It is a very dubious circumstance whether the hero we have selected for our story will meet with much favour at the hands of our readers. Ladies he is sure not to please—and this assertion we advance confidentially—because ladies expect a hero to be a perfect creation, and if he present but the slightest mental or corporeal imperfection, then, woe to the author! However carefully he may describe his character, and were he even to draw his portrait brighter than a crystal mirror, his exertions, his talents, will be valueless, his time and labour thrown away.
The very corpulence and middle-age of Tchichikoff are calculated to injure him from the very outset: corpulence is unpardonable in a hero, and many fair ladies will turn away in disgust, and say, “Fie! how ugly, how very uninteresting!” Alas! all this is but too well known to the author, for the more he has looked about him, the more he has found it the case that perfect heroes are the only ones that meet with success in this world.
On glancing at all the productions of foreign genius, he has never met with any but fair and perfect heroes and heroines, and even in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” he was astonished at finding none but youthful, fair, and virtuous sufferers.
These, then, are the characters that have met, and still seem to meet with unbounded success in the reading world, though they have been, in our humble opinion, hunted down as it were with a Russian knout, ever since romance became fashionable. Our task, as a Russian author, is a very difficult one indeed, and especially so at the present moment; and unless we can lay before our reader something unmistakeably original, we ought not to have ventured on it. However, trusting in indulgence, and boldly asserting that the perfect and virtuous heroes are completely used up, we beg to introduce an imposing hero.
Dark and humble is the origin of our friend Tchichikoff. His parents he knew belonged to a lower degree of nobility, but whether of hereditary or acquired rank, he was profoundly ignorant; there was no family resemblance between them; at least, such was the opinion of a near relative of his mother’s, a woman who was present at his birth. She exclaimed, as she took the new born babe in her arms, “He has not at all turned out what I expected he would be! He ought at least to have resembled his mother,” which would have been even better, but he was born simply as the proverb says, “not like his father nor like his mother, but like a passing stranger.”
His early life presented but acid-tasteing incidents and recollections, as if regarded through a pane of glass frozen over and covered with snow; he had no friend, no play companion in his early youth. He greeted the world in a country-house with low windows, which were never opened either in winter or summer; his father was a sickly-looking man, who wore a long kaftan or surtout, felt shoes on his bare feet, kept continually heaving deep sighs, walked up and down his room with evident preoccupation, and used to spit frequently into a spittoon standing in a corner; he also sat often uninterruptedly upon a wooden chair before a table with a pen in his hand and some ink on his fingers, and even upon his lips, his eyes fatigued by eternal copyings.
“Never tell a falsehood, fear God and pray for the Emperor, respect your superiors and cherish your benefactors,” were the sentences and exhortations to which our hero had to listen while still a child and incapable of judging their importance; the continual and uniform noise of his father’s feet clad in their felt shoes, and dragging across the floor, accompanied by the well-known but harsh voice of his parent, saying, “You are noisy again, you little rogue!” This is the triste picture of his early childhood, of which he had now scarcely preserved a faint recollection.
But in life all changes unexpectedly; on a fine and sunshiny morning in the spring, when snow had disappeared from the fields and the roads, the father took his son and seated himself with him in a modest telega, drawn by a small horse of the race called ‘the hawk’ by Russian horse dealers; this open equipage was guided by a little hunchbacked coachman, the only representative of his family and the only serf Tchichikoff’s father possessed, as he was also the only servant to do all the work in his master’s house. This hawk-race horse dragged them along the high road for more than two days and a half; they slept on the road, crossed the brooks and rivers, fed on cold fish pies and roast mutton, and arrived only late on the third day in the small town of Bobruisk, their destination.
Before the eyes of the little boy, glittered in unexpected magnificence the houses, shops, and streets of the little town, and so much was he at first bewildered by what he saw that he involuntarily opened his mouth widely, and kept it so for some time. His ecstacy was, however, interrupted by the quadruped hawk, falling with the telega into a deep hole, which was the entrance into a narrow lane, which led, as they advanced, down a steep declivity and was buried in mud on either side; for a long time the poor hawk-horse kept exerting itself and kicking about on all fours, assisted by both the hunchbacked coachman and the master himself, until at last the strength of all three combined brought the vehicle out of the hole, and before a small modest-looking house, with two scrubby poplars before and a small insignificant garden behind.
This house was inhabited by a relation of Tchichikoff’s mother, an old trembling woman much advanced in years, and who, notwithstanding her age, went every morning to market, and on her return from there, used to dry her wet stockings by holding them up and close to the samovar! When she beheld the little boy, she took him on her knees, clapped his rosy cheeks with both her hands, and seemed exceedingly pleased with his childish corpulence. With this original and affectionate woman he was to remain for the future, and go daily to the parish-school of the town of Bobruisk.
