For more than two weeks the visitor lived amid a round of evening parties and dinners; wherefore he spent (as the saying goes) a very pleasant time. Finally he decided to extend his visits beyond the urban boundaries by going and calling upon landowners Manilov and Sobakevitch, seeing that he had promised on his honour to do so. Yet what really incited him to this may have been a more essential cause, a matter of greater gravity, a purpose which stood nearer to his heart, than the motive which I have just given; and of that purpose the reader will learn if only he will have the patience to read this prefatory narrative (which, lengthy though it be, may yet develop and expand in proportion as we approach the denouement with which the present work is destined to be crowned).
One evening, therefore, Selifan the coachman received orders to have the horses harnessed in good time next morning; while Petrushka received orders to remain behind, for the purpose of looking after the portmanteau and the room. In passing, the reader may care to become more fully acquainted with the two serving-men of whom I have spoken. Naturally, they were not persons of much note, but merely what folk call characters of secondary, or even of tertiary, importance. Yet, despite the fact that the springs and the thread of this romance will not DEPEND upon them, but only touch upon them, and occasionally include them, the author has a passion for circumstantiality, and, like the average Russian, such a desire for accuracy as even a German could not rival. To what the reader already knows concerning the personages in hand it is therefore necessary to add that Petrushka usually wore a cast-off brown jacket of a size too large for him, as also that he had (according to the custom of individuals of his calling) a pair of thick lips and a very prominent nose. In temperament he was taciturn rather than loquacious, and he cherished a yearning for self-education. That is to say, he loved to read books, even though their contents came alike to him whether they were books of heroic adventure or mere grammars or liturgical compendia. As I say, he perused every book with an equal amount of attention, and, had he been offered a work on chemistry, would have accepted that also. Not the words which he read, but the mere solace derived from the act of reading, was what especially pleased his mind; even though at any moment there might launch itself from the page some devil-sent word whereof he could make neither head nor tail. For the most part, his task of reading was performed in a recumbent position in the anteroom; which circumstance ended by causing his mattress to become as ragged and as thin as a wafer. In addition to his love of poring over books, he could boast of two habits which constituted two other essential features of his character—namely, a habit of retiring to rest in his clothes (that is to say, in the brown jacket above-mentioned) and a habit of everywhere bearing with him his own peculiar atmosphere, his own peculiar smell—a smell which filled any lodging with such subtlety that he needed but to make up his bed anywhere, even in a room hitherto untenanted, and to drag thither his greatcoat and other impedimenta, for that room at once to assume an air of having been lived in during the past ten years. Nevertheless, though a fastidious, and even an irritable, man, Chichikov would merely frown when his nose caught this smell amid the freshness of the morning, and exclaim with a toss of his head: “The devil only knows what is up with you! Surely you sweat a good deal, do you not? The best thing you can do is to go and take a bath.” To this Petrushka would make no reply, but, approaching, brush in hand, the spot where his master’s coat would be pendent, or starting to arrange one and another article in order, would strive to seem wholly immersed in his work. Yet of what was he thinking as he remained thus silent? Perhaps he was saying to himself: “My master is a good fellow, but for him to keep on saying the same thing forty times over is a little wearisome.” Only God knows and sees all things; wherefore for a mere human being to know what is in the mind of a servant while his master is scolding him is wholly impossible. However, no more need be said about Petrushka. On the other hand, Coachman Selifan—
But here let me remark that I do not like engaging the reader’s attention in connection with persons of a lower class than himself; for experience has taught me that we do not willingly familiarise ourselves with the lower orders—that it is the custom of the average Russian to yearn exclusively for information concerning persons on the higher rungs of the social ladder. In fact, even a bowing acquaintance with a prince or a lord counts, in his eyes, for more than do the most intimate of relations with ordinary folk. For the same reason the author feels apprehensive on his hero’s account, seeing that he has made that hero a mere Collegiate Councillor—a mere person with whom Aulic Councillors might consort, but upon whom persons of the grade of full General8 would probably bestow one of those glances proper to a man who is cringing at their august feet. Worse still, such persons of the grade of General are likely to treat Chichikov with studied negligence—and to an author studied negligence spells death.
