Certainly Chichikov was a thorough coward, for, although the britchka pursued its headlong course until Nozdrev’s establishment had disappeared behind hillocks and hedgerows, our hero continued to glance nervously behind him, as though every moment expecting to see a stern chase begin. His breath came with difficulty, and when he tried his heart with his hands he could feel it fluttering like a quail caught in a net.
“What a sweat the fellow has thrown me into!” he thought to himself, while many a dire and forceful aspiration passed through his mind. Indeed, the expressions to which he gave vent were most inelegant in their nature. But what was to be done next? He was a Russian and thoroughly aroused. The affair had been no joke. “But for the Superintendent,” he reflected, “I might never again have looked upon God’s daylight—I might have vanished like a bubble on a pool, and left neither trace nor posterity nor property nor an honourable name for my future offspring to inherit!” (it seemed that our hero was particularly anxious with regard to his possible issue).
“What a scurvy barin!” mused Selifan as he drove along. “Never have I seen such a barin. I should like to spit in his face. ’Tis better to allow a man nothing to eat than to refuse to feed a horse properly. A horse needs his oats—they are his proper fare. Even if you make a man procure a meal at his own expense, don’t deny a horse his oats, for he ought always to have them.”
An equally poor opinion of Nozdrev seemed to be cherished also by the steeds, for not only were the bay and the Assessor clearly out of spirits, but even the skewbald was wearing a dejected air. True, at home the skewbald got none but the poorer sorts of oats to eat, and Selifan never filled his trough without having first called him a villain; but at least they WERE oats, and not hay—they were stuff which could be chewed with a certain amount of relish. Also, there was the fact that at intervals he could intrude his long nose into his companions’ troughs (especially when Selifan happened to be absent from the stable) and ascertain what THEIR provender was like. But at Nozdrev’s there had been nothing but hay! That was not right. All three horses felt greatly discontented.
But presently the malcontents had their reflections cut short in a very rude and unexpected manner. That is to say, they were brought back to practicalities by coming into violent collision with a six-horsed vehicle, while upon their heads descended both a babel of cries from the ladies inside and a storm of curses and abuse from the coachman. “Ah, you damned fool!” he vociferated. “I shouted to you loud enough! Draw out, you old raven, and keep to the right! Are you drunk?” Selifan himself felt conscious that he had been careless, but since a Russian does not care to admit a fault in the presence of strangers, he retorted with dignity: “Why have you run into US? Did you leave your eyes behind you at the last tavern that you stopped at?” With that he started to back the britchka, in the hope that it might get clear of the other’s harness; but this would not do, for the pair were too hopelessly intertwined. Meanwhile the skewbald snuffed curiously at his new acquaintances as they stood planted on either side of him; while the ladies in the vehicle regarded the scene with an expression of terror. One of them was an old woman, and the other a damsel of about sixteen. A mass of golden hair fell daintily from a small head, and the oval of her comely face was as shapely as an egg, and white with the transparent whiteness seen when the hands of a housewife hold a new-laid egg to the light to let the sun’s rays filter through its shell. The same tint marked the maiden’s ears where they glowed in the sunshine, and, in short, what with the tears in her wide-open, arresting eyes, she presented so attractive a picture that our hero bestowed upon it more than a passing glance before he turned his attention to the hubbub which was being raised among the horses and the coachmen.
“Back out, you rook of Nizhni Novgorod!” the strangers’ coachman shouted. Selifan tightened his reins, and the other driver did the same. The horses stepped back a little, and then came together again—this time getting a leg or two over the traces. In fact, so pleased did the skewbald seem with his new friends that he refused to stir from the melee into which an unforeseen chance had plunged him. Laying his muzzle lovingly upon the neck of one of his recently-acquired acquaintances, he seemed to be whispering something in that acquaintance’s ear—and whispering pretty nonsense, too, to judge from the way in which that confidant kept shaking his ears.
