A Nervous Breakdown
Having drunk two glasses of porter, the artist became suddenly
tipsy and grew unnaturally lively.
"Let's go to another!" he said peremptorily, waving his hands.
"I will take you to the best one."
When he had brought his friends to the house which in his
opinion was the best, he declared his firm intention of dancing
a quadrille. The medical student grumbled something about their
having to pay the musicians a rouble, but agreed to be his
vis--vis. They began dancing.
It was just as nasty in the best house as in the worst. Here
there were just the same looking-glasses and pictures, the same
styles of coiffure and dress. Looking round at the furnishing of
the rooms and the costumes, Vassilyev realized that this was not
lack of taste, but something that might be called the taste, and
even the style, of S. Street, which could not be found
elsewhere--something intentional in its ugliness, not
accidental, but elaborated in the course of years. After he had
been in eight houses he was no longer surprised at the color of
the dresses, at the long trains, the gaudy ribbons, the sailor
dresses, and the thick purplish rouge on the cheeks; he saw that
it all had to be like this, that if a single one of the women
had been dressed like a human being, or if there had been one
decent engraving on the wall, the general tone of the whole
street would have suffered.
"How unskillfully they sell themselves!" he thought. "How can
they fail to understand that vice is only alluring when it is
beautiful and hidden, when it wears the mask of virtue? Modest
black dresses, pale faces, mournful smiles, and darkness would
be far more effective than this clumsy tawdriness. Stupid
things! If they don't understand it of themselves, their
visitors might surely have taught them. . . ."
A young lady in a Polish dress edged with white fur came up to
him and sat down beside him.
"You nice dark man, why aren't you dancing?" she asked. "Why are
you so dull?"
"Because it is dull."
"Treat me to some Lafitte. Then it won't be dull."
Vassilyev made no answer. He was silent for a little, and then
"What time do you get to sleep?"
"At six o'clock."
"And what time do you get up?"
"Sometimes at two and sometimes at three."
"And what do you do when you get up?"
"We have coffee, and at six o'clock we have dinner."
"And what do you have for dinner?"
"Usually soup, beefsteak, and dessert. Our madam keeps the girls
well. But why do you ask all this?"
"Oh, just to talk. . . ."
Vassilyev longed to talk to the young lady about many things. He
felt an intense desire to find out where she came from, whether
her parents were living, and whether they knew that she was
here; how she had come into this house; whether she were
cheerful and satisfied, or sad and oppressed by gloomy thoughts;
whether she hoped some day to get out of her present position. .
. . But he could not think how to begin or in what shape to put
his questions so as not to seem impertinent. He thought for a
long time, and asked:
"How old are you?"
"Eighty," the young lady jested, looking with a laugh at the
antics of the artist as he danced.
All at once she burst out laughing at something, and uttered a
long cynical sentence loud enough to be heard by everyone.
Vassilyev was aghast, and not knowing how to look, gave a
constrained smile. He was the only one who smiled; all the
others, his friends, the musicians, the women, did not even
glance towards his neighbor, but seemed not to have heard her.
"Stand me some Lafitte," his neighbor said again.
Vassilyev felt a repulsion for her white fur and for her voice,
and walked away from her. It seemed to him hot and stifling, and
his heart began throbbing slowly but violently, like a hammer --
one! two! three!
"Let us go away!" he said, pulling the artist by his sleeve.
"Wait a little; let me finish."
While the artist and the medical student were finishing the
quadrille, to avoid looking at the women, Vassilyev scrutinized
the musicians. A respectable-looking old man in spectacles,
rather like Marshal Bazaine, was playing the piano; a young man
with a fair beard, dressed in the latest fashion, was playing
the violin. The young man had a face that did not look stupid
nor exhausted, but intelligent, youthful, and fresh. He was
dressed fancifully and with taste; he played with feeling. It
was a mystery how he and the respectable-looking old man had
come here. How was it they were not ashamed to sit here? What
were they thinking about when they looked at the women?
If the violin and the piano had been played by men in rags,
looking hungry, gloomy, drunken, with dissipated or stupid
faces, then one could have understood their presence, perhaps.
As it was, Vassilyev could not understand it at all. He recalled
the story of the fallen woman he had once read, and he thought
now that that human figure with the guilty smile had nothing in
common with what he was seeing now. It seemed to him that he was
seeing not fallen women, but some different world quite apart,
alien to him and incomprehensible; if he had seen this world
before on the stage, or read of it in a book, he would not have
believed in it. . . .
The woman with the white fur burst out laughing again and
uttered a loathsome sentence in a loud voice. A feeling of
disgust took possession of him. He flushed crimson and went out
of the room.
"Wait a minute, we are coming too!" the artist shouted to him.