The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

< < < Chapter I
Chapter III > > >

Chapter II

THE soldiers marched home to their quarters in platoon order. The square was deserted. Romashov stood hesitating for a moment at the causeway. It was not the first time during the year and a half he had been in the service he had experienced that painful feeling of loneliness, of being lost among strangers either hostile or indifferent, or that distressful hesitation as to where one shall spend the evening. To go home or spend the evening at the officers’ mess was equally distasteful to him. At the latter place, at that time of day, there was hardly a soul, at most a couple of ensigns who, whilst they drank ale and smoked to excess and indulged in as many oaths and unseemly words as possible, played pyramids in the wretched little narrow billiard-room; in addition to all this, the horrible smell of food pervading all the rooms.

“I shall go down to the railway-station,” said Romashov at last. “That will be something to do.”

In the poor little town, the population of which mainly consisted of Jews, the only decent restaurant was that at the railway-station. There were certainly two clubs—one for officers, the other for the civilian “big-wigs” of the community. They were both, however, in a sorry plight, and on these grounds the railway restaurant had become the only place where the inhabitants assembled to shake off the dust of everyday life, and to get a drink or a game at cards. Even the ladies of the place accompanied their male protectors there, chiefly, however, to witness the arrival of the trains and scrutinize the passengers, which always offered a little change in the dreary monotony of provincial life.

Romashov liked to go down to the railway-station of an evening at the time when the express arrived, which made its last stop before reaching the Prussian frontier. With a curious feeling of excitement and tension, he awaited the moment when the train flashed round a sharp curve of the line, the locomotive’s fiery, threatening eye grew rapidly in size and intensity, and, at the next second, thundered past him a whole row of palatial carriages. “Like a monstrously huge giant that suddenly checks himself in the middle of a furious leap,” he thought, the train came to an abrupt stop before the platform. From the dazzling, illuminated carriages, that resembled a fairy palace, stepped beautiful and elegant ladies in wonderful hats, gentlemen dressed according to the latest Paris fashion, who, in perfect French or German, greeted one another with compliments or pointed witticisms. None of the passengers took the slightest notice of Romashov, who saw in them a striking little sample of that envied and unattainable world where life is a single, uninterrupted, triumphal feast.

After an interval of eight minutes a bell would ring, the engine would whistle, and the train de luxe would flit away into the darkness. The station would be soon deserted after this, and the lights lowered in the buffet and on the platform, where Romashov would remain gazing with melancholy eyes, after the lurid gleam of the red lamp of the rear coach, until it disappeared in the gloom like an extinguished spark.

“I shall go to the station for a while,” Romashov repeated to himself once more, but when he cast a glance at his big, clumsy goloshes, bespattered with clay and filth, he experienced a keen sense of shame. All the other officers in the regiment wore the same kind of goloshes. Then he noticed the worn buttonholes of his shabby cloak, its many stains, and the fearfully torn lower border that almost degenerated into a sort of fringe at the knees, and he sighed. One day in the previous week he had, as usual, been promenading the platform, looking with curiosity at the express train that had just arrived, when he noticed a tall, extraordinarily handsome lady standing at the open door of a first-class carriage. She was bare-headed, and Romashov managed to distinguish a little, straight, piquant nose, two charming, pouting lips, and a splendid, gleaming black head of hair which, parted in the middle of her forehead, stole down to her coquettish little ears. Behind her, and looking over her shoulder, stood a gigantic young man in a light suit, with a scornful look, and moustaches after the style affected by Kaiser Wilhelm. In fact, he bore a certain resemblance to Wilhelm. The lady looked at Romashov, it seemed to him with an expression of interest, and he said to himself: “The fair unknown’s eyes rested with pleasure on the young warrior’s tall, well-formed figure.” But when, after walking on a few steps, he turned round to catch the lady’s eyes again, he saw that both she and her companion were looking after him and laughing. In that moment he saw himself from outside, as it were—his awful goloshes, his cloak, pale face, stiff, angular figure—and experienced a feeling of shame and indignation at the thought of the bombastic, romantic phrase he had just applied to himself. Ah! even at this moment, when he was walking along the road in the gloomy spring evening, he flushed at that torturing recollection.

“No, I shall not go to the station,” he whispered to himself with bitter hopelessness. “I’ll take a little stroll and then go straight home.”

It was in the beginning of April. The dusk was deepening into night. The poplars that bordered the road, the small white houses with their red-tiled roofs, the few wanderers one met in the street at this hour—all grew darker, lost colour and perspective. All objects were changed into black shadow, the lines of which, however, still showed distinctly against the dark sky. Far away westwards, outside the town, the sunset still gleamed fiery red. Vast dark-blue clouds melted slowly down into a glowing crater of streaming, flaming gold, and then assumed a blood-red hue with rays of violet and amber. But above the volcano, like a dome of varying green, turquoise and beryl, arose the boundless sky of a luminous spring night.

