The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

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Chapter XIV

IN May the regiment went into camp, which, year after year, was pitched in the same spot outside the town, and not far from the railway. The young officers had, whilst the camp was on, according to the regulations, to live in wooden barracks near their respective companies; but Romashov continued to enjoy his own dwelling in the town, as the officers’ barracks of the 6th Company had long been in a ruinous and uninhabitable condition, on account of there being no money available for repairs. Every day he had to journey four times between the town and the camp. In the morning off to the camp for drill, thence back to the officers’ mess in the town for his dinner; after that, off to the afternoon exercises, and, finally, at night, his last walk back to his home. This fatiguing life was seriously affecting his health. After the first fortnight he began to get thin and hollow-eyed, and soon lost the fresh colour of his cheeks.

Even the rest, officers as well as men, fared little better. Preparations were being made for the great General Review, and nobody ventured to speak of fatigue or weariness. The Captains of companies exhausted the utmost strength of their men by two or three hours’ extra drill every day. During all the drill the smacking sound of ears being boxed and other maltreatment was heard all over the plain. More than once Romashov noticed how the Captains, in a furious rage, like wild beasts, attacked the poor recruits, and boxed the ears of the entire line from first to last; but, nevertheless, the “non-coms.” displayed the greatest cruelty. They punished with unbridled rage the slightest mistake in marching or manual exercise; teeth were knocked out, drums of the ears were broken, and the defenceless victims were thrown down senseless. But none of all these martyrs ever entertained the thought of drawing a sword. It was just as if the whole regiment had become the prey of a wild hypnosis or had been attacked by nightmare. And all these terrors and sufferings were multiplied by a fearful heat, for May this year was unusually hot.

Wherever you went an unnatural nervousness was discernible. The most absurd quarrels would, all of a sudden, break out during meals at the officers’ mess. They insulted each other, and sought quarrels without rhyme or reason. The soldiers, with their sunken cheeks and sallow eyes, looked like idiots. Never, during the few hours’ rest they were allowed to enjoy, was a laugh heard from the tents; never a joke. At night, after bugle-call, the rank and file were ordered to get into line for games and singing, and with an absolutely apathetic expression of voice and features they howled the old campsong—

“Oh, the gallant Russian soldier,
Fear with him can find no place;
He, when bombs are bursting round him,
Calls them ‘brother’ to their face.”

Then a dance would be played on the harmonium, and the ensign would roar out—

“Gregorash, Skvortzov, up and dance, you hounds!”

The two recruits obeyed the order without a murmur, but in both their song and dance there lay something dead, mechanical, and resigned, at which one was inclined to weep.

Only in the 5th Company were they easy-going and free, and there the drills began every day an hour later than the rest and were concluded an hour earlier. You might have fancied that every member of it had been specially chosen, for they all looked lively, well-fed. The lads of the 5th Company looked their officers bravely and openly in the face, and the very rubashka[19] was worn with a certain aristocratic elegance. Their commander, Stelikovski—a very eccentric old bachelor and comparatively rich (he drew from some unknown quarter two hundred roubles every month), was of an independent character, with a dry manner, who stood aloof from his comrades, and lastly, was in bad odour on account of his dissolute life. He attracted and hired young girls from the lower class, often minors, and these he paid handsomely, and sent back to their native places after the lapse of a month. Corporal punishment—nay, even threats and insulting words—were strictly forbidden in his company, although, as far as that goes, there was by no means any coddling of the men, who, however, in appearance, and readiness, and capability, were not inferior to any company of guardsmen in existence. Being himself masterful, cool, and self-reliant in the highest degree, he was also able to implant those qualities firmly in his subordinates. What, in other companies, could not be attained after a whole week’s drill amid threats, yells, and oaths, blows and stripes, Stelikovski attained with the greatest calm in a single day. He was a man of few words, seldom raised his voice, and when, on occasion, he did speak, the soldiers stood as if carved in stone. Among the officers he was shunned and hated, but worshipped by his men—a state of things that, most certainly, was unique in the whole of the Russian Army.

At length the 15th of May arrived, when the Great Review, ordered by the Brigadier-General, was to take place. In all the companies, except the 5th, the non-coms. had their men drawn up by 4 a.m. The poor, tortured, drowsy, gaping soldiers were trembling as though with cold in their coarse shirts, although the air was mild and balmy and the weather serene, and their gloomy, depressed glances and sallow, greyish, chalky faces gave a painful impression in the gleaming, bright summer morning.

When the clock struck six, the officers began to join their companies. The regiment had not to be assembled and in line before 10 a.m., but, with the exception of Stelikovski, not one of the Captains thought of letting their poor wearied soldiers have their proper sleep and gain strength for the toils awaiting them that day. On the contrary, never had their fussiness and zeal been greater than on this morning. The air was thick with oaths, threats, and insults; ear-boxing, slaps on the mouth, kicks, and blows with the fist rained down, at each slightest blunder, on the miserable, utterly exhausted soldiers.

