Nevertheless events did not turn out as Chichikov had intended they should. In the first place, he overslept himself. That was check number one. In the second place, on his rising and inquiring whether the britchka had been harnessed and everything got ready, he was informed that neither of those two things had been done. That was check number two. Beside himself with rage, he prepared to give Selifan the wigging of his life, and, meanwhile, waited impatiently to hear what the delinquent had got to say in his defence. It goes without saying that when Selifan made his appearance in the doorway he had only the usual excuses to offer—the sort of excuses usually offered by servants when a hasty departure has become imperatively necessary.
“Paul Ivanovitch,” he said, “the horses require shoeing.”
“Blockhead!” exclaimed Chichikov. “Why did you not tell me of that before, you damned fool? Was there not time enough for them to be shod?”
“Yes, I suppose there was,” agreed Selifan. “Also one of the wheels is in want of a new tyre, for the roads are so rough that the old tyre is worn through. Also, the body of the britchka is so rickety that probably it will not last more than a couple of stages.”
“Rascal!” shouted Chichikov, clenching his fists and approaching Selifan in such a manner that, fearing to receive a blow, the man backed and dodged aside. “Do you mean to ruin me, and to break all our bones on the road, you cursed idiot? For these three weeks past you have been doing nothing at all; yet now, at the last moment, you come here stammering and playing the fool! Do you think I keep you just to eat and to drive yourself about? You must have known of this before? Did you, or did you not, know it? Answer me at once.”
“Yes, I did know it,” replied Selifan, hanging his head.
“Then why didn’t you tell me about it?”
Selifan had no reply immediately ready, so continued to hang his head while quietly saying to himself: “See how well I have managed things! I knew what was the matter, yet I did not say.”
“And now,” continued Chichikov, “go you at once and fetch a blacksmith. Tell him that everything must be put right within two hours at the most. Do you hear? If that should not be done, I, I—I will give you the best flogging that ever you had in your life.” Truly Chichikov was almost beside himself with fury.
Turning towards the door, as though for the purpose of going and carrying out his orders, Selifan halted and added:
“That skewbald, barin—you might think it well to sell him, seeing that he is nothing but a rascal? A horse like that is more of a hindrance than a help.”
“What? Do you expect me to go NOW to the market-place and sell him?”
“Well, Paul Ivanovitch, he is good for nothing but show, since by nature he is a most cunning beast. Never in my life have I seen such a horse.”
“Fool! Whenever I may wish to sell him I SHALL sell him. Meanwhile, don’t you trouble your head about what doesn’t concern you, but go and fetch a blacksmith, and see that everything is put right within two hours. Otherwise I will take the very hair off your head, and beat you till you haven’t a face left. Be off! Hurry!”
Selifan departed, and Chichikov, his ill-humour vented, threw down upon the floor the poignard which he always took with him as a means of instilling respect into whomsoever it might concern, and spent the next quarter of an hour in disputing with a couple of blacksmiths—men who, as usual, were rascals of the type which, on perceiving that something is wanted in a hurry, at once multiplies its terms for providing the same. Indeed, for all Chichikov’s storming and raging as he dubbed the fellows robbers and extortioners and thieves, he could make no impression upon the pair, since, true to their character, they declined to abate their prices, and, even when they had begun their work, spent upon it, not two hours, but five and a half. Meanwhile he had the satisfaction of experiencing that delightful time with which all travellers are familiar—namely, the time during which one sits in a room where, except for a litter of string, waste paper, and so forth, everything else has been packed. But to all things there comes an end, and there arrived also the long-awaited moment when the britchka had received the luggage, the faulty wheel had been fitted with a new tyre, the horses had been re-shod, and the predatory blacksmiths had departed with their gains. “Thank God!” thought Chichikov as the britchka rolled out of the gates of the inn, and the vehicle began to jolt over the cobblestones. Yet a feeling which he could not altogether have defined filled his breast as he gazed upon the houses and the streets and the garden walls which he might never see again. Presently, on turning a corner, the britchka was brought to a halt through the fact that along the street there was filing a seemingly endless funeral procession. Leaning forward in his britchka, Chichikov asked Petrushka whose obsequies the procession represented, and was told that they represented those of the Public Prosecutor. Disagreeably shocked, our hero hastened to raise the hood of the vehicle, to draw the curtains across the windows, and to lean back into a corner. While the britchka remained thus halted Selifan and Petrushka, their caps doffed, sat watching the progress of the cortege, after they had received strict instructions not to greet any fellow-servant whom they might recognise. Behind the hearse walked the whole body of tchinovniks, bare-headed; and though, for a moment or two, Chichikov feared that some of their number might discern him in his britchka, he need not have disturbed himself, since their attention was otherwise engaged. In fact, they were not even exchanging the small talk customary among members of such processions, but thinking exclusively of their own affairs, of the advent of the new Governor-General, and of the probable manner in which he would take up the reins of administration. Next came a number of carriages, from the windows of which peered the ladies in mourning toilets. Yet the movements of their hands and lips made it evident that they were indulging in animated conversation—probably about the Governor-General, the balls which he might be expected to give, and their own eternal fripperies and gewgaws. Lastly came a few empty drozhkis. As soon as the latter had passed, our hero was able to continue on his way. Throwing back the hood of the britchka, he said to himself:
“Ah, good friend, you have lived your life, and now it is over! In the newspapers they will say of you that you died regretted not only by your subordinates, but also by humanity at large, as well as that, a respected citizen, a kind father, and a husband beyond reproach, you went to your grave amid the tears of your widow and orphans. Yet, should those journals be put to it to name any particular circumstance which justified this eulogy of you, they would be forced to fall back upon the fact that you grew a pair of exceptionally thick eyebrows!”
With that Chichikov bid Selifan quicken his pace, and concluded: “After all, it is as well that I encountered the procession, for they say that to meet a funeral is lucky.”
Presently the britchka turned into some less frequented streets, lines of wooden fencing of the kind which mark the outskirts of a town began to file by, the cobblestones came to an end, the macadam of the highroad succeeded to them, and once more there began on either side of the turnpike a procession of verst stones, road menders, and grey villages; inns with samovars and peasant women and landlords who came running out of yards with seivefuls of oats; pedestrians in worn shoes which, it might be, had covered eight hundred versts; little towns, bright with booths for the sale of flour in barrels, boots, small loaves, and other trifles; heaps of slag; much repaired bridges; expanses of field to right and to left; stout landowners; a mounted soldier bearing a green, iron-clamped box inscribed: “The —th Battery of Artillery”; long strips of freshly-tilled earth which gleamed green, yellow, and black on the face of the countryside. With it mingled long-drawn singing, glimpses of elm-tops amid mist, the far-off notes of bells, endless clouds of rocks, and the illimitable line of the horizon.
Ah, Russia, Russia, from my beautiful home in a strange land I can still see you! In you everything is poor and disordered and unhomely; in you the eye is neither cheered nor dismayed by temerities of nature which a yet more temerarious art has conquered; in you one beholds no cities with lofty, many-windowed mansions, lofty as crags, no picturesque trees, no ivy-clad ruins, no waterfalls with their everlasting spray and roar, no beetling precipices which confuse the brain with their stony immensity, no vistas of vines and ivy and millions of wild roses and ageless lines of blue hills which look almost unreal against the clear, silvery background of the sky. In you everything is flat and open; your towns project like points or signals from smooth levels of plain, and nothing whatsoever enchants or deludes the eye. Yet what secret, what invincible force draws me to you? Why does there ceaselessly echo and re-echo in my ears the sad song which hovers throughout the length and the breadth of your borders? What is the burden of that song? Why does it wail and sob and catch at my heart? What say the notes which thus painfully caress and embrace my soul, and flit, uttering their lamentations, around me? What is it you seek of me, O Russia? What is the hidden bond which subsists between us? Why do you regard me as you do? Why does everything within you turn upon me eyes full of yearning? Even at this moment, as I stand dumbly, fixedly, perplexedly contemplating your vastness, a menacing cloud, charged with gathering rain, seems to overshadow my head. What is it that your boundless expanses presage? Do they not presage that one day there will arise in you ideas as boundless as yourself? Do they not presage that one day you too will know no limits? Do they not presage that one day, when again you shall have room for their exploits, there will spring to life the heroes of old? How the power of your immensity enfolds me, and reverberates through all my being with a wild, strange spell, and flashes in my eyes with an almost supernatural radiance! Yes, a strange, brilliant, unearthly vista indeed do you disclose, O Russia, country of mine!
