“Holloa, he! twelve o’clock,” Tchichikoff said at last, looking at his watch, “how could I so utterly forget myself? if at least there had been any business-like result in these reflections, but as it is, it was but folly and nonsense!” Saying this, he changed his highland costume for a more becoming one, buckled tighter up his full stomach, perfumed his face and hands with some Eau de Cologne, put his warm travelling-cap in his hand, and the various documents under his arm and hurriedly left the inn, hastening towards the government offices to conclude his contracts.
He did not hasten for fear of being too late; oh, no, he was not afraid of being too late, because the President of the Council was now his intimate friend, and could prolong or shorten the sittings in the court at his own convenience; he was as powerful in his office as Homer in his classical poems, who lengthened his days and sent tempestuous nights when he wished to shorten the quarrels of his favourite heroes, or allow them to fight out their differences.
With our hero it was different, he felt an inward longing to terminate his business as quickly as possible; until he had done so, he would be sure not to feel either tranquil or comfortable, because the reflection occurred to him, that the serfs were not a positive reality though he had a point of law in his favour, and that under such peculiar circumstances it is always prudent to hasten the conclusion as quickly as possible.
But scarcely had he walked a short distance in the street, and whilst musing on the subject of his errand, covered as he was in a large coffee-coloured travelling cloak, he could not avoid running, as he was just on the point of turning round the corner, against a gentleman also dressed in a large coffee-coloured travelling cloak and huge cap to match it covering his head and ears.
This gentleman could not repress an exclamation of joyful surprise at the sight of Tchichikoff, for it proved to be his friend Maniloff. They sank at once into each other’s arms, and remained in that position, firmly clasped together, for more than five minutes in the middle of the thronged pavement. The exchange of their mutual affection was so tender and strong, that both suffered for the rest of the day from pains in their fore-teeth. Maniloff’s gratification was so great, that actually nothing else but his nose and lips could be seen on his face; as for his eyes, they had literally molten away for joy.
For more than a quarter of an hour he held firmly clasped between his own Tchichikoff’s hand, and by his affectionate pressure heated it to a considerable degree. In the most elaborate, elegant, and chosen terms, he assured his friend that he had hastened to town to embrace his dear Pavel Ivanovitch; his address was concluded with such compliments as might perhaps only be spoken to a young lady when she is led to a country-dance.
Tchichikoff opened his mouth without knowing what he was going to say in acknowledgment of such great civilities, when Maniloff suddenly produced from under his cloak a parcel of papers, rolled up in the shape of a tube, and tied together with a pink ribbon.
“What is that?” inquired Tchichikoff.
“The dead serfs, my dear Pavel Ivanovitch,” replied Maniloff, with his usual honeyed smile.
“Ah!” he immediately untied and unfolded the papers, and cast a hurried glance over the lists and was pleasantly surprised at the neatness and accuracy of the writing.
“A beautiful hand-writing,” said he, “it will be quite unnecessary for me to copy it over again. And even a beautiful black line like a frame around it! pray, and who has taken the trouble to draw these accomplished lines around it?”
“Pray do not ask me,” said Maniloff.
“By heavens! I am really ashamed to have given you and your kind lady so much trouble, I am indeed quite ashamed!”
“For our own dear Pavel Ivanovitch, nothing is a trouble!”
Tchichikoff bowed deeply and civilly an acknowledgment. When Maniloff heard that his friend was on his way to the government offices for the purpose of concluding the formalities of the contracts of sale, he immediately offered to accompany him thither. The two friends joined their arms and went away together. At each indifferent, uneven, or broken flag-stone, Maniloff immediately and civilly assisted Tchichikoff to pass over, and in his anxiety, even nearly lifted him from the ground with his arm, adding at the same time, and with a pleasant smile, that he would not suffer his dear friend to hurt his little feet against any stone whatever. Tchichikoff felt really ashamed, not knowing how he could return the attention, because he was conscious that he was rather of a heavy weight.
While continuing to exchange civilities, they arrived at last upon a large and open square, where they beheld the Imperial government offices before them; the building was a very extensive one, three stories high, and painted white, like chalk, no doubt a symbolic sign of the purity of the hearts of those who were appointed to administer justice; the other buildings in the square were altogether out of proportion with the immense white house.
The most remarkable features in it were; a sentry’s box, before which a soldier with his musket was walking up and down, several droschki-stands surrounded by their idle drivers, and at last a range of wooden walls, painted grey, and with their usual inscriptions and characters drawn on them, with either chalk or charcoal; there was really nothing else worth mentioning to be seen on this desolate, or as it would be called in Russia—handsome square.
From out of the windows of the second and third stories, now and then a few heads of the unimpeachable and incorruptible administrator’s assistants would make a momentary appearance and then immediately draw them back again, no doubt because their President entered the room at the moment.
