Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – Captain Ribnikov – Contents
Just before he went off to the races, Schavinsky dropped into the dingy little restaurant called ‘The Glory of Petrograd,’ where the reporters used to gather at two in the afternoon to exchange thoughts and information. The company was rough and ready, gay, cynical, omniscient, and hungry enough; and Schavinsky, who was to some degree an aristocrat of the newspaper world, naturally did not belong to it. His bright and amusing Sunday articles, which were not too deep, had a considerable success with the public. He made a great deal of money, dressed well, and had plenty of friends. But he was welcome at ‘The Glory of Petrograd’ as well, on account of his free sharp tongue and the affable generosity with which he lent his fellow-writers half sovereigns. On this day the reporters had promised to procure a race-card for him, with mysterious annotations from the stable.
Vassily, the porter, took off Schavinsky’s overcoat, with a friendly and respectful smile.
‘If you please, Vladimir Ivanovitch, company’s all there. In the big saloon, where Prokhov waits.’
And Prokhov, stout, close-cropped, and red-moustached, also gave him a kindly and familiar smile, as usual not looking straight into the eyes of a respectable customer, but over his head.
‘A long time since you’ve honoured us, Vladimir Ivanovich! This way, please. Everybody’s here.’
As usual his fellow-writers sat round the long table hurriedly dipping their pens in the single inkpot and scribbling quickly on long slips of paper. At the same time, without interrupting their labours, they managed to swallow pies, fried sausages and mashed potatoes, vodka and beer, to smoke and exchange the latest news of the town and newspaper gossip that cannot be printed. Some one was sleeping like a log on the sofa with his face in a handkerchief. The air in the saloon was blue, thick and streaked with tobacco smoke.
As he greeted the reporters, Schavinsky noticed the captain, in his ordinary army uniform, among them. He was sitting with his legs apart, resting his hands and chin upon the hilt of a large sword. Schavinsky was not surprised at seeing him, as he had learned not to be surprised at anything in the reporting world. He had often seen lost for weeks in that reckless noisy company,—landowners from the provinces, jewellers, musicians, dancing-masters, actors, circus proprietors, fishmongers, café-chantant managers, gamblers from the clubs, and other members of the most unexpected professions.
When the officer’s turn came, he rose, straightened his shoulders, stuck out his elbows, and introduced himself in the proper hoarse, drink-sodden voice of an officer of the line:
‘H’m!… Captain Ribnikov…. Pleased to meet you…. You’re a writer too?… Delighted…. I respect the writing fraternity. The press is the sixth great power. Eh, what?’
With that he grinned, clicked his heels together, shook Schavinsky’s hand violently, bowing all the while in a particularly funny way, bending and straightening his body quickly.
‘Where have I seen him before?’ the uneasy thought flashed across Schavinsky’s mind. ‘He’s wonderfully like some one. Who can it be?’
Here in the saloon were all the celebrities of the Petersburg reporting world. The Three Musketeers—Kodlubtzov, Riazhkin, and Popov—were never seen except in company. Even their names were so easily pronounced together that they made an iambic tetrameter. This did not prevent them from eternally quarrelling, and from inventing stories of incredible extortion, criminal forgery, slander, and blackmail about each other. There was present also Sergey Kondrashov, whose unrestrained voluptuousness had gained him the name of ‘A Pathological Case, not a man.’ There was also a man whose name had been effaced by time, like one side of a worn coin, to whom remained only the general nickname ‘Matanya,’ by which all Petersburg knew him. Concerning the dour-looking Svischov, who wrote paragraphs ‘In the police courts,’ they said jokingly: ‘Svischov is an awful blackmailer—never takes less than three roubles.’ The man asleep on the sofa was the long-haired poet Piestrukhin, who supported his fragile, drunken existence by writing lyrics in honour of the imperial birthdays and the twelve Church holidays. There were others besides of no less celebrity, experts in municipal affairs, fires, inquests, in the opening and closing of public gardens.
Said lanky, shock-headed, pimply Matanya: ‘They’ll bring you the card immediately, Vladimir Ivanovich. Meanwhile, I commend our brave captain to your attention. He has just returned from the Far East, where, I may say, he made mince-meat of the yellow-faced, squinting, wily enemy…. Now, General, fire away!’
The officer cleared his throat and spat sideways on the floor.
‘Swine!’ thought Schavinsky, frowning.
