The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

< < < Chapter XIV
Chapter XVI > > >

Chapter XV

ONLY one way led from the camp to the town, viz. over the railway-line, which at this spot crossed a deep and declivitous ravine. Romashov ran briskly down the narrow, well-trodden, almost precipitous pathway, and was beginning, after that, a toilsome clamber up the other slope. He had not reached more than half-way to the top of the ravine before he noticed a figure there in uniform with a cloak over his shoulders. After a few seconds’ close examination, Romashov recognized his friend Nikoläiev.

“Now,” thought Romashov, “comes the most disagreeable of all,” and he could not suppress a certain unpleasant feeling of anxiety; but he continued on his way resigned to his fate, and was soon on the plateau.

The two officers had not seen each other for five days, but neither of them made even an intimation of greeting, and it seemed, at any rate to Romashov, as if this were quite the correct thing on this memorable, miserable day.

“I have purposely waited for you here, Yuri Alexievich,” began Nikoläiev, whilst he looked over Romashov’s shoulder into the distance, towards the camp.

“I am at your service, Vladimir Yefimovich,” replied Romashov in a strained, unconcerned tone, and with a slight tremor in his voice. He stooped down to the ground and broke off a dry, brown stalk of grass from the previous year. Whilst absently biting the stalk of grass, he stared obstinately at the bright buttons on Nikoläiev’s cape, and he saw in them his own distorted figure—a little narrow head upwards; downwards two stunted legs, and between them an abnormally broad big belly.

“I shall not keep you long waiting—only a few words,” said Nikoläiev. He spoke with a strikingly peculiar softness in his voice and with the forced politeness of an angry and hot-tempered person who has made up his mind not to forget himself. But whilst both tried to shun the other’s glances, the situation became every moment more and more intolerable, so that Romashov in a questioning tone proposed—

“It would be best perhaps if we went on our way together?”

The winding steps, worn by foot-passengers, cut through a large field of white beet. In the distance the town, with its white houses and red-tiled roofs, might be distinguished. Both officers walked side by side, yet with an evident effort to keep as far as possible from each other, and the beets’ thick, luxuriant, and juicy leaves were crushed and bruised beneath their feet. Both observed, for a long time, an obstinate silence. Finally, after taking a deep breath, Nikoläiev managed, with a visible effort, to blurt out—

“First of all, I must ask you a question. Have you invariably shown my wife, Alexandra Petrovna, due regard and respect?”

“I don’t understand what you mean, Vladimir Yefimovich,” replied Romashov; “but I, too, have a question….”

“Excuse me,” interrupted Nikoläiev in a sharp tone, “our questions ought, to avoid confusion, to be put in turn—first I, then you. And now let us talk openly and without restraint. Answer me this question first. Is it a matter of supreme indifference to you that my wife—that her good name—has been the subject of scandal and slander? No, no, don’t interrupt me. You can hardly deny, I suppose, that on my part you have never experienced anything but goodwill, and that, in our house, you have always been received as an intimate friend—nay, almost as a relation.”

Romashov made a false step and stumbled on the loose ground. In an embarrassed tone he mumbled in reply—

“Be assured, Vladimir Yefimovich, that I shall always feel grateful to you and Alexandra Petrovna.”

“Ah, that’s not the question,” said Nikoläiev, angrily interrupting him. “I am not soliciting your gratitude. I’ll only tell you that my wife has been the victim of dirty, lying scandal in which” (Nikoläiev almost panted out the words, and he wiped his face with his handkerchief)—“well, to put it shortly, a scandal in which you, too, are mixed up. We both—she and I—are greeted almost every day with the most shameless anonymous letters. It is too disgusting to me to put these letters before you, but you shall know a good deal of their contents.” Nikoläiev broke off his speech, but, in the next minute, he continued with a stammer. “By all the devils—now listen—they say that you are Alexandra Petrovna’s lover, and that—how horrible!—secret meetings daily take place in your room. The whole regiment is talking about it. What a scandal!”

