Dead Souls—A Poem/Book One/Chapter VIII
Tchitchikov's purchases became the subject of conversation. Discussions took place in the town, views and opinions were expressed as to whether purchasing serfs for removal to another district were a profitable undertaking. From the controversy it appeared that many possessed a thorough understanding of the subject. 'Of course it's all right,' said some people, 'there is no disputing it: the land in the southern provinces is undoubtedly good and fertile, but how are Tchitchikov's peasants going to get on without water? You know there is no river.'
'That wouldn't matter, there being no water; that wouldn't matter, Stepan Dmitryevitch; but transporting peasants is a risky business. We all know what the peasant is; put down on fresh land and set to till it, and with nothing for him, no hut, no firewood—why he'd run away as sure as twice two makes four, he'd take to his heels and leave no trace behind him.'
'No, Alexey Ivanovitch, excuse me, I don't agree with what you say that Tchitchikov's peasants will run away. The Russian is capable of tackling anything, and can stand any climate. Send him to Kamchatka and just give him warm gloves, he'll clap his hands together, pick up his axe and go off to hew logs for his new hut.'
'But, Ivan Grigoryevitch, you have lost sight of one important point; you haven't asked yourself what sort of peasants Tchitchikov's are, you have forgotten that a good man is never sold by his master. I'll stake my head that Tchitchikov's peasants are thieves, hopeless drunkards, sluggards and of unruly behaviour.'
'To be sure, to be sure, I quite agree, that's true, no one will sell good serfs, and Tchitchikov's peasants are drunkards, but you must take into consideration that there is a moral point involved, that it is a moral question; they are good-for-nothing fellows now but, settled on new land, they may become excellent serfs. There are many such instances both in daily life and history.'
'Never, never,' said the superintendent of the government factories, 'believe me, that can never be, for Tchitchikov's peasants will have two terrible foes to face. The first is the proximity of the provinces of Little Russia, where as you all know there is no control of the Liquor Trade. I assure you within a fortnight they will all be as drunk as cobblers. The other danger arises from their inevitably growing used to a wandering life during their migration. They will have to be constantly before Tchitchikov's eyes, and he will have to keep a very tight hold over them, punish them for every trifle, and it will be no good for him to rely on any one else, he must give them a punch in the face or a bang on the head when necessary with his own hands.'
'Why should Tchitchikov have to bother and to knock them about himself? He may get a steward.'
'Well, you get him a steward: they are all rogues!'
'They are rogues because the masters don't go into things themselves.'
'That's true,' several persons assented. 'If the master has some notion of management himself and is a judge of character, he always gets a good steward.'
But the superintendent of the factories said that you couldn't get a good steward for less than five thousand roubles. Then the president maintained that you could find one for three thousand. But the superintendent protested: 'Where are you going to find him, he is not just under your nose?'
And the president said: 'No, not under my nose, but in this district; I mean Pyotr Petrovitch Samoylov; he is the steward Tchitchikov's peasants need!'
Many threw themselves warmly into Tchitchikov's position, and the difficulty of transporting so vast a number of peasants alarmed them extremely; they began to be greatly apprehensive of an actual mutiny arising among peasants so unruly as Tchitchikov's. To this the police-master observed that there was no need to be afraid of a mutiny, that the authority of the police-captain existed to prevent such a thing, that the police-captain himself need not go, that if he merely sent his cap, the sight of the cap would be enough to take the peasants all the way to their new home. Many persons offered suggestions for eradicating the mutinous spirit agitating Tchitchikov's peasants. The suggestions were of various kinds. There were some which had a strong flavour of military harshness and even severity, though there were others distinguished by their mildness. The postmaster observed that Tchitchikov had a sacred duty before him, that he might become, as he expressed it, something like a father to his peasants, that he might carry out the philanthropic work of enlightenment, and incidentally, he referred with approval to the Lancastrian system of education.
So they argued and discussed it in the town, and many persons, moved by their sympathy, communicated some of this advice to Tchitchikov, and even offered him an escort to ensure the arrival of the peasants in safety at their new homes. Tchitchikov thanked them for their advice, saying that he would not fail to follow it should occasion arise, but he resolutely declined the escort, maintaining that it was quite unnecessary, that the peasants he had bought were of an exemplarily docile character, and were themselves favourably disposed to migration, and that there could not possibly be a mutiny among them.
