Художественная литература

Владимир Набоков

Vladimir Nabokov. Wingstroke

© 1924 Copyright by Vladimir Nabokov © Copyright by Dmitry Nabokov, english translation "Wingstroke" ("Удар крыла"). Написана в 1923, опубликована в 1924 г. Перевод с русс.яз. выполнен сыном Дмитрием. Русский вариант в современной России, по-видимому, не издавался. Известно, что существовало продолжение рассказа, но оно потеряно - по всей видимости, безвозвратно. Это последний из имеющихся у меня рассказов на English, для которого не удалось найти русского оригинала или перевода. Буду благодарен, если кто-нибудь таковые найдет.


When the curved tip of one ski crosses the other, you tumble forward. The scalding snow goes up your sleeves, and it is very hard to get back on your feet. Kern, who had not skied for a long time, rapidly worked up a sweat. Feeling slightly dizzy, he yanked off the woolen cap that had been tickling his ears, and brushed the moist sparks from his eyelashes. All was merriment and azure in front of the six-story hotel. The trees stood disembodied in the radiance. Countless ski tracks flowed like shadowy hair down the shoulders of the snowy hills. And all around, a gigantic whiteness rushed heavenward and sparkled, unfettered, in the sky Kern's skis creaked as he made his way up the slope. Noticing his broad shoulders, his equine profile, and the robust gloss on his cheekbones, the English girl he had met yesterday, the third day since his arrival, had taken him for a compatriot. Isabel, Airborne Isabel, as she was dubbed by a crowd of sleek and swarthy young men of the Argentine type, who scurried everywhere in her wake: to the hotel ballroom, up the padded stairs, along the snowy slopes in a play of sparkling dust. Her mien was airy and impetuous, her mouth so red it seemed the Creator had scooped up some torrid carmine and slapped a handful on the nether part other face. Laughter flitted in her down-flecked eyes. A Spanish comb stood erect like a wing in the steep wave other black, satin-sheeny hair. This was how Kern had seen her yesterday, when the slightly hollow din of the gong summoned her to dinner from Room 35. And the fact that they were neighbors, and that the number of her room was that of his years, and that she was seated across from him at the long table d'hфte, tall, vivacious, in a low-cut black dress, with a band of black silk on her bare neck-- all this seemed so significant to Kern that it made a rift in the dull melancholy that had already oppressed him for half a year. It was Isabel who spoke first, and that did not surprise him. In this huge hotel that blazed, isolated, in a cleft between the mountains, life pulsed tipsy and lighthearted after the dead War years. Besides, to her, to Isabel, nothing was forbidden-- not the sidelong flutter of eyelashes, not the melody of laugliter in lier voice as she said, handing Kern the ashtray, "'I think you and I are the only English here," and added, inclining tableward a translucent shoulder restrained by a black ribbonlike strap, ""Not counting, of course, a half-dozen little old ladies, and that character over there with the turned-around collar." Kern replied, "You're mistaken. I have no homeland. It's true I spent many years in London. Besides-- " The next morning, after a half-year of indifference, he suddenly felt the pleasure of entering the deafening cone of an ice-cold shower. At nine, after a substantial and sensible breakfast, he crunched off on his skis across the reddish sand scattered on the naked glare of the path before the hotel veranda. When he had mounted the snowy slope, lierringbone-style as befits a skier, there, amid checkered knickers and flushed faces, was Isabel. She greeted him English fashion-- with but the flourish of a smile. Her skis were iridescent with olive-gold. Snow clung to the intricate straps that held her feet. There was an unfeminine strength about her feet and legs, shapely in their sturdy boots and tightly wound puttees. A purple shadow glided behind her along the crusty surface as, hands nonchalantly thrust into the pockets of her leather jacket and her left ski slightly advanced, she sped off down the slope, ever faster, scarf flying, amid sprays of powdered snow. Then, at full speed, she made a sharp turn with one knee deeply flexed, straightened again, and sped on, past the firs, past the turquoise skating rink. A pair of youths in colorful sweaters and a famous Swedish sportsman with a terra-cotta face and colorless, combed-back hair rushed past behind her. A little later Kern ran into her again near a bluish track along which people flashed with a faint clatter, belly-down on their flat sleds like woolly frogs. With a glint of her skis Isabel disappeared behind the bend of a snowbank, and when Kern, ashamed of his awkward movements, overtook her in a soft hollow amid silver-frosted boughs, she wiggled her fingers in the air, stamped her skis, and was off again. Kern stood for a time among the violet shadows, and suddenly felt a whiff of the familiar terror of silence. The lacework of the branches m the enamel-like air had the chill of a terrifying fairy tale. The trees, the intricate shadows, his own skis all looked strangely toylike. He realized that he was tired, that he had a blistered heel, and, snagging some protruding branches, he turned back. Skaters glided mechanically across the smooth turquoise. On the snow slope beyond, the terra-cotta Swede was helping up a snow-covered, lanky chap with horn-rimmed glasses, who was floundering in the sparkling powder like some awkward