Dead Souls—A Poem/Book One/Chapter VI
Long ago in the days of my youth, in the days of my childhood, now vanished for ever, I used to enjoy going for the first time to an unknown place; it made no difference to me whether it were a little village, a poor, wretched district town, a hamlet, or a suburb, my inquisitive childish eyes discovered much that was of interest in it. Every building, everything that was marked by some noticeable peculiarity arrested my attention and impressed me. Whether it were a brick government building of the usual architecture with half its windows mere blank spaces, sticking up, lonely and forlorn, in the midst of a group of one-storeyed workmen's cottages with walls of logs and shingled roofs; or a round cupola all covered with sheets of white metal, rising above the snowy, whitewashed new church, or a market, or a beau of the district who was in the town—nothing escaped my fresh, alert attention, and poking my nose out of my cart, I stared at the novel cut of some coat, and at the wooden chests of nails, of sulphur, yellow in the distance, of raisins and of soap, of which I caught glimpses through the door of a grocer's shop, together with jars of stale Moscow sweets. I stared too, at the infantry officer who had been cast by fate from God knows what province into the boredom of this remote district, and at the dealer in his long overcoat, flying by in his racing droshky, and in my thoughts I was carried along with them into their poor lives. If a local official walked by, at once I fell to speculating where he was going, whether it was to spend the evening with some fellow-clerk, or straight home to lounge for half an hour on the steps till the twilight had turned to darkness, and then to sit down to an early supper with his mother, his wife, his wife's sister and all his family, and what their talk would be about, while a serf-girl in necklaces, or a boy in a thick, short jacket, brought in, but only after the soup, a tallow candle in a candlestick that had seen long years of service in the household. As I drove up to some landowner's village, I looked with curiosity at the tall, narrow, wooden belfry, or at the spacious old church of dark wood. Through the green of the trees the red roofs and white chimneys of the owner's house gleamed alluringly in the distance, and I waited with impatience for a gap through the gardens that screened it on both sides, that I might get a full view of its, in those days (alas!), not at all vulgar exterior, and from it I tried to guess what the owner himself was like, whether he was a fat man, and whether he had sons or a full set of six daughters with ringing girlish laughter and games, and the youngest sister, of course, a beauty, and whether they had black eyes, and whether he was a merry fellow himself, or, gloomy as the last days of September, looked at the calendar and talked about the rye and wheat, while the young people sat bored.
Now I drive into any strange village with indifference, and with indifference look at its vulgar exterior; to my cooler gaze it is uninviting and does not amuse me, and what in former years would have set my face working with excitement and roused me to laughter and unceasing chatter now slips by me, and my lips remain sealed in unconcerned silence. Oh, my youth! Oh, my fresh eagerness!
While Tchitchikov was meditating and inwardly laughing at the nickname the peasant had given to Plyushkin, he did not notice that he had driven into the middle of a large village, with a number of peasants' huts and streets. He was soon, however, roused to notice it by a rather violent jolting, as they passed over the bridge of logs, compared with which our town bridge of cobble-stones is nothing. The logs hop up and down like the keys of a piano, and the incautious traveller gets a bump on the back of his head, or a bruise on his forehead, or may chance to bite the tip of his tongue very painfully. He noticed signs of age and decay in all the village buildings; the logs of which the huts were built were old and dark. Many of the roofs were as full of holes as a sieve; on some nothing was left but the ridge-pole and the transverse pieces like ribs. It seemed as though the owners themselves had removed the laths and shingles, arguing, and no doubt quite correctly, that as huts cannot be roofed in the rain, while in fine weather the rain keeps off of itself, there is no need to mess about indoors, while there is plenty of room in the tavern and on the high-road—wherever chooses, in fact. The windows in the huts had no panes, some were stuffed up with a rag or a coat. The little balconies with railings which for some inexplicable reason are put just below the roof in some Russian huts were all aslant and too black to be picturesque, even. In several places immense stacks of corn stretched in rows behind the huts, and evidently they had been standing there for years; in colour they were like an old, badly baked brick, all sorts of weeds were sprouting on the top of them, and bushes growing at the side were tangled in them. The corn was evidently the master's. Behind the stacks of corn and dilapidated roofs two village churches, standing side by side, one wooden and disused, the other built of brick with yellow walls covered with stains and cracks, stood up in the pure air and showed in glimpses, first on the right and then on the left, as the chaise turned in one direction or another. Parts of the owner's house came into sight, and at last the whole of it could be seen where there was a gap in the chain of huts, and there was the open space made by a kitchen garden or a cabbage patch, enclosed by a low, and in places, broken fence. This strange castle, which was of quite disproportionate length, had the air of a decrepit invalid. In parts it was of one storey, in parts of two; on its dark roof, which did not everywhere furnish it with secure protection, there stood two belvederes facing each other, both were infirm, and here and there bare of the paint that had once covered them. The walls of the house showed here and there the bare laths under the plaster and had evidently suffered a great deal from all sorts of weather, rain and hurricane, and the changes of autumn. Of the windows only two were uncovered, the others were closed with shutters or even boarded up. Even the two windows were half blind. On one of them was a triangular dark patch where a piece of the blue paper in which sugar is wrapped had been pasted.
