Petersburg North-East

In the oak dining-room the wheezing of a clock was heard; bobbing and hissing, a small grey cuckoo was cuckooing; at the signal from the time-honoured cuckoo Apollon Apollonovich sat down in front of a porcelain cup and broke off warm crusts of white bread. And over his coffee Apollon Apollonovich would remember his former years; and over his coffee – even, even – he would joke:

‘Who is more respected than anyone else, Semyonych?’

‘I suppose, Apollon Apollonovich, that a real privy councillor14 is more respected than anyone else.’

Apollon Apollonovich smiled with his lips alone:

‘Well, you suppose wrongly: a chimney sweep is more respected than anyone else …’

The valet already knew the answer to the riddle: but of this, out of respect, he said – not a word.

‘But why, barin, may I be so bold as to ask, such honour to a chimney sweep?’

‘In the presence of a real privy councillor, Semyonych, people stand aside …’

‘I suppose that is so, your excellency …’

‘A chimney sweep … Before him even a real privy councillor will stand aside, because: a chimney sweep makes people dirty.’

‘Precisely so, sir,’ the valet interjected deferentially …

‘Yes indeed: only there is a post that is even more respected …’

And at once added:

‘That of lavatory attendant …’

‘Pff! …’

‘The chimney sweep himself will stand aside before him, and not only the real privy councillor …’

And – a mouthful of coffee. But let us observe: Apollon Apollonovich was after all himself a real privy councillor.

‘Oh, Apollon Apollonovich, sir, there was another thing: Anna Petrovna was telling me …’

At the words ‘Anna Petrovna’, however, the grey-haired valet stopped short.

‘The grey coat, sir?’

‘Yes, the grey one …’

‘I suppose it will be the grey gloves, too, sir?’

‘No, I want suede gloves …’

‘Try to wait a moment, your excellency, sir: you see, we keep the gloves in the wardrobe: Shelf B – North-West.’

Apollon Apollonovich had entered into life’s trivia only once: one day he had made an inspection of his inventory; the inventory was registered in order and the nomenclature of all the shelves established; the shelves were arranged by letters: A, B, C; while the four sides of the shelves assumed the designations of the four corners of the globe.

When he had put his spectacles away, Apollon Apollonovich would mark the register in fine, minute handwriting: spectacles, Shelf B, NE – North-East, in other words; while the valet received a copy of the register, and learned the directions of the appurtenances of the precious toilet by heart; at times during bouts of insomnia he would flawlessly scan these directions from memory.

In the lacquered house the storms of life passed noiselessly; but ruinously did the storms of life pass here none the less: not with events did they thunder; they did not shine purifyingly into hearts like arrows of lightning; but like a stream of poisonous fluids from a hoarse gullet did they rend the air: and some kind of cerebral games whirled in the consciousness of the inhabitants like dense vapours in hermetically sealed boilers.