The Duel by Alexander Kuprin

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

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Chapter X > > >

Chapter IX

IN the ballroom, the walls of which seemed to vibrate in the same rhythm as the deafening music, two couples were dancing. Bobetinski, whose elbows flapped like a pair of wings, pirouetted with short, quick steps around his partner, Madame Taliman, who was dancing with the stately composure of a stone monument. The gigantic Artschakovski of the fair locks made the youngest of the Lykatschev girls, a little thing with rosy cheeks, rotate round him, whereas he, leaning forward, and closely observing his partner’s hair and shoulders, moved his legs as if he were dancing with a child. Fifteen ladies lined the walls quite deserted, and trying to look as if they did not mind it. As, which was always the case at these soirées, the gentlemen numbered less than a quarter of the ladies, the prospect of a lively and enjoyable evening was not particularly promising.

Raisa Alexandrovna, who had just opened the ball, and was, therefore, the object of the other ladies’ envy, was now dancing with the slender, ceremonious Olisár. He held one of her hands as if it had been fixed to his left side. She supported her chin in a languishing way against her other hand, which rested on his right shoulder. She kept her head far thrown back in an affected and unnatural attitude. When the dance was over she sat purposely near Romashov, who was leaning against the doorpost of the ladies’ dressing-room. She fanned herself violently, and looking up to Olisár, who was leaning over her, lisped in a soft dolcissimo:

“Tell me, Count, tell me, please, why do I always feel so hot? Do tell me.”

Olisár made a slight bow, clicked his spurs, stroked his moustache several times.

“Dear lady, that is a question which I don’t think even Martin Sadek could answer.”

When Olisár cast a scrutinizing glance at the fair Raisa’s décolleté bosom, pitiable and bare as the desert itself, she began at once to breathe quickly and deeply.

“Ah, I have always an abnormally high temperature,” Raisa Alexandrovna went on to say with a significant expression, insinuating by her smile that her words had a double meaning. “I suffer, too, from an unusually fiery temperament.”

Olisár gave vent to a short, soft chuckle.

Romashov stood looking sideways at Raisa, thinking with disgust, “Oh, how loathsome she is.” And at the thought that he had once enjoyed her favours, he experienced the sensation as if he had not changed his linen for months.

“Well, well, Count, don’t laugh. Perhaps you do not know that my mother was a Greek?”

“And how horribly she speaks, too,” thought Romashov. “Curious that I never noticed this before. It sounds as if she had a chronic cold or a polypus in her nose—‘by buther was a Greek.’”

Now Raisa turned to Romashov and threw him a challenging glance.

Romashov mentally said, “His face became impassive like a mask.”

“How do you do, Yuri Alexievich? Why don’t you come and speak to me?” Romashov went up to her. With a venomous glance from her small, sharp eyes she pressed his hand. The pupils of her eyes stood motionless.

“At your desire I have kept the third quadrille for you. I hope you have not forgotten that.”

Romashov bowed.

“You are very polite! At least you might say Enchanté, madame!” (“Edchadté, badabe” was what Romashov heard.) “Isn’t he a blockhead, Count?”

“Of course, I remember,” mumbled Romashov insincerely. “I thank you for the great honour.”

Bobetinski did nothing to liven up the evening. He conducted the ball with an apathetic, condescending look, just as if he was performing, from a strict sense of duty, something very distasteful and uninteresting to himself, but of infinite importance to the rest of mankind. When, however, the third quadrille was about to begin, he got, as it were, a little new life, and, as he hurried across the room with the long gliding steps of a skater, he shouted in a loud voice:

Quadrille monstre! Cavaliers, engagez vos dames!

Romashov and Raisa Alexandrovna took up a position close to the window of the music gallery, with Michin and Madame Lieschtschenko for their vis-à-vis. The latter hardly reached up to her partner’s shoulders. The number of dancers had now very noticeably increased, and the couples stood up for the third quadrille. Every dance had therefore to be repeated twice.

“There must be an explanation; this must be put a stop to,” thought Romashov, almost deafened by the noise of the big drums and the braying brass instruments in his immediate proximity. “I have had enough! ‘And in his countenance you could read fixed resolution.’”

The “dancing-masters” and those who arranged the regimental balls had preserved by tradition certain fairly innocent frolics and jokes for such soirées, which were greatly appreciated by the younger dancers. For instance, at the third quadrille it was customary, as it were accidentally, by changing the dances, to cause confusion among the dancers, who with uproar and laughter did their part in increasing the general disorder. Bobetinski’s device that evening consisted in the gentlemen pretending to forget their partners and dancing the figure by themselves. Suddenly a “galop all round” was ordered, the result of which was a chaos of ladies and gentlemen rushing about in fruitless search for their respective partners.

