Petersburg A Completely Smoked-up Face

Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov stood above the staircase balustrade in his little multicoloured robe, scattering in all directions an iridescent gleam, forming a complete contrast to the column and the small alabaster pillar from which a white Niobe raised heavenward her alabaster eyes.

‘Nikolai Apollonovich, I expect you took me for someone else …’

‘I am – I …’

There at the bottom stood the stranger with the small black moustache and the coat with the raised collar.

At this point Nikolai Apollonovich bared his teeth in an unpleasant smile from the balustrade:

‘Is it you, Aleksandr Ivanovich? … Most pleasant!’

And then hypocritically he added:

‘I did not recognize you without my glasses …’

Overcoming the unpleasant impression of the stranger’s presence in the lacquered house, Nikolai Apollonovich continued to nod his head from the balustrade:

‘To tell you the truth, I’ve only just got out of bed: that’s why I’m wearing my robe’ (as though with this chance remark Nikolai Apollonovich wanted to give the visitor to understand that the latter had inflicted his visit at an inopportune time; on our own part we shall add: every night of late, Nikolai Apollonovich had been missing).

The stranger with the small black moustache presented in his person an exceedingly pathetic spectacle against the rich background of the ornamental display of ancient weapons; none the less the stranger summoned up his courage, continuing with heat to calm Nikolai Apollonovich – half mocking, and half being the most utter simpleton:

‘It does not matter at all, Nikolai Apollonovich, that you’ve just got out of bed … The most utter trifle, I assure you: you are not a young lady, and I am not a young lady either … Why, I myself have only just risen …’

There was nothing for it. Having mastered within his soul the unpleasant impression (it had been evoked by the stranger’s appearance – here, in the lacquered house, where the lackeys might be thoroughly puzzled and where, at last, the stranger might be greeted by his papa) – having mastered within his soul the unpleasant impression, Nikolai Apollonovich conceived the design of moving downstairs in order with dignity, in the Ableukhov manner, to lead into the lacquered house the punctilious guest; but, to his annoyance, one of his fur slippers jumped off; and the naked foot began to stagger from under the skirts of the robe; Nikolai Apollonovich stumbled on the steps; and in addition he let the stranger down: in the assumption that Nikolai Apollonovich, in an access of his usual obsequiousness, was rushing down towards him (Nikolai Apollonovich had already manifested in this direction all the impetuosity of his gestures), the stranger with the small black moustache rushed in his turn towards Nikolai Apollonovich, leaving his muddy footprints upon the velvet-grey stairs; but now my stranger stood bewilderedly between the hallway and the summit of the stairs; and as he did so he saw that he was besmirching the carpet; my stranger embarrassedly smiled.

‘Please, take off your coat.’

The delicate reminder that it was on no account possible to penetrate into the barin’s chambers wearing a coat, belonged to a lackey, into whose hands with despairing independence the stranger shook off his wet little coat; he stood now in a grey, checked suit that had been nibbled by moths. Seeing that the lackey intended to stretch out his hand for the wet bundle, too, my stranger flared up; having flared up, he became doubly disconcerted:

‘No, no …’

‘But please, sir …’

‘No: this I shall take with me …’

The stranger with the small black moustache trod with his wornthrough boots the shining slippery parquetry with the same doggedness with which he rushed at everything; surprised and fleeting were the glances he cast at the sumptuous perspective of rooms. Nikolai Apollonovich, with particular mildness, gathering up the skirts of his robe, walked ahead of the stranger. To both of them, however, their silent peregrination through these shining perspectives seemed irksome: both were sadly silent; to the stranger with the small black moustache Nikolai Apollonovich presented with relief not his face but his iridescent back; for that reason, doubtless, the smile had also vanished from his hitherto unnaturally smiling lips. For our part, however, let us observe directly: Nikolai Apollonovich was afraid; in his head quickly spun: ‘It’s probably some charitable collection – for a victimized worker; at the very most – for arms …’ And in his soul drearily began to whine: ‘No, no – not this, or what will happen?’

Before the oak door of his study, Nikolai Apollonovich suddenly turned sharply round to face the stranger; across the faces of both a smile slipped for a moment; both suddenly looked each other in the eye with an expectant expression.

‘So please … Aleksandr Ivanovich …’

‘Don’t be uneasy …’

‘Welcome …’

‘But no, no …’

Nikolai Apollonovich’s reception room stood in complete contrast to his severe study: it was as multicoloured as … as a Bokhara robe; Nikolai Apollonovich’s robe, so to speak, extended into all the appurtenances of the room: for example, into the low sofa; it sooner recalled an oriental tapestry couch; the Bokhara robe extended into the wooden stool of dark brown colours; the stool was incrusted with fine bands of ivory and mother-of-pearl; the robe extended further into the Negro shield of thick hide from a rhinoceros that had fallen once upon a time, and into the rusty Sudanese arrow with its massive handle; for some reason it had been hung up on the wall here; lastly, the robe extended into the skin of a multicoloured leopard, thrown to their feet with a gaping maw; on the stool stood a dark blue hookah and a three-legged censer in the form of a sphere pierced with openings and a half moon on top; but most surprising of all was a multicoloured cage in which from time to time green budgerigars began to beat their wings.

Nikolai Apollonovich moved up the multicoloured stool for his guest; the stranger with the black moustache sank on to the edge of the stool and pulled from his pocket a rather cheap cigar case.

‘May I?’

‘Please do!’

‘You don’t smoke yourself?’

‘No, I don’t have the habit …’

And at once, growing embarrassed, Nikolai Apollonovich added:

‘As a matter of fact, when others are smoking, I …’

‘You open the small window?’

