Petersburg The Madman

We left Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin at that fateful moment in his life when, white as death, completely calm, with an ironic smile on his firmly compressed lips he rushed at top speed out to the room at the front (to the vestibule, in other words) after his disobedient wife and then, with a click of his spurs, stood deferentially in front of the door with her fur coat in his hands; and when Sofya Petrovna Likhutina rustled provocatively past the nose of the angry second lieutenant, Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin, as we saw, began still with the same too rapid gestures to walk about everywhere and everywhere put out the electric lights.

But why did he reveal his unusual state of mind by this strange action? What, pray, could be the connection between all this filth and the electric lights? There was just as little sense here as there was in the connection between the tall and angular, sad figure of the second lieutenant in his dark green uniform, with his too rapid gestures and the provocative, flaxen little beard on his face that had suddenly grown younger and looked as though it had been carved from fragrant cypress wood. There was no connection: except perhaps – the mirrors: in the light they reflected – a tall, angular man with a little face that had suddenly grown younger: the tall, angular reflection with the little face that had suddenly grown younger, going right up to the surface of the mirror, took hold of itself by the white, slender neck – oh, oh, oh! There was no connection and never had been any between the light and the gestures.

‘Click, click, click,’ went the switches, nevertheless, plunging the tall, angular man with the too-rapid gestures into darkness. Perhaps this was not second lieutenant Likhutin?

No, put yourself in his dreadful position: being reflected so foully in the mirrors, all because some domino had delivered an insult to his honourable home, all because, in accordance with his officer’s word of honour, he was now obliged not to allow his wife over the threshold. No, enter into his dreadful position: it was second lieutenant Likhutin, of that there could be no doubt – him in person.

‘Click, click, click,’ went the switch in the next room, now. The switch in the third room clicked likewise. This sound alarmed Mavrushka; and when she came shuffling through from the kitchen into the rooms, she was engulfed in thick, total darkness.

And she muttered:

‘What’s all this, then?’

But out of the darkness came a dry, slightly muffled cough:

‘Get out of here …’

‘How can I, barin …’

Someone whistled to her from the corner in a commanding, indignant whisper:

‘Get out of here …’

‘How can I, barin: why, I must tidy up for the barynya …’

‘Get out of the rooms altogether.’

‘And then, you yourself know, the beds have not been made …’

‘Out, out, out! …’

And no sooner had she left the room and gone into the kitchen, than the barin came through to her in the kitchen:

‘I want you to get right out of the house altogether …’

‘But how can I, barin …?’

‘Get out, get out as quickly as you can …’

‘But where am I to go?’

‘You know best: I don’t want you to set foot …’

‘Barin! …’

‘In this house until tomorrow …’

‘But barin! …’

‘Out, out, out …’

He threw her fur coat into her hands, and – pushed her out through the door: Mavrushka began to cry; she was dreadfully a-feared: it was easy seeing the barin wasn’t himself: she ought to have gone to the yardkeeper and the police station, but instead, silly woman, she went to the house of a female friend.

Oh, Mavrushka …

How dreadful is the lot of an ordinary, completely normal man: his life is decided by a vocabulary of easily understandable words, by the use of extremely unambiguous actions; those actions draw him into a boundless distance, like a wretched little vessel that is rigged with words and gestures that are completely expressible; but if the wretched little vessel happens to run aground on the underwater rock of life’s incoherence, then the wretched little vessel, having run aground on the rock, falls to pieces, and the simple, straightforward swimmer drowns in the space of a moment … Ladies and gentlemen, the slightest bump from life is enough to deprive ordinary people of their reason; no, madmen do not know such risks of harm to the brain: their brains are probably woven from some very light, ethereal substance. For the simple, straightforward brain all that those brains penetrate is altogether impenetrable: all that the simple, straightforward brain can do is be broken to pieces; and it is broken to pieces.

