Petersburg Well, But What If?

We left Sofya Petrovna Likhutina alone at the ball; now we shall return to her again.

Sofya Petrovna Likhutina had stopped in the middle of the ballroom.

Before her for the first time her terrible vengeance19 had appeared: the crumpled little envelope had now passed into his hands, and Sofya Petrovna Likhutina scarcely understood what she had done; Sofya Petrovna did not understand what she had read yesterday in the crumpled envelope. But now the contents of the dreadful note appeared clearly before her: Nikolai Apollonovich’s letter invited him to throw some sort of bomb with a clock mechanism, a bomb which apparently lay in his writing desk; to judge by the hints, the letter proposed that he throw this bomb at the senator (everyone called Apollon Apollonovich the senator).

Sofya Petrovna stood bewilderedly amidst the maskers with her pale azure waist barely flexed, wondering what it all meant. It was, of course, some wicked, base joke; but she had so much wanted to frighten him with this joke: after all, he was … a base coward. Well, but what if … what if what was in the letter were true? What if … if Nikolai Apollonovich really did keep objects of such dreadful content in his writing desk? And if people heard about it? And now he would be arrested? … Sofya Petrovna stood bewilderedly amidst the maskers with her pale azure waist, pulling at her curls, which were silvery-grey with powder and luxuriantly ringleted.

And then she began to spin round uneasily among the maskers; and then the Valenciennes lace she was wearing began to flutter; while the panniered skirt below her corsage, which looked as though it had risen beneath the breathing of languorous zephyrs, swayed its flounces and gleamed like a garland of silver grasses in the form of light festoons. Around her, voices, fusing together in a whisper, grumbled ceaselessly, constantly, tiresomely like a fateful spindle. A little flock of grey-browed matrons, rustling their satin skirts, was preparing to leave this kind of merry ball; this one, stretching out her neck, was summoning her daughter, who was dressed as a paysanne, from the midst of a swarm of clowns; another, putting her miniature lorgnette to her eyes, was growing uneasy. And above everything hung a disturbing atmosphere of scandal. The ballroom pianist stopped churning up the air with sounds; he put his elbow on the lid of the grand piano; waited to be asked to play for more dancing; but no such requests came.

The cadets, the little high-school students, the law students – they all dived into the waves of clowns and, having dived, disappeared; and were no longer there; from all sides came lamentations, rustlings, whisperings.

‘No, did you see, did you see? Do you understand?’

‘Don’t say it – it’s dreadful …’

‘I have always said it, I have always said it, ma chère: he has raised a scoundrel. Even tante Lise said it; Mimi said it; Nicolas said it.’

‘Poor Anna Petrovna: I understand her! …’

‘Yes, and I too understand: we all do.’

‘Here he is, here he is.’

‘What dreadful ears he has …’

‘He’s to be made a minister …’

‘He’ll ruin the country …’

‘He ought to be told …’

‘But look: the Bat is looking at us; as though he senses that we’re talking about him … And the Tsukatovs are hanging around him – it’s simply shameful to look …’

‘They don’t dare to tell him why we’re leaving … They say that Madame Tsukatova is from a family of priests.’

Suddenly the hissing of an ancient dragon was heard from the agitated little flock of grey-browed matrons:

‘Look! He’s off: he’s not a high official, but a chicken.’

Well, but what if … if Nikolai Apollonovich really was keeping a bomb in his desk? After all, someone might find out about it; why, he might bump into the desk (he was absentminded). Perhaps he did his studies in the evening at his desk, with an open book. Sofya Petrovna clearly imagined the sclerotic Ableukhov forehead with small bluish veins bent over the work desk (in the desk, a bomb). A bomb was something round that must not be touched. And Sofya Petrovna shuddered. For a moment she clearly imagined Nikolai Apollonovich rubbing his hands over the tea tray; on the desk the red horn of the gramophone threw passionate Italian arias into their ears; well, why should they quarrel? And why the preposterous delivery of the letter, the domino and all the rest …

An extremely fat man (a Spaniard from Granada) adhered to Sofya Petrovna; she stepped to the side, and the fat man (a Spaniard from Granada) did likewise; for a single moment he was squeezed against her in the crowd, and she fancied that his hands began to rustle over her skirt.

‘You are not a barynya: you are a dushkanchik.’

‘Lippanchenko!’ And she struck him with her fan.

‘Lippanchenko! Now explain to me …’

But Lippanchenko interrupted her:

‘You should know better, madam; do not play at being naïve.’

