Such seems to be the course of life in this world, and therefore it appears also that Tchichikoff, for a few minutes of his existence, suddenly became a poet, but the appellation of poet seems to be rather a strong term; at any rate, he felt within himself the sudden sensations of a lively youth, if not those of a dashing hussar. Perceiving an unoccupied chair near the two ladies he immediately sat down in it. His conversation was not very lively in the beginning, but after a while he felt more at home, and began to feel even a peculiar confidence gradually taking possession of him.
Here, and to our great discomfiture, we must observe that sedate people and persons occupying high positions in life, are generally rather heavy in their conversation with ladies; but, as masters past in this adroitness, we must proclaim our young officers, beginning from a comet, but not passing, on any account, the rank of colonel. How they manage to be so amiable and gallant, heaven only knows; they do not seem to speak very scientifically, nevertheless, you see their fair listeners laugh most heartily and move about their seats; as for the civil men of the Empire, heaven also knows, what they have to say for themselves; no doubt they extol the vastness of the Russias and the importance of their functions as public servants, or utter some complimentary phrases, which, though not devoid of imagination, smell horribly of books; if a civilian has positively the good fortune to say anything amusing, he is sure to laugh at it much more heartily than any one else.
We have made these observations on the two distinct avocations of men in Russia, in order to show on which side lies the preference, and that our readers should understand at once, why the fair blonde began to yawn during her conversation with our hero. Our hero, however, did not notice the circumstance at all, and continued to relate a thousand pleasing incidents, which he had repeated in many other places before now, and under the same circumstances; namely, in the government of Simbirsk, in the family of Lady Sophia Bespetchna, whilst paying his attentions to her daughter Adelaide; in the house of Fodor Fedorovitch Perekrojeff in the government of Rizan; at the country seat of Phrole Vassilievitch Pobedonosnoi, in the government of Pensa; in the government of Viatka, during his sojourn with Colonel Peter Varsonovitch, where he also had paid considerable attention to the fair sex.
All the ladies appeared now to be utterly displeased with the conduct of Tchichikoff. One of them passed him purposely to make him feel her displeasure, and touched even, as if inadvertently, the fair blondine with the hem of her dress, and as for the long scarf which graced her shoulders, she even contrived to touch with its silken tassels the face of the fair girl; at the same moment he heard behind him an observation made by some fair lips, mingled with the perfumes of violets, which were far from being agreeable; but, on the contrary, stung him to the quick. But, he either did not hear the remarks distinctly, or pretended not to have heard them, besides they were far from being in his favour; he, therefore, thought it best to respect their opinion and remain silent, though he regretted it immediately after, but then it had become too late.
A general dissatisfaction, and in many respects very justifiable one, indeed, became visible on many faces. However important the weight of Tchichikoff might have been in that society, and though he was considered a millionaire, and though his face betrayed a high amount of talent, and his countenance even something martial, yet there are trifles for which a lady forgives no one; were he even the Emperor of Russia himself of gallant memory, he might consider himself a lost man. There are instances, when a woman, however weak and feeble in comparison with a man, becomes suddenly not only stronger than a man, but even more powerful than anything on the face of the earth.
The sudden change in Tchichikoff’s conduct towards the other ladies, which they considered unheard of before, determined them on forming a league among themselves against him, and which they concluded for his ruin, behind the chair on which he was sitting. The fact was, that they thought they had discovered in a few of the observations he addressed to his fair partner, though they were dry and commonplace enough, remarks that concerned them personally. To complete his disgrace with them, he had the misfortune to relate to her an anecdote about an event that had happened at a ball in another province, on which occasion some young fool had composed a whole poem in honour of the ridiculous persons who had happened to be present at that particular ball, and from which poem he recited a few passages on the dancing assembly.
These verses were at once, and blindly, supposed to be the composition of Tchichikoff himself. The general dissatisfaction with him rose, if possible, to a still higher degree, and the ladies began to speak of him in various corners in the most disadvantageous terms indeed; as for the fair blondine, she was completely annihilated, and her doom was sealed at once.
Meanwhile, a most unexpected and unpleasant catastrophe threatened the laurels of our hero; at the time, when the fair blonde was yawning, and he exerting himself to relate to her the most pleasant of his reminiscences, and trying even to imitate the Greek philosopher Diogenes; at that moment, and at the extremest end of the saloon, who should make his appearance but Nosdrieff. But where did he come from, was it from the refreshment-room, or from the small green room where gambling was carried on without limit. Did he enter freely of his own accord, or was he thrust forward by some one, or by fatality herself?
