Petersburg Red as Fire

They both knew that a talk was imminent; this talk had been maturing throughout long years of silence; Apollon Apollonovich, handing his top hat, coat and gloves to the lackey, got somehow entangled with his galoshes; the poor, poor senator: how could he have known that Nikolai Apollonovich had that same errand with him? In equal measure, Nikolai Apollonovich could not have guessed that the whole story of the red domino was known to his parent in its entirety. Both at that moment were breathing in the smells of the familiar chambers; on to the vein-covered hand of the lackey fell a sumptuous beaver, shining silver; the overcoat fell down somehow sleepily – but now Nikolai Apollonovich stood before his father’s eyes in his domino cape. At the sight of this domino, through Apollon Apollonovich’s mind, some lines long ago committed to memory began to whirl:

Colours of a fiery hue

On my palm I throw,

That amidst the light’s abyss

Red as fire he’ll show.6

With a hand just as covered in veins as Semyonych’s (only properly washed), he felt his side-whiskers:

‘Er … er … A red domino? … Tell me what it’s about, please! …’

‘I was at a fancy-dress ball …’

‘Indeed … Kolenka … Indeed, sir …’

Apollon Apollonovich stood before Kolenka with a kind of bitter irony, half mumbling, half chewing his lips; wretchedly, with irony, the skin on his forehead gathered into tiny wrinkles; wretchedly did it tauten on his skull. An imminent accounting could be sensed: one could sense that the fruit that had grown on the tree of their lives had now ripened; in a moment or two it would fall: it fell, and … – suddenly:

Apollon Apollonovich dropped a pencil (by the steps of the velvet staircase); Nikolai Apollonovich, following ancient habit, deferentially rushed to pick it up; Apollon Apollonovich, in his turn, rushed to forestall his son’s complaisance, but stumbled, falling to his heels and touching the stairs with his hands; quickly his bald head flew downwards and forwards; ending up unexpectedly under the fingers of his son, who had stretched out his hands: Nikolai Apollonovich saw before him for an instant his father’s yellow, vein-covered neck, which looked like a crayfish’s tail (an artery throbbed at one side); Nikolai Apollonovich failed to control his clumsy movements, and unexpectedly touched the neck; the neck’s warm pulsation frightened him, and he jerked his hand away, but jerked it away too late: under the touch of his cold hand (which was always slightly sweaty) Apollon Apollonovich turned and saw – that same gaze; the senator’s head jerked momentarily in a tic, the skin gathered wretchedly in wrinkles above his skull and his ears twitched slightly. In his domino Nikolai Apollonovich looked as though he were entirely covered in flame; and the senator, like an over-agile Japanese who had studied the techniques of ju-jitsu, threw himself to one side, and suddenly straightened up on his crunching knees – up, up and to the side …

All this lasted but a moment. Nikolai Apollonovich silently picked up the pencil and handed it to the senator.

‘Here, Papa!’

A pure trifle, knocking them together, had given birth within them both to an explosion of the most heterogeneous thoughts and feelings; Apollon Apollonovich was completely discomfited by the outrageousness of what had just happened: of his alarm in response to the deference of the insignificant service his son had performed for him (this man in red was after all his son: the flesh of his flesh: and to be afraid of one’s own flesh and blood was shameful – of what was he frightened?); none the less the outrageous thing had happened: he had squatted on his heels under his son and had physically experienced that same gaze on himself. Together with discomfiture Apollon Apollonovich felt annoyance: he reassumed a dignified manner, bent his waist coquettishly and proudly compressed his lips into a ring, taking the retrieved pencil into his hands.

‘Thank you, Kolenka … I’m very grateful to you … And I wish you a pleasant sleep …’

At that same moment the son found his father’s gratitude equally discomfiting; Nikolai Apollonovich felt the blood rush to his cheeks; and when he thought he was turning pink he was already crimson. Apollon Apollonovich gave his son a stealthy glance; and perceiving that his son was crimson in the face, he himself began to turn pink; in order to conceal the pinkness, he flew with great rapidity up the staircase, flew in order to take his rest at once in his little bedroom, wrapped in a most delicate sheet.

Nikolai Apollonovich found himself alone on the stairs of the velvet staircase, immersed in deep and persistent thought: but the lackey’s voice broke the train of his thoughts.

‘Good heavens! … My mind went blank, sir! … I can’t remember a thing! Barin, my dear barin: you see, something has happened! …’

‘What’s happened?’

