During the first days of their service, the Orloffs found an immense
deal to do. Many sick people were daily brought to the Infirmary, and
the two novices, who were only accustomed to the tedious weariness of
their former life, felt at first very uncomfortable in the midst of
this rapid, pulsating, busy rush into which they were suddenly thrown.
They lost their heads, and failed to understand at once the orders that
were given them; whilst they became confused with all the different
impressions that poured in upon them. And though they had the firm
intention of making themselves useful, running hither and thither full
of zeal, they succeeded nevertheless in doing very little work, and too
often got into the way of other people. Grigori felt more than once
that he had indeed deserved a reproof for his clumsiness, but to his
astonishment no one took it upon them to reprove him.
One of the doctors, a tall dark man with a black moustache and a hooked
nose, with an enormous wart over his right eyebrow, told Grigori to
help one of the patients into the bath-room; the new attendant, eager
to be useful, seized hold of the patient with such a show of zeal that
he called out and groaned.
“Take care, my man! Don’t break him in two!” said the doctor quite
seriously. “We’ve got to get him into the bath-room whole…. These
words confused Orloff. The patient, however, a long thin fellow, smiled
constrainedly, and said in a hollow voice–” He doesn’t understand yet
… he’s a new hand….
The head doctor, an old gentleman with a pointed grey beard and great
flashing eyes, had told the Orloffs when they first came into the
Infirmary how they should manage the patients, and what they had to do
under certain circumstances. At the end of his instructions he asked
them if they had taken a bath lately, and then gave them out white
aprons. The voice of this old gentleman had in it something pleasing
and sympathetic, and the Orloffs felt they should like him. But
half-an-hour afterwards they had forgotten all his instructions in the
noisy rush of work in the Infirmary.
People in white clothes ran up against them; commands which were
carried out with lightning speed by the attendants, sounded in their
ears; the patients groaned, sobbed and sighed; water flowed splashing
and hissing from the taps; and this blending of sounds seemed to fill
the air, which was already saturated with sharp unpleasant smells that
irritated the nose; and it seemed to Orloff that every word of the
doctors, every sigh of the patients, was impregnated with the same
At first all this appeared to him like a wild chaos, in which he
could never feel at home, but which worked on him increasingly in a
depressing, bewildering way. But after a few hours he was seized by the
strong current of energy which flowed through everything. He pricked up
his ears, and felt a burning desire to get into the swim, and learn how
to do all these things that others were doing; joined with the feeling
that he would be lighter-hearted and happier if he could be swept away
in this whirlpool.
“Corrosive sublimate!” shouted one of the doctors.
“Some more hot water in the bath over there!” a thin little student
with red eyes ordered.
“Look here! What’s your name?”
“All right!… Just rub this patient’s feet … yes, that’s right …
so…. I see you understand at once…. So–o … not so hard! or you
will rub his skin off!…”
“Oh! how tired I am!” exclaimed another student, long-haired and
pock-marked, whilst he was giving Orloff the necessary instructions.
“They have brought in another patient!” some one exclaimed.
“Orloff, just go and see!… Help them to bring him in.”
Grigori, full of zeal, followed out all the directions. He was covered
with perspiration, there was a ringing in his ears, and a mist swam
before his eyes. At times the consciousness of himself disappeared
entirely under the mass of impressions which crowded in upon him
at every moment. The dark-green rings round the glassy eyes of the
patients, their leaden-coloured faces, their bones, which stood out
from their bodies, their clammy, bad-smelling skins, the horrible
convulsions of the half-dead bodies, all this oppressed his heart
painfully, and produced a nausea which he had never experienced before.
Once or twice he had caught a hurried glimpse of his wife in the
corridor of the Infirmary; she seemed in these few hours to have grown
thinner, and her white face wore a troubled look.
“Well, how are you getting on?” he asked during one of these hurried
encounters. She could only answer with a smile, and disappeared
A thought struck Grischka, which he however kept to himself; was it
really so necessary for him to have brought his wife with him into this
hell? She might catch the infection and die…. The second time he met
her he called out to her in a loud voice–
“Be sure and keep yourself clean; wash your hands very often, and take
“Why do you say all that? What if I don’t take care?” she asked,
showing her little white teeth; and it seemed to him as if she were
Her reply made him angry.
“There she is,” he thought, “joking even in such a place as this! What
a parcel of fools these women-folk are!”
He found however no further opportunity to give her recommendations.
Matrona, having noticed the angry look on his face, hurried away to the
women’s side of the building.
A minute later Grigori was helping to carry into the mortuary the body
of a policeman who had been well known to him. Only two days before
he had seen the policeman at his post, and had sworn at him as he had
passed by; they had never been on good terms together. And now he saw
this man, such a short time before so strong and healthy, lying dead,
and quite disfigured with convulsions. The corpse swayed backwards and
forwards against the bearers, and stared with wide-open glassy eyes.
