Whilst the head-waiter was still engaged in decyphering the words written on the slip of paper, Tchichikoff left his room and went into the street, to examine the town, with which he evidently appeared to be pleased; for he, no doubt, found that it in no way yielded precedence to any other governmental or provincial town of the Empire: the yellow colour was strikingly predominant upon all the stone edifices, whilst a more modest dark grey hue was thickly diffused over all the wooden buildings. The houses were of regular and irregular construction, of one, two, and one a-half stories high, with everlasting balconies, of course very pretty according to the good taste of provincial architects. In some places, these houses appeared as if lost in midst of the plain-like large streets and their interminable long wooden garden-enclosures; in other places again, they were huddled together, and here life and commerce were more perceptible.
Some of the sign boards, though many were washed clean by heavy rains and snow-storms, displayed here and there a well painted cake, a pair of Suwarrow boots, or a coat and pair of inexpressibles, with the inscription “tailor, from Paris;” then again a hosier’s shop, exhibited hats and gloves, stockings and night-caps, with the superscription: “Arsenieff Philipoff, foreign merchant;” on another house might be seen a very large sign-board with a billiard-table painted upon it, and two players in dress-coats, such as the dramatis personae wear in an after-piece, when they enter as “guests,” upon the stage. The players on this sign-board were represented in the act of aiming at a ball with their cues, their arms slightly bent backwards and rather ill-shaped legs, as if they had been in the act of making an unsuccessful attempt at an entrechat. Under this billiard-table was written in large characters: “And here is the establishment.”
Here and there a man or woman was hawking wares about the street, or selling them at a stand, such as nuts, apples, soap, and cakes—which bore a striking resemblance to soap; then again a coffee and tea-shop, or eating-house, with a large sign board outside, with an enormous fish on it, in the back of which a gigantic fork was stuck, like an harpoon in a whale. Most frequent of all were the double-headed and swarthy looking Imperial eagles spreading their protecting wings over the entrance of the numerous taverns with the laconic inscription, “dram-shop.” The pavement was in a bad condition everywhere. The curiosity of Pavel Ivanovitch Tchichikoff, the Councillor of State, went even so far as to honour with a minute inspection the public garden of the town; he found the trees very scrubby and scantily planted, taking feeble root, leaning for support against three posts in the shape of a triangle, and very neatly painted with green oil-colour.
Although these trees were not much higher than common reeds, yet they were mentioned and described in the newspapers on the occasion of the last illumination of the town in the following exceedingly complimentary style: “Thanks to the munificence and protection of our Governor-General, our town is being rapidly embellished, and has again been endowed with an additional ornament—a public garden—full of shady and broad-leaved trees, spreading their protecting branches against the oppressive heat of the day, and it is very gratifying indeed, to witness how loudly the hearts of the good citizens beat, and their tears of gratitude flow in acknowledgment and gratitude towards our Lord-Lieutenant and Governor.”
After asking the policeman on duty the nearest way to the parish-church, the town-hall, and the residence of the Lord-Lieutenant, Tchichikoff went to take a walk near the river, which flowed through the centre of the town; on his road thither he happened to pass a lamp-post, from which he tore off a play-bill, which was flapping loosely; no doubt with the intention of reading it with more leisure, when at home; he looked attentively at a lady of rather elegant appearance who was passing along the wood pavement the other side of the street, and who was followed by a little page in a military livery, carrying a large bundle in his hands; once again he cast a long and general glance around him as if with the intention of familiarizing his memory with the position of place and streets, and then went straight home to his room, slightly assisted by the ever attentive head-waiter, during the process of getting up-stairs.
Having had tea, he sat down before a table and ordered a wax candle, produced the torn off play-bill from his pocket, and bringing it closer to the light, he began to read it, slightly closing his right eye. However, there was nothing remarkable in the play-bill: one of Shakespeare’s dramas was to be performed; the part of Hamlet was allotted to a Mr. Matchaloff, and that of Ophelia, to Miss Assenkova, the other dramatis personae were of indifferent reputation, and for that reason less interesting; nevertheless, Tchichikoff read them all, and got even as far down the list as the price of the pit and gallery, and discovered that the bill had been printed in the governmental printing-office of the town.
When he had perused the whole, he turned the bill and examined the other side of it, to see if there was by chance something more to read, but finding nothing, he wiped his eyes and folded the bill carefully together, and then deposited it in his mahogany travelling box, into which he was accustomed to put anything, and everything he could lay hold of. The day, we imagine, was concluded with a plate of cold veal and ham, a bottle of sour Crimea-wine, and in a sound night’s rest—all in one breath—as we express ourselves in some of the extensive towns of the broad Russian Empire.
