The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vol. XIV: RussianScandinavianMiscellaneous
By Fyodor Dostoyevsky (18211881)
ON the 13th of this present month of January, 1865, at half past twelve in the day, Elyona Ivanovna, the spouse of my learned friend, fellow in office, and distant connection, Ivan Matvyeich, desired to visit the crocodile which is now to be seen for a certain price in the Passage, the great St. Petersburg arcade. Ivan Matvyeich, having already in his pocket his ticket for a foreign tour (it was more from curiosity than for his health that he was going abroad), and therefore considering himself as off duty and perfectly free for the whole morning, not only did not oppose his wifes uncontrollable desire, but even became fired with enthusiasm himself. A splendid idea, he said; well go and see the crocodile. Before starting for Europe it is well to make oneself acquainted with its native population. And with these words he took his wife upon his arm, and instantly started off with her for the Passage. I, as usual, went with them, in my character as family friend. I had never seen Ivan Matvyeich in a more cheerful mood than on that memorable morning. How true it is that we know not our fate beforehand!
The moment we entered the Passage he went into raptures over the magnificence of the building; and when we reached the shop in which the newly arrived monster was on view, he even wished to pay the crocodile-keeper the twenty-five copecks for my admission out of his own pocketa thing which had never happened with him before. On entering, we found ourselves in a small room, in which, besides the crocodile, were several cockatoos, and a collection of monkeys in a separate cage in the background. To the left hand of the door, by the wall, stood a large tin tank, something like a bath, covered with a strong iron-wire netting, and at the bottom of it were two or three inches of water. In this shallow puddle lay an enormous crocodile, as still as a log, perfectly motionless, and appearing to have lost all his powers in our damp and, for foreigners, inhospitable climate. At first sight the monster aroused no particular interest in any of us.
I think your crocodile is dead, said Elyona Ivanovna, piqued by the ungraciousness of the German, and turning to him with a fascinating smile, intended to vanquish this boora peculiarly feminine maneuver.
Come, Semyon Semyonich, continued Elyona Ivanovna, addressing herself to me, lets go and look at the monkeys. I am awfully fond of monkeys; some of them are such little loves; but the crocodile is horrible.
Oh, dont be afraid, my dear, Ivan Matvyeich called after us, showing off his bravery before his wife. This sleepy denizen of the realm of the Pharaohs will do us no harm; and he remained beside the tank. He even took off one glove, and began to tickle the crocodiles nose with it, in the hope, as he afterward confessed, of making it snore again. The keeper, out of politeness to a lady, followed Elyona Ivanovna to the monkeys cage.
Thus all was well, and there was no sign of coming misfortune. Elyona Ivanovna was so much fascinated with the monkeys that she appeared completely absorbed in them. She uttered screams of delight, talked incessantly to me, as if wishing to ignore the keeper altogether, and went into fits of laughing over resemblances which she found in the monkeys to her most intimate friends and acquaintances. I, too, was greatly amused, for there could be no doubt as to the likeness. The German did not know whether to laugh or not, and therefore ended by scowling. At this moment an appalling, I may even say supernatural, shriek suddenly shook the room. Not knowing what to think, I stood for a moment rooted to the spot; then, hearing Elyona Ivanovna shrieking, too, I turned hastily round; and what did I see! I sawoh, heavens!I saw the unhappy Ivan Matvyeich in the fearful jaws of the crocodile, seized across the middle, lifted horizontally in the air, and kicking despairingly. Thena momentand he was gone!
I cannot even attempt to describe the agitation of Elyona Ivanovna. After her first cry she stood for some time as petrified, and stared at the scene before her, as if indifferently, though her eyes were starting out of her head; then she suddenly burst into a piercing shriek. I caught her by the hands. At this moment the keeper, who until now had also stood petrified with horror, clasped his hands, and raising his eyes to heaven, cried aloud:
Then began an awful tumult. Elyona Ivanovna, beside herself, reiterated one single phrase, Cut it! Cut it! and rushed from the keeper to the Mutter, and back to the keeper, imploring them (evidently in a fit of frenzy) to cut something or some one for some reason. Neither the keeper nor Mutter took any notice of either of us; they were hanging over the tank, and shrieking like stuck pigs.
