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- Best Russian Short Stories - 21/56 -


"A muzhik, your Excellency? What sort of a muzhik?"

"Why a plain ordinary muzhik. A muzhik like all other muzhiks. He would get the breakfast rolls for us right away, and he could also catch partridges and fish for us."

"Hm, a muzhik. But where are we to fetch one from, if there is no muzhik here?"

"Why shouldn't there be a muzhik here? There are muzhiks everywhere. All one has to do is hunt for them. There certainly must be a muzhik hiding here somewhere so as to get out of working."

This thought so cheered the Officials that they instantly jumped up to go in search of a muzhik.

For a long while they wandered about on the island without the desired result, until finally a concentrated smell of black bread and old sheep skin assailed their nostrils and guided them in the right direction. There under a tree was a colossal muzhik lying fast asleep with his hands under his head. It was clear that to escape his duty to work he had impudently withdrawn to this island. The indignation of the Officials knew no bounds.

"What, lying asleep here you lazy-bones you!" they raged at him, "It is nothing to you that there are two Officials here who are fairly perishing of hunger. Up, forward, march, work."

The Muzhik rose and looked at the two severe gentlemen standing in front of him. His first thought was to make his escape, but the Officials held him fast.

He had to submit to his fate. He had to work.

First he climbed up on a tree and plucked several dozen of the finest apples for the Officials. He kept a rotten one for himself. Then he turned up the earth and dug out some potatoes. Next he started a fire with two bits of wood that he rubbed against each other. Out of his own hair he made a snare and caught partridges. Over the fire, by this time burning brightly, he cooked so many kinds of food that the question arose in the Officials' minds whether they shouldn't give some to this idler.

Beholding the efforts of the Muzhik, they rejoiced in their hearts. They had already forgotten how the day before they had nearly been perishing of hunger, and all they thought of now was: "What a good thing it is to be an Official. Nothing bad can ever happen to an Official."

"Are you satisfied, gentlemen?" the lazy Muzhik asked.

"Yes, we appreciate your industry," replied the Officials.

"Then you will permit me to rest a little?"

"Go take a little rest, but first make a good strong cord."

The Muzhik gathered wild hemp stalks, laid them in water, beat them and broke them, and toward evening a good stout cord was ready. The Officials took the cord and bound the Muzhik to a tree, so that he should not run away. Then they laid themselves to sleep.

Thus day after day passed, and the Muzhik became so skilful that he could actually cook soup for the Officials in his bare hands. The Officials had become round and well-fed and happy. It rejoiced them that here they needn't spend any money and that in the meanwhile their pensions were accumulating in St. Petersburg.

"What is your opinion, your Excellency," one said to the other after breakfast one day, "is the Story of the Tower of Babel true? Don't you think it is simply an allegory?"

"By no means, your Excellency, I think it was something that really happened. What other explanation is there for the existence of so many different languages on earth?"

"Then the Flood must really have taken place, too?"

"Certainly, else; how would you explain the existence of Antediluvian animals? Besides, the _Moscow Gazette_ says----"

They made search for the old number of the _Moscow Gazette_, seated themselves in the shade, and read the whole sheet from beginning to end. They read of festivities in Moscow, Tula, Penza and Riazan, and strangely enough felt no discomfort at the description of the delicacies served.

There is no saying how long this life might have lasted. Finally, however, it began to bore the Officials. They often thought of their cooks in St. Petersburg, and even shed a few tears in secret.

"I wonder how it looks in Podyacheskaya Street now, your Excellency," one of them said to the other.

"Oh, don't remind me of it, your Excellency. I am pining away with homesickness."

"It is very nice here. There is really no fault to be found with this place, but the lamb longs for its mother sheep. And it is a pity, too, for the beautiful uniforms."

"Yes, indeed, a uniform of the fourth class is no joke. The gold embroidery alone is enough to make one dizzy."