The big overgrown and neglected old garden which stretched at the back of the house, and coming out behind the village, disappeared into the open country, seemed the one refreshing feature in the great rambling village, and in its picturesque wildness was the only beautiful thing in the place. The interlacing tops of the unpruned trees lay in clouds of greenery and irregular canopies of trembling foliage against the horizon. The colossal white trunk of a birch-tree, of which the crest had been snapped off by a gale or a tempest, rose out of this green maze and stood up like a round shining marble column; the sharp slanting angle, in which it ended instead of in a capital, looked dark against the snowy whiteness of the trunk, like a cap or a blackbird. A hop, after smothering bushes of elder, mountain-ash and hazel, and then running along the top of the whole palisade, finally darted upwards and twined round half of the broken birch-tree. After reaching the middle of it, it drooped down from it, caught on to the tops of other trees, or hung in the air, its festoons of delicate clinging tendrils faintly stirring in the breeze. Here and there, the green thicket, lighted up by the sun, parted and exposed the unlighted depths between them, yawning like a dark gulf. It was all plunged in shadow, and in its black depths there were faint glimpses of a narrow path, broken-down railings, a rickety arbour, a decaying willow stump full of holes, a grey-foliaged caragana thrusting forward like a thick brush from behind the willow, leaves and twigs interlaced and crossing one another, withered from growing so terribly close, and a young branch of maple stretching sideways its claw-like leaves, under one of which the sun, somehow piercing its way, suddenly transformed it into a transparent, fiery hand, gleaming marvellously in that dense darkness. On one side, at the very edge of the garden, a few high-growing aspens above the level of the other trees lifted high into the air immense ravens' nests upon their tremulous tops. From some of them, branches, twisted back but not yet broken off, hung downwards with their withered leaves. In short, it was all beautiful, as neither the work of nature nor that of art is alone, but as only happens when they work together, when nature's chisel gives the final touches to the often unintelligent clumsy work of man, relieves the heavy masses, obliterates the crudely conceived symmetry, the bare gaps through which the plan is too nakedly apparent, and gives a marvellous warmth to all that has been created in the frigid stiffness of calculated neatness and accuracy.
After turning round two or three corners, our hero found himself at last in front of the house, which looked even gloomier at close quarters. The old wood of the gates and fence was covered with green lichen. The yard was crowded with buildings, servants' quarters, barns and storehouses, evidently falling into decay; on the right and the left were gates leading to other yards. There was every indication that things had once been done on a grand scale here, and now everything looked dejected. There was nothing in sight to enliven the scene, no opening doors, no servants coming out, none of the hurry and bustle of a household! Only the principal gates stood open, and they had evidently been opened merely because a peasant had driven in with a loaded cart covered with sacking; he seemed to have made his appearance expressly to bring life into the dead place; at other times it was evidently kept locked, for a huge padlock hung in the iron staple. At one of the buildings, Tchitchikov soon perceived a human figure wrangling with the peasant. For a long time he could not make out the sex of the figure, whether it was a man or a woman. Its clothes were quite indefinite and very much like a woman's dressing-gown; on the head was a cap such as women wear in the country; only the voice struck him as rather husky for a woman's. 'Oh, a female!' he thought, and at once added, 'Oh no!' 'Of course it's a woman,' he said at last after looking more closely. The figure on its side stared intently at him too. It seemed as though a visitor were a strange marvel, for she scrutinised not only him, but Selifan and the horses from their tails to their heads. From the fact that there were keys hanging from her belt, and that she scolded the peasant in rather abusive language, Tchitchikov concluded that this was probably the housekeeper.
'I say, my good woman,' he said, getting out of the chaise, 'is the master …?'
'Not at home,' answered the housekeeper, without waiting for him to finish his question, and then a moment later, added: 'What do you want?'
'I have business.'
'Go indoors,' said the housekeeper, turning round and showing him her back, dusty with flour, and a big slit in her skirt.
He stepped into a wide, dark hall, which struck as chill as a cellar. From the hall he went into a room, which was also dark, with a faint light coming from a big crack at the bottom of the door. Opening this door he found himself in the light, and was startled at the scene of disorder that met his eyes. It looked as though they were having a house-cleaning, and all the furniture were piled up in this room. There was even a broken chair standing on a table, and near it a clock with a stationary pendulum on which a spider had already spun a web. Close by, stood a cupboard leaning sideways against the wall, with old-fashioned silver, decanters and china in it. On the bureau, inlaid with a mosaic in mother-of-pearl, bits of which had fallen out, leaving yellow gaps filled with glue, lay a vast number of all sorts of things; a pile of closely written papers, covered with a marble egg-shaped paper-weight, green with age, and an old-fashioned book, bound in leather with a red pattern on it, a lemon shrivelled up to the size of a hazelnut, the arm of a broken easy-chair, a wineglass containing some liquid and three flies, covered with an envelope, a bit of sealing-wax, a rag that had been picked up somewhere, two pens crusted with ink, dried up as though in consumption, a toothpick yellow with age which the master might have used to pick his teeth with before the invasion of Russia by the French.
