Petersburg The Little Gentleman

Nikolai Apollonovich was silent all the way.

Nikolai Apollonovich turned round and stared straight into the face of the little gentleman who was running after him.

‘Excuse me: with whom …’

The Petersburg slush rustled in melting streams; over there a carriage flew past into the fog with the light of the street lamps …

‘With whom do I have the honour …?’

All the way he had heard the tiresome squelching of the galoshes that were running after him and had felt running over his back the small and inflamed eyes of that little bowler hat that had tagged along after him ever since he had left the gateway – back there, in the little alley.

‘Pavel Yakovlevich Morkovin …’

And lo: Nikolai Apollonovich turned round and stared straight into the little gentleman’s face; the face said nothing: bowler hat, walking-stick, coat, little beard and nose.

After that he fell into oblivion, turning away towards the wall, along which the shadowy little bowler hat ran all the way, slightly tilted to one side; the sight of this bowler hat filled him with revulsion; the Petersburg dampness began to crawl under his skin; the Petersburg slush rustled in melting streams; the ice-covered ground, the sleety drizzle soaked his coat.

The bowler hat on the wall now expanded its shadow, now diminished; again the distinctive voice was heard behind Ableukhov’s back:

‘I bet it pleases you to assume this tone of indifference out of sheer coquetry …’

All this had happened somewhere before.

‘Listen,’ Nikolai Apollonovich tried to say to the bowler hat. ‘I will confess I am surprised; I will confess I …’

Then over there the first bright apple flared; there – a second one; there – a third; and a line of electric apples delineated the Nevsky Prospect, where the walls of the stone buildings are suffused by a fiery murk all the Petersburg night long and where the bright little restaurants display into the complete confusion of that night their brilliant blood-red signs, beneath which feathered ladies dart about, hiding the carmine of their painted lips in boas – among top hats, cap-bands, bowler hats, Russian shirts, overcoats – in the dim dregs of light that reveal from beyond the poor Finnish marshes above many-versted Russia the wide-open, white-hot jaws of Gehenna.

Nikolai Apollonovich followed, kept following the running of the black, shadowy bowler hat along the walls, the age-old dark shadow; Nikolai Apollonovich knew: the circumstances of his encounter with the enigmatic Pavel Yakovlevich would not permit him to break off that encounter right there and then – by the little fence – with any real dignity for himself: he must with the greatest of caution ascertain what this Pavel Yakovlevich really knew about him, what had really been said between him and his father; that was why he had been slow in taking his leave.

Here the Neva opened out: the stone curve of the Winter Canal showed beneath itself a tearful spaciousness, and from there rushed onslaughts of wet wind; on the other side of the Neva rose the outlines of islands and houses; and sadly cast their amber eyes into the fog; and it seemed that they wept.

‘So you’re really not averse to, as it’s called, coming to an understanding with me?’ the same mangy little voice importuned behind his back.

Here was the square; the same grey rock towered up on the square; the same horse flung out its hoof; but it was a strange thing: a shadow covered the Bronze Horseman. And it seemed that the Horseman was not there; there in the distance, on the Neva, stood some kind of fishing schooner; and a tiny light gleamed on board the schooner.

‘It’s time I was off home …’

‘Oh, come on: you can’t go home now!’

And they walked across the bridge.

Ahead of them walked a couple: a seaman of forty-five, dressed in black leather; he had a fur hat with earflaps, his cheeks were bluish and he had a bright reddish-brown beard with streaks of grey in it; his neighbour, quite simply a kind of giant in enormous boots, with a dark green wool felt hat, strode along – dark-browed, dark-haired, with a small nose and a small moustache. Both reminded one of something; and both walked through the open door of a little restaurant under a diamond sign.

Under the letters of the diamond sign Pavel Yakovlevich Morkovin grabbed Ableukhov by the wing of his Nikolayevka with incomprehensible insolence:

‘This way, Nikolai Apollonovich, into the restaurant: here – that’s it – this way, sir! …’

‘But wait a moment …’

Here Pavel Yakovlevich, keeping his hand on the wing of the overcoat, proceeded to yawn: he bent, stooped, and then stretched, bringing his open oral cavity right up to Nikolai Apollonovich, like some cannibal preparing to swallow Ableukhov: swallow him without fail.

This fit of yawning passed to Ableukhov; the latter’s lips began to twist:

‘Aaa – a: aaaa …’

Ableukhov tried to tear himself free:

‘No, it’s time I was going, it really is.’

But the mysterious gentleman, having received the gift of the word, interrupted in a disrespectful manner:

‘Oh, I know you: are you bored?’