At length peasants from a village which happened to be near the scene of the accident tackled the mess; and since a spectacle of that kind is to the Russian muzhik what a newspaper or a club-meeting is to the German, the vehicles soon became the centre of a crowd, and the village denuded even of its old women and children. The traces were disentangled, and a few slaps on the nose forced the skewbald to draw back a little; after which the teams were straightened out and separated. Nevertheless, either sheer obstinacy or vexation at being parted from their new friends caused the strange team absolutely to refuse to move a leg. Their driver laid the whip about them, but still they stood as though rooted to the spot. At length the participatory efforts of the peasants rose to an unprecedented degree of enthusiasm, and they shouted in an intermittent chorus the advice, “Do you, Andrusha, take the head of the trace horse on the right, while Uncle Mitai mounts the shaft horse. Get up, Uncle Mitai.” Upon that the lean, long, and red-bearded Uncle Mitai mounted the shaft horse; in which position he looked like a village steeple or the winder which is used to raise water from wells. The coachman whipped up his steeds afresh, but nothing came of it, and Uncle Mitai had proved useless. “Hold on, hold on!” shouted the peasants again. “Do you, Uncle Mitai, mount the trace horse, while Uncle Minai mounts the shaft horse.” Whereupon Uncle Minai—a peasant with a pair of broad shoulders, a beard as black as charcoal, and a belly like the huge samovar in which sbiten is brewed for all attending a local market—hastened to seat himself upon the shaft horse, which almost sank to the ground beneath his weight. “NOW they will go all right!” the muzhiks exclaimed. “Lay it on hot, lay it on hot! Give that sorrel horse the whip, and make him squirm like a koramora22.” Nevertheless, the affair in no way progressed; wherefore, seeing that flogging was of no use, Uncles Mitai and Minai BOTH mounted the sorrel, while Andrusha seated himself upon the trace horse. Then the coachman himself lost patience, and sent the two Uncles about their business—and not before it was time, seeing that the horses were steaming in a way that made it clear that, unless they were first winded, they would never reach the next posthouse. So they were given a moment’s rest. That done, they moved off of their own accord!
Throughout, Chichikov had been gazing at the young unknown with great attention, and had even made one or two attempts to enter into conversation with her: but without success. Indeed, when the ladies departed, it was as in a dream that he saw the girl’s comely presence, the delicate features of her face, and the slender outline of her form vanish from his sight; it was as in a dream that once more he saw only the road, the britchka, the three horses, Selifan, and the bare, empty fields. Everywhere in life—yes, even in the plainest, the dingiest ranks of society, as much as in those which are uniformly bright and presentable—a man may happen upon some phenomenon which is so entirely different from those which have hitherto fallen to his lot. Everywhere through the web of sorrow of which our lives are woven there may suddenly break a clear, radiant thread of joy; even as suddenly along the street of some poor, poverty-stricken village which, ordinarily, sees nought but a farm waggon there may came bowling a gorgeous coach with plated harness, picturesque horses, and a glitter of glass, so that the peasants stand gaping, and do not resume their caps until long after the strange equipage has become lost to sight. Thus the golden-haired maiden makes a sudden, unexpected appearance in our story, and as suddenly, as unexpectedly, disappears. Indeed, had it not been that the person concerned was Chichikov, and not some youth of twenty summers—a hussar or a student or, in general, a man standing on the threshold of life—what thoughts would not have sprung to birth, and stirred and spoken, within him; for what a length of time would he not have stood entranced as he stared into the distance and forgot alike his journey, the business still to be done, the possibility of incurring loss through lingering—himself, his vocation, the world, and everything else that the world contains!
But in the present case the hero was a man of middle-age, and of cautious and frigid temperament. True, he pondered over the incident, but in more deliberate fashion than a younger man would have done. That is to say, his reflections were not so irresponsible and unsteady. “She was a comely damsel,” he said to himself as he opened his snuff-box and took a pinch. “But the important point is: Is she also a NICE DAMSEL? One thing she has in her favour—and that is that she appears only just to have left school, and not to have had time to become womanly in the worser sense. At present, therefore, she is like a child. Everything in her is simple, and she says just what she thinks, and laughs merely when she feels inclined. Such a damsel might be made into anything—or she might be turned into worthless rubbish. The latter, I surmise, for trudging after her she will have a fond mother and a bevy of aunts, and so forth—persons who, within a year, will have filled her with womanishness to the point where her own father wouldn’t know her. And to that there will be added pride and affectation, and she will begin to observe established rules, and to rack her brains as to how, and how much, she ought to talk, and to whom, and where, and so forth. Every moment will see her growing timorous and confused lest she be saying too much. Finally, she will develop into a confirmed prevaricator, and end by marrying the devil knows whom!” Chichikov paused awhile. Then he went on: “Yet I should like to know who she is, and who her father is, and whether he is a rich landowner of good standing, or merely a respectable man who has acquired a fortune in the service of the Government. Should he allow her, on marriage, a dowry of, say, two hundred thousand roubles, she will be a very nice catch indeed. She might even, so to speak, make a man of good breeding happy.”
Indeed, so attractively did the idea of the two hundred thousand roubles begin to dance before his imagination that he felt a twinge of self-reproach because, during the hubbub, he had not inquired of the postillion or the coachman who the travellers might be. But soon the sight of Sobakevitch’s country house dissipated his thoughts, and forced him to return to his stock subject of reflection.
