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MADAME PETUKHOV'S DEMISE

 

Claudia Ivanovna lay on her back with one arm under her head. She was

wearing a bright apricot-coloured cap of the type that used to be in fashion

when ladies wore the "chanticleer" and had just begun to dance the tango.

Claudia Ivanovna's face was solemn, but expressed absolutely nothing.

Her eyes were fixed on the ceiling.

"Claudia Ivanovna!" called Ippolit Matveyevich.

His mother-in-law moved her lips rapidly, but instead of the

trumpet-like sounds to which his ear was accustomed, Ippolit Matveyevich

only heard a groan, soft, high-pitched, and so pitiful that his heart gave a

leap. A tear suddenly glistened in one eye and rolled down his cheek like a

drop of mercury.

"Claudia Ivanovna," repeated Vorobyaninov, "what's the matter?"

But again he received no answer. The old woman had closed her eyes and

slumped to one side.

The agronomist came quietly into the room and led him away like a

little boy taken to be washed.

"She's dropped off. The doctor didn't say she was to be disturbed.

Listen, dearie, run down to the chemist's. Here's the prescription. Find out

how much an ice-bag costs."

Ippolit Matveyevich obeyed Madame Kuznetsov, sensing her indisputable

superiority in such matters.

It was a long way to the chemist's. Clutching the prescription in his

fist like a schoolboy, Ippolit Matveyevich hurried out into the street.

It was almost dark, but against the fading light the frail figure of

Bezenchuk could be seen leaning against the wooden gate munching a piece of

bread and onion. The three Nymphs were squatting beside him, eating porridge

from an iron pot and licking their spoons. At the sight of Vorobyaninov the

undertakers sprang to attention, like soldiers. Bezenchuk shrugged his

shoulders petulantly and, pointing to his rivals, said:

"Always in me way, durn 'em."

In the middle of the square, near the bust of the "poet Zhukovsky,

which was inscribed with the words "Poetry is God in the Sacred Dreams of

the Earth", an animated conversation was in progress following the news of

Claudia Ivanovna's stroke. The general opinion of the assembled citizens

could have been summed up as "We all have to go sometime" and "What the Lord

gives, the Lord takes back".

The hairdresser "Pierre and Constantine"-who also answered readily to

the name of Andrew Ivanovich, by the way-once again took the opportunity to

air his knowledge of medicine, acquired from the Moscow magazine Ogonyok.

"Modern science," Andrew Ivanovich was saying, "has achieved the

impossible. Take this for example. Let's say a customer gets a pimple on his

chin. In the old days that usually resulted in blood-poisoning. But they say

that nowadays, in Moscow-I don't know whether it's true or not-a freshly

sterilized shaving brush is used for every customer." The citizens gave long



sighs. "Aren't you overdoing it a bit, Andrew? " "How could there be a

different brush for every person? That's a good one!"

Prusis, a former member of the proletariat intelligentsia, and now a

private stall-owner, actually became excited.

"Wait a moment, Andrew Ivanovich. According to the latest census, the

population of Moscow is more than two million. That means they'd need more

than two million brushes. Seems rather curious."

The conversation was becoming heated, and heaven only knows how it

would have ended had not Ippolit Matveyevich appeared at the end of the

street. "He's off to the chemist's again. Things must be bad." "The old

woman will die. Bezenchuk isn't running round the town in a flurry for

nothing." "What does the doctor say? "

"What doctor? Do you call those people in the social-insurance office

doctors? They're enough to send a healthy man to his grave!"

"Pierre and Constantine", who had been longing for a chance to make a

pronouncement on the subject of medicine, looked around cautiously, and

said:

"Haemoglobin is what counts nowadays." Having said that, he fell

silent. The citizens also fell silent, each reflecting in his own way on the

mysterious power of haemoglobin.

When the moon rose and cast its minty light on the miniature bust of

Zhukovsky, a rude word could clearly be seen chalked on the poet's bronze

back.

This inscription had first appeared on June 15, 1897, the same day that

the bust had been unveiled. And despite all the efforts of the tsarist

police, and later the Soviet militia, the defamatory word had reappeared

each day with unfailing regularity.

The samovars were already singing in the little wooden houses with

their outside shutters, and it was time for supper. The citizens stopped

wasting their time and went their way. A wind began to blow.

In the meantime Claudia Ivanovna was dying. First she asked for

something to drink, then said she had to get up and fetch Ippolit

Matveyevich's best boots from the cobbler. One moment she complained of the

dust which, as she put it, was enough to make you choke, and the next asked

for all the lamps to be lit.

