The Professor received a telegram from the Lialikov factory: they asked him to come as soon as possible. The daughter of a certain Madame Lialikov —the owner of the factory, it would seem— was sick, and nothing more than that could be understood from the long and incoherently composed telegram. The Professor himself did not set out, but sent his intern Korolev in his place.
One had to travel two stations from Moscow and then another four versts by carriage. They sent a troika to pick Korolev up at the station. The driver was in a hat with a peacock feather and to all questions he answered loudly, in a soldierly way: “No Sir!” “Yes Sir!” It was a Saturday night, the sun was setting. The workers were walking from the factory to the station in a crush, and they bowed to the horses on which Korolev was riding. And he was captivated by the evening, and the estates and dachas along the road, and the birches, and the quiet mood all around, as, so it seemed, together with the workers now on the eve of the holiday, field and forest and sun were preparing to have a rest. To have a rest and, perhaps, to pray…
He was born and raised in Moscow. He never knew the countryside, and factories had never interested him, nor had he ever visited them. But he’d had occasion to read about factories and to be a guest at the homes of factory owners and to speak with them; and once he caught a glimpse of this or that factory, from far away or up close, then each time he would think about how from the outside everything was quiet and peaceful, while from the inside, most likely, there was the impenetrable ignorance and the dull egoism of the owners, the boring, unhealthy labor of the workers, and squabbles, vodka and insects. And now, when the workers were deferentially and fearfully making way for the carriage, he saw in their faces, in their peaked caps, in their gait – physical uncleanliness, drunkenness, nerves and embarrassment.
They pulled in to the factory gates. Small workers’ huts, women’s faces, laundry and linen on the porches flashed by on either side. “Watch out!” the coachman shouted, without restraining his horses. And now there was a wide grassless yard, and five large buildings with smokestacks at a distance from one another, warehouses, barracks – and upon everything a kind of grey residue, as if from dust. Here and there, like oases in the desert, pathetic little gardens and the green or red roofs of the houses in which the administration lived. The coachman suddenly reined in the horses and the carriage came to a stop next to a house that had been newly painted grey. There was a front garden with lilacs, all covered in dust, and on the yellow porch it smelled strongly of paint.
“Do come in, Doctor,” said women’s voices from the entryway and the front room. At the same time he heard sighs and whispers.
“Do come in, we’re so worn out… Pure grief. This way, if you please.”
Madame Lialikov, a full-figured, older woman, in a black silk dress with fashionable sleeves, though, judging by her face, simple and uneducated, looked at the doctor with trepidation and couldn’t decide whether to give the doctor her hand; she hadn’t the nerve. Nearby her stood a woman with short hair, in pince-nez and a colorful blouse. She was thin and no longer young. The servants called her Kristina Dmitrievna, and Korolev guessed that she was the governess. It would appear that it fell to her, as the most educated person in the household, to meet and welcome the doctor, for she began, at this very moment, to hurriedly lay out the reasons for the sickness in fine, annoying detail, without mentioning, however, who was sick and what was the matter.
The doctor and the governess sat and talked, but the hostess stood motionlessly by the door, waiting. From their conversation Korolev understood that the one who was sick was Liza, a girl of twenty, the only heir and daughter of Madame Lialikov. She had been sick for quite a while and had been cared for by different doctors, but last night, from evening until morning, she had had such heart palpitations that nobody in the house could sleep; they had been afraid that she would die.
“She’s been sickly since a young age, you might say,” said Kristina Dmitrievna in a singsong voice, now and again wiping her lips with her hand. “The doctors say it’s nerves, but when she was young the doctors drove the scrofula deep inside of her, and I think, perhaps, this is the cause.”
They went to the sick girl. A grown-up girl, full-bodied and of good height, but not pretty, she looked like her mother, with the same small eyes and well-developed, disproportionate lower half of the face. Hair uncombed, covered up to her chin, from the first moment she made the impression upon Korolev of an unfortunate, wretched being, sheltered and protected here out of pity; it was hard to believe that this was the heiress to the five large buildings.
“We have come,” began Korolev, “to treat you. Hello.”
