Petersburg A Loathsome Creature

The seething waters of the canal rushed to the place where from the unbridled expanses of the Field of Mars the wind crashed into the thicket’s groaning branches: what a terrible place!

The terrible place was crowned by a magnificent palace; with its upwards-stretched tower it resembled a whimsical castle: pink and red, of heavy stone; the crown-bearer lived within those walls; this did not happen now; that crown-bearer is no more.

In they kingdom remember his soul, O Lord!

The summit of the pink and red palace protruded aloft out of a roaring, thick mass of knotty branches that were completely without leaves; the branches stretched there to the sky in wild rushes and, as they swayed, tried to catch the fleeting flocks of the mists; cawing, a crow shot aloft; soared, swayed above the flocks, and came plunging down again.

A carriage was crossing that place.

Two small red houses flew towards it, forming the likeness of a gate-arch on the square in front of the palace; to the left of the square the heap of trees kept up a threatening roaring; and it was as if the careening summits of the trunks were engaged in an attack; the high spire jutted out from behind the foggy flocks.

An equestrian statue stood out blackly and unclearly on the foggy square; passing visitors to Petersburg do not give this statue any attention; I always stand before it for a long time: it is a magnificent statue! It is only a pity that some wretched mocker had put gilt paint on its socle when last I drove past it.

The autocrat and great-grandson had raised this statue to his illustrious great-grandfather, the autocrat had lived in this castle; here too, he had ended his unhappy days – in the pink stone castle; he did not languish long here; he could not languish here; his soul was torn apart between a petty tyrannical vanity and fits of nobility; from this torn soul the infant spirit flew away.

Probably the snub-nosed head in white curls appeared in the embrasure of the window more than once; that window up there – was it not from that one? And the head in white curls painfully surveyed the expanses beyond the window panes; and the eyes luxuriated in the pink fading of the sky; or: the eyes revelled in the silvery play and the seethings of the moon’s reflections in the dense-leaved thicket; by the entrance porch stood a Pavlovsky sentry in a three-cornered hat with a broad brim, presenting arms to a gold-chested general wearing the order of St Andrew,8 as he proceeded to a gilt carriage decorated with aquarelles; a flaming red coachman loomed up from the raised box; on the footboard at the rear of the carriage stood thick-lipped Negroes.

The Emperor Pavel Petrovich, having cast a glance at all this, returned to a sentimental conversation with a lady-in-waiting in muslin and gauze, and the lady-in-waiting smiled; on her cheeks there were two sly dimples, and – a black beauty spot.

On that fateful night the moon’s silver flowed in through those same panes, falling on the heavy furniture of the imperial bedchamber; it fell on the bed, gilding a sly little spark-throwing cupid; and on the pale pillow a profile that seemed to be sketched in Indian ink was outlined; chimes were sounding somewhere; footsteps could be detected coming from somewhere … Not three moments passed – and the bed was rumpled: in place of the pale profile, the impression of a head was shadowed; the sheets were warm; the sleeper was not there; a little group of white-curled officers with drawn swords were inclining their heads towards the empty bed; people were trying to break down the locked door at the side; a woman’s voice was weeping; suddenly the hand of a pink-lipped officer raised the heavy window blind a little; from behind the lowered muslin, there, in the window, in transparent silver – a thin, black shadow trembled.

And the moon continued to stream its light silver, falling on the heavy furniture of the imperial bedroom; it fell on the bed, gilding the little cupid who gleamed from the head of the bed; it also fell on the profile, deathly pale, as though traced in Indian ink … Somewhere chimes were sounding; in the distance footsteps were padding closer from every side.

Nikolai Apollonovich vacantly surveyed this gloomy place, not noticing at all that the shaven physiognomy of the second lieutenant who was giving him the ride turned now and then to face his, if one might be permitted to observe, neighbour; the gaze with which second lieutenant Likhutin surveyed the victim he was giving a ride to, seemed full of curiosity; he kept turning restlessly all the way; all the way he kept nudging his side into him. Little by little, Nikolai Apollonovich guessed that Sergei Sergeyevich found it unbearable to touch him … even though it were only his side; and now he elbowed him, awarding his fellow traveller a fine rain of jolts.

