Petersburg What Next?

In a moment … –

Sergei Sergeich Likhutin’s legs began to jerk convulsively in the darkness; as they did so he distinctly saw the reflections of the street lamps on the air vent of the stove; he distinctly also heard a knocking and a scratching at the front door; something pressed two fingers with force against his chin, and he was unable to tear them away; it further seemed to him that he was choking; above him now there was a sound of cracking (that must be the veins in his head bursting), and slaked lime was flying all around; and Sergei Sergeich Likhutin went crashing down (straight towards death); and at once Sergei Sergeich Likhutin rose up from this death, having received a good, healthy kick in the next existence; at this point he saw that he had regained his senses; and when he regained his senses, he realized that he had not risen up from the dead, but had sat down on some kind of flat material object; he was sitting by himself on the floor, experiencing pain in his spine and his fingers which had somehow got through between the rope and his throat, and were now jammed there; Sergei Sergeich Likhutin began to pull at the rope around his neck; and the noose widened.

At this point he realized that he had very nearly hanged himself: had not succeeded in hanging himself – by a very small margin. And he sighed with relief.

Suddenly the inky gloom turned grey; and became a grey gloom: at first greyish; and then – only just perceptibly grey; Sergei Sergeich Likhutin saw quite plainly that he was sitting absurdly surrounded by walls, that the walls were quite plainly hung with grey Japanese landscapes, imperceptibly fusing with the surrounding night; the ceiling, which at night had plainly been adorned by the reddish-brown lace of the street lamp, had now begun to lose its lace; the lace of the street lamp had long run out, was becoming dim blotches that stared in astonishment at the greyish morning.

But let us return to the unhappy second lieutenant.

A few words must be said in Sergei Sergeich’s justification; Sergei Sergeich’s sigh of relief escaped from him unconsciously, in the way that the movements of people who wilfully drown themselves are unconscious at the moment before their immersion in the cold, green depths. Sergei Sergeich Likhutin (do not smile!) had quite seriously intended to settle all his accounts with the earth, and he would without any doubt at all have realized this intention, had not the ceiling been rotten (for this one must blame the builder of the house); so that the sigh of relief did not in any way concern Sergei Sergeich’s personality, but rather his fleshly, animal and impersonal shell. However this may have been, this shell was squatting down and listening to everything (to a thousand rustlings); while Sergei Sergeich’s spirit was displaying the most complete sang-froid.

In the twinkling of an eye all his thoughts became clear; in the twinkling of an eye a dilemma arose before his consciousness: what was he to do now, what was he to do? His revolvers were hidden away somewhere; it would take too long to find them … The razor? With the razor – ugh! And involuntarily everything in him winced; to begin an attempt with the razor after the first attempt he had just made … No: the most natural thing was to stretch out here on the floor, leaving the future to fate; yes, but in that natural instance Sofya Petrovna (she had undoubtedly heard the crash) would instantly rush, if she had not already rushed, to the yardkeeper; the police would be telephoned, a crowd would gather; under pressure from her, the front door would be broken down, and they would burst in here; and, having burst in, would see him, second lieutenant Likhutin, with his face unusually shaven (Sergei Sergeich had not suspected that he would look such an idiot without his moustache) and with a rope around his neck, squatting there amidst pieces of plaster.

No, no, no! Never would the second lieutenant come to that: the honour of his uniform was dearer to him than the word he had given his wife. There remained only one thing: to open the door in shame, attain a reconciliation with his wife, Sofya Petrovna, as soon as possible, and give her a plausible explanation for the mess and the plaster.

Quickly he threw the rope under the sofa and in a most ignominious fashion ran to the front door, on the other side of which nothing was now audible.

With the same involuntary breathing, he opened the front door, standing indecisively on the threshold; he was seized by a burning shame (he had not succeeded in hanging himself!); and the raging storm died away within his soul; as though, having torn loose from the hook he had broken off within himself all that had just raged there: his anger at his wife, his anger in connection with Nikolai Apollonovich’s outrageous behaviour. After all, he himself had now committed an outrage that was unprecedented and could not be compared with anything that had gone before: had wanted to hang himself – and instead of that had torn the hook out of the ceiling.

In a moment … –

No one came running into the room: even so, there was someone standing out there (he could see); at last, Sofya Petrovna Likhutina rushed in; rushed in and burst into sobs:

‘But what is this? What is this? Why is it dark in here?’

And Sergei Sergeich lowered his eyes in embarrassment.

‘What was all that noise and racket?’

Embarrassed, Sergei Sergeich squeezed her cold little fingers in the darkness.

‘Why are your hands all covered in soap? … Sergei Sergeyevich, dear, what does this mean?’

