The Little Angel and Other Stories/An Original
A moment of silence had fallen on the company and amid the clatter of knives on plates, and the confused talk at distant tables, the frou-frou of a dress, and the creaking of the floor under the brisk steps of the waiters, some one's quiet, meek voice was heard:
"But I do love negresses."
Anton Ivanovich coughed over himself the vodka he was in the act of swallowing, and a waiter, who was collecting the plates, cast a glance of indiscriminate curiosity from under his brows. All turned with surprise to the speaker, and then for the first time took notice of the irregular little face with its red moustache, the ends of which were wet with vodka and soup, of the two dull, colourless little eyes, and of the carefully brushed head of Semyon Vasilyevich Kotel'nikov. For five years they had been in the same service as Kotel'nikov, every day they had said "How do you do?" and "Good-bye" to him, and alked to him about something or other; on the 20th of every month, after receiving their stipends, they had dined at the same restaurant as Kotel'nikov, as they were doing to-day; and now for the first time they were really conscious of his presence. They perceived him, and were astonished. It seemed that Semyon Vasilyevich was not so bad looking after all, if you did not count the moustache, and the freckles which were like splashes of mud from a rubber tyre, that he was decently well dressed, and his tall white collar, though a paper one, was at all events clean.
Anton Ivanovich, head of the office, coughing and still red with the exertion, looked at the confused Semyon Vasilyevich attentively, with curiosity in his prominent eyes, and still choking, asked with emphasis:
"So you, Semyon, ah!—I beg your pardon, I forget."
"Semyon Vasilyevich," Kotel'nikov reminded him, pronouncing it, not "Vasilich," but fully "Vasilyevich"; and this pronunciation was pleasing to all as expressive of a feeling of worth and self-respect.
"So you, Semyon Vasilyevich—love negresses?"
"Yes, I do, indeed."
And his voice, although rather weak, and, so to speak, somewhat wrinkled like a shrivelled turnip, was nevertheless pleasant. Anton Ivanovich pursed up his lower lip so that his grey moustache pressed against the tip of his red pitted nose, took in all the officials with his rounded eyes, and after an unavoidable pause emitted a fat unctuous laugh.
"Ha, ha, ha! He loves negresses! Ha, ha, ha!"
And all laughed in a friendly manner, even the stout dour Polzikov, who as a rule knew not how to laugh, gave a sickly neigh: "Hee, hee! hee!"
Semyon Vasilyevich laughed also, with a low staccato laugh, like a parched pea; he blushed with pleasure, but at the same time was rather afraid that some unpleasantness might arise.
"Are you really serious?" asked Anton Ivanovich, when he had done laughing.
"Perfectly serious, sir. In them, those black women, there is something so ardent, or—so to speak—exotic."
And once more all spluttered with laughter. But, though they laughed, they considered Semyon Vasilyevich quite a clever and educated man, since he knew such a rare word as "exotic." Then they began to argue with warmth that it was impossible for any one to love a negress: they were black and greasy, they had such impossible thick lips, and smelt too strong of musk.
"But I love them," modestly persisted Semyon Vasilyevich.
"Every one to his choice," said Anton Ivanovich with decision; "but I would rather fall in love with a nanny-goat than with one of those blacks."
But all were pleased that among them in the person of one of their own comrades there was to be found such an original person, that he loved negresses, and to honour the occasion they ordered another half-dozen of beer, and began to look with a certain contempt on the neighbouring tables, at which there sat no original people. They began to talk louder and with more freedom, and Semyon Vasilyevich left off striking matches for his cigarette, but waited till the attendant offered him a light. When the beer was all drunk up, and they had ordered more, the stout Polzikov looked sternly at Semyon Vasilyevich, and said reproachfully:
"How is it, Mr. Kotel'nikov, that we have never got beyond the 'you' stage? Do not we serve in the same office? We must drink to Comradeship, since you are such an excellent fellow."
"Certainly, I shall be delighted," Semyon Vasilyevich consented. He beamed now with delight that at last they recognized and appreciated him, and then again feared somehow that they would thrash him; at all events he kept his arm across his breast, to be ready, in case of need, to protect his face and well-brushed hair. After Polzikov he drank to Comradeship with Troitzky and Novosyolov and the rest, and kissed them so heartily that his lips became swollen. Anton Ivanovich did not offer to drink to Comradeship, but politely remarked:
"When you are passing our way, please call. Although you love negresses, still I have daughters, and it will interest them to see you. So you are really in earnest?"
