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Chambers, William / Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 460 Volume 18, New Series, October 23, 1852
CHAMBERS' EDINBURGH JOURNAL

CONDUCTED BY WILLIAM AND ROBERT CHAMBERS, EDITORS OF 'CHAMBERS'S
INFORMATION FOR THE PEOPLE,' 'CHAMBERS'S EDUCATIONAL COURSE,' &c.


No. 460. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, OCTOBER 23, 1852. PRICE 1-1/2_d._




PRESERVED MEATS AND MEAT-BISCUITS.


The many-headed public look out for 'nine days' wonders,' and speedily
allow one wonder to obliterate the remembrance of that which preceded
it. So it is with all newspaper topics, and so it has been in respect
to the preserved-meat question. We all know how great was the
excitement at the commencement of the present year on this matter.
Ships' accounts overhauled; arctic stores re-examined; canisters
opened and rejected; contracts inquired into; statements and
counter-statements published; questionings of Admiralty officials in
the two Houses of Parliament; reports published by committees;
recommendations offered for future guidance; descriptions of the
preserving processes at different establishments: all went the round
of the newspapers, and then the topic was forgotten. It deserves to be
held in remembrance, however, for the subject-matter is really
important and valuable, in respect not only to the stores for
shipping, but to the provisioning of large or small bodies of men
under various exceptional circumstances.

A few of the simple laws of organic chemistry suffice to account for
the speedy decay of dead animal substances, and for the methods
whereby this decay is retarded or prevented. In organised substances,
the chemical atoms combine in a very complex but unstable way; several
such atoms group together to form a proximate principle, such as
gluten, albumen, fibrin, &c.; and several of these combine to form a
complete organic substance. The chemical rank-and-file, so to speak,
form a battalion, and two or more battalions form the chemical army.
But it is a law in chemistry, that the more complex a substance
becomes, the less stable is its constitution, or the sooner is it
affected by disturbing influences. Hence organic substances are more
readily decomposed than inorganic. How striking, for instance, are the
changes easily wrought in a few grains of barley! They contain a kind
of starch or fecula; this starch, in the process of malting, becomes
converted into a kind of sugar; and from this malt-sugar or
transformed starch, may be obtained ale or beer, gin or whisky, and
vinegar, by various processes of fermenting and distilling. The
complex substance breaks up through very slight causes, and the simple
elements readjust themselves into new groupings. The same occurs in
animal as in vegetable substances, but still more rapidly, as the
former are more intricate in composition than the latter, and are held
together by a weaker tie.

What the 'vital principle' may be, neither chemists nor physiologists
can tell us with any great degree of clearness; but it is this vital
principle, whatever it may be, which prevents decay in a living
organic substance, however complex. When life departs, the onslaught
begins; the defender has been removed, and a number of assailants make
their appearance. _Air_, _heat_, and _moisture_ are the principal of
these; they attack the dead organism, and gradually convert it into
wholly different and inorganic compounds, such as water, carbonic
acid, ammonia, phosphuretted hydrogen, and many others. What, then,
would result if these disturbers could be warded off, one or all? It
is now pretty well ascertained, that if any one of the three--air,
heat, moisture--be absent, the decay is either greatly retarded or
indefinitely postponed; and we shall find that in all antiseptic or
preserving processes, the fundamental principle has simply such an
object in view.

