This resolution, the last they had come to, was a very strange one indeed, because they knew perfectly well that Nosdrieff was a professed story-teller, and it was impossible to believe a word of what he said, and that he could in no way be depended upon even in the merest trifle; nevertheless, and perhaps for that very reason, they rushed away to have recourse to him. Humanity is strange indeed! Many a man doubts Providence, but believes steadfastly that if the bridge of his nose itches, he is sure to die soon; he will leave unnoticed the creation of a genius, dear as noon-day, full of consistencies, perfect in its simplicity and truth, to throw himself upon the humbug invented or advanced by a charlatan, and believe and trust in it blindly, and exclaim at the same time, “This is the real representative of the secrets of the heart!” or, having never paid in his life a copek to a physician, he will in the extremest case apply to an old woman-quack, who cures with simples and incantations like a witch, or who boils down some drugs, which, heaven knows why, he fancies to be the very remedy for his complaint.
Of course, and in some degree the imperial employés might in many respects be excused, for they really were in one of the most unpleasant and embarrassing positions, as regarded their character and reputation. The drowning man, it is said, catches even at a straw, because at the time of his danger he has not the faculty of judging that a fly only could perhaps save its life on a straw, and that, as for himself, he weighed at least his twelve to sixteen stone, if not more; however, this reflection seems not to occur to the drowning man, and for that reason he catches at a straw.
Thus it was also with our gentlemen assembled; they at last resolved on catching at Nosdrieff. The Commissioner of Police dropped him a line instantly, inviting him to pass the evening with them, and his assistant courier in his long top-boots and rosy cheeks, rushed immediately out into the street, to take the message to Nosdrieff. Nosdrieff was engaged on very important business; for four consecutive days he had not left his room; he permitted no one to quit the house, and received his dinner through the window; in a word, he had grown feeble and emaciated.
His business demanded the most persevering attention; it consisted in the selection of from more than ten dozen packs of cards, of one select pack, upon which he might be able to depend as upon his most intimate friend. The work he had before him was sufficient to last him yet for two weeks longer; for the course of this time, Porphir had received instructions to take particular care of the young dog, and to wash him three times a day with a peculiar brush and plenty of soap.
Nosdrieff was very angry indeed that any one should have come to disturb his solitude; at first he refused to listen at all to the Commissioner’s messenger, but when he read the P.S. which informed him, that it was more than likely that the evening party would be attended by a novice, and that there would be a little gambling, he dressed himself immediately, and left his solitude to comply with the invitation.
The appearance, testimony, and suppositions of Nosdrieff presented such contradictory evidence that the gentlemen of the council were completely thrown out of their latest conclusion on the subject of their important investigations. Nosdrieff was one of those men for whom suppositions and doubts did not exist, and whatever extent of indecision and timidity was perceptible in their conjectures, it was met by him with as much perseverance and conviction, and he answered every one of their inquiries without stammering even once, nor feeling in the least embarrassed.
He affirmed that Tchichikoff had bought dead serfs for a considerable amount, and that he himself had sold him some, because he could not see any harm in doing so. Upon the question, whether he did not believe him to be a spy sent from St. Petersburgh to collect secret information regarding the administration of Smolensk, Nosdrieff answered, that he was confident that his friend Tchichikoff was a spy in the pay of the government, because, said he, when we were school-fellows we used to call him the fiscal, but at the same time, he got many a sound thrashing for it from us, and from myself in particular.
“I now remember a circumstance when we had so very much ill-used him that he was obliged to go home, and have immediately two hundred and forty leeches applied to his temples”—that is to say, he intended to make it forty, but the two hundred additional slipped from his tongue in spite of himself.
When he was asked whether he did not think that Tchichikoff was the manufacturer of false bank notes, he answered in the affirmative, and at the same time told them an anecdote of the great cleverness of Tchichikoff, saying, that it once so happened that he, Tchichikoff, being positively traced as the imitator of bank notes, and that he had about two millions worth in his possession, his house was immediately surrounded by a detachment of soldiers, each of the doors being sealed and guarded by two men, but during the same night Tchichikoff managed to change the two millions worth of spurious notes into genuine imperial bank bills.
To the direct question, whether Tchichikoff had really the intention of carrying out his elopement with the Governor-General’s daughter, and whether it was true that he had undertaken to assist them in their flight, Nosdrieff replied, that he must confess, that he had particularly helped and assisted him, and that without him, they would not have had the least chance of success.
Here he perceived, but too late, that he had compromised himself by this statement, without, however, being able to stop the fluency of the tongue. However, it was also difficult to stop his talkativeness, because the subject in itself was one that presented so many interesting incidents, and he could not resist the temptation of inventing them; he even gave the name of the particular village, where the church stood on a hill surrounded by a small wood, through which they had to pass in order to proceed to the nuptial ceremony, the name of the pope who had to wed them before the altar, was father Sidor; for his services and discretion he was to receive a hundred roubles, but he at first declined to accede to their request, but that he, Nosdrieff, reminded the holy father that he had married lately his peasant Michael to his cousin, Katinka, and which was an act contrary to the laws of the Greek church, and that if he refused to marry his friend and his lovely bride, he would at once inform against him, that he had put at their disposal his own carriage and horses, and that he had gone on horseback, from station to station to provide re-lay horses for the fugitives. He went even so far in his particulars as regarded the elopement, that he begun to call out the names of every one of the jamtchicks who drove the carriage.
The Imperial men remained now in a worse position than they were in the beginning of their investigations, and the meeting was broken up, after they had fully agreed upon the fact, it was impossible to them to discover who Tchichikoff was.
All these reports, conjectures and gossips on account of Tchichikoff had, for some incomprehensible reasons, had the most fatal effect upon the constitution of the poor Imperial Procurator. They had acted upon him to such a degree, that he, on his return home from the meeting, from some cause or another fell down and was found to be dead. Whether it was a paralytic stroke or any other that put a term to his existence is difficult to say, but the fact is, that when he sat down upon his chair, he had done so to rise no more.
But this is incredible, altogether inconsistent! it is impossible that the Imperial employés could so foolishly alarm themselves; imagine all such nonsense, thus deviate from the truth, when even a child could comprehend the matter. Thus will many of our readers think and reproach us with having advanced an incredible occurrence, or call the imperial employés stupid fellows, because men are liberal in words like, fool and ass, and are ready and willing to apply them even twenty times a day, if their fellow creatures give them but a chance.
It is very easy for a reader to pass a judgment, considering that he has the whole plot before him, and is seated in his snug corner, occupying thus a perfectly independent position, from which he has the whole horizon at a glance before him, and sees, as it were, what is going on below him, where the creeping men see but that which is close before them.