Franz Kafka

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

"Lavandare" (Laundresses) by Giovanni Pascoli. English translation, with original Italian text. "Lavandare" (Laundresses) from the collection "Myricae" (1896)


Laundresses by a Stream, about 1885-90, Eugène Boudin

The following translation of "Lavandare" (Laundresses) by Giovanni Pascoli is from the book "The Poems of Giovanni Pascoli: Translated in English, with Original Italian Text," published by LiteraryJoint Press (2017). Also available as Amazon ebook (Free on Kindle Unlimited!)  and also on Kobo.

Laundresses 

 


In the field half black and half gray remains a plow without oxen that seems forgotten, in the steamy air.

As a cadence, from the irrigation ditch comes the washboard's swash of the laundresses with thick splashes and long lullabies:

The wind blows and the leaves fall like snow, and yet you have not returned to your home! since you departed, I have remained so!
like the plow amidst the fallow.





Lavandare



Nel campo mezzo grigio e mezzo nero resta un aratro senza buoi che pare dimenticato, tra il vapor leggero.

E cadenzato dalla gora viene
lo sciabordare delle lavandare
con tonfi spessi e lunghe cantilene:

Il vento soffia e nevica la frasca,
e tu non torni ancora al tuo paese! quando partisti, come son rimasta! come l’aratro in mezzo alla maggese.

From the collection “Myricae” (1891-1900)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

"Knock, Knock, Knock and Other Stories," by Ivan Turgenev (1871). Full text, translated in English by Constance Garnett

 
Portarait of Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev
 
Turning from side to side I stretched out my hands ... My finger hit 
one of the beams of the wall. It emitted a faint but resounding, and as 
it were, prolonged note ... I must have struck a hollow place.
I tapped again ... this time on purpose. The same sound was repeated. 
I knocked again ...' 
 
 
THE WATCH

AN OLD MAN'S STORY

I

I will tell you my adventures with a watch. It is a curious story.

It happened at the very beginning of this century, in 1801. I had just
reached my sixteenth year. I was living at Ryazan in a little wooden
house not far from the bank of the river Oka with my father, my aunt
and my cousin; my mother I do not remember; she died three years after
her marriage; my father had no other children. His name was Porfiry
Petrovitch. He was a quiet man, sickly and unattractive in appearance;
he was employed in some sort of legal and--other--business. In old
days such were called attorneys, sharpers, nettle-seeds; he called
himself a lawyer. Our domestic life was presided over by his sister,
my aunt, an old maiden lady of fifty; my father, too, had passed his
fourth decade. My aunt was very pious, or, to speak bluntly, she was a
canting hypocrite and a chattering magpie, who poked her nose into
everything; and, indeed, she had not a kind heart like my father. We
were not badly off, but had nothing to spare. My father had a brother
called Yegor; but he had been sent to Siberia in the year 1797 for
some "seditious acts and Jacobin tendencies" (those were the words of
the accusation).

Yegor's son David, my cousin, was left on my father's hands and lived
with us. He was only one year older than I; but I respected him and
obeyed him as though he were quite grown up. He was a sensible fellow
with character; in appearance, thick-set and broad-shouldered with a
square face covered with freckles, with red hair, small grey eyes,
thick lips, a short nose, and short fingers--a sturdy lad, in
fact--and strong for his age! My aunt could not endure him; my father
was positively afraid of him ... or perhaps he felt himself to blame
towards him. There was a rumour that, if my father had not given his
brother away, David's father would not have been sent to Siberia. We
were both at the high school and in the same class and both fairly
high up in it; I was, indeed, a little better at my lessons than
David. I had a good memory but boys--as we all know!--do not think
much of such superiority, and David remained my leader.

II

My name--you know--is Alexey. I was born on the seventh of March and
my name-day is the seventeenth. In accordance with the old-fashioned
custom, I was given the name of the saint whose festival fell on the
tenth day after my birth. My godfather was a certain Anastasy
Anastasyevitch Putchkov, or more exactly Nastasey Nastasyeitch, for
that was what everyone called him. He was a terribly shifty,
pettifogging knave and bribe-taker--a thoroughly bad man; he had been
turned out of the provincial treasury and had had to stand his trial
on more than one occasion; he was often of use to my father.... They
used to "do business" together. In appearance he was a round, podgy
figure; and his face was like a fox's with a nose like an owl's. His
eyes were brown, bright, also like a fox's, and he was always moving
them, those eyes, to right and to left, and he twitched his nose, too,
as though he were sniffing the air. He wore shoes without heels, and
wore powder every day, which was looked upon as very exceptional in
the provinces. He used to declare that he could not go without powder
as he had to associate with generals and their ladies. Well, my
name-day had come. Nastasey Nastasyeitch came to the house and said:

"I have never made you a present up to now, godson, but to make up for
that, look what a fine thing I have brought you to-day."

And he took out of his pocket a silver watch, a regular turnip, with a
rose tree engraved on the face and a brass chain. I was overwhelmed
with delight, while my aunt, Pelageya Petrovna, shouted at the top of
her voice:

"Kiss his hand, kiss his hand, dirty brat!"

I proceeded to kiss my godfather's hand, while my aunt went piping on:

"Oh, Nastasey Nastasyeitch! Why do you spoil him like this? How can he
take care of a watch? He will be sure to drop it, break it, or spoil
it."

My father walked in, looked at the watch, thanked Nastasey
Nastasyeitch--somewhat carelessly, and invited him to his study. And I
heard my father say, as though to himself:

"If you think to get off _with that_, my man...." But I could not
stay still. I put on the watch and rushed headlong to show my present
to David.

III

David took the watch, opened it and examined it attentively. He had
great mechanical ability; he liked having to do with iron, copper, and
metals of all sorts; he had provided himself with various instruments,
and it was nothing for him to mend or even to make a screw, a key or
anything of that kind.

David turned the watch about in his hands and muttering through his
teeth (he was not talkative as a rule):

"Oh ... poor ..." added, "where did you get it?"

I told him that my godfather had given it me.

David turned his little grey eyes upon me:

"Nastasey?"

"Yes, Nastasey Nastasyeitch."

David laid the watch on the table and walked away without a word.

"Do you like it?" I asked.

"Well, it isn't that.... But if I were you, I would not take any sort
of present from Nastasey."

"Why?"

"Because he is a contemptible person; and you ought not to be under an
obligation to a contemptible person. And to say thank you to him, too.
I suppose you kissed his hand?"

"Yes, Aunt made me."

David grinned--a peculiar grin--to himself. That was his way. He never
laughed aloud; he considered laughter a sign of feebleness.

David's words, his silent grin, wounded me deeply. "So he inwardly
despises me," I thought. "So I, too, am contemptible in his eyes. He
would never have stooped to this himself! He would not have accepted
presents from Nastasey. But what am I to do now?"

Give back the watch? Impossible!

I did try to talk to David, to ask his advice. He told me that he
never gave advice to anyone and that I had better do as I thought
best. As I thought best!! I remember I did not sleep all night
afterwards: I was in agonies of indecision. I was sorry to lose the
watch--I had laid it on the little table beside my bed; its ticking
was so pleasant and amusing ... but to feel that David despised me
(yes, it was useless to deceive myself, he did despise me) ... that
seemed to me unbearable. Towards morning a determination had taken
shape in me ... I wept, it is true--but I fell asleep upon it, and as
soon as I woke up, I dressed in haste and ran out into the street. I
had made up my mind to give my watch to the first poor person I met.

IV

I had not run far from home when I hit upon what I was looking for. I
came across a barelegged boy of ten, a ragged urchin, who was often
hanging about near our house. I dashed up to him at once and, without
giving him or myself time to recover, offered him my watch.

The boy stared at me round-eyed, put one hand before his mouth, as
though he were afraid of being scalded--and held out the other.

"Take it, take it," I muttered, "it's mine, I give it you, you can
sell it, and buy yourself ... something you want.... Good-bye."

I thrust the watch into his hand--and went home at a gallop. Stopping
for a moment at the door of our common bedroom to recover my breath, I
went up to David who had just finished dressing and was combing his
hair.

"Do you know what, David?" I said in as unconcerned a tone as I could,
"I have given away Nastasey's watch."

David looked at me and passed the brush over his temples.

"Yes," I added in the same businesslike voice, "I have given it away.
There is a very poor boy, a beggar, you know, so I have given it to
him."

David put down the brush on the washing-stand.

"He can buy something useful," I went on, "with the money he can get
for it. Anyway, he will get something for it."

I paused.

"Well," David said at last, "that's a good thing," and he went off to
the schoolroom. I followed him.

"And if they ask you what you have done with it?" he said, turning to
me.

"I shall tell them I've lost it," I answered carelessly.

No more was said about the watch between us that day; but I had the
feeling that David not only approved of what I had done but ... was to
some extent surprised by it. He really was!

V

Two days more passed. It happened that no one in the house thought of
the watch. My father was taken up with a very serious unpleasantness
with one of his clients; he had no attention to spare for me or my
watch. I, on the other hand, thought of it without ceasing! Even the
approval ... the presumed approval of David did not quite comfort me.
He did not show it in any special way: the only thing he said, and
that casually, was that he hadn't expected such recklessness of me.
Certainly I was a loser by my sacrifice: it was not counter-balanced
by the gratification afforded me by my vanity.

And what is more, as ill-luck would have it, another schoolfellow of
ours, the son of the town doctor, must needs turn up and begin
boasting of a new watch, a present from his grandmother, and not even
a silver, but a pinch-back one....

I could not bear it, at last, and, without a word to anyone, slipped
out of the house and proceeded to hunt for the beggar boy to whom I
had given my watch.

I soon found him; he was playing knucklebones in the churchyard with
some other boys.

I called him aside--and, breathless and stammering, told him that my
family were angry with me for having given away the watch--and that if
he would consent to give it back to me I would gladly pay him for
it.... To be ready for any emergency, I had brought with me an
old-fashioned rouble of the reign of Elizabeth, which represented the
whole of my fortune.

"But I haven't got it, your watch," answered the boy in an angry and
tearful voice; "my father saw it and took it away from me; and he was
for thrashing me, too. 'You must have stolen it from somewhere,' he
said. 'What fool is going to make you a present of a watch?'"

"And who is your father?"

"My father? Trofimitch."

"But what is he? What's his trade?"

"He is an old soldier, a sergeant. And he has no trade at all. He
mends old shoes, he re-soles them. That's all his trade. That's what
he lives by."

"Where do you live? Take me to him."

"To be sure I will. You tell my father that you gave me the watch. For
he keeps pitching into me, and calling me a thief! And my mother, too.
'Who is it you are taking after,' she says, 'to be a thief?'"

I set off with the boy to his home. They lived in a smoky hut in the
back-yard of a factory, which had long ago been burnt down and not
rebuilt. We found both Trofimitch and his wife at home. The discharged
sergeant was a tall old man, erect and sinewy, with yellowish grey
whiskers, an unshaven chin and a perfect network of wrinkles on his
cheeks and forehead. His wife looked older than he. Her red eyes,
which looked buried in her unhealthily puffy face, kept blinking
dejectedly. Some sort of dark rags hung about them by way of clothes.

I explained to Trofimitch what I wanted and why I had come. He
listened to me in silence without once winking or moving from me his
stupid and strained--typically soldierly--eyes.

"Whims and fancies!" he brought out at last in a husky, toothless
bass. "Is that the way gentlemen behave? And if Petka really did not
steal the watch--then I'll give him one for that! To teach him not to
play the fool with little gentlemen! And if he did steal it, then I
would give it to him in a very different style, whack, whack, whack!
With the flat of a sword; in horseguard's fashion! No need to think
twice about it! What's the meaning of it? Eh? Go for them with sabres!
Here's a nice business! Tfoo!"

