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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852)

Letters of a Lap-Dog

From “A Madman’s Diary”

I PUT on my old cloak and took my umbrella because it was pouring rain. There was no one in the streets. I saw only a few women with shawls over their heads, and some shopkeepers with umbrellas. There was no one of the upper classes about, except one official like myself. I saw him at a crossing, and said to myself, “Aha! No, my friend, you’re not going to the department; you’re running after the woman in front of you, and looking at her ankles.” What a set of brutes our officials are! They’re just as bad as any officer; can’t see a woman’s hat without going for it. Just as I was thinking that, I saw a carriage driving up to a shop I was passing. I knew it at once; it was our director’s carriage. “But he wouldn’t be going shopping,” I thought; “it must be his daughter.” I stopped, and leaned against the wall; a footman opened the carriage-door, and she sprang out like a bird. How she glanced round with those eyes of hers! Heaven defend me! I am done for! And why ever should she drive out in this pouring rain? And then people say that women are not devoted to finery! She did not recognize me, and, indeed, I purposely muffled myself up, because my cloak was very muddy, and old-fashioned too. Now they are worn with deep capes, and mine had little capes one above the other; and the cloth wasn’t good either. Her lap-dog didn’t get in before the shop-door was shut, and was left out in the street. I know that dog; it is called Medji. The next minute I suddenly heard a little voice, “Good morning, Medji.” Why! what the deuce did it mean? Who said that? I looked round, and saw two ladies under an umbrella—an old lady and a young one; but they went past. Suddenly I heard again, “Oh, for shame, Medji!” The devil! There were Medji and the ladies’ lap-dog smelling each other. “I say,” thought I to myself, “I must be drunk!” And yet it is a rare thing with me to be drunk. “No, Fidèle, you are quite mistaken”—I actually saw Medji saying that—“I have been—bow-wow-wow—I have been—bow-wow-wow—very ill.”

Well, there, now! I really was very much surprised to hear the lap-dog talking in human speech. But afterward, when I thought it over, it didn’t astonish me. Indeed, there have been many such cases in the world. It is said that there appeared in England a fish that said two words in such a strange language that the learned men have been three years trying to make out what it said, and can’t understand it yet. And I remember reading in the newspapers about two cows that went into a shop and asked for a pound of tea. But I was very much more astonished when Medji said, “I wrote to you, Fidèle; Polkan can’t have brought the letter.” Well! may I lose my salary if ever I heard in my life that dogs could write! It quite amazed me. Lately, indeed, I have begun to see and hear things that nobody ever saw or heard before.

“I’ll follow that lap-dog,” thought I, “and find out what it is, and what it thinks.” So I shut up my umbrella and followed the two ladies. They went along Gorokhovaya Street, turned into Myeshchanskaya Street, then into a carpenter’s shop, and at last up to the Kokoushkin Bridge, and there they stopped before a big house. “I know that house,” said I to myself; “that’s Tvyerkov’s house.” What a monster! Just to think of the numbers of people who live there—such a lot of strangers, and servant-maids; and as for my fellow officials, they are packed together like dogs! I have a friend living there who plays the trumpet very well. The ladies went up to the fifth story. “All right,” thought I, “I won’t go in now, but I will mark the place, and take advantage of the first opportunity.”…

At two o’clock in the afternoon I started to find Fidèle and interrogate her. I can’t endure cabbage, and all the little provision-shops in Myeshchanskaya Street simply reek of it; and then there’s such a stench from the yard of every house, that I simply held my nose and ran along as fast as ever I could. And then those confounded artisans send out such a lot of soot and smoke from their workshops, that really there’s no walking in the street. When I got up to the sixth floor, and rang the bell, there came out a girl, not bad-looking, with little freckles. I recognized her; it was the same girl who had walked with the old lady. She grew a bit red, and inquired, “What can I do for you?” I answered, “I must have an interview with your lap-dog.” The girl was stupid; I saw at once she was stupid. At that moment the dog ran out, barking. I wanted to catch her, but the nasty little thing nearly snapped my nose off. However, I saw her basket in the corner. Ah! that was what I wanted. I went up to it, turned over the straw, and, to my immense delight, found a package of tiny papers. Seeing that, the horrid little dog first bit me in the calf of the leg, and then, realizing that I had got the papers, began to whine and fawn on me. But I said, “No, my dear; good-by!” and rushed away. I think the girl took me for a maniac, for she was terribly frightened.

