Appendix: The literary aftermath
The old woman
And between them occurs the following conversation.
In the dvor stands an old lady, holding in her hands a wall clock. I walk past the old lady, stop and ask her: "What's the time?"
"Have a look," says the old lady.
I look, and see that the clock has no hands.
"It has no hands," I say.
The old lady looks at the clock face and says:
"The time now is a quarter to three."
"Ah, really. Thank you very much," I say, and walk away.
The old lady shouts something in my wake, but I keep going and do not turn round. I come out onto the street and cross over onto the sunny side. The spring sun is very pleasant. I walk, screwing up my eyes and smoking my pipe. On the corner of Sadovaya I meet Sacerdon Mikhailovich coming towards me. We greet each other, stop and talk for a long time. Since I have had enough of standing on the street, I invite Sacerdon Mikhailovich to come with me to a basement bar. There we drink vodka with snacks of hard-boiled egg and sprats, after which we say goodbye and I continue my way on my own.
At this point I suddenly remember I have forgotten to turn off the electric stove at home. This is a great nuisance. I turn round and head back the way I came. The day began so well, and now there is this setback. I should have stayed at home.
On getting back, I take off my jacket, take my watch out of my waistcoat pocket and hang it on its nail. Then I lock the door with the key and lie down on the couch. I intend to lie there and try to go to sleep.
From the street come the cries of little boys - a highly unpleasant sound. Lying on the couch, I put my mind to thinking up punishments for these children. My favourite is to have them infected with tetanus, rendering them suddenly incapable of movement. Their parents come and cart them off home, where they lie in their little beds unable to eat, since their mouths won't open. They are fed through tubes. After a week the tetanus passes, but the children are in such a weak condition they have to spend a further whole month in bed. Then they begin to recover their health little by little, but I loose the tetanus on them a second time, and they all die.
I lie on the couch with my eyes open and am unable to go to sleep. I remember the old lady with the clock, whom I saw today in the dvor, and it gives me pleasure to recall how her clock had no hands. Only a few days ago, as it happens, I saw a horrid kitchen clock in a second-hand shop, with hands in the form of a knife and fork.
Good God! I haven't yet turned off the electric stove!
I jump up and turn it off, then lie down again on the couch and again try to go to sleep. I close my eyes. I want to sleep. But through the window, directly on me, shines the spring sun. I stand up and sit in the armchair by the window.
Now I want to sleep, but I have no intention of doing so. What I shall do is take paper and pen and write. I feel in myself a terrible force. I thought the whole thing through yesterday: it will be a short story about a miracle-worker who lives in our times and does not perform miracles. He knows he is a miracle-worker and can perform any miracle he likes, but he does not do so. When he is forced to move from his flat, he knows he has only to wave his little finger and the flat will remain his, but he does not do so; instead, he submissively leaves, and goes to live outside the city in a shack. This shack he is capable of turning into a beautiful house of brick, but he does not do so: he continues living in the shack and eventually dies, not having performed, in the course of his entire life, a single miracle.
Sitting in the armchair, I rub my hands with glee: I am so happy. Sacerdon Mikhailovich is going to explode from envy. He thinks I am no longer up to producing a work of genius. To work, to work with all haste! An end to dreams and laziness! I shall write for eighteen hours without a break!
I am so impatient to get started I begin to tremble. I can't get clear in my mind what I need to do. Instead of taking pen and paper, I start picking up various other objects for which I have no use at all. I run around the room: from window to table, then to the divan and back again to the window. The flame which has lit in my breast is choking me. It is only five o'clock now. In front of me I have the whole day, the evening, and the whole of the night.
I stand in the middle of the room. What on earth am I thinking about? It's already twenty past five: I must write. I move the little table to the window, and sit down at it. In front of me I have squared paper; in my hand, a pen.
My heart is still beating too fast, and my hand trembles. I wait to become a little calmer. I put down the pen and start filling my pipe. The sun is shining right in my eyes; I screw them up and light my pipe.
At this point a crow flies past the window. I look out onto the street and see a man on a mechanical leg walking along the pavement. His leg and stick make loud knocking sounds.
"Right," I say to myself, continuing to look out of the window.
The sun goes into hiding behind the chimney of the house opposite. The chimney's shadow runs over the roof, flies across the street and falls right onto my face. I must take advantage of this shadow to write a few words about the miracle-worker. I take hold of my pen and write:
'The miracle-worker was a man of small build.'
