The man in the carriage was not handsome. In repose, his face was plain, his features irregular in a regular way. He was neither fat nor thin, and his age rested in the unremarkable crevice between youth and middle age. The only intricacies of his person were the smoked-lens glasses perched on his nose and the faint lines around his mouth. Even these were not unusual, speaking only of a man with delicate eyes and an expression prone to sneering.
His companion was more inherently interesting, perhaps because his entire being was set in opposition to the first. The first man had blond hair; the second was dark. The first man wore dusty black; the second a boldly red coat, and an even bolder blue waistcoat. The second man had broader shoulders, and a more youthful and appealing face. In almost deliberate counterpoint, he was smiling.
When certain people smile, it feels like the sun is shining from behind a cathedral, lighting up a beautiful and incredible structure built only for celebration. These smiles draw people in and render them speechless, waiting with tongues clasped lightly between their teeth as they wait for the owner of the smile to make some ineffable pronouncement.
The second man had the ability to produce such a smile, but it was wasted on the first. His current smile was a little ironic, and immeasurably less powerful.
The arrival of these men to the town of N---- caused some commotion in the streets, but not because of the men themselves. In fact, the men in the carriage could not be seen through the tinted windows of the box. It was the drivers the peasants gawked at, crossing themselves as the carriage passed.
An especially enterprising peasant even tossed a rock at the carriage, which thudded against the box and was ignored by both the drivers and the first man. The second sighed and shook his head, more sorrowed than frightened.
"You overdid it on the lacquer," said the second man, whose name was Horst. "I did try to tell you."
"Denzel had already lost an ear," said the first man, whose name was Johannes. "You didn't have any cogent solutions."
"Burial," suggested Horst.
"Please," said Johannes. "Who would drive?"
"I could." Horst had the air of someone reading a script. This discussion had occupied several hours of the journey, and the points of debate were honed to their simplest forms.
"It's more efficient to travel during the day," said Johannes.
"You could," said Horst.
Johannes snorted. You may find this a poor response, but it was really all the response Horst deserved.
The carriage entered the courtyard of the inn and drew to a halt. Johannes and Horst waited some moments for the inn-servant to open the carriage door and usher them inside, but no inn-servant was forthcoming. Finally Horst sighed again, stepped out of the carriage, and entered the inn unprompted. Johannes lingered for a moment outside, considering his drivers.
The reader might find it worthwhile to get acquainted with these two serfs belonging to our protagonist, although they play only peripheral roles in the narrative. A German author might spend several pages describing Dennis and Denzil, elucidating every detail of their lives in exacting detail. A Russian author might content themselves with a few lush paragraphs to convey the specificity of the human condition. The present author, however, is neither German nor Russian and is also not writing a novel.
It will be enough to say that there are servants who have complex inner lives, quite separate from the needs of their employers. They have hobbies, they have quirks, they have personalities. It would be a disservice to claim that Dennis and Denzil were devoid of personality—certainly they had enthusiasm. So much was obvious from the broad immobile grins and the wide unblinking eyes.
Johannes was inclined to agree that the lacquer had been a mistake, but long habit prevented him from showing weakness in front of Horst. He instructed Dennis and Denzil to put the horses away in the stable, and joined his companion in the inn.
Horst waved when Johannes stepped through the door. He was holding the inn-servant's elbow in a friendly but implacable grip.
"They were hiding in the back room, but I explained that we were harmless." Horst chuckled, and the inn-servant smiled weakly as he furtively tried to free his arm.
The inn-servant showed them to their room, took their order for dinner, and consented to replace the pillows with something less like plaster in a sack. He also asked, rather tremulously, if the gentlemen might write down their identities for the hotel to pass on to the authorities.
This might seem odd, and Johannes had reacted very badly the first time an inn-servant had made such a request. But Russia during this period was suspicious of travelers, and more suspicious of travelers who refused to identify themselves. Even those travelers who would identify themselves had to contend with further annoyances, especially if they had multiple warrants for their arrest in multiple countries, on charges ranging from endangering the public health to arson. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I advise you to take the path of least resistance and give a false name.
This is what Johannes did. After some consideration, he wrote Johannes Gottfriedson Schmidt, Horst Gottfriedson Schmidt, landowners, on private business.
"Not your most imaginative work," said Horst, in German so as not to disturb the inn-servant.
"You're foreigners?" asked the inn-servant, though his voice suggested no surprise. Horst and Johannes both spoke Russian quite fluently, but their accents were unmistakable.
"We are touring your beautiful country." Horst turned both his attention and his smile on the inn-servant. "And making many new friends. Perhaps you could tell us about the landowners in this area?"
The brothers who called themselves Schmidt ate in the dining room with the other guests. Johannes occupied his meal with reading, while Horst made himself pleasant to the company, asking after his fellow travelers' business and interests. In the blinding light of Horst's smile, it was difficult to notice Johannes turning pages with one hand and eating soup with the other, occasionally cursing to himself when a fleck of broth escaped his spoon to stain the parchment.
