THE LION OF STARGOROD
BEZENCHUK AND THE NYMPHS
There were so many hairdressing establishments and funeral homes in the
regional centre of N. that the inhabitants seemed to be born merely in order
to have a shave, get their hair cut, freshen up their heads with toilet
water and then die. In actual fact, people came into the world, shaved, and
died rather rarely in the regional centre of N. Life in N. was extremely
quiet. The spring evenings were delightful, the mud glistened like
anthracite in the light of the moon, and all the young men of the town were
so much in love with the secretary of the communal-service workers' local
committee that she found difficulty in collecting their subscriptions.
Matters of life and death did not worry Ippolit Matveyevich
Vorobyaninov, although by the nature of his work he dealt with them from
nine till five every day, with a half-hour break for lunch.
Each morning, having drunk his ration of hot milk brought to him by
Claudia Ivanovna in a streaky frosted-glass tumbler, he left the dingy
little house and went outside into the vast street bathed in weird spring
sunlight; it was called Comrade Gubernsky Street. It was the nicest kind of
street you can find in regional centres. On the left you could see the
coffins of the Nymph Funeral Home glittering with silver through undulating
green-glass panes. On the right, the dusty, plain oak coffins of Bezenchuk,
the undertaker, reclined sadly behind small windows from which the putty was
peeling off. Further up, "Master Barber Pierre and Constantine" promised
customers a "manicure" and "home curlings". Still further on was a hotel
with a hairdresser's, and beyond it a large open space in which a
straw-coloured calf stood tenderly licking the rusty sign propped up against
a solitary gateway. The sign read: Do-Us-the-Honour Funeral Home.
Although there were many funeral homes, their clientele was not
wealthy. The Do-Us-the-Honour had gone broke three years before Ippolit
Matveyevich settled in the town of N., while Bezenchuk drank like a fish and
had once tried to pawn his best sample coffin.
People rarely died in the town of N. Ippolit Matveyevich knew this
better than anyone because he worked in the registry office, where he was in
charge of the registration of deaths and marriages.
The desk at which Ippolit Matveyevich worked resembled an ancient
gravestone. The left-hand corner had been eaten away by rats. Its wobbly
legs quivered under the weight of bulging tobacco-coloured files of notes,
which could provide any required information on the origins of the town
inhabitants and the family trees that had grown up in the barren regional
On Friday, April 15, 1927, Ippolit Matveyevich woke up as usual at half
past seven and immediately slipped on to his nose an old-fashioned pince-nez
with a gold nosepiece. He did not wear glasses. At one time, deciding that
it was not hygienic to wear pince-nez, he went to the optician and bought
himself a pair of frameless spectacles with gold-plated sidepieces. He liked
the spectacles from the very first, but his wife (this was shortly before
she died) found that they made him look the spitting image of Milyukov, and
he gave them to the man who cleaned the yard. Although he was not
shortsighted, the fellow grew accustomed to the glasses and enjoyed wearing
"Bonjour!" sang Ippolit Matveyevich to himself as he lowered his legs
from the bed. "Bonjour" showed that he had woken up in a. good humour. If he
said "Guten Morgen" on awakening, it usually meant that his liver was
playing tricks, that it was no joke being fifty-two, and that the weather
was damp at the time.
Ippolit Matveyevich thrust his legs into pre-revolutionary trousers,
tied the ribbons around his ankles, and pulled on short, soft-leather boots
with narrow, square toes. Five minutes later he was neatly arrayed in a
yellow waistcoat decorated with small silver stars and a lustrous silk
jacket that reflected the colours of the rainbow as it caught the light.
Wiping away the drops of water still clinging to his grey hairs after his
ablutions, Ippolit Matveyevich fiercely wiggled his moustache, hesitantly
felt his bristly chin, gave his close-cropped silvery hair a brush and,
then, smiling politely, went toward his mother-in-law, Claudia Ivanovna, who
had just come into the room.
"Eppole-et," she thundered, "I had a bad dream last night."
The word "dream" was pronounced with a French "r".
Ippolit Matveyevich looked his mother-in-law up and down. He was six
feet two inches tall, and from that height it was easy for him to look down
on his mother-in-law with a certain contempt.
Claudia Ivanovna continued: "I dreamed of the deceased Marie with her
hair down, and wearing a golden sash."
The iron lamp with its chain and dusty glass toys all vibrated at the
rumble of Claudia Ivanovna's voice. "I am very disturbed. I fear something
may happen." These last words were uttered with such force that the square
of bristling hair on Ippolit Matveyevich's head moved in different
directions. He wrinkled up his face and said slowly:
"Nothing's going to happen, Maman. Have you paid the water rates?"
