Vladimir Nabokov. Revenge
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.