Dead Souls—A Poem/Book One/Chapter V

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CHAPTER V

Our hero was thoroughly scared, however. Though the chaise flew along at full speed and Nozdryov's estate was soon left behind, out of sight, hidden behind fields and the rise and fall of the ground, he still looked behind him in terror as though expecting every minute to be pursued and overtaken. His breathing was laboured, and when he tried laying his hands on his heart he found that it was fluttering like a quail in a cage. 'Well, he has given me a treat! Just think what a fellow!' At this point there followed a number of angry and violent imprecations referring to Nozdryov, and indeed some bad language was uttered. How could it be otherwise? He was a Russian, and in a rage too! Besides, it was no joking matter. 'Say what you like,' he said, 'if the police-captain had not turned up in the nick of time I might well have looked my last on the light of day! I should have disappeared like a bubble on the water without leaving a trace, leaving no descendants and bequeathing to my future children neither fortune nor honour!' Our hero was always very much troubled about his descendants.

'What a nasty gentleman!' Selifan was thinking to himself. 'I have never seen such a gentleman before. He deserves to be spat upon! Better give a man nothing to eat than not feed the horses properly, for a horse likes oats. They are a treat to him; oats for him are what a feast is for us: it's his pleasure.'

The horses too seemed to have an unflattering opinion of Nozdryov: not only the bay and Assessor but even the dappled-grey seemed dissatisfied. Though the worst of the oats always fell to his share and Selifan never poured them into his manger without first saying, 'Ah, you rascal,' still they were oats and not simply hay: he munched them with satisfaction and often thrust his long nose into his companions' mangers to try their portion, especially when Selifan was not in the stable; but on this occasion there was nothing but hay—it was too bad! Every one was displeased.

But they were all interrupted in their expressions of displeasure in a sudden and quite unexpected manner. All of them, not excluding the coachman, only came to themselves and realised what had happened when a carriage with six horses dashed into collision with them and they heard almost over their heads the screams of the ladies in the carriage, the threats and swearing of the coachman: 'You scoundrel, I shouted to you at the top of my voice: "Turn to the right, you crow." Are you drunk?' Selifan was very conscious of his negligence, but as a Russian is not fond of admitting before others that he is to blame, he drew himself up with dignity and promptly retorted: 'And you, why were you galloping in such style? Have you left your eyes in pawn at the pot-house or what?' Then he proceeded to back the horses so as to extricate them, but there was no managing it—everything was in a tangle. The dappled-grey sniffed with curiosity at the new friends whom he found on each side of him. Meanwhile the ladies in the carriage looked at it all with an expression of alarm on their faces. One was an old lady, the other a young girl of sixteen, with golden hair very charmingly and skilfully coiled about her little head. The pretty oval of her face was rounded like an egg and had the transparent whiteness of one when, fresh and new-laid, it is held up to the light by the housekeeper's dark-skinned hand and the rays of the flashing sun filter through it: her delicate ears were also transparent and flushed crimson by the light that penetrated through them. The terror on her parted lips, the tears in her eyes were all so charming that our hero stared at her for some minutes without noticing the uproar that was going on among the horses and the coachmen. 'Back, do, you Nizhni-Novgorod crow!' yelled the other coachman. Selifan tugged at the reins as hard as he could, the other coachman did the same, the horses shuffled back a little, and then stepping over the traces were entangled again. While this was going on, the dappled-grey was so attracted by his new companions that he felt no inclination to get out of the predicament in which an unforeseen destiny had placed him and, laying his nose upon the neck of his new friend, whispered in his ear probably something dreadfully foolish, for the stranger constantly twitched his ears.

