Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
< < < Chapter XV
Chapter XVII > > >
THERE was a lesson on military drill going on in the school of recruits. In a close room, on benches arranged in a square, sat the soldiers of the 3rd platoon facing one another. In the middle of this square Corporal Syeroshtán walked to and fro. Close by, walking backwards and forwards in the centre of a similar square, was the non-commissioned officer Shapovalenko.
“Bondarenko!” cried Syeroshtán in a piercing voice.
Bondarenko brought his feet down on the floor with a bang, and jumped up just like a jack-in-the-box.
“Now, Bondarenko, suppose that you were standing at arms, and the commander came to you and asked: ‘What is that in your hands, Bondarenko?’ What ought you to answer?”
“A gun,” replied Bondarenko after reflection.
“Wrong! Do you mean to tell me you would call it a gun? At home you might call it a gun, certainly, but in the service it is called simply a sharp-shooting infantry rifle of small calibre, maker Berdan, number two, with a sliding bolt. Repeat that now, you son of a——!”
Bondarenko gabbled over the words, which he evidently knew by heart.
“Sit down!” commanded Syeroshtán graciously. “And for what purpose is the rifle given you?” His stern gaze wandered round the class. “Shevchuk! you answer this question.”
Shevchuk stood up with a morose expression, and answered in a deep bass voice, speaking through his nose, and very slowly, and in detached phrases, as if there were a full stop after each:
“It is given to me in order that in time of peace I may practise with it. But in time of war that I may protect my Emperor and my country from enemies.” He stopped, scratched his nose, and added obscurely: “Whether they be external or internal.”
“Right! You know that very well, Shevchuk, only you mumble. Sit down. And now, Ovechkin, tell me, whom do we call external enemies?”
Ovechkin, a sprightly soldier from Orlov, answered rapidly and with great animation, spluttering with excitement:
“External enemies are all those nations with whom we might go to war; the French, Germans, Italians, Turks, Europeans——”
“Wait,” Syeroshtán cut him short. “All that is not in the text. Sit down. And now tell me—Arkhipov! Who are our internal enemies?”
He uttered the last two words very loudly, as if to emphasize them, and threw a meaning glance at the volunteer, Markouson.
The clumsy, pock-marked Arkhipov was obstinately silent, and stood gazing out of the window. Outside the service he was an active, intelligent, clever fellow; but in class he behaved like an imbecile. Obviously the trouble lay in the fact that his healthy mind, accustomed to observe and think about the simple, straightforward affairs of village life, was quite unable to grasp the connection between hypothetical problems and real life. For this reason he could not understand nor learn the simplest things, to the great astonishment and indignation of his platoon commander.
“We-ll! How much longer am I to wait while you get ready to answer?” cried Syeroshtán, beginning to get angry.
“You don’t know it?” cried Syeroshtán in a threatening tone, and he would have fallen upon Arkhipov, but, glancing with a side glance at the officer, he contented himself with shaking his head and rolling his eyes terribly. “Well, listen. Internal enemies are those who resist the law; for example, who shall we——?” He glanced at Ovechkin’s sharp eyes. “You tell us, Ovechkin.”
Ovechkin jumped up and cried joyfully:
“Such as rebels, students, horse-stealers, Jews and Poles.”
Shapovalenko was occupied with his platoon close by. Pacing up and down between the benches, he asked questions from the “Soldier’s Manual,” which he held in his hand.
“Soltuis, what is a sentry?”
Soltuis, a Lithuanian, cried, opening and shutting his eyes rapidly in the effort to think: “A sentry must be incorruptible.”
“Well, and what else?”
“A sentry is a soldier placed at a certain post with a rifle in his hand.”
“Right. I see, Soltuis, that you are beginning to try. And why is he placed there, Pakhorukov?”
“That he may neither sleep, nor doze, nor smoke, nor accept bribes.”
“And the pass-word?”
“And that he may give the pass-word to the officers who pass in and out.”
“Right. Sit down.”
