A FORTNIGHT passed by. Nellie was recovering. She did not develop brain fever but she was seriously ill. She began to get up again on a bright sunny day at the end of April. It was Passion Week.
Poor little creature. I cannot go on with my story in the same consecutive way. Now that I am describing all this it is long past, but to this very minute I recall with an oppressive heart. rending anguish that pale, thin little face, the searching, intent gaze of her black eyes when we were sometimes left alone together and she fixed upon me from her bed a prolonged gaze as though challenging me to guess what was in her mind; but seeing that I did not guess and was still puzzled she would smile gently, as it were, to herself, and would suddenly hold out to me her hot little hand, with its thin, wasted little fingers. Now it is all over, and everything is understood, but to this day I do not know the secrets of that sick, tortured and outraged little heart.
I feel that I am digressing, but at this moment I want to think only of Nellie. Strange to say, now that I am lying alone on a hospital bed, abandoned by all whom I loved so fondly and intensely, some trivial incident of that past, often unnoticed at the time and soon forgotten, comes back all at once to my mind and suddenly takes quite a new significance, completing and explaining to me what I had failed to understand till now.
For the first four days of her illness, we, the doctor and I, were in great alarm about her, but on the fifth day the doctor took me aside and told me that there was no reason for anxiety and she would certainly recover. This doctor was the one I had known so long, a good-natured and eccentric old bachelor whom I had called in in Nellie’s first illness, and who had so impressed her by the huge Stanislav Cross on his breast.
“So there’s no reason for anxiety,” I said, greatly relieved.
“No, she’ll get well this time, but afterwards she will soon die.”
“Die! But why?” I cried, overwhelmed at this death sentence.
“Yes, she is certain to die very soon. The patient has an organic defect of the heart, and at the slightest unfavourable circumstance she’ll be laid up again. She will perhaps get better, but then she’ll be ill again and at last she’ll die.”
“Do you mean nothing can be done to save her? Surely that’s impossible. ”
“But it’s inevitable. However, with the removal of unfavourable circumstances, with a quiet and easy life with more pleasure in it, the patient might yet be kept from death and there even are cases . . . unexpected . . . strange and exceptional . . . in fact the patient may be saved by a concatenation of favourable conditions, but radically cured — never.”
“But, good heavens, what’s to be done now?”
“Follow my advice, lead a quiet life, and take the powders regularly. I have noticed this girl’s capricious, of a nervous temperament, and fond of laughing. She much dislikes taking her powders regularly and she has just refused them absolutely.”
“Yes, doctor. She certainly is strange, but I put it all down to her invalid state. Yesterday she was very obedient; today, when I gave her her medicine she pushed the spoon as though by accident and it was all spilt over. When I wanted to mix another powder she snatched the box away from me, threw it on the ground and then burst into tears. Only I don’t think it was because I was making her take the powders,” I added, after a moment’s thought.
“Hm! Irritation! Her past great misfortunes.” (I had told the doctor fully and frankly much of Nellie’s history and my story had struck him very much.) “All that in conjunction, and from it this illness. For the time the only remedy is to take the powders, and she must take the powders. I will go and try once more to impress on her the duty to obey medical instructions, and . . . that is, speaking generally . . . take the powders.”
We both came out of the kitchen (in which our interview had taken place) and the doctor went up to the sick child’s bedside again. But I think Nellie must have overheard. Anyway she had raised her head from the pillow and turned her ear in our direction, listening keenly all the time. I noticed this through the crack of the half-opened door. When we went up to her the rogue ducked under the quilt, and peeped out at us with a mocking smile. The poor child had grown much thinner during the four days of her illness. Her eyes were sunken and she was still feverish, so that the mischievous expression and glittering, defiant glances so surprising to the doctor, who was one of the most good-natured Germans in Petersburg, looked all the more incongruous on her face.
Gravely, though trying to soften his voice as far as he could, he began in a kind and caressing voice to explain how essential and efficacious the powders were, and consequently how incumbent it was on every invalid to take them. Nellie was raising her head, but suddenly, with an apparently quite accidental movement of her arm, she jerked the spoon, and all the medicine was spilt on the floor again. No doubt she did it on purpose.
