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We all settled down in a circle and our good friend Alexandr Vassilyevitch Ridel (his surname was German but he was Russian to the marrow of his bones) began as follows:
I am going to tell you a story, friends, of something that happened to me in the ‘thirties . . . forty years ago as you see. I will be brief — and don’t you interrupt me.
I was living at the time in Petersburg and had only just left the University. My brother was a lieutenant in the horse-guard artillery. His battery was stationed at Krasnoe Selo — it was summer time. My brother lodged not at Krasnoe Selo itself but in one of the neighbouring villages; I stayed with him more than once and made the acquaintance of all his comrades. He was living in a fairly decent cottage, together with another officer of his battery, whose name was Ilya Stepanitch Tyeglev. I became particularly friendly with him.
Marlinsky is out of date now — no one reads him — and even his name is jeered at; but in the ‘thirties his fame was above everyone’s — and in the opinion of the young people of the day Pushkin could not hold candle to him. He not only enjoyed the reputation of being the foremost Russian writer; but — something much more difficult and more rarely met with — he did to some extent leave his mark on his generation. One came across heroes à la Marlinsky everywhere, especially in the provinces and especially among infantry and artillery men; they talked and corresponded in his language; behaved with gloomy reserve in society —“with tempest in the soul and flame in the blood” like Lieutenant Byelosov in the “Frigate Hope.” Women’s hearts were “devoured” by them. The adjective applied to them in those days was “fatal.” The type, as we all know, survived for many years, to the days of Petchorin. [Footnote: The leading character in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. — Translator’s Note.] All sorts of elements were mingled in that type. Byronism, romanticism, reminiscences of the French Revolution, of the Dekabrists — and the worship of Napoleon; faith in destiny, in one’s star, in strength of will; pose and fine phrases — and a miserable sense of the emptiness of life; uneasy pangs of petty vanity — and genuine strength and daring; generous impulses — and defective education, ignorance; aristocratic airs — and delight in trivial foppery. . . . But enough of these general reflections. I promised to tell you the story.
Lieutenant Tyeglev belonged precisely to the class of those “fatal” individuals, though he did not possess the exterior commonly associated with them; he was not, for instance, in the least like Lermontov’s “fatalist.” He was a man of medium height, fairly solid and round-shouldered, with fair, almost white eyebrows and eyelashes; he had a round, fresh, rosy-cheeked face, a turn-up nose, a low forehead with the hair growing thick over the temples, and full, well-shaped, always immobile lips: he never laughed, never even smiled. Only when he was tired and out of heart he showed his square teeth, white as sugar. The same artificial immobility was imprinted on all his features: had it not been for that, they would have had a good-natured expression. His small green eyes with yellow lashes were the only thing not quite ordinary in his face: his right eye was very slightly higher than his left and the left eyelid drooped a little, which made his eyes look different, strange and drowsy. Tyeglev’s countenance, which was not, however, without a certain attractiveness, almost always wore an expression of discontent mingled with perplexity, as though he were chasing within himself a gloomy thought which he was never able to catch. At the same time he did not give one the impression of being stuck up: he might rather have been taken for an aggrieved than a haughty man. He spoke very little, hesitatingly, in a husky voice, with unnecessary repetitions. Unlike most “fatalists,” he did not use particularly elaborate expressions in speaking and only had recourse to them in writing; his handwriting was quite like a child’s. His superiors regarded him as an officer of no great merit — not particularly capable and not over-zealous. The brigadier-general, a man of German extraction, used to say of him: “He has punctuality but not precision.” With the soldiers, too, Tyeglev had the character of being neither one thing nor the other. He lived modestly, in accordance with his means. He had been left an orphan at nine years old: his father and mother were drowned when they were being ferried across the Oka in the spring floods. He had been educated at a private school, where he had the reputation of being one of the slowest and quietest of the boys, and at his own earnest desire and through the good offices of a cousin who was a man of influence, he obtained a commission in the horse-guards artillery; and, though with some difficulty, passed his examination first as an ensign and then as a second lieutenant. His relations with other officers were somewhat strained. He was not liked, was rarely visited — and he hardly went to see anyone. He felt the presence of strangers a constraint; he instantly became awkward and unnatural . . . he had no instinct for comradeship and was not on really intimate terms with anyone. But he was respected, and respected not for his character nor for his intelligence and education — but because the stamp which distinguishes “fatal” people was discerned in him. No one of his fellow officers expected that Tyeglev would make a career or distinguish himself in any way; but that Tyeglev might do something extraordinary or that Tyeglev might become a Napoleon was not considered impossible. For that is a matter of a man’s “star”— and he was regarded as a “man of destiny,” just as there are “men of sighs” and “of tears.”
Two incidents that marked the first steps in his career did a great deal to strengthen his “fatal” reputation. On the very first day after receiving his commission — about the middle of March — he was walking with other newly promoted officers in full dress uniform along the embankment. The spring had come early that year, the Neva was melting; the bigger blocks of ice had gone but the whole river was choked up with a dense mass of thawing icicles. The young men were talking and laughing . . . suddenly one of them stopped: he saw a little dog some twenty paces from the bank on the slowly moving surface of the river. Perched on a projecting piece of ice it was whining and trembling all over. “It will be drowned,” said the officer through his teeth. The dog was slowly being carried past one of the sloping gangways that led down to the river. All at once Tyeglev without saying a word ran down this gangway and over the thin ice, sinking in and leaping out again, reached the dog, seized it by the scruff of the neck and getting safely back to the bank, put it down on the pavement. The danger to which Tyeglev had exposed himself was so great, his action was so unexpected, that his companions were dumbfoundered — and only spoke all at once, when he had called a cab to drive home: his uniform was wet all over. In response to their exclamations, Tyeglev replied coolly that there was no escaping one’s destiny — and told the cabman to drive on.
