Petersburg Swayed above the Pile of Objects …

The door flew open.

Nikolai Apollonovich found himself in the hallway from which he had fled very early that morning in such haste; on the walls shone the display of ancient weapons: here swords rusted; there – inclining halberds: Nikolai Apollonovich looked as though he were beside himself; with a sharp movement of his hand he tore off his broad-brimmed Italian hat; the cap of flaxen white hair softened this cold, almost stern exterior with engraved stubbornness (it is hard to find hair of this tint in adult persons; it is frequently encountered among peasant children – especially in Belorussia); drily, coldly, clearly emerged the lines of a completely white countenance, like one in an icon, when for a moment he reflected, directing his gaze over there, where beneath a rusty green shield a Lithuanian helmet shone with its spike, and the cross-shaped handle of a knight’s sword sparkled.

Now he flushed; and in his wet, crumpled cloak, limping slightly, he flew up the steps of the carpeted staircase; why did he keep flushing from time to time, glowing red, something that never normally happened to him? And he was – coughing; and he was – panting; he was shaken by a fever: it is indeed impossible to stand out in the rain too long with impunity; the most interesting thing was that the cloth had been ripped away from the knee of the leg on which he was limping; and – rags fluttered; his little student’s frockcoat had ridden up beneath the cloak, its back and chest hunched; between the whole tail and the torn-off tail, the belt stuck out; truly, truly: Nikolai Apollonovich looked lame, hunchbacked, and – as though he had a little tail, as he flew with all his might up the soft-stepped staircase, his cap of flaxen white hair wafting along – past the walls where a pistol and a six-pointed mace bowed.

Slipped in front of the door with the faceted crystal handle; and when he ran past the rooms that shone with lacquer, it seemed that around him there formed only the illusion of rooms; and then flew apart without trace, erecting beyond the limit of consciousness its misty surfaces; and when he banged the corridor door behind him and walked down the corridor stamping his heels, it seemed to him that the veins at his temples were hammering: the swift pulsation of those veins plainly marked a premature sclerosis on his forehead.

He flew, not himself, into his multicoloured room: and the green budgerigars shrieked desperately in their cage and began to beat their wings; this shrieking interrupted his flight; for a moment he stared before him; and saw: the multicoloured leopard, thrown at his feet with gaping jaws; and – began to rummage in his pocket (he was looking for the key to the writing desk).


‘The devil take it …

‘Have I lost it?

‘Did I leave it somewhere?

‘How do you like that?’

And he began to rush helplessly about the room, looking for the treacherous key he had forgotten somewhere, picking through quite inappropriate objects of furniture, seizing a three-legged gold censer in the form of a sphere with an opening pierced in it and a half-moon on top, and muttering to himself all the while: Nikolai Apollonovich, like Apollon Apollonovich, was in the habit of talking to himself.

In fright he rushed through into the next room – to the writing desk: as he went, his foot caught on the Arabian stool with the ivory incrustation; it crashed to the floor; he was struck by the fact that the desk was not locked; the drawer was sticking out in tell-tale fashion; it had been pulled half-way out; his heart sank: how could he have been so careless as to forget to lock it? He tugged at the drawer … And-and-and …

No: oh, no!

The objects lay in disorder in the drawer; on the table lay a cabinet photograph, thrown at an angle; but … the sardine tin was not there; furiously, savagely, frightenedly, above the drawer emerged the lines of a crimson countenance with blue around some kind of enormous black eyes: black from the dilation of the pupils; this did he stand between the dark green upholstered armchair and the bust: of Kant, of course.

He – went to the other desk. He – pulled out the drawer: the objects lay inside the drawer in perfect order: bundles of letters, papers: he put them all – on the table; but … there was no sardine tin … At this point his legs gave way beneath him; and, as he was, in his Italian cloak, in his galoshes – he fell to his knees, dropping his burning head into his cold, wet, rain-dampened hands; for a moment – like that, he froze: the cap of flaxen hair gleamed strangely, deathly pale there, motionless, like a yellowish stain in the semi-twilight of the room among the green upholstered armchairs.

Yes – up he leapt! Yes – to the bookcase! And the bookcase – flew open; the objects went flying this way and that, to the carpet; but there too – there was no sardine tin; like a whirlwind, he began to rush about the room, resembling an agile little monkey both in the swiftness of his movements (like his elevated papa), and in his modest stature. Indeed: fate was playing a joke; from room to room; from bed (here he rummaged under the pillows, the quilt, the mattress) – to the fireplace: here he soiled his hands in the ash; from the fireplace – to the rows of bookshelves (and the silk that covered the bindings began to slide on little brass wheels); here he thrust his hands between the volumes; and many of them, with a rustling, with a crash, flew to the floor.

But nowhere was the sardine tin to be found.

