Petersburg The Person

With the appearance of the senator, the stranger began to grow nervous; his hitherto smooth discourse was interrupted: the alcohol was probably having its effect; generally speaking, Aleksandr Ivanovich’s health excited serious apprehension; his conversations with himself and with others produced in him an almost culpable state of mind, were painfully reflected in his spinal vertebral column; there appeared in him an almost gloomy loathing in relation to the conversation that agitated him; this loathing he later transferred to himself; on the face of it these innocent conversations enervated him dreadfully, but most unpleasant of all was the fact that the more he spoke, the more there developed in him a desire to talk even more: to the point of hoarseness, of an astringent sensation in the throat; now he could not stop, exhausting himself more and more; sometimes he would talk to the point where afterwards he experienced genuine attacks of persecution mania: emerging in words, they continued in dreams: at times his unusually ominous dreams grew more frequent: dream followed dream; sometimes three nightmares a night; in these dreams he was always surrounded by some sort of ugly faces (for some reason most often Tartars, Japanese or Orientals in general); these ugly faces invariably left the same nasty impression; with their nasty eyes they kept winking at him; but what was most astonishing of all was that at this time he invariably remembered a most senseless word, seemingly a cabbalistic one, but in actual fact the devil knows what: enfranshish; with the help of this word he struggled in dreams with the crowds of spirits that surrounded him. Furthermore: even when he was awake there appeared on the dark yellow wallpaper of his abode a certain fateful face; and then to cap it all, from time to time all kinds of rubbish would begin to appear to him: and it appeared to him in the whiteness of day, if the autumnal Petersburg day is really white, and not yellow-green with murky saffron reflections; and then Aleksandr Ivanovich experienced the same thing that the senator had experienced yesterday, having met his, Aleksandr Ivanovich’s, gaze. The same fateful phenomena began in him with attacks of deathly anguish, caused, in all probability, by prolonged sitting still: and then Aleksandr Ivanovich would begin to run frightenedly out into the green-yellow fog (in spite of the risk of being shadowed); as he ran through the streets of Petersburg, he called in at little taverns. Thus did alcohol, too, appear on the scene. After the alcohol a shameful feeling also instantly appeared: for the leg, no, sorry, for the stocking of the leg of a certain ingenuous coursiste, which had nothing whatever to do with her herself; there began apparently quite innocent little jokes, giggles, smiles. It would all end with the wild and nightmarish enfranshish dream.

All this Aleksandr Ivanovich remembered, and he hunched his shoulders convulsively: it was as though with the senator’s arrival the same thing had once again arisen within his soul; some kind of irrelevant thought would not give him any peace; sometimes, by chance, he would go over to the door and listen to the boom of distant footsteps that barely reached him; that was probably the senator pacing about his study.

In order to interrupt his thoughts, Aleksandr Ivanovich again began to pour out those thoughts into a rather lacklustre discourse:

‘Here you are, Nikolai Apollonovich, listening to my chatter: yet here, too: in all these discourses of mine, for example in the assertion of my personality, an indisposition has once again mixed itself. Here I am talking to you, arguing with you – but it’s not you I’m arguing with, but myself, only myself. You see, my interlocutor means precisely nothing to me: I am able to talk to the walls, to the posts, to complete idiots. I don’t listen to other people’s thoughts: that’s to say, I only hear what affects me, and mine. I struggle, Nikolai Apollonovich: solitude attacks me: for hours, days, weeks I sit in my garret and smoke. Then it begins to seem to me that everything’s all wrong. Do you know that state?’

‘I can’t picture it clearly. I have heard that it’s caused by one’s heart. The sight of space, when there’s nothing all around … That’s more comprehensible to me.’

‘Well, but not to me: so here you sit and say, why am I who I am: and apparently I am not who I am … and you know, the table stands before me. The devil knows what it is: both a table and not a table. And then you say to yourself: the devil knows what life has done to me. And I want I to become I … But here are we, in Russian my. In general I despise all words that have y in them, in the very sound y there is some kind of Tartar abomination, Mongolianism, perhaps, the East. Listen to it: y. Not a single cultured language has y in it: it’s something obtuse, cynical, slimy.’

