To the door of an inn in the provincial town of N. there drew up a smart britchka—a light spring-carriage of the sort affected by bachelors, retired lieutenant-colonels, staff-captains, land-owners possessed of about a hundred souls, and, in short, all persons who rank as gentlemen of the intermediate category. In the britchka was seated such a gentleman—a man who, though not handsome, was not ill-favoured, not over-fat, and not over-thin. Also, though not over-elderly, he was not over-young. His arrival produced no stir in the town, and was accompanied by no particular incident, beyond that a couple of peasants who happened to be standing at the door of a dramshop exchanged a few comments with reference to the equipage rather than to the individual who was seated in it. "Look at that carriage," one of them said to the other. "Think you it will be going as far as Moscow?" "I think it will," replied his companion. "But not as far as Kazan, eh?" "No, not as far as Kazan." With that the conversation ended. Presently, as the britchka was approaching the inn, it was met by a young man in a pair of very short, very tight breeches of white dimity, a quasi-fashionable frockcoat, and a dickey fastened with a pistol-shaped bronze tie-pin. The young man turned his head as he passed the britchka and eyed it attentively; after which he clapped his hand to his cap (which was in danger of being removed by the wind) and resumed his way. On the vehicle reaching the inn door, its occupant found standing there to welcome him the polevoi, or waiter, of the establishment—an individual of such nimble and brisk movement that even to distinguish the character of his face was impossible. Running out with a napkin in one hand and his lanky form clad in a tailcoat, reaching almost to the nape of his neck, he tossed back his locks, and escorted the gentleman upstairs, along a wooden gallery, and so to the bedchamber which God had prepared for the gentleman's reception. The said bedchamber was of quite ordinary appearance, since the inn belonged to the species to be found in all provincial towns—the species wherein, for two roubles a day, travellers may obtain a room swarming with black-beetles, and communicating by a doorway with the apartment adjoining. True, the doorway may be blocked up with a wardrobe; yet behind it, in all probability, there will be standing a silent, motionless neighbour whose ears are burning to learn every possible detail concerning the latest arrival. The inn's exterior corresponded with its interior. Long, and consisting only of two storeys, the building had its lower half destitute of stucco; with the result that the dark-red bricks, originally more or less dingy, had grown yet dingier under the influence of atmospheric changes. As for the upper half of the building, it was, of course, painted the usual tint of unfading yellow. Within, on the ground floor, there stood a number of benches heaped with horse-collars, rope, and sheepskins; while the window-seat accommodated a sbitentshik, cheek by jowl with a samovar—the latter so closely resembling the former in appearance that, but for the fact of the samovar possessing a pitch-black lip, the samovar and the sbitentshik might have been two of a pair.
During the traveller's inspection of his room his luggage was brought into the apartment. First came a portmanteau of white leather whose raggedness indicated that the receptacle had made several previous journeys. The bearers of the same were the gentleman's coachman, Selifan (a little man in a large overcoat), and the gentleman's valet, Petrushka—the latter a fellow of about thirty, clad in a worn, over-ample jacket which formerly had graced his master's shoulders, and possessed of a nose and a pair of lips whose coarseness communicated to his face rather a sullen expression. Behind the portmanteau came a small dispatch-box of redwood, lined with birch bark, a boot-case, and (wrapped in blue paper) a roast fowl; all of which having been deposited, the coachman departed to look after his horses, and the valet to establish himself in the little dark anteroom or kennel where already he had stored a cloak, a bagful of livery, and his own peculiar smell. Pressing the narrow bedstead back against the wall, he covered it with the tiny remnant of mattress—a remnant as thin and flat (perhaps also as greasy) as a pancake—which he had managed to beg of the landlord of the establishment.
While the attendants had been thus setting things straight the gentleman had repaired to the common parlour. The appearance of common parlours of the kind is known to every one who travels. Always they have varnished walls which, grown black in their upper portions with tobacco smoke, are, in their lower, grown shiny with the friction of customers' backs—more especially with that of the backs of such local tradesmen as, on market-days, make it their regular practice to resort to the local hostelry for a glass of tea. Also, parlours of this kind invariably contain smutty ceilings, an equally smutty chandelier, a number of pendent shades which jump and rattle whenever the waiter scurries across the shabby oilcloth with a trayful of glasses (the glasses looking like a flock of birds roosting by the seashore), and a selection of oil paintings. In short, there are certain objects which one sees in every inn. In the present case the only outstanding feature of the room was the fact that in one of the paintings a nymph was portrayed as possessing breasts of a size such as the reader can never in his life have beheld. A similar caricaturing of nature is to be noted in the historical pictures (of unknown origin, period, and creation) which reach us—sometimes through the instrumentality of Russian magnates who profess to be connoisseurs of art—from Italy; owing to the said magnates having made such purchases solely on the advice of the couriers who have escorted them.
To resume, however—our traveller removed his cap, and divested his neck of a parti-coloured woollen scarf of the kind which a wife makes for her husband with her own hands, while accompanying the gift with interminable injunctions as to how best such a garment ought to be folded. True, bachelors also wear similar gauds, but, in their case, God alone knows who may have manufactured the articles! For my part, I cannot endure them. Having unfolded the scarf, the gentleman ordered dinner, and whilst the various dishes were being got ready—cabbage soup, a pie several weeks old, a dish of marrow and peas, a dish of sausages and cabbage, a roast fowl, some salted cucumber, and the sweet tart which stands perpetually ready for use in such establishments; whilst, I say, these things were either being warmed up or brought in cold, the gentleman induced the waiter to retail certain fragments of tittle-tattle concerning the late landlord of the hostelry, the amount of income which the hostelry produced, and the character of its present proprietor. To the last-mentioned inquiry the waiter returned the answer invariably given in such cases—namely, "My master is a terribly hard man, sir." Curious that in enlightened Russia so many people cannot even take a meal at an inn without chattering to the attendant and making free with him! Nevertheless not ALL the questions which the gentleman asked were aimless ones, for he inquired who was Governor of the town, who President of the Local Council, and who Public Prosecutor. In short, he omitted no single official of note, while asking also (though with an air of detachment) the most exact particulars concerning the landowners of the neighbourhood. Which of them, he inquired, possessed serfs, and how many of them? How far from the town did those landowners reside? What was the character of each landowner, and was he in the habit of paying frequent visits to the town? The gentleman also made searching inquiries concerning the hygienic condition of the countryside. Was there, he asked, much sickness about—whether sporadic fever, fatal forms of ague, smallpox, or what not? Yet, though his solicitude concerning these matters showed more than ordinary curiosity, his bearing retained its gravity unimpaired, and from time to time he blew his nose with portentous fervour. Indeed, the manner in which he accomplished this latter feat was marvellous in the extreme, for, though that member emitted sounds equal to those of a trumpet in intensity, he could yet, with his accompanying air of guileless dignity, evoke the waiter's undivided respect—so much so that, whenever the sounds of the nose reached that menial's ears, he would shake back his locks, straighten himself into a posture of marked solicitude, and inquire afresh, with head slightly inclined, whether the gentleman happened to require anything further. After dinner the guest consumed a cup of coffee, and then, seating himself upon the sofa, with, behind him, one of those wool-covered cushions which, in Russian taverns, resemble nothing so much as a cobblestone or a brick, fell to snoring; whereafter, returning with a start to consciousness, he ordered himself to be conducted to his room, flung himself at full length upon the bed, and once more slept soundly for a couple of hours. Aroused, eventually, by the waiter, he, at the latter's request, inscribed a fragment of paper with his name, his surname, and his rank (for communication, in accordance with the law, to the police): and on that paper the waiter, leaning forward from the corridor, read, syllable by syllable: "Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov, Collegiate Councillor—Landowner—Travelling on Private Affairs." The waiter had just time to accomplish this feat before Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov set forth to inspect the town. Apparently the place succeeded in satisfying him, and, to tell the truth, it was at least up to the usual standard of our provincial capitals. Where the staring yellow of stone edifices did not greet his eye he found himself confronted with the more modest grey of wooden ones; which, consisting, for the most part, of one or two storeys (added to the range of attics which provincial architects love so well), looked almost lost amid the expanses of street and intervening medleys of broken or half-finished partition-walls. At other points evidence of more life and movement was to be seen, and here the houses stood crowded together and displayed dilapidated, rain-blurred signboards whereon boots of cakes or pairs of blue breeches inscribed "Arshavski, Tailor," and so forth, were depicted. Over a shop containing hats and caps was written "Vassili Thedorov, Foreigner"; while, at another spot, a signboard portrayed a billiard table and two players—the latter clad in frockcoats of the kind usually affected by actors whose part it is to enter the stage during the closing act of a piece, even though, with arms sharply crooked and legs slightly bent, the said billiard players were taking the most careful aim, but succeeding only in making abortive strokes in the air. Each emporium of the sort had written over it: "This is the best establishment of its kind in the town." Also, al fresco in the streets there stood tables heaped with nuts, soap, and gingerbread (the latter but little distinguishable from the soap), and at an eating-house there was displayed the sign of a plump fish transfixed with a gaff. But the sign most frequently to be discerned was the insignia of the State, the double-headed eagle (now replaced, in this connection, with the laconic inscription "Dramshop"). As for the paving of the town, it was uniformly bad.
The gentleman peered also into the municipal gardens, which contained only a few sorry trees that were poorly selected, requiring to be propped with oil-painted, triangular green supports, and able to boast of a height no greater than that of an ordinary walking-stick. Yet recently the local paper had said (apropos of a gala) that, "Thanks to the efforts of our Civil Governor, the town has become enriched with a pleasaunce full of umbrageous, spaciously-branching trees. Even on the most sultry day they afford agreeable shade, and indeed gratifying was it to see the hearts of our citizens panting with an impulse of gratitude as their eyes shed tears in recognition of all that their Governor has done for them!"
Next, after inquiring of a gendarme as to the best ways and means of finding the local council, the local law-courts, and the local Governor, should he (Chichikov) have need of them, the gentleman went on to inspect the river which ran through the town. En route he tore off a notice affixed to a post, in order that he might the more conveniently read it after his return to the inn. Also, he bestowed upon a lady of pleasant exterior who, escorted by a footman laden with a bundle, happened to be passing along a wooden sidewalk a prolonged stare. Lastly, he threw around him a comprehensive glance (as though to fix in his mind the general topography of the place) and betook himself home. There, gently aided by the waiter, he ascended the stairs to his bedroom, drank a glass of tea, and, seating himself at the table, called for a candle; which having been brought him, he produced from his pocket the notice, held it close to the flame, and conned its tenour—slightly contracting his right eye as he did so. Yet there was little in the notice to call for remark. All that it said was that shortly one of Kotzebue's plays would be given, and that one of the parts in the play was to be taken by a certain Monsieur Poplevin, and another by a certain Mademoiselle Ziablova, while the remaining parts were to be filled by a number of less important personages. Nevertheless the gentleman perused the notice with careful attention, and even jotted down the prices to be asked for seats for the performance. Also, he remarked that the bill had been printed in the press of the Provincial Government. Next, he turned over the paper, in order to see if anything further was to be read on the reverse side; but, finding nothing there, he refolded the document, placed it in the box which served him as a receptacle for odds and ends, and brought the day to a close with a portion of cold veal, a bottle of pickles, and a sound sleep.
The following day he devoted to paying calls upon the various municipal officials—a first, and a very respectful, visit being paid to the Governor. This personage turned out to resemble Chichikov himself in that he was neither fat nor thin. Also, he wore the riband of the order of Saint Anna about his neck, and was reported to have been recommended also for the star. For the rest, he was large and good-natured, and had a habit of amusing himself with occasional spells of knitting. Next, Chichikov repaired to the Vice-Governor's, and thence to the house of the Public Prosecutor, to that of the President of the Local Council, to that of the Chief of Police, to that of the Commissioner of Taxes, and to that of the local Director of State Factories. True, the task of remembering every big-wig in this world of ours is not a very easy one; but at least our visitor displayed the greatest activity in his work of paying calls, seeing that he went so far as to pay his respects also to the Inspector of the Municipal Department of Medicine and to the City Architect. Thereafter he sat thoughtfully in his britchka—plunged in meditation on the subject of whom else it might be well to visit. However, not a single magnate had been neglected, and in conversation with his hosts he had contrived to flatter each separate one. For instance to the Governor he had hinted that a stranger, on arriving in his, the Governor's province, would conceive that he had reached Paradise, so velvety were the roads. "Governors who appoint capable subordinates," had said Chichikov, "are deserving of the most ample meed of praise." Again, to the Chief of Police our hero had passed a most gratifying remark on the subject of the local gendarmery; while in his conversation with the Vice-Governor and the President of the Local Council (neither of whom had, as yet, risen above the rank of State Councillor) he had twice been guilty of the gaucherie of addressing his interlocutors with the title of "Your Excellency"—a blunder which had not failed to delight them. In the result the Governor had invited him to a reception the same evening, and certain other officials had followed suit by inviting him, one of them to dinner, a second to a tea-party, and so forth, and so forth.
