Chapter XI.

When Semenoff saw the blood, and felt the awful void around him and within him; when they lifted him up, carried him away, laid him down, and did all for him that throughout his life he had been in the habit of doing, then he knew that he was going to die, and wondered why he felt not the least fear of death.

Dubova had spoken of his terror because she herself was terrified, assuming that, if the healthy dreaded death, the dying must dread it far more. His pallor and his wild look, the result of loss of blood and weakness, she took to be an expression of fear. But, in reality this was not so. At all times, and especially since he knew that he had got consumption, Semenoff had dreaded death. At the outset of his malady, he was in a state of abject terror, much as that of a condemned man for whom hope of a reprieve there was none. It almost seemed to him as if from that moment the world no longer existed; all in it that formerly he found fair, and pleasant, and gay had vanished. All around him was dying, dying, and every moment, every second, might bring about something fearful, unendurable, hideous as a black, yawning abyss. It was as an abyss, huge, fathomless, and sombre as night, that Semenoff imagined death. Wherever he went, whatever he did, this black gulf was ever before him; in its impenetrable gloom all sounds, all colours, all emotions were lost. Such a state of mind was appalling, yet it did not last long; and, as the days went by, as Semenoff approached death, the more remote and vague and incomprehensible did it seem to him.

Everything around him, sounds, colours, and emotions, now once more regained their former value for him. The sun shone as brightly as ever; folk went about their business as usual, and Semenoff himself had important things, as also trivial ones, to do. Just as before, he rose in the morning, washed with scrupulous care, and ate his midday meal, finding food pleasant or unpleasant to his taste. As before, the sun and the moon were a joy to him, and rain or damp an annoyance; as before, he played billiards in the evening with Novikoff and others; as before, he read books, some being interesting, and some both foolish and dull. That all things remained unchanged was irritating, even painful to him at first. Nature, his environment, and he himself, all were the same; and he strove to alter this by compelling people to be interested in him and in his death, to comprehend his appalling position, to realize that all was at an end. When, however, he told his acquaintances of this, he perceived that he ought not to have done so. They appeared astonished at first, and then sceptical, professing to doubt the accuracy of the doctor's diagnosis. Finally, they endeavoured to banish the unpleasant impression by abruptly changing the subject, and Semenoff found himself talking with them about all sorts of things, but never about death.

Then he sought to live in seclusion, to become absorbed in himself, and in solitude to suffer, having full, steadfast consciousness of his impending doom. Yet, as in his life and his daily surroundings, all remained the same as formerly, it seemed absurd to imagine that it could be otherwise, or that he, Semenoff, would no longer exist as at the present. The thought of death, which at first had made so deep a wound, grew less poignant; the soul oppressed found freedom. Moments of complete forgetfulness became more and more frequent, and life once again lay before him, rich in colour, in movement, in sound.

It was only at night-time, when alone, that he was haunted by the sense of a black abyss. After he had put out the lamp, something devoid of form or features rose up slowly above him in the gloom, and whispered, "Sh ... sh ... sh!" without ceasing, while to this whispering another voice, as from within him, made hideous answer. Then he felt that he was gradually becoming part of this murmuring and this abysmal chaos. His life in it seemed as a faint, flickering flame that might at any moment fade for ever. Then he decided to keep a lamp burning in his room throughout the night. In the light, the strange whisperings ceased, the darkness vanished; nor had he the impression of being poised above a yawning abyss, because light made him conscious of a thousand trivial and ordinary details in his life; the chairs, the light, the inkstand, his own feet, an unfinished letter, an ikon, with its lamp that he had never lighted, boots that he had forgotten to put outside the door, and many other everyday things that surrounded him.