But that's all. Nothing else will come. I continue sitting where I am until I start to feel hungry. Then I stand up and go over to the cupboard where I keep provisions. I rummage around, but find nothing. A lump of sugar, that's all.
There is a knock at the door.
No reply. I open the door and see before me the old woman who this morning was standing in the dvor with the clock. I am exceedingly surprised and can find nothing to say.
"Here I am, then," says the old woman, and enters my room.
I stand at the door, wondering what to do: throw the old woman out or, on the contrary, invite her to take a seat. But she herself decides this question by going over to my armchair by the window and sitting down.
"Shut the door and lock it with the key," the old woman says to me.
I shut and lock the door.
"Stand on your knees," says the old woman.
I go down on my knees.
But now I begin to realize the ridiculousness of my position. Why am I standing on my knees before some old woman whom I hardly know? And, what's more, what is this old woman doing in my room sitting in my favourite armchair? Why have I not thrown her out?
"Listen here," I say. "What right do you have to make yourself at home in my room, and order me around to boot? I have not the slightest desire to stand on my knees."
"And nor should you," says the old woman. "Now you must lie on your stomach and bury your face in the floor."
I immediately carry out her command.
Now I see in front of me square shapes of a geometrical correctness. A pain in my shoulder and right hip forces me to change position. I have been lying prostrate, but now, with great difficulty, I raise myself onto my knees. All my limbs are numb and stiff. I look around and see myself in my own room, standing on my knees in the middle of the floor. Consciousness and memory come back to me slowly. I look around the room a second time, and see that there is someone sitting in the armchair by the window. In the room it is not very light; since now it must be the middle of a white night. I concentrate my gaze. Good Lord! Is that old woman really still sitting in my armchair? I stretch my neck and take a look. Yes, it's the old woman, alright. She's sitting there, with her head down on her chest. She must have dropped off.
I get up and go over to her, hobbling. The old woman's head lies on her chest; her hands hang down by the sides of the armchair. I feel an urge to take hold of her and shove her out the door.
"Listen," I say. "You are in my room. I need to work. I am asking you to leave."
The old woman doesn't move. I bend down and look into the old woman's face. Her mouth is ajar; from it project her false teeth, which have jumped out of position. And suddenly everything becomes clear to me: the old woman is dead.
I am seized by a terrible feeling of irritation. Why has she gone and died in my room? I can't bear dead people. And now what a rigmarole: this carcass to deal with, then off to the courtyard-attendant and the House Administrator to explain why I've got a dead old woman in my room. I look at her with hatred. Maybe, though, she's not dead? I feel her forehead. Her forehead is cold. Her hand too. Well, what am I to do?
I light up my pipe and sit down on the couch. I feel a blinding rage gathering inside me. 'Bitch!', I say out loud.
The dead old woman sits in my armchair like a bag. The false teeth stick out from her mouth. She is like a dead horse.
"What an ugly sight," I say. But I cannot bring myself to cover the old woman up with a newspaper - who knows what might happen under such cover.
The other side of the wall, I hear a movement: my neighbour getting up, the engine driver. Well, that's all I need right now - for him to smell that I have a dead old woman sitting in my room! I listen to his steps. Why is he so slow today? It's already half past five! High time for him to be on his way. Good God! He's going to drink tea! I hear the primus hissing noisily the other side of the wall. If only he would leave this moment. Cursed engine-driver!
I draw my legs up onto the couch and lie down. Eight minutes pass by, but my neighbour's tea is still not ready and his primus continues to hiss noisily. I close my eyes and doze.
I dream that my neighbour is on his way out. I go out with him onto the staircase and slam the door to the flat behind me with the French lock. I have no key, and cannot get back in. I shall have to ring the bell, waking up the other occupants of our flat; this is a disaster. I stand on the stairwell landing, thinking what to do, and suddenly I see that I have no hands. I tilt my head so as to get a better view, to see whether it is true that I have no hands, and I see that on one side, instead of a hand, I have a table knife sticking out, and, on the other, a fork.
"Well, just look at that," I say to Sacerdon Mikhailovich, who is for some reason sitting right here on a folding chair. "Look:" I say to him, "Do you see what hands I have?"
But Sacerdon Mikhailovich sits in silence, and I see that it is not really Sacerdon Mikhailovich sitting there, but a clay copy.