bird. Like a detached wing, a ski that had come off his foot was sliding down the hill. Back in his room. Kern changed and, at the sound of the gong's hollow clanging, rang and ordered cold roast beef, some grapes, and a flask of Chianti. He had a nagging ache in his shoulders and thighs. Had no business chasing after her, he thought. A man sticks a pair of boards on his feet and proceeds to savor the law of gravity. Ridiculous. Around four he went down to the spacious reading room, where the mouth of the fireplace exhaled orange heat and invisible people sat in deep leather armchairs with their legs extending from under open newspapers. On a long oaken table lay a disorderly pile of magazines full of advertisements for toilet supplies, dancing girls, and parliamentary top hats. Kern picked out a ragged copy of the Tattler from the previous June and, for a long time, examined the smile of the woman who had, for seven years, been his wife. He recalled her dead face, which had become so cold and hard, and some letters he had found in a small box. He pushed aside the magazine, his fingernail squeaking on the glossy page. Then, moving his shoulders laboriously and wheezing on his short pipe, he went out onto the enormous enclosed veranda, where a chilled band was playing and people in bright scarves were drinking strong tea, ready to rush out again into the cold, onto the slopes that shone with a humming shimmer through the wide windowpanes. With searching eyes, he scanned the veranda. Somebody's curious gaze pricked him like a needle touching the nerve of a tooth. He turned back abruptly. In the billiard room, which he had entered sidewise as the oak door yielded to his push, Monfiori, a pale, red-haired little fellow who recognized only the Bible and the carom, was bent over the emerald cloth, sliding his cue back and forth as he aimed at a ball. Kern had made his acquaintance recently, and the man had promptly showered him with citations from the Holy Scriptures. He said he was writing a major book in which he demonstrated that, if one construed the Book of Job in a certain way, then. . . But Kern had stopped listening, for his attention had suddenly been caught by his interlocutor's ears-- pointed ears, packed with canary-colored dust, with reddish fluff on their tips. The balls clicked and scattered. Raising his eyebrows, Monfiori proposed a game. He had melancholy, slightly bulbous, caprine eyes. Kern had already accepted, and had even rubbed some chalk on the tip of his cue, but, suddenly sensing a wave of dreadful ennui that made the pit of his stomach ache and his ears ring, said he had a pain in his elbow, glanced out as he passed a window at the mountains' sugary sheen, and returned to the reading room. There, with his legs intertwined and one patent-leather shoe twitching, he again examined the pearl-gray photograph, the childlike eyes and shaded lips of the London beauty who had been his wife. The first night after her self-inflicted death he followed a woman who smiled at him on a foggy street corner, taking revenge on God, love, and fate. And now came this Isabel with that red smear for a mouth. If one could only. . . He clenched his teeth and the muscles of his strong jaws rippled. His entire past life seemed a shaky row of varicolored screens with which he shielded himself from cosmic drafts. Isabel was but the latest bright scrap. How many there had already been of these silk rags, and how he had tried to hang them across the gaping black gap! Voyages, books in delicate bindings, and seven years of ecstatic love. They bil-lowed, these scraps, with the wind outside, tore, fell one by one. The gap cannot be hidden, the abyss breathes and sucks everything in. This he understood when the detective in suede gloves. . . Kern sensed that he was rocking back and forth, and that some pale girl with pink eyebrows was looking at him from behind a magazine. He took a Times from the table and opened the giant sheets. Paper bedspread across the chasm. People invent crimes, museums, games, only to escape from the unknown, from the vertiginous sky. And now this Isabel. . . He tossed the paper aside, rubbed his forehead with an enormous fist, and again felt someone's wondering gaze on him. Then he slowly walked out of the room, past the reading feet, past the fireplace's orange jaw. He lost his way in the resounding corridors, found himself in some hallway, where the white legs of a bowed chair were reflected by the parquet and a broad painting hung on the wall of William Tell piercing the apple on his son's head; then he examined at length his clean-shaven, heavy face, the blood streaks on the whites of his eyes, his checked bow tie in the glistening mirror of a bright bathroom where water gurgled musically and a golden cigarette butt discarded by someone floated in the porcelain depths. Beyond the windows the snows were dimming and turning blue. Delicate hues illumined the sky. The flaps of the revolving door at the entrance to the din-filled vestibule slowly glinted as they admitted clouds of vapor and snorting, florid-faced people tired after their snowy games. The stairs breathed with footfalls, exclamations, laughter. Then the hotel grew still: everyone was dressing for dinner. Kern, who had fallen into a vague torpor in his armchair in his twi-lit room, was awakened by the gong's vibrations. Reveling in his newfound energy, he turned on the lights, inserted cuff links into a fresh, starched shirt, extracted a flattened pair of black pants from under the squeaking press. Five