Several weeks passed, during which my life in Fort Bélogorsk became not merely endurable, but even pleasant. I was received like one of the family in the household of the Commandant. The husband and wife were excellent people. Iván Kouzmitch, who had been a child of the regiment, had become an officer, and was a simple, uneducated man, but good and true. His wife led him completely, which, by the way, very well suited his natural laziness.
It was Vassilissa Igorofna who directed all military business as she did that of her household, and commanded in the little fort as she did in her house. Marya Ivánofna soon ceased being shy, and we became better acquainted. I found her a warm-hearted and sensible girl. By degrees I became attached to this honest family, even to Iwán Ignatiitch, the one-eyed lieutenant, whom Chvabrine accused of secret intrigue with Vassilissa Igorofna, an accusation which had not even a shadow of probability. But that did not matter to Chvabrine.
I became an officer. My work did not weigh heavily upon me. In this heaven-blest fort there was no drill to do, no guard to mount, nor review to pass. Sometimes the Commandant instructed his soldiers for his own pleasure. But he had not yet succeeded in teaching them to know their right hand from their left. Chvabrine had some French books; I took to reading, and I acquired a taste for literature. In the morning I used to read, and I tried my hand at translations, sometimes even at compositions in verse. Nearly every day I dined at the Commandant’s, where I usually passed the rest of the day. In the evening, Father Garasim used to drop in, accompanied by his wife, Akoulina, who was the sturdiest gossip of the neighbourhood. It is scarcely necessary to say that every day we met, Chvabrine and I. Still hour by hour his conversation pleased me less. His everlasting jokes about the Commandant’s family, and, above all, his witty remarks upon Marya Ivánofna, displeased me very much. I had no other society but that of this family within the little fort, but I did not want any other.
In spite of all the prophecies, the Bashkirs did not revolt. Peace reigned around our little fort. But this peace was suddenly troubled by war within.
I have already said I dabbled a little in literature. My attempts were tolerable for the time, and Soumarokoff43 himself did justice to them many years later. One day I happened to write a little song which pleased me. It is well-known that under colour of asking advice, authors willingly seek a benevolent listener; I copied out my little song, and took it to Chvabrine, the only person in the fort who could appreciate a poetical work.
After a short preface, I drew my manuscript from my pocket, and read to him the following verses:44
“By waging war with thoughts of love I try to forget my beauty; Alas! by flight from Masha, I hope my freedom to regain!
“But the eyes which enslaved me are ever before me. My soul have they troubled and ruined my rest.
“Oh! Masha, who knowest my sorrows,
Seeing me in this miserable plight,
Take pity on thy captive.”
“What do you think of that?” I said to Chvabrine, expecting praise as a tribute due to me. But to my great displeasure Chvabrine, who usually showed kindness, told me flatly my song was worth nothing.
“Why?” I asked, trying to hide my vexation.
“Because such verses,” replied he, “are only worthy of my master Trédiakofski,45 and, indeed, remind me very much of his little erotic couplets.”
He took the MSS. from my hand and began unmercifully criticizing each verse, each word, cutting me up in the most spiteful way. That was too much for me; I snatched the MSS. out of his hands, and declared that never, no never, would I ever again show him one of my compositions. Chvabrine did not laugh the less at this threat.
“Let us see,” said he, “if you will be able to keep your word; poets have as much need of an audience as Iván Kouzmitch has need of his ‘petit verre’ before dinner. And who is this Masha to whom you declare your tender sentiments and your ardent flame? Surely it must be Marya Ivánofna?”
“That does not concern you,” replied I, frowning; “I don’t ask for your advice nor your suppositions.”
“Oh! oh! a vain poet and a discreet lover,” continued Chvabrine, irritating me more and more. “Listen to a little friendly advice: if you wish to succeed, I advise you not to stick at songs.”
“What do you mean, sir?” I exclaimed; “explain yourself if you please.”
“With pleasure,” rejoined he. “I mean that if you want to be well with Masha Mironoff, you need only make her a present of a pair of earrings instead of your languishing verses.”
My blood boiled.
“Why have you such an opinion of her?” I asked him, restraining with difficulty my indignation.
“Because,” replied he, with a satanic smile, “because I know by experience her views and habits.”
“You lie, you rascal!” I shouted at him, in fury. “You are a shameless liar.”
Chvabrine’s face changed.
“This I cannot overlook,” he said; “you shall give me satisfaction.”
“Certainly, whenever you like,” replied I, joyfully; for at that moment I was ready to tear him in pieces.
I rushed at once to Iwán Ignatiitch, whom I found with a needle in his hand. In obedience to the order of the Commandant’s wife, he was threading mushrooms to be dried for the winter.
“Ah! Petr’ Andréjïtch,” said he, when he saw me; “you are welcome. On what errand does heaven send you, if I may presume to ask?”