At this point I wake up and it immediately comes back to me that I am lying in my room on the couch, and that sitting in the armchair by the window is a dead old woman.
I quickly turn my head in her direction. But now there is no old woman in the armchair. I look at the empty chair and a wild happiness fills me to the brim. So it was all a dream, then.
The only question is: when did it start - when did I start dreaming? Did the old woman come into my room yesterday, or not? Maybe that too was a dream? I returned home yesterday because I had forgotten to turn off the electric stove; but maybe that too was a dream? In any case, though, it is a great relief that there is no dead old woman in my room and that, in consequence, I shall not have to go the House Administrator or mess around with a corpse!
But how long was I asleep for? I look at my watch: half past nine - a.m., obviously.
Lord! What dreams there are in this life!
I lower my legs from the couch, so as to stand up, and suddenly catch sight of the old woman: she is lying on the floor behind the table, by the armchair. She is lying face upwards, and her false teeth, which have jumped out of her mouth, have snagged on her nose; one tooth pierces one of the old woman's nostrils. Her arms are twisted under her torso, so that they are hidden from view, and, from underneath her hoisted skirt, her bony legs stick out in their dirty, white, woollen stockings.
"Bitch!" I shout and, running up, give the old woman a kick under the chin with my boot.
The false teeth fly off into a corner. I want to kick the old woman again, but am afraid of leaving marks on her body - they might even think it was I who killed her.
I walk away from the old woman, sit down on the couch and light my pipe. Twenty minutes go by. It becomes clear to me now that there will in any case be a criminal investigation and that, as a result of the usual police bungling, I shall be charged with murder. This means that my position is a serious one - and that's without taking into account the kick with the boot.
I go up to the old woman again, bend down and begin to examine her face. On her chin there is a small dark smudge. And yet, no: there's nothing to take exception to here. Anything could have happened. Maybe, the old woman had a collision with something whilst still alive? I regain some of my composure, and start to walk up and down my room, smoking my pipe and thinking over my position.
I walk up and down my room and begin to feel more and more hungry. I am so hungry I even begin to shake. I rummage again in the cupboard where I keep my provisions, but find nothing, only a piece of sugar.
I take out my wallet and count my money. Eleven rubles. Enough to buy myself some pork sausage and bread, and even for there to be something left over for tobacco.
I straighten my tie, which has gone awry during the night; pick up my watch; put on my jacket; go out into the corridor; carefully lock the door to my room; put the key into my pocket and walk out onto the street. The first thing I must do is eat; then my thoughts will become clearer and I shall decide what to do with this lump of carrion.
On the way to the shop, I have an idea: why not drop in on Sacerdon Mikhailovich and tell him the whole story. Maybe together we will soon think what to do. But I dismiss this thought immediately, because there are some things one must do alone, without witnesses.
In the shop there is no pork sausage, and I buy myself half a kilo of sardines. There is no tobacco either. Leaving the shop, I go to the bakery.
The bakery is crowded; a long queue stands at the cash till. When I see this, I frown; but I stand in the queue nevertheless. The queue moves slowly, and then stops moving altogether, because of some incident or other that is taking place at the cash till.
I act as if I have noticed nothing, and look firmly at the back of the young lady who is standing in front of me in the queue. The young lady is obviously very curious; she keeps stretching her neck now to the left, now to the right, and every other second goes up on tiptoes so as to get a better view of what's going on at the cash till. In the end, she turns to me and asks:
"You don't know what's going on over there?"
"I'm sorry, no," I say as dryly as I can.
The young lady keeps turning in different directions. In the end, she again addresses me:
"You couldn't go and find out what all the fuss is about over there?"
"I'm sorry," I say, even more dryly than before, "but I'm not in the least bit interested by all that."
"Not interested? What do you mean?," exclaims the young lady. "You yourself are being held up in this queue because of 'all that'!"
I say nothing in reply, merely bow my head very slightly. The young lady looks at me with attention.
"It's no business for a man, of course, to stand around queuing for bread," she says. "I feel sorry for you - having to stand here. You're a bachelor, no doubt?"
"Yes, a bachelor!," I reply, a little nonplussed, but from inertia retaining the dryness in my voice, and at the same The young lady looks me over again from head to foot, and, putting a finger on my sleeve, says:
"Look, why don't I buy what you need, and you wait for me outside?"
I lose my composure altogether.
"Thank you," I say. "That's very kind of you, but I can really manage myself."