This last interjection Trofimitch pronounced in a falsetto. He was
obviously perplexed.

"If you are willing to restore the watch to me," I explained to him--I
did not dare to address him familiarly in spite of his being a
soldier--"I will with pleasure pay you this rouble here. The watch is
not worth more, I imagine."

"Well!" growled Trofimitch, still amazed and, from old habit,
devouring me with his eyes as though I were his superior officer.
"It's a queer business, eh? Well, there it is, no understanding it.
Ulyana, hold your tongue!" he snapped out at his wife who was opening
her mouth. "Here's the watch," he added, opening the table drawer; "if
it really is yours, take it by all means; but what's the rouble for?
Eh?"

"Take the rouble, Trofimitch, you senseless man," wailed his wife. "You
have gone crazy in your old age! We have not a half-rouble between us,
and then you stand on your dignity! It was no good their cutting off
your pigtail, you are a regular old woman just the same! How can you
go on like that--when you know nothing about it? ... Take the money,
if you have a fancy to give back the watch!"

"Ulyana, hold your tongue, you dirty slut!" Trofimitch repeated.
"Whoever heard of such a thing, talking away? Eh? The husband is the
head; and yet she talks! Petka, don't budge, I'll kill you.... Here's
the watch!"

Trofimitch held out the watch to me, but did not let go of it.

He pondered, looked down, then fixed the same intent, stupid stare
upon me. Then all at once bawled at the top of his voice:

"Where is it? Where's your rouble?"

"Here it is, here it is," I responded hurriedly and I snatched the
coin out of my pocket.

But he did not take it, he still stared at me. I laid the rouble on
the table. He suddenly brushed it into the drawer, thrust the watch
into my hand and wheeling to the left with a loud stamp, he hissed at
his wife and his son:

"Get along, you low wretches!"

Ulyana muttered something, but I had already dashed out into the yard
and into the street. Thrusting the watch to the very bottom of my
pocket and clutching it tightly in my hand, I hurried home.

VI

I had regained the possession of my watch but it afforded me no
satisfaction whatever. I did not venture to wear it, it was above all
necessary to conceal from David what I had done. What would he think
of me, of my lack of will? I could not even lock up the luckless watch
in a drawer: we had all our drawers in common. I had to hide it,
sometimes on the top of the cupboard, sometimes under my mattress,
sometimes behind the stove.... And yet I did not succeed in
hoodwinking David.

One day I took the watch from under a plank in the floor of our room
and proceeded to rub the silver case with an old chamois leather
glove. David had gone off somewhere in the town; I did not at all
expect him to be back quickly.... Suddenly he was in the doorway.

I was so overcome that I almost dropped the watch, and, utterly
disconcerted, my face painfully flushing crimson, I fell to fumbling
about my waistcoat with it, unable to find my pocket.

David looked at me and, as usual, smiled without speaking.

"What's the matter?" he brought out at last. "You imagined I didn't
know you had your watch again? I saw it the very day you brought it
back."

"I assure you," I began, almost on the point of tears....

David shrugged his shoulders.

"The watch is yours, you are free to do what you like with it."

Saying these cruel words, he went out.

I was overwhelmed with despair. This time there could be no doubt!
David certainly despised me.

I could not leave it so.

"I will show him," I thought, clenching my teeth, and at once with a
firm step I went into the passage, found our page-boy, Yushka, and
presented him with the watch!

Yushka would have refused it, but I declared that if he did not take
the watch from me I would smash it that very minute, trample it under
foot, break it to bits and throw it in the cesspool! He thought a
moment, giggled, and took the watch. I went back to our room and
seeing David reading there, I told him what I had done.

David did not take his eyes off the page and, again shrugging his
shoulder and smiling to himself, repeated that the watch was mine and
that I was free to do what I liked with it.

But it seemed to me that he already despised me a little less.

I was fully persuaded that I should never again expose myself to the
reproach of weakness of character, for the watch, the disgusting
present from my disgusting godfather, had suddenly grown so
distasteful to me that I was quite incapable of understanding how I
could have regretted it, how I could have begged for it back from the
wretched Trofimitch, who had, moreover, the right to think that he had
treated me with generosity.

Several days passed.... I remember that on one of them the great news
reached our town that the Emperor Paul was dead and his son Alexandr,
of whose graciousness and humanity there were such favourable rumours,
had ascended the throne. This news excited David intensely: the
possibility of seeing--of shortly seeing--his father occurred to him
at once. My father was delighted, too.

"They will bring back all the exiles from Siberia now and I expect
brother Yegor will not be forgotten," he kept repeating, rubbing his
hands, coughing and, at the same time, seeming rather nervous.

David and I at once gave up working and going to the high school; we
did not even go for walks but sat in a corner counting and reckoning
in how many months, in how many weeks, in how many days "brother
Yegor" ought to come back and where to write to him and how to go to
meet him and in what way we should begin to live afterwards. "Brother
Yegor" was an architect: David and I decided that he ought to settle
in Moscow and there build big schools for poor people and we would go
to be his assistants. The watch, of course, we had completely
forgotten; besides, David had new cares.... Of them I will speak
later, but the watch was destined to remind us of its existence again.

VII

One morning we had only just finished lunch--I was sitting alone by
the window thinking of my uncle's release--outside there was the steam
and glitter of an April thaw--when all at once my aunt, Pelageya
Petrovna, walked into the room. She was at all times restless and
fidgetty, she spoke in a shrill voice and was always waving her arms
about; on this occasion she simply pounced on me.

"Go along, go to your father at once, sir!" she snapped out. "What
pranks have you been up to, you shameless boy! You will catch it, both
of you. Nastasey Nastasyeitch has shown up all your tricks! Go along,
your father wants you.... Go along this very minute."

Understanding nothing, I followed my aunt, and, as I crossed the
threshold of the drawing-room, I saw my father, striding up and down
and ruffling up his hair, Yushka in tears by the door and, sitting on
a chair in the corner, my godfather, Nastasey Nastasyeitch, with an
expression of peculiar malignancy in his distended nostrils and in his
fiery, slanting eyes.

My father swooped down upon me as soon as I walked in.

"Did you give your watch to Yushka? Tell me!"

I glanced at Yushka.

"Tell me," repeated my father, stamping.

"Yes," I answered, and immediately received a stinging slap in the
face, which afforded my aunt great satisfaction. I heard her gulp, as
though she had swallowed some hot tea. From me my father ran to
Yushka.

"And you, you rascal, ought not to have dared to accept such a
present," he said, pulling him by the hair: "and you sold it, too, you
good-for-nothing boy!"

Yushka, as I learned later had, in the simplicity of his heart, taken
my watch to a neighbouring watchmaker's. The watchmaker had displayed
it in his shop-window; Nastasey Nastasyeitch had seen it, as he passed
by, bought it and brought it along with him.

However, my ordeal and Yushka's did not last long: my father gasped
for breath, and coughed till he choked; indeed, it was not in his
character to be angry long.

"Brother, Porfiry Petrovitch," observed my aunt, as soon as she
noticed not without regret that my father's anger had, so to speak,
flickered out, "don't you worry yourself further: it's not worth
dirtying your hands over. I tell you what I suggest: with the consent
of our honoured friend, Nastasey Nastasyeitch, in consideration of the
base ingratitude of your son--I will take charge of the watch; and
since he has shown by his conduct that he is not worthy to wear it and
does not even understand its value, I will present it in your name to
a person who will be very sensible of your kindness."

"Whom do you mean?" asked my father.

"To Hrisanf Lukitch," my aunt articulated, with slight hesitation.

"To Hrisashka?" asked my father, and with a wave of his hand, he
added: "It's all one to me. You can throw it in the stove, if you
like."

He buttoned up his open vest and went out, writhing from his coughing.

"And you, my good friend, do you agree?" said my aunt, addressing
Nastasey Nastasyeitch.

"I am quite agreeable," responded the latter. During the whole
proceedings he had not stirred and only snorting stealthily and
stealthily rubbing the ends of his fingers, had fixed his foxy eyes by
turns on me, on my father, and on Yushka. We afforded him real
gratification!

My aunt's suggestion revolted me to the depths of my soul. It was not
that I regretted the watch; but the person to whom she proposed to
present it was absolutely hateful to me. This Hrisanf Lukitch (his
surname was Trankvillitatin), a stalwart, robust, lanky divinity
student, was in the habit of coming to our house--goodness knows what
for!--to help the _children_ with their lessons, my aunt asserted;
but he could not help us with our lessons because he had never
learnt anything himself and was as stupid as a horse. He was
rather like a horse altogether: he thudded with his feet as though
they had been hoofs, did not laugh but neighed, opening his jaws till
you could see right down his throat--and he had a long face, a hooked
nose and big, flat jaw-bones; he wore a shaggy frieze, full-skirted
coat, and smelt of raw meat. My aunt idolised him and called him a
good-looking man, a cavalier and even a grenadier. He had a habit of
tapping children on the forehead with the nails of his long fingers,
hard as stones (he used to do it to me when I was younger), and as he
tapped he would chuckle and say with surprise: "How your head
resounds, it must be empty." And this lout was to possess my
watch!--No, indeed, I determined in my own mind as I ran out of the
drawing-room and flung myself on my bed, while my cheek glowed crimson
from the slap I had received and my heart, too, was aglow with the
bitterness of the insult and the thirst for revenge--no, indeed! I
would not allow that cursed Hrisashka to jeer at me.... He would put
on the watch, let the chain hang over his stomach, would neigh with
delight; no, indeed!

"Quite so, but how was it to be done, how to prevent it?"

I determined to steal the watch from my aunt.

VIII

Luckily Trankvillitatin was away from the town at the time: he could
not come to us before the next day; I must take advantage of the
night! My aunt did not lock her bedroom door and, indeed, none of the
keys in the house would turn in the locks; but where would she put the
watch, where would she hide it? She kept it in her pocket till the
evening and even took it out and looked at it more than once; but at
night--where would it be at night?--Well, that was just my work to
find out, I thought, shaking my fists.

I was burning with boldness and terror and joy at the thought of the
approaching crime. I was continually nodding to myself; I knitted my
brows. I whispered: "Wait a bit!" I threatened someone, I was wicked,
I was dangerous ... and I avoided David!--no one, not even he, must
have the slightest suspicion of what I meant to do....

I would act alone and alone I would answer for it!

Slowly the day lagged by, then the evening, at last the night came. I
did nothing; I even tried not to move: one thought was stuck in my
head like a nail. At dinner my father, who was, as I have said,
naturally gentle, and who was a little ashamed of his harshness--boys
of sixteen are not slapped in the face--tried to be affectionate to
me; but I rejected his overtures, not from slowness to forgive, as he
imagined at the time, but simply that I was afraid of my feelings
getting the better of me; I wanted to preserve untouched all the heat
of my vengeance, all the hardness of unalterable determination. I went
to bed very early; but of course I did not sleep and did not even shut
my eyes, but on the contrary opened them wide, though I did pull the
quilt over my head. I did not consider beforehand how to act. I had no
plan of any kind; I only waited till everything should be quiet in the
house. I only took one step: I did not remove my stockings. My aunt's
room was on the second floor. One had to pass through the dining-room
and the hall, go up the stairs, pass along a little passage and
there ... on the right was the door! I must not on any account take
with me a candle or a lantern; in the corner of my aunt's room a little
lamp was always burning before the ikon shrine; I knew that. So I
should be able to see. I still lay with staring eyes and my mouth open
and parched; the blood was throbbing in my temples, in my ears, in my
throat, in my back, all over me! I waited ... but it seemed as though
some demon were mocking me; time passed and passed but still silence
did not reign.