“You might at least take the dog with you as a souvenir,” cried one of the officers. But Tyeglev merely waved his hand, and his comrades looked at each other in silent amazement.
The second incident occurred a few days later, at a card party at the battery commander’s. Tyeglev sat in the corner and took no part in the play. “Oh, if only I had a grandmother to tell me beforehand what cards will win, as in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades,” cried a lieutenant whose losses had nearly reached three thousand. Tyeglev approached the table in silence, took up a pack, cut it, and saying “the six of diamonds,” turned the pack up: the six of diamonds was the bottom card. “The ace of clubs!” he said and cut again: the bottom card turned out to be the ace of clubs. “The king of diamonds!” he said for the third time in an angry whisper through his clenched teeth — and he was right the third time, too . . . and he suddenly turned crimson. He probably had not expected it himself. “A capital trick! Do it again,” observed the commanding officer of the battery. “I don’t go in for tricks,” Tyeglev answered drily and walked into the other room. How it happened that he guessed the card right, I can’t pretend to explain: but I saw it with my own eyes. Many of the players present tried to do the same — and not one of them succeeded: one or two did guess one card but never two in succession. And Tyeglev had guessed three! This incident strengthened still further his reputation as a mysterious, fatal character. It has often occurred to me since that if he had not succeeded in the trick with the cards, there is no knowing what turn it would have taken and how he would have looked at himself; but this unexpected success clinched the matter.
It may well be understood that Tyeglev clutched at this reputation. It gave him a special significance, a special colour . . . “Cela le posait,” as the French express it — and with his limited intelligence, scanty education and immense vanity, such a reputation just suited him. It was difficult to acquire it but to keep it up cost nothing: he had only to remain silent and hold himself aloof. But it was not owing to this reputation that I made friends with Tyeglev and, I may say, grew fond of him. I liked him in the first place because I was rather an unsociable creature myself — and saw in him one of my own sort, and secondly, because he was a very good-natured fellow and in reality, very simple-hearted. He aroused in me a feeling of something like compassion; it seemed to me that apart from his affected “fatality,” he really was weighed down by a tragic fate which he did not himself suspect. I need hardly say I did not express this feeling to him: could anything be more insulting to a “fatal” hero than to be an object of pity? And Tyeglev, on his side, was well-disposed to me; with me he felt at ease, with me he used to talk — in my presence he ventured to leave the strange pedestal on which he had been placed either by his own efforts or by chance. Agonisingly, morbidly vain as he was, yet he was probably aware in the depths of his soul that there was nothing to justify his vanity, and that others might perhaps look down on him . . . but I, a boy of nineteen, put no constraint on him; the dread of saying something stupid, inappropriate, did not oppress his ever-apprehensive heart in my presence. He sometimes even chattered freely; and well it was for him that no one heard his chatter except me! His reputation would not have lasted long. He not only knew very little, but read hardly anything and confined himself to picking up stories and anecdotes of a certain kind. He believed in presentiments, predictions, omens, meetings, lucky and unlucky days, in the persecution and benevolence of destiny, in the mysterious significance of life, in fact. He even believed in certain “climacteric” years which someone had mentioned in his presence and the meaning of which he did not himself very well understand. “Fatal” men of the true stamp ought not to betray such beliefs: they ought to inspire them in others. . . . But I was the only one who knew Tyeglev on that side.
One day — I remember it was St. Elijah’s day, July 20th — I came to stay with my brother and did not find him at home: he had been ordered off for a whole week somewhere. I did not want to go back to Petersburg; I sauntered about the neighbouring marshes, killed a brace of snipe and spent the evening with Tyeglev under the shelter of an empty barn where he had, as he expressed it, set up his summer residence. We had a little conversation but for the most part drank tea, smoked pipes and talked sometimes to our host, a Russianised Finn or to the pedlar who used to hang about the battery selling “fi-ine oranges and lemons,” a charming and lively person who in addition to other talents could play the guitar and used to tell us of the unhappy love which he cherished in his young days for the daughter of a policeman. Now that he was older, this Don Juan in a gay cotton shirt had no experience of unsuccessful love affairs. Before the doors of our barn stretched a wide plain gradually sloping away in the distance; a little river gleamed here and there in the winding hollows; low growing woods could be seen further on the horizon. Night was coming on and we were left alone. As night fell a fine damp mist descended upon the earth, and, growing thicker and thicker, passed into a dense fog. The moon rose up into the sky; the fog was soaked through and through and, as it were, shimmering with golden light. Everything was strangely shifting, veiled and confused; the faraway looked near, the near looked far away, what was big looked small and what was small looked big . . . everything became dim and full of light. We seemed to be in fairyland, in a world of whitish-golden mist, deep stillness, delicate sleep. . . . And how mysteriously, like sparks of silver, the stars filtered through the mist! We were both silent. The fantastic beauty of the night worked upon us: it put us into the mood for the fantastic.
Tyeglev was the first to speak and talked with his usual hesitating incompleted sentences and repetitions about presentiments . . . about ghosts. On exactly such a night, according to him, one of his friends, a student who had just taken the place of tutor to two orphans and was sleeping with them in a lodge in the garden, saw a woman’s figure bending over their beds and next day recognised the figure in a portrait of the mother of the orphans which he had not previously noticed. Then Tyeglev told me that his parents had heard for several days before their death the sound of rushing water; that his grandfather had been saved from death in the battle of Borodino through suddenly stooping down to pick up a simple grey pebble at the very instant when a volley of grape-shot flew over his head and broke his long black plume. Tyeglev even promised to show me the very pebble which had saved his grandfather and which he had mounted into a medallion. Then he talked of the lofty destination of every man and of his own in particular and added that he still believed in it and that if he ever had any doubts on that subject he would know how to be rid of them and of his life, as life would then lose all significance for him. “You imagine perhaps,” he brought out, glancing askance at me, “that I shouldn’t have the spirit to do it? You don’t know me . . . I have a will of iron.”
