The Looking-Glass – Intermediate Level

New Year’s Eve. Nellie, the daughter of a General who owned a lot of land, was a young and pretty girl who dreamed day and night of being married. She was sitting in her room, gazing with tired, half-closed eyes into the looking-glass. She was pale, tense, and as motionless as the looking-glass.

In her imagination she saw a long, narrow hall with endless rows of candles. The reflection of her face and hands was hidden by a cloud that turned into an endless grey sea. The sea was moving, the waves shining and now and then turning red.

Looking at Nellie’s motionless eyes and parted lips, one could hardly say whether she was sleeping. But she was certainly seeing.

At first she saw only the smile and soft, warm expression of someone’s eyes. Then, against the moving grey background, there slowly appeared the shapes of a head, a face, a beard. It was he, the one she was to marry, the object of long dreams and hopes.

He was for Nellie everything, the significance of life, personal happiness, her life’s work, what was meant to be. Outside him, as on the grey background of the looking-glass, all was dark, empty, meaningless. And so it was not strange that, seeing before her a handsome, gently smiling face, she was aware of great happiness. It was a dream so sweet that it could not be expressed in speech or on paper.

Then she heard his voice, saw herself living under the same roof with him, her life and his as one. Months and years flew by against the grey background. And Nellie saw her future clearly in all its details.

Picture followed picture against the grey background. Now Nellie saw herself one winter night knocking at the door of Stepan Lukitch, the district doctor. The doctor’s windows were in darkness. All was silence.

“For the love of God, for God!” cried Nellie.

At last she heard the garden gate open and Nellie saw the doctor’s cook.

“Is the doctor at home?”

“The doctor is asleep,” said the cook in a low voice, as though afraid of waking him “He has only just got home from his fever patients, and gave orders he was not to be woken.”

But Nellie was not listening to the cook. Pushing her out of the way, she hurried into the doctor’s house. Running through some dark and airless rooms, upsetting two or three chairs, she at last reached the doctor’s bedroom.

Stepan Lukitch was lying on his bed, dressed, but without his coat, and was blowing air into his open hand. A small candle was burning beside him. Without saying a word Nellie sat down and began to cry. She cried bitterly, shaking all over.

“My husband is ill!” she said through the tears. Stepan Lukitch was silent. He slowly sat up, rested his head on his hand, and looked at his visitor with fixed, sleepy eyes. “My husband is ill!” Nellie continued, trying to stop crying. “Have mercy on us and come quickly. Please hurry. Please hurry!”

“Eh?” said the doctor loudly, blowing into his hand.

“Come! Come this very minute! Or… it’s terrible to think!”

And pale, exhausted Nellie, breathing heavily and trying not to cry, began describing to the doctor her husband’s illness and her unspeakable fear. Her sufferings would have touched the heart of a stone, but the doctor looked at her, blew into his open hand, and… not a movement.

“I’ll come tomorrow!” he said quietly.

“That’s impossible!” cried Nellie. “I know my husband has the fever! At once… this very minute you are needed!”

“I… er… have only just come in,” said the doctor. “For the last three days I’ve been away, seeing fever patients, and I’m exhausted and ill myself… I simply can’t! Absolutely! I’ve caught it myself! Look!”

And the doctor held before her eyes a medical thermometer.

“My temperature is nearly forty. I absolutely can’t. I can hardly sit up. Excuse me. I’ll lie down.”

The doctor lay down.

“But I beg you, doctor,” Nellie cried in despair. “I beg you! Have mercy and help my husband! Make a great effort and come! I will reward you, doctor!”

“Oh, dear! Why, I have told you already… ah!”

Nellie jumped up and walked nervously up and down the bedroom. She wished she could explain to the doctor, to make him understand. She thought if only he knew how dear her husband was to her and how worried she was, he would forget his own illness and how tired he was. But how could she find the words?

“Go to the Zemstvo doctor,” she heard Stepan Lukitch’s voice.

