Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
< < < Chapter III
Chapter V > > >
WHEN Romashov reached the yard it was quite dark. He stumbled like a blind man into the street, his huge goloshes sank deep into the thick, stiff mud, and every step he took was accompanied by a smacking noise. Now and again one golosh stuck so fast in the mud of the road that it remained there, and he had all the difficulty in the world, whilst balancing himself wildly on his other foot, to recover his treasure.
The little town seemed to him to be absolutely dead. Not a sound was heard, even the dogs were silent. Here and there a gleam of light streamed from the small, low-pitched, white house, against which the window-sills sharply depicted their shapes in the yellowish-brown mire. From the wet and sticky palings along which Romashov slowly worked his way, from the raw, moist bark of the poplars, from the dirty road itself, there arose a strong, refreshing scent of spring, which aroused a certain unconscious sense of joy and comfort. Nay, even with the tormenting gale which swept violently through the streets seemed mingled a youthful, reawakened desire of life, and the gusts of wind chased one another like boisterous and sportive children in a “merry-go-round.”
When Romashov reached the house where the Nikoläievs dwelt, he stopped, despondent and perplexed. The close, cinnamon-coloured curtains were let down, but behind them one could, nevertheless, distinguish the clear, even glow of a lamp. On one side the curtain curved inwards and formed a long, small chink against the window-sill. Romashov pressed his face cautiously against the window, and hardly dared to breathe for fear of betraying his presence.
He could distinguish Alexandra Petrovna’s head and shoulders. She was sitting in a stooping attitude on that green rep divan that he knew so well. From her bowed head and slight movements he concluded that she was occupied with some needlework. Suddenly she straightened herself up, raised her head, and drew a long breath. Her lips moved.
“What is she saying?” thought Romashov. “And look! now she’s smiling. How strange to see through a window a person talking, and not to be able to catch a word of what she says.”
The smile, however, suddenly disappeared from Alexandra Petrovna’s face; her forehead puckered, and her lips moved rapidly and vehemently. Directly afterwards she smiled again, but wickedly and maliciously, and with her head made a slow gesture of disapproval.
“Perhaps they are talking about me,” thought Romashov, not without a certain disagreeable anxiety; but he knew how something pure, chaste, agreeably soothing and benevolent beamed on him from this young woman who, at that moment, made the same impression on him as a charming canvas, the lovely picture of which reminded him of happy, innocent days of long ago. “Shurochka,” whispered Romashov tenderly.
At that moment Alexandra Petrovna lifted her face from her work and cast a rapid, searching, despondent glance at the window. Romashov thought she was looking him straight in the face. It felt as if a cold hand had seized his heart, and in his fright he hid himself behind a projection of the wall. Again he was irresolute and ill at ease, and he was just about to return home, when, by a violent effort of the will, he overcame his pusillanimity and walked through a little back-door into the kitchen.
The Nikoläievs’ servant relieved him of his muddy goloshes, and wiped down his boots with a kitchen rag. When Romashov pulled out his pocket-handkerchief to remove the mist from his eyeglass he heard Alexandra Petrovna’s musical voice from the drawing-room.
“Stepan, have they brought the orders of the day yet?”
“She said that with an object,” thought Romashov to himself. “She knows well enough that I’m in the habit of coming about this time.”
“No, it is I, Alexandra Petrovna,” he answered aloud, but in an uncertain voice, through the open drawing-room door.
“Oh, it’s you, Romashov. Well, come in, come in. What are you doing at the side entrance? Volodya, Romashov is here.”
Romashov stepped in, made an awkward bow, and began, so as to hide his embarrassment, to wipe his hands with his handkerchief.
“I am afraid I bore you, Alexandra Petrovna.”
He tried to say this in an easy and jocose tone, but the words came out awkwardly, and as it seemed to him, with a forced ring about them.
“What nonsense you talk!” exclaimed Alexandra Petrovna. “Sit down, please, and let us have some tea.”
