Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
< < < Chapter X
Chapter XII > > >
THE 22nd of April was for Romashov not only an uncomfortable and tiresome day, but a very remarkable one. At 10 a.m., before Romashov had got out of bed, Nikoläiev’s servant, Stepan, arrived with a letter from Alexandra Petrovna.
My dear Romotchka (she wrote), I should not be in the least surprised if you have forgotten that to-day is my name-day, of which I also take the liberty to remind you. And in spite of all your transgressions, I should like to see you at my house to-day. But don’t come at the conventional hour of congratulation, but at 5 p.m. We are going to a little picnic at Dubetschnaia.—Yours,
The letter trembled in Romashov’s hands as he read it. For a whole week he had not once seen Shurochka’s saucy, smiling, bewitching face; had not felt the delicious enchantment he always experienced in her presence. “To-day,” a joyful voice sang exultant in his heart.
“To-day,” shouted Romashov, in a ringing voice, as he jumped out of bed. “Hainán, my bathwater, quick.”
Hainán rushed in.
“Your Honour, the servant is waiting for an answer.”
“Oh—yes, of course.” Romashov dropped, with eyes wide open, on a chair. “The deuce, he is waiting for a ‘tip,’ and I haven’t a single copeck.” Romashov stared at his trusty servant with a look of absolute helplessness.
Hainán returned his look with a broad grin of delight.
“No more have I either, your Excellency. You have nothing, and I have nothing—what’s to be done? Nichevó!”
At that moment Romashov called to mind that dark spring night when he stood in the dirty road, leaning against the wet, sticky fence, and heard Stepan’s scornful remark: “That man hangs about here every day.” Now he remembered the intolerable feeling of shame he experienced at that moment, and what would he not give if only he could conjure up a single silver coin, a twenty-copeck piece, wherewith to stop the mouth of Shurochka’s messenger.
He pressed his hands convulsively against his temples and almost cried from annoyance.
“Hainán,” he whispered, looking shyly askance at the door, “Hainán, go and tell him he shall have his ‘tip’ to-night—for certain, do you hear? For certain.”
Romashov was just then as hard up as it was possible to be. His credit was gone everywhere—at mess, with the buffet proprietor, at the regimental treasury, etc. He certainly still drew his dinner and supper rations, but without sakuska. He had not even tea and sugar in his room; only a tremendous tin can containing coffee grounds—a dark, awesome mixture which, when diluted with water, was heroically swallowed every morning by Romashov and his trusty servant.
With grimaces of the deepest disgust, Romashov sat and absorbed this bitter, nauseous morning beverage. His brain was working at high pressure as to how he should find some escape from the present desperate situation. First, where and how was he to obtain a name-day present for Shurochka? It would be an impossibility for him to show up at her house without one. And, besides, what should he give her? Sweets or gloves? But he did not know what size she wore—sweets, then? But in the town the sweets were notoriously nasty, therefore something else—scent—a fan? No, scent would, he thought, be preferable. She liked “Ess Bouquet,” so “Ess Bouquet” it should be. Moreover, the expense of the evening’s picnic. A trap there and back, “tip” to Stepan, incidental expenses. “Ah, my good Romashov, you won’t do it for less than ten roubles.”
After this he reviewed his resources. His month’s pay—every copeck of that was spent and receipted. Advance of pay perhaps. Alas, he had tried that way quite thirty times, but always with an unhappy result. The paymaster to the regiment, Staff-Captain Doroshenko, was known far and wide as the most disobliging “swine,” especially to sub-lieutenants. He had taken part in the Turkish War, and was there, alas! wounded in the most mortifying and humiliating spot—in his heel. This had not happened during retreat, but on an occasion when he was turning to his troops to order an attack. None the less he was, on account of his ill-omened wound, the object of everlasting flings and sarcasms, with the result that Doroshenko, who went to the campaign a merry ensign, was now changed into a jealous, irritable hypochondriac. No, Doroshenko would not advance a single copeck, least of all to a sub-lieutenant who, with uncommon eagerness, had long since drawn all the pay that was due to him.
“But one need not hang oneself, I suppose, for that,” Romashov consoled himself by thinking, after he had finished the foregoing meditation. “One must try and borrow. Let us now take the victims in turn. Well, the 1st Company, Osadchi?”
Before Romashov’s mind’s eye appeared Osadchi’s peculiar but well-formed features and his heavy, brutal expression. “No, anybody else in the world except him. Second Company, Taliman? Ah, that poor devil, who is borrowing all the year round, even from the ensigns. He won’t do. Take another name—Khutinski?”