Shapovalenko had noticed some time ago the ironical smile on the face of the volunteer Fokin, and for this reason he cried with extra severity:
“Now, volunteer! But is that the way to stand? When your chief asks a question you should stand as straight as a ramrod. What do you mean by the Colours?”
The volunteer Fokin, with a University badge on his breast, stood in front of the non-commissioned officer in a respectful attitude, but his young, grey eyes sparkled with laughter.
“By the Colours is meant the sacred Standard of War under which——”
“Wrong!” broke in Shapovalenko angrily, bringing the Manual down hard on the palm of his hand.
“No, that is quite right,” replied Fokin calmly.
“Wh-a-at? If your chief says it is wrong, it is wrong.”
“Look in the book and see for yourself.”
“I am your officer, and as such I must know better than you. A fine thing, indeed! Perhaps you think that I want to enter a cadet school for instruction? What do you know about anything? What’s a St-a-a-n-dard? Ste-ndard! There’s no such word as Sta-a-andard. The sacred Stendard of War——”
“Don’t quarrel now, Shapovalenko,” put in Romashov. “Get on with the lesson.”
“Very good, your Honour!” drawled Shapovalenko. “Only allow me to inform your Honour that all these volunteers are far too clever.”
“That will do, that will do! get on with the lesson.”
“Very good, your Honour—Khliabnikov! Who is the commander of this corps?”
Khliabnikov stared with wild eyes at the “non-com.” All the sound which came from his open mouth was a croak, which might have been made by a hoarse crow.
“Answer!” cried Shapovalenko furiously.
“Well! ‘His.’ What else?”
Romashov, who had just turned away, heard him mutter in a low voice: “You wait! Won’t I just give you a stroking down after the lesson.” But directly Romashov turned back to him he said loudly and kindly: “His Excellency—well, how does it go on, Khliabnikov?”
“His—infantry—lieutenant,” muttered Khliabnikov in a broken, terrified voice.
“A-a-a!” cried Shapovalenko, grinding his teeth. “Whatever shall we do with you, Khliabnikov? I am really afraid to think what will become of you; you are just like a camel, except that you can’t even make yourself heard. You don’t make the slightest attempt to learn. Stand there until the end of the lesson, and after dinner come to me, and I’ll take you alone. Grechenko! Who is the commander of this corps?”
“As it is to-day, so it will be to-morrow, and so on to the end of my life,” thought Romashov, as he passed from platoon to platoon. “Shall I throw it all up? Shall I leave the service? I don’t know what to do!”
After the instruction the men were kept busy in the yard, which was arranged as a shooting range. While one party practised shooting in a looking-glass, another learned to hit a target with a shot, and a third learned rifle-shooting. Ensign Lbov’s clear, animated tenor voice giving orders to the 2nd platoon could be heard at a distance.
“Right—turn—firing company—one, two!” “Compan-y!” he dragged out the last syllable, paused, and then, abruptly: “Fire!”
There was a loud report, and Lbov in his joyful, inspiring voice, cried again:
Sliva went from platoon to platoon, stooping and walking slowly, finding fault and making coarse remarks:
“Is that the way to hold a rifle? Any one would think you were a deacon holding a candle! What are you keeping your mouth open for, Kartashov? Do you want some porridge? Sergeant-major, put Kartashov under arms for an hour after drill. How do you fold up a cloak, Vedenyeev? Look at it, you lazy fellow!”
After the shooting practice the men piled their rifles and threw themselves down beside them on the young spring grass, already trampled on by the soldiers’ boots. It was a warm, clear day. The air smelled of the leaves of young poplar trees, of which there were two rows planted round the causeway. Viätkin again approached Romashov:
“Dreaming again, Yuri Alexeich,” he said. “What is the use of it? As soon as the drill is over we will go to the club, and after a drink or two you will be all right.”
“I am bored, my dear Pavel Pavlich,” said Romashov wearily.
“It is not very cheerful, I admit,” said Viätkin. “But how can it be helped? The men must be taught their business, or what would happen if war suddenly broke out?”