The whole of the following day was devoted to paying visits. Tchichikoff went out to pay his devoirs to all the important officers and employés of the town. With hat in hand, he waited upon the Lord-Lieutenant, who, on closer inspection, proved to bear a great resemblance to Tchichikoff himself, for he was neither too stout nor too thin; but he wore the decoration for merit of St. Anne round his neck, and it was whispered about that he might shortly be honoured with a presidential star; however, he was a good-natured man, and even sometimes found leisure and pleasure to assist his lady in embroidering upon canvass.
Tchichikoff next went to present himself to the Vice-Governor, the Procurator, the Presiding Magistrate, the Commissary of Police, the Public Contractor-General, the Inspectors of the Imperial manufactories—our memory fails us, and we regret it; but in excuse we may state that it is rather difficult to remember the different grades of the all-powerful of this wicked world; it will therefore suffice to say, that our traveller displayed an unusual activity as regarded the visits he paid on that particular day. We will conclude a notice of them, by stating that he even went so far in the marks of his civilities, as not to forget to pay his compliments to the Inspector of the Surgical division and the Town-architect. When he had performed all these obligations, he was still sitting and musing in his britchka, and meditating whether he had not omitted any one; but really, there were no more officers of the crown to whom he could have shown his attentions.
In his conversation with these omnipotent personages, he contrived, very cleverly, too, to say to each of them separately something either laudatory or complimentary. To the Lord-Lieutenant he insinuated the flattering observation, that the entrance into his Lord-Lieutenancy was like that into Paradise, and that the roads were everywhere even and smooth as velvet, and that those governments which appoint so trustworthy managers merit the highest praise. To the Commissary of Police he expressed his admiration of the watchfulness and the civility of the policemen under his orders, and in his conversation with the Vice-Governor and the Presiding Magistrate, who had no higher rank than simply “councillors of state,” he made an adroit mistake by addressing them twice as “your excellency,” which of course pleased and flattered them amazingly.
The results of his praiseworthy attentions were, that the Lord-Lieutenant immediately honoured him with an invitation for that same day to an evening party en famille, whilst the other officers of the crown invited him, the one to dinner, another to a game of whist, a third asked him, as a favour, to come and take a cup of tea, and so forth.
About himself, our friend Tchichikoff obviously avoided saying much, and if he spoke of himself at all, it was but in very general terms indeed, and with an undeniable modesty; his conversation, in such instances, assumed rather more of a learned phraseology and expression. Thus he would remark, for instance, that he was the most insignificant worm that crept over the surface of this world of trouble and deception, and therefore quite unworthy to be an object of particular notice; that he had seen much, and acquired a great deal of experience during his life; that he had struggled and suffered in the service for the just cause; that he had many enemies, some of them even capable of preying on his very vitals; and that now, exhausted by fruitless contests, he was longing for tranquillity, and in search of a modest corner, where he might pass the remainder of his career in quiet and retirement; and, finally, that in passing through this beautiful town, he considered it to be his bounden duty to testify his respect and admiration to the magistrates of the place by waiting upon them. This was about all that the élite of Smolensk could learn touching the strange face that had arrived within the walls of the town, and which strange face did not fail to show itself that very same evening at the réunion of the Lord-Lieutenant.
The preparations for this evening party occupied our hero considerably above two hours, for he devoted such unusual care and attention to his toilette as, we venture to say, is perhaps seldom witnessed. Having enjoyed a short but sound after-dinner nap, he ordered fresh water to be brought in to him; he then began to wash very carefully both his cheeks, using soap very freely, and putting his tongue against each of them in turn—to tighten the skin, no doubt; then, taking the towel from off the shoulder of the officious head-waiter, he commenced rubbing and drying his full face, beginning from behind his ears, yet he did not do so without sneezing twice, and directly into the face of the clever head-waiter.
Having performed this operation, he took up his position before the looking-glass to adjust his shirt-front, and to abbreviate two hairs which protruded from his nostrils, and soon after he was shining in his glory and a dress coat of light coffee-brown colour with bronze buttons.
