Petersburg The Loft

By a chance piece of negligence, the loft was not locked; and Dudkin rushed inside.

He banged the door shut behind him.

It is strange at night in a loft; its floor is strewn with earth; you walk smoothly over a soft surface; suddenly: a thick beam flies under your feet and lands you on all fours. Brightly the moon’s transverse rays stretch like white rafters: you walk through them.

Suddenly … –

A transverse beam confers a wallop on your nose with all its might; you risk being left for ever with a broken nose.

The motionless white blotches – of long underwear, towels and sheets … A puff of wind flutters by – and the white blotches stretch: long underwear, towels and sheets.

Everything is deserted.

Aleksandr Ivanovich somehow ended up in the loft all at once; and, having ended up in the loft, was surprised that the loft was unlocked; the house laundress, completely immersed in thoughts of her intended, probably had left the door open after her. When Aleksandr Ivanovich slipped through this door he felt reassured, kept quiet: sighed with relief; behind him there were neither running footsteps, nor the gramophone screeching of the abracadabra; nor even a banging door.

But through the broken panes of the window a song could be heard from far away:

Mamma buy me for a dress

Some silk that’s blue …

The dully banging door resolved itself into the beating of his heart; and the shadow that was falling downstairs merely into a shadow over the moon; the rest was a hallucination; he must undergo a cure – that was all.

Aleksandr Ivanovich listened closely. And – what could he hear? What he could hear you already know: the quite distinct sound of a cracking rafter; and – a dense silence: that is – a mesh woven of nothing but rustlings; among them, firstly – in the corner there were shushes and hushes; secondly – a tension of the atmosphere caused by the inaudible impact of footsteps; and – the sound of some kind of idiot swallowing his saliva.

In a word – just ordinary, domestic sounds: and there was no reason to be afraid of them.

At this point Aleksandr Ivanovich regained control of himself; and he could have returned: in his room – he knew this now for certain – there was no one, nothing (the attack of illness had passed). But all the same he did not feel like leaving the loft: carefully, amidst the long underwear, towels and sheets, he walked over to the window with its autumn cobwebs and stuck his head through the splinters of glass: what he saw now breathed towards him with reassurance and peace-instilling sadness.

Beneath his feet he saw clearly – and with distinct and dazzling simplicity: the well-marked square of the courtyard, that from here looked toylike, the silvery cords of ash wood, from which he had so recently looked up in unfeigned alarm at the windows of his room; but also, and this was the main thing: in the yardkeeper’s lodge they were still making merry; a hoarse little song was coming from the lodge; the door block rattled; and two small figures appeared; one of them burst out bawling:

I see, O Lord, my own unrighteousness:

Falsehood has deceived me to my face,

Falsehood has blinded my eyes …

I was sorry to lose my white body,

I was sorry to lose my coloured raiment,

Sweet victuals,

Intoxicating drink –

I, Pontius, feared the archpriests,

I, Pilate, went in dread of the Pharisees.

Washed my hands – washed away my conscience!

An innocent did I consign to crucifixion …

This was sung by: Voronkov the police station clerk and Bessmertny the basement shoemaker. Aleksandr Ivanovich thought: ‘Should I go down and join them?’ And would have gone down … had it not been for – the staircase.

The staircase frightened him.

The sky had cleared. The turquoise island roof that was somewhere there, below him, to the side – the turquoise island roof whimsically traced its silvery scales, and then those silvery scales merged entirely with the living tremor of the Neva’s waters.

And the Neva seethed.

And cried there despairingly in the whistle of a small, late-passing steamboat, of which all that could be seen was the receding eye of a red lantern. Further away, on the other side of the Neva, stretched the Embankment; above the boxes of yellow, grey and brown houses, above the columns of grey and brown-red palaces, rococo and baroque, rose the dark walls of an enormous temple made by hand of man, its golden dome stuck sharply up into the world of the moon – from stone walls black-grey, cylindrical and slightly raised in form, surrounded by a colonnade: St Isaac’s …

And, scarcely visible, the golden Admiralty soared into the sky like an arrow.

The voice sang:

Have mercy, Lord!

Forgive, Christ! …

To the tsar my rank I will return – I pine for my soul,

Will sell my house – give to the poor,

dismiss my wife – seek out God …

Have mercy, Lord!

Forgive, Christ!

Probably at one o’clock in the morning – there, on the square, the little old grenadier was snoring, supporting himself on his bayonet; his shaggy cap rested against the bayonet, and the grenadier’s shadow lay motionless on the patterned interweavings of the railings.

The entire square was deserted.

At this midnight hour the metal hooves fell and clanged on the rock; the horse snorted through its nostrils into the white-hot fog; the Horseman’s bronze outline now detached itself from the horse’s croup, and a jingling spur impatiently grazed the horse’s flank, to make the horse fly down from the rock.

And the horse flew down from the rock.

Over the stones raced a heavily resonant* clatter – across the bridge: to the Islands. The Bronze Horseman flew on into the fog; in his eyes was a greenish depth; the muscles of his metal hands straightened, tautened; and the bronze sinciput darted; the horse’s hooves fell on the cobblestones, on the swift and blinding arcs; the horse’s mouth split apart in a deafening neighing, reminiscent of the whistlings of a locomotive; the thick steam from its nostrils splashed the street with luminous boiling water; horses that were coming the other way snorted and shied in horror; and passers-by, in horror, closed their eyes.

Line after Line flew past: as did a piece of the left bank – with quays, steamer funnels and a dirty heap of sacks stuffed with hemp; as did vacant lots, barges, fences, tarpaulins and numerous small houses. While from the seashore, from the outskirts of the city, a side gleamed out of the fog: the side of a turbulent little drinking-house.

The very oldest Dutchman, clad in black leather, leaned forward, away from the mildewed threshold – into a cold pandemonium (the moon had fled behind a cloud); and a lantern quivered in his fingers under his bluish face in its black leather hood: evidently, from there the Dutchman’s sensitive ear had heard the horse’s heavy clattering and locomotive-like neighing, because the Dutchman had abandoned the other seamen like himself, whose glasses chimed from morning to morning.

He evidently knew that here the furious, drunken feast would drag on all the way until the dim morning; he evidently knew that when the clock struck long after midnight, the sturdy Guest would come flying to the hollow chiming of the glasses: to knock back the fiery Allasch; to shake more than one hawser-rubbed hand, which from the captain’s bridge would turn the heavy steamship wheel outside the very forts of Kronstadt; and in pursuit of the foam-seething stern that had not replied to the signal, a cannon’s iron muzzle would cast its roar.

But the vessel would not be overtaken: it would enter the cloud that had settled over the sea; would fuse with it, would move with it – into the clear blue of the hours before dawn.

All this the very oldest Dutchman knew, clad in black leather and craning forward into the fog from the mildewy steps: now he could discern the outline of the flying Horseman … The clattering could already be heard over there; and – the nostrils snorted, penetrating the fog, as they flamed, like a luminous white-hot pillar.

Aleksandr Ivanovich walked away from the window, reassured, pacified, shivering (a cold breeze was blowing at him through the glass splinters); while towards him the white blotches began to sway – long underwear, towels and sheets; the breeze fluttered by …

And the blotches moved.

Timidly he opened the loft door; he had decided to go back to his little cupboard-like room.