The Cook’s Wedding and other stories, by Anton Chekhov

The Runaway

IT had been a long business. At first Pashka had walked with his mother in the rain, at one time across a mown field, then by forest paths, where the yellow leaves stuck to his boots; he had walked until it was daylight. Then he had stood for two hours in the dark passage, waiting for the door to open. It was not so cold and damp in the passage as in the yard, but with the high wind spurts of rain flew in even there. When the passage gradually became packed with people Pashka, squeezed among them, leaned his face against somebody’s sheepskin which smelt strongly of salt fish, and sank into a doze. But at last the bolt clicked, the door flew open, and Pashka and his mother went into the waiting-room. All the patients sat on benches without stirring or speaking. Pashka looked round at them, and he too was silent, though he was seeing a great deal that was strange and funny. Only once, when a lad came into the waiting-room hopping on one leg, Pashka longed to hop too; he nudged his mother’s elbow, giggled in his sleeve, and said: “Look, mammy, a sparrow.”

“Hush, child, hush!” said his mother.

A sleepy-looking hospital assistant appeared at the little window.

“Come and be registered!” he boomed out.

All of them, including the funny lad who hopped, filed up to the window. The assistant asked each one his name, and his father’s name, where he lived, how long he had been ill, and so on. From his mother’s answers, Pashka learned that his name was not Pashka, but Pavel Galaktionov, that he was seven years old, that he could not read or write, and that he had been ill ever since Easter.

Soon after the registration, he had to stand up for a little while; the doctor in a white apron, with a towel round his waist, walked across the waiting-room. As he passed by the boy who hopped, he shrugged his shoulders, and said in a sing-song tenor:

“Well, you are an idiot! Aren’t you an idiot? I told you to come on Monday, and you come on Friday. It’s nothing to me if you don’t come at all, but you know, you idiot, your leg will be done for!”

The lad made a pitiful face, as though he were going to beg for alms, blinked, and said:

“Kindly do something for me, Ivan Mikolaitch!”

“It’s no use saying ‘Ivan Mikolaitch,’” the doctor mimicked him. “You were told to come on Monday, and you ought to obey. You are an idiot, and that is all about it.”

The doctor began seeing the patients. He sat in his little room, and called up the patients in turn. Sounds were continually coming from the little room, piercing wails, a child’s crying, or the doctor’s angry words:

“Come, why are you bawling? Am I murdering you, or what? Sit quiet!”

Pashka’s turn came.

“Pavel Galaktionov!” shouted the doctor.

His mother was aghast, as though she had not expected this summons, and taking Pashka by the hand, she led him into the room.

The doctor was sitting at the table, mechanically tapping on a thick book with a little hammer.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, without looking at them.

“The little lad has an ulcer on his elbow, sir,” answered his mother, and her face assumed an expression as though she really were terribly grieved at Pashka’s ulcer.

“Undress him!”

Pashka, panting, unwound the kerchief from his neck, then wiped his nose on his sleeve, and began deliberately pulling off his sheepskin.

“Woman, you have not come here on a visit!” said the doctor angrily. “Why are you dawdling? You are not the only one here.”

Pashka hurriedly flung the sheepskin on the floor, and with his mother’s help took off his shirt . . . The doctor looked at him lazily, and patted him on his bare stomach.

“You have grown quite a respectable corporation, brother Pashka,” he said, and heaved a sigh. “Come, show me your elbow.”

Pashka looked sideways at the basin full of bloodstained slops, looked at the doctor’s apron, and began to cry.

“May-ay!” the doctor mimicked him. “Nearly old enough to be married, spoilt boy, and here he is blubbering! For shame!”

Pashka, trying not to cry, looked at his mother, and in that look could be read the entreaty: “Don’t tell them at home that I cried at the hospital.”

The doctor examined his elbow, pressed it, heaved a sigh, clicked with his lips, then pressed it again.

“You ought to be beaten, woman, but there is no one to do it,” he said. “Why didn’t you bring him before? Why, the whole arm is done for. Look, foolish woman. You see, the joint is diseased!”

“You know best, kind sir . . .” sighed the woman.

“Kind sir. . . . She’s let the boy’s arm rot, and now it is ‘kind sir.’ What kind of workman will he be without an arm? You’ll be nursing him and looking after him for ages. I bet if you had had a pimple on your nose, you’d have run to the hospital quick enough, but you have left your boy to rot for six months. You are all like that.”

The doctor lighted a cigarette. While the cigarette smoked, he scolded the woman, and shook his head in time to the song he was humming inwardly, while he thought of something else. Pashka stood naked before him, listening and looking at the smoke. When the cigarette went out, the doctor started, and said in a lower tone:

“Well, listen, woman. You can do nothing with ointments and drops in this case. You must leave him in the hospital.”

