Petersburg Meanwhile the Conversation Had a Sequel

Meanwhile Nikolai Apollonovich’s conversation with the stranger had a sequel.

‘I have been instructed,’ said the stranger, accepting an ashtray from Nikolai Apollonovich, ‘yes: I have been instructed to give you this little bundle here for safekeeping.’

‘Is that all!’ cried Nikolai Apollonovich, not yet daring to believe that the appearance of the stranger, which had troubled him so much, in no way concerned that dreadful proposal and was merely connected with a most inoffensive little bundle; and in a transport of distracted joy he was already on the point of smothering the little bundle in kisses; and his face covered with grimaces, manifesting a stormy life; he swiftly rose and moved towards the little bundle; but then for some reason the stranger also rose, and for some reason he suddenly rushed between the bundle and Nikolai Apollonovich; and when the hand of the senator’s dear son stretched out towards the notorious bundle, the stranger’s hand unceremoniously grabbed Nikolai Apollonovich’s fingers:

‘Be more careful, for God’s sake …’

Nikolai Apollonovich, drunk with joy, muttered some incoherent apology and again distractedly stretched out his hand towards the object: and for a second time the stranger prevented him from taking the object, stretching out his hand in entreaty:

‘No: I earnestly ask you to be more careful, Nikolai Apollonovich, more careful …’

‘Aa … yes, yes …’ This time too Nikolai Apollonovich took nothing in: but no sooner had he caught hold of the bundle by the edge of the towel, than this time the stranger shouted into his ear in a voice of perfect anger …

‘Nikolai Apollonovich, I say to you a third time: be more careful …’

This time Nikolai Apollonovich was surprised:

‘It’s literature, I expect? …’

‘Well, no …’

Just then a distinct metallic sound rang out: something clicked; in the silence there was the thin squeak of a trapped mouse; at the same moment the soft stool was overturned and the stranger’s footsteps began to thud into the corner:

‘Nikolai Apollonovich, Nikolai Apollonovich,’ his frightened voice rang out, ‘Nikolai Apollonovich – a mouse, a mouse … Tell your servant quickly … to, to … clear it away: I find it … I cannot …’

Nikolai Apollonovich, putting down the little bundle, marvelled at the stranger’s consternation:

‘Are you afraid of mice? …’

‘Quick, quick, take it away …’

As he leapt out of his room and pressed the bell button, Nikolai Apollonovich presented, it must be admitted, a most absurd sight; but most absurd of all was the fact that in his hand he held … an anxiously struggling mouse; the mouse was, it was true, running around inside a wire trap, but Nikolai Apollonovich had absentmindedly inclined his notable face right down to the trap and was now with the greatest attention examining his grey female captive, running a long, sleek, yellowish fingernail along the metal wire.

‘A mouse,’ – he raised his eyes to the lackey; and the lackey deferentially repeated after him:

‘A mouse, sir … Indeed it is, sir …’

‘Look: it’s running, running …’

‘It’s running, sir …’

‘It’s afraid, too …’

‘Of course it is, sir …’

From the open door of the reception room the stranger now peeped out, gave a frightened look and again concealed himself:

‘No – I can’t …’

‘Is his honour frightened, sir? … It’s all right: a mouse is one of God’s creatures … Of course, sir … It too is …’

For a few moments both servant and barin were preoccupied with contemplating the female captive: at last the venerable servant took the trap into his hands.

‘A mouse …’ Nikolai Apollonovich repeated in a satisfied voice and with a smile returned to the guest who awaited him. Nikolai Apollonovich had a peculiarly soft spot for mice.

At last, Nikolai Apollonovich took the bundle into his work room: somehow he was struck in passing only by the bundle’s heavy weight; but on this he did not reflect; as he went into the study, he tripped on a multicoloured Arabian rug, having caught his foot in a soft crease; then something in the bundle clinked with a metal sound, and at this clinking the stranger with the small black moustache leapt up; behind Nikolai Apollonovich’s back the stranger’s hand described that same zigzag-shaped line that had recently frightened the senator so badly.