“Stop, stop, you fool!” shouted Chichikov to Selifan; and even as he spoke a troika, bound on Government business, came chattering by, and disappeared in a cloud of dust. To Chichikov’s curses at Selifan for not having drawn out of the way with more alacrity a rural constable with moustaches of the length of an arshin added his quota.
What a curious and attractive, yet also what an unreal, fascination the term “highway” connotes! And how interesting for its own sake is a highway! Should the day be a fine one (though chilly) in mellowing autumn, press closer your travelling cloak, and draw down your cap over your ears, and snuggle cosily, comfortably into a corner of the britchka before a last shiver shall course through your limbs, and the ensuing warmth shall put to flight the autumnal cold and damp. As the horses gallop on their way, how delightfully will drowsiness come stealing upon you, and make your eyelids droop! For a while, through your somnolence, you will continue to hear the hard breathing of the team and the rumbling of the wheels; but at length, sinking back into your corner, you will relapse into the stage of snoring. And when you awake—behold! you will find that five stages have slipped away, and that the moon is shining, and that you have reached a strange town of churches and old wooden cupolas and blackened spires and white, half-timbered houses! And as the moonlight glints hither and thither, almost you will believe that the walls and the streets and the pavements of the place are spread with sheets—sheets shot with coal-black shadows which make the wooden roofs look all the brighter under the slanting beams of the pale luminary. Nowhere is a soul to be seen, for every one is plunged in slumber. Yet no. In a solitary window a light is flickering where some good burgher is mending his boots, or a baker drawing a batch of dough. O night and powers of heaven, how perfect is the blackness of your infinite vault—how lofty, how remote its inaccessible depths where it lies spread in an intangible, yet audible, silence! Freshly does the lulling breath of night blow in your face, until once more you relapse into snoring oblivion, and your poor neighbour turns angrily in his corner as he begins to be conscious of your weight. Then again you awake, but this time to find yourself confronted with only fields and steppes. Everywhere in the ascendant is the desolation of space. But suddenly the ciphers on a verst stone leap to the eye! Morning is rising, and on the chill, gradually paling line of the horizon you can see gleaming a faint gold streak. The wind freshens and grows keener, and you snuggle closer in your cloak; yet how glorious is that freshness, and how marvellous the sleep in which once again you become enfolded! A jolt!—and for the last time you return to consciousness. By now the sun is high in the heavens, and you hear a voice cry “gently, gently!” as a farm waggon issues from a by-road. Below, enclosed within an ample dike, stretches a sheet of water which glistens like copper in the sunlight. Beyond, on the side of a slope, lie some scattered peasants’ huts, a manor house, and, flanking the latter, a village church with its cross flashing like a star. There also comes wafted to your ear the sound of peasants’ laughter, while in your inner man you are becoming conscious of an appetite which is not to be withstood.
Oh long-drawn highway, how excellent you are! How often have I in weariness and despondency set forth upon your length, and found in you salvation and rest! How often, as I followed your leading, have I been visited with wonderful thoughts and poetic dreams and curious, wild impressions!
At this moment our friend Chichikov also was experiencing visions of a not wholly prosaic nature. Let us peep into his soul and share them. At first he remained unconscious of anything whatsoever, for he was too much engaged in making sure that he was really clear of the town; but as soon as he saw that it had completely disappeared, with its mills and factories and other urban appurtenances, and that even the steeples of the white stone churches had sunk below the horizon, he turned his attention to the road, and the town of N. vanished from his thoughts as completely as though he had not seen it since childhood. Again, in its turn, the road ceased to interest him, and he began to close his eyes and to loll his head against the cushions. Of this let the author take advantage, in order to speak at length concerning his hero; since hitherto he (the author) has been prevented from so doing by Nozdrev and balls and ladies and local intrigues—by those thousand trifles which seem trifles only when they are introduced into a book, but which, in life, figure as affairs of importance. Let us lay them aside, and betake ourselves to business.
Whether the character whom I have selected for my hero has pleased my readers is, of course, exceedingly doubtful. At all events the ladies will have failed to approve him for the fair sex demands in a hero perfection, and, should there be the least mental or physical stain on him—well, woe betide! Yes, no matter how profoundly the author may probe that hero’s soul, no matter how clearly he may portray his figure as in a mirror, he will be given no credit for the achievement. Indeed, Chichikov’s very stoutness and plenitude of years may have militated against him, for never is a hero pardoned for the former, and the majority of ladies will, in such case, turn away, and mutter to themselves: “Phew! What a beast!” Yes, the author is well aware of this. Yet, though he could not, to save his life, take a person of virtue for his principal character, it may be that this story contains themes never before selected, and that in it there projects the whole boundless wealth of Russian psychology; that it portrays, as well as Chichikov, the peasant who is gifted with the virtues which God has sent him, and the marvellous maiden of Russia who has not her like in all the world for her beautiful feminine spirituality, the roots of which lie buried in noble aspirations and boundless self-denial. In fact, compared with these types, the virtuous of other races seem lifeless, as does an inanimate volume when compared with the living word. Yes, each time that there arises in Russia a movement of thought, it becomes clear that the movement sinks deep into the Slavonic nature where it would but have skimmed the surface of other nations.—But why am I talking like this? Whither am I tending? It is indeed shameful that an author who long ago reached man’s estate, and was brought up to a course of severe introspection and sober, solitary self-enlightenment, should give way to such jejune wandering from the point. To everything its proper time and place and turn. As I was saying, it does not lie in me to take a virtuous character for my hero: and I will tell you why. It is because it is high time that a rest were given to the “poor, but virtuous” individual; it is because the phrase “a man of worth” has grown into a by-word; it is because the “man of worth” has become converted into a horse, and there is not a writer but rides him and flogs him, in and out of season; it is because the “man of worth” has been starved until he has not a shred of his virtue left, and all that remains of his body is but the ribs and the hide; it is because the “man of worth” is for ever being smuggled upon the scene; it is because the “man of worth” has at length forfeited every one’s respect. For these reasons do I reaffirm that it is high time to yoke a rascal to the shafts. Let us yoke that rascal.
