Petersburg Charcoal Pills

Here already was the greenish lightening of morning, and Semyonych had not closed his eyes all night! In his little cupboard of a room he had groaned, turned, fidgeted about; he had attacks of yawning, itching and – forgive our sins, O Lord! – sneezing; and, in addition to all this – reflections of the following kind:

‘Anna Petrovna, your mother, has come back from Shpain – she’s on a visit …’

Concerning this, Semyonych said to himself:

‘Yes, sir … I opened the door … I saw a lady I thought were a stranger … One I didn’t know, and dressed in a foreign get-up … And she said to me …

‘Aaaa …

‘And she said to me …’

And the yawns came weighing down.

Now the Tetyurin chimney (of the Tetyurin factory) was speaking; now the little steamboats whistled, too; there was electric light on the bridge: a puff – and it was gone … Throwing off the blanket, Semyonych sat up: he grazed the floor-covering with his big toe.

He began to whisper to himself:

‘And I said to him: “Your Excellency, barin, sir” – so on and so forth … And his honour said: “yes …”

‘He paid no attention …

‘And he’s just a little barin: hardly rises off the floor, he doesn’t … And – forgive our sins, O Lord! – he’s a white-toothed puppy and a milksop.

‘They’re not barins, they’re just Hamlets …’

Thus did Semyonych snuffle to himself; and – put his head back under the pillow again; the hours passed sluggishly; small, pinkish clouds, ripening in the sun’s radiance, fleeted high above the ripening radiance of the Neva … And warmed by the blanket, Semyonych kept muttering miserably:

‘They’re not barins but … swindlers …’

And that door banging there, echoing there down the corridor: was it burglars? … Avgiev the merchant had been burgled, Avgiev the merchant had been burgled.

They had come to cut the Moldavian Khakhu’s throat.

Throwing the blanket off, he stuck out his head, which was covered in perspiration; quickly putting on his long johns, he jumped out of his warm bed with an air of fussed offence, and a chewing jaw, and shuffled in his bare feet into a spatial expanse that was full of mystery: the black corridor.

And – what was this?

A bolt clicked down there outside … the water closet: His Excellency, Apollon Apollonovich, the barin, was pleased to proceed thence, with lighted candle, to – his bedroom.

The dark blue expanse of the corridor was already turning grey, and there was light in the other rooms; and the crystal was sparkling: it was half past seven; the bulldog was scratching itself and pawing at its collar, and touching its back with a grinning, tiger-like muzzle.

‘Merciful Lord, merciful Lord!’

‘Avgiev the merchant was burgled! … Avgiev the merchant was burgled! … Khakhu the chemist nearly had his throat cut! …’

Rays flashed furiously across the crystal, resonant, the blue sky.

Throwing off his little trousers, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov began to get clumsily tangled up in crimson tassels as he invested himself in his little quilted, mouse-coloured, semi-threadbare dressing-gown, poking his unshaven chin (which was, as a matter of fact, smooth even the day before) out of the bright crimson lapels, studded all over with a dense and prickly, completely white stubble, as though by a hoar frost that had fallen overnight and marked out both the hollows of his eyes and the hollows under his cheekbones, hollows which – we shall observe for our part – had grown greatly enlarged overnight.

He sat with his mouth open, his chest exposed and hairy, on his bed, taking a long time over drawing in and jerkily breathing out the air that did not penetrate his lungs; every moment or two he felt his pulse and looked at the clock.

He was evidently tormented by incessant hiccups.

And in no wise thinking about the series of most alarming telegrams that rushed towards him from all sides, nor about the fact that a governmental position was slipping away from him for ever, nor – even! – about Anna Petrovna, – he was probably thinking about what one thought about when looking at a small, open box of blackish pills.

That is to say – he was thinking that the hiccups, the jolts, the stoppages and cramped breathing (the yearning to drink in air), which as always brought on colic, a mild tickling of his palms, were caused not by his heart but – by the development of gases.

About the ache in his left arm and the shooting pains in his left shoulder he tried, all this time, not to think.

‘Do you know what? It’s all simply caused by the stomach!’

Thus once had the chamberlain Sapozhkov, an old man in his eighties, who had recently died of pectoral angina, tried to explain it to him.

‘The gases, you know, make the stomach swell up: and the diaphragm contracts … That is what causes the jolts and the hiccuping … It’s all the development of gases …’

Once in the Senate recently, while discussing a report, Apollon Apollonovich had turned blue, begun to wheeze and been helped out; when he was urgently exhorted to consult a doctor, he had explained to them all:

‘It’s the gases, you know … That’s what causes the jolts.’

A dry, black pill that absorbed the gases sometimes helped him, but not always.

‘Yes, it’s the gases,’ – and off he went to … to …: it was – half past eight.

This was the sound that Semyonych had heard.

