Dead Souls

Nikolay Gogol

A coiffured con man travels across Russia’s rural backwaters, buying the souls of dead serfs from their owners to make his fortune, in Gogol’s exuberant, bravura masterwork: the greatest comedy in Russian literature.

‘Hey, you with the beard!’

Chapter 1

Through the gate of a hostelry in a provincial capital that will remain nameless rolled a small, rather handsome britska on springs, of the kind in which bachelors travel: retired lieutenant-colonels, staff-captains, landowners possessing a hundred or so peasant souls – in a word, all those who are known as gentlemen of the middling sort. Seated in the britska was a gentleman – not good looking, but not uncomely in appearance either, not overly fat, nor overly thin. You couldn’t say that he was old, yet you could not say he was overly young either. His arrival created no stir whatever in the town, and was not accompanied by anything out of the ordinary. Except that two Russian muzhiks standing by the door of the pothouse opposite the hostelry made a few remarks, which, however, had more to do with the vehicle than with the person seated in it. ‘Hey,’ said one to the other, ‘look at that there wheel! You think that wheel could make it as far as Moscow if it had to, or couldn’t it?’ ‘It could,’ replied the other. ‘But not as far as Kazan, I bet?’ ‘Not as far as Kazan it couldn’t,’ replied the other. With that the conversation ended. And then, as the britska drew up to the hostelry, it encountered a young man in white duck pantaloons that were very tight and short, and a tail-coat that strove for stylishness, beneath which could be seen a shirt-front fastened with a Tula pin in the shape of a bronze pistol. The young man turned round, looked at the vehicle, clapped a hand to his cap, which had nearly been blown off by the wind, and went his way.

When the vehicle entered the courtyard, the gentleman was met by an inn-servant, or, as they are called in Russian inns, a houseman, who was so animated and bustling that there was no making out the features of his face. He dashed out briskly, napkin in hand, a long individual in a long fustian frock-coat, whose collar came up virtually to the very back of his head. He gave his hair a toss, and briskly ushered the gentleman up the length of a wooden gallery to show him the chamber bestowed on him by God. The chamber was of a certain kind, for the hostelry was also of a certain kind, that is, precisely the way all hostelries are in provincial capitals, where for two roubles a day travellers receive a quiet room with cockroaches peeping out like prunes from every corner, and with a door, invariably blocked by a chest of drawers, leading to the adjoining accommodations, where a neighbour is settled in, taciturn and quiet, yet highly inquisitive, interested in knowing all the particulars about a new arrival. The outer façade of the hostelry corresponded to its interior. It was very long, with two storeys. The lower one had not been stuccoed, and its original small dark-red bricks, while rather grimy to begin with, had turned even darker from hostile changes of weather. The upper storey had been covered with the inevitable yellow paint. Below were small shops that carried horse-collars, ropes and pretzels. In the corner shop, or, rather, in its window, a purveyor of hot spiced honey drinks had installed himself, with a samovar of red copper and a face just as red as the samovar, so that from a distance you might think that there were two samovars standing in the window, if one samovar hadn’t been wearing a beard black as pitch.

While the newly arrived gentleman was inspecting his room, his belongings were brought in: first, a white-leather travelling bag, its somewhat battered appearance showing that it had taken more than one journey. The travelling bag was brought in by the coachman Selifan, a diminutive individual in a skimpy sheepskin coat, and by the man-servant Petrushka, a fellow of thirty or so, in a roomy, well-worn frock-coat, obviously off his master’s back, a fellow with a rather severe look about him, and with very thick lips and nose. Following the travelling bag came a small mahogany box inlaid with Karelian birch, some shoe trees and a roast chicken wrapped in dark-blue paper. When all this had been brought in, the coachman Selifan set off for the stable to busy himself with the horses, and the man-servant Petrushka began to install himself in the small ante-room, a very dark, tiny kennel, where he had already managed to lug his greatcoat and along with it a certain special odour all his own that had also been imparted to the next thing he brought in, a sack containing the sundries of a man-servant’s toilet. In this tiny kennel he set up a narrow little three-legged bed against the wall, and covered it with a small semblance of a mattress, which had been beaten flat as a pancake and was perhaps just as greasy as the pancake he had managed to wheedle out of the innkeeper.

