This was the most difficult passage during the whole course of Tchichikoff’s eventful career. Thenceforward his progress towards position and fortune became easier, and in course of time he even became a man of some importance and weight. He now began to display all those qualities that ensure success in the world; agreeable in his manners, delicate in his actions, and enterprising in business. Blessed in the possession of such indispensable and valuable qualifications, he succeeded in a very short time in securing himself a certain income and independent position, from which he knew how to derive excellent advantages.
It must be observed that at that particular time, and in consequence of the bitter complaints that had reached the imperial ears about the merciless exactions of the official employés in the provinces of the Empire, the Lord-Lieutenants of the various governments had received strict injunctions to punish with the utmost severity the impudent impositions of the imperial servants, and courts of inquiry were everywhere held for the purpose of putting a stop to the sufferings of the people from these imperial blood-suckers. These courts of inquiry did not in anyway alarm Tchichikoff, on the contrary, he even knew how to derive advantages from this imperial ordinance, and he furnished a striking proof of the ingenuity of the Russian spirit, which is always prepared to find ways and means when necessity demands them.
In order to avoid any unpleasant consequences, he had adopted the following system: as soon as a petitioner presented himself before him and proceeded to explain his case, and put his hand into his pocket with the evident intention of producing from there the requisite letter patent of recommendation, in order to obtain his Excellency’s the Prince Hovanskois’ (as we call it familiarly) signature to his document, “No, no,” he used to say, with a smile on his countenance, whilst stopping the egress of the generous hand, “you think, perhaps, that I—oh no, by no means. It is our bounden duty, we are obliged to attend to your interest without the slightest pretention to a private remuneration for our trouble. As regards your application, you may rest tranquil and assured it shall be attended to by to-morrow at latest. Allow me to request the favour of your address; you need not even take the least trouble further about the matter, all your documents shall be forwarded to your house.”
The enchanted petitioner returned home quite in ecstacy, thinking to himself: “At last I have met an honest man among our imperial employés, and I should be very glad to see more men of a similar stamp among us. He is a real gem!” The delighted petitioner waits patiently for a day, and then a second, and then a third day passes without his business or application having been sent to his house as promised. He returns again to the government office, and finds that his business has not been even begun; he addresses himself to the invaluable gem.
“Oh, I beg of you a thousand pardons, my dear Sir!” says Tchichikoff, very politely, and affably laying hold of both the hands of the disappointed petitioner, “but really, we had so very much business on hand; however, by to-morrow you shall be attended to, absolutely, by to-morrow, and most punctually, I can assure you, my dear Sir, I feel quite ashamed at the delay!”
And all this was said in the most winning manner, and accompanied by the most civil courtesies. If, on such an occasion, his morning gown (imperial employés generally transact public business at home, and in a very dégagé costume,) should accidentally unfold itself; his hands were always prepared to cover up the folds and amend the négligé? appearance. But, notwithstanding these civil assurances, the petitioner’s business was neither attended on the next day nor on the day following, nor even on the next day following the day following.
The disappointed petitioner began to repent; can there be anything the matter? He at last comes to the conclusion, that it has always been the custom to give a gratuity to the copying-clerks.
“And why should I not give a trifle to these poor fellows?” says he to a friend. “I know but too well how miserably the government pays their services; I am ready and willing to give them a couple of roubles, to be sure.”
“A couple of roubles will never do; you will have to fork out a bank-note.”
“What! a bank-note to copying-clerks?” demands again the astonished petitioner.
“Why do you seem surprised, or out of temper?” his friends ask him; “what you anticipate will happen according to your intentions; the copying-clerks will receive a couple of roubles, and the remainder of your bank-note will find its way into the pocket of their superior.”
The perplexed and slow-minded petitioner strikes his forehead with his hand, and is surprised at the changes in this world, and the new polite customs that had suddenly sprung up among the imperial employés. Formerly, a petitioner knew exactly what to do, and how to behave himself: he had simply to present a ten-rouble note to the head employé, and his business was attended to; but now-a-day a twenty-five-rouble note seems scarcely sufficient, and you have even to wait for a week before you can guess it. The devil take the shameless civilities and nobility of the imperial employés!
Some time after his instalment in his new dignity, an excellent opportunity to advance his fortunes presented itself to Tchichikoff; a committee was being formed for the construction of a very extensive and capital government storehouse. Tchichikoff found ways and means to be elected a member of it, and soon proved himself to be one of the most active promoters. This committee began its operations immediately. During six years, the committee busied itself about the building: but, whether it was the harshness of the climate, or the fault of proper material, the Crown building never rose above its foundations.
