A.P. Chekhov -
A Nervous Breakdown
A MEDICAL student called Mayer, and a pupil
of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture
called Rybnikov, went one evening to see their friend Vassilyev,
a law student, and suggested that he should go with them to S.
Street. For a long time Vassilyev would not consent to go, but
in the end he put on his greatcoat and went with them.
He knew nothing of fallen women except by hearsay and from
books, and he had never in his life been in the houses in which
they live. He knew that there are immoral women who, under the
pressure of fatal circumstances -- environment, bad education,
poverty, and so on -- are forced to sell their honor for money.
They know nothing of pure love, have no children, have no civil
rights; their mothers and sisters weep over them as though they
were dead, science treats of them as an evil, men address them
with contemptuous familiarity. But in spite of all that, they do
not lose the semblance and image of God. They all acknowledge
their sin and hope for salvation. Of the means that lead to
salvation they can avail themselves to the fullest extent.
Society, it is true, will not forgive people their past, but in
the sight of God St. Mary of Egypt is no lower than the other
saints. When it had happened to Vassilyev in the street to
recognize a fallen woman as such, by her dress or her manners,
or to see a picture of one in a comic paper, he always
remembered a story he had once read: a young man, pure and
self-sacrificing, loves a fallen woman and urges her to become
his wife; she, considering herself unworthy of such happiness,
Vassilyev lived in one of the side streets turning out of
Tverskoy Boulevard. When he came out of the house with his two
friends it was about eleven o'clock. The first snow had not long
fallen, and all nature was under the spell of the fresh snow.
There was the smell of snow in the air, the snow crunched softly
under the feet; the earth, the roofs, the trees, the seats on
the boulevard, everything was soft, white, young, and this made
the houses look quite different from the day before; the street
lamps burned more brightly, the air was more transparent, the
carriages rumbled with a deeper note, and with the fresh, light,
frosty air a feeling stirred in the soul akin to the white,
youthful, feathery snow. "Against my will an unknown force,"
hummed the medical student in his agreeable tenor, "has led me
to these mournful shores."
"Behold the mill . . ." the artist seconded him, "in ruins now.
. . ."
"Behold the mill . . . in ruins now," the medical student
repeated, raising his eyebrows and shaking his head mournfully.
He paused, rubbed his forehead, trying to remember the words,
and then sang aloud, so well that passers-by looked round:
"Here in old days when I was free,
Love, free, unfettered, greeted me."
The three of them went into a restaurant and, without taking off
their greatcoats, drank a couple of glasses of vodka each.
Before drinking the second glass, Vassilyev noticed a bit of
cork in his vodka, raised the glass to his eyes, and gazed into
it for a long time, screwing up his shortsighted eyes. The
medical student did not understand his expression, and said:
"Come, why look at it? No philosophizing, please. Vodka is given
us to be drunk, sturgeon to be eaten, women to be visited, snow
to be walked upon. For one evening anyway live like a human
"But I haven't said anything . . ." said Vassilyev, laughing.
"Am I refusing to?"
There was a warmth inside him from the vodka. He looked with
softened feelings at his friends, admired them and envied them.
In these strong, healthy, cheerful people how wonderfully
balanced everything is, how finished and smooth is everything in
their minds and souls! They sing, and have a passion for the
theatre, and draw, and talk a great deal, and drink, and they
don't have headaches the day after; they are both poetical and
debauched, both soft and hard; they can work, too, and be
indignant, and laugh without reason, and talk nonsense; they are
warm, honest, self-sacrificing, and as men are in no way
inferior to himself, Vassilyev, who watched over every step he
took and every word he uttered, who was fastidious and cautious,
and ready to raise every trifle to the level of a problem. And
he longed for one evening to live as his friends did, to open
out, to let himself loose from his own control. If vodka had to
be drunk, he would drink it, though his head would be splitting
next morning. If he were taken to the women he would go. He
would laugh, play the fool, gaily respond to the passing
advances of strangers in the street. . . .
He went out of the restaurant laughing. He liked his friends --
one in a crushed broad-brimmed hat, with an affectation of
artistic untidiness; the other in a sealskin cap, a man not
poor, though he affected to belong to the Bohemia of learning.
He liked the snow, the pale street lamps, the sharp black tracks
left in the first snow by the feet of the passers-by. He liked
the air, and especially that limpid, tender, nave, as it were
virginal tone, which can be seen in nature only twice in the
year -- when everything is covered with snow, and in spring on
bright days and moonlight evenings when the ice breaks on the
"Against my will an unknown force,
Has led me to these mournful shores,"
he hummed in an undertone.
And the tune for some reason haunted him and his friends all the
way, and all three of them hummed it mechanically, not in time
with one another.
Vassilyev's imagination was picturing how, in another ten
minutes, he and his friends would knock at a door; how by little
dark passages and dark rooms they would steal in to the women;
how, taking advantage of the darkness, he would strike a match,
would light up and see the face of a martyr and a guilty smile.
The unknown, fair or dark, would certainly have her hair down
and be wearing a white dressing-jacket; she would be
panic-stricken by the light, would be fearfully confused, and
would say: "For God's sake, what are you doing! Put it out!" It
would all be dreadful, but interesting and new.