Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – Captain Ribnikov – Contents
By business and disposition Schavinsky was a collector of human documents, of rare and strange manifestations of the human spirit. Often for weeks, sometimes for months together, he watched an interesting type, tracking him down with the persistence of a passionate sportsman or an eager detective. It would happen that the prize was found to be, as he called it, ‘a knight of the black star’—a sharper, a notorious plagiarist, a pimp, a souteneur, a literary maniac, the terror of every editor, a plunging cashier or bank messenger, who spends public money in restaurants and gambling hells with the madness of a man rushing down the steep; but no less the objects of his sporting passion were the lions of the season—pianists, singers, littérateurs, gamblers with amazing luck, jockeys, athletes, and cocottes coming into vogue. By hook or crook Schavinsky made their acquaintance and then, enveloping them in his spider’s toils, tenderly and gently secured his victim’s attention. Then he was ready for anything. He would sit for whole sleepless nights with vulgar, stupid people, whose mental equipment, like the Hottentots’, consisted of a dozen or two animal conceptions and clichés; he stood drinks and dinners to damnable fools and scoundrels, waiting patiently for the moment when in their drunkenness they would reveal the full flower of their villainy. He flattered them to the top of their bent, with his eyes open; gave them monstrous doses of flattery, firmly convinced that flattery is the key to open every lock; he lent them money generously, knowing well that he would never receive it back again. In justification of this precarious sport he could say that the inner psychological interest for him considerably surpassed the benefits he subsequently acquired as a realistic writer. It gave him a subtle and obscure delight to penetrate into the mysterious inaccessible chambers of the human soul, to observe the hidden springs of external acts, springs sometimes petty, sometimes shameful, more often ridiculous than affecting—as it were, to hold in his hand for a while, a live, warm human heart and touch its very pulse. Often in this inquisitive pursuit it seemed to him that he was completely losing his own ‘ego,’ so much did he begin to think and feel with another’s soul, even speaking in his language with his peculiar words until at last he even caught himself using another’s gesture and tone. But when he had saturated himself in a man he threw him aside. It is true that sometimes he had to pay long and heavily for a moment’s infatuation.
But no one for a long time had so deeply interested him, even to agitation, as this hoarse, tippling infantry captain. For a whole day Schavinsky did not let him go. As he sat by his side in the cab and watched him surreptitiously, Schavinsky resolved:
‘No, I can’t be mistaken;—this yellow, squinting face with the cheekbones, these eternal bobs and bows, and the incessant hand washing; above all this strained, nervous, uneasy familiarity…. But if it’s all true, and Captain Ribnikov is really a Japanese spy, then what extraordinary presence of mind the man must have to play with this magnificent audacity, this diabolically true caricature of a broken-down officer in broad daylight in a hostile capital. What awful sensations he must have, balanced every second of the day on the very edge of certain death!’
Here was something completely inexplicable to Schavinsky—a fascinating, mad, cool audacity—perhaps the very noblest kind of patriotic devotion. An acute curiosity, together with a reverent fear, drew the journalist’s mind more and more strongly towards the soul of this amazing captain.
But sometimes he pulled himself up mentally: ‘Suppose I’ve forced myself to believe in a ridiculous preconceived idea? Suppose I’ve just let myself be fooled by a disreputable captain in my inquisitive eagerness to read men’s souls? Surely there are any number of yellow Mongol faces in the Ural or among the Oremburg Cossacks.’ Still more intently he looked into every motion and expression of the captain’s face, listened intently to every sound of his voice.
Ribnikov did not miss a single soldier who gave him a salute as he passed. He put his hand to the peak of his cap with a peculiarly prolonged and exaggerated care. Whenever they drove past a church he invariably raised his hat and crossed himself punctiliously with a broad sweep of his arm, and as he did it he gave an almost imperceptible side-glance to his companion—is he noticing or not?
Once Schavinsky could hold out no longer, and said: ‘But you’re pious, though, Captain.’
Ribnikov threw out his hands, hunched his shoulders up funnily, and said in his hoarse voice: ‘Can’t be helped, old man. I’ve got the habit of it at the Front. The man who fights learns to pray, you know. It’s a splendid Russian proverb. You learn to say your prayers out there, whether you like it or not. You go into the firing line. The bullets are whirring, terribly—shrapnel, bombs … those cursed Japanese shells…. But it can’t be helped—duty, your oath, and off you go! And you say to yourself: “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy Will be done in earth, as it is in heaven….”’
