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MUSEUM OF FURNITURE-MAKING

 

To return home would be awkward. She had no one she could go and see.

There were twenty kopeks in her pocket. So Liza decided to begin her life of

independence with a visit to the museum. Checking her cash in hand, she went

into the lobby.

Inside she immediately bumped into a man with a shabby beard who was

staring at a malachite column with a grieved expression and muttering

through his moustache:

"People certainly lived well!"

Liza looked respectfully at the column and went upstairs.

For ten minutes or so she sauntered through small square rooms with

ceilings so low that people entering them looked like giants.

The rooms were furnished in the style of the period of Emperor Paul

with mahogany and Karelian birch furniture that was austere, magnificent,

and militant. Two square dressers, the doors of which were crisscrossed with

spears, stood opposite a writing desk. The desk was vast. Sitting at it

would have been like sitting at the Theatre Square with the Bolshoi Theatre

with its colonnade and four bronze horses drawing Apollo to the first night

of "The Red Poppy" as an inkwell. At least, that is how it seemed to Liza,

who was being reared on carrots like a rabbit. There were high-backed chairs

in the corners of the room with tops twisted to resemble the horns of a ram.

The sunshine lay on their peach-coloured covers.

The chairs looked very inviting, but it was forbidden to sit on them.

Liza made a mental comparison to see how a priceless Empire chair would

look beside her red-striped mattress. The result was not too bad. She read

the plate on the wall which gave a scientific and ideological justification

of the period, and, regretting that she and Nicky did not have a room in

this palatial building, went out, unexpectedly finding herself in a

corridor.

Along the left-hand-side, at floor level, was a line of semicircular

windows. Through them Liza could see below her a huge columned hall with two

rows of large windows. The hall was also full of furniture, and visitors

strolled about inspecting it. Liza stood still. Never before had she seen a

room under her feet.

Marvelling and thrilling at the sight, she stood for some time gazing

downward. Suddenly she noticed the friends she had made that day, Bender and

his travelling companion, the distinguished-looking old man with the shaven

head; they were moving from the chairs towards the desks.

"Good," said Liza. "Now I won't be so bored."

She brightened up considerably, ran downstairs, and immediately lost

her way. She came to a red drawing-room in which there were about forty

pieces of furniture. It was walnut furniture with curved legs. There was no

exit from the drawing-room, so she had to run back through a circular room

with windows at the top, apparently furnished with nothing but flowered

cushions.

She hurried past Renaissance brocade chairs, Dutch dressers, a large



Gothic bed with a canopy resting on four twisted columns. In a bed like that

a person would have looked no larger than a nut.

At length Liza heard the drone of a batch of tourists as they listened

inattentively to the guide unmasking the imperialistic designs of Catherine

II in connection with the deceased empress's love of Louis Quinze furniture.

This was in fact the large columned hall with the two rows of large

windows. Liza made towards the far end, where her acquaintance, Comrade

Bender, was talking heatedly to his shaven-headed companion.

As she approached, she could hear a sonorous voice saying:

"The furniture is chic moderne, but not apparently what we want."

"No, but there are other rooms as well. We must examine everything

systematically."

"Hello!" said Liza.

They both turned around and immediately frowned.

"Hello, Comrade Bender. I'm glad I've found you. It's boring by myself.

Let's look at everything together."

The concessionaires exchanged glances. Ippolit Matveyevich assumed a

dignified air, although the idea that Liza might delay their important

search for the chair with the jewels was not a pleasant one.

"We are typical provincials," said Bender impatiently. "But how did you

get here, Miss Moscow?"

"Quite by accident. I had a row with Nicky."

"Really?" Ippolit Matveyevich observed.

"Well, let's leave this room," said Ostap.

"But I haven't looked at it yet. It's so nice."

"That's done it!" Ostap whispered to Vorobyaninov. And, turning to

Liza, he added: "There's absolutely nothing to see here. The style is

decadent. The Kerensky period."

"I'm told there's some Hambs furniture somewhere here," Ippolit

Matveyevich declared. "Maybe we should see that."

Liza agreed and, taking Vorobyaninov's arm (she thought him a

remarkably nice representative of science), went towards the exit. Despite

the seriousness of the situation, at this decisive moment in the treasure

hunt, Bender laughed good-humouredly as he walked behind the couple. He was

amused at the chief of the Comanche in the role of a cavalier.

Liza was a great hindrance to the concessionaires. Whereas they could

determine at a glance whether or not the room contained the furniture they

were after, and if not, automatically make for the next, Liza browsed at

length in each section. She read all the printed tags, made cutting remarks

about the other visitors, and dallied at each exhibit. Completely without

realizing it, she was mentally adapting all the furniture she saw to her own

room and requirements. She did not like the Gothic bed at all. It was too

big. Even if Nicky in some miraculous way acquired a room six yards square,

the mediaeval couch would still not fit into it. Liza walked round and round

the bed, measuring its true area in paces. She was very happy. She did not

notice the sour faces of her companions, whose chivalrous natures prevented

them from heading for the Hambs room at full pelt.

