Petersburg The Street

The street!

How it has changed: how it, too, has been changed by these grim days!

Over there – those cast-iron bars of the fence of some little garden; the crimson leaves of the maples beat into the wind there, striking against the bars; but the crimson leaves have already blown away; and only the branches – dry skeletons – have stood out black there, grinding together.

It was September: the sky was light blue and cloudless; but now all that has changed: ever since morning, the sky has begun to fill with a flood of heavy tin: September is no more.

They were flying along the street.

‘But wait, Nikolai Apollonovich,’ the excited and greatly offended Dudkin kept on, ‘you must agree that we can’t possibly part now until we’ve had an explanation …’

‘There’s nothing more to talk about,’ Nikolai Apollonovich snapped curtly from under his dashingly cocked hat.

‘Explain yourself more clearly,’ Aleksandr Ivanovich insisted in his turn.

Offence and anxious astonishment were displayed on his twitching features; the astonishment was, we shall say for our own part, on this occasion unfeigned, so unfeigned, indeed, that Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov could not but notice its unfeigned quality in spite of the distraction of his wrath.

He turned round and without his previous vehemence, but with a kind of tearful malice, began impetuously to jabber:

‘No, no, no! … What more do we have to explain? … And do not dare to argue with me … I myself have a right to demand greater accountability … After all, it is I who am suffering, not you, not your comrade …’

‘What? … But what do you mean?’

‘To give me the bundle …’

‘Well?’

‘Without any warning, explanation or request …’ Aleksandr Ivanovich flushed deeply all over.

‘And then to disappear into thin air … To threaten me with the police through some middleman …’

At this undeserved accusation, Aleksandr Ivanovich nervously twitched towards Ableukhov:

‘Stop: what police?’

‘Yes, the police …’

‘What police do you mean? … What abomination is this? … Which one of us is crazy?’

But Nikolai Apollonovich, whose tearful malice had again mounted into fury, whispered hoarsely in his ear:

‘Oh, what I’d like to do to you,’ his hoarse cry sounded (his mouth with its bared teeth seemed to smile: biting, it hurled itself at Aleksandr Ivanovich’s ear) … ‘What I’d like to do to you is to … this very moment – in this very place: what I’d like to do to you is to … in broad daylight as an example to this public here, Aleksandr Ivanovich, my dearest fellow …’ (he grew confused) …

Over there, there …

In that carved little window of that glossy little house on a summer evening into the sunset that same wretched little old woman kept chewing her lips (‘What I’d like to do to you is to …’ came drifting across to Aleksandr Ivanovich from somewhere far away); from August the little window had been closed and the old woman had disappeared; in September a brocade coffin had been carried outside; behind the coffin went a little group: a gentleman in a worn coat and a peaked cap with a cockade; with him – seven fair-haired little boys.

The coffin was nailed up.

(‘Yes, sir, Aleksandr Ivanovich, yes, sir,’ came drifting across to Aleksandr Ivanovich from somewhere).

After that, peaked caps went darting into the house, and feet went shuffling up and down the staircase; it was said that behind those walls missiles were being manufactured; Aleksandr Ivanovich knew that the missile in question had been brought first to him in his garret – from that little house.

And at this he gave an involuntary shudder.

How strange: rudely returned to reality (he was a strange man: he thought about the little house at the very same time as Nikolai Apollonovich was hurling his phrases at him …) – well, it was like this: of the delirious ravings of the senator’s dear son about the police, and about his decisive, irreversible refusal, Aleksandr Ivanovich understood only one thing:

‘Listen,’ he said. ‘The little that I understand about what you are saying is – is just this: the whole question is in the little bundle …’

‘I’m talking about it, of course: you gave it to me with your own hands for safe keeping.’

‘It’s strange …’

It was strange: the conversation was taking place outside that very same little house where the bomb had come from: while the bomb, becoming a mental bomb, was describing a true circle, so that this talk about the bomb had arisen in the place where the bomb had arisen.

‘But please be more calm, Nikolai Apollonovich: I must confess I find your agitation incomprehensible … Here you are, insulting me: what is it that you consider so blameworthy in that action of mine?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, what’s so ignoble about the Party’ – these words he pronounced in a whisper – ‘having asked you keep the bundle until the time? When you yourself agreed to it? And – that’s all there is to it … So that if you find it disagreeable to look after the little bundle at your place, it won’t cost me anything to pop in and collect it …’

‘Oh, please drop that look of innocence; if it were only a matter of the bundle …’

‘Shh! Quiet: someone might hear us …’

‘If it were only the bundle, then … I would understand you … But that isn’t the point; don’t pretend you don’t know anything about it …’

‘Then what is the point?’

