One Monday morning, just as the Orloffs had finished their breakfast,
there appeared on the threshold of their unfriendly-looking dwelling
the imposing form of a police-officer. Grischka Orloff sprang
frightened from his seat, and catching a glimpse of a startled and
reproachful look in his wife’s eye, made vain efforts to recall to his
dulled brain the events of the last few days. Matrona watched him with
looks that spoke of anxious reproach. In obstinate silence, though
full of scared expectation, Grischka turned his troubled eyes on the
“This way! Down here!” cried the police-officer to some one who was
coming down behind him.
“It’s as dark as a vault here!… What a devil’s hole is this merchant
Petounukoff’s house!” The words were spoken in a young, cheerful voice.
The police-officer moved on one side, and, with a rapid step, a
medical student in a white coat entered the Orloffs’ dwelling, holding
his cap in his hand. His head was smooth shaven, his forehead high
and sunburnt; he had cheerful brown eyes, which smiled through his
“Good-morning!” he exclaimed, in his still youthful ringing alto
voice. “I have the honour to introduce myself to you; I am a member
of the Sanitary Commission. I have come to inquire about the state
in which you live here, and just to report what sort of air you are
breathing…. It’s quite abominable air!”
Orloff breathed more freely, and a look of relief passed across his
face. From the first moment, the medical student, with his boisterous
unaffected ways, pleased him; the healthy young face, covered on
cheeks and chin with fair downy hair, had something so friendly and
good-natured in it The fresh free laughter of the young man brought
into the Orloffs’ cellar a ray of light and of brightness.
“Now, my good people,” continued the student, after a pause; “you might
empty the slop-pail a little more often, for it is from that this
horrible smell comes. I should like to advise you, my good woman, to
wash it out more often, and to place chloride of lime in the corners of
the room. That will purify the air, and it’s a very good remedy against
the damp. And you, my fine fellow–why do you look so upset?” He turned
towards Orloff, seized his hand suddenly, and felt his pulse. The quick
assured manner of the medical student impressed the Orloffs to such
a degree that they seemed at first to be struck dumb. Matrona smiled
constrainedly and watched him in silence, whilst Grigori seemed as if
refreshed by the sight of the open fair young face.
“Well, and how are your stomachs feeling?” asked the medical student
“You can speak out openly to me without any fuss–it’s a question you
see of life and death…. If anything is not quite right we will treat
you gratis with some simple citrate medicine or something of that sort,
and you will be all right in a few days.”
“We can’t complain; we are fairly healthy,” said Grigori, smiling.
“And if I don’t seem quite up to the mark, it’s nothing out of the
common–to tell the truth, I took a drop too much last night….”
“That I had already guessed, for my nose told me so…. Of course it
was only a _small_ glass too much? Only half a glass or so?…”
Grischka could not contain himself when listening to the comical way
in which this was said, and watching the sly grimace which accompanied
it; and he burst into a loud good-tempered laugh. Matrona smiled also
behind her apron. The medical student, who, at first had laughed with
them for company, then changed to a more serious expression. As the
lines of his face altered, it appeared even more open and candid than
“That a man who is working should drink a glass from time to time–that
is all right,” said he. “But as I have just said, it must be taken in
moderation, and as times are now it is better to keep away from drink
altogether. Have you already heard about the epidemic that is just now
raging in the town?”
And with a serious expression on his face, he began to tell the
Orloffs about the cholera, and the means to be taken to counteract it;
trying to express himself as clearly and as simply as possible. Whilst
talking, he was busily examining the room, feeling the walls with his
hands, looking behind the door, stooping down to peep into the stove,
and sniffing about everywhere with his nose. His voice, which had not
yet completely changed, alternated between bass and treble, and the
simple forms of words which he used impressed themselves unconsciously
on the minds of his audience. His brown eyes gleamed, and seemed full
of youthful enthusiasm for the work to which he had dedicated himself
so earnestly and simply.
Grigori hung eagerly on every one of his words, and followed
with curiosity all his movements. Matrona listened also, without
understanding very much; the police-officer had already gone off.
