by Vladimir Nabokov (1924)
HE HAD A JOB as a waiter in the international dining car of a German fast train. His name was Aleksey Lvovich Luzhin. He had left Russia five years before, in 1919, and since then, as he made his way from city to city, had tried a good number of trades and occupations: he had worked as a farm laborer in Turkey, a messenger in Vienna, a housepainter, a sales clerk, and so forth. Now, on either side of the diner, the meadows, the hills overgrown with heather, the pine groves flowed on and on, and the bouillon steamed and splashed in the thick cups on the tray that he nimbly carried along the narrow aisle between the window tables. He waited with masterful dispatch, forking up from the dish he carried slices of beef or ham, depositing them on the plates, and in the process rapidly dipping his close-cropped head, with its tensed forehead and black, bushy eyebrows.
The car would arrive in Berlin at five p.m., and at seven it would depart in the opposite direction, toward the French border. Luzhin lived on a kind of steel seesaw: he had time to think and reminisce only at night, in a narrow nook that smelled of fish and dirty socks. His most frequent recollections were of a house in St. Petersburg, of his study there, with those leather buttons on the curves of overstuffed furniture, and of his wife Lena, of whom he had had no news for five years. At present, he felt his life wasting away. Too-frequent sniffs of cocaine had ravaged his mind; the little sores on the inside of his nostrils were eating into the septum.
When he smiled, his large teeth would flash with an especially clean luster, and this Russian ivory smile somehow endeared him to the other two waiters—Hugo, a thickset, fair-haired Berliner who made out the checks, and quick, red-haired, sharp-nosed Max, who resembled a fox, and whose job it was to take coffee and beer to the compartments. Lately, however, Luzhin smiled less often.
During the leisure hours when the crystal-bright waves of the drug beat at him, penetrating his thoughts with their radiance and transforming the least trifle into an ethereal miracle, he painstakingly noted on a sheet of paper all the various steps he intended to take in order to trace his wife. As he scribbled, with all those sensations still blissfully taut, his jottings seemed exceedingly important and correct to him. In the morning, however, when his head ached and his shirt felt clammy and sticky, he looked with bored disgust at the jerky, blurry lines. Recently, though, another idea had begun to occupy his thoughts. He began, with the same diligence, to elaborate a plan for his own death; he would draw a kind of graph indicating the rise and fall of his sense of fear; and, finally, so as to simplify matters, he set himself a definite date—the night between the first and second of August. His interest was aroused not so much by death itself as by all the details preceding it, and he would get so involved with these details that death itself would be forgotten. But as soon as he sobered up, the picturesque setting of this or that fanciful method of self-destruction would pale, and only one thing remained clear: his life had wasted away to nothing and there was no use continuing it.
The first day of August ran its course. At six-thirty in the evening, in the vast, dimly lit buffet of the Berlin station, old Princess Maria Ukhtomski sat at a bare table, obese, all in black, with a sallow face like a eunuch’s. There were few people around. The brass counterweights of the suspended lamps glimmered under the high, misty ceiling. Now and then a chair was moved back with a hollow reverberation.
Princess Ukhtomski cast a stern glance at the gilt hand of the wall clock. The hand lurched forward. A minute later it shuddered again. The old lady rose, picked up her glossy black sac de voyage and, leaning on her big-knobbed man’s cane, shuffled toward the exit.
A porter was waiting for her at the gate. The train was backing into the station. One after another, the lugubrious, iron-colored German carriages moved past. The varnished brown teak of one sleeping car bore under the center window a sign with the inscription BERLIN-PARIS; that international car, as well as the teak-lined diner, in a window of which she glimpsed the protruding elbows and head of a carroty-haired waiter, were alone reminiscent of the severely elegant prewar Nord-Express.
The train stopped with a clang of bumpers, and a long, sibilant sigh of brakes.
The porter installed Princess Ukhtomski in a second-class compartment of a Schnellzug car—a smoking compartment as she requested. In one corner, by the window, a man in a beige suit with an insolent face and an olive complexion was already trimming a cigar.
The old Princess settled across from him. She checked, with a slow, deliberate look, whether all her things had been placed in the overhead net. Two suitcases and a basket. All there. And the glossy sac de voyage in her lap. Her lips made a stern chewing movement.
A German couple lumbered into the compartment, breathing heavily.
