The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

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Chapter XXI

NASANSKI was, as always, at home. He had only just awakened from a heavy sleep following intoxication, and was lying on his back with only his underclothing on and his hands under his head. In his troubled eyes might be read sickness of life and physical weariness. His face had not yet lost its sleepy and lifeless expression when Romashov, stooping over his friend, said in a troubled and uncertain voice—

“Good-day, Vasili Nilich. Perhaps I have come at an inconvenient time?”

“Good-day,” replied Nasanski, in a hoarse and weak voice. “Any news? Sit down.”

He offered Romashov his hot, clammy hand, but looked at him, not as at a dear and ever-welcome friend, but as it were a troublous dream-picture that still lingered after his drunken sleep.

“Aren’t you well?” asked Romashov shyly, as he threw himself down on the corner of the bed. “In that case I’ll go at once, I won’t disturb you.”

Nasanski lifted his head a couple of inches from the pillow, and by an effort he peered, with deeply puckered forehead, at Romashov.

“No—wait. Oh, how my head aches! Listen, Georgi Alexievich. I see that something unusual has happened. If I could only collect my thoughts! What is it?”

Romashov looked at him with silent pity. Nasanski’s whole appearance had undergone a terrible change since the two friends had last seen each other. His eyes were sunken and surrounded by black rings; his temples had a yellow hue; the rough, wrinkled skin over his cheek-bones hung limply down, and was partly concealed by the sticky, wet tufts of hair that drooped.

“Nothing particular. I only wanted to see you. To-morrow I am to fight a duel with Nikoläiev, and I was loath to go home. But nothing matters now. Au revoir. You see—I had nobody else to talk to and my heart is heavy.”

Nasanski closed his eyes, and his features made a still more painful impression. It was evident that he had, by a really abnormal effort of will, tried to recover consciousness, and now, when he opened his eyes, a spark of keen understanding was at last visible in his glance.

“Well, well, I’ll tell you what we’ll do——” Nasanski turned on his side by an effort and raised himself on his elbow. “But first give me—out of the cupboard, you know—— No, let the apples be—there should be a few peppermint drops—thanks, my friend. I’ll tell you what we’ll do—— Faugh, how disgusting! Take me out into the fresh air. Here it’s intolerable. Always the same hideous hallucinations. Come with me; we’ll get a boat, then we can chat. Will you?”

With a stern face, and an expression of utter loathing on his countenance, he drained glass after glass. Romashov observed Nasanski’s ashy complexion gradually assume a deeper hue, and his beautiful blue eyes regain life and brilliancy.

When they reached the street they took a fly and drove to the river flowing past the very outskirts of the town, which there swells out to a dam, on one side of which stood a mill driven by turbines, an enormous red building belonging to a Jew. On the other shore stood a few bathing-houses, and there, too, boats might be hired. Romashov sat by the oars, and Nasanski assumed a half-recumbent position in the stern.

The river was very broad here, the stream weak, the banks low and overgrown with long, juicy grass that hung down over the water, and out of it rose tall green reeds and masses of big, white water-lilies.

Romashov related the particulars of his fight with Nikoläiev. Nasanski listened abstractedly and gazed down at the river, which in lazy, sluggish eddies flowed away like molten glass in the wake of the boat.

“Tell me candidly, Romashov, have you any fear?” asked Nasanski, in a low voice.

“Of the duel? No, I’m not afraid of that,” replied Romashov irritably, but he became abruptly silent, whilst, in the flash of a second, he saw himself standing face to face with Nikoläiev, and with hypnotized eyes gazing at the black, threatening muzzle of his revolver. “No, no,” added Romashov hastily, “I will not lie and boast that I’m not afraid. On the contrary, I think it terrible; but I also know that I shall not behave like a coward, and that I shall never apologize.”

Nasanski dipped the tips of his fingers in the softly rippling water, warm with the evening glow, and said slowly, in a weak voice often interrupted by coughing:

“Ah, my friend, my dear Romashov, why will you do this thing? Only think if what you say is true, and you are not a coward. Why not then show your moral courage in a still higher degree by refusing to fight this duel?”

“He has insulted me, struck me—on the face,” replied Romashov, with newly kindled, burning indignation.

