The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

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Chapter VII > > >

Chapter VI

WITH the exception of a few ambitious men bent on making a career for themselves, all the officers regarded the service as an intolerable slavery to which they must needs submit. The younger of them behaved like veritable schoolboys; they came late to the drills, and wriggled away from them as soon as possible, provided that could be done without risk of serious consequences to themselves afterwards. The captains, who, as a rule, were burdened with large families, were immersed in household cares, scandals, money troubles, and were worried the whole year through with loans, promissory notes, and other methods of raising the wind. Many ventured—often at the instigation of their wives—secretly to divert to their own purposes the moneys belonging to the regiment and the soldiers’ pay—nay, they even went so far as “officially” to withhold their men’s private letters when the latter were found to contain money. Some lived by gambling—vint, schtoss, lansquenet—and certain rather ugly stories were told in connection with this—stories which high authorities had a good deal of trouble to suppress. In addition to all this, heavy drinking, both at mess and in their own homes, was widespread amongst the officers.

With regard to the officers’ sense of duty, that, too, was, as a rule, altogether lacking. The non-commissioned officers did all the work; the pay-sergeants set in motion and regulated the inner mechanism of the company, and were held responsible for the despatch of it; hence very soon, and quite imperceptibly, the commander became a mere marionette in the coarse, experienced hands of his subordinates. The senior officers, moreover, regarded the exercises of the troops with the same aversion as did their junior comrades, and if at any time they displayed their zeal by punishing an ensign, they only did it to gain prestige or—which was more seldom the case—to satisfy their lust of power or desire for revenge.

Captains of brigades and battalions had, as a rule, absolutely nothing to do in the winter. During the summer it was their duty to inspect the exercises of the battalion, to assist at those of the regiment and division, and to undergo the hardships of the field-manœuvres. During their long freedom from duty they used to sit continually in their mess-room, eagerly studying the Russki Invalid,[7] and savagely criticizing all new appointments; but cards were, however, their alpha and omega, and they most readily permitted their juniors to be their hosts, though they but very rarely exercised a cautious hospitality in their own homes, and then only with the object of getting their numerous daughters married.

But when the time for the great review approached, it was quite another tune. All, from the highest to the lowest, were seized by a sort of madness. There was no talk of peace and quiet then; every one tried, by additional hours of drill and an almost maniacal activity, to make up for previous negligence. The soldiers were treated with the most heartless cruelty, and overtaxed to the last degree of sheer exhaustion. Every one was tyrant over some wretch; the company commanders, with endless curses, threatened their “incompetent” subalterns, and the latter, in turn, poured the vials of their wrath over the “non-coms.,” and the “non-coms.,” hoarse with shouting orders, oaths, and the most frightful insults, struck and misused the soldiers in the most ferocious manner. The whole camp and parade-ground were changed into a hell, and Sundays, with their indispensable rest and peace, loomed like a heavenly paradise in the eyes of the poor tortured recruits.

This spring the regiment was preparing for the great May parade. It was at this time common knowledge that the review was to take place before the commander of the corps—a strict old veteran, known throughout military literature by his works on the Carlist War and the Franco-German Campaign of 1870, in which he took part as a volunteer. Besides, he was known throughout the kingdom for his eccentric general orders and manifestoes that were invariably couched in a lapidary style à la Savóroff. The reckless, sharp, and coarse sarcasm he always infused into his criticism was feared by the officers more than even the severest disciplinary punishment.

It was not to be wondered at that for a fortnight the whole regiment worked with feverish energy, and Sunday was no less longed for by the utterly worn-out officers than by the men, who were well-nigh tortured to death.

But to Romashov, who sat idle under arrest, Sunday brought neither joy nor repose. As he had tried in vain to sleep during the night, he got up early, dressed slowly and unwillingly, drank his tea with undisguised repugnance, and refreshed himself at last by hurling a few insults at Hainán, who did not heed them in the least, but continued to stalk about the room as happy, active, and clumsy as a puppy.

Romashov sauntered up and down his narrow room in his unbuttoned, carelessly donned undress uniform. Now he bumped his knee against the foot of the bed, now his elbow against the rickety bookcase. It was the first time now for half a year—thanks to a somewhat unpleasant accident—that he found himself alone in his own abode. He had always been occupied with drill, sentry duty, card-playing, and libations to Bacchus, dancing attendance on the Peterson woman, and evening calls on the Nikoläievs. Sometimes, if he happened to be free and had nothing particular in view, Romashov might, if worried by moping and laziness, and as if he feared his own company, rush aimlessly off to the club, or some acquaintance, or simply to the street, in hopes of finding some bachelor comrade—a meeting which infallibly ended with a drinking-bout in the mess-room. Now he contemplated with dread the long, unendurable day of loneliness and boredom before him, and a crowd of stupid, extraordinary fancies and projects buzzed in his brain.