After dinner the brothers went out to explore the town, which was a serviceable yet unremarkable place. Johannes came back to their room just after midnight, though light shone under the door until almost two. Horst stumbled in just before dawn, cheerfully flushed in a way that made the inn-servant think indulgently of the drunken nights of his own youth.
In the morning, as might be expected, Johannes went out and Horst remained in his bed.
"You must not disturb my brother," Johannes told the inn-servant for at least the third time. "Our servants will see to him if he needs anything."
The inn-servant winced. It was good that Dennis and Denzil were content to sleep in the carriage, because their welcome in the servant's quarters would not have been warm.
"Do not go into the room for any reason." Johannes paired this instruction with a few kopecks, and the inn-servant gladly agreed.
When Johannes returned in the evening, the door to his room was still undisturbed. He entered quietly, and suppressed a flinch when he saw Horst's open eyes glittering in the dark room.
"Any luck?" asked Horst.
"We've been invited to a party," said Johannes with distaste. Horst practically sprang from the bed.
Johannes changed into evening dress that much resembled his morning clothes, while Horst washed his face, shaved, trimmed his eyebrows, and polished his teeth. Then Horst cornered Johannes and held him in place while Horst washed Johannes' face, calmed his eyebrows, and plucked a few stray hairs from the back of his neck. Finally, Horst dressed in his best clothes, and bullied Johannes out of his dusty black coat and into a gray-blue tailcoat.
The inn-servant, who had brought the hot water and was thus privileged to observe this ritual, was very impressed. It took tremendous agility and skill to avoid Johannes' subtle attempts to stamp on his brother's toes.
At the governor's soiree, the brothers slid into the milieu like a brick thrown into a fountain. The governor was surprisingly pleased to see Johannes again, after Johannes had visited him in his office that morning. He was gratified in his graciousness when Johannes introduced Horst and Horst bestowed one of his exquisite smiles on both the governor and his wife.
"You are the younger brother, I assume?" asked the governor. "Learning your brother's business?"
Horst laughed. "I'm afraid I'm the elder, though I am helping Johannes with his affairs."
The governor turned a curious eye on Johannes, comparing his lined face with Horst's smooth one. "Hard living," said Johannes, and the governor's wife laughed even though it was hardly a joke.
Horst joined the gentlemen and ladies on the dancefloor, and was soon in very high demand. Johannes stood to one side, watching, but was soon greeted by an acquaintance. He had spent the day touring the offices of every public official he could think of, and they were all at the soiree. The acquaintance took him to the whist table, where Johannes stoically and methodically lost until even the most taciturn man was brimming with affection for him. He became great friends with the landowners Manilov and Sobakevich, though this friendship consisted largely of Manilov and Sobakevich talking while Johannes looked at them inscrutably from behind his smoked-lens glasses. Manilov was entirely endeared to a man who could lose so much money and look only a little bored. He imagined Johannes had hidden depths of emotion, which Manilov might unlock with his vast seas of fellow-feeling. Sobakevich was also attracted by Johannes' willingness to send good money after bad, for somewhat more mercenary reasons.
"You must come and visit me," said Manilov, between hands of whist. "Have you seen a real rural manor? Mine is only ten miles from town, but so quaint, so picaresque."
"I would be very happy to visit." Johannes spoke a little stiffly, which might charitably be attributed to a German's carefulness with a foreign tongue. That was how Manilov took it, so thrilled by Johannes’ acquiescence that he gabbled out his address, approximate directions, and even the color and design of his home.
"Come and see me too," suggested Sobakevich, and Johannes agreed.
"You have large estates?" he asked, almost as an afterthought.
"Oh, large enough," said Manilov. "I think Sobakevich's is larger."
"And you have many peasants?" pressed Johannes.
"Not as many as I used to," grumbled Sobakevich, and for some reason this made Johannes smile.
His smile was not nearly as transcendent as Horst's, but it was uncommonly complex. Tragedy might be divined from the corner of Johannes' mouth, leavened with arrogance and satisfaction. Manilov was enraptured.
The astute reader may have already puzzled out Johannes' goal, but I beg other readers to be patient. This story is short, and while the denouement is perhaps not a crown on the whole experience, it is at least a nice-looking hat.
After a week of socializing, Horst was energized and Johannes exhausted. Horst had danced with dozens of women and left several ladies with dazed but happy memories of a furtive encounter in a dark alcove. Johannes had lost a lot of money at whist.
"I don't understand why it's so important to lose," said Johannes.
"Do you like people who win all the time?" Horst smiled. "Don't answer that, I already know how you feel about me."
Johannes' reply was cut short by the carriage thumping over a rut. They were on the way to Manilov's lands, and Dennis and Denzil were making haste.
"Try not to hit every hole in the road," called Johannes.
Dennis crooned wordlessly to the horses and guided the carriage directly into a puddle.