“Be careful to use chloride of lime as I have told you. Close by here
is a new building; for a couple of kopecks they will give you a whole
heap of it. And, about the drink, it’s better to leave it alone for a
while, my friend. Well, good-day to you I I shall soon be looking you
And he disappeared as quickly as he came, and left as it were as a
recollection of his pleasant visit, a contented, happy smile on the
faces of the couple.
For a time they were silent, both looking at each other, unable to
put into words the impression which this sudden visit, with all its
revelation of well-directed energy, had made on the monotonous tenor of
their dull automatic life.
“Just think, now!” began Grigori at last, shaking his head, “what a
sorcerer that fellow is!… And they tell us that those are the men who
poison people! Can a man with a face like that have anything to do with
those sort of goings on?… And that cheerful clear voice, and all the
rest of it!… No, it’s all open and above board, it’s all straight!
He comes in quite simply–‘Here I am, my good people; listen to what I
have to say!’ Chloride of lime, that can’t hurt And citric acid, that’s
just an acid, and nothing more…. The principal thing, however, is
to keep clean, to have everything clean indoors, and to attend to the
slop-bucket Can a man be poisoned by attending to those sort of things?
They must be stupid folk who talk like that!… Poisoners, they call
them? Yes, that’s it…. To think that such a dear fellow as that could
be a poisoner! Pfui!… ‘He who works may drink a glass,’ he said; ‘of
course with moderation.’ Did you hear, Matrona? Well, pour me out one,
then. Is there one left?”
Matrona hastened to pour him out a glass of vodka, which she produced
from some hiding-place.
“He is really a very nice fellow; there is something so friendly about
him,” she said, still smiling at the thought of the student. “But who
can say what the others may be like? Perhaps they are indeed hired
“What do you mean?… Hired to do what?” roared Grigori.
“Well, to put folk out of the way…. It seems there is an order that
all the poor people are to be poisoned when there are too many of
them,” added Motrja.
“Who told you that?”
“Well, everybody says so…. The painter’s cook says so also…. And
lots of others say the same thing.”
“A lot of silly fools! What would the Government gain by it? Just think
a moment! First they would have to treat us all with medicine; and
then they would have to pay for the funerals, the coffins, the graves,
and all that sort of thing. That all costs something, and it all has
to come out of the coffers of the State…. That’s all idle chatter;
if they really want to get rid of a few of the poor people, they have
only got to send them out to Siberia; there’s room for them all there;
or to some uninhabited island, where they can dig the ground, work
and pay taxes! Can’t you understand? Don’t you see that would be the
right sort of way of thinning out the people, and would be at the same
time advantageous…. For an uninhabited island produces nothing; but
workers, who pay taxes, are the most important matter for the State
coffers. But what sense would there be in poisoning people and burying
them?… There would be no sense in it, don’t you see? And then about
the medical students; they are certainly a troublesome lot, but more
especially because they are always in opposition to the authorities,
than because they poison people…. No, you won’t catch a medical
student doing that, not for all the money in the world!… One can see
at once that these students are not that sort.”
The whole day they talked of the medical student, and of the advice he
had given them. They spoke of his cheerful laugh, of his expression,
and they remembered that there was a button missing on his coat But
on the question as to whether it was missing on the right side or
the left, they could not agree; and they nearly came to pulling one
another’s hair over it. Twice already Grischka had made his wife
angry, but he noticed in time that her bottle still contained a good
drop of vodka; so in the end he gave in to her. They made resolutions
to commence cleaning up their cellar the next day, and then began once
more to talk of the student, whose entry into their home had acted on
them like a refreshing breath of fresh air.
“By heavens, but he’s a regular jolly lad!” said Grigori delighted. “He
comes in as simply as if he had known us for years, gives the necessary
directions, and there’s an end of it…. All without noise or fuss,
though he had a right to use authority…. That’s the sort of fellow
that takes my fancy! One sees at once that he has a heart for people
like us…. What say you, Motrja? They don’t want us to die, that’s
all about it I And all this women’s chatter about poisoning and that
sort of thing–that’s all rubbish. ‘How are your stomachs getting on?’
he asked. If he wants to poison me what can it matter to him how my
stomach is? And how cleverly he explained all that…. What the devil
did he call those–those worms that get into our insides?”