Sometimes the operation of natural causes leads to the preservation of
dead animal substances for a great length of time, by excluding one
out of the above three disturbing influences. If heat be so deficient
that the animal juices become wholly frozen up, the substance is
almost proof against decay. Thus, about seventy years ago, a huge
animal was found imbedded in the ice in Siberia: from a comparison of
its skeleton with those of existing species, Cuvier inferred that this
animal must have been antediluvian; and yet, so completely had the
cold prevented putrefaction, that dogs willingly ate of the still
existing flesh. At St Petersburg, when winter is approaching, the fish
in the markets become almost like blocks of ice, so completely are
they frozen; and in this state they will remain sound for a lengthened
period. Dead poultry, and other articles of animal food, are similarly
kept fresh throughout the winter in many rigorous climates, simply by
the powerlessness of the attacking agents, when heat is not one of the
number. And that which nature effects on a large scale, may reasonably
be imitated by man on a more limited one. It is customary to pack many
kinds of provisions in ice or snow, either for keeping them in
storehouses, or for sending them to market. Thus it is with the tubs
of poultry, of veal, and of other kinds of meat, which, killed in the
country districts of Russia in autumn, are packed in snow to keep cool
till sold at market; and thus it is with much of the salmon sent from
Scotland to London. Since the supply of excellent ice from Wenham
Lake, commenced about nineteen years ago, has become so abundant and
so cheap, it is worth a thought whether the preservative powers of
cold might not advantageously be made more available in this country
than they have yet been. In the United States, housewives use very
convenient refrigerators or ice-boxes, provided with perforated
shelves, under which ice is set, and upon which various provisions
are placed: a large uncooked joint of meat is sometimes kept in one of
these boxes for weeks. Among the celebrities of the Crystal Palace,
many will recollect Masters's elegant ice-making machine, in which, by
combining chemical action with centrifugal motion, ice can be made in
a few minutes, let the heat of the weather be what it may. This
machine, and the portable refrigerators manufactured by the Wenham
Company, together with our familiar, old-fashioned ice-houses, might
supply us with much more preservative power, in respect to articles of
food, than we have hitherto practically adopted.

If, instead of watching the effects produced by abstraction of _heat_,
we direct attention to the abstraction of _moisture_, we shall find
that antiseptic or preservative results are easily obtainable. All
kinds of bacon and smoked meats belong to the class here indicated.
The watery particles are nearly or quite driven out from the meat, and
thus one of the three decomposing agents is rendered of no effect. In
some cases, the drying is not sufficient to produce the result,
without the aid of the remarkable antiseptic properties of salt;
because decomposition may commence before the moisture is quite
expelled. In many parts of the country, hams are hung within a
wide-spreading chimney, over or near a turf-fire, and where a free
current of air, as well as a warm temperature, may act upon them; but
the juices become dissipated by this rude process. Simple drying,
without the addition of salt or any condiment, is perhaps more
effectual with vegetable than with animal substances.

But it is under the third point of view that the preservative process
is more important and interesting, inasmuch as it admits of a far more
extensive application. We speak of the abstraction of _air_.
Atmospheric air affects dead organic matter chiefly through the agency
of the oxygen which forms one of its constituents; and it is
principally to insure the expulsion of oxygen that air is excluded.
The examples which illustrate the resulting effects are numerous and
varied. Eggs have been varnished so as to exclude air, and have
retained the vital principle in the chick for years; and it is a
familiar domestic practice, to butter the outside of eggs as a means
of keeping them. The canisters of preserved provisions, however, are
the most direct and valuable result of the antiseptic action by
exclusion of air. The Exhibition Jury on Class 3, in their Report on
this subject, speak thus warmly thereupon:--'It is impossible to
overestimate the importance of these preparations. The invention of
the process by which animal and vegetable food is preserved in a fresh
and sweet state for an indefinite period, has only been applied
practically during the last twenty-five years, and is intimately
connected with the annals of arctic discovery. The active measures
taken to discover a north-west passage, and to prosecute scientific
research, in all but inaccessible regions, first created a demand for
this sort of food; and the Admiralty stimulated the manufacturers to
great perfection in the art. As soon as the value of these
preparations in cold climates became generally admitted, their use was
extended to hot ones, and for the sick on board ship under all
circumstances. Hitherto they had been employed only as a substitute
for salt beef or pork at sea, and if eaten on shore, it was at first
as a curiosity merely. Their utility in hot climates, however,
speedily became evident; especially in India, where European families
are scattered, and where, consequently, on the slaughter of a large
animal, more is wasted than can be consumed by a family of the
ordinary number.'

Whatever improvements may have been introduced by later manufacturers,
the principle involved in the meat-preserving processes is nearly as
M. Appert established it forty years ago. His plan consisted in
removing the bones from the meat; boiling it to nearly as great a
degree as if intended for immediate consumption; putting it into jars;
filling up the jars completely with a broth or jelly prepared from
portions of the same meat; corking the jars closely; incasing the
corks with a luting formed of quicksilver and cheese; placing the
corked jars in a boiler of cold water; boiling the water and its
contents for an hour; and then allowing the cooling process to
supervene very gradually.

