Petersburg Pépp Péppovich Pépp

Nikolai Apollonovich very nearly struck his forehead against the door of his room; and then the electric light clicked on (why? the sun, the sun was looking in the windows there!); overturning a chair as he went, he rushed over to the desk:

‘Ai, ai, ai … Where is the key?



‘Ah! …

‘Right, here it is, sir! …

‘Very good, sir …’

Like Apollon Apollonovich, Nikolai Apollonovich was in the habit of talking to himself.

And – yes: he was in a hurry … He pulled out the drawer, but the drawer would not obey; he threw packets of tied-up letters out of the drawer on to the desk; there proved to be a large cabinet photograph under the packets; his gaze fleeted over the photograph; and from there a charming little lady cast her answering gaze: she looked with a teasing smile – the cabinet photograph flew to one side; under the photograph lay the little bundle; with affected indifference he weighed it in his hand: there was something rather heavy in it; he rapidly put it down.

Nikolai Apollonovich quickly began to undo the knots of the napkin, pulling at an embroidered end that depicted a pheasant; the short – and rather overactive – Nikolai Apollonovich now resembled the senator: even more did he resemble a photographic snapshot that had been taken of the senator in 1860.

But why was he fussing so? Calm, oh, he must be more calm! Even so, his trembling fingers could not undo the knot; and in any case there was no point in undoing it: all was now clear. Nevertheless, he untied the little bundle; his amazement knew no bounds.

‘A bonbonnière …

‘Ah! …

‘A ribbon! …

‘How do you like that?’

Like Apollon Apollonovich, Nikolai Apollonovich was in the habit of talking to himself.

But when he tore off the ribbon, his hopes were crushed (he had had some sort of hope), because inside it – inside the bonbonnière, under the pink ribbon – instead of sweet confectioneries from Ballet’s there was a plain ordinary tin; the lid of the tin burned his finger with a most unpleasant chill.

At this point, in passing, he noticed a timing mechanism that was affixed to the side: one had to turn a small metal key to make a sharp black arrow point to the scheduled time. Nikolai Apollonovich dully felt a certainty rise up in his consciousness, one that must inevitably prove his wretchedness and weakness: he felt that he would never be able to turn that key, for there was no means of stopping the mechanism once it had been set in motion. And in order to cut off all further retreat right there and then, Nikolai Apollonovich at once embraced the small metal key between his fingers; whether it was because his fingers trembled, or because Nikolai Apollonovich feeling dizzy, had plunged into the very abyss that he had wanted to avoid with all his heart and soul – the key slowly turned to one o’clock, then to two o’clock, and Nikolai Apollonovich … made an involuntary entrechat: flew off somewhere to the side; having flown off somewhere to the side, he squinted back at the desk again: the little tin box continued to lie on the desk; it was a sardine tin, with oily sardines (he had once eaten too many sardines and had never touched them since); a sardine tin, like any other sardine tin: shiny, with rounded corners …

No – no – no!

Not a sardine tin, but a sardine tin with dreadful contents!

The metal key had already turned to two o’clock, and the peculiar life that lay, inaccessible to the mind, within the sardine tin, had already flared into action; and although the sardine tin was still the same, it was not the same; in there were certainly crawling: the hour and minute hands; the bustling second hand was racing around the perimeter until the moment (that moment was now not far away) – until the moment, until the moment when … –

– the sardine tin’s dreadful contents would suddenly swell up outrageously; would rush and expand without measure; and then, and then the sardine tin would fly into pieces …

– streams of the dreadful contents would rather nimbly spread in circles, tearing the desk to pieces with a crash: something would burst inside him, smack, and his body would also be torn to pieces; together with the splinters, together with the gas that sprayed in all directions it would be splattered like loathsome blood-red slush on the cold stones of the walls … –

– it would all take place in a hundredth of a second: in a hundredth of a second the walls would collapse, and the dreadful contents, growing bigger, bigger and bigger, would trail down the dim sky with splinters, blood and stone.