“‘Bactery,’ or some word like that,” answered Motrja, with a sneer.
“But he only told us that to frighten us, so as to make us more careful
about being clean….”
“Who knows, perhaps it is true! Perhaps there are animals of that
sort–in the damp all kinds of creatures live! Damn it all, what was
the name of those little beasts? Bac–bactery–that was not quite
it…. If I could only pronounce it I…. It’s just on the tip of my
tongue, but I can’t get it out!…”
Once again, in the evening when they lay down to sleep, they spoke
about the event of the day with the most naïve excitement, just as
children have the habit of chattering with each other about some strong
impression they may have received. And they fell asleep in the middle
of the conversation.
In the morning they woke up early. At their bedside stood the painter’s
stout cook; her usually healthy, rosy-coloured face was now white and
“How is it you are still in bed?”.she began at once in an excited
voice, speaking with trembling lips. “The cholera has started here in
the courtyard! The Lord has visited us…!” and she began suddenly to
“What nonsense! It can’t be true!” cried Grigori In a scared voice.
“And I forgot again last night to carry out the slop-bucket!” said
Matrona with contrition.
“I have come in to say good-bye to you, my dear friends,” said the
cook. “I have decided to leave, and go back to my village.”
“Who is in for it?” asked Grigori, jumping out of bed.
“The accordion-player. He drank last evening some cold water from the
pump, and in the night he was taken with dreadful cramps.”
“The accordion-player?” muttered Grigori. It seemed to him quite
incredible that any sort of illness could hurt that strong fellow.
Yesterday only he crossed the yard as cheerful and as proud as a
“I shall just go and see what is going on,” said Grischka, still
“But it is catching, Grischka!” screamed Matrona, horrified.
“What do you want to be doing there, man? Stay here!” cried the cook.
Grigori muttered a few curses, and began to dress himself hastily
without washing, and went out just as he was into the yard.
Matrona caught hold of him by the shoulders to hold him back; he felt
how her hand trembled, but he shook her off against her will.
“Get away, or something will happen!” he shouted out, pushing her back,
and he strode out by the door.
The courtyard seemed empty and quiet…. Whilst Grigori walked towards
the accordion-player’s room a feeling of fear took possession of him;
but this was followed by an immediate sense of satisfaction that he
should be the only one in the house who had the courage to visit the
sick man. This feeling increased when he noticed that the tailor’s
apprentices were watching him from the windows of the second-floor.
In order to appear quite free from fear he whistled as he went along.
At the door, however, of the accordion-player’s room he met with a
slight surprise. He was not the first to visit the sick man; Senka
Tschischik was there before him. Senka was just sticking his nose
through the crack of the door, and observing in his usual fashion, with
intense curiosity, all that was going on in the room. He did not notice
Orloff’s approach till the latter took him by the ear.
“Just look, Uncle Grischka, how the cramps have got hold of him!” he
whispered, lifting his dirty little face, which, under the impression
of what he had just been witnessing, seemed more sharp-set than ever.
“How parched and dried up he looks. By Jove! he looks like a dry cask!”
Orloff was quite overcome by the pestiferous atmosphere which
was issuing from the room. He stood there silently, listening to
Tschischik, whilst watching with one eye through the narrow crack of
the partly open door.
“We ought, perhaps, to give him some water to drink, Uncle Grigori,”
Orloff glanced at the excited, nervous, trembling face of the child,
and felt within himself the desire to help the sufferer.
“Be off, quick, and get some water!” he ordered Senka. Then he opened
wide the door of the sick man’s room, and stepped boldly across the
Through the mist, which seemed to have arisen before his eyes, Grigori
saw poor Kisljakoff. The accordion-player, dressed in his best clothes,
leant all of a heap against the table, pressing convulsively his body
against the edge, which he held with both his hands. His feet, still
wearing the patent leather boots, dangled helplessly on the damp floor.
“Who is there?” asked the sick man in a hollow, apathetic, changed
Grigori moved a step nearer, treading carefully over the damp boards,
and trying to speak in even cheerful tone of voice.
“It is!–brother Mitri Pawlow…. What’s the matter with you, then?
This is a queer sort of music you are making here! Did you have a drop
too much yesterday?”
