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

Mikhail Saltykov (Shchedrin) (1826–1889)

Two Generals and a Peasant

SOME years ago there lived in St. Petersburg two generals. Now these generals had grown old in the service of the government, having spent the whole of their lives in small civil offices, and consequently they knew nothing beyond the mere routine of their duties. Their entire vocabulary consisted of such words as “I remain, sir, most respectfully yours.” In due time the generals retired on a pension, each hired a cook, and they settled down in Redtape Avenue to a comfortable old age.

One morning, when they awoke, they found themselves lying together in a single bed.

“I had a horrible dream last night, your Excellency,” said one of the generals. “I actually thought I was living on a desert island.”

Hardly had the words left his mouth, when he sprang out of bed, followed by the other general.

“Good heavens! what can this mean? Where are we?” they exclaimed in unison.

Then they began to pinch each other, convinced that they must still be asleep. But they could not, try as they might, persuade themselves that they were dreaming. Except for a small patch of land to the rear of them, they were surrounded by the wide sea. For the first time since they had left their desks the generals began to weep. When they looked at each other they discovered that they were clothed only in nightgowns. On the neck of each, however, hung a medal.

“How I should like a cup of coffee!” said one general. But when he remembered his sad plight, he again burst into tears.

“What is to be done?” he went on, still sobbing. “It would do no good to write a report about it.”

“Listen to me,” said the other general. “You go toward the east, and I will go toward the west, and at nightfall we will return to this spot. That may be the means of our discovering something.”

But they did not know in which direction east or west lay. They remembered that a higher official had once told them that to find the east you must stand with your face toward the north, and then turn to the right. They began, therefore, to look for the north, and in doing so placed themselves in every position imaginable, but as the horizon of their experience was bounded by the government office, they came to no conclusion.

“You go to the right, and I will go to the left; that will come to the same thing,” said one of the generals, who at one time had taught handwriting in a boys’ school, and consequently possessed a little common sense.

The general who went to the right saw fruit-trees growing, but when he tried to get an apple he found that the fruit hung beyond his reach. When he tried to climb for it he tore his clothes to pieces, but accomplished nothing else. Soon after this the general came to a stream, which was as full of fish as the fish-shop on the Fontanka Canal. “If only those fish were cooked!” said the general to himself, quite faint with hunger. In a wood he saw partridges, woodcock, and hares, but there was no way of catching any of them for food, and so he had to return empty-handed to the place of departure. The other general was already there.

“Well, your Excellency, what luck?”

“I have found an old copy of the Moscow Gazette, but nothing else.”

The generals lay down again and tried to sleep, but hunger kept them awake, and they were also concerned as to the fate of their pensions.

“Who would ever have guessed, your Excellency, that food in its first stage swims, flies, and grows on trees?” said one general, thinking of the fish, fruit, and birds he had seen. “Therefore, when one wants to eat a pheasant, one must first catch it, kill it, pluck it, and cook it. But how is all that to be done?”

“Yes, how is that to be done?” repeated the other general. “It almost seems to me that I could eat my boots, I am so hungry!”

“Gloves would not be so bad, either,” said the other general, “especially when they have been worn some time.”

Suddenly the generals looked at each other; their eyes flashed fire, their teeth clinched, guttural sounds burst from their lips. In a second they were fighting furiously. The air was filled with groans and flying hair. The general who had been a writing-master got his teeth into his opponent’s medal and accidentally swallowed it. The sight of blood brought them to their senses.

“Saints of heaven, defend us!” they exclaimed with one accord. “We shall eat each other next!”

“But how did we get here? What imp of malevolence has been tricking us?”

“We must think of something more pleasant, your Excellency, or murder will be done,” said the other general. “What do you say to this, for instance: Why does the sun set before rising, instead of vice versa?”

“What a silly question! Didn’t you rise first yourself, go to the office, write, and finally retire?”

“But why not the other way about? First I go to bed, dream various things, and afterward rise.”

“Perhaps; but when I served the government I always thought of it as beginning with the morning, then dinner, and then bed.”

But the mention of dinner cut the conversation off short by recalling their pangs of hunger.

“I once heard a doctor say that a man can live for many days on his natural juices,” began one of the generals.


“Yes. It seems that one juice develops another, which, in turn, is consumed, until finally none is left.”

“And then?”

“Then one must eat something.”

In fact, no matter what the generals started to talk about, the discussion ended in food, and this only tended to still further inflame their appetites. They decided to stop talking, and, remembering the copy of the Moscow Gazette which they had found, they turned to it for amusement.

“Yesterday,” read one general with a quavering voice, “the governor of our historic capital held a great banquet, to which one hundred guests were invited. The epicures of the world seemed to have united to provide this wonderful feast. Royal pheasants from the Caucasus, caviare fresh from the banks of the Caspian, and even strawberries, which are almost unknown in our city in the month of February——”

“Merciful heavens! is there no other subject in the world?” exclaimed the other general in despair; and, taking the newspaper from his colleague’s hand, he read:

“A correspondent writes from Tula: ‘A dinner was held yesterday to celebrate the capture of a sturgeon from the river Upa. The fish in question was brought in on an enormous wooden tray, buried in cucumbers and crowned with a sprig of green. Dr. R., who presided on the occasion, took special pains to see that each of the guests received his share. The sauce was tasty in the extreme——’”

“My dear Excellency, it seems that you also are partial in your reading!” broke in the first general, and retaking the paper, he read:

“A correspondent writes us from Viatka: ‘An old fisherman has invented the following interesting recipe for fish broth: Take a live turbot and beat him with a stick until his liver becomes swollen with fury; then——’”

This was too much for the generals. Even their own thoughts played them traitor. But suddenly the general who had taught handwriting was seized with an idea.