He bit his teeth in rage and spat.

“I know who has written these letters,” answered Romashov in a lowered voice, and turned away.

“Do you?” Nikoläiev stopped suddenly and clutched Romashov’s arm tightly. It was quite plain now that his forced calm was quite exhausted. His bestial eyes grew bigger, his face became blood-red, foam began to appear at the corners of his mouth, and, as he bent in a threatening manner towards Romashov, he shrieked madly—

“So you know this, and you even dare to keep silence! Don’t you understand that it is quite plainly your bounden duty to slay this serpent brood, to put a stop at once to this insidious slander? My—noble Don Juan, if you are an honourable man and not a ——”

Romashov turned pale, and he eyed Nikoläiev with a glance of hatred. He felt that moment that his hands and feet were as heavy as lead, his brain empty, that the abnormal and violent beating of his heart had sunk still lower in his chest, and that his whole body was trembling.

“I must ask you to lower your voice when you address me,” he interrupted him by saying in a hollow voice. “Speak civilly; you know well enough I do not allow any one to shout at me.”

“I’m not shouting,” replied Nikoläiev, still speaking in a rough and coarse, though somewhat subdued tone. “I’m only trying to make you see what your duty is, although I have a right to demand it. Our former intimate relations give me this right. If Alexandra Petrovna’s unblemished name is still of any value to you, then, without delay, put a stop to these infamies.”

“All right. I will do all I can as regards that,” was Romashov’s dry answer.

He turned away and went on. In the middle of the pathway, Nikoläiev caught him up in a few steps.

“Please wait a moment.” Nikoläiev’s voice sounded more gentle, and seemed even to have lost some of its assertiveness and force. “I submit, now the matter has at last been talked about, we ought also to cease our acquaintance. What do you say yourself?”

“Perhaps so.”

“You must yourself have noticed the kindness and sympathy with which we—that is to say, Alexandra Petrovna and I—received you at our house. But if I should now be forced to—I need say no more; you know well enough how scandal rankles in this wretched little provincial hole.”

“Very well,” replied Romashov gloomily. “I shall cease my visits. That, I take it, was what you wished. I may tell you, moreover, that I had already made up my mind not to enter your door again. A few days ago I paid Alexandra Petrovna a very short call to return her some books, but you may be absolutely certain that was the last time.”

“Yes, that is best so; I think——”

Nikoläiev did not finish the sentence, and was evidently anything but easy in his mind. The two officers reached the road at this moment. There still remained some three hundred yards before they came to the town. Without uttering another word or even deigning to glance at each other, they continued on their way, side by side. Neither of them could make up his mind either to stop or turn back, and the situation became more awkward every minute.

At length they reached the furthest houses of the town. An isvostschik drove up and was at once hailed by Nikoläiev.

“That’s agreed then, Yuri Alexievich.” Nikoläiev uttered these words in a vulgar, unpleasant tone, and then got into the droshky. “Good-bye and au revoir.”

The two officers did not shake hands, and their salute at parting was very curt. Romashov stood still for a moment, and stared, through the cloud of dust, at the hurrying droshky and Nikoläiev’s strong, white neck. He suddenly felt like the most lonely and forsaken man in the wide world, and it seemed to him as if he had, then and there, despoiled himself of all that had hitherto made his life at all worth living.

Slowly he made his way home. Hainán met him in the yard, and saluted him, from a distance, with his broad grin. His face beamed with benevolence and delight as he took off his master’s cloak, and, after a few minutes, he began his usual curious dance.

“Have you had dinner?” he asked in a sympathetic, familiar tone. “Oh, you have not. Then I’ll run to the club at once and fetch some food. I’ll be back again directly.”

“Go to the devil!” screamed Romashov, “and don’t dare to come into my room. I’m not at home to anybody—not even to the Tsar himself.”