It appeared that she had not. Nor had the galoshes been washed. Ippolit
Matveyevich disliked his mother-in-law. Claudia Ivanovna was stupid, and her
advanced age gave little hope of any improvement. She was stingy in the
extreme, and it was only Ippolit Matveyevich's poverty which prevented her
giving rein to this passion. Her voice was so strong and fruity that it
might well have been envied by Richard the Lionheart, at whose shout, as is
well known, horses used to kneel. Furthermore, and this was the worst thing
of all about her, she had dreams. She was always having dreams. She dreamed
of girls in sashes, horses trimmed with the yellow braid worn by dragoons,
caretakers playing harps, angels in watchmen's fur coats who went for walks
at night carrying clappers, and knitting-needles which hopped around the
room by themselves making a distressing tinkle. An empty-headed woman was
Claudia Ivanovna. In addition to everything else, her upper lip was covered
by a moustache, each side of which resembled a shaving brush.
Ippolit Matveyevich left the house in rather an irritable mood.
Bezenchuk the undertaker was standing at the entrance to his tumble-down
establishment, leaning against the door with his hands crossed. The regular
collapse of his commercial undertakings plus a long period of practice in
the consumption of intoxicating drinks had made his eyes bright yellow like
a cat's, and they burned with an unfading light.
"Greetings to an honoured guest!" he rattled off, seeing Vorobyaninov.
Ippolit Matveyevich politely raised his soiled beaver hat. "How's your
mother-in-law, might I inquire? " "Mrr-mrr," said Ippolit Matveyevich
indistinctly, and shrugging his shoulders, continued on his way.
"God grant her health," said Bezenchuk bitterly. "Nothin' but losses,
durn it." And crossing his hands on his chest, he again leaned against the
At the entrance to the Nymph Funeral Home Ippolit Matveyevich was
stopped once more. There were three owners of the Nymph. They all bowed to
Ippolit Matveyevich and inquired in chorus about his mother-in-law's health.
"She's well," replied Ippolit Matveyevich. "The things she does! Last
night she saw a golden girl with her hair down. It was a dream."
The three Nymphs exchanged glances and sighed loudly.
These conversations delayed Vorobyaninov on his way, and contrary to
his usual practice, he did not arrive at work until the clock on the wall
above the slogan "Finish Your Business and Leave" showed five past nine.
Because of his great height, and particularly because of his moustache,
Ippolit Matveyevich was known in the office as Maciste.* although the real
Maciste had no moustache. ( Translator's Note: Maciste was an
internationally known Italian actor of the time.)
Taking a blue felt cushion out of a drawer in the desk, Ippolit
Matveyevich placed it on his chair, aligned his moustache correctly
(parallel to the top of the desk) and sat down on the cushion, rising
slightly higher than his three colleagues. He was not afraid of getting
piles; he was afraid of wearing out his trousers-that was why he used the
All these operations were watched timidly by two young persons-a boy
and a girl. The young man, who wore a padded cotton coat, was completely
overcome by the office atmosphere, the chemical smell of the ink, the clock
that was ticking loud and fast, and most of all by the sharply worded notice
"Finish Your Business and Leave". The young man in the coat had not even
begun his business, but he was nonetheless ready to leave. He felt his
business was so insignificant that it was shameful to disturb such a
distinguished-looking grey-haired citizen as Vorobyaninov. Ippolit
Matveyevich also felt the young man's business was a trifling one and could
wait, so he opened folder no. 2 and, with a twitch of the cheek, immersed
himself in the papers. The girl, who had on a long jacket edged with shiny
black ribbon, whispered something to the young man and, pink with
embarrassment, began moving toward Ippolit Matveyevich.
"Comrade," she said, "where do we . . ."
The young man in the padded coat sighed with pleasure and, unexpectedly
for himself, blurted out:
Ippolit Matveyevich looked thoughtfully at the rail behind which the
young couple were standing.
"Get married?" repeated the young man in the coat and looked round him
The girl gave a giggle. Things were going fine. Ippolit Matveyevich set
to work with the skill of a magician. In spidery handwriting he recorded the
names of the bride and groom in thick registers, sternly questioned the
witnesses, who had to be fetched from outside, breathed tenderly and
lengthily on the square rubber stamps and then, half rising to his feet,
impressed them upon the tattered identification papers. Having received two
roubles from the newly-weds "for administration of the sacrament", as he
said with a smirk, and given them a receipt, Ippolit Matveyevich drew
himself up to his splendid height, automatically pushing out his chest (he
had worn a corset at one time). The wide golden rays of the sun fell on his
shoulders like epaulettes. His appearance was slightly comic, but singularly
impressive. The biconcave lenses of his pince-nez flashed white like
searchlights. The young couple stood in awe.
"Young people," said Ippolit Matveyevich pompously, "allow me to
congratulate you, as they used to say, on your legal marriage. It is very,
very nice to see young people like yourselves moving hand in hand toward the
realization of eternal ideals. It is very, ve-ery nice!'
Having made this address, Ippolit Matveyevich shook hands with the
newly married couple, sat down, and, extremely pleased with himself,
continued to read the papers in folder no. 2. At the next desk the clerks
sniggered into their ink-wells. The quiet routine of the working day had
begun. No one disturbed the deaths-and-marriages desk. Through the windows
citizens could be seen making their way home, shivering in the spring
chilliness. At exactly midday the cock in the Hammer and Plough co-operative
began crowing. Nobody was surprised. Then came the mechanical rattling and
squeaking of a car engine. A thick cloud of violet smoke billowed out from
Comrade Gubernsky Street, and the clanking grew louder. Through the smoke
appeared the outline of the regional-executive-committee car Gos. No. 1 with
its minute radiator and bulky body. Floundering in the mud as it went, the
car crossed Staropan Square and, swaying from side to side, disappeared in a
cloud of poisonous smoke. The clerks remained standing at the window for
some time, commenting on the event and attempting to connect it with a
possible reduction in staff. A little while later Bezenchuk cautiously went
past along the footboards. For days on end he used to wander round the town
trying to find out if anyone had died.
