Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
< < < Chapter XXI
Chapter XXIII > > >
ON approaching his abode, Romashov noticed, to his astonishment, that a faint gleam of light poured from the dark window of his room. “What can that be?” he thought, not without a certain uneasiness, whilst he involuntarily quickened his steps. “Perhaps it is my seconds waiting to communicate to me the conditions of the duel?” In the hall he ran into Hainán, but he did not recognize him immediately in the dark, and being startled, cried angrily:
“What the devil——! Oh, it’s you, Hainán—and who’s in there?”
In spite of the darkness, Romashov realized that Hainán was doing his usual dance.
“It’s a lady, your Honour. She’s sitting in there.”
Romashov opened the door. The lamp, the kerosene of which had long come to an end, was still flickering feebly and was just ready to go out. On the bed was seated a female figure, the outlines of which could scarcely be distinguished in the half-dark room.
“Shurochka!”—Romashov, who for a second was unable to breathe, slowly approached the bed on tip-toe—“Shurochka, you here?”
“S-sh; sit down,” she replied in a rapid whisper. “Put out the lamp.”
Romashov blew sharply into the chimney of the lamp. The little flickering, blue flame went out, and the room was at once dark and silent, but, in the next moment, the alarum on the table went off loudly. Romashov sat down by Alexandra Petrovna, but could not distinguish her features. A curious feeling of pain, nervousness, and faintness of heart took possession of him. He was unable to speak.
“Who is on the other side of that wall?” asked Shurochka. “Can we be overheard?”
“No, there’s no one there, only old furniture. My landlord is a joiner. One can speak out loud.”
But both spoke, all the same, in a low voice, and those shyly uttered words acquired, in the darkness, something in addition awful, disquieting, treacherously stealthy. Romashov sat so close to Shurochka that he almost touched her dress. There was a buzzing in his ears, and the blood throbbed in his veins with dull, heavy beats.
“Why, oh, why have you done this?” she asked quietly, but in a passionately reproachful tone. Shurochka laid her hand on his knee. Romashov felt through the cloth this light touch of her feverishly burning finger-tips. He drew a deep breath, his eyes closed, and big black ovals, the sides of which sparkled with a dazzling, bluish gleam, took shape and ran into each other before his eyes, reminding him of the legend of the wonderful lakes. “Did you forget that I told you to keep your self-control when you met him? No, no—I don’t reproach you. You did not do it on purpose, I know that; but in that moment, when the wild beast within you was aroused, you had not even one thought of me. There was nothing to stay your arm. You never loved me.”
“I love you,” said Romashov softly, as with a shy movement he put his trembling fingers on her hand. Shurochka withdrew her hand, though not hastily, but at once and slowly, as though she were afraid of hurting him.
“I know that neither you nor he mixed my name up with this scandal; but I can tell you that all this chivalry has been wasted. There’s not a house in the town where they are not gossiping about it.”
“Forgive me; I could not control myself. I was blinded, beside myself with jealousy,” stammered Romashov.
Shurochka laughed for a while to herself. At last she answered him:
“You talk about ‘jealousy.’ Did you really think that my husband, after his fight with you, was high-minded enough to deny himself the pleasure of telling me where you had come from when you returned to the mess? He also told me one or two things about Nasanski.”
“Forgive me,” repeated Romashov. “It’s true I was there—but I did nothing to blush for in your presence. Pardon me.”
Shurochka suddenly raised her voice. Her voice acquired an energetic, almost severe accent, when she answered him.
“Listen, Georgi Alexievich, the minutes are precious. I waited here nearly half an hour for you. Let us, therefore, talk briefly and to the point. You know what Volodya is to me—I don’t love him, but, for his sake, I killed a part of my soul. I cherish greater ambition than he does. Twice he has failed to pass for the Staff College. This caused me far greater sorrow and disappointment than it did him. All this idea of trying to get on the Staff is mine, only mine. I have literally dragged him, whipped him on, crammed lessons into him, gone over them with him, filed and sharpened him, screwed up his pride and ambition, and cheered him in hours of apathy and depression. I live only for this, and I cannot even bear the thought of these hopes of mine being blighted. Whatever the cost, Volodya must pass his examination.”