‘The coercion.’

‘There’s been no coercion …’

‘That you’re subjecting me to an investigation by the organization …’

‘I repeat, there’s been no coercion: you willingly agreed; and as for the investigation, then I …’

‘Yes, that was then – in the summer …’

‘What do you mean, in the summer?’

‘In principle I agreed, or, more correctly, offered, and … perhaps … I did give a promise, supposing that there could be no compulsion here, just as there is no compulsion in the Party; but if you do use compulsion, then you are quite simply a little bunch of suspect intriguers … Well, so what, then? … I gave a promise, but I never thought that my promise could not be retracted …’

‘Wait …’

‘Don’t interrupt me; I didn’t know that they would interpret my offer in that way: that they would twist it like that … And would propose that I do that …’

‘No, wait: I’m going to interrupt you all the same … You’re talking about some promise? Please be more precise …’

At this point Aleksandr Ivanovich dimly remembered something (my goodness, how he had forgotten it all!)

‘Yes, so it’s that promise you mean? …’

He remembered how one day in the little eating-house the person had told him (the thought of this person made him experience an unpleasant something-or-the-other) – the person, Nikolai Stepanych Lippanchenko, in other words – well, so there it was: had told him that Nikolai Apollonovich – fie! … He did not want to remember! … and he quickly added:

‘No, you see, I’m not talking about that, that’s not the point.’

‘How do you mean, not the point? The whole nub of the matter lies in my promise: in a promise that was interpreted irreversibly and ignobly.’

‘Quiet, quiet, Nikolai Apollonovich, what in your opinion is ignoble here? Where is the ignoble action?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Yes, yes, yes: where? The Party asked you to look after the bundle … That is all …’

‘That’s all, in your opinion?’

‘Yes …’

‘If it were a matter of the bundle, then I would understand you: but I’m sorry …’ And he waved his arm.

‘There’s no point in us talking: don’t you see that the whole of our conversation keeps treading around the same old subject: we’re on a hiding to nothing, that’s all …’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed … Yet all the same: you keep on talking about some coercion or other, and now I’ve just remembered: I did hear rumours – back then, in the summer …’

‘Well?’

‘Rumours about an act of violence that you had proposed to us: and so it appears that this plan originated not with us, but with you!’

Aleksandr Ivanovich remembered (the person had told him everything that day in the little eating-house as he poured the liqueur): Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov had at that time proposed to them through some middleman that he do away with his father with his own hands; he remembered that the person had spoken that day with repugnant calm, adding, however, that the Party had one option left: to refuse the offer; the plan’s unusual nature, the unnatural aspect of the choice of victim and the touch of cynicism, bordering on infamy – all this provoked in Aleksandr Ivanovich’s sensitive heart an attack of violent loathing (Aleksandr Ivanovich had been drunk at the time; and so his entire conversation with Lippanchenko seemed later on like the mere play of an intoxicated brain, and not a sober reality); all this he remembered now:

‘And I must confess …’

‘To demand of me,’ Ableukhov interrupted, ‘that I … that I should … with my own hands …’

‘Just so …’

‘It is loathsome!’

‘Yes – it’s loathsome; and, so to speak, Nikolai Apollonovich, I never believed it at the time … If I had believed it, you would have fallen then … in the esteem of the Party …’

‘So you too consider it a vile thing?’

‘I’m sorry: yes I do …’

‘There you are, you see! You yourself call it a vile thing; and yet you yourself must have put your hand to that vile thing?’

Something suddenly began to make Dudkin grow agitated: his most delicate neck twitched:

‘Wait …’

And, clutching with a trembling hand at the buttons of the Italian cloak, he fairly drilled his eyes into some point that lay elsewhere:

‘Don’t get carried away: here we are reproaching each other, yet we both agree …’ – with astonishment he transferred his eyes to Ableukhov’s eyes – ‘on the right name for this action … It is a vile thing, is it not?’

Nikolai Apollonovich gave a shudder.

They were silent for a moment …

‘You see, we both agree …’

Nikolai Apollonovich, taking his handkerchief from his pocket, stopped and wiped his face.