And without letting him speak, interrupted him again:

‘Well, I’m bored, too: and what’s more, you can add, I’ve got a cold: all these past few days I’ve been trying to cure it with a tallow candle …’

Nikolai Apollonovich was about to interject something, but his mouth was torn apart in a yawn:

‘Aaa: aaa – aaa! …’

‘Well, well – you see how bored you are!’

‘I just feel sleepy …’

‘Well, let us assume you are, yet all the same (please try to put yourself in my position): this is a rare occasion, a most r-r-are occasion …’

There was nothing for it: Nikolai Apollonovich shrugged his shoulders the merest bit and with a barely perceptible disgust opened the restaurant door … Coat-hangers sagging with blackness: with bowler hats, sticks, coats.

‘A rare occasion, a most r-rare occasion,’ Morkovin said, snapping his fingers. ‘I tell you this straight: a young man of such exceptional talents as yourself? … Let him go? … Leave him in peace?! …’

A thickish, white vapour containing some sort of pancake smell, mixed with the wetness from the street; with an icy burning sensation a numbered tag fell into the palm of a hand.

‘Hee-hee-hee,’ said Pavel Yakovlevich, letting himself go – he had taken off his coat and was rubbing his hands. ‘It’s interesting for me to get to know a young philosopher: don’t you think so?’

The Petersburg street was beginning now, in the restaurant premises, to bake with a pungent fever, crawling over the body like dozens of tiny, red-legged ants:

‘You see, everyone knows me … Aleksandr Ivanovich, your father, Butishchenko, Shishiganov, PeppĆ³vich …’

After these words that had been spoken, Nikolai Apollonovich felt the most lively curiosity, aroused by three circumstances; in the first place: the stranger – for the umpteenth time! – had stressed his acquaintance with his father (that signified something); in the second place: the stranger had made a slip in speaking about Aleksandr Ivanovich and had mentioned this name and patronymic alongside his father’s name; lastly, the stranger had mentioned a number of surnames (Butishchenko, Shishiganov, PeppĆ³vich) that sounded so strangely familiar …

‘She’s an interesting one, sir,’ Pavel Yakovlevich said to Ableukhov with a nudge, referring to a bright-lipped prostitute in a light orange dress with a Turkish cigarette in her teeth … ‘What’s your attitude to women? … Perhaps you ought to …’


‘Oh well, I won’t go on about it: I can see you’re a modest fellow … And anyway there isn’t time … We’ve got one or two things to …’

While all around was heard:

‘Who did you say?’

‘Who? … Ivan! …’

‘Ivan Ivanych! …’

‘Ivan Ivanych Ivanov …’

‘So then I said: Ivvan-Ivanch? … Eh? … Ivvan-Ivanch? … What are you up to, then, Ivvan-Ivanch? Ai, ai, ai! …’

‘And Ivan Ivanych …’

‘That’s all rubbish.’

‘No, it’s not rubbish … Ask Ivan Ivanych: there he is over there, in the billiards room … Ei, ei!’

‘Ivvan! …

‘Ivan Ivanych!’

‘Ivvan Ivvanych Ivanov …’

‘And what a swine you are, Ivan Ivanych!’

Somewhere all hell was let loose; from in there a machine, like a dozen clamorous horns, throwing ear-splitting sounds into nowhere – suddenly bellowed: below the machine the merchant, Ivan Ivanych Ivanov, brandishing a green bottle, had risen into a dancing position with a lady in a tattered blouse; the grime of her dirty cheeks burned there; from beneath her reddish-brown hair, from beneath the crimson feathers that had fallen on to her forehead, pressing a handkerchief to her lips so as not to hiccup out loud, the goggle-eyed lady was laughing; and as she laughed her breasts began to bounce; Ivan Ivanych Ivanov gave a neighing laugh; the drunken audience thundered all around.

Nikolai Apollonovich stared in amazement: how could he have ended up in such a filthy place and in such filthy company at the very moment when …

‘Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,’ roared the same little drunken group, as Ivan Ivanych Ivanov seized his lady by the hair and bent her down to the floor, tearing out an enormous crimson feather; the lady wept, expecting blows; but they managed to tear the merchant away from her in time. Embitteredly, tormentedly inside the wild machine, roaring and beating tambourines, the terrible times of old, like a volcanic eruption of subterranean violence rushing at us out of the depths, grew in volume, spread and wept into the restaurant hall out of golden pipes:

‘Aa-ba-a-ate un-re-est of the paa-aassions …’2

‘Fall asle-e-eep thou ho-ope-less he-e-art …’

‘Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! …’