THE TALES OF THE LATE IVAN PETROVICH BELKIN
Твори О.С. Пушкіна.Переклад англійською мовою.>THE TALES OF THE LATE IVAN PETROVICH BELKIN >The Shot

 

THE TALES OF THE LATE IVAN PETROVICH BELKIN

(1829-30)

 


The Shot

We exchanged shots.
BARATYNSKII

I swore I'd shoot him by the rules of
dueling (I still had my turn coming).
"AN EVENING ON BIVOUAC"

1


We were stationed at the small village of N. Everybody knows what the life of an infantry officer is like. Drills and riding exercises in the morning; dinner at the house of the regimental commander or at a Jewish tavern; rum punch and cards in the evening. In N. there was not one house open to us, not one marriageable girl; we gathered at each other's lodgings, where we encountered nothing but each other's uniforms.
There was only one person belonging to our circle who was not in the military service. He was about thirty-five and therefore we considered him an old man. His store of experience made him superior to us in many ways; besides, his habitual sullenness, acrimonious temper, and sharp tongue made a strong impression on our young minds. There was something mysterious about him; he seemed to be Russian, yet had a foreign name. At one time he had served in a hussar regiment, and had even served with distinction; nobody knew what had made him retire and settle in a poor little village, where he led an existence at once frugal and prodigal: he always went around on foot, in a worn black coat, yet all the officers of our regiment were always welcome at his table. It is true that his dinner consisted of only two or three dishes, prepared by a retired soldier, but his champagne flowed like a river. Nobody knew what his circumstances were or what income he received, and nobody dared question him about these matters. There were books lying about his apartment, mostly works on military subjects, but also some novels. He willingly lent them, never demanding them back; on the other hand, he never returned a book he had borrowed. His chief occupation consisted of pistol shooting. The walls of his room were so riddled with bullet holes they looked like honeycombs. A valuable collection of pistols was the only article of luxury in the poor, mud-walled hut where he lived. The level of skill that he had attained was unbelievable: if he had expressed a wish to shoot a pear off the top of somebody's cap, no one in our regiment would have hesitated to offer his head. Our conversation often touched on duels; Silvio (or so I will call him) never discussed that topic. Asked whether he had ever fought a duel, he answered dryly that he had, but he never went into detail, and it was obvious that he found such questions unpleasant. We supposed that some hapless victim of his terrifying skill lay on his conscience. I must remark that we never dreamed of suspecting anything in him that resembled timidity. There are people whose mere appearance precludes such suspicion. But one unexpected incident caught us all by surprise.
One day about ten of us officers were having dinner at Silvio's house. We drank as usual, that is, a great deal; after dinner we begged the host to hold the bank for us. He remained adamant for a long time, since he almost never played; but at last he sent for the cards, piled fifty or so gold coins on the table, and sat down to deal. We took our places around him, and the game got under way. Silvio had the habit of observing complete silence during a game. He never argued or entered into explanations. If the punter happened to miscalculate, Silvio instantly corrected him, either paying him the difference or writing up the extra amount of his stake. We already knew this and let him play the master as he would; but this time there was an officer with us who had just recently been transferred to our regiment. Playing along with the rest of us, he absentmindedly bent down the corner of a card. Silvio took the chalk and adjusted the stake accordingly, as was his habit. The officer thought that it was Silvio who had made an error, and he started arguing the matter. Silvio continued dealing without a word. The officer finally lost his patience, took the brush, and erased what he thought had been added unnecessarily. Silvio took the chalk and wrote the figure down once more. The officer, incensed by the wine, the game, and the laughter of his comrades, supposed himself terribly insulted; in his rage he picked up a heavy brass candleholder from the table and hurled it at Silvio, who just barely managed to dodge the blow. We all gasped. Silvio stood up, pale with anger, his eyes flashing:
"Sir, be so good as to leave, and thank God this has happened at my own house."
We had no doubt about the consequences and already viewed our new comrade as a dead man. The officer left, saying he was ready to answer for the offense in whatever way the honorable banker deemed fit. The game continued for a few more minutes, but sensing that the host was no longer in the mood for it, we quit one after the other and went home talking about the likelihood that there would soon be a vacancy in the regiment.