‘My dear chap, the Russian soldier’s not to be sneezed at!’ Ribnikov bawled hoarsely, rattling his sword. ‘“Epic heroes!” as the immortal Suvorov said. Eh, what? In a word, … but I tell you frankly, our commanders in the East are absolutely worthless! You know the proverb: “Like master, like man.” Eh, what? They thieve, play cards, have mistresses … and every one knows, where the devil can’t manage himself he sends a woman.’
‘You were talking about plans, General,’ Matanya reminded him.
‘Ah! Plans! Merci! … My head…. I’ve been on the booze all day.’ Ribnikov threw a quick, sharp glance at Schavinsky. ‘Yes, I was just saying…. They ordered a certain colonel of the general staff to make a reconnaissance, and he takes with him a squadron of Cossacks—dare-devils. Hell take ’em!… Eh, what? He sets off with an interpreter. Arrives at a village, “What’s the name?” The interpreter says nothing. “At him, boys!” The Cossacks instantly use their whips. The interpreter says: “Butundu!” And “Butundu” is Chinese for “I don’t understand.” Ha-ha! He’s opened his mouth—the son of a bitch! The colonel writes down “village, Butundu.” They go further to another village. “What’s the name?” “Butundu.” “What! Butundu again?” “Butundu.” Again the colonel enters it “village, Butundu.” So he entered ten villages under the name of “Butundu,” and turned into one of Tchekov’s types—“Though you are Ivanov the seventh,” says he, “you’re a fool all the same.”’
‘Oh, you know Tchekov?’ asked Schavinsky.
‘Who? Tchekov? old Anton? You bet—damn him…. We’re friends—we’re often drunk together…. “Though you are the seventh,” says he, “you’re a fool all the same.”’
‘Did you meet him in the East?’ asked Schavinsky quickly.
‘Yes, exactly, in the East, Tchekov and I, old man…. “Though you are the seventh——”’
While he spoke Schavinsky observed him closely. Everything in him agreed with the conventional army type: his voice, manner, shabby uniform, his coarse and threadbare speech. Schavinsky had had the chance of observing hundreds of such debauched captains. They had the same grin, the same ‘Hell take ’em,’ twisted their moustaches to the left and right with the same bravado; they hunched their shoulders, stuck out their elbows, rested picturesquely on their sword and clanked imaginary spurs. But there was something individual about him as well, something different, as it were, locked away, which Schavinsky had never seen, neither could he define it—some intense, inner, nervous force. The impression he had was this: Schavinsky would not have been at all surprised if this croaking and drunken soldier of fortune had suddenly begun to talk of subtle and intellectual matters, with ease and illumination, elegantly; neither would he have been surprised at some mad, sudden, frenzied, even bloody prank on the captain’s part.
What struck Schavinsky chiefly in the captain’s looks was the different impression he made full face and in profile. Side face, he was a common Russian, faintly Kalmuck, with a small, protruding forehead under a pointed skull, a formless Russian nose, shaped like a plum, thin stiff black moustache and sparse beard, the grizzled hair cropped close, with a complexion burnt to a dark yellow by the sun…. But when he turned full face Schavinsky was immediately reminded of some one. There was something extraordinarily familiar about him, but this ‘something’ was impossible to grasp. He felt it in those narrow coffee-coloured bright eagle eyes, slit sideways; in the alarming curve of the black eyebrows, which sprang upwards from the bridge of the nose; in the healthy dryness of the skin strained over the huge cheekbones; and, above all, in the general expression of the face—malicious, sneering, intelligent, perhaps even haughty, but not human, like a wild beast rather, or, more truly, a face belonging to a creature of another planet.
‘It’s as if I’d seen him in a dream!’ the thought flashed through Schavinsky’s brain. While he looked at the face attentively he unconsciously screwed up his eyes, and bent his head sideways.
Ribnikov immediately turned round to him and began to giggle loudly and nervously.
‘Why are you admiring me, Mr. Author. Interested? I!’ He raised his voice and thumped his chest with a curious pride. ‘I am Captain Ribnikov. Rib-ni-kov! An orthodox Russian warrior who slaughters the enemy, without number. That’s a Russian soldier’s song. Eh, what?’
Kodlubtzov, running his pen over the paper, said carelessly, without looking at Ribnikov, ‘and without number, surrenders.’
Ribnikov threw a quick glance at Kodlubtzov, and Schavinsky noticed that strange yellow green fires flashed in his little brown eyes. But this lasted only an instant. The captain giggled, shrugged, and noisily smacked his thighs.
