Our hero was still considerably terrified at the thought of his narrow escape. Although the britchka was literally flying at a fearful speed, and Nosdrieff’s village nearly lost in the distance, hidden by fields, slopes and hills, yet he still continued to turn round, and cast glances of terror behind him, as if expecting to see suddenly his pursuers.
His breathing was short and interrupted, and when he laid his hand upon his broad breast to feel the beating of his heart, he felt it throbbing like that of a quail in a cage.
“Oh! what a regular shower-bath! How could I ever expect that of the fellow!” Such exclamations were followed by a variety of difficult and strong wishes for the future of Nosdrieff, and were concluded by epithets certainly not of the choicest language.
“Say what I may,” Tchichikoff remarked confidentially to himself, “without the sudden appearance of the commissioner of the military police, I might at this present moment be one less among the living in this world! I should have disappeared like a bubble on the ocean, without leaving a trace behind me, no heirs or children to inherit my honourable name, my modest fortune!” Our hero seemed very anxious and concerned about his successors.
“What a nasty gentleman!” thought Selifan. “I have never seen such an ill-disposed man before. He deserves to be despised. I could rather see a man without food, but a horse must be fed because a horse likes oats. That is the proper food for his maintenance. What meat is to us, so is oats to the horse, and that is the proper food for horses.”
The horses also seemed to have a bad opinion of Nosdrieff; not only the leader and the brown horse, but even the tiger-spotted idler seemed to be in bad humour. Although the idler was used to receive less good oats generally, and was also accustomed never to have them given to him by Selifan, without being previously called a rogue, yet in this instance he seemed quite disgusted; for notwithstanding the scolding he received his fair portion of oats, and not as now, common hay; he used to eat his bad oats with pleasure, and after, even put his enormous head into the crib of his comrades to see what good things they were enjoying. This he did especially when Selifan was not in the stable; but now they had had nothing else but hay, that was bad; all three were dissatisfied.
But soon after, the whole batch of malcontents were suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted in the effusion of their wrath against Nosdrieff in an unexpected manner. All, not excluding even the coachman, recovered and came to their senses again, when they felt themselves in contact with a travelling-carriage, drawn by six powerful horses, and heard the shrieks of ladies sitting inside, and the scolding and swearing of the strange coachman.
“Oh, you scoundrel! did I not shout to you as loudly as possible! Turn to the right, you crow! Are you drunk, or what else is the matter with you?”
Selifan felt at once that he was on the wrong side, but as a Russian does not like to acknowledge his error before another, he therefore shouted forth his reply with an air of importance:
“And what do you mean by driving like a madman? Have you, perhaps, left your eyes in pawn at a dram-shop?”
After having spoken thus, he endeavoured to back his britchka, trying to liberate his horses, which had become entangled with those of the other carriage; however, he only succeeded in making things worse.
The ladies sitting in the carriage looked at the scene of confusion before them with the utmost terror expressed upon their faces. The one was an elderly lady; the other, a young person about sixteen years of age, with golden ringlets, very tastefully arranged around a pretty face and head. The charming oval of her face was as evenly formed as a new-laid egg, and, like it, it possessed that peculiar transparent whiteness which is only to be seen in a new-laid egg, when held up towards the light by the gentle hand of a clever housekeeper, who is examining its freshness by allowing the rays of the sun to shine through it; her finely-shaped ears seemed also equally transparent, and were intersected by warmly-flowing veins. From the sudden fright, her rosy lips had opened to display a range of ivory teeth, and tears were sparkling in her eyes. All this was so charming in her, that our hero glanced at her for some moments quite motionless, and paying no attention whatever to the dispute which had arisen between the two coachmen and their horses.
“Will you back your horses, you Novgorodian crow?” shouted the strange coachman.
Selifan tugged at his reins; the strange driver did as much, and the horses, in obedience to the impulse, retreated a little, and then came into contact again, were anew entangled, and the confusion was greater than before.
While the confusion was thus growing worse confounded, some peasants began to gather round the carriages and horses; they came running as fast as they could from an adjoining village; and as such a sight is for a Russian peasant like a Christmas-box, or like a newspaper and a glass of stout would be to an Englishman, so but little time elapsed before the carriages were both surrounded by a few hundred gaping mouzhiks, and the village was left to the care of only old women and young children. The entangled traces were soon cut; a few heavy blows applied to the head of the tiger-spotted idler made him retreat; in a word, the horses were soon separated and led aside.
