The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

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Chapter VI > > >

Chapter V

ROMASHOV was still standing on the doorstep. The night was rather warm, but very dark. He began to grope his way cautiously with his hand on the palings whilst waiting until his eyes got accustomed to the darkness. Suddenly the kitchendoor of Nikoläiev’s dwelling was thrown open, and a broad stream of misty yellow light escaped. Heavy steps sounded in the muddy street, the next moment Romashov heard Stepan’s, the Nikoläievs’ servant’s, angry voice—

“He comes here every blessed day, and the deuce knows what he comes for.”

Another soldier, whose voice Romashov did not recognize, answered indifferently with a lazy, long-drawn yawn—

“What business can it be of yours, my dear fellow? Good-night, Stepan.”

“Good-night to you, Baúlin; look in when you like.”

Romashov’s hands suddenly clung to the palings. An unendurable feeling of shame made him blush, in spite of the darkness. All his body broke out into a perspiration, and, in his back and the soles of his feet, he felt the sting of a thousand red-hot, pointed nails. “This chapter’s closed; even the soldiers laugh at me,” thought he with indescribable pain. Directly afterwards it flashed on his mind that that very evening, in many expressions used, in the tones of the replies, in glances exchanged between man and wife, he had seen a number of trifles that he had hitherto not noticed, but which he now thought testified only to contempt of him, and ridicule, impatience and indignation at the persistent visits of that insufferable guest.

“What a disgrace and scandal this is to me!” he whispered without stirring from the spot. “Things have reached such a pitch that it is as much as the Nikoläievs can do to endure my company.”

The lights in their drawing-room were now extinguished. “They are in their bedroom now,” thought Romashov, and at once he began fancying that Nikoläiev and Shurochka were then talking about him whilst making their toilet for the night with the indifference and absence of bashfulness at each other’s presence that is characteristic of married couples. The wife is sitting in her petticoat in front of the mirror, combing her hair. Vladimir Yefimovitch is sitting in his night-shirt at the edge of the bed, and saying in a sleepy but angry tone, whilst flushed with the exertion of taking off his boots: “Hark you, Shurochka, that infernal bore, your dear Romashov, will be the death of me with his insufferable visits. And I really can’t understand how you can tolerate him.” Then to this frank and candid speech Shurochka replies, without turning round, and with her mouth full of hairpins: “Be good enough to remember, sir, he is not my Romochka, but yours.”

Another five minutes elapsed before Romashov, still tortured by these bitter and painful thoughts, made up his mind to continue his journey. Along the whole extent of the palings belonging to the Nikoläievs’ house he walked with stealthy steps, cautiously and gently dragging his feet from the mire, as if he feared he might be discovered and arrested as a common vagrant. To go straight home was not to his liking at all. Nay, he dared not even think of his gloomy, low-pitched, cramped room with its single window and repulsive furniture. “By Jove! why shouldn’t I look up Nasanski, just to annoy her?” thought he all of a sudden, whereupon he experienced the delightful satisfaction of revenge.

“She reproached me for my friendship with Nasanski. Well, I shall just for that very reason pay him a visit.”

He raised eyes to heaven, and said to himself passionately, as he pressed his hands against his heart—

“I swear—I swear that to-day I have visited them for the last time. I will no longer endure this mortification.”

And immediately afterwards he added mentally, as was his ingrained habit—

“His expressive black eyes glistened with resolution and contempt.”

But Romashov’s eyes, unfortunately, were neither “black” nor “expressive,” but of a very common colour, slightly varying between yellow and green.

