Petersburg Packets of Pencils

The senator’s study was exceedingly unpretentious; in the centre, of course, towered the writing desk; but this was not the main thing; incomparably more important here was the following: bookcases ran along the walls; on the right, cases numbers one, three and five; on the left, numbers two, four and six; their shelves bent under books that were arranged according to plan; in the centre of the desk lay a textbook on ‘Planimetry’.

Before retiring for the night, Apollon Apollonovich usually spent time turning the pages of this little book in order to calm the recalcitrant life within his head for sleep, in the contemplation of most blissful outlines: parallelepipeds, parallelograms, cones, cubes and pyramids.

Apollon Apollonovich lowered himself into the black armchair; the chair’s leather-upholstered back would have tempted anyone to lean back in it, all the more so on such a sleepless, trying morning. Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov was stiffly prim with himself; and on this trying morning he sat completely erect at the writing desk, waiting for his good-for-nothing son to appear. As he waited for his son, he pulled out a little drawer; there under the letter r he took out a small diary, marked ‘Observations’; and there, in the ‘Observations’, he began to write down his thoughts, which had been schooled by experience. The quill squeaked: ‘A man of state is distinguished by humanism … A man of state …’

An observation began with a fair copy; but as he made his fair copy he was interrupted; a frightened sigh was heard behind his back; Apollon Apollonovich permitted himself a powerful application of pressure, turned (the quill had broken), and saw Semyonych.

‘Barin, your excellency … I make so bold as to inform you (it slipped my memory earlier) …’

‘What is it?’

‘Well, it’s – e-e-er … How to tell you, I don’t know …

‘Ah – indeed, sir, indeed, sir …’

Apollon Apollonovich’s whole torso was cut out, presenting to the eye of the outward observer a most absolute combination of lines: grey, white and black; and resembled an etching.

‘Well, you see, sir: our barynya, sir – I make so bold as to inform you – Anna Petrovna, sir …’

Apollon Apollonovich suddenly turned angrily towards the lackey his enormous ear …

‘What is it? Eh-h? … Speak louder, I can’t hear.’

The trembling Semyonych bent right down to the pale green ear that was staring at him expectantly:

‘The barynya … Anna Petrovna, sir … Has come back …’

‘? …’

‘From Shpain … to Petersburg …’

‘Indeed, sir, indeed, sir; very good, sir …’

‘She’s sent a letter by messenger, sir …

‘She’s staying at a hotel …

‘No sooner had it pleased your excellency to go out, sir, than a messenger came, sir, with a letter, sir …

‘Well, I put the letter on the table, and gave the messenger – twenty copecks …

‘Not an hour had passed, when suddenly: I heard this – ring at the door …’

Apollon Apollonovich, arm placed upon arm, sat in absolute impassivity, without movement; he seemed to be sitting without thought: indifferently his gaze fell on the spines of the books; from the spine of one book gleamed the imposing inscription: Code of Russian Law: Volume One. And next to it: Volume Two. On the desk lay packets of documents, an inkwell gleamed golden, one noticed pens and quills; on the desk stood a heavy paperweight in the form of a small pedestal on which a silver muzhik (a loyal one) was raising a communal winebowl in a toast of health. Apollon Apollonovich, his arms folded, sat facing the pens and the packets of documents without a movement, without a quiver …

‘I opened the door, your excellency: … I saw: a barynya I didn’t know, a respectable barynya …

‘I said to her: “How can I oblige you?” And she said to me: “Mitry Semyonych …”

‘And I fell on her dear hand: “Little mother,” I said, “Anna Petrovna …”

‘She looked, and she was in tears …

‘She said: “I wanted to see how you’ve managed without me …” ’

Apollon Apollonovich made no reply, but again pulled out a drawer, extracted a dozen pencils (very, very cheap ones), took a couple of them in his fingers – and the pencil stems snapped in the senator’s fingers. Apollon Apollonovich sometimes expressed his mental torment by this method: the breaking of packets of pencils, which were kept for this eventuality in a drawer marked with the letter b.

‘Very well … You may go …’

But, as he snapped his packets of pencils, he still managed to preserve a look of indifference: and no one, no one would have said that the stiff, prim barin, not long before this moment, out of breath and very nearly weeping, had escorted the cook’s daughter through the slush; no one, no one would have said that the enormous protuberance of his forehead had so recently concealed a desire to sweep away the rebellious crowds, which girded the earth as by a chain, with an iron prospect.

And when Semyonych went away, Apollon Apollonovich, throwing the fragments of pencil into the wastepaper basket, leaned his head right back against the back of the black armchair: the little old face grew younger; quickly he began to straighten his necktie; quickly he leapt up and began to scuttle about, circulating from corner to corner: small in stature and somehow overactive, Apollon Apollonovich would have reminded anyone of his son: even more did he resemble a photographic snapshot of Nikolai Apollonovich that had been taken in 1904.