When I got home I wanted to set to work at once and read the letters, because my sight is not very good by candle-light. But, of course, Mavra had taken it into her head to wash the floor. These idiotic Finns are always cleaning at the wrong time. So I went for a walk to think over the occurrence. Now, at last, I shall find out all their affairs, all their thoughts, all the wires they are pulled by; these letters will disclose everything to me. Dogs are a clever race; they understand all the political relations; and so, no doubt, everything will be here—this man’s portrait and all his affairs. And no doubt there will be something about her, who— Never mind—silence! In the evening I got home. I spent the time lying on my bed….

Now let us see! The letter is fairly legible; but, somehow or other, there is something a little bit doggish about the handwriting. Let’s see:

  • MY DEAR FIDÈLE: I still have not been able to accustom myself to your vulgar name. Why couldn’t they find a better name for you? Fidèle, Rosa, what bad taste! However, this is away from the point. I am very glad that we have agreed to correspond.
  • The letter is quite correctly written; there are no mistakes in the punctuation or even in the spelling. Why, the chief of the section can’t write as well as that, although he talks about having been educated at the university. Let’s see farther on:

  • It appears to me that to share our thoughts, feelings, and impressions with another is one of the greatest blessings in the world.
  • Hm—that idea is copied from some work translated from the German—I can’t remember the title.

  • I say this from experience, although I have seen little of the world beyond the gates of our house. My life passes peacefully and happily. My mistress, whom papa calls Sophie, loves me passionately.
  • Oh! oh! Never mind—never mind! Silence!

  • Papa, too, often caresses me. I drink my tea and coffee with cream. Ah, ma chère, I must tell you that I cannot understand what pleasure there can be in the big gnawed bones that our Polkan devours in the kitchen. Bones are only good if they are from game, and if no one has sucked the marrow out of them. It is a very good idea to mix several kinds of sauce together, only there must be no capers or herbs; but I know nothing worse than the custom of rolling bread into little balls and giving it to dogs. Some gentleman, sitting at the table, who has been holding all sorts of nasty things in his hands, will begin rolling a bit of bread with his fingers, and then call you, and put it in your mouth. It’s impolite to refuse, so you eat it—with disgust, of course, but you eat it.
  • What the deuce is all this rubbish? As if they couldn’t find anything better to write about. Let’s look at the next page; perhaps it will be more sensible.

  • I shall have the greatest pleasure in informing you of all that happens in our house. I have already spoken to you about the principal gentleman whom Sophie calls papa. He is a very strange man.
  • Ah, now, at last! Yes, I knew it. They look at all things from a political point of view. Let us see what there is about papa:

  • Strange man! He hardly ever speaks. But a week ago he kept on constantly saying to himself, “Shall I get it, or not?” Once he asked me, “What do you think, Medji? Shall I get it, or not?” I didn’t understand anything about it, so I smelled at his boot and went away. Then, ma chère, a week afterward papa was in the greatest state of delight. The whole morning long gentlemen in uniform came to him and congratulated him on something or other. At table he was merrier than I have ever seen him before.
  • Ah, so he’s ambitious! I must take note of that.

  • Good-by, ma chère! I must be off. To-morrow I will finish the letter.
  • Well, good morning; I am with you again. To-day, my mistress, Sophie——
  • Ah, now we shall see—something about Sophie. Oh! confound it!—Never mind, never mind! Let’s go on:

  • My mistress, Sophie, was in a great muddle. She was getting ready for a ball, and I was very glad she would be out, so that I could write to you. My Sophie is perfectly devoted to balls, although she nearly always gets cross when she’s dressing for them. I cannot conceive, ma chère, what can be the pleasure of going to balls. Sophie comes home from them at six o’clock in the morning, and nearly always looks so pale and thin that I can see at once they haven’t given the poor girl anything to eat there. I confess that I couldn’t live like that. If I didn’t get my woodcock with sauce, or the wing of a roast chicken, I—really I don’t know what I should do. I like pudding with sauce, too, but carrots or turnips or artichokes are no good at all.
  • What an extraordinarily uneven style! One can see at once it wasn’t written by a human being; it begins all right and properly, and ends in this doggish fashion. Let’s see another letter. This seems rather a long one. Hm—and it isn’t dated.

