A few days ago we buried the young wife of our old post- master Sweetpepper. Having interred the beauty, we, following the custom of our forebears, went to the post office to “commemorate.”
As the blini were served, the old widower wept bitterly and said:
“These blini are as glowing as my late wife’s cheeks. Beauties just like her! Exactly!”
“Yes,” the commemorators agreed, “you had yourself a real beauty . . . A top-notch woman!”
“Yes, sir . . . Everybody was astonished looking at her . . . But I didn’t love her for her beauty, gentlemen, nor for her good nature. Those two qualities are inherent in all womankind and are quite often met with in the sublunary realm. I loved her for another quality of the soul. Namely, sirs: I loved my late wife—may she rest in peace— because, for all the pertness and playfulness of her character, she was faithful to her husband. She was faithful to me, though she was only twenty and I will soon hit sixty! She was faithful to me, old as I am!”
The deacon, sharing the communal meal with us, grunted and coughed eloquently to express his doubts.
“So you don’t believe it?” The widower turned to him.
“It’s not that I don’t believe it”—the deacon became embarrassed— “it’s just . . . young wives these days are much too . . . rendevous, sauce provençale . . .”
“You doubt it, but I’ll prove it to you, sir! I kept her faithful by various means of a strategic sort, so to speak, something like fortifications. With my behavior and my cunning character, there was no way she could betray me. I used cunning to protect my marital bed. I know certain words, a sort of password. I say these same words and—basta, I can sleep peacefully as regards her faithfulness.”
“What are those words?”
“Simple as could be. I spread a wicked rumor around town. This rumor is well known to you. I told everybody: ‘My wife Alyona is cohabiting with our police chief, Ivan Alexeich Swashbuckle.’ These words were enough. Not a single man dared to court Alyona, for fear of the police chief ’s wrath. It used to be they’d just run away at the sight of her, so that Swashbuckle wouldn’t get any ideas. Heh, heh, heh. Once you got mixed up with that mustachioed idol, you’d really regret it, he could slap five fines on you over sanitary conditions. For instance, he’d see your cat on the street and slap a fine on you as if it was a stray cow.”
“So that means your wife didn’t live with Ivan Alexeich?” we all drawled in surprise.
“No, that was my cunning . . . Heh, heh . . . So I really hoodwinked you, eh, boys? Well, there you have it.”
Three minutes passed in silence. We sat and said nothing, feeling offended and ashamed that this fat, red-nosed old man had led us on so cunningly.
“Well, God willing, you’ll marry again!” the deacon muttered.
Excerpted from FIFTY-TWO STORIES by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Copyright © 2020 by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.