by Alexander Pushkin
The last remaining goods of the undertaker, Adrian Prohoroff, were piled on the hearse, and the gaunt pair dragged the vehicle for the fourth time along from the Basmannaia to the Nikitskaia, where the undertaker had moved with all his household. Closing the shop, he nailed to the gates an announcement that the house was to be sold or let, and then started on foot for his new abode. Approaching the small yellow house which had long attracted his fancy and which he at last bought at a high price, the old undertaker was surprised to find that his heart did not rejoice. Crossing the strange threshold he found disorder inside his new abode, and pined for the old hovel, where for eighteen years everything had been kept in the most perfect order. He began scolding both his daughters and the servant for being so slow, and proceeded to help them himself. Order was speedily established. The case with the holy pictures, the cupboard with the crockery, the table, sofa, and bedstead, took up their appropriate corners in the back room. In the kitchen and parlour was placed the master’s stock in trade, that is to say, coffins of every colour and of all sizes; likewise wardrobes containing mourning hats, mantles, and funeral torches. Over the gate hung a signboard representing a corpulent cupid holding a reversed torch in his hand, with the following inscription: ‘Here coffins are sold, covered, plain, or painted. They are also let out on hire, and old ones are repaired.’
The daughters had retired to their own room, Adrian went over his residence, sat down by the window, and ordered the samovar to be got ready.
The enlightened reader is aware that both Shakespeare and Walter Scott have represented their gravediggers as lively jocular people, no doubt for the sake of a strong contrast. But respect for truth prevents me from following their example; and I must confess that the disposition of our undertaker corresponded closely with his melancholy trade. Adrian Prohoroff was usually pensive and gloomy. He only broke silence to scold his daughters when he found them idle, looking out of window at the passers by, or asking too exorbitant prices for his products from those who had the misfortune (sometimes the pleasure) to require them. Sitting by the window drinking his seventh cup of tea, according to his custom, Adrian was wrapped in the saddest thoughts. He was thinking of the pouring rain, which a week before had met the funeral of a retired brigadier at the turnpike gate, causing many mantles to shrink and many hats to contract. He foresaw inevitable outlay, his existing supply of funeral apparel being in such a sad condition. But he hoped to make good the loss from the funeral of the old shopkeeper, Tiruhina, who had been at the point of death for the last year. Tiruhina, however, was dying at Basgulai, and Prohoroff was afraid that her heirs, in spite of their promise to him, might be too lazy to send so far, preferring to strike a bargain with the nearest contractor.
These reflections were interrupted unexpectedly by three robust knocks at the door. ‘Who is there?’ enquired the undertaker. The door opened and a man, in whom at a glance might be recognised a German artisan, entered the room, and with a cheery look approached the undertaker.
‘Pardon me, my dear neighbour,’ he said, with the accent which even now we Russians never hear without a smile; ‘Pardon me for disturbing you; I wanted to make your acquaintance at once. I am a bootmaker, my name is Gottlieb Schultz, I live in the next street—in that little house opposite your windows. Tomorrow I celebrate my silver wedding, and I want you and your daughters to dine with me in a friendly way.’
The invitation was accepted. The undertaker asked the bootmaker to sit down and have a cup of tea, and thanks to Gottlieb Schultz’s frank disposition, they were soon talking in a friendly way.
‘How does your business get on?’ enquired Adrian.
‘Oh, oh,’ replied Schultz, ‘one way and another I have no reason to complain. Though, of course, my goods are not like yours. A living man can do without boots, but a corpse cannot do without a coffin.’
‘Perfectly true,’ said Adrian, ‘still, if a living man has nothing to buy boots with he goes barefooted, whereas the destitute corpse gets his coffin sometimes for nothing.’
Their conversation continued in this style for some time, until at last the bootmaker rose and took leave of the undertaker, repeating his invitation.
Next day, punctually at twelve o’clock, the undertaker and his daughters passed out at the gate of their newly-bought house, and proceeded to their neighbours. I do not intend to describe Adrian’s Russian caftan nor the European dress of Akulina or Daria, contrary though this be to the custom of fiction-writers of the present day. I don’t, however, think it superfluous to mention that both, maidens wore yellow bonnets and scarlet shoes, which they only did on great occasions.