However, in spite of the distressfulness of the foregoing possibilities, it is time that I returned to my hero. After issuing, overnight, the necessary orders, he awoke early, washed himself, rubbed himself from head to foot with a wet sponge (a performance executed only on Sundays—and the day in question happened to be a Sunday), shaved his face with such care that his cheeks issued of absolutely satin-like smoothness and polish, donned first his bilberry-coloured, spotted frockcoat, and then his bearskin overcoat, descended the staircase (attended, throughout, by the waiter) and entered his britchka. With a loud rattle the vehicle left the inn-yard, and issued into the street. A passing priest doffed his cap, and a few urchins in grimy shirts shouted, “Gentleman, please give a poor orphan a trifle!” Presently the driver noticed that a sturdy young rascal was on the point of climbing onto the splashboard; wherefore he cracked his whip and the britchka leapt forward with increased speed over the cobblestones. At last, with a feeling of relief, the travellers caught sight of macadam ahead, which promised an end both to the cobblestones and to sundry other annoyances. And, sure enough, after his head had been bumped a few more times against the boot of the conveyance, Chichikov found himself bowling over softer ground. On the town receding into the distance, the sides of the road began to be varied with the usual hillocks, fir trees, clumps of young pine, trees with old, scarred trunks, bushes of wild juniper, and so forth, Presently there came into view also strings of country villas which, with their carved supports and grey roofs (the latter looking like pendent, embroidered tablecloths), resembled, rather, bundles of old faggots. Likewise the customary peasants, dressed in sheepskin jackets, could be seen yawning on benches before their huts, while their womenfolk, fat of feature and swathed of bosom, gazed out of upper windows, and the windows below displayed, here a peering calf, and there the unsightly jaws of a pig. In short, the view was one of the familiar type. After passing the fifteenth verst-stone Chichikov suddenly recollected that, according to Manilov, fifteen versts was the exact distance between his country house and the town; but the sixteenth verst stone flew by, and the said country house was still nowhere to be seen. In fact, but for the circumstance that the travellers happened to encounter a couple of peasants, they would have come on their errand in vain. To a query as to whether the country house known as Zamanilovka was anywhere in the neighbourhood the peasants replied by doffing their caps; after which one of them who seemed to boast of a little more intelligence than his companion, and who wore a wedge-shaped beard, made answer:
“Perhaps you mean Manilovka—not ZAmanilovka?”
“Manilovka, eh? Well, you must continue for another verst, and then you will see it straight before you, on the right.”
“On the right?” re-echoed the coachman.
“Yes, on the right,” affirmed the peasant. “You are on the proper road for Manilovka, but ZAmanilovka—well, there is no such place. The house you mean is called Manilovka because Manilovka is its name; but no house at all is called ZAmanilovka. The house you mean stands there, on that hill, and is a stone house in which a gentleman lives, and its name is Manilovka; but ZAmanilovka does not stand hereabouts, nor ever has stood.”
So the travellers proceeded in search of Manilovka, and, after driving an additional two versts, arrived at a spot whence there branched off a by-road. Yet two, three, or four versts of the by-road had been covered before they saw the least sign of a two-storied stone mansion. Then it was that Chichikov suddenly recollected that, when a friend has invited one to visit his country house, and has said that the distance thereto is fifteen versts, the distance is sure to turn out to be at least thirty.
Not many people would have admired the situation of Manilov’s abode, for it stood on an isolated rise and was open to every wind that blew. On the slope of the rise lay closely-mown turf, while, disposed here and there, after the English fashion, were flower-beds containing clumps of lilac and yellow acacia. Also, there were a few insignificant groups of slender-leaved, pointed-tipped birch trees, with, under two of the latter, an arbour having a shabby green cupola, some blue-painted wooden supports, and the inscription “This is the Temple of Solitary Thought.” Lower down the slope lay a green-coated pond—green-coated ponds constitute a frequent spectacle in the gardens of Russian landowners; and, lastly, from the foot of the declivity there stretched a line of mouldy, log-built huts which, for some obscure reason or another, our hero set himself to count. Up to two hundred or more did he count, but nowhere could he perceive a single leaf of vegetation or a single stick of timber. The only thing to greet the eye was the logs of which the huts were constructed. Nevertheless the scene was to a certain extent enlivened by the spectacle of two peasant women who, with clothes picturesquely tucked up, were wading knee-deep in the pond and dragging behind them, with wooden handles, a ragged fishing-net, in the meshes of which two crawfish and a roach with glistening scales were entangled. The women appeared to have cause of dispute between themselves—to be rating one another about something. In the background, and to one side of the house, showed a faint, dusky blur of pinewood, and even the weather was in keeping with the surroundings, since the day was neither clear nor dull, but of the grey tint which may be noted in uniforms of garrison soldiers which have seen long service. To complete the picture, a cock, the recognised harbinger of atmospheric mutations, was present; and, in spite of the fact that a certain connection with affairs of gallantry had led to his having had his head pecked bare by other cocks, he flapped a pair of wings—appendages as bare as two pieces of bast—and crowed loudly.
As Chichikov approached the courtyard of the mansion he caught sight of his host (clad in a green frock coat) standing on the verandah and pressing one hand to his eyes to shield them from the sun and so get a better view of the approaching carriage. In proportion as the britchka drew nearer and nearer to the verandah, the host’s eyes assumed a more and more delighted expression, and his smile a broader and broader sweep.
“Paul Ivanovitch!” he exclaimed when at length Chichikov leapt from the vehicle. “Never should I have believed that you would have remembered us!”
The two friends exchanged hearty embraces, and Manilov then conducted his guest to the drawing-room. During the brief time that they are traversing the hall, the anteroom, and the dining-room, let me try to say something concerning the master of the house. But such an undertaking bristles with difficulties—it promises to be a far less easy task than the depicting of some outstanding personality which calls but for a wholesale dashing of colours upon the canvas—the colours of a pair of dark, burning eyes, a pair of dark, beetling brows, a forehead seamed with wrinkles, a black, or a fiery-red, cloak thrown backwards over the shoulder, and so forth, and so forth. Yet, so numerous are Russian serf owners that, though careful scrutiny reveals to one’s sight a quantity of outre peculiarities, they are, as a class, exceedingly difficult to portray, and one needs to strain one’s faculties to the utmost before it becomes possible to pick out their variously subtle, their almost invisible, features. In short, one needs, before doing this, to carry out a prolonged probing with the aid of an insight sharpened in the acute school of research.