Our hero’s beginnings were both modest and obscure. True, his parents were dvoriane, but he in no way resembled them. At all events, a short, squab female relative who was present at his birth exclaimed as she lifted up the baby: “He is altogether different from what I had expected him to be. He ought to have taken after his maternal grandmother, whereas he has been born, as the proverb has it, ‘like not father nor mother, but like a chance passer-by.’” Thus from the first life regarded the little Chichikov with sour distaste, and as through a dim, frost-encrusted window. A tiny room with diminutive casements which were never opened, summer or winter; an invalid father in a dressing-gown lined with lambskin, and with an ailing foot swathed in bandages—a man who was continually drawing deep breaths, and walking up and down the room, and spitting into a sandbox; a period of perpetually sitting on a bench with pen in hand and ink on lips and fingers; a period of being eternally confronted with the copy-book maxim, “Never tell a lie, but obey your superiors, and cherish virtue in your heart;” an everlasting scraping and shuffling of slippers up and down the room; a period of continually hearing a well-known, strident voice exclaim: “So you have been playing the fool again!” at times when the child, weary of the mortal monotony of his task, had added a superfluous embellishment to his copy; a period of experiencing the ever-familiar, but ever-unpleasant, sensation which ensued upon those words as the boy’s ear was painfully twisted between two long fingers bent backwards at the tips—such is the miserable picture of that youth of which, in later life, Chichikov preserved but the faintest of memories! But in this world everything is liable to swift and sudden change; and, one day in early spring, when the rivers had melted, the father set forth with his little son in a teliezshka37 drawn by a sorrel steed of the kind known to horsy folk as a soroka, and having as coachman the diminutive hunchback who, father of the only serf family belonging to the elder Chichikov, served as general factotum in the Chichikov establishment. For a day and a half the soroka conveyed them on their way; during which time they spent the night at a roadside inn, crossed a river, dined off cold pie and roast mutton, and eventually arrived at the county town. To the lad the streets presented a spectacle of unwonted brilliancy, and he gaped with amazement. Turning into a side alley wherein the mire necessitated both the most strenuous exertions on the soroka’s part and the most vigorous castigation on the part of the driver and the barin, the conveyance eventually reached the gates of a courtyard which, combined with a small fruit garden containing various bushes, a couple of apple-trees in blossom, and a mean, dirty little shed, constituted the premises attached to an antiquated-looking villa. Here there lived a relative of the Chichikovs, a wizened old lady who went to market in person and dried her stockings at the samovar. On seeing the boy, she patted his cheek and expressed satisfaction at his physique; whereupon the fact became disclosed that here he was to abide for a while, for the purpose of attending a local school. After a night’s rest his father prepared to betake himself homeward again; but no tears marked the parting between him and his son, he merely gave the lad a copper or two and (a far more important thing) the following injunctions. “See here, my boy. Do your lessons well, do not idle or play the fool, and above all things, see that you please your teachers. So long as you observe these rules you will make progress, and surpass your fellows, even if God shall have denied you brains, and you should fail in your studies. Also, do not consort overmuch with your comrades, for they will do you no good; but, should you do so, then make friends with the richer of them, since one day they may be useful to you. Also, never entertain or treat any one, but see that every one entertains and treats YOU. Lastly, and above all else, keep and save your every kopeck. To save money is the most important thing in life. Always a friend or a comrade may fail you, and be the first to desert you in a time of adversity; but never will a KOPECK fail you, whatever may be your plight. Nothing in the world cannot be done, cannot be attained, with the aid of money.” These injunctions given, the father embraced his son, and set forth on his return; and though the son never again beheld his parent, the latter’s words and precepts sank deep into the little Chichikov’s soul.
The next day young Pavlushka made his first attendance at school. But no special aptitude in any branch of learning did he display. Rather, his distinguishing characteristics were diligence and neatness. On the other hand, he developed great intelligence as regards the PRACTICAL aspect of life. In a trice he divined and comprehended how things ought to be worked, and, from that time forth, bore himself towards his school-fellows in such a way that, though they frequently gave him presents, he not only never returned the compliment, but even on occasions pocketed the gifts for the mere purpose of selling them again. Also, boy though he was, he acquired the art of self-denial. Of the trifle which his father had given him on parting he spent not a kopeck, but, the same year, actually added to his little store by fashioning a bullfinch of wax, painting it, and selling the same at a handsome profit. Next, as time went on, he engaged in other speculations—in particular, in the scheme of buying up eatables, taking his seat in class beside boys who had plenty of pocket-money, and, as soon as such opulent individuals showed signs of failing attention (and, therefore, of growing appetite), tendering them, from beneath the desk, a roll of pudding or a piece of gingerbread, and charging according to degree of appetite and size of portion. He also spent a couple of months in training a mouse, which he kept confined in a little wooden cage in his bedroom. At length, when the training had reached the point that, at the several words of command, the mouse would stand upon its hind legs, lie down, and get up again, he sold the creature for a respectable sum. Thus, in time, his gains attained the amount of five roubles; whereupon he made himself a purse and then started to fill a second receptacle of the kind. Still more studied was his attitude towards the authorities. No one could sit more quietly in his place on the bench than he. In the same connection it may be remarked that his teacher was a man who, above all things, loved peace and good behaviour, and simply could not abide clever, witty boys, since he suspected them of laughing at him. Consequently any lad who had once attracted the master’s attention with a manifestation of intelligence needed but to shuffle in his place, or unintentionally to twitch an eyebrow, for the said master at once to burst into a rage, to turn the supposed offender out of the room, and to visit him with unmerciful punishment. “Ah, my fine fellow,” he would say, “I’LL cure you of your impudence and want of respect! I know you through and through far better than you know yourself, and will take good care that you have to go down upon your knees and curb your appetite.” Whereupon the wretched lad would, for no cause of which he was aware, be forced to wear out his breeches on the floor and go hungry for days. “Talents and gifts,” the schoolmaster would declare, “are so much rubbish. I respect only good behaviour, and shall award full marks to those who conduct themselves properly, even if they fail to learn a single letter of their alphabet: whereas to those in whom I may perceive a tendency to jocularity I shall award nothing, even though they should outdo Solon himself.” For the same reason he had no great love of the author Krylov, in that the latter says in one of his Fables: “In my opinion, the more one sings, the better one works;” and often the pedagogue would relate how, in a former school of his, the silence had been such that a fly could be heard buzzing on the wing, and for the space of a whole year not a single pupil sneezed or coughed in class, and so complete was the absence of all sound that no one could have told that there was a soul in the place. Of this mentor young Chichikov speedily appraised the mentality; wherefore he fashioned his behaviour to correspond with it. Not an eyelid, not an eyebrow, would he stir during school hours, howsoever many pinches he might receive from behind; and only when the bell rang would he run to anticipate his fellows in handing the master the three-cornered cap which that dignitary customarily sported, and then to be the first to leave the class-room, and contrive to meet the master not less than two or three times as the latter walked homeward, in order that, on each occasion, he might doff his cap. And the scheme proved entirely successful. Throughout the period of his attendance at school he was held in high favour, and, on leaving the establishment, received full marks for every subject, as well as a diploma and a book inscribed (in gilt letters) “For Exemplary Diligence and the Perfection of Good Conduct.” By this time he had grown into a fairly good-looking youth of the age when the chin first calls for a razor; and at about the same period his father died, leaving behind him, as his estate, four waistcoats completely worn out, two ancient frockcoats, and a small sum of money. Apparently he had been skilled only in RECOMMENDING the saving of kopecks—not in ACTUALLY PRACTISING the art. Upon that Chichikov sold the old house and its little parcel of land for a thousand roubles, and removed, with his one serf and the serf’s family, to the capital, where he set about organising a new establishment and entering the Civil Service. Simultaneously with his doing so, his old schoolmaster lost (through stupidity or otherwise) the establishment over which he had hitherto presided, and in which he had set so much store by silence and good behaviour. Grief drove him to drink, and when nothing was left, even for that purpose, he retired—ill, helpless, and starving—into a broken-down, cheerless hovel. But certain of his former pupils—the same clever, witty lads whom he had once been wont to accuse of impertinence and evil conduct generally—heard of his pitiable plight, and collected for him what money they could, even to the point of selling their own necessaries. Only Chichikov, when appealed to, pleaded inability, and compromised with a contribution of a single piatak38: which his old schoolfellows straightway returned him—full in the face, and accompanied with a shout of “Oh, you skinflint!” As for the poor schoolmaster, when he heard what his former pupils had done, he buried his face in his hands, and the tears gushed from his failing eyes as from those of a helpless infant. “God has brought you but to weep over my death-bed,” he murmured feebly; and added with a profound sigh, on hearing of Chichikov’s conduct: “Ah, Pavlushka, how a human being may become changed! Once you were a good lad, and gave me no trouble; but now you are become proud indeed!”
