On driving up to the entrance-hall, Tchichikoff beheld two faces at once, looking out through the window: the one was a feminine face, narrow and long, like a cucumber; the other was the round face of a man, broad like a Moldavian pumpkin, out of which our Russian peasants are accustomed to make their light and two-stringed balalaikas, the charming instrument with which, some handsome cock of the village will on a fine summer’s evening gather young and old around him, and sing and whistle some merry ditty to the white-bosomed maiden of his heart, who delights in the slow and melancholy strains of his music.
The two faces which had just presented themselves at the window disappeared again suddenly. A servant, dressed in a grey jacket with a blue upstanding collar, came out upon the landing and led Tchichikoff into a reception-room, in which soon after the host himself made his appearance. Perceiving and recognizing who his guest was, the host exclaimed abruptly: “Pray, enter!” and he led him into the interior of his house.
As Tchichikoff cast a side glance upon Sobakevitch, the man seemed to him very much like a bear of the middle size. To complete this resemblance, he wore a coat perfectly of the colour of a bear’s skin, with large sleeves, and a pair of large inexpressibles. His walk was by starts, sideways and bent together, and he was in the continual habit of treading upon other people’s feet. His complexion was of a glowing, hot colour, like that of a new penny.
Tchichikoff glanced once more and stealthily at him as they were passing the dining-room; “A bear, a complete bear!” he thought to himself. It was impossible to conceive a more striking resemblance. Knowing that he had the habit of trampling upon other persons’ feet, our hero was very careful how he placed his, and allowed him to walk before him. The host seemed to feel the sin of his awkwardness and immediately turned round and said, “Have I, by any chance, hurt you?” But Tchichikoff thanked him, and said, “That as yet he had not felt any inconvenience.”
On entering the reception-room, Sobakevitch pointed to an arm-chair, saying again, abruptly, “Pray be seated!” In sitting down Tchichikoff looked at the walls and the pictures that were hanging on them. The pictures all represented finely grown men, apparently the leaders of the last struggle for Hellenic independence; they were full-sized engravings; Mavrocordato in a pair of red breeches and military dress, with a pair of spectacles upon his nose; Miaouli and Kanaris.
All these heroes were represented with such enormous ties-and extraordinary moustachios, that the sight of them made Tchichikoff shudder. Among the heroic Hellenes there was also the portrait of the Russian General Bagration, memorable for his services in the year 1812, a meagre, careworn old man; heaven knows why he had been placed among these dashing heroes. Next came the portrait of the Grecian heroine, Bobelina, whose foot seemed to be larger than the whole trunk of any of the fashionables of our present drawing-rooms.
The host being a healthy and strong-built man himself, seemed to like that his rooms should also be adorned with the portraits of strong and healthy persons. Close to the Grecian heroine, Bobelina, and quite close to the window, hung a cage, from which a well-fed blackbird was peeping out, which was also very much like Sobakevitch.
The guest and host had not been silent for two minutes, when the door suddenly opened and the lady hostess made her appearance, a lady of a very high figure, in a cap profusely ornamented with ribbons, which seemed to have been dyed at home. She entered the room very ceremoniously, holding her head as straight as a palm-tree.
“This is my beloved Pheodulia Ivanovna!” said Sobakevitch.
Tchichikoff respectfully approached Pheodulia Ivanovna, and according to Russian fashion, kissed her hand, which she nearly pushed between his lips, at the same time he had an opportunity to observe, or rather smell, that her hands had been washed in salt cucumber water.
“My darling, allow me to introduce you to Pavel Ivanovitch Tchichikoff!” continued Sobakevitch, “I had the honour of making his acquaintance at our Lord-Lieutenant’s, and at the Postmaster-general’s.”
Pheodulia Ivanovna asked Tchichikoff to sit down, saying also very abruptly, “I beg you will be seated!” and making a peculiar movement with her head, not unlike that of an actress playing a tragedy queen. After having done this, she seated herself upon the sofa, covered herself with a merino shawl, and did not again move either her eyes or her lips.
Tchichikoff lifted up his eyes again and beheld once more the Grecian hero, Kanaris, with his enormous ties and interminable moustachios, as well as the heroine, Bobelina, and the blackbird in its cage.
For more than five minutes all three remained silent; the only sign of animation proceeded from the blackbird, who was pecking the wood of his cage with his beak, and gathering the bread crumbs on the bottom of it. Tchichikoff glanced once more around the room, and all, whatever his eyes beheld—all was solid, clumsy, and tasteless in the highest degree, and had a particular and strange resemblance to the host himself; in one of the corners of the room, there stood a large paunch-bellied nutwood bureau, upon four shapeless legs, a perfect bear. The table, the arm-chairs, the common chairs, all were of the most heavy and uncomfortable description, in a word, every article which constituted the furniture of this room seemed to speak; and I am also Sobakevitch!
