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The Bet and Other Stories/A Gentleman Friend

For other English-language translations of this work, see A Gentleman Friend.


A GENTLEMAN FRIEND


When she came out of the hospital the charming Vanda, or, according to her passport, "the honourable lady-citizen Nastasya Kanavkina," found herself in a position in which she had never been before: without a roof and without a sou. What was to be done?

First of all, she went to a pawnshop to pledge her turquoise ring, her only jewellery. They gave her a rouble for the ring . . . but what can you buy for a rouble? For that you can't get a short jacket à la mode, or an elaborate hat, or a pair of brown shoes; yet without these things she felt naked. She felt as though, not only the people, but even the horses and dogs were staring at her and laughing at the plainness of her clothes. And her only thought was for her clothes; she did not care at all what she ate or where she slept.

"If only I were to meet a gentleman friend . . ." she thought. "I could get some money . . . Nobody would say 'No,' because . . ."

But she came across no gentleman friends. It's easy to find them of nights in the Renaissance, but they wouldn't let her go into the Renaissance in that plain dress and without a hat. What's to be done? After a long time of anguish, vexed and weary with walking, sitting, and thinking, Vanda made up her mind to play her last card: to go straight to the rooms of some gentleman friend and ask him for money.

"But who shall I go to?" she pondered. "I can't possibly go to Misha . . . he's got a family . . . The ginger-headed old man is at his office . . ."

Vanda recollected Finkel, the dentist, the converted Jew, who gave her a bracelet three months ago. Once she poured a glass of beer on his head at the German club. She was awfully glad that she had thought of Finkel.

"He'll be certain to give me some, if only I find him in . . ." she thought, on her way to him. "And if he won't, then I'll break every single thing there."

She had her plan already prepared. She approached the dentist's door. She would run up the stairs, with a laugh, fly into his private room and ask for twenty-five roubles . . . But when she took hold of the bell-pull, the plan went clean out of her head. Vanda suddenly began to be afraid and agitated, a thing which had never happened to her before. She was never anything but bold and independent in drunken company; but now, dressed in common clothes, and just like any ordinary person begging a favour, she felt timid and humble. "Perhaps he has forgotten me . . ." she thought, not daring to pull the bell. "And how can I go up to him in a dress like this? As if I were a pauper, or a dowdy respectable . . ."

She rang the bell irresolutely.

There were steps behind the door. It was the porter.

"Is the doctor at home?" she asked.

She would have been very pleased now if the porter had said "No," but instead of answering he showed her into the hall, and took her jacket. The stairs seemed to her luxurious and magnificent, but what she noticed first of all in all the luxury was a large mirror in which she saw a ragged creature without an elaborate hat, without a modish jacket, and without a pair of brown shoes. And Vanda found it strange that, now that she was poorly dressed and looking more like a seamstress or a washerwoman, for the first time she felt ashamed, and had no more assurance or boldness left. In her thoughts she began to call herself Nastya Kanavkina, instead of Vanda as she used.

"This way, please!" said the maid-servant, leading her to the private room. "The doctor will be here immediately . . . Please, take a seat."

Vanda dropped into an easy chair.

"I'll say: 'Lend me . . .'" she thought. "That's the right thing, because we are acquainted. But the maid must go out of the room . . . It's awkward in front of the maid . . . What is she standing there for?" In five minutes the door opened and Finkel entered—a tall, swarthy, convert Jew, with fat cheeks and goggle-eyes. His cheeks, eyes, belly, fleshy hips—were all so full, repulsive, and coarse! At the Renaissance and the German club he used always to be a little drunk, to spend a lot of money on women, patiently put up with all their tricks—for instance, when Vanda poured the beer on his head, he only smiled and shook his finger at her but now he looked dull and sleepy; he had the pompous, chilly expression of a superior, and he was chewing something.

"What is the matter?" he asked, without looking at Vanda. Vanda glanced at the maid's serious face, at the blown-out figure of Finkel, who obviously did not recognise her, and she blushed.

"What's the matter?" the dentist repeated, irritated.

"To . . . oth ache . . ." whispered Vanda.

"Ah . . . which tooth . . . where?"

Vanda remembered she had a tooth with a hole.

"At the bottom . . . to the right," she said.

"H'm . . . open your mouth."

Finkel frowned, held his breath, and began to work the aching tooth loose.

"Do you feel any pain?" he asked, picking at her tooth with some instrument.

"Yes, I do . . ." Vanda lied. "Shall I remind him?" she thought, "he'll be sure to remember . . . But . . . the maid . . . what is she standing there for?"

Finkel suddenly snorted like a steam-engine, straight into her mouth, and said:

"I don't advise you to have a stopping . . . Anyhow the tooth is quite useless."

Again he picked at the tooth for a little, and soiled Vanda's lips and gums with his tobacco-stained fingers. Again he held his breath and dived into her mouth with something cold . . .

Vanda suddenly felt a terrible pain, shrieked and seized Finkel's hand . . .

"Never mind . . ." he murmured. "Don't be frightened . . . This tooth isn't any use."

And his tobacco-stained fingers, covered with blood, held up the extracted tooth before her eyes. The maid came forward and put a bowl to her lips.

"Rinse your mouth with cold water at home," said Finkel. "That will make the blood stop."

He stood before her in the attitude of a man impatient to be left alone at last.

"Good-bye . . ." she said, turning to the door.

"H'm! And who's to pay me for the work?" Finkel asked laughingly.

"Ah . . . yes!" Vanda recollected, blushed and gave the dentist the rouble she had got for the turquoise ring.

When she came into the street she felt still more ashamed than before, but she was not ashamed of her poverty any more. Nor did she notice any more that she hadn't an elaborate hat or a modish jacket. She walked along the street spitting blood and each red spittle told her about her life, a bad, hard life; about the insults she had suffered and had still to suffer—to-morrow, a week, a year hence—her whole life, till death . . .

"Oh, how terrible it is!" she whispered. "My God, how terrible!"

But the next day she was at the Renaissance and she danced there. She wore a new, immense red hat, a new jacket à la mode and a pair of brown shoes. She was treated to supper by a young merchant from Kazan.