Semyon Vasilyevich bowed, and although he was a bit unsteady from the amount of beer he had drunk, still all remarked that his manners were good. When Anton Ivanovich went away they were still drinking, and afterwards went noisily, the whole company, on to the Nevsky, where they gave way to none, but made all give way to them. Semyon Vasilyevich walked in the middle, arm in arm with Troitzky and the sombre Polzikov, and explained to them:
"Nay, friend Kostya, you don't understand the matter. In negresses there is something peculiar, something, so to speak, exotic."
"And I don't want to understand! They are black—black—nothing else."
"Nay, friend Kostya, this is a matter requiring taste. Negresses are—"
Until that day Semyon Vasilyevich had never even thought of negresses, and could not more exactly define what there was so desirable about them, so he repeated:
"My friend, they are ardent."
"Now, then, Kostya, what are you quarrelling about?" angrily asked Troitzky, as he tripped up, and sploshed in a big swapped galoche. "You are a wonderful fellow for arguing; you never agree with any one. Of course, he knows why he loves negresses. Drive on, Senya! love away! don't listen to fools! You're a brave fellow; we'll get up a scandal before long. Lord! what a devil he is!"
"Black—black—nothing more," Polzikov morosely insisted.
"Nay, Kostya, you don't understand the matter," Semyon Vasilyevich mildly declared; and so they went on, rolling and racketting, quarrelling, and jostling one another, but thoroughly contented.
At the end of a week the whole Department knew that the civil servant, Kotel'nikov, was very fond of negresses. By the end of a month the porters of the neighbouring houses, the petitioners, and the policeman on duty at the corner, knew it too. The ladies who worked the typewriters took to looking at Semyon Vasilyevich from the adjoining rooms; but he sat quiet and modest, and still was not sure whether he would be praised or thrashed. Already he had been at an evening party at Anton Ivanovich's, had drunk tea with cherry jam upon a new damask tablecloth, and had explained that about negresses there was something exotic. The ladies looked confused, but the hostess's daughter Nastenka, who had read novels, blinked her shortsighted eyes, and, adjusting her curls, asked:
And all were very much pleased; but when the interesting guest had departed they spoke of him with the greatest compassion, and Nastenka pronounced him the victim of a pernicious passion.
Semyon Vasilyevich had been taken with Nastenka; but since he loved only negresses, he determined not to show his liking, and was cold and stand-offish, though strictly polite. And all the way home he thought of negresses, how black and greasy and objectionable they were, and at the thought of kissing one of them, he felt a sort of heart-burn, and was inclined to weep quietly and to write to his mother in the country to come to him. But in the night he overcame this attack of pusillanimity, and when he appeared at the office in the morning, by his whole appearance, by his red tie, and by the mysterious expression of his face, it was abundantly clear that this man was very fond indeed of negresses.
Soon after this, Anton Ivanovich, who took an interest in his fate, introduced him to a theatrical reporter; the reporter took him and treated him at a café-chantant, where he presented him to the Manager, Monsieur Jacques Ducquelau.
"Here is a gentleman," said the reporter, as he brought forward the modestly bowing Semyon Vasilyevich, "here is a gentleman who is much enamoured of negresses; no one but negresses. He is an extraordinary original. Give him encouragement, Jacques Ivanovich, for of such people be not encouraged, who should be? This, Jacques Ivanovich, is a public matter."
The reporter slapped Semyon Vasilyevich patronizingly on his narrow back, in its creaseless, tightly-fitting coat, and the Manager, a Frenchman, with a fierce black moustache, cast his eyes up to the sky, as though looking for something there, made a gesture of decision, and transfixing the still bowing civil servant with his black eyes, said:
"Negresses! Excellent! I have here at present three beautiful negresses."
Semyon Vasilyevich blanched slightly, but M. Jacques was very fond of his own establishment, and took no notice. The reporter requested: "Give him a free ticket, Jacques Ivanovich; a season."
From that evening Semyon Vasilyevich began to pay court to a negress, Miss Korraito, the whites of whose eyes were like saucers, with pupils no larger than sloes. And when she turned on all this battery and made eyes at him, his feet turned cold, and, as he bowed hastily, his well- pomatumed head glistened under the electric light, and he thought with grief of his poor mother who lived in the country.
