Михаил Афанасьевич Булгаков
Diaboliad by Mikhail Bulgakov
Translated by K.M. Cook-Horujy
The Tale of the Twins Who Finished off the Chief Clerk
THE EVENT ON THE TWENTIETH
At a time when everyone else was hopping from one job to the next, Comrade Korotkov was firmly ensconced at MACBAMM (the Main Central Base for Matchstick Materials) in the permanent post of Chief Clerk, which he had now held for no less than eleven months.
Happy in his MACBAMM haven, the quiet and sensitive fair-haired Korotkov had banished from his mind completely the idea that fortunes can change, replacing it by the conviction that he, Korotkov, would go on working at the Base as long as there was life on earth. But, alas, this was not to be…
On 20 September, 1921 the MACBAMM cashier donned his revolting fur cap with the big ear flaps, put a striped cheque in his briefcase and drove off. That was at 11.00 a. m.
At 4.30 p. m. the cashier returned, drenched to the skin. He came in, shook the water off his cap, placed the cap on the desk and the briefcase on top of it, and said:
«Don't all rush, ladies and gents.»
Then he rummaged about in the desk, left the room and came back a quarter of an hour later carrying a large dead chicken with its neck wrung. Placing the chicken on the briefcase and his right hand on the chicken, he announced:
«There's no cash.»
«Tomorrow?» the women shouted in chorus.
«No,» the cashier shook his head. «Not tomorrow either, or the day after. Keep calm, ladies and gents, or you'll knock the desk over, comrades.»
«What?» yelled everyone, the naive Korotkov included.
«Citizens!» the cashier cried tearfully, elbowing Korotkov out of the way. «I beg you!»
«But there must be!» everybody shouted, that comic Korotkov loudest of all.
«Alright, look at this,» the cashier muttered hoarsely, pulling the cheque out of his pocket and showing it to Korotkov.
Above the spot where the cashier dug his grimy nail in were some words scrawled in red ink.
«Pay cash. Senat, p. p. Comrade Subbotnikov.»
Further down were some more words in purple ink.
«No cash left. Smirnov, p. p. Comrade Ivanov.»
«What?» shouted Korotkov on his own, while the others, puffing and panting, descended upon the cashier.
«Oh, my goodness!» the latter howled wretchedly. «Why blame me? Oh, my godfathers!»
Stuffing the cheque hurriedly into his briefcase, he pulled on his cap, thrust the briefcase under his arm, brandished the chicken, shouting, «Stand aside!» and, breaching his way through the human wall, disappeared through the door.
The squealing white-faced registrar tottered after him on her high heels. The left heel snapped off by the door, and the registrar staggered, lifted her foot and took the shoe off.
And there she stood in the room, one foot shoeless, with the rest of them, Korotkov included.
Three days after the event described, the door of the office where Comrade Korotkov was working opened slightly, and a woman's head said spitefully:
«Go and get your pay, Comrade Korotkov.»
«What?» Korotkov exclaimed delightedly and, whistling the overture to Carmen, trotted along to a room with a notice saying «Cashier». By the cashier's desk he stopped open-mouthed. Two thick piles of yellow packets rose up to the ceiling. To avoid answering questions, the agitated and perspiring cashier had pinned up the cheque, which now bore yet another scrawl, this time in green ink.
«Pay in production produce.
«Preobrazhensky, p. p. Comrade Bogoyavlensky.»
«I agree — Kshesinsky.»
Korotkov left the cashier's office with a broad, stupid grin on his face. He was carrying four large yellow packets and five small green ones in his hands, plus thirteen blue boxes of matches in his pockets. Back in his room, listening to the hubbub of amazed voices in the General Office, he wrapped up the matches in two large sheets from that morning's newspaper and slipped out without a word to anyone. By the main entrance he was nearly run over by a car in which someone had just arrived, exactly who Korotkov could not see.
Back home he unwrapped the matches on the table and stood back to admire them. The stupid grin did not leave his face. After that Korotkov ruffled up his hair and said to himself:
«Come on, it's no good moping about all day. We must try to sell them.»