Looking him straight in the face with her clear, piercing eyes, she squeezed as usual his cold fingers with her little soft, warm hand.
Nikoläiev sat with his back to them at the table that was almost hidden by piles of books, drawings, and maps. Before the year was out he had to make another attempt to get admitted to the Staff College, and for many months he had been preparing with unremitting industry for this stiff examination in which he had already twice failed. Staring hard at the open book before him, he stretched his arm over his shoulder to Romashov without turning round, and said, in a calm, husky voice—
“How do you do, Yuri Alexievich? Is there any news? Shurochka, give him some tea. Excuse me, but I am, as you see, hard at work.”
“What a fool I am!” cried poor Romashov to himself. “What business had I here?” Then he added out loud: “Bad news. There are ugly reports circulating at mess with regard to Lieutenant-Colonel Liech. He is said to have been as tight as a drum. The resentment in the regiment is widespread, and a very searching inquiry is demanded. Epifanov has been arrested.”
“Oh!” remarked Nikoläiev in an absent tone. “But excuse my interruption. You don’t say so!”
“I, too, have been rewarded with four days. But that is stale news.”
Romashov thought at that moment that his voice sounded peculiar and unnatural, as if he were being throttled. “What a wretched creature I am in their eyes!” thought he, but in the next moment consoled himself by the help of that forced special pleading to which weak and timid persons usually have recourse in similar predicaments. “Such you always are; something goes wrong; you feel confused, embarrassed, and at once you fondly imagine that others notice it, though only you yourself can be clearly conscious of it,” etc., etc.
He sat down on a chair near Shurochka, whose quick crochet needle was in full swing again. She never sat idle, and all the table-covers, lamp-shades, and lace curtains were the product of her busy fingers. Romashov cautiously took up the long crochet threads hanging from the ball, and said—
“What do you call this sort of work?”
“Guipure. This is the tenth time you have asked me that.”
Shurochka glanced quickly at him, and then let her eyes fall on her work; but before long she looked up again and laughed.
“Now then, now then, Yuri Alexievich, don’t sit there pouting. ‘Straighten your back!’ and ‘Head up!’ Isn’t that how you give your commands?”
But Romashov only sighed and looked out of the corner of his eye at Nikoläiev’s brawny neck, the whiteness of which was thrown into strong relief by the grey collar of his old coat.
“By Jove! Vladimir Yefimovich is a lucky dog. Next summer he’s going to St. Petersburg, and will rise to the heights of the Academy.”
“Oh, that remains to be seen,” remarked Shurochka, somewhat tartly, looking in her husband’s direction. “He has twice been plucked at his examination, and with rather poor credit to himself has had to return to his regiment. This will be his last chance.”
Nikoläiev turned round suddenly; his handsome, soldierly, moustached face flushed deeply, and his big dark eyes glittered with rage.
“Don’t talk rubbish, Shurochka. When I say I shall pass my examination, I shall pass it, and that’s enough about it.” He struck the side of his outstretched hand violently on the table. “You are always croaking. I said I should—”
“Yes, ‘I said I should,’” his wife repeated after him, whilst she struck her knee with her little brown hand. “But it would be far better if you could answer the following question: ‘What are the requisites for a good line of battle?’ Perhaps you don’t know” (she turned with a roguish glance towards Romashov) “that I am considerably better up in tactics than he. Well, Volodya—Staff-General that is to be—answer the question now.”
“Look here, Shurochka, stop it,” growled Nikoläiev in a bad temper. But suddenly he turned round again on his chair towards his wife, and in his wide-open, handsome, but rather stupid eyes might be read an amusing helplessness, nay, even a certain terror.
“Wait a bit, my little woman, and I will try to remember. ‘Good fighting order’? A good fighting order must be arranged so that one does not expose oneself too much to the enemy’s fire; that one can easily issue orders, that—that—wait a minute.”
