A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov

Book IV: The Second Extract from Pechorin’s Diary

The Fatalist

I ONCE happened to spend a couple of weeks in a Cossack village on our left flank. A battalion of infantry was stationed there; and it was the custom of the officers to meet at each other’s quarters in turn and play cards in the evening.

On one occasion — it was at Major S——‘s — finding our game of Boston not sufficiently absorbing, we threw the cards under the table and sat on for a long time, talking. The conversation, for once in a way, was interesting. The subject was the Mussulman tradition that a man’s fate is written in heaven, and we discussed the fact that it was gaining many votaries, even amongst our own countrymen. Each of us related various extraordinary occurrences, pro or contra.

“What you have been saying, gentlemen, proves nothing,” said the old major. “I presume there is not one of you who has actually been a witness of the strange events which you are citing in support of your opinions?”

“Not one, of course,” said many of the guests. “But we have heard of them from trustworthy people.” . . .

“It is all nonsense!” someone said. “Where are the trustworthy people who have seen the Register in which the appointed hour of our death is recorded? . . . And if predestination really exists, why are free will and reason granted us? Why are we obliged to render an account of our actions?”

At that moment an officer who was sitting in a corner of the room stood up, and, coming slowly to the table, surveyed us all with a quiet and solemn glance. He was a native of Servia, as was evident from his name.

The outward appearance of Lieutenant Vulich was quite in keeping with his character. His height, swarthy complexion, black hair, piercing black eyes, large but straight nose — an attribute of his nation — and the cold and melancholy smile which ever hovered around his lips, all seemed to concur in lending him the appearance of a man apart, incapable of reciprocating the thoughts and passions of those whom fate gave him for companions.

He was brave; talked little, but sharply; confided his thoughts and family secrets to no one; drank hardly a drop of wine; and never dangled after the young Cossack girls, whose charm it is difficult to realise without having seen them. It was said, however, that the colonel’s wife was not indifferent to those expressive eyes of his; but he was seriously angry if any hint on the subject was made.

There was only one passion which he did not conceal — the passion for gambling. At the green table he would become oblivious of everything. He usually lost, but his constant ill success only aroused his obstinacy. It was related that, on one occasion, during a nocturnal expedition, he was keeping the bank on a pillow, and had a terrific run of luck. Suddenly shots rang out. The alarm was sounded; all but Vulich jumped up and rushed to arms.

“Stake, va banque!” he cried to one of the most ardent gamblers.

“Seven,” the latter answered as he hurried off.

Notwithstanding the general confusion, Vulich calmly finished the deal — seven was the card. By the time he reached the cordon a violent fusillade was in progress. Vulich did not trouble himself about the bullets or the sabres of the Chechenes, but sought for the lucky gambler.

“Seven it was!” he cried out, as at length he perceived him in the cordon of skirmishers who were beginning to dislodge the enemy from the wood; and going up to him, he drew out his purse and pocket-book and handed them to the winner, notwithstanding the latter’s objections on the score of the inconvenience of the payment. That unpleasant duty discharged, Vulich dashed forward, carried the soldiers along after him, and, to the very end of the affair, fought the Chechenes with the utmost coolness.

When Lieutenant Vulich came up to the table, we all became silent, expecting to hear, as usual, something original.

“Gentlemen!” he said — and his voice was quiet though lower in tone than usual — “gentlemen, what is the good of futile discussions? You wish for proofs? I propose that we try the experiment on ourselves: whether a man can of his own accord dispose of his life, or whether the fateful moment is appointed beforehand for each of us. Who is agreeable?”

“Not I. Not I,” came from all sides.

“There’s a queer fellow for you! He does get strange ideas into his head!”

“I propose a wager,” I said in jest.

“What sort of wager?”

“I maintain that there is no such thing as predestination,” I said, scattering on the table a score or so of ducats — all I had in my pocket.

“Done,” answered Vulich in a hollow voice. “Major, you will be judge. Here are fifteen ducats, the remaining five you owe me, kindly add them to the others.”

“Very well,” said the major; “though, indeed, I do not understand what is the question at issue and how you will decide it!”

Without a word Vulich went into the major’s bedroom, and we followed him. He went up to the wall on which the major’s weapons were hanging, and took down at random one of the pistols — of which there were several of different calibres. We were still in the dark as to what he meant to do. But, when he cocked the pistol and sprinkled powder in the pan, several of the officers, crying out in spite of themselves, seized him by the arms.

“What are you going to do?” they exclaimed. “This is madness!”

