By Andrei Bely, John Elsworth
Steerforth Press Copyright © 2009 Pushkin Press
All rights reserved.
In which is told of a certain worthy person, his cerebral play and ephemerality of being.
Once there was a dreadful time.
The memory of it is not stale.
It is of this, my friends, that I
Will now commence for you my tale —
A sad one will my story be.
Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov
Apollon Apollonovich ableukhov was of exceedingly venerable stock: he had Adam for his ancestor. And that is not the main thing: incomparably more important here is the fact that a high-born ancestor of his was Shem, that is to say, the very progenitor of the Semitic, Hessitic and red-skinned peoples.
Here we shall make a transition to ancestors of less distant times.
These ancestors (so it appears) had their dwelling in the Kirgiz-Kaisak Horde, from where, in the reign of Empress Anna Ioannovna, Mirza Ab-Lai, the senator's great-great-grandfather, valiantly entered the service of Russia, receiving at his baptism the Christian name Andrei and the sobriquet Ukhov. Thus the Armorial of the Russian Empire discourses upon this descendant scion of the Mongol race. For the sake of brevity Ablai-Ukhov was later turned into simply Ableukhov.
This great-great-grandfather, it is said, proved to be the source of the line.
A grey, gold-braided servant was dusting the writing desk with a feather duster; a cook's cap peeped in at the open door.
"The master's up, you know ..."
"He's rubbing himself with eau de cologne, soon be down for coffee ..."
"The postman this morning said there was a letter for the master — from Spain: with a Spanish stamp on."
"Let me tell you something: you shouldn't be sticking your nose into letters so much ..."
"I suppose Anna Petrovna ..."
"You suppose, do you ..."
"I was just saying ... What's it to do with me ..."
The cook's head suddenly vanished. Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov strode through into the study.
A pencil lying on the desk seized Apollon Apollonovich's attention. Apollon Apollonovich conceived the intention of giving the pencil's point acuteness of form. Swiftly he walked up to the desk and grasped ... a paperweight, which he twisted around in deep thought for a long time, before realizing that in his hands was a paperweight, and not a pencil.
His absent-mindedness arose from the fact that at that moment he had been struck by a profound idea; and at once, at this inopportune time, it extended into a far-reaching train of thought (Apollon Apollonovich was hurrying to the Establishment). His Diary, which was to appear in the periodical press in the year of his death, became longer by a page.
Apollon Apollonovich quickly wrote down his extended train of thought: once it was written down, he thought: "It's time to go to the office." And he passed through into the dining room to take his coffee.
Before doing so he set about interrogating his old valet with a certain unpleasant persistence:
"Is Nikolai Apollonovich up yet?"
"No, indeed, sir: he hasn't got up yet ..."
Apollon Apollonovich rubbed the bridge of his nose in displeasure:
"Hmm ... tell me: when does — tell me — Nikolai Apollonovich, as it were ..."
"He gets up quite late, sir ..."
"Well, how late?"
And at once, without waiting for a reply, he strode through for his coffee, with a glance at his watch.
It was precisely half-past-nine.
At ten o'clock he, an old man, would leave for the Establishment. Nikolai Apollonovich, a young man, would rise from his bed — a couple of hours later. Every morning the senator inquired about the hour of his waking. And every morning he frowned.
Nikolai Apollonovich was the senator's son.
In short, he was the head of a certain Establishment
Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov had distinguished himself by acts of valour; more than one star had fallen on to his gold-embroidered breast; the stars of Stanislav and Anna: even the White Eagle.
The ribbon he wore was a blue ribbon.
And recently from a red lacquered box the rays of bejewelled insignia had come to gleam on this receptacle of patriotic feelings, that is to say, the insignia of the Order of Alexander Nevskii.
What then was the social station of this person who has arisen from non-existence?
I think that is a somewhat unseemly question: the whole of Russia knew Ableukhov from the exquisite prolixity of the speeches he uttered; these speeches glittered without exploding and soundlessly spread poisons over the opposing party, as a result of which that party's proposal was rejected in the appropriate place. Since Ableukhov had been installed in that responsible post the ninth department had been inactive. Apollon Apollonovich had conducted relentless hostilities with that department by means of papers and, where necessary, of speeches, facilitating the import into Russia of American reaping-machines (the ninth department was not in favour of their import). The senator's speeches flew round all the regions and provinces, some of which in spatial terms yield nothing to Germany.
Apollon Apollonovich was the head of an Establishment: you know ... that one ... what's it called?
In short, he was head of an Establishment with which you are certainly familiar.
If one were to compare the emaciated, utterly unimpressive figure of my venerable statesman with the immeasurable immensity of the mechanisms he directed, one might well surrender to a long bout of naive wonderment; but then — absolutely everyone did wonder at the explosion of mental forces that issued from this cranium in defiance of the whole of Russia, in defiance of the majority of departments, with the exception of one: but it was nearly two years now since the head of that department had by the will of fate fallen silent beneath his tombstone.
