A Shameless Rascal

( by Nikolay Leskov, 1877.
Translated by Michael Shotton )

( from G. Chernetsov’s painting, 1837 )

Having returned to Petersburg after the Crimean War, I turned up one day at the house of Stepan Aleksandrovich Khrulyov (General S.A.Khrulyov (1807-1870) was one of the heroes of the Crimean War, noted above all for commanding the valiant defenders of the famous Malakhov Kurgan in Sevastopol) and encountered there a large and motley company: there were military men from all the services, amongst them a few of our lads from the Black Sea Fleet, who’d got to know Stepan Aleksandrovich in the trenches at Sebastopol. I needn’t tell you how delighted I was to meet these mates of mine, and we sailors settled ourselves down at a separate table: we were having a yearn and taking a glass of sherry or two… I can remember what started the conversation off – it was a book that had just come out calles The Dirty Side of the Crimean War. It caused quite a sensation at the time; we had all read every last word of it and were pretty hot under the collar as a result. Well, you can understand it. The book dealt with the abuses that lay at the root of most of our recent suffering – suffering that was still very fresh in the memory of all those who had taken part in the defence of Sebastopol; it all touched us on a very raw nerve. Above all else the book exposed the thieving and embezzlement by people in the commissariat and victualling service, thanks to which all of us had time and again tasted the pleasures of hunger and thirst, cold and damp.

Now as you can imagine, the exposure in print of all these dirty going-on sparked off individual memories in every one of us, and brought to the boil a good deal of simmering resentment: so, naturally enough, we started blowing off steam. It was a very companionable activity: there we sat, vying to think up ever ruder names for those good friends of ours, the commissaries. At this point, the chap sitting alongside me, another of our Black Sea lads, Captain Yevgraf Ivanovich, a graduate of the Nakhimov Naval Academy, an extraordinarily kindly fellow and a bit of a stutterer, grabs me by the knee under the table and goes suddenly all coy…

“What on earth can he want?” I think to myself.

“Excuse me, my dear chap,” I say, “but if you need something a bit private, call a waiter, will you? I’m a visitor here myself, and I don’t know where it is.”

But he just stammered something or other and started doing the same thing again. Now I’m the sort of silly fellow who gets all worked up for no reason at all; what’s more, I was already fairly steamed up by all these reminiscences, and on top of that I’m terribly ticklish, and there was this Yevgraf Ivanovich, as bold as brass, tickling my knee with his fingers, just like the soft lips of a nuzzling calf.

“Hey, Yevgraf Ivanovich, turn it in, will you?” I say. “What do you think you’re up to? I’m not a woman, you know, for you to play kneesy-kneesy with under the table. You can tell me your feelings out loud.”

At which poor old Yevgraf Ivanovich – what a priceless fellow! – gets even more flustered, and sayd in a whisper: “What a sh-sh-shameless fellow you are, Porfiry Nikitich.”

“I don’t know about me,” I say, “It’s you that looks more like the shameless one to me. The way you go on, anyone could suspect us of belonging to some pernicious sect or other.”

“How c-c-can you… I m-m-mean, really, one sh-sh-shouldn’t speak of c-c-commissaries and supply officers like that.”

“And why should you,” I ask, “why should you want to speak up for them?”

“I’m not s-s-speaking up for them,” whispers Yevgraf Ivanovich in an even more hushed voice, “but can’t you see who’s sitting two paces away behind your back?”

Thereupon I turned round and looked: at the table behind me sat this great lump of a man in the uniform jacket of the victualling service, the very image, as Gogol put it, of ‘a pig in a skull-cap’. There he sits, the swine, stacking huge amounts of money on the cards, in the sort of nonchalant manner that was guaranteed to outrage downtrodden beggards like me: it was as if he were saying: “Win or lose, I don’t care. I do this strictly for the fun of it, because my granary is full. Eat, drink and be merry, that’s my motto!” In a word, it was enough to make any poor beggar’s gorge rise!

“Well, how do you like that?” I said. “A prize specimen, and no mistake! How didn’t I notice him before?” And, do you know, seeing the enemy at close range like that, I don’t know what devil got into me, and instead of keeping my mouth shut, I started off on the same tack, even louder than before, and, what’s more, laying it on as thick as I knew how.

“Brigands!” I say, “leeches, that’s what they are, these greedy-guts of commissaries! While the blood of us poor officers and soldiers was, as you might say, dripping into the Crimean dirt like beetroot kvass through a leaky bung, what were they doing? Robbing us, they were, lining their rascally pockets, building themselves houses and buying themselves country estates!”

Yevgraf Ivanovich nearly choked as he whispered:

“G-g-give it a rest!”

But I go on:

‘Why should I? Isn’t it the truth that we were perishing of hunger: that thanks to their good offices what we got for grub was mouldy salt beef and cabbage; that we bound our wounds with straw instead of lint, while they were swigging their sherry and dry madeira?”

I really went to town at their expense, I can tell you. The chaps I’d been talking to, seeing that I was getting up a good head of steam, let me get on with it, thugh now and again the ones who’d had a drop more to drink would laugh and start tapping their sherry glasses with their fingernails. As for dear old Yevgraf Ivanovich, poor timid chap, he was absolutely covered in confusion on my behalf: he picked up a handful of deuces from the table, spread them with both hands into a fan and hid his face behind them, whispering:

“Ooh, Porfiry Nikitich, ooh, the sh-sh-shameless fellow, what is he going on about? Have a bit of m-m-mercy…”

This coyness of his made me even more furious.

“That’s just the way it always is with us Russians,” I thought, “the man who’s right, the one with a clean conscience, sits and blushes, while the double-dyed rogue, just like Vaska, the cat who’s stolen the cream, stuffs his belly with what he’s pinched and doesn’t twitch a whisker.”

