Author: Kuprin, A. I. (Aleksandr Ivanovich), 1870-1938
Russia — Fiction
Dueling — Fiction
|Every attempt has been made to replicate the original as printed.
Some typographical errors have been corrected; a list follows the text.
The footnotes follow the text.
Chapter I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII
(etext transcriber’s note)
Alexander Kuprin was born in 1870. He passed through the Cadet School and Military College at Moscow, entered the Army as lieutenant in 1890, and resigned after seven years to devote himself to literature.
By A. KUPRIN
GEORGE ALLEN & UNWIN LTD.
RUSKIN HOUSE 40 MUSEUM STREET, W.C.
First published in 1916
[An abridged version was published under the title
“In Honour’s Name” in 1907]
(All rights reserved)
THE 6th Company’s afternoon drill was nearly over, and the junior officers looked with increasing frequency at their watches, and with growing impatience. The rank and file of the new regiment were being instructed in garrison duty. Along the whole of the extensive parade-ground the soldiers stood in scattered groups: by the poplars that bordered the causeway, by the gymnastic apparatus, by the door of the company’s school, and in the neighbourhood of the butts. All these places were to represent during the drill the most important buildings in the garrison—the commander’s residence, the headquarters, the powder magazine, the administration department, etc. Sentries were posted and relieved; patrols marched here and there, shouting at and saluting each other in military fashion; harsh non-commissioned officers visited and examined the sentries on duty, trying, sometimes by a trick, sometimes by pretended threats, to fool the soldiers into infringing the rules, e.g. to quit their posts, give up their rifles, to take charge of contraband articles, etc. The older men, who had had previous experience of such practical jokes, were very seldom taken in, but answered rudely, “The Tsar alone gives orders here,” etc., etc. The young recruits, on the other hand, often enough fell into the snare set for them.
“Khliabnikov!” a stout little “non-com.” cried angrily in a voice which betrayed a passion for ruling. “What did I tell you just now, simpleton? Did I put you under arrest? What are you sticking there for, then? Why don’t you answer?”
In the third platoon a tragi-comic scene took place. Moukhamedjinov, a young soldier, Tartar by birth, was not yet versed in the Russian language. He got more and more confused under the commander’s irritating and insidious questions. At last he lost his head entirely, brought his rifle to the charge, and threatened all the bystanders with the bayonet.
“Stop, you madman!” roared Sergeant Bobuilev. “Can’t you recognize your own commander, your own captain?”
“Another step and you are a dead man!” shouted the Tartar, in a furious rage. His eyes were bloodshot, and he nervously repelled with his bayonet all who approached him. Round about him, but at a respectful distance, a crowd of soldiers flocked together, accepting with joy and gratitude this interesting little interlude in the wearisome drill.
Sliva, the captain of the company, approached to see what was going on. While he was on the opposite side of the parade-ground, where, with bent back and dragging steps, he tottered slowly backwards and forwards, a few young officers assembled in a small group to smoke and chatter. They were three, all told: Lieutenant Viätkin, a bald, moustached man of thirty-three, a jovial fellow, chatterbox, singer, and particularly fond of his glass; Sub-Lieutenant Romashov, who had hardly served two years in the regiment; and, lastly, Sub-Ensign Lbov, a lively, well-shaped young man, with an expression of shrewd geniality in his pale eyes and an eternal smile on his thick, innocent lips. He passed for a peripatetic storehouse of anecdotes, specially crammed with old and worn-out officers’ stories.
“This is an out-and-out scandal,” said Viätkin, as he looked at his dainty little watch, the case of which he angrily closed with a little click. “What the devil does he mean by keeping the company all this time?”
“You should ask him that question, Pavel Pavlich,” replied Lbov, with a sly look.
“Oh, go to the devil! Go and ask him yourself. But the point which I want to emphasize is that the whole business is utterly futile; there is always this fuss before the review, and every time they overdo it. The soldiers are so worried and badgered, that at the review they stand like blockheads. Do you know that story about the two captains who made a pretty heavy bet as to which of them had in his company the best trencher-man? When one of the ‘champions’ had consumed seven pounds of bread he was obliged to acknowledge himself beaten. His Captain, furious with indignation, sent for his sergeant-major, and said: ‘What made you send me a creature like that? After his seventh pound he had to give up, and I’ve lost my wager!’ The poor sergeant-major stared at his superior. ‘I don’t know what could have happened to him, your Excellency. This very morning I rehearsed with him, and then he ate eight pounds without any ado.’ It’s the same case here, gentlemen. We rehearse without mercy and common-sense up to the very last, and thus, when the tug-of-war comes, the soldier drops down from sheer weariness.”
