The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

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Chapter IX > > >

Chapter VIII

BARRACKS had just begun to be built for the garrison troops on what was called the “Cattle Square,” outside the town, on the other side of the railway. Meanwhile the companies were quartered here and there in the town. The officers’ mess-room was situated in a rather small house. The drawing-room and ballroom had their windows over the street. The other rooms, the windows of which overlooked a dark, dirty backyard, were set apart for kitchen, dining-room, billiard-room, guest-chamber, and ladies’-room. A long narrow corridor with doors to all the rooms in the house ran the whole length of the building. In the rooms that were seldom used, and not often cleaned or aired, a musty, sour smell greeted the visitor as he entered.

Romashov reached the mess at 9 p.m. Five or six unmarried officers had already assembled for the appointed soirée, but the ladies had not yet arrived. For some time past there had been a keen rivalry amongst the latter to display their acquaintance with the demands of fashion, according to which it was incumbent on a lady with pretensions to elegance scrupulously to avoid being among the first to reach the ballroom. The musicians were already in their places in a sort of gallery that was connected with the room by means of a large window composed of many panes of glass. Three-branched candelabra on the pillars between the windows shed their radiance, and lamps were suspended from the roof. The bright illumination on the scanty furniture, consisting only of Viennese chairs, the bare walls, and the common white muslin window-curtains, gave the somewhat spacious room a very empty and deserted air.

In the billiard-room the two Adjutants of the battalion, Biek-Agamalov and Olisár—the only count in the regiment—were engaged in a game of “Carolina.” The stakes were only ale. Olisár—tall, gaunt, sleek, and pomaded—an “old, young man” with wrinkled face and bald crown, scattered freely billiard-room jests and slang. Biek-Agamalov lost both his game and his temper in consequence. In the seat by the window sat Staff-Captain Lieschtschenko—a melancholy individual of forty-five, an altogether miserable figure, the mere sight of which could bore people to death—watching the game. His whole appearance gave the impression of hopeless melancholy. Everything about him was limp: his long, fleshy, wrinkled red nose; his dim, dark-brown thread-like moustache that reached down below his chin. His eyebrows, which grew a good way down to the bridge of his nose, made his eyes look as if he were just about to weep, and his thin, lean body with his sunken chest and sloping shoulders looked like a clothes-horse in its worn and shiny uniform. Lieschtschenko neither smoked, drank, nor played; but he found a strange pleasure in looking at the cards from behind the players’ backs, and in following the movements of the balls in the billiard-room. He likewise delighted in listening, huddled up in a dining-room window, to the row and vulgarities of the wildest drinking-bouts. He could thus sit, for hours at a time, motionless as a stone statue, and without uttering a single word. All the officers were so accustomed to this that they almost regarded the silent Lieschtschenko as one of the inevitable fixtures of a normal gambling or drinking bout.

After saluting the three officers, Romashov sat down by Lieschtschenko, who courteously made room for him, as with a deep sigh he fixed his sorrowful and friendly, dog-like eyes on him.

“How is Maria Viktorovna?” asked Romashov in the careless and intentionally loud voice which is generally employed in conversation with deaf or rather stupid people, and which all the regiment (including the ensigns) used when they happened to address Lieschtschenko.

“Quite well, thanks,” replied Lieschtschenko with a still deeper sigh. “You understand—her nerves; but, you know, at this time of year——”

“But why did she not come with you? But perhaps Maria Viktorovna is not coming to the soirée to-night?”

“What do you mean? of course she’s coming; but you see, my dear fellow, there was no room for me in the cab. She and Raisa Peterson took a trap between them, and as you’ll understand, my dear fellow, they said to me, ‘Don’t come here with your dirty, rough boots, they simply ruin our clothes.’”

“Croisez in the middle—a nice ‘kiss.’ Pick up the ball, Biek,” cried Olisár.

“I am not a lackey. Do you think I’ll pick up your balls?” replied Biek-Agamalov in a furious tone.

Lieschtschenko caught in his mouth the tips of his long moustaches, and thereupon began sucking and chewing them with an extremely thoughtful and troubled air.