While the servants were bustling about and putting things in order, the gentleman made his way down to the common room. As to what these common rooms are like, any traveller knows very well: the same walls, covered with oil paint, darkened above by tobacco smoke and rubbed shiny below by the backs of various travellers, and still more by those of the local merchants, since the merchants, on market days, would come here in sixes and sevens to drink their well-known serving of tea; the same soot-begrimed ceiling; the same smoked chandelier, with its multitude of glass pendants which danced and tinkled every time the houseman ran across the worn oilcloth strips, boldly brandishing a tray on which perched a flock of teacups thick as birds on a seashore; the same pictures, painted in oil, that took up an entire wall – in a word, everything was the same as it is everywhere, the sole difference being that one painting depicted a nymph with breasts so enormous that the reader has probably never seen their like. However, such sports of nature do occur in paintings on historical subjects that have been brought to our Russia, who knows when, whence or by whom, sometimes even by our lofty personages, lovers of art who have snapped them up in Italy on the advice of their couriers.

The gentleman pulled off his cap and from round his neck unwound a wool scarf in rainbow colours, of the kind that spouses knit for married men with their very own hands while providing appropriate instructions on how to wrap up. As for bachelors, I can’t say for sure who performs this service, Lord only knows: I have never worn such scarves. Having unwound the scarf, the gentleman ordered dinner. While he was being served the various dishes that are usual for inns, such as cabbage soup with puff-pastry, specially set aside for several weeks on end for travellers, brains with peas, sausages with cabbage, a roasted fowl, salted cucumbers and the inevitable sweet puff-pastry, which is always ready to be of service – while all this was being served, warmed-up or cold, he made the servant, or rather, the houseman, dish out nonsense of all sorts as to who had previously kept the inn and who did now, whether it yielded much profit and whether the proprietor was a huge scoundrel, to which the houseman replied, as usual: ‘Oh yes, sir, a terrible swindler.’ As in enlightened Europe, so too in enlightened Russia there are now a great many respectable people who cannot dine at an inn without striking up a conversation with a servant, sometimes even having a good laugh at his expense. However, not all the traveller’s questions were idle: he made extremely precise inquiries as to who was the governor in the town, who was the chairman of the chamber and who was the public prosecutor – in a word, he did not omit a single important official. But it was with even greater precision, if not downright solicitude, that he inquired about all the important landowners: how many peasant souls so-and-so possessed, how far he lived from town, even what sort of character he had and how often he came to town. He made close inquiries about conditions in the region: whether there were any diseases in their province – any epidemics, deadly fevers, smallpox, and the like, all with a thoroughness and preciseness that evinced more than mere curiosity. There was something solid about the gentleman’s manner, and he blew his nose extremely loudly. There’s no telling how he did it, only his nose sounded like a trumpet. This distinction, though to all appearances entirely innocent, nonetheless earned him much respect on the part of the inn-servant, so much so that every time he heard this sound, he gave his hair a toss, drew himself up more deferentially and, inclining his head from on high, asked whether the gentleman required anything. After dinner, the gentleman drank a cup of coffee and sat down on a sofa, placing behind his back a cushion, which in Russian inns is stuffed not with resilient wool but with something extraordinarily like bricks and paving-stones. At this point he began to yawn and asked to be shown to his room, where he lay down for a quick nap and fell asleep for two hours. Once rested, he wrote on a scrap of paper, at the request of the inn-servant, his rank, given name and surname, to be conveyed to the proper place, to the police. As he went down the stairway, the houseman haltingly spelled out the following from the piece of paper, syllable by syllable: ‘Collegiate Councillor Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, landowner, on private business’.

