On driving up to the house, Tchichikoff soon perceived a human figure, who began to converse with the peasant who had just arrived with his telega. For a long while he could not discover to what sex this figure belonged; whether it was an old woman or a mouzhik. The dress was absolutely shapeless, but nevertheless very much like a female’s garb, the head-dress was a kind of colpack, as worn by the aged village crones, yet the voice seemed to him to be too loud for a woman’s.
“Oh,’tis an old woman!” he thought for a moment to himself, and immediately added: “oh, no. To be sure,’tis a woman,” he said at last, after a closer examination.
The figure, on its side, also looked very attentively at Tchichikoff. A guest or a stranger seemed to be to it a wonderful apparition, because it not only looked at him alone, but also at Selifan and the horses, beginning from their tails, and ending with their heads. To judge by the keys which were hanging down its left side by a broad belt, and because it was scolding the poor peasant of the cart in a very loud voice, Tchichikoff came to the conclusion that this figure was obviously the housekeeper.
“Halloa, old mother,” said he, as he got out of his britchka, “where is your master?”
“Not at home,” the housekeeper interrupted him, not waiting even for the question to be finished, but a moment later she added: “and what do you want?”
“I have some business with him.”
“Will you then walk into this room,” said the housekeeper, turning round and showing him her back covered all over with flour, and the lower portion of her garb torn beneath.
He entered a large and dark passage, the air in which was as cold and damp as in a cellar. From the passage he emerged into a small room, also very dark, scarcely enlivened by a glimpse of light, which shone through a large crevice in the lower portion of the door opposite. On opening this broken door before him, he at last entered an apartment in which real daylight greeted him, though the disorder which prevailed in it surprised him considerably.
It seemed as if the other portions of the house were undergoing a regular scrubbing, and that this room had been chosen for the temporary reception of all the furniture. Upon one of the large tables stood an old broken chair, and, next to it lay an old clock with its silent pendulum, around which some spiders had already found time to spin their cobwebs. There also leant against the wall an old-fashioned cupboard, covered with old silver plate, decanters, glasses and china.
Upon a large writing table, inlaid with mother of pearl mosaic, which was broken out in many places, leaving but the yellow spots of the mastic behind, lay a variety of objects; a heap of written small slips of papers, upon which lay a marble letter-weight with a handle in the shape of an egg on it, an ancient looking book, bound in rough Russian leather with red edges, a lemon, dried and withered away to the size of a walnut, a piece of a broken arm-chair, a wine glass containing a dark fluid with three dead flies in it, a few letters, some sealing-wax, a small dirty rag, picked up somewhere on the road, two quills, besmeared all over with ink, which had dried upon them long since, a tooth-brush, which had become quite yellow from age and use, and with which the owner seemed to have been in the habit of cleaning his teeth ever since the French invasion of 1812.
Whilst Tchichikoff was still looking around him at the strange arrangement of this apartment, the same housekeeper entered again, through a small side door, which he had seen on his arrival in the court-yard. But now this person appeared to him rather a steward than a female housekeeper: because a woman is not likely to use a razor upon her face, and this person seemed to have the habit of shaving, though it appeared to be done but occasionally, because the whole of the lower portion of her face looked rather like a scrubbing-brush for a horse’s skin made of strong iron wire.
Tchichikoff giving his face an expression of inquisitiveness, now looked anxiously forward, awaiting the steward to be the first speaker. The steward, in his turn, seemed also determined to await what Tchichikoff had to say in explanation of his presence.
At last, however, our hero getting tired of this unpleasant suspense and silence, resolved to address the strange-looking person before him.
“Well, where is your master? is he at home?”
“He is here,” said the steward.
“Where is he?” repeated Tchichikoff.
“Well, my good Sir, you are perhaps shortsighted,” said the steward. “I am the master whom you wish to see.”
Hereupon our hero could not help stepping back a few paces and looking steadfastly at the man before him.
It had happened to him to meet with people of all bodily descriptions, even with such persons as most likely our courteous reader and ourselves never met; but such a man as he now saw before him he had never met with before.