All these arguments and discussions, however, led to a more agreeable result than Tchitchikov could possibly have expected, that is, to the rumour that he was neither more nor less than a millionaire. The people of the town had already, as we have seen in the first chapter, taken a great liking to Tchitchikov, and after this rumour spread among them, their liking for him was even greater. Though, to tell the truth, they were all good-natured people, got on well together, and behaved in a friendly way to each other, and indeed, there was a peculiar note of kindliness and good humour in their conversation: 'My dear friend, Ilya Ilyitch!' … 'I say, Antipator Zaharyevitch, old man!' … 'You are drawing the long bow, Ivan Grigoryevitch, my precious.' … When addressing Ivan Andreyevitch, people always added: 'Sprechen Sie Deutsch, Ivan Andreitch.' … In short they were all like one family. Many of them had some degree of culture; the president of the court of justice knew by heart Zhukovsky's 'Ludmila,' which was then a great novelty, and recited many passages in masterly fashion, especially 'The forest sleeps, the valley slumbers,' and the word 'Tchoo!' so that they really seemed to see the valley slumbering; for greater effect he actually closed his eyes at the passage. The postmaster was more devoted to philosophy and read diligently even at night, Young's Night Thoughts and The Key to the Mysteries of Nature, by Eckartshausen, from which he copied out very long extracts; but no one knew what they were about. He was however a wit, flowery in his language, and fond as he expressed it of flavouring his words. And he did flavour his words with a number of all sorts of little phrases such as: 'My dear sir, you know, you understand, you can fancy, as regards, so to say, in a certain sense,' and so on, which he scattered freely about him; he flavoured his language also rather successfully by winking and screwing up one eye, which gave a very biting expression to many of his satirical allusions. The others were all more or less cultured people, one read Karamzin, another read the Moscow News, while there were others who actually read nothing at all. Some were the sort of men who need a kick to make them rise to anything; others were simply sluggards lying all their lives on one side, as the saying is, and it would have been a waste of time to lift them up, they wouldn't have stood up under any circumstances. As far as health and appearance goes, they were all, as we have said already, sound people, there wasn't one consumptive among them. They were all of the kind to whom wives in moments of tender tête-à-tête use such endearing epithets as 'tubby,' 'fatty,' 'chubby,' 'dumpling,' 'zou-zou,' and so on. But, take them all in all, they were a good-natured set, full of hospitality, and a man who had eaten their salt or spent the evening playing whist with them was at once near and dear to them, and Tchitchikov, with his fascinating qualities and manners, and his real understanding of the great secret of pleasing was, of course, especially so. They had grown so fond of him that he did not know how to tear himself from the town; he heard nothing but: 'Come, a week, just one short week more, you must stay with us, Pavel Ivanovitch!' In fact he was, as the saying is, carried along in triumph. But incomparably more remarkable (truly a marvel!) was the impression which Tchitchikov made upon the ladies. To make even a partial explanation of it, one would have to say a great deal of the ladies themselves, of their society and their surroundings, to describe in living colours, as it is called, their spiritual qualities; but that is very difficult for the author. On the one hand he is restrained by his unbounded respect for the spouses of the higher officials, and on the other hand … on the other hand, it is simply too difficult. The ladies of the town of N. were … no, I really can't: I really feel shy. What was most remarkable in the ladies of the town of N. was … It is positively strange my pen refuses to move, as though it were weighted with lead. So be it: it seems I must leave the painting of their characters to some one whose colours are more vivid, and who has a greater variety on his palette; while I confine myself to a few words about their exterior and their superficial characteristics. The ladies of the town of N. were what is called presentable, and in that respect one may boldly hold them up as an example to all others. As regards deportment, elevation of tone, observance of etiquette and of a multitude of the most refined rules of propriety, and, above all, as regards following the fashion to its minutest details, they actually surpassed the ladies of Petersburg and Moscow. They dressed with great taste, and drove about the town in carriages, with a footman perched up behind, in a livery with gold lace on it, as prescribed by the latest fashion. A visiting card, even if it were written on a two of clubs or an ace of diamonds, was a very sacred thing. Two ladies, great friends and even relations, were completely estranged on account of a card, just because one of them had somehow failed to return a call. And in spite of all the efforts of their husbands and relations to reconcile them afterwards, it appeared that one may do anything else in the world, but that one thing is impossible—to reconcile two ladies who have quarrelled over failure to leave a card. And so the two ladies were left, 'mutually indisposed' as the society of the town expressed it. The question of precedence also gave rise to many violent scenes, inspiring sometimes in their husbands a chivalrous and noble-minded conception of the duty of championing them. Duels of course did not occur because the gentlemen were all in the civil service, but on the other hand they tried to play each other nasty tricks possible, and that as every one knows, is sometimes worse than any duel. In moral principles the ladies of N. were severe, full of noble indignation at everything vicious, and every form of depravity, and they punished every weakness without mercy. If what is known as a 'thing or two' did occur, it was kept dark so that there was no outward sign of its having occurred; every dignity was preserved and the husband himself was so well primed, that if he did see a 'thing or two,' or heard of it, he responded mildly and reasonably with the popular saying: What does it matter to any one else, if the godfather sits with the godmother?
Another thing I must mention about the ladies of N. is that, like many Petersburg ladies, they were distinguished by great niceness and propriety in their choice of words and expressions. They never said: 'I blew my nose, I got into a sweat, I spat,' but used instead some such expression as: 'I made use of my handkerchief.' It was out of the question to say under any circumstances 'that glass or that plate stinks,' or even to say anything that would suggest it; they said instead 'that glass is not quite agreeable,' or something of the sort. To refine and elevate the Russian language, fully half the words in it were rejected from their vocabulary, and so it was very often necessary to have recourse to French; but in French it was quite a different matter; in that language they permitted themselves expressions far coarser than those mentioned above. So much for what may be said of the ladies of N., speaking superficially. Though, of course, if one were to look more deeply, many other things would be discovered, but it is very dangerous to look too deeply into the feminine heart.
And so, confining ourselves to the superficial, we will continue. Hitherto the ladies had said very little of Tchitchikov, though they gave him full credit for his agreeable demeanour in company, but from the time that there were rumours of his being a millionaire, other qualities were discerned in him. Though, indeed, the ladies were not at all mercenary-minded: the word millionaire was to blame—not the millionaire himself but just the word; for in the mere sound of that word, altogether apart from the money-bags, there is something which produces an effect upon people who are scoundrels, upon people who are neither one thing nor the other, and upon good people too, that is, produces an effect upon all. The millionaire has the advantage of meeting with servility that is quite disinterested, pure servility resting on no secondary motives: many people know perfectly well that they will never get a farthing from him and have no right to expect it, but yet will not fail to run to anticipate his wishes, to laugh at his jokes, to take off their hats, to wring an invitation for themselves to a dinner where they know he will be. It cannot be said that this tender inclination to servility was felt by the ladies; in many drawing-rooms, however, it began to be said that Tchitchikov was, of course, not strikingly handsome, but he was quite what a man ought to be, that if he were stouter or fatter, it would be a pity. And incidentally the observation was made—somewhat slighting to thin men in general—that they were more like toothpicks than men. All sorts of additional touches appeared in the attire of the ladies. There was quite a crowd, almost a crush in the arcade; there were so many carriages driving up to it that they were a regular procession. The shopkeepers were astonished at seeing that some pieces of material, which they had brought from the fair and could not get rid of on account of the price, had suddenly become the rage, and were snapped up regardless of expense. At mass in church one lady had a stiff flounce at the bottom of her skirt, which stuck it out so far all round her, that the police inspector of the quarter, who happened to be present, ordered the people to move further back, that they might not crush her honour's costume. Tchitchikov himself could not help noticing the extraordinary attention paid him. One day on returning home he found a letter lying on his table. He could not find out from whom it came or who had brought it: the waiter informed him that it had been brought with orders not to say from whom it came. The letter began with great determination, in these words in fact: 'Yes, I must write to you!' then something was said about a mysterious affinity of souls; this truth was confirmed by a number of dots which filled up half a line. Then followed several reflections so remarkable for their justice, that we feel it almost essential to quote them: 'What is our life? A vale in which grief has taken up its abode. What is the world? The crowd of the unfeeling.' Then the writer mentioned that she was bedewing the lines with tears for a tender mother, who twenty-five years before had left this earthly sphere; Tchitchikov was invited to flee to the desert, to abandon for ever the town where, shut in by spiritual barriers, people did not breathe the air of freedom; the latter part of the letter had a note of positive despair, and ended with the following verses:
'Two turtle doves will show thee
Where my cold ashes lie
And sadly murmuring tell thee
How in tears I did die.'
