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WHERE ARE YOUR CURLS?

 

While Ostap was inspecting the pensioners' home, Ippolit Matveyevich

had left the caretaker's room and was wandering along the streets of his

home town, feeling the chill on his shaven head.

Along the road trickled clear spring water. There was a constant

splashing and plopping as diamond drops dripped from the rooftops. Sparrows

hunted for manure, and the sun rested on the roofs. Golden carthorses

drummed their hoofs against the bare road and, turning their ears downward,

listened with pleasure to their own sound. On the damp telegraph poles the

wet advertisements, "I teach the guitar by the number system" and

"Social-science lessons for those preparing for the People's Conservatory",

were all wrinkled up, and the letters had run. A platoon of Red Army

soldiers in winter helmets crossed a puddle that began at the Stargorod

co-operative shop and stretched as far as the province planning

administration, the pediment of which was crowned with plaster tigers,

figures of victory and cobras.

Ippolit Matveyevich walked along, looking with interest at the people

passing him in both directions. As one who had spent the whole of his life

and also the revolution in Russia, he was able to see how the way of life

was changing and acquiring a new countenance. He had become used to this

fact, but he seemed to be used to only one point on the globe-the regional

centre of N. Now he was back in his home town, he realized he understood

nothing. He felt just as awkward and strange as though he really were an

emigre just back from Paris. In the old days, whenever he rode through the

town in his carriage, he used invariably to meet friends or people he knew

by sight. But now he had gone some way along Lena Massacre Street and there

was no friend to be seen. They had vanished, or they might have changed so

much that they were no longer recognizable, or perhaps they had become

unrecognizable because they wore different clothes and different hats.

Perhaps they had changed their walk. In any case, they were no longer there.

Vorobyaninov walked along, pale, cold and lost. He completely forgot

that he was supposed to be looking for the housing division. He crossed from

pavement to pavement and turned into side streets, where the uninhibited

carthorses were quite intentionally drumming their hoofs. There was more of

winter in the side streets, and rotting ice was still to be seen in places.

The whole town was a different colour; the blue houses had become green and

the yellow ones grey. The fire indicators had disappeared from the fire

tower, the fireman no longer climbed up and down, and the streets were much

noisier than Ippolit Matveyevich could remember.

On Greater Pushkin Street, Ippolit Matveyevich was amazed by the tracks

and overhead cables of the tram system, which he had never seen in Stargorod

before. He had not read the papers and did not know that the two tram routes



to the station and the market were due to be opened on May Day. At one

moment Ippolit Matveyevich felt he had never left Stargorod, and the next

moment it was like a place completely unfamiliar to him.

Engrossed in these thoughts, he reached Marx and Engels Street. Here he

re-experienced a childhood feeling that at any moment a friend would appear

round the corner of the two-storeyed house with its long balcony. He even

stopped walking in anticipation. But the friend did not appear. The first

person to come round the corner was a glazier with a box of Bohemian glass

and a dollop of copper-coloured putty. Then came a swell in a suede cap with

a yellow leather peak. He was pursued by some elementary-school children

carrying books tied with straps.

Suddenly Ippolit Matveyevich felt a hotness in his palms and a sinking

feeling in his stomach. A stranger with a kindly face was coming straight

towards him, carrying a chair by the middle, like a 'cello. Suddenly

developing hiccups Ippolit Matveyevich looked closely at the chair and

immediately recognized it.

Yes! It was a Hambs chair upholstered in flowered English chintz

somewhat darkened by the storms of the revolution; it was a walnut chair

with curved legs. Ippolit Matveyevich felt as though a gun had gone off in

his ear.

"Knives and scissors sharpened! Razors set!" cried a baritone voice

nearby. And immediately came the shrill echo;

"Soldering and repairing!"

"Moscow News, magazine Giggler, Red Meadow."

Somewhere up above, a glass pane was removed with a crash. A truck from

the grain-mill-and-lift-construction administration passed by, making the

town vibrate. A militiaman blew his whistle. Everything brimmed over with

life. There was no time to be lost.

With a leopard-like spring, Ippolit Matveyevich leaped towards the

repulsive stranger and silently tugged at the chair. The stranger tugged the

other way. Still holding on to one leg with his left hand, Ippolit

Matveyevich began forcibly detaching the stranger's fat fingers from the

chair.

"Thief!" hissed the stranger, gripping the chair more firmly.