Peasants from the village, which was fortunately close at hand, ran up to give assistance. Since such a spectacle is a real godsend to a peasant, just as a newspaper or a club is to a German, numbers of them were soon swarming round the carriages and there was no one left in the village but the old women and little children. The traces were taken off, a few prods on the nose of the dappled-grey forced him to back; in short they were separated and led apart, but either owing to the annoyance felt by the horses at being parted from their friends or through foolishness, they would not move however much the coachman thrashed them but stood as though turned to stone. The sympathetic interest of the peasants reached an incredible pitch. Each one of them was continually volunteering advice: 'You go, Andryushka, you look after the trace-horse, the one on the right side, and let Uncle Mitya get on the shaft-horse! Get on. Uncle Mitya!' Uncle Mitya, a long lean peasant with a red beard, mounted the shaft-horse and looked like the village belfry or like the crane with which they draw water from the well. The coachman lashed the horses but it was no use, Uncle Mitya was no help at all. 'Stay, stay,' shouted the peasants. 'You get on the trace-horse, Uncle Mitya, and let Uncle Minyay get on the shaft-horse.' Uncle Minyay, a broad-shouldered peasant with a coal-black beard and a paunch that looked like the gigantic samovar in which honey posset is brewed for the chilly crowds in a market, jumped with gusto on to the shaft-horse who was almost bowed to the ground under his weight. 'Now it will be all right,' bawled the peasants. 'Make him smart, make him smart! Touch him up with the whip, that one yonder, the bay. Make him wriggle like a daddy-long-legs.' But seeing that no progress was made and that no whipping was any use. Uncle Mitya and Uncle Minyay both mounted the shaft-horse while Andryushka got on to the trace-horse. At last the coachman, losing patience, drove both uncles away; and it was as well that he did, for the horses were in a steam as though they had raced from one posting station to another without taking breath. He gave them a minute to rest and then they set off of themselves. While all this was going on, Tchitchikov looked very attentively at the young lady in the carriage. Several times he made an effort to speak to her, but he somehow could not bring himself to do so. And meanwhile the ladies drove off, the pretty little head together with the delicate features and the slender waist vanished almost like a vision—and there remained only the road, the chaise, the three horses with whom the reader is familiar, Selifan, Tchitchikov, the desolate flatness of the surrounding fields. Everywhere in life, wherever it may be, among the coarse, cruelly poor, and dirtily squalid lower ranks, or among the monotonously frigid and tediously decorous higher orders—in every class a man is met at least once in his life by an apparition unlike anything that it has been his lot to see before, which for once awakens in him a feeling unlike what he is destined to feel all his life. In every life, joy flashes gay and radiant across the sorrows of all sorts of which the web of our life is woven, just as sometimes a splendid carriage with glittering harness, picturesque horses, and windows flashing in the light suddenly darts by some poor squalid little village which has till then seen nought but rustic carts: and long afterwards the peasants stand, hat in hand, gaping with open mouths, though the wonderful carriage has long since whirled by and vanished out of sight. Just in the same way this fair young lady has appeared utterly unexpectedly in our story and vanished again. Had some boy of twenty been in Tchitchikov's place—an hussar, a student, or simply a young man beginning his career in life—my God, what would not have awakened, what would not have stirred, what would not have spoken in his heart! For long minutes he would have stood bewildered on the spot, gazing vacantly into the distance, forgetting the road and the reproofs and chidings that await him for his delay, forgetting himself, his duty, the world and everything in it.

But our hero was a man of mature years and of a cool and calculating temper. He too grew pensive and reflected but more practically, his reflections were not so irresponsible but were, one may say, very much to the point. 'A fine wench,' he said, opening his snuff-box and taking a pinch of snuff. 'But what is it that is especially fine in her? What is best in her is that she is evidently fresh from some school or college, that there is so far nothing of what is called feminine about her, which is precisely what is most distasteful in them. Now she is like a child; everything about her is simple; she says what comes into her head, laughs when she is inclined to laugh. Anything could be made of her. She might become something wonderful and she might turn out worthless—and she will turn out worthless, too! Wait till the mammas and the aunties set to work on her. In one year they will fill her head with such feminine flummery that her own father will hardly know her. Conceit and affectation will make their appearance; she will begin to move and hold herself according to the instructions she has learned; she will puzzle her brains and consider with whom and how much to talk, how and at whom she must look; every minute she will be afraid of saying more than she ought; she will get caught in the snares herself at last and will end by lying all her life, and the devil knows what she will turn into!' At this point he paused for a minute and then added: 'But it would be interesting to know who she is, and what her father is, whether he is a wealthy landowner of respectable character or simply a well-meaning man with a fortune made in the service. Why, supposing there is a nice little dowry of two hundred thousand with that girl, it would make her a very tempting little morsel. She might, so to speak, make the happiness of the right sort of man.' The thought of two hundred thousand took such an attractive shape in his mind that he began to be inwardly annoyed with himself for not having ascertained from the postillion or the coachman who the ladies were. Soon however the sight of Sobakevitch's house in the distance distracted his thoughts and made them turn to their invariable subject.

The village struck him as being a fairly large one. Two copses, one of pines, the other of birches, lay like two wings to right and left of it, one darker, one lighter in colour; in the middle was a wooden house with a mezzanine, a red roof, and dark-grey or, to be more accurate, natural-coloured walls; the house was after the style of those that are built amongst us in Russia for military settlements or German colonists. It was noticeable that the architect had been in continual conflict with the owner's tastes in the building of it. The architect was a pedant and aimed at symmetry, while the owner aimed at comfort and had consequently boarded up all the windows at one side, and in place of them had cut one tiny one probably required for a dark loft. The front façade too had not succeeded in getting into the centre in spite of the architect's struggles, for the owner had insisted on rejecting a column on one side, so that instead of four columns as in the original design, there were only three. The yard was enclosed by a strong and immensely thick wooden fence. It was evident that Sobakevitch thought a great deal of solidity. Beams heavy and thick enough to last for centuries had been used for the stables, the barns, and the kitchens. The peasants' huts in the village were also wonderfully solid: there were no brick walls, carved patterns, or anything fanciful, but everything was firmly and properly built. Even the well was made of that strong oak which is usually reserved for mills and ships. In short, wherever he looked everything was solid and substantial in a strong and clumsy style. As he drove up to the steps he observed two faces peeping out of the window almost at the same moment: a woman's face in a cap as long and narrow as a cucumber, and a man's as full and round as the Moldavian pumpkins called gorlyankas out of which the Russians make balalaikas, light two-stringed balalaikas, the adornment and delight of the jaunty twenty-year-old peasant lad, the saucy dandy winking and whistling to the white-bosomed, white-throated maidens who gather round to listen to the tinkle of his thrumming. The two faces at the window vanished simultaneously. A flunkey in a grey livery with a light-blue stand-up collar came out on to the steps and led Tchitchikov into the hall, where the master of the house was already awaiting him. Seeing his visitor, he said abruptly, 'Please,' and conducted him into the inner apartments.

