Chapter 6. The Gnu-Antelope
The green box with the four swindlers in it bunny-hopped down the smoky road.
The car was subject to the influence of the same natural forces that a swimmer feels when swimming in stormy weather. It might suddenly get knocked off course by an onrushing bump, sucked into a pothole, or thrown from side to side and choked with red sunset dust.
“Listen, student,” said Ostap to the new passenger, who had already recovered from his recent shock and was sitting without a care next to the commander. “How was it that you dared violate the Sukharev convention, that respected pact which has been ratified by the tribunal of the League of Nations?”
Panikovski pretended not to hear, and even turned away.
“All in all, you play dirty,” continued Ostap, “Just now we witnessed a disgusting scene. You were being chased by Arbatov residents from whom you had stolen a goose.”
“Pitiful, worthless people!” muttered Panikovski angrily.
“See!” said Ostap, “And obviously you consider yourself to be a great philanthropist doctor? A gentleman? Well, consider this: if you, as a true gentleman, ever got a notion to make a note on your cuffs, you’d have to do it in chalk.”
“How come?” said the new passenger in an irritated voice.
“Because yours are completely black. Don’t tell me that's not dirt.”
“You are a pitiful, worthless person!” said Panikovski quickly.
“You’re saying this to me, your savior?” Ostap asked mildly. “Adam Kazimirovich, stop the car for a moment. Thank you. Shura, my dear, please restore the status quo.”
Balaganov did not understand what ‘status quo’ meant. But he took his cue from the tone in which these words were pronounced. Smiling wickledy, he grabbed Panikovski under the arms, lifted him out of the car, and planted him on the road.
“Go back to Arbatov, student,” said Ostap aloofly. “The owners of that goose are waiting impatiently for your return. As for us, we have no need for rude people. We ourselves are rude people. Drive on.”
“I won't do it again!” begged Panikovski. “I’m high-strung!”
“Get on your knees,” said Ostap. Panikovski dropped to his knees as if his legs had been cut out from under him.
“Excellent!” said Ostap. “Your pose pleases me. You are conditionally accepted until the first time you break discipline. You will also take on the responsibility of being everyone’s servant.”
The ‘Gnu-Antelope’ accepted the reconciled boor back on board and rode on, rocking like a funeral cart.
Half an hour later, the car turned onto the wide Novozaitsevski road and without slowing down entered a village. A crowd had gathered near a log building with a knotty and crooked radio antenna growing from its roof. A beardless man stepped decisively forward out of the crowd. He held a sheet of paper in his hand.
“Comrades,” he cried angrily, “I am declaring this triumphal rally in session! Please allow me, comrades, to consider this applause…” He had clearly prepared a speech and was already looking down at his paper, but on noticing that the car was not going to stop, he decided to be brief.
“Everyone join the auto club!” he said hurriedly, looking at Ostap, who had drawn even him. “We must establish the serial production of Soviet automobiles. The iron steed is coming to relieve the peasant's horse.”
And calling now after the automobile, over the irritating hum of the crowd, he laid forth his last slogan:
“The automobile is not a luxury, but a means of transport!”
All the passengers of the Antelope except for Ostap were somewhat troubled by this triumphal welcome. They squirmed in the car like sparrows in a nest, understanding nothing. Panikovski, who was not at all fond of large groups of honest people assembled in one place, squatted down in alarm, so that all the inhabitants could see was the dirty straw lid of his hat. But Ostap was not fazed. He took off his white-topped cap and returned the welcome by proudly inclining his head first to the right, then to the left.
“Continue improving your roads!” he yelled by way of farewell. “Merci for your welcome!”
And once again the car found itself on a white road slicing through a large, quiet field.
“They're not going to come after us?” asked Panikovski, worried. “Why was there a crowd? What happened?”
“Those people had just never seen an automobile before,” said Balaganov.
“The exchange of first impressions continues,” remarked Bender. “Let’s hear from the driver. Your opinion, Adam Kazimirovich?”
