The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

< < < Chapter XIX
Chapter XXI > > >

Chapter XX

ON that same day—it was Wednesday—Romashov received the following curt official communication—

The Court of Honour of the—th Infantry Regiment hereby requests Sub-lieutenant Romashov to attend at 6 p.m. the officers’ common-room. Dress: ordinary uniform.

Lieutenant-Colonel Migunov,
President of the Court.

On perusing the letter, Romashov could not restrain an ironical smile. This so-called “ordinary uniform,” i.e. undress uniform with shoulder-knots and belt, was to be worn, under the most extraordinary circumstances, before the Court, for public reprimand, when appearing for examination by the commander of his regiment, etc., etc.

At 6 p.m. Romashov put in an appearance at the mess, and told the orderly to send in his name to the president. The answer was to the effect that he was to wait. Romashov sat down by an open window in the dining-room, took up a paper and began to read; but he did not understand a word of the contents: everything seemed to him so uninteresting as he cast his eyes mechanically down one column after another. Three officers who were in the mess before Romashov returned his salutation with marked coldness, and continued their conversation in a low voice, with the obvious intention of preventing Romashov from catching what they were saying. Only one of them, Michin, pressed Romashov’s hand long and warmly, with moist eyes, blushing and tongue-tied. He at once turned away, put on his cloak and hat hurriedly and awkwardly, and ran out of the room.

Nikoläiev shortly afterwards entered through the buffet. He was pale, his eyelids were of a bluish hue, his left hand was shaking with spasmodic twitches, and just below his temples a bluish swelling was visible. At once the recollection of the fight on the previous day came to Romashov with painful distinctness. He hung his head, frowned, and, almost annihilated with shame, hid himself behind his newspaper. He closed his eyes, and listened in nervous tension to every sound in the room.

Romashov heard Nikoläiev order a glass of cognac from the waiter, and then greet one of the company. After that he walked up to where Romashov was sitting, and passed him quite closely. Somebody left the room, the door of which was shut again. A few seconds later Romashov heard in a whispering tone behind him—

“Don’t look back. Sit still and listen carefully to what I have to say.”

It was Nikoläiev. The newspaper shook in Romashov’s hands.

“As you’re aware, all conversation between us is now forbidden; but damn all these French niceties. What occurred yesterday can never be put straight again, made little of, or be consigned to oblivion. In spite of everything, however, I regard you as a man of conscience and honour. I implore you—do you hear?—I implore you, not a word about my wife and the anonymous letters. You understand me?”

Romashov, who was hidden by the newspaper from the eyes of his brother officer, made a slow inclination of his head. The sound of steps crunching the sand was audible from the courtyard. Romashov allowed a few minutes to elapse, after which he turned round and glanced through the window. Nikoläiev had gone.

“Your Honour!” the orderly suddenly stood, as if he had risen from the earth, at Romashov’s side. “I am ordered to ask you to walk in.”

Along one side of the wall were placed several card tables, over which a green cloth had been spread. Behind these tables sat the members of the court, with their backs to the window. In consequence of this, it was difficult to distinguish their faces. In the midst of them, in an arm-chair, was seated Lieutenant-Colonel Migunov, the president—a fat, pursy man without a neck, but with big, round shoulders which protruded in quite an unnatural manner. On each side of Migunov sat Lieutenant-Colonels Rafalski and Liech, and moreover, on the right, Osadchi and Peterson; on the left, Captain Duvernois and the commissary to the regiment, Staff-Captain Doroshenko. The table in front of all these gentlemen was virtually empty, except that before Doroshenko, the court prosecutor-in-ordinary, lay a heap of papers. It was cold and dark in the great, bare room, although out-of-doors the sunshine was gloriously warm. Everywhere the nose was assailed by a drowsy smell of mustiness and rotting, moth-eaten furniture.

The president laid his big, white, fat hands on the tablecloth, examined them minutely, and then began in a dry, official tone—

“Sub-lieutenant Romashov, the Officers’ Court of Honour, which meets to-day by order of the commander of the regiment, is directed to examine closely into the circumstances of the deplorable and, to the officers as a body, disgraceful scene that took place between you and Lieutenant Nikoläiev last night, and it is incumbent on you to render to us a most punctilious account of what you have to say with regard to this painful affair.”

