Chapter Ten

Having gathered at the house of the police chief, known to the reader already as the father and benefactor of the town, the officials had occasion to observe to each other that they had even grown thinner as a result of all these cares and anxieties. Indeed, the appointment of the new Governor-general, and the receipt of those documents of such serious content, and those God-knows-what rumors—all this left a visible imprint on their faces, and the frock coats of many of them had become visibly looser. Everything gave way: the head magistrate got thinner, the inspector of the board of health got thinner, the prosecutor got thinner, and some Semyon Ivanovich, who was never called by his last name, and who wore on his index finger a seal ring that he used to let the ladies look at—even he got thinner. Of course, as happens everywhere, there turned up some who did not quail or lose their presence of mind, but they were very few. Just the postmaster alone. He alone was unchanged in his constantly even character and had the custom of always saying on such occasions: “We know about you, Governor-general! There’s maybe three or four of you have come to replace each other, but as for me, my dear sir, I’ve been sitting in the same place for thirty years now.” To this the other officials usually observed: “That’s fine for you, Sprechen-sie-Deych Ivan Andreych, yours is a mailing business: receiving and sending correspondence; so you might cheat on occasion by locking the office an hour early, or bilk some merchant for sending a letter at the wrong time, or else send some package that oughtn’t to be sent—here, of course, anyone can be a saint. But just let the devil start turning up under your hands every day, so that you don’t want to take it, but he just sticks it there. You, naturally, couldn’t care less, you have just one boy, but we, brother, have the much-blessed Praskovya Fyodorovna, so that every year brings something: now a Praskushka, now a Petrusha—here, brother, it’s a different tune.” So spoke the officials, but whether it is indeed possible to hold out against the devil is not for the author to judge. In the council that gathered this time, the absence of that necessary thing which simple folk call sense was very noticeable. Generally we are somehow not made for representative meetings. In all our gatherings, from the peasant community level up to all possible learned and other committees, unless they have one head to control everything, there is a great deal of confusion. It is even hard to say why this is so; evidently the nation is like that, since the only meetings that succeed are those arranged for the sake of carousing or dining, to wit: clubs and all sorts of vauxhalls on a German footing.[1] Yet there is a readiness for anything, you might say, at any moment. Suddenly, as the wind blows, we start societies, charitable or for the encouragement of God knows what. The goal may be beautiful, but nothing will come of it for all that. Maybe it is because we are suddenly satisfied at the very beginning, and think that everything has already been done. For instance, having started some charitable society for the poor and donated considerable sums, we at once give a dinner for all the foremost dignitaries of the town to celebrate this praiseworthy action, spending, of course, half of all the donated money on it; the rest goes straightaway to rent a splendid apartment for the committee, with heating and doorkeepers, and then there are five and a half roubles left for the poor from the entire sum, and even here not all the members agree about their distribution, and each one trots out some gammer of his own. However, the meeting that gathered this time was of a completely different sort; it was formed as a result of necessity. The matter did not concern some poor people or strangers, the matter concerned each official personally, it was the matter of a calamity that threatened them all equally; which meant that, willy-nilly, there had to be more unanimity, closeness. But, for all that, it ended with devil knows what. Not to speak of the disagreement common to all councils, the opinions of those assembled displayed some even inconceivable indecisiveness: one said that Chichikov was a forger of government banknotes, and then himself added, “Or maybe he’s not”; another affirmed that he was an official of the Governor-general’s chancellery, and immediately went on, “Though, devil knows, it’s not written on his forehead.” Against the conjecture that he was a robber in disguise, everyone rose up in arms; they found that besides an appearance that in itself was trustworthy to begin with, there was nothing in his conversation to suggest a man of violent behavior. All at once the postmaster, who had stood for a few moments immersed in some reflection, cried out unexpectedly, either as a result of a sudden inspiration that visited him, or something else:

“Do you know who he is, gentlemen?”

The voice in which he uttered it contained in itself something so stupendous that it made them all cry out simultaneously:

“Who?”

“He, gentlemen, my dear sir, is none other than Captain Kopeikin!”[2]

And when straightaway they all asked with one voice: “Who is this Captain Kopeikin?” the postmaster said:

“So you don’t know who Captain Kopeikin is?”

They all replied that they had no knowledge of who Captain Kopeikin was.

“Captain Kopeikin,” the postmaster said, opening his snuffbox only halfway for fear one of his neighbors might get into it with his fingers, in the cleanness of which he had little faith and even had the custom of muttering: “We know, my dear, you may go visiting God knows what parts with your fingers, and snuff is a thing requiring cleanliness”—”Captain Kopeikin,” the postmaster said, after taking a pinch, “no, but as a matter of fact, if someone was to tell it, it would, in a certain way, make a whole poem, quite amusing for some writer.”

