Monday, November 09, 2009

Watch your step, Piskarev!

He saw the unknown woman fly up the steps, look back, put her finger to her lips, and motion for him to follow her. His knees trembled; his senses and thoughts were on fire; a lightning flash of joy pierced his heart with an unbearable point! No, it was no dream! God, so much happiness in one instant! such a wonderful life of two minutes!

But was it not a dream? Could it be that she, for one of whose heavenly glances he would be ready to give his whole life, to approach whose dwelling he already counted an inexplicable bliss - could it be that she had just shown him such favor and attention? He flew up the stairs. He did not feel any earthly thought; he was not heated with the flame of earthly passion, no, at that moment he was pure and chaste, like a virginal youth, still breathing the vague spiritual need for love. And that which in a depraved man would arouse bold thoughts, that same thing, on the contrary, made him still more radiant. This trust which a weak, beautiful being had shown in him, this trust imposed on him a vow of chivalric rigor, a vow slavishly to fulfill all her commands. He wished only for her commands to be all the more difficult and unrealizable, so that he could fly to overcome them with the greater effort. He had no doubt that some secret and at the same time important reason had made the unknown woman entrust herself to him, that some important services would surely be required of him, and he already felt in himself enough strength and resolve for everything.

The stairway wound around, and his quick dreams wound with it. "Watch your step!" a voice sounded like a harp and filled his veins with fresh trembling. On the dark height of the fourth floor, the unknown lady knocked at the door - it opened, and they went in together. A rather good-looking woman met them with a candle in her hand, but she gave Piskarev such a strange and insolent look that he involuntarily lowered his eyes. They went into the room. Three female figures in different corners appeared before his eyes. One was laying out cards; the second sat at a piano and with two fingers picked out some pathetic semblance of an old polonaise; the third sat before a mirror combing her long hair and never thought of interrupting her toilette at the entrance of a stranger. Some unpleasant disorder, to be met with only in the carefree room of a bachelor, reigned over all. The rather nice furniture was covered with dust; a spider had spread its web over a molded cornice; in the half-open doorway to another room, a spurred boot gleamed and the red piping of a uniform flitted: a loud male voice and female laughter rang out unrestrainedly.

God, where had he come! At first he refused to believe it and began studying the objects that filled the room more attentively; but the bare walls and curtainless windows showed no presence of a thoughtful housewife; the worn faces of these pathetic creatures, one of whom sat down almost in front of his nose and gazed at him as calmly as at a spot on someone's clothes-all this convinced him that he had come to one of those revolting havens where pathetic depravity makes its abode, born of tawdry education and the terrible populousness of the capital. One of those havens where man blasphemously crushes and derides all the pure and holy that adorns life, where woman, the beauty of the world, the crown of creation, turns into some strange, ambiguous being, where, along with purity of soul, she loses everything feminine and repulsively adopts all the mannerisms and insolence of a man, and ceases to be that weak, that beautiful being so different from us. Piskarev looked her up and down with astonished eyes, as if still wishing to make sure that it was she who had so bewitched him and swept him away on Nevsky Prospect. But she stood before him as beautiful as ever; her hair was as wonderful; her eyes seemed as heavenly. She was fresh; she was just seventeen; one could see that terrible depravity had overtaken her only recently; it had not yet dared to touch her cheeks, they were fresh and lightly tinted by a fine blush - she was beautiful.

Nikolai Gogol, “Nevsky Prospect”, in The Collected Tales of Nicolai Gogol, Vintage Classics, Random House, 1999, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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