"No, no," says the young lady. "Go outside. What were you intending to buy?"
"Well," I say, "I was going to buy half a kilo of the black bread, the one baked in a tin, the cheaper kind. That's the kind I like best."
"Right," says the young lady. "Now off you go. I'll buy the bread, and then we'll settle later."
And she even gives me a slight nudge on the elbow.
I go out of the bakery and stand in the doorway. The spring sun is shining right in my face. I light up my pipe. What a nice young lady! There are so few like her nowadays. I stand, screwing up my eyes because of the sun and, as I smoke my pipe, I think about the nice young lady. She has light brown eyes. And she is so pretty!
"You smoke a pipe?," says a voice not far from me. I see the nice young lady holding out the bread.
"Oh, thank you ever so much," I say, taking the bread.
"You smoke a pipe? I think that's wonderful," says the nice young lady.
And between us there occurs the following conversation:
She: "So you buy your own bread?"
I: "Not only bread - I buy everything myself."
She: "And where do you eat dinner?"
I: "Usually I myself cook myself dinner. But sometimes I eat in a beer bar."
She: "You like beer?"
I: "No, what I really like is vodka."
She: "I too like vodka."
I: "You like vodka? That's too good to be true! I would like to drink with you some time."
She: "And I would like to drink vodka with you too."
I: "Excuse me, can I ask you something?"
She (turning bright red): "Of course. Ask away."
I: "Right, I will. Do you believe in God?"
She (surprised): "In God? Yes, of course."
I: "And what do you say to us buying some vodka right now and going home to my flat. I live not far from here."
She (ardently): "I'm all for it."
I: "Then let's go."
We go into a shop, and I buy half a litre of vodka, using up all the money I have left - apart from a few coins. The whole time we are talking about various things, and then suddenly I remember that in my room, on the floor, there lies a dead old woman.
I glance at my new acquaintance: she is standing at the counter, looking at tins of jam. I carefully make my way to the door and leave the shop. It so happens that just at that moment a tram stops opposite. I jump aboard, not even looking at the tram's number. On Mikhailovsky Street I get off and go to visit Sacerdon Mikhailovich. I have in my hands a bottle of vodka, some sausages and some bread.
Sacerdon Mikhailovich opens the door to me himself. He is in his dressing-gown, thrown on over his bare body, and is also wearing Russian boots with the shins cut off, and a fur hat with ear flaps raised and tied on top with a bow.
"Very glad to see you," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich, when he catches sight of me.
"I haven't interrupted your work?," I ask.
"No, no," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich. "I wasn't doing anything - just sitting on the floor."
"Well," I say to Sacerdon Mikhailovich. "I've brought vodka and something to eat. If you have no objections, let's have a drink."
"Very good," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich. "Come in."
We go through to his room. I take the seal off the bottle of vodka, whilst Sacerdon Mikhailovich lays the table with two ryumki(1) and a plate of boiled meat.
"I've got some sausages here", I say. "How are we going to eat them: raw or boiled?"
"We'll put them on to boil," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich. "And whilst they cook, we'll drink vodka with the boiled meat. The meat is soup meat - excellent, boiled meat!"
Sacerdon Mikhailovich puts a saucepan with the fish on the primus, and we sit down to drink vodka.
"Vodka is a healthy drink," says Sacerdon Mikhaiovich, filling the ryumki. 'Mechnikov wrote that vodka is better for you than bread; bread is merely straw which rots in our stomachs."
"Your health!," I say, clicking glasses with Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
We drink, and eat the cold meat.
"Tasty," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich. But at this moment something in the room goes off with a sharp crack.
"What's that?," I ask.
We sit in silence, listening. Suddenly there is another crack. Sacerdon Mikhailovich jumps up from the table and, running to the window, tears down the curtain.
"What are you doing?," I shout.
But, without answering me, Sacerdon Mikhailovich dives across to the primus stove, uses the curtain to seize the saucepan and puts it down on the floor.
"Damnation!" says Sacerdon Mikhailovich. "I forgot to pour water into the saucepan. It's an enamelled pan, and now the enamel has cracked."
"Clear enough," I say, nodding.
We again sit down at the table.
"The devil take them," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich. "We'll eat the sausages raw."
"I'm terribly hungry," I say.
"Eat," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich, pushing the sausages in my direction.
"The last time I had anything to eat was yesterday, in the basement bar with you, and I've eaten nothing since," I say.
