Petersburg The Summer Garden

Prosaically, solitarily this way and that ran the paths of the Summer Garden; cutting across these expanses, the gloomy pedestrian quickened his pace from time to time, and then finally disappeared in an endless emptiness: the Field of Mars cannot be crossed in five minutes.

The Summer Garden was sunk in gloom.

The summer statues were each hidden under boards; the grey boards looked like coffins stood on end; and the coffins stood on either side of the paths; in these coffins light nymphs and satyrs had taken shelter, so that the tooth of time should not gnaw them away with snow, rain and frost, because time sharpens its iron tooth on everything; and the iron tooth will uniformly gnaw away both body and soul, even the very stones.

Since olden times this garden had been growing emptier, greyer, smaller; the grotto had subsided into ruins, the fountains had ceased to splash, the summer gallery had collapsed and the waterfall dried up; the garden had grown smaller and cowered behind the iron railings, those same iron railings that overseas visitors from the English lands, in wigs and green caftans, came here to admire; and they puffed their smoke-clogged pipes.

Peter himself had planted this garden, watering with his own watering-can the rare trees, the fragrant herbs and mints; from Solikamsk the tsar had ordered cedars, from Danzig – barberries, and from Sweden apple trees; he had built fountains everywhere, and the shattered spray of the mirrors, like a delicate spider’s web, had let through glimpses here of the red camisoles of the loftiest personages, their curling ringlets, their black moorish faces and the crinolines of the ladies; leaning on the faceted handle of a black and gold stick, here a grey cavalier was leading his lady to the pool; while in the green, seething waters the black muzzle of a seal emerged, sniffing, from the very bottom; the lady uttered a gasp, and the grey cavalier smiled playfully and stretched out his stick to the black monster.

In those days the Summer Garden extended further, taking space from the Field of Mars for the avenues that were so dear to the tsar’s heart and were planted on both sides with yew and meadow-sweet (the garden too had evidently been gnawed by the merciless tooth of time); enormous shells from the Indian seas raised their rosy trumpets from the porous stones of the stern grotto; and a personage, taking off his plumed hat, inquisitively put his ear to the opening of the rosy trumpet; and from it came a chaotic roar; at this time other personages were drinking fruit punch in front of this mysterious grotto.

And in later times, beneath the figured pose of a statue by Irelli,2 which stretched its fingers into the closing day, there came the sound of laughter, whispers and sighs, and the large round jewels of the sovereign’s maids of honour gleamed. That happened in the spring, on Whit Monday; the evening atmosphere grew thicker; suddenly it was shaken by a mighty, organ-like voice that flew out from under a grove of sweetly drowsing elms: and from there light suddenly expanded – diverting, green; there, in the green lights, bright red musicians of the hunt, stretching forth their horns, melodically filled the environs with sound, shaking the zephyrs and cruelly disturbing the deeply wounded soul: the languorous lament of those upraised horns – have you not heard it?

All that was, and now it is no more; now gloomily ran the paths of the Summer Garden; a black, frenzied flock wheeled above the roof of Peter’s little house; unendurable was its hubbub and the heavy flapping of its tattered wings; the black, frenzied flock suddenly swooped down on the branches.

Nikolai Apollonovich, perfumed and clean-shaven, was making his way along a frozen path, muffled up in his overcoat: his head had fallen into its fur, and his eyes had a strange light in them; no sooner had he resolved to immerse himself in work today than a messenger had brought him a note; the unknown handwriting summoned him to a rendezvous in the Summer Garden. And it was signed ‘S’. Who could the mysterious ‘S’ be? Well, of course, the ‘S’ stood for Sofya (she had evidently altered her handwriting). Nikolai Apollonovich, perfumed and clean-shaven, made his way along the frozen path.