The two friends now entered the large building and found themselves before a wide staircase, which they did not ascend, but rather scaled in a canter, because Tchichikoff was trying to escape the further assistance of Maniloff’s arm, and therefore rushed quickly forward, whilst his friend Maniloff on the other hand, was also anxious to hasten forward in order to prevent Tchichikoff feeling tired from the ascension of the long flight of stairs. With these different objects in view, they both rushed madly as it were onward until they both met at the landing above, which, ended in a sudden collision in a dark passage.
Neither the passage nor the interior of the rooms which they entered immediately after, in any way made a pleasant impression upon their sight as regards cleanliness. It is true also, that at that particular moment, neither of them was disposed to pay any attention to the circumstance; and all that which was wanting in order and cleanliness, was therefore left to remain dirty and disorderly just as it was, assuming not the least feature of attraction. The door-keeper of the offices received his guests in a shabby and inelegant costume, and opened the door to the new corners.
It would perhaps have been deemed desirable to have a minute description of the various rooms through which our two heroes passed; but the author must confess, that he has a particular repugnance for any and all places of justice in any country, but particularly so for those in his own country. And even, though it has happened to him to pass or rather wind his way through some courts of justice decorated in the highest fashion, and covered with carpets and marqueterie, and polished tables, yet he always endeavoured to hurry his steps as much as possible, while casting down his eyes, and therefore it is quite impossible for him to give any interesting description of the inner charms and attractions of the courts of justice in the Russian Empire.
Our heroes saw numerous piles of waste paper and of white paper, many downcast heads, broad shoulders, dress-coats, and imperial shape and even some common grey cotton jackets, which contrasted very strongly with the other colours; some of these grey jacketed gentlemen had their heads bent all on one side, and nearly leaning on the paper, as if ready to fell asleep over their work, and yet they were busy scribbling, copying perhaps some brief or inventory concerning a mortgaged estate, which the Crown was about to take possession of, because the righteous owner had been ruined or banished from the country.
At intervals, short exclamations could be heard pronounced in a subdued and often unpleasant tone of voice, such as: “Mr. so and so, will you give me the application of No. 777! You are in the continual habit of mislaying the cork of the imperial ink-bottle!”
Now and then the sounds of a voice speaking in a tone of importance was also heard, no doubt proceeding from a superior officer, and consequently in a more autocratic manner:
“Here, take that and copy it off immediately, if not, I shall order your boots to be taken off your feet, and you shall have to sit for six hours without a chance of eating anything.”
The noise produced by the quills in operation was very great indeed, and resembled very much the noise produced by a carriage when passing through a forest across a road strewn with dry autumnal leaves.
Tchichikoff and Maniloff approached the first table they were near, and at which two employés, rather young men, were sitting, and busying themselves in doing nothing, they addressed them in the following manner:
“Will you allow me to inquire, where the ‘contract of sale’ business is transacted in these offices?”
“And what is your business?” said both employés at once, whilst turning to the speaker.
“I want to hand in a petition concerning some contracts of sale.”
“And what is it you have been buying?”
“Before telling that, I should have liked to know first where the contract of sale department is—is it here or in another place?”
“You must first tell us what you have been purchasing and at what price, and then we shall tell you where you will have to apply to, but without knowing this we cannot advise you.” Tchichikoff saw at once that curiosity only prompted them to address these questions to him, and that like all young men or employés, they wished to gratify their curiosity and give at the same time a greater importance to themselves and to their occupations.
“My good young gentlemen,” said Tchichikoff, “I am perfectly aware that all contracts of sale, no matter at what price a bargain has been concluded, are settled and legalised at one and the same place, and if you don’t know what is doing at your table, then we shall at once proceed to ask some one else.”
The employés made no reply whatever to this observation, but one of them pointed with his fore-finger to the corner of the room, where an elderly man was sitting behind a table and stirring about in a heap of papers.
Tchichikoff and Maniloff passed through a long range of tables straight towards the old man. He seemed to be very seriously engaged with his occupation.
“Sir, will you allow me to ask you,” said Tchichikoff with a bow, “whether this is the department or section for the conclusion of contracts of sale?”
The elderly employé lifted up his eyes and spoke abruptly in reply: “contract of sale business is not transacted here.”
“And pray, where then?”
“In the section for the conclusion of contracts of sale.”
“But where am I to find this section?”
“It is under the superintendence of Ivan Antonovitch.”
“Could you perhaps tell me where I might find Ivan Antonovitch?”
The old man pointed with his forefinger to another corner of the extensive room. Tchichikoff and Maniloff hurried towards the seat of Ivan Antonovitch, who had espied them already with one of his eyes and scrutinized them now with the other, which having done, he immediately plunged again if possible still deeper into his occupation.