Romashov stood before his judges with his arms hanging down, and plucked at the fur lining of his cap. He felt like a hunted animal, but at the same time as clumsy, feeble, and indifferent to everything as a schoolboy just “ploughed” at an examination is to his teachers’ threats and his school-fellows’ jeers. Coughing and stammering, in unconnected phrases and with contradictions and repetitions, Romashov began his report. At the same time, and whilst slowly observing the high “tribunal” seated before him, he made a sort of appraisement of the private or personal feelings of its individual members towards him. “Migunov has a heart of stone, and it is a matter of supreme indifference to him how the affair turns out; but the place of honour as president and the great responsibility attached to it are, in the highest degree, flattering to his vanity. Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Brehm’ is looking miserable. Oh, you good old chap, perhaps you are sitting thinking of that ten-rouble note which was never returned to you? Old Liech looks glum. He’s sober to-day in honour of the occasion, but the pouches under his eyes are bigger than usual. He’s not my enemy, but has so many sins of his own to answer that he must take advantage of the occasion, and play the part of guardian and protector of morality and the ‘honour of an officer.’ So far as Osadchi and Peterson are concerned, they are both notoriously my enemies. By invoking the law, I might certainly challenge Osadchi—the whole of the row began through his blasphemously parodying the Mass for the Dead—but what then? The result in any case will be the same. Peterson smiles out of one corner of his mouth in his usual snake-like way. I am just wondering what share he had in those anonymous letters. Duvernois—a sleepy beast, whose great, troubled eyes put one in mind of a cuttlefish’s. Ah, yes, I’ve never been one of Duvernois’s favourites, and just as little of Doroshenko’s. Yuri Alexievich, my dear boy, the prospect does indeed look gloomy for you.”

“One instant, if you please,” interrupted Osadchi. “President, will you permit me to put a question?”

“Certainly,” replied Migunov, with a gracious nod.

“Tell me, Sub-lieutenant Romashov,” began Osadchi, in an affectedly imposing and drawling tone, “where were you before you came to the mess in such an inexcusable condition?”

Romashov blushed deeply, and felt big drops of sweat on his forehead.

“I was—I was,” he stammered, “I was in a brothel,” he added almost in a whisper.

“Ha, ha—in a brothel,” repeated Osadchi, as he purposely raised his voice and pronounced every word with unsparing distinctness. “And no doubt you had drinks there.”

“Yes, I had been drinking,” answered Romashov, in an abrupt tone.

“I have no wish to put any more questions,” said Osadchi, turning with a bow to the president.

“Sub-lieutenant, be good enough to continue your report,” resumed Migunov, “You remember you have acknowledged that you threw the glass of ale at Nikoläiev—well?”

Romashov began his story again as unmethodically and unconnectedly as before, but honourably endeavouring not to give any details. He had already, in an indirect way and with much shame, succeeded in expressing the regret he felt at his unworthy conduct, when he was once more interrupted, this time by Captain Peterson. The latter was rubbing his long, yellow-wax coloured hands with their sharp, dirty finger-nails just as if he were washing himself, and said in his studiously polite—nay, almost friendly—thin, wheedling voice—

“Ah, all that is quite fit and proper, and such a voluntary confession, in a way, does you credit; but tell me, were you not, before this painful story began, in the habit of visiting Lieutenant Nikoläiev’s house?”

Romashov drew himself up and, looking straight, not at Captain Peterson, but at Migunov, replied bluntly:

“That is true, but I cannot understand what that has to do with the matter.”

“Pray don’t get excited,” exclaimed Peterson. “I only want you to answer my questions. Tell me then, was there any special cause of mutual enmity between you and Lieutenant Nikoläiev? I do not mean any difference in the service, but a cause of a quite—er—if I may so put it, domestic nature?”

Romashov pulled himself up to his full height, and his glance pierced with undisguised hatred his enemy’s treacherous, black, consumptive eyes.

“I have not visited Lieutenant Nikoläiev’s home more frequently than those of my other acquaintances,” he replied in a hard and cutting tone. “No previous enmity has existed between us. The whole thing happened unexpectedly and accidentally, when we were both the worse for liquor.”

“Heh, heh, heh, we have already heard about the insobriety,” Captain Peterson chimed in; “but I will ask you once more, had not an unfriendly meeting already taken place between you and Lieutenant Nikoläiev? I do not for an instant suggest that you had quarrelled or come to blows, but quite simply that—how shall I put it?—you were a little at variance in your views of certain scandalous reports and intrigues?”

“President, am I bound to reply to all questions that are put to me?” exclaimed Romashov.

“That rests entirely with you,” replied Migunov coldly. “You can, if you wish, absolutely refuse to answer. You can also commit your answer to writing. That is your privilege.”

“In such case I hereby declare that I will not answer any of Captain Peterson’s questions, and that not only in my interest but in his.”

