Panic Fears by Anton Chekov
Translated by Constance Garrett
DURING all the years I have been living in this world I have only
three times been terrified.
The first real terror, which made my hair stand on end and made
shivers run all over me, was caused by a trivial but strange
phenomenon. It happened that, having nothing to do one July
evening, I drove to the station for the newspapers. It was a
still, warm, almost sultry evening, like all those monotonous
evenings in July which, when once they have set in, go on for a
week, a fortnight, or sometimes longer, in regular unbroken
succession, and are suddenly cut short by a violent thunderstorm
and a lavish downpour of rain that refreshes everything for a
The sun had set some time before, and an unbroken gray dusk lay
all over the land. The mawkishly sweet scents of the grass and
flowers were heavy in the motionless, stagnant air.
I was driving in a rough trolley. Behind my back the gardener's
son Pashka, a boy of eight years old, whom I had taken with me to
look after the horse in case of necessity, was gently snoring,
with his head on a sack of oats. Our way lay along a narrow
by-road, straight as a ruler, which lay hid like a great snake in
the tall thick rye. There was a pale light from the afterglow of
sunset; a streak of light cut its way through a narrow,
uncouth-looking cloud, which seemed sometimes like a boat and
sometimes like a man wrapped in a quilt. . . .
I had driven a mile and a half, or two miles, when against the
pale background of the evening glow there came into sight one
after another some graceful tall poplars; a river glimmered
beyond them, and a gorgeous picture suddenly, as though by
magic, lay stretched before me. I had to stop the horse, for our
straight road broke off abruptly and ran down a steep incline
overgrown with bushes. We were standing on the hillside and
beneath us at the bottom lay a huge hole full of twilight, of
fantastic shapes, and of space. At the bottom of this hole, in a
wide plain guarded by the poplars and caressed by the gleaming
river, nestled a village. It was now sleeping. . . . Its huts,
its church with the belfry, its trees, stood out against the
gray twilight and were reflected darkly in the smooth surface of
I waked Pashka for fear he should fall out and began cautiously
"Have we got to Lukovo?" asked Pashka, lifting his head lazily.
"Yes. Hold the reins! . . ."
I led the horse down the hill and looked at the village. At the
first glance one strange circumstance caught my attention: at the
very top of the belfry, in the tiny window between the cupola and
the bells, a light was twinkling. This light was like that of a
smoldering lamp, at one moment dying down, at another flickering
up. What could it come from?
Its source was beyond my comprehension. It could not be burning
at the window, for there were neither ikons nor lamps in the top
turret of the belfry; there was nothing there, as I knew, but
beams, dust, and spiders' webs. It was hard to climb up into
that turret, for the passage to it from the belfry was closely
It was more likely than anything else to be the reflection of
some outside light, but though I strained my eyes to the utmost,
I could not see one other speck of light in the vast expanse that
lay before me. There was no moon. The pale and, by now,
quite dim streak of the afterglow could not have been reflected,
for the window looked not to the west, but to the east. These and
other similar considerations were straying through my mind all
the while that I was going down the slope with the horse. At the
bottom I sat down by the roadside and looked again at the light.
As before it was glimmering and flaring up.
"Strange," I thought, lost in conjecture. "Very strange."
And little by little I was overcome by an unpleasant feeling. At
first I thought that this was vexation at not being able to
explain a simple phenomenon; but afterwards, when I suddenly
turned away from the light in horror and caugh t hold of Pashka
with one hand, it became clear that I was overcome with terror. .
I was seized with a feeling of loneliness, misery, and horror, as
though I had been flung down against my will into this great hole
full of shadows, where I was standing all alone with the belfry
looking at me with its red eye.
"Pashka!" I cried, closing my eyes in horror.
"Pashka, what's that gleaming on the belfry?"
Pashka looked over my shoulder at the belfry and gave a yawn.
"Who can tell?"
This brief conversation with the boy reassured me for a little,
but not for long. Pashka, seeing my uneasiness, fastened his big
eyes upon the light, looked at me again, then again at the light.
. . .
"I am frightened," he whispered.
At this point, beside myself with terror, I clutched the boy with
one hand, huddled up to him, and gave the horse a violent lash.
"It's stupid!" I said to myself. "That phenomenon is only
terrible because I don't understand it; everything we don't
understand is mysterious."
I tried to persuade myself, but at the same time I did not leave
off lashing the horse. When we reached the posting station I
purposely stayed for a full hour chatting with the overseer, and
read through two or three newspapers, but the feeling of
uneasiness did not leave me. On the way back the light was not to
be seen, but on the other hand the silhouettes of the huts, of
the poplars, and of the hill up which I had to drive, seemed to
me as though animated. And why the light was there I don't know
to this day.
The second terror I experienced was excited by a circumstance no
less trivial. . . . I was returning from a romantic interview. It
was one o'clock at night, the time when nature is buried in the
soundest, sweetest sleep before the dawn. That time nature was
not sleeping, and one could not call the night a still one.
Corncrakes, quails, nightingales, and woodcocks were calling,
crickets and grasshoppers were chirruping. There was a light mist
over the grass, and clouds were scurrying straight
ahead across the sky near the moon. Nature was awake, as though
afraid of missing the best moments of her life.