While the houseman was still deciphering the note, syllable by syllable, the self-same Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov set off to have a look at the town, with which he seemed to be satisfied, since he found it in no way inferior to other provincial capitals: the yellow paint on the stone houses struck his eyes painfully, while the wooden ones presented a modest dark grey. The houses consisted of one, two and two-and-a-half storeys, with the inevitable entresol, which was very attractive in the opinion of the provincial architects. In some places these houses looked lost amidst a street wide as a field, and the endless wooden fences; in others, they had been knocked together into a cluster, and here a greater movement of people and greater animation were noticeable. Then came some signboards bearing pretzels or boots, almost washed off by the rain, in one place depicting dark-blue trousers and the signature of some ‘arsaw tailor’; in another a shop with civilian and military caps and the legend: ‘Vasily Fyodorovich, Foreigner’; elsewhere a representation of a billiard table, with two players in tails like the ones worn in our theatres by actors playing guests who come on stage only in the final act. The players were depicted with cues at the ready, arms slightly cocked and feet poised in an aerial entrechat that had just been executed. Beneath all this was written: ‘And this is the establishment.’ Here and there tables simply stood in the open street, with nuts, soap and gingerbread that looked like soap; or there was an eating-house depicted by a plump fish with a fork stuck into it. But most frequently to be seen were weather-darkened two-headed imperial eagles, which have now been replaced by the laconic inscription ‘Drinking House’. The roadway was in rather poor condition everywhere. He also glanced into the town park, which consisted of skimpy trees that had barely taken root, with triangle supports at the bottom that were painted a most attractive green. Still, even though these tiny trees stood no taller than reeds, the newspapers, in describing a recent festive illumination, wrote of them as follows: ‘Our town has been adorned, thanks to the solicitude of the Civil Administrator, by a park that consists of shady, wide-branched trees, which provide coolness on a sultry day,’ and furthermore, ‘It is very moving to see how the hearts of the citizens trembled in an excess of gratitude and poured forth torrents of tears as a token of thanks to that worthy gentleman, the Town Governor.’ Having made detailed inquiries of a policeman in a booth as to the shortest route, should the need arise, to the cathedral, the government offices and the governor’s residence, he set off to take a look at the river that flowed through the middle of the town. En route he tore a playbill off a pillar to which it had been nailed, with the intent of subjecting it to a thorough scrutiny once he arrived back home, and he stared at a lady of not unpresentable appearance who was proceeding along the wooden pavement, trailed by a boy in military livery with a small bundle in his hand; and, after running his eyes over everything once more, as if intending to fix the layout of the place firmly in mind, he betook himself home, straight to his room, with the inn-servant gently helping him up the stairs. After drinking his fill of tea, he seated himself before the table, ordered a candle brought to him, took the playbill out of his pocket, held it up to the candle and began to read, squinting his right eye somewhat. As it was, there was nothing particularly noteworthy in the bill: a drama by Mr Kotzebue was being presented, with Rolla played by Mr Poplyovin, and Cora by Miss Zyablova. The other characters were even less noteworthy; however, he read through all of them, even as far as the price of stall seats, and learned that the playbill had been printed by the press of the provincial administration. He then turned it over to see if there was anything on the other side, but finding nothing, rubbed his eyes, folded it neatly and placed it in the small box to which he habitually consigned everything that came to hand. His day, it seems, was concluded with a portion of cold veal, a bottle of sparkling kvass and a sound sleep, with the pump going full blast, as they say in some parts of the vast Russian state.

The next day was devoted entirely to visits; the newcomer set out to make the rounds of all the town dignitaries. He paid his respects to the Governor, who, as it turned out, was, like Chichikov, neither fat nor thin, wore the Order of St Anna, Second Class, round his neck and had even been proposed, or so rumour had it, for a Star; he was really a very good-natured fellow, and sometimes even did embroidery on tulle. Then Chichikov called on the Vice-Governor, after which came the Public Prosecutor, the Chairman of the Chamber, the Chief of Police, the Liquor Franchisee, the Director of State Factories . . . A pity that it’s rather difficult to remember all the powerful ones of this world; but suffice it to say that the newcomer displayed extraordinary activity in the matter of visits: he even went to present his compliments to the Inspector of the Medical Board and the town architect. And then he remained seated in his britska for quite some time, racking his brains as to who else he might visit, but no more officials of any kind were to be found in the town. In conversing with these potentates, he displayed great skill in flattering each one. To the Governor he hinted, as if in passing, that entering his province was like entering paradise, that the roads were like velvet everywhere and that those governments which appoint wise senior officials are worthy of great praise. To the Chief of Police he said something very flattering with respect to the policemen on duty in the town; and in talking with the Vice-Governor and the Chairman of the Chamber, both of whom were still only state councillors, he even twice addressed them by mistake as ‘Your Excellency’, which pleased them greatly. The consequence of all this was that the Governor extended him an invitation to a gathering at his home that very evening, and the other officials followed suit, one inviting him to dinner, another to a pleasant little game of Boston and a third to a cup of tea.