The bells in the town were ringing for High Mass. Through the inner window, which had not been removed since the winter began, forced their way into the room these trembling tones that were produced, as it were, one from the other, and in the melancholy clang of which, on this sentimental spring morning, there lay a peculiar power of charm. Immediately outside Romashov’s window lay a garden in which many cherry-trees grew in rich abundance, all white with blooms, and all soft and round as a flock of snow-white sheep whose wool was fine. Between them, here and there, arose slim but gigantic poplars that stretched their boughs beseechingly towards heaven, and ancient, venerable chestnut-trees with their dome-like crests. The trees were still bare, with black, naked boughs, but on these, though the eye could hardly discern them, the first yellowish verdure, fresh as the dew, began to be visible. In the pure, moisture-laden air of the newly-awakened spring day, the trees rocked softly here and there before the cool, sportive breezes that murmured from time to time among the flowers, and bowed them to the ground with a roguish kiss.

From the windows one could discern, on the left, through a gateway, a part of the dirty street, which on one side was fenced off. People passed alongside of the fence from time to time, walking slowly as they picked out a dry place for their next step. “Lucky people,” thought Romashov, as he enviously followed them with his eyes, “they need not hurry. They have the whole of the long day before them—ah! a whole, free, glorious day.”

And suddenly there came over him a longing for freedom so intense and passionate that tears rushed to his eyes, and he had great difficulty in restraining himself from running out of the house. Now, however, it was not the mess-room that attracted him, but only the yard, the street, fresh air. It was as if he had never understood before what freedom was, and he was astonished at the amount of happiness that is comprised in the simple fact that one may go where one pleases, turn into this or that street, stop in the middle of the square, peep into a half-opened church door, etc., etc., all at one’s own sweet will and without having to fear the consequences. The right to do, and the possibility of doing, all this would be enough to fill a man’s heart with an exultant sense of joy and bliss.

He remembered in connection with this how, in his earliest youth, long before he entered the Cadet School, his mother used to punish him by tying him tightly to the foot of the bed with fine thread, after which she left him by himself; and little Romashov sat for whole hours submissively still. But never for an instant did it occur to him to flee from the house, although, under ordinary circumstances, he never stood on ceremony—for instance, to slide down the water-pipe from other storys to the street; to dangle, without permission, after a military band or a funeral procession as far as the outskirts of Moscow; or to steal from his mother lumps of sugar, jam, and cigarettes for older playfellows, etc. But this brittle thread exercised a remarkable hypnotizing influence on his mind as a child. He was even afraid of breaking it by some sudden, incautious movement. In that case he was influenced by no fear whatsoever of punishment, neither by a sense of duty, nor by regret, but by pure hypnosis, a superstitious dread of the unfathomable power and superiority of grown-up or older persons, which reminds one of the savage who, paralysed by fright, dares not take a step beyond the magic circle that the conjurer has drawn.

“And here I am sitting now like a schoolboy, like a little helpless, mischievous brat tied by the leg,” thought Romashov as he slouched backwards and forwards in his room. “The door is open, I can go when I please, can do what I please, can talk and laugh—but I am kept back by a thread. I sit here; I and nobody else. Some one has ordered me to sit here, and I shall sit here; but who has authorized him to order this? Certainly not I.

“I”—Romashov stood in the middle of the room with his legs straddling and his head hanging down, thinking deeply. “I, I, I!” he shouted in a loud voice, in which there lay a certain note of astonishment, as if he now was first beginning to comprehend the meaning of this short word. “Who is standing here and gaping at that black crack in the floor?—Is it really I? How curious—I”—he paused slowly and with emphasis on the monosyllable, just as if it were only by such means that he could grasp its significance.

He smiled unnaturally; but, in the next instant, he frowned, and turned pale with emotion and strain of thought. Such small crises had not infrequently happened to him during the last five or six years, as is nearly always the case with young people during that period of life when the mind is in course of development. A simple truth, a saying, a common phrase, with the meaning of which he has long ago been familiar, suddenly, by some mysterious impulse from within, stands in a new light, and so receives a particular philosophical meaning. Romashov could still remember the first time this happened to him. It was at school during a catechism lesson, when the priest tried to explain the parable of the labourers who carried away stones. One of them began with the light stones, and afterwards took the heavier ones, but when at last he came to the very heaviest of all his strength was exhausted. The other worked according to a diametrically different plan, and luckily fulfilled his duty. To Romashov was opened the whole abyss of practical wisdom that lay hidden in this simple picture that he had known and understood ever since he could read a book. Likewise with the old saying: “Seven times shalt thou measure, once shalt thou cut.” In a happy moment he suddenly perceived the full, deep import of this maxim; wisdom, understanding, wise economy, calculation. A tremendous experience of life lay concealed in these few words. Such was the case now. All his mental individuality stood suddenly before him with the distinctness of a lightning flash.