‘Oh come, come! …’

‘The ventilator?’

‘Ach, but no … quite the contrary – I was trying to say that smoking rather affords me …’ Nikolai Apollonovich hurried, but his guest, who was not listening to him, continued to interrupt:

‘You yourself leave the room?’

‘Ach, but no, I tell you: I was trying to say that I like the smell of tobacco smoke, especially cigars.’

‘You shouldn’t, Nikolai Apollonovich, you really shouldn’t: after smokers …’

‘Yes? …’

‘One ought to …’


‘Quickly air the room.’

‘Oh come, come!’

‘Opening both the small window and the ventilator.’

‘On the contrary, on the contrary …’

‘Do not defend tobacco, Nikolai Apollonovich: I tell you that from experience … Smoke penetrates the grey matter of the brain … The cerebral hemispheres become clogged: a general inertia spreads into the organism …’

The stranger with the small black moustache gave a familiarly meaningful wink: the stranger saw that the host still doubted the permeability of the brain’s grey matter, but because of his habit of being a courteous host he was not going to dispute with his guest: then the stranger with the small black moustache began vexedly to pluck at that small black moustache:

‘Take a look at my face.’

Unable to find his spectacles, Nikolai Apollonovich brought his blinking eyelids right up to the stranger’s face.

‘You see my face?’

‘Yes, your face …’

‘A pale face.’

‘Yes, a little on the pale side,’ – and a play of all kinds of civilities and their nuances spread over Ableukhov’s cheeks.

‘A completely green, smoked-up face,’ the stranger interrupted him, ‘the face of a smoker. I will smoke your room for you, Nikolai Apollonovich.’

Nikolai Apollonovich had long been experiencing an uneasy heaviness, as though what were spreading into the atmosphere of the room were not smoke but lead; Nikolai Apollonovich felt the hemispheres of his brain becoming clogged and a general inertia spreading into his organism, but now he was thinking not about the properties of tobacco smoke but about how he was going to get out of a ticklish incident with dignity, about how – he thought – he would act in the risky eventuality if the stranger, if …

This leaden heaviness was in no way related to the rather cheap little cigarette that was extending into the upper regions its bluish streamlet, but was rather related to the host’s depressed condition of spirit. Nikolai Apollonovich was expecting that at any second now his uneasy visitor would break off his chatter which he had evidently started with a sole purpose in view – that of tormenting him with expectation – yes: he would break off his chatter and remind him of how he, Nikolai Apollonovich, had once given, through the mediation of a strange stranger – as it were, to put it more precisely …

In a word, he had once given an obligation, dreadful for himself, to execute which he was compelled not only by honour; Nikolai Apollonovich had really only given the dreadful promise out of despair; what had prompted him to it was a failure in his life; later that failure had gradually been erased. It might have seemed that the dreadful promise would lose its validity of itself: but the dreadful promise remained: it remained, though only because it had not been retracted: Nikolai Apollonovich, to tell the truth, had thoroughly forgotten about it; but it, the promise, continued to live in the collective consciousness of a certain rash and hasty circle, at the same time as the sense of life’s bitterness under the influence of the failure had been erased; Nikolai Apollonovich himself would undoubtedly have classed his promise among promises of a humorous nature.

The appearance of the raznochinets with the small black moustache, for the first time after these last two months, filled Nikolai Apollonovich’s soul with complete terror. Nikolai Apollonovich quite distinctly remembered an exceedingly sad circumstance. Nikolai Apollonovich quite distinctly remembered all the most minor details of the situation in which he had given his promise and suddenly found those details murderous to himself.

But why … – was it not so much that he had given a dreadful promise but rather that he had given the dreadful promise to a frivolous party?

The answer to this question was exceedingly simple: Nikolai Apollonovich, in studying the methodology of social phenomena, had doomed the world to fire and the sword.

And so now he turned pale, turned grey and at last turned green; his face even suddenly somehow began to turn dark blue; this latter tinge was probably caused by the atmosphere in the room, which was tobaccofied to the extreme.

The stranger stood up, stretched, squinted tenderly at the little bundle and suddenly gave a childish smile.

‘Look, Nikolai Apollonovich’ – Nikolai Apollonovich started in fright – ‘… I haven’t really come to see you for tobacco, about tobacco, I mean … this stuff about tobacco is quite incidental …’

‘I understand.’

‘Tobacco is as tobacco does: but I haven’t really come to see you about tobacco, but about business …’

‘How pleasant.’

‘And even not about business: the whole nub of the matter lies in a service – and you may, of course, refuse me this service …’

‘Oh come, how pleasant …’

Nikolai Apollonovich turned even bluer; he sat plucking at a button on the sofa; and without managing to pluck the button off, began to pluck horsehair out of the sofa.

‘It’s extremely awkward for me, but remembering …’

Nikolai Apollonovich started: the stranger’s shrill, high falsetto rent the air; this falsetto was preceded by a second’s silence; but that second seemed like an hour to him then, an hour did it seem. And now, hearing the shrill falsetto pronouncing the word ‘remembering’, Nikolai Apollonovich nearly shrieked out loud:

‘My proposal? …’

But he at once took himself in hand; and he merely observed:

‘Very well, I am at your service,’ – and as he did so he thought that it was this politeness that had ruined him …

‘Remembering your sympathy, I have come …’

‘Anything I can do,’ Nikolai Apollonovich shrieked and as he did so thought that he was a thorough numbskull …

‘A small, oh, a very small service …’ (Nikolai Apollonovich listened with keen attention):

‘I’m sorry … could you let me have an ashtray …’