On the walls there were pictures, hung very close together and all anyhow. A long engraving, yellow with time and without a glass, depicting some sort of battle, with huge drums, shouting soldiers in three-cornered hats and drowning horses, was in a mahogany frame with thin strips of bronze and bronze discs at the corners. Next it, filling half the wall, was a huge blackened picture in oils, depicting flowers, fruit, a cut melon, a boar's head and a duck with its head hanging down. From the middle of the ceiling, hung a chandelier in a linen cover, so thick with dust that it looked like the cocoon of a silkworm. On the floor lay a heap of coarser articles unworthy of a place on the table. It was difficult to make out precisely what was in the heap, for the dust lay on it so thick that the hands of any one who touched it at once looked like gloves; the most conspicuous objects in the heap were a piece of a broken wooden spade and the old sole of a boot. It would have been impossible to say that a living being was inhabiting this room, if a shabby old skull-cap lying on the table had not testified to his existence. While Tchitchikov was examining his strange surroundings, a side-door opened, and the same housekeeper that he had met in the yard walked in. But now he saw that it was more like a steward than a housekeeper; a housekeeper does not anyway shave a beard, while this person on the other hand did, and apparently not too often, for his chin and the lower parts of his cheeks were like those curry-combs made of wire, with which horses are combed down in the stable. Tchitchikov, assuming an inquiring expression, waited with patience to hear what the steward would say to him. The steward for his part, too, waited to see what Tchitchikov had to say to him. At last the latter, wondering at this strange hesitation, made up his mind to ask:
'Where is your master? Is he at home?'
'The master is here,' said the steward.
'Where is he?' Tchitchikov repeated.
'Why, are you blind, my good sir?' said the steward. 'Upon my soul! I am the master!'
At this our hero involuntarily stepped back and stared at him. He had met a good many sorts of people, among them some such as neither the reader nor I are ever likely to see; but he had never seen any one like this before. There was nothing out of the way about his face, it was not unlike that of many lean old men, the only peculiarity was that his chin was very prominent, so that he always had to put his handkerchief on it to avoid spitting on it. His little eyes were not dim with age, but darted about under their overhanging brows like mice when, poking their sharp noses out of their dark holes, pricking up their ears and twitching their whiskers, they peep out to see whether the cat or a mischievous boy is lying in ambush, and sniff the very air with suspicion. His costume was a great deal more remarkable. No effort or investigation could have discovered of what his dressing-gown was composed: the sleeves and the upper part of the skirts were so greasy and shiny that they looked like the polished leather of which high boots are made; at the back instead of two there were four tails out of which cotton wool hung in tufts! Then there was something round his neck, too, which it was impossible to identify: it might have been a stocking, or a bandage or a stomach-belt, but it certainly could not be a cravat. In fact, if Tchitchikov had met him thus arrayed outside a church he would probably have given him a copper, for to our hero's credit it must be said, that he had a compassionate heart, and could never refrain from giving a poor man a copper. But before him stood not a beggar but a landowner. This landowner had more than a thousand souls, and one might try in vain to find another with so much corn, grain, flour, simply in stacks, with storehouses and granaries and drying sheds, piled up with such masses of linen, cloth, sheepskins, dressed and undressed, dried fish, all sorts of garden produce and fruits and mushrooms from the woods. If any one had caught sight of him in his work yard where he had stores of wood of all sorts and vessels never used, he might have fancied that he somehow had been transported to the 'chip fair' in Moscow, where brisk mothers-in-law repair daily with their cooks behind them to replenish their household stocks, and where wooden articles of all sorts, nailed together, turned, dove-tailed and woven, lie in white heaps—tubs, mincers, buckets, casks, wooden jugs with spouts and without spouts, loving cups, bark baskets, baskets in which the women keep their spinning materials and all sorts of odds and ends, baskets of thin bent aspen wood, baskets of plaited birch-bark and many other articles in use by rich and poor in Russia. One might wonder what Plyushkin wanted with such a mass of things. He could not have used them all in his lifetime, even if his estate had been twice the size it was, but all this was not enough for him. Not satisfied with it, he used to go every day about the streets of his village, peeping under bridges and planks, and everything he came across, an old sole, a peasant woman's rag, an iron nail, a bit of broken earthenware, he dragged home with him, and added to the heap that Tchitchikov had noticed in the corner. 'Yonder is the old angler at his sport again!' the peasants used to say when they saw him in search of booty. And indeed there was no need to sweep the street after he had been over it. If an officer riding along the road dropped a spur, the spur immediately found its way to the same heap. If a peasant woman loitering at the well forgot her pail, he carried off the pail too. When, however, a peasant caught him in the act, he gave up his plunder without dispute; but, once it had got into the heap, then it was all over with it: he would swear that the thing had been bought by him at some time from somebody, or that it had come down to him from his grandfather. In his room he picked up everything he saw on the floor, sealing-wax, scraps of paper, feathers, and laid them all on the bureau or on the window-sill.
