Tchichikoff’s reserve funds had, however, dwindled down to a mere trifle; his splendidly furnished house with all its foreign refinements was taken from him and given as a reward to some other official. All that was left to him, amounted to a sum of about ten thousand roubles, besides a couple of dozen fine Holland shirts, a convenient, light britchka, to which bachelors give the preference for travelling purposes, and two faithful serfs, his coachman Selifan and his valet Petruschka, (the little hunchback had died some time before), and we must also not forget to mention that his former colleagues in office, moved by compassion at his disgrace and sad prospects—for they believed him penniless—had had the generosity to leave him a few pieces of that peculiar French soap which possesses the virtue of preserving the freshness of the skin; and this was all that he could call his property.
And it was in such a position that our hero made his appearance! Such then was the excess of misfortunes that befel him! And this it was what he called in Smolensk to suffer in the service for truth and the just cause. Now the conclusion might have been drawn that, after so many sad experiences and changes of fortune and position in life, he would wisely retire with his round sum of ten thousand roubles into a small and quiet provincial town, and put on for ever a comfortable Tartar cotton morning-gown, and seat himself at the window of some modest private house, and look on a Sunday at the fights and quarrels of the mouzhiks before him in the street; or take a walk in the poultry-yard, and feed with his own hands the fowl which he would like to have cooked for his dinner, and would have continued to lead a quiet and retired though not entirely useless existence.
However, it did not happen thus. Justice must be rendered to his unconquerable fortitude of character. All that had happened to him would perhaps, if not have killed another man, at least would have served him as a caution and quieted him; but with our hero it was not so, the inward flame of his passion was as ardent as ever. He felt acute grief and vexation, swore at the whole world, angry at the injustice of Providence, disgusted at the injustice of men in general; but for all that he could not forbear making new essays. In a word, he displayed such an extraordinary amount of patience and perseverance, against which the wooden patience and perseverance of a German are nothing, because it is constitutional with them.
Tchichikoff’s blood, on the contrary, was like an ever-playing fountain, and it was requisite for him to possess a powerful will and wisdom, to bridle all those passions which would have liked to escape and enjoy unbounded freedom. He began to muse and to reflect on the past and on the future, and the conclusions he arrived at were not at all devoid of sound judgment.
“Why should it be always I? Why should I continually be the victim of a cruel destiny? Who is the man in our empire who lingers over his duties? All, the whole nation, from the Emperor himself down to the meanest serf, all have their mind bent upon acquisition. I have ruined nobody; I have not robbed the lonely widow, nor have I made any children orphans. I have derived profit from superfluities, have only taken what every one else in my place would have taken; if I had not profited by the chance offered me, others would have done so. Why should others alone enjoy wealth and comforts, and why I alone be condemned to live and die like a worm?
“And what am I now? For what am I good now? With what countenance should I now be able to look into the face of any pater familias? How can I escape the pangs of shame, knowing that I walk uselessly on the face of the earth: and what will my children say when I am dead and gone? They will say our father was a villain: he left us no position, no fortune!”
It is already well known to our readers that Tchichikoff was particularly anxious about his heirs. A very tender subject. Many a man would perhaps venture head and neck, if it was not for the question which presses itself inexplicably upon him—”What, will my children say?” And the possible head of a future generation, like a precautious cat, looking sideways to espy if his master is in the way, seizes hurriedly everything that happens to be near him, either a piece of soap, some candles, tallow, or a canary bird if it should happen to fall under its claws; in a word, he allows nothing to escape.
Thus lamented our disconsolate hero: meanwhile his activity was not extinguished within him; it only slumbered for a while. There was always something that preoccupied his mind, and only waited for the chance of a sound plan. He armed himself once more with his peculiar virtues, and determined again to begin an active and difficult life; he again submitted himself to the well-known privations of former life, and again from an elevated and respectable position, he launched himself into sullied and low life. And in the expectation of something better turning up, he was obliged to accept the situation of a commission-agent, a profession yet badly received and acknowledged by our citizens, pushed about on all sides, shabbily paid and treated with disregard and even with contempt. However, necessity obliges us to many things, and also excuses them, and our hero therefore determined upon accepting the situation.
Among a variety of business with which he had been entrusted, was also the following: to mortgage in the Imperial Bank of the Council of Guardians, a few hundred serfs. The nobleman who had commissioned him to undertake this business was ruined, and reduced to the last extremity. His landed property was already completely encumbered, by an epidemic among his cattle, villainous and dishonest stewards, bad harvests, epidemic diseases which had carried off numbers of his most valuable serfs, and at last by the follies of the nobleman himself, who had purchased and furnished a house in St. Petersburg at an extravagant expense but in the last Parisian fashion, and who had spent upon this mad fancy his last rouble, so that he had nothing to eat. And for this reason, he was obliged to have recourse to the last extremity, and determine upon parting with his life estate.