“Well, admitting that,” resumed Nasanski gently, with his tender, sorrowful eyes fixed on Romashov, “what does that signify? Time heals all wounds; everything in the world is buried and disappears, even the recollection of this scandal. You yourself will in time forget both your hatred and your sufferings; but you’ll never forget a man you have killed. He will stand ever at your side, at the head of your bed, at your dinner-table, when you are alone, and when you are amidst the bustle of the world. Empty-heads, idiots, pretentious imitators and parrots will, of course, at all times solemnly assure you that a murder in the course of a duel is no murder. What madmen! No, a murder is, and always will be, a murder. And the most horrible thing about it is not in death and suffering, in pools of blood or in corpses, but inasmuch as it deprives a human being of the joys of life. Oh, how priceless is life!” exclaimed Nasanski suddenly, in a high voice and with tears in his eyes. “Who do you suppose believes in the reality of an existence after this one? Not you, or I, or any other man of sound reason. Therefore death is feared by all. Only half-demented, ecstatic barbarians or ‘the foolish in the Lord’ allow themselves to be deluded into the notion that they will be greeted on the other side of the grave, in the garden of Paradise, by the beatific hymns of celestial eunuchs. Moreover, we have those who, silently despising such old wives’ fables and puerilities, cross the threshold of death. Others again picture the empire of the grave as a cold, dark, bare room. No, my friend, there is no such future state. In death there is neither cold, nor darkness, nor space, nor even fear—nothing but absolute annihilation.”

Romashov shipped his oars, and it was only by observing the green shore gently stealing by that one could tell that the boat was moving onwards.

“Yes—annihilation,” Romashov repeated slowly, in a dreamy tone.

“But why cudgel your brains over this? Gaze instead at the living landscape around you. How exquisite is life!” shouted Nasanski, with a powerful and eloquent gesture. “Oh, thou beauty of the Godhead—thou infinite beauty! Look at this blue sky, this calm and silent water, and you will tremble with joy and rapture. Look at yon water-mill far in the distance, softly moving its sails. Look at the fresh verdure of the bank and the mischievous play of the sunbeams on the water. How wonderfully lovely and peaceful is all this!” Nasanski suddenly buried his face in his hands and burst out weeping; but he recovered his self-possession immediately, and, without any shame for his tears, he went on to say, while looking at Romashov with moist, glistening eyes:

“No, even if I were to fall under the railway train, and were left lying on the line with broken and bleeding limbs, and any one were to ask me if life were beautiful, I should none the less, and even by summoning my last remains of strength, answer enthusiastically, ‘Ah, yes, even now life is glorious.’ How much joy does not sight alone give us, and so, too, music, the scent of flowers, and woman’s love? And then the human understanding: thought which alone is our life’s golden sun—the eternal source of noble pleasure and imperishable bliss. Yurochka—pardon me calling you so, my friend”—Nasanski held out his trembling hand to Romashov as though entreating forgiveness—“suppose you were shut up in prison, and you were doomed all your life to stare at crumbling bricks of the wall of your cell—no, let us suppose that in your prison dungeon there never penetrated a ray of light or a sound from the outer world. Well, what more? What would that be in comparison with all the mysterious terrors of death? Yet if thought, memory, imagination, the spirit’s faculty of creation remained, you would not only be able to live, but even find moments of enthusiasm and the joy of life.”

“Yes, life is priceless,” exclaimed Romashov, interrupting him.

“It’s magnificent,” Nasanski went on to say hotly, “yet people wish two rational creatures to kill each other for a woman’s sake, or to re-establish their so-called honour! But who is it then he kills?—this miserable living clod of earth that arrogates to himself the proud name of man? Is it himself or his neighbour? No, he kills the gracious warmth and lifegiving sun, the bright sky, and all nature with its infinite beauty and charm. He kills that which never, never, never will return. Oh, what madmen!”

Nasanski ceased, shook his head sorrowfully, and collapsed. The boat glided into the reeds. Romashov again took the oars. High, hard, green stalks bowed slowly and gravely, gently scraping the boat’s gunwale. Amid the tall rushes there was shade and coolness.

“What shall I do?” asked Romashov, scowling and angry. “Shall I enter the reserves? Where shall I go?”