And yet there had been a time when he was only a careful manager! He was married and the father of a family, and the neighbours would drive over to dine with him and learn from him how to manage an estate with wise economy. The work was done briskly and everything followed its regular course; the mills and the fullers' works were running, the cloth factories, the carpenters' lathes, and the spinning wheels were all busily at work; the master's sharp eye was everywhere looking into everything, and like an industrious spider he ran anxiously but efficiently from one end to another of his industrial web. His features did not express over-intense feelings, and his eyes were full of intelligence. His words were weighty with experience and knowledge of the world, and his guests were glad to listen to him. The lady of the house, gracious and ready of speech, was famed for her hospitality; two little daughters, both fair and fresh as roses, came out to greet visitors, the son, a free and easy lad, would run in and kiss every one, without considering whether his attentions were welcome. All the windows in the house were open to the light. In the entre-sol were the apartments of the French tutor, who shaved to perfection and was devoted to shooting: he brought home a woodcock or a wild duck nearly every day for dinner, though sometimes nothing but sparrows' eggs, which he would have made into an omelette for himself, as no one else in the house would touch them. His compatriot, the daughters' governess, lived in the entre-sol also. The master of the house came to dinner in a somewhat shabby but tidy frock-coat: there were no holes in the elbows and no sign of a patch anywhere. But the kind mistress of the house died; the keys and with them the petty cares of housekeeping passed into his hands. Plyushkin became more anxious and, like all widowers, more suspicious and niggardly. He could not altogether depend on his elder daughter, Alexandra Stepanovna, and indeed he was right not to do so, for Alexandra Stepanovna soon afterwards eloped with a lieutenant of a cavalry regiment, goodness knows which, and hastily married him in some village church, knowing that her father disliked officers, and had a strange conviction that they were all gamblers and spendthrifts. Her father sent his curse after her and did not trouble to pursue her. The house became still emptier. Miserliness began to be a more conspicuous characteristic of the master, and developed more rapidly as his rough hair was silvered, for white hair is always the trusty ally of avarice. The French tutor was dismissed, as the time came for the son to enter the service. The governess was turned away, as it appeared she had not been quite exemplary in regard to Alexandra Stepanovna's elopement. The son, who had been sent to the chief town of the province to go into the department of justice, which in his father's opinion was a sound branch of the service, obtained a commission in a regiment instead, and, only after receiving it, wrote to his father for money for his equipment; but naturally all he got was a rebuff. At last the second daughter, who had remained with him at home, died, and the old man found himself the sole keeper, guardian and master of his riches. His solitary life furnished ample food for his avarice to batten upon, for that vice, as we all know, has the appetite of a wolf and grows more insatiable the more it devours. The human feelings, which had never been very deep in him, grew shallower every hour, and every day something more dropped away from the decrepit wreck. As though expressly to confirm his prejudices against the military, it happened at this time that his son lost money at cards; he sent him a paternal curse that came from the heart, and never troubled himself afterwards to ascertain whether he was alive or dead. Every year more windows were boarded up in the house; at last only two were left, and one of these, as the reader has seen already, was pasted up with paper; every year the important part of the management passed more out of his sight; his petty anxieties were more and more concentrated on the scraps of paper and feathers he picked up in his room. He became more and more uncompromising with the dealers who used to come to purchase his produce; they haggled and haggled and at last threw him up altogether, saying that he was a devil, not a man. The hay and the corn rotted, the stores and stacks decayed into manure only of use for growing cabbages: the flour in the cellars got hard as a stone, and had to be chopped with an axe. It was risky to handle the cloth, linen and home-made materials, for they turned to dust at the touch. By now he had himself forgotten how much he had of anything and only remembered the place in the cupboard where he had put a decanter with a little of some liqueur in it, and the mark he had made on it, that no one might thievishly help himself, and the spot where a bit of sealing-wax or a feather had been laid. And meanwhile the revenue from the estate came in as before: the peasants had to pay the same rent in lieu of labour, every peasant woman had to bring the same contribution of nuts, and to furnish so many pieces of the linen she weaved. All this was heaped together in the storehouses, and all was falling into decay and tatters, and he himself was at last turning into a mere tatter of humanity. Alexandra Stepanovna came on one or two occasions to visit him with her little son, in hope of getting a little help from him; evidently a life on active service with the lieutenant was not as attractive as she had fancied before her marriage. Plyushkin forgave her, however, and even gave his little grandson a button that was lying on the table to play with, but he gave her no money. Another time Alexandra Stepanovna came with two little ones and brought him a cake for tea and a new dressing-gown, for her father was wearing a dressing-gown which was not merely a shocking but positively a shameful sight. Plyushkin fondled both his grandsons and, putting one on his right knee and one on his left, jogged them up and down precisely as though they were on horseback. He accepted the cake and the dressing-gown, but gave his daughter absolutely nothing; and with that Alexandra Stepanovna departed.
And so this was the landowner that stood facing Tchitchikov! It must be said that such a phenomenon is rare in Russia, where every one prefers rather to expand than to contract, and it was the more striking because close by, in the same neighbourhood, there was a landowner who was spending his money right and left with all the devil-may-care recklessness of the old Russian serf-owner, burning his way through life, as the saying is. The passing stranger stopped in amazement at the sight of his dwelling, wondering what sovereign prince had suddenly appeared in the midst of the petty, obscure landowners: the white house with its innumerable chimneys, belvederes and turrets, surrounded by a crowd of lodges and all sorts of buildings for visitors, looked like a palace. Nothing was lacking. There were theatres, balls; every night the garden was brilliantly decorated with lights and lamps, and resounded to the strains of music. Half the province gaily promenaded under the trees, dressed up in their best, and no one felt it strange and sinister when out of the dark shade of the trees a branch stood out theatrically in the artificial light, robbed of its bright green, and the night sky looked darker and more gloomy and twenty times more terrible through it, and the austere tree-tops with their leaves quivering in the heights as they vanished into the impenetrable darkness seemed to resent the tawdry brilliance that lighted up their roots below.
Plyushkin had been standing for some minutes without uttering a word, and still Tchitchikov, distracted both by the appearance of the landowner himself and by all that was in his room, could not think how to begin the conversation. For a long while he could not imagine in what words to explain the object of his visit. He had intended to use some such expression as 'that having heard of his virtues and the rare qualities of his soul, he had thought it his duty to pay him his respects in person'; but he hesitated and felt that this was too much. Casting another sidelong look at all the things in the room, he felt that the words 'virtues' or 'rare qualities of soul,' might be suitably replaced by the words 'economy' and 'good management,' and so, adapting his speech accordingly, he said, that, having heard of his economy and rare skill in the management of his estates, he had thought it his duty to make his acquaintance and pay his respects in person. No doubt a better reason might have been found, but nothing else occurred to him at the moment.