Nasanski tenanted a room in a comrade’s—Lieutenant Siégerscht’s—house. This Siégerscht was most certainly the oldest lieutenant in the whole Russian Army. Notwithstanding his unimpeachable conduct as an officer and the fact of his having served in the war with Turkey, through some unaccountable disposition of fate, his military career seemed closed, and every hope of further advancement was apparently lost. He was a widower, with four little children and forty-eight roubles a month, on which sum, strangely enough, he managed to get along. It was his practice to hire large flats which he afterwards, in turn, let out to his brother officers. He took in boarders, fattened and sold fowls and turkeys, and no one understood better than he how to purchase wood and other necessaries cheap and at the right time. He bathed his children himself in a common trough, prescribed for them from his little medicine-chest when they were ill, and, with his sewing-machine, made them tiny shirts, under-vests, and drawers. Like many other officers, Siégerscht had, in his bachelor days, interested himself in woman’s work, and acquired a readiness with his needle that proved very useful in hard times. Malicious tongues went so far as to assert that he secretly and stealthily sold his handiwork.

Notwithstanding all his economy and closeness, his life was full of troubles. Epidemic diseases ravaged his fowl-house, his numerous rooms stood unlet for long periods; his boarders grumbled at their bad food and refused to pay. The consequence of this was that, three or four times a year, Siégerscht—tall, thin, and unshaven, with cheerless countenance and a forehead dripping with cold sweat—might be seen on his way to the town to borrow some small sum. And all recognized the low, regimental cap that resembled a pancake, always with its peak askew, as well as the antiquated cloak, modelled on those worn in the time of the Emperor Nicholas, which waved in the breeze like a couple of huge wings.

A light was burning in Siégerscht’s flat, and as Romashov approached the window, he saw him sitting by a round table under a hanging-lamp. The bald head, with its gentle, worn features, was bent low over a little piece of red cloth which was probably destined to form an integral part of a Little Russian roubashka.[6] Romashov went up and tapped at the window. Siégerscht started up, laid aside his work, rose from the table, and went up to the window.

“It is I, Adam Ivanich—open the window a moment.”

Siégerscht opened a little pane and looked out.

“Well, it’s you, Sub-Lieutenant Romashov. What’s up?”

“Is Nasanski at home?”

“Of course he’s at home—where else should he be? Ah! your friend Nasanski cheats me nicely, I can tell you. For two months I have kept him in food, but, as for his paying for it, as yet I’ve only had grand promises. When he moved here, I asked him most particularly that, to avoid unpleasantness and misunderstandings, he should——”

“Yes, yes, we know all about that,” interrupted Romashov; “but tell me now how he is. Will he see me?”

“Yes, certainly, that he will; he does nothing but walk up and down his room.” Siégerscht stopped and listened for a second. “You yourself can hear him tramping about. You see, I said to him, ‘To prevent unpleasantness and misunderstandings, it will be best for——’”

“Excuse me, Adam Ivanich; but we’ll talk of that another time. I’m in a bit of a hurry,” said Romashov, interrupting him for the second time, and meanwhile continuing his way round the corner. A light was burning in one of Nasanski’s windows; the other was wide open. Nasanski himself was walking, in his shirt sleeves and without a collar, backwards and forwards with rapid steps. Romashov crept nearer the wall and called him by name.

“Who’s there?” asked Nasanski in a careless tone, leaning out of the window. “Oh, it’s you, Georgie Alexievich. Come in through the window. It’s a long and dark way round through that door. Hold out your hand and I’ll help you.”

Nasanski’s dwelling was if possible more wretched that Romashov’s. Along the wall by the window stood a low, narrow, uncomfortable bed, the bulging, broken bottom of which was covered by a coarse cotton coverlet; on the other wall one saw a plain unpainted table with two common chairs without backs. High up in one corner of the room was a little cupboard fixed to the wall. A brown leather trunk, plastered all over with address labels and railway numbers, lay in state. There was not a single thing in the room except these articles and the lamp.

“Good-evening, my friend,” said Nasanski, with a hearty hand-shake and a warm glance from his beautiful, deep blue eyes. “Please sit down on this bed. As you’ve already heard, I have handed in my sick-report.”

“Yes, I heard it just now from Nikoläiev.”

Again Romashov called to mind Stepan’s insulting remark, the painful memory of which was reflected in his face.

“Oh, you come from the Nikoläievs,” cried Nasanski and with visible interest. “Do you often visit them?”