Into the dim sky shaggy puffs of smoke would swiftly unfurl, letting down their tails on to the Neva.

What had he done, what had he done?

For the little box still stood on the table; now that he had turned the key, he must at once take that little box and put it in a suitable place (for example – in the small white bedroom, under the pillow); or at once crush it under his heel. But to hide it in a suitable place, under his father’s plumped-up pillow, so that the old, bald head, wearied by what had just taken place, would fall on the bomb with a bump – no, no, no: of that he was not capable; that was treachery.

Crush it under his heel?

But at this thought he experienced something that made his ears positively twitch: he felt such a vast sense of nausea (from the seven glasses of vodka he had drunk) that it was as if he had swallowed the bomb, like a pill; and now something distended in the pit of his stomach: it was perhaps made of rubber, perhaps of the matter of very strange worlds …

Never would he crush it, never.

It remained to throw it into the Neva, but there was time for that: he only had to turn the small key twenty times more; and meanwhile it was all postponed; now that he had turned the key, he must immediately extend that meanwhile; but he lingered, sinking into the armchair in complete helplessness; the nausea, coupled with a strange weakness and drowsiness, overwhelmed him dreadfully; and the weakened idea freeing itself from his body, kept drawing for Nikolai Apollonovich some kind of wretched, idle, helpless arabesques … immersing itself in drowsiness.

Nikolai Apollonovich was an enlightened man; Nikolai Apollonovich had not devoted the best years of his life to philosophy in vain; his prejudices had long ago fallen away from him, and Nikolai Apollonovich found soothsaying and all kinds of miracles foreign to him; soothsaying and miracles were a cause of obscurantism (why was he thinking about irrelevant matters, when he ought to be thinking about this … What was he to think about? Nikolai Apollonovich made an effort to rise out of his drowsiness; and was unable to do so) … were a cause of obscurantism … all kinds of miracles … the concept of the source of perfection; for the philosopher, the source of perfection was Thought; God, in a manner of speaking, or Perfect Law … And the law-makers of the great religions expressed their laws in figurative form; Nikolai Apollonovich, in a manner of speaking, respected the law-makers of the great religions, without, of course, believing in their divine essence.

Yes: why was he thinking about religion? Was there any time to think … After all, it had happened: so quickly … What had happened? … Nikolai Apollonovich’s final attempt to rise out of his drowsiness was not crowned with success; he remembered nothing; everything seemed peaceful … to the point of ordinariness, and his weakened thought, freeing itself from his body, kept senselessly drawing some kind of wretched, idle, helpless arabesques.

Nikolai Apollonovich particularly respected the Buddha, in the belief that Buddhism had superseded all other religions in both the psychological and the theoretical regard; in the psychological regard, teaching a love even for animals; and in the theoretical: having developed its logic through the loving agency of Tibetan lamas. Yes: Nikolai Apollonovich remembered that he had once read the logic of Dharmakirti with a commentary by Dharmottara11 …

This was in the first place.

In the second place: in the second place (let us observe for our own part), Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov was a man of instinct (not Nikolai Apollonovich number one, but Nikolai Apollonovich number two); from time to time, between the two doors of the entrance porch, he (like Apollon Apollonovich) was assailed by a certain strange, very strange, exceedingly strange condition: as though everything that lay beyond the door was not what it was, but something else: just what, Nikolai Apollonovich could not have said. Imagine merely that beyond the door there was nothing, and that if one were to fling the door wide open, then the door would open on an empty, cosmic immensity, into which all that was left was for one to … throw oneself headfirst, in order to fly, fly and fly – and having flown somewhere, perceive that the immensity was the sky and the stars – the same sky and stars that we see above us, and in seeing do not see. It remained for one to fly there, past strangely immobile, now untwinkling stars and crimson planetary spheres – in absolute zero, in an atmosphere of two hundred and seventy-three degrees of cold. That was what Nikolai Apollonovich experienced now.

A strange, very strange condition of semi-sleep.