Mesdames, avancez—pardon, reculez. Gentlemen, alone. Pardon—balancez avec vos dames!

Raisa Alexandrovna kept talking to Romashov in the most virulent tone and panting with fury, but smiling all the while as if her conversation was wholly confined to pleasant and joyous subjects.

“I will not allow any one to treat me in such a manner, do you hear? I am not a good-for-nothing girl you can do as you like with. Besides, decent people don’t behave as you are behaving.”

“Raisa Alexandrovna, for goodness’ sake try to curb your temper,” begged Romashov in a low, imploring tone.

“Angry with you? No, sir, that would be to pay you too high a compliment. I despise you, do you hear? Despise you; but woe to him who dares to play with my feelings! You left my letter unanswered. How dare you?”

“But your letter did not reach me, I assure you.”

“Ha! don’t try to humbug me. I know your lies, and I also know where you spend your time. Don’t make any mistake about that.

“Do you think I don’t know this woman, this Lilliput queen, and her intrigues? Rather, you may be sure of that,” Raisa went on to say. “She fondly imagines she’s a somebody; yes, she does! Her father was a thieving notary.”

“I must beg you, in my presence, to express yourself in a more decent manner in regard to my friends,” interrupted Romashov sharply.

Then and there a painful scene occurred. Raisa stormed and broke out in a torrent of aspersions on Shurochka. The fury within her had now the mastery; her artificial smiles were banished, and she even tried to drown the music by her snuffly voice. Romashov, conscious of his impotence to try to put in a word in defence of the grossly insulted Shurochka, was distracted with shame and wrath. In addition to this were the intolerable din of the band and the disagreeable attention of the bystanders, which his partner’s unbridled fury was beginning to attract.

“Yes, her father was a common thief; she has nothing to stick her nose in the air about and she ought, to be sure, to be very careful not to give herself airs!” shrieked Raisa. “And for a thing like that to dare to look down on us! We know something else about her, too!”

“I implore you!” whispered Romashov.

“Don’t make any mistake about it; both you and she shall feel my claws. In the first place, I shall open her husband’s eyes—the eyes of that fool Nikoläiev, who has, for the third time, been ‘ploughed’ in his exam. But what else can one expect from a fool like that, who does not know what is going on under his nose? And it is certainly no longer any secret who the lover is.”

Mazurka générale! Promenade!” howled Bobetinski, who at that moment was strutting through the room with the pomp of an archangel.

The floor rocked under the heavy tramping of the dancers, and the muslin curtains and coloured lamps moved in unison with the notes of the mazurka.

“Why cannot we part as friends?” Romashov asked in a shy tone. He felt within himself that this woman not only caused him indescribable disgust, but also aroused in his heart a cowardice he could not subdue, and which filled him with self-contempt. “You no longer love me; let us part good friends.”

“Ha! ha! You’re frightened; you’re trying to cut my claws. No, my fine fellow. I am not one of those who are thrown aside with impunity. It is I, mind you, who throw aside one who causes me disgust and loathing—not the other way about. And as for your baseness——”

“That’s enough; let’s end all this talk,” said Romashov, interrupting her in a hollow voice and with clenched teeth.

“Five minutes’ entr’acteCavaliers, occupez vos dames!” shouted Bobetinski.

“I’ll end it when I think fit. You have deceived me shamefully. For you I have sacrificed all that a virtuous woman can bestow. It is your fault that I dare not look my husband in the face—my husband, the best and noblest man on earth. It’s you who made me forget my duties as wife and mother. Oh, why, why did I not remain true to him!”

Romashov could not, however, now refrain from a smile. Raisa Alexandrovna’s innumerable amours with all the young, new-fledged officers in the regiment were an open secret, and both by word of mouth and in her letters to Romashov she was in the habit of referring to her “beloved husband” in the following terms: “my fool,” or “that despicable creature,” or “this booby who is always in the way,” etc., etc.

“Ah, you have even the impudence to laugh,” she hissed; “but look out now, sir, it is my turn.”

With these words she took her partner’s arm and tripped along, with swaying hips and smiling a vinegary smile on all sides. When the dance was over her face resumed its former expression of hatred. Again she began to buzz savagely—“like an angry wasp,” thought Romashov.