Nasanski looked at him with a gentle smile.

“Listen, Romashov, and look me straight in the face—that’s right. No, don’t turn away, look at me, and answer on your honour and conscience. Do you really think that you are now serving any good, useful, and reasonable purposes? I know you much better than all the rest—yes, I know your inmost soul, and I know you do not think so.”

“No,” replied Romashov, in a firm voice, “you are right. But what will become of me?”

“Well, be calm. Only look at our officers. Oh, I’m not talking now of the fops of the Emperor’s lifeguards who dance at the Court balls, talk French, and are kept by their parents or by their more or less lawful wives. No, I’m thinking of ourselves—poor officers in the line who, nevertheless, constitute the very ‘pick’ of the irresistible and glorious Russian Army. What are we? Well, mere fag-ends—le beau reste, despised pariahs; at best the sons of poor, poverty-stricken infantry Captains, ruined in body and soul, but for, by far, the most part consisting of collegians, seminarists, etc., who have failed. Look, for instance, at our regiment. What are they who remain for any time in the service? Poor devils burdened with large families, veritable beggars ready for every villainy and cruelty—ah, even for murder—and are not even ashamed of abstracting the poor soldier’s scanty pay so that, at any rate, cabbage soup may not be lacking on their table at home. Such an individual is commanded to shoot. Whom? And for what? It is all the same to him. He only knows that at home there are hungry mouths, dirty, scrofulous, rickety children, and with dull countenance he splutters, like another woodpecker, his eternal, unvarying answer, ‘My oath.’ And if there’s a spark of ability or talent in any one, it is extinguished in schnapps. Seventy-five per cent. of our officers are diseased through vice. If any one in the regiment happens to scrape through his entrance examination for the Staff College—which, by the way, hardly happens with us once in five years—he is pursued by hatred. The most servile and fawning individuals, or those who have managed to obtain a little patronage, as a rule, get into the police or gendarmes. Should they have in their veins a few drops of noble blood, they may perhaps get a circuit-judgeship in the country. Let us suppose that a man of education, fine feeling, and heart is forced to remain in the regiment. What do you suppose is his fate? To him the service is an intolerable yoke and a perpetual source of humiliation, suffering, and self-contempt. Every one tries to procure an occupation of another sort which soon entirely engrosses him. One is seized with a mania for collecting; another watches impatiently for the evening so that he may, with great trouble and waste of time, embroider small crosses and other gewgaws for an absolutely unnecessary ornamental mat. A third fills his life by the help of a little metal saw, and produces at last an exquisite, perforated frame for his own portrait. And the thought of all this absurd and worthless work secretly occupies their minds during the insufferable hours of drill. Cards, drinking-bouts, disgusting swagger about the favours women have bestowed on them—all this I might be able to pass over in silence. The most repulsive thing, however, is the cruel eagerness, conspicuous in so many officers, to gain a name as martinets and brutes to their men, as, for instance, Osadchi and Company, who with impunity knock out the teeth and eyes of their young recruits. Perhaps you are not aware that Artschakovski so maltreated his servant in my presence that it was all I could do to help the victim away alive. Blood splashed over the floor and walls. Well, how do you think the affair ended? You shall hear. The soldier complained to the Captain of his company; the latter sent him with a sealed order to the pay-sergeant, who, in strict obedience to his superior’s orders, further belaboured with his fists the soldier’s swollen and bleeding face for the space of half an hour. The same soldier complained twice at the General Inspection, but without redress.”

Nasanski stopped and began nervously rubbing his temples with the palm of his hand.

“Wait,” he went on to say. “Ah, how one’s thoughts fly! Isn’t it an unpleasant sensation to know that our thoughts lead us, and not we our thoughts? Well, to resume what we were talking about. Among our senior remaining officers we have also other types, for instance, Captain Plavski. On his petroleum stove he cooks his own beastly food, goes about in rags, and, out of his monthly forty-eight roubles twelve times a year, he puts twenty-five in the bank, where he has a sum of 2,000 roubles on deposit, which he lends to his brother officers at an outrageously usurious rate of interest. And you think, perhaps, that this is innate or inherited greed? Certainly not; it is only a means of filling up the soul-destroying hours of garrison service. Then we have Captain Stelikovski, a strong, able, talented man. Of what does his life consist? Oh, in seducing young, inexperienced peasant girls. Finally, our famous oddity, Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Brehm.’ A good-natured, kindly ass—a thoroughly good fellow, who has but one interest in life—the care of his animals. What to him signify the service, the colours, the parades, censures of his superiors, or the honour of the warrior? Less than nothing.”

