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source:newstime:2023-12-01 17:33:48

At length the party arrived at the residence of the Chief of Police. The latter proved indeed a man of spells, for no sooner had he learnt what was afoot than he summoned a brisk young constable, whispered in his ear, adding laconically, "You understand, do you not?" and brought it about that, during the time that the guests were cutting for partners at whist in an adjoining room, the dining-table became laden with sturgeon, caviare, salmon, herrings, cheese, smoked tongue, fresh roe, and a potted variety of the same--all procured from the local fish market, and reinforced with additions from the host's own kitchen. The fact was that the worthy Chief of Police filled the office of a sort of father and general benefactor to the town, and that he moved among the citizens as though they constituted part and parcel of his own family, and watched over their shops and markets as though those establishments were merely his own private larder. Indeed, it would be difficult to say--so thoroughly did he perform his duties in this respect--whether the post most fitted him, or he the post. Matters were also so arranged that though his income more than doubled that of his predecessors, he had never lost the affection of his fellow townsmen. In particular did the tradesmen love him, since he was never above standing godfather to their children or dining at their tables. True, he had differences of opinion with them, and serious differences at that; but always these were skilfully adjusted by his slapping the offended ones jovially on the shoulder, drinking a glass of tea with them, promising to call at their houses and play a game of chess, asking after their belongings, and, should he learn that a child of theirs was ill, prescribing the proper medicine. In short, he bore the reputation of being a very good fellow.

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On perceiving the feast to be ready, the host proposed that his guests should finish their whist after luncheon; whereupon all proceeded to the room whence for some time past an agreeable odour had been tickling the nostrils of those present, and towards the door of which Sobakevitch in particular had been glancing since the moment when he had caught sight of a huge sturgeon reposing on the sideboard. After a glassful of warm, olive-coloured vodka apiece--vodka of the tint to be seen only in the species of Siberian stone whereof seals are cut--the company applied themselves to knife-and-fork work, and, in so doing, evinced their several characteristics and tastes. For instance, Sobakevitch, disdaining lesser trifles, tackled the large sturgeon, and, during the time that his fellow guests were eating minor comestibles, and drinking and talking, contrived to consume more than a quarter of the whole fish; so that, on the host remembering the creature, and, with fork in hand, leading the way in its direction and saying, "What, gentlemen, think you of this striking product of nature?" there ensued the discovery that of the said product of nature there remained little beyond the tail, while Sobakevitch, with an air as though at least HE had not eaten it, was engaged in plunging his fork into a much more diminutive piece of fish which happened to be resting on an adjacent platter. After his divorce from the sturgeon, Sobakevitch ate and drank no more, but sat frowning and blinking in an armchair.

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Apparently the host was not a man who believed in sparing the wine, for the toasts drunk were innumerable. The first toast (as the reader may guess) was quaffed to the health of the new landowner of Kherson; the second to the prosperity of his peasants and their safe transferment; and the third to the beauty of his future wife--a compliment which brought to our hero's lips a flickering smile. Lastly, he received from the company a pressing, as well as an unanimous, invitation to extend his stay in town for at least another fortnight, and, in the meanwhile, to allow a wife to be found for him.

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"Quite so," agreed the President. "Fight us tooth and nail though you may, we intend to have you married. You have happened upon us by chance, and you shall have no reason to repent of it. We are in earnest on this subject."

"But why should I fight you tooth and nail?" said Chichikov, smiling. "Marriage would not come amiss to me, were I but provided with a betrothed."

"Then a betrothed you shall have. Why not? We will do as you wish."

"Very well," assented Chichikov.

