Petersburg You Will, Like a Madman

Petersburg is a dream.

If you have visited Petersburg in one of your dreams, you will doubtless know the heavy entrance porch: there are oak doors with mirror-like panes of glass; the passers-by see these panes; but behind these panes they have never been.

A heavy-headed copper mace shone soundlessly from behind the mirror of those panes.

There is a sloping, octogenarian shoulder: it has been dreamt about for years by the casual passers-by, for whom everything is a dream and who are a dream; on to this octogenarian old man’s shoulder falls a dark tricorne; the octogenarian doorman gleams brightly in there in his gold braid, resembling an employee from a funeral train office in the discharge of his duties.

Thus it is always.

The heavy copper-headed mace rests peacefully on the octogenarian doorman’s shoulder; and, crowned in his tricorne, the doorman falls asleep for years over the Stock Exchange Gazette. Then the doorman gets up and opens the door wide. Whether it is afternoon, morning or evening when you pass that oak door – afternoon, morning or evening you will see the copper mace; you will see the gold braid; you will see – the dark tricorne.

With amazement you will stop before this vision. You saw the same thing the last time you came here. Five years have now passed: events have gone turbulently by in the distance; China has awoken; and Port Arthur has fallen; the Amur region of our country is being flooded by yellow-faced people; the legends of the iron horsemen of Genghis Khan have come to life.

But the vision of the years of old is unaltering, continuous: an octogenarian shoulder, a tricorne, gold braid, a beard.

A moment – and if the white beard should stir into motion behind the glass, if the enormous mace should sway, if the silvery gold braid should dazzlingly flash like the poisonous streams that rush from the gutters, threatening the resident of the basement with cholera and typhus, – if all that should be so, and the old years change, you will, like a madman, whirl about the Petersburg prospects.

The poisonous stream from a gutter will wash you in the dank cold of October.

If there, behind the mirror-like entrance porch, the heavy-headed mace swiftly flashed, then doubtless, doubtless cholera and typhus would not float around here: China would not be in tumult; and Port Arthur would not have fallen; the Amur region of our country would not be flooded by slant-eyed people; the horsemen of Genghis Khan would not have risen up from their graves many centuries old.

But listen, listen closely: the thud of hooves … The thud of hooves from the steppes beyond the Urals. The thud of hooves is approaching.

It is the iron horsemen.

Freezing for years above the entrance porch of the black-grey, many-columned house, the porch’s caryatid still hangs: a thick-bearded, stone colossus.

With a sad, thousand-year-old smile, with the dark emptiness of eyes that penetrate the day he has hung for years: has hung agonizingly; for a hundred years the cornice of the balcony ledge has been falling on to the back of the bearded man’s neck and on to the elbows of his stone arms. Hewn from the stone with a vine leaf and bunches of stone grapes, his loins have grown. Firmly against the wall his black-hoofed, goat-like legs have pressed.

Old, bearded man of stone!

Many years he has smiled above the noise of the street, for many years has raised himself a little above the summers, the winters, the springs – with the rounded curlicues of ornamental moulding. Summer, autumn, winter: again – summer and autumn; he is the same; and in summer he is porous; in winter, covered in ice, he bled pieces of ice; in the spring from those pieces of ice and those icicles’ drops flowed. But he is the same: the years pass him by.

Time itself comes up to the caryatid’s waist.

Out of hard times, as above the line of time, he has bent above the straight arrow of the prospect. A crow has settled on his beard: has cawed monotonously at the prospect; this slippery, wet prospect gives off a metallic sheen; in these wet flagstones, so cheerlessly illumined by the October day, are reflected: the greenish swarm of clouds, the greenish faces of the passers-by, the silvery streams that flow from the babbling gutters.

The bearded man of stone, raised above the whirlwind of events, has supported the entrance porch of the Institution for days, weeks and years.

What a day!

From morning on the droplets began to beat, to chirr, to whisper; from the seashore a grey, misty felt pressed; in pairs the clerks walked in; the doorman in the tricorne opened the door for them; they hung their hats and damp garments on hooks and ran up the stairs of red cloth, ran through the white marble vestibule, raised their eyes to the minister’s portrait; and walked through the unheated halls – to their cold desks. But the clerks did not write: there was nothing to write; no paper was brought from the director’s office; there was no one in the office; the logs crackled in the fireplace.

Above the stern, oak desk no bald head tensed the veins at its temples; it did not look sullenly from where in the fireplace cornflowers of coal gas flowed over an incandescent heap of crackling will-o-the-wisps: in that solitary room idly in the fireplace cornflowers of coal gas continued to flow over an incandescent heap of crackling will-o-the-wisps; they exploded, tore themselves free and burst – red cockerels’ combs, flying swiftly away up the smoky chimney, in order to merge above the rooftops with the fumes and the poisoned soot and to hang permanently above the rooftops in a suffocating, corroding gloom. There was no one in the office.

On this day Apollon Apollonovich had not stalked his way to the director’s office.

