Petersburg The Conversation Had a Sequel

Meanwhile the conversation had a sequel:

‘I have a matter to discuss with you … What I mean is – a conversation that will brook no delay; I’ve asked everywhere how we might meet: by the way, I went and asked about you at the home of … what is here name again? … Our mutual acquaintance, Varvara Yevgrafovna …’


‘That’s it … I had a very painful conversation with Varvara Yevgrafovna – concerning you … Do you understand me? … So much the worse … But what was I … Yes – this Solovyova, Varvara Yevgrafovna (by the way, I locked her in) gave me an address: the address of a friend of yours … Dudkin? … Well, it doesn’t matter … Of course, I went to that address, and before I got as far as Mr – Dudkin, is it? – met you in the courtyard … You were running away from there … Yes, sir … And what is more – not alone, but with a person I did not know … No, don’t: nomina sunt odiosa … You looked agitated, and Mr …? Nomina sunt odiosa – also looked agitated … I did not venture to interrupt your conversation with Mr … Excuse me – perhaps you retain that gentleman’s surname in your memory …’

‘Sergei Sergeyevich, I …’

‘Wait, sir! … I did not venture to interrupt your conversation, of course, although … to tell you the truth, I had only managed to catch you with great difficulty … Well, then: I followed you; at a certain distance, of course, so as not to be a witness of the conversation: I do not like to stick my nose in, Nikolai Apollonovich … But about that we can talk later …’

Here Likhutin fell into reflection, and for some reason he turned round and looked into the distance of the Nevsky.

‘I followed you … Right to this place … The two of you were talking about something … I walked behind you, and I must admit that I felt annoyed … Listen,’ he said, breaking off his narration, which was like a typographical composition, haphazardly scattered, gathered together and haphazardly read – ‘Don’t you hear?’

‘No …’

‘Shh! … Listen …’

‘What is it?’

‘A sort of musical note – an “oo” … There … there … it’s started to hoot …’

Nikolai Apollonovich turned his head; it was strange – carriages were hurriedly flying past – and all in the same direction; the pedestrians quickened their step (every moment or so they were given a shove); some were turning back; they collided with those who were coming towards them; equilibrium was completely destroyed; he looked round and did not listen to Likhutin.

‘After that you were left alone, and you leaned against the shop window; then it started to rain … I also leaned against the shop window, on the other side … You kept staring at me, Nikolai Apollonovich, but you pretended you hadn’t noticed me at all …’

‘I didn’t recognize you …’

‘And I bowed to you …’

‘It’s as I thought,’ Nikolai Apollonovich continued to reflect in annoyance, ‘he’s pursuing me … He’s going to …’

What was he going to do to him?

About two and a half months ago, Nikolai Apollonovich had received a short letter from Sergei Sergeich, in which Sergei Sergeich Likhutin had in a persuasive tone requested him not to disturb the peace of his ardently beloved spouse – this was after the bridge; some of the phrases in the letter were underlined three times; from them emanated something very, very serious – it was a rather unpleasant verbal blast, without hints, but straight to the point … And in an answering letter, Nikolai Apollonovich had promised …

He had given his promise, and – broken it.

What was this?

Blocking the pavement, the passers-by had stopped; the very broad prospect was empty of carriages; neither the busy clacking of the tires, nor the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves could be heard: the carriages flew past, forming there, in the distance – a black, motionless heap, forming here – a bare, boarded void against which the pandemonium again threw in cascades its swarms of crackling drops.

‘Look there, do you see?’

‘Oh, how strange, how strange?’

