Such and similar conversations and discussions produced, however, the most beneficial consequences for the interest of Tchichikoff, and which he was far from anticipating; namely, the news was spread about, that he was nothing more or less than a millionaire. The inhabitants of Smolensk, without this new advantage, had already taken a particular fancy for Tchichikoff, as we have seen already from the first chapter; but now, and after such a report they began to like him more than heartily if possible.
However, if we are to speak the truth, we must confess that they were all excellent people, lived in concord and unity, and behaved themselves in the most friendly and christian-like manner; whilst their daily conversation bore the stamp of a peculiar simplicity and candour quite of a primitive nature: “My dear friend Yliah Ylitsch! listen, brother Anthipator Sacharievitch! you have told a falsehood, my dear old gossip Ivan Gregorievitch!” and whenever they addressed themselves to the Postmaster, whom they called Ivan Andreievitch, they were sure to add, “sprechen sie deutsch?” in a word all lived in a very friendly and homely manner.
Many of them were hot without pretensions to a superior education; his Excellency the President of the Council, for instance, knew by heart several of the poems of Pushkin and Zoukovsky, and could recite them with due emphasis, especially the passage commencing, “The forest sleeps, the plain is silent,” and the word “hush!” was so cleverly pronounced by him, that it really seemed as if the forest was actually fast asleep; in order to add more effect and truthfulness to his recitation, he used at this passage to close his eyelids immediately.
The Postmaster inclined more towards natural philosophy, and continued reading very diligently, even during the night Young’s “Night Thoughts,” and the “Key to the Secrets of Nature,” by Eckartshausen, from which books he was even in the habit of making very long extracts, but of what description these extracts were it is impossible for us to tell; on the whole, he was sharp and acute, flowery in his language, and fond of composing original phrases, which, we regret, it is equally impossible for us to render in the English language.
The other men of importance were also, more or less, of a cultivated mind; some of them used to read translations from all languages, others again, delighted in the study of the authors of the country, or read the newspapers, whilst some even did not read at all Some individuals were also difficult of comprehension, and could not understand you unless you took the trouble, as the phrase goes, to dot their i’s for them; some again were as dull as a blockhead—if we may use the expression; they would continue to stick to their prejudices and remain lying on their backs like a log of wood; it was perfectly useless to try to lift them up; they would listen to no persuasions.
As regards their general bodily appearance, it is already well-known to our readers that they were of an imposing countenance, solid and sober-minded men, there was not the least frivolity about them. They possessed all those qualities, which caused their wives in moments of tender conversation, and tête-à-têtes to address them pretty nearly in the following language: “Dear mullet; my little fat man; little fairy; pretty blacky; kiki; joujou,” and so forth. And in general they were all good-natured and kind-hearted men, pervaded with a due sense of hospitality—a great and favourable characteristic trait of the whole nation. For if even a stranger had had an opportunity to taste what they call their “salt and bread,” or sat with them at a game of whist, he became at once as it were dear to them.
And so much the more was it the case with Tchichikoff, who, thanks to his agreeable and gentlemanly manners, had completely ingratiated himself in their esteem and good opinion, because he had the secret gift of pleasing, whenever it was to his advantage convenient to do so. They had taken so great an affection for him, that he could not possibly imagine a scheme or pretence under which he could leave the town; all he now heard daily was, “One little week more, only one more; you must stay and live with us, our dear Pavel Ivanovitch!” in a word he was treated in the most affectionate manner, and nursed, as the phrase goes, like a child in baby linen. But incomparably remarkable was the impression (the direct road to madness) which Tchichikoff had produced upon the fair sex of Smolensk. To explain this extraordinary fact, only approximatively, it would be necessary to say a great deal of the fair ladies themselves, their society; and paint in glowing colours the qualities of their hearts. But here it is that the author feels seriously embarrassed, because the thought occurs to him that he is now writing to please the fair inhabitants of the British isles, and that he has no longer the right to be elaborate in the description of the moral and physical qualities of his own countrywomen. On the other hand, he still feels a great respect for the husbands of Smolensk, and as for a third reason—the third reason is that it is really difficult to divine, or dive into the depth of the female heart.
The ladies of Smolensk were—no, it is impossible to tell what; I feel a peculiar timidity overcoming me all of a sudden. In the ladies of Smolensk the most prominent features were—it is really strange, but my pen refuses to obey the hand, and seems as if loaded with lead. Be it so; the description of their character I will leave to one more worthy than myself; to one who knows how to paint in vivid colours and with a powerful brush, and reserve to myself, in this instance, the modest privilege of saying a few words on their personal appearance and manners; it is a very superficial glance.
The ladies of Smolensk then, were what is termed presentable, and in this respect they could be confidently placed as a model to all other ladies. As to their manners, observances of fashion, maintenance of etiquette, and great propriety in its finest shades, but especially in the due observance of the laws of fashion in its last particulars, they rivalled, nay, even surpassed, the court ladies of St. Petersburgh and Moscow. They dressed with great taste, drove about town in their own open carriages, made according to the last imported model from Vienna or London, with a seat behind in which a fat flunkey covered over with gold lace was rocking himself gallantly.