Until the recent disclosures concerning the preserved meats in the
government depôts, the extent of the manufacture, or rather
preparation, was very little known to the general public. In the last
week of 1851, an examination, consequent on certain suspicions which
had been entertained, was commenced at the victualling establishment
at Gosport. The canisters--for since Appert's time stone jars have
been generally superseded by tin canisters--contain on an average
about 10 pounds each; and out of 643 of these which were opened on the
first day's examination, no fewer than 573 were condemned as being
utterly unfit for food. On the next day, 734 were condemned out of
779; and by the fourth day, the number examined had risen to 2707, of
which only 197 were deemed fit for food. Such wretched offal had been
packed in the canisters, instead of good meat, that the stench arising
from the decomposing mass was most revolting; the examiners were
compelled to use Sir William Burnett's disinfecting fluid abundantly,
and even to suspend their labours for two or three days under fear of
infection. The canisters formed part of a supply sent in by a
contractor in November 1850, under a warrant that the contents would
remain good for five years; the filling of the canisters was
understood to have been effected at Galatz, in Moldavia, but the
contractor was in England. The supply amounted to 6000 canisters, all
of which had to be examined, and out of which only a few hundred were
found to contain substances fit for food. Instead of good meat, or in
addition to a small quantity of good meat, the examiners found lung,
liver, heart, tongue, kidney, tendon, ligament, palate, fat, tallow,
coagulated blood, and even a piece of leather--all in a state of such
loathsome putridity as to render the office of the examiners a
terrible one.

Of course nothing can be predicated from such atrocities as these
against the wholesomeness of preserved food; they prove only the
necessity of caution in making the government contracts, and in
accepting the supplies. The Admiralty shewed, during subsequent
discussions, that large supplies had been received from various
quarters for several years, for use on shipboard in long voyages and
on arctic expeditions; that these had turned out well; and that the
contractor who was disgraced in the present instance, was among those
who had before fulfilled his contracts properly. Fortunately, there is
no evidence that serious evil had resulted from the supply of the
canisters to ships; the discovery was made in time to serve as a
useful lesson in future to government officials and to unprincipled
contractors.

The jury report before adverted to, points out how cheap and
economical these preserved meats really are, from the circumstance,
that all that is eatable is so well brought into use. It is affirmed
by the manufacturers, that meat in this form supplies troops and ships
with a cheaper animal diet than salt provisions, by avoiding the
expense of casks, leakage, brine, bone, shrinkage, stowage, &c., which
are all heavy items, and entail great waste and expenditure; and by a
canister of the former being so much smaller than a cask of the
latter, in the event of one bad piece of meat tainting the whole
contents. The contents of all the cases, when opened, are found to
have lost much of the freshness in taste and flavour peculiar to
newly-killed meat; they are always soft, and eat as if overdone. As a
matter of choice, therefore, few or no persons would prefer meat in
this state to the ordinary unpacked and recently-cooked state. But the
important fact to bear in mind is, that the nutritious principles are
preserved; as nutriment, they are unexceptionable, and they are often
pleasantly seasoned and flavoured.

In the ordinary processes of preparation, as carried on in London and
other places, the tin canisters have a minute hole, through which the
air may be expelled, while the meat is simmering or boiling within;
and in the case of poultry being preserved whole, extra precautions
are necessary, to insure the expulsion of the air from the hollow
bones of the birds. Soups are more easily prepared than solid meat, on
account of the greater facility for getting rid of the confined air.
The minute air-hole in the canister is soldered down when the process
is completed.

M. Alexis Soyer, who has a notoriety in London as the prince of cooks,
and a very ingenious man--a sort of Paxton of the kitchen--wrote to
the daily journals, about the time of the disclosure at Gosport, to
offer a few suggestions. He said: 'No canister ought to contain more
than about six pounds of meat, the same to be very slightly seasoned
with bay-salt, pepper, and aromatic herbs in powder, such as bay-thyme
and bay-leaf, a small quantity of which would not be objectionable
even for invalids. No jelly should be added to the meat; the meat, and
the meat alone, should produce its own jelly. With the bones and
trimmings of the above, a good _stock_ should be made without
vegetables, well reduced and skimmed, to form a very strong
transparent demi-glaze; six-pound canisters should be filled with the
same, bearing a special mark, and one of these allowed to every dozen
of the others. This demi-glaze, when diluted in water, would make six
gallons of very good broth, with which any kind of soup could be made
in a very short time.' He also points out how the condition of the
preserved meat may be guessed by the external appearance of the
canister. If either the top or bottom of the canister be convex, like
the upper surface of a watch-glass, the contents are in a state of
decomposition; the bulging being occasioned by the gases generated
during the chemical changes. If the contents of the canister be sound,
the top and bottom will be either quite flat, or slightly concave.

