“And then what happens?”
“Then food has to be taken into the system again.”
No matter what topic the Officials chose, the conversation invariably reverted to the subject of eating; which only increased their appetite more and more. So they decided to give up talking altogether, and, recollecting the Moscow Gazette that the one of them had found, they picked it up and began to read eagerly.
“The table was set for one hundred persons. The magnificence of it exceeded all expectations. The remotest provinces were represented at this feast of the gods by the costliest gifts. The golden sturgeon from Sheksna and the silver pheasant from the Caucasian woods held a rendezvous with strawberries so seldom to be had in our latitude in winter...”
“The devil! For God’s sake, stop reading, your Excellency. Couldn’t you find something else to read about?” cried the other Official in sheer desperation. He snatched the paper from his colleague’s hands, and started to read something else.
“Our correspondent in Tula informs us that yesterday a sturgeon was found in the Upa (an event which even the oldest inhabitants cannot recall, and all the more remarkable since they recognised the former police captain in this sturgeon). This was made the occasion for giving a banquet in the club. The prime cause of the banquet was served in a large wooden platter garnished with vinegar pickles. A bunch of parsley stuck out of its mouth. Doctor P—— who acted as toast-master saw to it that everybody present got a piece of the sturgeon. The sauces to go with it were unusually varied and delicate—”
“Permit me, your Excellency, it seems to me you are not so careful either in the selection of reading matter,” interrupted the first Official, who secured the Gazette again and started to read:
“One of the oldest inhabitants of Viatka has discovered a new and highly original recipe for fish soup; A live codfish (lota vulgaris) is taken and beaten with a rod until its liver swells up with anger...”
The Officials’ heads drooped. Whatever their eyes fell upon had something to do with eating. Even their own thoughts were fatal. No matter how much they tried to keep their minds off beefsteak and the like, it was all in vain; their fancy returned invariably, with irresistible force, back to that for which they were so painfully yearning.
Suddenly an inspiration came to the Official who had once taught handwriting.
“I have it!” he cried delightedly. “What do you say to this, your Excellency? What do you say to our finding a muzhik?”
“A muzhik, your Excellency? What sort of a muzhik?”
“Why a plain ordinary muzhik. A muzhik like all other muzhiks. He would get the breakfast rolls for us right away, and he could also catch partridges and fish for us.”