Repetitive Ducks

Taking large strides with his long legs adorned with double-red stripes, the colonel - a brigadier with one star splitting the waves of the crowd who drew back like the Red Sea before Moses, advanced, dry and black like a cigar, to board the gunboat Oituz which, shining and fluttering its flag, lulled coquettish at the lending place, tied to the azure of the sky with a rather fluffy strap of bluish smoke. Once on board the ship, immobile, he observed the departure manoeuvre, and then provokingly examined the opposite bank through his binoculars, asking details. The major, very new in his command and also a stranger to those places, asserted enormities which the colonel competently aggravated. "What river is that?""The Maritsa." "The one in the Bulgarian song Shumi Maritsa?""Precisely, Sir." The sun and gravity weighed equally heavy on the shoulder of the future general, insensibly he yielded to traditional habit bearing his head, unbuttoning his coat just a little, then a little further down and a bit later he found himself close to the major, sitting down like old comrades, without their tunics, sharing the shade of a tent cloth spread from the mast end discussing in every detail the rise in pay, radically amending the promotion law. Definitely, the colonel was no scholar: he was conversant enough with the regulations, but only the old ones which - it is common knowledge - greatly contradicted the new ones, which he was called to apply. He had acquired his stars Russian-fashion, end out of the qualities required from an officer, he only possessed what has come to be called in the army "an eye for the location." But as wars had again become an underground affair the "eye for the location" was of no value whatever to him. Whenever he went on routine inspection, he was ill-tempered, inclined to find that everything was wrong, though eventually he declared his perfect satisfaction and treated the officers with unreserved familiarity: "All right, Costache, that' very good!... I'm very content." The colonel had an Italian cape and a great quality: he was perfectly correct - which he himself confessed - and one, tiny defect - his comrades-at-arms asserted - he was very stingy. Rubbing against each other, the two features of his nature tempered one another, making him sensitive to delicate attentions – as we all are. "What are we going to eat, my dear Costache?""Are you hungry, Sir?" "Well, old bean, you know what fleeting on water is like. I somehow feel a sort of melancholy in my stomach..." "It won't take a minute... Are you ready, helmsman?" "Ready, Sir!"The major passed on the word to the colonel: "Ready, Sir!" "What? Is it ready already?!… Bravo, major!... What will you give us?… Is that soft roe?""Caviar.""How much did you pay for it?""Forty lei a kilo." "More than that, Sir-" timidly put in the helmsman."Shut up, you fool! What do you know?… It may cost more in Bucharest, but here on the Danube it's only a matter of a tip-" "Really?... well, old bean, try to get some for myself!""Certainly, Sir." "But please don't forget about it. I don't need much, a kilo, for I haven't got a large family, just me and my wife… Oh, let me give you the money already... The Missus loves caviar, would eat it even if you wake her up in the middle of the night…. Here are your forty lei-""Oh, please, you shouldn't-" "No, no, I want to be positive about it. Write here that you have received from colonel-""General..." "Never mind that, you write what I tell you. Sign it... All right!… Now you'll be bound to do it...""Please help yourself, Sir." "Cauliflower?... At this time of the year? Well, well, well, Costache, but you do live in clover and no mistake… And champagne too? Well, drop it, that's the limit!... Don't open it, private!""Let him open it, Sir." "Let him not open it, major." "Open it, man!" "Too much! Why did you open it, you jackass?… I'll send you up for solitary confinement!... Now really you shouldn't have you know major that I never-""Now, don't take it too hard, Sir, for it's only five lei the bottle.""Really?" "Smuggled." "Well, major, now I can understand it! Why didn't you say so from the very beginning?… Go on, private, pour some more! Major, you must get me too a couple of dozen bottles. Let me give you the money too…""Never mind, Sir." "No, no, here you are. Le bon con fon bo ami... Sign here ... Have you got coffee?""Certainly, Sir." "Then have the coffee sent up, and I'll lie down a bit. I've got into this habit of an afternoon nap ever since a child... How much have I got to pay?" "Nothing, Sir.""That's out of the question, Major." "Please, Sir, General." "I won't accept it." "I beg you, Sir." "Now listen, my dear Costache-" "You hurt my self-respect, Sir.""Why don't you accept to make a Dutch treat, Brudenshaf?" "That can't be." "All right, Costache my dear, if you say so… Long may you live! Draw nearer, I want to kiss you!… You've always been a good boy, I remember you from the military academy... Your turn for promotion is sure to come soon... Don't fear, men, everybody gets on with me. Now tell me frankly - not because I'm going to became a general, but because nobody can hear us - am I not a kind-hearted man?" "General, Sir, a man like you-" "And what do the boys say about me?" "Only good things, what could they say?" "I haven't harmed anybody, man... I am very exacting, that's true, for such is military routine - as that chap used to say - but I've never decreed any punishment, nor do I think… That is, wait, whet could one say... Well, let's see, I don't know. We can't harness the future, can we, Costache?