He threw himself on the bed, and buried his face in the pillow. His teeth closed over the linen, his eyes burned, and he felt a curious stabbing sensation in his throat. He wanted to cry. With eager longing he waited for the first hot, bitter tears which would, he hoped, afford him consolation and relief in this dark hour of torture and misery. Without pity on himself, he recalled once more in his mind the cruel events of the day; he purposely magnified and exaggerated his shame and ignominy, and he regarded, as it were, from outside, his own wretched Ego with pity and contempt.

Then something very strange happened. It did not seem to Romashov that he slept or even slumbered for an instant, but simply that he was for some moments wholly incapable of thinking. His eyes were shut, but, all of a sudden, he felt he had regained full consciousness, and was suffering the same anguish as before. It was completely dark in the room now. He looked at his watch and discovered to his indescribable astonishment that this mysterious trance had lasted more than five hours.

He began to feel hungry. He got up, put on his sabre, threw his cloak over his shoulder and started for the officers’ mess. The distance there from Romashov’s door was scarcely two hundred yards, and besides, he always made use of a short cut through unbuilt-upon plots and fenced-in kitchen-gardens, etc.

A bright gleam issued from the half-open windows of the salle-à-manger, billiard-room, and kitchen, but the dirty backyard, blocked up with and partly covered by all sorts of rubbish, was in thick darkness. Every moment one heard loud chatter and laughter, singing, and the sharp click of billiard balls.

Romashov had already reached the courtyard steps when he recognized his Captain’s angry and sneering voice. Romashov stopped at once, and cautiously glancing into one of the open windows of the salle-à-manger, he caught sight of Captain Sliva’s humped back.

He was stammering: “All my c-c-company m-m-marches as one man.” Sliva marked time by raising and lowering the palm of his hand. “But th-that d-d-damned fool m-must upset everything.” Sliva made with his first finger several clumsy and silly motions in the air. “But, g-gentlemen, I s-said to him, ‘M-march to another c-c-company, my f-fine f-f-fellow, or s-still b-better m-march out of the regiment. Who the devil will have s-such an officer?’”

Romashov shut his eyes, and shrivelled up with shame and rage. He feared that, at the next movement on his part, all the officers at mess would rush to the window and discover him. For one or two minutes he did not stir; then with his head hidden in his cloak, and scarcely venturing to breathe, he stole on tip-toe along the wall, out through the gate to the street, the moonlit portion of which he crossed by a couple of brisk jumps so as to reach the deep protecting shadow of the high hoarding on the other side.

Romashov sauntered for a long time that evening about the streets of the town. Often he did not even know where he was. Once he stopped in the shadow right under Nikoläiev’s house, the green-painted sheet-iron roof and white walls of which were brilliantly illumined by the moon’s clear bright rays. Not a soul was in the street, not a sound was audible. The sharply marked outlines of the shadows from the houses opposite divided the street into two halves.

Behind the thick dark-red curtains in one of the rooms at the Nikoläievs’ a lamp was burning. “My beloved,” whispered Romashov, “don’t you feel how near I am to you, how much I love you?” He pressed his hands to his chest, and had much difficulty in restraining his tears.

Suddenly, however, he got the idea that, in spite of the distance and the house’s thick walls, he might possibly make Shurochka notice his presence. With closed teeth and hands so tightly clenched that the nails were driven into the flesh, and with a sensation as if icy-cold ants were creeping over his body, he began to concentrate all his will-power to a single object. “Get up from your sofa. Come to the window. Draw the curtain. Look, look through the window out into the street. Obey. I command you; come to the window at once.”

But the curtain remained motionless. “You don’t hear me, then,” whispered Romashov, with sorrow and indignation in his heart. “You are sitting by the lamp beside him, calm, indifferent, and as beautiful as ever. Oh, my God, my God, how wretched I am!”

He sighed deeply, and with bowed head and crippled with weariness he continued his melancholy wandering.

