Petersburg Fellow-Travellers

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, in a grey coat and tall black top hat, with a face that recalled a grey chamois leather, slightly encrusted with green, leapt out through the open entrance-porch door in fright, and ran down the front steps at a staccato pace, suddenly finding himself on the wet and slippery entrance that was shrouded in damp fog.

Someone called out his name, and in response to this deferential call the black outline of a carriage moved into the circle of the street lamp out of the reddish murk, presenting its coat of arms: a unicorn goring a knight; just as Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, having bent his foot at an angle in order to support it on the footboard of the carriage, was depicting an Egyptian silhouette in the dampish fog, just as he was about to jump into the carriage and fly off with it into that dampish fog, the door of the entrance porch was thrown wide open behind him; the mangy little gentleman, who had just a few moments ago revealed to Apollon Apollonovich the honest but deplorable truth, appeared in the street; moving his bowler hat down on to his nose, the little gentleman trotted away to the left.

Apollon Apollonovich then lowered his angularly raised foot, touched the front of his top hat with a glove and gave the dumbstruck driver a dry command: to go home without him. Then Apollon Apollonovich performed an incredible action; such an action had been unknown in the history of his life for about the last fifteen years: Apollon Apollonovich, blinking bewilderedly and pressing his hand to his heart in order to moderate his shortness of breath, ran in pursuit of the little gentleman’s back that was slipping away into the fog; but please take note of one essential fact: the lower extremities of the eminent man of state were minute in the extreme; if you take note of this essential fact, you will, of course, understand that Apollon Apollonovich, to assist himself, began to wave his little hand about as he ran.

I communicate this precious small detail of the behaviour of a person of the first class, recently deceased, solely for the attention of the numerous collectors of material for his forthcoming biography which, it appears, has recently been written about in the newspapers.

Well, so this is how it was.

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov performed two most incredible deviations from the code of his measured life; in the first place: he did not avail himself of the services of a carriage (if one takes his spatial illness into account, this may be called a genuine feat); in the second place: in a most literal and non-metaphoric sense he rushed through the dark night along the most deserted of streets. And when the wind knocked his tall top hat from his head, when Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov squatted down over a puddle in order to extract the top hat from it, he began to shout after the back that was running off somewhere in a cracked voice:

‘Mm … Listen! …’

But the back paid no heed (actually, it was not a back, but a pair of ears running on top of a back).

‘Stop, I say … Pavel Pavlovich!’

The back that flickered there stopped, turned its head there and, recognizing the senator, ran towards him (it was not the back that ran towards him, but the owner of the back – the gentleman with the wart). The gentleman with the wart, having seen the senator squatting over the puddle in order to extract his top hat, was extremely amazed and proceeded to fish the floating top hat out of the puddle.

‘Your excellency! … Apollon Apollonovich! How on earth did you get here? … Here you are, sir, please be so good as to take it, sir.’ (With these words the mangy little gentleman handed the eminent man of state his very tall top hat, which had first been given a preliminary wipe by the sleeve of the little gentleman’s coat).

‘Your excellency, what about your carriage? …’

But Apollon Apollonovich, putting on his top hat, broke off his effusions.

‘The night air does me good …’

Both set off in the same direction: as they went, the little gentleman tried to fall in with the senator’s pace, something that was truly impossible (Apollon Apollonovich’s little steps could have been studied under the lens of a microscope).

Apollon Apollonovich raised his eyes to his fellow-traveller: blinked and said – said with evident confusion:

‘I … knowest-thou – er, you, sir,’ (this time, too, Apollon Apollonovich made a mistake in the ending of a word) …

‘Yes, sir?’ the little gentleman said, pricking up his ears.

‘I, you know … would like to have your most precise address, Pavel Pavlovich.’

‘Pavel Yakovlevich! …’ the fellow-traveller timidly corrected him.

‘I’m sorry, Pavel Yakovlevich: you know, I have a poor memory for names …’

‘It doesn’t matter, sir, for heaven’s sake: it doesn’t matter sir.’

The mangy little gentleman thought slyly: ‘He’s still thinking about his son … He also wants to know … but he’s too ashamed to ask …’

‘Well, then, Pavel Yakovlevich, sir: give me your address.’

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, unfastening his coat, fished out his notebook that was bound in the hide of a dead rhinoceros; both men stood beneath the street lamp.

‘My address,’ the little gentleman said in a sudden fit of agitation, ‘is a changeable address: most often I’m on Vasily Island. Well, here it is: Eighteenth Line, House 17. Care of the master shoemaker, Bessmertny. I rent two rooms from him. They’re rented to District Clerk Voronkov …’

‘Indeed, sir, indeed, sir, indeed, sir, I shall be coming to see you in a day or two …’

Suddenly Apollon Apollonovich raised the arcs of his eyebrows: wonderment was displayed on his features:

‘But why,’ he began, ‘why …’

‘Why is my last name Voronkov, when I’m really called Morkovin?’

‘Precisely …’

‘Well, you see, Apollon Apollonovich, it’s because I live there on a false passport.’

Apollon Apollonovich’s face displayed squeamishness (after all, he denied the existence of such figures even in principle).

‘And my real lodgings are on the Nevsky …’

Apollon Apollonovich thought: ‘What can one do about it: the existence of such figures in a time of transition and within the bounds of strict legality is a sad necessity; and yet all the same, a necessity.’

‘At the present time, your excellency, I am, as you see, engaged mainly in investigative work: these are exceedingly important times.’

