On assembling at the residence indicated, the tchinovniks had occasion to remark that, owing to all these cares and excitements, every one of their number had grown thinner. Yes, the appointment of a new Governor-General, coupled with the rumours described and the reception of the two serious documents above-mentioned, had left manifest traces upon the features of every one present. More than one frockcoat had come to look too large for its wearer, and more than one frame had fallen away, including the frames of the President of the Council, the Director of the Medical Department, and the Public Prosecutor. Even a certain Semen Ivanovitch, who, for some reason or another, was never alluded to by his family name, but who wore on his index finger a ring with which he was accustomed to dazzle his lady friends, had diminished in bulk. Yet, as always happens at such junctures, there were also present a score of brazen individuals who had succeeded in NOT losing their presence of mind, even though they constituted a mere sprinkling. Of them the Postmaster formed one, since he was a man of equable temperament who could always say: "WE know you, Governor-Generals! We have seen three or four of you come and go, whereas WE have been sitting on the same stools these thirty years." Nevertheless a prominent feature of the gathering was the total absence of what is vulgarly known as "common sense." In general, we Russians do not make a good show at representative assemblies, for the reason that, unless there be in authority a leading spirit to control the rest, the affair always develops into confusion. Why this should be so one could hardly say, but at all events a success is scored only by such gatherings as have for their object dining and festivity—to wit, gatherings at clubs or in German-run restaurants. However, on the present occasion, the meeting was NOT one of this kind; it was a meeting convoked of necessity, and likely in view of the threatened calamity to affect every tchinovnik in the place. Also, in addition to the great divergency of views expressed thereat, there was visible in all the speakers an invincible tendency to indecision which led them at one moment to make assertions, and at the next to contradict the same. But on at least one point all seemed to agree—namely, that Chichikov's appearance and conversation were too respectable for him to be a forger or a disguised brigand. That is to say, all SEEMED to agree on the point; until a sudden shout arose from the direction of the Postmaster, who for some time past had been sitting plunged in thought.
"I can tell you," he cried, "who Chichikov is!"
"Who, then?" replied the crowd in great excitement.
"He is none other than Captain Kopeikin."
"And who may Captain Kopeikin be?"
Taking a pinch of snuff (which he did with the lid of his snuff-box half-open, lest some extraneous person should contrive to insert a not over-clean finger into the stuff), the Postmaster related the following story 35.
"After fighting in the campaign of 1812, there was sent home, wounded, a certain Captain Kopeikin—a headstrong, lively blade who, whether on duty or under arrest, made things lively for everybody. Now, since at Krasni or at Leipzig (it matters not which) he had lost an arm and a leg, and in those days no provision was made for wounded soldiers, and he could not work with his left arm alone, he set out to see his father. Unfortunately his father could only just support himself, and was forced to tell his son so; wherefore the Captain decided to go and apply for help in St. Petersburg, seeing that he had risked his life for his country, and had lost much blood in its service. You can imagine him arriving in the capital on a baggage waggon—in the capital which is like no other city in the world! Before him there lay spread out the whole field of life, like a sort of Arabian Nights—a picture made up of the Nevski Prospect, Gorokhovaia Street, countless tapering spires, and a number of bridges apparently supported on nothing—in fact, a regular second Nineveh. Well, he made shift to hire a lodging, but found everything so wonderfully furnished with blinds and Persian carpets and so forth that he saw it would mean throwing away a lot of money. True, as one walks the streets of St. Petersburg one seems to smell money by the thousand roubles, but our friend Kopeikin's bank was limited to a few score coppers and a little silver—not enough to buy a village with! At length, at the price of a rouble a day, he obtained a lodging in the sort of tavern where the daily ration is a bowl of cabbage soup and a crust of bread; and as he felt that he could not manage to live very long on fare of that kind he asked folk what he had better do. 'What you had better do?' they said. 'Well the Government is not here—it is in Paris, and the troops have not yet returned from the war; but there is a TEMPORARY Commission sitting, and you had better go and see what IT can do for you.' 'All right!' he said. 