minutes later, aware of a cool lightness, the firmness of the hair on the top of his head, and every detail of his well-creased clothes, he went down to the dining room. Isabel was not there. Soup was served, then fish, but she did not appear. Kern examined with revulsion the dull-bronzed youths, the brick-hued face of an old woman with a beauty spot dissimulating a pimple, a man with goatish eyes, and fixed his gloomy gaze on a curly little pyramid of hyacinths in a green pot. She appeared only when, in the hall where William Tell hung, the instruments of a Negro band had started pounding and moaning. She smelled of chill air and perfume. Her hair looked moist. Something about her face stunned Kern. She smiled a brilliant smile, and adjusted the black ribbon on her translucent shoulder. "You know, I just got back. Barely had time to change and wolf down a sandwich." Kern asked: "Don't tell me you've been siding all this time? Why, it's completely dark out." She gave him an intense look, and Kern realized what had astonished him: her eyes, which sparkled as if they were dusted with frost. Isabel began gliding softly along the dovelike vowels of English speech: "Of course. It was extraordinary. I hurtled down the slopes in the dark, I flew off the bumps. Right up into the stars." "You might have killed yourself," said Kern. She repeated, narrowing her downy eyes, "Right up into the stars," and added, with a glint of her bare clavicle, "and now I want to dance." The Negro band rattled and wailed in the hall. Japanese lanterns floated colorfully. Moving on tiptoe, alternating quick steps with suspended ones, his palm pressed to hers, Kern advanced, at close quarters, on Isabel. One step, and her slender leg would press into him; another, and she would resiliently yield. The fragrant freshness of her hair tickled his temple, and he could feel, under the edge of his right hand, the supple undulations of her bared back. With bated breath he would enter breaks in the music, then glide on from measure to measure. . . . Around him floated past the intense faces of angular couples with perversely absent eyes. And the opaque song of the strings was punctuated by the patter of primitive little hammers. The music accelerated, swelled, and ended with a clatter. Everything stopped. Then came applause, demanding more of the same. But the musicians had decided to have a rest. Pulling a handkerchief out of his cuff and mopping his brow. Kern set off after Isabel, who, with a flutter of her black fan, was heading for the door. They sat down side by side on some wide stairs. Not looking at him, she said, "Sorry-- I had the feeling I was still amid the snow and stars. I didn't even notice whether you danced well or not." Kern glanced at her as if not hearing, and she was indeed immersed in her own radiant thoughts, thoughts unknown to him. One step lower sat a youth in a very narrow jacket and a skinny girl with a birthmark on her shoulder blade. When the music started again, the youth invited Isabel to dance a Boston. Kern had to dance with the skinny girl. She smelled of slightly sour lavender. Colored paper streamers swirled out through the hall, tangling themselves about the dancers. One of the musicians stuck on a white mustache, and for some reason Kern felt ashamed for him. When the dance was over he abandoned his partner and rushed off in search of Isabel. She was nowhere to be seen-- not at the buffet nor on the staircase. That's it-- bedtime, was Kern's terse thought. Back in his room he held the drape aside before lying down, and, without thinking, looked into the night. Reflections of windows lay on the dark snow in front of the hotel. In the distance, the metallic summits floated in a funereal radiance. He had the sensation he had glanced into death. He pulled the folds together tightly so that not a ray of night could leak into the room. But when he switched off the light and lay down, he noticed a glint coming from the edge of a glass shelf. He got up and fiddled a long time around the window, cursing the splashes of moonlight. The floor was cold as marble. When Kern loosened the cord of his pajamas and closed his eyes, slippery slopes started to rush beneath him. A hollow pounding began in his heart, as if it had kept silent all day and was now taking advantage of the quiet. He began feeling frightened as he listened to this pounding. He recalled how once, on a very windy day, he was passing a butcher's shop with his wife, and a carcass rocked on its hook with a dull thudding against the wall. That was how his heart felt now. His wife, meanwhile, had her eyes narrowed against the wind and was holding her hat as she said that the wind and the sea were driving her crazy, that they must leave, they must leave. . . . Kern rolled over onto his other side-- gingerly, so his chest would not burst from the convex blows. "Can't go on like this," he mumbled into the pillow, forlornly folding up his legs. He lay for a while on his back peering at the ceiling, at the wan gleams that had penetrated, as piercing as his ribs. When his eyes closed again, silent sparks started to glide in front of him, then infinitely unwinding transparent spirals. Isabel's snowy eyes and fiery mouth flashed past, then came sparks and spirals again. For an instant his heart retracted into a lacerating knot. Then it swelled and gave a thump. Can't go on like this, I'll go crazy. No future, just a black wall. There's nothing left. He had the impression that the paper streamers were slithering down his face, rustling and