Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
< < < Chapter XII
Chapter XIV > > >
THE picnic gave no promise of being anything like so pleasant and cheerful as one might have expected from the party’s high spirits at the start. After driving three versts, they halted and got out at Dubetschnaia. By this name was designated a piece of ground hardly fifteen dessyatins in extent, which, sparsely covered with proud, century-old oaks, slowly slanted down towards the strand of a little river. Close thickets of bushes were arrayed beside the mighty trees, and these, here and there, formed a charming frame for the small open spaces covered by the fresh and delicate greenery of spring. In a similar idyllic spot in the oak-woods, servants and footmen, sent on in advance, waited with samovars and baskets.
The company assembled around the white tablecloths spread on the grass. The ladies produced plates and cold meat, and the gentlemen helped them, amidst jokes and flirtations. Olisár dressed himself up as a cook by putting on a couple of serviettes as cap and apron. After much fun and ceremony, the difficult problem of placing the guests was solved, in which entered the indispensable condition that the ladies should have a gentleman on each side. The guests half-reclined or half-sat in rather uncomfortable positions, which was appreciated by all as being something new and interesting, and which finally caused the ever-silent Lieschtschenko to astonish those present, amidst general laughter, by the following famous utterance: “Here we lie, just like the old Greek Romans.”
Shurochka had on one side Taliman, on the other side Romashov. She was unusually cheerful and talkative, nay, sometimes in such high spirits that the attention of many was called to it. Romashov had never found her so bewitching before. He thought he noticed in her something new, something emotional and passionate, which feverishly sought an outlet. Sometimes she turned without a word to Romashov and gazed at him intently for half a second longer than was strictly proper, and he felt then that a force, mysterious, consuming, and overpowering, gleamed from her eyes.
Osadchi, who sat by himself at the end of the improvised table, got on his knees. After tapping his knife against the glass and requesting silence, he said, in a deep bass voice, the heavy waves of sound from which vibrated in the pure woodland air—
“Gentlemen, let us quaff the first beaker in honour of our fair hostess, whose name-day it is. May God vouchsafe her every good—and the rank of a General’s consort.”
And after he had raised the great glass, he shouted with all the force of his powerful voice—
It seemed as if all the trees in the vicinity sighed and drooped under this deafening howl, which resembled the thunder’s boom and the lion’s roar, and the echo of which died away between the oaks’ thick trunks. Andrusevich, who sat next to Osadchi, fell backwards with a comic expression of terror, and pretended to be slightly deaf during the remainder of the banquet. The gentlemen got up and clinked their glasses with Shurochka’s. Romashov purposely waited to the last, and she observed it. Whilst Shurochka turned towards him, she, silently and with a passionate smile, held forward her glass of white wine. In that moment her eyes grew wider and darker, and her lips moved noiselessly, just as if she had clearly uttered a certain word; but, directly afterwards, she turned round laughing to Taliman, and began an animated conversation with him. “What did she say?” thought Romashov. “What word was it that she would not or dared not say aloud?” He felt nervous and agitated, and, secretly, he made an attempt to give his lips the same form and expression as he had just observed with Shurochka, in order, by that means, to guess what she said; but it was fruitless. “Romochka?” “Beloved?” “I love?” No, that wasn’t it. Only one thing he knew for certain, viz., that the mysterious word had three syllables.
After that he drank with Nikoläiev, and wished him success on the General Staff, as if it were a matter of course that Nikoläiev would pass his examination. Then came the usual, inevitable toasts of “the ladies present,” of “women in general,” the “glorious colours of the regiment,” of the “ever-victorious Russian Army,” etc.
Now up sprang Taliman, who was already very elevated, and screamed in his hoarse, broken falsetto, “Gentlemen, I propose the health of our beloved, idolized sovereign, for whom we are all ready at any time to sacrifice our lives to the last drop of our blood.”
At the last words his voice failed him completely. The bandit look in his dark brown, gipsy eyes faded, and tears moistened his brown cheeks.
“The hymn to the Tsar,” shouted little fat Madame Andrusevich. All arose. The officers raised their hands to the peaks of their caps. Discordant, untrained, exultant voices rang over the neighbourhood, but worse and more out of tune than all the rest screamed the sentimental Staff-Captain Lieschtschenko, whose expression was even more melancholy than usual.