Sobakevitch’s country house and estate were of very fair size, and on each side of the mansion were expanses of birch and pine forest in two shades of green. The wooden edifice itself had dark-grey walls and a red-gabled roof, for it was a mansion of the kind which Russia builds for her military settlers and for German colonists. A noticeable circumstance was the fact that the taste of the architect had differed from that of the proprietor—the former having manifestly been a pedant and desirous of symmetry, and the latter having wished only for comfort. Consequently he (the proprietor) had dispensed with all windows on one side of the mansion, and had caused to be inserted, in their place, only a small aperture which, doubtless, was intended to light an otherwise dark lumber-room. Likewise, the architect’s best efforts had failed to cause the pediment to stand in the centre of the building, since the proprietor had had one of its four original columns removed. Evidently durability had been considered throughout, for the courtyard was enclosed by a strong and very high wooden fence, and both the stables, the coach-house, and the culinary premises were partially constructed of beams warranted to last for centuries. Nay, even the wooden huts of the peasantry were wonderful in the solidity of their construction, and not a clay wall or a carved pattern or other device was to be seen. Everything fitted exactly into its right place, and even the draw-well of the mansion was fashioned of the oakwood usually thought suitable only for mills or ships. In short, wherever Chichikov’s eye turned he saw nothing that was not free from shoddy make and well and skilfully arranged. As he approached the entrance steps he caught sight of two faces peering from a window. One of them was that of a woman in a mobcap with features as long and as narrow as a cucumber, and the other that of a man with features as broad and as short as the Moldavian pumpkins (known as gorlianki) whereof balallaiki—the species of light, two-stringed instrument which constitutes the pride and the joy of the gay young fellow of twenty as he sits winking and smiling at the white-necked, white-bosomed maidens who have gathered to listen to his low-pitched tinkling—are fashioned. This scrutiny made, both faces withdrew, and there came out on to the entrance steps a lacquey clad in a grey jacket and a stiff blue collar. This functionary conducted Chichikov into the hall, where he was met by the master of the house himself, who requested his guest to enter, and then led him into the inner part of the mansion.
A covert glance at Sobakevitch showed our hero that his host exactly resembled a moderate-sized bear. To complete the resemblance, Sobakevitch’s long frockcoat and baggy trousers were of the precise colour of a bear’s hide, while, when shuffling across the floor, he made a criss-cross motion of the legs, and had, in addition, a constant habit of treading upon his companion’s toes. As for his face, it was of the warm, ardent tint of a piatok23. Persons of this kind—persons to whose designing nature has devoted not much thought, and in the fashioning of whose frames she has used no instruments so delicate as a file or a gimlet and so forth—are not uncommon. Such persons she merely roughhews. One cut with a hatchet, and there results a nose; another such cut with a hatchet, and there materialises a pair of lips; two thrusts with a drill, and there issues a pair of eyes. Lastly, scorning to plane down the roughness, she sends out that person into the world, saying: “There is another live creature.” Sobakevitch was just such a ragged, curiously put together figure—though the above model would seem to have been followed more in his upper portion than in his lower. One result was that he seldom turned his head to look at the person with whom he was speaking, but, rather, directed his eyes towards, say, the stove corner or the doorway. As host and guest crossed the dining-room Chichikov directed a second glance at his companion. “He is a bear, and nothing but a bear,” he thought to himself. And, indeed, the strange comparison was inevitable. Incidentally, Sobakevitch’s Christian name and patronymic were Michael Semenovitch. Of his habit of treading upon other people’s toes Chichikov had become fully aware; wherefore he stepped cautiously, and, throughout, allowed his host to take the lead. As a matter of fact, Sobakevitch himself seemed conscious of his failing, for at intervals he would inquire: “I hope I have not hurt you?” and Chichikov, with a word of thanks, would reply that as yet he had sustained no injury.
At length they reached the drawing-room, where Sobakevitch pointed to an armchair, and invited his guest to be seated. Chichikov gazed with interest at the walls and the pictures. In every such picture there were portrayed either young men or Greek generals of the type of Movrogordato (clad in a red uniform and breaches), Kanaris, and others; and all these heroes were depicted with a solidity of thigh and a wealth of moustache which made the beholder simply shudder with awe. Among them there were placed also, according to some unknown system, and for some unknown reason, firstly, Bagration24—tall and thin, and with a cluster of small flags and cannon beneath him, and the whole set in the narrowest of frames—and, secondly, the Greek heroine, Bobelina, whose legs looked larger than do the whole bodies of the drawing-room dandies of the present day. Apparently the master of the house was himself a man of health and strength, and therefore liked to have his apartments adorned with none but folk of equal vigour and robustness. Lastly, in the window, and suspected cheek by jowl with Bobelina, there hung a cage whence at intervals there peered forth a white-spotted blackbird. Like everything else in the apartment, it bore a strong resemblance to Sobakevitch. When host and guest had been conversing for two minutes or so the door opened, and there entered the hostess—a tall lady in a cap adorned with ribands of domestic colouring and manufacture. She entered deliberately, and held her head as erect as a palm.
“This is my wife, Theodulia Ivanovna,” said Sobakevitch.