"Just a moment, just a moment!" mumbled Ippolit Matveyevich, continuing

to unstick the stranger's fingers.

A crowd began to gather. Three or four people were already standing

nearby, watching the struggle with lively interest. They both glanced around

in alarm and, without looking at one another or letting go the chair,

rapidly moved on as if nothing were the matter.

"What's happening?" wondered Ippolit Matveyevich in dismay.

What the stranger was thinking was impossible to say, but he was

walking in a most determined way.

They kept walking more and more quickly until they saw a clearing

scattered with bits of brick and other building materials at the end of a

blind alley; then both turned into it simultaneously. Ippolit Matveyevich's

strength now increased fourfold.

"Give it to me!" he shouted, doing away with all ceremony.

"Help!" exclaimed the stranger, almost inaudibly.

Since both of them had their hands occupied with the chair, they began

kicking one another. The stranger's boots had metal studs, and at first

Ippolit Matveyevich came off badly. But he soon adjusted himself, and,

skipping to the left and right as though doing a Cossack dance, managed to

dodge his opponents' blows, trying at the same time to catch him in the

stomach. He was not successful, since the chair was in the way, but he

managed to land him a kick on the kneecap, after which the enemy could only

lash out with one leg.

"Oh, Lord!" whispered the stranger.

It was at this moment that Ippolit Matveyevich saw that the stranger

who had carried off his chair in the most outrageous manner was none other

than Father Theodore, priest of the Church of St. Frol and St. Laurence.

"Father!" he exclaimed, removing his hands from the chair in

astonishment.

Father Vostrikov turned purple and finally loosed his grip. The chair,

no longer supported by either of them, fell on to the brick-strewn ground.

"Where's your moustache, my dear Ippolit Matveyevich?" asked the cleric

as caustically as possible.

"And what about your curls? You used to have curls, I believe!"

Ippolit Matveyevich's words conveyed utter contempt. He threw Father

Theodore a look of singular disgust and, tucking the chair under his arm,

turned to go. But the priest had now recovered from his embarrassment and

was not going to yield Vorobyaninov such an easy victory. With a cry of "No,

I'm sorry," he grasped hold of the chair again. Their initial position was

restored. The two opponents stood clutching the chair and, moving from side

to side, sized one another up like cats or boxers. The tense pause lasted a

whole minute.

"So you're after my property, Holy Father?" said Ippolit Matveyevich

through clenched teeth and kicked the holy father in the hip.

Father Theodore feinted and viciously kicked the marshal in the groin,

making him double up.

"It's not your property."

"Whose then?"

"Not yours!"

"Whose then?"

"Not yours!"

"Whose then? Whose?"

Spitting at each other in this way, they kept kicking furiously.

"Whose property is it then?" screeched the marshal, sinking his foot in

the holy father's stomach.

"It's nationalized property," said the holy father firmly, overcoming

his pain.

"Nationalized? "

"Yes, nationalized."

They were jerking out the words so quickly that they ran together.

" Who-nationalized-it? "

"The-Soviet-Government. The-Soviet-Government."

"Which-government? "

"The-working-people's-government."

"Aha!" said Ippolit Matveyevich icily. "The government of workers and

peasants?"

"Yes!"

"Hmm . . . then maybe you're a member of the Communist Party, Holy

Father?"

"Maybe I am!"

Ippolit Matveyevich could no longer restrain himself and with a shriek

of "Maybe you are" spat juicily in Father Theodore's kindly face. Father

Theodore immediately spat in Ippolit Matveyevich's face and also found his

mark. They had nothing with which to wipe away the spittle since they were

still holding the chair. Ippolit Matveyevich made a noise like a door

opening and thrust the chair at his enemy with all his might. The enemy fell

over, dragging the panting Vorobyaninov with him. The struggle continued in

the stalls.

Suddenly there was a crack and both front legs broke on simultaneous'y.

The opponents completely forgot one another and began tearing the walnut

treasure-chest to pieces. The flowered English chintz split with the

heart-rending scream of a seagull. The back was torn off by a mighty tug.

The treasure hunters ripped off the sacking together with the brass tacks

and, grazing their hands on the springs, buried their fingers in the woollen

stuffing. The disturbed springs hummed. Five minutes later the chair had

been picked clean. Bits and pieces were all that was left. Springs rolled in

all directions, and the wind blew the rotten padding all over the clearing.

The curved legs lay in a hole. There were no jewels.

"Well, have you found anything?" asked Ippolit Matveyevich, panting.