The bootmaker’s small lodging was filled with guests, principally German artisans, their wives, and assistants. Of Russian officials there was only one watchman, the Finn Yurko, who had managed, in spite of his humble position, to gain the special favour of his chief. He had also performed the functions of postman for about twenty-five years, serving truly and faithfully the people of Pogorelsk. The fire which, in the year 1812, consumed the capital, annihilated also his humble sentry box. But no sooner had the enemy fled than in its place appeared a small, new, grey sentry box, with tiny white columns of Doric architecture, and Yurko resumed his patrol in front of it with battle-axe on shoulder, and in the civic armour of the police uniform.
He was well known to the greater portion of the German residents near the Nikitski Gates, some of whom had occasionally even passed the night from Sunday until Monday in Yurko’s box.
Adrian promptly made friends with a man of whom, sooner or later, he might have need, and as the guests were just then going in to dinner they sat down together.
Mr and Mrs Schultz and their daughter, the seventeen-year-old Lotchen, while dining with their guests, attended to their wants and assisted the cook to wait upon them. Beer flowed. Yurko ate for four, and Adrian did not fall short of him, though his daughters stood upon ceremony.
The conversation, which was in German, grew louder every hour.
Suddenly the host called for the attention of the company, and opening a pitch-covered bottle, exclaimed loudly in Russian:
‘The health of my good Louisa!’
The imitation champagne frothed. The host kissed tenderly the fresh face of his forty-year old spouse and the guests drank vociferously the health of good Louisa.
‘The health of my dear guests!’ cried the host opening the second bottle. The guests thanked him and emptied their glasses. Then one toast followed another. The health of each guest was proposed separately; then the health of Moscow and of about a dozen German towns. They drank the health of the guilds in general, and afterwards of each one separately; The health of the foremen and of the workmen. Adrian drank with a will and became so lively, that he himself proposed some jocular toast.
Suddenly one of the guests, a stout baker, raised his glass and exclaimed:
‘The health of our customers!’
This toast like all the others was drunk joyfully and unanimously. The guests nodded to each other; the tailor to the bootmaker, the bootmaker to the tailor; the baker to them both and all to the baker.
Yurko in the midst of this bowing called out as he turned towards his neighbour:
‘Now then, my friend, drink to the health of your corpses.’
Everybody laughed except the undertaker, who felt himself affronted and frowned. No one noticed this; and the guests went on drinking till the bells began to ring for evening service, when they all rose from the table.
The party had broken up late and most of the guests were very hilarious. The stout baker, with the bookbinder, whose face looked as if it were bound in red morocco, led Yurko by the arms to his sentry box, thus putting in practice the proverb, ‘One good turn deserves another.’
The undertaker went home drunk and angry.
‘How, indeed,’ he exclaimed aloud. ‘Is my trade worse than any other? Is an undertaker brother to the executioner? What have those heathens got to laugh at? Is an undertaker a hypocritical buffoon? I meant to invite them to a housewarming, to give them a grand spread, but let them wait. I will ask my customers instead – my orthodox corpses.’
‘What!’ exclaimed the maid, who at that moment was taking off the undertaker’s boots. ‘What is that, sir, you are saying? Make the sign of the cross! Invite the dead to your housewarming! How awful!’
‘I will certainly invite them,’ persisted Adrian, ‘and not later than for tomorrow. Honour me, my benefactors, with your company to-morrow evening at a feast. I will offer you what God has given me.’
With these words the undertaker retired to bed, and was soon snoring.
It was still dark when Adrian awoke. The shopkeeper, Triuhina, had died in the night, and her steward had sent a special messenger on horseback to inform Adrian of the fact. The undertaker gave him a silver fourpenny bit for his trouble, to buy vodka with; dressed hurriedly, took a cab, and drove off to Rasgulai. At the gate of the dead woman’s house the police were already standing, and dealers in mourning goods were hovering around, like ravens who have scented a corpse. The deceased was lying in state on the table, yellow like wax, but not yet disfigured by decomposition. Relations, neighbours, and friends crowded around. All the windows were open; wax tapers were burning; and the clergy were reading prayers. Adrian went up to the nephew, a young merchant in a fashionable coat, and informed him that the coffin, tapers, pall, and the funeral paraphernalia in general would promptly arrive. The heir thanked him in an absent manner, saying that he would not bargain about the price, but leave it all to his conscience. The undertaker, as usual, vowed that his charges should be moderate, exchanged significant glances with the steward, and left to make the necessary preparations.