To this Plyushkin muttered something between his lips,—he had no teeth,—what it was exactly is not certain, but probably the gist of it was: 'The deuce take you and your respects'; but, as hospitality is so traditional a duty among us that even a miser cannot bring himself to transgress its laws, he added a little more distinctly: 'Pray sit down!'
'It's a long time since I have seen visitors,' he said, 'and I must own I don't see much use in them. A most unseemly habit of visiting one another has come into fashion, and it means neglecting one's work … and one has to give hay to their horses too! I had my dinner hours ago, my kitchen is humble and in a very bad state, and the chimney is completely in ruins: if one were to begin to heat the stove, one would set fire to the place.'
'So that's how the land lies!' thought Tchitchikov to himself. 'It's a good thing I did eat a cheese-cake and a good slice of saddle of mutton at Sobakevitch's.'
'And what is so tiresome is that there is not a bundle of hay on the whole estate!' Plyushkin went on. 'And indeed how is one to have any? I have a wretched little bit of land and the peasants are lazy, they are not fond of work, they are always trying to get off to the tavern. ... If I don't look out, I shall be begging my bread in my old age!'
'I have been told, however,' said Tchitchikov modestly, 'that you have more than a thousand serfs.'
'And who told you that? You ought to have spat in his face when he said that, my good sir. It seems he was jeering, he wanted to have a joke with you. Here they chatter about a thousand serfs, but you should just go and count them, and you'll find nothing of the sort! During the last three years, the cursed fever has carried off a terrible number of my peasants.'
'You don't say so! And have many died?' exclaimed Tchitchikov with sympathy.
'Yes, many are in their graves.'
'And allow me to ask you, how many?'
'I shouldn't tell you a lie, my good sir.'
'Allow me to inquire too: I suppose that you reckon that number from the time the last census was taken?'
'I should be thankful if it were so,' said Plyushkin, 'the number dead since then runs up to a hundred and twenty.'
'Really! a hundred and twenty?' exclaimed Tchitchikov, and he positively gaped with astonishment,
'I am an old man, sir, and not likely to tell you a lie: I am over seventy!' said Plyushkin. He seemed rather offended by Tchitchikov's almost joyful exclamation. Tchitchikov realised that such lack of sympathy with another man's troubles really was shocking, and so he immediately sighed and said that he deeply sympathised.
'But sympathy is nothing you can put in your pocket,' said Plyushkin. 'Here there is a captain living near, the devil knows where he has come from; he says he is a relation. It's "uncle, uncle," all the time, and he kisses my hand; and when he begins sympathising he sets up such a howl that one wants to stuff one's fingers in one's ears. He is all red in the face; he's too fond of good brandy, I'll be bound. No doubt he wasted his money, being an officer, or some stage actress turned his head, so now he has to sympathise!'
Tchitchikov tried to explain that his sympathy was not of the same sort as the captain's, and that he was ready to prove it, not in hollow words, but in action, and, coming straight to business, he announced his readiness to take upon himself the duty of paying the tax for all the peasants who had died in this unfortunate way. The offer seemed to astound Plyushkin. He stared at him with wide-open eyes and finally asked: 'Why, have you been in military service, sir?'
'No,' said Tchitchikov rather slyly, 'I was in the civil service.'
'In the civil service,' said Plyushkin, and he began munching his lips, as though he were eating something. 'But how do you mean? Why, it will be a loss to you?'
'To please you, I am ready to face the loss.'
'Ah, my good sir! ah, my benefactor!' cried Plyushkin, not observing in his delight that a piece of snuff of the colour of coffee grounds was peeping out of his nose in a most unpicturesque way, and that the skirts of his dressing-gown had flown apart and were displaying under-garments not at all suitable for exhibition. 'You are bringing comfort to an old man! Oh Lord! Oh holy saints! …' Plyushkin could say no more. But before a minute had passed, the joy that had appeared so instantaneously on his wooden face just as instantaneously passed away, as though it had never been there, and the anxious expression came into his face again. He even wiped his face with his handkerchief and, rolling it up into a ball, began to pass it over his upper lip.
'How do you mean, if I may make bold to inquire without offending you; do you undertake to pay the tax for them every year, and will send the money to me or to the tax collector?'
'Oh, this is what we will do: we will draw up a deed of purchase of them, as though they were alive, and as though you were selling them to me.'
'Yes, a deed of purchase,' said Plyushkin; he sank into thought and began again munching his lips. 'But you see a deed of purchase is an expense. The clerks have no conscience. In old days one could get off with half a rouble in copper and a sack of flour, but now you have to send them a whole cartload of grain, and add a red note too, they are such money-grubbers. I don't know how it is no one notices it. They might at least say a word of admonition to them; you know you can touch any one with a word, say what you like, but there is no resisting a word of admonition.'
'Come, I fancy you would resist it!' Tchitchikov thought to himself, and he at once declared that out of respect for him he was even ready to take the expenses of the purchase upon himself.
