When late at night he rang at his own door, the first sound after that of the bell was a resonant dog's bark, in which might be distinguished both fear that it might have been a stranger, and joy that it was his own master, who had arrived.
Then there followed the squish-squash of goloshes, and the squeak of the key taken out of the lock.
He came in, and taking off his wrappers in the dark, was conscious of a silent female figure close by, while the nails of a dog caressingly scratched at his knees, and a hot tongue licked his chilled hand.
"Well, what is it?" a sleepy voice asked in a tone of perfunctory interest.
"Nothing! I'm tired," curtly replied Vladimir Mikhailovich, and went to his own room. The dog followed him, his nails striking sharply on the waxed floor, and jumped on to the bed. When the light of the lamp which he lit filled the room, his glance met the steady gaze of the dog's black eyes. They seemed to say: "Come now, pet me." And to make the request better understood the dog stretched out his fore-paws, and laid his head sideways upon them, while his hinder quarters wriggled comically, and his tail kept twirling round like the handle of a barrel-organ.
"My only friend!" said Vladimir Mikhailovich, as he stroked the black, glossy coat. As though from excess of feeling the dog turned on his back, showed his white teeth, and growled gently, joyful and excited. But Vladimir Mikhailovich sighed, petted the dog, and thought to himself, how that there was no one else in the world that would ever love him.
If he happened to return home early, and not tired out with work, he would sit down to write, and the dog curled himself into a ball on a chair somewhere near to him, opened one black eye now and again, and sleepily wagged his tail. And when excited by the process of authorship, tortured by the sufferings of his own heroes, and choking with a plethora of thoughts and mental pictures, he walked about in his room, and smoked cigarette after cigarette, the dog would follow him with an anxious look, and wag his tail more vigorously than ever.
"Shall we become famous, you and I, Vasyuk?" he would inquire of the dog, who would wag his tail in affirmation. "We'll eat liver then, is that right?"
"Right!" the dog would reply, stretching himself luxuriously. He was very fond of liver.
Vladimir Mikhailovich often had visitors. Then his aunt, with whom he lived, would borrow china from her neighbour, and give them tea, setting on samovar after samovar. She would go and buy vodka and sausages, and sigh heavily as she drew out from the bottom of her pocket a greasy rouble-note. In the room with its smoke-laden atmosphere loud voices resounded. They quarrelled and laughed, said droll and sharp things, complained of their fate and envied one another. They advised Vladimir Mikhailovich to give up literature and take to some more lucrative occupation. Some said that he ought to consult a doctor, others clinked glasses with him, while they bewailed the injury that vodka was doing to his health. He was so sickly, so continually nervous. This was why he had such fits of depression, and why he demanded of life the impossible. All addressed him as "thou," and their voices expressed their interest in him, and in the friendliest manner, they would invite him to drive beyond the city with them, and prolong the conviviality. And when he drove off merry, making more noise than the others, and laughing at nothing, there followed him two pairs of eyes: the grey eyes of his aunt, angry and reproachful, and the anxiously caressing black eyes of the dog.
He did not remember what he did, when he had been drinking, and returned home in the morning bespattered with mud and marl, and without his hat.
They would tell him afterwards how in his cups he had insulted his friend; at home had reviled his Aunt, who had wept and said she could not bear such a life any longer, but must do away with herself; and how he had tortured his dog, when he refused to come to him and be petted; and that when, terrified and trembling, he showed his teeth, he had beaten him with a strap.
And the following day all would have finished their day's work before he woke up sick and miserable. His heart would beat unevenly and feel faint, filling him with dread of an early death, while his hands trembled. On the other side of the wall, in the kitchen, his Aunt would stump about, the sound of her steps re-echoing through the cold, empty flat. She would not speak to Vladimir Mikhailovich, but austere and unforgiving, gave him water in silence. And he too would keep silence, looking at the ceiling, at a particular stain long known to him, and thinking how he was wasting his life, and that he would never gain fame and happiness. He confessed to himself that he was weak, worthless and terribly lonesome. The boundless world seethed with moving human beings, and yet there was not one single soul who would come to him and share his pains—madly arrogant thoughts of fame, coupled with a deadly consciousness of worthlessness. With trembling, bungling hand he would grip his forehead, and press his eyelids, but however firmly he pressed, still the tears would ooze through, and creep down over his cheeks, which still retained the scent of purchased kisses. And when he dropped his hand, it would fall upon another forehead, hairy and smooth, and his gaze, confused with tears, would meet the caressing black eyes of the dog, and his ears would catch his soft sighs. And touched and comforted he would whisper:
"My friend, my only friend!"