The unusual tone of the question made Romashov uneasy and suspicious, and he instinctively uttered a falsehood. He answered carelessly—

“No, certainly not often. I just happened to look them up.”

Nasanski, who had been walking up and down the room during the conversation, now stopped before the little cupboard, the door of which he opened. On one of its shelves stood a bottle of vodka, and beside it lay an apple cut up into thin, even slices. Standing with his back to his guest, Nasanski poured out for himself a glass, and quickly drained it. Romashov noticed how Nasanski’s back, under its thin linen shirt, quivered convulsively.

“Would you like anything?” asked Nasanski, with a gesture towards the cupboard. “My larder is, as you see, poor enough; but if you are hungry one can always try and procure an omelette. Anyhow, that’s more than our father Adam had to offer.”

“Thanks, not now. Perhaps later on.”

Nasanski stuck his hands in his pockets, and walked about the room. After pacing up and down twice he began talking as though resuming an interrupted conversation.

“Yes, I am always walking up and down and thinking. But I am quite happy. To-morrow, of course, they will say as usual in the regiment, ‘He’s a drunkard.’ And that is true in a sense, but it is not the whole truth. All the same, at this moment, I’m happy; I feel neither pain nor ailments. It is different, alas! in ordinary circumstances. My mind and will-power are paralysed; I shall again become a cowardly and despicably mean creature, vain, shabby, hypocritical—a curse to myself and every one else. I loathe my profession, but, nevertheless, I remain in it. And why? Ah! the devil himself could not explain that. Because I had it knocked into me in my childhood, and have lived since in a set where it is held that the most important thing in life is to serve the State, to be free from anxiety as to one’s clothes and daily bread. And philosophy, people say, is mere rubbish, good enough for one who has nothing else to do or who has come into a goodly heritage from his dear mamma.

“Thus I, too, occupy myself with things in which I don’t take the slightest interest, or issue orders that seem to me both harsh and unmeaning. My daily life is as monotonous and cheerless as an old deal board, as rough and hard as a soldier’s regulation cap. I dare scarcely think of, far less talk of, love, beauty, my place in the scheme of creation, of freedom and happiness, of poetry and God. They would only laugh ha! ha! ha! at me, and say: ‘Oh, damn it! That, you know, is philosophy. It is not only ridiculous but even dangerous for an officer to show he holds any high views,’ and at best the officer escapes with being dubbed a harmless, hopeless ass.”

“And yet it is this that alone gives life any value,” sighed Romashov.

“And now the happy hour is drawing nigh about which they tattle so heartlessly and with so much contempt,” Nasanski went on to say without listening to Romashov’s words. He walked incessantly backwards and forwards, and interpolated his speech, every now and then, with striking gestures, which were not, however, addressed to Romashov, but were always directed to the two corners of the room which he visited in turn. “Now comes my turn of freedom, Romashov—freedom for soul, thought, and will. Then I shall certainly live a peculiar, but nevertheless rich, inner life. All that I have seen, heard, and read will then gain a deeper meaning, will appear in a clear and more distinct light, and receive a deep, infinite significance. My memory will then be like a museum of rare curiosities. I shall be a very Rothschild. I take the first object within my reach, gaze at it long, closely, and with rapture. Persons, events, characters, books, women, love—nay, first and last, women and love—all this is interwoven in my imagination. Now and then I think of the heroes and geniuses of history, of the countless martyrs of religion and science. I don’t believe in God, Romashov, but sometimes I think of the saints and martyrs and call to mind the Holy Scriptures and canticles.”

Romashov got up quietly from his seat at the edge of the bed and walked away to the open window, and then he sat down with his back resting against the sill. From that spot, from the lighted room, the night seemed to him still darker and more fraught with mystery. Tepid breezes whispered just beneath the window, amongst the dark foliage of the shrubs. And in this mild air, charged with the sharp, aromatic perfume of spring, under those gleaming stars, in this dead silence of the universe, one might fancy he felt the hot breath of reviving, generating, voluptuous Nature.

Nasanski continued all along his eternal wandering, and indulged in building castles in the air, without looking at Romashov, as if he were talking to the walls.