'I will go and tell the Commission that I have shed my blood, and sacrificed my life, for my country.' And he got up early one morning, and shaved himself with his left hand (since the expense of a barber was not worth while), and set out, wooden leg and all, to see the President of the Commission. But first he asked where the President lived, and was told that his house was in Naberezhnaia Street. And you may be sure that it was no peasant's hut, with its glazed windows and great mirrors and statues and lacqueys and brass door handles! Rather, it was the sort of place which you would enter only after you had bought a cheap cake of soap and indulged in a two hours' wash. Also, at the entrance there was posted a grand Swiss footman with a baton and an embroidered collar—a fellow looking like a fat, over-fed pug dog. However, friend Kopeikin managed to get himself and his wooden leg into the reception room, and there squeezed himself away into a corner, for fear lest he should knock down the gilded china with his elbow. And he stood waiting in great satisfaction at having arrived before the President had so much as left his bed and been served with his silver wash-basin. Nevertheless, it was only when Kopeikin had been waiting four hours that a breakfast waiter entered to say, 'The President will soon be here.' By now the room was as full of people as a plate is of beans, and when the President left the breakfast-room he brought with him, oh, such dignity and refinement, and such an air of the metropolis! First he walked up to one person, and then up to another, saying: 'What do YOU want? And what do YOU want? What can I do for YOU? What is YOUR business?' And at length he stopped before Kopeikin, and Kopeikin said to him: 'I have shed my blood, and lost both an arm and a leg, for my country, and am unable to work. Might I therefore dare to ask you for a little help, if the regulations should permit of it, or for a gratuity, or for a pension, or something of the kind?' Then the President looked at him, and saw that one of his legs was indeed a wooden one, and that an empty right sleeve was pinned to his uniform. 'Very well,' he said. 'Come to me again in a few days' time.' Upon this friend Kopeikin felt delighted. 'NOW I have done my job!' he thought to himself; and you may imagine how gaily he trotted along the pavement, and how he dropped into a tavern for a glass of vodka, and how he ordered a cutlet and some caper sauce and some other things for luncheon, and how he called for a bottle of wine, and how he went to the theatre in the evening! In short, he did himself thoroughly well. Next, he saw in the street a young English lady, as graceful as a swan, and set off after her on his wooden leg. 'But no,' he thought to himself. 'To the devil with that sort of thing just now! I will wait until I have drawn my pension. For the present I have spent enough.' (And I may tell you that by now he had got through fully half his money.) Two or three days later he went to see the President of the Commission again. 'I should be glad to know,' he said, 'whether by now you can do anything for me in return for my having shed my blood and suffered sickness and wounds on military service.' 'First of all,' said the President, 'I must tell you that nothing can be decided in your case without the authority of the Supreme Government. Without that sanction we cannot move in the matter. Surely you see how things stand until the army shall have returned from the war? All that I can advise you to do is wait for the Minister to return, and, in the meanwhile, to have patience. Rest assured that then you will not be overlooked. And if for the moment you have nothing to live upon, this is the best that I can do for you.' With that he handed Kopeikin a trifle until his case should have been decided. However, that was not what Kopeikin wanted. He had supposed that he would be given a gratuity of a thousand roubles straight away; whereas, instead of 'Drink and be merry,' it was 'Wait, for the time is not yet.' Thus, though his head had been full of soup plates and cutlets and English girls, he now descended the steps with his ears and his tail down—looking, in fact, like a poodle over which the cook has poured a bucketful of water. You see, St. Petersburg life had changed him not a little since first he had got a taste of it, and, now that the devil only knew how he was going to live, it came all the harder to him that he should have no more sweets to look forward to. Remember that a man in the prime of years has an appetite like a wolf; and as he passed a restaurant he could see a round-faced, holland-shirted, snow-white aproned fellow of a French chef preparing a dish delicious enough to make it turn to and eat itself; while, again, as he passed a fruit shop he could see delicacies looking out of a window for fools to come and buy them at a hundred roubles apiece. Imagine, therefore, his position! On the one hand, so to speak, were salmon and water-melons, while on the other hand was the bitter fare which passed at a tavern for luncheon. 'Well,' he thought to himself, 'let them do what they like with me at the Commission, but I intend to go and raise the whole place, and to tell every blessed functionary there that I have a mind to do as I choose.' And in truth this bold impertinence of a man did have the hardihood to return to the Commission. 'What do you want?' said the President. 'Why are you here for the third time? You have had your orders given you.' 'I daresay I have,' he retorted, 'but I am not going to be put off with THEM. I want some cutlets to eat, and a bottle of French wine, and a chance to go and amuse myself at the theatre.' 'Pardon me,' said the President. 