I told him in a few words that I had quarrelled with Alexey Iványtch, and that I begged him, Iwán Ignatiitch, to be my second. Iwán Ignatiitch heard me till I had done with great attention, opening wide his single eye.
“You deign to tell me,” said he, “that you wish to kill Alexey Iványtch, and that I am to be witness? Is not that what you mean, if I may presume to ask you?”
“But, good heavens, Petr’ Andréjïtch, what folly have you got in your head? You and Alexey Iványtch have insulted one another; well, a fine affair! You needn’t wear an insult hung round your neck. He has said silly things to you, give him some impertinence; he in return will give you a blow, give him in return a box on the ear; he another, you another, and then you part. And presently we oblige you to make peace. Whereas now — is it a good thing to kill your neighbour, if I may presume to ask you? Even if it were you who should kill him! May heaven be with him, for I do not love him. But if it be he who is to run you through, you will have made a nice business of it. Who will pay for the broken pots, allow me to ask?”
The arguments of the prudent officer did not deter me. My resolution remained firm.
“As you like,” said Iwán Ignatiitch, “do as you please; but what good should I do as witness? People fight; what is there extraordinary in that, allow me to ask? Thank heaven I have seen the Swedes and the Turks at close quarters, and I have seen a little of everything.”
I endeavoured to explain to him as best I could the duty of a second, but I found Iwán Ignatiitch quite unmanageable.
“Do as you like,” said he; “if I meddled in the matter, it would be to go and tell Iván Kouzmitch, according to the rules of the service, that a criminal deed is being plotted in the fort, in opposition to the interests of the crown, and remark to the Commandant how advisable it would be that he should think of taking the necessary measures.”
I was frightened, and I begged Iwán Ignatiitch not to say anything to the Commandant. With great difficulty I managed to quiet him, and at last made him promise to hold his tongue, when I left him in peace.
As usual I passed the evening at the Commandant’s. I tried to appear lively and unconcerned in order not to awaken any suspicions, and avoid any too curious questions. But I confess I had none of the coolness of which people boast who have found themselves in the same position. All that evening I felt inclined to be soft-hearted and sentimental.
Marya Ivánofna pleased me more than usual. The thought that perhaps I was seeing her for the last time gave her, in my eyes, a touching grace.
Chvabrine came in. I took him aside and told him about my interview with Iwán Ignatiitch.
“Why any seconds?” he said to me, dryly. “We shall do very well without them.”
We decided to fight on the morrow behind the haystacks, at six o’clock in the morning.
Seeing us talking in such a friendly manner, Iwán Ignatiitch, full of joy, nearly betrayed us.
“You should have done that long ago,” he said to me, with a face of satisfaction. “Better a hollow peace than an open quarrel.”
“What is that you say, Iwán Ignatiitch?” said the Commandant’s wife, who was playing patience in a corner. “I did not exactly catch what you said.”
Iwán Ignatiitch, who saw my face darken, recollected his promise, became confused, and did not know what to say. Chvabrine came to the rescue.
“Iwán Ignatiitch,” said he, “approves of the compact we have made.”
“And with whom, my little father, did you quarrel?”
“Why, with Petr’ Andréjïtch, to be sure, and we even got to high words.”
“About a mere trifle, over a little song.”
“Fine thing to quarrel over — a little song! How did it happen?”
“Thus. Petr’ Andréjïtch lately composed a song, and he began singing it to me this morning. So I— I struck up mine, ‘Captain’s daughter, don’t go abroad at dead of night!’ As we did not sing in the same key, Petr’ Andréjïtch became angry. But afterwards he reflected that ‘every one is free to sing what he pleases,’ and that’s all.”
Chvabrine’s insolence made me furious, but no one else, except myself, understood his coarse allusions. Nobody, at least, took up the subject. From poetry the conversation passed to poets in general, and the Commandant made the remark that they were all rakes and confirmed drunkards; he advised me as a friend to give up poetry as a thing opposed to the service, and leading to no good.
Chvabrine’s presence was to me unbearable. I hastened to take leave of the Commandant and his family. After coming home I looked at my sword; I tried its point, and I went to bed after ordering Savéliitch to wake me on the morrow at six o’clock.
On the following day, at the appointed hour, I was already behind the haystacks, waiting for my foeman. It was not long before he appeared.
“We may be surprised,” he said to me; “we must make haste.”
We laid aside our uniforms, and in our waistcoats we drew our swords from the scabbard.
At this moment Iwán Ignatiitch, followed by five pensioners, came out from behind a heap of hay. He gave us an order to go at once before the Commandant. We sulkily obeyed. The soldiers surrounded us, and we followed Iwán Ignatiitch who brought us along in triumph, walking with a military step, with majestic gravity.
We entered the Commandant’s house. Iwán Ignatiitch threw the door wide open, and exclaimed, emphatically —
“They are taken!”
Vassilissa Igorofna ran to meet us.