The last line did not scan, that did not matter, though: the letter was written in the spirit of the day. There was no signature: neither Christian name nor surname nor even the date. But a postscript was added to the effect that his own heart should divine who was the writer, and that the author would be at the governor's ball that was to take place on the following day.
This greatly interested him. There was so much that was alluring and that excited the curiosity in the anonymity of it, that he read the letter through a second and a third time, and said at last: 'It would be interesting, though, to know who the writer is!' In fact, things were becoming serious, as may be seen. He spent more than an hour brooding over it. At last, flinging wide his hands and nodding his head, he said: 'The letter is very, very fancifully written!' Then, I need hardly say, the letter was folded up and put in his case beside an advertisement and an invitation to a wedding, which had been preserved for seven years in the same place and position. Shortly afterwards an invitation actually was brought him for the governor's ball, a very common event in provincial towns: where there is a governor, there there is a ball, or the nobility would not pay him due respect and love.
Every other consideration was instantly dismissed and thrust aside, and every thought was concentrated on preparations for the ball, for indeed there were many exciting and stimulating circumstances connected with it. Probably so much time and effort had never since the creation of the world been devoted to the toilet. A whole hour was spent merely in scrutinising his countenance in the looking-glass. Attempts were made to assume a great variety of expressions: at one moment important and dignified, at the next, respectful with a smile, then, simply respectful without a smile; several bows were made to the looking-glass, accompanied by vague sounds, somewhat resembling French, though Tchitchikov did not know French at all. He even attempted several new and surprising tricks, twisted his eyebrows and his lips and even tried to do something with his tongue; as a matter of fact, there is no limit to what one may do when left alone and feeling that one is a handsome fellow and convinced, moreover, that no one will be looking through a crack. At last he gave his chin a slap, saying, 'Bless me, what a mug!' and began dressing. The whole process of dressing was accompanied by an agreeable and contented feeling: as he put on his braces or tied his cravat, he bowed and scraped with peculiar sprightliness, and though he had never danced in his life, he cut a caper. This caper had a small and harmless consequence: the chest of drawers shook and the brush fell on the floor.
His arrival at the ball made an extraordinary impression. Every one turned to greet him, one with cards in his hand, another at the most interesting point in the conversation as he uttered the words: 'And the lower district court maintains in answer to that …' but what the district court did maintain he abandoned altogether and hastened to welcome our hero. 'Pavel Ivanovitch! Ah, goodness me, Pavel Ivanovitch! Dear Pavel Ivanovitch! Honoured Pavel Ivanovitch! My dear soul, Pavel Ivanovitch! Ah, here you are, Pavel Ivanovitch! Here he is, our Pavel Ivanovitch! Allow me to embrace you, Pavel Ivanovitch! Hand him over, let me give him a good kiss, my precious Pavel Ivanovitch!' Tchitchikov instantly felt himself clasped in the embrace of several friends. He had hardly succeeded in completely extricating himself from the embrace of the president, when he found himself in the arms of the police-master; the police-master passed him on to the inspector of the medical board; the inspector of the medical board handed him over to the government contractor, and the latter passed him on to the architect. … The governor, who was at the moment standing by some ladies, with a motto from a bon-bon in one hand and a lap-dog in the other, dropped both motto and lap-dog on the floor on seeing him—the dog raised a shrill yelp—in short, Tchitchikov was the centre of extraordinary joy and delight. There was not a face that, did not express pleasure or at least a reflection of the general pleasure. So it is with the faces of government clerks when the offices in their charge are being inspected by a newly arrived chief: when their first panic has passed off, and they see that he is pleased with a great deal and when he has graciously condescended to jest, that is to pronounce a few words with an agreeable simper, and the clerks standing near him laugh twice as much in response, those who have scarcely caught his words laugh with all their hearts too, and last of all a policeman, standing far away at the door at the very entrance, who has never laughed in his life, and has just before been shaking his fist at the people, is moved by the unalterable laws of reflection to show upon his face a smile, though it looks more as though he were sneezing after a strong pinch of snuff.