Of himself, however, the traveller had spoken little; or, if he had spoken at any length, he had done so in a general sort of way and with marked modesty. Indeed, at moments of the kind his discourse had assumed something of a literary vein, in that invariably he had stated that, being a worm of no account in the world, he was deserving of no consideration at the hands of his fellows; that in his time he had undergone many strange experiences; that subsequently he had suffered much in the cause of Truth; that he had many enemies seeking his life; and that, being desirous of rest, he was now engaged in searching for a spot wherein to dwell—wherefore, having stumbled upon the town in which he now found himself, he had considered it his bounden duty to evince his respect for the chief authorities of the place. This, and no more, was all that, for the moment, the town succeeded in learning about the new arrival. Naturally he lost no time in presenting himself at the Governor's evening party. First, however, his preparations for that function occupied a space of over two hours, and necessitated an attention to his toilet of a kind not commonly seen. That is to say, after a brief post-grandial nap he called for soap and water, and spent a considerable period in the task of scrubbing his cheeks (which, for the purpose, he supported from within with his tongue) and then of drying his full, round face, from the ears downwards, with a towel which he took from the waiter's shoulder. Twice he snorted into the waiter's countenance as he did this, and then he posted himself in front of the mirror, donned a false shirt-front, plucked out a couple of hairs which were protruding from his nose, and appeared vested in a frockcoat of bilberry-coloured check. Thereafter driving through broad streets sparsely lighted with lanterns, he arrived at the Governor's residence to find it illuminated as for a ball. Barouches with gleaming lamps, a couple of gendarmes posted before the doors, a babel of postillions' cries—nothing of a kind likely to be impressive was wanting; and, on reaching the salon, the visitor actually found himself obliged to close his eyes for a moment, so strong was the mingled sheen of lamps, candles, and feminine apparel. Everything seemed suffused with light, and everywhere, flitting and flashing, were to be seen black coats—even as on a hot summer's day flies revolve around a sugar loaf while the old housekeeper is cutting it into cubes before the open window, and the children of the house crowd around her to watch the movements of her rugged hands as those members ply the smoking pestle; and airy squadrons of flies, borne on the breeze, enter boldly, as though free of the house, and, taking advantage of the fact that the glare of the sunshine is troubling the old lady's sight, disperse themselves over broken and unbroken fragments alike, even though the lethargy induced by the opulence of summer and the rich shower of dainties to be encountered at every step has induced them to enter less for the purpose of eating than for that of showing themselves in public, of parading up and down the sugar loaf, of rubbing both their hindquarters and their fore against one another, of cleaning their bodies under the wings, of extending their forelegs over their heads and grooming themselves, and of flying out of the window again to return with other predatory squadrons. Indeed, so dazed was Chichikov that scarcely did he realise that the Governor was taking him by the arm and presenting him to his (the Governor's) lady. Yet the newly-arrived guest kept his head sufficiently to contrive to murmur some such compliment as might fittingly come from a middle-aged individual of a rank neither excessively high nor excessively low. Next, when couples had been formed for dancing and the remainder of the company found itself pressed back against the walls, Chichikov folded his arms, and carefully scrutinised the dancers. Some of the ladies were dressed well and in the fashion, while the remainder were clad in such garments as God usually bestows upon a provincial town. Also here, as elsewhere, the men belonged to two separate and distinct categories; one of which comprised slender individuals who, flitting around the ladies, were scarcely to be distinguished from denizens of the metropolis, so carefully, so artistically, groomed were their whiskers, so presentable their oval, clean-shaven faces, so easy the manner of their dancing attendance upon their womenfolk, so glib their French conversation as they quizzed their female companions. As for the other category, it comprised individuals who, stout, or of the same build as Chichikov (that is to say, neither very portly nor very lean), backed and sidled away from the ladies, and kept peering hither and thither to see whether the Governor's footmen had set out green tables for whist. Their features were full and plump, some of them had beards, and in no case was their hair curled or waved or arranged in what the French call "the devil-may-care" style. On the contrary, their heads were either close-cropped or brushed very smooth, and their faces were round and firm. This category represented the more respectable officials of the town. In passing, I may say that in business matters fat men always prove superior to their leaner brethren; which is probably the reason why the latter are mostly to be found in the Political Police, or acting as mere ciphers whose existence is a purely hopeless, airy, trivial one. Again, stout individuals never take a back seat, but always a front one, and, wheresoever it be, they sit firmly, and with confidence, and decline to budge even though the seat crack and bend with their weight. For comeliness of exterior they care not a rap, and therefore a dress coat sits less easily on their figures than is the case with figures of leaner individuals. Yet invariably fat men amass the greater wealth. In three years' time a thin man will not have a single serf whom he has left unpledged; whereas—well, pray look at a fat man's fortunes, and what will you see? First of all a suburban villa, and then a larger suburban villa, and then a villa close to a town, and lastly a country estate which comprises every amenity! That is to say, having served both God and the State, the stout individual has won universal respect, and will end by retiring from business, reordering his mode of life, and becoming a Russian landowner—in other words, a fine gentleman who dispenses hospitality, lives in comfort and luxury, and is destined to leave his property to heirs who are purposing to squander the same on foreign travel.
That the foregoing represents pretty much the gist of Chichikov's reflections as he stood watching the company I will not attempt to deny. And of those reflections the upshot was that he decided to join himself to the stouter section of the guests, among whom he had already recognised several familiar faces—namely, those of the Public Prosecutor (a man with beetling brows over eyes which seemed to be saying with a wink, "Come into the next room, my friend, for I have something to say to you"—though, in the main, their owner was a man of grave and taciturn habit), of the Postmaster (an insignificant-looking individual, yet a would-be wit and a philosopher), and of the President of the Local Council (a man of much amiability and good sense). These three personages greeted Chichikov as an old acquaintance, and to their salutations he responded with a sidelong, yet a sufficiently civil, bow. Also, he became acquainted with an extremely unctuous and approachable landowner named Manilov, and with a landowner of more uncouth exterior named Sobakevitch—the latter of whom began the acquaintance by treading heavily upon Chichikov's toes, and then begging his pardon. Next, Chichikov received an offer of a "cut in" at whist, and accepted the same with his usual courteous inclination of the head. Seating themselves at a green table, the party did not rise therefrom till supper time; and during that period all conversation between the players became hushed, as is the custom when men have given themselves up to a really serious pursuit. Even the Postmaster—a talkative man by nature—had no sooner taken the cards into his hands than he assumed an expression of profound thought, pursed his lips, and retained this attitude unchanged throughout the game. Only when playing a court card was it his custom to strike the table with his fist, and to exclaim (if the card happened to be a queen), "Now, old popadia!" and (if the card happened to be a king), "Now, peasant of Tambov!" To which ejaculations invariably the President of the Local Council retorted, "Ah, I have him by the ears, I have him by the ears!" And from the neighbourhood of the table other strong ejaculations relative to the play would arise, interposed with one or another of those nicknames which participants in a game are apt to apply to members of the various suits. I need hardly add that, the game over, the players fell to quarrelling, and that in the dispute our friend joined, though so artfully as to let every one see that, in spite of the fact that he was wrangling, he was doing so only in the most amicable fashion possible. Never did he say outright, "You played the wrong card at such and such a point." No, he always employed some such phrase as, "You permitted yourself to make a slip, and thus afforded me the honour of covering your deuce." Indeed, the better to keep in accord with his antagonists, he kept offering them his silver-enamelled snuff-box (at the bottom of which lay a couple of violets, placed there for the sake of their scent). In particular did the newcomer pay attention to landowners Manilov and Sobakevitch; so much so that his haste to arrive on good terms with them led to his leaving the President and the Postmaster rather in the shade. At the same time, certain questions which he put to those two landowners evinced not only curiosity, but also a certain amount of sound intelligence; for he began by asking how many peasant souls each of them possessed, and how their affairs happened at present to be situated, and then proceeded to enlighten himself also as their standing and their families. Indeed, it was not long before he had succeeded in fairly enchanting his new friends. In particular did Manilov—a man still in his prime, and possessed of a pair of eyes which, sweet as sugar, blinked whenever he laughed—find himself unable to make enough of his enchanter. Clasping Chichikov long and fervently by the hand, he besought him to do him, Manilov, the honour of visiting his country house (which he declared to lie at a distance of not more than fifteen versts from the boundaries of the town); and in return Chichikov averred (with an exceedingly affable bow and a most sincere handshake) that he was prepared not only to fulfil his friend's behest, but also to look upon the fulfilling of it as a sacred duty. In the same way Sobakevitch said to him laconically: "And do you pay ME a visit," and then proceeded to shuffle a pair of boots of such dimensions that to find a pair to correspond with them would have been indeed difficult—more especially at the present day, when the race of epic heroes is beginning to die out in Russia.
Next day Chichikov dined and spent the evening at the house of the Chief of Police—a residence where, three hours after dinner, every one sat down to whist, and remained so seated until two o'clock in the morning. On this occasion Chichikov made the acquaintance of, among others, a landowner named Nozdrev—a dissipated little fellow of thirty who had no sooner exchanged three or four words with his new acquaintance than he began to address him in the second person singular. Yet although he did the same to the Chief of Police and the Public Prosecutor, the company had no sooner seated themselves at the card-table than both the one and the other of these functionaries started to keep a careful eye upon Nozdrev's tricks, and to watch practically every card which he played. The following evening Chichikov spent with the President of the Local Council, who received his guests—even though the latter included two ladies—in a greasy dressing-gown. Upon that followed an evening at the Vice-Governor's, a large dinner party at the house of the Commissioner of Taxes, a smaller dinner-party at the house of the Public Prosecutor (a very wealthy man), and a subsequent reception given by the Mayor. In short, not an hour of the day did Chichikov find himself forced to spend at home, and his return to the inn became necessary only for the purposes of sleeping. Somehow or other he had landed on his feet, and everywhere he figured as an experienced man of the world. No matter what the conversation chanced to be about, he always contrived to maintain his part in the same. Did the discourse turn upon horse-breeding, upon horse-breeding he happened to be peculiarly well-qualified to speak. Did the company fall to discussing well-bred dogs, at once he had remarks of the most pertinent kind possible to offer. Did the company touch upon a prosecution which had recently been carried out by the Excise Department, instantly he showed that he too was not wholly unacquainted with legal affairs. Did an opinion chance to be expressed concerning billiards, on that subject too he was at least able to avoid committing a blunder. Did a reference occur to virtue, concerning virtue he hastened to deliver himself in a way which brought tears to every eye. Did the subject in hand happen to be the distilling of brandy—well, that was a matter concerning which he had the soundest of knowledge. Did any one happen to mention Customs officials and inspectors, from that moment he expatiated as though he too had been both a minor functionary and a major. Yet a remarkable fact was the circumstance that he always contrived to temper his omniscience with a certain readiness to give way, a certain ability so to keep a rein upon himself that never did his utterances become too loud or too soft, or transcend what was perfectly befitting. In a word, he was always a gentleman of excellent manners, and every official in the place felt pleased when he saw him enter the door. Thus the Governor gave it as his opinion that Chichikov was a man of excellent intentions; the Public Prosecutor, that he was a good man of business; the Chief of Gendarmery, that he was a man of education; the President of the Local Council, that he was a man of breeding and refinement; and the wife of the Chief of Gendarmery, that his politeness of behaviour was equalled only by his affability of bearing. Nay, even Sobakevitch—who as a rule never spoke well of ANY ONE—said to his lanky wife when, on returning late from the town, he undressed and betook himself to bed by her side: "My dear, this evening, after dining with the Chief of Police, I went on to the Governor's, and met there, among others, a certain Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov, who is a Collegiate Councillor and a very pleasant fellow." To this his spouse replied "Hm!" and then dealt him a hearty kick in the ribs.
Such were the flattering opinions earned by the newcomer to the town; and these opinions he retained until the time when a certain speciality of his, a certain scheme of his (the reader will learn presently what it was), plunged the majority of the townsfolk into a sea of perplexity.
For more than two weeks the visitor lived amid a round of evening parties and dinners; wherefore he spent (as the saying goes) a very pleasant time. Finally he decided to extend his visits beyond the urban boundaries by going and calling upon landowners Manilov and Sobakevitch, seeing that he had promised on his honour to do so. Yet what really incited him to this may have been a more essential cause, a matter of greater gravity, a purpose which stood nearer to his heart, than the motive which I have just given; and of that purpose the reader will learn if only he will have the patience to read this prefatory narrative (which, lengthy though it be, may yet develop and expand in proportion as we approach the denouement with which the present work is destined to be crowned).
