Petersburg The Letter

Nikolai Apollonovich, shocked by the letter, ran past the merry contredanse a quarter of an hour before the senator. How he had left the house, he could not remember at all. He came to his senses in utter prostration in front of the Tsukatovs’ entrance porch; continued to stand there in a continuous dark dream, in the continuous dark slush, mechanically counting the number of waiting carriages, mechanically following the movement of someone tall and sad who was keeping order there: it was the district police inspector.

Suddenly the tall, sad man strolled past under Nikolai Apollonovich’s nose: Nikolai Apollonovich was suddenly burned by his blue gaze; the police inspector, waxing angry at the student in an overcoat, shook his flaxen beard: glared and walked on.

Quite naturally Nikolai Apollonovich also moved off, in the continuous dark dream, in the continuous dark slush, through which the rust-coloured blotch of a street lamp stubbornly stared: out of the fog, over the spike of the lamp, the caryatid of the entrance porch fell upon the blotch from above with a deathly hue, and inside the blotch a small piece of the house next door stood out; the little house was black, one-storeyed, with bay windows and small carved wooden sculptures.

But no sooner had Nikolai Apollonovich moved off than he noted with indifference that his feet were completely absent: some sort of soft parts began to squelch incoherently in a puddle; vainly did he try to control those parts: the soft parts would not obey him; they had every appearance of the outline of feet, but he could not feel any feet (there were no feet). Nikolai Apollonovich lowered himself involuntarily on to the front step of the little house; and sat there for a moment, wrapped up in his overcoat.

This was natural in his position (his entire conduct was completely natural); just as naturally did he throw open his greatcoat, exposing the red blotch of his domino cape; just as naturally did he begin to rummage in his pockets, pull out a small, crumpled envelope, and read the contents of the note over and over again, trying to detect in it the trace of a straightforward joke, or a trace of mockery. But he could detect no traces of either the one or the other …

‘Remembering your proposal of the summer, we hasten to inform you, comrade, that it is now your turn to act; and so you are immediately encharged with carrying out of the deed against …’ – here Nikolai Apollonovich could read no further, because his father’s name stood there – and then: ‘The material you need, in the form of a bomb with a clock mechanism, has been suitably delivered in a bundle. Please hurry: time does not wait; it is desirable that the whole venture be carried out in the next few days …’ This was followed by a slogan: both slogan and handwriting were familiar to Nikolai Apollonovich in equal degree. This had been written by the Unknown One: he had several times received notes from this Unknown One.

There could be no doubt.

Nikolai Apollonovich’s arms and legs sagged; Nikolai Apollonovich’s lower lip fell away from the upper one.

Right from the fateful moment when some lady or other had handed him the crumpled little envelope, Nikolai Apollonovich had kept trying to catch at plain coincidences, at completely irrelevant, idle thoughts that like flocks of frenzied crows, frightened by a shot, rise from a tree with many boughs and begin to circle – this way and that, this way and that, until the next shot; thus did completely idle thoughts circle in his head, such as, for example: concerning the number of books that would fit on a shelf of his bookcase; concerning the patterns of the flounces on the petticoat of some female person he had formerly loved, when that person used to go out of the room, raising her skirt just a little (that this person was Sofya Petrovna he somehow did not remember).

Nikolai Apollonovich kept trying not to think, not to understand: to think, to understand – could there be any understanding of this; this had come, overwhelmed, roared; if one thought about it, one would simply throw oneself through a hole in the ice … What could one think? There was no point in thinking here … because this … this … Well, what was this? …

No, here no one was capable of thinking.

In the first moment after he had read the note through, something in his soul bellowed piteously: bellowed as piteously as a meek ox bellows under the butcher’s knife. In that first moment he found his father with his gaze; and his father looked merely so-so, so-so: looked small, old – looked like a little chicken with no feathers; he felt sick with horror; in his soul something again bellowed piteously: so submissively and piteously.

At this point he had gone rushing off.

