have you any vinum gallicum rubrum?"
"Well, then, give us some! Bring it here, damn it!"
"How much do you want?"
"Quantum satis. . . . Give us an ounce each in the water, and
afterwards we'll see. . . . Obtyosov, what do you say? First
with water and afterwards per se. . . ."
The doctor and Obtyosov sat down to the counter, took off their
caps, and began drinking the wine.
"The wine, one must admit, is wretched stuff! Vinum nastissimum!
Though in the presence of . . . er . . . it tastes like nectar.
You are enchanting, madam! In imagination I kiss your hand."
"I would give a great deal to do so not in imagination," said
Obtyosov. "On my honour, I'd give my life."
"That's enough," said Madame Tchernomordik, flushing and
assuming a serious expression.
"What a flirt you are, though!" the doctor laughed softly,
looking slyly at her from under his brows. "Your eyes seem to be
firing shot: piff-paff! I congratulate you: you've conquered! We
The chemist's wife looked at their ruddy faces, listened to
their chatter, and soon she, too, grew quite lively. Oh, she
felt so gay! She entered into the conversation, she laughed,
flirted, and even, after repeated requests from the customers,
drank two ounces of wine.
"You officers ought to come in oftener from the camp," she said;
"it's awful how dreary it is here. I'm simply dying of it."
"I should think so!" said the doctor indignantly. "Such a peach,
a miracle of nature, thrown away in the wilds! How well
Griboyedov said, 'Into the wilds, to Saratov'! It's time for us
to be off, though. Delighted to have made your acquaintance . .
. very. How much do we owe you?"
The chemist's wife raised her eyes to the ceiling and her lips
moved for some time.
"Twelve roubles forty-eight kopecks," she said.
Obtyosov took out of his pocket a fat pocket-book, and after
fumbling for some time among the notes, paid.
"Your husband's sleeping sweetly . . . he must be dreaming," he
muttered, pressing her hand at parting.
"I don't like to hear silly remarks. . . ."
"What silly remarks? On the contrary, it's not silly at all . .
. even Shakespeare said: 'Happy is he who in his youth is
"Let go of my hand."
At last after much talk and after kissing the lady's hand at
parting, the customers went out of the shop irresolutely, as
though they were wondering whether they had not forgotten
She ran quickly into the bedroom and sat down in the same place.
She saw the doctor and the officer, on coming out of the shop,
walk lazily away a distance of twenty paces; then they stopped
and began whispering together. What about? Her heart throbbed,
there was a pulsing in her temples, and why she did not know. .
. . Her heart beat violently as though those two whispering
outside were deciding her fate.
Five minutes later the doctor parted from Obtyosov and walked
on, while Obtyosov came back. He walked past the shop once and a
second time. . . . He would stop near the door and then take a
few steps again. At last the bell tinkled discreetly.
"What? Who is there?" the chemist's wife heard her husband's
voice suddenly. "There's a ring at the bell, and you don't hear
it," he said severely. "Is that the way to do things?"
He got up, put on his dressing-gown, and staggering, half
asleep, flopped in his slippers to the shop.
"What . . . is it?" he asked Obtyosov.
"Give me . . . give me four pennyworth of peppermint lozenges."
Sniffing continually, yawning, dropping asleep as he moved, and
knocking his knees against the counter, the chemist went to the
shelf and reached down the jar.
Two minutes later the chemist's wife saw Obtyosov go out of the
shop, and, after he had gone some steps, she saw him throw the
packet of peppermints on the dusty road. The doctor came from
behind a corner to meet him. . . . They met and, gesticulating,
vanished in the morning mist.
"How unhappy I am!" said the chemist's wife, looking angrily at
her husband, who was undressing quickly to get into bed again.
"Oh, how unhappy I am!" she repeated, suddenly melting into
bitter tears. "And nobody knows, nobody knows. . . ."
"I forgot fourpence on the counter," muttered the chemist,
pulling the quilt over him. "Put it away in the till, please. .
And at once he fell asleep again.
qualified dispenser: pharmacist
chemist's shop: pharmacy
Quantum satis: As much as needed (prescription terminology)
Griboyedov: Alexander S. Griboyedov (1795-1829), a playwright
whose most famous work is the comedy Woe from Wit