It was not long before Chichikov's purchases had become the talk of the town; and various were the opinions expressed as to whether or not it was expedient to procure peasants for transferment. Indeed such was the interest taken by certain citizens in the matter that they advised the purchaser to provide himself and his convoy with an escort, in order to ensure their safe arrival at the appointed destination; but though Chichikov thanked the donors of this advice for the same, and declared that he should be very glad, in case of need, to avail himself of it, he declared also that there was no real need for an escort, seeing that the peasants whom he had purchased were exceptionally peace-loving folk, and that, being themselves consenting parties to the transferment, they would undoubtedly prove in every way tractable.
One particularly good result of this advertisement of his scheme was that he came to rank as neither more nor less than a millionaire. Consequently, much as the inhabitants had liked our hero in the first instance (as seen in Chapter I.), they now liked him more than ever. As a matter of fact, they were citizens of an exceptionally quiet, good-natured, easy-going disposition; and some of them were even well-educated. For instance, the President of the Local Council could recite the whole of Zhukovski's LUDMILLA by heart, and give such an impressive rendering of the passage "The pine forest was asleep and the valley at rest" (as well as of the exclamation "Phew!") that one felt, as he did so, that the pine forest and the valley really WERE as he described them. The effect was also further heightened by the manner in which, at such moments, he assumed the most portentous frown. For his part, the Postmaster went in more for philosophy, and diligently perused such works as Young's Night Thoughts, and Eckharthausen's A Key to the Mysteries of Nature; of which latter work he would make copious extracts, though no one had the slightest notion what they referred to. For the rest, he was a witty, florid little individual, and much addicted to a practice of what he called "embellishing" whatsoever he had to say—a feat which he performed with the aid of such by-the-way phrases as "my dear sir," "my good So-and-So," "you know," "you understand," "you may imagine," "relatively speaking," "for instance," and "et cetera"; of which phrases he would add sackfuls to his speech. He could also "embellish" his words by the simple expedient of half-closing, half-winking one eye; which trick communicated to some of his satirical utterances quite a mordant effect. Nor were his colleagues a wit inferior to him in enlightenment. For instance, one of them made a regular practice of reading Karamzin, another of conning the Moscow Gazette, and a third of never looking at a book at all. Likewise, although they were the sort of men to whom, in their more intimate movements, their wives would very naturally address such nicknames as "Toby Jug," "Marmot," "Fatty," "Pot Belly," "Smutty," "Kiki," and "Buzz-Buzz," they were men also of good heart, and very ready to extend their hospitality and their friendship when once a guest had eaten of their bread and salt, or spent an evening in their company. Particularly, therefore, did Chichikov earn these good folk's approval with his taking methods and qualities—so much so that the expression of that approval bid fair to make it difficult for him to quit the town, seeing that, wherever he went, the one phrase dinned into his ears was "Stay another week with us, Paul Ivanovitch." In short, he ceased to be a free agent. But incomparably more striking was the impression (a matter for unbounded surprise!) which he produced upon the ladies. Properly to explain this phenomenon I should need to say a great deal about the ladies themselves, and to describe in the most vivid of colours their social intercourse and spiritual qualities. Yet this would be a difficult thing for me to do, since, on the one hand, I should be hampered by my boundless respect for the womenfolk of all Civil Service officials, and, on the other hand—well, simply by the innate arduousness of the task. The ladies of N. were—But no, I cannot do it; my heart has already failed me. Come, come! The ladies of N. were distinguished for—But it is of no use; somehow my pen seems to refuse to move over the paper—it seems to be weighted as with a plummet of lead. Very well. That being so, I will merely say a word or two concerning the most prominent tints on the feminine palette of N.—merely a word or two concerning the outward appearance of its ladies, and a word or two concerning their more superficial characteristics. The ladies of N. were pre-eminently what is known as "presentable." Indeed, in that respect they might have served as a model to the ladies of many another town. That is to say, in whatever pertained to "tone," etiquette, the intricacies of decorum, and strict observance of the prevailing mode, they surpassed even the ladies of Moscow and St. Petersburg, seeing that they dressed with taste, drove about in carriages in the latest fashions, and never went out without the escort of a footman in gold-laced livery. Again, they looked upon a visiting card—even upon a make-shift affair consisting of an ace of diamonds or a two of clubs—as a sacred thing; so sacred that on one occasion two closely related ladies who had also been closely attached friends were known to fall out with one another over the mere fact of an omission to return a social call! Yes, in spite of the best efforts of husbands and kinsfolk to reconcile the antagonists, it became clear that, though all else in the world might conceivably be possible, never could the hatchet be buried between ladies who had quarrelled over a neglected visit. Likewise strenuous scenes used to take place over questions of precedence—scenes of a kind which had the