IN a fairly-large recently-whitewashed chamber of a wing of the manor-house in the village of Sásovo, *** county, T*** Government, a young man in a paletot was sitting at a small, warped table, looking over accounts. Two stearine candles, in silver travelling-candlesticks, were burning in front of him; in one corner, on the wall-bench, stood an open bottle-case, in another a servant was setting up an iron bed. On the other side of a low partition a samovár was murmuring and hissing; a dog was nestling about on some hay which had just been brought in. In the doorway stood a peasant-man in a new overcoat girt with a red belt, with a large beard, and an intelligent face—the overseer, judging by all the tokens. He was gazing attentively at the seated young man.
Against one wall stood a very aged, tiny piano; beside it an equally-ancient chest of drawers with holes in place of the locks; between the windows a small, dim mirror was visible; on the partition-wall hung an old portrait, which was almost completely peeled off, representing a woman with powdered hair, in a robe ronde, and with a black ribbon about her slender neck. Judging from the very perceptible sagging of the ceiling, and the slope of the floor, which was full of cracks, the little wing into which we have conducted the reader had existed for a very long time. No one lived in it permanently; it was put to use when the owners came. The young man who was sitting at the table was the owner of the village of Sásovo. He had arrived only on the previous day from his principal estate, situated a hundred versts distant, and was preparing to depart on the morrow, after completing the inspection of the farming, listening to the demands of the peasants, and verifying all the documents.
“Well, that will do,”—he said, raising his head;—“I am tired. Thou mayest go now,”—he added, turning to the overseer;—“and come very early to-morrow morning, and notify the peasants at daybreak that they are to present themselves in assembly,—dost hear me?”
“And order the estate-clerk to present to me the report for the last month. But thou hast done well,”—the gentleman went on, casting a glance around him,—“in whitewashing the walls. Everything seems cleaner.”
The overseer silently swept a glance around the walls also.
“Well, go now.”
The overseer made his obeisance and left the room.
The gentleman stretched himself.
“Hey!”—he shouted,—“Give me some tea!... ’Tis time to go to bed.”
His servant went to the other side of the partition, and speedily returned with a glass of tea, a bundle of town cracknels, and a cream-jug on an iron tray. The gentleman began to drink tea, but before he had had time to swallow two mouthfuls, the noise of persons entering resounded from an adjoining room, and some one’s squeaking voice inquired:
“Is Vladímir Sergyéitch Astákhoff at home? Can he be seen?”
Vladímir Sergyéitch (that was the name of the young man in the paletot) cast a glance of surprise at his man, and said in a hurried whisper:
“Go, find out who it is.”
The man withdrew, slamming behind him the door, which closed badly.
“Announce to Vladímir Sergyéitch,”—rang out the same squeaking voice as before,—“that his neighbour Ipátoff wishes to see him, if it will not incommode him; and another neighbour has come with me, Bodryakóff, Iván Ílitch, who also desires to pay his respects.”
Vladímir Sergyéitch made an involuntary gesture of vexation. Nevertheless, when his man entered the room, he said to him:
“Ask them in.” And he arose to receive his visitors.
The door opened, and the visitors made their appearance. One of them, a robust, grey-haired little old man, with a small, round head and bright little eyes, walked in advance; the other, a tall, thin man of three-and-thirty, with a long, swarthy face and dishevelled hair, walked behind, with a shambling gait. The old man wore a neat grey coat with large, mother-of-pearl buttons; a small, pink neckerchief, half concealed by the rolling collar of his white shirt, loosely encircled his neck; his feet shone resplendent in gaiters; the plaids of his Scotch trousers were agreeably gay in hue; and, altogether, he produced a pleasant impression. His companion, on the contrary, evoked in the spectator a less favourable sensation: he wore an old black dress-coat, buttoned up to the throat; his full trousers, of thick, winter tricot, matched his coat in colour; no linen was visible, either around his throat or around his wrists. The little old man was the first to approach Vladímir Sergyéitch, and, with an amiable inclination of the head, he began in the same shrill little voice:
“I have the honour to introduce myself,—your nearest neighbour, and even a relative, Ipátoff, Mikhaílo Nikoláitch. I have long wished to have the pleasure of making your acquaintance. I hope that I have not disturbed you.”
Vladímir Sergyéitch replied that he was very glad to see him, and that he was not disturbed in the least, and would not he take a seat ... and drink tea.
“And this nobleman,”—went on the little old man, after listening with a courteous smile to Vladímir Sergyéitch’s unfinished phrases, and extending his hand in the direction of the gentleman in the dress-coat,—“also your neighbour ... and my good acquaintance, Iván Ílitch, strongly desired to make your acquaintance.”