The working day was drawing to a close. In the nearby white and yellow
belfry the bells began ringing furiously. Windows rattled. Jackdaws rose one
by one from the belfry, joined forces over the square, held a brief meeting,
and flew off. The evening sky turned ice-grey over the deserted square.
It was time for Ippolit Matveyevich to leave. Everything that was to be
born on that day had been born and registered in the thick ledgers. All
those wishing to get married had done so and were likewise recorded in the
thick registers. And, clearly to the ruin of the undertakers, there had not
been a single death. Ippolit Matveyevich packed up his files, put the felt
cushion away in the drawer, fluffed up his moustache with a comb, and was
just about to leave, having visions of a bowl of steaming soup, when the
door burst open and Bezenchuk the undertaker appeared on the threshold.
"Greetings to an honoured guest," said Ippolit Matveyevich with a
smile. "What can I do for you?"
The undertaker's animal-like face glowed in the dusk, but he was unable
to utter a word.
"Well?" asked Ippolit Matveyevich more severely.
"Does the Nymph, durn it, really give good service?" said the
undertaker vaguely. "Can they really satisfy customers? Why, a coffin needs
so much wood alone."
"What?" asked Ippolit Matveyevich.
"It's the Nymph. . . . Three families livin' on one rotten business.
And their materials ain't no good, and the finish is worse. What's more, the
tassels ain't thick enough, durn it. Mine's an old firm, though. Founded in
1907. My coffins are like gherkins, specially selected for people who know a
"What are you talking about? Are you crazy?" snapped Ippolit
Matveyevich and moved towards the door. "Your coffins will drive you out of
Bezenchuk obligingly threw open the door, let Vorobyaninov go out first
and then began following him, trembling as though with impatience.
"When the Do-Us-the-Honour was goin', it was all right There wasn't one
firm, not even in Tver, which could touch it in brocade, durn it. But now, I
tell you straight, there's nothin' to beat mine. You don't even need to
Ippolit Matveyevich turned round angrily, glared at Bezenchuk, and
began walking faster. Although he had not had any difficulties at the office
that day, he felt rotten.
The three owners of the Nymph were standing by their establishment in
the same positions in which Ippolit Matveyevich had left them that morning.
They appeared not to have exchanged a single word with one another, yet a
striking change in their expressions and a kind of secret satisfaction
darkly gleaming in their eyes indicated that they had heard something of
At the sight of his business rivals, Bezenchuk waved his hand in
despair and called after Vorobyaninov in a whisper: "I'll make it thirty-two
roubles." Ippolit Matveyevich frowned and increased his pace. "You can have
credit," added Bezenchuk. The three owners of the Nymph said nothing. They
sped after Vorobyaninov in silence, continually doffing their caps and
bowing as they went.
Highly annoyed by the stupid attentions of the undertakers, Ippolit
Matveyevich ran up the steps of the porch more quickly than usual, irritably
wiped his boots free of mud on one of the steps and, feeling strong pangs of
hunger, went into the hallway. He was met by Father Theodore, priest of the
Church of St. Frol and St. Laurence, who had just come out of the inner room
and was looking hot and bothered. Holding up his cassock in his right hand,
Father Theodore hurried past towards the door, ignoring Ippolit Matveyevich.
It was then that Vorobyaninov noticed the extra cleanliness and the
unsightly disorder of the sparse furniture, and felt a tickling sensation in
his nose from the strong smell of medicine. In the outer room Ippolit
Matveyevich was met by his neighbour, Mrs. Kuznetsov, the agronomist. She
spoke in a whisper, moving her hand about.
"She's worse. She's just made her confession. Don't make a noise with
"I'm not," said Ippolit Matveyevich meekly. "What's happened?"
Mrs. Kuznetsov sucked in her lips and pointed to the door of the inner
room: "Very severe heart attack."
Then, clearly repeating what she had heard, added: "The possibility of
her not recovering should not be discounted. I've been on my feet all day. I
came this morning to borrow the mincer and saw the door was open. There was
no one in the kitchen and no one in this room either. So I thought Claudia
Ivanovna had gone to buy flour to make some Easter cake. She'd been going to
for some time. You know what flour is like nowadays. If you don't buy it
beforehand . . ."
Mrs. Kuznetsov would have gone on for a long time describing the flour
and the high price of it and how she found Claudia Ivanovna lying by the
tiled stove completely unconscious, had not a groan from the next room
impinged painfully on Ippolit Matveyevich's ear. He quickly crossed himself
with a somewhat feelingless hand and entered his mother-in-law's room.
Date: 2015-01-02; view: 712