effect of inspiring husbands to great and knightly ideas on the subject of protecting the fair. True, never did a duel actually take place, since all the husbands were officials belonging to the Civil Service; but at least a given combatant would strive to heap contumely upon his rival, and, as we all know, that is a resource which may prove even more effectual than a duel. As regards morality, the ladies of N. were nothing if not censorious, and would at once be fired with virtuous indignation when they heard of a case of vice or seduction. Nay, even to mere frailty they would award the lash without mercy. On the other hand, should any instance of what they called "third personism" occur among THEIR OWN circle, it was always kept dark—not a hint of what was going on being allowed to transpire, and even the wronged husband holding himself ready, should he meet with, or hear of, the "third person," to quote, in a mild and rational manner, the proverb, "Whom concerns it that a friend should consort with friend?" In addition, I may say that, like most of the female world of St. Petersburg, the ladies of N. were pre-eminently careful and refined in their choice of words and phrases. Never did a lady say, "I blew my nose," or "I perspired," or "I spat." No, it had to be, "I relieved my nose through the expedient of wiping it with my handkerchief," and so forth. Again, to say, "This glass, or this plate, smells badly," was forbidden. No, not even a hint to such an effect was to be dropped. Rather, the proper phrase, in such a case, was "This glass, or this plate, is not behaving very well,"—or some such formula.
In fact, to refine the Russian tongue the more thoroughly, something like half the words in it were cut out: which circumstance necessitated very frequent recourse to the tongue of France, since the same words, if spoken in French, were another matter altogether, and one could use even blunter ones than the ones originally objected to.
So much for the ladies of N., provided that one confines one's observations to the surface; yet hardly need it be said that, should one penetrate deeper than that, a great deal more would come to light. At the same time, it is never a very safe proceeding to peer deeply into the hearts of ladies; wherefore, restricting ourselves to the foregoing superficialities, let us proceed further on our way.
Hitherto the ladies had paid Chichikov no particular attention, though giving him full credit for his gentlemanly and urbane demeanour; but from the moment that there arose rumours of his being a millionaire other qualities of his began to be canvassed. Nevertheless, not ALL the ladies were governed by interested motives, since it is due to the term "millionaire" rather than to the character of the person who bears it, that the mere sound of the word exercises upon rascals, upon decent folk, and upon folk who are neither the one nor the other, an undeniable influence. A millionaire suffers from the disadvantage of everywhere having to behold meanness, including the sort of meanness which, though not actually based upon calculations of self-interest, yet runs after the wealthy man with smiles, and doffs his hat, and begs for invitations to houses where the millionaire is known to be going to dine. That a similar inclination to meanness seized upon the ladies of N. goes without saying; with the result that many a drawing-room heard it whispered that, if Chichikov was not exactly a beauty, at least he was sufficiently good-looking to serve for a husband, though he could have borne to have been a little more rotund and stout. To that there would be added scornful references to lean husbands, and hints that they resembled tooth-brushes rather than men—with many other feminine additions. Also, such crowds of feminine shoppers began to repair to the Bazaar as almost to constitute a crush, and something like a procession of carriages ensued, so long grew the rank of vehicles. For their part, the tradesmen had the joy of seeing highly priced dress materials which they had brought at fairs, and then been unable to dispose of, now suddenly become tradeable, and go off with a rush. For instance, on one occasion a lady appeared at Mass in a bustle which filled the church to an extent which led the verger on duty to bid the commoner folk withdraw to the porch, lest the lady's toilet should be soiled in the crush. Even Chichikov could not help privately remarking the attention which he aroused. On one occasion, when he returned to the inn, he found on his table a note addressed to himself. Whence it had come, and who had delivered it, he failed to discover, for the waiter declared that the person who had brought it had omitted to leave the name of the writer. Beginning abruptly with the words "I MUST write to you," the letter went on to say that between a certain pair of souls there existed a bond of sympathy; and this verity the epistle further confirmed with rows of full stops to the extent of nearly half a page. Next there followed a few reflections of a correctitude so remarkable that I have no choice but to quote them. "What, I would ask, is this life of ours?" inquired the writer. "'Tis nought but a vale of woe. And what, I would ask, is the world? 'Tis nought but a mob of unthinking humanity." Thereafter, incidentally remarking that she had just dropped a tear to the memory of her dear mother, who had departed this life twenty-five years ago, the (presumably) lady writer invited Chichikov to come forth into the wilds, and to leave for ever the city where, penned in noisome haunts, folk could not even draw their breath. In conclusion, the writer gave way to unconcealed despair, and wound up with the following verses:
"Two turtle doves to thee, one day,
My dust will show, congealed in death;
And, cooing wearily, they'll say:
'In grief and loneliness she drew her closing breath.'"
