Petersburg A Watermelon is a Vegetable …

After two and a half years the three of them dined together.

The cuckoo on the wall cuckooed; the lackey brought in a steaming soup tureen; Anna Petrovna shone with contentment; Apollon Apollonovich … – incidentally: looking at the decrepit old man only this morning, you would not have recognized this ageless statesman, who had suddenly straightened up in his bearing, had sat down here at the table and taken a napkin with a kind of springy movement; they were sitting at soup, when a side door opened: Nikolai Apollonovich, lightly powdered, clean shaven, trim, hobbled along from it and joined the family in a tightly buttoned student’s frockcoat with a collar of the most elevated proportions (resembling the collars of the Alexandrine epoch, now past).

‘What is the matter, mon cher?’ Anna Petrovna asked, throwing her pince-nez on to her nose in an affected manner. ‘You are limping, I see?’

‘Eh? …’ Apollon Apollonovich cast a glance at Kolenka and seized the pepper-pot. ‘Indeed …’

With a kind of youthful movement he proceeded to overpepper his soup.

‘It’s nothing, maman: I stumbled … and now my knee aches …’

‘Shouldn’t you put Goulard water on it?’

‘Indeed, Kolenka,’ Apollon Apollonovich said, bringing a spoonful of soup to his mouth, and looking from under his brows, ‘these bruises of the knee joint are not to be trifled with; these bruises can play up …’

And – swallowed the spoonful of soup.

‘Maternal feeling is a remarkable thing’ – and Anna Petrovna put her spoon on her plate, and her large, childlike eyes stared as she pressed her head into her neck (making her double chin rise from under her collar) – ‘a remarkable thing: he is already grown-up, and yet I still worry about him as before …’

She appeared quite naturally to have forgotten that for two and a half years she had not troubled about Kolenka at all: Kolenka’s place had been taken by a stranger, swarthy and long-moustached, with eyes like two black prunes; naturally – she had forgotten just over two years ago she had used to tie this stranger’s necktie, there in Spain, every day: a violet one, made of silk; and every morning for two and a half years she had given him a laxative – Hunyadi – Janos.

‘Yes, maternal feeling: you remember – when you had dysentairy …’ (she said ‘dysentairy’).

‘Of course, I remember perfectly … You mean the slices of bread?’

‘That’s right …’

‘It would appear, mon ami, that you are suffering from the consequences of dysentery right now?’ – Apollon Apollonovich muttered from his plate, placing a stress on the final y.

And swallowed a mouthful of soup.

‘It’s not good … for you … to eat berries at such a time, sir,’ the content voice of Semyonych was heard to say from behind the door; his head peeped through: he was looking from over there – was not serving.

‘Berries, berries!’ Apollon Apollonovich boomed in a bass voice and suddenly turned right round to face Semyonych: or rather, to the chink in the door.

‘Berries.’ And began to chew his lips.

Here the lackey who was serving (not Semyonych) smiled in anticipation, looking as though he wanted to announce to them all:

‘Something special is on its way!’

And the barin screamed.

‘Tell me, Semyonych: is a watermelon a berry?’

Anna Petrovna turned only her eyes towards Kolenka: condescendingly and slyly she concealed a smile; transferred her eyes to the senator, who had frozen in the direction of the door and had, it seemed, completely withdrawn into expectation of an answer to his absurd question; with her eyes she said:

‘Is he still up to his old games?’

Nikolai Apollonovich embarrassedly grasped for his knife and fork until, impassively and distinctly, a voice darted out, not surprised by the question:

‘A watermelon, your excellency, is not a berry at all, it’s a vegetable.’

Apollon Apollonovich quickly turned right round, and suddenly fired off – ai, ai, ai! – his impromptu:

Correctly, Semyonych,

You old curd bread, –

You’ve worked this out

With your bald-topped head.

Anna Petrovna and Kolenka did not raise their eyes from their plates: in a word, it was – like the old days!

After the scene in the drawing-room Apollon Apollonovich showed them by his appearance: everything had now returned to normal; with appetite he ate, joked and attentively listened to the stories about the beauties of Spain; something strange and melancholy rose in his heart; as though there were no time; and as though it had all happened yesterday (Kolenka thought): he, Nikolai Apollonovich, was five years old; attentively he listened to the conversations his mother had with the governess (the one Apollon Apollonovich had shown the door); and Anna Petrovna – exclaimed ecstatically:

‘Zizi and I; and behind us again there will be two tails; we’ll go to the exhibition; with our tails behind us, to the exhibition …’

‘No, what brazenry!’

Kolenka saw before him an enormous room, a crowd, the rustle of dresses and so on (he had once been taken to an exhibition): and in the distance, hanging suspended in space, enormous, black-brown tails floating out of the crowd: as a child, Nikolai Apollonovich had never been able to understand that Countess Zizi called her social admirers tails.

But this absurd memory of tails hanging suspended in space provoked within him a suppressed sense of alarm; he must go and see the Likhutins: make sure that it was really …

That what was ‘really’?

In his ears he kept hearing the ticking of a watch: ticky-tock, ticky-tock; the hand ran round in a circle; only of course it did not run here – in these gleaming rooms (under a rug, for example, where any of them might accidentally place a foot on it …), but – in a black cesspool, in a field, in a river: kept up its ‘ti-cky-tock’; the hand ran round in a circle – until the fateful hour …

What nonsense!