He presented himself and shook her hand: a large, cold unattractive hand. She sat up and, obviously long used to doctors and indifferent to the fact that her shoulders and chest were exposed, she gave herself over to the examination.
“I’ve got heart palpitations,” she said. “The whole night through, such terror… I nearly died from terror. You must give me something.”
“I shall, I shall! Calm down.”
Korolev looked her over and shrugged his shoulders.
“The heart is perfectly fine,” he said. “All is well, everything is in order. Your nerves, most likely, simply acted out a bit, but this is nothing unusual. The attack has finished, almost certainly. Lie down and go to sleep.”
At that moment a lamp was brought into the bedroom. The sick girl squinted her eyes at the light and suddenly, taking her head in her hands, began to sob. The impression of a wretched and unattractive being immediately disappeared, and Korolev already ceased to notice the small eyes, the ungainly lower half of the face. He saw the soft, suffering expression, so perceptive and touching, and all of her seemed to him full-figured, feminine, simple, and he wanted to calm her not with medicine, not with advice, but with a simple tender word. Her mother grabbed her head and drew it towards her. How much despair, how much sorrow on the face of the old woman! She, the mother, had fed and raised her daughter, had held back nothing, had given over her entire life so that she would learn French, dancing, music; she invited dozens of the best teachers, doctors, had retained a governess, and now she could not understand where these tears were coming from, why so much suffering, she could not understand and was lost, and she had a guilty, worried, desperate expression on her face, exactly as if there were still something extremely important that she’d neglected, had left something unfinished, had forgotten to call for someone – but who that person was, she did not know.
“Lizanka, again… again you’ve…” she said, clasping her daughter close. “My dear one, my little sweetheart, precious child, tell me, what’s wrong? Have pity, tell me.”
Both of them cried bitterly. Korolev sat on the edge of the bed and took Liza by the hand.
“Come, enough of this. Is it worth crying?” he said tenderly. “I think there’s nothing on this earth that would be worthy of these tears. Let’s not, we mustn’t cry…”
Meanwhile, he thought to himself, “It is high time for her to marry…”
“Our in-house doctor at the factory gave her potassium bromate,” said the governess, “but I think that’s only made it worse. In my opinion, if one is to give something for the heart, then it’s drops: I’ve forgotten how they’re called… Convallaria, is it?”
And once more the details came cascading. She interrupted the doctor, wouldn’t let him speak, and on her face was writ effort, as if she’d resolved that, as the most educated woman in the house, she was absolutely bound to carry on uninterrupted conversation with the doctor about medicine.
Korolev grew bored.
“I can’t find anything specific,” he said, walking out of the bedroom and addressing the mother. “If the factory doctor has attended to your daughter, then let him continue to tend to her. The treatment to this point has been correct, and I don’t see any reason you have to switch doctors. Why switch? The sickness is an ordinary one, nothing serious…”
He spoke unhurriedly, putting on his gloves, but Madame Lialikov stood motionless and watched him with teary eyes.
“A half hour until the ten o’clock train,” he said. “I hope I won’t be late.”
“But can’t you stay?” she asked, and again tears flowed down her cheeks. “It’s a shame to trouble you, but won’t you be so good… For God’s sake,” she continued in a halftone, glancing towards the door, “stay the night with us. She’s my only… only daughter… She scared me so last night, I can’t forget it… For God’s sake, don’t leave…”
He wanted to tell her that in Moscow he had much work to do, that his family was waiting at home. It was difficult for him to spend an entire evening and night in a strange house when there was no need to, but he looked at her face, sighed and began to silently take off his gloves.
