Russian Romance (Pushkin)/The Captain's Daughter/Chapter IV
Several weeks had elapsed, and my existence at the fortress of Byĕlogorsk became not only bearable, but even agreeable. I was received at the house of the commandant as if I were one of the family. Both husband and wife were most excellent people. Ivan Kouzmitch, who had risen from the ranks, was simple-minded and uneducated, but most honest and kind-hearted. His wife ruled over him, which accorded well with his indolent disposition. Vassilissa Yegorovna assumed the direction of all matters connected with the service, as she did those of her household, and governed the fortress as she governed her own house. Maria Ivanovna soon became less shy of me. We got to know each other better, and I discovered her to be a sensible and feeling girl. I became imperceptibly attached to these good people, including even Ivan Ignatitch, the one-eyed sub-lieutenant of the garrison, whom Shvabrine accused of undue familiarity with Vassilissa Yegorovna, although there was not a shadow of truth in the statement; but this did not trouble Shvabrine.
I attained my officer's rank. The service did not weigh heavily on me. In this fortress, which owed its protection to God alone, parades, exercises, and guards were dispensed with. The commandant instructed the soldiers himself from time to time, as he felt disposed, but he had not yet succeeded in teaching them to distinguish the right from the left side. Shvabrine possessed a few French books. I read them, and they awakened in me a taste for literature. In the forenoon I read, translated, and sometimes attempted the composition of verses. I invariably dined at the commandant's, where I usually passed the rest of the day, and occasionally Father Gherassim, with his wife Akoulina Pamphylovna, the great tale-bearer in the neighbourhood, used to spend the evening with us. Of course Aleksey Ivanovitch Shvabrine and I met daily; but his conversations became more and more distasteful to me. I did not like his continuing to make a laughing-stock of the commandant's family, and especially his cutting remarks about Maria Ivanovna. Of other society there was none at the fortress, nor did I wish for any.
In spite of the prophecy, the Bashkirs did not revolt. Tranquillity reigned in our fortress. But this peace was unexpectedly interrupted by intestine strife. I have already said, that I was engaged in literary pursuits. My efforts, for the times, were tolerably successful, and were, a few years later, approved by Alexander Petrovitch Soumarokoff. One song I wrote pleased me very much. It is a fact that under pretext of seeking advice, writers are frequently but in search of a well-disposed listener. Thus, copying my little song, I took it to Shvabrine, who alone in the fortress was able to appreciate a poetical production. After a short preface I drew forth my manuscript and read the following verses:
"In annihilating thoughts of love I seek to forget the fair one, and
Alas! it is in fleeing Masha, that I hope to win back my freedom!
"But the eyes which have enslaved me are for ever in my sight; they
Have disquieted my spirit, they have destroyed my peace.
"Thou, Masha, who learn'st my woes, have pity upon me;
Thou seest my cruel state, and knowest I am thy captive."
"What dost thou think of this?" asked I of Shvabrine, in expectation of praise as a tribute to which I was entitled. But, to my great vexation, Shvabrine, whom I usually found indulgent, decidedly declared that my song was worthless. "Why so?" I asked, concealing my vexation.
"Because," he replied, "such verses are only worthy of my master Vassily Kyrylitch Trediakovsky, and remind me very much of his amorous couplets." Here he took my manuscript and proceeded to pick each verse to pieces, unmercifully, taunting me the while in the most stinging manner. I could stand it no longer, so, tearing the paper out of his hands, I declared that I would never again show him any of my compositions. Shvabrine also mocked at my threat.
"We shall see," said he, "whether thou wilt keep thy word; a poet requires a listener, just as Ivan Kouzmitch requires the vodka decanter before dinner. Say, who is that Masha to whom thou declarest thy tender passion and thy woes in love? Can it be Maria Ivanovna?"
"It is no business of thine," I replied, frowning, "who this Masha is. I ask neither thy opinion nor thy suppositions."
"Oho! conceited poet and cautious lover!" continued Shvabrine, irritating me more and more; "but listen to a friendly piece of advice; if thou art anxious to meet with success I advise thee not to have recourse to songs."
"What does this mean, sir? explain thyself."
"Willingly. This means that if thou will'st that Masha Mironoff should meet thee at twilight, thou must, instead of these tender verses, present her with a pair of earrings."
My blood boiled.
"And why hast thou formed that opinion of her?" I asked, with difficulty suppressing my indignation.
"Because," answered he with a diabolical smile, "I know by experience her tastes and habits."
"Thou liest, blackguard!" exclaimed I furiously; "thou liest shamelessly."
Shvabrine's face altered.
"This cannot be passed over," said he, squeezing my hand; "you will give me satisfaction."
"Very well; whenever you please," answered I, rejoiced.
At that moment I was ready to tear him to pieces. I repaired at once to Ivan Ignatitch, and found him needle in hand: by order of the commandant's wife he was stringing mushrooms, which were to be dried for the winter.
"Ah! Piotr Andrevitch!" said he on seeing me; "you are welcome. What brings you here? What business, may I ask?"