But just at that moment a mad boyish idea crossed Romashov’s mind. “Suppose I go and borrow money from the Colonel himself. What then would be likely to happen? First he would be numbed with horror at such a piece of impudence; next he would begin trembling with rage, then he would fire, as if from a mortar, the words: ‘Wha-at! Si-lence!’”
Romashov burst out laughing. “How in the world can a day that began so happily as this ever end sadly and sorrowfully? Yes, I don’t know yet how the problem is to be solved, but an inward voice has told me that all will go well. Captain Duvernois? No, Duvernois is a skinflint, and, besides, he can’t bear me. I know that.”
In this way he went through all the officers of his company, from the first to the sixteenth, without getting a step nearer his goal. He was just about to despair altogether when suddenly a new name sprang up in his head—Lieutenant-Colonel Rafalski.
“Rafalski! What an ass I am! Hainán, my coat, gloves, cap. Make haste!”
Lieutenant-Colonel Rafalski, commander of the 4th Battalion, was an incorrigible old bachelor, and, in addition, a most eccentric character, who was called by his comrades “Colonel Brehm.” He associated with no one, was seen among the circle of his brother officers only on occasions of ceremony, i.e. at Easter and on New Year’s Day, and he neglected his duties to such a degree that at drill he was the constant object of furious invectives on the part of the higher authorities. All his time, all his attention, and all his unconsumed funds of love and tenderness, which he really possessed, were devoted to his idolized protégés, his wild creatures—brutes, birds, and fishes, of which he owned almost an entire menagerie. The ladies of the regiment, who in the depths of their hearts were highly incensed with Rafalski for his unconcealed contempt of women, used to say of him: “Such a dreadful man, and what dreadful animals he keeps! Such dirtiness in his house, and, pardon the expression, what a nasty smell he carries with him wherever he goes.”
All his savings went to the menagerie. This most eccentric individual had succeeded in reducing his temporal needs to a minimum. He wore a cap and uniform that dated from prehistoric times, he slept and dwelt God knows how, he shared the soldiers’ fare, and he ate in the 15th Company’s kitchen, towards the staff of which he displayed a certain liberality. To his comrades—particularly the younger of them—he seldom refused a small loan if he was in funds, but to remain in debt to “Colonel Brehm” was not regarded as comme il faut, and he who did so was inevitably exposed to his comrades’ ridicule and contempt.
Frivolous and impudent individuals as, e.g. Lbov, were occasionally not averse from extracting a few silver roubles from Rafalski, and they always introduced the business by a request to be allowed to see the menagerie. This was generally an infallible way to the old hermit’s heart and cash-box. “Good morning, Ivan Antonovich, have you got any fresh animals? Oh, how interesting! Come and show us them,” etc., in the same style. After this the loan was a simple matter.
Romashov had many times visited Rafalski, but never up to then with an ulterior motive. He too was particularly fond of animals, and when he was a cadet at Moscow, nay, even when he was a lad, he much preferred a circus to a theatre, and the zoological gardens or some menagerie to either. In his dreams as a child there always hovered a St. Bernard. Now his secret dream was to be appointed Adjutant to a battalion—so that he might become the possessor of a horse. But neither of his dreams was fulfilled.
The poverty of his parents proved an insuperable obstacle to the realization of the former, and, as far as his adjutancy was concerned, his prospects were exceedingly small, as Romashov lacked the most important qualifications for it, viz. a fine figure and carriage.
Romashov went into the street. A warm spring breeze caressed his cheeks, and the ground that had just dried after the rain gave to his steps, through its elasticity, a pleasant feeling of buoyancy and power. Hagberry and lilac pointed and nodded at him with their rich-scented bunches of blossom over the street fences. A suddenly awakened joy of life expanded his chest, and he felt as if he was about to fly. After he had looked round the street and convinced himself that he was alone, he took Shurochka’s letter out of his pocket, read it through once more, and then pressed her signature passionately to his lips.
“Oh, lovely sky! Beautiful trees!” he whispered with moist eyes.
“Colonel Brehm” lived at the far end of a great enclosure hedged round by a green lattice-like hedge. Over the gate might be read: “Ring the bell. Beware of the dogs!”
Romashov pulled the bell. The servant’s sallow, sleepy face appeared at the wicket.
“Is the Colonel at home?”
