Chapter One

Through the gates of the inn in the provincial town of N. drove a rather handsome, smallish spring britzka, of the sort driven around in by bachelors: retired lieutenant colonels, staff captains, landowners possessed of some hundred peasant souls—in short, all those known as gentlemen of the middling sort. In the britzka sat a gentleman, not handsome, but also not bad-looking, neither too fat nor too thin; you could not have said he was old, yet neither was he all that young. His entrance caused no stir whatever in town and was accompanied by nothing special; only two Russian muzhiks standing by the door of the pot-house across from the inn made some remarks, which referred, however, more to the vehicle than to the person sitting in it. “See that?” said the one to the other, “there’s a wheel for you! What do you say, would that wheel make it as far as Moscow, if it so happened, or wouldn’t it?” “It would,” replied the other. “But not as far as Kazan I don’t suppose?” “Not as far as Kazan,” replied the other. And with that the conversation ended. Then, as the britzka drove up to the inn, it met with a young man in white twill trousers, quite narrow and short, and a tailcoat with presumptions to fashion, under which could be seen a shirtfront fastened with a Tula-made pin shaped like a bronze pistol.[1] The young man turned around, looked at the carriage, held his hand to his peaked cap, which was almost blown off by the wind, and went on his way.

As the carriage drove into the yard, the gentleman was met by a tavern servant, or floorboy, as they are called in Russian taverns, lively and fidgety to such a degree that it was even impossible to tell what sort of face he had. He ran outnimbly, a napkin in his hand, all long himself and in a long half-cotton frock coat with its back almost up to his nape, tossed his hair, and nimbly led the gentleman up along the entire wooden gallery to show him his God-sent chambers. The chambers were of a familiar kind, for the inn was also of a familiar kind, that is, precisely one of those inns in provincial towns where for two roubles a day the traveler is given a comfortable room, with cockroaches peeking like prunes from every corner, and the door to the adjoining quarters always blocked by a chest of drawers, where a neighbor settles, a taciturn and quiet man, yet an extremely curious one, interested in knowing every little detail about the traveler. The external façade of the inn answered to its inside: it was very long, of two stories; the lower had not been stuccoed and was left in dark red little bricks, darkened still more by evil changes of weather, and a bit dirty anyway; the upper was painted with eternal yellow paint; below there were shops selling horse collars, ropes, and pretzels. In the corner shop, or, better, in its window, sat a seller of hot punch with a red copper samovar and a face as red as the samovar, so that from a distance one might have thought there were two samovars in the window, if one samovar had not had a pitch-black beard.

While the visiting gentleman was examining his room, his belongings were brought in: first of all a white leather trunk, somewhat worn, indicating that this was not its first time on the road. The trunk was brought in by the coachman Selifan, a short man in a sheepskin coat, and the lackey Petrushka, a fellow of about thirty in a roomy secondhand frock coat, evidently from his master’s back, a somewhat stern fellow by the look of him, with a very large nose and lips. After the trunk, a small mahogany chest inlaid with Karelian birch was brought in, a boot-tree, and a roast chicken wrapped in blue paper. When all this had been brought in, the coachman Selifan went to the stables to potter with the horses, while the lackey Petrushka began to settle himself in a small anteroom, a very dark closet, where he had already managed to drag his overcoat and with it a certain smell of his own, which had also been imparted to the sack of various lackey toiletries brought in after it. In this closet, he fixed a narrow, three-legged bed to the wall and covered it with a small semblance of a mattress, beaten down and flat as a pancake, and perhaps as greasy as a pancake, which he had managed to extort from the innkeeper.

