Petersburg As Though Someone Were Complaining

They were waiting for the maskers. And still the maskers were not there. It had evidently only been a rumour. Yet they went on waiting for the maskers all the same.

And then the tinkling of the doorbell was heard: it was a timid sound; as though someone who had not been invited were giving a reminder of himself, asking to be let in out of the damp, cruel fog and the slush of the streets; but no one answered him. And then again the little bell began to ring, more loudly.

As though someone were complaining.

At that moment, panting, a girl of ten years ran out of the two intermediate rooms and saw the ballroom, which had just been full, glittering with an absence of people. There, by the entrance to the hallway, a door banged inquiringly, while the door’s faceted and diamond-spawning handle began to sway slightly; and when a void had sufficiently appeared between the walls and the door, a small black mask thrust itself cautiously out of the void as far as its nose, and two pale sparks gleamed in the slits of the eyes.

Then the ten-year-old child saw between the wall and the door the small black mask and from the slits two hostile eyes fixed on her; now the whole masker pushed his way in, and a black beard made of gently curling lace was revealed; after the beard in the doorway, rustling, a satin cape sluggishly appeared, and the child, who had at first raised her fingers to her eyes in alarm, now joyfully smiled, began to clap her hands, and with a cry of: ‘Here are the maskers, they’ve come!’ she hurriedly ran back into the depths of the enfilade of rooms – to where, amidst the suspended flocks of bluish tobacco smoke, the misty professor on his elephant legs showed through.

The bright blood-red domino, stepping abruptly over the threshold, drew his satin cape over the lacquered tiles of the parquet floor; and just barely was it registered on the tiles of the parquet floor, like a floating crimson ripple of its own reflections; running crimson through the ballroom, as if an unsteady pool of blood were running from parquet to parquet; while towards it heavy feet began to tread, and enormous boots began to squeak from the distance towards the domino.

The zemstvo official, who had now become firmly established in the ballroom, stopped in perplexity, clutching with one hand at a tuft of his beard; meanwhile the lonely domino seemed to be imploring him not to drive him out of this house back into the Petersburg slush, imploring him not to drive him out of this house back into the cruel and dense fog. The zemstvo official evidently wanted to make a joke, because he hemmed and hawed; but when he tried to express his joke in words, that joke assumed a rather incoherent form:

‘Mm … Yes, yes …’

The domino was advancing towards him, imploring with the whole of his body, advancing towards him with a red, rustling outstretched arm and the transparent lace lifted ever so slightly from his head that hung down from its stooping shoulders.

‘Tell me, please, are you a masker?’


‘Mm … Yes, yes …’

But the masker implored; he threw forward the whole of his outstretched body – in the void, over the lacquered surfaces, the highlights, above the pool of his own reflections; rushing, lonely, about the ballroom.

‘There’s a fine thing …’

And again he threw himself forward, and again the red reflections slipped forward.

Now the zemstvo official, puffing and panting, began to retreat.

Suddenly he waved his arm; and he turned; quickly he began, God knows why, to return whence he had come, where the azure electric light shone, where in the azure electric light the professor of statistics stood with his pulled-up frockcoat, showing mistily through the flocks of tobacco smoke; but the zemstvo official was nearly knocked off his feet by an onrushing swarm of young ladies: their ribbons fluttered, party forfeits fluttered in the air and knees rustled.

This twittering swarm had come running out to look at the masker who had dropped by; but the twittering swarm stopped at the door, and its merry exclamations suddenly seemed to become a barely breathing rustle; at last this rustle grew silent; heavy was the silence. Suddenly behind the young ladies’ backs an insolent young cadet declaimed:

Who art thou, art thou, guest forbidding,

Fateful domino?

Look now – swathed in cape of crimson

He doth come and go.15

And on the lacquers, on the lights and above the ripple of his own reflections the domino seemed to run dolefully to the side, and the wind from the open window whistled on the bright satin in an icy blast; poor domino: as if he had been exposed in the act of some offence – he kept leaning forward his outstretched silhouette; his red-rustling arm stretched forward, as though imploring them all not to drive him out of this house back into the Petersburg slush, imploring them not to drive him out of this house back into the cruel and damp fog.

And the young cadet faltered.

‘Tell us, domino: are you the one who rushes about the prospects of Petersburg?’

‘Ladies and gentlemen, have you read today’s “Diary of Events”?’

‘What if we have?’

‘Oh, the red domino has been seen again …’

‘Ladies and gentlemen, that is foolishness.’

The lonely domino continued to say nothing.

Suddenly one of the young ladies at the front, the one who, with head inclined, had narrowed her eyes severely at the unexpected guest – began to whisper something expressively to her female friend.

‘Foolishness …’

‘No, no: I don’t feel quite myself …’

‘I suppose the cat has got the dear domino’s tongue: but he is a domino …’

‘There isn’t really anything we can do with him …’

‘But he is a domino!’

The lonely domino continued to say nothing.

‘Would you like some tea and sandwiches?’

‘What about this, would you like this?’

Having thus exclaimed, the young cadet, turning round, threw at the domino, over the motley-coloured heads of the young ladies, a rustling stream of confetti.16 In the air the arc of a paper streamer unwound for an instant; and when the end of it struck the masker with a dry crack, the arc of paper, coiling, lost momentum and sank to the floor; and to this amusing joke the domino made no reaction, merely stretched out his arms, imploring them not to drive him out of this house into the Petersburg street, imploring them not to drive him out of this house into the cruel and thick fog.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, let us go back inside …’

And the swarm of young ladies ran away.

Only the one who had been standing closer than anyone else to the domino tarried for a moment; she measured the domino with a compassionate gaze; for some reason she sighed, then turned and went; and again turned round, and again said to herself:

‘All the same … It’s … it’s somehow not right.’