On the thirteenth of January of this present year, 1865, at half-past twelve in the day, Elena Ivanovna, the wife of my cultured friend Ivan Matveitch, who is a colleague in the same department, and may be said to be a distant relation of mine, too, expressed the desire to see the crocodile now on view at a fixed charge in the Arcade. As Ivan Matveitch had already in his pocket his ticket for a tour abroad (not so much for the sake of his health as for the improvement of his mind), and was consequently free from his official duties and had nothing whatever to do that morning, he offered no objection to his wife’s irresistible fancy, but was positively aflame with curiosity himself.
“A capital idea!” he said, with the utmost satisfaction. “We’ll have a look at the crocodile! On the eve of visiting Europe it is as well to acquaint ourselves on the spot with its indigenous inhabitants.” And with these words, taking his wife’s arm, he set off with her at once for the Arcade. I joined them, as I usually do, being an intimate friend of the family. I have never seen Ivan Matveitch in a more agreeable frame of mind than he was on that memorable morning-how true it is that we know not beforehand the fate that awaits us! On entering the Arcade he was at once full of admiration for the splendours of the building and, when we reached the shop in which the monster lately arrived in Petersburg was being exhibited, he volunteered to pay the quarter-rouble for me to the crocodile owner–a thing which had never happened before. Walking into a little room, we observed that besides the crocodile there were in it parrots of the species known as cockatoo, and also a group of monkeys in a special case in a recess. Near the entrance, along the left wall stood a big tin tank that looked like a bath covered with a thin iron grating, filled with water to the depth of two inches. In this shallow pool was kept a huge crocodile, which lay like a log absolutely motionless and apparently deprived of all its faculties by our damp climate, so inhospitable to foreign visitors. This monster at first aroused no special interest in any one of us.
“So this is the crocodile!” said Elena Ivanovna, with a pathetic cadence of regret. “Why, I thought it was … something different.”
Most probably she thought it was made of diamonds. The owner of the crocodile, a German, came out and looked at us with an air of extraordinary pride.
“He has a right to be,” Ivan Matveitch whispered to me, “he knows he is the only man in Russia exhibiting a crocodile”.
This quite nonsensical observation I ascribe also to the extremely good-humoured mood which had overtaken Ivan Matveitch, who was on other occasions of rather envious disposition.
“I fancy your crocodile is not alive,” said Elena Ivanovna, piqued by the irresponsive stolidity of the proprietor, and addressing him with a charming smile in order to soften his churlishness–a manoeuvre so typically feminine.
“Oh, no, madam,” the latter replied in broken Russian; and instantly moving the grating half off the tank, he poked the monster’s head with a stick.
Then the treacherous monster, to show that it was alive, faintly stirred its paws and tail, raised its snout and emitted something like a prolonged snuffle.
“Come, don’t be cross, Karlchen,” said the German caressingly, gratified in his vanity.
“How horrid that crocodile is! I am really frightened,” Elena Ivanovna twittered, still more coquettishly. “I know I shall dream of him now.”
“But he won’t bite you if you do dream of him,” the German retorted gallantly, and was the first to laugh at his own jest, but none of us responded.
“Come, Semyon Semyonitch,” said Elena Ivanovna, addressing me exclusively, “let us go and look at the monkeys. I am awfully fond of monkeys; they are such darlings . . . and the crocodile is horrid.”
“Oh, don’t be afraid, my dear!” Ivan Matveitch called after us, gallantly displaying his manly courage to his wife. “This drowsy denizen of the realms of the Pharaohs will do us no harm.” And he remained by the tank. What is more, he took his glove and began tickling the crocodile’s nose with it, wishing, as he said afterwards, to induce him to snort. The proprietor showed his politeness to a lady by following Elena Ivanovna to the case of monkeys.
