A textile design by Varvara Stepanova, 1924.
Don’t trust those Judas Iscariots, those chameleons! In our day, faith is easier to lose than an old glove—and I’ve lost it!
It was evening. I was taking the horsecar. It isn’t right that I, as a high-ranking official, take the horsecar, but on this occasion I wore a fur greatcoat and could conceal my face in its marten collar. It’s cheaper, you know … Despite the cold and late hour, the car was crammed full. Nobody recognized me. The marten collar allowed me to travel incognito. Riding, I dozed and studied the little ones …
“No, that isn’t him!” I thought, gazing at a little man in a rabbit-fur coat. “It isn’t him. No, it is him! Him!”
I pondered, believing and not believing my eyes …
The little man in the rabbit-fur coat looked awfully like Ivan Kapitonich, one of my clerks. Ivan Kapitonich is a small, dumbstruck, squashed-up creature, existing only to retrieve fallen handkerchiefs and offer his salutations. He’s young, but his back is stooped, knees bent, hands filthy and arms stretched at attention … His face looks as though it’s been slammed in a door or smacked. It’s sour and pitiful; looking at him one wants to drone a dirge and sob. At the sight of me he always shakes, pales, and blushes, as though I were going to eat or murder him, and when I reprimand him, he freezes and trembles with every limb.
I know of no one more lowly, meek, or insignificant than he. I don’t even know any animals quieter than he is …
The little man in the rabbit-fur coat seriously reminded me of this Ivan Kapitonich: his very image! Only this one was not as hunched as he, didn’t seem dumbstruck, held himself loosely and, most disturbingly, was speaking to his neighbor about politics. The entire car had to hear it.
“Gambetta croaked!” he was saying, swiveling and waving his arms. “That’s well for Bismarck. Gambetta, he knew the score. He’d have gone to war with the Germans and taken reparations, Ivan Matveich! This was a genius, you see. He was French, but with a Russian soul. A talent!”
Oh, you unbelievable scum!
When the conductor approached with the tickets, he left Bismarck in peace. “Is there a reason it’s so dark in your car?” he turned on the conductor. “You haven’t got any candles, is that it? What is this nonsense? Too bad there’s nobody to teach you a lesson! In another country, you’d learn! The public doesn’t serve you; you serve the public! Devil take it! I don’t understand—who’s in charge here!”
In a moment he began to demand that we all move over.
“Move over! Do as you’re told! Give Madame a seat! Show some manners! Conductor! Here, conductor! You took the fare, now provide a seat! This is unseemly!”
“It’s forbidden to smoke here!” The conductor shouted at him.
“Who forbids it? Who has the right? That’s an encroachment on liberty! I allow no one to encroach on my liberty! I’m a free man!”
Oh, you unbelievable scum! Staring at his mug, I couldn’t believe my eyes. No, that isn’t him. It can’t be! That one doesn’t know the words ‘liberty’ and ‘Gambetta.’
“I say, what wonderful customs we have,” he said, dropping the cigarette. “And to live with such people! They’re mad about form, about the letter of the law! Formalists, philistines! It’s suffocating!”
I could no longer contain my laughter. Hearing my laugh, he quickly glanced my way, and his voice shook. He had recognized my laugh and, likely, my coat. His back immediately stooped, face momentarily soured, voice stilled, arms went to attention, knees bent. An instantaneous change! I doubted no longer: this was Ivan Kapitonich, my clerk. He sat and hid his nose in rabbit fur.
Now I looked at his face.
“Could it be,” I thought, “that this dumbstruck, squashed-up manikin knows how to say such things as ‘philistine’ and ‘liberty’? Really? Could it be? Yes, he knows. It’s unlikely, but true. Oh, you unbelievable scum!”
Trust, after this, the sorry physiognomies of these chameleons! Me, I have no more faith. Fool me once!
Translated from the Russian by Elina Alter.
Alter is a writer and translator in New York. Look for her translations of Chekhov sketches each day this week on the Daily.
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