But nothing happened: the stranger saw only that on a massive armchair in the next room a red domino and a small black satin mask were luxuriantly spread; the stranger fixed his eyes in astonishment upon this small black mask (it shocked him, to tell the truth), while Nikolai Apollonovich opened his writing desk and, having cleared sufficient space, carefully put the little bundle inside; the stranger with the small black moustache, continuing to examine the domino, began meanwhile animatedly to express a certain thoroughly threadbare thought of his:

‘You know … Loneliness is killing me. I have completely lost the art of conversation these last months. Don’t you notice that I get my words mixed up, Nikolai Apollonovich?’

Nikolai Apollonovich, offering the stranger his Bokharan back, only muttered absentmindedly through clenched teeth:

‘Well, that happens to everyone, you know.’

Nikolai Apollonovich was at this moment carefully covering the little bundle with a cabinet-size photograph of a brunette; as he covered the bundle with the brunette, Nikolai Apollonovich fell into reflection, not taking his eyes from the photograph; and the froglike expression passed over his faded lips for a moment.

Meanwhile, into his back, the stranger’s words went on resounding.

‘Every sentence of mine gets mixed up. I want to say one word, and instead of it I say the wrong one entirely: I keep going around and about … Or I suddenly forget, well, what the most ordinary object is called; and, when I do remember it, I doubt whether that is really its name. I say over and over again: lamp, lamp, lamp; and then I suddenly fancy that there is no such word as “lamp”. And sometimes there is no one to ask; and if there was, then to ask simply anyone would be shameful, you know: people would take one for a madman.’

‘Oh, come …’

Incidentally, concerning the bundle: if Nikolai Apollonovich had taken a somewhat more attentive attitude towards his visitor’s injunction to be more careful with the bundle, he would probably have realized that the bundle which was in his opinion most inoffensive was not as inoffensive as he thought, but he, I repeat, was concerned with the portrait; concerned so much, that the thread of the stranger’s words got lost inside his head. And now, having caught the words, he barely understood them. While into his back the pompous falsetto still drummed:

‘It is difficult to live as one excluded, Nikolai Apollonovich, like myself, in a Torricellian vacuum …’22

‘Torricellian?’ Nikolai Apollonovich said in surprise, without turning his back, having taken nothing in.

‘That is correct – Torricellian, and this, please observe, is for the benefit of the community; the community, society – and what, permit me to ask, kind of society do I see? The society of a certain person who is unknown to you, the society of my house’s yardkeeper, Matvei Morzhov,23 and the society of grey woodlice: brrr … there are woodlice in the attic where I live … Eh? How do you like that, Nikolai Apollonovich?’

‘Yes, you know …’

‘The public cause! Well, for me it long ago turned into a private cause, one that does not permit me to see other people: why, the public cause has excluded me from the list of the living.’

The stranger with the small black moustache had evidently quite by chance landed upon his favourite topic: and, having quite by chance landed upon his favourite topic, the stranger with the black moustache forgot about the purpose of his visit, forgot, doubtless, his rather wet little bundle, even forgot the number of extinguished cigarettes that were fetidly amassing: like all people who are forcibly constrained to silence and are talkative by nature, he sometimes experienced an inexpressible need to tell someone, no matter whom, the sum total of his thoughts: a friend, an enemy, a yardkeeper, a policeman, a child, even … a hairdresser’s dummy exhibited in a window. Sometimes at night the stranger talked to himself. In the setting of the luxurious, multicoloured reception room this need to talk suddenly awakened invincibly, like some bout of hard drinking after a month-long abstinence from vodka.

‘I’m not joking: what joke is there; why, in this joke I have spent more than two years; it is all right for you to joke, you who are included in all kinds of society; but my society is the society of bedbugs and woodlice. I am I. Do you hear me?’

‘Of course I hear you.’

Nikolai Apollonovich really was now listening.

