Petersburg Epilogue

The February sun is on the wane.1 Shaggy cactuses are scattered here and there. Soon, soon from the gulf to the shore, sails will come flying; they fly: angularly winged, swaying; a small cupola has receded into the cactuses.

Nikolai Apollonovich, in a blue gandurah,2 in a bright-red Arabian chechia,3 freezes in a squatting position; an extremely long tassel falls from his chechia; his silhouette is distinctly sculpted against the flat roof; beneath him are the village square and the sounds of a tom-tom: they strike the ears with a hollow, oppressive quality.

Everywhere there are the white cubes of the wretched little village houses; a bellowing Berber is driving on a little donkey with shouts; a heap of branches shows silver on the donkey; the Berber is olive-coloured.

Nikolai Apollonovich does not hear the sounds of the tom-tom; and he does not see the Berber; he sees what is standing in front of him: Apollon Apollonovich – bald, small, old – sitting in a rocking chair, swinging the rocking chair with a nod of his head and a motion of his foot; he remembers this movement …

In the distance an almond tree shows pink; that jagged peak is bright violet and amber; that peak is Zaghouan,4 and that cape is Cape Carthage. Nikolai Apollonovich has rented a cottage from an Arab in a coastal village near Tunis.

Beneath the weight of sparkling, snowy caps, the fir boughs have sagged: shaggy and green; ahead is a five-columned wooden building; snowdrifts have flung themselves over the railings of the terrace-like hills; there is on them the pink reflection of a February sunset.

A small, round-shouldered figure has appeared – in warm felt boots, mittens, leaning on a stick; its fur collar is raised; a fur hat is pulled down over its ears; it is making its way along a cleared path; it is being helped along by the arm; the figure that is doing the helping has a warm rug in its hand.

Spectacles have appeared on Apollon Apollonovich in the country; they have steamed up in the frost and through them neither the jagged forest distances nor the smoke of the tiny villages, nor the jackdaws have been visible; shadows are visible, and more shadows; between them are the lunar gleaming of shoals and the little squares of the parqueted floor; Nikolai Apollonovich is tender, attentive, sensitive – with his head inclined low, he steps across – out of the shadow – into the lace of the light from the street lamp; steps across: out of that bright lace – into the shadow.

In the evening the little old man sits at the table in his room amidst round frames; and in the frames there are portraits: of an officer in buckskin breeches, of an old woman in a satin head-dress; the officer is his father; the old woman in the head-dress is his deceased mother, née Svargina. The little old man is scribbling his memoirs, so that they may see the light in the year of his death.

They have seen the light.

Those most witty memoirs: Russia knows them.

The sun’s flame is impetuous: it burns crimson in your eyes; you turn away, and – it strikes you frenziedly in the back of your neck; it makes even the desert seem greenish and deathly pale: as a matter of fact, life is deathly pale; it would be good to remain here for ever – by the deserted shore.

In a thick pith helmet with a veil that has come unwound in the wind, Nikolai Apollonovich has sat down on a heap of sand; before him is an enormous, mouldering head – very soon now it will collapse into sandstone thousands of years old; – Nikolai Apollonovich has been sitting before the Sphinx for hours.

Nikolai Apollonovich has been here for two years; he is studying in the museum at Bulaq.5 The ‘Book of the Dead’6 – and the writings of Manetho7 have been interpreted wrongly; here, for the searching eye, there is a wide expanse: Nikolai Apollonovich has vanished in Egypt; and in the twentieth century he foresees Egypt; all culture is like this mouldering head: everything has died; nothing has remained.

It is good that he is thus engaged: sometimes, tearing himself from his schemes, it begins to seem to him that not everything has yet died; there are some kind of sounds; these sounds roar in Cairo: it is a peculiar roar; it resembles – that same sound: deafening and – hollow: with a metallic, bass, oppressive quality; and Nikolai Apollonovich – is drawn to mummies; that ‘incident’ has led him to mummies. Kant? Kant is forgotten.

It has begun to be evening: and into the sunsetless twilight the piles of Gizeh8 stretch monstrously and threateningly; everything is expanded in them; and everything expands from them, in the dust that hangs in the air, dark brown lights begin to burn; and – it is stiflingly oppressive.

Nikolai Apollonovich has leaned reflectively against the dead side of a pyramid.

In an armchair, in the full blaze of the sun, the little old man sat motionless: he kept looking at the old woman with his enormous cornflower-coloured eyes; his legs were wrapped in a rug (he had evidently lost the use of them); on his knees bunches of white lilacs had been placed; the little old man kept stretching towards the old woman, leaning out of the armchair with his whole body:

‘You say he’s finished it? … Then perhaps he’ll come?’

‘Yes: he’s putting his papers in order …’

Nikolai Apollonovich had finally brought his monograph to an end.

‘What is it called?’

And – the little old man beamed:

‘The monograph is called … em-em-em … “On the Instruction of Duauf”.’9 Apollon Apollonovich forgot absolutely everything: forgot the names of ordinary objects; but that word – Duauf – he firmly remembered; Kolenka had written about ‘Duauf’. One throws back one’s head and looks upwards, and there is the gold of green leaves: stormily it rages: blue sky and fleecy clouds and a little wagtail was running along the path.

‘He’s in Nazareth, you say?’

Oh, and the thick mass of the bluebells! The bluebells were opening their lilac jaws; right there, amidst the bluebells, stood a movable armchair; and in it a wrinkled Apollon Apollonovich, with unshaven stubble showing silver on his cheeks – beneath a canvas sunshade.

In 1913 Nikolai Apollonovich still continued to stroll about the fields, the meadows, the forests for days on end, observing the work in the fields with morose indolence; he had a peaked cap on; he wore a camel-coloured sleeveless jacket; his boots squeaked; a golden, wedge-shaped beard had changed him strikingly; while a lock of perfect silver stood out distinctly in the cap of his hair; this lock had appeared suddenly; his eyes had begun to ache in Egypt; he began to wear dark blue spectacles. His voice had grown coarser, while his face was covered in sunburn; his speed of movement was gone; he lived alone; he never invited anyone to see him; he never visited anyone; he was seen in church; it is said that of late he had been reading the philosopher Skovoroda.10

His parents were dead.