“Gentlemen!” he said slowly, disengaging his arm. “Who would like to pay twenty ducats for me?”

They were silent and drew away.

Vulich went into the other room and sat by the table; we all followed him. With a sign he invited us to sit round him. We obeyed in silence — at that moment he had acquired a certain mysterious authority over us. I stared fixedly into his face; but he met my scrutinising gaze with a quiet and steady glance, and his pallid lips smiled. But, notwithstanding his composure, it seemed to me that I could read the stamp of death upon his pale countenance. I have noticed — and many old soldiers have corroborated my observation — that a man who is to die in a few hours frequently bears on his face a certain strange stamp of inevitable fate, so that it is difficult for practised eyes to be mistaken.

“You will die to-day!” I said to Vulich.

He turned towards me rapidly, but answered slowly and quietly:

“May be so, may be not.” . . .

Then, addressing himself to the major, he asked:

“Is the pistol loaded?”

The major, in the confusion, could not quite remember.

“There, that will do, Vulich!” exclaimed somebody. “Of course it must be loaded, if it was one of those hanging on the wall there over our heads. What a man you are for joking!”

“A silly joke, too!” struck in another.

“I wager fifty rubles to five that the pistol is not loaded!” cried a third.

A new bet was made.

I was beginning to get tired of it all.

“Listen,” I said, “either shoot yourself, or hang up the pistol in its place and let us go to bed.”

“Yes, of course!” many exclaimed. “Let us go to bed.”

“Gentlemen, I beg of you not to move,” said Vulich, putting the muzzle of the pistol to his forehead.

We were all petrified.

“Mr. Pechorin,” he added, “take a card and throw it up in the air.”

I took, as I remember now, an ace of hearts off the table and threw it into the air. All held their breath. With eyes full of terror and a certain vague curiosity they glanced rapidly from the pistol to the fateful ace, which slowly descended, quivering in the air. At the moment it touched the table Vulich pulled the trigger . . . a flash in the pan!

“Thank God!” many exclaimed. “It wasn’t loaded!”

“Let us see, though,” said Vulich.

He cocked the pistol again, and took aim at a forage-cap which was hanging above the window. A shot rang out. Smoke filled the room; when it cleared away, the forage-cap was taken down. It had been shot right through the centre, and the bullet was deeply embedded in the wall.

For two or three minutes no one was able to utter a word. Very quietly Vulich poured my ducats from the major’s purse into his own.

Discussions arose as to why the pistol had not gone off the first time. Some maintained that probably the pan had been obstructed; others whispered that the powder had been damp the first time, and that, afterwards, Vulich had sprinkled some fresh powder on it; but I maintained that the last supposition was wrong, because I had not once taken my eyes off the pistol.

“You are lucky at play!” I said to Vulich. . .

“For the first time in my life!” he answered, with a complacent smile. “It is better than ‘bank’ and ‘shtoss.’”†

† Card-games.

“But, on the other hand, slightly more dangerous!”

“Well? Have you begun to believe in predestination?

“I do believe in it; only I cannot understand now why it appeared to me that you must inevitably die to-day!”

And this same man, who, such a short time before, had with the greatest calmness aimed a pistol at his own forehead, now suddenly fired up and became embarrassed.

“That will do, though!” he said, rising to his feet. “Our wager is finished, and now your observations, it seems to me, are out of place.”

He took up his cap and departed. The whole affair struck me as being strange — and not without reason. Shortly after that, all the officers broke up and went home, discussing Vulich’s freaks from different points of view, and, doubtless, with one voice calling me an egoist for having taken up a wager against a man who wanted to shoot himself, as if he could not have found a convenient opportunity without my intervention.

I returned home by the deserted byways of the village. The moon, full and red like the glow of a conflagration, was beginning to make its appearance from behind the jagged horizon of the house-tops; the stars were shining tranquilly in the deep, blue vault of the sky; and I was struck by the absurdity of the idea when I recalled to mind that once upon a time there were some exceedingly wise people who thought that the stars of heaven participated in our insignificant squabbles for a slice of ground, or some other imaginary rights. And what then? These lamps, lighted, so they fancied, only to illuminate their battles and triumphs, are burning with all their former brilliance, whilst the wiseacres themselves, together with their hopes and passions, have long been extinguished, like a little fire kindled at the edge of a forest by a careless wayfarer! But, on the other hand, what strength of will was lent them by the conviction that the entire heavens, with their innumerable habitants, were looking at them with a sympathy, unalterable, though mute! . . . And we, their miserable descendants, roaming over the earth, without faith, without pride, without enjoyment, and without terror — except that involuntary awe which makes the heart shrink at the thought of the inevitable end — we are no longer capable of great sacrifices, either for the good of mankind or even for our own happiness, because we know the impossibility of such happiness; and, just as our ancestors used to fling themselves from one delusion to another, we pass indifferently from doubt to doubt, without possessing, as they did, either hope or even that vague though, at the same time, keen enjoyment which the soul encounters at every struggle with mankind or with destiny.

