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Shakespeare, Dumas, and Co

par Gennady Ulman

 

Westminster Abbey is a monument of architecture in London, in the center of which is a burial place for Shakespeare, Dickens, and other celebrities.
From the school text-book

 

It was utterly inconvenient to lie on the hard straws. But Nick Mantel, not once got into such situations. The clayish floor somewhat cooled the body, hot from sweat and evaporations, streaming from the ground. The golden geckos, which fussed on the walls of the shackle seemed not to notice how difficult it was to breathe.

Borneo tropics, thought Nick, unsuccessfully trying to fall asleep. Exotic place, damn it!

He, frightening tiny spiders, stretched his hand and found the box of cigarettes. Only three are left, clicked in his brain automatically. Well, not so terrible, after all. For three months, the aborigines of this unknown tribe share with him frugal food and water. Would they refuse him from tobacco? He remembered the hand-made clay pipes. Judging by the smoke, the tobacco was made in hell. But that would be better than nothing. Nick, an ardent smoker, could not imagine himself without tobacco. And without books neither. However, there were no books. With his well-developed imagination, and a bit of irony, he momentarily saw a crowd of locals in front of the library-shackle. He smiled, a little bit, bitterly.

As a matter of fact, they did have some alphabet. Half pictures, half sign, "fifty-fifty", as Americans would say.

More than that, there were even something like manuscripts: several thick and huge lianas which were embracing the stem of an old gingko, were used for inscribing some signs and pictures. What it was, Nick did not know as yet. The tribe's language was quite primitive, a couple of hundreds nouns, and approximately, as many verbs, mostly describing fishing, hunting, and, perhaps, emotions, which were not too spread here.

Something similar he had seen before in Mexico among the descendants of once proud tribe of Mayas. There were fabric belts with dozens of knots, and signs. How were they called? Ah, yes, wampums!

The night brought no relief from the stifling day, only the sun was not burning.

The Fate throws him as a dry leaf. Actually, he had almost nobody to remember: no wife, no love or loves, no family, and a couple of not too close friends. No, when there were books beside, life was quite bearable. But no books here.

No, to sleep was not possible, and no more cigarettes, which was hard to stand.

Nick, awkwardly, crawled out from a skin of some animal, which covered the entrance to the "kert", which was the local name for the shackle. He went on the central "kert", where in front of the fires, the oldsters were sitting with impassive, like cut from the wood, faces, smoking their pipes.

His walk was easy. The ground was resilient, behind his back twigs or leaves were whispering their eternal tales, and some wooden toad loudly mooed.

Seeing a bonfire, he stopped. The old chiefs also noticed him and became slightly alive. Nick, with the help of already known words and, of course, gestures, explained his desire to smoke. A funny sight, he, perhaps, was---thin, red-haired, in a small pareo, blowing his cheeks and exhaling the imaginary smoke.

The old man said: Tobacco is not food. Tobacco is sweet pleasure. We can live without pleasure. I give you two leaves of tobacco--I have two leaves fewer. Give me something for tobacco.

And smart Nick, clever Nick, called by his buddies "Encyclopedia Nick", powerlessly shrugged. What could he give? He never had anything except books.

The old chief smiled and said: Tell us something. But what could he tell?

And suddenly, he got excited from an idea occurred to him. He grasped a pipe from somebody's tattooed hands, he, stammering and looking for words, started:

In such a village as yours, named Verona, lived two families--Montecci family and Capuletti family. The swords he substituted with knives, Fra Lorenzo became a village sage. But the plot did not suffer too many changes. And the immortal saga of Shakespeare sounded very natural in the wilderness of the jungles of Calimantan, showing that Shakespeare is clear not only to educated people.

When Nick finished, he was surrounded by the excited oldsters. Did you think it over yourself, they kept asking. Nick again shrugged and said: Somebody named Shakespeare.