Then, a minute before the train’s departure, in came a young woman with a big painted mouth and a tight black toque that covered her forehead. She arranged her belongings and stepped out into the corridor. The man in the beige suit glanced after her. She raised the window with inexperienced jerks and leaned out to say good-bye to someone. The Princess caught the patter of Russian speech.
The train started. The young woman returned to the compartment. That smile that lingered on her face died out, and was replaced by a weary look. The brick rear walls of houses went gliding past; one of them displayed the painted advertisement of a colossal cigarette, stuffed with what looked like golden straw. The roofs, wet from a rainstorm, glistened under the rays of the low sun.
Old Princess Ukhtomski could control herself no longer. She inquired gently in Russian: “Do you mind if I put my bag here?”
The woman gave a start and replied, “Not at all, please do.”
The olive-and-beige man in the corner peered at her over his paper.
“Well, I’m on my way to Paris,” volunteered the Princess with a slight sigh. “I have a son there. I am afraid to stay in Germany, you know.”
She produced an ample handkerchief from her sac de voyage and firmly wiped her nose, left to right and back again.
“Yes, afraid. People say there’s going to be a Communist revolution in Berlin. Have you heard anything?”
The young woman shook her head. She glanced suspiciously at the man with the paper and at the German couple.
“I don’t know anything. I arrived from Russia, from Petersburg, the day before yesterday.”
Princess Ukhtomski’s plump, sallow face expressed intense curiosity. Her diminutive eyebrows crept upward.
“You don’t say!”
With her eyes fixed on the tip of her gray shoe, the woman said rapidly, in a soft voice: “Yes, a kindhearted person helped me to get out. I’m going to Paris too now. I have relatives there.”
She started taking off her gloves. A gold wedding ring slipped off her finger. Quickly she caught it.
“I keep losing my ring. Must have grown thinner or something.”
She fell silent, blinking her lashes. Through the corridor window beyond the glass compartment door the even row of telegraph wires could be seen swooping upward.
Princess Ukhtomski moved closer to her neighbor.
“Tell me,” she inquired in a loud whisper. “The sovietchiks aren’t doing so well now, are they?”
A telegraph pole, black against the sunset, flew past, interrupting the smooth ascent of the wires. They dropped as a flag drops when the wind stops blowing. Then furtively they began rising again. The express was traveling swiftly between the airy walls of a spacious fire-bright evening. From somewhere in the ceilings of the compartments a slight crackling kept coming, as if rain were falling on the steel roofs. The German cars swayed violently. The international one, its interior upholstered in blue cloth, rode more smoothly and silently than the others. Three waiters were laying the tables in the diner. One of them, with close-cropped hair and beetling brows, was thinking about the little vial in his breast pocket. He kept licking his lips and sniffling. The vial contained a crystalline powder and bore the brand name Kramm. He was distributing knives and forks and inserting sealed bottles into rings on the tables, when suddenly he could stand it no longer. He flashed a fluttered smile toward Max Fuchs, who was lowering the thick blinds, and darted across the unsteady connecting platform into the next car. He locked himself in the toilet. Carefully calculating the jolts of the train, he poured a small mound of the powder on his thumbnail; greedily applied it to one nostril, then to the other; inhaled; with a flip of his tongue licked the sparkling dust off his nail, blinked hard a couple of times from the rubbery bitterness, and left the toilet, boozy and buoyant, his head filling with icy delicious air. As he crossed the diaphragm on his way back into the diner, he thought: how simple it would be to die right now! He smiled. He had best wait till nightfall. It would be a pity to cut short the effect of the enchanting poison.
“Give me the reservation slips, Hugo. I’ll go hand them out.”
“No, let Max go. Max works faster. Here, Max.”
The red-haired waiter clutched the book of coupons in his freckled fist. He slipped like a fox between the tables and into the blue corridor of the sleeper. Five distinct harp strings swooped desperately upward alongside the windows. The sky was darkening. In the second-class compartment of a German car an old woman in black, resembling a eunuch, heard out with subdued ochs the account of a distant, dreary life.
“And your husband—did he stay behind?”
The young woman’s eyes opened wide and she shook her head: “No. He has been abroad for quite a time. Just happened that way. In the very beginning of the Revolution he traveled south to Odessa. They were after him. I was supposed to join him there, but didn’t get out in time.”
“Terrible, terrible. And you have had no news of him?”
“None. I remember I decided he was dead. Started to wear my ring on the chain of my cross—I was afraid they’d take that away too. Then, in Berlin, friends told me that he was alive. Somebody had seen him. Only yesterday I put a notice in the émigré paper.”
