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TO COLLECTIVE CREATIVITY

 

"Very good," said Ostap. "This recreation room does not constitute a

fire hazard. Let's go on."

Passing through the front rooms of Vorobyaninov's house, Ostap could

see no sign of a walnut chair with curved legs and English chintz

upholstery. The iron-smooth walls were plastered with directives issued to

the Second Home. Ostap read them and, from time to time, asked

enthusiastically:

"Are the chimneys swept regularly? Are the stoves working properly?"

And, receiving exhaustive answers, moved on.

The fire inspector made a diligent search for at least one corner of

the house which might constitute a fire hazard, but in that respect

everything seemed to be in order. His second quest, however, was less

successful. Ostap went into the dormitories. As he appeared, the old women

stood up and bowed low. The rooms contained beds covered with blankets, as

hairy as a dog's coat, with the word "Feet" woven at one end. Below the beds

were trunks, which at the initiative of Alexander Yakovlevich, who liked to

do things in a military fashion, projected exactly one-third of their

length.

Everything in the Home was marked by its extreme modesty; the furniture

that consisted solely of garden benches taken from Alexander Boulevard (now

renamed in honour of the Proletarian Voluntary Saturdays), the paraffin

lamps bought at the local market, and the very blankets with that

frightening word, "Feet". One feature of the house, however, had been made

to last and was developed on a grand scale-to wit, the door springs.

Door springs were Alexander Yakovlevich's passion. Sparing no effort,

he fitted all the doors in the house with springs of different types and

systems. There were very simple ones in the form of an iron rod;

compressed-air ones with cylindrical brass pistons; there were ones with

pulleys that raised and lowered heavy bags of shot. There were springs which

were so complex in design that the local mechanic could only shake his head

in wonder. And all the cylinders, springs and counterweights were very

powerful, slamming doors shut with the swiftness of a mousetrap. Whenever

the mechanisms operated, the whole house shook. With pitiful squeals, the

old women tried to escape the onslaught of the doors, but not always with

success. The doors gave the fugitives a thump in the back, and at the same

time, a counterweight shot past their ears with a dull rasping sound.

As Bender and the assistant warden walked around the house, the doors

fired a noisy salute.

But the feudal magnificence had nothing to hide: the chair was not

there. As the search progressed, the fire inspector found himself in the

kitchen. Porridge was cooking in a large copper pot and gave off the smell

that the smooth operator had noticed in the hall. Ostap wrinkled his nose

and said: "What is it cooking in? Lubricating oil?" "It's pure butter, I



swear it," said Alchen, blushing to the roots of his hair. "We buy it from a

farm." He felt very ashamed.

"Anyway, it's not a fire risk," observed Ostap. The chair was not in

the kitchen, either. There was only a stool, occupied by the cook, wearing a

cap and apron of mouse-grey woollen material.

"Why is everybody's clothing grey? That cloth isn't even fit to wipe

the windows with!" The shy Alchen was even more embarrassed. "We don't

receive enough funds." He was disgusted with himself.

Ostap looked at him disbelievingly and said: "That is no concern of the

fire brigade, which I am at present representing." Alchen was alarmed.

"We've taken all the necessary fire precautions," he declared. "We even

have a fire extinguisher. An Eclair."

The fire inspector reluctantly proceeded in the direction of the fire

extinguisher, peeping into the lumber rooms as he went. The red-iron nose of

the extinguisher caused the inspector particular annoyance, despite the fact

that it was the only object in the house which had any connection with fire

precautions. "Where did you get it? At the market?" And without waiting for

an answer from the thunderstruck Alexander Yakovlevich, he removed the

Eclair from the rusty nail on which it was hanging, broke the capsule

without warning, and quickly pointed the nose in the air. But instead of the

expected stream of foam, all that came out was a high-pitched hissing which

sounded like the ancient hymn "How Glorious Is Our Lord on Zion".

"You obviously did get it at the market," said Ostap, his earlier

opinion confirmed. And he put back the fire extinguisher, which was still

hissing, in its place.

They moved on, accompanied by the hissing.

Where can it be? wondered Ostap. I don't like the look of things. And

he made up his mind not to leave the place until he had found out the truth.

While the fire inspector and the assistant warden were crawling about

the attics, considering fire precautions in detail and examining the

chimneys, the Second Home of the Stargorod Social Security Administration

carried on its daily routine.

Dinner was ready. The smell of burnt porridge had appreciably

increased, and it overpowered all the sourish smells inhabiting the house.

