"I always guessed him to be so."
The two ladies were still discussing the matter with acumen and success when there walked into the room the Public Prosecutor--bushy eyebrows, motionless features, blinking eyes, and all. At once the ladies hastened to inform him of the events related, adducing therewith full details both as to the purchase of dead souls and as to the scheme to abduct the Governor's daughter; after which they departed in different directions, for the purpose of raising the rest of the town. For the execution of this undertaking not more than half an hour was required. So thoroughly did they succeed in throwing dust in the public's eyes that for a while every one--more especially the army of public officials--was placed in the position of a schoolboy who, while still asleep, has had a bag of pepper thrown in his face by a party of more early-rising comrades. The questions now to be debated resolved themselves into two--namely, the question of the dead souls and the question of the Governor's daughter. To this end two parties were formed--the men's party and the feminine section. The men's party--the more absolutely senseless of the two--devoted its attention to the dead souls: the women's party occupied itself exclusively with the alleged abduction of the Governor's daughter. And here it may be said (to the ladies' credit) that the women's party displayed far more method and caution than did its rival faction, probably because the function in life of its members had always been that of managing and administering a household. With the ladies, therefore, matters soon assumed vivid and definite shape; they became clearly and irrefutably materialised; they stood stripped of all doubt and other impedimenta. Said some of the ladies in question, Chichikov had long been in love with the maiden, and the pair had kept tryst by the light of the moon, while the Governor would have given his consent (seeing that Chichikov was as rich as a Jew) but for the obstacle that Chichikov had deserted a wife already (how the worthy dames came to know that he was married remains a mystery), and the said deserted wife, pining with love for her faithless husband, had sent the Governor a letter of the most touching kind, so that Chichikov, on perceiving that the father and mother would never give their consent, had decided to abduct the girl. In other circles the matter was stated in a different way. That is to say, this section averred that Chichikov did NOT possess a wife, but that, as a man of subtlety and experience, he had bethought him of obtaining the daughter's hand through the expedient of first tackling the mother and carrying on with her an ardent liaison, and that, thereafter, he had made an application for the desired hand, but that the mother, fearing to commit a sin against religion, and feeling in her heart certain gnawings of conscience, had returned a blank refusal to Chichikov's request; whereupon Chichikov had decided to carry out the abduction alleged. To the foregoing, of course, there became appended various additional proofs and items of evidence, in proportion as the sensation spread to more remote corners of the town. At length, with these perfectings, the affair reached the ears of the Governor's wife herself. Naturally, as the mother of a family, and as the first lady in the town, and as a matron who had never before been suspected of things of the kind, she was highly offended when she heard the stories, and very justly so: with the result that her poor young daughter, though innocent, had to endure about as unpleasant a tete-a-tete as ever befell a maiden of sixteen, while, for his part, the Swiss footman received orders never at any time to admit Chichikov to the house.
Having done their business with the Governor's wife, the ladies' party descended upon the male section, with a view to influencing it to their own side by asserting that the dead souls were an invention used solely for the purpose of diverting suspicion and successfully affecting the abduction. And, indeed, more than one man was converted, and joined the feminine camp, in spite of the fact that thereby such seceders incurred strong names from their late comrades--names such as "old women," "petticoats," and others of a nature peculiarly offensive to the male sex.
Also, however much they might arm themselves and take the field, the men could not compass such orderliness within their ranks as could the women. With the former everything was of the antiquated and rough-hewn and ill-fitting and unsuitable and badly-adapted and inferior kind; their heads were full of nothing but discord and triviality and confusion and slovenliness of thought. In brief, they displayed everywhere the male bent, the rude, ponderous nature which is incapable either of managing a household or of jumping to a conclusion, as well as remains always distrustful and lazy and full of constant doubt and everlasting timidity. For instance, the men's party declared that the whole story was rubbish--that the alleged abduction of the Governor's daughter was the work rather of a military than of a civilian culprit; that the ladies were lying when they accused Chichikov of the deed; that a woman was like a money-bag--whatsoever you put into her she thenceforth retained; that the subject which really demanded attention was the dead souls, of which the devil only knew the meaning, but in which there certainly lurked something that was contrary to good order and discipline. One reason why the men's party was so certain that the dead souls connoted something contrary to good order and discipline, was that there had just been appointed to the province a new Governor-General--an event which, of course, had thrown the whole army of provincial tchinovniks into a state of great excitement, seeing that they knew that before long there would ensue transferments and sentences of censure, as well as the series of official dinners with which a Governor-General is accustomed to entertain his subordinates. "Alas," thought the army of tchinovniks, "it is probable that, should he learn of the gross reports at present afloat in our town, he will make such a fuss that we shall never hear the last of them." In particular did the Director of the Medical Department turn pale at the thought that possibly the new Governor-General would surmise the term "dead folk" to connote patients in the local hospitals who, for want of proper preventative measures, had died of sporadic fever. Indeed, might it not be that Chichikov was neither more nor less than an emissary of the said Governor-General, sent to conduct a secret inquiry? Accordingly he (the Director of the Medical Department) communicated this last supposition to the President of the Council, who, though at first inclined to ejaculate "Rubbish!" suddenly turned pale on propounding to himself the theory. "What if the souls purchased by Chichikov should REALLY be dead ones?"