“Well said,” I thought to myself.
Tyeglev pondered, heaved a deep sigh and dropping his chibouk out of his hand, informed me that that day was a very important one for him. “This is the prophet Elijah’s day — my name day. . . . It is . . . it is always for me a difficult time.”
I made no answer and only looked at him as he sat facing me, bent, round-shouldered, and clumsy, with his drowsy, lustreless eyes fixed on the ground.
“An old beggar woman” (Tyeglev never let a single beggar pass without giving alms) “told me today,” he went on, “that she would pray for my soul. . . . Isn’t that strange?”
“Why does the man want to be always bothering about himself!” I thought again. I must add, however, that of late I had begun noticing an unusual expression of anxiety and uneasiness on Tyeglev’s face, and it was not a “fatal” melancholy: something really was fretting and worrying him. On this occasion, too, I was struck by the dejected expression of his face. Were not those very doubts of which he had spoken to me beginning to assail him? Tyeglev’s comrades had told me that not long before he had sent to the authorities a project for some reforms in the artillery department and that the project had been returned to him “with a comment,” that is, a reprimand. Knowing his character, I had no doubt that such contemptuous treatment by his superior officers had deeply mortified him. But the change that I fancied I saw in Tyeglev was more like sadness and there was a more personal note about it.
“It’s getting damp, though,” he brought out at last and he shrugged his shoulders. “Let us go into the hut — and it’s bed-time, too.” He had the habit of shrugging his shoulders and turning his head from side to side, putting his right hand to his throat as he did so, as though his cravat were constricting it. Tyeglev’s character was expressed, so at least it seemed to me, in this uneasy and nervous movement. He, too, felt constricted in the world.
We went back into the hut, and both lay down on benches, he in the corner facing the door and I on the opposite side.
Tyeglev was for a long time turning from side to side on his bench and I could not get to sleep, either. Whether his stories had excited my nerves or the strange night had fevered my blood — anyway, I could not go to sleep. All inclination for sleep disappeared at last and I lay with my eyes open and thought, thought intensely, goodness knows of what; of most senseless trifles — as always happens when one is sleepless. Turning from side to side I stretched out my hands. . . . My finger hit one of the beams of the wall. It emitted a faint but resounding, and as it were, prolonged note. . . . I must have struck a hollow place.
I tapped again . . . this time on purpose. The same sound was repeated. I knocked again. . . . All at once Tyeglev raised his head.
“Ridel!” he said, “do you hear? Someone is knocking under the window.”
I pretended to be asleep. The fancy suddenly took me to play a trick at the expense of my “fatal” friend. I could not sleep, anyway.
He let his head sink on the pillow. I waited for a little and again knocked three times in succession.
Tyeglev sat up again and listened. I tapped again. I was lying facing him but he could not see my hand. . . . I put it behind me under the bedclothes.
“Ridel!” cried Tyeglev.
I did not answer.
“Ridel!” he repeated loudly. “Ridel!”
“Eh? What is it?” I said as though just waking up.
“Don’t you hear, someone keeps knocking under the window, wants to come in, I suppose.”
“Some passer-by,” I muttered.
“Then we must let him in or find out who it is.”
But I made no answer, pretending to be asleep.
Several minutes passed. . . . I tapped again. Tyeglev sat up at once and listened.
“Knock . . . knock . . . knock! Knock . . . knock . . . knock!”
Through my half-closed eyelids in the whitish light of the night I could distinctly see every movement he made. He turned his face first to the window then to the door. It certainly was difficult to make out where the sound came from: it seemed to float round the room, to glide along the walls. I had accidentally hit upon a kind of sounding board.
“Ridel!” cried Tyeglev at last, “Ridel! Ridel!”
“Why, what is it?” I asked, yawning.
“Do you mean to say you don’t hear anything? There is someone knocking.”
“Well, what if there is?” I answered and again pretended to be asleep and even snored.
“Knock . . . knock . . . knock!”
“Who is there?” Tyeglev shouted. “Come in!”
No one answered, of course.
“Knock . . . knock . . . knock!”
Tyeglev jumped out of bed, opened the window and thrusting out his head, cried wildly, “Who is there? Who is knocking?” Then he opened the door and repeated his question. A horse neighed in the distance — that was all.
He went back towards his bed.
“Knock . . . knock . . . knock!”
Tyeglev instantly turned round and sat down.
“Knock . . . knock . . . knock!”
He rapidly put on his boots, threw his overcoat over his shoulders and unhooking his sword from the wall, went out of the hut. I heard him walk round it twice, asking all the time, “Who is there? Who goes there? Who is knocking?” Then he was suddenly silent, stood still outside near the corner where I was lying and without uttering another word, came back into the hut and lay down without taking off his boots and overcoat.
“Knock . . . knock . . . knock!” I began again. “Knock . . . knock . . . knock!”
But Tyeglev did not stir, did not ask who was knocking, and merely propped his head on his hand.
Seeing that this no longer acted, after an interval I pretended to wake up and, looking at Tyeglev, assumed an air of astonishment.
“Have you been out?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered unconcernedly.
“Did you still hear the knocking?”
“And you met no one?”
“And did the knocking stop?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care now.”
“Now? Why now?”
Tyeglev did not answer.
I felt a little ashamed and a little vexed with him. I could not bring myself to acknowledge my prank, however.
“Do you know what?” I began, “I am convinced that it was all your imagination.”
Tyeglev frowned. “Ah, you think so!”
“You say you heard a knocking?”
“It was not only knocking I heard.”
“Why, what else?”
Tyeglev bent forward and bit his lips. He was evidently hesitating.