One evening, therefore, Selifan the coachman received orders to have the horses harnessed in good time next morning; while Petrushka received orders to remain behind, for the purpose of looking after the portmanteau and the room. In passing, the reader may care to become more fully acquainted with the two serving-men of whom I have spoken. Naturally, they were not persons of much note, but merely what folk call characters of secondary, or even of tertiary, importance. Yet, despite the fact that the springs and the thread of this romance will not DEPEND upon them, but only touch upon them, and occasionally include them, the author has a passion for circumstantiality, and, like the average Russian, such a desire for accuracy as even a German could not rival. To what the reader already knows concerning the personages in hand it is therefore necessary to add that Petrushka usually wore a cast-off brown jacket of a size too large for him, as also that he had (according to the custom of individuals of his calling) a pair of thick lips and a very prominent nose. In temperament he was taciturn rather than loquacious, and he cherished a yearning for self-education. That is to say, he loved to read books, even though their contents came alike to him whether they were books of heroic adventure or mere grammars or liturgical compendia. As I say, he perused every book with an equal amount of attention, and, had he been offered a work on chemistry, would have accepted that also. Not the words which he read, but the mere solace derived from the act of reading, was what especially pleased his mind; even though at any moment there might launch itself from the page some devil-sent word whereof he could make neither head nor tail. For the most part, his task of reading was performed in a recumbent position in the anteroom; which circumstance ended by causing his mattress to become as ragged and as thin as a wafer. In addition to his love of poring over books, he could boast of two habits which constituted two other essential features of his character—namely, a habit of retiring to rest in his clothes (that is to say, in the brown jacket above-mentioned) and a habit of everywhere bearing with him his own peculiar atmosphere, his own peculiar smell—a smell which filled any lodging with such subtlety that he needed but to make up his bed anywhere, even in a room hitherto untenanted, and to drag thither his greatcoat and other impedimenta, for that room at once to assume an air of having been lived in during the past ten years. Nevertheless, though a fastidious, and even an irritable, man, Chichikov would merely frown when his nose caught this smell amid the freshness of the morning, and exclaim with a toss of his head: "The devil only knows what is up with you! Surely you sweat a good deal, do you not? The best thing you can do is to go and take a bath." To this Petrushka would make no reply, but, approaching, brush in hand, the spot where his master's coat would be pendent, or starting to arrange one and another article in order, would strive to seem wholly immersed in his work. Yet of what was he thinking as he remained thus silent? Perhaps he was saying to himself: "My master is a good fellow, but for him to keep on saying the same thing forty times over is a little wearisome." Only God knows and sees all things; wherefore for a mere human being to know what is in the mind of a servant while his master is scolding him is wholly impossible. However, no more need be said about Petrushka. On the other hand, Coachman Selifan—
But here let me remark that I do not like engaging the reader's attention in connection with persons of a lower class than himself; for experience has taught me that we do not willingly familiarise ourselves with the lower orders—that it is the custom of the average Russian to yearn exclusively for information concerning persons on the higher rungs of the social ladder. In fact, even a bowing acquaintance with a prince or a lord counts, in his eyes, for more than do the most intimate of relations with ordinary folk. For the same reason the author feels apprehensive on his hero's account, seeing that he has made that hero a mere Collegiate Councillor—a mere person with whom Aulic Councillors might consort, but upon whom persons of the grade of full General would probably bestow one of those glances proper to a man who is cringing at their august feet. Worse still, such persons of the grade of General are likely to treat Chichikov with studied negligence—and to an author studied negligence spells death.
However, in spite of the distressfulness of the foregoing possibilities, it is time that I returned to my hero. After issuing,
overnight, the necessary orders, he awoke early, washed himself, rubbed himself from head to foot with a wet sponge (a performance executed only on Sundays—and the day in question happened to be a Sunday), shaved his face with such care that his cheeks issued of absolutely satin-like smoothness and polish, donned first his bilberry-coloured, spotted frockcoat, and then his bearskin overcoat, descended the staircase (attended, throughout, by the waiter) and entered his britchka. With a loud rattle the vehicle left the inn-yard, and issued into the street. A passing priest doffed his cap, and a few urchins in grimy shirts shouted, "Gentleman, please give a poor orphan a trifle!" Presently the driver noticed that a sturdy young rascal was on the point of climbing onto the splashboard; wherefore he cracked his whip and the britchka leapt forward with increased speed over the cobblestones. At last, with a feeling of relief, the travellers caught sight of macadam ahead, which promised an end both to the cobblestones and to sundry other annoyances. And, sure enough, after his head had been bumped a few more times against the boot of the conveyance, Chichikov found himself bowling over softer ground. On the town receding into the distance, the sides of the road began to be varied with the usual hillocks, fir trees, clumps of young pine, trees with old, scarred trunks, bushes of wild juniper, and so forth, Presently there came into view also strings of country villas which, with their carved supports and grey roofs (the latter looking like pendent, embroidered tablecloths), resembled, rather, bundles of old faggots. Likewise the customary peasants, dressed in sheepskin jackets, could be seen yawning on benches before their huts, while their womenfolk, fat of feature and swathed of bosom, gazed out of upper windows, and the windows below displayed, here a peering calf, and there the unsightly jaws of a pig. In short, the view was one of the familiar type. After passing the fifteenth verst-stone Chichikov suddenly recollected that, according to Manilov, fifteen versts was the exact distance between his country house and the town; but the sixteenth verst stone flew by, and the said country house was still nowhere to be seen. In fact, but for the circumstance that the travellers happened to encounter a couple of peasants, they would have come on their errand in vain. To a query as to whether the country house known as Zamanilovka was anywhere in the neighbourhood the peasants replied by doffing their caps; after which one of them who seemed to boast of a little more intelligence than his companion, and who wore a wedge-shaped beard, made answer:
"Perhaps you mean Manilovka—not ZAmanilovka?"
"Manilovka, eh? Well, you must continue for another verst, and then you will see it straight before you, on the right."
"On the right?" re-echoed the coachman.
"Yes, on the right," affirmed the peasant. "You are on the proper road for Manilovka, but ZAmanilovka—well, there is no such place. The house you mean is called Manilovka because Manilovka is its name; but no house at all is called ZAmanilovka. The house you mean stands there, on that hill, and is a stone house in which a gentleman lives, and its name is Manilovka; but ZAmanilovka does not stand hereabouts, nor ever has stood."
So the travellers proceeded in search of Manilovka, and, after driving an additional two versts, arrived at a spot whence there branched off a by-road. Yet two, three, or four versts of the by-road had been covered before they saw the least sign of a two-storied stone mansion. Then it was that Chichikov suddenly recollected that, when a friend has invited one to visit his country house, and has said that the distance thereto is fifteen versts, the distance is sure to turn out to be at least thirty.
Not many people would have admired the situation of Manilov's abode, for it stood on an isolated rise and was open to every wind that blew. On the slope of the rise lay closely-mown turf, while, disposed here and there, after the English fashion, were flower-beds containing clumps of lilac and yellow acacia. Also, there were a few insignificant groups of slender-leaved, pointed-tipped birch trees, with, under two of the latter, an arbour having a shabby green cupola, some blue-painted wooden supports, and the inscription "This is the Temple of Solitary Thought." Lower down the slope lay a green-coated pond—green-coated ponds constitute a frequent spectacle in the gardens of Russian landowners; and, lastly, from the foot of the declivity there stretched a line of mouldy, log-built huts which, for some obscure reason or another, our hero set himself to count. Up to two hundred or more did he count, but nowhere could he perceive a single leaf of vegetation or a single stick of timber. The only thing to greet the eye was the logs of which the huts were constructed. Nevertheless the scene was to a certain extent enlivened by the spectacle of two peasant women who, with clothes picturesquely tucked up, were wading knee-deep in the pond and dragging behind them, with wooden handles, a ragged fishing-net, in the meshes of which two crawfish and a roach with glistening scales were entangled. The women appeared to have cause of dispute between themselves—to be rating one another about something. In the background, and to one side of the house, showed a faint, dusky blur of pinewood, and even the weather was in keeping with the surroundings, since the day was neither clear nor dull, but of the grey tint which may be noted in uniforms of garrison soldiers which have seen long service. To complete the picture, a cock, the recognised harbinger of atmospheric mutations, was present; and, in spite of the fact that a certain connection with affairs of gallantry had led to his having had his head pecked bare by other cocks, he flapped a pair of wings—appendages as bare as two pieces of bast—and crowed loudly.
As Chichikov approached the courtyard of the mansion he caught sight of his host (clad in a green frock coat) standing on the verandah and pressing one hand to his eyes to shield them from the sun and so get a better view of the approaching carriage. In proportion as the britchka drew nearer and nearer to the verandah, the host's eyes assumed a more and more delighted expression, and his smile a broader and broader sweep.
"Paul Ivanovitch!" he exclaimed when at length Chichikov leapt from the vehicle. "Never should I have believed that you would have remembered us!"
The two friends exchanged hearty embraces, and Manilov then conducted his guest to the drawing-room. During the brief time that they are traversing the hall, the anteroom, and the dining-room, let me try to say something concerning the master of the house. But such an undertaking bristles with difficulties—it promises to be a far less easy task than the depicting of some outstanding personality which calls but for a wholesale dashing of colours upon the canvas—the colours of a pair of dark, burning eyes, a pair of dark, beetling brows, a forehead seamed with wrinkles, a black, or a fiery-red, cloak thrown backwards over the shoulder, and so forth, and so forth. Yet, so numerous are Russian serf owners that, though careful scrutiny reveals to one's sight a quantity of outre peculiarities, they are, as a class, exceedingly difficult to portray, and one needs to strain one's faculties to the utmost before it becomes possible to pick out their variously subtle, their almost invisible, features. In short, one needs, before doing this, to carry out a prolonged probing with the aid of an insight sharpened in the acute school of research.
Only God can say what Manilov's real character was. A class of men exists whom the proverb has described as "men unto themselves, neither this nor that—neither Bogdan of the city nor Selifan of the village." And to that class we had better assign also Manilov. Outwardly he was presentable enough, for his features were not wanting in amiability, but that amiability was a quality into which there entered too much of the sugary element, so that his every gesture, his every attitude, seemed to connote an excess of eagerness to curry favour and cultivate a closer acquaintance. On first speaking to the man, his ingratiating smile, his flaxen hair, and his blue eyes would lead one to say, "What a pleasant, good-tempered fellow he seems!" yet during the next moment or two one would feel inclined to say nothing at all, and, during the third moment, only to say, "The devil alone knows what he is!" And should, thereafter, one not hasten to depart, one would inevitably become overpowered with the deadly sense of ennui which comes of the intuition that nothing in the least interesting is to be looked for, but only a series of wearisome utterances of the kind which are apt to fall from the lips of a man whose hobby has once been touched upon. For every man HAS his hobby. One man's may be sporting dogs; another man's may be that of believing himself to be a lover of music, and able to sound the art to its inmost depths; another's may be that of posing as a connoisseur of recherche cookery; another's may be that of aspiring to play roles of a kind higher than nature has assigned him; another's (though this is a more limited ambition) may be that of getting drunk, and of dreaming that he is edifying both his friends, his acquaintances, and people with whom he has no connection at all by walking arm-in-arm with an Imperial aide-de-camp; another's may be that of possessing a hand able to chip corners off aces and deuces of diamonds; another's may be that of yearning to set things straight—in other words, to approximate his personality to that of a stationmaster or a director of posts. In short, almost every man has his hobby or his leaning; yet Manilov had none such, for at home he spoke little, and spent the greater part of his time in meditation—though God only knows what that meditation comprised! Nor can it be said that he took much interest in the management of his estate, for he never rode into the country, and the estate practically managed itself. Whenever the bailiff said to him, "It might be well to have such-and-such a thing done," he would reply, "Yes, that is not a bad idea," and then go on smoking his pipe—a habit which he had acquired during his service in the army, where he had been looked upon as an officer of modesty, delicacy, and refinement. "Yes, it is NOT a bad idea," he would repeat. Again, whenever a peasant approached him and, rubbing the back of his neck, said "Barin, may I have leave to go and work for myself, in order that I may earn my obrok?" he would snap out, with pipe in mouth as usual, "Yes, go!" and never trouble his head as to whether the peasant's real object might not be to go and get drunk. True, at intervals he would say, while gazing from the verandah to the courtyard, and from the courtyard to the pond, that it would be indeed splendid if a carriage drive could suddenly materialise, and the pond as suddenly become spanned with a stone bridge, and little shops as suddenly arise whence pedlars could dispense the petty merchandise of the kind which peasantry most need. And at such moments his eyes would grow winning, and his features assume an expression of intense satisfaction. Yet never did these projects pass beyond the stage of debate. Likewise there lay in his study a book with the fourteenth page permanently turned down. It was a book which he had been reading for the past two years! In general, something seemed to be wanting in the establishment. For instance, although the drawing-room was filled with beautiful furniture, and upholstered in some fine silken material which clearly had cost no inconsiderable sum, two of the chairs lacked any covering but bast, and for some years past the master had been accustomed to warn his guests with the words, "Do not sit upon these chairs; they are not yet ready for use." Another room contained no furniture at all, although, a few days after the marriage, it had been said: "My dear, to-morrow let us set about procuring at least some TEMPORARY furniture for this room." Also, every evening would see placed upon the drawing-room table a fine bronze candelabrum, a statuette representative of the Three Graces, a tray inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and a rickety, lop-sided copper invalide. Yet of the fact that all four articles were thickly coated with grease neither the master of the house nor the mistress nor the servants seemed to entertain the least suspicion. At the same time, Manilov and his wife were quite satisfied with each other. More than eight years had elapsed since their marriage, yet one of them was for ever offering his or her partner a piece of apple or a bonbon or a nut, while murmuring some tender something which voiced a whole-hearted affection. "Open your mouth, dearest"—thus ran the formula—"and let me pop into it this titbit." You may be sure that on such occasions the "dearest mouth" parted its lips most graciously! For their mutual birthdays the pair always contrived some "surprise present" in the shape of a glass receptacle for tooth-powder, or what not; and as they sat together on the sofa he would suddenly, and for some unknown reason, lay aside his pipe, and she her work (if at the moment she happened to be holding it in her hands) and husband and wife would imprint upon one another's cheeks such a prolonged and languishing kiss that during its continuance you could have smoked a small cigar. In short, they were what is known as "a very happy couple." Yet it may be remarked that a household requires other pursuits to be engaged in than lengthy embracings and the preparing of cunning "surprises." Yes, many a function calls for fulfilment. For instance, why should it be thought foolish or low to superintend the kitchen? Why should care not be taken that the storeroom never lacks supplies? Why should a housekeeper be allowed to thieve? Why should slovenly and drunken servants exist? Why should a domestic staff be suffered in indulge in bouts of unconscionable debauchery during its leisure time? Yet none of these things were thought worthy of consideration by Manilov's wife, for she had been gently brought up, and gentle nurture, as we all know, is to be acquired only in boarding schools, and boarding schools, as we know, hold the three principal subjects which constitute the basis of human virtue to be the French language (a thing indispensable to the happiness of married life), piano-playing (a thing wherewith to beguile a husband's leisure moments), and that particular department of housewifery which is comprised in the knitting of purses and other "surprises." Nevertheless changes and improvements have begun to take place, since things now are governed more by the personal inclinations and idiosyncracies of the keepers of such establishments. For instance, in some seminaries the regimen places piano-playing first, and the French language second, and then the above department of housewifery; while in other seminaries the knitting of "surprises" heads the list, and then the French language, and then the playing of pianos—so diverse are the systems in force! None the less, I may remark that Madame Manilov—
But let me confess that I always shrink from saying too much about ladies. Moreover, it is time that we returned to our heroes, who, during the past few minutes, have been standing in front of the drawing-room door, and engaged in urging one another to enter first.