Yet let it not be inferred from this that our hero’s character had grown so blase and hard, or his conscience so blunted, as to preclude his experiencing a particle of sympathy or compassion. As a matter of fact, he was capable both of the one and the other, and would have been glad to assist his old teacher had no great sum been required, or had he not been called upon to touch the fund which he had decided should remain intact. In other words, the father’s injunction, “Guard and save every kopeck,” had become a hard and fast rule of the son’s. Yet the youth had no particular attachment to money for money’s sake; he was not possessed with the true instinct for hoarding and niggardliness. Rather, before his eyes there floated ever a vision of life and its amenities and advantages—a vision of carriages and an elegantly furnished house and recherche dinners; and it was in the hope that some day he might attain these things that he saved every kopeck and, meanwhile, stinted both himself and others. Whenever a rich man passed him by in a splendid drozhki drawn by swift and handsomely-caparisoned horses, he would halt as though deep in thought, and say to himself, like a man awakening from a long sleep: “That gentleman must have been a financier, he has so little hair on his brow.” In short, everything connected with wealth and plenty produced upon him an ineffaceable impression. Even when he left school he took no holiday, so strong in him was the desire to get to work and enter the Civil Service. Yet, for all the encomiums contained in his diploma, he had much ado to procure a nomination to a Government Department; and only after a long time was a minor post found for him, at a salary of thirty or fourty roubles a year. Nevertheless, wretched though this appointment was, he determined, by strict attention to business, to overcome all obstacles, and to win success. And, indeed, the self-denial, the patience, and the economy which he displayed were remarkable. From early morn until late at night he would, with indefatigable zeal of body and mind, remain immersed in his sordid task of copying official documents—never going home, snatching what sleep he could on tables in the building, and dining with the watchman on duty. Yet all the while he contrived to remain clean and neat, to preserve a cheerful expression of countenance, and even to cultivate a certain elegance of movement. In passing, it may be remarked that his fellow tchinovniks were a peculiarly plain, unsightly lot, some of them having faces like badly baked bread, swollen cheeks, receding chins, and cracked and blistered upper lips. Indeed, not a man of them was handsome. Also, their tone of voice always contained a note of sullenness, as though they had a mind to knock some one on the head; and by their frequent sacrifices to Bacchus they showed that even yet there remains in the Slavonic nature a certain element of paganism. Nay, the Director’s room itself they would invade while still licking their lips, and since their breath was not over-aromatic, the atmosphere of the room grew not over-pleasant. Naturally, among such an official staff a man like Chichikov could not fail to attract attention and remark, since in everything—in cheerfulness of demeanour, in suavity of voice, and in complete neglect of the use of strong potions—he was the absolute antithesis of his companions. Yet his path was not an easy one to tread, for over him he had the misfortune to have placed in authority a Chief Clerk who was a graven image of elderly insensibility and inertia. Always the same, always unapproachable, this functionary could never in his life have smiled or asked civilly after an acquaintance’s health. Nor had any one ever seen him a whit different in the street or at his own home from what he was in the office, or showing the least interest in anything whatever, or getting drunk and relapsing into jollity in his cups, or indulging in that species of wild gaiety which, when intoxicated, even a burglar affects. No, not a particle of this was there in him. Nor, for that matter, was there in him a particle of anything at all, whether good or bad: which complete negativeness of character produced rather a strange effect. In the same way, his wizened, marble-like features reminded one of nothing in particular, so primly proportioned were they. Only the numerous pockmarks and dimples with which they were pitted placed him among the number of those over whose faces, to quote the popular saying, “The Devil has walked by night to grind peas.” In short, it would seem that no human agency could have approached such a man and gained his goodwill. Yet Chichikov made the effort. As a first step, he took to consulting the other’s convenience in all manner of insignificant trifles—to cleaning his pens carefully, and, when they had been prepared exactly to the Chief Clerk’s liking, laying them ready at his elbow; to dusting and sweeping from his table all superfluous sand and tobacco ash; to procuring a new mat for his inkstand; to looking for his hat—the meanest-looking hat that ever the world beheld—and having it ready for him at the exact moment when business came to an end; to brushing his back if it happened to become smeared with whitewash from a wall. Yet all this passed as unnoticed as though it had never been done. Finally, Chichikov sniffed into his superior’s family and domestic life, and learnt that he possessed a grown-up daughter on whose face also there had taken place a nocturnal, diabolical grinding of peas. HERE was a quarter whence a fresh attack might be delivered! After ascertaining what church the daughter attended on Sundays, our hero took to contriving to meet her in a neat suit and a well-starched dickey: and soon the scheme began to work. The surly Chief Clerk wavered for a while; then ended by inviting Chichikov to tea. Nor could any man in the office have told you how it came about that before long Chichikov had removed to the Chief Clerk’s house, and become a person necessary—indeed indispensable—to the household, seeing that he bought the flour and the sugar, treated the daughter as his betrothed, called the Chief Clerk “Papenka,” and occasionally kissed “Papenka’s” hand. In fact, every one at the office supposed that, at the end of February (i.e. before the beginning of Lent) there would take place a wedding. Nay, the surly father even began to agitate with the authorities on Chichikov’s behalf, and so enabled our hero, on a vacancy occurring, to attain the stool of a Chief Clerk. Apparently this marked the consummation of Chichikov’s relations with his host, for he hastened stealthily to pack his trunk and, the next day, figured in a fresh lodging. Also, he ceased to call the Chief Clerk “Papenka,” or to kiss his hand; and the matter of the wedding came to as abrupt a termination as though it had never been mooted. Yet also he never failed to press his late host’s hand, whenever he met him, and to invite him to tea; while, on the other hand, for all his immobility and dry indifference, the Chief Clerk never failed to shake his head with a muttered, “Ah, my fine fellow, you have grown too proud, you have grown too proud.”
The foregoing constituted the most difficult step that our hero had to negotiate. Thereafter things came with greater ease and swifter success. Everywhere he attracted notice, for he developed within himself everything necessary for this world—namely, charm of manner and bearing, and great diligence in business matters. Armed with these resources, he next obtained promotion to what is known as “a fat post,” and used it to the best advantage; and even though, at that period, strict inquiry had begun to be made into the whole subject of bribes, such inquiry failed to alarm him—nay, he actually turned it to account and thereby manifested the Russian resourcefulness which never fails to attain its zenith where extortion is concerned. His method of working was the following. As soon as a petitioner or a suitor put his hand into his pocket, to extract thence the necessary letters of recommendation for signature, Chichikov would smilingly exclaim as he detained his interlocutor’s hand: “No, no! Surely you do not think that I—? But no, no! It is our duty, it is our obligation, and we do not require rewards for doing our work properly. So far as YOUR matter is concerned, you may rest easy. Everything shall be carried through to-morrow. But may I have your address? There is no need to trouble yourself, seeing that the documents can easily be brought to you at your residence.” Upon which the delighted suitor would return home in raptures, thinking: “Here, at long last, is the sort of man so badly needed. A man of that kind is a jewel beyond price.” Yet for a day, for two days—nay, even for three—the suitor would wait in vain so far as any messengers with documents were concerned. Then he would repair to the office—to find that his business had not so much as been entered upon! Lastly, he would confront the “jewel beyond price.” “Oh, pardon me, pardon me!” Chichikov would exclaim in the politest of tones as he seized and grasped the visitor’s hands. “The truth is that we have SUCH a quantity of business on hand! But the matter shall be put through to-morrow, and in the meanwhile I am most sorry about it.” And with this would go the most fascinating of gestures. Yet neither on the morrow, nor on the day following, nor on the third would documents arrive at the suitor’s abode. Upon that he would take thought as to whether something more ought not to have been done; and, sure enough, on his making inquiry, he would be informed that “something will have to be given to the copyists.” “Well, there can be no harm in that,” he would reply. “As a matter of fact, I have ready a tchetvertak39 or two.” “Oh, no, no,” the answer would come. “Not a tchetvertak per copyist, but a rouble, is the fee.” “What? A rouble per copyist?” “Certainly. What is there to grumble at in that? Of the money the copyists will receive a tchetvertak apiece, and the rest will go to the Government.” Upon that the disillusioned suitor would fly out upon the new order of things brought about by the inquiry into illicit fees, and curse both the tchinovniks and their uppish, insolent behaviour. “Once upon a time,” would the suitor lament, “one DID know what to do. Once one had tipped the Director a bank-note, one’s affair was, so to speak, in the hat. But now one has to pay a rouble per copyist after waiting a week because otherwise it was impossible to guess how the wind might set! The devil fly away with all ‘disinterested’ and ‘trustworthy’ tchinovniks!” And certainly the aggrieved suitor had reason to grumble, seeing that, now that bribe-takers had ceased to exist, and Directors had uniformly become men of honour and integrity, secretaries and clerks ought not with impunity to have continued their thievish ways. In time there opened out to Chichikov a still wider field, for a Commission was appointed to supervise the erection of a Government building, and, on his being nominated to that body, he proved himself one of its most active members. The Commission got to work without delay, but for a space of six years had some trouble with the building in question. Either the climate hindered operations or the materials used were of the kind which prevents official edifices from ever rising higher than the basement. But, meanwhile, OTHER quarters of the town saw arise, for each member of the Commission, a handsome house of the NON-official style of architecture. Clearly the foundation afforded by the soil of those parts was better than that where the Government building was still engaged in hanging fire! Likewise the members of the Commission began to look exceedingly prosperous, and to blossom out into family life; and, for the first time in his existence, even Chichikov also departed from the iron laws of his self-imposed restraint and inexorable self-denial, and so far mitigated his heretofore asceticism as to show himself a man not averse to those amenities which, during his youth, he had been capable of renouncing. That is to say, certain superfluities began to make their appearance in his establishment. He engaged a good cook, took to wearing linen shirts, bought for himself cloth of a pattern worn by no one else in the province, figured in checks shot with the brightest of reds and browns, fitted himself out with two splendid horses (which he drove with a single pair of reins, added to a ring attachment for the trace horse), developed a habit of washing with a sponge dipped in eau-de-Cologne, and invested in soaps of the most expensive quality, in order to communicate to his skin a more elegant polish.