He knocked on the door of his neighbour, Alexandra Fyodorovna, who worked at the Provincial Wine Depot.
«Come in,» said a hollow voice.
Korotkov went in and stared in amazement. Alexandra Fyodorovna, also back early from work, was squatting on the floor in her coat and hat. In front of her stretched a long line of bottles containing a deep red liquid, stoppered with little balls of newspaper. Alexandra Fyodorovna's face was smudged with tears.
«Forty-six,» she said, turning to Korotkov.
«Good afternoon, Alexandra Fyodorovna. Is that ink?» asked the astonished Korotkov.
«Communion wine,» his neighbour replied, with a sob.
«You've got some too?» Korotkov gasped.
«Have you been given communion wine as well then?» Alexandra Fyodorovna asked in amazement.
«No, we got matches,» Korotkov replied weakly, twisting a button on his jacket.
«But they don't light!» exclaimed Alexandra Fyodorovna, getting up and brushing her skirt.
«What do you mean, they don't light?» Korotkov exclaimed in alarm and hurried off to his room. There, without wasting a moment, he snatched up a box, tore it open and struck a match. It hissed and flared up with a green flame, broke in two and went out. Choking from the acrid smell of sulphur, Korotkov coughed painfully and struck a second one. This one exploded, emitting two fiery sparks. The first spark landed on the window-pane, and the second in Comrade Korotkov's left eye.
«Ouch!» cried Korotkov, dropping the box.
For a few moments he clattered about like a spirited stallion clasping his hand to his eye. Then he looked with trepidation into his shaving mirror, convinced that he had lost the eye. But it was still there. A bit red, though, and tearful.
«Oh, my goodness!» Korotkov said agitatedly. He took an American first-aid packet out of the chest of drawers, opened it and bandaged the left half of his head, until he looked like someone wounded in battle.
Korotkov did not turn the light out all night and lay in bed striking matches. He got through three boxes, out of which he managed to light sixty-three matches.
«The silly woman's wrong,» muttered Korotkov. «They're fine matches.»
By morning the room reeked suffocatingly of sulphur. At daybreak Korotkov fell asleep and had a weird, frightening dream. In front of him in a green meadow was an enormous live billiard ball on legs. It was so loathsome that Korotkov cried out and woke up. For a few seconds Korotkov thought he saw the ball there in the dim misty light, by his bed, smelling strongly of sulphur. But then it vanished. Korotkov turned over and fell fast asleep.
III ENTER THE BALD MAN
Next morning Korotkov moved aside the bandage and saw that his eye had almost recovered. Nevertheless, an excessively cautious Korotkov decided not to take the bandage off for the time being.
Arriving at work extremely late, a crafty Korotkov went straight to his office, so as not to give rise to any false speculation among the lower ranks, and found on his desk a memo from the head of the Supplies Sub-Section to the head of the Base asking whether the typists were to receive any special clothing. After reading the memo with his right eye, Korot
Right outside the door of the office Korotkov collided with a most peculiar-looking stranger.
The stranger was so short that he only came up to the tall Korotkov's waist. This lack of height was compensated for by the extraordinary breadth of the stranger's shoulders. The squarish torso sat on bandy legs, of which the left one limped. But the most remarkable thing was the head. It was like a huge model of an egg placed horizontally on the neck with the pointed end facing you. It was also bald, like an egg, and so shiny that electric light bulbs shone all the time on the crown. The small face was shaven blue, and the green eyes, small as pin-heads, sat in deep sockets. The stranger's body was enveloped in an unbuttoned army jacket made from a grey blanket, with an embroidered Ukrainian shirt peeping out. The legs were clad in trousers of the same material and the feet in shortish boots with slits like those worn by hussars in the reign of Alexander I.
«Funny-looking chap,» thought Korotkov, making for the door of Chekushin's office and trying to get past the bald man. But suddenly and quite unexpectedly the latter blocked his way.
