THE TALES OF THE LATE IVAN PETROVICH BELKIN
Твори О.С. Пушкіна.Переклад англійською мовою.>THE TALES OF THE LATE IVAN PETROVICH BELKIN >The Undertaker

 

THE TALES OF THE LATE IVAN PETROVICH BELKIN

(1829-30)

 


The Undertaker

Do we not daily gaze on coffins,
The silver thatch of earth decaying?
DERZHAVIN




The last lot of the undertaker Adrian Prokhorovich's belongings was piled up on the hearse, and the pair of rawboned horses trudged for the fourth time from Basmannaia to Nikitskaia Street, where the undertaker was moving with all his household. Locking his office, he nailed a notice on the gate advising that the house was available for sale or rent, and set out on foot for his new domicile. As he approached the little yellow house that had enthralled his imagination for so long, and that he had at last bought for a considerable sum, the old undertaker noticed with surprise that his heart was not rejoicing. Stepping across the unfamiliar threshold and finding his new home in utter confusion, he sighed for his decrepit little cottage, where everything had been arranged in the strictest order for eighteen years. He started scolding his two daughters and the housemaid for their sluggishness, and set about helping them himself. Order was soon established. The icons were in their case and the crockery in the cupboard; the table, the sofa, and the bed took up the corners assigned to them in the back room; and the kitchen and living room were filled with the master's wares - coffins of all colors and sizes as well as cupboards full of mourning hats and cloaks and torches. Above the gate a sign was suspended showing a chubby Cupid, with a torch held askew in his hand, and the inscription "Plain and Colored Coffins Sold and Upholstered; Available for Rent; Used Ones Repaired." The girls retired to their bedrooms. Adrian made an inspection tour of the house, sat down by the window, and gave orders to light the samovar.
The educated reader knows that both Shakespeare and Walter Scott presented their gravediggers as merry and jocular people, in order to strike our imagination all the more by this contrast. Our respect for truth forbids us to follow the example of these authors; indeed we are obligated to admit that our undertaker's temper fully corresponded to his gloomy profession. Adrian Prokhorov was usually morose and pensive. He broke his silence only in order to rebuke his daughters when he found them idly eyeing the passersby from the window, or in order to demand exorbitant prices for his wares from those who had the misfortune (or sometimes pleasure) of needing them. On this occasion, too, as he sat by the window drinking his seventh cup of tea, he was sunk in sad thoughts. He thought of the pelting rain of the week before, which had caught the funeral procession of a retired brigadier at the city gates. Many cloaks had shrunk, many hats had lost their shape. He foresaw inevitable expenses, for his old stock of funereal apparel was deteriorating into a pitiful condition. He was planning to make up for the loss at the expense of Triukhina, a merchant's old widow, who had been on the brink of the grave for about a year. But she lay dying in Razguliai, and Prokhorov was afraid that her heirs, despite their promise, would not take the trouble to send for him to such a distant place and would make arrangements with an undertaker nearby.
These reflections were suddenly interrupted by three masonic knocks on the door.
"Who's there?" asked the undertaker.
The door opened, and a man instantly recognizable as a German artisan came into the room. He approached the undertaker with a cheerful countenance.
"Forgive me, dear neighbor," he said with the kind of Russian accent that we to this day cannot hear without laughter, "forgive me for disturbing you... I wanted to make your acquaintance as soon as possible. I am a shoemaker, my name is Gottlieb Schulz, and I live across the street, in that little house which is just opposite your windows. I will be celebrating my silver wedding anniversary tomorrow, and would like to ask you and your daughters to come and dine with us just like friends of the family."
The invitation was cordially accepted. The undertaker asked the shoemaker to sit down and have a cup of tea, and thanks to Gottlieb Schulz's convivial nature, they were soon conversing amicably.
"How's Your Honor's business?" asked Adrian.
"Oh, well," answered Schulz, "so-so. I can't complain. Though, of course, my wares are not the same as yours: a man alive can go without shoes, but a dead man can't live without a coffin."
"That's true enough," remarked Adrian. "On the other hand, if the live man cannot afford to buy shoes, he can, forgive my saying so, just as well go barefooted; but a beggar's corpse will take a coffin free of charge."
The conversation continued in this vein for some time longer; at last the shoemaker rose and said good-bye to the undertaker, repeating his invitation.
The next day, at exactly twelve o'clock, the undertaker and his daughters left their newly acquired house, passed through the wicket gate and directed their steps toward the neighbor's. Deviating for the nonce from the manner adopted by today's novelists, I will not describe Adrian Prokhorov's Russian caftan or the European attire of Akulina and Daria. I do not deem it superfluous, however, to mention that both girls had put on yellow hats and red shoes, which they did only on festive occasions.
