A.P. Chekhov -
The Examining Magistrate
A DISTRICT doctor and an examining magistrate
were driving one fine spring day to an inquest. The examining
magistrate, a man of five and thirty, looked dreamily at the
horses and said:
"There is a great deal that is enigmatic and obscure in nature;
and even in everyday life, doctor, one must often come upon
phenomena which are absolutely incapable of explanation. I know,
for instance, of several strange, mysterious deaths, the cause
of which only spiritualists and mystics will undertake to
explain; a clear-headed man can only lift up his hands in
perplexity. For example, I know of a highly cultured lady who
foretold her own death and died without any apparent reason on
the very day she had predicted. She said that she would die on a
certain day, and she did die."
"There's no effect without a cause," said the doctor. "If
there's a death there must be a cause for it. But as for
predicting it there's nothing very marvellous in that. All our
ladies -- all our females, in fact -- have a turn for prophecies
"Just so, but my lady, doctor, was quite a special case. There
was nothing like the ladies' or other females' presentiments
about her prediction and her death. She was a young woman,
healthy and clever, with no superstitions of any sort. She had
such clear, intelligent, honest eyes; an open, sensible face
with a faint, typically Russian look of mockery in her eyes and
on her lips. There was nothing of the fine lady or of the female
about her, except -- if you like -- her beauty! She was
graceful, elegant as that birch tree; she had wonderful hair.
That she may be intelligible to you, I will add, too, that she
was a person of the most infectious gaiety and carelessness and
that intelligent, good sort of frivolity which is only found in
good-natured, light-hearted people with brains. Can one talk of
mysticism, spiritualism, a turn for presentiment, or anything of
that sort, in this case? She used to laugh at all that."
The doctor's chaise stopped by a well. The examining magistrate
and the doctor drank some water, stretched, and waited for the
coachman to finish watering the horses.
"Well, what did the lady die of?" asked the doctor when the
chaise was rolling along the road again.
"She died in a strange way. One fine day her husband went in to
her and said that it wouldn't be amiss to sell their old coach
before the spring and to buy something rather newer and lighter
instead, and that it might be as well to change the left trace
horse and to put Bobtchinsky (that was the name of one of her
husband's horses) in the shafts.
"His wife listened to him and said:
" 'Do as you think best, but it makes no difference to me now.
Before the summer I shall be in the cemetery.'
"Her husband, of course, shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
" 'I am not joking,' she said. 'I tell you in earnest that I
shall soon be dead.'
" 'What do you mean by soon?'
" 'Directly after my confinement. I shall bear my child and
"The husband attached no significance to these words. He did not
believe in presentiments of any sort, and he knew that ladies in
an interesting condition are apt to be fanciful and to give way
to gloomy ideas generally. A day later his wife spoke to him
again of dying immediately after her confinement, and then every
day she spoke of it and he laughed and called her a silly woman,
a fortune-teller, a crazy creature. Her approaching death became
an ide fix with his wife. When her husband would not listen to
her she would go into the kitchen and talk of her death to the
nurse and the cook.
" 'I haven't long to live now, nurse,' she would say. 'As soon
as my confinement is over I shall die. I did not want to die so
early, but it seems it's my fate.'
"The nurse and the cook were in tears, of course. Sometimes the
priest's wife or some lady from a neighbouring estate would come
and see her and she would take them aside and open her soul to
them, always harping on the same subject, her approaching death.
She spoke gravely with an unpleasant smile, even with an angry
face which would not allow any contradiction. She had been smart
and fashionable in her dress, but now in view of her approaching
death she became slovenly; she did not read, she did not laugh,
she did not dream aloud. What was more she drove with her aunt
to the cemetery and selected a spot for her tomb. Five days
before her confinement she made her will. And all this, bear in
mind, was done in the best of health, without the faintest hint
of illness or danger. A confinement is a difficult affair and
sometimes fatal, but in the case of which I am telling you every
indication was favourable, and there was absolutely nothing to
be afraid of. Her husband was sick of the whole business at
last. He lost his temper one day at dinner and asked her:
" 'Listen, Natasha, when is there going to be an end of this
" 'It's not silliness, I am in earnest.'
" 'Nonsense, I advise you to give over being silly that you may
not feel ashamed of it afterwards.'
"Well, the confinement came. The husband got the very best
midwife from the town. It was his wife's first confinement, but
it could not have gone better. When it was all over she asked to
look at her baby. She looked at it and said:
" 'Well, now I can die.'