True, the last line did not scan, but that was a trifle, since the quatrain at least conformed to the mode then prevalent. Neither signature nor date were appended to the document, but only a postscript expressing a conjecture that Chichikov's own heart would tell him who the writer was, and stating, in addition, that the said writer would be present at the Governor's ball on the following night.
This greatly interested Chichikov. Indeed, there was so much that was alluring and provocative of curiosity in the anonymous missive that he read it through a second time, and then a third, and finally said to himself: "I SHOULD like to know who sent it!" In short, he took the thing seriously, and spent over an hour in considering the same. At length, muttering a comment upon the epistle's efflorescent style, he refolded the document, and committed it to his dispatch-box in company with a play-bill and an invitation to a wedding—the latter of which had for the last seven years reposed in the self-same receptacle and in the self-same position. Shortly afterwards there arrived a card of invitation to the Governor's ball already referred to. In passing, it may be said that such festivities are not infrequent phenomena in county towns, for the reason that where Governors exist there must take place balls if from the local gentry there is to be evoked that respectful affection which is every Governor's due.
Thenceforth all extraneous thoughts and considerations were laid aside in favour of preparing for the coming function. Indeed, this conjunction of exciting and provocative motives led to Chichikov devoting to his toilet an amount of time never witnessed since the creation of the world. Merely in the contemplation of his features in the mirror, as he tried to communicate to them a succession of varying expressions, was an hour spent. First of all he strove to make his features assume an air of dignity and importance, and then an air of humble, but faintly satirical, respect, and then an air of respect guiltless of any alloy whatsoever. Next, he practised performing a series of bows to his reflection, accompanied with certain murmurs intended to bear a resemblance to a French phrase (though Chichikov knew not a single word of the Gallic tongue). Lastly came the performing of a series of what I might call "agreeable surprises," in the shape of twitchings of the brow and lips and certain motions of the tongue. In short, he did all that a man is apt to do when he is not only alone, but also certain that he is handsome and that no one is regarding him through a chink. Finally he tapped himself lightly on the chin, and said, "Ah, good old face!" In the same way, when he started to dress himself for the ceremony, the level of his high spirits remained unimpaired throughout the process. That is to say, while adjusting his braces and tying his tie, he shuffled his feet in what was not exactly a dance, but might be called the entr'acte of a dance: which performance had the not very serious result of setting a wardrobe a-rattle, and causing a brush to slide from the table to the floor.