At 9 a.m. the companies marched to the parade-ground, about five hundred paces in front of the camp. Sixteen outposts, provided with small, multi-coloured flags for signalling, were stationed in an absolutely straight line about half a verst long, so as to mark out, with mathematical accuracy, the points where each company’s right wing should be placed at the parade past the Brigadier-General. Lieutenant Kováko, who had been allotted this highly important task, was, of course, one of the heroes of the day, and, conscious of this, he galloped, like a madman—red, perspiring, and with his cap on his neck—backwards and forwards along the line, shouting and swearing, and also belabouring with his sabre the ribs of his lean white charger. The poor beast, grown grey with age and having a cataract in its right eye, waved its short tail convulsively. Yes, on Lieutenant Kováko and his outposts depended the whole regiment’s weal and woe, for it was he who bore the awful responsibility of the sixteen companies’ respective “gaps” and “dressing.”

Precisely at ten minutes to 10 a.m., the 5th Company marched out of camp. With brisk, long, measured steps, that made the earth tremble, these hundred men marched past all the other companies and took their place in the line. They formed a splendid, select corps; lithe, muscular figures with straight backs and brave bearing, clean, shining faces, and the little peakless cap tipped coquettishly over the right ear. Captain Stelikovski—a little thin man, displaying himself in tremendously wide breeches—carelessly promenaded, without troubling himself in the least about the time his troops kept when marching, five paces on the side of the right flank, peering amusedly, and now and then shaking his head whimsically now to the right, now to the left, as though to control the troops’ “dressing” and attention. Colonel Liech, the commander of the battalion, who, like the rest of the officers, had been, ever since dawn, in a state of examination-fever and nervous irritability, rushed up to Stelikovski with furious upbraidings for having “come too late.” The latter slowly and coolly took out his watch, glanced at it, and replied in a dry, almost contemptuous tone:

“The commander of the regiment ordered me to be here by ten o’clock. It still wants three minutes to that hour. I do not consider I am justified in worrying and exerting my men unnecessarily.”

“Don’t, if you please,” croaked Liech, gesticulating and pulling his reins. “I must ask you to be silent when your superior officer makes a remark.”

But he only too well understood that he was wrong and would get the worst of it, and he rode quickly on, and visited his wrath on the 8th Company, whose officers had ordered the knapsacks to be opened.

“What the deuce are you about? What is this foolery? Are you thinking of opening a bazaar or a general shop? This is just like beginning a hunt by cramming the hounds with food. Close your knapsacks and put them on quickly. You ought to have thought of this before.”

At a quarter to eleven they began dressing the companies on the lines laid down. This was for all a very minute, tedious, and troublesome task. Between the échelons long ropes were tightly stretched along the ground. Every soldier in the front rank was obliged to see, with the most painful accuracy, that his toes just grazed the tightly-stretched rope, for in that lay the fundamental condition of the faultless dressing of the long front. Moreover, the distance between the toes, like the breadth of the gun-stock and the somewhat inclined position of the upper part of the body, had to be the same along the whole line. While anxiously superintending these details the Captains often flew into a towering rage. Frantic shouts and angry words of command were heard everywhere: “Ivanoff, more forward, you—Syaroschtan, right shoulder forward, left back!”

At 10.30 a.m. the commander of the regiment arrived. He rode on a powerful chestnut-brown gelding with white legs. Colonel Shulgovich was an imposing, almost majestic, figure on horseback. He had a firm “seat,” although he rode in infantry style, with stirrups far too short. In greeting his regiment he yelled in his tremendous voice, in which a certain jubilant heroic note in honour of the occasion was audible—

“Good morning, my fine fellows.”

Romashov, who remembered his 4th platoon and especially Kliabnikov’s wretched appearance, could not refrain from smiling. “Pretty choice specimens, in all truth,” thought he.

The standards were unfurled amidst the strident notes of the regimental band. After this came a long and trying moment. Straight away to the station, from which the Brigadier-General was expected, were posted a number of signallers who, by certain arranged signs, were to prepare the regiment for the approach of the Generals. More than once they were disturbed by a false alarm. The loose, slack ropes were once more tightened in mad haste, “dressings” and “lines” were ordered, and all stood for several minutes at the most painful “attention,” until weariness once more asserted its claims, and the poor soldiers collapsed, yet, at the very last, striving to keep the position of their feet, at any rate, unmoved. Out in the plain, about three hundred paces off, the ladies displayed their clothes, parasols, and hats of variegated and loud colours. Romashov knew very well that Shurochka was not in that bright, festive group. But every time he glanced in that direction he felt, as it were, an icy-cold shudder in the region of his heart, and his quick, nervous breathing bore witness to a strong inward excitement.