These and many other similar thoughts passed through my mind, but I did not follow them up, because I do not like to dwell upon abstract ideas — for what do they lead to? In my early youth I was a dreamer; I loved to hug to my bosom the images — now gloomy, now rainbow-hued — which my restless and eager imagination drew for me. And what is there left to me of all these? Only such weariness as might be felt after a battle by night with a phantom — only a confused memory full of regrets. In that vain contest I have exhausted the warmth of soul and firmness of will indispensable to an active life. I have entered upon that life after having already lived through it in thought, and it has become wearisome and nauseous to me, as the reading of a bad imitation of a book is to one who has long been familiar with the original.

The events of that evening produced a somewhat deep impression upon me and excited my nerves. I do not know for certain whether I now believe in predestination or not, but on that evening I believed in it firmly. The proof was startling, and I, notwithstanding that I had laughed at our forefathers and their obliging astrology, fell involuntarily into their way of thinking. However, I stopped myself in time from following that dangerous road, and, as I have made it a rule not to reject anything decisively and not to trust anything blindly, I cast metaphysics aside and began to look at what was beneath my feet. The precaution was well-timed. I only just escaped stumbling over something thick and soft, but, to all appearance, inanimate. I bent down to see what it was, and, by the light of the moon, which now shone right upon the road, I perceived that it was a pig which had been cut in two with a sabre . . . I had hardly time to examine it before I heard the sound of steps, and two Cossacks came running out of a byway. One of them came up to me and enquired whether I had seen a drunken Cossack chasing a pig. I informed him that I had not met the Cossack and pointed to the unhappy victim of his rabid bravery.

“The scoundrel!” said the second Cossack. “No sooner does he drink his fill of chikhir† than off he goes and cuts up anything that comes in his way. Let us be after him, Eremeich, we must tie him up or else” . . .

† A Caucasian wine.

They took themselves off, and I continued my way with greater caution, and at length arrived at my lodgings without mishap.

I was living with a certain old Cossack under-officer whom I loved, not only on account of his kindly disposition, but also, and more especially, on account of his pretty daughter, Nastya.

Wrapped up in a sheepskin coat she was waiting for me, as usual, by the wicket gate. The moon illumined her charming little lips, now turned blue by the cold of the night. Recognizing me she smiled; but I was in no mood to linger with her.

“Good night, Nastya!” I said, and passed on.

She was about to make some answer, but only sighed.

I fastened the door of my room after me, lighted a candle, and threw myself on the bed; but, on that occasion, slumber caused its presence to be awaited longer than usual. By the time I fell asleep the east was beginning to grow pale, but I was evidently predestined not to have my sleep out. At four o’clock in the morning two fists knocked at my window. I sprang up.

“What is the matter?”

“Get up — dress yourself!”

I dressed hurriedly and went out.

“Do you know what has happened?” said three officers who had come for me, speaking all in one voice.

They were deadly pale.

“No, what is it?”

“Vulich has been murdered!”

I was petrified.

“Yes, murdered!” they continued. “Let us lose no time and go!”

“But where to?”

“You will learn as we go.”

We set off. They told me all that had happened, supplementing their story with a variety of observations on the subject of the strange predestination which had saved Vulich from imminent death half an hour before he actually met his end.

Vulich had been walking alone along a dark street, and the drunken Cossack who had cut up the pig had sprung out upon him, and perhaps would have passed him by without noticing him, had not Vulich stopped suddenly and said:

“Whom are you looking for, my man?”

“You!” answered the Cossack, striking him with his sabre; and he cleft him from the shoulder almost to the heart. . .

The two Cossacks who had met me and followed the murderer had arrived on the scene and raised the wounded man from the ground. But he was already as his last gasp and said these three words only — “he was right!”

I alone understood the dark significance of those words: they referred to me. I had involuntarily foretold his fate to poor Vulich. My instinct had not deceived me; I had indeed read on his changed countenance the signs of approaching death.

The murderer had locked himself up in an empty hut at the end of the village; and thither we went. A number of women, all of them weeping, were running in the same direction; at times a belated Cossack, hastily buckling on his dagger, sprang out into the street and overtook us at a run. The tumult was dreadful.