The Jury on Food, at the Great Exhibition, had quite an _embarras des
richesses_; they were surrounded by hundreds of canisters of preserved
provisions, all of which they were invited to open and taste. They
say, or their reporter says, that the merits of the contributions
'were tested by a selection from each; the cases were opened in the
presence of the jury, and tasted by themselves, and, where advisable,
by associates. The majority are of English manufacture, especially the
more substantial viands; France and Germany exhibiting chiefly
made-dishes, game, and delicacies--of meat, fish, soups, and
vegetables.' It is an important fact for our colonies, that viands of
this description are as well prepared in Australia, Van Diemen's Land,
Canada, and the Cape of Good Hope, as in the mother-country. 'Animal
food is most abundant and cheap in some of those colonies. In
Australia, especially, during seasons of drought, it is wasted in
extraordinary quantities; flocks are slaughtered for the tallow alone,
and herds, for their bones and hides. Were the meat on these occasions
preserved, it cannot be doubted that it could be imported into
England, and sold at a cheaper rate than fresh meat in our
metropolitan markets, to the great benefit of the lower-classes.' This
is a statement well worth being borne in mind by some of those who are
at present dazzled with gold-digging wonders.

In respect to the preserved meats at the Great Exhibition, many were
merely cured or dried meats. From Canada, for instance, they comprised
hams, bacon, tongues, and barrels of beef and pork. Among the
miscellaneous contributions were grated beef, canisters of fresh
salmon, 'admirable boiled mutton in tin cases,' dried mullets,
'_mouton rôti_,' fish, meats preserved in a fresh state by simple
drying--on a plan practised in Switzerland--and preserved larks. Not
the least remarkable was a preserved _pig_, which reclined in all its
glory on the floor of the south-west gallery, and was a successful
example of curing on a large scale. Still more striking than this, was
the large partridge-pie, placed somewhat out of general notice in the
'Netherlands' department; a formidable pie it truly was, for it
contained 150 partridges, with truffles, and weighed 250 pounds: it
had been made a year before it was forwarded to London. But among the
contributions more immediately relating to our present subject, may be
mentioned those of Mr Gamble, which comprised, among others, a
canister of preserved boiled mutton, which had been prepared for the
arctic expedition in 1824; many such canisters were landed at Fury
Beach in Prince Regent's Inlet; they were found by Sir John Ross at
that spot in 1833 in a perfect state, and again by Sir James Ross in
1849, the meat being as sweet and wholesome as when prepared a quarter
of a century before.

The range of these preserving processes is singularly wide and varied.
If we take the trade-list of one of the manufacturers, such as that of
Messrs Hogarth of Aberdeen, and glance through it, we shall find ample
evidence of this. There are nearly twenty kinds of soups selling at
about 2s. per quart-canister. There is the concentrated essence of
beef, much more expensive, because containing the nutriment of so much
more meat; and there are, for invalids, concentrated broths of
intermediate price. There are about a dozen kinds of fish, some fresh
and some dried. There are various kinds of poultry, roast and boiled;
hare, roast and jugged; and venison, hashed and minced. There are
beef, veal, and mutton, all dressed in various ways, and some having
the requisite vegetables canistered with them, at prices varying from
l0d. to 15d. per pound. There are tongues, hams, bacon, kidneys,
tripe, and marrow; and there are cream, milk, and marmalade. Lastly,
there are such vegetables as peas, beans, carrots, turnips, cabbage,
and beet, at 6d. to 1s. per pound-canister. The canisters for all
these various provisions contain from one pound to six pounds each. It
was Messrs Hogarth, we believe, who supplied the preserved meats and
vegetables to the arctic ships under Sir E. Belcher which sailed in
the spring of 1852.