“What is war after all?” said Romashov sadly, “and why——? Perhaps it is nothing more than a mistake made by all, a universal error, a madness. Do you mean to tell me that it is natural to kill?”
“Oh, the devil take your philosophy! If the Germans were to attack us suddenly, who would defend Russia?”
“I know nothing about it, so I can’t talk about it,” said Romashov shortly. “I know nothing, and yet, take——”
“For my part,” said Viätkin, “I think that if those are your ideas about war, it would be better for you to be out of the service. We are not supposed to think in our profession. The only question is, What could we do if we were not in the service? What use should we be anywhere when we know nothing but ‘Left! Right!’ We can die, of course, that is true. And die we should, as soon as we began to be in want, for food is not provided gratis, you know. And so, Mr. Philosopher, come to the club with me after drill.”
“Very well,” agreed Romashov indifferently. “If you ask me, I should say that it’s a hog’s life that we are leading; but, as you say, if one thinks so it is better to leave the service altogether.”
While they talked they walked up and down, and at length halted close to the 4th platoon. The soldiers were sitting or lying around their piled arms; some of them were eating bread, for soldiers eat bread all day long, and under all circumstances, at reviews, at halting-places in the manœuvres, in church before confession, and even before physical punishment.
Romashov heard a quietly provocative voice say:
“Khliabnikov! I say, Khliabnikov!”
“Yes?” said Khliabnikov gruffly, through his nose.
“What do you do at home?”
“Work,” answered the other sleepily.
“What kind of work, you blockhead?”
“All kinds—ploughing, cattle driving.”
Romashov glanced at the grey, pitiful face of Khliabnikov, and again was seized by an uneasy pain at his heart.
“Rifle practice!” cried Sliva from the centre. “Officers to their places.”
They unpiled their arms and took their places with much bustle.
“Close up!” commanded Sliva. “Stand at ease!”
And then, coming nearer to the company, he shouted:
“Manual exercise—count aloud. On guard!”
“One!” cried the soldiers, and held their guns aloft.
Sliva went amongst them in a leisurely manner, making abrupt remarks: “Bayonets higher.—Hold the butt-end to you.”
Then he again took up his position in front of the company and gave the order: “Two!”
“Two!” cried the soldiers.
And once more Sliva went amongst them to see if they were doing the exercises correctly.
After the manual exercise by division they had exercise by company, then turnings, form fours, fixing and unfixing bayonets and other forms. Romashov performed like an automaton all that was required of him, but all the time the words so carelessly uttered by Viätkin were running through his mind: “If I thought that, I would not stay in the service.” And all the arts of war—the skilful evolutions, the cleverness of the rifle exercise, and all those tactics and fortifications on which he had wasted nine of the best years of his life, which would fill the rest of his life, and which not so very long ago had seemed to him important and so full of wisdom—all had suddenly become deadly dull, unnatural, inventions without value, a universal self-deceit resembling an absurd dream.
When the drill was finished he and Viätkin went to the club and drank a lot of vodka together. Romashov, hardly knowing what he was doing, kissed Viätkin and wept hysterically on his shoulder, complained of his empty, miserable life, and also that no one understood him, also that a certain woman did not love him—who she was no one should ever know. As for Viätkin, he drank glass after glass, only saying from time to time with contemptuous pity:
“The worst of you is, Romashov, that you can’t drink. You take one glass and you are all over the place.”
Then suddenly he struck his fist on the table threateningly, and cried: “If they want us to die, we’ll die!”
“We’ll die,” answered Romashov pitifully. “What is dying? A mere trifle! Oh, how my heart aches!”
Romashov did not remember going home and getting into bed. It seemed to him that he was floating on a thick blue cloud, upon which were scattered milliards and milliards of microscopic diamonds. His head seemed swollen to a tremendous size, and a pitiless voice was calling out in a tone which made him feel sick:
< < < Chapter XV
Chapter XVII > > >
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
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