Petersburg I Know What I am Doing

At exactly ten o’clock Apollon Apollonovich had his coffee in the dining-room.

He usually ran, as we know, into the dining-room – icy, stern, shaven, spreading a scent of eau-de-Cologne and proportioning coffee with chronometer; today, however, scratching the floor with his slippers, he came trailing in for his coffee in his dressing-gown: unscented, unshaven.

From half-past eight until ten o’clock in the morning he sat sequestered.

He did not look at his correspondence, did not respond to the greetings of the servants, as he customarily did; and when the bulldog’s slavering muzzle placed itself on his knees, his rhythmically mumbling mouth –

He calls for me, my Delvig dear,

Companion of my lively youth,

Companion of my mournful youth –

– his rhythmically mumbling mouth merely choked on the coffee:

‘Er … listen: take the dog away, will you …’

Tweaking and crumbling a French croissant, he stared at the black grounds of coffee with eyes that were turning to stone.

At half past eleven, Apollon Apollonovich, as though remembering something, began to fuss and fidget; his eyes darted restlessly, in a manner reminiscent of a grey mouse; he leapt up – and with tiny footsteps, trembling, quickened his pace towards the room that was his study, revealing the half-fastened long johns beneath the open skirts of his dressing-gown.

Soon the lackey looked into his study in order to remind him that the horses were ready; looked in – and stopped on the threshold as though rooted to the spot.

With amazement he watched as Apollon Apollonovich wheeled a heavy bookshelf ladder from shelf to shelf over the velvet rugs that were there strewn everywhere – moaning, groaning, stumbling, perspiring – and climbing up the ladder, clambering his way to the top, at risk to his own life, testing the dust on the volumes with his finger; catching sight of the lackey, Apollon Apollonovich chewed his lips disdainfully, and made no reply when reminded that it was time for him to leave.

Knocking a binding against a shelf, he asked for some rags.

Two lackeys brought him the rags; they had to be delivered to him on an upraised floor-brush (he would not allow anyone to go up to where he was, and would not come down himself); the two lackeys each took a stearin candle; the two lackeys stood on either side of the ladder with upwards-stretched, rigid arms.

‘Raise the light, will you … No, not like that … And not like that … Er, yes – higher: a bit higher …’

By this time ragged clouds had billowed up from behind the buildings on the other side of the Neva, their gloomy, felt-like billows came to the attack; the wind beat against the panes; semitwilight reigned in the greenish, frowning room; the wind howled; and higher, higher stretched two stearin candles on either side of the ladder, receding towards the ceiling; there, from a cloud of dust, from the very ceiling itself swirled the mouse-coloured skirts and the crimsonish tassels dangled.

‘Your ex’cy!

‘Is this any task for you? …

‘You are pleased to trouble yourself …

‘My goodness … Whoever heard of such a thing …’

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, real privy councillor, could not hear what they were saying at all from the cloud of dust: what did he care! Forgetting everything, he was wiping the spines with a rag, banging the volumes violently on the rungs of the ladder; and – at last burst out sneezing:

‘Dust, dust, dust …

‘Look at it … look at it! …

‘Well, now I shall wipe it … with the rag: like that, sir, like that, sir, like that, sir …

‘Very good, sir! …’

And hurled himself at the dust with the dirty rag in his hand.

The telephone rang worriedly: that was the Institution calling; but the telephone’s worried ring received as reply from the yellow house:

‘His excellency? … Yes … He is having his coffee … We will tell him … Yes … The horses are ready …’

And the telephone rang a second time; and the second time the telephone rang the answer came a second time:

‘Yes … yes … He’s still at table … Yes, we have told him … We will tell him … Yes … The horses are ready …’

To the third, now indignant ring of the telephone they replied:

‘On no account, sir!

‘His honour is busy arranging the books …

‘The horses?

‘They are ready …’

The horses, having waited, went back to the stable; the coachman spat: to curse he did not dare …

‘I shall give them a good wipe!’

‘Ai, ai, ai! … Will you look at his honour!’


And the trembling yellow hands, armed with volumes, hammered against the shelf.

In the vestibule the doorbell began to tinkle: it tinkled sporadically; silence spoke between the two jolts of tinkling; like a memory – a memory of something forgotten, familiar – this silence flew through the space of the lacquered room; and – entered the study without being asked; here was something old, old; and – it was coming up the staircase.

An ear protruded from the dust, a head turned:

‘Do you hear? … Listen …’

Who could that be?

It might turn out to be: Nikolai Apollonovich, that most dreadful scoundrel, profligate and liar; it might turn out to be: Hermann Hermannovich, bringing papers; or Kotoshi-Kotoshinsky; or, perhaps, Count Nolde; it might even, as a matter of fact, turn out to be – em-em-em – Anna Petrovna …

There was a jingling.

‘Don’t you hear it?’

‘Your excellency, of course we hear it: I expect someone is opening up …’

Only now did the lackeys respond to the tinkling; rigid as stone, they still continued to shine their candles.

Only Semyonych, who was wandering about the corridor (always muttering, always miserable), enumerating out of boredom the directions in the wardrobe that contained the accoutrements of the barin’s toilet: ‘North-East: black ties and white ties … Collars, cuffs – East … Watches – North’ – only Semyonych, who was wandering about the corridor (always muttering, always miserable), only he pricked up his ears, became alarmed, cocked his ear in the direction of the tinkling sound; and pattered off to the study.

Thus does a faithful battle horse respond to the sound of the horn:

‘I take the liberty of observing: someone is ringing …’

The lackeys did not respond.

Each held out his candle – to the ceiling; from the very ceiling itself, from the top of the ladder, a bare head peeped forth surrounded by clouds of dust; a cracked, agitated voice responded:

‘Yes! I heard it too.’

Apollon Apollonovich, tearing himself away from a fat, bound volume – he alone responded:

‘Yes, yes, yes …’

‘You know …’

‘Someone is ringing … the doorbell …’

Here they both seemed to sense something unutterable but comprehensible, for they both – started: ‘Be quick – run – hurry! …’

‘It’s the barynya …’

‘It’s Anna Petrovna!’

Be quick, run, hurry: there’s the tinkling again!

Here the lackeys put down their candles and came pattering out into the dark corridor (Semyonych pattered there first). From the very ceiling itself, in the greenish light of the Petersburg morning, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov – a black, mouse-like heap – darted his eyes uneasily; beginning to sigh, somehow he began to crawl down, groaning, leaning his hairy chest, his shoulder and his stubbly chin against the rungs of the ladder; crawled down – and then he set off at a quick-tapping pace in the direction of the staircase with a dirty dust rag in his hand and the skirts of his robe wide open, flapping in the air like a fantastic flight of birds. Now he stumbled, now he got up again, began to breathe heavily and felt his pulse with his finger.

While up the staircase came a gentleman with downy side-whiskers, in a tightly-buttoned uniform with a drawn-in waist, with dazzlingly white cuffs, with the star of Anna on his breast, being reverentially escorted by Semyonych; on a small tray that barely trembled in the old man’s hands lay a shiny visiting card with a nobleman’s crown.

The skirts of his robe closed up now, Apollon Apollonovich fussily peered out from behind the statue of Niobe at the august, downy old man.

He truly did resemble a mouse.