But suddenly there appeared upon the scene a new Director—a military man, and a martinet as regarded his hostility to bribe-takers and anything which might be called irregular. On the very day after his arrival he struck fear into every breast by calling for accounts, discovering hosts of deficits and missing sums, and directing his attention to the aforesaid fine houses of civilian architecture. Upon that there ensued a complete reshuffling. Tchinovniks were retired wholesale, and the houses were sequestrated to the Government, or else converted into various pious institutions and schools for soldiers’ children. Thus the whole fabric, and especially Chichikov, came crashing to the ground. Particularly did our hero’s agreeable face displease the new Director. Why that was so it is impossible to say, but frequently, in cases of the kind, no reason exists. However, the Director conceived a mortal dislike to him, and also extended that enmity to the whole of Chichikov’s colleagues. But inasmuch as the said Director was a military man, he was not fully acquainted with the myriad subtleties of the civilian mind; wherefore it was not long before, by dint of maintaining a discreet exterior, added to a faculty for humouring all and sundry, a fresh gang of tchinovniks succeeded in restoring him to mildness, and the General found himself in the hands of greater thieves than before, but thieves whom he did not even suspect, seeing that he believed himself to have selected men fit and proper, and even ventured to boast of possessing a keen eye for talent. In a trice the tchinovniks concerned appraised his spirit and character; with the result that the entire sphere over which he ruled became an agency for the detection of irregularities. Everywhere, and in every case, were those irregularities pursued as a fisherman pursues a fat sturgeon with a gaff; and to such an extent did the sport prove successful that almost in no time each participator in the hunt was seen to be in possession of several thousand roubles of capital. Upon that a large number of the former band of tchinovniks also became converted to paths of rectitude, and were allowed to re-enter the Service; but not by hook or by crook could Chichikov worm his way back, even though, incited thereto by sundry items of paper currency, the General’s first secretary and principal bear leader did all he could on our hero’s behalf. It seemed that the General was the kind of man who, though easily led by the nose (provided it was done without his knowledge) no sooner got an idea into his head than it stuck there like a nail, and could not possibly be extracted; and all that the wily secretary succeeded in procuring was the tearing up of a certain dirty fragment of paper—even that being effected only by an appeal to the General’s compassion, on the score of the unhappy fate which, otherwise, would befall Chichikov’s wife and children (who, luckily, had no existence in fact).
“Well,” said Chichikov to himself, “I have done my best, and now everything has failed. Lamenting my misfortune won’t help me, but only action.” And with that he decided to begin his career anew, and once more to arm himself with the weapons of patience and self-denial. The better to effect this, he had, of course to remove to another town. Yet somehow, for a while, things miscarried. More than once he found himself forced to exchange one post for another, and at the briefest of notice; and all of them were posts of the meanest, the most wretched, order. Yet, being a man of the utmost nicety of feeling, the fact that he found himself rubbing shoulders with anything but nice companions did not prevent him from preserving intact his innate love of what was decent and seemly, or from cherishing the instinct which led him to hanker after office fittings of lacquered wood, with neatness and orderliness everywhere. Nor did he at any time permit a foul word to creep into his speech, and would feel hurt even if in the speech of others there occurred a scornful reference to anything which pertained to rank and dignity. Also, the reader will be pleased to know that our hero changed his linen every other day, and in summer, when the weather was very hot, EVERY day, seeing that the very faintest suspicion of an unpleasant odour offended his fastidiousness. For the same reason it was his custom, before being valeted by Petrushka, always to plug his nostrils with a couple of cloves. In short, there were many occasions when his nerves suffered rackings as cruel as a young girl’s, and so helped to increase his disgust at having once more to associate with men who set no store by the decencies of life. Yet, though he braced himself to the task, this period of adversity told upon his health, and he even grew a trifle shabby. More than once, on happening to catch sight of himself in the mirror, he could not forbear exclaiming: “Holy Mother of God, but what a nasty-looking brute I have become!” and for a long while afterwards could not with anything like sang-froid contemplate his reflection. Yet throughout he bore up stoutly and patiently—and ended by being transferred to the Customs Department. It may be said that the department had long constituted the secret goal of his ambition, for he had noted the foreign elegancies with which its officials always contrived to provide themselves, and had also observed that invariably they were able to send presents of china and cambric to their sisters and aunts—well, to their lady friends generally. Yes, more than once he had said to himself with a sigh: “THAT is the department to which I ought to belong, for, given a town near the frontier, and a sensible set of colleagues, I might be able to fit myself out with excellent linen shirts.” Also, it may be said that most frequently of all had his thoughts turned towards a certain quality of French soap which imparted a peculiar whiteness to the skin and a peerless freshness to the cheeks. Its name is known to God alone, but at least it was to be procured only in the immediate neighbourhood of the frontier. So, as I say, Chichikov had long felt a leaning towards the Customs, but for a time had been restrained from applying for the same by the various current advantages of the Building Commission; since rightly he had adjudged the latter to constitute a bird in the hand, and the former to constitute only a bird in the bush. But now he decided that, come what might, into the Customs he must make his way. And that way he made, and then applied himself to his new duties with a zeal born of the fact that he realised that fortune had specially marked him out for a Customs officer. Indeed, such activity, perspicuity, and ubiquity as his had never been seen or thought of. Within four weeks at the most he had so thoroughly got his hand in that he was conversant with Customs procedure in every detail. Not only could he weigh and measure, but also he could divine from an invoice how many arshins of cloth or other material a given piece contained, and then, taking a roll of the latter in his hand, could specify at once the number of pounds at which it would tip the scale. As for searchings, well, even his colleagues had to admit that he possessed the nose of a veritable bloodhound, and that it was impossible not to marvel at the patience wherewith he would try every button of the suspected person, yet preserve, throughout, a deadly politeness and an icy sang-froid which surpass belief. And while the searched were raging, and foaming at the mouth, and feeling that they would give worlds to alter his smiling exterior with a good, resounding slap, he would move not a muscle of his face, nor abate by a jot the urbanity of his demeanour, as he murmured, “Do you mind so far incommoding yourself as to stand up?” or “Pray step into the next room, madam, where the wife of one of our staff will attend you,” or “Pray allow me to slip this penknife of mine into the lining of your coat” (after which he would extract thence shawls and towels with as much nonchalance as he would have done from his own travelling-trunk). Even his superiors acknowledged him to be a devil at the job, rather than a human being, so perfect was his instinct for looking into cart-wheels, carriage-poles, horses’ ears, and places whither an author ought not to penetrate even in thought—places whither only a Customs official is permitted to go. The result was that the wretched traveller who had just crossed the frontier would, within a few minutes, become wholly at sea, and, wiping away the perspiration, and breaking out into body flushes, would be reduced to crossing himself and muttering, “Well, well, well!” In fact, such a traveller would feel in the position of a schoolboy who, having been summoned to the presence of the headmaster for the ostensible purpose of being give an order, has found that he receives, instead, a sound flogging. In short, for some time Chichikov made it impossible for smugglers to earn a living. In particular, he reduced Polish Jewry almost to despair, so invincible, so almost unnatural, was the rectitude, the incorruptibility which led him to refrain from converting himself into a small capitalist with the aid of confiscated goods and articles which, “to save excessive clerical labour,” had failed to be handed over to the Government. Also, without saying it goes that such phenomenally zealous and disinterested service attracted general astonishment, and, eventually, the notice of the authorities; whereupon he received promotion, and followed that up by mooting a scheme for the infallible detection of contrabandists, provided that he could be furnished with the necessary authority for carrying out the same. At once such authority was accorded him, as also unlimited power to conduct every species of search and investigation. And that was all he wanted. It happened that previously there had been formed a well-found association for smuggling on regular, carefully prepared lines, and that this daring scheme seemed to promise profit to the extent of some millions of