Romashov looked steadily at this enchanting picture whilst he slowly and laboriously dragged himself and his goloshes along the causeway. As he always did, even from childhood, he even now indulged in fancies of a mysterious, marvellous world that waited for and beckoned to him in the far distance, beyond the sunset. Just there—there behind the clouds and the horizon—is hidden a wonderfully beautiful city lighted up by the beams of a sun invisible from here, and protected against our eyes by heavy, inexorable, threatening clouds. There the human eye is blinded by streets paved with gold; there, to a dazzling height, the dome-capped towers rise above the purple-hued roofs, where the palace windows shimmer in the sun like innumerable gems, where countless flags and banners resplendent with colour sway in the breeze. And in this fairy city throng bands of rejoicing people, whose whole life is nothing but an endless, intoxicating feast, a chord of harmony and bliss vibrating for ever and ever. In paradisaical parks and gardens, amidst fountains and flowers, stroll godlike men and women fair as the day, who have never yet known an unfulfilled desire, who have never yet experienced sorrow and struggle and shame.

Romashov suddenly called to mind the painful scene in the parade-ground, the Commander’s coarse invectives and that outrageous insult in the presence of his comrades and subordinates. Ah! what affected him most bitterly of all was that a person had railed at him before the soldiers in the same rough and ruthless way as he himself, alas! had only too often done to his subordinates. This he felt almost as a degradation, nay, even as a debasement of his dignity as a human being.

Then awoke within him, exactly as was the case in his early youth—alas! in many respects he still much resembled a big child—feelings at once revengeful, fantastic, and intoxicating. “Stuff and nonsense!” he shouted out to himself. “All my life is before me.” And, as it were, in keeping with his thoughts, he took firmer strides, and breathed more deeply. “To-morrow to spite them all I shall rise with the sun, stick to my books, and force an entrance into the Military Academy. Hard work? I can work hard if I like. I must take myself in hand, that is all. I’ll read and cram like fury, early and late, and then, some fine day, to every one’s astonishment, I shall pass a brilliant examination. And then, of course, every one will say: ‘This was nothing unexpected, we might have foretold that long ago. Such an energetic, talented young man!’”

And our Romashov already saw himself in his mind’s eye with a snug Staff appointment and unlimited possibilities in the future. His name stood engraved on the golden tablet of the Military Academy. The professors had predicted a brilliant career for him, tried to retain him as a lecturer at the Academy, etc. etc.—but in vain. All his tastes were for the practical side, for troop service. He had also first to perform his duties as company officer, and as a matter of course—yes, as a matter of course—in his old regiment. He would, therefore, have to make another appearance here—in this disgusting little out-of-the-way hole—as a Staff officer uncommonly learned and all-accomplished, in every respect unsurpassable, well-bred and elegant, inexorably severe to himself, but benevolently condescending towards others, a pattern for all, envied by all, etc. etc. He had seen at the manœuvres in the previous year a similar prodigy, who stood millions of miles above the rest of mankind, and who, therefore, kept himself far apart from his comrades at the officers’ mess. Cards, dice, heavy drinking and noisy buffoonery were not in his line; he had higher views. Besides, he had only honoured with a short visit that miserable place, which for him was only a stage, a step-ladder on the road to honour—and decorations.

And Romashov pursued his fancies. The grand manœuvres have begun, and the battalion is busy. Colonel Shulgovich, who never managed to make out the strategical or tactical situation, gets more and more muddled in his orders, commands and countermands, marches his men aimlessly here and there, and has already got two orderlies at him, bringing severe reprimands from the Commander of the corps. “Look here, Captain,” says Shulgovich, turning to his former sub-lieutenant, “help me out of this. We are old and good friends, you know—well, we did have a little difference on one occasion. Now tell me what I ought to do.” His face is red with anxiety and vexation; but Romashov sits straight in the saddle, salutes stiffly, and in a respectful but freezing tone replies: “Pardon, Colonel. Your duty is to advance your regiment in accordance with the Commander’s order; mine is only to receive your instructions and to carry them out to the best of my ability.” In the same moment a third orderly from the Commander approaches at a furious gallop.

Romashov, the brilliant Staff officer, rises higher and higher towards the pinnacles of power and glory. A dangerous strike has taken place at a steel manufactory. Romashov’s company is charged with the difficult and hazardous task of restoring peace and order amongst the rioters. Night and gloom, incendiarism, a flaming sea of fire, an innumerable, hooting, bloodthirsty mob, a shower of stones. A stately young officer steps in front of the company, his name is Romashov. “Brothers,” cries he, in a strong but melodious voice, “for the third and last time I beseech you to disperse, otherwise—I shall fire.” Wild shouts, derisive laughter, whistling. A stone hits Romashov on the shoulder, but his frank, handsome countenance maintains its unalterable calm. Slowly he turns towards his soldiers, whose eyes scintillate with rage at the insolent outrage that some one had dared to commit on their idolized Captain. A few brief, energetic words of command are heard, “Line and aim—fire!” A crashing report of rifles, immediately followed by a roar of rage and despair from the crowd. A few score dead and wounded lie where they have fallen; the rest flee in disorder or beg for mercy and are taken prisoners. The riot is quelled, and Romashov awaits a gracious token of the Tsar’s gratitude and favour, together with a special reward for the heroism he displayed.

