Petersburg An Ordinary Man

At last Apollon Apollonovich stood up.

Calmly somehow, he began to look around him; tore himself away from the little bundles of parallel-positioned dossiers: nota benes, section marks, question marks, exclamation marks; sinking, his hand trembled and jumped with its little pencil – over the yellow sheet of paper, over the small mother-of-pearl table; the frontal bones were tensed in a single intense effort: to understand, no matter what, at whatever cost.

And – he understood.

The lacquered carriage with the coat of arms would no longer fly up to the old, stone caryatid; out there, behind the panes, towards him would not come: the octogenarian shoulder, the tricorne, the gold braid and the copper-headed mace; Port Arthur would not be restored from the ruins; but – China would rise up in disturbance; hark – listen: one seems to hear a distant trampling; that is the horsemen of Genghis Khan.

Apollon Apollonovich listened: a distant trampling; no, it was not; it was Semyonych, traversing the cold magnificence of the gleaming rooms; there he entered, looked around him, walked through; saw – the cracked mirror: across it a silver arrow had glimmered in zigzags; and – frozen for ever.

Semyonych walked past.

Apollon Apollonovich did not like his spacious apartment with its unaltering view of the Neva; out there the clouds rushed in a greenish swarm; from time to time they thickened into a yellowish smoke that descended towards the seashore; the dark, watery depths beat close against the granite with the steel of their scales; into the greenish swarm a motionless spire receded … from the Petersburg Side. Apollon Apollonovich began to look round him uneasily: these walls! Here he would settle down for a long time – with a view of the Neva. Here was his domestic hearth; his official career was over.

Well, and what of it?

The walls were snow, not walls! A little cold, it was true … What of it? Family life; in other words: Nikolai Apollonovich, – the most dreadful, so to speak …; and – Anna Petrovna, who had in her old age become … simply God knows what!

Em-em-em …

Apollon Apollonovich clutched his head tightly in his fingers, letting his gaze escape to the crackling and fire-breathing hearth: an idle cerebral game!

It escaped – escaped beyond the borders of consciousness: there it continued to rise into swarms of chaotic clouds; and Nikolai Apollonovich remembered – a small sprout of a lad with searching blue eyes and a mass (one must be fair) of the most various intellectual interests, all impossibly tangled up with one another.

And – he remembered a girl (this had been about thirty years ago); a swarm of admirers; among them a man still comparatively young, Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, now a state councillor and – a hopeless sigher after the ladies.

And – the first night: horror in the eyes of the female companion who was left with him – an expression of revulsion and contempt, hidden by a submissive smile; that night Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, now a state councillor, performed a loathsome act sanctioned by form: he raped the girl; the rape went on for years; and on one of those nights Nikolai Apollonovich was conceived – between two different smiles: between a smile of lust and a smile of submissiveness; was it any wonder that Nikolai Apollonovich subsequently became a combination of revulsion, fear and lust? They would have had to immediately set about educating the horror they had brought into the world: to humanize the horror.

But instead they inflated it …

And inflating the horror to extreme limits, they had each run away from the horror; Apollon Apollonovich – to direct the fate of Russia; Anna Petrovna – to gratify her sexual urge with Mantalini (an Italian artiste); Nikolai Apollonovich – to philosophy; and from there – to meetings of the graduates of non-existent institutions (to all those small moustaches!) Their domestic hearth now turned into a desolation of abomination.

Into this desolation of abomination he was now going to return; in place of Anna Petrovna he would merely find a locked door that led into her apartments (if Anna Petrovna did not conceive a desire to return – to the desolate abomination); he had the key to her apartments (he had only ever visited that part of the cold house twice; to sit there; on both occasions he had caught a cold).

While in place of his son he would see a blinking, evasive eye – enormous, empty and cold: the colour of cornflowers; not quite that of a thief; and not quite utterly frightened; the horror would hide itself there – that same horror that had flared up in the newlywed woman on the night when Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, the state councillor, had for the first time …

And so on, and so forth …

After he had left government service these smart rooms would also probably be closed up one after the other; that meant that the corridor, with adjoining rooms for himself and his son, would remain; his very life would be bounded by the corridor: he would shuffle about there in his slippers; and – there would be: the reading of newspapers, the discharge of the organic functions, the place that had no comparison, the writing of his memoirs before he died, and the door that led to his son’s rooms.

Yes, yes, yes!

To look through the keyhole; and – to jump away, having heard a suspicious rustling; or – no: in the corresponding place to bore a little hole with an awl; and – expectation would not deceive: his son’s life on the other side of the wall would be revealed to him in the same precision with which a dismantled clock mechanism is revealed to the gaze. In place of his governmental interests, new interests would greet him – from this observation point.

