Another woman, rather younger, but very much like the first in appearance, now made her exit from the house upon the landing-steps before it. She led the stranger into the house, and then into a room. Tchichikoff cast two hasty glances around him whilst entering; the apartment was decorated with old and old-fashioned striped paper-hangings. Between the windows there were some pictures representing various species of birds; small rococo-fashioned looking-glasses, with dark frames, in the shape of curled leaves were suspended in a great variety around on the walls; behind each of them, or rather in the frames, were placed, either letters, an old pack of cards, or a stocking; an old clock with Roman figures, intermixed with flowers, also hung on the wall and was ticking loudly. It was impossible to notice more with two glances only.
Besides Tchichikoff felt as if some one had besmeared his eyes with honey, for he had the greatest difficulty in keeping them open. A few minutes later, and the lady of the house made her appearance. She was an elderly person, and entered with a species of nightcap and a flannel hurriedly thrown round her neck. She was one of those noble ladies who reside on their estates, because she was not rich enough in her opinion to live in town—one of those old women who continually complain of bad harvests and severe losses in their household, and who have the habit of keeping their heads bent on one side, whilst they meanwhile know how to heap money into narrow bags, and hide them in all the drawers and upon all the shelves available. In one of these little bags, they will keep nothing else but the shiny silver roubles, in another only the half-roubles, in a third again a few golden imperials, and so on till they have a whole collection of all the coins of the Empire.
At first sight, it would seem that these drawers contain nothing else but articles of wardrobe, such as night-caps, stockings, linen, night-gowns, reals of cotton, old silken cloaks cut up for the purpose of being transformed into a gown, as soon as the one in use is worn out or burnt somewhere at the elbow, whilst the old lady was superintending the baking and cooking of holiday pastries. But they are too careful; the old gown does not run with them the risk of being burnt or worn out at the elbows, or anywhere else so soon; and the careful old lady generally leaves the cut up silken cloak for some smiling niece or widow-sister, together with her little bags containing the collection of all these precious coins as well as her night-caps, sacks and cottons.
Tchichikoff apologised, and begged to be excused for arriving so late at night.
“Never mind, never mind,” said the old lady; “in what wretched weather Heaven has brought you here! After such fatigues it would certainly be desirable to eat and drink something warm, but it is so very late that it will be quite impossible to prepare anything.”
The last words of the matron were interrupted by such a strange, hissing noise that her guest could not help feeling frightened; this peculiar alarming sound resembled the hissing of serpents, which seemed to have made a sudden appearance in the room; but on looking upwards, Tchichikoff felt tranquilized, for he discovered that the antique dock hanging on the wall was on the point of making an attempt to strike. After this strange hissing, immediately a rattling, and at last, after mustering all its mechanical strength, the clock succeeded in striking two; but with such a sound, that it seemed as if some one was striking with a stick against a broken saucepan. After this effort of the time-piece, the pendulum again continued its usual monotonous tick-tack as before mentioned.
Tchichikoff bowed courteously and thanked the old lady for what she said, and begged to assure her that he wanted nothing so much as a bed, and was only anxious to know in what part of the country he was, and how distant the estate of his friend Sobakevitch might be from her estate. Upon this inquiry, the old lady replied, that she had never heard of such a name, and that she was of opinion that such a person was not to be found anywhere around in her neighbourhood.
“The name of the landowner Maniloff is perhaps better known to you?” Tchichikoff remarked.
“And who is Maniloff?”
“An owner of some extensive estates, my good Madam.”
“No, I have not heard of such a name either—he does not live here about.”
“And pray, what country gentlemen have you in your neighbourhood?”
“We have Bobroff, Svinin, Kanapatieff, Harpakin, Trepakin, Pleschakoff, Senunoff—” “And pray, Madam,” Tchichikoff interrupted her quickly, anxious to avoid the recitation of a catalogue of names, “are they rich and wealthy?”
“No, my dear Sir, there are but few rich or wealthy among them. Some of them have about twenty to thirty, others again from forty to fifty serfs; but of those who possess about four hundred peasants there are very few.”
Tchichikoff perceived at once that he had arrived into a quite out-of-the-way neighbourhood.
“How far am I from town my good lady?”
“About sixty wersts. How sorry I am, to be sure, that I have nothing eatable to lay before you; would you perhaps like to take a cup of tea?”
“I am very much obliged to you indeed, but at the present moment I wish for nothing else but a bed.”
“You are right, after such an unpleasant journey, nothing could be more desirable, I therefore invite you, my good Sir, to make yourself as comfortable as possible upon this sofa. Fetinia, bring a feather mattress, a pillow, and some blankets. In what awful weather providence has been pleased to send you to me! What a thunder-storm! I have kept my candle burning all night long before the image of my patron-saint. But, my good Sir, you are covered with mud like a wild hoar all over your back and left side! Where have you been pray, to appear in such a disorderly state?”
“Thank heaven that I am only besmeared and that my sides are whole.”
“Oh ye, my good saints, what horrors! But do you not want something to rub your back with?”
“I thank you, my good lady, I thank you very much indeed; but pray do not incommode yourself any further on my account, I shall only ask you to tell your maid to dry and clean my coat to-morrow.”