Then comes the longed-for war. Nay, even before the war he is sent by the War Office to Germany as a spy on the enemy’s military power near the frontier. Perfectly familiar with the German language, he enters upon his hazardous career. How delightful is such an adventure to a brave and patriotic man! Absolutely alone, with a German passport in his pocket and a street organ on his back, he wanders from town to town, from village to village, grinds out tunes, collects coppers, plays the part of a simple lout, and meanwhile obtains, in all secrecy, plans and sketches of fortresses, stores, barracks, camps, etc., etc. Foes and perils lie in wait for him every minute. His own Government has left him helpless and unprotected. He is virtually an outlaw. If he succeeds in his purpose, honours and rewards of all kinds await him. Should he be unmasked, he will be condemned straight off to be shot or hanged. He sees himself standing in the dark and gloomy trench, confronted by his executioners. Out of compassion they fasten a white cloth before his eyes; but he tears it away and throws it to the ground with the proud words, “Do you not think an officer can face death?” An old Colonel replies, in a quivering voice: “Listen, my young friend. I have a son of the same age as you. I will spare you. Tell us your name—tell us, at any rate, your nationality, and the death sentence will be commuted to imprisonment.” “I thank you, Colonel; but it is useless. Do your duty.” Then he turns to the soldiers, and says to them in a firm voice in German: “Comrades, there is only one favour I would crave: spare my face, aim at my heart.” The officer in command, deeply moved, raises his white pocket-handkerchief—a crashing report—and Romashov’s story is ended.

This picture made such a lively impression on his imagination that Romashov, who was already very excited and striding along the road, suddenly stopped short, trembling all over. His heart beat violently, and he clenched his hands convulsively. He gained, however, command over himself immediately, and smiling compassionately at himself, he continued on his way in the darkness.

But it was not long before he began to conjure up fresh pictures in his imagination. The cruel war with Prussia and Austria, long expected and prepared for, had come. An enormous battlefield, corpses everywhere, havoc, annihilation, blood, and death. It was the chief battle, on the issue of which the whole war depended. The decisive moment had arrived. The last reserves had been brought up, and one was waiting anxiously for the Russian flanking column to arrive in time to attack the enemy in the rear. At any cost the enemy’s frantic attack must be met without flinching. The most important and threatened position on the field was occupied by the Kerenski regiment, which was being decimated by the concentrated fire of the enemy. The soldiers fight like lions without yielding an inch, although the whole line is being mowed down by a murderous fire of shells. Every one feels that he is passing through an historical moment. A few more seconds of heroic endurance and victory will be snatched out of the enemy’s hands. But Colonel Shulgovich wavers. He is a brave man—that must be admitted—but the perils of a fight like this are too much for his nerves. He turns pale and trembles. The next moment he signals to the bugler to sound the retreat, and the latter has already put the bugle to his lips, when, that very moment, Colonel Romashov, chief of the Staff, comes dashing from behind the hill on his foaming Arab steed. “Colonel, we dare not retreat. The fate of Russia will be decided here.” Shulgovich begins blustering. “Colonel Romashov, it is I who am in command and must answer to God and the Tsar. The regiment must retire—blow the bugle.” But Romashov snatches the bugle from the bugler’s hand and hurls it to the ground. “Forward, my children!” he shouts; “the eyes of your Emperor and your fellow-countrymen are fixed on you.” “Hurrah!” With a deafening shout of joy the soldiers, led by Romashov, rush at the foe. Everything disappears in a chasm of fire and smoke. The enemy wavers, and soon his lines are broken; but behind him gleam the Russian bayonets. “The victory is ours! Hurrah, comrades”——

Romashov, who no longer walked but ran, gesticulating wildly, at last stopped and gradually became himself again. It seemed to him as if some one with fingers cold as ice had suddenly passed them over his back, arms, and legs, his hair bristled, and his strong excitement had brought tears to his eyes. He had no notion how he suddenly found himself near his quarters, and, as he recovered from his mad fancies, he gazed with astonishment at the street door he knew so well, at the neglected fruit-garden within which stood the little whitewashed wing where he lodged.

“How does all this nonsense get into my head?” said he, with a sense of shame and a shrug of his shoulders in self-contempt.

< < < Chapter I
Chapter III > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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