In a few words I explained to him that I had had a row with Aleksey Ivanovitch, and asked him to be my second. Fixing his one eye on me, Ivan Ignatitch listened attentively.
"You say," said he, "that you are about to kill Aleksey Ivanovitch and wish me to be a witness! Is it so, may I ask?"
"It is so."
"Dear me, Piotr Andrevitch! What are you thinking of? You have had words with Aleksey Ivanovitch? There is no great harm in that. He insulted you, you insult him in return; he gives you a blow in the face, you give him a box on the ear—a second, and a third—and go your way; we will bring you together again. Instead of this, is it a right thing to do to kill one's neighbour, may I ask? At least, if you were sure of killing him, God be with him, with Aleksey Ivanovitch; I myself don't care much about him. But, supposing he makes a hole through you? what a business that would be. Who will be the fool then, may I ask?"
The good sub-lieutenant's reasoning did not move me. I did not swerve from my resolution.
"As you please," said Ivan Ignatitch, "please yourself; but why should I be a witness to the affair? What for? What is there strange, that people should choose to fight, may I ask? Thank goodness, I fought against the Swede and the Turk; there is nothing new in it." I endeavoured to explain the duties of a second, but Ivan Ignatitch was quite unable to comprehend me. "Do as you please," said he, "but if I were to assent to be mixed up in this affair, it would, perhaps, only be to go to Ivan Kouzmitch and report to him officially, that a crime is contemplated in the fortress, contrary to the interests of the Crown; and would the commandant be pleased to take the necessary measures . . . .?"
I became alarmed, and entreated Ivan Ignatitch "not to say anything to the commandant;" I prevailed upon him, with great difficulty, and having exacted his promise, I left.
The evening was spent, as usual, at the commandant's house. I tried to appear cheerful and unconcerned, so as not to excite suspicion, and to escape importunate questions; but I own I did not feel as unconcerned as persons in my position usually boast themselves to be. That evening, I felt sentimental and impressionable. Maria Ivanovna pleased me more than ever. The thought that I was perhaps looking upon her for the last time, added something touching to her appearance in my sight. Shvabrine was also there. I took him aside and apprised him of my conversation with Ivan Ignatitch. "What should we want seconds for?" said he, dryly; "we can do without them." It was convened that we should fight behind the haystacks in the vicinity of the fortress, the following morning at six o'clock. We were to all appearances conversing so amicably, that the overjoyed Ivan Ignatitch almost betrayed himself. "That's how it ought to have been long ago," said he to me with a pleased countenance; "defective peace is better than a good row; if it is not honourable, at least it is attended with safety."
"What is it you are saying, Ivan Ignatitch?" said the commandant's wife, who was playing at cards in a corner. "I did not quite hear it."
Ivan Ignatitch, perceiving that I was displeased, and recollecting his promise, became confused and scarcely knew what reply to make. Shvabrine hastened to the rescue.
"Ivan Ignatitch," said he, "approves of our peace-making."
"And who did'st thou fall out with, my little father?"
"We had all but a serious row, Piotr Andrevitch and I."
"About a mere nothing; a song, Vassilissa Yegorovna."
"Could you find nothing better to quarrel about? a song! . . . . how did it happen?"
"In this way; Piotr Andrevitch has lately composed a song, which he sang to me to-day, and I replied by humming my favourite:
Do not take thy walk at midnight.'
Discord was the result. Piotr Andrevitch got quite angry, but upon reflection, he admitted that everybody was free to sing what he pleases; thus the affair ended."
Shvabrine's impudence almost enraged me; none but myself seemed to have understood his coarse allusions; at least no one took any notice of them. The subject of songs led to a discussion on the merits of poets, and the commandant observed that they were all useless creatures and dreadful drunkards, and advised me, as a friend, to leave off writing verses, an occupation prejudicial to the service, and leading to no good.
Shvabrine's presence was unbearable. I took an early leave of the commandant and his family; on my return home, I examined my sword, tried its point, and went to bed, having left orders with Savelitch to call me at six o'clock.
The next morning, at the appointed hour, I was already standing behind the haystacks, waiting for my adversary. He soon appeared. "We might be caught out," he said, "we must be quick." We laid aside our uniform, keeping on our waistcoats, and drew our swords. At that instant Ivan Ignatitch, at the head of five invalids, rushed from behind the stacks. He summoned us to the commandant. We were vexed, but obeyed, the soldiers surrounded us, and we followed Ivan Ignatitch, who led the way in triumph, stepping out with an air of great importance.
