Petersburg The Alarm

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, to put it trivially, could not stand any kind of social visits that took him out of the house; as far as he was concerned, the only sensible visit was to the Institution or to take a report to the minister. Thus had the director of the Ministry of Justice once jestingly observed to him.

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, to put it candidly, could not stand direct conversations that involved looking the other person in the face: conversation by means of the telephonic wire got rid of the inconvenience. From Apollon Apollonovich’s desk telephone wires ran to every department. Apollon Apollonovich listened to the hooting of the telephone with satisfaction.

Only once had some prankster, in response to Apollon Apollonovich’s query as to which department he was from, struck the palm of his hand on the telephone mouthpiece with all his might, from which Apollon Apollonovich received the impression that someone had given him a slap on the cheek.

In Apollon Apollonovich’s opinion, every exchange of words had a manifest purpose that was as straight as a line. Everything else he categorized as tea-drinking and the smoking of cigarette ends: Apollon Apollonovich unflinchingly called all cigarettes cigarette ends: and his assumption was that Russians were good-for-nothing tea-drinkers, drunkards and nicotine addicts (he had several times proposed a tax increase on products of the latter substance); it was because of this that by the age of forty-five the Russian, in Apollon Apollonovich’s opinion, gave himself away by his indecent paunch and his blood-red nose; Apollon Apollonovich rushed like a bull at anything red (even a nose).

Apollon Apollonovich was himself the owner of a deathly-grey little nose and a slender little waist – you would have sworn it was the waist of a young girl of sixteen – and was proud of it.

None the less, Apollon Apollonovich had a peculiarly deft explanation for the visits of guests: jours fixes were for most of them a place where they could drink tea and smoke cigarette ends together, as long as the visitor did not plan to acquire a post in an idle department and would therefore attempt to ingratiate himself in the house he was visiting, and as long as he did not plan to procure his son a post in that department, or to marry that son to the daughter of the head of that department (there was one such idle department). With that department Apollon Apollonovich waged a dogged struggle.

Apollon Apollonovich had gone to the Tsukatovs’ with one single end in view: to strike a blow at the department. The department had begun to flirt with a certain party which, though doubtless a moderate one, was suspicious not for its rejection of order but for its wish to very slightly change that order. Apollon Apollonovich despised compromises, despised the party’s representatives and, above all, the department. He wanted to show the department’s representative and the party’s representative what his future conduct was going to be like with regard to the department in the lofty post that had only just been offered him.

That was why Apollon Apollonovich with displeasure considered himself obliged to spend an evening at the Tsukatovs’, where he had under his nose a most unpleasant object of contemplation: the convulsions of dancing legs and the blood-red, unpleasantly rustling folds of harlequin costumes; he had seen these red rags somewhere before: yes, on the square in front of the Kazan Cathedral; there these red rags had been called banners.

These red rags now, at a simple little soirée and in the presence of the head of the aforesaid Institution struck him as an inappropriate, unworthy and downright disgraceful practical joke; while the convulsions of the dancing legs put him in mind of a certain regrettable (though unavoidable) measure for the prevention of state crimes.

With hostility Apollon Apollonovich looked askance at his hospitable hosts, and became disagreeable.

For him, the dancing of the red clowns turned into dancing of a different, bloody sort; this dancing, like all dancing, as a matter of fact, began in the street; this dancing, like all dancing, continued beneath the crossbeam of two not unfamiliar pillars. Apollon Apollonovich thought: if one permits this apparently innocent dancing here, it will of course continue in the street; and the dancing will, of course, end – there, there.

Apollon Apollonovich had, as a matter of fact, danced in his youth: the polka-mazurka, probably, and, perhaps, the lancers.

One circumstance made the high-ranking personage’s melancholy mood doubly worse: that absurd domino was disagreeable to him in the extreme, having given him a serious attack of pectoral angina (whether it really was pectoral angina, Apollon Apollonovich was doubtful; and it was a strange thing: the true nature of angina was decidedly known to all who had to turn, even a little, the wheels of such imposing mechanisms as, for example, the Institution). So there it was: the absurd domino, a ridiculous buffoon, had met him in the most insolent manner upon his appearance in the ballroom; upon his entrance to the ballroom the absurd domino (a ridiculous buffoon) had come running up to him with grimaces.

Apollon Apollonovich vainly tried to remember where he had seen the grimaces: and could not remember.

With undisguised boredom, with barely mastered revulsion Apollon Apollonovich had sat solemnly in state, like a stick, erect, with a tiny porcelain cup in his most miniature hands; perpendicularly on the multicoloured Bokhara rug rested his thin little legs with their sinewy calves, forming lower parts which below his kneecaps made ninety-degree angles with the upper parts; perpendicularly to his chest his thin hands stretched out towards the little porcelain cup of tea. Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, a person of the first class, looked like the small figure of the Egyptian that was depicted on the rug – angular, broad-shouldered, defying all the laws of anatomy (for Apollon Apollonovich had no muscles: Apollon Apollonovich consisted of bones, sinews and veins).