‘Yes, you are right,’ Apollon Apollonovich agreed.

‘A crime whose importance affects the whole state is in preparation … Oh, be careful: there’s a puddle here … This crime …’

‘Indeed, sir …’

‘Very soon we shall be able to reveal … There’s a dry place here, sir; permit me to take your hand.’

Apollon Apollonovich was walking across an enormous square: within him awoke his fear of such wide spatial expanses, and he involuntarily pressed up close against the little gentleman.

‘Indeed, sir, indeed, sir: very good, sir …’

Apollon Apollonovich tried to keep his spirits up in this enormous spatial expanse, yet lost his composure all the same; Mr Morkovin’s icy hand suddenly touched him, took him by the hand, led him past some puddles: and he followed, followed, and followed the icy hand; and the spatial expanses flew towards him. Yet Apollon Apollonovich hung his head: the thought of the fate that was threatening Russia overcame for a moment all his personal fears: his fear about his son and his fear of crossing such an enormous square; Apollon Apollonovich cast a glance at the selfless guardian of the existing order: Mr Morkovin led him to the pavement all the same.

‘A terrorist act is in preparation?’

‘The very same, sir …’

‘And its victim? …’

‘A certain high official is to fall …’

Gooseflesh ran down Apollon Apollonovich’s spine: the other day Apollon Apollonovich had received a threatening letter; in the letter he had been informed that in the event he were to accept the senior position, a bomb would be thrown at him; Apollon Apollonovich had contempt for all anonymous letters; and he had torn up the letter; and accepted the position.

‘Forgive me for asking, please, but if it is not a secret: who are they going to make their target now?’

Here something truly strange occurred: all the objects around suddenly seemed to cower down, grew noticeably damper and looked nearer than they ought to have done; while Mr Morkovin also seemed to cower down, also looked nearer than he ought to have done: looked ancient and somehow familiar; a little ironic smile wandered over his lips as, bowing his head to the senator, he declared in a tiny whisper:

‘What do you mean, who? It’s you, your excellency, you!’

Apollon Apollonovich looked: there was the caryatid of the entrance porch; there was nothing particularly remarkable about it: it was a caryatid. And yet – no, no! There was something wrong about the caryatid – he had never seen anything like it in all his life: it was hanging in the fog. There was the side of the house; there was nothing particularly remarkable about the side: it was a side like other sides – made of stone. And yet – no, no: just as there was more to everything than met the eye: everything within him had been dislocated, torn loose; he had been torn loose from himself and was muttering senselessly into the midnight darkness:

‘What’s that? … No, wait, wait! …’

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov was still on no account able to realistically imagine that this glove-clad hand that was twisting a button on another man’s coat, that these legs here, and this weary, utterly weary (believe me!) heart could, under the influence of the expansion of gases within some bomb out there, suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, be turned … into …

‘What I mean is, what?’

‘Just as I say, Apollon Apollonovich, sir – it’s all quite simple …’

That it was so simple, Apollon Apollonovich could not believe: at first he gave a kind of provocative snort into his grey little side-whiskers (– his side-whiskers would go, too!), thrust out his lips (his lips would not exist then), and then acquired a pinched look, lowered his head right down and stared mindlessly at the dirty rivulet of the pavement gutter babbling at his feet. All around there was a babbling of wet blotches, a rustling, a whispering: the autumnal season’s old woman’s whisper came to his ears.

Under the street lamp Apollon Apollonovich stood, rocking his ashen-grey countenance slightly from side to side, opened his eyes in astonishment, rolled them, turning up the whites (a carriage thundered, but it seemed as though something terrible and heavy were thundering there: like blows of metal shattering life).

Mr Morkovin had evidently begun to feel really sorry for this aged outline that seemed to be settling into the mud before him. He added:

‘Don’t be afraid, your excellency, for the strictest precautions have been taken; and we won’t allow it: there is no direct danger either today or tomorrow … In a week’s time you’ll know all there is to know … Just wait a little …’

As he observed the piteously trembling blotch-like face that resembled that of a corpse, illumined by the pale sheen of the street lamp’s flame, Mr Morkovin found himself thinking: ‘How he has aged; why, he’s just a ruin …’ But, with a barely perceptible groaning, Apollon Apollonovich turned his beardless countenance towards Mr Morkovin and suddenly gave a sad smile that made enormous wrinkly pouches form under his eyes.

A moment later, however, Apollon Apollonovich completely recovered himself, looked younger, whiter: firmly he shook Morkovin’s hand and walked, as straight as a stick, into the grimy autumn fog, calling to mind the profile of the mummy of Pharaoh Rameses II.

The night was black, dark blue and lilac, shading into the reddish blotches of the street lamps as into the fiery blotches of a fiery rash. Gateways, walls, fences, courtyards and entrance porches loomed – and from them issued every imaginable kind of babbling and every imaginable kind of sigh; the many dissonant sighs in the side-lane of fleeing windy gusts, somewhere over there, behind the houses, the walls, the fences and gateways, combined into consonant sighs; while the fleeting babbling of the rivulets, somewhere over there, behind the houses, the walls, the fences and gateways, all united into one fleeting babble; all the babblings became a sighing; and all the sighs began to babble there.

Ugh! How damp, how dank it was, how dark blue and lilac the night was as it moved painfully into the bright red rash of the street lamps, and how from this dark blue lilac murk Apollon Apollonovich ran out under the circles of the street lamps and again ran off from a red circle into the lilac murk!