“In these moments my thoughts—seething, motley, original—chase one another. My senses acquire an unnatural acuteness; my imagination becomes an overwhelming flood. Persons and things, living or dead, which are evoked by me stand before me in high relief and also in an extraordinarily intense light, as if I saw them in a camera obscura. I know, I know now, that all that is merely a super-excitation of the senses, an emanation of the soul flaming up like lightning, but in the next instant flickering out, being produced by the physiological influence of alcohol on the nervous system. In the beginning I thought such psychic phenomena implied an elevation of my inner, spiritual Ego, and that even I might have moments of inspiration. But no; there was nothing permanent or of any value in this, nothing creative or fructifying. Altogether it was only a morbid, physiological process, a river wave that at every ebb that occurs sucks away with it and destroys the beach. Yes, this, alas! is a fact. But it is also equally indisputable that these wild imaginings procured me moments of ineffable happiness. And besides, let the devil keep for his share your much-vaunted high morality, your hypocrisy, and your insufferable rules of health. I don’t want to become one of your pillar-saints nor do I wish to live a hundred years so as to figure as a physiological miracle in the advertisement columns of the newspapers. I am happy, and that suffices.”

Nasanski again went up to the little cupboard, poured out and swallowed a “nip,” after which he shut the cupboard door with much ceremony and an expression on his face as if he had fulfilled a religious duty. Romashov walked listlessly up from the window to the cupboard, the life-giving contents of which he sampled with a gloomy and blasé air. This done, he returned to his seat on the window-bench.

“What were you thinking about just before I came, Vasili Nilich?” asked Romashov, as he made himself as comfortable as possible.

Nasanski, however, did not hear his question. “How sweet it is to dream of women!” he exclaimed with a grand and eloquent gesture. “But away with all unclean thoughts! And why? Ah! because no one has any right, even in imagination, to make a human being a culprit in what is low, sinful, and impure. How often I think of chaste, tender, loving women, of their bright tears and gracious smiles; of young, devoted, self-sacrificing mothers, of all those who have faced death for love; of proud, bewitching maidens with souls as pure as snow, knowing all, yet afraid of nothing. But such women do not exist—yet I am wrong, Romashov; such women do exist although neither you nor I have seen them. This may possibly be vouchsafed you; but to me—never!”

He was now standing right in front of Romashov and staring him straight in the face, but by the far-off expression in his eyes, by the enigmatical smile that played on his lips, any one could observe that he did not even see to whom he was talking. Never had Nasanski’s countenance—even in his better and sober moments—seemed to Romashov so attractive and interesting as at this instant. His golden hair fell in luxuriant curls around his pure and lofty brow; his blond, closely clipped beard was curled in light waves, and his strong, handsome head on his bare, classically shaped neck reminded one of the sages and heroes of Greece, whose busts Romashov had seen in engravings and at museums. Nasanski’s bright, clever blue eyes glistened with moisture, and his well-formed features were rendered still more engaging by the fresh colour of his complexion, although a keen eye could not, I daresay, avoid noticing a certain flabbiness—the infallible mark of every person addicted to drink.

“Love—what an abyss of mystery is contained in the word, and what bliss lies hidden in its tortures!” Nasanski went on to say in an enraptured voice. In his violent excitement he caught hold of his hair with both hands, and took two hasty strides towards the other end of the room, but suddenly stopped, and turned round sharply to Romashov with a merry laugh. The latter observed him with great interest, but likewise not without a certain uneasiness.