“My Ego,” thought Romashov, “is only that which is within me, the very kernel of my being; all the rest is the non-Ego—that is, only secondary things. This room, street, trees, sky, the commander of my regiment, Lieutenant Andrusevich, the service, the standard, the soldiers—all this is non-Ego. No, no, this is non-Ego—my hands and feet.” Romashov lifted up his hands to the level of his face, and looked at them with wonder and curiosity, as if he saw them now for the first time in his life. “No, all this is non-Ego. But look—I pinch my arm—that is the Ego. I see my arm, I lift it up—this is the Ego. And what I am thinking now is also Ego. If I now want to go my way, that is the Ego. And even if I stop, that is the Ego.

“Oh, how wonderful, how mysterious is this. And so simple too. Is it true that all individuals possess a similar Ego? Perhaps it is only I who have it? Or perhaps nobody has it. Down there hundreds of soldiers stand drawn up in front of me. I give the order: ‘Eyes to the right,’ to hundreds of human beings who has each his own Ego, and who see in me something foreign, distant, i.e. non-Ego—then turn their heads at once to the right. But I do not distinguish one from the other; they are to me merely a mass. And to Colonel Schulgovich both I and Viätkin and Lbov, and all the captains and lieutenants, are likewise perhaps merely a ‘mass,’ viz., he does not distinguish one of us from the other, or, in other words, we are entirely outside his ken as individuals to him.”

The door was opened, and Hainán stole into the room. He began at once his usual dance, threw up his legs into the air, rocked his shoulders, and shouted—

“Your Honour, I got no cigarettes. They said that Lieutenant Skriabin gave orders that you were not to have any more on credit.”

“Oh, damn! You can go, Hainán. What am I to do without cigarettes? However, it is of no consequence. You can go, Hainán.”

“What was it I was thinking of?” Romashov asked himself, when he was once more alone. He had lost the threads, and, unaccustomed as he was to think, he could not pick them up again at once. “What was I thinking of just now? It was something important and interesting. Well, let us turn back and take the questions in order. Also, I am under arrest; out in the street I see people at large; my mother tied me up with a thread—me, me. Yes, so it was. The soldier perhaps has an Ego, perhaps even Colonel Shulgovich. Ha, he! now I remember; go on. Here I am sitting in my room. I am arrested, but my door is open. I want to go out, but I dare not. Why do I not dare? Have I committed any crime—theft—murder? No. All I did was merely omitting to keep my heels together when I was talking to another man. Possibly I was wrong. Yet, why? Is it anything important? Is it the chief thing in life? In about twenty or thirty years—a second in eternity—my life, my Ego, will go out like a lamp does when one turns the wick down. They will light life—the lamp—afresh, over and over again; but my Ego is gone for ever. Likewise this room, this sky, the regiment, the whole army, all stars, this dirty globe, my hands and feet—all, all—shall be annihilated for ever. Yes, yes; that is so. Well, all right—but wait a bit. I must not be in too much of a hurry. I shall not be in existence. Ah, wait. I found myself in infinite darkness. Somebody came and lighted my life’s lamp, but almost immediately he blew it out again, and once more I was in darkness, in the eternity of eternities. What did I do? What did I utter during this short moment of my existence? I held my thumb on the seam of my trousers and my heels together. I shrieked as loud as I could: ‘Shoulder arms!’ and immediately afterwards I thundered ‘Use your butt ends, you donkeys!’ I trembled before a hundred tyrants, now miserable ghosts in eternity like my own remarkable, lofty Ego. But why did I tremble before those ghosts and why could they compel me to do such a lot of unnecessary, idiotic, unpleasant things? How could they venture to annoy and insult my Ego—these miserable spectres?”

Romashov sat down by the table, put his elbows on it, and leaned his head on his hands. It was hard work for him to keep in check these wild thoughts which raced through his mind.