And Lippanchenko, adhering to her skirt, squeezed right up close against her: and she began to flounder, striving to tear herself free of him; but the crowd pressed them even closer; what was he doing, this Lippanchenko? Ah, why he was indecent.

‘Lippanchenko, you’re not allowed to do that.’

But he laughed greasily:

‘But I saw you delivering …’

‘You mustn’t say a word about that.’

But he laughed greasily:

‘Very well, very well! And now come with me into this wonderful night …’

‘Lippanchenko! You’re an insolent fellow …’

She tore herself free of Lippanchenko.

Clicking his castanets in pursuit of her did the Spaniard from Granada go, performing some kind of passionate Spanish pas.

Well, but what if the letter was not a joke: what if … if he were doomed. No, no, no! Such horrors do not exist; and neither do the kind of wild beasts that could force an insane son to raise his hand against his father. All that was simply the jokes of his companions. She was stupid – all that had happened was that she had obviously been frightened by the joke of his friends. And as for him, as for him: he too had been frightened by the joke of his friends; why, he was just a little coward: had run away from her there, too (there, by the Winter Canal); she did not consider the Winter Canal as any old prosaic spot from which one could run at the whistle of a policeman …

He had not behaved like Hermann: had slipped, fallen, showing the straps of his trousers from beneath the silk. And now: he had not laughed at the naïve joke of his revolutionary friends, and he had not recognized her as the one who had delivered the letter: had run through the ballroom, holding his mask in his hands and exposing his face to the laughter of cavaliers and ladies. No, let Sergei Sergeich Likhutin teach the insolent coward a lesson! Let Sergei Sergeich Likhutin challenge the coward to a duel …

The second lieutenant! … Sergei Sergeich Likhutin! … second lieutenant Likhutin had, ever since yesterday evening, been behaving in a most indecent manner: had been snorting something into his moustache and clenching his fist; had the temerity to come into her bedroom with an explanation in nothing but his long johns; and had then had the effrontery to pace about on the other side of the wall until it was morning.

Dimly she pictured yesterday’s mad shouts, bloodshot eyes and fist falling on the table: had Sergei Sergeich gone insane? He had long been an object of suspicion to her: the silence of all these three last months was suspicious; these times when he went running off to work were suspicious. Oh, she was lonely, the poor thing: now she needed his firm support; she wanted her husband, second lieutenant Likhutin, to hug her like a child and carry her in his arms …

Instead of that the Spaniard from Granada again leapt up and whispered in her ear:

‘Eh, eh, eh? Won’t you come riding? …’

Where was Sergei Sergeich now, why was he not at her side; she somehow felt afraid of going back as before to her little flat on the Moika, where, like a wild beast in its lair, her rebellious husband lay feverishly abed.

And she stamped her little heels:

‘I’ll show him!’

And again:

‘I’ll teach him a lesson!’

And the Spaniard from Granada flew away from her in confusion.

Sofya Petrovna shuddered as she remembered the grimace with which Sergei Sergeich had handed her cloak, pointing to the exit. How he had stood behind her shoulders there! How contemptuously she had laughed then and, raising her panniered skirt slightly by its festoons, had sailed smoothly away from him amidst curtsies (why had she not curtsied to Nikolai Apollonovich when she had given him the letter – curtsies had been coming to her)! How she had spoken in the doorway, how she had thumbed her nose at the officer, with a sly smile! Yet the only thing was: she was afraid to return home.

And she stamped her little heels in vexation.

‘I’ll show him!’

And again:

‘I’ll teach him a lesson!’

Yet still she was afraid to go back.

She was even more afraid of staying here; nearly everyone had now dispersed: the young people and the maskers had dispersed; with a bewildered air the good-natured host was going up now to this person, now to another with a little anecdote; finally he cast a forlorn glance round the emptying ballroom, cast a forlorn glance at the crowd of buffoons and harlequins, openly advising them with his gaze to spare the glittering room any further jollity.

But the harlequins, swarming together into a gaudy little flock, were behaving in a most indecent fashion. One brazen fellow stepped forth from their midst, began to dance and sing:

The von Sulitzes have gone,

Ableukhov too we lack …

The prospects, harbour and the streets

are full of rumours black! …

Filled to the top with treachery,

the senator you praise …

But there’s no law of emergency,

No law at all these days!

He is a patriotic dog –

with medals tight he’s packed;

But anyone can now commit

A terroristic act.

Nikolai Petrovich Tsukatov perceived in the twinkling of an eye how the decency of his merry house was violated by the venomous little poem. Nikolai Petrovich Tsukatov flushed deeply, looked at the cheeky harlequin in a most good-natured manner, turned his back and walked away from the door.