“Just this moment I remember an amusing story” (Nasanski now dropped into his usual good-tempered tone), “but, ugh! how my wits go wool-gathering—now here, now there. Once upon a time I sat waiting for the train at Ryasan, and wait I did—I suppose half a day, for it was right in the middle of the spring floods, and the train had met with real obstacles. Well, you must know, I built myself a little nest in the waiting-room. Behind the counter stood a girl of eighteen—not pretty, being pockmarked, but brisk and pleasant. She had black eyes and a charming smile. In fact, she was a very nice girl. We were three, all told, at the station: she, I, and a little telegraphist with white eyebrows and eyelashes. Ah! excuse me, there was another person there—the girl’s father, a fat, red-faced, grey-haired brute, who put me in mind of a rough old mastiff. But this attractive figure kept itself, as a rule, behind the scenes. Only rarely and for a few minutes did he put in an appearance behind the counter, to yawn, scratch himself under his waistcoat, and immediately afterwards disappear for a longish time. He spent his life in bed, and his eyes were glued together by eternally sleeping. The little telegraphist paid frequent and regular visits to the waiting-room, laid his elbows on the counter, but was, for the most part, as mute as the grave. She, too, was silent and looked dreamily out of the window at the floods. All of a sudden our youngster began humming—

What is love?
Something celestial
That drives us wild.’

“After this, again silence. A pause of five minutes, she begins, in her turn—

What is love?’ etc.

“Both the sentimental words as well as the melody were taken from some musty old operetta that had perhaps been performed in the town, and had become a pleasant recollection to both the young people. Then again the same wistful song and significant silence. At last she steals softly a couple of paces to the window, all the while keeping one hand on the counter. Our Celadon quietly lays hold of the delicate fingers, one by one, and with visible trepidation gazes at them in profound devotion. And again the motif of that hackneyed operetta is heard from his lips. It was spring with all its yearning. Then all this cloying ‘love’ only awoke in me nausea and disgust, but, since then, I have often thought with deep emotion of the vast amount of happiness this innocent love-making could bestow, and how it was most certainly the only ray of light in the dreary lives of these two human beings—lives, very likely, even more empty and barren than my own. But, I beg your pardon, Romashov; why should I bore you with my silly, long-winded stories?”

Nasanski again betook himself to the little cupboard, but he did not fetch out the schnapps bottle, but stood motionless with his back turned to Romashov. He scratched his forehead, pressed his right hand lightly to his temple, and maintained this position for a considerable while, evidently a prey to conflicting thoughts.

“You were speaking of women, love, abysses, mystery, and joy,” remarked Romashov, by way of reminder.

“Yes, love,” cried Nasanski in a jubilant voice. He now took out the bottle, poured some of its contents out, and drained the glass quickly, as he turned round with a fierce glance, and wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve. “Love! who do you suppose understands the infinite meaning of this holy word? And yet—from it men have derived subjects for filthy, rubbishy operettas; for lewd pictures and statues, shameless stories and disgusting ‘rhymes.’ That is what we officers do. Yesterday I had a visit from Ditz. He sat where you are sitting now. He toyed with his gold pince-nez and talked about women. Romashov, my friend, I tell you that if an animal, a dog, for instance, possessed the faculty of understanding human speech, and had happened to hear what Ditz said yesterday, it would have fled from the room ashamed. Ditz, as you know, Romashov, is a ‘good fellow,’ and even the others are ‘good,’ for really bad people do not exist; but for fear of forfeiting his reputation as a cynic, ‘man about town,’ and ‘lady-killer,’ he dares not express himself about women otherwise than he does. Amongst our young men there is a universal confusion of ideas that often finds expression in bragging contempt, and the cause of this is that the great majority seek in the possession of women only coarse, sensual, brutish enjoyment, and that is the reason why love becomes to them only something contemptible, wanton—well, I don’t know, damn it! how to express exactly what I mean—and, when the animal instincts are satisfied, coldness, disgust, and enmity are the natural result. The man of culture has said good-night to love, just as he has done to robbery and murder, and seems to regard it only as a sort of snare set by Nature for the destruction of humanity.”

“That is the truth about it,” agreed Romashov quietly and sadly.

