Having, as it were, finished their affair with her Excellency, the ladies felt inclined to join the party of the gentlemen, with the view of bringing them round to their own opinion, and they continued to affirm that the alleged purchase of dead serfs was nothing else but a scheme to divert attention from his real intentions, and thus more successfully to accomplish the projected elopement.
Many of the gentlemen were even gained over, and persuaded to join the female party, notwithstanding the bitter reproaches that were addressed to them by their own party and comrades, who called them old women and petticoat worshippers, which allegations, as is well known, are very offensive to any gentleman.
But, however strong and obstinate the remaining coalition of the men was, their party was far from being so well organised as that of the ladies. With them all was somehow irregular, rough, loose, not well at all; their heads were full of confusion, partiality, contradiction; their thoughts tormented by doubts and suspicions—in a word, the, in every respect, empty nature of the men appeared to be in the greatest disorder, a naturel, at the same time rough and heavy, unfit for household matters, nor for the more tender impressions of the heart, suspicious, indolent, full of continual doubts and eternal apprehensions.
They maintained most obstinately that all was stuff and nonsense, that the elopement with his Excellency’s daughter was more likely to be undertaken by a dashing hussar, but not by a peaceable civilian; and that Tchichikoff was not the man to carry out such a plan, so full of madness; that the women were all silly, and had got up a false alarm; that the real object upon which they had to turn their exclusive attention were the dead serfs themselves, for it was with them that the secret lay buried; but what this secret was, the devil alone knew, at any rate in their opinion, it was something awful. Why it was so dreadful, so awful, in’ the opinion of the gentlemen, we shall know at once.
By a decree of his Majesty the Emperor Nicholas I, another Lord-Lieutenant, or Governor had been appointed for the province of Smolensk, and the present one recalled to St. Petersburgh; such an ukase causes in Russia a thorough change of administration and appointments, and for this reason it had the most alarming effect upon the nervous and moral system of the Imperial employés; Courts of Inquiries would be held in all branches of administration, many of them had the prospect before them of being dismissed, whilst others ran the risk of seeing themselves utterly stripped of their little profits under the new head of administration.
And really, some of them thought, “if the new Governor was to know all our little trespasses, it would be quite sufficient to effect our complete disgrace, and perhaps even banishment would be the consequence.” The Superintendent of the Imperial Hospitals grew suddenly pale; heaven knows what thoughts flashed across his mind; did these dead serfs mean, perhaps, that all those people who died lately in great numbers from cholera and various fevers in the Imperial Hospitals and other places, for want of proper and careful sanitary measures, and was Tchichikoff, by chance, an Imperial Attorney, or Commissioner sent by the Governor-General to hold a secret Court of Inquiry.
He communicated this opinion to the President of the Council. The President answered that this supposition was absurd, and then immediately grew pale himself as he put to himself the following question:
“But if these serfs whom Tchichikoff has been purchasing were really dead, he has caused us all to legalise the transaction, and has obliged me to sign the contract of sale as Pluschkin’s agent, and if the whole transaction is reported with all its particulars to the Governor-General, how then? And if the Governor-General lays all the particulars of this transaction before His Majesty the Emperor? I shudder at the thought.”
He communicated these apprehensions to the one and to the other, and immediately after, the one and the other grew pale as death. Fear is like a contagious disorder; it communicates itself in an instant. All the Imperial employés suddenly discovered in themselves such transgressions as did not even exist in reality. The words “dead serfs” spread fear and terror all around, which were instantaneously communicated to all who were even in the slightest degree compromised in the transaction; they began also to suspect that it might be an allusion to some recent occurrences in which a few peasants died suddenly, and were buried hurriedly without an inquest being held on their bodies.
The first occurrence was an encounter between some tradesmen from Great Novgorod and some men of the same calling from Little or Nishni-Novogorod, who had come to visit the fair held at that time in Smolensk. After having done a good business in town, the Great Novogorodians gave a regular Russian feast to their friends the little Novogorodians, seasoned with all the foreign improvements of kitchen and cellar. The feast, however, ended in a regular fight The petty jealousies existing between these two very important towns determined the Little Novogorodians to resent an old quarrel which had been brought again on the tapis as regarded the pre-eminence of the two towns, in a commercial sense. They rushed upon the Great Novogorodians, determined to have their lives; but the result was, that they got fearfully ill-used by the Great Novogorodians, who disfigured their heads, faces and sides in a most merciless manner, and proved that the fists of some of the defunct Great Novogorodians were of an extraordinary size and hardness.
