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THE BROTHER BERTHOLD SCHWARTZ HOSTEL





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Leaning against one another, Ippolit Matveyevich and Ostap stood at the open window of the unupholstered railway carriage and gazed at the cows slowly descending the embankment, the pine needles and the plank platforms of the country stations.
The traveller's stories had all been told. Tuesday's copy of the, Stargorod Truth had been read right through, including the advertisements, and was now covered in grease spots. The chickens, eggs and olives had all been consumed.
All that remained was the most wearisome lap of the journey -the last hour before Moscow.
Merry little country houses came bounding up to the embankment from areas of sparse woodland and clumps of trees. Some of them were wooden palaces with verandahs of shining glass and newly painted iron roofs. Some were simple log cabins with tiny square windows, real box-traps for holiday-makers.
While the passengers scanned the horizon with the air of experts and told each other about the history of Moscow, muddling up what they vaguely remembered about the battle of Kalka, Ippolit Matveyevich was trying to picture the furniture museum. He imagined a tremendously long corridor lined with chairs. He saw himself walking rapidly along between them.
"We still don't know what the museum will be like . . . how things will turn out," he was saying nervously.
"It's time you had some shock treatment, Marshal. Stop having premature hysterics! If you can't help suffering, at least suffer in silence."
The train bounced over the switches and the signals opened their mouths as they watched it. The railway tracks multiplied constantly and proclaimed the approach of a huge junction. Grass disappeared from the sides and was replaced by cinder; goods trains whistled and signalmen hooted. The din suddenly increased as the train dived in between two lines of empty goods trucks and, clicking like a turnstile, began counting them off.
The tracks kept dividing.
The train leapt out of the corridor of trucks and the sun came out. Down below, by the very ground, point signals like hatchets moved rapidly backward and forward. There came a shriek from a turntable where depot workers were herding a locomotive into its stall.
The train's joints creaked as the brakes were suddenly applied. Everything squealed and set Ippolit Matveyevich's teeth on edge. The train came to a halt by an asphalt platform.
It was Moscow. It was Ryazan Station, the freshest and newest of all the Moscow termini.
None of the eight other Moscow stations had such vast, high-ceilinged halls as the Ryazan. The entire Yaroslavl station with all its pseudo-Russian heraldic ornamentation could easily have fitted into the large buffet-restaurant of the Ryazan.
The concessionaires pushed their way through to the exit and found themselves on Kalanchev Square. On their right towered the heraldic birds of Yaroslavl Station. Directly in front of them was October Station, painted in two colours dully reflecting the light. The clock showed five past ten. The clock on top of the Yaroslavl said exactly ten o'clock. Looking up at the Ryazan Station clock, with its zodiac dial, the travellers noted that it was five to ten.
"Very convenient for dates," said Ostap. "You always have ten minutes' grace."
The coachman made a kissing sound with his lips and they passed under the bridge. A majestic panorama of the capital unfolded before them.
"Where are we going, by the way?" Ippolit Matveyevich asked.
"To visit nice people," Ostap replied. "There are masses of them in Moscow and they're all my friends."
"And we're staying with them?"
"It's a hostel. If we can't stay with one, we can always go to another."
On Hunter's Row there was confusion. Unlicensed hawkers were running about in disorder like geese, with their trays on their heads. A militiaman trotted along lazily after them. Some waifs were sitting beside an asphalt vat, breathing in the pleasant smell of boiling tar.
They came out on Arbat Square, passed along Prechistenka Boulevard, and, turning right, stopped in a small street called Sivtsev Vrazhek.
"What building is that?" Ippolit Matveyevich asked.
Ostap looked at the pink house with a projecting attic and answered: "The Brother Berthold Schwartz Hostel for chemistry students."
"Was he really a monk? "
"No, no I'm only joking. It's the Semashko hostel."
As befits the normal run of student hostels in Moscow, this building had long been lived in by people whose connections with chemistry were somewhat remote. The students had gone their ways; some of them had completed their studies and gone off to take up jobs, and some had been expelled for failing their exams. It was the latter group which, growing in number from year to year, had formed something between a housing co-operative and a feudal settlement in the little pink house. In vain had ranks of freshmen sought to invade the hostel; the ex-chemists were highly resourceful and repulsed all assaults. Finally the house was given up as a bad job and disappeared from the housing programmes of the Moscow real estate administration. It was as though it had never existed. It did exist, however, and there were people living in it.
The concessionaires went upstairs to the second floor and turned into a corridor cloaked in complete darkness.
"Light and airy!" said Ostap.
Suddenly someone wheezed in the darkness, just by Ippolit Matveyevich's elbow.
"Don't be alarmed," Ostap observed. "That wasn't in the corridor, but behind the wall. Plyboard, as you know from physics, is an excellent conductor of sound. Careful! Hold on to me! There should be a cabinet here somewhere."
The cry uttered at that moment by Ippolit Matveyevich as he hit his chest against a sharp steel corner showed that there was indeed a cabinet there somewhere.
