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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852)

Defunct Serfs as an Investment

From “Dead Souls”

ONE of the commissions given to Chichikov was to arrange with the owner of a certain estate for the mortgaging of a number of his serfs to the financial institution called the Council of Guardians. Chichikov found this proprietor to be on the verge of ruin. The cattle had been thinned out by an epidemic disease, there had been several meager harvests, a lot of the most industrious field laborers had died off, overseers had been dishonest, and the lord of the manor himself had been grossly extravagant, fitting up a large house in Moscow, so that the estate was now drained to the last copeck….

Chichikov elicited the information that since the last government census a considerable number of the serfs had died, but that their names had not been removed from the census list. To all intents and purposes, therefore, those peasants could be counted as alive. It was upon this discovery that Chichikov was inspired with the most brilliant idea that ever originated in a human mind. Said our hero to himself:

“What a fool I am! I have been looking for my spectacles, and they are on my nose! Why, all I have to do is to buy the serfs who have died since the last census was taken! If I purchase a thousand of them, and the Council of Guardians pays me two hundred rubles per soul, I shall then have a capital of two hundred thousand rubles. There has been a great deal of sickness of late, and, thank the Lord, a high rate of mortality. The landowners have been throwing their money away at cards, and wasting it in riotous living. Everybody has been seized with the craze for town life and service under the government. The estates are neglected or abandoned by the landlords, who find it harder every year to squeeze money out of them to pay the taxes. This seems to be my chance for earning an honest sum. It will take a lot of trouble, and I must avoid a scandal. There is the obstacle, too, that without land one can neither buy nor mortgage serfs. But I know what I will do: I will buy them ostensibly for colonization. There are provinces such as Kherson where land is given free to settlers. I will take up land in Kherson, and pack off all my dead peasants there. The whole thing can be done in conformity with the legal requirements.”…

“Allow me, sir, to ask you a question,” said Chichikov to Manilov, speaking with a rather strange intonation, at the same time looking furtively about him. The person addressed, without any apparent reason, also cast furtive glances about the room, until the other continued:

“How long ago do you think it is since you handed in your last census report?”

“A long time ago, I should say; I really don’t remember.”

“But a good many of your serfs have died since then?”

“I could not say. I suppose I shall have to ask the overseer.”

The overseer having been sent for, Manilov asked him:

“Listen, my good man: how many of our serfs have died since the last count was taken?”

“Eh? How many? Why, a good many,” replied the overseer, stifling a yawn.

“That’s just what I thought myself,” said the landlord. “Yes, that’s it—a good many have died.” And turning to Chichikov, he added, “Precisely so, a great many.”

“What might the number be, for instance?” inquired Chichikov.

“Ah, yes, what number?” echoed Manilov.

“The number—the number, did you say?” queried the overseer. “Why, I don’t know how many have died. No one has counted them.”

“That’s it exactly,” said Manilov to his guest. “I thought a good many must have died, but I haven’t the least idea of the number.”

“Would you mind having a list of them made, with the name of each one?”

“Yes, with the name of each one,” said Manilov.

Whereupon the overseer answered, “Yes, sir,” and left the room.

When he had gone, the host observed:

“What do you want this done for?”

Chichikov appeared to be embarrassed by this question. His features assumed an awkward expression, and he even blushed in the effort to explain himself.

“You want to know the reason—the reason?” stammered Chichikov. “The reason is—I—I should like to buy some serfs.”

“Well, then, let me ask you, sir, how you wish to buy them: with the land, or without the land—for exportation?”

“It is not exactly that kind I want. I mean serfs who are dead.”

“What do you say? Excuse me, please, but I did not hear very well. I do not quite understand.”

“I propose,” said Chichikov, “to purchase from you serfs who are actually no longer living, but whose names still appear in the official census records.”

Manilov’s pipe dropped to the floor. Its owner sat staring stark at Chichikov for several minutes in complete silence. At last he picked up his pipe, and then, for a space, gazed intently at his guest, wondering whether he had not gone out of his mind. But he saw no external signs of insanity. Manilov was quite at a loss what to think or do, so he stopped thinking, and did nothing but puff out a thin stream of smoke from between his lips.

“I should like to know, you see,” resumed our hero, “whether you would be willing to make over to me some souls who, though really dead, are legally in existence.”

But Manilov was so astonished and confused that he could still do nothing but stare and blow out smoke.

“Well, do you see any difficulty about it?”

“Do I see any difficulties?” was the reply. “Oh, no, not at all; but you must excuse me—I don’t understand. I have not enjoyed such an education as yours, I might say. I have not your beautiful way of expressing my thoughts, I might say. Perhaps, in what you have just been good enough to say, perhaps there is some hidden meaning; perhaps you chose that particular way of speaking for—for the sake of literary style.”

“No, no; I mean just what I told you—souls who are actually dead.”

Manilov was entirely dumfounded. He must take some course, say something, ask some question—only, what question? But all he did was to puff out more smoke—this time through his nose.

“If there are no objections, then, suppose we draw up a deed of sale,” suggested Chichikov.

“What! a deed of sale of dead souls?”

“By no means,” replied Chichikov. “We will treat them as if they were alive—as they are, according to the census report. Heaven forbid that I should in any way transgress against the law! Let us conform to the law. I bow to the majesty of the law.”