“H’m!—my friend Romashov, what a lot you have forgotten—your fatherland, the ashes of your sire, the altar of honour, the warrior’s oath and discipline. Who shall preserve the land of your sires when the foe rushes over its boundaries? Ah! when I am dead there will be no more fatherland, no enemy, no honour. They will disappear at the same time as my consciousness. But if all this be buried and brought to naught—country, enemies, honour, and all the other big words—what has all this to do with my Ego? I am more important than all these phrases about duty, honour, love, etc. Assume that I am a soldier and my Ego suddenly says, ‘I won’t fight,’ and not only my own Ego, but millions of other Egos that constitute the whole of the army, the whole of Russia, the entire world; all these say, ‘We won’t!’ Then it will be all over so far as war is concerned, and never again will any one have to hear such absurdities as ‘Open order,’ ‘Shoulder arms,’ and all the rest of that nonsense.

“Well, well, well. It must be so some day,” shouted an exultant voice in Romashov. “All that talk about ‘warlike deeds,’ ‘discipline,’ ‘honour of the uniform,’ ‘respect for superiors,’ and, first and last, the whole science of war exists only because humanity will not, or cannot, or dare not, say, ‘I won’t.’”

“What do you suppose all this cunningly reared edifice that is called the profession of arms really is? Nothing, humbug, a house hanging in midair, which will tumble down directly mankind pronounces three short words: ‘I will not.’ My Ego will never say, ‘I will not eat,’ ‘I will not breathe,’ ‘I will not see,’ But if any one proposes to my Ego that it shall die, it infallibly replies: ‘I will not.’ What, then, is war with all its hecatombs of dead and the science of war, which teaches us the best methods of murdering? Why, a universal madness, an illusion. But wait. Perhaps I am mistaken. No, I cannot be mistaken, for this ‘I will not’ is so simple, so natural, that everybody must, in the end, say it. Let us, however, examine the matter more closely. Let us suppose that this thought is pronounced this very moment by all Russians, Germans, Englishmen, and Japanese. Ah, well, what would be the consequence? Why, that war would cease for ever, and the officers and soldiers would go, every man, to his home. And what would happen after that? I know: Shulgovich would answer; Shulgovich would immediately get querulous and say: ‘Now we are done for; they can attack us now whenever they please, take away our hearths and homes, trample down our fields, and carry off our wives and sisters.’ And what about rioters, socialists, revolutionaries? But when the whole of mankind without exception has shouted: ‘We will no longer tolerate bloodshed,’ who will then dare to assail us? No one! All enemies would be reconciled, submit to each other, forgive everything, and justly divide among themselves the abundance of the earth. Gracious God, when shall this dream be fulfilled?”

Whilst Romashov was indulging in these fancies, he failed to notice that Hainán had quietly stolen in behind his back and suddenly stretched his arm over his shoulder. Romashov started in terror, and roared out angrily—

“What the devil do you want?”

Hainán laid before him on the table a cinnamon-coloured packet. “This is for you,” he replied in a friendly, familiar tone, and Romashov felt behind him his servant’s jovial smile. “They are cigarettes; smoke now.”

Romashov looked at the packet. On it was printed, “The Trumpeter, First-class Cigarettes. Price 3 kopecks for 20.”

“What does this mean?” he asked in astonishment. “Where did this come from?”

“I saw that you had no cigarettes, so I bought these with my own money. Please smoke them. It is nothing. Just a little present.”

After this, to conceal his confusion, Hainán ran headlong to the door, which he slammed after him with a deafening bang. Romashov lighted a cigarette, and the room was soon filled with a perfume that strongly reminded one of melted sealing-wax and burnt feathers.

“Oh, you dear!” thought Romashov, deeply moved. “I get cross with you and scold you and make you pull off my muddy boots every evening, and yet you go and buy me cigarettes with your few last coppers. ‘Please smoke them.’ What made you do it?”

Again he got up and walked up and down the room with his hands behind him.

“Our company consists of at least a hundred men, and each of them is a creature with thoughts, feelings, experience of life, personal sympathies and antipathies. Do I know anything about them? No, nothing, except their faces. I see them before me as they stand in line every day, drawn up from right to left: Sóltyss, Riaboschápka, Yégoroff, Yaschtschischin, etc., etc.—mere sorry, grey figures. What have I done to bring my soul nearer to their souls, my Ego to theirs? Nothing.”

He involuntarily called to mind a rough night at the end of autumn, when (as was his custom) he was sitting drinking in the mess-room with a few comrades. Suddenly the pay-sergeant Goumeniuk, of the 9th Company, rushed into the room, and breathlessly called to his commander—

“Your Excellency, the recruits are here.”