"Yes, yes, yes," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"I spent the whole time writing," I say.
"Damnation!" says Sacerdon Mikhailovich with exaggeration. "How nice to be in the company of a genius."
"If only I were," I say.
"To the genius of our times," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich, raising his glass.
We drink. Sacerdon Mikhailovich eats the boiled meat, and I the sausages. When I have eaten four, I light my pipe and say:
"You know, I came here just now to escape persecution."
"Who was persecuting you?," asks Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"A lady," I say. But Sacerdon Mikhailovich does not question me further - merely pours out more vodka in silence, - so I continue:
"I got to know her in the bread shop, and I fell in love with her immediately."
"Is she pretty?," asks Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"Yes," I say. "In my opinion."
We drink, and I continue:
"She agreed to come home with me to drink vodka. We went into a shop, but I was then compelled to take quietly to my heels."
"Not enough money to pay?," asks Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"No: I had just enough," I say. "But I remembered that I could not let her into my room."
"You mean: there was another lady in your room?," asks Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"Yes, if you like. There is another lady in my room," I say, "and now I can't let anyone else in."
"Marry her. Afterwards, when you're man and wife, you can have me round to dinner," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"No," I say, snorting with laughter. "That lady I shall not be marrying."
"Well, in that case," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich, "marry the lady from the bread shop."
"Why are you so keen to have me married off?," I say.
"What of it?," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich, filling the glasses. "Here's to your success!"
We drink. The vodka is obviously beginning to have an effect on us. Sacerdon Mikhailovich takes off his fur hat with the ear flaps and tosses it onto the bed.
I stand up and walk around the room, feeling already a little giddy in the head.
"What are your feelings about dead people?," I ask Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"Entirely negative," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich. "I'm afraid of them."
"I can't stand dead people either," say I. "Show me a dead person and, even if he be a relative of mine, I'd certainly give him a good belt with my foot."
"It's not on to kick corpses," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"I would kick him right in the face," I say. "I just can't stand dead people and children."
"You're right, children are awful," agrees Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"And in your opinion, which are worse: dead people or children?" I ask.
"Children, I dare say, are worse - they get in our way more often. Whilst you couldn't exactly say that dead people intrude on our lives," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"You could! You could!!" I shout, and then immediately fall silent.
Sacerdon Mikhailovich looks at me long and hard.
"Would you like some more vodka?" he asks.
"No," I say, then, recollecting myself, add: "No, thank you, I've already had enough."
I go and sit at the table again. For some time we are silent.
"I want to ask you a question," I say eventually. "Do you believe in God?"
A diagonal wrinkle appears on Sacerdon Mikhailovich's face, and he says:
"There are things which it is not decent to do. It is indecent to ask a man for fifty roubles when you've just seen him put two hundred in his pocket. It's his affair whether he gives you money or refuses; and the politest and most convenient method of refusing is for him to lie that he has no money. But you've seen that the man has money, and, in so doing, you've deprived him of the chance of making a simple and polite refusal. You have deprived him of his right of choice, and that's plain caddish. It is indecent and tactless behaviour. And to ask a man whether he believes in God is also indecent and tactless behaviour."
"I don't see that the two cases have anything in common," I say.
"I'm not comparing them," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"Well, very good," I say. "We'll let the subject lie. Only, please excuse me for asking such an indecent and tactless question."
"That's alright," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich. "Refusing to give you an answer cost me nothing."
"I would have done the same in your position," say I, "Only for a different reason."
"And what would that be?" asks Sacerdon Mikhailovich without much interest.
"It's like this," I say. "The way I look at it, there is no such thing as believers or non-believers. There are only people who wish to believe, and people who wish not to believe."
"Meaning that those who wish not to believe already believe in something," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich. "And those who wish to believe, a priori already believe in nothing."
"Maybe," I say. "I don't know."
"And believe or not believe in what? In God?" asks Sacerdon Mikhailovich.
"No," I say. "In immortality."
"Then why did you ask me whether I believe in God?"
"Simply because to ask 'do you believe in immortality?' has a stupid ring to it," I say to Sacerdon Mikhailovich, and stand up.
"You're going?" Sacerdon Mikhailovich asks me.
"Yes," say I. "It's time."
"And the vodka?" says Sacerdon Mikhailovich. "There's only a glass each left in the bottle."