And now Nikolai Apollonovich kept trying to catch at externals: that caryatid in the entrance porch; there was nothing particularly remarkable about it: it was a caryatid … And yet – no, no! There was something wrong about the caryatid – he had never seen anything like it; it was hanging over a flame. And that little house there: there was nothing particularly remarkable about it – it was a small, black house.

No, no, no!

There was more to the little house than met the eye, as there was more to everything else, too: everything within him had been dislocated, torn; he himself was torn; and from somewhere (he knew not from where) he had never yet been, he was watching!

Here were his feet – there was nothing particularly remarkable about his feet … But no, no! They were not feet – they were completely soft and unfamiliar parts, dangling there idly.

But Nikolai Apollonovich’s attempt to catch at irrelevant thoughts and trivia was suddenly broken off when the entrance-porch door of that tall house where he had just been behaving like a madman began noisily to fly open, and from it group after group came pouring out; there in the fog carriages moved off, and so did the lights of the lamps at their sides. With an effort, Nikolai Apollonovich moved away from the front step of the small black house, Nikolai Apollonovich turned off into an empty back alley.

The back alley was as empty as everything else: as the spaces up aloft there; as empty as the human soul. For a moment Nikolai Apollonovich tried to remember about transcendental objects, about the fact that the events of this transitory world do not encroach in the slightest on the immortality of its centre and that even the thinking brain is only a phenomenon of consciousness; that for as long as he, Nikolai Apollonovich, acted in this world, he was not he; and he was a transitory shell; his true contemplative spirit was none the less capable of lighting his way for him: of lighting his way for him even with this; of illuminating even … this … But all around this rose: rose in the form of fences; and at his feet he noticed: some kind of gateway and a puddle.

And the light did not shine.22

Nikolai Apollonovich’s consciousness endeavoured vainly to shine; it did not shine; however horrible the darkness was, the darkness remained. Looking round in fear, pathetically he somehow managed to creep over to the blotch of light from the street lamp; beneath the blotch babbled the rivulet of a pavement gutter, and over the blotch an orange peel sped by. Nikolai Apollonovich again applied himself to the note. The flocks of thoughts flew away from the centre of his consciousness like flocks of frenzied birds frightened by a storm, but there was no centre of consciousness, either: a murky hole gaped there, before which Nikolai Apollonovich stood bewildered, as before a murky well. But where and when had he stood in similar fashion? Nikolai Apollonovich made an effort to remember; and could not remember. And again applied himself to the note: the flocks of thoughts plunged, swift as birds, into that empty hole; and now some kind of wretched, flaccid little thoughts swarmed there.

‘Remembering your proposal of the summer,’ Nikolai Apollonovich read again, and tried to find something he could take exception to. And could not find anything.

‘Remembering your proposal of the summer’ … There had indeed been a proposal, but he had forgotten about it: he had once remembered about it, and then these events of the only just bygone past had come rushing in, the domino had come rushing in; Nikolai Apollonovich glanced at the recent past in consternation, and found it simply uninteresting; there had been some lady or other with a pretty little face; though, as a matter of fact, nothing particularly remarkable: a lady, a lady and a lady! …

The flocks of thoughts flew away from the centre of consciousness a second time; but there was no centre of consciousness; before his eyes was the gateway, while in his soul there was an empty hole; Nikolai Apollonovich began to reflect over the empty hole. Where and when had he stood in similar fashion? Nikolai Apollonovich made an effort to remember; and – remembered: he had stood in similar fashion in the gusts of Neva wind, leaning over the railings of the bridge, and had looked at the bacillus-infected water (why, it had all come from that night: the dreadful proposal, the domino, and now …) Now: Nikolai Apollonovich stood, stooping low and continuing to read the note of dreadful content (all this had happened once: had happened a great many times).

‘We hasten to inform you that it is now your turn to act,’ read Nikolai Apollonovich. And turned round: behind his back there was the sound of footsteps; some kind of restless shadow loomed ambiguously in the gusts of the back alley. Over his shoulder Nikolai Apollonovich saw: a bowler hat, a walking stick, a coat, a small beard and a nose.

