Petersburg A Game of Patience

A samovar was boiling on the table; from an étagère a completely new, completely polished little samovar cast a metallic lustre; but the samovar that was boiling on the table was unpolished, dirty; the completely new little samovar was used when there were guests; when there were no guests, something that was quite simply a lopsided monster was placed on the table: loudly it wheezed and snorted; and from time to time red sparks shot out of the little holes in it. Someone’s untrained hand had rolled some pellets of white bread; and they had been flattened on the crumpled, stained tablecloth; beneath an unfinished glass of sour tea (sour with lemon) a slovenly stain showed damp; and there was a plate with the remains of a cold cutlet and some cold puréed potato.

Well, and where was the luxuriant hair? In their place, a pigtail stuck out.

It was probable that Zoya Zakharovna Fleisch wore a wig (when there were guests, of course); and – we may observe in passing: it was probable that she made shameless use of make-up, because we saw her as a luxuriant-haired brunette, with skin that was enamelled and too smooth; while now before us was quite simply an old woman with a sweaty nose and a rat-like pigtail; she was wearing a blouse: and, again, it was dirty (probably a bed-jacket).

Lippanchenko sat half turned away from the small tea table, presenting both to Zoya Zakharovna and to the samovar his square, somewhat stooping back. Before Lippanchenko was a half laid-out game of patience, making one suppose that after supper Lippanchenko had engaged in his normal evening pastime, which had a beneficial effect on his nerves, but that he had been disturbed: reluctantly, he tore himself away from the cards; a prolonged conversation took place, in the course of which the glass of tea, the game of patience and all the rest were, of course, forgotten.

After this conversation, however, Lippanchenko had turned his back: turned his back on the conversation.

He sat without his starched collar, with his jacket off, his belt, which had evidently been pressing his stomach, unfastened, making the tail of his uncomfortably starched shirt peep out in tell-tale fashion between his waistcoat and his shrinking trousers (still the same dark yellow ones).

We caught Lippanchenko at the moment when he was reflectively contemplating the black blotch of a cockroach that was creeping away from the clock with a rustle; they were to be found in the little dacha: enormous, black; and were to be found in abundance – in such unendurable abundance that, in spite of the light from the lamp, there was a rustling in the corner, and from time to time a small whisker protruded from the crack in the sideboard.

Lippanchenko was torn away from his contemplation of the creeping cockroach by the tearful lamentations of his life companion.

Zoya Zakharovna moved the tea tray away from her with a rattle, making Lippanchenko start.

‘Well? … And what is going on? … And why is it going on?’


‘Don’t you think that a woman who has been faithful, a woman in her forties, who has devoted her life to you, – a woman such as I …’

And her elbows fell to the table: one elbow was torn, and through the tear one could see old, faded skin and on it what was probably a scratched fleabite.

‘What are you muttering about over there, little mother: speak more clearly …’

‘Don’t you think that a woman such as I has a right to ask? … An old woman’ – and she covered her face with her palms: only her nose stuck out, and her two black eyes dilated.

Lippanchenko turned in his armchair.

Evidently her words had affected him; for a moment the semblance of a nagging pang of conscience appeared on his face; with something that was halfway between a languid timidity and quite simply a childish caprice, he blinked both small eyes; he evidently wanted to say something; and evidently – was afraid to; he seemed to be slowly deliberating something – perhaps what kind of response this terrible confession would provoke within his companion’s soul; Lippanchenko’s head was lowered; he breathed heavily and looked out from under his brow.

But the urge to truthfulness suddenly ceased; and truthfulness itself fell into the remote depths of his soul. He resumed his game of patience:

‘Hm: yes, yes … the five on the six … Where is the queen? … Here is the queen … And – the jack is blocked …’

Suddenly he cast a searching, suspicious look at Zoya Zakharovna, and his short fingers with their golden fur moved a little heap of cards: from a little heap of cards – to another little heap of cards.

‘Well, I’ve got a nice little game of patience …’ he said, angrily continuing to lay out the rows of cards.

Zoya Zakharovna carefully brought a clean-wiped cup to the étagère, limping in her slippers.

‘Well? … And why be angry then?’

Now, limping in her slippers, she began to move about the room; a shuffling could be heard (the cockroach whisker hid itself in the sideboard crack).

‘But I’m not angry, little mother,’ – and again he cast a searching look at her: folding her arms on her stomach and letting her uncorseted and considerable stomach protrude, as she walked her hanging chin trembled; and quietly she went up to him, and quietly touched him on the shoulder:

‘You would do better to ask why I am asking you … Because everyone is asking … They’re shrugging their shoulders … So now I think,’ she leaned both her stomach and her breasts on the armchair, ‘I had better know …’

But Lippanchenko, biting his lip, went on laying out the cards row by row, with an uneasily businesslike air.