In this part and time of Russia, only two miles out of town would transport you to a bucolic world, unchanged for centuries. Groves of ancient forest, surrounded by farms spotted with cattle. Peasants sitting on fences, smoking if they had the money and the inclination for it, and drinking if they did not. Horst looked at the blacked windows, wishing idly that he could watch this scenery amble by. Johannes closed his eyes, wishing fervently that he was less nauseated by the motion of the carriage and could pass the time by reading.
After ten miles, there was still no sign of Manilov's town or manor, and Johannes persuaded Dennis and Denzil to stop so they might ask for directions. They found a likely-looking peasant drinking at his fence. He tried to flee, but the sun had set and Horst didn't have much trouble catching him.
"I don't want to die," whimpered the peasant, whose name was Maksim. This is not important to the story, but the author finds it more interesting to write 'Maksim' than 'the peasant.'
"Yes, it's a common sentiment," said Johannes. "I wonder if you could tell us the way to Zamanilovka?"
"There's no such place," said Maksim, and then screamed when Horst jostled him.
"I was just switching arms," said Horst, who was now holding Maksim aloft with his left instead of his right.
“What do you meant, there’s no such place?” asked Johannes.
“Perhaps you mistook the name,” said Horst and shrugged, which made Maksim shriek again.
Johannes shot Horst a poisonous look, which was quite invisible behind his smoked-lens glasses. He returned his attention to Maksim, who was now gibbering quietly to himself. "Do you know the landowner Manilov?"
"Oh." Maksim relaxed marginally, realizing his superiority of knowledge over these foreigners. "You mean Manilovka, there's no such place as Zamanilovka."
Horst raised his eyebrows. "Well, how do we get to Manilovka?"
"It's not far. Just go to the right, on the side road, and drive straight on and you'll soon see Manilovka. But if you'd like to go to Zamanilovka I'm afraid you can't because—"
Horst dropped Maksim, but Maksim had quite forgotten his terror and followed the brothers back to their carriage.
"Did someone tell you to go to Zamanilovka? Because they must have been pulling your leg. Unless you misheard, but I can’t think that—"
Johannes shut the door in Maksim's face.
It was another ten miles before they saw Manilov's house, a beautiful stone building set into the hill on which it was built.
"Just in time for dinner," said Horst, glancing out at the sky and observing the rising moon. "Do you think they'll have borscht?"
"You can't eat... borscht," said Johannes.
"There's a difference between 'can't digest,' and 'can't eat,'" said Horst without rancor. "I like beets."
Manilov was at the house steps to meet them, almost bouncing with excitement. "You're here! You really came!"
"Thank you so much for the invitation," began Horst, but Manilov only had eyes for Johannes.
It is difficult to describe men like Manilov, because they change so depending on the company. Among people he knew intimately, Manilov was quiet and amiable, smiling gently and thinking his own thoughts as he feigned attention. Among acquaintances, however, especially acquaintances with fascinating hidden depths, Manilov was exuberant. He had so much to share, so much to learn, and he knew that if he only said the right thing it would be like a key fitting into a lock and the acquaintance would be his friend for life. It would be mistaken to say Manilov collected friends, because that implies a calculating and acquisitive mind. Manilov gathered friends to his chest like a child clutches at a new toy, driven by impulse and apt to tire of the experience abruptly and unexpectedly.
At the moment, Manilov was still on an upswing. He accordingly greeted Johannes with a kiss.
Cheek kisses are common among friends in Germany even today, but Horst and Johannes were raised in England where the closest companions get by with a firm handshake and possibly a hug. Even in Russia, Manilov was a little forward in his eagerness to demonstrate his affection for Johannes. Johannes was shocked and immobile, but Manilov was determined enough for both of them. Their mouths met and their teeth clicked together.
Horst laughed so hard he nearly choked, and had to lean against the carriage as he pounded his chest.
"I'm so glad you're here," said Manilov.
"Hnn?" said Johannes.
Manilov seized his hand. "You must meet my wife!"
"Hngh?" said Johannes, and was dragged into the manor at a brisk trot. Manilov restrained himself from breaking into a run, but only barely.
Horst had another fit, but he recovered shortly and directed Dennis and Denzil to the stable to care for the horses.
"I’m so glad I don't actually have to breathe," he remarked to the drivers, who nodded with perfect understanding.
Inside, Manilov introduced Johannes to his wife, his children, the tutor, the servants, the dogs, and the piano. Johannes dazedly intoned "very nice to meet you" to everyone, including the dogs. He also pressed a key on the piano, unsure how else to react, and became engaged in explaining to Manilov that he really and truly didn't know how to play.
"I hope he didn't leave you standing outside," Manilov's wife told Horst, who trailed after his brother with frequent breaks for mysterious coughing fits.
"Only for a moment." Horst kissed her hand. "You have a lovely home."
