(The continuation of The Pharmacist’s (Chemist’s) Wife, with sincere apologies to Anton Chekov)
The next night found the pharmacist’s wife as before – sleepless, bored and depressed. Again, she sat on the edge of the bed looking out her open bedroom window to the moonlit dusty road leading to the army base. Oblivious to all, her husband lay snoring, languorously and rhythmically, on his side of their small bed.
At first she thought she was imagining things. Could it again be the jingle of spurs in the wee hours of the morning along the deserted road, much like she had heard the previous night? The sound grew closer and her eyes strained into the distance trying to make out its source. As the man turned the corner into view, his white military tunic stood out brilliantly in the moonlight, exquisitely complimented by his highly polished knee length cavalryman’s boots reflecting the lunar rays. She saw that it was the same handsome officer who had angrily thrown the mints into the dust the previously night. He was now approaching the pharmacy.
“Who’s there?” she quietly responded to the ring of the bell on a string at the door, even though she full well knew who it was. The previous night’s excitement and apprehension again welled up inside her and she had to struggle to show no sign of it.
“Lieutenant Obtyosov (Обтёсов),” was the gruff response in the tone common to the men at the base.
She lit a candle, opened the door and, as he came into the small room, asked, “What would you like?”
“Do you have any wine better than that swill you served us last night?” he said with a slight slur.
“I’ll bring you a bottle of something better,” she responded, turning to the shelf behind her.
He studied the woman appraisingly and silently as she obtained and poured the wine. Only the sound of the pharmacist’s distinct and even snoring coming from the rooms behind the pharmacy broke the silence.
Finally, after tasting the wine, he said,“You’re awfully pretty to be stuck in a place like this, in this crummy little pharmacy.”
She knew exactly what he meant, but replied, “What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong with this place.”
He ignored her answer and continued “And your husband. How could you be with a fat old lout like that? You deserve much better.”
“Like you, for example?,” she quickly responded.
“Well, what would be so bad about someone like me? Someone like me would certainly be better than what you have now.”
“I love my husband,” she lied. They both knew she didn’t. “And life here is not so bad, even if it doesn’t have the excitement of a big city.”
“This little no account poor excuse for a town? There’s nothing here. A few stores, bars and whore houses. Not even a theater; not that you could find any actors here worth their salt, even if there was one.”
“We have a very nice little church, but you probably wouldn’t know about that.”
“And when was the last time you were in your ‘very nice little church’?”
She stared silently into the candle flame. Even its dim light was enough to reveal the lines beginning to form on her face and the fact that her youthful beauty would soon be fading.
Glancing nervously toward the door leading to the snoring and then into the eyes of the officer, she quietly and seriously asked, “And where would you take me?”
By tone and content, with that simple question the conversation took on an entirely different tenor. Suddenly they were no longer talking abstractly about “someone”. They both understood that he had made a proposal, oblique though it was, and that she was now considering it. They stared into each other’s eyes, both of them, in their separate ways, trying to evaluate the magnitude and consequence of the situation. The lack of words between them gave no hint of the furious churning of their minds, weighing the gravity of the decision confronting them.
Oh how she had longed these past few years for the chance to get away; to get away from the husband she had foolishly married and to get away from this miserable life. But now that opportunity was in the offing, she hesitated. But, why? Marriage to the officer would provide what was missing in her life — excitement, travel, a decent lifestyle, perhaps even a future posting to a wonderful city like Moscow or St. Petersburg. And, with the barrenness of her marriage to the pharmacist always at least in her subconscious, thoughts of children of her own enjoyed a privileged place in her considerations.
The officer, too, realized that what had started out as simple flirting, with perhaps the unlikely hope of a side romance with a married woman, had turned deadly serious. Certainly she was a very desirable woman, but he had not really intended to make an actual offer and when she took it as such, he was caught off guard. Did he really want to give up his bachelor ways and spend his life with this woman he hardly knew? And, he asked himself, “What if she wants children?”
They both continued in silence. He looked only into her eyes, while she alternated her gaze between him and the doorway leading to her husband. Although they sat only a few inches apart across the counter, the distance of their separate selfish thoughts and evaluations were more akin to those of chess masters or military strategists than to potential soul mates. Both weighed positives against negatives, advantages against disadvantages, short term against long term.
She thought about the difficulties attendant divorce, the hardship of possible postings to remote places like the Caucasus, whether the officer would beat her or drink too much. Or, positively, how much she would enjoy being a member of the genteel society to which marriage to the officer would give her access. These and a hundred other things jumbled in her head.
His concerns were no less myriad. How would marriage to her affect his career? What would his society and relatives think of her? How soon would her beauty fade entirely? Would she get fat? Even, he couldn’t help asking himself, what would their intimate life be like?
Just when it seemed that neither had the capacity to adequately evaluate the situation and reach a conclusion, she suddenly stood up, her face now out of the arc of candlelight, and decisively announced, “Yes, it’s decided. Let me throw some things in a bag and we’ll go”.
However, when she returned from the bedroom the officer was gone. There was only the small sound of spurs fading into the night along the road leading back to the base. And, of course, her husband’s interminable snoring.