‘I am I: but they try to tell me that I am not I, but some kind of “we”. But I ask you – why do they do this? And now my memory has broken down: a bad sign, a bad sign, pointing to the beginning of some brain disorder’ – the stranger with the small black moustache began to pace from corner to corner – ‘you know, the loneliness is killing me. And sometimes one even gets angry: the public cause, social equality, while I …’

Here the stranger suddenly broke off his discourse, because Nikolai Apollonovich, closing the desk, now turned to the stranger and, having seen that this latter was already pacing about his little study, making a mess with ash on the desk, on the red satin domino; and, having seen all this, Nikolai Apollonovich, in consequence of some reason that passed all understanding, turned a dark red colour and rushed to clear the domino away; by doing so he merely assisted a change in the field of attention within the stranger’s brain.

‘What a beautiful domino, Nikolai Apollonovich.’

Nikolai Apollonovich rushed towards the domino as though he intended to cover it with his multicoloured robe but was too late: the stranger had touched the brightly rustling silk with his hand:

‘Beautiful silk … I expect it cost a great deal: I expect you go to masked balls, Nikolai Apollonovich …’

But Nikolai Apollonovich turned an even deeper red:

‘Yes, now and again …’

He almost tore the domino free and went to put it away in a cupboard, as though he had been caught in the enactment of some crime; like a caught thief, he hurriedly put the domino away; like a caught thief, he ran back for the little mask; having hidden everything, he now calmed down, breathing heavily and looking suspiciously at the stranger; but the stranger, it must be confessed, had already forgotten the domino and had now returned to his favourite topic, all the time continuing to pace about and make a mess with ash.

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ the stranger jabbered, quickly lighting a cigarette as he moved about. ‘You are surprised that I can still be an agent of movements that are not without notoriety, liberating for some and highly inconvenient for others, well, even for your dad? I myself am surprised; it’s all nonsense, that I’ve been acting until recently according to a strictly worked-out plan: it’s, I mean, listen: I act according to my own discretion; but what do you suggest I do, every time my discretion merely makes a fresh rut in their activity; to tell you the truth, it is not I who am in the Party, but the Party that is in me … Does that surprise you?’

‘Yes, I must confess it does: it surprises me; and I must confess that I would never act together with you.’ Nikolai Apollonovich was beginning to listen to the things the stranger was saying more closely, things that were becoming ever more rounded, ever more resonant.

‘And yet nevertheless you did take my little bundle from me: so we are acting in concert, aren’t we?’

‘But that doesn’t count; what kind of action is there there …’

‘Well, of course, of course,’ the stranger interrupted him, ‘I was joking.’ And he fell silent, gave Nikolai Apollonovich an affectionate look and this time said quite openly:

‘You know, I have long wanted to see you: to have a heart-to-heart talk; I see so few people. I wanted to tell you about myself. You see, I’m elusive not only for the movement’s opponents, but also for its insufficient well-wishers. So to speak, the quintessence of the revolution, yet here is the strange thing: you all know about the methodology of social phenomena, you immerse yourselves in diagrams, statistics, you probably even know Marx in his entirety; yet I – don’t go thinking I haven’t read anything: I’m well-read, very, only that’s not what I’m talking about, not the figures of statistics.’

‘So in what are you well-read, then? … No, permit me, permit me: in my little cupboard I have some cognac – would you like some?’

‘I’ve no objection …’

Nikolai Apollonovich reached into the little cupboard: soon before the guest appeared a small cut-glass decanter and two small cut-glass glasses.

Nikolai Apollonovich treated his guests to cognac while he was talking to them.

As he poured cognac for his guest with the greatest of absentmindedness (like all Ableukhovs, he was absentminded), Nikolai Apollonovich kept thinking that now would be a most convenient opportunity to refuse the proposal of that day; but when he tried to express his thought in words, he grew embarrassed: out of cowardice he did not want to manifest cowardice in the stranger’s presence: and besides: he did not want, in his joy, to burden himself with a ticklish conversation, when he might make the refusal by letter.