Our hero responded to all and each, and was aware of a peculiar ease: he bowed to right and to left, a little to one side as he always did, but with perfect grace, so that he charmed everyone. The ladies surrounded him with a galaxy of beauty, and wafted with them perfect clouds of sweet scents, one smelt of roses, another was breathing of spring and violets, another was saturated through and through with mignonette. Tchitchikov could only throw up his nose and sniff. A vast deal of taste was displayed in their attire; muslins, satins, chiffons were of those pale, fashionable shades, for which it is impossible to find a name, so refined is modern taste! Bows of ribbon and bunches of flowers were dotted here and there about their dresses in most picturesque disorder, though this disorder had cost an orderly brain a great deal of trouble. The light ornaments that adorned their heads held on only by the ears, and seemed to be saying: 'Aie! I am taking flight, and the only pity is that I can't carry the beauty away with me!' The waists were tightly laced and had the most firm and agreeable contour (it must be noted that generally speaking the ladies of the town of N. were rather plump, but they laced so skilfully and held themselves so gracefully, that their stoutness was not noticeable). Everything had been thought out and looked after with special care: necks and shoulders were bared just as far as was right and not a bit further; each one displayed her possessions so far as she felt from her inner conviction that they were calculated to slay her man. The rest was all covered up with extraordinary taste; either some light ribbon neck-band, dainty as the sweets known as 'kisses,' ethereally encircled the neck, or little scalloped edgings of fine batiste known as 'modesties,' emerged under the dress behind the shoulders. These 'modesties' concealed in front and at the back what was not calculated to play havoc with the heart of man, and at the same time they aroused the suspicion that the very centre of danger was there. The long gloves were drawn up not quite to meet the sleeves, but the most alluring part of the arm above the elbow, in many cases of an enviable plumpness, was intentionally left bare; some ladies had even split their kid gloves in the effort to push them up higher—in short everything seemed to be imprinted with the words: 'No, this is not a provincial town, this is Petersburg, this is Paris!' Only here and there a cap of a species never seen on earth before, or some feather, perhaps from a peacock, stood up in accordance with individual taste and in defiance of the dictates of fashion. But there is no escaping that; such originality is characteristic of a provincial town, it is bound to break out somewhere. Tchitchikov stood before them, wondering who could be the authoress of the letter, and he was about to crane his head forward for a better look round when a whole procession of elbows, cuffs, sleeves, ends of ribbons, perfumed chemisettes and dresses flashed by under his very nose. The galop was at its height: the postmaster's wife, the police-captain, a lady with a pale blue feather, a lady with a white feather, the Georgian prince, Tchiphaihihdzev, an official from Petersburg, an official from Moscow, a French gentleman called Coucou, Perhunovsky, Berebendovsky, all pranced up and down and flew by. …
'Well, they are all at it!' Tchitchikov said to himself as he stepped back, and, as soon as the ladies had sat down in their places, he began scanning them again to see whether from the expression on some face or the look in some eyes he could recognise the authoress of the letter; but it was utterly impossible to recognise either from the expression of the face or the look in the eyes which was she. Everywhere there could be discerned something faintly betrayed, something elusively subtle—oh, how subtle! …
'No,' Tchitchikov said to himself, 'women really are … a subject …' Here he waved his hand hopelessly. 'It's simply no use talking! Go and try to describe all that is flitting over their faces, all the roundabout devices, the hints. … But you simply couldn't describe it. Their eyes alone are a boundless realm which a man explores—and is lost for ever! You can never get him back by hook or by crook. Just try describing, for instance, the mere light in them: melting, velvety, full of sweetness and goodness knows what besides; cruel and soft and quite languishing too, or as some say, voluptuous, or not voluptuous, but especially when voluptuous—and it catches the heart and plays upon the soul like a violin bow. No, there is simply no finding the words: the fine fleur half of the human species and that's all about it.'
I beg your pardon! I believe an expression overheard in the street has just escaped from the lips of my hero. I could not help it! Such is the sad plight of an author in Russia! Though, indeed, if a word overheard in the streets does creep into a book, it is not the author who is to blame, but the readers, and especially the readers of the best society; it is from them, above all others, that you never hear a decent Russian word, but they must reel off French, German and English phrases beyond anything you could wish for, and they even keep to every possible pronunciation—French they speak through their nose with a lisp, English they twitter like a bird in the correct way; and even look like birds as they speak it, and positively laugh at those who cannot make their faces look like birds'. They never contribute anything Russian, at most their patriotism leads them to build a peasant's hut in the Russian style for a summer bungalow. So that's what readers of the best society are like, and all who rank themselves as such follow their example. And at the same time how exacting they are! They insist that everything must be written in the most rigidly correct language, purified and refined—in fact they want the Russian language to descend of itself from the clouds, all finished and polished, and settle on their tongue, leaving them nothing to do but open their mouth and stick it out. Of course, the feminine half of the human species is not easy to understand; but our worthy readers are sometimes even more difficult to make out.
And meanwhile Tchitchikov was completely puzzled to decide which of the ladies was the authoress of the letter. Trying to look more intently, he perceived on the ladies' side, too, an expression calculated to inspire at once such hope and such sweet torture in the heart of a poor mortal that he said at last: 'No, there is no guessing!' This, however, did not detract from his cheerful frame of mind. In the most unconstrained way he exchanged a few agreeable phrases with some of the ladies, went up first to one and then to another with little mincing steps, with the tripping gait affected by little foppish old gentlemen with high heels, midget bucks, as they are called, who skip very nimbly to and fro among the ladies. Turning rather adroitly to right and to left, as he tripped along, he scraped with one foot as though drawing a short tail or a comma on the floor. The ladies were very well pleased with him and not only discovered in him a wealth of agreeable and amiable qualities, but even discerned a majestic expression in his countenance, even something martial and military which, as we all know, greatly attracts the fair sex. They even began quarrelling a little over him. Noticing that he generally stood near the door, some hastened abruptly to take seats nearer the door, and, when one succeeded in doing so first, there was very nearly an unpleasant scene, and such forwardness seemed positively revolting to many who had been desirous of doing the same.