“I was called!” he brought out at last in a low voice and turned away his face.
“You were called? Who called you?”
“Someone. . . . ” Tyeglev still looked away. “A woman whom I had hitherto only believed to be dead . . . but now I know it for certain.”
“I swear, Ilya Stepanitch,” I cried, “this is all your imagination!”
“Imagination?” he repeated. “Would you like to hear it for yourself?”
“Then come outside.”
I hurriedly dressed and went out of the hut with Tyeglev. On the side opposite to it there were no houses, nothing but a low hurdle fence broken down in places, beyond which there was a rather sharp slope down to the plain. Everything was still shrouded in mist and one could scarcely see anything twenty paces away. Tyeglev and I went up to the hurdle and stood still.
“Here,” he said and bowed his head. “Stand still, keep quiet and listen!”
Like him I strained my ears, and I heard nothing except the ordinary, extremely faint but universal murmur, the breathing of the night. Looking at each other in silence from time to time we stood motionless for several minutes and were just on the point of going on.
“Ilyusha . . . ” I fancied I heard a whisper from behind the hurdle.
I glanced at Tyeglev but he seemed to have heard nothing — and still held his head bowed.
“Ilyusha . . . ah, Ilyusha,” sounded more distinctly than before — so distinctly that one could tell that the words were uttered by a woman.
We both started and stared at each other.
“Well?” Tyeglev asked me in a whisper. “You won’t doubt it now, will you?”
“Wait a minute,” I answered as quietly. “It proves nothing. We must look whether there isn’t anyone. Some practical joker. . . . ”
I jumped over the fence — and went in the direction from which, as far as I could judge, the voice came.
I felt the earth soft and crumbling under my feet; long ridges stretched before me vanishing into the mist. I was in the kitchen garden. But nothing was stirring around me or before me. Everything seemed spellbound in the numbness of sleep. I went a few steps further.
“Who is there?” I cried as wildly as Tyeglev had.
“Prrr-r-r!” a startled corn-crake flew up almost under my feet and flew away as straight as a bullet. Involuntarily I started. . . . What foolishness!
I looked back. Tyeglev was in sight at the spot where I left him. I went towards him.
“You will call in vain,” he said. “That voice has come to us — to me — from far away.”
He passed his hand over his face and with slow steps crossed the road towards the hut. But I did not want to give in so quickly and went back into the kitchen garden. That someone really had three times called “Ilyusha” I could not doubt; that there was something plaintive and mysterious in the call, I was forced to own to myself. . . . But who knows, perhaps all this only appeared to be unaccountable and in reality could be explained as simply as the knocking which had agitated Tyeglev so much.
I walked along beside the fence, stopping from time to time and looking about me. Close to the fence, at no great distance from our hut, there stood an old leafy willow tree; it stood out, a big dark patch, against the whiteness of the mist all round, that dim whiteness which perplexes and deadens the sight more than darkness itself. All at once it seemed to me that something alive, fairly big, stirred on the ground near the willow. Exclaiming “Stop! Who is there?” I rushed forward. I heard scurrying footsteps, like a hare’s; a crouching figure whisked by me, whether man or woman I could not tell. . . . I tried to clutch at it but did not succeed; I stumbled, fell down and stung my face against a nettle. As I was getting up, leaning on the ground, I felt something rough under my hand: it was a chased brass comb on a cord, such as peasants wear on their belt.
Further search led to nothing — and I went back to the hut with the comb in my hand, and my cheeks tingling.
I found Tyeglev sitting on the bench. A candle was burning on the table before him and he was writing something in a little album which he always had with him. Seeing me, he quickly put the album in his pocket and began filling his pipe.
“Look here, my friend,” I began, “what a trophy I have brought back from my expedition!” I showed him the comb and told him what had happened to me near the willow. “I must have startled a thief,” I added. “You heard a horse was stolen from our neighbour yesterday?”
Tyeglev smiled frigidly and lighted his pipe. I sat down beside him.
“And do you still believe, Ilya Stepanitch,” I said, “that the voice we heard came from those unknown realms. . . . ”
He stopped me with a peremptory gesture.
“Ridel,” he began, “I am in no mood for jesting, and so I beg you not to jest.”
He certainly was in no mood for jesting. His face was changed. It looked paler, longer and more expressive. His strange, “different” eyes kept shifting from one object to another.
“I never thought,” he began again, “that I should reveal to another . . . another man what you are about to hear and what ought to have died . . . yes, died, hidden in my breast; but it seems it is to be — and indeed I have no choice. It is destiny! Listen.”
And he told me a long story.
I have mentioned already that he was a poor hand at telling stories, but it was not only his lack of skill in describing events that had happened to him that impressed me that night; the very sound of his voice, his glances, the movements which he made with his fingers and his hands — everything about him, indeed, seemed unnatural, unnecessary, false, in fact. I was very young and inexperienced in those days and did not know that the habit of high-flown language and falsity of intonation and manner may become so ingrained in a man that he is incapable of shaking it off: it is a sort of curse. Later in life I came across a lady who described to me the effect on her of her son’s death, of her “boundless” grief, of her fears for her reason, in such exaggerated language, with such theatrical gestures, such melodramatic movements of her head and rolling of her eyes, that I thought to myself, “How false and affected that lady is! She did not love her son at all!” And a week afterwards I heard that the poor woman had really gone out of her mind. Since then I have become much more careful in my judgments and have had far less confidence in my own impressions.