When he recovered, his friends used to come to him, and softly reprove him, giving advice and speaking of the evils of drink. But some of his friends, whom he had insulted when drunk, ceased to notice him in the streets. They understood that he did not wish them any harm, but they preferred not to run the risk of further unpleasantnesses. Thus he spent the oppressive fume-laden nights and the sternly avenging sunlit days at war with himself, his obscurity and loneliness. And ofttimes the steps of his Aunt resounded through the deserted flat, while from the bed was heard a whisper, which resembled a sigh:
"My friend, my only friend!"
Eventually his illusive fame came, came unguessed at, and unexpected, and filled the empty apartments with light and life. His Aunt's steps were drowned in the tramp of friendly footsteps, and the spectre of loneliness vanished, and the soft whisper ceased. Vodka, too, disappeared, that ominous companion of the solitary, and Vladimir Mikhailovich ceased to insult his Aunt and his friends.
The dog too was glad. Still louder became his bark on the occasion of their belated meetings, when his master, his only friend, came home kind, happy, and laughing. The dog himself learnt to smile; his upper lip would be drawn up exposing his white teeth, and his nose would pucker up into funny little wrinkles. Happy and frolicsome he began to play; he would seize hold of things and make as though he would carry them away, and when his master stretched out his hands to catch him, he would let him approach to within a stride of him, and then run away again, while his black eyes sparkled with artfulness.
Sometimes Vladimir Mikhailovich would point to his Aunt and say, "Bite her!" and the dog would fly at her in feigned anger, shake her petticoat, and then, out of breath, glance sideways at his friend with his roguish black eyes. The Aunt's thin lips would be contorted into an austere smile, and stroking the dog, now tired out with play, on his glossy head, would say:
"Sensible dog!—only he does not like soup."
And at night, when Vladimir Mikhailovich was at work, and only the jarring of the window-panes, caused by the street traffic, broke the stillness, the dog would doze near to him on the alert, and wake at his slightest movement.
"What, laddie, would you like some liver?" he would ask.
"Yes," would Vasyuk reply, wagging his tail in the affirmative.
"Well, wait a bit, I'll buy you some. What do you want? To be petted? I have no time now, I am busy; go to sleep, laddie!"
Every night he asked the dog about liver, but he continually forgot to buy it, because his head was full of plans for a new work, and of thoughts of a woman he was in love with. Only once did he remember the liver. It was in the evening; he was passing a butcher's shop, arm in arm with a pretty woman who pressed her shoulder close against his. He jokingly told her about his dog, and praised his sense and intelligence. Showing off somewhat, he went on to tell her that there were terrible, distressing moments, when he regarded his dog as his only friend, and laughingly related his promise to buy liver for his friend, when he should have attained happiness—and he pressed the girl's hand closer to him.
"You clever fellow," cried she, laughing; "you would make even stones speak. But I don't like dogs at all: they are so apt to carry infection."
Vladimir Mikhailovich agreed that that was the case, and held his tongue with regard to his habit of sometimes kissing that black shiny muzzle.
One day, Vasyuk played more than usual during the daytime, but in the evening, when Vladimir Mikhailovich came home, he did not turn up to meet him, and his Aunt said that the dog was ill. Vladimir Mikhailovich was alarmed, and went into the kitchen, where the dog lay on a bed of soft litter. His nose was dry and hot, and his eyes were troubled. He made a slight movement of his tail, and looked piteously at his friend.
"What is it, boy; ill? My poor fellow!"
The tail made a feeble motion, and the black eyes became moist.
"Lie still, then; lie still!"
"He will have to be taken to the veterinary: but to-morrow, I have no time. But it will pass off—" thought Vladimir Mikhailovich, and he forgot the dog in thinking of the happiness the pretty girl might give him. All the next day he was away from home. When he returned his hand fumbled long in searching for the bell-handle, and when it was found hesitated long as to what to do with the wooden thing.
"Ah, yes! I must ring," he laughed, and then began singing, "Open—ye!"
