A Hero of Our Time Part 17

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At first he did not understand the word. I explained it to him as well as I could, and then he said, with a significant shake of the head:

"Yes, sir, of course! It was a very ingenious trick! However, these Asiatic pistols often miss fire if they are badly oiled or if you don't press hard enough on the trigger. I confess I don't like the Circa.s.sian carbines either. Somehow or other they don't suit the like of us: the b.u.t.t end is so small, and any minute you may get your nose burnt! On the other hand, their sabres, now--well, all I need say is, my best respects to them!"

Afterwards he said, on reflecting a little:

"Yes, it is a pity about the poor fellow! The devil must have put it into his head to start a conversation with a drunken man at night!

However, it is evident that fate had written it so at his birth!"

I could not get anything more out of Maksim Maksimych; generally speaking, he had no liking for metaphysical disputations.



CHAPTER I. 11th May.

YESTERDAY I arrived at Pyatigorsk. I have engaged lodgings at the extreme end of the town, the highest part, at the foot of Mount Mashuk: during a storm the clouds will descend on to the roof of my dwelling.

This morning at five o'clock, when I opened my window, the room was filled with the fragrance of the flowers growing in the modest little front-garden. Branches of bloom-laden bird-cherry trees peep in at my window, and now and again the breeze bestrews my writing-table with their white petals. The view which meets my gaze on three sides is wonderful: westward towers five-peaked Beshtau, blue as "the last cloud of a dispersed storm," [25] and northward rises Mashuk, like a s.h.a.ggy Persian cap, shutting in the whole of that quarter of the horizon.

Eastward the outlook is more cheery: down below are displayed the varied hues of the brand-new, spotlessly clean, little town, with its murmuring, health-giving springs and its babbling, many-tongued throng.

Yonder, further away, the mountains tower up in an amphitheatre, ever bluer and mistier; and, at the edge of the horizon, stretches the silver chain of snow-clad summits, beginning with Kazbek and ending with two-peaked Elbruz... Blithe is life in such a land! A feeling akin to rapture is diffused through all my veins. The air is pure and fresh, like the kiss of a child; the sun is bright, the sky is blue--what more could one possibly wish for? What need, in such a place as this, of pa.s.sions, desires, regrets?

However, it is time to be stirring. I will go to the Elizaveta spring--I am told that the whole society of the watering-place a.s.sembles there in the morning.

Descending into the middle of the town, I walked along the boulevard, on which I met a few melancholy groups slowly ascending the mountain.

These, for the most part, were the families of landed-gentry from the steppes--as could be guessed at once from the threadbare, old-fas.h.i.+oned frock-coats of the husbands and the exquisite attire of the wives and daughters. Evidently they already had all the young men of the watering-place at their fingers' ends, because they looked at me with a tender curiosity. The Petersburg cut of my coat misled them; but they soon recognised the military epaulettes, and turned away with indignation.

The wives of the local authorities--the hostesses, so to speak, of the waters--were more graciously inclined. They carry lorgnettes, and they pay less attention to a uniform--they have grown accustomed in the Caucasus to meeting a fervid heart beneath a numbered b.u.t.ton and a cultured intellect beneath a white forage-cap. These ladies are very charming, and long continue to be charming. Each year their adorers are exchanged for new ones, and in that very fact, it may be, lies the secret of their unwearying amiability.

Ascending by the narrow path to the Elizaveta spring, I overtook a crowd of officials and military men, who, as I subsequently learned, compose a cla.s.s apart amongst those who place their hopes in the medicinal waters.

They drink--but not water--take but few walks, indulge in only mild flirtations, gamble, and complain of boredom.

They are dandies. In letting their wicker-sheathed tumblers down into the well of sulphurous water they a.s.sume academical poses. The officials wear bright blue cravats; the military men have ruffs sticking out above their collars. They affect a profound contempt for provincial ladies, and sigh for the aristocratic drawing-rooms of the capitals--to which they are not admitted.

Here is the well at last!... Upon the small square adjoining it a little house with a red roof over the bath is erected, and somewhat further on there is a gallery in which the people walk when it rains. Some wounded officers were sitting--pale and melancholy--on a bench, with their crutches drawn up. A few ladies, their tumbler of water finished, were walking with rapid steps to and fro about the square. There were two or three pretty faces amongst them. Beneath the avenues of the vines with which the slope of Mashuk is covered, occasional glimpses could be caught of the gay-coloured hat of a lover of solitude for two--for beside that hat I always noticed either a military forage-cap or the ugly round hat of a civilian. Upon the steep cliff, where the pavilion called "The Aeolian Harp" is erected, figured the lovers of scenery, directing their telescopes upon Elbruz. Amongst them were a couple of tutors, with their pupils who had come to be cured of scrofula.

Out of breath, I came to a standstill at the edge of the mountain, and, leaning against the corner of a little house, I began to examine the picturesque surroundings, when suddenly I heard behind me a familiar voice.

"Pechorin! Have you been here long?"

I turned round. Grushnitski! We embraced. I had made his acquaintance in the active service detachment. He had been wounded in the foot by a bullet and had come to the waters a week or so before me.