Now they were tired of waiting; from desk to desk a bewildered whispering fluttered; rumours hovered; and – dark things were imagined; in the deputy director’s office the telephone receiver rattled:

‘Has he left? … It’s not possible? … Tell him that his presence is required … it’s not possible …’

And the telephone rattled a second time:

‘Have you told him? … Is he still at table? … Tell him that time will not wait …’

The deputy director stood with trembling jaw; he was lifting his hands in bewilderment; an hour or an hour and a half later he descended the velvet stairs in a very tall top hat. The doors of the entrance porch opened wide … He jumped into a carriage.

Twenty minutes later, as he ascended the stairs of the yellow house, he saw in amazement Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, his immediate superior, fussily peeping out at him from behind the statue of Niobe in a repulsive, mouse-coloured dressing-gown, the skirts of which were drawn about him.

‘Apollon Apollonovich,’ cried the grey-haired knight of Anna, catching sight of the senator’s stubbly chin from behind the statue, and he hurriedly began to adjust the large neck decoration beneath his tie.

‘Apollon Apollonovich, so here you are, here you are! But I’ve been, we’ve been – ringing you, telephoning you. Waiting for you …’

‘I … em-em-em,’ the round-shouldered old man said, beginning to chew his lips, ‘am rearranging my library … Forgive me, my dear fellow,’ he added peevishly, ‘for being dressed like this, in domestic fashion.’

And with his hands he pointed to his tattered dressing-gown.

‘What is it, are you ill? Er, er, er – why, you seem to have swollen … Er, is it oedemata?’ the visitor said, respectfully touching a dust-covered finger.

Apollon Apollonovich dropped his dirty dust-rag on the parquet floor.

‘Why, you’ve chosen the wrong time to fall ill … I’ve brought you some news … I congratulate you: there’s a general strike – in Morovetrinsk …’

‘What are you talking about? … I … em-em-em … There’s nothing wrong with me.’ Here the old man’s face fell apart into wrinkles of displeasure (he received the news of the strike with indifference: evidently nothing could surprise him any more) – ‘And I’m sorry: a lot of dust has gathered, you know …’


‘So I’m wiping it off with a rag …’

The deputy director with the downy side-whiskers now respectfully bowed to this round-shouldered ruin and tried to set about explaining an exceedingly important paper which he unfolded before him on the mother-of-pearl table in the drawing-room.

But Apollon Apollonovich again interrupted him:

‘Dust, you know, contains the micro-organisms of diseases … So I’m wiping it off with a rag …’

Suddenly this grey ruin, which had just sat down in an Empire armchair, leapt swiftly to its feet, supporting itself on the arm with one hand; the other hand swiftly jabbed a finger at the paper.

‘What is this?’

‘As I was telling you only just now …’

‘No, sir, wait, sir …’ Apollon Apollonovich pressed himself frantically to the paper: he grew younger, whiter, turned – pale pink (he was no longer capable of being red).

‘Wait! … But have they gone out of their minds? … My signature is necessary? Under a signature like that?’

‘Apollon Apollonovich …’

‘I won’t give my signature.’

‘But sir – it’s a revolt!’

‘Give Ivanchevsky the sack! …’

‘Ivanchevsky has been given the sack: have you forgotten?’

‘I won’t give my signature …’

With a face that had turned younger, the skirts of his dressing-gown indecently open, Apollon Apollonovich was now shuffling to and from about the drawing-room, his hands behind his back, his bald patch bowed low: going right up to the astonished visitor, he sprayed him with spittle:

‘How could they think of such a thing? Firm, administrative authority is one thing, but the violation of strict, lawful procedures … is another.’

‘Apollon Apollonovich,’ the knight of Anna tried to reason with him, ‘you are a man of firmness, you are a Russian … We have relied on you … No, of course you will sign …’

But Apollon Apollonovich began to twirl a pencil that had come to hand between two bony fingers; he stopped, gave the paper a keen glance: the pencil broke with a snap; now he was fastening the tassels of his dressing-gown in agitation, his jaw trembling angrily.

‘My dear fellow, I am a man of the school of Plehve … I know what I am doing … You can’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs …

‘Em-emem … I won’t give my signature.’


‘Em-emem … Em-emem …’

And he blew out his cheeks like a balloon.

The gentleman with the downy side-whiskers descended the staircase in bewilderment; for him it was clear: the career of Senator Ableukhov, which had been built up over the years, had disintegrated into rubble. After the deputy director of the Institution had driven away, Apollon Apollonovich continued to pace about among the Empire armchairs in intense anger. Soon he withdrew; soon appeared again; under his arm he lugged a heavy folder of papers to the mother-of-pearl table, pressing the folder and his shoulder against his side, which still ached; placing this folder of papers before him, Apollon Apollonovich rang for service and gave instructions that a fire be lit in front of him.