“Last night,” began Lbov, who could hardly get his words out for laughing—“last night, when the drill was over, I went to my quarters. It was past eight, and quite dark then. As I was approaching the barracks of the 11th Company I heard some ear-piercing music from there. I go there and am told that the men are being taught our horn signals. All the recruits were obliged to sing in chorus. It was a hideous concert, and I asked Lieutenant Andrusevich how any one could put up with such a row so late at night. He answered laughingly, ‘Why shouldn’t we now and then, like the dogs, howl at the moon?’”
“Now I can’t stand this any longer,” interrupted Viätkin, with a yawn. “But who’s that riding down there? It looks like Biek.”
“Yes, it’s Biek-Agamalov,” replied sharp-sighted Lbov. “Look how beautifully he rides.”
“Yes, he does,” chimed in Romashov. “To my thinking, he rides better than any other of our cavalrymen. But just look at his horse dancing. Biek is showing off.”
An officer, wearing an Adjutant’s uniform and white gloves, was riding quietly along the causeway. He was sitting on a high, slim-built horse with a gold-coloured and short-clipped tail, after the English fashion. The spirited animal pirouetted under his rider, and impatiently shook its branch-bit by the violent tossings of its long and nobly formed neck.
“Pavel Pavlich, is it a fact that Biek is a Circassian by birth?” asked Romashov.
“Yes, I think so,” answered Viätkin. “Armenians pretend sometimes that they are Circassians or Lezghins, but nobody can be deceived with regard to Biek. Only look how he carries himself on horseback.”
“Wait, I’ll call him,” said Lbov.
Lbov put his hands to his mouth, and tried to form out of them a sort of speaking-tube, and shouted in a suppressed voice, so as not to be heard by the Commander—
The officer on horseback pulled the reins, stopped for a second, and swung in the saddle towards the right. Then he also turned his horse to the right, bent slightly forward, and, with a springy and energetic movement, jumped the ditch, and rode in a short gallop up to the officers.
He was a man somewhat below the medium height, lean, muscular, and very powerful. His countenance, with its receding forehead, delicate, aquiline nose, and strong, resolute lines about the mouth, was manly and handsome, and had not yet got the pale and sickly hue that is so characteristic of the Oriental when he is getting on in years.
“Good-day, Biek,” was Viätkin’s greeting. “Who was the girl for whom you were exercising your arts of seduction down there, you lady-killer?”
Biek-Agamalov shook hands with the officers, whilst with an easy and graceful movement he bent slightly forward in the saddle. He smiled, and his gleaming white and even row of teeth cast a sort of lustre over the lower part of his face, with its black and splendidly cultivated moustache.
“Two or three little Jewess girls were there, but what is that to do with me? I took no notice of them.”
“Ah! we know well enough how you play the game with ladies,” said Viätkin jestingly.
“I say!” interrupted Lbov, with a laugh; “have you heard what General Dokturov remarked about the Adjutants in the infantry? It ought to interest you, Biek. He said they were the most dare-devil riders in the whole world.”
“No lies, now, ensign,” replied Biek, as he gave his horse the reins and assumed an expression as if he intended to ride down the joker.
“It’s true, by God it is! ‘They ride,’ said he, ‘the most wretched “crocks” in the world—spavined “roarers”—and yet, only give the order, and off they fly at the maddest speed over stocks and stones, hedges and ditches—reins loose, stirrups dropped, cap flying, ah!—veritable cantaurs.’”
“What news, Biek?” asked Viätkin.
“What news? None. Ah! stay. A little while ago the Commander of the regiment ran across Lieutenant-Colonel Liekh at mess. Liekh, as drunk as a lord, was wobbling against the wall with his hands behind him, and hardly able to stammer out a syllable. Shulgovich rushed at him like an infuriated bull, and bellowed in such a way that it might be heard over the whole market-place: ‘Please remove your hands from the small of your back when you stand in the presence of your commanding officer.’ And all the servants witnessed this edifying scene.”
“Ah! that is detestable,” chimed in Viätkin, laughing. “Yesterday, when he favoured the 4th Company with a visit, he shouted: ‘Who dares to thrust the regulations in my face? I am your regulations. Not a word more. Here I’m your Tsar and your God.’”
Lbov was again laughing at his own thoughts.