"Let's finish it, then."
We finish the vodka and eat the rest of the boiled meat.
"And now I must be off," I say.
"Goodbye," says Sacerdon Mikhailovich as he sees me out through the kitchen onto the staircase. "Thank you for the hospitality."
"Thank you," I say. "Goodbye."
And I leave.
Left on his own, Sacerdon Mikhailovich clears the table, chucks the empty vodka bottle up onto the wardrobe, puts his fur hat with the ear flaps back on his head, and sits down on the floor under the window. From underneath his uplifted dressing-gown, his bare and bony legs stick out; they are shod in Russian boots; the tops to the boots are tattered.
I walk down Nevsky, absorbed in my thoughts. I realize that I have no time to waste: I must go along to the administrator of our block of flats and tell him all. When I've finished with the old woman, I shall stand outside the bread shop all day and every day until I meet my nice young lady. I still owe her 48 kopecks, so I have an excellent pretext for searching her out. The vodka I've drunk continues to take effect, and it seems that everything is going to be fine and simple.
On Fontanka I go over to a stall and, with the small change I have left, buy a large tankard of bread kvas. The kvas is sour and bad, and I continue on my way with an unpleasant taste in my mouth.
On the corner of Liteiny I am pushed to one side by a staggering drunkard. A good thing I have no revolver: I would have shot him on the spot.
The rest of the way home I walk with a face which is, it seems, twisted with anger. At any rate, almost everyone I pass turns to look at me.
I enter the Housing Office. On the table sits a stunted, dirty, pug-nosed, crooked, tow-haired girl putting on lipstick whilst looking into a hand mirror.
"Where's the House Administrator?" I ask.
The girl continues to apply lipstick in silence.
"Where's the House Administrator?" I repeat, sharply.
"Come back tomorrow. He's not here today," says the dirty, pug-nosed, crooked, tow-haired girl.
I go back outside. On the opposite side of the street walks a cripple tapping loudly with his artificial leg and stick. Six little boys run along behind him, imitating his walk.
I turn into my stairwell and begin to ascend the staircase. On the second floor I stop, struck by a disagreeable thought: the old woman must be starting to decompose. I have not closed the windows, and they say that decomposition in corpses proceeds at a smarter pace in a room with an open window. What a stupid situation! And that cursed House Administrator won't be in until tomorrow! I stand in indecision for a few minutes and then continue my ascent of the stairs.
Near the door to my flat I stop again. Maybe I should go to the bread shop and wait there for my nice young lady? I could beg her to let me stay with her for two or three nights. But then I remember she has already bought bread today; she won't be visiting the bakery again. And in any case nothing good would come of the idea.
I unlock the door and enter the corridor. At the end of the corridor there is a light burning and Mariya Vasilyevna, holding in her hands some kind of cloth, is wiping the lamp with a different cloth. Seeing me, she cries out:
"There was an old man assking for you!"
"What old man?" I say.
"Don't know," replies Mariya Vasilyevna.
"When was this?" I ask.
"Don't know," says Mariya Vasilyevna.
"You talked to the old man?"
"Yess," says Mariya Vasilyevna.
"So how come you don't know when this was?"
"Two hourss back," says Mariya Vaslyevna.
"And what did this old man look like?" I ask.
"Don't know," says Mariya Vasilyevna and goes off into the kitchen.
I head towards my room.
"Perhaps," I think, "perhaps the old woman has disappeared. I will enter my room and there will be no old woman. Good God!, are there really no miracles in this world?!"
I unlock the door and start to open it slowly. Maybe it's only the impression I have, but I seem to catch a sweet whiff of decomposition already under way. I glance through the slightly open door and immediately freeze on the spot. The old woman is slowly crawling towards me on all fours.
With a cry I slam the door, turn the key in the lock and jump back to the wall opposite.
In the corridor appears Mariya Vasilyevna.
"You called me?" she asks.
I am so shaken, I can say nothing in reply and merely shake my head. Mariya Vasilyevna comes closer.
"You were talking to ssomeone," she says.
I again shake my head.
"Mmad," says Mariya Vasilyevna and goes back off into the kitchen, turning to look at me several times on the way.
"Don't just stand there. Don't just stand there," I repeat inside my head. This phrase has formed of its own accord somewhere inside me. I keep repeating it until it enters my consciousness.
"Don't just stand there," I say to myself, but continue to stand as if paralyzed. Something terrible has happened, but what has to be done now is possibly even more terrible than that which has already happened. A whirlwind has scattered all my thoughts, and all I can see is the dead old woman's spiteful eyes as she slowly crawls towards me on all fours.
Burst into the room and smash the old woman's skull to bits: that's what I must do! I even perform a quick scout round with my eyes, and am happy to see the croquet mallet which has, for unknown reasons, stood in a corner of the corridor over the course of many years. Seize the mallet, burst into the room and splat! ...
The shivering fit has not yet passed. I stand with my shoulders forced upwards by the cold inside me. My thoughts jump, tangle, return to their starting-point and jump off again, encompassing new territories, and I stand and listen to my thoughts, and it is as if I am observing them from a distance - as if I am not their commander.
"Stiffs," my thoughts explain to me, "are a bad lot. It is a mistake, in fact, to call them stiffs; it would be more accurate to say crawlies. They have to be watched all the time. Ask any morgue attendant. What do you think he's there for? Only for one thing: to watch, to make sure the corpses don't crawl off. Strange things happen in this respect. One corpse, whilst the watchman was washing himself in the bath-house - on management's orders, - crawled out of the morgue, into the disinfection chamber, and devoured a pile of linen. The disinfection people gave him a good flogging, but nevertheless had to reimburse the cost of the linen out of their own pockets. Another corpse crawled into the maternity ward and so frightened the expecting mothers that one woman immediately had a premature birth; the corpse leapt upon the discarded foetus and began to chomp away; and when one particularly brave nurse struck him on the back with a stool, he sank his teeth into her leg, and she died from the infection not long afterwards. Corpses are a bad lot alright, and you have to be on your guard with them."
"Stop!" I say to my thoughts. "You're talking rubbish. Corpses can't move."
"Very well," say my thoughts to me. "Just you go into your room, where, as you say, there is a motionless corpse."
"I will!" I say decisively to my thoughts.
"Just you try!" my thoughts say to me mockingly.
It is this mocking tone which finally me gets to me. I seize hold of the croquet mallet and move towards the door.
"Hold on!" my thoughts shout at me. But I have already turned the key and thrown the door wide open.
The old woman lies on the threshold, her face buried in the floor.
I stand over her, on the ready, the croquet mallet raised. The old woman does not move.
The shivering fit has passed, and now my thoughts flow clearly and precisely. I am their commander once more.
"First of all: shut the door!" I order myself.
I remove the key from the other side of the door and insert it from the inside. I do this with my left hand, whilst in my right I hold the croquet mallet, keeping my eyes on the old woman the whole time. I lock the door with the key and, carefully stepping over the old woman, move to the middle of the room.
"Now you and I are going to settle accounts," I say. A plan has occurred to me - the kind of plan which is usually the resort of killers in detective novels and newspaper stories. I intend simply to pack the old woman into a suitcase, carry her out of the city and ditch her in the bogs. I know a suitable spot.
My suitcase is under the couch. I pull it out. Opening the suitcase, I see it contains a few things: several books, an old felt hat, and torn linen. I lay these contents out on the couch.
At this moment the door to the flat slams with a loud bang, and I have the impression that the old woman sighs.
I leap up instantly and seize hold of the croquet mallet.
The old woman is lying quite still. I stand and listen. That must have been the engine-driver returning, I can hear him walking about his room. That's him in the corridor now, going along to the kitchen. If Mariya Vasilyevna tells about my madness, it won't help matters. What a witch! I must go to the kitchen and put in a pacificatory appearance.
I step back over the old woman, place the mallet by the door - so that, on my return, I can have it in my hands before even entering the room, - and go out into the corridor. From the kitchen comes a tangle of voices; not one word is audible. I close the door to my room behind me and carefully make my way to the kitchen. I want to find out what Mariya Vasilyevna and the engine-driver are talking about. I walk the length of the corridor quickly enough, then slow my step near the kitchen. The engine-driver is speaking - telling a story, it seems, about something that happened to him at work.
I enter the kitchen. The engine-driver is standing with a towel in his hands and talking; Mariya Vasilyevna is sitting on a stool and listening. Catching sight of me, the engine-driver waves his hand in greeting.
"Good day, Good day, Matei Philippovich," I say to him, before passing through to the bathroom. For the moment, everything is quiet. Mariya Vasilyevna is used to my strangenesses; possibly she has already forgotten what occurred earlier.