“Allow me to ask if you please,” spoke Tchichikoff with a civil bow, “is this the section for the contracts of sale?”
Ivan Antonovitch appeared as if he had not heard the question at all, and busied himself as completely as possible among his papers without saying a word in reply. It was evident that this person was already a man of a sedate and serious age, and not at all like those two youngsters or madcaps. Ivan Antonovitch seemed to be already at some distance beyond forty years; his hair was black and abundantly covered his head; the centre of his face seemed to rush forward towards its extremity, the nose, in a word, it was a face that would be called in ordinary Russian parlance, a muggy one.
“Allow me to ask you, Sir, if this is the department for the conclusion of contracts of sale?” Tchichikoff demanded again.
“Yes,” answered Ivan Antonovitch, turning his muggy face towards the inquirer for a moment, and, then immediately beginning to write again.
“My business is the following: I have purchased of several landed proprietors in this province a number of serfs with the intention of settling them elsewhere: the contracts of sale are prepared and now only require to be lawfully legalized.”
“Are the contracting parties present?”
“Some of them are in town, others have sent their powers of attorney.”
“Have you brought a written petition on the subject?”
“I have done so, Sir. I should have liked, that is to say, I would be very glad indeed to terminate this business as soon as possible. Therefore, could we not, for an instance, begin at once in order to finish all this very day?”
“Oh to-day! that is quite impossible,” said Ivan Antonovitch. “Due inquiries must be made in the first instance to ascertain if no objections could or would be raised in the matter.”
“As regards this, and in order to speed the subject, I may inform you, Sir, that Ivan Gregorievitch, the president, is an intimate friend of mine.”
“But allow me to observe to you, Sir, that Ivan Gregorievitch is not the only person who would have to attend to this matter; there are other persons as well,” said Ivan Antonovitch dryly.
Tchichikoff caught at once the hint which Ivan Gregorievitch had dropped for his information, and said, “nor shall others have to complain of me, I have been in the civil service of our country myself, I know what business and promptitude means.”
“Well, then I would advise you to go at once to the President,” said Ivan Antonovitch, in a rather pleasanter tone of voice, “let him give his instructions to whom it concerns, and as for ourselves you may be assured that your business shall be attended to.”
Tchichikoff produced a white bank-note from his pocket-book and laid it on the table before Ivan Antonovitch, which the other did not seem to see at all, but instantly covered with a large book. Tchichikoff was about drawing his attention to it, but Ivan Antonovitch with a peculiar nod of his head made him understand that it was perfectly unnecessary.
“That man will shew you into the President’s private office,” said Ivan Antonovitch, whilst making a sign to one of the employés to approach, who happened to be just in the way and no doubt ready to devote all his energies to the service of justice and his country, in which devotion he seemed to have even sacrificed his coat, if we were to judge by his two sleeves, which had burst at both elbows and which now displayed the lining to great advantage, and for which services and devotion of years such men are generally dismissed with a useless title or a paltry pension.
This man then joined our friends and served them like Virgil once assisted Dante, and led them through a long range of tables and rooms into the office of the President, where they saw a lonely, large and comfortable arm-chair, in which and before a table and two huge books they beheld the President, radiant like the sun.
At this sight, the modern Virgil felt an inexpressible feeling of delight overcome him suddenly, so great and powerful indeed, that he would not dare to venture a step further but turned round immediately, and thus showed the back of his coat which was completely worn out and covered all over with down and feathers. When the two friends had entered the apartment they saw that the President was not alone; behind him sat Sobakevitch, who was completely hidden by a large cheval looking-glass. The entrance of the two guests was hailed with an exclamation of joyful surprise, and the presidential chair was pushed back loudly. Sobakevitch also rose from his seat, and as he thus happened to be standing before the looking-glass, his huge figure and extensively wide and long sleeves of his coat loomed larger than ever.
The President most cordially embraced Tchichikoff, and the walls of the justice-room re-echoed their tender exchange of affection, they then civilly inquired after the respective state of their health, and it proved that they were both suffering from pains in their loins, the natural consequence of a sedentary life and occupations.
The President seemed to have been already informed by Sobakevitch of Tchichikoff’s purchase, because he now begun to compliment him on the subject, which at first seemed rather to take our hero by surprise, especially when the idea occurred to him, that two of the contracting parties, namely Maniloff and Sobakevitch, with whom he had come to an understanding of mutual secrecy, were now standing opposite one another.
However, he soon recovered himself, and thanking the President for his civil inquiries, he immediately turned towards Sobakevitch and asked him politely.
