Vladimir Nabokov. Revenge© Copyright 1924 by Vladimir Nabokov © Copyright by Dmitry Nabokov, english translation
Ostend, the stone wharf, the gray strand, the distant row of hotels, were all slowly rotating as they receded into the turquoise haze of an autumn day. The professor wrapped his legs in a tartan lap robe, and the chaise tongue creaked as he reclined into its canvas comfort. The clean, ochre-red deck was crowded but quiet. The boilers heaved discreetly. An English girl in worsted stockings, indicating the professor with a motion of her eyebrow, addressed her brother who was standing nearby: "Looks like Sheldon, doesn't he?" Sheldon was a comic actor, a bald giant with a round, flabby face. "He's really enjoying the sea," the girl added sotto voce. Whereupon, I regret to say, she drops out of my story. Her brother, an ungainly, red-haired student on his way back to his university after the summer holidays, took the pipe out of his mouth and said, "He's our biology professor. Capital old chap. Must say hello to him." He approached the professor, who, lifting his heavy eyelids, recognized one of the worst and most diligent of his pupils. "Ought to be a splendid crossing," said the student, giving a light squeeze to the large, cold hand that was proffered him. "I hope so," replied the professor, stroking his gray cheek with his fingers. "Yes, I hope so," he repeated weightily, "I hope so." The student gave the two suitcases standing next to the deck chair a cursory glance. One of them was a dignified veteran, covered with the white traces of old travel labels, like bird droppings on a monument. The other one--brand-new, orange-colored, with gleaming locks--for some reason caught his attention. "Let me move that suitcase before it falls over," he offered, to keep up the conversation. The professor chuckled. He did look like that silver-browed comic, or else like an aging boxer. . . . "The suitcase, you say? Know what I have in it?" he inquired, with a hint of irritation in his voice. "Can't guess? A marvelous object! A special kind of coat hanger . . ." "A German invention, sir?" the student prompted, remembering that the biologist had just been to Berlin for a scientific congress. The professor gave a hearty, creaking laugh, and a golden tooth flashed like a flame. "A divine invention, my friend--divine. Something everybody needs. Why, you travel with the same kind of thing yourself. Eh? Or perhaps you're a polyp?" The student grinned. He knew that the professor was given to obscure jokes. The old man was the object of much gossip at the university. They said he tortured his spouse, a very young woman. The student had seen her once. A skinny thing, with incredible eyes. "And how is your wife, sir?" asked the red-haired student. The professor replied, "I shall be frank with you, dear friend. I've been struggling with myself for quite some some time, but now I feel compelled to tell you. . . . My dear friend, I like to travel in silence. I trust you'll forgive me." But here the student, whistling in embarrassment and sharing his sister's lot, departs forever from these pages. The biology professor, meanwhile, pulled his black felt hat down over his bristly brows to shield his eyes against the sea's dazzling shimmer, and sank into a semblance of sleep. The sunlight falling on his gray, clean-shaven face, with its large nose and heavy chin, made it seem freshly modeled out of moist clay. Whenever a flimsy autumn cloud happened to screen the sun, the face would suddenly darken, dry out, and petrify. It was all, of course, alternating light and shade rather than a reflection of his thoughts. If his thoughts had indeed been reflected on his face, the professor would have hardly been a pretty sight. The trouble was that he had received a report the other day from the private detective he had hired in London that his wife was unfaithful to him. An intercepted letter, written in her minuscule, familiar hand, began, "My dear darling Jack, I am still all full of your last kiss." The professor's name was certainly not Jack--that was the whole point. The perception made him feel neither surprise nor pain, not even masculine vexation, but only hatred, sharp and cold as a lancet. He realized with utter clarity that he would murder his wife. There could be no qualms. One had only to devise the most excruciating, the most ingenious method. As he reclined in the deck chair, he reviewed for the hundredth time all the methods of torture described by travelers and medieval scholars. Not one of them, so far, seemed adequately painful. In the distance, at the verge of the green shimmer, the sugary-white cliffs of Dover were materializing, and he had still not made a decision. The steamer fell silent and, gently rocking, docked. The professor followed his porter down the gangplank. The customs officer, after rattling off the items ineligible for import, asked him to open a suitcase--the new, orange one. The professor turned the lightweight key in its lock