Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
< < < Chapter VI
Chapter VIII > > >
AT 3.30 p.m. Lieutenant Federovski, the Adjutant of the regiment, drove up to Romashov’s house. He was a tall, stately, and (as the ladies of the regiment used to say) presentable young man, with freezingly cold eyes and an enormous moustache that almost grazed his shoulder. Towards the younger officers he was always excessively polite, but, at the same time, officially correct in his conduct. He was not familiar with any one, and had a very high opinion of himself and his position. Nearly all the captains flattered and paid court to him.
As he entered the door, he rapidly scanned with his blinking eyes the whole of the scanty furniture in Romashov’s room. The latter, who lay resting on his bed, jumped off, and, blushing, began to button up his undress tunic.
“I am here by orders of the commander, who wishes to speak to you,” said Federovski in a dry tone. “Be good enough to dress and accompany me as soon as possible.”
“I shall be ready at once. Shall I put on undress or parade uniform?”
“Don’t, please, stand on ceremony. A frock-coat, if you like, that would be quite sufficient. Meanwhile, with your permission, I will take a seat.”
“Oh, I beg your pardon—will you have some tea?” said Romashov fussily.
“No, thanks. My time is short, and I must ask you to be as quick as possible about changing your clothes.”
And without taking off his cloak or gloves, he sat down whilst Romashov changed his clothes in nervous haste and with painful glances at his not particularly clean shirt. Federovski sat the whole time with his hands resting on the hilt of his sabre, as motionless as a stone image.
“I suppose you do not happen to know why I am sent for?”
The Adjutant shrugged his shoulders.
“A singular question! How should I know? You ought to know the reason better than I. But if I may give you a bit of friendly advice, put the sabre-belt under—not over—the shoulder strap. The Colonel is, as you are aware, particular about such matters. And now, if you please, we will start.”
Before the steps stood a common calèche, attached to which were a couple of high, lean army horses. Romashov was polite enough to encroach as little as possible on the narrow seat, so as not to cause his attendant any discomfort, but the latter did not, so it seemed, take the slightest notice of that. On the way they met Viätkin; the latter exchanged a chilly and correct salute with the Adjutant, but honoured Romashov, who for a second turned round, with a comic but enigmatical gesture that might probably mean: “Ah, poor fellow, you are on your way to Pontius Pilate.” They met other officers, some of whom regarded Romashov with a sort of solemn interest, others with unfeigned astonishment, and some bestowed on him only a derisive smile. Romashov tried to avoid their glances and felt himself shrinking beneath them.
The Colonel did not receive him at once. He had some one in his private room. Romashov had to wait in a half-dark hall that smelt of apples, naphtha, newly-polished furniture and, besides that, of something which not at all unpleasantly reminded him of the odour which seems particularly inseparable from clothes and furniture in well-to-do German families that are pedantically careful about their goods and chattels.
As he walked slowly up and down the hall, he glanced at himself several times in a mirror in a light ashwood frame which was fixed to the wall; and each time he looked his face struck him as being unhealthily pale, ugly, and queer. His uniform, too, was shabby, and his epaulettes soiled.
Out in the hall might be heard the incessant rumbling of the Colonel’s deep bass voice. The words themselves could not be distinguished, but the ferocious tone told the tale clearly enough that Colonel Shulgovich was scolding some one with implacable and sustained rage. This went on for about five minutes; after which Schulgovich suddenly became silent, a trembling, supplicating voice succeeded his, and, after a moment’s pause, Romashov clearly heard the following frightful tirade uttered with a terrible accent of pride, indignation, and contempt:
“What nonsense is it that you dare to talk about your wife and your children? What the devil have I to do with them? Before you brought your children into the world you ought to have considered how you could manage to feed them. What? So now you are trying to throw the blame on your Colonel, are you? But it has nothing to do with him. You know too well, Captain, that if I do not deliver you into the hands of justice I shall fail in my duty as your commander. Be good enough not to interrupt me. Here there is no question of an offence against discipline, but a glaring crime, and your place henceforward will certainly not be in the regiment, but you yourself best know where.” Again he heard that miserable, beseeching voice, so pitiful that it did not sound human.
“Good Lord! what is it all about?” thought Romashov, who, as if he were glued to the looking-glass, gazed at his pale face without seeing it, and felt his heart throbbing painfully. “Good Lord! how horrible!”