The next day, during the riding exercises, we were asking each other whether the poor lieutenant was still alive when he himself appeared among us; we put the same question to him. He answered that so far he had heard nothing from Silvio. This astonished us. We went to Silvio's house and found him in the yard, firing bullet on bullet at an ace glued to the gate. He received us in the usual way, not breathing a word about the previous night's incident. Three days passed, and the lieutenant was still alive. We kept asking with incredulity: was it possible that Silvio would not fight? But Silvio did not. He was satisfied with a casual explanation and made it up with the lieutenant.
It seemed likely at the time that the incident would considerably hurt his reputation among the young officers. A lack of courage is something the young can least forgive; they consider valor the height of human virtue and an excuse for all possible vices. But the matter was gradually forgotten, and Silvio regained his former influence.
I was the only one who could not warm up to him again. Endowed with a romantic imagination by nature, I had been his greatest admirer before the incident, for the life of this man was an enigma, and he himself had struck me as the hero of some mysterious story. He had seemed fond of me; at least I had been the only person in whose company he would refrain from his customary acid vilifications and talk about different subjects with candor and exceptional cordiality. But after that unfortunate evening the thought that his honor had been tarnished, and that the stain had been allowed to remain on it through his own fault, stuck in my mind and prevented me from behaving toward him as before; I felt too embarrassed to look at him. He was too intelligent and too experienced not to notice this and not to guess its cause. It seemed to pain him; at least I noticed on a couple of occasions that he would have liked to explain things to me; but I did not give him an opportunity and he withdrew. From then on, I saw him only in the presence of my comrades, and our former frank conversations came to an end.
Citizens of the capital, with so many different things on their minds, have no conception of certain experiences familiar to residents of villages and small towns, such as waiting for mail delivery days. On Tuesdays and Fridays our regimental headquarters was always full of officers: some expected money, some letters, some newspapers. They usually opened packages on the spot and exchanged news. The office represented a truly lively scene. Silvio used to have his letters addressed to our regiment, and he was usually at the office on delivery days. One day he was handed an envelope, from which he tore the seal with a look of utmost impatience. His eyes sparkled as he read through the letter. The officers, busy with their own letters, noticed nothing.
"Gentlemen," Silvio turned to them, "circumstances demand my immediate departure; I am leaving tonight; I hope you will not refuse to dine with me one last time. I'll expect you too," he continued, addressing me; "be sure to come." With these words he hastily departed; we too, agreeing to gather at Silvio's, each went our separate ways.
I came to Silvio's at the appointed time and found almost the whole regiment there. All his belongings were already packed; nothing remained but the bare bullet-riddled walls. We sat down at the table; the host was in exceptionally good spirits, and his cheerfulness was contagious; corks were popping by the minute, the glasses ceaselessly fizzed and foamed; and we zealously wished our departing host a pleasant journey and all the best. We rose from the table quite late in the evening. As people were sorting out their caps, Silvio said goodbye to аll, but he caught hold of my arm and stopped me just as I was about to leave.
"I have to talk to you," he said softly. I stayed.
The guests had all left; we were alone. We sat down facing each other, and lit our pipes in silence. Silvio seemed preoccupied; there was no trace of his feverish gaiety. His grim pallor, his flashing eyes, and the dense smoke issuing from his mouth lent him a truly diabolical appearance. Several minutes went by before he broke the silence.
"We may never meet again," he said to me, "and before we part I would like you to understand me. You may have noticed that I have little regard for other people's opinions, but I am fond of you, and would hate to leave you with a false impression of me."
He paused and started filling his pipe, which had gone out; I gazed at the floor in silence.
"You found it strange," he continued, "that I did not demand satisfaction from that drunken lout R. You will agree that since I had the right to choose weapons, his life was in my hands while mine was hardly in jeopardy. I could claim that my moderation was motivated by generosity, but I don't want to lie to you. If I had been able to punish R. without the slightest risk to my own life, nothing could have persuaded me to let him get away."
I looked at Silvio in amazement. Such a confession confounded me altogether. Silvio went on:
"Exactly so: I have no right to risk my life. Six years ago I received a slap on the face, and my enemy is still alive."
My curiosity was very much aroused.