and swung open the leather flap. Some Russian lady behind him loudly exclaimed, "Good Lord!" and gave a nervous laugh. Two Belgians standing on either side of the professor cocked their heads and gave a kind of upward glance. One shrugged his shoulders and the other gave a soft whistle, while the English turned away with indifference. The official, dumbfounded, goggled his eyes at the suitcase's contents. Everybody felt very creepy and uncomfortable. The biologist phlegmatically gave his name, mentioning the university museum. Expressions cleared up. Only a few ladies were chagrined to learn that no crime had been committed. "But why do you transport it in a suitcase?" inquired the official with respectful reproach, gingerly lowering the flap and chalking a scrawl on the bright leather. "I was in a hurry," said the professor with a fatigued squint. "No time to hammer together a crate. In any case it's a valuable object and not something I'd send in the baggage hold." And, with a stooped but springy gait, the professor crossed to the railway platform past a policeman who resembled a gargantuan toy. But suddenly he paused as if remembering something and mumbled with a radiant, kindly smile, "There--1 have it. A most clever method." Whereupon he heaved a sigh of relief and purchased two bananas, a pack of cigarettes, newspapers reminiscent of crackling bedsheets, and, a few minutes later, was speeding in a comfortable compartment of the Continental Express along the scintillating sea, the white cliffs, the emerald pastures of Kent.
They were wonderful eyes indeed, with pupils like glossy inkdrops on dove-gray satin. Her hair was cut short and golden-pale in hue, a luxuriant topping of fluff. She was small, upright, flat-chested. She had been expecting her husband since yesterday, and knew for certain he would arrive today. Wearing a gray, open-necked dress and velvet slippers, she was sitting on a peacock ottoman in the parlor, thinking what a pity it was her husband did not believe in ghosts and openly despised the young medium, a Scot with pale, delicate eyelashes, who occasionally visited her. After all, odd things did happen to her. Recently, in her sleep, she had had a vision of a dead youth with whom, before she was married, she had strolled in the twilight, when the blackberry blooms seem so ghostly white. Next morning, still aquiver, she had penciled a letter to him--a letter to her dream. In this letter she had lied to poor Jack. She had, in fact, nearly forgotten about him; she loved her excruciating husband with a fearful but faithful love; yet she wanted to send a little warmth to this dear spectral visitor, to reassure him with some words from earth. The letter vanished mysteriously from her writing pad, and the same night she dreamt of a long table, from under which Jack suddenly emerged, nodding to her gratefully. Now, for some reason, she felt uneasy when recalling that dream, almost as if she had cheated on her husband with a ghost. The drawing room was warm and festive. On the wide, low win-dowsill lay a silk cushion, bright yellow with violet stripes. The professor arrived just when she had decided his ship must have gone to the bottom. Glancing out the window, she saw the black top of a taxi, the driver's proffered palm, and the massive shoulders of her husband who had bent down his head as he paid. She flew through the rooms and trotted downstairs swinging her thin, bared arms. He was climbing toward her, stooped, in an ample coat. Behind him a servant carried his suitcases. She pressed against his woolen scarf, playfully bending back the heel of one slender, gray-stockinged leg. He kissed her warm temple. With a good-natured smile he lifted away her arms. "I'm covered with dust. . . . Wait. . . . ," he mumbled, holding her by the wrists. Frown-ing, she tossed her head and the pale conflagration of her hair. The professor stooped and kissed her on the lips with another little grin. At supper, thrusting out the white breastplate of his starched shirt and energetically moving his glossy cheekbones, he recounted his brief journey. He was reservedly jolly. The curved silk lapels of his dinner jacket, his bulldog jaw, his massive bald head with ironlike veins on its temples--all this aroused in his wife an exquisite pity: the pity she always felt because, as he studied the minutiae of life, he refused to enter her world, where the poetry of de la Mare flowed and infinitely tender astral spirits hurtled. "Well, did your ghosts come knocking while I was away?" he asked, reading her thoughts. She wanted to tell him about the dream, the letter, but felt somehow guilty. "You know something," he went on, sprinkling sugar on some pink rhubarb, "you and your friends are playing with fire. There can be really terrifying occurrences. One Viennese doctor told me about some incredible metamorphoses the other day. Some woman--some kind of fortune-telling hysteric--died, of a heart attack I think, and, when the doctor undressed her (it all happened in a Hungarian hut, by candlelight), he was stunned at the sight of her body; it was entirely covered with a reddish sheen, was soft and slimy to the touch, and, upon closer examination, he realized that this plump, taut cadaver consisted entirely of narrow, circular bands of skin, as if it were all bound evenly and tightly by invisible strings, something like that advertisement for French tires, the man whose body is all tires. Except that in her case these tires were very thin and pale red. And, as the doctor watched, the corpse gradually began to unwind like a huge ball of yarn. . . . Her body was a thin, endless worm, which was disentangling itself and crawling, slithering out through the crack under the door while, on the bed, there remained a naked, white, still humid skeleton. Yet this woman had a husband, who had once kissed her--kissed that worm," The professor poured himself a glass of port the color of mahogany and began gulping the rich liquid, without taking his narrowed eyes off his wife's face. Her thin, pale shoulders gave a shiver. "You yourself don't realize what a terrifying thing you've told me," she said in agitation. "So the woman's ghost disappeared into a worm. It's all terrifying. . . ." "I sometimes think," said the professor, ponderously shooting a cuff and examining his blunt fingers, "that, in the final analysis, my science is an idle illusion, that it is we who have invented the laws of physics, that anything--absolutely anything--can happen. Those who abandon themselves to such thoughts go mad. . . ." He stifled a yawn, tapping his clenched fist against his lips. "What's come over you, my dear?" his wife exclaimed softly. "You never spoke this way before. . . . I thought you knew everything, had everything mapped out. . . ." For an instant the professor's nostrils flared spasmodically, and a gold fang flashed. But his face quickly regained its flabby state. He stretched and got up from the table. "I'm babbling nonsense," he said calmly and tenderly. "I'm tired. I'll go to bed. Don't turn on the light when you come in. Get right into bed with me--with me," he repeated meaningfully and tenderly, as he had not spoken for a long time. These words resounded gently within her when she remained alone in the drawing room. She had been married to him for five years and, despite her husband's capricious disposition, his frequent outbursts of unjustified jealousy, his silences, sullenness, and incomprehension, she felt happy, for she loved and pitied him. She, all slender and white, and he, massive, bald, with tufts of gray wool in the middle of his chest, made an impossible, monstrous couple--and yet she enjoyed his infrequent, forceful caresses. A chrysanthemum, in its vase on the mantel, dropped several curled petals with a dry rustle. She gave a start and her heart jolted disagreeably as she remembered that the air was always filled with phantoms, that even her scientist husband had noted their fearsome apparitions. She recalled how Jackie had popped out from under the table and started nodding his head with an eerie tenderness. It seemed to her that all the objects in the room were watching her expectantly. She was chilled by a wind of fear. She quicidy left the drawing room, restraining an absurd cry. She caught her breath and thought. What a silly thing I am, really. . . . In the bathroom she spent a long time examining the sparkling pupils of her eyes. Her small face, capped by fluffy gold, seemed unfamiliar to her. Feeling light as a young girl, with nothing on but a lace nightgown, trying not to brush against the furniture, she went to the darkened bedroom. She extended her arms to locate the headboard of the bed, and lay down on its edge. She knew she was not alone, that her husband was lying beside her. For a few instants she motionlessly gazed upward, feeling the fierce, muftled pounding of her heart. When her eyes had become accustomed to the dark, intersected by the stripes of moonlight pouring through the muslin blind, she turned her head toward her husband. He was lying with his back to her, wrapped in the blanket. All she could see was the bald crown of his head, which seemed extraordinarily sleek and white in the puddle of moonlight. He's not asleep, she thought affectionately. If he were, he would be snoring a little. She smiled and, with her whole body, slid over toward her husband, spreading her arms under the covers for the familiar embrace. Her fingers felt some smooth ribs. Her knee struck a smooth bone. A skull, its black eye sockets rotating, rolled from its pillow onto her shoulder. Electric light flooded the room. The professor, in his crude dinner jacket, his starched bosom, eyes, and enormous forehead glistening, emerged from behind a screen and approached the bed. The blanket and sheets, jumbled together, slithered to the rug. His wife lay dead, embracing the white, hastily cobbled skeleton of a hunchback that the professor had acquired abroad for the university museum.