Five days after Smith’s death, I moved into his lodging. All that day I felt insufferably sad. The weather was cold and gloomy. the wet snow kept falling, interspersed with rain. Only towards evening the sun peeped out, and a stray sunbeam probably from curiosity glanced into my room. I had begun to regret having moved here. Though the room was large it was so low-pitched, so begrimed with soot, so musty, and so unpleasantly empty in spite of some little furniture. I thought then that I should certainly ruin what health I had left in that room. And so it came to pass, indeed.
All that morning I had been busy with my papers, sorting and arranging them. For want of a portfolio I had packed them in a pillow-case. They were all crumpled and mixed up. Then I sat down to write. I was still working at my long novel then; but I could not settle down to it. My mind was full of other things.
I threw down my pen and sat by the window. It got dark, and I felt more and more depressed. Painful thoughts of all kinds beset me. I kept fancying that I should die at last in Petersburg. Spring was at hand. “ I believe I might recover,” I thought, “if I could get out of this shell into the light of day, into the fields and woods.” It was so long since I had seen them. I remember, too, it came into my mind how nice it would be if by some magic, some enchantment, I could forget everything that had happened in the last few years; forget everything, refresh my mind, and begin again with new energy. In those days, I still dreamed of that and hoped for a renewal of life. “Better go into an asylum,” I thought, “to get one’s brain turned upside down and rearranged anew, and then be cured again.” I still had a thirst for life and a faith in it! . . . But I remember even then I laughed. “What should I have to do after the madhouse? Write novels again? . . . ”
So I brooded despondently, and meanwhile time was passing, Night had come on. That evening I had promised to see Natasha. I had had a letter from her the evening before, earnestly begging me to go and see her. I jumped up and began getting ready. I had an overwhelming desire to get out of my room, even into the rain and the sleet.
As it got darker my room seemed to grow larger and larger, as though the walls were retreating. I began to fancy that every night I should see Smith at once in every corner. He would sit and stare at me as he had at Adam Ivanitch, in the restaurant, and Azorka would lie at his feet. At that instant I had an adventure which made a great impression upon me.
I must frankly admit, however, that, either owing to the derangement of my nerves, or my new impressions in my new lodgings, or my recent melancholy, I gradually began at dusk to sink into that condition which is so common with me now at night in my illness, and which I call mysterious horror. It is a most oppressive, agonizing state of terror of something which I don’t know how to define, and something passing all understanding and outside the natural order of things, which yet may take shape this very minute, as though in mockery of all the conclusions of reason, come to me and stand before me as an undeniable fact, hideous, horrible, and relentless. This fear usually becomes more and more acute, in spite of all the protests of reason, so much so that although the mind sometimes is of exceptional clarity at such moments, it loses all power of resistance. It is unheeded, it becomes useless, and this inward division intensifies the agony of suspense. It seems to me something like the anguish of people who are afraid of the dead. But in my distress the indefiniteness of the apprehension makes my suffering even more acute.
I remember I was standing with my back to the door and taking my hat from the table, when suddenly at that very instant the thought struck me that when I turned round I should inevitably see Smith: at first he would softly open the door, would stand in the doorway and look round the room, then looking down would come slowly towards me, would stand facing me, fix his lustreless eyes upon me and suddenly laugh in my face, a long, toothless, noiseless chuckle, and his whole body would shake with laughter and go on shaking a long time. The vision of all this suddenly formed an extraordinarily vivid and distinct picture in my mind, and at the same time I was suddenly seized by the fullest, the most absolute conviction that all this would infallibly, inevitably come to pass; that it was already happening, only I hadn’t seen it because I was standing with my back to the door, and that just at that very instant perhaps the door was opening. I looked round quickly, and — the door actually was opening, softly, noiselessly, just as I had imagined it a minute before. I cried out. For a long time no one appeared, as though the door had opened of itself. All at once I saw in the doorway a strange figure, whose eyes, as far as I could make out in the dark, were scrutinizing me obstinately and intently. A shiver ran over all my limbs; to my intense horror I saw that it was a child, a little girl, and if it had been Smith himself he would not have frightened me perhaps so much as this strange and unexpected apparition of an unknown child in my room at such an hour, and at such a moment.