Mrs. Manilov smiled and glanced again at her husband, who was now trying to find an instrument Johannes could play. "He'll calm down in a minute. We so rarely have visitors."
Manilov did calm down during dinner, and by ten or eleven he was persuaded to talk business.
"This isn't the only reason you came to see me, is it?" Manilov conducted the brothers into his study, looking at Johannes pleadingly.
"Of course," began Johannes, and then grunted as Horst trod on the back of his foot. "Not. Of course not. But I'm afraid it is important."
"Oh, I would love to hear about anything important to you." Manilov put Johannes in a fine armchair, and after some consideration guided Horst to the only other chair—a straight-backed, wooden affair. Manilov himself sat on the desk. It was clear he'd never expected to have more than one guest at a time. Manilov's obsessions rarely came with brothers attached.
"Then let me get straight to the point," said Johannes. "When did you last make your census reports for tax purposes?"
Manilov lit his pipe, looking at Johannes anxiously to see if he wanted any or if the smoke bothered him. After a moment, he realized a response was expected. "Oh, a while ago, I think."
"And have many peasants died since then?"
"I expect so."
Manilov shrugged. "Would you like something to drink?"
Johannes gritted his teeth, then glanced at Horst and forced his expression back into smoothness. "Could you find out how many?"
Manilov called for the bailiff and busied himself with finding glasses and vodka. He poured drinks for both of his guests, quite proud of himself for remembering Horst's presence.
Johannes sipped his drink. Horst took his in one mouthful, and complimented the smoothness. Manilov peered at Johannes' glass-shielded eyes, and wondered if this peasant business would reveal Johannes' depths.
The bailiff, when pressed, thought there were nearly fifty peasants listed in the last census who were now dead.
"I would like to buy them," said Johannes.
"Buy peasants?" Manilov topped up their glasses. "I'll give you a few as a gift! What kind of workers do you need?"
"You misunderstand," said Johannes, slow and deliberate. "I should like to have the dead ones."
Manilov dropped the bottle, but it traveled only a few inches before it was caught by Horst. Odd, that—Horst had been sitting comfortably some feet away.
"These dead souls are a burden to you." Horst set the bottle on the desk. "You have to pay taxes on them until the new census, and dead men cannot work. My brother would like to relieve you of this burden."
"You want the bodies?" asked Manilov, still staring at Johannes.
"No. Well, if there are any that are fresh—"
"No," interrupted Horst. "We only want the names on paper, on a purchase deed. The bodies may stay in the ground, but the souls will be transferred to our land."
Manilov still hesitated. If this was Johannes' hidden depths, he didn't understand it. "Is this legal?"
"Entirely," said Horst. "We have blank purchase deeds prepared, and we can fill them out as if the men were still alive. Until the new census, they are alive, do you see? Legally speaking. Still in purgatory."
Manilov tapped his teeth and drank a little more. It was a question of legality, he said, and of course if they said it was legal it must be so. He could never doubt Johannes' rectitude. But it felt odd, letting go of these men in death, when he had owned them always in life.
Johannes took off his glasses. I wrote, at the beginning of this story, that Johannes was plain in repose. Now, however, he was arresting. His light blue eyes pierced Manilov to the quick, pinning him in place and seeing every cog of his inner workings. Manilov felt known, and regretted it. He wished his inner life was more interesting and more engrossing, that Johannes might look at him like that a little longer.
Johannes steeled himself, and put his hand on Manilov's own. "It would mean a great deal to me if you could part with them."
Manilov sighed, his hand turning over so his fingers might twine with Johannes'. "Then they are yours. A gift!"
Johannes raised his eyebrows, and a smile twitched over his lips. "You really want nothing for them?"
"You have given me so much!" Manilov leapt from the desk and waved his free hand, beaming. "A night of your company, your conversation, your time. If you wish to have these souls, they are yours."
'Kiss him,' mouthed Horst, who had a socialite's sense for a good story. Johannes merely clasped Manilov's hand with both of his own and thanked him sincerely—an action that shocked Horst almost as much as if Johannes had actually followed his advice.
In a proper novel, you would hear the full stories of the next several days. How Johannes and Horst got lost on the way to Sobakevich's house, because they unthinkingly trusted Dennis and Denzil to retain directions within their well-preserved but lifeless brains. How the brothers passed a night at the widow Korobochka's house, and Johannes browbeat her into selling some dead souls, but was forced to buy several baskets of hemp as part of the bargain. How they met the rogue Nozdriov and tried to bargain with him, which ended poorly when Nozdriov cheated at checkers and Johannes tried to shoot him before Horst intervened. How Nozdriov ordered his servants to beat the brothers black and blue, at which point Horst lost his temper and threw Nozdriov out a window. How they finally reached Sobakevich, and Horst, through feats of prodigious haggling, bought a parcel of souls for two and a half rubles each. How they met the miser Pliushkin and bought not only dead souls but fugitive ones from him at only thirty-two kopecks, and Pliushkin was happy to get it. How they wended their way back to N----, dozing with their heads knocking into each other and nearly four hundred souls waiting only for the purchase order to be filed with the local judge.