So everything was going well, and nothing could have been foreseen. Elena Ivanovna was quite skittish in her raptures over the monkeys, and seemed completely taken up with them. With shrieks of delight she was continually turning to me, as though determined not to notice the proprietor, and kept gushing with laughter at the resemblance she detected between these monkeys and her intimate friends and acquaintances. I, too, was amused, for the resemblance was unmistakable. The German did not know whether to laugh or not, and so at last was reduced to frowning. And it was at that moment that a terrible, I may say unnatural, scream set the room vibrating. Not knowing what to think, for the first moment I stood still, numb with horror, but, noticing that Elena Ivanovna was screaming too, I quickly turned round–and what did I behold! I saw–oh, heavens!–I saw the luckless Ivan Matveitch in the terrible jaws of the crocodile, held by them round the waist, lifted horizontally in the air and desperately kicking. Then–one moment, and no trace remained of him. But I must describe it in detail, for I stood all the while motionless, and had time to watch the whole process taking place before me with an attention and interest such as I never remember to have felt before. “What,” I thought at that critical moment, “what if all that had happened to me instead of to Ivan Matveitch–how unpleasant it would have been for me!”
But to return to my story. The crocodile began by turning the unhappy Ivan Matveitch in his terrible jaws so that he could swallow his legs first; then bringing up Ivan Matveitch, who kept trying to jump out and clutching at the sides of the tank, sucked him down again as far as his waist. Then bringing him up again, gulped him down, and so again and again. In this way Ivan Matveitch was visibly disappearing before our eyes. At last, with a final gulp, the crocodile swallowed my cultured friend entirely, this time leaving no trace of him. From the outside of the crocodile we could see the protuberances of Ivan Matveitch’s figure as he passed down the inside of the monster. I was on the point of screaming again when destiny played another treacherous trick upon us. The crocodile made a tremendous effort, probably oppressed by the magnitude of the object he had swallowed, once more opened his terrible jaws, and with a final hiccup he suddenly let the head of Ivan Matveitch pop out for a second, with an expression of despair on his face. In that brief instant the spectacles dropped off his nose to the bottom of the tank. It seemed as though that despairing countenance had only popped out to cast one last look on the objects around it, to take its last farewell of all earthly pleasures. But it had not time to carry out its intention; the crocodile made another effort, gave a gulp and instantly it vanished again–this time for ever. This appearance and disappearance of a still living human head was so horrible, but all the same–either from its rapidity and unexpectedness or from the dropping of the spectacles–there was something so comic about it that I suddenly quite unexpectedly exploded with laughter. But pulling myself together and realising that to laugh at such a moment was not the thing for an old family friend, I turned at once to Elena Ivanovna and said with a sympathetic air:
“Now it’s all over with our friend Ivan Matveitch!”
I cannot even attempt to describe how violent was the agitation of Elena Ivanovna during the whole process. After the first scream she seemed rooted to the spot, and stared at the catastrophe with apparent indifference, though her eyes looked as though they were starting out of her head; then she suddenly went off into a heart-rending wail, but I seized her hands. At this instant the proprietor, too, who had at first been also petrified by horror, suddenly elapsed his hands and cried, gazing upwards:
“Oh, my crocodile! Oh, mein allerliebster Karlchen! Mutter, Mutter, Mutter!”
A door at the rear of the room opened at this cry, and the Mutter, a rosy-cheeked, elderly but dishevelled woman in a cap made her appearance, and rushed with a shriek to her German.
A perfect Bedlam followed. Elena Ivanovna kept shrieking out the same phrase, as though in a frenzy, “Flay him! flay him!” apparently entreating them–probably in a moment of oblivion–to flay somebody for something. The proprietor and Mutter took no notice whatever of either of us; they were both bellowing like calves over the crocodile.
“He did for himself! He will burst himself at once, for he did swallow a ganz official!” cried the proprietor.
“Unser Karlchen, unser allerliebster Karlchen wird sterben,” howled his wife.
“We are bereaved and without bread!” chimed in the proprietor.
“Flay him! flay him! flay him!” clamoured Elena Ivanovna, clutching at the German’s coat.
“He did tease the crocodile. For what did your man tease the crocodile?” cried the German, pulling away from her. “You will, if Karlchen wird burst, therefore pay, das war mein Sohn, das war mein einziger Sohn.”