The plaintive, beseeching voice again replied, and spoke at some length. When it ceased, the Colonel’s deep bass began thundering, but now evidently a trifle more calmly and gently than before, as if his rage had spent itself, and his desire to witness the humiliation of another were satisfied.
Shulgovich said abruptly: “Engrave it for ever on your red nose. All right! But this is the last time. Remember now! The last time! Do you hear? If it ever comes to my ears that you have been drunk, the—silence!—I know what you intend to say, but I won’t hear any more of your promises. In a week’s time I shall inspect your company. You understand? And as to the troops’ pay, that matter must be settled to-morrow. You hear? To-morrow. And now I shall not detain you longer, Captain. I have the honour——”
The last words were interrupted by a scraping on the floor, and a few tottering steps towards the door; but, suddenly, the Colonel’s voice was again heard, though this time its wrathful and violent tone did not sound quite natural.
“Wait a moment! Come here, you devil’s pepper-box! Where are you off to? To the Jews, of course—to get a bill signed. Ah, you fool—you blockhead! Here you are! One, two, three, four—three hundred. I can’t do more. Take them and be off with you. Pay me back when you can. What a mess you have made of things, Captain! Now be off with you! Go to the devil—your servant, sir!”
The door sprang open, and into the hall staggered little Captain Sviatovidov, red and perspiring, with harassed, nay, ravaged, features. His right hand grasped convulsively his new, rustling bundle of banknotes. He made a sort of pirouette directly he recognized Romashov, tried, but failed miserably in the attempt, to assume a sportive, free-and-easy look, and clutched tight hold of Romashov’s fingers with his hot, moist, trembling hand. His wandering, furtive glances rested at last on Romashov as if he would ask the question: “Have you heard anything or have you not?”
“He’s a tiger, a bloodhound!” he whispered, pointing to the door of the Colonel’s room; “but what the deuce does it matter?” Sviatovidov twice crossed himself quickly. “The Lord be praised! the Lord be praised!”
“Bon-da-ren-ko!” roared Shulgovich from his room, and his powerful voice that moment filled every nook and corner of the house. “Bondarenko, who is out there still? Bring him in.”
“Hold your own, my young lion,” whispered Sviatovidov with a false smile. “Au revoir, Lieutenant. Hope you’ll have a good time.”
Bondarenko glided through the door. He was a typical Colonel’s servant, with an impudently condescending look, hair pomaded and parted in the middle, dandified, with white gloves. He addressed Romashov in a respectful tone, but eyed him, at the same time, in a very bold way.
“His Excellency begs your Honour to step in.”
He opened the door and stepped aside. Romashov walked in.
Colonel Shulgovich sat at a table in a corner of the room, to the left of the door. He was wearing his fatigue tunic, under which appeared his gleaming white shirt. His red, sinewy hands rested on the arm of his easy chair. His unnaturally big, old face, with short tufts of hair on the top of his head, and the white pointed beard, gave an impression of a certain hardness and coldness. The bright colourless eyes gleamed almost aggressively at the visitor, whose salutation was returned with a brief nod. Romashov at that moment noticed a crescent-shaped ring in the Colonel’s ear, and thought to himself: “Strange that I never saw that ring before.”
“This is very serious,” began Shulgovich, in a gruff bass that seemed to proceed from the depths of his diaphragm, after which he made a long pause. “Shame on you!” he continued in a raised voice. “Because you’ve served a year all but one week you begin to put on airs. Besides this, I have many other reasons to be annoyed with you. For instance: I come to the parade-ground and make a justifiable remark about you. At once you are ready to answer your commanding officer in a silly, insolent manner. Can that be called military tact and discipline? No. Such a thing is incredible, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” The latter words were roared by Shulgovich with such deafening violence that his victim felt a tremor under his knee-cap.
Romashov looked gloomily away, and no power in the world, thought he, should induce him to look at the Colonel straight in his basilisk face.
“Where’s my Ego now?” he asked himself ironically. “Here the only thing to do is to suffer, keep silent, and stand at attention.”