"Pray be so good as not to inconvenience yourself on my account," said Chichikov. "_I_ will follow YOU."
"No, Paul Ivanovitch—no! You are my guest." And Manilov pointed towards the doorway.
"Make no difficulty about it, I pray," urged Chichikov. "I beg of you to make no difficulty about it, but to pass into the room."
"Pardon me, I will not. Never could I allow so distinguished and so welcome a guest as yourself to take second place."
"Why call me 'distinguished,' my dear sir? I beg of you to proceed."
"Nay; be YOU pleased to do so."
"For the reason which I have stated." And Manilov smiled his very pleasantest smile.
Finally the pair entered simultaneously and sideways; with the result that they jostled one another not a little in the process.
"Allow me to present to you my wife," continued Manilov. "My dear—Paul Ivanovitch."
Upon that Chichikov caught sight of a lady whom hitherto he had overlooked, but who, with Manilov, was now bowing to him in the doorway. Not wholly of unpleasing exterior, she was dressed in a well-fitting, high-necked morning dress of pale-coloured silk; and as the visitor entered the room her small white hands threw something upon the table and clutched her embroidered skirt before rising from the sofa where she had been seated. Not without a sense of pleasure did Chichikov take her hand as, lisping a little, she declared that she and her husband were equally gratified by his coming, and that, of late, not a day had passed without her husband recalling him to mind.
"Yes," affirmed Manilov; "and every day SHE has said to ME: 'Why does not your friend put in an appearance?' 'Wait a little dearest,' I have always replied. Twill not be long now before he comes.' And you HAVE come, you HAVE honoured us with a visit, you HAVE bestowed upon us a treat—a treat destined to convert this day into a gala day, a true birthday of the heart."
The intimation that matters had reached the point of the occasion being destined to constitute a "true birthday of the heart" caused Chichikov to become a little confused; wherefore he made modest reply that, as a matter of fact, he was neither of distinguished origin nor distinguished rank.
"Ah, you ARE so," interrupted Manilov with his fixed and engaging smile. "You are all that, and more."
"How like you our town?" queried Madame. "Have you spent an agreeable time in it?"
"Very," replied Chichikov. "The town is an exceedingly nice one, and I have greatly enjoyed its hospitable society."
"And what do you think of our Governor?"
"Yes; IS he not a most engaging and dignified personage?" added Manilov.
"He is all that," assented Chichikov. "Indeed, he is a man worthy of the greatest respect. And how thoroughly he performs his duty according to his lights! Would that we had more like him!"
"And the tactfulness with which he greets every one!" added Manilov, smiling, and half-closing his eyes, like a cat which is being tickled behind the ears.
"Quite so," assented Chichikov. "He is a man of the most eminent civility and approachableness. And what an artist! Never should I have thought he could have worked the marvellous household samplers which he has done! Some specimens of his needlework which he showed me could not well have been surpassed by any lady in the land!"
"And the Vice-Governor, too—he is a nice man, is he not?" inquired Manilov with renewed blinkings of the eyes.
"Who? The Vice-Governor? Yes, a most worthy fellow!" replied Chichikov.
"And what of the Chief of Police? Is it not a fact that he too is in the highest degree agreeable?"
"Very agreeable indeed. And what a clever, well-read individual! With him and the Public Prosecutor and the President of the Local Council I played whist until the cocks uttered their last morning crow. He is a most excellent fellow."
"And what of his wife?" queried Madame Manilov. "Is she not a most gracious personality?"
"One of the best among my limited acquaintance," agreed Chichikov.
Nor were the President of the Local Council and the Postmaster overlooked; until the company had run through the whole list of urban officials. And in every case those officials appeared to be persons of the highest possible merit.
"Do you devote your time entirely to your estate?" asked Chichikov, in his turn.
"Well, most of it," replied Manilov; "though also we pay occasional visits to the town, in order that we may mingle with a little well-bred society. One grows a trifle rusty if one lives for ever in retirement."
"Quite so," agreed Chichikov.
"Yes, quite so," capped Manilov. "At the same time, it would be a different matter if the neighbourhood were a GOOD one—if, for example, one had a friend with whom one could discuss manners and polite deportment, or engage in some branch of science, and so stimulate one's wits. For that sort of thing gives one's intellect an airing. It, it—" At a loss for further words, he ended by remarking that his feelings were apt to carry him away; after which he continued with a gesture: "What I mean is that, were that sort of thing possible, I, for one, could find the country and an isolated life possessed of great attractions. But, as matters stand, such a thing is NOT possible. All that I can manage to do is, occasionally, to read a little of A Son of the Fatherland."
With these sentiments Chichikov expressed entire agreement: adding that nothing could be more delightful than to lead a solitary life in which there should be comprised only the sweet contemplation of nature and the intermittent perusal of a book.
"Nay, but even THAT were worth nothing had not one a friend with whom to share one's life," remarked Manilov.
"True, true," agreed Chichikov. "Without a friend, what are all the treasures in the world? 'Possess not money,' a wise man has said, 'but rather good friends to whom to turn in case of need.'"
"Yes, Paul Ivanovitch," said Manilov with a glance not merely sweet, but positively luscious—a glance akin to the mixture which even clever physicians have to render palatable before they can induce a hesitant patient to take it. "Consequently you may imagine what happiness—what PERFECT happiness, so to speak—the present occasion has brought me, seeing that I am permitted to converse with you and to enjoy your conversation."
"But WHAT of my conversation?" replied Chichikov. "I am an insignificant individual, and, beyond that, nothing."
"Oh, Paul Ivanovitch!" cried the other. "Permit me to be frank, and to say that I would give half my property to possess even a PORTION of the talents which you possess."
"On the contrary, I should consider it the highest honour in the world if—"
The lengths to which this mutual outpouring of soul would have proceeded had not a servant entered to announce luncheon must remain a mystery.
"I humbly invite you to join us at table," said Manilov. "Also, you will pardon us for the fact that we cannot provide a banquet such as is to be obtained in our metropolitan cities? We partake of simple fare, according to Russian custom—we confine ourselves to shtchi, but we do so with a single heart. Come, I humbly beg of you." After another contest for the honour of yielding precedence, Chichikov succeeded in making his way (in zigzag fashion) to the dining-room, where they found awaiting them a couple of youngsters. These were Manilov's sons, and boys of the age which admits of their presence at table, but necessitates the continued use of high chairs. Beside them was their tutor, who bowed politely and smiled; after which the hostess took her seat before her soup plate, and the guest of honour found himself esconsed between her and the master of the house, while the servant tied up the boys' necks in bibs.
"What charming children!" said Chichikov as he gazed at the pair. "And how old are they?"
"The eldest is eight," replied Manilov, "and the younger one attained the age of six yesterday."
"Themistocleus," went on the father, turning to his first-born, who was engaged in striving to free his chin from the bib with which the footman had encircled it. On hearing this distinctly Greek name (to which, for some unknown reason, Manilov always appended the termination "eus"), Chichikov raised his eyebrows a little, but hastened, the next moment, to restore his face to a more befitting expression.
"Themistocleus," repeated the father, "tell me which is the finest city in France."
Upon this the tutor concentrated his attention upon Themistocleus, and appeared to be trying hard to catch his eye. Only when Themistocleus had muttered "Paris" did the preceptor grow calmer, and nod his head.
"And which is the finest city in Russia?" continued Manilov.
Again the tutor's attitude became wholly one of concentration.
"St. Petersburg," replied Themistocleus.
"And what other city?"
"Moscow," responded the boy.
"Clever little dear!" burst out Chichikov, turning with an air of surprise to the father. "Indeed, I feel bound to say that the child evinces the greatest possible potentialities."
"You do not know him fully," replied the delighted Manilov. "The amount of sharpness which he possesses is extraordinary. Our younger one, Alkid, is not so quick; whereas his brother—well, no matter what he may happen upon (whether upon a cowbug or upon a water-beetle or upon anything else), his little eyes begin jumping out of his head, and he runs to catch the thing, and to inspect it. For HIM I am reserving a diplomatic post. Themistocleus," added the father, again turning to his son, "do you wish to become an ambassador?"
"Yes, I do," replied Themistocleus, chewing a piece of bread and wagging his head from side to side.
At this moment the lacquey who had been standing behind the future ambassador wiped the latter's nose; and well it was that he did so, since otherwise an inelegant and superfluous drop would have been added to the soup. After that the conversation turned upon the joys of a quiet life—though occasionally it was interrupted by remarks from the hostess on the subject of acting and actors. Meanwhile the tutor kept his eyes fixed upon the speakers' faces; and whenever he noticed that they were on the point of laughing he at once opened his mouth, and laughed with enthusiasm. Probably he was a man of grateful heart who wished to repay his employers for the good treatment which he had received. Once, however, his features assumed a look of grimness as, fixing his eyes upon his vis-a-vis, the boys, he tapped sternly upon the table. This happened at a juncture when Themistocleus had bitten Alkid on the ear, and the said Alkid, with frowning eyes and open mouth, was preparing himself to sob in piteous fashion; until, recognising that for such a proceeding he might possibly be deprived of his plate, he hastened to restore his mouth to its original expression, and fell tearfully to gnawing a mutton bone—the grease from which had soon covered his cheeks.
Every now and again the hostess would turn to Chichikov with the words, "You are eating nothing—you have indeed taken little;" but invariably her guest replied: "Thank you, I have had more than enough. A pleasant conversation is worth all the dishes in the world."
At length the company rose from table. Manilov was in high spirits, and, laying his hand upon his guest's shoulder, was on the point of conducting him to the drawing-room, when suddenly Chichikov intimated to him, with a meaning look, that he wished to speak to him on a very important matter.
"That being so," said Manilov, "allow me to invite you into my study." And he led the way to a small room which faced the blue of the forest. "This is my sanctum," he added.
"What a pleasant apartment!" remarked Chichikov as he eyed it carefully. And, indeed, the room did not lack a certain attractiveness. The walls were painted a sort of blueish-grey colour, and the furniture consisted of four chairs, a settee, and a table—the latter of which bore a few sheets of writing-paper and the book of which I have before had occasion to speak. But the most prominent feature of the room was tobacco, which appeared in many different guises—in packets, in a tobacco jar, and in a loose heap strewn about the table. Likewise, both window sills were studded with little heaps of ash, arranged, not without artifice, in rows of more or less tidiness. Clearly smoking afforded the master of the house a frequent means of passing the time.
"Permit me to offer you a seat on this settee," said Manilov. "Here you will be quieter than you would be in the drawing-room."
"But I should prefer to sit upon this chair."
"I cannot allow that," objected the smiling Manilov. "The settee is specially reserved for my guests. Whether you choose or no, upon it you MUST sit."
Accordingly Chichikov obeyed.
"And also let me hand you a pipe."
"No, I never smoke," answered Chichikov civilly, and with an assumed air of regret.
"And why?" inquired Manilov—equally civilly, but with a regret that was wholly genuine.
"Because I fear that I have never quite formed the habit, owing to my having heard that a pipe exercises a desiccating effect upon the system."
"Then allow me to tell you that that is mere prejudice. Nay, I would even go so far as to say that to smoke a pipe is a healthier practice than to take snuff. Among its members our regiment numbered a lieutenant—a most excellent, well-educated fellow—who was simply INCAPABLE of removing his pipe from his mouth, whether at table or (pardon me) in other places. He is now forty, yet no man could enjoy better health than he has always done."
Chichikov replied that such cases were common, since nature comprised many things which even the finest intellect could not compass.
"But allow me to put to you a question," he went on in a tone in which there was a strange—or, at all events, RATHER a strange—note. For some unknown reason, also, he glanced over his shoulder. For some equally unknown reason, Manilov glanced over HIS.
"How long is it," inquired the guest, "since you last rendered a census return?"
"Oh, a long, long time. In fact, I cannot remember when it was."
"And since then have many of your serfs died?"
"I do not know. To ascertain that I should need to ask my bailiff. Footman, go and call the bailiff. I think he will be at home to-day."
Before long the bailiff made his appearance. He was a man of under forty, clean-shaven, clad in a smock, and evidently used to a quiet life, seeing that his face was of that puffy fullness, and the skin encircling his slit-like eyes was of that sallow tint, which shows that the owner of those features is well acquainted with a feather bed. In a trice it could be seen that he had played his part in life as all such bailiffs do—that, originally a young serf of elementary education, he had married some Agashka of a housekeeper or a mistress's favourite, and then himself become housekeeper, and, subsequently, bailiff; after which he had proceeded according to the rules of his tribe—that is to say, he had consorted with and stood in with the more well-to-do serfs on the estate, and added the poorer ones to the list of forced payers of obrok, while himself leaving his bed at nine o'clock in the morning, and, when the samovar had been brought, drinking his tea at leisure.
