Petersburg Outer Darkness

Outer darkness engulfed them in the unlit porchway (thus it is in the first moment after death); at once in the darkness the second lieutenant’s panting and puffing was heard, accompanied by a minute tracery of exclamations.

‘I … stood right here: here, here – this is where I stood … I was just standing, you know …’

‘Do you say so indeed, Nikolai Apollonovich? … Do you say so indeed, my good sir? …’

‘In a complete nervous attack, in the grip of morbid associations of ideas …’

‘Associations? … But why aren’t you coming? … What do you mean – associations? …’

‘The doctor said … Oh, but why are you pulling me? Don’t pull me: I can walk by myself …

‘And why are you clutching my hand? … Don’t clutch it, please,’ came the voice from higher up, now.

‘I don’t mean to …’

‘You’re clutching it …

‘I tell you …’ came from even higher up …

‘The doctor said – the doctor said: it’s a r-rare – brain disorder, called such-and-such: the domino and all the rest of it … A brain disorder …’ came a squeak from somewhere above now.

But somewhere even higher up, a sudden, well-fed voice exclaimed loudly:


This was right outside the door of the Likhutins’ flat.

‘Who is here?’

From the most complete darkness, Sergei Sergeich Likhutin raised his voice in displeasure.

‘Who is here?’ cried Nikolai Apollonovich, raising his own voice in the most enormous relief; at the same time he felt: the hand that had been clutching him fell away; and – a match struck reassuringly.

The unfamiliar, well-fed voice continued to proclaim:

‘Well, I’ve been standing here … I’ve rung and rung – and no one comes to open. And, how do you like that: familiar voices.’

When the match was struck, some downy-white fingers appeared, carrying a bunch of the most luxuriant chrysanthemums; while behind them, in the murk, the stately figure of Verhefden also appeared – for some reason he was here at this hour.

‘What? Sergei Sergeich?

‘You’ve shaved your beard off? …

‘What? … you’re in civilian clothes …’

And pretending only now to have noticed Ableukhov (Ableukhov, we should observe, noticed this at once), Verhefden struck a match and with eyebrows raised high began to look out at him from behind the chrysanthemums that were swaying in his hand.

‘And Nikolai Apollonovich as well? … How are you, Nikolai Apollonovich? … After last night I must confess I thought … You weren’t yourself, were you? … You left the ball with a bit of a stir? … Since last night I’ve …’

Another match was struck; two mocking eyes stared out of the flowers: Verhefden knew perfectly well that Nikolai Apollonovich was not well received in the Likhutins’ home; seeing him so manifestly drawn towards the door, from considerations of social politeness Verhefden began to hurry:

‘I’m not in the way, am I? The fact is that I just dropped by for a moment … And in any case, I have no time … We are up to our eyebrows … Apollon Apollonovich, your dear father, is waiting for me … By all the signs it looks as though a strike is expected … We’re up to our eyebrows in work …’

They did not have time to reply to him, because the door opened swiftly; an over-starched linen butterfly appeared from the doorway – a butterfly sitting on a bonnet.

‘Mavrushka, is this a good time for me to call?’

‘Yes, sir, the barynya is at home …’

‘No, no, Mavrushka … You had better give these flowers to the barynya … It is a debt I owe,’ he smiled to Sergei Sergeich, shrugging his shoulders in the way that a man shrugs his shoulders and smiles to another man after a day spent together in the society of ladies …

‘Yes, it is a debt I owe to Sofya Petrovna – for a number of “fifis” I uttered …’

And again he smiled: and – caught himself:

‘Well then, goodbye, my friend. Adieu, Nikolai Apollonovich: you look overtired, nervous …’

Footsteps went pattering down the stairs; and from there, from the lower landing, came once again:

‘And it’s not right to read books all the time …’

Nikolai Apollonovich very nearly shouted down:

‘Herman Hermanovich, I also … It’s also time I went home … Aren’t we going in the same direction?’

But the footsteps receded, and – bang: the door slammed shut.