“It does not matter now how I obtained my information about you. It is quite sufficient I know all your sins. You drink. You, a mere boy—a callow creature that has but lately left school—swig schnapps like a cobbler’s apprentice. Hold your tongue, don’t try to defend yourself, I know everything—and much more than you think. Well, God forbid!—if you are bent on going down the broad path you are welcome to do it, so far as I’m concerned. Still, I’ll give you a warning: drink has made more than one of your sort acquainted with the inside of a prison. Lay these words of mine to heart. My long-suffering is great, but even an angel’s patience can be exhausted. The officers of a regiment are mutually related as members of one family; but don’t forget that an unworthy member who tarnishes the honour of the family is ruthlessly cast out.”
“Here I stand paralysed with fright, and my tongue is numbed,” thought Romashov, as he stared, as though hypnotized, at the little silver ring in the Colonel’s ear. “At this moment I ought to tell him straight out that I do not in the least degree value the honour of belonging to this worthy family, and that I shall be delighted to leave it to enter the reserves; but have I the courage to say so?” His lips moved, he found a difficulty in swallowing, but he stood still, as he had throughout the interview.
“But let us,” continued Shulgovich in the same harsh tone, “examine more closely your conduct in the past. In the previous year—practically as soon as you entered the service, you requested leave on account of your mother’s illness, nay, you even produced a sort of letter about it. Well, in such cases an officer cannot, you know, openly express his doubts as to the truth of a comrade’s word. But I take this opportunity of telling you in private that I had my own opinion then about that story. You understand?”
Romashov had for a long time felt a tremor in his right knee. This tremor was at first very slight, in fact scarcely noticeable, but it very soon assumed alarming proportions, and finally extended over the whole of his body. This feeling grew very painful at the thought that Shulgovich might possibly regard his nervousness as proceeding from fear; but when his mother’s name was mentioned, a consuming heat coursed through Romashov’s veins, and his intense nervous tremor ceased immediately. For the first time during all this painful scene he raised his eyes to his torturer and looked him defiantly straight in the face. And in this look glittered a hatred, menace, and imperious lust of vengeance from the insulted man, so intense and void of all fear that the illimitable distance between the omnipotent commander and the insignificant sub-lieutenant, who had no rights at all, was absolutely annihilated. A mist arose before Romashov’s eyes, the various objects in the room lost their shape, and the Colonel’s gruff voice sounded to him as if from a deep abyss. Then there suddenly came a moment of darkness and ominous silence, devoid of thoughts, will, or external perception, nay, even without consciousness. He experienced only a horrible certainty that, in another moment, something terrible and maniacal, something irretrievably disastrous, would happen. A strange, unfamiliar voice whispered in his ear: “Next moment I will kill him,” and Romashov was slowly but irresistibly forced to fix his eyes on the Colonel’s bald head.
Afterwards, as if in a dream, he became aware, although he could not understand the reason, of a curious change in his enemy’s eyes, which, in rapid succession, reflected wonder, dread, helplessness, and pity. The wave of destruction that had just whelmed through Romashov’s soul, by the violence of natural force, subsided, sank, and disappeared in space. He tottered, and now everything appeared to him commonplace and uninteresting. Shulgovich, in nervous haste, placed a chair before him, and said, with unexpected but somewhat rough kindness—
“The Devil take you! what a touchy fellow you are! Sit down and be damned to you! But you are all alike. You look at me as if I were a wild beast. ‘The old fossil goes for us without rhyme or reason.’ And all the time God knows I love you as if you were my own children. Do you think I have nothing to put up with, either? Ah, gentlemen, how little you know me! It is true I scold you occasionally, but, damn it all! an old fellow has a right to be angry sometimes. Oh, you youngsters! Well, let us make peace. Give me your hand and come to dinner.”
Romashov bowed without uttering a syllable, and pressed the coarse, cold, hairy hand. His recollection of the past insult to some extent faded, but his heart was none the lighter for this. He remembered his proud, inflated fancies of that very morning, and he now felt like a little pale, pitiful schoolboy, like a shy, abandoned, scarcely tolerated brat, and he thought of all this with shame and mortification. Also, whilst accompanying Shulgovich to the dining-room, he could not help addressing himself, as his habit was, in the third person—
“And a shadow rested on his brow.”
