Two young gentlemen dressed just like British military men, with gleaming guns on their shoulders and two dogs like great white bears at their heels, were walking in the mountains where the leaves rustled dry underfoot. They were talking as they went.
‘I must say, the country around here is really awful,’ said one.
‘Not a bird or beast in sight. I’m just dying to let fly at something: bang, bang! Anything, so long as it moves.’
‘Yes, what fun it would be to let a deer or something have a couple of shots smack in his tawny flank!’ said the other. ‘I can just see him spinning around, then flopping down with a thud.’
They really were very deep in the mountains. So deep, in fact, that the professional hunter who had come as their guide went astray and wandered off somewhere. Worse still, the forest was so frightening that the two bearlike dogs both got dizzy, howled for a while, then foamed at the mouth and died.
‘Do you realize that dog cost me two thousand four hundred silver pieces?’ said one young gentleman, casually turning its eyelids back.
‘Mine cost me two thousand eight hundred,’ said the other, his head tilted ruefully to one side.
The first young gentleman went pale.
‘I think I’ll be getting back,’ he said, gazing into the other’s face. ‘As a matter of fact,’ said his friend, ‘I was just beginning to get a bit cold and hungry myself, so I think I’ll join you.’
‘Then let’s call it a day. What does it matter? On our way back we can drop in at yesterday’s inn and buy a few game birds to take home with us.’
‘They had hares too, didn’t they? So it’ll come to the same thing in the end. Well, why don’t we go home then?’
But the annoying thing was that by now they no longer had the faintest idea of the way back.
A sudden gust of wind sprang up; the grass stirred, the leaves rustled and the trees creaked and groaned.
‘I really am hungry,’ said one. ‘I’ve had an awful hollow feeling under my ribs for quite a while.’
‘So have I,’ said the other. ‘I don’t feel like walking any farther.’
‘O for something to eat!’ said the first.
The pampas grass was rustling all about them as they talked.
Just then, one of them happened to look around, and what should he see standing there but a fine brick building. Over the entrance was a notice that said, in large letters:
restaurant wildcat house
‘Look! This is perfect,’ said one. The place is civilised after all. Why don’t we go in.’ Funny,’ said the other, ‘finding it in a place like this. But I expect we’ll be able to get a meal, at any rate.’
‘Of course we will, silly. What do you think the sign means?’
‘Let’s give it a try. I’m just about collapsing with hunger.’
They stepped into the entrance hall, which was very splendid, being done all over in white tiles. There was a glass door, with something written on it in gold letters.
please come in. No one need have a moment’s hesitation.
They were tickled pink. ‘Just look at that!’ said one of them. ‘Things always turn out right in the end. Everything’s been going wrong all day, but look how lucky we are now. They’re telling us not to worry about the bill!’
‘I must say, it does seem like it,’ said the other. ‘That’s what “no one need have a moment’s hesitation” suggests.’
They pushed open the door and went through. On the other side was a corridor. Another notice in gold letters on the back of the glass door said:
plump parties and young parties especially welcome.
They were both overjoyed at this.
‘Look, we’re especially welcome, it says,’ said one.
‘Because we satisfy both conditions!’ said the other.
They walked briskly along the corridor and came to another door, this time painted bright blue.
‘What a strange place! I wonder why there are so many doors?’
‘This is the Russian way of doing things, of course. It’s always like this in cold places or in the mountains.’
They were just going to open the door when they saw a notice in yellow letters above it:
we hope that you will appreciate that this is a restaurant of many orders.
‘Awfully popular, isn’t it? Out here in the mountains like this!’
‘But of course. Why, even back in the capital very few of the best restaurants are on the main streets, are they?’
As they were talking, they opened the door. A notice on the other side said
there really are rather a lot of orders, but we hope you will be patient.
‘Now just what does that mean?’ said one young gentleman, screwing up his face.
‘Mm – I suppose it means they’re busy, and they’re sorry but it will be a while before the food appears. Something like that.’
‘I expect so. I want to get settled down in a room as soon as possible, don’t you?’
‘Yes, and ready to tuck in.’
But it was most frustrating – there was yet another door, and by the side of it hung a mirror, with a long-handled brush lying beneath it. On the door it said in red letters:
patrons are requested to comb their hair and get the mud off their boots here.
‘Very right and proper, too. And back in the hall just now I was thinking this was just a place for locals.’
‘They’re very strict on etiquette. Some of their customers must be rather grand.’
So they neatly combed their hair and got the mud off their boots.
But no sooner had they put the brush back on its shelf than it blurred and disappeared, and a sudden gust of wind moaned through the room. They huddled together in alarm and, flinging the door open, went into the next room. Both of them felt that unless they fortified themselves with something warm to eat very soon, almost anything might happen.
On the other side of the door there was another unexpected sign:
please leave your guns and cartridges here.
Sure enough, there was a black gun rack right by the door.
‘Of course,’ said one young gentleman. ‘No one ever ate with his gun.’
‘I’m beginning to think their customers must all be rather grand,’ said the other.
They unshouldered their guns and unbuckled their belts and put them on the rack. Now there was another door, a black one, which said:
kindly remove your hats, overcoats and boots.
‘What about it – do we take them off?’
‘I suppose we’d better. They really must be very grand, the people dining there in the back rooms.’
They hung their hats and overcoats on the hook, then took their boots off and padded on through the door. On the other side was the notice:
please remove your tiepins, cuff links, spectacles, purses and anything else with metal in it, especially anything pointed.
Right by the door a find black safe stood open and waiting. It even had a lock on it.
‘Of course! I imagine they use electricity at some point in the cooking. So metal things are dangerous, especially pointed things. I expect that’s what it means.’