Father Theodore, covered in tufts of wool, puffed and said nothing.

"You crook!" shouted Ippolit Matveyevich. "I'll break your neck, Father

Theodore!"

"I'd like to see you! " retorted the priest. "Where are you going all

covered in fluff? " "Mind your own business!"

"Shame on you, Father! You're nothing but a thief!" "I've stolen

nothing from you."

"How did you find out about this? You exploited the sacrament of

confession for your own ends. Very nice! Very fine!"

With an indignant "Fooh! " Ippolit Matveyevich left the clearing and,

brushing his sleeve as he went, made for home. At the corner of Lena

Massacre and Yerogeyev streets he caught sight of his partner. The technical

adviser and director-general of the concession was having the suede uppers

of his boots cleaned with canary polish; he was standing half-turned with

one foot slightly raised. Ippolit Matveyevich hurried up to him. The

director was gaily crooning the shimmy:

 

"The camels used to do it,

The barracudas used to dance it,

Now the whole world's doing the shimmy."

 

"Well, how was the housing division?" he asked in a businesslike way,

and immediately added:

"Wait a moment. Don't tell me now; you're too excited. Cool down a

little."

Giving the shoeshiner seven kopeks, Ostap took Vorobyaninov by the arm

and led him down the street. He listened very carefully to everything the

agitated Ippolit Matveyevich told him.

"Aha! A small black beard? Right! A coat with a sheepskin collar? I

see. That's the chair from the pensioner's home. It was bought today for

three roubles."

"But wait a moment. . . ."

And Ippolit Matveyevich told the chief concessionaire all about Father

Theodore's low tricks.

Ostap's face clouded.

"Too bad," he said. "Just like a detective story. We have a mysterious

rival. We must steal a march on him. We can always break his head later."

As the friends were having a snack in the Stenka Razin beer-hall and

Ostap was asking questions about the past and present state of the housing

division, the day came to an end.

The golden carthorses became brown again. The diamond drops grew cold

in mid-air and plopped on to the ground. In the beer-halls and Phoenix

restaurant the price of beer went up. Evening had come; the street lights on

Greater Pushkin Street lit up and a detachment of Pioneers went by, stamping

their feet, on the way home from their first spring outing.

The tigers, figures of victory, and cobras on top of the

province-planning administration shone mysteriously in the light of the

advancing moon.

As he made his way home with Ostap, who was now suddenly silent,

Ippolit Matveyevich gazed at the tigers and cobras. In his time, the

building had housed the Provincial Government and the citizens had been

proud of their cobras, considering them one of the sights of Stargorod.

"I'll find them," thought Ippolit Matveyevich, looking at one of the

plaster figures of victory.

The tigers swished their tails lovingly, the cobras contracted with

delight, and Ippolit Matveyevich's heart filled with determination.

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

THE MECHANIC, THE PARROT, AND THE FORTUNE-TELLER

 

No. 7 Pereleshinsky Street was not one of Stargorod's best buildings.

Its two storeys were constructed in the style of the Second Empire and were

embellished with timeworn lion heads, singularly reminiscent of the once

well-known writer Artsybashec. There were exactly seven of these

Artsybashevian physiognomies, one for each of the windows facing on to the

street. The faces had been placed at the keystone of each window.

There were two other embellishments on the building, though these were

of a purely commercial nature. On one side hung the radiant sign:

 

ODESSA ROLL BAKERY

MOSCOW

BUN ARTEL

 

The sign depicted a young man wearing a tie and ankle-length French

trousers. Ift one dislocated hand he held the fabulous cornucopia, from

which poured an avalanche of ochre-coloured buns; whenever necessary, these

were passed off as Moscow rolls. The young man had a sexy smile on his face.

On the other side, the Fastpack packing office announced itself to

prospective clients by a black board with round gold lettering.

Despite the appreciable difference in the signs and also in the capital

possessed by the two dissimilar enterprises, they both engaged in the same

business, namely, speculation in all types of fabrics: coarse wool, fine

wool, cotton, and, whenever silk of good colour and design came their way,

silk as well.

Passing through the tunnel-like gateway and turning right into the yard

with its cement well, you could see two doorways without porches, giving

straight on to the angular flagstones of the yard. A dulled brass plate with

a name engraved in script was fixed to the right-hand door:

 

V.M. POLESOV

 

The left-hand door was fitted with a piece of whitish tin:

 


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 227


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