فصل 28

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فصل 28

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CHAPTER 28

The Last Adventures of Koroviev and Behemoth

Whether these silhouettes were there, or were only imagined by the fear-struck tenants of the ill-fated house on Sadovaya, is, of course, impossible to say precisely. If they were there, where they set out for is also known to no one. Nor can we-say where they separated, but we do know that approximately a quarter of an hour after the fire started on Sadovaya, there appeared by the mirrored doors of a currency store1 on the Smolensky market-place a long citizen in a checkered suit, and with him a big black cat.

Deftly slithering between the passers-by, the citizen opened the outer door of the shop. But here a small, bony and extremely ill-disposed doorman barred his way and said irritably:

‘No cats allowed!’

‘I beg your pardon,’ rattled the long one, putting his gnarled hand to his ear as if he were hard of hearing, ‘no cats, you say? And where do you see any cats?’

The doorman goggled his eyes, and well he might: there was no cat at the citizen’s feet now, but instead, from behind his shoulder, a fat fellow in a tattered cap, whose mug indeed somewhat resembled a cat‘s, stuck out, straining to get into the store. There was a primus in the fat fellow’s hands.

The misanthropic doorman for some reason disliked this pair of customers.

‘We only accept currency,’ he croaked, gazing vexedly from under his shaggy, as if moth-eaten, grizzled eyebrows.

‘My dear man,’ rattled the long one, flashing his eye through the broken pince-nez, ‘how do you know I don’t have any? Are you judging by my clothes? Never do so, my most precious custodian! You may make a mistake, and a big one at that. At least read the story of the famous caliph Harun al-Rashid2 over again. But in the present case, casting that story aside temporarily, I want to tell you that I am going to make a complaint about you to the manager and tell him such tales about you that you may have to surrender your post between the shining mirrored doors.’ ‘Maybe I’ve got a whole primus full of currency,’ the cat-like fat fellow, who was simply shoving his way into the store, vehemently butted into the conversation.

Behind them the public was already pushing and getting angry. Looking at the prodigious pair with hatred and suspicion, the doorman stepped aside, and our acquaintances, Koroviev and Behemoth, found themselves in the store. Here they first of all looked around, and then, in a ringing voice heard decidedly in every comer, Koroviev announced: ‘A wonderful store! A very, very fine store!’

The public turned away from the counters and for some reason looked at the speaker in amazement, though he had all grounds for praising the store.

Hundreds of bolts of cotton in the richest assortment of colours could be seen in the pigeon-holes of the shelves. Next to them were piled calicoes, and chiffons, and flannels for suits. In receding perspective endless stacks of shoeboxes could be seen, and several citizenesses sat on little low chairs, one foot shod in an old, worn-out shoe, the other in a shiny new pump, which they stamped on the carpet with a preoccupied air. Somewhere in the depths, around a comer, gramophones sang and played music.

But, bypassing all these enchantments, Koroviev and Behemoth made straight for the junction of the grocery and confectionery departments. Here there was plenty of room, no citizenesses in scarves and little berets were pushing against the counters, as in the fabric department.

A short, perfectly square man with blue shaven jowls, horn-rimmed glasses, a brand-new hat, not crumpled and with no sweat stains on the band, in a lilac coat and orange kid gloves, stood by the counter grunting something peremptorily. A sales clerk in a clean white smock and a blue hat was waiting on the lilac client. With the sharpest of knives, much like the knife stolen by Matthew Levi, he was removing from a weeping, plump pink salmon its snake-like, silvery skin.

‘This department is splendid, too,’ Koroviev solemnly acknowledged, ‘and the foreigner is a likeable fellow,’ he benevolently pointed his finger at the lilac back.

‘No, Fagott, no,’ Behemoth replied pensively, ‘you’re mistaken, my friend: the lilac gentleman’s face lacks something, in my opinion.’

The lilac back twitched, but probably by chance, for the foreigner was surely unable to understand what Koroviev and his companion were saying in Russian.

‘Is good?’ the lilac purchaser asked sternly.

‘Top-notch!’ replied the sales clerk, cockily slipping the edge of the knife under the skin.