All this came from the senator’s dreadful joke, which was a truly grand one … in its tastelessness; everything had come from that: the memory of the black-brown tails, floating out of space, and – the memory of the bomb.

‘What is it, Kolenka, you seem distracted: and you’re not eating your cream? …’

‘Ah, yes-yes …’

After dinner he strolled through this unlighted hall; the hall glowed faintly; both with moonlight and with the lace of a street lamp; here he strolled about the little squares of the parqueted floor: Apollon Apollonovich; with him – Nikolai Apollonovich; they stepped across: out of the shadow – into the lace of the street lamp’s light; stepped across – out of this bright lace – into the shadow. With an unaccustomed trustful gentleness, his head inclined low, Apollon Apollonovich said: half to his son, and half to himself:

‘You know – thou knowest: it is a difficult position – to be a man of state.’

They turned around.

‘I told them all: no, promoting the import of American sheafing-machines is not such a trifling matter; there is more humanitarianism in it than there is in windy speeches … Public law teaches us …’

They walked back over the little squares of the parqueted floor; they stepped across; out of the shadow – into the lunar gleaming of shoals.

‘All the same, we need humanitarian principles; humanism is a great cause, achieved through much suffering by such intellects as Giordano Bruno, as …’

For a long time yet did they wander here.

Apollon Apollonovich spoke in a cracked voice; sometimes he took his son by a button of his frockcoat with two fingers: he moved his lips right up to his son’s ear.

‘Kolenka, they’re windbags: humanitarianism, humanitarianism! … There is more humanitarianism in sheafing-machines: we need sheafing-machines! …’

Here he put his free arm around his son’s waist, drawing him over to the window – into the corner; muttered and swayed his head; they no longer took him into account, he was not needed:

‘Thou knowest – they’ve passed me by!’

Nikolai Apollonovich did not dare to believe his ears; yes, how naturally it had all happened – without explanation, without a storm, without confessions: this whispering in a corner, this fatherly caress.

Then why all these years had he … –?

‘Yes, Kolenka, mon petit ami: you and I shall be more frank with each other …’

‘What did you say? I can’t hear you …’

Past the windows flew the crazy, piercing whistling of a small steamer; brightly the fiery lantern at its stern, almost obliquely, disappeared into the mist; ruby-coloured circles expanded. With trustful gentleness, his head inclined low, Apollon Apollonovich spoke: half to his son, and half to himself. They stepped across: out of the shadow into the lace of the light from the street lamp; stepped across: out of this light lace – into the shadow.

Apollon Apollonovich – small, bald and old, – illumined by the flashes of the dying coals, on the small mother-of-pearl table he began to lay out a game of patience; it was two and a half years since he had laid out a game of patience; thus had he become imprinted on Anna Petrovna’s memory; this had been two and a half years ago: before their fateful conversation; the bald little figure had sat at this same table and at this pack of patience.

‘The ten …’

‘No, my dear, it’s blocked … And in spring – you know what: I think we might go to Prolyotnoe, Anna Petrovna.’ (Prolyotnoe was the Ableukhovs’ family estate: Apollon Apollonovich had not been in Prolyotnoe for some twenty years.)

There, beyond the ice, the snow and the jagged line of the forest he had, by a stupid accident, nearly frozen to death, some fifty years ago; at that hour of his lonely freezing it had been as though someone’s cold fingers had stroked his heart; the icy hand had beckoned; behind him – the centuries had receded in immeasurability: ahead of him – the hand revealed: immeasurabilities; the immeasurabilities flew towards him. The icy hand!

And – now: it was melting.

For Apollon Apollonovich, as he relieved himself of his post, remembered for the first time: the melancholy district distances, the smoke of the hamlets; and – the jackdaw.

‘What do you say, let us to Prolyotnoe: there are so many flowers there.’

And Anna Petrovna, getting carried away again, spoke excitedly of the beauties of the palaces of the Alhambra; but in her transport of ecstasy, it must be admitted, she forgot that she was going off key, that she was saying ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, and ‘we’ meant: ‘Mindalini – (Mantalini4 – so it would appear) – and I’.

‘We arrived in the morning in a charming little carriage drawn by donkeys; our team, Kolechka, had these large pompons; and you know, Apollon Apollonovich, we got used to them …’

Apollon Apollonovich listened, moved the cards about; and – abandoned them: he did not finish the game of patience; he sat hunched and round-shouldered in his armchair, illumined by the bright purple of the coals; several times he grasped at the arm of the Empire armchair, preparing to jump to his feet; yet he evidently realized in the nick of time that he would be committing an act of indiscretion, were he to interrupt this verbal flood in mid-sentence; and fell back into the armchair again; now and then he yawned.

At last he tearfully observed:

‘I must admit: I’m tired …’

And moved from the armchair – into a rocking chair.

Nikolai Apollonovich offered to see his mother to her hotel; as he came out of the drawing-room, he turned round to face his father; from the rocking chair – he saw (so it seemed to him) – a melancholy gaze, fixed upon him; sitting in the rocking chair, Apollon Apollonovich swung it slightly with a nod of his head and a motion of his foot; this was his last conscious perception; he did not see his father again; and in the country, at sea, and in the mountains, in cities – in the dazzling halls of important European museums – he remembered that gaze; and it seemed: Apollon Apollonovich was consciously saying farewell – with a nod of his head and a motion of his foot: that old face, the quiet creaking of the rocking chair; and – the gaze, the gaze!