She hastily produced a folded page of the Rul’ from her tattered silk vanity bag.
“Here, take a look.”
Princess Ukhtomski put on her glasses and read: “Elena Nikolayevna Luzhin seeks her husband Aleksey Lvovich Luzhin.”
“Luzhin?” she queried, taking off her glasses. “Could it be Lev Sergeich’s son? He had two boys. I don’t recall their names—”
Elena smiled radiantly. “Oh, how nice. That’s a surprise. Don’t tell me you knew his father.”
“Of course, of course,” began the Princess in a complacent and kindly tone. “Lyovushka Luzhin, formerly of the Uhlans. Our estates were adjacent. He used to visit us.”
“He died,” interposed Elena.
“Yes, yes, I heard. May his soul rest in peace. He would always arrive with his borzoi hound. I don’t remember his boys well, though. I’ve been abroad since 1917. The younger one had light hair, I believe. And he had a stutter.”
Elena smiled again.
“No, no, that was his elder brother.”
“Oh, well, I got them mixed up, my dear,” the Princess said comfortably. “My memory is not so good. I wouldn’t even have remembered Lyovushka if you had not mentioned him yourself. But now it all comes back to me. He used to ride over for evening tea and— Oh, let me tell you—” The Princess moved a little closer and went on, in a clear, slightly lilting voice, without sadness, for she knew that happy things can only be spoken of in a happy way, without grieving because they have vanished:
“Let me tell you,” she went on, “we had a set of amusing plates—with a gold rim running around and, in the very center, a mosquito so lifelike that anyone who didn’t know tried to brush it off.”
The compartment door opened. A red-haired waiter was handing out reservation slips for dinner. Elena took one. So did the man sitting in the corner, who for some time had been trying to catch her eye.
“I brought my own food,” said the Princess. “Ham and a bun.”
Max went through all the cars and trotted back to the diner. In passing, he nudged his Russian fellow worker, who was standing in the car’s vestibule with a napkin under his arm. Luzhin looked after Max with glistening, anxious eyes. He felt a cool, ticklish vacuum replacing his bones and organs, as if his whole body were about to sneeze the next instant, expelling his soul. He imagined for the hundredth time how he would arrange his death. He calculated every little detail, as if he were composing a chess problem. He planned to get off at night at a certain station, walk around the motionless car and place his head against the buffer’s shieldlike end when another car, that was to be coupled on, approached the waiting one. The buffers would clash. Between their meeting ends would be his bowed head. It would burst like a soap bubble and turn into iridescent air. He should get a good foothold on the crosstie and press his temple firmly against the cold metal of the bumper.
“Can’t you hear me? Time to go make the dinner call.”
It was now Hugo speaking. Luzhin responded with a frightened smile and did what he was told, opening for an instant the compartment doors as he went, announcing loudly and hurriedly, “First call for dinner!”
In one compartment his eye fell fleetingly on the plump, yellowish face of an old woman who was unwrapping a sandwich. He was struck by something very familiar about that face. As he hurried back through the cars, he kept thinking who she might be. It was as if he had already seen her in a dream. The sensation that his body would sneeze up his soul any instant now became more concrete—any moment now I’ll remember whom that old woman resembled. But the more he strained his mind, the more irritatingly the recollection would slip away. He was morose when he returned to the diner, with his nostrils dilating and a spasm in his throat that would not let him swallow.
“Oh, the hell with her—what nonsense.”
The passengers, walking unsteadily and holding on to the walls, began to move through the corridors in the direction of the diner. Reflections were already glimmering in the darkened windows, even though a yellow streak of sunset was still visible there. Elena Luzhin noticed with alarm that the man in the beige suit had waited to get up when she had. He had nasty, glassy, protuberant eyes that seemed filled with dark iodine. He walked along the passage in such a way as almost to step on her, and when a jolt threw her off balance (the cars were rocking violently) he would pointedly clear his throat. For some reason she suddenly thought he must be a spy, an informer, and she knew it was silly to think so—she was no longer in Russia, after all—yet she could not get rid of the idea.
He said something as they passed through the corridor of the sleeper. She quickened her step. She crossed the joggy connecting plates to the diner, which came after the sleeper. And here, suddenly, in the vestibule of the diner, with a kind of rough tenderness the man clutched her by the upper arm. She stifled a scream and yanked away her arm so violently that she nearly lost her footing.
The man said in German, with a foreign accent, “My precious!”