M. Brocchière, a French manufacturer, has lately extended these
economical processes so far, as to attempt to produce concentrated
food from the blood of cattle. He dries up the liquid or serous
portions of the blood, and forms into a cake, with admixture of other
substances, the coagulable portion, which contains fibrin, the source
of flesh and muscle. Unless a more delicate name could be given to
this preparation, prejudice would have some influence in depriving it
of the chance of fair play. The dry blood is in some cases combined
with a small portion of flour, and made into light dry masses, like
loaves or cakes, to be used as the basis of soups; while in other
cases it is combined with sugar, to make sweet biscuits and bon-bons.
Another kind of preserved animal fluid is the _ozmazome_, prepared by
Messrs Warriner and Soyer. This consists of the nutritious matter or
juice of meat, set free during the operation of boiling down fat for
tallow in Australia; it is afterwards concentrated, and preserved in
the form of sausages. A great amount of nutriment is thus obtained in
a portable form; when boiled with gelatine, it forms a palatable diet,
and it is also used to form a gravy for meat.

Masson's method of preserving vegetables seems to be very effective,
as applied to white and red cabbages, turnips, Brussels sprouts, and
such like. The process, as conducted in France, is very simple. The
vegetables are dried at a certain temperature (104 to 118 degrees
Fahrenheit), sufficient to expel the moisture without imparting a
burnt taste; and in this operation they lose nearly seven-eighths of
their original weight. The vegetables are then pressed forcibly into
the form of cakes, and are kept in tinfoil till required for use.
These vegetables require, when about to be eaten, rather more boiling
than those in the ordinary state. Some of the French ships of war are
supplied with them, much to the satisfaction of the crews. Dr Lindley
has stated, on the authority of a distinguished officer in the
antarctic expedition under Sir James Ross, that although all the
preserved meats used on that occasion were excellent, and there was
not the slightest ground for any complaint of their quality, the crew
became tired of the meat, but never of the vegetables. 'This should
shew us,' says Dr Lindley, 'that it is not sufficient to supply ships'
crews with preserved meats, but that they should be supplied with
vegetables also, the means of doing which is now afforded.' Generally
speaking, the flavour of preserved vegetables, whether prepared on
Masson's or on any other process, is fresher than that of the
meats--especially in the case of those which abound in the saccharine
principle, as beet, carrot, turnips, &c. The more farinaceous
vegetables, such as green peas, do not preserve so well.

One of the most remarkable, and perhaps valuable recent introductions,
in respect to preserved food, is the American _meat--biscuit_,
prepared by Mr Borden. A _biscuit-beef_ is prepared by a Frenchman, M.
Du Liscoet, resembling an ordinary coarse ship-biscuit; but this is
said to have 'an animal, salt, and not very agreeable taste.' The
American meat-biscuit, however, is prepared in a way which renders its
qualities easily intelligible. It contains in a concentrated form all
the nutriment of meat, combined with flour. The best wheaten flour is
employed, with the nutriment of the best beef, and the result is
presented for use as food in the form of a dry, inodorous, flat,
brittle cake, which will keep when dry for an unlimited period. When
required for use, it is dissolved in hot water, boiled, and seasoned
at pleasure, forming a soup about the consistence of sago. One pound
of the biscuit contains the nutritive matter--fat excepted--of five
pounds of prime beef, mixed with half a pound of wheaten flour. One
ounce of the biscuit, grated and boiled in a pint of water, suffices
to form the soup. It can also be used in puddings and sauces. The
manufacture of the meat-biscuit is located at Galveston, in Texas,
which abounds in excellent cattle at a very low price. It is said that
the meat-biscuit is not liable to heating or moulding, like corn and
flour, nor subject to be attacked by insects. The meat-biscuit was
largely used by the United States' army during the Mexican campaign;
the nutriment of 500 pounds of beef, with 70 pounds of flour, was
packed in a twenty-two-gallon cask.

Dr Lindley, as one of the jurors for the Great Exhibition, and as a
lecturer on the subject at the Society of Arts, commends the
meat-biscuit in the very highest terms. 'I think I am justified in
looking upon it,' he says, 'as one of the most important substances
which this Exhibition has brought to our knowledge. When we consider
that by this method, in such places as Buenos Ayres, animals which are
there of little or no value, instead of being destroyed, as they often
are, for their bones, may be boiled down and mixed with the flour
which all such countries produce, and so converted into a substance of
such durability that it may be preserved with the greatest ease, and
sent to distant countries; it seems as if a new means of subsistence
was actually offered to us. Take the Argentine Republic, take
Australia, and consider what they do with their meat there in times of
drought, when they cannot get rid of it while it is fresh; they may
boil it down, and mix the essence with flour--and we know they have
the finest in the world--and so prepare a substance that can be
preserved for times when food is not so plentiful, or sent to
countries where it is always more difficult to procure food. Is not
this a very great gain?' A pertinent question, which intelligent
emigrants would do well to bear in mind.