There was a rustling in the corridors. Holding iron bowls full of porridge

in front of them with both hands, the old women cautiously emerged from the

kitchen and sat down at a large table, trying not to look at the refectory

slogans, composed by Alexander Yakolevich and painted by his wife. The

slogans read:

 

FOOD IS THE SOURCE OF HEALTH

ONE EGG CONTAINS AS MUCH FAT AS A HALF-POUND OF MEAT

BY CAREFULLY MASTICATING YOUR FOOD YOU HELP SOCIETY

MEAT IS BAD FOR YOU

 

These sacred words aroused in the old ladies memories of teeth that had

disappeared before the revolution, eggs that had been lost at approximately

the same time, meat that was inferior to eggs in fat, and perhaps even the

society that they were prevented from helping by careful mastication.

Seated at table in addition to the old women were Isidor, Afanasy,

Cyril and Oleg, and also Pasha Emilevich. Neither in age nor sex did these

young men fit into the pattern of social security, but they were the younger

brothers of Alchen, and Pasha Emilevich was Alexandra Yakovlevna's cousin,

once removed. The young men, the oldest of whom was the thirty-two-year-old

Pasha Emilevich, did not consider their life in the pensioners' home in any

way abnormal. They lived on the same basis as the old women; they too had

government-property beds and blankets with the word "Feet"; they were

clothed in the same mouse-grey material as the old women, but on account of

their youth and strength they ate better than the latter. They stole

everything in the house that Alchen did not manage to steal himself. Pasha

could put away four pounds of fish at one go, and he once did so, leaving

the home dinnerless.

Hardly had the old women had time to taste their porridge when the

younger brothers and Pasha Emilevich rose from the table, having gobbled

down their share, and went, belching, into the kitchen to look for something

more digestible.

The meal continued. The old women began jabbering:

"Now they'll stuff themselves full and start bawling songs."

"Pasha Emilevich sold the chair from the recreation room this morning.

A second-hand dealer took it away at the back door."

"Just you see. He'll come home drunk tonight."

At this moment the pensioners' conversation was interrupted by a

trumpeting noise that even drowned the hissing of the fire extinguisher, and

a husky voice began:

'. . . vention .. ."

The old women hunched their shoulders and, ignoring the loudspeaker in

the corner on the floor, continued eating in the hope that fate would spare

them, but the loud-speaker cheerfully went on:

"Evecrashshsh . . . viduso . . . valuable invention. Railwayman of the

Murmansk Railway, Comrade Sokutsky, S Samara, O Oriel, K Kaliningrad, U

Urals, Ts Tsaritsina, K Kaliningrad, Y York. So-kuts-ky."

The trumpet wheezed and renewed the broadcast in a thick voice.

". . . vented a system of signal lights for snow ploughs. The invention

has been approved by Dorizul. . . ."

The old women floated away to their rooms like grey ducklings. The

loud-speaker, jigging up and down by its own power, blared away into the

empty room:

"And we will now play some Novgorod folk music."

Far, far away, in the centre of the earth, someone strummed a balalaika

and a black-earth Battistini broke into song:

 

"On the wall the bugs were sitting,

Blinking at the sky;

Then they saw the tax inspector

And crawled away to die."

 

In the centre of the earth the verses brought forth a storm of

activity. A horrible gurgling was heard from the loud-speaker. It was

something between thunderous applause and the eruption of an underground

volcano.

Meanwhile the disheartened fire inspector had descended an attic ladder

backwards and was now back in the kitchen, where he saw five citizens

digging into a barrel of sauerkraut and bolting it down. They ate in

silence. Pasha Emilevich alone waggled his head in the style of an epicurean

and, wiping some strings of cabbage from his moustache, observed:

"It's a sin to eat cabbage like this without vodka."

"Is this a new intake of women?" asked Ostap.

"They're orphans," replied Alchen, shouldering the inspector out of the

kitchen and surreptitiously shaking his fist at the orphans.

"Children of the Volga Region?"

Alchen was confused.

"A trying heritage from the Tsarist regime?"

Alchen spread his arms as much as to say: "There's nothing you can do

with a heritage like that."

"Co-education by the composite method?"

Without further hesitation the bashful Alchen invited the fire

inspector to take pot luck and lunch with him.

Pot luck that day happened to be a bottle of Zubrovka vodka,

home-pickled mushrooms, minced herring, Ukrainian beet soup containing

first-grade meat, chicken and rice, and stewed apples.

"Sashchen," said Alexander Yakovlevich, "I want you to meet a comrade

from the province fire-precaution administration."

