Petersburg Styopka48

Near Petersburg, from Kolpino the high road winds: this place – there is no gloomier place! As you ride on the train towards Petersburg of a morning, you have woken up – you look: outside the windows of the carriage all is dead; not a single soul, not a single village; as though the human race had died out, and the very earth were a corpse.

Here on the surface, which consists of a tangle of frozen bushes, a black cloud presses itself against the earth from afar; the horizon there is leaden; gloomy estates creep away under the sky …

Many-chimneyed, many-smoke-columned Kolpino!

From Kolpino to Petersburg the high road winds: winds like a grey ribbon; its broken metal is bordered by a line of telegraph poles. There a factory-hand was plodding along with a little bundle on a stick; he had been working in a gunpowder factory and had been given the sack for some reason; and was going on foot to Petersburg; around him the yellow reeds bristled; and the wayside stones lay dead; the barriers flew up and were lowered again, the striped milestones alternated in turn, the telegraph wire jingled without end or beginning. The factory-hand was the son of a decayed shopkeeper; his name was Styopka; he had only worked at the suburban factory for about a month; and had left the factory: before him squatted Petersburg.

Many-storeyed heaps already squatted behind the factories; the factories themselves squatted behind the chimneys – over there, there, and also – there; there was not a single cloudlet in the sky, but from those places the horizon looked as though it had been smeared with soot, and a population of one and a half million choked there on the soot.

Over there, there, and also – there: noxious cinders smeared everything; and on the cinders chimneys bristled; here a chimney rose up high; barely squatted – there; further off – a row of emaciated chimneys towered up, becoming in the end simply fine hairs; in the distance dozens of fine hairs could be counted; above the soot-blackened opening of one nearby chimney, threatening the sky with an injection, a lightning conductor stuck up.

All this my Styopka saw; and to all this my Styopka paid – zero attention; sat on a pile of broken road-metal, with his boots off; bound up his feet again, chewed the pulp of a loaf. And then: dragged himself off towards the poisonous place, towards the stain of soot: towards Petersburg itself.

Towards the evening of that day the door of a yardkeeper’s lodge opened: the door squealed, and the door bolt rattled: in the middle of the yardkeeper’s lodge was the yardkeeper. It was Matvei Morzhov, he was immersed in reading the newspaper, and, of course, it was the Stock Exchange Gazette; meanwhile the buxom yardkeeper’s wife (her ear always ached), who had piled up heaps of plump pillows on the table, was busying herself with the extermination of bedbugs with the help of Russian turpentine; and there was a harsh and astringent smell in the yardkeeper’s lodge.

At that moment, squealing, the door of the yardkeeper’s lodge opened and the block rattled; while on the threshold of the doorway Styopka stood uncertainly (the Vasily Island yardkeeper, Matvei Morzhov, was the only other person from his village in the whole of Petersburg; and of course Styopka came to see him).

Towards evening a vodka bottle appeared on the table; pickled cucumbers appeared, Bessmertny49 the shoemaker appeared with a guitar. Styopka refused the vodka; those who drank were Morzhov and Bessmertny the shoemaker.

‘Will you look at that, now … A fellow, a fellow from my own village has something to report,’ smirked Morzhov.

‘It’s all because they ain’t got the right ideas,’ shrugged Bessmertny the shoemaker; touched a string with his finger; there was a sound: bam, bam.

‘And how’s the priest of Tselebeyevo?’50

‘A real fairy tale: he’s drunk all the time.’

‘And the schoolmarm?’

‘Oh, the schoolmarm’s all right: they say she’s going to marry Frol the hunchback.’

‘Will you listen to that … the things, the things a fellow, a fellow from my own village has to tell,’ said Matvei Morzhov, with emotion; and taking a cucumber in two fingers, he took a bite of that cucumber.

‘It’s all because they ain’t got the right ideas,’ shrugged Bessmertny the shoemaker: touched a string with his finger; there was a sound: bam, bam. And Styopka talked; always about the same thing: how strange people51 had turned up in their village, that it had turned out, about all the rest, that those strange people had proclaimed that a child would be born, that there would, that was to say, be an ‘amansapation’, a universal ‘amansapation’; and it had also turned out that this was going to happen soon, they said; but concerning the fact that he, Styopka, had himself attended the prayers of these very strange people, he said not a word; and he also talked about a visiting barin,52 and all the rest of it taken together: what the barin was like, about all the rest: had fled to the village from his, the barin’s, fiancée; and so on; the barin had himself gone to join the strange people, but had not been able to resist their wisdom (even though he was a barin); you know, they were writing about him, saying he’d gone into hiding – about all the rest; and also: into the bargain, he robbed a merchant’s wife; so it turned out all together that the birth of the child, the ‘amansapation’ and the rest of it were going to happen soon. Morzhov the yardkeeper was extremely astonished at all this buffoonery, while Bessmertny the shoemaker was not astonished: he blew on his vodka.

‘It’s all because they ain’t got the right ideas – that’s why there’s the thefts, and the barin, and the granddaughter, and the universal emancipation; that’s why there are the strange people; they ain’t got no ideas: and neither does anyone else.’

