Petersburg Oh, You Be Quiet! …

‘Býby … byby …’

Thus did the man at the small table thunder: a man of enormous dimensions; he was stuffing a piece of yellow salmon into his mouth and, as he choked, shouting out incomprehensible words. He seemed to be shouting:

‘Vy – by … (You should …)’

But what was heard was:

‘Bý – by …’

And a company of emaciated men in lounge-suits was beginning to squeal:

‘A-ah-ha-ha, ah-ha-ha! …’

A Petersburg street in autumn permeates the whole organism: chills the marrow and tickles the shuddering backbone; but as soon as you come from it into some warm premises, the Petersburg street runs in your veins like a fever. The quality of this street was experienced now by the stranger as he entered a rather dirty hallway, stuffed tight: with black, blue, grey and yellow coats, devil-may-care caps, lop-eared ones, dock-tailed ones and every possible kind of galosh. One felt a warm dampness; in the air hung a white vapour: the vapour of pancake smell.

Having received the numbered metal tag for his overcoat, a tag that burned the palm of his hand, the raznochinets with the pair of moustaches at last entered the hall …

‘A-a-a …’

At first the voices deafened him.

‘Cra-aa-yfish … aaa … ah-ha-ha …’

‘You see, you see, you see …’

‘You’re not saying …’

‘Em-em-em …’

‘And vodka …’

‘But for goodness’ sake … But come now … But there must be something wrong …’

All this threw itself in his face, while behind his back, from the Nevsky, behind him in pursuit ran:

‘It’s time … indeed …’

‘What do you mean indeed?’

‘Cation – acacia – cassation …’

‘Bl …’

‘And vodka …’

The restaurant’s premises consisted of a small, rather dirty room: the floor had been rubbed with polish; the walls had been decorated by the hand of a painter, depicting over there the remnants of a Swedish flotilla, from the elevation of which Peter was pointing into space; and from there flew spaces with the blue of white-maned rollers; but through the stranger’s head flew a carriage surrounded by a swarm …

‘It’s time …’

‘They’re going to throw …’

‘At Abl …’

‘Indee …’

Oh, idle thoughts! …

On the wall there was a splendid display of curly spinach, depicting in zigzags the plaisirs of Peterhof’s nature32 with spaces, clouds and a sugar Easter cake in the form of a small, stylish pavilion.

‘Do you want picon33 in it?’

The podgy landlord addressed our stranger from behind the vodka counter.

‘No, I don’t want picon in it.’

But wondered all the while: why there had been a frightened gaze – behind the carriage window: why the eyes had bulged, turned to stone and then closed; why a dead, shaven head had reeled and vanished; why from the hand – a black suede one – the cruel whip of a government circular had not dealt him a blow on the back; why the black suede hand had trembled there, impotently; why it had not been a hand but … a wretched little handie …

He looked: on the counter the snacks were turning dry, under glass bells some kind of limp little leaves were going rancid, along with a pile of overdone meatballs from the day before yesterday.

‘Another glass …’

There in the distance sat an idly sweating man with a most enormous coachman’s beard, in a blue jacket and blacked boots on top of grey trousers of military colour. The idly sweating man was knocking back glasses; the idly sweating man was summoning the mop-headed waiter:

‘What are you yelling for?’

‘I want something …’

‘Melon, sir?’

‘To the devil: your melon is soap with sugar …’

‘A banana, sir?’

‘An indecent sort of fruit …’

‘Astrakhan grapes, sir?’

Thrice did my stranger swallow the astringent, colourlessly shining poison, the effect of which recalls the effect of the street: the oesophagus and the stomach lick its vengeful fires with a dry tongue, while the consciousness, detaching itself from the body, like the handle on the lever of a machine, starts to revolve around the whole organism, making everything incredibly clear … for one instant only.

And the stranger’s consciousness cleared for an instant: and he remembered: jobless people were going hungry over there: jobless people were begging him there; and he had promised them; and taken from them – yes? Where was his little bundle? Here it was, here – beside him, here … Taken the bundle from them.

Indeed: that encounter on the Nevsky had knocked out his memory.

‘Some watermelon, sir?’

‘To the devil with your watermelon: it just sticks in your teeth, and there’s nothing in your mouth …’

‘Well, some vodka then …’

But the bearded man suddenly fired off:

‘I’ll tell you what I want: crayfish …’

The stranger with the small black moustache settled down at the small table to wait for that person who …

‘Won’t you have a glass?’

The idly sweating bearded man merrily winked.

‘Thank you, but …’

‘Why not, sir?’

‘Well, I’ve already been drinking …’

‘You ought to drink some more: in my company …’

My stranger put two and two together: suspiciously he gave the bearded man a look, grabbed hold of the soggy little bundle, grabbed hold of a torn sheet of paper (newspaper); and with it, as if casually, covered the little bundle.

‘Are you from Tula?’

The stranger tore himself away from his thought with displeasure and said with sufficient rudeness – said in a falsetto voice:

‘I’m certainly not from Tula …’

‘Where are you from, then?’

‘Why do you want to know?’

‘I just do …’

‘Well: I’m from Moscow …’

And with a shrug of his shoulders he angrily turned away.

And he thought: no, he did not think – the thoughts thought themselves, expanding and revealing a picture: tarpaulins, hawsers, herring; and sacks stuffed full of something: the immensity of the sacks; among the sacks, with a bluish hand, a workman dressed in black leather was shouldering a sack, standing out clearly against the fog, against the flying watery surfaces; and the sack fell dully: from his back into a barge that was laden with girders; while the workman (a workman he knew) stood above the sacks and pulled out a pipe with his clothes dancing most absurdly in the wind like a wing.

‘You here on business?’

(Oh, Lord!)

‘No, just – here …’

And he said to himself:

‘A police spy …’

‘Is that so: well, I’m a coachman …’

‘My brother-in-law’s a coachman for Konstantin Konstantinovich …’34

‘Well, and what of it?’

‘What of it: nothing – no strangers here …’

Obviously a police spy: wish the person would come soon.

Meanwhile the bearded man fell into hapless reflection over a plate of uneaten crayfish, crossing his mouth, and giving a prolonged yawn.

‘Oh, Lord, Lord! …’

Of what were his thoughts? Of Vasily Island? The sacks and the workman? Yes – of course: life was going up in price, the workman had nothing to eat.

Why? Because: over the black bridge Petersburg comes lunging here; over the bridge and the arrows of the prospects – in order to crush the poor under heaps of stone coffins; he hated Petersburg; above the accursed regiments of buildings that rose up from the opposite bank out of a wave of clouds – someone small soared out of the chaos and floated there like a black point: there was a constant screeching and weeping from there:

‘The islands must be crushed! …’

Only now did he realize what had happened on Nevsky Prospect, whose green ear had looked at him from a distance of four inches – behind the carriage wall; the small, trembling, dead little fellow had been that same bat which, as it soared – tormentingly, menacingly and coldly, threatened, screeched …

Suddenly –

But of ‘suddenly’ we shall speak – in what follows.