He looked at Kisljakoff with terrified curiosity, for he scarcely
recognized him. The accordion-player’s face had taken on it a drawn
angular expression; the cheek-bones stood out sharply. The deep-sunk
eyes, surrounded by black rings, looked unusually fixed and staring.
The skin had turned the colour of a corpse in summer-time. Orloff felt
he was looking into the leaden face of a dying man. Only the slow
movement of the jaws showed that what was before him was still a living
body…. For some time Kisljakoff stared with motionless, glassy eyes
into Grigori’s face; and this dying stare frightened Orloff. It seemed
to him as if a damp, cold hand had seized him by the throat, and was
slowly strangling him. And he felt within him the desire to leave as
soon as possible this room, which used to be so pleasant and gay, but
which now seemed unnaturally cold, and filled with such a horrible foul
smell of decay and rottenness.
“Come now,” said he, preparing to leave the room.
Suddenly a sort of change passed over the grey face of the
accordion-player. The lips, which were tinged with a leaden-coloured
shade, opened, and he said in a low monotonous voice–
These three words, uttered so apathetically, struck Orloff’s head and
heart like three dull strokes. He turned, as if stunned, towards the
door, where he was met by Tschischik, hot and perspiring, who was
returning with a bucket of water.
“Here’s some water from Spridinoff’s well!… They did not want to let
me take it, the dogs!”
He placed the bucket on the ground, disappeared quickly into a corner
of the room, and re-appeared with a glass, which he handed to Orloff.
Then he went on chattering–
“They said we had cholera here. Well, I said, what does that matter?…
It will come to you, too–it’s going all round the town. Then I got a
box on the ear….”
Orloff took the glass, filled it from the bucket, and drank it off in
one draught In his ears still rang the words of the sick man–
Tschischik wriggled about the room like an eel; he seemed to be quite
in his element.
“Give me water,” moaned the accordion-player, leaning his trembling
body forward on the table.
Tschischik ran up to him and held a glass of water to his black,
swelled lips. Grigori stood as if spell-bound or in a bad dream,
leaning against the wall near the door. He heard how the sick man
gulped down the water, and how Tschischik asked him if he should
undress him and put him on the bed; and then he heard once more the
voice of the painter’s cook. He could see her fat face glancing with
an expression of mingled fear and pity from one of the windows of the
courtyard, as she said in a whining tone–“Mix two tablespoonfuls of
soot with pine-juice and rum, and give it to him.”
Some one whom he could not see, but who stood behind her, recommended
cucumber-pickle and aqua regia.
Orloff felt suddenly with a clear flash the strong silent voice of his
soul speaking. In order to strengthen the flickering flame, he rubbed
his forehead briskly; then he left the room suddenly, ran across the
yard, and disappeared down the street.
“Oh, Lord!… The cobbler’s taken ill now!… He’s run off to the
Infirmary!” cried loudly the cook.
Matrona stood near her, with wide-open eyes, and trembling in her whole
“You’re a liar!” she said angrily, though her white lips could
scarcely pronounce the words. “My Grischka could not catch this filthy
complaint. He’d never give way to it.”
But the cook was not listening to her; she had already gone off
somewhere else, talking excitedly as she went along. Five minutes later
quite a crowd of neighbours and passers-by had assembled before the
merchant Petounukoff’s house. There they stood, whispering together
under their breath, and on each of their faces one could read the
same feeling of terror, nervous excitement and hopeless misery–mixed
with secret rage on the part of some, and of fictitious boldness on
that of others. Tschischik ran backwards and forwards between the
courtyard and the sick man’s room, bringing each time to the curious
crowd of onlookers some fresh piece of news about the condition of the
The crowd stood tightly pressed together, and filled the dusty,
foul-smelling air of the street with its half-uttered whispers. From
time to time a loud oath from some undistinguishable quarter was heard;
an oath as senseless as it was malicious.
“Look there; there’s Orloff coming!”
Orloff drove up on an ambulance-van covered over with a white awning,
which stopped at the door of the old house. He was seated by the side
of the driver, a dark-looking man, who was also dressed in white linen.
“Make way there! Get out of the way!” shouted the driver of the
carriage, in a deep bass voice to the bystanders.
