A.P. Chekhov - Panic Fears
DURING all the years I have been living in this world I have
only three times been terrified.
The first real terror, which made my hair stand on end and made
shivers run all over me, was caused by a trivial but strange
phenomenon. It happened that, having nothing to do one July
evening, I drove to the station for the newspapers. It was a
still, warm, almost sultry evening, like all those monotonous
evenings in July which, when once they have set in, go on for a
week, a fortnight, or sometimes longer, in regular unbroken
succession, and are suddenly cut short by a violent thunderstorm
and a lavish downpour of rain that refreshes everything for a
The sun had set some time before, and an unbroken gray dusk lay
all over the land. The mawkishly sweet scents of the grass and
flowers were heavy in the motionless, stagnant air.
I was driving in a rough trolley. Behind my back the gardener's
son Pashka, a boy of eight years old, whom I had taken with me
to look after the horse in case of necessity, was gently
snoring, with his head on a sack of oats. Our way lay along a
narrow by-road, straight as a ruler, which lay hid like a great
snake in the tall thick rye. There was a pale light from the
afterglow of sunset; a streak of light cut its way through a
narrow, uncouth-looking cloud, which seemed sometimes like a
boat and sometimes like a man wrapped in a quilt. . . .
I had driven a mile and a half, or two miles, when against the
pale background of the evening glow there came into sight one
after another some graceful tall poplars; a river glimmered
beyond them, and a gorgeous picture suddenly, as though by
magic, lay stretched before me. I had to stop the horse, for our
straight road broke off abruptly and ran down a steep incline
overgrown with bushes. We were standing on the hillside and
beneath us at the bottom lay a huge hole full of twilight, of
fantastic shapes, and of space. At the bottom of this hole, in a
wide plain guarded by the poplars and caressed by the gleaming
river, nestled a village. It was now sleeping. . . . Its huts,
its church with the belfry, its trees, stood out against the
gray twilight and were reflected darkly in the smooth surface of
I waked Pashka for fear he should fall out and began cautiously
"Have we got to Lukovo?" asked Pashka, lifting his head lazily.
"Yes. Hold the reins! . . ."
I led the horse down the hill and looked at the village. At the
first glance one strange circumstance caught my attention: at
the very top of the belfry, in the tiny window between the
cupola and the bells, a light was twinkling. This light was like
that of a smoldering lamp, at one moment dying down, at another
flickering up. What could it come from?
Its source was beyond my comprehension. It could not be burning
at the window, for there were neither ikons nor lamps in the top
turret of the belfry; there was nothing there, as I knew, but
beams, dust, and spiders' webs. It was hard to climb up into
that turret, for the passage to it from the belfry was closely
It was more likely than anything else to be the reflection of
some outside light, but though I strained my eyes to the utmost,
I could not see one other speck of light in the vast expanse
that lay before me. There was no moon. The pale and, by now,
quite dim streak of the afterglow could not have been reflected,
for the window looked not to the west, but to the east. These
and other similar considerations were straying through my mind
all the while that I was going down the slope with the horse. At
the bottom I sat down by the roadside and looked again at the
light. As before it was glimmering and flaring up.
"Strange," I thought, lost in conjecture. "Very strange."
And little by little I was overcome by an unpleasant feeling. At
first I thought that this was vexation at not being able to
explain a simple phenomenon; but afterwards, when I suddenly
turned away from the light in horror and caught hold of Pashka
with one hand, it became clear that I was overcome with terror.
. . .
I was seized with a feeling of loneliness, misery, and horror,
as though I had been flung down against my will into this great
hole full of shadows, where I was standing all alone with the
belfry looking at me with its red eye.
"Pashka!" I cried, closing my eyes in horror.
"Pashka, what's that gleaming on the belfry?"
Pashka looked over my shoulder at the belfry and gave a yawn.
"Who can tell?"
This brief conversation with the boy reassured me for a little,
but not for long. Pashka, seeing my uneasiness, fastened his big
eyes upon the light, looked at me again, then again at the
light. . . .
"I am frightened," he whispered.
At this point, beside myself with terror, I clutched the boy
with one hand, huddled up to him, and gave the horse a violent
"It's stupid!" I said to myself. "That phenomenon is only
terrible because I don't understand it; everything we don't
understand is mysterious."
I tried to persuade myself, but at the same time I did not leave
off lashing the horse. When we reached the posting station I
purposely stayed for a full hour chatting with the overseer, and
read through two or three newspapers, but the feeling of
uneasiness did not leave me. On the way back the light was not
to be seen, but on the other hand the silhouettes of the huts,
of the poplars, and of the hill up which I had to drive, seemed
to me as though animated. And why the light was there I don't
know to this day.
The second terror I experienced was excited by a circumstance no
less trivial. . . . I was returning from a romantic interview.
It was one o'clock at night, the time when nature is buried in
the soundest, sweetest sleep before the dawn. That time nature
was not sleeping, and one could not call the night a still one.
Corncrakes, quails, nightingales, and woodcocks were calling,
crickets and grasshoppers were chirruping. There was a light
mist over the grass, and clouds were scurrying straight ahead
across the sky near the moon. Nature was awake, as though afraid
of missing the best moments of her life.