Later, his entry into the ballroom produced an extraordinary effect. Every one present came forward to meet him, some with cards in their hands, and one man even breaking off a conversation at the most interesting point—namely, the point that "the Inferior Land Court must be made responsible for everything." Yes, in spite of the responsibility of the Inferior Land Court, the speaker cast all thoughts of it to the winds as he hurried to greet our hero. From every side resounded acclamations of welcome, and Chichikov felt himself engulfed in a sea of embraces. Thus, scarcely had he extricated himself from the arms of the President of the Local Council when he found himself just as firmly clasped in the arms of the Chief of Police, who, in turn, surrendered him to the Inspector of the Medical Department, who, in turn, handed him over to the Commissioner of Taxes, who, again, committed him to the charge of the Town Architect. Even the Governor, who hitherto had been standing among his womenfolk with a box of sweets in one hand and a lap-dog in the other, now threw down both sweets and lap-dog (the lap-dog giving vent to a yelp as he did so) and added his greeting to those of the rest of the company. Indeed, not a face was there to be seen on which ecstatic delight—or, at all events, the reflection of other people's ecstatic delight—was not painted. The same expression may be discerned on the faces of subordinate officials when, the newly arrived Director having made his inspection, the said officials are beginning to get over their first sense of awe on perceiving that he has found much to commend, and that he can even go so far as to jest and utter a few words of smiling approval. Thereupon every tchinovnik responds with a smile of double strength, and those who (it may be) have not heard a single word of the Director's speech smile out of sympathy with the rest, and even the gendarme who is posted at the distant door—a man, perhaps, who has never before compassed a smile, but is more accustomed to dealing out blows to the populace—summons up a kind of grin, even though the grin resembles the grimace of a man who is about to sneeze after inadvertently taking an over-large pinch of snuff. To all and sundry Chichikov responded with a bow, and felt extraordinarily at his ease as he did so. To right and left did he incline his head in the sidelong, yet unconstrained, manner that was his wont and never failed to charm the beholder. As for the ladies, they clustered around him in a shining bevy that was redolent of every species of perfume—of roses, of spring violets, and of mignonette; so much so that instinctively Chichikov raised his nose to snuff the air. Likewise the ladies' dresses displayed an endless profusion of taste and variety; and though the majority of their wearers evinced a tendency to embonpoint, those wearers knew how to call upon art for the concealment of the fact. Confronting them, Chichikov thought to himself: "Which of these beauties is the writer of the letter?" Then again he snuffed the air. When the ladies had, to a certain extent, returned to their seats, he resumed his attempts to discern (from glances and expressions) which of them could possibly be the unknown authoress. Yet, though those glances and expressions were too subtle, too insufficiently open, the difficulty in no way diminished his high spirits. Easily and gracefully did he exchange agreeable bandinage with one lady, and then approach another one with the short, mincing steps usually affected by young-old dandies who are fluttering around the fair. As he turned, not without dexterity, to right and left, he kept one leg slightly dragging behind the other, like a short tail or comma. This trick the ladies particularly admired. In short, they not only discovered in him a host of recommendations and attractions, but also began to see in his face a sort of grand, Mars-like, military expression—a thing which, as we know, never fails to please the feminine eye. Certain of the ladies even took to bickering over him, and, on perceiving that he spent most of his time standing near the door, some of their number hastened to occupy chairs nearer to his post of vantage. In fact, when a certain dame chanced to have the good fortune to anticipate a hated rival in the race there very nearly ensued a most lamentable scene—which, to many of those who had been desirous of doing exactly the same thing, seemed a peculiarly horrible instance of brazen-faced audacity.
So deeply did Chichikov become plunged in conversation with his fair pursuers—or rather, so deeply did those fair pursuers enmesh him in the toils of small talk (which they accomplished through the expedient of asking him endless subtle riddles which brought the sweat to his brow in his attempts to guess them)—that he forgot the claims of courtesy which required him first of all to greet his hostess. In fact, he remembered those claims only on hearing the Governor's wife herself addressing him. She had been standing before him for several minutes, and now greeted him with suave expressement and the words, "So HERE you are, Paul Ivanovitch!" But what she said next I am not in a position to report, for she spoke in the ultra-refined tone and vein wherein ladies and gentlemen customarily express themselves in high-class novels which have been written by experts more qualified than I am to describe salons, and able to boast of some acquaintance with good society. In effect, what the Governor's wife said was that she hoped—she greatly hoped—that Monsieur Chichikov's heart still contained a corner—even the smallest possible corner—for those whom he had so cruelly forgotten. Upon that Chichikov turned to her, and was on the point of returning a reply at least no worse than that which would have been returned, under similar circumstances, by the hero of a fashionable novelette, when he stopped short, as though thunderstruck.