Just then, crash upon crash resounded from some distant chamber – or plain ordinary rooms; starting from somewhere in the distance, the crashes came nearer; as though someone were coming there, metallic, terrible; and then there was a crash that shattered everything. Apollon Apollonovich involuntarily stopped in his tracks, and was about to run to the door, to lock his study, but … reflected, and remained where he was, because the crash that had shattered everything turned out to be the sound of a banging door (the sound came from the drawing-room); ineffably and tormentingly, someone came towards the door with loud coughing and an unnatural shuffling of slippers: the terrible days of old, like a cry advancing on us from out of the depths, suddenly lodged themselves in his memory with the sounds of the ancient song to whose strains Apollon Apollonovich had first fallen in love with Anna Petrovna:

‘Aa-ba-a-ate un-re-est of the paa-aassions …’

‘Fall asle-e-eep … thou ho-ope-less he-e-art …’

But why, and what did it mean?

The door opened: on its threshold stood Nikolai Apollonovich, in uniform, even wearing a sword (thus had he been dressed at the ball, only now he had removed his domino cape), but in slippers and a brightly coloured Tartar skullcap.

‘Here I am, Papa …’

The bald head turned towards its son; as he searched for the appropriate phrase, he began to snap his fingers:

‘Look, Kolenka.’ Instead of talking about the domino (was this any time for dominoes?) he began to talk about another circumstance: the circumstance that had just compelled him to have recourse to the tied-up packet of pencils.

‘Look, Kolenka: until now I have not shared with you a piece of news that you have doubtless heard, mon ami … Your mother, Anna Petrovna, has returned …’

Nikolai Apollonovich gave a sigh of relief and thought: ‘So that’s it,’ but pretended to be disturbed:

‘Of course, of course: I – know …’

Indeed: now for the first time Nikolai Apollonovich clearly realized that his mother had returned; but, having realized this, he set about his old custom: the contemplation of the sunken chest, the neck, the ears, the fingers and the chin of the old man who ran before him … Those little hands, that little neck (there was something crayfish-like about it)! The frightened, embarrassed look and the quite maidenly bashfulness with which the old man …

‘Anna Petrovna, mon ami, has committed an action that … that … I find, so to speak, hard … hard, Kolenka, to class-i-fy with sufficient composure …’

Something in the corner began to rustle: there a mouse had begun to tremble and hide – and it gave a squeak.

‘In a word, this action is, I hope, known to you; I have refrained from discussing this action with you until now – as you will have noticed – out of regard for your natural feelings …’

Natural feelings! These feelings were by any standards unnatural …

‘For your natural feelings …’

‘Yes, thank you, Papa: I understand you …’

‘Of course,’ – Apollon Apollonovich thrust two fingers into his waistcoat pocket and again began to scuttle to and fro in a diagonal (from corner to corner). ‘Of course: your mother’s return to Petersburg is an unexpected event for you.’

(Apollon Apollonovich let his gaze rest on his son, raising himself slightly on tiptoe.)

‘A completely …’

‘Unexpected event for all of us …’

‘Who could have thought that Mamma would return …’

‘That is what I say, too: who could have thought it?’ – Apollon Apollonovich threw up his hands in bewilderment, shrugged his shoulders and exchanged bows with the floor – ‘that Anna Petrovna would return …’ And went scuttling off again: ‘This completely unexpected event may end, as you have every reason to suppose, in a change’ (Apollon Apollonovich raised his finger meaningfully, thundering to the whole room in a bass voice, as though he were delivering an important speech to the whole room) ‘in our domestic status quo, or else’ (he turned) ‘everything will remain as it was before.’

‘Yes, that is what I suppose …’

‘In the first case – you are welcome!’

Apollon Apollonovich bowed to the door.

‘In the second case’ – Apollon Apollonovich began to blink bewilderedly – ‘you will see her, of course, but I … I … I …’

And Apollon Apollonovich raised his eyes to his son; his eyes were melancholy: the eyes of a trembling doe brought to bay.

‘Truly, Kolenka, I do not know: but I think … As a matter of fact, this is so hard to explain to you, when one takes into account the naturalness of the feeling that …’

The gaze with which the senator turned towards him began to make Nikolai Apollonovich tremble, and it was a strange thing: he felt a sudden rush – can you imagine of what? Of love? Yes, of love for this old despot who was doomed to be blown to pieces.

Under the influence of this emotion he darted towards his father: another moment, and he would have fallen to his knees before him, in order to confess and to beg for mercy; but at the sight of his son’s movement towards him, the old man again compressed his lips, ran away to the side and began to wave his little hands in fastidious disgust:

‘No, no, no! Please stop it! … Yes, sir, I know what you want … You have heard me, now please try to leave me in peace.’

Two fingers drummed commandingly on the desk; the hand was raised and pointed to the door:

‘You, dear sir, are trying to lead me by the nose; you, dear sir, are no son of mine; you are the most dreadful scoundrel.’

All this Apollon Apollonovich did not say, but shouted; these words burst out unexpectedly. Nikolai Apollonovich did not remember how he leapt out into the corridor with his old sense of nausea and flow of repulsive thoughts: those fingers, that neck and those two protruding ears would become blood-red slush.