Translated from the Russian by John Richardson
The original Russian title: Двенадцать стульев
THE LION OF STARGOROD
1 Bezenchuk and the Nymphs
2 Madame Petukhov's Demise
3 The Parable of the Sinner
4 The Muse of Travel
5 The Smooth Operator
6 A Diamond Haze
7 Traces of the Titanic
8 The Bashful Chiseller
9 Where Are Your Curls?
10 The Mechanic, the Parrot, and the Fortune-teller
11 The Mirror-of-Life Index
12 A Passionate Woman Is a Poet's Dream
13 Breathe Deeper: You're Excited!
14 The Alliance of the Sword and Ploughshare
15 A Sea of Chairs
16 The Brother Berthold Schwartz Hostel
17 Have Respect for Mattresses, Citizens!
18 The Furniture Museum
19 Voting the European Way
20 From Seville to Granada
22 Ellochka the Cannibal
23 Absalom Vladimirovich Iznurenkov
24 The Automobile Club
25 Conversation with a Naked Engineer
26 Two Visits
27 The Marvellous Prison Basket
28 The Hen and the Pacific Rooster
29 The Author of the "Gavriliad"
30 In the Columbus Theatre
MADAME PETUKHOV'S TREASURE
31 A Magic Night on the Volga
32 A Shady Couple
33 Expulsion from Paradise
34 The Interplanetary Chess Tournament
35 Et Alia
36 A View of the Malachite Puddle
37 The Green Cape
38 Up in the Clouds
39 The Earthquake
40 The Treasure
It has long been my considered opinion that strains in Russo-American
relations are inevitable as long as the average American persists in
picturing the Russian as a gloomy, moody, unpredictable individual, and the
average Russian in seeing the American as childish, cheerful and, on the
whole, rather primitive. Naturally, we each resent the other side's unjust
opinions and ascribe them, respectively, to the malice of capitalist or
Communist propaganda. What is to blame for this? Our national literatures;
or, more exactly, those portions of them which are read. Since few Americans
know people of the Soviet Union from personal experience, and vice versa, we
both depend to a great extent on information gathered from the printed page.
The Russians know us-let us forget for a moment about Pravda-from the works
of Jack London, James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and O. Henry. We know the
Russians-let us temporarily disregard the United Nations-as we have seen
them depicted in certain novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and in the later
dramas of Chekhov.
There are two ways to correct these misconceptions. One would be to
import into Russia a considerable number of sober, serious-minded,
Russian-speaking American tourists, in exchange for an identical number of
cheerful, logical, English-speaking Russians who would visit America. The
other, less costly form of cultural exchange would be for the Russians to
read more of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, and for
us to become better acquainted with the less solemn-though not at all less
profound-Russians. We should do well to read more of Gogol,
Saltykov-Shchedrin, Chekhov (the short stories and the one-act plays)
and-among Soviet authors-to read Mikhail Zoshchenko and Ilf and Petrov.
Thus, in its modest way, the present volume-though outwardly not very
"serious" should contribute to our better understanding of Russia and the
Russians and aid us in facing the perils of peaceful coexistence.
If writers were to be judged not by the reception accorded to them by
literary critics but by their popularity with the reading public, there
could be no doubt that the late team of Ilf and Petrov would have few peers
among Soviet men of letters. Together with another humorist, the recently
deceased Mikhail Zoshchenko, for many years they baffled and outraged Soviet
editors and delighted Soviet readers. Yet even while their works were
officially criticized in the literary journals for a variety of sins (the
chief among them being insufficient ideological militancy and, ipso facto,
inferior educational value), the available copies of earlier editions were
literally read to shreds by millions of Soviet citizens. Russian readers
loved Ilf and Petrov because these two writers provided them with a form of
catharsis rarely available to the Soviet citizen-the opportunity to laugh at
the sad and ridiculous aspects of Soviet existence.
Anyone familiar with Soviet press and literature knows one of their
most depressing features-the emphasis on the pompous and the weighty, and
the almost total absence of the light touch. The USSR has a single Russian
journal of humour and satire, Krokodil, which is seldom amusing. There is a
very funny man in the Soviet circus, Oleg Popov, but he is a clown and
seldom talks. At the present time, among the 4,801 full-time Soviet writers
there is not a single talented humorist. And yet the thirst for humour is so
great in Russia that it was recognized as a state problem by Malenkov, who,
during his short career as Prime Minister after Stalin's death, appealed to
Soviet writers to become modern Gogols and Saltykov-Shchedrins. The writers,
however, seem to have remembered only too well the risks of producing humour
and satire in a totalitarian state (irreverent laughter can easily provoke
accusations of political disloyalty, as was the case with Zoschenko in
1946), and the appeal did not bring about desired results. Hence, during the
"liberal" years of 1953-7 the Soviet Government made available, as a
concession to its humour-starved subjects, new editions of the old works of
Soviet humorists, including 200,000 copies of Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve
Chairs and The Little Golden Calf.