Suddenly, like a strong gust of wind, a rumour ran through the ranks, and a timorous cry was heard: “He’s coming; he’s coming!” It was clear to all that the important, eventful moment was approaching. The soldiers, who had been since dawn the victims of the prevailing excitement, dressed in their ranks without orders, but with a certain nervous haste, and became rigid in apparently lifeless immobility. Now and then a nervous coughing was heard.

“Ranks, attention!” rang out Shulgovich’s order.

Romashov, glancing to the right, discovered, at a good distance down the plain, a small but dense group of horsemen who, now and then obscured for an instant by a faint yellow cloud of dust, were rapidly approaching the front. Shulgovich rode, with a severe and solemn countenance, from his place in front of the middle company, right out into the plain, most certainly a good fourth further than the regulations demanded. The tremendous importance of the moment was reflected in his features. With a gesture of noble dignity, he first glanced upwards, then calmed the dark, motionless mass of soldiers by a glance, withering, it is true, but mingled with tremulous exultation, and then let his stentorian voice roll over the plain, when commanding—

“Attention! Should—er——”

He purposely kept back the last syllable of that longest word of command—the so-called “effective” word, just as if an infinite power and sanctity lay hidden in the pronunciation of those few wretched letters. His countenance became a bluish-red, the veins in his neck were strained like thick cords, and, finally, the releasing word was discernible in the wild-beast-like roar—

“—— arms!”

One—two. A thousand slamming and rattling of hard blows from soldiers’ fists on the stocks of their rifles, and the violent contact of locks with the coarse metal clasps of belts echoed through the air. At the same moment the electrifying strains of the regimental march were audible from the right wing. Like wild, excited, undisciplined children let loose, the flutes and cornets ran riot, trying by their shrill, ear-piercing voices to drown the coarse bellowing of trombones and ophicleides, whilst the thunder of drums and kettledrums, warning and threatening, exhorted frivolous, thoughtless young men of the consideration due to the seriousness and supreme importance of the moment. From the station there rang out, almost like a soothing piccolo-strain, the whistle of the engine, mingling harmoniously with the joyful music of the band.

Romashov suddenly felt himself caught, as it were, by a mighty, roaring wave that, irresistibly and exultingly, carried him away. With a sensation of joy and courage such as he had never experienced before, his glance met the sun’s gold-steeped rays, and it seemed to him as if, at that moment, he was, for the first time, conscious of the blue sky paled by the heat, and the warm verdure of the plain that disappeared in the far distance. For once he felt young and strong and eager to distinguish himself; proud, too, of belonging to this magnificent, motionless, imposing mass of men, gathered together and quelled by an invisible, mysterious will.

Shulgovich, with his sabre drawn to a level with his face, rode in a ponderous gallop to meet the General.

Directly the band’s rough martial, triumphant strains had ceased, the General’s calm, musical voice rang out—

“Good-day, 1st Company.”

The soldiers answered his salutation promptly and joyfully. Again the locomotive made its voice heard, but this time in the form of a sharp, defiant signal. The Brigadier-General rode slowly along the line, saluting the companies in their proper order. Romashov could already distinguish his heavy, obese figure with the thin linen jacket turned up in deep folds across his chest and fat belly; his big square face turned towards the troops; the gorgeous saddle-cloth with his monogram embroidered in bright colours, the majestic grey charger, the ivory rings on the martingale, and patent-leather riding boots.

“Good-day, 6th Company.”

The soldiers round Romashov replied with a shout that was pretty nearly destructive both to throats and ear-drums. The General sat his horse with the careless grace of an accomplished rider. His noble charger, with the gentle, steadfast glance from his handsome, though slightly bloodshot eyes, tugged hard at its bit, from which, now and then, a few white foam-drops fell to the ground, and careered gently on with short, quick, dancing steps.

“He’s grey about the temples, but his moustache is black—dyed, perhaps,” was Romashov’s reflection just then.

Through his gold-rimmed pince-nez the General answered with his dark, clever, youthful and satirically questioning eyes the soldiers’ glances directed at him. When he came up to Romashov he touched the peak of his cap with his hand. Romashov stood quite still, with every muscle strained in the most correct attitude of “attention,” and he clasped the hilt of his sabre with such a hard, crushing grip that it almost caused him pain. A shudder of infinite, enthusiastic devotion rushed through his whole being, and whilst looking fixedly at the General’s face, he thought to himself in his old naïve, childish way—

“The grey-haired old warrior’s glances noted with delight the young ensign’s slender, well-built figure.”

The General continued his slow ride along the front, saluting company after company. Behind him moved his suite—a promiscuous, resplendent group of staff officers, whose horses shone with profuse rubbing down and dressing. Romashov glanced at them, too, benevolently, but not one of them took the slightest notice of him. These spoilt favourites of fortune had long since had more than enough of parades, reviews, and the boundless enthusiasm of little, insignificant infantry officers, and Romashov felt in his heart a bitter, rebellious feeling at the thought that these superior people belonged to a world quite beyond his reach.

