Petersburg The Baron, the Harrow

From the table rose a cold, long-legged bronze: the lampshade did not flash with a violet-pink tone, subtly painted: the secret of this paint had been lost by the nineteenth century; the glass had grown dark with time; the delicate pattern had also grown dark with time.

The golden pier-glasses in the window-piers devoured the drawing-room from all sides with the green surfaces of mirrors; and over there – a golden-cheeked little cupid crowned them with his little wing; and over there – a golden wreath’s laurels and roses were perforated by the heavy flames of torches. Between the pier-glasses a small mother-of-pearl table gleamed from everywhere.

Apollon Apollonovich quickly threw open the door, leaning on the cut-crystal handle; his steps rang out over the radiant tiles of the parquetry; from all sides rushed heaps of porcelain trinkets; they had brought these trinkets from Venice, he and Anna Petrovna – some thirty years ago. Memories of a misty lagoon, a gondola and an aria sobbing in the distance flashed inopportunely through the senator’s head …

Instantly he transferred his eyes to the grand piano.

From the yellow lacquered lid the minute leaves of a bronze incrustation shone resplendently; and again (tiresome memory!) Apollon Apollonovich remembered: a white Petersburg night; in the windows a broad river flowed; and the moon was out; and a roulade of Chopin thundered: he remembered – Anna Petrovna had played Chopin (not Schumann) …

The minute leaves of the incrustation – of mother-of-pearl and bronze – shone resplendently on the boxes and shelves that came out of the walls. Apollon Apollonovich settled down in an Empire-style armchair, on the pale azure satin seat of which garlands wound, and with his hand he reached for a bundle of letters from a small Chinese tray: his bald head inclined towards the envelopes. As he waited for the lackey with his invariable ‘The horses are ready’ he absorbed himself here, before leaving for work, in the reading of his morning correspondence.

Thus did he act on this day, too.

And the small envelopes were torn open: envelope after envelope; an ordinary, postal one – the stamp affixed lopsidedly, the handwriting illegible.

‘Mm … Yes, sir, yes, sir, yes, sir: very well, sir …’

And the envelope was carefully put away.

‘Mm … A petition …’

‘A petition, and another petition …’

The envelopes were torn open carelessly; these were things to be dealt with in time, later: this way or that …

An envelope made of thick grey paper – sealed, with a monogram, no stamp and the seal done in sealing-wax.

‘Mm … Count Doublevé15 … What’s this? … He wants to see me at the Institution … A personal matter …’

‘Mm … Aha! …’

Count Doublevé, the head of the Ninth Department, was the senator’s adversary and an enemy of separated farming.

Next … A pale pink, miniature envelope; the senator’s hand gave a start; he recognized this handwriting – the handwriting of Anna Petrovna; he studied the Spanish stamp, but did not unseal the envelope:

‘Mm … money …’

‘But the money was sent, wasn’t it?’

‘The money will be sent!! …’

‘Hm … I must make a note …’

Apollon Apollonovich, thinking he had got his pencil, pulled an ivory nailbrush from his waistcoat and was preparing to make a note to ‘Return to address of sender’, when …

‘? …’

‘The horses are ready, sir …’

Apollon Apollonovich raised his bald head and walked out of the room.

On the walls hung pictures, suffused with an oily lustre; and with difficulty through the lustre one could see French women who looked like Greek women, in the narrow tunics of the Directoire of former times and with the tallest of coiffures.

Above the grand piano hung a small reproduction of David’s painting Distribution des aigles par Napoléon Premier. The painting depicted the great Emperor wearing a wreath and an ermine purple mantle; the Emperor Napoleon was extending one hand to a plumed assembly of marshals; his other hand clutched a metal sceptre; on top of the sceptre sat a heavy eagle.

Cold was the magnificence of the drawing-room on account of the complete absence of rugs: the parquet tiles shone; if the sun illumined them for a moment, one’s eyes screwed up involuntarily. Cold was the drawing-room’s hospitality.

But with Senator Ableukhov it had been exalted into a principle.

It impressed itself: in the master, in the statues, in the servants, even in the dark, tiger-striped bulldog that lived somewhere near the kitchen; in this house everyone became disconcerted, giving way to the parquetry, the paintings and the statues, smiling, being disconcerted and swallowing their words: obliging and bowing, and rushing to one another – on these noisy parquets; and wringing their cold fingers in an access of fruitless obsequiousness.

Since Anna Petrovna’s departure: the drawing-room had been silent, the lid of the grand piano closed: the roulade had not thundered.

Yes – with regard to Anna Petrovna, or (to put it more simply) with regard to the letter from Spain: hardly had Apollon Apollonovich stalked past than two nimble lackeys quickly began to jabber.

‘He didn’t read the letter …’

‘Oh well: he will read it.’

‘Will he send it?’

‘ ’Course he will …’

‘Such a stone, the Lord forgive …’

‘I’ll say this to you, as well: you ought to observe the verbal niceties.’

When Apollon Apollonovich came down to the hallway, his grey-haired valet, who was also coming down to the hallway, looked at the respected ears, clutching a snuffbox in his hand – a gift from the minister.

Apollon Apollonovich stopped on the stairs and searched for a word.

‘Mm … Listen …’

‘Your excellency?’

Apollon Apollonovich looked for the right word.

‘How, as a matter of fact, – yes – is he getting on … getting on …’

‘? …’

‘Nikolai Apollonovich.’

‘Passably, Apollon Apollonovich, his honour is well …’

‘And what else?’

‘It’s as before: his honour is pleased to shut himself up and read books.’

‘Books, too?’

‘Then his honour also paces about the rooms, sir …’

‘Paces about – yes, yes … And … And? How?’

‘Paces about … In a dressing-gown, sir!’

‘Reading, pacing … I see … Go on.’

‘Yesterday his honour was waiting for a visit from someone …’

‘Waiting? For whom?’

‘A costumier, sir …’

‘What costumier?’

‘A costumier, sir …’

‘Hm-hm … What was that for?’

‘I suppose that his honour is going to a ball …’

‘Aha – so: he’s going to a ball …’

Apollon Apollonovich gave the bridge of his nose a rub: his face lit up with a smile and became suddenly senile:

‘Are you from the peasantry?’

‘That’s right, sir!’

‘Well, so you – do you know – are a baron.’


‘Do you have a borona,16 a harrow?’

‘My father had one, sir.’

‘Well, there you are, you see, and yet you say …’

Apollon Apollonovich, taking his top hat, walked out through the open door.