When Tchitchikov stole a sidelong glance at Sobakevitch, he struck him on this occasion as being extremely like a middle-sized bear. To complete the resemblance his dress coat was precisely the colour of a bear's skin, his sleeves were long, his trousers were long, he ambled from side to side as he walked and was continually treading on other people's feet. His face was burnt as dark a red as a copper penny. We all know that there are a great many faces in the world over the carving of which nature has spent no great pains, has used no delicate tools such as files or gimlets, but has simply rough-hewn them with a swing of the arm: one stroke of the axe and there's a nose, another and there are the lips, the eyes are bored with a great drill, and without polishing it off, nature thrusts it into the world, saying, 'This will do.' Just such an uncouth and strangely hewn countenance was that of Sobakevitch: he held it rather drooping than erect, he did not turn his neck at all, and in consequence of this immobility he rarely looked at the person to whom he was speaking but always stared away at the corner of the stove or at the door. Tchitchikov stole another glance at him as they reached the dining-room; he was a bear, a regular bear! To complete the strange resemblance, his name was actually Mihail Semyonovitch. … Knowing his habit of treading on people's feet, Tchitchikov moved his own feet very cautiously and made way for him to go first. Apparently Sobakevitch was aware of this failing and at once asked whether he had caused him any inconvenience, but Tchitchikov thanked him and said that he had so far suffered no discomfort.

When they entered the drawing-room Sobakevitch pointed to an empty chair and again said, 'Please.' Sitting down, Tchitchikov glanced at the walls and the pictures hanging on them. They were all portraits of gallant heroes, Greek generals painted at full length, Mavrocordato in red trousers and uniform, with spectacles on his nose, Miaoulis, Kanaris. All these heroes had such thick calves and incredible moustaches that they sent a shiver down one's spine. Among these Greek heroes, goodness knows why, was a portrait of Bagration, a lean gaunt figure with little flags and cannons below in a very narrow frame. Then followed the portrait of the Greek heroine Bobelina whose leg seemed stouter than the whole body of a dandy such as those that fill our drawing-rooms nowadays. It seemed as though the master of the house, being himself strong and sturdy, desired to have his room decorated with people strong and sturdy also. Near Bobelina, right in the window, hung a cage out of which peeped a thrush of a dark colour speckled with white who was also much like Sobakevitch. The master of the house and his guest had not sat in silence for more than two minutes, when the drawing-room door opened and the lady of the house, a very tall figure in a cap, adorned with home-dyed ribbons, walked in. She entered with dignity, holding her head as erect as a palm-tree.

'This is my Feoduliya Ivanovna,' said Sobakevitch.

Tchitchikov stooped to kiss the hand of Feoduliya Ivanovna while she almost thrust it at his lips. As he kissed it he had the opportunity of observing that it had been washed in cucumber water.

'My love,' Sobakevitch went on, 'let me introduce Pavel Ivanovitch Tchitchikov; I had the honour of making his acquaintance at the governor's and at the police-captain's.'

Feoduliya Ivanovna asked him to sit down, like her husband saying no more than 'Please,' with a motion of her head like an actress in the part of a queen. Then she seated herself upon the sofa, wrapping her merino shawl about her, and sat without moving an eye or an eyebrow.

Tchitchikov again raised his eyes and again saw Kanaris with his thick calves and endless moustaches, Bobelina and the thrush in the cage.

For the space of fully five minutes they all remained silent; the only sound was the tap of the thrush's beak on the cage as he picked up grains from the floor of it. Tchitchikov looked round at the room again and everything in it, everything was solid and clumsy to the last degree and had a strange resemblance to the master of the house. In a corner of the room stood a paunchy walnut bureau on four very absurd legs looking exactly like a bear. The table, the armchairs, the chairs were all of the heaviest and most uncomfortable shape; in short, every chair, every object seemed to be saying, 'I am a Sobakevitch too!' or 'I too am very like Sobakevitch!'

'We were speaking of you last Thursday at Ivan Grigoryevitch's, I mean the president of the court of justice,' said Tchitchikov at last, seeing that no one was disposed to begin the conversation. 'We had a very pleasant evening.'

'Yes, I wasn't at the president's that day,' answered Sobakevitch.

'He is a splendid man!'