‘Oh, something that I just can’t … How can I tell you – I do not dare …’

On that step of the grey, velvet-carpeted staircase (trodden by the feet of ministers), Nikolai Apollonovich waited; while from the window, on that very spot where his parent had stumbled, a fine mesh of purple stains fell at his feet; this fine mesh of purple stains for some reason reminded him of blood (blood was showing purple on the old armaments, too). A familiar, hateful sense of nausea, though not of the earlier (and dreadful) dimensions, rose from his stomach: was he suffering from indigestion?

‘Something really has happened! Yes – well, here it is, then, sir: our barynya …

‘Our barynya, Anna Petrovna, sir …

‘She’s here, sir!!’

At that moment Nikolai Apollonovich began to gape with nausea: and the enormous opening of his mouth expanded at the dawn: he stood there, red as a torch.

The lackey’s ancient lips stretched forth beneath a blond cap of the most sumptuous and delicate hair:

‘She’s here, sir!’

‘Who is here?’

‘Anna Petrovna, sir …’

‘And who might she be? …’

‘Who, sir … Your maternal parent … Why, barin, little dove, you are just like a stranger: it’s your mother …’


‘She’s come back to Petersburg from Shpain …’

‘She has sent a letter by messenger, sir: she’s staying at a hotel … Because – you yourself know why … She’s in such a situation, that …’


‘His eminent excellency Apollon Apollonovich had just been pleased to go out, when a messenger arrived with a letter, sir … Well, I put the letter on the table and gave the messenger twenty copecks …

‘I would reckon that not an hour had passed when – gracious Lord: she herself suddenly appeared, sir! … She obviously knew for certain that there was nobody home, sir …’

Before him gleamed the battle mace: the stain of fallen air showed so strangely purple; the stain of fallen air showed tormentingly purple: a purple column stretched from wall to window; specks of dust danced in the column and looked red. Nikolai Apollonovich thought that man, too, was only a column of smoking blood.

‘The doorbell rang … So of course I went and opened the door … I saw: a barynya. I didn’t know, a respectable barynya; only very plainly dressed; and all – in black … I said to her: “How can I oblige you, madam?” And she said to me: “Mitry Semyonych, don’t you recognize me?” And I fell on her dear hand: “Little mother,” I said, “Anna Petrovna …” ’

The first scoundrel who came along had only to prod a man quite simply with a blade for his white, hairless skin to be sliced open (in the manner in which a jellied piglet with horseradish sauce is sliced), and the blood that throbbed at his temples to pour out in a stinking puddle …

‘And Anna Petrovna – God grant her health, sir – looked: looked, her ladyship did, at me … She looked at me and said in tears: “I want to see how you’ve managed here without me …” And from her reticule – a reticule, it was, of foreign fashion – she took out her hanky, sir …

‘I had the strictest orders not to let anyone in, if you will be pleased to know … Well, but I let our barynya in … And she …’

The little old man’s eyes bulged; he remained with his mouth wide open and probably thought that the masters in the lacquered house had long ago gone mad: instead of displaying any surprise, regret or joy, Nikolai Apollonovich flew up the staircase, flapping his bright red satin whimsically into space like the tail of a lawless comet.7

He, Nikolai Apollonovich … Or was it not he? No, it was he – he: he thought he had told them that day that he hated the repellent old man; that the repellent old man, the wearer of diamond insignia, was quite simply an inveterate swindler … Or had he said all that to himself?

No – to them, to them!

The reason that Nikolai Apollonovich had flown up the staircase, not letting Semyonych finish, was that he had clearly imagined: a certain foul act perpetrated by one scoundrel on another; suddenly he imagined the scoundrel; the gleaming scissors snipping in this scoundrel’s fingers as this scoundrel clumsily rushed to sever the bony old codger’s sleepy artery; the bony old codger’s forehead gathered into wrinkles; the bony old man’s neck was warm and its pulse was throbbing and it was … somehow crayfish-like; the scoundrel snipped the scissors about the bony old codger’s artery, and the stinking, sticky blood poured on to his fingers and the scissors, while the old codger – beardless, wrinkled, bald – at this point wept sobbing aloud and stared straight into his, Nikolai Apollonovich’s, eyes with a beseeching expression, squatting down and trying to press with a shaking finger that opening in his neck, from which with barely audible whistlings the red streams reeled, reeled and reeled …

So vividly did this image appear before him that it was as if it had just happened (after all, when the old man had fallen on to his hands he might in the twinkling of an eye have torn down the battle mace, taken a swing with it, and …) So vividly did this image appear before him that he felt frightened.

For this reason it was that Nikolai Apollonovich had rushed into flight through the rooms, past lacquer and sheen, his heels clattering, and running the risk of summoning the senator from his far-off bedchamber.