Whatever brought him there is impossible for us to tell, but the fact is that he made his appearance quite suddenly and in the best humour of the world; he seemed exceedingly pleased and gay, and held the arm of the Procurator firmly in his own, which caused the other to frown repeatedly with his thick and heavy eyebrows, as if trying to hit upon a scheme by which to escape from this strong grasp and this too friendly arm-in-arm promenade.
The position of the Procurator appeared to be perfectly unbearable. Nosdrieff, who seemed to have imbibed considerable courage from two cups of tea, which of course he had not swallowed without a considerable addition of rum, began as usual to tell the most incredible stories. On perceiving him at a distance, Tchichikoff determined at once, though with great regret, to give up his enviable seat, and hasten away as quickly as possible; because an internal feeling told him that this encounter would have fatal consequences.
But as if to confirm his presentiment, in that very instant his Excellency the Lord-Lieutenant prevented him carrying out his intention as he turned towards him and remarked good-humouredly, that he was very glad to meet his friend Pavel Ivanovitch, whom he wished to be a judge between himself and two ladies, to decide the question, whether woman’s love was permanent or not; at that same moment Nosdrieff also caught sight of our hero, and came straight up to him.
“Ah, the gentleman from Kherson, the Chersonese slave-owner!” he exclaimed, as he approached and burst out into a fit of laughter which made his fresh, rosy-coloured cheeks tremble, “Well, how many more dead men have you acquired? But your Excellency does not perhaps know,” he continued, in the same strain, as he turned towards the Governor of Smolensk, “that our worthy friend here deals in dead serfs! By Heavens, listen to me, Tchichikoff! I tell you as a friend, and all here present are your friends, and even his Excellency is present, if I could do it, I would hang thee; by Heavens, I could hang thee!”
Tchichikoff seemed really not to know where he was.
“Would your Excellency believe,” continued Nosdrieff, “that when he said to me: ‘sell me your dead serfs,’ I nearly burst with laughter. I arrive here, and am told that he has been purchasing serfs to the amount of three millions worth, with the purpose of emigrating with them into the Government of Kherson; but how is he to settle them over? he has been bargaining with me for my dead serfs. Listen, Tchichikoff, I tell you candidly, and I proclaim it even in the presence of all, you are the devil’s own favourite, his Excellency is present; and what do you say, Procurator?”
But the Imperial Procurator, and Tchichikoff, and the Governor of Smolensk himself, became so very much confused, that they did not know where to seek for countenance and what to reply, meanwhile; Nosdrieff, without paying the least attention to them, continued to address himself to our hero in a half-inebriated state and most insulting language.
“Ah, my fine fellow, you, you—I shall not leave you, before you have told me for what purposes you have purchased these dead serfs. Listen to me, Tchichikoff, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, for you know but too well that you have not a better and a more candid friend than myself. His Excellency is even present, and what do you say, Procurator? Your Excellency would not believe how much attached we are to each other, if you were to say, now, here you are both, and ask me the question: ‘Nosdrieff, upon your honour, who is dearer to you—your own father, or Tchichikoff?’ I would answer unhesitatingly, ‘Tchichikoff;’ by Heavens I would. Allow me, my darling friend, to impress a kiss upon you. I hope your Excellency will allow me to embrace him. Yes, my dear Tchichikoff, pray do not resist me, allow me to impress but one friendly kiss upon your tender snow-white cheek!”
Nosdrieff was so harshly repulsed with his intended kiss, that he nearly rolled to the ground. Everyone stepped back, and nobody would listen to him any more; nevertheless, the words he had spoken about the purchase of dead serfs were uttered in so loud a tone by him, that every person present, even those in the farthest corners of the room had heard them, and their attention was awakened.
This news seemed to be so very strange, that all present remained as if rivetted to the spot, and kept looking at each other for some moments with a peculiarly statue-like, stupidly curious countenance. Tchichikoff observed that several ladies exchanged glances full of a malicious expression, and in the faces of several of them he thought he perceived undeniable signs of insinuation which considerably increased his embarrassment.
It was well known to every one that Nosdrieff was a merciless story-teller, and that it was nothing unusual with him to advance the greatest absurdities; but a mortal—it is really difficult to define the composition of a mortal—whatever the news may be, provided it is news, he is sure to communicate it immediately to some other mortal, and if it should be only for the sake of adding, “look ye, what a falsehood they are speaking about!” and the other mortal inclines with gratification his ear to listen to it, although he will observe after having heard it, “Yes, really, it is a shameless falsehood, and not worth the least credence;” but immediately after he will hasten to meet a third mortal, to tell everything about it, and exclaim together with a noble indignation, “what a mean falsehood.”
And such news soon makes the round of the town; and all the mortals, however many there might be living in it, are sure to discuss on it to satiety, and then acknowledge that it was really too base a falsehood and not worth attention, nor the trouble of speaking about any more.