ripping into narrow shreds. And the Japanese lanterns flowed with colored undulations in the parquet. He was dancing, advancing. If I could just unclench her, flip her open. . . . And then. . . And death seemed to him like a gliding dream, a flufly fall. No thoughts, no palpitations, no aches. The lunar ribs on the ceiling had imperceptibly moved. Footfalls passed quietly along the corridor, a lock clicked somewhere, a soft ringing flew past; then footfalls again, the mutter and murmur of footfalls. That means the ball is over, thought Kern. He turned his stuffy pillow over. Now, all around, there was an immense, gradually cooling silence. Only his heart oscillated, taut and heavy. Kern groped on the bedside table, located the pitcher, took a swallow from the spout. An icy streamlet scalded his neck and collarbone. He started thinking of methods to induce sleep. He imagined waves rhythmically running up onto a shoreline. Then plump gray sheep slowly tumbling over a fence. One sheep, two, three. . . Isabel is asleep next door, thought Kern. Isabel is asleep, wearing yellow pajamas, probably. Yellow becomes her. Spanish color. If I scratched on the wall with my fingernail she'd hear me. Damned palpitations. .. He fell asleep at the very moment he had begun trying to decide whether there was any point in turning on the light and reading something for a while. There's a French novel lying on the armchair. The ivory knife glides, cutting the pages. One, two. . . He came to in the middle of the room, awakened by a sense of unbearable horror. The horror had knocked him off the bed. He had dreamt that the wall next to which stood his bed had begun slowly collapsing onto him-- so he had recoiled with a spasmodic exhalation. Kern found the headboard by touch, and would have gone back to sleep immediately if it had not been for a noise he heard through the wall. He did not understand right away where this noise was coming from, and the act of straining his hearing made his consciousness, which was ready to glide down the slope of sleep, abruptly grow lucid. The noise occurred again: a twang, followed by the rich sonority of guitar strings. Kern remembered-- it was Isabel who was in the next room. Right away, as if in response to his thought, came a peal of her laughter. Twice, thrice, the guitar throbbed and dissolved. Then an odd, intermittent bark sounded and ceased. Seated on his bed, Kern listened in wonder. He pictured a bizarre scene: Isabel with a guitar and a huge Great Dane looking up at her with blissful eyes. He put his ear to the chilly wall. The bark rang out again, the guitar twanged as from a fillip, and a strange rustle began undulating as if an ample wind were whirling there in the next room. The rustle stretched out into a low whistle, and once again the night filled with silence. Then a frame banged-- Isabel had shut the window. Indefatigable girl, he thought-- the dog, the guitar, the icy drafts. Now all was quiet. Having expelled all those noises from her room, Isabel had probably gone to bed and was now asleep. "Damn it! I don't understand anything. I don't have anything. Damn it, damn it," moaned Kern, burying himself in the pillow. A leaden fatigue was compressing his temples. His legs ached and tingled unbearably. He groaned in the darkness for a long time, turning heavily from side to side. The rays on the ceiling were long since extinguished.


The next day Isabel did not appear until lunchtime. Since morning the sky had been blindingly white and the sun had been moonlike. Then snow began falling, slowly and vertically. The dense flakes, like ornamental spots on a white veil, curtained the view of the mountains, the heavily laden firs, the dulled turquoise of the rink. The plump, soft particles of snow rustled against the window-panes, falling, falling without end. If one watched them for long, one had the impression the entire hotel was slowly drifting upward. "I was so tired last night," Isabel was saying to her neighbor, a young man with a high olive forehead and piercing eyes, "so tired I decided to loll in bed." "You look stunning today," drawled the young man with exotic courtesy. She inflated her nostrils derisively. Looking at her through the hyacinths, Kern said coldly, "I didn't know, Miss Isabel, that you had a dog in your room, as well as a guitar." Her downy eyes seemed to narrow even more, against a breeze of embarrassment. Then she beamed with a smile, all carmine and ivory. "You overdid it on the dance floor last night, Mr. Kern," she replied. The olive youth and the little fellow who recognized only Bible and billiards laughed, the first with a hearty ha-ha, the second very softly, with raised eyebrows. Kern said with a frown, "I'd like to ask you not to play at night. I don't have an easy time falling asleep." Isabel slashed his face with a rapid, radiant glance. "You had better ask your dreams, not me, about that." And she began talking to her neighbor about the next day's ski competition. For some minutes already Kern had felt his lips stretching into a spasmodic, uncontrollable sneer. It twitched agonizingly in the corners of his mouth, and he suddenly felt like yanking the tablecloth off the table, hurling the pot with the hyacinths against the wall. He rose, trying to conceal his unbearable tremor, and, seeing no one, went out of the room. "What's happening to me," he questioned his anguish. "What's going on here?" He kicked his suitcase open and started packing. He immediately felt dizzy. He stopped and again began pacing the room. Angrily he stuffed