Of Russian Miss Korraito understood not a word, but happily they found plenty of willing interpreters, who took to heart the interests of the young couple, and accurately transmitted to Semyon Vasilyevich the gushing exclamations of the dusky fair.
"She says: 'She has never seen such a kind, handsome gentleman.' Is not that right, Miss?"
Miss Korraito would incline her head again and again, show her teeth, which were as wide as the keys of a piano, and roll her saucers round on every side. And Semyon Vasilyevich would unconsciously incline his head too, and mutter:
"Tell her, please, that there is something exotic about negresses."
And all were satisfied. When Semyon Vasilyevich for the first time kissed the hand of the negress, there assembled to see it, not only all the artistes, but many of the spectators, and one in particular, an old merchant, Bogdan Kornyeich Seliverstov, burst into tears from tenderness and patriotic feelings. Then they drank champagne. For two days Semyon Vasilyevich suffered from a painful palpitation of the heart, and did not go to the office. Several times he began a letter, "Dear Mamma," but he was too weak to finish it. When he went back to the office they invited him to the private room of his Excellency. Semyon Vasilyevich smoothed with a comb his hair, which had begun to stick up during his illness, arranged the dark ends of his moustache, so as to speak more clearly, and collapsing with dread, went in.
"Look here, is it true, what they tell me, that you——" His Excellency hesitated, "is it true that you love negresses?"
"Quite true, your Excellency."
The general concentrated his gaze on his poll, on the smooth centre of which two thin locks obstinately stuck up and trembled, and with some surprise, but at the same time with approval, asked:
"But why do you love them?"
"I cannot say, your Excellency," replied Semyon Vasilyevich, whose courage had evaporated.
"What do you mean by 'I can't say'? Who, then, can say? But don't be embarrassed, my dear sir. I like my subordinates to show self-reliance and initiative in general, provided, of course, they do not exceed certain legal bounds. Tell me candidly, as though you were talking to your father, why do you love negresses?"
"There is in them, your Excellency, something exotic."
That same evening at the general's whist table at the English Club, his Excellency, when he had dealt the cards with his puffy white hands, remarked with assumed carelessness:
"There's in my office an official who is terribly enamoured of negresses. An ordinary clerk, if you please."
The other three generals were jealous: each of them had at his office many officials, but they were the most ordinary, colourless, un-original people imaginable, of whom nothing could be said.
The choleric Anaton Petrovich considered long, scored only one out of a certain four, and after the next deal said:
"I too—I have a subordinate, whose beard is half black and half red."
But all understood that the victory was on the side of his Excellency; the subordinate mentioned was in no respect responsible for the fact that his beard was half black and half red, and probably was not even pleased to have it so; while the official in point, independently and of his own free will, loved negresses; and such a predilection undoubtedly testified to his originality of taste. But his Excellency, as though he remarked nothing, continued:
"He affirms that in negresses there is something exotic."
The existence in the Second Department of an extraordinary original obtained for it the most flattering popularity among official circles in the Capital, and begat, as is always the case, many unsuccessful and pitiful imitators. A certain grey-haired clerk in the Sixth Department, with a large family, who had sat unremarked at his table for twenty-eight years, proclaimed publicly that he could bark like a dog; and when they only laughed at him, and in all the rooms began to bark, and grunt, and neigh, he was put out of countenance, and look to a fortnight's drink, forgetting even to send in a report of sickness, as he had always done for the past twenty-eight years. Another official, a youngish man, pretended to fall in love with the wife of the Chinese Ambassador, and for some time attracted universal observation, and even sympathy. But experienced eyes soon distinguished the pitiful, dishonest pretence from the true originality, and the failure was contemptuously consigned to the abyss of his former obscurity. There were other attempts of the same kind, and among the officials in general there was remarked this year a peculiar elation of spirit, and a long-hidden desire for originality seized the youths of the service with particular severity, and in some cases even led to tragic consequences. Thus one clerk, of good birth, being unable to invent anything original, had the impudence to insult his superior, and was promptly cashiered. Even against Semyon Vasilyevich there rose up enemies, who openly affirmed that he knew nothing whatever about negresses. But as an answer to them there appeared in one of the dailies an interview in which Semyon Vasilyevich publicly declared, with the permission of his chief, that he loved negresses because there was something exotic in them. And the star of Semyon Vasilyevich shone out with a new, undimming light.