The band suddenly received a sign to stop playing. The General returned at a sharp trot to the right wing, and after him, in a long, variegated line, his mounted suite. Colonel Shulgovich galloped off to the 1st Company. Pulling his reins and throwing all his enormous body back in the saddle, he yelled in a hoarse and trembling voice—

“Captain Osadchi, advance company. Quick, march!”

Between the commander of the regiment and Captain Osadchi there was an incessant rivalry, during drill hours, to outdo each other in lung power, and not many seconds elapsed before the latter was heard to order in his mighty, rolling bass—

“Company, shoulder arms! Dress in the middle. Forward, march!” Osadchi had, with fearful sacrifice of time and labour, succeeded in introducing in his company a new kind of marching. This consisted in the soldiers raising their foot high in the air in very slow time, and afterwards putting it down on the ground with the greatest possible force. This wonderful and imposing manner of moving along the ground excited not only much interest, but also a certain envy among the other captains of companies.

But the 1st Company had hardly marched fifty paces before they heard the General’s angry and impatient voice exclaim—

“What the deuce is this? Halt with the company. Halt, halt! Come here to me, Captain. Tell me, sir, what in the name of goodness that is supposed to represent. Is it a funeral or a torch procession? Say. March in three-time. Listen, sir, we’re not living in the days of Nicholas, when a soldier served for twenty-five years. How many precious days have you wasted in practising this corps de ballet? Answer me.”

Osadchi stood gloomy, still and silent before his angry chief, with his drawn sabre pointing to the ground. The General was silent for an instant, and then resumed his harangue with an expression of sorrow and irony in his voice—

“By this sort of insanity you will soon succeed in extinguishing the last spark of life in your soldiers. Don’t you think so yourself? Oh, you luckless ghosts from Ivan the Cruel’s days! But enough of this. Allow me instead to ask you, Captain, the name of this young lad.”

“Ignati Mikhailovich, your Excellency,” replied Osadchi in the dry, sepulchral, regulation voice.

“Well and good. But what do you know about him? Is he a bachelor, or has he a wife and children? Perhaps he has some trouble at home? Or he is very poor? Answer me.”

“I can’t say, your Excellency? I have a hundred men under my command. It is hard to remember all about them.”

“Hard to remember, did you say?” repeated the General in a sad and serious voice. “Ah, gentlemen, gentlemen. You must certainly know what the Scripture says: ‘Do not destroy the soul,’ and what are you doing? That poor, grey, wretched creature standing there, may, perhaps, some day, in the hour of battle, protect you by his body, carry you on his shoulders out of a hail of bullets, may, with his ragged cloak, protect you against snow and frost, and yet you have nothing to say about him, but ‘I can’t say!’”

In his nervous excitement the General pulled in the reins and shouted over Osadchi’s head, in an angry voice, to the commander of the regiment—

“Colonel, get this company out of my way. I have had enough. Nothing but marionettes and blockheads.”

From that moment the fate of the regiment was sealed. The terrified soldiers’ absolute exhaustion, the non-coms.’ lunatical cruelty, the officers’ incapacity, indifference, and laziness—all this came out clearly as the review proceeded. In the 2nd Company the soldiers did not even know the Lord’s Prayer. In the 3rd, the officers ran like wild fowls when the company was to be drilled in “open order.” In the 4th, the manual exercise was below criticism, etc. The worst of all was, however, that none of the companies, with the exception of the 5th, knew how to meet a sudden charge of cavalry. Now, this was precisely the General’s hobby; he had published independently copious instructions on this, in which he pointed out minutely the vital importance of the troops’ mobility and quickness, and of their leader’s resolution and deliberation.

After each company had in turn been reviewed, the General commanded the officers, both commissioned and non-commissioned, to go out of ear-shot, after which he questioned the soldiers with regard to their wishes and grounds of complaint; but everywhere he met with the same good-humoured reply: “Satisfied with everything, your Excellency.” When that question was put to No. 1 Company, Romashov heard an ensign in it remark in a threatening voice—

“Just let me hear any one daring to complain; I’ll give him ‘complaints’!”

For the 5th Company only was the whole review a complete triumph. The brave, young, lusty soldiers executed all their movements with life and energy, and with such facility, mobility, and absence of all pedantry that the whole of the review seemed to officers and men, not a severe, painful examination, but like a jolly and amusing game. The General smiled his satisfaction, and soon could not refrain from a “Well done, my lads”—the first words of approval he uttered during the whole time.

When, however, the ominous pretended charge was to be met, Stelikovski literally took the old General by storm. The General himself started the exercise by suddenly shouting to the commander of the company: “Cavalry from the right, eight hundred paces.” Stelikovski formed, without a second’s hesitation and with the greatest calm and precision, his company to meet the supposed enemy, which seemed to approach at a furious gallop. With compactly closed ranks—the fore-rank in a kneeling position—the troops fired two or three rounds, immediately after which was heard the fateful command: “Quick fire!”

“Thanks, my children,” cried the old General joyously—“that’s the way it should be done. Thanks, thanks.”

