THE DEATH OF A GOVERNMENT CLERK
by Anton Chekhov
One fine evening, a no less fine government clerk called Ivan Dmitrich Chervyakov was sitting in the second row of The Stalls, looking through an opera glass at the Cloches de Corneville. He watched and felt the height of bliss. But suddenly. . . . In stories one so often meets with this "But suddenly." The authors are right: life is so full of surprises! But suddenly his face wrinkled, his eyes rolled up into his head, his breathing stopped... he took the opera glass away from his eyes, bent over and . . . "Achoo!!" he sneezed, you see. It is not proscribed for anyone to sneeze anywhere. Peasants sneeze and so do police superintendents, and sometimes even privy councillors. All men sneeze. Chervyakov was not in the least embarrassed, he wiped his face with his handkerchief, and like a polite man, looked round to see whether he had disturbed anyone by his sneezing. And here things became embarrassing. He saw that an old man sitting in front of him in the first row of The Stalls was carefully wiping his bald head and his neck with his glove and muttering something to himself. In the old man, Chervyakov recognised Brizhalov, a civilian general serving in the Department of Transport.
"I have spattered him," thought Chervyakov, "he is not my boss, but still it is awkward. I must apologise."
Chervyakov cleared his throat, bent forward, and whispered in the general's ear.
"Pardon, your Excellency, I spattered you accidentally. . . ."
"Never mind, never mind."
"For goodness sake excuse me, I . . . I did not mean to."
"Oh, please, sit down! Let me listen!"
Chervyakov was embarrassed; he smiled stupidly and began looking at the stage. He looked, but was no longer feeling bliss. He began to be troubled by uneasiness. In the intermission, he went up to Brizhalov, walked beside him awhile, and overcoming his shyness, muttered:
"I spattered you, your Excellency, forgive me . . . you see . . . I didn't do it to . . . ."
"Oh, that's enough . . . I'd forgotten already, and you keep on about it!" said the general, moving his lower lip impatiently.
"He has forgotten, but there is malice in his eye," thought Chervyakov, looking suspiciously at the general. "And he doesn't want to talk. I ought to explain to him . . . that I really didn't intend . . . that it is the law of nature or else he will think I meant to spit on him. He doesn't think so now, but he will think so later!"
Coming home, Chervyakov told his wife of his lack of manners. It struck him that his wife took too frivolous a view of the incident; she was a little frightened, but when she learned that Brizhalov was in a different department, she calmed down.
"Still, you had better go and apologise," she said, "or he will think you don't know how to behave in public."
"That's just it! I did apologise, but he took it somehow strangely . . . he didn't say a word of sense. There wasn't time to talk properly."
Next day Chervyakov put on a new uniform, had his hair cut and went to Brizhalov's to explain; going into the general's reception room he saw there a number of petitioners and among them the general himself, who was beginning to interview them. After questioning several petitioners the general raised his eyes and looked at Chervyakov.
"Yesterday at the Arcadia, if you recollect, your Excellency," the latter began, "I sneezed and . . . accidentally spattered . . . Exc. . . ."
"What nonsense. . . . God knows what! What can I do for you?" said the general addressing the next petitioner.
"He doesn't want to talk," thought Chervyakov, turning pale; "that means that he is angry. . . . No, it can't be left like this. . . . I will explain to him."
When the general had finished his conversation with the last of the petitioners and was turning towards his inner apartments, Chervyakov took a step towards him and muttered:
"Your Excellency! If I dare to trouble your Excellency, it is simply from a feeling, I may say, of regret! . . . It was not intentional, as you surely know yourself."
The general made a lachrymose face, and waved his hand.
"Why, you are simply making fun of me, kind sir," he said as he closed the door behind him.
"Where's the making fun in it?" thought Chervyakov, "there is nothing of the sort! He is a general, but he can't understand. If that is how it is I am not going to apologise to that stuck up jerk any more! The devil take him. I'll write a letter to him, but I won't go. By God, I won't."
So thought Chervyakov as he walked home; he did not write a letter to the general, he pondered and pondered and could not make up that letter. He had to go next day to explain in person.
"I ventured to disturb your Excellency yesterday," he muttered, when the general lifted enquiring eyes upon him, "not to make fun as you had said. I was apologising for having spattered you in sneezing. . . . And I did not dream of making fun of you. Should I dare to make fun of you, if we should take to making fun, then there would be no respect for persons, there would be. . . ."
"Get out!" yelled the general, turning suddenly purple, and shaking all over.
"What?" asked Chervyakov, in a whisper, turning numb with horror.
"Get out!" repeated the general, stamping.
Something snapped in Chervyakov's stomach. Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, he reeled to the door, went out into the street, and went staggering along. . . . Reaching home mechanically, without taking off his uniform, he lay down on the sofa and died.
(translated by Constance Garnett, with minor alterations by me)