“‘Brehm’ is a fine fellow. I like him,” interrupted Romashov.

“He certainly is that, my friend,” Nasanski admitted in a weary tone, “and yet,” he went on to say with a lowering countenance, “if you knew what I once saw at the manœuvres. After a night march we were directly afterwards to advance to attack. Both officers and men were utterly done up. ‘Brehm’ was in command, and ordered the buglers to sound the charge, but the latter, goodness knows why, signalled the reserve to advance. ‘Brehm’ repeated his order once, twice, thrice, but in vain; the result was the same. Then our excellent, kind-hearted ‘Brehm’ gallops up to the unsuspecting bugler, and bangs his fist, with all his force, against the bell of the trumpet. I saw with my own eyes the trumpeter spitting out blood and broken teeth.”

“Oh, my God!” groaned Romashov in disgust.

“Yes, they are all alike, even the best and most tender-hearted among them. At home they are splendid fathers of families and excellent husbands; but as soon as they approach the barracks they become low-minded, cowardly, and idiotic barbarians. You ask me why this is, and I answer: Because nobody can find a grain of sense in what is called military service. You know how all children like to play at war. Well, the human race has had its childhood—a time of incessant and bloody war; but war was not then one of the scourges of mankind, but a continued, savage, exultant national feast to which daring bands of youths marched forth, meeting victory or death with joy and pleasure. The bravest, strongest, and most cunning was chosen as leader, and so long as success attended his banner, he was almost accorded divine worship, until at last he was killed by his subjects, in order to make room for a luckier and more powerful rival. Mankind, however, grew in age and wisdom; people got weary of the former rowdy, bloody games, and became more serious, thoughtful, and cautious. The old Vikings of song and saga were designated and treated as pirates. The soldier no longer regarded war as a bloody but enjoyable occupation, and he had often to be dragged to the enemy with a noose round his neck. The former terrifying, ruthless, adored atamens have been changed into cowardly, cautious chinóvniks,[21] who get along painfully enough on never adequate pay. Their courage is inspired by drink. Military discipline still exists, but it is based on threats and dread, and undermined by a dull, mutual hatred. To make a long story short, the whilom fine, proud ‘pheasants’ are of faded hue and look ruffled. Only one more parallel resembling the foregoing can I adduce from universal history, to wit, monasticism. The legend of its origin is touching and beautiful, its mission was peaceful, benevolent, and civilizing, and its existence most certainly an historic necessity. But centuries pass away, and what do we see now? Hundreds of thousands of impostors, idle, licentious, and impudent, who are hated and despised even by those who think they need their religious aid. And all this abomination is carefully hidden under a close veil of tinsel and finery, and foolish, empty ceremonies, in all ages the charlatan’s conditio sine quâ non. Is not this comparison of mine between the monastic orders and the military caste logical? Here the cassock and the censer; there the gold-laced uniform and the clank of arms. Here bigotry, hypocritical humility, sighs, and sugary, sanctimonious, unmeaning phrases; there the same odious affectations, although of another kind—swaggering manners, bold, and scornful looks—‘God help the man who dares to insult me!’—padded shoulders, cock-a-hoop defiance. Both the former and the latter class live like parasites on society, and are profoundly conscious of that fact, but fear—especially for their bellies’ sake—to publish it. And both remind one of certain little blood-sucking animals which eat their way most obstinately into the surface of a foreign body in proportion as it is decomposed.”

Nasanski stopped and spat with withering contempt.

“Go on, go on,” exclaimed Romashov eagerly.

