The Sub-Section's decorator painted Anton Pavlovich Chekhov with a crooked nose and such a monstrous pince-nez that from a distance he seemed to be wearing racing goggles.
We put him on a big easel. A gingery-coloured pavilion, a small table with a carafe and a lamp.
I read an introductory article "On Chekhovian Humour". But perhaps because I hadn't eaten for three days or for some other reason, my thoughts were rather sombre. The theatre was packed. Now and then I lost the thread. I saw hundreds of blurred faces rising up to the dome. And not a ghost of a smile on any of them. Mind you, there was some hearty applause. But I realised to my dismay that this was because I had finished, and fled backstage in relief. That was two thousand in my pocket. Now let someone else sweat it out. Going into the smoking-room, I heard a Red Army man complain miserably: "To blazes with them and their humour! We come to the Caucasus and they won't leave us alone here either!"
He was quite right, that soldier from Tula. I hid away in my favourite place, a dark corner behind the props room. A roar came from the hall. Hurrah! They were laughing. Good for the actors! "Surgery" saved the day and the story about the civil servant who sneezed.
Success! Success! Sloyozkin rushed into my rat corner and hissed, rubbing his hands:
"Write the second programme!"
It was decided to hold a Pushkin Evening after the Evening of Chekhovian Humour.
Yuri and I planned the programme lovingly.
"That blockhead can't draw," Slyozkin fumed. "We'll ask Maria Ivanovna!"
I immediately feared the worst. In my opinion Maria Ivanovna draws about as well as I play the fiddle... I concluded this when she first appeared in the Sub-Section saying she had studied under the great N. himself. (She was immediately made Head of Fine Arts.) But since I know nothing about painting, I kept quiet.
Exactly half an hour before the beginning I went into the scenery room and stopped dead: there, staring at me from a gold frame, was Nozdryov. (15) He was perfect. Crafty, goggling eyes, even one side-board thinner than the other. The illusion was so complete, that I expected him to give a loud guffaw and say:
"What have cards got to do with it? I don't understand! You're making a mockery of me, I see!"
"Pardon me, but it is you who are making a mockery. Your Pushkin has the eyes of a scoundrel!" "Ah, so that's it!"
She threw down her brush. And called from the door: "I'll complain to the Sub-Section about you!"
And then what happened! As soon as the curtain went up and Nozdryov appeared before the darkened hall with his sly grin, the first ripple of laughter broke out. Oh, my God! The audience had decided that after Chekhov's humour they were going to get Pushkin's humour! I began to talk in a cold sweat of "the Aurora Borealis in the snow-bound wastes of Russian belles-lettres". There were sniggers in the audience at the side-whiskers. Nozdryov skulked behind me, grunting:
"If I were your boss, I'd string you up on the nearest tree!"
So I couldn't stop myself and let out a snigger too. The success was overwhelming, phenomenal. Neither before nor after have I ever been the recipient of such thunderous applause. And then it began to crescendo. When Salieri poisoned Mozart in the dramatised excerpt the audience expressed its delight with approving guffaws and thunderous cries of "Encore!"
Scampering rat-like out of the theatre I saw from the corner of my eye the poetry brawler scurry into the editorial office with his notebook...
I knew as much! On the very front page, fourth column:
Writers from the capital who are skulking in the local Arts Sub-Section have made a new objective attempt to corrupt the, public by stuffing their idol Pushkin down its throat.
They even took the liberty of portraying this idol as a landlord and serfowner (which he was) with side-whiskers... And so on.
Dear God. Please let that brawler die! Everyone's catching typhus these days. Why can't he get it too? That cretin will get me arrested!
And that infernal old hag from Fine Arts!
Ruined. Everything's ruined. They've banned the evenings...
...Ghastly autumn. Rain lashing down. Can't think what we're going to eat. What on earth are we going to eat?