"Look here, my good man," said Manilov. "How many of our serfs have died since the last census revision?"
"How many of them have died? Why, a great many." The bailiff hiccoughed, and slapped his mouth lightly after doing so.
"Yes, I imagined that to be the case," corroborated Manilov. "In fact, a VERY great many serfs have died." He turned to Chichikov and repeated the words.
"How many, for instance?" asked Chichikov.
"Yes; how many?" re-echoed Manilov.
"HOW many?" re-echoed the bailiff. "Well, no one knows the exact number, for no one has kept any account."
"Quite so," remarked Manilov. "I supposed the death-rate to have been high, but was ignorant of its precise extent."
"Then would you be so good as to have it computed for me?" said Chichikov. "And also to have a detailed list of the deaths made out?"
"Yes, I will—a detailed list," agreed Manilov.
The bailiff departed.
"For what purpose do you want it?" inquired Manilov when the bailiff had gone.
The question seemed to embarrass the guest, for in Chichikov's face there dawned a sort of tense expression, and it reddened as though its owner were striving to express something not easy to put into words. True enough, Manilov was now destined to hear such strange and unexpected things as never before had greeted human ears.
"You ask me," said Chichikov, "for what purpose I want the list. Well, my purpose in wanting it is this—that I desire to purchase a few peasants." And he broke off in a gulp.
"But may I ask HOW you desire to purchase those peasants?" asked Manilov. "With land, or merely as souls for transferment—that is to say, by themselves, and without any land?"
"I want the peasants themselves only," replied Chichikov. "And I want dead ones at that."
"What?—Excuse me, but I am a trifle deaf. Really, your words sound most strange!"
"All that I am proposing to do," replied Chichikov, "is to purchase the dead peasants who, at the last census, were returned by you as alive."
Manilov dropped his pipe on the floor, and sat gaping. Yes, the two friends who had just been discussing the joys of camaraderie sat staring at one another like the portraits which, of old, used to hang on opposite sides of a mirror. At length Manilov picked up his pipe, and, while doing so, glanced covertly at Chichikov to see whether there was any trace of a smile to be detected on his lips—whether, in short, he was joking. But nothing of the sort could be discerned. On the contrary, Chichikov's face looked graver than usual. Next, Manilov wondered whether, for some unknown reason, his guest had lost his wits; wherefore he spent some time in gazing at him with anxious intentness. But the guest's eyes seemed clear—they contained no spark of the wild, restless fire which is apt to wander in the eyes of madmen. All was as it should be. Consequently, in spite of Manilov's cogitations, he could think of nothing better to do than to sit letting a stream of tobacco smoke escape from his mouth.
"So," continued Chichikov, "what I desire to know is whether you are willing to hand over to me—to resign—these actually non-living, but legally living, peasants; or whether you have any better proposal to make?"
Manilov felt too confused and confounded to do aught but continue staring at his interlocutor.
"I think that you are disturbing yourself unnecessarily," was Chichikov's next remark.
"I? Oh no! Not at all!" stammered Manilov. "Only—pardon me—I do not quite comprehend you. You see, never has it fallen to my lot to acquire the brilliant polish which is, so to speak, manifest in your every movement. Nor have I ever been able to attain the art of expressing myself well. Consequently, although there is a possibility that in the—er—utterances which have just fallen from your lips there may lie something else concealed, it may equally be that—er—you have been pleased so to express yourself for the sake of the beauty of the terms wherein that expression found shape?"
"Oh, no," asserted Chichikov. "I mean what I say and no more. My reference to such of your pleasant souls as are dead was intended to be taken literally."
Manilov still felt at a loss—though he was conscious that he MUST do something, he MUST propound some question. But what question? The devil alone knew! In the end he merely expelled some more tobacco smoke—this time from his nostrils as well as from his mouth.
"So," went on Chichikov, "if no obstacle stands in the way, we might as well proceed to the completion of the purchase."
"What? Of the purchase of the dead souls?"
"Of the 'dead' souls? Oh dear no! Let us write them down as LIVING ones, seeing that that is how they figure in the census returns. Never do I permit myself to step outside the civil law, great though has been the harm which that rule has wrought me in my career. In my eyes an obligation is a sacred thing. In the presence of the law I am dumb."
These last words reassured Manilov not a little: yet still the meaning of the affair remained to him a mystery. By way of answer, he fell to sucking at his pipe with such vehemence that at length the pipe began to gurgle like a bassoon. It was as though he had been seeking of it inspiration in the present unheard-of juncture. But the pipe only gurgled, et praeterea nihil.
"Perhaps you feel doubtful about the proposal?" said Chichikov.
"Not at all," replied Manilov. "But you will, I know, excuse me if I say (and I say it out of no spirit of prejudice, nor yet as criticising yourself in any way)—you will, I know, excuse me if I say that possibly this—er—this, er, SCHEME of yours, this—er—TRANSACTION of yours, may fail altogether to accord with the Civil Statutes and Provisions of the Realm?"
And Manilov, with a slight gesture of the head, looked meaningly into Chichikov's face, while displaying in his every feature, including his closely-compressed lips, such an expression of profundity as never before was seen on any human countenance—unless on that of some particularly sapient Minister of State who is debating some particularly abstruse problem.
Nevertheless Chichikov rejoined that the kind of scheme or transaction
which he had adumbrated in no way clashed with the Civil Statutes and Provisions of Russia; to which he added that the Treasury would even BENEFIT by the enterprise, seeing it would draw therefrom the usual legal percentage.
"What, then, do you propose?" asked Manilov.
"I propose only what is above-board, and nothing else."
"Then, that being so, it is another matter, and I have nothing to urge against it," said Manilov, apparently reassured to the full.
"Very well," remarked Chichikov. "Then we need only to agree as to the price."
"As to the price?" began Manilov, and then stopped. Presently he went on: "Surely you cannot suppose me capable of taking money for souls which, in one sense at least, have completed their existence? Seeing that this fantastic whim of yours (if I may so call it?) has seized upon you to the extent that it has, I, on my side, shall be ready to surrender to you those souls UNCONDITIONALLY, and to charge myself with the whole expenses of the sale."
I should be greatly to blame if I were to omit that, as soon as Manilov had pronounced these words, the face of his guest became replete with satisfaction. Indeed, grave and prudent a man though Chichikov was, he had much ado to refrain from executing a leap that would have done credit to a goat (an animal which, as we all know, finds itself moved to such exertions only during moments of the most ecstatic joy). Nevertheless the guest did at least execute such a convulsive shuffle that the material with which the cushions of the chair were covered came apart, and Manilov gazed at him with some misgiving. Finally Chichikov's gratitude led him to plunge into a stream of acknowledgement of a vehemence which caused his host to grow confused, to blush, to shake his head in deprecation, and to end by declaring that the concession was nothing, and that, his one desire being to manifest the dictates of his heart and the psychic magnetism which his friend exercised, he, in short, looked upon the dead souls as so much worthless rubbish.
"Not at all," replied Chichikov, pressing his hand; after which he heaved a profound sigh. Indeed, he seemed in the right mood for outpourings of the heart, for he continued—not without a ring of emotion in his tone: "If you but knew the service which you have rendered to an apparently insignificant individual who is devoid both of family and kindred! For what have I not suffered in my time—I, a drifting barque amid the tempestuous billows of life? What harryings, what persecutions, have I not known? Of what grief have I not tasted? And why? Simply because I have ever kept the truth in view, because ever I have preserved inviolate an unsullied conscience, because ever I have stretched out a helping hand to the defenceless widow and the hapless orphan!" After which outpouring Chichikov pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped away a brimming tear.
Manilov's heart was moved to the core. Again and again did the two friends press one another's hands in silence as they gazed into one another's tear-filled eyes. Indeed, Manilov COULD not let go our hero's hand, but clasped it with such warmth that the hero in question began to feel himself at a loss how best to wrench it free: until, quietly withdrawing it, he observed that to have the purchase completed as speedily as possible would not be a bad thing; wherefore he himself would at once return to the town to arrange matters. Taking up his hat, therefore, he rose to make his adieus.
"What? Are you departing already?" said Manilov, suddenly recovering himself, and experiencing a sense of misgiving. At that moment his wife sailed into the room.
"Is Paul Ivanovitch leaving us so soon, dearest Lizanka?" she said with an air of regret.
"Yes. Surely it must be that we have wearied him?" her spouse replied.
"By no means," asserted Chichikov, pressing his hand to his heart. "In this breast, madam, will abide for ever the pleasant memory of the time which I have spent with you. Believe me, I could conceive of no greater blessing than to reside, if not under the same roof as yourselves, at all events in your immediate neighbourhood."
"Indeed?" exclaimed Manilov, greatly pleased with the idea. "How splendid it would be if you DID come to reside under our roof, so that we could recline under an elm tree together, and talk philosophy, and delve to the very root of things!"
"Yes, it WOULD be a paradisaical existence!" agreed Chichikov with a sigh. Nevertheless he shook hands with Madame. "Farewell, sudarina," he said. "And farewell to YOU, my esteemed host. Do not forget what I have requested you to do."
"Rest assured that I will not," responded Manilov. "Only for a couple of days will you and I be parted from one another."
With that the party moved into the drawing-room.
"Farewell, dearest children," Chichikov went on as he caught sight of Alkid and Themistocleus, who were playing with a wooden hussar which lacked both a nose and one arm. "Farewell, dearest pets. Pardon me for having brought you no presents, but, to tell you the truth, I was not, until my visit, aware of your existence. However, now that I shall be coming again, I will not fail to bring you gifts. Themistocleus, to you I will bring a sword. You would like that, would you not?"
"I should," replied Themistocleus.
"And to you, Alkid, I will bring a drum. That would suit you, would it not?" And he bowed in Alkid's direction.
"Zeth—a drum," lisped the boy, hanging his head.
"Good! Then a drum it shall be—SUCH a beautiful drum! What a tur-r-r-ru-ing and a tra-ta-ta-ta-ing you will be able to kick up! Farewell, my darling." And, kissing the boy's head, he turned to Manilov and Madame with the slight smile which one assumes before assuring parents of the guileless merits of their offspring.
"But you had better stay, Paul Ivanovitch," said the father as the trio stepped out on to the verandah. "See how the clouds are gathering!"
"They are only small ones," replied Chichikov.
"And you know your way to Sobakevitch's?"
"No, I do not, and should be glad if you would direct me."
"If you like I will tell your coachman." And in very civil fashion Manilov did so, even going so far as to address the man in the second person plural. On hearing that he was to pass two turnings, and then to take a third, Selifan remarked, "We shall get there all right, sir," and Chichikov departed amid a profound salvo of salutations and wavings of handkerchiefs on the part of his host and hostess, who raised themselves on tiptoe in their enthusiasm.
For a long while Manilov stood following the departing britchka with his eyes. In fact, he continued to smoke his pipe and gaze after the vehicle even when it had become lost to view. Then he re-entered the drawing-room, seated himself upon a chair, and surrendered his mind to the thought that he had shown his guest most excellent entertainment. Next, his mind passed imperceptibly to other matters, until at last it lost itself God only knows where. He thought of the amenities of a life, of friendship, and of how nice it would be to live with a comrade on, say, the bank of some river, and to span the river with a bridge of his own, and to build an enormous mansion with a facade lofty enough even to afford a view to Moscow. On that facade he and his wife and friend would drink afternoon tea in the open air, and discuss interesting subjects; after which, in a fine carriage, they would drive to some reunion or other, where with their pleasant manners they would so charm the company that the Imperial Government, on learning of their merits, would raise the pair to the grade of General or God knows what—that is to say, to heights whereof even Manilov himself could form no idea. Then suddenly Chichikov's extraordinary request interrupted the dreamer's reflections, and he found his brain powerless to digest it, seeing that, turn and turn the matter about as he might, he could not properly explain its bearing. Smoking his pipe, he sat where he was until supper time.
Meanwhile, Chichikov, seated in his britchka and bowling along the turnpike, was feeling greatly pleased with himself. From the preceding chapter the reader will have gathered the principal subject of his bent and inclinations: wherefore it is no matter for wonder that his body and his soul had ended by becoming wholly immersed therein. To all appearances the thoughts, the calculations, and the projects which were now reflected in his face partook of a pleasant nature, since momentarily they kept leaving behind them a satisfied smile. Indeed, so engrossed was he that he never noticed that his coachman, elated with the hospitality of Manilov's domestics, was making remarks of a didactic nature to the off horse of the troika, a skewbald. This skewbald was a knowing animal, and made only a show of pulling; whereas its comrades, the middle horse (a bay, and known as the Assessor, owing to his having been acquired from a gentleman of that rank) and the near horse (a roan), would do their work gallantly, and even evince in their eyes the pleasure which they derived from their exertions.