Happy is the writer who can dedicate their life to their craft; to take a simple story and spin golden details into every thread. Their beautiful lot is to give the reader joy with every unexpected sentence, every observation which seems to spring from nowhere, yet elucidates the very essence of the reader's life. They are acclaimed as a poet, a satirist, a scholar. The academics pick through the master's work, holding up this detail or that as new evidence of their genius—both the genius of the author, and the genius of the academics. Young students trudge through their work on assignment, yet are sometimes charmed by the author's little asides, all the more beguiling because assigned reading takes on a gray quality that obscures all but the brightest gems.
But how unlike is the lot, and how different is the fate, of the writer who is in the middle of their dissertation and really has no more time to waste on this nonsense of a pastiche. Such a writer takes shortcuts, and lets a first draft pass for a fourth. They receive not the applause of a nation, but only a few bemused comments and an exasperated email from their advisor. For today's readers recognize genius when they see it, and there is no sign of it here.
I am almost inclined to abandon the story now, but I have promised the patient reader a resolution, and they shall have it. Let us return to our heroes as they awake, stirred by a particularly large rut which has cracked their heads together like two fleshy coconuts.
"I said gently!" Johannes thumped on the front of the box with his cane, rubbing at his skull with his free hand. "Mind the bumps!"
Denzil made a rather beautiful noise, like whale song. It was not appreciated.
"As soon as this is over, I'm making proper servants," said Johannes.
"I hope you meant hire?" Horst idly paged through the deeds of purchase, already drawn up and ready to submit.
"Why rent when you can own?" asked Johannes. "It's not as if anyone were using the bodies."
"Mhm. Perhaps when you have your soul back you'll recognize everything wrong with that sentence." Horst considered for a moment. "Or perhaps not. Do you think the devil will really take these deeds as substitute for actual souls?"
"I don't see why not. They'll belong to me, legal and binding, and there's four times as many as he asked for."
"What about the carnival?"
"What about the carnival? It was Satan's idea—I never said I'd use it." Johannes smiled to himself. "If he didn't want me to take a train to Russia and use a loophole in the serfdom system, he should have said so."
"Not even free in death." Horst ruffled the deeds, his natural joie de vivre replaced by pensiveness. "Have you looked at these lists Sobakevich wrote? 'Stepan the Cork, Carpenter, of exemplary sobriety.' Surely he doesn't belong in Hell."
Johannes took the stack away from his brother, careful not to damage any pages. "If he’s already in heaven, I doubt Satan has the authority to reclaim him."
"Isn't that what you're trying to do to her?"
Johannes ground his teeth. "You cannot divine a man's character from a few words. A man can be sober and still sin. Probably most of these serfs already reside in Hell. If I give Satan the deeds to souls he already owns, that still meets the terms of our agreement."
Horst subsided, sensing he would have no success in persuading Johannes to let these souls go. "We still have to make it through the bureaucracy."
Johannes made a noise that had probably been a laugh in a previous life. "Believe me, after the bureaucracy of Hell, Russia's will be no obstacle."
It will come as no surprise to the astute reader that the town of N----'s bureaucracy prided itself on its qualities as an obstacle. It was immovable, insensate, and unsympathetic. Johannes had neither the right forms nor the right attitude. It was only with a liberal application of rubles and Horst's charm and mesmerism that Johannes met with any success at all.
But there was success, and in the end Johannes Cabal had his four hundred souls, to supposedly be resettled in a plot of land in the Kherson Province and in actuality taken down to hell in order to satisfy a wager made with Satan.
The patient reader will be satisfied with that, I suppose, the mere revelation of Johannes' scheme. But the curious reader will want to know what happened next.
"We will leave tonight for Hell," said Johannes, looking at a map spread across the desk in their room. "The easiest entry will be—"
"Tonight?" Horst's voice was tinged with wistfulness.
Johannes narrowed his eyes. "Why not tonight?"
"Good." Johannes drew his finger across the map. "There's an easy access point in Saint Petersburg, but the nearest crossing is—"
Horst sighed. It was almost performative in its carelessness, and was certainly showy in its volume.
Johannes ground his teeth. "What?"
"I hate to waste a night traveling when we could do something fun tonight and sleep in the cab tomorrow."
"And you would suggest?"
Horst smiled. "The governor's ball is tonight."
"No," said Johannes.
"The horses are still tired from wandering the countryside."
"No," said Johannes.
"One of the carriage wheels need to be replaced."
"No," said Johannes.
"I could really use a snack before we get on the road."
"No," said Johannes.
While Johannes was repeating himself, Horst was methodically changing from the clothes of a young man who charmed bureaucrats into the clothes of a young man who charmed gentlewomen.
"Oh, and we'll have to pack," said Horst, tying his cravat.