Chichikov approached and took her hand. The fact that she raised it nearly to the level of his lips apprised him of the circumstance that it had just been rinsed in cucumber oil.
“My dear, allow me to introduce Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov,” added Sobakevitch. “He has the honour of being acquainted both with our Governor and with our Postmaster.”
Upon this Theodulia Ivanovna requested her guest to be seated, and accompanied the invitation with the kind of bow usually employed only by actresses who are playing the role of queens. Next, she took a seat upon the sofa, drew around her her merino gown, and sat thereafter without moving an eyelid or an eyebrow. As for Chichikov, he glanced upwards, and once more caught sight of Kanaris with his fat thighs and interminable moustache, and of Bobelina and the blackbird. For fully five minutes all present preserved a complete silence—the only sound audible being that of the blackbird’s beak against the wooden floor of the cage as the creature fished for grains of corn. Meanwhile Chichikov again surveyed the room, and saw that everything in it was massive and clumsy in the highest degree; as also that everything was curiously in keeping with the master of the house. For example, in one corner of the apartment there stood a hazelwood bureau with a bulging body on four grotesque legs—the perfect image of a bear. Also, the tables and the chairs were of the same ponderous, unrestful order, and every single article in the room appeared to be saying either, “I, too, am a Sobakevitch,” or “I am exactly like Sobakevitch.”
“I heard speak of you one day when I was visiting the President of the Council,” said Chichikov, on perceiving that no one else had a mind to begin a conversation. “That was on Thursday last. We had a very pleasant evening.”
“Yes, on that occasion I was not there,” replied Sobakevitch.
“What a nice man he is!”
“Who is?” inquired Sobakevitch, gazing into the corner by the stove.
“The President of the Local Council.”
“Did he seem so to you? True, he is a mason, but he is also the greatest fool that the world ever saw.”
Chichikov started a little at this mordant criticism, but soon pulled himself together again, and continued:
“Of course, every man has his weakness. Yet the President seems to be an excellent fellow.”
“And do you think the same of the Governor?”
“Yes. Why not?”
“Because there exists no greater rogue than he.”
“What? The Governor a rogue?” ejaculated Chichikov, at a loss to understand how the official in question could come to be numbered with thieves. “Let me say that I should never have guessed it. Permit me also to remark that his conduct would hardly seem to bear out your opinion—he seems so gentle a man.” And in proof of this Chichikov cited the purses which the Governor knitted, and also expatiated on the mildness of his features.
“He has the face of a robber,” said Sobakevitch. “Were you to give him a knife, and to turn him loose on a turnpike, he would cut your throat for two kopecks. And the same with the Vice-Governor. The pair are just Gog and Magog.”
“Evidently he is not on good terms with them,” thought Chichikov to himself. “I had better pass to the Chief of Police, which whom he DOES seem to be friendly.” Accordingly he added aloud: “For my own part, I should give the preference to the Head of the Gendarmery. What a frank, outspoken nature he has! And what an element of simplicity does his expression contain!”
“He is mean to the core,” remarked Sobakevitch coldly. “He will sell you and cheat you, and then dine at your table. Yes, I know them all, and every one of them is a swindler, and the town a nest of rascals engaged in robbing one another. Not a man of the lot is there but would sell Christ. Yet stay: ONE decent fellow there is—the Public Prosecutor; though even HE, if the truth be told, is little better than a pig.”
After these eulogia Chichikov saw that it would be useless to continue running through the list of officials—more especially since suddenly he had remembered that Sobakevitch was not at any time given to commending his fellow man.
“Let us go to luncheon, my dear,” put in Theodulia Ivanovna to her spouse.
“Yes; pray come to table,” said Sobakevitch to his guest; whereupon they consumed the customary glass of vodka (accompanied by sundry snacks of salted cucumber and other dainties) with which Russians, both in town and country, preface a meal. Then they filed into the dining-room in the wake of the hostess, who sailed on ahead like a goose swimming across a pond. The small dining-table was found to be laid for four persons—the fourth place being occupied by a lady or a young girl (it would have been difficult to say which exactly) who might have been either a relative, the housekeeper, or a casual visitor. Certain persons in the world exist, not as personalities in themselves, but as spots or specks on the personalities of others. Always they are to be seen sitting in the same place, and holding their heads at exactly the same angle, so that one comes within an ace of mistaking them for furniture, and thinks to oneself that never since the day of their birth can they have spoken a single word.
“My dear,” said Sobakevitch, “the cabbage soup is excellent.” With that he finished his portion, and helped himself to a generous measure of niania25—the dish which follows shtchi and consists of a sheep’s stomach stuffed with black porridge, brains, and other things. “What niania this is!” he added to Chichikov. “Never would you get such stuff in a town, where one is given the devil knows what.”
“Nevertheless the Governor keeps a fair table,” said Chichikov.
“Yes, but do you know what all the stuff is MADE OF?” retorted Sobakevitch. “If you DID know you would never touch it.”