He even passed Nasanski’s place, but it was dark there. It seemed to Romashov as if a white spectre had quickly fluttered past one of the house’s dark windows. A shudder ran through him, and he dared not call to Nasanski.

Some days later Romashov remembered this fantastic—nay, idiotic—ramble as a strange, far-off dream which, nevertheless, could not be forgotten. He had even been in the Jewish cemetery, but how he got there he could not tell himself. This silent and mysterious burial-ground lay beyond the town, on a height, and was surrounded by a low white wall. From the luxuriant, slumbering grass arose the icy-cold gravestones, simple, unadorned, like each other, and casting behind them long, narrow shadows. And over all this gloomy place reigned the grave, solemn, austere note of solitude.

After this he saw himself in another quarter of the town, but this, nevertheless, was perhaps only a dream. He stood in the middle of a long, carefully constructed dam that divided the River Bug across its entire breadth. The dark-hued water ran slowly and lazily away beneath his feet, and now and then it, as it were, strove to render a well-known melody by its capricious splashing. The moon was mirrored on the lightly curled surface of the river, like an infinitely long, trembling pillar, around which you might fancy you saw millions of fishes playing in the water whilst they slowly withdrew and disappeared in the direction of the distant shore, which lay afar off, silent, dark, and deserted. Wherever he might be, whether in or out of the town, he was followed by a faint, sweet, aromatic scent from the white acacia flower.

Wonderful thoughts entered his brain this night—thoughts sometimes sad and melancholy, at other times childishly ridiculous. Most frequently he reasoned like the inexperienced gambler who with the frivolity and optimism of youth pondered upon the fact that he had in a single night played away all he possessed. Thus Romashov tried again and again to delude himself into believing that the wretched events of the past day had absolutely no importance—nay, he even succeeded in resuscitating that “irresistible” Sub-lieutenant Romashov who so ideally conducts his parade march under the General’s critical eyes, who at the front is the object of the General’s thanks and admiration, and who afterwards drains his goblet of wine among his rejoicing comrades. But the next moment he hears Federovski’s furious threats, his chief’s insulting words, Nikoläiev’s painful questions and complaints, and he is once more the disgraced and hopelessly ruined Sub-lieutenant Romashov.

An irresistible force from within brought him back in the course of his nocturnal wandering to the place where he came upon Nikoläiev after the review. Here he walked about meditating suicide, though by no means seriously, but only—according to his ingrained habit—to pose in his own worthy person as a martyr and hero.

Hainán comes rushing out of Romashov’s room. His countenance is distorted with terror. Pale and trembling all over, he hurries on to the officers’ salle-à-manger, which is full of people. At the sight of Hainán all spontaneously get up from their places. “Your Excellencies—the lieutenant has—shot himself,” Hainán at last stammers out. General uproar; dismay is to be read in the faces of all. “Who has shot himself? Where? What lieutenant?” Finally somebody recognizes Hainán. “Gentlemen, this is Hainán, you know—Lieutenant Romashov’s servant. It’s the Circassian, you know.” All hurry to Romashov’s house; some do not even give themselves time to put on their caps. Romashov is discovered lying on his bed; on the floor beside him is a large pool of blood, in which is found a revolver of the Smith and Wesson celebrated make. Through a crowd of officers, who occupy every corner of the little room, Znoiko, the regimental surgeon, pushes his way with some difficulty. “Shot in the temple,” he says amidst a general hush. “All is over, nothing can be done.” Some one among the bystanders says in a lowered voice, “Gentlemen, uncover your heads before the majesty of Death!” Many make the sign of the Cross. Viätkin finds on the table a note on which the deceased has written in a firm hand a few lines in pencil. Viätkin reads them out—

I forgive all. I die of my own free will. My life is intolerable. Break the news gently to my mother.

Georgi Romashov.