His face did not present any particularly striking features; it was nearly like all faces of lean and old men; his chin projected to such an extent that he was obliged to cover it with his pocket-handkerchief so as not to spit upon it occasionally; his small eyes very far from being dimmed by age, on the contrary, from under their heavy eyebrows they glittered like those of a mouse, when that little animal comes forward from its hole and puts forth its little snout to smell about if there is any danger from a cat, or whether some naughty boy has not laid a trap for it.
His dress was much more characteristic and remarkable. No investigation or expedient would have availed to discover of what peculiar material his morning-gown had been patched together; the sleeves and upper body of his dress were greased and besmeared to such a degree, that they actually had the appearance if not exactly the peculiar smell of that celebrated Russian leather called “jüchte,” and which is commonly used among the lower classes to make their boots of.
From his back, four skirts hung loosely down instead of two, and out of which the cotton wadding was profusely bursting forth. There was also something tied round his neck, but it was impossible to define whether it was a stocking, a garter, or a pair of braces; at all events, it was not a neckerchief.
In a word, if Tchichikoff had met this man thus attired near the portal of a church, he would have undoubtedly tendered him a few coppers, for be it said to the honour of our hero that he was of a charitable disposition, and that he could seldom resist the temptation of giving a copek to a beggar.
But before him there now stood not a beggar, but a Russian landlord of rank. A man who called more than a thousand human beings his own serfs, and it would have also been difficult for any one to find many other proprietors possessing such extensive granaries filled with such a variety and quantity of com, flour, and meal—or to behold stores and warehouses like his, stocked with equal quantities of linen, cloth, wool, in fleeces, and shorn from the skin, smoked meats, dried fish, and other products of a fertile soil.
Pluschkin had been standing for some minutes without speaking a word, but Tchichikoff was still unable to begin a conversation, for he was completely disconcerted by the singular appearance of the man before him, as well as by everything that surrounded him in the room. For a long time he could not imagine in what terms to explain the object of his visit. He was several times on the point of expressing himself in the following terms: that, having heard the praise of his benevolence and the rare qualities of his heart, he felt it to be his duty to come and pay his personal tribute at the shrine of such great virtues, but he suddenly bethought himself, and felt that this would be saying too much.
Casting another hasty glance upon everything in the room, he came to the conclusion, that the words benefactor and rare qualities of the heart, might be successfully replaced by the following terms: economy and order; after this observation, he adapted his address in consequence and spoke thus:—
“That he had heard much to the advantage of his system of economy and the wise administration of his vast estates, and that he therefore felt it his duty to seek his acquaintance and acknowledge personally his profound esteem for a man of such great reputation.” We must confess, that some more plausible reason might have been brought forward, however; nothing better suggested itself to the mind of our hero at that particular moment.
To this complimentary address, Pluschkin murmured something in reply between his lips, because he had no teeth; what the exact words were it is impossible for us to tell, very likely something to the following effect: “The devil take you and your esteem!”
But, as hospitality is still in fashion with us, so much in fashion indeed, that even a miser dare not offend its laws and privileges, therefore the old niggard added immediately, and a little more audibly, “I pray you, Sir, be seated!”
“It is long since I have received company,” said he, “and I must candidly confess I see no advantage in welcoming idle visitors. Some foolish people have introduced the fashion of driving about from one estate to the other, and thus neglect their own households—and if they happen to arrive, you have even to feed their horses and men as well! I have already dined some hours since, and my kitchen is so very low, badly constructed, and the chimney is crumbling, that, were I to order some fire again I might easily set the whole house on fire.”
“Oh, oh, is that it!” thought Tchichikoff to himself, “it is well I made a good dinner at Sobakevitch’s house, on the cabbage and shoulder of mutton.”
“And a truss of hay and some bushels of oats are no joke in these hard times in any household!” continued Pluschkin, “and really, the more I think of it the more absurd this evil custom seems to me. I have but a small estate, my peasants are idle and do not like to work, but think only how to get into the dram-shop—really it is frightful to contemplate, one might easily go begging.”
