Several weeks elapsed, during which my life in the fortress became not only supportable, but even agreeable. I was received as a member of the family in the Commandant’s house. The husband and wife were excellent people. Ivan Mironoff, from being the adopted child of the regiment, rose to officer’s rank. He was a plain, simple, uneducated man, but thoroughly good and loyal. His wife governed him, and that suited his natural indolence. Basilia directed the affairs of the garrison, as she did her household, and commanded through the fortress as she did in her own kitchen. Marie soon lost her shyness, and as we became better acquainted I found that she was a girl full of affection and intelligence. Little by little I became deeply attached to this good family.
I was promoted, and ranked as an officer. Military service did not oppress me. In this fortress, blessed by God, there was no duty to do, no guard to mount, nor review to pass. Occasionally, for his own amusement, the Commandant drilled his soldiers. He had not yet succeeded in teaching them which was the right flank and which the left.
Alexis had some French books, and in my idleness I set work to read, so that a taste for literature awoke within me. I read every morning, and essayed some translations, even metrical compositions. Almost every day I dined at the Commandant’s, where, as a general thing, I spent the rest of the day. In the evening, Father Garasim came with his wife, Accoulina, the greatest gossip of the place. Of course Alexis and I met daily, yet gradually his society displeased me. His perpetual jokes upon the Commandant’s family, and above all his biting remarks about Marie, rendered his conversation very disagreeable to me. I had no other society than this family in the fortress, and I desired no other. All predictions to the contrary, the Bashkirs did not revolt, and peace reigned around us.
I have already said that I busied myself somewhat with literature. One day I happened to write a little song, of which I was proud. It is well known that authors, under pretext of asking advice, willingly seek a kindly audience. I copied my little song and took it to Alexis, the only one in the fortress who could appreciate a poetical work. After preluding a little, I drew my pages from my pocket and read my verses to him.
“How do you like that?” said I, expecting praise as a tribute due me. To my great annoyance, Alexis, who was generally pleased with my writings, declared frankly that my song was worth nothing.
“What do you mean?” said I, with forced calmness. He took the paper out of my hand and began to criticize without pity, every verse, every word, tearing me up in the most malicious fashion. It was too much. I snatched the paper from him, declaring that never again would I show him any of my compositions.
“We shall see,” said he, “if you can keep your word; poets need a listener as Ivan Mironoff needs a decanter of brandy before dinner. Who is this Marie to whom you declare your tender feelings? Might it not be Marie Mironoff?”
“That is none of your business,” said I, frowning. “I want neither your advice nor supposition.”
“Oh! oh! vain poet; discreet lover,” continued Alexis, irritating me more and more, “listen to friendly counsel: if you want to succeed do not confine yourself to songs.”
“What do you mean, sir? Explain!”
“With pleasure,” he replied. “I mean that if you wish to form an intimacy with Marie Mironoff, you have only to give her a pair of earrings instead of your lackadaisical verses.”
All my blood boiled. “Why have you this opinion of her?” I asked, with much effort restraining my anger.
“Because,” said he, “of my own experience.”
“You lie, wretch,” I cried, with furry, “you lie, shamelessly.”
Alexis was enraged.
“That shall not pass so,” he said, grasping my hand. “You shall give me satisfaction.”
“When ever you like,” I replied, joyfully, for at that moment I was ready to tear him to pieces. I ran at once to see Ivan Ignatius, whom I found with a needle in his hand. According to orders from the Commandant’s wife, he was stringing mushrooms which were to be dried for winter use.
“Ah! Peter Grineff, be welcome. Dare I ask on what business God sends you here?”
In a few words I told him of my quarrel with Alexis, and begged him, Ignatius, to be my second. Ignatius heard me to the end with great attention, opening wide his only eye.
“You deign to say that you want to kill Alexis, and desire that I should witness the act? Is that what you mean, dare I ask?”
“Ah! what folly; you have had some words with Alexis. What then? A harsh word can not be hung up by the neck. He gives you impertinence, give him the same; if he give you a slap, return the blow; he a second, you a third; in the end we will compel you to make peace. Whilst if you fight — well, if you should kill him, God be with him! for I do not like him much; but if he should perforate you, what a nice piece of business! Then who will pay for the broken pots?”
The arguments of the prudent officer did not shake my resolution.
“Do as you like,” said Ignatius, “but what’s the use of having me as a witness? People fight — that’s nothing extraordinary — I have often been quite close to Swedes and Turks, and people of all shades of color.”
I tried to explain to him the duties of a second; Ignatius would not, or could not understand me. “Follow your own fashion,” said he, “if I were to meddle in this affair, it would be to announce to Ivan Mironoff, according to rule, that a plot is being made in the fortress for the commission of a criminal action — one contrary to the interests of the crown.”
I was alarmed, and begged Ignatius to say nothing to the Commandant. He gave me his word that he would be silent, and I left him in peace. As usual I passed the evening at the Commandant’s, forcing myself to be calm and gay, in order not to awaken suspicions and to avoid questioning. I confess that I had not the coolness of which people boast who have been in a similar position. I was disposed to tenderness. Marie Mironoff seemed more attractive than ever. The idea that perhaps I saw her for the last time, gave her a touching grace.
Alexis entered. I took him aside and told him of my conversation with Ignatius.
“What’s the good of seconds,” said he, dryly. “We can do without them.”
We agreed to fight behind the haystack the next morning at six o’clock.
Seeing us talking amicably, Ignatius, full of joy, nearly betrayed us. “You should have done that long ago, for a bad peace is better than a good quarrel.”
“What! what! Ignatius,” said the Captain’s wife, who was playing patience in a corner, “I do not quite understand?”
