This apparently absurd occurrence seemed nevertheless to annoy our hero considerably. However stupid the words of a fool might be, yet sometimes they are powerful, enough to disconcert a wise man. He began to feel uncomfortable and ill-at-ease, like a man who might have accidentally stepped with a pair of patent leather boots into a neglected London sewer. In a word, he felt very uncomfortable. He tried not to think of it any more, attempted to cheer himself up again. In order to distract himself he sat down to play a game of whist; nevertheless, all went like a wheel out of repair. He played twice the wrong colour, and forgetting the rule that you don’t cut the third time, but leave the chance to your partner, he did so to the great annoyance of his vis-à-vis.
The President could not understand at all how his friend, Pavel Ivanovitch, who understood the rules of the game so well, and who was even an acute player, could make all these blunders, and put a trump upon his king of spades, upon which card he had reckoned as upon a wall of stone.
The President and the Postmaster, and even the Commissioner of Police, as a matter of course, passed their friendly jokes upon our hero at these occurrences, and insinuated that Pavel Ivanovitch must be, nay was, in love, and that they nearly guessed who had caused all his absence of mind, and drawing attention from the game. But all these observations made no impression upon him, and do what they like, they could not succeed in making him even smile or return their jokes.
At supper he was still in the same disposition of mind, and could not even then rally, notwithstanding that he was placed in very good company, and that the hateful Nosdrieff had been obliged to leave the house, because the ladies themselves could not help expressing themselves scandalised with his conduct. The supper was very excellent, and seasoned with general gaiety; all the faces which appeared as it were from under the three branched candelabra, flowers, tarts and bottles, were illuminated with the most unfeigned pleasure. Military men and civilians, ladies, dress-coats, all became most amiable, even to affectation. The gentlemen deserted their chairs and hastened to take the dishes from the hands of the overburthened servants, with the intention to present them themselves to their fair partners at table. A dashing colonel presented a plate with liquid sweets to his lady on the point of his unsheathed sword. Some gentlemen of a sedate and serious age, among whom Tchichikoff happened to sit, were discussing politics most earnestly, whilst eating at the same time some fish and meat unmercifully seasoned with vinegar and mustard. They were conversing on a subject in which he generally liked to take a lively part; nevertheless, he remained silent, and like a man who seemed to be much fatigued or annoyed from a long journey, who feels a peculiar dulness of spirit, and who is incapable of taking any interest in anything. He even did not wait for the end of the supper, but left the company suddenly, and returned to his hotel much earlier than he was wont to do.
In that small apartment, so well known to to the reader, with the door barricaded with a chest of drawers, and with the beetles looking out from the corners occasionally, the disposition of his mind and soul was so full of uneasiness, in fact as uneasy as the chair upon which he was sitting. His heart felt sick and oppressed as if from a tiresome void that was left within it. “I wish the devil had those who imagined and brought into fashion those infernal balls!” said he, passionately, within his own heart. “Where-ever did they pick up the silly idea of dancing and feasting? the whole province has been visited, for three years running, by bad harvests and general dearth, and they give balls and festivals! What an ill-timed fancy; to dress themselves up in gaudy paraphernalia! And as if I had not seen that some of the silly women had wrapped themselves up in shawls worth, a thousand roubles! And all that at the expense of their poor serfs, or, what is still worse, at the expense of men like ourselves. It is but too well known, why a man takes advantage of his position, and injures his soul and conscience; simply for the purpose of offering to his wife a shawl or some such gaudiness for the name of which I do not care a fig.
“And why is this so? for the important reason, that some other gossiping body should not have occasion to say that the wife of the Postmaster or Procurator had a handsome dress on, and for such pretentions you have to pay down often more than a thousand roubles in hard cash. The hue and cry, is; ‘a ball, a ball, let us rejoice!’ balls are really a nuisance, not at all suitable for the Russian genius, not at all to the taste of our Russian nature, the devil knows for whom balls are fit; an adult, a perfectly grown up person will suddenly take it in his head to appear all in black, laced and dressed up like a young fiend, and begin to fight about with his legs like a madman. Another again, though standing near his partner, will turn round to his friend and pretend to speak of things of importance, and still continue to cut capers like a goat, right and left.
“All this is pure monkeyism, nothing but monkeyism! Because a Frenchman of forty is as childish as he was in his youth, we Russians ought to be ashamed to imitate him! No, really, after each ball I cannot help feeling as if I had committed a sin; and I would fain not even think of it. My head feels absolutely as empty as after a tedious conversation with a fashionable, who speaks of everything, touches slightly on a hundred subjects at the time, he will make use of all that he has been successful enough to pick up in books, be showy, brilliant; but as for his own imagination, it is incapable of producing anything original, and it is then we find, that the simple conversation of a common tradesman, who knows his business well, is more useful; it is then we find how empty and foolish the conversation of the man of fashion is.
“And as for their balls? What good can possibly be derived from a ball? Let us even suppose for an instance that an author was to undertake to describe all the scenes and occurrences of the ball room, such as they really are? Even in his book, it would appear as insipid and foolish as it is in reality. And pray, what is a ball? Is it moral or is it immoral? The devil take me if I know what to call it! It is with utter disgust, that one would throw away the book even, that speaks of, or describes a ball!”