All those present expressed a desire to know this story, or, as the postmaster put it, in a certain way, whole poem, quite amusing for some writer, and he began thus:

 

THE TALE OF CAPTAIN KOPEIKIN

 

“After the campaign of the year ‘twelve, my good sir,” thus the postmaster began, though sitting in the room were not one sir but a whole six, “after the campaign of the year ‘twelve, Captain Kopeikin was sent back along with the other wounded. It was either at Krasny or else at Leipzig, but anyway, if you can imagine, he had an arm and a leg blown off. Well, they hadn’t yet made any of those, you know, arrangements for the wounded; this invalid fund or whatever, if you can picture it, was, in a certain way, introduced much later. Captain Kopeikin sees he ought to work, only, you understand, all he’s got is his left hand. He tried going home to his father; the father says, ‘I’ve got nothing to feed you with’—if you can picture it—’I barely have bread for myself So my Captain Kopeikin decided to set out for Petersburg, my good sir, to petition the sovereign and see if he could obtain some imperial charity, ‘because look, thus and so, in a certain way, so to speak, I sacrificed my life, spilled my blood . . . ‘ Well, anyway, you know, with some government transport or wagon train— in short, my good sir, he somehow dragged himself to Petersburg. Well, if you can picture it, this some such one—Captain Kopeikin, that is—suddenly found himself in a capital the likes of which, so to speak, doesn’t exist on earth! Suddenly there’s a world before him, so to speak, a sort of field of life, a fairytale Scheherazade. Suddenly, if you can picture it, there’s some such Nevsky Prospect, or, you understand, some Gorokhovy Street, devil take it! or some such Liteiny Street; there’s some such spire sticking up in the air; the bridges there hang like the devil, if you can picture it, that is, not touching anywhere—in short, it’s Semiramis, sir,[3] that’s the whole of it! He knocked about trying to rent a place, only it all put too much of a pinch on him—all those curtains, shades, devilish stuff, you understand, rugs—a whole Persia; trampling on capitals with your feet, so to speak.

