Petersburg The Slim and Handsome Best Man

Even on the first day of her, so to speak, ‘ladyhood’ during the accomplishment of the ritual of marriage, when Nikolai Apollonovich held above her husband, Sergei Sergeyevich, the most solemn crown, Sofya Petrovna Likhutina had been tormentingly struck by the slim and handsome best man, by the colour of his unearthly, dark blue, enormous eyes, the whiteness of his marble face and the godlike quality of his blond flaxen hair: for those eyes did not look, as they often did later, from behind the dim lenses of a pince-nez, and his face was supported by the gold collar of a brand new uniform jacket (not every student has such a collar). Well, and … Nikolai Apollonovich started visiting the Likhutins at first once every two weeks; later it became once a week; two, three, four times a week; in the end he came daily. Soon Sofya Petrovna noticed under the mask of these daily visits that Nikolai Apollonovich’s face, godlike, stern, had turned into a mask: the little grimaces, the aimless rubbing of his sometimes sweaty hands, and ultimately the unpleasant froglike expression of his smile, which proceeded from the play of every conceivable type that never left his face, obscured that face from her for ever. And as soon as Sofya Petrovna noticed this, to her horror she realized that she was in love with that face, that one, and not this. Angel Peri wanted to be a model wife: and the dreadful thought that, while yet faithful, she had already fallen for someone who was not her husband – this thought completely shattered her. But more, more: from behind the mask, the grimaces, the froglike lips, she unconsciously tried to call forth her irrevocably lost being-in-love: she tormented Ableukhov, showered him with insults; but, concealing it from herself, dogged his footsteps, tried to find out what were his aspirations and tastes, unconsciously followed them in the constant hope of finding in them the authentic, godlike countenance; so she started to put on airs: first meloplastics appeared on the scene, then the cuirassier, Baron Ommau-Ommergau, and finally Varvara Yevgrafovna with the tin box for the collection of ‘fifis’.

In a word, Sofya Petrovna began to grow confused: hating, she loved; loving, she hated.

Ever since then, her real husband had become no more than a visitor to the little flat on the Moika: began to take charge of provisions somewhere out there; left the house early in the morning; reappeared at around midnight: said a ‘fifi’ for the sake of propriety, dropping a twenty-copeck piece into the collection box, or modestly nodding his head at the words ‘revolution-evolution’, drinking a cup of tea and going off to his room to sleep: for he had to get up as early as possible in the morning and walk to somewhere out there in order to take charge of provisions. Sergei Sergeich had only begun, somewhere out there, to take charge of provisions because he did not want to hamper his wife’s freedom.

But Sofya Petrovna could not endure freedom: after all, she had such a tiny, tiny little forehead; together with the tiny forehead there lay concealed within her volcanoes of the most profound emotions: because she was a lady; and in ladies one must not stir up chaos: in this chaos ladies keep concealed all manner of cruelties, crimes, degradations, all manner of violent furies, as well as all manner of heroic actions such as have not been seen on the earth before; in every lady a criminal is concealed: but let a crime be committed, and nothing but holiness will remain in the truly ladylike soul.

Soon we shall without doubt demonstrate to the reader the division that also existed in Nikolai Apollonovich’s soul into two independent values: a godlike ice – and a simply froglike slush; this duality is a typical characteristic of all ladies: duality is in essence not a masculine, but a ladylike property; the number two is the symbol of the lady; the symbol of the man is unity. Only thus is the triality obtained without which it is questionable whether the domestic hearth would be possible.

We have noted Sofya Petrovna’s duality above: a nervousness in her movements – and an awkward languor; an insufficiency of forehead and an excessive profusion of hair; Fujiyama, Wagner, the faithfulness of the female heart – and ‘Henri Besançon’, the gramophone, Baron Ommergau and even Lippanchenko. Were Sergei Sergeich Likhutin or Nikolai Apollonovich real unities, and not dualities, there would have been a triality; and Sofya Petrovna would have found life’s harmony in a union with a man; the gramophone, meloplastics, Henri Besançon, Lippanchenko, even Ommau-Ommergau would have flown to the devil.

But there was not just one Ableukhov: there was Ableukhov number one, the godlike one, and Ableukhov number two, the little frog. It all happened because of that.

But what happened?

In Sofya Petrovna, Nikolai Apollonovich-the-little-frog fell for her deep little heart that was raised above all the fuss and bustle; not her tiny little forehead or her hair; while Nikolai Apollonovich’s godlike nature, despising love, was cynically intoxicated by meloplastics; both argued within him about whom they should love: the little female or the angel? The angel, Sofya Petrovna, as naturally befitted an angel, loved only the god: while the little female got confused: at first she was indignant at the unpleasant smile, but subsequently she came to love precisely her own indignation; then, having come to love hatred, she came to love the nasty smile, but with a strange (everyone would say, depraved) love: there was in all this something unnaturally burning, unfathomably sweet and fateful.

Had the criminal awoken within Sofya Petrovna Likhutina then? Ah, Sofya Petrovna, Sofya Petrovna! In a word: a lady and a lady …

And from a lady what may one ask?