Only God can say what Manilov’s real character was. A class of men exists whom the proverb has described as “men unto themselves, neither this nor that—neither Bogdan of the city nor Selifan of the village.” And to that class we had better assign also Manilov. Outwardly he was presentable enough, for his features were not wanting in amiability, but that amiability was a quality into which there entered too much of the sugary element, so that his every gesture, his every attitude, seemed to connote an excess of eagerness to curry favour and cultivate a closer acquaintance. On first speaking to the man, his ingratiating smile, his flaxen hair, and his blue eyes would lead one to say, “What a pleasant, good-tempered fellow he seems!” yet during the next moment or two one would feel inclined to say nothing at all, and, during the third moment, only to say, “The devil alone knows what he is!” And should, thereafter, one not hasten to depart, one would inevitably become overpowered with the deadly sense of ennui which comes of the intuition that nothing in the least interesting is to be looked for, but only a series of wearisome utterances of the kind which are apt to fall from the lips of a man whose hobby has once been touched upon. For every man HAS his hobby. One man’s may be sporting dogs; another man’s may be that of believing himself to be a lover of music, and able to sound the art to its inmost depths; another’s may be that of posing as a connoisseur of recherche cookery; another’s may be that of aspiring to play roles of a kind higher than nature has assigned him; another’s (though this is a more limited ambition) may be that of getting drunk, and of dreaming that he is edifying both his friends, his acquaintances, and people with whom he has no connection at all by walking arm-in-arm with an Imperial aide-de-camp; another’s may be that of possessing a hand able to chip corners off aces and deuces of diamonds; another’s may be that of yearning to set things straight—in other words, to approximate his personality to that of a stationmaster or a director of posts. In short, almost every man has his hobby or his leaning; yet Manilov had none such, for at home he spoke little, and spent the greater part of his time in meditation—though God only knows what that meditation comprised! Nor can it be said that he took much interest in the management of his estate, for he never rode into the country, and the estate practically managed itself. Whenever the bailiff said to him, “It might be well to have such-and-such a thing done,” he would reply, “Yes, that is not a bad idea,” and then go on smoking his pipe—a habit which he had acquired during his service in the army, where he had been looked upon as an officer of modesty, delicacy, and refinement. “Yes, it is NOT a bad idea,” he would repeat. Again, whenever a peasant approached him and, rubbing the back of his neck, said “Barin, may I have leave to go and work for myself, in order that I may earn my obrok9?” he would snap out, with pipe in mouth as usual, “Yes, go!” and never trouble his head as to whether the peasant’s real object might not be to go and get drunk. True, at intervals he would say, while gazing from the verandah to the courtyard, and from the courtyard to the pond, that it would be indeed splendid if a carriage drive could suddenly materialise, and the pond as suddenly become spanned with a stone bridge, and little shops as suddenly arise whence pedlars could dispense the petty merchandise of the kind which peasantry most need. And at such moments his eyes would grow winning, and his features assume an expression of intense satisfaction. Yet never did these projects pass beyond the stage of debate. Likewise there lay in his study a book with the fourteenth page permanently turned down. It was a book which he had been reading for the past two years! In general, something seemed to be wanting in the establishment. For instance, although the drawing-room was filled with beautiful furniture, and upholstered in some fine silken material which clearly had cost no inconsiderable sum, two of the chairs lacked any covering but bast, and for some years past the master had been accustomed to warn his guests with the words, “Do not sit upon these chairs; they are not yet ready for use.” Another room contained no furniture at all, although, a few days after the marriage, it had been said: “My dear, to-morrow let us set about procuring at least some TEMPORARY furniture for this room.” Also, every evening would see placed upon the drawing-room table a fine bronze candelabrum, a statuette representative of the Three Graces, a tray inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and a rickety, lop-sided copper invalide. Yet of the fact that all four articles were thickly coated with grease neither the master of the house nor the mistress nor the servants seemed to entertain the least suspicion. At the same time, Manilov and his wife were quite satisfied with each other. More than eight years had elapsed since their marriage, yet one of them was for ever offering his or her partner a piece of apple or a bonbon or a nut, while murmuring some tender something which voiced a whole-hearted affection. “Open your mouth, dearest”—thus ran the formula—“and let me pop into it this titbit.” You may be sure that on such occasions the “dearest mouth” parted its lips most graciously! For their mutual birthdays the pair always contrived some “surprise present” in the shape of a glass receptacle for tooth-powder, or what not; and as they sat together on the sofa he would suddenly, and for some unknown reason, lay aside his pipe, and she her work (if at the moment she happened to be holding it in her hands) and husband and wife would imprint upon one another’s cheeks such a prolonged and languishing kiss that during its continuance you could have smoked a small cigar. In short, they were what is known as “a very happy couple.” Yet it may be remarked that a household requires other pursuits to be engaged in than lengthy embracings and the preparing of cunning “surprises.” Yes, many a function calls for fulfilment. For instance, why should it be thought foolish or low to superintend the kitchen? Why should care not be taken that the storeroom never lacks supplies? Why should a housekeeper be allowed to thieve? Why should slovenly and drunken servants exist? Why should a domestic staff be suffered in indulge in bouts of unconscionable debauchery during its leisure time? Yet none of these things were thought worthy of consideration by Manilov’s wife, for she had been gently brought up, and gentle nurture, as we all know, is to be acquired only in boarding schools, and boarding schools, as we know, hold the three principal subjects which constitute the basis of human virtue to be the French language (a thing indispensable to the happiness of married life), piano-playing (a thing wherewith to beguile a husband’s leisure moments), and that particular department of housewifery which is comprised in the knitting of purses and other “surprises.” Nevertheless changes and improvements have begun to take place, since things now are governed more by the personal inclinations and idiosyncracies of the keepers of such establishments. For instance, in some seminaries the regimen places piano-playing first, and the French language second, and then the above department of housewifery; while in other seminaries the knitting of “surprises” heads the list, and then the French language, and then the playing of pianos—so diverse are the systems in force! None the less, I may remark that Madame Manilov—
But let me confess that I always shrink from saying too much about ladies. Moreover, it is time that we returned to our heroes, who, during the past few minutes, have been standing in front of the drawing-room door, and engaged in urging one another to enter first.