--a terrible thought considering that he, the President, had permitted their transferment to be registered, and had himself acted as Plushkin's representative! What if these things should reach the Governor-General's ears? He mentioned the matter to one friend and another, and they, in their turn, went white to the lips, for panic spreads faster and is even more destructive, than the dreaded black death. Also, to add to the tchinovniks' troubles, it so befell that just at this juncture there came into the local Governor's hands two documents of great importance. The first of them contained advices that, according to received evidence and reports, there was operating in the province a forger of rouble-notes who had been passing under various aliases and must therefore be sought for with the utmost diligence; while the second document was a letter from the Governor of a neighbouring province with regard to a malefactor who had there evaded apprehension--a letter conveying also a warning that, if in the province of the town of N. there should appear any suspicious individual who could produce neither references nor passports, he was to be arrested forthwith. These two documents left every one thunderstruck, for they knocked on the head all previous conceptions and theories. Not for a moment could it be supposed that the former document referred to Chichikov; yet, as each man pondered the position from his own point of view, he remembered that no one REALLY knew who Chichikov was; as also that his vague references to himself had--yes!--included statements that his career in the service had suffered much to the cause of Truth, and that he possessed a number of enemies who were seeking his life. This gave the tchinovniks further food for thought. Perhaps his life really DID stand in danger? Perhaps he really WAS being sought for by some one? Perhaps he really HAD done something of the kind above referred to? As a matter of fact, who was he?--not that it could actually be supposed that he was a forger of notes, still less a brigand, seeing that his exterior was respectable in the highest degree. Yet who was he? At length the tchinovniks decided to make enquiries among those of whom he had purchased souls, in order that at least it might be learnt what the purchases had consisted of, and what exactly underlay them, and whether, in passing, he had explained to any one his real intentions, or revealed to any one his identity. In the first instance, therefore, resort was had to Korobotchka. Yet little was gleaned from that source--merely a statement that he had bought of her some souls for fifteen roubles apiece, and also a quantity of feathers, while promising also to buy some other commodities in the future, seeing that, in particular, he had entered into a contract with the Treasury for lard, a fact constituting fairly presumptive proof that the man was a rogue, seeing that just such another fellow had bought a quantity of feathers, yet had cheated folk all round, and, in particular, had done the Archpriest out of over a hundred roubles. Thus the net result of Madame's cross-examination was to convince the tchinovniks that she was a garrulous, silly old woman. With regard to Manilov, he replied that he would answer for Chichikov as he would for himself, and that he would gladly sacrifice his property in toto if thereby he could attain even a tithe of the qualities which Paul Ivanovitch possessed. Finally, he delivered on Chichikov, with acutely-knitted brows, a eulogy couched in the most charming of terms, and coupled with sundry sentiments on the subject of friendship and affection in general. True, these remarks sufficed to indicate the tender impulses of the speaker's heart, but also they did nothing to enlighten his examiners concerning the business that was actually at hand. As for Sobakevitch, that landowner replied that he considered Chichikov an excellent fellow, as well as that the souls whom he had sold to his visitor had been in the truest sense of the word alive, but that he could not answer for anything which might occur in the future, seeing that any difficulties which might arise in the course of the actual transferment of souls would not be HIS fault, in view of the fact that God was lord of all, and that fevers and other mortal complaints were so numerous in the world, and that instances of whole villages perishing through the same could be found on record.
Finally, our friends the tchinovniks found themselves compelled to resort to an expedient which, though not particularly savoury, is not infrequently employed--namely, the expedient of getting lacqueys quietly to approach the servants of the person concerning whom information is desired, and to ascertain from them (the servants) certain details with regard to their master's life and antecedents. Yet even from this source very little was obtained, since Petrushka provided his interrogators merely with a taste of the smell of his living-room, and Selifan confined his replies to a statement that the barin had "been in the employment of the State, and also had served in the Customs."
In short, the sum total of the results gathered by the tchinovniks was that they still stood in ignorance of Chichikov's identity, but that he MUST be some one; wherefore it was decided to hold a final debate on the subject on what ought to be done, and who Chichikov could possibly be, and whether or not he was a man who ought to be apprehended and detained as not respectable, or whether he was a man who might himself be able to apprehend and detain THEM as persons lacking in respectability. The debate in question, it was proposed, should be held at the residence of the Chief of Police, who is known to our readers as the father and the general benefactor of the town.
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!"