“Of course I am not in a position to say how it is prepared, but at least the pork cutlets and the boiled fish seemed excellent.”
“Ah, it might have been thought so; yet I know the way in which such things are bought in the market-place. They are bought by some rascal of a cook whom a Frenchman has taught how to skin a tomcat and then serve it up as hare.”
“Ugh! What horrible things you say!” put in Madame.
“Well, my dear, that is how things are done, and it is no fault of mine that it is so. Moreover, everything that is left over—everything that WE (pardon me for mentioning it) cast into the slop-pail—is used by such folk for making soup.”
“Always at table you begin talking like this!” objected his helpmeet.
“And why not?” said Sobakevitch. “I tell you straight that I would not eat such nastiness, even had I made it myself. Sugar a frog as much as you like, but never shall it pass MY lips. Nor would I swallow an oyster, for I know only too well what an oyster may resemble. But have some mutton, friend Chichikov. It is shoulder of mutton, and very different stuff from the mutton which they cook in noble kitchens—mutton which has been kicking about the market-place four days or more. All that sort of cookery has been invented by French and German doctors, and I should like to hang them for having done so. They go and prescribe diets and a hunger cure as though what suits their flaccid German systems will agree with a Russian stomach! Such devices are no good at all.” Sobakevitch shook his head wrathfully. “Fellows like those are for ever talking of civilisation. As if THAT sort of thing was civilisation! Phew!” (Perhaps the speaker’s concluding exclamation would have been even stronger had he not been seated at table.) “For myself, I will have none of it. When I eat pork at a meal, give me the WHOLE pig; when mutton, the WHOLE sheep; when goose, the WHOLE of the bird. Two dishes are better than a thousand, provided that one can eat of them as much as one wants.”
And he proceeded to put precept into practice by taking half the shoulder of mutton on to his plate, and then devouring it down to the last morsel of gristle and bone.
“My word!” reflected Chichikov. “The fellow has a pretty good holding capacity!”
“None of it for me,” repeated Sobakevitch as he wiped his hands on his napkin. “I don’t intend to be like a fellow named Plushkin, who owns eight hundred souls, yet dines worse than does my shepherd.”
“Who is Plushkin?” asked Chichikov.
“A miser,” replied Sobakevitch. “Such a miser as never you could imagine. Even convicts in prison live better than he does. And he starves his servants as well.”
“Really?” ejaculated Chichikov, greatly interested. “Should you, then, say that he has lost many peasants by death?”
“Certainly. They keep dying like flies.”
“Then how far from here does he reside?”
“About five versts.”
“Only five versts?” exclaimed Chichikov, feeling his heart beating joyously. “Ought one, when leaving your gates, to turn to the right or to the left?”
“I should be sorry to tell you the way to the house of such a cur,” said Sobakevitch. “A man had far better go to hell than to Plushkin’s.”
“Quite so,” responded Chichikov. “My only reason for asking you is that it interests me to become acquainted with any and every sort of locality.”
To the shoulder of mutton there succeeded, in turn, cutlets (each one larger than a plate), a turkey of about the size of a calf, eggs, rice, pastry, and every conceivable thing which could possibly be put into a stomach. There the meal ended. When he rose from table Chichikov felt as though a pood’s weight were inside him. In the drawing-room the company found dessert awaiting them in the shape of pears, plums, and apples; but since neither host nor guest could tackle these particular dainties the hostess removed them to another room. Taking advantage of her absence, Chichikov turned to Sobakevitch (who, prone in an armchair, seemed, after his ponderous meal, to be capable of doing little beyond belching and grunting—each such grunt or belch necessitating a subsequent signing of the cross over the mouth), and intimated to him a desire to have a little private conversation concerning a certain matter. At this moment the hostess returned.
“Here is more dessert,” she said. “Pray have a few radishes stewed in honey.”
“Later, later,” replied Sobakevitch. “Do you go to your room, and Paul Ivanovitch and I will take off our coats and have a nap.”
Upon this the good lady expressed her readiness to send for feather beds and cushions, but her husband expressed a preference for slumbering in an armchair, and she therefore departed. When she had gone Sobakevitch inclined his head in an attitude of willingness to listen to Chichikov’s business. Our hero began in a sort of detached manner—touching lightly upon the subject of the Russian Empire, and expatiating upon the immensity of the same, and saying that even the Empire of Ancient Rome had been of considerably smaller dimensions. Meanwhile Sobakevitch sat with his head drooping.