“Gentlemen, have you heard what happened to the Adjutant of the 4th Regiment?”
“Keep your eternal stories to yourself, Lbov,” exclaimed Viätkin, interrupting him in a severe tone. “To-day you’re worse than usual.”
“I have some more news to tell,” Biek-Agamalov went on to say, as he again facetiously threatened Lbov with his horse, which, snorting and shaking its head, beslavered all around it with foam. “The Commander has taken it into his head that the officers of all the companies are to practise sabre-cutting at a dummy. He has aroused a fearful animosity against himself in the 9th Company. Epifanov was arrested for having neglected to sharpen his sabre. But what are you frightened of, Lbov? He isn’t dangerous, and you must teach yourself to make friends with these noble animals. It may, you know, some day fall to your lot to be Adjutant; but then, I suppose, you will sit your horse as securely as a roast sparrow on a dish.”
“Retro, Satanas!” cried Lbov, who had some difficulty in protecting himself against the horse’s froth-covered muzzle. “You’ve heard, I suppose, what happened to an Adjutant of the 4th Regiment who bought himself a circus-horse? At the review itself, right before the eyes of the inspecting General, the well-trained beast began to exhibit its proficiency in the ‘Spanish walk.’ You know, I suppose, what that is? At every step the horse’s legs are swung high in the air from one side to the other. At last, both horse and rider alighted in the thick of the company. Shrieks, oaths, universal confusion, and a General, half-dead with rage, who at last, by a supreme effort, managed to hiss out: ‘Lieutenant and Adjutant, for this exhibition of your skill in riding you have twenty-one days’ arrest. March!’”
“What rot!” interrupted Viätkin in an indignant tone. “I say, Biek, the news of the sabre-cutting was by no means a surprise to us. It means that we do not get any free time at all. Turn round and see what an abortion some one brought here yesterday.”
He concluded his sentence by a significant gesture towards the middle of the parade-ground, where a monstrously ugly figure of raw clay, lacking both arms and legs, had been erected.
“Ha! look there—already. Well, have you tried it?” asked Biek, his interest excited. “Have you had a go at it yet, Romashov?”
“Don’t you think I’ve something better to do than occupy myself with rubbish of that sort?” exclaimed Viätkin angrily. “When am I to find time for that? From nine in the morning to six at night I have to be here, there, and everywhere, and hardly manage to get a bite or sup. Besides, thank God! I’ve still my wits about me.”
“What silly talk! An officer ought to be able to handle his sabre.”
“Why? if I may ask. You surely know that in warfare, with the firearms now in use, one never gets within a range of a hundred paces of the enemy. What the devil’s the use of a sabre to me? I’m not a cavalryman. When it comes to the point, I shall seize hold of a rifle and—bang! So the matter’s simple enough. People may say what they please; the bullet is, after all, the safest.”
“Possibly so; but, even in time of peace, there are still many occasions when the sabre may come in useful—for instance, if one is attacked in street riots, tumults, etc.”
“And you think I should condescend to exchange cuts with the tag-rag of the streets? No, thank you, my good friend. In such a case I prefer to give the command, ‘Aim, fire’—and all’s said and done.”
Biek-Agamalov’s face darkened.
“You are talking nonsense, Pavel Pavlich. Now answer me this: Suppose, when you are taking a walk, or are at a theatre or restaurant, some coxcomb insults you or a civilian boxes your ears. What will you do then?”
Viätkin shrugged his shoulders and protruded his under lip contemptuously.
“In the first place, that kind of man only attacks those who show that they are afraid of him, and, in the second, I have my—revolver.”
“But suppose the revolver were left at home?” remarked Lbov.
“Then, naturally, I should have to go home and fetch it. What stupid questions! You seem to have clean forgotten the incident of a certain cornet who was insulted at a music-hall by two civilians. He drove home for his revolver, returned to the music-hall, and cheerfully shot down the pair who had insulted him—simple enough.”
Biek-Agamalov made an indignant gesture. “We know—we have heard all that, but in telling the story you forget that the cornet in question was convicted of deliberate murder. Truly a very pretty business. If I had found myself in a similar situation, I should have——”
He did not finish his sentence, but the little, well-formed hand in which he held the reins was clenched so hard that it trembled. Lbov was seized with one of his usual paroxysms of laughter.
“Ah! you’re at it again,” Viätkin remarked severely.