Visiting cards were as the French say de rigueur, no matter whether the name was written upon the deuce of diamonds or the ace of spades, to have them, was a sacred obligation. For the sake of a visiting card two lady friends and even near relatives, fell out for ever, because the one had omitted to send her card in return to the other, and thus found wanting in reciprocating civility. And, notwithstanding the earnest endeavours of their husbands and friends effect a reconciliation between them, it proved a total failure; and although many difficulties might be overcome in this world, yet this remained an impossibility, the reconciliation of two ladies, who fell out because the one of them committed a manque de towards her friend. Thus then these two ladies continued to live in mutual disaffection.
As regards the privilege of occupying the first seat at concerts and evening parties, there happened also numerous differences and serious scenes; inspiring their husbands, sometimes, with an extraordinary sense of chivalrous and magnanimous courage in supporting and defending their rights and claims. Duels of course were not fought between them, because they were all knighted men and imperial employés, but instead, the one tried to annoy the other as much as possible, which in many instances is really worse than fighting a duel on the most disadvantageous terms.
As regards the morale of the ladies of Smolensk, they used to be, strictly speaking, extremely severe and rigid—full of an aristocratic indignation at the lightest offence, and the least flaw or weakness in that respect was condemned and punished with the utmost rigour. And if even, something or another did happen (which we will by no means call improper) among them, they always agreed to come to some secret compromise, so that it remained impossible ever to ascertain the real cause of the scandal, in fact, they followed the wise maxim of the great Napoleon, who, on such occasions used to say: “il faut toujours laver le linge sale en famille!”
As for the present Emperor of the French, it is impossible for us to tell positively, what his opinion on such a subject would be, though we are led to believe that he is a man of considerable experience in family matters; as for the kind husbands of the ladies in Smolensk, their honour continued to remain perfectly intact, and the decorum was preserved in every instance of that kind; for they were so well prepared to meet an attack, that if even they happened to see something or another, or bear of it, they were always found ready with a dignified reply or a short proverb like the following: “whose business I ask you is it, if the cousin and her cousin chose to sit in the pit?”
We must also not forget to add, that the ladies of Smolensk, were distinguished for their elegant expressions, and in that respect resembled and reminded us of the ladies at the imperial courts of Moscow and St. Petersburg; they were extremely careful and graceful in their words and actions. They never used to say, I have snuffed my nose, I am perspiring, I spat; but they expressed themselves in nearly the following terms: I have availed myself of my pocket handkerchief, dancing and walking excites me. It was also quite impossible for them to say; this glass or plate is not clean, nor would they use any term approximating to it, but instead, expressed themselves, perhaps, thus: this glass or plate has been considerably neglected, or something very much like it.
And in order to render the Russian language more aristocratic (for in Russia one likes to ape aristocracy if not autocracy), they had the habit of omitting one half of the words in their mother tongue, and replacing them cleverly with French phraseology, which language, rich as it is in homonymes, allows of expressions much stronger and more equivocal than those we have mentioned above, completely rejected as vulgar from the memory of the fair ladies of Smolensk.
And this is nearly all we have to say about the ladies of Smolensk, speaking superficially. But if we were to glance deeper into the character of these ladies, we should, of course, discover many more of their interesting propensities; however, we will not venture to do so, because it is very dangerous to look to any depth into the heart of a lady. And thus limiting ourselves to superficial glances, we will again proceed in our observations.
Up to this time, the ladies in general had taken no very particular notice of Tchichikoff, they had rendered him, however, full justice by acknowledging him to be a perfect gentleman, and a man of extremely agreeable manners; but from the moment that the report was spread about, that he was a millionaire, they discovered in him many more hitherto hidden qualities. However, the ladies themselves were not at all selfish; the fault was lying in the word millionaire, not in the millionaire himself, but positively in the word; because in the only sound of the word, or in the bag of money, is concluded a something that acts most powerfully upon the honest as well as the dishonest man, in fine, it produced an effect upon everybody.
The wealthy man enjoys the privilege of looking with leisure upon the most creeping business, the most barefaced civility, based upon no principle whatever; many men of such character know perfectly well that they will receive nothing for degrading themselves thus far, and even that they have no right, whatever, to accept anything for doing so, but yet they will persist and rush forward to meet him, to smile when he approaches, to take off their hat when he passes, and do everything to obtain an invitation to any dinner party where they may be sure of dining with the millionaire.
We will not venture to affirm that this servile inclination was perceptible in the ladies; however, in many of the drawing-rooms in town, the observation went the round, that Tchichikoff was certainly far from being handsome, but yet, that he was such as a man ought to be, and were he to be a little stouter or a little thinner, he would have certainly not have been even good looking. At the same time, it was also whispered about and rather to the disadvantage of slender men, that they resembled more a tooth-pick than a man.