his short pipe. He sat down in the armchair by the window, beyond which the snow was falling with nauseating regularity. He had come to this hotel, to this wintry, stylish nook called Zermatt, in order to fuse the sensation of white silence with the pleasure of lighthearted, motley encounters, for total solitude was what he feared most. But now he understood that human faces were also intolerable to him, that the snow made his head ring, and that he lacked the inspired vitality and tender perseverance without which passion is powerless. While for Isabel, probably, life consisted of a splendid ski run, of impetuous laughter, of perfume and frosty air. Who is she? A heliotype diva, broken free? Or the runaway daughter of a swaggering bilious lord? Or just one of those women from Paris. . . And where does her money come from? Slightly vulgar thought.. . She does have the dog, though, and it's pointless for her to deny it. Some sleek-haired Great Dane. With a cold nose and warm ears. Still snowing, too, Kern thought haphazardly. And, in my suitcase-- a spring seemed to pop open, with a clink, in his brain-- 1 have a Parabellum. Until evening he again ambled about the hotel, or made dry rustling noises with the newspapers in the reading room. From the vestibule window he saw Isabel, the Swede, and several young men with jackets pulled on over fringed sweaters getting into a swanlike curved sleigh. The roan horses made their merry harnesses ring. The snow was falling silent and dense. Isabel, all spangled with small white stars, was shouting and laughing amid her companions. And when the sled started with a jerk and sped off, she rocked backward, clapping her fur-mittened hands in the air. Kern turned away from the window. Go ahead, enjoy your ride. . . . It makes no difference. . . . Then, during dinner, he tried not to look at her. She was filled with a merry, festive gaiety, and paid no attention to him. At nine the Negro music began moaning and clattering again. Kern, in a state of feverish languor, was standing by the doorjamb, gazing at the clinched couples and at Isabel's curly fan. A soft voice said next to his ear, "Would you care to go to the bar?" He turned and saw the melancholy caprine eyes, the ears with their reddish fuzz. Amid the crimson penumbra of the bar the glass tables reflected the flounces of the lampshades. On high stools at the metal counter sat three men, all three wearing white gaiters, their legs retracted, sucking through straws on bright-colored drinks. On the other side of the bar, where varicolored bottles sparkled on the shelves like a collection of convex beetles, a fleshy, black-mustachioed man in a cherry-colored dinner jacket was mixing cocktails with extraordinary dexterity. Kern and Monfiori selected a table in the bar's velvet depths. A waiter opened a long list of beverages, gingerly and revercnuy, uke an antiquary exhibiting a precious book. "We're going to have a glass of each in succession," said Monfiori in his melancholy, slightly hollow voice, "and when we get to the end we'll start over, choosing only the ones we found to our liking. Perhaps we'll stop at one and keep savoring it for a long time. Then we'll go back to the beginning again." He gave the waiter a pensive look. "Is that clear?" The part in the waiter's hair tipped forward. "This is known as the roaming of Bacchus," Monfiori told Kern with a doleful chuckle. "Some people approach their daily life in the same way." Kern stifled a tremulous yawn. "You know this ends by making you throw up." Monfiori sighed, swigged, smacked his lips, and marked the first item on the list with an X, using an automatic pencil. Two deep furrows ran from the wings of his nose to the corners of his thin mouth. After his third glass Kern lit a cigarette in silence. After his sixth drink-- an oversweet concoction of chocolate and champagne-- he had the urge to talk. He exhaled a megaphone of smoke. Narrowing his eyes, he tapped the ashes from his cigarette with a yellowed nail. "Tell me, Monfiori, what do you think of this-- what's her name-- Isabel?" "You'll get nowhere with her," replied Monfiori. "She belongs to the slippery species. All she seeks is fleeting contact." "But she plays the guitar at night, and fusses with her dog. That's not good, is it?" said Kern, goggling his eyes at his glass. With another sigh, Monfiori said, "Why don't you drop her. After all.. " "Sounds to me like envy-- " began Kern. The other quietly interrupted him: "She's a woman. And I, you see, have other tastes." Clearing his throat modestly, he made another X. The ruby drinks were replaced by golden ones. Kern had the feeling his blood was turning sweet. His head was growing foggy. The white spats left the bar. The drumming and crooning of the distant music ceased. "You say one must be selective. . . ," he spoke thickly and limply, "while I have reached a point. . . Listen to this, for instance-- 1 once had a wife. She fell in love with someone else. He turned out to be a thief. He stole cars, necklaces, furs. . . . And she poisoned herself. With strychnine." "And do you believe in God?" asked Monfiori with the air of a man getting on his hobby horse. "There is God, after all." Kern gave an artificial laugh. "Biblical God. . . . Gaseous vertebrate. . . . I am not a believer." "That's from Huxley," insinuatingly observed Monfiori. "There was a biblical God, though. . . . The point is that He is not alone; there are numerous biblical Gods. . . . A host. My favorite one is. . . 