When Tchichikoff left the school, he made his appearance in the world as a young man of very prepossessing appearance, and with a chin that already had begun to require the services of a razor. At the very same period he lost in quick succession his fond parents. The inheritance left to him consisted of four worn-out flannels, two old and irretrievable coats lined with squirrel skins, and a trifling sum of money. His father had been, as it seemed, an excellent adviser as regarded economy, and the principles connected with it, but had done little himself to cultivate that virtue, for the little he left his son was very unimportant indeed. Tchichikoff sold at once the modest house and the small stretch of land attached to it for a thousand roubles, and took his hunchbacked servant and his then two little boy serfs Selifan and Petruschka with him to the town of Pskov, where he intended to establish himself, and enter the service.
During the time of his preparations for departure from Bobruisk, his old school-master, who had been so very fond of silence and good conduct, had been dismissed in his turn from the public school, either for his stupidity or some similar reason. The poor master, overwhelmed with grief at his disgrace, addicted himself to drinking, and at last could not even satisfy that inclination from the want of the necessary funds; ill in health, without a crust of bread or any assistance, he hid himself and his sorrows in a miserable cold hovel.
Some of his former scholars, especially those who had displeased him so particularly, on account of their malicious intelligence, when they heard of his pitiable condition, immediately raised a subscription in his favour among them, depriving themselves even of many little necessaries to assist the poor ruined man. Pavel Ivanovitch Tchichikoff was the only one who lacked generosity; he contributed the smallest silver coin of the realm, adding that he could afford no more; his colleagues refused to accept the donation, and called him a miserable specimen of selfishness personified.
The poor school-master, when he heard of this trait of one whom he considered his best scholar, covered his face with both hands, and burst into a flood of tears, which trickled down his pale and meagre cheeks like shot, until his eyes became dim like those of a crying child. “On my death-bed Heaven has condemned me to shed tears over a serpent,” exclaimed he at last, in a feeble voice, and then added again: “Oh, Pavel Pavluschka! it is thus, then, that men can change! and when I think of it again, what an excellent boy he used to be, always of an exemplary conduct, no vestige of malice in him! He has deceived me, cruelly deceived me!” And hereupon the instructor of Tchichikoff’s early youth breathed his last.
Nevertheless, it cannot be said that the nature of our hero was of a harsh and unfeeling description, or to such a degree insensible that he did not feel pity and sympathy for the sufferings of others; he felt the one as well as the other, he would have been even glad to alleviate the wants of his friends, provided they would not prove expensive, nor oblige him to break into that sum of money, which he had laid aside with the intention of not touching it under any circumstances, for he bore in mind his father’s advice: “Take care and economise your copeks, or you will come to a bad end.” However, he had no particular attachment to money, for the sake of money, he was not ruled by a stingy feeling of saving, nor was he a niggard. No, he was not animated with an insatiable desire for wealth, for the sake of keeping it hidden; life opened itself before him with all its attractions for a youthful mind; he wished to possess a beautifully furnished house, carriages and horses, and numerous serfs and servants, such were the thoughts that begun early to pre-occupy his mind.
And it was in order to obtain all these wishes and comforts in the course of time and his life, that he economised every copek he possibly could, and that he strictly refused himself in his earlier years all pleasures, or to others any assistance. Whenever he happened to see a wealthy parvenu drive along the streets, showing off a splendid droschki, and richly caparisoned horses, he would stop short and admire him with an air of envy, and forget himself in the sight before him, then suddenly recovering as if from a dream, add: “Some years ago you were perhaps a serf, you have purchased your freedom, and are rich; but for all that I see your origin by the peculiar cut of your hair!”
And the sight of all those that appeared to him to enjoy fortune and comforts, produced upon him a sorrowful impression to a certain degree inexplicable to himself. When he had left his school, and disposed of his trifling estate, he would not allow himself even the least relaxation, but was full of anxiety to begin his task in life at once, and enter the service in a civil capacity without delay. However, notwithstanding his excellent testimonials, he obtained with great difficulty a modest situation in a government office.
And heaven knows that in a country like Russia, the greatest talent is worth little without influential protection to back it! The place he held in the government office was an insignificant one which brought him an annual revenue of no more than forty or fifty roubles. But he was determined to work hard, to overcome all difficulties, and to succeed. And, really, perseverance, patience, and self-denial were qualities which he revealed in an incredible perfection. From the early morning until late at night, never feeling the fatigues of body and mind, he continued, to apply himself to his writings and copies; he never went home, but slept upon the benches and tables of the government office, he used to dine often even with the porter and servants; but with all that he knew how to preserve cleanliness and a respectable appearance in his dress, to give a pleasant expression to his face, and even assume some semblance of nobility in his movements and manners.