Soon after that – a door in the corridor had banged, echoing, and from afar another had boomed; removing his striped plaid from his frozen knees, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov again set off, approached the closed door of the bedroom, opened that door and stuck out a face that was covered in perspiration, in order to collide in that very same doorway – with another face, also covered in perspiration:

‘Is it you?’

‘Yes, sir …’

‘What do you want?’

‘I’m about on my errands here, sir …’

‘Aa: yes, yes … But why so early …’

‘I’ve got to go round everywhere keeping an eye out …’

‘What is it, tell me? …’

‘? …’

‘Some kind of noise …’

‘And what was it?’

‘There was a bang …’

‘Oh, that.’

Here Semyonych gripped the edge of his very wide long johns, and shook his head disapprovingly:

‘It’s nothing …’

The fact was that ten minutes earlier, Semyonych had noticed with astonishment: a blond head had stuck itself out of the door of the young barin’s room; had looked to the right and looked to the left, and – disappeared.

And then – the young barin had flitted like a grasshopper to the door of the old barin’s room.

Had stood, breathed, shook his head, turned round, not noticing Semyonych, who was pressed up against a shadowy corner of the corridor; had stood, breathed again, and put his head – to the keyhole that let light through: yes – he was glued there, could not take his eyes off the door! The young barin’s curiosity was not barin-like, there was something wrong – something not right …

So he was a snoop, was he? And then, too – it was almost indecent.

It was not as though he was watching some stranger who might have hidden away – he was watching his own dear papa, his own flesh and blood; perhaps he was watching to see how his health was; but, then again: he had a feeling that this was no matter of a son’s concern, but simply: for the sake of idleness. And so it had turned out: he was a rascal!

He was no lackey – but the son of a general, educated in the French manner. Here Semyonych began to clear his throat.

The young barin – how he jumped!

‘Brush my frock-coat right away …’ he said, angry-like.

And from the door of his papa’s room he went to his own: simply some kind of rascal!

‘Yes, sir,’ Semyonych said, chewing his lips disapprovingly, all the while thinking to himself:

‘His mother’s come back, and all he can say is: “Brush my frock-coat”.

‘It’s not good, not decent!

‘They’re just some kind of Hamlets … Oh, merciful Lord … spying through the keyhole!’

All this had begun to creep about in the old man’s brains as, gripping the edge of his trousers that were falling down, he shook his head disapprovingly and muttered ambiguously down his nose:

‘Eh? … That? … Yes, there was a bang: that’s right …’

‘What made the bang?’

‘It’s nothing, sir: please don’t trouble yourself …’

‘? …’

‘Nikolai Apollonovich …’


‘Banged the door as he went out: he went out early …’

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov looked at Semyonych, prepared to ask a question, and kept silent, but … chewed his mouth in a senile fashion: at the memory of the most unsuccessful talk he had had with his son here not long before (this was, after all, the morning after the soirĂ©e at the Tsukatovs’), little bags of skin hung down offendedly from the corners of his lips. This unpleasant impression rather sickened Apollon Apollonovich: he drove it away.

And, losing his confidence, gave Semyonych a pleading glance:

After all, the old man had seen Anna Petrovna … Had – one way or the other – talked to her …

This thought fleeted past intrusively.

Anna Petrovna had probably changed … grown thinner, aged; and, he would not wonder, gone grey: acquired more wrinkles … he ought to ask about all that carefully, in a roundabout way …

But – no, no! …

Suddenly, the sixty-eight-year-old barin’s face fell unnaturally apart in wrinkles, his mouth bared its teeth to the ears, and his nose receded into the folds.

And the man in his sixties became some kind of man a thousand years old; with a strained effort that bordered on shrillness, this grey ruin began forcibly to squeeze from itself a little pun:

‘Er … em-em-em … Semyonych … Are you … em-em … barefoot?’

Semyonych gave a start of offence.

‘Excuse me, your exc –’

‘No, I … em-em-em … don’t mean that,’ said Apollon Apollonovich, trying to compose the little pun.

But he did not manage to compose the little pun and stood staring into space; then he drooped the merest bit, and then he fired off a monstrous remark:

‘Er … tell me …’


‘Do you have yellow heels?’

Semyonych took offence:

‘No, barin, I don’t; it’s those Chinamen with long pigtails that have yellow heels, sir …’

‘Hee-hee-hee … So they’re pink, perhaps?’

‘Human, sir …’

‘No – yellow, yellow!’

And Apollon Apollonovich, a thousand years old, trembling, squat, stamped his slippers insistently.

‘Well, and what if my heels were, sir? … They’re covered in corns, your excellency … When you put your shoe on, they bore you and burn you …’

While all the time he thought:

‘Oh, what’s all this about heels? … Are heels what matter, then? … Look at you, you old mushroom, you haven’t closed your eyes all night … And she herself is here, in an expectant position … And your son is a Hamletist … And there you go on about heels! … Will you listen to it – yellow ones … You’ve got yellow heels yourself … You’re a “person” too! …’

And got even more offended.