Romashov sat with his head in his hands. Suddenly he felt Shurochka softly and caressingly drawing her fingers through his hair. Sorrowful and bewildered, he said to her:
“What can I do?”
She laid her arm round his neck and drew his head to her bosom. She was not wearing a corset, and Romashov felt her soft, elastic bosom pressed against his cheek, and inhaled the delicious, aromatic perfume that came from her young, absolutely healthy body. When she spoke he felt in his hair her irregular, nervous breathing.
“You remember, that evening—at the picnic? I told you then the whole truth: I did not love him; but think, now, only think, three years—three whole long years of the most arduous, repulsive work—of fancies, dreams, hopes. You know how I hate and despise this wretched little provincial hole, the odious set of officers. I always wanted to be dressed expensively and elegantly. I love power, flattery—slaves. And then comes this regimental scandal, this stupid fight between two drunken, irresponsible men accidentally brought together. Then all is over—all my dreams and hopes turned to ashes. Isn’t this dreadful? I have never been a mother; but I think I can imagine what it would be if I had a son—a son petted, idolized, even madly worshipped. He represents, so to speak, an incarnation or embodiment of my life’s dreams, sorrows, tears, sleepless nights, and then, suddenly, occurs a senseless accident. My little son is sitting playing at the window; the nurse turns away for a few minutes, and the child falls out on to the pavement. My dear, my sorrow and indignation can only be compared to this mother’s despair. But I am not blaming you.”
Romashov was sitting in a very cramped and uncomfortable position, and he was afraid that his heavy head might cause Shurochka pain or discomfort. But he had, however, for hours been used to sitting without moving, and, in a sort of intoxication, listen to the quick and regular beatings of his heart.
“Do you hear what I say?” she asked, stooping down to him.
“Yes, yes—talk, talk. You know I’ll do all you wish. Oh, if I could only——”
“No, no; but only listen till I have finished. If you kill him or if they prevent him from sitting for the examination, then it is all, all over. That very day I shall cast him off as a worthless thing, and go my own way—where? No matter where. To St. Petersburg, Odessa, Kiev. Don’t imagine this is one of those common, untrue, ‘penny-novelette’ phrases. Cheap effects I despise, and I will spare you them. But I know I am young, intelligent, and well-educated. I am not pretty, but I know the art of catching men far better than all those famous charmers who, at our official balls, receive the prize for beauty in the form of an elegant card-tray or something between a musical-box and an alarum. I can stand in the background; I can, by coldness and contempt, be bitter to myself and others. But I can flame up into a consuming passion and burn like a firework.”
Romashov glanced towards the window. His eyes had now begun to be used to the darkness, and he could distinguish the outlines of the framework of the window.
“Don’t talk like that, please. It pains me so; but, tell me, do you wish me to avoid the duel, and send him an apology? Tell me.”
Shurochka did not reply at once. The clock again made its monotonous, metallic voice heard, and filled every corner of the dark room with its infernal din. At last Shurochka answered as softly as if she were talking to herself in thought, and with an expression in her voice which Romashov was not in a condition to interpret.
“I knew you would offer to do this.”
“I do not feel afraid,” he exclaimed in a stern but soft tone.
“No, no, no,” she said hastily in an eager, beseeching whisper. “You misunderstood me, you do not understand me. Come nearer to me. Come and sit as you did just now. Come!”
She threw both her arms round his neck, and whispered to him tender words, tickling his face with her soft hair, and flooding his cheeks with her hot breath.
“You quite misunderstood me. I meant something quite different, but I am ashamed to tell you all. You are so good, so pure-hearted. I, alas! am the opposite, and, therefore, it’s so difficult for me to mention it.”
“No, no. Tell me everything. I love you.”