‘I suppose so. I wonder if it also means you pay the bill here on the way out.’
‘It seems like it, doesn’t it?’
‘Yes, that must be it.’
They took off their spectacles and their cuff links and so on, put everything in the safe, and clicked the lock shut.
A little farther on, they came to another door, with a glass jar standing in front of it. On the door it said:
please spread cream from the jar all over your face, hand and feet.
‘Why should they want one to put cream on?’
‘Well, if it’s very cold outside and too warm inside, one’s skin gets chapped, so this is to prevent it. I must say, it does seem like they only get the very best sort of people coming here. At this rate, we may soon be on speaking terms with the aristocracy!’
They rubbed some cream from the jar on their faces and hands, then took heir socks off and rubbed it on their feet as well. Even so, there was still a bit left, so they both ate some surreptitiously, pretending to be rubbing it on their faces all the while.
Then they opened the door in a great hurry – only to find a notice on the other side which said:
did you put on plenty of cream? on your ears too?
There was another, smaller jar of cream here.
‘Of course – I didn’t do my ears. I might well have got them chapped. The proprietor of this place is really very thoughtful.’
‘Yes, he’s got an eye for every little detail. Incidentally, I wouldn’t mind something to eat, but it doesn’t look very likely with all these eternal corridors, does it?’
But the next door was already upon them, bearing another message:
the meal will soon be ready. we won’t keep you as much as fifteen minutes. in the meantime, just shake some of this perfume over your head.
And there in front of the door stood a shiny gold bottle of scent.
Unfortunately, when they splashed some on themselves, it smelled suspiciously like vinegar.
‘This stuff’s awfully vinegary,’ said one young gentleman. ‘What’s wrong with it, do you suppose?’
‘They’ve made a mistake,’ the other said. ‘The maid must have had a cold or something and put the wrong stuff in.’
They opened the door and went through. On the other side of it was a notice in big letters that said:
you must be tired of all these orders, you poor things. this is the last one, so be good enough to take some salt from the pot and rub it in well all over you.
A fine blue china salt cellar was indeed standing there, but this time both the young gentlemen were thoroughly alarmed. They turned their cream – smeared faces to look at one another.
‘I don’t like the look of this,’ said one.
‘Nor do I,’ said the other.
‘“Lots of orders” means they’re giving us orders.’
‘Yes – and I’ve an idea that “restaurant” doesn’t mean a place for serving food, but a place cooking people and serving them. And that m-m-means that w-w-we . . .’
He began to shake and tremble, and tremble and shake, so that he couldn’t go on.
‘They w-w-we . . . Oh dear!’ And the other one, too, began to quake and shiver, and shiver and quake, so that he couldn’t go on either.
‘Let’s go out!’ Still shaking all over, one of the gentlemen pushed at the door behind him. But, strange to say, it refused to budge.
At the other end was another door with two big holds and a silver knife and fork carved on it. It said:
so nice of you to come. that will do very nicely indeed. now just pop inside, please.
What was worse, two blue eyeballs were ogling them through the keyhold.
‘Oh dear!’ cried one, quivering and trembling.
‘Oh dear!’ cried the other, trembling and quivering.
And they both burst into tears.
Just then, they heard voices talking furtively on the other side of the door.
‘It’s no good – they’ve realised. It doesn’t look as if they’re going to rub in the salt.’
‘What d’you expect? The way the boss put it was all wrong – “you poor things” and the like – stupid I call it.’
‘Who cares? Either way, we won’t get as much as the bones even.’
‘How right you are. But if they won’t come in here, it’s us who’ll get the blame.’
‘Shall we call them? Yes, lets. Hey, gentlemen! This way, quickly – this way! The dishes are washed, and the vegetables nicely salted. All that’s left is to arrange you nicely with the greens and put you on some snowy white dishes. This way now, quickly!’
The two gentlemen were so distressed that their faces when all crumpled like pieces of wastepaper. They peered at each other and shook and shivered and silently wept.
There were chuckles on the other side of the door, then a voice shouted again, ‘This way, this way! If you cry like that, you know, you’ll wash off all the cream you put on specially. (Yes, sir, coming, sir. We’ll be bringing it in just a moment sir.) Come on, we haven’t got all day!’
‘Yes, hurry up! The boss has his napkin tucked in and his knife in his hand and he’s licking his lips, just waiting for you.’
But the two young gentlemen just wept and wept and wept and wept.
Then, all of a sudden, they heard a woof, woof, and a grr! behind them, and the two dogs like white bears came bursting into the room. The eyes behind the keyhole disappeared in a twinkling. Round and round the room the dogs rushed, snarling, then with another great woof! they threw themselves at the other door. The door banged open, and they vanished inside as though swallowed up. From the pitch darkness beyond came a great miaowing and spitting and growling, then a rustling sound.
The room vanished in a puff of smoke, and the two gentlemen found themselves standing in the grass, shivering and shaking in the cold. Their coats and boots, purses and tiepins were all there with them, hanging from the branches or lying among the roots of the trees. A gust of wind set the grass stirring, the leaves rustling, and the trees creaking and groaning.
The dogs came back, panting, and behind them someone called, ‘Gentlemen! Gentlemen!’
‘Hey! Hey!’ they shouted, suddenly recovering their spirits. ‘We’re over here. This way quickly!’
The professional hunter in his straw cape came rustling toward them through the grass, and they really felt safe at last.
They ate the dumplings the guide had brought with him, then returned to the capital, buying some game birds on their way.
But even back in the capital, and however long they soaked themselves in hot baths, their faces had gone all crumpled like wastepaper and would never go back to normal again.
Image © New York Review of Books