Nikolai Apollonovich went towards the passer-by, peering expectantly; and saw a bowler hat, a walking stick, a coat, a small beard and a nose; all these things walked past, paying no attention (all one could hear was footsteps and a heart beating fit to burst); to all these things Nikolai Apollonovich turned round and looked away into the grimy fog – to where they were swiftly walking: the bowler hat, the walking stick and the ears; for a long time he continued to stand leaning over (this too had happened before once), with his mouth wide open in a most unpleasant fashion and presenting at any rate a rather absurd figure (he was wearing a Nikolayevka) with a wing of the coat dancing so preposterously in the wind … Could anyone as short-sighted as he really see anything at all apart from the edge of the fence?

And he returned to his reading.

‘The material you require, in the form of a bomb with a clock mechanism, has been suitably delivered in a bundle …’ Nikolai took exception to this sentence: no, it had not been delivered, it had not! And, having taken exception, he experienced something akin to hope that all this was a practical joke … A bomb? … He had no bomb? … No, no, – yes!!

In a bundle?!

Now it all came back to him: the conversation, the bundle, the suspicious visitor, the bleak September day, and all the rest. Nikolai Apollonovich distinctly remembered how he had taken the little bundle, how he had shoved it into the writing desk (the little bundle had been wet).

Only now was Nikolai Apollonovich able to realize the utter horror of his position. What was he to do, what was he to do? And for the first time he was seized by an inexpressible fear: he felt a sharp stabbing in his heart: the edge of the gateway began to revolve before him; and the darkness comprehended him, as it had just embraced him; his ‘I’ turned out to be merely a black receptacle, if not a cramped storeroom, immersed in absolute darkness; and here, in the darkness, in the place where his heart was, a spark flared … with frenzied swiftness it turned into a crimson sphere: the sphere expanded, expanded, expanded; and the sphere burst: everything burst … Nikolai Apollonovich came to his senses: some mangy little gentleman or other with a wart beside his nose (wait: he fancied he had just seen the little gentleman; he fancied he had seen the little gentleman at the ball; he fancied that the little gentleman had been standing in front of the other, old one in the drawing-room there, rubbing his little hands) – the mangy little gentleman with the wart beside his nose stopped two paces from him in front of an old fence – to attend to a natural need; but, as he stood in front of the old fence, he turned his face towards Ableukhov, made a sort of clicking sound with his lips and grinned very slightly:

‘I expect you’ve been to the ball?’

‘Yes, I have …’

Nikolai Apollonovich had been caught unawares; and anyway, what was so special about it: attending a ball was not yet a crime.

‘I already know …’

‘What’s that? But how do you know?’

‘Well, under your overcoat there’s a, how should I put it: well, a piece of domino showing.’

‘Well, yes, it is a domino …’

‘And it was showing yesterday as well …’

‘What do you mean, yesterday?’

‘Beside the Winter Canal …’

‘My good sir, you forget yourself …’

‘Oh, come on: you’re the domino.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Yes – the very one.’

‘I do not understand you: and in any case it is odd to go up to an unknown person …’

‘Oh, you’re not at all unknown: you’re Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov: and you’re also the Red Domino they’re writing about in the newspapers …’

Nikolai Apollonovich was whiter than a sheet:

‘Listen,’ he said, stretching out his hand to the sugary little gentleman. ‘Listen …’

But the little gentleman would not stop:

‘I know your father, Apollon Apollonovich, too: I’ve just had the honour of chatting to him.’

‘Oh, believe me,’ Nikolai Apollonovich began to writhe in agitation, ‘those are all filthy rumours …’

But, having attended to his natural need, the little gentleman slowly moved away from the fence, did up his coat, stuck his hand in his pocket familiarly and gave a meaningful wink:

‘Where are you going?’

‘To Vasily Island,’ Nikolai Apollonovich blurted out.

‘I’m going there too: so we’re fellow-travellers, then.’

‘Actually, I’m going to the Embankment …’

‘You evidently don’t know where you ought to go,’ the mangy little gentleman grinned, ‘and so – let’s drop in at a nice little restaurant.’

Back alley ran off into back alley: back alleys brought them out to the street again. Ordinary inhabitants ran about the street in the form of small black restless shadows.