Ippolit Matveyevich paced up and down the room, tired of worrying. His

mind was full of unpleasant, practical thoughts. He was thinking how he

would have to ask for an advance at the mutual assistance office, fetch the

priest, and answer letters of condolence from relatives. To take his mind

off these things, Ippolit Matveyevich went out on the porch. There, in the

green light of the moon, stood Bezenchuk the undertaker.

"So how would you like it, Mr. Vorobyaninov?" asked the undertaker,

hugging his cap to his chest. "Yes, probably," answered Ippolit Matveyevich

gloomily. "Does the Nymph, durn it, really give good service?" said

Bezenchuk, becoming agitated. "Go to the devil! You make me sick!"

"I'm not doin' nothin'. I'm only askin' about the tassels and brocade.

How shall I make it? Best quality? Or how?"

"No tassels or brocade. Just an ordinary coffin made of pine-wood. Do

you understand? "

Bezenchuk put his finger to his lips to show that he understood

perfectly, turned round and, managing to balance his cap on his head

although he was staggering, went off. It was only then that Ippolit

Matveyevich noticed that he was blind drunk.

Ippolit Matveyevich felt singularly upset. He tried to picture himself

coming home to an empty, dirty house. He was afraid his mother-in-law's

death would deprive him of all those little luxuries and set ways he had

acquired with such effort since the revolution-a revolution which had

stripped him of much greater luxuries and a grander way of life. "Should I

marry?" he wondered. "But who? The militia chief's niece or Barbara

Stepanova, Prusis's sister? Or maybe I should hire a housekeeper. But what's

the use? She would only drag me around the law courts. And it would cost me

something, too!"

The future suddenly looked black for Ippolit Matveyevich. Full of

indignation and disgust at everything around him, he went back into the

house. Claudia Ivanovna was no longer delirious. Lying high on her pillows,

she looked at Ippolit Matveyevich, in full command of her faculties, and

even sternly, he thought.

"Ippolit Matveyevich," she whispered clearly. "Sit close to me. I want

to tell you something."

Ippolit Matveyevich sat down in annoyance, peering into his

mother-in-law's thin, bewhiskered face. He made an attempt to smile and say

something encouraging, but the smile was hideous and no words of

encouragement came to him. An awkward wheezing noise was all he could

produce.

"Ippolit," repeated his mother-in-law, "do you remember our

drawing-room suite?"

"Which one?" asked Ippolit Matveyevich with that kind of polite

attention that is only accorded to the very sick.

"The one . . . upholstered in English chintz."

"You mean the suite in my house?"

"Yes, in Stargorod."

"Yes, I remember it very well . . . a sofa, a dozen chairs and a round

table with six legs. It was splendid furniture. Made by Hambs. . . . But why

does it come to mind?"

Claudia Ivanovna, however, was unable to answer. Her face had slowly

begun to turn the colour of copper sulphate. For some reason Ippolit

Matveyevich also caught his breath. He clearly remembered the drawing-room

in his house and its symmetrically arranged walnut furniture with curved

legs, the polished parquet floor, the old brown grand piano, and the oval

black-framed daguerreotypes of high-ranking relatives on the walls.

Claudia Ivanovna then said in a wooden, apathetic voice:

"I sewed my jewels into the seat of a chair."

Ippolit Matveyevich looked sideways at the old woman.

"What jewels?" he asked mechanically, then, suddenly realizing what she

had said, added quickly:

"Weren't they taken when the house was searched?"

"I hid the jewels in a chair," repeated the old woman stubbornly.

Ippolit Matveyevich jumped up and, taking a close look at Claudia

Ivanovna's stony face lit by the paraffin lamp, saw she was not raving.

"Your jewels!" he cried, startled at the loudness of his own voice. "In

a chair? Who induced you to do that? Why didn't you give them to me?"

"Why should I have given them to you when you squandered away my

daughter's estate?" said the old woman quietly and viciously. Ippolit

Matveyevich sat down and immediately stood up again.

His heart was noisily sending the blood coursing around his body. He

began to hear a ringing in his ears.

"But you took them out again, didn't you? They're here, aren't they?"

The old woman shook her head.

"I didn't have time. You remember how quickly and unexpectedly we had

to flee. They were left in the chair . .. the one between the terracotta

lamp and the fireplace."

"But that was madness! You're just like your daughter," shouted Ippolit

Matveyevich loudly.

And no longer concerned for the fact that he was at the bedside of a

dying woman, he pushed back his chair with a crash and began prancing about

the room.