At this point Nikolai Apollonovich again felt lonely; and again – that he had been seized; yes – this time good and proper; seized in front of Mavrushka. On his face was written horror, while on Mavrushka’s, it was – bewilderment and alarm, while a kind of open, satanic joy was quite distinctly written on the face of the second lieutenant; bathed in perspiration, with his free hand he drew out his handkerchief from his pocket – with his other free hand squeezing, pressing against the wall, pulling, drawing away and nudging the small, unwilling figure of the student.

In its turn: the small, unwilling figure proved to be as slippery as an eel; in its turn, this small figure, defending itself, jumped away from the door – away, away; when it was nudged – it pushed itself and squeezed itself away; thus, when we put our foot in an anthill, we instinctively jump aside at the sight of thousands of small red ants that busily rush about on the heap that has been crushed by our foot; and from the heap then comes a repulsive rustling; had the house once so attractive to him really become for Nicolas Ableukhov – an anthill crushed by his foot? What could the astonished Mavrushka make of that?

All the same, Nikolai Apollonovich was pushed inside.

‘There we are now, if you please …’

All the same, he was pushed inside; but in the entrance hall, observing the last crumbs of dignity, surveying the familiar yellow oakwood coat-rack and surveying the same old upholstered handle on the drawer in front of the mirror, commented:

‘Actually … I’ve only dropped in … for a short visit …’

And he very nearly gave his cloak to Mavrushka (ugh – the heat and the smell of the steam heating); and – there was the pink kimono! … A satin piece of it fluttered through from the entrance hall into the next room: a piece of Sofya Petrovna; or, more precisely – of Sofya Petrovna’s dress …

There was no time to think.

The cloak was not surrendered, because Sergei Sergeich Likhutin, turning to Mavrushka and taking her arm, said in a hoarse and jerky voice:

‘Go to the kitchen …’

And without observing the elementary decorum of a cordial host, Sergei Sergeyevich shoved the broad-brimmed hat and flying coat straight into the room with the Fujiyamas. There is no need to add that under the broad-brimmed hat and under the folds of the flying cloak the owner of the cloak, Nikolai Apollonovich, flew too.

As he flew into the dining-room, Nikolai Apollonovich saw, for one instant, running in at the door: a kimono; and then – the door slammed on a piece of the kimono.

Nikolai Apollonovich was transported through the room with the Fujiyamas, and noticed no essential change in it, noticed no traces of plaster on the striped, multicoloured rug; it had been trodden underfoot – after the incident; afterwards the rugs had been cleaned; but the traces of plaster remained. Nikolai Apollonovich did not notice anything: neither the traces of plaster, nor the damage that had been done to the fallen ceiling. Turning a frightened grin at the executioner who was dragging him along, he suddenly noticed … –

The door opened – and from Sofya Petrovna’s room a head was thrust out of the narrow opening: Nikolai Apollonovich could only see – two eyes: in horror the eyes turned on him out of a flood of black hair.

But hardly had he turned to face the eyes, when the eyes turned away from him; and there was an exclamation:

‘Ai, ai!’

Sofya Petrovna saw: through the alcove the second lieutenant, covered in perspiration, was dragging his way across the rugs and parquetry with a winged victim (in the cloak Nikolai Apollonovich looked as though he had wings) who was also covered in perspiration, – with a victim from under the wings of whose cloak a green trouser leg dangled most indecently, treacherously betraying a trouser strap.

‘Trrr,’ his heels went, as they dragged across the rug; and the carpet was covered with little wrinkles.

Just then, Nikolai Apollonovich turned his head, and, catching sight of Sofya Petrovna, he shouted to her tearfully:

‘Leave us, Sofya Petrovna: this is a matter that must be settled between men,’ – and as he said it, his cloak flew off and fell sumptuously on the small couch like some fantastic two-winged creature.

‘Trrr,’ his heels went as they dragged across the rug.

Feeling an enormous jolt, Nikolai Apollonovich hung for a moment in space, his legs jerking, and … – with a soft slap, the broad-brimmed hat detached itself from his head. He himself, his legs jerking, describing an arc, went crashing into the unlocked, but firmly closed door of the little study; here the second lieutenant resembled a sling, and Nikolai Apollonovich a stone: like a stone he crashed into the door; the door opened: he disappeared into the unknown.