Petersburg I Annihilate Irrevocably

For an instant both froze; from behind the edge of the table Pavel Yakovlevich Morkovin, an official of the secret police, grew, stretched, stood erect with a finger raised aloft; then the sharp tip of this hooked finger reached across the table and caught hold of one of Nikolai Apollonovich’s buttons; then, with an altogether guilty smile, Nikolai Apollonovich fished out of his side pocket a small bound book which turned out to be a notebook.

‘Ah, ah, ah! Please be so good as to let me see that notebook … for inspection …’ Nikolai Apollonovich did not offer any resistance: he was still sitting with the same guilty smile; his torture had passed all limits; the ecstasies of the tormented and the inspiration of the sacrificial role had disappeared; present instead were: humbleness, obedience (the remains of shattered pride); one way remained open to him: the way of blind insensibility. There was nothing for it: he handed the notebook to the police spy for inspection like a slandered hypocrite (the shameless deceiver!)

Then from behind the edge of the table Pavel Yakovlevich, bending over the notebook, thrust forward his head, which looked as though it were attached not to his neck, but to his two hands; for a single moment he became quite simply a monster: at that moment Nikolai Apollonovich saw: a foul head, blinking little eyes, with hair that looked like doghair groomed with a comb, snapping in a repulsive laugh, with yellow folds of skin, ran above the table on ten twitching fingers, looking like an enormous insect: a ten-legged spider, rustling over the paper with its feet.

But it was all a comedy …

Pavel Yakovlevich evidently wanted to frighten Ableukhov with the pretence of this investigation (a charming little joke!); still snapping with laughter, he threw the notebook back to Ableukhov across the table.

‘But why, for goodness’ sake: such obedience … After all, it’s not as if I were going to interrogate you … Don’t be afraid, my little pigeon: I’ve been appointed to keep an eye on the secret police by the Party … and there was no need for you to be so alarmed, Nikolai Apollonovich: I do assure you, no need at all …’

‘Are you making fun?’

‘Not a bit of it! … Were I a real policeman, you would have already been arrested, because your gesture, you know, was worthy of attention; first you clutched at your chest with a frightened expression on your face, as though you had a document there … If you ever meet a police spy in future, do not repeat that gesture; that gesture gave you away … Agreed?’

‘Possibly …’

‘And then, permit me to observe – you made another slip: you took out an innocent notebook when no one had yet asked you to do so; took it out in order to distract attention from some other thing; but you did not achieve your purpose; you did not distract attention, you attracted it; made me go on thinking that you had some document in your pocket … Ach, how light-minded you are … I mean, look at this page of the notebook you gave me; you unwittingly revealed a little love secret to me: here, look, admire your handiwork …’

The animal howls of the machine could be heard: the screaming of a giant bull having its throat cut in a slaughter-house: the tambourines were bursting, bursting, bursting.


Nikolai Apollonovich uttered this listen with genuine fury.

‘What is this torture for? If you are really what you pretend to be – waiter, the bill! – then your behaviour, and all your little grimaces are unworthy.’

They both got up.

In the white clouds of stench that belched from the kitchen stood Nikolai Apollonovich – pale, white and in a state of rabid fury, his red mouth torn open without any laughter, in the aura of the flaxen and lustreless thatch of his very fair hair: like a wild animal with its teeth bared, brought to bay by hounds, he turned round contemptuously to face Morkovin, having thrown the waiter a fifty-copeck piece.

The machine had fallen silent now; for a long time the neighbouring tables had been emptying, and the mongrel breed had dispersed about the Lines of the island; suddenly the white electricity went out in all the rooms; the reddish light of a candle penetrated the deathly void; and the walls melted away in the darkness; only there, where a candle stood and the edge of a paint-daubed wall was visible, white foam beat, hissing, into the hall. And from there, out of the distance, on his shadowy sails, the Flying Dutchman flew towards Petersburg (Nikolai Apollonovich’s head was, to be sure, spinning after the seven glasses he had drunk); from the table rose the forty-five-year-old seaman (was it the Dutchman?); for a moment his eyes flashed with greenish spark; but he vanished in the darkness.

As for Mr Morkovin, straightening his little frock-coat, he looked at Nikolai Apollonovich with a kind of reflective tenderness (the latter’s state of mind had evidently seized him, too); melancholically, he sighed; and lowered his eyes; for about a minute they did not utter a single word.

At last Pavel Yakovlevich spoke without haste.

‘That’s enough: I find it as hard as you do …

‘Why try to conceal it, comrade? …

‘I didn’t come here to play jokes …

‘Isn’t there something we have to settle? …’


‘Why, yes, yes: we must come to an agreement about the day when you will fulfil your promise … Indeed, Nikolai Apollonovich, you are a strange fellow, of a kind rarely encountered; could you really have supposed for a moment that I was idly loafing about the streets after you, and at last with difficulty found a pretext for conversation …’

And then, sternly gazing into Ableukhov’s eyes, he added with dignity: ‘Nikolai Apollonovich, the Party expects an immediate answer …’

Nikolai Apollonovich was quietly going down the stairs; the end of the staircase receded into darkness; and at the bottom – by the door – stood: them; who they were was a question to which he could not have given any positive, precise answer: a black outline and some kind of green, ultra-green darkness that seemed to be glowing dimly like phosphorus (it was the falling ray of a street lamp outside); and they were waiting for him.

And as he approached that door, on both sides of him he felt the vigilant stare of an observer: and one of them was that same giant who had been drinking Allasch at the table next to him: illumined by the ray of the outside street lamp, he stood there by the door like a bronze-headed colossus; as Ableukhov entered the ray, for a moment a metallic face stared at him, glowing like phosphorus; and a green arm, weighing many hundreds of poods, threatened him.