“But other times are coming, indeed have come. Yes, tremendous surprises and changes are about to take place. You remember my saying on one occasion that for a thousand years there has existed a genius of humanity that seldom reveals itself, but whose laws are as inexorable as they are ruthless; but the wiser men become, so much more deeply do they penetrate the spirit of those laws. And I am convinced that, sooner or later, everything in this world must be brought into equilibrium in accordance with these immutable laws. Justice will then be dispensed. The longer and more cruel the slavery has been, so much more terrible will be the day of reckoning for tyrants. The greater the violence, injustice, and brutality, so much more bloody will be the retribution. Oh, I am firmly convinced that the day will dawn when we ‘superior officers,’ we ‘almighty swells,’ darlings of the women, drones and brainless swaggerers, will have our ears boxed with impunity in streets and lanes, in vestibules and corridors, when women will turn their backs on us in contempt, and when our own affectionate soldiers will cease to obey us. And all this will happen, not because we have brutally ill-treated men deprived of every possibility of self-defence; not because we have, for the ‘honour’ of the uniform, insulted women; not because we have committed, when in a state of intoxication, scandalous acts in public-houses and public places; and not even because we, the privileged lick-spittles of the State, have, in innumerable battlefields and in pretty nearly every country, covered our standards with shame, and been driven by our own soldiers out of the maize-fields in which we had taken shelter. Well, of course, we shall also be punished for that. No, our most monstrous and unpardonable sin consists in our being blind and deaf to everything. For long, long periods past—and, naturally, far away from our polluted garrisons—people have discerned the dawn of a new life resplendent with light and freedom. Far-seeing, high-minded, and noble spirits, free from prejudices and human fear, have arisen to sow among the nations burning words of liberation and enlightenment. These heroes remind one of the last scene in a melodrama, when the dark castles and prison towers of tyranny fall down and are buried, in order, as it were, by magic, to be succeeded by freedom’s dazzling light and hailed by exultant throngs. We alone—crass idiots, irredeemable victims of pride and blindness—still stick up our tail-feathers, like angry turkey-cocks, and yell in savage wrath, ‘What? Where? Silence! Obey! Shoot!’ etc., etc. And it’s just this turkey-cock’s contempt for the fight for freedom by awakening humanity that shall never, never be forgiven us.”

The boat glided gently over the calm, open, mirroring surface of the river, which was garlanded round by the tall, dark green, motionless reeds. The little vessel was, as it were, hidden from the whole world. Over it hovered, now and then uttering a scream, the white gulls, occasionally so closely that, as they almost brushed Romashov with the tips of their wings, they made him feel the breeze arising from their strong, swift flights. Nasanski lay on his back in the stern of the boat and kept staring, for a long time, at the bright sky, where a few golden clouds sailing gently by had already begun to change to rose colour.

Romashov said in a shy tone:

“Are you tired? Oh, keep on talking.”

It seemed as if Nasanski continued to think and dream aloud when he once more picked up the threads of his monologue.

“Yes, a new, glorious, and wonderful time is at hand. I venture to say this, for I myself have lived a good deal in the world, read, seen, experienced, and suffered much. When I was a schoolboy, the old crows and jackdaws croaked into our ears: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, and know that gentleness, obedience, and the fear of God are man’s fairest adornments.’ Then came certain strong, honest, fanatical men who said: ‘Come and join us, and we’ll throw ourselves into the abyss so that the coming race shall live in light and freedom.’ But I never understood a word of this. Who do you suppose is going to show me, in a convincing way, in what manner I am linked to this ‘neighbour’ of mine—damn him! who, you know, may be a miserable slave, a Hottentot, a leper, or an idiot? Of all the holy legends there is none which I hate and despise with my whole soul so much as that of John the Almoner.[22] The leper says: ‘I am shivering with cold; lie beside me in my bed and warm my body with thy limbs. Lay thy lips close to my fetid mouth and breathe on me!’ Oh, how disgusting! How I hate this victim of leprosy, and, for the matter of that, also all other similar choice examples of my ‘neighbour.’ Can any reasonable being tell me why I should crush my head so that the generation in the year 3200 may attain a higher standard of happiness? Be quiet! I, too, once upon a time, sympathized with the silly, babyish cackle about ‘the world-soul,’ ‘man’s sacred duty,’ etc. But even if these high-falutin phrases did find a place then in my brain, they never forced their way into my heart. Do you follow me, Romashov?”

Romashov looked at Nasanski with a mixture of gratitude and shame.