In the hallway and guestroom they had lit all the lamps and candles for him. He sat at the piano and leafed through the notes, then examined the pictures on the walls and the portraits. In the pictures, painted with oils, in golden frames, were scenes of the Crimea, a stormy sea with ships, a Catholic monk with a wine glass – and all of it dry, fawning and useless. In the portraits there was not one interesting, attractive face: they were all high cheekbones and wide eyes; Lialikov, Liza’s father, had a small forehead and a self-satisfied mien, his uniform sat like a sack upon his large unrefined body, on his chest was a medal and an insignia of the Red Cross. There was a dearth of culture, the elegance was incidental, unplanned, and unfitting as the uniform. The floors were irritating with their sheen; the chandeliers were irritating, and he was reminded for some reason of a story about a merchant who goes to the banya with a medal around his neck…
From the front room came the sound of whispering; someone snored lightly. Of a sudden, from the yard were heard shrill, abrupt metallic sounds, the likes of which Korolev had never heard before, and which he could not understand at this moment. They resounded strangely and incomprehensively in his soul.
“Not for the world would I stay and live here, that is for certain,” he thought and again took up the musical notes.
“Doctor, please, come eat something!” called the governess in a subdued tone.
He went to dine. The table was large, with many types of little dishes and wines, but they were only two at the table: he and Kristina Dmitrievna. She drank Madeira wine, ate quickly and, glancing at him through her pince-nez, spoke:
“Our workers are very satisfied here. Every winter at our factory we have a play—the workers themselves perform—and readings with a magic lantern, a wonderful tearoom and so much else, too, it seems. They are very loyal to us and when they found out that Lizanka was ill again, they held a service for her. Uneducated, but they have feelings too, it turns out.”
“It looks as though there’s not a man in this house,” said Korolev.
“Not a one. Petr Nikanorovich passed away a year and a half ago, and we’re left alone. So the three of us live together. In summer here, in winter – in Moscow, at Polianka Street. I’ve been living with them for eleven years already. Like one of the family.”
For the main course they served sterlet, chicken cutlets and compote. The wine was expensive, French.
“Please, Doctor – don’t stand on ceremony,” said Kristina Dmitrievna, eating and wiping her mouth with her hand; it was obvious she lived here to her complete contentment. “Please, eat.”
After dinner the doctor was led into his room, where they’d made up a bed for him. But he wasn’t in the mood to sleep, it was stuffy and the room smelled of paint; he put on his coat and stepped outside.
In the yard it was breezy. Dawn was already breaking and in the damp air the barracks, warehouses and all five of the buildings with their smokestacks could be clearly seen. Because it was a holiday, they were not operating. The windows were dark, and only in one of the buildings was a furnace still burning: two windows were crimson and every so often a flame, together with its smoke, burst out from the pipes. Frogs shouted and nightingales sang out far beyond the yard.
Looking at the buildings and at the barracks where the workers slept, he began to think about what he always thought about when he saw factories. Sure, there were plays for the workers, magic lanterns, factory doctors, different improvements, but still, the workers whom he met today along the road from the station differed not at all from those he had seen long ago in his childhood, when there hadn’t yet come into existence factory performances and improvements. As a medic who correctly diagnosed chronic illnesses, the root reasons for which were unknowable and incurable, so he looked upon the factory as if at something puzzling, the reason for which was similarly unclear and impossible to be rid of, and he did not consider all the improvements in the life of the factory workers extraneous, but compared them to the treatment of incurable diseases.
“This is puzzling, of course…” he thought, glancing at the crimson windows. “One and a half, two thousand factory workers without a vacation, in unhealthy conditions, producing cheap cotton goods, live half-starving and only rarely in a tavern do they sober up from this nightmare. Hundreds of people oversee their work, and the lives of these hundreds are spent on writing up fines, in abuse, in injustice, and only one or two of the so-called owners reap the profits, though they themselves don’t work at all and look down on the cheap cotton goods. But what are those profits which they reap? Lialikov and her daughter are unhappy, it’s pitiful to look at them. The only one living in contentment is Kristina Dmitrievna, a woman no longer young, a moronic spinster in pince-nez. And so, it turns out that all these five buildings operate, and in Eastern markets these cheap cotton goods are sold, only so that Kristina Dmitrievna can eat sterlet and drink Madeira wine.”
Suddenly strange sounds were heard, those same ones which Korolev had heard before dinner. Near one of the buildings someone was banging on a sheet of metal, was banging and then suddenly holding back the vibrations, so that the result was short, shrill, tainted sounds, something like “Der… der… der.” Then a half-minute of quiet, and from another building rang out sounds, just as abrupt and unpleasant, already lower, in bass: “Driin… driin… driin.” Eleven times. Clearly it was the watchman sounding eleven o’clock.