Muscovites and Leningraders might disagree, but there is strong
evidence to indicate that during the first decades of this century the
capital of Russian humour was Odessa, a bustling, multilingual, cosmopolitan
city on the Black Sea. In his recently published memoirs, the veteran Soviet
novelist Konstantin Paustovsky fondly recalls the sophisticated and
iconoclastic Odessa of the early post-revolutionary years. Among the famous
sons of Odessa were Isaac Babel, the writer of brilliant, sardonic short
stories; Yurii Olesha, the creator of modernistic, ironic tales; Valentin
Katayev, author of Squaring the Circle, perhaps the best comedy in the
Soviet repertory; and both members of the team of Ilf and Petrov.
Ilya Ilf (pseudonym of Fainzilberg) was born in 1897; Yevgeny Petrov
(pseudonym of Katayev, a younger brother of Valentin) in 1903. The two men
met in Moscow, where they both worked on the railwaymen's newspaper, Gudok
(Train Whistle). Their "speciality" was reading letters to the editor, which
is a traditional Soviet means for voicing grievances about bureaucracy,
injustices and shortages. Such letters would sometimes get published as
feuilletons, short humorous stories somewhat reminiscent of Chekhov's early
output. In 1927 Ilf and Petrov formed a literary partnership, publishing at
first under a variety of names, including some whimsical ones, like Fyodor
Tolstoyevsky. In their joint "autobiography" Ilf and Petrov wrote :
It is very difficult to write together. It was easier for the
Goncourts, we suppose. After all, they were brothers, while we are not even
related to each other. We are not even of the same age. And even of
different nationalities; while one is a Russian (the enigmatic Russian
soul), the other is a Jew (the enigmatic Jewish soul).
The literary partnership lasted for ten years, until 1937, when Ilya
Ilf died of tuberculosis. Yevgeny Petrov was killed in 1942 during the siege
The two writers are famed chiefly for three books-The Twelve Chairs
(1928; known in a British translation as Diamonds to Sit On); The Little
Golden Calf (1931), a tale of the tribulations of a Soviet millionaire who
is afraid to spend any money lest he be discovered by the police; and
One-Storey-High America (1936; known in a British translation as Little
Golden America), an amusing and, on the whole, friendly account of the two
writers' adventures in the land of Wall Street, the Empire State Building,
cars, and aspiring capitalists.
The plot of The Twelve Chairs is very simple. The mother-in-law of a
former nobleman named Vorobyaninov discloses on her deathbed a secret: she
hid her diamonds in one of the family's chairs that subsequently was
appropriated by the Soviet authorities. Vorobyaninov is joined by a young
crook named Ostap Bender with whom he forms a partnership, and together they
proceed to locate these chairs. The partners have a competitor in the priest
Vostrikov, who has also learned of the secret from his dying parishioner.
The competing treasure-hunters travel throughout Russia, which enables the
authors to show us glimpses of little towns, Moscow, and Caucasian resorts,
and also have the three central characters meet a wide variety of people
-Soviet bureaucrats, newspapermen, survivors of the pre-revolutionary
propertied classes, provincials, and Muscovites.
The events described in the novel are set in 1927, that is, toward the
end of the period of the New Economic Policy, which was characterized by a
temporary truce between the Soviet regime's Communist ideology and limited
private enterprise in commerce, industry and agriculture. The coffin-making
and bagel-making businesses referred to in the novel have long since been
nationalized; the former noblemen masquerading as petty Soviet employees and
many of the colleagues of the priest described by Ilf and Petrov are no
longer alive; and it is impossible to imagine the existence today of an
anti-Soviet "conspiracy" similar to the humorists' "Alliance of the Sword
Other than that, however, the Soviet Union described in the novel is
very much like the Soviet Union of 1960, industrial progress and the
Sputniks notwithstanding. The standard of living in 1927 was relatively
high; it subsequently declined. Now it is just slightly higher than it was
thirty years ago. The present grotesquely overcrowded and poor-quality
housing (there is not even a Russian word for "privacy" I) is not much
different from the conditions Ilf and Petrov knew. There are now, as there
were then, people to whom sausage is a luxury, as it was to the newlyweds in
The Twelve Chairs. Embezzlers of state property, though denounced as
"survivals of the capitalist past", are found by thousands among young men
in their thirties and forties. The ominous door signs protecting Communist
bureaucrats, from unwanted visitors still adorn Soviet offices. Nor has the
species of Ellochka the Cannibal, the vulgar and greedy wife of a
hardworking engineer, become extinct. And there are still multitudes of
Muscovites who flock to museums to see how prosperously the bourgeoisie
lived before the Revolution-Muscovites who are mistaken for art lovers by
unsuspecting Western tourists who then report at home a tremendous Soviet
interest in the fine arts. Why, even the ZAGS remains unchanged; only a few
months ago Komsomolskaya Pravda, a youth newspaper, demanded that something
be done about it, because brides and grooms are embarrassed when the
indifferent clerk inquires whether they came to register a birth, a death,
or wish to get married-just as Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov did over
thirty years ago in the little Soviet town deep in the provinces.