‘Good I like, bad I don’t,‘ the foreigner said sternly.

‘Right you are!’ the sales clerk rapturously replied.

Here our acquaintances walked away from the foreigner and his salmon to the end of the confectionery counter.

‘It’s hot today,’ Koroviev addressed a young, red-cheeked salesgirl and received no reply to his words. ‘How much are the mandarins?’ Koroviev then inquired of her.

‘Fifteen kopecks a pound,’ replied the salesgirl.

‘Everything’s so pricey,’ Koroviev observed with a sigh, ‘hm … hm …’ He thought a little longer and then invited his companion: ‘Eat up, Behemoth.’

The fat fellow put his primus under his arm, laid hold of the top mandarin on the pyramid, straight away gobbled it up skin and all, and began on a second.

The salesgirl was overcome with mortal terror.

‘You’re out of your mind!’ she shouted, losing her colour. ‘Give me the receipt! The receipt!’ and she dropped the confectionery tongs.

‘My darling, my dearest, my beauty,’ Koroviev rasped, leaning over the counter and winking at the salesgirl, ‘we’re out of currency today … what can we do? But I swear to you, by next time, and no later than Monday, we’ll pay it all in pure cash! We’re from near by, on Sadovaya, where they’re having the fire …’ Behemoth, after swallowing a third mandarin, put his paw into a clever construction of chocolate bars, pulled out the bottom one, which of course made the whole thing collapse, and swallowed it together with its gold wrapper.

The sales clerks behind the fish counter stood as if petrified, their knives in their hands, the lilac foreigner swung around to the robbers, and here it turned out that Behemoth was mistaken: there was nothing lacking in the lilac one’s face, but, on the contrary, rather some superfluity of hanging jowls and furtive eyes.

Turning completely yellow, the salesgirl anxiously cried for the whole store to hear:

‘Palosich!3 Palosich!’

The public from the fabric department came thronging at this cry, while Behemoth, stepping away from the confectionery temptations, thrust his paw into a barrel labelled ‘Choice Kerch Herring’,4 pulled out a couple of herring, and swallowed them, spitting out the tails.

‘Palosich!’ the desperate cry came again from behind the confectionery counter, and from behind the fish counter a sales clerk with a goatee barked:

‘What’s this you’re up to, vermin?’

Pavel Yosifovich was already hastening to the scene of the action. He was an imposing man in a clean white smock, like a surgeon, with a pencil sticking out of the pocket. Pavel Yosifovich was obviously an experienced man. Seeing the tail of the third herring in Behemoth’s mouth, he instantly assessed the situation, understood decidedly everything, and, without getting into any arguments with the insolent louts, waved his arm into the distance, commanding: ‘Whistle!’

The doorman flew from the mirrored door out to the comer of the Smolensky market-place and dissolved in a sinister whistling. The public began to surround the blackguards, and then Koroviev stepped into the affair.

‘Citizens!’ he called out in a high, vibrating voice, ‘what’s going on here? Eh? Allow me to ask you that! The poor man’ — Koroviev let some tremor into his voice and pointed to Behemoth, who immediately concocted a woeful physiognomy — ’the poor man spends all day reparating primuses. He got hungry … and where’s he going to get currency?‘ To this Pavel Yosifovich, usually restrained and calm, shouted sternly:

‘You just stop that!’ and waved into the distance, impatiently now. Then the trills by the door resounded more merrily.

But Koroviev, unabashed by Pavel Yosifovich’s pronouncement, went on:

‘Where? — I ask you all this question! He’s languishing with hunger and thirst, he’s hot. So the hapless fellow took and sampled a mandarin. And the total worth of that mandarin is three kopecks. And here they go whistling like spring nightingales in the woods, bothering the police, tearing them away from their business. But he’s allowed, eh?’ and here Koroviev pointed to the lilac fat man, which caused the strongest alarm to appear on his face. ‘Who is he? Eh? Where did he come from? And why? Couldn’t we do without him? Did we invite him, or what? Of course,’ the ex-choirmaster bawled at the top of his lungs, twisting his mouth sarcastically, ‘just look at him, in his smart lilac suit, all swollen with salmon, all stuffed with currency — and us, what about the likes of us?! … I’m bitter! Bitter, bitter!’5 Koroviev wailed, like the best man at an old-fashioned wedding.