The story which Tyeglev told me was, briefly, as follows. He had living in Petersburg, besides his influential uncle, an aunt, not influential but wealthy. As she had no children of her own she had adopted a little girl, an orphan, of the working class, given her a liberal education and treated her like a daughter. She was called Masha. Tyeglev saw her almost every day. It ended in their falling in love with one another and Masha’s giving herself to him. This was discovered. Tyeglev’s aunt was fearfully incensed, she turned the luckless girl out of her house in disgrace, and moved to Moscow where she adopted a young lady of noble birth and made her her heiress. On her return to her own relations, poor and drunken people, Masha’s lot was a bitter one. Tyeglev had promised to marry her and did not keep his promise. At his last interview with her, he was forced to speak out: she wanted to know the truth and wrung it out of him. “Well,” she said, “if I am not to be your wife, I know what there is left for me to do.” More than a fortnight had passed since that last interview.
“I never for a moment deceived myself as to the meaning of her last words,” added Tyeglev. “I am certain that she has put an end to her life and . . . and that it was her voice, that it was she calling me . . . to follow her there . . . I recognised her voice. . . . Well, there is but one end to it.”
“But why didn’t you marry her, Ilya Stepanitch?” I asked. “You ceased to love her?”
“No; I still love her passionately.”
At this point I stared at Tyeglev. I remembered another friend of mine, a very intelligent man, who had a very plain wife, neither intelligent nor rich and was very unhappy in his marriage. When someone in my presence asked him why he had married and suggested that it was probably for love, he answered, “Not for love at all. It simply happened.” And in this case Tyeglev loved a girl passionately and did not marry her. Was it for the same reason, then?
“Why don’t you marry her, then?” I asked again.
Tyeglev’s strange, drowsy eyes strayed over the table.
“There is . . . no answering that . . . in a few words,” he began, hesitating. “There were reasons. . . . And besides, she was . . . a working-class girl. And then there is my uncle. . . . I was obliged to consider him, too.”
“Your uncle?” I cried. “But what the devil do you want with your uncle whom you never see except at the New Year when you go to congratulate him? Are you reckoning on his money? But he has got a dozen children of his own!”
I spoke with heat. . . . Tyeglev winced and flushed . . . flushed unevenly, in patches.
“Don’t lecture me, if you please,” he said dully. “I don’t justify myself, however. I have ruined her life and now I must pay the penalty. . . . ”
His head sank and he was silent. I found nothing to say, either.
So we sat for a quarter of an hour. He looked away — I looked at him — and I noticed that the hair stood up and curled above his forehead in a peculiar way, which, so I have heard from an army doctor who had had a great many wounded pass through his hands, is always a symptom of intense overheating of the brain. . . . The thought struck me again that fate really had laid a heavy hand on this man and that his comrades were right in seeing something “fatal” in him. And yet inwardly I blamed him. “A working-class girl!” I thought, “a fine sort of aristocrat you are yourself!”
“Perhaps you blame me, Ridel,” Tyeglev began suddenly, as though guessing what I was thinking. “I am very . . . unhappy myself. But what to do? What to do?”
He leaned his chin on his hand and began biting the broad flat nails of his short, red fingers, hard as iron.
“What I think, Ilya Stepanitch, is that you ought first to make certain whether your suppositions are correct. . . . Perhaps your lady love is alive and well.” (“Shall I tell him the real explanation of the taps?” flashed through my mind. “No — later.”)
“She has not written to me since we have been in camp,” observed Tyeglev.
“That proves nothing, Ilya Stepanitch.”
Tyeglev waved me off. “No! she is certainly not in this world. She called me.”
He suddenly turned to the window. “Someone is knocking again!”
I could not help laughing. “No, excuse me, Ilya Stepanitch! This time it is your nerves. You see, it is getting light. In ten minutes the sun will be up — it is past three o’clock — and ghosts have no power in the day.”
Tyeglev cast a gloomy glance at me and muttering through his teeth “good-bye,” lay down on the bench and turned his back on me.
I lay down, too, and before I fell asleep I remember I wondered why Tyeglev was always hinting at . . . suicide. What nonsense! What humbug! Of his own free will he had refused to marry her, had cast her off . . . and now he wanted to kill himself! There was no sense in it! He could not resist posing!
With these thoughts I fell into a sound sleep and when I opened my eyes the sun was already high in the sky — and Tyeglev was not in the hut.
He had, so his servant said, gone to the town.
I spent a very dull and wearisome day. Tyeglev did not return to dinner nor to supper; I did not expect my brother. Towards evening a thick fog came on again, thicker even than the day before. I went to bed rather early. I was awakened by a knocking under the window.
It was my turn to be startled!
The knock was repeated and so insistently distinct that one could have no doubt of its reality. I got up, opened the window and saw Tyeglev. Wrapped in his great-coat, with his cap pulled over his eyes, he stood motionless.
“Ilya Stepanitch!” I cried, “is that you? I gave up expecting you. Come in. Is the door locked?”
Tyeglev shook his head. “I do not intend to come in,” he pronounced in a hollow tone. “I only want to ask you to give this letter to the commanding officer tomorrow.”
He gave me a big envelope sealed with five seals. I was astonished — however, I took the envelope mechanically. Tyeglev at once walked away into the middle of the road.
“Stop! stop!” I began. “Where are you going? Have you only just come? And what is the letter?”
“Do you promise to deliver it?” said Tyeglev, and moved away a few steps further. The fog blurred the outlines of his figure. “Do you promise?”
“I promise . . . but first —”
Tyeglev moved still further away and became a long dark blur. “Good-bye,” I heard his voice. “Farewell, Ridel, don’t remember evil against me. . . . And don’t forget Semyon. . . . ”
And the blur itself vanished.
This was too much. “Oh, the damned poseur,” I thought. “You must always be straining after effect!” I felt uneasy, however; an involuntary fear clutched at my heart. I flung on my great-coat and ran out into the road.