Grushnitski is a cadet; he has only been a year in the service. From a kind of foppery peculiar to himself, he wears the thick cloak of a common soldier. He has also the soldier's cross of St. George. He is well built, swarthy and black-haired. To look at him, you might say he was a man of twenty-five, although he is scarcely twenty-one. He tosses his head when he speaks, and keeps continually twirling his moustache with his left hand, his right hand being occupied with the crutch on which he leans. He speaks rapidly and affectedly; he is one of those people who have a high-sounding phrase ready for every occasion in life, who remain untouched by simple beauty, and who drape themselves majestically in extraordinary sentiments, exalted pa.s.sions and exceptional sufferings. To produce an effect is their delight; they have an almost insensate fondness for romantic provincial ladies. When old age approaches they become either peaceful landed-gentry or drunkards--sometimes both. Frequently they have many good qualities, but they have not a grain of poetry in their composition. Grushnitski's pa.s.sion was declamation. He would deluge you with words so soon as the conversation went beyond the sphere of ordinary ideas. I have never been able to dispute with him. He neither answers your questions nor listens to you. So soon as you stop, he begins a lengthy tirade, which has the appearance of being in some sort connected with what you have been saying, but which is, in fact, only a continuation of his own harangue.

He is witty enough; his epigrams are frequently amusing, but never malicious, nor to the point. He slays n.o.body with a single word; he has no knowledge of men and of their foibles, because all his life he has been interested in n.o.body but himself. His aim is to make himself the hero of a novel. He has so often endeavoured to convince others that he is a being created not for this world and doomed to certain mysterious sufferings, that he has almost convinced himself that such he is in reality. Hence the pride with which he wears his thick soldier's cloak.

I have seen through him, and he dislikes me for that reason, although to outward appearance we are on the friendliest of terms. Grushnitski is looked upon as a man of distinguished courage. I have seen him in action. He waves his sabre, shouts, and hurls himself forward with his eyes shut. That is not what I should call Russian courage!...

I reciprocate Grushnitski's dislike. I feel that some time or other we shall come into collision upon a narrow road, and that one of us will fare badly.

His arrival in the Caucasus is also the result of his romantic fanaticism. I am convinced that on the eve of his departure from his paternal village he said with an air of gloom to some pretty neighbour that he was going away, not so much for the simple purpose of serving in the army as of seeking death, because... and hereupon, I am sure, he covered his eyes with his hand and continued thus, "No, you--or thou--must not know! Your pure soul would shudder! And what would be the good? What am I to you? Could you understand me?"... and so on.

He has himself told me that the motive which induced him to enter the K----regiment must remain an everlasting secret between him and Heaven.

However, in moments when he casts aside the tragic mantle, Grushnitski is charming and entertaining enough. I am always interested to see him with women--it is then that he puts forth his finest efforts, I think!

We met like a couple of old friends. I began to question him about the personages of note and as to the sort of life which was led at the waters.

"It is a rather prosaic life," he said, with a sigh. "Those who drink the waters in the morning are inert--like all invalids, and those who drink the wines in the evening are unendurable--like all healthy people!

There are ladies who entertain, but there is no great amus.e.m.e.nt to be obtained from them. They play whist, they dress badly and speak French dreadfully! The only Moscow people here this year are Princess Ligovski and her daughter--but I am not acquainted with them. My soldier's cloak is like a seal of renunciation. The sympathy which it arouses is as painful as charity."

At that moment two ladies walked past us in the direction of the well; one elderly, the other youthful and slender. I could not obtain a good view of their faces on account of their hats, but they were dressed in accordance with the strict rules of the best taste--nothing superfluous.

The second lady was wearing a high-necked dress of pearl-grey, and a light silk kerchief was wound round her supple neck. Puce-coloured boots clasped her slim little ankle so charmingly, that even those uninitiated into the mysteries of beauty would infallibly have sighed, if only from wonder. There was something maidenly in her easy, but aristocratic gait, something eluding definition yet intelligible to the glance. As she walked past us an indefinable perfume, like that which sometimes breathes from the note of a charming woman, was wafted from her.

"Look!" said Grushnitski, "there is Princess Ligovski with her daughter Mary, as she calls her after the English manner. They have been here only three days."

"You already know her name, though?"

"Yes, I heard it by chance," he answered, with a blush. "I confess I do not desire to make their acquaintance. These haughty aristocrats look upon us army men just as they would upon savages. What care they if there is an intellect beneath a numbered forage-cap, and a heart beneath a thick cloak?"

"Poor cloak!" I said, with a laugh. "But who is the gentleman who is just going up to them and handing them a tumbler so officiously?"

"Oh, that is Raevich, the Moscow dandy. He is a gambler; you can see as much at once from that immense gold chain coiling across his skyblue waistcoat. And what a thick cane he has! Just like Robinson Crusoe's--and so is his beard too, and his hair is done like a peasant's."

"You are embittered against the whole human race?"

"And I have cause to be"...

"Oh, really?"

At that moment the ladies left the well and came up to where we were.

Grushnitski succeeded in a.s.suming a dramatic pose with the aid of his crutch, and in a loud tone of voice answered me in French:

"Mon cher, je hais les hommes pour ne pas les mepriser, car autrement la vie serait une farce trop degoutante."

The pretty Princess Mary turned round and favoured the orator with a long and curious glance. Her expression was quite indefinite, but it was not contemptuous, a fact on which I inwardly congratulated Grushnitski from my heart.

"She is an extremely pretty girl," I said. "She has such velvet eyes--yes, velvet is the word. I should advise you to appropriate the expression when speaking of her eyes. The lower and upper lashes are so long that the sunbeams are not reflected in her pupils. I love those eyes without a glitter, they are so soft that they appear to caress you.

However, her eyes seem to be her only good feature... Tell me, are her teeth white? That is most important! It is a pity that she did not smile at that high-sounding phrase of yours."

A Hero of Our Time Part 17

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A Hero of Our Time Part 17 summary

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