Petersburg Down, Tom!

‘Mais j’espère …’

‘You hope?’

‘Mais j’espère que oui …’ the voice of a foreigner jangled from behind the door.

Aleksandr Ivanovich’s footsteps tapped against the boards of the little terrace with deliberate firmness; Aleksandr Ivanovich did not like eavesdropping. The door that led into the apartment was half open.

It was getting dark: it was getting dark blue.

No one heard his footsteps. Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin decided not to eavesdrop; and so he stepped across the threshold of the doorway.

In the room there was a heavy fragrance; a mixture of perfumery and some kind of astringent sourness: that of medicaments.

Zoya Zakharovna Fleisch was paying compliments as always. She was endeavouring to make some visiting foreigner sit down; the foreigner was declining the invitation.

It was getting dark; it was getting dark blue.

‘Oh, how glad I am to see you … Very, very glad to see you: wipe your feet, take your coat off …’

But no answering gladness followed; Aleksandr Ivanovich shook Zoya’s hand.

‘I hope you have received a fine impression of Russia … Don’t you think …’ she said, addressing the wiry foreigner. ‘Such unprecedented enthusiasm?’

And the Frenchman jangled drily:

‘Mais j’espère …’

Zoya Zakharovna Fleisch, rubbing her puffy fingers, turned her kindly, somewhat bewildered gaze now on the Frenchman, now on Aleksandr Ivanovich; she had bulging eyes: they were coming out of their sockets. Zoya Zakharovna looked about forty; Zoya Zakharovna was a large-headed brunette; her stout cheeks were enamelled; from her cheeks powder flaked.

‘But he’s not here yet … Is it him you need to see?’ she asked Aleksandr Ivanovich, quite unexpectedly; in this fleeting question there was a hidden anxiety; hostility was perhaps concealed in it; and perhaps, hatred; but the anxiety, hostility and hatred were sweetly covered over: by her smile and her gaze; thus in sticky-sweet candies that are offered for sale is all the repulsive filth of the unventilated confectioners’ kitchens concealed.

‘Well, all the same, I’ll wait for him.’

Aleksandr Ivanovich bowed to the Frenchman; he reached out for a pear (there was a bowl of Duchesse pears on the table); at this point Zoya Zakharovna Fleisch moved the bowl away from Aleksandr Ivanovich: Aleksandr Ivanovich was so fond of pears.

Pears were as pears might be, but they were not the most important thing right now.

The most important thing was the voice: the voice that began to sing from somewhere; the voice was completely cracked, impossibly loud and sweet; and moreover: the voice had an impermissible accent. At the dawn of the twentieth century it was not done to sing like that: it was simply shameless: people in Europe do not sing that way. Aleksandr Ivanovich fancied that the singer was a burning, voluptuous-tempered man with dark hair; he quite certainly had dark hair; he had one of those sunken chests that sagged between his shoulders, and the eyes of a regular cockroach; perhaps he was consumptive; and, probably, from the south: an Odessan or even a Bulgarian from Varna (that was better, perhaps); his linen was not quite tidy; he was some kind of populist propagandist, and he hated the countryside. As he formed his ideas about the song’s invisible performer, Aleksandr Ivanovich reached out for a second pear.

Meanwhile Zoya Zakharovna Fleisch would not let the Frenchman leave her side for a moment:

‘Yes, yes, yes: we are experiencing events of historic importance … Everywhere cheerfulness and youth … The historians of the future will write … Don’t you believe me? Come to the mass meetings … Listen to the ardent outpourings of emotion, take a look – everywhere there is rapture.’

But the Frenchman did not wish to sustain the conversation.

‘Pardon, madame, monsieur viendra-t-il bientôt?’

In order not to be a witness of this unpleasant conversation, which was somehow demeaning to his sense of national feeling, Aleksandr Ivanovich went right up to the window, very nearly stumbling over a shaggy St Bernard that was gnawing a bone on the floor.

The windows of the little dacha looked out to sea: it was getting dark, it was getting dark blue.

The eye of a lighthouse turned; the light began to blink: ‘one-two-three’ – and went out; the dark cloak of a distant passer-by flapped in the wind out there; even further away the crests of waves curled; the lights of the shore were scattered like luminous grain; the many-eyed seashore bristled with reeds; from far away a siren began to wail.

What a wind!

‘Here is an ashtray for you …’

The ashtray was lowered under Aleksandr Ivanovich’s nose: but Aleksandr Ivanovich was a touchy man, and he stubbed out his cigarette-end in the flower vase: did so from a spirit of protest.

‘Who’s that singing?’

Zoya Zakharovna made a gesture, from which it was plain that Aleksandr Ivanovich was lagging behind; impermissibly lagging behind.

‘What? Don’t you know? … No, of course you don’t … Well, then I may as well tell you: it’s Shishnarfiev … That’s what comes of being a lone wolf … Shishnarfiev – he has made himself at home with us all …’

‘I’ve heard his name somewhere …’

‘Shishnarfiev is wonderfully artistic …’

Zoya Zakharovna pronounced this phrase with a determined look – with a look as if to say that he, Aleksandr Ivanovich, had placed a most inappropriate question mark over the owner of the name, who was well known to everyone for his artistic nature and had made friends with them all. But Aleksandr Ivanovich did not intend to dispute the talents of this selfsame gentleman.

All he asked was:

‘Is he an Armenian? A Bulgarian? A Georgian?’

‘No, no …’

‘A Croat? A Persian?’