Well, it’s just, I mean, you go down the street and your nose can simply smell the thousands; and my Captain Kopeikin’s bank account consists, you understand, of some ten fivers. Well, he somehow got himself sheltered in a Revel inn[4] for one rouble a day; dinner was cabbage soup and a piece of chopped beef. He sees there’s no point in overstaying. He makes inquiries about where to address himself. There is, they say, a kind of high commission, a board or whatever, you understand, and the head of it is general-in-chief so-and-so. And you should know that the sovereign was not yet in the capital then; the army, if you can picture it, hadn’t come back from Paris yet, everything was abroad. My Kopeikin got up early, scraped at his beard with his left hand— because to pay a barber would, in a certain way, run up a bill— pulled on his wretched uniform, and went on his wooden leg, if you can imagine, to see the chief himself, the great man. He made inquiries about his lodgings. ‘There,’ they say, pointing to a house on the Palace Embankment. A right little peasant cottage, you understand: shiny glass ten feet wide in the windows, if you can picture it, so the vases and whatnot in the rooms seem as if they’re outside—you could, in a certain way, reach them from the street with your hand; precious marbles on the walls, metal gewgaws, the sort of handle on the door, you know, that you’d have to stop at the grocer’s first and buy a half-kopeck’s worth of soap and rub your hands with it for two hours before you dared take hold of it—in short, there’s such lacquers all over everything, in a certain way, it boggles the mind. The doorkeeper alone already looks like a generalissimo: a gilded mace, a count’s physiognomy, like some sort of fat, overfed pug; cambric collars, rascality! . . . My Kopeikin somehow dragged himself with his wooden leg up to the reception room and flattened himself into a corner, so as not to shove his elbow, if you can picture it, into some America or India—some such gilded porcelain vase, you understand. Well, naturally, he got his full share of standing there, because, if you can picture it, he came when the general had, in a certain way, barely gotten up and his valet had just brought him some silver basin, you understand, for various sorts of ablutions. So my Kopeikin had been waiting for about four hours when, finally, in comes an adjutant or some other official on duty. ‘The general,’ he says, ‘will now come out to the reception room.’ And the reception room’s chock-full of people by then, like beans on a plate. None of it like our kind, simple churls, it’s all fourth or fifth rank, colonels, and an occasional fat noodle shining on an epaulette— in short, some generalty. Suddenly a barely noticeable stir passed over the room, you understand, like some fine ether. There was a ‘sh, sh’ here and there, and finally a terrible silence fell. The great man enters. Well . . . if you can picture it: a statesman! His face, so to speak. . . well, in keeping with the position, you understand . . . with high rank . . . the same for his expression, you understand. Whatever was in the waiting room, naturally, stands at attention that instant, trembling, expectant, anticipating, in a certain way, the deciding of their fate. The minister, the great man, goes up to one, then another: ‘What is it? What is it? What do you want? What is your business?’ Finally, my good sir, it’s Kopeikin’s turn. Kopeikin plucks up his courage: ‘Thus and so, Your Excellency: I spilled my blood, lost an arm and a leg, in a certain way, can’t work, and I make so bold as to ask for the sovereign’s charity.’ The minister sees: the man has a wooden leg, and his empty right sleeve is pinned to his uniform. ‘Very well,’ he says, ‘come by in a few days.’ My Kopeikin goes out all but enraptured: for one thing, he was deemed worthy of an audience with a, so to speak, foremost great man; and for another, now the matter of the pension would, in a certain way, finally be settled. In this mood, you understand, he goes hopping along the sidewalk. He stopped at Palkin’s tavern for a glass of vodka, had dinner, my good sir, in the ‘London,’ ordered a cutlet with capers, asked for poulard with all the frills; asked for a bottle of wine, went to the theater in the evening—in short, you understand, a little spree. He sees some trim English woman going down the sidewalk, if you can picture it, like some such swan. My Kopeikin—his blood, you know, was acting up in him—started after her, hump-hump, on his wooden leg—’but no,’ he thought, ‘later, when I have my pension, I’m getting too carried away now.’ So, my good sir, in some three or four days my Kopeikin again comes to the minister, waits for his appearance. ‘Thus and so,’ he says, ‘I’ve come to hear Your Excellency’s orders,’ he says, ‘being overcome with illness and owing to my wounds . . . ,’ and so on, you understand, in official style. The great man, if you can imagine, recognized him at once. ‘Ah,’ he says, ‘very well,’ he says, ‘this time I can tell you nothing except that you must wait for the sovereign’s arrival; then, undoubtedly, arrangements will be made concerning the wounded, but without the imperial will, so to speak, I can do nothing.’ A bow, you understand, and—good-bye. Kopeikin, if you can imagine, walked out in a most uncertain position. He was already thinking he’d just be handed money the next day: ‘Here, take it, dear boy, drink and make merry’ And instead of that he was told to wait, and the time was not specified. So he goes owlish down the steps, like a poodle, you understand, that the cook has doused with water—tail between his legs, ears drooping. Ah, no,’ he thinks to himself, ‘I’ll go one more time and explain that I’m finishing my last crust—unless you help me, I’m sure to die, in a certain way, of hunger.’ In short, my good sir, he comes to the Palace Embankment again; they say, ‘Impossible, he’s not receiving, come tomorrow.’ Next day, same thing; and the doorkeeper just doesn’t want to look at him anymore. And meanwhile in his pocket, you understand, there’s only one of those fivers left. He used to eat cabbage soup, a piece of beef, and now he picks up some sort of herring or pickle in a food shop, and two groats’ worth of bread—in short, the poor devil is starving, and yet he’s got a wolf’s appetite. He walks past some such restaurant—the cook there, if you can picture it, is a foreigner, some Frenchman or other with an open physiognomy, dressed in Holland linen, apron white as snow, preparing some finzerb or cutlets with truffles—in short, such a soup-super delicacy, you could almost eat yourself up, it’s so appetizing. He goes past Milyutin’s shops, there’s this salmon peeking, in a certain way, out the window, cherries—five roubles apiece, a giant watermelon, a regular stagecoach, sticking out the window and looking, so to speak, for some fool willing to pay a hundred roubles—in short, such temptation at every step, it makes your mouth water, and meanwhile all he hears is ‘tomorrow.’ So that was his position, if you can imagine: here, on the one hand, so to speak, salmon and watermelon, and on the other they keep offering him one and the same dish: ‘tomorrow.’ In the end the poor devil, in a certain way, couldn’t take it; he decided to get through by storm, you understand, whatever the cost. He waited at the entrance for some petitioner to come, and along with some general, you understand, he slipped in with his wooden leg to the reception room. The great man comes out as usual: ‘What is your business? And yours? Ah!’ he says, seeing Kopeikin, ‘I already told you, you must wait for a decision.’ ‘For pity’s sake, Your Excellency, I don’t even have a crust of bread, so to speak . . .’ ‘No help for it. I can do nothing for you; try to take care of yourself for the time being, look for some means.’ ‘But, Your Excellency, you can judge for yourself, in a certain way, what means I’ll be able to find without an arm and a leg.’ ‘But,’ says the dignitary, you must agree that I cannot, in a certain way, support you out of my own pocket; I have many wounded, they all have an equal right. . . Fortify yourself with patience. The sovereign will come, and I give you my word of honor that his imperial charity will not abandon you.’ ‘But, Your Excellency, I can’t wait,’ says Kopeikin, and he says it somehow rudely. The great man is already annoyed, you understand. In fact, there are generals on all sides waiting for decisions, orders; important, so to speak, state business, calling for the swiftest execution—a moment’s neglect could be important—and here’s this devil clinging to him and won’t get unclung. ‘Excuse me,’ he says, ‘I have no time . . . there is more important business waiting for me.’ He reminds him, in a subtle way, so to speak, that it’s finally time to get out. But my Kopeikin—hunger spurred him on, you understand: As you will, Your Excellency,’ he says, ‘I’m not leaving this spot until you give me the decision.’ Well. . . you can imagine: to give such an answer to a great man, who has only to say a word and you go flying head over heels so that the devil himself will never find you . . . Here, if an official just one step lower in rank says such a thing to one of us, it’s already rudeness. But in this case, the size, the size of it! A general-in-chief and some Captain Kopeikin! Ninety roubles and a zero! The general, you understand, did nothing but glare at him, but that glare— firearms! No heart left—it’s sunk into your heels. But my Kopeikin, if you can imagine, doesn’t budge, he stands as if rooted to the spot. ‘Well, man?’ says the general, and he gave it to him, as they say, in spades. However, to tell the truth, he still treated him rather mercifully; another man would have thrown such a scare into him that the street would have been spinning upside down for three days afterwards, but all he said was: ‘Very well, if it is too expensive for you to live here, and you cannot wait quietly in the capital for the deciding of your fate, then I’ll send you away at government expense. Call the courier! Dispatch him to his place of residence!’ And the courier, you see, is already standing there: a sort of hulk of a man, seven feet tall, with huge hands on him, if you can imagine, made by nature herself for dealing with coachmen—in short, some sort of tooth doctor . . . And so, my good sir, this servant of God was seized and put into a cart along with the courier. ‘Well,’ Kopeikin thinks, ‘at least I won’t have to pay for the trip, and thanks for that.’ And so, my good sir, he rides on the courier, and as he rides on the courier, he, in a certain way, reasons with himself, so to speak: ‘Since the general says I myself must look for means of taking care of myself—very well,’ he says, ‘I’ll find those means!’ he says. Well, just how he was delivered to the place and precisely where he was taken, none of that is known. So, you understand, the rumors about Captain Kopeikin sank into the river of oblivion, into some such Lethe, as the poets call it. But, forgive me, gentlemen, here begins the thread, one might say, the intrigue of the novel. And so, where Kopeikin got to is unknown; but before two months had passed, if you can picture it, a band of robbers appeared in the Ryazan forests, and the leader of the band, my good sir, was none other than …”