“Yes. Please step in, your Honour.”
“No. Go and take in my name first.”
“It is not necessary. Walk in.” The servant sleepily scratched his thigh. “The Colonel does not like standing on ceremony, you know.”
Romashov strode on, and followed a sort of path of bricks which led across the yard to the house. A couple of enormous, mouse-coloured young bull-dogs ran out of a corner, and one of them greeted him with a rough but not unfriendly bark. Romashov snapped his fingers at it, which was answered in delight by awkward, frolicsome leaps and still noisier barking. The other bull-dog followed closely on Romashov’s heels, and sniffed with curiosity between the folds of his cape. Far away in the court, where the tender, light green grass had already sprouted up, stood a little donkey philosophizing, blinking in delight at the sun, and lazily twitching its long ears. Here and there waddled ducks of variegated hues, fowls and Chinese geese with large excrescences over their bills. A bevy of peacocks made their ear-splitting cluck heard, and a huge turkey-cock with trailing wings and tail-feathers high in the air was courting the favourite sultana of his harem. A massive pink sow of genuine Yorkshire breed wallowed majestically in a hole.
“Colonel Brehm,” dressed in a Swedish leather jacket, stood at a window with his back to the door, and he did not notice Romashov as the latter entered the room. He was very busy with his glass aquarium, into which he plunged one arm up to the elbow, and he was so absorbed by this occupation that Romashov was obliged to cough loudly twice before Rafalski turned round and presented his long, thin, unshaven face and a pair of old-fashioned spectacles with tortoise-shell rims.
“Ah, ha—what do I see?—Sub-lieutenant Romashov? Very welcome, very welcome!” rang his friendly greeting. “Excuse my not being able to shake hands, but, as you see, I am quite wet. I am now testing a new siphon. I have simplified the apparatus, which will act splendidly. Will you have some tea?”
“I am very much obliged to you, but I have just breakfasted. I have come, Colonel, to——”
“Of course you have heard the rumour that our regiment is to be moved to garrison another town,” interrupted Rafalski, in a tone as if he had only resumed a conversation just dropped. “You may well imagine my despair. How shall I manage to transport all my fishes? At least half of them will die on the journey. And this aquarium too; look at it yourself. Wholly of glass and a yard and a half long. Ah, my dear fellow” (here he suddenly sprang into a wholly different train of thought), “what an aquarium they have in Sebastopol! A cistern of continually flowing seawater, big as this room, and entirely of stone. And lighted by electricity too. You stand and gaze down on all those wonderful fishes—sturgeons, sharks, rays, sea-cocks—nay, God forgive me my sins! sea-cats, I mean. Imagine in your mind a gigantic pancake, an arshin and a half in diameter, which moves and wags—and behind it a tail shaped like an arrow. My goodness, I stood there staring for a couple of hours—but what are you laughing at?”
“I beg your pardon, but I just noticed a little white rat sitting on your shoulder.”
“Oh, you little rascal! Who gave you leave?” Rafalski twisted his head and produced with his lips a whistling but extraordinarily delicate sound that was remarkably like the cheeping noise of a rat. The little white, red-eyed beast, trembling all over its body, snuggled up to Rafalski’s cheek, and began groping with its nose after its master’s mouth and chin-tuft.
“How tame your animals are, and how well they know you!” exclaimed Romashov.
“Yes, they always know me well enough,” replied Rafalski. After this he drew a deep sigh and sorrowfully shook his grey head. “It is unfortunate that mankind troubles itself and knows so little about animals. We have trained and tamed for our use or good pleasure the dog, the horse, and the cat, but how much do we know about the real nature and being of these animals? Now and then, of course, some professor—a marvel of learning—comes along—may the devil devour them all!—and talks a lot of antediluvian rubbish that no sensible person either understands or has the least profit from. Moreover, he gives the poor innocent beasts a number of Latin nicknames as idiotic as they are unnecessary, and to crown it all, he has the impudence to demand to be immortalized for all this tomfoolery, and pretty nearly venerated as a saint. But what can he teach us, and what does he know himself, of animals and their inner life? No! take any dog you like, live together with it for a time, side by side, and, by the study of this intelligent, reflecting creature, you will get more matter for your psychology than all the professors and teachers could dream.”
“But perhaps there are works of that nature, though we do not yet know them?” suggested Romashov shyly.
“Books, did you say? Yes, of course, there are plenty. Just glance over there. I have a whole library of them.”