‘That surprises me …’

‘And me …’

In bewilderment they looked each other in the eye. Aleksandr Ivanovich (he had now forgotten that he was shaken by fever) again stretched out his hand and touched a finger on the edge of the Italian cloak:

‘In order to untie the whole of this knot, answer me this: this promise to … with your own hands (and so on) … This promise did not originate with you? …’

‘No! No!’

‘And so that means that you are not implicated in such a murder, not even in thought – I ask because the thought is sometimes expressed by chance in unconscious gestures, intonations, looks – even: in the trembling of lips …’

‘No, no … that is …’ Nikolai Apollonovich caught himself, caught himself up right there and then for catching himself out loud in the expression of some suspicious train of thought he had had; and, having caught himself up out loud, blushed; and – began to explain:

‘That is, I have not loved my father … And I think I said so several times … But would I ever …? Never?’

‘Very well, I believe you.’

At this point Nikolai Apollonovich, as ill luck would have it, blushed to the roots of his hair; and, having blushed, began to try to explain himself again, but Aleksandr Ivanovich decisively shook his head, not wishing to touch on a small, delicate nuance of incommunicable thought that had flashed to them both at the same time.

‘Oh, don’t … I believe you … That’s not what I mean – I mean something else: look, I want you to tell me … Tell me now candidly: am I, perhaps, implicated?’

Nikolai Apollonovich looked at his na├»ve interlocutor with astonishment: looked, blushed, and with extreme passion, with a forced conviction that was necessary to him now in order to conceal some thought – he shouted:

‘Yes, I think you are … You helped him …’

‘Who?’

‘The Unknown One …’

‘?’

‘And it was the Unknown One who demanded …’

‘!’

‘The enaction of a vile deed …’

‘Where?’

‘In a revolting note he wrote …’

‘I know of no such person …’

‘The Unknown One,’ Nikolai Apollonovich insisted bewilderedly, ‘is a comrade of yours in the Party … Why are you so surprised? What surprises you so much?’

‘I do assure you: we don’t have any Unknown One in the Party …’

Now it was Nikolai Apollonovich’s turn to be surprised:

‘What? There isn’t any Unknown One in the Party? …’

‘But please be more quiet … No …’

‘I’ve been getting notes for three months now …’

‘Who from?’

‘Him …’

They both fell silent.

They had both begun to breathe heavily, and both fixed eyes on questioningly raised eyes; and to the degree that one bewilderedly lowered his head, in fear and horror, so did a shadow of faint hope gleam in the eyes of the other.

‘Nikolai Apollonovich’ – an infinite sense of indignation, which had overcome his fear, spread over Aleksandr Ivanovich’s pale cheekbones in two crimson spots – ‘Nikolai Apollonovich!’

‘Well?’ the other said, gripping his arm.

But Aleksandr Ivanovich was still unable to recover his breath; at last he raised his eyes, and – well, there it was: something melancholy, the kind of thing that happens in dreams – something inexpressible, something that could be understood by anyone with no need of words, now suddenly wafted from his forehead, from his stiffening fingers.

‘Well, well – stop tormenting me!’

But Aleksandr Ivanovich Dudkin, putting a finger to his lips, continued to shake his head and say nothing: something inexpressible, but able to be understood in dreams, flowed invisibly from him – from his forehead, from his stiffening fingers.

At last with effort he said:

‘I assure you – I give you my word of honour: I have nothing to do with this murky episode …’

At first Nikolai Apollonovich did not believe him.

‘What did you say? Say it again now, don’t be silent: you must understand my position …’

‘I have nothing to do with it …’

‘Well, and so what does that mean?’

‘I don’t know …’ And he added abruptly: ‘No, no, no: it’s a lie, it’s a delirium, an abracadabra, a gibe …’

‘How would I know? …’

Nikolai Apollonovich looked at Aleksandr Ivanovich with unseeing eyes; and then into the depths of the street: how the street had changed!

‘How would I know? … That doesn’t make me feel any better … I didn’t sleep last night.’

The top of a carriage rushed swiftly into the depths of the street: how the street had changed – how these grim days had changed it!

The wind from the shore blew in gusts: the last leaves were scattered; there would be no more leaves until May; how many would there be in May? These fallen leaves were indeed the last leaves. Aleksandr Ivanovich knew it all by heart: there would be, there would be days full of blood and horror: and then everything would collapse; oh, whirl, oh, blow, last days that cannot be compared with anything that went before!

Oh, whirl, oh blow through the air, you – last leaves! Again an idle thought …