The Death of a Government Official
One magnificent evening, а no less magnificent administrator, Ivan Dmitrich Chervyakov, sat in the second row of a theater and gazed at The Bells of Corneville through his opera glasses. He sat and gazed and felt himself at the height of bliss. But suddenly . . . we often encounter this “but suddenly” in stories, and authors are right: life is so full of the unexpected! But suddenly, his face scrunched, his eyes rolled, his breath stopped . . . he put the opera glasses aside, leaned forward . . . and, Achooo!!! As you can see, he sneezed. There is nothing wrong with sneezing. Peasants sneeze, so do the superintendents of police, and sometimes even privy councilors. Everyone sneezes. Chervyakov was not at all embarrassed; he wiped himself with a handkerchief, and like any polite person, looked around him to make sure he hadn’t disturbed anybody with his sneezing. And then, he had no choice but to get embarrassed. He noticed that the little old man sitting in the first row was muttering something and diligently wiping his neck and the bald spot on his head with a glove. This little old man, Chervyakov recognized, was Brizzhalov, a general at the Department of Transport.
“I sprayed him!” thought Chervyakov. “He’s not my boss, he’s someone else’s, but it’s still uncomfortable. I’d better apologize.”
Chervyakov coughed, heaved his body forward, and whispered into the general’s ear.
“I’m sorry your Excellency, I’ve sprayed you . . . it was an accident . . .”
“It’s nothing, nothing.”
“For god’s sake forgive me. I . . . I didn’t intend to!”
“Oh will you just sit, please! Let me listen!”
Chervyakov felt ashamed; he smiled stupidly and pointed his eyes toward the stage. He gazed, but he no longer felt any bliss. Discomfort plagued him. During intermission he approached Brizzhalov, hovered around him, and, once he gathered the courage, mumbled:
“I sprayed you, your Excellency, forgive me, I . . . it’s not that . . . ”
“Oh enough, I’ve already forgotten, and you’re still going on about it!” said the general, his bottom lip trembling with impatience.
He says he’s forgotten, but there’s venom in his eyes, thought Chervyakov, looking at the general with suspicion. And he won’t talk to me. I should explain myself, that I didn’t intend to do it, that it was an act of nature. Otherwise he’ll think that I wanted to spit on him. Even if he doesn’t think it now, he’ll think it later!
When he got home, he told his wife about his incidence of bad manners. His wife, he thought, handled the news too lightly; just as she grew anxious about it, she learned that Brizzhalov was from a different department, and calmed down.
“But still, go apologize,” she said. “He’ll think you can’t behave yourself in public!”
“Well that’s just it! I apologized, and he acted very strangely . . . didn’t utter a single sensible word. But, there was really no time to talk.”
The following day, Chervyakov put on a new uniform, shaved, and went to explain himself to Brizzhalov. Once he walked into the reception area, he saw that there were a lot of people petitioning, and among the petitioners, there was the general himself, starting to accept petitions. Having questioned several of the petitioners, the general raised his eyes to Chervyakov.
“You might remember, your Excellency, that yesterday, at the Arcadia,” the administrator started to say, “I sneezed and . . . unwittingly sprayed you . . . forgi . . .”
“What nonsense . . . God knows what! What is it that you need?” the general said, turning to the next petitioner.
He doesn’t want to talk! thought Chervyakov. He must be angry. No, I can’t leave it like this. I’ll explain it to him . . .
Once the general had finished speaking to the last of the petitioners and headed to his inner quarters, Chervyakov stepped after him and jabbered:
“Your Excellency! If I may be so bold as to disturb your Excellency, then it is only, I can assure you, from a feeling of extreme repentance! It wasn’t on purpose, you know that your Excellency!”
The general made a pained expression and waved him away.
“Oh you’re simply mocking me, sir!” he said, disappearing behind the door.
What is there to mock? thought Chervyakov, there is nothing funny! He’s a general, yet he can’t understand! I won’t apologize to this braggart anymore! To hell with him! I’ll write him a letter, but I won’t return! By god, I won’t!
This is what Chervyakov was thinking as he walked home. But he didn’t write the general a letter. He thought and thought, and could not think of that letter. So, the next day, he had to go back and explain it himself.
“Yesterday, I came to disturb you, your Excellency,” he mumbled, once the general raised his questioning eyes. “Not because I wanted to mock you, as you pleased to say. I was apologizing because, as I sneezed, I sprayed . . . and I didn’t think to mock you at all. Would I have the audacity to mock? If we mocked, then we would never have . . . respect . . . ”
“Get out of here!” the general barked, trembling and turning purple.
“Wh . . . what, your Excellency?” Chervyakov whispered, growing faint with terror.
“Get out of here!” the general repeated, stomping his feet.
Something tore in Chervyakov’s stomach. Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, he backed toward the door, stepped outside, and staggered home . . . arriving there mechanically, he didn’t remove his uniform, lay on the sofa . . . and died.