Hearing that he was prepared to do this, Plyushkin concluded that his visitor must be a perfect fool, was only pretending to have been in the civil service, and had probably been an officer and dangled after actresses. For all that he could not conceal his delight and called down all sorts of blessings, not only upon him but upon his children, without inquiring whether he had any or not. Going to the window he tapped on the pane and shouted: 'Hey, Proshka!' A minute later there was the sound of some one running in hot haste into the hall, moving about there for a long time and tramping with his boots. At last the door opened and Proshka, a boy of thirteen, walked in, wearing boots so huge that they almost flew off his feet at every step. Why Proshka had such big boots the reader may be told at once. Plyushkin kept for the use of all his house-serfs, however many they might be, only one pair of boots, which had always to be kept in the hall. Every one summoned to the master's apartments used as a rule to prance barefoot across the yard, to put on the boots on entering the hall and so to appear at the master's door. When he went out, he left his boots in the hall and set off again on his own soles. If any one had glanced out of window in the autumn, especially when the frosts were beginning, he would have seen all the house-serfs cutting such capers as the most agile dancer scarcely succeeds in executing at the theatre.
'Just look, my good sir, what a loutish face,' Plyushkin said to Tchitchikov, pointing to Proshka's. 'He is as stupid as a block of wood, but try putting anything down, he'll steal it in a minute! Well, what have you come for, fool, tell me what?' Here he paused for a space, and Proshka responded with equal silence.
'Set the samovar, do you hear—and here, take the key and give it to Mavra for her to go to the storeroom: on the shelf there is a piece of the cake Alexandra Stepanovna brought, it can be served for tea. … Stay, where are you off to, stupid fool, tut, tut, stupid fool. … Is the devil tickling your feet or what? … You should listen first. The cake may be a little mouldy on the top, so let her scrape it with a knife, but don't throw away the crumbs; take them to the hens, and mind now, you are not to go into the storeroom, my boy; if you do—I'll give it you with a birch, you know, to give you an appetite! You've a fine appetite as it is, so that would improve it! You just try to go into the storeroom! I shall be looking out of window all the time. … You can't trust them with anything,' he went on, addressing Tchitchikov, after Proshka had taken himself off with his boots. Then he began looking suspiciously at Tchitchikov, too. Such extraordinary generosity struck him as incredible, and he thought to himself:
'The devil only knows what he is up to; maybe he is only boasting, like all these spendthrifts. He goes on lying and lying, just to talk, and get a drink of tea, and then he will go off!'
And therefore as a precaution and at the same time wishing to test him a little, he said that it would not be amiss to complete the purchase as quickly as possible, since there was no reckoning on anything in human affairs: one is alive to-day but to-morrow is in God's hands.
Tchitchikov expressed his readiness to complete the purchase that very minute, and asked for nothing but a list of all the peasants.
This reassured Plyushkin. It could be seen that he was considering doing something, and taking his keys he did in fact approach the cupboard and opening the door, rummaged for a long time among the glasses and cups, and at last articulated: 'Why, there is no finding it, but I did have a drop of splendid liqueur, if only they have not drunk it up, they are such a set of thieves! Oh, isn't this it, perhaps!'
Tchitchikov saw in his hands a little decanter which was enveloped in dust as though in a vest.
'My wife made it herself,' Plyushkin went on. 'The slut of a housekeeper was for flinging it away altogether and did not even keep it corked, the wretch! Ladybirds and all sorts of rubbish had got into it, but I took all that out and now it's quite clean, and I will give you a glass.'
But Tchitchikov tried to refuse the liqueur, saying that he had already eaten and drunk.
'Eaten and drunk already!' said Plyushkin. 'To be sure, one can recognise a man of good society anywhere; he does not eat but has had all he wants; but when one of these impostors comes you have to feed him endlessly. … That captain turns up: "Uncle," he says, "give me something to eat," and I am no more his uncle than he is my grandfather; he has nothing to eat at home I expect, so he comes dangling round here! So you want a list of all these wastrels? To be sure, I know I made a list of them on a special bit of paper, so that they might be all struck off at the next revision of the census.'
Plyushkin put on his spectacles and began fumbling among his papers. Untying all sorts of papers he regaled his visitor with so much dust that the latter sneezed. At last he pulled out a bit of paper covered closely with writing. It was covered as thickly with peasants' names as a leaf with green fly. There were some of all sorts: Paramons and Pimens and Panteleymons, and there was even one Grigory Never-get-there. There were over a hundred and twenty in all. Tchitchikov smiled at the sight of so many. Putting it into his pocket he observed to Plyushkin that he would have to go to the town to complete the purchase.
'To the town? But how can I? … And how can I leave the house? Why, my serfs are all thieves or scoundrels: in one day they would strip me, so I'd have nothing left to hang my coat on.'
'Haven't you some one of your acquaintance?'
'Some one of my acquaintance? All my acquaintances are dead or have dropped my acquaintance. … Ah, my good sir, to be sure I have!' he cried. 'Why, the president himself is a friend of mine, he used to come and see me in old days. I should think I do know him! We were boys together, we used to climb the fences together. Not know him? I should think I do! … Shouldn't I write to him?'
'Why, of course, write to him!'
'To be sure, he is a friend! We used to be friends at school.'
And, all at once, something like a ray of warmth glided over that wooden face, there was an expression not of feeling, but of a sort of pale reflection of feeling.
It was an apparition, like the sudden appearance of a drowned man at the surface of the water, that calls forth a shout of joy in the crowd upon the bank; but in vain the rejoicing brothers and sisters let down a cord from the bank and wait for another glimpse of the back or the arms exhausted with struggling—that appearance was the last. All is still, and the unrippled surface of the implacable element is still more terrible and desolate than before. So the face of Plyushkin, after the feeling that glided for an instant over it, looked harder and meaner than ever.