"Ah, you rascal, you rascal! I'll get the better of you!" ejaculated Selifan as he sat up and gave the lazy one a cut with his whip. "YOU know your business all right, you German pantaloon! The bay is a good fellow, and does his duty, and I will give him a bit over his feed, for he is a horse to be respected; and the Assessor too is a good horse. But what are YOU shaking your ears for? You are a fool, so just mind when you're spoken to. 'Tis good advice I'm giving you, you blockhead. Ah! You CAN travel when you like." And he gave the animal another cut, and then shouted to the trio, "Gee up, my beauties!" and drew his whip gently across the backs of the skewbald's comrades—not as a punishment, but as a sign of his approval. That done, he addressed himself to the skewbald again.
"Do you think," he cried, "that I don't see what you are doing? You can behave quite decently when you like, and make a man respect you."
With that he fell to recalling certain reminiscences.
"They were NICE folk, those folk at the gentleman's yonder," he mused. "I DO love a chat with a man when he is a good sort. With a man of that kind I am always hail-fellow-well-met, and glad to drink a glass of tea with him, or to eat a biscuit. One CAN'T help respecting a decent fellow. For instance, this gentleman of mine—why, every one looks up to him, for he has been in the Government's service, and is a Collegiate Councillor."
Thus soliloquising, he passed to more remote abstractions; until, had Chichikov been listening, he would have learnt a number of interesting details concerning himself. However, his thoughts were wholly occupied with his own subject, so much so that not until a loud clap of thunder awoke him from his reverie did he glance around him. The sky was completely covered with clouds, and the dusty turnpike beginning to be sprinkled with drops of rain. At length a second and a nearer and a louder peal resounded, and the rain descended as from a bucket. Falling slantwise, it beat upon one side of the basketwork of the tilt until the splashings began to spurt into his face, and he found himself forced to draw the curtains (fitted with circular openings through which to obtain a glimpse of the wayside view), and to shout to Selifan to quicken his pace. Upon that the coachman, interrupted in the middle of his harangue, bethought him that no time was to be lost; wherefore, extracting from under the box-seat a piece of old blanket, he covered over his sleeves, resumed the reins, and cheered on his threefold team (which, it may be said, had so completely succumbed to the influence of the pleasant lassitude induced by Selifan's discourse that it had taken to scarcely placing one leg before the other). Unfortunately, Selifan could not clearly remember whether two turnings had been passed or three. Indeed, on collecting his faculties, and dimly recalling the lie of the road, he became filled with a shrewd suspicion that A VERY LARGE NUMBER of turnings had been passed. But since, at moments which call for a hasty decision, a Russian is quick to discover what may conceivably be the best course to take, our coachman put away from him all ulterior reasoning, and, turning to the right at the next cross-road, shouted, "Hi, my beauties!" and set off at a gallop. Never for a moment did he stop to think whither the road might lead him!
It was long before the clouds had discharged their burden, and, meanwhile, the dust on the road became kneaded into mire, and the horses' task of pulling the britchka heavier and heavier. Also, Chichikov had taken alarm at his continued failure to catch sight of Sobakevitch's country house. According to his calculations, it ought to have been reached long ago. He gazed about him on every side, but the darkness was too dense for the eye to pierce.
"Selifan!" he exclaimed, leaning forward in the britchka.
"What is it, barin?" replied the coachman.
"Can you see the country house anywhere?"
"No, barin." After which, with a flourish of the whip, the man broke into a sort of endless, drawling song. In that song everything had a place. By "everything" I mean both the various encouraging and stimulating cries with which Russian folk urge on their horses, and a random, unpremeditated selection of adjectives.
Meanwhile Chichikov began to notice that the britchka was swaying violently, and dealing him occasional bumps. Consequently he suspected that it had left the road and was being dragged over a ploughed field. Upon Selifan's mind there appeared to have dawned a similar inkling, for he had ceased to hold forth.
"You rascal, what road are you following?" inquired Chichikov.
"I don't know," retorted the coachman. "What can a man do at a time of night when the darkness won't let him even see his whip?" And as Selifan spoke the vehicle tilted to an angle which left Chichikov no choice but to hang on with hands and teeth. At length he realised the fact that Selifan was drunk.
"Stop, stop, or you will upset us!" he shouted to the fellow.
"No, no, barin," replied Selifan. "HOW could I upset you? To upset people is wrong. I know that very well, and should never dream of such conduct."
Here he started to turn the vehicle round a little—and kept on doing so until the britchka capsized on to its side, and Chichikov landed in the mud on his hands and knees. Fortunately Selifan succeeded in stopping the horses, although they would have stopped of themselves, seeing that they were utterly worn out. This unforeseen catastrophe evidently astonished their driver. Slipping from the box, he stood resting his hands against the side of the britchka, while Chichikov tumbled and floundered about in the mud, in a vain endeavour to wriggle clear of the stuff.
"Ah, you!" said Selifan meditatively to the britchka. "To think of upsetting us like this!"
"You are as drunk as a lord!" exclaimed Chichikov.
"No, no, barin. Drunk, indeed? Why, I know my manners too well. A word or two with a friend—that is all that I have taken. Any one may talk with a decent man when he meets him. There is nothing wrong in that. Also, we had a snack together. There is nothing wrong in a snack—especially a snack with a decent man."
"What did I say to you when last you got drunk?" asked Chichikov. "Have you forgotten what I said then?"
"No, no, barin. HOW could I forget it? I know what is what, and know that it is not right to get drunk. All that I have been having is a word or two with a decent man, for the reason that—"
"Well, if I lay the whip about you, you'll know then how to talk to a decent fellow, I'll warrant!"
"As you please, barin," replied the complacent Selifan. "Should you whip me, you will whip me, and I shall have nothing to complain of. Why should you not whip me if I deserve it? 'Tis for you to do as you like. Whippings are necessary sometimes, for a peasant often plays the fool, and discipline ought to be maintained. If I have deserved it, beat me. Why should you not?"
This reasoning seemed, at the moment, irrefutable, and Chichikov said nothing more. Fortunately fate had decided to take pity on the pair, for from afar their ears caught the barking of a dog. Plucking up courage, Chichikov gave orders for the britchka to be righted, and the horses to be urged forward; and since a Russian driver has at least this merit, that, owing to a keen sense of smell being able to take the place of eyesight, he can, if necessary, drive at random and yet reach a destination of some sort, Selifan succeeded, though powerless to discern a single object, in directing his steeds to a country house near by, and that with such a certainty of instinct that it was not until the shafts had collided with a garden wall, and thereby made it clear that to proceed another pace was impossible, that he stopped. All that Chichikov could discern through the thick veil of pouring rain was something which resembled a verandah. So he dispatched Selifan to search for the entrance gates, and that process would have lasted indefinitely had it not been shortened by the circumstance that, in Russia, the place of a Swiss footman is frequently taken by watchdogs; of which animals a number now proclaimed the travellers' presence so loudly that Chichikov found himself forced to stop his ears. Next, a light gleamed in one of the windows, and filtered in a thin stream to the garden wall—thus revealing the whereabouts of the entrance gates; whereupon Selifan fell to knocking at the gates until the bolts of the house door were withdrawn and there issued therefrom a figure clad in a rough cloak.
"Who is that knocking? What have you come for?" shouted the hoarse voice of an elderly woman.
"We are travellers, good mother," said Chichikov. "Pray allow us to spend the night here."
"Out upon you for a pair of gadabouts!" retorted the old woman. "A fine time of night to be arriving! We don't keep an hotel, mind you. This is a lady's residence."
"But what are we to do, mother? We have lost our way, and cannot spend the night out of doors in such weather."
"No, we cannot. The night is dark and cold," added Selifan.
"Hold your tongue, you fool!" exclaimed Chichikov.
"Who ARE you, then?" inquired the old woman.
"A dvorianin, good mother."
Somehow the word dvorianin seemed to give the old woman food for thought.
"Wait a moment," she said, "and I will tell the mistress."
Two minutes later she returned with a lantern in her hand, the gates were opened, and a light glimmered in a second window. Entering the courtyard, the britchka halted before a moderate-sized mansion. The darkness did not permit of very accurate observation being made, but, apparently, the windows only of one-half of the building were illuminated, while a quagmire in front of the door reflected the beams from the same. Meanwhile the rain continued to beat sonorously down upon the wooden roof, and could be heard trickling into a water butt; nor for a single moment did the dogs cease to bark with all the strength of their lungs. One of them, throwing up its head, kept venting a howl of such energy and duration that the animal seemed to be howling for a handsome wager; while another, cutting in between the yelpings of the first animal, kept restlessly reiterating, like a postman's bell, the notes of a very young puppy. Finally, an old hound which appeared to be gifted with a peculiarly robust temperament kept supplying the part of contrabasso, so that his growls resembled the rumbling of a bass singer when a chorus is in full cry, and the tenors are rising on tiptoe in their efforts to compass a particularly high note, and the whole body of choristers are wagging their heads before approaching a climax, and this contrabasso alone is tucking his bearded chin into his collar, and sinking almost to a squatting posture on the floor, in order to produce a note which shall cause the windows to shiver and their panes to crack. Naturally, from a canine chorus of such executants it might reasonably be inferred that the establishment was one of the utmost respectability. To that, however, our damp, cold hero gave not a thought, for all his mind was fixed upon bed. Indeed, the britchka had hardly come to a standstill before he leapt out upon the doorstep, missed his footing, and came within an ace of falling. To meet him there issued a female younger than the first, but very closely resembling her; and on his being conducted to the parlour, a couple of glances showed him that the room was hung with old striped curtains, and ornamented with pictures of birds and small, antique mirrors—the latter set in dark frames which were carved to resemble scrolls of foliage. Behind each mirror was stuck either a letter or an old pack of cards or a stocking, while on the wall hung a clock with a flowered dial. More, however, Chichikov could not discern, for his eyelids were as heavy as though smeared with treacle. Presently the lady of the house herself entered—an elderly woman in a sort of nightcap (hastily put on) and a flannel neck wrap. She belonged to that class of lady landowners who are for ever lamenting failures of the harvest and their losses thereby; to the class who, drooping their heads despondently, are all the while stuffing money into striped purses, which they keep hoarded in the drawers of cupboards. Into one purse they will stuff rouble pieces, into another half roubles, and into a third tchetvertachki, although from their mien you would suppose that the cupboard contained only linen and nightshirts and skeins of wool and the piece of shabby material which is destined—should the old gown become scorched during the baking of holiday cakes and other dainties, or should it fall into pieces of itself—to become converted into a new dress. But the gown never does get burnt or wear out, for the reason that the lady is too careful; wherefore the piece of shabby material reposes in its unmade-up condition until the priest advises that it be given to the niece of some widowed sister, together with a quantity of other such rubbish.
Chichikov apologised for having disturbed the household with his unexpected arrival.
"Not at all, not at all," replied the lady. "But in what dreadful weather God has brought you hither! What wind and what rain! You could not help losing your way. Pray excuse us for being unable to make better preparations for you at this time of night."
Suddenly there broke in upon the hostess' words the sound of a strange hissing, a sound so loud that the guest started in alarm, and the more so seeing that it increased until the room seemed filled with adders. On glancing upwards, however, he recovered his composure, for he perceived the sound to be emanating from the clock, which appeared to be in a mind to strike. To the hissing sound there succeeded a wheezing one, until, putting forth its best efforts, the thing struck two with as much clatter as though some one had been hitting an iron pot with a cudgel. That done, the pendulum returned to its right-left, right-left oscillation.
Chichikov thanked his hostess kindly, and said that he needed nothing, and she must not put herself about: only for rest was he longing—though also he should like to know whither he had arrived, and whether the distance to the country house of land-owner Sobakevitch was anything very great. To this the lady replied that she had never so much as heard the name, since no gentleman of the name resided in the locality.
"But at least you are acquainted with landowner Manilov?" continued Chichikov.
"No. Who is he?"
"Another landed proprietor, madam."
"Well, neither have I heard of him. No such landowner lives hereabouts."
"Then who ARE your local landowners?"
"Bobrov, Svinin, Kanapatiev, Khapakin, Trepakin, and Plieshakov."
"Are they rich men?"
"No, none of them. One of them may own twenty souls, and another thirty, but of gentry who own a hundred there are none."
Chichikov reflected that he had indeed fallen into an aristocratic wilderness!
"At all events, is the town far away?" he inquired.
"About sixty versts. How sorry I am that I have nothing for you to eat! Should you care to drink some tea?"
"I thank you, good mother, but I require nothing beyond a bed."
"Well, after such a journey you must indeed be needing rest, so you shall lie upon this sofa. Fetinia, bring a quilt and some pillows and sheets. What weather God has sent us! And what dreadful thunder! Ever since sunset I have had a candle burning before the ikon in my bedroom. My God! Why, your back and sides are as muddy as a boar's! However have you managed to get into such a state?"
"That I am nothing worse than muddy is indeed fortunate, since, but for the Almighty, I should have had my ribs broken."
"Dear, dear! To think of all that you must have been through. Had I not better wipe your back?"
"I thank you, I thank you, but you need not trouble. Merely be so good as to tell your maid to dry my clothes."
"Do you hear that, Fetinia?" said the hostess, turning to a woman who was engaged in dragging in a feather bed and deluging the room with feathers. "Take this coat and this vest, and, after drying them before the fire—just as we used to do for your late master—give them a good rub, and fold them up neatly."
"Very well, mistress," said Fetinia, spreading some sheets over the bed, and arranging the pillows.
"Now your bed is ready for you," said the hostess to Chichikov. "Good-night, dear sir. I wish you good-night. Is there anything else that you require? Perhaps you would like to have your heels tickled before retiring to rest? Never could my late husband get to sleep without that having been done."