Elena made a sudden about-face. Back she went, across the connecting platform, through the sleeping car, across another platform. She felt unbearably hurt. She would rather not have dinner at all than sit facing that boorish monster. “God knows what he took me for,” she reflected, “and all just because I use lipstick.”
“What’s the matter, my dear? Aren’t you having dinner?”
Princess Ukhtomski had a ham sandwich in her hand.
“No, I don’t feel like it any more. Excuse me, I’m going to take a nap.”
The old woman raised her thin brows in surprise, then resumed munching.
As for Elena, she leaned her head back and pretended to sleep. Soon she did doze off. Her pale, tired face twitched occasionally. The wings of her nose shone where the powder had worn off. Princess Ukhtomski lit a cigarette that had a long cardboard mouthpiece.
A half-hour later the man returned, sat down imperturbably in his corner, and worked on his back teeth with a toothpick for a while. Then he shut his eyes, fidgeted a little, and curtained his head with a flap of his overcoat, which was hanging on a hook by the window. Another half-hour went by and the train slowed. Platform lights passed like specters alongside the fogged-up windows. The car stopped with a prolonged sigh of relief. Sounds could be heard: somebody coughing in the next compartment, footsteps running past on the station platform. The train stood for a long time, while distant nocturnal whistles called out to each other. Then it jolted and began to move.
Elena awoke. The Princess was dozing, her open mouth a black cave. The German couple was gone. The man, his face covered by his coat, slept too, his legs grotesquely spread.
Elena licked her dry lips and wearily rubbed her forehead. Suddenly she gave a start: the ring was missing from her fourth finger.
For an instant she gazed, motionless, at her naked hand. Then, with a pounding heart, she began searching hastily on the seat, on the floor. She glanced at the man’s sharp knee.
“Oh, my Lord, of course—I must have dropped it on the way to the dining car when I jerked free—”
She hurried out of the compartment; arms spread, swaying this way and that, holding back her tears, she traversed one car, another. She reached the end of the sleeping car and, through the rear door, saw nothing but air, emptiness, the night sky, the dark wedge of the roadbed disappearing into the distance.
She thought she had got mixed up and gone the wrong way. With a sob, she headed back.
Next to her, by the toilet door, stood a little old woman wearing a gray apron and an armband, who resembled a night nurse. She was holding a little bucket with a brush sticking out of it.
“They uncoupled the diner,” said the little old woman, and for some reason sighed. “After Cologne there will be another.”
IN THE DINER that had remained behind under the vault of a station and would continue only next morning to France, the waiters were cleaning up, folding the tablecloths. Luzhin finished, and stood in the open doorway of the car’s vestibule. The station was dark and deserted. Some distance away a lamp shone like a humid star through a gray cloud of smoke. The torrent of rails glistened slightly. He could not understand why the face of the old lady with the sandwich had disturbed him so deeply. Everything else was clear, only this one blind spot remained.
Red-haired, sharp-nosed Max also came out into the vestibule. He was sweeping the floor. He noticed a glint of gold in a corner. He bent down. It was a ring. He hid it in his waistcoat pocket and gave a quick look around to see if anyone had noticed. Luzhin’s back was motionless in the doorway. Max cautiously took out the ring; by the dim light he distinguished a word in script and some figures engraved on the inside. Must be Chinese, he thought. Actually, the inscription read “1-VIII-1915. ALEKSEY.” He returned the ring to his pocket.
Luzhin’s back moved. Quietly he got off the car. He walked diagonally to the next track, with a calm, relaxed gait, as if taking a stroll.
A through train now thundered into the station. Luzhin went to the edge of the platform and hopped down. The cinders crunched under his heel.
At that instant, the locomotive came at him in one hungry bound. Max, totally unaware of what happened, watched from a distance as the lighted windows flew past in one continuous stripe.
“Sluchaynost” [A Matter of Chance], one of my earliest tales, written at the beginning of 1924, in the last afterglow of my bachelor life, was rejected by the Berlin émigré daily Rul’ (“We don’t print anecdotes about cocainists,” said the editor, in exactly the same tone of voice in which, thirty years later, Ross of The New Yorker was to say, “We don’t print acrostics,” when rejecting “The Vane Sisters”) and sent, with the assistance of a good friend, and a remarkable writer, Ivan Lukash, to the Rigan Segodnya, a more eclectic émigré organ, which published it on June 22, 1924.
—Vladimir Nabokov, in Tyrants Destroyed and Other Stories, 1975.