Tchitchikov was so absorbed in his conversation with the ladies, or to be more accurate, the ladies so engrossed and overwhelmed him with their conversation, interspersing a number of ingenious and subtly allegorical remarks—his brow was perspiring with the effort to interpret their meaning—that he forgot the rules of good manners and did not go up first to his hostess. He thought of this only when he heard the voice of the governor's wife who had been standing before him for some minutes. The lady, shaking her head archly, said in a rather caressing and insinuating voice: 'Ah, so this is where you are, Pavel Ivanovitch!' I cannot accurately reproduce the lady's words, but something was said, full of the greatest politeness, in the style in which ladies and gentlemen express themselves in the works of the society novelists who devote themselves to describing drawing-rooms and pride themselves on their knowledge of aristocratic manners, something in the style of—'Have they taken such possession of your heart that you have no room left in it, not even the tiniest corner for those you have so mercilessly forgotten?' Our hero instantly faced about to the governor's wife, and was on the point of making a reply, probably in no way inferior to those uttered by the Zvonskys, the Linskys, the Lidins, the Gremins and all the other accomplished officers in fashionable novels, when, chancing to raise his eyes, he stood rooted to the spot.
It was not the governor's wife alone who stood before him; on her arm was a fresh-looking fair-haired girl of sixteen, with delicate and graceful features, a pointed chin, and a face of an enchantingly rounded oval, such as an artist might have taken as a model for his Madonna, and such as is rarely seen in Russia, where everything, whatever it may be, is apt to be on a broad scale: mountains, forests, steppes, faces, lips, and feet. It was the same fair-haired girl whom he had met on his way back from Nozdryov's when through the stupidity of the coachman or the horses, their carriages had come so strangely into collision, when their harness was entangled and Uncle Mitya and Uncle Minyay undertook to extricate them.
Tchitchikov was so overcome that he could utter nothing coherent, and goodness knows what he mumbled, something that certainly no Gremin, Zvonsky or Lidin would have said.
'You don't know my daughter?' said the governor's wife, 'she has only just left school.'
He said that he had already by chance had the happiness of making her acquaintance; he tried to say something more, but the something more did not come off. The governor's wife said two or three words, and then went off with her daughter to the other end of the drawing-room to talk to other guests; while Tchitchikov still remained motionless at the same spot, like a man who having gaily sallied out into the street for a walk, with eyes disposed to observe everything, suddenly stands stock-still thinking he has forgotten something; and nothing can look stupider than such a man: instantly, the careless expression vanishes from his face; he struggles to recall what he has forgotten: was it his handkerchief?—but his handkerchief is still in his pocket; was it his money?—but his money too is in his pocket, he seems to have everything, but yet some unseen spirit keeps whispering in his ear that he has forgotten something. And now he looks blankly and absent-mindedly at the moving crowd before him, at the carriages dashing by, at the shakos and guns of the regiment marching by, at the signboard on the shop, and sees nothing clearly. So Tchitchikov suddenly became aloof from all that was passing around him. Meanwhile a number of hints and questions saturated with refinement and politeness were aimed at him from the fragrant lips of the ladies, such as: 'Is it permissible for us, poor dwellers in this earthly sphere, to be so audacious as to ask the subject of your dreams?' 'Where may those happy regions be to which your thoughts have taken flight?' 'May we know the name of her who has plunged you into this sweet vale of reverie?' But he paid absolutely no attention, and the agreeable phrases were completely thrown away. He was even so uncivil as to walk away from them hurriedly to the other end of the room, anxious to find out where the governor's wife had gone with her daughter. But the ladies were not, it seemed, disposed to let him escape so easily, every one of them inwardly determined to use all those weapons so menacing to the peace of our hearts, and to turn her best points to the best possible advantage. I must observe that some ladies—I say some, that is, not all ladies—have a little weakness: if a lady notices anything particularly attractive in herself—whether lips or brow or hand—she is apt to imagine that her best point is conspicuous and is attracting the notice of every one, and that all are saying with one voice: 'Look, look, hasn't she a lovely Grecian nose!' or, 'What a smooth and fascinating brow!' One who has good shoulders is confident that all the young men will be completely captivated, and will be continually repeating when she passes: 'What marvellous shoulders she has!' and that they will not glance at her face, her hair, her nose, her brow, or if they do, it will be as at something quite apart. That is what some ladies imagine. Every lady took an inward vow to be as fascinating as possible in the dances, and to display in all the brilliance of its perfection whatever was most perfect in her. The post-master's wife put her head on one side so languishingly as she waltzed that it really gave one a feeling of something unearthly. One very amiable lady who had come with no idea of dancing at all on account of, as she herself expressed it, a slight incommodity in the shape of a small callosity on her right foot, in consequence of which she had actually been obliged to put on plush boots, could not resist joining the dance and taking a few turns in her plush boots, solely to prevent the postmaster's wife from really thinking too much of herself.
But all this did not produce the effect anticipated on Tchitchikov. He did not even look at the circles described by the ladies, but was continually rising on tiptoe to peep over people's heads, and see where the interesting fair one had gone; he stooped down too, to look between backs and shoulders; at last his search was successful, and he saw her sitting with her mother, on whose head a sort of oriental turban with a feather was nodding majestically. He seemed to mean to take them by storm. Whether the influence of spring affected him or some one was pushing from behind, he pressed resolutely forward, regardless of everything: the spirit tax contractor was so violently pushed aside by him, that he staggered and only just succeeded in balancing himself on one leg, or he would have brought a whole row of others down with him; the postmaster too stepped back and looked at him in amazement mixed with rather subtle irony; but he did not look at them: he saw nothing but the fair girl in the distance, pulling on a long glove, and no doubt burning with impatience to be flying over the parquet floor.
And already four couples were dancing the mazurka, heels were tapping on the floor, and an army captain was working hard with body and soul and arms and legs, executing such steps as no one had ever executed before in his wildest dreams. Tchitchikov dashed by the mazurka almost on the dancers' heels, and straight to the place where the governor's wife was sitting with her daughter. He approached them, however, very timidly; he did not trip up to them with jaunty and foppish little steps, he even shifted from one foot to the other uneasily, and there was an awkwardness in all his movements.
