The Orator (Chekov)
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ONE Sunday morning they were burying the Collegiate Assessor Kiril Ivanovitch, who had died from the two ailments so common amongst us : drink and a scolding wife. While the funeral procession was crawling from the church to the cemetery, a certain Poplavski, a colleague of the defunct civil servant, jumped into a cab, and galloped off to fetch his friend Gregory Zapoikin, a young but already popular man. As many of my readers know, Zapoikin was the possessor of a remarkable talent for making impromptu orations at weddings, jubilee celebrations, and funerals. Whether he was half-asleep, or fasting, or dead drunk, or in a fever, he was always ready to make a speech. His words always flowed from his lips as smoothly and evenly and abundantly as water out of a rain-pipe, and there were more heartrending expressions in his oratorical vocabulary than there are black beetles in an inn. His speeches were always eloquent and long, so long that sometimes, especially at the weddings of merchants, the aid of the police had to be summoned to put a stop to them.
"I have come to carry you off with me, old chap," began Poplavski. "Put on your things this minute and come along. One of our colleagues has kicked the bucket and we are about to despatch him into the next world. We must have some sort of folderol to see him off with, you know! All our hopes are centred on you ! If one of our little fellows had died, we shouldn't have troubled you; but, after all, this one was an Assessor, a pillar of the state, one might say. It wouldn't do to bury a big fish like him without some kind of an oration!"
"Ah, the Assessor is it ? " yawned Zapoikin. " What, that old soak?"
"Yes, that old soak! There will be pancakes and caviar, you know, and you will get your cab-fare paid. Come along, old man ! Spout some of your Ciceronian hyperboles over his grave and you'll see the thanks you'll get from us all !"
Zapoikin consented to go with alacrity. He ruffled his hair, veiled his features in gloom, and stepped out with Poplavski into the street.
"I know that Assessor of yours !" he said, as he took his seat in the cab. "He was a rare brute of a rascal, God bless his soul ! "
"Come, let dead men alone, Grisha ! "
"Oh, of course, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, but that doesn't make him any less a rascal !"
The friends overtook the funeral cortege. It was travelling so slowly that before it reached its destination they had time to dash into a cafe three times to drink a drop to the peace of the dead man's soul.
At the cemetery the litany had already been sung. The mother-in-law, the wife, and the sister-in-law of the departed were weeping in torrents. The wife even shrieked as the coffin was lowered into the grave: "Oh, let me go with him!" But she did not follow her husband, probably because she remembered his pension in time. Zapoikin waited until every sound had ceased and then stepped forward, embraced the whole crowd at a glance and began:
"Can we believe our eyes and our ears? Is this not a terrible dream ? What is this grave here ? What are these tear-stained faces, these sobs, these groans? Alas, they are not a dream ! He whom, but a short time since we saw before us so valiant and brave, endowed still with all the freshness of youth; he whom, before our eyes, like the untiring bee, we saw carrying his burden of honey to the universal hive of the sovereign good, he whom—this man has now become dust, a mirage ! Pitiless death has laid his bony hand upon him at a time when, notwithstanding the weight of his years, he was still in the very bloom of his powers, and radiant with hope. We have many a good servant of the state here, but Prokofi Osipitch stood alone among them all. He was devoted body and soul to the accomplishment of his honourable duties; he spared not his strength, and it may well be said of him that he was always without fear and without reproach. Ah, how he despised those who desired to buy his soul at the expense of the public good; those who, with the seductive blessings of earth, would fain have enticed him into a betrayal of the trusts confided to him ! Yea, before our very eyes we could see Prokofi Osipitch giving his mite, his all, to comrades poorer than himself, and you have heard for yourselves, but a few moments since, the cries of the widows and orphans who lived by the kindness of his great heart. Engrossed in the duties of his post and in deeds of charity, he knew no joy in this world. Yea, he even forswore the happiness of family life. You know that he remained a bachelor to the end of his days. Who will take the place of this comrade of ours? I can see at this moment his gentle, clean-shaven face turned toward us with a benevolent smile. I seem to hear the soft, friendly tones of his voice. Eternal repose be to your soul, Prokofi Osipitch ! Rest in peace, noble, honourable toiler of ours!"
Zapoikin continued his oration, but his audience had begun to whisper among themselves. The speech pleased every one and called forth numerous tears, but it seemed a little strange to many who heard it. In the first place, they could not understand why the speaker had referred to the dead man as "Prokofi Osi- pitch" when his real name had been Kiril Ivanovitch. In the second place, they all knew that the departed and his wife had fought like cat and dog, and that therefore he could hardly have been called a bachelor. In the third place, he had worn a thick red beard, and had never shaved in his life, therefore they could not make out why their Demosthenes had spoken of him as being clean-shaven. They wondered and looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders.
"Prokofi Osipitch!" the speaker continued with a rapt look at the grave. " Prokofi Osipitch ! You were ugly of face, it is true, yea, you were almost uncouth; you were gloomy and stern, but well we knew that beneath that deceitful exterior of yours there beat a warm and affectionate heart!"
The crowd was now beginning to notice something queer about the orator himself. He was glaring intently at some object near him and was shifting his position uneasily. At last he suddenly stopped, his jaw dropped with amazement, and he turned to Poplavski.
"Look here, that man's alive!" he cried, his eyes starting out of his head with horror.
"Why, Prokofi Osipitch ! There he is now, standing by that monument!"
"Of course he is ! It was Kiril Ivanovitch that died, not he!"
"But you said yourself it was the Assessor!"
"I know ! And wasn't Kiril Ivanovitch the Assessor ? Oh, you moon-calf ! You have got them mixed up ! Of course Prokofi Osipitch used to be the Assessor, but that was two years ago. He has been chief of a table in chancery now for two years ! "
"It's simply the devil to keep up with all you chaps ! "
"What are you stopping for? Go on! This is getting too awkward!"
Zapoikin turned toward the grave, and continued his oration with all his former eloquence. Yes, and there near the monument stood Prokofi Osipitch, an old civil servant with a clean-shaven face, frowning and glaring furiously at the speaker.
"How in the world did you manage to do that?" laughed the officials as they and Zapoikin drove home from the cemetery together. "Ha! Ha! Ha! A funeral oration for a live man ! "
"You made a great mistake, young man!" growled Prokofi Osipitch. "Your speech may have been appropriate enough for a dead man, but for a live one it was—it was simply a joke. Allow me to ask you, what was it you said? 'Without fear and without reproach; he never took a bribe !' Why, you couldn't say a thing like that about a live man unless you were joking! And no one asked you to dwell upon my personal appearance, young gentleman ! 'Ugly and uncouth,' eh ! That may be quite true, but why did you drag it in before every one in the city ? I call it an insult ! "