The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

< < < Chapter XI
Chapter XIII > > >

Chapter XII

WHEN Romashov reached Nikoläiev’s house about five o’clock, he noticed with surprise that his happy humour of the morning and confidence that the day would be a success had given place to an inexplicable, painful nervousness. He felt assured that this nervousness had not come over him all at once, but had begun much earlier in the day, though he did not know when. It was likewise clear to him that this feeling of nervousness had gradually and imperceptibly crept over him. What did it mean? But such incidents were not new to him; even from his early childhood he had experienced them, and he knew, too, that he would not regain his mental balance until he had discovered the cause of the disturbance. He remembered, for instance, how he had worried himself for a whole day, and that it was not till evening that he called to mind that, in the forenoon, when passing a railway crossing, he had been startled and alarmed by a train rushing past, and this had disturbed his balance. Directly, however, the cause was discovered he at once became happy and light-hearted. The question now was to review in inverted order the events and experiences of the day. Svidierski’s millinery shop and its perfumes; the hire and payment of Leib, the best cab-driver in the town; the visit to the post-office to set his watch correctly; the lovely morning; Stepan? No, impossible. In Romashov’s pocket lay a rouble laid by for him. But what could it be then?

In the street, opposite to the Nikoläievs’, stood three two-horse carriages, and two soldiers held by the reins a couple of saddle-horses—the one, Olisár’s, a dark-brown old gelding, newly purchased from a cavalry officer; the other Biek-Agamalov’s chestnut mare, with fierce bright eyes.

“I know! The letter!” flashed through Romashov’s brain. That strange expression “in spite of that”—what could it mean? That Nikoläiev was angry or jealous? Perhaps mischief had been made. Nikoläiev’s manner had certainly been rather cold lately.

“Drive on!” he shouted to the driver.

At that moment, though he had neither seen nor heard anything, he knew that the door of the house had opened, he knew it by the sweet and stormy beating of his heart.

“Romochka! where are you going?” he heard Alexandra Petrovna’s clear, happy voice behind him.

Romashov, by a strong pull, drew the driver, who was sitting opposite him, back by the girdle, and jumped out of the fly. Shurochka stood in the open door as if she were framed in a dark room. She wore a smooth white dress with red flowers in the sash. The same sort of red flowers were twined in her hair. How wonderful! Romashov felt instantly and infallibly that this was she, but, nevertheless, did not recognize her. To him it was a new revelation, radiant and in festal array.

While Romashov was mumbling his felicitations, Shurochka forced him, without letting go his hands, softly and with gentle violence, to enter the gloomy hall with her. At the same time she uttered half-aloud, in a hurried and nervous tone—

“Thanks, Romochka, for coming. Ah, how much I was afraid that you would plead some excuse! But remember now, to-day you are to be jolly and amiable. Don’t do anything which will attract attention. Now, how absurd you are! Directly any one touches you, you shrivel up like a sensitive-plant.”

“Alexandra Petrovna, your letter has upset me. There is an expression you make use of….”

“My dear boy! what nonsense!” she grasped both his hands and pressed them hard, gazing into the depths of his eyes. In that glance of hers there was something which Romashov had never seen before—a caressing tenderness, an intensity, and something besides, which he could not interpret. In the mysterious depths of her dark pupils fixed so long and earnestly on him he read a strange, elusive significance, a message uttered in the mysterious language of the soul.

“Please—don’t let us talk of this to-day! No doubt you will be pleased to hear that I have been watching for you. I know what a coward you are, you see. Don’t you dare to look at me like that, now!”

She laughed in some confusion and released his hands.

“That will do now—Romochka, you awkward creature! again you’ve forgotten to kiss my hand. That’s right! Now the other. But don’t forget,” she added in a hot whisper, “that to-day is our day. Tsarina Alexandra and her trusty knight, Georgi. Come.”

“One instant—look here—you’ll allow me? It’s a very modest gift.”

“What? Scent? What nonsense is this? No, forgive me; I’m only joking. Thanks, thanks, dear Romochka. Volodya,” she called out loudly in an unconstrained tone as she entered the room, “here is another friend to join us in our little picnic.”

As is always the case before dispersing for a general excursion, there was much noise and confusion in the drawing-room. The thick tobacco smoke formed here and there blue eddies when met by the sunbeams on its way out of the window. Seven or eight officers stood in the middle of the room, in animated conversation. The loudest among them was the hoarse-voiced Taliman with his everlasting cough. There were Captain Osadchi and the two inseparable Adjutants, Olisár and Biek-Agamalov; moreover, Lieutenant Andrusevich—a little, lithe, and active man, who, in his sharp-nosed physiognomy, resembled a rat—and Sofia Pavlovna Taliman, who, smiling, powdered, and painted, sat, like a dressed-up doll, in the middle of the sofa, between Ensign Michin’s two sisters. These girls were very prepossessing in their simple, home-made but tasteful dresses with white and green ribbons. They were both dark-eyed, black-haired, with a few summer freckles on their fresh, rosy cheeks. Both had dazzlingly white teeth which, perhaps from their not irreproachable form and evenness, gave the fresh lips a particular, curious charm. Both were extraordinarily like, not only each other, but also their brother, although the latter was certainly not a “beauty” man. Of the ladies belonging to the regiment who were invited were Mrs. Andrusevich—a little, fat, podgy, simple, laughing woman, very much addicted to doubtful anecdotes—and, lastly, the really pretty, but gossiping and lisping, Misses Lykatschev.