THE BUYER OF SOULS:

A Russian Story.


All over the world, the essential elements of human nature are the
same. And it is very fortunate for me that they are so, else I should
find myself in considerable difficulty in endeavouring to place before
my readers a correct picture of the little, out-of-the-way town of
Nikolsk. Making due allowances for the differences in national manners
and customs; for Nikolsk being under the dominion of his autocratic
majesty the emperor of all the Russias, instead of the mild,
constitutional government of Queen Victoria, there is no great
discrepancy between Nikolsk and any equally out-of-the-way town in
England. It has the same dearth of excitement, the same monotonous
uniformity of life; it lives in the same profound ignorance of the
great incidents that the drama of human existence is developing on the
theatre of the world at large; it has its priest, its doctor, its
lawyer, its post-office where a seal is not so sacred as it might be,
or rather where the problem of getting at the news, without breaking
the wax, has been successfully solved; it has the same thirst for
scandal, the same intense interest for the most contemptible
trivialities, the same constantly impending danger of suicide from
ennui, did not human nature adapt itself to its environments, and sink
into pettiness as naturally as though there were no such things as
towns and cities, and enlarged views of man and nature in the world:
all these it has the same as any British Little Pedlington. Then it
has its circles of social intercourse, as rigidly defined and as
intensely venerated as the rules of court precedence. The difference
in the social scale between a landowner, a tenant, a member of the
professions, a tradesman, a publican, a sweep, and a beggar, is
accurately prescribed and religiously observed--with this addition,
however, that in Nikolsk the owners of land are also owners of the
serfs upon the land, and that the numerous representatives of that
most centralised of all governments cut an important figure in the
snobberies of the place. In fine, there is one little English word
that describes Nikolsk completely, and that is--_dull_. It is
dull--beyond comprehension dull. No town in the universe can be
duller; because, from its quintessential dulness, there is but one
step to total inanition.

Thus, in Nikolsk, the ancient saying, that there is nothing new under
the sun, was daily and hourly verified. Week after week, and year
after year, the governor pillaged the people; the inspector of
charities pillaged the charities; the inspector of nuisances
sedulously avoided inspecting at all, lest, by removing them, the need
for his services should cease; the landowner ground down the serfs;
the tax-assessor ground the landowners; and everybody, in return for
the favours a paternal government showered upon them through its
immaculate representatives, cheated and defrauded that government with
a persistency and perseverance approaching the sublime. Mothers of
daughters were in despair, for in Nikolsk there were no 'nice young
men,' no eligible matches; fathers of sons despaired in their turn,
for as everybody robbed everybody, and the government robbed the
robbers, there were no heiresses; ladies wore the fashions of 1820 in
1840, under the impression that they were the newest from Paris; the
reading portion of the community were just beginning to hear of
Voltaire as a promising writer; and the general public laboured under
the fixed idea, that somewhere or other Napoleon was still prosecuting
his leviathan campaigns, happily _not_ in Russia. The only thing that
ever broke the monotony of existence was the prevalence of cholera, or
the governor essaying some loftier flight of tyranny than usual by
hanging up a score of defaulters to the revenue, or knouting a bevy of
ladies whose tongues outran their prudence.

Such being the state of affairs in Nikolsk, it will be easily
imagined, that when mine host of the Black Eagle, in a very important
and mysterious manner, announced to a select few that a singular and
eccentric stranger, rolling in money, had arrived at his hostelry,
with the intention of staying some time in Nikolsk, the news flew like
a telegraphic message, or a piece of scandal among a community of old
maids, through the place; and that in a few hours after his arrival,
nobody, from governor to serf, thought or spoke of anything or anybody
else than the mysterious stranger, who, under the name of Tchitchikof,
occupied the best suite of apartments in the Black Eagle, and, as the
landlord affirmed on oath, was eccentric to a degree, and revelled in
untold gold.

