The Little Angel and Other Stories/The City

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1541749The Little Angel and Other Stories — The CityW. H. LoweLeonid Andreyev


It was an immense city in which they lived: Petrov, clerk in a commercial bank, and he, the other,—name unknown.

They used to meet once a year, at Easter, when they both went to pay a visit at one and the same house, that of the Vasilyevskys. Petrov used to pay a visit also at Christmas, but probably the other, whom he used to meet, came at Christmas at a different hour, and so they did not see one another. The first two or three times Petrov did not notice him among so many visitors, but the fourth year his face seemed known to him and they greeted one another with a smile—and the fifth year Petrov proposed to clink glasses with him.

"Your health!" he said politely, and held out his glass.

"Here's to yours!" the other replied with a smile, and he too held out his glass.

Petrov did not think of asking his name, and when he went out into the street he quite forgot his existence, and the whole year never thought of him again. Every day he went to the bank, where he had been employed for nine years; in the winter he occasionally went to the theatre; in the summer he visited at the bungalow of an acquaintance; and twice he was ill with the influenza—the second time immediately before Easter.

And just as he was mounting the stairs at the Vasilyevskys', in evening dress and with his opera-hat under his arm, he remembered that he would see him there, the other, and felt very much surprised that he could not in the least recall his face and figure. Petrov himself was below the average height and somewhat round-shouldered, so that many took him for a hunchback; he had large black eyes with yellowish whites. In other respects he did not differ from the rest, who paid a visit to the Vasilyevskys twice a year, and when they forgot his surname they used to speak of him as the "little hunchback."

He, the other, was already there, and on the point of going away; but when he recognized Petrov, he smiled politely, and remained. He was also in evening dress and had an opera-hat, and Petrov failed to examine him further since he was occupied with talking, and eating, and drinking tea.

They went out together, and helped one another on with their coats, like friends: they politely made way the one for the other, and each gave the porter a half-rouble. They stood still a short time in the street, and then he, the other, said:

"Well, tipping's become a regular tax. But it can't be helped."

Petrov replied:

"Yes, quite true."

And since there was nothing more to be said, they smiled in a friendly manner, and Petrov said:

"Which way are you going?"

"I turn to the left. And you?"

"I to the right."

In the cab Petrov remembered that he had again failed either to ask his name, or to observe him particularly. He turned round: carriages were passing in both directions, the pavements were black with pedestrians, and in that closely moving mass it was as impossible to distinguish him, the other, as to find a particular grain of sand amongst other grains. And again Petrov forgot him, and did not think of him again for a whole year.

Petrov had lived for many years in the same furnished apartments, and he was not much liked there, because he was grumpy and irritable; and they also called him behind his back "Humpty." He used often to sit in his apartment alone, and none knew what work he did, since Fedot, the upstairs servant, did not look on books and letters as "work." At night Petrov sometimes went for a walk, and Ivan the porter could not understand these walks, since Petrov always returned sober, and—alone.

But Petrov used to walk about at night, because he was very much afraid of the city in which he lived, and he feared it more than ever in the daytime, when the streets were full of people.

The city was immense and populous, and there was in its populousness and immensity something stubborn, unconquerable, and callously cruel. With the colossal weight of its bloated stone houses, it crushed the earth on which it stood; and the streets between the houses were narrow, crooked, and deep like fissures in a rock. It seemed as though they were all seized with a panic of fear, and were endeavouring to run away from the centre to the open country, and that they could not find the road, and losing their way had rolled themselves in a ball like a serpent, and were intersecting one another, and looking back in hopeless despair.

One might walk for hours about these streets, which seemed broken-down, choked, and faint with a terrible convulsion, and never emerge from the line of fat stone houses. Some high, others low, some flushed with the cold thin blood of new bricks, others painted with a dark or light colour, they stood in unswaying solidity on both sides, callously met, and personally conducted one, and pressing together in a dense crowd, in this direction and in that, lost their individuality and become like one another—and the walker grew frightened: it was as though he had become rooted to the spot, and the houses kept going past him in an endless truculent file.

Once Petrov was walking quietly about the street, when suddenly he felt what a thickness of stone houses separated him from the wide, open country, where the free earth breathed softly in the sunshine, and man's eyes might look round to the distant horizon.