'Who's that?' asked Sobakevitch, staring at the corner of the stove.

'The president.'

'Well, perhaps he seems so to you. Although he is a freemason, he is the greatest fool on earth.'

Tchitchikov was a little disconcerted by this rather harsh description, but recovering himself he went on: 'Of course every man has his weaknesses, but the governor now, what a delightful man!'

'The governor a delightful man?'

'Yes, isn't he?'

'He is the greatest ruffian on earth!'

'What, the governor a ruffian!' said Tchitchikov, and was utterly at a loss to understand how the governor could be a ruffian. 'I must own I should never have thought so,' he continued. 'Allow me to observe, however, that his behaviour is not at all suggestive of it: on the contrary, in fact, there is a great deal of softness in him.' At this juncture he referred in support of his words to the purses embroidered by the governor's own hands; and alluded appreciatively to the amiable expression of his face.

'He has the face of a ruffian!' said Sobakevitch. 'If you put a knife in his hand and let him loose on the public highway he would cut your throat for a farthing, that he would! He and the vice-governor are a pair of them—a regular Gog and Magog.'

'He is on bad terms with them,' Tchitchikov thought to himself. 'But I'll begin talking about the police-master, I fancy they are friends.' 'Though as far as I am concerned,' he said, 'I must own the one I like best is the police-master. Such a straightforward, open character; there is a look of such simple warm-heartedness in his face.'

'A scoundrel!' said Sobakevitch with perfect coolness; 'he'll betray you and cheat you and then he'll dine with you. I know them all: they are all rascals: the whole town is the same. Scoundrels sit upon scoundrels and prosecute scoundrels. They are all Judases. There is only one decent man among them, the prosecutor, and even he is a pig, to tell the truth.'

After such eulogistic though somewhat brief biographies, Tchitchikov saw it would be useless to mention any other officials, and remembered that Sobakevitch did not like to hear any one spoken well of.

'Well, my love, shall we go in to dinner?' said Madame Sobakevitch to her husband.

'Please!' said Sobakevitch. Whereupon the two gentlemen, going up to the table which was laid with savouries, duly drank a glass of vodka each; they took a preliminary snack as is done all over the vast expanse of Russia, throughout the towns and villages, that is, tasted various salted dishes and other stimulating dainties; then all proceeded to the dining-room; the hostess sailed in at their head like a goose swimming. The small table was laid for four. In the fourth place there very shortly appeared—it is hard to say definitely who—whether a married lady, or a girl, a relation, a housekeeper or simply some one living in the house—a thing without a cap, about thirty years of age, in a bright-coloured handkerchief. There are persons who exist in the world not as primary objects but as incidental spots or specks on objects. They sit in the same place and hold their head immovably; one is almost tempted to take them for furniture and imagine that no word has ever issued from those lips; but in some remote region, in the maids' quarters or the storeroom, it is quite another story!

'The cabbage soup is particularly good to-day,' said Sobakevitch, taking spoonfuls of the soup and helping himself to an immense portion of a well-known delicacy which is served with cabbage soup and consists of sheep's stomach, stuffed with buckwheat, brains and sheep's trotters. 'You won't find a dish like this in town,' he went on, addressing Tchitchikov, 'the devil only knows what they give you there!'

'The governor keeps a good table, however,' said Tchitchikov.

'But do you know what it is all made of? You won't eat it when you do know.'

'I don't know how the dishes were cooked, I can't judge of that; but the pork chops and the stewed fish were excellent.'

'You fancy so. You see I know what they buy at the market. That scoundrelly cook who has been trained in France buys a cat and skins it and sends it up to table for a hare.'

'Faugh, what unpleasant things you say!' said his wife.

'Well, my love! That's how they do things; it's not my fault, that's how they do things, all of them. All the refuse that our Alkulka throws, if I may be permitted to say so, into the rubbish pail, they put into the soup, yes, into the soup! In it goes!'

'You always talk about such things at table,' his wife protested again.

'Well, my love,' said Sobakevitch, 'if I did the same myself, you might complain, but I tell you straight that I am not going to eat filth. If you sprinkle frogs with sugar I wouldn't put them into my mouth, and I wouldn't taste oysters, either: I know what oysters are like. Take some mutton,' he went on, addressing Tchitchikov. 'This is saddle of mutton with grain, not the fricassees that they make in gentlemen's kitchens out of mutton which has been lying about in the market-place for days. The French and German doctors have invented all that; I'd have them all hanged for it. They have invented a treatment too, the hunger cure! Because they have a thin-blooded German constitution, they fancy they can treat the Russian stomach too. No, it's all wrong, it's all their fancies, it's all …' Here Sobakevitch shook his head wrathfully. 'They talk of enlightenment, enlightenment, and this enlightenment is … faugh! I might use another word for it but it would be improper at the dinner table. It is not like that in my house. If we have pork we put the whole pig on the table, if it's mutton, we bring in the whole sheep, if it's a goose, the whole goose! I had rather eat only two dishes, and eat my fill of them.' Sobakevitch confirmed this in practice; he put half a saddle of mutton on his plate, and ate it all, gnawing and sucking every little bone.

