When Maniloff was convinced that he had rightly heard and understood what his friend had just spoken, he could not prevent his Turkish pipe dropping upon the floor and opening his mouth and eyes as widely as they would allow themselves to be opened; he remained passively thus for a few seconds. Both friends, who, but shortly before, had been familiarly discoursing on the pleasures of friendly life and intercourse, were now sitting opposite one another immoveably, gazing into each others eyes as if mesmerized, or like those portraits which in olden times were hung on either side of the looking-glass.
At last Maniloff mustered animation again, picked up his pipe, and, while doing this, he looked up seriously into the face of his companion, striving to catch, if possible, a smile upon his lips, as if to convince himself that all was but a jest; however, he could discover nothing to confirm him in this hope; on the contrary, Tchichikoff’s face looked, if possible, more serious and composed than usual; at last he thought it likely his guest might have become the victim of a fit of insanity, and as this idea occurred to him he looked with the utmost terror fixedly at him.
But no, Tchichikoff’s eyes were perfectly calm and bright, there was no wildness nor uneasiness in his glance, such as there would be in the gaze of a madman; all his mental faculties seemed to enjoy perfect health. Maniloff was at a loss what to imagine next, in order to account for the strange words and intention he had heard; but he could hit upon nothing to relieve him of his anxiety, except, letting the tobacco smoke, which the sudden surprise had made him swallow, unconsciously escape in thin wreaths.
“And thus then should I like to know if you would agree to part with such of your serfs as are actually dead; that is to say, not actually living, but nevertheless existing in a point of law; I am ready to make such arrangements about them as would be most agreeable to you.”
But Maniloff was still so much overwhelmed and confused, that he could do nothing else but stare into the face of the speaker.
“You seem to feel embarrassed?” observed Tchichikoff, slowly.
“I?—no, not exactly,” Maniloff at last murmured; “but I cannot comprehend—excuse me—I did not of course enjoy such a brilliant education, such a one—if I might express myself so—as is visible in every one of your movements; I have no talent for choice expressions—it might be also, that here—in this instance and in the manner in which you have just now chosen to express yourself—that there is something hidden—the meaning of which, I must confess, I could not catch, and I must presume that you have chosen to express yourself in this manner for the sake of a more select construction of your phrase—”
“Oh no, my dear Sir, no,” interrupted Tchichikoff, “not at all, my proposal is like the phrase, pure and simple; I positively mean that what I said, namely: I wish to possess such serfs as are positively dead.”
Maniloff was now actually lost in amazement; yet he felt that it became incumbent on him to do or say something; but what was he to do, what was he to say?—Heaven alone could inspire him. He finished at last by allowing another cloud of tobacco smoke to escape, but not as previously, out of his mouth, for this time the smoke evaporated from his nostrils.
“And now, if you have no objection, we might at once come to an understanding and proceed to draw up the contract of sale,” said Tchichikoff.
“What? a contract of sale, for the dead?”
“Oh, no, my dear Sir, no,” replied Tchichikoff, with slight impatience. “We shall write down, and presume them to be living, for such they actually are represented to be in the last census of the whole population of the Empire, and consequently, also in a point of law as well I am accustomed never to make the slightest deviation from our laws—either civil or military—though I have suffered much for this principle when I was in actual service myself, and allow me to assure you, my duty has always been a sacred obligation to me; the law—I never deviate from it.”
These last observations very much pleased Maniloff, and reassured him considerably; but notwithstanding this assurance, it was impossible for him to enter into the spirit of the business proposed to him, and instead of an answer, he began to smoke so fast, that the room was soon filled with a dense fog, and the head of his pipe became so heated, that it began to crackle like a hoarse bassoon. It seemed as if he wished to inhale from his pipe an opinion upon the unprecedented project of his guest; but to no purpose, his pipe continued its crackling noise as before.
“You have, perhaps, your doubts on the subject?” said Tchichikoff.
“Oh! I can assure you, not the least,” rejoined Maniloff. “Do not think for a moment that I could have the slightest reason to form any critical opinion as regards yourself. But allow me to ask you, will this speculation, or, in order to explain myself more distinctly—this negotiation—yes, will this negotiation not be in contravention to the civil laws and the future views and welfare of the Russian Empire?”