All gaze at one another, and each reads on his neighbour’s countenance the unuttered thought: “We are his murderers.” Softly rocks the coffin covered with gold brocade and carried by eight comrades. The entire corps of officers takes part in the procession. After the officers comes the 6th Company. Captain Sliva frowns gloomily. Viätkin’s kind face is disfigured by tears, but now in the street he makes an effort to compose himself. Lbov—oh, heart of gold!—weeps incessantly without blushing for his emotion. Like deep, heavy sighs sound the hollow strains of the Dead March. There stand all the ladies of the regiment, including Shurochka. “I kissed him,” she thinks with despair in her heart. “I loved him—I might have saved him.” “Too late!” thinks Romashov, with a bitter smile. The officers accompanying their dead comrade to the grave softly converse with each other. “Ah,” thinks each of them to himself, “how sorry I am for him, poor fellow. What an excellent comrade, what a handsome and capable officer!—Yes, yes, that is true, but we did not appreciate him.” Loud and more touching sound the strains of the Dead March. It is Beethoven’s immortal music, “By a Hero’s Bier.” But Romashov is lying in his coffin, cold and still, with an everlasting smile on his lips. On his chest rests a modest bouquet of violets, but no one knows from where they came. He has forgiven all—Shurochka, Sliva, Federovski, Shulgovich—all. But they waste no tears. He is better off where he is now; he was too pure, too good for this world.

This gloomy, silent monologue forced tears from Romashov’s eyes, but he did not wipe them away. It was so delicious to imagine himself a martyr, an innocent victim to the malignity of mankind.

He had now reached the white-beet field, the extensive surface of which had an almost oppressive influence on Romashov. He climbed on to a little hillock just beside the ravine in which the railway ran.

There he stood. This side of the ravine lay in deep shadow, but the opposite one was so powerfully illuminated that one might fancy it possible to distinguish every blade of grass. The ravine was very precipitous near the place where Romashov was now standing, and at the bottom of it the rails, worn bright by traffic, shone. Far away in the field on the other side of the railway the white, pyramid-like tents could be seen in even rows.

A little way down the slope of the ravine was a small platform. Romashov glided down to it and sat on the grass. He felt nearly sick from hunger and weariness, and his legs shook from exhaustion. The great deserted field behind him, the air, clear and transparent in spite of the shades of night, the dew-soaked grass—all was sunk in a deep, insidious, luminous silence, the intensity of which was felt by Romashov like a strong buzzing in his ear. Rarely indeed might be heard from a locomotive manœuvring at the railway station a shrill whistling which, in the solemn stillness of the night, brought with it something impetuous, impatient, and threatening.

Romashov laid himself on his back in the grass. The fleecy white clouds right above him stood motionless, but over them the round moon glided rapidly on in the dark firmament which, cold and bare and boundless, riveted Romashov’s gaze. All the illimitable space between earth and heaven seemed to him fraught with eternal terror and eternal longing. “There dwells—God,” thought Romashov, and suddenly, with a naïve outburst of sorrow, anger, and self-pity, he whispered passionately and bitterly—

“God, why hast Thou turned Thy countenance from me? What offence can I—a miserable worm, a grain of sand—have committed against Thee? Thou art almighty, Thou art good, Thou seest and hearest everything—why hast Thou suffered injustice and malice so to triumph over me?”

But instantly afterwards he was filled with alarm at his blasphemous speech, and he went on to say in fervour and anguish—

“No, no; forgive and forget my sinful words. I know Thou art as wise as Thou art merciful, and I shall never murmur any more. Do with me what seems best in Thy sight. I will always submit to Thy will with gratitude and a meek heart.”

Simultaneously with these pious words of penance and reformation there stirred in the depth of his soul a secret calculating thought that his solemnly promised submission to our Lord’s will would move the All-seeing God suddenly to work, on his behalf, a miracle whereby all the bitter sorrows and trials of this day would appear only as a hideous dream.

“Where are you?” shrieked just then a locomotive down at the station with a short, angry, impatient whistle. Another engine at once answered, in a hollow, threatening tone, “I am coming.”