Nikolai Apollonovich had an agitated air; of recent days he had lost sleep and appetite; for about a week now a fine dust had settled without hindrance on a page of Kantian commentaries; while in his soul there was a novel current of emotion; this sweet, disturbing current he had felt within himself in past times, too … to be sure, rather dully and remotely. But ever since the day he had called forth nameless tremors in Angel Peri by his conduct, nameless tremors had revealed themselves within him, too: as though he had summoned dully throbbing forces out of his mysterious depths, as though within him the bag of Aeolus had burst, and the sons of far-off gusts had drawn him with whistling whips through the air to some strange lands. Did this condition really only augur the return, merely, of sensual excitements? Perhaps it was love? But love was something he denied.

Already he was looking around him anxiously, searching on the paths for the familiar outline in its little black fur coat and black muff; but there was – no one; not far away some kind of frump lay sprawled on a bench. Suddenly the frump got up from the bench, marked time for a moment, and then came towards him.

‘Don’t you … recognize me?’

‘Oh, hello!’

‘I think you still haven’t recognized me! But I’m Solovyova.’

‘Why, for goodness’ sake, you are Varvara Yevgrafovna!’

‘Well, let’s sit down here, on the bench …’

Nikolai Apollonovich sat down painfully beside her: after all, he had been summoned to a rendezvous in precisely this little avenue; and now here was this unfortunate circumstance! Nikolai Apollonovich began to think of a way of getting this frump off his hands as soon as possible; still searching for the familiar outline, he looked around him to right and to left; but of the familiar outline there was still no sign.

At his feet the dry path was beginning to throw its yellow-brown and worm-eaten leaves; there, somehow lustrelessly, rising straight up against a steel horizon, was a dark-tinged mesh of criss-crossed branches; at times the dark-tinged mesh began to drone; at times the dark-tinged mesh began to sway.

‘Did you get my note?’

‘What note?’

‘The one signed “S”.’

‘Oh, so it was you who sent me it?’

‘Well, yes, it was …’

‘But what did the “S” stand for?’

‘What do you mean? Why, my name is Solovyova.’

Everything came crashing down, and he had thought, and he had thought …! The nameless tremors suddenly sank to the bottom. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘I … I wanted to ask you, I wondered if you had received a little poem signed A Flaming Soul?’

‘No, I haven’t.’

‘How can it be? Do the police open and inspect my letters? Oh, how vexing! Without that fragment of poetry I must confess it is hard to explain all this to you. I wanted to ask you something about the meaning of life …’

‘I’m sorry, Varvara Yevgrafovna, I haven’t time.’

‘How can it be? How can it be?’

‘Goodbye! Please excuse me – we shall arrange a more convenient time for this conversation. Shan’t we?’

Varvara Yevgrafovna tugged him indecisively by the fur edge of his overcoat; he decisively stood up; she did likewise; but even more decisively did he extend to her his perfumed fingers, touching her red hand with the edge of his rounded fingernails. At that moment she was unable to think of anything that would detain him; and then he fled from her in complete vexation, wrapping himself up haughtily and aggrievedly, and hiding his face in the fur of his Nikolayevka. The leaves moved off sluggishly, surrounding the skirts of the overcoat with dry, yellowish circles; but the circles grew narrower, curling more restlessly in spirals; the golden spiral, whispering something, danced ever more briskly. A vortex of leaves began to swirl impetuously, wound itself round and round and fled, without spinning, somewhere to the side, somewhere to the side; a red palmate leaf barely moved, flew up and spread itself. There, somehow lustrelessly, rising straight up against a steel horizon, was a dark-tinged mesh of criss-crossed branches; into that mesh he walked; and when he walked into that mesh, a frenzied flock of crows flew up and began to circle above the roof of Peter’s little house; the dark-tinged mesh began to sway; the dark-tinged mesh began to drone; and some timidly mournful sounds flew down; and they all fused into one sound – the sound of an organ-like voice. And the evening atmosphere grew thicker; again it seemed to the soul as if there were no present; as if this evening thickness would be lit from behind those trees by a green, luminous cascade; and there, amidst all the fiery light, bright-red huntsmen, stretching forth their horns, would again melodically draw waves of organ music from the zephyrs.