Petersburg It is Always Like This

Above the empty Petersburg streets flew barely illumined dimnesses; fragments of rainclouds outran one another.

A kind of phosphorescent stain, both misty and deathly, rushed across the sky; the heights became misted by a phosphorescent sheen; and this made the iron roofs and chimneys gleam. Here the green waters of the Moika flowed past; on one side towered that same three-storeyed building with its five white columns; on top there were projections. There, against the bright background of the bright building, one of Her Majesty’s cuirassiers was slowly walking. He had a golden, gleaming helmet.

And above the helmet a silver dove had extended its wings.

Nikolai Apollonovich, scented and shaven, was making his way along the Moika, wrapped tightly in furs; his head had sunk into his greatcoat, while his eyes shone somehow strangely; in his soul – tremors without name were rising there; something sinister and sweet was singing there: it was as though within him Aeolus’ bag of winds had flown to pieces and the sons of foreign gusts were cruelly chasing him away with whistling lashes to strange and incomprehensible lands.

He thought: was this also – love? He remembered: one foggy night, running headlong out of that entrance way there, he had set off in flight towards a cast-iron Petersburg bridge, in order there, on the bridge …

He started.

A shaft of light flew by: a black court carriage flew by: past the bright window recesses of that same house carried its bright red, as if bloodshot, lamps; on the black flood of the Moika the lamps played and shone; the ghostly contour of a lackey’s tricorne and the contour of the wings of his greatcoat flew with the light out of the fog into the fog.

Nikolai Apollonovich stood for a while before the house, reflectively: his heart was hammering within his breast; stood for a while, stood for a while – and suddenly he disappeared into a familiar entrance porch.

In former times he had come here every evening; but now it was more than two months since he had crossed the threshold; and he crossed it now as though he were a thief. In former times a maid in a white apron used to open the door cordially; would say:

‘Good day, barin,’ with a sly smile.

But now? No one would come out to meet him; if he were to ring, the same maid would blink her eyes at him in fright, and would not say, ‘Good day, barin’; no, he was not going to ring.

Then why was he here?

The entrance-porch door flew open before him; and the entrance-porch door struck him in the back with noise; darkness enveloped him; as though everything had fallen away behind him (this is probably what the first moment after death is like, when the temple of the body comes crashing down from the soul into the abyss of putrefaction); but Nikolai Apollonovich was not thinking about death now – death was far away; in the darkness, evidently, he was thinking about his own gestures, because in the darkness his actions took on a fantastic stamp; on the cold step he sat down near one of the entrance doors, his face lowered into the fur and listening to the beating of his heart; a certain black emptiness was beginning behind his back; a black emptiness was in front.

Thus did Nikolai Apollonovich sit in the darkness.

And as he sat, the Neva still went on revealing itself between Alexander Square and Millionnaya; the stone curve of the Winter Canal showed a whining expanse; the Neva rushed from there in an onslaught of wet wind; the soundlessly flying surfaces of its waters began to shimmer, furiously returning to the fog a pale sheen. The smooth walls of the four-storeyed palace flank, speckled with lines, mordantly gleamed with moonlight.

No one, nothing.

Here the canal went on, as ever, pouring the same cholera-infected water into the Neva; and the same small bridge curved as ever; the same nightly female shadow kept running out across the bridge, in order to – throw itself into the water? … Liza’s shadow?43 No, not Liza’s, but simply – a Petersburg woman’s; a Petersburg woman ran out here, did not throw herself into the Neva: having cut across the Winter Canal, she quickly ran away from some yellow house on the Gagarin Embankment, below which she stood every evening, looking long at a window.

A quiet lapping remained behind her back: before her spread the square; endless statues, greenish ones, bronze ones, revealed themselves from everywhere above the dark red walls; Hercules and Poseidon44 went on surveying the expanses in the night as ever; on the other side of the Neva a colossus rose – in the contours of the islands and the houses; and sorrowfully cast amber eyes into the fog; and seemed to be weeping; a row of riverside street lamps dropped fiery tears into the Neva; its surface was burned through by simmering gleams.

Higher up, ragged arms mournfully stretched some kind of vague outlines across the sky; swarm upon swarm they rose above the Neva’s waves, racing away towards the zenith; and when they touched the zenith, then, impetuously attacking, from the sky the phosphorescent stain hurled itself upon them. Only in one place that had not been touched by chaos – there, where by day the heavy stone bridge threw itself across – enormous clusters of diamonds showed strangely misty.

The female shadow, face set into a small muff, ran along to the Moika to that same entrance porch from which it had run in the evenings and where now on the cold step, below the door, sat Nikolai Apollonovich; the entrance-porch door opened before her; the darkness enveloped her; as though everything had fallen away behind her; the little lady in black thought for a while in the entrance porch about simple and earthly things; in a moment she would give instructions for a samovar to be brought; she had already stretched out her hand to the bell, and – then saw: some kind of outline, a mask, it seemed, rose before her from the step.

And when the door opened and a shaft of light illumined the darkness of the entrance porch for a moment, the exclamation of a frightened chambermaid confirmed it all for her, because in the open door there first appeared an apron and an overstarched cap; and then from the door shrank back – both apron and cap. In the bright flare of light a scene of indescribable strangeness was revealed, and the little lady’s black outline rushed out of the open door.

Behind her back, out of the murk, rose a rustling, dark crimson clown with a small, bearded, trembling mask.

One could see from the murk how soundlessly and slowly from the satin-rustling shoulders slid the furs of the Nikolayevka,45 how two red hands painfully stretched towards the door. At this point, of course, the door closed, cutting through the shaft of light and throwing the entrance-porch staircase back into complete emptiness, darkness: crossing the threshold of death, thus do we throw back our bodies into the darkened abyss that has just shone with light.

A second later Nikolai Apollonovich leapt out on to the street; from under the skirts of his greatcoat dangled a piece of red silk; his nose tucked into his Nikolayevka, Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov raced in the direction of the bridge.

Petersburg, Petersburg!

Falling like fog, you have pursued me, too, with idle cerebral play: you are a cruel-hearted tormentor; you are an unquiet ghost; for years you have attacked me; I ran through your dreadful prospects and took a flying leap on to the cast-iron bridge that began from the limit of the earth, leading into the limitless distance; beyond the Neva, in that other-worldly, green distance there – the ghosts of islands and houses arose, seducing with the vain hope that world is reality and that it is not a howling limitlessness that drives the pale smoke of the clouds into the Petersburg street.

From the islands trail restless ghosts; thus the swarm of visions repeats itself, reflected by the prospects, driving one another way down the prospects, reflected in one another, like a mirror in a mirror, where the very moment of time itself expands in the boundlessness of zones: and as you plod your way from entrance porch to entrance porch, you experience centuries.

Oh, great bridge, shining with electricity!

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.

O, green waters, seething with bacilli!

Another moment and you would have wound me, too, into your shadow. The restless shadow, preserving the aspect of an ordinary man in the street, would have ambiguously begun to loom in the draught of the damp little canal; over his shoulder the passer-by would have seen: a bowler, a walking-stick, a coat, ears, a nose and a moustache …

He would have gone further … to the cast-iron bridge.

On the cast-iron bridge he would have turned round; and he would have seen nothing: above the wet railings, above the greenish water that seethed with bacilli would have merely flown past into the draughts of the Neva’s wind – a bowler, a walking-stick, ears, a nose and a moustache.