I must own I was intensely indignant at the sight of such egoism in the German and the cold-heartedness of his dishevelled Mutter; at the same time Elena Ivanovna’s reiterated shriek of “Flay him! flay him!” troubled me even more and absorbed at last my whole attention, positively alarming me. I may as well say straight of that I entirely misunderstood this strange exclamation: it seemed to me that Elena Ivanovna had for the moment taken leave of her senses, but nevertheless wishing to avenge the loss of her beloved Ivan Matveitch, was demanding by way of compensation that the crocodile should be severely thrashed, while she was meaning something quite different. Looking round at the door, not without embarrassment, I began to entreat Elena Ivanovna to calm herself, and above all not to use the shocking word ‘flay’. For such a reactionary desire here, in the midst of the Arcade and of the most cultured society, not two paces from the hall where at this very minute Mr. Lavrov was perhaps delivering a public lecture, was not only impossible but unthinkable, and might at any moment bring upon us the hisses of culture and the caricatures of Mr. Stepanov. To my horror I was immediately proved to be correct in my alarmed suspicions: the curtain that divided the crocodile room from the little entry where the quarter-roubles were taken suddenly parted, and in the opening there appeared a figure with moustaches and beard, carrying a cap, with the upper part of its body bent a long way forward, though the feet were scrupulously held beyond the threshold of the crocodile room in order to avoid the necessity of paying the entrance money.
“Such a reactionary desire, madam,” said the stranger, trying to avoid falling over in our direction and to remain standing outside the room, “does no credit to your development, and is conditioned by lack of phosphorus in your brain. You will be promptly held up to shame in the Chronicle of Progress and in our satirical prints…”
But he could not complete his remarks; the proprietor coming to himself, and seeing with horror that a man was talking in the crocodile room without having paid entrance money, rushed furiously at the progressive stranger and turned him out with a punch from each fist. For a moment both vanished from our sight behind a curtain, and only then I grasped that the whole uproar was about nothing. Elena Ivanovna turned out quite innocent; she had, as I have mentioned already, no idea whatever of subjecting the crocodile to a degrading corporal punishment, and had simply expressed the desire that he should be opened and her husband released from his interior.
“What! You wish that my crocodile be perished!” the proprietor yelled, running in again. “No! let your husband be perished first, before my crocodile! . . . Mein Vater showed crocodile, mein Grossvater showed crocodile, mein Sohn will show crocodile, and I will show crocodile! All will show crocodile! I am known to ganz Europa, and you are not known to ganz Europa, and you must pay me a Strafe!”
“Ja, ja,” put in the vindictive German woman, “we shall not let you go, Strafe, since Karlchen is burst!”
“And, indeed, it’s useless to flay the creature,” I added calmly, anxious to get Elena Ivanovna away home as quickly as possible, “as our dear Ivan Matveitch is by now probably soaring somewhere in the empyrean.”
“My dear”–we suddenly heard, to our intense amazement, the voice of Ivan Matveitch–“my dear, my advice is to apply direct to the superintendent’s office, as without the assistance of the police the German will never be made to see reason.”
These words, uttered with firmness and aplomb, and expressing an exceptional presence of mind, for the first minute so astounded us that we could not believe our ears. But, of course, we ran at once to the crocodile’s tank, and with equal reverence and incredulity listened to the unhappy captive. His voice was muffled, thin and even squeaky, as though it came from a considerable distance. It reminded one of a jocose person who, covering his mouth with a pillow, shouts from an adjoining room, trying to mimic the sound of two peasants calling to one another in a deserted plain or across a wide ravine–a performance to which I once had the pleasure of listening in a friend’s house at Christmas.
“lvan Matveitch, my dear, and so you are alive!” faltered Elena Ivanovna.
“Alive and well,” answered Ivan Matveitch, “and, thanks to the Almighty, swallowed without any damage whatever. I am only uneasy as to the view my superiors may take of the incident; for after getting a permit to go abroad I’ve got into a crocodile, which seems anything but clever.”
“But, my dear, don’t trouble your head about being clever; first of all we must somehow excavate you from where you are,” Elena Ivanovna interrupted.
“Excavate!” cried the proprietor. “I will not let my crocodile be excavated. Now the Public will come many more, and I will funfzig kopecks ask and Karlchen will cease to burst.”
“Gott sei Dank!” put in his wife.
“They are right,” Ivan Matveitch observed tranquilly; “the principles of economics before everything.”
“My dear! I will fly at once to the authorities and lodge a complaint, for I feel that we cannot settle this mess by ourselves.”
“I think so too.” observed Ivan Matveitch; “but in our age of industrial crisis it is not easy to rip open the belly of a crocodile without economic compensation, and meanwhile the inevitable question presents itself: What will the German take for his crocodile? And with it another: How will it be paid? For, as you know, I have no means . . .”