And he said the whole prayer to the end, carefully shaping out each sound.
‘Spy!’ Schavinsky decided.
But he would not leave his suspicion half-way. For hours on end he went on watching and goading the captain. In a private room of a restaurant at dinner he bent right over the table and looked into Ribnikov’s very pupils.
‘Listen, Captain. No one can hear us now…. What’s the strongest oath I can give you that no one will ever hear of our conversation?… I’m convinced, absolutely and beyond all doubt, that you’re a Japanese.’
Ribnikov banged himself on the chest again.
‘I am Capt——’
‘No, no. Let’s have done with these tricks. You can’t hide your face, however clever you are. The line of your cheekbones, the cut of your eyes, your peculiar head, the colour of your skin, the stiff, straggling growth on your face—everything points beyond all shadow of doubt to you belonging to the yellow race. But you’re safe. I shan’t tell on you, whatever offers they make me, however they threaten me for silence. I shan’t do you any harm, if it’s only because I’m full of admiration for your amazing courage. I say more—I’m full of reverence, terror if you like. I’m a writer—that’s a man of fancy and imagination. I can’t even imagine how it’s possible for a man to make up his mind to it: to come thousands of miles from your country to a city full of enemies that hate you, risking your life every second—you’ll be hanged without a trial if you’re caught, I suppose you know? And then to go walking about in an officer’s uniform, to enter every possible kind of company, and hold the most dangerous conversations. The least mistake, one slip will ruin you in a second. Half an hour ago you used the word “holograph” instead of “manuscript.” A trifle, but very characteristic. An army captain would never use this word of a modern manuscript, but only of an archive or a very solemn document. He wouldn’t even say “manuscript,” but just a “book”—but these are trifles. But the one thing I don’t understand is the incessant strain of the mind and will, the diabolical waste of spiritual strength. To forget to think in Japanese, to forget your name utterly, to identify yourself completely with another’s personality—no, this is surely greater than any heroism they told us of in school. My dear man, don’t try to play with me. I swear I’m not your enemy.’
He said all this quite sincerely, for his whole being was stirred to flame by the heroic picture of his imagination. But the captain would not let himself be flattered. He listened to him, and stared with eyes slightly closed at his glass, which he quietly moved over the tablecloth, and the corners of his blue lips twisted nervously. And in his face Schavinsky recognised the same hidden mockery, the same deep, stubborn, implacable hatred, the peculiar hatred that a European can perhaps never understand, felt by a wise, cultured, civilised beast, made man, for a being of another species.
‘Keep your kindness in your pocket,’ replied Ribnikov carelessly. ‘Let it go to hell. They teased me in the regiment too with being a Jap. Chuck it! I’m Captain Ribnikov. You know there’s a Russian proverb, “The face of a beast with the soul of a man.” I’ll just tell you there was once a case in our regiment——’
‘What was your regiment?’ Schavinsky asked suddenly.
But the captain seemed not to have heard. He began to tell the old, threadbare dirty stories that are told in camp, on manœuvres, and in barracks, and in spite of himself Schavinsky began to feel insulted. Once during the evening as they sat in the cab Schavinsky put his arm round his waist, and drew him close and said in a low voice:
‘Captain … no, Colonel, at least, or you would never have been given such a serious mission. Let’s say Colonel, then. I do homage to your daring, that is to the boundless courage of the Japanese nation. Sometimes when I read or think of individual cases of your diabolical bravery and contempt of death, I tremble with ecstasy. What immortal beauty, what divine courage there is, for instance, in the action of the captain of the shattered warship who answered the call to surrender by quietly lighting a cigarette, and went to the bottom with a cigarette in his lips! What titanic strength, what thrilling contempt for the enemy! And the naval cadets on the fireships who went to certain death, delighted as though they were going to a ball! And do you remember how a lieutenant, all by himself, towed a torpedo in a boat at night to make an end of the mole at Port Arthur? The searchlights were turned on and all there remained of the lieutenant and his boat was a bloody stain on the concrete wall. But the next day all the midshipmen and lieutenants of the Japanese Fleet overwhelmed Admiral Togo with applications, offering to repeat the exploit. What amazing heroes! But still more magnificent is Togo’s order that the officers under him should not so madly risk their lives, which belong to their country and not to them. It’s damnably beautiful, though!’