“Pray be so good as not to inconvenience yourself on my account,” said Chichikov. “I will follow YOU.”
“No, Paul Ivanovitch—no! You are my guest.” And Manilov pointed towards the doorway.
“Make no difficulty about it, I pray,” urged Chichikov. “I beg of you to make no difficulty about it, but to pass into the room.”
“Pardon me, I will not. Never could I allow so distinguished and so welcome a guest as yourself to take second place.”
“Why call me ‘distinguished,’ my dear sir? I beg of you to proceed.”
“Nay; be YOU pleased to do so.”
“For the reason which I have stated.” And Manilov smiled his very pleasantest smile.
Finally the pair entered simultaneously and sideways; with the result that they jostled one another not a little in the process.
“Allow me to present to you my wife,” continued Manilov. “My dear—Paul Ivanovitch.”
Upon that Chichikov caught sight of a lady whom hitherto he had overlooked, but who, with Manilov, was now bowing to him in the doorway. Not wholly of unpleasing exterior, she was dressed in a well-fitting, high-necked morning dress of pale-coloured silk; and as the visitor entered the room her small white hands threw something upon the table and clutched her embroidered skirt before rising from the sofa where she had been seated. Not without a sense of pleasure did Chichikov take her hand as, lisping a little, she declared that she and her husband were equally gratified by his coming, and that, of late, not a day had passed without her husband recalling him to mind.
“Yes,” affirmed Manilov; “and every day SHE has said to ME: ‘Why does not your friend put in an appearance?’ ‘Wait a little dearest,’ I have always replied. ‘’Twill not be long now before he comes.’ And you HAVE come, you HAVE honoured us with a visit, you HAVE bestowed upon us a treat—a treat destined to convert this day into a gala day, a true birthday of the heart.”
The intimation that matters had reached the point of the occasion being destined to constitute a “true birthday of the heart” caused Chichikov to become a little confused; wherefore he made modest reply that, as a matter of fact, he was neither of distinguished origin nor distinguished rank.
“Ah, you ARE so,” interrupted Manilov with his fixed and engaging smile. “You are all that, and more.”
“How like you our town?” queried Madame. “Have you spent an agreeable time in it?”
“Very,” replied Chichikov. “The town is an exceedingly nice one, and I have greatly enjoyed its hospitable society.”
“And what do you think of our Governor?”
“Yes; IS he not a most engaging and dignified personage?” added Manilov.
“He is all that,” assented Chichikov. “Indeed, he is a man worthy of the greatest respect. And how thoroughly he performs his duty according to his lights! Would that we had more like him!”
“And the tactfulness with which he greets every one!” added Manilov, smiling, and half-closing his eyes, like a cat which is being tickled behind the ears.
“Quite so,” assented Chichikov. “He is a man of the most eminent civility and approachableness. And what an artist! Never should I have thought he could have worked the marvellous household samplers which he has done! Some specimens of his needlework which he showed me could not well have been surpassed by any lady in the land!”
“And the Vice-Governor, too—he is a nice man, is he not?” inquired Manilov with renewed blinkings of the eyes.
“Who? The Vice-Governor? Yes, a most worthy fellow!” replied Chichikov.
“And what of the Chief of Police? Is it not a fact that he too is in the highest degree agreeable?”
“Very agreeable indeed. And what a clever, well-read individual! With him and the Public Prosecutor and the President of the Local Council I played whist until the cocks uttered their last morning crow. He is a most excellent fellow.”
“And what of his wife?” queried Madame Manilov. “Is she not a most gracious personality?”
“One of the best among my limited acquaintance,” agreed Chichikov.
Nor were the President of the Local Council and the Postmaster overlooked; until the company had run through the whole list of urban officials. And in every case those officials appeared to be persons of the highest possible merit.
“Do you devote your time entirely to your estate?” asked Chichikov, in his turn.
“Well, most of it,” replied Manilov; “though also we pay occasional visits to the town, in order that we may mingle with a little well-bred society. One grows a trifle rusty if one lives for ever in retirement.”
“Quite so,” agreed Chichikov.