The gentleman in the dress-coat, from whose countenance no one would have suspected that he was capable of desiring anything strongly in his life—so preoccupied and, at the same time, so sleepy was the expression of that countenance,—the gentleman in the dress-coat bowed clumsily and languidly. Vladímir Sergyéitch bowed to him in return, and again invited the visitors to be seated.
The visitors sat down.
“I am very glad,”—began the little old man, pleasantly throwing apart his hands, while his companion set to scrutinising the ceiling, with his mouth slightly open:—“I am very glad that I have, at last, the honour of seeing you personally. Although you have your permanent residence in a county which lies at a considerable distance from these localities, still, we regard you also as one of our own primordial landed proprietors, so to speak.”
“That is very flattering to me,”—returned Vladímir Sergyéitch.
“Flattering or not, it is a fact. You must excuse us, Vladímir Sergyéitch; we people here in *** county are a straightforward folk; we live in our simplicity; we say what we think, without circumlocution. It is our custom, I must tell you, not to call upon each other on Name-days otherwise than in our frock-coats. Truly! We have made that the rule. On that account, we are called ‘frock-coaters’ in the adjoining counties, and we are even reproached for our bad style; but we pay no attention to that! Pray, what is the use of living in the country—and then standing on ceremony?”
“Of course, what can be better ... in the country ... than that naturalness of intercourse,”—remarked Vladímir Sergyéitch.
“And yet,”—replied the little old man,—“among us in our county dwell people of the cleverest sort,—one may say people of European culture, although they do not wear dress-suits. Take, for example, our historian Evsiukóff, Stepán Stepánitch: he is interesting himself in Russian history from the most ancient times, and is known in Petersburg—an extremely learned man! There is in our town an ancient Swedish cannon-ball ... ’tis placed yonder, in the centre of the public square ... and ’twas he who discovered it, you know! Certainly! Tzénteler, Antón Kárlitch ... now he has studied natural history; but they say all Germans are successful in that line. When, ten years ago, a stray hyena was killed in our vicinity, it was this Antón Kárlitch who discovered that it really was a hyena, by cause of the peculiar construction of its tail. And then, we have a landed proprietor Kaburdín: he chiefly writes light articles; he wields a very dashing pen; his articles appear in ‘Galatea.’ Bodryakóff, ... not Iván Ílitch; no, Iván Ílitch neglects that; but another Bodryakóff, Sergyéi ... what the deuce was his father’s baptismal name, Iván Ílitch ... what the deuce was it?”
“Sergyéitch,”—prompted Iván Ílitch.
“Yes; Sergyéi Sergyéitch,—he busies himself with writing verses. Well, of course he’s not a Púshkin, but sometimes he gets off things which would pass muster even in the capitals. Do you know his epigram on Agéi Fómitch?”
“What Agéi Fómitch?”
“Akh, pardon me; I keep forgetting that you are not a resident here, after all. He is our chief of police. The epigram is extremely amusing. Thou rememberest it, I believe, Iván Ílitch?”
“Agéi Fómitch,”—said Bodryakóff, indifferently—
“ ... not without cause is gloriously By the nobles’ election honoured....”
“I must tell you,”—broke in Ipátoff,—“that he was elected almost exclusively by white balls, for he is a most worthy man.”
“Agéi Fómitch,”—repeated Bodryakóff,
“ ... not without cause is gloriously By the nobles’ election honoured: He drinks and eats regularly.... So why should not he be the regulator of order?” The little old man burst out laughing.
“Ha, ha, ha! that isn’t bad, is it? Ever since then, if you’ll believe me, each one of us will say, for instance, to Agéi Fómitch: ‘Good morning!’—and will invariably add: ‘so why should not he be the regulator of order?’ And does Agéi Fómitch get angry, think you? Not in the least. No—that’s not our way. Just ask Iván Ílitch here if it is.”
Iván Ílitch merely rolled up his eyes.
“Get angry at a jest—how is that possible? Now, take Iván Ílitch there; his nickname among us is ‘The Folding Soul,’ because he agrees to everything very promptly. What then? Does Iván Ílitch take offence at that? Never!”
Iván Ílitch, slowly blinking his eyes, looked first at the little old man, then at Vladímir Sergyéitch.