"Didn't you fight him?" I asked. "Circumstances, I suppose, must have separated you?"
"I did fight him," answered Silvio, "and here is a memento of our duel."
Silvio got up and took out of a cardboard box a red hat with a golden tassel and a galloon (what the French call a bonnet de police); he put it on; it had been shot through an inch or so above the forehead.
"You know," continued Silvio, "that I used to serve in the X. Hussar Regiment. You are familiar with my character; I am accustomed to taking the lead; in my youth this was a passion with me. In my day rowdiness was in fashion: I was the foremost troublemaker in the whole army. We flaunted our drunkenness: I outdrank the famous Burtsov, celebrated in Denis Davydov's songs. Duels were fought daily in our regiment: I participated in each and every one, either as second or as principal. My comrades adored me, and the regimental commanding officers, who were frequently replaced, regarded me as a necessary evil.
"I was quietly (or not so quietly) enjoying my fame when a young man from a rich and distinguished family (I don't want to mention his name) joined our regiment. I had never met such a brilliant child of fortune. Picture in your mind youth, intelligence, good looks, the most frenzied vivacity, the most lighthearted courage, an exalted name, and money, more than he could count, in an inexhaustible supply - and then imagine what impression he was bound to make on us. My superior position was shaken. Intrigued by my reputation, he tried to seek my friendship, but I received him coldly; he withdrew without the slightest regret. I grew to hate him. His success in the regiment and in the company of women threw me into utter despair. I began trying to pick a quarrel with him; he responded to my epigrams with epigrams of his own, which always seemed to me more striking and witty than mine, and which were, of course, incomparably more amusing, for he was joking while I seethed. At last, at a ball given by a Polish landowner, where I saw that he was the center of attention of all the ladies and especially of the hostess herself, with whom I was having an affair, I whispered some unsavory insulting remark into his ear. He flared up and slapped me on the face. We each rushed for our swords; the ladies fainted one after the other; we were pulled apart, but we went to fight a duel that same night.
"Dawn was breaking. I stood in the designated place with my three seconds and waited for the arrival of my opponent with indescribable impatience. The sun rose; it was going to be a hot spring day. I saw him at a distance. He was coming on foot, carrying his coat on the tip of his sword, and there was just one second with him. We walked toward them. He approached, holding his cap, which was full of cherries. The seconds measured off twelve paces for us. I was supposed to shoot first, but I was so incensed that I did not trust the steadiness of my hand, and in order to give myself time to cool off, I yielded the first shot to my opponent. He refused. We decided to draw lots, and he - ever favored by fortune - drew the lucky number. He took aim, and his bullet went through my cap. It was my turn. At last his life was in my hands; I eyed him hungrily, trying to detect at least a shade of worry in his expression ... He stood there facing my pistol, selecting ripe cherries from his cap and spitting out the stones, which landed near me. His indifference enraged me. What's the use of depriving him of his life, thought I, if he himself doesn't cherish it? A spiteful thought flashed through my mind. I lowered my pistol.
"' You evidently cannot spare the time to die just now,' I said to him, 'since it is your pleasure to be eating your breakfast; I do not wish to disturb you.'
"'You're not disturbing me in the least,' he rejoined; 'go ahead and shoot whenever you please. But, of course, it's up to you: you can retain your right to the shot, and I'll be at your service at any time.' I turned to the seconds, announcing that I did not intend to fire my shot just then, and with this the duel stopped.
"I resigned my commission and retired to this village. Since then not one day has gone by without my thinking of revenge. And now my time has come..."
Silvio took from his pocket the letter he had received that morning, and gave it to me to read. Someone (evidently an agent of Silvio's) had written to him from Moscow that a certain person was soon to become the lawful wedded husband of a young and beautiful girl.
"You can guess," said Silvio, "who this certain person is. I am going to Moscow. We shall see whether he can take death with as much indifference now, just before his wedding, as he did earlier, over a capful of cherries."
With these words Silvio got up, threw his cap on the floor, and started pacing up and down the room, like a tiger in a cage. I listened to him without stirring; strange, contradictory feelings agitated me.
The servant came in to announce that the horses were ready. Silvio grasped my hand firmly; we kissed. He climbed into the cart, which was loaded with two trunks: one holding his pistols, the other one his belongings. We said good-bye once more, and the horses galloped off.

