Petersburg A Dried-up Little Figure

This was, of course, still him: Nikolai Apollonovich. He had come there today to say – to say what?

He had himself forgotten; forgotten his own thoughts; and forgotten his hopes; had revelled in his own predestined role: a godlike, impassive creature had flown off somewhere; there remained a naked passion, and the passion had become a poison. The feverish poison penetrated his brain, pouring invisibly out of his eyes like a fiery cloud, entwining him in clinging, blood-red satin: it was as if he now looked at everything with a charred countenance out of the fires that baked his body, and the charred countenance turned into a black mask, while the fires that baked his body turned into red silk. He had now truly become a buffoon, an outrageous and red one (as she had once called him). Revengefully did this buffoon now violate some truth – was it his own, or hers? – perfidiously and keenly; yet again: did he love or hate?

It was as though he had been casting a spell on her all these last days, stretching cold hands out of the windows of the yellow house, stretching cold hands from the granite into the fog of the Neva. He wanted to seize, while loving, the mental image he had summoned up, he wanted, while taking revenge on her, to strangle the silhouette that fluttered somewhere; that was why all these days cold hands had stretched out of space into space, that was why all these days some kind of unearthly confessions had whispered out of space into her ears, some kind of whistling invocations of disaster and some kind of wheezing passions; that was why incoherent whistlings sounded in her ears, while the crimson of the leaves chased beneath her feet the rustling alluvial deposits of words.

That was why he had just come to that house: but she, the traitress, was not there; and in a corner he reflected. In the fog it was as if he saw the surprised, venerable zemstvo official; as if somewhere in the distance, in the labyrinth of mirrors, before him the figures of the laughing young ladies floated past like unsteady blobs; and when out of this labyrinth from the cold, greenish surface the distant echoes of questions with a paper serpent of confetti assailed him, he was surprised in the way that people marvel in dreams: was surprised at the emergence into the bright world before him of a reflection that was not real; but at the same time as he looked on them all as vacillating reflections that raced about in a dream, those reflections evidently took him for an apparition from the other world; and as an apparition from the other world, he drove them all away.

Then once again distant echoes drifted to him, and he turned slowly: both vaguely and dimly – somewhere over there, somewhere over there – a dried-up little figure, without hair, without whiskers, without eyebrows, quickly traversed the ballroom. Nikolai Apollonovich could with difficulty make out the details of the little figure that had flown into the ballroom – the strain to his vision through the slits of the mask gave him a pain in his eyes (apart from everything else, he suffered from short-sightedness), and only the contours of the greenish ears stood out – somewhere over there, somewhere over there. There was in all this something familiar, something near and alive, and Nikolai Apollonovich jerkily, in oblivion, rushed over to the little figure in order to see it at close quarters; but the little figure jerked back, seemed even to clutch at its heart, ran away, and was now looking at him. Great was Nikolai Apollonovich’s amazement: right there before him stood a kindred face; it seemed to him covered in wrinkles that had eaten away at cheeks, forehead, chin and nose; from a distance one might have taken that face for the face of a Skopets, more young than old; but close to this was a feeble, sickly old man, conspicuous by his barely noticeable side-whiskers; in a word – under his nose Nikolai Apollonovich saw his father. Apollon Apollonovich, fingering the rings of his watch chain, fixed his eyes in poorly concealed fear at the satin domino who had so unexpectedly assailed him. In these blue eyes flickered something like a surmise; Nikolai Apollonovich felt an unpleasant shiver, for it was uncanny to look brazenly from behind the mask at that impassive gaze before which at ordinary times he lowered his eyes with incomprehensible diffidence; yes, it was uncanny now in that gaze to read fear, and a kind of helpless, sickly senility; and the surmise, quickly flickering past, was read as the answer to a riddle: Nikolai Apollonovich thought he had been recognized. This was not the case: Apollon Apollonovich simply thought that some clumsy prankster was terrorizing him, the courtier, with the symbolic colour of his brilliant cape.

All the same, he began to feel his own pulse. Nikolai Apollonovich had on several occasions recently noticed this gesture of the senatorial fingers, which was made in stealth (the senator’s heart was evidently growing tired of functioning). Seeing this same gesture now, he felt something that resembled pity; and involuntarily he stretched his red-rustling arms to his father; as if he were imploring his father not to run away from him gasping in a bout of palpitations of the heart, as if he were imploring his father to forgive him for all his past sins. But Apollon Apollonovich had continued to feel his pulse with his trembling fingers and was now running away in the throes of palpitations – somewhere over there, somewhere over there …

Suddenly the doorbell rang: the whole room was filled with maskers; a black row of Capuchins burst in, the black Capuchins quickly formed a chain around their red confrère and began to dance some kind of dance around him; their satin skirts fluttered and coiled; the tops of their hoods flew up and fell uproariously back again; but on the chest of each a skull and crossbones was embroidered; and the skulls danced in time.

Then the red domino, defending himself, ran out of the ballroom; the black flock of Capuchins chased after him with loud laughter; thus did they fly along the wide corridor and into the dining-room; all who sat at the table began to bang their plates in welcome.

‘Capuchins, maskers, clowns.’

Flocks of mother-of-pearl pink and heliotrope young ladies leapt up from their seats, and so did hussars, law students, students. Nikolai Petrovich Tsukatov jumped up on the spot with a goblet of Rhine wine, bellowing out his thunderous vivat in honour of the strange company.

And then someone observed:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is too much …’

But he was hauled off to dance.

In the ballroom the pianist, arching his spine, had begun to set his fluffed-up quiff of hair dancing over his fingers that raced over the keys, pouring out runs; the treble danced all over the place and the bass sluggishly ground into motion.

And looking with an innocent smile at a black Capuchin who whirled his satin cape with an especially brazen movement, an angel-like creature in a little violet skirt suddenly leaned over the opening of his hood (a mask stared her in the face); and with her hand the creature seized hold of the hump of a striped clown, one of whose legs (it was blue) flew into the air, while the other (it was red) bent down to the parquetry; but the creature was not afraid; she gathered up her hem, and from thence thrust forth a little silvery dancing shoe.

And off they went – one, two, three …

And after them went the Spanish lasses, the monks and the devils; the harlequins, the pelisses, the fans, the exposed backs, the scarves of silver laminae; above them all, swaying, danced a lanky palm tree.

Only over there, solitary, leaning against the window-sill, between the lowered greenish curtains, Apollon Apollonovich gasped in a paroxysm of his heart trouble, the extent of which not a single person knew.