Similarly, the "poet" Lapis who peddled nearly identical verse to
various trade publications-providing his hero Gavrila with different
professions such as chemist, postman, hunter, etc., to give the poem a
couleur local suitable for each of the journals- enjoys excellent health to
this day. There are hundreds of recent Soviet novels, poems and dramas
written by as many Soviet writers which differ only in the professions of
their protagonists; in their character delineations and conflicts they are
all very much alike. And, finally, the custom of delivering formal political
speeches, all of them long, boring, and terribly repetitious, persists to
our times. These speeches are still a regular feature at all public events
in the USSR.
Thus the Western reader, in addition to being entertained, is likely to
profit from the reading of The Twelve Chairs by getting a glimpse of certain
aspects of daily life in the Soviet Union which are not normally included in
The hero of The Twelve Chairs (and also, it might be added, of The
Little Golden Calf) is Ostap Bender, "the smooth operator", a resourceful
rogue and confidence man. Unlike the nobleman Vorobyaninov and the priest
Vostrikov, Bender is not a representative of the ancient regime. Only
twenty-odd years old, he does not even remember pre-revolutionary Russia: at
the first meeting of the "Alliance of the Sword and Ploughshare" Bender has
some difficulty playing the role of a tsarist officer. Ostap Bender is a
Soviet crook, born of Soviet conditions and quite willing to co-exist with
the Soviet system to which he has no ideological or even economic
objections. Ostap Bender's inimitable slangy Russian is heavily spiced with
cliches of the Communist jargon. Bender knows the vulnerabilities of Soviet
state functionaries and exploits them for his own purposes. He also knows
that the Soviet Man is not very different from the Capitalist Man-that he is
just as greedy, lazy, snobbish, cowardly and gullible-and uses these
weaknesses to his, Ostap Bender's, advantage. And yet, in spite of Ostap
Bender's dishonesty and lack of scruples, we somehow get to like him. Bender
is gay, carefree and clever, and when we see him matching his wits with
those of Soviet bureaucrats, we hope that he wins.
In the end Ostap Bender and his accomplices lose; yet, strangely
enough, the end of the novel seems forced, much like the cliche happy ending
of a mediocre Hollywood film. One must understand, however, that even in the
comparatively "liberal" 1920s it was difficult for a Soviet author not to
supply a happy Soviet ending to a book otherwise as aloof from Soviet
ideology as The Twelve Chairs. And so, at the end of the novel, one of the
greedy fortune-hunters is killed by his partner, while the other two end up
in a psychiatric ward. But at least Ilf and Petrov have spared us from
seeing Ostap Bender contrasted with a virtuous upright Soviet hero, and for
this we must be grateful. Much as in Gogol's Inspector General and Dead
Souls and in the satires of Saltykov-Shchedrin, we observe with fascination
a Russia of embezzlers, knaves and stupid government officials. We
understand their weaknesses and vices, for they are common to all men.
Indeed, we can even get to like these people, as we could not like the
stuffy embodiments of Communist virtues who inhabit the great majority of
Inevitably, some of the humour must get lost in the process of
translation. The protagonists in The Twelve Chairs are for the most part
semi-educated men, but they all aspire to kulturnost, and love to refer to
classics of Russian literature-which they usually misquote. They also
frequently mispronounce foreign words with comical effect. These no
translator could possibly salvage. But the English-speaking reader won't
miss the ridiculous quality of the "updated" version of The Marriage on a
Soviet stage, even if he has never seen a traditional performance of Gogol's
comedy; he will detect with equal ease the hilarious scheme of Ostap Bender
to "modernize" a famous canvas by Repin even if he has never seen the
original painting. Fortunately, most of the comic qualities of the novel are
inherent in the actions of the protagonists, and these are not affected by
being translated. They will only serve to prove once again that, basically,
Soviet Russians are fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by
the same winter and summer" as all men are.
Hunter College 1960
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.
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
"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
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
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
"Ippolit," repeated his mother-in-law, "do you remember our
"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
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
"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
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
"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
Ilf and Petrov. The Twelve Chairs