From the moonlit crest of the ravine’s opposite slope a soft rustle was heard. In order more easily to detect the cause, Romashov raised his head from the ground. A grey, shapeless, scarcely human figure was sliding down to the bottom of the ravine. In spite of the bright moonlight, it was difficult to distinguish the night-walker in the high grass, and only by the movements of his shadow was it possible for any one to follow with the eye his course down the declivity.

Now he was crossing the railway-line. “Judging from everything,” guessed Romashov, “he is a soldier. Anyhow it’s a human being; but who can it be? A drunkard or a sleep-walker?”

The strange figure had already crossed the railway, stepped into the shade, and was climbing toilsomely up the slope on which Romashov was. The latter now saw distinctly that the wanderer was a soldier, who, however, immediately afterwards disappeared from Romashov’s sight. Two or three minutes elapsed before he again became visible. A round-clipped head without a cap was slowly lifted in Romashov’s direction, who now recognized, without difficulty, the left wing soldier in his own half-company—the unfortunate Khliabnikov.

Khliabnikov went on his way bareheaded and with his cap in his hand, looking fixedly before him. It was evident that he was labouring under the influence of a mysterious inward force. He passed so near Romashov that the latter’s cloak almost grazed his own. The moon’s keen rays were reflected in the motionless pupils beneath the unnaturally wide-open eyelids.

“Khliabnikov, is it you?” cried Romashov.

“A-ah!” shouted the soldier, who stopped immediately, and began to shake all over.

Romashov jumped up from the ground. He saw before him a disfigured face, as pale as a corpse’s, with severed, bleeding lips, and one eye almost closed up by a tremendous bump turning blue. In the uncertain evening light the traces of the disgusting violence that had been perpetrated gained a still more horrible appearance. And as Romashov gazed at Khliabnikov, his thoughts ran thus: “Behold the man who with me brought shame on the entire regiment to-day. We are both equally to be pitied.”

“Where were you going, my friend? what’s the matter?” asked Romashov, in his tenderest tone, and, without thinking, he put both his hands on the soldier’s shoulders. Khliabnikov stared at him out of his uninjured eye with the wild look of one who had been frightened out of his wits, but he turned away at once. His bleeding lips, welded together, slowly opened with a soft, smacking sound, but all he could utter was a hoarse rattle. Romashov suddenly experienced an intolerable feeling of sickness, and he thought he felt in his chest and abdomen certain symptoms which usually precede fainting.

“Has some one beaten you, eh? Tell me! Come and sit down beside me.” He pulled the soldier by the sleeve of his coat down to the ground. Khliabnikov obediently collapsed, like a dummy fallen in a heap, and sank noiselessly down on the damp grass beside Romashov.

“Where were you going?” asked the latter. Khliabnikov did not answer a word where he sat, in a very unnatural and uncomfortable position, with his legs straddling. Romashov noticed that his head sank slowly, with scarcely perceptible little nods, on his chest. Again Romashov heard the same short, hoarse, rattling sound, and his whole soul was filled by an unspeakable pity. “Do I understand that you wanted to run away? Put on your cap and listen, Khliabnikov. At this moment I am not your officer or superior, but, like yourself, only a lonely, unlucky, ruined creature. I can understand how hard and burdensome it is for you to live, therefore speak to me frankly, tell me all. Perhaps you meant to kill yourself?” he added in a hollow, whispering tone.