“And how do you do?”
“Thank Heavens, I have no reason to complain,” answered Sobakevitch. And really he had no cause of complaint; it would have been easier for a piece of pig-iron to catch a cold and begin to cough, than for this wonderfully constituted landed proprietor.
“True enough, you have always enjoyed an excellent state of health,” the President observed, “and I remember your late father, was as strong and healthy a man as yourself.”
“Yes, he was in the habit of going bearhunting all by himself,” answered Sobakevitch.
“However, I am of opinion,” said the President again, “that you could master a bear as well, if you liked to encounter one.”
“No, I could not,” Sobakevitch answered; “my late father was much stronger than I am;” and, after a deep sigh, he continued: “No, the men of our present day are not what they used to be formerly. Take me even for an example; what is my life and strength? I have just sufficient energy to bear my life.”
“Why, what makes you complain of your life?” the President inquired again.
“It is not good or satisfactory!” exclaimed Sobakevitch, whilst shaking his head slowly. “Just judge yourself, Ivan Gregorievitch: I am at the beginning of my third score, and have not once suffered the slightest complaint or indisposition, not even from a cold. Now you will agree with me that this cannot be for the better. Some fine day will dawn when I shall have, no doubt, to pay dearly for this, my present state of health and life.”
Hereupon Sobakevitch relapsed into what seemed a state of melancholy or hypochondria.
“What a strange fancy, to be sure,” the President and Tchichikoff thought at the same time, “to be brooding on such a subject.”
“I have a letter for you my dear President,” said Tchichikoff, producing Pluschkin’s letter, with the evident intention of changing the subject of their conversation.
“And pray from whom?” the President demanded, as he was breaking the seal; and, having done so, he exclaimed: “Ah! is it possible, from Pluschkin. He is still a wanderer on the surface of this world. What a strange fate, that man’s is; for I must tell you, gentlemen, that he was one of the most accomplished, and wealthiest men I ever happened to know! and now—”
“A real dog,” said Sobakevitch, “a rascal, who has starved the greater part of his serfs.”
“Very well, and with great pleasure,” said the President, when he had read the letter; “I am willing to be his representative and agent in the matter. When do you wish to sign the contracts, now or later?”
“Now, if you please,” said Tchichikoff; “and I shall even beg of you to transact all the business, if possible, to-day, because I wish to leave town to-morrow on some important affairs. I have brought with me the various documents—such as the contract of sale, the petition, and the list of names; in fact everything is ready.”
“All this is well and good,” said the President; “do as you please; but we do not intend to part with you so easily. The contracts shall be attended to, and signed this very day, on condition that you will consent to remain with us. I will give my instructions immediately,” continued the high officer of the crown, as he opened the door leading into the office, which was now crowded with employés, who, like the industrious bees, were gathered in heaps of a hundred, on the spot; if it was possible that so many of them could have found any real employment. “Ivan Antonovitch, is he there?”
“Here!” answered a voice from the interior.
“Send him to me!”
The muggy face of Ivan Antonovitch, already so familiar to us, soon after made its appearance before the President’s room, and he entered with a profusion of servile bowing.
“Take these papers, Ivan Antonovitch, all these contracts of sale must be—”
“By the bye, do not forget, Ivan Gregorievitch,” interrupted Sobakevitch, “that we shall require witnesses, at least two for each contracting party. I would suggest that you should send at once to the Procurator, he is a regular holiday-man, and is sure to be at home—his public business is usually managed by his lawyer, Mr. Solotucha, the greatest sharp I ever met with in this world. The Superintendent of the Medical Faculties is also a holiday-bird, and likely to be at home, if he has not already gone to play cards somewhere; however, there are a great many more besides those two, and who live even nearer, for instance, Truchatchevitch, Beguschikin, all these people live free of expense in this wide world.”
“Just so, exactly, you are perfectly right!” said the President; and he immediately gave instructions to some of his messengers to go in search of the parties just mentioned by Sobakevitch.
“I will also request you,” added Tchichikoff, “to send for the attorney of a widow lady, with whom I have also concluded a trifling business. Her agent is the son of the Proto-pope, Father Kyrila; I am told he holds an appointment in your offices.”
“To be sure we shall have him as well,” said the President. “Everything shall be done to your satisfaction, but as for my employés, I must beg, nay even insist upon, your giving them no gratuity. I never suffer any of my friends to pay for anything.”
