Petersburg A Holiday2

In a certain important place there occurred a phenomenon important in the extreme; this phenomenon occurred, that is to say, it happened.

In connection with this incident, in the above-mentioned place there appeared, with extremely serious faces, in embroidered uniform jackets, some persons of extreme and extraordinary powers; they, so to speak, turned out to be there.

This was a day of extraordinary events. It was, of course, sunny. From its very earliest hours the sun scintillated in the sky; and everything that could scintillate, did scintillate: Petersburg roofs, Petersburg spires, Petersburg domes.

Somewhere out there a shot was fired.3

If you had found time to cast a glance at that important place, you would have seen only lacquer, only lustre; the glitter on the mirror-like windows; well, and of course – also the glitter beyond the mirror-like windows; the glitter on the columns; the glitter on the parquetry; the glitter by the entrance porch, too; in a word, lacquer, lustre and glitter!

That was why since an early hour at the various ends of the capital of the Russian Empire all the ranks, from the third class to the first class inclusive,4 silver-haired elders with perfumed whiskers and bald spots shining like lacquer, had been energetically putting on starched linen as though it were some knightly armour; and thus, in white, they took from cupboards their red lacquered boxes, reminiscent of ladies’ diamond-cases; a yellow, old man’s fingernail would press the spring, and this would make, with a click, the red lacquered lid fly open with pleasant resilience, exquisitely to reveal upon a bed of soft velvet its dazzling star; just then the same grey valet would bring into the room a coat-hanger on which one could see, first: a dazzlingly white pair of trousers; second: a uniform jacket of black lustre with a gilded breast; to these white trousers stooped a bald spot that burned like lacquer, and the grey-haired little old man, without groaning, donned on top of the white, white pair of trousers the uniform jacket of brilliant black lustre with gilded chest, on to which the silver of his grey hair aromatically fell; obliquely then did he wind around himself a bright red satin sash, if he was a cavalier of St Anne;5 but if he was a cavalier of a higher order, then his sparkling chest was wound in a blue sash. After this festive ceremony the corresponding star was placed on the golden chest, the sword was fastened, from a specially shaped cardboard box a three-cornered hat with a plume was taken, and the grey-haired cavalier of the order – all a-glitter and a-tremble – set off in a black lacquered carriage to a place where all was a-glitter and a-tremble; to an extremely important place where already rows of extremely important persons with extremely important faces were standing. This glittering file, lined up by the rod of the chief master of ceremonies, constituted the central axle of our wheel of state.

This was a day of extraordinary events; and it was bound, of course, to shine forth; it – shone forth, of course.

From the very earliest morning all darkness vanished and there was a light whiter than electric light, the light of day; in this light scintillated all that could scintillate: Petersburg roofs, Petersburg spires, Petersburg cupolas.

At noon a cannon shot thundered.

On an extremely sunny morning, from beneath dazzlingly white sheets that suddenly flew off the bed in the dazzling little bedroom, a figure flitted out – small, all in white; that figure was somehow reminiscent of a circus rider. The impetuous figure, according to a custom hallowed by grey antiquity, proceeded to strengthen its body with Swedish gymnastics, stretching its arms and legs apart and bringing them together again, and then squatting down on its heels a dozen (and more) times. After this useful exercise the figure sprinkled its bald cranium and hands with eau-de-Cologne (triple strength, from the Petersburg Chemical Laboratory).

Then, after he had washed his cranium, hands, chin, ears and neck in cold water from the tap, and after he had satiated his organism with coffee specially brought to the room, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, like the other little old men of exalted rank, confidently buttoned himself up in starched linen, pushing two striking ears and a bald spot that shone like lacquer through the opening of an armour-like shirt. After that, going out into the dressing room, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov took from the little cupboard (like the other little old men) his red lacquered boxes, under the lid of which, on their soft velvet bed, lay all his rare, valuable decorations. As to the others (less than the others), to him, too, was brought the lustre-pouring uniform jacket with the gilded breast; the white cloth trousers were brought, a pair of white gloves, the specially shaped cardboard box, the black scabbard of the sword, from the hilt of which hung a silver fringe; under the pressure of a yellow fingernail all ten red lacquered lids flew open and there were extracted: the White Eagle,6 and corresponding star, and a blue sash; finally, diamond insignia were extracted; all these things settled upon the embroidered chest. Apollon Apollonovich stood before the mirror, white and gold (all – a-glitter and a-tremble!), pressing the sword to his hip with his left hand, and with his right pressing to his chest the plumed three-cornered hat and the pair of white gloves. In this trembling aspect Apollon Apollonovich ran along the corridor.

But in the drawing-room the senator for some reason paused in embarrassment; the extreme pallor of his son’s face and his son’s dishevelled look had evidently struck the senator.