Yes, there they stood in the rain, in the barrack-yard, driven together like a herd of frightened animals without any will of their own, which with cowed, suspicious glances gazed at their tormentors. “Each individual,” thought Romashov, as he slowly and carefully inspected their appearance, “has his own characteristic expression of countenance. This one, for instance, is most certainly a smith; that is, doubtless, a jolly chap who plays his accordion with some talent; that one with the shrewd features can both read and write, and looks as if he were a polevói.”[8] And one felt that these poor recruits who, a few days ago, had been violently seized whilst their wives and children were crying and lamenting, had tried, with tears in their voices, to join in the coarse songs of their wild, drunken brothers in misfortune. But a year later they stood like soldiers in long rigid rows—grey, sluggish, apathetic figures, all cast, as it were, in the same mould. But they never left their homes of their own free will. Their Ego resented it. And yet they went. Why all this inconsistency? How can one not help thinking of that old and well-known story about the cock who fought desperately with his wings and resisted to the uttermost when his beak was pressed against a table, but who stood motionless, hypnotized, when some one drew a thick line with a piece of chalk across the table from the tip of his beak.

Romashov threw himself on the bed.

“What is there left for you to do under the circumstances?” he asked himself in bitter mockery. “Do you think of resigning? But, in that case, where do you think of going? What does the sum of knowledge amount to that you have learnt at the infants’ school, the Cadet School, at the Military Academy, at mess? Have you tried the struggle and seriousness of life? No, you have been looked after and your wants supplied, as if you were a little child, and you think perhaps, like a certain schoolgirl, that rolls grow on trees. Go out into the world and try. At the very first step you would slip and fall; people would trample you in the dust, and you would drown your misery in drink. And besides, have you ever heard of an officer leaving the service of his own free will? No, never. Just because he is unfit for anything he will not give up his meagre bread-and-butter. And if any one is forced into doing this, you will soon see him wearing a greasy old regimental cap, and accepting alms from people in the street. I am a Russian officer of gentle birth, comprenez-vous? Alas, where shall I go—what will become of me?”

“Prisoner, prisoner!” cried a clear female voice beneath the window.

Romashov jumped up from his bed and rushed to the window. Opposite him stood Shurochka. She was protecting her eyes from the sun with the palm of her hand, and pressing her rosy face against the window pane, exclaiming in a mocking tone:—

“Oh, give a poor beggar a copper!”

Romashov fumbled at the window-catch in wild eagerness to open it, but he remembered in the same moment that the inner window had not been removed. With joyous resolution he seized the window-frame with both hands, and dragged it to him with a tremendous tug. A loud noise was heard, and the whole window fell into the room, besprinkling Romashov with bits of lime and pieces of dried putty. The outer window flew up, and a stream of fresh air, charged with joy and the perfume of flowers, forced its way into the room.

“Ha, at last! Now I’ll go out, cost what it may,” shouted Romashov in a jubilant voice.

“Romashov, you mad creature! what are you doing?”

He caught her outstretched hand through the window; it was closely covered by a cinnamon-coloured glove, and he began boldly to kiss it, first upwards and downwards, and after that from the finger-tips to the wrist. Last of all, he kissed the hole in the glove just below the buttons. He was astonished at his boldness; never before had he ventured to do this. Shurochka submitted as though unconscious to this passionate burst of affection, and smilingly accepted his kisses whilst gazing at him in shy wonderment.

“Alexandra Petrovna, you are an angel. How shall I ever be able to thank you?”

“Gracious, Romochka! what has come to you? And why are you so happy?” she asked laughingly as she eyed Romashov with persistent curiosity. “But wait, my poor prisoner, I have brought you from home a splendid kalátsch and the most delicious apple puffs.”

“Stepan, bring the basket here.”

He looked at her with devotion in his eyes, and without letting go her hand, which she allowed to remain unresistingly in his, he said hurriedly—

“Oh, if you knew all I have been thinking about this morning—if you only knew! But of this, later on.”

“Yes, later on. Look, here comes my lord and master. Let go my hand. How strange you look to-day! I even think you have grown handsome.”

Nikoläiev now came up to the window. He frowned, and greeted Romashov in a rather cool and reserved way.

“Come, Shurochka,” he said to his wife, “what in the world are you thinking about? You must both be mad. Only think, if the Commander were to see us. Good-bye, Romashov; come and see us.”

“Yes, come and see us, Yuri Alexievich,” repeated Shurochka. She left the window, but returned almost at once and whispered rapidly to Romashov. “Don’t forget us. You are the only man here whom I can associate with—as a friend—do you hear? And another thing. Once for all I forbid you to look at me with such sheep’s eyes, remember that. Besides, you have no right to imagine anything. You are not a coxcomb yet, you know.”

< < < Chapter V
Chapter VII > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

Copyright holders –  Public Domain Book

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