“That’s very unpleasant carelessness,” said the old man quietly, “and I suspect that you did it on purpose; that’s very reprehensible. But . . . we can set that right and prepare another powder.”
Nellie laughed straight in his face. The doctor shook his head methodically.
“That’s very wrong,” he said, opening another powder, “very, very reprehensible.”
“Don’t be angry with me,” answered Nellie, and vainly tried not to laugh again. “I’ll certainly take it. . . . But do you like me?”
“If you will behave yourself becomingly I shall like you very much.”
“But now, don’t you like me?”
“Yes, I like you even now.”
“And will you kiss me if I want to kiss you?”
“Yes, if you desire it.”
At this Nellie could not control herself and laughed again.
“The patient has a merry disposition, but now this is nerves and caprice,” the doctor whispered to me with a most serious air.
“All right, I’ll take the powder,” Nellie cried suddenly, in her weak little voice. “But when I am big and grown up will you marry me?”
Apparently the invention of this new fancy greatly delighted her; her eyes positively shone and her lips twitched with laughter as she waited for a reply from the somewhat astonished doctor,
“Very well,” he answered, smiling in spite of himself at this new whim, “very well, if you turn out a good, well-brought-up young lady, and will be obedient and will . . . ”
“Take my powders?” put in Nellie.
“0-ho! To he sure, take your powders. A good girl,” he whispered to me again; “there’s a great deal, a great deal in her . . . that’s good and clever but . . . to get married . . . what a strange caprice . . .”
And he took her the medicine again. But this time she made no pretence about it but simply jerked the spoon up from below with her hand and all the medicine was splashed on the poor doctor’s shirt-front and in his face. Nellie laughed aloud, but not with the same merry, good-humoured laugh as before. There was a look of something cruel and malicious in her face. All this time she seemed to avoid my eyes, only looked at the doctor, and with mockery, through which some uneasiness was discernible, waited to see what the “funny” old man would do next.
“Oh! You’ve done it again! . . . What a misfortune! But . . . I can mix you another powder! “ said the old man, wiping his face and his shirt-front with his handkerchief.
This made a tremendous impression on Nellie. She had been prepared for our anger, thought that we should begin to scold and reprove her, and perhaps she was unconsciously longing at that moment for some excuse to cry, to sob hysterically, to upset some more powders as she had just now and even to break something in her vexation, and with all this to relieve her capricious and aching little heart. Such capricious humours are to be found not only in the sick and not only in Nellie. How often I have walked up and down the room with the unconscious desire for someone to insult me or to utter some word that I could interpret as an insult in order to vent my anger upon someone. Women, venting their anger in that way, begin to cry, shedding the most genuine tears, and the more emotional of them even go into hysterics. It’s a very simple and everyday experience, and happens most often when there is some other, often a secret, grief in the heart, to which one longs to give utterance but cannot.
But, struck by the angelic kindness of the old doctor and the patience with which he set to work to mix her another powder without uttering one word of reproach, Nellie suddenly subsided. The look of mockery vanished from her lips, the colour rushed to her face, her eyes grew moist. She stole a look at me and turned away at once. The doctor brought her the medicine. She took it meekly and shyly, seized the old man’s plump red hand, and looked slowly into his face.
“You . . . are angry that I’m horrid,” she tried to say, but could not finish; she ducked under the quilt, hid her head and burst into loud, hysterical sobs.
“Oh, my child, don’t weep! . . . It is nothing . . . It’s nerves, drink some water.”
But Nellie did not hear.
“Be comforted . . . don’t upset yourself,” he went on, almost whimpering over her, for he was a very sensitive man. “I’ll forgive you and be married to you if, like a good, well-brought-up girl, you’ll . . .”
“Take my powders,” came from under the quilt with a little nervous laugh that tinkled like a bell, and was broken by sobs — a laugh I knew very well.
“A good-hearted, grateful child!” said the doctor triumphantly, almost with tears in his eyes. “Poor girl!”