While the servants were settling and pottering, the gentleman went to the common room. What these common rooms are, every traveler knows very well: the same walls painted with oil paint, darkened above by pipe smoke, and shiny below from the backs of various travelers, and still more of indigenous merchants, for merchants came here on market days in sixes and sevens to drink their well-known two cups of tea; the same besooted ceiling; the same sooty chandelier with its multitude of glass pendants that danced and jingled each time the floorboy ran across the worn oilcloth deftly balancing a tray on which sat numerous teacups, like birds on the seashore; the same oil paintings all over the wall—in short, the same as everywhere; with the only difference that one painting portrayed a nymph with such enormous breasts as the reader has probably never seen. Such sports of nature occur, however, in various historical paintings, brought to our Russia no one knows at what time, from where, or by whom, on occasion even by our grand dignitaries, lovers of art, who bought them up in Italy on the advice of the couriers that drove them around. The gentleman took off his peaked cap and unwound from his neck a rainbow-hued woolen scarf, such as married men are provided with by their wives, with their own hands, who furnish them with suitable instructions on how to wrap oneself up, while for bachelors—I cannot say for certain who makes them, God alone knows, I myself have never worn such scarves. Having unwound the scarf, the gentleman ordered dinner to be served. While he was being served various dishes usual in taverns, such as: cabbage soup with puff pastry, preserved over many weeks purposely for travelers, brains and peas, sausages and cabbage, roast poulard, pickles, and eternal sweet puff pastries, always ready to please; while all this was being served, warmed up or simply cold, he made the servant, that is, the floorboy, tell him all sorts of rubbish—about who had kept the tavern before and who kept it now, and did it bring in much income, and was their master a great scoundrel, to which the floorboy gave the customary answer: “Oh, he is, sir. A great crook.” As in enlightened Europe, so in enlightened Russia there are now quite a lot of respectable people who cannot have a meal in a tavern without talking with the servant and sometimes even making an amusing joke at his expense. However, the visitor’s questions were not all idle; he inquired with extreme precision as to who was the governor of the town, who was the head magistrate, who was the prosecutor—in short, he did not skip a single important official; but with still greater precision, even almost concern, he inquired about all the important landowners: how many peasant souls each one had, how far from town he lived, even what his character was and how often he came to town; he inquired attentively into the condition of the area: whether there were any diseases in their province—epidemics of fever, some deadly agues, smallpox, and the like, and all this so thoroughly and with such precision that it showed more than mere curiosity alone. The gentleman’s manners had something solid about them, and he blew his nose with an exceeding loudness. It is not known how he did it, only his nose sounded like a trumpet. This apparently quite innocent virtue, however, gained him great esteem on the part of the tavern servant, who, each time he heard this sound, tossed his hair, drew himself up more respectfully, and, bowing his head from on high, asked: was anything required? After dinner the gentleman took himself a cup of coffee and sat on the sofa, propping his back against a pillow, which in Russian taverns are stuffed not with springy wool, but instead with something extremely like bricks and cobbles. Here he started yawning and asked to be taken to his room, where he lay down and slept for two hours. Having rested, he wrote on a scrap of paper, at the request of the tavern servant, his rank and full name, to be conveyed to the proper quarters, the police. On the paper, mouthing each syllable as he went down the stairs, the floorboy read the following: “Collegiate Councillor Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, landowner, on private business.” While the floorboy was still working through the syllables of the note, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov himself set out to have a look at the town, with which, it seems, he was satisfied, for he found that the town yielded in nothing to other provincial towns: striking to the eye was the yellow paint on the stone houses, modestly dark was the gray of the wooden ones. The houses were of one, two, and one and a half stories, with those eternal mezzanines so beautiful in the opinion of provincial architects. In some places the houses seemed lost amid the street, wide as a field, and the never-ending wooden fences; in others they clustered together, and here one could note more animation and human commotion. One came across signboards all but washed out by rain, with pretzels and boots, or, in one place, with blue trousers pictured on them and the signature of some Warsaw tailor; then a shop with peaked caps, flat caps, and inscribed: Vassily Fyodorov, foreigner; in another place a picture of a billiard table with two players in tailcoats of the kind worn in our theater by guests who come on stage in the last act. The players were depicted aiming their cues, their arms somewhat twisted back and their legs askew, having just performed an entrechat in the air. Under all this was written: and this is the establishment. In some places there were tables simply standing in the street, with nuts, soap, and gingerbreads resembling soap; then an eatery with a picture of a fat fish with a fork stuck into it. Most frequently one noted weathered, two-headed state eagles, which have since been replaced by the laconic inscription: public house. The pavement everywhere was of a poorish sort. He also peeked into the town garden, which consisted of skinny trees, badly rooted, propped by supports formed in triangles, very beautifully painted with green oil paint. However, though these little trees were no taller than reeds, it was said of them in the newspapers, as they described some festive decorations, that “our town has been beautified, thanks to the solicitude of the civic ruler, by a garden consisting of shady, wide-branching trees that provide coolness on hot days,” and that “it was very moving to see the hearts of the citizens flutter in an abundance of gratitude and pour forth streams of tears as a token of thankfulness to mister governor.” Having inquired in detail of a sentry as to the shortest way, in case of need, to the cathedral, the municipal offices, the governor’s, he set out to view the river that flowed through the middle of the town, in passing tore off a playbill attached to a post, so as to read it properly when he got home, looked intently at a lady of comely appearance who was walking down the wooden sidewalk, followed by a boy in military livery with a bundle in his hand, and, once more casting his eyes around at it all, as if with the purpose of memorizing well the disposition of the place, went home straight to his room, supported somewhat on the stairs by the tavern servant. After taking tea, he sat down before the table, asked for a candle, took the playbill from his pocket, brought it near the candle, and began to read, squinting his right eye slightly. However, there was little remarkable in the playbill: Mr. Kotzebue’s drama[2] was showing, with Rolla played by Mr. Poplyovin, Cora by Miss Zyablova, the rest of the cast being even less remarkable; but he read them all anyway, even got as far as the price for the stalls, and learned that the playbill had been printed on the provincial government press; then he turned it over to the other side: to see if there was anything there, but, finding nothing, he rubbed his eyes, folded it neatly, and put it into his little chest, where he was in the habit of stowing away whatever came along. The day, it seems, was concluded with a helping of cold veal, a bottle of fizzy kvass, and a sound sleep with all pumps pumping, as the saying goes in some parts of the vast Russian state.

