Petersburg The Lackeys Were Astonished

And precisely the same houses loomed up there, and precisely the same grey human streams flowed past there, and the same green-yellow fog stood there; the faces scuttled there with a look of concentration; the pavements whispered and shuffled – beneath a throng of stone houses like giants; towards them flew – prospect after prospect; and the planet’s spherical surface seemed embraced, as in serpentine coils, by the blackish-grey cubes of the houses; and the mesh of parallel prospects, intersected by a mesh of prospects, expanded into the abysses of the universe in the surfaces of squares and cubes: one square per man-in-the-street.

But Apollon Apollonovich did not look at his favourite figure: the square; did not give himself up to the mindless contemplation of stone parallelepipeds, cubes; as he swayed to and fro on the soft cushions of the seat of the hired carriage, he kept glancing in agitation at Anna Petrovna, whom he himself was taking – to the lacquered house; what they had talked of there in the hotel room had remained for everyone an impenetrable secret; after this conversation they had resolved: Anna Petrovna would move to the Embankment tomorrow; while today, Apollon Apollonovich was taking Anna Petrovna – to a meeting with her son.

And Anna Petrovna was disconcerted.

In the carriage they did not talk; Anna Petrovna looked out of the carriage windows: it was two and a half years since she had seen these grey prospects: there, outside the windows, the street numbering was visible; and the traffic moved; there, from there – on clear days, from far, far away, had blindly flashed: the golden needle, the clouds, the crimson ray of the sunset; there, from there, on misty days – no one, nothing.

Apollon Apollonovich leaned against the walls of the carriage with unconcealed satisfaction, partitioned off from the scum of the streets inside this closed cube; here he was separated from the flowing human crowds, from the dismally wet red paper covers that were being sold over there at that crossroads; and his eyes darted; only now and then did Anna Petrovna catch: a lost, bewildered gaze, and imagine – one that seemed simply gentle: blue as blue, childlike, senseless even (had he lapsed back into childhood?)

‘I heard, Apollon Apollonovich: you are to be made a minister?’

But Apollon Apollonovich interrupted:

‘And where have you come from now, Anna Petrovna?’

‘Oh, I have come from Granada …’

‘Indeed, ma’am, indeed, ma’am, indeed …’ – and, blowing his nose, – added … – ‘Business, you know: unpleasant things at the office, you know …’

And – what was this? On his hand he felt a warm hand: he had been stroked on the hand … Hm-hm-hm: Apollon Apollonovich did not know where to look; he was disconcerted, seemed alarmed even; he even felt annoyed … Hm-hm; no one had treated him like that for about fifteen years … She had quite simply stroked him … He had to admit that he had not expected this from the lady person … hm-hm … (Apollon Apollonovich had after all for the past two and half years considered this lady person to be a … lady person of … loose … conduct …)

‘You see, I’m going into retirement …’

Had the cerebral game that had divided them for so many years and had grown ominously more intense this past two and a half years, at last burst out of his stubborn brain? And outside his brain, had it now gathered in storm clouds above them? Broken in unprecedented storms around them? But in breaking outside his brain, it had exhausted itself inside his brain; slowly his brain had cleared; thus in storm clouds you will sometimes see an azure gap running from one side – through bands of rain; then let the downpour lash over you; let the dark masses of cloud burst rumblingly with crimson lightning! The azure gap is growing; soon the sun will look dazzlingly out; you are already expecting the end of the storm; when suddenly there is a flash and a bang: the lightning has struck a pine tree.

The greenish light of day was breaking through the windows of the carriage; the human streams ran there in an undular surf; and that human surf was a thunderous surf.

It was here that he had seen the raznochinets; here the eyes of the raznochinets had gleamed, recognized him – some ten days ago (yes, only ten days: in ten days everything had changed; Russia had changed!) …

The glidings and rumblings of carriages flying past! The melodic cries of motor-car roulades! And – a detachment of police! …

There, where only the pale grey dampness hung suspended, at first appeared lustrelessly in outline and then completely took shape: the grimy, blackish-grey St Isaac’s … And withdrew back into the fog. And – an expanse opened: the depths, the greenish murk, into which receded the black bridge, where the fog curtained the many-chimneyed distances and from where ran the wave of the approaching clouds.

Indeed: after all, the lackeys were astonished!

Thus later on in the entrance hall was it told by the sleepy young lad Grishka:

‘Here I am, sitting and counting on my fingers: why, from the Protection to the Nativity of the Mother of God … That makes … From the Nativity of the Mother of God to St Nicholas in Winter …’2

‘Tell me another: the Nativity of the Mother of God, the Nativity of the Mother of God!’

‘What do you mean? The Nativity of the Mother of God is a feast day in our village – She is our patron … So it works out at: as I count it … Then I hear: someone’s driving up; I go to the door. So I throw the door open: and – oh, sainted fathers! Because it’s the barin himself, in a hired little carriage (and a bad one, too!), and a barynya with him, of respectable years and wearing a cheap waterproof.’

‘Not a waterproof, you little rogue: people don’t wear waterproofs nowadays.’