All this would happen:

‘Good morning, Papa!’

‘And good morning to you, Kolenka!’

And – they would each go off to their rooms.

And – then, and – then: having locked the door, he would apply himself to the perforated hole, in order to see and hear and from time to time tremble, start jerkily – at the sight of the burning secret made manifest; be depressed, and afraid, and eavesdrop: as they opened their souls to each other – Nikolai Apollonovich and that stranger with the small moustache; at night, throwing the blanket from him, he would thrust forth a head covered with perspiration; and, as he reviewed what he had heard, he would sigh from the jolts of his heart, which were tearing that heart to pieces, take some pills and run … to the place that had no comparison: shuffle in his slippers all the way to … another morning.

‘Good morning!’

‘Indeed, Kolenka! …’

There was the life of an ordinary man!

An unmasterable urge drew him into his son’s room; timidly the door creaked: the reception room was revealed; he stopped on the threshold; utterly – small and old; pulled with a trembling hand at the crimsonish tassels of his robe, as he surveyed the nonsense: the cage with the green budgerigars, the Arabian stool with incrustations of ebony and copper; and he saw – an absurdity: winding down from the stool in all directions, the boiling red folds of a domino cape, that had fallen sumptuously, like throbbing lights and streaming deer’s antlers – straight under the head of a spotted leopard that lay prone on the floor with a grinning head; Apollon Apollonovich stood for a while, chewed his lips, stroked his chin that seemed strewn with hoar frost, and spat with revulsion (after all, he knew the story of that domino); buffoonish and headless, it sprawled its satin skirts and armless sleeves; a small mask was hung on a rusty Sudanese arrow.

To Apollon Apollonovich the room seemed airless: instead of air, the atmosphere contained lead; as though dreadful, undendurable thoughts were being meditated here … An unpleasant room! … And – a heavy atmosphere!

Here was the martyred, grinning mouth, here were the eyes of cornflower hue, here was the hair that stood bathed in light: invested in a uniform jacket with an exceedingly thin waist and clutching a white kid glove in one hand, Nikolai Apollonovich, clean shaven (and perhaps scented), a sword at his side, suffered from behind the frame: Apollon Apollonovich looked closely at the portrait that had been painted in the spring that had recently passed, and – strode into the next room.

The unlocked writing desk struck Apollon Apollonovich’s attention: a small drawer in it had been pulled out; Apollon Apollonovich conceived an instinctive curiosity (to examine its contents); with quick footsteps he ran over to the writing desk and snatched up – an enormous photograph that had been left forgotten on the desk, and turned it this way and that in the deepest reflectivity (his absent-mindedness distracted his thoughts from the contents of the little drawer); the photograph depicted some lady or other – a brunette …

His absent-mindedness proceeded from the contemplation of a certain lofty matter, because this matter had unfolded into a train of thought which the senator went rushing after; this train of thought had nothing in common with his son’s room, nor with the fact he was standing in his son’s room, which Apollon Apollonovich had probably entered in mechanical fashion (an unmasterable urge is a mechanical action); mechanically he then lowered his eyes and saw that his hand was turning, not the photograph, but some sort of heavy object, while his thoughts were surveying that type of state functionary who in common parlance is called a careerist, a representative of which species he had recently had the misfortune to talk to: when the deceased minister had been alive, they were in solidarity with him, but now they were going to do something to him, Ableukhov …

What were they going to do?

The heavy object resembled a sardine tin in shape; it had been extracted by the senator’s hand mechanically; mechanically had Apollon Apollonovich snatched up the cabinet photograph, and had woken from his thoughts – holding a round-ended object: and inside it something jangled; least of all at this point did the senator think about the abyss (we often drink coffee with cream over the abyss), but rather examined the round-ended object with the greatest attention, inclining his head over it and listening to the ticking of the clock: the clock mechanism inside the heavy sardine tin …

He did not care much for the object …

He took the object with him for more detailed examination – through the corridor into the drawing-room, – inclining his head over it and resembling a grey, mouse-like heap; as he did so he was still thinking about the same type of state functionary; men of this type protect themselves from responsibility with the most empty phrases, like ‘as is well known’, when nothing is yet known, or: ‘science teaches us’, when science does not teach (his thoughts always sprayed poison at the inimical party) …

Apollon Apollonovich ran with the object to the end of the drawing-room where the small, incrusted table rose on its leonine legs; primly there rose the long-legged bronze; he put the object on a lacquered Chinese tray, inclining his bald head, above which the shade of the lamp expanded with pale violet glass, delicately patterned.

But the glass was growing dark with time; and the delicate pattern was also growing dark with time.