The following day was devoted entirely to visits; the newcomer went around visiting all the town dignitaries. He came with his respects to the governor, who, as it turned out, was like Chichikov neither fat nor thin, had an Anna on his neck, and there was even talk of his having been recommended for a star;[3] in any case, he was a jolly good fellow and sometimes even did embroidery on tulle. Next he went to the vice-governor, then to the prosecutor, the head magistrate, the police chief, the tax farmer,[4] the superintendent of the government factories . . . alas, it is a bit difficult to remember all the mighty of this world: but suffice it to say that the newcomer displayed an extraordinary activity with regard to visiting: he even went to pay his respects to the inspector of the board of health and the town architect. And for a long time afterwards he sat in his britzka, thinking up someone else he might visit, but there were no more officials to be found in the town. In conversation with these potentates, he managed very artfully to flatter each of them. To the governor he hinted, somehow in passing, that one drove into his province as into paradise, that the roads everywhere were like velvet, and that governments which appointed wise dignitaries were worthy of great praise. To the police chief he said something very flattering about the town sentries; and in conversation with the vice-governor and the head magistrate, who were as yet only state councillors, he twice even made the mistake of saying “Your Excellency,” which pleased them very much. The consequence was that the governor extended him an invitation to come that same evening to a party in his home, and the other officials, for their part, also invited him, one to dinner, another for a little game of Boston, another for a cup of tea.