2


Some years went by, and my domestic circumstances forced me to settle in a poor little village in P. District. Busy managing my estate, I could not help secretly sighing for my former noisy and carefree existence. The most difficult task was to get used to spending fall and winter evenings in complete solitude. Until dinner I could fill the time in one way or another, now talking with the village elder, now riding out to supervise work in the fields, now looking at a new building project; but as soon as dusk fell I had no idea what to do with myself. The few books I had found under cupboards or in the storeroom I could soon recite by heart. My housekeeper Kirilovna told me over and over again all the stories she could remember. The songs the peasant women sang made me melancholy. Once or twice I tried an unsweetened home brew, but it gave me a headache, and I must also confess that I was afraid of becoming a doldrums drunkard, in other words an inveterate inebriate of the kind that is so amply represented in our district. I had no neighbors close by, except for two or three of those inveterate ones, whose conversation consisted chiefly of hiccups and moans. Solitude was more bearable.
Four versts from my house there was a prosperous estate belonging to the Countess В., but it was occupied only by the manager. The Countess herself had visited it only once, in the first year of her marriage, but even then she stayed just a month. In the second year of my reclusion, however, a rumor spread that the Countess and her husband were coming to spend the summer on her estate. And indeed they arrived at the beginning of June.
The arrival of a rich neighbor is a historical occasion for people living in the country. The landowners and their domestics speak of nothing else for two months before the event and for three years after. As for me, I must confess that the news about the arrival of my young and beautiful neighbor affected me strongly: I burned with impatience to see her, and on the first Sunday after her arrival, I set out after dinner for the village of R. in order to pay my respects to Their Excellencies as their closest neighbor and most humble servant.
The butler conducted me to the Count's study and went to announce my arrival. The spacious study was furnished with all possible luxury: bookcases with bronze busts on top lined the walls; a broad mirror hung over the marble mantelpiece; the floor was covered with green carpeting and strewn with rugs. Having grown unaccustomed to luxury in my poor corner and not having seen other people's riches for a long time, I now felt timid and awaited the Count with a certain trepidation, as a provincial petitioner awaits the appearance of a Minister. The doors opened, and a handsome man of about thirty-two entered. He approached me in an unpretentious, friendly way; I tried to gather courage and began to introduce myself, but he anticipated me. We sat down. His free and amiable conversation soon dispelled my cloddish shyness; I was beginning to regain my usual composure when suddenly the Countess came in, throwing me into even greater confusion. She was indeed a beauty. The Count introduced me; I wanted to appear free and easy, but the more I tried to assume a casual air the more awkward I felt. In order to give me time to recover myself and get used to my new acquaintances, they began talking between themselves, treating me as an indulgent neighbor with whom you do not have to stand on ceremony. Meanwhile, I started walking up and down the room, looking at books and pictures. I am not a connoisseur of paintings, but one of them attracted my attention. It showed a Swiss landscape. What awoke my interest in it, however, was not the painter's art, but the fact that the picture was pierced by two bullets, one just above the other.
"That's a good shot," I said, turning to the Count.
"Yes," he answered, "a remarkable shot. Are you a good marksman?" he added.
"Not too bad," I answered, pleased that the conversation had at last touched on a subject familiar to me. "I can hit a card without fail from a distance of thirty paces, assuming, of course, that I am using pistols I am accustomed to."
"Is that so?" said the Countess with a look of great interest. "And you, my dear, can you hit a card at thirty paces?"
"We'll try some time," answered the Count. "In my earlier days I was a fair shot, but I haven't had a pistol in my hand for some four years now."
"Oh, if that's the case," I remarked, "then I bet Your Excellency could not hit a card even at twenty paces, because pistol shooting requires daily practice. I know this from experience. In my regiment I was regarded as one of the best marksmen. But once it so happened that I hadn't handled a pistol for a month because mine were being repaired, and what do you think was the result, Your Excellency? The first time I started shooting again I missed a bottle at twenty-five paces four times in a row. There was a captain in our regiment, a great wit and wag, who happened to be there; he says to me: 'I see, brother, you just cannot raise your hand against a bottle.' No, Your Excellency, you must not neglect practicing, otherwise you lose your touch in no time. The best shot I've ever had a chance to meet practiced every day, at least three times before dinner. It was a daily routine with him, just like his glass of vodka."
The Count and Countess were glad that I had begun talking.
"And what were the results?" asked the Count.
"Well, this is what, Your Excellency: he would notice, for instance, that a fly had landed on the wall - are you laughing, Countess? I swear to you, it's true. He would see the fly and call out: 'Kuzka, fetch me a pistol!' Kuzka would bring it to him loaded. He would go bang, and ram the fly into the wall."