From that Chichikov went on to remark that, according to the statutes of the said Russian Empire (which yielded to none in glory—so much so that foreigners marvelled at it), peasants on the census lists who had ended their earthly careers were nevertheless, on the rendering of new lists, returned equally with the living, to the end that the courts might be relieved of a multitude of trifling, useless emendations which might complicate the already sufficiently complex mechanism of the State. Nevertheless, said Chichikov, the general equity of this measure did not obviate a certain amount of annoyance to landowners, since it forced them to pay upon a non-living article the tax due upon a living. Hence (our hero concluded) he (Chichikov) was prepared, owing to the personal respect which he felt for Sobakevitch, to relieve him, in part, of the irksome obligation referred to (in passing, it may be said that Chichikov referred to his principal point only guardedly, for he called the souls which he was seeking not “dead,” but “non-existent”).
Meanwhile Sobakevitch listened with bent head; though something like a trace of expression dawned in his face as he did so. Ordinarily his body lacked a soul—or, if he did posses a soul, he seemed to keep it elsewhere than where it ought to have been; so that, buried beneath mountains (as it were) or enclosed within a massive shell, its movements produced no sort of agitation on the surface.
“Well?” said Chichikov—though not without a certain tremor of diffidence as to the possible response.
“You are after dead souls?” were Sobakevitch’s perfectly simple words. He spoke without the least surprise in his tone, and much as though the conversation had been turning on grain.
“Yes,” replied Chichikov, and then, as before, softened down the expression “dead souls.”
“They are to be found,” said Sobakevitch. “Why should they not be?”
“Then of course you will be glad to get rid of any that you may chance to have?”
“Yes, I shall have no objection to SELLING them.” At this point the speaker raised his head a little, for it had struck him that surely the would-be buyer must have some advantage in view.
“The devil!” thought Chichikov to himself. “Here is he selling the goods before I have even had time to utter a word!”
“And what about the price?” he added aloud. “Of course, the articles are not of a kind very easy to appraise.”
“I should be sorry to ask too much,” said Sobakevitch. “How would a hundred roubles per head suit you?”
“What, a hundred roubles per head?” Chichikov stared open-mouthed at his host—doubting whether he had heard aright, or whether his host’s slow-moving tongue might not have inadvertently substituted one word for another.
“Yes. Is that too much for you?” said Sobakevitch. Then he added: “What is your own price?”
“My own price? I think that we cannot properly have understood one another—that you must have forgotten of what the goods consist. With my hand on my heart do I submit that eight grivni per soul would be a handsome, a VERY handsome, offer.”
“What? Eight grivni?”
“In my opinion, a higher offer would be impossible.”
“But I am not a seller of boots.”
“No; yet you, for your part, will agree that these souls are not live human beings?”
“I suppose you hope to find fools ready to sell you souls on the census list for a couple of groats apiece?”
“Pardon me, but why do you use the term ‘on the census list’? The souls themselves have long since passed away, and have left behind them only their names. Not to trouble you with any further discussion of the subject, I can offer you a rouble and a half per head, but no more.”
“You should be ashamed even to mention such a sum! Since you deal in articles of this kind, quote me a genuine price.”
“I cannot, Michael Semenovitch. Believe me, I cannot. What a man cannot do, that he cannot do.” The speaker ended by advancing another half-rouble per head.
“But why hang back with your money?” said Sobakevitch. “Of a truth I am not asking much of you. Any other rascal than myself would have cheated you by selling you old rubbish instead of good, genuine souls, whereas I should be ready to give you of my best, even were you buying only nut-kernels. For instance, look at wheelwright Michiev. Never was there such a one to build spring carts! And his handiwork was not like your Moscow handiwork—good only for an hour. No, he did it all himself, even down to the varnishing.”
Chichikov opened his mouth to remark that, nevertheless, the said Michiev had long since departed this world; but Sobakevitch’s eloquence had got too thoroughly into its stride to admit of any interruption.
“And look, too, at Probka Stepan, the carpenter,” his host went on. “I will wager my head that nowhere else would you find such a workman. What a strong fellow he was! He had served in the Guards, and the Lord only knows what they had given for him, seeing that he was over three arshins in height.”
Again Chichikov tried to remark that Probka was dead, but Sobakevitch’s tongue was borne on the torrent of its own verbiage, and the only thing to be done was to listen.
“And Milushkin, the bricklayer! He could build a stove in any house you liked! And Maksim Teliatnikov, the bootmaker! Anything that he drove his awl into became a pair of boots—and boots for which you would be thankful, although he WAS a bit foul of the mouth. And Eremi Sorokoplechin, too! He was the best of the lot, and used to work at his trade in Moscow, where he paid a tax of five hundred roubles. Well, THERE’S an assortment of serfs for you!—a very different assortment from what Plushkin would sell you!”
“But permit me,” at length put in Chichikov, astounded at this flood of eloquence to which there appeared to be no end. “Permit me, I say, to inquire why you enumerate the talents of the deceased, seeing that they are all of them dead, and that therefore there can be no sense in doing so. ‘A dead body is only good to prop a fence with,’ says the proverb.”