‘You can’t do anything; it’s the will of the Lord. As the fable says, Set a thief to catch a thief. Eh, what?’
He suddenly turned to Schavinsky, tapped him lightly on the knee, and with his lips uttered a hopeless sound: ‘Phwit! We do everything on the off-chance—higgledy-piggledy—anyhow! We can’t adapt ourselves to the terrain; the shells never fit the guns; men in the firing line get nothing to eat for four days. And the Japanese—damn them—work like machines. Yellow monkeys—and civilisation is on their side. Damn them! Eh, what?’
‘So you think they may win?’ Schavinsky asked.
Again Ribnikov’s lips twitched. Schavinsky had already managed to notice this habit of his. All through the conversation, especially when the captain asked a question and guardedly waited the answer, or nervously turned to face a fixed glance from some one, his lips would twitch suddenly, first on one side then on the other, and he would make strange grimaces, like convulsive, malignant smiles. At the same time he would hastily lick his dry, cracked lips with the tip of his tongue—thin bluish lips like a monkey’s or a goat’s.
‘Who knows?’ said the captain. ‘God only…. You can’t set foot on your own doorstep without God’s help, as the proverb goes. Eh, what? The campaign isn’t over yet. Everything’s still to come. The Russian’s used to victory. Remember Poltava and the unforgettable Suvorov … and Sebastopol!… and how we cleared out Napoleon, the greatest captain in the world, in 1812. Great is the God of Russia. What?’
As he began to talk the corners of his lips twitched into strange smiles, malignant, sneering, inhuman, and an ominous yellow gleam played in his eyes, beneath the black frowning eyebrows.
At that moment they brought Schavinsky coffee.
‘Wouldn’t you like a glass of cognac?’ he asked the captain.
Ribnikov again tapped him lightly on the knee. ‘No thanks, old man. I’ve drunk a frightful lot to-day, damn it. My noddle’s fairly splitting. Damn it all, I’ve been pegging since the early morning. “Russia’s joy’s in the bottle!” Eh, what?’ he cried suddenly, with an air of bravado and an unexpectedly drunken note in his voice.
‘He’s shamming,’ Schavinsky instantly thought. But for some reason he did not want to leave off, and he went on treating the captain.
‘What do you say to beer … red wine?’
‘No thanks. I’m drunk already without that. Gran’ merci.’
‘Have some soda?’
The captain cheered up.
‘Yes, yes, please. Soda, certainly. I could do with a glass.’
They brought a siphon. Ribnikov drank a glass in large greedy gulps. Even his hands began to tremble with eagerness. He poured himself out another immediately. At once it could be seen that he had been suffering a long torment of thirst.
‘He’s shamming,’ Schavinsky thought again. ‘What an amazing man! Excited and tired, but not the least bit drunk.’
‘It’s hot—damn it,’ Ribnikov said hoarsely. ‘But I think, gentlemen, I’m interfering with your business.’
‘No, it’s all right. We’re used to it,’ said Riazhkin shortly.
‘Haven’t you any fresh news of the war?’ Ribnikov asked. ‘A-ah, gentlemen,’ he suddenly cried and banged his sword. ‘What a lot of interesting copy I could give you about the war! If you like, I’ll dictate, you need only write. You need only write. Just call it: Reminiscences of Captain Ribnikov, returned from the Front. No, don’t imagine—I’ll do it for nothing, free, gratis. What do you say to that, my dear authors?’
‘Well, it might be done,’ came Matanya’s lazy voice from somewhere. ‘We’ll manage a little interview for you somehow. Tell me, Vladimir Ivanovich, do you know anything of the Fleet?’
‘No, nothing…. Is there any news?’
‘There’s an incredible story, Kondrashov heard from a friend on the Naval Staff. Hi! Pathological Case! Tell Schavinsky.’
The Pathological Case, a man with a black tragedy beard and a chewed-up face, spoke through his nose:
‘I can’t guarantee it, Vladimir Ivanovich. But the source seems reliable. There’s a nasty rumour going about the Staff that the great part of our Fleet has surrendered without fighting—that the sailors tied up the officers and ran up the white flag—something like twenty ships.’
‘That’s really terrible,’ said Schavinsky in a quiet voice. ‘Perhaps it’s not true, yet? Still—nowadays, the most impossible things are possible. By the way, do you know what’s happening in the naval ports—in all the ships’ crews there’s a terrible underground ferment going on. The naval officers ashore are frightened to meet the men in their command.’