'Yes,' thought Tchitchikov, 'the man knows what's what.'

'It's not like that in my house,' said Sobakevitch, wiping his fingers on a dinner napkin, 'I don't do things like a Plyushkin: he has eight hundred souls and he dines and sups worse than any shepherd.'

'Who is this Plyushkin?' inquired Tchitchikov.

'A scoundrel,' answered Sobakevitch. 'You can't fancy what a miser he is. The convicts in prison are better fed than he is: he has starved all his servants to death …'

'Really,' Tchitchikov put in with interest.

'And do you actually mean that his serfs have died in considerable numbers?'

'They die off like flies.'

'Really, like flies? Allow me to ask how far away does he live?'

'Four miles.'

'Four miles!' exclaimed Tchitchikov, and was even aware of a slight palpitation of the heart. 'But when one drives out of your gate, is it to the right or to the left?'

'I don't advise you even to learn the road to that cur's,' said Sobakevitch. 'There is more excuse for visiting the lowest haunt than visiting him.'

'Oh, I did not ask for any special … but simply because I am interested in knowing all about the locality,' Tchitchikov replied.

The saddle of mutton was followed by curd cheese-cakes, each one of which was much larger than a plate, then a turkey as big as a calf, stuffed with all sorts of good things: eggs, rice, kidneys, and goodness knows what. With this the dinner ended, but when they had risen from the table Tchitchikov felt as though he were two or three stones heavier. They went into the drawing-room where they found a saucer of jam already awaiting them—not a pear, nor a plum, nor any kind of berry—and neither of the gentlemen touched it. The lady of the house went out of the room to put out some more on other saucers.

Taking advantage of her absence, Tchitchikov turned to Sobakevitch, who lying in an easy-chair was merely gasping after his ample repast and emitting from his throat undefinable sounds while he crossed himself and continually put his hand before his mouth.

Tchitchikov addressed him as follows: 'I should like to have a few words with you about a little matter of business.'

'Here is some more jam,' said the lady of the house, returning with a saucer, 'it's very choice, made with honey!'

'We will have some of it later on,' said Sobakevitch. 'You go to your own room now. Pavel Ivanovitch and I will take off our coats and have a little nap.'

The lady began suggesting that she should send for feather beds and pillows, but her husband said, 'There's no need, we can doze in our easy-chairs,' and she withdrew.

Sobakevitch bent his head slightly, and prepared to hear what the business might be.

Tchitchikov approached the subject indirectly, touched on the Russian empire in general, and spoke with great appreciation of its vast extent, said that even the ancient Roman empire was not so large, and that foreigners might well marvel at it … (Sobakevitch still listened with his head bowed), and that in accordance with the existing ordinances of the government, whose fame had no equal, souls on the census list who had ended their earthly career were, until the next census was taken, reckoned as though they were alive, in order to avoid burdening the government departments with a multitude of petty and unimportant details and increasing the complexity of the administrative machinery so complicated as it is … (Sobakevitch still listened with his head bowed), and that, justifiable as this arrangement was, it put however a somewhat heavy burden on many landowners, compelling them to pay the tax as though for living serfs, and that, through a sentiment of personal respect for him, he was prepared to some extent to relieve him of this burdensome obligation. In regard to the real subject of his remarks, Tchitchikov expressed himself very cautiously and never spoke of the souls as dead, but invariably as non-existent.

Sobakevitch still listened as before with his head bent, and not a trace of anything approaching expression showed on his face. It seemed as though in that body there was no soul at all, or if there were, that it was not in its proper place, but, as with the immortal Boney,[1] somewhere far away and covered with so thick a shell that whatever was stirring at the bottom of it produced not the faintest ripple on the surface.

'And so …?' said Tchitchikov, waiting not without some perturbation for an answer.

'You want the dead souls?' inquired Sobakevitch very simply, with no sign of surprise, as though they had been talking of corn.

'Yes,' said Tchitchikov, and again he softened the expression, adding, 'non-existent ones.'

'There are some; to be sure there are,' said Sobakevitch.

'Well, if you have any, you will doubtless be glad to get rid of them?'

'Certainly, I am willing to sell them,' said Sobakevitch, slightly raising his head, and reflecting that doubtless the purchaser would make some profit out of them.

'Deuce take it!' thought Tchitchikov to himself. 'He is ready to sell them before I drop a hint of it!' And aloud he said, 'And at what price, for instance? Though, indeed, it is a queer sort of goods … it seems odd to speak of the price.'

'Well, not to ask you too much, a hundred roubles apiece,' said Sobakevitch.

'A hundred!' cried Tchitchikov, staring into his face, with his mouth open, not knowing whether his ears had deceived him or whether Sobakevitch's tongue in its heavy clumsiness had brought out the wrong word.

'Oh, is that too dear for you?' said Sobakevitch, and then added, 'Why, what may your price be then?'

