Petersburg A Mad Dog Yelped

We left Sofya Petrovna Likhutina in a difficult situation; we left her on the Petersburg pavement that cold night, when police whistles began to sound from somewhere in the distance, and all around some kind of dark contours ran. Then she herself, outraged, ran in the opposite direction; into her soft muff she poured tears of outrage; she would never be able to reconcile herself to the dreadful occurrence that had shamed her for ever. It would have been better if Nikolai Apollonovich had outraged her in some other way, if he had struck her, if he had even thrown himself off the small bridge in his red domino – all the rest of her life she would have remembered him with a terrible shiver, remembered until her dying day. Sofya Petrovna Likhutina did not consider the Winter Canal as just any prosaic place where one might allow oneself to do what he had just allowed himself; not for nothing, after all, had she sighed repeatedly over the strains of The Queen of Spades; there was something similar to Liza in this situation of hers (what the similarity was, she could not have said exactly); and it went without saying that she had dreamt of seeing Nikolai Apollonovich here as Hermann. And Hermann? … Hermann had behaved like a wretched little pickpocket thief: he had, in the first place, thrust his mask at her with ridiculous cowardice from round the side of the palace; in the second place, having flapped his domino in front of her with ridiculous haste, he had sprawled on the small bridge; and then from under the folds of satin the trouser straps had prosaically appeared (those trouser straps had finally driven her to fury); to crown all these monstrosities, which had nothing to do with Hermann, this Hermann had been running away from a Petersburg policeman; Hermann had not remained where he was and torn the mask off with a heroic, tragic gesture; he had not said audaciously in a hollow, dying voice in front of everyone: ‘I love you’; and Hermann had not then shot himself. No, Hermann’s shameful behaviour had turned the very thought of the domino into a pretentious harlequinade; and above all, she had been injured by this shameful behaviour; well, what kind of Liza could she be, if there was no Hermann! So, vengeance on him, vengeance on him!

Sofya Petrovna Likhutina flew into the small flat like a storm. In the illumined hallway hung an officer’s coat and a peaked cap: that meant that her husband was now back, and without taking her coat off, Sofya Petrovna Likhutina flew into her husband’s room; throwing the door wide open with a prosaically coarse gesture – she flew inside: with her streaming boa, her soft muff, her burning, burning little face, which was somehow unattractively swollen: flew inside – and stopped.

Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin was evidently getting ready for bed; his double-breasted jacket hung rather modestly on the coat-rack, while he himself, in a dazzlingly white shirt cross-girdled with braces, knelt, as if broken, like a dying silhouette; before him an icon gleamed and an icon-lamp sputtered. Sergei Sergeyevich’s face was outlined lustrelessly in the half-light from the blue lamp, with a pointed little beard of exactly the same colour and a hand, also of the same colour, raised to his forehead; hand, face, beard and white chest were carved from some kind of hard, fragrant wood; Sergei Sergeyevich’s lips were barely moving; and Sergei Sergeyevich’s forehead barely nodded towards the small blue flame, and barely did his clenched, bluish fingers move as they pressed against his forehead – in order to make the sign of the cross.

Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin first placed his bluish fingers on his chest and on both shoulders, bowed, and only then, rather reluctantly, turned round. Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin was not alarmed, was not embarrassed; getting up off his knees, he assiduously began to brush away the specks of dust that clung to them. After these slow actions, he asked coolly:

‘What’s the matter, Sonyushka?’

Sofya Petrovna was irritated and somehow even offended by her husband’s cool composure, just as she was offended by that blue flame over there in the corner. Abruptly she fell on to a chair and, covering her face with her muff, sobbed aloud to the whole room.