The driver thought for a while, used loud profanity to scare off a dog that had foolishly run out into the road, and then expressed the opinion that the crowd had gathered for a church holiday.
“Those kinds of holidays happen often in the countryside,” the driver of the Antelope explained.
“Yes,” Ostap said, “I can clearly see now that I have fallen into the society of uncultured people — barefoot people lacking higher education. Ah, children, dear children of Lieutenant Schmidt, why don’t you read the newspapers? It is necessary to read them. Very often they sow wisdom, goodness, and the eternal.”
Ostap took an issue of Izvestiya out of his pocket and in a loud voice read to the passengers of the Antelope a notice about an automobile race along from Moscow to Khar’kov and back.
“Now” he said with satisfaction, “We find ourselves on the route of that auto race, something like a hundred and fifty kilometers in advance of the lead car. I wager that you have already guessed what I have in mind?”
The lower functionaries of the Antelope remained silent. Panikovski unbuttoned his coat and scratched the bare chest under his dirty silk tie.
“You mean to say you don’t understand? Clearly sometimes even reading newspapers doesn't help. Fine, then, I’ll express myself in more detail, although that is not the way I believe in doing things. First: those villagers welcomed the Antelope because they thought it was the lead car in the auto rally. Second: we will not reject this role, quite the opposite — we will ask every official organ and person along the way to show us the necessary cooperation, insisting on the fact that we are the lead car. Third… but, I think two points are enough for you. It’s absolutely clear that we will remain ahead of the auto rally for some time, skimming the foam, the cream and other similar floating material from atop this highly cultured endeavor.”
The Great Combinator’s speech had a tremendous effect. Kozlevich cast a devoted glance at the commander. Balaganov rubbed his red curls with his hands and brimmed over with laughter. Panikovski, with a foretaste of safe gain, yelled ‘Hurrah!’.
“That’s enough emotion,” said Ostap. “In view of the falling darkness, I am declaring the evening in session. Stop the car!”
The car stopped, and the tired motorists stepped out onto the ground. Grasshoppers could be heard forging their little piece of happiness in the rustling corn. The passengers were already sitting in a circle by the edge road, but the old Antelope still bubbled away: once in a while the chassis would snap of its own accord, and from time to time a brief clattering sound would come from inside the motor.
The inexperienced Panikovski built such a huge fire that it looked like an entire village was burning. The wheezing flames leapt around in all directions. While the travelers battled the fiery column, Panikovski ran hunched off into the field and returned holding a warm, crooked cucumber in his hand. Ostap quickly yanked it out of Panikovski’s grasp, saying:
“Don’t worship your belly.”
And then he ate the cucumber himself. They dined on a sausage the practical-minded Kozlevich had brought from home and fell asleep under the stars.
“Well,” said Ostap to Kozlevich at dawn, “Do whatever you need to do to get ready. The kind of day we're about to have your mechanical tub has never seen before and will never see again.”
Balaganov grabbed a cylindrical bucket marked Arbatov Maternity Hospital and ran down to the river to get water.
Adam Kazimirovich raised the hood of his car, lowered his hands into the motor and began to dig around in its copper innards, whistling.
Panikovski leaned back against the wheel of the car and, growing dour, gazed unblinking at the cranberry-colored segment of the Sun that was appearing over the horizon. Panikovski’s wrinkled face was littered with a multitude of old man’s trifles: little bags, pulsating veins, and strawberry-colored patches of flushed skin. It was the kind of face you expect to find on people who have led a long decent life, whose children are grown, who drink “Zheludin” brand health coffee in the morning and write in to their workplace wall gazette under the pseudonym “Antichrist”.
“Should I tell you how you will die, Panikovski?” asked Ostap unexpectedly. The old man started and turned around.