Rafalski pointed to a long row of shelves standing along the walls. “Those learned gentlemen write a whole lot of clever things, and show great profundity in their studies. Yes, their learning is absolutely overwhelming. What wonderful scientific instruments, and what acuteness of intellect! But all that is quite different from what I mean. Not one of all these great celebrities has hit upon the idea of observing carefully, only for a single day, for instance, a dog or cat in its private life. And yet how interesting and instructive that is. To watch closely how a dog lives, thinks, intrigues, makes itself happy or miserable. Just think, for example, what all those clowns and showmen can effect. One might sometimes think that one was subjected to an extraordinary hypnosis. Never in all my life shall I forget a clown I saw in the hotel at Kiev—a mere clown. What results might have been attained by a scientifically educated investigator, armed with all the wonderful apparatus and resources of our time! What interesting things one might hear about a dog’s psychology, his character, docility, etc. A new world of marvels would be opened to human knowledge. For my part, you should know that I am quite certain that dogs possess a language and, moreover, a very rich and developed speech.”
“But, Ivan Antonovich, tell me why the learned have never made such an attempt?” asked Romashov.
Rafalski replied by a sarcastic smile.
“He, he, he! the thing is clear enough. What do you suppose a dog is to such a learned bigwig? A vertebrate animal, a mammal, a carnivorous animal, etc, and that’s the end of it. Nothing more. How could he condescend to treat a dog as if it were an intelligent, rational being? Never. No, these haughty university despots are in reality but a trifle higher than the peasant who thought that the dog had steam instead of a soul.”
He stopped short and began snorting and splashing angrily whilst he fussed and fumed with a gutta-percha tube that he was trying to apply to the bottom of the aquarium. Romashov summoned all his courage, made a violent effort of will, and succeeded in blurting out—
“Ivan Antonovich, I have come on an important—very important business——”
“Yes, I am ashamed to trouble you. I don’t require much—only ten roubles—but I can’t promise to repay you just yet.”
Ivan Antonovich pulled his hands out of the water and began slowly to dry them on a towel.
“I can manage ten roubles—I have not more, but these I’ll lend you with the greatest pleasure. You’re wanting to be off, I suppose, on some spree or dissipation? Well, well, don’t be offended; I’m merely jesting. Come, let us go.”
“Colonel Brehm” took Romashov through his suite of apartments, which consisted of five or six rooms, in which every trace of furniture and curtains was lacking. Everywhere one’s nose was assailed by the curious, pungent odour that is always rife in places where small animals are freely allowed to run riot. The floors were so filthy that one stumbled at nearly every step. In all the corners, small holes and lairs, formed of wooden boxes, hollow stubble, empty casks without bottoms, etc., etc., were arranged. Trees with bending branches stood in another room. The one room was intended for birds, the other for squirrels and martens. All the arrangements witnessed to a love of animals, careful attention, and a great faculty for observation.
“Look here,” Rafalski pointed to a little cage, surrounded by a thick railing of barbed wire; from the semicircular opening, which was no larger than the bottom of a drinking-glass, glowed two small, keen black eyes. “That’s a polecat, the cruellest and most bloodthirsty beast in creation. You may not believe me, but it’s none the less true, that, in comparison with it, the lion and panther are as tame as lambs. When a lion has eaten his thirty-four pounds or so of flesh, and is resting after his meal, he looks on good-humouredly at the jackals gorging on the remains of the banquet. But if that little brute gets into a hen-house it does not spare a single life. There are no limits to its murderous instinct, and, besides, it is the wildest beast in the world and the one hardest to tame. Fie, you little monster.”
Rafalski put his hand behind the bars, and at once, in the narrow outlet to the cage, an open jaw with sharp, white teeth was displayed. The polecat accompanied its rapid movements backwards and forwards by a spiteful, cough-like sound.
“Have you ever seen such a nasty brute? And yet I myself have fed it every day for a whole year.”
“Colonel Brehm” had now evidently forgotten Romashov’s business. He took him from cage to cage, and showed him all his favourites, and he spoke with as much enthusiasm, knowledge, and tenderness of the animals’ tempers and habits, as if the question concerned his oldest and most intimate friends. Rafalski’s collection of animals was really an extraordinarily large and fine one for a private individual to own, who was, moreover, compelled to live in an out-of-the-way and wretched provincial hole. There were rabbits, white rats, otters, hedgehogs, marmots, several venomous snakes in glass cases, ant-bears, several sorts of monkeys, a black Australian hare, and an exceedingly fine specimen of an Angora cat.