My senator had just reached the age of sixty-eight; and his face was redolent in its pallor both of a grey paperweight (in solemn moments) — and of papier-mache (in leisure hours); the senator's stony eyes, surrounded by a green-black cavity, seemed in moments of fatigue to be yet bluer and more huge.
On our own account we will add: Apollon Apollonovich was not in the least discomposed by the contemplation of his own ears, completely green, magnified to immensity, on the bloody background of a burning Russia. That was how he had recently been depicted: on the title page of a humorous little gutter-rag, one of those yid magazines, whose blood-red covers in those days were multiplying with astounding speed on the city Prospects that teemed with folk.
In the oak-panelled dining room the wheezing of a clock could be heard; with a bow and a hiss a little grey cuckoo cuckooed; at that signal from the antique cuckoo Apollon Apollonovich took his seat before his porcelain cup and broke off warm crusts of white bread. And at his coffee Apollon Apollonovich recalled his past years; and at his coffee he would — even, even — make jokes:
"Who, Semyonych, do people defer to most?"
"I presume, Apollon Apollonovich, that people defer most of all to an Actual Privy Councillor."
Apollon Apollonovich smiled with his lips only.
"You presume wrongly: people defer most of all to a chimneysweep ..."
The valet already knew how the joke ended: but out of deference he kept quiet about it.
"Why, if I may be so bold as to ask, sir, does a chimney-sweep enjoy such honour?"
"People stand aside, Semyonych, for an Actual Privy Councillor ..."
"I presume so, your Excellency ..."
"But a chimney-sweep ... Even an Actual Privy Councillor will stand aside for him, because: the chimney-sweep will dirty him."
"So that's how it is, sir," the valet interposed deferentially ...
"That's it: only there is one profession people defer to even more ..."
And he immediately added:
"A lavatory attendant ..."
"A chimney-sweep will stand aside for him, not only an Actual Privy Councillor ..."
And — a sip of coffee. But let us note: Apollon Apollonovich was himself an Actual Privy Councillor.
"There was another thing, Apollon Apollonovich, sir: Anna Petrovna used to say to me ..."
But at the words "Anna Petrovna" the grey-haired valet stopped short.
"The grey coat, sir?"
"The grey coat ..."
"The grey gloves, too, sir, I presume?"
"No, I'll have the suede gloves ..."
"If you would be so good as to wait a moment, your Excellency; the gloves are in the chiffonier: shelf B — North-East."
Only once had Apollon Apollonovich entered into the trivia of life: one day he had conducted a review of his inventory; his inventory had been sequentially catalogued and a nomenclature established for all the shelves, large and small; shelves had appeared by letter: A, B, C; and the four sides of the shelves had assumed the designation of the four points of the compass.
When he put his spectacles away, Apollon Apollonovich would note in his register in fine, minute handwriting: spectacles, shelf B and NE, that is to say, North-East: a copy of the register was also received by the valet, who memorised the compass-bearings of the appurtenances of the inestimable toilet; sometimes during insomnia he would recite these compass-bearings unerringly by heart.
In the lacquered house the storms of life took their course quietly; nevertheless the storms of life here took their course calamitously: they did not thunder with events; they did not shine a cleansing light into the inhabitants' hearts with arrows of lightning; but from a hoarse throat they wrung the air in a torrent of poisonous fluids; and in the consciousness of the inhabitants cerebral games swirled round, like dense gases in hermetically sealed jars.
Grocer, grow, sir
A cold long-legged bronze sculpture rose up from the table: the lampshade did not gleam with its delicate decoration of a purple-pink hue: the nineteenth century had lost the secret of that colour; the glass had darkened with time; the delicate decoration had darkened with time too.
On all sides the gold pier glasses between the windows swallowed the drawing room into the green-hued surfaces of their mirrors; there one was crowned by the wing of a golden-cheeked cupid; and over there the laurels and roses of a golden wreath were pierced by the heavy flames of torches. On all sides there glittered mother-of-pearl encrusted tables between the pier glasses.
Apollon Apollonovich quickly threw open the door, resting his hand on the cut-glass doorknob; his footsteps resounded on the gleaming blocks of the parquet floor; on all sides clustered a profusion of porcelain knick-knacks; they had brought these knick-knacks back from Venice, Anna Petrovna and he, thirty years ago. Memories of a misty lagoon, a gondola and an aria, sobbing in the distance, flashed inopportunely through the senator's head ...
He immediately turned his gaze to the piano.
From its polished, yellow lid the leaves of bronze incrustations gleamed forth; and again (importunate memory!) Apollon Apollonovich remembered: a white Petersburg night; through the windows the wide river running; and the moon standing there; and a Chopin roulade pealing out: he remembered — it was Chopin that Anna Petrovna used to play, not Schumann.