I walked along a narrow path at the very edge of a railway
embankment. The moonlight glided over the lines which were
already covered with dew. Great shadows from the clouds kept
flitting over the embankment. Far ahead, a dim green light was
"So everything is well," I thought, looking at them.
I had a quiet, peaceful, comfortable feeling in my heart. I was
returning from a tryst, I had no need to hurry; I was not sleepy,
and I was conscious of youth and health in every sigh, every step
I took, rousing a dull echo in the monotonous hum of
the night. I don't know what I was feeling then, but I remember
I was happy, very happy.
I had gone not more than three-quarters of a mile when I suddenly
heard behind me a monotonous sound, a rumbling, rather like the
roar of a great stream. It grew louder and louder every second,
and sounded nearer and nearer. I looked round; a hundred paces
from me was the dark copse from which I had only just come; there
the embankment turned to the right in a graceful curve and
vanished among the trees. I stood still in perplexity and waited.
A huge black body appeared at once at the turn, noisily darted
towards me, and with the swiftness of a bird flew past me along
the rails. Less than half a minute passed and the blur had
vanished, the rumble melted away into the noise of the night.
It was an ordinary goods truck. There was nothing peculiar about
it in itself, but its appearance without an engine and in the
night puzzled me. Where could it have come from and what force
sent it flying so rapidly along the rails? Where did it come
from and where was it flying to?
If I had been superstitious I should have made up my mind it was
a party of demons and witches journeying to a devils' sabbath,
and should have gone on my way; but as it was, the phenomenon was
absolutely inexplicable to me. I did not believe my eyes, and
was entangled in conjectures like a fly in a spider's web. . . .
I suddenly realized that I was utterly alone on the whole vast
plain; that the night, which by now seemed inhospitable, was
peeping into my face and dogging my footsteps; all the sounds,
the cries of the birds, the whisperings of the trees, seemed
sinister, and existing simply to alarm my imagination. I dashed
on like a madman, and without realizing what I was doing I ran,
trying to run faster and faster. And at once I heard something to
which I had paid no attention before: that is, the plaintive
whining of the telegraph wires.
"This is beyond everything," I said, trying to shame myself.
"It's cowardice! it's silly!"
But cowardice was stronger than common sense. I only slackened my
pace when I reached the green light, where I saw a dark
signal-box, and near it on the embankment the figure of a man,
probably the signalman.
"Did you see it?" I asked breathlessly.
"See whom? What?"
"Why, a truck ran by."
"I saw it, . . ." the peasant said reluctantly. "It broke away
from the goods train. There is an incline at the ninetieth mile .
. .; the train is dragged uphill. The coupling on the last truck
gave way, so it broke off and ran back. . . . There is
no catching it now! . . ."
The strange phenomenon was explained and its fantastic character
vanished. My panic was over and I was able to go on my way.
My third fright came upon me as I was going home from stand
shooting in early spring. It was in the dusk of evening. The
forest road was covered with pools from a recent shower of rain,
and the earth squelched under one's feet. The crimson glow of
sunset flooded the whole forest, coloring the white stems of the
birches and the young leaves. I was exhausted and could hardly
Four or five miles from home, walking along the forest road, I
suddenly met a big black dog of the water spaniel breed. As he
ran by, the dog looked intently at me, straight in my face, and
"A nice dog!" I thought. "Whose is it?"
I looked round. The dog was standing ten paces off with his eyes
fixed on me. For a minute we scanned each other in silence, then
the dog, probably flattered by my attention, came slowly up to me
and wagged his tail.
I walked on, the dog following me.
"Whose dog can it be?" I kept asking myself. "Where does he come
I knew all the country gentry for twenty or thirty miles round,
and knew all their dogs. Not one of them had a spaniel like that.
How did he come to be in the depths of the forest, on a track
used for nothing but carting timber? He could hardly have
dropped behind someone passing through, for there was nowhere for
the gentry to drive to along that road.
I sat down on a stump to rest, and began scrutinizing my
companion. He, too, sat down, raised his head, and fastened upon
me an intent stare. He gazed at me without blinking. I don't know
whether it was the influence of the stillness, the shadows and
sounds of the forest, or perhaps a result of exhaustion, but I
suddenly felt uneasy under the steady gaze of his ordinary doggy
eyes. I thought of Faust and his bulldog, and of the fact that
nervous people sometimes when exhausted have hallucinations.
That was enough to make me get up hurriedly and hurriedly walk
on. The dog followed me.
"Go away!" I shouted.
The dog probably liked my voice, for he gave a gleeful jump and
ran about in front of me.
"Go away!" I shouted again.
The dog looked round, stared at me intently, and wagged his tail
good-humoredly. Evidently my threatening tone amused him. I ought
to have patted him, but I could not get Faust's dog out of my
head, and the feeling of panic grew more and more acute. . .
Darkness was coming on, which completed my confusion, and every
time the dog ran up to me and hit me with his tail, like a coward
I shut my eyes. The same thing happened as with the light in the
belfry and the truck on the railway: I could not stand it and
At home I found a visitor, an old friend, who, after greeting me,
began to complain that as he wa s driving to me he had lost his
way in the forest, and a splendid valuable dog of his had dropped