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There followed a busy time for the concessionaires. Ostap contended

that the chairs should be struck while the iron was hot. Ippolit Matveyevich

was granted an amnesty, although Ostap, from time to time, would ask him

such questions as:

"Why the hell did I ever take up with you? What do I need you for,

anyway? You ought to go home to your registry office where the corpses and

newborn babes are waiting for you. Don't make the infants suffer. Go back


But in his heart the smooth operator had become very much attached to

the wild marshal. "Life wouldn't be such fun without him," he thought. And

he would glance now and then at Ippolit Matveyevich, whose head was just

beginning to sprout a new crop of silvery hair.

Ippolit Matveyevich's initiative was allotted a fair share of the work

schedule. As soon as the placid Ivanopulo had gone out, Bender would try to

drum into his partner's head the surest way to get the treasure.

"Act boldly. Don't ask too many questions. Be more cynical- people like

it. Don't do anything through a third party. People are smart. No one's

going to hand you the jewels on a plate. But don't do anything criminal.

We've got to keep on the right side of the law."

Their search progressed, however, without much success. The criminal

code plus a large number of bourgeois prejudices retained by the citizens of

the capital made things difficult. People just would not tolerate nocturnal

visits through their windows, for instance. The work could only be done


The same day that Ostap visited Ellochka Shukin a new piece of

furniture appeared in Ivanopulo's room. It was the chair bartered for the

tea-strainer-their third trophy of the expedition. The partners had long

since passed the stage where the hunt for the jewels aroused strong feelings

in them, where they clawed open the chairs and gnawed the springs.

"Even if there's nothing inside," Ostap said, "you must realize we've

gained at least ten thousand roubles. Every chair opened increases our

chances. What does it matter if there's nothing in the little lady's chair?

We don't have to break it to pieces. Let Ivanopulo furnish his room with it.

It will be pleasanter for us too."

That day the concessionaires trooped out of the little pink house and

went off in different directions. Ippolit Matveyevich was entrusted with the

stranger with the bleat from Sadovaya Spasskaya Street; he was given

twenty-five roubles to cover expenses, ordered to keep out of beer-halls and

not to come back without the chair. For himself the smooth operator chose

Ellochka's husband.

Ippolit Matveyevich crossed the city in a no. 6 bus. As he bounced up

and down on the leather seat, almost hitting his head against the roof, he

wondered how he would find out the bleating stranger's name, what excuse to

make for visiting him, what his first words should be, and how to get to the


Alighting at Red Gates, he found the right house from the address Ostap

had written down, and began walking up and down outside. He could not bring

himself to go in. It was an old, dirty Moscow hotel, which had been

converted into a housing co-operative, and was resided in, to judge from the

shabby frontage, by tenants who persistently avoided their payments.

For a long time Ippolit Matveyevich remained by the entrance,

continually approaching and reading the handwritten notice threatening

neglectful tenants until he knew it by heart; then, finally, still unable to

think of anything, he went up the stairs to the second floor. There were

several doors along the corridor. Slowly, as though going up to the

blackboard at school to prove a theorem he had not properly learned, Ippolit

Matveyevich approached Room 41. A visiting card was pinned upside-down to

the door by one drawing-pin.


Absalom Vladimirovich



In a complete daze, Ippolit Matveyevich forgot to knock. He opened the

door, took three zombie-like steps forward and found himself in the middle

of the room.

"Excuse me," he said in a strangled voice, "can I see Comrade


Absalom Vladimirovich did not reply. Vorobyaninov raised his head and

saw there was no one in the room.

It was not possible to guess the proclivities of the occupant from the

outward appearance of the room. The only thing that was clear was that he

was a bachelor and had no domestic help. On the window-sill lay a piece of

paper containing bits of sausage skin. The low divan by the wall was piled

with newspapers. There were a few dusty books on the small bookshelf.

Photographs of tomcats, little cats, and female cats looked down from the

walls. In the middle of the room, next to a pair of dirty shoes which had

toppled over sideways, was a walnut chair. Crimson wax seals dangled from

all the pieces of furniture, including the chair from the Stargorod mansion.

Ippolit Matveyevich paid no attention to this. He immediately forgot about

the criminal code and Ostap's admonition, and ran towards the chair.