The Imperial Bank for the mortgage of landed property and serfs, under the title of Council of Guardians, is one of the numerous paternal institutions of recent date, and of all of which his Majesty the Emperor is himself the head. The transactions of the Imperial Council of Guardians claim his peculiar attention, and consist chiefly in advancing monies to such noblemen of the Empire as have become embarrassed from various causes, but principally from such as we have already alluded to. The monies of the Crown are advanced upon real estate, namely upon land and serfs. It is principally left to the Council of Guardians to fix the period for repayment of the advanced funds, and if the nobleman thus assisted cannot redeem his mortgaged property in due time, it is again left to the discretion of the Imperial Council of Guardians to have the property of the nobleman valued by a special committee, and then it is sold to the Crown, which, after refunding itself, hands the residue to the thus ruined nobleman.
This system of paternal accommodation, which the Russian nobility enjoys at the hands of his Majesty the Emperor, fully accounts for the enormous number of Crown serfs, which number has increased since the establishment of the Imperial Council of Guardians nearly to a million souls.
At the time when Tchichikoff was intrusted with the mortgage of those few hundred serfs, the Council of Guardians had been but recently established, yet much of its operations had already transpired, and circulated among the nobility, and for that reason they were very reluctant to profit by this paternal accommodation. Tchichikoff, in his capacity of agent, had received instructions to conclude the mortgage of the serfs on the most advantageous terms; he therefore thought it proper to dispose everything favourably, (without previously well disposing a few of the Imperial employés, it would be hopeless to apply for anything like information, and it is therefore advisable to smooth their throats with a profusion of port and sherry), and thus, having as far as necessary well-disposed every one of the employés in the Council of Guardians, with whom he would have to transact business, he explained his errand to be connected with a very peculiar circumstance.
“Half of the serfs I wish to mortgage, have died since my arrival here at Moscow, and I am therefore alarmed lest there might be some misunderstanding about them later—”
“But allow me to ask you,” said the secretary of the Board of Guardians, “are these two hundred serfs we are now speaking about, included in the census your nobleman has handed in to government, when the last census was taken?”
“Yes, they are included,” answered Tchichikoff.
“If so, I can see no reason why you should feel faint-hearted?” the secretary returned, “if the one dies, another is born, and thus makes up the deficiency.”
Meanwhile, a sublime idea seized upon the imagination of our hero, a thought that had perhaps never occurred to human mind before.
“Oh, I am the very image of simplicity,” he said to himself, “I am looking about for my gloves, and have them already on my hands. Suppose I were to buy up all those serfs that have died lately, and before the new census is taken, suppose I made the acquisition of about a thousand dead serfs, and, suppose the Council of Guardians was to make me the trifling advance of two hundred roubles for each such serf; that would make a capital of two hundred thousand silver roubles. And now is just my time, an epidemic has but recently ravaged the whole of the country, and, thank Heaven, the number of people that have died from it is not insignificant at all. The country gentlemen have lost much, thanks to their gambling propensities, they have spent a deal in feasting, and have, in fact, ruined themselves most satisfactorily; all seem to have hurried off to St. Petersburg, to seek for appointments at court; their estates are neglected, and are administered any how, the payment of imposts to the Crown becomes with every year more difficult, and therefore, I am led to suppose that they will be glad to cede to me their valueless dead serfs, in order to avoid the payment of the annual tax upon them till the return of the next census; it might even happen that some of them will not only jump at my offer to purchase their valueless stock, but even pay me something extra for my generosity, my philanthrophy.
“Nevertheless, and, of course, it is a difficult, a complicated, a dangerous undertaking, for I might easily get myself into serious trouble, perhaps cause a great scandal, be sent to Siberia…. But wisdom an imagination have been given for some purpose to man. That, the most encouraging feature in my speculation, is, that the subject will appear incredible to every one, nobody will ever believe it. It is true, according to a recent ukase, it is impossible to buy serfs without the land they were born upon, nor can they be mortgaged without it. But I mean to purchase them for emigration, yes, for settling them elsewhere, now vast tracts of land are granted for a mere nothing in the provinces of Kherson, and close to the Turkish frontiers.