The leaves of incrustations gleamed forth — mother-of-pearl and bronze — on little boxes, and little shelves protruding from the walls. Apollon Apollonovich settled himself in an Empire armchair, on the pale-blue satin seat of which little wreaths were entwined, and from a Chinese tray he grasped with his hand a sheaf of unopened letters: his bald head bent towards the envelopes. While waiting for the servant with his invariable "The horses are ready", he immersed himself here, before leaving for his office, in reading the morning's mail.
He did just the same today.
And the envelopes were torn open: envelope after envelope; an ordinary one, bought at the post office — the stamp stuck on crooked, indecipherable handwriting.
"Hmm ... Yes, yes, yes: very well ..."
And the envelope was carefully secreted.
"Hmm ... A petition ..."
"One petition after another ..."
The envelopes were torn open carelessly; that one — in due course, later: some time .
An envelope made of heavyweight grey paper — sealed, with a coat of arms, without a stamp and with an imprint on the sealing wax.
"Hmm ... Count W ... What is this? ... Asking me to receive him in the Establishment ... On a personal matter ..."
"Hmm ... Aha! ..."
Count W, the head of the ninth department, was an opponent of the senator's and an enemy of farmstead husbandry.
Then ... A miniature, pale pink envelope; the senator's hand faltered; he recognised this handwriting — it was Anna Petrovna's; he examined the Spanish stamp, but did not open the envelope:
"Hmm ... money ..."
"The money's been sent, hasn't it?"
"The money will be sent!! ..."
"Hmm ... make a note ..."
Apollon Apollonovich, thinking he had taken hold of a pencil, pulled out of his waistcoat an ivory nail brush and made to jot down with it "Return to sender", when ...
"They're ready, sir ..."
Apollon Apollonovich raised his bald head and walked out of the room.
On the walls hung pictures, shimmering with the lustre of oils: only with difficulty was it possible to make out through the lustre French women reminiscent of Greek women, in the close-fitting tunics of the distant time of the Directoire and with towering coiffures.
Above the piano hung a reduced copy of David's picture The Distribution of the Eagle Standards. The picture depicted the great Emperor in a wreath and a robe of purple and ermine; the Emperor Napoleon was stretching out his hand to a plumed gathering of marshals; his other hand was clutching a metal staff; on the top of the staff was perched a heavy eagle.
The drawing room's magnificence was cold on account of the total absence of rugs: the parquet gleamed; if the sun lit it up for a moment, you would screw up your eyes willy-nilly. The drawing room's hospitality was cold.
But senator Ableukhov made a principle of it.
Its imprint was felt: in the owner, in the statues, in the servants, even in the dark stripy bulldog that lived somewhere near the kitchen; in this house everyone felt ill at ease, yielding to the parquet, the pictures and the statues, smiling in embarrassment and swallowing their words: bowing obsequiously, rushing to meet one another — on this echoing parquet; cracking their cold fingers in an access of fruitless obsequiousness.
Since Anna Petrovna's departure: the drawing room was silent, the piano lid was lowered: roulades pealed out no more.
Yes — concerning Anna Petrovna, or (to put it more simply) concerning the letter from Spain: hardly had Apollon Apollonovich gone striding past, when two boisterous servant-boys began to chatter briskly.
"He didn't read the letter ..."
"Well he wouldn't, would he ..."
"Will he send it back?"
"Looks like it ..."
"What a heart of stone, may the Lord forgive me ..."
"You'd better be more mindful of the proper way to talk, I can tell you."
As Apollon Apollonovich went down into the entrance-hall, his grey-haired valet, also on the way down to the entrance-hall, glanced from below at the venerable ears and clutched in his hand his snuffbox, a present from the minister.
Apollon Apollonovich stopped on the staircase, trying to find a word:
"Hmm ... Listen ..."
Apollon Apollonovich searched for a suitable word:
"What in general — yes — does he ... does he ... do with himself ..."
"Nothing in particular, Apollon Apollonovich, he's well ..."
"The same as ever: he chooses to lock himself in and read books."
"Then he walks around his rooms, sir ..."
"Walks — yes, yes ... And? ... And? How?"
"He walks ... In his dressing gown!"
"Reading, walking ... I see ... What else?"
"Yesterday he was expecting a visit from ..."
"A visit from whom?"
"From a costumier ..."
"What costumier might that be?"
"Just a costumier, sir ..."
"Hm-hm ... Whatever for?"
"I presume he's going to a ball ...
"Aha — I see: going to a ball ..."
Apollon Apollonovich rubbed the bridge of his nose: his face lit up with a smile and suddenly became an old man's:
"Are you from the country?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Petersburg by Andrei Bely, John Elsworth. Copyright © 2009 Pushkin Press. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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