Our hero now, in his turn, peeped through an aperture of the door through which the old lady had popped her head a quarter of an hour before, and perceiving her sitting before a small tea table, he entered the room in a cheerful and flattering manner.
“Good morning, my dear Sir; how have you passed the night?” said the old lady whilst slightly rising from her seat. She was better dressed than on the previous night; she wore a black silk dress, and no longer had the nightcap on her head, but still there was something twisted round her neck.
“Very well, very well indeed,” answered Tchichikoff, seating himself in an arm-chair. “And how did you sleep, my dear Madam?”
“Not at all, my good Sir.”
“And pray, what was the reason?”
“Indeed, I passed a sleepless night. My back and spine cause me great pain, and my foot all above the ancle, the higher up the leg, the more I suffer.”
“It will pass over, I am sure it will, my dear good lady. Do not take so much notice.”
“I pray to God, it would pass over. I continually use some bears’ grease, as well as friction, with turpentine. But allow me to ask you, what would you like to take with your tea? I have some very good cherry-brandy in this small decanter.”
“That will be very nice, my good lady, for I am very fond of cherry-brandy.”
My intelligent reader will already have observed, that Tchichikoff, though polite, spoke nevertheless, with a rather civil familiarity, when compared to his manners at Maniloff’s house, in fact he stood on no ceremony with the old lady, and made himself comfortable. Here I might also be allowed to make the observation, that we other Russians, though we might not, and cannot in many things rival our more western friends, yet in what term the good manners and behaviour, we have outdone by far the most civilized nations. It is quite impossible to enumerate all the numerous shades and finesses of our good manners. An Englishman or a Frenchman can impossibly form an idea or understand all the peculiarities and differences in our Russian conduct. Englishmen or Frenchmen will speak with pretty nearly the same tone of voice and courtesy to a millionaire as they would employ to a greengrocer, though within themselves they would or might give a decided preference to the former.
But with us it is not so. We can boast of many clever persons who would speak quite differently to a landed proprietor possessing two hundred serfs than to one who owns three hundred peasants; and with him who owns three hundred they would again not talk in the same tone of voice as with the owner of five hundred; and with the proprietor who owns five hundred again not so as with the owner of eight hundred; in a word, you may increase by degrees the ownership to a million, and you may yet depend upon still meeting with shades of differences in their tone of voice as well as manners.
Let us suppose for a moment that we enter one of the numerous imperial offices established for the administration of law and justice in any of the more important towns of the Empire, and that such an imperial office is presided over by a person called the Manager of the Chancellerie. I would beg my courteous reader to muster courage and look at that person at the moment when he is sitting in his place surrounded by all his inferiors; you will be assailed by something more than respect or fear, nay, I venture to say that you will be incapable of pronouncing a syllable; for what pride or dignity does not his face express? You could not do better than take up a brush and paint a Prometheus—a real Prometheus! His glance is like that of an eagle! his walk is easy and regular. And that very same proud eagle, as soon as he leaves that same seat of his greatness to approach the cabinet of his superior, becomes as alert as a long-legged snipe, and hurries with his documents under his arm as if he was pursued by a hawk.
In society, and especially at evening parties, though Prometheus is not of an exalted rank, yet he remains the same proud and conceited man; but as soon as he happens to meet with some one higher in dignity, such a metamorphosis takes place with our Prometheus, that even Ovid would have had the greatest difficulty in describing him properly. He has become a fly—no, even less than a fly—he has reduced himself to a grain of sand!
But this is not my friend Ivan Petrovitch, you would say in looking at him. Ivan Petrovitch is taller, and this is a little, sickly-looking person; the other speaks in a loud bass voice, and is never wont to smile, but this person warbles like a bird, and laughs continually. And yet, if you go near and examine him closer, you will find it is your friend Ivan Petrovitch. Aha! oho! will be your exclamation. However it is time for us to return again to our dramatis persona.
Tchichikoff, as we have already perceived, had come to the resolution of standing on no ceremony with the old lady, and, therefore, took up a cup of tea, poured some of the cherry-brandy into it, and began the following conversation with his hostess:
“You have a fine estate and village, my good lady. Pray, how many serfs do you possess?”