After passing the night with them, his father left them the next morning and started at once on his road home again. At their separation no tears flowed from the parental eyes, but he presented his son with half a rouble, a few caresses and what is more valuable still, with the following exhortations:
“Now then my boy, Pavluschka, study and learn, do not be foolish nor become a good-for-nothing boy, but try as much as possible to please and always obey your masters. If you obey your superiors; then, whether you have been successful or not in your studies, if Providence refuses you natural talents, you will still be able to get on in the world and go-ahead, even before all others. Have little or nothing to do with gay companions, they will teach you nothing good; but if you cannot avoid making acquaintances, then he upon friendly terms only with those richer than yourself, for they might be later of use to you by their influence. Do not drink or play foolish tricks by standing treat, but conduct yourself in such a manner that others may treat and compliment you. Above all, be careful and economic and spare and gather up all your pence, for money is the most influential thing in this world. Your friends and gay companions will be the first to betray and desert you in case of need, but the money you have saved will never betray you in whatever circumstances you may find yourself placed. You can do much and succeed in everything in this world provided you have money.”
After concluding his instructions and advice, the father parted with his son, took his seat on his telega, and the quadruped-hawk trotted along the high road towards home, and from that time the lowly little boy never saw his fond parent again; but his parting words and advice remained deeply impressed in his innocent soul.
Young Pavluschka went to school, immediately, on the following day. Any particular talent, for any particular science, was not observable in the boy; he distinguished himself more by assiduous application and orderly behaviour: but his want of talent, was counterbalanced by a mind full of practical wisdom. He at once understood and appreciated his peculiar position, and behaved in regard to his companions in such a manner, that they not only treated him always, but even gave him an excellent opportunity to reserve the greatest portion of the sweet-meats and knick-knacks, to sell at a later date, on very advantageous terms, to the very donors. Whilst still a child, he possessed sufficient strength of mind to refuse himself, and abstain from everything. Of the half-rouble given to him on the departure of his father, he had not spent a single copek, on the contrary, at the end of the year the sum at his disposal had increased considerably, showing nearly an incredible result of his carefulness and speculative mind. He commenced his speculation by making an hussar on horseback, out of wax, and sold him uncommonly advantageously. After this, his first success, he ventured sometime later into a variety of other speculations; such as buying honey-cakes in the marketplace, which he took with him to school and seated himself near those of his school-fellows, who were the richest, and as soon as he saw them moving about on their forms, with evident uneasiness, he took it for granted that his friend felt the pang of hunger, and immediately passed him under the bench a honey-cake or a copek-loaf, for which the other was but too glad to pay him at once, in order to satisfy the cravings of his boyish appetite.
He passed nearly two months at home devoting all his time and attention to the education of a mouse, for which he had made with his own little hands a wooden cage, and at last he had succeeded so far as to make the little animal sit up on its hind legs, lie down and get up again when commanded, and ultimately sold it very advantageously indeed. When he had economised about five roubles, he got himself a small bag, which he had sown himself, put the round sum of five into it, tied the bag up, and began to collect his rising capital in another.
As regards his conduct towards his teacher, he behaved himself, if possible, with even more wisdom. It must be observed that the master of that school was extraordinarily fond of quietude and good conduct, and could not bear the sight of intelligent and lively boys; he imagined that they would infallibly laugh at him. It was sufficient for any of the more intelligent boys to show their talent or make the master guess that they possessed some, even if it was betrayed by a slight movement with the eye-brows, it would have been sufficient to attract upon them his anger and resentment. He would persecute and punish the intelligent boy with unrelenting severity.
“‘Twill cure you of your pretentions and want of respect, you saucy boy, and bring you back to your right senses; I’ll make you kneel down—you shall have a day’s fasting!” And the poor boy, not able to account for his punishment, had to kneel down and fast nearly every day.
“Disposition and talent! all that is stuff and nonsense!” he used to say: “I only look at your conduct. I will give any boy good marks for all sciences, no matter whether he know even the alpha of it, provided his conduct is good and praiseworthy; but wherever I observe a spirit of insubordination and inclination to ridicule, I’ll give that boy a nought, whether he be talented enough to put a Solomon in his pocket!”
Thus spoke the master in the public school of Bobruisk, to his pupils, no doubt because he had himself been brought up in an establishment where the silent system was carried to such a perfection that a fly would have been heard flying across the school-room; where not one of the scholars in the course of the whole year had had ever any occasion to cough or blow his nose, and when not even the slightest noise ever betrayed that there were any scholars assembled.
Tchichikoff was also successful herein, and at once understood the animus of his school-master, and in what his general conduct towards him ought to consist. He never winked once, nor did he raise his eye-brows during the whole time the school hours lasted, however mischievously his school-fellows pinched and annoyed him; scarcely had he heard the bell ring as a sign for their dismissal, when he rushed forward before anyone else could have a chance, to hand his master his three-cornered headdress; when he had shown him this attention, he generally hastened to leave the school immediately, and always managed so well, as to meet his master at least three times on his road home, in order to have an opportunity to salute him, and take his cap off in the most respectful manner.
His manœuvres with his school-master were crowned with complete success. During the whole time of his being at the school, he always received the best marks, and on leaving it he was dismissed with the most flattering testimonials, and presented with a book with gold edges, and the following inscription in gold letters: “For praiseworthy application, and meritorious conduct.”