Now, whatever had been the station in society of M. Tchitchikof, his
means or his idiosyncrasy, the mere fact of his being a stranger had
been enough to make the good people of Nikolsk pounce down upon him
like a hawk on its quarry, and morally tear him to pieces with
rapacious analysis to satiate their ravenous curiosity. But as to the
fact of his being a stranger, was added the piquancy of a reputation
for eccentricity, and the irresistible recommendation of wealth, the
Tchitchikof mania spread over all ranks of society, and raged with the
fury of a tornado by the evening of the very day upon which the host
of the Eagle first delighted them with the news. In fact, so intense
was the rage regarding him, that the landlord of that hostelry reaped
a fortune from the constant drain upon his potables by inquisitive
callers, and would have assuredly ceased to dispense strong drinks for
evermore, had not the governor, in his vexation at the sequel of
Tchitchikof's visit, found some pretext to despoil him of his gains,
and a good round sum to boot. Various were the speculations as to the
occupations and antecedents of Tchitchikof, and the business that had
called him to Nikolsk. Enterprising mothers of families hoped that he
was a Cossack Coelebs in search of a wife, and began, on the strength
of the surmise, to lay plots for ensnaring him, justly considering
that a fool with money is preferable to a sage without; landowners
trembled at the idea of his being a government assessor, come to
examine into the state of the properties, and assess accordingly;
while government _employés_, knowing too well that a paternal
government does not tolerate plundering in subordinates, shuddered,
conscience-stricken, at the idea that he must be a St Petersburg
inspector, come to Nikolsk with powers of scrutiny, and equally
unlimited powers of knouting. Every class, therefore, received with
joy the assurance, that, he was simply a private gentleman of fortune,
travelling over Russia at his own sweet will. This mine host
positively stated that he had heard Tchitchikof say with his own lips.
This announcement delighted the officials and landowners, by removing
their fears of the knout and taxes, and equally delighted the
enterprising mammas, by increasing the probability of his visit being
intimately connected with matrimonial intentions. It being thus
definitely settled that there was nothing to be feared from
Tchitchikof, the good folks of Nikolsk naturally took up the next
position--that, being a stranger, and rich and eccentric, there was
something to be gained from him. The leading passions of the
Nikolskians being curiosity and avarice, their dealings with strangers
were generally twofold--to scatter their ennui for a few days, by
discovering their histories and affairs, and, where facts failed,
calling in the aid of fancy; and when there was nothing more to be
discovered or invented, to lighten their money-chests by all the
tyranny that power dare venture on, or the effrontery that cunning
could devise and execute. Their curiosity regarding Tchitchikof was
soon baffled, by discovering, like Socrates, that all they knew was,
that nothing could be known. In vain did mine host essay to pump him:
with a show of the most voluble confidence, Tchitchikof contrived
always virtually to tell nothing. In vain the postmaster looked among
the letters with a lynx eye; not one word of writing ever came to
Tchitchikof through the medium of the post. Their knowledge of him
speedily resolved itself into this: that he was a dashing, handsome
young man, of most refined and polished manners, eminently gifted with
that self-possession which is the never-failing accompaniment of
good-breeding and intercourse with what is termed good society,
elegant in dress, and, as the host of the Eagle announced, decidedly
eccentric. This eccentricity manifested itself in one way, and one
only, and that altogether incomprehensible to the greedy
Nikolskians--namely, a morbid desire to part with his money. If
Tchitchikof met a serf on the highway, he would offer him a ruble for
a stick, a cap, or any other article he wore, intrinsically not worth
a handful of corn; and when the bewildered serf hesitated, would
manifest the utmost anger and impatience until he had gained
possession of the coveted article. With possession, his value for it
ceased, and the dear purchase was generally consigned to the fire a
few minutes after it was bought. However varied his freaks might be in
detail, in spirit they were ever essentially the same; they ever
consisted in making some worthless piece of lumber an excuse for
lightening his purse of a ruble or two.

