Captain Ribnikov by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – Captain Ribnikov – Contents

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Long after midnight they were coming out of a suburban café chantant accompanied by the well-known musical comedy actor Zhenin-Lirsky, the young assistant Crown-Prosecutor Sashka Strahlmann, who was famous all over Petersburg for his incomparable skill in telling amusing stories about the topic of the day, and Karyukov, the merchant’s son, a patron of the arts.

It was neither bright nor dark. It was a warm, white, transparent night, with soft chatoyant colours and water like mother-of-pearl in the calm canals, which plainly reflected the grey stone of the quay and the motionless foliage of the trees. The sky was pale as though tired and sleepless, and there were sleepy clouds in the sky, long, thin and woolly like clews of ravelled cotton-wool.

‘Where shall we go, now?’ said Schavinsky, stopping at the gate of the gardens. ‘Field-Marshal Oyama! Give us your enlightened opinion.’

All five lingered on the pavement for a while, caught by a moment of the usual early morning indecision, when the physical fatigue of the reveller struggles with the irresistible and irritating yearning after new and piquant sensations. From the garden continually came patrons, laughing, whistling, noisily shuffling their feet over the dry, white cobble-stones. Walking hurriedly, boldly rustling the silk of their petticoats emerged the artistes wearing huge hats, with diamonds trembling in their ears, escorted by dashing gentlemen, smartly dressed, with flowers in their buttonholes. With the porters’ respectful assistance these ladies fluttered into carriages and panting automobiles, freely arranging their dresses round their legs, and flew away holding the brims of their hats in their hands. The chorus-girls and the filles du jardin of the higher class drove off alone or two together in ordinary cabs with a man beside them. The ordinary women of the street appeared everywhere at once, going round the wooden fence, following close on the men who left on foot, giving special attention to the drunken. They ran beside the men for a long while, offering themselves in a whisper with impudent submissiveness, naming that which was their profession with blunt, coarse, terrible words. In the bright, white twilight of May, their faces seemed like coarse masks, blue from the white of their complexions, red with crimson colour, and one’s eyes were struck with the blackness, the thickness and the extraordinary curve of their eyebrows. These naïvely bright colours made the yellow of their wrinkled temples appear all the more pitiable, their thin, scraggy necks, and flabby, feeble chins. A couple of mounted policemen, obscenely swearing, rode them down now and then with their horses’ mouths afoam. The girls screamed, ran away, and clutched at the sleeves of the passers-by. Near the railing of the canal was gathered a group of about twenty men—it was the usual early morning scandal. A short, beardless boy of an officer was dead-drunk and making a fuss, looking as though he wanted to draw his sword; a policeman was assuring him of something in a convincing falsetto with his hand on his heart.

A sharp, suspicious-looking type, drunk, in a cap with a ragged peak, spoke in a sugary, obsequious voice: ‘Spit on ’em, yer honour. They ain’t worth looking at. Give me one in the jaw, if you like. Allow me to kiss yer ‘and.’

A thin, stern gentleman at the back, whose thick, black whiskers could alone be seen, because his bowler was tilted over his face, drawled in a low, indistinct voice: ‘What do you stand about talking for? Pitch him into the water and have done with it!’

‘But really, Major Fukushima,’ said the actor, ‘we must put a decent finish to the day of our pleasant acquaintance. Let’s go off with the little ladies. Where shall it be, Sashka?’

‘Bertha?’ Strahlmann asked in reply.

Ribnikov giggled and rubbed his hands in joyful agitation.

‘Women? “Even a Jew hanged himself for company’s sake,” as the Russian proverb says. Where the world goes there go we. Eh, what? “If we’re going, let’s go,” as the parrot said. What? Ha, ha, ha!’

Schavinsky had introduced him to the young men, and they had all had supper in the café chantant, listened to the Roumanian singers, drinking champagne and liqueurs. At one time they found it amusing to call Ribnikov by the names of different Japanese generals, particularly because the captain’s good nature was evidently unlimited. Schavinsky it was who began this rude, familiar game. True he felt at times that he was behaving in an ugly, perhaps even treacherous, way to Ribnikov, but he calmed his conscience by the fact that he had not breathed a word of his suspicions, which never entered his friends’ heads at all.

At the beginning of the evening he was watching Ribnikov. The captain was noisier and more talkative than anybody: he was incessantly drinking healths, jumping up, sitting down, pouring the wine over the tablecloth, lighting his cigarette the wrong end. Nevertheless, Schavinsky noticed that he was drinking very little.

