The Duellist (1846)

Translated by Constance Garnett



A regiment of cuirassiers was quartered in 1829 in the village of Kirilovo, in the K--- province. That village, with its huts and hay-stacks, its green hemp-patches, and gaunt willows, looked from a distance like an island in a boundless sea of ploughed, black-earth fields. In the middle of the village was a small pond, invariably covered with goose feathers, with muddy, indented banks; a hundred paces from the pond, on the other side of the road, rose the wooden manor-house, long, empty, and mournfully slanting on one side. Behind the house stretched the deserted garden; in the garden grew old apple-trees that bore no fruit, and tall birch-trees, full of rooks' nests. At the end of the principal garden-walk, in a little house, once the bath-house, lived a decrepit old steward. Every morning, gasping and groaning, he would, from years of habit, drag himself across the garden to the seignorial apartments, though there was nothing to take care of in them except a dozen white arm-chairs, upholstered in faded stuff, two podgy chests on carved legs with copper handles, four pictures with holes in them, and one black alabaster Arab with a broken nose. The owner of the house, a careless young man, lived partly at Petersburg, partly abroad, and had completely forgotten his estate. It had come to him eight years before, from a very old uncle, once noted all over the countryside for his excellent liqueurs. The empty, dark-green bottles are to this day lying about in the storeroom, in company with rubbish of all sorts, old manuscript books in parti-coloured covers, scantily filled with writing, old-fashioned glass lustres, a nobleman's uniform of the Catherine period, a rusty sabre with a steel handle and so forth. In one of the lodges of the great house the colonel himself took up his abode. He was a married man, tall, sparing of his words, grim and sleepy. In another lodge lived the regimental adjutant, an emotional person of fine sentiments and many perfumes, fond of flowers and female society. The social life of the officers of this regiment did not differ from any other kind of society. Among their number were good people and bad, clever and silly.... One of them, a certain Avdey Ivanovitch Lutchkov, staff captain, had a reputation as a duellist. Lutchkov was a short and not thick-set man; he had a small, yellowish, dry face, lank, black hair, unnoticeable features, and dark, little eyes. He had early been left an orphan, and had grown up among privations and hardships. For weeks together he would be quiet enough,... and then all at once--as though he were possessed by some devil--he would let no one alone, annoying everybody, staring every one insolently in the face; trying, in fact, to pick a quarrel. Avdey Ivanovitch did not, however, hold aloof from intercourse with his comrades, but he was not on intimate terms with any one but the perfumed adjutant. He did not play cards, and did not drink spirits.

In the May of 1829, not long before the beginning of the manoeuvres, there joined the regiment a young cornet, Fyodor Fedorovitch Kister, a Russian nobleman of German extraction, very fair-haired and very modest, cultivated and well read. He had lived up to his twentieth year in the home of his fathers, under the wings of his mother, his grandmother, and his two aunts. He was going into the army in deference solely to the wishes of his grandmother, who even in her old age could not see a white plumed helmet without emotion.... He served with no special enthusiasm but with energy, as it were conscientiously doing his duty. He was not a dandy, but was always cleanly dressed and in good taste. On the day of his arrival Fyodor Fedoritch paid his respects to his superior officers, and then proceeded to arrange his quarters. He had brought with him some cheap furniture, rugs, shelves, and so forth. He papered all the walls and the doors, put up some screens, had the yard cleaned, fixed up a stable, and a kitchen, even arranged a place for a bath.... For a whole week he was busily at work; but it was a pleasure afterwards to go into his room. Before the window stood a neat table, covered with various little things; in one corner was a set of shelves for books, with busts of Schiller and Goethe; on the walls hung maps, four Grevedon heads, and guns; near the table was an elegant row of pipes with clean mouthpieces; there was a rug in the outer room; all the doors shut and locked; the windows were hung with curtains. Everything in Fyodor Fedoritch's room had a look of cleanliness and order.

It was quite a different thing in his comrades' quarters. Often one could scarcely make one's way across the muddy yard; in the outer room, behind a canvas screen, with its covering peeling off it, would lie stretched the snoring orderly; on the floor rotten straw; on the stove, boots and a broken jam-pot full of blacking; in the room itself a warped card-table, marked with chalk; on the table, glasses, half-full of cold, dark-brown tea; against the wall, a wide, rickety, greasy sofa; on the window-sills, tobacco-ash.... In a podgy, clumsy arm-chair one would find the master of the place in a grass-green dressing-gown with crimson plush facings and an embroidered smoking-cap of Asiatic extraction, and a hideously fat, unpleasant dog in a stinking brass collar would be snoring at his side.... All the doors always ajar....

Fyodor Fedoritch made a favourable impression on his new comrades. They liked him for his good-nature, modesty, warm-heartedness, and natural inclination for everything beautiful, for everything, in fact, which in another officer they might, very likely, have thought out of place. They called Kister a young lady, and were kind and gentle in their manners with him. Avdey Ivanovitch was the only one who eyed him dubiously. One day after drill Lutchkov went up to him, slightly pursing up his lips and inflating his nostrils:

'Good-morning, Mr. Knaster.'