«What do you want?» the bald man asked Korotkov in a voice that made the sensitive Chief Clerk shudder. It was like the voice of a copper pan and had a timbre that sent prickles down the spine of all who heard it. What's more, the stranger's words seemed to smell of matches. In spite of all this, a short-sighted Korotkov did something one should never do under any circumstances — he took offence.
«Ahem. This is very odd. Here am I trying to deliver a memo. Would you mind telling me who you are…»
«Can't you see what's written on the door?»
Korotkov looked at the door and saw the familiar notice: «Admittance by notification only.»
«Well, this is my notification,» Korotkov joked weakly, pointing at the memo.
The bald square man suddenly got angry. His little eyes flashed with yellowish sparks.
«You, Comrade,» he said, deafening Korotkov with his clatter-pan sounds, «are so immature that you do not understand the meaning of a simple office notice. I'm most surprised that you have stayed here so long. And in general there are lots of funny things going on here. Take all those bandaged eyes, for example. Never mind, we'll put all that in order. («He-elp!» Korotkov groaned to himself.) Give me that!»
With these words the stranger snatched the memo out of Korotkov's hands, read it through, pulled a chewed indelible pencil out of his trouser pocket, put the memo on the wall and scribbled a few words on it.
«There you are!» he barked, thrusting the memo at Korotkov so hard that he almost put out his other eye. The office door howled and swallowed up the stranger, while Korotkov stood there dumbfounded. Chekushin's office was empty.
A few seconds later the disconcerted Korotkov came to when he collided with Lidochka de Runi, Comrade Chekushin's private secretary.
«Oh, dear!» sighed Comrade Korotkov. One of Lidochka's eyes was covered with a bandage just like his, except that the ends were tied in a coquettish bow.
«What's the matter with your eye?»
«Matches!» Lidochka replied angrily. «Wretched things.»
«Who's that in there?» the devastated Korotkov asked in a whisper.
«Don't you know?» Lidochka whispered back. «The new boss.»
«What?» Korotkov squealed. «Where's Chekushin?»
«Got the sack yesterday,» Lidochka said angrily, and added, pointing a finger in the direction of the office: «He's a real old buffer. A right terror. Never seen anyone so revolting in all my life. Shouts the place down. 'You'll get the sack! Bald pants!» she added so unexpectedly that Korotkov goggled at her.
«What's his na…»
Before Korotkov had time to finish his question, a terrible voice boomed «Messenger!» from the office. The Chief Clerk and the secretary fled in opposite directions. Diving into his office, Korotkov sat down at his desk and delivered the following speech to himself:
«Watch out, Korotkov, old boy. You've landed in a bit of a mess. We'll have to put things right. 'Immature' indeed. Cheeky devil! You'll see how immature Korotkov is!»
With his one good eye the Chief Clerk read the bald man's missive. Scrawled across the paper were the words: «All typists and women staff in general will be issued in good time with military uniform longjohns.»
«Oo, that'll be the day!» Korotkov exclaimed with delight, shuddering voluptuously at the thought of Lidochka wearing longjohns. Without further ado, he took a clean sheet of paper and composed the following.
«To the head of Supplies Sub-Section stop. In reply to your memorandum No. 0.15015 (b) of the 19th comma MACBAMM hereby informs you that all typists and women staff in general will be issued in good time with soldiers' uniform longjohns stop Base head signed Chief Clerk dash Varfolomei Korotkov stop.»
He buzzed for the messenger Panteleimon and told him:
«Take this to the boss for signature.»
Panteleimon ruminated for a moment, took the paper and went out.
For the next four hours Korotkov listened hard, without leaving his room, so that if the new boss decided to take a look round he would be sure to find him with his nose to the grindstone. But not a sound came from the terrible office. Only once did he hear in the distance an iron voice which seemed to be threatening to give someone the sack, but precisely whom Korotkov could not make out, although he put his ear to the keyhole. At 3.30 p. m. Panteleimon's voice was heard from the General Office.