Shulgovich was childless. In the dining-room, his wife—a fat, coarse, self-important, and silent woman—awaited him. She had not a vestige of neck, but displayed a whole row of chins. Notwithstanding her pince-nez and her scornful mien, there was a certain air of vulgarity about her countenance, which gave the impression of its being formed, at the last minute, hurriedly and negligently, out of dough, with raisins or currants instead of eyes. Behind her waddled, dragging her feet, the Colonel’s old mother—a little deaf, but still an active, domineering, venomous old hag. While she closely and rudely examined Romashov over her spectacles, she clawed hold of his fingers and coolly pressed to his lips her black, shrivelled, bony hand, that reminded one most of an anatomical specimen. This done, she turned to the Colonel and asked him, just as if they had been absolutely alone in the dining-room—
“Who is this? I don’t remember seeing him here before?”
Shulgovich formed his hands into a sort of speaking-tube, and bawled into the old woman’s ear:
“Sub-lieutenant Romashov, mamma. A capital officer, a smart fellow, and an ornament to his regiment—comes from the Cadet School. By the way, Sub-lieutenant,” he exclaimed abruptly, “we are certainly from the same province. Aren’t you from Pevsa?”
“Yes, Colonel, I was born in Pevsa.”
“To be sure, to be sure; now I remember. You are from the Narovtschátski district?”
“Quite right, Colonel.”
“Ah, yes—how could I have forgotten it! Mamma,” he again trumpeted into his mother’s ear, “mamma, Sub-lieutenant Romashov is from our province; he’s from Narovtschátski.”
“Ah, ah,” and the old woman raised her eyebrows as a sign that she understood. “Well, then, you’re, of course, a son of Sergei Petrovich Shishkin?”
“No, dear mother,” roared the Colonel, “you are wrong. His name is Romashov, not Shishkin.”
“Yes, didn’t I say so? I never knew Sergei Petrovich except by hearsay; but I often met Peter Petrovich. He was a charming young man. We were near neighbours, and I congratulate you, my young friend, on your relationship.”
“Well, as you will have it, you old deaf-as-a-post,” exclaimed the Colonel, interrupting her with good-humoured cynicism.” But now, let’s sit down; please take a seat, Sub-lieutenant. Lieutenant Federovski,” he shrieked towards the door, “stop your work and come and have a schnapps.” The Adjutant, who, according to the custom in many regiments, dined every day with his chief, hurriedly entered the dining-room. He clicked his spurs softly and discreetly, walked straight up to the little majolica table with the sakuska, calmly helped himself to a schnapps, and ate with extreme calmness and enjoyment. Romashov noticed all that with an absurd, envious feeling of admiration.
“You’ll take one, won’t you?” said Shulgovich to Romashov. “You’re no teetotaller, you know.”
“No, thank you very much,” replied Romashov hoarsely; and, with a slight cough, “I do not usually——”
“Bravo, my young friend. Stick to that in future.”
They sat down to table. The dinner was good and abundant. Any one could observe that, in this childless family, both host and hostess had an innocent little weakness for good living. Dinner consisted of chicken soup with vegetables, roast bream with kascha, a splendid fat duck and asparagus. On the table stood three remarkable decanters containing red wine, white wine, and madeira, resplendent with embossed silver stoppers bearing elegant foreign marks. The Colonel, whose violent explosion of wrath but a short time previously had evidently given him an excellent appetite, ate with an elegance and taste that struck the spectator with pleasure and surprise. He joked all the time with a certain rough humour. When the asparagus was put on the table, he crammed a corner of his dazzlingly white serviette well down under his chin, and exclaimed in a lively way—
“If I were the Tsar, I would eat asparagus every day of my life.”
Only once, at the fish course, he fell into his usual domineering tone, and shouted almost harshly to Romashov—
“Sub-lieutenant, be good enough to put your knife down. Fish and cutlets are eaten only with a fork. An officer must know how to eat properly; he may, at any time, you know, be invited to the palace. Don’t forget that.”
Romashov was uncomfortable and constrained the whole time. He did not know what to do with his hands, which, for the most part, he kept under the table plaiting the fringe of the tablecloth. He had long got out of the habit of observing what was regarded as “good form” in an elegant and wealthy house. And, during the whole time he was at table, one sole thought tortured him: “How disagreeable this is, and what weakness and cowardice on my part not to have the courage to refuse this humiliating invitation to dinner. Now I shall not stand this any longer. I’ll get up and bow to the company, and go my way. They may think what they please about it. They can hardly eat me up for that—nor rob me of my soul, my thoughts, my consciousness. Shall I go?” And again he was obliged to acknowledge to himself, with a heart overflowing with pain and indignation, that he lacked the moral courage necessary to assert his individuality and self-respect.
