Petersburg The Inhabitants of the Islands Strike You

The inhabitants of the islands strike you with the vaguely thievish ways they have; their faces are greener and paler than those of any earth-born beings; the islander will get through the keyhole – some kind of raznochinets:26 he will have a small moustache, perhaps; and I fear he will try to get some money out of you – for the arming of the factory and mill workers; your room will begin to mutter, to whisper, to giggle: you will give; and then you will be unable to sleep at nights any more: he, the inhabitant of the island, will be a stranger with a small black moustache, elusive, invisible, there will be no trace of him; he will already be out in the province; and if you look – the rural distances will be muttering, whispering there, in the expanse; there, booming and muttering in the rural distances will be – Russia.

It was the last day of September.

On Vasily Island, in the depths of the Seventeenth Line, out of the fog looked a house enormous and grey; from the small courtyard a black, rather dirty staircase led away into the house: there were doors and doors; one of them opened.

The stranger with the small black moustache appeared on its threshold.

Then, having closed the door, the stranger slowly began to descend; he came down from a height of five storeys, cautiously treading the staircase; in his hand there evenly swung a not exactly small, yet not very large little bundle tied up with a dirty napkin with red borders that showed discoloured pheasants.

My stranger behaved with exemplary caution in his treatment of the little bundle.

The staircase was, needless to say, black, strewn with cucumber rinds and a cabbage leaf that had been repeatedly crushed by a foot. The stranger with the small black moustache slipped on it.

With one hand then he gripped the staircase railing, while his other hand (with the bundle) confusedly described in the air a nervous zigzag; but the description of zigzag actually applied to his elbow: my stranger evidently wanted to protect the bundle from a vexatious accident – its precipitate fall on to the stone step, because in the movement of his elbow there truly was manifested the skilful stunt of an acrobat: the delicate cunning of the movement was prompted by a certain instinct.

And then in his meeting with the yardkeeper, who was coming up the stairs with an armful of aspen wood slung over his shoulder, the stranger with the black moustache again concentratedly began to display a delicate care about the fate of his bundle, which might catch on a log; the objects contained in the bundle must have been objects especially fragile.

Otherwise my stranger’s behaviour would not have been comprehensible.

When the momentous stranger cautiously descended to the black exit door, a black cat that was near his feet spat and, tucking up its tail, cut across his path, dropping at the stranger’s feet a chicken entrail: my stranger’s face was distorted by a spasm; while his head jerked nervously back, displaying a soft neck.

These movements were peculiar to young ladies of the good old days when the young ladies of those days were beginning to experience a thirst: to confirm with an unusual action an interesting pallor of face, imparted by the drinking of vinegar and the sucking of lemons.

And precisely these same movements sometimes distinguish those of our young contemporaries who are worn out by insomnia. The stranger suffered from this kind of insomnia: the tobacco-smoke-filled nature of his abode hinted at that; and the bluish tint of the soft skin of his face bore witness to the same thing – such soft skin that had my stranger not been the possessor of a small moustache, I think you would probably have taken the stranger for a young lady in disguise.

And so there was the stranger – in the small courtyard, a quadrangle that had been entirely covered in asphalt and hemmed in on every side by the five storeys of a many-windowed colossus. In the middle of the courtyard damp cords of aspen wood had been piled; and even from here one could see a piece of the Seventeenth Line, whistled round by the wind.


Only in you has the memory of Petrine Petersburg remained.

The parallel lines in the marshes had once been drawn by Peter;27 those lines had become coated now with granite, now with stone enclosures, now with wooden ones. Of Peter’s straight lines in Petersburg not a trace remained; Peter’s line had been converted into the line of a later era: the rounded line of Catherine, the Alexandrine formation of white stone colonnades.

Only here, amidst the colossi, the small Petrine houses had remained; there a house built of logs; there a green house; there a blue one, single-storeyed, with a bright red sign reading Stolovaya.28 It was exactly houses such as these that were scattered here in ancient times. Here also, one’s nose was struck directly by various smells: there was a smell of salt, of herring, of hawsers, of leather jacket and pipe, and shore tarpaulin.

The Lines!

How they have changed: how these grim days have changed them!

The stranger remembered: in that window of that lustrous little house on a summer evening in June, an old woman chewed her lips; since August the window had been closed; in September a silk brocade coffin had been brought.

He reflected that life was going up in price and that soon the working people would have nothing to eat; that from there, from the bridge, Petersburg came stabbing here with the arrows of its prospects and a band of stone giants; that band of giants would soon shamelessly and brazenly bury in their attics and basements the whole of the islands’ poor.

From the island my stranger had long hated Petersburg: there, from where Petersburg rose in a wave of clouds; and the buildings hovered there; there above the buildings someone malicious and dark seemed to hover, someone whose breathing firmly coated with the ice of granite and stone the once green and curly-headed islands; someone dark, terrible and cold, from there, from the warring chaos, fixedly with a stony gaze, beat in his mad hovering the wings of a bat; and lashed the islands’ poor with official words, standing out in the fog: skull and ears; thus not long ago had someone been depicted on the cover of a little journal.

The stranger thought this and clenched his fist in his pocket; he remembered the circular and remembered that the leaves were falling: my stranger knew it all by heart. These fallen leaves were for many the last leaves: my stranger became a bluish shadow.

For our part, however, we shall say: O, Russian people, Russian people! Do not let in the crowds of gliding shadows from the islands! Fear the islanders! They have a right to settle freely in the Empire: it is evidently for this purpose that black and grey bridges have been thrown over the waters of Lethe to the islands. They ought to be pulled down …

Too late …

The police did not even think of raising the Nikolayevsky Bridge; dark shadows began to throng over the bridge; among those shadows the shadow of the stranger began to throng, too. In its hand evenly swung a not exactly small, yet all the same not very large little bundle.