He drove right into the midst of the crowd, so that they scattered
to right and left, falling over each other. The sight of the
ambulance-van, and the rough voice of the driver, both helped to calm
the excited feelings of the onlookers, and many of them left their
posts of observation. Close behind the driver was to be seen the
medical student, who had the day before visited the Orloffs. His hat
was on the back of his head, big drops of perspiration stood out on his
forehead. He wore a long, dazzlingly white coat, in front of which a
big hole had been burnt out with some strong acid.
“Now then, Orloff! Where’s the sick man?” asked the student in a loud
voice, throwing a critical glance at the bystanders, who were loitering
about in small knots, partially concealed behind the comers of the
“Look out! There’s the cook coming,” cried some one.
“Take care, or he’ll cook you something you don’t like!” replied a
second voice in a vicious tone.
The would-be wit, who is always to be found in a crowd, shouted out,
“Just wait; he’ll cook a broth for you that won’t agree with your
The crowd laughed, but it was a mirthless laugh, a mixture of fear and
“They don’t seem to be afraid of the infection themselves…. That’s
rather difficult to understand,” some one in the crowd remarked, with a
meaning look, but in a voice that betrayed hatred. Under the impression
of this question the faces in the crowd took on once more threatening
expressions, and the conversation fell to low whispers.
“Look, they are bringing him out now!”
“Orloff is carrying him! Just look what a bold fellow he is!”
“It’s true, he has plenty of courage.”
“What does it matter for a sot like him? What has he to be afraid of?”
“Carefully, carefully, Orloff! Lift his legs higher … that’s right
Ate you ready?… Drive on, Peter!” the student ordered. “Tell the
doctor I will follow him directly…. I beg of you, Mr. Orloff, to stay
here for a time and help me to disinfect the place…. You might take
this opportunity of learning what to do in case of necessity some other
time. Is it agreed? Yes?”
“We can set about it at once,” said Orloff with visible pride, glancing
round at the crowd.
“I will help too!” cried Tschischik.
He had followed the ambulance-van up to the door of the Infirmary,
and had already returned in time to offer his services to the medical
student The latter looked at him over his spectacles.
“Who are you, my little chap?”
“I am the apprentice here at the painter’s,” replied Tschischik.
“And you are not afraid of the cholera?”
“I … afraid?” replied Senka, astonished. “I am not afraid of anything
in the world.”
“Is that so?… Well, that’s all right…. Just listen now, my friends.”
The student sat down on a barrel which stood in the yard, and, whilst
he rocked himself backwards and forwards on it, he began to explain
to Orloff and Tschischik how, before everything else, they must be
scrupulously clean in their own persons.
A few minutes later Matrona, smiling anxiously, joined the group in
the courtyard. The cook followed her, wiping her tear-stained eyes with
a damp apron. One by one the crowd followed, approaching the group
where sat the student, with furtive steps as a cat might approach a
sparrow. After about a dozen people had collected, the student became
more enthusiastic and interested, for he observed the increasing
attention paid to what he was saying. Standing in their midst, and
gesticulating as he spoke, he gave a sort of lecture, raising by turns
a laugh, or calling forth an expression of distrust.
“The principal thing, gentlemen, in all cases of illness is cleanliness
in your own persons, and good fresh air,” thus he instructed his
“But those who keep clean manage to die all the same!” remarked one of
“Ah! dear Lord!” sighed the painter’s cook out loud. “It would be
better to pray to the holy martyr St. Barbara to save us from a sudden
Orloff stood near his wife, and though apparently occupied with his own
thoughts, watched the student with a fixed stare. Suddenly he felt some
one pull his sleeve.
“Little Uncle Grigori!” whispered Tschischik in his ear, standing on
tiptoe, and looking at the cobbler with small round eyes that glowed
like burning coals. “The poor Mitri Pavlovitch is going to die. He has
no relations–what will become of his accordion?”
“Keep quiet, you little imp!” Orloff replied, and pushed him on one
Senka looked in at the window of the room from which they had just
carried out the accordion-player, his eyes searching round with a
“Well, as a final word of caution, my friends, use plenty of chloride
of lime!” the student’s voice was heard once more saying.