After the oral examination the company was drawn up in open file; but the General delayed his final dismissal. It was as if it seemed hard to him to say good-bye to this company. Passing as slowly as possible along the front, he observed every soldier with particular and deep interest, and a very delighted smile gleamed through the pince-nez from the clever eyes beneath the heavy, prominent eyebrows. Suddenly he stopped his charger, turned round on his saddle to the head of his staff, and exclaimed—

“No; come here and look, Colonel, what muzzles the rascals have. What do you feed them on, Captain? Pies? Hi, you thick nose” (he pointed to a young soldier in the ranks), “your name’s Kovál?”

“Mikhail Borichuk, your Excellency,” boldly replied the young recruit with a frank, happy smile.

“Oh, you scamp, I thought you were called Kovál. Well, this time I was out of my reckoning,” said the General in fun, “but there’s no harm done; better luck next time,” he added, with the same good-humour.

At these words the soldier’s countenance puckered in a broad grin.

“No, your Excellency, you are not wrong at all,” shouted the soldier in a raised voice. “At home, in the village, I am employed as a farrier, and, therefore, they call me Kovál.”

The General nodded in delight, and he was evidently very proud of his memory. “Well, Captain, is he a good soldier?”

“Very good, General. All my soldiers are good,” replied Stelikovski in his usual confident tone.

The General’s eyebrows were knitted, but his lips kept smiling, and the crabbed old face gradually resumed its light and friendly expression. “Well, well, Captain; we will see about that. How is the punishment-list?”

“Your Excellency, for five years not a single man in my company has been punished.”

The General bent forward heavily and held out to Stelikovski his hairy hand in the white, unbuttoned glove that had slipped down to the knuckles.

“I heartily thank you, my friend,” he replied in a trembling voice, and tears glistened in his eyes. The General, like many old warriors, liked, now and then, to shed a slight tear. “Again my thanks for having given an old man pleasure. And you, too, my brave boys, accept my thanks,” he shouted in a loud and vigorous voice to the soldiers.

Thanks to the good impression left behind from Stelikovski’s inspection, the review of the 6th Company also went off nearly satisfactorily; the General did certainly not bestow praise, but neither were any reproaches heard. At the bayonet attack on the straw mannikin this company even went astray.

“Not that way, not that way, not that way!” screamed the General, shaking with wrath in the saddle. “Hold, stop! that’s damnable. You go to work as if you were making a hole in soft bread. Listen, boys. That’s not the way to deal with an enemy. The bayonet should be driven in forcibly and furiously right in the waist up to the muzzle of your rifle. Don’t forget.”

The remaining companies made, one after the other, a hopeless “hash” of everything. At last the General’s outburst of anger ceased. Tired and listless, he watched the miserable spectacle with gloomy looks, and, without uttering a word, he entirely excused himself from inspecting the 15th and 16th Companies, exclaiming with a gesture of disgust—

“Enough, enough of such abortions.”

There still remained the grand march past, and the parade. The whole regiment was formed into columns with half companies in front, and reduced gaps. Again the everlasting markers were ordered out to set the line of march by their ropes. The heat was now almost unbearable, and the soldiers could hardly bear any longer the fearful stench that exuded from their own freely perspiring bodies.

But for the forthcoming “solemn” march past, the men now made a final effort to pull themselves together. The officers almost besought their subordinates to strain every nerve for this final proof of their endurance and discipline. “Brothers, for the honour of the regiment, do your best. Save yourselves and us from disgracing ourselves before the General.” In this humble recourse on the part of the officers to their subordinates there lay—besides much else that was little edifying—too, an indirect recognition of their own faults and shortcomings. The wrath aroused in such a great personage as the General of the regiment was felt to be equally painful and oppressive to officers and troops alike, and it had, to some extent, a levelling effect, so that all were, in an equally high degree, dispirited, nervous, and apathetic.

“Attention! The band in front!” ordered Colonel Shulgovich, in the far distance.

And all these fifteen hundred human beings for a second suppressed their faint inward murmurings; all muscles were once more strained, and again they stood in nervous, painful expectation.

Shulgovich could not be detected by any eye, but his tremendous voice again rang across the field—

“Stand at ease!”

Four battalion Captains turned in their saddles to their respective divisions, and each uttered the command—

“Battalion, stand at——” after which they awaited with feverish nervousness the word of command.

Somewhere, far away on the field, a sabre suddenly gleamed like lightning in the air. This was the desired signal, and all the Captains at once roared—

“—— ease!” whereupon all the regiment, with a dull thud, grounded their rifles. Here and there was heard the click of a few unfortunate bayonets which, in the movement, happened to clash together.

But now, at last, the solemn, never-to-be-forgotten moment had arrived, when the commander of the regiment’s tremendous lungs were to be heard by the world in all their awful majesty. Solemnly, confidently, but, at the same time, menacingly, like slow rumblings of thunder, the strongly accentuated syllables rolled across the plain in the command—

“March past!”