'What you really need (if I may venture to mention it) is a little patience. You have been given something for food until the Military Committee shall have met, and then, doubtless, you will receive your proper reward, seeing that it would not be seemly that a man who has served his country should be left destitute. On the other hand, if, in the meanwhile, you desire to indulge in cutlets and theatre-going, please understand that we cannot help you, but you must make your own resources, and try as best you can to help yourself.' You can imagine that this went in at one of Kopeikin's ears, and out at the other; that it was like shooting peas at a stone wall. Accordingly he raised a turmoil which sent the staff flying. One by one, he gave the mob of secretaries and clerks a real good hammering. 'You, and you, and you,' he said, 'do not even know your duties. You are law-breakers.' Yes, he trod every man of them under foot. At length the General himself arrived from another office, and sounded the alarm. What was to be done with a fellow like Kopeikin? The President saw that strong measures were imperative. 'Very well,' he said. 'Since you decline to rest satisfied with what has been given you, and quietly to await the decision of your case in St. Petersburg, I must find you a lodging. Here, constable, remove the man to gaol.' Then a constable who had been called to the door—a constable three ells in height, and armed with a carbine—a man well fitted to guard a bank—placed our friend in a police waggon. 'Well,' reflected Kopeikin, 'at least I shan't have to pay my fare for THIS ride. That's one comfort.' Again, after he had ridden a little way, he said to himself: 'they told me at the Commission to go and make my own means of enjoying myself. Very good. I'll do so.' However, what became of Kopeikin, and whither he went, is known to no one. He sank, to use the poet's expression, into the waters of Lethe, and his doings now lie buried in oblivion. But allow me, gentlemen, to piece together the further threads of the story. Not two months later there appeared in the forests of Riazan a band of robbers: and of that band the chieftain was none other than—"
"Allow me," put in the Head of the Police Department. "You have said that Kopeikin had lost an arm and a leg; whereas Chichikov—"
To say anything more was unnecessary. The Postmaster clapped his hand to his forehead, and publicly called himself a fool, though, later, he tried to excuse his mistake by saying that in England the science of mechanics had reached such a pitch that wooden legs were manufactured which would enable the wearer, on touching a spring, to vanish instantaneously from sight.
Various other theories were then propounded, among them a theory that Chichikov was Napoleon, escaped from St. Helena and travelling about the world in disguise. And if it should be supposed that no such notion could possibly have been broached, let the reader remember that these events took place not many years after the French had been driven out of Russia, and that various prophets had since declared that Napoleon was Antichrist, and would one day escape from his island prison to exercise universal sway on earth. Nay, some good folk had even declared the letters of Napoleon's name to constitute the Apocalyptic cipher!
As a last resort, the tchinovniks decided to question Nozdrev, since not only had the latter been the first to mention the dead souls, but also he was supposed to stand on terms of intimacy with Chichikov. Accordingly the Chief of Police dispatched a note by the hand of a commissionaire. At the time Nozdrev was engaged on some very important business—so much so that he had not left his room for four days, and was receiving his meals through the window, and no visitors at all. The business referred to consisted of the marking of several dozen selected cards in such a way as to permit of his relying upon them as upon his bosom friend. Naturally he did not like having his retirement invaded, and at first consigned the commissionaire to the devil; but as soon as he learnt from the note that, since a novice at cards was to be the guest of the Chief of Police that evening, a call at the latter's house might prove not wholly unprofitable he relented, unlocked the door of his room, threw on the first garments that came to hand, and set forth. To every question put to him by the tchinovniks he answered firmly and with assurance. Chichikov, he averred, had indeed purchased dead souls, and to the tune of several thousand roubles. In fact, he (Nozdrev) had himself sold him some, and still saw no reason why he should not have done so. Next, to the question of whether or not he considered Chichikov to be a spy, he replied in the affirmative, and added that, as long ago as his and Chichikov's joint schooldays, the said Chichikov had been known as "The Informer," and repeatedly been thrashed by his companions on that account. Again, to the question of whether or not Chichikov was a forger of currency notes the deponent, as before, responded in the affirmative, and appended thereto an anecdote illustrative of Chichikov's extraordinary dexterity of hand—namely, an anecdote to that effect that, once upon a time, on learning that two million roubles worth of counterfeit notes were lying in Chichikov's house, the authorities had placed seals upon the building, and had surrounded it on every side with an armed guard; whereupon Chichikov had, during the night, changed each of these seals for a new one, and also so arranged matters that, when the house was searched, the forged notes were found to be genuine ones!