“This is how you will die: One day, as you're coming back to your empty, cold hotel room at the Hotel Marseille (this will be in some provincial town where your vocation takes you), you will start to feel unwell. You'll lose the use of one leg. Hungry and unshaven, you will lie on a wooden couch, and no one will come to see you. No one will have pity on you, Panikovski. You were too parsimonious to father any children, and you left all your wives. You will suffer for an entire week. Your death throes will be horrible. You will lie dying for a long time, and everyone will get tired of it. Before you are even dead, the bureaucrat in charge of the hotel will have already sent an application to the division of the communal government regarding the disbursal of a free coffin to — what is your name and patronymic?”
“Mikhail Samuelevich,” replied the stricken Panikovski.
“— regarding the disbursal of a free coffin to citizen M. S. Panikovski. There’s no need for tears, by the way, you still have a year or two left in you. Now back to business. We need to work on the cultural activism aspect of our procession.”
Ostap took his doctor’s travelling bag out of the automobile and lay it on the grass.
“My right hand,” said the Great Combinator, patting the fat sausage-like side of the travel bag. “Here is everything that could ever come in useful to an elegant citizen of my age and stature.”
Bender crouched over the little suitcase like a bearded Chinese magician crouches over his magic sack, and began taking various items out one after the other. First he took out a red armband with “Supervisor” sewn on it in gold. Then there appeared on the grass a policeman’s cap bearing the Kiev city crest, four decks of cards with identical backs and a pack of documents with round lilac stamps.
The whole crew of the Gnu-Antelope looked at the travel bag with respect. New objects continued emerging from inside it.
“You are fops,” said Ostap, “Of course you will never understand that an honest Soviet wandering pilgrim like me can’t get by without a lab coat.”
In addition to the frock, the travel bag also contained a stethoscope.
“I am not a surgeon,” noted Ostap, “I am a neuropathologist, I am a psychiatrist. I study the souls of my patients. And for some reason the souls I have to deal are always very stupid.”
After this were dragged out into the light an alphabet book for the deaf and dumb, some charity postcards, an enamel badge and a poster with a portrait of Bender himself wearing Turkish pants and a turban. The poster read:
The Seer Has Arrived
(the famous Bombay Yogi and Brahmin), son of Krepysh
Rabindranat Tagore's favorite, IOKANAAN MARUSIDZE
(a distinguished artist of the Soviet republics). Performances based on Sherlock Holmes. Indian fakir. The invisible chicken. Candles from Atlantis. The Devil’s Tent. The Prophet Samuel will answer questions from the public. Materialization of ghosts and distribution of elephants. Admission: 50 kopeks — 2 rubles.
After the poster appeared a dirty turban that looked like it had been heavily handled.
“I very rarely make use of this game,” said Ostap. “With the seer I can mainly snag such leading figures as railroad club directors. The work is easy but unpleasant. Personally, I find being Rabindranat Tagore’s favorite objectionable. And they always ask the prophet Samuel the same questions: “Why is there no butter for sale?”, or “Are you a Jew?”
At last Ostap found what he was looking for: an enameled tin box with porcelain tubs of watercolor paint and two brushes.
“The car at the head of the auto rally should be decorated with at least one slogan,” said Ostap.
And on a long strip of coarse yellowish cotton fabric pulled out of that same traveling bag, he drew a brown inscription in large block letters:
“AUTO RALLY AGAINST ROADLESSNESS AND BUMBLING”
They attached the banner over the car on two long wooden poles. As soon as the car started to move, the banner filled with wind and took on such a dashing look that there could be no further doubt about the need to use the auto rally to strike hard against roadlessness, bumbling, and maybe even bureaucratism. The passengers of the Antelope assumed a dignified air. Balaganov took a cap he had been lugging in his pocket and pulled it over his red head. Panikovski turned his cuffs inside out and let them protrude two centimeters out from under his sleeves. Kozlevich was more worried about the car than about himself. He had washed it with water before they left, and the sun frolicked over the Antelope’s uneven sides. The commander himself was squinting happily and teasing his fellow travelers.
“Village off the port bow!” yelled Balaganov, making a telescope out of his hand. “Are we going to stop?”