“Of course they are dead,” replied Sobakevitch, but rather as though the idea had only just occurred to him, and was giving him food for thought. “But tell me, now: what is the use of listing them as still alive? And what is the use of them themselves? They are flies, not human beings.”
“Well,” said Chichikov, “they exist, though only in idea.”
“But no—NOT only in idea. I tell you that nowhere else would you find such a fellow for working heavy tools as was Michiev. He had the strength of a horse in his shoulders.” And, with the words, Sobakevitch turned, as though for corroboration, to the portrait of Bagration, as is frequently done by one of the parties in a dispute when he purports to appeal to an extraneous individual who is not only unknown to him, but wholly unconnected with the subject in hand; with the result that the individual is left in doubt whether to make a reply, or whether to betake himself elsewhere.
“Nevertheless, I CANNOT give you more than two roubles per head,” said Chichikov.
“Well, as I don’t want you to swear that I have asked too much of you and won’t meet you halfway, suppose, for friendship’s sake, that you pay me seventy-five roubles in assignats?”
“Good heavens!” thought Chichikov to himself. “Does the man take me for a fool?” Then he added aloud: “The situation seems to me a strange one, for it is as though we were performing a stage comedy. No other explanation would meet the case. Yet you appear to be a man of sense, and possessed of some education. The matter is a very simple one. The question is: what is a dead soul worth, and is it of any use to any one?”
“It is of use to YOU, or you would not be buying such articles.”
Chichikov bit his lip, and stood at a loss for a retort. He tried to saying something about “family and domestic circumstances,” but Sobakevitch cut him short with:
“I don’t want to know your private affairs, for I never poke my nose into such things. You need the souls, and I am ready to sell them. Should you not buy them, I think you will repent it.”
“Two roubles is my price,” repeated Chichikov.
“Come, come! As you have named that sum, I can understand your not liking to go back upon it; but quote me a bona fide figure.”
“The devil fly away with him!” mused Chichikov. “However, I will add another half-rouble.” And he did so.
“Indeed?” said Sobakevitch. “Well, my last word upon it is—fifty roubles in assignats. That will mean a sheer loss to me, for nowhere else in the world could you buy better souls than mine.”
“The old skinflint!” muttered Chichikov. Then he added aloud, with irritation in his tone: “See here. This is a serious matter. Any one but you would be thankful to get rid of the souls. Only a fool would stick to them, and continue to pay the tax.”
“Yes, but remember (and I say it wholly in a friendly way) that transactions of this kind are not generally allowed, and that any one would say that a man who engages in them must have some rather doubtful advantage in view.”
“Have it your own away,” said Chichikov, with assumed indifference. “As a matter of fact, I am not purchasing for profit, as you suppose, but to humour a certain whim of mine. Two and a half roubles is the most that I can offer.”
“Bless your heart!” retorted the host. “At least give me thirty roubles in assignats, and take the lot.”
“No, for I see that you are unwilling to sell. I must say good-day to you.”
“Hold on, hold on!” exclaimed Sobakevitch, retaining his guest’s hand, and at the same moment treading heavily upon his toes—so heavily, indeed, that Chichikov gasped and danced with the pain.
“I BEG your pardon!” said Sobakevitch hastily. “Evidently I have hurt you. Pray sit down again.”
“No,” retorted Chichikov. “I am merely wasting my time, and must be off.”
“Oh, sit down just for a moment. I have something more agreeable to say.” And, drawing closer to his guest, Sobakevitch whispered in his ear, as though communicating to him a secret: “How about twenty-five roubles?”
“No, no, no!” exclaimed Chichikov. “I won’t give you even a QUARTER of that. I won’t advance another kopeck.”
For a while Sobakevitch remained silent, and Chichikov did the same. This lasted for a couple of minutes, and, meanwhile, the aquiline-nosed Bagration gazed from the wall as though much interested in the bargaining.
“What is your outside price?” at length said Sobakevitch.
“Two and a half roubles.”
“Then you seem to rate a human soul at about the same value as a boiled turnip. At least give me THREE roubles.”
“No, I cannot.”
“Pardon me, but you are an impossible man to deal with. However, even though it will mean a dead loss to me, and you have not shown a very nice spirit about it, I cannot well refuse to please a friend. I suppose a purchase deed had better be made out in order to have everything in order?”
“Then for that purpose let us repair to the town.”
The affair ended in their deciding to do this on the morrow, and to arrange for the signing of a deed of purchase. Next, Chichikov requested a list of the peasants; to which Sobakevitch readily agreed. Indeed, he went to his writing-desk then and there, and started to indite a list which gave not only the peasants’ names, but also their late qualifications.