After Romashov had answered a few questions of minor importance the examination was declared closed. Nevertheless, he had on two occasions to give the court supplementary information, first in the evening of the same day, and then again on the day following, viz., Thursday morning. However careless and inexperienced Romashov might be in all the practical circumstances of life, he nevertheless saw soon enough that the court was performing its functions in the most negligent and indiscreet way, and had therefore been guilty, not only of a revolting lack of tact, but also of utter illegality. In defiance of Section 149 of the “Statute concerning Discipline,” by which every communication to unauthorized persons of what takes place at such examinations is in plain language strictly forbidden, the members of the “Court of Honour” did not scruple to relate everything straight off to their wives and relations. The latter spread the scandal still further among the other ladies of “Society,” who in their turn discussed the matter with their maidservants, charwomen, etc. Before twenty-four hours had elapsed Romashov was the talk of the entire town and “hero of the day.” When he passed along the street he was gazed at from windows and doors, between the hedge-posts of backyards, and from the vantage of garden-bushes and arbours. Women from a good distance off pointed at him with their finger, and he often heard his name whispered behind his back. Nobody in the town doubted that a duel between him and Nikoläiev was inevitable—nay, they even began to bet about the upshot of it.

As Romashov was passing Lykatschev’s house on Thursday morning he suddenly heard his name shouted.

“Yuri Alexievich, Yuri Alexievich, come here.”

Romashov stopped, and soon discovered Katya Lykatschev standing on a bench inside the fence. She was still in morning dress, which chiefly consisted of a kimono, the triangular arrangement of which in front left the delicate virginal neck wholly exposed. And she was altogether so fresh and rosy that for an instant Romashov even felt light at heart.

Katya leant over the fence to enable Romashov to reach her hand, which was still cool and moist from the morning bath. She began at once to chatter and lisp at her usual pace:

“Where have you been all this time? You ought to be ashamed of yourself, forgetting your friends in that way! Zoi, zoi, zoi—hush! I have long known everything, everything.” She stared at Romashov with great terror-stricken eyes. “Take this and hang it round your throat. Hear and obey at once. Look, if you please.”

From the fold of her kimono, straight from her bosom, she drew out an amulet that hung by a silk cord, and shyly put it into Romashov’s hand. The amulet still felt balmy from its nest against the young woman’s warm body.

“Will it help?” asked Romashov, in a jesting tone. “What is it?”

“That’s a secret, and don’t you dare to laugh, you ungodly creature. Zoi, zoi!

“Hang it, if I’m not beginning to be a man of note,” thought Romashov, as he said good-bye to Katya. “Splendid girl!” But he could not prevent himself, though it might be for the last time, from thinking of himself in the third person:

“And over the old warrior’s rugged features stole a melancholy smile.”

On that same evening he and Nikoläiev were again summoned to the Court. The two enemies stood before the green table almost side by side. They did not once look at each other, but they equally felt each other’s high-strung emotion, and were, in consequence, still more excited. Their eyes were fixed, as though by magnetism, on the president’s face when he at last began to read the verdict of the Court.

“The members of the Officers’ Court of Honour of the—th Regiment” (here followed their Christian and surnames in full), “under the presidency of Lieutenant-Colonel Migunov, have inquired into the matter of the fight, in the mess, between Lieutenant Nikoläiev and Sub-lieutenant Romashov, and the Court, by reason of the serious nature of the case, finds a duel is necessary to satisfy the wounded honour of the regiment. This decree of the Court is ratified by the commander of the regiment.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Migunov took off his spectacles, and replaced them in their case.

“It is incumbent on you, gentlemen,” he went on to say in a sepulchral voice, “to choose two seconds apiece, who are to meet here at 9 p.m. to agree as to the conditions of the duel. Moreover,” added Migunov, as he got up and put his spectaclecase in his back-pocket, “moreover, I must tell you that the verdict just read possesses only a conditionally binding force on you, viz. it rests in your free discretion either to submit to the decree of the Court or”—Migunov paused and made a gesture by which he meant to express his absolute indifference—“leave the regiment. You ought, gentlemen, to keep apart. However, one thing more. Not in my capacity as president of the Court, but as an old comrade, I must advise you, gentlemen, for the avoidance of further unpleasantness and complications prior to the duel, not to visit the mess. Au revoir.

Nikoläiev made a sharp, military “Face-about,” and walked with rapid steps out of the room. Romashov followed slowly after. He had no fear, but he felt at once utterly lonely, abandoned, and shut off from the entire world. When he reached the steps he gazed for some time, calm and astonished, at the sky, the trees, a cow grazing on the other side of the fence, the sparrows burrowing in the high road, and thought, “So everything lives, struggles, and worries about its existence, except myself. I require nothing and I have no interests. I am doomed; I am alone, and dead already to this world.”

With a feeling of sickness and disgust he went to find Biek-Agamalov and Viätkin, whom he had chosen for his seconds. Both granted his request; Biek-Agamalov with a gloomy, solemn countenance, Viätkin with many hearty handshakes.

It was impossible for Romashov to return home.

Never had the thought of his uncomfortable abode seemed so repulsive to him as at the present moment. In these gloomy hours of spiritual depression, abandonment, and weariness of life, he needed a trusty, intelligent, and sympathetic friend—a man with brains and heart.

Then he thought of Nasanski.

< < < Chapter XIX
Chapter XXI > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

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