“There are five first-rate cars driving behind us,” said Ostap, “An encounter with them does not enter into our plans. We need to skim off the cream as fast as we can. For that reason I am designating our stop in the city of Udoev. The drum of fuel should be waiting for us there, by the way. Step on it, Kazimirovich.”
“Should we return their welcome?” asked Balaganov worriedly.
“Respond by bowing and smiling. Please do not open your mouths. Otherwise the devil knows what might come out of them.”
The village welcomed the lead car warmly. But the usual hospitality took on a decidedly peculiar cast here. The inhabitants of the village had clearly been notified that someone would be driving through, but just who would be driving through, and with what purpose, they had no idea. So they had dragged out every motto and saying prepared over the past several years, just in case. Schoolboys holding old-fashioned posters in various sizes lined the street: “Welcome to the Time League and its Founder, Dear Comrade Kerzhentsev!”. “We are Not Afraid Of the Bourgeois Bell, We Will Reply To Curzon’s Ultimatum!”, “Don’t let our children fade away / Organize a pre-school today”
Apart from that there was a multitude of posters predominantly in Old Church Slavonic lettering, all bearing one and the same greeting: “Welcome!”
All of this flashed by the travelers quickly. This time around they confidently waved their hats. Panikovski could not hold back and, heedless of the prohibition, jumped up and yelled some kind of inarticulate, politically illiterate greeting. But no one could make out what he said over the noise of the motor and the yelling of the crowd.
“Hip, hip, hooray!” cried Ostap. Kozlevich opened the throttle, and the car let out a stream of blue smoke, making the dogs who were running after the car sneeze.
“How are we on gas?” asked Ostap. “Will we make it to Udoev? We only have thirty kilometers left to go. And when we get there we’ll take everything they've got.”
“It should be enough,” said Kozlevich doubtfully.
“Keep in mind,” said Ostap, looking sternly at his troops, “I will not allow any marauding. There will be no infringements of the law. I will lead the parade.” Panikovski and Balaganov grew embarrassed.
“The people of Udoev will give us everything we need of their own accord, as you’re about to see. Prepare a place for the bread and salt.
The Antelope took an hour and a half to cover the last thirty kilometers. Kozlevich sweated a great deal over the last kilometer, pressing the gas pedal and shaking his head mournfully. But neither his efforts or Balaganov's cries and urgings could help in the least. The spectacular finish that Adam Kazimirovich had envisioned failed for lack of gasoline. The car came to a shameful stop in the middle of the road, a hundred meters short of the reviewing stand draped in pine garlands that had been set up in honor of the brave motorists.
The gathered crowd ran to meet the “Loren-Dietrich” with loud cries as it emerged from the mists of time. Instantly the thorns of fame sank into the travelers' noble foreheads. They were rudely pulled from the car and tossed in the air with such ferocity as if they were drowned men who had to be resuscitated at any price.
Kozlevich stayed with the car while the others were taken to the reviewing stand, where a quick three-hour ceremony had been scheduled. A young man who looked like a chauffeur squeezed through to Ostap and asked:
“What happened to the other cars?”
“They fell behind,” replied Ostap indifferently. “Punctures, fractures, popular enthusiasm. All of that can hold you back.”
“Are you riding in the commander’s car?” the driving fan persisted. “Is Kleptunov with you?”
“I took Kleptunov out of the rally” said Ostap irritatedly.
“What about Professor Pesochnikov? Is he in the Packard?”
“Yes, the Packard.”
“What about the writer Vera Cruz?” inquired the half-driver. “I’d like to take a look at her. At her and Comrade Nezhinski. Is he with you too?”
“You know,” said Ostap, “I am exhausted from the run.”
“Are you in the Studebaker?”
“You can consider our car a Studebaker,” said Ostap maliciously, “But up to now we've been calling it a Loren-Dietrich. Are you satisfied?” But the driving fan was not satisfied.