And a strange and wonderful affection sprang up from that day between him and Nellie. With me, on the contrary, Nellie became more and more sullen, nervous, and irritable. I didn’t know what to ascribe this to, and wondered at her, especially as this change in her seemed to happen suddenly. During the first days of her illness she was particularly tender and caressing with me; it seemed as though she could not take her eyes off me; she would not let me leave her side, clutched my hand in her feverish little hand and made me sit beside her, and if she noticed that I was gloomy and anxious she tried to cheer me up, made jokes, played with me and smiled at me, evidently making an effort to overcome her own sufferings. She did not want me to work at night, or to sit up to look after her, and was grieved because I would not listen to her. Sometimes I noticed an anxious look in her face; she began to question me, and tried to find out why I was sad, what was in my mind. But strange to say, when Natasha’s name was mentioned she immediately dropped the conversation or began to speak of something else. She seemed to avoid speaking of Natasha, and that struck me. When I came home she was delighted. When I took up my hat she looked at me dejectedly and rather strangely, following me with her eyes, as it were reproachfully.
On the fourth day of her illness, I spent the whole evening with Natasha and stayed long after midnight. There was something we had to discuss. As I went out I said to my invalid that I should be back very soon, as indeed I reckoned on being. Being detained almost unexpectedly at Natasha’s, I felt quite easy in my mind about Nellie. Alexandra Semyonovna was sitting up with her, having heard from Masloboev, who came in to see me for a moment, that Nellie was ill and that I was in great difficulties and absolutely without help. Good heavens, what a fuss kind-hearted Alexandra Semyonovna was in!
“So of course he won’t come to dinner with us now! Ach, mercy on us! And he’s all alone, poor fellow, all alone! Well, now we can show how kindly we feel to him. Here’s the opportunity. We mustn’t let it slip.”
She immediately appeared at my flat, bringing with her in a cab a regular hamper. Declaring at the first word that she was going to stay and had come to help me in my trouble, she undid her parcels. In them there were syrups and preserves for the invalid, chickens and a fowl in case the patient began to be convalescent, apples for baking, oranges, dry Kiev preserves (in case the doctor would allow them) and finally linen, sheets, dinner napkins, nightgowns, bandages, compresses — an outfit for a whole hospital.
“We’ve got everything,” she said to me, articulating every word as though in haste, “and, you see, you live like a bachelor. You’ve not much of all this. So please allow me . . . and Filip Filippovitch told me to. Well, what now . . . make haste, make haste, what shall I do now? How is she? Conscious? Ah, how uncomfortably she is lying! I must put her pillow straight that she may lie with her head low, and, what do you think, wouldn’t a leather pillow be better? The leather is cooler. Ah, what a fool I am! It never occurred to me to bring one. I’ll go and get it. Oughtn’t we to light a fire? I’ll send my old woman to you. I know an old woman. You’ve no servant, have you? . . . Well, what shall I do now? What’s that? Herbs . . . did the doctor prescribe them? For some herb tea, I suppose? I’ll go at once and light the fire.”
But I reassured her, and she was much surprised and even rather chagrined that there turned out to be not so very much to do. But this did not discourage her altogether. She made friends with Nellie at once and was a great help to me all through her illness. She visited us almost every day and she always used to come in looking as though something had been lost or had gone astray and she must hasten to catch it up. She always added that Filip Filippovitch had told her to come. Nellie liked her very much. They took to each other like two sisters, and I fancy that in many things Alexandra Semyonovna was as much of a baby as Nellie. She used to tell the child stories and amuse her, and Nellie often missed her when she had gone home. Her first appearance surprised my invalid, but she quickly guessed why the uninvited visitor had come, and as usual frowned and became silent and ungracious.
“Why did she come to see us?” asked Nellie, with an air of displeasure after Alexandra Semyonovna had gone away.
“To help you Nellie, and to look after you.”
“Why? What for? I’ve never done anything like that for her.”
“Kind people don’t wait for that, Nellie. They like to help people who need it, without that. That’s enough, Nellie; there are lots of kind people in the world. It’s only your misfortune that you haven’t met them and didn’t meet them when you needed them.”
Nellie did not speak. I walked away from her. But a quarter of an hour later she called me to her in a weak voice, asked for something to drink, and all at once warmly embraced me and for a long while would not let go of me. Next day, when Alexandra Semyonovna appeared, she welcomed her with a joyful smile I though she still seemed for some reason shamefaced with her.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53