A Hero of Our Time Part 16

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He took up his cap and departed. The whole affair struck me as being strange--and not without reason. Shortly after that, all the officers broke up and went home, discussing Vulich's freaks from different points of view, and, doubtless, with one voice calling me an egoist for having taken up a wager against a man who wanted to shoot himself, as if he could not have found a convenient opportunity without my intervention.

I returned home by the deserted byways of the village. The moon, full and red like the glow of a conflagration, was beginning to make its appearance from behind the jagged horizon of the house-tops; the stars were s.h.i.+ning tranquilly in the deep, blue vault of the sky; and I was struck by the absurdity of the idea when I recalled to mind that once upon a time there were some exceedingly wise people who thought that the stars of heaven partic.i.p.ated in our insignificant squabbles for a slice of ground, or some other imaginary rights. And what then? These lamps, lighted, so they fancied, only to illuminate their battles and triumphs, are burning with all their former brilliance, whilst the wiseacres themselves, together with their hopes and pa.s.sions, have long been extinguished, like a little fire kindled at the edge of a forest by a careless wayfarer! But, on the other hand, what strength of will was lent them by the conviction that the entire heavens, with their innumerable habitants, were looking at them with a sympathy, unalterable, though mute!... And we, their miserable descendants, roaming over the earth, without faith, without pride, without enjoyment, and without terror--except that involuntary awe which makes the heart shrink at the thought of the inevitable end--we are no longer capable of great sacrifices, either for the good of mankind or even for our own happiness, because we know the impossibility of such happiness; and, just as our ancestors used to fling themselves from one delusion to another, we pa.s.s indifferently from doubt to doubt, without possessing, as they did, either hope or even that vague though, at the same time, keen enjoyment which the soul encounters at every struggle with mankind or with destiny.

These and many other similar thoughts pa.s.sed through my mind, but I did not follow them up, because I do not like to dwell upon abstract ideas--for what do they lead to? In my early youth I was a dreamer; I loved to hug to my bosom the images--now gloomy, now rainbowhued--which my restless and eager imagination drew for me. And what is there left to me of all these? Only such weariness as might be felt after a battle by night with a phantom--only a confused memory full of regrets. In that vain contest I have exhausted the warmth of soul and firmness of will indispensable to an active life. I have entered upon that life after having already lived through it in thought, and it has become wearisome and nauseous to me, as the reading of a bad imitation of a book is to one who has long been familiar with the original.

The events of that evening produced a somewhat deep impression upon me and excited my nerves. I do not know for certain whether I now believe in predestination or not, but on that evening I believed in it firmly.

The proof was startling, and I, notwithstanding that I had laughed at our forefathers and their obliging astrology, fell involuntarily into their way of thinking. However, I stopped myself in time from following that dangerous road, and, as I have made it a rule not to reject anything decisively and not to trust anything blindly, I cast metaphysics aside and began to look at what was beneath my feet. The precaution was well-timed. I only just escaped stumbling over something thick and soft, but, to all appearance, inanimate. I bent down to see what it was, and, by the light of the moon, which now shone right upon the road, I perceived that it was a pig which had been cut in two with a sabre... I had hardly time to examine it before I heard the sound of steps, and two Cossacks came running out of a byway. One of them came up to me and enquired whether I had seen a drunken Cossack chasing a pig.

I informed him that I had not met the Cossack and pointed to the unhappy victim of his rabid bravery.

"The scoundrel!" said the second Cossack. "No sooner does he drink his fill of chikhir [24] than off he goes and cuts up anything that comes in his way. Let us be after him, Eremeich, we must tie him up or else"...

They took themselves off, and I continued my way with greater caution, and at length arrived at my lodgings without mishap.

I was living with a certain old Cossack underofficer whom I loved, not only on account of his kindly disposition, but also, and more especially, on account of his pretty daughter, Nastya.

Wrapped up in a sheepskin coat she was waiting for me, as usual, by the wicket gate. The moon illumined her charming little lips, now turned blue by the cold of the night. Recognizing me she smiled; but I was in no mood to linger with her.

"Good night, Nastya!" I said, and pa.s.sed on.

She was about to make some answer, but only sighed.

I fastened the door of my room after me, lighted a candle, and threw myself on the bed; but, on that occasion, slumber caused its presence to be awaited longer than usual. By the time I fell asleep the east was beginning to grow pale, but I was evidently predestined not to have my sleep out. At four o'clock in the morning two fists knocked at my window. I sprang up.

"What is the matter?"

"Get up--dress yourself!"

I dressed hurriedly and went out.

"Do you know what has happened?" said three officers who had come for me, speaking all in one voice.

They were deadly pale.

"No, what is it?"

"Vulich has been murdered!"

I was petrified.

"Yes, murdered!" they continued. "Let us lose no time and go!"

"But where to?"

"You will learn as we go."

We set off. They told me all that had happened, supplementing their story with a variety of observations on the subject of the strange predestination which had saved Vulich from imminent death half an hour before he actually met his end.