And with that I took a look behind me at the table where the commissary who had irritated me so much was sitting, and I could see that indeed he hadn’t twitched a whisker. It just wasn’t possible that he hadn’t heard all my pronouncements to the world at large about his esteemed fraternity: yet he was sitting quite unmoved, smoking a large fragrant cigar and playing a trump. And since everything about a man depends a good deal on the mood he’s in, it seemed to me that he played his trump, or, for that matter, all his cards, in a somehow similarly revolting manner. You know what I mean – it was as though he tossed them down without so much as a flick of the fingers, as if to say: “There, you scum, take that, and see if I care.” I hated him all the more because he had, you might say, scored a point off my by remaining so unruffled. There’s me, spitting my seams, hurling abuse, snapping at him like a mongrel at an elephant, and he doesn’t even bat an eyelid. So I come on even stronger.

“You’re having us on,” I thought to myself, “and may the wolves devour you! I’ll stir you into action, you see if I don’t. I, my lad, am a Russian and I shan’t stand on ceremony. Whether my host likes it or not, I’m going to hit you where it hurts.” And hit him I did. I let fly everything I knew about him personally, in light allegorical disguise.

“We decent Russian folk,” I said, “whom nobody would dare accuse of thieving, we, who were wounded and maimed in the war, still can’t get a job for ourselves anywhere; we haven’t even got enough to feed our wives. But these arch-swindlers, once they’ve made a name for themselves as first-rate locusts, they never look back; they’ve got a job in the service even in peacetime, their wives go around in silk and velvet, and their floozies are even better turned out…”

On I went, ranting and raving, till I finally gave up, exhausted… I was running out of words and my throat was getting sore, but still he didn’t turn a hair. The fact was, he was holding all the trumps: even Yevgraf Ivanovich noticed as much, and started chaffing me:

“W-W-Well,” he whispers, “well, old f-f-fellow, and where’s all your eff-ff-ffrontery got you, eh?”

“You keep your ‘old f-f-fellow’ to yourself,” I answered, “and sit quiet.”

But to be honest, you know, I really did feel crushed. What’s more, all I’d seen so far was the blossom; the berries were still to come.

Shortly before supper the card game broke up; the players started settling their accounts. Our victualler had won a fortune; he pulled from his pocket a monstrous great wallter stuffed with hundred-rouble notes and added his winnings to them – another twenty or so of the same. He then tucked the whole lot back in his pocket with the same unperturbed, but very perturbing, nonchalance.

Well, at this point everyone got to their feet and took a stroll to stretch their legs. Just then our host came up to our table and said:

“So, my good fellows, what have you been up to? Loafing about and scandal-mongering, it would appear.

“Could you hear us too?” I said.

“I should think I could,” he says. “Your worship was bawling as though he were on the deck of a ship.”

“Stepan Aleksandrovich,” I said, “I beg you, please forgive me.”

“What do I have to forgive you for? It’s God that’ll forgive you.”

“I lost my temper,” I said, “I just couldn’t restrain myself.”

“And why should you have?”

“When I saw him,” I said, “I just boiled up inside, and even though I felt that I was putting you in an awkward position…”

“What on earth did you do that affects me?”

“Well he is your guest…”

“Oh that… Listen, old man, that’s nothing to me. All sorts of types turn up here. I’ve set up the ark, and all sorts of creatures come in two by two: the riff-raff come in dozens. This Anempodist Petrovich, by the way, is a very clever type; he won’t take umbrage at trifles like that.”

“He won’t?” I asked in surprise.

“Of course he won’t.”

“You mean he’s so thick-skinned?”

“Thick-skinned? Good heavens, no. On the contraty, he’s a sensitive man; but he’s canny, and takes a broad view of things. What’s more, he’s no raw apprentice in these matters; he’s taken a beating or two in his time, I don’t doubt. As for your rude names, people call his type rude names wherever they go.”

“And yet they still do go everywhere – to people’s houses?”

“Why shouldn’t they, if people let them in, or even invite them?”

Host or no host, that angered me.

“That’s just the problem with us, your honour,” I say. “We curse worthless types like that, then welcome them into our homes.”…

“There’s no other way it can be…. You’ve got to look at all this in a sensible way, from the point of view of personal advantage, and not like you sailors do, with your silly idealism. That’s why you’re such a useless lot.”

“What do you mean by that?” I said.

“Exactly what I say: you’re about as useful as a fifth leg on a donkey. Let’s imagine, for instance, that you’re looking for a job and I put in a good word for you along the following lines: ‘This chap is an officer in the Black Sea Fleet, as honest as the day is long, never puts his hand in the till or lets anyone else do the same and will go to the wall in the cause of justice.’ Well, I won’t get you the job, and I won’t do myself any good either. They’ll call me a fool for taking your part. They’ll say: ‘He’s a fine enough fellow, that friend of yours, but we don’t need a man like that, we need someone who’s not quite do perfect.’ So the fact is, I shan’t go and put in a word for you, whereas for him, for that fine gentleman over there (our host nodded in the direction of the commissary, who was standing at the buffet table” I’d put my oar in anywhere, because in our sort of society types like that are always in demand, and guarantee success to whoever takes them on.”

“Are you trying to tell me,” I said, “that that’s how it has to be?”

“Yes, of course. You see, he’s a very smart, adaptable sort of fellow; anyone can see how best to make use of him; whereas you – what good are you to anyone? With your fine sense of truth and justice, you’ll just squabble with everybody. The only thing to do with your sort is pick them up by the tail and toss them back on a ship, because here on shore you’ll just sit and gather dust.”…

( ‘Brig “Mercury” Attacked by Two Turkish Ships’
by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1892 )



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