“I understand you fully. When I come to ‘send in my checks’ and die, then the universe dies with me. That’s what you meant, eh?”

“Exactly, but listen further. Love of humanity is burnt out and has vanished from the heart of man. In its stead shall come a new creed, a new view of life that shall last to the world’s end; and this view of life consists in the individual’s love for himself, for his own powerful intelligence and the infinite riches of his feelings and perceptions. Think, Romashov, just this way and in no other. Who is nearer and dearer to me than myself? No one. You, and none other, are the Tsar and autocrat of your own soul, its pride and ornament. You are the god of all that lives. To you alone belongs all that you see, hear, and feel. Take what you want and do what you please. Fear nobody and nothing, for there is no one in the whole universe above you or can even be your rival. Ah, a time will come when the fixed belief in one’s own Ego will cast its blessed beams over mankind as did once the fiery tongues of the Holy Ghost over the Apostles’ heads. Then there will be no longer slaves and masters; no maimed or cripples; no malice, no vices, no pity, no hate. Men will be gods. How shall I dare to deceive, insult, or ill-treat another man, in whom I see and feel my fellow, who, like myself, is a god? Then, and then only, shall life be rich and beautiful. Over the whole habitable portion of our earth shall tall, airy, lovely buildings be raised. Nothing vulgar, common, low, and impure shall any longer torture the eye. Our daily life shall become a pleasurable toil, an enfranchised science, a wonderful music, an everlasting merry-making. Love, free and sovereign, shall become the world’s religion. No longer shall it be forced in shame to hide its countenance; no longer shall it be coupled with sin, disgrace, and darkness. And our own bodies shall glow with health, strength, and beauty, and go clad in bright, shimmering robes. Just as certainly as I believe in an eternal sky above me,” shouted Nasanski, “so do I just as firmly believe in this paradisaical life to come.”

Romashov, agitated and no longer master of himself, whispered with white lips:

“Nasanski, these are dreams, fancies.”

Nasanski’s smile was silent and compassionate.

“Yes,” he at last uttered with a laugh still lingering in his voice, “you may perhaps be right. A professor of Dogmatic Theology or Classical Philology would, with arms and legs extended and head bent on one side in profound thought, say something like this: ‘This is merely an outburst of the most unbridled Individualism.’ But, my dear fellow, luckily the thing does not depend on more or less categorical phrases and comminations fulminated in a loud voice, but on the fact that there is nothing in the world more real, practical and irrefutable than these so-called ‘fancies,’ which are certainly only the property of some few people. These fancies will some day more strongly and completely weld together the whole of mankind to a complete homogeneous body. But let us forget now that we are warriors. We are merely defenceless starar. Suppose we go up the street; there we see right before us a wonderful, merry-looking, two-headed monster[23] that attacks all who come within its reach, no matter who they be. It has not yet touched me, but the mere thought that this brute might ill-treat me, or insult a woman I loved, or deprive me of my liberty is enough to make me mad. I cannot overpower this creature by myself, but beside me walks another man filled with the same thirst for vengeance as I, and I say to him: ‘Come, shall we go and kill the monster, so that he may not be able to dig his claws into any one!’ You understand that all I have just been telling you is only a drastic simile, a hyperbole; but the truth is that I see, in this two-headed monster that which holds my soul captive, limits my individual freedom, and robs me of my manhood. And when that day dawns, then no more lamb-like love for one’s neighbour, but the divine love to one’s own Ego will be preached among men. Then, too, the double-headed monster’s reign will be over.”

Nasanski stopped. This violent outburst had evidently been too much for his nerves. After a few minutes, he went on in a hollow voice:

“My dear Georgi Alexievich, there rushes past us incessantly a brawling stream of divinely inspired, lofty, flaming thoughts and new and imperishable ideas which are to crush and bury for ever the bulwarks and golden idols of tyranny and darkness. We, however, keep on stamping in our old stalls and neighing: ‘Ah, you poor jades, you ought to have a taste of the whip!’—And once more I say: This will never be forgiven us.”

Nasanski got up, wrapped his cloak round him with a slight shiver, and remarked in a weary voice:

“I’m cold—let’s go home.”