“Well, my dear Sir, I have about eighty souls living in yonder village,” the matron answered; “but oh, misery! the times are bad, and besides, I had a bad harvest last year; may the Lord have mercy upon us!”
“However, to judge from appearances, your peasants look healthy, and their huts are in good repair. But allow me to inquire your name? Pardon me, I am so very absent—I arrived so very late at night—”
“My name is Korobotchka, I am the widow of the late Secretary of the Manor.”
“I am very much obliged to you for the information. And pray, what are your Christian names?”
“Anastasia Petrovna, if you please.”
“Anastasia Petrovna? a very fine name that of Anastasia Petrovna. I have an aunt, a sister of my mother’s, whose name is also Anastasia Petrovna.”
“And pray, what is your name?” inquired the widow of the late Secretary. “You are, no doubt, as far as I can guess, one of our district judges?”
“No, my good lady,” replied Tchichikoff, smiling. “You have not guessed rightly, for I am not a judge, but I travel for my own little affairs.”
“Ah! then you must be a public contractor. How very much I regret now that I sold my honey so cheap to those merchants; I am sure, my good Sir, you would have bought the honey of me.”
“Pardon me, but I think I should not have bought your honey.”
“What else? Perhaps some flax? But alas! I have very little at the present moment, perhaps not more than half a pud.”
“No, my good lady, but I might buy perhaps some other kind of goods; tell me, if you please, have many of your peasants died lately?”
“Oh, my dear Sir, I lost eighteen men!” said the matron, with a deep sigh. “And it was a severe loss to me, for those who died were such healthy and hard-working peasants. It is true, since they died others again have been born; but what good are they as yet? they are all too young. I had but recently a visit from the judge, who came to claim the imperial capitation tax. Those eighteen are dead, and yet I have to pay the tax upon them all the same till the next census is taken. Last week a fire destroyed my smith, and that is again a severe loss, he was such an ingenious artisan, for he could even do locksmith’s work.”
“So you have suffered from a fire? this is sad indeed, my good lady.”
“May God preserve me from such a calamity! for a real fire would be worse still; the smith burned himself to death, my good Sir. Somehow, a fire took place within his own body; he had been drinking too much, for a blue flame seemed to consume him, he smouldered, and became as black as a coal; but you can have no idea what an ingenious workman he was; and now I shall not be able to drive out at all, for I have no one to shoe my horses.”
“All calamities are the decrees of Providence, my dear lady,” said Tchichikoff, with a sigh; “the wisdom of God is beyond our understanding. You had better let me have them, my excellent Anastasia Petrovna?”
“Whom, my dear Sir?”
“Well, all those that are dead.”
“But how am I to let you have them?”
“My good lady, that is quite simple. Or, if you like it better, sell them to me. I am even willing to pay you some money for them.” “But how is this? I really cannot understand you. Could you really intend to dig them up again out of their graves?”
Tchichikoff now perceived that the matron had gone too far, and that it became necessary to explain to her in what his proposal and business were to consist. In a few words, he made her understand, that the transfer, or sale, would only exist upon paper, and that her dead serfs would be noted down in that document as existing, or, more properly speaking, living.
“But pray, what do you want them for?” said the old lady, in opening her eyes as wide as surprise would allow it.
“That is my business,” replied Tchichikoff, drily.
“But they are positively dead, my good Sir!”
“And who says that they are living? Your loss consists in their being dead; you have still to pay the capitation tax for them as regularly as before, is it not so? Very well, then; I am ready to deliver you from all further trouble and payment on their account. Do you comprehend me now? I offer, not only to take them off your hands, but I am even willing to pay you the amount of fifteen roubles. Now, I hope the matter will be dear to you?”
“Really, I don’t know,” the old lady said, hesitatingly. “Because, I never in my life sold any dead serfs before.”
“What next, pray! This would be rather a wonder if you had sold any to anybody before. Or do you imagine, perhaps, that there is really any advantage to be derived from dead serfs?”
“No, that I do not believe. Of what use would they be? certainly of none whatever. The only thing that embarrasses me is, that they are really dead.”
“Well, I am sure, this old woman seems to be of an obstinate disposition,” thought Tchichikoff. “Listen, my excellent lady. Pray, reflect upon it seriously; you are ruining yourself. You have to pay a tax for them as if they, were positively living.”