'He sneezes and there is light. He has eyes like the eyelashes of dawn. ' Do you understand what this means? Do you? And there is more: " . . the fleshy parts of his body are solidly interconnected, and they won't budge." Well? Well? Do you understand?" "Wait a minute," shouted Kern. "No, no-- you must think about it. 'He transforms the sea into a seething ointment; he leaves behind a trail of radiance; the abyss is akin to a patch of gray hair! ' " "Wait, will you," interrupted Kern. "I want to tell you that I have decided to kill myself. . . ." Monfiori gave him an opaque, attentive look, covering his glass with his palm. He was silent for a time. "Just as I thought," he began with unexpected gentleness. "Tonight, as you were watching the people dancing, and before that, when you got up from the table. . . There was something about your face. . . The crease between the brows. . . That special one. . . I understood right away. . ." He fell silent, caressing the table's edge. "Listen to what I'm going to tell you," he continued, lowering his heavy, purplish eyelids with their wartlike lashes. "I search everywhere for the likes of you-- in expensive hotels, on trains, in seaside resorts, at night on the quays of big cities." A dreamy little sneer fleeted across his lips. "I recall, in Florence once. . ." He raised his doelike eyes. "Listen, Kern-- I'd like to be present when you do it. . . . May I?" Kern, in a numb slouch, sensed a chill in his chest under his starched shirt. We're both drunk, the words rushed through his brain, and he's spooky. "May I?" repeated Monfiori with a pout, "Pretty please?" (touch of clammy, hairy little hand). With a jerk and a groggy sway Kern rose from his chair. "Go to hell! Let me out. . . . I was joking. . . ." The attentive gaze of Monfiori's leechy eyes did not waver. "I've had enough of you! I've had enough of everything." Kern dashed off with a splashlike gesture of his hands. Monfiori's gaze came unstuck with what seemed like a smack. "Murk! Puppet! . . . Wordplay! . . . Basta! . . " He banged his hip painfully on the edge of the table. The raspberry fatty behind his vacillating bar puffed out his white shirtfront and began to float, as though in a curved mirror, amid his bottles. Kern traversed the gliding ripples of the carpet and, with his shoulder, shoved a falling glass door. The hotel was fast asleep. Mounting the cushiony stairs with difficulty, he located his room. A key protruded from the adjoining door. Someone had forgotten to lock himself in. Flowers meandered in the dim light of the corridor. Once he was in his room he spent a long time groping along the wall in search of the light switch. Then he collapsed into an armchair by the window. It struck him that he must write certain letters, farewell letters. But the syrupy drinks had weakened him. His ears filled with a dense, hollow din, and gelid waves breathed on his brow. He had to write a letter, and there was something else troubling him. As if he had left home and forgotten his wallet. The mirrory blackness of the window reflected his stripelike collar and his pale forehead. He had splashed some intoxicating drops on his shirtfront. He must write that letter. . . no, that wasn't it. Suddenly something flashed in his mind's eye. The key! The key protruding from the neighboring door. . . . Kern rose ponderously and went out into the dimly lit corridor. From the enormous key dangled a shiny wafer with the number 35. He stopped in front of this white door. There was an avid tremor in his legs. A frosty wind lashed his brow. The window of the spacious, illuminated bedroom was wide open. On the wide bed, in open-collared yellow pajamas, Isabel lay supine. A pale hand drooped, with a smouldering cigarette between its fingers. Sleep must have overcome her without warning. Kern approached the bed. He banged his knee against a chair, on which a guitar uttered a faint twang. Isabel's blue hair lay in tight circles on the pillow. He took a look at her dark eyelids, at the delicate shadow between her breasts. He touched the blanket. Her eyes opened immediately. Then, in a hunchbacked kind of stance. Kern said: "I need your love. Tomorrow I shall shoot myself." He had never dreamt that a woman, even if taken by surprise, could be so startled. First Isabel remained motionless, then she lunged, looking back at the open window, slipping instantly from the bed, and rushed past Kern with bowed head, as if expecting a blow from above. The door slammed. Some sheets of letter paper fluttered from the table. Kern remained standing in the middle of the spacious bright room. Some grapes glowed purple and gold on the night table. "Madwoman," he said aloud. He laboriously shifted his shoulders. Like a steed he trembled with a prolonged shiver from the cold. Then, suddenly, he froze motionless. Outside the window, swelling, flying, a joyous barking sound approached by agitated jolts. In a wink the square of black night in the window opening filled and came aboil with solid, boisterous fur. In one broad and noisy sweep this roughish fur obscured the night sky from one window frame to the other. Another instant and it swelled tensely, obliquely burst in, and unfolded. Amid the whistling spread of agitated fur flashed a white face. Kern grabbed the guitar by its fingerboard and, with all his strength, struck the white face flying at him. Like some fluffy tempest, the giant wing's rib knocked him off his feet. He was overwhelmed by an animal smell. Kern rose with a lurch. In the center of the room lay an enormous angel. He occupied the entire room, the