It was with this angularity, which seemed as though elevated by him to a habit, that Apollon Apollonovich, the Egyptian, was expounding a most wise system of prohibitions to the professor of statistical information who had come to this soirée – the leader of a newly-formed party, a party of moderate governmental change, though change none the less; and with the same dry angularity, which seemed as though elevated by him to a habit, was doctorially expounding a system of the wisest counsels to the editor of the conservative newspaper, who was the son of a liberal priest.

With neither of them did Apollon Apollonovich, a personage of the first class, have anything in common: they both had fat, so to speak, bellies (from intemperance in the matter of tea); they were both, incidentally, red-nosed (from immoderate consumption of alcoholic beverages). One of them was, in addition, the son of a priest, and where the sons of priests were concerned, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov had an understandable weakness, one that he had, moreover, inherited from his forefathers: that of not being able to endure them. When Apollon Apollonovich conversed in the course of his duties with country, town and consistorial priests, priests’ sons and grandsons, he quite plainly sensed a bad smell from their feet; after all, one could not help noticing that country priests, town priests … even consistorial priests with their sons and grandsons, quite plainly, had dirty, unwashed necks and yellow fingernails.

Suddenly Apollon Apollonovich grew decidedly flustered between the two pot-bellied frockcoats that belonged to the priest’s son and the moderate traitor, as though his sense of smell had quite plainly detected a bad odour from their feet; but the eminent man of state’s agitation did not in the slightest proceed from an irritation of his olfactory centres; his agitation proceeded from a sudden shock to his sensitive aural membrane: just then the ballroom pianist again let his fingers fall on the grand piano, and Apollon Apollonovich’s auditory apparatus heard all the consonances and melodic passages through a mesh of harmonic dissonances, like the aimless scraping of at least a dozen fingernails over glass.

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov turned right round; and there he saw the convulsions of the ugly legs that belonged to this company of state criminals: no, sorry: of dancing young people; among this devilish dancing his attention was still struck by the domino, who had unfolded his bloody satin in the dance.

Apollon Apollonovich vainly tried to remember where he had seen all these gestures. And could not remember.

And when a sugary and mangy-looking little gentleman flew up to him deferentially, Apollon Apollonovich grew animated in the extreme, tracing with his hand a triangle of greeting in space.

The fact was that the mangy little gentleman, despised by everyone, was, so to speak, a necessary figure: well, of course, it went without saying: a figure of a transitional age, whose existence Apollon Apollonovich in principle censured, whose existence within the bounds of legality was, of course, deplorable, but … what could one do? He was necessary, convenient and … in any case, since the figure existed, one had to reconcile oneself to him. The good thing about the mangy little gentleman, if one were to take account of the difficulty of his situation, was that the mangy little gentleman, knowing his own worth, assumed no airs of any kind; did not dress himself up in the ballyhoo of idly uttered phrases, like that professor; did not bang his fist on the table in a most indecent manner, like that editor. The sugary little gentleman, in his own quiet way, silently served various departments, while remaining attached to one department. Apollon Apollonovich could not help valuing the little gentleman, for he made no attempt to be on an equal footing with civil servants or with people who were simply members of society – in a word, the mangy little gentleman was an out-and-out lackey. What was so strange about that? Apollon Apollonovich was extremely considerate to lackeys: no lackey who had served in the Ableukhov household had yet had cause for complaint.

And with emphasized politeness, Apollon Apollonovich immersed himself in a detailed conversation with the little figure.

The fact that he brought away from this conversation struck him like thunder: the blood-red, unpleasant domino, the ridiculous buffoon, about whom he had just been reflecting, in the wake of the little gentleman’s words, turned out to be … No, no (Apollon Apollonovich made a grimace as though he had seen a lemon being sliced, and the blade that did the slicing being oxidized in the juice) – no, no: the domino turned out to be his own son! …

But was he really his own son? His own son might, after all, turn out quite simply to be Anna Petrovna’s son, thanks to the predominance, so to speak, in his veins of his mother’s blood; and in his mother’s blood – in Anna Petrovna’s blood – there was according to the most precisely conducted inquiries … priests’ blood (Apollon Apollonovich had made these inquiries after his wife’s escape)! It was probable that her priests’ blood had befouled the immaculate Ableukhov family, having given her eminent husband a son who was simply foul. Only a foul son – a real mongrel – could have got up to such ventures (there had been nothing like it in the Ableukhov family since the time that the Kirghiz – Kaisak, Ab-Lai, had migrated to Russia – since the time of Anna Ioannovna).