A gurgling noise was again heard in the soldier’s throat, but not a word passed his lips. At the same moment Romashov noticed that his companion in misfortune was shaking from head to foot as if from a chill, and he was himself now attacked by an unconquerable terror. This sleepless night passed in feverish excitement; this feeling of loneliness and desertion; the moon’s unchangeable, oppressive, cold gleam; the ravine’s black depth beneath his feet; the dumb, cruelly maltreated soldier at his side—all this seemed to him like a mad, insufferable dream—one of those dreams that are wont to herald the approach of death. But directly afterwards he was again seized by the same infinite pity for the unfortunate victim beside him, and it was clear to him at once how petty and insignificant was his own sorrow in comparison with Khliabnikov’s cruel fate. With sincere tenderness he threw his arm round the soldier’s neck, drew him forcibly to him, and said, with the warmth that belongs to conviction—

“Khliabnikov, you find life unsupportable, but, my friend, believe me, even I am an exceedingly unhappy man. The whole world wherein I live is to me a puzzle. Everything is so savage, cruel, and senseless. However, one must be patient, one must learn to suffer.”

Khliabnikov’s bowed head fell suddenly on Romashov’s knee, which he embraced with both arms. All his being shook with suppressed weeping.

“I can’t stand any more,” he uttered at last, “I’ll bear it no longer. Oh, my God! They beat me, they mock me; the sergeants shriek for schnapps and money. Where is a poor devil like me to get money? And then they beat me again—me, who have suffered from childhood from an incurable pain—a severe rupture.”

Romashov bent down over his head, which shook convulsively backwards and forwards against Romashov’s knee. He perceived the smell of the soldier’s dirty, unhealthy body, and the rank stench of his cloak, which also served as a counterpane during the cold nights in his tent. An infinite sorrow for and disgust at himself, his profession, and the whole world harrowed the young officer’s soul. With overflowing heart he rested his forehead against Khliabnikov’s burning head and stubbly hair, at the same time whispering scarcely audibly—

“My brother!”

Khliabnikov grasped Romashov’s hand, on which a few warm tears fell. Romashov even felt two cold, clammy lips kissing his fingers, but he did not withdraw his hand, and he spoke simple, calming, touching words, just as when one talks to a weeping, injured child.

Then he escorted Khliabnikov back to the camp, and then sent for Shapovalenko, the sergeant on duty that day in the 6th Company. The latter came out hurriedly, clad in an obviously imperfect costume, peered for a while with a pair of drowsy eyes, scratched himself both back and front with an earnestness that was probably more than justified. After several tremendous yawns he became gradually awake to the situation.

Romashov ordered him to release Khliabnikov from any duties he might happen to have just then.

“Your Honour, this may perhaps be a little premature.”

“No arguing!” shrieked Romashov in a furious tone. “Tell the Captain to-morrow that you acted on my instructions.” Then turning to Khliabnikov, he added: “We meet to-morrow, you know, at my house,” and received in reply a long, shy, grateful look.

Romashov slowly turned his steps homewards along the camp. A few words caught from a whispered conversation in one of the tents caused him to stop and listen: “You see, comrades,” says a subdued voice, “that this same devil sends the soldier his very chief magician. When the magician catches sight of the soldier, he roars at him like this: ‘What’s a soldier to me? I’ll eat him!’ ‘No,’ replies the soldier, ‘you can’t do that, old chap, for I myself am a magician——’”

Romashov soon reached the ravine again. Once more that indescribable feeling of disgust at life and contempt of the inanity and senselessness of the work of creation. Whilst descending the declivity he stopped suddenly and raised his eyes to heaven. Again he was met by the same infinite, icy-cold firmament; again he experienced the same longing, mingled with fear and anguish, and almost unconsciously he raised his fists threateningly against heaven, and in the voice of a man foaming with rage, in words of unspeakable blasphemy, challenged his Maker’s omnipotence, and dared Him, in proof of it, to break off his arms and legs.

Romashov, deliberately and with his eyes shut, threw himself down the precipice, and alighted unscathed on the railway bank. With two leaps he gained the opposite slope, the top of which he reached without stopping or taking breath. His nostrils were dilated, and his chest heaved violently under convulsive efforts to regain his breath, but in the depths of his soul there blazed a proud, triumphant feeling of malicious joy and defiance.

< < < Chapter XIV
Chapter XVI > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

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