Tientietnikov's good horses covered the ten versts to the General's house in a little over half an hour. Descending from the koliaska with features attuned to deference, Chichikov inquired for the master of the house, and was at once ushered into his presence. Bowing with head held respectfully on one side and hands extended like those of a waiter carrying a trayful of teacups, the visitor inclined his whole body forward, and said:
"I have deemed it my duty to present myself to your Excellency. I have deemed it my duty because in my heart I cherish a most profound respect for the valiant men who, on the field of battle, have proved the saviours of their country."
That this preliminary attack did not wholly displease the General was proved by the fact that, responding with a gracious inclination of the head, he replied:
"I am glad to make your acquaintance. Pray be so good as to take a seat. In what capacity or capacities have you yourself seen service?"
"Of my service," said Chichikov, depositing his form, not exactly in the centre of the chair, but rather on one side of it, and resting a hand upon one of its arms, "—of my service the scene was laid, in the first instance, in the Treasury; while its further course bore me successively into the employ of the Public Buildings Commission, of the Customs Board, and of other Government Offices. But, throughout, my life has resembled a barque tossed on the crests of perfidious billows. In suffering I have been swathed and wrapped until I have come to be, as it were, suffering personified; while of the extent to which my life has been sought by foes, no words, no colouring, no (if I may so express it?) painter's brush could ever convey to you an adequate idea. And now, at length, in my declining years, I am seeking a corner in which to eke out the remainder of my miserable existence, while at the present moment I am enjoying the hospitality of a neighbour of your acquaintance."
"And who is that?"
"Your neighbour Tientietnikov, your Excellency."
Upon that the General frowned.
"Led me add," put in Chichikov hastily, "that he greatly regrets that on a former occasion he should have failed to show a proper respect for—for—"
"For what?" asked the General.
"For the services to the public which your Excellency has rendered. Indeed, he cannot find words to express his sorrow, but keeps repeating to himself: 'Would that I had valued at their true worth the men who have saved our fatherland!'"
"And why should he say that?" asked the mollified General. "I bear him no grudge. In fact, I have never cherished aught but a sincere liking for him, a sincere esteem, and do not doubt but that, in time, he may become a useful member of society."
"In the words which you have been good enough to utter," said Chichikov with a bow, "there is embodied much justice. Yes, Tientietnikov is in very truth a man of worth. Not only does he possess the gift of eloquence, but also he is a master of the pen."
"Ah, yes; he DOES write rubbish of some sort, doesn't he? Verses, or something of the kind?"
"Not rubbish, your Excellency, but practical stuff. In short, he is inditing a history."
"A HISTORY? But a history of what?"
"A history of, of—" For a moment or two Chichikov hesitated. Then, whether because it was a General that was seated in front of him, or because he desired to impart greater importance to the subject which he was about to invent, he concluded: "A history of Generals, your Excellency."
"Of Generals? Of WHAT Generals?"
"Of Generals generally—of Generals at large. That is to say, and to be more precise, a history of the Generals of our fatherland."
By this time Chichikov was floundering badly. Mentally he spat upon himself and reflected: "Gracious heavens! What rubbish I am talking!"
"Pardon me," went on his interlocutor, "but I do not quite understand you. Is Tientietnikov producing a history of a given period, or only a history made up of a series of biographies? Also, is he including ALL our Generals, or only those who took part in the campaign of 1812?"
"The latter, your Excellency—only the Generals of 1812," replied Chichikov. Then he added beneath his breath: "Were I to be killed for it, I could not say what that may be supposed to mean."
"Then why should he not come and see me in person?" went on his host. "Possibly I might be able to furnish him with much interesting material?"
"He is afraid to come, your Excellency."
"Nonsense! Just because of a hasty word or two! I am not that sort of man at all. In fact, I should be very happy to call upon HIM."
"Never would he permit that, your Excellency. He would greatly prefer to be the first to make advances." And Chichikov added to himself: "What a stroke of luck those Generals were! Otherwise, the Lord knows where my tongue might have landed me!"
At this moment the door into the adjoining room opened, and there appeared in the doorway a girl as fair as a ray of the sun—so fair, indeed, that Chichikov stared at her in amazement. Apparently she had come to speak to her father for a moment, but had stopped short on perceiving that there was some one with him. The only fault to be found in her appearance was the fact that she was too thin and fragile-looking.
"May I introduce you to my little pet?" said the General to Chichikov. "To tell you the truth, I do not know your name."
"That you should be unacquainted with the name of one who has never distinguished himself in the manner of which you yourself can boast is scarcely to be wondered at." And Chichikov executed one of his sidelong, deferential bows.
"Well, I should be delighted to know it."
"It is Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov, your Excellency." With that went the easy bow of a military man and the agile backward movement of an india-rubber ball.
