Petersburg A Bad Omen

If to their excellencies, eminences, gracious sirs and citizens I were to put the question: what is the lodging of our imperial high officials, then, probably, these persons of venerable rank would reply to me directly in that affirmative sense that the lodging of our high officials is, in the first instance, space, by which we all mean a totality of rooms; these rooms consist: of a single room that is called a salle, or a hall, either of which please note – will do equally well: they consist, further, of a room for the reception of multivarious guests; and so on, so on, and so on (the remainder here is trivia).

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov was a Real Privy Councillor; Apollon Apollonovich was a person of the first class (which is, again – the same thing), and finally: Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov was a high official of the Empire; all of this we have seen from the first lines of our book. So there it was: as a high official, even as a functionary of the Empire, he could not but take up his residence in spatial expanses that possessed three dimensions; and he took up his residence in spatial expanses: in cubic spaces that consisted, please note: of a hall (or – a salle) and so on, so on, and so on, things we have managed to observe from a cursory inspection (the remainder is trivia); among these trivia was his study, as were – being not particularly remarkable – his rooms.

These not particularly remarkable rooms were now illumined by the sun; and now the incrustation of the tables was firing into the air, and the mirrors were now merrily gleaming: and all the mirrors began to laugh, because the first mirror, which looked into the hall from the drawing-room, now reflected the white, as if flour-covered, countenance of a Petrushka, the Petrushka of the puppet-booth, bright red as blood, who had taken a running dive out of the hall (one heard the stamp of his footsteps); at once mirror threw reflection to mirror; and in all the mirrors the Petrushka of the puppet-booth was reflected: it was Nikolai Apollonovich, who had flown headlong into the drawing-room and now stood there as though rooted to the spot, letting his eyes run from mirror to cold mirror, because he saw: the first mirror, the one that looked into the hall from the drawing-room, reflected a certain little object to Nikolai Apollonovich: a skeleton in a buttoned-up frock-coat, possessing a skull from which to right and to left a naked ear and a small side-whisker curled; but between side-whiskers and ears the sharpened little nose looked larger than it ought to have done; above the sharpened little nose two dark eyesockets were lifted in reproach …

Nikolai Apollonovich realized that Apollon Apollonovich was waiting for his son here.

Instead of his son, Apollon Apollonovich saw in the mirrors quite simply a red puppet from a booth; and seeing the booth puppet, Apollon Apollonovich froze; the booth puppet had stopped in the middle of the hall so strangely and bewilderedly …

Then, unexpectedly to himself, Apollon Apollonovich closed the doors to the hall; retreat was cut off. That which he had begun must be finished quickly. Apollon Apollonovich regarded the talk about the strange behaviour of his son as a painful surgical act. Like a surgeon darting up to the operating table on which scalpels, saws and drills are laid out, Apollon Apollonovich, rubbing yellow fingers, walked right up to Nicolas, stopped, and, seeking the eyes that were avoiding him, unwittingly fished out his spectacle-case, twirled it between his fingers, put it away again, coughed rather restrainedly, was silent for a moment, and then said:

‘I’ll tell you what it is: the domino.’

At the same time he thought that this apparently shy young man, grinning from ear to ear and avoiding looking him straight in the eye with that same gaze – this shy young man and insolent Petersburg domino, about which the Jewish press had been writing, were one and the same person; that he, Apollon Apollonovich, a person of the first class and a pillar of gentle society – he had sired him; at that same moment Nikolai Apollonovich rather embarrassedly observed:

‘Yes, well … a lot of people were wearing masks … And so I also went along in a … little costume …’

At that same moment Nikolai Apollonovich thought that this two-arshin little body of his father’s, constituting in circumference no more than twelve and a half vershoks,8 was the centre and circumference of some immortal centre: in there, after all, was the seat of the ‘I’; and any board at all that broke at the wrong moment was capable of crushing that centre: crushing it for good; perhaps under the influence of this perceived idea, Apollon Apollonovich ran as quickly as he could towards that distant table, and drummed two fingers on it, as Nikolai Apollonovich, advancing on him, guiltily laughed:

‘It was fun, you know … We danced, you know …’

But to himself he thought: skin, bones and blood, with not a single muscle; yes, but this obstacle – skin, bones and blood – must, by a command of fate, be blown to pieces; if that were to be avoided today, it would come surging back again tomorrow evening, and tomorrow night it would …

Here Apollon Apollonovich, catching that same gaze glowering at him in the gleaming mirror, turned on his heels and caught the end of the sentence.

