The next day the employés or officers of the crown, holding various appointments in the public offices of Smolensk, mustered in great numbers at the house of the Commissioner of Police, who was, as we have said before, the father and benefactor of all the inhabitants of the town. These gentlemen had now an opportunity of making the observation, that they had considerably changed in appearance since the preceding day, and that they looked pale and discomfited in consequence of their mental exertions.
And really, the appointment of a new Governor-General, the two documents containing such very serious information, coupled with the present occurrence and the widely-spread reports about those dead serfs, were sufficient in themselves to effect such changes in their countenance and bodily appearance, for the coats of some of them fitted them by far too comfortably.
All had given way: the President of the Council was changed, and the Inspector of the Imperial and other hospitals seemed no longer the same man, and the unflinching Procurator even had undergone an alteration, nor could a certain Semen Ivanovitch, whose real family name never transpired, be called the same man; he had the mania of showing off most cleverly a large finger ring which he wore on his first finger, both to ladies and gentlemen, but now he seemed not even to be aware of its being still on the same finger.
Of course, there were some few, as there always will be, stout-hearted men among them; but their number was very limited indeed. The Postmaster-General seemed the only one who had not given way to the prevalent panic, which was evident in the countenances of all the others present. He alone had not undergone the least change in his continually even character, and continued to behave as he was wont to do on similar occasions, by repeating his customary phrases.
“We know you, know you well, and what you are, you new Governor-General! Men of your description are changed and appointed three and four times in the course of a few years, but as for me Sirs, I have been sitting for these last thirty years in the same place.”
To this and similar observations, the others invariably used to reply:
“‘Tis all very fine for you to sprechen sie deutsch, Ivan Andreitch; your duty is a posting one; to receive and dispatch letters is your department, the only chance you have, is perhaps to close your office an hour sooner than you have a right, and extract late postages from our tradesmen, making them believe that you have a half-holiday, and that if you forward their letters, it is a favour you show them, or you send off a letter-bag which you ought to have kept back. Certainly with such easy tasks anybody could be a saint. And besides, though you are a married man, you have but one son and heir, but look upon me and my Praskovia Fedorovna, Heaven has blessed us uncommonly, for with every year our family increases, and it is either another Praskovia or another Fedor, we have to welcome to this world. No, no, Procurator, if you were in our position, you would sing another tune.”
Thus the others spoke to the Postmaster-General.
In the council assembled, at the present moment, it was very remarkable that there was a total absence of that indispensable requirement which is usually called common sense and order. And here, in this instance the author feels himself called upon to pass the observation, that somehow or another, we Russians are not fit for public meetings, and have no talent for public speaking. In all our public assemblies, beginning from the peasants’ peaceful gatherings, up to the most scientific and learned committees, if there is not one leading head among them to guide them all, it is sure to happen that confusion occupies the chair. It is very difficult for us to say why it is thus; no doubt, such is the character of the nation, and the only successful assemblies which we know of, are those, which are called together for the purposes of general enjoyment, such as eating, drinking, and dancing, as is customary in club-houses, and Vauxhalls—a foreign introduction.
But as for readiness and disposition, we are always ready, feel always ready for anything that is new. We are always ready, and at the first hint given, rush forward to establish benevolent institutions; institutions for the promotion of industry, agriculture, and heaven knows what description of institutions we are not ready to support. The object in view seems sublime, but there is this evil, the object remains in view, en perspective. It might perhaps be attributed to our sanguine beginning which makes us fancy that the object in view is accomplished by its beginning.
As an example we may here allude to a committee that was formed in the very town of Smolensk for the speedy relief of the peasantry suffering from famine. This committee had the laudable intention of affording considerable and immediate relief to the poor sufferers, and for that reason large subscriptions were made by the principal inhabitants. The gentlemen who had promoted this laudable undertaking resolved at once, that a grand dinner should be given to the subscribers, and in honour of the promoters, including the high notables of the town; this public dinner absorbed the half of the money subscribed for the poor sufferers; for the remainder of the money, a splendidly furnished house was hired for the exclusive use of the gentlemen forming the committee, including fire and attendance for their lordships, and the result of the munificent subscriptions showed that there were about five roubles and a half to be divided among a few hundred hungry sufferers, and in the division of this sum, there were a few of the gentlemen forming the benevolent committee who could not agree, and every one gave his reason why! The committee at present assembled had met for quite a different purpose; it was formed in consequence of unavoidable necessity. No starving sufferers were here the object. The question concerned every man present personally; the question was one threatening woe to all, it was therefore indispensable that unanimity should reign predominant.
