A.P. Chekhov -
ONE fine morning the collegiate assessor, Kirill Ivanovitch
Babilonov, who had died of the two afflictions so widely spread
in our country, a bad wife and alcoholism, was being buried. As
the funeral procession set off from the church to the cemetery,
one of the deceased's colleagues, called Poplavsky, got into a
cab and galloped off to find a friend, one Grigory Petrovitch
Zapoikin, a man who though still young had acquired considerable
popularity. Zapoikin, as many of my readers are aware, possesses
a rare talent for impromptu speechifying at weddings, jubilees,
and funerals. He can speak whenever he likes: in his sleep, on
an empty stomach, dead drunk or in a high fever. His words flow
smoothly and evenly, like water out of a pipe, and in abundance;
there are far more moving words in his oratorical dictionary
than there are beetles in any restaurant. He always speaks
eloquently and at great length, so much so that on some
occasions, particularly at merchants' weddings, they have to
resort to assistance from the police to stop him.
"I have come for you, old man!" began Poplavsky, finding him at
home. "Put on your hat and coat this minute and come along. One
of our fellows is dead, we are just sending him off to the other
world, so you must do a bit of palavering by way of farewell to
him. . . . You are our only hope. If it had been one of the
smaller fry it would not have been worth troubling you, but you
see it's the secretary . . . a pillar of the office, in a sense.
It's awkward for such a whopper to be buried without a speech."
"Oh, the secretary!" yawned Zapoikin. "You mean the drunken
"Yes. There will be pancakes, a lunch . . . you'll get your
cab-fare. Come along, dear chap. You spout out some rigmarole
like a regular Cicero at the grave and what gratitude you will
Zapoikin readily agreed. He ruffled up his hair, cast a shade of
melancholy over his face, and went out into the street with
"I know your secretary," he said, as he got into the cab. "A
cunning rogue and a beast -- the kingdom of heaven be his --
such as you don't often come across."
"Come, Grisha, it is not the thing to abuse the dead."
"Of course not, aut mortuis nihil bene, but still he was a
The friends overtook the funeral procession and joined it. The
coffin was borne along slowly so that before they reached the
cemetery they were able three times to drop into a tavern and
imbibe a little to the health of the departed.
In the cemetery came the service by the graveside. The
mother-in-law, the wife, and the sister-in-law in obedience to
custom shed many tears. When the coffin was being lowered into
the grave the wife even shrieked "Let me go with him!" but did
not follow her husband into the grave probably recollecting her
pension. Waiting till everything was quiet again Zapoikin
stepped forward, turned his eyes on all present, and began:
"Can I believe my eyes and ears? Is it not a terrible dream this
grave, these tear-stained faces, these moans and lamentations?
Alas, it is not a dream and our eyes do not deceive us! He whom
we have only so lately seen, so full of courage, so youthfully
fresh and pure, who so lately before our eyes like an unwearying
bee bore his honey to the common hive of the welfare of the
state, he who . . . he is turned now to dust, to inanimate
mirage. Inexorable death has laid his bony hand upon him at the
time when, in spite of his bowed age, he was still full of the
bloom of strength and radiant hopes. An irremediable loss! Who
will fill his place for us? Good government servants we have
many, but Prokofy Osipitch was unique. To the depths of his soul
he was devoted to his honest duty; he did not spare his strength
but worked late at night, and was disinterested, impervious to
bribes. . . . How he despised those who to the detriment of the
public interest sought to corrupt him, who by the seductive
goods of this life strove to draw him to betray his duty! Yes,
before our eyes Prokofy Osipitch would divide his small salary
between his poorer colleagues, and you have just heard
yourselves the lamentations of the widows and orphans who lived
upon his alms. Devoted to good works and his official duty, he
gave up the joys of this life and even renounced the happiness
of domestic existence; as you are aware, to the end of his days
he was a bachelor. And who will replace him as a comrade? I can
see now the kindly, shaven face turned to us with a gentle
smile, I can hear now his soft friendly voice. Peace to thine
ashes, Prokofy Osipitch! Rest, honest, noble toiler!"
Zapoikin continued while his listeners began whispering
together. His speech pleased everyone and drew some tears, but a
good many things in it seemed strange. In the first place they
could not make out why the orator called the deceased Prokofy
Osipitch when his name was Kirill Ivanovitch. In the second,
everyone knew that the deceased had spent his whole life
quarelling with his lawful wife, and so consequently could not
be called a bachelor; in the third, he had a thick red beard and
had never been known to shave, and so no one could understand
why the orator spoke of his shaven face. The listeners were
perplexed; they glanced at each other and shrugged their
"Prokofy Osipitch," continued the orator, looking with an air of
inspiration into the grave, "your face was plain, even hideous,
you were morose and austere, but we all know that under that
outer husk there beat an honest, friendly heart!"
Soon the listeners began to observe something strange in the
orator himself. He gazed at one point, shifted about uneasily
and began to shrug his shoulders too. All at once he ceased
speaking, and gaping with astonishment, turned to Poplavsky.
"I say! he's alive," he said, staring with horror.
"Why, Prokofy Osipitch, there he stands, by that tombstone!"
"He never died! It's Kirill Ivanovitch who's dead."
"But you told me yourself your secretary was dead."
"Kirill Ivanovitch was our secretary. You've muddled it, you
queer fish. Prokofy Osipitch was our secretary before, that's
true, but two years ago he was transferred to the second
division as head clerk."
"How the devil is one to tell?"
"Why are you stopping? Go on, it's awkward."
Zapoikin turned to the grave, and with the same eloquence
continued his interrupted speech. Prokofy Osipitch, an old clerk
with a clean-shaven face, was in fact standing by a tombstone.
He looked at the orator and frowned angrily.
"Well, you have put your foot into it, haven't you!" laughed his
fellow-clerks as they returned from the funeral with Zapoikin.
"Burying a man alive!"
"It's unpleasant, young man," grumbled Prokofy Osipitch. "Your
speech may be all right for a dead man, but in reference to a
living one it is nothing but sarcasm! Upon my soul what have you
been saying? Disinterested, incorruptible, won't take bribes!
Such things can only be said of the living in sarcasm. And no
one asked you, sir, to expatiate on my face. Plain, hideous, so
be it, but why exhibit my countenance in that public way! It's
aut mortuis nihil bene: misquoted version of "De mortuis aut
nihil aut bene" (of the dead speak well or not at all)
bribes: bribery was extremely common in Chekhov's Russia,
particularly among the lower grade officials, who were paid