Next morning, before the usual hour for paying calls, there tripped from the portals of an orange-coloured wooden house with an attic storey and a row of blue pillars a lady in an elegant plaid cloak. With her came a footman in a many-caped greatcoat and a polished top hat with a gold band. Hastily, but gracefully, the lady ascended the steps let down from a koliaska which was standing before the entrance, and as soon as she had done so the footman shut her in, put up the steps again, and, catching hold of the strap behind the vehicle, shouted to the coachman, “Right away!” The reason of all this was that the lady was the possessor of a piece of intelligence that she was burning to communicate to a fellow-creature. Every moment she kept looking out of the carriage window, and perceiving, with almost speechless vexation, that, as yet, she was but half-way on her journey. The fronts of the houses appeared to her longer than usual, and in particular did the front of the white stone hospital, with its rows of narrow windows, seem interminable to a degree which at length forced her to ejaculate: “Oh, the cursed building! Positively there is no end to it!” Also, she twice adjured the coachman with the words, “Go quicker, Andrusha! You are a horribly long time over the journey this morning.” But at length the goal was reached, and the koliaska stopped before a one-storied wooden mansion, dark grey in colour, and having white carvings over the windows, a tall wooden fence and narrow garden in front of the latter, and a few meagre trees looming white with an incongruous coating of road dust. In the windows of the building were also a few flower pots and a parrot that kept alternately dancing on the floor of its cage and hanging on to the ring of the same with its beak. Also, in the sunshine before the door two pet dogs were sleeping. Here there lived the lady’s bosom friend. As soon as the bosom friend in question learnt of the newcomer’s arrival, she ran down into the hall, and the two ladies kissed and embraced one another. Then they adjourned to the drawing-room.
“How glad I am to see you!” said the bosom friend. “When I heard some one arriving I wondered who could possibly be calling so early. Parasha declared that it must be the Vice-Governor’s wife, so, as I did not want to be bored with her, I gave orders that I was to be reported ‘not at home.’”
For her part, the guest would have liked to have proceeded to business by communicating her tidings, but a sudden exclamation from the hostess imparted (temporarily) a new direction to the conversation.
“What a pretty chintz!” she cried, gazing at the other’s gown.
“Yes, it IS pretty,” agreed the visitor. “On the other hand, Praskovia Thedorovna thinks that—”
In other words, the ladies proceeded to indulge in a conversation on the subject of dress; and only after this had lasted for a considerable while did the visitor let fall a remark which led her entertainer to inquire:
“And how is the universal charmer?”
“My God!” replied the other. “There has been SUCH a business! In fact, do you know why I am here at all?” And the visitor’s breathing became more hurried, and further words seemed to be hovering between her lips like hawks preparing to stoop upon their prey. Only a person of the unhumanity of a “true friend” would have had the heart to interrupt her; but the hostess was just such a friend, and at once interposed with:
“I wonder how any one can see anything in the man to praise or to admire. For my own part, I think—and I would say the same thing straight to his face—that he is a perfect rascal.”
“Yes, but do listen to what I have got to tell you.”
“Oh, I know that some people think him handsome,” continued the hostess, unmoved; “but I say that he is nothing of the kind—that, in particular, his nose is perfectly odious.”
“Yes, but let me finish what I was saying.” The guest’s tone was almost piteous in its appeal.
“What is it, then?”
“You cannot imagine my state of mind! You see, this morning I received a visit from Father Cyril’s wife—the Archpriest’s wife—you know her, don’t you? Well, whom do you suppose that fine gentleman visitor of ours has turned out to be?”
“The man who has built the Archpriest a poultry-run?”
“Oh dear no! Had that been all, it would have been nothing. No. Listen to what Father Cyril’s wife had to tell me. She said that, last night, a lady landowner named Madame Korobotchka arrived at the Archpriest’s house—arrived all pale and trembling—and told her, oh, such things! They sound like a piece out of a book. That is to say, at dead of night, just when every one had retired to rest, there came the most dreadful knocking imaginable, and some one screamed out, ‘Open the gates, or we will break them down!’ Just think! After this, how any one can say that the man is charming I cannot imagine.”
“Well, what of Madame Korobotchka? Is she a young woman or good looking?”
“Oh dear no! Quite an old woman.”
“Splendid indeed! So he is actually engaged to a person like that? One may heartily commend the taste of our ladies for having fallen in love with him!”
