Petersburg A Vileness, a Vileness and a Vileness

In those frozen days of early October Sofya Petrovna was in an extraordinary state of agitation; upon being left alone in the little hothouse she would suddenly begin to wrinkle her little forehead, and grow flushed: turn crimson; go over to the window in order to wipe the sweating panes with a small handkerchief of delicate transparent batiste; the pane would begin to squeak, revealing a view of the canal with a gentleman in a top hat walking by – no more; as though she were disappointed in her presentiment, Angel Peri would begin to pick and shred the dampened handkerchief with her little teeth, and then run to put on her black plush coat and matching hat (Sofya Petrovna dressed most modestly), in order, pressing her fur muff to her little nose, aimlessly to wander from the Moika to the embankment; she even once looked in at the Ciniselli Circus17 and saw there a wonder of nature: a bearded lady; but most often she called by at the kitchen and talked in whispers with the young chambermaid, Mavrushka, a very pretty young girl in an apron and a butterfly cap. And her eyes crossed: thus always did her eyes cross at moments of agitation.

Then one day, when Lippanchenko was there, with loud laughter she snatched a pin from her hat and stuck it into her little finger:

‘Look: it doesn’t hurt; and there’s no blood: I’m made of wax … a doll.’

But Lippanchenko did not understand at all: he burst out laughing, and said:

‘You’re not a doll: you’re a dushkan.’

And flying into a rage, Angel Peri drove him away from her. Seizing from the table his hat with earflaps, Lippanchenko retreated.

And she rushed about the little hothouse, wrinkling her brow, flushing, wiping the pane; a view of the canal with a carriage flying past came into view: no more.

What more could there have been?

The fact of the matter was this: several days ago Sofya Petrovna Likhutina had returned home from Baroness R.R. At Baroness R.R.’s that evening there had been table-tapping; whitish sparks had run across the wall; and on one occasion the table had even jumped: no more; but Sofya Petrovna’s nerves were stretched to the limit (after a seance she wandered about the streets), and the entrance porch to her house was not lit (the entrance porches to blocks of cheap flats are not lit): and inside the black entrance Sofya Petrovna very distinctly saw a spot even blacker than the darkness staring at her – it looked like a black mask; something showed dimly red beneath the mask, and with all her strength Sofya Petrovna tugged at the bell. And when the door flew open and a stream of bright light from the hallway fell on the staircase, Mavrushka uttered a scream and threw up her hands: Sofya Petrovna saw nothing, because she impetuously flew past into the flat. Mavrushka saw: behind the barynya’s back a red, satin domino stretched forward its black mask, surrounded from below by a thick lace fan that was of course black, so that this black lace fell towards Sofya Petrovna’s shoulder (it was a good thing that she did not turn her little head); the red domino stretched out to Mavrushka its bloody sleeve, from which a visiting card protruded; and when the door slammed in front of the hand, Sofya Petrovna, too, saw the visiting card by the door (it had doubtless flown through the crack in the doorway); but what was drawn on that visiting card? A skull and crossbones instead of a nobleman’s coronet and also the words, set in fashionable script: ‘I await you at the masked ball – at such-and-such a place, on such-and-such a date’; and then the signature: ‘The Red Buffoon’.

Sofya Petrovna spent the whole evening in a dreadful state of agitation. Who could have dressed up in a red domino? Of course, it was he, Nikolai Apollonovich: after all, she seemed to remember she had once called him by that name … And the Red Buffoon had arrived. In that case what name was one to give to such a piece of behaviour with a defenceless woman? Well, was it not a vileness?

A vileness, a vileness and a vileness.

She wished her husband, the officer, would hurry up and come home: he would teach the insolent fellow a lesson. Sofya Petrovna blushed, squinted, bit her handkerchief and became covered in perspiration. If only someone would come: Aven, or Baron Ommau-Ommergau, or Shporyshev, or even … Lippanchenko.

But no one appeared.

Well, so in that case suddenly it was not he? And Sofya Petrovna felt distinctly upset: she felt somehow loath to part with her thoughts about the buffoon being him; in these thoughts together with anger was interlaced that same sweet, familiar, fateful emotion; she must have wanted him to prove to be a most complete scoundrel.

No – it was not he: so he was not the scoundrel, not the naughty boy! … Well, but what if he really were the Red Buffoon? Who the Red Buffoon could be, to this she could not offer any coherent answer to herself – and yet … And her heart fell – it was not he.

She at once ordered Mavrushka to say nothing: but she went to the masked ball; and in secret from her meek husband: for the first time she went to a masked ball.

The fact of the matter was that Sergei Sergeich Likhutin had most sternly forbidden her to attend masked balls. He was a strange fellow: valued his epaulettes, his sword, his officer’s honour (was he not a Bourbon?)

Meekness upon meekness … to the point of eccentricity, to his officer’s honour. He would say only: ‘I give you my officer’s word of honour – this will happen, and this will not.’ And – would not on any account be moved: a kind of inflexibility, cruelty. When, as he usually did, he raised his spectacles on to his forehead, became cold, unpleasant, wooden, as if carved out of white cypress, he would bang his cypress fist on the table: at such times Angel Peri would fly out of her husband’s room in fear: her little nose wrinkled, teardrops fell, the bedroom door would be bitterly locked.

Among Sofya Petrovna’s visitors, one of the guests-so-to-speak who talked about ‘revolution-evolution’ was a certain respected newspaper contributor: Neintelpfain; black-haired, wrinkled, with a nose that was bent from top to bottom, and with a little beard that was bent in the opposite direction. Sofya Petrovna revered him dreadfully: and in him did she confide; he it was who had taken her to the masked ball, where some kind of buffoon – harlequins, Italian maidens, Spanish maidens and oriental women flashed the hostile pinpoints of their eyes at one another from behind black velvet masks; on the arm of Neintelpfain, the respected newspaper contributor, Sofya Petrovna modestly walked about the halls in her black domino. And some kind of red, satin domino kept rushing about the halls, kept looking for someone, stretching before him his black mask, below which swished a thick fan made of lace – also black, of course.

At this point it was that Sofya Petrovna Likhutina told the faithful Neintelpfain about a mysterious event, well, of course, hiding all the threads; the little Neintelpfain, the respected newspaper contributor, received five copecks per line: ever since that time it had invariably, invariably been the case that each day without fail there appeared in the ‘Diary of Events’ a note about – a red domino, a red domino!

People discussed the domino, grew dreadfully excited about him and argued about him: some saw in him revolutionary terror; while others merely said nothing and shurgged their shoulders. Bells rang in the Secret Political Department.

People talked of that appearance of the domino on the streets of Petersburg even in the little hothouse; and Count Aven, and Baron Ommau-Ommergau, and Leib Hussar Shporyshev, and Verhefden made ‘fifis’ in this connection, and a ceaseless rain of twenty-copeck pieces flew into the little copper collection box; only the crafty khokhol-Little Russian Lippanchenko seemed crookedly to laugh. While Sofya Petrovna Likhutina, beside herself, turned crimson, turned pale, became covered in perspiration and bit her handkerchief. Neintelpfain had quite simply proved to be a beast, but Neintelpfain did not show himself: day after day he assiduously teased out his newspaper lines; and the newspaper rigmarole dragged on and on, covering the world with the most utter nonsense.