They now began drinking hard, as, for the matter of that, the officers always did when they forgathered at mess, at each other’s homes, at excursions and picnics, official dinners, etc. All talked at once, and individual voices could no longer be distinguished. Shurochka, who had drunk a good deal of white wine, suddenly leaned her head near Romashov. Her cheeks and lips glowed, and the dark pupils of her beaming eyes had now attained an almost black hue.
“I can’t stand these provincial picnics,” she exclaimed. “They are always so vulgar, mean, and wearisome. I was, of course, obliged to give a party before my husband started for his examination, but, good gracious! why could we not have stayed at home and enjoyed ourselves in our pretty, shady garden? Such a stupid notion. And yet to-day, I don’t know why, I am so madly happy. Ah, Romochka, I know the reason; I know it, and will tell you afterwards. Oh, no! No, no, Romochka, that is not true. I know nothing—absolutely nothing.”
Her beautiful eyes were half-closed, and her face, full of alluring, promising, and tormenting impatience, had become shamelessly beautiful, and Romashov, though he hardly understood what it meant, was instinctively conscious of the passionate emotion which possessed Shurochka and felt a sweet thrill run down his arms and legs and through his heart.
“You are so wonderful to-day—has anything happened?” he asked in a whisper.
She answered straightway with an expression of innocent helplessness. “I have already told you—I don’t know—I can’t explain it. Look at the sky. It’s blue, but why? It is the same with me. Romochka, dear boy, pour me out some more wine.”
At the opposite side of the tablecloth an exciting conversation was carried on with regard to the intended war with Germany, which was then regarded by many as almost a certainty. Soon an irritable, senseless quarrel arose about it, which was, however, suddenly interrupted by Osadchi’s furious, thundering, dictatorial voice. He was almost drunk, but the only signs of it were the terrible pallor of his handsome face and the lowering gaze of his large black eyes.
“Rubbish!” he screamed wildly. “What do you really mean by war nowadays? War has been spoilt, transmogrified, and everything else, for the matter of that. Children are born idiots, women are stunted, badly brought-up creatures, and men have—nerves. ‘Ugh, blood, blood! Oh, I shall faint,’” he imitated in an insulting, mockingly pitiful tone. “And all this only because the real, ferocious and merciless character of war has changed. Now, can this be called war when you fire a couple of shots at the enemy at a distance of fifteen versts, and then return home in triumph as a hero? Pretty heroes! You are taken prisoner, and then they say to you: ‘My poor friend, how are you? Are you cold? Would you like a cigarette? Are you quite comfortable?’ Damn it all!” Osadchi gave vent to a few inarticulate roars and lowered his head like a mad bull ready to attack. “In the Middle Ages, gentlemen, things were quite different. Night attacks—storming ladders and naked weapons—murder and conflagration everywhere. ‘Soldiers, the town is yours for three days.’ The slaughter begins, torch and sword perform their office; in the streets streams of blood and wine. Oh, glorious festival of brave men amidst bleeding corpses and smoking ruins, beautiful, naked, weeping women dragged by their hair to the victor’s feet.”
“Anyhow, you haven’t changed much,” interrupted Sofia Pavlovna Taliman jokingly.
“All the town a river of fire, the tempest sporting at night with the bodies of hanged men; vultures shriek and the victor lords it by the campfires beneath the gallows tree. Why take prisoners and waste time and strength for them? Ugh!” Osadchi, with teeth clenched, groaned like a wild beast. “Grand and glorious days! What fights! Eye to eye and chest to chest. An uninterrupted slaughter for hours, till the cold-blooded tenacity and discipline of one party, coupled with invincible fury, brought victory. And what fights then! What courage, what physical strength, and what superior dexterity in the use of weapons! Gentlemen”—Osadchi arose in all his gigantic stature and in his terrible voice insolence and cold-bloodedness reigned—“gentlemen, I know that from your military colleges have issued morbid, crazy phrases about what’s called ‘humanity in war,’ etc., etc. But I drink at this moment—even if I am to drain my glass by myself—to the wars of bygone days and the joyful, bloody cruelty of old times.”
