"'I think you dropped this,' I remarked, as quietly and drily as I could. (I thought it best to treat him so.) For some while he stood before me in downright terror, and seemed unable to understand. He then suddenly grabbed at his side-pocket, opened his mouth in alarm, and beat his forehead with his hand.
"'My God!' he cried, 'where did you find it? How?' I explained in as few words as I could, and as drily as possible, how I had seen it and picked it up; how I had run after him, and called out to him, and how I had followed him upstairs and groped my way to his door.
"'Gracious Heaven!' he cried, 'all our papers are in it! My dear sir, you little know what you have done for us. I should have been lost — lost!'
"I had taken hold of the door-handle meanwhile, intending to leave the room without reply; but I was panting with my run upstairs, and my exhaustion came to a climax in a violent fit of coughing, so bad that I could hardly stand.
"I saw how the man dashed about the room to find me an empty chair, how he kicked the rags off a chair which was covered up by them, brought it to me, and helped me to sit down; but my cough went on for another three minutes or so. When I came to myself he was sitting by me on another chair, which he had also cleared of the rubbish by throwing it all over the floor, and was watching me intently.
"'I'm afraid you are ill?' he remarked, in the tone which doctors use when they address a patient. 'I am myself a medical man' (he did not say 'doctor'), with which words he waved his hands towards the room and its contents as though in protest at his present condition. 'I see that you — '
"'I'm in consumption,' I said laconically, rising from my seat.
"He jumped up, too.
"'Perhaps you are exaggerating — if you were to take proper measures perhaps — "
"He was terribly confused and did not seem able to collect his scattered senses; the pocket-book was still in his left hand.
"'Oh, don't mind me,' I said. 'Dr. B — — saw me last week' (I lugged him in again), 'and my hash is quite settled; pardon me-' I took hold of the door-handle again. I was on the point of opening the door and leaving my grateful but confused medical friend to himself and his shame, when my damnable cough got hold of me again.
"My doctor insisted on my sitting down again to get my breath. He now said something to his wife who, without leaving her place, addressed a few words of gratitude and courtesy to me. She seemed very shy over it, and her sickly face flushed up with confusion. I remained, but with the air of a man who knows he is intruding and is anxious to get away. The doctor's remorse at last seemed to need a vent, I could see.
"'If I — ' he began, breaking off abruptly every other moment, and starting another sentence. 'I-I am so very grateful to you, and I am so much to blame in your eyes, I feel sure, I — you see — ' (he pointed to the room again) 'at this moment I am in such a position-'
"'Oh!' I said, 'there's nothing to see; it's quite a clear case — you've lost your post and have come up to make explanations and get another, if you can!'
"'How do you know that?' he asked in amazement.
"'Oh, it was evident at the first glance,' I said ironically, but not intentionally so. 'There are lots of people who come up from the provinces full of hope, and run about town, and have to live as best they can.'
"He began to talk at once excitedly and with trembling lips; he began complaining and telling me his story. He interested me, I confess; I sat there nearly an hour. His story was a very ordinary one. He had been a provincial doctor; he had a civil appointment, and had no sooner taken it up than intrigues began. Even his wife was dragged into these. He was proud, and flew into a passion; there was a change of local government which acted in favour of his opponents; his position was undermined, complaints were made against him; he lost his post and came up to Petersburg with his last remaining money, in order to appeal to higher authorities. Of course nobody would listen to him for a long time; he would come and tell his story one day and be refused promptly; another day he would be fed on false promises; again he would be treated harshly; then he would be told to sign some documents; then he would sign the paper and hand it in, and they would refuse to receive it, and tell him to file a formal petition. In a word he had been driven about from office to office for five months and had spent every farthing he had; his wife's last rags had just been pawned; and meanwhile a child had been born to them and — and today I have a final refusal to my petition, and I have hardly a crumb of bread left — I have nothing left; my wife has had a baby lately — and I-I — '
"He sprang up from his chair and turned away. His wife was crying in the corner; the child had begun to moan again. I pulled out my note-book and began writing in it. When I had finished and rose from my chair he was standing before me with an expression of alarmed curiosity.
"'I have jotted down your name,' I told him, 'and all the rest of it — the place you served at, the district, the date, and all. I have a friend, Bachmatoff, whose uncle is a councillor of state and has to do with these matters, one Peter Matveyevitch Bachmatoff.'
"'Peter Matveyevitch Bachmatoff!' he cried, trembling all over with excitement. 'Why, nearly everything depends on that very man!'
"It is very curious, this story of the medical man, and my visit, and the happy termination to which I contributed by accident! Everything fitted in, as in a novel. I told the poor people not to put much hope in me, because I was but a poor schoolboy myself — (I am not really, but I humiliated myself as much as possible in order to make them less hopeful) — but that I would go at once to the Vassili Ostroff and see my friend; and that as I knew for certain that his uncle adored him, and was absolutely devoted to him as the last hope and branch of the family, perhaps the old man might do something to oblige his nephew.
"'If only they would allow me to explain all to his excellency! If I could but be permitted to tell my tale to him!" he cried, trembling with feverish agitation, and his eyes flashing with excitement. I repeated once more that I could not hold out much hope — that it would probably end in smoke, and if I did not turn up next morning they must make up their minds that there was no more to be done in the matter.
"They showed me out with bows and every kind of respect; they seemed quite beside themselves. I shall never forget the expression of their faces!
"I took a droshky and drove over to the Vassili Ostroff at once. For some years I had been at enmity with this young Bachmatoff, at school. We considered him an aristocrat; at all events I called him one. He used to dress smartly, and always drove to school in a private trap. He was a good companion, and was always merry and jolly, sometimes even witty, though he was not very intellectual, in spite of the fact that he was always top of the class; I myself was never top in anything! All his companions were very fond of him, excepting myself. He had several times during those years come up to me and tried to make friends; but I had always turned sulkily away and refused to have anything to do with him. I had not seen him for a whole year now; he was at the university. When, at nine o'clock, or so, this evening, I arrived and was shown up to him with great ceremony, he first received me with astonishment, and not too affably, but he soon cheered up, and suddenly gazed intently at me and burst out laughing.
"'Why, what on earth can have possessed you to come and see ME, Terentieff?' he cried, with his usual pleasant, sometimes audacious, but never offensive familiarity, which I liked in reality, but for which I also detested him. 'Why what's the matter?' he cried in alarm. 'Are you ill?'
"That confounded cough of mine had come on again; I fell into a chair, and with difficulty recovered my breath. 'It's all right, it's only consumption' I said. 'I have come to you with a petition!'
"He sat down in amazement, and I lost no time in telling him the medical man's history; and explained that he, with the influence which he possessed over his uncle, might do some good to the poor fellow.
"'I'll do it — I'll do it, of course!' he said. 'I shall attack my uncle about it tomorrow morning, and I'm very glad you told me the story. But how was it that you thought of coming to me about it, Terentieff?'
"'So much depends upon your uncle,' I said. 'And besides we have always been enemies, Bachmatoff; and as you are a generous sort of fellow, I thought you would not refuse my request because I was your enemy!' I added with irony.
"'Like Napoleon going to England, eh?' cried he, laughing. 'I'll do it though — of course, and at once, if I can!' he added, seeing that I rose seriously from my chair at this point.
"And sure enough the matter ended as satisfactorily as possible. A month or so later my medical friend was appointed to another post. He got his travelling expenses paid, and something to help him to start life with once more. I think Bachmatoff must have persuaded the doctor to accept a loan from himself. I saw Bachmatoff two or three times, about this period, the third time being when he gave a farewell dinner to the doctor and his wife before their departure, a champagne dinner.