I walked along a narrow path at the very edge of a railway
embankment. The moonlight glided over the lines which were
already covered with dew. Great shadows from the clouds kept
flitting over the embankment. Far ahead, a dim green light was
"So everything is well," I thought, looking at them.
I had a quiet, peaceful, comfortable feeling in my heart. I was
returning from a tryst, I had no need to hurry; I was not
sleepy, and I was conscious of youth and health in every sigh,
every step I took, rousing a dull echo in the monotonous hum of
the night. I don't know what I was feeling then, but I remember
I was happy, very happy.
I had gone not more than three-quarters of a mile when I
suddenly heard behind me a monotonous sound, a rumbling, rather
like the roar of a great stream. It grew louder and louder every
second, and sounded nearer and nearer. I looked round; a hundred
paces from me was the dark copse from which I had only just
come; there the embankment turned to the right in a graceful
curve and vanished among the trees. I stood still in perplexity
and waited. A huge black body appeared at once at the turn,
noisily darted towards me, and with the swiftness of a bird flew
past me along the rails. Less than half a minute passed and the
blur had vanished, the rumble melted away into the noise of the
It was an ordinary goods truck. There was nothing peculiar about
it in itself, but its appearance without an engine and in the
night puzzled me. Where could it have come from and what force
sent it flying so rapidly along the rails? Where did it come
from and where was it flying to?
If I had been superstitious I should have made up my mind it was
a party of demons and witches journeying to a devils' sabbath,
and should have gone on my way; but as it was, the phenomenon
was absolutely inexplicable to me. I did not believe my eyes,
and was entangled in conjectures like a fly in a spider's web. .
I suddenly realized that I was utterly alone on the whole vast
plain; that the night, which by now seemed inhospitable, was
peeping into my face and dogging my footsteps; all the sounds,
the cries of the birds, the whisperings of the trees, seemed
sinister, and existing simply to alarm my imagination. I dashed
on like a madman, and without realizing what I was doing I ran,
trying to run faster and faster. And at once I heard something
to which I had paid no attention before: that is, the plaintive
whining of the telegraph wires.
"This is beyond everything," I said, trying to shame myself.
"It's cowardice! it's silly!"
But cowardice was stronger than common sense. I only slackened
my pace when I reached the green light, where I saw a dark
signal-box, and near it on the embankment the figure of a man,
probably the signalman.
"Did you see it?" I asked breathlessly.
"See whom? What?"
"Why, a truck ran by."
"I saw it, . . ." the peasant said reluctantly. "It broke away
from the goods train. There is an incline at the ninetieth mile
. . .; the train is dragged uphill. The coupling on the last
truck gave way, so it broke off and ran back. . . . There is no
catching it now! . . ."
The strange phenomenon was explained and its fantastic character
vanished. My panic was over and I was able to go on my way.
My third fright came upon me as I was going home from stand
shooting in early spring. It was in the dusk of evening. The
forest road was covered with pools from a recent shower of rain,
and the earth squelched under one's feet. The crimson glow of
sunset flooded the whole forest, coloring the white stems of the
birches and the young leaves. I was exhausted and could hardly
Four or five miles from home, walking along the forest road, I
suddenly met a big black dog of the water spaniel breed. As he
ran by, the dog looked intently at me, straight in my face, and
"A nice dog!" I thought. "Whose is it?"
I looked round. The dog was standing ten paces off with his eyes
fixed on me. For a minute we scanned each other in silence, then
the dog, probably flattered by my attention, came slowly up to
me and wagged his tail.
I walked on, the dog following me.
"Whose dog can it be?" I kept asking myself. "Where does he come
I knew all the country gentry for twenty or thirty miles round,
and knew all their dogs. Not one of them had a spaniel like
that. How did he come to be in the depths of the forest, on a
track used for nothing but carting timber? He could hardly have
dropped behind someone passing through, for there was nowhere
for the gentry to drive to along that road.
I sat down on a stump to rest, and began scrutinizing my
companion. He, too, sat down, raised his head, and fastened upon
me an intent stare. He gazed at me without blinking. I don't
know whether it was the influence of the stillness, the shadows
and sounds of the forest, or perhaps a result of exhaustion, but
I suddenly felt uneasy under the steady gaze of his ordinary
doggy eyes. I thought of Faust and his bulldog, and of the fact
that nervous people sometimes when exhausted have
hallucinations. That was enough to make me get up hurriedly and
hurriedly walk on. The dog followed me.
"Go away!" I shouted.
The dog probably liked my voice, for he gave a gleeful jump and
ran about in front of me.
"Go away!" I shouted again.
The dog looked round, stared at me intently, and wagged his tail
good-humoredly. Evidently my threatening tone amused him. I
ought to have patted him, but I could not get Faust's dog out of
my head, and the feeling of panic grew more and more acute. . .
Darkness was coming on, which completed my confusion, and every
time the dog ran up to me and hit me with his tail, like a
coward I shut my eyes. The same thing happened as with the light
in the belfry and the truck on the railway: I could not stand it
and rushed away.
At home I found a visitor, an old friend, who, after greeting
me, began to complain that as he was driving to me he had lost
his way in the forest, and a splendid valuable dog of his had