One fine evening a no less fine civil servant, Ivan Dmitrich Chervyakov, sat in a second row seat watching the show through opera glasses. He felt himself at the height of bliss, when suddenly (in stories one frequently encounters such "when suddenly(s)", and the authors are right: life is full of surprises), suddenly his face wrinkled up, his eyes rolled back, his breathing stopped, he lowered his opera glasses, he doubled over, and...AAAAHHH-choo! He sneezed, as is evident. A sneeze--by any man, in any place--cannot be prevented. Peasants sneeze. And police commissioners. Sometimes even privy counsellors. Everybody sneezes. Thus Chervyakov, not in the least embarrassed, wiped his nose with a handkerchief and, being a polite person, glanced about. Had anyone been disturbed by his sneezing? Here arrives the embarrassment: he watched as an old gentleman, sitting in front of him, in the first row of seats, diligently applied to his bald head a handkerchief, muttering something to himself. In the old gentleman, Chervyakov recognized Department of Transport Civil General Brizzhalov.
"I've thoroughly splattered him!" thought Chervyakov. "He's a stranger, not my boss, but this is awkward nonetheless. An apology is in order."
Chervyakov cleared his throat, leaned his body forward, and whispered into the General's ear, "Pardon me, thy Excellency, I have thoroughly splattered thou...I accidentally...”
"Never mind, never mind..."
"Good God, excuse me. I just...I didn't intend to!"
"Oh, sit thee down please! Let me listen!"
Chervyakov, even more embarrassed, smiled idiotically and gazed at the stage. He watched, but he no longer felt blissful. He was haunted with unease. At the intermission he walked up to Brizzhalov, followed closely behind him and, overcoming his shyness, mumbled along: "I thoroughly splattered thou, thy Excellency...forgive me...it's just...it wasn't intended to..."
"Oh that's enough...I'd already forgotten, yet thou goest on about it!" said the General with an impatient twitching in his lower lip.
"He's forgotten, yet there's acrimony in his very eye," thought Chervyakov, suspiciously giving the General a good looking over. "He does not want to talk, but I really ought to explain to him that I really did not mean to...that it is a law of nature, or else he'll think that I intended to spit on him. He may not think so now, but later, thinking it over...!"
Arriving home, Chervyakov told his wife of the unpleasantness. His wife, it seemed to him, interpreted the event too light-mindedly. Initially she was startled, but soon, realizing that Brizzhalov was but a "stranger", she calmed down.
"Nonetheless you should go and apologize," said she, "or else he'll think you can't handle yourself in public."
"That's just it! I did apologize, but he took it somewhat strangely...He didn't speak a single sensible word. And yet there wasn't time to talk all it out."
The next day Chervyakov put on a new uniform, got a haircut, and set off to explain himself to Brizzhalov. Upon entering the General's reception room, he observed there many petitioners, and among the petitioners was the General himself, who had already begun receiving requests. Having questioned several supplicants, the General now raised his eyes on Chervyakov.
"Yesterday at the 'Arcadia', perhaps thy Excellency remembers," the middling bureaucrat began his report, "I sneezed, sir, and...by accident splattered...forgi..."
"Such trifles...God knows it! Now what can I do for thee?" the General addressed the next petitioner.
"He doesn't want to talk!" thought Chervyakov, turning pale. "He's angry, it means...No, this cannot stand...I will explain it to him..."
When the General finished chatting with the final petitioner, he set off for the inner rooms of the apartment. Chervyakov paced behind him and mumbled: "Thy Excellency! If I may be so bold as to trouble thy Excellency, this comes only from a longing, if I may say so, for repentance!...Unintentional it was, if you will but deign to believe me, sir!”
The General assumed a lachrymose face, waved his hand, hid himself behind a closing door, and dismissed Chervyakov: "Why, you must be ribbing me, my good man."
"What is there possibly to make fun of?" pondered Chervyakov. "There is absolutely nothing laughable here! A General, and yet he can't seem to understand! If such is the case I can no longer stand to beg forgiveness of this fanfaron! The devil take him! I'll write a letter but shall come to him no more! By God I won't!"
So thought Chervyakov walking home, but the letter to the General was never written. Chervyakov thought and he thought, yet he never thought out that letter. He arrived next day to explain himself in person.
"Yesterday I ventured to disturb thy Excellency," he began mumbling when the General raised upon him inquiring eyes, "not for the purpose of humor, as thou deigneth to say. I was apologizing for that, which, sneezing, I splattered thee, sir...and to jest never occurred to me. How could I make fun? If we were to stoop to joking between us, why, it would be the end of respect between persons...such could not be..."
"Away with you!!" barked the suddenly shaking, purpling General.
"What, sir?" whispered Chervyakov, numb with horror.
"Away with you!!" repeated the General, stomping his foot.
In Chervyakov's stomach something snapped. Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, he backed himself to the door, exited onto the street, and floundered along. Arriving home, he mechanically removed his uniform, lay down, and died.
trans. Michael Wasiura