Orloff realized the whole force and cruelty of the contrast. “Why does
one ever come into the world?” he thought to himself, “if such a
horrible complaint as this can knock one over in four-and-twenty hours?”
He glanced at the bier, and felt a movement of pity for the dead
policeman. What would become now of the three children of the dead man?
Last year he lost his wife, and there had scarcely been time for him
to marry again … now the poor little creatures would be left orphans
This thought filled him with a feeling of real pain. Suddenly the left
arm of the corpse began to stretch out and to straighten itself, and
at the same time the mouth of the dead man, which till then had stood
open, and drawn down on the left side, closed itself.
“Stop a moment,” said Orloff to the other bearer; and he rested the
bier on the ground. “He is still alive!” he whispered in a terrified
The bearer, who had been helping him to carry the stretcher, turned
round, looked at the corpse attentively, and then said angrily to
“What nonsense you are talking! Don’t you understand that he is getting
himself ready for his coffin? Don’t you see how the cholera has twisted
him up?… He can’t lie in the coffin in that position!… Come! Let’s
get on again!”
“But just look; he is still moving!” protested Orloff, trembling with
“Hurry up now! Catch hold, you fool!… Don’t you understand what I
say, then?… He _has_ to move in order to relax his limbs! Are you
then such an ignorant and stupid chap?… _He_ alive?… How can any
one say that about a corpse? That’s mutiny, brother!… All our corpses
here move, but I should advise you to be quiet about it Don’t tell a
soul that he has moved! Otherwise one will tell his neighbour, and his
neighbour will add a little bit on to the story, and we shall soon
have a regular row up at the Infirmary, because they will be saying
we bury them alive! The whole mob would come here and pull everything
to pieces…. And you would get your share of the knocks!… Do you
understand? …. We will put him down there to the left.”
The quiet voice of Pronim–that was the name of the other
attendant–and his soft way of speaking, calmed and reassured Grigori.
“Just keep a level head, brother! You will soon get used to it all.
There is no harm going on here…. The feeding, and the management, and
everything are first-class…. We have all to die some day, every one
recognizes that But till that time comes, keep, as I have said, a level
head!… Will you have a glass of schnapps?”
“Why not?” replied Orloff.
“I have got a drop in the corner there, ready for use on these sort
of occasions. What do you say; shall we have a go at it?” They went
off accordingly towards a quiet corner of the Infirmary, and pulled
themselves together with a small glass of spirits. Then Pronim dropped
some essence of peppermint on to a piece of sugar, and handed it to
“Take it; otherwise they will smell that we have been drinking. They
are very particular here about vodka; they say it is bad for one.”
“And you?… have you got accustomed to the life here?” asked Grigori.
“I should think so! I was one of the first to come. Hundreds have died
before my eyes. One lives here indeed in a state of uncertainty, but
otherwise, to tell the truth, it’s not bad … it is God’s work,–just
like the Red Cross in war. Have you heard of the Red Cross ambulance
work, and of the nurses and sisters? I saw them in the Turkish war….
And I was also at Ardahan and at Kars. They were indeed a brave lot,
those ambulance people I Full of kind-heartedness and courage. We
soldiers had at least our guns and cannons; but they went about among
the bullets as if they had been walking about in some pleasant garden.
And when they found either one of us or a Turk–they brought them all
to the place where the doctors were dressing the wounds, and stood
near, whilst all around them the bullets were flying … sch!…
sch!… Tju!… Fit!… Often some poor chap would be hit by a ball
just at the back of the neck,–ping!… and there he would lie….”
This conversation, added to the drop of vodka which he held drunk, put
Orloff into a more cheerful frame of mind.
“If I were to tell A, then I should also have to tell B,” he consoled
himself with thinking, whilst he rubbed the feet of a patient. “As the
ale is drawn, so it must be drunk.”
Behind him some one was begging in a plaintive voice–“Give me
water!… Give me something to drink … for the love of….”
Another one called out, his teeth chattering with cold–“Oh!… Och!…
Hohoho!… hotter still!… It does me good, doctor! Christ will reward
you!… Give me some more hot water….”
“Just pass the wine over here!” called out Doctor Wasschtschenko.
Orloff listened, full of interest, whilst he did his own work, to all
that went on around him, and it began to dawn upon him that it was not
all so meaningless and chaotic as it appeared to him at first This
was no chaos reigning here, but powerful, conscious, active strength.
It was only when he thought of the police-officer, that a cold terror
took possession of him, and he threw a scared glance out of the window
towards the mortuary where the dead man lay. He really did believe at
heart that the police-officer was dead, but at times horrid doubts
shot through his mind. Suppose the dead man were to suddenly jump up
and shout! And he remembered how some one had told him once that those
who had died of the cholera broke out of their coffins, and, so it was
said, ran about alter each other. As he went backwards and forwards
at his work, rubbing the limbs of one patient, helping another into a
bath, everything seemed to be seething and turning round in his brain.
