Petersburg Griffins

And the prospects stretched – over there, over there: the prospects stretched; the gloomy pedestrian did not hurry his step: the gloomy pedestrian looked painfully around him: these infinities of buildings! The gloomy pedestrian was Nikolai Apollonovich.

… Without losing a moment, he must at once undertake – but what was he to undertake? After all, was it not he, was it not he who had so lavishly sown the seeds of the theory concerning the absurdity of all forms of pity? Had he not, in front of that silent little group, once expressed his opinions – always about one and the same thing: about his suppressed revulsion for the barin, for the barin’s old ears, for all his Tartardom and aristocratic haughtiness, including … including that birdlike, outstretched neck … with a subcutaneous vein.

At last he hired some tardy Vanka and his cab: past him the four-storeyed buildings moved and flew.

The Admiralty presented its eight-columned flank: turned pink and vanished; from the other side, across the Neva, between white borders of plaster the walls of an old building threw their bright carrot colour; a black-and-white sentry booth stood as it always did, on the left; an old Pavlovsk grenadier was striding back and forth in a grey overcoat there; he had his sharp sparkling bayonet thrown over his shoulder.

Evenly, slowly, listlessly, Vanka trotted past the Pavlovsk grenadier: evenly, slowly, listlessly, Nikolai Apollonovich, too, bumped past the Pavlovsk grenadier. The bright morning, ablaze with the sparks of the Neva, had turned all the water over there into an abyss of pure gold; and into the abyss the funnel of a small whistling steamboat disappeared at full tilt; he saw that the dried-up little figure on the pavement was quickening his tardy pace, somehow bobbing along over the paving-stones – that dried-up little figure who … in whom … whom he recognized: it was Apollon Apollonovich. Nikolai Apollonovich wanted to detain the cab driver in order to give the little figure enough time to move away, in order to … it was already too late: the old, shaven head turned towards the cab driver, gave a shake, and turned away. Nikolai Apollonovich, so as not to be recognized, turned his back towards the tardy pedestrian: he hid his nose in his beaver; all that could be seen was a collar and a peaked cap; already the yellow block of a house had risen before him into the fog.

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, having seen the adolescent girl to her home, was now hurrying towards the doorway of the yellow house; past him, too, the Admiralty had just moved its eight-columned flank; the black-and-white striped booth was on the left where it usually was; now he was walking along the embankment, contemplating there, on the Neva, the abyss of pure gold into which the funnel of a small whistling steamboat had just flown at full tilt.

At this point Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov heard behind his back the thunder of the carriage; turned his old, shaven head towards the carriage; and when the cab drew level with the senator, the senator saw: there, writhing on the seat – an old-looking and misshapen young man, wrapped up in his overcoat in a most unpleasant manner; and when this young man looked at the senator, his nose hidden in his overcoat (all that could be seen were his eyes and peaked cap), the senator’s head jerked away towards the wall so swiftly that his top hat struck against the stone fruit of the black house ledge (Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov methodically readjusted his top hat), and for a moment Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov stared into the watery depths: into the emerald-red abyss.

Here it seemed to him that the eyes of the unpleasant young man, having caught sight of him, began in the twinkling of an eye to dilate, dilate, dilate: in the twinkling of an eye they unpleasantly dilated and stopped in a gaze full of horror. In horror did Apollon Apollonovich stop before the horror: this gaze pursued Apollon Apollonovich more and more often; this was the gaze with which his subordinates looked at him, this was the gaze with which the passing mongrel breed looked at him: and the student, and the shaggy Manchurian hat; yes, yes, yes: they looked with that same gaze and dilated with that same glitter; while already the cab, overtaking him, was bouncing tiresomely over the stones; and the number on the number-plate fleeted by: 1905; and in utter fright, Apollon Apollonovich stared into the crimson, many-chimneyed distance; and Vasily Island stared tormentingly, offensively, brazenly at the senator.

Nikolai Apollonovich jumped out of the carriage, tripping clumsily on the skirts of his overcoat, looking old and bad-tempered, ran as quickly as he could to the entrance porch of the yellow house, waddling like a duck and flapping the wings of his overcoat in the air against the backdrop of the bright crimson dawn; Ableukhov stood by the porch; Ableukhov rang; and, as many times before (and precisely so it was today) the voice of the nightwatchman, Nikolaich, rushed at him from somewhere in the distance:

‘Good day to you, Nikolai Apollonovich, sir! … Very grateful to you sir … A little on the late side, sir!’