“If necessary, sir, why not?

“We must operate on him. You stop with me, Pashka,” said the doctor, slapping Pashka on the shoulder. “Let mother go home, and you and I will stop here, old man. It’s nice with me, old boy, it’s first-rate here. I’ll tell you what we’ll do, Pashka, we will go catching finches together. I will show you a fox! We will go visiting together! Shall we? And mother will come for you tomorrow! Eh?”

Pashka looked inquiringly at his mother.

“You stay, child!” she said.

“He’ll stay, he’ll stay!” cried the doctor gleefully. “And there is no need to discuss it. I’ll show him a live fox! We will go to the fair together to buy candy! Marya Denisovna, take him upstairs!”

The doctor, apparently a light-hearted and friendly fellow, seemed glad to have company; Pashka wanted to oblige him, especially as he had never in his life been to a fair, and would have been glad to have a look at a live fox, but how could he do without his mother?

After a little reflection he decided to ask the doctor to let his mother stay in the hospital too, but before he had time to open his mouth the lady assistant was already taking him upstairs. He walked up and looked about him with his mouth open. The staircase, the floors, and the doorposts — everything huge, straight, and bright-were painted a splendid yellow colour, and had a delicious smell of Lenten oil. On all sides lamps were hanging, strips of carpet stretched along the floor, copper taps stuck out on the walls. But best of all Pashka liked the bedstead upon which he was made to sit down, and the grey woollen coverlet. He touched the pillows and the coverlet with his hands, looked round the ward, and made up his mind that it was very nice at the doctor’s.

The ward was not a large one, it consisted of only three beds. One bed stood empty, the second was occupied by Pashka, and on the third sat an old man with sour eyes, who kept coughing and spitting into a mug. From Pashka’s bed part of another ward could be seen with two beds; on one a very pale wasted-looking man with an india-rubber bottle on his head was asleep; on the other a peasant with his head tied up, looking very like a woman, was sitting with his arms spread out.

After making Pashka sit down, the assistant went out and came back a little later with a bundle of clothes under her arm.

“These are for you,” she said, “put them on.”

Pashka undressed and, not without satisfaction began attiring himself in his new array. When he had put on the shirt, the drawers, and the little grey dressing-gown, he looked at himself complacently, and thought that it would not be bad to walk through the village in that costume. His imagination pictured his mother’s sending him to the kitchen garden by the river to gather cabbage leaves for the little pig; he saw himself walking along, while the boys and girls surrounded him and looked with envy at his little dressing-gown.

A nurse came into the ward, bringing two tin bowls, two spoons, and two pieces of bread. One bowl she set before the old man, the other before Pashka.

“Eat!” she said.

Looking into his bowl, Pashka saw some rich cabbage soup, and in the soup a piece of meat, and thought again that it was very nice at the doctor’s, and that the doctor was not nearly so cross as he had seemed at first. He spent a long time swallowing the soup, licking the spoon after each mouthful, then when there was nothing left in the bowl but the meat he stole a look at the old man, and felt envious that he was still eating the soup. With a sigh Pashka attacked the meat, trying to make it last as long as possible, but his efforts were fruitless; the meat, too, quickly vanished. There was nothing left but the piece of bread. Plain bread without anything on it was not appetising, but there was no help for it. Pashka thought a little, and ate the bread. At that moment the nurse came in with another bowl. This time there was roast meat with potatoes in the bowl.

“And where is the bread?” asked the nurse.

Instead of answering, Pashka puffed out his cheeks, and blew out the air.

“Why did you gobble it all up?” said the nurse reproachfully. “What are you going to eat your meat with?”

She went and fetched another piece of bread. Pashka had never eaten roast meat in his life, and trying it now found it very nice. It vanished quickly, and then he had a piece of bread left bigger than the first. When the old man had finished his dinner, he put away the remains of his bread in a little table. Pashka meant to do the same, but on second thoughts ate his piece.

When he had finished he went for a walk. In the next ward, besides the two he had seen from the door, there were four other people. Of these only one drew his attention. This was a tall, extremely emaciated peasant with a morose-looking, hairy face. He was sitting on the bed, nodding his head and swinging his right arm all the time like a pendulum. Pashka could not take his eyes off him for a long time. At first the man’s regular pendulum-like movements seemed to him curious, and he thought they were done for the general amusement, but when he looked into the man’s face he felt frightened, and realised that he was terribly ill. Going into a third ward he saw two peasants with dark red faces as though they were smeared with clay. They were sitting motionless on their beds, and with their strange faces, in which it was hard to distinguish their features, they looked like heathen idols.