All were silent, hypnotized and cowed by this unexpected horrible ecstasy of an otherwise reserved and taciturn man, whom they now regarded with a feeling of terror and curiosity. At that moment Biek-Agamalov jumped up from where he was sitting. He did this so quickly and suddenly that he alarmed several who were present, and one of the ladies uttered a cry of terror. His widely staring eyes flashed wildly, and his white, clenched teeth resembled a beast of prey’s. He seemed to be nearly stifled, and he could not find words.
“Oh, see! here’s one who understands and rejoices at what you have said. Ugh!” With convulsive energy, nay, almost furiously, he grasped and shook Osadchi’s hand. “To hell with all these weak, cowardly, squeamish wretches! Out with the sabre and hew them down!”
His bloodshot eyes sought an object suitable as a vent for his flaming rage. His naturally cruel instincts had at this moment thrown off their mask. Like a madman he slashed at the oak-copse with his naked sword. Mutilated branches and young leaves rained down on the tablecloth and guests.
“Lieutenant Biek! Madman! Are you out of your mind?” screamed the ladies.
Biek-Agamalov pulled himself together and returned to his place, visibly much ashamed of his barbaric behaviour; but his delicate nostrils rose and fell with his quick breathings, and his black eyes, wild with suppressed rage, looked loweringly and defiantly at the company.
Romashov had heard, and yet not heard, Osadchi’s speech. He felt, as it were, stupefied by a narcotic, but celestially delightful, intoxicating drink, and he thought that a warm spider, as soft as velvet, had been spinning softly and cautiously round him with its web, and gently tickled his body till he almost died of an inward, exultant laughter. His hand lightly brushed—and each time as though unintentionally—Shurochka’s arm, but neither she nor he attempted to look at each other. Romashov was quite lost in the land of dreams, when the sound of Biek-Agamalov’s and Osadchi’s voices reached him, but as though they came from a distant, fantastic mist. The actual words he could understand, but they seemed to him empty and devoid of any intelligent meaning.
“Osadchi is a cruel man and he does not like me,” thought Romashov. “Osadchi’s wife is a creature to be pitied—small, thin, and every year in an interesting condition. He never takes her out with him. Last year a young soldier in Osadchi’s company hanged himself—Osadchi? Who is this Osadchi? See now, Biek, too, is shrieking and making a row. What sort of a man is he? Do I know him? Ah, of course I know him, and yet he is so strange to me, so wonderful and incomprehensible. But who are you who are sitting beside me?—from whom such joy and happiness beam that I am intoxicated with this happiness. There sits Nikoläiev opposite me. He looks displeased, and sits there in silence all the time. He glances here as if accidentally, and his eyes glide over me with cold contempt. He is, methinks, much embittered. Well, I have no objection—may he have his revenge! Oh, my delicious happiness!”
It began to grow dark. The lilac shadows of the trees stole slowly over the plain. The youngest Miss Michin suddenly called out—
“Gentlemen, where are the violets? Here on this very spot they are said to grow in profusion. Come, let us find some and gather them.”
“It’s too late,” some one objected. “It’s impossible to see them in the grass now.”
“Yes, it is easier to lose a thing now than to find it,” interposed Ditz, with a cynical laugh.
“Well, anyhow, let us light a bonfire,” proposed Andrusevich.
They at once set about eagerly collecting and forming into a pile an enormous quantity of dry branches, twigs, and leaves that had been lying there from last year. The bonfire was lighted, and a huge pillar of merrily-crackling, sparkling flame arose against the sky. At the same instant, as though terror-stricken, the last glimpse of daylight left the place a prey to the darkness which swiftly arose from the forest gloom. Purple gleaming spots shyly trembled in the oaks’ leafy crests, and the trees seemed at one time to hurry forward with curiosity in the full illumination from the fire, at another time to hasten as quickly back to the dark coverts of the grove.