The newcomer avoided talking very much about himself, or so it seemed. If he did talk, then it was in platitudes and with conspicuous modesty, and on such occasions his conversation took a rather bookish turn, to wit: that in this world below he was an insignificant worm, and unworthy that people should show any great concern for him, that he had undergone many trials in his time, that in government service he had suffered greatly for the truth, that he had many enemies who had even made attempts on his life, and that now, wishing to lead a peaceful existence, he was seeking a spot where he could settle down once and for all, and that, having come to this town, he considered it his bounden duty to pay his respects to its dignitaries. That is all the town learned about this new person, who lost no time presenting himself at the Governor’s evening party. Preparations for this party occupied more than two hours, during which the newcomer evinced a scrupulosity in the matter of his toilet the likes of which is certainly not to be seen everywhere. After a brief postprandial snooze he ordered the necessaries for washing, and spent an extraordinarily long time lathering both cheeks with soap, while distending each in turn from the inside with his tongue. Then, pulling the towel off the inn-servant’s shoulder, he used it to rub every part of his plump face, beginning behind his ears, after twice snorting straight into the inn-servant’s face as a preliminary. Then he donned his shirt-front before the mirror, plucked two hairs protruding from his nose and directly thereafter appeared in a tail-coat of whortleberry red shot with a lighter weave. Having thus garbed himself, he drove off in his vehicle through the interminably wide streets, which were illuminated by faint light flickering from windows here and there. However, the Governor’s house was lit up as if for a dress ball. There were carriages with lanterns, two gendarmes stationed in front of the porch, the distant shouts of postilions – in a word, everything was as it should be. On entering the hall, Chichikov had to squint for a moment, because the glare from the candles, the lamps and the ladies’ gowns was fearsome. Everything was flooded with light. Black tail-coats flitted and scurried about, singly and in clusters, here and there, just as flies scurry about on a gleaming white sugarloaf on a hot summer day in July, while an aged housekeeper breaks and divides it into glittering lumps before an open window, and the children, all gathered round, look on, their curious eyes following the movements of her coarsened hands raising the mallet, and aerial squadrons of flies sent aloft by a gentle breeze boldly wing their way in, like rightful owners, and, taking advantage of the old woman’s poor sight and the sun that is bothering her eyes, swarm over the tasty pieces, here singly, there in thick clusters. Sated by the riches of summer, which in any event sets out tasty dishes at every turn, they have decidedly not flown here for the purpose of eating, but merely to display themselves, to strut back and forth over the heap of sugar, to rub their back or front legs against each other, or to use them to scratch under their wings or, extending both front legs, to rub them together above their heads, then turn about and again fly off, and again fly back in fresh, importunate squadrons.

Chichikov scarcely had time to look round before the Governor grasped him by the arm and presented him, then and there, to his wife. The newly arrived guest acquitted himself well on this occasion too: he uttered the kind of compliment that was highly appropriate for a man of middle years whose rank was not overly high and not overly low. When the dancers had formed in pairs and pressed everyone else against the wall, he watched them with rapt attention for a moment or two, hands clasped behind his back. Many of the ladies were well dressed and fashionably so, others had dressed in whatever God had sent into this provincial capital. The men here, as everywhere, were of two types. The first consisted of very thin ones, who kept hovering about the ladies. Some of these were of the kind that could be distinguished from their St Petersburg counterparts only with difficulty: they had the same very neatly, carefully considered and tastefully combed side-whiskers, or else simply pleasant-looking, very smooth-shaven ovals for faces. They seated themselves next to the ladies in the same casual way, spoke French in the same way and made the ladies laugh in the same way as in Petersburg. The second type was made up of fat men or of those like Chichikov, that is, not overly fat but not overly thin either. By contrast, these men eyed the ladies askance and steered clear of them, merely looking round to see whether one of the Governor’s servants was setting up a green-baize table for whist somewhere. Their faces were full and round, some even sported warts, a few were pockmarked as well; they wore their hair neither in topknots nor in curls nor, as the French say, in a ‘Devil-may-care’ style; their hair was either cut short or slicked down, their facial features were more rounded and stronger. These were the highly respected officials of the town. Alas! The fat ones of this world know how to manage their affairs better than the thin ones. The thin ones are mostly employed on special assignments or are merely carried on the civil service list, and flit about hither and yon. Their existence is weightless, insubstantial and utterly insecure. The fat men, on the other hand, never occupy peripheral positions but always central ones, and if they do sit down somewhere, then they sit securely and firmly, and the seat would sooner crack and sag beneath them than they would fly off it. They have no liking for external glitter; their tail-coats are not so artfully cut as those of the thin men, yet their coffers are filled with God’s abundance. In three years’ time the thin man will not have a single serf left to him that has not been mortgaged; the fat man goes on in his quiet way, and, lo and behold, suddenly at one end of town there appears a house that’s been purchased in his wife’s name, then at the other end of town another house, then near the town a comfortable little country home, then a village and all that goes with it. At length the fat man, having rendered service to God and Tsar, having earned the respect of one and all, leaves his position, transfers his household and becomes a landowner, a glorious Russian lord and master, the soul of hospitality, and he lives, and lives well. After he is gone, his thin little heirs once again, in the time-honoured Russian way, gallop through the paternal fortune at full tilt.

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