Meanwhile Chichikov, having nothing else to do, stood looking at the spacious form of his host; and as he gazed at his back as broad as that of a cart horse, and at the legs as massive as the iron standards which adorn a street, he could not help inwardly ejaculating:
“Truly God has endowed you with much! Though not adjusted with nicety, at least you are strongly built. I wonder whether you were born a bear or whether you have come to it through your rustic life, with its tilling of crops and its trading with peasants? Yet no; I believe that, even if you had received a fashionable education, and had mixed with society, and had lived in St. Petersburg, you would still have been just the kulak26 that you are. The only difference is that circumstances, as they stand, permit of your polishing off a stuffed shoulder of mutton at a meal; whereas in St. Petersburg you would have been unable to do so. Also, as circumstances stand, you have under you a number of peasants, whom you treat well for the reason that they are your property; whereas, otherwise, you would have had under you tchinovniks27: whom you would have bullied because they were NOT your property. Also, you would have robbed the Treasury, since a kulak always remains a money-grubber.”
“The list is ready,” said Sobakevitch, turning round.
“Indeed? Then please let me look at it.” Chichikov ran his eye over the document, and could not but marvel at its neatness and accuracy. Not only were there set forth in it the trade, the age, and the pedigree of every serf, but on the margin of the sheet were jotted remarks concerning each serf’s conduct and sobriety. Truly it was a pleasure to look at it.
“And do you mind handing me the earnest money?” said Sobakevitch?
“Yes, I do. Why need that be done? You can receive the money in a lump sum as soon as we visit the town.”
“But it is always the custom, you know,” asserted Sobakevitch.
“Then I cannot follow it, for I have no money with me. However, here are ten roubles.”
“Ten roubles, indeed? You might as well hand me fifty while you are about it.”
Once more Chichikov started to deny that he had any money upon him, but Sobakevitch insisted so strongly that this was not so that at length the guest pulled out another fifteen roubles, and added them to the ten already produced.
“Kindly give me a receipt for the money,” he added.
“A receipt? Why should I give you a receipt?”
“Because it is better to do so, in order to guard against mistakes.”
“Very well; but first hand me over the money.”
“The money? I have it here. Do you write out the receipt, and then the money shall be yours.”
“Pardon me, but how am I to write out the receipt before I have seen the cash?”
Chichikov placed the notes in Sobakevitch’s hand; whereupon the host moved nearer to the table, and added to the list of serfs a note that he had received for the peasants, therewith sold, the sum of twenty-five roubles, as earnest money. This done, he counted the notes once more.
“This is a very OLD note,” he remarked, holding one up to the light. “Also, it is a trifle torn. However, in a friendly transaction one must not be too particular.”
“What a kulak!” thought Chichikov to himself. “And what a brute beast!”
“Then you do not want any WOMEN souls?” queried Sobakevitch.
“I thank you, no.”
“I could let you have some cheap—say, as between friends, at a rouble a head?”
“No, I should have no use for them.”
“Then, that being so, there is no more to be said. There is no accounting for tastes. ‘One man loves the priest, and another the priest’s wife,’ says the proverb.”
Chichikov rose to take his leave. “Once more I would request of you,” he said, “that the bargain be left as it is.”
“Of course, of course. What is done between friends holds good because of their mutual friendship. Good-bye, and thank you for your visit. In advance I would beg that, whenever you should have an hour or two to spare, you will come and lunch with us again. Perhaps we might be able to do one another further service?”
“Not if I know it!” reflected Chichikov as he mounted his britchka. “Not I, seeing that I have had two and a half roubles per soul squeezed out of me by a brute of a kulak!”
Altogether he felt dissatisfied with Sobakevitch’s behaviour. In spite of the man being a friend of the Governor and the Chief of Police, he had acted like an outsider in taking money for what was worthless rubbish. As the britchka left the courtyard Chichikov glanced back and saw Sobakevitch still standing on the verandah—apparently for the purpose of watching to see which way the guest’s carriage would turn.
“The old villain, to be still standing there!” muttered Chichikov through his teeth; after which he ordered Selifan to proceed so that the vehicle’s progress should be invisible from the mansion—the truth being that he had a mind next to visit Plushkin (whose serfs, to quote Sobakevitch, had a habit of dying like flies), but not to let his late host learn of his intention. Accordingly, on reaching the further end of the village, he hailed the first peasant whom he saw—a man who was in the act of hoisting a ponderous beam on to his shoulder before setting off with it, ant-like, to his hut.
“Hi!” shouted Chichikov. “How can I reach landowner Plushkin’s place without first going past the mansion here?”
The peasant seemed nonplussed by the question.
“Don’t you know?” queried Chichikov.
“No, barin,” replied the peasant.
“What? You don’t know skinflint Plushkin who feeds his people so badly?”
“Of course I do!” exclaimed the fellow, and added thereto an uncomplimentary expression of a species not ordinarily employed in polite society. We may guess that it was a pretty apt expression, since long after the man had become lost to view Chichikov was still laughing in his britchka. And, indeed, the language of the Russian populace is always forcible in its phraseology.