All got up from their places on the grass. The servants lighted the candles in the many-coloured Chinese lanterns. The young officers played and raced like schoolboys. Olisár wrestled with Michin, and to the astonishment of all the insignificant, clumsy Michin threw his tall, well-built adversary twice in succession on his back. After this the guests began leaping right across the fire. Andrusevich displayed some of his tricks. At one time he imitated the noise of a fly buzzing against a window, at another time he showed how a poultry-maid attempted to catch a fugitive cock, lastly, he disappeared in the darkness among the bushes, from which was heard directly afterwards the sharp rustle of a saw or grindstone. Even Ditz condescended to show his dexterity, as a juggler, with empty bottles.
“Allow me, ladies and gentlemen,” cried Taliman, “to perform a little innocent conjuring trick. This is no question of a marvellous witchcraft, but only quickness and dexterity. I will ask the distinguished audience to convince themselves that I have not hidden anything in my hands or coat-sleeves. Well, now we begin, one, two, three—hey, presto!”
With a rapid movement, and, amidst general laughter, he took from his pocket two new packs of cards, which, with a little bang, he quickly and deftly freed from their wrapper.
“Preference, gentlemen,” he suggested. “A little game, if you like, in the open air. How would that do, eh?”
Osadchi, Nikoläiev, and Andrusevich sat down to cards, and with a deep and sorrowful sigh, Lieschtschenko stationed himself, as usual, behind the players. Nikoläiev refused to join the game, and stood out for some time, but gave way at last. As he sat down he looked about him several times in evident anxiety, searching with his eyes for Shurochka, but the gleam of the fire blinded him, and a scowling, worried expression became fixed on his face.
Romashov pursued a narrow path amongst the trees. He neither understood nor knew what was awaiting him, but he felt in his heart a vaguely oppressive but, nevertheless, delicious anguish whilst waiting for something that was to happen. He stopped. Behind him he heard a slight rustling of branches, and, after that, the sound of quick steps and the frou-frou of a silken skirt. Shurochka was approaching him with hurried steps. She resembled a dryad when, in her white dress, she glided softly forth between the dark trunks of the mighty oaks. Romashov went up and embraced her without uttering a word. Shurochka was breathing heavily and in gasps. Her warm breath often met Romashov’s cheeks and lips, and he felt beneath his hand her heart’s violent throbs.
“Let’s sit here,” whispered Shurochka.
She sank down on the grass, and began with both hands to arrange her hair at the back. Romashov laid himself at her feet, but, as the ground just there sloped downwards, he saw only the soft and delicate outlines of her neck and chin.
Suddenly she said to him in a low, trembling voice—
“Romochka, are you happy?”
“Yes—happy,” he answered. Then, after reviewing in his mind, for an instant, all the events of that day, he repeated fervently: “Oh, yes—so happy, but tell me why you are to-day so, so?…”
“So? What do you mean?”
She bent lower towards him, gazed into his eyes, and all her lovely countenance was for once visible to Romashov.
“Wonderful, divine Shurochka, you have never been so beautiful as now. There is something about you that sings and shines—something new and mysterious which I cannot understand. But, Alexandra Petrovna, don’t be angry now at the question. Are you not afraid that some one may come?”
She smiled without speaking, and that soft, low, caressing laugh aroused in Romashov’s heart a tremor of ineffable bliss.
“My dearest Romochka—my good, faint-hearted, simple, timorous Romochka—have I not already told you that this day is ours? Think only of that, Romochka. Do you know why I am so brave and reckless to-day? No, you do not know the reason. Well, it’s because I am in love with you to-day—nothing else. No, no—don’t, please, get any false notions into your head. To-morrow it will have passed.”
Romashov tried to take her in his arms.
“Alexandra Petrovna—Shurochka—Sascha,” he moaned beseechingly.
“Don’t call me Shurochka—do you hear? I don’t like it. Anything but that. By the way,” she stopped abruptly as if considering something, “what a charming name you have—Georgi. It’s much prettier than Yuri—oh, much, much, much prettier. Georgi,” she pronounced the name slowly with an accent on each syllable as though it afforded her delight to listen to the sound of every letter in the word. “Yes, there is a proud ring about that name.”
“Oh, my beloved,” Romashov exclaimed, interrupting her with passionate fervour.