IX

Never, I thought, had David been so late getting to sleep.... David,
the silent David, even began talking to me! Never had they gone on so
long banging, talking, walking about the house! And what could they be
talking about? I wondered; as though they had not had the whole day to
talk in! Sounds outside persisted, too; first a dog barked on a
shrill, obstinate note; then a drunken peasant was making an uproar
somewhere and would not be pacified; then gates kept creaking; then a
wretched cart on racketty wheels kept passing and passing and seeming
as though it would never pass! However, these sounds did not worry me:
on the contrary, I was glad of them; they seemed to distract my
attention. But now at last it seemed as though all were tranquil. Only
the pendulum of our old clock ticked gravely and drowsily in the
dining-room and there was an even drawn-out sound like the hard
breathing of people asleep. I was on the point of getting up, then
again something rustled ... then suddenly sighed, something soft fell
down ... and a whisper glided along the walls.

Or was there nothing of the sort--and was it only imagination mocking
me?

At last all was still. It was the very heart, the very dead of night.
The time had come! Chill with anticipation, I threw off the
bedclothes, let my feet down to the floor, stood up ... one step; a
second.... I stole along, my feet, heavy as though they did not belong
to me, trod feebly and uncertainly. Stay! what was that sound? Someone
sawing, somewhere, or scraping ... or sighing? I listened ... I felt my
cheeks twitching and cold watery tears came into my eyes. Nothing! ...
I stole on again. It was dark but I knew the way. All at once I
stumbled against a chair.... What a bang and how it hurt! It hit me
just on my leg.... I stood stock still. Well, did that wake them? Ah!
here goes! Suddenly I felt bold and even spiteful. On! On! Now the
dining-room was crossed, then the door was groped for and opened at
one swing. The cursed hinge squeaked, bother it! Then I went up the
stairs, one! two! one! two! A step creaked under my foot; I looked at
it spitefully, just as though I could see it. Then I stretched for the
handle of another door. This one made not the slightest sound! It flew
open so easily, as though to say, "Pray walk in." ... And now I was in
the corridor!

In the corridor there was a little window high up under the ceiling, a
faint light filtered in through the dark panes. And in that glimmer of
light I could see our little errand girl lying on the floor on a mat,
both arms behind her tousled head; she was sound asleep, breathing
rapidly and the fatal door was just behind her head. I stepped across
the mat, across the girl ... who opened that door? ... I don't know,
but there I was in my aunt's room. There was the little lamp in one
corner and the bed in the other and my aunt in her cap and night
jacket on the bed with her face towards me. She was asleep, she did
not stir, I could not even hear her breathing. The flame of the little
lamp softly flickered, stirred by the draught of fresh air, and
shadows stirred all over the room, even over the motionless wax-like
yellow face of my aunt....

And there was the watch! It was hanging on a little embroidered
cushion on the wall behind the bed. What luck, only think of it!
Nothing to delay me! But whose steps were those, soft and rapid behind
my back? Oh! no! it was my heart beating! ... I moved my legs
forward.... Good God! something round and rather large pushed against
me below my knee, once and again! I was ready to scream, I was ready
to drop with horror.... A striped cat, our own cat, was standing
before me arching his back and wagging his tail. Then he leapt on the
bed--softly and heavily--turned round and sat without purring, exactly
like a judge; he sat and looked at me with his golden pupils. "Puss,
puss," I whispered, hardly audibly. I bent across my aunt, I had
already snatched the watch. She suddenly sat up and opened her eyelids
wide.... Heavenly Father, what next? ... but her eyelids quivered and
closed and with a faint murmur her head sank on the pillow.

A minute later I was back again in my own room, in my own bed and the
watch was in my hands....

More lightly than a feather I flew back! I was a fine fellow, I was a
thief, I was a hero, I was gasping with delight, I was hot, I was
gleeful--I wanted to wake David at once to tell him all about it--and,
incredible as it sounds, I fell asleep and slept like the dead! At
last I opened my eyes.... It was light in the room, the sun had risen.
Luckily no one was awake yet. I jumped up as though I had been
scalded, woke David and told him all about it. He listened, smiled.
"Do you know what?" he said to me at last, "let's bury the silly watch
in the earth, so that it may never be seen again." I thought his idea
best of all. In a few minutes we were both dressed; we ran out into
the orchard behind our house and under an old apple tree in a deep
hole, hurriedly scooped out in the soft, springy earth with David's
big knife, my godfather's hated present was hidden forever, so that it
never got into the hands of the disgusting Trankvillitatin after all!
We stamped down the hole, strewed rubbish over it and, proud and
happy, unnoticed by anyone, went home again, got into our beds and
slept another hour or two--and such a light and blissful sleep!

X

You can imagine the uproar there was that morning, as soon as my aunt
woke up and missed the watch! Her piercing shriek is ringing in my
ears to this day. "Help! Robbed! Robbed!" she squealed, and alarmed
the whole household. She was furious, while David and I only smiled to
ourselves and sweet was our smile to us. "Everyone, everyone must be
well thrashed!" bawled my aunt. "The watch has been stolen from under
my head, from under my pillow!" We were prepared for anything, we
expected trouble.... But contrary to our expectations we did not get
into trouble at all. My father certainly did fume dreadfully at first,
he even talked of the police; but I suppose he was bored with the
enquiry of the day before and suddenly, to my aunt's indescribable
amazement, he flew out not against us but against her.

"You sicken me worse than a bitter radish, Pelageya Petrovna," he
shouted, "with your watch. I don't want to hear any more about it! It
can't be lost by magic, you say, but what's it to do with me? It may
be magic for all I care! Stolen from you? Well, good luck to it then!
What will Nastasey Nastasyeitch say? Damnation take him, your
Nastasyeitch! I get nothing but annoyances and unpleasantness from
him! Don't dare to worry me again! Do you hear?"

My father slammed the door and went off to his own room. David and I
did not at first understand the allusion in his last words; but
afterwards we found out that my father was just then violently
indignant with my godfather, who had done him out of a profitable job.
So my aunt was left looking a fool. She almost burst with vexation,
but there was no help for it. She had to confine herself to repeating
in a sharp whisper, twisting her mouth in my direction whenever she
passed me, "Thief, thief, robber, scoundrel." My aunt's reproaches
were a source of real enjoyment to me. It was very agreeable, too, as
I crossed the flower-garden, to let my eye with assumed indifference
glide over the very spot where the watch lay at rest under the
apple-tree; and if David were close at hand to exchange a meaning
grimace with him....

My aunt tried setting Trankvillitatin upon me; but I appealed to
David. He told the stalwart divinity student bluntly that he would rip
up his belly with a knife if he did not leave me alone....
Trankvillitatin was frightened; though, according to my aunt, he was a
grenadier and a cavalier he was not remarkable for valour. So passed
five weeks.... But do you imagine that the story of the watch ended
there? No, it did not; only to continue my story I must introduce a
new character; and to introduce that new character I must go back a
little.

XI

My father had for many years been on very friendly, even intimate
terms with a retired government clerk called Latkin, a lame little man
in poor circumstances with queer, timid manners, one of those
creatures of whom it is commonly said that they are crushed by God
Himself. Like my father and Nastasey, he was engaged in the humbler
class of legal work and acted as legal adviser and agent. But
possessing neither a presentable appearance nor the gift of words and
having little confidence in himself, he did not venture to act
independently but attached himself to my father. His handwriting was
"regular beadwork," he knew the law thoroughly and had mastered all
the intricacies of the jargon of petitions and legal documents. He had
managed various cases with my father and had shared with him gains and
losses and it seemed as though nothing could shake their friendship,
and yet it broke down in one day and forever. My father quarrelled
with his colleague for good. If Latkin had snatched a profitable job
from my father, after the fashion of Nastasey, who replaced him later
on, my father would have been no more indignant with him than with
Nastasey, probably less. But Latkin, under the influence of an
unexplained, incomprehensible feeling, envy, greed--or perhaps even a
momentary fit of honesty--"gave away" my father, betrayed him to their
common client, a wealthy young merchant, opening this careless young
man's eyes to a certain--well, piece of sharp practice, destined to
bring my father considerable profit. It was not the money loss,
however great--no--but the betrayal that wounded and infuriated my
father; he could not forgive treachery.

"So he sets himself up for a saint!" he repeated, trembling all over
with anger, his teeth chattering as though he were in a fever. I
happened to be in the room and was a witness of this ugly scene.
"Good. Amen, from today. It's all over between us. There's the ikon
and there's the door! Neither you in my house nor I in yours. You are
too honest for us. How can we keep company with you? But may you have
no house nor home!"

It was in vain that Latkin entreated my father and bowed down before
him; it was in vain that he tried to explain to him what filled his
own soul with painful perplexity. "You know it was with no sort of
profit to myself, Porfiry Petrovitch," he faltered: "why, I cut my own
throat!" My father remained implacable. Latkin never set foot in our
house again. Fate itself seemed determined to carry out my father's
last cruel words. Soon after the rupture (which took place two years
before the beginning of my story), Latkin's wife, who had, it is true,
been ill for a long time, died; his second daughter, a child three
years old, became deaf and dumb in one day from terror; a swarm of
bees had settled on her head; Latkin himself had an apoplectic stroke
and sank into extreme and hopeless poverty. How he struggled on, what
he lived upon--it is hard to imagine. He lived in a dilapidated hovel
at no great distance from our house. His elder daughter Raissa lived
with him and kept house, so far as that was possible. This Raissa is
the character whom I must now introduce into our story.

XII

When her father was on friendly terms with mine, we used to see her
continually. She would sit with us for hours at a time, either sewing,
or spinning with her delicate, rapid, clever fingers. She was a
well-made, rather thin girl, with intelligent brown eyes and a long,
white, oval face. She talked little but sensibly in a soft, musical
voice, barely opening her mouth and not showing her teeth. When she
laughed--which happened rarely and never lasted long--they were all
suddenly displayed, big and white as almonds. I remember her gait, too,
light, elastic, with a little skip at each step. It always seemed to me
that she was going down a flight of steps, even when she was walking on
level ground. She held herself erect with her arms folded tightly over
her bosom. And whatever she was doing, whatever she undertook, if she
were only threading a needle or ironing a petticoat--the effect was
always beautiful and somehow--you may not believe it--touching. Her
Christian name was Raissa, but we used to call her Black-lip: she had
on her upper lip a birthmark; a little dark-bluish spot, as though she
had been eating blackberries; but that did not spoil her: on the
contrary. She was just a year older than David. I cherished for her a
feeling akin to respect, but we were not great friends. But between
her and David a friendship had sprung up, a strange, unchildlike but
good friendship. They somehow suited each other.

Sometimes they did not exchange a word for hours together, but both
felt that they were happy and happy because they were together. I had
never met a girl like her, really. There was something attentive and
resolute about her, something honest and mournful and charming. I
never heard her say anything very intelligent, but I never heard her
say anything commonplace, and I have never seen more intelligent eyes.
After the rupture between her family and mine I saw her less
frequently: my father sternly forbade my visiting the Latkins, and she
did not appear in our house again. But I met her in the street, in
church and Black-lip always aroused in me the same feeling--respect
and even some wonder, rather than pity. She bore her misfortunes very
well indeed. "The girl is flint," even coarse-witted, Trankvillitatin
said about her once, but really she ought to have been pitied: her
face acquired a careworn, exhausted expression, her eyes were hollow
and sunken, a burden beyond her strength lay on her young shoulders.
David saw her much oftener than I did; he used to go to their house.
My father gave him up in despair: he knew that David would not obey
him, anyway. And from time to time Raissa would appear at the hurdle
fence of our garden which looked into a lane and there have an
interview with David; she did not come for the sake of conversation,
but told him of some new difficulty or trouble and asked his advice.
The paralysis that had attacked Latkin was of a rather peculiar kind.
His arms and legs had grown feeble, but he had not lost the use of
them, and his brain indeed worked perfectly; but his speech was
muddled and instead of one word he would pronounce another: one had to
guess what it was he wanted to say.... "Tchoo--tchoo--tchoo," he
would stammer with an effort--he began every sentence with
"Tchoo--tchoo--tchoo, some scissors, some scissors," ... and the word
scissors meant bread.... My father, he hated with all the strength left
him--he attributed all his misfortunes to my father's curse and called
him alternately the butcher and the diamond-merchant. "Tchoo, tchoo,
don't you dare to go to the butcher's, Vassilyevna." This was what he
called his daughter though his own name was Martinyan. Every day he
became more exacting; his needs increased.... And how were those needs
to be satisfied? Where could the money be found? Sorrow soon makes one
old: but it was horrible to hear some words on the lips of a girl of
seventeen.