How! You vill dat my crocodile shall be die? No, your man shall be die first, and denn my crocodile. Mein Vater show von crocodile, mein Grossvater show von crocodile, mein Sohn shall show von crocodile, and I shall show von crocodile. All ve shall show crocodile. I am ganz Europa famous, and you are not ganz Europa famous, and you do be me von fine pay shall!
For that matter, I put in calmly, in the hope of getting Elyona Ivanovna home without further ado, theres no use in cutting it open, for in all probability our dear Ivan Matvyeich is now soaring in the empyrean.
My dear, remarked at this moment the voice of Ivan Matvyeich, with startling suddenness, my advice, my dear, is to act through the bureau of police, for the German will not comprehend the truth without the assistance of the police.
These words, uttered with firmness and gravity, and expressing astonishing presence of mind, at first so much amazed us that we could not believe our ears. Of course, however, we instantly ran to the crocodiles tank and listened to the speech of the unfortunate captive with a mixture of reverence and distrust. His voice sounded muffled, thin, and even squeaky, as though coming from a long distance.
Alive and well, answered Ivan Matvyeich; and, thanks to the Almighty, swallowed whole without injury. I am only disturbed by doubt as to how the superior authorities will regard this episode; for, after having taken a ticket to go abroad, to go into a crocodile instead is hardly sensible.
I also am of that opinion, said Ivan Matvyeich; but without economic compensation it is hard, in our age of financial crisis, to rip open the belly of a crocodile, and, nevertheless, we are confronted with the inevitable question: What will the owner take for his crocodile? With this there is also another question: Who is to pay? For you know I have not the means.
Dont do that, my dear, hastily interrupted Ivan Matvyeich, who had long been jealous of Andrey Osipichs admiration of his wife, and knew that she was glad of a chance to weep before a man of refinement, as tears became her very well. And you, my friend, he continued, addressing me, you had better go to Timofei Semyonich. And now take away Elyona Ivanovna. Be calm, my love, he added to her. I am tired of all this noise and feminine quarreling, and wish to take a little nap. It is warm and soft here, though I have not yet had time to look about me in this unexpected refuge.
I am surrounded by impenetrable darkness, answered the poor captive; but I can feel, and, so to say, look about me with my hands. Good-by! Be calm, and do not deny yourself recreation. You, Semyon Semyonich, come back to me this evening, and, as you are absent-minded and may forget, tie a knot in your handkerchief.
He evidently knew all, much to my astonishment. However, I told him the whole story over again, with all details. I spoke with emotion, for at that moment I was fulfilling the duty of a true friend. He listened without any great surprise, but with evident suspiciousness.
Certainly. But during the whole term of his service Ivan Matvyeich has been leading up to this result. Hes too nimbleyes, and too conceited. Always progress and new-fangled ideasand thats where progress ends.
To the authorities? On no account! hastily exclaimed Timofei Semyonich. If you want my advice, I say the first thing is to hush up the matter, and act in the character of a private person. It is a suspicious case, an unheard-of case. The worst is that its unheard oftheres no precedent; indeed, it looks very bad. So that the first of all things is caution. Let him stop where he is a bit. He must have patience, patience!
Hm! he pronounced, holding his snuff-box in his hands. In my opinion it will be even a very good thing for him to stop there a bit, instead of going abroad. He can think at his leisure; of course it wouldnt do to choke, and he must take measures for the preservation of his health I mean, he must take care not to get a cough or anything. As for the German, my personal opinion is that he is rightmore so than the other side, indeed; because, you see, Ivan Matvyeich got into his crocodile without leave, and not he into Ivan Matvyeichs crocodile; indeed, so far as I remember, Ivan Matvyeich had no crocodile of his own. Very well, then, a crocodile constitutes private property, therefore without remuneration it cannot be cut open, as I take it.
Ivan Matvyeich needed? Ha-ha-ha! Besides, he is supposed to be on furlough; therefore we can ignore the whole matter and suppose him to be looking at European countries. It will be another case if he doesnt turn up at the end of his furlough; then, of course, we must make inquiries.