“Wait and listen. I dreamt of you last night—a wonderful, enchanting dream. I dreamt we were dancing together in a very remarkable room. Oh, I should at any time recognize that room in its minutest details. It was lighted by a red lamp that shed its radiance on handsome rugs, a bright new cottage piano, and two windows with drawn red curtains. All within was red. An invisible orchestra played, we danced close-folded in each other’s arms. No, no. It’s only in dreams that one can come so intoxicatingly close to the object of one’s love. Our feet did not touch the floor; we hovered in the air in quicker and quicker circles, and this ineffably delightful enchantment lasted so very, very long. Listen, Romochka, do you ever fly in your dreams?”
Romashov did not answer immediately. He was in an exquisitely beautiful world of wonders, at the same time magic and real. And was not all this then merely a dream, a fairy tale? This warm, intoxicating spring night; these dark, silent, listening trees; this rare, beautiful, white-clad woman beside him. He only succeeded, after a violent effort of will, in coming back to consciousness and reality.
“Yes, sometimes, but, with every passing year my flight gets weaker and lower. When I was a child, I used to fly as high as the ceiling, and how funny it seemed to me to look down on the people on the floor. They walked with their feet up, and tried in vain to reach me with the long broom. I flew off, mocking them with my exultant laughter. But now the force in my wings is broken,” added Romashov, with a sigh. “I flap my wings about for a few strokes, and then fall flop on the floor.”
Shurochka sank into a semi-recumbent position, with her elbow resting on the ground and her head resting in the palm of her hand. After a few moments’ silence she continued in an absent tone—
“This morning, when I awoke, a mad desire came over me to meet you. So intense was my longing that I do not know what would have happened if you had not come. I almost think I should have defied convention, and looked you up at your house. That was why I told you not to come before five o’clock. I was afraid of myself. Darling, do you understand me now?”
Hardly half an arshin from Romashov’s face lay her crossed feet—two tiny feet in very low shoes, and stockings clocked with white embroidery in the form of an arrow over the instep. With his temples throbbing and a buzzing in his ears, he madly pressed his eager lips against this elastic, live, cool part of her body, which he felt through the stocking.
“No, Romochka—stop.” He heard quite close above his head her weak, faltering, and somewhat lazy voice.
Romashov raised his head. Once more he was the fairy-tale prince in the wonderful wood. In scattered groups along the whole extensive slope in the dark grass stood the ancient, solemn oaks, motionless, but attentive to every sound that disturbed Nature’s holy, dream-steeped slumbers. High up, above the horizon and through the dense mass of tree trunks and crests, one could still discern a slender streak of twilight glow, not, as usual, light red or changing into blue, but of dark purple hue, reminiscent of the last expiring embers in the hearth, or the dull flames of deep red wine drawn out by the sun’s rays. And as it were, framed in all this silent magnificence, lay a young, lovely, white-clad woman—a dryad lazily reclining.
Romashov came closer to her. To him it seemed as if from Shurochka’s countenance there streamed a pale, faint radiance. He could not distinguish her eyes; he only saw two large black spots, but he felt that she was gazing at him steadily.
“This is a poem, a fairy-tale—a fairy-tale,” he whispered, scarcely moving his lips.
“Yes, my friend, it is a fairy-tale.”
He began to kiss her dress; he hid his face in her slender, warm, sweet-smelling hand, and, at the same time, stammered in a hollow voice—
“Sascha—I love you—love you.”
When she now raised herself somewhat up, he clearly saw her eyes, black, piercing, now unnaturally dilated, at another moment closed altogether, by which the whole of her face was so strangely altered that it became unrecognizable. His eager, thirsty lips sought her mouth, but she turned away, shook her head sadly, and at last whispered again and again—
“No, no, no, my dear, my darling—not that.”
“Oh, my adored one, what bliss—I love you,” Romashov again interrupted her, intoxicated with love. “See, this night—this silence, and no one here, save ourselves. Oh, my happiness, how I love you!”