“I shall never forgive you this, do you hear? Never. I know the reason why you have thrown me over so shamelessly and in such a blackguardly fashion; but don’t fondly imagine that a new love-intrigue will be successful. No; never, as long as I live, shall that be the case. Instead of acknowledging in a straightforward and honourable way that you no longer love me, you have preferred to cloak your treachery and treat me like a vulgar harlot, reasoning, I suppose, like this: ‘If it does not come off with the other, I always have her, you know.’ Ha! ha! ha!”

“All right, you may perhaps allow me to speak decently,” began Romashov, with restrained wrath. His face grew paler and paler, and he bit his lips nervously. “You have asked for it, and now I tell you straight. I do not love you.”

“Oh, what an insult!”

“I have never loved you; nor did you love me. We have both played an unworthy and false game, a miserable, vulgar farce with a nauseous plot and disgusting rôles. Raisa Alexandrovna, I have studied you, and I know you, very likely, better than you do yourself. You lack every requisite of love, tenderness, nay, even common affection. The cause of it is your absolutely superficial character, your narrow, petty outlook on life. And, besides” (Romashov happened to remember at this point Nasanski’s words), “only elect, refined natures can know what a great or real love is.”

“Such elect, refined natures, for instance, as your own.”

Once more the band thundered forth. Romashov looked almost with hatred at the trombone’s wide, shining mouth, that, with the most cynical indifference, flung out its hoarse, howling notes over the whole of the room. And its fellow-culprit—the poor soldier who, with the full force of his lungs, gave life to the instrument—was with his bulging eyes and blue, swollen cheeks, no less an object of his dislike and disgust.

“Don’t let us quarrel about it. It is likely enough that I am not worthy of a great and real love, but we are not discussing that now. The fact is that you, with your narrow, provincial views and silly vanity, must needs always be surrounded by men dancing attendance on you, so that you may be able to boast about it to your lady friends in what you are pleased to call ‘Society.’ And possibly you think I have not understood the purpose of your ostentatiously familiar manner with me at the regimental soirées, your tender glances, etc., the intimately dictatorial tone you always assume when we are seen together. Yes, precisely the chief object was that people should notice the free-and-easy way in which you treated me. Except for this all your game would not have had the slightest meaning, for no real love or affection on my part has ever formed part of your—programme.”

“Even if such had been the case I might well have chosen a better and more worthy object than you,” replied Raisa, in a haughty and scornful tone.

“Such an answer from you is too ridiculous to insult me; for, listen, I repeat once more, your absurd vanity demands that some slave should always be dancing attendance on you. But the years come and go, and the number of your slaves diminishes. Finally, in order not to be entirely without admirers, you are forced to sacrifice your plighted troth, your duties as wife and mother.”

“No; but that’s quite sufficient. You shall most certainly hear from me,” whispered Raisa, in a significant tone and with glittering eyes.

At that moment, Captain Peterson came across the room with many absurd skips and shuffles in order to avoid colliding with the dancers. He was a thin, consumptive man with a yellow complexion, bald head, and black eyes, in the warm and moist glance of which lurked treachery and malice. It was said of him that, curiously enough, he was to such an extent infatuated with his wife that he played the part of intimate friend, in an unctuous and sickening way, with all her lovers. It was likewise common knowledge that he had tried by means of acrimonious perfidy and the most vulgar intrigues to be revenged on every single person who had, with joy and relief, turned his back on the fair Raisa’s withered charms.

He smiled from a distance at his wife and Romashov with his bluish, pursed lips.

“Are you dancing, Romashov? Well, how are you, my dear Georgi? Where have you been all this time? My wife and I were so used to your company that we have been quite dull without you.”

“Been awfully busy,” mumbled Romashov.

“Ah, yes, we all know about those military duties,” replied Captain Peterson, with a little insinuating whistle that was directly changed into an amicable smile. His black eyes with their yellow pupils wandered, however, from Raisa to Romashov inquisitively.

“I have an idea that you two have been quarrelling. Why do you both look so cross? What has happened?”

Romashov stood silent whilst he gazed, worried and embarrassed, at Raisa’s skinny, dark, sinewy neck. Raisa answered promptly, with the easy insolence she invariably displayed when lying:

“Yuri Alexievich is playing the philosopher. He declares that dancing is both stupid and ridiculous, and that he has seen his best days.”

“And yet he dances?” replied the Captain, with a quick, snake-like glance at Romashov. “Dance away, my children, and don’t let me disturb you.”

He had scarcely got out of earshot before Raisa Alexandrovna, in a hypocritical, pathetic tone, burst out with, “And I have deceived this saint, this noblest of husbands. And for whom?—Oh, if he knew all, if he only knew!”