“No, that is not true!” shouted Nasanski in a voice of thunder. “Yes, I say it once more—it is a lie. In this, as in everything else, Nature has revealed her wisdom and ingenuity. The fact is merely that whereas Lieutenant Ditz finds in love only brutal enjoyment, disgust, and surfeit, Dante finds in it beauty, felicity, and harmony. True love is the heritage of the elect, and to understand this let us take another simile. All mankind has an ear for music, but, in the case of millions, this is developed about as much as in stock-fish or Staff-Captain Vasilichenko. Only one individual in all these millions is a Beethoven. And the same is the case in everything—in art, science, poetry. And so far as love is concerned, I tell you that even this has its peaks which only one out of millions is able to climb.”

He walked to the window, and leaned his forehead against the sill where Romashov sat gazing out on the warm, dark, spring night. At last he said in a voice low, but vibrating with strong inward excitement—

“Oh, if we could see and grasp Love’s innermost being, its supernatural beauty and charm—we gross, blind earth-worms! How many know and feel what happiness, what delightful tortures exist in an undying, hopeless love? I remember, when I was a youth, how all my yearning took form and shape in this single dream: to fall in love with an ideally beautiful and noble woman far beyond my reach, and standing so high above me that every thought of possessing her I might harbour was mad and criminal; to consecrate to her all my life, all my thoughts, without her even suspecting it, and to carry my delightful, torturing secret with me to the grave; to be her slave, her lackey, her protector, or to employ a thousand arts just to see her once a year, to come close to her, and—oh, maddening rapture!—to touch the hem of her garment or kiss the ground on which she had walked——”

“And to wind up in a mad-house,” exclaimed Romashov in a gloomy tone.

“Oh, my dear fellow, what does that matter?” cried Nasanski passionately. “Perhaps—who knows?—one might then attain to that state of bliss one reads of in stories. Which is best—to lose your wits through a love which can never be realized, or, like Ditz, to go stark mad from shameful, incurable diseases or slow paralysis? Just think what felicity—to stand all night in front of her window on the other side of the street. Look, there’s a shadow visible behind the drawn curtain—can it be she? What’s she doing? What’s she thinking of? The light is lowered—sleep, my beloved, sleep in peace, for Love is keeping vigil. Days, months, years pass away; the moment at last arrives when Chance, perhaps, bestows on you her glove, handkerchief, the concert programme she has thrown away. She is not acquainted with you, does not even know that you exist. Her glance passes over you without seeing you; but there you stand with the same unchangeable, idolatrous adoration, ready to sacrifice yourself for her—nay, even for her slightest whim, for her husband, lover, her pet dog, to sacrifice life, honour, and all that you hold dear. Romashov, a bliss such as this can never fall to the lot of our Don Juans and lady-killers.”

“Ah, how true this is! how splendidly you speak!” cried Romashov, carried away by Nasanski’s passionate words and gestures. Long before this he had got up from the window, and now he was walking, like his eccentric host, up and down the long, narrow room, pacing the floor with long, quick strides. “Listen, Nasanski. I will tell you something—about myself. Once upon a time I fell in love with a woman—oh, not here; no, in Moscow. I was then a mere stripling. Ah, well, she had no inkling of it, and it was enough for me to be allowed to sit near her when she sewed, and to draw quietly and imperceptibly, the threads towards me. That was all, and she noticed nothing; but it was enough to turn my head with joy.”

“Ah, yes, how well I understand this!” replied Nasanski with a friendly smile, nodding his head all the time. “A delicate white thread charged with electrical currents. What a store of poetry is enshrined in that! My dear fellow, life is so beautiful!”

Nasanski, absorbed in profound reverie, grew silent, and his blue eyes were bright with tears. Romashov also felt touched, and there was something nervous, hysterical, and spontaneous about this melancholy of his, but these expressions of pity were not only for Nasanski, but himself.

“Vasili Nilich, I admire you,” cried he as he grasped and warmly pressed both Nasanski’s hands. “But how can so gifted, far-sighted, and wide-awake a man as you rush, with his eyes open, to his own destruction? But I am the last person on earth who ought to read you a lesson on morals. Only one more question: supposing in the course of your life you happened to meet a woman worthy of you, and capable of appreciating you, would you then——? I’ve thought of this so often.”

Nasanski stopped and stared for a long time through the open window.