“Only, forgive me, Ivan Andreevich,” the police chief said suddenly, interrupting him, “you yourself said that Captain Kopeikin was missing an arm and a leg, while Chichikov …”

Here the postmaster cried out, slapped himself roundly on the forehead, and publicly in front of them all called himself a hunk of veal. He could not understand how it was that this circumstance had not occurred to him at the very beginning of his account, and admitted that the saying, “Hindsight is the Russian man’s forte,” was perfectly correct. However, a minute later he straightaway began dodging and tried to get out of it by saying that, anyhow, mechanics was very advanced in England, and one could see from the newspapers that someone there had devised wooden legs in such a way that, at the mere touch of a concealed spring, the legs would take a man into God knows what parts, so that afterwards it was even impossible to find him anywhere.

But they all had great doubts about Chichikov being Captain Kopeikin, and found that the postmaster had way overshot his mark. However, they, for their part, also had no flies on them, and, prompted by the postmaster’s sharp-witted surmise, went perhaps even further afield. Among the many shrewd suggestions of a sort, there was finally one—it is even strange to say it—that Chichikov might be Napoleon in disguise, that the English had long been envious of the greatness and vastness of Russia, and that several caricatures had even been published in which a Russian is shown talking with an Englishman. The Englishman stands and holds a dog behind him on a rope, and the dog represents Napoleon: “Watch out,” he seems to be saying, “if there’s anything wrong, I’ll set this dog on you!”—and so now it might be that they let him go from the island of St. Helena, and now here he is sneaking into Russia as if he were Chichikov, when in fact he is not Chichikov at all.

Of course, as far as believing it went, the officials did not believe it, but nevertheless they did fall to thinking and, each considering the matter in himself, found that Chichikov’s face, if he turned and stood sideways, looked a lot like Napoleon’s portrait. The police chief, who had served in the campaign of the year ‘twelve and had seen Napoleon in person, also could not help admitting that he was no whit taller than Chichikov, and that, concerning his build, it was impossible to say he was too fat, and yet neither was he so very thin. Perhaps some readers will call all this incredible; to please them, the author is also ready to call all this incredible; but, unfortunately, it all happened precisely as it is being told, and what makes it more amazing still is that the town was not in some backwoods, but, on the contrary, no great distance from the two capitals.[5] However, it must be remembered that all this happened shortly after the glorious expulsion of the French. At that time all our landowners, officials, merchants, shop clerks, literate and even illiterate folk of every sort became sworn politicians for a good eight years at least. The Moscow Gazette and the Son of the Fatherland were mercilessly read to pieces and reached their last reader in shreds unfit for any use whatsoever. Instead of such questions as: “Well, my dear, how much did you get for a measure of oats?” or “Did you avail yourself of yesterday’s snowfall?” people would say: “And what are they writing in the papers, has Napoleon been let go from his island again?” The merchants were very much afraid of that, because they believed completely in the prediction of a certain prophet who had been put in jail three years before; the prophet had come from no one knew where, in bast shoes and a raw sheepskin coat that stank terribly of rotten fish, and announced that Napoleon was the Antichrist and was kept on a chain of stone beyond the six walls and the seven seas, but afterwards he would break the chain and take possession of the whole world. For this prediction the prophet had landed, quite properly, in jail, but he had done his bit all the same and completely disturbed the merchants. For a long time after, even during the most profitable dealings, as they went to the tavern to wash them down with tea, the merchants kept muttering about the Antichrist. Many of the officials and nobility also kept thinking about it inadvertently and, infected with mysticism, which, as we know, was in great vogue then, saw some special meaning in every letter that made up the word “Napoleon”; many even discovered Apocalyptic numbers in it.[6] And so it is nothing surprising that our officials inadvertently kept pondering this point; soon, however, they checked themselves, noticing that their imaginations were galloping away with them, and that all this was not it. They thought and thought, talked and talked, and finally decided that it would not be a bad idea to question Nozdryov a little better. Since he was the first to bring out the story of the dead souls and was, as they say, in some close relationship with Chichikov, he therefore undoubtedly knew something about the circumstances of his life, so why not try again what Nozdryov would say.