In the next moment you might hear sixteen Captains risking their lives in mad attempt to shout each other down, when they repeated all at once—

“March past!”

One single poor sinner far away in detail of the column managed to come too late. He whined in a melancholy falsetto:

“March pa—!”

The rest of the word was unfortunately lost to the men, and probably drowned in the oaths and threats of the bystanders.

“Column in half companies!” roared Colonel Shulgovich.

“Column in half companies!” repeated the Captains.

“With double platoon—hollow!” chanted Shulgovich.

“With double platoon—hollow!” answered the choir.

“Dress-ing—ri-ight!” thundered the giant.

“Dress-ing—ri-ight!” came from the dwarfs.

Shulgovich now took breath for two or three seconds, after which he once more gave vent to his voice of thunder in the command—

“First half company—forward—march!”

Rolling heavily through the dense ranks across the level plain came Osadchi’s dull roar—

“First half company, dress to the right—forward—march!”

Away in the front was heard the merry rattle of drums. Seen from the rear, the column resembled a forest of bayonets which often enough waved backwards and forwards.

“Second half company to the middle!” Romashov recognized Artschakovski’s squeaky falsetto.

A new line of bayonets assumed a leaning position and departed. The thunder of the drums grew more and more faint, and was just about to sink down, as it were, and be absorbed in the ground, when suddenly the last sounds of drum-beats were dispersed by the rhythmically jubilant, irresistible waves of music from the wind instruments. The sleepy marching time of the companies filing past at once caught fire and life; languid eyes and greyish cheeks regained their colour, and tired muscles were once more braced to save the honour of the regiment.

The half companies proceeded to march, one after the other, and at every step the soldiers’ torpid spirits were revived under the influence of the band’s cheerful strains. The 1st Battalion’s last company had already got some distance when, lo! Lieutenant-Colonel Liech advanced gently on his thin, raven-black horse, followed close at his heels by Olisár. Both had their sabres ready for the salute, with their sabre-hilts’ knots dangling on a level with their mouths. Soon Stelikovski’s quiet, nonchalant command was heard. High above the bayonets, the standard lorded on its long pole, and it was now the 6th Company’s turn to march. Captain Sliva stepped to the front and inspected his men by a glance from his pale, prominent, fishy eyes. With his miserable shrunken figure stooping, and his long arms, he had a striking resemblance to an ugly old monkey.

“F-irst half company—forward!”

With a light and elegant step Romashov hurried to his place right in front of the second half company’s pivot. A blissful, intoxicating feeling of pride came over him whilst he allowed his glance to glide quickly over the first row of his division. “The old swashbuckler viewed with an eagle’s eyes the brave band of veterans,” he declaimed silently, after which in a prolonged sing-song he gave the order—

“Second half company—forward!”

“One, two,” Romashov counted softly to himself, marking time with a soft stamping on the spot. Pronouncing the word at the right moment was of infinite importance, as upon it depended the exact carrying out of the inexorable command that the half company should begin marching with the proper foot, i.e., with the same foot as the preceding division, “left, right; left, right.” At last a start was made. With head erect, and beaming with a smile of boundless happiness, he cried in a loud, resonant voice—


A second afterwards he made, as quick as lightning, a complete turn on one foot towards his men, and commanded, two tones lower in the scale—


The profound solemnity and “infinite beauty” of the moment almost took away his breath. At that instant it seemed to him as if the music’s waves of melody surrounded him, and were changed into a seething, blinding ocean of light and fire; as if these deafening brazen peals had descended on him from on high, from heaven, from the sun. Even now, as at his last never-to-be-forgotten tryst with Shurochka, he was thrilled by a freezing, petrifying shudder that made the very hair on his head stand up.

With joy in their voices and in time with the music, the 5th Company replied to the General’s salute. Nearer and nearer to Romashov sounded the jubilant notes of the parade march. On the right and onwards, he could now distinguish the General’s heavy figure on his grey horse, and, somewhat farther off, the ladies’ brilliant dresses, which, in the blinding glare of the noon-day sun, reminded him of the flaming flower-petals in the old sagas. On the left gleamed the bandsmen’s gold instruments, and it seemed to Romashov as if, between the General and the band, was drawn an invisible, enchanted thread, the passing of which was combined peril and bliss.

At this moment the first half company reached “the thread.”

“Good, my lads,” rang the General’s delighted voice. “Ah, ah, ah, ah!” was the soldiers’ rapid, joyous answer. Stronger and stronger at every second grew the alluring influence of the parade march, and Romashov could hardly restrain his feelings any longer. “O thou, my ideal,” thought he of the General, with deep emotion.

