“And pray, why have you seen or heard of our darling stranger?” meanwhile inquired the in every respect amiable lady.
“Good Heaven! why am I sitting here like a silly girl! it’s really absurd; but you don’t know then, my dear Anna Grigorievna, what the cause of my early morning visit is?”
Here the respiration of the fair visitor became oppressed, the words threatened to burst forth in rapid succession like a hawk pursuing his prey, and it was only possible for a person such as her intimate friend was, to be so inhuman as to stop her overflowing heart.
“Whatever intention you may have of praising and exalting him,” she said, in an unusual passion, “I shall mention and even tell himself if he likes, that he is but a frivolous man, and a very, very frivolous one indeed.”
“But listen only, my dear child, what I am going to confide to you—”
“They have spread the report that he was handsome, and he is nothing of the kind, he is not handsome at all, and as for his nose—it is the ugliest nose I ever beheld.”
“Allow me, but allow me only to tell you, my angelic Anna Grigorievna, suffer me to tell you all about him! It is a whole history, understand me well: I came here to give you a biographical sketch of the man who has created and still creates so great a sensation in Smolensk,” her guest spoke with an expression approaching despair, and in a decidedly entreating, supplicating tone of voice.
“What do you know about him?”
“Oh, my darling Anna Grigorievna, if you could only know the awful position in which I have been placed, ever since the dawn of this eventful day; only imagine, this morning, very early indeed, the wife of our Proto-pope, of our worthy Father Kyrilla, arrives at my house, and would you ever have believed it—our much praised and gentlemanly stranger—no, I’m sure you could not believe it!”
“What, has he been making love to the Proto-pope’s wife?”
“Alas, Anna Grigorievna, it would have mattered little if he had been only doing that; listen now attentively to what the wife of our worthy Father Kyrilla has told me; she arrived early this morning at my house—as I told you before—she looked frightened and pale as death; she at last could open her lips and begin to speak; good Heavens, and how she spoke! Listen, dear, it is a perfect romance; suddenly, in the midst of a dark night, when all were fast asleep, a knock is heard at the gate, such a frightful knock, as it is only possible to imagine; some one shouts from outside; ‘open the gates, open them, or else we shall break them down!’ how do you like the beginning? And especially, how do you like after this, our fêted stranger?”
“Well, no doubt the pope’s wife is young and handsome!”
“Not at all, she is an old woman!”
“Ha, ha, ha, delightful! It is then with old women that he is flirting. After this, I may compliment our ladies in their choice, they have at last found some one to fall in love with!”
“But my dearest Anna Grigorievna, it is not at all what you fancy. Represent him to yourself as armed from head to foot in the style of Fra Diavolo, demanding; ‘Sell me all your souls (serfs) that are dead!’ Lady Korobotchka answered very reasonably, indeed, by saying: ‘I cannot sell them, because they are dead.’ ‘No,’ says he again, ‘they are not dead, it is my business to know whether they are dead or not; they are not dead, they are not dead!’ he shouts in a passion; in a word, he has created the greatest scandal imaginable. The whole village was in an uproar, the children crying, all others shouting, nobody could understand anybody, really, it was horror! horror! horror! But you would scarcely believe it, my dear Anna Grigorievna, how all this has upset me, when I came to hear it.
“‘Dear lady,’ says my chambermaid to me, ‘pray look into the looking-glass, you’ are quite pale and discomfited.’
“‘Never mind the looking-glass now, Maschinka,’ I said to her, ‘I must now hasten and tell all to my dear Anna Grigorievna.’ At the same time I immediately ordered my carriage; my coachman, Karpuschka, asks me where he is to drive me to, and I felt so very much overwhelmed that I could not articulate a word, I stared him in the face quite foolishly; I think the man believed me mad at the time. Ah, my dear Anna Grigorievna, if you could only but imagine bow much frightened and distracted I feel even now.”
“This is rather strange,” said the in every respect amiable lady. “What can these dead souls mean? I must confess, I cannot imagine or understand anything in this really strange affair. This is already the second time that I have heard about these dead serfs; my husband assures me that Nosdrieff told another of his falsehoods; however, there must be something at the bottom of it.”
“But, dearest Anna Grigorievna, can you imagine for a moment my position when I heard of all this. Listen farther!
