“Well!” said Tchichikoff to himself, “it seems the bow could not stand the stretching. Tears will not amend the fault; I must betake myself to another task.” And determined on beginning his career anew, he put on once more the armour of patience, and again subjected himself to every species of privations, however unpleasant they seemed now, after having accustomed himself to enjoy even luxuries. He was obliged to remove to another town, and make himself again notable, if not notorious.
Somehow or another, matters did not go on satisfactorily at all. He was obliged to resign two or three appointments in a very short space of time: the duties were in his opinion rather onerous and mean. It must be observed that Tchichikoff was a man of such unexceptionable propriety, it would have been difficult to meet with another like him anywhere in the broad Russian Empire. Although he had been obliged to wind his way through the midst of a sullied society, yet he had always succeeded in keeping his heart and his person clean; he was fond of holding an appointment in an office where the tables were well polished, and where gentlemanly habits were strictly regarded. He was never guilty of coarse expressions in his conversation, but was always offended when others omitted to show due respect to rank and position.
It will perhaps be interesting to our reader to know, that he had the habit of changing his linen every other day, and in summer, during the excessive heat, even every day; the least odour gave offence to his olfactory nerves. For this very reason, whenever his servant Petruschka came to undress him and take off his boots, he used to hold a smelling-bottle to his nose, whilst in many other instances his nerves were as sensitive as those of a young girl; and for this reason it was all the more difficult to him to accustom himself again to the habits of those who were addicted to the use of strong spirits, and generally displayed unbecoming manners. However much he tried to exert himself to keep up a good spirit within him, he nevertheless could not help pining away, and becoming even of a lemon-coloured complexion from the reverses of fortune.
He had already begun to grow corpulent and assume those pleasant and round forms, in which the reader found our hero at the commencement of the acquaintance with him, and more than once he had smiled at himself whilst looking at his face in the mirror and whilst whispering many a pleasant and insinuating smile; but now when he happened to look at himself furtively into the looking glass, he could not help exclaiming: “Holiest mother! how ugly I look to be sure!” And after this he would not venture to examine himself for a long while. However he endured and conquered the vicissitudes man-folly and patiently, and—at last entered the government service again, as a custom-house officer, in the frontier town of Bialystock.
We must here observe, that the custom-house service had been already for a considerable time the secret object of his wishes and speculation, because that particular branch of administration constitutes the chief revenue of the Empire, and consequently allowed the best pay to the officers employed in the service. But this was not the only reason for his giving the preference to a custom-house appointment. He saw with what exquisite articles of refinement all the custom-house officers used to parade in town, what fine china and linens they all sent to their sweethearts, sisters and cousins. And many a time he had already exclaimed, whilst heaving a deep sigh: “Oh, how I should like to get an appointment in the custom-house! the frontier is not far off, the people seem all more enlightened, and especially, what an excellent chance to provide one-self with fine linen!”
We must add, that at the same time, he also thought of the expensive French soaps, which had the virtue to increase and preserve the complexion! what its particular denominations was, heavens only knew, but accordingly to his suppositions, it would certainly absolutely be found at the frontier. And he therefore had long felt a desire to get himself an appointment in the custom-house; but he was prevented from sending in an application, on account of the advantageous profits which he derived from the building-committee, and in this his judgment was correct. Whatever the advantages of a custom-house appointment might offer in spe, they were nevertheless like a lark in the skies, whilst the building-committee was like an owl in his hands. Now was his time to exert himself to the utmost, and obtain the long wished for appointment in the custom-house, and really he at last obtained his wish.
He started upon his new duties with an unusual eagerness. Such abilities, penetration and application as he displayed in his new functions had not only never been witnessed before, but even never heard of. In less then three or four weeks after his appointment to office, he had so perfectly rendered himself master of everything, that his equal could not be found; he knew and understood all—he had no necessity either to weigh or measure anything, but knew from the invoices how many arschines a piece of cloth or silk contained; or on taking a piece of goods in his hands, he could say exactly how many pounds it weighed.
As regarded the regular business of an excise-man, namely, “searching,” he displayed as his colleagues used to express themselves, the scent of a pointer; it was perfectly impossible not to be surprised, on seeing how he could display so much patience and trouble to touch and examine even every button, but all this was done with a killing coolness and an incredible politeness. And at the time, when the persons thus exposed to his “researches,” were annoyed to madness, and lost their temper, and felt a wicked inclination to smash his pleasant countenance, he would, without changing either the expression of his face, or his polite manners, only add: “Would you, perhaps, have any objection to incommode yourself a little by rising from your seat?” or, “Would your ladyship have the kindness to step into the other room?” (even the ladies are not spared the annoyances of custom-house officers in Russia.) “There your ladyship will find the wife of one of our officials, who will have the honour to explain to you the regulations of the custom-house,” or, “Will you allow me to rip up with this small pen-knife a little of the wadding of your cloak?” and saying this, and suiting the action to the word, he would produce from there, shawls and dresses as coolly as if he was taking them out of his own portmanteau.
His superiors even pronounced their opinion about him in the following terms, “that he was the devil himself and not a man:” he made his “researches” in carriage wheels, harness, and even in the ears of the horses, and heaven knows where he did not search for contraband goods; at any rate, an author would never hit upon the idea of searching in those places, where a custom-house officer has the right to pry.
The poor traveller who happened to leave or enter the Empire on that particular frontier, was sure to feel for some minutes at least, after the custom-house officer had performed his duty, the cold perspiration run down all over his body, and exclaim perhaps whilst crossing himself; “This is rather carrying custom-house regulations too far!” The position of a traveller who had the misfortune to fall in the hands of Tchichikoff, must have been similar to that of a schoolboy rushing out of the master’s room, where he had entered under the impression that he would receive a simple reprimand, and where he had unexpectedly met with a sound thrashing.
