Dead Souls—A Poem/Book One/Chapter I

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CHAPTER I

A rather pretty little chaise on springs, such as bachelors, half-pay officers, staff-captains, landowners with about a hundred serfs—in short, all such as are spoken of as 'gentlemen of the middling sort'—drive about in, rolled in at the gates of the hotel of the provincial town of N. In the chaise sat a gentleman, not handsome but not bad-looking, not too stout and not too thin; it could not be said that he was old, neither could he be described as extremely young. His arrival in the town created no sensation whatever and was not accompanied by anything remarkable. Only two Russian peasants standing at the door of the tavern facing the hotel made some observations, with reference, however, rather to the carriage than to its occupant. 'My eye,' said one to the other, 'isn't that a wheel! What do you think? Would that wheel, if so it chanced, get to Moscow or would it never get there?' 'It would,' answered the other. 'But to Kazan now, I don't think it would get there?' 'It wouldn't get to Kazan,' answered the other. With that the conversation ended. Moreover, just as the chaise drove up to the hotel it was met by a young man in extremely short and narrow white canvas trousers, in a coat with fashionable cut-away tails and a shirt-front fastened with a Tula breastpin adorned with a bronze pistol. The young man turned round, stared at the chaise, holding his cap which was almost flying off in the wind, and went on his way.

When the chaise drove into the yard the gentleman was met by a hotel servant—waiter as they are called in the restaurants—a fellow so brisk and rapid in his movements that it was impossible to distinguish his countenance. He ran out nimbly with a dinner napkin in his hand, a long figure wearing a long frock-coat made of some cotton mixture with the waist almost up to the nape of his neck, tossed his locks and nimbly led the gentleman upstairs along the whole length of a wooden gallery to show the guest to the room Providence had sent him. The room was of the familiar type, but the hotel, too, was of the familiar type—that is, it was precisely like the hotels in provincial towns where for two roubles a day travellers get a quiet room with black beetles peeping out of every corner like prunes, and a door, always barricaded with a chest of drawers, into the next apartment, of which the occupant, a quiet and taciturn but excessively inquisitive person, is interested in finding out every detail relating to the new-comer. The outer façade of the hotel corresponded with its internal peculiarities: it was a very long building of two storeys; the lower storey had not been stuccoed but left dark-red brick, which had become darker still from the violent changes of the weather, and also somewhat dirty; the upper storey had been painted the invariable yellow tint; in the basement there were shops with horse-collars, ropes, and bread-rings. In the corner one of these shops, or rather in the window of it, there was a man who sold hot spiced drinks, with a samovar of red copper and a face as red as his samovar, so that from a distance one might have imagined that there were two samovars in the window, if one of them had not had a beard as black as pitch.

While the new-comer was inspecting his room, his luggage was carried up: first of all, a portmanteau of white leather, somewhat worn and evidently not on its first journey. The portmanteau was brought in by his coachman Selifan, a little man in a sheepskin, and his footman Petrushka, a fellow of thirty, somewhat sullen looking, with very thick lips and nose, wearing a rather shabby loose frock-coat that had evidently been his master's. After the portmanteau they carried up a small mahogany chest inlaid with hard birch, a pair of boot-trees, and a roast fowl wrapped up in blue paper. When all this had been brought in, the coachman Selifan went to the stables to look after the horses, while the footman Petrushka proceeded to instal himself in a little lobby, a very dark little cupboard, into which he had already conveyed his overcoat and with it his own peculiar odour, which was communicated also to the sack containing various articles for his flunkey toilet, which he brought up next. In this cupboard he put up against the wall a narrow three-legged bedstead, covering it with a small travesty of a mattress, crushed as flat as a pancake, and perhaps as greasy, too, which he had succeeded in begging from the hotel-keeper.

While the servants were busy arranging things, their master went to the common room. Every traveller knows very well what these common rooms are like. There were the usual painted walls, blackened above by smoke from the chimney, and glossy below from the backs of travellers of all sorts and more particularly of merchants of the district, for on market days merchants used to come here, in parties of six or seven, to drink their regular two cups of tea; there was the usual grimy ceiling, the usual smutty chandelier with a multitude of little hanging glass lustres which danced and tinkled every time the waiter ran over the shabby oilcloth, briskly flourishing a tray with as many teacups perched on it as birds on the seashore; there were the usual pictures, painted in oil, all over the walls; in short, everything was the same as it is everywhere, the only difference was that in one of the pictures a nymph was portrayed with a bosom more immense than the reader has probably ever seen. Such freaks of nature, however, occur in all sorts of historical pictures which have been imported into Russia, there is no knowing at what date, from what place or by whom, though sometimes they are brought us by our grand gentlemen, lovers of the arts, who have purchased them in Italy on the advice of their couriers.