"We were packed." Johannes looked at the devastation wrought amongst the suitcases by Horst trying to locate his best waistcoat.
"You still have seven months left on your wager." Horst tossed a pair of trousers and a shirt at Johannes' head. "The devil won't give you any bonus for early completion."
Johannes begrudgingly deigned to change. "But we leave before dawn."
"Or tomorrow evening," suggested Horst.
Johannes found the ball just as tedious as the previous party. Without the need for further souls, socializing was pointless. He drank a little, and perused the canapes. Finally, seeking a place where he could avoid the enraptured eyes of Manilov, Johannes sat behind a statue and tried to mentally call Horst to him so they could leave.
Horst's psychic powers were largely unknown and undefined, even to Horst himself. It was unclear whether Horst was unable to detect Johannes' summons, or simply ignored them.
Horst had disappeared into the crowded dance floor almost as soon as they had arrived, and apparently would have to be physically retrieved. Johannes weighed his desire to leave against his desire to avoid the crush, and found himself uncharacteristically paralyzed by indecision.
While he sat thinking, two women stood on the other side of the statue and conversed. The statue was large and solid marble, representing a lion, an elephant, or some fever-dream combination of the two. Fortunately for Johannes and unfortunately for the ladies, it was more than enough to conceal a seated man who could then listen to private conversation.
"It's really so exciting," said the first lady, who was slight and thin and adjusted her kokoshnik idly every five seconds.
"Is it?" asked the second lady, who was tall and stout and looked as if she would like to knock the kokoshnik from the thin lady's hair.
"These Schmidt brothers could be anyone." The thin lady fluttered her hands before pushing at her kokoshnik again. "There are so many rumors! They come from Germany, or England, or even America. They are spies, or thieves, or millionaires. Nozdriov—"
"That rogue, yes, says Johannes Schmidt tried to buy dead men from him, and Horst Schmidt threw him out a window."
"Threw Johannes out a window?"
The stout lady chuckled. "Well, who could blame him? Which one is Johannes and which is Horst?"
"Johannes wears dark glasses all the time, even at night, he's unmistakable. Horst is the one with the lovely face."
Both ladies took a moment to recall and contemplate Horst's lovely face, which would have gratified Horst if he had known. Johannes vowed to never mention it to his brother.
"Of course, Nozdriov has never told the truth in his life," continued the thin lady, "but there are others. The governor's wife thinks Johannes Schmidt plans to kidnap her daughter, and the governor thinks Horst Schmidt will elope with his wife. The town officials all had a long meeting about it this afternoon, and the postmaster convinced them Horst Schmidt is really the heroic Captain Kopeikin, only Kopeikin was missing an arm and a leg..."
"I've heard one of them might be Napoleon in disguise," offered the stout lady. "Perhaps that's why they wear dark glasses all the time."
"Only Johannes wears glasses," corrected the thin lady. "And he is simply too tall to be Napoleon."
"How do you know how tall Napoleon is? You've never met him."
"I've seen portraits—"
A third lady joined them, this one of middling size. "I've just heard the most amazing thing about the Schmidt brothers."
"What a coincidence," said the thin lady. "We were just speaking of them."
"It's hardly a coincidence when no one can speak of anything else," said the stout lady. "What's this, then?"
"My maid's sister's grocer was talking to the inn-servant," said the middling lady in hushed tones, "and he said the Schmidt brothers travel two corpses as servants, and Horst Schmidt is never seen during the day. He says Horst is a vampire."
Silence greeted this pronouncement, but then was broken by the stout lady's snorting laugh.
"The inn-servant must be a drunk," she said. "Horst Schmidt a vampire, and Johannes, what, a thrall?"
This last accusation was the last straw. Johannes rose from his seat and pushed past the ladies, not even excusing himself as they stared astonished at his back. He sought Horst among the dancers, ignoring the ladies who coyly courted outrage by asking this scandalous stranger for a turn on the floor. He sought Horst among the cardplayers, who begged Johannes to take a seat and lose more of his rubles. He even sought Horst among the canapes, which Horst could consume but not digest. Finally, in exasperation, he turned to Manilov.
"Horst? I'm afraid I hadn't noticed him." As the reader has doubtless observed, Manilov noticed little other than Johannes at the moment. It is fortunate his wife was endeared to such infatuation, rather than resentful of it; in fact, she relished the chance to hand Manilov off to another for a few days or weeks. At most parties Manilov was always hanging from her arm, vying for her attention. Tonight she was relaxing and playing durak with her friends, clearly the happiest person in this story.
"I must find him," said Johannes. "We need to leave." He regretted the words as soon as he'd said them. Manilov's laments and protests were only interrupted by a high-pitched screaming from the other end of the hall.
Johannes ran toward the screams, partly to escape Manilov, but largely because he suspected Horst would be at the source.
