Petersburg Frontal Bones

‘Zoya Zakharovna …’


‘Shishnarfiev – I understand: he’s a Young Persian activist, a fiery artistic nature; but tell me – what is the Frenchman doing here?’

‘Much knowledge makes a man old,’ she replied in un-Russian manner, and her immoderate breasts began to move under her tightly stretched bodice; an atomizer hissed in her hand.

In the room a heavy fragrance was smelt: a mixture of a perfumery and an artificially prepared tooth (whoever has sat in the premises of dentists will certainly be familiar with that smell – not an agreeable one).

At this point, Zoya Zakharovna moved towards Aleksandr Ivanovich.

‘So you’re still living … like a hermit …’

Aleksandr Ivanovich’s lips pursed themselves somehow crookedly:

‘Your lover did his best to bring that about long ago …’


‘If I’m not a hermit, it doesn’t matter: someone else will be a hermit …’

The turn the conversation had taken was plainly not to Zoya Zakharovna’s liking, and the atomizer began to hiss nervously in her hands once again; Aleksandr Ivanovich smiled an unpleasant smile, and – recovered himself.

‘And I must say that distraction does not suit me.’

Zoya Zakharovna accepted this new current of thought; and she hastened to be witty:

‘Is that why you’re so distracted: spilling ash on my tablecloth?’

‘I’m sorry …’

‘It’s all right: here is an ashtray for you …’

Aleksandr Ivanovich reached out for another pear; and, having made this movement, Aleksandr Ivanovich said to himself in vexation:

‘What a skinflint she is …’

He had seen that the bowl of Duchesse pears (he was very fond of Duchesse pears) – the bowl of Duchesse pears was not there.

‘What is it? Here’s your ashtray …’

‘I know: I was looking for a Duchesse pear …’

Zoya Zakharovna did not offer the Duchesse pears.

The doors into the distant room were not closed at all: he looked through the half-open door with insatiable avidity; there two seated outlines were visible. The little Frenchman was babbling on; he seemed to be jangling; while the person boomed tonelessly, interrupting the little Frenchman; as he talked he kept snatching up writing materials – now this, now that; and scratching the nape of his neck with an angular gesture of his hand; the things that the Frenchman was telling him were evidently agitating the person in earnest; Aleksandr Ivanovich detected a gesture that was quite simply one of self-defence.

‘Boom-boom-boom …’

That was what it sounded like in there.

While Tom the St Bernard had placed his slobbering muzzle on the person’s checked knee; and the person was distractedly stroking the dog’s coat. At this point Aleksandr Ivanovich’s observations were interrupted: they were interrupted by Zoya Zakharovna.

‘Why have you stopped coming to see us?’

He distractedly looked at her grinning mouth: looked and commented:

‘Oh, I just have: after all, you yourself said – I’m a hermit …’

The gold of a dental filling gleamed in reply:

‘Don’t turn your back on us.’

‘But I’m not, not in the slightest …’

‘You’re just offended with him …’

‘There you go again …’ Aleksandr Ivanovich attempted, by way of a retort, and broke off his justifications: they sounded – unconvincing.

‘You’re simply offended at him. Everyone is offended at him. And now Lippanchenko has got involved … This Lippanchenko! … It’s spoiling his reputation … But try to understand: Lippanchenko is a necessary role he has assumed … Without Lippanchenko he would have been arrested long ago … With Lippanchenko he covers us all … But everyone believes in Lippanchenko …’

Some people have an unfortunate characteristic: a bad smell from their mouths … Aleksandr Ivanovich turned away.

‘Everyone is offended at him … But tell me’ – Zoya Zakharovna snatched at the atomizer – ‘where will you find a worker like that? … Eh? Where will you find him? … Who, tell me, would agree to be Lippanchenko, renouncing all his natural sentiments, to be Lippanchenko – to the end …’

Aleksandr Ivanovich thought that the person was perhaps too much Lippanchenko: but did not want to raise any objection.

‘I assure you …’

But she interrupted:

‘Aren’t you ashamed to abandon him like this, to conceal things like this, to lie in hiding; I mean, Kolechka is in torment; to break all his old, intimate ties from the past …’

Aleksandr Ivanovich remembered with amazement that ‘Kolechka’ was the person: for how many months had he, to be quite honest, not remembered this?

‘Well, so what if he drinks and makes a boor of himself; and – well – has his bit of fun … After all, it’s true: better men have ruined themselves with drink, indulged in lust and debauchery … And from personal inclination. But Kolechka does it merely as a blind – as Lippanchenko: it’s for security, accountability, before the police, for the sake of the common cause that he’s ruining himself so.’