XIII

I remember I happened to be present at a
conversation with David over the fence, on the
very day of her mother's death.

"Mother died this morning at daybreak," she
said, first looking round with her dark expressive eyes and then
fixing them on the ground.

"Cook undertook to get a coffin cheap but she's not to be trusted; she
may spend the money on drink, even. You might come and look after her,
Davidushka, she's afraid of you."

"I will come," answered David. "I will see to it. And how's your
father?"

"He cries; he says: 'you must spoil me, too.' Spoil must mean bury.
Now he has gone to sleep." Raissa suddenly gave a deep sigh. "Oh,
Davidushka, Davidushka!" She passed her half-clenched fist over her
forehead and her eyebrows, and the action was so bitter ... and as
sincere and beautiful as all her actions.

"You must take care of yourself, though," David observed; "you haven't
slept at all, I expect.... And what's the use of crying? It doesn't
help trouble."

"I have no time for crying," answered Raissa.

"That's a luxury for the rich, crying," observed David.

Raissa was going, but she turned back.

"The yellow shawl's being sold, you know; part of mother's dowry. They
are giving us twelve roubles; I think that is not much."

"It certainly is not much."

"We shouldn't sell it," Raissa said after a brief pause, "but you see
we must have money for the funeral."

"Of course you must. Only you mustn't spend money at random. Those
priests are awful! But I say, wait a minute. I'll come. Are you going?
I'll be with you soon. Goodbye, darling."

"Good-bye, Davidushka, darling."

"Mind now, don't cry!"

"As though I should cry! It's either cooking the dinner or crying. One
or the other."

"What! does she cook the dinner?" I said to David, as soon as Raissa
was out of hearing, "does she do the cooking herself?"

"Why, you heard that the cook has gone to buy a coffin."

"She cooks the dinner," I thought, "and her hands are always so clean
and her clothes so neat.... I should like to see her there at work in
the kitchen.... She is an extraordinary girl!"

I remember another conversation at the fence. That time Raissa brought
with her her little deaf and dumb sister. She was a pretty child with
immense, astonished-looking eyes and a perfect mass of dull, black
hair on her little, head (Raissa's hair, too, was black and hers, too,
was without lustre). Latkin had by then been struck down by paralysis.

"I really don't know what to do," Raissa began. "The doctor has
written a prescription. We must go to the chemist's; and our peasant
(Latkin had still one serf) has brought us wood from the village and a
goose. And the porter has taken it away, 'you are in debt to me,' he
said."

"Taken the goose?" asked David.

"No, not the goose. He says it is an old one; it is no good for
anything; he says that is why our peasant brought it us, but he is
taking the wood."

"But he has no right to," exclaimed David.

"He has no right to, but he has taken it. I went up to the garret,
there we have got a very, very old trunk. I began rummaging in it and
what do you think I found? Look!"

She took from under her kerchief a rather large field glass in a
copper setting, covered with morocco, yellow with age. David, as a
connoisseur of all sorts of instruments, seized upon it at once.

"It's English," he pronounced, putting it first to one eye and then to
the other. "A marine glass."

"And the glasses are perfect," Raissa went on. "I showed it to father;
he said, 'Take it and pawn it to the diamond-merchant'! What do you
think, would they give us anything for it? What do we want a telescope
for? To look at ourselves in the looking-glass and see what beauties
we are? But we haven't a looking-glass, unluckily."

And Raissa suddenly laughed aloud. Her sister, of course, could not
hear her. But most likely she felt the shaking of her body: she clung
to Raissa's hand and her little face worked with a look of terror as
she raised her big eyes to her sister and burst into tears.

"That's how she always is," said Raissa, "she
doesn't like one to laugh.

"Come, I won't, Lyubotchka, I won't," she added, nimbly squatting on
her heels beside the child and passing her fingers through her hair.
The laughter vanished from Raissa's face and her lips, the corners of
which twisted upwards in a particularly charming way, became
motionless again. The child was pacified. Raissa got up.

"So you will do what you can, about the glass I mean, Davidushka. But
I do regret the wood, and the goose, too, however old it may be."

"They would certainly give you ten roubles," said David, turning the
telescope in all directions. "I will buy it of you, what could be
better? And here, meanwhile, are fifteen kopecks for the chemist's....
Is that enough?"

"I'll borrow that from you," whispered Raissa, taking the fifteen
kopecks from him.

"What next? Perhaps you would like to pay interest? But you see I have
a pledge here, a very fine thing.... First-rate people, the English."

"They say we are going to war with them."

"No," answered David, "we are fighting the French now."

"Well, you know best. Take care of it, then. Good-bye, friends."
 XIV

Here is another conversation that took place beside the same fence.
Raissa seemed more worried than usual.

"Five kopecks for a cabbage, and a tiny little one, too," she said,
propping her chin on her hand. "Isn't it dear? And I haven't had the
money for my sewing yet."

"Who owes it you?" asked David.

"Why, the merchant's wife who lives beyond the rampart."

"The fat woman who goes about in a green blouse?"

"Yes, yes."

"I say, she is fat! She can hardly breathe for fat. She positively
steams in church, and doesn't pay her debts!"

"She will pay, only when? And do you know, Davidushka, I have fresh
troubles. Father has taken it into his head to tell me his dreams--you
know he cannot say what he means: if he wants to say one word, it
comes out another. About food or any everyday thing we have got used
to it and understand; but it is not easy to understand the dreams even
of healthy people, and with him, it's awful! 'I am very happy,' he
says; 'I was walking about all among white birds to-day; and the Lord
God gave me a nosegay and in the nosegay was Andryusha with a little
knife,' he calls our Lyubotchka, Andryusha; 'now we shall both be
quite well,' he says. 'We need only one stroke with the little knife,
like this!' and he points to his throat. I don't understand him, but I
say, 'All right, dear, all right,' but he gets angry and tries to
explain what he means. He even bursts into tears."

"But you should have said something to him," I put in; "you should
have made up some lie."

"I can't tell lies," answered Raissa, and even flung up her hands.

And indeed she could not tell lies.

"There is no need to tell lies," observed David, "but there is no need
to kill yourself, either. No one will say thank you for it, you know."

Raissa looked at him intently.

"I wanted to ask you something, Davidushka; how ought I to spell
'while'?"

"What sort of 'while'?"

"Why, for instance: I hope you will live a long _while_."

"Spell: w-i-l-e."

"No," I put in, "w-h-i-l-e."

"Well, it does not matter. Spell it with an h, then! What does matter
is, that you should live a long while."

"I should like to write correctly," observed Raissa, and she flushed a
little.

When she flushed she was amazingly pretty at once.

"It may be of use.... How father wrote in his day ... wonderfully! He
taught me. Well, now he can hardly make out the letters."

"You only live, that's all I want," David repeated, dropping his voice
and not taking his eyes off her. Raissa glanced quickly at him and
flushed still more.

"You live and as for spelling, spell as you like.... Oh, the devil,
the witch is coming!" (David called my aunt the witch.) "What ill-luck
has brought her this way? You must go, darling."

Raissa glanced at David once more and ran away.

David talked to me of Raissa and her family very rarely and
unwillingly, especially from the time when he began to expect his
father's return. He thought of nothing but him and how we should live
together afterwards. He had a vivid memory of him and used to describe
him to me with particular pleasure.

"He is big and strong; he can lift three hundred-weight with one
hand.... When he shouted: 'Where's the lad?' he could be heard all
over the house. He's so jolly and kind ... and a brave man! Nobody can
intimidate him. We lived so happily together before we were ruined.
They say he has gone quite grey, and in old days his hair was as red
as mine. He was a strong man."

David would never admit that we might remain in Ryazan.

"You will go away," I observed, "but I shall stay."

"Nonsense, we shall take you with us."

"And how about my father?"

"You will cast off your father. You will be ruined if you don't."

"How so?"

David made me no answer but merely knitted his white brows.

"So when we go away with father," he began again, "he will get a good
situation and I shall marry."

"Well, that won't be just directly," I said.

"No, why not? I shall marry soon."

"You?"

"Yes, I; why not?"

"You haven't fixed on your wife, I suppose."

"Of course, I have."

"Who is she?"

David laughed.

"What a senseless fellow you are, really? Raissa, of course."

"Raissa!" I repeated in amazement; "you are joking!"

"I am not given to joking, and don't like it."

"Why, she is a year older than you are."

"What of it? but let's drop the subject."

"Let me ask one question," I said. "Does she know that you mean to
marry her?"

"Most likely."

"But haven't you declared your feelings?"

"What is there to declare? When the time comes I shall tell her. Come,
that's enough."

David got up and went out of the room. When I was alone, I pondered ...
and pondered ... and came to the conclusion that David would act
like a sensible and practical man; and indeed I felt flattered at the
thought of being the friend of such a practical man!

And Raissa in her everlasting black woollen dress suddenly seemed to
me charming and worthy of the most devoted love.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

"The Mantle" from the collection "The Mantle and Other Stories" (1842) by Nikolaj Gogol, Full Text in English




A stamp depicting "The Overcoat", from the souvenir sheet of Russia devoted to the 200th birth anniversary of Nikolai Gogol, 2009