He, Lippanchenko, remembered that the following day was of unusual importance for him; if tomorrow he were unable to justify her in front of them, unable to shake off the menacing weight of the documents that had fallen about his ears, then it was checkmate for him. And, as he remembered this, he merely snuffled through his nose:

‘Hm: yes-yes … Here is an opening … There’s nothing for it: put the king in the opening …’

And – he could restrain himself no longer:

‘You say they’re asking? …’

‘Did you think they wouldn’t?’

‘And they come in my absence? …’

‘Yes, they do, they do: and they shrug their shoulders …’

Lippanchenko abandoned the cards:

‘It won’t come out: the twos are blocked …’

He was evidently agitated.

Just then from Lippanchenko’s bedroom there came a plaintive clanking, as though the window was being opened in there. They both turned their heads towards Lippanchenko’s bedroom; both were cautiously silent: who could it be?

Probably Tom, the St Bernard.

‘But you must understand, you strange woman, that your questions’ – here Lippanchenko, sighing, got up, – either in order to ascertain the cause of the strange sound, or in order to get out of replying.

‘Violate Party …’ – he gulped down a swig of the completely sour tea – ‘discipline …’

Stretching, he walked through the open door – into the depths, into the darkness …

‘But what kind of Party discipline can there be with me, Kolenka,’ Zoya Zakharovna retorted, propping her face in her palm, and lowering her head, continuing to stand over the armchair that was now empty … ‘Just think about it …’

But she fell silent, because the armchair was empty; Lippanchenko went thudding off in the direction of the bedroom; and she ran absent-mindedly through the cards.

Lippanchenko’s footsteps approached.

‘There have never been any secrets between us …’ She said this to herself.

Then at once she turned her head towards the door – towards the darkness, the depths – and she began to say excitedly to the footsteps that were thudding closer:

‘Why, you yourself did not warn me that in essence you and I have nothing to talk about’ (Lippanchenko appeared in the doorway), ‘that you have secrets now, and so I …’

‘No, it’s all right: there’s no one in the bedroom,’ he said, interrupting her.

‘They annoy me: well, I mean – the looks, the hints, the questions … There have even been …’

His mouth was torn apart in a yawn of boredom; and as he unfastened his waistcoat he grumpily muttered down his nose:

‘Oh, what are these scenes for?’

‘There have even been threats concerning you …’

There was a pause.

‘Well, so it’s understandable that I ask … Why did you start shouting? What have I done, Kolenka? … Do you think I don’t love you? … Do you think I’m not afraid for you?’

Here she twined her arms around his fat neck. And – whimpered:

‘I’m an old woman, a faithful woman …’

And he saw her nose right before him: a hawk-like nose; or rather – a hawk-shaped one; it would have been hawk-like, had it not been for its fleshiness: a porous nose; these pores glistened with sweat; two compact spaces in the form of sunken cheeks were covered with indistinct folds of skin (when neither cream nor powder were used) – skin that was not exactly flabby, but – unpleasant, stale; two creases were manifestly cut from the nose beneath the lips, and drew those lips downwards; and her eyes stared at his little eyes; one could say that those eyes bulged and moved around persistently – like two black, two greedy buttons; and there was no light in them.

They simply moved about.

‘Oh, stop it … Stop it … That’s enough … Zoya Zakharovna … Let me go … I suffer from shortness of breath: you will choke me …’

Here he seized her arms in his fingers and removed them from his neck; and sank into the armchair; and began to breathe heavily:

‘You know how sentimental and weak-nerved I am … And again I …’

They were both silent.

And in the deep, the heavy silence that fell after their long, joyless conversation, when everything had already been said, all the misgivings before words overcome and there remained only a dull submissiveness, – in the deep silence she washed the glass, the saucer and the two teaspoons.

But he sat on, half turned away from the tea table, presenting his square back to Zoya Zakharovna and the dirty samovar.

‘Threats, you say?’

She fairly jumped.

She thrust herself forth: from behind the samovar; her lips curled back again: her anxious eyes very nearly leapt out of their sockets; anxiously they ran over the tablecloth, clambered up on to the fat chest and forced their way into the little, blinking eyes; and – what had time done?

No, what had it done?

These light brown little eyes, these little eyes that had still shone with humour and sly merriment at the age of twenty-five, had grown dim, sunken, and were covered by a menacing shroud; they had been overcast by the smoke of all the most filthy atmospheres: dark yellow, yellow-saffron; to be sure, twenty-five years was no small span of time, but all the same – to have faded so, to have shrunken so! And under the little twenty-five-year-old eyes dull fatty bags had formed; twenty-five years was no small span of time, but … – why this Adam’s apple forced out from beneath the round chin? The pink complexion of the face had grown yellow, oily, faded – made a horrifying impression with its grey corpse-like pallor; the forehead had grown too large; and – the ears had grown in size; yet there are old men who are decent? But he was not an old man …

What had you done, time?

The fair-haired, rosy, twenty-five-year-old Paris student – the student Lipensky – swelling up like a delirious dream, turned stubbornly into a forty-five-year-old, indecent spider’s belly: Lippanchenko.