Thus tastefully and elegantly attired, he seated himself in his own carriage, and drove off through the interminable and dimly-lighted streets. The house of the Lord-Lieutenant, however, was illuminated as if for a regular ball; all the carriages that arrived had their lights; two gendarmes were maintaining order in the entrance-hall; in the distance were heard the loud yells of coachmen and footmen—in a word, all was as it ought to be. On entering the reception-room and salon, Tchichikoff was obliged to close his eyes for a moment, for the brilliancy of the lamps and lights, and the dresses and toilette of the ladies, were literally bewildering. All was one blaze of light. Black dress-coats were flying about in all directions, separately and in heaps, as flies will do around a sugar-loaf in the middle of a hot day in July, when the grumbling old housekeeper is cutting it into square, sparkling pieces before an open window; little children, if any, will gather around her, and watch with intense interest and curiosity the movements of her bony hand, raising in measured time the active hammer, whilst the airy brigade of flies, carried along by a whispering zephyr, approach her fearlessly as conquerors, and, taking advantage of the rays of the sun, which dazzle and dim her sight, besiege the tempting bits in small and large divisions. As they have been already abundantly nourished by the dainties of a fine summer, and at each flight desert some rich meal for another, they do not descend upon the sugar to feed, but come there with the intention of showing themselves, of parading up and down upon the sweet heaps, of rubbing their fore or hind legs against one another, or of performing the same process with their airy wings, and again stretching them out, and scratching their little heads, then turn round and fly away, only to return again, after joining a new and perhaps more numerous detachment.
Tchichikoff had not yet recovered from similar effects and reflections, when he found himself surrounded and soon after arm-in-arm with the Lord-Lieutenant, who introduced him at once to his lady. But even here our new guest did not lose his countenance; he said something complimentary, suitable to the circumstance, and very à propos for a man of his—the middle age—of a rank neither too exalted nor too insignificant. When the dancers took up their positions for a first set of quadrilles, the non-dancers were obliged to fall back towards the wall. Tchichikoff was among them, and did as they did by putting his arms behind him à la Napoléon, and for about two minutes he appeared to pay the greatest attention to what was passing before him.
Many of the ladies were dressed with good taste, and in the latest fashion, while others again displayed robes and jewels, such as could only be got in the shops of a provincial town. The gentlemen also, here as elsewhere, could be divided into two distinct classes: to the first belonged those who were tall, slender and thin, and who are always found buzzing around the fair sex; some of them even were of the same description as those we are wont to see in the salons at St. Petersburg; they wore their whiskers in the same studied and carefully-brushed manner, or had the oval of their faces carefully and neatly shaved; they were familiar with the same easy manners in presence of ladies, and they also spoke French fluently; they knew how to amuse and make the ladies laugh whether they liked it or not, just exactly as the fashionables do in the imperial capital.
The second class was composed of bulky and stout men, such as our friend Tchichikoff, that is to say, of the middle size, who could neither be called too stout or too slender. This latter description of gentlemen was always anxiously engaged in avoiding too close a proximity with the fair sex, and looking about right and left with the intention of espying, if possible, whether the servants of their host had not already prepared a green cloth table for a game of whist. Their faces were round as a full moon; upon some of them pimples and warts were visible; others again displayed the marks of small-pox; and as for their hair, they did not wear it in curls, brushed à la Titus, or cut à la diable m’emporte, as the French call it; their hair was neatly arranged or smoothly brushed down; and as for their features, they were rather round and strongly marked. Such men as we have described were the right honourable dignitaries of the town of Smolensk.
It is a curious fact that men of such frame know better how to manage their little affairs in this world of trouble and disappointment than those who are tall, slender or thin. Slender men are appointed in Russia—perhaps also elsewhere—as special commissioners, or are generally selected for such an office; they are to be met with, here, there and everywhere, somehow or another. Their existence is rather too easy, airy, and not at all calculated to be depended upon. Stout men, on the contrary, never accept doubtful or ambiguous appointments. They all grasp at something more substantial; and if they take up a position in life, it always proves to be a safe and a profitable one, and though the foundation may sometimes shake under their weight, they themselves are not to be unseated. They hate outward display and refinements; their coats may perhaps not be of the best fit or the latest fashion like those of the slender gentlemen, but in compensation, their money bags are filled with the blessings of providence.
The slender man may, after three or four years of extravagance, not have a single serf to mortgage at the Imperial Bank, whilst the stout man’s glance is calm and satisfied, for somehow or another, he has saved sufficient to buy a modest cottage in some snug corner of the town, of course in the name of his wife—this attracts less attention, and is done for greater safety; for, in another snug corner of the same town we find another comfortable house belonging to the same stout man; also, at a later date, he builds a villa in the environs, and finally makes the acquisition of a whole estate with all its appurtenances.
Thus then the stout man, having served God and the Emperor, and gained universal esteem, retires from public service, leaves town for his estate, and becomes a farmer, a landowner, a real Russian gentleman, a regular, what we call in Russia, bread and salt man—he lives and he lives well indeed. But when he has done living, then come again his slender heirs; and in the Russian fashion, they spend in a race all the wealth, goods and chattels of their stout parent.