“What does all this mean? Plotting assassination in our very fort! Iván Kouzmitch, put them under arrest at once. Petr’ Andréjïtch, Alexey Iványtch, give up your swords, give them up — give them up. Palashka, take away the swords to the garret. Petr’ Andréjïtch, I did not expect this of you; aren’t you ashamed of yourself? As to Alexey Iványtch, it’s different; he was transferred from the Guard for sending a soul into the other world. He does not believe in our Lord! But do you wish to do likewise?”
Iván Kouzmitch approved of all his wife said, repeating —
“Look there, now, Vassilissa Igorofna is quite right — duels are formally forbidden by martial law.”
Palashka had taken away our swords, and had carried them to the garret. I could not help laughing. Chvabrine looked grave.
“In spite of all the respect I have for you,” he said, coolly, to the Commandant’s wife, “I cannot help remarking that you are giving yourself useless trouble by trying us at your tribunal. Leave this cure do Iván Kouzmitch — it is his business.”
“What! what! my little father!” retorted the Commandant’s wife, “are not husband and wife the same flesh and spirit? Iván Kouzmitch, are you trifling? Lock them up separately, and keep them on broad and water till this ridiculous idea goes out of their heads. And Father Garasim shall make them do penance that they may ask pardon of heaven and of men.”
Iván Kouzmitch did not know what to do. Marya Ivánofna was very pale. Little by little the storm sank. The Commandant’s wife became more easy to deal with. She ordered us to make friends. Palashka brought us back our swords. We left the house apparently reconciled. Iván Ignatiitch accompanied us.
“Weren’t you ashamed,” I said to him, angrily, “thus to denounce us to the Commandant after giving me your solemn word not to do so?”
“As God is holy,” replied he, “I said nothing to Iván Kouzmitch; it was Vassilissa Igorofna who wormed it all out of me. It was she who took all the necessary measures unknown to the Commandant. As it is, heaven be praised that it has all ended in this way.”
After this reply he returned to his quarters, and I remained alone with Chvabrine.
“Our affair can’t end thus,” I said to him.
“Certainly not,” rejoined Chvabrine. “You shall wash out your insolence in blood. But they will watch us; we must pretend to be friends for a few days. Good-bye.”
And we parted as if nothing had happened.
Upon my return to the Commandant’s, I sat down according to my custom by Marya Ivánofna; her father was not at home, and her mother was engaged with household cares. We spoke in a low voice Marya Ivánofna reproached me tenderly for the anxiety my quarrel with Chvabrine had occasioned her.
“My heart failed me,” said she, “when they came to tell us that you were going to draw swords on each other. How strange men are! For a word forgotten the next week they are ready to cut each other’s throats, and to sacrifice not only their life, but their honour, and the happiness of those who — But I am sure it was not you who began the quarrel; it was Alexey Iványtch who was the aggressor.”
“What makes you think so, Marya?”
“Why, because — because he is so sneering. I do not like Alexey Iványtch; I even dislike him. Yet, all the same, I should not have liked him to dislike me; it would have made me very uneasy.”
“And what do you think, Marya Ivánofna, does he dislike you or no?”
Marya Ivánofna looked disturbed, and grew very red.
“I think,” she said, at last, “I think he likes me.”
“Because he proposed to me.”
“Proposed to you! When?”
“Last year, two months before you came.”
“And you did not consent?”
“As you see, Alexey Iványtch is a man of wit, and of good family, to be sure, well off, too; but only to think of being obliged to kiss him before everybody under the marriage crown! No, no; nothing in the world would induce me.”
The words of Marya Ivánofna enlightened me, and made many things clear to me. I understood now why Chvabrine so persistently followed her up. He had probably observed our mutual attraction, and was trying to detach us one from another.
The words which had provoked our quarrel seemed to me the more infamous when, instead of a rude and coarse joke, I saw in them a premeditated calumny.
The wish to punish the barefaced liar took more entire possession of me, and I awaited impatiently a favourable moment. I had not to wait long. On the morrow, just as I was busy composing an elegy, and I was biting my pen as I searched for a rhyme, Chvabrine tapped at my window. I laid down the pen, and I took up my sword and left the house.
“Why delay any longer?” said Chvabrine. “They are not watching us any more. Let us go to the river-bank; there nobody will interrupt us.”
We started in silence, and after having gone down a rugged path we halted at the water’s edge and crossed swords.
Chvabrine was a better swordsman than I was, but I was stronger and bolder, and M. Beaupré, who had, among other things, been a soldier, had given me some lessons in fencing, by which I had profited.
Chvabrine did not in the least expect to find in me such a dangerous foeman. For a long while we could neither of us do the other any harm, but at last, noticing that Chvabrine was getting tired, I vigorously attacked him, and almost forced him backwards into the river.
Suddenly I heard my own name called in a loud voice. I quickly turned my head, and saw Savéliitch running towards me down the path. At this moment I felt a sharp prick in the chest, under the right shoulder, and I fell senseless.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59