The newcomer, as it seemed, avoided talking much about himself; if he did talk, it was in some sort of commonplaces, with marked modesty, and his conversation on these occasions assumed a somewhat bookish manner: that he was an insignificant worm of this world and not worthy of much concern, that he had gone through many trials in his life, had suffered for the truth in the civil service, had many enemies, who had even made attempts on his life, and that now, wishing to be at peace, he was seeking to choose finally a place to live, and that, having arrived in this town, he considered it his bounden duty to offer his respects to its foremost dignitaries. This was all they learned in the town about this new person, who very shortly did not fail to make his appearance at the governor’s party. The preparations for this party took him more than two hours, and here the newcomer displayed an attention to his toilet such as has not even been seen everywhere. After a short after-dinner nap, he ordered himself a washing and spent an extremely long time rubbing his two cheeks with soap, propping them from inside with his tongue; then, taking the towel from the tavern servant’s shoulder, he wiped his plump face with it on all sides, starting behind the ears, and first snorting a couple of times right into the tavern servant’s face. Then he put on a shirtfront before the mirror, plucked out two hairs that protruded from his nose, and immediately afterwards found himself in a cranberry-colored tailcoat with flecks. Dressed thus, he rolled in his own carriage along the endlessly wide streets, lit by the scant glow of windows now and then flitting by. However, the governor’s house was lit up fit for a ball; carriages with lanterns, two gendarmes at the entrance, postillions shouting from afar—in short, everything as it should be. Entering the great hall, Chichikov had to squint his eyes for a moment, because the brilliance of the candles, the lamps, and the ladies’ gowns was terrible. Everything was flooded with light. Black tailcoats flitted and darted about separately and in clusters here and there, as flies dart about a gleaming white sugar loaf in the hot summertime of July, while the old housekeeper hacks it up and divides it into glistening fragments before the open window; the children all gather round watching, following curiously the movements of her stiff arms raising the hammer, and the airborne squadrons of flies, lifted by the light air, fly in boldly, like full masters, and, profiting from the old woman’s weak sight and the sunshine which troubles her eyes, bestrew the dainty morsels, here scatteredly, there in thick clusters. Satiated by summer’s bounty, which anyhow offers dainty dishes at every step, they fly in not at all in order to eat, but only in order to show themselves off, to stroll back and forth on the heap of sugar, to rub their back or front legs together, or to scratch themselves under the wings, or, stretching out both front legs, to rub them over their heads, then turn and fly away, to come back again in new, pestering squadrons. Before Chichikov had time to look around, the governor seized him under the elbow and at once introduced him to his wife. The new-come guest did not let himself down here either: he uttered some compliment most fitting for a middle-aged man of a rank neither too low nor too high. When the dancers paired off, pressing everyone to the wall, he stood with his hands behind his back watching them for about two minutes very attentively. Many of the ladies were dressed well and fashionably, others were dressed in whatever God sends to a provincial town. The men here, as everywhere else, were of two kinds: there were the slim ones, who kept mincing around the ladies; some of these were of a kind difficult to distinguish from Petersburgers, having side-whiskers brushed in as well-considered and tasteful a manner, or else simply decent, quite clean-shaven faces, sitting down as casually beside the ladies, speaking French and making the ladies laugh in the same way as in Petersburg. The other kind of men consisted of the fat ones, or those like Chichikov—that is, not all that fat, and yet not thin either. These, contrariwise, looked askance at the ladies and backed away from them, and only kept glancing around to see whether the governor’s servant was setting up a green table for whist. Their faces were plump and round, some even had warts on them, one or two were pockmarked, the hair on their heads was done neither in tufts nor in curls, nor in a “devil-may-care” fashion, as the French say—their hair was either close cropped or slicked down, and the features of their faces were mostly rounded and strong. These were the distinguished officials of the town. Alas! the fat know better than the slim how to handle their affairs in this world. The slim serve mostly on special missions, or else only nominally, and shift about here and there; their