"I suppose you realize what may have happened to the chairs? Or do you

think they're still there in the drawing-room in my house, quietly waiting

for you to come and get your jewellery? " The old woman did not answer.

The registry clerk's wrath was so great that the pince-nez fell of his

nose and landed on the floor with a tinkle, the gold nose-piece glittering

as it passed his knees.

"What? Seventy thousand roubles' worth of jewellery hidden in a chair!

Heaven knows who may sit on that chair!"

At this point Claudia Ivanovna gave a sob and leaned forward with her

whole body towards the edge of the bed. Her hand described a semi-circle and

reached out to grasp Ippolit Matveyevich, but then fell back on to the

violet down quilt. Squeaking with fright, Ippolit Matveyevich ran to fetch

his neighbour. "I think she's dying," he cried.

The agronomist crossed herself in a businesslike way and, without

hiding her curiosity, hurried into Ippolit Matveyevich's house, accompanied

by her bearded husband, also an agronomist. In distraction Vorobyaninov

wandered into the municipal park.

While the two agronomists and their servants tidied up the deceased

woman's room, Ippolit Matveyevich roamed around the park, bumping into

benches and mistaking for bushes the young couples numb with early spring

love.

The strangest things were going on in Ippolit Matveyevich's head. He

could hear the sound of gypsy choirs and orchestras composed of big-breasted

women playing the tango over and over again; he imagined the Moscow winter

and a long-bodied black trotter that snorted contemptuously at the

passers-by. He imagined many different things: a pair of deliriously

expensive orange-coloured panties, slavish devotion, and a possible trip to

Cannes. Ippolit Matveyevich began walking more slowly and suddenly stumbled

over the form of Bezenchuk the undertaker. The latter was asleep, lying in

the middle of the path in his fur coat. The jolt woke him up. He sneezed and

stood up briskly.

"Now don't you worry, Mr Vorobyaninov," he said heatedly, continuing

the conversation started a while before. "There's lots of work goes into a

coffin."

"Claudia Ivanovna's dead," his client informed him.

"Well, God rest her soul," said Bezenchuk. "So the old lady's passed

away. Old ladies pass away . . . or they depart this life. It depends who

she is. Yours, for instance, was small and plump, so she passed away. But if

it's one who's a bit bigger and thinner, then they say she has departed this

life. . . ."

"What do you mean 'they say'? Who says?"

"We say. The undertakers. Now you, for instance. You're

distinguished-lookin' and tall, though a bit on the thin side. If you should

die, God forbid, they'll say you popped off. But a tradesman, who belonged

to the former merchants' guild, would breathe his last. And if it's someone

of lower status, say a caretaker, or a peasant, we say he has croaked or

gone west. But when the high-ups die, say a railway conductor or someone in

administration, they say he has kicked the bucket. They say: 'You know our

boss has kicked the bucket, don't you?' "

Shocked by this curious classification of human mortality, Ippolit

Matveyevich asked:

"And what will the undertakers say about you when you die?"

"I'm small fry. They'll say, 'Bezenchuk's gone', and nothin' more."

And then he added grimly:

"It's not possible for me to pop off or kick the bucket; I'm too small.

But what about the coffin, Mr Vorobyaninov? Do you really want one without

tassels and brocade? "

But Ippolit Matveyevich, once more immersed in dazzling dreams, walked

on without answering. Bezenchuk followed him, working something out on his

fingers and muttering to himself, as he always did.

The moon had long since vanished and there was a wintry cold. Fragile,

wafer-like ice covered the puddles. The companions came out on Comrade

Gubernsky Street, where the wind was tussling with the hanging shop-signs. A

fire-engine drawn by skinny horses emerged from the direction of Staropan

Square with a noise like the lowering of a blind.

Swinging their canvas legs from the platform, the firemen wagged their

helmeted heads and sang in intentionally tuneless voices:

 

"Glory to our fire chief,

Glory to dear Comrade Pumpoff!"

 

"They've been havin' a good time at Nicky's wedding," remarked

Bezenchuk nonchalantly. "He's the fire chief's son." And he scratched

himself under his coat. "So you really want it without tassels and brocade?"

By that moment Ippolit Matveyevich had finally made up his mind. "I'll

go and find them," he decided, "and then we'll see." And in his

jewel-encrusted visions even his deceased mother-in-law seemed nicer than

she had actually been. He turned to Bezenchuk and said:

"Go on then, damn you, make it! With brocade! And tassels!"

 

CHAPTER THREE

 


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 624


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