money: yet, though he had long had knowledge of it, Chichikov had said to the association’s emissaries, when sent to buy him over, “The time is not yet.” But now that he had got all the reins into his hands, he sent word of the fact to the gang, and with it the remark, “The time is NOW.” Nor was he wrong in his calculations, for, within the space of a year, he had acquired what he could not have made during twenty years of non-fraudulent service. With similar sagacity he had, during his early days in the department, declined altogether to enter into relations with the association, for the reason that he had then been a mere cipher, and would have come in for nothing large in the way of takings; but now—well, now it was another matter altogether, and he could dictate what terms he liked. Moreover, that the affair might progress the more smoothly, he suborned a fellow tchinovnik of the type which, in spite of grey hairs, stands powerless against temptation; and, the contract concluded, the association duly proceeded to business. Certainly business began brilliantly. But probably most of my readers are familiar with the oft-repeated story of the passage of Spanish sheep across the frontier in double fleeces which carried between their outer layers and their inner enough lace of Brabant to sell to the tune of millions of roubles; wherefore I will not recount the story again beyond saying that those journeys took place just when Chichikov had become head of the Customs, and that, had he not a hand in the enterprise, not all the Jews in the world could have brought it to success. By the time that three or four of these ovine invasions had taken place, Chichikov and his accomplice had come to be the possessors of four hundred thousand roubles apiece; while some even aver that the former’s gains totalled half a million, owing to the greater industry which he had displayed in the matter. Nor can any one but God say to what a figure the fortunes of the pair might not eventually have attained, had not an awkward contretemps cut right across their arrangements. That is to say, for some reason or another the devil so far deprived these tchinovnik-conspirators of sense as to make them come to words with one another, and then to engage in a quarrel. Beginning with a heated argument, this quarrel reached the point of Chichikov—who was, possibly, a trifle tipsy—calling his colleague a priest’s son; and though that description of the person so addressed was perfectly accurate, he chose to take offence, and to answer Chichikov with the words (loudly and incisively uttered), “It is YOU who have a priest for your father,” and to add to that (the more to incense his companion), “Yes, mark you! THAT is how it is.” Yet, though he had thus turned the tables upon Chichikov with a tu quoque, and then capped that exploit with the words last quoted, the offended tchinovnik could not remain satisfied, but went on to send in an anonymous document to the authorities. On the other hand, some aver that it was over a woman that the pair fell out—over a woman who, to quote the phrase then current among the staff of the Customs Department, was “as fresh and as strong as the pulp of a turnip,” and that night-birds were hired to assault our hero in a dark alley, and that the scheme miscarried, and that in any case both Chichikov and his friend had been deceived, seeing that the person to whom the lady had really accorded her favours was a certain staff-captain named Shamsharev. However, only God knows the truth of the matter. Let the inquisitive reader ferret it out for himself. The fact remains that a complete exposure of the dealings with the contrabandists followed, and that the two tchinovniks were put to the question, deprived of their property, and made to formulate in writing all that they had done. Against this thunderbolt of fortune the State Councillor could make no headway, and in some retired spot or another sank into oblivion; but Chichikov put a brave face upon the matter, for, in spite of the authorities’ best efforts to smell out his gains, he had contrived to conceal a portion of them, and also resorted to every subtle trick of intellect which could possibly be employed by an experienced man of the world who has a wide knowledge of his fellows. Nothing which could be effected by pleasantness of demeanour, by moving oratory, by clouds of flattery, and by the occasional insertion of a coin into a palm did he leave undone; with the result that he was retired with less ignominy than was his companion, and escaped actual trial on a criminal charge. Yet he issued stripped of all his capital, stripped of his imported effects, stripped of everything. That is to say, all that remained to him consisted of ten thousand roubles which he had stored against a rainy day, two dozen linen shirts, a small britchka of the type used by bachelors, and two serving-men named Selifan and Petrushka. Yes, and an impulse of kindness moved the tchinovniks of the Customs also to set aside for him a few cakes of the soap which he had found so excellent for the freshness of the cheeks. Thus once more our hero found himself stranded. And what an accumulation of misfortunes had descended upon his head!—though, true, he termed them “suffering in the Service in the cause of Truth.” Certainly one would have thought that, after these buffetings and trials and changes of fortune—after this taste of the sorrows of life—he and his precious ten thousand roubles would have withdrawn to some peaceful corner in a provincial town, where, clad in a stuff dressing-gown, he could have sat and listened to the peasants quarrelling on festival days, or (for the sake of a breath of fresh air) have gone in person to the poulterer’s to finger chickens for soup, and so have spent a quiet, but not wholly useless, existence; but nothing of the kind took place, and therein we must do justice to the strength of his character. In other words, although he had undergone what, to the majority of men, would have meant ruin and discouragement and a shattering of ideals, he still preserved his energy. True, downcast and angry, and full of resentment against the world in general, he felt furious with the injustice of fate, and dissatisfied with the dealings of men; yet he could not forbear courting additional experiences. In short, the patience which he displayed was such as to make the wooden persistency of the German—a persistency merely due to the slow, lethargic circulation of the Teuton’s blood—seem nothing at all, seeing that by nature Chichikov’s blood flowed strongly, and that he had to employ much force of will to curb within himself those elements which longed to burst forth and revel in freedom. He thought things over, and, as he did so, a certain spice of reason appeared in his reflections.
“How have I come to be what I am?” he said to himself. “Why has misfortune overtaken me in this way? Never have I wronged a poor person, or robbed a widow, or turned any one out of doors: I have always been careful only to take advantage of those who possess more than their share. Moreover, I have never gleaned anywhere but where every one else was gleaning; and, had I not done so, others would have gleaned in my place. Why, then, should those others be prospering, and I be sunk as low as a worm? What am I? What am I good for? How can I, in future, hope to look any honest father of a family in the face? How shall I escape being tortured with the thought that I am cumbering the ground? What, in the years to come, will my children say, save that ‘our father was a brute, for he left us nothing to live upon?’”
Here I may remark that we have seen how much thought Chichikov devoted to his future descendants. Indeed, had not there been constantly recurring to his mind the insistent question, “What will my children say?” he might not have plunged into the affair so deeply. Nevertheless, like a wary cat which glances hither and thither to see whether its mistress be not coming before it can make off with whatsoever first falls to its paw (butter, fat, lard, a duck, or anything else), so our future founder of a family continued, though weeping and bewailing his lot, to let not a single detail escape his eye. That is to say, he retained his wits ever in a state of activity, and kept his brain constantly working. All that he required was a plan. Once more he pulled himself together, once more he embarked upon a life of toil, once more he stinted himself in everything, once more he left clean and decent surroundings for a dirty, mean existence. In other words, until something better should turn up, he embraced the calling of an ordinary attorney—a calling which, not then possessed of a civic status, was jostled on very side, enjoyed little respect at the hands of the minor legal fry (or, indeed, at its own), and perforce met with universal slights and rudeness. But sheer necessity compelled Chichikov to face these things. Among commissions entrusted to him was that of placing in the hands of the Public Trustee several hundred peasants who belonged to a ruined estate. The estate had reached its parlous condition through cattle disease, through rascally bailiffs, through failures of the harvest, through such epidemic diseases that had killed off the best workmen, and, last, but not least, through the senseless conduct of the owner himself, who had furnished a house in Moscow in the latest style, and then squandered his every kopeck, so that nothing was left for his further maintenance, and it became necessary to mortgage the remains—including the peasants—of the estate. In those days mortgage to the Treasury was an innovation looked upon with reserve, and, as attorney in the matter, Chichikov had first of all to “entertain” every official concerned (we know that, unless that be previously done, unless a whole bottle of madeira first be emptied down each clerical throat, not the smallest legal affair can be carried through), and to explain, for the barring of future attachments, that half of the peasants were dead.