“Yes, quite so,” capped Manilov. “At the same time, it would be a different matter if the neighbourhood were a GOOD one—if, for example, one had a friend with whom one could discuss manners and polite deportment, or engage in some branch of science, and so stimulate one’s wits. For that sort of thing gives one’s intellect an airing. It, it—” At a loss for further words, he ended by remarking that his feelings were apt to carry him away; after which he continued with a gesture: “What I mean is that, were that sort of thing possible, I, for one, could find the country and an isolated life possessed of great attractions. But, as matters stand, such a thing is NOT possible. All that I can manage to do is, occasionally, to read a little of A Son of the Fatherland.”
With these sentiments Chichikov expressed entire agreement: adding that nothing could be more delightful than to lead a solitary life in which there should be comprised only the sweet contemplation of nature and the intermittent perusal of a book.
“Nay, but even THAT were worth nothing had not one a friend with whom to share one’s life,” remarked Manilov.
“True, true,” agreed Chichikov. “Without a friend, what are all the treasures in the world? ‘Possess not money,’ a wise man has said, ‘but rather good friends to whom to turn in case of need.’”
“Yes, Paul Ivanovitch,” said Manilov with a glance not merely sweet, but positively luscious—a glance akin to the mixture which even clever physicians have to render palatable before they can induce a hesitant patient to take it. “Consequently you may imagine what happiness—what PERFECT happiness, so to speak—the present occasion has brought me, seeing that I am permitted to converse with you and to enjoy your conversation.”
“But WHAT of my conversation?” replied Chichikov. “I am an insignificant individual, and, beyond that, nothing.”
“Oh, Paul Ivanovitch!” cried the other. “Permit me to be frank, and to say that I would give half my property to possess even a PORTION of the talents which you possess.”
“On the contrary, I should consider it the highest honour in the world if—”
The lengths to which this mutual outpouring of soul would have proceeded had not a servant entered to announce luncheon must remain a mystery.
“I humbly invite you to join us at table,” said Manilov. “Also, you will pardon us for the fact that we cannot provide a banquet such as is to be obtained in our metropolitan cities? We partake of simple fare, according to Russian custom—we confine ourselves to shtchi10, but we do so with a single heart. Come, I humbly beg of you.”
After another contest for the honour of yielding precedence, Chichikov succeeded in making his way (in zigzag fashion) to the dining-room, where they found awaiting them a couple of youngsters. These were Manilov’s sons, and boys of the age which admits of their presence at table, but necessitates the continued use of high chairs. Beside them was their tutor, who bowed politely and smiled; after which the hostess took her seat before her soup plate, and the guest of honour found himself esconsed between her and the master of the house, while the servant tied up the boys’ necks in bibs.
“What charming children!” said Chichikov as he gazed at the pair. “And how old are they?”
“The eldest is eight,” replied Manilov, “and the younger one attained the age of six yesterday.”
“Themistocleus,” went on the father, turning to his first-born, who was engaged in striving to free his chin from the bib with which the footman had encircled it. On hearing this distinctly Greek name (to which, for some unknown reason, Manilov always appended the termination “eus”), Chichikov raised his eyebrows a little, but hastened, the next moment, to restore his face to a more befitting expression.
“Themistocleus,” repeated the father, “tell me which is the finest city in France.”
Upon this the tutor concentrated his attention upon Themistocleus, and appeared to be trying hard to catch his eye. Only when Themistocleus had muttered “Paris” did the preceptor grow calmer, and nod his head.
“And which is the finest city in Russia?” continued Manilov.
Again the tutor’s attitude became wholly one of concentration.
“St. Petersburg,” replied Themistocleus.
“And what other city?”
“Moscow,” responded the boy.
“Clever little dear!” burst out Chichikov, turning with an air of surprise to the father. “Indeed, I feel bound to say that the child evinces the greatest possible potentialities.”
“You do not know him fully,” replied the delighted Manilov. “The amount of sharpness which he possesses is extraordinary. Our younger one, Alkid, is not so quick; whereas his brother—well, no matter what he may happen upon (whether upon a cowbug or upon a water-beetle or upon anything else), his little eyes begin jumping out of his head, and he runs to catch the thing, and to inspect it. For HIM I am reserving a diplomatic post. Themistocleus,” added the father, again turning to his son, “do you wish to become an ambassador?”
“Yes, I do,” replied Themistocleus, chewing a piece of bread and wagging his head from side to side.
At this moment the lacquey who had been standing behind the future ambassador wiped the latter’s nose; and well it was that he did so, since otherwise an inelegant and superfluous drop would have been added to the soup. After that the conversation turned upon the joys of a quiet life—though occasionally it was interrupted by remarks from the hostess on the subject of acting and actors. Meanwhile the tutor kept his eyes fixed upon the speakers’ faces; and whenever he noticed that they were on the point of laughing he at once opened his mouth, and laughed with enthusiasm. Probably he was a man of grateful heart who wished to repay his employers for the good treatment which he had received. Once, however, his features assumed a look of grimness as, fixing his eyes upon his vis-a-vis, the boys, he tapped sternly upon the table. This happened at a juncture when Themistocleus had bitten Alkid on the ear, and the said Alkid, with frowning eyes and open mouth, was preparing himself to sob in piteous fashion; until, recognising that for such a proceeding he might possibly be deprived of his plate, he hastened to restore his mouth to its original expression, and fell tearfully to gnawing a mutton bone—the grease from which had soon covered his cheeks.