existence is somehow too light, airy, and altogether unreliable. Whereas the fat never occupy indirect positions, but always direct ones, and once they sit somewhere, they sit reliably and firmly, so that the position will sooner creak and sag under them than they will fall off of it. External glitter they do not like; their tailcoats are not so smartly cut as the slim men’s, but instead God’s blessings fill their coffers. In three years the slim man does not have a single soul left that has not been mortgaged; with the fat man all is quiet, then lo and behold— somewhere at the end of town a house appears, bought in his wife’s name, then another house at the other end, then a little hamlet nearby, and then an estate with all its appurtenances. Finally, the fat man, having served God and his sovereign, having earned universal respect, leaves the service, moves away, and becomes a landowner, a fine Russian squire, a hospitable man, and he lives and lives well. And, after him, as is the Russian custom, his slim heirs again squander all the paternal goods posthaste. It cannot be concealed that these were almost the sort of reflections that occupied Chichikov as he looked over the company, and the result was that he finally joined the fat ones, where almost all the faces he met were familiar: the prosecutor with extremely black, bushy eyebrows and a slightly winking left eye that seemed to be saying: “Let’s go to the other room, brother, I’ll tell you a little something there”—a serious and taciturn man, however; the postmaster, a short man, but a wit and a philosopher; the head magistrate, quite a reasonable and amiable man—all of whom greeted him like an old acquaintance, to which Chichikov responded by bowing slightly to one side, though not without agreeableness. He straightaway made the acquaintance of the most affable and courteous landowner Manilov and the somewhat clumsy-looking Sobakevich, who stepped on his foot first thing, and said: “I beg your pardon.” Straightaway a score card for whist was thrust at him, which he accepted with the same polite bow. They sat down at the green table and did not get up again until supper. All conversation ceased entirely, as always happens when people finally give themselves over to a sensible occupation. Though the postmaster was extremely voluble, even he, once he had taken cards in his hands, at the same moment expressed on his face a thoughtful physiognomy, placed his lower lip over the upper one, and maintained that position all through the game. When he played a face card, he would strike the table hard with his hand, saying, if it was a queen, “Go, you old granny!” and if it was a king, “Go, you Tambov muzhik!” And the head magistrate would say, “I’ll give it to him in the whiskers! in the whiskers!” Sometimes, as the cards hit the table, such expressions would escape as: “Ah! take it or leave it, make it diamonds, then!” Or simply: “Hearts! Heartaches! Spadilloes!” or “Spadillicups! Spadikins! Spadixies!” or just simply “Spads!”—names with which they had rechristened the suits in their company. As is usual, when the game was over they argued rather loudly. Our new-come guest also argued, but somehow extremely artfully, so that everyone could see he was indeed arguing, yet arguing agreeably. He never said, “You led,” but “You were pleased to lead,” “I had the honor of beating your deuce,” and the like. In order to bring his opponents even more into agreement on something, he each time offered around his enameled silver snuffbox, at the bottom of which they noticed two violets, put there for the scent. The newcomer’s attention was occupied particularly by the landowners Manilov and Sobakevich, of whom mention has been made above. He at once inquired about them, straightaway calling the head magistrate and the postmaster a little aside. The few questions he asked showed that the guest was not only inquisitive but also substantial; for he first of all asked how many peasant souls each of them had and what was the condition of their estates, and only then inquired as to their names and patronymics. In a short time he succeeded in charming them completely. The landowner Manilov, a man not at all old, who had eyes as sweet as sugar and narrowed them each time he laughed, was mad about him. He pressed his hand for a very long time and begged him earnestly to do him the honor of coming to his estate, which, according to him, was only ten miles from the town gates. To this, Chichikov, most politely inclining his head and sincerely squeezing his hand, replied that he was not only ready to do so with great willingness, but would even regard it as his most sacred duty. Sobakevich also said somewhat laconically: “And to my place, too”—with a scrape of his foot, shod in a boot of such gigantic size that it would hardly be possible to find a foot corresponding to it, especially nowadays, when in Russia, too, mighty men are beginning to grow scarce.