Here the stranger with the small black moustache remembered the face of a certain person who irritated him; it too reminded him of the letter y.

Without being able to do much about it, Nikolai Apollonovich entered into conversation with Aleksandr Ivanovich.

‘You keep talking about the greatness of personality: but tell me, is there no control over you; are you not attached?’

‘Are you referring to a certain person, Nikolai Apollonovich?’

‘I’m referring to precisely no one: I just …’

‘Yes – you are right: a certain person appeared soon after my escape from the icy wastes: he appeared in Helsingfors.’34

‘Who was this person – a person of authority in your party?’

‘The highest: it’s around him that the course of events takes place: most important events: do you know the person?’

‘No, I don’t.’

‘Well then, look: you said just now that you’re not in the Party at all, but that the Party is in you; so what is the result of that; it means that you yourself are in a certain person.’

‘Oh, well, he sees me as his centre.’

‘And what about burdens?’

The stranger started.

‘Yes, yes, yes: a thousand times yes: a certain person places the most terrible burdens on me; the burdens keep locking me up in the same cold: the cold of the Yakutsk province.’

‘So,’ Nikolai Apollonovich quipped, ‘the physical plain of a not so remote province has turned into a metaphysical plain of the soul.’

‘Yes, my soul, it’s like outer space; and from there, from outer space, I look at everything.’

‘Listen, and do you have there …’

‘Outer space,’ Aleksandr Ivanovich interrupted him, ‘at times plagues me, desperately plagues me. Do you know what I call that space?

‘I call that space my abode on Vasily Island: four perpendicular walls covered with wallpaper of a darkish yellow hue; when I sit within those walls, no one comes to visit me: the house’s yardkeeper, Matvei Morzhov, comes; and also within those precincts the person comes.’

‘But how did you end up there?’

‘Oh – the person …’

‘Again the person?’

‘Always him: he has turned into, so to speak, the guardian of my damp threshold; if he wants me to, I can stay there for weeks without going out, in the interests of security; after all, my appearance on the streets always presents a danger.’

‘So that is where you cast your shadow on Russian life from – the shadow of the Elusive One.’

‘Yes, from four yellow walls.’

‘But listen: where is your freedom, where does it come from?’ Nikolai Apollonovich laughed, as though taking revenge for the words that had just been spoken. ‘Your freedom comes from not much more than twelve cigarettes smoked one after the other. Listen, why, the person has caught you. How much do you pay for the lodgings?’

‘Twelve roubles, no, sorry – twelve fifty.’

‘And here you devote yourself to the contemplation of outer space?’

‘Yes, here: and here everything is all wrong – objects are not objects: here I have reached the conviction that the window is not a window; the window is a slit on to immensity.’

‘Here you probably arrived at the notion that those at the top of the movement know what is inaccessible to those at the bottom, for the top,’ Nikolai Apollonovich continued his mockery. ‘What is the top?’

But Aleksandr Ivanovich replied calmly:

‘The top of the movement is a universal, fathomless void.’

‘Then what is all the rest for?’

Aleksandr Ivanovich grew animated.

‘Oh, it’s in the name of illness …’

‘How do you mean, illness?’

‘Oh, that same illness that so exhausts me: the strange name of that illness is as yet unknown to me, but I know the symptoms very well: unaccountable depression, hallucinations, fears, vodka, smoking; the vodka gives me a frequent and dull pain in my head; and lastly, a peculiar feeling in my vertebrae: it torments me in the mornings. And do you think that I am the only one who is ill? It would seem not: you too, Nikolai Apollonovich – you too – are also ill. Almost everyone is ill. Ach, stop it, please; I know, I know it all in advance, what you’re going to say, yet none the less: ha-ha-ha! – nearly all the ideological Party workers – they too are ill with the same illness; it’s just that its features are emphasized in me in more relief. You know: years and years ago, whenever I met a Party comrade I used to like to study him, if you know what I mean; there would be a meeting lasting many hours, business matters, smoke, conversations and all of them about such noble and exalted things, and my comrade would get excited, and then, you know, that comrade would invite me to a restaurant.’