Its his own fault. Who asked him to poke his nose in there? I suppose next therell have to be a nurse-maid hired for him at government expense, and thats not allowed in the regulations, you know. But the main point is that the crocodile is property; therefore what is called the economic principle comes into play. And the economic principle is before everything. Now, the day before yesterday, at Luka Andreichs evening, Ignatyi Prokofich was talking about that. Hes a capitalist, a business man, and he put it all so plainly, you know. What we want, he said, is industry; we have too little industry. It must be created. We must create capital; that is, we must create a middle class; we must create what is called a bourgeoisie. And as we have no capital, we must import it from abroad. As you see, we are making efforts to attract foreign capital into the country, and now judge for yourself: the capital of the crocodile-keeper (a foreigner attracted here) has barely had time to become doubled by means of Ivan Matvyeich, and we, instead of protecting the foreign possessor of property, are aiming, on the contrary, to rip open the belly of the fundamental capital itself! Now, really, is that consistent? In my opinion, Ivan Matvyeich, as a true son of the Fatherland, should even be glad and proud that, by the addition of himself, he has doubled, and maybe trebled, the value of the foreign crocodile. That, sir, is an essential feature in the attracting of capital. If one succeeds, perhaps another will come with a crocodile, and a third will bring two or three at once, and capital will collect round them. And so you get your bourgeoisie. People must be encouraged, my good sir.
Cant we manage it this way? said I. If he is fated to stay in the entrails of the monster, and if, by the will of Providence, he remains alive, cant he send in a petition that he shall be regarded as serving during his sojourn there?
Why, into the entrailsthe crocodiles entrailsso to say, to collect information, to study facts on the spot. Of course it is a new idea, but then it is progressive, and at the same time it shows an interest in education.
To despatch an official, he remarked at last, into a crocodiles entrails on a special commission, is, according to my personal opinion, absurd. It is not provided for by the regulations. And then, what investigation can there be to make there?
Well, you know, natural philosophyI mean the study of nature on the spot, in the living organism. Natural science is all the rage now, and botany and all that. He could live there and give informationwell, for instance, about the digestionor even the general habitsfor the sake of obtaining facts.
This would belong to the department of statistics. Well, Im not strong on that point, and then Im not a philosopher. You say facts. As it is, were crowded with facts, and dont know what to do with them all. And then, these statistics are dangerous things.
Very dangerous. And, moreover, you must admit that he will have to communicate his facts while lying down at his ease. How can a man be on government service while hes lying down? That, again, is an innovation, and a dangerous one; and for that, too, there is no precedent. Now, if there were even any sort of precedent, then, in my opinion, it might be possible to arrange a commission.
Hmyes. He meditated again. There is some truth in your argument, and it might even serve as a basis for the further development of the case. But again, on the other hand, if, with the introduction of live crocodiles, government servants begin to disappear, and then, in consideration of the fact that it is soft and warm inside there, they want to be on commissions in order to live there, and then spend their time lying down, you must acknowledge itll be a bad example. Yes, every one will be trying to get paid for doing nothing. Well, good-by. Are you coming?
When I reached the passage it was about nine oclock, and I had to enter the crocodile-room by the back door, for the German had shut up his place earlier than usual. He was walking about at his ease in a greasy old coat, and was evidently three times more self-satisfied even than in the morning. It was plain that he was troubled with no fears, and that bery mush Publikum had come. Mutter came out, too, evidently for the purpose of keeping a watch upon me. She and her son often whispered together. Although the premises were shut up, the German took twenty-five copecks as entrance-fee from me. That seems to me an excess of accuracy!
Pretending not to hear the question, I began hastily and with sympathy to put questions in my turn. I asked him how he was, how he got on in the crocodile, and what the inside of a crocodile was like. But he interrupted me irritably.
Now, for the first time, I have leisure to think out how to improve the lot of all humanity. Out of the crocodile shall come forth light and truth. I shall invent a new theory, all my own, of new economic relationsa theory of which I can be proud. Up till now my time has been occupied with the government service and with worldly, frivolous amusements. I shall overthrow everything and become a new Fourier. But to the point: where is my wife?