One of the defeated combatants had fared very badly indeed, and narrowly escaped losing his life; however, he had got off only after having had his nose flattened like a crumpet, so much so indeed that there remained but a vestige of a nose on his face. The merchants confessed to the authorities that they had been only jesting; but it was rumoured about that in this serious conflict, four of the Imperial peacemongers had lost their lives. However, the real loss of life was kept in the dark, and the inquiries that were held by the proper authorities went to show that the deceased Novogorodians had died from the effects of suffocation and they were at once buried as suffocated people.
The other occurrence, which happened nearly at the same time, was the following: Some crown serfs (property of the Emperor) of the not unimportant village of Vladomirsk, had joined their brethren and neighbours in the adjoining village of Volkonsk, for the purpose of taking revenge upon an imperial steward, who resided between the two villages, and who not only ill-treated them in the most barbarous manner, but even seduced by threats and intimidation, their wives and daughters. This same imperial steward, Drobriaschkin by name, had been observed to pay too frequent visits in both villages, and at unusual hours, which was thought highly improper by the peasants for an imperial manager, and head of the country police. It, therefore, seemed to them that their magistrate had too many weaknesses for their wives and daughters.
However, nothing positive could be proved against him, although the imperial serfs had stated in their depositions, that they had seen their magistrate roaming about in the neighbourhood like a cat, and that they had more than once given him fair warning, and that on one occasion they had even beaten and driven him out of the hut of one of their worthiest elders, where he had stealthily entered, Heaven knows for what purpose. The magistrate merited, of course, chastisement for the weaknesses of his heart, and ought not to have imagined, that because he was an imperial manager, he could presume to trample upon the affections of imperial serfs; on the other hand again, the peasants of the imperial villages of Vladomirsk and Volkonsk, could also not have been justified in murdering their magistrate for his weaknesses of the heart, provided the charge could have been proved against one or all of them.
However, this occurrence also remained in the dark, because all matters in which the police and people of high rank are interested, remain in Russia usually enveloped in darkness; nevertheless, the country magistrate, the imperial manager, was found murdered on the high road, his official coat was torn into rags, and as for his face and body, it was perfectly impossible to identify them as having once harboured the haughty and tyrannical soul of a Dobriaschkin.
The whole occurrence, with all its particulars, was thrown into the proper courts of justice, and ultimately transmitted to Smolensk, where the high justices of the Crown came to the following conclusion:
“Whereas it cannot be proved who of the imperial serfs are the actual murderers of the dead man, and as there are many peasants compromised in the crime, and whereas Dobriaschkin was now a dead man, there could arise not the least advantage to him, in having judgement given in his favour.
“And, whereas all the peasants compromised in the deed were still alive, it was of the greatest importance to them, that judgment should be given in their favour; it was therefore decided that the following judgment or verdict should be returned;
“That the imperial manager and magistrate, Dobriaschkin, was himself the cause of his death, in making unjustifiable pretensions upon the imperial serfs of the villages of Vladomirsk and Volkonsk, and that he died suddenly from an apoplectic stroke, whilst returning home in his sledge.”
The imperial men who had thus settled these and similar occurrences, thought at the time that their decisions were just and right, but now, and it is incomprehensible why, they thought that the present dead souls had some reference to these past occurrences. To these past events which seemed to them now more serious than ever before, additional difficulties could arise, for, if it was to happen, that just at this time when all the employés of the Crown seemed so seriously embarrassed, the new Governor-General was to receive at once two more informations in the shape of the following documents.
The first, containing a report of investigations and proofs that a manufacturer of false bank-notes was residing in Smolensk, hiding himself under different assumed names, and that a strict investigation should be made at once to bring the culprit to light; the greatest discredit would be thrown at once upon the employés whose duty it would have been to prevent the occurrence.
The other document, again might contain the following communication from the Governor-General of the adjoining province; whereas a murderer has escaped the hands of justice, and taken refuge in the Government of Smolensk, It devolves upon the Imperial employés of the Province of Smolensk to take at once the necessary steps for his immediate apprehension, and stop all such persons who cannot legitimate themselves with the necessary documents and passports.
These two imaginary, or perhaps, true documents, completely bewildered all. Their former apprehensions were completely lost sight of. Of course, it was perfectly impossible for them to suspect for a moment that these documents could have any reference, whatever, to their friend Tchichikoff, however, as they at last began to reason a little each for himself, it struck them at last that they could not positively tell, who and what Tchichikoff really was, and that he had given them a very indistinct account of himself, though he had told them, that he had suffered much for the just cause whilst in active service.