This whole stupid, tactless, and probably politically harmful speech made Pavel Yosifovich shake with wrath, but, strange as it may seem, one could see by the eyes of the crowding public that it provoked sympathy in a great many people. And when Behemoth, putting a torn, dirty sleeve to his eyes, exclaimed tragically: Thank you, my faithful friend, you stood up for the sufferer!‘ - a miracle occurred. A most decent, quiet little old man, poorly but cleanly dressed, a little old man buying three macaroons in the confectionery department, was suddenly transformed. His eyes flashed with bellicose fire, he turned purple, hurled the little bag of macaroons on the floor, and shouted ’True!‘ in a child’s high voice. Then he snatched up a tray, throwing from it the remains of the chocolate Eiffel Tower demolished by Behemoth, brandished it, tore the foreigner’s hat off with his left hand, and with his right swung and struck the foreigner flat on his bald head with the tray. There was a roll as of the noise one hears when sheets of metal are thrown down from a truck. The fat man, turning white, fell backwards and sat in the barrel of Kerch herring, spouting a fountain of brine from it. Straight away a second miracle occurred. The lilac one, having fallen into the barrel, shouted in pure Russian, with no trace of any accent: ‘Murder! Police! The bandits are murdering me!’ evidently having mastered, owing to the shock, this language hitherto unknown to him.

Then the doorman’s whistling ceased, and amid the crowds of agitated shoppers two military helmets could be glimpsed approaching. But the perfidious Behemoth doused the confectionery counter with benzene from his primus, as one douses a bench in a bathhouse with a tub of water, and it blazed up of itself. The flame spurted upwards and ran along the counter, devouring the beautiful paper ribbons on the fruit baskets. The salesgirls dashed shrieking from behind the counters, and as soon as they came from behind them, the linen curtains on the windows blazed up and the benzene on the floor ignited.

The public, at once raising a desperate cry, shrank back from the confectionery department, running down the no longer needed Pavel Yosifovich, and from behind the fish counter the sales clerks with their whetted knives trotted in single file towards the door of the rear exit.

The lilac citizen, having extracted himself from the barrel, thoroughly drenched with herring juice, heaved himself over the salmon on the counter and followed after them. The glass of the mirrored front doors clattered and spilled down, pushed out by fleeing people, while the two blackguards, Koroviev and the glutton Behemoth, got lost somewhere, but where - it was impossible to grasp. Only afterwards did eyewitnesses who had been present at the starting of the fire in the currency store in Smolensky market-place tell how the two hooligans supposedly flew up to the ceiling and there popped like children’s balloons. It is doubtful, of course, that things happened that way, but what we don’t know, we don’t know.

But we do know that exactly one minute after the happening in Smolensky market-place, Behemoth and Koroviev both turned up on the sidewalk of the boulevard just by the house of Griboedov’s aunt. Koroviev stood by the fence and spoke: ‘Hah! This is the writers’ house! You know, Behemoth, I’ve heard many good and flattering things about this house. Pay attention to this house, my friend. It’s pleasant to think how under this roof no end of talents are being sheltered and nurtured.’ ‘Like pineapples in a greenhouse,’ said Behemoth and, the better to admire the cream-coloured building with columns, he climbed the concrete footing of the cast-iron fence.

‘Perfectly correct,’ Koroviev agreed with his inseparable companion, ‘and a sweet awe creeps into one’s heart at the thought that in this house there is now ripening the future author of a Don Quixote or a Faust, or, devil take me, a Dead Souls!6 Eh?’ ‘Frightful to think of,’ agreed Behemoth.

‘Yes,’ Koroviev went on, ‘one can expect astonishing things from the hotbeds of this house, which has united under its roof several thousand zealots resolved to devote their lives to the service of Melpomene, Polyhymnia and Thalia.7 You can imagine the noise that will arise when one of them, for starters, offers the reading public The Inspector General8 or, if worse comes to worst, Evgeny Onegin.’9 ‘Quite easily,’ Behemoth again agreed.