'There was a sheet of clean paper lying here on the table,' he said, 'but I don't know what could have become of it, my servants are so untrustworthy!' Thereupon he began looking on the table and under the table and fumbled everywhere, and at last shouted: 'Mavra, Mavra!' His summons was answered by a woman with a plate in her hand on which lay the piece of dry cake of which the reader has heard already. And the following conversation took place between them.
'Where did you put that paper, you wretch of a woman?'
'Upon my word, your honour, I have not seen any except the little bit you were pleased to give me to cover the wine-glass.'
'But I see from your face that you filched it.'
'What should I filch it for? I should have no use for it: I can't read or write.'
'That's a lie, you took it to the sacristan! he knows his A B C, so you took it to him.'
'Why, the sacristan can get paper for himself if he wants it. He's not seen your bit of paper!'
'You wait a bit. At the dread Day of Judgment, the devils will toast you on their iron forks for this. You will see how they will toast you!'
'Why should they toast me, when I have never touched the paper? Other womanish weaknesses maybe, but thieving nobody has ever charged me with before.'
'But the devils will toast you! They will say: "Here, this is for deceiving your master, you wicked woman," and they'll roast you on hot coals!'
'And I shall say: "There's no reason to! upon my word, there's no reason! I didn't take it. …" But there it lies yonder on the table; you are always scolding me for nothing!'
Plyushkin did, indeed, see the paper; he stood still for a minute chewing his lips, and then brought out: 'Well, why are you running on like that? You are such a stuck-up thing! If one says a word to her, she answers back a dozen. Go and bring a light for me to seal a letter. Stay! You will snatch up a tallow candle; tallow is so soft; it burns away to nothing, it's a waste; you bring me a burning stick!'
Mavra went out and Plyushkin, sitting down in an armchair and taking up a pen, turned the paper over and over in his hand, wondering whether he could not tear a scrap off it, but, coming to the conclusion at last that he could not, he dipped the pen into an inkstand containing some sort of mildewy liquid with a number of flies at the bottom, and began writing, forming the letters like musical notes, and continually checking the impetuosity of his hand, and preventing it from galloping too freely over the paper, fitting each line close up to the next and thinking, not without regret, that in spite of his efforts a lot of blank space would be wasted.
And could a man sink to such triviality, such meanness, such nastiness? Could he change so much? And is it true to life? Yes, it is all true to life. All this can happen to a man. The ardent youth of to-day would start back in horror if you could show him his portrait in old age. As you pass from the soft years of youth into harsh, hardening manhood, be sure you take with you on the way all the humane emotions, do not leave them on the road: you will not pick them up again afterwards! Old age is before you, threatening and terrible, and it will give you nothing back again! The grave is more merciful; on the tomb is written: 'Here lies a man,' but you can read nothing on the frigid, callous features of old age.
'And do you know any one among your friends,' said Plyushkin as he folded up the letter, 'who is in want of runaway souls?'
'Why, have you runaway ones too?' asked Tchitchikov, quickly pricking up his ears.
'That's just it, I have. My brother-in-law did make inquiries: but he says there is no trace to be found of them; of course, he is a military man, he can clank his spurs well enough, but as for legal business …'
'And what number may there be of them?'
'Why, there are seventy of those too.'
'Yes indeed! Not a year passes without some running away. They are a shockingly greedy lot, from idleness they have taken to drinking, while I have nothing to eat myself … Really I would take anything I could get for them. So you might advise your friend: if he can only find one in ten, it will be all profit. You know a serf is worth fifty roubles.'
'No, I am not going to let any friend have an inkling of it,' thought Tchitchikov to himself: and then he explained that such a friend could not be found, since the expenses of the business would cost more than that, seeing that one had better cut off the skirts of one's coat than not get away from the courts, but if he really was so pressed for money, then he was ready out of sympathy to give … but really it was a trifle scarcely worth discussing.
'Why, how much would you give?' asked Plyushkin, and he 'went Jewish'; his hands quivered like quicksilver.
'I'd give you twenty-five kopecks the soul.'
'And how would you buy them—for ready money?'
'Yes, money down.'
'Only, my good sir, considering my great need, you might give me forty kopecks apiece.'
'My honoured friend,' said Tchitchikov, 'I should be glad to pay you not forty kopecks, but five hundred roubles each! I would pay it with pleasure, for I see a good, worthy old man suffering through his own kindness of heart.'
'Yes indeed, that's true! It's really the truth!' said Plyushkin, hanging his head and shaking it regretfully. 'It's all through kindness of heart.'
'There, you see I grasped your character at once. And so I should be glad to give five hundred roubles, but … I have not the means. I am ready to add five kopecks so that the souls would be thirty apiece.'
'Well, my good sir, as you will, but you might raise it two kopecks.'
'I will raise it another two kopecks, certainly. How many of them have you? I believe you said seventy.'
'No, altogether there are seventy-eight.'
'Seventy-eight, seventy-eight at thirty-two kopecks each, that makes …' At this point our hero thought for one second, not more. 'That makes twenty-four roubles, ninety-six kopecks! …' He was good at arithmetic. He immediately made Plyushkin write out a list of the serfs and paid him the money, which the latter took in both hands and carried to his bureau with as much care as though he were carrying some liquid and was in fear every minute of spilling it. On reaching the bureau he looked over the money once more, and with the same care put it in a drawer, where it no doubt was destined to be buried, till such time as Father Karp and Father Polikarp, the two priests of his village, came to bury him himself, to the indescribable joy of his son-in-law and his daughter, and possibly of the captain who claimed relationship with him. After putting away the money, Plyushkin sat down in his armchair, and seemed unable to find a subject for further conversation.