Romashov rowed out of the rushes. The sun was setting behind the roofs of the distant town, the dark outlines of which were sharply defined against the red evening sky. Here and there the sunrays were reflected by a gleaming window-pane. The greater part of the river’s surface was as even as a mirror, and faded away in bright, sportive colours; but behind the boat the water was already dark, opaque, and curled by little light waves.

Romashov suddenly exclaimed, as if he were answering his own thoughts:

“You are right. I’ll enter the reserves. I do not yet know how I shall do it, but I had thought of it before.”

Nasanski shivered with the cold and wrapped his cloak more closely round him.

“Come, come,” replied he in a melancholy and tender tone. “There’s a certain inward light in you, Georgi Alexievich; I don’t know what to call it properly; but in this bear-pit it will soon go out. Yes, they would spit at it and put it out. Then get away from here! Don’t be afraid to struggle for your existence. Don’t fear life—the warm, wonderful life that’s so rich in changes. Let’s suppose you cannot hold yourself up; that you sink deep—deep; that you become a victim to crime and poverty. What then? I tell you that the life of a beggar or vagrant is tenfold richer than Captain Sliva’s and those of his kidney. You wander round the world here and there, from village to village, from town to town. You make acquaintance with quaint, careless, homeless, humorous specimens of humanity. You see and hear, suffer and enjoy; you sleep on the dewy grass; you shiver with cold in the frosty hours of the morning. But you are as free as a bird; you’re afraid of no one, and you worship life with all your soul. Oh, how little men understand after all! What does it matter whether you eat vobla[24] or saddle of buck venison with truffles; if you drink vodka or champagne; whether you die in a police-cell or under a canopy? All this is the veriest trifle. I often stand and watch funeral processions. There lies, overshadowed by enormous plumes, in its silver-mounted coffin, a rotting ape accompanied to the grave by a number of other apes, bedizened, behind and before, with orders, stars, keys, and other worthless finery. And afterwards all those visits and announcements! No, my friend, in all the world there is only one thing consistent and worth possessing, viz, an emancipated spirit with imaginative, creative force, and a cheerful temperament. One can have truffles or do without them. All that sort of thing is a matter of luck; it does not signify anything. A common guard, provided he is not an absolute beast, might in six months be trained to act as Tsar, and play his part admirably; but a well-fattened, sluggish, and stupid ape, that throws himself into his carriage with his big belly in the air, will never succeed in grasping what liberty is, will never feel the bliss of inspiration, or shed sweet tears of enthusiasm.

“Travel, Romashov. Go away from here. I advise you to do so, for I myself have tasted freedom, and if I crept into my dirty cage again, whose fault was it? But enough of this. Dive boldly into life. It will not deceive you. Life resembles a huge building with thousands of rooms in which you will find light, joy, singing, wonderful pictures, handsome and talented men and women, games and frolic, dancing, love, and all that is great and mighty in art. Of this castle you have hitherto seen only a dark, narrow, cold, and raw cupboard, full of scourings and spiders’ webs, and yet you hesitate to leave it.”

Romashov made fast the boat and helped Nasanski to land. It was already dusk when they reached Nasanski’s abode. Romashov helped him to bed and spread the cloak and counterpane over him.

Nasanski trembled so much from his chill that his teeth chattered. He rolled himself up like a ball, bored his head right into his pillow, and whimpered helplessly as a child.

“Oh, how frightened I am of my room! What dreams! What dreams!”

“Perhaps you would like me to stay with you?” said Romashov.

“No, no; that’s not necessary. But get me, please, some bromide and a little—vodka. I have no money.”

Romashov sat by him till eleven. Nasanski’s fits of ague gradually subsided. Suddenly he opened his great eyes gleaming with fever, and uttered with some difficulty, but in a determined, abrupt tone:

“Go, now—good-bye.”

“Good-bye,” replied Romashov sadly. He wanted to say, “Good-bye, my teacher,” but was ashamed of the phrase, and he merely added with an attempt at joking:

“Why did you merely say ‘good-bye’? Why not say do svidánia?”[25]

Nasanski burst into a weird, senseless laugh.

“Why not do svishvezia?”[26] he screamed in a wild, mad voice.

Romashov felt that his body was shaken by violent shudders.

< < < Chapter XX
Chapter XXII > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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