Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
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Chapter XVIII > > >
FROM this night Romashov underwent a profound inward change. He cut himself entirely adrift from the company of his comrades, usually took his dinner at home, never frequented the soirées dansantes of his regiment, and ceased to indulge in drink. He had grown older, riper, and more serious, and he noticed this himself in the calm resignation with which he bore the trials and adversities of life. Often, too, he recalled to mind the assertion he had long ago picked up from books or in the way of conversation, that human life is made up of periods of seven years, and that, in the course of each period, not only the organism, but also the character, views taken of life, and inclinations are completely renewed. And it was not so long since Romashov had completed his twenty-first year.
The soldier Khliabnikov used to visit him, but at first, however, only after being again urged to do so. Afterwards his visits became more and more frequent. During the first period he put one in mind of a starved and whipped dog which flinches from the hand held out caressingly; but Romashov’s kindness and goodness gradually drove away his fear and embarrassment and restored to him the faculty of gratitude and confidence. With something akin to remorse and shame, Romashov learned more of Khliabnikov’s sad conditions of life and family circumstances. At home lived his mother, his father—a confirmed drunkard—a semi-idiotic brother, and four young sisters. The family’s little plot of land had been confiscated, contrary to all law and justice, by the commune, which afterwards was kind enough to shelter the poor wretches in a miserable hut. The elder members were journeymen employed by strange and occasional employers, the younger ones went out to beg. Khliabnikov could, therefore, not reckon on any support from his people, and, on account of his delicate health, was not in a position to undertake any remunerative manual labour in such leisure as the service left him. But the soldier’s life is unendurable without money. He receives twenty-two and a half copecks a month from the State, and out of this he must defray the costs of tea, sugar, soap, etc., and in addition, the indispensable presents to greedy and unconscionable sergeants. Woe betide the soldier who cannot, by presents, money, or schnapps, bribe his torturers. He becomes a helpless victim to insult and gross maltreatment, and all the heavy and disgusting work in the camp falls unmercifully to his lot.
With surprise, terror, and pain Romashov realized that Fate had daily united him by the closest ties with hundreds of these grey “Khliabnikovs,” with those defenceless victims of their own ignorance and brutal coarseness, of the officers’ heartless indifference and cruelty, of a humiliating, systematic slavery; but the most horrible of all, however, was the fact that not a single officer—and, up to that day, not even Romashov himself—saw in these stereotyped crowds of slaves anything beyond mechanical quantities bracketed under the name of companies, battalions, regiments, etc.
Romashov did his best to procure Khliabnikov, now and then, a little income. Of course it was not very long before both this and other unaccustomed marks of humanity on the part of an officer became noticed in the company. Romashov noticed very frequently how the “non-coms.” in his presence acted towards Khliabnikov with comical, exaggerated politeness in manner and tone. That even Captain Sliva had got scent of Romashov’s changed attitude as regards the treatment of soldiers was palpable enough, and more than once, from remarks made by him—
“D-d-damned Liberals—come here to ruin the people—ought to be thrashed—f-f-flayed alive, every man Jack of ‘em!”
Now, as Romashov more and more abandoned himself to loneliness and self-examination, those curious, entangling contemplations, which a month previously, at the time of his arrest, had such a disturbing effect on him, now assailed him with even greater frequency. These generally happened after his duties for the day had been done, when he strolled silently backwards and forwards, beneath the thick, slumbering foliage of the trees near his dwelling, and when, lonely and oppressed, he listened to the solemn bass of the booming beetles or, with dreamy eyes, gazed at the roseate and rapidly darkening sky.
This new life of his surprised him by the richness of its shifting impression. In days gone by he would never have even dared to entertain a notion of what pure and calm joy, what potency and secret depths, lie hidden in something so simple and common as human thought.
Romashov had already determined irrevocably not to remain on active service, but to join the reserves as soon as his period of service as an officer by examination had expired, but he did not yet know where he would find suitable employment and an income on which he might exist. He went over in his mind all possible occupations—post-office, customs, telegraph service, railway, etc., etc. He pondered on whether he might seek the post of estate-manager, or enter the Civil Service. And now he was astounded at the thought of all the innumerable different trades and professions that exist in the world. “How have they arisen,” thought he, “all these absurd, comical, wonderful and more or less repulsive occupations—prison-warders, acrobats, chiropodists, professors, actors, dog-barbers, policemen, jugglers, prostitutes, bath-men, veterinary surgeons, grave-diggers, beadles, etc., etc? And perhaps there’s not a human invention or caprice, however idiotic, paradoxical, barbarous, and immoral it may be, that does not at once find ready and willing hands to bring it to completion and realization.”
So, too, in meditating more profoundly, it struck him what a countless number of “intelligent” means of bread-winning there are, which are all based on mistrust of the honour and morality of mankind—supervisors and officials of all sorts, controllers, inspectors, policemen, custom-house officers, bookkeepers, revising-officers, etc., whose existence has, without exception, found justification in man’s weakness for or lack of resistance against crime and corruption.