Now they began to importune the Muzhik to find some way of getting them back to Podyacheskaya Street, and strange to say, the Muzhik even knew where Podyacheskaya Street was. He had once drunk beer and mead there, and as the saying goes, everything had run down his beard, alas, but nothing into his mouth. The Officials rejoiced and said: "We are Officials from Podyacheskaya Street."

"And I am one of those men--do you remember?--who sit on a scaffolding hung by ropes from the roofs and paint the outside walls. I am one of those who crawl about on the roofs like flies. That is what I am," replied the Muzhik.

The Muzhik now pondered long and heavily on how to give great pleasure to his Officials, who had been so gracious to him, the lazy-bones, and had not scorned his work. And he actually succeeded in constructing a ship. It was not really a ship, but still it was a vessel, that would carry them across the ocean close to Podyacheskaya Street.

"Now, take care, you dog, that you don't drown us," said the Officials, when they saw the raft rising and falling on the waves.

"Don't be afraid. We muzhiks are used to this," said the Muzhik, making all the preparations for the journey. He gathered swan's-down and made a couch for his two Officials, then he crossed himself and rowed off from shore.

How frightened the Officials were on the way, how seasick they were during the storms, how they scolded the coarse Muzhik for his idleness, can neither be told nor described. The Muzhik, however, just kept rowing on and fed his Officials on herring. At last, they caught sight of dear old Mother Neva. Soon they were in the glorious Catherine Canal, and then, oh joy! they struck the grand Podyacheskaya Street. When the cooks saw their Officials so well-fed, round and so happy, they rejoiced immensely. The Officials drank coffee and rolls, then put on their uniforms and drove to the Pension Bureau. How much money they collected there is another thing that can neither be told nor described. Nor was the Muzhik forgotten. The Officials sent a glass of whiskey out to him and five kopeks. Now, Muzhik, rejoice.

THE SHADES, A PHANTASY

BY VLADIMIR G. KORLENKO

I

A month and two days had elapsed since the judges, amid the loud acclaim of the Athenian people, had pronounced the death sentence against the philosopher Socrates because he had sought to destroy faith in the gods. What the gadfly is to the horse Socrates was to Athens. The gadfly stings the horse in order to prevent it from dozing off and to keep it moving briskly on its course. The philosopher said to the people of Athens:

"I am your gadfly. My sting pricks your conscience and arouses you when you are caught napping. Sleep not, sleep not, people of Athens; awake and seek the truth!"

The people arose in their exasperation and cruelly demanded to be rid of their gadfly.

"Perchance both of his accusers, Meletus and Anytus, are wrong," said the citizens, on leaving the court after sentence had been pronounced.

"But after all whither do his doctrines tend? What would he do? He has wrought confusion, he overthrows, beliefs that have existed since the beginning, he speaks of new virtues which must be recognised and sought for, he speaks of a Divinity hitherto unknown to us. The blasphemer, he deems himself wiser than the gods! No, 'twere better we remain true to the old gods whom we know. They may not always be just, sometimes they may flare up in unjust wrath, and they may also be seized with a wanton lust for the wives of mortals; but did not our ancestors live with them in the peace of their souls, did not our forefathers accomplish their heroic deeds with the help of these very gods? And now the faces of the Olympians have paled and the old virtue is out of joint. What does it all lead to? Should not an end be put to this impious wisdom once for all?"

Thus the citizens of Athens spoke to one another as they left the place, and the blue twilight was falling. They had determined to kill the restless gadfly in the hope that the countenances of the gods would shine again. And yet--before their souls arose the mild figure of the singular philosopher. There were some citizens who recalled how courageously he had shared their troubles and dangers at Potidaea; how he alone had prevented them from committing the sin of unjustly executing the generals after the victory over the Arginusaee; how he alone had dared to raise his voice against the tyrants who had had fifteen hundred people put to death, speaking to the people on the market-place concerning shepherds and their sheep.


Best Russian Short Stories - 21/56

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