And, as many times before, precisely so today, a fifteen-copeck piece fell into the hand of Nikolaich, the nightwatchman.

Nikolai Apollonovich tugged violently at the bell-pull: oh, if only Semyonych in there would open the door quickly, for otherwise – that dried-up little figure would appear out of the fog (why was he not in a carriage?); and on either side of the massive house steps he saw the gaping jaws of a griffin, rosy with the dawn, and holding in its claws the rings for the flagpoles on which were hoisted the red white and blue flag that flapped its tricoloured cloth above the Neva on certain days of the calendar; above the griffins the Ableukhov coat of arms, too, was sculpted in the stone; this coat of arms portrayed a long-plumed knight amidst rococo scrolls, gored by a unicorn; a wild thought, like a fish darting for a moment to the surface of the waters, passed through Nikolai Apollonovich’s head: Apollon Apollonovich, who spent his life beyond the threshold of that branded door, was the knight who was being gored; and this thought was followed by another, which darted altogether obscurely, without rising to the surface (thus from afar does a fish show dimly): the old family coat of arms referred to all the Ableukhovs; he too, Nikolai Apollonovich, was being gored – but gored by whom?

The whole of that mental galimatias went fleeting through his soul in one tenth of a second: and now there, now there, on the pavement – in the fog – he saw that dried-up little figure hurrying up to the house: that dried-up little figure was approaching swiftly, – that dried-up little figure, in whom … whom … who from a distance presented, he thought, the aspect of a puny, prematurely born infant: with a deeply yellow face that was emaciated and haemorrhoidal, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, his parent, looked like death in a top hat; Nikolai Apollonovich – sometimes crazy thoughts occur to one – imagined the little figure of Apollon Apollonovich in the moment of fulfilling conjugal relations with his mother, Anna Petrovna: and Nikolai Apollonovich felt with new intensity a familiar sense of nausea (after all, in one of those moments he had been conceived).

He was seized by indignation: no, let it happen, what was going to happen!

Meanwhile the little figure was drawing closer. Nikolai Apollonovich perceived to his shame that the access of his fury, artificially warmed, was decidedly fading: he was seized by the familiar sense of confusion, and …

And an unpleasant spectacle presented itself to Apollon Apollonovich’s gaze: Nikolai Apollonovich, looking old and somehow very bad-tempered, with a deeply yellow face, with eyelids red and inflamed, with lip protruding – Nikolai Apollonovich leapt swiftly down the front steps and, waddling like a duck, ran guiltily towards his parent, with a blinking, evasive gaze, and a perfumed hand stretched forth from under the fur of his overcoat:

‘Good morning, Papa …’


‘I wasn’t expecting to meet you – I’ve been at the Tsukatovs.’

Apollon Apollonovich thought that this apparently shy young man was – a scoundrelly young man; but Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov was embarrassed by this thought, especially in the presence of his son; and, having become embarrassed, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov shyly muttered:

‘I see, sir, I see: good morning, Kolenka … Well, fancy meeting you here … Eh? Yes, yes, yes …’

And as many times before, precisely so today, at this point the voice of Nikolaich the nightwatchman rang out:

‘Good day to you, your excellency, sir!’

On the front entrance, on both sides of the door, the griffins opened wide their beaklike jaws; the long-plumed stone knight in rococo scrolls and with chest torn asunder was being gored by a unicorn: the more dazzlingly and ethereally the rosy-fingered portents of day flew away across the sky, the more distinctly did all the projections of the buildings loom heavy; the more crimson, more purple was the jaw-gaping griffin.

The doors burst open; the Ableukhovs were embraced by the familiar smell of their chambers; the lackey’s vein-covered fingers were thrust through the opening of the door: grey-haired Semyonych, the sleep still in his eyes, in a hurriedly thrown-on jacket seized by the collar in a seventy year-old hand, screwed up his eyes in the unendurable Neva glitter as he let the masters in.

The Ableukhovs flew through the opening of the door almost side by side.