The windows of the barracks and the soldiers’ houses had long been dark in the fort; but there were still lights in the windows of the best house.
In it lived Prince Simon Mikhailovich Vorontsov, Commander of the Kurin Regiment, an Imperial Aide-de-Camp and son of the Commander-in-Chief. Vorontsov’s wife, Marya Vasilevna, a famous Petersburg beauty, was with him and they lived in this little Caucasian fort more luxuriously than any one had ever lived there before. To Vorontsov, and even more to his wife, it seemed that they were not only living a very modest life, but one full of privations, while to the inhabitants of the place their luxury was surprising and extraordinary.
Just now, at midnight, the host and hostess sat playing cards with their visitors, at a card table lit by four candles, in the spacious drawing room with its carpeted floor and rich curtains drawn across the windows. Vorontsov, who had a long face and wore the insignia and gold cords of an aide-de-camp, was partnered by a shaggy young man of gloomy appearance, a graduate of Petersburg University whom Princess Vorontsov had lately had sent to the Caucasus to be tutor to her little son (born of her first marriage). Against them played two officers: one a broad, red- faced man, Poltoratsky, a company commander who had exchanged out of the Guards; and the other the regimental adjutant, who sat very straight on his chair with a cold expression on his handsome face.
Princess Marya Vasilevna, a large-built, large-eyed, black- browed beauty, sat beside Poltoratsky — her crinoline touching his lets — and looked over his cards. In her words, her looks, her smile, her perfume, and in every movement of her body, there was something that reduced Poltoratsky to obliviousness of everything except the consciousness of her nearness, and he made blunder after blunder, trying his partner’s temper more and more.
“No . . . that’s too bad! You’ve wasted an ace again,” said the regimental adjutant, flushing all over as Poltoratsky threw out an ace.
Poltoratsky turned his kindly, wide-set black eyes towards the dissatisfied adjutant uncomprehendingly, as though just aroused from sleep.
“Do forgive him!” said Marya Vasilevna, smiling. “There, you see! Didn’t I tell you so?” she went on, turning to Poltoratsky.
“But that’s not at all what you said,” replied Poltoratsky, smiling.
“Wasn’t it?” she queried, with an answering smile, which excited and delighted Poltoratsky to such a degree that he blushed crimson and seeing the cards began to shuffle.
“It isn’t your turn to deal,” said the adjutant sternly, and with his white ringed hand he began to deal himself, as though he wished to get rid of the cards as quickly as possible.
The prince’s valet entered the drawing room and announced that the officer on duty wanted to speak to him.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” said the prince speaking Russian with an English accent. “Will you take my place, marya?”
“Do you all agree?” asked the princess, rising quickly and lightly to her full height, rustling her silks, and smiling the radiant smile of a happy woman.
“I always agree to everything,” replied the adjutant, very pleased that the princess — who could not play at all — was now going to play against him.
Poltoratsky only spread out his hands and smiled.
The rubber was nearly finished when the prince returned to the drawing room, animated and obviously very pleased.
“Do you know what I propose?”
“That we have some champagne.”
“I am always ready for that,” said Poltoratsky.
“Why not? We shall be delighted!” said the adjutant.
“Bring some, Vasili!” said the prince.
“What did they want you for?” asked Marya Vasilevna.
“It was the officer on duty and another man.”
“Who? What about?” asked Marya Vasilevna quickly.
“I mustn’t say,” said Vorontsov, shrugging his shoulders.
“You mustn’t say!” repeated Marya Vasilevna. “We’ll’’ see about that.”
When the champagne was brought each of the visitors drank a glass, and having finished the game and settled the scores they began to take their leave.
“Is it your company that’s ordered to the forest tomorrow?” the prince asked Poltoratsky as they said goodbye.
“Yes, mine . . . why?”
“Then we shall meet tomorrow,” said the prince, smiling slightly.
“Very pleased,” replied Poltoratsky, not quite understanding what Vorontsov was saying to him and preoccupied only by the thought that he would in a minute be pressing Marya Vasilevna’s hand.
Marya Vasilevna, according to her wont, not only pressed his hand firmly but shook it vigorously, and again reminding him of his mistake in playing diamonds, she gave him what he took to be a delightful, affectionate, and meaning smile.
Poltoratsky went home in an ecstatic condition only to be understood by people like himself who, having grown up and been educated in society, meet a woman belonging to their own circle after months of isolated military life, and moreover a woman like Princess Vorontsov.
When he reached the little house in which he and his comrade lived he pushed the door, but it was locked. He knocked, with no result. He felt vexed, and began kicking the door and banging it with his sword. Then he heard a sound of footsteps and Vovilo — a domestic serf of his — undid the cabin hook which fastened the door.
“What do you mean by locking yourself in, blockhead?”
“But how is it possible, sir . . .?”
“You’re tipsy again! I’ll show you ‘how it is possible!’” and Poltoratsky was about to strike Vovilo but changed his mind. “Oh, go to the devil! . . . Light a candle.”
“In a minute.”
Vovilo was really tipsy. He had been drinking at the name day party of the ordnance sergeant, Ivan Petrovich. On returning home he began comparing his life with that of the latter. Ivan Petrovich had a salary, was married, and hoped in a year’s time to get his discharge.
Vovilo had been taken “up” when a boy — that is, he had been taken into his owner’s household service — and now although he was already over forty he was not married, but lived a campaigning life with his harum-scarum young master. He was a good master, who seldom struck him, but what kind of a life was it? “He promised to free me when we return from the Caucasus, but where am I to with my freedom? . . . It’s a dog’s life!” thought Vovilo, and he felt so sleepy that, afraid lest someone should come in and steal something, he fastened the hook of the door and fell asleep.
* * *
Poltoratsky entered the bedroom which he shared with his comrade Tikhonov.
“Well, have you lost?” asked Tikhonov, waking up.
“No, as it happens, I haven’t. I’ve won seventeen rubles, and we drank a bottle of Cliquot!”
“And you’ve looked at Marya Vasilevna?”
“Yes, and I have looked at Marya Vasilevna,” repeated Poltoratsky.
“It will soon be time to get up,” said Tikhonov. “We are to start at six.”
“Vovilo!” shouted Poltoratsky, “see that you wake me up properly tomorrow at five!”
“How can I wake you if you fight?”
“I tell you you’re to wake me! Do you hear?”
“All right.” Vovilo went out, taking Poltoratsky’s boots and clothes with him. Poltoratsky got into bed and smoked a cigarette and put out his candle smiling the while. In the dark he saw before him the smiling face of Marya Vasilevna.
* * *
The Vorontsovs did not go to bed at once. When the visitors had left, Marya Vasilevna went up to her husband and standing in front of him, said severely —
“Eh bien! vous allez me dire ce que c’est.”
“Mais, ma chere . . . ”
“Pas de ‘ma chere’! C’etait un emissaire, n’est-ce pas?”
“Quand meme, je ne puis pas vous le dire.”
“Vous ne pouvez pas? Alors, c’est moi qui vais vous le dire!”
“It was Hadji Murad, wasn’t it?” said Marya Vasilevna, who had for some days past heard of the negotiations and thought that Hadji Murad himself had been to see her husband. Vorontsov could not altogether deny this, but disappointed her by saying that it was not Hadji Murad himself but only an emissary to announce that Hadji Murad would come to meet him next day at the spot where a wood- cutting expedition had been arranged.
In the monotonous life of the fortress the young Vorontsovs — both husband and wife — were glad of this occurrence, and it was already past two o’clock when, after speaking of the pleasure the news would give his father, they went to bed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01