We entered the house, Ivan Ignatitch threw open the door, and exclaimed, with solemnity, "I have brought them!" Vassilissa Yegorovna met us. "Ah! my little fathers! What does this mean? How! what! a premeditated murder in our fortress! Ivan Kouzmitch, they must immediately be placed under arrest. Piotr Andrevitch! Aleksey Ivanovitch! give me your swords; give them up, give them up. Paláshka, take these swords into the lumber-room. Piotr Andrevitch, I did not expect this of thee. Art thou not ashamed of thyself? Aleksey Ivanovitch is different; was he not transferred from the Guards for having caused a soul to perish? he does not even believe in our Lord; but thou! dost thou want to do the same?" Ivan Kouzmitch fully agreed with his spouse, and kept repeating: "Yes, yes, Vassilissa Yegorovna is right. Duelling is especially forbidden by the articles of war." Paláshka carried our swords to the lumber-room. I could not help laughing; Shvabrine preserved his equanimity. "With all due respect to you," said he coolly, "I cannot but remark, that you have given yourself unnecessary trouble in subjecting us to your judgment. Leave that to Ivan Kouzmitch; it is his business." "Dear me, my little father!" replied the commandant's wife, "are not husband and wife one spirit and one flesh? Ivan Kouzmitch! what art thou gaping at? Put them immediately into separate rooms, on bread and water, to knock all this nonsense out of their heads. And let Father Gherassim make them do penance, to the end that they should ask God's forgiveness, and show themselves repentant before man."
Ivan Kouzmitch could not make up his mind what to do. Maria Ivanovna looked exceedingly pale. By degrees, the storm abated; the commandant's wife regained her composure, and ordered us to embrace each other. Paláshka returned to us our swords. We left the commandant apparently at peace with each other. Ivan Ignatitch accompanied us. "How is it you are not ashamed," said I, angrily, "of having denounced us to the commandant, after having promised me that you would not do so?" "As God lives, I did not tell it to Ivan Kouzmitch," answered he. "Vassilissa Yegorovna drew it all out of me. She it was who made all arrangements without the commandant's knowledge. However, thank God that all has ended so well." With these words, he returned homewards, and Shvabrine and I remained alone. "The affair cannot end thus," said I to him. "Of course not," answered Shvabrine; "you must answer to me with your blood for your impertinence; but we shall probably be watched. We shall have to dissemble for a few days. Good-bye." And we separated, as if nothing had occurred.
On my return to the commandant's house, I took my seat next to Maria Ivanovna as usual. Ivan Kouzmitch was not at home; Vassilissa Yegorovna was busy with her housekeeping duties. We conversed in an undertone. Maria Ivanovna reproached me tenderly for the anxiety I had caused them all by my quarrel with Shvabrine.
"My heart failed me," said she, "when we were told that you were going to fight with swords. How odd you men are! For a chance word which might most likely be forgotten in a week, you are ready to stab each other and to sacrifice, not only your lives, but also your consciences, and the happiness of those who . . . But I feel sure that the quarrel was not of your seeking—the fault was surely that of Aleksey Ivanovitch."
"And what makes you think so, Maria Ivanovna?"
"I scarcely know. . . . He is so fond of ridiculing everybody. I do not like Aleksey Ivanovitch. I have an antipathy for him, and yet it is strange, I should not like to displease him. It would make me very anxious."
"And what do you think, Maria Ivanovna? does he like you or not?"
Maria Ivanovna looked confused and blushed.
"I think," she said, "I think I do please him."
"But why do you think so?"
"Because he proposed to me."
"Proposed! he proposed to you! when?"
"Last year. Two months before your arrival."
"And you did not accept him?"
"I did not, as you see. Aleksey Ivanovitch is, of course, a clever man, of good birth, and some fortune; but when I think that I should have to kiss him in the presence of everybody under the crown—never! not for anything in the world."
Maria Ivanovna's words opened my eyes and explained a great many things to me. I understood why Shvabrine persisted in slandering her. He had probably noticed our mutual liking, and wished to draw us away from each other. The words which had given rise to our quarrel appeared to me to be still more abominable, when I discovered in them a premeditated calumny, and not only a coarse indecent joke. The desire to punish the daring caluminator became stronger within me, and I impatiently awaited a fitting opportunity.
I had not to wait long. The next day whilst I was writing an elegy, and biting my pen in search of a rhyme, Shvabrine rapped at my window. I dropped my pen, snatched up my sword, and went out to him.
"Why should we delay," said Shvabrine; "nobody is watching us. Let us go down to the river side. No one will hinder us there."
We walked away in silence. Having descended by a steep foot path, we stopped close to the river and bared our swords. Shvabrine was the most expert, but I was stronger and bolder, and M. Beaupré, who had once been a soldier, had given me some lessons in fencing, which had not been lost upon me. Shvabrine had not expected to find such a dangerous adversary in me. For a long time, neither of us could harm the other; at last, perceiving that Shvabrine was losing strength, I thrust at him quickly, and made him retire almost into the river. Suddenly I heard my name called out in a loud voice. I turned and saw Savelitch hurrying to me over the hill-side path. . . . At that moment, I felt a sharp prick in the chest, a little below the right shoulder. I fell and lost all consciousness.
- Aquiline, the daughter of Pamphylius.—Tr.
- Alexander, the son of Peter. Soumarokoff, a Russian poet and tragedian, 1718–77.—Tr.
- Basil, the son of Cyril. Trediakovsky, a greatly reviled poet, during the reign of Catherine II.—Tr.
- Crowns are held over the heads of the bride and bridegroom during the marriage ceremony.—Tr.