Yet, even then, he could hear whisperings that came from the corners of the room which the light of the lamp did not reach, and again the black gulf yawned to receive him. He was afraid to look into the darkness, or even to think of it, for then, in a moment, dreadful gloom surrounded him, veiling the lamp, hiding the world as with a cold, dense mist from his view. It was this that tortured, that appalled him. He felt as if he must cry like a child, or beat his head against the wall. But as the days went past, and Semenoff drew nearer to death, he grew more used to such impressions. They only became stronger and more awful if by a word or a gesture, by the sight of a funeral or of a graveyard, he was reminded that he, too, must die. Anxious to avoid such warnings, he never went into any street that led to the cemetery, nor ever slept on his back with hands folded across his breast.

He had two lives, as it were; his former life, ample and obvious, which could not give a thought to death, but ignored it, being concerned about its own affairs, While hoping to live on for ever, cost what it might; and another life, mysterious, indefinite, obscure, that, as a worm in an apple, secretly gnawed at the core of his former life, poisoning it, making it insufferable.

It was owing to this double life that Semenoff, when at last he found himself face to face with death and knew that his end was nigh, felt scarcely any fear. "Already?" That is all he asked, in order to know exactly what to expect.

When in the faces of those around him he read the answer to his question, he merely wondered that the end should seem so simple, so natural, like that of some heavy task, which had overtaxed his powers. At the same time, by a new and strange inner consciousness he perceived that it could not be otherwise, and that death was the normal result of his enfeebled vitality. He only felt sorry that he would never see anything again. As they took him in a droschky to the hospital, he gazed about him with wide-opened eyes, striving to note everything at a glance, grieved that he could not firmly fix in his memory every little detail of this world with its ample sky, its human beings, its verdure, and its distant blue horizons. Equally dear, in fact, unspeakably precious to him, were all the little things that he had never noticed, as well as those which he had always found full of beauty and importance; the heaven, dark and vast, with its golden stars, the driver's gaunt back, in its shabby smock; Novikoff's troubled countenance; the dusty road; houses with their lighted windows; the dark trees that silently stayed behind; the jolting wheels; the soft evening breeze--all that he could see, and hear, and feel.

Later on, in the hospital, his eyes wandered swiftly round the large room, watching every movement, every figure intently until prevented by physical pain which produced a sense of utter isolation. His perceptions were now concentrated in his chest, the source of all his suffering. Gradually, very gradually, he began to drift away from life. When now he saw something, it seemed to him strange and meaningless. The last fight between life and death had begun; it filled his whole being; it created a new world, strange and lonely, a world of terror, agony and despairing conflict. Now and again there were more lucid moments; the pain ceased; his breathing was deeper and calmer, and through the white veil sounds and shapes became more or less plain. But all seemed faint and futile, as if they came from afar. He heard sounds plainly, and then again they were inaudible; the figures moved noiselessly as those in a cinematograph; familiar faces appeared strange and he could not recollect them.

On the adjoining bed a man with a quaint, clean-shaven face was reading aloud, but why he read, or to whom he read, Semenoff never troubled to think. He distinctly heard that the parliamentary elections had been postponed, and that an attempt had been made to assassinate a Grand Duke, but the words were empty and meaningless; like bubbles, they burst and vanished, leaving no trace. The man's lips moved, his teeth gleamed, his round eyes rolled, the paper rustled, and the lamp shone from the ceiling round which large, black, fierce-looking flies revolved. In Semenoff's brain something seemed to flame upwards, illuminating all that surrounded him. He was suddenly conscious that all was now of no account to him, and that all the work and business in the world could not add one single hour to his life; but that he must die. Once more he sank down into the waves of black mist; again the silent conflict began between two terrible and secret forces, the one convulsively striving to destroy the other.

The second time that Semenoff regained consciousness was when he heard weeping and chanting. This seemed to him utterly unnecessary, having no sort of relation to all that was going on within him. For a moment, however, it lighted up the flame in his brain, and Semenoff clearly perceived the mock-mournful face of a man who was absolutely uninteresting to him. That was the last sign of life. What followed was for those living wholly beyond the pale of their thought or comprehension.