On this day Nikolai Apollonovich rose earlier than he needed to; incidentally, Nikolai Apollonovich had not slept at all the night before: late in the evening a likhach7 had flown up to the entrance porch of the yellow house; Nikolai Apollonovich, distractedly, had leapt from the carriage and proceeded to ring the doorbell with all his might; and when the door had been opened by the lackey in grey with gold braid, then Nikolai Apollonovich, without taking off his overcoat, somehow managing to get entangled in its skirts, ran up the staircase and then through a series of empty rooms; and behind him the door clicked shut. Soon some sort of shadows began to move to and fro outside the yellow house. Nikolai Apollonovich kept pacing about his room; at two o’clock in the morning footsteps could still be heard in there, and they could still be heard at half-past two, at three, at four.

Unwashed and sleepy-eyed, Nikolai Apollonovich sat morosely by the fireplace in his multicoloured robe. Apollon Apollonovich, radiance a-tremble, stopped involuntarily, reflected in the glitter of the parquets and mirrors; he stood against the background of a pier-glass, surrounded by a family of fat-cheeked cupids, who were thrusting their flames into golden garlands; and Apollon Apollonovich’s hand drummed out something on the incrustation of the little table. Nikolai Apollonovich, suddenly waking up, leapt to his feet, turned round and involuntarily screwed up his eyes: and was dazzled by the white and golden little old man.

The white and golden little old man was his father; but at that moment Nikolai Apollonovich experienced no rush of kindred feeling at all; he was experiencing something quite the reverse – perhaps the same thing he had experienced in his office; in his office Nikolai Apollonovich performed acts of terrorism on himself – number one on number two: the socialist on the nobleman; and the corpse on the man in love; in his office Nikolai Apollonovich cursed his mortal self and, to the degree that he was the image and likeness of his father, he cursed his father. It was clear that his likeness to a god was bound to hate his father; but perhaps his mortal self loved his father all the same? Nikolai Apollonovich could scarcely bring himself to admit this to himself. Love? … I do not know if that word is apposite here. Nikolai Apollonovich knew his father as it were sympathetically, knew him down to the finest convolutions, the imperceptible tremors of inexpressible sensations; more than that; in sympathetic terms he was absolutely his father’s equal; most of all he was surprised at the fact that from a psychic point of view he did not know where the senator’s spirit ended within him and where, from a psychic point of view, it began, the spirit of him that was the wearer of those sparkling diamond insignia that flashed on the gleaming leaves of his embroidered chest. In the twinkling of an eye he did not so much imagine himself as actually experience himself in that sumptuous uniform jacket; whatever he would feel as he contemplated an unshaven sloven like himself in a multicoloured Bokhara robe would seem to him a violation of good form. Nikolai Apollonovich realized that he would feel disgust, that in his own way his parent would be right to feel disgust, and that his parent was feeling that disgust right now – here. He also realized that a mixture of animosity and shame now compelled him to spring up quickly like this before the white and golden little old man:

‘Good morning, Papa!’

But the senator, continuing sympathetically in his son and perhaps instinctively experiencing something not entirely alien to him either (as it were, the voice of doubts that once existed within him, too – in the days of his professorship), in his turn imagined himself in a state of conscious undress, contemplating his careerist upstart of a son dressed entirely in white and gold – before his parent’s undress – timidly blinked his little eyes and with a kind of impossibly exaggerated naïveté, cheerfully and very familiarly replied:

‘My respects, sir!’

It is probable that the wearer of the diamond insignia was completely unaware of his true ending as he continued in the psyche of his son. In both of them, logic was developed decidedly to the detriment of the psyche. Their psyche appeared to them as a chaos from which only surprises were born; but when both came into psychic contact with each other, they resembled two dark air vents turned face-to-face into a complete abyss; and from abyss to abyss flowed a most unpleasant little draught; both felt that little draught here as they stood before each other; and the thoughts of both mingled, so that the son could probably continue the thought of the father.

Both lowered their eyes.

Least of all could their ineffable closeness resemble love; Nikolai Apollonovich’s consciousness was, at any rate, unfamiliar with such love. Nikolai Apollonovich experienced their ineffable closeness as a shameful physiological act; at that moment he would have approached the discharge of any closeness as a natural discharge of the organism: these discharges were to be neither loved nor detested: they were to be disdained.

On his face appeared a helpless froglike expression.

‘Are you in full dress today?’

Fingers were thrust into fingers; and the fingers jerked back. Apollon Apollonovich evidently wanted to express something, probably, to give a verbal explanation of the reasons for his appearing in this formal attire; and he also wanted to ask a question about the reason for his son’s unnatural pallor, or at least inquire why his son had appeared at such an unusual hour. But somehow the words got stuck in his throat, and Apollon Apollonovich merely had a fit of coughing. At that moment the lackey appeared and said that the carriage was ready and waiting. Apollon Apollonovich, pleased about something, gratefully nodded to the lackey and began to hurry.