“Well, what do you say to this?” asked Rafalski, as he exhibited the cat. “Isn’t he charming? And yet he does not stand high in my favour, for he is awfully stupid—much more stupid than our ordinary cats.” Rafalski then exclaimed hotly: “Another proof of the little we know and how wrongly we value our ordinary domestic animals. What do we know about the cat, horse, cow, and pig? The pig is a remarkably clever animal. You’re laughing, I see, but wait and you shall hear.” (Romashov had not shown the least signs of amusement.) “Last year I had in my possession a wild boar which invented the following trick. I had got home from the sugar factory four bushels of waste, intended for my pigs and hot-beds. Well, my big boar could not, of course, wait patiently. Whilst the foreman went to find my servant, the boar with his tusks tore the bung out of the cask, and, in a few seconds, was in his seventh heaven. What do you say of a chap like that? But listen further”—Rafalski peered out of one eye, and assumed a crafty expression—“I am at present engaged in writing a treatise on my pigs—for God’s sake, not a whisper of this to any one. Just fancy if people got to hear that a Lieutenant-Colonel in the glorious Russian Army was writing a book, and one about pigs into the bargain; but the fact is, I managed to obtain a genuine Yorkshire sow. Have you seen her? Come, let me show you her. Besides, I have down in the yard a young beagle, the dearest little beast. Come!”
“Pardon me, Ivan Antonovich,” stammered Romashov, “I should be only too pleased to accompany you, but—but I really haven’t the time now.”
Rafalski struck his forehead with the palm of his hand.
“Oh, yes, what an incorrigible old gossip I am. Excuse me—I’ll go and get it—come along.”
They went into a little bare room in which there was literally nothing but a low tent-bedstead which, with its bottom composed of a sheet hanging down to the floor, reminded one of a boat; a little night-table, and a chair without a back. Rafalski pulled out a drawer of the little table and produced the money.
“I am very glad to be able to help you, ensign, very glad. If you please, no thanks or such nonsense. It’s a pleasure, you know. Look me up when convenient, and we’ll have a chat. Good-bye.”
When Romashov reached the street, he ran into Viätkin. Pavel Pavlich’s moustaches were twisted up ferociously, à la Kaiser, and his regimental cap, stuck on one side in a rakish manner, lay carelessly thrown on one ear.
“Ha, look at Prince Hamlet,” shouted Viätkin, “whence and whither? You’re beaming like a man in luck.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I am,” replied Romashov smilingly.
“Ah-ah! splendid; come and give me a big hug.”
With the enthusiasm of youth, they fell into each other’s arms in the open street.
“Ought we not to celebrate this remarkable event by just a peep into the mess-room?” proposed Viätkin. “‘Come and take a nip in the deepest loneliness,’ as our noble friend Artschakovski is fond of saying.”
“Impossible, Pavel Pavlich, I am in a hurry. But what’s up with you? You seem to-day as if you meant kicking over the traces?”
“Yes, rather, that’s quite on the cards,” Viätkin stuck his chin out significantly. “To-day I have brought off a ‘combination’ so ingenious that it would make our Finance Minister green with envy.”
Viätkin’s “combination” appeared simple enough, but testified, however, to a certain ingenuity. The chief rôle in the affair was played by Khaim, the regimental tailor, who took from Pavel Pavlich a receipt for a uniform supposed to have been delivered, but, instead of that, handed over to Viätkin thirty roubles in cash.
“The best of it all is,” exclaimed Viätkin, “that both Khaim and I are equally satisfied with the deal. The Jew gave me thirty roubles and became entitled through my receipt to draw forty-five from the clothing department’s treasury. I am at last once more in a position to chuck away a few coppers at mess. A masterstroke, eh?”
“Viätkin, you’re a great man, and another time I’ll bear in mind your ‘patent.’ But good-bye for the present. I hope you will have good luck at cards.” They separated, but, after a minute, Viätkin called out to his comrade again. Romashov stopped and turned round.
“Have you been to the menagerie?” asked Viätkin, with a cunning wink, making a gesture in the direction of Rafalski’s house.
Romashov replied by a nod, and said in a tone of conviction, “Brehm is a downright good fellow—the best of the lot of us.”
“You’re right,” agreed Viätkin, “bar that frightful smell.”
< < < Chapter X
Chapter XII > > >
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
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