"She said good-bye, shut her eyes, and half an hour later gave
up her soul to God. She was fully conscious up to the last
moment. Anyway when they gave her milk instead of water she
" 'Why are you giving me milk instead of water?'
"So that is what happened. She died as she predicted."
The examining magistrate paused, gave a sigh and said:
"Come, explain why she died. I assure you on my honour, this is
not invented, it's a fact."
The doctor looked at the sky meditatively.
"You ought to have had an inquest on her," he said.
"Why, to find out the cause of her death. She didn't die because
she had predicted it. She poisoned herself most probably."
The examining magistrate turned quickly, facing the doctor, and
screwing up his eyes, asked:
"And from what do you conclude that she poisoned herself?"
"I don't conclude it, but I assume it. Was she on good terms
with her husband?"
"H'm, not altogether. There had been misunderstandings soon
after their marriage. There were unfortunate circumstances. She
had found her husband on one occasion with a lady. She soon
forgave him however."
"And which came first, her husband's infidelity or her idea of
The examining magistrate looked attentively at the doctor as
though he were trying to imagine why he put that question.
"Excuse me," he said, not quite immediately. "Let me try and
remember." The examining magistrate took off his hat and rubbed
his forehead. "Yes, yes . . . it was very shortly after that
incident that she began talking of death. Yes, yes."
"Well, there, do you see? . . . In all probability it was at
that time that she made up her mind to poison herself, but, as
most likely she did not want to kill her child also, she put it
off till after her confinement."
"Not likely, not likely! . . . it's impossible. She forgave him
at the time."
"That she forgave it quickly means that she had something bad in
her mind. Young wives do not forgive quickly."
The examining magistrate gave a forced smile, and, to conceal
his too noticeable agitation, began lighting a cigarette.
"Not likely, not likely," he went on. "No notion of anything of
the sort being possible ever entered into my head. . . . And
besides . . . he was not so much to blame as it seems. . . . He
was unfaithful to her in rather a queer way, with no desire to
be; he came home at night somewhat elevated, wanted to make love
to somebody, his wife was in an interesting condition . . . then
he came across a lady who had come to stay for three days --
damnation take her -- an empty-headed creature, silly and not
good-looking. It couldn't be reckoned as an infidelity. His wife
looked at it in that way herself and soon . . . forgave it.
Nothing more was said about it. . . ."
"People don't die without a reason," said the doctor.
"That is so, of course, but all the same . . . I cannot admit
that she poisoned herself. But it is strange that the idea has
never struck me before! And no one thought of it! Everyone was
astonished that her prediction had come to pass, and the idea .
. . of such a death was far from their mind. And indeed, it
cannot be that she poisoned herself! No!"
The examining magistrate pondered. The thought of the woman who
had died so strangely haunted him all through the inquest. As he
noted down what the doctor dictated to him he moved his eyebrows
gloomily and rubbed his forehead.
"And are there really poisons that kill one in a quarter of an
hour, gradually, without any pain?" he asked the doctor while
the latter was opening the skull.
"Yes, there are. Morphia for instance."
"H'm, strange. I remember she used to keep something of the
sort. . . . But it could hardly be."
On the way back the examining magistrate looked exhausted, he
kept nervously biting his moustache, and was unwilling to talk.
"Let us go a little way on foot," he said to the doctor. "I am
tired of sitting."
After walking about a hundred paces, the examining magistrate
seemed to the doctor to be overcome with fatigue, as though he
had been climbing up a high mountain. He stopped and, looking at
the doctor with a strange look in his eyes, as though he were
"My God, if your theory is correct, why it's. . . it was cruel,
inhuman! She poisoned herself to punish some one else! Why, was
the sin so great? Oh, my God! And why did you make me a present
of this damnable idea, doctor!"
The examining magistrate clutched at his head in despair, and
"What I have told you was about my own wife, about myself. Oh,
my God! I was to blame, I wounded her, but can it have been
easier to die than to forgive? That's typical feminine logic --
cruel, merciless logic. Oh, even then when she was living she
was cruel! I recall it all now! It's all clear to me now!"
As the examining magistrate talked he shrugged his shoulders,
then clutched at his head. He got back into the carriage, then
walked again. The new idea the doctor had imparted to him seemed
to have overwhelmed him, to have poisoned him; he was
distracted, shattered in body and soul, and when he got back to
the town he said good-bye to the doctor, declining to stay to
dinner though he had promised the doctor the evening before to
dine with him.
ide fix: an obsession