All this seemed to them now, not at all dear, or explicit at all, and especially when they recollected that he had told them also, that he had many enemies ready to feed on his very life’s blood, it was then that they became still more thoughtful and pre-occupied; it must therefore be that his life was in danger, consequently he must have been doing something to put himself into such a jeopardy—and now the question arose among them, who was Tchichikoff really?
Of course, he could not be a manufacturer of false bank notes, nor could he be a murderer, because his appearance was in every respect that of a gentleman; nevertheless, who and what is he? And now only it was that the imperial employés of Smolensk addressed themselves the question, which they ought to have asked immediately in the beginning of their acquaintance with our hero. It was resolved upon, that some more inquiries should be made about him, from those persons from whom he had bought those dead serfs, thus to ascertain, if possible, what the nearer particulars of these purchases were, and what they would have to understand by the term of dead serfs, to know whether he had not inadvertently perhaps allowed a few remarks, or hints to slip from his tongue, of what his real intentions were, and if some of the contracting parties did not know something more positive about him.
First of all they applied to Lady Korobotchka, but from her they did not learn much; he had purchased her dead serfs for the paltry sum of fifteen silver roubles, had promised to buy some feathers and honey from her, and had stated that he was a contractor for the supply of tallow and grease, and for that reason was no doubt an impostor, for she had had already dealings with a man, who bought feathers and honey, and contracted for the supply of tallow and grease, and that that man had taken them in one and all, and cheated the wife of the proto-pope of two hundred silver roubles. Whatever else she said on the subject, was nothing but a repetition of her first statement, and the employés came to the conclusion that Lady Korobotchka, was nothing but a stupid, gossiping old woman.
Maniloff declared, that for his friend, Pavel Ivanovitch, he was ready to be as responsible as for himself, that he would sacrifice all his property if he could but possess the hundredth part of the good qualities of his friend Pavel Ivanovitch, in fact, he spoke of him in the most flattering terms, adding a few of his opinions on friendship and intimacy; this he did of course while shutting gently his sweet eyes. These expressions, of course, convinced the employés of the tenderness of Maniloff’s heart, but were not at all calculated to enlighten them on the subject in question.
Sobakevitch affirmed, that Tchichikoff was a honest man, and that the serfs he had sold him were picked men, and in every respect perfectly alive; but that he could not be held responsible for what might happen in the course of time, that if they were to die in consequence of their emigration, which would be fraught with difficulties and dangers, that this would not be his fault, but the decrees of Providence; and as for fever and other mortal diseases, they were prevalent all over the world, and he knew of instances where such diseases had devastated a whole village in three days.
The imperial gentlemen had recourse to one last resource, though, we must confess, not a very gentlemanly act; though there are instances when it is done through the medium of an acquaintance with the servants of the persons interested; they, therefore, hit upon the idea of questioning Tchichikoff’s attendants, asking them indirectly what they know of the former life, habits, and fortune, of their lord and master; but even with them they found themselves disappointed.
Petruschka communicated to them only the peculiar perfume of his bed-chamber; as for Selifan, he confided to them that his master had been in the imperial service, and had done his duty in the excise; but this is all they could learn from him. This latter class of people, namely, servants, have very peculiar habits, and might, in some degrees, stand a comparison with Irishmen. If you ask them a direct question, they are sure to give an indirect answer—never recollect anything—their mind is so much confused that they will simply answer, ‘that they knows nothing about anything;’ but if you happen to deviate from your original question, and speak of something else, they are sure to return to the original question; and, whether you like it or not, they will give you all the desired particulars, even such as you do not care to listen to.
All the researches and inquiries of the imperial men, proved in the end, that they had no positive information about Tchichikoff; nevertheless, they came to the conclusion that he must be something. They decided, at last, upon talking the matter over once more, and settle, definitely, how to act in this very complicated affair—what measures they would have to take in order to ascertain, positively, who Tchichikoff really was; whether he was a man who ought to be apprehended at once as a malefactor, or whether he was a man who had the power and authority to seize and apprehend them as malefactors.
For this purpose it was agreed upon, that they should assemble all the next day at the house of the Commissioner of the Police, who, as is well known to our readers, was the father and benefactor of all the inhabitants of the town of Smolensk.