The gentleman removed his cap and unwound from his neck a woollen shawl of rainbow hues such as married men are provided with by their wives, who add to those gifts suitable exhortations about wrapping themselves up. Who does the same for bachelors I cannot say for certain, God only knows: I have never worn such a shawl myself. When he had removed the shawl the gentleman ordered dinner. While they were serving him with various dishes usual in restaurants, such as cabbage soup with little pies of puff paste purposely kept for weeks in readiness for visitors, brains with peas, sausages with cabbage, roast pullet, salt cucumbers, and the eternal sweet puffs which are always at one's service; while all these things were being set before him, some warmed up and some cold, he made the servant, or waiter, tell him all sorts of foolish things, such as who used to keep the hotel and who kept it now, and whether it was profitable and whether his master were a great rascal, to which the waiter made the usual answer: 'Oh, he is a great swindler, sir!' Both in enlightened Europe and in enlightened Russia there are nowadays many worthy persons who cannot eat in a restaurant without talking to waiters and sometimes even making amusing jokes at their expense. The questions put by the traveller were however not altogether foolish. He inquired with marked particularity who was the governor, who was the president of the court of justice, who was the public prosecutor, in short he did not omit to inquire about a single one of the more important local officials, and with even greater particularity, even with marked interest he inquired about all the country gentlemen of consequence: how many souls of peasants each owned, how far from the town he lived, what were his characteristics and how often he visited the town. He made careful inquiries concerning the health of the countryside, whether there were any complaints in the province—such as epidemics, fevers, small-pox, and such like, and all this with a preciseness which betrayed more than simple curiosity. The gentleman had something solid and respectable in his manners and he blew his nose extremely loud. I cannot say how he did it but his nose resounded like a trumpet. This apparently innocent merit gained him much respect from the waiter, for every time he heard the sound he shook his locks, drew himself up more respectfully, and bending his head inquired whether he wanted anything. After dinner the gentleman drank a cup of coffee and sat on the sofa, propping his back against one of those cushions which in Russian hotels are stuffed not with supple wool but with something extraordinarily like bricks and pebbles. At this point he began to yawn and bade the waiter take him to his room, where he lay down and slept for a couple of hours. When he had rested he wrote, at the request of the waiter, on a slip of paper his rank in the service, his Christian name, and his surname to be presented in due course to the police. As he went downstairs the waiter spelled out as follows: 'Pavel Ivanovitch Tchitchikov, collegiate councillor and landowner, travelling on his private business.'

While the waiter was still engaged in spelling this out, Pavel Ivanovitch Tchitchikov went off to look at the town, with which he was, it appears, satisfied, for he considered that it was in no way inferior to other provincial towns: the yellow paint on the brick houses was extremely glaring, while the wood houses were a modest dark grey. The houses were of one storey, of two storeys, and of one and a half storeys with the everlasting mezzanine which provincial architects think so beautiful. In some parts these houses looked lost in the midst of a street as wide as a field and unending wooden fences; in other places they were all crowded together, and here more life and movement were noticeable. There were shop signboards with bread-rings or boots on them, almost effaced by the rain, with here and there a picture of blue trousers and the name of some tailor; in one place was a shop with caps, and the inscription: 'Vassily Fyodorov, foreigner'; in another place there was depicted a billiard table with two players in dress coats such as are worn in our theatres by the visitors who come on to the stage in the last act. The players were represented taking aim with the cue, their arms a little drawn back and their legs crooked as though they had just made an entrechat in the air. Under all this was inscribed: 'And here is the establishment.' Here and there, tables covered with nuts, soap, and cakes that looked like soap, stood simply in the street; and here and there was an eating-house with a fat fish and a fork stuck in it on the signboard. More often than anything he observed, somewhat darkened by age, the two-headed imperial eagle which is nowadays replaced by the laconic inscription: 'Beer and spirits.' The pavement was everywhere in a bad state. He glanced too into the town park which consisted of skimpy and drooping trees, supported by props put in triangles and very handsomely painted green. Though these trees were no higher than a reed, yet in describing some illuminations the newspapers had said of them that: 'Our town has, thanks to the care of the municipal authorities, been adorned with a park of spreading shady trees that provide welcome coolness on a sultry day,' and that 'it was extremely touching to observe how the hearts of the townspeople were quivering with excess of gratitude and their eyes were brimming with tears in recognition of what they owed to his worship the Mayor.' After minutely questioning a policeman as to the nearest way to the cathedral, to the government offices and to the governor's, he went to have a look at the river which flowed through the middle of the town; on the way he tore off a poster affixed to a pole in order to read it carefully on returning home, stared at a lady of prepossessing exterior who was walking along the wooden side-walk, followed by a boy in military livery with a parcel in his hand, and after once more scrutinising it all as though to remember precisely the position of everything, he went home and straight up to his hotel room, slightly assisted up the staircase by the waiter. After drinking tea he sat down before his table, ordered a candle, took the poster out of his pocket, held it to the light and began to read it, slightly screwing up his right eye. There was little of interest in the poster however: a play of Kotzebue's was being performed with Poplyovin in the part of Rolla and Mademoiselle Zyablov in that of Cora, and the other performers were even less noteworthy; he read through all their names, however, and even went on to the price of the orchestra stalls, and learned that the poster had been printed at the printing press of the government department of the province. Then he turned it over to find out if there was anything of interest on the other side, but, finding nothing, rubbed his eyes, folded it up neatly and put it in his chest, in which he had the habit of stowing away everything that turned up. The day was, I believe, concluded by a plateful of cold veal, a pint of sour cabbage soup, and a sound sleep, with every tap turned on, as the expression is in some parts of the spacious Russian empire.