But again she replied, “No, no,” and sank back into her former attitude on the grass. She breathed heavily. At last she said in a scarcely audible voice, and it was plain that every word cost her a great effort:
“Romochka, it’s a pity that you are so weak. I will not deny that I feel myself drawn to you, and that you are dear to me, in spite of your awkwardness, your simple inexperience of life, your childish and sentimental tenderness. I do not say I love you, but you are always in my thoughts, in my dreams, and your presence, your caresses set my senses, my thoughts, working. But why are you always so pitiable? Remember that pity is the sister of contempt. You see it is unfortunate I cannot look up to you. Oh, if you were a strong, purposeful man——” She took off Romashov’s cap and put her fingers softly and caressingly through his soft hair. “If you could only win fame—a high position——”
“I promise to do so; I will do so,” exclaimed Romashov, in a strained voice. “Only be mine, come to me … all my life shall….”
She interrupted him with a tender and sorrowful smile, of which there was an echo in her voice.
“I believe you, dear; I believe you mean what you say, and I also know you will never be able to keep your promise. Oh, if I could only cherish the slightest hope of that, I would abandon everything and follow you. Ah, Romochka, my handsome boy, I call to mind a certain legend which tells how God from the beginning created every human being whole, but afterwards broke it into two pieces and threw the bits broadcast into the world. And ever afterward the one half seeks in vain its fellow. Dear, we are both exactly two such unhappy creatures. With us there are so many sympathies, antipathies, thoughts, dreams, and wishes in common. We understand each other by means of only half a hint, half a word—nay, even without words. And yet our ways must lie apart. Alas! this is now the second time in my life——”
“Yes, I know it.”
“Has he told you this?” asked Shurochka eagerly.
“No; it was only by accident I got to know it.”
They were both silent. In the sky the first stars began to light up and display themselves to the eye as little, trembling, emerald, sparkling points. From the right you might hear a weak echo of voices, laughter and the strains of a song; but in all the rest of the wood, which was sunk in soft, caressing darkness, reigned a deep, mysterious silence. The great blazing pyre was not visible from this spot in the woods, but the crests from the nearest oaks now and then reflected the flaming red glow that, by its rapid changes from darkness to light, reminded one of distant and vivid sheet-lightning. Shurochka softly and silently caressed Romashov’s hair and face. When he succeeded in seizing her fingers between his lips, she herself pressed the palm of her hand against his mouth.
“I do not love my husband,” she said slowly and in an absent voice. “He is rough, indelicate, and devoid of any trace of fine feeling. Ah, I blush when I speak of it—we women never forget how a man first takes forcible possession of us. Besides, he is so insanely jealous. Even to-day he worries me about that wretched Nasanski. He forces confessions from me, and makes the most insignificant events of those times the ground for the wildest conclusions. Ah—shame, he has unblushingly dared to put the most disgusting questions to me. Good God! all that was only an innocent, childish romance, but the mere mention of Nasanski’s name makes him furious.”
Now and then, whilst she spoke, a nervous trembling was noticeable in her voice, and her hand, still continuing its caress, was thrilled, as it were, by a shudder.
“Are you cold?” asked Romashov.
“No, dear—not at all,” she replied gently. “The night is so bewitchingly beautiful, you know.” Suddenly, with a burst of uncontrollable passion, she exclaimed, “Oh, my beloved, how sweet to be here with you.”
Romashov took her hand, softly caressed the delicate fingers, and said in a shy, diffident tone:
“Tell me, I beg you. You have just said yourself that you do not love your husband. Why, then, do you live together?”
She arose with a rapid movement, sat up, and began nervously to pass her hands over her forehead and cheeks, as if she had awakened from a dream.
“It’s late; let us go. Perhaps they are even now looking for us,” she answered in a calm and completely altered voice.
They got up from the grass, and both stood for a while silent, listening to each other’s breathings, eye to eye, but with lowered gaze.
“Good-bye,” she suddenly cried in a silvery voice. “Good-bye, my bliss—my brief bliss.”
She twined her arms round his neck and pressed her moist, burning-hot lips to his mouth. With clenched teeth and a sigh of intense passion she pressed her body to his. To Romashov’s eyes the black trunks of the oaks seemed to reel and softly bend towards the ground, where the objects ran into each other and disappeared before his eyes. Time stood still….
By a violent jerk she released herself from his arms, and said in a firm voice:
“Farewell—enough. Let us go.”