Again, to the question of whether or not Chichikov had schemed to abduct the Governor's daughter, and also whether it was true that he, Nozdrev, had undertaken to aid and abet him in the act, the witness replied that, had he not undertaken to do so, the affair would never have come off. At this point the witness pulled himself up, on realising that he had told a lie which might get him into trouble; but his tongue was not to be denied—the details trembling on its tip were too alluring, and he even went on to cite the name of the village church where the pair had arranged to be married, that of the priest who had performed the ceremony, the amount of the fees paid for the same (seventy-five roubles), and statements that the priest had refused to solemnise the wedding until Chichikov had frightened him by threatening to expose the fact that he (the priest) had married Mikhail, a local corn dealer, to his paramour, and that Chichikov had ordered both a koliaska for the couple's conveyance and relays of horses from the post-houses on the road. Nay, the narrative, as detailed by Nozdrev, even reached the point of his mentioning certain of the postillions by name! Next, the tchinovniks sounded him on the question of Chichikov's possible identity with Napoleon; but before long they had reason to regret the step, for Nozdrev responded with a rambling rigmarole such as bore no resemblance to anything possibly conceivable. Finally, the majority of the audience left the room, and only the Chief of Police remained to listen (in the hope of gathering something more); but at last even he found himself forced to disclaim the speaker with a gesture which said: "The devil only knows what the fellow is talking about!" and so voiced the general opinion that it was no use trying to gather figs of thistles.
Meanwhile Chichikov knew nothing of these events; for, having contracted a slight chill, coupled with a sore throat, he had decided to keep his room for three days; during which time he gargled his throat with milk and fig juice, consumed the fruit from which the juice had been extracted, and wore around his neck a poultice of camomile and camphor. Also, to while away the hours, he made new and more detailed lists of the souls which he had bought, perused a work by the Duchesse de la Valliere 36, rummaged in his portmanteau, looked through various articles and papers which he discovered in his dispatch-box, and found every one of these occupations tedious. Nor could he understand why none of his official friends had come to see him and inquire after his health, seeing that, not long since, there had been standing in front of the inn the drozhkis both of the Postmaster, the Public Prosecutor, and the President of the Council. He wondered and wondered, and then, with a shrug of his shoulders, fell to pacing the room. At length he felt better, and his spirits rose at the prospect of once more going out into the fresh air; wherefore, having shaved a plentiful growth of hair from his face, he dressed with such alacrity as almost to cause a split in his trousers, sprinkled himself with eau-de-Cologne, and wrapping himself in warm clothes, and turning up the collar of his coat, sallied forth into the street. His first destination was intended to be the Governor's mansion, and, as he walked along, certain thoughts concerning the Governor's daughter would keep whirling through his head, so that almost he forgot where he was, and took to smiling and cracking jokes to himself.
Arrived at the Governor's entrance, he was about to divest himself of his scarf when a Swiss footman greeted him with the words, "I am forbidden to admit you."
"What?" he exclaimed. "You do not know me? Look at me again, and see if you do not recognise me."
"Of course I recognise you," the footman replied. "I have seen you before, but have been ordered to admit any one else rather than Monsieur Chichikov."
"Indeed? And why so?"
"Those are my orders, and they must be obeyed," said the footman, confronting Chichikov with none of that politeness with which, on former occasions, he had hastened to divest our hero of his wrappings. Evidently he was of opinion that, since the gentry declined to receive the visitor, the latter must certainly be a rogue.
"I cannot understand it," said Chichikov to himself. Then he departed, and made his way to the house of the President of the Council. But so put about was that official by Chichikov's entry that he could not utter two consecutive words—he could only murmur some rubbish which left both his visitor and himself out of countenance. Chichikov wondered, as he left the house, what the President's muttered words could have meant, but failed to make head or tail of them. Next, he visited, in turn, the Chief of Police, the Vice-Governor, the Postmaster, and others; but in each case he either failed to be accorded admittance or was received so strangely, and with such a measure of constraint and conversational awkwardness and absence of mind and embarrassment, that he began to fear for the sanity of his hosts. Again and again did he strive to divine the cause, but could not do so; so he went wandering aimlessly about the town, without succeeding in making up his mind whether he or the officials had gone crazy. At length, in a state bordering upon bewilderment, he returned to the inn—to the establishment whence, that every afternoon, he had set forth in such exuberance of spirits. Feeling the need of something to do, he ordered tea, and, still marvelling at the strangeness of his position, was about to pour out the beverage when the door opened and Nozdrev made his appearance.
"What says the proverb?" he began. "'To see a friend, seven versts is not too long a round to make.' I happened to be passing the house, saw a light in your window, and thought to myself: 'Now, suppose I were to run up and pay him a visit? It is unlikely that he will be asleep.' Ah, ha! I see tea on your table! Good! Then I will drink a cup with you, for I had wretched stuff for dinner, and it is beginning to lie heavy on my stomach. Also, tell your man to fill me a pipe. Where is your own pipe?"
"I never smoke," rejoined Chichikov drily.
"Rubbish! As if I did not know what a chimney-pot you are! What is your man's name? Hi, Vakhramei! Come here!"