At this moment the papers on the divan began to stir. Ippolit

Matveyevich started back in fright. The papers moved a little way and fell

on to the floor; from beneath them emerged a small, placid tomcat. It looked

uninterestedly at Ippolit Matveyevich and began to wash itself, catching at

its ear, face and whiskers with its paw.

"Bah!" said Ippolit Matveyevich and dragged the chair towards the door.

The door opened for him and there on the threshold stood the occupant of the

room, the stranger with the bleat. He was wearing a coat under which could

be seen a pair of lilac underpants. He was carrying his trousers in Ms hand.

It could be said that there was no one like Absalom Vladimirovich

Iznurenkov in the whole Republic. The Republic valued his services. He was

of great use to it. But, for all that, he remained unknown, though he was

just as skilled in his art as Chaliapin was in singing, Gorky in writing,

Capablanca in chess, Melnikov in ice-skating, and that very large-nosed and

brown Assyrian occupying the best place on the corner of Tverskaya and

Kamerger streets was in cleaning black boots with brown polish.

Chaliapin sang. Gorky wrote great novels. Capablanca prepared for his

match against Alekhine. Melnikov broke records. The Assyrian made citizens'

shoes shine like mirrors. Absalom Iznurenkov made jokes.

He never made them without reason, just for the effect. He made them to

order for humorous journals. On his shoulders he bore the responsibility for

highly important campaigns, and supplied most of the Moscow satirical

journals with subjects for cartoons and humorous anecdotes.

Great men make jokes twice in their lifetime. The jokes boost their

fame and go down in history. Iznurenkov produced no less than sixty

first-rate jokes a month, which everyone retold with a smile, but he

nonetheless remained in obscurity. Whenever one of Iznurenkov's witticisms

was used as a caption for a cartoon, the glory went to the artist. The

artist's name was placed above the cartoon. Iznurenkov's name did not


"It's terrible," he used to cry. "It's impossible for me to sign my

name. What am I supposed to sign? Two lines?"

And he continued with his virulent campaign against the enemies of

society-dishonest members of co-operatives, embezzlers, Chamberlain and

bureaucrats. He aimed his sting at bootlickers, apartment-block

superintendents, owners of private property, hooligans, citizens reluctant

to lower their prices, and industrial executives who tried to avoid economy


As soon as the journals came out, the jokes were repeated in the circus

arena, reprinted in the evening press without reference to the source, and

offered to audiences from the variety stage by "entertainers writing their

own words and music".

Iznurenkov managed to be funny about fields of activity in which you

would not have thought it was possible to say anything humorous at all. From

the arid desert of excessive increases in the cost of production Iznurenkov

managed to extract a hundred or so masterpieces of wit. Heine would have

given up in despair had he been asked to say something funny and at the same

time socially useful about the unfair tariff rates on slow-delivery goods

consignments; Mark Twain would have fled from the subject, but Iznurenkov

remained at his post. He chased from one editorial office to another,

bumping into ash-tray stands and bleating. In ten minutes the subject had

been worked out, the cartoon devised, and the caption added.

When he saw a man in his room just about to remove the chair with the

seal, Absalom Iznurenkov waved his trousers, which had just been pressed at

the tailor's, gave a jump, and screeched: "That's ridiculous! I protest! You

have no right. There's a law, after all. It's not intended for fools, but

you may have heard the furniture can stay another two weeks! I shall

complain to the Public Prosecutor. After all, I'm going to pay!"

Ippolit Matveyevich stood motionless, while Iznurenkov threw off his

coat and, without moving away from the door, pulled on the trousers over his

fat, Chichickovian legs. Iznurenkov was portly, but his face was thin.

Vorobyaninov had no doubt in his mind that he was about to be seized

and hauled off to the police. He was therefore very surprised when the

occupant of the room, having adjusted his dress, suddenly became calmer.

"You must understand," he said in a tone of conciliation, "I cannot

agree to it."

Had he been in Iznurenkov's shoes, Ippolit Matveyevich would certainly

not have agreed to his chairs being stolen in broad daylight either. But he

did not know what to say, so he kept silent.

"It's not my fault. It's the fault of the musicians' organization. Yes,

I admit I didn't pay for the hired piano for eight months. But at least I

didn't sell it, although there was plenty of opportunity. I was honest, but

they behaved like crooks. They took away the piano, and then went to court

about it and had an inventory of my furniture made. There's nothing to put

on the inventory. All this furniture constitutes work tools. The chair is a

work tool as well."

