Petersburg And, Having Caught Sight, Widened, Lit up, Flashed

In the greenish illumination of the Petersburg morning, in the saving ‘apparently’, a customary phenomenon also circulated in front of Senator Ableukhov: a manifestation of the atmosphere – a human stream; here people grew mute; their streams, accumulating in an undular surf, thundered, growled; but the accustomed ear could in no way detect that that human surf was a thunderous surf.

Welded together by the mirage the stream was disintegrating within itself into the elements of a stream: element upon element flowed by; perceptibly to the mind each was withdrawing from each, like planetary system from planetary system; neighbour was here in the same approximate relation to neighbour as that of a pencil of rays from the celestial vault to the retina of the eye, conveying to the centre of the brain along the telegraph of the nerves a troubled, stellar, shimmering message.

The aged senator communicated with the crowd that flowed before him by means of wires (telegraph and telephone); and the shadowy stream was borne to his consciousness like tidings that calmly flowed beyond the distances of the world. Apollon Apollonovich thought: about the stars, about the inarticulateness of the thunderous stream that was hurtling by; and, as he swayed on a black cushion, he calculated the intensity of the light that was perceptible from Saturn.

Suddenly … –

– his face winced and was distorted by a tic; his stony eyes, surrounded by blue, rolled convulsively; his wrists, clad in black suede, flew up to the level of his chest, as though he were defending himself with his hands. And his torso leaned back, while his top hat, striking the wall, fell on to his knees below his bared head …

The uncontrolled quality of the senator’s movement was not subject to the customary interpretation; the senator’s code of rules had not foreseen anything of this kind …

As he contemplated the flowing silhouettes – the bowlers, feathers, service caps, service caps, service caps, feathers – Apollon Apollonovich likened them to points in the celestial vault; but one of those points, breaking loose from its orbit, rushed at him with dizzying speed, assuming the form of an enormous and crimson sphere, or rather, what I mean is:

– as he contemplated the flowing silhouettes (service caps, service caps, feathers), Apollon Apollonovich saw on the corner among the service caps, among the feathers, among the bowlers, a pair of furious eyes: the eyes expressed a certain inadmissible quality; the eyes recognized the senator; and, having recognized, grew furious; perhaps the eyes had been waiting on the corner; and, having caught sight, widened, lit up, flashed.

This furious stare was a stare consciously thrown and belonged to a raznochinets with a small black moustache, wearing a coat with a turned-up collar; subsequently going more deeply into the details of the circumstance, Apollon Apollonovich more concluded than remembered something else as well: in his right hand the raznochinets was holding a little bundle tied with a wet napkin.

The matter was so simple: squeezed by the stream of droshkys, the carriage had stopped at a crossroads (the policeman there was lifting his white baton); the stream of raznochintsy that was moving past, squeezed by the flight of the droshkys towards the stream of the ones that were racing perpendicularly, cutting across the Nevsky – this stream now simply pressed itself against the senator’s carriage, breaking the illusion that he, Apollon Apollonovich, as he flew along the Nevsky, was flying billions of versts away from the human myriapod that was trampling the very same prospect: rendered uneasy, Apollon Apollonovich moved close to the windows of the carriage, having seen that he was separated from the crowd by only a thin wall and a space of four inches; at this point he caught sight of the raznochinets; and began calmly to study him; there was something worthy of notice in the whole of that unprepossessing figure; and no doubt a physiognomist, encountering that figure in the street by chance, would have stopped in amazement: and then in the midst of his activities would have remembered that face he had seen; the peculiarity of that face consisted merely in the difficulty of classifying that face among any of the existing categories – no more than that …

This observation would have flickered through the senator’s head had this observation lasted a second or two longer; but last it did not. The stranger raised his eyes and – on the other side of the mirror-like carriage window, removed from him by a space of four inches, he saw not a face, but … a skull in a top hat and an enormous pale green ear.

In that same quarter of a second the senator saw in the stranger’s eyes – that same immensity of chaos from which by the nature of things the foggy, many-chimneyed distance and Vasily Island surveyed the senator’s house.

It was precisely at that moment that the stranger’s eyes widened, lit up, flashed: and it was precisely at that moment that, separated by a space of four inches and the carriage wall, quickly on the other side of the window hands were thrown up, covering eyes.

The carriage flew past; with it, into those damp spaces, flew Apollon Apollonovich; to where from where – on clear days rose splendidly – the golden needle, the clouds and the crimson sunset; to where from where today came swarms of grimy clouds.

There in the swarms of grimy smoke, as he leaned back against the wall of the carriage, in his eyes he still saw the same thing: the swarms of grimy smoke; his heart began to thump; and expanded, expanded, expanded; in his breast there came into being the sensation of a growing, crimson sphere that was about to explode and shatter into pieces.

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov suffered from dilatation of the heart.

All this lasted an instant.

Apollon Apollonovich, automatically putting on his top hat and pressing a black suede hand to his galloping heart, again devoted himself to his beloved contemplation of cubes, in order to give himself a calm and sensible account of what had taken place.

Apollon Apollonovich again looked out of the carriage: what he saw now blotted out what had gone before: a wet, slippery prospect; wet, slippery flagstones shining feverishly in the miserable September day!

The horses stopped. A policeman saluted. Behind the glass of the entrance porch, behind a bearded caryatid that supported the stones of a small balcony, Apollon Apollonovich saw the same spectacle as usual: a heavy-headed bronze mace gleamed there; the dark triangle of the doorman had subsided on an octogenarian shoulder there. The octogenarian doorman was falling asleep over the Stock Exchange Gazette. Thus had he fallen asleep yesterday, and the day before yesterday. Thus had he slept for the past fateful five years29 … Thus would he sleep for the next five years to come.

Five years had now passed since Apollon Apollonovich rolled up to the Institution as the junior head of the Institution: over five years had passed since that time! And there had been events: China had been in a state of ferment and Port Arthur had fallen.30 But the vision of the years is immutable: an octogenarian shoulder, gold braid, a beard.

The door flew open: the bronze mace banged. Apollon Apollonovich carried his stony gaze into the wide open entrance porch. And the door closed.

Apollon Apollonovich stood and breathed.

‘Your excellency … Please sit down, sir … Look at you, how you’re panting …’

‘You’re forever running as though you were a little boy …’

‘Please sit down, your excellency: get your breath back …’

‘There now, that’s it, sir …’

‘Perhaps … a little water?’

But the face of the distinguished man of state brightened up, became childish, senile; it dissolved entirely in wrinkles:

‘But tell me, please: what is the husband of a countess, a grafinya?’

‘A countess, sir? … But which one, may I be allowed to ask?’

‘Oh, just any old grafinya.’

‘The husband of a grafinya is a grafin, a decanter!’

‘Hee-hee-hee, sir …’

And the heart that was disobedient to the mind trembled and thumped; and because of this, everything all around it was the same and not the same …