Aleksandr Ivanovich, in spite of himself, smiled ironically, but caught a mistrustful, angry look that was directed at him:

‘What …’

And hurried to reply:

‘No … I didn’t mean … anything …’

‘You see, there is a most terrible sacrifice here … You would not believe how much threatens him; Nikolai is destroying himself with forced frequent drinking bouts, the binges that are obligatory in his position …’

Aleksandr Ivanovich knew that Zoya Zakharovna suspected him of making too frequent visits to little restaurants with Lippanchenko, of training Lippanchenko … in many things …

‘You see, it may end badly …’

Well, life, too; it might end badly here: he, Aleksandr Ivanovich, was slowly going out of his mind. Nikolai Apollonovich had been weighed down by difficult circumstances; something not right had been introduced into their souls; it was something that involved neither the police, nor tyranny, nor danger, but some kind of psychical rottenness; without being cleansed, could one really proceed with the great national cause? He remembered: ‘In fear of God and in faith proceed.’9 But they had proceeded without any fear. And had they had any faith? And proceeding thus, they had transgressed some kind of psychical law: they had become criminals, not in that sense, of course … but – in another.

They had all transgressed.

‘Remember Helsingfors and the boating excursions …’ – here Zoya Zakharovna’s voice rang with a genuine sadness. ‘And afterwards: those rumours …’

‘What rumours?’

He was interested, he gave a start.

‘Rumours about Kolechka! … Do you think he doesn’t suspect, isn’t tormented, doesn’t cry out at night?’ (Aleksandr Ivanovich noted down in his memory that – he cries out at night) ‘How they talk about him after all that. And – there is no gratitude, no consciousness that the man has sacrificed everything … He knows it all: says nothing, grieves … That is why he is gloomy … He’s not able to act against his conscience. He always looks unpleasant’ – tears very nearly rang in Zoya Zakharovna’s voice – ‘he looks unpleasant … with that … unfortunate external appearance. Believe me – he is a child, a child …’

‘A child?’

‘Do you find that surprising?’

‘No,’ he faltered, ‘only, you know, I find it somehow strange to hear that, try as I may, I somehow can’t get my picture of Nikolai Stepanovich to come together …’

‘A real child! Look: the doll – the cork-tumbler’ – with her hand she pointed at the doll, with a flash of her bracelet – ‘You will go away: you will say unpleasant things to him, while he – he! …’


‘He will put the cook’s daughter on his knee and play at dolls with her … You see? And they will reproach him for perfidy … Lord, he plays at soldiers! …’

‘Does he now?’

‘Tin ones: he buys Persians, orders boxfuls of them from Nuremberg … Only – it is a secret … That is what he is like! … But,’ – her eyebrows moved sharply together – ‘but … in his childlike quick temper he is capable of anything.’

From her words, Aleksandr Ivanovich was becoming more and more convinced that the person was compromised in earnest; and he, to be quite honest, had not known that; these hints at something he now took into consideration as he let his gaze slip away to where they sat …

Steeply on to that chest the narrow-browed head now appeared to be falling; deeply hidden in the eye sockets were the searching, gimlet-like little eyes, that flitted from object to object; the lip was twitching and sucking in air. There were many things in that face: the face stood before Dudkin with an unmasterable revulsion, forming itself into that same strange whole that his memory carried away to the garret, in order there at night to pace, to boom – to bore, gimlet-like, to suck, to flit to and fro and to force from itself unutterable thoughts that did not exist anywhere.

Now he was closely studying the oppressive features that were by their very nature heavily constructed.

That frontal bone …–

That frontal bone jutted out with one stubborn effort: to understand: whatever happened, at whatever cost – to understand, or … be blown to pieces. Neither intellect, nor fury, nor treachery did the frontal bone manifest, but only an effort – without thought, without feeling: to understand … And frontal bones could not understand; the forehead was sorrowful: small and narrow, covered in transverse wrinkles; it seemed to be weeping.

Those searching, gimlet-boring little eyes …

Those searching, gimlet-boring little eyes (if one had raised their lids!)10 – they too would have become … ordinary … little eyes.

They too were sad.

And the lip that was sucking the air was reminiscent – well, yes, truly it was – of an eighteen-month-old nursing infant (only there was no teat); if one had put a real teat in his mouth, it would not have been surprising if the lip had kept sucking; but without a teat this movement would have imparted to his face a most unpleasant little tinge.

Just think of it, too: playing at soldiers!

So a close analysis of the monstrous head revealed only one thing: the head was the head of a premature child; someone’s puny little brain had been covered before its time with fatty and bony growths; and at the same time as the frontal bone protruded excessively on the outside with superciliary arcs (take a look at the skull of a gorilla), at that same time, perhaps, an unpleasant process was taking place called, in popular parlance, the softening of the brain.

The combination of inner sickliness and rhinoceros-like obstinacy – perhaps it was that this combination within Apollon Apollonovich had formed a chimera, and the chimera had grown – at nights: on a piece of dark yellow wallpaper it grinned like a real Mongol.

Thus he thought; but in his ears he began to hear, over and over again:

‘A cork-tumbler … cries out at night … Orders them from Nuremberg in boxfuls … A real child …’

And added, on his own part:

‘Knocks in heads with his forehead … Practises vampirism … Indulges in debauchery … And – drags people to their ruin …’

And again he began to hear, over and over again:

‘A child …’

But heard it only in his ears: Zoya Zakharovna had already gone out of the room.