“And now,” continued Lady Korobotchka, ‘I really do not know what am I to do. He obliged me,’ says she, ‘to sign my name to an apparently forged document, threw fifteen roubles in bank notes before me, on the table, and I,’ she says, ‘inexperienced and unprotected woman, took them.’ This is the whole of the dreadful occurrence! But if you could but I feel, even now!
“Whatever you may say or think about it, I assert that there are no dead serfs in question; but there is something else hidden.”
“I agree with you,” replied the simply amiable lady, not without some surprise, and felt immediately an unconquerable desire to know what might be hidden under this strange affair. She pronounced the following words in a slow and measured tone of voice: “And what do you really think is hidden under the pretence of purchasing dead serfs?”
“Pray, tell me first what you think of it?”
“Oh, what I think of it—I—I really must confess, I feel still quite bewildered from the news.”
“Nevertheless, I should have very much liked to know what your opinion upon the subject is?”
However, the simply amiable lady could find no opinion to express. She only knew how to be full of anxiety; but to imagine a complicated supposition was an impossibility to her, and for that reason, more than any other woman, she was obliged to have resource to tender friendship and suggestions.
“Well, listen then to me, and I will tell you what these dead souls mean,” said the in every respect amiable lady, and her guest concentrated all her attention upon hearing; her little ears became, if possible, longer, she rose slightly from her seat, nearly not sitting nor leaning on the sofa, and regardless of her slight embonpoint, she became suddenly lighter, similar to a feather ready to fly away at the least breath.
“These dead souls are—” pronounced the in every respect amiable lady.
“What, what?” interrupted her guest, full of emotion.
“The dead serfs!”
“Oh, speak! for Heaven’s sake speak.”
“They are simply a pretext, but the real truth is the following; he intends to run away with the daughter of the Lord-Lieutenant of Smolensk.”
This conclusion was perfectly sudden and unexpected, and in every respect very extraordinary.
Scarcely had the simply amiable lady heard the conclusion her friend had arrived at, when she stood there like a statue, grew pale, pale as death, and this time really and seriously seemed to be distracted and bewildered. “Oh, good Heavens!” she exclaimed in a faint voice, “nothing in the world could ever have suggested such an idea to me!”
“As for my part,” said the in every respect amiable lady, “I must inform you, that, scarcely had you opened your lips on the subject, when I already guessed the whole affair.”
“And pray, dear Anna Grigorievna, what are we to think of her Majesty’s institution? This young girl has been represented as innocence personified.”
“What innocence! I heard her utter such language, as, I must confess, I would never have had courage to allow to pass my lips, even if I could have pronounced the words.”
“Believe me, dear Anna Gregorievna, it is really heart-rending to behold to what a degree immorality has extended.”
“The men seem mad about the girl. As for me, I must acknowledge, I can find nothing attractive in her—she is unbearably conceited.”
“She is a perfect statue, my dearest Anna Grigorievna, and there is not the least expression in her face.”
“Oh, she is awfully conceited! Oh, how affected! Good gracious, what affectation! I don’t know who her instructor was, but I don’t recollect having ever seen a young woman so full of affectation as she is!”
“My own heart, Anna Grigorievna! she is nothing but a living statue, and pale as death.”
“Pray don’t say that, my dearest Sophia Ivanovna; she uses rouge in an unchristian-like manner.”
“No, no, my charming Anna Grigorievna, you are mistaken, she is as white as chalk, chalk of the purest white.”
“My dearest, let me tell you, that I sat close to her; I saw rouge, finger thick on her face, ready to fall off like plaster from a wall.”
“It is her mother who has taught her, she is a flirt herself; but as for her daughter, I’m sure she will surpass her.”
“Pray let me tell you, listen: I am ready to invoke any saint, or forfeit immediately my children, my husband, my whole fortune, but I must say, that there was not a particle, not a shadow of rouge on that young girl’s face at the last ball!”
“Oh, how can you say so, Sophia Ivanovna,” exclaimed the in every respect amiable lady, as she clapped her hands together.
“Oh, how very strange you are, my dearest Anna Grigorievna! I cannot help looking with surprise at you!” said the simply amiable lady, clapping her hands together.