‘Well, and what followed from that?’

‘Well, vodka, of course; and so on; glass after glass; and I would look; after a glass of vodka, round that interlocutor’s lips a little smirk would appear (a kind of smirk, Nikolai Apollonovich, that I can’t describe to you), and then I knew: one couldn’t rely on my ideological interlocutor; one could trust neither his words nor his actions: that interlocutor of mine was ill with lack of will, with neurasthenia; and nothing, believe me, would guarantee him against softening of the brain; such an interlocutor is capable not only of failing to keep a promise in a difficult hour; he is also capable of quite plainly and simply stealing, and betraying, and raping a little girl. Even his presence in the Party is a provocation, a provocation, a dreadful provocation. From that time on there has been revealed to me the meaning, you know, of those little wrinkles around the lips, of those weaknesses, little chuckles, little grimaces; and no matter where I have turned my eyes, everywhere, everywhere I am greeted by nothing but cerebral disorder, a general, secret, elusively developed provocation, a little chuckler underneath the public cause that is of a kind – of a kind, Nikolai Apollonovich, that I don’t seem to be able to describe to you at all. But I am able to detect it unerringly; I have detected it in you, too.’

‘And you don’t have it?’

‘I have it, too: I have long ceased to trust any public cause.’

‘So you’re a provocateur, then. Don’t be offended: I’m talking about a purely ideological provocation.’

‘Me. Yes, yes, yes. I am a provocateur. But all my provocation is in the name of a single great idea that is mysteriously leading somewhere; or again, not an idea, but a spirit.’

‘What kind of spirit?’

‘If one is to talk of a spirit, then I cannot define it with the help of words: I can call it a general thirst for death; and I grow intoxicated by it with ecstasy, with bliss, with horror.’

‘About the time that you began, in your own words, to grow intoxicated by the spirit of death, that little wrinkle probably appeared in you.’

‘It did.’

‘And you began to smoke and drink.’

‘Yes, yes, yes: and peculiar lustful feelings appeared, too: you know, I have never been in love with a woman: I’ve been in love – how should I say it: with individual parts of the female body, with items of toilette, with stockings, for example. But men have fallen in love with me.’

‘Well, and did that certain person appear precisely at that time?’

‘How I hate him. I mean, you know – yes, I’m sure you know not by your will but by the will of the fate that has exalted itself above me – the fate of the Elusive One – my identity, that of Aleksandr Ivanovich, has turned into an appendage of my own shadow. The shadow of the Elusive One is known; I – Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin – am unknown to anyone at all; and no one wants to know me, either. And after all, the person who starved, froze and in general experienced something was not the Elusive One, but Dudkin. Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin was, for example, distinguished by an extreme sensitivity; while the Elusive One was both cold and cruel. Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin was from nature distinguished by a vividly expressed sociability and was not averse to enjoying life. While the Elusive One has to be ascetically silent. In a word, even today Dudkin’s elusive shadow makes its triumphant procession: in the brains of youth, of course; why, I myself have been under the influence of the person – but look, just look at how I’ve ended up!’

‘Yes, you know …’

And both again fell silent.

‘And finally, Nikolai Apollonovich, a strange nervous indisposition also crept up on me: under the influence of that indisposition I came to an unexpected conclusion: I, Nikolai Apollonovich, realized completely that out of the cold of my outer space I was aflame with a secret hatred not of the government at all, but of – a certain person; after all, that person, who had turned me, Dudkin, into the shadow of Dudkin, had expelled me from the three-dimensional world, having spread me, so to speak, on the wall of my garret (my favourite posture during insomnia, you know, is to stand up against the wall and spread myself, stretch my arms in both directions). And there in my spread position against the wall (I stand like that for hours, Nikolai Apollonovich) one night I came to my second conclusion; this conclusion was somehow strangely connected with a certain phenomenon that may be understood if one takes into account my developing illness.’

