Petersburg Comte–Comte–Comte!

The lackey served the soup. Before the senator’s plate, as a preliminary, he placed the pepper-pot from the cruet-stand.

Apollon Apollonovich appeared out of the doorway in his small grey jacket; just as quickly did he sit down; and the lackey removed the lid from the smoking tureen.

The left-hand door opened; swiftly through the left-hand door sprang Nikolai Apollonovich, wearing a student’s uniform jacket buttoned up to the neck; the jacket had a very high collar (from the time of Emperor Alexander I).

Both raised their eyes to each other; and both were embarrassed (they were always embarrassed).

Apollon Apollonovich flung his gaze from object to object; Nikolai Apollonovich felt his daily confusion: his two completely unnecessary arms hung down on both sides of his waist; and in an access of fruitless obsequiousness, running up to his parent he began to wring his slender fingers (finger against finger).

A daily spectacle awaited the senator: his unnaturally polite son overcame, with unnatural swiftness, at a skip and a run, the expanse of distance from the door – all the way to the dinner table. Apollon Apollonovich impetuously rose (anyone would have said – leapt up) before his son.

Nikolai Apollonovich tripped against the table leg.

Apollon Apollonovich proffered to Nikolai Apollonovich his pudgy lips; to these pudgy lips Nikolai Apollonovich pressed two lips; the lips touched one another; and two fingers shook the customarily sweating hand.

‘Good evening, Papa!’

‘My respects, sir …’

Apollon Apollonovich sat down. Apollon Apollonovich caught hold of the pepper-pot. It was Apollon Apollonovich’s custom to over-pepper his soup.

‘From the university? …’

‘No, I’ve been out for a walk …’

And a froglike expression fleeted across the grinning mouth of the courteous offspring, whose face we have had time to examine taken in isolation from all the grimaces, smiles or gestures of courtesy that were the bane of Nikolai Apollonovich’s life, if only because of the Grecian mask there remained not a trace; these smiles, grimaces, or simply gestures of courtesy streamed in a kind of constant cascade before the fluttering gaze of the absent-minded papa; and his hand, as it brought the spoon to his mouth, clearly trembled, splashing soup.

‘Have you come from the Institution, Papa?’

‘No, from the minister …’

We saw in the foregoing that when he sat in his office Apollon Apollonovich came to the conviction that his son was an arrant rogue: thus daily did the sixty-eight-year-old papa commit upon his own blood and his own flesh a certain act which, though comprehensible, was none the less an act of terrorism.

But those were abstract, office conclusions, which were not taken out into the corridor, nor (even more so) into the dining-room.

‘Would you like some pepper, Kolenka?’

‘I’d like some salt, Papa …’

Apollon Apollonovich, looking at his son, or rather fluttering around the grimacing young philosopher with fleeting eyes, according to the tradition of this hour gave himself up to a rush of, so to speak, paternality, avoiding the office in his thoughts.

‘Well, I like pepper: pepper makes everything tastier …’

Nikolai Apollonovich, lowering his eyes to his plate, banished the tiresome associations from his memory: the Neva sunset and the inexpressible quality of the rosy ripples, the most delicate reflections of mother-of-pearl, the bluish-green depth; and against the background of most delicate mother-of-pearl …

‘Indeed, sir! …

‘Indeed, sir! …

‘Very good, sir …’

Apollon Apollonovich was engaging his son (or rather – himself) in conversation.

The silence over the table grew heavier.

This silence during the eating of the soup did not trouble Apollon Apollonovich in the slightest (old people are not troubled by silence, while nervous youth is) … As he searched for a topic of conversation, Nikolai Apollonovich experienced genuine torment over his now cold plate of soup.

And unexpectedly to himself he burst out:

‘I say … I …’

‘I say, what?’

‘No … Just … nothing …’

Over the table silence weighed.

Nikolai Apollonovich again, unexpectedly to himself, burst out (this was true fidgetiness, now!)

‘I say … I …’

But what was this ‘I say I’? He had not yet thought up a sequel to the words that leapt out; and there was no idea to accompany the ‘I say … I …’. And Nikolai Apollonovich stumbled …

‘I shall have to think up something to go with “I say I”,’ he thought. And could think of nothing.

Meanwhile Apollon Apollonovich, disturbed a second time by his son’s preposterous verbal confusion, suddenly hurled up his gaze questioningly, sternly and capriciously, indignant at the ‘mumbling’ …

‘I’m sorry: what did you say?’

While in the head of his dear offspring senseless words frantically began to revolve:

‘Perception …

‘Apperception …’13

‘Pepper is not pepper, but a term: terminology …

‘Logia, logic …’

And suddenly out whirled:

‘I say … I … read in Cohen’s Theorie der Erfahrung …’14

And stumbled again.

‘Well, and what sort of book is that, Kolenka?’

In addressing his son, Apollon Apollonovich involuntarily observed the traditions of childhood; and in intercourse with this arrant rogue addressed the arrant rogue as ‘Kolenka’, ‘dear offspring’, ‘my friend’ and even – ‘my good fellow’ …

‘Cohen, the most important representative of European Kantianism.’