Every now and again the hostess would turn to Chichikov with the words, “You are eating nothing—you have indeed taken little;” but invariably her guest replied: “Thank you, I have had more than enough. A pleasant conversation is worth all the dishes in the world.”
At length the company rose from table. Manilov was in high spirits, and, laying his hand upon his guest’s shoulder, was on the point of conducting him to the drawing-room, when suddenly Chichikov intimated to him, with a meaning look, that he wished to speak to him on a very important matter.
“That being so,” said Manilov, “allow me to invite you into my study.” And he led the way to a small room which faced the blue of the forest. “This is my sanctum,” he added.
“What a pleasant apartment!” remarked Chichikov as he eyed it carefully. And, indeed, the room did not lack a certain attractiveness. The walls were painted a sort of blueish-grey colour, and the furniture consisted of four chairs, a settee, and a table—the latter of which bore a few sheets of writing-paper and the book of which I have before had occasion to speak. But the most prominent feature of the room was tobacco, which appeared in many different guises—in packets, in a tobacco jar, and in a loose heap strewn about the table. Likewise, both window sills were studded with little heaps of ash, arranged, not without artifice, in rows of more or less tidiness. Clearly smoking afforded the master of the house a frequent means of passing the time.
“Permit me to offer you a seat on this settee,” said Manilov. “Here you will be quieter than you would be in the drawing-room.”
“But I should prefer to sit upon this chair.”
“I cannot allow that,” objected the smiling Manilov. “The settee is specially reserved for my guests. Whether you choose or no, upon it you MUST sit.”
Accordingly Chichikov obeyed.
“And also let me hand you a pipe.”
“No, I never smoke,” answered Chichikov civilly, and with an assumed air of regret.
“And why?” inquired Manilov—equally civilly, but with a regret that was wholly genuine.
“Because I fear that I have never quite formed the habit, owing to my having heard that a pipe exercises a desiccating effect upon the system.”
“Then allow me to tell you that that is mere prejudice. Nay, I would even go so far as to say that to smoke a pipe is a healthier practice than to take snuff. Among its members our regiment numbered a lieutenant—a most excellent, well-educated fellow—who was simply INCAPABLE of removing his pipe from his mouth, whether at table or (pardon me) in other places. He is now forty, yet no man could enjoy better health than he has always done.”
Chichikov replied that such cases were common, since nature comprised many things which even the finest intellect could not compass.
“But allow me to put to you a question,” he went on in a tone in which there was a strange—or, at all events, RATHER a strange—note. For some unknown reason, also, he glanced over his shoulder. For some equally unknown reason, Manilov glanced over HIS.
“How long is it,” inquired the guest, “since you last rendered a census return?”
“Oh, a long, long time. In fact, I cannot remember when it was.”
“And since then have many of your serfs died?”
“I do not know. To ascertain that I should need to ask my bailiff. Footman, go and call the bailiff. I think he will be at home to-day.”
Before long the bailiff made his appearance. He was a man of under forty, clean-shaven, clad in a smock, and evidently used to a quiet life, seeing that his face was of that puffy fullness, and the skin encircling his slit-like eyes was of that sallow tint, which shows that the owner of those features is well acquainted with a feather bed. In a trice it could be seen that he had played his part in life as all such bailiffs do—that, originally a young serf of elementary education, he had married some Agashka of a housekeeper or a mistress’s favourite, and then himself become housekeeper, and, subsequently, bailiff; after which he had proceeded according to the rules of his tribe—that is to say, he had consorted with and stood in with the more well-to-do serfs on the estate, and added the poorer ones to the list of forced payers of obrok, while himself leaving his bed at nine o’clock in the morning, and, when the samovar had been brought, drinking his tea at leisure.
“Look here, my good man,” said Manilov. “How many of our serfs have died since the last census revision?”
“How many of them have died? Why, a great many.” The bailiff hiccoughed, and slapped his mouth lightly after doing so.
“Yes, I imagined that to be the case,” corroborated Manilov. “In fact, a VERY great many serfs have died.” He turned to Chichikov and repeated the words.
“How many, for instance?” asked Chichikov.
“Yes; how many?” re-echoed Manilov.
“HOW many?” re-echoed the bailiff. “Well, no one knows the exact number, for no one has kept any account.”
“Quite so,” remarked Manilov. “I supposed the death-rate to have been high, but was ignorant of its precise extent.”
“Then would you be so good as to have it computed for me?” said Chichikov. “And also to have a detailed list of the deaths made out?”
“Yes, I will—a detailed list,” agreed Manilov.
The bailiff departed.
“For what purpose do you want it?” inquired Manilov when the bailiff had gone.
The question seemed to embarrass the guest, for in Chichikov’s face there dawned a sort of tense expression, and it reddened as though its owner were striving to express something not easy to put into words. True enough, Manilov was now destined to hear such strange and unexpected things as never before had greeted human ears.
“You ask me,” said Chichikov, “for what purpose I want the list. Well, my purpose in wanting it is this—that I desire to purchase a few peasants.” And he broke off in a gulp.
“But may I ask HOW you desire to purchase those peasants?” asked Manilov. “With land, or merely as souls for transferment—that is to say, by themselves, and without any land?”
“I want the peasants themselves only,” replied Chichikov. “And I want dead ones at that.”
“What?—Excuse me, but I am a trifle deaf. Really, your words sound most strange!”