The shoemaker's small apartment was full of guests, mostly German artisans with their wives and apprentices. The only Russian official there was a police guard, a Finn called Iurko who, despite his humble title, enjoyed the special favor of the host. He had served in his vocation for some twenty-five years steadfastly and dependably, just like Pogorelskii's mailman. The conflagration of 1812, which destroyed Russia's ancient capital, also annihilated Iurko's sentry box. But as soon as the enemy was chased out, a new box appeared in the place of the old, this one gray with white Doric columns, and Iurko began once more to pace to and fro before it with "poleax in hand, wearing a coarse frieze coat." He was acquainted with most of the Germans living near the Nikitskii Gate; some had even had occasion to be his guests from Sunday night till Monday morning. Adrian immediately made his acquaintance, for Iurko might sooner or later prove to be useful; and when the guests went to the dinner table Adrian and Iurko sat down side by side. Mr. and Mrs. Schulz and their daughter, the seventeen-year-old Lottchen, while dining with their guests, were also busy offering the food and helping the cook serve it. The beer flowed abundantly. Iurko ate for four; Adrian did not lag behind him, though his daughters put on a more modest show; the conversation, conducted in German, was getting noisier by the minute. Presently the host asked for attention and, uncorking a bottle sealed with pitch, uttered in loud Russian, "To the good health of my dear Louisa!"
The sparkling wine, almost like champagne, bubbled over. The host implanted a tender kiss on his forty-year-old helpmate's fresh cheek, and the guests noisily drank the good-natured Louisa's health.
"To the health of my dear guests!" exclaimed the host, opening a second bottle, and the guests expressed their gratitude by draining their glasses once more. One toast followed another: they drank to each guest separately; to Moscow and to a round dozen small towns in Germany; to all guilds in general and to each in particular; to the masters and to the apprentices. Adrian drank diligently and got so merry that he himself proposed a humorous toast. Suddenly one of the guests, a fat baker, raised his glass and cried out:
"To the health of those we work for, unserer Kundleute!
This toast, like all the others, was accepted joyously and unanimously. The guests started bowing one to the other, the tailor to the shoemaker, the shoemaker to the tailor, the baker to both, the whole company to the baker, and so forth. In the midst of all these salutations Iurko cried out, turning to his neighbor, "And how about you? Drink, brother, to the health of your corpses."
Everybody laughed, but the undertaker felt offended and frowned. Nobody noticed this, however; the guests continued to drink, and the bells were already ringing for vespers when the company rose from the table.
The guests left late, most of them in a mellow mood. Heeding the adage, "One good turn deserves another," the fat baker and a bookbinder, whose face seemed to have been bound in reddish morocco, led Iurko to his sentry box, supporting him by his arms. The undertaker arrived home drunk and angry.
"What's all this really?" he argued aloud. "In what way is my profession less honorable than others? Or is the undertaker a brother to the hangman? What are the infidels laughing about? Or is an undertaker a clown in a yuletide show? I was going to invite them to a housewarming party, spread out a sumptuous feast, but none of that after this! I will issue an invitation, but it will be to those for whom I work: the Russian Orthodox dead."
"What is this, master?" said the serving woman who was pulling the boots off his feet just then. "What nonsense are you saying? Make the sign of the cross! To invite the dead to a housewarming party! Holy horrors!"
"God be my witness, I am going to invite them," continued Adrian, "and invite them for tomorrow. Do me the honor, my benefactors, come to feast at my house tomorrow evening; I will treat you to all that God has sent me." With these words the undertaker got into bed and soon started snoring.
It was still dark outside when Adrian was roused from his sleep. The merchant's widow Triukhina had died during the night, and her steward sent a special emissary on horseback to bring Adrian the news. The undertaker tipped the man ten kopecks for it, then dressed quickly, took a cab, and drove to Razguliai. Police were already posted at the dead woman's gate, and merchants were roving about like ravens scenting a corpse. The deceased was laid out on the table; she was yellow as wax but not yet disfigured by decomposition. Relatives, neighbors, and domestics crowded around her. All the windows were open; candles burned; priests were reading prayers. Adrian went up to Triukhina's nephew, a callow little tradesman in a fashionable coat, and informed him that the coffin, candles, shroud, and other funereal accessories would be delivered immediately in perfect order. The heir thanked him distractedly, saying that he would not wrangle about the price but would fully rely on the undertaker's conscience. The latter, as was his wont, swore he would not charge a kopeck too much; he exchanged meaningful glances with the steward and went to see to the arrangements. He spent the whole day riding back and forth between Razguliai and the Nikitskii Gate; he settled everything by the evening and, dismissing his cabdriver, returned home on foot. It was a moonlit night. He got as far as the Nikitskii Gate without any incident. Near the Church of the Ascension our acquaintance Iurko challenged him and, recognizing him, wished him good night. It was late. The undertaker was approaching his house when suddenly he fancied he saw somebody go up to his gate, open the wicket, and disappear through it.