"That's astonishing," said the Count. "And what was his name?"
"Silvio, Your Excellency."
"Silvio!" exclaimed the Count, springing to his feet. "You knew Silvio?"
"I did indeed, Your Excellency; we were friends. He was treated in our regiment as a brother officer, but for the last five years or so I have heard nothing about him. Your Excellency, I take it, knew him?"
"I did, all too well. Didn't he tell you - no, I suppose he wouldn't have - but, still, didn't he tell you about a very strange incident?"
"You don't mean the slap on the face, Your Excellency, that he received from some scamp at a ball?"
"Did he ever tell you the name of that scamp?"
"No, Your Excellency, he never did... But oh, Your Excellency," I continued, beginning to guess the truth, "forgive me... I didn't know... Was it you by any chance?"
"Yes, it was," answered the Count, looking acutely distressed, "and the picture with the bullets through it is a memento of our last meeting."
"Please, my dear," said the Countess, "for heaven's sake, do not tell the story: I should be frightened even to listen to it."
"No," rejoined the Count, "I will tell it all: he knows how I insulted his friend; let him learn how Silvio took revenge on me."
The Count pulled up an armchair for me, and I listened with the liveliest curiosity to the following story.
"We were married five years ago. We spent the first month, the honey-moon, here, on this estate. I am bound to this house both by memories of the best moments in my life and by one of the most painful recollections.
"One evening my wife and I were out riding together; her horse became restive, which frightened her; she gave me the reins and started to walk back to the house. I rode ahead. In the courtyard I saw a cart, and I was told that there was a man sitting in my study who would not reveal his name but would only say that he had business with me. I came into this room and in the obscure light saw a man covered with dust and unshaven; he stood right there by the mantelpiece. I went up to him, trying to see if I could recognize his features.
" 'Don't you recognize me, Count?'" he said in a trembling voice.
" 'Silvio!' I exclaimed, and I must confess I could feel my hair standing on end.
"'Exactly,' he continued. 'It's my turn to shoot; I have come to fire my pistol; are you ready?'
"A pistol was sticking out of his side pocket. I measured off twelve paces and took up my position in that corner, asking him to shoot me as soon as possible, before my wife's return. He stalled, asked for a light. Candles were brought in. I locked the doors, gave orders not to admit anybody, and asked Silvio once more to shoot. He drew his pistol and aimed... I counted the seconds ... I thought of her... A terrifying minute went by. Silvio lowered his hand.
" 'I regret,' he said, 'that the pistol is not loaded with cherry stones ... the bullet is heavy. I keep thinking, though, that this is not a duel but a murder: I am not used to aiming at an unarmed man. Let's start all over again; let's draw lots to decide who should shoot first.'
"My head was swimming... I think I objected... But at last we loaded another pistol, rolled up two pieces of paper; he placed them in the cap that I had once shot through; again I drew the lucky number.
" 'Count, you are devilishly lucky,' he said with a leer that I shall never forget.
"I don't know what possessed me and how he managed to talk me into it, but I did fire a shot and hit this picture." The Count pointed with his finger at the perforated picture; his face burned like fire; the Countess was paler than her handkerchief; I could not restrain an exclamation.
"I fired a shot," continued the Count, "and, thank God, I missed; then Silvio (at that moment he was truly terrifying) began taking aim at me. Suddenly the door opens, and Masha runs in and throws herself on my neck with a shriek. Her presence restored to me all my courage.
" 'Dear heart,' I said to her, 'can't you see we're just joking? How frightened you look! Go, drink a glass of water and then come back to join us: I'll introduce an old friend and fellow officer to you.'
"Masha still refused to believe me. 'Tell me, is my husband telling the truth?' she asked, turning to the ferocious-looking Silvio. 'Is it true that you're both joking?'
" 'He's always joking, Countess,' Silvio answered her. 'He once jokingly slapped me on the face, he jokingly sent his bullet through this cap of mine, and a minute ago his shot jokingly just missed me. Now I feel like cracking a joke With these words he made as if to take aim at me - in her presence! Masha threw herself at his feet.
" 'Get up, Masha, for shame!' I shouted in rage. 'And you, sir, will you stop taunting a poor woman? Are you going to shoot or not?'
"'I'm not,' answered Silvio. 'I'm perfectly satisfied: I've seen your confusion and fright, and I've made you shoot at me; that is quite enough for me. You will remember me. I leave you to your conscience.'
"He was on the point of leaving, but he stopped in the doorway, looked back at the picture that had my bullet in it, fired at it almost without taking aim, and vanished. My wife lay in a swoon; the servants, not daring to stop Silvio, just stared at him in horror; he walked out to the front steps, called his driver, and rode away before I could recover my senses."
The Count fell silent. This was how I came to know the end of the story whose beginning had at one time made such a deep impression on me. I never was to see its hero again. I have heard said that Silvio commanded a detachment of Hetairists during the uprising led by Alexander Ypsilanti, and that he was killed in the battle near Skuliany.



 

Оригінал твору

Бібліотека ім. О. С. Пушкіна (м. Київ).
А.С. Пушкин. Полное собрание сочинений в десяти томах