‘Don’t embarrass him: he’s daft enough as it is.’

‘In a word – wearing a coat. While the barin gets in a lather: from the cab – phoo, the carriage – he jumps down, stretches out his arm to the barynya – smiles: like a cavalier, like, shows her every assistance.’

‘Get away with you …’

‘It’s true …’

‘I don’t think they’ve seen each other for two years,’ voices were heard saying all round.

‘Stands to reason: the barynya gets out of the carriage; only thing is, I can see that the barynya’s embarrassed about this event: she’s smiling there – not her full proper self; to give herself courage: she’s holding on to her chin; well, and she’s dressed real poor, like; there’s holes in her gloves; her gloves aren’t darned, I can see: perhaps there’s no one to darn them; maybe in Spain they don’t do no darning …’

‘Tell us another, that will do now! …’

‘It’s like I’m saying: and the barin, our barin, Apollon Apollonovich, gave up all his finery; stood by the carriage, over a puddle, under the rain: the rain – oh my Lord! The barin hesitates, seems to start running on the spot, his feet stamping up and down on the spot; and when the barynya, getting down from the footboard, leaning right on his arm – for the barynya’s quite heavy – our barin even sagged right down; the barin’s tiny; well, I thought to myself, how could he hold up a heavy woman like that? He doesn’t have the strength …’

‘Don’t weave fancy stories; tell us what happened.’

‘I’m not weaving fancy stories; I’m telling you like it was; and anyway … Mitry Semyonych will tell you: they met in the entrance hall … What is there to tell? The barin just said to the barynya: welcome, he said, come in, Anna Petrovna … That was when I recognized her.’

‘Well, and so what then?’

‘She’s aged … At first I didn’t recognize her; but then I did, because I still remember how she used to give me sweets.’

Thus did the lackeys talk afterwards.

But really!

A sudden, unforeseen fact: it was about two and a half years ago that Anna Petrovna left her husband for an Italian artiste; and now, two and a half years later, deserted by the Italian artiste, from the splendid palaces of Granada across the chain of the Pyrenees, across the Alps, across the mountains of the Tyrol, she came rushing back in an express train; but what was more remarkable was that the senator had found it impossible to breathe a word about Anna Petrovna not only for the past two and a half years, but even two and a half days ago (only yesterday he had bristled up!); for two and a half years Apollon Apollonovich had avoided even the thought of Anna Petrovna (and yet had thought about her); the very sound-combination ‘Anna Petrovna’ broke against his eardrums like a firecracker thrown at a teacher from under a school desk; except that a schoolteacher would bang his fist angrily on the desk; while Apollon Apollonovich merely tightened his lips contemptuously at this sound combination. But why at the news of her return did the customary tightening of his dry lips burst apart in an agitatedly wrathful trembling of the jaws (the night before – during his conversation with Nikolenka); why had he not been able to sleep that night? Why for a period of some twelve hours had that anger evaporated somewhere and been replaced by an aching anguish, bordering on anxiety? Why had he not been able to endure the wait, himself gone to the hotel? Had talked her round; brought her home. Something had happened there – in the hotel room; Anna Petrovna had forgotten her stern promise: she had made that promise to herself – here, yesterday: here in the lacquered house (having visited it and found no one at home).

Had made the promise: but – had returned.

Anna Petrovna and Apollon Apollonovich had been agitated and embarrassed by the explanation they had had with one another; and so when they had entered the lacquered house they had not exchanged abundant outpourings of emotion; Anna Petrovna looked at her husband askance: Apollon Apollonovich began to blow his nose … beneath the rusty halberd; emitting a trumpet-like sound, he began to snort into his side-whiskers. Anna Petrovna graciously deigned to reply to the lackeys’ deferential bows, displaying a restraint we have not seen in her before; only Semyonych did she embrace, and seemed to want to cry a little; but, casting a frightened, bewildered look at Apollon Apollonovich, she regained her self-control: her fingers stretched towards the little handbag, but did not take out her handkerchief.

Apollon Apollonovich, standing above her on the stairs, commandingly cast stern glances at the lackeys; he cast such glances at moments of bewilderment: but at ordinary times, Apollon Apollonovich was scrupulously polite and prim with the lackeys to the point of offensiveness (apart from when he was making his jokes). While the servants were standing there he maintained a tone of indifference: nothing had happened – until now the barynya had been living abroad, for the sake of her health; that was all: and now the barynya had returned … What of it? Oh, it was all very fine! …

There was, however, a lackey here (all the others had been fired, with the exception of Semyonych and Grishka, the young lad); this lackey remembered what he remembered: remembered the manner in which the barynya had made her departure abroad – without any warning to the domestic staff: holding a little travelling bag (and this – for two and a half years!); on the eve of her departure had locked herself in, away from the barin; while some two days before her departure that fellow with the moustache had been there in her room all the time: their black-eyed visitor – oh, what was his name again? Mindalini (his name was Mindalini), who sang some kind of un-Russian songs at their house: ‘Tra-la-la … Tra-la-la …’ And he never tipped.