It was as if for a moment the enormous round, flat slabs of granite had been exposed, over which for millennia the white foam of a waterfall had rushed; but from there, from the distances of the prospect, from the most complete emptiness and purity, between the two rows of deserted pavement, over which a thousand-voiced buzzing that increased in loudness was approaching (like the buzz of a swarm of bumble-bees) – from there a smart cab came rushing; half-standing in it, a beardless, tattered barin was flexed without a hat, clutching a tall and heavy flagstaff in his hand: and, tearing themselves away from the wooden staff like crests in the air, lightly-whistling blades of red calico cloth fluttered and tore – into the cold, the enormous void; it was strange to see the red, flying banner coming down the empty prospect; and when the carriage had passed, all the bowler hats, the tricornes, the top hats, the cap-bands, the feathers, the service caps began to hoot, to shuffle, to jostle their elbows and suddenly surged off the pavement into the middle of the prospect; from the ragged clouds the pale disc of the sun poured down for a moment with a straw-coloured tint – on the houses, on the mirror-like panes, on the bowler hats, on the cap-bands. The pandemonium had rushed past. The rain had stopped.

The crowd swept both Ableukhov and Likhutin off the pavement; separated by a pair of elbows, they ran where all were running; taking advantage of the crush, Nikolai Apollonovich had the intention of slipping away from the untimely conversation and throwing himself into the first carriage that stood there in the distance and, without losing any precious time, driving away in the direction of home: for the bomb was there … in the writing desk … ticking away! Until it was in the Neva he would have no peace!

The running people jostled him with their elbows; small black figures were pouring out of the shops, the courtyards, the barbers’ shops, the intersecting prospects; and into the shops, the courtyards, the lateral prospects the small black figures ran hurriedly back again; they wailed, roared, stamped: in a word, there was panic; from afar – above the heads there, blood seemed to gush; seething red crests unwound from the black soot, like throbbing lights and like deer’s antlers.

And, oh, how untimely!

From behind two or three shoulders, on a level with him, the hateful little peaked cap looked out and two vigilant eyes were anxiously fixed on him: even in the commotion, second lieutenant Likhutin did not lose sight of him, doing his utmost to break through to Ableukhov, who had broken through the crowd away from him: while all Ableukhov wanted to do was sigh with relief.

‘Don’t lose sight of me … Nikolai Apollonovich; though actually, it doesn’t matter … I won’t leave you alone.’

‘It’s as I thought,’ Ableukhov was now finally convinced, ‘he’s pursuing me: he’ll never let me go …’

And he began to break his way through to the carriage.

While behind them, from the distances of the prospect, above the heads and the rumble of voices the banners came licking like flowing tongues and like flowing radiances; and suddenly everything – the flames and the banners – stopped and froze: the sound of singing came clearly thundering out.

At last Nikolai Apollonovich broke through to the carriage; but no sooner did he try to raise his foot into it, in order to make the driver break further through the crowd, than he felt himself again seized by the second lieutenant’s hand, thrust forward over someone else’s shoulder; at this point he stood still, as though rooted to the spot, and, simulating indifference, he said with a forced smile:

‘A demonstration! …’

‘It doesn’t matter: I have a matter to discuss with you.’

‘I … you see … I … also agree with you completely … We have something to talk about …’

Suddenly, from somewhere in the distance, a scattered crackling of gunfire came flying past; and from the distance, torn into pieces, the same radiances that had risen in the soot above the heads of the crowd began to rush this way and that; the red whirlpools of the banners began to wave about there, and swiftly scattered on the solitarily protruding crests.

‘In that case, Sergei Sergeich, let us do our talking in a coffee house … Why don’t we go to a coffee house …’

‘What do you mean, a coffee house …’ Likhutin said, indignantly. ‘I am not accustomed to having business conversations in such places …’

‘Sergei Sergeyevich? But where, then? …’

‘Well, I’m thinking, too … Since you’ve got into the carriage, let us go to my flat …’

These words were said in a tone that was manifestly dissembling: here Nikolai Apollonovich bit his lips very nearly until the blood came:

‘At his home, at his home … How can it be – at his home? That means I’ll have to closet myself with the second lieutenant eye to eye, give an account of my inappropriate escapades with Sofya Petrovna; perhaps I will have to explain to her indignant husband in her presence why I did not keep my word … It’s plain to see: it’s a trap …’

‘But, Sergei Sergeyevich, I think that for several reasons which I am sure you will understand, I wouldn’t feel comfortable at your flat …’

‘Oh, come now!’