After having spoken thus, Maniloff made a few peculiar movements with his head, and looked steadfastly into Tchichikoff’s face, showing in all the lineaments of his features, and in his compressed lips, such an undefinable expression, as perhaps never was beheld on a human face before; and if such an expression could find its equal, it could, perhaps, only be seen on the faces of those clever statesmen of all nations, who at the present day are discussing the political differences between Russia and Turkey.
Tchichikoff, however, answered simply, that such a speculation, or negotiation, would in no ways be in contravention with the civil or military laws of the country, and the future welfare of Russia; and a moment later he added, that on the contrary, the government would even derive an advantage, because it would receive the payment of the lawful capitation tax.
“Well, then, you think that—?”
“I am of opinion that all will be right and and well,” said Tchichikoff again.
“Ah, if it is all right, then it is altogether a different thing; then I can have no objection whatever,” said Maniloff, and recovered even so far as to assume his usual smile.
“Now we shall only have to fix upon a price—”
“How—a price?” said Maniloff with a new air of surprise, and stopped short for a while. “Is it possible that you could think that I would take money for such serfs, who, in some respects have already ceased to exist, and consequently, have become valueless to me? No, since you have a strange fancy for them, or, if I might use the expression, a phantastical wish for them, I am quite agreeable to deliver them up to you gratuitously, and am even ready to pay the expense of the contract of sale, in order to be agreeable to you.”
We should deem it the greatest act of negligence on our part, if we were to omit mentioning in the narrative of these events, that the words thus spoken by Maniloff had the effect of diffusing an extraordinary amount of gratification over the countenance of his guest. However circumspect, self-possessed and prudent Tchichikoff habitually was, yet in this instance he had every difficulty in mastering a feeling which nearly made him jump from his seat like a goat, and such an attempt could certainly only be caused by an excess of joy. He turned so suddenly in his arm-chair that the woollen covering of the pillow was torn in consequence; even Maniloff could not help looking at him with some fresh bewilderment. Impelled by gratitude, he gave so many thanks, that the donor of the gift could not help blushing deeply, made a negative movement with his head, and then only found words to say, that, what he gave was a mere trifle.
“Not at all a trifle,” replied Tchichikoff, warmly pressing the donor’s hand.
Here a deep sigh was also allowed to escape from his broad chest, and it seemed as if this sigh was full of the warm effusions of his feeling heart; not without some feeling and expression in his language Tchichikoff, continued in the following words:
“If you knew, my dear Sir, what a favour you have granted me by this apparently trifling obligation…. to me, a man without name or fame…. Yes, truly, how much have I not suffered? like a bark amidst the boisterous waves of the agitated ocean…. What tribulations, what persecutions have I not experienced, and how many and bitter were the sorrows that I have tasted! but why? would you perhaps ask me? Because I always watched over truth, because I kept my conscience pure, my honour intact; because I stretched forth my hand to assist the mourning widow, and shielded the deserted orphan!”
Hereupon Tchichikoff could not help arresting the progress of a falling tear with his pocket-handkerchief.
Maniloff, too, was nearly moved to tears on hearing this eloquent language. Both friends pressed each other’s hands long and warmly, and they looked long and silently into each other’s eyes, in which a few more tears might have been seen glittering. Maniloff seemed not disposed to part with the hand of our hero, and continued to press it so warmly, that the other did not know how to liberate it. At last he succeeded in extricating it gently, and said that it would now be a good thing to conclude the contract of sale at once, and that it would be desirable that Maniloff should come for that purpose to town at his earliest convenience. He then rose, took his hat, and began to bow a farewell.
“What? are you going to leave us already?” said Maniloff, who had scarcely recovered from his emotion before he was frightened again.
At that moment, Madame Maniloff entered her husband’s study.
“Lisinka,” Maniloff exclaimed, with a rather pitiable expression in voice and countenance, “Pavel Ivanovitch wishes to leave us!”
“Because, perhaps, we do not entertain our guest well enough,” remarked Madame Maniloff.
“My lady, here,” said Tchichikoff, “here, in this spot,” saying these words, he laid his hand upon his heart, and continued: “Yes, here shall for ever remain the recollection of the pleasant moments I have passed in your company; and believe me, there would be no greater felicity for me in this world, than to live—if not in the same house with you, at least in your immediate neighbourhood.”