He thought of Matrona; what was she perhaps doing at this same moment?
Sometimes he felt a fleeting wish to see her at once, if only for a
minute. But immediately this was succeeded by another thought; “After
all, she’s all right here!… It’s good for her to have to move about;
the fat little lump…. It won’t hurt her to get a bit thinner …
perhaps then she won’t be so stupid….”
He could not get rid of the thought that Matrona was nourishing hidden
desires in her breast, which were not flattering to his own manly
vanity. He went to the length of acknowledging to himself that she
certainly had every right to be discontented with her past life, and
it was possible she might long for some sort of change. The fact of
his acknowledging this much to himself was the cause of his mistaking
his doubts as to her loyalty for the truth; and as a result of his
jealousy he asked himself the question–“Why did I want to leave my
cellar, and get into this kettle of hot water?” … But all these, and
other thoughts, stirred and whirled deep down at the bottom of his
soul, they had no influence on his work, and they were driven into the
background by the ceaseless attention which he bestowed on all that
went on in the Infirmary. He had never in his life seen men work as
did these doctors and medical students, and more than once he thought,
as he looked into their drawn faces, that they indeed more than earned
As soon as Orloff was off duty he went, though he could hardly keep on
his legs, into the courtyard of the Infirmary, and lay down close to
the wall, under the window of the dispensary. His thoughts seemed all
scattered; near his heart he felt a dull, throbbing pain, and his legs
were heavy with fatigue. He seemed to have no more strength left either
for thought or desire, but stretched himself out at once on the turf,
and stared up towards the sky, which was filled with the many-coloured
cloud-glories of the setting sun. He dropped asleep at once, half-dead
He dreamt that he and his wife were the guests of Doctor
Wasschtschenko–in a great room, around which stood elegant Viennese
chairs. On these chairs sat all the patients from the Infirmary. In
the middle of the room the doctor began to dance the Russian national
dance with Matrona, whilst Grischka himself played on the accordion and
laughed light-heartedly, for the doctor’s long legs were quite stiff at
the joints, and he stepped in a dignified way like a heron on a bog, by
the side of Matrona. And the patients sitting round all laughed also,
and swayed uncertainly on their chairs.
Suddenly there appeared at the door the police-officer.
“Aha!” he cried out in a gloomy threatening voice. “You thought I was
dead already, brother Grischka! Here you are playing on the accordion
… but you sent _me_ into the mortuary…. So now then, get up with
you, and come and follow me!”
Trembling in his whole body, and covered with perspiration, Orloff
awoke, and scrambled up from the ground, whilst Doctor Wasschtschenko
stood watching him reproachfully, and remarked–
“Just listen to what I’ve got to say to you, my friend; if you want
to go to sleep you have your own bunk there in the Infirmary! Haven’t
they shown you where it is? What sort of an attendant do you call
yourself, if you go and lie here on the ground with nothing over your
body?… If you get an inward chill, and knock up and die (which God
forbid), what’s going to happen then? That’s not the way to behave, my
friend…. Why you’re shivering now … come along with me, and I will
give you something for that….”
“I was so dead tired,” muttered Orloff in a low voice, making excuses
“So much the worse! You’ll have to take care…. It’s a dangerous time
just now, and we need you here very much.”
Orloff followed the doctor quietly through the corridors of the
Infirmary, swallowed in silence a small glass of medicine, which was
handed to him, then drank another; finally made a grimace and spat on
“That’s right … and now go and have a good sleep…. Good-day to
The doctor strode with his long thin legs down the corridor, and Orloff
stood watching him. Suddenly a smile lit up the attendant’s whole face,
and he ran after the doctor.
“Thank you so much, doctor.”
“What for?” asked the doctor, standing still.
“Why, for the work that I have got here! I will do all I can to please
you, for I like being here in all this bustle … and you said just
now you needed me … so I thank you specially for that, with all my
The doctor watched with surprise the joyful, excited face of the new
attendant, and smiled in a friendly way.
“You’re a queer sort of fellow! But it’s all right … you take it the
right way…. There is something straightforward in what you say. Come
then … do your work well But not for my sake; do it for the sick
people…. It’s like a field of battle here; we have to save the sick
from the jaws of disease; do you understand? Well then, help us with
all your strength to conquer. Now then, be off and get some sleep!”
Orloff was soon lying in his bunk, feeling a pleasant sensation of
pride at being on such a confidential footing with a person like
the doctor. He was’ only sorry that Matrona had not overheard the
conversation. But he would tell her about it to-morrow. She would
scarcely believe it, the fat little lump that she was…. Busy with
such pleasant thoughts Grigori fell asleep.