THE MANTLE

In a certain Russian ministerial department——
But it is perhaps better that I do not mention which department it was. There are in the whole of Russia no persons more sensitive than Government officials. Each of them believes if he is annoyed in any way, that the whole official class is insulted in his person.
Recently an Isprawnik (country magistrate)—I do not know of which town—is said to have drawn up a report with the object of showing that, ignoring Government orders, people were speaking of Isprawniks in terms of contempt. In order to prove his assertions, he forwarded with his report a bulky work of fiction, in which on about every tenth page an Isprawnik appeared generally in a drunken condition.
In order therefore to avoid any unpleasantness, I will not definitely indicate the department in which the scene of my story is laid, and will rather say “in a certain chancellery.”
Well, in a certain chancellery there was a certain man who, as I cannot deny, was not of an attractive appearance. He was short, had a face marked with smallpox, was rather bald in front, and his forehead and cheeks were deeply lined with furrows—to say nothing of other physical imperfections. Such was the outer aspect of our hero, as produced by the St Petersburg climate.
As regards his official rank—for with us Russians the official rank must always be given—he was what is usually known as a permanent titular councillor, one of those unfortunate beings who, as is well known, are made a butt of by various authors who have the bad habit of attacking people who cannot defend themselves.
Our hero's family name was Bashmatchkin; his baptismal name Akaki Akakievitch. Perhaps the reader may think this name somewhat strange and far-fetched, but he can be assured that it is not so, and that circumstances so arranged it that it was quite impossible to give him any other name.
This happened in the following way. Akaki Akakievitch was born, if I am not mistaken, on the night of the 23rd of March. His deceased mother, the wife of an official and a very good woman, immediately made proper arrangements for his baptism. When the time came, she was lying on the bed before the door. At her right hand stood the godfather, Ivan Ivanovitch Jeroshkin, a very important person, who was registrar of the senate; at her left, the godmother Anna Semenovna Byelobrushkova, the wife of a police inspector, a woman of rare virtues.
Three names were suggested to the mother from which to choose one for the child—Mokuja, Sossuja, or Khozdazat.
“No,” she said, “I don't like such names.”
In order to meet her wishes, the church calendar was opened in another place, and the names Triphiliy, Dula, and Varakhasiy were found.
“This is a punishment from heaven,” said the mother. “What sort of names are these! I never heard the like! If it had been Varadat or Varukh, but Triphiliy and Varakhasiy!”
They looked again in the calendar and found Pavsikakhiy and Vakhtisiy.
“Now I see,” said the mother, “this is plainly fate. If there is no help for it, then he had better take his father's name, which was Akaki.”
So the child was called Akaki Akakievitch. It was baptised, although it wept and cried and made all kinds of grimaces, as though it had a presentiment that it would one day be a titular councillor.
We have related all this so conscientiously that the reader himself might be convinced that it was impossible for the little Akaki to receive any other name. When and how he entered the chancellery and who appointed him, no one could remember. However many of his superiors might come and go, he was always seen in the same spot, in the same attitude, busy with the same work, and bearing the same title; so that people began to believe he had come into the world just as he was, with his bald forehead and official uniform.
In the chancellery where he worked, no kind of notice was taken of him. Even the office attendants did not rise from their seats when he entered, nor look at him; they took no more notice than if a fly had flown through the room. His superiors treated him in a coldly despotic manner. The assistant of the head of the department, when he pushed a pile of papers under his nose, did not even say “Please copy those,” or “There is something interesting for you,” or make any other polite remark such as well-educated officials are in the habit of doing. But Akaki took the documents, without worrying himself whether they had the right to hand them over to him or not, and straightway set to work to copy them.
His young colleagues made him the butt of their ridicule and their elegant wit, so far as officials can be said to possess any wit. They did not scruple to relate in his presence various tales of their own invention regarding his manner of life and his landlady, who was seventy years old. They declared that she beat him, and inquired of him when he would lead her to the marriage altar. Sometimes they let a shower of scraps of paper fall on his head, and told him they were snowflakes.
But Akaki Akakievitch made no answer to all these attacks; he seemed oblivious of their presence. His work was not affected in the slightest degree; during all these interruptions he did not make a single error in copying. Only when the horse-play grew intolerable, when he was held by the arm and prevented writing, he would say “Do leave me alone! Why do you always want to disturb me at work?” There was something peculiarly pathetic in these words and the way in which he uttered them.
One day it happened that when a young clerk, who had been recently appointed to the chancellery, prompted by the example of the others, was playing him some trick, he suddenly seemed arrested by something in the tone of Akaki's voice, and from that moment regarded the old official with quite different eyes. He felt as though some supernatural power drew him away from the colleagues whose acquaintance he had made here, and whom he had hitherto regarded as well-educated, respectable men, and alienated him from them. Long afterwards, when surrounded by gay companions, he would see the figure of the poor little councillor and hear the words “Do leave me alone! Why will you always disturb me at work?” Along with these words, he also heard others: “Am I not your brother?” On such occasions the young man would hide his face in his hands, and think how little humane feeling after all was to be found in men's hearts; how much coarseness and cruelty was to be found even in the educated and those who were everywhere regarded as good and honourable men.
Never was there an official who did his work so zealously as Akaki Akakievitch. “Zealously,” do I say? He worked with a passionate love of his task. While he copied official documents, a world of varied beauty rose before his eyes. His delight in copying was legible in his face. To form certain letters afforded him special satisfaction, and when he came to them he was quite another man; he began to smile, his eyes sparkled, and he pursed up his lips, so that those who knew him could see by his face which letters he was working at.
Had he been rewarded according to his zeal, he would perhaps—to his own astonishment—have been raised to the rank of civic councillor. However, he was not destined, as his colleagues expressed it, to wear a cross at his buttonhole, but only to get hæmorrhoids by leading a too sedentary life.
For the rest, I must mention that on one occasion he attracted a certain amount of attention. A director, who was a kindly man and wished to reward him for his long service, ordered that he should be entrusted with a task more important than the documents which he usually had to copy. This consisted in preparing a report for a court, altering the headings of various documents, and here and there changing the first personal pronoun into the third.
Akaki undertook the work; but it confused and exhausted him to such a degree that the sweat ran from his forehead and he at last exclaimed: “No! Please give me again something to copy.” From that time he was allowed to continue copying to his life's end.
Outside this copying nothing appeared to exist for him. He did not even think of his clothes. His uniform, which was originally green, had acquired a reddish tint. The collar was so narrow and so tight that his neck, although of average length, stretched far out of it, and appeared extraordinarily long, just like those of the cats with movable heads, which are carried about on trays and sold to the peasants in Russian villages.
Something was always sticking to his clothes—a piece of thread, a fragment of straw which had been flying about, etc. Moreover he seemed to have a special predilection for passing under windows just when something not very clean was being thrown out of them, and therefore he constantly carried about on his hat pieces of orange-peel and such refuse. He never took any notice of what was going on in the streets, in contrast to his colleagues who were always watching people closely and whom nothing delighted more than to see someone walking along on the opposite pavement with a rent in his trousers.
But Akaki Akakievitch saw nothing but the clean, regular lines of his copies before him; and only when he collided suddenly with a horse's nose, which blew its breath noisily in his face, did the good man observe that he was not sitting at his writing-table among his neat duplicates, but walking in the middle of the street.
When he arrived home, he sat down at once to supper, ate his cabbage-soup hurriedly, and then, without taking any notice how it tasted, a slice of beef with garlic, together with the flies and any other trifles which happened to be lying on it. As soon as his hunger was satisfied, he set himself to write, and began to copy the documents which he had brought home with him. If he happened to have no official documents to copy, he copied for his own satisfaction political letters, not for their more or less grand style but because they were directed to some high personage.
When the grey St Petersburg sky is darkened by the veil of night, and the whole of officialdom has finished its dinner according to its gastronomical inclinations or the depth of its purse—when all recover themselves from the perpetual scratching of bureaucratic pens, and all the cares and business with which men so often needlessly burden themselves, they devote the evening to recreation. One goes to the theatre; another roams about the streets, inspecting toilettes; another whispers flattering words to some young girl who has risen like a star in his modest official circle. Here and there one visits a colleague in his third or fourth story flat, consisting of two rooms with an entrance-hall and kitchen, fitted with some pretentious articles of furniture purchased by many abstinences.
In short, at this time every official betakes himself to some form of recreation—playing whist, drinking tea, and eating cheap pastry or smoking tobacco in long pipes. Some relate scandals about great people, for in whatever situation of life the Russian may be, he always likes to hear about the aristocracy; others recount well-worn but popular anecdotes, as for example that of the commandant to whom it was reported that a rogue had cut off the horse's tail on the monument of Peter the Great.
But even at this time of rest and recreation, Akaki Akakievitch remained faithful to his habits. No one could say that he had ever seen him in any evening social circle. After he had written as much as he wanted, he went to bed, and thought of the joys of the coming day, and the fine copies which God would give him to do.
So flowed on the peaceful existence of a man who was quite content with his post and his income of four hundred roubles a year. He might perhaps have reached an extreme old age if one of those unfortunate events had not befallen him, which not only happen to titular but to actual privy, court, and other councillors, and also to persons who never give advice nor receive it.
In St Petersburg all those who draw a salary of four hundred roubles or thereabouts have a terrible enemy in our northern cold, although some assert that it is very good for the health. About nine o'clock in the morning, when the clerks of the various departments betake themselves to their offices, the cold nips their noses so vigorously that most of them are quite bewildered. If at this time even high officials so suffer from the severity of the cold in their own persons that the tears come into their eyes, what must be the sufferings of the titular councillors, whose means do not allow of their protecting themselves against the rigour of winter? When they have put on their light cloaks, they must hurry through five or six streets as rapidly as possible, and then in the porter's lodge warm themselves and wait till their frozen official faculties have thawed.
For some time Akaki had been feeling on his back and shoulders very sharp twinges of pain, although he ran as fast as possible from his dwelling to the office. After well considering the matter, he came to the conclusion that these were due to the imperfections of his cloak. In his room he examined it carefully, and discovered that in two or three places it had become so thin as to be quite transparent, and that the lining was much torn.
This cloak had been for a long time the standing object of jests on the part of Akaki's merciless colleagues. They had even robbed it of the noble name of “cloak,” and called it a cowl. It certainly presented a remarkable appearance. Every year the collar had grown smaller, for every year the poor titular councillor had taken a piece of it away in order to repair some other part of the cloak; and these repairs did not look as if they had been done by the skilled hand of a tailor. They had been executed in a very clumsy way and looked remarkably ugly.
After Akaki Akakievitch had ended his melancholy examination, he said to himself that he must certainly take his cloak to Petrovitch the tailor, who lived high up in a dark den on the fourth floor.
With his squinting eyes and pock-marked face, Petrovitch certainly did not look as if he had the honour to make frock-coats and trousers for high officials—that is to say, when he was sober, and not absorbed in more pleasant diversions.
I might dispense here with dwelling on this tailor; but since it is the custom to portray the physiognomy of every separate personage in a tale, I must give a better or worse description of Petrovitch. Formerly when he was a simple serf in his master's house, he was merely called Gregor. When he became free, he thought he ought to adorn himself with a new name, and dubbed himself Petrovitch; at the same time he began to drink lustily, not only on the high festivals but on all those which are marked with a cross in the calendar. By thus solemnly celebrating the days consecrated by the Church, he considered that he was remaining faithful to the traditions of his childhood; and when he quarrelled with his wife, he shouted that she was an earthly minded creature and a German. Of this lady we have nothing more to relate than that she was the wife of Petrovitch, and that she did not wear a kerchief but a cap on her head. For the rest, she was not pretty; only the soldiers looked at her as they passed, then they twirled their moustaches and walked on, laughing.