“Do you hear, Fetinia?” said the old lady, turning to the younger woman, who entered the room that moment with a candle in her hand, and who had already previously brought in the things her mistress had ordered. She was now in the act of heating up with both hands an enormous feather-bed, which, in consequence of being thus handled, sent forth a cloud of down, which instantly filled the room. “You must take that gentleman’s clothes to-morrow morning, and dry them well before the fire, as you did with those of your late master, and then rub the mud out carefully, and clean them properly.”
“Very well, my lady!” answered Fetinia, whilst spreading the blankets over the mattress, and pulling the pillow on the bed.
“Now, Sir, your bed is ready,” said the old matron, after having cast a careful glance over it. “Farewell, my good Sir, I wish you a pleasant night and rest. But is there, perhaps, anything you would wish for yet? You might perhaps be accustomed, my good gentleman, or like to have your feet scratched by somebody. My late husband would never go to deep unless this was done to him.”
But her guest was so rude as to decline having his feet tickled. The old lady retired, and Tchichikoff began to undress himself immediately, handing over to Fetinia all that he stripped himself of, and it consisted of every article of clothing; Fetinia, after having wished him a good night’s rest in her turn, took the wet paraphernalia of our hero and retired also, closing the door after her.
When Tchichikoff was thus left alone, he looked, not without a great deal of satisfaction, upon his couch, which nearly reached to the ceiling; Fetinia seemed to be a clever hand at beating up a feather mattress. He approached his bed and got upon a chair close to it, from this he precipitated himself into it, and felt descending to the floor; the sudden pressure of his body upon the mattress had the effect of sending forth again a new volley of down, which filled every corner of the small room.
After having blown out his candle, Tchichikoff rolled himself up in his blankets like a newborn child is wrapped up in its linen, and fell immediately fast asleep. He awoke the next morning at a very late hour; the sun was shining through his window straight into his face, and the flies, which the previous night had slept quietly in their corners on the walls and ceiling, now began to turn all their attention upon our hero; one of them took its seat upon his lips, another upon his ear, and a third Seemed to study how it could manage to gain footing upon his eye, but those which had had the imprudence to come too close to his nose, became the victims of their own folly, for he inhaled them whilst taking breath, unconsciously, in his somnolent state, and this operation upon the flies made him sneeze; this circumstance was also the cause of his suddenly awaking.
On casting a glance around the room, he now observed, that all the paintings did not represent birds as he thought on the previous evening; among them was a portrait of Prince Paskievitch, and another oil-painting representing an old man, in a military frock-coat with red sleeves; a costume as worn during the reign of the late eccentric Emperor, Paul the First. The dock began again its unpleasant serpentine clatter and struck ten broken kettle strokes; a woman’s face peeped through the half-opened door, but withdrew immediately, for it seemed that Tchichikoff had thrown off his blankets during the night, in the hope of sleeping better no doubt. It seemed to him as if the head that had been just peeping into the room was familiar to him. He began to collect his thoughts; on asking himself the question, who it might have been, at last he recollected that it must have been the old lady and proprietress of the house. He put on his shirt, his clothes were already dried and cleaned, and were lying close to his bed. When he was dressed, he stepped before the looking-glass and sneezed again so loudly, that a turkey-cock, which was just then passing under his window, which was very low, on the ground-floor, began to roll his voice like a drummer, as is customary among these original birds, no doubt wishing Tchichikoff a good morning in his own fashion, upon which the poor animal was called a fool by our hero.
This salutation, however, brought Tchichikoff close to the window, and he began to examine the scene before him. The window opened to all appearance upon nothing else but a poultry-yard; at least, what he beheld before his sight was a narrow court, filled with a numerous variety of domestic birds. Turkey-cocks and fowls seemed numberless; in the midst of them a common house-cock was walking proudly up and down with measured steps, shaking his comb fiercely and leaning his head on one side, as if he was listening to something, a pig and her offspring also made themselves conspicuous; they were all digging with their snouts in a heap of cinders, meanwhile, the mother caught hold of a young chicken and ate it up quite accidentally whilst grunting with a degree of satisfaction at the tender morsel; then she continued to dig on again as before, and as if nothing at all unusual had happened.
This narrow court or poultry-yard, was separated by a wooden wall, beyond which extended some large fields, where cabbage, onions, potatoes, carrots, and many other household vegetables were growing in great abundance. In the midst of this orchard and in a great confusion, grew scattered here and there some apple, cherry, plum, and other fruit trees and shrubs, all covered over with nets, to protect them from the depredations of sparrows and other birds. There was a swarm of the former flying about from one spot to another. To keep these daring enemies of the orchard more effectually from plundering the fruit trees and vegetables, there were several guys in different places with outstretched arms; upon the head of one of them and in order to make him the more frightful-looking, a nightcap of the old lady had been placed.
Beyond the orchard, were several corn-fields, flanked by the huts of her ladyship’s peasants, which, although built irregularly, and not in straight lines or streets, seemed, nevertheless, to confirm Tchichikoff’s opinion that the old lady was rather comfortably circumstanced, because they were kept in good repair. The usual straw roofs appeared all to have been recovered with fresh materials; the gates and doors had their hinges in good repair, and such of the stables and stalls which were open to his inspection, showed some new and well-made carts and sledges. In some of them he could count two and even three of each description.
“Well, I am sure, who would have thought that the village is not so unimportant as one would believe it at first sight,” murmured Tchichikoff to himself, and thereupon he made up his mind to have a conversation with the old lady, and try to make a better acquaintance with her upon his all-engrossing subject.