The result was far from being satisfactory. Saying nothing about the difference of opinions, which is natural to any assembly; in the opinion of the council thus assembled, there was an undefinable inconsistency prevalent, and loudly expressed: the one said “that Tchichikoff was the manufacturer of the false bank notes,” and then immediately added, “however, I might be mistaken;” another insisted upon it “that Tchichikoff was the private secretary, and the right-hand of the new Governor-General,” and then concluded with the observation—”however, I could not swear to it, for it is not stamped on his forehead, that he is the man I take him to be.”
As to the supposition that he might be the murderer in disguise, all pronounced unanimously their disbelief; because they found, that excepting his personal appearance, which bespoke him to be a well disposed gentleman, there had been nothing in his manners or language to justify them in suspecting him of being such a mean and criminal offender.
Suddenly, the Postmaster-General, after having remained for several minutes buried in his usual musings and reflexions, whether in consequence of a sudden inspiration that seemed to overcome him, or from any other cause, exclaimed quite unexpectedly—”do you know, gentleman, who this man is?”
The voice in which he pronounced these words had something of a terrifying tone, for it made all present startle, and shout at the same time—”who is he?”
“Gentlemen, this man is—it is nobody else but Capitan Kopeikin himself!”
And when all in one voice asked again—”but who is the Capitan Kopeikin?” the Postmaster General said:
“So you do not know who the Capitan Kopeikin is?”
All answered at once “that they did not know who the Capitan Kopeikin was, nor had they ever heard of him before.”
“Capitan Kopeikin,” continued the Postmaster General, as he opened his snuff-box only half-way for fear, lest one or the other of his neighbours should venture to put his fingers in it, the cleanliness of which he very much suspected. “Capitan Kopeikin,” said the Postmaster, after having had already his pinch of snuff, “if I was to tell you who he is, it would be long and interesting enough for a novel.”
All present expressed a wish to know the history of the Capitan, because they took it for granted it would be that of Tchichikoff himself; and the Postmaster-General announced his readiness to comply with their request, and began in the following terms;—
“Capitan Kopeikin was, at the time I am speaking of, one of the most valiant officers in the Russian service. In his last campaign against the Turks he stood, with his brave company, before the very gates of Adrianople, where he lost an arm and a leg, swearing at the same time that it was a shame on the part of the commanding generals to prevent them entering Adrianople as conquerors, and proceeding at once to Constantinople, which would have been a mere joke for them, and which they would have eventually to do. However, peace was proclaimed at Adrianople, and with one leg and one arm less he proceeded.”….
“But pardon me, Ivan Andreitch,” the Commissioner of Police, interrupted him, “before you proceed any farther with the history of your Capitan Kopeikin, allow me to observe to you that our stranger, Tchichikoff, boasts of very strong and healthy-looking legs and arms, and, according to your own words, Capitan Kopeikin, lost of each one, before the very gates of Adrianople.”….
Here the Postmaster-General shouted out, and struck himself a violent blow at his forehead, calling himself in public, and in the presence of all assembled, “a stupid old ass.” He could not explain it to himself, how a similar circumstance did not strike his attention at the very beginning, and he confessed that the old proverb was perfectly true, that a Russian was very strong in after-thoughts.
However, a few minutes later, he tried immediately to amend his blunder, and if possible to get out of the scrape in which he had placed himself, saying, that at the last Universal Exhibition in England, where mechanism had been carried to the highest perfection, a certain Mr. Brown had invented a pair of mechanical legs, which, if touched in a particular place, where an invisible spring was fixed, would carry a man, Heaven knows how far, so far indeed, that it would be perfectly impossible to find him again anywhere.
However, this explanation was not sufficient to make them believe that Capitan Kopeikin and Tchichikoff were the same person; and they agreed that the Postmaster-General’s explanations were too far fetched.
After this last suggestion it will not seem surprising at all that the gentlemen assembled began to reflect more seriously on the subject; however, after a little while they began to rally again, finding that their imagination was at a loss for something more probable.
Thinking, and thinking again, and after mature reflections, they came to the conclusion, that it would be advisable to question Nosdrieff on the subject; as he had been the first to bring the dead serfs on the tapis, and as he seemed to be in every respect on very intimate terms with Tchichikoff, it was consequently clear to them, that he was the most likely person to give them some more positive information regarding Tchichikoff’s past life; they therefore decided on seeing and questioning Nosdrieff without any further delay.