Aleksandr Ivanovich deemed it appropriate to remain silent about the phenomenon.

The phenomenon consisted of a strange hallucination: from time to time on the brownish-yellow wallpaper of his abode a spectral face would appear; at times the features of this face formed into a Semite; more often, however, Mongolian features showed through in this face: while the whole face was swathed in an unpleasant, saffron-yellow sheen. Now a Semite, now a Mongol fixed upon Aleksandr Ivanovich a gaze full of hatred. Aleksandr Ivanovich would then light a cigarette; and through the bluish clouds of tobacco smoke the Semite or Mongol would move his yellow lips, and it was as though within Aleksandr Ivanovich the same word kept echoing:

‘Helsingfors, Helsingfors.’

Aleksandr Ivanovich had been in Helsingfors after his escape from places not so very remote: with Helsingfors he had no particular connections: there he had merely met a certain person.

So why Helsingfors in particular?

Aleksandr Ivanovich continued to drink cognac. The alcohol worked with systematic gradualness; after vodka (wine was beyond his means) there followed a uniform effect: an undular line of thoughts became a zigzag one; its zigzags intersected; if he went on drinking, the line of thoughts would disintegrate into a series of fragmentary arabesques, brilliant for those who thought it; but only brilliant for him alone at that moment alone; he had only to sober up a little for the salt of brilliance to vanish off somewhere; and the brilliant thoughts seemed simply a muddle, for at those moments thought indubitably ran ahead of both tongue and brain, beginning to revolve with frantic speed.

Aleksandr Ivanovich’s excitement transmitted itself to Ableukhov: the bluish streams of tobacco smoke and twelve crushed cigarette ends positively irritated him; it was as though some invisible third person suddenly stood before them, raised aloft from the smoke and this little pile of ash here; this third person, having emerged, now exercised dominion over all.

‘Wait: perhaps I shall come out with you; I seem to have a splitting headache: out there, in the fresh air, we can continue our conversation without hindrance. Wait a moment. I’ll just change.’

‘That is an excellent idea.’

A sharp knock at the door broke off the conversation; before Nikolai Apollonovich had conceived the design of ascertaining who had knocked there, like one distracted, the half-drunk Aleksandr Ivanovich quickly threw open the door; there, from the door opening was thrust, almost flung, at the stranger a bald cranium with ears of enlarged dimensions; the cranium and Aleksandr Ivanovich’s head very nearly banged together; Aleksandr Ivanovich recoiled in bewilderment and looked at Nikolai Apollonovich, and, having looked at him, saw nothing but a … hairdresser’s dummy: a pale, waxen beau with an unpleasant, timid smile on a mouth that was stretched to the ears.

And again he cast a glance at the door, but in the wide open doorway stood Apollon Apollonovich with … a most enormous watermelon under his arm …

‘Indeed, sir, indeed, sir …’

‘I think I’m intruding …’

‘You know what, Kolenka, I’ve brought you this little melon – here …’

According to the tradition of the house in this autumn season Apollon Apollonovich, as he returned home, sometimes bought an Astrakhan watermelon, of which both he and Nikolai Apollonovich were fond.

For a moment all three were silent; each of them at that moment experienced a most candid, purely animal fear.

‘This, Papa, is a friend of mine from university … Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin …’

‘Indeed, sir … Very pleasant, sir …’

Apollon Apollonovich presented two of his fingers: those eyes were not staring dreadfully – was it the same face that had looked at him in the street – Apollon Apollonovich saw before him only a timid man who was obviously dejected by need.

Aleksandr Ivanovich seized the senator’s fingers with ardour; that other, fateful thing had flown away somewhere: Aleksandr Ivanovich saw before him only a pathetic old man.

Nikolai Apollonovich looked at them both with that unpleasant smile; but he too calmed down; the timid young man presented his hand to the weary skeleton.