Then Sergei Sergeyevich’s whole face grew kinder, softened; his thin lips relaxed, a wrinkle cut across his brow, giving his face a look of compassion. But Sergei Sergeyevich had only a vague idea of how he ought to act in this ticklish situation – whether to give free rein to female tears, and then put up with a scene and reproaches of coldness, or on the other hand go down on his knees before Sofya Petrovna, respectfully lift her little head from the muff with a gentle hand, and with that hand wipe away her tears, embrace her in brotherly fashion and cover her little face with kisses; but Sergei Sergeyevich was afraid of seeing a grimace of contempt and boredom; and Sergei Sergeyevich chose the middle way: he simply patted Sofya Petrovna on her trembling shoulder:

‘Now, now, Sonya … Now that’s enough … Enough, my little child! Baby, baby!’

‘Stop it, stop it! …’

‘What is it? What’s wrong? Tell me! … Let us discuss it coolly and rationally.’

‘No: stop it, stop it! … Coolly and rationally … stop it! One can see … aaah … you have … cold fish-blood.’

Sergei Sergeyevich stepped back from his wife in offence, stood undecidedly, and then sank into a nearby armchair.

‘Aaah … To leave your life like that! … So you can be in charge of provisions somewhere out there! … To go away! … To know nothing! …’

‘You’re wrong, Sonyushka, if you think I don’t know anything at all … Look …’

‘Oh, please stop it! …’

‘Look, my dear: ever since … I moved into this room … In a word, I have my self-respect: and you must understand that I don’t want to hamper your freedom … What is more, I cannot hamper you: I understand you; and I know very well that it’s not easy for you, my dear … I have hopes, Sonyushka: perhaps some day once again … Well, but I won’t, I won’t insist! But you must understand me, too: my distance, my cool rationality, are not the result of coldness at all … Well, but I don’t insist, I won’t insist …’

‘Perhaps you’d like to see Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov? Perhaps something has happened between you? Then tell me everything: tell it without hiding anything; we shall discuss your position together.’

‘Don’t dare speak of him to me! … He is a scoundrel, a scoundrel! … Another husband would have shot him long ago … But you? … No, stop it!’

And incoherently, in agitation, having dropped her little head to her breast, Sofya Petrovna told everything as it was.

Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin was a simple man. And simple men are struck by the inexplicable absurdity of an action even more than by low-down behaviour, by murder or a bloody manifestation of brutality. A man is capable of understanding human treachery, crime, even human disgrace; after all, to understand something means almost to find a justification for it; but how is one to explain to oneself, for example, the action of a socially accepted and, it would appear, thoroughly honourable man, if to this socially accepted and thoroughly honourable man there suddenly comes a completely absurd fantasy: to get down on all fours on the threshold of a certain fashionable drawing-room flapping the skirts of his tailcoat? That would be, if I may say so, a complete abomination! The incomprehensibility, the futility of that abomination cannot be justified, in the same way that blasphemy, sacrilege and any sort of futile mockery cannot be justified! No, rather let a thoroughly honourable man squander the state’s money with impunity, as long as he never gets down on all fours, because after an action like that everything is defiled.

Angrily, vividly, distinctly, Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin pictured to himself the buffoon-like aspect of the satin domino in the unlit entrance porch, and … Sergei Sergeyevich began to blush, blushed a bright carrot colour: the blood rushed to his head. He and Nikolai Apollonovich had, after all, played together as children; Sergei Sergeyevich had subsequently been surprised at Nikolai Apollonovich’s philosophical abilities; Sergei Sergeyevich had nobly permitted Nikolai Apollonovich, as an honourable man of good society, to come between himself and his wife and … Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin angrily, vividly, distinctly pictured to himself the buffoon-like grimaces of the red domino in the unlit entrance porch. He got up and began to pace agitatedly about the tiny little room, compressing his fingers to a fist and furiously raising his compressed fingers each time he made a sharp turn; when Sergei Sergeyevich lost his temper (he had only ever lost his temper two or three times – no more), this gesture always appeared; Sofya Petrovna sensed very well what the gesture meant; she was a little frightened of it; she was always a little frightened, not of the gesture, but of the silence that made the gesture manifest.

‘What are you … doing?’

‘Nothing … It’s all right …’

And Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin continued to pace about the tiny little room, his fingers compressed to a fist.