“That waiting will be costly work for you in the future, I think,” said Shurochka, interrupting him, in a serious tone. Then, with head down and her body rocking, she began, like a regular schoolgirl, to rattle off the following lesson without stumbling over a single word—
“‘The requisites of “good fighting order” are simplicity, mobility, flexibility, and the ability to accommodate itself to the ground. It ought to be easy to be inspected and led. It must, as far as possible, be out of reach of the enemy’s fire, easy to pass from one formation to another, and able to be quickly changed from fighting to marching order.’ Done!”
She opened her eyes, took a deep breath, and, as she turned her lively, smiling countenance to Romashov, said—
“Was that all right?”
“What a memory!” exclaimed Nikoläiev enviously, as he once more plunged into his books.
“We study together like two comrades,” explained Shurochka. “I could pass this examination at any time. The main thing”—she made an energetic motion in the air with her crochet needle—“the main thing is to work systematically or according to a fixed plan. Our system is entirely my own invention, and I say so with pride. Every day we go through a certain amount of mathematics and the science of war—I may remark, by the way, that artillery is not my forte; the formulæ of projectiles are to me specially distasteful—besides a bit out of the Drill and Army Regulations Book. Moreover, every other day we study languages, and on the days we do not study the latter we study history and geography.”
“And Russian too?” asked Romashov politely.
“Russian, do you say? Yes, that does not give us much trouble; we have already mastered Groth’s Orthography, and so far as the essays are concerned, year after year they are after the eternal stereotyped pattern: Para pacem, para bellum; characteristics of Onyägin and his epoch, etc., etc.”
Suddenly she became silent, and snatched by a quick movement the distracting crochet needle from Romashov’s fingers. She evidently wanted to monopolize the whole of his attention to what she now intended to say. After this she began to speak with passionate earnestness of what was at present the goal of all her thoughts and aims.
“Romochka, please, try to understand me. I cannot—cannot stand this any longer. To remain here is to deteriorate. To become a ‘lady of the regiment,’ to attend your rowdy soirées, to talk scandal and intrigue, to get into tempers every day, and wear out one’s nerves over the housekeeping, money and carriage bills, to serve in turn, according to precedency, on ladies’ committees and benevolent associations, to play whist, to—no, enough of this. You say that our home is comfortable and charming. But just examine this bourgeois happiness. These eternal embroideries and laces; these dreadful clothes which I have altered and modernized God knows how often; this vulgar, ‘loud’-coloured sofa rug composed of rags from every spot on earth—all this has been hateful and intolerable to me. Don’t you understand, my dear Romochka, that it is society—real society—that I want, with brilliant drawing-rooms, witty conversation, music, flirtation, homage. As you are well aware, our good Volodya is not one to set the Thames on fire, but he is a brave, honourable, and industrious fellow. If he can only gain admission to the Staff College I swear to procure him a brilliant career. I am a good linguist; I can hold my own in any society whatever; I possess—I don’t know how to express it—a certain flexibility of mind or spirit that helps me to hold my own, to adapt myself everywhere. Finally, Romochka, look at me, gaze at me carefully. Am I, as a human being, so uninteresting? Am I, as a woman, so devoid of all charms that I deserve to be doomed to stay and be soured in this hateful place, in this awful hole which has no place on the map?”
She suddenly covered her face with her handkerchief, and burst into tears of self-pity and wounded pride.
Nikoläiev sprang from his chair and hastened, troubled and distracted, to his wife; but Shurochka had already succeeded in regaining her self-control and took her handkerchief away from her face. There were no tears in her eyes now, but the glint of wrath and passion had not yet died out of them.
“It is all right, Volodya. Dear, it is nothing.” She pushed him nervously away. Immediately afterwards she turned with a little laugh to Romashov, and whilst she was again snatching the thread from him, she said to him coquettishly: “Answer me candidly, you clumsy thing, am I pretty or not? Remember, though, it is the height of impoliteness not to pay a woman the compliment she wants.”