Ignatius, seeing my displeasure, remembered his promise, became confused and knew not what to answer. Alexis came to his relief: “He approves of peace.”
“With whom had you quarreled?” said she.
“With Peter Grineff — a few high words.”
“For a mere nothing — a song.”
“Fine cause for a quarrel! a song! Tell me how it happened.”
“Willingly: Peter has recently been composing, and this morning he sang his song for me. Then I chanted mine:
‘Daughter of the Captain, walk not forth at midnight.’
As we were not on the same note, Peter was angry, forgetting that every one is at liberty to sing what he pleases.”
The insolence of Alexis made me furious. No one but myself understood his allusions. From poetry the conversation passed to poets in general. The Commandant observed that they were all debauchees and drunkards, and advised me, as a friend, to renounce poetry as contrary to the service, and leading to nothing good.
As the pretence of Alexis was to me insupportable, I hastened to take leave of the family. In my own apartment I examined my sword, tried its point, and went to bed, having ordered Saveliitch to wake me in the morning at six o’clock.
The next day at the appointed time I was behind the haystack awaiting my adversary, who did not fail to appear. “We may be surprised,” he said; “be quick.” We laid aside our uniforms, drew our swords from the scabbards, when Ignatius, followed by five pensioners, came out from behind a haystack. He ordered us to repair to the presence of the Commandant. We obeyed. The soldiers surrounded us. Ignatius conducted us in triumph, marching military step, with majestic gravity. We entered the Commandant’s house; Ignatius opened the folding doors, and exclaimed with emphasis: “They are taken!”
Basilia ran toward us: “What does this mean? plotting an assassination in our fortress! Ivan Mironoff, arrest them! Peter Grineff, Alexis, give up your swords to the garret. Peter, I did not expect this of you; are you not ashamed? As for Alexis, it is quite different; he was transferred to us from the Guards for having caused a soul to perish; and he does not believe in our blessed Saviour.”
Ivan Mironoff approved increasingly all that his wife said: “You see! You see! Basilia is right, duels are forbidden by the military code.”
Meantime Polacca had carried off our swords to the garret. I could not help smiling at this scene. Alexis preserved all his gravity, and said to Basilia: “Notwithstanding all my respect for you, I must say you take useless pains to subject us to your tribunal. Leave that duty to Ivan Mironoff; it is his business.”
“What! what! my dear sir,” said the lady, “are not man and wife the same flesh and spirit? Ivan Mironoff, are you trifling? Lock up these boys instantly; put them in separate rooms — on bread and water, to expel this stupid idea of theirs. Let Father Garasim give them a penance on order that they may repent before God and man.”
Ivan Mironoff did not know what to do. Marie was extremely pale. The tempest, however, subsided little by little. Basilia ordered us to embrace each other, and the maid was sent for our swords. We left the house, having in appearance made friends. Ignatius re-conducted us.
“Are you not ashamed of yourself,” I said to him, “to have denounced us to the Commandant, after having given me your word you would not do so?”
“As God is holy, I said nothing to Ivan Mironoff. Basilia drew it all from me. She took all the necessary measures without the knowledge of the Commandant. Thank God it finished as it did.” He went to his room; I remained with Alexis.
“Our affair can not end thus,” I remarked.
“Certainly not,” replied Alexis. “You shall pay me with your blood for your impertinence, but as undoubtedly we shall be watched, let us feign for a few days. Until then, adieu!”
We separated as if nothing had happened. I returned to the Commandant’s, and seated myself as usual near Marie. Her father was absent and her mother busy with household duties. We spoke in subdued tones. Marie reproached me gently for the pain my quarrel with Alexis gave her. “My heart failed me,” she said, “when I heard you were going to fight with swords. How strange men are! For a word, they are ready to strangle each other, and sacrifice, not only their own life, but even the honor and happiness of those who — I am sure you did not begin the quarrel? Alexis was the aggressor?”
“Why do you think so?”
“Because he is so sarcastic. I do not like him, and yet I would not displease him, although he is quite disagreeable to me.”
“What do you think, Marie, are you pleasing to him or not?”
Marie blushed. “It seems,” said she, “that I please him.”
“How do you know?”
“Because he made me an offer of marriage.”
“He made you an offer of marriage! When?”
“Last year, two months before your arrival.”
“You did not accept?”
“Evidently not, as you see. Alexis is a most intelligent man, of an excellent family and not without fortune, but the mere idea that beneath the crown, on my marriage day, I should be obliged to kiss him before every one! No! no! not for any thing in the world.”
Marie’s words opened my eyes. I understood the persistence of Alexis in aspersing her character. He had probably remarked our mutual inclination, and was trying to turn us from each other. The words which had provoked our quarrel seemed to me the more infamous, as instead of being a vulgar joke, it was deliberate calumny. The desire to punish this shameless liar became so strong that I waited impatiently the favorable moment. I had not long to wait. The next day, occupied composing an elegy, biting my pen in the expectation of a rhyme, Alexis knocked at my window. I put down my pen, took my sword, and went out of the house.
“Why defer?” said Alexis, “we are no longer watched, let us go down to the river-side; there none will hinder us.”
We set out in silence, and having descended a steep path, we stopped at the water’s edge and crossed swords. Alexis was more skillful than I in the use of arms, but I was stronger and bolder. Mons. Beaupre, who had been, amongst other things, a soldier, had taught me fencing. Alexis did not expect to find in me an adversary of so dangerous a character.
For some minutes neither gained any advantage over the other, but at last noticing that Alexis was growing weak, I attacked him energetically, and almost drove him backward into the river, when suddenly I heard my name pronounced in a high voice. Turning my head rapidly, I saw Saveliitch running toward me down the path. As I turned my head, I felt a sharp thrust in the breast under the right shoulder, and I fell, unconscious.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59