Petersburg Petersburg Slipped away into the Night

Who does not remember the evening before the memorable night? Who does not remember that day’s melancholy flight to rest?

Above the Neva an enormous and crimson sun ran behind the factory chimneys: the Petersburg buildings were covered by the finest puff of smoke and seemed to begin to melt, turning into the lightest, smoky amethyst lace; and from the window-panes a golden, flaming reflection cut through everywhere; and from the tall spires the radiance flashed like rubies. All the usual weights – both indentations and projections – were slipping away into a burning ardour: both the entrance porches with their caryatids and the cornices of the brick balconies.

The rust-red palace6 began to run violently with blood; this old palace had been built by Rastrelli; like a soft blue wall this old palace had stood then in a white flock of columns; with admiration the late Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna7 once used to open a window from there on to the distances of the Neva. In the reign of Emperor Aleksandr Pavlovich8 this old palace was repainted pale yellow; in the reign of Emperor Aleksandr Nikolayevich9 the palace was repainted a second time: from that time it became rust-red, running with blood towards sunset.

On that memorable evening all was aflame, even the palace was aflame; while all the rest, that did not enter the flame, darkened sluggishly; as did the row of lines and walls when there, in the fading lilac sky, in the little mother-of-pearl-like clouds, some kind of sparkling lamps kept languorously flaring up; as did, sluggishly, some sort of the very lightest of flames.

You would have said that the past was glowing there, sunset-red.

A short plump lady, all in black, who had paid off her cab driver down there by the bridge, had for a long time now been wandering to and fro beneath the windows of a yellow house; her hand trembled rather strangely; and in her trembling hand there barely trembled a tiny reticule, not in the Petersburg fashion. The plump lady was of considerable years and looked as though she suffered from shortness of breath; now and then her plump fingers plucked at her chin, which jutted imposingly from under her collar and was peppered here and there with small grey hairs. Standing opposite the yellow house, she was trying with trembling fingers to open the little reticule: the little reticule would not obey; at last the little reticule opened, and with a haste that was inappropriate to her years the lady took out a small, lace-patterned handkerchief, turned towards the Neva and began to cry. As she did so, her face was illumined by the sunset, and the small moustache above her lips was clearly visible; placing her hand on the stone, she looked with a childlike and quite unseeing gaze at the foggy, many-chimneyed distance and the watery depths.

At last, the lady hurried in agitation towards the entrance porch of the yellow house and rang the doorbell.

The door flew open; a little old man with gold braid on his lapels thrust his bald patch out of the opening at the sunset; the unendurable radiance from the other side of the Neva made him screw up his watery eyes.

‘What do you want? …’

The lady of considerable years began to grow excited: something between tender emotion and carefully concealed shyness lit up her features.

‘Dmitrich? … Don’t you recognize me?’

Here the lackey’s bald patch began to tremble and it fell into the tiny reticule (which was in the lady’s hand):

‘Little mother, barynya mine! … Anna Petrovna!’

‘Yes, Semyonych, it’s me …’

‘But how on earth? Where have you come from?’

The tender emotion which might have been carefully concealed shyness once again sounded in the pleasant contralto.

‘From Spain. Well, I wanted to see how you were managing here without me.’

‘Barynya of ours, our own … Please come in, ma’am! …’

Anna Petrovna ascended the staircase: the staircase was still covered by the same velvety carpet. On the walls gleamed the same ornamental display of weapons: under the barynya’s watchful eye a Lithuanian brass helmet had once been hung here, and there a Templar’s sword, rusted through everywhere; and today they gleamed just the same: from here, a Lithuanian brass helmet; from there, the cross-shaped hilts of completely rusted swords.

‘Only there’s no one here, ma’am; neither the young barin nor Apollon Apollonovich.’

Above the balustrade the pedestal of white alabaster still stood as before, and, as before, the same Niobe raised to heaven her alabaster eyes; this before again clustered round (though three years had gone by, and in those years so much had been experienced). Anna Petrovna remembered the Italian cavalier, and again felt within herself that carefully concealed shyness.

‘Would you like some choclate, or coffee, ma’am? Would you like a samovar?’

Anna Petrovna barely managed to turn her back on the past (here all was the same as before).

‘So how have you been without me these past years?’

‘Oh, all right, ma’am … Only if I may be so bold as to say so, ma’am, when you’re not here there isn’t any order. But otherwise there haven’t been any consequences: it’s just been as it was before … Have you heard about the barin, Apollon Apollonovich?’

‘Yes, I have …’

‘Yes, ma’am, all the marks of distinction … the tsar’s favours … What do you expect: the barin’s an important man!’

‘Has the barin aged?’

‘The barin’s being appointed to a post: a senior one: – the barin’s just the same as a minister: that’s the sort of barin he is …’

It suddenly seemed to Anna Petrovna that the lackey was viewing her with a slightly reproachful look; but this was only how it seemed: he had merely frowned because of the unendurable radiance from the other side of the Neva, as he opened the door to the reception room.

‘Well, and Kolenka?’

‘Kolenka, ma’am, Nikolai Apollonovich, rather, is such a clever one, if I may permit myself to observe it, ma’am! His honour is good at learning; and he’s good at anything he puts his mind to … What a handsome fellow he’s become …’

‘Well, what do you expect? He was always like his father …’

As she said it, she lowered her eyes and turned the little reticule over in her fingers.

As before, the walls were set with high-legged chairs; from all sides between the chairs, which were upholstered in pale yellow plush, rose cold, white columns; and from each white column a stern male figure of cold alabaster looked reproachfully down at her. And with sheer hostility did the ancient, greenish glass, beneath which Anna Petrovna had had a decisive conversation with the senator, flash at her from the walls: and there – a pale-toned painting – Pompeian frescoes; the senator had brought those frescoes into her life when she had been his fiancĂ©e: thirty years had passed since that time.

Anna Petrovna was enveloped by the same drawing-room hospitality: she was enveloped by lacquers and lustres; she felt a pang in her breast as before; her throat constricted with the old enmity; Apollon Apollonovich might perhaps forgive her; but she would not forgive him: in the lacquered house the storms of life passed noiselessly, but the storms of life passed here disastrously.

Thus did a rush of dark thoughts drive her to the hostile banks; distractedly she leaned against the window – and saw the rosy little clouds racing above the waves of the Neva; the ragged little clouds were escaping from the funnels of small, receding steamers that threw from their sterns a stripe of gleaming sapphires to the banks: as it licked the stone pier, the stripe was thrown back and interlaced with the stripe that came to meet it, scattering its sapphires into a single, serpentine gold thread. Higher up, the lightest of flames turned to ashes in the clouds; the ash was strewn generously: all the openings in the sky were filled with ash; then everything changed insidiously with a single-coloured lightness; and for an instant it appeared as though the grey row of lines, spires and walls, with a barely descending shadowy darkness that fell on the masses of the stone walls – as though this grey row were the finest lace.

‘Will you be staying with us, barynya?’

‘I? … I’m in a hotel.’

In this melting greyness there suddenly dimly emerged a large number of dots, looking in astonishment: lights, lights, tiny lights filled with intensity and rushed out of the darkness in pursuit of the rust-red blotches, as cascades fell from above: blue, dark violet and black.

Petersburg slipped away into the night.