It seemed to him that he was suffocating and being blinded, and he felt a desire to run and get quickly out from the stony embrace—and it became a horror to him to think, however fast he might run, still houses, ever houses, would go with him on both sides, and he would be suffocated before he could run beyond the city. Petrov ensconced himself in the first restaurant he came across, but even there he seemed for a long time to be suffocating; so he drank cold water, and wiped his eyes with his handkerchief.

But the most terrible thing of all was, that in all the houses there lived human beings, and about all the streets were moving human beings. There were a multitude of them, and all of them were unknown to him—strangers; and all of them lived their own separate life, hidden from the eyes of others; they were without interruption being born, and dying, and there was no beginning nor end to this stream. Whenever Petrov went to the bank, or out for a walk, he saw the same familiar, well-known houses, and everything appeared to him simply an old acquaintance; if, however, he stood still, but for a moment, to fix his attention on some face, then all was quickly and terribly changed. With a feeling of terror and impotence Petrov would look at all the faces, and understand that he saw them for the first time, that yesterday he had seen other people, and to-morrow would see yet others; and so always, every day, and every minute, he would see new, unknown faces. There was a stout gentleman, at whom Petrov glanced, disappearing round the corner—and never would Petrov see him again. Even if he wished to find him, he might search for him all his life, and never succeed.

And Petrov feared the immense, callous city.

This year again Petrov had the influenza, very severely with a complication, and he was frequently afflicted with cold in the head.

Moreover, the doctor found that he had catarrh of the stomach, and the next Easter, as he was going to the Vasilyevskys', he thought on the way of what he should eat there. When he recognized him, the other, he was pleased and informed him:

"My dear sir, I have a catarrh."

He, the other, shook his head sympathetically, and replied:

"You don't say so!"

And once more Petrov did not inquire his name, but he began to look upon him as quite an old acquaintance, and thought of him with pleasurable feelings. "Him," he named him, but when he wanted to recall his face, he could only conjure up an evening coat, white waistcoat, and a smile; and since he could not in the least recollect the face, it inevitably appeared as though the coat and waistcoat smiled. That summer Petrov went out very frequently to a certain bungalow, wore a red neck-tie, dyed his moustache, and said to Fedot that in the autumn he should change his quarters; but afterwards he gave up going to the bungalow, and took to drink for a whole month. He managed his drinking clumsily—with tears and scenes. Once he broke the mirror in his room; another time he frightened a certain lady. He invaded her apartment in the evening, fell on his knees and proposed to her. This fair unknown was a courtesan, and at first listened to him attentively and even laughed, but when he began to weep and complain of his loneliness, she took him for a madman, and began to scream with terror. As they led him away, supporting himself against Fedot, he pulled his hair and cried:

"We are all men, all brethren!"

They had decided to get rid of him; but he gave up drinking, and once more the porter swore at having to open and shut the door for him. At New Year Petrov received an increase of 100 roubles per annum, and he changed into a neighbouring apartment, which was five roubles dearer, and had windows looking into the courtyard, Petrov thought that there he would not hear the rumbling of the street traffic, and might even forget what a multitude of unknown strangers surrounded him, and lived their own particular lives in proximity to him.

In the winter it was quiet in his rooms, but when spring came, and the snow was removed from the streets, the rumble of the traffic began again, and the double walls were no protection from it.

In the daytime, while he was occupied with something, and himself moved about and made a noise, he did not notice the rumbling, though it never ceased for a moment; but when night came on and all became quiet in the house, then the noisy street forced its way into the dark chamber, and deprived it of all quiet and privacy. The jarring and disjointed sounds of individual vehicles were heard; an indistinct, slight sound would come to life somewhere in the distance, grow louder and clearer, and by degrees lie down again, and in its place would be heard a new one, and so on and on without intermission. Sometimes only the hoofs of the horses struck the ground evenly and rhythmically, and there was no sound of wheels—this was when a calèche went by on rubber tyres; but often the noise of individual vehicles would blend into a terrible loud rumble, which made the stone walls tremble slightly, and set the bottles vibrating in the cupboard. And all this was caused by human beings! They sat in hired and private carriages, they drove no one knew whence or whither, they disappeared into the unknown depths of the immense city, and in their place appeared fresh people, other human beings, and there was no end to this incessant movement, so terrible in its incessancy. And every passer-by was a separate microcosm, with his own rules and aims of life, with his own affinity, whom he loved, with his own separate joys and sorrows, and each was like a ghost, which appeared for a moment and then disappeared inexplicably and unrecognized. And the more people there were, who were unknown to one another, the more terrible became the solitude of each. And during those black, rumbling nights Petrov often felt inclined to cry out in fear, and to betake himself to the deep cellar, in order to be there perfectly alone. There one might think only of those one knew, and not feel oneself so infinitely alone among a multitude of strange people.