‘You see, Sonyushka …’

But she interrupted him:

‘Why are you hoarse? …’

‘You see, Sonyushka … I … stood in front of the open ventilator window too long (it was a careless thing to do, of course) … Well, and so I got hoarse … But that’s not the point …’

He faltered.

‘No, don’t, don’t,’ Sergei Sergeich Likhutin almost shouted, tugging away his wife’s hand, which was about to turn on the electric light, ‘not here, not right now – let’s go into that room.’

And he dragged her by force into the little study.

In the little study the objects could already be discerned quite plainly; and for a moment it seemed as if the grey row made up of the lines of the chairs and the walls with the imperceptibly recumbent planes of shadows and an infinity of some kind of shaving prerequisites was only an airy lace, a cobweb; and through this extremely fine cobweb the dawn sky was emerging shamefacedly and tenderly in the window. Sergei Sergeich’s face stood out indistinctly; but when Sofya Petrovna bent right down to his face, she saw before her … No, it was beyond description: she saw before her the completely blue face of an unknown idiot; and the eyes of this face were guiltily lowered.

‘What have you done? Have you shaved? Why, you’re simply some kind of fool! …’

‘You see, Sonyushka,’ his frightened whisper sounded hoarsely in her ears, ‘there’s a certain circumstance here …’

But she was not listening to her husband, and rushed off in unaccountable anguish to examine the rooms. After her from the little study came tearful and hoarsely resonant cries:

‘You’ll find things in a mess everywhere …

‘You see, my dear, I was trying to mend the ceiling …

‘The ceiling had cracked over there …

‘I had to …’

But Sofya Petrovna Likhutina was not listening at all: she stood in alarm before a pile of pieces of plaster that had fallen on the carpet, and, showing black in their midst, a hook that had come crashing to the floor; the table, on top of which a chair lay capsized, had been violently pushed aside; from beneath the soft couch on which Sofya Petrovna had so recently read Henri Besançon – from beneath the soft couch protruded a grey noose. Sofya Petrovna trembled, went numb and hunched her shoulders.

There outside the windows splashed the lightest of flames, and suddenly everything was illuminated, as a roseate ripple of cloudlets entered the flames like a mesh of mother-of-pearl; and now in the breaks of that mesh showed the merest hint of light blue: a soft tenderness showed light blue everywhere; everything was filled with a trembling timidity; everything was filled with the astonished question: ‘But how can it be? How can it be? Am I not shining?’ There on the windows, on the spires the greatest trembling was observed; there on the tall spires a gleam showed tall, ruby red. Over her soul the lightest of voices suddenly passed: and in a flash of illumination she saw a pale pink, pale carpet-coloured wedge made by a ray from the rising sun fall from the window on the grey noose. Her heart was filled with a sudden trembling and the astonished question: ‘But how can it be? How can it be? How could I have forgotten?’

At this point Sofya Petrovna Likhutina bent down to the floor and stretched out her hand towards the rope, on which the most delicate roseate lace was glowing; Sofya Petrovna Likhutina kissed the rope and quietly began to weep: a shape from her far-off childhood, now once again returned (a shape not forgotten entirely – where had she seen it: somewhere recently, today?): this shape began to rise above her, rose and now stood behind her back. And when she turned round and looked behind her, she saw: behind her stood her husband, Sergei Sergeyevich Likhutin, lanky, sad and clean-shaven: his meek, blue gaze was raised towards her:

‘Oh, forgive me Sonyushka!’

For some reason she fell at his feet, embracing them and weeping:

‘Poor, poor man: my beloved! …’

What they whispered between themselves, only God knows: it all remained between them; one could see: his dry hand raised above her into the glow of the dawn:

‘God will forgive … God will forgive …’

The shaven head burst out laughing so happily: for who could not now laugh, when such light, light flames were laughing in the sky?

A ragged, roseate cloudlet stretched along the Moika: this was a cloudlet from the funnel of a small passing steamboat; from its stern gleamed a green stripe of cold that struck against the bank, suffusing it with amber, giving – here, there – a suggestion of golden sparks, giving – here, there – a suggestion of diamonds; as it flew away from the bank, the stripe broke against a stripe that beat towards it, making both stripes begin to shine like a swarm of ringed snakes. Into this swarm moved a boat; and all the snakes were cut into strings of diamonds; the strings were immediately entwined into a silver-tracing tinsel, in order then to rock like stars on the watery surface. But the momentary agitation of the waters was calmed; the waters became smooth, and all the stars on them were extinguished. Now again the shining water-green surfaces moved between the stone banks. A green-black sculpture rose towards the sky; strangely from the bank rose a green, white-columned building, like a living piece of the Renaissance.