But Apollon Apollonovich, as always, in puns, in nonsense, in little jokes (as was always the case) simply manifested a kind of bullheadedness: sometimes, trying to keep his spirits up, the senator would become (in spite of it all – real privy councillor, professor and wearer of diamond insignia) – a fidget, a flutterer, a pesterer, a teaser, at those moments resembling the flies that get into your eyes, your nostrils, your ear – before a thunderstorm, on an oppressive day, when a grey thundercloud is wearisomely climbing above the lime-trees; such flies are squashed in their dozens – on hands, on moustaches – before a thunderstorm, on an oppressive day.

‘And a young girl has – hee-hee-hee … A young girl has …’

‘What does a young girl have?’

‘Has …’

Oh, what a fidget!

‘What does she have?’

‘A pink heel …’

‘I’ve no idea …’

‘Well, take a look, then …’

‘You’re a queer fellow, that you are, barin …’

‘They’re made pink by her stocking, when her foot perspires.’

And without finishing his sentence, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov – real privy councillor, professor, head of an Institution – stamped off back to his little bedroom in his slippers; and – click: locked himself in.

There, on the other side of the door – he sat down, grew calm, and softened.

And began helplessly to look at himself: oh, but how he had shrunk! Oh, but how round-shouldered he had become! And – it looked as though one of his shoulders were higher than the other (as though one shoulder had been knocked out of shape). Now and then his hand pressed itself against his thumping, aching side.

Yes, sir! …

The alarming reports from the provinces … And, you know – his son, his son! … Yes – he disgraced his father … A dreadful situation, you know …

Someone fleeced that old fool of a woman, Anna Petrovna: some scoundrelly mountebank, with cockroach moustaches … Now she has come back again …

No matter, sir! … Somehow! …

An uprising, the ruin of Russia … And already they’re preparing: they’ve made an attempt … Some school-leaver or other with eyes and a little moustache bursts into an old, respected aristocratic house …

And then – the gases, the gases!

Here he took a pill.

A spring that is overloaded with weights ceases to be resilient; to resiliency there is a limit; to the human will there is also a limit; even an iron will melts; in old age the human brain grows watery. Today frost falls – and the firm, snowy heap is sprinkled with a luminescent sparkling; and sculpts from the frosty snowflakes a gleaming human bust.

The thaw comes rustling – the heap turns brown, is eaten away: it goes all flabby and slimy; and – slumps down.

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov had frozen in his childhood: frozen and struck root; beneath the frosty night of the capital city his gleaming bust looked sterner, stronger, more terrible – luminescent, sparkling, rising above the northern night above all until that dampish wind that had felled his friend, and which in recent times had flamed into a hurricane.

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov rose up to the hurricane; afterwards, too …

Solitary, long and proud did Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov stand beneath the flaming muzzle of the hurricane – luminescent, frozen, strong; but a limit is set to all things: even platinum melts.

In one night Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov grew round-shouldered; in one night he collapsed and hung his great head; he too, resilient as a spring, drooped; and formerly? Only recently on the uncreased profile, challengingly thrown under the heavens towards the disasters, the red tongues of flame had quivered, that might … set light … to Russia!

But only a night passed.

And against the fiery background of the burning Russian Empire, instead of the strong, gold-uniformed man of state there was – a haemorrhoidal old man standing with his jerkily breathing, hairy chest exposed – unshaven, uncombed, perspiring – in a robe with tassels – he could not, of course, steer the passage (over potholes, bumps, ruts) of our tottering wheel of state! …

Fortune had betrayed him.

And of course – it was not the events of his personal life, not that out-and-out scoundrel, his son, and not the fear of falling to a bomb, as a simple fighter in the field falls, not the arrival there of some Anna Petrovna or other, a person of whom he knew little, and who had succeeded in no walk of life whatsoever – not the arrival there of Anna Petrovna (in a darned black dress and with a reticule), and above all not a red rag that had turned the wearer of flashing diamond insignia into a plain melted heap.

No – it was time …

Have you seen men of state, who are falling into childhood but are none the less eminent – old men who for half a century have warded off so many blows – white-curled (but more often bald) leaders who have been hardened in the iron of battle?

I have seen them.

In assemblies, at meetings, at congresses they have clambered up to the rostra in their snow-white starched linen and gleaming tailcoats with padded shoulders; round-shouldered old men with drooping jaws, with false teeth, toothless –

– I have seen them –

– they have continued, out of habit, to strike the hearts of others while on the rostrum keeping their self-possession.

And I have seen them at home.

Hurling painful, obtuse witticisms into my ear in a whisper, with weak-minded commotion, in the company of their hangers-on, they trailed into their studies and boasted slaveringly about a little shelf of collected works, bound in morocco leather, which I too once read now and then, and with which they regaled both me and themselves.

I feel sad!

At exactly ten o’clock the doorbell rang: it was not Semyonych who opened the door; someone came in and passed through – into Nikolai Apollonovich’s room; he sat there, and left a note there.