Nikolay Sergeyitch came of a good family, which had long sunk into decay. But he was left at his parents’ death with a fair estate with a hundred and fifty serfs on it. At twenty he went into the Hussars. All went well; but after six years in the army he happened one unlucky evening to lose all his property at cards. He did not sleep all night. The next evening he appeared at the card-table and staked his horse — his last possession. His card was a winning one, and it was followed by a second and a third, and within half an hour he had won back one of his villages, the hamlet Ichmenyevka, which had numbered fifty souls at the last census. He sent in his papers and retired from the service next day. He had lost a hundred serfs for ever. Two months later he received his discharge with the rank of lieutenant, and went home to his village. He never in his life spoke of his loss at cards, and in spite of his well-known good nature he would certainly have quarrelled with anyone who alluded to it. In the country he applied himself industriously to looking after his land, and at thirty-five he married a poor girl of good family, Anna Andreyevna Shumilov, who was absolutely without dowry, though she had received an education in a high-class school kept by a French emigree, called Mon-Reveche, a privilege upon which Anna Andreyevna prided herself all her life, although no one was ever able to discover exactly of what that education had consisted. Nikolay Sergeyitch was an excellent farmer. The neighbouring landowners learned to manage their estates from him. A few years had passed when suddenly a landowner, Prince Pyotr Alexandrovitch Valkovsky, came from Petersburg to the neighbouring estate, Vassilyevskoe, the village of which had a population of nine hundred serfs, His arrival made a great stir in the whole neighbourhood. The prince was still young, though not in his first youth. He was of good rank in the service, had important connexions and a fortune; was a handsome man and a widower, a fact of particular interest to all the girls and ladies in the neighbourhood. People talked of the brilliant reception given him by the governor, to whom he was in some way related; of how he had turned the heads of all the ladies by his gallantries, and so on, and so on. In short, he was one of those brilliant representatives of aristocratic Petersburg society who rarely make their appearance in the provinces, but produce an extraordinary sensation when they do. The prince, however, was by no means of the politest, especially to people who could be of no use to him, and whom he considered ever so little his inferiors. He did not think fit to make the acquaintance of his neighbours in the country, and at once made many enemies by neglecting to do so. And so everyone was extremely surprised when the fancy suddenly took him to call on Nikolay Sergeyitch. It is true that the latter was one of his nearest neighbours. The prince made a great impression on the Ichmenyev household. He fascinated them both at once; Anna Andreyevna was particularly enthusiastic about him. In a short time he was on intimate terms with them, went there every day and invited them to his house. He used to tell them stories, make jokes, play on their wretched piano and sing. The Ichmenyevs were never tired of wondering how so good and charming a man could be called a proud, stuck-up, cold egoist, as all the neighbours with one voice declared him to be. One must suppose that the prince really liked Nikolay Sergeyitch, who was a simple-hearted, straightforward, disinterested and generous man. But all was soon explained. The prince had come to Vassilyevskoe especially, to get rid of his steward, a prodigal German, who was a conceited man and an expert agriculturist, endowed with venerable grey hair, spectacles, and a hooked nose; yet in spite of these advantages, he robbed the prince without shame or measure, and, what was worse, tormented several peasants to death. At last Ivan Karlovitch was caught in his misdeeds and exposed, was deeply offended, talked a great deal about German honesty, but, in spite of all this, was dismissed and even with some ignominy. The prince needed a steward and his choice fell on Nikolay Sergeyitch, who was an excellent manager and a man of whose honesty there could be no possible doubt. The prince seemed particularly anxious that Nikolay Sergeyitch should of his own accord propose to take the post, But this did not come off, and one fine morning the prince made the proposition himself, in the form of a very friendly and humble request. Nikolay Sergeyitch at first refused; but the liberal salary attracted Anna Andreyevna, and the redoubled cordiality of the prince overcame any hesitation he still felt. The prince attained his aim. One may presume that he was skilful in judging character. During his brief acquaintance with Ichmenyev he soon perceived the kind of man he had to deal with, and realized that he must be won in a warm and friendly way, that his heart must be conquered, and that, without that, money would do little with him. Valkovsky needed a steward whom he could trust blindly for ever, that he might never need to visit Vassilyevskoe again, and this was just what he was reckoning on. The fascination he exercised over Nikolay Sergeyitch was so strong that the latter genuinely believed in his friendship. Nikolay Sergeyitch was one of those very simple-hearted and naively romantic men who are, whatever people may say against them, so charming among us in Russia, and who are devoted with their whole soul to anyone to whom (God knows why) they take a fancy, and at times carry their devotion to a comical pitch.
Many years passed. Prince Valkovsky’s estate flourished. The relations between the owner of Vassilyevskoe and his steward continued without the slightest friction on either side, and did not extend beyond a purely business correspondence. Though the prince did not interfere with Nikolay Sergeyitch’s management, he sometimes gave him advice which astonished the latter by its extraordinary astuteness and practical ability. It was evident that he did not care to waste money, and was clever at getting it indeed. Five years after his visit to Vassilyevskoe the prince sent Nikolay Sergeyitch an authorization to purchase another splendid estate in the same province with a population of four hundred serfs. Nikolay Sergeyitch was delighted. The prince’s successes, the news of his advancement, his promotion, were as dear to his heart as if they had been those of his own brother. But his delight reached a climax when the prince on one occasion showed the extraordinary trust he put in him. This is how it happened. . . . But here I find it necessary to mention some details of the life of this Prince Valkovsky, who is in a way a leading figure in my story.
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