"Petrushka is his name, not Vakhramei."
"Indeed? But you USED to have a man called Vakhramei, didn't you?"
"Oh, well. Then it must be Derebin's man I am thinking of. What a lucky fellow that Derebin is! An aunt of his has gone and quarrelled with her son for marrying a serf woman, and has left all her property to HIM, to Derebin. Would that I had an aunt of that kind to provide against future contingencies! But why have you been hiding yourself away? I suppose the reason has been that you go in for abstruse subjects and are fond of reading" (why Nozdrev should have drawn these conclusions no one could possibly have said—least of all Chichikov himself). "By the way, I can tell you of something that would have found you scope for your satirical vein" (the conclusion as to Chichikov's "satirical vein" was, as before, altogether unwarranted on Nozdrev's part). "That is to say, you would have seen merchant Likhachev losing a pile of money at play. My word, you would have laughed! A fellow with me named Perependev said: 'Would that Chichikov had been here! It would have been the very thing for him!'" (As a matter of fact, never since the day of his birth had Nozdrev met any one of the name of Perependev.) "However, my friend, you must admit that you treated me rather badly the day that we played that game of chess; but, as I won the game, I bear you no malice. A propos, I am just from the President's, and ought to tell you that the feeling against you in the town is very strong, for every one believes you to be a forger of currency notes. I myself was sent for and questioned about you, but I stuck up for you through thick and thin, and told the tchinovniks that I had been at school with you, and had known your father. In fact, I gave the fellows a knock or two for themselves."
"You say that I am believed to be a forger?" said Chichikov, starting from his seat.
"Yes," said Nozdrev. "Why have you gone and frightened everybody as you have done? Some of our folk are almost out of their minds about it, and declare you to be either a brigand in disguise or a spy. Yesterday the Public Prosecutor even died of it, and is to be buried to-morrow" (this was true in so far as that, on the previous day, the official in question had had a fatal stroke—probably induced by the excitement of the public meeting). "Of course, I don't suppose you to be anything of the kind, but, you see, these fellows are in a blue funk about the new Governor-General, for they think he will make trouble for them over your affair. A propos, he is believed to be a man who puts on airs, and turns up his nose at everything; and if so, he will get on badly with the dvoriane, seeing that fellows of that sort need to be humoured a bit. Yes, my word! Should the new Governor-General shut himself up in his study, and give no balls, there will be the very devil to pay! By the way, Chichikov, that is a risky scheme of yours."
"What scheme to you mean?" Chichikov asked uneasily.
"Why, that scheme of carrying off the Governor's daughter. However, to tell the truth, I was expecting something of the kind. No sooner did I see you and her together at the ball than I said to myself: 'Ah, ha! Chichikov is not here for nothing!' For my own part, I think you have made a poor choice, for I can see nothing in her at all. On the other hand, the niece of a friend of mine named Bikusov—she IS a girl, and no mistake! A regular what you might call 'miracle in muslin!'"
"What on earth are you talking about?" asked Chichikov with his eyes distended. "HOW could I carry off the Governor's daughter? What on earth do you mean?"
"Come, come! What a secretive fellow you are! My only object in having come to see you is to lend you a helping hand in the matter. Look here. On condition that you will lend me three thousand roubles, I will stand you the cost of the wedding, the koliaska, and the relays of horses. I must have the money even if I die for it."
Throughout Nozdrev's maunderings Chichikov had been rubbing his eyes to ascertain whether or not he was dreaming. What with the charge of being a forger, the accusation of having schemed an abduction, the death of the Public Prosecutor (whatever might have been its cause), and the advent of a new Governor-General, he felt utterly dismayed.
"Things having come to their present pass," he reflected, "I had better not linger here—I had better be off at once."
Getting rid of Nozdrev as soon as he could, he sent for Selifan, and ordered him to be up at daybreak, in order to clean the britchka and to have everything ready for a start at six o'clock. Yet, though Selifan replied, "Very well, Paul Ivanovitch," he hesitated awhile by the door. Next, Chichikov bid Petrushka get out the dusty portmanteau from under the bed, and then set to work to cram into it, pell-mell, socks, shirts, collars (both clean and dirty), boot trees, a calendar, and a variety of other articles. Everything went into the receptacle just as it came to hand, since his one object was to obviate any possible delay in the morning's departure. Meanwhile the reluctant Selifan slowly, very slowly, left the room, as slowly descended the staircase (on each separate step of which he left a muddy foot-print), and, finally, halted to scratch his head. What that scratching may have meant no one could say; for, with the Russian populace, such a scratching may mean any one of a hundred things.