“Yuri Alexievich, my dear fellow, I have a favour to ask you,” he blurted out at last in a shy and deprecating tone. “You lead the dance to-night, eh?”

“Yes, damn it all! They have so arranged it among themselves. I did try to get off it, kow-towed to the Adjutant—ah, pretty nearly reported myself ill. ‘In that case,’ said he, ‘you must be good enough to hand in a medical certificate.’”

“This is what I want you to do for me,” Lieschtschenko went on in the same humble voice. “For God’s sake see that she does not have to sit out many dances.”

“Maria Viktorovna?”

“Yes, please——”

“Double with the yellow in the corner,” said Biek-Agamalov, indicating the stroke he intended to make. Being short, he often found billiards very troublesome. To reach the ball now he was obliged to lie lengthways on the table. He became quite red in the face through the effort, and two veins in his forehead swelled to such an extent that they converged at the top of his nose like the letter V.[13]

“What a conjurer!” said Olisár in a jeering, ironical tone. “I could not do that.”

Agamalov’s cue touched the ball with a dry, scraping sound. The ball did not move from its place.

“Miss!” cried Olisár jubilantly, as he danced a cancan round the billiard table. “Do you snore when you sleep, my pretty creature?”

Agamalov banged the thick end of his cue on the floor.

“If you ever again speak when I am making a stroke,” he roared, his black eyes glittering, “I’ll throw up the game.”

“Don’t, whatever you do, get excited. It’s so bad for your health. Now it’s my turn.”

Just at that moment in rushed one of the soldiers stationed in the hall for the service of the ladies, and came to attention in front of Romashov.

“Your Honour, the ladies would like you to come into the ballroom.”

Three ladies who had just arrived were already pacing up and down the ballroom. They were none of them exactly young; the eldest of them, the wife of the Club President—Anna Ivanovna Migunov—turned to Romashov and exclaimed in a prim, affected tone, drawling out the words and tossing her head:

“Sub-lieutenant Romashov, please order the band to play something whilst we are waiting.”

“With pleasure, ladies,” replied Romashov with a polite bow. He then went up to the orchestra and called to the conductor, “Zisserman, play us something pretty.”

The first thundering notes of the overture to “Long live the Tsar” rolled through the open windows of the music gallery across the ballroom, and the flames of the candelabra vibrated to the rhythm of the drum beats.

The ladies gradually assembled. A year ago, Romashov had felt an indescribable pleasure in those very minutes before the ball when, in accordance with his duties as director of the ball, he received the ladies as they arrived in the hall. Oh, what mystic witchery those enchantresses possessed when, fired by the strains of the orchestra, by the glare of many lights, and by the thought of the approaching ball, they suffered themselves, in delicious confusion, to be divested of their boas, fur cloaks, wraps, etc. Women’s silvery laughter, high-pitched chatter, mysterious whispers, the freezing perfume from furs covered with hoar-frost, essences, powder, kid gloves, etc. All this commingled constituted the mystic, intoxicating atmosphere that is only found where beautiful women in evening dress crowd one another immediately before entering a ballroom. What a charm in their lovely eyes, beaming with the certainty of victory, that cast a last, swift, scrutinizing glance in the mirror at their hair! What music in the frou-frou of trains and silken skirts! What bliss in the touch of delicate little hands, shawls, and fans!

All this enchantment, Romashov felt, had now ceased for ever. He now understood, and not without a certain sense of shame, that much of this enchantment had owed its origin to the perusal of bad French novels, in which occurred the inevitable description of how “Gustave and Armand cross the vestibule when invited to a ball at the Russian Embassy.” He also knew that the ladies of his regiment wore for years the same evening dress, which, on certain festive occasions, was pathetically remodelled, and that the white gloves very often smelt of benzine. The generally prevailing passion for different sorts of aigrettes, scarves, sham diamonds, feathers, and ribbons of loud and gaudy colours, struck him as being highly ridiculous and pretentious. The same lack of taste and shabby-genteel love of display were shown even in their homes. They “made up” shamelessly, and some faces by this means had acquired a bluish tint; but the most unpleasant part of the affair, in Romashov’s opinion, was what he and others in the regiment, on the day after the ball, discovered as having happened behind the scenes—gossip, flirtations, and big and little scandals. And he also knew how much poverty, envy, love of intrigue, petty provincial pride, and low morality were hidden behind all this splendid misery.