Strange people these gentlemen officials, and all other degrees along with them: they knew very well that Nozdryov was a liar, that not a single word of his could be trusted, not the least trifle, and nevertheless they resorted precisely to him. What are you going to do with man? He does not believe in God, yet he believes that if the bridge of his nose itches he is sure to die; he will pass by a poet’s work, clear as day, all pervaded with harmony and the lofty wisdom of simplicity, and throw himself precisely on one in which some brave fellow bemuddles, befuddles, distorts, and perverts nature, and he likes it, and he starts shouting: “Here it is, the true knowledge of the hearts secrets!” All his life he cares not a penny for doctors, and it ends up with him turning finally to some village wench, who treats him with mumbling and spittle, or, better still, he himself invents some decoction of God knows what trash, which, lord knows why, he fancies is precisely the remedy for his ailment. Of course, the gentlemen officials can be partly excused by their truly difficult situation. A drowning man, they say, clutches even at a little splinter, and does not have sense enough at that moment to reflect that perhaps only a fly could go riding on a splinter, while he weighs as much as a hundred and fifty pounds, if not a full two hundred; but the thought does not enter his head at that moment, and he clutches at the splinter. So, too, our gentlemen clutched finally at Nozdryov. The police chief at once wrote him a little note kindly inviting him to a soirée, and a policeman in top boots and with an attractive glow to his cheeks ran off at once, holding his sword in place, skipping to Nozdryov’s. Nozdryov was occupied with something very important; for a whole four days he had not left his room, would not let anyone in, and took his dinner through a little window— in short, he had even grown thin and green. The matter called for great attentiveness: it consisted of selecting from some tens of dozens of cards one pack, but the choicest, which could be relied upon like the most faithful friend. There was still at least two weeks of work to go; during all this time, Porfiry was to clean the mastiff pup’s navel with a special brush and wash him with soap three times a day. Nozdryov was very angry that his solitude had been disturbed; first of all he sent the policeman to the devil, but, when he read in the police chief’s note that there might be some pickings in it, because some novice was expected at the soirée, he softened at once, hastily locked his door with a key, got dressed haphazardly, and went to them. The evidence, testimony, and suppositions of Nozdryov presented such a sharp contrast to those of the gentlemen officials that even the last of their surmises were confounded. This was decidedly a man for whom there was no such thing as doubt; and as much as they were noticeably wavering and timid in their suppositions, so much was he firm and confident. He responded to all points without faltering in the least, declared that Chichikov had bought up several thousands’ worth of dead souls, and that he himself had sold him some, because he saw no reason not to; to the question whether he was a spy and was trying to sniff something out, Nozdryov replied that he was a spy, that even at school, where they had studied together, he had been known as a tattletale, and that their comrades, himself included, had given him a bit of a drubbing for it, so that afterwards he had had to have two hundred and forty leeches put to his temples—that is, he meant to say forty, but the two hundred got said somehow of itself. To the question whether he was a maker of forged bills, he replied that he was, and used the occasion to tell an anecdote about Chichikov’s remarkable adroitness: how it had been found out once that there were in his house two million in forged banknotes, the house was sealed and a guard set on it, two soldiers for each door, and how Chichikov replaced them all in one night, so that the next day, when the seals were removed, they found that all the notes were genuine. To the question whether Chichikov indeed had the intention of carrying off the governor’s daughter and was it true that he himself had undertaken to help and participate in the affair, Nozdryov replied that he had helped, and that if it had not been for him, nothing would have come of it—here he tried to check himself, seeing that he had lied quite needlessly and could thereby invite trouble, but he was no longer able to hold his tongue. However, it would also have been difficult to do so, because such interesting details emerged of themselves that it was simply impossible to give them up: the village was even mentioned by name, wherein was located the parish church in which the wedding was to take place— namely, the village of Trukhmachevka; the priest—Father Sidor; the fee for the wedding—seventy-five roubles, and he would not have agreed even for that had he not been frightened by the threat of a denunciation for having married the flour dealer Mikhailo and his kuma; [7] and that he had even given them his carriage and prepared a change of horses for each station. The details went so far that he was already beginning to give the names of the coachmen. They tried mentioning Napoleon, but were not happy they did, because Nozdryov began pouring out such drivel as not only had no semblance of truth, but had no semblance of anything whatsoever, so that the officials all sighed and walked away; only the police chief went on listening for a long time, thinking there might at least be something further on, but finally he waved his hand, saying: “Devil knows what it is!” And they all agreed that, however you push and pull, you’ll never get milk from a bull. And the officials were left in a still worse position than they were in before, and the upshot of it was that there was simply no way of finding out what Chichikov was. And it became clear what sort of creature man is: wise, intelligent, and sensible in all that concerns others than himself; what discreet, firm advice he provides in life’s difficult occasions! “What an efficient head!” cries the crowd. “What staunch character!” But let some trouble befall this efficient head, let him be put into one of life’s difficult occasions himself, and what becomes of his character, the staunch fellow is all at a loss, he turns into a pathetic little coward, a nonentity, a weak child, or simply a foozle, as Nozdryov put it.