"Let's be patient," Ostap whispered. "The furniture won't run away. And

don't squeeze the girl, Marshal, I'm jealous!" Vorobyaninov laughed smugly.

The rooms went on and on. There was no end to them. The furniture of

the Alexander period was displayed in batches. Its relatively small size

delighted Liza.

"Look, look!" she cried, seizing Ippolit Matveyevich by the sleeve.

"You see that bureau? That would suit our room wonderfully, wouldn't it?"

"Charming furniture," said Ostap testily. "But decadent." "I've been in

here already," said Liza as she entered the red drawing-room. "I don't think

it's worth stopping here."

To her astonishment, the indifferent companions were standing

stock-still by the door like sentries.

"Why have you stopped? Let's go on. I'm tired."

"Wait," said Ippolit Matveyevich, freeing his arm. "One moment."

The large room was crammed with furniture. Hambs chairs were arranged

along the wall and around a table. The couch in the corner was also

encircled by chairs. Their curved legs and comfortable backs were excitingly

familiar to Ippolit Matveyevich. Ostap looked at him questioningly.

Vorobyaninov was flushed.

"You're tired, young lady," he said to Liza. "Sit down here a moment to

rest while he and I walk around a bit. This seems to be an interesting

room."

They sat Liza down. Then the concessionaires went over to the window.

"Are they the ones?" Ostap asked.

"It looks like it. I must have a closer look."

"Are they all here?"

"I'll just count them. Wait a moment." Vorobyaninov began shifting his

eyes from one chair to another. "Just a second," he said at length. "Twenty

chairs! That can't be right. There are only supposed to be twelve."

"Take a good look. They may not be the right ones."

They began walking among the chairs.

"Well?" Ostap asked impatiently.

"The back doesn't seem to be the same as in mine."

"So they aren't the ones?"

"No, they're not."

"What a waste of time it was taking up with you!"

Ippolit Matveyevich was completely crushed.

"All right," said Ostap, "the hearing is continued. A chair isn't a

needle in a haystack. We'll find it. Give me the orders. We will have to

establish unpleasant contact with the museum curators. Sit down beside the

girl and wait. I'll be back soon."

"Why are you so depressed?" asked Liza, "Are you tired?"

Ippolit Matveyevich tried not to answer.

"Does your head ache?"

"Yes, slightly. I have worries, you know. Lack of a woman's affection

has an effect on one's tenor of life."

Liza was at first surprised, and then, looking at her bald-headed

companion, felt truly sorry for him. Vorobyaninov's eyes were full of

suffering. His pince-nez could not hide the sharply outlined bags underneath

them. The rapid change from the quiet life of a clerk in a district registry

office to the uncomfortable, irksome existence of a diamond hunter and

adventurer had left its mark. Ippolit Matveyevich had become extremely thin

and his liver had started paining him. Under the strict supervision of

Bender he was losing his own personality and rapidly being absorbed by the

powerful intellect of the son of a Turkish citizen. Now that he was left

alone for a minute with the charming Liza, he felt an urge to tell her about

his trials and tribulations, but did not dare to do so.

"Yes," he said, gazing tenderly at his companion, "that's how it is.

How are you, Elizabeth. . ."

"Petrovna. And what's your name?"

They exchanged names and patronymics. "A tale of true love," thought

Ippolit Matveyevich, peering into Liza's simple face. So passionately and so

irresistibly did the old marshal want a woman's affection that he

immediately seized Liza's tiny hand in his own wrinkled hands and began

talking enthusiastically of Paris. He wanted to be rich, extravagant and

irresistible. He wanted to captivate a beauty from the all-women orchestra

and drink champagne with her in a private dining-room to the sound of music.

What was the use of talking to a girl who knew absolutely nothing about

women's orchestras or wine, and who by nature would not appreciate the

delights of that kind of life? But he so much wanted to be attractive!

Ippolit Matveyevich enchanted Liza with his account of Paris. "Are you a

scientist?" asked Liza.

"Yes, to a certain extent,", replied Ippolit Matveyevich, feeling that

since first meeting Bender he had regained some of the nerve that he had

lost in recent years.

"And how old are you, if it's not an indiscreet question?"

"That has nothing to do with the science which I am at present

representing."

Liza was squashed by the prompt and apt reply. "But, anyway-thirty,

forty, fifty?"

"Almost. Thirty-seven."

"Oh! You look much younger."