At Anton Ivanovich's evenings he was now the most desirable guest, and Nastenka more than once wept bitterly, so sorry was she for his ruined youth; but he would sit proudly at the very middle of the table, and feeling himself the cynosure of all eyes, put on a somewhat melancholy, but at the same time exotic face. And to all, to Anton Ivanovich himself, to his guests, and even to the deaf old woman who washed up the dirty things in the kitchen, it was a pleasure to know that such an original man visited their house quite without ceremony. But Semyon Vasilyevich went home and wept upon his pillow, because he loved Nastenka exceedingly, and hated the damned Miss Korraito with all his soul.
Before Easter there was a report that Semyon Vasilyevich was going to marry Miss Korraito the negress, who for that reason would adopt Orthodoxy and leave the service of M. Jacques Ducquelau, and that his Excellency himself would give away the bride. Fellow civil-servants, petitioners, and porters congratulated Semyon Vasilyevich; and he bowed, only not so low as before, but still more politely, and his bald, polished head glistened in the rays of the spring sunshine.
At the last evening party given by Anton Ivanovich before the wedding, he was a positive hero; but Nastenka every half-hour or so ran off to her own rooms to cry, and then so powdered herself, that the powder was scattered from her face like flour from a millstone, and both her neighbours became correspondingly whitened. At supper all congratulated the bridegroom and drank his health; but Anton Ivanovich, as he took his leave of his guests, said:
"There is one interesting question, my friend, what colour will your children be?"
"Striped," glumly said Polzikov.
"How striped?" asked the guests in surprise.
"Why, in this way: one stripe white and one black, then another white, and so on," Polzikov explained quite despondently, for he was sorry with all his heart for his old friend.
"That's impossible!" excitedly exclaimed Semyon Vasilyevich, who had grown pale at the thought. But Nastenka, no longer able to contain herself, burst out sobbing and ran out of the room, whereby she caused universal confusion.
For two years Semyon Vasilyevich was the happiest of men, and all rejoiced when they looked at him, and recalled his unusual fate. Once he was invited, together with his spouse, to his Excellency's; and on the birth of a boy he received considerable assistance from the reserve fund, and soon after that he was promoted, out of his turn, to be assistant secretary of the fourth office of the department. And the child was born not striped, but only slightly grey, or rather olive-coloured. Everywhere Semyon Vasilyevich talked of his warm love for his wife and son; but he was never in a hurry to return home, and when he did get there he was in no hurry to pull the bell-handle. But when there met him on the threshold those teeth broad as piano-keys, and the white saucers rolled, and when his smoothly brushed head was pressed against something black, greasy, and smelling like musk, he felt quite faint with grief, and thought of those happy people who had white wives and white children.
"Dear!" said he submissively, and on the insistence of the happy mother went to look at the baby. He hated that thick-lipped baby of a greyish colour like asphalt, but he obediently nursed it, meditating in the depths of his soul on the possibility of dropping it suddenly on the floor.
After long vacillation and hidden sighs he wrote to his mother in the country about his marriage, and to his surprise received from her a most joyful answer. She also was pleased at having such an original for her son, and that his Excellency himself had given away the bride. But with regard to the colour, and other disabilities of the bride, she expressed herself thus:
"Let her face be that of a sheep, if only her soul be human."
At the end of two years Semyon Vasilyevich died of typhus fever. Before the end he sent for the parish priest, who looked with curiosity on the quondam Miss Korraito, stroked his full beard, and said meaningly, "N . . . y . . . es!" But it was evident that he respected Semyon Vasilyevich for his originality, although he looked on it as sinful.
When his reverence stooped down to the dying man, the latter gathered together the remnants of his strength, and opened his mouth wide to cry:
"I hate that black devil!"
But he recalled his Excellency, and the help from the reserve fund, he recalled the kindly Anton Ivanovich, and Nastenka, and looking at the black weeping countenance, said softly:
"Father, I love negresses very much. In them there is something exotic."
With his last efforts he gave to his emaciated face the semblance of a happy smile, and expired with it on his lips.
And the earth received him without emotion, not asking whether he loved negresses or no, brought his body to corruption, mingled his bones with those of other dead people, and annihilated every trace of the white paper-collar.
But the Second Department long cherished the memory of Semyon Vasilyevich, and when the waiting petitioners began to grow weary, the porter would take them to his room to smoke, and would tell them tales of the wonderful civil-servant who was so awfully fond of negresses. And all, narrator and listeners, were pleased.
- Short of Semyon.—Tr.