Before him there was standing not only Madame, but also a young girl whom she was holding by the hand. The golden hair, the fine-drawn, delicate contours, the face with its bewitching oval—a face which might have served as a model for the countenance of the Madonna, since it was of a type rarely to be met with in Russia, where nearly everything, from plains to human feet, is, rather, on the gigantic scale; these features, I say, were those of the identical maiden whom Chichikov had encountered on the road when he had been fleeing from Nozdrev's. His emotion was such that he could not formulate a single intelligible syllable; he could merely murmur the devil only knows what, though certainly nothing of the kind which would have risen to the lips of the hero of a fashionable novel.
"I think that you have not met my daughter before?" said Madame. "She is just fresh from school."
He replied that he HAD had the happiness of meeting Mademoiselle before, and under rather unexpected circumstances; but on his trying to say something further his tongue completely failed him. The Governor's wife added a word or two, and then carried off her daughter to speak to some of the other guests.
Chichikov stood rooted to the spot, like a man who, after issuing into the street for a pleasant walk, has suddenly come to a halt on remembering that something has been left behind him. In a moment, as he struggles to recall what that something is, the mien of careless expectancy disappears from his face, and he no longer sees a single person or a single object in his vicinity. In the same way did Chichikov suddenly become oblivious to the scene around him. Yet all the while the melodious tongues of ladies were plying him with multitudinous hints and questions—hints and questions inspired with a desire to captivate. "Might we poor cumberers of the ground make so bold as to ask you what you are thinking of?" "Pray tell us where lie the happy regions in which your thoughts are wandering?" "Might we be informed of the name of her who has plunged you into this sweet abandonment of meditation?"—such were the phrases thrown at him. But to everything he turned a dead ear, and the phrases in question might as well have been stones dropped into a pool. Indeed, his rudeness soon reached the pitch of his walking away altogether, in order that he might go and reconnoitre wither the Governor's wife and daughter had retreated. But the ladies were not going to let him off so easily. Every one of them had made up her mind to use upon him her every weapon, and to exhibit whatsoever might chance to constitute her best point. Yet the ladies' wiles proved useless, for Chichikov paid not the smallest attention to them, even when the dancing had begun, but kept raising himself on tiptoe to peer over people's heads and ascertain in which direction the bewitching maiden with the golden hair had gone. Also, when seated, he continued to peep between his neighbours' backs and shoulders, until at last he discovered her sitting beside her mother, who was wearing a sort of Oriental turban and feather. Upon that one would have thought that his purpose was to carry the position by storm; for, whether moved by the influence of spring, or whether moved by a push from behind, he pressed forward with such desperate resolution that his elbow caused the Commissioner of Taxes to stagger on his feet, and would have caused him to lose his balance altogether but for the supporting row of guests in the rear. Likewise the Postmaster was made to give ground; whereupon he turned and eyed Chichikov with mingled astonishment and subtle irony. But Chichikov never even noticed him; he saw in the distance only the golden-haired beauty. At that moment she was drawing on a long glove and, doubtless, pining to be flying over the dancing-floor, where, with clicking heels, four couples had now begun to thread the mazes of the mazurka. In particular was a military staff-captain working body and soul and arms and legs to compass such a series of steps as were never before performed, even in a dream. However, Chichikov slipped past the mazurka dancers, and, almost treading on their heels, made his way towards the spot where Madame and her daughter were seated. Yet he approached them with great diffidence and none of his late mincing and prancing. Nay, he even faltered as he walked; his every movement had about it an air of awkwardness.
It is difficult to say whether or not the feeling which had awakened in our hero's breast was the feeling of love; for it is problematical whether or not men who are neither stout nor thin are capable of any such sentiment. Nevertheless, something strange, something which he could not altogether explain, had come upon him. It seemed as though the ball, with its talk and its clatter, had suddenly become a thing remote—that the orchestra had withdrawn behind a hill, and the scene grown misty, like the carelessly painted-in background of a picture. And from that misty void there could be seen glimmering only the delicate outlines of the bewitching maiden. Somehow her exquisite shape reminded him of an ivory toy, in such fair, white, transparent relief did it stand out against the dull blur of the surrounding throng.