Akaki Akakievitch accordingly betook himself to the tailor's attic. He reached it by a dark, dirty, damp staircase, from which, as in all the inhabited houses of the poorer class in St Petersburg, exhaled an effluvia of spirits vexatious to nose and eyes alike. As the titular councillor climbed these slippery stairs, he calculated what sum Petrovitch could reasonably ask for repairing his cloak, and determined only to give him a rouble.
The door of the tailor's flat stood open in order to provide an outlet for the clouds of smoke which rolled from the kitchen, where Petrovitch's wife was just then cooking fish. Akaki, his eyes smarting, passed through the kitchen without her seeing him, and entered the room where the tailor sat on a large, roughly made, wooden table, his legs crossed like those of a Turkish pasha, and, as is the custom of tailors, with bare feet. What first arrested attention, when one approached him, was his thumb nail, which was a little misshapen but as hard and strong as the shell of a tortoise. Round his neck were hung several skeins of thread, and on his knees lay a tattered coat. For some minutes he had been trying in vain to thread his needle. He was first of all angry with the gathering darkness, then with the thread.
“Why the deuce won't you go in, you worthless scoundrel!” he exclaimed.
Akaki saw at once that he had come at an inopportune moment. He wished he had found Petrovitch at a more favourable time, when he was enjoying himself—when, as his wife expressed it, he was having a substantial ration of brandy. At such times the tailor was extraordinarily ready to meet his customer's proposals with bows and gratitude to boot. Sometimes indeed his wife interfered in the transaction, and declared that he was drunk and promised to do the work at much too low a price; but if the customer paid a trifle more, the matter was settled.
Unfortunately for the titular councillor, Petrovitch had just now not yet touched the brandy flask. At such moments he was hard, obstinate, and ready to demand an exorbitant price.
Akaki foresaw this danger, and would gladly have turned back again, but it was already too late. The tailor's single eye—for he was one-eyed—had already noticed him, and Akaki Akakievitch murmured involuntarily “Good day, Petrovitch.”
“Welcome, sir,” answered the tailor, and fastened his glance on the titular councillor's hand to see what he had in it.
“I come just—merely—in order—I want—”
We must here remark that the modest titular councillor was in the habit of expressing his thoughts only by prepositions, adverbs, or particles, which never yielded a distinct meaning. If the matter of which he spoke was a difficult one, he could never finish the sentence he had begun. So that when transacting business, he generally entangled himself in the formula “Yes—it is indeed true that——” Then he would remain standing and forget what he wished to say, or believe that he had said it.
“What do you want, sir?” asked Petrovitch, scrutinising him from top to toe with a searching look, and contemplating his collar, sleeves, coat, buttons—in short his whole uniform, although he knew them all very well, having made them himself. That is the way of tailors whenever they meet an acquaintance.
Then Akaki answered, stammering as usual, “I want—Petrovitch—this cloak—you see—it is still quite good, only a little dusty—and therefore it looks a little old. It is, however, still quite new, only that it is worn a little—there in the back and here in the shoulder—and there are three quite little splits. You see it is hardly worth talking about; it can be thoroughly repaired in a few minutes.”
Petrovitch took the unfortunate cloak, spread it on the table, contemplated it in silence, and shook his head. Then he stretched his hand towards the window-sill for his snuff-box, a round one with the portrait of a general on the lid. I do not know whose portrait it was, for it had been accidentally injured, and the ingenious tailor had gummed a piece of paper over it.
After Petrovitch had taken a pinch of snuff, he examined the cloak again, held it to the light, and once more shook his head. Then he examined the lining, took a second pinch of snuff, and at last exclaimed, “No! that is a wretched rag! It is beyond repair!”
At these words Akaki's courage fell.
“What!” he cried in the querulous tone of a child. “Can this hole really not be repaired? Look! Petrovitch; there are only two rents, and you have enough pieces of cloth to mend them with.”
“Yes, I have enough pieces of cloth; but how should I sew them on? The stuff is quite worn out; it won't bear another stitch.”
“Well, can't you strengthen it with another piece of cloth?”
“No, it won't bear anything more; cloth after all is only cloth, and in its present condition a gust of wind might blow the wretched mantle into tatters.”
“But if you could only make it last a little longer, do you see—really——
“No!” answered Petrovitch decidedly. “There is nothing more to be done with it; it is completely worn out. It would be better if you made yourself foot bandages out of it for the winter; they are warmer than stockings. It was the Germans who invented stockings for their own profit.” Petrovitch never lost an opportunity of having a hit at the Germans. “You must certainly buy a new cloak,” he added.
“A new cloak?” exclaimed Akaki Akakievitch, and it grew dark before his eyes. The tailor's work-room seemed to go round with him, and the only object he could clearly distinguish was the paper-patched general's portrait on the tailor's snuff-box. “A new cloak!” he murmured, as though half asleep. “But I have no money.”
“Yes, a new cloak,” repeated Petrovitch with cruel calmness.
“Well, even if I did decide on it—how much——
“You mean how much would it cost?”
“Yes.”
“About a hundred and fifty roubles,” answered the tailor, pursing his lips. This diabolical tailor took a special pleasure in embarrassing his customers and watching the expression of their faces with his squinting single eye.
“A hundred and fifty roubles for a cloak!” exclaimed Akaki Akakievitch in a tone which sounded like an outcry—possibly the first he had uttered since his birth.
“Yes,” replied Petrovitch. “And then the marten-fur collar and silk lining for the hood would make it up to two hundred roubles.”
“Petrovitch, I adjure you!” said Akaki Akakievitch in an imploring tone, no longer hearing nor wishing to hear the tailor's words, “try to make this cloak last me a little longer.”
“No, it would be a useless waste of time and work.”
After this answer, Akaki departed, feeling quite crushed; while Petrovitch, with his lips firmly pursed up, feeling pleased with himself for his firmness and brave defence of the art of tailoring, remained sitting on the table.
Meanwhile Akaki wandered about the streets like a somnambulist, at random and without an object. “What a terrible business!” he said to himself. “Really, I could never have believed that it would come to that. No,” he continued after a short pause, “I could not have guessed that it would come to that. Now I find myself in a completely unexpected situation—in a difficulty that——
As he thus continued his monologue, instead of approaching his dwelling, he went, without noticing it, in quite a wrong direction. A chimney-sweep brushed against him and blackened his back as he passed by. From a house where building was going on, a bucket of plaster of Paris was emptied on his head. But he saw and heard nothing. Only when he collided with a sentry, who, after he had planted his halberd beside him, was shaking out some snuff from his snuff-box with a bony hand, was he startled out of his reverie.
“What do you want?” the rough guardian of civic order exclaimed. “Can't you walk on the pavement properly?”
This sudden address at last completely roused Akaki from his torpid condition. He collected his thoughts, considered his situation clearly, and began to take counsel with himself seriously and frankly, as with a friend to whom one entrusts the most intimate secrets.
“No!” he said at last. “To-day I will get nothing from Petrovitch—to-day he is in a bad humour—perhaps his wife has beaten him—I will look him up again next Sunday. On Saturday evenings he gets intoxicated; then the next day he wants a pick-me-up—his wife gives him no money—I squeeze a ten-kopeck piece into his hand; then he will be more reasonable and we can discuss the cloak further.”
Encouraged by these reflections, Akaki waited patiently till Sunday. On that day, having seen Petrovitch's wife leave the house, he betook himself to the tailor's and found him, as he had expected, in a very depressed state as the result of his Saturday's dissipation. But hardly had Akaki let a word fall about the mantle than the diabolical tailor awoke from his torpor and exclaimed, “No, nothing can be done; you must certainly buy a new cloak.”
The titular councillor pressed a ten-kopeck piece into his hand.
“Thanks, my dear friend,” said Petrovitch; “that will get me a pick-me-up, and I will drink your health with it. But as for your old mantle, what is the use of talking about it? It isn't worth a farthing. Let me only get to work; I will make you a splendid one, I promise!”
But poor Akaki Akakievitch still importuned the tailor to repair his old one.
“No, and again no,” answered Petrovitch. “It is quite impossible. Trust me; I won't take you in. I will even put silver hooks and eyes on the collar, as is now the fashion.”
This time Akaki saw that he must follow the tailor's advice, and again all his courage sank. He must have a new mantle made. But how should he pay for it? He certainly expected a Christmas bonus at the office; but that money had been allotted beforehand. He must buy a pair of trousers, and pay his shoemaker for repairing two pairs of boots, and buy some fresh linen. Even if, by an unexpected stroke of good luck, the director raised the usual bonus from forty to fifty roubles, what was such a small amount in comparison with the immense sum which Petrovitch demanded? A mere drop of water in the sea.
At any rate, he might expect that Petrovitch, if he were in a good humour, would lower the price of the cloak to eighty roubles; but where were these eighty roubles to be found? Perhaps he might succeed if he left no stone unturned, in raising half the sum; but he saw no means of procuring the other half. As regards the first half, he had been in the habit, as often as he received a rouble, of placing a kopeck in a money-box. At the end of each half-year he changed these copper coins for silver. He had been doing this for some time, and his savings just now amounted to forty roubles. Thus he already had half the required sum. But the other half!
Akaki made long calculations, and at last determined that he must, at least for a whole year, reduce some of his daily expenses. He would have to give up his tea in the evening, and copy his documents in his landlady's room, in order to economise the fuel in his own. He also resolved to avoid rough pavements as much as possible, in order to spare his shoes; and finally to give out less washing to the laundress.
At first he found these deprivations rather trying; but gradually he got accustomed to them, and at last took to going to bed without any supper at all. Although his body suffered from this abstinence, his spirit derived all the richer nutriment from perpetually thinking about his new cloak. From that time it seemed as though his nature had completed itself; as though he had married and possessed a companion on his life journey. This companion was the thought of his new cloak, properly wadded and lined.
From that time he became more lively, and his character grew stronger, like that of a man who has set a goal before himself which he will reach at all costs. All that was indecisive and vague in his gait and gestures had disappeared. A new fire began to gleam in his eyes, and in his bold dreams he sometimes even proposed to himself the question whether he should not have a marten-fur collar made for his coat.
These and similar thoughts sometimes caused him to be absent-minded. As he was copying his documents one day he suddenly noticed that he had made a slip. “Ugh!” he exclaimed, and crossed himself.
At least once a month he went to Petrovitch to discuss the precious cloak with him, and to settle many important questions, e.g. where and at what price he should buy the cloth, and what colour he should choose.
Each of these visits gave rise to new discussions, but he always returned home in a happier mood, feeling that at last the day must come when all the materials would have been bought and the cloak would be lying ready to put on.
This great event happened sooner than he had hoped. The director gave him a bonus, not of forty or fifty, but of five-and-sixty roubles. Had the worthy official noticed that Akaki needed a new mantle, or was the exceptional amount of the gift only due to chance?
However that might be, Akaki was now richer by twenty roubles. Such an access of wealth necessarily hastened his important undertaking. After two or three more months of enduring hunger, he had collected his eighty roubles. His heart, generally so quiet, began to beat violently; he hastened to Petrovitch, who accompanied him to a draper's shop. There, without hesitating, they bought a very fine piece of cloth. For more than half a year they had discussed the matter incessantly, and gone round the shops inquiring prices. Petrovitch examined the cloth, and said they would not find anything better. For the lining they chose a piece of such firm and thickly woven linen that the tailor declared it was better than silk; it also had a splendid gloss on it. They did not buy marten fur, for it was too dear, but chose the best catskin in the shop, which was a very good imitation of the former.
It took Petrovitch quite fourteen days to make the mantle, for he put an extra number of stitches into it. He charged twelve roubles for his work, and said he could not ask less; it was all sewn with silk, and the tailor smoothed the sutures with his teeth.
At last the day came—I cannot name it certainly, but it assuredly was the most solemn in Akaki's life—when the tailor brought the cloak. He brought it early in the morning, before the titular councillor started for his office. He could not have come at a more suitable moment, for the cold had again begun to be very severe.
Petrovitch entered the room with the dignified mien of an important tailor. His face wore a peculiarly serious expression, such as Akaki had never seen on it. He was fully conscious of his dignity, and of the gulf which separates the tailor who only repairs old clothes from the artist who makes new ones.
The cloak had been brought wrapped up in a large, new, freshly washed handkerchief, which the tailor carefully opened, folded, and placed in his pocket. Then he proudly took the cloak in both hands and laid it on Akaki Akakievitch's shoulders. He pulled it straight behind to see how it hung majestically in its whole length. Finally he wished to see the effect it made when unbuttoned. Akaki, however, wished to try the sleeves, which fitted wonderfully well. In brief, the cloak was irreproachable, and its fit and cut left nothing to be desired.
While the tailor was contemplating his work, he did not forget to say that the only reason he had charged so little for making it, was that he had only a low rent to pay and had known Akaki Akakievitch for a long time; he declared that any tailor who lived on the Nevski Prospect would have charged at least five-and-sixty roubles for making up such a cloak.