As is always the case at military parties, the ladies formed a circle by themselves. Quite near them, and sitting by himself, Staff-Captain Ditz, the coxcomb, was lolling indolently in an easy chair. This officer, who, with his tight-laced figure and aristocratic looks, strongly reminded one of the well-known Fliegende Blätter type of lieutenants, had been cashiered from the Guards on account of some mysterious, scandalous story. He distinguished himself by his unfailing ironical confidence in his intercourse with men, and his audacious boldness with women, and he pursued, carefully and very lucratively, card-playing on a big scale, not, however, in the mess-room, but in the Townsmen’s Club, with the civilian officials of the place, as well as with the Polish landowners in the neighbourhood. Nobody in the regiment liked him, but he was feared, and all felt within themselves a certain rough conviction that some day a terrible, dirty scandal would bring Ditz’s military career to an abrupt conclusion. It was reported that he had a liaison with the young wife of an old, retired Staff-Captain who lived in the town, and also that he was very friendly with Madame Taliman. It was also purely for her sake he was invited to officers’ families, according to the curious conceptions of good tone and good breeding that still hold sway in military circles.

“Delighted—delighted!” was Nikoläiev’s greeting as he went up to Romashov. “Why didn’t you come this morning and taste our pasty?”

Nikoläiev uttered all this in a very jovial and friendly tone, but in his voice and glance Romashov noticed the same cold, artificial, and harsh expression which he had felt almost unconsciously lately.

“He does not like me,” thought Romashov. “But what is the matter with him? Is he angry—or jealous, or have I bored him to death?”

“As you perhaps are aware, we had inspection of rifles in our company this morning,” lied Romashov boldly. “When the Great Inspection approaches, one is never free either Sundays or week-days, you know. However, may I candidly admit that I am a trifle embarrassed? I did not know in the least that you were giving a picnic. I invited myself, so to speak. And truly, I feel some qualms——”

Nikoläiev smiled broadly, and clapped Romashov on the shoulder with almost insulting familiarity.

“How you talk, my friend! The more the merrier, and we don’t want any Chinese ceremonies here. But there is one awkward thing—I mean, will there be sufficient carriages? But we shall be able to manage something.”

“I brought my own trap,” said Romashov, to calm him, whilst he, quite unnoticeably, released his shoulder from Nikoläiev’s caressing hand, “and I shall be very pleased to put it at your service.”

Romashov turned round and met Shurochka’s eye. “Thank you, my dear,” said her ardent, curiously intent look.

“How strange she is to-day,” thought Romashov.

“That’s capital!” Nikoläiev looked at his watch. “What do you say, gentlemen; shall we start?”

“‘Let us start,’ said the parrot when the cat dragged it out of its cage by the tail,” said Olisár jokingly.

All got up, noisy and laughing. The ladies went in search of their hats and parasols, and began to put on their gloves. Taliman, who suffered from bronchitis, croaked and screamed that, above everything, the company should wrap up well; but his voice was drowned in the noise and confusion. Little Michin took Romashov aside and said to him—

“Yuri Alexievich, I have a favour to ask you. Let my sisters ride in your carriage, otherwise Ditz will come and force his society on them—a thing I would prevent at any price. He is in the habit of conversing with young girls in such a way that they can hardly restrain their tears of shame and indignation. I am not, God knows! a man fond of violence, but some day I shall give that scoundrel what he deserves.”

Romashov would naturally have much liked to ride with Shurochka, but Michin had always been his friend, and it was impossible to withstand the imploring look of those clear, true-hearted eyes. Besides, Romashov was so full of joy at that moment that he could not refuse.

At last, after much noise and fun, they were all seated in the carriages. Romashov had kept his word, and sat stowed away between the two Michin girls. Only Staff-Captain Lieschtschenko, whose presence Romashov now noticed for the first time, kept wandering here and there among the carriages with a countenance more doleful and woebegone than ever. All avoided him like the plague. At last Romashov took pity and called to him, and offered him a place on the box-seat of his trap. The Staff-Captain thankfully accepted the invitation, fixed on Romashov a long, grateful look from sad, moist dog’s eyes, and climbed up with a sigh to the box.

They started. At their head rode Olisár on his lazy old horse, repeatedly performing clown tricks, and bawling out a hackneyed operetta air: “Up on the roof of the omnibus,” etc.

“Quick—march!” rang Osadchi’s stentorian voice. The cavalcade increased its pace, and was gradually lost sight of amidst the dust of the high road.

< < < Chapter XI
Chapter XIII > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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