"Bravo, bravo!" the company shouted. "Long live Paul Ivanovitch! Hurrah! Hurrah!" And with that every one approached to clink glasses with him, and he readily accepted the compliment, and accepted it many times in succession. Indeed, as the hours passed on, the hilarity of the company increased yet further, and more than once the President (a man of great urbanity when thoroughly in his cups) embraced the chief guest of the day with the heartfelt words, "My dearest fellow! My own most precious of friends!" Nay, he even started to crack his fingers, to dance around Chichikov's chair, and to sing snatches of a popular song. To the champagne succeeded Hungarian wine, which had the effect of still further heartening and enlivening the company. By this time every one had forgotten about whist, and given himself up to shouting and disputing. Every conceivable subject was discussed, including politics and military affairs; and in this connection guests voiced jejune opinions for the expression of which they would, at any other time, have soundly spanked their offspring. Chichikov, like the rest, had never before felt so gay, and, imagining himself really and truly to be a landowner of Kherson, spoke of various improvements in agriculture, of the three-field system of tillage[5], and of the beatific felicity of a union between two kindred souls. Also, he started to recite poetry to Sobakevitch, who blinked as he listened, for he greatly desired to go to sleep. At length the guest of the evening realised that matters had gone far enough, so begged to be given a lift home, and was accommodated with the Public Prosecutor's drozhki. Luckily the driver of the vehicle was a practised man at his work, for, while driving with one hand, he succeeded in leaning backwards and, with the other, holding Chichikov securely in his place. Arrived at the inn, our hero continued babbling awhile about a flaxen-haired damsel with rosy lips and a dimple in her right cheek, about villages of his in Kherson, and about the amount of his capital. Nay, he even issued seignorial instructions that Selifan should go and muster the peasants about to be transferred, and make a complete and detailed inventory of them. For a while Selifan listened in silence; then he left the room, and instructed Petrushka to help the barin to undress. As it happened, Chichikov's boots had no sooner been removed than he managed to perform the rest of his toilet without assistance, to roll on to the bed (which creaked terribly as he did so), and to sink into a sleep in every way worthy of a landowner of Kherson. Meanwhile Petrushka had taken his master's coat and trousers of bilberry-coloured check into the corridor; where, spreading them over a clothes' horse, he started to flick and to brush them, and to fill the whole corridor with dust. Just as he was about to replace them in his master's room he happened to glance over the railing of the gallery, and saw Selifan returning from the stable. Glances were exchanged, and in an instant the pair had arrived at an instinctive understanding--an understanding to the effect that the barin was sound asleep, and that therefore one might consider one's own pleasure a little. Accordingly Petrushka proceeded to restore the coat and trousers to their appointed places, and then descended the stairs; whereafter he and Selifan left the house together. Not a word passed between them as to the object of their expedition. On the contrary, they talked solely of extraneous subjects. Yet their walk did not take them far; it took them only to the other side of the street, and thence into an establishment which immediately confronted the inn. Entering a mean, dirty courtyard covered with glass, they passed thence into a cellar where a number of customers were seated around small wooden tables. What thereafter was done by Selifan and Petrushka God alone knows. At all events, within an hour's time they issued, arm in arm, and in profound silence, yet remaining markedly assiduous to one another, and ever ready to help one another around an awkward corner. Still linked together--never once releasing their mutual hold--they spent the next quarter of an hour in attempting to negotiate the stairs of the inn; but at length even that ascent had been mastered, and they proceeded further on their way. Halting before his mean little pallet, Petrushka stood awhile in thought. His difficulty was how best to assume a recumbent position. Eventually he lay down on his face, with his legs trailing over the floor; after which Selifan also stretched himself upon the pallet, with his head resting upon Petrushka's stomach, and his mind wholly oblivious of the fact that he ought not to have been sleeping there at all, but in the servant's quarters, or in the stable beside his horses. Scarcely a moment had passed before the pair were plunged in slumber and emitting the most raucous snores; to which their master (next door) responded with snores of a whistling and nasal order. Indeed, before long every one in the inn had followed their soothing example, and the hostelry lay plunged in complete restfulness. Only in the window of the room of the newly-arrived lieutenant from Riazan did a light remain burning. Evidently he was a devotee of boots, for he had purchased four pairs, and was now trying on a fifth. Several times he approached the bed with a view to taking off the boots and retiring to rest; but each time he failed, for the reason that the boots were so alluring in their make that he had no choice but to lift up first one foot, and then the other, for the purpose of scanning their elegant welts.