The titular councillor did not let himself be involved in a discussion on the subject. He thanked him, paid him, and then sallied forth on his way to the office.
Petrovitch went out with him, and remained standing in the street to watch Akaki as long as possible wearing the mantle; then he hurried through a cross-alley and came into the main street again to catch another glimpse of him.
Akaki went on his way in high spirits. Every moment he was acutely conscious of having a new cloak on, and smiled with sheer self-complacency. His head was filled with only two ideas: first that the cloak was warm, and secondly that it was beautiful. Without noticing anything on the road, he marched straight to the chancellery, took off his treasure in the hall, and solemnly entrusted it to the porter's care.
I do not know how the report spread in the office that Akaki's old cloak had ceased to exist. All his colleagues hastened to see his splendid new one, and then began to congratulate him so warmly that he at first had to smile with self-satisfaction, but finally began to feel embarrassed.
But how great was his surprise when his cruel colleagues remarked that he should formally “handsel” his cloak by giving them a feast! Poor Akaki was so disconcerted and taken aback, that he did not know what to answer nor how to excuse himself. He stammered out, blushing, that the cloak was not so new as it appeared; it was really second-hand.
One of his superiors, who probably wished to show that he was not too proud of his rank and title, and did not disdain social intercourse with his subordinates, broke in and said, “Gentlemen! Instead of Akaki Akakievitch, I will invite you to a little meal. Come to tea with me this evening. To-day happens to be my birthday.”
All the others thanked him for his kind proposal, and joyfully accepted his invitation. Akaki at first wished to decline, but was told that to do so would be grossly impolite and unpardonable, so he reconciled himself to the inevitable. Moreover, he felt a certain satisfaction at the thought that the occasion would give him a new opportunity of displaying his cloak in the streets. This whole day for him was like a festival day. In the cheerfullest possible mood he returned home, took off his cloak, and hung it up on the wall after once more examining the cloth and the lining. Then he took out his old one in order to compare it with Petrovitch's masterpiece. His looks passed from one to the other, and he thought to himself, smiling, “What a difference!”
He ate his supper cheerfully, and after he had finished, did not sit down as usual to copy documents. No; he lay down, like a Sybarite, on the sofa and waited. When the time came, he made his toilette, took his cloak, and went out.
I cannot say where was the house of the superior official who so graciously invited his subordinates to tea. My memory begins to grow weak, and the innumerable streets and houses of St Petersburg go round so confusedly in my head that I have difficulty in finding my way about them. So much, however, is certain: that the honourable official lived in a very fine quarter of the city, and therefore very far from Akaki Akakievitch's dwelling.
At first the titular councillor traversed several badly lit streets which seemed quite empty; but the nearer he approached his superior's house, the more brilliant and lively the streets became. He met many people, among whom were elegantly dressed ladies, and men with beaverskin collars. The peasants' sledges, with their wooden seats and brass studs, became rarer; while now every moment appeared skilled coachmen with velvet caps, driving lacquered sleighs covered with bearskins, and fine carriages.
At last he reached the house whither he had been invited. His host lived in a first-rate style; a lamp hung before his door, and he occupied the whole of the second story. As Akaki entered the vestibule, he saw a long row of galoshes; on a table a samovar was smoking and hissing; many cloaks, some of them adorned with velvet and fur collars, hung on the wall. In the adjoining room he heard a confused noise, which assumed a more decided character when a servant opened the door and came out bearing a tray full of empty cups, a milk-jug, and a basket of biscuits. Evidently the guests had been there some time and had already drunk their first cup of tea.
After hanging his cloak on a peg, Akaki approached the room in which his colleagues, smoking long pipes, were sitting round the card-table and making a good deal of noise. He entered the room, but remained standing by the door, not knowing what to do; but his colleagues greeted him with loud applause, and all hastened into the vestibule to take another look at his cloak. This excitement quite robbed the good titular councillor of his composure; but in his simplicity of heart he rejoiced at the praises which were lavished on his precious cloak. Soon afterwards his colleagues left him to himself and resumed their whist parties.
Akaki felt much embarrassed, and did not know what to do with his feet and hands. Finally he sat down by the players; looked now at their faces and now at the cards; then he yawned and remembered that it was long past his usual bedtime. He made an attempt to go, but they held him back and told him that he could not do so without drinking a glass of champagne on what was for him such a memorable day.
Soon supper was brought. It consisted of cold veal, cakes, and pastry of various kinds, accompanied by several bottles of champagne. Akaki was obliged to drink two glasses of it, and found everything round him take on a more cheerful aspect. But he could not forget that it was already midnight and that he ought to have been in bed long ago. From fear of being kept back again, he slipped furtively into the vestibule, where he was pained to find his cloak lying on the ground. He carefully shook it, brushed it, put it on, and went out.
The street-lamps were still alight. Some of the small ale-houses frequented by servants and the lower classes were still open, and some had just been shut; but by the beams of light which shone through the chinks of the doors, it was easy to see that there were still people inside, probably male and female domestics, who were quite indifferent to their employers' interests.
Akaki Akakievitch turned homewards in a cheerful mood. Suddenly he found himself in a long street where it was very quiet by day and still more so at night. The surroundings were very dismal. Only here and there hung a lamp which threatened to go out for want of oil; there were long rows of wooden houses with wooden fences, but no sign of a living soul. Only the snow in the street glimmered faintly in the dim light of the half-extinguished lanterns, and the little houses looked melancholy in the darkness.
Akaki went on till the street opened into an enormous square, on the other side of which the houses were scarcely visible, and which looked like a terrible desert. At a great distance—God knows where!—glimmered the light in a sentry-box, which seemed to stand at the end of the world. At the same moment Akaki's cheerful mood vanished. He went in the direction of the light with a vague sense of depression, as though some mischief threatened him. On the way he kept looking round him with alarm. The huge, melancholy expanse looked to him like a sea. “No,” he thought to himself, “I had better not look at it”; and he continued his way with his eyes fixed on the ground. When he raised them again he suddenly saw just in front of him several men with long moustaches, whose faces he could not distinguish. Everything grew dark before his eyes, and his heart seemed to be constricted.
“That is my cloak!” shouted one of the men, and seized him by the collar. Akaki tried to call for help. Another man pressed a great bony fist on his mouth, and said to him, “Just try to scream again!” At the same moment the unhappy titular councillor felt the cloak snatched away from him, and simultaneously received a kick which stretched him senseless in the snow. A few minutes later he came to himself and stood up; but there was no longer anyone in sight. Robbed of his cloak, and feeling frozen to the marrow, he began to shout with all his might; but his voice did not reach the end of the huge square. Continuing to shout, he ran with the rage of despair to the sentinel in the sentry-box, who, leaning on his halberd, asked him why the deuce he was making such a hellish noise and running so violently.
When Akaki reached the sentinel, he accused him of being drunk because he did not see that passers-by were robbed a short distance from his sentry-box.
“I saw you quite well,” answered the sentinel, “in the middle of the square with two men; I thought you were friends. It is no good getting so excited. Go to-morrow to the police inspector; he will take up the matter, have the thieves searched for, and make an examination.”
Akaki saw there was nothing to be done but to go home. He reached his dwelling in a state of dreadful disorder, his hair hanging wildly over his forehead, and his clothes covered with snow. When his old landlady heard him knocking violently at the door, she sprang up and hastened thither, only half-dressed; but at the sight of Akaki started back in alarm. When he told her what had happened, she clasped her hands together and said, “You should not go to the police inspector, but to the municipal Superintendent of the district. The inspector will put you off with fine words, and do nothing; but I have known the Superintendent for a long time. My former cook, Anna, is now in his service, and I often see him pass by under our windows. He goes to church on all the festival-days, and one sees at once by his looks that he is an honest man.”
After hearing this eloquent recommendation, Akaki retired sadly to his room. Those who can picture to themselves such a situation will understand what sort of a night he passed. As early as possible the next morning he went to the Superintendent's house. The servants told him that he was still asleep. At ten o'clock he returned, only to receive the same reply. At twelve o'clock the Superintendent had gone out.
About dinner-time the titular councillor called again, but the clerks asked him in a severe tone what was his business with their superior. Then for the first time in his life Akaki displayed an energetic character. He declared that it was absolutely necessary for him to speak with the Superintendent on an official matter, and that anyone who ventured to put difficulties in his way would have to pay dearly for it.
This left them without reply. One of the clerks departed, in order to deliver his message. When Akaki was admitted to the Superintendent's presence, the latter's way of receiving his story was somewhat singular. Instead of confining himself to the principal matter—the theft, he asked the titular councillor how he came to be out so late, and whether he had not been in suspicious company.
Taken aback by such a question, Akaki did not know what to answer, and went away without knowing whether any steps would be taken in the matter or not.
The whole day he had not been in his office—a perfectly new event in his life. The next day he appeared there again with a pale face and restless aspect, in his old cloak, which looked more wretched than ever. When his colleagues heard of his misfortune, some were cruel enough to laugh; most of them, however, felt a sincere sympathy with him, and started a subscription for his benefit; but this praiseworthy undertaking had only a very insignificant result, because these same officials had been lately called upon to contribute to two other subscriptions—in the first case to purchase a portrait of their director, and in the second to buy a work which a friend of his had published.
One of them, who felt sincerely sorry for Akaki, gave him some good advice for want of something better. He told him it was a waste of time to go again to the Superintendent, because even in case that this official succeeded in recovering the cloak, the police would keep it till the titular councillor had indisputably proved that he was the real owner of it. Akaki's friend suggested to him to go to a certain important personage, who because of his connection with the authorities could expedite the matter.
In his bewilderment, Akaki resolved to follow this advice. It was not known what position this personage occupied, nor how high it really was; the only facts known were that he had only recently been placed in it, and that there must be still higher personages than himself, as he was leaving no stone unturned in order to get promotion. When he entered his private room, he made his subordinates wait for him on the stairs below, and no one had direct access to him. If anyone called with a request to see him, the secretary of the board informed the Government secretary, who in his turn passed it on to a higher official, and the latter informed the important personage himself.
That is the way business is carried on in our Holy Russia. In the endeavour to resemble the higher officials, everyone imitates the manners of his superiors. Not long ago a titular councillor, who was appointed to the headship of a little office, immediately placed over the door of one of his two tiny rooms the inscription “Council-chamber.” Outside it were placed servants with red collars and lace-work on their coats, in order to announce petitioners, and to conduct them into the chamber which was hardly large enough to contain a chair.
But let us return to the important personage in question. His way of carrying things on was dignified and imposing, but a trifle complicated. His system might be summed up in a single word—“severity.” This word he would repeat in a sonorous tone three times in succession, and the last time turn a piercing look on the person with whom he happened to be speaking. He might have spared himself the trouble of displaying so much disciplinary energy; the ten officials who were under his command feared him quite sufficiently without it. As soon as they were aware of his approach, they would lay down their pens, and hasten to station themselves in a respectful attitude as he passed by. In converse with his subordinates, he preserved a stiff, unbending attitude, and generally confined himself to such expressions as “What do you want? Do you know with whom you are speaking? Do you consider who is in front of you?”
For the rest, he was a good-natured man, friendly and amiable with his acquaintances. But the title of “District-Superintendent” had turned his head. Since the time when it had been bestowed upon him, he lived for a great part of the day in a kind of dizzy self-intoxication. Among his equals, however, he recovered his equilibrium, and then showed his real amiability in more than one direction; but as soon as he found himself in the society of anyone of less rank than himself, he entrenched himself in a severe taciturnity. This situation was all the more painful for him as he was quite aware that he might have passed his time more agreeably.
All who watched him at such moments perceived clearly that he longed to take part in an interesting conversation, but that the fear of displaying some unguarded courtesy, of appearing too confidential, and thereby doing a deadly injury to his dignity, held him back. In order to avoid such a risk, he maintained an unnatural reserve, and only spoke from time to time in monosyllables. He had driven this habit to such a pitch that people called him “The Tedious,” and the title was well deserved.