The whole of the following day was devoted to visits. The new-comer set off to make calls upon all the dignitaries of the town. He paid his respects to the governor who, as it turned out, was like Tchitchikov himself, neither stout nor thin; he had the Anna on his neck, and was even said to have been recommended for a star. He was, however, a very simple and good-natured fellow, and sometimes actually embroidered on net. Then he went to the deputy-governor's, then visited the public prosecutor, the president of the court of justice, the police-master, the spirit tax contractor, the superintendent of the government factories. … I am sorry to say it is rather difficult to recall all the great ones of this world; but it is sufficient to say that the new-comer displayed an extraordinary activity in paying visits, he even called to show his regard for the inspector of the medical board and the town architect. And he sat for a good while afterwards in his chaise, wondering whether there was any one else he could visit, but it seemed there were no more officials in the town. In conversation with these potentates he very skilfully managed to flatter every one of them. To the governor he hinted, as it were casually, that one travelled in his province as in Paradise, that the roads were everywhere like velvet, and that governments which appointed wise rulers were worthy of the greatest praise. To the police-master he said something very flattering about the town police; while in conversation with the deputy-governor and the president of the court, who were still only civil councillors, he twice said by mistake, 'your Excellency,' which greatly gratified them. The consequence of this was that the governor gave him an invitation to an evening-party in his house that very day, and the other officials, too, invited him, one to dinner, another to a game of boston, another to a cup of tea.

The new-comer, as it seemed, avoided saying much about himself; if he did speak of himself it was in generalities, with conspicuous modesty, and his speech on such occasions took somewhat a bookish turn, such as: that he was only an insignificant worm and did not deserve to be the object of attention, that he had passed through many experiences in his time, had suffered for the cause of justice, had many enemies who had even attempted his life, and that now, desirous of living in peace, he was looking out to find a place for his permanent residence, and that being in the town he thought it his bounden duty to show his respect for its leading dignitaries. That was all that was learned in the town about this new personage who very shortly afterwards did not fail to put in an appearance at the governor's evening-party. The preparation for this evening-party occupied him over two hours, and on this occasion he exhibited a greater attention to his toilet than is commonly seen. After a brief after-dinner nap he asked for soap and water and spent an extremely long time scrubbing his cheeks with soap, putting his tongue into them to make them stand out; then, taking a towel off the shoulder of the waiter, wiped his face in all directions, beginning from behind his ears, first giving two snorts right in the face of the waiter; then he put on his shirt-front before the looking-glass, tweaked out two hairs that were protruding from his nose, and immediately after that attired himself in a shot cranberry-coloured dress coat. Having thus arrayed himself he drove in his own carriage through the immensely wide streets, illuminated by the faint light that came from the windows glimmering here and there. The governor's house, however, was illuminated as though for a ball; there were carriages with lamps, two mounted policemen before the entrance, shouting postillions in the distance—in fact everything as it should be.

