The purchases made by our friend Tchichikoff became the gossip of the day, and created a great sensation in Smolensk. The whole town conversed freely on the subject, opinions were given, and conclusions arrived at, whilst questions arose whether it was a good speculation to purchase serfs in the north, with the object in view of transplanting or settling them in the south.
Animated, as the majority of persons are by a spirit of contradiction, many pronounced themselves perfectly capable of enumerating all the advantages and disadvantages on the great undertaking of the stranger.
“Certainly,” said some one of them, “you are perfectly right on several points, and your argument is as dear as it is obvious, no objection can be raised against it: the soil in the southern provinces of the Empire, and especially near the Crimea, is very rich and productive; but his estate seems to be situated at some considerable distance from the Dnieper, which flows through our very town, and what is our friend Tchichikoff, and what especially are his serfs to do without a river? for you cannot deny it—he has no river.”
“Well, my dear Stephan Dmitrievitch, don’t excite yourself, for Heaven’s sake don’t, to be without a river is, after all, not so bad as you seem to imagine, allow me to tell you, that the process of emigrating and settling serfs, is by far the greatest difficulty. Is it not well-known what our serfs are? to transplant them as it were upon a fresh soil, and train them again to a foreign system of agriculture, is, in my humble opinion, a herculean task, besides you must not forget, that if the serf really arrives alive at his new destination, he generally finds nothing to shelter his head under, but has to build his own hut, though the cattle is found for him. Add to all these disadvantages, and you know it as well as I, the desperate character of those fellows, and you will come to the conclusion, that if they take it in their heads to run away, you may but whistle after them, and this argument you must allow to be as clear and conclusive as that two and two make four.”
“No, no, my dear Alexei Ivanovitch, allow me, pardon me, if I disagree with you on that point, that the serfs of Tchichikoff should take it into their heads to run away. The Russian is fit for everything, and can accustom himself to any climate. Send him even to Siberia or Kamtchatka if you like, but give him only a pair of leather gloves and his hatchet, and you may depend upon it that he will clasp his fist, and build himself another hut in no time.”
“Allow me to tell you, Ivan Gregorievitch, that you have lost sight of a very important fact indeed: you have forgotten to inquire of what character Tchichikoff’s new serfs are? You seem to forget that a wise owner will never sell a good, industrious, and valuable serf. I am ready to lay down my head upon the block, if Tchichikoff’s newly-acquired peasants are not one and all confirmed drunkards, and riotous people, and thieves and murderers in the bargain.”
“Just so, exactly, I agree with you on this point; and I will allow that all Tchichikoff’s slaves are confirmed drunkards, but we must also take into consideration, that in this very fact lies the moral, yes, I repeat it, in this fact lies the hidden moral, which has escaped your penetration; as you justly observed, they are all scoundrels now, but leaving their old abode, and settling in a different country, they might easily become most valuable subjects. Such instances and examples have been very frequent within our own country, as well as in other empires, nay, even history proves them.”
“Never, never,” said the Inspector of the the Imperial Manufactories, “believe me, such things can never happen, because Tchichikoff’s serfs are now going to encounter two formidable enemies: their first antagonist will be the close proximity of the Malo-Russian provinces, where, as you all well know, spirits of wine are sold duty free. I can assure you that in less than two weeks they will become like inner-soles from pure drinking. Their other enemy is their natural disposition for idling and wandering about, which is sure to develope itself most powerfully during the progress of their emigration. Unless, indeed, Tchichikoff was to have them continually under his eyes, and was to keep them with a strong hand like a jamtchick his troika, scold them for the least trifle, not trust to anyone else but himself, be continually with and after them, and when occasion require it, treat them like our great Emperor Peter did, even with his generals, namely, give them a box in the ear, or a blow in the neck.”
“But why should Tchichikoff take all the trouble to box their ears and face himself, he could easily meet with a trustworthy steward to manage his estate as well as his serfs.”
“Oh, oh, find a trustworthy steward; but, my dear man, you forget that they are generally all scoundrels, and the real blood-suckers of the peasantry!”
“They are all rogues because of the indolence of the land owners, who will not take the trouble and look after their own interest.”
“You are perfectly right;” re-echoed the majority. “If our proud and wealthy landowners were only to know a little of their household interests and understand how to choose their confidants, matters would stand quite different in our holy Russia, and stewards, would be honest men.”
One of the gentlemen present who happened to be an imperial manager, hereupon said, that it was quite impossible to find a conscientious and honest manager for less than five thousand silver roubles a-year. But the President at once rejoined that such a virtuous man might even be met with at three thousand a-year.
But the manager boldly rejoined: “where could you find such a person? hanging about your elbows perhaps?” And the President in turn again replied: “he is not exactly hanging at my elbow’s ends, but at any rate not far off from here, and if you like to know where, I can tell you that he lives in my very district, and his name is Peter Petrovitch Rasgerischin; and that is the very man that would suit our friend Tchichikoff as a manager for his estates and serfs.”
Many entered feelingly into Tchichikoff’s position, and the difficulties that would necessarily arise from the displacement of such a large number of serfs, began to alarm them very seriously indeed; in their apprehensions some of them went even so far as to predict the possible outbreak of a riot, especially as the thought occurred to them of what description the serfs of Tchichikoff were represented to be.
With reference to this latter contingency, the Commissioner of Police observed, “that it was foolish to anticipate a riot, because a few hundred peasants were about to emigrate, and admitting even that some slight disturbances were to happen, there existed the power of the Capitän-Ispravnik to stifle it in its very birth, and that if the Capitän-Ispravnik did not choose to attend to the matter in person, it would be quite sufficient for him to send his cap, which like the policeman in England, would be powerful enough to drive the rioters back to their duty and home in an incredibly short space of time.”
Many others again offered their advice how the spirit of revolt—which in their wise opinion of the serfs of Tchichikoff, was sure to break out among them—could be repressed or prevented, especially when the poor fellows, namely the serfs, were to be torn away from their native soil, and perhaps the bosom of their families.
The opinions and suggestions on this point were numerous and original; there were some who advised rather stringent measures, all replete with military rigour, if not barbarity, at any rate of a very severe nature indeed; however, there were also a few who advised kindness and compassion. The Postmaster observed, that he was under a sacred obligation, that it lay in his power to become a father to his slaves, to use his own expression; introduce even among them the blessing of moral and physical emancipation and enlightenment, at the same time he did not forget to mention with great praise the Lancastrian system of mutual education.
It was in such a manner that the good inhabitants of Smolensk expressed, themselves on the subject of our hero’s enterprise, and many of them, overpowered by their goodwill towards him, even communicated their suggestions personally to him, and even went so far as to offer him the services of an escort, for the safer conveyance of his serfs to their place of destination.
For their advice, Tchichikoff thanked them most cordially, saying, that if he should have occasion he would not fail to avail himself of their kind suggestions, but as for the preferred military escort, he declined it in the most positive terms, assuring them at the same time, that it would be perfectly unnecessary, as the peasants which he had bought were all of an extremely mild character, and that they felt a free and independent inclination to settle over in another country where they were sure to feel happy; and that as to the anticipated riot, which his friends apprehended, he assured them that under such happy auspices this was a contingency which could impossibly happen among his newly-acquired serfs.