The red domino! … A vileness, a vileness and a vileness! And it had been standing there, outside the entrance door – what?! …

Nikolai Apollonovich’s behaviour had shocked the second lieutenant in the extreme. He now experienced a mixture of revulsion and horror; in a word, he experienced that sense of aversion that commonly seizes us when we observe complete idiots performing their bodily functions directly beneath them, or when we observe a black, furry-legged insect – a spider, say … Bewilderment, outrage and fear turned simply into fury. To have disregarded his urgent letter, to have insulted his officer’s honour with a clownish escapade, to have insulted his dear wife with some spider-like grimace! … And Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin gave himself his honourable officer’s word – at all costs he would crush the spider, crush it; and, having taken this decision, he continued to pace and pace, red as a crayfish, compressing his fingers to a fist and jerking his muscular arm up each time he made a turn; he now struck fear into Sofya Petrovna, too: also red, with her half-open, pouting lips and her cheeks from which the glistening tears had not been wiped, she was closely observing her husband from there, from that armchair.

‘What are you doing?’

But Sergei Sergeyevich now replied in a hard voice; in that voice there sounded at one and the same time menace, sternness and suppressed fury.

‘Nothing … It’s all right.’

To tell the truth, at this moment Sergei Sergeyevich was experiencing something approaching revulsion at his beloved wife, too; as though she too had shared in the clownish shame of the red mask which had wriggled about – there, at the entrance door.

‘Go to your room: sleep … leave all this to me.’

And Sofya Petrovna Likhutina, who had long ago stopped crying, rose without demur and quietly went to her room.

Remaining alone, Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin continued to pace, with a cough now and then; drily this came from him, most unpleasantly, distinctly, now ‘cahuh-cahuh’, and ‘cahuh-cahuh’. Sometimes a wooden fist, as if carved from hard, fragrant wood, was raised above the little table; and it seemed that at any moment the table would fly into pieces with a deafening crack.

But the fist would unclench itself.

At last, Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin began quickly to undress; he undressed, covered himself with a flannelette blanket, and – the blanket slipped off; Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin lowered his legs to the floor, stared fixedly at some point with an unseeing gaze and, unexpectedly to himself, began to whisper in the very loudest of whispers:

‘Aah! How do you like this? I shall shoot you like a dog …’

Then from the other side of the wall a little voice was heard, loud and tearful.

‘What is it, what are you doing?’

‘Nothing … it’s all right …’

Sergei Sergeyevich dived back under his blanket again and covered his head with it, in order to sigh, to whisper, to offer entreaties, to issue threats to someone, for something …

Sofya Petrovna did not summon Mavrushka. She quickly threw off her fur coat, hat and dress; and all in white, stepping forth from a fountain of objects which she contrived to scatter around her during those three or four minutes, she threw herself on the bed; and sat now with her feet tucked up and her black-haired, angry little face with its protruding lips, above which a small moustache was clearly visible, dropped into her hands, and around her was a fountain of objects; thus was it always. All Mavrushka ever did was to clear up after her mistress; Sofya Petrovna had only to remember some item of her toilet, and the item was not to hand; and then into the air flew blouses, handkerchiefs, dresses, hairpins and hatpins, anyhow and anywhere; from Sofya Petrovna’s little hand began to shoot a coloured waterfall of various objects. This evening Sofya Petrovna did not call Mavrushka; that meant that a fountain of objects was in progress.

