Anton Chekhov -
A Nervous Breakdown
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 the room.
"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
"Beardy, treat me to some porter!" said the fair girl,
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.