The whole day was spent in travelling from Rasgulai to the Nikitski Gates and back again. Towards evening everything was settled, and he started home on foot after discharging his hired carriage. It was a moonlit night, and the undertaker got safely to the Nikitski Gates. At the Church of the Ascension our friend Yoorko hailed him, and on recognizing the undertaker wished him good-night. It was late. The undertaker was close to his house when he thought he saw someone approach the gates, open the wicket, and go in.
‘What can this mean?’ thought Adrian. ‘Who can be wanting me at this hour? Is it a burglar, or can my foolish girls have lovers coming after them? It bodes ill.’ And the undertaker was on the point of calling his friend Yurko to his assistance when someone else came up to the wicket and was about to enter, but seeing the master of the house nearby, he stopped and took off his hat. His face seemed familiar to Adrian, but in his hurry he had not been able to see it properly.
‘You want me?’ said Adrian, out of breath. ‘Come in, in that case.’
‘Don’t stand on ceremony, my friend,’ replied the other in a hollow voice. ‘You go first, and show your guest the way.’
Adrian had no time to waste on formality. The gate was open, and he went up to the steps followed by the other. Adrian heard people walking about in his rooms.
‘What the devil is going on?’ he wondered, and he hurried inside. But now his legs seemed to be giving way. The room was full of dead people. The moon, shining through the windows, lit up their yellow and blue faces, sunken mouths, dim half-closed eyes, and putrid noses. To his horror Adrian recognised them as people he had buried, and the guest who came in with him was the brigadier who had been interred in the pouring rain. All the ladies and gentlemen surrounded the undertaker, bowing, and greeting him – all except one poor fellow, who had quite recently been buried gratis, and who, ashamed of his rags, did not venture to come forward, but stood shyly in a corner. The others were all decently clad; the female corpses in caps and ribbons, the soldiers and officials in their uniforms, but with unshaven beards; and the tradespeople in their best caftans.
‘Prohoroff,’ said the brigadier, speaking on behalf of all the company, ‘we have all risen at your invitation. The only ones to remain behind are those who could not possibly come, having crumbled to pieces, or who have nothing left but bare bones. But even in that state, there was one who could not resist—he wanted so much to come.’
At this moment a diminutive skeleton pushed his way through the crowd and approached Adrian. His death’s head grinned affably at the undertaker. Shreds of green and red cloth and of rotten linen hung on him as on a pole; while the bones of his feet clattered inside his heavy boots like pestles in mortars.
‘Don’t you recognise me, Prohoroff?’ said the skeleton. ‘Don’t you remember the retired sergeant in the guards, Peter Petrovitch Kurilkin, him to whom you in the year 1799 sold your first coffin, and of pine instead of oak?’
With these words the corpse stretched out his long arms to embrace him. But Adrian collecting his strength, shrieked, and pushed him away. Peter Petrovitch staggered, fell over, and crumbled to pieces. There was a murmur of indignation among the company of the dead. All stood up for the honour of their companion, threatening and upbraiding Adrian till the poor man, deafened by their shrieks and quite overcome, lost his senses and fell unconscious among the bones of the retired sergeant of the guard.
The sun had been shining for some time upon the bed on which the undertaker lay, when he at last opened his eyes and saw the servant lighting the samovar. With horror he recalled all the incidents of the previous day. Triuchin, the brigadier, and the sergeant, Kurilkin, passed dimly before his imagination. He waited in silence for the servant to speak and tell him what had occurred during the night.
‘How you have slept, Adrian Prohorovitch!’ said the maid, handing him his dressing-gown. ‘Your neighbour the tailor called, also the watchman, to say that to-day was Turko’s namesday; but you were so fast asleep that we did not disturb you.’
‘Did anyone come from the late Triuhina?’
‘The late? Is she dead, then?’
‘What a fool! Didn’t you help me yesterday to make arrangements for her funeral?’
‘Have you lost your mind, sir, or are you still suffering from last night’s drink? You were feasting all day at the German’s. You came home drunk, threw yourself on the bed, and have slept till now, when the bells have stopped ringing for Mass.’
‘Really!’ exclaimed the undertaker, delighted at the explanation.
‘Of course,’ replied the servant.
‘Well, if that's the case, let's have a nice cup of tea.’