At Easter, he, the other, did not turn up at the Vasilyevskys', and Petrov did not observe his absence until the end of his call, when he had begun to make his adieux, and failed to meet the well-known smile. And he felt a disquiet at heart, and suddenly was conscious of a painful longing to see him, the other, and to say something to him about his loneliness and his nights. But he had only a very slight recollection of the man whom he sought; only that he was of middle age, fair apparently, and always in evening dress; but by this description the Vasilyevskys could not guess of whom he was speaking.

"So many people pay us a visit on Festivals, that we do not know the surnames of all," said Madame. "However——was it Syomenov?"

And she counted one by one on her fingers several surnames: "Smirnov, Antonov, Nikiphorov;" and then without the surname: "The bald man, in the civil service, the post office I think; the one with the light brown hair; the one quite grey." And none of them were the one after whom Petrov was inquiring—though they might have been. And so he was not discovered.

This year nothing particular happened in the life of Petrov, except that his eyesight deteriorated and he had to take to glasses. At night, when the weather was fine, he went walking, and chose the quiet, deserted bye-streets for his peregrinations. But even there people were to be met, whom he had never seen before, and never would see again; and the houses towered on either side in a dull wall, and inside they were full of persons utterly unknown to him, who slept, and talked and quarrelled: some one was dying behind those walls, and close to him a fresh human being was coming into the world, to be lost for a time in its ever-moving infinity, and then to die for ever. In order to console himself, Petrov would count over all his acquaintances; and their neighbourly familiar faces were like a wall which separated him from infinity. He endeavoured to remember all; the porters, shop-keeper, cabmen that he knew, also passers-by whom he casually remembered; and at first he seemed to know very many people, but when he began to count them up, the number became terribly small: all his life long he had only known 250 people, including him, the other. And these were all who were known and neighbourly to him in the world. Possibly there were people whom he had known, and forgotten; but that was just as though they did not exist.

He, the other, was very glad, when he recognized Petrov the next Easter. He had a new dress suit on, and new boots which creaked, and he said as he pressed Petrov's hand:

"But, you know, I almost died. I was seized with inflammation of the lungs, and even now there is there"—and he tapped himself on the side—"something the matter with the upper part, I believe."

"I'm sorry for you," said Petrov with sincere sympathy.

They talked about various ailments, and each spoke of his own, and when they separated they did so with a prolonged pressure of the hand, but they quite forgot to ask each other's name. The following Easter it was Petrov who did not put in an appearance at the Vasilyevskys', and he, the other, was much disquieted, and inquired of Madame Vasilyevsky who the little hunchback was who visited them.

"I know what his surname is," said she, "it is Petrov."

"But what are his Christian name and his father's?"

Madame Vasilyevsky would willingly have told his name, but it seems she did not know it, and was very much surprised at the fact. Neither did she know in what office Petrov was, perhaps the post office or some bank.

The next time he, the other, did not appear.

The time after both came, but at different hours, so they did not meet. And then they altogether left off putting in an appearance, and the Vasilyevskys never saw them again, and did not even give them a thought; for so many people visited them, and they could not possibly remember them all.

The immense city grew still bigger, and there, where the broad fields had stretched, irrepressible new streets lengthened out, and on both sides of them stout, multi-coloured stone houses crushed heavily the ground on which they stood. And to the seven cemeteries which had before existed in the city was added a new one, the eighth. In it there was no greenery at all, and meanwhile they buried in it only paupers.

And when the long autumn night drew on, it became still in the cemetery, and there reached it only in distant echoes the rumbling of the street traffic, which ceased not day nor night.