Ostap made his hostess a theatrical bow and paid her such an

interminable and ambiguous compliment that he could hardly get to the end of

it. Sashchen, a buxom woman, whose good looks were somewhat marred by

sideburns of the kind that Tsar Nicholas used to have, laughed softly and

took a drink with the two men.

"Here's to your communal services," exclaimed Ostap.

The lunch went off gaily, and it was not until they reached the stewed

fruit that Ostap remembered the point of his visit.

"Why is it," he asked, "that the furnishings are so skimpy in your

establishment?"

"What do you mean?" said Alchen. "What about the harmonium?"

"Yes, I know, vox humana. But you have absolutely nothing at all of any

taste to sit on. Only garden benches."

"There's a chair in the recreation room," said Alchen in an offended

tone. "An English chair. They say it was left over from the original

furniture."

"By the way, I didn't see your recreation room. How is it from the

point of view of fire hazard? It won't let you down, I hope. I had better

see it."

"Certainly."

Ostap thanked his hostess for the lunch and left.

No primus was used in the recreation room; there was no portable stove

of any kind; the chimneys were in a good state of repair and were cleaned

regularly, but the chair, to the incredulity of Alchen, was missing. They

ran to look for it. They looked under the beds and under the trunks; for

some reason or other they moved back the harmonium; they questioned the old

women, who kept looking at Pasha Emilevich timidly, but the chair was just

not there. Pasha Emilevich himself showed great enthusiasm in the search.

When all had calmed down, Pasha still kept wandering from room to room,

looking under decanters, shifting iron teaspoons, and muttering:

"Where can it be? I saw it myself this morning. It's ridiculous !"

"It's depressing, girls," said Ostap in an icy voice.

"It's absolutely ridiculous!" repeated Pasha Emilevich impudently.

At this point, however, the Eclair fire extinguisher, which had been

hissing the whole time, took a high F, which only the People's Artist,

Nezhdanova, can do, stopped for a second and then emitted its first stream

of foam, which soaked the ceiling and knocked the cook's cap off. The first

stream of foam was followed by another, mouse-grey in colour, which bowled

over young Isidor Yakovlevich. After that the extinguisher began working

smoothly. Pasha Emilevich, Alchen and all the surviving brothers raced to

the spot.

"Well done," said Ostap. "An idiotic invention!"

As soon as the old women were left alone with Ostap and without the

boss, they at once began complaining:

"He's brought his family into the home. They eat up everything."

"The piglets get milk and we get porridge."

"He's taken everything out of the house."

"Take it easy, girls," said Ostap, retreating. "You need someone from

the labour-inspection department. The Senate hasn't empowered me . . ."

The old women were not listening.

"And that Pasha Melentevich. He went and sold a chair today. I saw him

myself."

"Who did he sell it to? " asked Ostap quickly.

"He sold it. . . that's all. He was going to steal my blanket. . ."

A fierce struggle was going on in the corridor. But mind finally

triumphed over matter and the extinguisher, trampled under Pasha Emilevich's

feet of iron, gave a last dribble and was silent for ever.

The old women were sent to clean the floor. Lowering his head and

waddling slightly, the fire inspector went up to Pasha Emilevich.

"A friend of mine," began Ostap importantly, "also used to sell

government property. He now lives a monastic life in the penitentiary."

"I find your groundless accusations strange," said Pasha, who smelled

strongly of foam.

"Who did you sell the chair to?" asked Ostap in a ringing whisper.

Pasha Emilevich, who had supernatural understanding, realized at this

point he was about to be beaten, if not kicked.

"To a second-hand dealer."

"What's his address?"

"I'd never seen him before."

"Never?"

"No, honestly."

"I ought to bust you in the mouth," said Ostap dreamily, "only

Zarathustra wouldn't allow it. Get to hell out of here!"

Pasha Emilevich grinned fawningly and began walking away.

"Come back, you abortion," cried Ostap haughtily. "What was the dealer

like?"

Pasha Emilevich described him in detail, while Ostap listened

carefully. The interview was concluded by Ostap with the words: "This

clearly has nothing to do with fire precautions."

In the corridor the bashful Alchen went up to Ostap and gave him a gold

piece.

"That comes under Article 114 of the Criminal Code," said Ostap.

"Bribing officials in the course of their duty."

Nevertheless he took the money and, without saying good-bye, went

towards the door. The door, which was fitted with a powerful contraption,

opened with an effort and gave Ostap a one-and-a-half-ton shove in the

backside.

"Good shot!" said Ostap, rubbing the affected part. "The hearing is

continued."

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 229


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