Kister looked at him in some perplexity.

'A very good day to you, Mr. Knaster,' repeated Lutchkov.

'My name's Kister, sir.'

'You don't say so, Mr. Knaster.'

Fyodor Fedoritch turned his back on him and went homewards. Lutchkov looked after him with a grin.

Next day, directly after drill he went up to Kister again.

'Well, how are you getting on, Mr. Kinderbalsam?'

Kister was angry, and looked him straight in the face. Avdey Ivanovitch's little bilious eyes were gleaming with malignant glee.

'I'm addressing you, Mr. Kinderbalsam!'

'Sir,' Fyodor Fedoritch replied, 'I consider your joke stupid and ill-bred--do you hear?--stupid and ill-bred.'

'When shall we fight?' Lutchkov responded composedly.

'When you like,... to-morrow.'

Next morning they fought a duel. Lutchkov wounded Kister slightly, and to the extreme astonishment of the seconds went up to the wounded man, took him by the hand and begged his pardon. Kister had to keep indoors for a fortnight. Avdey Ivanovitch came several times to ask after him and on Fyodor Fedoritch's recovery made friends with him. Whether he was pleased by the young officer's pluck, or whether a feeling akin to remorse was roused in his soul--it's hard to say... but from the time of his duel with Kister, Avdey Ivanovitch scarcely left his side, and called him first Fyodor, and afterwards simply Fedya. In his presence he became quite another man and--strange to say!--the change was not in his favour. It did not suit him to be gentle and soft. Sympathy he could not call forth in any one anyhow; such was his destiny! He belonged to that class of persons to whom has somehow been granted the privilege of authority over others; but nature had denied him the gifts essential for the justification of such a privilege. Having received no education, not being distinguished by intelligence, he ought not to have revealed himself; possibly his malignancy had its origin in his consciousness of the defects of his bringing up, in the desire to conceal himself altogether under one unchanging mask. Avdey Ivanovitch had at first forced himself to despise people, then he began to notice that it was not a difficult matter to intimidate them, and he began to despise them in reality. Lutchkov enjoyed cutting short by his very approach all but the most vulgar conversation. 'I know nothing, and have learned nothing, and I have no talents,' he said to himself; 'and so you too shall know nothing and not show off your talents before me....' Kister, perhaps, had made Lutchkov abandon the part he had taken up--just because before his acquaintance with him, the bully had never met any one genuinely idealistic, that is to say, unselfishly and simple-heartedly absorbed in dreams, and so, indulgent to others, and not full of himself.

Avdey Ivanovitch would come sometimes to Kister, light a pipe and quietly sit down in an arm-chair. Lutchkov was not in Kister's company abashed by his own ignorance; he relied--and with good reason--on his German modesty.

'Well,' he would begin, 'what did you do yesterday? Been reading, I'll bet, eh?'

'Yes, I read....'

'Well, and what did you read? Come, tell away, old man, tell away.' Avdey Ivanovitch kept up his bantering tone to the end.

'I read Kleist's Idyll. Ah, what a fine thing it is! If you don't mind, I'll translate you a few lines....' And Kister translated with fervour, while Lutchkov, wrinkling up his forehead and compressing his lips, listened attentively.... 'Yes, yes,' he would repeat hurriedly, with a disagreeable smile,'it's fine... very fine... I remember, I've read it... very fine.'

'Tell me, please,' he added affectedly, and as it were reluctantly, 'what's your view of Louis the Fourteenth?'

And Kister would proceed to discourse upon Louis the Fourteenth, while Lutchkov listened, totally failing to understand a great deal, misunderstanding a part... and at last venturing to make a remark.... This threw him into a cold sweat; 'now, if I'm making a fool of myself,' he thought. And as a fact he often did make a fool of himself. But Kister was never off-hand in his replies; the good-hearted youth was inwardly rejoicing that, as he thought, the desire for enlightenment was awakened in a fellow-creature. Alas! it was from no desire for enlightenment that Avdey Ivanovitch questioned Kister; God knows why he did! Possibly he wished to ascertain for himself what sort of head he, Lutchkov, had, whether it was really dull, or simply untrained. 'So I really am stupid,' he said to himself more than once with a bitter smile; and he would draw himself up instantly and look rudely and insolently about him, and smile malignantly to himself if he caught some comrade dropping his eyes before his glance. 'All right, my man, you're so learned and well educated,...' he would mutter between his teeth. 'I'll show you... that's all....'

The officers did not long discuss the sudden friendship of Kister and Lutchkov; they were used to the duellist's queer ways. 'The devil's made friends with the baby,' they said.... Kister was warm in his praises of his friend on all hands; no one disputed his opinion, because they were afraid of Lutchkov; Lutchkov himself never mentioned Kister's name before the others, but he dropped his intimacy with the perfumed adjutant.

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