The next day Chichikov went to dine and spend the evening with the police chief, where they settled down to whist at three o’clock after dinner and played until two o’clock in the morning. There, incidentally, he made the acquaintance of the landowner Nozdryov, a man of about thirty, a rollicksome fellow, who after three or four words began to address him familiarly. He addressed the police chief and the prosecutor in the same way and was on friendly terms with them; yet when they sat down to play for big stakes, the police chief and the prosecutor studied each trick he took with extreme attention and watched almost every card he played. The next day Chichikov spent the evening with the head magistrate, who received his guests in his dressing gown, a slightly greasy one, and some two women among them. Then he attended a soirée at the vice-governor’s, a big dinner at the tax farmer’s, a small dinner at the prosecutor’s, which, however, was as good as a big one; a light lunch after the morning liturgy, given by the town mayor, which was also as good as a dinner. In short, he did not have to stay home for a single hour, and came back to the inn only to sleep. The newcomer was somehow never at a loss and showed himself to be an experienced man of the world. Whatever the conversation, he always knew how to keep up his end: if the talk was of horse breeding, he spoke about horse breeding; if they were speaking of fine dogs, here, too, he made very sensible observations; if the discussion touched upon an investigation conducted by the treasury—he showed that he was not uninformed about legal wiles; if there were some argument about the game of billiards—in the game of billiards, too, he would not go amiss; if they spoke of virtue, on virtue, too, he reasoned very well, tears even came to his eyes; if on the distilling of spirits, then on the distilling of spirits he also knew his stuff; if on customs supervisors and officials, of them, too, he could judge as if he himself had been both an official and a supervisor. Remarkably, he knew how to clothe it all in some sort of decorum, he knew how to bear himself well. He spoke neither loudly nor softly, but absolutely as one ought. In short, however you turned it, he was a very respectable man. The officials were all pleased at the arrival of a new person. The governor opined of him that he was a right-minded man; the prosecutor that he was a sensible man; the colonel of the gendarmes said he was a learned man; the head magistrate that he was a knowledgeable and estimable man; the police chief that he was an estimable and amiable man; the police chief’s wife that he was a most amiable and mannerly man. Even Sobakevich himself, who rarely spoke of anyone from the good side, when he returned home rather late from town and, undressing completely, lay down in bed beside his lean-fleshed wife, said to her: “I, my dearest, was at the governor’s soirée and dined at the police chief’s, and I made the acquaintance of Collegiate Councillor Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov—a most agreeable man!” To which his spouse replied: “Hm!”—and shoved him with her leg.

Such was the opinion, rather flattering for the visitor, that was formed of him in the town, and it persisted until the time when one strange property of the visitor and an undertaking, or passage, as they say in the provinces, of which the reader will soon learn, threw almost the whole town into utter perplexity.

 

[1] The city of Tula, some hundred miles south of Moscow, most famous for its gunsmiths—immortalized by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95) in his Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea —was also known for samovars and gingerbread.

[2] August von Kotzebue (1761-1819) was a German playwright who lived for some years in Russia, where his plays were very successful. Suspected (rightly) of being an agent of the tsar, he was stabbed to death in the theater by a German student named Sand. Cora and Rolla are characters in his plays The Sun Maiden and The Spanish in Peru, or the Death of Rolla.

[3] The Order of St. Anna (i.e., St. Anne, mother of the Virgin) had two degrees, one worn on the neck, the other on the breast. The star was the decoration of the Order of St. Stanislas, a Polish civil order founded in 1792, which began to be awarded in Russia in 1831.

[4] A tax farmer was a private person authorized by the government to collect various taxes in exchange for a fixed fee. The practice was obviously open to abuse, and it was abolished by the reforms of the emperor Alexander II in the 1860s.

Contents

Обращение к пользователям