Now Captain Taliman and his wife entered the room. They were both tall and compact. She was a delicate, fragile blonde; he, dark, with the face of a veritable brigand, and affected with a chronic hoarseness and cough. Romashov knew beforehand that Taliman would very soon whisper his usual phrase, and, sure enough, the latter directly afterwards exclaimed, as his gipsy eyes wandered spy-like over the ballroom—

“Have you started cards yet, Lieutenant?”

“No, not yet, they are all together in the dining-room.”

“Ah, really, do you know, Sonochka, I think I’ll go into the dining-room for a minute just to glance at the Russki Invalid. And you, my dear Romashov, kindly look after my wife here for a bit—they are starting the quadrille there.”

After this the Lykatschev family—a whole caravan of pretty, laughing, lisping young ladies, always chattering—made its appearance. At the head walked the mother, a lively little woman, who, despite her forty years, danced every dance, and brought children into the world “between the second and third quadrille,” as Artschakovski, the wit of the regiment, liked to put it.

The young ladies instantly threw themselves on Romashov, laughing and chattering in the attempt to talk one another down.

“Lieutenant Romashov, why do you never come to thee uth?”

“You wicked man!”

“Naughty, naughty, naughty!”

“Wicked man!”

“I will give you the firtht quadwille.”

“Mesdames, mesdames,” said Romashov in self-defence, bowing and scraping in all directions, and forced against his will to do the polite.

At that very moment he happened to look in the direction of the street door. He recognized, silhouetted against the glass, Raisa Alexandrovna’s thin face and thick, prominent lips, which, however, were almost hidden by a white kerchief tied over her hat.

Romashov, like a schoolboy caught in the act, slipped into the reception-room as quick as lightning, but however much he might try to convince himself that he escaped Raisa’s notice, he felt a certain anxiety. In his quondam mistress’s small eyes lay a new expression, hard, menacing, and revengeful, that foreboded a bad time for him.

He walked into the dining-room, where a crowd of officers were assembled. Nearly all the chairs round the long oilcloth-covered table were engaged. The blue tobacco smoke curled slowly along the roof and walls. A rancid smell of fried butter emanated from the kitchen. Two or three groups of officers had already made inroads on the cold collation and schnapps. A few were reading the newspapers. A loud, multitudinous murmur of voices blended with the click of billiard balls, the rattle of knives, and the slamming of the kitchen door. A cold, unpleasant draught from the vestibule caught one’s feet and legs.

Romashov looked for Lieutenant Bobetinski and went to him.

Bobetinski was standing, with his hands in his trousers pockets, quite near the long table. He was rocking backwards and forwards, first on his toes, then on his heels, and his eyes were blinking from the smoke. Romashov gently touched his arm.

“I beg your pardon!” said Bobetinski as he turned round and drew one hand out of his pocket; but he continued peering with his eyes, squinting at Romashov, and screwing his moustache with a superior air and his elbows akimbo. “Ha! it is you? This is very delightful!”

He always assumed an affected, mincing air, and spoke in short, broken sentences, thinking, by so doing, that he imitated the aristocratic Guardsmen and the jeunesse dorée of St. Petersburg. He had a very high opinion of himself, regarded himself as unsurpassed as a dancer and connoisseur of women and horses, and loved to play the part of a blasé man of the world, although he was hardly twenty-four. He always shrugged his shoulders coquettishly high, jabbered horrible French, pattered along the streets with limp, crooked knees and trailing gait, and invariably accompanied his conversation with careless, weary gestures.

“My good Peter Taddeevich,” implored Romashov in a piteous voice, “do, please, conduct the ball to-night instead of me.”

Mais, mon ami”—Bobetinski shrugged his shoulders, raised his eyebrows, and assumed a stupid expression. “But, my friend,” he translated into Russian, “why so? Pourquoi donc? Really, how shall I say it? You—you astonish me.”