“However, I have been told,” calmly observed Tchichikoff, “that you call more than a thousand serfs your own.”
“And who has told you that? My dear Sir, you ought to have spit into the face of that person who told you this! he is a fool and wants to pass a joke upon you. All proclaim me to be the possessor of a thousand souls, but if they were to number them they would really find none. During the last three years the fever has carried off numbers of my best and healthiest peasants.”
“Is it possible! and have you indeed lost many?” exclaimed Tchichikoff, with visible interest.
“Yes, the fever has carried off a great many.”
“But allow me to inquire how many in number?”
“About eighty souls.”
“No, is it really so many?”
“My good Sir, I have no interest to hide the truth.”
“Allow me to ask you one more question. I suppose you estimate the number of your dead serfs to be eighty, since you handed in your last census?”
“If that was the case, I should thank heaven for not having lost more,” said Pluschkin, “no, my good Sir, since I sent my last census to government, and paid my capitation tax, I have lost more than one hundred and twenty serfs!”
“Really, one hundred and twenty peasants!” exclaimed again Tchichikoff loudly, and even opened his mouth more than usual, in consequence of his astonishment.
“Good Sir, I am too old to tell a falsehood. I am fast advancing to my fourth score,” said Pluschkin. He seemed even a little offended at the stranger’s apparently joyful exclamation.
Tchichikoff also observed that he had gone too far in not observing due compassion with that which another person considers a grievous loss; and, therefore, after heaving a deep sigh, he added that he felt the greatest commiseration for him.
“‘Tis all very fine talking about commiseration, but with all that you cannot put it in your pocket,” replied Pluschkin. “I may quote as an example a certain colonel, who lives on an estate next to mine, and who has come heaven knows wherefrom! he says that he is a relation of mine; calls me his uncle, his dear grand uncle! and even kisses my hands; but when he begins to speak of his commiseration, he raises such a howling, that I do not know how to save my ears. He has a face all on fire; and with all that appearance pretends to like meagre fare and buck-wheat grits. No doubt that young fellow spent all his money when he served in the army, or some ballet-girl girl has cheated him out of it; and that I must suppose makes him now so full of commiseration!”
Tchichikoff endeavoured to explain to the old man, that his commiseration was quite of a different nature from that of the colonel, and that he was ready to prove it, not with empty words, but with tangible facts; and without any further arguments, he proceeded to the business at once, and informed the old miser of his readiness to undertake the payment of the capitation tax for all such of his peasants as had died since the last census, victims of a contagious fever.
This proposal seemed perfectly to bewilder Pluschkin. He opened his eyes wildly, looked for a long time steadfastly into the face of the speaker, and at last put the following question to him:
“Pardon me, my good Sir, but have you perhaps also served in the army?”
“No,” answered Tchichikoff, with a pleasing air of artfulness, “I have served in the civil ranks.”
“Oh! a civilian?” repeated Pluschkin, and began to move his lips, as if he was eating something. “But how do you mean it? This offer which you make to me, would be a positive expense to yourself?”
“To be agreeable to you, I am even willing to be a loser.”
“Oh, my good Sir! oh, you are my benefactor!” exclaimed Pluschkin, so much overcome with joy, that he did not observe that a large drop of fluid snuff had made its appearance on the point of his nose, and that whilst raising his arms to accompany his exclamations he opened his morning-gown, and thus displayed an under-dress not at all fit for description.
“What a consolation you have brought me! oh, good Heaven! oh, my holy saints!—” and more than this Pluschkin was incapable of articulating.
But a minute had scarcely elapsed, since this joy had shown itself so suddenly upon the mummy-like face of the old man, when it again as suddenly disappeared from his features, and his face again assumed its usual expression of care and anxiety. He recovered even as far again his self-possession as to wipe his nose, and rolling his handkerchief into a ball, he began to pass it across his lips, to and fro.
