SERGE KAPITONICH AHINEEV, the writing master, was marrying his
daughter to the teacher of history and geography. The wedding
festivities were going off most successfully. In the drawing room
there was singing, playing, and dancing. Waiters hired from the
club were flitting distractedly about the rooms, dressed in black
swallowtails and dirty white ties. There was a continual hubub and
din of conversation. Sitting side by side on the sofa, the teacher
of mathematics, the French teacher, and the junior assessor of
taxes were talking hurriedly and interrupting one another as they
described to the guests cases of persons being buried alive, and
gave their opinions on spiritualism. None of them believed in
spiritualism, but all admitted that there were many things in this
world which would always be beyond the mind of man. In the next
room the literature master was explaining to the visitors the cases
in which a sentry has the right to fire on passers-by. The
subjects, as you perceive, were alarming, but very agreeable.
Persons whose social position precluded them from entering were
looking in at the windows from the yard.
Just at midnight the master of the house went into the kitchen to
see whether everything was ready for supper. The kitchen from floor
to ceiling was filled with fumes composed of goose, duck, and many
other odors. On two tables the accessories, the drinks and light
refreshments, were set out in artistic disorder. The cook, Marfa,
a red-faced woman whose figure was like a barrel with a belt around
it, was bustling about the tables.
"Show me the sturgeon, Marfa," said Ahineev, rubbing his hands and
licking his lips. "What a perfume! I could eat up the whole
kitchen. Come, show me the sturgeon."
Marfa went up to one of the benches and cautiously lifted a piece
of greasy newspaper. Under the paper on an immense dish there
reposed a huge sturgeon, masked in jelly and decorated with capers,
olives, and carrots. Ahineev gazed at the sturgeon and gasped. His
face beamed, he turned his eyes up. He bent down and with his lips
emitted the sound of an ungreased wheel. After standing a moment he
snapped his fingers with delight and once more smacked his lips.
"Ah-ah! the sound of a passionate kiss. . . . Who is it you're
kissing out there, little Marfa?" came a voice from the next room,
and in the doorway there appeared the cropped head of the assistant
usher, Vankin. "Who is it? A-a-h! . . . Delighted to meet you!
Sergei Kapitonich! You're a fine grandfather, I must say!"
"I'm not kissing," said Ahineev in confusion. "Who told you so, you
fool? I was only . . . I smacked my lips . . . in reference to . .
. as an indication of. . . pleasure . . . at the sight of the
"Tell that to the marines!" The intrusive face vanished, wearing a
"Hang it!" he thought, "the beast will go now and talk scandal.
He'll disgrace me to all the town, the brute."
Ahineev went timidly into the drawing room and looked stealthily
round for Vankin. Vankin was standing by the piano, and, bending
down with a jaunty air, was whispering something to the inspector's
sister-in-law, who was laughing.
"Talking about me!" thought Ahineev. "About me, blast him! And she
believes it . . . believes it! She laughs! Mercy on us! No, I can't
let it pass . . . I can't. I must do something to prevent his being
believed. . . . I'll speak to them all, and he'll be shown up for
a fool and a gossip."
Ahineev scratched his head, and still overcome with embarrassment,
went up to the French teacher.
"I've just been in the kitchen to see after the supper," he said to
the Frenchman. "I know you are fond of fish, and I've a sturgeon,
my dear fellow, beyond everything! A yard and a half long! Ha, ha,
ha! And, by the way . . . I was just forgetting. . . . In the
kitchen just now, with that sturgeon . . . quite a little story! I
went into the kitchen just now and wanted to look at the supper
dishes. I looked at the sturgeon and I smacked my lips with relish
. . . at the piquancy of it. And at the very moment that fool
Vankin came in and said: . . . 'Ha, ha, ha! . . . So you're kissing
here!' Kissing Marfa, the cook! What a thing to imagine, silly
fool! The woman is a perfect fright, like all the beasts put
together, and he talks about kissing! Queer fish!"
"Who's a queer fish?" asked the mathematics teacher, coming up.
"Why he, over there--Vankin! I went into the kitchen . . ."
And he told the story of Vankin. ". . . He amused me, queer fish!
I'd rather kiss a dog than Marfa, if you ask me," added Ahineev. He
looked round and saw behind him the junior assessor of taxes.
"We were talking of Vankin," he said. "Queer fish, he is! He went
into the kitchen, saw me beside Marfa, and began inventing all
sorts of silly stories. 'Why are you kissing?' he says. He must
have had a drop too much. 'And I'd rather kiss a turkeycock than
Marfa,' I said, 'And I've a wife of my own, you fool,' said I. He
did amuse me!"
"Who amused you?" asked the priest who taught Scripture in the
school, going up to Ahineev.
"Vankin. I was standing in the kitchen, you know, looking at the
sturgeon. . . ."
And so on. Within half an hour or so all the guests knew the
incident of the sturgeon and Vankin.
"Let him tell away now!" thought Ahineev, rubbing his hands. "Let
him! He'll begin telling his story and they'll say to him at once,
'Enough of your improbable nonsense, you fool, we know all about
And Ahineev was so relieved that in his joy he drank four glasses
too many. After escorting the young people to their room, he went
to bed and slept like an innocent babe, and next day he thought no
more of the incident with the sturgeon. But, alas! man proposes,
but God disposes. An evil tongue did its evil work, and Ahineev's
strategy was of no avail. Just a week later--to be precise, on
Wednesday after the third lesson--when Ahineev was standing in the
middle of the teacher's room, holding forth on the vicious
propensities of a boy called Visekin, the headmaster went up to him
and drew him aside:
"Look here, Sergei Kapitonich," said the headmaster, "you must
excuse me. . . . It's not my business; but all the same I must make
you realize. . . . It's my duty. You see, there are rumors that you
are romancing with that . . . cook. . . . It's nothing to do with
me, but . . . flirt with her, kiss her . . . as you please, but
don't let it be so public, please. I entreat you! Don't forget that
you're a schoolmaster."
Ahineev turned cold and faint. He went home like a man stung by a
whole swarm of bees, like a man scalded with boiling water. As he
walked home, it seemed to him that the whole town was looking at
him as though he were smeared with pitch. At home fresh trouble
"Why aren't you gobbling up your food as usual?" his wife asked him
at dinner. "What are you so pensive about? Brooding over your
amours? Pining for your Marfa? I know all about it, Mohammedan!
Kind friends have opened my eyes! O-o-o! . . . you savage !"
And she slapped him in the face. He got up from the table, not
feeling the earth under his feet, and without his hat or coat, made
his way to Vankin. He found him at home.
"You scoundrel!" he addressed him. "Why have you covered me with
mud before all the town? Why did you set this slander going about
"What slander? What are you talking about?"
"Who was it gossiped of my kissing Marfa? Wasn't it you? Tell me
that. Wasn't it you, you brigand?"
Vankin blinked and twitched in every fiber of his battered
countenance, raised his eyes to the icon and articulated, "God
blast me! Strike me blind and lay me out, if I said a single word
about you! May I be left without house and home, may I be stricken
with worse than cholera!"
Vankin's sincerity did not admit of doubt. It was evidently not he
who was the author of the slander.
"But who, then, who?" Ahineev wondered, going over all his
acquaintances in his mind and beating himself on the breast. "Who,
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