All these discussions, opinions, and rumors, for some unknown reason, affected the poor prosecutor most of all. They affected him to such a degree that, on coming home, he started thinking and thinking, and suddenly, without a by-your-leave, as they say, he died. Whether he was seized by paralysis or by something else, in any case, as he sat there, he simply flopped off his chair onto his back. Clasping their hands, they cried out, as is customary: “Oh, my God!” and sent for the doctor to let his blood, but saw that the prosecutor was already a mere soulless body. Only then did they learn with commiseration that the deceased indeed had had a soul, though in his modesty he had never shown it. And yet the appearance of death was as terrible in a small as in a great man: he who not so long ago had walked, moved, played whist, signed various papers, and was seen so often among the officials with his bushy eyebrows and winking eye, was now lying on the table, his left eye not winking at all, but one eyebrow still raised with some quizzical expression. What the deceased was asking—why he had died, or why he had lived—God alone knows.

But this, however, is incongruous! this is incompatible with anything! this is impossible—that officials should scare themselves so; to create such nonsense, to stray so far from the truth, when even a child could see what the matter was! So many readers will say, reproaching the author for incongruousness or calling the poor officials fools, because man is generous with the word “fool” and is ready to serve it up to his neighbor twenty times a day. It is enough to have one stupid side out of ten to be accounted a fool, aside from the nine good ones. It is easy for the reader to judge, looking down from his comfortable corner at the top, from which the whole horizon opens out, upon all that is going on below, where man can see only the nearest object. And in the world chronicle of mankind there are many whole centuries which, it would seem, should be crossed out and abolished as unnecessary. There have been many errors in the world which, it would seem, even a child would not make now. What crooked, blind, narrow, impassable, far-straying paths mankind has chosen, striving to attain eternal truth, while a whole straight road lay open before it, like the road leading to a magnificent dwelling meant for a king’s mansions! Broader and more splendid than all other roads it is, lit by the sun and illumined all night by lamps, yet people have flowed past it in the blind darkness. So many times already, though guided by a sense come down from heaven, they have managed to waver and go astray, have managed in broad daylight to get again into an impassable wilderness, have managed again to blow a blinding fog into each other’s eyes, and, dragging themselves after marsh-lights, have managed finally to reach the abyss, only to ask one another in horror: where is the way out, where is the path? The current generation now sees everything clearly, it marvels at the errors, it laughs at the folly of its ancestors, not seeing that this chronicle is all overscored by divine fire, that every letter of it cries out, that from everywhere the piercing finger is pointed at it, at this current generation; but the current generation laughs and presumptuously, proudly begins a series of new errors, at which their descendants will also laugh afterwards.

Chichikov knew nothing whatsoever about all that. As luck would have it, he had caught a slight cold at the time—a swollen tooth and a minor throat infection, which the climate of many of our provincial towns is so generous in dispensing. So that his life should not, God forbid, somehow cease without posterity, he decided he had better stay home for about three days. During these days he constantly rinsed his throat with milk and fig, eating the fig afterwards, and went around with a camomile- and camphor-filled compress tied to his cheek. Wishing to occupy his time with something, he made several new and detailed lists of all the purchased peasants, even read some tome of the Duchess de La Vallière[8] that turned up in his trunk, looked through all the objects and little notes in the chest, read some over again, and all of it bored him greatly. He was simply unable to understand what it could mean that not one of the town officials had come even once to inquire after his health, whereas still recently there was a droshky constantly standing in front of the inn—now the postmaster’s, now the prosecutor’s, now the head magistrate’s. He merely shrugged his shoulders as he paced the room. At last he felt better and was God knows how glad when he saw it was possible to go out into the fresh air. Without delay, he set about immediately with his toilet, unlocked his chest, poured hot water into a glass, took out brush and soap, and got down to shaving, for which, incidentally, it was high time and season, because, having felt his chin with his hand and glanced in the mirror, he had declared: “Eh, quite a forest scrawling there!” And, indeed, forest or not, there was a rather thick crop coming up all over his cheeks and chin. After shaving, he turned to dressing, so briskly and quickly that he all but jumped out of his trousers. Finally, dressed, sprinkled with eau de cologne, and wrapped up warmly, he took himself outside, having bound up his cheek as a precaution. His going out, as with any man who has recovered from an illness, was indeed festive. Whatever came his way acquired a laughing look: the houses, the passing muzhiks—who, incidentally, were rather serious, one of them having just managed to give his fellow a cuffing. He intended to pay his first call on the governor. On the way many different thoughts came to his mind; the blonde was whirling through his head, his imagination was even beginning to frolic slightly, and he himself was already starting to joke and chuckle at himself a bit. In this mood he found himself before the governor’s entrance. He was already in the front hall, hastily throwing off his overcoat, when the doorkeeper stunned him with the totally unexpected words:

“I am ordered not to admit you!”