"Ulinka, this is Paul Ivanovitch," said the General, turning to his daughter. "He has just told me some interesting news—namely, that our neighbour Tientietnikov is not altogether the fool we had at first thought him. On the contrary, he is engaged upon a very important work—upon a history of the Russian Generals of 1812."
"But who ever supposed him to be a fool?" asked the girl quickly. "What happened was that you took Vishnepokromov's word—the word of a man who is himself both a fool and a good-for-nothing."
"Well, well," said the father after further good-natured dispute on the subject of Vishnepokromov. "Do you now run away, for I wish to dress for luncheon. And you, sir," he added to Chichikov, "will you not join us at table?"
Chichikov bowed so low and so long that, by the time that his eyes had ceased to see nothing but his own boots, the General's daughter had disappeared, and in her place was standing a bewhiskered butler, armed with a silver soap-dish and a hand-basin.
"Do you mind if I wash in your presence?" asked the host.
"By no means," replied Chichikov. "Pray do whatsoever you please in that respect."
Upon that the General fell to scrubbing himself—incidentally, to sending soapsuds flying in every direction. Meanwhile he seemed so favourably disposed that Chichikov decided to sound him then and there, more especially since the butler had left the room.
"May I put to you a problem?" he asked.
"Certainly," replied the General. "What is it?"
"It is this, your Excellency. I have a decrepit old uncle who owns three hundred souls and two thousand roubles-worth of other property. Also, except for myself, he possesses not a single heir. Now, although his infirm state of health will not permit of his managing his property in person, he will not allow me either to manage it. And the reason for his conduct—his very strange conduct—he states as follows: 'I do not know my nephew, and very likely he is a spendthrift. If he wishes to show me that he is good for anything, let him go and acquire as many souls as _I_ have acquired; and when he has done that I will transfer to him my three hundred souls as well."
"The man must be an absolute fool," commented the General.
"Possibly. And were that all, things would not be as bad as they are. But, unfortunately, my uncle has gone and taken up with his housekeeper, and has had children by her. Consequently, everything will now pass to THEM."
"The old man must have taken leave of his senses," remarked the General. "Yet how _I_ can help you I fail to see."
"Well, I have thought of a plan. If you will hand me over all the dead souls on your estate—hand them over to me exactly as though they were still alive, and were purchasable property—I will offer them to the old man, and then he will leave me his fortune."
At this point the General burst into a roar of laughter such as few can ever have heard. Half-dressed, he subsided into a chair, threw back his head, and guffawed until he came near to choking. In fact, the house shook with his merriment, so much so that the butler and his daughter came running into the room in alarm.
It was long before he could produce a single articulate word; and even when he did so (to reassure his daughter and the butler) he kept momentarily relapsing into spluttering chuckles which made the house ring and ring again.
Chichikov was greatly taken aback.
"Oh, that uncle!" bellowed the General in paroxysms of mirth. "Oh, that blessed uncle! WHAT a fool he'll look! Ha, ha, ha! Dead souls offered him instead of live ones! Oh, my goodness!"
"I suppose I've put my foot in it again," ruefully reflected Chichikov. "But, good Lord, what a man the fellow is to laugh! Heaven send that he doesn't burst of it!"
"Ha, ha, ha!" broke out the General afresh. "WHAT a donkey the old man must be! To think of his saying to you: 'You go and fit yourself out with three hundred souls, and I'll cap them with my own lot'! My word! What a jackass!"
"A jackass, your Excellency?"
"Yes, indeed! And to think of the jest of putting him off with dead souls! Ha, ha, ha! WHAT wouldn't I give to see you handing him the title deeds? Who is he? What is he like? Is he very old?"
"He is eighty, your Excellency."
"But still brisk and able to move about, eh? Surely he must be pretty strong to go on living with his housekeeper like that?"
"Yes. But what does such strength mean? Sand runs away, your Excellency."
"The old fool! But is he really such a fool?"
"Yes, your Excellency."
"And does he go out at all? Does he see company? Can he still hold himself upright?"
"Yes, but with great difficulty."
"And has he any teeth left?"
"No more than two at the most."
"The old jackass! Don't be angry with me, but I must say that, though your uncle, he is also a jackass."
"Quite so, your Excellency. And though it grieves ME to have to confess that he is my uncle, what am I to do with him?"
Yet this was not altogether the truth. What would have been a far harder thing for Chichikov to have confessed was the fact that he possessed no uncles at all.
"I beg of you, your Excellency," he went on, "to hand me over those, those—"
"Those dead souls, eh? Why, in return for the jest I will give you some land as well. Yes, you can take the whole graveyard if you like. Ha, ha, ha! The old man! Ha, ha, ha! WHAT a fool he'll look! Ha, ha, ha!"
And once more the General's guffaws went ringing through the house.