Petersburg Immeasurabilities

We left Nikolai Apollonovich at that moment when Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin, astonished at the flood of garrulity that suddenly burst from Ableukhov’s mouth, shook his hand and nimbly darted into the black flood of bowler hats, while Nikolai Apollonovich felt himself expanding again.

We left Nikolai Apollonovich at that moment when the heavy confluence of his circumstances was suddenly and unexpectedly resolved into well-being.

Until that moment massifs of delirium and monstrous shadows had been piling up; menacing Gaurisankars2 of events had piled up and come crashing down again – within a space of twenty-four hours: the wait in the Summer Garden and the disturbing cawing of the jackdaws; the dressing in red silk; the ball – or rather: the people flying through the halls in fright, flying in the harlequinade – the striped, the belled, the harlequins, the fiery-legged buffoons, the yellow hunchbacked Pierrot and the deathly pale clown who frightened the young ladies; some kind of blue masker, who had danced with curtseys, and had given him a little note with a curtsey; and – his shameful flight from the ballroom nearly all the way to the latrine – by the gateway, where the mangy little gentleman had caught him; and at last – Pepp Peppovich Pepp, or rather: the sardine tin with dreadful contents, which was … still … ticking.

The sardine tin with dreadful contents, capable of turning everything around it into a sheer mass of bloody slush.

We left Nikolai Apollonovich outside the shop window; but we abandoned him; between the senator’s son and ourselves steady drops began to fall; a mesh of drizzle accumulated; in that mesh all the customary weights, projections and ledges, caryatids, entrance porches, cornices of brick balconies lost their distinctness of outline, growing sluggishly dim and only just barely discernible.

Umbrellas were being opened.

Nikolai Apollonovich stood outside the window and thought there was no name for the grievous outrage – no: the outrage that had been going on for a day and a night, or rather, twenty-four hours, or – eighty thousand six hundred pocket-ticking seconds: eighty thousand moments, or rather, that many points in time; but no sooner had a moment advanced and on it advanced – second, moment, point – than it somehow, smartly spreading in circles, turned slowly into a cosmic, swelling sphere; this sphere was bursting; his heel was slipping away into universal voids: the time-traveller was hurtling, he knew not where and into what, plunging down, perhaps, into universal space, to … a new instant; thus did the day and night stretch, the eighty thousand pocket-ticking seconds, each of them – was bursting: his heel was slipping into immeasurabilities.

No, there was no name for the grievous outrage!

It was better not to think. And – somewhere thoughts were being thought; perhaps – in his swelling heart some sort of thoughts were hammering, thoughts that had never arisen in his brain and were yet arising in his heart; his heart was thinking; his brain was feeling.

All of its own accord a most clever plan arose, worked out in tiny detail; and a plan that was – comparatively – risk-free, but … base, yes … base!

The only thing was, who had thought it out? Was it possible, was it possible that Nikolai Apollonovich could have thought up this plan?

The matter stood like this: –

all these past hours prickly fragments of thoughts had swum before his eyes, in a play of fiery, coloured flashes and starlike sparks, like the merry tinsel on a Christmas tree: ceaselessly they fell into a single place illumined by consciousness – out of darkness into darkness; now the little figure of a buffoon made faces, and now a lemon-yellow Petrushka rushed past at a gallop – out of darkness into darkness – through the place illumined by consciousness; while consciousness shone dispassionately on all the swarming images; and when they were welded together, consciousness inscribed on them a shattering, inhuman meaning; then Nikolai Apollonovich very nearly spat with revulsion:

‘An ideological cause?

‘There was no ideological cause …

‘There is a base terror and a base animal instinct: to save one’s own skin …

‘Yes, yes yes …

‘I am an out-and-out scoundrel …’

But we have already seen that it was to precisely such a conviction that his venerable papa was gradually coming.

But had all this (what, we shall see in what follows) taken place consciously in his will, in his alertly beating heart and inflamed brain?

No, no, no!

But there were still these swarms of thoughts that thought themselves; it was not he who thought the thoughts, but … the thoughts that thought themselves … Who was the author of the thoughts? All morning he was unable to answer this question, but … something was being thought, being sketched, rising up; it was emerging above the sardine tin – precisely there: all this had probably crawled out of the sardine tin, when he had awoken from the dream that was now forgotten, and had seen that he was resting his head on the sardine tin – had crawled out of the sardine tin; then he had hidden the sardine tin – he did not remember where, but … he thought it had been … in the desk; then he had leapt out of the accursed house in good time, while everyone there was still asleep; and he had whirled about the streets, running from coffee house to coffee house.

It was not his head that was thinking, but … the sardine tin.

But in the streets it still continued to rise, forming, sketching, tracing; if his head was thinking, then his head – it too! – had also turned into the sardine tin with dreadful contents, which was … still … ticking, or else it was not he that controlled his thoughts, but the thunderously resonant prospect (on the prospect all personal thoughts turn into an impersonal jumble); but if the jumble was thinking, then he did not prevent the jumble from pouring in through his ears.

That was why the thoughts were being thought.