‘Yes,’ Koroviev went on, anxiously raising his finger, ‘but! … But, I say, and I repeat this but! … Only if these tender hothouse plants are not attacked by some micro-organism that gnaws at their roots so that they rot! And it does happen with pineapples! Oh, my, does it!’ ‘Incidentally,’ inquired Behemoth, putting his round head through an opening in the fence, ‘what are they doing on the veranda?’

‘Having dinner,’ explained Koroviev, ‘and to that I will add, my dear, that the restaurant here is inexpensive and not bad at all. And, by the way, like any tourist before continuing his trip, I feel a desire to have a bite and drink a big, ice-cold mug of beer.’ ‘Me, too,’ replied Behemoth, and the two blackguards marched down the asphalt path under the lindens straight to the veranda of the unsuspecting restaurant.

A pale and bored citizeness in white socks and a white beret with a nib sat on a Viennese chair at the comer entrance to the veranda, where amid the greenery of the trellis an opening for the entrance had been made. In front of her on a simple kitchen table lay a fat book of the ledger variety, in which the citizeness, for unknown reasons, wrote down all those who entered the restaurant. It was precisely this citizeness who stopped Koroviev and Behemoth.

‘Your identification cards?’ She was gazing in amazement at Koroviev’s pince-nez, and also at Behemoth’s primus and Behemoth’s torn elbow.

‘A thousand pardons, but what identification cards?’ asked Koroviev in surprise.

‘You’re writers?’ the citizeness asked in her turn.

‘Unquestionably,’ Koroviev answered with dignity.

‘Your identification cards?’ the citizeness repeated.

‘My sweetie …’ Koroviev began tenderly.

‘I’m no sweetie,’ interrupted the citizeness.

‘More’s the pity,’ Koroviev said disappointedly and went on: ‘Well, so, if you don’t want to be a sweetie, which would be quite pleasant, you don’t have to be. So, then, to convince yourself that Dostoevsky was a writer, do you have to ask for his identification card? Just take any five pages from any one of his novels and you’ll be convinced, without any identification card, that you’re dealing with a writer. And I don’t think he even had any identification card! What do you think?’ Koroviev turned to Behemoth.

‘I’ll bet he didn’t,‘ replied Behemoth, setting the primus down on the table beside the ledger and wiping the sweat from his sooty forehead with his hand.

‘You’re not Dostoevsky,’ said the citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.

‘Well, who knows, who knows,’ he replied.

‘Dostoevsky’s dead,’ said the citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.

‘I protest!’ Behemoth exclaimed hotly. ‘Dostoevsky is immortal!’

‘Your identification cards, citizens,’ said the citizeness.

‘Good gracious, this is getting to be ridiculous!’ Koroviev would not give in. ‘A writer is defined not by any identity card, but by what he writes. How do you know what plots are swarming in my head? Or in this head?’ and he pointed at Behemoth’s head, from which the latter at once removed the cap, as if to let the citizeness examine it better.

‘Step aside, citizens,’ she said, nervously now.

Koroviev and Behemoth stepped aside and let pass some writer in a grey suit with a tie-less, summer white shirt, the collar of which lay wide open on the lapels of his jacket, and with a newspaper under his arm. The writer nodded affably to the citizeness, in passing put some flourish in the proffered ledger, and proceeded to the veranda.

‘Alas, not to us, not to us,’ Koroviev began sadly, ‘but to him will go that ice-cold mug of beer, which you and I, poor wanderers, so dreamed of together. Our position is woeful and difficult, and I don’t know what to do.’ Behemoth only spread his arms bitterly and put his cap on his round head, covered with thick hair very much resembling a cat’s fur.

And at that moment a low but peremptory voice sounded over the head of the citizeness:

‘Let them pass, Sofya Pavlovna.’10

The citizeness with the ledger was amazed. Amidst the greenery of the trellis appeared the white tailcoated chest and wedge-shaped beard of the freebooter. He was looking affably at the two dubious ragamuffins and, moreover, even making inviting gestures to them. Archibald Archibaldovich’s authority was something seriously felt in the restaurant under his management, and Sofya Pavlovna obediently asked Koroviev: ‘What is your name?’