“Nevertheless, it is not as you suppose. Think, now! Armed with weapons from head to foot, he called upon this old woman, and said: ‘Sell me any souls of yours which have lately died.’ Of course, Madame Korobotchka answered, reasonably enough: ‘I cannot sell you those souls, seeing that they have departed this world;’ but he replied: ‘No, no! They are NOT dead. ‘Tis I who tell you that—I who ought to know the truth of the matter. I swear that they are still alive.’ In short, he made such a scene that the whole village came running to the house, and children screamed, and men shouted, and no one could tell what it was all about. The affair seemed to me so horrible, so utterly horrible, that I trembled beyond belief as I listened to the story. ‘My dearest madam,’ said my maid, Mashka, ‘pray look at yourself in the mirror, and see how white you are.’ ‘But I have no time for that,’ I replied, ‘as I must be off to tell my friend, Anna Grigorievna, the news.’ Nor did I lose a moment in ordering the koliaska. Yet when my coachman, Andrusha, asked me for directions I could not get a word out—I just stood staring at him like a fool, until I thought he must think me mad. Oh, Anna Grigorievna, if you but knew how upset I am!”
“What a strange affair!” commented the hostess. “What on earth can the man have meant by ‘dead souls’? I confess that the words pass my understanding. Curiously enough, this is the second time I have heard speak of those souls. True, my husband avers that Nozdrev was lying; yet in his lies there seems to have been a grain of truth.”
“Well, just think of my state when I heard all this! ‘And now,’ apparently said Korobotchka to the Archpriest’s wife, ‘I am altogether at a loss what to do, for, throwing me fifteen roubles, the man forced me to sign a worthless paper—yes, me, an inexperienced, defenceless widow who knows nothing of business.’ That such things should happen! TRY and imagine my feelings!”
“In my opinion, there is in this more than the dead souls which meet the eye.”
“I think so too,” agreed the other. As a matter of fact, her friend’s remark had struck her with complete surprise, as well as filled her with curiosity to know what the word “more” might possibly signify. In fact, she felt driven to inquire: “What do YOU suppose to be hidden beneath it all?”
“No; tell me what YOU suppose?”
“What I suppose? I am at a loss to conjecture.”
“Yes, but tell me what is in your mind?”
Upon this the visitor had to confess herself nonplussed; for, though capable of growing hysterical, she was incapable of propounding any rational theory. Consequently she felt the more that she needed tender comfort and advice.
“Then THIS is what I think about the dead souls,” said the hostess. Instantly the guest pricked up her ears (or, rather, they pricked themselves up) and straightened herself and became, somehow, more modish, and, despite her not inconsiderable weight, posed herself to look like a piece of thistledown floating on the breeze.
“The dead souls,” began the hostess.
“Are what, are what?” inquired the guest in great excitement.
“Tell me, tell me, for heaven’s sake!”
“They are an invention to conceal something else. The man’s real object is, is—TO ABDUCT THE GOVERNOR’S DAUGHTER.”
So startling and unexpected was this conclusion that the guest sat reduced to a state of pale, petrified, genuine amazement.
“My God!” she cried, clapping her hands, “I should NEVER have guessed it!”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I guessed it as soon as ever you opened your mouth.”
“So much, then, for educating girls like the Governor’s daughter at school! Just see what comes of it!”
“Yes, indeed! And they tell me that she says things which I hesitate even to repeat.”
“Truly it wrings one’s heart to see to what lengths immorality has come.”
“Some of the men have quite lost their heads about her, but for my part I think her not worth noticing.”
“Of course. And her manners are unbearable. But what puzzles me most is how a travelled man like Chichikov could come to let himself in for such an affair. Surely he must have accomplices?”
“Yes; and I should say that one of those accomplices is Nozdrev.”
“CERTAINLY I should say so. Why, I have known him even try to sell his own father! At all events he staked him at cards.”
“Indeed! You interest me. I should never had thought him capable of such things.”
“I always guessed him to be so.”