To be fair to Nikolai Apollonovich, he did not list any more reasons; he obediently said: ‘I am ready.’ And he behaved calmly; his lower jaw trembled slightly – that was all.

‘As an enlightened, humane man, Sergei Sergeyevich, you will understand me … In a word, in a word … it’s in connection with Sofya Petrovna.’

Suddenly, growing confused, he broke off.

They sat down in the carriage. And – it was high time: there, where the banners had just been rushing about and from where dry bursts of crackling gunfire had come, there was now not a single banner; but from there surged such a crowd, pressing against those who were running ahead, that the carriages that had swarmed into clusters and were standing here, flew into the depths of the Nevsky – in the opposite direction, where now the circulation had been reestablished, where along the street grey-clad police inspectors ran, and gendarmes danced on horses.

Off they went.

Nikolai Apollonovich saw that the human myriapod was flowing here, as though nothing had happened; as it had flowed here for centuries; the seasons ran there, higher; to them a term was fixed; but the human myriapod had no such term; it would crawl as it crawled; and it crawled as it crawled: ones, twos, fours; and couple after couple: bowler hats, feathers, service caps; service caps, service caps, feathers; tricorne, top hat, service cap; shawl, umbrella, feather.

Now it all disappeared: they turned off the prospect; above the stone buildings in the sky towards them rushed ragged clouds with a hanging band of rain; Nikolai Apollonovich bent completely under the burden of the unexpected weight that had fallen; a ragged cloud crept up; and when the grey, bluish band covered them – the busy drops began to beat, to rattle, to whisper, spinning their cold bubbles on the gurgling puddles; Nikolai Apollonovich sat bent in the carriage, his face wrapped in his Italian cloak; for a moment he forgot where he was going; a troubled feeling remained: he was going – under duress.

The heavy confluence of circumstances now once again came weighing down.

The heavy confluence of circumstances – can one thus describe the pyramid of events that had piled up during these recent days, like massif upon massif? A pyramid of massifs that shattered the soul, and precisely – a pyramid! …

In a pyramid there is something that exceeds all the notions of man; the pyramid is a delirium of geometry, that is, a delirium that cannot be measured by anything; the pyramid is a satellite of the planet, created by man; it is both yellow and dead, like the moon.

The pyramid is a delirium that is measured by figures.

There is a horror compounded of figures – the horror of thirty signs laid end to end, where the sign is, of course, a zero; thirty zeros with a unit are a horror; cross out the unit, and the thirty zeros will collapse.

There will be – zero.

There is no horror in a unit, either; in itself the unit is a nonentity; namely – a unit! … But a unit plus thirty zeros will form itself into the monstrosity of a quintillion: a quintillion – oh, oh, oh! – hangs on a little thin black stick; the unit of a quintillion repeats itself more than a billion billion times, repeated more than a billion times.

Through immeasurabilities it drags itself.

Thus does man drag himself through universal space from time everlasting to time everlasting.

Yes, –

like a human unit, or rather, like that thin little stick, Nikolai Apollonovich had lived in space until now, accomplishing a run from time everlasting –

– in the costume of Adam, Nikolai Apollonovich was a little stick; ashamed of his thinness, he had never been to a Russian bathhouse with anyone –

– since time everlasting!

And now on the shoulders of this little stick the monstrosity of a quintillion had fallen, that is to say: more than a billion billions, repeated more than a billion times; an unpresentable something had taken a gigantic nothing into itself: and the gigantic nothing had been swelling in presentable fashion since time everlasting –

– thus does a stomach swell, thanks to the development of gases, from which all the Ableukhovs had suffered –

– since time everlasting!

An unpresentable something had taken a gigantic nothing into itself; the gigantic, empty, zero had made the something swell up to the point of horror. Quite simply some Gaurisankars distended themselves; while he, Nikolai Apollonovich, was exploding like a bomb.

Eh? A bomb? A sardine tin?

In the twinkling of an eye, everything raced past that had raced past since morning: his plan flew through his head.

What was it?