‘Panaev,’11 he answered courteously. The citizeness wrote this name down and raised a questioning glance to Behemoth.

‘Skabichevsky,’12 the latter squeaked, for some reason pointing to his primus. Sofya Pavlovna wrote this down, too, and pushed the book towards the visitors for them to sign. Koroviev wrote ‘Skabichevsky’ next to the name ’Panaev‘, and Behemoth wrote ’Panaev’ next to ‘Skabichevsky’.

Archibald Archibaldovich, to the utter amazement of Sofya Pavlovna, smiled seductively, and led the guests to the best table, at the opposite end of the veranda, where the deepest shade lay, a table next to which the sun played merrily through one of the gaps in the trellis greenery, while Sofya Pavlovna, blinking with amazement, studied for a long time the strange entry made in the book by the unexpected visitors.

Archibald Archibaldovich surprised the waiters no less than he had Sofya Pavlovna. He personally drew a chair back from the table, inviting Koroviev to sit down, winked to one, whispered something to the other, and the two waiters began bustling around the new guests, one of whom set his primus down on the floor next to his scuffed shoe.

The old yellow-stained tablecloth immediately disappeared from the table, another shot up into the air, crackling with starch, white as a Bedouin’s burnous, and Archibald Archibaldovich was already whispering softly but very significantly, bending right to Koroviev’s ear.

‘What may I treat you to? I have a special little balyk13 here … bagged at the architects’ congress …’

‘Oh … just give us a bite of something … eh? …’ Koroviev mumbled good-naturedly, sprawling on the chair.

‘I understand…’ Archibald Archibaldovich replied meaningfully, closing his eyes.

Seeing the way the chief of the restaurant treated the rather dubious visitors, the waiters laid aside their suspicions and got seriously down to business. One was already offering a match to Behemoth, who had taken a butt from his pocket and put it in his mouth, the other raced up clinking with green glass and at their places arranged goblets, tumblers, and those thin-walled glasses from which it is so nice to drink seltzer under the awning … no, skipping ahead, let us say: it used to be so nice to drink seltzer under the awning of the unforgettable Griboedov veranda.

‘I might recommend a little fillet of hazel-grouse,’ Archibald Archibaldovich murmured musically. The guest in the cracked pince-nez fully approved the commander of the brig’s suggestions and gazed at him benevolently through the useless bit of glass.

The fiction writer Petrakov-Sukhovey, dining at the next table with his wife, who was finishing a pork chop, noticed with the keenness of observation proper to all writers the wooing of Archibald Archibaldovich, and was quite, quite surprised. And his wife, a very respectable lady, even simply became jealous of Koroviev over the pirate, and even rapped with her teaspoon, as if to say: why are we kept waiting? … It’s time the ice cream was served. What’s the matter? …

However, after sending Mrs Petrakov a seductive smile, Archibald Archibaldovich dispatched a waiter to her, but did not leave his dear guests himself. Ah, how intelligent Archibald Archibaldovich was! And his powers of observation were perhaps no less keen than those of the writers themselves! Archibald Archibaldovich knew about the seance at the Variety, and about many other events of those days; he had heard, but, unlike the others, had not closed his ears to, the word ‘checkered’ and the word ’cat‘. Archibald Archibaldovich guessed at once who his visitors were. And, having guessed, naturally did not start quarrelling with them. And that Sofya Pavlovna was a good one! To come up with such a thing — barring the way to the veranda for those two! Though what could you expect of her! …

Haughtily poking her little spoon into the slushy ice cream, Mrs Petrakov, with displeased eyes, watched the table in front of the two motley buffoons become overgrown with dainties as if by magic. Shiny clean lettuce leaves were already sticking from a bowl of fresh caviar … an instant later a sweating silver bucket appeared, brought especially on a separate little table …

Only when convinced that everything had been done impeccably, only when there came flying in the waiter’s hands a covered pan with something gurgling in it, did Archibald Archibaldovich allow himself to leave the two mysterious visitors, and that after having first whispered to them: ‘Excuse me! One moment! I’ll see to the fillets personally!’

He flew away from the table and disappeared into an inner passage of the restaurant. If any observer had been able to follow the further actions of Archibald Archibaldovich, they would undoubtedly have seemed somewhat mysterious to him.

The chief did not go to the kitchen to supervise the fillets at all, but went to the restaurant pantry. He opened it with his own key, locked himself inside, took two hefty balyks from the icebox, carefully, so as not to soil his cuffs, wrapped them in newspaper, tied them neatly with string, and set them aside. Then he made sure that his hat and silk-lined summer coat were in place in the next room, and only after that proceeded to the kitchen, where the chef was carefully boning the fillets the pirate had promised his visitors.

It must be said that there was nothing strange or incomprehensible in any of Archibald Archibaldovich’s actions, and that they could seem strange only to a superficial observer. Archibald Archibaldovich’s behaviour was the perfectly logical result of all that had gone before. A knowledge of the latest events, and above all Archibald Archibaldovich’s phenomenal intuition, told the chief of the Griboedov restaurant that his two visitors’ dinner, while abundant and sumptuous, would be of extremely short duration. And his intuition, which had never yet deceived the former freebooter, did not let him down this time either.

Just as Koroviev and Behemoth were clinking their second glasses of wonderful, cold, double-distilled Moskovskaya vodka, the sweaty and excited chronicler Boba Kandalupsky, famous in Moscow for his astounding omniscience, appeared on the veranda and at once sat down with the Petrakovs. Placing his bulging briefcase on the table, Boba immediately put his lips to Petrakov’s ear and whispered some very tempting things into it. Madame Petrakov, burning with curiosity, also put her ear to Boba’s plump, greasy lips. And he, with an occasional furtive look around, went on whispering and whispering, and one could make out separate words, such as: ‘I swear to you! On Sadovaya, on Sadovaya! …’ Boba lowered his voice still more, ‘bullets have no effect! … bullets … bullets … benzene … fire … bullets …’

‘It’s the liars that spread these vile rumours,’ Madame Petrakov boomed in a contralto voice, somewhat louder in her indignation than Boba would have liked, ‘they’re the ones who ought to be explained! Well, never mind, that’s how it will be, they’ll be called to order! Such pernicious lies!’ ‘Why lies, Antonida Porfirievna!’ exclaimed Boba, upset by the disbelief of the writer’s wife, and again began spinning: ‘I tell you, bullets have no effect! … And then the fire … they went up in the air … in the air!’ Boba went on hissing, not suspecting that those he was talking about were sitting next to him, delighting in his yarn.

However, this delight soon ceased: from an inner passage of the restaurant three men, their waists drawn in tightly by belts, wearing leggings and holding revolvers in their hands, strode precipitously on to the veranda. The one in front cried ringingly and terribly: ‘Don’t move!’ And at once all three opened fire on the veranda, aiming at the heads of Koroviev and Behemoth. The two objects of the shooting instantly melted into air, and a pillar of fire spurted from the primus directly on to the tent roof. It was as if a gaping maw with black edges appeared in the tent and began spreading in all directions. The fire leaping through it rose up to the roof of Griboedov House. Folders full of papers lying on the window-sill of the editorial office on the second floor suddenly blazed up, followed by the curtains, and now the fire, howling as if someone were blowing on it, went on in pillars to the interior of the aunt’s house.

A few seconds later, down the asphalt paths leading to the cast-iron fence on the boulevard, whence Ivanushka, the first herald of the disaster, understood by no one, had come on Wednesday evening, various writers, Sofya Pavlovna, Boba, Petrakov’s wife and Petrakov, now went running, leaving their dinners unfinished.

Having stepped out through a side entrance beforehand, not fleeing or hurrying anywhere, like a captain who must be the last to leave his burning brig, Archibald Archibaldovich stood calmly in his summer coat with silk lining, the two balyk logs under his arm.

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