'My price! We must be making some mistake or misunderstanding each other, and have forgotten what it is we are talking about. I protest, laying my hand on my heart, I can offer no more than eighty kopecks a soul,—that's the very highest price!'

'Ech, what an idea, eighty kopecks! …'

'Well, in my judgment, I can offer no more.'

'Why, I am not selling bark shoes.'

'You must admit, however, that they are not men either.'

'Do you suppose you would find anybody fool enough to sell you a soul on the census for a few paltry kopecks.'

'But excuse me, why do you speak of them like that? Why, the souls have been dead a long while, nothing is left but an insubstantial name. However, to avoid further discussion, I'll give you a rouble and a half if you like, but beyond that I cannot go.'

'You ought to be ashamed to mention such a sum. You are haggling, tell me your real price.'

'I cannot give more, Mihail Semyonovitch; you may believe my word, I cannot; what cannot be done, cannot be done,' said Tchitchikov; he added half a rouble, however.

'But why are you so stingy?' said Sobakevitch; 'it really is not dear! Another man would cheat you and sell you some rubbish instead of souls; but mine are as sound as a nut, all first-class: if not craftsmen, they are sturdy peasants of one sort or another. Look here, Miheyev the wheelwright, for instance, he never made a carriage that wasn't on springs. And they were not like some of the Moscow workmanship, made to last an hour … all so solid … he lines them himself and varnishes them!'

Tchitchikov was opening his lips to say that Mihyeev had however left this world; but Sobakevitch was carried away, as the saying is, by his own eloquence, and the vehemence and flow of his language was surprising.

'And Stepan Probka the carpenter! I'll stake my head you would never find another peasant like him. What a giant of strength he was! If he had served in the Guards, God knows what they would have given him, over seven foot high!'

Tchitchikov tried again to say that Probka too had departed this life; but such streams of words followed that he had no choice but to listen.

'Milushkin the bricklayer could build a stove in any house you like. Maxim Telyatnikov the bootmaker: no sooner does he put the awl through the leather than it's a boot; and you must be thankful that it is a boot; and he never touched a drop. And Yeremy Sorokoplyohin! That peasant alone is worth all the rest. He traded in Moscow and sent me as much as five hundred roubles at a time in lieu of labour. That's the sort of fellows they are! They are not what a Plyushkin would sell you.'

'But excuse me,' said Tchitchikov at last, amazed at this flood of eloquence which seemed as though it would be endless. 'Why are you enumerating all their qualifications? They are no good now, you know, they are all dead. A dead man is no use even to prop up a fence, as the proverb says.'

'Yes, of course they are dead,' said Sobakevitch, as though reflecting and recalling the fact that they really were dead; and then he added: 'though it must be said, that these fellows who are reckoned alive are not worth calling men, they are no better than flies.'

'Still they do exist, while the others are a dream.'

'But no, they are not a dream! I tell you, Miheyev was a man you won't find the like of again! He was such a giant, he couldn't have walked into this room: no, he's not a dream! He had more strength in his huge great shoulders than a horse. I should like to know where else you would find a dream like that!' These last words he uttered, addressing the portraits of Bagration and Kolokotrones, as commonly happens with people who are talking, when one of them for some unexplained reason addresses himself not to the person whom his words concern but to some third person who happens to be present, even a total stranger from whom he knows that he will receive no answer, no opinion, no support, though he stares at him as intently as if appealing to him as an arbitrator; and, somewhat embarrassed, the stranger does not for the first minute know whether to answer him about the business of which he has heard nothing, or to stay as he is, maintaining perfect propriety of demeanour and afterwards to get up and walk away.

'No, I can't give more than two roubles,' said Tchitchikov.

'If you like, that you may not complain that I have asked you too much and will not show you any consideration, if you like—seventy-five roubles per soul—it's only because you are a friend really!'

'Does he take me for a fool or what?' Tchitchikov thought to himself, and then he added aloud: 'I am really puzzled: it seems to me as though we are taking part in some theatrical performance or farce: that's the only way I can explain it to myself … I believe you are a fairly intelligent man, you have all the advantages of education. Why, the goods you are selling are simply … ough! What are they worth? What use are they to any one?'

'But you see you are buying them, so they are of use.'

At this point Tchitchikov bit his lip and could not think of a suitable answer. He was beginning to say something about private family circumstances but Sobakevitch answered simply:

'I don't want to know your circumstances, I don't meddle in other people's private affairs, that's your business. You have need of the souls, I am selling them, and you will regret it if you don't buy them.'

'Two roubles,' said Tchitchikov.

'Ugh, really, "the magpie knows one name and calls all men the same," as the proverb has it: since you have pitched on two, you won't budge. Do give your real price!'

'Oh, deuce take him!' thought Tchitchikov, 'I'll give him another half rouble, the cur.'—'Well, if you like I'll say another half rouble.'

'Oh very well, and I'll give you my final word too: fifty roubles! It's really selling at a loss, you would never buy such fellows anywhere else!'

