But an even more unpleasant surprise was in store for our hero; for whilst the young lady was still yawning as Chichikov recounted to her certain of his past adventures and also touched lightly upon the subject of Greek philosophy, there appeared from an adjoining room the figure of Nozdrev. Whether he had come from the buffet, or whether he had issued from a little green retreat where a game more strenuous than whist had been in progress, or whether he had left the latter resort unaided, or whether he had been expelled therefrom, is unknown; but at all events when he entered the ballroom, he was in an elevated condition, and leading by the arm the Public Prosecutor, whom he seemed to have been dragging about for a long while past, seeing that the poor man was glancing from side to side as though seeking a means of putting an end to this personally conducted tour. Certainly he must have found the situation almost unbearable, in view of the fact that, after deriving inspiration from two glasses of tea not wholly undiluted with rum, Nozdrev was engaged in lying unmercifully. On sighting him in the distance, Chichikov at once decided to sacrifice himself. That is to say, he decided to vacate his present enviable position and make off with all possible speed, since he could see that an encounter with the newcomer would do him no good. Unfortunately at that moment the Governor buttonholed him with a request that he would come and act as arbiter between him (the Governor) and two ladies--the subject of dispute being the question as to whether or not woman's love is lasting. Simultaneously Nozdrev descried our hero and bore down upon him.
"Ah, my fine landowner of Kherson!" he cried with a smile which set his fresh, spring-rose-pink cheeks a-quiver. "Have you been doing much trade in departed souls lately?" With that he turned to the Governor. "I suppose your Excellency knows that this man traffics in dead peasants?" he bawled. "Look here, Chichikov. I tell you in the most friendly way possible that every one here likes you--yes, including even the Governor. Nevertheless, had I my way, I would hang you! Yes, by God I would!"
Chichikov's discomfiture was complete.
"And, would you believe it, your Excellency," went on Nozdrev, "but this fellow actually said to me, 'Sell me your dead souls!' Why, I laughed till I nearly became as dead as the souls. And, behold, no sooner do I arrive here than I am told that he has bought three million roubles' worth of peasants for transferment! For transferment, indeed! And he wanted to bargain with me for my DEAD ones! Look here, Chichikov. You are a swine! Yes, by God, you are an utter swine! Is not that so, your Excellency? Is not that so, friend Prokurator?"
But both his Excellency, the Public Prosecutor, and Chichikov were too taken aback to reply. The half-tipsy Nozdrev, without noticing them, continued his harangue as before.
"Ah, my fine sir!" he cried. "THIS time I don't mean to let you go. No, not until I have learnt what all this purchasing of dead peasants means. Look here. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Yes, _I_ say that--_I_ who am one of your best friends." Here he turned to the Governor again. "Your Excellency," he continued, "you would never believe what inseperables this man and I have been. Indeed, if you had stood there and said to me, 'Nozdrev, tell me on your honour which of the two you love best--your father or Chichikov?' I should have replied, 'Chichikov, by God!'" With that he tackled our hero again, "Come, come, my friend!" he urged. "Let me imprint upon your cheeks a baiser or two. You will excuse me if I kiss him, will you not, your Excellency? No, do not resist me, Chichikov, but allow me to imprint at least one baiser upon your lily-white cheek." And in his efforts to force upon Chichikov what he termed his "baisers" he came near to measuring his length upon the floor.
Every one now edged away, and turned a deaf ear to his further babblings; but his words on the subject of the purchase of dead souls had none the less been uttered at the top of his voice, and been accompanied with such uproarious laughter that the curiosity even of those who had happened to be sitting or standing in the remoter corners of the room had been aroused. So strange and novel seemed the idea that the company stood with faces expressive of nothing but a dumb, dull wonder. Only some of the ladies (as Chichikov did not fail to remark) exchanged meaning, ill-natured winks and a series of sarcastic smiles: which circumstance still further increased his confusion. That Nozdrev was a notorious liar every one, of course, knew, and that he should have given vent to an idiotic outburst of this sort had surprised no one; but a dead soul--well, what was one to make of Nozdrev's reference to such a commodity?
Naturally this unseemly contretemps had greatly upset our hero; for, however foolish be a madman's words, they may yet prove sufficient to sow doubt in the minds of saner individuals. He felt much as does a man who, shod with well-polished boots, has just stepped into a dirty, stinking puddle. He tried to put away from him the occurrence, and to expand, and to enjoy himself once more. Nay, he even took a hand at whist. But all was of no avail--matters kept going as awry as a badly-bent hoop. Twice he blundered in his play, and the President of the Council was at a loss to understand how his friend, Paul Ivanovitch, lately so good and so circumspect a player, could perpetrate such a mauvais pas as to throw away a particular king of spades which the President has been "trusting" as (to quote his own expression) "he would have trusted God." At supper, too, matters felt uncomfortable, even though the society at Chichikov's table was exceedingly agreeable and Nozdrev had been removed, owing to the fact that the ladies had found his conduct too scandalous to be borne, now that the delinquent had taken to seating himself on the floor and plucking at the skirts of passing lady dancers. As I say, therefore, Chichikov found the situation not a little awkward, and eventually put an end to it by leaving the supper room before the meal was over, and long before the hour when usually he returned to the inn.