‘I’m reading Conan Doyle just now, for relaxation,’ the stranger jabbered, ‘– don’t get angry – that’s a joke, of course. Though, as a matter of fact, let it not be a joke; after all, if I am to be perfectly frank, the scope of my reading will all seem equally barbarous to you: I’m reading the history of gnosticism, Gregory of Nyssa,24 Ephraem Syrus25 and the Apocalypse.26 That is my privilege, you know; one way or the other, I am a colonel in the movement who has been transferred from the field of action (for meritorious services) to staff headquarters. Yes, yes, yes – I’m a colonel. For long service, of course; while now you, Nikolai Apollonovich, with your methodology and your intellect – are an NCO; in the first place, you are an NCO because you are a theoretician; and among your generals, where theory is concerned, things are not going very well; I mean, admit it – they’re not going very well; and they, your generals, are for all the world like bishops, but bishops from among the monkhood; and a young little academist27 who has studied Harnack28 but has bypassed the school of experience and has never spent time with a schemonach29 is for a bishop merely an irritating ecclesiastical appendage; that is what you are with all your theories – an appendage; believe me, an irritating one!’

‘Why, in your words I hear a touch of Narodnaya Volya.’30

‘Well, so what of it? It’s the Narodnovoltsy who have the power, after all, not the Marxists. But forgive me, I’ve wandered … what was I talking about? Yes, about long service and the books I read. So you see, it’s like this: the originality of my intellectual food proceeds from the same eccentricity; I’m just as much of a revolutionary braggart as any other fire-eating braggart with a St George’s medal;31 all is forgiven an old braggart and ace swordsman.’

The stranger reflected, poured a glass: drank it – poured another.

‘And in any case, why shouldn’t I find my own, personal, independent way; after all, I seem to live a private sort of life – within four yellow walls; my fame is growing, society repeats my Party nickname, while the circle of people who are in any kind of human relation to me is, believe me, equivalent to zero; people first learned of me in those glorious days when I got settled into forty-five degrees of frost …’

‘I say, were you exiled?’

‘Yes, to the Yakutsk region.’32

An awkward silence ensued. The stranger with the small black moustache looked out of the window at the expanse of the Neva; a pale grey dampness hung there: there was the end of the earth and there was the end of infinity; there, through the greyness and dampness, poisonous October was already whispering something, beating tears and rain against the panes; and the rainy tears on the panes overtook one another, in order to twine into streams and draw the hooked signs of words; in the chimneys a sweet squeaking of wind could be heard, while a network of black chimneys, from far, far away, sent its smoke under the sky. And the smoke fell in tails above the dark-coloured waters. The stranger with the small black moustache lightly touched his glass with his lips, looked at the yellow liquid: his hands trembled.

Nikolai Apollonovich, now listening attentively, said with a kind of … almost malice:

‘Well, and you haven’t said a word to the crowds about your dreams for the time being, I hope? …’

‘Naturally, I’m keeping quiet for the time being.’

‘Well, that means you’re lying; I’m sorry, but the point of the matter is not in words: you are all the same lying and lying once and for all.’

The stranger gave him a look of amazement and continued, irrelevantly enough:

‘For the time being I am spending all my time reading and thinking: and all this exclusively for myself alone: that is why I am reading Gregory of Nyssa.’

Silence ensued. Downing another glass, from behind the cloud of tobacco smoke the stranger emerged as the victor; he had of course been smoking all the while. The silence was broken by Nikolai Apollonovich.

‘Well, and what about after your return from the Yakutsk region?’

‘I successfully escaped from the Yakutsk region; I was brought out in a pickled cabbage barrel;33 and now I am what I am: an underground activist; only don’t go thinking that I acted in the name of social utopias or in the name of your railway mentality: your categories remind me of rails, and your life is a carriage that flies on the rails: at that time I was a desperate Nietzschean. We’re all Nietzscheans: I mean, you too – an engineer of your railway line, the creator of a scheme – you too are a Nietzschean; only you will never admit it. Well, so it’s like this: for us Nietzscheans the masses who are (as you would say) inclined to agitation and stirred by social instincts, turn into an executive apparatus (another of your engineers’ expressions), in which people (even people such as you) are the keyboard on which the fingers of the pianist (take note: the expression is my own) fly freely, overcoming difficulty for difficulty; and while some ditherer in the stalls beneath the concert platform listens to the divine sounds of Beethoven, for the artist and for Beethoven the important thing is not the sounds, but some kind of septachord. You know what a septachord is, don’t you? We are all like that.’