It cannot be said for certain that the passion of love was stirring in our hero's heart: it is doubtful, indeed, if gentlemen of his sort, that is, not precisely fat and yet not what you would call thin, are capable of falling in love; but for all that there was something strange about it, something which he could not have explained to himself; it seemed to him, as he admitted to himself afterwards, as though the whole ball with all its noise and conversation became for a few minutes, as it were, far away; the fiddles and trumpets droned somewhere in the distance, and all were lost in fog like some carelessly painted background in a picture. And from this foggy, roughly sketched background nothing stood out clearly but the delicate features of the fair charmer: the oval little face, the slender, slender figure such as one sees only in girls who have just left school, the white, almost plain dress lightly and elegantly draping her graceful young limbs, and following their pure lines. It seemed as though she were like some toy, delicately carved out of ivory; she alone stood out white, transparent and full of light against the dingy and opaque crowd.
It seems that it does sometimes happen; it seems that even the Tchitchikovs are for a few moments in their lives transformed into poets; though the word 'poet' is too much. Anyway he felt quite like a young man, almost an hussar. Seeing an empty chair beside them, he instantly took it. Conversation flagged at first, but afterwards things went better, he even began to gain confidence. … At this point to my great regret I must observe that dignified persons occupying important posts are somewhat ponderous in conversation with ladies; at this lieutenants are first-rate, no officers of a rank higher than a captain's are any good at it. Goodness only knows how they manage it: it seems as though they are not saying anything very subtle, but the young lady is continually rocking with laughter. Goodness knows what a civil councillor will talk to her about, either he will begin informing her that Russia is a vast empire, or will launch out into a compliment which, though doubtless wittily conceived, has a terribly bookish flavour; if he says something funny, he will laugh at it himself ever so much more than the fair one who is listening to him. This fact is here noted that the reader may see why it was that the governor's daughter yawned while our hero was talking to her. The latter completely failed, however, to observe this, as he repeated to her a number of agreeable things, which he had already said on various occasions before in various places, to wit: in the Simbirsk province at Sofron Ivanovitch Bezpetchny's, where there were three young ladies, Adelaida Sofronovna and her three sisters-in-law—Marie Gavrilovna, Alexandra Gavrilovna and Adelheida Gavrilovna; at Fyodor Fyodorovitch Perekroev's in the province of Ryazan; at Frol Vassilyevitch Pobyedonosny's in the province of Penza, and at the house of his brother, Pyotr Vassilyevitch, where were his sister-in-law, Katerina Mihailovna and her second cousins Rosa Fyodorovna and Amilia Fyodorovna; in the province of Vyatka, at the house of Pyotr Varsonofyevitch in the presence of his betrothed's sister, Pelageya Yegorovna and his niece, Sofya Rostislavna and her two half-sisters Sofya Alexandrovna and Maklatura Alexandrovna.
All the ladies were greatly displeased with Tchitchikov's behaviour. One of them purposely walked by him in order to let him see this, and even rather carelessly brushed against the fair charmer with the thick flounce of her dress, and managed so that the end of the scarf that fluttered round her shoulders flapped right into the young lady's face; at the same time a rather biting and malignant observation floated together with the scent of violets from the lips of a lady behind him. But either he really did not hear, or he pretended not to hear, and in either case he did wrong, for one must attach importance to the opinions of the ladies: he regretted it, but only afterwards, and consequently too late.
An expression of perfectly justifiable indignation was apparent on many faces. Whatever weight Tchitchikov might have in society, though he might be a millionaire, though there might be an expression of majesty and even something martial and military in his face, yet there are things that ladies can forgive in no one, whoever he may be, and then one must simply write him down—lost! There are cases in which a woman, however weak and helpless compared with a man, becomes all at once harder, not merely than a man, but than anything on earth. Tchitchikov's almost unconscious neglect restored among the ladies the concord and harmony which had been on the brink of ruin through the competition for a seat next him. Sarcastic allusions were discovered in brief and ordinary phrases he had uttered at random. To make things worse, one of the young men present composed on the spot some satirical verses on the dancers; as we all know, no provincial ball is complete without some such display of wit. These verses were immediately ascribed to Tchitchikov. The indignation grew, and in different corners, ladies began to speak of him in the most unflattering terms; while the poor schoolgirl was completely doomed, and sentence had already been passed on her.
Meanwhile a most unpleasant surprise was in store for our hero. While the young lady was yawning and he was telling her various incidents that had occurred to him at various times, and even referred to the Greek philosopher Diogenes, Nozdryov appeared from the furthest room. Either he had torn himself from the refreshment room, or had come, possibly of his own free will, or more probably from being ejected, from the little green drawing-room where the play was more fast and furious than ordinary whist. Anyway, he appeared in the liveliest spirits, hanging on to the arm of the prosecutor, whom he had probably been dragging along with him for some time, for the prosecutor was twitching his thick eyebrows in all directions, as though trying to find a way of escape from this over-affectionate arm-in-arm promenade. It certainly was insufferable. Nozdryov, who had sipped inspiration with two cups of tea, not of course unaccompanied by rum, was pouring out the most fabulous tales. Seeing him in the distance, Tchitchikov at once resolved to make a sacrifice, that is, to leave his enviable position and to beat a retreat as quickly as possible: he foresaw nothing good from this meeting. But, as ill-luck would have it, that moment the governor turned up, and expressing the utmost pleasure at having found Pavel Ivanovitch, detained him by asking him to arbitrate between him and two ladies with whom he had been arguing whether women's love were lasting or not; and meanwhile Nozdryov had seen him and came straight towards him.