Such was the person to whose aid Akaki wished to appeal. The moment at which he came seemed expressly calculated to flatter the Superintendent's vanity, and accordingly to help forward the titular councillor's cause.
The high personage was seated in his office, talking cheerfully with an old friend whom he had not seen for several years, when he was told that a gentleman named Akakievitch begged for the honour of an interview.
“Who is the man?” asked the Superintendent in a contemptuous tone.
“An official,” answered the servant.
“He must wait. I have no time to receive him now.”
The high personage lied; there was nothing in the way of his granting the desired audience. His friend and himself had already quite exhausted various topics of conversation. Many long, embarrassing pauses had occurred, during which they had lightly tapped each other on the shoulder, saying, “So it was, you see.”
“Yes, Stepan.”
But the Superintendent refused to receive the petitioner, in order to show his friend, who had quitted the public service and lived in the country, his own importance, and how officials must wait in the vestibule till he chose to receive them.
At last, after they had discussed various other subjects with other intervals of silence, during which the two friends leaned back in their chairs and blew cigarette smoke in the air, the Superintendent seemed suddenly to remember that someone had sought an interview with him. He called the secretary, who stood with a roll of papers in his hand at the door, and told him to admit the petitioner.
When he saw Akaki approaching with his humble expression, wearing his shabby old uniform, he turned round suddenly towards him and said “What do you want?” in a severe voice, accompanied by a vibrating intonation which at the time of receiving his promotion he had practised before the looking-glass for eight days.
The modest Akaki was quite taken aback by his harsh manner; however, he made an effort to recover his composure, and to relate how his cloak had been stolen, but did not do so without encumbering his narrative with a mass of superfluous detail. He added that he had applied to His Excellence in the hope that through his making a representation to the police inspector, or some other high personage, the cloak might be traced.
The Superintendent found Akaki's method of procedure somewhat unofficial. “Ah, sir,” he said, “don't you know what steps you ought to take in such a case? Don't you know the proper procedure? You should have handed in your petition at the chancellery. This in due course would have passed through the hands of the chief clerk and director of the bureau. It would then have been brought before my secretary, who would have made a communication to you.”
“Allow me,” replied Akaki, making a strenuous effort to preserve the remnants of his presence of mind, for he felt that the perspiration stood on his forehead, “allow me to remark to Your Excellence that I ventured to trouble you personally in this matter because secretaries—secretaries are a hopeless kind of people.”
“What! How! Is it possible?” exclaimed the Superintendent. “How could you say such a thing? Where have you got your ideas from? It is disgraceful to see young people so rebellious towards their superiors.” In his official zeal the Superintendent overlooked the fact that the titular councillor was well on in the fifties, and that the word “young” could only apply to him conditionally, i.e. in comparison with a man of seventy. “Do you also know,” he continued, “with whom you are speaking? Do you consider before whom you are standing? Do you consider, I ask you, do you consider?” As he spoke, he stamped his foot, and his voice grew deeper.
Akaki was quite upset—nay, thoroughly frightened; he trembled and shook and could hardly remain standing upright. Unless one of the office servants had hurried to help him, he would have fallen to the ground. As it was, he was dragged out almost unconscious.
But the Superintendent was quite delighted at the effect he had produced. It exceeded all his expectations, and filled with satisfaction at the fact that his words made such an impression on a middle-aged man that he lost consciousness, he cast a side-glance at his friend to see what effect the scene had produced on him. His self-satisfaction was further increased when he observed that his friend also was moved, and looked at him half-timidly.
Akaki had no idea how he got down the stairs and crossed the street, for he felt more dead than alive. In his whole life he had never been so scolded by a superior official, let alone one whom he had never seen before.
He wandered in the storm which raged without taking the least care of himself, nor sheltering himself on the side-walk against its fury. The wind, which blew from all sides and out of all the narrow streets, caused him to contract inflammation of the throat. When he reached home he was unable to speak a word, and went straight to bed.
Such was the result of the Superintendent's lecture.
The next day Akaki had a violent fever. Thanks to the St Petersburg climate, his illness developed with terrible rapidity. When the doctor came, he saw that the case was already hopeless; he felt his pulse and ordered him some poultices, merely in order that he should not die without some medical help, and declared at once that he had only two days to live. After giving this opinion, he said to Akaki's landlady, “There is no time to be lost; order a pine coffin, for an oak one would be too expensive for this poor man.”
Whether the titular councillor heard these words, whether they excited him and made him lament his tragic lot, no one ever knew, for he was delirious all the time. Strange pictures passed incessantly through his weakened brain. At one time he saw Petrovitch the tailor and asked him to make a cloak with nooses attached for the thieves who persecuted him in bed, and begged his old landlady to chase away the robbers who were hidden under his coverlet. At another time he seemed to be listening to the Superintendent's severe reprimand, and asking his forgiveness. Then he uttered such strange and confused remarks that the old woman crossed herself in alarm. She had never heard anything of the kind in her life, and these ravings astonished her all the more because the expression “Your Excellency” constantly occurred in them. Later on he murmured wild disconnected words, from which it could only be gathered that his thoughts were continually revolving round a cloak.
At last Akaki breathed his last. Neither his room nor his cupboard were officially sealed up, for the simple reason that he had no heir and left nothing behind him but a bundle of goose-quills, a notebook of white paper, three pairs of socks, some trouser buttons, and his old coat.
Into whose possession did these relics pass? Heaven only knows! The writer of this narrative has never inquired.
Akaki was wrapped in his shroud, and laid to rest in the churchyard. The great city of St Petersburg continued its life as though he had never existed. Thus disappeared a human creature who had never possessed a patron or friend, who had never elicited real hearty sympathy from anyone, nor even aroused the curiosity of the naturalists, though they are most eager to subject a rare insect to microscopic examination.
Without a complaint he had borne the scorn and contempt of his colleagues; he had proceeded on his quiet way to the grave without anything extraordinary happening to him—only towards the end of his life he had been joyfully excited by the possession of a new cloak, and had then been overthrown by misfortune.
Some days after his conversation with the Superintendent, his superior in the chancellery, where no one knew what had become of him, sent an official to his house to demand his presence. The official returned with the news that no one would see the titular councillor any more.
“Why?” asked all the clerks.
“Because he was buried four days ago.”
In such a manner did Akaki's colleagues hear of his death.
The next day his place was occupied by an official of robuster fibre, a man who did not trouble to make so many fair transcripts of state documents.
. . . . . .
It seems as though Akaki's story ended here, and that there was nothing more to be said of him; but the modest titular councillor was destined to attract more notice after his death than during his life, and our tale now assumes a somewhat ghostly complexion.
One day there spread in St Petersburg the report that near the Katinka Bridge there appeared every night a spectre in a uniform like that of the chancellery officials; that he was searching for a stolen cloak, and stripped all passers-by of their cloaks without any regard for rank or title. It mattered not whether they were lined with wadding, mink, cat, otter, bear, or beaverskin; he took all he could get hold of. One of the titular councillor's former colleagues had seen the ghost, and quite clearly recognised Akaki. He ran as hard as he could and managed to escape, but had seen him shaking his fist in the distance. Everywhere it was reported that councillors, and not only titular councillors but also state-councillors, had caught serious colds in their honourable backs on account of these raids.
The police adopted all possible measures in order to get this ghost dead or alive into their power, and to inflict an exemplary punishment on him; but all their attempts were vain.
One evening, however, a sentinel succeeded in getting hold of the malefactor just as he was trying to rob a musician of his cloak. The sentinel summoned with all the force of his lungs two of his comrades, to whom he entrusted the prisoner while he sought for his snuff-box in order to bring some life again into his half-frozen nose. Probably his snuff was so strong that even a ghost could not stand it. Scarcely had the sentinel thrust a grain or two up his nostrils than the prisoner began to sneeze so violently that a kind of mist rose before the eyes of the sentinels. While the three were rubbing their eyes, the prisoner disappeared. Since that day, all the sentries were so afraid of the ghost that they did not even venture to arrest the living but shouted to them from afar “Go on! Go on!”
Meanwhile the ghost extended his depredations to the other side of the Katinka Bridge, and spread dismay and alarm in the whole of the quarter.
But now we must return to the Superintendent, who is the real origin of our fantastic yet so veracious story. First of all we must do him the justice to state that after Akaki's departure he felt a certain sympathy for him. He was by no means without a sense of justice—no, he possessed various good qualities, but his infatuation about his title hindered him from showing his good side. When his friend left him, his thoughts began to occupy themselves with the unfortunate titular councillor, and from that moment onwards he saw him constantly in his mind's eye, crushed by the severe reproof which had been administered to him. This image so haunted him that at last one day he ordered one of his officials to find out what had become of Akaki, and whether anything could be done for him.
When the messenger returned with the news that the poor man had died soon after that interview, the Superintendent felt a pang in his conscience, and remained the whole day absorbed in melancholy brooding.
In order to banish his unpleasant sensations, he went in the evening to a friend's house, where he hoped to find pleasant society and what was the chief thing, some other officials of his own rank, so that he would not be obliged to feel bored. And in fact he did succeed in throwing off his melancholy thoughts there; he unbent and became lively, took an active part in the conversation, and passed a very pleasant evening. At supper he drank two glasses of champagne, which, as everyone knows, is an effective means of heightening one's cheerfulness.
As he sat in his sledge, wrapped in his mantle, on his way home, his mind was full of pleasant reveries. He thought of the society in which he had passed such a cheerful evening, and of all the excellent jokes with which he had made them laugh. He repeated some of them to himself half-aloud, and laughed at them again.
From time to time, however, he was disturbed in this cheerful mood by violent gusts of wind, which from some corner or other blew a quantity of snowflakes into his face, lifted the folds of his cloak, and made it belly like a sail, so that he had to exert all his strength to hold it firmly on his shoulders. Suddenly he felt a powerful hand seize him by the collar. He turned round, perceived a short man in an old, shabby uniform, and recognised with terror Akaki's face, which wore a deathly pallor and emaciation.
The titular councillor opened his mouth, from which issued a kind of corpse-like odour, and with inexpressible fright the Superintendent heard him say, “At last I have you—by the collar! I need your cloak. You did not trouble about me when I was in distress; you thought it necessary to reprimand me. Now give me your cloak.”
The high dignitary nearly choked. In his office, and especially in the presence of his subordinates, he was a man of imposing manners. He only needed to fix his eye on one of them and they all seemed impressed by his pompous bearing. But, as is the case with many such officials, all this was only outward show; at this moment he felt so upset that he seriously feared for his health. Taking off his cloak with a feverish, trembling hand, he handed it to Akaki, and called to his coachman, “Drive home quickly.”
When the coachman heard this voice, which did not sound as it usually did, and had often been accompanied by blows of a whip, he bent his head cautiously and drove on apace.
Soon afterwards the Superintendent found himself at home. Cloakless, he retired to his room with a pale face and wild looks, and had such a bad night that on the following morning his daughter exclaimed “Father, are you ill?” But he said nothing of what he had seen, though a very deep impression had been made on him. From that day onwards he no longer addressed to his subordinates in a violent tone the words, “Do you know with whom you are speaking? Do you know who is standing before you?” Or if it ever did happen that he spoke to them in a domineering tone, it was not till he had first listened to what they had to say.
Strangely enough, from that time the spectre never appeared again. Probably it was the Superintendent's cloak which he had been seeking so earnestly; now he had it and did not want anything more. Various persons, however, asserted that this formidable ghost was still to be seen in other parts of the city. A sentinel went so far as to say that he had seen him with his own eyes glide like a furtive shadow behind a house. But this sentinel was of such a nervous disposition that he had been chaffed about his timidity more than once. Since he did not venture to seize the flitting shadow, he stole after it in the darkness; but the shadow turned round and shouted at him “What do you want?” shaking an enormous fist, such as no man had ever possessed.
“I want nothing,” answered the sentry, quickly retiring.
This shadow, however, was taller than the ghost of the titular councillor, and had an enormous moustache. He went with great strides towards the Obuchoff Bridge, and disappeared in the darkness.