The senator had been struck most of all by the fact that the foul domino who was leaping about over there (Nikolai Apollonovich) had, according to what the little gentleman had reported, a past so foul that the Jewish press was writing about these foul habits; here Apollon Apollonovich decidedly regretted that during all these recent days he had not found time to run through the ‘Diary of Events’ – in a certain place that had no comparison he had only had time to acquaint himself with the leading articles that came from the pens of moderate state criminals (as for the leading articles by immoderate state criminals, Apollon Apollonovich did not read them).

Apollon Apollonovich altered the position of his body: quickly he got up and was about to run through to the next room in order to investigate the domino, but from there, from the room, a clean-shaven little high-school student, dressed in a tight-fitting frockcoat and trousers, came flying up to him at top speed; and absentmindedly Apollon Apollonovich very nearly gave him his hand to shake; on closer inspection the clean-shaven little high-school student turned out to be Senator Ableukhov: in his running dive Apollon Apollonovich had very nearly bumped into a mirror, having confused the arrangement of the rooms.

Apollon Apollonovich altered the position of his body, turning his back to the mirror; and – there, there: in the room between the drawing-room and the ballroom, Apollon Apollonovich again saw the foul domino (the mongrel), absorbed in the reading of some (probably foul) note (probably of pornographic content). And Apollon Apollonovich did not have sufficient courage to catch his son in the act.

Apollon Apollonovich several times altered the position of the aggregate of sinews, skin and bones that he called his body, and looked like a small Egyptian. With immoderate nervousness he rubbed his little hands and approached the card tables over and over again, having suddenly discovered an extreme politeness, an extreme curiosity with regard to diverse objects; of the statistician Apollon Apollonovich inquired irrelevantly about the potholes in the roads of the Ukhtomsk district of the province of Ploshchegorsk; while of the zemstvo official from the province of Ploshchegorsk he inquired about the consumption of pepper on the island of Newfoundland. The professor of statistics, touched by the attention of the eminent man of state, but not at all conversant with the pothole question in the province of Ploshchegorsk, promised to send the person of the first class a certain reputable guide to the geographical peculiarities of the entire planet Earth. While the zemstvo official, who was uninformed about the pepper question, hypocritically observed that pepper was consumed by the Newfoundlanders in enormous quantities, which was an invariable fact in all countries that had a constitution.

Soon to Apollon Apollonovich’s ears some kind of bashfully arisen whispers, rustlings and crooked chuckles came drifting; Apollon Apollonovich plainly noticed that the convulsion of the dancing legs had suddenly ceased: for a single moment his agitated spirit was calmed. But then his head began to work again with dreadful clarity; the fateful premonition he had had all these uneasily passing hours was confirmed: his son, Nikolai Apollonovich, was a most dreadful scoundrel, because only a most dreadful scoundrel could behave in such a repulsive manner: for several days to wear a red domino, for several days to go around with a mask on, for several days to excite the Jewish press.

Apollon Apollonovich realized with decided clarity that for as long as the officers, young ladies, ladies and final-year students of the teaching and educational institutions were dancing there in the ballroom, his son, Nikolai Apollonovich, was dancing towards … But Apollon Apollonovich could not form any clear idea of what precisely Nikolai Apollonovich was dancing his way towards: Nikolai Apollonovich was, like it or not, his son, and not simply some … person of the male gender, begotten by Anna Petrovna, perhaps, the devil knew where; Nikolai Apollonovich had, after all, the ears of all the Ableukhovs – ears of incredible dimensions, and protruding, moreover.

This thought about ears softened Apollon Apollonovich’s anger somewhat: Apollon Apollonovich put off his intention of driving his son out of the house, making no more precise inquiry into the reasons that had made his son wear a domino. But at any rate Apollon Apollonovich had now been deprived of his post, he would have to renounce the post; he could not accept the post until he had washed away the disgraceful stains in his son’s conduct (who was, whether one liked it or not, an Ableukhov), which drew down shame upon the house.

With this deplorable thought and with crooked lips (as though he had sucked dry a pale yellow lemon), Apollon Apollonovich took his leave of them all and swiftly ran out of the drawing-room, accompanied by his hosts. And when, as he flew through the ballroom, he looked round in the most utter horror in the direction of the walls, finding the expanse of the illumined ballroom excessively huge, he saw plainly: a little flock of grey-browed matrons whispering venomously to one another.

To Apollon Apollonovich’s ears floated only one word:


Apollon Apollonovich hated the sight of the headless, plucked chickens that were sold in the shops.

For better or worse, Apollon Apollonovich swiftly ran through the ballroom. In his utter naïveté, he did not know, after all, that in the whispering ballroom there was not now a single soul for whom the identity of the red domino who had recently danced here would have been a secret: yet no one said a word about the fact that his son, Nikolai Apollonovich, had a quarter of an hour earlier rushed into indecent flight through the ballroom, where now he himself was running with such manifest haste.