“A woman——” he uttered the word slowly and dreamily. “I’ll tell you a story,” he continued suddenly and in an energetic tone. “Once in my life I met an exceptional—ah! wonderful—woman, a young girl, but as Heine somewhere says: ‘She was worthy of being loved, and he loved her; but he was not worthy, and she did not love him.’ Her love waned because I drank, or perhaps it was I drank because she did not love me. She—by the way, it was not here that this happened. It was a long time ago, and you possibly know that I first served in the infantry for three years, after that for four years with the reserves, and for a second time, three years ago, I came here. Well, to continue, between her and me there was no romance whatever. We met and had five or six chats together—that was all. But have you ever thought what an irresistible, bewitching might there is in the past, in our recollections? The memory of these few insignificant episodes of my life constitutes the whole of my wealth. I love her even to this very day. Wait, Romashov, you deserve to hear it—I will read out to you the first and only letter I ever received from her.” He crouched down before the old trunk, opened it, and began rummaging impatiently among a mass of old papers, during which he kept on talking. “I know she never loved any one but herself. There was a depth of pride, imperiousness, even cruelty about her, yet, at the same time, she was so good, so genuinely womanly, so infinitely pleasant and lovable. She had two natures—the one egoistical and calculating, the other all heart and passionate tenderness. See here, I have it. Read it now, Romashov. The beginning will not interest you much” (Nasanski turned over a few lines of the letter), “but read from here; read it all.”

Romashov felt as if some one had struck him a stunning blow on the head, and the whole room seemed to dance before his eyes, for the letter was written in a large but nervous and compressed hand, that could only belong to Alexandra Petrovna—quaint, irregular, but by no means unsympathetic. Romashov, who had often received cards from her with invitations to small dinners and card parties, recognized this hand at once.

“It is a bitter and hard task for me to write this,” read Romashov under Nasanski’s hand; “but only you yourself are to blame for our acquaintance coming to this tragic end. Lying I abominate more than anything else in life. It always springs from cowardice and weakness, and this is the reason why I shall also tell you the whole truth. I loved you up to now; yes, I love you even now, and I know it will prove very hard for me to master this feeling. But I also know that, in the end, I shall gain the victory. What do you suppose our lot would be if I acted otherwise? I confess I lack the energy and self-denial requisite for becoming the housekeeper, nurse-girl, or sister of mercy to a weakling with no will of his own. I loathe above everything self-sacrifice and pity for others, and I shall let neither you nor any one else excite these feelings in me. I will not have a husband who would only be a dog at my feet, incessantly craving alms or proofs of affection. And you would never be anything else, in spite of your extraordinary talents and noble qualities. Tell me now, with your hand upon your heart, if you are capable of it. Alas! my dear Vasili Nilich, if you could. All my heart, all my life yearns for you. I love you. What is the obstacle, then? No one but yourself. For a person one loves, one can, you know, sacrifice the whole world, and now I ask of you only this one thing; but can you? No, you cannot, and now I bid you good-bye for ever. In thought I kiss you on your forehead as one kisses a corpse, and you are dead to me—for ever. I advise you to destroy this letter, not that I blush for or fear its contents, but because I think it will be a source to you of tormenting recollections. I repeat once more——”

“The rest is of little interest to you,” said Nasanski abruptly, as he took the letter from Romashov’s hand. “This, as I have just told you, was her only letter to me.”

“What happened afterwards?” stammered Romashov awkwardly.

“Afterwards? We never saw one another afterwards. She went her way and is reported to have married an engineer. That, however, is another matter.”

“And you never visit Alexandra Petrovna?”

Romashov uttered these words in a whisper, but both officers started at the sound of them, and gazed at each other a long time without speaking. During these few seconds all the barriers raised by human guile and hypocrisy fell away, and the two men read each other’s soul as an open book. Hundreds of things that had hitherto been for them a profound secret stood before them that moment in dazzling light, and the whole of the conversation that evening suddenly took a peculiar, deep, nay, almost tragic, significance.