Mazurka générale,” shrieked Bobetinski. “Gentlemen, resume your partners.”

The violently perspiring bodies of the dancers and the dust arising from the parquet floor made the air of the ballroom close, and the lights in the lamps and candelabra took a dull yellow tint. The dancing was now in full swing, but as the space was insufficient, each couple, who every moment squeezed and pushed against one another, was obliged to tramp on the very same spot. This figure—the last in the quadrille—consisted in a gentleman, who was without a partner, pursuing a couple who were dancing. If he managed to come face to face with a lady he clapped her on the hand, which meant that the lady was now his booty. The lady’s usual partner tried, of course, to prevent this, but by this arose a disorder and uproar which often resulted in some very brutal incidents.

“Actress,” whispered Romashov hoarsely, as he bent nearer to Raisa. “You’re as pitiable as you are ridiculous.”

“And you are drunk,” the worthy lady almost shrieked, giving Romashov at the same time a glance resembling that with which the heroine on the stage measures the villain of the piece from head to foot.

“It only remains for me to find out,” pursued Romashov mercilessly, “the exact reason why I was chosen by you. But this, however, is a question which I can answer myself. You gave yourself to me in order to get a hold on me. Oh, if this had been done out of love or from sentiment merely! But you were actuated by a base vanity. Are you not frightened at the mere thought of the depths into which we have both sunk, without even a spark of love that might redeem the crime? You must understand that this is even more wretched than when a woman sells herself for money. Then dire necessity is frequently the tempter. But in this case—the memory of this senseless, unpardonable crime will always be to me a source of shame and loathing.”

With cold perspiration on his forehead and distraction in his weary eyes, he gazed on the couples dancing. Past him—hardly lifting her feet and without looking at her partner—sailed the majestic Madame Taliman, with motionless shoulders and an ironical, menacing countenance, as if she meant to protect herself against the slightest liberty or insult. Epifanov skipped round her like a little frisky goat. Then glided little Miss Lykatschev, flushed of face, with gleaming eyes, and bare, white, virginal bosom. Then came Olisár with his slender, elegant legs, straight and stiff as a sparrow’s. Romashov felt a burning headache and a strong, almost uncontrollable desire to weep; but beside him still stood Raisa, pale with suppressed rage. With an exaggerated theatrical gesture she fired at him the following sarcasm—

“Did any one ever hear such a thing before? A Russian Infantry lieutenant playing the part of the chaste Joseph? Ha, ha, ha!”

“Yes, quite so, my lady. Precisely that part,” replied Romashov, glaring with wrath. “I know too well that it is humiliating and ridiculous. Nevertheless, I am not ashamed to express my sorrow that I should have so degraded myself. With our eyes open we have both flung ourselves into a cesspool, and I know that I shall never again deserve a pure and noble woman’s love. Who is to blame for this? Well, you. Bear this well in mind—you, you, you—for you were the older and more experienced of us two, especially in affairs of that sort.”

Raisa Alexandrovna got up hurriedly from her chair. “That will do,” she replied in a dramatic tone. “You have got what you wanted. I hate you. I hope henceforward you will cease to visit a home where you were received as a friend and relation, where you were entertained and fed, and where, too, you were found out to be the scoundrel you are. Oh, that I had the courage to reveal everything to my husband—that incomparable creature, that saint whom I venerate. Were he only convinced of what has happened he would, I think, know how to avenge the wounded honour of a helpless, insulted woman. He would kill you.”

Romashov looked through his eyeglass at her big, faded mouth, her features distorted by hate and rage. The infernal music from the open windows of the gallery continued with unimpaired strength; the intolerable bassoon howled worse than ever, and, thought Romashov, the bass drum had now come into immediate contact with his brain.

Raisa shut her fan with a snap that echoed through the ballroom. “Oh, you—lowest of all blackguards on earth,” whispered she, with a theatrical gesture, and then disappeared into the ladies’ retiring-room.

All was now over and done with, but Romashov did not experience the relief he expected. This long-nourished hope to feel his soul freed from a heavy, unclean burthen was not fulfilled. His strict, avenging conscience told him that he had acted in a cowardly, low, and boorish way when he cast all the blame on a weak, narrow, wretched woman who, most certainly at that moment, in the ladies’-room, was, through him, shedding bitter, hysterical tears of sorrow, shame, and impotent rage.

“I am sinking more and more deeply,” thought he, in disgust at himself. What had his life been? what had it consisted of? An odious and wanton liaison, gambling, drinking, soul-killing, monotonous regimental routine, with never a single inspiriting word, never a ray of light in this black, hopeless darkness. Salutary, useful work, music, art, science, where were they?