The two ladies were still discussing the matter with acumen and success when there walked into the room the Public Prosecutor—bushy eyebrows, motionless features, blinking eyes, and all. At once the ladies hastened to inform him of the events related, adducing therewith full details both as to the purchase of dead souls and as to the scheme to abduct the Governor’s daughter; after which they departed in different directions, for the purpose of raising the rest of the town. For the execution of this undertaking not more than half an hour was required. So thoroughly did they succeed in throwing dust in the public’s eyes that for a while every one—more especially the army of public officials—was placed in the position of a schoolboy who, while still asleep, has had a bag of pepper thrown in his face by a party of more early-rising comrades. The questions now to be debated resolved themselves into two—namely, the question of the dead souls and the question of the Governor’s daughter. To this end two parties were formed—the men’s party and the feminine section. The men’s party—the more absolutely senseless of the two—devoted its attention to the dead souls: the women’s party occupied itself exclusively with the alleged abduction of the Governor’s daughter. And here it may be said (to the ladies’ credit) that the women’s party displayed far more method and caution than did its rival faction, probably because the function in life of its members had always been that of managing and administering a household. With the ladies, therefore, matters soon assumed vivid and definite shape; they became clearly and irrefutably materialised; they stood stripped of all doubt and other impedimenta. Said some of the ladies in question, Chichikov had long been in love with the maiden, and the pair had kept tryst by the light of the moon, while the Governor would have given his consent (seeing that Chichikov was as rich as a Jew) but for the obstacle that Chichikov had deserted a wife already (how the worthy dames came to know that he was married remains a mystery), and the said deserted wife, pining with love for her faithless husband, had sent the Governor a letter of the most touching kind, so that Chichikov, on perceiving that the father and mother would never give their consent, had decided to abduct the girl. In other circles the matter was stated in a different way. That is to say, this section averred that Chichikov did NOT possess a wife, but that, as a man of subtlety and experience, he had bethought him of obtaining the daughter’s hand through the expedient of first tackling the mother and carrying on with her an ardent liaison, and that, thereafter, he had made an application for the desired hand, but that the mother, fearing to commit a sin against religion, and feeling in her heart certain gnawings of conscience, had returned a blank refusal to Chichikov’s request; whereupon Chichikov had decided to carry out the abduction alleged. To the foregoing, of course, there became appended various additional proofs and items of evidence, in proportion as the sensation spread to more remote corners of the town. At length, with these perfectings, the affair reached the ears of the Governor’s wife herself. Naturally, as the mother of a family, and as the first lady in the town, and as a matron who had never before been suspected of things of the kind, she was highly offended when she heard the stories, and very justly so: with the result that her poor young daughter, though innocent, had to endure about as unpleasant a tete-a-tete as ever befell a maiden of sixteen, while, for his part, the Swiss footman received orders never at any time to admit Chichikov to the house.
Having done their business with the Governor’s wife, the ladies’ party descended upon the male section, with a view to influencing it to their own side by asserting that the dead souls were an invention used solely for the purpose of diverting suspicion and successfully affecting the abduction. And, indeed, more than one man was converted, and joined the feminine camp, in spite of the fact that thereby such seceders incurred strong names from their late comrades—names such as “old women,” “petticoats,” and others of a nature peculiarly offensive to the male sex.
Also, however much they might arm themselves and take the field, the men could not compass such orderliness within their ranks as could the women. With the former everything was of the antiquated and rough-hewn and ill-fitting and unsuitable and badly-adapted and inferior kind; their heads were full of nothing but discord and triviality and confusion and slovenliness of thought. In brief, they displayed everywhere the male bent, the rude, ponderous nature which is incapable either of managing a household or of jumping to a conclusion, as well as remains always distrustful and lazy and full of constant doubt and everlasting timidity. For instance, the men’s party declared that the whole story was rubbish—that the alleged abduction of the Governor’s daughter was the work rather of a military than of a civilian culprit; that the ladies were lying when they accused Chichikov of the deed; that a woman was like a money-bag—whatsoever you put into her she thenceforth retained; that the subject which really demanded attention was the dead souls, of which the devil only knew the meaning, but in which there certainly lurked something that was contrary to good order and discipline. One reason why the men’s party was so certain that the dead souls connoted something contrary to good order and discipline, was that there had just been appointed to the province a new Governor-General—an event which, of course, had thrown the whole army of provincial tchinovniks into a state of great excitement, seeing that they knew that before long there would ensue transferments and sentences of censure, as well as the series of official dinners with which a Governor-General is accustomed to entertain his subordinates. “Alas,” thought the army of tchinovniks, “it is probable that, should he learn of the gross reports at present afloat in our town, he will make such a fuss that we shall never hear the last of them.” In particular did the Director of the Medical Department turn pale at the thought that possibly the new Governor-General would surmise the term “dead folk” to connote patients in the local hospitals who, for want of proper preventative measures, had died of sporadic fever. Indeed, might it not be that Chichikov was neither more nor less than an emissary of the said Governor-General, sent to conduct a secret inquiry? Accordingly he (the Director of the Medical Department) communicated this last supposition to the President of the Council, who, though at first inclined to ejaculate “Rubbish!” suddenly turned pale on propounding to himself the theory. “What if the souls purchased by Chichikov should REALLY be dead ones?”