“With your permission, and without wishing to offend you in the least, will you allow me to ask you, whether you will agree to undertake to pay the tax annually till the next census? and the money for it, would you like to pay it to me, or at once into the imperial treasury?”
“I would suggest that we should come to the following arrangement: we will draw up a contract of sale, in which we will agree that all the hundred-and-twenty serfs are alive, and that you have sold them to me.”
“Oh, by a contract of sale,” said Pluschkin, musingly, and again munching his lips. “But you see, my dear Sir, a contract of sale is an expense. And the imperial employés are so very impudent indeed! Formerly you could oblige them to do their duty by presenting them with a rouble and a sack of flour, but now-a-day one is obliged to send them nearly a cart-load of grits and a ten rouble note besides, there is such a love for money now prevalent among them. I am quite surprised how it is that nobody else has paid any attention to this real nuisance. Some one ought to have come forward and spoken words of exhortation and salvation to those rogues! Words of exhortation pierce every heart. Whatever people may say, I am of opinion that no sinner can resist words of salvation.”
“I should say, you could resist them!” thought Tchichikoff to himself, and he added aloud, that he was ready—out of pure esteem for the old man—to pay the expense of the contract of sale out of his own pocket.
On hearing this offer made to him, that even the expenses of the contract of sale would not be an expense to him, Pluschkin came to the conclusion that his strange guest must be completely deranged, and that he only pretended he had been in the civil service of his country, and that there could be no doubt that he had served as an officer in the army, and had been in the habit of courting actresses and ballet-girls.
Notwithstanding this opinion, he could impossibly hide his satisfaction, and wished his guest and his children and grandchildren all the blessings of Providence, without asking him previously whether he was married, and whether he had any family. He then hurried towards the window, and thumping with his bony fingers on the glass, he shouted out:
In a minute later, hurried footsteps were heard in the passage, and soon after behind the door of the apartment in which our hero and his host were; but the person outside continued for some time making a fearful noise with his boots, at last the door was opened and Proschka entered. He was a boy of about thirteen years of age; the boots which he wore were so large, that each step which he made forwards threatened to leave his boots behind.
Why the boy, Proschka, wore such a large pair of boots we can explain immediately; Pluschkin kept for the whole of his retinue—however many—but one pair of boots, which were always to be left behind the door in the passage. Every servant who was called by his master was obliged to skip bare-footed across the court-yard, but as soon as he entered the long and dark passage leading to his lord’s apartment he was obliged to step into the boots, and then only allowed to enter the room of his master.
In leaving the chamber, he had to strip himself of those boots, and return to his own quarters on his natural soles. If any one had happened to have been standing at the window of Pluschkin’s mansion—especially on a freezing autumn morning—he would have witnessed the skipping and jumping of the whole of his domestic servants, who made such evolutions as can scarcely be equalled by even the cleverest clown or ballet dancer.
“But, do me the favour, my good Sir, to look at this boy’s face!” said Pluschkin to Tchichikoff, whilst pointing to the face of his servant boy, Proschka, “he seems as stupid as a log of wood, but try only to leave anything lying loose, in a minute he is sure to steal it! Now then, stupid boy, what have you come here for?”
After having said this he remained silent a few moments, which was answered by a silence from Proschka as well.
“Heat the samovar, do you hear me? and then give this key to Mavra, and tell her to go into the pantry; there she will find a large fish biscuit—given to me by Lady Alexander Stepanovna—tell her to serve this cake with the tea!”
After saying this, he could not help looking with an air of suspicion even upon Tchichikoff. Such traits of unusual generosity began to appear to him quite impossible, and he thought to himself:—
“The devil knows him and where he comes from; he might be a man fond of boasting, like all those military spendthrifts; he will humbug me just to have something to boast about, drink my tea, eat my cake, and then say farewell!”
After reasoning thus with himself, he came to the conclusion that it would be better to be careful and test the honesty of his strange guest, and he therefore proposed that it would be a good thing to proceed at once to the drawing up of the contract of sale, because man was mortal; to-day alive, and to-morrow heaven knows where.