The interest and the curiosity of the gaping peasants rose to an incredible degree. Every one of them was anxious to give an advice or a suggestion:
“You go, Andrushka, and lead that front horse a little about, the one that is standing on the right-hand side from us; and Uncle Mitja would do well to mount the tiger-spotted animal! Get on his back, Mitja!”
During the time that Selifan and the strange coachman were arranging the traces of their respective horses, Tchichikoff had continued to look very attentively at the young lady stranger. He made an attempt to address her several times, but, somehow or another, he thought there was no favourable opportunity. Meanwhile, the ladies drove off, the pretty head, and face with the fine outlines, the slender figure, all disappeared like an apparition; and there remained nothing but the high-road, the britchka, the three horses already familiar to our reader, Selifan, and the level and empty fields surrounding them.
“A charming little woman!” said he, whilst opening his snuff-box, and taking a pinch of snuff. “But what is the most handsome thing about her? It is pleasant to see, that she seems just to have left a boarding-school, or some such institution, and that there is yet nothing womanly, or rather matronly about her, and that is one of the most unpleasing features in the sex. She is still like a child, all in her is still natural, she will speak what she thinks, she will laugh at every thing that pleases her. She might yet be taught any thing and every thing, she might become an accomplished and virtuous woman, and she might also turn out the very contrary. If she now happens to come under the control and advice of her mother or aunts, then farewell natural innocence! In a year they will have changed her so completely by instilling into her, what they are pleased to term the dignities of a woman, that her own father will have every difficulty to recognise, in that young person, his own daughter.
“From the elder ladies, she will derive conceitedness and affected manners, move about according to the dictates of fashion, torment her brains to know, with whom, about what, and how much she might venture to speak, and especially how to look at them; every moment she will be alarmed least she should speak more than is strictly necessary. At last, she will become confused from so much unnatural exertion, and dissimulation will become natural to her, and then—heaven knows what she may come to next!”
Having spoken thus much to himself, Tchichikoff remained silent for some moments, and then he added:
“It would be rather satisfactory to know who she is? Yes, what her father might be? Is he perhaps a rich landed proprietor of high respectability, or simply a respectable man with a large fortune acquired in serving his country? Because, let me suppose, that this pretty little girl receives but five thousand roubles as a marriage gift, she would become a most acceptable, nay a very enticing little woman. And this would constitute, so to say, the happiness of a respectable man.”
The sum of five thousand roubles represented itself so attractively to his mind, that he began to scold himself inwardly for not having obtained some information about who the ladies were from their coachman, during the time that the confusion among the horses lasted. Soon after, however, the appearance of Sobakevitch’s village began to distract his attention from the ladies, and he returned to his friend and more serious purposes.
The village seemed to him tolerably large, and even of importance; there were two forests, the one of birch-trees, the other of pines, the one of a gay colour, the other dark, spread out like wings on the right and left of the village; in the centre of it stood a large wooden building with a balcony, a roof with red tiles, and dark grey painted walls, the style of architecture reminding one of a barrack, or the primitive buildings of German emigrants.
It was evident that the builder of this house must have been in continual opposition to the taste of the owner. The builder was a pedant, and adhered to symmetry, the owner preferred conformity to the purpose, and, thus it seemed that in consequence of the differences of taste, the lawful lord of the mansion had blocked up the windows of the whole of one of the fronts of the house, and left only a small aperture instead, no doubt to serve as a skylight to some lumber-room.
The principal entrance to the house stood by no means in the centre, notwithstanding the good intents of the architect, because the owner of it had ordered one of the side columns to be removed and thus the principal entrance did not display as originally intended four columns, but only three. The whole of the court-yard was enclosed by a strong and unusually thick wooden wall. The proprietor seemed to have been particularly concerned about everything being of the greatest possible durability.
Upon the construction of his stables, penthouse and kitchen, he had employed full grown and heavy logs calculated to last an eternity. The houses of his peasants in the village were also of a wonderfully strong and lasting construction, they nowhere displayed any of the common gingerbread ornaments, but every one of them was a solid mass of logs of wood. Even the wall was enclosed by such large stems of fir as would only be employed as sleepers for a railway, or in the construction of ships. In a word, upon whatever kind of building Tchichikoff happened to cast a glance, his sight met with a pièce de résistance, unmistakeable, presenting a durable but clumsy appearance.