“What? you too?” exclaimed Nasanski at last, with an expression bordering on fear in his eyes, but he quickly regained his composure and exclaimed with a laugh, “Ugh! what a misunderstanding! We were discussing something quite different. That letter which you have just read was written hundreds of years ago, and the woman in question lived in Transcaucasia. But where was it we left off?”

“It is late, Vasili Nilich, and time to say good-night,” replied Romashov, rising.

Nasanski did not try to keep him. They separated neither in a cold or unfriendly way, but they were, as it seemed, ashamed of each other. Romashov was now more convinced than ever that the letter was from Shurochka. During the whole of his way home he thought of nothing except this letter, but he could not make out what feelings it aroused in him. They were a mingling of jealousy of Nasanski—jealousy on account of what had been—but also a certain exultant pity for Nasanski, and in himself there awoke new hopes, dim and indefinite, but delicious and alluring. It was as if this letter had put into his hand a mysterious, invisible clue that was leading him into the future.

The breeze had subsided. The tepid night’s intense darkness and silence reminded one of soft, warm velvet. One felt, as it were, life’s mystic creative force in the never-slumbering air, in the dumb stillness of the invisible trees, in the smell of the earth. Romashov walked without seeing which way he went, and it seemed to him as if he felt the hot breath of something strong and powerful, but, at the same time, sweet and caressing. His thoughts went back with dull, harrowing pain to bygone happy springs that would never more return—to the blissful, innocent days of his childhood.

When he reached home he found on the table another letter from Raisa Alexandrovna Peterson. In her usual bad taste she complained, in turgid, extravagant terms, of his “deceitful conduct” towards her. She “now understood everything,” and the “injured woman” within her invoked on him all the perils of hatred and revenge.

Now I know what I have to do (the letter ran). If I survive the sorrow and pain of your abominable conduct, you may be quite certain I shall cruelly avenge this insult. You seem to think that nobody knows where you are in the habit of spending your evenings. You are watched! and even walls have ears. Every step you take is known to me. But all the same, you will never get anything there with all your soft, pretty speeches, unless N. flings you downstairs like a puppy. So far as I am concerned, you will be wise not to lull yourself into fancied security. I am not one of those women who let themselves be insulted with impunity.

A Caucasian woman am I
Who knows how to handle a knife.

—Once yours, now nobody’s,


PS.—I command you to meet me at the soirée on Saturday and explain your conduct. The third quadrille will be kept for you; but mind, there is no special importance now in that.

R. P.

To Romashov this ill-spelled, ungrammatical letter was a breath of the stupidity, meanness, and spiteful tittle-tattle of a provincial town. He felt for ever soiled from head to foot by this disgusting liaison, scarcely of six months’ standing, with a woman he had never loved. He threw himself on his bed with an indescribable feeling of depression. He even felt as if he were torn to tatters by the events of the day, and he involuntarily called to mind Nasanski’s words that very night: “his thoughts were as grey as a soldier’s cloak.”

He soon fell into a deep, heavy sleep. As he had always done of late, when he had had bitter moments, he saw himself, even now in his dreams, as a little child. There were no impure impulses in him, no sense of something lacking, no weariness of life; his body was light and healthy, and his soul was luminous and full of joy and hope; and in this world of radiance and happiness he saw dear old Moscow’s streets in the dazzling brightness that is presented to the eyes in dreamland. But far away by the horizon, at the very verge of this sky that was saturated with light, there arose quickly and threateningly a dark, ill-boding wall of cloud, behind which was hidden a horrible provincial hole of a place with cruel and unbearable slavery, drills, recruit schools, drinking, false friends, and utterly corrupt women. His life was nothing but joy and gladness, but the dark cloud was waiting patiently for the moment when it was to fold him in its deadly embrace. And it so happened that little Romashov, amidst his childish babble and innocent dreams, bewailed in silence the fate of his “double.”

He awoke in the middle of the night, and noticed that his pillow was wet with tears. Then he wept afresh, and the warm tears again ran down his cheeks in rapid streams.

< < < Chapter IV
Chapter VI > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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