Ippolit Matveyevich was beginning to see the light.

"Put that chair down!" screeched Iznurenkov suddenly. "Do you hear, you


Ippolit Matveyevich obediently put down the chair and mumbled: "I'm

sorry, there's been a misunderstanding. It often happens in this kind of


At this Iznurenkov brightened up tremendously. He began running about

the room singing: "And in the morning she smiled again before her window."

He did not know what to do with his hands. They flew all over the place. He

started tying his tie, then left off without finishing. He took up a

newspaper, then threw it on the floor without reading anything.

"So you aren't going to take away the furniture today? . . .' Good. .

.Ah! Ah!"

Taking advantage of this favourable turn of events, Ippolit Matveyevich

moved towards the door.

"Wait!" called Iznurenkov suddenly. "Have you ever seen such a cat?

Tell me, isn't it really extraordinarily fluffy?"

Ippolit Matveyevich found the cat in his trembling hands.

"First-rate," babbled Absalom Vladimirovich, not knowing what to do

with this excess of energy. "Ah! Ah!"

He rushed to the window, clapped his hands, and began making slight but

frequent bows to two girls who were watching him from a window of the house

opposite. He stamped his feet and gave sighs of longing.

"Girls from the suburbs! The finest fruit! . . . First-rate! . . . Ah!

. . . 'And in the morning she smiled again before her window'."

"I'm leaving now, Citizen," said Ippolit Matveyevich stupidly.

"Wait, wait!" Iznurenkov suddenly became excited. "Just one moment! Ah!

Ah! The cat . . . Isn't it extraordinarily fluffy? Wait. . . I'll be with

you in a moment."

He dug into all his pockets with embarrassment, ran to the side, came

back, looked out of the window, ran aside, and again returned.

"Forgive me, my dear fellow," he said to Vorobyaninov, who stood with

folded arms like a soldier during all these operations. With these words he

handed the marshal a half-rouble piece.

"No, no, please don't refuse. All labour must be rewarded."

"Much obliged," said Ippolit Matveyevich, surprised at his own


"Thank you, dear fellow. Thank you, dear friend."

As he went down the corridor, Ippolit Matveyevich could hear bleating,

screeching, and shouts of delight coming from Iznurenkov's room.

Outside in the street, Vorobyaninov remembered Ostap, and trembled with


Ernest Pavlovich Shukin was wandering about the empty apartment

obligingly loaned to him by a friend for the summer, trying to decide

whether or not to have a bath.

The three-room apartment was at the very top of a nine-storey building.

The only thing in it besides a desk and Vorobyaninov's chair was a pier

glass. It reflected the sun and hurt his eyes. The engineer lay down on the

desk and immediately jumped up again. It was red-hot.

"I'll go and have a wash," he decided.

He undressed, felt cooler, inspected himself in the mirror, and went

into the bathroom. A coolness enveloped him. He climbed into the bath,

doused himself with water from a blue enamel mug, and soaped himself

generously. Covered in lather, he looked like a Christmas-tree decoration.

"Feels good," said Ernest Pavlovich.

Everything was fine. It was cool. His wife was not there. He had

complete freedom ahead of him. The engineer knelt down and turned on the tap

in order to wash off the soap. The tap gave a gasp and began making slow,

undecipherable noises. No water came out. Ernest Pavlovich inserted a

slippery little finger into the hole. Out poured a thin stream of water and

then nothing more. Ernest Pavlovich frowned, stepped out of the bath,

lifting each leg in turn, and went into the kitchen. Nothing was forthcoming

from the tap in there, either.

Ernest Pavlovich shuffled through the rooms and stopped in front of the

mirror. The soap was stinging his eyes, his back itched, and suds were

dripping on to the floor. Listening to make certain there was still no water

running in the bath, he decided to call the caretaker.

He can at least bring up some water, thought the engineer, wiping his

eyes and slowly getting furious, or else I'm in a mess.

He looked out of the window. Down below, at the bottom of the well of

the building, there were some children playing.

"Caretaker!" shouted Ernest Pavlovich. "Caretaker!"

No one answered.

Then Ernest Pavlovich remembered that the caretaker lived at the front

of the building under the stairway. He stepped out on to the cold tiled

floor and, keeping the door open with one arm, leaned over the banister.