It will not appear strange to our reader, that there was a difference of opinion between the two ladies on the same subject, and which they had both seen at the same time. There are really many things in this world, which have such a peculiarity; if they are looked at by one lady, they will appear as perfectly white as snow, and again, if examined by another, they will seem red, as red as even Russian cranberries.
“By the bye, I can give you another proof, that she has been using blanc instead of rouge,” continued the simply amiable lady; “now I recollect distinctly the circumstance, that made me mention my assertion. I was sitting next to Mr. Maniloff, and said to him, ‘Only see, Sir, how pale she looks!’ really, one must be as crazy as our men are to find anything attractive in her. But how about our gay deceiver, the stranger. Oh, you have no idea how much he has displeased me! You cannot imagine, my dear Anna Grigorievna, to what degree he has displeased me.”
“However, it would seem, that there are ladies to whom he has not been indifferent.”
“To me, Anna Grigorievna! I’m sure, you could never say that of me. Never, never!”
“No, my dearest, I do not speak of you, but there are also other ladies.”
“Never, never, Anna Grigorievna! Allow me to assure you, that I know myself very well indeed; had it perhaps been the case with one of our ladies who presume to play the rôle of unapproachables?”
“I beg your pardon, Sophia Ivanovna! And I beg leave also to tell you, that such calumnies have never been expressed to me before. He has perhaps been flirting with some one else, but not with me, certainly not with me, allow me to assure you of that.”
“But, my dearest, why do you seem offended? you seem to forget that there were many other ladies besides ourselves, and even such ladies, who were the first to seize upon a chair near the door, for the purpose of sitting near him.”
After such an exchange of opinions, and especially after the last remarks of the simply amiable lady, it seemed evident, that a storm would follow; however, to our utmost surprise, both ladies remained perfectly silent, and absolutely nothing followed as a consequence. The in every respect amiable lady seemed to remember, that the pattern of the new dress to be worn with festoons was not yet in her possession; and as for the simply amiable lady, she also seemed to recollect, that she had not yet obtained from her intimate friend any distinct comments upon the discovery about the stranger, which she had revealed to her, and for these excellent reasons and reflections peace soon again returned between them.
However, it is impossible to say that there was any natural disposition in the two ladies to create ill-feeling of any kind, and in general there was nothing in their character that could be really called maliciousness; nevertheless, and yet accidentally, slight differences would arise between them in the course of conversation, and inspire them with the innocent wish to pique one another slightly; it therefore did happen occasionally that the one or the other would profit by an opportunity, and gratify herself by launching an insinuation or observation against the other. The cravings of the human heart are as numerous as incomprehensible in the heart of man, as well as in the heart of a woman.
“However, I cannot understand it at all,” said the simply amiable lady to her friend, “how Tchichikoff, being a stranger here and a traveller, could venture to enter upon such an expedition alone. It is impossible—I cannot believe it: he must have some accomplices.”
“And did you really think he had none?”
“Whom do you suspect? Who could assist him?”
“And why should it not be Nosdrieff himself?”
“Now really, could it be Nosdrieff?”
“Why not? He is just the man for such an undertaking. Don’t you know that he wanted to sell his own father, or, better still, gamble for him at cards?”
“Goodness gracious! what interesting news I am going to hear from you! I could never have imagined that Nosdrieff could have been compromised in this affair or conspiracy.”
“And I imagined it from the very beginning.” “When you come to think of it, it is really wonderful what happens in this world. Whoever could have anticipated it, especially when you recollect that Tchichikoff, since his arrival in Smolensk has had scarcely sufficient time to look about him, and here he is on the eve of creating a sensation in our town unequalled in the annals of the Russian Empire since Ivan Vasilievitch the Terrible. Ah, my dear Anna Grigorievna, if you could only imagine how terribly frightened and perplexed I feel now, and certainly, without your sympathy and friendship I should have been on the very brink of my grave—should indeed. Maschinka, my chambermaid, made the remark that I was as pale as death. ‘Darling ladyship,’ says she to me, ‘you are as pale as death. ‘Maschinka,’ was my reply, ‘that must not now be a matter of preoccupation with me.’ Such then is the fact. Even Nosdrieff is implicated. Well, I’m sure, I never could have believed it.”