"Did you hurt yourself?" Ostap inquired. "That's nothing. That's physical pain. I'd hate to think how much mental suffering has gone on here. There used to be a skeleton in here belonging to a student called Ivanopulo. He bought it at the market, but was afraid to keep it in his room. So visitors first bumped into the cabinet and then the skeleton fell on top of them. Pregnant women were always very annoyed."
The partners wound their way up a spiral staircase to the large attic, which was divided by plyboard partitions into long slices five feet wide. The rooms were like pencil boxes, the only difference being that besides pens and pencils they contained people and primus stoves as well.
"Are you there, Nicky?" Ostap asked quietly, stopping at a central door.
The response was an immediate stirring and chattering in all five pencil boxes.
"Yes," came the answer from behind the door.
"That fool's guests have arrived too early again!" whispered a woman's voice in the last box on the left.
"Let a fellow sleep, can't you!" growled box no. 2.
There was a delighted hissing from the third box.
"It's the militia to see Nicky about that window he smashed yesterday."
No one spoke in the fifth pencil box; instead came the hum of a primus and the sound of kissing.
Ostap pushed open the door with his foot. The whole of the plyboard erection gave a shake and the concessionaires entered Nicky's cell.
The scene that met Ostap's eye was horrible, despite all its outward innocence. The only furniture in the room was a red-striped mattress resting on four bricks. But it was not that which disturbed Ostap, who had long been aware of the state of Nicky's furniture; nor was he surprised to see Nicky himself, sitting on the legged mattress. It was the heavenly creature sitting beside him who made Ostap's face cloud over immediately. Such girls never make good business associates. Their eyes are too blue and the lines of their necks too clean for that sort of thing. They make mistresses or, what is worse, wives-beloved wives. And, indeed, Nicky addressed this creature as Liza and made funny faces at her.
Ippolit Matveyevich took off his beaver cap, and Ostap led Nicky out into the corridor, where they conversed in whispers for some time.
"A splendid morning, madam," said Ippolit Matveyevich.
The blue-eyed madam laughed and, without any apparent bearing on Ippolit Matveyevich's remark, began telling him what fools the people in the next box were.
"They light the primus on purpose so that they won't be heard kissing. But think how silly that is. We can all hear. The point is they don't hear anything themselves because of the primus. Look, I'll show you."
And Nicky's wife, who had mastered all the secrets of the primus stove, said loudly: "The Zveryevs are fools!"
From behind the wall came the infernal hissing of the primus stove and the sound of kisses.
"You see! They can't hear anything. The Zveryevs are fools, asses and cranks! You see!"
"Yes," said Ippolit Matveyevich.
"We don't have a primus, though. Why? Because we eat at the vegetarian canteen, although I'm against a vegetarian diet. But when Nicky and I were married, he was longing for us to eat together in the vegetarian canteen, so that's why we go there. I'm actually very fond of meat, but all you get there is rissoles made of noodles. Only please don't say anything to Nicky."
At this point Nicky and Ostap returned.
"Well, then, since we definitely can't stay with you, we'll go and see Pantelei."
"That's right, fellows," cried Nicky, "go and see Ivanopulo. He's a good sport."
"Come and visit us," said Nicky's wife. "My husband and I will always be glad to see you."
"There they go inviting people again!" said an indignant voice in the last pencil box. "As though they didn't have enough visitors!"
"Mind your own business, you fools, asses and cranks!" said Nicky's wife without raising her voice.
"Do you hear that, Ivan Andreyevich?" said an agitated voice in the last box. "They insult your wife and you say nothing."
Invisible commentators from the other boxes added their voices to the fray and the verbal cross-fire increased. The partners went downstairs to Ivanopulo.
The student was not at home. Ippolit Matveyevich lit a match and saw that a note was pinned to the door. It read: "Will not be back before nine. Pantelei".
"That's no harm," said Ostap. "I know where the key is." He groped underneath the cabinet, produced a key, and unlocked the door.
Ivanopulo's room was exactly of the same size as Nicky's, but, being a corner room, had one wall made of brick; the student was very proud of it. Ippolit Matveyevich noted with dismay that he did not even have a mattress.
"This will do nicely," said Ostap. "Quite a decent size for Moscow. If we all three lie on the floor, there will even be some room to spare. I wonder what that son of a bitch, Pantelei, did with the mattress."
The window looked out on to a narrow street. A militiaman was walking up and down outside the little house opposite, built in the style of a Gothic tower, which housed the embassy of a minor power. Behind the iron gates some people could be seen playing tennis. The white ball flew backward and forward accompanied by short exclamations.
"Out!" said Ostap. "And the standard of play is not good. However, let's have a rest."
The concessionaires spread newspapers on the floor and Ippolit Matveyevich brought out the cushion which he carried with him.
Ostap dropped down on to the papers and dozed off. Vorobyaninov was already asleep.

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