Petersburg A Lifeless Ray Was Falling through the Window

Yes, yes, yes: there they stood; that was how they had stood at the time of his last nocturnal return. And they were waiting for him. Who they were, it was positively impossible to say: two outlines. A lifeless ray was falling through the window from the third floor; it lay whitishly on the grey steps.

And in the most total darkness the whitish blotches lay there so horribly calmly – dauntlessly.

It was into this particular whitish blotch that the railings of the staircase ran; and next to the railings they stood: two outlines; they let Aleksandr Ivanovich through, standing to the right and the left of him; this was how they had let Aleksandr Ivanovich through on that occasion, too; had said nothing, had not moved a muscle, had not flinched; all he felt was someone’s evil eye, screwed up, but not blinking, trained on him out of the darkness.

Should he approach them, whisper in their ears the incantation that had arisen in his memory out of a dream?

‘Enfranshish, enfranshish! …’

It was hard – to enter this whitish blotch under their fixed gaze: to be lit up by the moon, feeling on both sides the keen stare of an observer; and again – what was it, to feel the observers of the back staircase behind one’s back, ready for anything at any second; it was hard, was it not, to refrain from quickening one’s step and to cough indifferently?

For Aleksandr Ivanovich had only to rush suddenly, as swift as lightning, up the steps of the staircase, and the observers would rush up after him.

Here the whitish blotches became grey blotches and then began harmoniously to melt; and melted away altogether in the total darkness (a black cloud had evidently covered the moon).

Aleksandr Ivanovich calmly entered the place that had previously been white, and could no longer see the eyes, from which he concluded that his eyes too could not be seen (poor fellow, he consoled himself with the vain thought that he would be able to slip upstairs to his garret unseen). Aleksandr Ivanovich did not quicken his step, and even – began to tweak his small moustache; and …

… Aleksandr Ivanovich could not endure it any longer.

He flew like an arrow up to the second-floor landing (oh, what an indiscretion!). And, having flown up to the landing, he permitted himself something that definitely lowered him in the opinion of the outline standing there.

Leaning over the railings, he hurled down a bewildered, frightened glance, having first thrown down a lighted match: the iron struts of the railings flared; and amidst this yellow glimmering Aleksandr Ivanovich plainly discerned silhouettes.

Great was his amazement!

One of the silhouettes was quite simply the Tartar, Makhmudka, who lived in the basement; in the yellow shimmer of the dying match as it fell past, Makhmudka was leaning towards a little gentleman of ordinary appearance; the little gentleman of ordinary appearance was wearing a bowler hat, but had the features of an Oriental; and the hook-nosed, Oriental man was trying to ask Makhmudka something, and Makhmudka was shaking his head.

After that, the match went out: nothing could be discerned.

But the burning match had betrayed Aleksandr Ivanovich’s presence to the hook-nosed Oriental; feet began quickly to shuffle upstairs; and now, right above Aleksandr Ivanovich’s ear, a glib voice rang out, but … imagine, without an accent.

‘Excuse me, are you Andrei Andreich Gorelsky?’

‘No, I’m Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin …’

‘Yes, according to your false passport …’

Aleksandr Ivanovich started: he was indeed living on a false passport, but his name, patronymic and surname were: Aleksandr Alekseyevich Pogorelsky, not Andrei Andreich Gorelsky.

Aleksandr Ivanovich started, but … decided that attempts at concealment would serve no purpose:

‘I am he, but what is your business? …’

‘Excuse me, please: on the first occasion I came to see you at such an inopportune time …’

‘That’s all right …’

‘This unlit back staircase: your flat turned out to be locked … And there is someone in there … I preferred to wait for you at the entrance … And then this back staircase …’

‘But who is waiting for me there? …’

‘I do not know: the voice of some man of the common people answered me from within …’

Styopka! … Thank God: it was Styopka!

‘But what is your business? …’

‘Forgive me, I have heard so much about you: you and I have mutual friends … Nikolai Stepanych Lippanchenko, at whose home I am received like a son … I have long, long wanted to make your acquaintance … I have heard that you are a night-owl … And so I took the liberty … Actually, I live in Helsingfors and am here on a visit, though my home is in the south …’

Aleksandr Ivanovich quickly realized that his guest was lying; and lying, moreover, in a most insolent fashion, for the same story had been repeated once before (where and when – that he could not remember at the moment: perhaps it had all happened in a dream that had instantly been forgotten; and now it had arisen once again).

No, no, no: there was something altogether fishy here; but he must not let on; and Aleksandr Ivanovich replied into the total darkness:

‘With whom do I have the honour of speaking?’