«He's gone off in the car.»
The General Office immediately came to life and slipped off home. The last to leave, all on his own, was Comrade Korotkov.
PARAGRAPH ONE — KOROTKOV GETS THE SACK
Next morning Korotkov found to his delight that his eye no longer needed to be bandaged, so he took the bandage off with relief and immediately looked more handsome and different. Gulping down some tea, he put out the primus-stove and hurried off to work, trying not to be late, and arrived fifty minutes late because instead of taking the number six route, the tram followed the number seven to some remote streets with small wooden houses and broke down there. Korotkov had to walk about two miles and trotted panting into the General Office, just as the Alpine Rose's kitchen clock was striking eleven. In the General Office he was greeted by a most unusual spectacle for that time of day. Lidochka de Runi, Milochka Litovtseva, Anna Yevgrafovna, the chief accountant Drozd, the instructor Gitis, Nomeratsky, Ivanov, Mushka, the registrar and the cashier, in other words, all the General Office staff, instead of sitting in their places at the kitchen tables of the former Alpine Rose Restaurant, were standing in a tight cluster by the wall to which a sheet of quarto paper was nailed. There was a sudden hush as Korotkov came in, and everyone looked away.
«Good morning, all, what's the matter?» Korotkov asked in surprise.
The crowd parted in silence, and Korotkov walked up to the sheet of paper. The first few lines looked at him boldly and clearly, the closing ones through a tearful stupefying haze.
«ORDER No. 1
§ 1. «For an inexcusably negligent attitude to his duties giving rise to gross confusion in important official documents, as well as coming to the office with a disgraceful face obviously damaged in a brawl, Comrade Korotkov is hereby dismissed as from today, the 26th inst. and will receive tram money up to and including the 25th inst.»
The first paragraph also happened to be the last, and under it in large letters was the flourishing signature:
«Base Head: Longjohn»
For twenty seconds perfect silence reigned in the dusty mirrored hall of the Alpine Rose that was. And the best, deepest and most deathly silence of all came from a greenish Korotkov. At the twenty-first second the silence was broken.
«What's that? What's that?» Korotkov cracked twice, like an Alpine glass being smashed on someone's heel. «That's his surname — Longjohn?»
«Deary me, deary me,» Skvorets intoned from a distance, peeping out of his ledger. «How could you have dropped a clanger like that? Eh?»
«B-but I th-thought…» the fragments of Korotkov's voice grated. «I read 'longjohns' instead of 'Longjohn'. He writes his name with a small Т and does a twiddle at the end!»
«I won't wear underpants, he needn't worry!» Lidochka tinkled.
«Shush!» hissed Skvorets snake-like. «What a thing to say!» He dived down and took refuge in his ledger, hiding behind a page.
«And it's not true, what he says about my face!» Korotkov cried quietly, turning white as ermine instead of purple. «I burnt my eye on those foul matches of ours, like Comrade de Runi!»
«Be quiet!» squealed Gitis, turning pale. «What are you saying? He tested them yesterday and said they were excellent.»
Rrrr. The electric bell over the door rang suddenly. Panteleimon's heavy body slid off the stool and trundled along the corridor.
«I'll tell him. I'll tell him!» chanted Korotkov in a high, reedy voice. He dashed to the left, then to the right, ran about ten paces on the spot, his reflection distorted in the dusty Alpine mirrors, dived into the corridor and ran towards the light of the dim bulb hanging over a notice saying «Private Rooms». Panting hard, he stopped in front of the terrible door to find himself in the arms of Panteleimon.
«Comrade Panteleimon,» Korotkov began anxiously. «Let me in, please. I must see the boss straightaway…»
«You can't, he says not to let anyone in,» Panteleimon croaked, drowning Korotkov's determination in a terrible smell of onion. «You can't. Go away, Mr. Korotkov, or you'll get me into trouble…»
Diaboliad by Mikhail Bulgakov / History & Fiction / Science Fiction / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes