Best Russian Short Stories/How a Muzhik Fed Two Officials
HOW A MUZHIK FED TWO OFFICIALS
By M. Y. Saltykov
ONCE upon a time there were two Officials. They were both empty-headed, and so they found themselves one day suddenly transported to an uninhabited isle, as if on a magic carpet.
They had passed their whole life in a Government Department, where records were kept; had been born there, bred there, grown old there, and consequently hadn't the least understanding for anything outside of the Department; and the only words they knew were: "With assurances of the highest esteem, I am your humble servant."
But the Department was abolished, and as the services of the two Officials were no longer needed, they were given their freedom. So the retired Officials migrated to Podyacheskaya Street in St. Petersburg. Each had his own home, his own cook and his pension.
Waking up on the uninhabited isle, they found themselves lying under the same cover. At first, of course, they couldn't understand what had happened to them, and they spoke as if nothing extraordinary had taken place.
"What a peculiar dream I had last night, your Excellency," said the one Official. "It seemed to me as if I were on an uninhabited isle."
Scarcely had he uttered the words, when he jumped to his feet. The other Official also jumped up.
"Good Lord, what does this mean! Where are we?" they cried out in astonishment.
They felt each other to make sure that they were no longer dreaming, and finally convinced themselves of the sad reality.
Before them stretched the ocean, and behind them was a little spot of earth, beyond which the ocean, streched again. They began to cry—the first time since their Department had been shut down.
They looked at each other, and each noticed that the other was clad in nothing but his night shirt with his order hanging about his neck.
"We really should be having our coffee now," observed the one Official. Then he bethought himself again of the strange situation he was in and a second time fell to weeping.
"What are we going to do now?" he sobbed. "Even supposing we were to draw up a report, what good would that do?"
"You know what, your Excellency," replied the other Official, "you go to the east and I will go to the west. Toward evening we will come back here again, and, perhaps, we shall have found something."
They started to ascertain which was the east and which was the west. They recalled that the head of their Department had once said to them, "If you want to know where the east is, then turn your face to the north, and the east will be on your right." But when they tried to find out which was the north, they turned to the right and to the left and looked around on all sides. Having spent their whole life in the Department of Records, their efforts were all in vain.
"To my mind, your Excellency, the best thing to do would be for you to go to the right and me to go to the left," said one Official, who had served not only in the Department of Records, but had also been teacher of handwriting in the School for Reserves, and so was a little bit cleverer.
So said, so done. The one Official went to the right. He came upon trees bearing all sorts of fruits. Gladly would he have plucked an apple, but they all hung so high that he would have been obliged to climb up. He tried to climb up in vain. All he succeeded in doing was tearing his night shirt. Then he struck upon a brook. It was swarming with fish.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had all this fish in Podyacheskaya Street!" he thought, and his mouth watered. Then he entered woods and found partridges, grouse and hares.
"Good Lord, what an abundance of food!" he cried. His hunger was going up tremendously.
But he had to return to the appointed spot with empty hands. He found the other Official waiting for him.
"Well, Your Excellency, how went it? Did you find anything?"
"Nothing but an old number of the Moscow Gazette, not another thing."
The Officials lay down to sleep again, but their empty stomachs gave them no rest. They were partly robbed of their sleep by the thought of who was now enjoying their pension, and partly by the recollection of the fruit, fishes, partridges, grouse and hares that they had seen during the day.
"The human pabulum in its original form flies, swims and grows on trees. Who would have thought it your Excellency?" said the one Official.
"To be sure," rejoined the other Official. "I, too, must admit that I had imagined that our breakfast rolls came into the world just as they appear on the table."
"From which it is to be deduced that if we want to eat a pheasant, we must catch it first, kill it, pull its feathers and roast it. But how's that to be done?"
"Yes, how's that to be done?" repeated the other Official.
They turned silent and tried again to fall asleep, but their hunger scared sleep away. Before their eyes swarmed flocks of pheasants and ducks, herds of porklings, and they were all so juicy, done so tenderly and garnished so deliciously with olives, capers and pickles.
"I believe I could devour my own boots now," said the one Official.
"Gloves are not bad either, especially if they have been born quite mellow," said the other Official.
The two Officials stared at each other fixedly. In their glances gleamed an evil-boding fire, their teeth chattered and a dull groaning issued from their breasts. Slowly they crept upon each other and suddenly they burst into a fearful frenzy. There was a yelling and groaning, the rags flew about, and the Official who had been teacher of handwriting bit off his colleague's order and swallowed it. However, the sight of blood brought them both back to their senses.
"God help us!" they cried at the same time. "We certainly don't mean to eat each other up. How could we have come to such a pass as this? What evil genius is making sport of us?"
"We must, by all means, entertain each other to pass the time away, otherwise there will be murder and death," said the one Official.
"You begin," said the other.
"Can you explain why it is that the sun first rises and then sets? Why isn't it the reverse?"
"Aren't you a funny man, your Excellency? You get up first, then you go to your office and work there, and at night you lie down to sleep."
"But why can't one assume the opposite, that is, that one goes to bed, sees all sorts of dream figures, and then gets up?"
"Well, yes, certainly. But when I was still an Official, I always thought this way: 'Now it is dawn, then it will be day, then will come supper, and finally will come the time to go to bed.'"
The word "supper" recalled that incident in the day's doings, and the thought of it made both Officials melancholy, so that the conversation came to a halt.
"A doctor once told me that human beings can sustain themselves for a long time on their own juices," the one Official began again.
"What does that mean?"
"It is quite simple. You see, one's own juices generate other juices, and these in their turn still other juices, and so it goes on until finally all the juices are consumed."
"And then what happens?"
"Then food has to be taken into the system again."
"No matter what topic the Officials chose, the conversation invariably reverted to the subject of eating; which only increased their appetite more and more. So they decided to give up talking altogether, and, recollecting the Moscow Gazette that the one of them had found, they picked it up and began to read it eagerly.
BANQUET GIVEN BY THE MAYOR
"The table was set for one hundred persons. The magnificence of it exceeded all expectations. The remotest provinces were represented at this feast of the gods by the costliest gifts. The golden sturgeon from Sheksna and the silver pheasant from the Caucasian woods held a rendezvous with strawberries so seldom to be had in our latitude in winter. . . ."
"The devil! For God's sake, stop reading, your Excellency. Couldn't you find something else to read about?" cried the other Official in sheer desperation. He snatched the paper from his colleague's hands, and started to read something else.
"Our correspondent in Tula informs us that yesterday a sturgeon was found in the Upa (an event which even the oldest inhabitants cannot recall, and all the more remarkable since they recognised the former police captain in this sturgeon). This was made the occasion for giving a banquet in the club. The prime cause of the banquet was served in a large wooden platter garnished with vinegar pickles. A bunch of parsley stuck out of its mouth. Doctor P—— who acted as toast-master saw to it that everybody present got a piece of the sturgeon. The sauces to go with it were unusually varied and delicate——"
"Permit me, your Excellency, it seems to me you are not so careful either in the selection of reading matter," interrupted the first Official, who secured the Gazette again and started to read:
"One of the oldest inhabitants of Viatka has discovered a new and highly original recipe for fish soup. A live cod-fish (lota vulgaris) is taken and beaten with a rod until its liver swells up with anger. . . ."
The Officials' heads drooped. Whatever their eyes fell upon had something to do with eating. Even their own thoughts were fatal. No matter how much they tried to keep their minds off beefsteak and the like, it was all in vain; their fancy returned invariably, with irresistible force, back to that for which they were so painfully yearning.
Suddenly an inspiration came to the Official who had once taught handwriting.
"I have it!" he cried delightedly. "What do you say to this, your Excellency? What do you say to our finding a muzhik?"
"A muzhik, your Excellency? What sort of a muzhik?"
"Why a plain ordinary muzhik. A muzhik like all other muzhiks. He would get the breakfast rolls for us right away, and he could also catch partridges and fish for us."
"Hm, a muzhik. But where are we to fetch one from, if there is no muzhik here?"
"Why shouldn't there be a muzhik here? There are muzhiks everywhere. All one has to do is hunt for them. There certainly must be a muzhik hiding here somewhere so as to get out of working."
This thought so cheered the Officials that they instantly jumped up to go in search of a muzhik.
For a long while they wandered about on the island without the desired result, until finally a concentrated smell of black bread and old sheep skin assailed their nostrils and guided them in the right direction. There under a tree was a colossal muzhik lying fast asleep with his hands under his head. It was clear that to escape his duty to work he had impudently withdrawn to this island. The indignation of the Officials knew no bounds.
"What, lying asleep here, you lazy-bones you!" they raged at him. "It is nothing to you that there are two Officials here who are fairly perishing of hunger. Up, forward, march, work."
The Muzhik rose and looked at the two severe gentlemen standing in front of him. His first thought was to make his escape, but the Officials held him fast.