'What a close-fisted brute!' Tchitchikov said to himself; and then continued aloud with some vexation: 'Why really, upon my soul … as though it were something real! Why, I could get them for nothing elsewhere. What's more, any one else would be glad to let me have them simply to get rid of them. Only a fool would want to keep them and go on paying the tax on them!'

'But, you know, a transaction of this kind—I say this between ourselves as a friend—is not permissible everywhere, and if I or some one else were to mention it, such a man would have no security for the purchase or profitable fulfilment of the contract.'

'What the devil is he hinting at, the scoundrel!' thought Tchitchikov, and at once brought out with a most unconcerned air: 'It is just as you like, I am not buying them from any special necessity as you imagine, but just … simply from an inner prompting. If you won't take two and a half roubles, good-bye!'

'There's no wringing it out of him, he's stubborn!' thought Sobakevitch. 'Well, God bless you, give me thirty and you shall have them!'

'No, I see you don't want to sell them, good-bye!'

'Excuse me, excuse me,' said Sobakevitch, retaining his hold of Tchitchikov's hand and stepping on his foot, for our hero forgot to be on his guard and the punishment for this carelessness made him flinch and stand on one leg. 'I beg your pardon! I'm afraid I have caused you discomfort. Please sit down here! Please!'

Whereupon he sat Tchitchikov down in an easy-chair with a certain dexterity, like a bear who has been trained and knows how to turn somersaults and to perform various tricks when he is asked such questions as: 'Come show us, Misha, how do peasant women have a steam bath?' or 'How do little children steal peas, Misha?'

'I am wasting time really, I must make haste.'

'Stay just a minute longer, and I'll say something you would like to hear.' At this point Sobakevitch moved to a seat near him, and said softly in his ear as though it were a secret, 'Will a quarter suit you?'

'You mean twenty-five roubles? No, no, no! I wouldn't give a quarter of a quarter, I won't add a single farthing.'

Sobakevitch did not speak; Tchitchikov too was silent. The silence lasted for two minutes. Bagration with his eagle nose looked down attentively at the transaction.

'What is your final price?' Sobakevitch asked at last.

'Two and a half.'

'You have a soul like a boiled turnip. You might at least give me three roubles!'

'I can't.'

'Oh, there's no doing anything with you. Very well! It's a loss. But there, I'm like a dog, I can't help doing anything I can to please a fellow creature. I suppose I must make out a deed of purchase, so that it may all be done properly.'

'Of course.'

'And what's more, I shall have to go to the town.'

So the business was settled, they both decided to visit the town next day and to arrange the deed of purchase. Tchitchikov asked for a list of the peasants. Sobakevitch readily agreed, went to his bureau at once, and began writing with his own hand not merely a list of all the names but also an enumeration of their valuable qualities.

And Tchitchikov, having nothing better to do, and being seated behind him, scrutinised his ample frame. As he looked at his back, broad as a thick-set Vyatka horse, and at his legs which looked like the iron posts stuck in pavements, he could not help inwardly exclaiming: 'Ough, God has been bountiful to you! It is a case of what they call, badly cut but strongly sewn! … I wonder whether you were born a bear or have you been turned into a bear by living in the wilds, tilling the cornfields, dealing with peasants, and through all that have you become what they call a "fist"? But no; I believe you would have been just the same if you had had a fashionable education, had gone into society and lived in Petersburg instead of in the wilds. The only difference is, that now you will gorge upon half a saddle of mutton and grain, and eat cheese-cakes as big as a plate, while in Petersburg you would have eaten cutlets with truffles. As it is, you have peasants in your power, you get on well with them and don't ill-treat them because they are yours, and it would be to your disadvantage; but up in town you would have clerks under you whom you would have bullied horribly, reflecting that they were not your serfs, or you would have stolen government money! No, if a man has a close fist there is no making him open it! Or if he does open one or two fingers, it makes it all the worse. If he skims the surface of some branch of knowledge, afterwards when he is in a prominent position, he'll make those who really know something of the subject feel it! And maybe he will say afterwards too: "Let me show what I can do!" And then he'll invent such a sage regulation that many people will have to smart for it. … Ough, if all men were as close-fisted …'

'The list is ready!' said Sobakevitch turning round.

'Is it ready? Please hand it over!' He ran his eyes over it and was surprised at its neatness and precision; not only the trade, the calling, the age, and family circumstances were minutely entered, but there were even marginal notes regarding behaviour and sobriety—in fact it was a pleasure to look at it.

'Now for the deposit, if you please,' said Sobakevitch.

'What do you want a deposit for? You shall have all the money at once in the town.'

'It's always done,' protested Sobakevitch.

'I don't know how I am to give it you, I have not brought any money with me. But here, I have ten roubles.'

'What's the good of ten? Give me fifty at least.'

Tchitchikov was about to protest that he had not got it; but Sobakevitch declared with such conviction that he had, that he brought out another note, saying: 'Here is another fifteen roubles for you, making twenty-five altogether. But please give me a receipt.'