… Good bye!""Where shall I have a doze?""Please come to the cabin 'tweendeck!""Aren't you taking a nap?" "No, for we've reached the port of Corabia." "Right you are. Let's go up on deck. Now just imagine, man, how swiftly it has sailed! I wouldn't believe it! What has that old man got to sell?""Ducks.""How much do you charge, Uncle?" "Well, Sir, I really don't know what to charge… How much would you offer?""I'm not a man to bargain; name your price." "A hundred lei.""Now, really Uncle, aren't you ashamed to charge so much?"I'm not, for I've fed them on maize grains... and we pay the merchant a hundred and thirty lei the bushel." "It's expensive, Uncle.""You're right, Sir, but you see lamp oil now costs ten lei the quart.""Expensive, highly expensive!""Don't buy them if you think so." "Do sell them cheaper, Uncle… The gentleman is a general." "May God keep him healthy!… I've also got a son in the army... You may have heard of him... Mărin, son to Simion Potloagă of the fourteenth antillerry-""All right, drop that!… Well, what's your last word, shall I get the ducks?""You will if you pay the price!" "How much?" "As I said." "Here are forty lei for you.""Foooorty!" "Never mind, Sir, you shouldn't pay, for you are a general and this happens in my sector! Bring over those ducks, man!" "I won't give them away!""Never mind, man!" "I won't give them, never!" "Take your hands off, don't be a fool!""Is that the way things go?" "It's for the general, you fool!" "Then add ten lei.""I won't add one leu... They're lean, ready to die." "They're lean because they're laying... You shouldn't kill them either, for it's a pity… They're the Turkish kind, which lay day in day out.""You don't say so!" "Well... you bought them cheap, as things go in the army, but it doesn't matter... Perhaps on the other hand you will take pity on me and discharge my son from the army, for I've only been left with him… His elder brother died at the front… Come on, Sir, won't you add ten lei, eh?… Then, I wish you joy of them, yet my advice is not to kill them, or it would be a pity. It would have been but the barest kindness of your part to have given me at least money for a glass of brandy for I'm an old man, my strength is leaving me… had I been younger…" It was a long voyage. They were advancing slowly, inspecting the frontier, killing the monotony of sailing with backgammon played at a stake of five lei the game, with the money lying close by in the box: dog-eared filthy banknotes resting on the floor and pressed with stones, not to be blown away by the wind. The next day, the general, hiding his interested eagerness under the meek of John Bull's phlegm, suggested to the major to go on a reconnoitring trip:"How are your ducks? Let's see what feat they have made… Have the ducks laid, helmsman?" "No, Sir, they haven't." "How now, they haven't, you scoundrel!""They haven't, Sir." "Major, your men must have eaten the eggs… These men of yours are great rogues, you must keep them under observation every moment. It's not so much the egg: suppose it was laid and then was broken… So it's gone, the devil may take it... But your men shouldn't fool you and believe they're cleverer than you." Throughout the day, the colonel walked up and down in a listless mood. He played no backgammon and retired to his cabin rather early, without the usual formalities. Being very worried, the major summoned his crew (made up besides the helmsman who also did duty for a charwoman - of a private who was also a mechanic and two orderlies). At the poop, in secret, he gave them a speech, whose whispered words got lost in the darkness, blown away among the darkness willow-trees bent under the wind. The next morning, the orderly proclaimed merrily, while helping the general into his clothes:"Sir, the ducks have laid!" "Really?" "Both of them." "Bravo! I had even started wondering. And where are the eggs?" "I didn't remove them from the place. I thought perhaps you'd care to see them for yourself, Sir." "Is that so?... All right, I'm coming. Did you hear that major?... A very good morning to you!... The ducks have laid eggs. Did you sleep well?... The private said both of them have laid eggs... Now the problem is what are we going to do about grains?" "There's plenty of grains, Sir.""Have you got grains?""Well, a handful or two may be got from the barges." "Then, I'll buy another brace or two and entrust them to you... You shall send them to me next winter. Where are the ducks?... What? Four eggs?""Yessir!" "Four eggs? Is that possible, major?" "It is, Sir. Turkish ducks, repetitive..." "Right you are! Brave for the old man! Probably it's because they failed to lay yesterday.""They must have been tired." "Poor fowls! Feed them well... And let's shoot the dice again." "Now you've started like fools," the major frowned at his men behind the general's back. "The helmsman alone should be in charge of laying the eggs in the nest.""No, Sir, I won't lay either." "Don't be a fool!" "I'm afraid, Sir, really I'm afraid." "Why, for Chrissakes?" "They're both drakes, Sir!"

by Gheorghe Brăescu (1871-1949)