Something grey and soft was stirring beneath the bones of his head: soft, and, above all, grey, like … the prospect, like a flagstone of the pavement, like the foggy felt that pressed ceaselessly in from the seashore.

At last – the plan, thought out, prepared in every aspect (we shall speak of this in what follows), appeared in his field of consciousness – at a most unsuitable moment, when Nikolai Apollonovich, who had dashed, God knows why, into the vestibule of the university (where the chapel is), was leaning casually against one of the four massive columns, chatting with a passing lecturer who bent forward to him and, spraying him with spittle, hurriedly proceeded to inform him of the contents of a German article, when – yes: within his soul something suddenly burst (as a doll inflated with hydrogen bursts into flabby pieces of the celluloid from which balloons are made): he – with a start, reeling back, tearing himself free – ran, himself not knowing where, because – for this very reason: just then it was revealed to him:

– the author of the plan was himself …

He was an out-and-out scoundrel! …

When he realized this, he rushed to Vasily Island, to the Eighteenth Line; a shabby cab driver took him there; and from the carriage, straight into the cab driver’s back, a jerky, indignant whisper was heard:

‘Eh? … Tell me, please? … A sham … an impostor … a murderer … Simply – to save his own skin …’

He probably gave vent to his indignation loudly, because the cab driver turned round to him in annoyance:

‘What is it, sir?’

‘Nothing … It doesn’t matter …’

And the cab driver thought:

‘The barin’s a queer fish, so he is …’

Nikolai Apollonovich, like Apollon Apollonovich, was in the habit of talking to himself.

The winds repeated:

‘Father-murderer! …’

‘Impostor! …’

Not his own man, Nikolai Apollonovich leapt from the carriage; cutting across the small asphalt courtyard, and the cords of aspen wood, he flew in to the back staircase, in order to rush up the stairs and – he knew not why; probably, out of sheer curiosity: to look in the eye the culprit of the event, the one who had brought him the bundle, because the ‘refusal’ he had devised was – of course – a mere pretext: he could dispense with throwing the ‘refusal’ in his face (and thereby gain time).

At this point he collided with Aleksandr Ivanovich: the rest we have seen.

There was no name for the grievous outrage!

Yes – but his heart, warmed by all that had happened to him, slowly began to melt: the icy heart-shaped lump became a heart; before it had beaten meaninglessly; now it beat with a meaning; and feelings beat within him; those feelings had quivered unexpectedly; and now these concussions shook and overturned his entire soul.

That colossus of a house had just amassed above the street in piles of brick balconies; having run across the roadway, he could have felt its stone flank with his hand; but when it began to drizzle, its stone flank began to float in the fog.

As everything was floating now.

It began to drizzle – and the colossus of coupled stones had now become uncoupled; now it was lifting – from beneath the rain into the rain – a lace of weightless contours and only barely defined lines – simply a kind of rococo: the rococo was receding into nothing.

A wet glitter began to gleam on the shop windows, the house windows, the chimneys: the first trickle began to gush from a drainpipe; from another drainpipe steady drops began to drip; the pallid pavements dissolved in tiny specks: their dry, deathly pallor sluggishly turned brown; a tyre flying past snorted mud.

And on and on it went …

In the misty-wafting wetness, covered by the umbrellas of the passers-by, Nikolai Apollonovich disappeared; the prospects were floating in mists; the colossi of the buildings seemed to be being squeezed out of space into some other space: vaguely from there did their patterns loom there made from a jumble – of caryatids, steeples, walls. His head began to spin; he leaned against the shop window; something within him had burst, blown to pieces; and – a piece of his childhood arose.

He was with the old lady, with Nokkert,3 – his governess – on her trembling knees, he saw, his head was resting; the old lady was reading under the lamp:

Wer reitet so sp├Ąt durch Nacht und Wind?

Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind …

Suddenly – outside the windows the gusts of the storm hurled themselves about; and there the darkness was in riot, and the noise was in riot: the pursuit of the child was probably taking place out there; on the wall the governess’s shadow was trembling.

And again … –

Apollon Apollonovich – small, grey, old – is teaching Kolenka the French contredanse; he advances smoothly and, as he counts off the steps, claps out the time with his hands: promenades to the right, to the left; promenades – both forward and back; in lieu of music he snaps out – in a quick patter, loudly:

Who gallops, who rushes beneath the cold gloom:

A horseman out late, with him his young son …

And then he raises to Kolenka his hairless brows:

‘My dear fellow, hm hm, how do you like the first figure of the quadrille?’

All the rest was ‘cold gloom’, because the pursuit reached its mark: the son was torn away from the father:

In his arms the child lay dead …

After this moment, all his past life proved to be a play of the mist. The piece of his childhood was hidden.

The wet glitter gleamed on shop windows, on windows, on chimneys; the brown wetness of the pavement was like polish; a tyre snorted mud. In the misty-wafting wetness, covered by the umbrellas of the passers-by, Nikolai Apollonovich disappeared; the colossi of the houses seemed to be being squeezed out of space into space; their patterns began to loom there, made of jumbled lines – of caryatids, steeples, walls.