‘He’s a Persian from Shemakha,7 and he very nearly lost his life in the slaughter in Isfahan …’

‘And is he a … Young Persian?’8

‘Of course … Didn’t you know … You ought to be ashamed …’

A look of regret, of condescension towards him, and – Zoya Zakharovna Fleisch turned to the Frenchman.

Aleksandr Ivanovich, naturally, did not listen to their conversation: he listened to the hopelessly cracked tenor; the Young Persian activist was singing a passionate gypsy romance and casting a gloomy shadow on one’s thoughts. Incidentally: Aleksandr Ivanovich reflected on the fact that the features of Zoya Fleisch’s face had in all fairness been taken from the faces of the most diverse beauties: the nose – from one, the mouth – from another, the ears – from yet another beautiful woman.

Taken together, however, they produced a decidedly irritating effect. And Zoya Zakharovna appeared to be sewn together from many beautiful women, while herself being far from beautiful – and that was no understatement! But her most essential feature was her adherence to the category of what are called burning oriental brunettes.

Zoya Zakharovna’s bombastic chatter flew across none the less and overtook Aleksandr Ivanovich:

‘Are you here about money?’


‘Money from abroad is needed …’

An impatient movement of the elbow.

‘Your editor had better not come here after the rout of the T.T. organization …’

But the Frenchman said not a word.

‘Because documents were found …’

If Aleksandr Ivanovich had been able to think about the matter, the news of the rout of the T.T. might (this we shall say) have knocked him off his feet; but he listened – to the Young Persian activist exuberantly singing a romance. Meanwhile the Frenchman, fairly driven out of his mind by Zoya Fleisch’s importuning of him, said by way of rebuff:

‘Je serai bien triste d’avoir manqué l’occasion de parler à monsieur.’

‘It’s all the same: speak to me, instead …’

‘Excusez, dans certains cas je préfère parler personellement …’

A shrub flailed in the window.

Between the branches of the shrub one could see the waves foaming, and a sailing vessel rocking to and fro, vesperal and dark blue; in a thin layer it cut the darkness with its sharp-winged sails; on the surface of the sail the bluish night slowly grew denser.

The sail seemed to be being obliterated altogether.

Just then a cab drove up to the little garden; the body of a heavy fat man, who was manifestly suffering from shortness of breath, unhurriedly tumbled out of the carriage; burdened by half a dozen packages oscillating on strings, an awkward hand seemed slowly to fuss over a leather purse; from under an arm a bag fell clumsily over a puddle; tearing the paper that held them as they flew, winter apples rolled in the mud.

The gentleman began to fuss over the puddle, picking up the apples; his coat fell open; he was apparently groaning; closing the gate, he again very nearly spilled his purchases.

The gentleman approached the small dacha along the yellow garden path between two rows of shrubs that were bent in the wind; the same familiar, oppressive atmosphere was spread around; covered by a hat with earflaps, the man’s sinister head seemed suddenly to settle on his chest; the small eyes set deep in their sockets did not on this occasion move about at all (as they moved about before any fixed gaze); the small, deepset eyes stared wearily at the window-panes.

Aleksandr Ivanovich managed to detect in those little eyes (just imagine!) some kind of peculiar joy of their own, one mixed with weariness and sadness – a purely animal joy: at warming oneself, sleeping properly and having a good supper after having endured so many travails. Thus the bloodthirsty beast: returning to its lair, the bloodthirsty beast seems meek and domesticated, displaying the good nature of which it, too, is capable; in friendly fashion this beast then sniffs at its mate; and licks its whimpering cubs.

Is this the person?

Yes: this is the person: and the person is on this occasion not terrifying; his aspect is prosaic; but this is the person.

‘Here he is!’

‘Enfin …’

‘Lippanchenko! …’

‘Hello …’

The yellow dog, the St Bernard, hurled itself through the room with a joyful roar and, jumping up, fell with its paws straight on the person’s chest.

‘Down, Tom! …’

As he desperately defended his purchases from the shaggy St Bernard, the person did not even have time to spot his uninvited guests; his broad, flat, square face was stamped with a mixture of humour and helpless fury; all that slipped out was a childish remark:

‘He’s slobbering again.’

And, turning helplessly away from Tom, the person exclaimed:

‘Zoya Zakharovna, free me from him …’

But the dog’s broad tongue disrespectfully licked the tip of the person’s nose; at this, the person emitted a piercing cry – a helpless cry (while yet at the same time – imagine! – smiling) …

‘Now then, Tomka!’

But having seen that there were guests, and that the guests were waiting, chuckling impatiently at this idyll of domestic life, the person stopped laughing and snapped without the slightest courtesy:

‘Very well, very well! I shall be with you in a moment …’

And as he did so his drooping lip twitched touchily; on the lip was written:

‘There is no peace even here …’

The person rushed into a corner; there he stamped about – in the corner: he had still not taken off his galoshes, which were new and somewhat tight-fitting; for a long time still he continued to stand in the corner, delaying in taking off his coat and rummaging about in one of its tightly stuffed pockets (as though a twelve-chambered Browning were concealed in it); at last his hand came out of the pocket – holding a child’s doll, a cork-tumbler.

He threw this doll on the table.

‘And this is for Akulina’s Manka …’

At this the guests, to be quite honest, opened their mouths wide.

After this, rubbing his cold hands, he turned to the Frenchman with timid suspicion:

‘Please … this way … This way …’

And – hurled at Dudkin:

‘You’ll have to wait …’