I build great hopes upon her, he said. From next week she must begin to throw open her drawing-room every evening. I feel sure that the keeper will sometimes bring me, together with the crocodile, into my wifes brilliant salon. I will stand, in my tank, in the splendid reception-room and shower around me witty sayings, which I will think out beforehand, in the mornings. I will confide my projects to statesmen; with poets I will speak of verse; with the ladies I will be amusing and fascinating, though strictly moral, and I shall have the advantage of being quite innocuous to their husbands. To the rest of society I will serve as an example of submission to fate and to the will of Providence.
I confess that, though all this was something in Ivan Matvyeichs usual style, it came into my head that he was feverish and light-headed. This was the ordinary, every-day Ivan Matvyeich twenty times magnified.
My friend, I asked him, do you hope for a long life? Tell me about yourself: are you well? How do you eat, sleep, and breathe? I am your friend, and indeed you must acknowledge that the case is altogether supernatural, therefore my curiosity is altogether natural.
Idle curiosity, and nothing more, he answered sententiously. But you shall be satisfied. You ask, How am I domiciled in the entrails of the monster? In the first place, the crocodile, to my great surprise, turns out to be completely hollow. Its interior consists of what appears to be an enormous empty sac, made of gutta-percha. If it were not so, think yourself, how could I find room in it?
Quite, severely and dogmatically affirmed Ivan Matvyeich. In all probability it is so constructed in accordance with the laws of Nature herself. The crocodile has only jaws, furnished with sharp teeth, and, in addition to the jaws, a rather long tail; and in reality that is all. In the middle, between these two extremities, is an empty space, enclosed in something which resembles india-rubber, and which, in all probability, is india-rubber.
There is nothing, absolutely no-th-thing of the kind, and probably there never was anything of the kind. All those things are the idle fancies of frivolous travelers. Just as you swell out an air-cushion with air, so I now swell out the crocodile with my person. It is elastic to an incredible degree. For that matter, this hollow formation of the crocodile is fully in accordance with natural science. For supposing, for instance, you were commissioned to construct a new crocodile, the question would naturally present itself to you, What is the fundamental characteristic of the crocodile? The answer is plain, To swallow people. How should this aimthe swallowing of peoplebe attained in the construction of the crocodile? The answer is still plainer, Make him hollow. The science of physics has long proved that Nature abhors a vacuum. According to this law, the interior of the crocodile must necessarily be empty, in order that the crocodile may abhor a vacuum and may therefore swallow everything that comes to hand, so as to fill itself up. And this is the only reasonable cause that all crocodiles eat men. Now, the construction of man is different: for instance, the emptier a human head, the less desire it feels to fill itself up; and this is the only exception to the general rule. All this has now become as clear as day to me; all this I have comprehended out of my own intellect and experience, being, as it were, in the entrails of Nature, in Natures retort, listening to the beating of her pulse. Even etymology agrees with my theory, for the very name of the crocodile implies devouring greed. Crocodile, coccodrillo, is an Italian worda word contemporary, it may be, with the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, and evidently derived from the French root, croquer, which means, to eat, to devour, or in any way to use any object for food. All this I intend to explain in my first lecture to the audience which will assemble in Elyona Ivanovnas salon, when I am carried there in my tank.
What silly things you think about, you frivolous rattle-pate! I tell you of great ideas, and you Let me tell you, then, that I am sufficiently nourished with the great ideas that illumine the night which surrounds me. For the rest, the good-natured keeper of the monster has talked the matter over with his kind-hearted mother, and they have decided together that every morning they will introduce into the jaws of the crocodile a curved metallic tube, something like a shepherds pipe, through which I am to suck coffee or broth with white bread soaked in it. The tube has already been ordered from a neighboring shop, but I consider that this is superfluous luxury. I hope to live at least a thousand years, if it be true that crocodiles live so long. By the bye, you had better look that up to-morrow in some book on natural history and let me know, for I may have made a mistake and confused the crocodile with some other fossil. One consideration alone somewhat disturbs me. As I am dressed in cloth and have boots on my feet, the crocodile is, of course, unable to digest me. Moreover, I am alive, and resist the digesting of myself with all my force of will; for, naturally, I do not wish to turn into what all food turns into, as that would be too humiliating. But I fear one thing: in the course of a thousand years the cloth of my coat, which, unfortunately, is of Russian manufacture, may decay, and I, remaining without clothes, may then, notwithstanding all my indignation, begin to be digested; and although by day I shall not permit, shall not under any circumstances allow this, by night, in sleep, when a man is deprived of his free-will, I may be overtaken by the most humiliating doom of a mere potato, pancake, or slice of veal. The thought of this drives me to frenzy. If only on this ground, the revenue law must be changed in order to encourage the importation of English cloth, which is stronger, and therefore will resist Nature longer in cases of persons tumbling into crocodiles. I shall take the earliest opportunity of communicating this idea to some statesman, and also to the political critics of our St. Petersburg daily papers. They can cry it up. I hope that this will not be the only idea they will take from me. I foresee that every morning a whole assembly of them, armed with editorial twenty-five-copeck pieces, will crowd around me, to catch my thoughts upon the telegrams of the day before. In short, the future appears to me in quite a rose-colored light.