'Why, are you going already,' he said, noticing a slight movement on the part of Tchitchikov, who was however only intending to get out his handkerchief.
This question reminded him that he really had no reason for lingering. 'Yes, I must be off,' he said, taking his hat.
'And what about tea?'
'No, I must have a cup of tea with you next time I come.'
'Why, I ordered the samovar; I must own I am not very fond of tea myself: it is an expensive drink and the price of sugar has gone up cruelly. Proshka, we don't need the samovar! Take the cake back to Mavra, do you hear? Let her put it back in the same place; no, I will put it back myself. Good-bye, my good sir, and God bless you. And you will give my letter to the president. Yes! Let him read it, he is an old friend of mine. Why, we were boys together!'
Whereupon this strange apparition, this miserable, shrunken old man accompanied him to the gate, after which he ordered the gate to be locked up at once; then he made the round of his storehouses to see whether all the watchmen who were stationed at every corner and had to tap with wooden spades on empty barrels, instead of on a sheet of iron, were in their proper places; after that, he peeped into the kitchen where, on the pretext of ascertaining whether the servants were being properly fed, he had a good feed of cabbage soup and boiled grain, and after abusing every one of them for stealing and bad behaviour, he returned to his room. When he was again alone, he began actually thinking how he could show his gratitude to his guest for his unexampled generosity. 'I will give him a watch,' he thought to himself; 'it's a good silver watch, and not one of your pinchbeck or bronze ones; something has gone wrong with it, but he can have it done up; he is still a young man, so he wants a watch to please his young lady. No,' he added, after some reflection, 'I had better leave it him in my will that he may remember me.'
But, even without the watch, our hero was in the best of spirits. Such an unexpected haul was a real godsend! And actually, after all, not only dead souls, but runaway ones too, altogether more than two hundred! To be sure, even on his way to Plyushkin's he had had a presentiment that he would get something good, but such a profitable bargain he had never expected. He was exceptionally cheerful all the way, he whistled, played a tune with his fingers, put his fist to his mouth like a trumpet, and at last broke into a song so extraordinary that Selifan listened and listened, and then shaking his head a little, said: 'I say, if the master isn't singing!' It was quite dusk as they drove into the town. Light was merging into darkness and the very objects merged into indistinct blurs, too. The parti-coloured flagstaff was of an indefinite tint; the moustache of the soldier standing on sentry duty seemed to be on his forehead and a long way above his eyes, while his nose had disappeared entirely. The rattle and jolting made it evident that the chaise was rumbling over the cobble-stones. The street lamps were not yet lighted, but, here and there, the windows of the houses began lighting up, and, in the alleys and at the street corners, snatches of talk were audible such as are inseparable from that hour of the day in all towns where there are many soldiers, cabmen, workmen and peculiar creatures in the shape of ladies in red shawls and in slippers with, no stockings, who flit about like bats at the street corners. Tchitchikov did not notice them and did not even observe many genteel government clerks with little canes, who were probably returning home from a walk. From time to time exclamations, sounds of feminine voices, reached his ears: 'That's a lie, you drunken sot, I never let him take such a liberty!' or, 'Don't fight, you low fellow, but go along to the police-station; I'll show you!' words, in fact, such as fall like scalding water on the ears of a dreamy youth of twenty, when returning from the theatre with his head full of a street in Spain, a summer night and an exquisite feminine figure with curls and a guitar. What fancies are not floating in his brain? He is in the clouds, or off on a visit to Schiller, when suddenly the fatal words burst upon him like thunder: and he sees that he is back on earth, and even in the hay market and near a pot-house, and life in its workaday garb flaunts itself before him again.
At last the chaise with a violent jolt seemed to drop into a hole, as it passed in at the gates of the hotel, and Tchitchikov was met by Petrushka, who with one hand held the skirts of his coat, for he could not bear them to fly apart, and with the other began helping his master out of the chaise. The waiter ran out too with a candle in his hand and a napkin over his shoulder. Whether Petrushka was pleased at his master's arrival no one can tell; anyway, Selifan and he winked at each other, and his usually sullen countenance seemed for a moment to brighten.
'Your honour has been away a long time,' said the waiter, as he held the candle to light up the stairs.
'Yes,' said Tchitchikov, as he mounted the stairs. 'And how have you been getting on?'
'Very well, thank God,' answered the waiter, bowing. 'A lieutenant, a military gentleman of some sort, arrived yesterday and has number sixteen.'
'I don't know who he is, from Ryazan, bay horses.'
'Very well, very well, behave well for the future too,' said Tchitchikov, and he went into his room. As he went through the outer room he puckered up his nose and said to Petrushka, 'You might at least have opened the windows!'
'I did open them,' said Petrushka, but he was lying. And his master knew he was lying, but he did not care to contest it.
He felt greatly fatigued after his expedition. Ordering the very lightest of suppers, consisting of sucking-pig, he undressed immediately after it, and getting under the bedclothes, fell into a sound sleep, fell into that sweet sleep which is the privilege of those happy mortals who know nothing of piles or fleas, or of over-developed intellectual faculties.