'Yes, but why do you want a receipt?'

'It's always better to have a receipt, you know. In case of accidents … anything may happen.'

'Very good, give the money here.'

'What do you want the money for? Here it is in my hand. As soon as you have written the receipt, you shall have it the same minute.'

'But excuse me, how can I write the receipt: I must see the money first.'

Tchitchikov let Sobakevitch take the notes from his hand, and the latter, going up to the table and covering the notes with his left hand, with the other wrote on a scrap of paper that a deposit of twenty-five roubles on a purchase of souls had been paid in full. After signing the receipt he looked through the notes once more.

'This note's an old one,' he commented, holding one of them up to the light, 'rather frayed; but there, one can't look at that between friends.'

'The fist, the fist!' Tchitchikov thought to himself, 'and he's a brute into the bargain.'

'And don't you want any of the female sex?'

'No, thank you.'

'I wouldn't charge you much for them. For the sake of our good acquaintance, I will only ask a rouble apiece.'

'No, I have no need of females.'

'Well, since you don't want any, it is useless to discuss it. Every one to his taste, one man loves the priest and another the priest's wife, as the proverb says.'

'Another thing I want to ask you is that this transaction should be strictly between ourselves,' said Tchitchikov as he said good-bye.

'Oh, that is a matter of course. There is no reason to mix a third person up in it; what is done in all straightforwardness between two friends should be left to their mutual friendship. Good-bye. Thank you for your visit; I beg you to think of us again; when you have a free hour, come to dinner and spend a little time with us. Possibly we may be able to be of service to each other again.'

'Not if I know it,' Tchitchikov thought to himself as he got into his chaise. 'He has squeezed two and a half roubles a soul out of me, the damned skinflint!'

He was displeased with Sobakevitch's behaviour. After all, look at it how you would, he was an acquaintance, and they had both met at the governor's and at the police-master's, but he had treated him exactly as though he were a stranger and squeezed money out of him! When the chaise had driven out of the yard he looked back and saw that Sobakevitch was still standing on the steps and seemed to be watching to see which way his guest was going.

'The rascal, he is still standing there!' he muttered through his teeth, and he bade Selifan turn towards the peasants' huts and drive away so that the carriage could not be seen from the house. He wanted to drive to Plyushkin, whose serfs, according to Sobakevitch, were dying off like flies; but he did not want Sobakevitch to know it. When the chaise had reached the end of the village, he called to the first peasant he met, a man who had picked up a very thick log, and like an indefatigable ant was dragging it on his shoulders along the road towards his hut.

'Hey, bushy beard! How's one to get from here to Plyushkin's without passing your master's house?'

The peasant seemed to be perplexed by the question.

'Why, don't you know?'

'No, sir, I don't know.'

'Tut, tut! Why, you have grey hairs coming! Don't you know the miser Plyushkin who doesn't feed his serfs properly?'

'Oh, the ... in rags and patches!' cried the peasant. He put in a substantive which was very apt but impossible in polite conversation, and so we omit it. It may however be surmised that the expression was very appropriate, for long after the peasant was out of sight, when they had driven a good way further, Tchitchikov was still laughing as he sat in his chaise. The Russian people express themselves vividly. And if a nickname is bestowed on any one, it becomes part and parcel of him, he carries it along with him into the service and into retirement and to Petersburg and to the ends of the earth. And whatever dodge he tries to ennoble his nickname, even though he may get the scribbling gentry for a consideration to trace his pedigree from an ancient aristocratic family, it is all of no use: the very sound of the nickname, like the caw of a crow, betrays where the bird has come from. A word aptly uttered or written cannot be cut away by an axe. And how good the sayings are that come out of the depths of Russia, where there are neither Germans nor Finns nor any foreigners, but only the native, living, nimble Russian intelligence, which never fumbles for a word nor broods over a phrase like a sitting hen, but sticks it on like a passport to be carried all one's life, and there is no need to add a description of your nose or your lips: with one stroke you are drawn from head to foot!

Like the innumerable multitude of churches and monasteries with their cupolas, domes and crosses scattered over holy, pious Russia, swarms the innumerable multitude of races, generations and peoples, a many-coloured crowd shifting hither and thither over the face of the earth. And each people, bearing within itself the pledge of powers, full of creative, spiritual faculties, of its own conspicuous individuality, and of other gifts of God, is individually distinguished each by its own peculiar sayings, in which, whatever subject it describes, part of its own character is reflected. The sayings of the Briton resound with the wisdom of the heart and sage comprehension of life; the Frenchman's short-lived phrase is brilliant as a sprightly dandy and soon fades away; the German fancifully contrives his intellectually thin sayings, not within the grasp of all; but there are no sayings of so wide a sweep and so bold an aim, none that burst from the very heart, bubble up and vibrate with life like an aptly uttered Russian saying.

  1. An ogre-like character in many Russian fairy-tales.—Translator's Note.