Twilight was falling when at last coffee was served. The red, slanting beams of the setting sun filtered in through the window blinds, and sportively cast little copper-coloured spots or rays on the dark furniture, on the white tablecloth, and the clothes and countenances of those present. Conversation gradually languished. All sat silent, as though hypnotized by the mystic mood of the dying day.
“When I was an ensign,” said Shulgovich, breaking the silence, “we had for the chief of our brigade a General named Fofanov. He was just one of those gentle and simple old fogies who had risen from the ranks during a time of war, and, as I believe, belonged at the start to what we call Kantonists. I remember how at reviews he always went straight up to the big drum—he was insanely enamoured of that instrument—and said to the drummer, ‘Come, come, my friend, play me something really melancholy.’ This same General had also the habit of going to bed directly the clock struck eleven. When the clock was just on the stroke of the hour, he invariably said to his guests, ‘Well, well, gentlemen, eat, drink, and enjoy yourselves, but I’m going to throw myself into the arms of Neptune.’ Somebody once remarked, ‘Your Excellency, you mean the arms of Morpheus?’ ‘Oh, that’s the same thing. They both belong to the same mineralogy.’ Well, that’s just what I am going to do, gentlemen.”
Shulgovich got up and placed his serviette on the arm of his chair. “I, too, am going to throw myself into the arms of Neptune. I release you, gentlemen.”
Both officers got up and stretched themselves. “A bitter, ironical smile played on his thin lips,” thought Romashov about himself—only thought, however, for at that moment his countenance was pale, wretched, and by no means prepossessing to look at.
Once more Romashov was on his way home, and once more he felt himself lonely, abandoned, and helpless in this gloomy and hostile place. Once more the sun flamed in the west, amidst heavy, dark blue thunder-clouds, and once more before Romashov’s eyes, in the distance, behind houses and fields, at the verge of the horizon, there loomed a fantastic fairy city beckoning to him with promises of marvellous beauty and happiness.
The darkness fell suddenly between the rows of houses. A few little Jewish children ran, squealing, along the path. Here and there in doorways, in the embrasures of windows, and in the dusk of gardens there were sounds of women’s laughter, provocative and unintermittent, and with a quiver of warm animalistic gladness which is heard only when spring is near. With the deep yet calm melancholy that now lay heavy on Romashov’s heart there were mingled strange, dim memories of a bliss miraged but never enjoyed in youth’s still lovelier spring, and there arose in his heart a delicious presentiment of a strong, invincible love that at last gained its object.
When Romashov reached his abode he found Hainán in his dark and dirty cupboard in front of Pushkin’s bust. The great bard was smeared all over with grease, and before him burning candles cast bright blurs on the statue’s nose, its thick lips and muscular neck. Hainán sat, in the Turkish style, cross-legged on the three boards that constituted his bed, rocked his body to and fro, and mumbled out in a sing-song tone something weird, melancholy, and monotonous.
“Hainán,” shouted Romashov.
The servant started, jumped up, and stood at attention. Fear and embarrassment were displayed on his countenance.
“Allah?” asked Romashov in the most friendly way.
The Circassian’s shaven boyish mouth expanded in a broad grin which showed his beautiful white teeth in the candle-light.
“Allah, your Honour.”
“It is all the same, Hainán. Allah is in you. Allah is in me. There is one Allah for us all.”
“My excellent Hainán,” thought Romashov to himself as he went into his room. “And I dare not shake hands with him. Dare not! Damn it all! from to-day I will dress and undress myself. It’s a disgrace that some one else should do it for me.”
That evening he did not go to the mess-room, but stayed at home and brought out of a drawer a thick, ruled book, nearly entirely filled with elegant, irregular handwriting. He wrote far into the night. It was the third in order of Romashov’s novels, and its title ran: A Fatal Beginning.
But our lieutenant blushed furiously at his literary efforts, and he would not have been induced for anything in the world to acknowledge his authorship.
< < < Chapter VI
Chapter VIII > > >
Russian Literature – Children Books – Russian Poetry – Alexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents
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