“That’s impossible! He lives more than twenty miles from here, and time is important. And the horses can’t stand it. It is thirty miles from us to you, and as much from here to the Zemstvo doctor. No, it’s impossible! Come along, Stepan Lukitch. I ask of you an heroic act. Come, be a hero! Have pity on us!”

“There is nothing I can do. I’m in a fever… I can’t think… why can’t you understand? Leave me alone!”

“But it is your duty to come! You cannot refuse to come! You are thinking only of yourself! A man should stand ready to give up his life for his neighbour. And you, a doctor, refuse to come! I will call you before the Court.”

Nellie knew that she was being unfair to the doctor with these unkind words. However, because she loved her husband so much, she was prepared to say anything to get the doctor’s help. In reply, the doctor greedily drank down a glass of cold water. Nellie fell to asking for his help like the very lowest beggar. At last the doctor gave way. He slowly got up, breathing heavily, looking for his coat.

“Here it is!” said Nellie excitedly, helping him. “Let me put it on to you. Come along! I will reward you in some way. All my life I shall be thankful to you.”

But what trouble she had! After putting on his coat the doctor lay down again. Nellie got him up and pulled him into the hall. Then there was a terrible fight to get him to put on his boots and overcoat. His cap was lost. But at last Nellie was in the carriage with the doctor. Now they had only to drive thirty miles and her husband would have a doctor’s help. The earth was wrapped in darkness. One could not see one’s hand before one’s face. A cold winter wind was blowing. There were frozen pieces of ice on the road. The carriage would often jump or move suddenly to one side or the other as the wheels went over them. The driver was continually stopping and wondering which road to take.

Nellie and the doctor sat silently all the way. It was a very rough ride, but they felt neither the cold nor the movement of the carriage. “Get on, get on!” Nellie called to the driver whenever he slowed down.

At five in the morning the exhausted horses had them back at her farm. Nellie saw the familiar gates, the long row of buildings where their animals were spending the winter. At last she was at home.

“Wait a moment, I will be back directly,” she said to Stepan Lukitch, making him sit down on the sofa in the dining-room. “Sit still and wait a little, and I’ll see how he is getting on.”

On her return from her husband, Nellie found the doctor lying down. He was lying on the sofa and speaking quietly to himself.

“Doctor, please!… doctor!”

“Eh? Ask Domna!” said Stepan Lukitch.

“What?”

“They said at the meeting… Vlassov said… Who?… what?”

And to her horror Nellie saw that the fever had caused the doctor to start seeing things that weren’t there. He was now unable to think or speak clearly, just like her husband. What was to be done?

“I must go for the Zemstvo doctor,” she decided.

Then again there followed darkness, a cutting cold wind, ice on the road. She was suffering in body and in soul. Nature can sometimes do things to remove unpleasant memories from the mind. However, there was no way she would ever forget how she felt this night.

Then she saw against the grey background how every spring her husband found it hard to pay the interest on money borrowed from the bank. He could not sleep, she could not sleep. They both both thought till their heads ached about how to find enough money to stop the bank from taking their land.

She saw her children. She felt the everlasting fear of colds, fever, disease, bad marks at school, separation. Out of a family of five or six, one was sure to die.

The grey background was not untouched by death. It had to be. A husband and wife do not usually die at the same time. Whatever happened, one must bury the other. And Nellie saw her husband dying. This terrible event presented itself to her in every detail. She saw the wooden box that he would be buried in, the candles, the priest. She even saw the footmarks in the hall made by the man who would prepare and take away the body.

“Why is it, what is it for?” she asked, looking at her husband’s face.

And all the previous life with her husband seemed to her a stupid way of leading up to this.

Something fell from Nellie’s hand and knocked on the floor. Surprised, she jumped up and opened her eyes wide. One looking-glass she saw lying at her feet. The other was standing as before on the table.

She looked into the looking-glass and saw a pale face marked with tears. There was no grey background now.

She took a deep breath and began to relax. “I must have fallen asleep,” she thought.