Petersburg Of Two Poorly Dressed Coursistes …31

Among the slowly flowing crowds the stranger was flowing, too; and more precisely, he was flowing away, in complete confusion, from that crossroads where by the stream of people he had been squeezed against the black carriage, from whence had stared at him: a skull, an ear, a top hat.

That ear and that skull!

Remembering them, the stranger hurled himself into flight.

Couple after couple flowed past: threesomes, foursomes flowed past; from each one to the sky rose a smoky pillar of conversation, interweaving, fusing with smoky, contiguously moving pillar; intersecting the pillars of conversation, my stranger caught fragments of them; from those fragments both phrases and sentences formed.

The gossip of the Nevsky began to plait itself.

‘Do you know?’ came from somewhere to the right and expired in the accumulating rumble.

And then to the surface again came:

‘They’re going to …’


‘Throw …’

There was a whispering from the rear.

The stranger with the small black moustache, turning round, saw: a bowler hat, a walking stick, a coat; ears, a moustache and a nose …

‘Who at?’

‘Who, who,’ came an echoed whisper from afar; and then the dark suit spoke.

‘Abl …’

And, having spoken, the suit moved on.


‘At Ableukhov?’

But the suit finished what it was saying somewhere over there …

‘Abl … oody wish you’d try to splash me with a … cid … just you try …’

And the suit hiccuped.

But the stranger stood still, shaken by all he had heard:

‘They’re going to? …’

‘Throw? …’

‘At Abl …’

‘Oh no: they’re not going to …’

While all round the whisper began:

‘Soon …’

And then again from the rear:

‘It’s time …’

And having disappeared round the crossroads, there came from another crossroads:

‘It’s time … pravo, indeed it is …’

The stranger heard not pravo (indeed) but provo- and himself completed the word:


Provocation began to go on a spree along the Nevsky. Provocation altered the sense of all the words that had been heard: with provocation did it endow the innocent ‘indeed’; while it turned ‘I bloody wish’ into the devil knew what:

‘At Abl …’

And the stranger thought:

‘At Ableukhov.’

He had simply of his own accord attached the preposition ‘at’: by the appendage of the letter a and the letter t an innocent verbal fragment had been changed into a fragment of dreadful content; and what was most important: it was the stranger who had attached the preposition.

The provocation, consequently, lay in him; and he was running away from it: running away – from himself. He was his own shadow.

O Russian people, Russian people!

Do not admit the crowds of flickering shadows from the island: stealthily those shadows penetrate into your corporeal abodes; they penetrate from there into the nooks and crannies of your souls: you become the shadows of the wreathed, flying mists: those mists have been flying from time immemorial out of the end of the earth: out of the leaden spaces of the wave-seething Baltic; into the fog from time immemorial the crushing mouths of the cannons have stared.

At twelve o’clock, in accordance with tradition, a hollow cannon shot solemnly filled Saint Petersburg, capital of the Russian Empire: all the mists were broken and all the shadows were scattered.

Only my shadow – the elusive young man – was not shaken and was not diffused by the shot, completing his run to the Neva without hindrance. Suddenly my stranger’s sensitive ear heard behind his back an ecstatic whisper:

‘It’s the Elusive One!’

‘Look – it’s the Elusive One!’

‘How brave he is! …’

And when, unmasked, he turned his island face, he saw steadily fixed on him the little eyes of two poorly dressed coursistes …