It was thus unfavourably that Tchichikoff expressed himself on balls in general; but it seemed that another cause of displeasure was deeply involved in these expressions. His great displeasure was not principally directed against the ball itself, but rather the occurrence that took place there, and his sudden breaking down from his enviable position, which made him appear, Heavens knows in what light in the opinion of the guests assembled, and that he had been playing a peculiar, strange, and equivocal rôle.
Of course, looking at the matter in the light of a man of the world, he saw at a glance, that the whole affair was bosh and nonsense, that the word of a fool could not harm him, especially now, that the business itself was completely, satisfactorily and legally terminated. But man is strange: he was exceedingly provoked by the ill feeling of those, for whom he had no condescension himself, and of whom he had even spoken in very strong and cutting terms, ridiculing their vanity and follies.
This aggravated him so much the more, because, after having seriously reflected upon the subject, he could not deny that he had in a great measure been the cause of their ill-feeling himself. However, with himself he was not angry at all, and in this he was right, as a matter of course. We possess all the indulging weakness to be less severe with ourselves, and vent our anger in preference upon our neighbour or servants. And thus it was also with Tchichikoff, who soon managed to find a fellow-creature who had to talk and bear upon his shoulders all that his angry mood inspired him with. This victim fellow-creature, was Nosdrieff, and we must confess, that the poor fellow was unmercifully abused for his interference and indiscretion; the expressions which our hero used at the time of his anger, was so very strong indeed that this English paper—we are convinced—could not bear them, and for this excellent reason we beg to omit them. Yet we may add that the whole race of the Nosdrieff’s was wished at the bottom of the sea, in which even his most distant relations were included.
Tchichikoff continued for some considerable time to remain seated in his uncomfortable chair, tormented by unpleasant recollections, cursing heartily, Nosdrieff, his ancestors and descendants, whilst the tallow-candle before him was melting rapidly down, because the wick was long since covered with a large black cap, and the light threatened every moment to expire altogether; a dark and gloomy night stared at him through the window, and was preparing to give precedence to the break of day, in the distance the hoarse crowing of a few early cocks became also audible, and in the yet soundly somnolent town, many a poor and homeless sheep-skin-wearer, might have been seen wandering about hopelessly and heaving sighs of despair, which unfortunately for old Russia are threatening to become more and more innumerable.
At this particular time, too, there happened also something unusual at the other end of the town, and which occurrence threatened to increase the already very unpleasant position of our hero: namely, through the distant and narrow streets of Smolensk a peculiarly shaped and antique-looking carriage was ricketting over the pavement in its approach to the centre of the town; the name and description of this carriage would have bewildered the cleverest coach-builder of England.
It was not like any of the carriages we are now accustomed to see in the streets of large towns; it was neither what we call a britchka nor a tarantas, nor was it anything like a barouche or a cart, but the nearest resemblance it presented, was to an immense hollowed water-melon, placed upon four wheels. The sides of this water-melon, or rather its cheeks, since they were to represent the doors of that carriage, still bore a trace of yellow colour about them, opened and shut very indifferently, because the handles and locks were in a dilapidated condition, and were not fastened with screws or nails, but common string. The water-melon (which reminds us forcibly of the carriage built in five minutes by the clowns at the Haymarket) was filled up with a variety of pillows of all sizes, bags containing bread, cakes and pastry. The stand behind was occupied by a sitting servile creature, in a short grey home-spun cloak, with unshaved beard, intersected here and there by silvery grey; this servile servant was known by the name of young Safran.
The noise and creaking of the iron hinges and rusty screws was so loud, that it awakened a sleeping policeman at the other end of the town, who, suddenly aroused, seized his halberd and shouted out with all his might, “Who comes there?” but, seeing that nobody was coming, he easily understood that he had taken the distant rattling noise for somebody approaching, at the same time he caught upon his coat an insect, which he at once took close to the lamp-post and executed on the spot upon his nail. After having thus punished the invader, he returned to his post, laid aside his halberd, and fell again asleep, according to the custom of the Russian police.
The horses before the water-melon kept falling on their fore-legs continually, because they had never been shod at all, and because the pavement of a town seemed to them perfectly strange ground. The old-fashioned vehicle made a few more turnings in and out of a few more narrow streets, and then turned again into a perfectly dark lane, at the end of which it passed a dilapidated old church, and then suddenly stopped before the house next to it, which was inhabited by the Proto-pope and his wife.
A young girl, with her head wrapped in a large handkerchief, was the first person that alighted from the old coach; she seized the knocker of the door with both her hands, and began to make as great a noise with it as a man (young Safran was dragged by his legs from his seat, because he had plunged himself in a death-like sleep).
The dogs of the house began barking as loud as they possibly could, and the gates were soon after thrown open, though it took considerable time to get the old vehicle through them into the court-yard, which was a very narrow one indeed, stocked with logs of wood, a poultry-yard, and other court-yard incumbrances; the second person that now alighted from out of the water-melon coach was an old lady, and this old lady was no one else than her ladyship Korobotchka.
The old lady had, soon after the departure of our hero, felt considerable uneasiness, and, in consequence, remained under the impression and apprehension that he might have taken an unwarrantable advantage over her inexperience, and, not having slept during three consecutive nights, she determined upon coming to town at once, notwithstanding that her horses were not fit for such a long journey, in order to ascertain positively what the real market value for dead serfs was, and to convince herself that she had made no mistake and sold them perhaps—which heaven forbid—for three times less than their real value.
What the further consequences of her arrival in town were, the reader will perhaps glean from a conversation between two ladies only. This conversation—but I think it will be more amusing to leave the dialogue for the following chapter.