Ever since the previous evening Sergei Sergeich Likhutin had been experiencing a most acute cerebral pain, as though he had struck his forehead against an iron wall while running at full tilt; and as he stood before the wall, he saw that the wall was not a wall, that it was penetrable and that there, on the other side of the wall, was a light invisible to him, and some kind of laws of absurdity, like out there, on the other side of the walls of the little flat, where there was both light and the movement of cabs … Here Sergei Sergeich Likhutin uttered a heavy groan and shook his head, experiencing the most acute cerebral workings that were unknown even to him. Over the wall crept reflections: some little steamer must be passing along the Moika, leaving intensely bright stripes on the waters.

Sergei Sergeich Likhutin groaned again and again; again and again did he shake his head: his thoughts had got finally confused, as had everything else. He had begun his reflections with an analysis of his unfaithful wife, and ended by catching himself thinking some sort of senseless rubbish: perhaps the hard surface was impenetrable to him alone, and the mirrored reflections of the rooms were really the rooms themselves; in those real rooms lived the family of some visiting officer; the mirrors ought to be covered up: it was uncomfortable to have to study with curious gazes the behaviour of a married officer and his young wife; one could find all sorts of rubbish there; and Sergei Sergeich Likhutin began to catch himself thinking this rubbish; and found that he himself was occupying himself with rubbish, becoming distracted from important, really important thoughts (it was just as well that Sergei Sergeich Likhutin had switched off the electric lights; the mirrors would have distracted him dreadfully, and just now he needed all the exertion of his will in order to detect some train of thought within himself).

So that was why, after his wife left, second lieutenant Likhutin had begun to walk about everywhere and everywhere put out the electric lights.

What was he to do now? Yesterday evening it had – begun: come creeping, hissing: what was it – why had it begun? Apart from the fact of Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov’s disguise, there was decidedly nothing to get hold of here. The second lieutenant’s head was the head of an ordinary man: this head refused to serve in this delicate question, and the blood rushed to his head: a wet towel on his temples would be a good thing now; and Sergei Sergeich Likhutin put a wet towel on his temples: put it on them, and then tore it off again. Something, at any rate, had happened; and at any rate he, Likhutin, had got involved in it; and, having got involved, he had become united with it; here it was: knocking, playing, beating, twitching his temporal veins.

A man of the most simple straightforwardness, he had smashed against a wall: while there, into the depths on the other side of the mirror, he could not penetrate: all he could do was, out loud, in his wife’s presence, give his honourable word as an officer that he would not voluntarily readmit his wife to the premises, if that wife were to go to the ball without him.

What was he to do? What was he to do?

Sergei Sergeich Likhutin grew agitated and struck another match: the reddish-brown flambeaux illumined the face of a madman; anxiously now did it press up close against the clock: two hours had already passed since Sofya Petrovna had left; two hours, that was a hundred and twenty minutes; having counted the number of minutes that had elapsed, Sergei Sergeich began to count the seconds, too:

‘Sixty times a hundred and twenty? Two times six are twelve; and carry one in your mind …’

Sergei Sergeich Likhutin clutched his head:

‘One in your mind; my mind – yes: my mind was smashed against the mirror … The mirrors ought to be taken out! Twelve, carry one in your mind – yes: one little piece of glass … No, one lived second …’

His thoughts had grown confused: Sergei Sergeich Likhutin was pacing about in complete darkness: tap-tap-tap went Sergei Sergeich’s footsteps; and Sergei Sergeich went on counting:

‘Two times six are twelve; and carry one in your mind: one time six is six; plus – one unit; an abstract unit is not a little piece of glass. And then two zeroes: and that makes seven thousand two hundred massive seconds.’

And, having triumphed over this most complex cerebral work, Sergei Sergeich Likhutin, rather inappropriately, displayed his triumph. Suddenly he remembered: his face grew dark:

‘Seven thousand two hundred massive seconds since she ran off: two hundred thousand seconds – no, it’s all finished!’