“Shurochka, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!” exclaimed Nikoläiev reprovingly, from his seat at the writing-table.
Romashov smiled with a martyr’s air of resignation. Suddenly he replied, in a melancholy and quavering voice—
“You are very beautiful.”
Shurochka looked at him roguishly from her half-closed eyes, and a turbulent curl got loose and fell over her forehead.
“Romochka, how funny you are!” she twittered in a rather thin, girlish voice. The sub-lieutenant blushed and thought according to his wont—
“And his heart was cruelly lacerated.”
Nobody said a word. Shurochka went on diligently crocheting. Vladimir Yefimovich, who was bravely struggling with a German translation, now and then mumbled out some German words. One heard the flame softly sputtering and fizzing in the lamp, which displayed a great yellow silk shade in the form of a tent. Romochka had again managed to possess himself of the crochet-cotton, which, almost without thinking about it, he softly and caressingly drew through the young woman’s fingers, and it afforded him a delightful pleasure to feel how Shurochka unconsciously resisted his mischievous little pulls. It seemed to him as if mysterious, magnetic currents, now and again, rushed backwards and forwards through the delicate white threads.
Whilst he was steadily gazing at her bent head, he whispered to himself, without moving his lips, as if he were carrying on a tender and impassioned conversation—
“How boldly you said to me, ‘Am I pretty?’ Ah, you are most beautiful! Here I sit looking at you. What happiness! Now listen. I am going to tell you how you look—how lovely you are. But listen carefully. Thy face is as dark as the night, yet pale. It is a face full of passion. Thy lips are red and warm and good to kiss, and thine eyes surrounded by a light yellowish shadow. When thy glance is directed straight before thee, the white of thine eyes acquires a bluish shade, and amidst it all there beams on me a great dark blue mysteriously gleaming pupil. A brunette thou art not; but thou recallest something of the gipsy. But thy hair is silky and soft, and braided at the back in a knot so neat and simple that one finds a difficulty in refraining from stroking it. You little ethereal creature, I could lift you like a little child in my arms; but you are supple and strong, your bosom is as firm as a young girl’s, and in all thy being there is something quick, passionate, compelling. A good way down on your left ear sits a charming little birthmark that is like the hardly distinguishable scar after a ring has been removed. What charm——”
“Have you read in the newspapers about the duel between two officers?” asked Shurochka suddenly.
Romashov started as he awoke from his dreams, but he found it hard to remove his gaze from her.
“No, I’ve not read about it, but I have heard talk of it. What about it?”
“As usual, of course, you read nothing. Truly, Yuri Alexeitch, you are deteriorating. In my opinion the proceedings were ridiculous. I quite understand that duels between officers are as necessary as they are proper.”
Shurochka pressed her crochet to her bosom with a gesture of conviction.
“But why all this unnecessary and stupid cruelty? Just listen. A lieutenant had insulted another officer. The insult was gross, and the Court of Honour considered a duel necessary. Now, there would have been nothing to say about it, unless the conditions themselves of the duel had been so fixed that the latter resembled an ordinary execution: fifteen paces distance, and the fight to last till one of the duellists was hors de combat. This is only on a par with ordinary slaughter, is it not? But hear what followed. On the duelling-ground stood all the officers of the regiment, many of them with ladies; nay, they had even put a photographer behind the bushes! How disgusting! The unfortunate sub-lieutenant or ensign—as Volodya usually says—a man of your youthful age, moreover the party insulted, and not the one who offered the insult—received, after the third shot, a fearful wound in the stomach, and died some hours afterwards in great torture. By his deathbed stood his aged mother and sister, who kept house for him. Now tell me why a duel should be turned into such a disgusting spectacle. Of course the immediate consequence” (Shurochka almost shrieked these words) “was that all those sentimental opponents of duelling—eugh, how I despise these ‘liberal’ weaklings and poltroons!—at once began making a noise and fuss about ‘barbarism,’ ‘fratricide,’ how ‘duels are a disgrace to our times,’ and more nonsense of that sort.”
