Petersburg The Hand of Succour

‘So he was at the ball?’

‘Yes, he was …’

‘He was talking with your father …’

‘That’s right: he also mentioned you …’

‘He met you in a side-lane afterwards? …’

‘And took me to a little restaurant.’

‘And his name was? …’

‘Morkovin …’


When Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin, tearing himself away from the contemplation of the twining leaves, at last turned to reality, he realized that Nikolai Apollonovich, running ahead, was jabbering away with a liveliness uncharacteristic of him, to a point that was even extreme; he was gesticulating; with his profile inclined low, his mouth split apart by an unpleasant grin, he looked like a tragic, antique mask which did not combine with the swift agility of a lizard into one consonant whole: in a word, he looked like a grasshopper with a frozen face.

From time to time Aleksandr Ivanovich merely interjected comments:

‘And did he talk about the secret police?’

‘Yes, he tried to intimidate me with the secret police, too …’

‘Asserting that such intimidation is in the plan of the Party and approved by the Party? …’

‘Well, yes, he did …’ Nikolai Apollonovich said with a certain irritation and, blushing, tried to inquire:

‘But you yourself, I remember, said that day that the Party prejudices …’

‘What did I say?’ Dudkin flared up, sternly.

‘I remember you said that the Party prejudices of the lower echelons were not shared by the upper echelons, which you serve …’

‘Rubbish!’ – and here Dudkin’s whole torso twitched: and in agitation he kept increasing his pace.

Nikolai Apollonovich in his turn seized him by the arms with a shadow of faint hope, replying to the questions like a schoolboy, and smiling unnaturally. At last, snatching the moment again, he continued his effusions about the events of the night before: about the ball, about the mask, about the flight through the ballroom, about the sitting on the front step of the small black house, about the gateway, the note; and finally – about the filthy little eating-house.

It was genuine delirium.

The abracadabra had jumbled everything up; they had all long ago lost their minds, unless, that was, that which annihilates irrevocably existed in reality.

From the street towards them rolled thick, black human masses: many-thousand swarms of bowler hats rose up like waves. From the street towards them rolled: lacquered top hats, they rose out of the waves like the funnels of steamships; from the street into their faces foamed: an ostrich feather; a pancake-shaped cap smiled with its cap-band; and the cap-bands were: blue, yellow, red.

From every side popped out the most importunate nose.

Noses flowed past in large numbers: the aquiline nose and the cockerel nose; the duck-like nose, the hen’s nose; and so on, and so on …; the nose was turned to one side; or the nose was not at all turned: greenish, green, pale, white and red.

All this rolled towards them from the street: senselessly, hurriedly, abundantly.

Nikolai Apollonovich, pleading, and barely able to keep up with Dudkin, still seemed to be afraid to put into shape before him his fundamental question, which had arisen out of the discovery that the author of the dreadful note could not be the bearer of a Party directive; in this consisted now his principal thought: a thought of the most enormous importance – because of its practical consequences; this thought had now got stuck inside his head (their roles were changed: now it was Aleksandr Ivanovich, not Nikolai Apollonovich, who was desperately pushing away the bowler hats that were surrounding them).

‘And so, that means, you suppose – and so, that means, in all this a mistake has crept in?’

Having made this timid approach to his thought, Nikolai Apollonovich felt handfuls of goose-pimples spreading over his body: well, but what if he were to present himself – he reflected – and – overcame his fear.

‘The note, you mean?’ said Aleksandr Ivanovich, raising his eyes suddenly; and tore himself away from a morose contemplation of the flowing abundance: of bowler hats, heads and moustaches.

‘Well, of course: to call it a mistake is to put it too mildly … It’s not a mistake, but a loathsome piece of charlatanry that has become involved in all this; the absurdity has been maintained in its completeness – with a deliberate aim: to arbitrarily interfere in the relation between people who are closely bound to each other, to confuse them; and in the Party’s chaos wreck the Party’s revolutionary action.’

‘Well, help me, then …’

‘An impermissible mockery,’ Dudkin said, interrupting him, ‘has been perpetrated – one made of gossip and phantoms.’

‘But I implore you, please tell me what I ought to do …’

‘And a betrayal has been perpetrated on everything: there is a whiff of something menacing, ominous here …’

‘I don’t know … I’m confused … I … didn’t sleep last night …’

‘And all of it is a phantom.’

Now Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin stretched out his hand to Ableukhov in a rush of sympathy; and here, in passing, noticed: Nikolai Apollonovich was significantly shorter than him (Nikolai Apollonovich was not distinguished by his stature).

‘Now, now, please gather your composure …’

‘Oh Lord! It’s easy for you to say: composure – I didn’t sleep last night … I don’t know what to do now …’

‘Sit and wait.’

‘Will you come to see me?’

‘I tell you – sit and wait: I will undertake to help you.’

He spoke with such confidence and conviction, inspiration, almost, that Ableukhov calmed down for a moment; but, to tell the truth, in his rush of fellow-feeling, Aleksandr Ivanovich had overestimated the degree of help he could provide … Indeed: how could he be of help? He was solitary, cut off from social intercourse; the conspiracy had blocked access to the very body of the Party for him; for Aleksandr Ivanovich had never been a member of the Committee, even though he had boasted to Ableukhov about the headquarters; if he were able to help, then he could only help by means of Lippanchenko; he could tell Lippanchenko, act through Lippanchenko. Above all he would have to get hold of Lippanchenko. Before he did anything else he must calm this man who had been shaken to the depths of his soul, as quickly as possible.

And he calmed him:

‘I am certain that I will be able to untangle the knots of this loathsome plot: and today, without delay, I shall make the proper inquiries, and …’

And – faltered: only Lippanchenko would be able to give him the proper information; there was no one else … What if he were not in Petersburg?

‘And …?’

‘And will give you an answer tomorrow.’

‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ And Nikolai Apollonovich rushed to shake his hand; at this Aleksandr Ivanovich was in spite of himself embarrassed (everything depended on where the person was and what information he had at his disposal).

‘Oh, please don’t: your case touches us all personally …’

But Nikolai Apollonovich, who until that moment had been in a state of the utmost horror, was only able to respond to each word of support either completely apathetically or – ecstatically.

And Nikolai Apollonovich responded ecstatically.

Meanwhile Nikolai Apollonovich had once again flown into the thought that was preoccupying Aleksandr Ivanovich; a certain little fact had struck him: Nikolai Apollonovich both vowed and swore that the dreadful commission proceeded from an unknown, anonymous person; the anonymous person had already written to Ableukhov several times; and it was clear: that unknown anonymous person was actually an agent provocateur.

What was more …

From Ableukhov’s confused words one could nevertheless draw a conclusion; his special relations with the Party were at work here, and it was from those special relations that the whole sordid business was growing; Aleksandr Ivanovich made an effort to clarify yet one or two other things; and made the effort in vain: his thought fell like rain into the abundance that was flowing towards them – of moustaches, beards, chins.