Vulich had been walking alone along a dark street, and the drunken Cossack who had cut up the pig had sprung out upon him, and perhaps would have pa.s.sed him by without noticing him, had not Vulich stopped suddenly and said:

"Whom are you looking for, my man?"

"You!" answered the Cossack, striking him with his sabre; and he cleft him from the shoulder almost to the heart...

The two Cossacks who had met me and followed the murderer had arrived on the scene and raised the wounded man from the ground. But he was already as his last gasp and said these three words only--"he was right!"

I alone understood the dark significance of those words: they referred to me. I had involuntarily foretold his fate to poor Vulich. My instinct had not deceived me; I had indeed read on his changed countenance the signs of approaching death.

The murderer had locked himself up in an empty hut at the end of the village; and thither we went. A number of women, all of them weeping, were running in the same direction; at times a belated Cossack, hastily buckling on his dagger, sprang out into the street and overtook us at a run. The tumult was dreadful.

At length we arrived on the scene and found a crowd standing around the hut, the door and shutters of which were locked on the inside. Groups of officers and Cossacks were engaged in heated discussions; the women were shrieking, wailing and talking all in one breath. One of the old women struck my attention by her meaning looks and the frantic despair expressed upon her face. She was sitting on a thick plank, leaning her elbows on her knees and supporting her head with her hands. It was the mother of the murderer. At times her lips moved... Was it a prayer they were whispering, or a curse?

Meanwhile it was necessary to decide upon some course of action and to seize the criminal. n.o.body, however, made bold to be the first to rush forward.

I went up to the window and looked in through a c.h.i.n.k in the shutter.

The criminal, pale of face, was lying on the floor, holding a pistol in his right hand. The blood-stained sabre was beside him. His expressive eyes were rolling in terror; at times he shuddered and clutched at his head, as if indistinctly recalling the events of yesterday. I could not read any sign of great determination in that uneasy glance of his, and I told the major that it would be better at once to give orders to the Cossacks to burst open the door and rush in, than to wait until the murderer had quite recovered his senses.

At that moment the old captain of the Cossacks went up to the door and called the murderer by name. The latter answered back.

"You have committed a sin, brother Ephimych!" said the captain, "so all you can do now is to submit."

"I will not submit!" answered the Cossack.

"Have you no fear of G.o.d! You see, you are not one of those cursed Chechenes, but an honest Christian! Come, if you have done it in an unguarded moment there is no help for it! You cannot escape your fate!"

"I will not submit!" exclaimed the Cossack menacingly, and we could hear the snap of the c.o.c.ked trigger.

"Hey, my good woman!" said the Cossack captain to the old woman. "Say a word to your son--perhaps he will lend an ear to you... You see, to go on like this is only to make G.o.d angry. And look, the gentlemen here have already been waiting two hours."

The old woman gazed fixedly at him and shook her head.

"Vasili Petrovich," said the captain, going up to the major; "he will not surrender. I know him! If it comes to smas.h.i.+ng in the door he will strike down several of our men. Would it not be better if you ordered him to be shot? There is a wide c.h.i.n.k in the shutter."

At that moment a strange idea flashed through my head--like Vulich I proposed to put fate to the test.

"Wait," I said to the major, "I will take him alive."

Bidding the captain enter into a conversation with the murderer and setting three Cossacks at the door ready to force it open and rush to my aid at a given signal, I walked round the hut and approached the fatal window. My heart was beating violently.

"Aha, you cursed wretch!" cried the captain. "Are you laughing at us, eh? Or do you think that we won't be able to get the better of you?"

He began to knock at the door with all his might. Putting my eye to the c.h.i.n.k, I followed the movements of the Cossack, who was not expecting an attack from that direction. I pulled the shutter away suddenly and threw myself in at the window, head foremost. A shot rang out right over my ear, and the bullet tore off one of my epaulettes. But the smoke which filled the room prevented my adversary from finding the sabre which was lying beside him. I seized him by the arms; the Cossacks burst in; and three minutes had not elapsed before they had the criminal bound and led off under escort.

The people dispersed, the officers congratulated me--and indeed there was cause for congratulation.

After all that, it would hardly seem possible to avoid becoming a fatalist? But who knows for certain whether he is convinced of anything or not? And how often is a deception of the senses or an error of the reason accepted as a conviction!... I prefer to doubt everything. Such a disposition is no bar to decision of character; on the contrary, so far as I am concerned, I always advance more boldly when I do not know what is awaiting me. You see, nothing can happen worse than death--and from death there is no escape.

On my return to the fortress I related to Maksim Maksimych all that I had seen and experienced; and I sought to learn his opinion on the subject of predestination.

A Hero of Our Time Part 16

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A Hero of Our Time Part 16 summary

You're reading A Hero of Our Time Part 16. This novel has been translated by Updating. Author: Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov already has 203 views.

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