He had to submit to his fate. He had to work.
First he climbed up on a tree and plucked several dozen of the finest apples for the Officials. He kept a rotten one for himself. Then he turned up the earth and dug out some potatoes. Next he started a fire with two bits of wood that he rubbed against each other. Out of his own hair he made a snare and caught partridges. Over the fire, by this time burning brightly, he cooked so many kinds of food that the question arose in the Officials' minds whether they shouldn't give some to this idler.
Beholding the efforts of the Muzhik, they rejoiced in their hearts. They had already forgotten how the day before they had nearly been perishing of hunger, and all they thought of now was: "What a good thing it is to be an Official. Nothing bad can ever happen to an Official."
"Are you satisfied, gentlemen?" the lazy Muzhik asked.
"Yes, we appreciate your industry," replied the Officials.
"Then you will permit me to rest a little?"
"Go take a little rest, but first make a good strong cord."
The Muzhik gathered wild hemp stalks, laid them in water, beat them and broke them, and toward evening a good stout cord was ready. The Officials took the cord and bound the Muzhik to a tree, so that he should not run away. Then they laid themselves to sleep.
Thus day after day passed, and the Muzhik became so skilful that he could actually cook soup for the Officials in his bare hands. The Officials had become round and well-fed and happy. It rejoiced them that here they needn't spend any money and that in the meanwhile their pensions were accumulating in St. Petersburg.
"What is your opinion, your Excellency," one said to the other after breakfast one day, "is the Story of the Tower of Babel true? Don't you think it is simply an allegory?"
"By no means, your Excellency, I think it was something that really happened. What other explanation is there for the existence of so many different languages on earth?"
"Then the Flood must really have taken place, too?"
"Certainly, else how would you explain the existence of Antediluvian animals? Besides, the Moscow Gazette says——"
They made search for the old number of the Moscow Gazette, seated themselves in the shade, and read the whole sheet from beginning to end. They read of festivities in Moscow, Tula, Penza and Riazan, and strangely enough felt no discomfort at the description of the delicacies served.
There is no saying how long this life might have lasted. Finally, however, it began to bore the Officials. They often thought of their cooks in St. Petersburg, and even shed a few tears in secret.
"I wonder how it looks in Podyacheskaya Street now, your Excellency," one of them said to the other.
"Oh, don't remind me of it, your Excellency. I am pining away with homesickness."
"It is very nice here. There is really no fault to be found with this place, but the lamb longs for its mother sheep. And it is a pity, too, for the beautiful uniforms."
"Yes, indeed, a uniform of the fourth class is no joke. The gold embroidery alone is enough to make one dizzy."
Now they began to importune the Muzhik to find some way of getting them back to Podyacheskaya Street, and strange to say, the Muzhik even knew where Podyacheskaya Street was. He had once drunk beer and mead there, and as the saying goes, everything had run down his beard, alas, but nothing into his mouth. The Officials rejoiced and said: "We are Officials from Podyacheskaya Street."
"And I am one of those men—do you remember?—who sit on a scaffolding hung by ropes from the roofs and paint the outside walls. I am one of those who crawl about on the roofs like flies. That is what I am," replied the Muzhik.
The Muzhik now pondered long and heavily on how to give great pleasure to his Officials, who had been so gracious to him, the lazy-bones, and had not scorned his work. And he actually succeeded in constructing a ship. It was not really a ship, but still it was a vessel that would carry them across the ocean close to Podyacheskaya Street.
"Now, take care, you dog, that you don't drown us," said the Officials, when they saw the raft rising and falling on the waves.
"Don't be afraid. We muzhiks are used to this," said the Muzhik, making all the preparations for the journey. He gathered swan's-down and made a couch for his two Officials, then he crossed himself and rowed off from shore.
How frightened the Officials were on the way, how sea-sick they were during the storms, how they scolded the coarse Muzhik for his idleness, can neither be told nor described. The Muzhik, however, just kept rowing on and fed his Officials on herring. At last, they caught sight of dear old Mother Neva. Soon they were in the glorious Catherine Canal, and then, oh joy! they struck the grand Podyacheskaya Street. When the cooks saw their Officials so well-fed, round and so happy, they rejoiced immensely. The Officials drank coffee and rolls, then put on their uniforms and drove to the Pension Bureau. How much money they collected there is another thing that can neither be told nor described. Nor was the Muzhik forgotten. The Officials sent a glass of whiskey out to him and five kopeks.
Now, Muzhik, rejoice.