How A Muzhik Feb
Two Officials by
M. Y. Saltykov
Once upon a time there were two Officials. They were both
empty-headed, and so they found themselves one day suddenly
transported to an uninhabited isle, as if on a magic carpet.
They had passed their whole life in a Government Department, where
records were kept; had been born there, bred there, grown old there,
and consequently hadn't the least understanding for anything outside
of the Department; and the only words they knew were: "With assurances
of the highest esteem, I am your humble servant."
But the Department was abolished, and as the services of the two
Officials were no longer needed, they were given their freedom. So the
retired Officials migrated to Podyacheskaya Street in St. Petersburg.
Each had his own home, his own cook and his pension.
Waking up on the uninhabited isle, they found themselves lying under
the same cover. At first, of course, they couldn't understand what had
happened to them, and they spoke as if nothing extraordinary had taken
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
Suddenly an inspiration came to the Official who had once taught
"I have it!" he cried delightedly. "What do you say to this, your
Excellency? What do you say to our finding a muzhik?"
"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
"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
"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
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
"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.