The blissful moment had come. With elastic strides that scarcely touched the ground, Romashov approached his “enchanted thread.” He threw his head bravely back with a proud and defiant twist to the left. So potent a feeling of lightness, freedom, and bliss rushed through his being that he fancied he could at any moment whirl himself into space. And while he felt he was an object of delight and admiration to the eyes of all—a centre of all the universe contains of strength, beauty, and delight, he said to himself, as though under the witchery of a heavenly dream—

“Look, look, there goes Romashov! The ladies’ eyes are shining with love and admiration. One, two; left, right, ‘Colonel Shulgovich,’ shouts the General, ‘your Romashov is a priceless jewel; he must be my Adjutant.’ Left, right! One, two!”

Another second and Romashov knew he had started and passed his mystic “thread.” The parade march had changed to a joyous peal of trumpets announcing victory. “Now comes the General’s salute and thanks,” thought Romashov, and his soul returns to the regions of bliss; but he fancies he hears the Colonel’s voice and certain other voices.

“What has happened; what is the matter? Of course the General has saluted, but why don’t my men respond?—What’s this?”

Romashov turned round, and his face became white. Instead of a well-ordered troop in two lines as straight as an arrow, his men formed a shapeless mass—a crowd—resembling a flock of sheep—of individuals mad with imbecility and misery, pushing and jolting each other. The cause of this was that Romashov, whilst he was in his paradisaical world of dreams and intoxication of victory, failed to notice that, step by step, he deviated from the line of march, and more and more approached the right wing of his division. His trusty, unfortunate “markers” followed close on the heels of their leader, and, of course, in consequence of this the whole of the half company finally got into the wildest confusion. Romashov saw all this at the very moment he became aware that the wretched Khliabnikov was stalking, on his own account, twenty paces behind the division, right under the very nose of the General.

Romashov immediately let his wings droop. Covered with dust, he stood quite still to await and collect his poor veterans, who, absolutely dead beaten with the weight of their knapsacks and ammunition, were now hardly able to crawl along on all-fours with one hand still grasping the rifle and the other fumbling in the air or in the region of their perspiring noses.

To Romashov it seemed as if the glorious May sun had suddenly lost its radiance; as if he had been buried under an infinite weight, under sand and gravel, and that the music that so lately sounded such triumphant strains now rang softly and ominously in his ears, like a funeral march. And he felt so small and weak and wretched, so loathsome in every respect, that it was all he could do to keep himself upright on his leaden, palsied legs.

The Colonel’s Adjutant at that moment rushed up to him. Federovski’s face was as red as fire and distorted with passion. His lower jaw trembled, and he was panting with rage and his hard riding. Even at a distance he began shrieking like a man possessed, and uttering inarticulate and incomprehensible words.

“Sub-lieutenant Romashov, the commander of your regiment condemns, in the strongest terms, your behaviour to-day. Seven days’ arrest in the staff cells. What a monstrous scandal! The whole regiment—on account of you. Oh, such an abortion!”

Romashov did not make the slightest reply, nor did he even turn his head. And, besides, what answer could he make? Federovski had, most certainly, a right to be furious. But the troops, the soldiers who heard every single insulting word of the Adjutant’s—what would they think? Romashov felt at that moment a boundless hatred and contempt of himself. “I am lost; I am dishonoured for ever. I’ll shoot myself. Can I suppose I am worthy to live! What am I? An insignificant, ridiculous, contemptible wretch—a caricature, an ugly, disgusting, idiotic creature. My own soldiers will laugh at me, and, behind my back, they will make merry with nudges and secret signs, at my expense. Or, perhaps, they will pity me. All the same, everything is lost, and I—I’ll shoot myself.”

After passing the General, all the companies made a half-turn to the left, and then went back to their original places, where they were successively drawn up again and in open file. Whilst waiting for the return of the last companies to march past, the men were allowed to “stand easy,” and the officers utilized the occasion to smoke a cigarette and chat with one another. Only Romashov stood quite alone, silent and motionless in front of his half company. He dug the earth incessantly with the point of his sabre, and though he cast his eyes down fixedly, he felt he was, on all sides, a mark for curious, sarcastic, and contemptuous glances.

Captain Sliva purposely passed by Romashov without stopping except to look at him, and spoke, as it were, to himself through his clenched teeth, and in a voice hoarse and unrecognizable through hatred and fury—

“Be good enough to send in to-day a request to be transferred to another company.”

A little while afterwards Viätkin came. In his kindly, frank glance and the drawn corners of his mouth, Romashov read that expression of pity and compassion with which people usually regard a dog that has been run over and crushed in the street. And, at the same time, Romashov felt with disgust that he had, half mechanically, twisted his mouth into an unmeaning, pitiful smile.

“Yuri Alexievich,” exclaimed Viätkin, “come and smoke a cigarette with me,” and with a click of the tongue and slightly throwing his head back, he added in a despondent tone—

“Well, well, old chap!”

Romashov’s chin and the corners of his mouth twitched, and a lump came into his throat. Tears were not far off, and he replied in the faltering and fretful voice of an aggrieved child—

“No, no; not now!—I don’t want to!”

Viätkin withdrew.

“Suppose I were to go and give that fellow Sliva a bang on his ear,” thought Romashov, buffeted here and there by his melancholy introspections. “Or to go up to that grey-bearded General and say: ‘Aren’t you ashamed, at your age, to play with soldiers and torture men? Release us from here instantly, and let us rest. For two long weeks the soldiers have been ill-treated solely on account of you.’”

Romashov, however, remembered his own proud, stuck-up thoughts only a brief while ago—of the young ensign as handsome as a picture, of the ladies’ ideal, of the General’s favourite future Adjutant, etc., etc.—and he felt so much shame and pain that a deep blush overspread, not only his face, but even his chest and back.

“You wretched, absurd, contemptible being!” he shrieked to himself in thought. “Let all know that I shall shoot myself to-day.”

The review was over. The regiment had, nevertheless, to parade several times before the General, first by companies in the ordinary march, afterwards in quick march, and finally in close columns. The General became a little less severe, as it were, and he even praised the soldiers several times. At last the clock was close upon 4 p.m. Then at length the men got a little rest whilst the officers assembled to criticize them.

The staff-trumpeter blew a signal. “The officers are summoned to the General,” it shouted through the companies.

The officers left the ranks, and formed themselves into a dense circle round the General, who remained on horseback, stooping and visibly extremely tired; but he peered through his glasses as shrewdly and scornfully as before.

“I shall be brief,” said he in an abrupt and decisive tone. “The regiment is inefficient, but that’s not the fault of the soldiers, but of the officers. When the coachman is bad the horses will not go. Gentlemen, you have no heart, no mind or sympathy, so far as the men’s needs and interests are concerned. Don’t forget, ‘Blessed is he who lays down his life for his friend.’ With you there is only one thought, ‘How shall I best please the General at the review?’ You treat your men like plough horses. The appearance of the officers witnesses to moral slovenliness and barbarism. Here and there an officer puts me in mind of a village sexton dressed in an officer’s uniform. Moreover, I will refer to my orders of the day in writing. An ensign, belonging probably to the sixth or seventh company, lost his head entirely and hopelessly muddled up his division. Such a thing is a disgrace. I do not want a jog-trot march in three-time, but, before everything else, a sound and calm judgment.”

“That last referred to me,” thought Romashov, and he fancied he felt all the glances of those present turned towards him at once. But nobody even stirred: all stood speechless, petrified, with their eyes immovably fixed on the General’s face.

“My very heartiest thanks to the Captain of the 5th Company. Where are you, Captain? Oh, there you are!” The General, a little theatrically, took off his cap with both hands and bared his powerfully shaped bald head, whilst making a profound bow to Stelikovski. “Once more I thank you, and it is a pleasure for me to shake you by the hand. If God should ordain that this corps is to fight under my command, remember, Captain, that the first dangerous task belongs to you. And now, gentlemen, good-bye. Your work for the day is finished, and it will be a pleasure for me to see you again, but under different and more pleasing circumstances. Make way for my horse now.”

Colonel Shulgovich stepped out of the circle.

“Your Excellency, in the officers’ name, I invite you respectfully to dine at our mess. We shall be——”

“No, I see no reason for that,” interrupted the General dryly. “I thank you, as I am in duty bound to do, but I am invited to Count Liedochovski’s.”

The officers cleared a way, and the General galloped off to the place where the regiment was awaiting the officers’ return.

“I thank you, my lads,” he shouted lustily and kindly to the soldiers. “I give you two days’ leave. And now, off with you to your tents. Quick march, hurrah!”

It was just as if he had, by this last brief shout, turned the whole regiment topsy-turvy. With a deafening yell of delight, fifteen hundred men dispersed, in an instant, in all directions, and the ground shook beneath the feet of the fugitives.

Romashov separated himself from the other officers, who returned, in groups, to the town, and took a long circuit through the camp. He felt just then like a banned, excommunicated fugitive; like an unworthy member expelled from the circle of his comrades—nay, even like a creature beyond the pale of humanity, in soul and body stunted and despised.

When he at length found himself behind the camp, near his own mess, he heard a few cries of sudden but restrained rage. He stood an instant and saw how his ensign, Rynda—a small, red-faced, powerful fellow—was, with frightful invectives and objurgations, belabouring with his fists Khliabnikov’s nose and cheeks. In the poor victim’s almost bestially dull eyes one could see an indescribable terror, and, at every blow, Khliabnikov staggered now to the right, now to the left.

Romashov hurried away from the spot almost at running speed. In his present state of mind, it was beyond his power to protect Khliabnikov from further ill-treatment. It seemed to Romashov as if this wretched soldier’s fate had to-day become linked with his own. They were both, he thought, cripples, who aroused in mankind the same feeling of compassion and disgust. This similarity in their position certainly excited, on Romashov’s part, an intolerable feeling of shame and disgust at himself, but also a consciousness that in this lay something singularly deep and truly human.

< < < Chapter XIII
Chapter XV > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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