“We have been thinking of you at the house of the President of the Courts of Justice, Ivan Gregorievitch,” at last said Tchichikoff, perceiving that no one seemed inclined to break the silence and begin to speak, “we thought of you on Thursday last. I spent a very pleasant evening there.”
“True, I was not at the President’s on that evening,” answered Sobakevitch.
“He is an excellent and worthy man!” exclaimed Tchichikoff.
“Whom do you mean?” said Sobakevitch, looking at the corner of his store.
“The President of the Courts of Justice, to be sure.”
“Well, he might have seemed so to you; he is a freemason, and such a fool, that the world cannot produce his equal.”
Tchichikoff was rather startled when he heard this cutting qualification of a person he knew, but recovering immediately from his surprise, he continued: “To be sure, every man has his foibles, but I cannot help expressing my admiration for the Governor-General.”
“The Lord-Lieutenant, a man worthy of admiration?”
“Yes, and I hope you will agree with me in that opinion?”
“He is the greatest scoundrel on the face of the earth.”
“What did you say? the Governor-General the greatest scoundrel?” exclaimed Tchichikoff, perfectly incapable of comprehending how the Lord-Lieutenant of the government of Smolensk could possibly have entered the ranks of scoundrels.
“I must confess, I should never have believed that,” he continued. “However, allow me to observe, his actions do not at all seem such, on the contrary, I should rather say that I believe him a man who possesses many pleasant weaknesses.” Here he also alluded to the knitting and embroidery talents of his Excellency the Lord-Lieutenant of the province, as an authority for his opinion of him, and expressed himself in the highest terms of the winning expression of the Governor-General’s countenance.
“And his face even, is that of a scoundrel!” said Sobakevitch. “Only place a knife in his hands, and let him free upon the high road, he will cut your throat, he will murder you even for a copek! He and the Vice-Governor, also, are of the same cast, they both are Gog and Magog.”
“No, I cannot be mistaken, he is not on good terms with them,” thought Tchichikoff to himself. “And I think I shall do better to speak to him about the Chief of the Police force, he seems to be his friend.”
“However, as far as I am personally concerned,” he said, “I must confess that I like the Chief Commissioner of the Police force better than any other dignitary in Smolensk. He is such a straightforward and candid man, his face speaks in his favour, and proclaims his kindness of heart.”
“He is a rogue,” said Sobakevitch very coolly, “he will sell you, betray you, and then even dine with you! I know them all but too well; they are all great rogues, the whole town of Smolensk is inhabited by such men; a rogue sitting on a rogue, and driving on a batch of rogues. All are Christian sellers. To my knowledge, there is but one honest man among them, and that man is the Imperial Procurator; but even he, if we were to judge him strictly, even he is a pig.”
After such laudatory, though rather short biographies, Tchichikoff perceived that it would be useless to mention any other of the dignitaries of Smolensk, and then only he recollected that Sobakevitch was not in the habit of having a good opinion of any one.
“Come, my darling, let us now go to dinner,” said the worthy spouse, Lady Sobakevitch, to her husband.
“Allow me to invite you to dinner,” said Sobakevitch. After saying which he advanced towards a table, upon which an introductory meal had been placed; the host and his guest each drank, as is customary, a small glass of brandy, and had a bit of salt fish, or some such appetite-stimulating foretastes, and in doing thus, they but did what is customary in every town and village throughout the vast Russian Empire; thus excited and prepared, they entered the dining-room, into which they followed the hostess, who led them on like a goose her goslings.
A small table was laid for four persons. The fourth place was soon occupied, but it was difficult to say affirmatively by whom, whether that person was a lady or a girl, relation, a guest or friend living in the house; she was not adorned with a cap, was about thirty years of age, and wore a variegated dress.
“Your cabbage-soup, my darling, is delicious to-day,” said Sobakevitch to his wife, whilst cutting and helping himself to a second enormous piece of stuffing, and putting it into his soup. This stuffing, as it might be called, for want of a better denomination in the English language, is a well-known dish in every Russian household, and is always served together with the national sour cabbage-soup; it is made of the ventricles, head, and feet of a sheep, and stuffed with buck-wheat grits.
“Such stuffing,” he continued, turning towards Tchichikoff, “you could not get to eat in town, where they have the habit of serving you with Heaven knows what stuff!”
