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The District Doctor
by [?]

One day in autumn on my way back from a remote part of the country I caught cold and fell ill. Fortunately the fever attacked me in the district town at the inn; I sent for the doctor. In half-an-hour the district doctor appeared, a thin, dark-haired man of middle height. He prescribed me the usual sudorific, ordered a mustard-plaster to be put on, very deftly slid a five-ruble note up his sleeve, coughing drily and looking away as he did so, and then was getting up to go home, but somehow fell into talk and remained. I was exhausted with feverishness; I foresaw a sleepless night, and was glad of a little chat with a pleasant companion. Tea was served. My doctor began to converse freely. He was a sensible fellow, and expressed himself with vigour and some humour. Queer things happen in the world: you may live a long while with some people, and be on friendly terms with them, and never once speak openly with them from your soul; with others you have scarcely time to get acquainted, and all at once you are pouring out to him–or he to you–all your secrets, as though you were at confession. I don’t know how I gained the confidence of my new friend–anyway, with nothing to lead up to it, he told me a rather curious incident; and here I will report his tale for the information of the indulgent reader. I will try to tell it in the doctor’s own words.

“You don’t happen to know,” he began in a weak and quavering voice (the common result of the use of unmixed Berezov snuff); “you don’t happen to know the judge here, Mylov, Pavel Lukich?… You don’t know him?… Well, it’s all the same.” (He cleared his throat and rubbed his eyes.) “Well, you see, the thing happened, to tell you exactly without mistake, in Lent, at the very time of the thaws. I was sitting at his house–our judge’s, you know–playing preference. Our judge is a good fellow, and fond of playing preference. Suddenly” (the doctor made frequent use of this word, suddenly) “they tell me, ‘There’s a servant asking for you.’ I say, ‘What does he want?’ They say, He has brought a note–it must be from a patient.’ ‘Give me the note,’ I say. So it is from a patient–well and good–you understand–it’s our bread and butter… But this is how it was: a lady, a widow, writes to me; she says, ‘My daughter is dying. Come, for God’s sake!’ she says, ‘and the horses have been sent for you.’… Well, that’s all right. But she was twenty miles from the town, and it was midnight out of doors, and the roads in such a state, my word! And as she was poor herself, one could not expect more than two silver rubles, and even that problematic; and perhaps it might only be a matter of a roll of linen and a sack of oatmeal in payment. However, duty, you know, before everything: a fellow-creature may be dying. I hand over my cards at once to Kalliopin, the member of the provincial commission, and return home. I look; a wretched little trap was standing at the steps, with peasant’s horses, fat–too fat–and their coat as shaggy as felt; and the coachman sitting with his cap off out of respect. Well, I think to myself, ‘It’s clear, my friend, these patients aren’t rolling in riches.’… You smile; but I tell you, a poor man like me has to take everything into consideration… If the coachman sits like a prince, and doesn’t touch his cap, and even sneers at you behind his beard, and flicks his whip–then you may bet on six rubles. But this case, I saw, had a very different air. However, I think there’s no help for it; duty before everything. I snatch up the most necessary drugs, and set off. Will you believe it? I only just managed to get there at all. The road was infernal: streams, snow, watercourses, and the dyke had suddenly burst there–that was the worst of it! However, I arrived at last. It was a little thatched house. There was a light in the windows; that meant they expected me. I was met by an old lady, very venerable, in a cap. ‘Save her!’ she says; ‘she is dying.’ I say, ‘Pray don’t distress yourself–Where is the invalid?’ ‘Come this way.’ I see a clean little room, a lamp in the corner; on the bed a girl of twenty, unconscious. She was in a burning heat, and breathing heavily–it was fever. There were two other girls, her sisters, scared and in tears. ‘Yesterday,’ they tell me, ‘she was perfectly well and had a good appetite; this morning she complained of her head, and this evening, suddenly, you see, like this.’ I say again: ‘Pray don’t be uneasy.’ It’s a doctor’s duty, you know–and I went up to her and bled her, told them to put on a mustard-plaster, and prescribed a mixture. Meantime I looked at her; I looked at her, you know–there, by God! I had never seen such a face!–she was a beauty, in a word! I felt quite shaken with pity. Such lovely features; such eyes!… But, thank God! she became easier; she fell into a perspiration, seemed to come to her senses, looked round, smiled, and passed her hand over her face… Her sisters bent over her. They ask, ‘How are you?’ ‘All right,’ she says, and turns away. I looked at her; she had fallen asleep. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘now the patient should be left alone.’ So we all went out on tiptoe; only a maid remained, in case she was wanted. In the parlour there was a samovar standing on the table, and a bottle of rum; in our profession one can’t get on without it. They gave me tea; asked me to stop the night… I consented: where could I go, indeed, at that time of night? The old lady kept groaning. ‘What is it?’ I say; ‘she will live; don’t worry yourself; you had better take a little rest yourself; it is about two o’clock.’ ‘But will you send to wake me if anything happens?’ ‘Yes, yes.’ The old lady went away, and the girls too went to their own room; they made up a bed for me in the parlour. Well, I went to bed–but I could not get to sleep, for a wonder! for in reality I was very tired. I could not get my patient out of my head. At last I could not put up with it any longer; I got up suddenly; I think to myself, ‘I will go and see how the patient is getting on.’ Her bedroom was next to the parlour. Well, I got up, and gently opened the door–how my heart beat! I looked in: the servant was asleep, her mouth wide open, and even snoring, the wretch! but the patient lay with her face towards me and her arms flung wide apart, poor girl! I went up to her … when suddenly she opened her eyes and stared at me! ‘Who is it? who is it?’ I was in confusion. ‘Don’t be alarmed, madam,’ I say; ‘I am the doctor; I have come to see how you feel.’ ‘You the doctor?’ ‘Yes, the doctor; your mother sent for me from the town; we have bled you, madam; now pray go to sleep, and in a day or two, please God! we will set you on your feet again.’ ‘Ah, yes, yes, doctor, don’t let me die… please, please.’ ‘Why do you talk like that? God bless you!’ She is in a fever again, I think to myself; I felt her pulse; yes, she was feverish. She looked at me, and then took me by the hand. ‘I will tell you why I don’t want to die: I will tell you… Now we are alone; and only, please don’t you … not to any one … Listen…’ I bent down; she moved her lips quite to my ear; she touched my cheek with her hair–I confess my head went round–and began to whisper… I could make out nothing of it… Ah, she was delirious! … She whispered and whispered, but so quickly, and as if it were not in Russian; at last she finished, and shivering dropped her head on the pillow, and threatened me with her finger: ‘Remember, doctor, to no one.’ I calmed her somehow, gave her something to drink, waked the servant, and went away.”