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- Best Russian Short Stories - 20/56 -
"What a peculiar dream I had last night, your Excellency," said the one Official. "It seemed to me as if I were on an uninhabited isle."
Scarcely had he uttered the words, when he jumped to his feet. The other Official also jumped up.
"Good Lord, what does this mean! Where are we?" they cried out in astonishment.
They felt each other to make sure that they were no longer dreaming, and finally convinced themselves of the sad reality.
Before them stretched the ocean, and behind them was a little spot of earth, beyond which the ocean stretched again. They began to cry--the first time since their Department had been shut down.
They looked at each other, and each noticed that the other was clad in nothing but his night shirt with his order hanging about his neck.
"We really should be having our coffee now," observed the one Official. Then he bethought himself again of the strange situation he was in and a second time fell to weeping.
"What are we going to do now?" he sobbed. "Even supposing we were to draw up a report, what good would that do?"
"You know what, your Excellency," replied the other Official, "you go to the east and I will go to the west. Toward evening we will come back here again and, perhaps, we shall have found something."
They started to ascertain which was the east and which was the west. They recalled that the head of their Department had once said to them, "If you want to know where the east is, then turn your face to the north, and the east will be on your right." But when they tried to find out which was the north, they turned to the right and to the left and looked around on all sides. Having spent their whole life in the Department of Records, their efforts were all in vain.
"To my mind, your Excellency, the best thing to do would be for you to go to the right and me to go to the left," said one Official, who had served not only in the Department of Records, but had also been teacher of handwriting in the School for Reserves, and so was a little bit cleverer.
So said, so done. The one Official went to the right. He came upon trees, bearing all sorts of fruits. Gladly would he have plucked an apple, but they all hung so high that he would have been obliged to climb up. He tried to climb up in vain. All he succeeded in doing was tearing his night shirt. Then he struck upon a brook. It was swarming with fish.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had all this fish in Podyacheskaya Street!" he thought, and his mouth watered. Then he entered woods and found partridges, grouse and hares.
"Good Lord, what an abundance of food!" he cried. His hunger was going up tremendously.
But he had to return to the appointed spot with empty hands. He found the other Official waiting for him.
"Well, Your Excellency, how went it? Did you find anything?"
"Nothing but an old number of the _Moscow Gazette_, not another thing."
The Officials lay down to sleep again, but their empty stomachs gave them no rest They were partly robbed of their sleep by the thought of who was now enjoying their pension, and partly by the recollection of the fruit, fishes, partridges, grouse and hares that they had seen during the day.
"The human pabulum in its original form flies, swims and grows on trees. Who would have thought it your Excellency?" said the one Official.
"To be sure," rejoined the other Official. "I, too, must admit that I had imagined that our breakfast rolls, came into the world just as they appear on the table."
"From which it is to be deduced that if we want to eat a pheasant, we must catch it first, kill it, pull its feathers and roast it. But how's that to be done?"
"Yes, how's that to be done?" repeated the other Official.
They turned silent and tried again to fall asleep, but their hunger scared sleep away. Before their eyes swarmed flocks of pheasants and ducks, herds of porklings, and they were all so juicy, done so tenderly and garnished so deliciously with olives, capers and pickles.
"I believe I could devour my own boots now," said the one Official.
"Gloves, are not bad either, especially if they have been born quite mellow," said the other Official.
The two Officials stared at each other fixedly. In their glances gleamed an evil-boding fire, their teeth chattered and a dull groaning issued from their breasts. Slowly they crept upon each other and suddenly they burst into a fearful frenzy. There was a yelling and groaning, the rags flew about, and the Official who had been teacher of handwriting bit off his colleague's order and swallowed it. However, the sight of blood brought them both back to their senses.
"God help us!" they cried at the same time. "We certainly don't mean to eat each other up. How could we have come to such a pass as this? What evil genius is making sport of us?"
"We must, by all means, entertain each other to pass the time away, otherwise there will be murder and death," said the, one Official.
"You begin," said the other.
"Can you explain why it is that the sun first rises and then sets? Why isn't it the reverse?"
"Aren't you a funny, man, your Excellency? You get up first, then you go to your office and work there, and at night you lie down to sleep."
"But why can't one assume the opposite, that is, that one goes to, bed, sees all sorts of dream figures, and then gets up?"
"Well, yes, certainly. But when I was still an Official, I always thought this way: 'Now it is; dawn, then it will be day, then will come supper, and finally will come the time to go to bed.'"
The word "supper" recalled that incident in the day's doings, and the thought of it made both Officials melancholy, so that the conversation came to a halt.
"A doctor once told me that human beings can sustain themselves for a long time on their own juices," the one Official began again.
"What does that mean?"
"It is quite simple. You see, one's own juices generate other juices, and these in their turn still other juices, and so it goes on until finally all the juices are consumed."
"And then what happens?"
"Then food has to be taken into the system again."
No matter what topic the Officials chose, the conversation invariably reverted to the subject of eating; which only increased their appetite more and more. So they decided to give up talking altogether, and, recollecting the _Moscow Gazette_ that the one of them had found, they picked it up and began to read eagerly.
BANQUET GIVEN BY THE MAYOR
"The table was set for one hundred persons. The magnificence of it exceeded all expectations. The remotest provinces were represented at this feast of the gods by the costliest gifts. The golden sturgeon from Sheksna and the silver pheasant from the Caucasian woods held a rendezvous with strawberries so seldom to be had in our latitude in winter..."
"The devil! For God's sake, stop reading, your Excellency. Couldn't you find something else to read about?" cried the other Official in sheer desperation. He snatched the paper from his colleague's hands, and started to read something else.
"Our correspondent in Tula informs us that yesterday a sturgeon was found in the Upa (an event which even the oldest inhabitants cannot recall, and all the more remarkable since they recognised the former police captain in this sturgeon). This was made the occasion for giving a banquet in the club. The prime cause of the banquet was served in a large wooden platter garnished with vinegar pickles. A bunch of parsley stuck out of its mouth. Doctor P---- who acted as toast-master saw to it that everybody present got a piece of the sturgeon. The sauces to go with it were unusually varied and delicate--"
"Permit me, your Excellency, it seems to me you are not so careful either in the selection of reading matter," interrupted the first Official, who secured the _Gazette_ again and started to read:
"One of the oldest inhabitants of Viatka has discovered a new and highly original recipe for fish soup; A live codfish (_lota vulgaris_) is taken and beaten with a rod until its liver swells up with anger..."
The Officials' heads drooped. Whatever their eyes fell upon had something to do with eating. Even their own thoughts were fatal. No matter how much they tried to keep their minds off beefsteak and the like, it was all in vain; their fancy returned invariably, with irresistible force, back to that for which they were so painfully yearning.
Suddenly an inspiration came to the Official who had once taught handwriting.
"I have it!" he cried delightedly. "What do you say to this, your Excellency? What do you say to our finding a muzhik?"
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