“Ah! my dear Pavel Ivanovitch,” said Maniloff, whom this idea on the part of his friend seemed rather to please, “that would really be excellent, delicious, if we could live together under the same roof, or under the shadow of the same poplar, and philosophise on some subject, or launch ourselves into—”
“Oh, that would be like living in Paradise!” exclaimed Tchichikoff with a sigh. “Farewell, my lady!” continued he, whilst pressing his lips upon the hand of Madame Maniloff; “farewell, most esteemable friend! Pray do not forget our little business!”
“Oh, be sure of it!” replied Maniloff. “I do not bid you farewell for more than two days at the most.”
All three entered again the reception-room.
“Farewell, my pretty little darlings!” exclaimed Tchichikoff, when he beheld Alcides and Themistocles once more, who were engaged playing with a wooden dragoon, who thanks to them, had already lost his hands and nose.
“Farewell, my little pets, you must excuse me this time for not having brought you something, because, I must confess, I was not aware of your existence; but, the next time I come, you may depend upon it, I shall surprise you with something nice to play with. To you I will bring a sword; would you like to have a sword? eh—”
“Oh, yes,” replied Themistocles.
“And you shall have a drum; I know you would like to have a drum—eh?” he continued, bending down to Alcides.
“Drum—bum—bum,” answered Alcides, as if he had it already.
“Very well then, I will bring you a drum, it shall be such a nice drum, that you will be able to play any tune upon it, and then you may turrrr-rurrr-rurrr and tratata upon it as long as you like. Farewell my little darlings! farewell!”
Hereupon he kissed the little boy upon the head, and turned with a smile towards Maniloff and his wife, with a smile like that usually assumed by persons who wish to convey to loving parents the innocent wishes of their children.
“Pray, dear Pavel Ivanovitch,” said Maniloff, when all had already passed through the entrance, “pray, stay with us, look at the dark clouds around.”
“These are but a trifle, they do not alarm an old traveller like myself,” replied Tchichikoff.
“But do you know the road to Sobakevitch’s estate?”
“Indeed, no, I was about asking you that question.”
“Allow me then, I will immediately explain it to your coachman.” Hereupon Maniloff very civilly explained to Selifan where he would have to drive his master to. The coachman finally understood, that he would have to pass two turnings and take the third, then took off his hat and exclaimed; “Thanks to your glory and long health!”
Tchichikoff drove off, and was saluted with wavings of pocket-handkerchiefs by his amiable hosts until they were out of sight.
Maniloff continued to stand and linger upon the stone steps before his house for some considerable time, and followed with his eyes the now fast disappearing britchka, and when he had already completely lost sight of it, he still continued to gaze into the distance and smoke his pipe. At last he entered the house and went into his own room, where he seated himself upon a chair opposite to the seat occupied previously by his guest; he began to give way to reflections, and was heartily rejoiced that he had had an opportunity of having been agreeable to his new acquaintance.
After having thus meditated for some time, his thoughts began to wander upon some other subject, until at last he lost himself, heaven knows in what reflections. He also thought of the blessings of friendly intimacy; he began to imagine, how pleasant it would be to live together with a faithful friend on the banks of some silvery stream; he then began to construct a stone bridge across his imaginary river, and concluded by building a splendid castle in the Spanish style, so high and beautiful, that he could behold Moscow the Holy from its turrets; nor did he forget either to imagine a magnificent Venetian balcony, where he beheld himself and his bosom friend, comfortably taking tea in the evening, and smoking real Turkey whilst having a pleasant argument. He continued to imagine, that he and Tchichikoff received an invitation to an evening party from some high functionary, and that they drove up to his house in a splendid carriage and four, that they were received in the best company; and finally, that one of the imperial ministers (of the foreign cabinet,) being informed of the exemplary friendship existing between the two friends, informed his Majesty the Emperor of its existence, and that they were promoted to the rank of generals in consequence. Thus he continued to dream on, until at last he lost himself again in his châteaux d’Espagne.
But suddenly he recovered his consciousness, thanks to the extraordinary application of his friend Tchichikoff, which he could not forget on any account; though it was of no use for him to think and study the nature and purpose of this strange whim of his friend, for he could not, either explain to himself the object, nor find the solution of this extraordinary negotiation as he still termed it, in his own mind. Thus he continued to sit in the same chair and smoke his pipe until he was called to supper, and went to bed at a late hour.