But the guest declined the proffered heel-tickling, and, on his hostess taking her departure, hastened to divest himself of his clothing, both upper and under, and to hand the garments to Fetinia. She wished him good-night, and removed the wet trappings; after which he found himself alone. Not without satisfaction did he eye his bed, which reached almost to the ceiling. Clearly Fetinia was a past mistress in the art of beating up such a couch, and, as the result, he had no sooner mounted it with the aid of a chair than it sank well-nigh to the floor, and the feathers, squeezed out of their proper confines, flew hither and thither into every corner of the apartment. Nevertheless he extinguished the candle, covered himself over with the chintz quilt, snuggled down beneath it, and instantly fell asleep. Next day it was late in the morning before he awoke. Through the window the sun was shining into his eyes, and the flies which, overnight, had been roosting quietly on the walls and ceiling now turned their attention to the visitor. One settled on his lip, another on his ear, a third hovered as though intending to lodge in his very eye, and a fourth had the temerity to alight just under his nostrils. In his drowsy condition he inhaled the latter insect, sneezed violently, and so returned to consciousness. He glanced around the room, and perceived that not all the pictures were representative of birds, since among them hung also a portrait of Kutuzov and an oil painting of an old man in a uniform with red facings such as were worn in the days of the Emperor Paul. At this moment the clock uttered its usual hissing sound, and struck ten, while a woman's face peered in at the door, but at once withdrew, for the reason that, with the object of sleeping as well as possible, Chichikov had removed every stitch of his clothing. Somehow the face seemed to him familiar, and he set himself to recall whose it could be. At length he recollected that it was the face of his hostess. His clothes he found lying, clean and dry, beside him; so he dressed and approached the mirror, meanwhile sneezing again with such vehemence that a cock which happened at the moment to be near the window (which was situated at no great distance from the ground) chuckled a short, sharp phrase. Probably it meant, in the bird's alien tongue, "Good morning to you!" Chichikov retorted by calling the bird a fool, and then himself approached the window to look at the view. It appeared to comprise a poulterer's premises. At all events, the narrow yard in front of the window was full of poultry and other domestic creatures—of game fowls and barn door fowls, with, among them, a cock which strutted with measured gait, and kept shaking its comb, and tilting its head as though it were trying to listen to something. Also, a sow and her family were helping to grace the scene. First, she rooted among a heap of litter; then, in passing, she ate up a young pullet; lastly, she proceeded carelessly to munch some pieces of melon rind. To this small yard or poultry-run a length of planking served as a fence, while beyond it lay a kitchen garden containing cabbages, onions, potatoes, beetroots, and other household vegetables. Also, the garden contained a few stray fruit trees that were covered with netting to protect them from the magpies and sparrows; flocks of which were even then wheeling and darting from one spot to another. For the same reason a number of scarecrows with outstretched arms stood reared on long poles, with, surmounting one of the figures, a cast-off cap of the hostess's. Beyond the garden again there stood a number of peasants' huts. Though scattered, instead of being arranged in regular rows, these appeared to Chichikov's eye to comprise well-to-do inhabitants, since all rotten planks in their roofing had been replaced with new ones, and none of their doors were askew, and such of their tiltsheds as faced him evinced evidence of a presence of a spare waggon—in some cases almost a new one.
"This lady owns by no means a poor village," said Chichikov to himself; wherefore he decided then and there to have a talk with his hostess, and to cultivate her closer acquaintance. Accordingly he peeped through the chink of the door whence her head had recently protruded, and, on seeing her seated at a tea table, entered and greeted her with a cheerful, kindly smile.
"Good morning, dear sir," she responded as she rose. "How have you slept?" She was dressed in better style than she had been on the previous evening. That is to say, she was now wearing a gown of some dark colour, and lacked her nightcap, and had swathed her neck in something stiff.
"I have slept exceedingly well," replied Chichikov, seating himself upon a chair. "And how are YOU, good madam?"
"But poorly, my dear sir."
"And why so?"
"Because I cannot sleep. A pain has taken me in my middle, and my legs, from the ankles upwards, are aching as though they were broken."
"That will pass, that will pass, good mother. You must pay no attention to it."
"God grant that it MAY pass. However, I have been rubbing myself with lard and turpentine. What sort of tea will you take? In this jar I have some of the scented kind."
"Excellent, good mother! Then I will take that."
Probably the reader will have noticed that, for all his expressions of solicitude, Chichikov's tone towards his hostess partook of a freer, a more unceremonious, nature than that which he had adopted towards Madam Manilov. And here I should like to assert that, howsoever much, in certain respects, we Russians may be surpassed by foreigners, at least we surpass them in adroitness of manner. In fact the various shades and subtleties of our social intercourse defy enumeration. A Frenchman or a German would be incapable of envisaging and understanding all its peculiarities and differences, for his tone in speaking to a millionaire differs but little from that which he employs towards a small tobacconist—and that in spite of the circumstance that he is accustomed to cringe before the former. With us, however, things are different. In Russian society there exist clever folk who can speak in one manner to a landowner possessed of two hundred peasant souls, and in another to a landowner possessed of three hundred, and in another to a landowner possessed of five hundred. In short, up to the number of a million souls the Russian will have ready for each landowner a suitable mode of address. For example, suppose that somewhere there exists a government office, and that in that office there exists a director. I would beg of you to contemplate him as he sits among his myrmidons. Sheer nervousness will prevent you from uttering a word in his presence, so great are the pride and superiority depicted on his countenance. Also, were you to sketch him, you would be sketching a veritable Prometheus, for his glance is as that of an eagle, and he walks with measured, stately stride. Yet no sooner will the eagle have left the room to seek the study of his superior officer than he will go scurrying along (papers held close to his nose) like any partridge. But in society, and at the evening party (should the rest of those present be of lesser rank than himself) the Prometheus will once more become Prometheus, and the man who stands a step below him will treat him in a way never dreamt of by Ovid, seeing that each fly is of lesser account than its superior fly, and becomes, in the presence of the latter, even as a grain of sand. "Surely that is not Ivan Petrovitch?" you will say of such and such a man as you regard him. "Ivan Petrovitch is tall, whereas this man is small and spare. Ivan Petrovitch has a loud, deep voice, and never smiles, whereas this man (whoever he may be) is twittering like a sparrow, and smiling all the time." Yet approach and take a good look at the fellow and you will see that is IS Ivan Petrovitch. "Alack, alack!" will be the only remark you can make.
Let us return to our characters in real life. We have seen that, on this occasion, Chichikov decided to dispense with ceremony; wherefore, taking up the teapot, he went on as follows:
"You have a nice little village here, madam. How many souls does it contain?"
"A little less than eighty, dear sir. But the times are hard, and I have lost a great deal through last year's harvest having proved a failure."
"But your peasants look fine, strong fellows. May I enquire your name? Through arriving so late at night I have quite lost my wits."
"Korobotchka, the widow of a Collegiate Secretary."
"I humbly thank you. And your Christian name and patronymic?"
"Nastasia Petrovna! Those are excellent names. I have a maternal aunt named like yourself."
"And YOUR name?" queried the lady. "May I take it that you are a Government Assessor?"
"No, madam," replied Chichikov with a smile. "I am not an Assessor, but a traveller on private business."
"Then you must be a buyer of produce? How I regret that I have sold my honey so cheaply to other buyers! Otherwise YOU might have bought it, dear sir."
"I never buy honey."
"Then WHAT do you buy, pray? Hemp? I have a little of that by me, but not more than half a pood or so."
"No, madam. It is in other wares that I deal. Tell me, have you, of late years, lost many of your peasants by death?"
"Yes; no fewer than eighteen," responded the old lady with a sigh. "Such a fine lot, too—all good workers! True, others have since grown up, but of what use are THEY? Mere striplings. When the Assessor last called upon me I could have wept; for, though those workmen of mine are dead, I have to keep on paying for them as though they were still alive! And only last week my blacksmith got burnt to death! Such a clever hand at his trade he was!"
"What? A fire occurred at your place?"
"No, no, God preserve us all! It was not so bad as that. You must understand that the blacksmith SET HIMSELF on fire—he got set on fire in his bowels through overdrinking. Yes, all of a sudden there burst from him a blue flame, and he smouldered and smouldered until he had turned as black as a piece of charcoal! Yet what a clever blacksmith he was! And now I have no horses to drive out with, for there is no one to shoe them."
"In everything the will of God, madam," said Chichikov with a sigh. "Against the divine wisdom it is not for us to rebel. Pray hand them over to me, Nastasia Petrovna."
"Hand over whom?"
"The dead peasants."
"But how could I do that?"
"Quite simply. Sell them to me, and I will give you some money in exchange."
"But how am I to sell them to you? I scarcely understand what you mean. Am I to dig them up again from the ground?"
Chichikov perceived that the old lady was altogether at sea, and that he must explain the matter; wherefore in a few words he informed her that the transfer or purchase of the souls in question would take place merely on paper—that the said souls would be listed as still alive.
"And what good would they be to you?" asked his hostess, staring at him with her eyes distended.
"That is MY affair."
"But they are DEAD souls."
"Who said they were not? The mere fact of their being dead entails upon you a loss as dead as the souls, for you have to continue paying tax upon them, whereas MY plan is to relieve you both of the tax and of the resultant trouble. NOW do you understand? And I will not only do as I say, but also hand you over fifteen roubles per soul. Is that clear enough?"
"Yes—but I do not know," said his hostess diffidently. "You see, never before have I sold dead souls."
"Quite so. It would be a surprising thing if you had. But surely you do not think that these dead souls are in the least worth keeping?"
"Oh, no, indeed! Why should they be worth keeping? I am sure they are not so. The only thing which troubles me is the fact that they are DEAD."
"She seems a truly obstinate old woman!" was Chichikov's inward comment. "Look here, madam," he added aloud. "You reason well, but you are simply ruining yourself by continuing to pay the tax upon dead souls as though they were still alive."
"Oh, good sir, do not speak of it!" the lady exclaimed. "Three weeks ago I took a hundred and fifty roubles to that Assessor, and buttered him up, and—"
"Then you see how it is, do you not? Remember that, according to my plan, you will never again have to butter up the Assessor, seeing that it will be I who will be paying for those peasants—_I_, not YOU, for I shall have taken over the dues upon them, and have transferred them to myself as so many bona fide serfs. Do you understand AT LAST?"
However, the old lady still communed with herself. She could see that the transaction would be to her advantage, yet it was one of such a novel and unprecedented nature that she was beginning to fear lest this purchaser of souls intended to cheat her. Certainly he had come from God only knew where, and at the dead of night, too!
"But, sir, I have never in my life sold dead folk—only living ones. Three years ago I transferred two wenches to Protopopov for a hundred roubles apiece, and he thanked me kindly, for they turned out splendid workers—able to make napkins or anything else.
"Yes, but with the living we have nothing to do, damn it! I am asking you only about DEAD folk."
"Yes, yes, of course. But at first sight I felt afraid lest I should be incurring a loss—lest you should be wishing to outwit me, good sir. You see, the dead souls are worth rather more than you have offered for them."
"See here, madam. (What a woman it is!) HOW could they be worth more? Think for yourself. They are so much loss to you—so much loss, do you understand? Take any worthless, rubbishy article you like—a piece of old rag, for example. That rag will yet fetch its price, for it can be bought for paper-making. But these dead souls are good for NOTHING AT ALL. Can you name anything that they ARE good for?"
"True, true—they ARE good for nothing. But what troubles me is the fact that they are dead."
"What a blockhead of a creature!" said Chichikov to himself, for he was beginning to lose patience. "Bless her heart, I may as well be going. She has thrown me into a perfect sweat, the cursed old shrew!"
He took a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped the perspiration from his brow. Yet he need not have flown into such a passion. More than one respected statesman reveals himself, when confronted with a business matter, to be just such another as Madam Korobotchka, in that, once he has got an idea into his head, there is no getting it out of him—you may ply him with daylight-clear arguments, yet they will rebound from his brain as an india-rubber ball rebounds from a flagstone. Nevertheless, wiping away the perspiration, Chichikov resolved to try whether he could not bring her back to the road by another path.
"Madam," he said, "either you are declining to understand what I say or you are talking for the mere sake of talking. If I hand you over some money—fifteen roubles for each soul, do you understand?—it is MONEY, not something which can be picked up haphazard on the street. For instance, tell me how much you sold your honey for?"
"For twelve roubles per pood."
"Ah! Then by those words, madam, you have laid a trifling sin upon your soul; for you did NOT sell the honey for twelve roubles."
"By the Lord God I did!"
"Well, well! Never mind. Honey is only honey. Now, you had collected that stuff, it may be, for a year, and with infinite care and labour. You had fussed after it, you had trotted to and fro, you had duly frozen out the bees, and you had fed them in the cellar throughout the winter. But these dead souls of which I speak are quite another matter, for in this case you have put forth no exertions—it was merely God's will that they should leave the world, and thus decrease the personnel of your establishment. In the former case you received (so you allege) twelve roubles per pood for your labour; but in this case you will receive money for having done nothing at all. Nor will you receive twelve roubles per item, but FIFTEEN—and roubles not in silver, but roubles in good paper currency."
That these powerful inducements would certainly cause the old woman to yield Chichikov had not a doubt.
"True," his hostess replied. "But how strangely business comes to me as a widow! Perhaps I had better wait a little longer, seeing that other buyers might come along, and I might be able to compare prices."
"For shame, madam! For shame! Think what you are saying. Who else, I would ask, would care to buy those souls? What use could they be to any one?"