‘Yes, sir, yes, sir; very good, sir.’

Apollon Apollonovich, a-glitter and a-tremble, flew past his son; soon his footsteps ceased to resound.

Nikolai Apollonovich followed his parent with his eyes: again on his face a smile appeared; abyss turned away from abyss; the draught ceased to blow.

Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov remembered Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov’s recent official circular, which was quite out of accordance with Nikolai Apollonovich’s plans; and Nikolai Apollonovich came to the decisive conclusion that his parent, Apollon Apollonovich, was quite simply and plainly a downright scoundrel …

Soon the little old man was climbing the trembling staircase that was entirely carpeted in bright red cloth; on the bright red cloth, bending, his small legs began with unnatural swiftness to form angles, which swiftly calmed Nikolai Apollonovich’s spirit: he loved symmetry in all things.

Soon many little old men such as himself approached him: side-whiskers, beards, bald spots, chins, gold-chested and adorned with decorations, guiding the movement of our wheel of state; and there, by the balustrade of the staircase, stood a gold-chested little group who were discussing in a murmuring bass the fateful rotation of the wheel over the potholes in the road, until the chief master of ceremonies, passing by with his rod, asked them all to form up in a line.

But immediately after the extraordinary levee, circumambulation and graciously uttered words, the little old men once again swarmed together – in the hall, in the vestibule, by the columns of the balustrade. For some reason one sparkling swarm suddenly marked itself out, and from its centre came a restless but restrained sound of talking; from there, from the centre, it was as if a velvet bumble-bee of enormous dimensions had begun to drone; he was shorter than all the others in stature, and when the gold-chested little old men surrounded him he could not be seen at all. And when Count Doublevé, of bogatyr-like8 stature, with a blue sash over his shoulder, passing a hand through his grey hair, approached the group of little old men with a kind of easy familiarity and screwed up his eyes, he saw that this droning centre was Apollon Apollonovich. At once Apollon Apollonovich broke off his discourse, and with a cordiality that was not excessively lively, but was cordiality none the less, extended his hand to that fateful hand which had just signed the terms of a certain extraordinary treaty; the treaty had however been signed in … America. Count Doublevé somehow managed to stoop gently down to the bare cranium that came up to his shoulder, and a hissed witticism crept adroitly into an ear of pale green tints; this witticism did not, as a matter of fact, call forth a smile; the surrounding gold-chested little old men did not smile at the joke either; and the group melted away of its own accord. Together with the dignitary of bogatyr-like appearance, Apollon Apollonovich, too, descended the staircase; before Apollon Apollonovich Count Doublevé walked in a bent position; above them descended the sparkling little old men, below them the hook-nosed ambassador of a distant state, a little old man with red lips, Oriental; between them – small, white and gold and straight as a rod – Apollon Apollonovich descended against a fiery background of the cloth that covered the staircase.

At this hour a large-scale military review was taking place on the wide Field of Mars; a carré of the Imperial Guard stood there.

From afar, through the crowd, behind the steel bristle of the bayonets of the Preobrazhentsy, the Semyonovtsy, the Izmailovtsy, the grenadiers, one could see ranks of white-horsed detachments; a solid gold ray-reflecting mirror seemed to advance slowly to a point from a point; the multicoloured insignia of the squadrons began to flutter in the air; silver bands both melodically wept and summoned from there; one could see there a row of squadrons – Cuirassiers and Horse Guards; one could also see each squadron itself – Cuirassier, Horse Guard – one could see the galopade of the riders in the row of squadrons – Cuirassiers, Horse Guards – fair-haired, enormous and covered in armour, in white, smooth, tight-fitting kidskin trousers, and gold and sparkling coats of mail, and radiant helmets, some crowned with a silver dove, some with a two-headed eagle; the riders of the row of squadrons pranced; the rows of the squadron pranced. And, crowned by a metal dove, on his horse before them danced the pale-moustached Baron Ommergau; and likewise crowned by a dove haughtily pranced Count Aven – Cuirassiers, Horse Guards! And out of the dust like a bloody cloud, plumes lowered, Hussars swept past on their grey chargers; their pelisses showed scarlet, their fur capes showed white in the wind behind them; the earth thundered, and sabres clanged upwards: and above the rumbling, above the dust, a stream of bright silver suddenly flowed. The red cloud of Hussars flew past somewhere to the side, and the parade ground was emptied. And again, there, in space, azure riders now emerged, giving up both to the distances and to the sun the silver of their armour: that must be a division of Gendarmes of the Guard; from afar a bugle voiced their complaint about the crowd: but they were suddenly hidden from view by brown dust; a drum rattled; infantrymen marched past.