“All that I am proposing to do,” replied Chichikov, “is to purchase the dead peasants who, at the last census, were returned by you as alive.”
Manilov dropped his pipe on the floor, and sat gaping. Yes, the two friends who had just been discussing the joys of camaraderie sat staring at one another like the portraits which, of old, used to hang on opposite sides of a mirror. At length Manilov picked up his pipe, and, while doing so, glanced covertly at Chichikov to see whether there was any trace of a smile to be detected on his lips—whether, in short, he was joking. But nothing of the sort could be discerned. On the contrary, Chichikov’s face looked graver than usual. Next, Manilov wondered whether, for some unknown reason, his guest had lost his wits; wherefore he spent some time in gazing at him with anxious intentness. But the guest’s eyes seemed clear—they contained no spark of the wild, restless fire which is apt to wander in the eyes of madmen. All was as it should be. Consequently, in spite of Manilov’s cogitations, he could think of nothing better to do than to sit letting a stream of tobacco smoke escape from his mouth.
“So,” continued Chichikov, “what I desire to know is whether you are willing to hand over to me—to resign—these actually non-living, but legally living, peasants; or whether you have any better proposal to make?”
Manilov felt too confused and confounded to do aught but continue staring at his interlocutor.
“I think that you are disturbing yourself unnecessarily,” was Chichikov’s next remark.
“I? Oh no! Not at all!” stammered Manilov. “Only—pardon me—I do not quite comprehend you. You see, never has it fallen to my lot to acquire the brilliant polish which is, so to speak, manifest in your every movement. Nor have I ever been able to attain the art of expressing myself well. Consequently, although there is a possibility that in the—er—utterances which have just fallen from your lips there may lie something else concealed, it may equally be that—er—you have been pleased so to express yourself for the sake of the beauty of the terms wherein that expression found shape?”
“Oh, no,” asserted Chichikov. “I mean what I say and no more. My reference to such of your pleasant souls as are dead was intended to be taken literally.”
Manilov still felt at a loss—though he was conscious that he MUST do something, he MUST propound some question. But what question? The devil alone knew! In the end he merely expelled some more tobacco smoke—this time from his nostrils as well as from his mouth.
“So,” went on Chichikov, “if no obstacle stands in the way, we might as well proceed to the completion of the purchase.”
“What? Of the purchase of the dead souls?”
“Of the ‘dead’ souls? Oh dear no! Let us write them down as LIVING ones, seeing that that is how they figure in the census returns. Never do I permit myself to step outside the civil law, great though has been the harm which that rule has wrought me in my career. In my eyes an obligation is a sacred thing. In the presence of the law I am dumb.”
These last words reassured Manilov not a little: yet still the meaning of the affair remained to him a mystery. By way of answer, he fell to sucking at his pipe with such vehemence that at length the pipe began to gurgle like a bassoon. It was as though he had been seeking of it inspiration in the present unheard-of juncture. But the pipe only gurgled, et praeterea nihil.
“Perhaps you feel doubtful about the proposal?” said Chichikov.
“Not at all,” replied Manilov. “But you will, I know, excuse me if I say (and I say it out of no spirit of prejudice, nor yet as criticising yourself in any way)—you will, I know, excuse me if I say that possibly this—er—this, er, SCHEME of yours, this—er—TRANSACTION of yours, may fail altogether to accord with the Civil Statutes and Provisions of the Realm?”
And Manilov, with a slight gesture of the head, looked meaningly into Chichikov’s face, while displaying in his every feature, including his closely-compressed lips, such an expression of profundity as never before was seen on any human countenance—unless on that of some particularly sapient Minister of State who is debating some particularly abstruse problem.
Nevertheless Chichikov rejoined that the kind of scheme or transaction which he had adumbrated in no way clashed with the Civil Statutes and Provisions of Russia; to which he added that the Treasury would even BENEFIT by the enterprise, seeing it would draw therefrom the usual legal percentage.
“What, then, do you propose?” asked Manilov.
“I propose only what is above-board, and nothing else.”
“Then, that being so, it is another matter, and I have nothing to urge against it,” said Manilov, apparently reassured to the full.
“Very well,” remarked Chichikov. “Then we need only to agree as to the price.”
“As to the price?” began Manilov, and then stopped. Presently he went on: “Surely you cannot suppose me capable of taking money for souls which, in one sense at least, have completed their existence? Seeing that this fantastic whim of yours (if I may so call it?) has seized upon you to the extent that it has, I, on my side, shall be ready to surrender to you those souls UNCONDITIONALLY, and to charge myself with the whole expenses of the sale.”
I should be greatly to blame if I were to omit that, as soon as Manilov had pronounced these words, the face of his guest became replete with satisfaction. Indeed, grave and prudent a man though Chichikov was, he had much ado to refrain from executing a leap that would have done credit to a goat (an animal which, as we all know, finds itself moved to such exertions only during moments of the most ecstatic joy). Nevertheless the guest did at least execute such a convulsive shuffle that the material with which the cushions of the chair were covered came apart, and Manilov gazed at him with some misgiving. Finally Chichikov’s gratitude led him to plunge into a stream of acknowledgement of a vehemence which caused his host to grow confused, to blush, to shake his head in deprecation, and to end by declaring that the concession was nothing, and that, his one desire being to manifest the dictates of his heart and the psychic magnetism which his friend exercised, he, in short, looked upon the dead souls as so much worthless rubbish.