“And are they entered on the revision lists?” asked the secretary. “Yes,” replied Chichikov. “Then what are you boggling at?” continued the Secretary. “Should one soul die, another will be born, and in time grow up to take the first one’s place.” Upon that there dawned on our hero one of the most inspired ideas which ever entered the human brain. “What a simpleton I am!” he thought to himself. “Here am I looking about for my mittens when all the time I have got them tucked into my belt. Why, were I myself to buy up a few souls which are dead—to buy them before a new revision list shall have been made, the Council of Public Trust might pay me two hundred roubles apiece for them, and I might find myself with, say, a capital of two hundred thousand roubles! The present moment is particularly propitious, since in various parts of the country there has been an epidemic, and, glory be to God, a large number of souls have died of it. Nowadays landowners have taken to card-playing and junketting and wasting their money, or to joining the Civil Service in St. Petersburg; consequently their estates are going to rack and ruin, and being managed in any sort of fashion, and succeeding in paying their dues with greater difficulty each year. That being so, not a man of the lot but would gladly surrender to me his dead souls rather than continue paying the poll-tax; and in this fashion I might make—well, not a few kopecks. Of course there are difficulties, and, to avoid creating a scandal, I should need to employ plenty of finesse; but man was given his brain to USE, not to neglect. One good point about the scheme is that it will seem so improbable that in case of an accident, no one in the world will believe in it. True, it is illegal to buy or mortgage peasants without land, but I can easily pretend to be buying them only for transferment elsewhere. Land is to be acquired in the provinces of Taurida and Kherson almost for nothing, provided that one undertakes subsequently to colonise it; so to Kherson I will ‘transfer’ them, and long may they live there! And the removal of my dead souls shall be carried out in the strictest legal form; and if the authorities should want confirmation by testimony, I shall produce a letter signed by my own superintendent of the Khersonian rural police—that is to say, by myself. Lastly, the supposed village in Kherson shall be called Chichikovoe—better still Pavlovskoe, according to my Christian name.”
In this fashion there germinated in our hero’s brain that strange scheme for which the reader may or may not be grateful, but for which the author certainly is so, seeing that, had it never occurred to Chichikov, this story would never have seen the light.
After crossing himself, according to the Russian custom, Chichikov set about carrying out his enterprise. On pretence of selecting a place wherein to settle, he started forth to inspect various corners of the Russian Empire, but more especially those which had suffered from such unfortunate accidents as failures of the harvest, a high rate of mortality, or whatsoever else might enable him to purchase souls at the lowest possible rate. But he did not tackle his landowners haphazard: he rather selected such of them as seemed more particularly suited to his taste, or with whom he might with the least possible trouble conclude identical agreements; though, in the first instance, he always tried, by getting on terms of acquaintanceship—better still, of friendship—with them, to acquire the souls for nothing, and so to avoid purchase at all. In passing, my readers must not blame me if the characters whom they have encountered in these pages have not been altogether to their liking. The fault is Chichikov’s rather than mine, for he is the master, and where he leads we must follow. Also, should my readers gird at me for a certain dimness and want of clarity in my principal characters and actors, that will be tantamount to saying that never do the broad tendency and the general scope of a work become immediately apparent. Similarly does the entry to every town—the entry even to the Capital itself—convey to the traveller such an impression of vagueness that at first everything looks grey and monotonous, and the lines of smoky factories and workshops seem never to be coming to an end; but in time there will begin also to stand out the outlines of six-storied mansions, and of shops and balconies, and wide perspectives of streets, and a medley of steeples, columns, statues, and turrets—the whole framed in rattle and roar and the infinite wonders which the hand and the brain of men have conceived. Of the manner in which Chichikov’s first purchases were made the reader is aware. Subsequently he will see also how the affair progressed, and with what success or failure our hero met, and how Chichikov was called upon to decide and to overcome even more difficult problems than the foregoing, and by what colossal forces the levers of his far-flung tale are moved, and how eventually the horizon will become extended until everything assumes a grandiose and a lyrical tendency. Yes, many a verst of road remains to be travelled by a party made up of an elderly gentleman, a britchka of the kind affected by bachelors, a valet named Petrushka, a coachman named Selifan, and three horses which, from the Assessor to the skewbald, are known to us individually by name. Again, although I have given a full description of our hero’s exterior (such as it is), I may yet be asked for an inclusive definition also of his moral personality. That he is no hero compounded of virtues and perfections must be already clear. Then WHAT is he? A villain? Why should we call him a villain? Why should we be so hard upon a fellow man? In these days our villains have ceased to exist. Rather it would be fairer to call him an ACQUIRER. The love of acquisition, the love of gain, is a fault common to many, and gives rise to many and many a transaction of the kind generally known as “not strictly honourable.” True, such a character contains an element of ugliness, and the same reader who, on his journey through life, would sit at the board of a character of this kind, and spend a most agreeable time with him, would be the first to look at him askance if he should appear in the guise of the hero of a novel or a play. But wise is the reader who, on meeting such a character, scans him carefully, and, instead of shrinking from him with distaste, probes him to the springs of his being. The human personality contains nothing which may not, in the twinkling of an eye, become altogether changed—nothing in which, before you can look round, there may not spring to birth some cankerous worm which is destined to suck thence the essential juice. Yes, it is a common thing to see not only an overmastering passion, but also a passion of the most petty order, arise in a man who was born to better things, and lead him both to forget his greatest and most sacred obligations, and to see only in the veriest trifles the Great and the Holy. For human passions are as numberless as is the sand of the seashore, and go on to become his most insistent of masters. Happy, therefore, the man who may choose from among the gamut of human passions one which is noble! Hour by hour will that instinct grow and multiply in its measureless beneficence; hour by hour will it sink deeper and deeper into the infinite paradise of his soul. But there are passions of which a man cannot rid himself, seeing that they are born with him at his birth, and he has no power to abjure them. Higher powers govern those passions, and in them is something which will call to him, and refuse to be silenced, to the end of his life. Yes, whether in a guise of darkness, or whether in a guise which will become converted into a light to lighten the world, they will and must attain their consummation on life’s field: and in either case they have been evoked for man’s good. In the same way may the passion which drew our Chichikov onwards have been one that was independent of himself; in the same way may there have lurked even in his cold essence something which will one day cause men to humble themselves in the dust before the infinite wisdom of God.
Yet that folk should be dissatisfied with my hero matters nothing. What matters is the fact that, under different circumstances, their approval could have been taken as a foregone conclusion. That is to say, had not the author pried over-deeply into Chichikov’s soul, nor stirred up in its depths what shunned and lay hidden from the light, nor disclosed those of his hero’s thoughts which that hero would have not have disclosed even to his most intimate friend; had the author, indeed, exhibited Chichikov just as he exhibited himself to the townsmen of N. and Manilov and the rest; well, then we may rest assured that every reader would have been delighted with him, and have voted him a most interesting person. For it is not nearly so necessary that Chichikov should figure before the reader as though his form and person were actually present to the eye as that, on concluding a perusal of this work, the reader should be able to return, unharrowed in soul, to that cult of the card-table which is the solace and delight of all good Russians. Yes, readers of this book, none of you really care to see humanity revealed in its nakedness. “Why should we do so?” you say. “What would be the use of it? Do we not know for ourselves that human life contains much that is gross and contemptible? Do we not with our own eyes have to look upon much that is anything but comforting? Far better would it be if you would put before us what is comely and attractive, so that we might forget ourselves a little.” In the same fashion does a landowner say to his bailiff: “Why do you come and tell me that the affairs of my estate are in a bad way? I know that without YOUR help. Have you nothing else to tell me? Kindly allow me to forget the fact, or else to remain in ignorance of it, and I shall be much obliged to you.” Whereafter the said landowner probably proceeds to spend on his diversion the money which ought to have gone towards the rehabilitation of his affairs.