Herein we see a phenomenon not infrequently observed—the phenomenon of the Chichikovs of this world becoming temporarily poets. At all events, for a moment or two our Chichikov felt that he was a young man again, if not exactly a military officer. On perceiving an empty chair beside the mother and daughter, he hastened to occupy it, and though conversation at first hung fire, things gradually improved, and he acquired more confidence.
At this point I must reluctantly deviate to say that men of weight and high office are always a trifle ponderous when conversing with ladies. Young lieutenants—or, at all events, officers not above the rank of captain—are far more successful at the game. How they contrive to be so God only knows. Let them but make the most inane of remarks, and at once the maiden by their side will be rocking with laughter; whereas, should a State Councillor enter into conversation with a damsel, and remark that the Russian Empire is one of vast extent, or utter a compliment which he has elaborated not without a certain measure of intelligence (however strongly the said compliment may smack of a book), of a surety the thing will fall flat. Even a witticism from him will be laughed at far more by him himself than it will by the lady who may happen to be listening to his remarks.
These comments I have interposed for the purpose of explaining to the reader why, as our hero conversed, the maiden began to yawn. Blind to this, however, he continued to relate to her sundry adventures which had befallen him in different parts of the world. Meanwhile (as need hardly be said) the rest of the ladies had taken umbrage at his behaviour. One of them purposely stalked past him to intimate to him the fact, as well as to jostle the Governor's daughter, and let the flying end of a scarf flick her face; while from a lady seated behind the pair came both a whiff of violets and a very venomous and sarcastic remark. Nevertheless, either he did not hear the remark or he PRETENDED not to hear it. This was unwise of him, since it never does to disregard ladies' opinions. Later-but too late—he was destined to learn this to his cost.
In short, dissatisfaction began to display itself on every feminine face. No matter how high Chichikov might stand in society, and no matter how much he might be a millionaire and include in his expression of countenance an indefinable element of grandness and martial ardour, there are certain things which no lady will pardon, whosoever be the person concerned. We know that at Governor's balls it is customary for the onlookers to compose verses at the expense of the dancers; and in this case the verses were directed to Chichikov's address. Briefly, the prevailing dissatisfaction grew until a tacit edict of proscription had been issued against both him and the poor young maiden.
But an even more unpleasant surprise was in store for our hero; for whilst the young lady was still yawning as Chichikov recounted to her certain of his past adventures and also touched lightly upon the subject of Greek philosophy, there appeared from an adjoining room the figure of Nozdrev. Whether he had come from the buffet, or whether he had issued from a little green retreat where a game more strenuous than whist had been in progress, or whether he had left the latter resort unaided, or whether he had been expelled therefrom, is unknown; but at all events when he entered the ballroom, he was in an elevated condition, and leading by the arm the Public Prosecutor, whom he seemed to have been dragging about for a long while past, seeing that the poor man was glancing from side to side as though seeking a means of putting an end to this personally conducted tour. Certainly he must have found the situation almost unbearable, in view of the fact that, after deriving inspiration from two glasses of tea not wholly undiluted with rum, Nozdrev was engaged in lying unmercifully. On sighting him in the distance, Chichikov at once decided to sacrifice himself. That is to say, he decided to vacate his present enviable position and make off with all possible speed, since he could see that an encounter with the newcomer would do him no good. Unfortunately at that moment the Governor buttonholed him with a request that he would come and act as arbiter between him (the Governor) and two ladies—the subject of dispute being the question as to whether or not woman's love is lasting. Simultaneously Nozdrev descried our hero and bore down upon him.
"Ah, my fine landowner of Kherson!" he cried with a smile which set his fresh, spring-rose-pink cheeks a-quiver. "Have you been doing much trade in departed souls lately?" With that he turned to the Governor. "I suppose your Excellency knows that this man traffics in dead peasants?" he bawled. "Look here, Chichikov. I tell you in the most friendly way possible that every one here likes you—yes, including even the Governor. Nevertheless, had I my way, I would hang you! Yes, by God I would!"