On the expiration of seven thousand seconds, the two hundred and first second had, it appeared, opened in time the beginning of the fulfilment of his officer’s word: he had lived through the seven thousand two hundred seconds as though they had been seven thousand years; from the creation of the world until the present time not much more had elapsed, after all. And it seemed to Sergei Sergeich that ever since the creation of the world he had been imprisoned in this darkness with a most acute headache: by spontaneous thinking, the brain’s autonomy in spite of his self-tormenting personality. And Sergei Sergeich Likhutin feverishly began to fuss about in a corner; for a moment he fell quiet; began to cross himself; hurriedly from some little box or other he threw out a rope (it looked like a snake), uncoiled it, and made a noose with it: the noose refused to tighten. And Sergei Sergeich Likhutin, in despair now, ran into his little study; the rope went trailing after him.

But what was Sergei Sergeich Likhutin doing? Was he keeping his officer’s word? No, good heavens, no. All he did was for some reason take soap out of a soap dish, squat down and soap the piece of rope in front of a small basin placed on the floor. And as soon as he had soaped the piece of rope, all his actions assumed a downright fantastic tinge; indeed one could have said: never in his life had he done such original things.

Well, judge for yourself!

For some reason he got up on to a table (having first taken the cloth off it); and lifted a Viennese chair from the floor and put it on the table; clambering up on the chair, he carefully took down a lamp; carefully put it down at his feet; then instead of the lamp Sergei Sergeich Likhutin affixed to the hook the rope, slippery with soap; crossed himself and froze; and slowly, holding his noose, raised it above his head with the look of a man who has resolved to wind a snake around his neck.

But a certain brilliant idea had dawned on Sergei Sergeich: he must shave his hairy neck; and, what was more: he must calculate the number of thirds and fourths: twice multiply by the number sixty – seven thousand two hundred.

With this brilliant idea, Sergei Sergeich Likhutin strode into his little study; there by the light of a candle-end he began to shave his hairy neck (Sergei Sergeich had sensitive skin, and this sensitive skin became covered with pimples when he shaved). Having shaved his chin and neck, Sergei Sergeich suddenly cut off one of his moustaches with the razor: he must shave off the other one too because – how would it be otherwise? When they broke down the door there and came in, they would see him with only one moustache, and moreover … in such a position; no, one must never begin an undertaking without having shaved properly.

And Sergei Sergeich Likhutin shaved himself clean: and, having shaved, he looked like a most complete idiot.

Well, now there was no point in lingering: it was all finished – his face had a quality of complete shavenness. But just at that moment the doorbell rang in the vestibule; and Sergei Sergeich threw down the soapy razor in annoyance, spattering all his fingers with little hairs, and looked at the clock with regret (how many hours had flown by?) – what was he to do, what was he to do? For one moment Sergei Sergeich thought of postponing his undertaking; he had not known that he would be caught in the act; of the fact that there was no time to lose he was reminded by the doorbell, which rang for a second time; and he jumped up on to the table in order to take the noose down from the hook; but the rope would not obey, slipping in his soapy fingers; Sergei Sergeich Likhutin got down again in the most rapid fashion and began to creep stealthily into the vestibule; and while he was creeping stealthily into the vestibule, he noticed: the blue-black gloom that had suffused the room all night like ink was beginning to melt away; slowly the inky gloom was turning grey, becoming a grey gloom: and in the greying gloom objects were delineated; a chair placed upon the table, a lamp on the floor; and above all this – a wet noose.

In the vestibule Sergei Sergeich Likhutin put his head to the door; he froze; but agitation must have induced such a degree of forgetfulness in Sergei Sergeich that it was inconceivable for him to undertake any action of any kind: why, Sergei Sergeich Likhutin had not noticed at all that he was breathing heavily; and when on the other side of the door he heard his wife’s anxious cries, he began to shout at the top of his voice from fright; having shouted, he saw that all was lost and rushed to put his original plan into practice; swiftly jumped up on the table, stuck out his freshly-shaven neck; and quickly began to tighten the rope around his freshly-shaven neck that was covered in pimples, first for some reason putting two fingers between the rope and his neck.

After this he for some reason shouted:

‘Word and deed!’23

He pushed the table away with one foot; and the table rolled away from Sergei Sergeich on brass casters (this was the sound that Sofya Petrovna Likhutina had heard – there, on the other side of the door).