Possibly the author may also incur censure at the hands of those so-called “patriots” who sit quietly in corners, and become capitalists through making fortunes at the expense of others. Yes, let but something which they conceive to be derogatory to their country occur—for instance, let there be published some book which voices the bitter truth—and out they will come from their hiding-places like a spider which perceives a fly to be caught in its web. “Is it well to proclaim this to the world, and to set folk talking about it?” they will cry. “What you have described touches US, is OUR affair. Is conduct of that kind right? What will foreigners say? Does any one care calmly to sit by and hear himself traduced? Why should you lead foreigners to suppose that all is not well with us, and that we are not patriotic?” Well, to these sage remarks no answer can really be returned, especially to such of the above as refer to foreign opinion. But see here. There once lived in a remote corner of Russia two natives of the region indicated. One of those natives was a good man named Kifa Mokievitch, and a man of kindly disposition; a man who went through life in a dressing-gown, and paid no heed to his household, for the reason that his whole being was centred upon the province of speculation, and that, in particular, he was preoccupied with a philosophical problem usually stated by him thus: “A beast,” he would say, “is born naked. Now, why should that be? Why should not a beast be born as a bird is born—that is to say, through the process of being hatched from an egg? Nature is beyond the understanding, however much one may probe her.” This was the substance of Kifa Mokievitch’s reflections. But herein is not the chief point. The other of the pair was a fellow named Mofi Kifovitch, and son to the first named. He was what we Russians call a “hero,” and while his father was pondering the parturition of beasts, his, the son’s, lusty, twenty-year-old temperament was violently struggling for development. Yet that son could tackle nothing without some accident occurring. At one moment would he crack some one’s fingers in half, and at another would he raise a bump on somebody’s nose; so that both at home and abroad every one and everything—from the serving-maid to the yard-dog—fled on his approach, and even the bed in his bedroom became shattered to splinters. Such was Mofi Kifovitch; and with it all he had a kindly soul. But herein is not the chief point. “Good sir, good Kifa Mokievitch,” servants and neighbours would come and say to the father, “what are you going to do about your Moki Kifovitch? We get no rest from him, he is so above himself.” “That is only his play, that is only his play,” the father would reply. “What else can you expect? It is too late now to start a quarrel with him, and, moreover, every one would accuse me of harshness. True, he is a little conceited; but, were I to reprove him in public, the whole thing would become common talk, and folk would begin giving him a dog’s name. And if they did that, would not their opinion touch me also, seeing that I am his father? Also, I am busy with philosophy, and have no time for such things. Lastly, Moki Kifovitch is my son, and very dear to my heart.” And, beating his breast, Kifa Mokievitch again asserted that, even though his son should elect to continue his pranks, it would not be for HIM, for the father, to proclaim the fact, or to fall out with his offspring. And, this expression of paternal feeling uttered, Kifa Mokievitch left Moki Kifovitch to his heroic exploits, and himself returned to his beloved subject of speculation, which now included also the problem, “Suppose elephants were to take to being hatched from eggs, would not the shell of such eggs be of a thickness proof against cannonballs, and necessitate the invention of some new type of firearm?” Thus at the end of this little story we have these two denizens of a peaceful corner of Russia looking thence, as from a window, in less terror of doing what was scandalous than of having it SAID of them that they were acting scandalously. Yes, the feeling animating our so-called “patriots” is not true patriotism at all. Something else lies beneath it. Who, if not an author, is to speak aloud the truth? Men like you, my pseudo-patriots, stand in dread of the eye which is able to discern, yet shrink from using your own, and prefer, rather, to glance at everything unheedingly. Yes, after laughing heartily over Chichikov’s misadventures, and perhaps even commending the author for his dexterity of observation and pretty turn of wit, you will look at yourselves with redoubled pride and a self-satisfied smile, and add: “Well, we agree that in certain parts of the provinces there exists strange and ridiculous individuals, as well as unconscionable rascals.”
Yet which of you, when quiet, and alone, and engaged in solitary self-communion, would not do well to probe YOUR OWN souls, and to put to YOURSELVES the solemn question, “Is there not in ME an element of Chichikov?” For how should there not be? Which of you is not liable at any moment to be passed in the street by an acquaintance who, nudging his neighbour, may say of you, with a barely suppressed sneer: “Look! there goes Chichikov! That is Chichikov who has just gone by!”
But here are we talking at the top of our voices whilst all the time our hero lies slumbering in his britchka! Indeed, his name has been repeated so often during the recital of his life’s history that he must almost have heard us! And at any time he is an irritable, irascible fellow when spoken of with disrespect. True, to the reader Chichikov’s displeasure cannot matter a jot; but for the author it would mean ruin to quarrel with his hero, seeing that, arm in arm, Chichikov and he have yet far to go.
“Tut, tut, tut!” came in a shout from Chichikov. “Hi, Selifan!”
“What is it?” came the reply, uttered with a drawl.
“What is it? Why, how dare you drive like that? Come! Bestir yourself a little!”
And indeed, Selifan had long been sitting with half-closed eyes, and hands which bestowed no encouragement upon his somnolent steeds save an occasional flicking of the reins against their flanks; whilst Petrushka had lost his cap, and was leaning backwards until his head had come to rest against Chichikov’s knees—a position which necessitated his being awakened with a cuff. Selifan also roused himself, and apportioned to the skewbald a few cuts across the back of a kind which at least had the effect of inciting that animal to trot; and when, presently, the other two horses followed their companion’s example, the light britchka moved forwards like a piece of thistledown. Selifan flourished his whip and shouted, “Hi, hi!” as the inequalities of the road jerked him vertically on his seat; and meanwhile, reclining against the leather cushions of the vehicle’s interior, Chichikov smiled with gratification at the sensation of driving fast. For what Russian does not love to drive fast? Which of us does not at times yearn to give his horses their head, and to let them go, and to cry, “To the devil with the world!”? At such moments a great force seems to uplift one as on wings; and one flies, and everything else flies, but contrariwise—both the verst stones, and traders riding on the shafts of their waggons, and the forest with dark lines of spruce and fir amid which may be heard the axe of the woodcutter and the croaking of the raven. Yes, out of a dim, remote distance the road comes towards one, and while nothing save the sky and the light clouds through which the moon is cleaving her way seem halted, the brief glimpses wherein one can discern nothing clearly have in them a pervading touch of mystery. Ah, troika, troika, swift as a bird, who was it first invented you? Only among a hardy race of folk can you have come to birth—only in a land which, though poor and rough, lies spread over half the world, and spans versts the counting whereof would leave one with aching eyes. Nor are you a modishly-fashioned vehicle of the road—a thing of clamps and iron. Rather, you are a vehicle but shapen and fitted with the axe or chisel of some handy peasant of Yaroslav. Nor are you driven by a coachman clothed in German livery, but by a man bearded and mittened. See him as he mounts, and flourishes his whip, and breaks into a long-drawn song! Away like the wind go the horses, and the wheels, with their spokes, become transparent circles, and the road seems to quiver beneath them, and a pedestrian, with a cry of astonishment, halts to watch the vehicle as it flies, flies, flies on its way until it becomes lost on the ultimate horizon—a speck amid a cloud of dust!
And you, Russia of mine—are not you also speeding like a troika which nought can overtake? Is not the road smoking beneath your wheels, and the bridges thundering as you cross them, and everything being left in the rear, and the spectators, struck with the portent, halting to wonder whether you be not a thunderbolt launched from heaven? What does that awe-inspiring progress of yours foretell? What is the unknown force which lies within your mysterious steeds? Surely the winds themselves must abide in their manes, and every vein in their bodies be an ear stretched to catch the celestial message which bids them, with iron-girded breasts, and hooves which barely touch the earth as they gallop, fly forward on a mission of God? Whither, then, are you speeding, O Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes—only the weird sound of your collar-bells. Rent into a thousand shreds, the air roars past you, for you are overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!