“Not at all,” replied Chichikov, pressing his hand; after which he heaved a profound sigh. Indeed, he seemed in the right mood for outpourings of the heart, for he continued—not without a ring of emotion in his tone: “If you but knew the service which you have rendered to an apparently insignificant individual who is devoid both of family and kindred! For what have I not suffered in my time—I, a drifting barque amid the tempestuous billows of life? What harryings, what persecutions, have I not known? Of what grief have I not tasted? And why? Simply because I have ever kept the truth in view, because ever I have preserved inviolate an unsullied conscience, because ever I have stretched out a helping hand to the defenceless widow and the hapless orphan!” After which outpouring Chichikov pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped away a brimming tear.
Manilov’s heart was moved to the core. Again and again did the two friends press one another’s hands in silence as they gazed into one another’s tear-filled eyes. Indeed, Manilov COULD not let go our hero’s hand, but clasped it with such warmth that the hero in question began to feel himself at a loss how best to wrench it free: until, quietly withdrawing it, he observed that to have the purchase completed as speedily as possible would not be a bad thing; wherefore he himself would at once return to the town to arrange matters. Taking up his hat, therefore, he rose to make his adieus.
“What? Are you departing already?” said Manilov, suddenly recovering himself, and experiencing a sense of misgiving. At that moment his wife sailed into the room.
“Is Paul Ivanovitch leaving us so soon, dearest Lizanka?” she said with an air of regret.
“Yes. Surely it must be that we have wearied him?” her spouse replied.
“By no means,” asserted Chichikov, pressing his hand to his heart. “In this breast, madam, will abide for ever the pleasant memory of the time which I have spent with you. Believe me, I could conceive of no greater blessing than to reside, if not under the same roof as yourselves, at all events in your immediate neighbourhood.”
“Indeed?” exclaimed Manilov, greatly pleased with the idea. “How splendid it would be if you DID come to reside under our roof, so that we could recline under an elm tree together, and talk philosophy, and delve to the very root of things!”
“Yes, it WOULD be a paradisaical existence!” agreed Chichikov with a sigh. Nevertheless he shook hands with Madame. “Farewell, sudarina,” he said. “And farewell to YOU, my esteemed host. Do not forget what I have requested you to do.”
“Rest assured that I will not,” responded Manilov. “Only for a couple of days will you and I be parted from one another.”
With that the party moved into the drawing-room.
“Farewell, dearest children,” Chichikov went on as he caught sight of Alkid and Themistocleus, who were playing with a wooden hussar which lacked both a nose and one arm. “Farewell, dearest pets. Pardon me for having brought you no presents, but, to tell you the truth, I was not, until my visit, aware of your existence. However, now that I shall be coming again, I will not fail to bring you gifts. Themistocleus, to you I will bring a sword. You would like that, would you not?”
“I should,” replied Themistocleus.
“And to you, Alkid, I will bring a drum. That would suit you, would it not?” And he bowed in Alkid’s direction.
“Zeth—a drum,” lisped the boy, hanging his head.
“Good! Then a drum it shall be—SUCH a beautiful drum! What a tur-r-r-ru-ing and a tra-ta-ta-ta-ing you will be able to kick up! Farewell, my darling.” And, kissing the boy’s head, he turned to Manilov and Madame with the slight smile which one assumes before assuring parents of the guileless merits of their offspring.
“But you had better stay, Paul Ivanovitch,” said the father as the trio stepped out on to the verandah. “See how the clouds are gathering!”
“They are only small ones,” replied Chichikov.
“And you know your way to Sobakevitch’s?”
“No, I do not, and should be glad if you would direct me.”
“If you like I will tell your coachman.” And in very civil fashion Manilov did so, even going so far as to address the man in the second person plural. On hearing that he was to pass two turnings, and then to take a third, Selifan remarked, “We shall get there all right, sir,” and Chichikov departed amid a profound salvo of salutations and wavings of handkerchiefs on the part of his host and hostess, who raised themselves on tiptoe in their enthusiasm.
For a long while Manilov stood following the departing britchka with his eyes. In fact, he continued to smoke his pipe and gaze after the vehicle even when it had become lost to view. Then he re-entered the drawing-room, seated himself upon a chair, and surrendered his mind to the thought that he had shown his guest most excellent entertainment. Next, his mind passed imperceptibly to other matters, until at last it lost itself God only knows where. He thought of the amenities of a life, of friendship, and of how nice it would be to live with a comrade on, say, the bank of some river, and to span the river with a bridge of his own, and to build an enormous mansion with a facade lofty enough even to afford a view to Moscow. On that facade he and his wife and friend would drink afternoon tea in the open air, and discuss interesting subjects; after which, in a fine carriage, they would drive to some reunion or other, where with their pleasant manners they would so charm the company that the Imperial Government, on learning of their merits, would raise the pair to the grade of General or God knows what—that is to say, to heights whereof even Manilov himself could form no idea. Then suddenly Chichikov’s extraordinary request interrupted the dreamer’s reflections, and he found his brain powerless to digest it, seeing that, turn and turn the matter about as he might, he could not properly explain its bearing. Smoking his pipe, he sat where he was until supper time.