It must be observed that the official servants of the crown distinguish themselves generally by neglected, and in every respect disadvantageous appearance and manners. And this was especially the case with the colleagues of Tchichikoff; the faces of some of them looked really like badly-baked bread; the one had a cheek all on one side, another a chin out of proportion, a third was gifted with an upper lip as large as a bladder, which even used to burst now and then, in a word, they were far from being handsome. They used to speak in a harsh and unpleasant tone of voice, as if they had conspired to cut some ones’ throat; they were addicted to pay frequent tributes to Bacchus, proving by such an inclination that the Sclavonic race was still addicted to the worship of the heathen gods; they did not even mind making their appearance in the office tolerably inebriated, which spread an unpleasant perfume all around the place, and which was far from being aromatic.
In the midst of such an assembly of employés of the Imperial Government, it was impossible that such a man as Tchichikoff should remain unnoticed and undistinguished; presenting, as he did, in every respect such a striking contrast as regarded his personal appearance, general bearing, and above all other good qualities, total abstemiousness from any intoxicating drink, as if he had secretly joined some teetotal brotherhood in England.
Notwithstanding all these advantages in his favour, his path to glory was a very difficult one indeed: he happened to be the under-clerk of a chancery-judge, an elderly man, who was the very image of insensibility and sternness; always the same, unapproachable, whose face had never been wrinkled by a smile, whose lips had never whispered even an inquiry after another fellow-creature’s health. Nobody could have said, that he ever knew this man, or saw him different from what he appeared daily, whether in the open street, or in his own lonely house; if he had shown but once a slight interest in anything, if he could have but once forgotten himself and his sternness by getting intoxicated, and then have betrayed a smile; if he could but for once have given himself up to a mad gaiety like the highwayman, who, after the capture of a rich booty gives way to intemperance and debauchery—but no, there was not a vestige of anything of this sort, in this granite man. There seemed absolutely nothing in the man; he was not a villain, and yet he possessed no virtues, and something awful seemed to replace the visible absence of all else.
The hard, marble-like features of his face, without any striking irregularities, presented no harmony; his harsh features were in an unpleasant contradiction with themselves. The traces and little holes left by small-pox which covered his whole face, were the only striking peculiarities which classed it among the number of those faces, upon which, according to a popular saying, the devil had been threshing peas over-night. Now, although it appeared, at first sight, as if human ingenuity would fail to ingratiate itself with such a being, nevertheless Tchichikoff made the attempt.
In the commencement of this superhuman design, he began by trying to anticipate his slightest wishes in the merest trifles; examined most carefully every one of the quills, with which he was in the habit of writing, and after having made them as it were to pattern, he took good care to place them always ready to his hand; blew and swept from his table the snuff as well as the dust; supplied him with a new rag for the use of his inkstand; found out the place where he used to keep his official cap, a most filthy affair, such as has, perhaps, been rarely seen before, and took good care to place it constantly close to him at the last moment of his sitting in the office; brushed his back, if the old man had happened to rub off the whitewash from the wall; but all the attentions remained without being in the slightest degree noticed, just as if they had never happened to be shown to him.
At last, however, Tchichikoff succeeded in putting his nose as it were into the household and domestic life of the old original, and discovered that he had an adult daughter, with a face resembling that of her father, that is to say, a face with traces upon it, as if the devil had been threshing peas on it over-night. Upon this quarter he now determined on directing his attacks. When he had ascertained to which church she was in the habit of going on Sunday, he watched her enter, and took up his position exactly opposite to her, carefully dressed, and with a stiff collar, and neatly-plaited shirt-front.
By this stratagem he ultimately succeeded; the stem chancery-judge began to waver, and gave him an invitation to tea; and, before the other officials had yet found time to look around them, Tchichikoff had brought matters to such a satisfactory conclusion for himself, that he soon saw himself established in the house, and living with the old chancery-judge. He had rendered himself a useful and indispensable servant to the old man, and went to market for him to purchase meal and sugar for him; towards his daughter he behaved as if she were his bride; as for the old judge, he had accustomed himself to call him dear papa, and ever kissed his hand.
All the officials of the judge now expected that at the end of the month of February, before the long and general fast began, their friend and colleague, Tchichikoff, would become the happy and chosen husband of their superior’s daughter. The stern and harsh old judge now begun even to bestir himself in his favour and to push him forward, and really, in a short time after, Tchichikoff was himself promoted to the vacant seat of a chancery-judge. With this success also, seemed to terminate the principal aim of his intimacy with the stem old judge; because, scarcely had he been appointed to his new office, when he secretly removed all his property from the house of his patron, and on the following day he was already quite at home in his new apartments. He ceased henceforth to call the old chancery-judge, papa, nor did he ever after think of kissing his bony hand, and as for the anticipated marriage with the judge’s daughter, it was left to oblivion, and as if such a subject had never been on the tapis. However, whenever he happened to meet the old man in the street, he would always advance civilly towards him, take him by the hand and invite him to a cup of tea at his house, so that the old judge, notwithstanding his eternal sternness and inexplicable indifference to anything generally, could not help shaking his grey head thoughtfully, and murmuring in his beard: “He has deceived me, awfully deceived me, this child of Satan!”