Saying this, he immediately gave all the necessary instructions to Ivan Antonovitch, who seemed not to like the arrangements at all. The contracts of sale seemed to produce a very favourable impression upon the mind of the President, especially when he had glanced over them, and found that the purchases made by Tchichikoff amounted to nearly half a million of silver roubles. He kept looking for several minutes at Tchichikoff, straight into the eyes, with a feeling of great satisfaction, and then added, smiling:
“It is thus, then! In such a manner then my dear Pavel Ivanovitch, you have made some valuable and important acquisitions indeed!”
“Yes, really, I have made some acquisitions,” replied Tchichikoff, modestly.
“A good speculation, really—a capital undertaking!”
“Yes, indeed, and I must own that I am of opinion that I could not venture into a more profitable business. Whatever the opinion of the world may be, I opine that the aim of a man is never thoroughly defined, if he does not stand with a firm footing upon a solid foundation, and not upon any frivolous chimera of a youthful imagination.”
Hereupon, he added in a few more strong terms, and in good time, his disapproval of the hot-headed liberalism of the present youthful generation. But it was remarkable that with all his clever reasoning, there was a slight irregularity in the usual calm and dignified tone of voice, as if he was at the same time whispering to himself, “Oh, my good fellow, how mercilessly you impose upon people!” He even did not venture to lift his eyes either to Sobakevitch or Maniloff, fearing to meet some peculiar expression in their faces or countenance.
However, his alarms were imaginary. Sobakevitch’s face was perfectly devoid of any expression whatever, whilst Maniloff was perfectly captivated by his elaborate speech. He only kept nodding his head approvingly, and throwing himself into that peculiar position into which an amateur of music would plunge when his favourite prima donna has surpassed even the notes of the violin, and sent forth a tone which the throat of a bird would have been incapable of articulating.
“But why don’t you mention to our friend Ivan Gregorievitch,” Sobakevitch interrupted at last, “what kind of acquisition you have been making? And you, my dear President, why don’t you ask him what purchases he has been making? Excellent people, as valuable as gold. I must inform you that I have even sold him my old Micheeff, the coach-builder.”
“No, really, have you sold that excellent fellow Micheeff?” the President inquired. “I remember now your coach-builder, Micheeff, very well—an excellent and clever artisan. He has often mended my droschki. But stop, allow me—how is this—I remember now, you told me that he was dead.”
“Who! Micheeff dead?” said Sobakevitch, and nearly betraying himself. “It was his brother who died; as for the coach-builder, he is perfectly alive and healthier than ever he was before. He finished the other day a britchka with which you might venture to travel in a canter to Moscow. I am of opinion that he ought to be appointed to work for the Emperor alone.”
“Yes, truly, Micheeff is a very clever fellow indeed,” said the President, “and I am even surprised that you could agree to part with him for any amount or consideration.”
“Micheeff is not the only one. I have even sold Stephen Korobka, the joiner; Milushkin, the potter; Maxim Teliatnikoff, the shoemaker—they are all gone, I have got rid of every one of them.”
But when the President asked him why he had thus disposed of them, as they were all such clever and indispensable workmen on a country estate, Sobakevitch answered, whilst sawing his right arm in the air:
“Bah, I was attacked by a peculiar whim of mine, and I said to myself, I am determined, and will sell all these fellows, and thus, then, I got rid of them all on account of a fancy.” After this explanation; he allowed his head to hang down, as if he was addressing inward reproaches to himself, and then he added again:
“Though you see that I am already a greyhaired man, yet I must confess I am still deficient in wisdom.”
“But allow me to ask you, my dear Pavel Ivanovitch,” the President said again, “how did you purchase these serfs, without the land they were born upon? is it with the intention of removing them from here?”
“Just so, for emigration.”
“Ah, for emigration views, that is another thing. And pray for what part of the country? if the question is not indiscreet?”
“To what part of the country—oh, ah, I shall take them into the government of Kherson.”
“Oh, that is one of the finest provinces in the Empire!” exclaimed the President, and expressed his high praise of the excellency of the soil in that province, and the richness of its steppes. “And have you sufficient land for the accommodation of your newly-acquired population?”
“Just sufficient for comfortable distribution among my new serfs.”
“Have you a fine flowing river, or a brook?”
“A river. However, there is also a large brook.” Saying this, Tchichikoff involuntarily looked at Sobakevitch, and though the other remained as cool and indifferent as before, nevertheless it seemed to him as if the following was as it were, written in the expression of his face. “Oh, what a falsehood! for it is not likely that you will have a river and a brook as well, when, perhaps you have not even a piece of land!”