“Pardon me, gentlemen, but I really couldn’t—ha, ha, ha! I happened to think of a tragi-comic scene that was enacted in the 17th Regiment. Sub-Ensign Krause on one occasion had a row with some one in an aristocratic club. The steward, to prevent further mischief, seized him so violently by the shoulder-knot that the latter was torn off, whereupon Krause drew his revolver and put a bullet through the steward’s skull. A little lawyer who incautiously mixed himself up in the game shared the same fate. The rest of the party rushed out of the room like so many frightened hens. But Krause quietly proceeded to the camp, and was then challenged by the sentry. ‘Who goes there?’ shouted the sentry. ‘Sub-Ensign Krause, who is coming to die by the colours of his regiment’; whereupon he walked straight up to the colours, laid himself down on the ground, and fired a bullet through his left arm. The court afterwards acquitted him.”
“That was a fine fellow,” exclaimed Biek-Agamalov.
Then began the young officers’ usual favourite conversation on duels, fights, and other sanguinary scenes, whereupon it was stated with great satisfaction that such transgressions of law and municipal order always went unpunished. Then, for instance, a story was told about how a drunken, beardless cornet had drawn his sword at random on a small crowd of Jews who were returning from keeping the Passover; how a sub-lieutenant in the infantry had, at a dancing-hall, stabbed to death an undergraduate who happened to elbow him at the buffet, how an officer at St. Petersburg or Moscow shot down like a dog a civilian who dared to make the impertinent observation that decent people were not in the habit of accosting ladies with whom they are not acquainted.
Romashov, who, up to now, had been a silent listener to these piquant stories, now joined in the conversation; but he did so with every sign of reluctance and embarrassment. He cleared his throat, slowly adjusted his eyeglass, though that was not absolutely necessary then, and finally, in an uncertain voice, spoke as follows—
“Gentlemen, allow me to submit to you this question: In a dispute of that sort it might happen, you know, that the civilian chanced to be a respectable man, even perhaps a person of noble birth. Might it not, in that case, be more correct to demand of him an explanation or satisfaction? We should both belong to the cultured class, so to speak.”
“You’re talking nonsense, Romashov,” interrupted Viätkin. “If you want satisfaction from such scum you’ll most certainly get the following answer, which is little gratifying: ‘Ah, well, my good sir, I do not give satisfaction. That is contrary to my principles. I loathe duels and bloodshed—and besides, you can have recourse, you know, to the Justice of the Peace, in the event of your feeling yourself wronged.’ And then, for the whole of your life, you must carry the delightful recollection of an unavenged box on the ears from a civilian.”
Biek-Agamalov smiled in approbation, and with more than his usual generosity showed his whole row of gleaming white teeth. “Hark you, Viätkin, you ought really to take some interest in this sabre-cutting. With us at our home in the Caucasus we practise it from childhood—on bundles of wattles, on water-spouts, the bodies of sheep.”
“And men’s bodies,” remarked Lbov.
“And on men’s bodies,” repeated Agamalov with unruffled calm. “And such strokes, too! In a twinkling they cleave a fellow from his shoulder to the hip.”
“Biek, can you perform a test of strength like that?”
Biek-Agamalov sighed regretfully.
“No, alas! A sheep, or a calf; I can say I could cleave to the neck by a single stroke, but to cut a full-grown man down to the waist is beyond my power. To my father it would be a trifle.”
“Come, gentlemen, and let us try our strength and sabres on that scarecrow,” said Lbov, in a determined tone and with flashing eyes. “Biek, my dear boy, come with us.”
The officers went up to the clay figure that had been erected a little way off. Viätkin was the first to attack it. After endeavouring to impart to his innocent, prosaic face an expression of wild-beast ferocity, he struck the clay man with all his might and with an unnecessarily big flourish of his sabre. At the same time he uttered the characteristic sound “Khryass!” which a butcher makes when he is cutting up beef. The weapon entered about a quarter of an inch into the clay, and Viätkin had some trouble to extricate his brave sabre.
“Wretchedly done,” exclaimed Agamalov, shaking his head. “Now, Romashov, it’s your turn.”
Romashov drew his sabre from its sheath, and adjusted his eyeglass with a hesitating movement. He was of medium height, lean, and fairly strong in proportion to his build, but through constitutional timidity and lack of interest not much accustomed to handling the weapon. Even as a pupil at the Military Academy he was a bad swordsman, and after a year and a half’s service in the regiment he had almost completely forgotten the art.
He raised his sabre high above his head, but stretched out, simultaneously and instinctively, his left arm and hand.
“Mind your hand!” shouted Agamalov.
But it was too late then. The point of the sabr