“It is there that I will settle them; in the government of Kherson; close to the Turkish frontiers; let them live among the heathens. As for their privilege of emigration, that can be done lawfully, and according to the sense of the imperial ukase, all this can be legally settled in the proper courts of the Crown. If they should ask me the proofs of the existence of such serfs? Why not? I shall not be at a loss to do even that, and from the very returns of the census, and with the genuine signature of the Capitän-Ispravnik (district judge). The new village which is to spring so suddenly into existence, I shall call ‘Tchichikoff’s New Settlement,’ or according to the name which I received at my baptism, make from Pavel, ‘The Village of Pavlovsk.'”
It is in this manner that the strange idea on which our story is founded, formed itself, in the head of our hero; whether our reader will feel himself under any obligation to him, we do not know; but as for ourselves we must confess, we feel indebted to Tchichikoff for this subject beyond description. Whatever might be said for or against it, without Tchichikoff’s idea this novel would never have made its appearance.
Making a devout sign of the cross in the Russian fashion, Tchichikoff set about the execution of his fixed plan immediately. With a view of choosing places of residences, and under other pretences, he set about examining here and there the various corners of our vast Empire, and paid particular attention to those districts where the sufferings and losses from various disasters, such as epidemics, bad harvests, and other causes, had been felt most severely; in a word, he sought for those districts where he might be able to buy his stock, namely, dead serfs, on the most advantageous terms.
He did not address himself at random to every landed proprietor, and serf-owner, but made his choice among them, and according to the best of his judgment; or he applied to those men, from whom he had every reason to anticipate no particular scruples about transacting this strange business with him; he therefore introduced himself to them under the most favourable auspices, made their particular acquaintance, tried to gain their favourable opinion and esteem, so that he might, if possible, obtain from them what he wanted in a friendly manner, and as cheaply as possible.
From this reason, therefore, our reader must not be displeased with us, if the characters that will be introduced to them during the progress of Tchichikoff’s career are not entirely to their taste, this is the fault of Tchichikoff, but not ours; for we are obliged to follow him wherever he chose to go. As for ourselves, if any blame should be cast upon us, for bringing such uncomely characters before a British public, especially at this present critical moment when a war with Russia is being carried on, we can only express our regret at the fact, but our conscience forbids us to represent our countrymen in any other than the real light.
Such then was the character of our hero, such as circumstances had created it, and the contact with the world and life had fashioned it in later years! But it is very likely that a positive definition of one of his characteristic traits will be demanded; what is he really as regards his moral qualifications? that he is not a hero full of perfections and virtues, we must confess, is obvious at first sight. Who, or what is he then? he must be a villain? Why should he be a villain? Why should we be so severe towards others? There are no real villains to be met with now-a-day; there are well disposed persons, agreeable, and even unexceptionable persons, but such persons, as would exhibit their physiognomy to the gaze of the world, and present their cheek for a public box on the ear, of such persons it is likely that two or three might be met with, and then even, they have begun already to speak of the charms of virtue.
We shall therefore be justified in calling our hero; not like the French a chevalier d’industrie but in simple English terms; a gentleman acquirer. Acquisition is the root of a great many evils, and that threatens our peace even now. The desire of acquisition rages now in all classes of society, and especially in Russia, commencing from the Emperor himself, down to his meanest serf, all are mad with a desire for acquisition. Without this desire on the part of the Emperor for the acquisition of Turkey, the nation at large would not have acquired the fanaticism to stand by his side, and back his mad propensity for acquisition; why should it not he excusable in one of his humble subjects?
Such then was the object which had brought our friend Tchichikoff to the pleasant town of Smolensk; the purchase, namely, of dead serfs. During the progress of his schemes, he was thrown into much curious society, and met with numerous queer adventures; these will form the subject matter of our work. While accompanying our hero on his perilous journey, we shall become acquainted with almost every class of Russian society, and the whole will furnish us at the least with a faithful, if not a flattering, idea of that nation which holds itself at the present day, as the supporter of the orthodox Church, and future master of the world’s destinies.
In itself, the nefarious scheme devised by our hero, affords an extraordinary instance of the cunning inherent in the Russian character, for its whole success was based on the knowledge he possessed of the utter baseness of the national character. None of the actors in this strange drama will appear to exhibit the slightest compunction about defrauding the government, as long as they can gain any slight advantage to themselves, and even the certainty of condign punishment in the very possible event of detection, cannot cause them to refrain from their innate propensity. The fact is an humiliating one, but in our character as the historian of an actual event, we have not dared to omit a single trait which may seem to elucidate our story. We only wish it was in our power to draw a pleasanter portrait of our countrymen, and we fervently trust that the time may yet arrive when such stories as the present one, may be numbered among things that were.