Ippolit Matveyevich felt happy. "When will you give me the pleasure of

seeing you again? " he asked through his nose.

Liza was very ashamed. She wriggled about on her seat and felt

miserable. "Where has Comrade Bender got to?" she asked in a thin voice.

"So when, then?" asked Vorobyaninov impatiently. "When and where shall

we meet?"

"Well, I don't know. Whenever you like."

"Is today all right?"

"Today?"

"Please!"

"Well, all right. Today, if you like. Come and see us."

"No, let's meet outside. The weather's so wonderful at present. Do you

know the poem 'It's mischievous May, it's magical May, who is waving his fan

of freshness'?"

"Is that Zharov?"

"Mmm . . . I think so. Today, then? And where?"

"How strange you are. Anywhere you like. By the cabinet if you want. Do

you know it? As soon as it's dark."

Hardly had Ippolit Matveyevich time to kiss Liza's hand, which he did

solemnly and in three instalments, when Ostap returned. He was very

businesslike.

"I'm sorry, mademoiselle," he said quickly, "but my friend and I cannot

see you home. A small but important matter has arisen. We have to go

somewhere urgently."

Ippolit Matveyevich caught his breath. "Good-bye, Elizabeth Petrovna,"

he said hastily. "I'm very, very sorry, but we're in a terrible hurry."

The partners ran off, leaving the astonished Liza in the room so

abundantly furnished with Hambs chairs.

"If it weren't for me," said Ostap as they went downstairs, "not a damn

thing would get done. Take your hat off to me! Go on! Don't be afraid! Your

head won't fall off! Listen! The museum has no use for your furniture. The

right place for it is not a museum, but the barracks of a punishment

battalion. Are you satisfied with the situation?"

"What nerve!" exclaimed Vorobyaninov, who had begun to free himself

from the other's powerful intellect.

"Silence!" said Ostap coldly. "You don't know what's happening. If we

don't get hold of your furniture, everything's lost. We'll never see it. I

have just had a depressing conversation with the curator of this historical

refuse-dump."

"Well, and what did he say," cried Ippolit Matveyevich, "this curator

of yours? "

"He said all he needed to. Don't worry. Tell me,' I said to him, 'how

do you explain the fact that the furniture requisitioned in Stargorod and

sent to your museum isn't here?" I asked him politely, of course, as a

comrade. 'Which furniture?' he asks. 'Such things do not occur in my

museum.' I immediately shoved the orders under his nose. He began rummaging

in the files. He searched for about half an hour and finally came back.

Well, guess what happened to the furniture!" "Not lost? " squeaked

Vorobyaninov.

"No, just imagine! Just imagine, it remained safe and sound through all

the confusion. As I told you, it has no museum value. It was dumped in a

storehouse and only yesterday, mind you, only yesterday, after seven

years-it had been in the storehouse seven years-it was sent to be auctioned.

The auction is being held by the chief scientific administration. And

provided no one bought it either yesterday or this morning, it's ours."

"Quick!" Ippolit Matveyevich shouted. "Taxi! "Ostap yelled.

They got in without even arguing about the price. "Take your hat off to

me! Don't be afraid, Hofmarshal! Wine, women and cards will be provided.

Then we'll settle for the light-blue waistcoat as well."

As friskily as foals, the concessionaires tripped into the Petrovka

arcade where the auction rooms were located.

In the first auction room they caught sight of what they had long been

chasing. All ten chairs were lined along the wall. The upholstery had not

even become darker, nor had it faded or been in any way spoiled. The chairs

were as fresh and clean as when they had first been removed from the

supervision of the zealous Claudia Ivanovna. "Are those the ones?" asked

Ostap.

"My God, my God," Vorobyaninov kept repeating. "They're the ones. The

very ones. There's no doubt this time."

"Let's make certain, just in case," said Ostap, trying to remain calm.

They went up to an auctioneer.

"These chairs are from the furniture museum, aren't they? "

"These? Yes, they are."

"And they're for sale?"

"Yes."

"At what price?"

"No price yet. They're up for auction."

"Aha! Today?"

"No. The auction has finished for today. Tomorrow at five."

"And they're not for sale at the moment? "

"No. Tomorrow at five."

They could not leave the chairs at once, just like that.

"Do you mind if we have a look at them?" Ippolit Matveyevich stammered.

The concessionaires examined the chairs at great length, sat on them,

and, for the sake of appearances, looked at the other lots. Vorobyaninov was

breathing hard and kept nudging Ostap.

"Take your hat off to me, Marshal!"

Ippolit Matveyevich was not only prepared to take his hat off to Ostap;

he was even ready to kiss the soles of his crimson boots.

"Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow," he kept saying.

He felt an urge to sing.

 

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 208


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