But the hearts of all three were pounding; the eyes of all three avoided one another. Nikolai Apollonovich ran off to get ready: she had wandered under the windows there: that meant she was depressed; but today there awaited her – what awaited her? …

His thought was interrupted: from the cupboard Nikolai Apollonovich pulled out his domino and put it on over his frock coat; he pinned up its red, satin skirts with pins; on top of all the rest he put on his Nikolayevka.

Apollon Apollonovich, meanwhile, entered into conversation with the stranger; the disorder in his son’s room, the cigarettes, the cognac – all this had left in his soul an unpleasant and bitter after-taste; only Aleksandr Ivanovich’s replies brought him any calm: the replies were incoherent. Aleksandr Ivanovich kept flushing and his replies were not to the point. Before him he saw only kindly wrinkles; on those kindly wrinkles eyes looked: the eyes of a hunted man; and the rumbling voice was shouting something with a crack of hysteria; Aleksandr Ivanovich listened only to the last words, and caught at the very most a series of jerky exclamations:

‘You know … even when he was a schoolboy at the gymnasium, Kolenka knew all those birds … He used to read Kaigorodov …35

‘He had an inquiring mind …

‘But now he’s not the same: he’s given it all up …

‘And he doesn’t go to the university …’

Thus did the old man of sixty-eight jerkily shout at Aleksandr Ivanovich; something that resembled sympathy stirred in the heart of the Elusive One …

Into the room now came Nikolai Apollonovich.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Why, Papa, I’m off on business …’

‘You are … so to speak … With Aleksandr … with Aleksandr …’

‘With Aleksandr Ivanovich …’

‘Indeed, sir … With Aleksandr Ivanovich, then …’

But to himself Apollon Apollonovich thought: ‘What of it, perhaps it’s for the best: and perhaps the eyes were only something I dreamed …’ And at the same time Apollon Apollonovich also reflected that poverty was not a sin. Only why had they had to drink cognac (Apollon Apollonovich entertained a revulsion towards alcohol)?

‘Yes: we’re off on business …’

Apollon Apollonovich began to search for a suitable word:

‘Perhaps … you’d like to dine … And Aleksandr Ivanovich would like to dine with us …

Aleksandr Ivanovich looked at his watch:

‘But in any case … I don’t wish to get in your way …’

‘Goodbye, Papa …’

‘My respects, sir …’

When they opened the door and walked along the booming corridor, little Apollon Apollonovich appeared there, following them – in the semi-twilight of the corridor.

Yes, as they walked along in the semi-twilight of the corridor, Apollon Apollonovich stood there; craning his neck in pursuit of that couple, he was staring with curiosity.

All the same, all the same … Yesterday the eyes had looked:36 in them there were both hatred and fear; and those eyes had been real: they belonged to him, the raznochinets. And the zigzag was – most unpleasant, or had this not happened – never happened?

‘Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin … A student at the university.’

Apollon Apollonovich began to stalk off after them.

In the sumptuous vestibule Nikolai Apollonovich stopped before the old lackey, trying to catch one of his own thoughts that had run away.

‘Ye-ee … es …’

‘Very good, sir!’

‘E – er … The mouse!’

Nikolai Apollonovich continued helplessly to rub his forehead, trying to remember what it was he was supposed to express with the aid of the verbal symbol, mouse: this often happened to him, especially after he had been reading very serious treatises that consisted solely of unimaginable words: after he had been reading those treatises every object, even more than that – every name of an object seemed to him inconceivable, and vice versa: everything conceivable proved to be completely insubstantial, without object. And apropos of this Nikolai Apollonovich pronounced a second time, with an injured look:

‘The mouse …’

‘Precisely so, sir!’

‘Where is it? Listen, what have you done with the mouse?’

‘With the one that was here earlier? Let it out on to the embankment …’


‘For goodness’ sake, barin: the way we always do.’

Nikolai Apollonovich was distinguished by an unusual tenderness for these small creatures.

Their minds set at rest on the subject of the mouse’s fate, Nikolai Apollonovich and Aleksandr Ivanovich set off on their way.

As a matter of fact, both set off on their way because both thought someone was looking at them from the balustrade of the staircase both searchingly and sadly.