“Well, my dear fellow, please——”

“Stop! No familiarities, if you please. My dear fellow, indeed!”

“But I beg you, Peter Taddeevich. You see, my head aches, and I have a pain in my throat; it is absolutely impossible for me to——”

In this way Romashov long and fruitlessly assailed his brother officer. Finally, as a last expedient, he began to deluge him with gross flattery.

“Peter Taddeevich, there is no one in the whole regiment so capable as yourself of conducting a ball with good taste and genius, and, moreover, a lady has specially desired——”

“A lady!” Bobetinski assumed a blank, melancholy expression. “A lady, did you say? Ah, my friend, at my age——” he smiled with a studied expression of hopeless resignation. “Besides, what is woman? Ha, ha! an enigma. However, I’ll do what you want me to do.” And in the same doleful tone he added suddenly, “Mon cher ami, do you happen to have—what do you call it—three roubles?”

“Ah, no, alas!” sighed Romashov.

“Well, one rouble, then?”


Désagréable. The old, old story. At any rate, I suppose we can take a glass of vodka together?”

“Alas, alas! Peter Taddeevich, I have no further credit.”

“Oh! O pauvre enfant! But it does not matter, come along!” Bobetinski waved his hand with an air of magnanimity. “I will treat you.”

Meanwhile, in the dining-room the conversation had become more and more high-pitched and interesting for some of those present. The talk was about certain officers’ duels that had lately taken place, and opinions were evidently much divided.

The speaker at that moment was Artschakovski, a rather obscure individual who was suspected, not without reason, of cheating at cards. There was a story current about him, which was whispered about, to the effect that, before he entered the regiment, when he still belonged to the reserves, he had been head of a posting-station, and was arrested and condemned for killing a post-boy by a blow of his fist.

“Duels may often be necessary among the fools and dandies of the Guards,” exclaimed Artschakovski roughly, “but it is not the same thing with us. Let us assume for an instance that I and Vasili Vasilich Lipski get blind drunk at mess, and that I, who am a bachelor, whilst drunk, box his ears. What will be the result? Well, either he refuses to exchange a couple of bullets with me, and is consequently turned out of the regiment, or he accepts the challenge and gets a bullet in his stomach; but in either case his children will die of starvation. No, all that sort of thing is sheer nonsense.”

“Wait a bit,” interrupted the old toper, Lieutenant-Colonel Liech, as he held his glass with one hand and with the other made several languid motions in the air; “do you understand what the honour of the uniform is? It is the sort of thing, my dear fellow, which—— But speaking of duels, I remember an event that happened in 1862 in the Temriukski Regiment.”

“For God’s sake,” exclaimed Artschakovski, interrupting him in turn, “spare us your old stories or tell us something that took place after the reign of King Orre.”

“What cheek! you are only a little boy compared with me. Well, as I was saying——”

“Only blood can wipe out the stain of an insult,” stammered Bobetinski, who plumed himself on being a cock, and now took part in the conversation in a bragging tone.

“Well, gentlemen, there was at that time a certain ensign—Solúcha,” said Liech, making one more attempt.

Captain Osadchi, commander of the 1st Company, approached from the buffet.

“I hear that you are talking about duels—most interesting,” he began in a gruff, rolling bass that reminded one of a lion’s roar, and immediately drowned every murmur in the room. “I have the honour, Lieutenant-Colonel. Good-evening, gentlemen.”

“Ah! what do I see—the Colossus of Rhodes? Come and sit down,” replied Liech affably. “Come and have a glass with me, you prince of giants.”

“All right,” answered Osadchi in an octave lower.