The bell gave a solitary ring, goloshes squish-squashed, and the key squeaked as it was taken out of the lock.
Vladimir Mikhailovich, still humming, passed through into his room, and walked about a long time before it occurred to him that he ought to light the lamp. Then he undressed, but for a long time he kept in his hands the boots he had taken off, and looked at them as though they were the pretty girl, who had only that day said so simply and sincerely, "Yes! I love you!" And when he had got into bed, he still saw her speaking face, until side by side with it there appeared the black shiny muzzle of his dog, and with a sharp pain there crept into his heart the question:
"But where is Vasyuk?"
He became ashamed of having forgotten the sick dog—but not particularly so: for had not Vasyuk been ill several times before, and nothing had come of it. But to-morrow the veterinary must be sent for. At all events he need not think of the dog, and of his own ingratitude—that would do no good, and would only diminish his own happiness.
When morning came the dog became worse. He was troubled with nausea, and being a well-mannered dog, he rose with difficulty from his litter, and went to the courtyard, staggering like a drunken man. His little black body was sleek as ever, but his head hung feebly, and his eyes, which now looked grey, gazed in mournful surprise.
At first Vladimir Mikhailovich himself, with the help of his Aunt, opened wide the dog's mouth, with its yellowing gums, and poured in medicine: but the dog was in such pain and suffered so, that it became too distressing to him to look at him, and he left him to the care of his Aunt. And when the dog's feeble, helpless moan penetrated through the wall, he stuffed his fingers into his ears, and was surprised at the extent of his love for this poor dog.
In the evening he went out. Before doing so he gave a look in at the kitchen. His Aunt was on her knees stroking the hot, trembling head with her dry hand.
With his legs stretched out like sticks, the dog lay heavy and motionless, and only by putting one's ear down close to his muzzle could one catch the low, frequent moans.
His eyes, now quite grey, fixed themselves on his master as he came in, and when he carefully passed his hand over the dog's forehead, his groans became clearer and more piteous.
"What, laddie, are you so bad? But wait a bit, when you are well I will buy you some liver."
"I'll make him eat soup!" jokingly threatened the Aunt.
The dog closed his eyes, and Vladimir Mikhailovich with a forced joke went out in haste; and when he got into the street he hired a cab, since he was afraid of being late at the rendezvous with Natalya Lavrentyevna.
That autumn's evening the air was so fresh and pure, and so many stars twinkled in the dark sky! They kept falling, leaving behind them a fiery track, and burst kindling with a bluish light a pretty girl's face, and were reflected in her dark eyes—as though a glow-worm had appeared at the bottom of a deep dark well. And greedy lips noiselessly kissed those eyes, those lips fresh as the night air, and those cool cheeks. Voices exultant, and trembling with love whispered, prattling of joy and life.
When Vladimir Mikhailovich drove up to his house, he remembered the dog, and his breast ached with a dark foreboding.
When his Aunt opened the door, he asked:
"Well, how's Vasyuk?"
"Dead. He died about an hour after you left."
The dead dog had been already removed to some outhouse, and the litter bed cleared away. But Vladimir Mikhailovich did not even wish to see the body; it would be too distressing a sight. When he lay down in bed, and all noises were stilled in the empty flat, he began to weep restrainedly. His lips puckered up silently, and tears forced their way through his closed eyelids, and rolled quickly down on to his bosom. He was ashamed that he was kissing a woman at the very moment when he, who had been his friend, lay a-dying on the floor alone. And he dreaded what his Aunt would think of him, a serious man, if she heard that he had been crying about a dog.
Much time had elapsed since these events. Mysterious, outrageous fame had left Vladimir Mikhailovich just as it had come to him. He had disappointed the hopes that had been built on him, and all were angry at this disappointment, and avenged themselves on him by exasperating remarks and cold jeers. And then they had shut down on him dead, heavy oblivion, like the lid of a coffin.
The young woman had dropped him. She too considered herself taken in.
The oppressive fume-laden nights, and the pitilessly vengeful sun-lit days, went by: and frequently, more frequently than formerly, the Aunt's steps resounded through the empty flat, while he lay on his bed looking at the well-known stain on the ceiling, and whispered:
"My friend, my friend, my only friend!"
And his trembling hand fell feebly on an empty place.