In the course of a very short season indeed, those persons, who were in the habit of carrying on a regular system of contraband trade were completely ruined by his watchfullness. He was the terror and ruin of the whole of the Polish Jew race. His faith and honesty were unimpeachable—almost unnatural. He even declined to accept a portion of such monies as were the result of sales of the various confiscated goods or trifling sundry articles, which were not accounted for to the Crown, in order to avoid loss of time and expense.
Such zealous and disinterested service could not fail to become the subject of general admiration and surprise, and found at last its recompense with the higher authorities. He was knighted and elevated to the rank of Councillor of State, and soon after be submitted a project for capturing all contrabandists, asking only the favour to be appointed the executor of his scheme and for the necessary means. He was immediately invested with unlimited power, and the privilege of search wherever he thought proper. This was all he could wish for. At that time a large and powerful contraband society had been formed, based upon a regular system of fraud upon the Crown; more than a million worth of goods secretly imported into the Empire, yielded double the amount to this bold enterprize.
Tchichikoff had had long since an idea of this organization, and had even twice already repelled the envoys who had been sent to bribe him; but he refused to listen to any of their proposals, adding dryly, “It is not yet time.” But scarcely had he obtained uncontrolled authority in everything, when he in the next moment after his confirmation, sent word to the secret associations, saying: “Now is the time.”
His calculations were but too just. Now he stood a chance of gaining in one year, that which he could perhaps have never acquired otherwise in twenty. At the beginning of the foundation of this society, he would not have anything to do with them; because he was nothing else but a simple custom-house officer, consequently, besides perhaps compromising himself, his share in the transactions would have been insignificant; but now, now it was quite a different affair altogether; he was a Councillor of State, and could therefore fix his own terms.
In order to ensure speed and complete success, he even gained over another colleague of his, who could not resist the luring temptation, although he was already a greyhaired man. The conditions between the two contracting parties, namely the imperial employés and the contrabandists, were securely fixed, and the smuggling association began its operations.
The beginning of their operations was brilliant; some of our readers might perhaps have heard some time ago of the long-forgotten history of the wise Spanish sheep, who went out travelling in double coats; well, these very same Spanish sheep with a double fleece, imported on this occasion, Brussels lace of nearly one million roubles value. This was the first operation upon the interests of the Crown in which Tchichikoff played a prominent part. Had he presided over and led this undertaking himself, not even the cleverest and acutest Jew in the world would have ever succeeded in carrying out such a daring enterprize. After three or four journeys of the Spanish sheep across the frontier line, both chief custom-house officers had realized a capital of about four hundred thousand roubles each. It was even said, that Tchichikoff’s share in the enterprize exceeded half a million roubles, because he was so much more daring.
Heaven knows to what incalculable amount these already very round and handsome sums of money would have increased in the course of time, if some evil spirit had not crossed in a fatal moment their path. The devil set the two chief officers by the ears; to speak intelligibly and simply, the two employés picked a quarrel about a mere nothing. Somehow or another, perhaps in a moment of excitement, and perhaps even while under the influence of a glass or two of good wine, Tchichikoff happened to call his worthy colleague a staròver (dissenter), and the other, though he really was a staròver, it is impossible to say why, felt horribly insulted, and answered him there and then, immediately, loudly, and in an unusually cutting tone of voice, as follows: “You lie! I am a Privy Councillor of State, and not a staròver; but as for you, you are a staròver!” And then he also added, a few minutes later, and as if to spite his friend: “Yes, take that and all!”
Though he had in this manner shaved the other, as it were, by retorting on him the appellation applied to himself, and though the expression of “Yes, take that and all!” might have had a powerful meaning; not satisfied with this, he sent in to government a secret information against Tchichikoff. However, it was said, that besides this quarrel, there was another cause of difference between them; and it was rumoured about, that it was concerning a woman, young, fresh, and healthy as a sweet beet-root, according to the expressions of the other custom-house officials; it was also known that some bravos had been hired to give a sound thrashing to our hero, which had really happened on a certain fine evening; but that, in the end, both superior’s friends had been made fools of by the fair woman, and that a certain Stabz-Capitän Schamschareff gained the day over them, and succeeded in carrying the fair Briseïs off before their very noses.
The nearer particulars of this affair are wrapped in obscurity, and we therefore leave it to our courteous reader to imagine the details according to their own taste. The most important of all was, that the secret connection between our hero and the smugglers became known to the superior authorities. And though the Privy Councillor of State had ruined the simple Councillor of State through his infamous denunciation, he did not escape the due punishment himself, but was immediately degraded and dismissed.
Tchichikoff and his coadjutor were arrested and brought up to judgment, all their property was confiscated for the benefit of the Crown, and their misfortune and disgrace broke over them like a thunder-storm. When the storm was over, and when they began to recover again a little, they seemed quite horror-struck when they looked upon what they had been guilty of. The Privy Councillor could not resist the shock, and died soon after, but the simple Councillor of State bore up more manfully. He had succeeded in secreting a considerable amount of his fortune, notwithstanding the strictest investigations of the Court of Inquiry that was held over them. He used the finest diplomacy the human mind is capable of to extricate himself as advantageously as possible from his disgraceful position, and his experience assisted him in this most powerfully, for he knew already well enough of what stuff the men with whom he had to deal were made; he employed the greatest circumspection, his politest manners, the most touching and persuasive terms, burnt incense and confused his judges by a profusion of flattery, which did not in the least injure his position; he even went so far as to consider money no object, provided he could succeed in extricating himself; in a word, he turned the tables so well in his favour, that he could reappear again in the world, at least not so much disgraced as his more unfortunate colleague, for he ultimately succeeded, though narrowly, in escaping from being sent to Siberia.