In the toilettes of the ladies, many additions became about this time visible. The bazaars were crowded with visitors and purchasers nearly to suffocation; promenades were even brought into fashion, and the number of carriages driving about were nearly innumerable. The tradesmen seemed bewildered, when they saw that several pieces of silk stuff which they had purchased in the capital, and which they had not been able to sell till now, because they were pronounced too costly, found suddenly a ready sale, and even occasioned disputes as to who should have the preference in their acquisition.
During the promenade, one of the fair ladies was observed to have something like a large ring adjusted in her dress, which would have been wide enough to cover the cupola of a church, and which very much embarrassed her in the progress of her walk, so much so indeed that the police-officer on duty ordered the common people to leave the parapet, so as not to be in the way of her Excellency.
Tchichikoff even in spite of his usual equanimity could not forbear to remark at last such unusual attention. One fine evening when he returned home to his hotel, he was surprised to find a neatly-sealed letter upon his table; where it came from, and who had brought it, it was impossible for him to ascertain; even the acute head-waiter could tell him no more but that some person brought it who had received instructions not to tell that it came from a lady.
The letter began in the following positive style: “No, I feel that I must write to thee!” Then something was said about a secret sympathy of souls; this opinion was affirmed by numerous little dots, which occupied more than half a line; then followed some thoughts very remarkable for their truthfulness, so much so, that we consider it indispensable to copy them.
“What is our life? A wilderness, covered with sorrows. What is the world? A crowd of insensible beings.” After this much, the fair writer observed that she, was bathing with her tears the last lines of a tender mother, who had ceased to live for her these last twenty-five years. Tchichikoff was then invited to leave town for the solitude, because it was impossible to breathe freely in a place where the heart remained incarcerated by the chains of society. The latter part of the letter expressed real despair, and concluded in the following verse:
Two turtle-doves will show
Thee,—my cold grave,
Their mournful cooing will tell
Thee,—that I died in tears.
This is as nearly as we can give it in English, though we must confess that the original was also deficient in poetical composition. However, it was to the purpose, and quite in the spirit of the day. There was no signature at the bottom—no Christian name, nor family name, nor was the month or date mentioned. However, there was a postscript—whoever is accustomed to receive letters from ladies is of course aware they are in the habit never to post their epistles without the addition of a P.S.; and as for my fair readers they know best why they never omit it. The postscript of the fair unknown to our hero went on to say that his own heart ought to tell him who she was, and that she would be at the Lord-Lieutenant’s ball the next night, and that it was there that he should behold the original.
This epistle considerably excited and pre-occupied the mind of our hero. In this anonymous communication there was so much that was mysterious and provoked curiosity, that Tchichikoff could not resist reading it a second and then again a third time, and at last said, “I am really curious to know who the fair writer might be!” In a word, the affair, to judge from appearances, promised to become a serious one. For more than an hour after he continued to think of it; at last, stretching out his arms and leaning his head on one side, he exclaimed:
“I must confess the letter has been written very feelingly indeed.”
Then, and as a matter of course, the letter was carefully folded up and placed in his writing-desk, close to an old play-bill and an invitation to a wedding, which he had kept there for these last seven years in the same apartment. Half an hour later he positively received an invitation to the ball of the Governor of Smolensk, in which there was nothing unusual, for at the seat of the provincial administration, where the Lord-Lieutenant resides, there are rejoicings and balls, else he could not depend upon the powerful support of the country nobility and gently.
From the instant he received the invitation to the ball all else was set aside, and he began immediately to devote all his attention to the preparations for the evening party; because there were now many inciting and pleasant reasons. And for such reasons, perhaps, was there since the creation of the world, never so much time employed in the preparations for an evening party. More than an hour was exclusively devoted to the examination of his face in a looking-glass. He attempted to execute a variety of expressions; at first he tried to assume an air of importance and propriety, then again a proud respectfulness, mingled with a smile, and again simply an air of respectfulness without a smile; a few bows and inclinations were addressed to the looking-glass, accompanied by indistinct sounds, in some instances very much resembling the French language, though Tchichikoff did not understand French at all.
He presented himself with numerous pleasant surprises, moved his eyebrows up and down, contracted his lips, and even seemed to smack his tongue; in a word, what does a person not do when alone, especially when under the impression that he is good-looking, and convinced that there is no indiscreet person to glimpse at him through the keyhole?
At last, he pinched slightly his chin, and said, “Oh, you little rogue,” and then he began to dress. It was in the best of humours that he accomplished his evening toilette. Whilst putting on his braces, or tying his cravat, he began to scratch compliments with his feet, and bow forward with unusual grace, and though he was no dancer, he nevertheless executed an entrechat. This entrechat produced a slight but innocent effect; it shook the chest of drawers, and his hair-brush fell from the sofa.