'Ah, the Kherson landowner, the Kherson landowner!' he shouted, as he came up, and he went off into a guffaw so that his cheeks, fresh and red as a spring rose, shook with laughter. 'Well? have you bought a lot of dead souls? I expect you don't know, your Excellency,' he bawled, addressing the governor, 'he deals in dead souls! Upon my word! I say, Tchitchikov! Let me tell you, I say it as a friend, we are all your friends here, and here is his Excellency too—I'd hang you, upon my soul, I would!'
Tchitchikov did not know whether he was standing on his head or his feet.
'Would you believe it, your Excellency,' Nozdryov went on, 'when he said to me, "Sell me your dead souls," I fairly split with laughing. As I came along, I was told he had bought three millions worth of serfs to take to a settlement. Fine settlers! But he was bargaining with me for dead ones. I say, Tchitchikov: you are a beast, upon my soul, you are a beast! Here's his Excellency here too … isn't he, prosecutor?'
But the prosecutor and Tchitchikov and the governor himself were thrown into such confusion, that they could not think of anything to say; and meanwhile Nozdryov made a half-tipsy speech without taking the slightest notice of them.
'I say, old boy, you, you … I won't let you alone till I find out what you are buying dead souls for. I say, Tchitchikov, you really ought to be ashamed, you know yourself you have no better friend than me. … And here's his Excellency here too … isn't he, prosecutor? You wouldn't believe, your Excellency, what friends we are. It's the simple fact, if you were to say—with me standing here, if you were to say: "Nozdryov, tell me on your honour, which is dearer to you, your own father or Tchitchikov?" I should say "Tchitchikov." Upon my soul … Let me imprint a baiser on your cheek, love. You will allow me to kiss him, your Excellency. Yes, Tchitchikov, it's no use your resisting, let me imprint one little baiser on your snow-white cheek!'
Nozdryov was so violently repulsed with his baisers that he was almost thrown to the floor. Every one drew away from him and would hear no more. But still what he had said about the purchase of dead souls had been uttered at the top of his voice and accompanied by such loud laughter that it had attracted the attention even of persons sitting at the furthest ends of the room. This piece of news was so astounding that it left every one with a sort of wooden, stupidly interrogative expression. Tchitchikov noticed that many of the ladies glanced at each other with a spiteful, sarcastic smile, and in the expression of several countenances there was something ambiguous which further increased his confusion. That Nozdryov was a desperate liar was a fact known to all, and there was nothing to be surprised at in hearing the wildest fabrication from him, but mortal man—it really is difficult to understand what mortal man is made of; however silly a piece of news may be, so long as it is news, every mortal immediately passes it on to another, if only to say: 'Just think what lies people are putting about!' And the other mortal listens eagerly, though he too will say afterwards: 'Yes, that's a perfectly silly lie, not worth noticing!' And thereupon he sets off to look for a third mortal, in order that after telling the story he may exclaim with righteous indignation: 'What a silly lie!' And it will certainly go the round of the whole town and all the inhabitants, every one of them, will discuss it till they are sick of it, and will then admit that it's not worth noticing and too silly to think of.
This apparently nonsensical incident unmistakably upset our hero. However stupid a fool's words may be, they are sometimes enough to upset a sensible man. He began to feel uncomfortable and ill at ease, exactly as though with highly polished boots he had stepped into a filthy, stinking puddle—in short, it was nasty, very nasty. He tried not to think of it, he tried to turn the current of his thoughts, to distract his mind, and sat down to whist, but everything went awry like a crooked wheel: twice he revoked, and forgetting that one should not trump in the third place, threw away his whole hand and spoilt his game by his foolishness. The president simply could not understand how Pavel Ivanovitch, who had such a good and, one might say, subtle understanding of the game, could make such blunders and had even trumped his king of spades, in whom, to use his own expression, he had trusted as in God. Of course the postmaster and the president and even the police-master bantered our hero, asking whether he was in love, and declaring that Pavel Ivanovitch's heart had been smitten, and that they knew from whom the dart had come; but all that was no comfort to him, though he did his best to laugh and turn it off with a joke. At supper, too, he was not able to recover himself, although the company at the table was agreeable and Nozdryov had been ejected some time before, for even the ladies had observed that his conduct was becoming extremely scandalous. In the middle of the cotillion, he had sat down on the floor and clutched at the skirts of the dancers, which was really beyond anything, to use the ladies' expression.
The supper was very lively; all the faces, flitting to and fro before the three-stemmed candlesticks, the flowers, the sweets and the bottles, were beaming with the most spontaneous satisfaction. Officers, ladies, gentlemen in dress coats—everything was polite to mawkishness. The gentlemen jumped up from their chairs and ran to take the dishes from the servants to offer them with rare adroitness to the ladies. One colonel handed a lady a plate of sauce on the tip of his drawn sword. The gentlemen of respectable age, among whom Tchitchikov was sitting, argued loudly, absorbing a few words about business with the fish or the beef, which was ruthlessly smothered in mustard. They discussed the very subjects in which he was always interested; but he was like a man wearied or knocked up by a long journey who has not an idea in his head and who is not capable of entering into anything. He did not even stay to the end of supper, but went home much earlier than he generally did.