From behind the nota benes, the question marks, the section marks, the dashes, from behind the work that was now the last, a death’s head rose towards the fire in the hearth; its lips muttered of themselves:

‘It doesn’t matter, sir … It’s just so …’

The fire-breathing heap began to seethe and snort, giving off boiling cracklings and glitterings – crimson, gold; the logs were mixed with coals.

The bald head rose towards the fireplace with a sardonic, an ironically smiling mouth and screwed-up eyes, as it imagined the infuriated, dedicated careerist flying away from it through the slush, having offered him, Ableukhov, what was nothing more than a sordid bargain, without a stain on his conscience.

‘I, my good sirs, am a man of the school of Plehve … And I know what I am doing … Yes, indeed, my good sir …’

The acutely sharpened little pencil – now it leapt in his fingers; the acutely sharpened little pencil fell on the paper with flocks of question marks; for this was his final task; in an hour’s time that task would be ended; in an hour’s time the telephone in the Institution would ring: with a piece of news that the mind could not take in.

The carriage flew up to the caryatid of the entrance porch, but the caryatid did not move – the bearded man – old, made of stone, supporting the entrance porch of the Institution.

The year 1812 freed him from the scaffolding. The year 1825 raged with the days of December; they raged past; the days of January raged past so recently: it was the year 1905.

Bearded man of stone!

Everything happened beneath him and everything ceased to happen beneath him. What he saw, he will not tell anyone.

He remembered how the coachman reined in his pair of thoroughbreds, how the smoke billowed from the horses’ heavy rears; a general in a tricorne, in a winged greatcoat trimmed with fur, gracefully jumped out of the carriage and, to cries of ‘hurrah’, ran in through the open door.

Later, to cries of ‘hurrah’, the general trod the floor of the balcony ledge with a foot of white elk. His name is kept secret by the bearded man who supports the cornice of the balcony ledge; the bearded man of stone knows that name to this day.

But he will say nothing of it.

No one ever will he tell about the tears of today’s prostitute who took shelter for the night beneath him on the steps of the entrance porch.

He will tell no one of the minister’s recent flying visits: the latter was wearing a top hat; and in his eyes there was a greenish depth; the greying minister, as he got out of his light sleigh, stroked his sleek moustache with a grey Swedish glove.

Then he swiftly ran in through the open door, in order to fall into reflection by the window.

The pale, pale blotch of his face, pressed to the panes, protruded – from over there; the casual passer-by, looking at that blotch, would not have been able to guess that that pressed-up blotch – the casual passer-by would not have been able to guess that that pressed-up blotch was the face of a commanding person who guided from up there the fate of Russia.

The bearded man knows that; and – remembers; but as for telling, he will not tell – anyone, ever! …

It’s time, my friend, it’s time … For peace the heart is asking.

Day runs after day. And every day that’s passing

Takes with it particles of life. Together you and I

Intend to live some more. Look yonder – and we die.

Thus was the greying, solitary minister, now gone to eternal rest, in the habit of speaking to his solitary friend.

And he is gone – and Russia has abandoned,

That he exalted …

And – peace to his ashes.

But the doorman with the mace, falling asleep over the Stock Exchange Gazette, knew the exhausted face well: Vyacheslav Konstantinovich was, God be praised, still remembered in the Institution, while Emperor Nikolai Pavlovich, of blessed memory, is no longer remembered in the Institution; the white halls, the columns, the banisters remember …

The bearded man of stone remembers.

Out of hard times, as above the line of time, has he bent above the straight arrow of the prospect, or above a bitter, salty, alien – human tear?

There is no happiness, but there is freedom, peace …

Much I have long desired stays in my dreams:

Long, weary slave, my flight from here I’ve planned

To work’s and pure contentment’s far-off land.

The bald head raises itself slightly, – the Mephistophelean, faded mouth smiles in senile fashion at the flashes; in the flashes the face is coloured crimson; the eyes are still aflame; and they are still stony eyes: blue – and in green hollows! His gaze is cold and astonished; and – empty, empty. The seasons, the sun and the light were kindled by dark things. The whole of life is only a dark thing. So is it worth it? No, it is not worth it:

‘I, my good sirs, am of the school of Plehve … I, my good sirs … I – em-em-em …’

The bald head falls.

In the Institution whispers were fluttering from desk to desk; suddenly the door opened: a clerk with a completely white face ran to the telephone.

‘Apollon Apollonovich … is retiring …’

Everyone leapt to their feet; the head of desk, Legonin, burst into tears; and all this arose: an idiotic hubbub of voices, the uneven trampling of feet, a voice, from the deputy director’s room, trying to persuade; and – the rattle of the telephone (to the Ninth Department); the deputy director stood with trembling jaw; the telephone receiver seemed to dance in his hand: Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov was really no longer the head of the Institution.

A quarter of an hour later, in a tightly buttoned uniform with a drawn-in waist, the grey-haired deputy director with the star of Anna on his chest was already giving orders; after another twenty minutes, he bore a countenance freshly shaven and young with excitement around the halls.

Thus was the event of indescribable importance accomplished.