“Good God! I could never believe that you were so bloodthirsty, Alexandra Petrovna,” exclaimed Romashov, interrupting her.
“I am by no means bloodthirsty,” replied Shurochka, sharply. “On the contrary, I am very tender-hearted. If a beetle crawls on to my neck I remove it with the greatest caution so as not to inflict any hurt on it—but try and understand me, Romashov. This is my simple process of reasoning: ‘Why have we officers?’ Answer: ‘For the sake of war.’ ‘What are the most necessary qualities of an officer in time of war?’ Answer: ‘Courage and a contempt of death.’ ‘How are these qualities best acquired in time of peace?’ Answer: ‘By means of duels.’ How can that be proved? Duels are not required to be obligatory in the French Army, for a sense of honour is innate in the French officer; he knows what respect is due to himself and to others. Neither is duelling obligatory in the German Army, with its highly developed and inflexible discipline. But with us—us, as long as among our officers are to be found notorious card-sharpers such as, for instance, Artschakovski; or hopeless sots, as our own Nasanski, when, in the officers’ mess or on duty, violent scenes are of almost daily occurrence—then, such being the case, duels are both necessary and salutary. An officer must be a pattern of correctness; he is bound to weigh every word he utters. And, moreover, this delicate squeamishness, the fear of a shot! Your vocation is to risk your life—which is precisely the point.”
All at once she brought her long speech to a close, and with redoubled energy resumed her work.
“Shurochka, what is ‘rival’ in German?” asked Nikoläiev, lifting his head from the book.
“Rival?” Shurochka stuck her crochet-needle in her soft locks. “Read out the whole sentence.”
“It runs—wait—directly—directly—ah! it runs: ‘Our rival abroad.’”
“Unser ausländischer Nebenbuhler” translated Shurochka straight off.
“Unser,” repeated Romashov in a whisper as he gazed dreamily at the flame of the lamp. “When she is moved,” thought he, “her words come like a torrent of hail falling on a silver tray. Unser—what a funny word! Unser—unser—unser.”
“What are you mumbling to yourself about, Romashov?” asked Alexandra Petrovna severely. “Don’t dare to sit and build castles in the air whilst I am present.”
He smiled at her with a somewhat embarrassed air.
“I was not building castles in the air, but repeating to myself ‘Unser—unser.’ Isn’t it a funny word?”
“What rubbish you are talking! Unser. Why is it funny?”
“You see” (he made a slight pause as if he really intended to think about what he meant to say), “if one repeats the same word for long, and at the same time concentrates on it all his faculty of thought, the word itself suddenly loses all its meaning and becomes—how can I put it?”
“I know, I know!” she interrupted delightedly. “But it is not easy to do it now. When I was a child, now—how we used to love doing it!”
“Yes—yes—it belongs to childhood—yes.”
“How well I remember it! I remember the word ‘perhaps’ particularly struck me. I could sit for a long time with eyes shut, rocking my body to and fro, whilst I was repeatedly saying over and over again, ‘Perhaps, perhaps.’ And suddenly I quite forgot what the word itself meant. I tried to remember, but it was no use. I saw only a little round, reddish blotch with two tiny tails. Are you attending?” Romashov looked tenderly at her.
“How wonderful that we should think the same thoughts!” he exclaimed in a dreamy tone. “But let us return to our unser. Does not this word suggest the idea of something long, thin, lanky, and having a sting—a long, twisting insect, poisonous and repulsive?”
“Unser, did you say?” Shurochka lifted up her head, blinked her eyes, and stared obstinately at the darkest corner of the room. She was evidently striving to improve on Romashov’s fanciful ideas.
“No, wait. Unser is something green and sharp. Well, we’ll suppose it is an insect—a grasshopper, for instance—but big, disgusting, and poisonous. But how stupid we are, Romochka!”