‘What’s this street we’re in?’ interrupted Ribnikov, yawning. ‘After the dug-outs in Manchuria I’ve completely lost my sense of direction in the street. When we were in Kharbin….’
But the ecstatic Schavinsky went on, without listening to him.
‘Do you remember the case of an officer who was taken prisoner and battered his head to pieces on a stone? But the most wonderful thing is the signatures of the Samurai. Of course, you’ve never heard of it, Captain Ribnikov?’ Schavinsky asked with sarcastic emphasis. ‘It’s understood, you haven’t heard of it…. You see General Nogi asked for volunteers to march in the leading column in a night attack on the Port Arthur forts. Nearly the whole brigade offered themselves for this honourable death. Since there were too many and they pressed in front of each other for the opportunity of death, they had to make application in writing, and some of them, according to an old custom, cut off the first finger of their left hand and fixed it to their signature for a seal of blood. That’s what the Samurai did!’
‘Samurai,’ Ribnikov dully repeated. There was a noise in his throat as if something had snapped and spread. Schavinsky gave a quick glance to his profile. An expression such as he had never seen in the captain’s face before suddenly played about his mouth and on his chin, which trembled once; and his eyes began to shine with the warm, tremulous light which gleams through sudden, brimming tears. But he pulled himself together instantly, shut his eyes for a second, and turned a naïve and stupid face to Schavinsky, and suddenly uttered a long, filthy, Russian oath.
‘Captain, Captain, what’s the matter with you?’ Schavinsky cried, almost in fright.
‘That’s all newspaper lies,’ Ribnikov said unconcernedly. ‘Our Russian Tommy is not a bit behind. There’s a difference, of course. They fight for their life, however, independence—and what have we mixed ourselves up in it for? Nobody knows! The devil alone knows why. “There was no sorrow till the devil pumped it up,” as we say in Russian. What! Ha, ha, ha!’
On the race-course the sport distracted Schavinsky’s attention a little, and he could not observe the captain all the while. But in the intervals between the events, he saw him every now and then in one or another of the stands, upstairs or downstairs, in the buffet or by the pari-mutuel. That day the word Tsushima was on everybody’s lips—backers, jockeys, book-makers, even the mysterious, ragged beings that are inevitable on every race-course. The word was used to jeer at a beaten horse, by men who were annoyed at losing, with indifferent laughter and with bitterness. Here and there it was uttered with passion. Schavinsky saw from a distance how the captain in his easy, confident way picked a quarrel with one man, shook hands with others, and tapped others on the shoulder. His small, limping figure appeared and disappeared everywhere.
From the races they drove to a restaurant, and from there to Schavinsky’s house. The journalist was rather ashamed of his rôle of voluntary detective; but he felt it was out of his power to throw it up, though he had already begun to feel tired, and his head ached with the strain of this stealthy struggle with another man’s soul. Convinced that flattery had been of no avail, he now tried to draw the captain to frankness, by teasing and rousing his feelings of patriotism.
‘Still, I’m sorry for these poor Japs,’ he said with ironical pity. ‘When all is said, Japan has exhausted all her national genius in this war. In my opinion she’s like a feeble little man who lifts a half dozen hundredweight on his shoulders, either in ecstasy or intoxication, or out of mere bravado, and strains his insides, and is already beginning to die a lingering death. You see Russia’s an entirely different country. She’s a Colossus. To her the Manchurian defeats are just the same as cupping a full-blooded man. You’ll see how she will recover and begin to blossom when the war is over. But Japan will wither and die. She’s strained herself. Don’t tell me they have civilisation, universal education, European technique: at the end of it all, a Japanese is an Asiatic, half-man, half-monkey. Even in type he approaches a Bushman, a Touareg, or a Blackfellow. You have only to look at his facial angle. It all comes to this, they’re just Japs! It wasn’t your civilisation or your political youth that conquered us at all, but simply a fit of madness. Do you know what a seizure is, a fit of frenzy? A feeble woman tears chains to pieces and tosses strong men about like straws. The next day she hasn’t even the power to lift her hand. It’s the same with Japan. Believe me, after the heroic fit will follow impotence and decay; but certainly before that she will pass through a stage of national swagger, outrageous militarism and insane Chauvinism.’
‘Really?’ cried Ribnikov in stupid rapture. ‘You can’t get away from the truth. Shake hands, Mr. Author. You can always tell a clever man at once.’
He laughed hoarsely, spat about, tapped Schavinsky’s knee, and shook his hand, and Schavinsky suddenly felt ashamed of himself and the tricks of his stealthy searching into human souls.