Yes; but where was I to go? The fog enveloped me on all sides. For five or six steps all round it was a little transparent — but further away it stood up like a wall, thick and white like cotton wool. I turned to the right along the village street; our house was the last but one in the village and beyond it came waste land overgrown here and there with bushes; beyond the waste land, a quarter of a mile from the village, there was a birch copse through which flowed the same little stream that lower down encircled our village. The moon stood, a pale blur in the sky — but its light was not, as on the evening before, strong enough to penetrate the smoky density of the fog and hung, a broad opaque canopy, overhead. I made my way out on to the open ground and listened. . . . Not a sound from any direction, except the calling of the marsh birds.
“Tyeglev!” I cried. “Ilya Stepanitch!! Tyeglev!!”
My voice died away near me without an answer; it seemed as though the fog would not let it go further. “Tyeglev!” I repeated.
No one answered.
I went forward at random. Twice I struck against a fence, once I nearly fell into a ditch, and almost stumbled against a peasant’s horse lying on the ground. “Tyeglev! Tyeglev!” I cried.
All at once, almost behind me, I heard a low voice, “Well, here I am. What do you want of me?”
I turned round quickly.
Before me stood Tyeglev with his hands hanging at his sides and with no cap on his head. His face was pale; but his eyes looked animated and bigger than usual. His breathing came in deep, prolonged gasps through his parted lips.
“Thank God!” I cried in an outburst of joy, and I gripped him by both hands. “Thank God! I was beginning to despair of finding you. Aren’t you ashamed of frightening me like this? Upon my word, Ilya Stepanitch!”
“What do you want of me?” repeated Tyeglev.
“I want . . . I want you, in the first place, to come back home with me. And secondly, I want, I insist, I insist as a friend, that you explain to me at once the meaning of your actions — and of this letter to the colonel. Can something unexpected have happened to you in Petersburg?”
“I found in Petersburg exactly what I expected,” answered Tyeglev, without moving from the spot.
“That is . . . you mean to say . . . your friend . . . this Masha. . . . ”
“She has taken her life,” Tyeglev answered hurriedly and as it were angrily. “She was buried the day before yesterday. She did not even leave a note for me. She poisoned herself.”
Tyeglev hurriedly uttered these terrible words and still stood motionless as a stone.
I clasped my hands. “Is it possible? How dreadful! Your presentiment has come true. . . . That is awful!”
I stopped in confusion. Slowly and with a sort of triumph Tyeglev folded his arms.
“But why are we standing here?” I began. “Let us go home.”
“Let us,” said Tyeglev. “But how can we find the way in this fog?”
“There is a light in our windows, and we will make for it. Come along.”
“You go ahead,” answered Tyeglev. “I will follow you.” We set off. We walked for five minutes and our beacon light still did not appear; at last it gleamed before us in two red points. Tyeglev stepped evenly behind me. I was desperately anxious to get home as quickly as possible and to learn from him all the details of his unhappy expedition to Petersburg. Before we reached the hut, impressed by what he had said, I confessed to him in an access of remorse and a sort of superstitious fear, that the mysterious knocking of the previous evening had been my doing . . . and what a tragic turn my jest had taken!
Tyeglev confined himself to observing that I had nothing to do with it — that something else had guided my hand — and this only showed how little I knew him. His voice, strangely calm and even, sounded close to my ear. “But you do not know me,” he added. “I saw you smile yesterday when I spoke of the strength of my will. You will come to know me — and you will remember my words.”
The first hut of the village sprang out of the fog before us like some dark monster . . . then the second, our hut, emerged — and my setter dog began barking, probably scenting me.
I knocked at the window. “Semyon!” I shouted to Tyeglev’s servant, “hey, Semyon! Make haste and open the gate for us.”
The gate creaked and opened; Semyon crossed the threshold.
“Ilya Stepanitch, come in,” I said, and I looked round. But no Ilya Stepanitch was with me. Tyeglev had vanished as though he had sunk into the earth.
I went into the hut feeling dazed.
Vexation with Tyeglev and with myself succeeded the amazement with which I was overcome at first.
“Your master is mad!” I blurted out to Semyon, “raving mad! He galloped off to Petersburg, then came back and is running about all over the place! I did get hold of him and brought him right up to the gate — and here he has given me the slip again! To go out of doors on a night like this! He has chosen a nice time for a walk!”
“And why did I let go of his hand?” I reproached myself. Semyon looked at me in silence, as though intending to say something — but after the fashion of servants in those days he simply shifted from one foot to the other and said nothing.
“What time did he set off for town?” I asked sternly.
“At six o’clock in the morning.”
“And how was he — did he seem anxious, depressed?” Semyon looked down. “Our master is a deep one,” he began. “Who can make him out? He told me to get out his new uniform when he was going out to town — and then he curled himself.”
“Curled his hair. I got the curling tongs ready for him.”
That, I confess, I had not expected. “Do you know a young lady,” I asked Semyon, “a friend of Ilya Stepanitch’s. Her name is Masha.”
“To be sure I know Marya Anempodistovna! A nice young lady.”
“Is your master in love with this Marya . . . et cetera?”
Semyon heaved a sigh. “That young lady is Ilya Stepanitch’s undoing. For he is desperately in love with her — and can’t bring himself to marry her — and sorry to give her up, too. It’s all his honour’s faintheartedness. He is very fond of her.”
“What is she like then, pretty?” I inquired.
Semyon assumed a grave air. “She is the sort that the gentry like.”
“She is not the right sort for us at all.”
“Very thin in the body.”
“If she died,” I began, “do you think Ilya Stepanitch would not survive her?”
Semyon heaved a sigh again. “I can’t venture to say that — there’s no knowing with gentlemen . . . but our master is a deep one.”
I took up from the table the big, rather thick letter that Tyeglev had given me and turned it over in my hands. . . . The address to “his honour the Commanding Officer of the Battery, Colonel So and So” (the name, patronymic, and surname) was clearly and distinctly written. The word urgent, twice underlined, was written in the top left-hand corner of the envelope.