This officer always had a curiously unnerving effect on Romashov, and at the same time aroused in him a mingled feeling of fear and curiosity. Osadchi was no less famous than Shulgovich, not only in the regiment but also in the whole division, for his deafening voice when giving the word of command, his gigantic build, and tremendous physical strength. He was also renowned for his remarkable knowledge of the service and its requirements. Now and then it even happened that Osadchi was, in the interests of the service, removed from his own regiment to another, and he usually succeeded, in the course of half a year, in turning the most backward, good-for-nothing troops into exemplary war-machines. His magic power seemed much more incomprehensible to his brother officers inasmuch as he never—or at least in very rare instances—had recourse to blows or insults. Romashov always thought he could perceive, behind those handsome, gloomy, set features, the extreme paleness of which was thrown into stronger relief by the bluish-black hair, something strained, masterly, alluring, and cruel—a gigantic, bloodthirsty wild beast. Often whilst observing Osadchi unseen from a distance, Romashov would try to imagine what the man would be like if he were in a rage, and, at the very thought of it, his limbs froze with fear. And now, without a thought of protesting, he saw how Osadchi, with the careless calm that enormous physical strength always lends, coolly sat down on the seat intended for himself.

Osadchi drained his glass, nibbled a crisp radish, and said in a tone of indifference—

“Well, what is the verdict?”

“That story, my dear friend,” Liech put in, “I will tell you at once. It was at the time when I was serving in the Temriukski Regiment, a Lieutenant von Zoon—the soldiers called him ‘Pod-Zvoon’—who, on a certain occasion, happened to be at mess——”

Here, however, Liech was interrupted by Lipski, a red-faced, thick-set staff captain who, in spite of his good forty years, did not think it beneath him to be the Jack-pudding in ordinary and butt of the men, and by virtue thereof had assumed the insolent, jocular tone of a spoilt favourite.

“Allow me, Captain, to put the matter in a nutshell. Lieutenant Artschakovski says that duels are nothing but madness and folly. For such heresy he ought to be sent with a bursary to a seminary for priests—but enough of that. But to get on with the story, Lieutenant Bobetinski took up the debate and demanded blood. Then came Lieutenant-Colonel Liech with his hoary chestnuts, which, on that occasion, by a wonderful dispensation of Providence, we managed to escape. After that, Sub-lieutenant Michin tried, in the midst of the general noise, to expound his views, which were more and more undistinguishable both from the speaker’s insufficient strength of lungs and his well-known bashfulness.”

Sub-lieutenant Michin—an undersized youth with sunken chest, dark, pock-marked, freckled face and two timid, almost frightened eyes—blushed till the tears came into his eyes.

“Gentlemen, I only—gentlemen, I may be mistaken,” he said, “but, in my opinion—I mean in other words, as I look at the matter, every particular case ought necessarily to be considered by itself.” He now began to bow and stammer worse and worse, at the same time grabbing nervously with the tips of his fingers at his invisible moustaches. “A duel may occasionally be useful, even necessary, nobody can deny, and I suppose there is no one among us who will not approach the lists—when honour demands it. That is, as I have said, indisputable; but, gentlemen, sometimes the highest honour might also be found in—in holding out the hand of reconciliation. Well, of course, I cannot now say on what occasions this——”

“Ugh! you wretched Ivanovich,” exclaimed Artschakovski, interrupting him in a rude and contemptuous tone, “don’t stand here mumbling. Go home to your dear mamma and the feeding-bottle.”

“Gentlemen, won’t you allow me to finish what I was going to say?”

But Osadchi with his powerful bass voice put a stop to the dispute. In a second there was silence in the room.

“Every duel, gentlemen, must, above all, end in death for at least one of the parties, otherwise it is absurd. Directly coddling or humanity, so-called, comes in, the whole thing is turned into a farce. ‘Fifteen paces distance and only one shot.’ How damnably pitiful! Such a deplorable event only happens in such tomfooleries as are called French duels, which one reads about, now and then, in our papers. They meet, each fires a bullet out of a toy pistol, and the thing is over. Then come the cursed newspaper hacks with their report on the duel, which invariably winds up thus: ‘The duel went off satisfactorily. Both adversaries exchanged shots without inflicting any injury on either party, and both displayed the greatest courage during the whole time. At the breakfast, after the champagne, both the former mortal enemies fell into each other’s arms, etc.’ A duel like that, gentlemen, is nothing but a scandal, and does nothing to raise the tone of our society.”