‘I’m sorry – Kantianism?’

‘Kantianism, Papa.’


‘Precisely …’

‘But wasn’t Kant refuted by Comte?15 Is it Comte you mean?’

‘Not Comte, Papa – Kant! …’

‘But Kant is not scientific …’

‘It’s Comte who’s not scientific …’

‘I don’t know, I don’t know, my friend: in our time we saw it differently …’

Apollon Apollonovich, now tired and for some reason unhappy, slowly rubbed his eyes with small, cold fists, repeating absent-mindedly:

‘Comte …

‘Comte …

‘Comte …’

Lustre, lacquer, glitter and some kind of red sparks began to rush about in his eyes (Apollon Apollonovich always saw before his eyes, so to speak, two different types of space: the space that is ours and also the space of some spinning network of lines, which turned gold at nights).

Apollon Apollonovich reasoned that his brain was once again suffering violent rushes of blood caused by the intense haemorrhoidal condition he had been in all the previous week; his cranium leaned against the dark side of his armchair, into a dark depth; his dark blue eyes stared questioningly:

‘Comte … Yes: Kant …’

He thought for a moment and hurled his eyes up at his son:

‘Well, and what sort of book is that, Kolenka?’

It was with instinctive cunning that Nikolai Apollonovich had begun to talk about Cohen; a conversation about Cohen was a most neutral conversation; with this conversation other conversations were got out of the way; and any kind of explanatory scene was postponed (from day to day – from month to month). And moreover: the habit of holding edifying conversations had been preserved in Nikolai Apollonovich’s soul from the days of his childhood: from the days of childhood Apollon Apollonovich had encouraged conversations of this kind in his son: thus formerly upon Nikolai Apollonovich’s return from the gymnasium had son explained to papa with visible ardour the details of cohorts, testudos and turres; along with other details of the Gallic War; with satisfaction then did Apollon Apollonovich attend to his son, indulgently encouraging the interests of the gymnasium. And in later years Apollon Apollonovich would even put his hand on Kolenka’s shoulder.

‘You ought to read Mill’s Logic,16 Kolenka: you know, it’s a useful book … Two volumes … In my time I read it from cover to cover …’

And Nikolai Apollonovich, who had only just swallowed Sigwart’s Logic,17 none the less took to entering the dining-room for tea with a most enormous tome in his hand. Apollon Apollonovich would, as if casually, ask him with affection:

‘What’s that you’re reading, Kolenka?’

‘Mill’s Logic, Papa.’

‘Indeed, sir, indeed, sir … Very good, sir!’

Even now, divided to the end, they unconsciously returned to old memories: their dinners frequently concluded with an edifying conversation …

At one time Apollon Apollonovich had been a professor of the philosophy of law:18 during that time he had read much and to the end. All that had vanished without a trace: faced with the elegant pirouettes of congeneric logic, Apollon Apollonovich felt a futile heaviness. Apollon Apollonovich was unable to answer the arguments of his dear offspring.

He did, however, reflect: ‘One must give Kolenka credit: his mental apparatus is distinctly developed.’

At the same time Nikolai Apollonovich felt with satisfaction that his parent was an uncommonly conscientious listener.

Even a semblance of friendship would arise between them by dessert: they were sometimes reluctant to break off the dinner-time conversation, as if they were both afraid of one another; as though each of them were privately and sternly signing a death sentence on the other.

Both stood up: both began to walk about the enfilade of rooms; white Archimedes rose into the shadow: there, there; and also there; the enfilade of rooms lay black; from afar, from the drawing-room, came the reddish flashes of a fermentation of light; from afar, from the drawing-room, a glint of fire began to crackle.

Thus once upon a time had they wandered about the empty enfilade of rooms – the little boy and the … still tender father; the still tender father would pat the fair-haired little boy on the shoulder; afterwards the tender father would lead the little boy over to the window and raise his finger to the stars:

‘The stars are far away, Kolenka: it takes a pencil of rays more than two years to travel from the nearest star to the earth … that’s how it is, my boy!’ And then one day the tender father wrote his son a little poem:

Silly little simpleton

Kolenka is dancing:

He has put his dunce-cap on –

On his horse he’s prancing.

Thus once had the contours of the little tables emerged from the shadows, the rays of the embankment lights flown through from the window-pane: the incrustations of the little tables were beginning to shine. Had the father really come to the conclusion that the blood of his blood was the blood of a scoundrel? Did the son really laugh at old age?

Silly little simpleton

Kolenka is dancing:

He has put his dunce-cap on –

On his horse he’s prancing.

Had this happened? Perhaps it had not … anywhere, ever?

Both now sat on the satin drawing-room couch, in order aimlessly to drawl insignificant words: they looked intently and expectantly into each other’s eyes, and the red flame from the hearth breathed warmth on to them both; shaven, grey and old, Apollon Apollonovich stood out, ears and jacket, against the twinkling flame: it was with just such a face as this that he had been depicted against a background of burning Russia on the cover of a little street journal. Extending a dead hand and not looking his son in the eye, Apollon Apollonovich asked in a failing voice:

‘My friend, does that that … mm … that, er … visit you often?’