“There’s another thing I do sometimes, only it was much easier when I was a child,” resumed Romashov in a mysterious tone. “I used to take a word and pronounce it slowly, extremely slowly. Every letter was drawn out and emphasized interminably. All of a sudden I was seized by a strangely inexpressible feeling: all—everything near me sank into an abyss, and I alone remained, marvelling that I lived, thought, and spoke.”
“I, too, have had a similar sensation,” interrupted Shurochka gaily, “yet not exactly the same. Sometimes I made violent efforts to hold my breath all the time I was thinking. ‘I am not breathing, and I won’t breathe again till, till’—then all at once I felt as if time was running past me. No, time no longer existed; it was as if—oh, I can’t explain!”
Romashov gazed into her enthusiastic eyes, and repeated in a low tone, thrilling with happiness—
“No, you can’t explain it. It is strange—inexplicable.”
Nikoläiev got up from the table where he had been working. His back ached, and his legs had gone dead from long sitting in the same uncomfortable position. The arteries of his strong, muscular body throbbed when, with arms raised high, he stretched himself to his full length.
“Look here, my learned psychologists, or whatever I should call you, it is supper-time.”
A cold collation had been laid in the comfortable little dining-room, where, suspended from the ceiling, a china lamp with frosted glass shed its clear light. Nikoläiev never touched spirits, but a little decanter of schnapps had been put on the table for Romashov. Shurochka, contorting her pretty face by a contemptuous grimace, said, in the careless tone she so often adopted—
“Of course, you can’t do without that poison?”
Romashov smiled guiltily, and in his confusion the schnapps went the wrong way, and set him coughing.
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” scolded his young hostess. “You can’t even drink it without choking over it. I can forgive it in your adored Nasanski, who is a notorious drunkard, but for you, a handsome, promising young man, not to be able to sit down to table without vodka, it is really melancholy. But that is Nasanski’s doing too!”
Her husband, who was glancing through the regimental orders that had just come in, suddenly called out—
“Just listen! ‘Lieutenant Nasanski has received a month’s leave from the regiment to attend to his private affairs.’ Tut, tut! What does that mean? He has been tippling again? You, Yuri Alexievich, are said, you know, to visit him. Is it a fact that he has begun to drink heavily?”
Romashov looked embarrassed and lowered his gaze.
“No, I have not observed it, but he certainly does drink a little now and again, you know.”
“Your Nasanski is offensive to me,” remarked Shurochka in a low voice, trembling with suppressed bitterness. “If it were in my power I would have a creature like that shot as if he were a mad dog. Such officers are a disgrace to their regiment.”
Almost directly after supper was over, Nikoläiev, who in eating had displayed no less energy than he had just done at his writing-table, began to gape, and at last said quite plainly—
“Do you know, I think I’ll just take a little nap. Or if one were to go straight off to the Land of Nod, as they used to express it in our good old novels——”
“A good idea, Vladimir Yefimovich,” said Romashov, interrupting him in, as he thought, a careless, dreamy tone, but as he rose from table he thought sadly, “They don’t stand on ceremony with me here. Why on earth do I come?”
It seemed to him that it afforded Nikoläiev a particular pleasure to turn him out of the house; but just as he was purposely saying good-bye to his host first, he was already dreaming of the delightful moment when, in taking leave of Shurochka, he would feel at the same time the strong yet caressing pressure of a beloved one’s hand. When this longed-for moment at length arrived he found himself in such a state of happiness that he did not hear Shurochka say to him—
“Don’t quite forget us. You know you are always welcome. Besides, it is far more healthy for you to spend your evenings with us than to sit drinking with that dreadful Nasanski. Also, don’t forget we stand on no ceremony with you.”
He heard her last words as it were in a dream, but he did not realize their meaning till he reached the street.
“Yes, that is true indeed; they don’t stand on ceremony with me,” whispered he to himself with the painful bitterness in which young and conceited persons of his age are so prone to indulge.
< < < Chapter III
Chapter V > > >
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
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