Chichikov's discomfiture was complete.
"And, would you believe it, your Excellency," went on Nozdrev, "but this fellow actually said to me, 'Sell me your dead souls!' Why, I laughed till I nearly became as dead as the souls. And, behold, no sooner do I arrive here than I am told that he has bought three million roubles' worth of peasants for transferment! For transferment, indeed! And he wanted to bargain with me for my DEAD ones! Look here, Chichikov. You are a swine! Yes, by God, you are an utter swine! Is not that so, your Excellency? Is not that so, friend Prokurator 34?"
But both his Excellency, the Public Prosecutor, and Chichikov were too taken aback to reply. The half-tipsy Nozdrev, without noticing them, continued his harangue as before.
"Ah, my fine sir!" he cried. "THIS time I don't mean to let you go. No, not until I have learnt what all this purchasing of dead peasants means. Look here. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Yes, I say that—I who am one of your best friends." Here he turned to the Governor again. "Your Excellency," he continued, "you would never believe what inseperables this man and I have been. Indeed, if you had stood there and said to me, 'Nozdrev, tell me on your honour which of the two you love best—your father or Chichikov?' I should have replied, 'Chichikov, by God!'" With that he tackled our hero again, "Come, come, my friend!" he urged. "Let me imprint upon your cheeks a baiser or two. You will excuse me if I kiss him, will you not, your Excellency? No, do not resist me, Chichikov, but allow me to imprint at least one baiser upon your lily-white cheek." And in his efforts to force upon Chichikov what he termed his "baisers" he came near to measuring his length upon the floor.
Every one now edged away, and turned a deaf ear to his further babblings; but his words on the subject of the purchase of dead souls had none the less been uttered at the top of his voice, and been accompanied with such uproarious laughter that the curiosity even of those who had happened to be sitting or standing in the remoter corners of the room had been aroused. So strange and novel seemed the idea that the company stood with faces expressive of nothing but a dumb, dull wonder. Only some of the ladies (as Chichikov did not fail to remark) exchanged meaning, ill-natured winks and a series of sarcastic smiles: which circumstance still further increased his confusion. That Nozdrev was a notorious liar every one, of course, knew, and that he should have given vent to an idiotic outburst of this sort had surprised no one; but a dead soul—well, what was one to make of Nozdrev's reference to such a commodity?
Naturally this unseemly contretemps had greatly upset our hero; for, however foolish be a madman's words, they may yet prove sufficient to sow doubt in the minds of saner individuals. He felt much as does a man who, shod with well-polished boots, has just stepped into a dirty, stinking puddle. He tried to put away from him the occurrence, and to expand, and to enjoy himself once more. Nay, he even took a hand at whist. But all was of no avail—matters kept going as awry as a badly-bent hoop. Twice he blundered in his play, and the President of the Council was at a loss to understand how his friend, Paul Ivanovitch, lately so good and so circumspect a player, could perpetrate such a mauvais pas as to throw away a particular king of spades which the President has been "trusting" as (to quote his own expression) "he would have trusted God." At supper, too, matters felt uncomfortable, even though the society at Chichikov's table was exceedingly agreeable and Nozdrev had been removed, owing to the fact that the ladies had found his conduct too scandalous to be borne, now that the delinquent had taken to seating himself on the floor and plucking at the skirts of passing lady dancers. As I say, therefore, Chichikov found the situation not a little awkward, and eventually put an end to it by leaving the supper room before the meal was over, and long before the hour when usually he returned to the inn.
In his little room, with its door of communication blocked with a wardrobe, his frame of mind remained as uncomfortable as the chair in which he was seated. His heart ached with a dull, unpleasant sensation, with a sort of oppressive emptiness.