“How? what’s that? you obviously didn’t recognize me? Take a closer look at my face!” Chichikov said to him.

“How should I not recognize you, it’s not the first time I’m seeing you,” the doorkeeper said. “No, it’s precisely you alone that I’m not to let in, all the rest are allowed.”

“Look at this, now! But why? What for?”

“Them’s the orders, so obviously it’s proper,” said the doorkeeper, adding to it the word “Yes.” After which he stood before him totally at ease, not keeping that benign look with which he formerly used to hasten and take his overcoat from him. He seemed to be thinking, as he looked at him: “Oho! if the masters are showing you the door, then clearly you’re some kind of riffraff!”

“Incomprehensible!” Chichikov thought to himself, and set off straightaway for the head magistrate’s, but the magistrate got so embarrassed on seeing him that he could not put two words together, and talked such rot that they both even felt ashamed. On leaving him, Chichikov tried his best as he went along to explain and make some sense of what the magistrate had meant and what his words might have referred to, but he was unable to understand anything. After that he called on others—the police chief, the vice-governor, the postmaster—but they all either did not receive him or received him so strangely, made such forced and incomprehensible conversation, were so much at a loss, and such a muddle came of it all, that he doubted the soundness of their brains. He tried calling on one or two others, to find out the reason at least, but he did not get at any reason. Like one half asleep, he wandered the town aimlessly, unable to decide whether he had gone out of his mind or the officials had lost their wits, whether it was all happening in a dream or reality had cooked up a folly worse than any dream. Late, almost at dusk, he returned to his inn, which he had left in such good spirits, and out of boredom ordered tea to be brought. Deep in thought and in some senseless reflection on the strangeness of his position, he began pouring tea, when suddenly the door of his room opened and there, quite unexpectedly, stood Nozdryov.

“As the proverb says, ‘For a friend five miles is not a long way around!'” he said, taking off his peaked cap. “I was passing by, saw a light in the window, why don’t I stop in, I thought, he can’t be asleep. Ah! that’s good, you’ve got tea on the table, I’ll have a little cup with pleasure—today at dinner I overfed on all sorts of trash, I feel a turmoil starting in my stomach. Order me a pipefull! Where’s your pipe?”

“But I don’t smoke a pipe,” Chichikov said dryly.

“Nonsense, as if I don’t know you’re a whiffer. Hey! what’d you say your man’s name was? Hey, Vakhramey!”

“Not Vakhramey—Petrushka.”

“How’s that? You used to have a Vakhramey.”

“I never had any Vakhramey.”

“Right, exactly, it’s Derebin who has a Vakhramey. Imagine Derebin’s luck: his aunt quarreled with her son for marrying a serf girl, and now she’s willed him her whole estate. I’m thinking to myself, it wouldn’t be bad to have such an aunt for further on! But what’s with you, brother, you’re so withdrawn from everybody, you don’t go anywhere? Of course, I know you’re sometimes occupied with learned subjects, you like to read” (what made Nozdryov conclude that our hero occupied himself with learned subjects and liked to read, we must confess, we simply cannot say, and still less could Chichikov). “Ah, brother Chichikov, if only you’d seen it. . . that really would have been food for your satirical mind” (why Chichikov should have a satirical mind is also unknown). “Imagine, brother, we were playing a game of brag at the merchant Likhachev’s, and how we laughed! Perependev, who was with me, ‘You know,’ he says, ‘if it was Chichikov now, you know, he’d really . . . !’ ” (while never in his born days did Chichikov know any Perependev). “And confess, brother, you really did me the meanest turn that time, remember, when we were playing checkers, because I really did win . . . Yes, brother, you just diddled me out of it. But, devil knows what it is with me, I can never be angry. The other day with the magistrate . . . Ah, yes! I must tell you, the whole town’s against you; they think you make forged bills, they started pestering me, but I stood up for you like a rock, I told them a heap of things, that I went to school with you and knew your father; well, needless to say, I spun them a good yarn.”

“I make forged bills?” cried Chichikov, rising from his chair.