“Auntie, why do they look like that?” Pashka asked the nurse.

“They have got smallpox, little lad.”

Going back to his own ward, Pashka sat down on his bed and began waiting for the doctor to come and take him to catch finches, or to go to the fair. But the doctor did not come. He got a passing glimpse of a hospital assistant at the door of the next ward. He bent over the patient on whose head lay a bag of ice, and cried: “Mihailo!”

But the sleeping man did not stir. The assistant made a gesture and went away. Pashka scrutinised the old man, his next neighbour. The old man coughed without ceasing and spat into a mug. His cough had a long-drawn-out, creaking sound.

Pashka liked one peculiarity about him; when he drew the air in as he coughed, something in his chest whistled and sang on different notes.

“Grandfather, what is it whistles in you?” Pashka asked.

The old man made no answer. Pashka waited a little and asked:

“Grandfather, where is the fox?”

“What fox?”

“The live one.”

“Where should it be? In the forest!”

A long time passed, but the doctor still did not appear. The nurse brought in tea, and scolded Pashka for not having saved any bread for his tea; the assistant came once more and set to work to wake Mihailo. It turned blue outside the windows, the wards were lighted up, but the doctor did not appear. It was too late now to go to the fair and catch finches; Pashka stretched himself on his bed and began thinking. He remembered the candy promised him by the doctor, the face and voice of his mother, the darkness in his hut at home, the stove, peevish granny Yegorovna . . . and he suddenly felt sad and dreary. He remembered that his mother was coming for him next day, smiled, and shut his eyes.

He was awakened by a rustling. In the next ward someone was stepping about and speaking in a whisper. Three figures were moving about Mihailo’s bed in the dim light of the night-light and the ikon lamp.

“Shall we take him, bed and all, or without?” asked one of them.

“Without. You won’t get through the door with the bed.”

“He’s died at the wrong time, the Kingdom of Heaven be his!”

One took Mihailo by his shoulders, another by his legs and lifted him up: Mihailo’s arms and the skirt of his dressing-gown hung limply to the ground. A third — it was the peasant who looked like a woman — crossed himself, and all three tramping clumsily with their feet and stepping on Mihailo’s skirts, went out of the ward.

There came the whistle and humming on different notes from the chest of the old man who was asleep. Pashka listened, peeped at the dark windows, and jumped out of bed in terror.

“Ma-a-mka!” he moaned in a deep bass.

And without waiting for an answer, he rushed into the next ward. There the darkness was dimly lighted up by a night-light and the ikon lamp; the patients, upset by the death of Mihailo, were sitting on their bedsteads: their dishevelled figures, mixed up with the shadows, looked broader, taller, and seemed to be growing bigger and bigger; on the furthest bedstead in the corner, where it was darkest, there sat the peasant moving his head and his hand.

Pashka, without noticing the doors, rushed into the smallpox ward, from there into the corridor, from the corridor he flew into a big room where monsters, with long hair and the faces of old women, were lying and sitting on the beds. Running through the women’s wing he found himself again in the corridor, saw the banisters of the staircase he knew already, and ran downstairs. There he recognised the waiting-room in which he had sat that morning, and began looking for the door into the open air.

The latch creaked, there was a whiff of cold wind, and Pashka, stumbling, ran out into the yard. He had only one thought — to run, to run! He did not know the way, but felt convinced that if he ran he would be sure to find himself at home with his mother. The sky was overcast, but there was a moon behind the clouds. Pashka ran from the steps straight forward, went round the barn and stumbled into some thick bushes; after stopping for a minute and thinking, he dashed back again to the hospital, ran round it, and stopped again undecided; behind the hospital there were white crosses.

“Ma-a-mka!” he cried, and dashed back.

Running by the dark sinister buildings, he saw one lighted window.

The bright red patch looked dreadful in the darkness, but Pashka, frantic with terror, not knowing where to run, turned towards it. Beside the window was a porch with steps, and a front door with a white board on it; Pashka ran up the steps, looked in at the window, and was at once possessed by intense overwhelming joy. Through the window he saw the merry affable doctor sitting at the table reading a book. Laughing with happiness, Pashka stretched out his hands to the person he knew and tried to call out, but some unseen force choked him and struck at his legs; he staggered and fell down on the steps unconscious.

When he came to himself it was daylight, and a voice he knew very well, that had promised him a fair, finches, and a fox, was saying beside him:

“Well, you are an idiot, Pashka! Aren’t you an idiot? You ought to be beaten, but there’s no one to do it.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/chekhov/anton/cooks-wedding/chapter4.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06