I have mentioned already that the door opened as slowly and noiselessly as though she were afraid to come in. Standing in the doorway she gazed at me in a perplexity that was almost stupefaction. At last softly and slowly she advanced two steps into the room and stood before me, still without uttering a word. I examined her more closely. She was a girl of twelve or thirteen, short, thin, and as pale as though she had just had some terrible illness, and this pallor showed up vividly her great, shining black eyes. With her left hand she held a tattered old shawl, and with it covered her chest, which was still shivering with the chill of evening. Her whole dress might be described as rags and tatters. Her thick black hair was matted and uncombed. We stood so for two minutes, staring at one another.
“Where’s grandfather?” she asked at last in a husky, hardly audible voice, as though there was something wrong with her throat or chest.
All my mysterious panic was dispersed at this question. It was an inquiry for Smith; traces of him had unexpectedly turned up.
“Your grandfather? But he’s dead!” I said suddenly, being taken unawares by her question, and I immediately regretted my abruptness. For a minute she stood still in the same position, then she suddenly began trembling all over, so violently that it seemed as though she were going to be overcome by some sort of dangerous, nervous fit. I tried to support her so that she did not fall. In a few minutes she was better, and I saw that she was making an unnatural effort to control her emotion before me.
“Forgive me, forgive me, girl! Forgive me, my child!” I said. “I told you so abruptly, and who knows perhaps it’s a mistake . . . poor little thing! . . . Who is it you’re looking for? The old man who lived here?”
“Yes,” she articulated with an effort, looking anxiously at me.
“His name was Smith? Was it?” I asked.
“Then he . . . yes, then he is dead. . . . Only don’t grieve, my dear. Why haven’t you been here? Where have you come from now? He was buried yesterday; he died suddenly. . . . So you’re his granddaughter?”
The child made no answer to my rapid and incoherent questions. She turned in silence and went quietly out of the room. I was so astonished that I did not try to stop her or question her further. She stopped short in the doorway, and half-turning asked me
“Is Azorka dead, too?”
“Yes, Azorka’s dead, too,” I answered, and her question struck me as strange; it seemed as though she felt sure that Azorka must have died with the old man.
Hearing my answer the girl went noiselessly out of the room and carefully closed the door after her.
A minute later I ran after her, horribly vexed with myself for having let her go. She went out so quickly that I did not hear her open the outer door on to the stairs.
“She hasn’t gone down the stairs yet,” I thought, and I stood still to listen. But all was still, and there was no sound of footsteps. All I heard was the slam of a door on the ground floor, and then all was still again. I went hurriedly downstairs. The staircase went from my flat in a spiral from the fifth storey down to the fourth, from the fourth it went straight. It was a black, dirty staircase, always dark, such as one commonly finds in huge blocks let out in tiny flats. At that moment it was quite dark. Feeling my way down to the fourth storey, I stood still, and I suddenly had a feeling that there was someone in the passage here, hiding from me. I began groping with my hands. The girl was there, right in the corner, and with her face turned to the wall was crying softly and inaudibly.
“Listen, what are you afraid of?” I began. “I frightened you so, I’m so sorry. Your grandfather spoke of you when he was dying; his last words were of you. . . . I’ve got some books, no doubt they’re yours. What’s your name? Where do you live? He spoke of Sixth Street . . .”
But I did not finish. She uttered a cry of terror as though at my knowing where she lived; pushed me away with her thin, bony, little hand, and ran downstairs. I followed her; I could till hear her footsteps below. Suddenly they ceased. . . . When I ran out into the street she was not to be seen. Running as far as Voznesensky Prospect I realized that all my efforts were in vain. She had vanished. “Most likely she hid from me somewhere,” I thought “on her way downstairs.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53