entire hotel, the entire world. His right wing had bent, leaning its angle against the mirrored dresser. The left one swung ponderously, catching on the legs of an overturned chair. The chair banged back and forth on the floor. The brown fur of the wings steamed, iridescent with frost. Deafened by the blow, the angel propped itself on its palms like a sphinx. Blue veins swelled on its white hands, and hollows of shadow showed on its shoulders next to the clavicles. Its elongated, myopic-looking eyes, pale-green like predawn air, gazed at Kern without blinking from beneath straight, joined brows. Suffocating from the pungent odor of wet fur, Kern stood motionless in the apathy of ultimate fear, examining the giant, steamy wings and the white face. A hollow din began beyond the door in the corridor, and Kern was overcome by a different emotion: heart-rending shame. He was ashamed to the point of pain, of horror, that in a moment someone might come in and find him and this incredible creature. The angel heaved a noisy breath, moved. But his arms had grown weak, and he collapsed on his chest. A wing jerked. Grinding his teeth, trying not to look, Kern stooped over him, took hold of the mound of damp, odorous fur and the cold, sticky shoulders. He noticed with sickening horror that the angel's feet were pale and boneless, and that he would be unable to stand on them. The angel did not resist. Kern hurriedly pulled him toward the wardrobe, flung open the mirrored door, began pushing and squeezing the wings into the creaking depths. He seized them by their ribs, trying to bend them and pack them in. Unfurling flaps of fur kept slapping him in the chest. At last he closed the door with a solid shove. At that instant there came a lacerating, unbearable shriek, the shriek of an animal crushed by a wheel. He had slammed the door on one of the wings, that was it. A small corner of the wing protruded from the crack. Opening the door slightly, Kern shoved the curly wedge in with his hand. He turned the key. It grew very quiet. Kern felt hot tears running down his face. He took a breath and rushed for the corridor. Isabel lay next to the wall, a cowering heap of black silk. He gathered her in his arms, carried her into his room, and lowered her onto the bed. Then he snatched from his suitcase the heavy Parabellum, slammed the clip home, ran out holding his breath, and burst into Room 35. The two halves of a broken plate lay, all white, on the carpet. The grapes were scattered. Kern saw himself in the mirrored door of the wardrobe: a Jock of hair fallen over an eyebrow, a starched dress shirtfront spattered with red, the lengthwise glint of the pistol's barrel. "Must finish it off," he exclaimed tonelessly, and opened the wardrobe. There was nothing but a gust of odorous fluff. Oily brown tufts eddying about the room. The wardrobe was empty. On its floor lay a white squashed hatbox. Kern approached the window and looked out. Furry little clouds were gliding across the moon and breathing dim rainbows around it. He shut the casements, put the chair back in its place, and kicked some brown tufts under the bed. Then he cautiously went out into the corridor. It was quiet as before. People sleep soundly in mountain hotels. And when he returned to his room what he saw was Isabel with her bare feet hanging from the bed, trembling, with her head between her hands. He felt ashamed, as he had, not long ago, when the angel was looking at him with its odd greenish eyes. "Tell me, where is he?" asked Isabel breathlessly. Kern turned away, went to the desk, sat down, opened the blotter, and replied, "I don't know." Isabel retracted her bare feet onto the bed. "May I stay here with you for now? I'm so frightened. . . ." Kern gave a silent nod. Dominating the tremor of his hand, he started writing. Isabel began speaking again, in an agitated, toneless voice, but for some reason it appeared to Kern that her fright was of the female, earthly variety. "I met him yesterday as I was flying on my skis in the dark. Last night he came to me." Trying not to listen, Kern wrote in a bold hand: "My dear friend, this is my last letter. I could never forget how you helped me when disaster crashed down on me. He probably lives on a peak where he hunts alpine eagles and feeds on their meat. . . ."' Catching himself, he slashed that out and took another sheet. Isabel was sobbing with her face buried in the pillow. "What shall I do now? He "II come after me for revenge. . . . Oh, my God. . . ." "My dear friend,"' Kern wrote quickly, "she sought unforgettable caresses and now she will give birth to a winged little beast. . . ." Oh, damn! He crumpled the sheet. "Try to get some sleep," he addressed Isabel over his shoulder, "and leave tomorrow. For a monastery." Her shoulders shook rapidly. Then she grew still. Kern wrote. Before him smiled the eyes of the one person in the world with whom he could freely speak or remain silent. He wrote to that person that life was finished, that he had begun feeling of late that, in place of the future, a black wall was looming ever closer, and that now something had happened after which a man cannot and must not continue living. "At noon tomorrow I shall die," wrote Kern, "tomorrow, because I want to die in full command of my faculties, in the sober light of day. And right now I am in too deep a state of shock." When he had finished he sat down in the armchair by the window. Isabel was sleeping, her breathing barely audible. An oppressive fatigue girdled his shoulders. Sleep descended like a soft fog.


