Thenceforth all extraneous thoughts and considerations were laid aside in favour of preparing for the coming function. Indeed, this conjunction of exciting and provocative motives led to Chichikov devoting to his toilet an amount of time never witnessed since the creation of the world. Merely in the contemplation of his features in the mirror, as he tried to communicate to them a succession of varying expressions, was an hour spent. First of all he strove to make his features assume an air of dignity and importance, and then an air of humble, but faintly satirical, respect, and then an air of respect guiltless of any alloy whatsoever. Next, he practised performing a series of bows to his reflection, accompanied with certain murmurs intended to bear a resemblance to a French phrase (though Chichikov knew not a single word of the Gallic tongue). Lastly came the performing of a series of what I might call "agreeable surprises," in the shape of twitchings of the brow and lips and certain motions of the tongue. In short, he did all that a man is apt to do when he is not only alone, but also certain that he is handsome and that no one is regarding him through a chink. Finally he tapped himself lightly on the chin, and said, "Ah, good old face!" In the same way, when he started to dress himself for the ceremony, the level of his high spirits remained unimpaired throughout the process. That is to say, while adjusting his braces and tying his tie, he shuffled his feet in what was not exactly a dance, but might be called the entr'acte of a dance: which performance had the not very serious result of setting a wardrobe a-rattle, and causing a brush to slide from the table to the floor.
Later, his entry into the ballroom produced an extraordinary effect. Every one present came forward to meet him, some with cards in their hands, and one man even breaking off a conversation at the most interesting point--namely, the point that "the Inferior Land Court must be made responsible for everything." Yes, in spite of the responsibility of the Inferior Land Court, the speaker cast all thoughts of it to the winds as he hurried to greet our hero. From every side resounded acclamations of welcome, and Chichikov felt himself engulfed in a sea of embraces. Thus, scarcely had he extricated himself from the arms of the President of the Local Council when he found himself just as firmly clasped in the arms of the Chief of Police, who, in turn, surrendered him to the Inspector of the Medical Department, who, in turn, handed him over to the Commissioner of Taxes, who, again, committed him to the charge of the Town Architect. Even the Governor, who hitherto had been standing among his womenfolk with a box of sweets in one hand and a lap-dog in the other, now threw down both sweets and lap-dog (the lap-dog giving vent to a yelp as he did so) and added his greeting to those of the rest of the company. Indeed, not a face was there to be seen on which ecstatic delight--or, at all events, the reflection of other people's ecstatic delight--was not painted. The same expression may be discerned on the faces of subordinate officials when, the newly arrived Director having made his inspection, the said officials are beginning to get over their first sense of awe on perceiving that he has found much to commend, and that he can even go so far as to jest and utter a few words of smiling approval. Thereupon every tchinovnik responds with a smile of double strength, and those who (it may be) have not heard a single word of the Director's speech smile out of sympathy with the rest, and even the gendarme who is posted at the distant door--a man, perhaps, who has never before compassed a smile, but is more accustomed to dealing out blows to the populace--summons up a kind of grin, even though the grin resembles the grimace of a man who is about to sneeze after inadvertently taking an over-large pinch of snuff. To all and sundry Chichikov responded with a bow, and felt extraordinarily at his ease as he did so. To right and left did he incline his head in the sidelong, yet unconstrained, manner that was his wont and never failed to charm the beholder. As for the ladies, they clustered around him in a shining bevy that was redolent of every species of perfume--of roses, of spring violets, and of mignonette; so much so that instinctively Chichikov raised his nose to snuff the air. Likewise the ladies' dresses displayed an endless profusion of taste and variety; and though the majority of their wearers evinced a tendency to embonpoint, those wearers knew how to call upon art for the concealment of the fact. Confronting them, Chichikov thought to himself: "Which of these beauties is the writer of the letter?" Then again he snuffed the air. When the ladies had, to a certain extent, returned to their seats, he resumed his attempts to discern (from glances and expressions) which of them could possibly be the unknown authoress. Yet, though those glances and expressions were too subtle, too insufficiently open, the difficulty in no way diminished his high spirits. Easily and gracefully did he exchange agreeable bandinage with one lady, and then approach another one with the short, mincing steps usually affected by young-old dandies who are fluttering around the fair. As he turned, not without dexterity, to right and left, he kept one leg slightly dragging behind the other, like a short tail or comma. This trick the ladies particularly admired. In short, they not only discovered in him a host of recommendations and attractions, but also began to see in his face a sort of grand, Mars-like, military expression--a thing which, as we know, never fails to please the feminine eye. Certain of the ladies even took to bickering over him, and, on perceiving that he spent most of his time standing near the door, some of their number hastened to occupy chairs nearer to his post of vantage. In fact, when a certain dame chanced to have the good fortune to anticipate a hated rival in the race there very nearly ensued a most lamentable scene--which, to many of those who had been desirous of doing exactly the same thing, seemed a peculiarly horrible instance of brazen-faced audacity.