Sofya Petrovna found herself involuntarily listening to Sergei Sergeyevich’s restless pacing behind the partition; and she also listened to the nightly strains of the grand piano above her head: there someone played over and over again the same antique tune of a polka-mazurka, to the strains of which her mother, laughing, had danced with her when she had been but a mite of two years old. And to the strains of this polka-mazurka, strains that were so antique and so innocent of everything, Sofya Petrovna’s anger began to subside, being replaced by weariness, complete apathy and the merest hint of irritation with regard to her husband, in whom she, Sofya Petrovna, had in her own opinion aroused jealousy towards the other man. But as soon as jealousy was, in her opinion, aroused in her husband, Sergei Sergeyevich, then her husband, Sergei Sergeyevich, became distinctly disagreeable to her; she experienced a feeling of awkwardness, as though some alien hand had stretched out to the cherished little box in which she kept her letters and which was locked up in the drawer over there. On the contrary: just as Nikolai Apollonovich’s smile had at first struck her with aversion, and then from the sense of aversion she had derived a sweet mixture of rapture and horror at that same smile, so in the shamefulness of Nikolai Apollonovich’s behaviour there, on the small bridge, she suddenly discovered a sweet source of revenge: she regretted that when he had fallen before her in that pathetic guise of a buffoon, she had not stamped on him and kicked him with her little feet; she suddenly felt she wanted to torment and torture him, while she did not feel she wanted to torment her husband, Sergei Sergeyevich; neither torment him nor kiss him. And Sofya Petrovna suddenly discovered that her husband had nothing whatever to do with this fateful occurrence that had taken place between them; this occurrence was supposed to remain a secret between her and him; but now she herself had told her husband everything. Her husband’s connection not only with her but also with the other man, with Nikolai Apollonovich, had become above all offensive to her: after all, from this incident Sergei Sergeyevich would, of course, draw completely false conclusions; above all, he would of course be unable to comprehend anything of it at all: neither the fateful, sweet-and-sinister sensation, nor the change of costume; and Sofya Petrovna found herself involuntarily listening to the antique strains of the polka-mazurka and the restless, disagreeable pacing on the other side of the partition; from the excessiveness of her black, unfastened tresses she frightenedly stretched her pearly little face with its dark blue, somehow dulled eyes, clumsily bending that little face down against her barely trembling knees.

At that moment her gaze fell on the dressing-table mirror; below the dressing-table mirror Sofya Petrovna saw the letter she was supposed to give to him at the ball (she had forgotten about the letter altogether). At that first moment she decided to send the letter back with the messenger, send it back to Varvara Yevgrafovna. How dare they force letters to him on her! And she would have sent it back if her husband had not interfered in it all first (if only he would go to bed!). But now, under the influence of her protest against any kind of interference in their personal affairs, she took a simple view of the matter, too simple a view: of course, she had a perfect right to tear open the envelope and read any secrets there might be in it (how dare he have secrets!) In a flash, Sofya Petrovna was over by the table; but just as she touched the alien letter, behind the partition a furious whispering arose; the bed creaked.

‘What are you doing?’

From behind the partition she received the reply:

‘Nothing … it’s all right.’

The bed began to squeal plaintively; all grew quiet. With trembling hand, Sofya Petrovna tore open the envelope … and as she read, her swollen little eyes grew large; their dullness brightened, and was replaced by a dazzling glitter, the paleness of her little face first took on the tints of pinkish apple-blossom petals, then became as rosy as a rose; and when she had finished reading the letter, her face was simply crimson.

Nikolai Apollonovich was now entirely in her clutches; her whole being trembled with horror at him and at the impossibility of inflicting upon him a terrible, irreparable blow during the two months of suffering she had endured; and that blow he would now receive from these little hands. He had wanted to frighten her with his buffoonish masquerade; but he had not even been able to execute the buffoonish masquerade in proper fashion and, taken by surprise, he had committed many outrages; well, now let him be blotted from her memory, and let him be Hermann! Yes, yes, yes: she herself would inflict the cruel blow simply by giving him the letter with its dreadful contents. For an instant she was seized by a sense of giddiness as she contemplated the path she had condemned herself to; but it was too late to hold her ground, to leave the path: had she not herself summoned the red domino? Well, and if he had summoned before her the image of a fearsome domino, let all the rest of it be accomplished: let the bloody domino’s path be a bloody one!