‘My name is Shishnarfne, I am a Persian subject … You and I have already met …’

‘Shishnarfiev? …

‘No, Shishnarfne: they added the v ending to my name – for the sake of russisme, perhaps … You and I were together today – back there, at Lippanchenko’s; two hours I sat, waiting for you to finish your business conversation, and then I couldn’t wait for you any longer … Zoya Zakharovna did not warn me in time that you would be there. I have long been seeking a meeting with you … I have been looking for you for a long time …’

This last sentence, like the transformation of Shishnarfiev into Shishnarfne, again dreamily reminded him of something: it was something nasty, depressing, worrying.

‘You and I have met before?’

‘Yes … don’t you remember? In Helsingfors …’

Aleksandr Ivanovich dimly remembered something; unexpectedly to himself he lit another match and brought this match right up to Shishnarfiev’s – or rather, Shishnarfne’s – nose; for a moment the walls flared with a yellow reflection, the struts of the railings glimmered; and out of the darkness before his very face suddenly formed the face of the Persian subject; Aleksandr Ivanovich clearly remembered now having seen this face in a Helsingfors coffee house;12 but the face had for some reason not lowered its suspicious eyes from Aleksandr Ivanovich on that occasion, too.

‘Do you remember?’

Aleksandr Ivanovich remembered more, more: namely: it had been in Helsingfors that all the symptoms of the illness that menaced him had begun; it was precisely in Helsingfors that the whole of that idle cerebral game of his, a game that seemed as if inspired by someone else, had begun.

He recalled that at that period he had had occasion to develop a paradoxical theory about the necessity of destroying culture, because the period of obsolete humanism was over and cultural history now stood before us like weathered marl; a period of healthy brutishness was beginning, pushing forth out of the depths of the people (the hooliganism, the violence of the Apach├ęs),13 from the heights of the aristocracy (the revolt of the arts against established forms, the love of primitive culture, exoticism) and from the bourgeoisie itself (the Oriental ladies’ fashions, the cakewalk – a Negro dance; and – so on); at this time Aleksandr Ivanovich was preaching the burning of libraries, universities, and museums; he also preached summoning the Mongols (later on he took fright at the Mongols). All the phenomena of contemporary reality were divided by him into two categories; the symptoms of an already obsolete culture and the signs of a healthy barbarism, compelled for the moment to hide under a mask of refinement (the phenomenon of Nietzsche and Ibsen) and under this mask to infect the heart with a chaos that was already secretly crying out in people’s souls.

Aleksandr Ivanovich invited them to remove their masks and openly exist with chaos.

He recalled that he had preached this that day in the Helsingfors coffee house; and when someone asked him how he would view Satanism, he had replied:

‘Christianity is obsolete: in Satanism there is a crude fetish worship, that is, a healthy barbarism …’

And that day – he remembered – by his side, at a table, Shishnarfne had sat, never taking his eyes off him.

The preaching of barbarism had ended in an unexpected fashion (in Helsingfors, that same day): had ended in a complete nightmare; Aleksandr Ivanovich had seen (half in a dream, half in a state of falling asleep) himself being whirled through what might most simply be called interplanetary space (but which was not that): whirled in order to perform an act that was quite commonplace there, but was from our point of view none the less infamous; this had indubitably been in a dream (between ourselves – what is a dream?), but a hideous dream that had had its effect in bringing the preaching to an end; the unpleasant thing about it all was that Aleksandr Ivanych could not remember whether he had performed the act or not; Aleksandr Ivanych subsequently considered this dream to have been the beginning of his illness, but – even so: he did not like to remember it.

This was the reason why back then he had begun to read the Book of Revelation on the sly.

And now, here on the staircase, the mention of Helsingfors had a dreadful effect. Helsingfors rose before him. He found himself thinking:

‘That is why I have been hearing over and again these past few weeks, without any meaning: “Hel-sin-fors, Hel-sin-fors …” ’

And Shishnarfne continued:

‘Do you remember?’

The matter had taken a repulsive turn: he must rush into flight immediately – up the stone flights of stairs; he must take advantage of the darkness; otherwise a phosphorescent light would cast whitish blotches through the windows. But Aleksandr Ivanovich lingered in the most total horror; for some reason he had been shocked by his commonplace visitor’s surname:

‘Shishnarfne, Shishnarfne … I know it from somewhere …’

And Shishnarfne continued:

‘So will you permit me to come in? … I must confess I have grown tired, waiting for you … I hope you will excuse me this midnight visit of mine …’

And in a fit of involuntary terror, Aleksandr Ivanovich shrieked out:

‘You are welcome …’

But thought:

‘Styopka there will get me out of it.’

Aleksandr Ivanovich ran up the staircase. After him ran Shishnarfne; the infinite series of steps did not seem to be taking them to the fifth floor: the end of the staircase was not in sight; and it was impossible to run back down again: at his shoulders ran Shishnarfne, while before him from his little room came a stream of light.

Aleksandr Ivanovich thought:

‘How could Styopka have dropped in to see me: after all, I have the key on me, don’t I?’

But, feeling about in his pocket, he realized that the key was not there: instead of the door key he had the key to his old suitcase.