So deeply did Chichikov become plunged in conversation with his fair pursuers--or rather, so deeply did those fair pursuers enmesh him in the toils of small talk (which they accomplished through the expedient of asking him endless subtle riddles which brought the sweat to his brow in his attempts to guess them)--that he forgot the claims of courtesy which required him first of all to greet his hostess. In fact, he remembered those claims only on hearing the Governor's wife herself addressing him. She had been standing before him for several minutes, and now greeted him with suave expressement and the words, "So HERE you are, Paul Ivanovitch!" But what she said next I am not in a position to report, for she spoke in the ultra-refined tone and vein wherein ladies and gentlemen customarily express themselves in high-class novels which have been written by experts more qualified than I am to describe salons, and able to boast of some acquaintance with good society. In effect, what the Governor's wife said was that she hoped--she greatly hoped--that Monsieur Chichikov's heart still contained a corner--even the smallest possible corner--for those whom he had so cruelly forgotten. Upon that Chichikov turned to her, and was on the point of returning a reply at least no worse than that which would have been returned, under similar circumstances, by the hero of a fashionable novelette, when he stopped short, as though thunderstruck.
Before him there was standing not only Madame, but also a young girl whom she was holding by the hand. The golden hair, the fine-drawn, delicate contours, the face with its bewitching oval--a face which might have served as a model for the countenance of the Madonna, since it was of a type rarely to be met with in Russia, where nearly everything, from plains to human feet, is, rather, on the gigantic scale; these features, I say, were those of the identical maiden whom Chichikov had encountered on the road when he had been fleeing from Nozdrev's. His emotion was such that he could not formulate a single intelligible syllable; he could merely murmur the devil only knows what, though certainly nothing of the kind which would have risen to the lips of the hero of a fashionable novel.
"I think that you have not met my daughter before?" said Madame. "She is just fresh from school."
He replied that he HAD had the happiness of meeting Mademoiselle before, and under rather unexpected circumstances; but on his trying to say something further his tongue completely failed him. The Governor's wife added a word or two, and then carried off her daughter to speak to some of the other guests.
Chichikov stood rooted to the spot, like a man who, after issuing into the street for a pleasant walk, has suddenly come to a halt on remembering that something has been left behind him. In a moment, as he struggles to recall what that something is, the mien of careless expectancy disappears from his face, and he no longer sees a single person or a single object in his vicinity. In the same way did Chichikov suddenly become oblivious to the scene around him. Yet all the while the melodious tongues of ladies were plying him with multitudinous hints and questions--hints and questions inspired with a desire to captivate. "Might we poor cumberers of the ground make so bold as to ask you what you are thinking of?" "Pray tell us where lie the happy regions in which your thoughts are wandering?" "Might we be informed of the name of her who has plunged you into this sweet abandonment of meditation?"--such were the phrases thrown at him. But to everything he turned a dead ear, and the phrases in question might as well have been stones dropped into a pool. Indeed, his rudeness soon reached the pitch of his walking away altogether, in order that he might go and reconnoitre wither the Governor's wife and daughter had retreated. But the ladies were not going to let him off so easily. Every one of them had made up her mind to use upon him her every weapon, and to exhibit whatsoever might chance to constitute her best point. Yet the ladies' wiles proved useless, for Chichikov paid not the smallest attention to them, even when the dancing had begun, but kept raising himself on tiptoe to peer over people's heads and ascertain in which direction the bewitching maiden with the golden hair had gone. Also, when seated, he continued to peep between his neighbours' backs and shoulders, until at last he discovered her sitting beside her mother, who was wearing a sort of Oriental turban and feather. Upon that one would have thought that his purpose was to carry the position by storm; for, whether moved by the influence of spring, or whether moved by a push from behind, he pressed forward with such desperate resolution that his elbow caused the Commissioner of Taxes to stagger on his feet, and would have caused him to lose his balance altogether but for the supporting row of guests in the rear. Likewise the Postmaster was made to give ground; whereupon he turned and eyed Chichikov with mingled astonishment and subtle irony. But Chichikov never even noticed him; he saw in the distance only the golden-haired beauty. At that moment she was drawing on a long glove and, doubtless, pining to be flying over the dancing-floor, where, with clicking heels, four couples had now begun to thread the mazes of the mazurka. In particular was a military staff-captain working body and soul and arms and legs to compass such a series of steps as were never before performed, even in a dream. However, Chichikov slipped past the mazurka dancers, and, almost treading on their heels, made his way towards the spot where Madame and her daughter were seated. Yet he approached them with great diffidence and none of his late mincing and prancing. Nay, he even faltered as he walked; his every movement had about it an air of awkwardness.
It is difficult to say whether or not the feeling which had awakened in our hero's breast was the feeling of love; for it is problematical whether or not men who are neither stout nor thin are capable of any such sentiment. Nevertheless, something strange, something which he could not altogether explain, had come upon him. It seemed as though the ball, with its talk and its clatter, had suddenly become a thing remote--that the orchestra had withdrawn behind a hill, and the scene grown misty, like the carelessly painted-in background of a picture. And from that misty void there could be seen glimmering only the delicate outlines of the bewitching maiden. Somehow her exquisite shape reminded him of an ivory toy, in such fair, white, transparent relief did it stand out against the dull blur of the surrounding throng.