‘The sportsmen of the revolution, in other words.’

‘Well, is a sportsman not an artist? I am a sportsman out of a pure love for art: and so I am an artist. It is good to model from the unformed clay of society a bust that will be remarkable for all eternity.’

‘But wait, wait – you are falling into a contradiction: a septachord, that is a formula, a term, while a bust, surely that is something living? A technique – and an inspiration through art? Technique I understand perfectly.’

An awkward silence ensued again: with irritation Nikolai Apollonovich plucked a horsehair from the multicoloured fabric of his couch: he did not consider it necessary to enter into a theoretical argument; he was used to arguing in a regular fashion, not rushing from topic to topic.

‘Everything in the world is built upon contrasts: and my usefulness to society has led me into melancholy, icy expanses; for the time being I have been mentioned and then well and truly forgotten, as being there – alone, in emptiness: and to the degree that I have withdrawn into emptiness, rising above the rank and file, even above the NCOs’ (the stranger grinned without malice and tweaked his small moustache) ‘– all the Party prejudices, all the categories, as you would say, have gradually fallen away from me: you know, I only have one category from the Yakutsk region. And do you know what it is?’

‘What is it?’

‘The category of ice …’

‘And what is that, then?’

Whether as a result of his thoughts or of the liquor he had drunk, Aleksandr Ivanovich’s face really did take on a strange expression: both the colour and even the size of his face changed strikingly (there are faces that change in a trice); now he looked decidedly as though he had had a drop or two.

‘The category of ice is the icy expanses of the Yakutsk province; I carry them around in my heart, you know, they are what marks me out from everyone; I carry ice around with me; yes, yes, yes: ice marks me out; marks me out, in the first place, as a man outside the law, living on a forged passport; in the second place, in this ice there has matured within me for the first time the special sense that even when I am out visiting I am abandoned to immensity …’

The stranger with the small black moustache stole imperceptibly over to the window; there, on the other side of the panes, a platoon of grenadiers was passing in the greenish fog: strapping lads and all in grey greatcoats. Swinging their left arms, they passed: row upon row went past, their bayonets showing black through the fog.

Nikolai Apollonovich felt a strange chill: once again he had an unpleasant sensation: his Party’s promise had not yet been taken back; as he listened to the stranger now, Nikolai Apollonovich got the wind up: like Apollon Apollonovich, Nikolai Apollonovich did not like spaces; even more was he horrified by the icy spaces that so manifestly wafted towards him from Aleksandr Ivanovich’s words.

As for Aleksandr Ivanovich, over there, by the window, he smiled …

‘The article of the revolution is not necessary to me: it’s an article for you, the theoreticians, the publicists, the philosophers.’

At this point, as he looked out of the window, he impetuously broke off his discourse; jumping down from the window-sill, he began to stare intently at the foggy slush; what had happened was this: out of the foggy slush a carriage had rolled up; Aleksandr Ivanovich saw both the carriage door flying open and Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, in a grey coat and a tall black top hat with a stony face that was reminiscent of a paperweight, quickly jumping out of the carriage, casting a momentary and frightened glance at the mirror-like reflections of the panes; quickly he rushed to the entrance porch, unbuttoning a black kid glove as he went. Aleksandr Ivanovich, now in his turn frightened of something, suddenly brought his hand to his eyes as though he wanted to shield himself from a certain troublesome thought. A constrained whisper tore itself from his breast.

‘He …’

‘What is it? …’

Nikolai Apollonovich now also came over to the window.

‘It’s nothing in particular: your dad has just driven up in a carriage.’