“All the same, why did you frighten them so?” Nozdryov went on. “Devil knows, they’ve lost their minds from fear: they’ve got you dressed up as a robber and a spy . . . And the prosecutor died of fright, the funeral’s tomorrow. You’re not going? To tell you the truth, they’re afraid of the new Governor-general, in case something comes out on account of you; and my opinion about the Governor-general is that if he turns up his nose and puts on airs, he’ll get decidedly nowhere with the nobility. The nobility demand cordiality, right? Of course, one can hide in one’s study and not give a single ball, but what then? Nothing’s gained by it. You, though, it’s a risky business you’re undertaking, Chichikov.”

“What risky business?” Chichikov asked uneasily.

“Why, carrying off the governor’s daughter. I confess, I expected it, by God, I did! The first time, as soon as I saw you together at the ball, well now, Chichikov, I thought to myself, surely there’s some purpose . . . However, it’s a poor choice you’ve made, I don’t find anything good in her. But there is one, Bikusov’s relative, his sister’s daughter, now there’s a girl! a lovely bit of chintz!”

“But what is this, what are you blathering about? How, carry off the governor’s daughter, what’s got into you?” Chichikov said, his eyes popping out.

“Well, enough, brother, what a secretive man! I confess, that’s what I came to you for: if you like, I’m ready to help you. So be it: I’ll hold the crown,[9] the carriage and change of horses are mine, only on one condition—you must lend me three thousand. Damn me, brother, if I don’t need it!”

In the course of all Nozdryov’s babble, Chichikov rubbed his eyes several times, wanting to be sure he was not hearing it all in a dream. The making of forged banknotes, the carrying off of the governor’s daughter, the death of the prosecutor, of which he was supposedly the cause, the arrival of the Governor-general—all this produced quite a decent fright in him. “Well, if things have come to that,” he thought to himself, “there’s no point in lingering, I must get myself out of here.”

He got Nozdryov off his hands as quickly as he could, summoned Selifan at once, and told him to be ready at daybreak, so that the next day at six o’clock in the morning they could leave town without fail, and that everything should be looked over, the britzka greased, and so on and so forth. Selifan said, “Right, Pavel Ivanovich!” and nevertheless stood for some time by the door, not moving from the spot. The master at once told Petrushka to pull the trunk, already quite covered with dust, from under the bed, and together with him began to pack, without much sorting out, stockings, shirts, underwear washed and unwashed, boot trees, a calendar. . . All this was packed haphazardly; he wanted to be ready that evening without fail, so that no delay should occur the next day. Selifan, having stood for some two minutes by the door, finally walked very slowly out of the room. Slowly, as slowly as one could only imagine, he went down the stairs, stamping traces with his wet boots on the worn-down, descending steps, and for a long time he scratched the back of his head with his hand. What did this scratching mean? and what does it generally mean? Was it vexation that now the planned meeting next day with his chum in the unseemly sheepskin coat tied with a belt, somewhere in a pot-house, would not come off, or had some little heartthrob started already in the new place, and he had to abandon the evening standing by the gate and the politic holding of white hands, at the hour when twilight pulls its brim down over the town, a strapping lad in a red shirt is strumming his balalaika before the household servants, and people, having finished work, weave their quiet talk? Or was he simply sorry to leave his already warmed-up place in the servants’ kitchen, under a coat, next to the stove, and the cabbage soup with tender town-baked pies, and drag himself out again into the rain and sleet and all the adversities of the road? God knows, there’s no guessing. Many and various among the Russian people are the meanings of scratching one’s head.

 

[1] The original Vauxhall was a seventeenth-century pleasure garden in London. Russian adopted the name as a common noun referring to an outdoor space for concerts and entertainment, with teahouse, tables, and so on.

[2] Kopeikin is the name of a robber in folklore; it derives from kopeika, the hundredth part of a rouble, anglicized as “kopeck.” Gogol offered to change the name if his publisher ran into trouble from the censors.

[3] Semiramis, legendary queen of Assyria and Babylonia, is credited with founding the city of Babylon, famous for its hanging gardens, which were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

[4] Revel, or Reval, now Tallinn, is the capital city of Estonia. A Revel inn—that is, an inn run by Estonians—implies inexpensive-ness and simplicity.

[5] Moscow and Petersburg are commonly referred to as the “two capitals” of Russia.

[6] The number 666, corresponding to the name of the beast in Revelation (13:18), signifies the Antichrist. The vogue of mysticism followed the predilections of the emperor Alexander I in the later years of his reign.

[7] The Russian terms for the godmother and godfather of the same person, in relation to each other, are kum and kuma (pronounced “kooMAH”). The canons of the Orthodox Church forbid them to marry.

[8] The reference is in all likelihood to the novel entitled The Duchess de La Valliere (referred to in volume 2, chapter 3 of Dead Souls as The Countess La Valliere), the work of the French writer Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis (1746-1830), who was teacher of the children of the duke of Orléans. It may also be to a work of the duchess de La Valliere herself, Louise de La Baume Le Blanc (1644-1710), once a favorite of Louis XIV, who ended her life as a Carmelite nun and wrote pious reflections on her sinful past.

[9] In the Orthodox marriage service, the best men hold crowns over the heads of the couple, symbolic of martyrdom as a witnessing to the Kingdom of God.

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