On entering the room Tchitchikov had for a moment to screw up his eyes, for the glare of the candles, the lamps, and the ladies' dresses was terrific. It was all flooded with light. Black coats flitted about, one by one or in groups, here and there, like flies flitting about a sparkling sugar-loaf on a hot July day when the old housekeeper breaks and splits it up into glistening lumps before the open window: the children all look on, gathered round her, watching with interest her rough hands lifting the hammer while airy squadrons of flies, floating on the breeze, fly in boldly as though the house belonged to them and, taking advantage of the old woman's dim sight and the sunshine that dazzles her eyes, cover the dainty morsels, here in scattered groups, and there in dense crowds. Sated by the wealth of summer which spreads dainties for them at every step, they fly in, not for food but to display themselves, to parade up and down over the heap of sugar, to rub their hind legs or their front legs one against the other, or to scratch themselves under their wings, or stretching out both front legs to brush their heads with them, to turn and fly out again and to fly in once more in new persistent squadrons.

Tchitchikov had hardly time to look about him when the governor took him by the arm and at once presented him to his wife. The new-comer did not lose his head, but paid her some compliment extremely suitable for a man of his age, who is of a rank in the service neither exalted nor very humble. When the couples of dancers taking their places pressed every one back to the wall, he gazed at them very attentively for two or three minutes with his hands behind him. Many of the ladies were well and fashionably dressed. Others were dressed in whatever Providence was pleased to send them in a provincial town. The men here as everywhere were of two kinds; first, the thin who were always hanging about the ladies; some of them could hardly be distinguished from Petersburgers: they had the same elaborately and tastefully combed whiskers or the same pleasing, smoothly shaven, oval faces, they seated themselves beside the ladies in the same casual way, spoke French and diverted the ladies just like gentlemen from Petersburg. The second class consisted of the stout or those like Tchitchikov who, though not extremely stout, were certainly not thin. These, on the contrary, looked askance at the ladies and held aloof from them, while they gazed about to see whether the governor's servants had yet set the table for whist. Their faces were round and full, some of them even had warts, some of them even were pock-marked; they did not wear their hair either in a top-knot or in curls, nor à la diable m'emporte as the French call it; their hair was either cropped short or plastered to their heads, and their features inclined rather to the round and solid. These were the more dignified officials of the town. Alas! the stout know better how to manage their affairs in this world than the thin. The thin serve rather on special commissions or are mere supernumeraries, sent here and there. Their existence is somehow too light and airy and not to be depended upon. The stout never go by by-paths but always keep to the main road, and if they seat themselves anywhere they sit firmly and reliably, so that their seat is more likely to give way under them than they are to be dislodged from it. They are not fond of external display. Their coats are not so smartly cut as the thin man's; their wardrobe is better stocked however. The thin man will in three years' time not have a single serf left unmortgaged: while, if you take a quiet look round, the fat man has a house at the end of the town bought in the name of his wife; later on, at the other end of the town, another one, then a little village near the town, then an estate with all the conveniences. In the end the fat man, after serving God and his Tsar and winning universal respect, leaves the service, moves away and becomes a landowner, a hearty hospitable Russian gentleman,—he gets on, and indeed gets on very well. And when he has gone, his thin heirs in accordance with the Russian tradition make ducks and drakes of all their father's property. I cannot disguise the fact that such were the reflections which occupied Tchitchikov's mind while he was scrutinising the company, and the result of them was that he finally joined the fat ones, among whom he found all the personages he knew: the public prosecutor with very black thick eyebrows and with the left eye given to winking slightly as though to say: 'Come into the next room, my boy, I have something to tell you,' though he was a serious and taciturn man; the postmaster, a short man who was a wit and a philosopher; the president of the court, a very sagacious and polite man,—all of whom welcomed him as an old acquaintance, while Tchitchikov responded to their civilities by profuse bows a little to one side but no less agreeable for that. Then he made the acquaintance of a very civil and affable landowner called Manilov, and another, somewhat clumsy-looking, called Sobakevitch who to begin with trod on his foot, saying, 'I beg your pardon.' Then they thrust upon him a card for whist, which he accepted with the same polite bow. They sat down to a green table and did not get up before supper. All conversation ceased entirely, as is always the case when people give themselves up to an important occupation. Though the postmaster was a very talkative person, yet as soon as he took up his cards his face at once became expressive of thought, while his upper lip was drawn down over the lower one and remained so all the time he was playing. When he played a court card, he would strike the table violently with his hand, saying if it were a queen, 'Away with you, old priest's wife,' if it were a king, 'Away with you, Tambov peasant!'—while the president would say, 'I'll pull his whiskers, I'll pull her whiskers!' Sometimes as cards were slapped down on the table, comments burst out, 'Ah, come what may! there's nothing else, so play a diamond!' or the suits were called by various endearing nicknames with which they had rechristened them. At the end of the game they disputed rather loudly, as is usual. Our hero disputed, but so extremely skilfully, that every one could see that though he was arguing, he was arguing agreeably. He never said, 'You led,' but 'You were pleased to lead; I had the honour to cover your two,' and so on. To propitiate his opponents still further he invariably offered them his silver enamelled snuff-box, at the bottom of which they noticed two violets put there for the sake of the scent. The new-comer's attention was particularly engaged by Manilov and Sobakevitch, the landowners above mentioned. He immediately drew the president and the postmaster a little aside and made inquiries concerning them. Several of the questions put by him showed not only a love of knowledge but also solid sense in the visitor, for he first of all inquired how many souls of peasants each of them possessed and in what condition their estates were, and only afterwards inquired their Christian name and father's name. Before long he had succeeded in completely fascinating them. Manilov, a man who had hardly reached middle-age, with eyes as sweet as sugar which he screwed up every time he laughed, was enchanted with him. He pressed his hand very warmly and begged him earnestly to do him the honour of a visit to his country place, which in his words was only ten miles from the town gate; to which Tchitchikov, with a very polite inclination of the head and cordial pressure of the hand, replied that he was not only extremely eager to do so, but would positively regard it as a sacred duty. Sobakevitch too said somewhat laconically, 'And I invite you too,' with a scrape of his foot, shod in a boot of such gigantic proportions that it would be hard to find a foot to fit it, particularly nowadays when even in Russia giants are beginning to die out.