There in the little room so familiar to the reader, with the chest of drawers blocking up one door, and the cockroaches peering out of the corners, his mind and his soul were as uncomfortable as the easy-chair on which he was sitting. There was an unpleasant confused feeling in his heart; there was an oppressive emptiness in it. 'Damnation take all those who arranged that ball!' he said to himself in anger. 'What were they so pleased about in their foolishness? The crops have failed and there is dearth in the province, and here they are all for balls! A fine business! they dress themselves up in their feminine rags! It's a monstrous thing for a woman to waste a thousand roubles on her trappings! And of course it's at the expense of the peasants' earnings or what's worse still, of the consciences of our dear friends. We all know why a man takes a bribe and overcomes his scruples: it's to get his wife a shawl or robes of some sort, plague take them, whatever they are called! And what for? That some low woman shouldn't say that the postmaster's wife was better dressed, and bang goes a thousand roubles because of her. They cry out, "A ball, a ball! delightful!" A ball's a silly rubbishy thing, it's not in the Russian spirit, nor true to the Russian nature; what the devil is one to make of it? A grown-up man, getting on in years, suddenly skips in, all in black, as trim and tight as a devil, and sets to working away with his legs. Even while they are standing in couples, a man will begin talking to another about something of importance, and all the while his legs will be capering to right and to left like a goat. … It is all apishness, apishness! Because a Frenchman is as childish at forty as he was at fifteen, we must be the same! Yes, really, after every ball one feels as though one had committed a sin and does not like to think of it. One's head is as empty as it is after talking to one of these society gentlemen. He talks about everything, touches lightly on everything, he says everything he has filched out of books brightly and picturesquely, but he hasn't got anything of it in his head; and you see afterwards that a talk with a humble merchant who knows nothing but his own business but does know that thoroughly and by experience, is better than all these chatterboxes. Why, what do you get out of this ball? Come, suppose some writer were to take it into his head to describe all that scene just as it was. Why, it would be just as senseless in a book as it is in nature. What was it, moral or immoral? God knows what to make of it! You would simply spit and shut the book.'
Such were Tchitchikov's unfavourable criticisms of balls in general; but I fancy that there was partly another reason for his indignation. His chief vexation was not with the ball, but with the fact that he had happened to come off rather badly at it, that he had been made to look like goodness knows what, that he had played a strange and ambiguous part at it. Of course, looking at it as a sensible man, he could see that it was all nonsense, that a foolish word is of no consequence, especially now when his chief business was successfully concluded. But—strange is man: he was deeply mortified at being in disfavour with the very people whom he did not respect, and whose vanity and love of dress he derided. This annoyed him all the more because when he analysed the matter clearly, he saw that he was to some extent himself to blame. He was not, however, angry with himself, and there, of course, he was quite right. We all have a little weakness for sparing ourselves, and we try to find some neighbour on whom to pour out our vexation, for instance, our servant, our subordinate at the office who turns up at the moment, our wife, or even a chair which is sent flying, goodness knows where, right against the door, so that its arms and back are broken—let it have a taste of one's wrath, one feels. So Tchitchikov soon found some one on whose shoulders to throw everything his vexation suggested to him. This was Nozdryov, and it is needless to say that he came in for a storm of abuse, for a storm of abuse such as is only poured on some rogue of a village elder or driver by some experienced captain on his travels, or even by a general who, to the many expressions that have become classical, adds others unfamiliar, for the invention of which he can claim the credit. All Nozdryov's kith and kin came in for abuse, and many members of his family were severely dealt with.
But while our hero was sitting in his hard armchair, troubled by sleeplessness and his thoughts, and vigorously cursing Nozdryov and all his relations, while before him glowed a tallow candle with a black cowl of soot on the wick, which threatened every minute to go out, while the blind, dark night, on the point of turning blue with the approaching dawn, looked in at the window, and in the distance cocks were crowing to one another, and in the slumbering town perhaps some poor fellow of unknown class and rank in a fustian overcoat trudged along knowing nothing of aught but the highway, too well worn (alas!) by the vagabonds of Russia—at that very moment an event was taking place at the other end of the town that was destined to increase the unpleasantness of our hero's position. To be precise, a strange equipage, for which it is puzzling to find a name, was creaking through the further streets and alleys of the town; it was not like a coach, nor a carriage, nor a chaise, but it was more like a full-cheeked rounded melon on wheels. The cheeks of this melon, that is the doors, which bore traces of yellow paint, shut very badly owing to the rickety condition of the handles and locks, which were tied up with string. The melon was full of cotton cushions in the shape of pouches, rolling-pins and simple pillows, stuffed up with sacks of bread, fancy loaves, doughnuts and pasties, and bread rings made of boiled dough. Chicken pies and salt-fish pies peeped out at the top. The footboard was occupied by an individual of the flunkey order, with an unshaven chin, slightly touched with grey, in a short jacket of bright-coloured homespun—the sort of individual known as a 'fellow.' The clank and squeaking of the iron clamps and rusty screws woke a sentry at the other end of the town, who picking up his halberd shouted half awake at the top of his voice: 'Who goes there?' but seeing that no one was passing, and only hearing a creaking in the distance, caught a beast of some sort on his collar, and, going up to a lamp-post, executed it on the spot with his nail, then laying aside his halberd, fell asleep again in accordance with the rules of his chivalry. The horses kept falling on their knees, for they had not been shod, and evidently the quiet cobbled streets of the town were unfamiliar to them. This grotesque equipage, after turning several times from one street into another, at last turned into a dark side-street next the little parish church of St. Nikolay, and stopped before the head priest's gate. A girl clambered out of the vehicle, wearing a short warm jacket, with a kerchief on her head, and beat on the gate with both fists as though she were beating a man (the 'fellow' in the bright-coloured homespun jacket was afterwards dragged down by his legs, for he was sleeping like the dead). Dogs began barking, the gates yawned, and at last, though with difficulty, swallowed up this uncouth monster of the road.
The carriage drove into the narrow yard which was filled up with stacks of wood, poultry-houses and sheds; a lady alighted: this lady was no other than Madame Korobotchka. Soon after our hero's departure, the old lady had been overcome by such anxiety as to the possibility of his deceiving her, that after lying awake for three nights in succession she made up her mind to drive into the town, regardless of the fact that the horses were not shod, hoping there to find out for certain what price dead souls were going for, and whether she had not—God forbid—made a terrible blunder by selling them at a third of their proper price. The effect produced by this incident may be understood by the reader from a conversation which took place between two ladies. This conversation—but this conversation had better be kept for the following chapter.
- Pronounced by Russians 'Deitch' so that it rhymes with Andreitch.—Translator's Note.