High fever! High fever! I whispered to myself. But, my friend, what about liberty? I asked, wishing to hear all he had to say upon that point. You see, you are, as it were, in a dungeon, whereas man should enjoy freedom.
Silence! Listen! he screamed out in his rage at being interrupted. My spirit has never soared so high as now. In my narrow retreat I have but one fear: the literary criticism of the big magazines, and the gibes of our satirical papers. I fear that frivolous visitors, fools, envious persons, and nihilists generally, may hold me up to ridicule. But I will take measures. I await with impatience to-morrows expression of public opinion, and, above all, the criticisms in the newspapers. Be sure and tell me about the papers to-morrow. But enough; you are probably sleepy. Go home, and dont think of what I said about criticism. I am not afraid of criticism, for it is in a critical position itself. It is sufficient to be wise and virtuous, and you are certain to be raised upon a pedestal. If you do not become Socrates, you will become Diogenes, or perhaps both at once, and that is my future theory as regards humanity.
At the department I, of course, made no sign that I was devoured with such cares and responsibilities. I soon observed, though, that several of the most progressive daily papers were on that morning passing unusually quickly from hand to hand among my fellow officials, who read them with exceedingly grave faces. The first which fell into my hands was the Listok, a paper without any special tendency, but on the whole very humanitarianfor which it was generally despised in our set, although much read. It was with a certain surprise that I read the following:
Yesterday our great capital was filled with extraordinary rumors. A certain N., a well-known gormand of the highest spheres of society, wearied, no doubt, of the cuisine of our first-class restaurants, entered the building of the Passage at that part where an immense crocodile, just brought to the capital, was on view, and demanded that the latter should be prepared for his dinner. After bargaining with the keeper, he instantly set to work to devour him (that is, not the keeper, an exceedingly peaceable German with a taste for accuracy, but the crocodile) alive, cutting off juicy morsels with a penknife and gulping them down with extraordinary speed. Gradually the whole of the crocodile disappeared into his fat paunch, and he even set to work upon the ichneumon, the constant companion of the crocodile, probably supposing that would be equally delicious. We have no objection to this new product, already long familiar to foreign gastronomists. We have even prophesied its introduction. In Egypt the English lords and travelers go out in regular parties to catch the crocodile, and eat the monsters back in the form of steak, with mustard, onions, and potatoes. The French followers of de Lesseps prefer the feet, baked in hot ashes, though, indeed, they do this merely to spite the English, who make fun of them. Here both dishes will probably be appreciated. We, for our part, gladly welcome this new branch of industry, of which our great and active fatherland is so much in want. After the disappearance of this first crocodile into the interior of a St. Petersburg gormand, it is probable that, before a year passes, they will be imported by hundreds. And why should crocodiles not be acclimatized here in Russia? If the water of the Neva is too cold for these interesting foreigners, we have reservoirs within the capital and streams and lakes without. Why, for instance, should crocodiles not be reared at Pargolov or Pavlovsk, or in Moscow, in the Priessnensky or the Samotyok ponds? While providing a delicate and wholesome food for our refined gastronomists, they would also afford amusement to the ladies strolling past these ponds, and would serve for our children as a lesson in natural history. The skin of the crocodiles could be made into portfolios, traveling-trunks, cigarette-cases, and pocketbooks, and perhaps many a thousand rublesin the greasy notes for which our commercial classes have so strong a predilectionwould find their way into crocodile-skins. We hope to return often to this interesting subject.