The conversation became general. This inquisitive, ubiquitous, cynical company was a sensitive receiver, unique of its kind, for every conceivable rumour and gossip of the town, which often reached the private saloon of ‘The Glory of Petrograd’ quicker than the minister’s sanctum. Each one had his news. It was so interesting that even the Three Musketeers, who seemed to count nothing in the world sacred or important, began to talk with unusual fervour.
‘There’s a rumour going about that the reserves in the rear of the army refuse to obey orders. The soldiers are shooting the officers with their own revolvers.’
‘I heard that the general in command hanged fifty sisters of mercy. Well, of course, they were only dressed as sisters of mercy.’
Schavinsky glanced round at Ribnikov. Now the talkative captain was silent. With his eyes screwed and his chest pressed upon the hilt of his sword, he was intently watching each of the speakers in turn. Under the tight-stretched skin of his cheekbones the sinews strongly played, and his lips moved as if he were repeating every word to himself.
‘My God, whom does he remind me of?’ the journalist thought impatiently for the tenth time. This so tormented him that he tried to make use of an old familiar trick … to pretend to himself that he had completely forgotten the captain, and then suddenly to give him a quick glance. Usually that trick soon helped him to recall a name or a meeting-place, but now it was quite ineffective.
Under his stubborn look, Ribnikov turned round again, gave a deep sigh and shook his head sadly.
‘Awful news! Do you believe it? What? Even if it is true we need not despair. You know what we Russians say: “Whom God defends the pigs can’t eat,”—that’s to say, I mean that the pigs are the Japanese, of course.’
He held out stubbornly against Schavinsky’s steady look, and in his yellow animal eyes the journalist noticed a flame of implacable, inhuman hatred.
Piestrukhin, the poet asleep on the sofa, suddenly got up, smacked his lips, and stared at the officer with dazed eyes.
‘Ah!… you’re still here, Jap mug,’ he said drunkenly, hardly moving his mouth. ‘You just get out of it!’
And he collapsed on the sofa again, turning on to his other side.
‘Japanese!’ Schavinsky thought with anxious curiosity, ‘That’s what he’s like,’ and drawled meaningly: ‘You are a jewel, Captain!’
‘I?’ the latter cried out. His eyes lost their fire, but his lips still twitched nervously. ‘I am Captain Ribnikov!’ He banged himself on the chest again with curious pride. ‘My Russian heart bleeds. Allow me to shake your hand. My head was grazed at Liao-Yang, and I was wounded in the leg at Mukden. You don’t believe it? I’ll show you now.’
He put his foot on a chair and began to pull up his trousers.
‘Don’t!… stop! we believe you,’ Schavinsky said with a frown. Nevertheless, his habitual curiosity enabled him to steal a glance at Ribnikov’s leg and to notice that this infantry captain’s underclothing was of expensive spun silk.
A messenger came into the saloon with a letter for Matanya.
‘That’s for you, Vladimir Ivanovich,’ said Matanya, when he had torn the envelope. ‘The race-card from the stable. Put one on Zenith both ways for me. I’ll pay you on Tuesday.’
‘Come to the races with me, Captain?’ said Schavinsky.
‘Where? To the races? With pleasure.’ Ribnikov got up noisily, upsetting his chair. ‘Where the horses jump? Captain Ribnikov at your service. Into battle, on the march, to the devil’s dam! Ha, ha, ha! That’s me! Eh, what?’
* * * * *
When they were sitting in the cab, driving through Cabinetsky Street, Schavinsky slipped his arm through the officer’s, bent right down to his ear, and said, in a voice hardly audible:
‘Don’t be afraid. I shan’t betray you. You’re as much Ribnikov as I am Vanderbilt. You’re an officer on the Japanese Staff. I think you’re a colonel at least, and now you’re a military agent in Russia….’
Either Ribnikov did not hear the words for the noise of the wheels or he did not understand. Swaying gently from side to side, he spoke hoarsely with a fresh drunken enthusiasm:
‘We’re fairly on the spree now! Damn it all, I adore it. I’m not Captain Ribnikov, a Russian soldier, if I don’t love Russian writers! A magnificent lot of fellows! They drink like fishes, and know all about life. “Russia’s joy is in the bottle.” And I’ve been at it from the morning, old man!’
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – Captain Ribnikov – Contents
Copyright holders – Public Domain Book
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