‘Then, you know, we played petit-jeu.’9

Staring intently at his son, Apollon Apollonovich made no reply; and that same gaze gloweringly fixed itself on the parquetry of the floor … Apollon Apollonovich remembered: why, this strange Petrushka had been a small body; once upon a time he had carried that small body with fatherly tenderness in his arms; the fair-curled little boy, putting on a little dunce-cap made of paper, would climb up on his neck. His voice out of tune and cracking, Apollon Apollonovich had sung hoarsely:

Silly little simpleton

Kolenka is dancing:

He has put his dunce-cap on –

On his horse he’s prancing.

Afterwards he had carried the child up to this very mirror; in the mirror both old man and young man were reflected; he would show the boy the reflections, saying:

‘Look, little son: there are strangers there.’

Sometimes Kolenka would cry, and later he would scream at nights. And now? And now? Apollon Apollonovich saw not a ‘little body’ but a body: alien, large … Was it alien?

Apollon Apollonovich began to circulate about the drawing-room, both back and forth:

‘You see, Kolenka …’

Apollon Apollonovich lowered himself into a deep armchair.

‘Kolenka, I must … That is, not I, but – I hope – we must … must have an accounting: do you have sufficient time at your disposal now? The question, and it is a disturbing one, concerns the fact that …’ Apollon Apollonovich stumbled in mid-sentence, again ran over to the mirror (at that moment the chimes of the clock struck), and out of the mirror at Nikolai Apollonovich looked death in a frock-coat, lifting a gaze of reproach, drumming its fingers; and the mirror cracked with loud laughter: across it like lightning a crooked needle flew with a gentle crunching sound; and froze there for ever in a silvery zigzag.

Apollon Apollonovich had cast his gaze at the mirror, and the mirror had cracked; superstitious people would have said:

‘A bad omen, a bad omen …’

And of course, they would have been right: a talk was imminent.

Nikolai Apollonovich was obviously trying to postpone the accounting for as long as possible; but since last night the accounting was superfluous: everything would now account for itself in any case. Nikolai Apollonovich regretted that he had not made a dash for it out of the drawing-room in time (how many hours already had the agony been stretching, stretching: and under his heart something was swelling, swelling); he experienced a strange voluptuous pleasure in his horror: and could not tear himself away from his father.

‘Yes, Papa: I must admit that I have been expecting us to have some sort of an accounting.’

‘Ah … you’ve been expecting it?’

‘Yes, I have.’

‘Are you free?’

‘Yes, I am free.’

He could not tear himself away from his father: before him … But here I must make a brief digression.

Oh, worthy reader: we have presented the exterior of the wearer of diamond insignia in exaggerated, excessively sharp outlines, but without any kind of humour; we have presented the exterior of the wearer of diamond insignia merely as it would appear to any passing observer – and not at all as it would doubtless have revealed itself to itself and to us: we, after all, have taken its measure; we have penetrated a soul shaken to the very limits and into furious whirlwinds of consciousness; it will, then, do no harm to remind the reader of the aspect of that exterior in its most general outlines, because we know: as is the visible aspect, so also is the essence within. Here it is sufficient merely to note that if this essence were to appear before us, if all these whirlwinds of consciousness were to rush past us, tearing the frontal bones apart, and if we were able to coldly open up the blue sinewy swellings, then … But – silence. In a word, in a word: the passing gaze would perceive here, in this very spot, the skeleton of an old gorilla covered by a frock-coat …

‘Yes, I am free …’

‘In that case, Kolenka, go to your room: you must gather your thoughts first. If you find in yourself something that it would do no harm for us to discuss, come to see me in my study.’

‘Very well, Papa …’

‘Yes, and by the way: please take off those puppet-booth rags … To be quite frank, I don’t like all that one little bit! …’


‘No, I don’t like it one little bit! I don’t like it in the extreme!!’

Apollon Apollonovich let his hand drop; two yellow bones drummed distinctly on the card table.

‘Actually,’ said Nikolai Apollonovich, getting confused, ‘actually, I ought to be …’

But the door slammed: Apollon Apollonovich had circulated into his little study.