Meanwhile, and at the other end of the town, there sprung up, as it were from the ground, houses built on the principles of modern architecture, and the individual property of each member of the building-committee. These members now began to enjoy the well-being of home comforts, and got married in quick succession. It was then, and then only, that Tchichikoff began by degrees to emancipate himself from the harsh laws of abstinence and pitiless privations which he had imposed upon himself. It was only now that he ventured to relax from his long tasting, and it seemed that he had not always been a stranger to the enjoyments of comfort and general well-being, from which he had had sufficient strength of mind to abstain during the years of his adolescence, when no man can pretend to have been complete master of his passions.
He now even went as far as to display a few extravagant propensities, such as keeping a cook of some reputation, and made the purchase of very fine Irish linen shirts. As for the cloth which he wore, it was no longer of such inferior quality as was worn by the other officials of the province; he began to bring into fashion different shades of coffee and snuff-colours, and similar brownish tints; he made the acquisition of a fine pair of carriage-horses, and used to drive about in a droschki and pair, holding the reins of one of the horses himself, and making the horse bend his neck into the shape of a ring; he also began to indulge in a fine Turkish sponge to wash his face with, mixing his water profusely with Eau-de-Cologne; he even went so far as to buy a peculiar kind of soap, which was very expensive, but possessed the virtue to render the skin of his face smooth and velvety; he already—
But suddenly—in the place of the former sleepy president of the building-committee, a new chairman was appointed by the imperial ordinance: a military man, severe and strict in his principles—a man who was an enemy to all impositions upon the public as well as upon the Crown; in short, a detester of falsehood in any shape. Immediately after the day of his arrival, he caused a general consternation among the members of the building-committee by demanding a report and an account of their proceedings, and found defalcations at every step of his investigations; he also discovered and inspected the houses of modern architecture. In consequence of all these discoveries, he assembled a general meeting, and pushed his inquiries with the utmost diligence and severity. All the employés connected with the building-committee were at once dismissed the service; their houses of modern architecture were confiscated for the benefit of the Crown, and changed into benevolent institutions and public schools; all was blown down, as it were, like castles in the air, and among the severest sufferers was our friend Tchichikoff.
His general countenance and his affable manners, strange to say, displeased the new president at first sight; the exact reason, Heaven only knew, sometimes such results will happen quite unaccountably, but the fact remained the same—the new president could not endure the sight of the old committee member. However, as he happened to be a military man, it was not likely that he could know much, if anything, of the ways and means of officers in the civil service; and in a very short time indeed, and thanks to a respectable exterior, and the knowledge of applying themselves to any and everything, other employés found an opportunity of ingratiating themselves in the good graces of the new president, and the new honest and upright commander found himself soon in the hands of another and, if possible, a more dishonest set of officials than the former, and of which fact he had no opportunity of convincing himself; he was even much satisfied at having at last met with honest men, such as the Crown ought always to employ, and boasted of his own judgment in the choice he had made.
His new employés guessed and understood their chiefs character at once. Every one of the men who were under his command, became desperate hunters after anything that bore the slightest semblance to falsehood; everywhere, and under all circumstances, they prosecuted untruth like a fisherman of the Volga would hunt after a fine sturgeon; and they hunted after it with so much perseverance and success, that in a very short time indeed every one found himself at the head of a capital of a few thousand roubles.
At that very same period, a number of the former employés of this same committee turned again upon the way of truth, and were graciously received again in the service with their colleagues. But Tchichikoff, notwithstanding his strenuous exertions to ingratiate himself again, and in spite of the protection of his intimate friend, the private secretary of Prince Hovanskoi, who had become the right-hand man of the new president of the building-committee, he could not succeed in obtaining for him the most insignificant appointment under the new manager of the imperial interest. The president was a man of a peculiar character, though he was led by the nose (of this fact he was of course unaware); he would persevere in his once fixed opinion, provided it had presented itself to his mind and attention, and whenever it had taken root in his head, it would remain fixed there like a nail; nothing would ever be strong enough to extricate it from there, for he was frill of tenacity.
All that his friend, the private secretary of the Prince, could possibly obtain for Tchichikoff, was the destruction of the sullied certificate of his services as an employé in the building-committee; and even this favour he could only extract from his superior by a representation in the most touching terms of the pitiable position of Tchichikoff’s family, which, by the bye, he had the good fortune of counting among the things that were not in existence.