  • Oh, my dearest, how I feel the approach of spring! My heart beats as if it yearned for something. There is a constant singing in my ears, so that I often raise one foot, and stand for several moments listening at a door. I will confide to you that I have many suitors. Oh! if you knew how hideous some of them are! Sometimes there’s a great, coarse, mongrel watch-dog, fearfully stupid—you can see it written on his face—who struts along the street and imagines that he’s a very important personage, and that everybody is looking at him. Not a bit of it! I take no more notice than if I didn’t see him at all. Then, there’s such a frightful mastiff that stops before my window. If he were to stand on his hind paws (which the vulgar creature probably doesn’t know how to do) he’d be a whole head taller than my Sophie’s papa, who is rather a tall man, and stout too. This blockhead appears to be frightfully impertinent. I growled at him, but he took no notice at all; he didn’t even frown. He lolled out his tongue, hung down his monstrous ears, and stared in at the window—like a common peasant! But do you imagine, ma chère, that my heart is cold to all entreaties? Ah, no! If you could see one young beau who jumps across the fence from next door! His name is Trésor. Oh, my dearest, what a sweet muzzle he has!
  • The devil take it all! What rubbish! And fancy filling up one’s letter with nonsense of that kind! Give me a man! I want to see a human being; I demand that spiritual food that would satisfy my thirsting soul, and instead of that, all this stuff! Let’s see another page; perhaps it’ll be better.

  • Sophie was sitting at the table sewing something. I was looking out of the window, because I like watching the passers-by. Suddenly a footman came in and announced, “Teplov.” “Ask him in!” cried Sophie, and flew to embrace me. “Oh, Medji, Medji! if only you knew who it is: a chamberlain, dark, and with such eyes—quite black, and as bright as fire!” And she ran away to her room. A minute afterward there came in a young chamberlain, with black whiskers. He went up to the mirror, set his hair straight, and looked about the room. I growled, and sat down in my place. Presently Sophie came in, looking very happy. He clinked his spurs, and she bowed. I pretended not to notice anything, and went on looking out of the window, but I turned my head a little on one side and tried to overhear their conversation. Oh, ma chère, what rubbish they talked! They talked about how, at a dance, one lady had made a mistake and done the wrong figure; then about how a certain Bobov, with a large frill on his shirt, looked very like a stork, and nearly tumbled down; then about how a certain Lidina imagines that her eyes are blue, whereas they are green—and so on. I cannot think, ma chère, what she finds in her Teplov. Why is she so enchanted with him?
  • It seems to me, too, that there’s something wrong here. It’s quite impossible that Teplov could bewitch her so. What comes next?

  • Really, if she can like this chamberlain, it seems to me she might as well like the official who sits in papa’s study. Oh, ma chère, if you knew what a fright he is! Exactly like a tortoise in a bag.
  • What official can that be?

  • He has a most peculiar name. He always sits and mends pens. The hair on his head is very much like hay. Papa always sends him on errands instead of the servant.
  • I believe that beastly little dog is alluding to me. Now, is my hair like hay?

  • Sophie simply cannot keep from laughing when she looks at him.
  • You lie, you confounded dog! What an abominable style! As if I didn’t know that this is simply a case of envy; as if I didn’t know it’s an intrigue! It’s an intrigue of the chief of the section. The man has sworn implacable hate against me, and now he does everything he can to injure me—to injure me at every step. Well, I’ll look at just one more letter; perhaps the affair will explain itself.

  • MY DEAR FIDÈLE: Forgive me for having been so long without writing. I have been in a state of absolute intoxication. It is perfectly true what some writer has said, that love is second life. And then there are great changes going on in our house. The chamberlain comes every day now. Sophie is madly in love with him. Papa is very happy. I even heard from our Grigory, who sweeps the floors, and almost always talks to himself, that there will soon be a wedding, because papa is very anxious to see Sophie married, either to a general, or to a chamberlain, or a colonel.
  • Deuce take it all! I can read no more. A chamberlain or a general! I should like to become a general myself, not in order to obtain her hand or anything like that—no, I should like to be a general, only to see them put on all their airs and graces and show off all their court ways, and then tell them that I don’t care a brass farthing for either of them. It really is annoying, confound it all!

    I tore the silly little dog’s letters into bits.