Petersburg By the Card Table

Nikolai Apollonovich remained where he was, by the card table: his gaze began to run over the leaves of the bronze incrustation, the boxes and shelves that jutted out of the walls. Yes, it was here that he had played; here for long hours he had sat – in this armchair here, on the pale satin azure of whose seat little garlands twined; and just as before, the copy of David’s painting Distribution des aigles par Napoléon Premier. The painting depicted the great emperor wearing a wreath and a purple mantle, stretching out his hand to the assembly of marshals.

What would he say to his father? Would he again, painfully, lie? Lie, when lying was now useless? Lie, when his present position made any lying impossible? Lie … Nikolai Apollonovich remembered how he had lied in the years of his distant childhood.

Here was the grand piano, a period piece, yellow: it touched the parquetry with the little wheels of its narrow legs. Once upon a time his mother, Anna Petrovna, had sat here, once the old sounds of Beethoven had shaken the walls here: time-honoured antiquity, exploding and complaining, had risen in the youthful heart with the same languor as did the pale moon that rose, entirely red, and then higher above the city bore its pale yellow sadness …

So it was time to go to an accounting, was it – and what was he to account for?

At that moment the sun looked in through the windows, the bright sun cast there from on high its sword-like rays: the golden, thousand-armed Titan of old furiously hung a curtain over the void, illumining spires and roofs and streams and stones and pressing its divine sclerotic forehead against the window-pane; the golden, thousand-armed Titan mutely complained about its loneliness out there: ‘Come here, to me – to the good old sun!’

But the sun seemed to him like a most enormous thousand-legged tarantula, attacking the earth with insane passion …

And involuntarily Nikolai Apollonovich screwed up his eyes, because everything flared: the lampshade flared; the lamp glass was scattered with amethysts; sparks flashed on the wing of a golden cupid (below the mirror’s surface a cupid thrust its heavy flame into the roses of a wreath); the surface of the mirrors flared up – yes: a mirror had cracked.

Superstitious people would have said:

‘A bad omen, a bad omen …’

Just then, amidst all the gold and brilliance, a dim outline rose behind Ableukhov’s back; over all this, as mute as a sunbeam, ran a distinct muttering:

‘And what are … we …’

Nikolai Apollonovich raised his countenance …

‘What are we … to do about the barynya?’

And caught sight of Semyonych.

He had completely forgotten about his mother’s return; and she, his mother, had returned; with her had returned the old days – with their ceremoniousness and scenes, with his childhood and his twelve governesses, each of whom was a nightmare personified.

‘Yes … I really don’t know …’

Before him Semyonych worriedly chewed his old lips.

‘Ought I to inform the master?’

‘Does Papa not know?’

‘I haven’t dared …’

‘Then go and tell him …’

‘Yes, I’ll go … I’ll tell him …’

And Semyonych went into the corridor.

The old days had returned: no, the old days would not return; if the old days did return, they would look different. And the old days looked at him – horribly!

All, all, all of it: this gleaming of sunlight, the walls, the body, the soul – it would all collapse into ruins; all, all would collapse, collapse; and there would be: blind delirium, bottomlessness, bomb.

A bomb is a swift expansion of gases … The roundness of the expansion of the gases evoked in him a certain absurdity he had forgotten, and a sigh helplessly escaped from his lungs into the air.

In his childhood Kolenka had suffered from delirium; at nights a small elastic ball would sometimes begin to bounce in front of him, made perhaps of rubber, perhaps of the matter of very strange worlds; the elastic ball, as it touched the floor, made a quiet, lacquered sound on the floor: pépp-peppép; and again: pépp-peppép. Suddenly the ball, swelling up horribly, would assume the perfect semblance of a sphere-shaped fat gentleman; and the fat gentleman, having become an agonizing sphere, kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and threatened to fall on top of him and burst.

And as he grew distended, becoming an agonizing sphere that was about to burst, he bounced, turned crimson, flew closer, making a quiet, lacquered sound on the floor:

‘Pépp …’

‘Péppovich …’

‘Pépp …’

And he would burst into pieces.

And Nikolenka, altogether in delirium, would proceed to shriek idle, nonsensical things – always about one and the same: that he too was becoming round, that he too was a round zero; everything in him was being zeroed – ze-eroed – ze-e-e-r …

And his governess, Karolina Karlovna,10 in her white night shift, with devilish curl-papers in her hair, which had assumed a tinge of the horrible thing that had just happened to him – a Baltic German woman who had leapt from her feather bed at the sound of his shrieks – Karolina Karlovna looked at him angrily out of the yellow circle of the candle, and the circle – got bigger and bigger and bigger. And Karolina Karlovna would repeat many times:

‘Calm down, little Kolenka: it is growth …’

She did not look, but turned into a karlitsa, a dwarf; and it was not growth, but distension: distended, bulged, burst: –

Pépp Péppovich Pépp …

‘What, am I delirious?’

Nikolai Apollonovich put his cold fingers to his forehead: there was going to be – blind delirium, bottomlessness, bomb.

And in the window, through the window – from far, far away, where the banks cowered down, where the cold buildings of the islands squatted in obedience, gleaming mutely, sharply, tormentingly, mercilessly, the spire of Peter and Paul poked into the high sky.

Along the corridor passed Semyonych’s steps. There was no point in delaying: his parent, Apollon Apollonovich, was waiting for him.