Romashov without a sound sank down on the grass at her feet, embracing her knees, and pressing his lips against her dress in long, hot kisses.
“Sascha—Saschenka,” he whispered, having now lost all self-command, “have pity on me.”
“Get up, Georgi Alexandrovich! Come—they might take us unawares. Let us return to the others.”
They proceeded on their way in the direction from which they heard the sound of voices. Romashov’s temples throbbed, his knees gave way, and he stumbled like a drunken man.
“No, I will not,” Shurochka answered at last in a fevered, panting voice. “I will not betray him. Besides, it would be something even worse than betrayal—it would be cowardice. Cowardice enters into every betrayal. I’ll tell you the whole truth. I have never deceived my husband, and I shall remain faithful to him until the very moment when I shall release myself from him—for ever. His kisses and caresses are disgusting to me, and listen, now—no, even before—when I thought of you and your kisses, I understood what ineffable bliss it would be to surrender myself wholly to the man I love. But to steal such a joy—never. I hate deceit and treacherous ways.”
They were approaching the spot where the picnic had taken place, and the flames from the pyre shone from between the trees, the coarse, bark-covered trunks of which were sharply outlined against the fire, and looked as if they were molten in some black metal.
“Well,” resumed Romashov, “if I shake off my sluggishness, if I succeed in attaining the same goal as that for which your husband is striving, or perhaps even something still higher—would you then …?”
She pressed her cheek hard against his shoulder, and answered impetuously and passionately—
“Yes, then, then!”
They gained the open. All the vast, burning pyre was visible; around it a crowd of small, dark figures were moving.
“Listen, Romochka, to still another last word.” Shurochka spoke fast, and there was a note of sorrow and anguish in her voice. “I did not like to spoil this evening for you, but now it must be told. You must not call at my house any more.”
He stopped abruptly before her with a look of intense astonishment. “Not call? But tell me the reason, Sascha. What has happened?”
“Come, come; I don’t know, but somebody is writing anonymous letters to my husband. He has not shown them to me, only casually mentioned several things about them. The foulest and most disgusting stories are being manufactured about you and me. In short, I beg you not to come to us any more.”
“Sascha,” he moaned, as he stretched out his arms to her.
“O my friend, my dearest and most beloved. Who will suffer more from this than I? But it is unavoidable. And listen to this, too. I am afraid he is going to speak to you about this. I beseech you, for God’s sake, not to lose your temper. Promise me you won’t.”
“That is all right; don’t be afraid,” Romashov replied in a gloomy tone.
“That is all. Farewell, poor friend. Give me your hand once more and squeeze mine tight, quite tight, till it hurts. Oh! good-bye, darling, darling.”
They separated without going closer to the fire. Shurochka walked straight up the slope. Romashov took a devious path downwards along the shore. The card-playing was still going on, but their absence had been remarked, and when Romashov approached the fire, Ditz greeted him so insolently, and with such a vulgar attack of coughing in order to draw attention, that Romashov could hardly restrain himself from flinging a firebrand at his face.
Directly after this he noticed that Nikoläiev left his game, took Shurochka aside, and talked to her for some time with angry gestures and looks of hatred. Suddenly she pulled herself together, and answered him in a few words with an indescribable expression of indignation and contempt on her features. And that big, strong man all at once shrivelled up humbly in her presence, like a whipped hound which obediently goes its way, but gnashes its teeth with suppressed fury.
The party broke up soon after this. The night felt chilly, and a raw mist rose from the little river. The common stock of good humour and merriment had long been exhausted, and all separated, weary, drowsy, and without hiding their yawns. Romashov was soon once more sitting in his trap, opposite the Misses Michin, but he never uttered a word during the course of the journey. Before his mind’s eye still stood the mighty dark and silent trees and the blood-red sunset over the brow of the woodland hill. There, too, in the soft, scented grass, he saw beside him a female shape robed in white, but during all his intense, consuming pain and longing, he did not fail to say of himself, pathetically—
“And over his handsome countenance swept a cloud of sorrow.”
< < < Chapter XII
Chapter XIV > > >
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
Copyright holders – Public Domain Book
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