The priest of the place was the first to find a solution of
Tchitchikof's conduct. He asserted that Tchitchikof, in his love for
money, had committed some fraud or some misdeed to obtain it, and that
his conscience smiting him, he had sought ghostly solace from some
minister, by whom he had been ordered, as adequate penance, to get off
a certain portion per annum in bad bargains--thus at once doing good
to the sellers and torturing the avaricious spirit of the penitential
purchaser. To this the governor objected, with much force, that, money
being the end of human existence, the gaining of it, by any means
short of murder, must be laudable, and could sit heavily on no sane
man's conscience; but being warned by the priest, that such arguments
bordered on heresy, he shifted his ground, and maintained that
Tchitchikof was much too young and too far from death to dream of
penitence, even if he had committed such a crime; though he was
evidently too reckless and devil-may-care to leave any dash of the
miser in his composition. But the inspector of highways effectually
knocked the clerical argument on the head, by saying, that had any
priest thought it necessary, for the good of Tchitchikof's soul, that
he should part with his money, he would have taken due care that,
instead of it being squandered in Nikolsk, it had all gone to swell
the revenues of Mother Church. The inspector of the hospital finally
settled it to the satisfaction of all parties, by shewing, from
attentive observation of Tchitchikof's conduct at the hospital, that
he must be a monomaniac, whose particular insanity took the form of
philanthropy; but that, believing that a gift debases the recipient,
he dexterously contrived to _give_ his assistance under the cloak of a
purchase. Although his companions could not see how any man could be
so insane as to fancy a serf could be debased, this opinion was
unanimously adopted, and the whole community set their wits to work to
make themselves objects of charity for the nonce, and so obtain a
share in the plunder.

Space will not permit, neither would the end of our story be advanced
by, a detail of the numerous and adroit dodges the Nikolskians
invented in order to work upon Tchitchikof's supposed philanthropy.
Suffice it to say, that they were not in the least degree successful.
It seemed as though you had only to appeal directly to Tchitchikof's
charity to close up his bowels of compassion, and render him at once
callous and niggardly. Perhaps, too, as some thought, he was as acute
as he was eccentric, and could distinguish between real and feigned
distress. However it might be, it was soon remarkably clear that
Tchitchikof, madman though he was, was not to be done; and the baffled
conspirators did not hesitate to say, that, after all, he was no such
remarkable friend of his species; that he kept a keen eye on the main
chance; and if it were his gratification to do good, he made a little
go as far as it could, and was singularly blind to meritorious
poverty. Accordingly, Tchitchikof having now been a fortnight in
Nikolsk, was fast ceasing to be an object of interest, when his
eccentricity broke out in a fresh place, and there seemed some
likelihood of the children of Nikolsk, in the end, spoiling that
Egyptian.

It so happened, that at that time the landowners, or rather
serf-owners, constituted the most depressed 'interest' in that portion
of the Russian Empire. Not that they were suffering from free-trade of
any kind, or clamouring for open or disguised protection: the cause of
their depression was the prevalence of a deadly epidemic, which
reduced the number of their serfs with remorseless vigour--combined
with the tax which a paternal government levied on them, as a
consideration for its maintaining them in their humane and Christian
property. One of the principles of Russian taxation is this: that as
every individual in the empire, European or Asiatic, is the child of
the czar, owes him fealty and obedience, and receives protection,
light, and glory from him, as from a central sun, so every individual
owes in return a direct contribution to the fund by which the
czar-father supports that light and glory. This is the theory of
Russian taxation; but against its actual carrying out in fact, is
opposed the old difficulty, that from him who has nothing, nothing can
possibly be extracted; and as the poor serfs have no more means of
paying taxes than the hogs and cattle their fellow-slaves, a
considerate paternal government drops its theory, and makes the
landowner pay the poll-tax for the slaves he possesses, much as an
English gentleman pays taxes for his horses and dogs, horses and dogs
being as little able to pay tax themselves as the Russian serf. Now,
in a kind of deep irony, a serf is called a _soul_. M. K---- or M.
T---- owns so many _souls_, Miss L----'s marriage-portion was so many
_souls_, Madame B----'s dowry was a hundred _souls_; and this word
soul only applies to the male serfs--women and children being given
in, or there being only one soul per family among serfs. Well, a
landowner paying so much per soul to the government, and it being a
work of much time and trouble to take a census of souls every year, an
estimate is made at long intervals--say ten or twenty years--and the
landowner is compelled to pay accordingly till the period expires,
whether the number of his serfs increase or diminish.



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Library mainpage -> Chambers, William -> Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 460 Volume 18, New Series, October 23, 1852