‘What if I’m mistaken and this Ribnikov is only the truest type of the drunken infantryman. No, it’s impossible. But if it is possible, then what a fool I’m making of myself, my God!’
At his house he showed the captain his library, his rare engravings, a collection of old china, and a couple of small Siberian dogs. His wife, who played small parts in musical comedy, was out of town. Ribnikov examined everything with a polite, uninterested curiosity, in which his host caught something like boredom, and even cold contempt. Ribnikov casually opened a magazine and read some lines aloud.
‘He’s made a blunder now,’ Schavinsky thought, when he heard his extraordinary correct and wooden reading, each separate letter pronounced with exaggerated precision like the head boy in a French class showing off. Evidently Ribnikov noticed it himself, for he soon shut the book and asked:
‘But you’re a writer yourself?’
‘Yes…. I do a bit.’
‘What newspapers do you write for?’
Schavinsky named them. It was the sixth time he had been asked the question that day.
‘Oh, yes, yes, yes. I forgot, I’ve asked you before. D’you know what, Mr. Author?’
‘What is it?’
‘Let us do this. You write and I’ll dictate. That is, I won’t dictate … oh, no, I shall never dare.’ Ribnikov rubbed his hands and bowed hurriedly. ‘You’ll compose it yourself, of course. I’ll only give you some thoughts and—what shall I call them—reminiscences of the war? Oh, what a lot of interesting copy I have!…’
Schavinsky sat sideways on the table and glanced at the captain, cunningly screwing up one eye.
‘Of course, I shall give your name?’
‘Why, you may. I’ve no objection. Put it like this: “This information was supplied to me by Captain Ribnikov who has just returned from the Front.”’
‘Very well. Why do you want this?’
‘Having your name in it. Do you want it for future evidence that you inspired the Russian newspapers? What a clever fellow, I am, eh?’
But the captain avoided a direct answer, as usual.
‘But perhaps you haven’t time? You are engaged in other work. Well, let the reminiscences go to hell! You won’t be able to tell the whole story. As they say: “There’s a difference between living a life and crossing a field.” Eh, what? Ha, ha, ha!’
An interesting fancy came into Schavinsky’s head. In his study stood a big, white table of unpainted ash. On the clean virgin surface of this table all Schavinsky’s friends used to leave their autographs in the shape of aphorisms, verses, drawings, and even notes of music. He said to Ribnikov: ‘See, here is my autograph-book, Captain. Won’t you write me something in memory of our pleasant meeting, and our acquaintance which’—Schavinsky bowed politely—‘I venture to hope will not be short-lived?’
‘With pleasure,’ Ribnikov readily agreed. ‘Something from Pushkin or Gogol?’
‘No … far better something of your own.’
‘Of my own? Splendid.’
He took the pen and dipped it, thought and prepared to write, but Schavinsky suddenly stopped him.
‘We’d better do this. Here’s a piece of a paper. There are drawing-pins in the box at the corner. Please write something particularly interesting and then cover it with the paper and fasten the corners with the drawing-pins. I give you my word of honour as an author, that for two months I won’t put a finger on the paper and won’t look at what you’ve written. Is that all right? Well, write then. I’ll go out of the room so as not to hinder you.’
After five minutes Ribnikov shouted to him: ‘Please come in.’
‘Ready?’ Schavinsky asked, entering.
Ribnikov drew himself up, put his hand to his forehead in salute and shouted like a soldier: ‘Very good, sir.’
‘Thanks. Now we’ll go to the “Buff,” or somewhere else,’ Schavinsky said. ‘There we’ll think what we’ll do next. I shan’t let you out of my sight to-day, Captain.’
‘With the greatest pleasure,’ Ribnikov said in a hoarse bass, clicking his heels. He lifted up his shoulders and gave a military twist to his moustaches on either side.
But Schavinsky, against his own will, did not keep his word. At the last moment before leaving his house the journalist remembered that he had left his cigarette-case in the study and went back for it, leaving Ribnikov in the hall. The piece of white paper, carefully fastened with drawing-pins, aroused his curiosity. He could not resist the temptation; he turned back stealthily and after lifting a corner of the paper quickly read the words written in a thin, distinct and extraordinary elegant hand:
‘Though you are Ivanov the seventh, you’re a fool all the same.’
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – Captain Ribnikov – Contents
Copyright holders – Public Domain Book
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