“Zhak… zhak… zhak…” was heard near a third building, and then near all of the buildings, behind the barricades and beyond the fence. It seemed as though in the middle of the nighttime quiet the sound was given off by the monstrosity itself, with its crimson windows, like the devil, who ruled here over owner and worker alike, and who deceived one and all.
Korolev left the yard and stepped into the field.
“Who goes there?” a rude voice called out to him at the gates.
“Just like in prison,” he thought, and answered nothing.
Here the nightingales and frogs were louder, the May night could be felt. The noise of a train carried from the station; sleepy roosters shouted from somewhere, but all the same the night was quiet, the world was peacefully sleeping. In a field not far from the factory stood the skeleton of a building, and the building materials were laid out here. Korolev sat on a board and continued thinking:
“The governess is the only one who feels good here, and the factory operates for her contentment. But it only seems like that. She’s simply a stand-in here. The real person for whom this is all being done is – the devil.”
And he thought about the devil, whom he didn’t believe in, and he glanced around at the two windows in which a fire burned. It seemed to him that out of these crimson eyes the devil himself was looking at him – that mysterious force which determined the relationship between weak and strong, that terrible mistake, that now nobody could correct. It is necessary that the strong torment the weak: such is the law of nature, but this is understood and easily digested by the mind only in a newspaper article or a textbook. But in the mess of everyday life, in the confusion of all those details that are woven by human relations, it is no longer a law but a logical absurdity when both the strong and the weak alike fall victim to their mutual relations, unwillingly bowing to some overarching unknown force that stands outside of life, on the sidelines of mankind. So Korolev thought, sitting on the boards, and little by little he was overtaken by a mood as if this unknown, mysterious force really was close by and was looking at him. Meanwhile the east was becoming paler and paler, time was moving quickly. Against the grey background of dawn, when there was not a soul around and it was as if everything had died, the five buildings and their smokestacks took on a certain look, different than in the daytime. That inside there were steam engines, electricity, telephones – this completely slipped his mind, but for some reason he thought more and more about lake dwellings, about the Stone Age, he felt the presence of a brute, unconscious force…
And again he heard:
“Der… der… der… der…”
Twelve times. Then it was quiet, for a half-minute it was quiet and from the other end of the yard rang out:
“Driin… driin… driin.”
“Horribly unpleasant!” thought Korolev.
“Zhak… zhak…” came the sounds from a third location, just as abrupt, shrill, as if in vexation. “Zhak… zhak…”
Four minutes were necessary in order for the twelfth hour to be fully announced. Then it fell silent, and again there was the impression that everything around had been extinguished.
Korolev sat a little longer and returned to the house, but did not lie down for quite a while yet. In the rooms next to his there were whispers, the sound of dragging slippers and bare feet.
“Can she really have fallen into another fit?” thought Korolev.
He stepped out to look in on the sick girl. It was already completely light in the rooms, and in the hallway along the walls and on the floor the weak sunlight was trembling, peeking through the morning fog. The door to Liza’s room was ajar, and she was sitting in an armchair next to the bed, in a long robe, wrapped in a shawl, her hair uncombed. The blinds on the windows had been let down.
“How do you feel?” asked Korolev.
“Fine, thank you.”
He felt her pulse, then fixed her hair, which had fallen across her forehead.
“You are not asleep,” he said. “There’s beautiful weather in the yard, spring, the nightingales are singing, and you’re sitting in the dark and thinking about something.”
She listened to him and looked upon his face: her eyes were sad, intelligent, and one could see that she wanted to say something to him.
“Does this happen often with you?” he asked.
She bit her lips and answered:
“Often. Nearly every night is painful for me.”
Just then the watchmen began to beat out two o’clock in the courtyard. “Der… der…” was heard, and she winced.
“Do these noises upset you?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Everything upsets me here,” she answered, and fell into thought. “Everything upsets me. In your voice I hear something shared, from my first glance of you it seemed that, for some reason, it was possible to talk with you about everything.”