The epithet, “The Folding Soul,” really did fit Iván Ílitch admirably. There was not a trace in him of what is called will or character. Any one who wished could lead him whithersoever he would; all that was necessary was to say to him: “Come on, Iván Ílitch!”—and he picked up his cap and went; but if another person turned up, and said to him: “Halt, Iván Ílitch!”—he laid down his cap and remained. He was of a peaceable, tranquil disposition, had lived a bachelor-life, did not play cards, but was fond of sitting beside the players and looking into each of their faces in turn. Without society he could not exist, and solitude he could not endure. At such times he became despondent; however, this happened very rarely with him. He had another peculiarity: rising from his bed betimes in the morning, he would sing in an undertone an old romance:
“In the country once a Baron Dwelt in simplicity rural....”
In consequence of this peculiarity of Iván Ílitch’s, he was also called “The Hawfinch,” because, as is well known, the hawfinch when in captivity sings only once in the course of the day, early in the morning. Such was Iván Ílitch Bodryakóff.
The conversation between Ipátoff and Vladímir Sergyéitch lasted for quite a long time, but not in its original, so to speak, speculative direction. The little old man questioned Vladímir Sergyéitch about his estate, the condition of his forests and other sorts of land, the improvements which he had already introduced or was only intending to introduce in his farming; he imparted to him several of his own observations; advised him, among other things, in order to get rid of hummocky pastures, to sprinkle them with oats, which, he said, would induce the pigs to plough them up with their snouts, and so forth. But, at last, perceiving that Vladímir Sergyéitch was so sleepy that he could hardly keep his eyes open, and that a certain deliberation and incoherence were making themselves evident in his speech, the little old man rose, and, with a courteous obeisance, declared that he would not incommode him any longer with his presence, but that he hoped to have the pleasure of seeing the valued guest at his own house not later than the following day, at dinner.
“And the first person you meet, not to mention any small child, but, so to speak, any hen or peasant-woman,”—he added,—“will point out to you the road to my village. All you have to do is to ask for Ipátoff. The horses will trot there of themselves.”
Vladímir Sergyéitch replied with a little hesitation—which, however, was natural to him—that he would try ... that if nothing prevented....
“Yes, we shall certainly expect you,”—the little old man interrupted him, cordially, shook his hand warmly, and briskly withdrew, exclaiming in the doorway, as he half turned round:—“Without ceremony!”
“Folding Soul” Bodryakóff bowed in silence and vanished in the wake of his companion, with a preliminary stumble on the threshold.
Having seen his unexpected guests off, Vladímir Sergyéitch immediately undressed, got into bed, and went to sleep.
Vladímir Sergyéitch Astákhoff belonged to the category of people who, after having cautiously tested their powers in two or three different careers, are wont to say of themselves that they have finally come to the conclusion to look at life from a practical point of view, and who devote their leisure to augmenting their revenues. He was not stupid, was rather penurious, and very sensible; was fond of reading, of society, of music—but all in moderation ... and bore himself very decorously. He was twenty-seven years old. A great many young men of his sort have sprung up recently. He was of medium height, well built, and had agreeable though small features; their expression almost never varied; his eyes always gleamed with one and the same stern, bright glance; only now and then did this glance soften with a faint shade of something which was not precisely sadness, nor yet precisely boredom; a courteous smile rarely quitted his lips. He had very handsome, fair hair, silky, and falling in long ringlets. Vladímir Sergyéitch owned about six hundred souls on a good estate, and he was thinking of marriage—a marriage of inclination, but which should, at the same time, be advantageous. He was particularly desirous of finding a wife with powerful connections. In a word, he merited the appellation of “gentleman” which had recently come into vogue.
When he rose on the following morning, very early, according to his wont, our gentleman occupied himself with business, and, we must do him the justice to say, did so in a decidedly practical manner, which cannot always be said of practical young men among us in Russia. He patiently listened to the confused petitions and complaints of the peasants, gave them satisfaction so far as he was able, investigated the quarrels and dissensions which had arisen between relatives, exhorted some, scolded others, audited the clerk’s accounts, brought to light two or three rascalities on the part of the overseer—in a word, handled matters in such wise that he was very well satisfied with himself, and the peasants, as they returned from the assembly to their homes, spoke well of him.
In spite of his promise given on the preceding evening to Ipátoff, Vladímir Sergyéitch had made up his mind to dine at home, and had even ordered his travelling-cook to prepare his favourite rice-soup with pluck; but all of a sudden, possibly in consequence of that feeling of satisfaction which had filled his soul ever since the early morning, he stopped short in the middle of the room, smote himself on the brow with his hand, and, not without some spirit, exclaimed aloud: “I believe I’ll go to that flowery old babbler!” No sooner said than done; half an hour later he was sitting in his new tarantás, drawn by four stout peasant-horses, and driving to Ipátoff’s house, which was reckoned to be not more than twenty-five versts distant by a capital road.