—a terrible thought considering that he, the President, had permitted their transferment to be registered, and had himself acted as Plushkin’s representative! What if these things should reach the Governor-General’s ears? He mentioned the matter to one friend and another, and they, in their turn, went white to the lips, for panic spreads faster and is even more destructive, than the dreaded black death. Also, to add to the tchinovniks’ troubles, it so befell that just at this juncture there came into the local Governor’s hands two documents of great importance. The first of them contained advices that, according to received evidence and reports, there was operating in the province a forger of rouble-notes who had been passing under various aliases and must therefore be sought for with the utmost diligence; while the second document was a letter from the Governor of a neighbouring province with regard to a malefactor who had there evaded apprehension—a letter conveying also a warning that, if in the province of the town of N. there should appear any suspicious individual who could produce neither references nor passports, he was to be arrested forthwith. These two documents left every one thunderstruck, for they knocked on the head all previous conceptions and theories. Not for a moment could it be supposed that the former document referred to Chichikov; yet, as each man pondered the position from his own point of view, he remembered that no one REALLY knew who Chichikov was; as also that his vague references to himself had—yes!—included statements that his career in the service had suffered much to the cause of Truth, and that he possessed a number of enemies who were seeking his life. This gave the tchinovniks further food for thought. Perhaps his life really DID stand in danger? Perhaps he really WAS being sought for by some one? Perhaps he really HAD done something of the kind above referred to? As a matter of fact, who was he?—not that it could actually be supposed that he was a forger of notes, still less a brigand, seeing that his exterior was respectable in the highest degree. Yet who was he? At length the tchinovniks decided to make enquiries among those of whom he had purchased souls, in order that at least it might be learnt what the purchases had consisted of, and what exactly underlay them, and whether, in passing, he had explained to any one his real intentions, or revealed to any one his identity. In the first instance, therefore, resort was had to Korobotchka. Yet little was gleaned from that source—merely a statement that he had bought of her some souls for fifteen roubles apiece, and also a quantity of feathers, while promising also to buy some other commodities in the future, seeing that, in particular, he had entered into a contract with the Treasury for lard, a fact constituting fairly presumptive proof that the man was a rogue, seeing that just such another fellow had bought a quantity of feathers, yet had cheated folk all round, and, in particular, had done the Archpriest out of over a hundred roubles. Thus the net result of Madame’s cross-examination was to convince the tchinovniks that she was a garrulous, silly old woman. With regard to Manilov, he replied that he would answer for Chichikov as he would for himself, and that he would gladly sacrifice his property in toto if thereby he could attain even a tithe of the qualities which Paul Ivanovitch possessed. Finally, he delivered on Chichikov, with acutely-knitted brows, a eulogy couched in the most charming of terms, and coupled with sundry sentiments on the subject of friendship and affection in general. True, these remarks sufficed to indicate the tender impulses of the speaker’s heart, but also they did nothing to enlighten his examiners concerning the business that was actually at hand. As for Sobakevitch, that landowner replied that he considered Chichikov an excellent fellow, as well as that the souls whom he had sold to his visitor had been in the truest sense of the word alive, but that he could not answer for anything which might occur in the future, seeing that any difficulties which might arise in the course of the actual transferment of souls would not be HIS fault, in view of the fact that God was lord of all, and that fevers and other mortal complaints were so numerous in the world, and that instances of whole villages perishing through the same could be found on record.
Finally, our friends the tchinovniks found themselves compelled to resort to an expedient which, though not particularly savoury, is not infrequently employed—namely, the expedient of getting lacqueys quietly to approach the servants of the person concerning whom information is desired, and to ascertain from them (the servants) certain details with regard to their master’s life and antecedents. Yet even from this source very little was obtained, since Petrushka provided his interrogators merely with a taste of the smell of his living-room, and Selifan confined his replies to a statement that the barin had “been in the employment of the State, and also had served in the Customs.”
In short, the sum total of the results gathered by the tchinovniks was that they still stood in ignorance of Chichikov’s identity, but that he MUST be some one; wherefore it was decided to hold a final debate on the subject on what ought to be done, and who Chichikov could possibly be, and whether or not he was a man who ought to be apprehended and detained as not respectable, or whether he was a man who might himself be able to apprehend and detain THEM as persons lacking in respectability. The debate in question, it was proposed, should be held at the residence of the Chief of Police, who is known to our readers as the father and the general benefactor of the town.