“Go on, talk, please.”
“I want to give you my opinion. I don’t believe that what I have is a sickness, but rather that I am unnerved and scared, because this is how it has to be and it can’t be otherwise. Even the healthiest person can’t help but be upset, if, for example, a thief walks beneath his window. I often receive treatment,” she continued, looking at her knees, and smiling shyly. “Of course, I’m very grateful and I don’t discount the effectiveness of these treatments, but I would rather speak not with a doctor, but with somebody close to me, with a friend, somebody who would understand me, who would tell me whether I am right or wrong.”
“But don’t you have any friends?” asked Korolev.
“I am lonely. I have my mother, I love her, but all the same I’m lonely. Life turned out this way… Lonely people read much, but speak little and hear little, life for them is a mystery, they are mystics and often see the devil where he isn’t. Lermontov’s Tamara was lonely and saw the devil.”
“But do you read much?”
“Quite. All of my time is free, from morning until evening. I read during the day, and at night – an empty head, in place of thoughts there are shadows.”
“Do you see things at night?” asked Korolev.
“No, but I feel…”
Again she smiled and lifted her eyes to the doctor and looked at him so sadly, so intelligently. And he felt that she believed in him, that she wanted to speak with him sincerely and that her thoughts were his. But she was silent and, possibly, was waiting to see if he wouldn’t say something.
And he did not know what to say. For him it was clear that she needed to leave behind the five buildings and the millions, if she had them, to leave behind the devil who watched over her at night. It was also clear to him that she thought this way and that she herself was only waiting for someone whom she trusted to confirm it.
But he didn’t know how to say this. How? It is shameful to ask a condemned man what he’s been condemned for. Similarly, it is awkward to ask a wealthy man why he has so much money, why he disposes so poorly of his wealth, why he doesn’t rid himself of it even when he sees that his unhappiness resides in it. And if one does begin to talk about it, it usually ends up embarrassing, blundering and long.
“How can I put it?” considered Korolev. “And must I say something?”
And he said what he wanted to not directly, but circuitously.
“You, as an owner of a factory and a rich heiress, are unhappy, you don’t believe in your right to this and now you can’t sleep. This, of course, is better than if you were happy, slept soundly and thought that everything would turn out well. Your insomnia is honorable; in any case, it’s a good sign. At the same time, this conversation would have been unfathomable to our parents, this one we’re having now. At night they didn’t converse, but slept soundly. We, meanwhile, our generation, sleep poorly, we discuss many things and are always trying to decide whether or not we are in the right. For our children and grandchildren this question—whether or not they are in the right—will already be decided. It will be more obvious to them than it is to us. Life will be better in fifty years’ time. It’s only a shame that we won’t reach it. It would be interesting to see.”
“But just what will our children and grandchildren do?” asked Liza.
“I don’t know… It must be, they’ll quit all this and go away.”
“Where will they go?”
“Where? Wherever they please,” said Korolev and began to laugh. “There’s no dearth of places where a good, intelligent person might go.”
He glanced at his watch.
“However, the sun’s already come up,” he said. “It’s time for you to sleep. Get undressed and sleep to your health. I’m very glad to have been acquainted with you,” he continued, shaking her hand. “You are a superb, interesting person. Good night!”
He went into his room and went to sleep.
The next morning, when the carriage pulled up, they all went out onto the porch to see him off. Liza was dressed for the holiday in a white dress, with a flower in her hair, pale, exhausted. She looked at him, as she had the day before, sadly and intelligently, smiling, and she talked with the same expression, as if she wanted to tell him something special, important – to tell him alone. One could hear how the larks were singing, how the church bells pealed. The windows in the factory buildings were shining brightly and, passing through the yard and then along the road to the station, Korolev no longer remembered the workers nor the lake dwellings and the devil, and thought about the time, perhaps not so far from now, when life would be so bright and gay as on this quiet Sunday morning. And he thought about how pleasant it was on a spring morning such as this to ride in a fine troika carriage and to warm oneself in the sun.