‘Who is that?’

‘Someone who annihilates us irrevocably.’

‘A police spy?’

‘Never …’

The door of the restaurant slammed.

The tall, many-headed street lamps, tormented by the winds, shimmered with strange lights, expanding into the long Petersburg night; the black, black pedestrians flowed forth from the darkness; once again the bowler hat ran beside him along the wall.

‘Well, and if I refuse the assignment?’

‘I will arrest you …’

‘You? Arrest me?’

‘Do not forget that I …’

‘That you’re a conspirator?’

‘I am an employee of the secret police; as an employee of the secret police I will arrest you …’

The wind of the Neva was whistling in the telegraph wires and lamenting in the gateways; icy shreds of clouds half torn to tatters were visible; and it seemed that in a moment or two from the most ragged clouds bands of busy rain would break loose – to chirr, lisp and beat over the stone paving with drops, curling their cold bubbles on the gurgling puddles.

‘What would the Party say to you?’

‘The Party would support me: using my position in the secret police, I would take revenge on you for the Party …’

‘Well, and what if I were to denounce you to the authorities?’

‘Try it …’

Then, from the most ragged cloud, bands of busy rain began to fall – to chirr, lisp and beat over the stone paving with drops, curling their cold bubbles on the gurgling puddles.

‘No, Nikolai Apollonovich, I beg you – let us put joking to one side: because I am very, very serious; and I must observe: your doubt and indecisiveness mortify me; you should have weighed up all the chances beforehand … You could have said no (for goodness’ sake, you’ve had two months). You did not bother to do that at the right time; you have one path; and you must choose what lies ahead of you – either arrest, suicide or murder. I hope that now you understand me? … Good-bye …’

The little bowler hat went trotting off in the direction of the Seventeenth Line, while the overcoat set off towards the bridge.

Petersburg, Petersburg!

Falling like fog, you have pursued me, too, with idle cerebral play: you are a cruel-hearted tormentor: but you are an unquiet ghost: for years you have attacked me; I too ran through your dreadful prospects, in order to take a flying leap on to this gleaming bridge …

Oh, great bridge, shining with electricity! Oh, green waters, seething with bacilli! I remember a certain fateful moment; over your damp railings I too leant on a September night: a moment – and my body would have flown into the mists.

On the great cast-iron bridge Nikolai Apollonovich turned round; behind him he saw nothing, no one: above the damp, damp railings, above the greenish water that seethed with bacilli he was whiningly seized by nothing but the cold Neva wind; here, on this very spot, two and a half months before, Nikolai Apollonovich had given his terrible promise; that same waxen face, its lips protruding, had stretched forward out of a grey overcoat above the damp railings; above the Neva he stood, staring dully at the greenness – or rather: letting his gaze fly over to where the banks cowered; and then rather quickly began to mince away, tripping clumsily over the skirts of his overcoat.

Some kind of phosphorescent stain, both misty and frenzied, rushed across the sky; the Neva distances became misted by a phosphorescent sheen; and this made the soundlessly flying surfaces begin to gleam greenly, reflecting now here, now there a spark of gold. On the other side of the Neva now rose the massive buildings of the islands, casting into the fog eyes that had begun to burn. Higher up, some kind of obscure outlines frenziedly stretched out ragged hands; swarm upon swarm they ascended.

The embankment was empty.

From time to time the black shadow of a policeman walked past; the square was empty; on the right the Senate and the Synod raised their storeys. The rock, too, loomed: with a kind of particular curiosity Nikolai Apollonovich goggled at the massive outline of the Horseman. Earlier, when he had passed here with Pavel Yakovlevich, it had seemed to Ableukhov that the Horseman was not there (the shadow had concealed him); but now a rippling semi-shadow covered the Horseman’s face; and the metal of his face smiled ambiguously.

Suddenly the storm clouds were torn apart, and the clouds began to smoke like a green puff of melted bronze beneath the moon … For a moment everything flared up: waters, roofs, granite; the Horseman’s face, the bronze laurel wreath flared; many thousands’ worth of metal hung down from the lustreless green shoulders of the bronze-headed colossus; the cast face and the wreath that was green with time and the many hundred-pood-weighted arm that was imperiously extended straight in Nikolai Apollonovich’s direction began to gleam phosphorescently; in the bronze hollows of the eyes bronze thoughts showed greenly; and it seemed: that the arm was about to move (the heavy folds of the cloak would ring against the elbow), the metal hooves would fall on the rock with a loud crash, and a voice that would shatter the granite would resound over all Petersburg:

‘Yes, yes, yes …

‘It is I …

‘I annihilate irrevocably.’

For an instant everything was suddenly bathed in light for Nikolai Apollonovich; yes – now he understood what sort of a colossus it was that had sat there at the table in the Vasily Island drinking house (had he too been visited by the vision?); as he had walked to that door, this very face had appeared coming towards him out of the corner, illumined by the street lamp; and now this green arm threatened him. For an instant everything became clear to Ableukhov: his fate was bathed in light: yes – he must; and yes – he was doomed.

But the storm clouds cut into the moon; the strands of witches’ tresses flew over the sky.

Roaring with laughter, Nikolai Apollonovich fled from the Bronze Horseman:

‘Yes, yes, yes …

‘I know, I know …

‘I am lost irrevocably …’

In the empty street a shaft of light: it was a court carriage carrying bright red lamps that looked like bloodshot eyes; the ghostly outline of a lackey’s three-cornered hat and the outline of the wings of his overcoat flew with the light out of fog into fog.