The governor's wife had opened the door to one of the sitting rooms, and found her daughter and Horst alone inside. This would be enough for some screaming, but the particular sustained and hysteric quality of these screams was due to the blood running down Horst's chin.
Horst made a spirited attempt to convince both governor's wife and growing crowd of onlookers that the blood was from a nose-bleed. This explanation was undermined by the governor's daughter's swooning state and the twin puncture wounds on her neck.
One of the more enterprising onlookers actually shot at Horst. Horst dodged with inhuman speed, and the bullet shattered an exquisite antique vase instead. The governor's wife continued to scream, this time at the man with the gun.
It was this scene that greeted Johannes, Manilov close at his heels. Johannes pushed his way to the front of the crowd. Deliberately, he removed his glasses.
"In the sitting room?" he asked.
"I thought the door was locked," said Horst.
"You might have waited until you were sure," said Johannes.
"I've waited for ages," said Horst. "When you have a lovely and willing lady sitting in your lap it's very hard to say 'no, just a moment, let me get up and shove a chair under the doorknob.' I know you haven't much experience with these situations, but if you could spare some empathy—"
The governor's wife was screaming again, this time because her daughter was listing sluggishly toward the floor. Horst caught the daughter's arm and guided her to lie on the chaise lounge instead. The governor's wife did not moderate her screaming.
"She's fine." Horst sounded testy at first, but he caught himself and continued in more ingratiating tones. "She just needs some fluids, perhaps some punch?"
It was far too late for punch. Vampire was muttered across the crowd; despite the governor's wife's protests a few people were tearing apart a chair to make wooden stakes. The rogue Nozdriov, gloriously vindicated, was trying to set fire to a makeshift torch of ladies' kokoshnik veils mounted on a long meat-fork.
Johannes spun to face the crowd, his burning-cold eyes flicking across them. "Stand back! I am the infamous necromancer, Johannes Cabal, and this is my familiar."
"I think you've mispronounced family," muttered Horst, but his words were lost in the rumblings of the crowd.
"If any of you will take a step closer," Johannes raised his voice to be heard, "I will summon demons and spirits to destroy you. This house will be burned to the ground. Horst will tear your throats out."
"Probably true," admitted Horst. "But only if provoked."
"Or you can take a step back," said Johannes. The crowd hushed, hanging on his words, and Johannes lowered his own voice until they strained to hear him. "And we will leave this town, never to return."
Governor's wife looked at postmaster, town clerk traded glances with the chief of police. It is difficult to make the first move, especially when you will carry all of your friends with you. The author has enough trouble deciding what restaurant to choose for dinner; if I were to choose between fighting a necromancer and letting him free to ravage the countryside, I imagine I would also hesitate, and wait, and hope others would make the choice in my stead.
In the thoughtful, pregnant silence, Manilov almost cried from the fullness of his heart. He had given himself over to so many things: gardening, the writing of Taras Shevchenko, and even, during a particularly misguided weekend, to the adoration of that rogue Nozdriov. Eventually all of them became mundane, tedious, predictable. Manilov would turn away from them, leaving projects incomplete and invitations unanswered. None of his previous interests had rewarded his fleeting dedication by revealing themselves to be infamous necromancers.
It was the fifth-best day of Manilov's life, surpassed only by his wedding, the respective births of his children, and the market day when he'd bought a particularly good horse and ridden it home in perfect crisp fall weather.
It was only enhanced, rather than ruined, by the smell of burning tulle and lace. Nozdriov had managed to light his torch.
Horst yawned. It had been a busy night, and now dawn was licking at the blackened windows of the carriage. He glanced over at Johannes. With his smoked-lens glasses on and his back slumped against the seat, it was easy to think Johannes had already succumbed to sleep. Only the deep frown at the corner of Johannes’ mouth suggested otherwise.
"Shame how it all turned out," said Horst.
"We'll have to replace all our luggage," said Horst. "Though I suppose we were lucky to get to the carriage with our bodies intact."
Johannes grunted again, the sound indistinguishable from the first.
"You do still have the deeds, don't you? I thought I saw you put them into your coat pocket before we left."
This finally roused Johannes. "The other coat."
"You made me change into this." Johannes gestured at the tailcoat, its gray-blue fabric now singed and smelling of smoke. "The deeds are in the other coat."
"And you left it at the inn?"
"The inn that was on fire when we left?"
Johannes didn't bother to nod again. Much of N---- had been on fire when the Cabal (nee Schmidt) brothers left. Fire was generally indiscriminate in these matters, though Johannes was inclined to see it as a personal affront. He didn't bother answering Horst's near-rhetorical question.
"Back to square one, then." Horst leaned back and yawned wider, displaying his teeth. "How far do you think we need to go before we can try this scheme again?"
Johannes grimaced. "They'll be talking about us from Saint Petersburg to Novosibirsk. We'll have to leave the country entirely."
Horst smiled. "Oh, dear. Well, I always liked a carnival."