Just then the wind tore off Ableukhov’s Italian broad-brimmed hat, and with an involuntary movement the latter caught it on Sergei Sergeyevich’s knees; for a moment he also touched Sergei Sergeyevich’s stiff fingers, but those fingers twitched and suddenly leapt to the side with the most manifest loathing and alarm; the angular elbow began to move. Second lieutenant Likhutin now probably had the sensation of touching the skin not of a familiar and, it might be said, bosom companion of his childhood, but … of a loathsome creature, of the kind that is … struck dead … on the spot …

Ableukhov noticed that gesture; he in his turn began to study the companion of his childhood, with whom he had once been on thou terms; this thou, Seryozhka – Sergei Sergeich Likhutin, in other words – had since the time of their last conversation become younger, yes, really – by some eight years, having turned from being Sergei Sergeich into Seryozhka; but now this Seryozhka did not harken with servility to the soarings of Ableukhov’s thoughts, as he had done in those days, in the elder grove, in his grandfather’s old park some eight years ago; and the eight years had altered everything: the elder grove had been chopped down long ago, while he … – he looked with servility at Sergei Sergeich.

Their unequal relations had been stood on end; and everything, everything had gone in reverse direction; the idiotic appearance, the little coat, the jolts from the angular elbow and the other gestures of nervousness that Nikolai Apollonovich read as gestures of contempt – all, all this led him into melancholy reflections on the vicissitudes of human relations; this dreadful place had also led him into melancholy reflections: the pink-red palace, the wildly howling garden with its crows shooting into the sky, the two small red houses and the equestrian statue; though as a matter of fact, garden, castle and statue were now behind their shoulders.

And Ableukhov grew pinched and haggard-looking.

‘Are you leaving the service, Sergei Sergeyevich?’


‘The service …’

‘As you see …’

And Sergei Sergeyevich gave him a look as though until today he had not known Ableukhov; he looked him up and down from head to foot.

‘I’d advise you to raise your collar a bit, Sergei Sergeyevich: you’ve a cold in your throat, and in this weather it’s really very easy to …’


‘Easy to catch a quinsy.’

‘And all because of a matter that concerns you,’ Likhutin barked out hollowly; his agitated snorting was heard.


‘Oh, I’m not talking about my throat … I’m leaving the service all because of a matter that concerns you, or rather, not that, but: thanks to you.’

‘A hint,’ Nikolai Apollonovich very nearly started to exclaim, and caught the look again: people never look at a friend like that, but rather, perhaps, at an unprecedented, outlandish wonder, the proper place for which is in the Cabinet of Curiosities9 (not in a carriage, and even less on the prospect …)

With such a look do passers-by cast their eyes at the elephants that are sometimes led late at night in the city from railway station to circus; they roll their eyes, stagger back, and – do not believe their eyes; at home they will say:

‘Would you believe it, we met an elephant in the street!’

But everyone laughs at them.

That was the kind of curiosity Likhutin’s gaze expressed; there was no indignation in it; there was, perhaps, loathing (as from proximity to a boa constrictor); after all, creeping loathsome creatures do not provoke anger – they are simply struck dead, with whatever comes to hand: on the spot …

Nikolai Apollonovich was thinking about the words the second lieutenant had muttered about his leaving the service – solely because of him; yes – Sergei Sergeich Likhutin would lose the opportunity of working in the service of the state after what was soon going to happen between them both; the little flat would obviously be empty (in it the loathsome creature would be crushed) … Something, something was going to happen … here Nikolai Apollonovich felt afraid in good earnest; he began to fidget on the spot and – and: all his ten fingers, trembling, cold, gripped the second lieutenant’s sleeve.