This same lackey, remembering something, kissed the exalted hand with especial respect, feeling guilty about the fact that the details of the escape – the departure, that is – had not been effaced from his memory; for he was seriously afraid that the days of his sojourn in the lacquered house were numbered – on the occasion of the happy return of their excellencies to the lacquered house.

There they were – in the reception hall; before them the parqueted floor shone, like a mirror, with little squares: this room had seldom been heated during the past two and a half years; the expanses of this enfilade of rooms provoked an unaccountable melancholy; Apollon Apollonovich spent most of the time sitting locked in his study; he kept fancying that someone familiar and melancholy was about to come running to him, that now he was not alone: not alone would he stroll about the little squares of the parqueted floor here, but … with Anna Petrovna.

It was seldom that Apollon Apollonovich strolled about the little squares of the parqueted floor with Nikolenka.

His arm bent like a ring-shaped roll, Apollon Apollonvich led his guest through the reception hall: it was just as well that it was his right arm he presented; his left one twinged and ached with the impetuous, restless joltings of his heart; and Anna Petrovna stopped him, led him over to the wall and, pointing to a pale-toned painting, smiled to him:

‘Ah, still the same old paintings! … Do you remember this fresco, Apollon Apollonovich?’

And – looked ever so slightly askance at him, blushed ever so slightly; her cornflower-coloured eyes were fixed on two eyes that were filled with azure; and – their gaze, their gaze: there was in it something charming, old-fashioned, ancient, something that everyone had forgotten but had forgotten no one and stood in the doorway – something of this kind suddenly arose between their gazes; it was not in them; and did not emerge in them; but stood – between them: as though wafted by the autumn wind. Let the reader forgive me: I shall express the essence of this gaze in a most banal word: love.

‘Do you remember?’

‘Of course, my dear: I remember …’

‘Where was it?’

‘In Venice …’

‘Thirty years have passed! …’

A memory of the misty lagoon, of an aria sobbing in the distance, seized him: thirty years ago. Memories of Venice seized her, too, and divided: thirty years ago: and two and a half years ago; here she blushed at the inopportune memory, which she drove away; and another surged in: Kolenka. During the past two hours she had forgotten about Kolenka; her conversation with the senator had forced out everything else prematurely; but two hours before that she had thought only of Kolenka, and thought of him with tenderness; with tenderness and vexation that she had had no greeting, no reply from Kolenka.

‘Kolenka …’

They entered the drawing-room; heaps of porcelain baubles rushed from every side; little leaves of incrustation shone – mother-of-pearl and bronze – on the little boxes, the little shelves that came out of the walls.

‘Kolenka, Anna Petrovna, is all right … he’s fine … is getting on splendidly,’ – and he ran away, somehow to the side.

‘And is he at home?’

Apollon Apollonovich, who had just fallen into an Empire armchair, on the pale azure satin seat of which little garlands twined, rose reluctantly out of the chair, and pressed the bell button:

‘Why has he not come to see me?’

‘Anna Petrovna, he … em-em-em … was, in his turn, very, very …’ the senator said, getting strangely confused, and then took out his handkerchief: with sounds almost like those of a trumpet, he blew his nose for a very long time; snorting into his side-whiskers, he took a very long time about stuffing his handkerchief back into his pockets:

‘In a word, he was overjoyed.’

A silence ensued. The bald head swayed over there beneath the cold and long-legged bronze; the lampshade did not flash with a violet tone, subtly painted: the secret of this paint had been lost by the nineteenth century; the glass had grown dark with time; the delicate pattern had also grown dark with time.

At the sound of the bell, Semyonych appeared:

‘Is Nikolai Apollonovich at home?’

‘Precisely so, sir …’

‘Mm … listen: tell him that Anna Petrovna is with us: and that she asks him to come and see her …’

‘Perhaps we shall go to him,’ said Anna Petrovna, beginning to grow agitated, and with a swiftness unusual for her years she rose from her armchair; but here Apollon Apollonovich, turning sharply towards Semyonych, interrupted her:

‘Em-em-em … Semyonych: I want to tell you …’

‘I’m listening, sir! …’

‘The wife of a Chaldean – I wonder – what is she?’

‘I suppose she’s a Chaldean, sir …’

‘No – a khalda! …’3

‘Hee-hee-hee, sir …’

‘I’m not very pleased with Kolenka, Anna Petrovna …’

‘Oh, why is that?’

‘For a long time now, Kolenka has been behaving – no, don’t be upset – been behaving: downright – no, don’t be upset – strangely …’


The gilded pier-glasses in the window-piers devoured the drawing-room from all sides with the green surfaces of the mirrors.

‘Kolenka has become somehow secretive … Cahuh, cahuh,’ – and, in a fit of coughing, Apollon Apollonovich drummed his hand on the little table, remembering something private, frowned, and began to rub the bridge of his nose; he quickly recovered himself, however: and with extreme joviality he almost shouted:

‘But as a matter of fact – no: it doesn’t matter, my dear … It’s nonsense …’

Between the pier-glasses the small mother-of-pearl table gleamed from everywhere.