"If that is so, they might come in useful to ME," mused the old woman aloud; after which she sat staring at Chichikov with her mouth open and a face of nervous expectancy as to his possible rejoinder.
"Dead folk useful in a household!" he exclaimed. "Why, what could you do with them? Set them up on poles to frighten away the sparrows from your garden?"
"The Lord save us, but what things you say!" she ejaculated, crossing herself.
"Well, WHAT could you do with them? By this time they are so much bones and earth. That is all there is left of them. Their transfer to myself would be ON PAPER only. Come, come! At least give me an answer."
Again the old woman communed with herself.
"What are you thinking of, Nastasia Petrovna?" inquired Chichikov.
"I am thinking that I scarcely know what to do. Perhaps I had better sell you some hemp?"
"What do I want with hemp? Pardon me, but just when I have made to you a different proposal altogether you begin fussing about hemp! Hemp is hemp, and though I may want some when I NEXT visit you, I should like to know what you have to say to the suggestion under discussion."
"Well, I think it a very queer bargain. Never have I heard of such a thing."
Upon this Chichikov lost all patience, upset his chair, and bid her go to the devil; of which personage even the mere mention terrified her extremely.
"Do not speak of him, I beg of you!" she cried, turning pale. "May God, rather, bless him! Last night was the third night that he has appeared to me in a dream. You see, after saying my prayers, I bethought me of telling my fortune by the cards; and God must have sent him as a punishment. He looked so horrible, and had horns longer than a bull's!"
"I wonder you don't see SCORES of devils in your dreams! Merely out of Christian charity he had come to you to say, 'I perceive a poor widow going to rack and ruin, and likely soon to stand in danger of want.' Well, go to rack and ruin—yes, you and all your village together!"
"The insults!" exclaimed the old woman, glancing at her visitor in terror.
"I should think so!" continued Chichikov. "Indeed, I cannot find words to describe you. To say no more about it, you are like a dog in a manger. You don't want to eat the hay yourself, yet you won't let anyone else touch it. All that I am seeking to do is to purchase certain domestic products of yours, for the reason that I have certain Government contracts to fulfil." This last he added in passing, and without any ulterior motive, save that it came to him as a happy thought. Nevertheless the mention of Government contracts exercised a powerful influence upon Nastasia Petrovna, and she hastened to say in a tone that was almost supplicatory:
"Why should you be so angry with me? Had I known that you were going to lose your temper in this way, I should never have discussed the matter."
"No wonder that I lose my temper! An egg too many is no great matter, yet it may prove exceedingly annoying."
"Well, well, I will let you have the souls for fifteen roubles each. Also, with regard to those contracts, do not forget me if at any time you should find yourself in need of rye-meal or buckwheat or groats or dead meat."
"No, I shall NEVER forget you, madam!" he said, wiping his forehead, where three separate streams of perspiration were trickling down his face. Then he asked her whether in the town she had any acquaintance or agent whom she could empower to complete the transference of the serfs, and to carry out whatsoever else might be necessary.
"Certainly," replied Madame Korobotchka. "The son of our archpriest, Father Cyril, himself is a lawyer."
Upon that Chichikov begged her to accord the gentleman in question a power of attorney, while, to save extra trouble, he himself would then and there compose the requisite letter.
"It would be a fine thing if he were to buy up all my meal and stock for the Government," thought Madame to herself. "I must encourage him a little. There has been some dough standing ready since last night, so I will go and tell Fetinia to try a few pancakes. Also, it might be well to try him with an egg pie. We make then nicely here, and they do not take long in the making."
So she departed to translate her thoughts into action, as well as to supplement the pie with other products of the domestic cuisine; while, for his part, Chichikov returned to the drawing-room where he had spent the night, in order to procure from his dispatch-box the necessary writing-paper. The room had now been set in order, the sumptuous feather bed removed, and a table set before the sofa. Depositing his dispatch-box upon the table, he heaved a gentle sigh on becoming aware that he was so soaked with perspiration that he might almost have been dipped in a river. Everything, from his shirt to his socks, was dripping. "May she starve to death, the cursed old harridan!" he ejaculated after a moment's rest. Then he opened his dispatch-box. In passing, I may say that I feel certain that at least SOME of my readers will be curious to know the contents and the internal arrangements of that receptacle. Why should I not gratify their curiosity? To begin with, the centre of the box contained a soap-dish, with, disposed around it, six or seven compartments for razors. Next came square partitions for a sand-box and an inkstand, as well as (scooped out in their midst) a hollow of pens, sealing-wax, and anything else that required more room. Lastly there were all sorts of little divisions, both with and without lids, for articles of a smaller nature, such as visiting cards, memorial cards, theatre tickets, and things which Chichikov had laid by as souvenirs. This portion of the box could be taken out, and below it were both a space for manuscripts and a secret money-box—the latter made to draw out from the side of the receptacle.
Chichikov set to work to clean a pen, and then to write. Presently his hostess entered the room.
"What a beautiful box you have got, my dear sir!" she exclaimed as she took a seat beside him. "Probably you bought it in Moscow?"
"Yes—in Moscow," replied Chichikov without interrupting his writing.
"I thought so. One CAN get good things there. Three years ago my sister brought me a few pairs of warm shoes for my sons, and they were such excellent articles! To this day my boys wear them. And what nice stamped paper you have!" (she had peered into the dispatch-box, where, sure enough, there lay a further store of the paper in question). "Would you mind letting me have a sheet of it? I am without any at all, although I shall soon have to be presenting a plea to the land court, and possess not a morsel of paper to write it on."
Upon this Chichikov explained that the paper was not the sort proper for the purpose—that it was meant for serf-indenturing, and not for the framing of pleas. Nevertheless, to quiet her, he gave her a sheet stamped to the value of a rouble. Next, he handed her the letter to sign, and requested, in return, a list of her peasants. Unfortunately, such a list had never been compiled, let alone any copies of it, and the only way in which she knew the peasants' names was by heart. However, he told her to dictate them. Some of the names greatly astonished our hero, so, still more, did the surnames. Indeed, frequently, on hearing the latter, he had to pause before writing them down. Especially did he halt before a certain "Peter Saveliev Neuvazhai Korito." "What a string of titles!" involuntarily he ejaculated. To the Christian name of another serf was appended "Korovi Kirpitch," and to that of a third "Koleso Ivan." However, at length the list was compiled, and he caught a deep breath; which latter proceeding caused him to catch also the attractive odour of something fried in fat.
"I beseech you to have a morsel," murmured his hostess. Chichikov looked up, and saw that the table was spread with mushrooms, pies, and other viands.
"Try this freshly-made pie and an egg," continued Madame.
Chichikov did so, and having eaten more than half of what she offered him, praised the pie highly. Indeed, it was a toothsome dish, and, after his difficulties and exertions with his hostess, it tasted even better than it might otherwise have done.
"And also a few pancakes?" suggested Madame.
For answer Chichikov folded three together, and, having dipped them in melted butter, consigned the lot to his mouth, and then wiped his mouth with a napkin. Twice more was the process repeated, and then he requested his hostess to order the britchka to be got ready. In dispatching Fetinia with the necessary instructions, she ordered her to return with a second batch of hot pancakes.
"Your pancakes are indeed splendid," said Chichikov, applying himself to the second consignment of fried dainties when they had arrived.
"Yes, we make them well here," replied Madame. "Yet how unfortunate it is that the harvest should have proved so poor as to have prevented me from earning anything on my— But why should you be in such a hurry to depart, good sir?" She broke off on seeing Chichikov reach for his cap. "The britchka is not yet ready."
"Then it is being got so, madam, it is being got so, and I shall need a moment or two to pack my things."
"As you please, dear sir; but do not forget me in connection with those Government contracts."
"No, I have said that NEVER shall I forget you," replied Chichikov as he hurried into the hall.
"And would you like to buy some lard?" continued his hostess, pursuing him.
"Lard? Oh certainly. Why not? Only, only—I will do so ANOTHER time."
"I shall have some ready at about Christmas."
"Quite so, madam. THEN I will buy anything and everything—the lard included."
"And perhaps you will be wanting also some feathers? I shall be having some for sale about St. Philip's Day."
"Very well, very well, madam."
"There you see!" she remarked as they stepped out on to the verandah. "The britchka is NOT yet ready."
"But it soon will be, it soon will be. Only direct me to the main road."
"How am I to do that?" said Madame. "'Twould puzzle a wise man to do so, for in these parts there are so many turnings. However, I will send a girl to guide you. You could find room for her on the box-seat, could you not?"
"Yes, of course."
"Then I will send her. She knows the way thoroughly. Only do not carry her off for good. Already some traders have deprived me of one of my girls."
Chichikov reassured his hostess on the point, and Madame plucked up courage enough to scan, first of all, the housekeeper, who happened to be issuing from the storehouse with a bowl of honey, and, next, a young peasant who happened to be standing at the gates; and, while thus engaged, she became wholly absorbed in her domestic pursuits. But why pay her so much attention? The Widow Korobotchka, Madame Manilov, domestic life, non-domestic life—away with them all! How strangely are things compounded! In a trice may joy turn to sorrow, should one halt long enough over it: in a trice only God can say what ideas may strike one. You may fall even to thinking: "After all, did Madame Korobotchka stand so very low in the scale of human perfection? Was there really such a very great gulf between her and Madame Manilov—between her and the Madame Manilov whom we have seen entrenched behind the walls of a genteel mansion in which there were a fine staircase of wrought metal and a number of rich carpets; the Madame Manilov who spent most of her time in yawning behind half-read books, and in hoping for a visit from some socially distinguished person in order that she might display her wit and carefully rehearsed thoughts—thoughts which had been de rigeur in town for a week past, yet which referred, not to what was going on in her household or on her estate—both of which properties were at odds and ends, owing to her ignorance of the art of managing them—but to the coming political revolution in France and the direction in which fashionable Catholicism was supposed to be moving? But away with such things! Why need we speak of them? Yet how comes it that suddenly into the midst of our careless, frivolous, unthinking moments there may enter another, and a very different, tendency?—that the smile may not have left a human face before its owner will have radically changed his or her nature (though not his or her environment) with the result that the face will suddenly become lit with a radiance never before seen there? …
"Here is the britchka, here is the britchka!" exclaimed Chichikov on perceiving that vehicle slowly advancing. "Ah, you blockhead!" he went on to Selifan. "Why have you been loitering about? I suppose last night's fumes have not yet left your brain?"
To this Selifan returned no reply.
"Good-bye, madam," added the speaker. "But where is the girl whom you promised me?"
"Here, Pelagea!" called the hostess to a wench of about eleven who was dressed in home-dyed garments and could boast of a pair of bare feet which, from a distance, might almost have been mistaken for boots, so encrusted were they with fresh mire. "Here, Pelagea! Come and show this gentleman the way."
Selifan helped the girl to ascend to the box-seat. Placing one foot upon the step by which the gentry mounted, she covered the said step with mud, and then, ascending higher, attained the desired position beside the coachman. Chichikov followed in her wake (causing the britchka to heel over with his weight as he did so), and then settled himself back into his place with an "All right! Good-bye, madam!" as the horses moved away at a trot.
Selifan looked gloomy as he drove, but also very attentive to his business. This was invariably his custom when he had committed the fault of getting drunk. Also, the horses looked unusually well-groomed. In particular, the collar on one of them had been neatly mended, although hitherto its state of dilapidation had been such as perennially to allow the stuffing to protrude through the leather. The silence preserved was well-nigh complete. Merely flourishing his whip, Selifan spoke to the team no word of instruction, although the skewbald was as ready as usual to listen to conversation of a didactic nature, seeing that at such times the reins hung loosely in the hands of the loquacious driver, and the whip wandered merely as a matter of form over the backs of the troika. This time, however, there could be heard issuing from Selifan's sullen lips only the uniformly unpleasant exclamation, "Now then, you brutes! Get on with you, get on with you!" The bay and the Assessor too felt put out at not hearing themselves called "my pets" or "good lads"; while, in addition, the skewbald came in for some nasty cuts across his sleek and ample quarters. "What has put master out like this?" thought the animal as it shook its head. "Heaven knows where he does not keep beating me—across the back, and even where I am tenderer still. Yes, he keeps catching the whip in my ears, and lashing me under the belly."
"To the right, eh?" snapped Selifan to the girl beside him as he pointed to a rain-soaked road which trended away through fresh green fields.
"No, no," she replied. "I will show you the road when the time comes."
"Which way, then?" he asked again when they had proceeded a little further.
"This way." And she pointed to the road just mentioned.
"Get along with you!" retorted the coachman. "That DOES go to the right. You don't know your right hand from your left."
The weather was fine, but the ground so excessively sodden that the wheels of the britchka collected mire until they had become caked as with a layer of felt, a circumstance which greatly increased the weight of the vehicle, and prevented it from clearing the neighbouring parishes before the afternoon was arrived. Also, without the girl's help the finding of the way would have been impossible, since roads wiggled away in every direction, like crabs released from a net, and, but for the assistance mentioned, Selifan would have found himself left to his own devices. Presently she pointed to a building ahead, with the words, "THERE is the main road."
"And what is the building?" asked Selifan.
"A tavern," she said.
"Then we can get along by ourselves," he observed. "Do you get down, and be off home."
With that he stopped, and helped her to alight—muttering as he did so: "Ah, you blackfooted creature!"
Chichikov added a copper groat, and she departed well pleased with her ride in the gentleman's carriage.