“Listen, Semyon,” I began. “I feel uneasy about your master. I fancy he has some mischief in his mind. We must find him.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Semyon.
“It is true there is such a fog that one cannot see a couple of yards ahead; but all the same we must do our best. We will each take a lantern and light a candle in each window — in case of need.”
“Yes, sir,” repeated Semyon. He lighted the lanterns and the candles and we set off.
I can’t describe how we wandered and lost our way! The lanterns were of no help to us; they did not in the least dissipate the white, almost luminous mist which surrounded us. Several times Semyon and I lost each other, in spite of the fact that we kept calling to each other and hallooing and at frequent intervals shouted — I: “Tyeglev! Ilya Stepanitch!” and Semyon: “Mr. Tyeglev! Your honour!” The fog so bewildered us that we wandered about as though in a dream; soon we were both hoarse; the fog penetrated right into one’s chest. We succeeded somehow by help of the candles in the windows in reaching the hut again. Our combined action had been of no use — we merely handicapped each other — and so we made up our minds not to trouble ourselves about getting separated but to go each our own way. He went to the left, I to the right and I soon ceased to hear his voice. The fog seemed to have found its way into my brain and I wandered like one dazed, simply shouting from time to time, “Tyeglev! Tyeglev!”
“Here!” I heard suddenly in answer.
Holy saints, how relieved I was! How I rushed in the direction from which the voice came. . . . A human figure loomed dark before me. . . . I made for it. At last!
But instead of Tyeglev I saw another officer of the same battery, whose name was Tyelepnev.
“Was it you answered me?” I asked him.
“Was it you calling me?” he asked in his turn.
“No; I was calling Tyeglev.”
“Tyeglev? Why, I met him a minute ago. What a fool of a night! One can’t find the way home.”
“You saw Tyeglev? Which way did he go?”
“That way, I fancy,” said the officer, waving his hand in the air. “But one can’t be sure of anything now. Do you know, for instance, where the village is? The only hope is the dogs barking. It is a fool of a night! Let me light a cigarette . . . it will seem like a light on the way.”
The officer was, so I fancied, a little exhilarated.
“Did Tyeglev say anything to you?” I asked.
“To be sure he did! I said to him, ‘good evening, brother,’ and he said, ‘good-bye.’ ‘How good-bye? Why good-bye.’ ‘I mean to shoot myself directly with a pistol.’ He is a queer fish!”
My heart stood still. “You say he told you . . . ”
“He is a queer fish!” repeated the officer, and sauntered off.
I hardly had time to recover from what the officer had told me, when my own name, shouted several times as it seemed with effort, caught my ear. I recognised Semyon’s voice.
I called back . . . he came to me.
“Well?” I asked him. “Have you found Ilya Stepanitch?”
“Here, not far away.”
“How . . . have you found him? Is he alive?”
“To be sure. I have been talking to him.” (A load was lifted from my heart.) “His honour was sitting in his great-coat under a birch tree . . . and he was all right. I put it to him, ‘Won’t you come home, Ilya Stepanitch; Alexandr Vassilitch is very much worried about you.’ And he said to me, ‘What does he want to worry for! I want to be in the fresh air. My head aches. Go home,’ he said, ‘and I will come later.’”
“And you left him?” I cried, clasping my hands.
“What else could I do? He told me to go . . . how could I stay?”
All my fears came back to me at once.
“Take me to him this minute — do you hear? This minute! O Semyon, Semyon, I did not expect this of you! You say he is not far off?”
“He is quite close, here, where the copse begins — he is sitting there. It is not more than five yards from the river bank. I found him as I came alongside the river.”
“Well, take me to him, take me to him.”
Semyon set off ahead of me. “This way, sir. . . . We have only to get down to the river and it is close there.”
But instead of getting down to the river we got into a hollow and found ourselves before an empty shed.
“Hey, stop!” Semyon cried suddenly. “I must have come too far to the right. . . . We must go that way, more to the left. . . . ”
We turned to the left — and found ourselves among such high, rank weeds that we could scarcely get out. . . . I could not remember such a tangled growth of weeds anywhere near our village. And then all at once a marsh was squelching under our feet, and we saw little round moss-covered hillocks which I had never noticed before either. . . . We turned back — a small hill was sharply before us and on the top of it stood a shanty — and in it someone was snoring. Semyon and I shouted several times into the shanty; something stirred at the further end of it, the straw rustled — and a hoarse voice shouted, “I am on guard.”
We turned back again . . . fields and fields, endless fields. . . . I felt ready to cry. . . . I remembered the words of the fool in King Lear: “This night will turn us all to fools or madmen.”
“Where are we to go?” I said in despair to Semyon.
“The devil must have led us astray, sir,” answered the distracted servant. “It’s not natural . . . there’s mischief at the bottom of it!”
I would have checked him but at that instant my ear caught a sound, distinct but not loud, that engrossed my whole attention. There was a faint “pop” as though someone had drawn a stiff cork from a narrow bottle-neck. The sound came from somewhere not far off. Why the sound seemed to me strange and peculiar I could not say, but at once I went towards it.
Semyon followed me. Within a few minutes something tall and broad loomed in the fog.
“The copse! here is the copse!” Semyon cried, delighted. “Yes, here . . . and there is the master sitting under the birch-tree. . . . There he is, sitting where I left him. That’s he, surely enough!”
I looked intently. A man really was sitting with his back towards us, awkwardly huddled up under the birch-tree. I hurriedly approached and recognised Tyeglev’s great-coat, recognised his figure, his head bowed on his breast. “Tyeglev!” I cried . . . but he did not answer.
“Tyeglev!” I repeated, and laid my hand on his shoulder. Then he suddenly lurched forward, quickly and obediently, as though he were waiting for my touch, and fell onto the grass. Semyon and I raised him at once and turned him face upwards. It was not pale, but was lifeless and motionless; his clenched teeth gleamed white — and his eyes, motionless, too, and wide open, kept their habitual, drowsy and “different” look.