At length we arrived on the scene and found a crowd standing around the hut, the door and shutters of which were locked on the inside. Groups of officers and Cossacks were engaged in heated discussions; the women were shrieking, wailing and talking all in one breath. One of the old women struck my attention by her meaning looks and the frantic despair expressed upon her face. She was sitting on a thick plank, leaning her elbows on her knees and supporting her head with her hands. It was the mother of the murderer. At times her lips moved . . . Was it a prayer they were whispering, or a curse?

Meanwhile it was necessary to decide upon some course of action and to seize the criminal. Nobody, however, made bold to be the first to rush forward.

I went up to the window and looked in through a chink in the shutter. The criminal, pale of face, was lying on the floor, holding a pistol in his right hand. The blood-stained sabre was beside him. His expressive eyes were rolling in terror; at times he shuddered and clutched at his head, as if indistinctly recalling the events of yesterday. I could not read any sign of great determination in that uneasy glance of his, and I told the major that it would be better at once to give orders to the Cossacks to burst open the door and rush in, than to wait until the murderer had quite recovered his senses.

At that moment the old captain of the Cossacks went up to the door and called the murderer by name. The latter answered back.

“You have committed a sin, brother Ephimych!” said the captain, “so all you can do now is to submit.”

“I will not submit!” answered the Cossack.

“Have you no fear of God! You see, you are not one of those cursed Chechenes, but an honest Christian! Come, if you have done it in an unguarded moment there is no help for it! You cannot escape your fate!”

“I will not submit!” exclaimed the Cossack menacingly, and we could hear the snap of the cocked trigger.

“Hey, my good woman!” said the Cossack captain to the old woman. “Say a word to your son — perhaps he will lend an ear to you . . . You see, to go on like this is only to make God angry. And look, the gentlemen here have already been waiting two hours.”

The old woman gazed fixedly at him and shook her head.

“Vasili Petrovich,” said the captain, going up to the major; “he will not surrender. I know him! If it comes to smashing in the door he will strike down several of our men. Would it not be better if you ordered him to be shot? There is a wide chink in the shutter.”

At that moment a strange idea flashed through my head — like Vulich I proposed to put fate to the test.

“Wait,” I said to the major, “I will take him alive.”

Bidding the captain enter into a conversation with the murderer and setting three Cossacks at the door ready to force it open and rush to my aid at a given signal, I walked round the hut and approached the fatal window. My heart was beating violently.

“Aha, you cursed wretch!” cried the captain. “Are you laughing at us, eh? Or do you think that we won’t be able to get the better of you?”

He began to knock at the door with all his might. Putting my eye to the chink, I followed the movements of the Cossack, who was not expecting an attack from that direction. I pulled the shutter away suddenly and threw myself in at the window, head foremost. A shot rang out right over my ear, and the bullet tore off one of my epaulettes. But the smoke which filled the room prevented my adversary from finding the sabre which was lying beside him. I seized him by the arms; the Cossacks burst in; and three minutes had not elapsed before they had the criminal bound and led off under escort.

The people dispersed, the officers congratulated me — and indeed there was cause for congratulation.

After all that, it would hardly seem possible to avoid becoming a fatalist? But who knows for certain whether he is convinced of anything or not? And how often is a deception of the senses or an error of the reason accepted as a conviction! . . . I prefer to doubt everything. Such a disposition is no bar to decision of character; on the contrary, so far as I am concerned, I always advance more boldly when I do not know what is awaiting me. You see, nothing can happen worse than death — and from death there is no escape.

On my return to the fortress I related to Maksim Maksimych all that I had seen and experienced; and I sought to learn his opinion on the subject of predestination.

At first he did not understand the word. I explained it to him as well as I could, and then he said, with a significant shake of the head:

“Yes, sir, of course! It was a very ingenious trick! However, these Asiatic pistols often miss fire if they are badly oiled or if you don’t press hard enough on the trigger. I confess I don’t like the Circassian carbines either. Somehow or other they don’t suit the like of us: the butt end is so small, and any minute you may get your nose burnt! On the other hand, their sabres, now — well, all I need say is, my best respects to them!”

Afterwards he said, on reflecting a little:

“Yes, it is a pity about the poor fellow! The devil must have put it into his head to start a conversation with a drunken man at night! However, it is evident that fate had written it so at his birth!”

I could not get anything more out of Maksim Maksimych; generally speaking, he had no liking for metaphysical disputations.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38