Soon his face, soiled with ash and dust, swayed without any sense or meaning above the heap of objects, which had been swept into a senseless pile and had been picked through by long, spider-like fingers that ran out on trembling hands; these hands moved restlessly about the floor from the outspread Italian cloak; in this stooping pose, trembling and sweaty all over, with bulging neck veins, he really would have reminded anyone of a fat-bellied spider, a devourer of flies; thus, when an observer tears a delicate spider’s web, he beholds a spectacle: disturbed, the enormous insect, which has been trembling on a silver thread in space from the ceiling to the floor, goes clumsily running about the floor on furry legs.

In just such a pose – above the pile of objects – was Nikolai Apollonovich taken unawares: by Semyonych, who ran in.

‘Nikolai Apollonovich! … Young barin! …’

Nikolai Apollonovich, who was still squatting down, turned; seeing Semyonych, with a swift gesture of his cloak he covered the pile of objects that had been swept together in a heap – the sheets of paper and volumes with gaping jaws – resembling a brood-hen on her eggs: the cap of flaxen hair showed so strangely pale and motionless there – like a yellowish stain in the semi-twilight of the room.

‘What is it? …’

‘If I may make so bold as to report …’

‘Leave me alone: can’t you see that … I’m busy …’

Stretching his mouth to the ears, he looked every bit like the head of the multicoloured leopard that lay grinning there on the floor:

‘I’m arranging these books here.’

But Semyonych could not calm down.

‘But please, sir: you are … requested there …’


‘A family joy: for the little mother barynya, Anna Petrovna, herself, has been so good as to grant us a visit.’

Nikolai Apollonovich got up mechanically; the cloak flew from him; on the ash-smeared contours of the icon-like countenance – through cinders and dust – like lightning a blush flared; Nikolai Apollonovich cut an absurd and comic little figure in his student’s frockcoat that protruded in two humps and had only one tail – and with a dancing half-belt, when he – began to cough; hoarsely, through his cough, he exclaimed:

‘Mamma? Anna Petrovna?’

‘She is over there with Apollon Apollonovich, sir; in the drawing-room … She has just been so good as to …’

‘Do they want to see me?’

‘Apollon Apollonovich requests your company, sir …’

‘Very well, in a moment … I’ll be there in a moment … Just a second …’

In this room, so recently, Nikolai Apollonovich had grown into a self-contained centre – into a series of logical premisses that flowed from the centre, predetermining everything: soul, thought and this armchair here; only recently had he been the sole centre of the universe; but ten days had passed; and his self-awareness had got shamefully bogged down in this heaped-up pile of objects: thus does the free fly, scuttling along the edge of a plate on its six little legs, suddenly get hopelessly bogged down, both leg and wing, in a sticky mass of honey.

‘Psst! Semyonych, Semyonych – listen,’ – here Nikolai Apollonovich nimbly darted out through the doorway, catching up with Semyonych, jumped over the upturned stool and caught hold of the old man’s sleeve (goodness, those fingers were tenacious!)

‘I say, I wonder if you’ve seen in here – the fact is, that …’ he said, beginning to grow confused, getting down on the floor and pulling the old man away from the corridor door … ‘I forgot … You haven’t seen a sort of object in here? Here, in the room … An object like a toy …’

‘A toy, sir …’

‘A child’s toy … a sardine tin …’

‘A sardine tin?’

‘Yes, a toy (in the shape of a sardine tin) – a heavy thing, that one winds up with a key: there’s a little clock inside that ticks … I put it here: a toy …’

Semyonych slowly turned, freed his sleeve from the fingers that had clutched it, stared at the wall for a moment (a shield hung on the wall – a Negro one: it was made from the hide of a once-slain rhinoceros), thought for a moment and then snapped disrespectfully:


Not even ‘No, sir’: simply – ‘No’ …

‘Well, I just thought you might …’

Just imagine: good fortune, family joy; the barin is beaming there, the minister: for such an occasion … And then here: a sardine tin … a heavy one … that winds up … a toy: and one of his coattails is torn off! …

‘So you will permit me to announce you, sir?’

‘I’ll be there in a moment, in a moment …’

And the door closed: Nikolai Apollonovich stood there, not understanding where he was, – next to the upturned dark brown stool, in front of the hookah; before him on the wall hung a shield, a Negro one, made from the thick hide of a rhinoceros and with a rusty Sudanese spear hung to one side of it.

Not understanding what he was doing, he hurried to exchange the tell-tale frockcoat for one that was completely new; as a preliminary, he washed his hands and face clean of ash; as he washed and changed, he kept saying:

‘How can this be, what is happening … And really, where could I have hidden it …’

Nikolai Apollonovich did not yet realize the full extent of the horror that had assailed him, a horror that proceeded from the accidental disappearance of the sardine tin; it was just as well that it had not yet occurred to him that: they had visited his room in his absence and, discovering the sardine tin with dreadful contents, had taken that sardine tin away from him as a precaution.