He returned to the dining-room. There he met Osadchi and his friend Viätkin, who with much trouble was making his way in the direction of the street door. Liech, now quite drunk, was helplessly wobbling in different directions, whilst in a fuddled voice he kept asserting that he was—an archbishop. Osadchi intoned in reply with the most serious countenance and a low, rolling bass, whilst carefully following the ecclesiastical ritual—

“Your high, refulgent Excellency, the hour of burial has struck. Give us your blessing, etc.”

As the soirée approached its end, the gathering in the dining-room grew more noisy and lively. The room was already so full of tobacco smoke that those sitting at opposite sides of the table could not recognize each other. Cards were being played in one corner; by the window a small but select set had assembled to edify one another by racy stories—the spice most appreciated at officers’ dinners and suppers.

“No, no, no, gentlemen,” shrieked Artschakovski, “allow me to put in a word. You see it was this way: a soldier was quartered at the house of a khokhol[14] who had a pretty wife. Ho, ho, thought the soldier, that is something for me.”

Then, however, he was interrupted by Vasili Vasilievich, who had been waiting long and impatiently—

“Shut up with your old stories, Artschakovski. You shall hear this. Once upon a time in Odessa there——”

But even he was not allowed to speak very long. The generality of the stories were rather poor and devoid of wit, but, to make up for that, they were interspersed with coarse and repulsive cynicisms. Viätkin, who had now returned from the street, where he had been paying his respects to Liech’s “interment” and holy “departure,” invited Romashov to sit down at the table.

“Sit you here, my dear Georginka.[15] We will watch them. To-day I am as rich as a Jew. I won yesterday, and to-day I shall take the bank again.”

Romashov only longed to lighten his heart, for a friend to whom he might tell his sorrow and his disgust at life. After draining his glass he looked at Viätkin with beseeching eyes, and began to talk in a voice quivering with deep, inward emotion.

“Pavel Pavlich, we all seem to have completely forgotten the existence of another life. Where it is I cannot say; I only know that it exists. Even in that men must struggle, suffer, and love, but that life is rich—rich in great thoughts and noble deeds. For here, my friend, what do you suppose our life is, and how will such a miserable existence as ours end some day?”

“Well, yes, old fellow—but it’s life,” replied Viätkin in a sleepy way. “Life after all is—only natural philosophy and energy. And what is energy?”

“Oh, what a wretched existence,” Romashov went on to say with increasing emotion, and without listening to Viätkin. “To-day we booze at mess till we are drunk; to-morrow we meet at drill—’one, two, left, right’—in the evening we again assemble round the bottle. Just the same, year in, year out. That’s what makes up our life. How disgusting!”

Viätkin peered at him with sleepy eyes, hiccoughed, and then suddenly started singing in a weak falsetto:—

“In the dark, stilly forest
There once dwelt a maiden,
She sat at her distaff
By day and by night.

“Take care of your health, my angel, and to the deuce with the rest.

“Romashevich! Romaskovski! let’s go to the board of green cloth. I’ll lend you a——”

“No one understands me, and I have not a single friend here,” sighed Romashov mournfully. The next moment he remembered Shurochka—the splendid, high-minded Shurochka, and he felt in his heart a delicious and melancholy sensation, coupled with hopelessness and quiet resignation.

He stayed in the mess-room till daybreak, watched them playing schtoss, and now and then took a hand at the game, yet without feeling the slightest pleasure or interest in it. Once he noticed how Artschakovski, who was playing at a little private table with two ensigns, made rather a stupid, but none the less successful, attempt to cheat. Romashov thought for a moment of taking up the matter and exposing the fraud, but checked himself suddenly, saying to himself: “Oh, what’s the use! I should not improve matters by interfering.”

Viätkin, who had lost, in less than five minutes, his boasted “millions,” sat sleeping on a chair, with his eyes wide open and his face as white as a sheet. Beside Romashov sat the eternal Lieschtschenko with his mournful eyes fixed on the game. Day began to dawn. The guttering candle-ends’ half-extinguished, yellowish flames flickered dully in their sticks, and illumined by their weak and uncertain light the pale, emaciated features of the gamblers. But Romashov kept staring at the cards, the heaps of silver and notes, and the green cloth scrawled all over with chalk; and in his heavy, weary head the same cruel, torturing thoughts of a worthless, unprofitable life ran incessantly.

< < < Chapter VIII
Chapter X > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryAlexander Kuprin – The Duel – Contents

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