The next day, Nick was not let out of his small "kert".He was offered the most delicious delicatessen: roasted fish, something similar to yams, even local whiskie"kassawa", made from the palm-tree. He was terrified by enormous heaps of tobacco leaves, dozens of pipes.

One of the chiefs gave him his own pipe, and even cut some picture on it. Instead they hungrily demanded only one thing: to listen. All the time they called him Shakespeare, but Nick seemed to get tired of explaining them that Shakespeare was not him.

He told them about a chief of the big tribe of white people Napoleon, about a big "kert" where disobedient white people were imprisoned, and which had the name castle d"If. He told then about four brave young warriors who decided to help the wife of a supreme chief and whose names were Athos, Porthos,Aramis, and d'Artagnan.

The boys' eyes were sparkling, and the naked girls coquettishly called themselves Constance, Anna, but the most honorable name was the one, which sounded like a small gust of wind--Haidee. Every morning the boys played in Athos and his friends, and fiercely fought for the honor to become d'Artagnan.

Nick invented the details, which would embarrass Dickens and Dumas and started to teach the aborigines his own language. One of the them, a local genius, invented paper by way of putting the bark of the palm into boiling water, and drying the substance afterwards.

The paper's color was brownish, but it really did not matter. Nick was presented the best feather in the world, long with sharpened point, and the ink he invented himself, using partially the recipe of unforgettable Abbe Faria. The first sheets were cut as neatly as possible with knives brought by the representatives of another tribe which got a couple of them from some accidental white traders. The same genius, experimenting with different plants, invented a harder paper, which was used as the covers. And the hunters brought Nick the best glue in the world, obtained from the boiled legs of some exotic bird.

Half of the day Nick feverishly wrote what had been written long before. He did not have an idea of plagiarizing as he honestly and accurately at the end of "his" books placed a name: Dumas, London, Byron. He did not pay any attention to the locals who every day called him a different name. His life was devoted to an idea to write more and more, and when his own wife, who was brought to him as the greatest gift from the United Council of Tribes, and who bore him several red-haired and dark-skinned children, named him either Stevenson or Wilde, he just smiled. He remembered the story of "Tusitala', and came to a not too new conclusion that if you want to read, not having books, you have to write them yourself.

Years passed. The fat from the birds and animals was extracted and turned into primitive, but dependant candles. In the evenings, the locals were reading, and finally, the chiefs had to prohibit reading to the youngsters before hunting otherwise the tribe might die from hunger.

Nick grew older and older, and the locals frequently changed him writing. Especially good were his own kids, not any more kids, of course. They proudly called themselves children of Byron or Jules Verne.

When Nick's last day came, he called one of his grandsons, and in a weak hand wrote some words. What is it, Grandpa, one of them questioned, after reading. We do not understand.

It's my will, said Nick. I want it to be inscribed on my stone.

The next day, all tribes came to say farewell to the best teller they had ever known in their lives. They accurately cut the words on a solid rock with the help of other rocks, and spending for this a couple of days. Some words they added on their own name, but three words belonging to Nick, were thoroughly kept.

After 10 years a scientific expedition found the people of the tribe. One of the members later retold about this unique meeting, still not believing his own words.

Can you imagine, he told the public, I offer them the color necklaces, they looked at them disinterestedly, and then a chief asked: Do you have the books? I thought I would faint.

The chief looked again and said: Please don't look at me as if you have seen Milady de Winter. Thank God, she was executed. Our woman photographer hiccupped and started to fall down.

Of course, much later, when I saw their library and listened to the story, I came to understand the things better, but you all understand my feelings. I decided that I drank too much kassawa.

But the most surprise waited for me when they brought me to this Nick Mantel's tomb asking if I could explain to them what three last words meant. Which I did.

Even after his death, he proved he was a real gentleman with a real sense of humor. You know what was written on his stone?

Here lies the most wonderful teller ever known. He wrote exciting books under the invented names of Dumas, Andersen, Shakespeare, and others. He was too modest to write under his own name.

Westminster Abbey. A filial.

Nick Mantel

 

Version française


 

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