Next day Tchitchikov went to dinner and to spend the evening at the police-master's, where after dinner they sat down to whist at three o'clock and played till two o'clock in the morning. There he made the acquaintance, among others, of a landowner called Nozdryov, a man of thirty, a jolly good fellow who from the first three or four words began to address him familiarly. With the police-master and public prosecutor Nozdryov was on equally friendly and familiar terms; but when they sat down to play for high stakes, both the gentlemen kept an extremely careful watch on the tricks he took and noted almost every card he played. Next day Tchitchikov spent the evening with the president of the court, who received his visitors in his somewhat greasy dressing-gown, and in the company of two somewhat dubious ladies. Then he spent an evening at the deputy-governor's, went to a big dinner at the spirit tax contractor's, and to a little dinner at the public prosecutor's which was however as good as a big one; he went also to a lunch after mass, given by the mayor of the town, which was as good as a dinner,—in short he had not to spend a single hour at home and returned to the hotel only to sleep. The new-comer was quite at his ease on every occasion and showed himself an experienced man of the world. Whatever the subject of conversation he could always keep it up: were horse-breeding discussed, he talked about horse-breeding; if they conversed about the best dogs, on that subject too he made very apt observations; if they touched on a case inquired into by the court of justice, he showed that he was not ignorant of court procedure; if the topic were a game of billiards, he was not at sea in billiards either; if the conversation turned upon virtue, he made excellent reflections upon virtue and even with tears in his eyes; upon the preparation of hot punch, he was an authority on punch too; upon overseers of customs and excise officers, he discoursed about them too as though he had been himself an excise officer or overseer of the customs. But it was noteworthy that he succeeded in accompanying all this with a certain sedateness, and knew very well how to behave. He spoke neither too loud nor too low, but exactly as he ought. Take him how you would, he was a thoroughly gentlemanly man. All the government officials were pleased at the arrival of the new-comer. The governor pronounced that he was a man thoroughly to be depended upon; the public prosecutor said that he was a practical man; the colonel of the gendarmes said that he was a well-educated man; the president of the court said that he was a well-informed and estimable man; the police-master that he was an estimable and agreeable man; the police-master's wife that he was a most agreeable and most amiable man. Though Sobakevitch rarely said anything good of any one, yet even he, after returning rather late from town, undressing and getting into bed beside his scraggy wife, said to her: 'I spent the evening at the governor's, my love, and dined at the police-master's and made the acquaintance of a collegiate councillor called Pavel Ivanovitch Tchitchikov, a very agreeable man!' To which his spouse responded with: 'H'm,' and kicked him.

Such was the very flattering opinion that was formed of the visitor in the town, and it was maintained until a strange peculiarity and enterprise of his, or, as they say in the provinces, a 'passage,' of which the reader will soon hear more, reduced almost the whole town to utter perplexity.