Ribnikov had to sit next the journalist again in the cab. Schavinsky was almost sober. He was generally distinguished for a hard head in a spree, but it was light and noisy now, as though the foam of the champagne was bubbling in it. He gave the captain a side-glance. In the uncertain, drowsy light of the white night Ribnikov’s face wore a dark, earthy complexion. All the hollows were sharp and black, the little wrinkles on his forehead and the lines round his nose and mouth were deepened. The captain himself sat with a weary stoop, his hands tucked into the sleeves of his uniform, breathing heavily through his open mouth. Altogether it gave him a worn, suffering look. Schavinsky could even smell his breath, and thought that gamblers after several nights at cards have just the same stale, sour breath as men tired out with insomnia or the strain of long brain work. A wave of kindly emotion and pity welled up in Schavinsky’s heart. The captain suddenly appeared to him very small, utterly worn out, affecting and pitiable. He embraced Ribnikov, drew him close, and said affably: ‘Very well, Captain, I surrender. I can’t do anything with you, and I apologise if I’ve given you some uncomfortable minutes. Give me your hand.’

He unfastened the rose he wore in his coat which a girl in the garden had made him buy, and fixed it in the buttonhole of the captain’s great-coat.

‘This is my peace-offering, Captain. We won’t tease each other any more.’

The cab drew up at a two-storied stone house standing apart in a pleasant approach. All the windows were shuttered. The others had gone in advance and were waiting for them. A square grille, a handsbreadth wide, set in the heavy door, was opened from inside, and a pair of cold, searching grey eyes appeared in it for a few seconds. Then the door was opened.

This establishment was something between an expensive brothel and a luxurious club. There was an elegant entrance, a stuffed bear in the hall, carpets, silk curtains and lustre-chandeliers, and lackeys in evening dress and white gloves. Men came here to finish the night after the restaurants were shut. Cards were played, expensive wines kept, and there was always a generous supply of fresh, pretty women who were often changed.

They had to go up to the first floor, where was a wide landing adorned by palms in tubs and separated from the stairs by a balustrade. Schavinsky went upstairs arm-in-arm with Ribnikov. Though he had promised himself that he would not tease him any more, he could not restrain himself: ‘Let’s mount the scaffold, Captain!’

‘I’m not afraid,’ said he lazily. ‘I walk up to death every day of my life.’

Ribnikov waved his hand feebly and smiled with constraint. The smile made his face suddenly weary, grey and old.

Schavinsky gave him a look of silent surprise. He was ashamed of his importunity. But Ribnikov passed it off immediately.

‘Yes, to death…. A soldier’s always ready for it. There’s nothing to be done. Death is the trifling inconvenience attached to our profession.’

Schavinsky and Karyukov the art-patron were assiduous guests and honoured habitués of the house. They were greeted with pleasant smiles and low bows.

A big, warm cabinet was given them, in red and gold with a thick, bright green carpet on the floor, with sconces in the corners and on the table. They were brought champagne, fruit and bonbons. Women came—three at first, then two more—then they were passing in and out continually. Without exception they were pretty, well provided with bare, white arms, neck, bosom, in bright, expensive, glittering dresses. Some wore ballet skirts; one was in a schoolgirl’s brown uniform, another in tight riding-breeches and a jockey’s cap. A stout elderly lady in black also came, rather like a landlady or a housekeeper. Her appearance was decent; her face flabby and yellow. She laughed continually the pleasant laugh of an elderly woman, coughed continually and smoked incessantly. She behaved to Schavinsky, the actor, and the art-patron with the unconstrained coquetterie of a lady old enough to be their mother, flicking their hands with her handkerchief, and she called Strahlmann, who was evidently her favourite, Sashka.

‘General Kuroki, let’s drink to the success of the grand Manchurian army. You’ll be getting mildewy, sitting in your corner,’ said Karyukov.

Schavinsky interrupted him with a yawn: ‘Steady, gentlemen. I think you ought to be bored with it by now. You’re just abusing the captain’s good nature.’

‘I’m not offended,’ replied Ribnikov. ‘Gentlemen! Let us drink the health of our charming ladies.’

‘Sing us something, Lirsky!’ Schavinsky asked.

The actor cheerfully sat down to the piano and began a gipsy song. It was more recitation than singing. He never moved the cigar from his lips, stared at the ceiling, with a parade of swinging to and fro on his chair. The women joined in, loud and out of tune. Each one tried to race the others with the words. Then Sashka Strahlmann gave an admirable imitation of a gramophone, impersonated an Italian opera, and mimicked animals. Karyukov danced a fandango and called for bottle after bottle.

He was the first to disappear from the room, with a red-haired Polish girl. After him followed Strahlmann and the actor. Only Schavinsky remained, with a swarthy, white-toothed Hungarian girl on his knees, and Ribnikov, by the side of a tall blonde in a blue satin blouse, cut square and open half-way down her breast.

‘Well, Captain, let’s say good-bye for a little while,’ said Schavinsky, getting up and stretching himself. ‘It’s late—we’d better say early. Come and have breakfast with me at one o’clock, Captain. Put the wine down to Karyukov, Madame. If he loves sacred art, then he can pay for the honour of having supper with its priests. Mes compliments!

The blonde put her bare arm round the captain’s neck and kissed him, and said simply: ‘Let us go too, darling. It really is late.’

< < < . III .
. V . > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – Captain Ribnikov – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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