“Oh, pray, my good Sir, do not mention it, even!” interrupted the widow. “Only last week I took more than one hundred and fifty roubles to the office of the Receiver-General And I had to bribe the judge besides.”
“There, then, don’t you see it, my dear, good lady. Now, I beg you will take into consideration and imagine that you will have no more occasion to bribe either of the tax-gatherers, because I shall undertake to pay for them; I, not you; I take all and every responsibility upon myself. I am even disposed to defray the expense of the necessary contract of sale; do you understand that?”
The old lady began to make her reflections. The proposed transaction seemed to her to be a profitable one, with the exception, however, that this was quite a novel and unheard-of business; and for that reason she began to feel considerable apprehension lest this strange purchaser might take some undue advantage of her. He arrived at her house without a formal introduction, and Heaven only knew whence he came; besides, he had made his appearance at so very late an hour of the night.
“Well, my good lady, does the offer suit you?” demanded Tchichikoff.
“Truly, my good Sir, but it has never happened to me to sell deceased people. I have been in the habit of selling some of my living serfs, and I remember now that I sold two pretty little girls, about three years ago, to our pope, and he has been exceedingly pleased with them ever since, for they have become very clever maids; they can weave napkins and towels now most beautifully.”
“There is no question about the living between us, God bless them. I want your dead.” “Really, I am rather fearful at my first trial in such a business, lest I might suffer some severe loss in the transaction. Pardon my candour, but you might wish to impose upon me, my good Sir, and they—yes, they might be worth something more.”
“Listen, good mother—how strange you are to be sure! can you think them to be worth anything? Just oblige me by reflecting for a moment; they are nothing else but dust. Do you understand me? they are simply dust! Take for example the most trifling or the most worthless thing, suppose even a dirty rag, and yet you will find that rag worth something; that article will at least be bought at some paper-mills, whilst what I want of you cannot be made use of in any way; now then, pray tell me, of what use could they be to you?”
“My good Sir, you are right enough, they are of no value to me whatever, and the only reason that makes me hesitate, is that they are already dead.”
“Oh, the blockhead of an old woman!” said Tchichikoff to himself, whilst beginning to lose, by degrees, his wonted patience and forbearance, “the devil may come to an understanding with her! I feel the perspiration already running down my back, thanks to the old she-dragon!” Whereupon he produced his pocket-handkerchief and began to dry his forehead, which was really covered with heavy drops of perspiration. However, Tchichikoff was wrong in getting into a passion, for many another respectable and imperial person is as dull in the comprehension of business matters as Lady Korobotchka appeared to be, and may prove themselves and their heads as empty as a band-box; whenever they take to an opinion, they will stick to it with an obstinacy from which no argument, no proofs will ever dissuade them; though they may be as bright as noon-day, they continue to recoil from it, like an india-rubber ball will rebound when thrown against the wall.
After having wiped away the heavy dew-drops from his forehead, Tchichikoff determined to try if he could not bring her upon the right path by another way.
“My good lady,” he said, “either you do not wish to understand me, or you speak thus for the sake of speaking. I offer you money—fifteen roubles in bank notes. Do you now understand me? This is a sum which you will not pick up in the open street. Oblige me, and tell me candidly, at what price did you sell your honey to those merchants?”
“At twelve roubles the pud.”
“I fancy, my good lady, you are burthening your conscience with a light sin; you could not have sold it at twelve roubles the pud.”
“My patron saint is my witness that I did so.”
“Very well then, I believe you, but mark me now! for that money you had to give your honey; you perhaps spent a whole year in gathering it, and perhaps with much care, trouble, and anxiety too; you have been watching your bee-hives during the summer and have been obliged to nurse them throughout our long winter months, whilst your dead serfs are neither goods nor chatties of this world. With them you had no cares, no troubles nor anxieties, and if they have left this wicked world for a better one, it was by a decree of Providence that you have sustained a loss in your household. Therefore, and as I have said before, there you received those twelve roubles for your troubles, whilst I am now offering you money for a mere nothing, and if you please not twelve roubles but fifteen, and not in silver, but in three beautiful new imperial bank notes.”