Petersburg The Ordinary Man

Into the far-off distance, this way and that, stretched alleys and streetlets, streets, simply, prospects; now out of the darkness emerged the lofty-summited side of a house, made of brick, composed of nothing but burdens, now out of the darkness a wall gaped with an entrance porch above which two stone Egyptians raised the stone projection of the balcony aloft in their hands. Past the lofty-summited house, past its brick side, past all the million-pood colossi – out of darkness into darkness – in the Petersburg fog Apollon Apollonovich walked, walked, walked, overcoming all the burdens: before him was delineated a grey, somewhat rotten little fence.

At this point from somewhere at the side a low door flew open and remained open; white steam came belching out, there was a sound of swearing, the pathetic tinkling of a balalaika and a voice. Apollon Apollonovich found himself listening to the voice, as he surveyed the dead gateways, a street lamp chattering in the wind, and a latrine.

The voice sang:

In spirit to Thee, Father,

Heavenward in thought we flee

And for our food sincerely

We give our thanks to Thee.

Thus sang the voice.

The door banged shut. In the ordinary man in the street Apollon Apollonovich suspected something petty, something that flew past behind the glass of carriage windows (after all, the distance between the nearest wall and the carriage door was calculated by Apollon Apollonovich in many millions of versts). And now before him all the spatial expanses were displaced: the life of the ordinary man in the street had suddenly surrounded him with gateways and walls, and the ordinary man himself appeared before him as a voice.

And the voice sang:

In spirit to Thee, Father,

Heavenward in thought we flee

And for our food sincerely

We give our thanks to Thee.

Was this what the ordinary man in the street was like? Apollon Apollonovich began to feel an interest in the ordinary man, and there was a moment when he almost knocked at the first door he came to, in order to find the ordinary man; here he remembered that the ordinary man was preparing to punish him with a shameful death: his top hat slipped down on one side, and his emaciated shoulders sagged flaccidly over his chest: –

– yes, yes, yes – they had blown him to pieces: not him, Apollon Apollonovich, but someone else, his best friend, sent by fate only once; for a moment Apollon Apollonovich remembered that grey moustache, the green depth of the eyes that had been fixed on him as the two of them had bent over a geographical map of the Empire, and their young old age had flamed with dreams (this had been exactly a day before) … But they had blown to pieces even his best friend, the first among the first … It is said to last a second; and then – as if nothing had ever been … But what of it? Every man of state is a hero, but – brr-brr … –

Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov adjusted his top hat and straightened his shoulders as he walked out into the damp-rotten and unpleasant fog, the damp-rotten life of the ordinary man, into these meshes of walls, gateways, fences, that were filled with slime and were subsiding wretchedly and flaccidly, in a word – into one continuous squalid, rotten, empty and general latrine. And it seemed to him now that he was hated by this stupid wall and this rotten fence; Apollon Apollonovich knew by experience that they hated him (day and night he went covered by the fog of their spite). Who were they? An insignificant little band, stinking like everything else? Apollon Apollonovich’s cerebral play erected his misty planes before his gaze; but all the planes were blown to pieces; Russia’s gigantic map appeared before him, who was so small: could these really be enemies: enemies – the gigantic totality of the races that inhabited these spaces: a hundred million. No, more …

‘From Finland’s icy cliffs to fiery Colchis …’24

What? They hated him? … No: Russia stretched, that was all. And him? … Him they were going to … were going to … No: brr-brr … An idle cerebral game. Better to quote Pushkin:

It’s time, my friend, it’s time … For peace the heart is asking.

Day runs after day. And every day that’s passing

Takes with it particles of life. Together you and I

Intend to live some more. Look yonder – and we die.25

Who was it he intended to live together with? His son? His son was a most dreadful scoundrel. With the ordinary man in the street? The ordinary man in the street was going to … Apollon Apollonovich remembered that he had once intended to spend his life with Anna Petrovna, on his retirement from government service to move to Finland, but then, then: Anna Petrovna had gone away – yes, sir, gone away! …

‘She went away, you know: there’s nothing to be done about it …’

Apollon Apollonovich realized that he had no companion in life (until that moment he had somehow not found time to remember this) and that death in the line of duty would at least be an adornment to the life he had lived. He began to feel somehow childlike and sad and quiet – so quiet that it was almost comfortable. Around him all that was audible was the rustling of a streaming puddle, like someone’s plea – always about the same thing, about the same thing – about what had not been, but what could have been.

Slowly the black-grey gloom that all night had suffocated everything and everyone was beginning to melt away. Slowly the black-grey gloom turned greyer and became a grey gloom: greyish at first; then only just perceptibly grey; while the walls of the houses, which had been illumined at night by the street lamps, began to fuse palely with the departing night. And it seemed that the reddish-brown street lamps, which only just now had been casting reddish-brown light around them, suddenly began to run low; and ran out completely by degrees. The feverishly burning flambeaux disappeared on the walls. At last, the street lamps became dim points that stared in astonishment into the greyish mist; and for a moment it seemed as though the grey row of lines, spires and walls with the imperceptibly lying planes of shadows, with the infinitude of window openings – was not a colossus of stones, but an airily risen lace that consisted of patterns of a most delicate craft, and through these patterns the dawn sky bashfully peeped.

Towards Apollon Apollonovich rushed a poorly dressed young adolescent; a girl of about fifteen, bound with a kerchief; while behind her in the fog moved the outline of a man: bowler hat, walking stick, a coat, ears, moustache and nose; the outline had obviously accosted the adolescent with the most villainous propositions; Apollon Apollonovich considered himself a knight; unexpectedly to himself, he removed his top hat:

‘Dear lady, may I be so bold as to offer you my arm as far as your home: at this late hour it is not without risk for young persons of your sex to appear in the street.’

The poorly dressed adolescent quite distinctly saw some kind of small black figure there raising a top hat before her; a shaven, dead head crept out from a collar for a moment and then crept back inside again.

They walked in deep silence; everything seemed closer than it ought to: wet and old, receding into the ages; Apollon Apollonovich had seen all this before from a distance. And now – here it was: gateways, little houses, walls and, pressed fearfully against his arm, this adolescent for whom he, Apollon Apollonovich, was not a villain, not a senator: just a kind old man she did not know.

They walked to a small green house with a crooked gate and a rotted gateway; at the little front entrance the senator raised his top hat and said farewell to the adolescent; and when the door slammed shut behind her, the old man’s mouth twisted mournfully; the dead lips began to chew on total emptiness; just then from somewhere in the distance came something that sounded like the singing of a violin bow: the singing of a Petersburg chanticleer, announcing something unknown and waking someone unknown.

Somewhere to the side splashed the lightest of flames, and suddenly everything was illuminated, as a roseate ripple of cloudlets entered the flames like a mesh of mother-of-pearl; and in the breaks of that mesh a little blue scrap now showed blue. The row of lines and walls grew heavier and more clearly outlined; some kind of heavy weights emerged – both indentations and projections; entrance porches emerged, caryatids and the cornices of brick balconies; but in the windows, on the spires, a shimmering was more and more noticeable; from the windows, too, the ruby red gleam of the spires began to come.

The lightest of lace turned into morning Petersburg: Petersburg decked itself out lightly and whimsically, there stood the sand-coloured houses with their five storeys; there stood the dark-blue houses, there the grey ones; the reddish-brown palace began to glow like dawn.