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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Doctor and Priest

By Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931)

  • From ‘Professor Bernhardi,’ Act I.
  • The scene is the anteroom for a hospital ward.The Priest arrives to visit a dying patient.He is a young man, twenty-eight years old, with energetic, intelligent features.The sacristan remains standing near the door.
  • Other persons present: Hochroitzpointner, a medical student; Kurt Pflugfelder, a young assistant doctor; Adler, instructor in pathological anatomy; Dr. Cyprian, nerve specialist.

  • ADLER[studiously]—How do you do, your Reverence?

    Priest—Good-morning, gentlemen. I hope I am not coming too late?

    Kurt—No, your Reverence. The professor is just now with the patient.[Introducing himself.]Assistant Dr. Pflugfelder.

    Priest—Then all hope has not yet been abandoned?

    Oskar[young assistant doctor and son of Professor Bernhardi, enters from the ward]—Good-morning, your Reverence.

    Kurt—Oh yes, your Reverence, it is an absolutely hopeless case.

    Oskar—Would your Reverence please——

    Priest—Perhaps I would rather wait until the Professor has left the patient.

    [The sacristan steps back, the door is closed.Hochroitzpointner brings an armchair forward for the Priest.]

    Priest—Thank you, thank you.[He does not sit down at once.]

    Cyprian—Well, well, your Reverence, if we only went to those patients whom there is still a possibility of helping. Sometimes we doctors too can do nothing better than comfort.

    Kurt—And tell lies.

    Priest[sits down]—There you are using a somewhat harsh term, doctor.

    Kurt—I beg pardon, your Reverence; it was of course said only with reference to us doctors. By the way, this very lying is sometimes the most difficult and also the noblest task in our profession.

    [Bernhardi can be seen at the door.The Priest rises.A nurse comes from the ward, behind Prof. Bernhardi.]

    Bernhardi[somewhat taken aback]—Oh, your Reverence.

    Priest—We are relieving each other, Professor.[He shakes hands with Bernhardi.]I suppose I shall find the patient still in full consciousness?

    Bernhardi—Yes. One might even say, in increased consciousness.[Turning rather to the others.]She has entered a state of absolute euphoria.[In an explanatory manner to the Priest.]One might say that she feels practically well.

    Priest—Oh well, now, that is very satisfactory. Who knows—? Only the other day I had the pleasure of meeting in the street, and in perfect health, a young man who had been wholly prepared for death a few weeks before and had actually received extreme unction from me.

    Adler—And who knows whether it was not your Reverence who had given back to him the strength and courage to live.

    Bernhardi[to Adler]—It is only a misunderstanding on the part of his Reverence, doctor.[To the Priest.]I must explain to you that I meant to say the patient is entirely without misgiving. She is lost, but she believes herself recovered.


    Bernhardi—And it is almost to be feared that your appearance——

    Priest[very mildly]—Fear nothing for your patient, Professor. I am not coming to pronounce the death sentence.

    Bernhardi—Of course. But all the same——

    Priest—Perhaps someone could forewarn the patient.

    [The nurse, unnoticed by the Professor, goes into the ward in obedience to a scarcely perceptible sign from the Priest.]

    Bernhardi—But that would not improve matters in this case. As I have already mentioned to your Reverence, the patient is entirely without misgiving. And she is expecting anything else rather than this visit. She is in fact under the happy delusion that within the next hour someone who is very dear to her will appear in order to take her away, to take her to him again, back to life and to happiness. I believe, your Reverence, it would not be a good work, I would almost dare to assert, not pleasing in the sight of God, if we were to awaken her from this last dream.

    Priest[after hesitating slightly, grows more determined]—Is there any possibility, Professor, that my appearance could unfavorably influence the course of the illness?

    Bernhardi[interrupting him quickly]—It is not at all impossible that the end might be accelerated, though it would possibly be only a question of minutes, but all the same——

    Priest[more emphatically]—Once more: can your patient still be saved? Would my appearance mean a danger in that sense? Then I would of course be ready to withdraw immediately.

    [Adler nods assentingly.]

    Bernhardi—She is lost beyond all hope, there can be no doubt about that.

    Priest—In that case, Professor, I see no reason whatever——

    Bernhardi—Pardon me, your Reverence, for the time being I am still present here in my capacity as a doctor. And it is one of my duties when nothing else remains within my power to do, to try to secure for my patients a happy dying hour, at least as far as possible.

    [Cyprian shows slight signs of impatience and disapproval.]

    Priest—A happy dying hour. It is probable, Professor Bernhardi, that we have each a different opinion of the word. And according to what the nurse has told me, your patient needs absolution more urgently than many another.

    Bernhardi[with his ironical smile]—Are we not sinners every one of us, your Reverence?

    Priest—That is not very much to the point, Professor. You cannot know whether somewhere in the depth of her soul where God alone can see, in these last moments which are left to her, there does not live an ardent desire to be absolved from all sins by a last confession.

    Bernhardi—Must I repeat it once more, your Reverence? The patient does not know that she is lost. She is serene, happy and—free from remorse.

    Priest—My part of guilt would be all the greater if I were to withdraw from this doorstep without having dispensed to the dying patient the sacred consolations of our religion.

    Bernhardi—God and every human judge will acquit you of this guilt.[As the Priest moves forward.]Yes indeed, your Reverence; for I, as the doctor, cannot allow you to approach the bed of this patient.

    Priest—I was called here. Therefore I must beg you——

    Bernhardi—Not by my orders, your Reverence. And I can only repeat that as a physician who feels responsible for the well-being of his patients up to the last hour, I am unfortunately compelled to forbid you to cross this threshold.

    Priest[stepping forward]—You forbid me?

    Bernhardi[touching him lightly on the shoulder]—Yes, your Reverence.

    Nurse[coming hastily from the ward]—Your Reverence——

    Bernhardi—You were in the ward?

    Nurse—It will be too late, your Reverence.

    [Kurt hurries into the ward.]

    Bernhardi[to the nurse]—You told the patient that his Reverence was here?

    Nurse—Yes, sir.

    Bernhardi—Very well, and—please answer me quite calmly—how did the patient behave with regard to it? Did she make any remarks? Answer me. Well?

    Nurse—She said——


    Nurse—Of course she was a bit frightened.

    Bernhardi[not angrily]—Well, but tell me now, what did she say?

    Nurse—“Oh, am I really going to die?”

    Kurt[coming from the ward]—It is all over.

    [Short silence.]

    Bernhardi—Please do not be upset, your Reverence. It is not your fault. You only wanted to do your duty. I wished to do the same; and I am only too sorry that I did not succeed.

    Priest—It is not you, Professor, who need to excuse me. The poor creature in there has passed away as a sinner and without the consolations of religion. And that is your fault.

    Bernhardi—I take it upon myself.

    Priest—It remains to be seen, Professor, whether you will be able to do that. I wish you a good morning, gentlemen.

    [He goes.The others are left in some embarrassment and emotion.Bernhardi looks at each one of them in turn.]