He went to the warehouse every day and tried to establish a new order of things; he forbade them to thrash the boys and to jeer at the buyers, and was violently angry when the clerks gleefully despatched to the provinces worthless shop-soiled goods as though they were new and fashionable. Now he was the chief person in the warehouse, but still, as before, he did not know how large his fortune was, whether his business was doing well, how much the senior clerks were paid, and so on. Potchatkin and Makeitchev looked upon him as young and inexperienced, concealed a great deal from him, and whispered mysteriously every evening with his blind old father.
It somehow happened at the beginning of June that Laptev went into the Bubnovsky restaurant with Potchatkin to talk business with him over lunch. Potchatkin had been with the Laptevs a long while, and had entered their service at eight years old. He seemed to belong to them—they trusted him fully; and when on leaving the warehouse he gathered up all the takings from the till and thrust them into his pocket, it never aroused the slightest suspicion. He was the head man in the business and in the house, and also in the church, where he performed the duties of churchwarden in place of his old master. He was nicknamed Malyuta Skuratov on account of his cruel treatment of the boys and clerks under him.
When they went into the restaurant he nodded to a waiter and said:
“Bring us, my lad, half a bodkin and twenty-four unsavouries.”
After a brief pause the waiter brought on a tray half a bottle of vodka and some plates of various kinds of savouries.
“Look here, my good fellow,” said Potchatkin. “Give us a plateful of the source of all slander and evil-speaking, with mashed potatoes.”
The waiter did not understand; he was puzzled, and would have said something, but Potchatkin looked at him sternly and said:
The waiter thought intently, then went to consult with his colleagues, and in the end guessing what was meant, brought a plateful of tongue. When they had drunk a couple of glasses and had had lunch, Laptev asked:
“Tell me, Ivan Vassilitch, is it true that our business has been dropping off for the last year?”
“Not a bit of it.”
“Tell me frankly and honestly what income we have been making and are making, and what our profits are. We can’t go on in the dark. We had a balancing of the accounts at the warehouse lately, but, excuse me, I don’t believe in it; you think fit to conceal something from me and only tell the truth to my father. You have been used to being diplomatic from your childhood, and now you can’t get on without it. And what’s the use of it? So I beg you to be open. What is our position?”
“It all depends upon the fluctuation of credit,” Potchatkin answered after a moment’s pause.
“What do you understand by the fluctuation of credit?”