Captain Ribnikov by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – Captain Ribnikov – Contents

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On the very day when the awful disaster to the Russian fleet at Tsushima was nearing its end, and the first vague and alarming reports of that bloody triumph of the Japanese were being circulated over Europe, Staff-Captain Ribnikov, who lived in an obscure alley in the Pieski quarter, received the following telegram from Irkutsk: Send lists immediately watch patient pay debts.

Staff-Captain Ribnikov immediately informed his landlady that he was called away from Petersburg on business for a day or two, and told her not to worry about his absence. Then he dressed himself, left the house, and never returned to it again.

Only five days had passed when the landlady was summoned to the police station to give evidence about her missing lodger. She was a tall woman of forty-five, the honest widow of an ecclesiastical official, and in a simple and straightforward manner she told all that she knew of him. Her lodger was a quiet, poor, simple man, a moderate eater, and polite. He neither drank nor smoked, rarely went out of the house, and had no visitors. She could say nothing more, in spite of all her respectful terror of the inspector of gendarmerie, who moved his luxurious moustaches in a terrifying way and had a fine stock of abuse on hand.

During this five days’ interval Staff-Captain Ribnikov ran or drove over the whole of Petersburg. Everywhere, in the streets, restaurants, theatres, tramcars, the railway stations, this dark lame little officer appeared. He was strangely talkative, untidy, not particularly sober, dressed in an infantry uniform, with an all-over red collar—a perfect type of the rat attached to military hospitals, or the commissariat, or the War Office. He also appeared more than once at the Staff Office, the Committee for the Care of the Wounded, at police stations, at the office of the Military Governor, at the Cossack headquarters, and at dozens of other offices, irritating the officials by his senseless grumbling and complaints, by his abject begging, his typical infantry rudeness, and his noisy patriotism. Already every one knew by heart that he had served in the Army Transport, had been wounded in the head at Liao-Yang, and touched in the leg in the retreat from Mukden. ‘Why the devil hasn’t he received a gratuity before now! Why haven’t they given him his daily money and his travelling expenses! And his last two months pay! He is absolutely ready to give his last drop of blood—damn it all—for the Czar, the throne, and the country, and he will return to the Far East the moment his leg has healed. But the cursed leg won’t heal—a hundred devils take it. Imagine only—gangrene! Look yourself——’ and he put his wounded leg on a chair, and was already eagerly pulling up his trouser; but he was stopped every time by a squeamish and compassionate shyness. His bustling and nervous familiarity, his startled, frightened look, which bordered strangely on impertinence, his stupidity, his persistent and frivolous curiosity taxed to the utmost the patience of men occupied in important and terribly responsible scribbling.

In vain it was explained to him in the kindest possible way that he had come to the wrong place; that he ought to apply at such and such a place; that he must produce certain papers; that they will let him know the result. He understood nothing, absolutely nothing. But it was impossible to be very angry with him; he was so helpless, so easily scared and simple, and if any one lost patience and interrupted him, he only smiled and showed his gums with a foolish look, bowed hastily again and again, and rubbed his hands in confusion. Or he would suddenly say in a hoarse, ingratiating tone:

‘Couldn’t you give me one small smoke? I’m dying to smoke. And I haven’t a cent to buy them. “Blessed are the poor…. Poverty’s no crime,” as they say—but sheer indecency.’

With that he disarmed the most disagreeable and dour officials. He was given a cigarette, and allowed to sit by the extreme corner of the table. Unwillingly, and of course in an off-hand way, they would answer his importunate questions about what was happening at the war. But there was something very affecting and childishly sincere in the sickly curiosity with which this unfortunate, grubby, impoverished wounded officer of the line followed the war. Quite simply, out of mere humanity, they wanted to reassure, to inform, and encourage him; and therefore they spoke to him more frankly than to the rest.

His interest in everything which concerned Russo-Japanese events was so deep that while they were making some complicated inquiry for him he would wander from room to room, and table to table, and the moment he caught a couple of words about the war he would approach and listen with his habitual strained and silly smile.

When he finally went away, as well as a sense of relief he would leave a vague, heavy and disquieting regret behind him. Often well-groomed, dandified staff-officers referred to him with dignified acerbity:

‘And that’s a Russian officer! Look at that type. Well, it’s pretty plain why we’re losing battle after battle. Stupid, dull, without the least sense of his own dignity—poor old Russia!’

During these busy days Captain Ribnikov took a room in a dirty little hotel near the railway station.

Though he had with him a Reserve officer’s proper passport, for some reason he found it necessary to declare that his papers were at present in the Military Governor’s office. Into the hotel he took his things, a hold-all containing a rug and pillow, a travelling bag, and a cheap, new box, with some underclothing and a complete outfit of mufti.

Subsequently, the servants gave evidence that he used to come to the hotel late and as if a little the worse for drink, but always regularly gave the door porter twopence for a tip. He never used to sleep more than three or four hours, sometimes without undressing. He used to get up early and pace the room for hours. In the afternoon he would go off.

From time to time he sent telegrams to Irkutsk from various post offices, and all the telegrams expressed a deep concern for some one wounded and seriously ill, probably a person very dear to the captain’s heart.

It was with this same curious busy, uncouth man that Vladimir Ivanovich Schavinsky, a journalist on a large Petersburg paper, once met.

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Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – Captain Ribnikov – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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