“What do you say, your Excellency, to our looking for a peasant, an ordinary peasant? He would undoubtedly be able to give us fresh rolls, and catch pheasants and fish for us.”

“All very well, but where do you propose to find this peasant?”

“Oh, that will be easy enough. There are peasants everywhere. There must be one on this island, and all we have to do is to find him. He is probably in hiding somewhere because he is too lazy to work.”

This scheme pleased the generals so much that they immediately sprang up and set out on their quest. After searching for a long time without success, the smell of stale food attracted them to a tree under which a huge peasant lay sleeping, evidently skulking in the most scandalous fashion. The generals became white with anger, and jerked the man to his feet.

“What, sleeping! And two generals who have had nothing to eat for two days! Get to work this very instant!”

The man looked as if he would have liked to escape, but there was no mistaking the wrath of the two generals.

For a beginning he climbed one of the trees and picked a dozen of the best apples for the generals, reserving an unripe one for himself. Then he scraped the ground, and brought out potatoes. Then he made a fire by rubbing sticks together. Then he made a trap from his own hair, and snared a partridge. Finally, he cooked the provisions so well that the idea even struck the generals they might possibly give the lazy vagabond a bit for himself. They had already forgotten that they had been nearly starved the day before, and they were filled with pride at being generals, who always rose superior to circumstances.

“Now are you content, generals?” asked the lazy peasant.

“We are satisfied with your efforts, dear friend,” replied the generals.

“May I not rest a little, then?”

“Certainly, my good man; but first make us a rope.”

The peasant at once collected a quantity of wild hemp, soaked it, plaited it, and by nightfall the rope was made. This rope served the generals to such good purpose that they tied the peasant to a tree, so that he might not escape, after which they lay down to sleep.

Day after day passed. The peasant became so expert that he was soon able to cook soup in the palm of his hand. The generals became cheerful, fat, and healthy. They began to realize the fact that they were living on the fat of the land while their pensions were piling up in St. Petersburg.

“What is your opinion of the Tower of Babel, your Excellency?” one general would say to the other as they were eating breakfast. “Do you think it was true, or merely a legend?”

“It certainly must have been true. How, otherwise, do you account for the existence of so many languages?”

“Then the flood must also have taken place?”

“Of course it did. Do we not know of the existence of many antediluvian animals? Why, I have even read it in the Moscow Gazette.”

“Let us read the Moscow Gazette, then.”

And they would get the old copy, sit in the shade, and read it through from beginning to end—read of what people had been eating in Moscow, Tula, and other places—and it did not affect them in the least; certainly it did not excite them to envy.

But finally the generals wearied of the monotony of their lives. They thought more and more of the cooks they had left in Redtape Avenue, and occasionally they even wept in secret.

“What do you think they are doing now in Redtape Avenue, your Excellency?” asked one general of the other.

“Please do not mention it, your Excellency!” replied the other. “My heart is yearning for the old days!”

“It is very comfortable here—very comfortable. We cannot complain. And yet it is rather tiresome to be alone, is it not? And then, I regret my uniform.”

“Of course you do! Especially as it is one of the fourth class. The lace on it alone dazzles the eye!”

And so they began to entreat the peasant to take them to Redtape Avenue. And then they found, curiously enough, that the peasant himself had been there.

“Why, we are the generals from Redtape Avenue, you know!” exclaimed the generals in joyful chorus.

“And I, I am the man who paints the outside of a house, suspended from a rope, and walks on the roof like a fly. You may have noticed me sometimes.” And he began to dance to amuse the generals. For had they not treated him kindly, this lazy vagabond, and condescended to accept his low-born service? So he built a boat in which they might sail over the sea to Redtape Avenue.

“But see to it that you don’t drown us!” cried the generals, when they saw the frail craft rocking on the waves.

“Be easy, generals; I know what I am about,” replied the peasant, and began his preparations for departure.

The peasant gathered up the feathers of swans, and with them covered the bottom of the boat, placed the generals in the center, made the sign of the cross over them, and set out. All manner of storms and high winds crossed their path, and the terror experienced by the generals can never be described; but the peasant never stopped rowing, except when he caught herrings with which to feed the travelers.

But at last they reached the Neva, and the great Katherine Canal, and the glorious Redtape Avenue. The cooks held up their hands in astonishment when they beheld their generals so fat and white and jolly! The generals drank their coffee, ate rolls with real butter, and donned their uniforms. Then they went to the Imperial Treasury, and pen cannot write, nor can tongue tell, what an enormous sum of money they each received there.

But they did not forget the poor peasant—not they. They gave him a glass of brandy and a silver five-copeck piece, with the salutation, “Your health, you great, stupid peasant!”