There was only one apartment on that landing, so Ernest Pavlovich was not

afraid of being seen in his strange suit of soapsuds.

"Caretaker!" he shouted downstairs.

The word rang out and reverberated noisily down the stairs.

"Hoo-hoo!" they echoed.

"Caretaker! Caretaker!"

"Hum-hum! Hum-hum!"

It was at this point that the engineer, impatiently shifting from one

bare foot to the other, suddenly slipped and, to regain his balance, let go

of the door.

The brass bolt of the Yale lock clicked into place and the door shut

fast. The wall shook. Not appreciating the irrevocable nature of what had

happened, Ernest Pavlovich pulled at the door handle. The door did not


In dismay the engineer pulled the handle again several times and

listened, his heart beating fast. There was a churchlike evening stillness.

A little light still filtered through the multicoloured glass of the high


A fine thing to happen, thought Shukin. "You son of a bitch," he said

to the door. Downstairs, voices broke through the silence like exploding

squibs. Then came the muffled bark of a dog in one of the rooms. Someone was

pushing a pram upstairs. Ernest Pavlovich walked timidly up and down the

landing. "Enough to drive you crazy!"

It all seemed too outrageous to have actually happened. He went up to

the door and listened again. Suddenly he heard a different sort of noise. At

first he thought it was someone walking about in the apartment.

Somebody may have got in through the back door, he thought, although he

knew that the back door was locked and that no one could have got in.

The monotonous sound continued. The engineer held his breath and

suddenly realized that the sound was that of running water. It was evidently

pouring from all the taps in the apartment. Ernest Pavlovich almost began


The situation was awful. A full-grown man with a moustache and higher

education was standing on a ninth-floor landing in the centre of Moscow,

naked except for a covering of bursting soapsuds. There was nowhere he could

go. He would rather have gone to jail than show himself in that state. There

was only one thing to do-hide. The bubbles were bursting and making his back

itch. The lather on his face had already dried; it made him look as though

he had the mange and puckered his skin like a hone.

Half an hour passed. The engineer kept rubbing himself against the

whitewashed walls and groaning, and made several unsuccessful attempts to

break in the door. He became dirty and horrible.

Shukin decided to go downstairs to the caretaker at any price. There's

no other way out. None. The only thing to do is hide 10 the caretaker's


Breathing heavily and covering himself with his hand as men do when

they enter the water, Ernest Pavlovich began creeping downstairs close to

the banister. He reached the landing between the eighth and ninth floors.

His body reflected multicoloured rhombuses and squares of light from

the window. He looked like Harlequin secretly listening to a conversation

between Columbine and Pierrot. He had just turned to go down the next flight

when the lock of an apartment door below snapped open and a girl came out

carrying a ballet dancer's attache case. Ernest Pavlovich was back on his

landing before the girl had taken one step. He was practically deafened by

the terrible beating of his heart.

It was half an hour before the engineer recovered sufficiently to make

another sortie. This time he was fully determined to hurtle down at full

speed, ignoring everything, and make it to the promised land of the

caretaker's room.

He started off. Silently taking four stairs at a time, the engineer

raced downstairs. On the landing of the sixth floor he stopped for a moment.

This was his undoing. Someone was coming up.

"Insufferable brat!" said a woman's voice, amplified many times by the

stairway. "How many times do I have to tell him!"

Obeying instinct rather than reason, like a cat pursued by dogs Ernest

Pavlovich tore up to the ninth floor again.

Back on his own land, all covered with wet footmarks, he silently burst

into tears, tearing his hair and swaying convulsively. The hot tears ran

through the coating of soap and formed two wavy furrows.

"Oh, my God!" moaned the engineer. "Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord!"

There was no sign of life. Then he heard the noise of a truck going up

the street. So there was life somewhere! Several times more he tried to

bring himself to go downstairs, but his nerve gave way each time. He might

as well have been in a burial vault.

"Someone's left a trail behind him, the pig!" he heard an old woman's

voice say from the landing below.

The engineer ran to the wall and butted it several times with his head.

The most sensible thing to do, of course, would have been to keep shouting

until someone came, and then put himself at their mercy. But Ernest

Pavlovich had completely lost his ability to reason; breathing heavily he

wandered round and round the landing.

There was no way out.





Date: 2015-01-02; view: 889

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