"What could this mean?" thought Adrian. "Who else needs my services? Or has a thief crept into my house? Or could it be lovers sneaking in to my silly lasses? Anything can happen."
The undertaker was on the point of calling out to his friend Iurko for help. At that moment, however, somebody else came up to the wicket and was about to enter, but seeing the master of the house running toward him, he stopped and took off his three-cornered hat. His face seemed familiar, but in his hurry Adrian could not examine his features closely.
"You've honored me with your visit," said Adrian out of breath, "so please come in, do me the favor."
"Don't stand on ceremony, my good fellow," answered the other, with a hollow ring to his voice; "just step forward briskly and show the way to your guests."
Adrian had indeed no chance to stand on ceremony. The wicket was open; he went up the steps, the other man right behind him. Adrian fancied that people were walking about his rooms.
"What the devil!" he thought and hurried in... But there his knees almost gave way under him. The room was full of corpses. The moon shining through the windows lit up their yellow and blue faces, gaping mouths, murky half-closed eyes, and protruding noses... To his horror Adrian recognized in them the people who had been buried through his efforts, and in the guest entering with him, the brigadier whose funeral had taken place in the pelting rain. All of them, male and female, surrounded the undertaker with bows and salutations; only one pauper, who had been buried gratis a little while back, stood humbly in the corner, feeling too awkward and ashamed of his rags to come forward. All the others were properly dressed, the lady corpses in caps and ribbons, the gentlemen of rank in uniform, though with their chins unshaven, and the merchants in their holiday caftans.
"As you see, Prokhorov," said the brigadier in the name of the whole honorable company, "we have all risen in response to your invitation; only those stayed at home who are by now really incapacitated, who have entirely gone to pieces or have only their bones left without skin; but even among those there was one who could not restrain himself, so badly did he want to visit with you..."
At this moment a small skeleton pushed his way through the crowd and approached Adrian. His skull smiled affably and thread-bare linen hung on him here and there as if on a pole, and the bones of his legs rattled in his jackboots like pestles in mortars.
"You don't recognize me, Prokhorov," said the skeleton. "Can't you remember retired Sergeant of the Guards Petr Petrovich Kurilkin, the one to whom you sold your first coffin in 1799, pretending it was oak though it was pine?"
With these words the corpse sought to enfold Prokhorov in his osseous embrace, but the undertaker gathered all his strength, screamed, and pushed him away. Petr Petrovich lost his balance, fell over, and crumbled. A murmur of indignation rose among the corpses; they all stood up in defense of their fellow corpse's honor and drew near Adrian with abuse and threats, so that their poor host, deafened by their shouts and almost crushed by their throng, lost his presence of mind, collapsed on the bones of the retired sergeant of the guards, and fainted.
The sun had long been shining on the undertaker's bed. At last he opened his eyes and saw before him the serving woman, who was blowing into the samovar to quicken its flame. With horror, he recalled all the events of the preceding night. Blurred images of Triukhina, the brigadier, and Sergeant Kurilkin floated before his mind's eye. He waited in silence for the woman to begin a conversation and tell him how the night's incident had concluded.
"How very long you've slept, dear master Adrian Prokhorovich!" said Aksinia as she gave him his dressing gown. "The tailor from next door has been to see you, and the local guard has dropped in to tell you that today is the district police officer's name-day, but you pleased to sleep so soundly that we didn't want to wake you."
"And has anybody been from the late Triukhina's family?"
"The late Triukhina's? Has she died then?"
"What a silly woman! Didn't you yourself help me yesterday with the arrangements for her funeral?"
"What's this, dear master? Have you lost your mind, or are you still befuddled by yesterday's wine? What funeral was there yesterday? You gorged yourself at the German's all day, came home drunk, tumbled into bed, and have been sleeping until this very minute, though the bells have already rung for mass."
"Is that so?" said the undertaker, much gladdened.
"Of course it is so," answered the serving woman.
"Well, if it is, then make that tea quickly and call my daughters."


 

Оригінал твору

Бібліотека ім. О. С. Пушкіна (м. Київ).
А.С. Пушкин. Полное собрание сочинений в десяти томах