He was awakened by a knock on die door. Frosty azure was pouring through the window. "Come in,"" he said, stretching. The waiter noiselessly set a tray with a cup of tea on the table and exited with a bow. Laughing to himself, Kern thought, "And here I am in a rumpled dinner jacket." Then, instantly, lie remembered what had happened during the night. He shuddered and glanced at the bed. Isabel was gone. Must have returned to her room with the approach of morning. And by now she has undoubtedly left. . . . He had a momentary vision of brown, crumbly wings. Getting up quickly, he opened the door to the corridor. "Listen,"" he called to the waiter's departing back. "Take a letter with you."" He went to the desk and rummaged about. The fellow was waiting at the door. Kern slapped all his pockets and took a look under the armchair. "You may go. I'll give it to the porter later."" The parted hair bent forward, and the door closed softly. Kern was distressed at having lost the letter. That letter in particular. He had said in it so well, so smoothly and simply, all that needed to be said. Now he could not recall the words. Only senseless sentences surfaced. Yes, the letter had been a masterpiece. He began writing anew, but it came out cold and rhetorical. He sealed the letter and neatly wrote the address. He felt a strange lightness in his heart. He would shoot himself at noon, and after all, a man who has resolved to kill himself is a god. The sugary snow glistened outside the window. He felt drawn out there, for the last time. The shadows of frosted trees lay on the snow like blue plumes. Sleigh bells jingled somewhere, densely and merrily. There were lots of people out, girls in fur caps moving timorously and awkwardly on their skis, young men exhaling clouds of laughter as they called loudly to each other, elderly people ruddy from the effort, and some sinewy blue-eyed oldster dragging a velvet-covered sled. Kern thought in passing, why not give the old chap a whack in the face, a backhanded one, just for the fun of it, for now everything was permissible. He broke out laughing. He had not felt so good in a long time. Everyone was drifting to the area where the ski-jumping competition had begun. The site consisted of a steep descent merging halfway down into a snowy platform, which ended abruptly, forming a right-angled projection. A skier glided down the steep section and flew off the projecting ramp into the azure air. He flew with outstretched arms, landed upright on the continuation of the slope, and glided on. The Swede had just broken his own recent record and, far below, in a whirlwind of silvery dust, turned sharply with one bent leg extended. Two others, in black sweaters, sped past, jumped, and resiliently hit the snow. "Isabel is jumping next," said a soft voice at Kern's shoulder. Kern thought rapidly, Don't tell me she is still here. . . . How can she. . . and looked at the speaker. It was Monfiori. In a top hat, pushed over his protruding ears, and a little black coat with strips of faded velvet on the collar, he stood out drolly amid the woolly crowd. Should I tell him? thought Kern. He rejected with revulsion the smelly brown wings-- must not think about that. Isabel mounted the hill. She turned to say something to her companion, gaily, gaily as always. This gaiety gave Kern a scary feeling. He caught what seemed a fleeting glimpse of something above the snows, above the glassy hotel, above the toylike people-- a shudder, a shimmer .. . "And how are you today?" asked Monfiori, rubbing his lifeless hands. Simultaneously voices rang out around them: "Isabel! Airborne Isabel!" Kern threw back his head. She was hurtling down the steep slope. For an instant he saw her bright face, her glistening lashes. With a soft whistling sound she skimmed off the trampoline, flew up, hung motionless, crucified in midair. And then. . . No one, of course, could have expected it. In full flight Isabel crumpled spasmodically, fell like a stone, and started rolling amid the snowbursts of her cartwheeling skis. Right away she was hidden from view by the backs of people rushing toward her. Kern slowly approached with hunched shoulders. He saw it vividly in his mind's eye, as if it were written in a large hand: revenge, wingstroke. The Swede and the lanky type in horn-rimmed glasses bent over Isabel. With professional gestures the bespectacled man was palpating her motionless body. He muttered, I can't understand it-- her rib cage is crushed. . . ." He raised up her head. There was a glimpse of her dead, seemingly denuded face. Kern turned with a crunch of his heel and strode off resolutely toward the hotel. Beside him trotted Monfiori, running ahead, peeking into his eyes. "I am going upstairs to my room now," said Kern, trying to swallow his sobbing laughter, to restrain it. "Upstairs. . . If you wish to accompany me. . ." The laughter neared his throat and bubbled over. Kern was climbing the stairs like a blind man. Monfiori was supporting him, meekly and hastily.

Владимир Набоков