“The Lord-Lieutenant’s dinners, however, are not so contemptible,” said Tchichikoff.
“Do you know how and of what stuff his dinners are made? If you knew it, I’m sure you would not eat them.”
“I do not know how they are prepared, and therefore cannot judge; but his pork-chops and boiled flounders were delicious.”
“It seemed so to you. But I know well what they buy in the market. Their cook, the impudent fellow, who seems to have learnt his art in France, is capable of buying a cat, skinning it, roasting it, and serving it up as a hare.”
“Fie! what an unpleasant allusion you make,” said his wife.
“And why so, my dear? it is a fact, and I am sure they do that, if not even worse. All that we would throw away in our country kitchen, the town people would put in their soup, and find it even a delicacy—yes, a delicacy. Such is their taste!”
“You are always in the habit of talking such nonsense at table,” said his wife, with an evident air of displeasure.
“Why, my heart,” said Sobakevitch, “if I was to do it myself, it would be a different thing; but I tell you candidly that I will never eat any of their stuff. You may cover a frog with a crust of sugar, and yet I would not take it into my mouth, nor what they call oysters; I know what oysters are like.”
“Take some mutton,” he continued, addressing himself to Tchichikoff; “this is a shoulder of mutton with grits. This is not a stew, as they make it in town kitchens, where they employ mutton which has been offered for sale for three or four days in the market.”
Hereupon Sobakevitch shook his head angrily, whilst adding:
“When I am to have some roast or boiled pork, let me have the whole pig on the table; if some mutton, I want to look at the whole animal; if a goose, let me have the whole bird. I would rather feed on ope dish, but feed to my heart’s content.”
Sobakevitch confirmed this principle by the deed: he placed the half of the shoulder of mutton on his plate, ate it all, picked and licked over the bones to the last.
“Yes,” thought Tchichikoff to himself, “his lips are as good as his mouth.”
“It is not so with me,” said Sobakevitch, whilst wiping his hands and mouth on a napkin, “it is not with me as it is with a Pluschkin; he has eight hundred serfs, but eats a worse dinner than any of my shepherds.”
“Who is this Pluschkin?” inquired Tchichikoff.
“A scoundrel,” answered Sobakevitch. “His avarice is so great that you cannot form an idea of it. A prisoner lives better than him. He nearly starves all his peasants.”
“Really!” Tchichikoff exclaimed, with evident interest; “and you believe that many of his serfs have died from want?”
“They die like flies.”
“Do they really! But allow me to ask you, how far he lives from your estate?”
“About five wersts.”
“About five wersts!” Tchichikoff exclaimed again, and even felt a perceptible pulsation of the heart. “But if I was to drive out of your court-yard, would it be on the right or on the left-hand side?”
“I would not advise you even to know the road to that dog’s kennel!” said Sobakevitch. “It is more excusable to visit some forbidden place, than the house of such a man as Pluschkin.”
“Oh no, I did not ask that for any particular purpose; but simply because I take an interest in knowing something about places and positions of every description,” was the reply of Tchichikoff.
After the shoulder of mutton followed some flounders, of which each was considerably larger than the plates; then a turkey, nearly of the size of a young calf, stuffed with all kinds of good things—with eggs, rice, liver, and a variety of other condiments, which all had been pressed into the fowl’s stomach.
With the turkey, the dinner had an end; but when they rose from the table, Tchichikoff felt heavier by at least half a hundredweight. They entered the reception-room, where some sweetmeats, such as pears, cherries, strawberries and other berries, preserved in sugar or honey, were displayed on small china plates; however, neither the guest nor the host could or would touch any. The lady hostess left the room for the purpose of displaying some other kind upon other small plates, in the hope that her guest would like to taste some of them. Profiting by her momentary absence, Tchichikoff turned towards Sobakevitch, who was lying in an arm-chair, and groaning after such a more than copious dinner, and allowing some indistinct sounds to escape from his mouth, using the one hand to make the sign of the cross, and holding the other before his mouth. Tchichikoff addressed him in the following words:
“I should have liked to speak to you about a certain little business.”
“Here are some more sweetmeats,” said the hostess, returning with some few small plates; “these are very rare fruits, and preserved in honey.”
“Very well, my darling, we’ll taste them later,” said Sobakevitch. “You had better now return into your own room, for Pavel Ivanovitch and myself are going to take off our coats and rest ourselves a little.”
Lady Sobakevitch offered to send in some soft pillows, but her husband opposed it, and answered her, “Never mind, we will take our rest in these arm-chairs;” and the lady left the room.