The door squeaked: Sofya Petrovna barely had time to crumple the opened letter in her hand, when in the doorway of the bedroom stood her husband, Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin; he was all in white: in a white nightshirt and white drawers. The appearance of a complete outsider, and in such an indecent aspect, drove her to fury:

‘You might at least get dressed …’

Sergei Sergeich Likhutin was thoroughly covered in confusion, and quickly left the room, only to reappear a moment later; this time he was, at least, wearing a dressing-gown; Sofya Petrovna had already managed to hide the letter. With an unpleasant, dry firmness that was unusual for him, Sergei Sergeich addressed her simply:

‘Sophie … I want you to promise me something: I earnestly request you not to go to the soirée at the Tsukatovs’ tomorrow.’


‘I hope you will give me that promise; common sense should prompt you: spare me the need for explanations.’


‘I should like you yourself to admit the impossibility of your going to the ball after what has just taken place.’


‘At any rate, I have given my honourable officer’s word that you will not be at the ball.’


‘Otherwise I should quite simply have to forbid you from going.’

‘All the same, I am going to the ball …’

‘No, you are not!’

Sofya Petrovna was shocked by the threatening, wooden voice in which Sergei Sergeyevich pronounced this phrase.

‘Yes, I am.’

A painful silence ensued, during which all that was heard was a kind of gurgling in Sergei Sergeyevich’s chest, which made him clutch nervously at his throat and shake his head twice, as though he were making an effort to ward off the inevitability of some dreadful occurrence; suppressing within with an incredible effort an explosion that was almost about to burst forth, Sergei Sergeich Likhutin quietly sat down, as straight as a rod:

‘Look: it was not I who pressed you for details. You yourself called me as a witness of what has just happened.’

Sergei Sergeyevich could not utter the words red domino: the thought of what had just taken place made him instinctively experience a kind of abyss of depravity into which his wife had slid down an inclined plane; what was depraved about it, apart from the wild absurdity of the whole incident, Sergei Sergeyevich could not for the life of him tell: but he sensed that it was so, and that this was no ordinary everyday romance, that it involved not merely an unfaithfulness, a fall. No, no, no: over all this hung a whiff of Satanic excesses that poisoned the soul for ever, like prussic acid; he had smelt the sweetish smell of bitter almonds quite clearly when he had come in, and had experienced a most violent attack of suffocation; and he had known, known for certain: if Sofya Petrovna, his wife, were to be at the Tsukatovs’ tomorrow, if she were to meet there that loathsome domino – everything would go to rack and ruin: the honour of his wife, and his own, officer’s honour.

‘Look. After what you have told me, don’t you understand that it is out of the question for you to meet him there; that it would be a vile, vile thing to do; and that in fact I have given my word that you will not be there. Have pity then, Sophie, on yourself, and me, and … him, because otherwise … I … do not know … I cannot guarantee …

But Sofya Petrovna was growing more and more indignant at the brazen interference of this officer who was totally alien to her, an officer, what was more, who had dared to appear in the bedroom in a most indecent aspect with his absurd interference; picking up some dress that was lying on the floor (she had suddenly noticed that she was déshabillée), and covering herself with it, she retreated into a dark corner; and from there, from the dark, shadowy corner, she suddenly shook her head decisively:

‘Perhaps I might not have gone, but now, after this interference of yours, I shall go, I shall go, I shall go!’

‘No: that shall not be!!!’

What was this? It seemed to her that a deafening shot rang out in the room; at the same time an inhuman howl also rang out: a thin, hoarse falsetto shouted something incoherent; a man made of cypress wood leapt to his feet, and the armchair toppled and slammed against the floor, while the blow of a fist smashed the cheap little table in two; then the door slammed; and all was deathly quiet.

The strains of the polka-mazurka from upstairs broke off; above her head, feet began to stamp; voices began to babble; at last, someone in the flat above, indignant at the noise, began to beat on the floor with a scrubbing brush, thereby evidently wishing to express from up there his enlightened protest.

Sofya Petrovna Likhutina shrank inwardly and began to sob insultedly from the dark little corner; it was the first time in her life that she had had to face such fury, because before her just then had stood … not a human being, even, not a wild beast. Here before her there had just yelped – a mad dog.