He touched a string with his finger, and – ‘bam’, ‘bam’.

But Styopka made not a sound in response to this: said nothing of the fact that he had received communiqués from those people even at the Kolpino factory; and so on, about it all: what and how. Most silent of all was he about the fact that at the Kolpino factory he had struck up an acquaintance with a circle, that they had had meetings near Petersburg itself; and all the rest of it. That ever since last year some of the gentry themselves, if one was to believe those people, had been attending the meetings – to excess: and – all together … Of all this Styopka said not a word to Bessmertny; but sang a little song:

Tilimbru-tilishee –

Sweet-smelling sweet pea;

Cockerel with a crest

By the windows pecked he.

Child-timbru, my little child –

Darling little Annie,

Don’t you touch the cockerel now,

Here for you’s some money.

But in response to this song Bessmertny the shoemaker merely shrugged; with all his five fingers he began to strum on the guitar: ‘Tilimbru, ti-lim-bru: pam-pam-pam-pam.’

And sang:

Never will I see you –

Never will I see you –

A bottle of ammonia

In my jacket I’ve got.

The ammonia from the bottle

Down my dried-up throat I’ll shove,

In convulsions I’ll fall on the pavement –

I won’t see my darling dove!

And with his five fingers on the guitar: tilimbru, tilimbru: pam-pam-pam … In response to which Styopka was not found wanting: he amazed everyone:

Above temptations and above misfortune

An angel stood with golden trumpet –

O Light, O Light,

Immortal Light!

Light us O immortal Light –

Before you we are as children:

You are

In Heaven!

The young barin who lived in garret accommodation and who had looked in at the yardkeeper’s lodge listened with great attention; he questioned Styopka about the very strange people, asking him how they proclaimed the coming of the Light, and when this would come to pass; but even more did he ask them about that visiting barin, about Daryalsky – about all of it. The barin was a thin sort of fellow: obviously ill; and from time to time the barin emptied a glass, so that Styopka said some more edifying things to him, such as:

‘Barin, you’re ill; and so tobacco and vodka will soon make you kaput; I myself, sinful as it is, used to drink: but now I’ve taken the pledge. It was tobacco and vodka that started it all; and I know who it is makes people into drunkards: it’s the Japs!’

‘And how do you know?’

‘About vodka? From Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy – have you had occasion to read his booklet “The First Distiller”53 – it says so right there; and that’s what those people near Petersburg say, too.’

‘And how do you know that it’s the Japs?’

‘That’s just the way the Japs are: everyone knows about the Japs … If you’ll be so good as to remember that hurricane that passed over Moscow, they also said it was the souls of the slain; that means they must have passed over Moscow from the next world, and so they must have died without repenting. And this also means that there will be a revolt in Moscow.’

‘And what will happen to Petersburg?’

‘Just what’s happening now: the Chinamen are building some sort of idol-worshippers’ temple!’54

Then the barin took Styopka home with him, to his garret: the barin’s accommodation was not good; well, and the barin found it creepy on his own: so he took Styopka home with him; they passed the night there.

He took him home with him, sat him down in front of him, produced a tattered piece of writing from a suitcase; and read the piece of writing to Styopka: ‘Your political convictions are as clear to me as the palm of my hand: all the same, it’s the work of the devil, all the same, it’s possession by a terrible power; you don’t believe me, yet I really do know: I know that soon you will find out, as many will soon find out … I too have been torn from the impure claws.

‘A great day is approaching: there remains a decade until the beginning of the end: remember it, write it down, and pass it on to posterity; of all years, 1954 will be the most significant. This will affect Russia, for Russia is the cradle of the Church of Philadelphia;55 Our Lord Jesus Christ himself blessed this church. I realize now why Solovyov spoke of the cult of Sophia.56 Do you remember that? In connection with the fact that the Nizhny Novgorod female sectarians57 … And so on … and so on …’

Styopka sniffed, while the barin read the piece of writing: read it for a long time.

‘So that’s it – well, well, well. And what barin wrote this?’

‘Oh, he lives abroad, a political exile.’

‘Well, well.’

‘And what will happen, Styopka?’

‘What I heard was that first of all there will be killings, and after that universal discontent; and after that all kinds of diseases – pestilence, famine, and also, the cleverest people say, all kinds of agitations: the Chinamen will rise up against one another; the Mohammedans will also get very agitated, only it won’t work out.’

‘Well, and what after that?’

‘Well, all the rest of it will happen at the end of 1912;58 except that in 1913 … But wait! There’s a certain prophecy, barin: to the effect that we must listen … a sword will be raised against us … and the victor’s crown will go to the Japs: and then again there will be the birth of the new child. And then again, the Prussian emperor … But wait. Here’s a prophecy for you, barin: we must build Noah’s Ark!’

‘But how?’

‘All right, barin, we shall see: you must talk to me, and I to you about this – in a whisper.’

‘But what are we whispering about?’

‘Still the same thing, the same: Christ’s second coming.’

‘Enough of this: it’s all nonsense.’

‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus!’59