Johannes looked at Horst for a long time. His hand twitched toward the carriage door, to let the cleansing light rid himself of this plague of an older brother. In the end, he settled for kicking at Horst's ankle.
Horst, perhaps aware of this internal struggle, graciously accepted the blow. He dozed off easily, listening to Johannes' curses as if to a lullaby.
Three months later, a man arrived in the town of N----. He was neither tall nor short, neither thin nor particularly fat. He was clean, and he was charming, and he was accompanied by two servants who drove his carriage while the man napped inside.
When the man entered the inn, he found that the inn-servant followed him from room to room, clutching a string of garlic bulbs.
"Did I interrupt your cooking?" asked the man.
The inn-servant did not answer. He showed the man to a guest room, which was well-stocked with crucifixes and prayer beads. "Do you mind if I open the curtains?" asked the inn-servant, and then threw the curtains open without waiting for a response.
The man stood blinking in the gentle afternoon sunlight, and wished there were another inn he could go to.
The inn-servant looked at the man intently, and then pushed the garlic bulbs into his pocket. "All right, will you give me your name for the authorities?"
The man gave his name as Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, which was in fact his name. Then he ordered hot water and dinner, and made himself ready to go out. Chichikov had a fine wardrobe and particularly good taste in soap, which made the inn-servant nervous. But he did not react at all to the holy water the inn-servant had mixed with his shaving water, so the inn-servant tried to be content.
The governor was holding a ball that evening, and Chichikov invited himself to it. He introduced himself to the gentlemen of the town and made polite bows to the ladies. He felt constantly as if he were being watched, and the palms of his hands began to sweat.
"You're being foolish," he told himself. "You haven't done anything yet." But when he turned from the canapes to face the room, a dozen pairs of eyes looked quickly away.
A wise and cautious man might have decided to try another town with his schemes. Unlike this aspirational figure, however, Chichikov was cunning and determined. These are valuable traits in their way, but also traits that may lead a man to ignore many warning signs and continue down his chosen path until he falls off a cliff. Rather than leaving, Chichikov sat at the card table, losing hands of whist and making small-talk.
He spoke first to Manilov: "This is a beautiful house, isn't it?"
Manilov sighed. "Oh, yes."
"As beautiful as yours?" asked Chichikov.
Manilov shrugged. He was glancing around the room, helplessly and hopelessly, as if he hoped to find someone he knew was not there.
Chichikov gave up on Manilov and turned his attention to Sobakevich instead: "How was the last winter for you?"
"Not bad." Sobakevich tapped his cards against his teeth. "Not bad."
"Did the fever make its way here? There were thousands of peasants dying in the east."
Sobakevich froze. "Are you interested in dead peasants?"
Chichikov made a noncommittal noise, and turned to Nozdriov. "I think it's your bet."
Nozdriov's hands were shaking. "Answer Sobakevich's question."
Chichikov's eyebrows rose. Nozdriov had odd scars on his shaking hands and his sneering mouth, as if he'd been holding a burning torch when a pair of infamous brothers had shoved past him, jostling his elbow and pushing the torch into his face where it had caught his mustache alight and forced Nozdriov to drop the torch and try to put out the mustache-wax-fueled fire out with his bare hands. This perfectly absurd yet perfectly envisioned scenario flashed across Chichikov's mind in an instant, and he shook his head to clear it.
Nozdriov's fist slammed against the table. "Tell us! Are you here for the dead?"
Chichikov smiled nervously. He was blessed with particularly white teeth, his canines large and well-defined. Nozdriov squealed and almost fell over as he tried to push himself away from the table.
"Is something wrong?" asked Chichikov. Sobakevich was calling for help. Manilov was looking at Chichikov with a dawning light of interest. Nozdriov was pulling a knife from his boot.
The door to the card room banged open, and a woman stood framed in the doorway. She was dressed in black leather and chainmail, and she held a wooden stake in one hand and a stout hammer in the other. There were burly men standing behind her, similarly clad and equipped. The woman glared at Chichikov.
"It's him!" Sobakevich pointed at Chichikov. "Another vampire!"
Chichikov tried to say something, but it felt as if he had swallowed his own tongue.
"You thought you had us fooled, didn't you?" asked the woman. "You can walk in the sunlight, tolerate garlic, even bathe in holy water. But we know a vampire when we see one."
"I'm sorry, who are you?" asked Chichikov, choking a little bit as he forced out the words.
"I'm the governor's daughter." The woman raised her chin and smiled. "And now we'll see if you can withstand a stake through your heart."
It is a mystery to the author how Chichikov was able to move so fast, as he was never an athlete. It is also a mystery how his carriage-horse was able to gallop so fast, as it wasn't a particularly good horse. But the reader will be glad to know that Chichikov, his horse, and even his servants escaped unscathed, though one of the carriage wheels was singed a bit.
"I'll get you next time," growled the governor's daughter, shaking a black-gloved fist. Then she smoothed her chainmail skirts and returned to the ball.