“Good God!” Semyon said suddenly and showed me his hand stained crimson with blood. . . . The blood was coming from under Tyeglev’s great-coat, from the left side of his chest.
He had shot himself from a small, single-barreled pistol which was lying beside him. The faint pop I had heard was the sound made by the fatal shot.
Tyeglev’s suicide did not surprise his comrades very much. I have told you already that, according to their ideas, as a “fatal” man he was bound to do something extraordinary, though perhaps they had not expected that from him. In the letter to the colonel he asked him, in the first place, to have the name of Ilya Tyeglev removed from the list of officers, as he had died by his own act, adding that in his cash-box there would be found more than sufficient money to pay his debts — and, secondly, to forward to the important personage at that time commanding the whole corps of guards, an unsealed letter which was in the same envelope. This second letter, of course, we all read; some of us took a copy of it. Tyeglev had evidently taken pains over the composition of this letter.
“You know, Your Excellency” (so I remember the letter began), “you are so stern and severe over the slightest negligence in uniform when a pale, trembling officer presents himself before you; and here am I now going to meet our universal, righteous, incorruptible Judge, the Supreme Being, the Being of infinitely greater consequence even than Your Excellency, and I am going to meet him in undress, in my great-coat, and even without a cravat round my neck.”
Oh, what a painful and unpleasant impression that phrase made upon me, with every word, every letter of it, carefully written in the dead man’s childish handwriting! Was it worth while, I asked myself, to invent such rubbish at such a moment? But Tyeglev had evidently been pleased with the phrase: he had made use in it of the accumulation of epithets and amplifications à la Marlinsky, at that time in fashion. Further on he had alluded to destiny, to persecution, to his vocation which had remained unfulfilled, to a mystery which he would bear with him to the grave, to people who had not cared to understand him; he had even quoted lines from some poet who had said of the crowd that it wore life “like a dog-collar” and clung to vice “like a burdock”— and it was not free from mistakes in spelling. To tell the truth, this last letter of poor Tyeglev was somewhat vulgar; and I can fancy the contemptuous surprise of the great personage to whom it was addressed — I can imagine the tone in which he would pronounce “a worthless officer! ill weeds are cleared out of the field!”
Only at the very end of the letter there was a sincere note from Tyeglev’s heart. “Ah, Your Excellency,” he concluded his epistle, “I am an orphan, I had no one to love me as a child — and all held aloof from me . . . and I myself destroyed the only heart that gave itself to me!”
Semyon found in the pocket of Tyeglev’s great-coat a little album from which his master was never separated. But almost all the pages had been torn out; only one was left on which there was the following calculation:
Napoleon was born Ilya Tyeglev was born
on August 15th, 1769. on January 7th, 1811.
Total 1792 Total 1819
* August — the 8th month + January — the 1st month
of the year. of the year.
Total 19! Total 19!
Napoleon died on May Ilya Tyeglev died on
5th, 1825. April 21st, 1834.
Total 1835 Total 1862
* May — the 5th month + July — the 7th month
of the year. of the year.
Total 17! Total 17!
Poor fellow! Was not this perhaps why he became an artillery officer?
As a suicide he was buried outside the cemetery — and he was immediately forgotten.
The day after Tyeglev’s burial (I was still in the village waiting for my brother) Semyon came into the hut and announced that Ilya wanted to see me.
“What Ilya?” I asked.
I told Semyon to call him.
He made his appearance. He expressed some regret at the death of the lieutenant; wondered what could have possessed him. . . .
“Was he in debt to you?” I asked.
“No, sir. He always paid punctually for everything he had. But I tell you what,” here the pedlar grinned, “you have got something of mine.”
“What is it?”
“Why, that,” he pointed to the brass comb lying on the little toilet table. “A thing of little value,” the fellow went on, “but as it was a present . . . ”
All at once I raised my head. Something dawned upon me.
“Your name is Ilya?”
“Was it you, then, I saw under the willow tree the other night?”
The pedlar winked, and grinned more broadly than ever.
“And it was your name that was called?”
“Yes, sir,” the pedlar repeated with playful modesty. “There is a young girl here,” he went on in a high falsetto, “who, owing to the great strictness of her parents ——”
“Very good, very good,” I interrupted him, handed him the comb and dismissed him.
“So that was the ‘Ilyusha,’” I thought, and I sank into philosophic reflections which I will not, however, intrude upon you as I don’t want to prevent anyone from believing in fate, predestination and such like.
When I was back in Petersburg I made inquiries about Masha. I even discovered the doctor who had treated her. To my amazement I heard from him that she had died not through poisoning but of cholera! I told him what I had heard from Tyeglev.
“Eh! Eh!” cried the doctor all at once. “Is that Tyeglev an artillery officer, a man of middle height and with a stoop, speaks with a lisp?”
“Well, I thought so. That gentleman came to me — I had never seen him before — and began insisting that the girl had poisoned herself. ‘It was cholera,’ I told him. ‘Poison,’ he said. ‘It was cholera, I tell you,’ I said. ‘No, it was poison,’ he declared. I saw that the fellow was a sort of lunatic, with a broad base to his head — a sign of obstinacy, he would not give over easily. . . . Well, it doesn’t matter, I thought, the patient is dead. . . . ‘Very well,’ I said, ‘she poisoned herself if you prefer it.’ He thanked me, even shook hands with me — and departed.”
I told the doctor how the officer had shot himself the same day.
The doctor did not turn a hair — and only observed that there were all sorts of queer fellows in the world.
“There are indeed,” I assented.
Yes, someone has said truly of suicides: until they carry out their design, no one believes them; and when they do, no one regrets them.
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