Several of the company tried to speak at once. Liech, in particular, made a last despairing attack on those present to finish his story:

“Well, well, my friends, it was like this—but listen, you puppies.”

Nobody, however, did listen to his adjurations, and his supplicating glances wandered in vain over the gathering, seeking for a deliverer and ally. All turned disrespectfully away, eagerly engrossed in that interesting subject, and Liech shook his head sorrowfully. At last he caught sight of Romashov. The young officer had the same miserable experience as his comrades with regard to the old Lieutenant-Colonel’s talents as a story-teller, but his heart grew soft, and he determined to sacrifice himself. Liech dragged his prey away with him to the table.

“This—well—come and listen to me, Ensign. Ah, sit here and drink a glass with me. All the others are mere asses and loons.” Liech, with considerable difficulty, raised his languid arm and made a contemptuous gesture towards the group of officers. “Buzz, buzz, buzz! What understanding or experience is there amongst such things? But wait a bit, you shall hear.”

Glass in one hand, the other waving in the air as if he were the conductor of a big orchestra, Liech began one of his interminable stories with which he was larded—like sausages with liver—and which he never brought to a conclusion because of an endless number of divagations from the subject, parentheses, embroideries, and analogues. The anecdote in question was about an American duel, Heaven only knows how many years ago, between two officers who, playing for their lives, guessed odd and even on the last figure of a date on a rouble-note. But one of them—it was never quite cleared up as to whether it was a certain Pod-Zvoon or his friend Solúcha—was blackguard enough to paste together two rouble-notes of different dates of issue, whereby the front had always an even date, but the back an odd one—“or perhaps it was the other way about,” pondered Liech long and conscientiously. “You see, my dear fellow, they of course then began to dispute. One of them said——”

Alas, however, Liech did not even this time get to the end of his story. Madame Raisa Alexandrovna Peterson had glided into the buffet. Standing at the door, but not entering, which was, moreover, not permitted to ladies, she shouted with the roguishness and audacity of a privileged young lady:

“Gentlemen, what do I see? The ladies have arrived long ago, and here you are sitting and having a good old time. We want to dance.”

Two or three young officers arose to go into the ballroom. The rest coolly remained sitting where they were, chatting, drinking, and smoking, without taking the slightest notice of the coquettish lady. Only Liech, the chivalrous old professional flirt, strutted up with bandy, uncertain legs to Raisa, with hands crossed over his chest—and pouring the contents of his glass over his uniform, cried with a drunken emotion:

“Most divine among women, how can any one forget his duties to a queen of beauty? Your hand, my charmer; just one kiss——”

“Yuri Alexievich,” Raisa babbled, “it’s your turn to-day to arrange the dancing. You are a nice one to do that.”

Mille pardons, madame. C’est ma faute. This is my fault,” cried Bobetinski, as he flew off to her. On the way he improvised a sort of ballet with scrapes, bounds, genuflections, and a lot of wonderful attitudes and gestures. “Your hand. Votre main, madame. Gentlemen, to the ballroom, to the ballroom!”

He offered his arm to Raisa Alexandrovna, and walked out of the room as proud as a peacock. Directly afterwards he was heard shouting in his well-known, affected tone:

Messieurs, take partners for a waltz. Band! a waltz!”

“Excuse me, Colonel, I am obliged to go now. Duty calls me,” said Romashov.

“Ah, my dear fellow,” replied Liech, as his head drooped with a dejected look—“are you, too, such a coxcomb as the others? But wait just a moment, Ensign; have you heard the story of Moltke—about the great Field-Marshal Moltke, the strategist?”

“Colonel, on my honour, I must really go—I——”

“Well, well, don’t get excited. I won’t be long. You see, it was like this: the great Man of Silence used to take his meals in the officers’ mess, and every day he laid in front of him on the table a purse full of gold with the intention of bestowing it on the first officer from whose lips he heard a single intelligent word. Well, at last, you know, the old man died after having borne with this world for ninety years, but—you see—the purse had always been in safe keeping. Now run along, my boy. Go and hop about like a sparrow.”

< < < Chapter VII
Chapter IX > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

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