“Perhaps out of your salary . . .” I observed timidly, but the proprietor interrupted me at once.
“I will not the crocodile sell; I will for three thousand the crocodile sell! I will for four thousand the crocodile sell! Now the Public will come very many. I will for five thousand the crocodile sell!”
In fact he gave himself insufferable airs. Covetousness and a revolting greed gleamed joyfully in his eyes.
“I am going!” I cried indignantly.
“And I! I too! I shall go to Andrey Osipitch himself. I will soften him with my tears,” whined Elena Ivanovna.
“Don’t do that, my dear,” Ivan Matveitch hastened to interpose. He had long been jealous of Andrey Osipitch on his wife’s account, and he knew she would enjoy going to weep before a gentleman of refinement, for tears suited her. “And I don’t advise you to do so either, my friend,” he added, addressing me. “It’s no good plunging headlong in that slap-dash way; there’s no knowing what it may lead to. You had much better go to-day to Timofey Semyonitch, as though to pay an ordinary visit; he is an old-fashioned and by no means brilliant man, but he is trustworthy, and what matters most of all, he is straightforward. Give him my greetings and describe the circumstances of the case. And since I owe him seven roubles over our last game of cards, take the opportunity to pay him the money; that will soften the stern old man. In any case his advice may serve as a guide for us. And meanwhile take Elena Ivanovna home…. Calm yourself, my dear,” he continued, addressing her. “I am weary of these outcries and feminine squabblings, and should like a nap. It’s soft and warm in here, though I have hardly had time to look round in this unexpected haven.”
“Look round! Why, is it light in there?” cried Elena Ivanovna in a tone of relief.
“I am surrounded by impenetrable night,” answered the poor captive, “but I can feel and, so to speak, have a look round with my hands…. Good-bye; set your mind at rest and don’t deny yourself recreation and diversion. Till to-morrow! And you, Semyon Semyonitch, come to me in the evening, and as you are absent-minded and may forget it, tie a knot in your handkerchief.”
I confess I was glad to get away, for I was overtired and somewhat bored. Hastening to offer my arm to the disconsolate Elena Ivanovna, whose charms were only enhanced by her agitation, I hurriedly led her out of the crocodile room.
“The charge will be another quarter-rouble in the evening,” the proprietor called after us.
“Oh, dear, how greedy they are!” said Elena Ivanovna, looking at herself in every mirror on the walls of the Arcade, and evidently aware that she was looking prettier than usual.
“The principles of economics,” I answered with some emotion, proud that passers-by should see the lady on my arm.
“The principles of economics,” she drawled in a touching little voice. “I did not in the least understand what Ivan Matveitch said about those horrid economics just now.”
“I will explain to you,” I answered, and began at once telling her of the beneficial effects of the introduction of foreign capital into our country, upon which I had read an article in the Petersburg News and the Voice that morning.
“How strange it is,” she interrupted, after listening for some time. “But do leave off, you horrid man. What nonsense you are talking…. Tell me, do I look purple?”
“You look perfect, and not purple!” I observed, seizing the opportunity to pay her a compliment.
“Naughty man!” she said complacently. “Poor Ivan Matveitch,” she added a minute later, putting her little head on one side coquettishly. “I am really sorry for him. Oh, dear!” she cried suddenly, “how is he going to have his dinner . . . and … and … what will he do … if he wants anything?”
“An unforeseen question,” I answered, perplexed in my turn. To tell the truth, it had not entered my head, so much more practical are women than we men in the solution of the problems of daily life!
“Poor dear! How could he have got into such a mess . . . nothing to amuse him, and in the dark How vexing it is that I have no photograph of him. And so now I am a sort of widow,” she added, with a seductive smile, evidently interested in her new position. “Hm! … I am sorry for him, though.”
It was, in short, the expression of the very natural and intelligible grief of a young and interesting wife for the loss of her husband. I took her home at last, soothed her, and after dining with her and drinking a cup of aromatic coffee, set off at six o’clock to Timofey Semyonitch, calculating that at that hour all married people of settled habits would be sitting or lying down at home.
Having written this first chapter in a style appropriate to the incident recorded, I intended to proceed in a language more natural though less elevated, and I beg to forewarn the reader of the fact.