“Listen to me,” she began, and Romashov guessed what she would say before she could utter the words. “If you refuse to fight with him, how much shame and persecution, how many sufferings will be your lot. No, no, this must not be done. Oh, my God, at this moment I will not lie to you, dear. I have already weighed everything carefully. Suppose you refuse the duel. In that case my husband will certainly be rehabilitated; but, you understand, after a duel that ends in reconciliation, there is always something left—how shall I put it?—something covered by a certain obscurity, and which, therefore, leaves room for malice and slander. Do you understand me now?” she added with melancholy tenderness, pressing, at the same time, a light kiss on his brow.
“Yes, but go on.”
“The consequence, of course, is that they would never allow my husband even to present himself for a fresh examination. The reputation of an officer on the Staff must be unblemished. On the other hand, if a duel actually takes place, it will put you both in a dignified, heroic light. Men who can conduct themselves fittingly in front of the muzzle of a revolver—very much will be forgiven them in this world. Besides—after the duel—you can, if you like, offer an apology; but that I leave to your own discretion.”
Tightly clasped in each other’s arms, they continued their conversation in a whisper, but Romashov felt as if something mysterious, unclean, and nauseous had crept in between him and Shurochka, and he felt a freezing chill at heart. Again he tried to tear himself away from her arms, but she would not let him go. In his effort to hide from her the nervous excitement he was in, he exclaimed in a rough tone:
“For Heaven’s sake, put an end to this! Say what you want, and I’ll agree to everything.”
Then she put her mouth so close to his that her words affected him like hot, thrilling kisses.
“The duel must take place, but neither of you will run any risk. Don’t misunderstand me, I implore you, and don’t condemn me. Like all women, I loathe cowards, but, for my sake, you must do this. No, Georgi, don’t ask me if my husband—for the matter of that, he already knows all.”
Now at last Romashov managed to release himself from the tight grip of her soft, strong arms. He stood straight up before her, and answered in a curt, rough voice:
“That’s all right. It shall be as you wish! I consent.”
Shurochka also rose. Romashov could not see in the dark room that she was putting her hair straight, but he felt or guessed it.
“Are you going now?” he asked.
“Good-bye,” she replied in a faint voice, “and kiss me now for the last time.”
Romashov’s heart was shaken by pity and love. Groping in the darkness, he caught her head in his hands, and began kissing her eyes and cheeks, which were wet with big, silent tears. This took away his self-control.
“Don’t cry like that, Sascha, my darling,” he implored in a sad and tender tone.
Suddenly throwing her arms round his neck, she pressed herself tightly to him by a strong, passionate movement, and, without ceasing her kisses, she whispered the words in short, broken sentences. She was breathing heavily and trembling all over.
“I can’t part from you like this. We shall never see each other again. Some presentiment tells me that, so at this only moment we must not fear anything in the world. Let us be happy!”
And at that moment the pair, the room, the entire world, were filled with an ineffable bliss—stupefying, suffocating, consuming. For the space of a second Romashov fancied he saw, as it were by miracle, Shurochka’s eyes shining on him with an expression of mad joy. Her lips sought his.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“May I accompany you home?” asked Romashov, as he escorted her to the street.
“No, my darling, don’t. I have not the least idea how long I’ve been with you. What is the time?”
“I don’t know. I have not a watch.”
She stood lingering there, leaning against the gate. A powerful scent arose from the earth in the warm, languishing summer night. It was still dark, but, notwithstanding the darkness, Romashov could clearly distinguish Shurochka’s features, motionless and pale as a marble statue’s.
“Good-bye, my darling,” she uttered at last in a weary voice. “Good-bye.” They embraced each other, but their lips were cold and lifeless. Shurochka departed quickly and was swallowed up by the dark night.
Romashov remained a while listening till the last faint sounds of her light steps could no longer be caught, and then returned to his room. A feeling of utter, yet pleasant, weariness took possession of him. He had hardly undressed before he fell asleep. And the last impression left on his mind was a faint, delicious odour of perfume proceeding from his pillow—the scent from Shurochka’s hair and her fair young body.
< < < Chapter XXI
Chapter XXIII > > >
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
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