“Please,” he cried with youthful importunity, “In all these years I have yet to see a Loren-Dietrich! I read in the paper that there would be two Packards, two Fiats and one Studebaker.”
“You can go straight to hell with your Studebaker!” roared Ostap. “Who is Studebaker? Is he a relative of yours, Studebaker? Is your daddy’s name Studebaker? Why are you pestering me? I'm telling you in plain Russian that the Studebaker was replaced at the last minute by a Loren-Dietrich, but you keep droning on! Studebaker!”
Ostap was still waving his arms and muttering long after the young man had been shooed off by the rally organizers.
“Experts! Such experts should be killed! He wants a Studebaker!”
In his welcoming speech, the chairman of the auto rally greeting commission got drawn into such a long chain of incidental remarks that it took him more than half an hour to scramble back up out of them. The rally commander spent this time filled with anxiety. From the top of the reviewing stand he could follow the suspicious activities of Balaganov and Panikovski, who were moving around the grounds with a little too much liveliness. Bender fixed them with a horrible stare and in the end was able to to root Lieutenant Schmidt’s sons to the spot with his signaling.
“I am very happy, comrades,” proclaimed Ostap in his acknowledging speech, “to disturb the patriarchal quiet of the town of Udoev with the horn of my automobile. An automobile, comrades, is not a luxury, but a means of transport. The iron steed is coming to relieve the peasant’s horse. We will establish mass production of Soviet automobiles. We will rally with our automobiles against roadlessness and bumbling. That is all, comrades. After first having something to eat, we will continue on our long journey.”
While the crowd, gathered motionless around the reviewing stand, attended to the commander’s words, Kozlevich undertook a flurry of activity. He filled the tank with gas, which as Ostap had promised turned out to be of the highest grade, boldly seized three large fuel cans as an extra supply, changed the inner tubes and treads on all four wheels, and seized a pump and even a jack. In doing so he completely exhausted both the basic and the operational reserves of the Udoev division of the Auto Club.
There were enough supplies now to get to Chernomorsk. There wasn't, it's true, any money. But that did not bother the commander. The travelers had a magnificent dinner in Udoev.
“There's no need to worry about pocket money,” said Ostap, “Money is lying in the road, and we can pick it up as needed.”
Between old Udoev, founded in 794, and Chernomorsk, founded in 1794, there lay a thousand years and a thousand kilometers of dirt and asphalt roads.
Over the course of that thousand years, a multitude of figures had appeared on the main Udoev-Black Sea road.
Traveling salesmen carrying goods from Byzantine merchant companies had moved along it. The bandit Nightingale, a rough man in an Astrakhan hat, came out from the buzzing forest to meet them. He took the goods and executed the salesmen. Conquerors and their legions had wandered down this road, peasants had ridden along it, singing pilgrims had slogged by.
Life in the country changed with every passing century. Clothing changed, weapons became more modern, potato rebellions were suppressed. People learned to shave their beards. The first hot air balloon took flight. Those iron twins — the steamship and the steam locomotive — were built. Automobiles started honking.
But the road remained as it had been back in the time of Nightingale the Bandit.
Humpbacked, covered with volcanic dirt or powdered over with dust as poisonous as insecticidal powder, this domestic road extended past villages, towns, factories and kolkhozes like a six hundred mile long trap. The skeletons of carriages and spent, dying automobiles lay in the yellowing burnt grass along its edges.
An emigrant driven half-mad by selling newspapers in the asphalt fields of Paris might reminisce about a Russian hamlet with the all the charming detail of a native landscape: the moon shining reflected in a puddle, crickets chirping loudly, the ringing of an empty bucket tied to a peasant’s cart.
But the moonlight has already been given another assignment. The moon will be perfectly capable of shining on asphalt highways. Automobile sirens and klaxons will replace the symphonic ring of the peasant’s bucket. And there will be special nature reserves set up for listening to crickets; they will set up bleachers there, and after hearing a grey-haired cricketologist give an introductory speech, citizens will be able to listen to these beloved insects sing to their hearts’ content.