He also called to mind priests, schoolmasters, lawyers and judges—in short, all those persons who, according to the nature of their work, are in continual and intimate contact with other men’s ideas, strivings, sorrows, and sufferings. At the thought of these, Romashov came to the tragic conclusion that these individuals become more quickly than others hard, heartless egoists, who, wrapping themselves in the dressing-gown of selfishness, very soon grow frozen for ever in dead formalism. He knew that there also exists another class, i.e. those who create and look after the external conditions of human luxury and enjoyment—engineers, architects, inventors, manufacturers, and all those who, by their united efforts, can render mankind inestimable temporal services, and place themselves solely at the disposal of the rich and powerful. They think only of their own skin, of their own nest, of their own brood, and they become, in consequence of this, the slaves of gold and tyranny. Who is there then to raise up, instruct, and console the brutally used slave, Khliabnikov, and say to him, “Shake hands with me, brother”?
Pondering over similar subjects, Romashov certainly probed slowly and fumblingly, but more and more deeply, into the great problem of life. Formerly everything seemed to him as simple as simple could be. The world was divided into two categories very different in size and importance. The one, the guild of officers, constituting the military caste, which alone attains power, honour, and glory, the fine uniform of which confers an uncontested monopoly of bravery, physical strength, and unbounded contempt for all other living creatures; the other, the civilian element of society—an enormous number of indeterminable petty insects; another race, a pariah class hardly worthy to live, obscure individuals to be thrashed and insulted without rhyme or reason, whose nose every little gilded popinjay may tweak, unless he prefers, to the huge delight of his comrades, to crush their tall silk hats over his victims’ ears.
When Romashov thought, he stood apart from reality; when he viewed military life, as it were, from a secret corner through a chink in the wall, he gradually began to understand that the army and all that pertains to it, with its false glamour and borrowed plumes, came into the world through a mad, cruel confusion of ideas in mankind. “How,” Romashov asked himself, “can so large a class of society, in profound peace, and without doing the country the least good, be suffered to exist, to eat the bread of others, to walk in other men’s clothes, to dwell in other men’s houses, only with the obligation, in the event of war, to kill and maim living creatures of the same race as themselves?”
And more and more clearly it dawned on his mind that only the two following domains of activity are worthy of man, viz. science and art and free manual labour. And with new force the old dreams and hopes of a future literary career arose in him. Now and again, when Chance put into his hand a valuable book rich in noble and fructifying ideas, he thought with bitter melancholy of himself: “Good gracious, how simple, clear and true all this is which I myself, moreover, have known and experienced! Why cannot I, too, compose something similar?” He wished he could write a novel or a great romance, the leitmotiv of which should be his contempt and disgust for military life. In his imagination everything fell so excellently into groups, his descriptions of scenery became true and splendid, his puppets woke to life, the story developed, and his treatment of it made him so boisterously cheerful and happy. But when he sat down to write, everything suddenly became so pale and feeble, so childish, so artificial and stereotyped. As long as his pen ran quickly and boldly over the paper he noticed none of these defects; but directly he compared his own work with that of some of the great Russian authors—if only with a small, detached piece from them—he was seized at once by a deep despair, and by shame and disgust at his own work.
He often wandered, harassed by such thoughts, about the streets in the balmy nights of the latter part of May. Without noticing it himself, he invariably selected for these promenades the same way—i.e. from the Jewish cemetery to the great dam, and thence to the high railway bank. It happened occasionally that, entirely absorbed in his dreams, he failed to notice the way he took, and, suddenly waking up, he found himself, much to his astonishment, in a wholly different part of the town.
Every night he passed by Shurochka’s window. With stealthy steps, bated breath, and beating heart, he prowled along the opposite side of the street. He felt like a thief who, in shame and anguish, tries hard to leave the scene of his crime as unobserved as possible. When the lamp was extinguished in the Nikoläiev’s drawing-room, in the black window-panes of which there was only a weak reflection of the moon’s faint rays, Romashov hid himself in the deep shade of the high hoarding, pressed his crossed arms convulsively against his breast, and uttered in a hot whisper—
“Sleep, sleep, my beloved one, my queen! I am here watching over you.”
In such moments he felt tears in his eyes, but in his soul stirred, besides love, tenderness and self-sacrificing affection, and also the human animal’s blind jealousy and lust.
One evening Nikoläiev was invited to a whist party at the commander’s. Romashov was aware of this. When, as usual of a night, he passed Nikoläiev’s dwelling, he smelt, from the little flower-bed behind the hoarding, the fragrant, disturbing perfume of daffodils. He jumped over the hedge, soiled his hands with the sticky mould of the bed, and plucked a whole armful of soft, moist, pale flowers.
The window of Shurochka’s bedroom was open. It was dark within, and not a sound could be heard from it. With a boldness that astonished himself, Romashov approached the wall, and threw the flowers into the room. Still the same mysterious silence. He stood quite still for three minutes, listening and waiting. His heart-beats, so it seemed to him, echoed along the whole of the long, dead-silent street; but no answer. Not the faintest sound reached the listener’s ears. With bent back, and blushing for shame, he stole away on tip-toe.
The next day he received the following curt and angry letter from Shurochka—
Never dare to repeat what you did yesterday. Courting in the Romeo and Juliet style is always absurd, particularly in this little hole of a place.
In the daytime Romashov tried to obtain a distant glimpse of Shurochka in the street, but he never succeeded. He often thought he recognized the mistress of his heart in some lady walking along. With beating heart and thrills of bliss he hurried nearer, but every time this turned out a bitter disappointment; and when he found out his mistake he felt in his soul an abandonment and deadly void that caused him pain.
< < < Chapter XVI
Chapter XVIII > > >
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
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