‘Eh? … What is it? … Why are you doing that?’

Here a small house loomed past, a small house the colour of blancmange, which was surrounded from top to bottom by grey moulding work: rococo curlicues (which had once, perhaps, served as a refuge for that same lady-in-waiting with the black beauty spot and two sly little dimples on her lily-white cheeks).

‘Sergei Sergeich … Sergei Sergeyevich, I … I must confess to you … Oh, how sorry I am … It’s extremely, extremely sad: my behaviour … Sergei Sergeich, I’ve behaved … Sergei Sergeyevich … shamefully, lamentably … But Sergei Sergeyevich, I have an excuse: yes, I do, I do have an excuse. As an enlightened, humane man, as a bright spirit, not some … Sergei Sergeyevich, you will be able to understand it all … I couldn’t sleep last night, or rather, I mean, I am suffering from insomnia … The doctors consider me’ – now he stooped to lying – ‘or rather my condition – to be very, very dangerous … Exhaustion of the brain with pseudohallucinations, Sergei Sergeyevich’ (for some reason Dudkin’s words came to mind) ‘… What do you say?’

But Sergei Sergeyevich did not say anything: he looked without indignation; and in his gaze there was loathing (as from vicinity to a boa constrictor); after all, loathsome creatures do not provoke anger: they are … struck dead … on the spot …

‘Pseudohallucinations …’ Ableukhov repeated beseechingly, frightened, small, clumsy, seeking out the other’s eyes with his own eyes (the eyes did not reply to one another); he wanted to explain himself immediately; and – right here, in the cab: to explain himself here – not in the little flat; and now that fateful entrance porch was not far away; and if he was unable to come to an agreement with the officer before they got to the entrance porch, then – everything, everything: would be finished! Finished! There would be a murder, or an outrageous action, or simply a disgraceful fight:

‘I … I … I …’

‘Out you get: we’re here.’

Nikolai Apollonovich looked before him with leaden, unblinking eyes – looked at the shreds of bluish mist, from which drops squelched, spinning metallic bubbles on the surface of the gurgling puddles.

Second lieutenant Likhutin, having leapt down to the pavement, threw the money to the cab driver and now stood before the carriage, waiting for the senator’s son; the latter seemed to dally.

‘Wait, Sergei Sergeyevich: I had a stick here with me … Ach! Where is it? Did I drop my stick?’

He really was looking for the stick; but the stick had disappeared without trace; Nikolai Apollonovich, completely pale, turned beseeching eyes uneasily in all directions.

‘Well, then?’

‘But my stick.’

Ableukhov’s head had receded deep into his shoulders, and his shoulders swayed; while his mouth crookedly moved apart; Nikolai Apollonovich looked before him with leaden, unblinking eyes at the bluish shreds of the mist; and – did not move.

At this point Sergei Sergeich Likhutin began to breathe angrily and impatiently; gripping Ableukhov by the sleeve, discreetly but firmly began the careful process of extracting him from the carriage, arousing the manifest curiosity of the house’s yardkeeper – began to extract him like a sack stuffed full of goods.

But, once extracted, Nikolai Apollonovich fairly clutched at Likhutin’s hand with his fingernails: for in the darkness, once they got through that door, the hand might perhaps assume an unseemly pose with regard to his, Nikolai Apollonovich’s, cheek; in the darkness he would not be able to jump aside; and – all would be over: the bodily movement would be accomplished; the Ableukhov family would be disgraced for ever (they had never been physically beaten).

Now second lieutenant Likhutin (the devil!) seized with his free hand the collar of the Italian cloak; and Nikolai Apollonovich turned whiter than linen.

‘I’m coming, I’m coming, Sergei Sergeich …’

He instinctively dug his heel into the side of the entrance-porch step; however, he at once thought the better of it, in order not to be made a laughing-stock.

The entrance-porch door slammed shut.