‘Who, Papa?’

‘Oh that fellow, what’s his name … the young man …’

‘A young man?’

‘Yes – with a small black moustache.’

Nikolai Apollonovich bared his teeth in a grin, and suddenly began to wring his sweaty hands …

‘You mean the fellow you found in my study today?’

‘Why yes – the very same …’

‘Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin! … No … You don’t say so …’

And having said ‘You don’t say so’, Nikolai Apollonovich reflected:

‘Well, why did I say “You don’t say so”?’

And, having reflected, added:

‘He just comes to visit me.’

‘If … if … this is an indiscreet question, then … I suppose …’

‘What, Papa? …’

‘He came to you on … university business?’

‘Though actually … if my question is, so to speak, out of place …’

‘Why out of place?’

‘He’s not a bad sort … a pleasant young man: poor, as one can see …’

‘Is he a student?’

‘Yes, he is.’

‘At the university?’

‘Yes, that’s right …’

‘Not the technical institute? …’

‘No, Papa …’

Apollon Apollonovich knew that his son was lying; Apollon Apollonovich looked at his watch; Apollon Apollonovich got up, indecisively. Nikolai Apollonovich was tormentingly aware of his arms, and Apollon Apollonovich’s eyes began to roam in confusion:

‘Yes, that’s right … There are many special branches of knowledge in the world: every specialism is profound – you are right. You know, Kolenka, I’m tired.’

Apollon Apollonovich was trying to ask his son, who was rubbing his hands, about something … He stood for a bit, looked for a bit, and … did not ask, but lowered his eyes: for a moment Nikolai Apollonovich felt shame.

Mechanically Apollon Apollonovich extended his pudgy lips to his dear offspring: and his hand shook … two fingers.

‘Good night, Papa!’

‘My respects, sir!’

Somewhere to the side a mouse began to shuffle, to rustle, and suddenly squeaked.

Soon the door of the senator’s study opened: holding a candle, Apollon Apollonovich ran into a certain room that had no comparison, in order to devote himself to … reading the newspaper.

Nikolai Apollonovich went over to the window.

Some kind of phosphorescent stain was racing both mistily and furiously across the sky; the distances of the Neva were misted over by a phosphorescent sheen, and this made the soundlessly flying surfaces begin to gleam green, giving off now there, now here a spark of gold; here and there on the water a tiny red light would flare up and, having blinked, retreat into the phosphorescently extended murk. Beyond the Neva, showing dark, the massive buildings of the islands rose, casting into the mists their palely shining eyes – infinitely, soundlessly, tormentingly: and they seemed to be weeping. Higher up, ragged arms furiously extended some kind of vague outlines; swarm upon swarm they rose above the Neva’s waves; while from the sky the phosphorescent stain hurled itself upon them. Only in one place that had not been touched by chaos – there, where by day the Troitsky Bridge was thrown across – enormous clusters of diamonds showed misty above a glittering swarm of annulated, luminous serpents; both twining and untwining, the serpents sped from there in a sparkling file; and then, diving down, rose to the surface like strings of stars.

Nikolai Apollonovich was lost in contemplation of the strings.

The embankment was empty. From time to time the black shadow of a policeman passed, looming black against the light mist and dissolving again; they loomed black and disappeared in the mist, the buildings on the other side of the Neva; and the spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress loomed black and again retreated into the mist.

Some kind of female shadow had long now loomed black against the mist: standing by the railings, it did not retreat into the mist but stared straight at the windows of a yellow house. Nikolai Apollonovich smiled a most unpleasant smile: applying his pince-nez to his nose, he studied the shadow; Nikolai Apollonovich’s eyes bulged with amorous cruelty, as he stared and stared at that shadow; joy distorted his features.

No, no: it was not she; but she too, like that shadow, kept walking and walking round the yellow house; and he saw her; everything in his soul was troubled. She loved him, without doubt; but a fateful and terrible vengeance awaited her.

The black, fortuitous shadow had already dissolved in the mist.

In the depths of the dark corridor a metal bolt rattled, in the depths of the dark corridor light flickered: holding a candle, Apollon Apollonovich was returning from a certain place that had no comparison: his grey, mouse-coloured dressing-gown, his grey, shaven cheeks and the enormous contours of his completely dead ears were sculpted from afar in the dancing lamps. Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov walked to the door of his study in order to sink back into complete darkness; and the place of his passage yawned gloomily, from the open door.

Nikolai Apollonovich thought: ‘It’s time.’

Nikolai Apollonovich knew that the mass meeting today would last until late at night, that she was going to the meeting (the guarantee of this was the fact that Varvara Yevgrafovna was accompanying her: Varvara Yevgrafovna took everyone to the meetings). Nikolai Apollonovich reflected that more than two hours had already passed since he met them, on the way to the gloomy building; and now he thought: ‘It’s time …’