"The devil take those who first invented balls!" was his reflection. "Who derives any real pleasure from them? In this province there exist want and scarcity everywhere: yet folk go in for balls! How absurd, too, were those overdressed women! One of them must have had a thousand roubles on her back, and all acquired at the expense of the overtaxed peasant, or, worse still, at that of the conscience of her neighbour. Yes, we all know why bribes are accepted, and why men become crooked in soul. It is all done to provide wives—yes, may the pit swallow them up!—with fal-lals. And for what purpose? That some woman may not have to reproach her husband with the fact that, say, the Postmaster's wife is wearing a better dress than she is—a dress which has cost a thousand roubles! 'Balls and gaiety, balls and gaiety' is the constant cry. Yet what folly balls are! They do not consort with the Russian spirit and genius, and the devil only knows why we have them. A grown, middle-aged man—a man dressed in black, and looking as stiff as a poker—suddenly takes the floor and begins shuffling his feet about, while another man, even though conversing with a companion on important business, will, the while, keep capering to right and left like a billy-goat! Mimicry, sheer mimicry! The fact that the Frenchman is at forty precisely what he was at fifteen leads us to imagine that we too, forsooth, ought to be the same. No; a ball leaves one feeling that one has done a wrong thing—so much so that one does not care even to think of it. It also leaves one's head perfectly empty, even as does the exertion of talking to a man of the world. A man of that kind chatters away, and touches lightly upon every conceivable subject, and talks in smooth, fluent phrases which he has culled from books without grazing their substance; whereas go and have a chat with a tradesman who knows at least ONE thing thoroughly, and through the medium of experience, and see whether his conversation will not be worth more than the prattle of a thousand chatterboxes. For what good does one get out of balls? Suppose that a competent writer were to describe such a scene exactly as it stands? Why, even in a book it would seem senseless, even as it certainly is in life. Are, therefore, such functions right or wrong? One would answer that the devil alone knows, and then spit and close the book."
Such were the unfavourable comments which Chichikov passed upon balls in general. With it all, however, there went a second source of dissatisfaction. That is to say, his principal grudge was not so much against balls as against the fact that at this particular one he had been exposed, he had been made to disclose the circumstance that he had been playing a strange, an ambiguous part. Of course, when he reviewed the contretemps in the light of pure reason, he could not but see that it mattered nothing, and that a few rude words were of no account now that the chief point had been attained; yet man is an odd creature, and Chichikov actually felt pained by the could-shouldering administered to him by persons for whom he had not an atom of respect, and whose vanity and love of display he had only that moment been censuring. Still more, on viewing the matter clearly, he felt vexed to think that he himself had been so largely the cause of the catastrophe.
Yet he was not angry with HIMSELF—of that you may be sure, seeing that all of us have a slight weakness for sparing our own faults, and always do our best to find some fellow-creature upon whom to vent our displeasure—whether that fellow-creature be a servant, a subordinate official, or a wife. In the same way Chichikov sought a scapegoat upon whose shoulders he could lay the blame for all that had annoyed him. He found one in Nozdrev, and you may be sure that the scapegoat in question received a good drubbing from every side, even as an experienced captain or chief of police will give a knavish starosta or postboy a rating not only in the terms become classical, but also in such terms as the said captain or chief of police may invent for himself. In short, Nozdrev's whole lineage was passed in review; and many of its members in the ascending line fared badly in the process.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the town there was in progress an event which was destined to augment still further the unpleasantness of our hero's position. That is to say, through the outlying streets and alleys of the town there was clattering a vehicle to which it would be difficult precisely to assign a name, seeing that, though it was of a species peculiar to itself, it most nearly resembled a large, rickety water melon on wheels. Eventually this monstrosity drew up at the gates of a house where the archpriest of one of the churches resided, and from its doors there leapt a damsel clad in a jerkin and wearing a scarf over her head. For a while she thumped the gates so vigorously as to set all the dogs barking; then the gates stiffly opened, and admitted this unwieldy phenomenon of the road. Lastly, the barinia herself alighted, and stood revealed as Madame Korobotchka, widow of a Collegiate Secretary! The reason of her sudden arrival was that she had felt so uneasy about the possible outcome of Chichikov's whim, that during the three nights following his departure she had been unable to sleep a wink; whereafter, in spite of the fact that her horses were not shod, she had set off for the town, in order to learn at first hand how the dead souls were faring, and whether (which might God forfend!) she had not sold them at something like a third of their true value. The consequences of her venture the reader will learn from a conversation between two ladies. We will reserve it for the ensuing chapter.