A Hero of Our Time Part 18

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"You are speaking of a pretty woman just as you might of an English horse," said Grushnitski indignantly.

"Mon cher," I answered, trying to mimic his tone, "je meprise les femmes, pour ne pas les aimer, car autrement la vie serait un melodrame trop ridicule."

I turned and left him. For half an hour or so I walked about the avenues of the vines, the limestone cliffs and the bushes hanging between them.

The day grew hot, and I hurried homewards. Pa.s.sing the sulphur spring, I stopped at the covered gallery in order to regain my breath under its shade, and by so doing I was afforded the opportunity of witnessing a rather interesting scene. This is the position in which the dramatis personae were disposed: Princess Ligovski and the Moscow dandy were sitting on a bench in the covered gallery--apparently engaged in serious conversation. Princess Mary, who had doubtless by this time finished her last tumbler, was walking pensively to and fro by the well. Grushnitski was standing by the well itself; there was n.o.body else on the square.

I went up closer and concealed myself behind a corner of the gallery.

At that moment Grushnitski let his tumbler fall on the sand and made strenuous efforts to stoop in order to pick it up; but his injured foot prevented him. Poor fellow! How he tried all kinds of artifices, as he leaned on his crutch, and all in vain! His expressive countenance was, in fact, a picture of suffering.

Princess Mary saw the whole scene better than I.

Lighter than a bird she sprang towards him, stooped, picked up the tumbler, and handed it to him with a gesture full of ineffable charm.

Then she blushed furiously, glanced round at the gallery, and, having a.s.sured herself that her mother apparently had not seen anything, immediately regained her composure. By the time Grushnitski had opened his mouth to thank her she was a long way off. A moment after, she came out of the gallery with her mother and the dandy, but, in pa.s.sing by Grushnitski, she a.s.sumed a most decorous and serious air. She did not even turn round, she did not even observe the pa.s.sionate gaze which he kept fixed upon her for a long time until she had descended the mountain and was hidden behind the lime trees of the boulevard... Presently I caught glimpses of her hat as she walked along the street. She hurried through the gate of one of the best houses in Pyatigorsk; her mother walked behind her and bowed adieu to Raevich at the gate.

It was only then that the poor, pa.s.sionate cadet noticed my presence.

"Did you see?" he said, pressing my hand vigorously. "She is an angel, simply an angel!"

"Why?" I inquired, with an air of the purest simplicity.

"Did you not see, then?"

"No. I saw her picking up your tumbler. If there had been an attendant there he would have done the same thing--and quicker too, in the hope of receiving a tip. It is quite easy, however, to understand that she pitied you; you made such a terrible grimace when you walked on the wounded foot."

"And can it be that seeing her, as you did, at that moment when her soul was s.h.i.+ning in her eyes, you were not in the least affected?"

"No."

I was lying, but I wanted to exasperate him. I have an innate pa.s.sion for contradiction--my whole life has been nothing but a series of melancholy and vain contradictions of heart or reason. The presence of an enthusiast chills me with a twelfth-night cold, and I believe that constant a.s.sociation with a person of a flaccid and phlegmatic temperament would have turned me into an impa.s.sioned visionary. I confess, too, that an unpleasant but familiar sensation was coursing lightly through my heart at that moment. It was--envy. I say "envy"

boldly, because I am accustomed to acknowledge everything to myself.

It would be hard to find a young man who, if his idle fancy had been attracted by a pretty woman and he had suddenly found her openly singling out before his eyes another man equally unknown to her--it would be hard, I say, to find such a young man (living, of course, in the great world and accustomed to indulge his self-love) who would not have been unpleasantly taken aback in such a case.

In silence Grushnitski and I descended the mountain and walked along the boulevard, past the windows of the house where our beauty had hidden herself. She was sitting by the window. Grushnitski, plucking me by the arm, cast upon her one of those gloomily tender glances which have so little effect upon women. I directed my lorgnette at her, and observed that she smiled at his glance and that my insolent lorgnette made her downright angry. And how, indeed, should a Caucasian military man presume to direct his eyegla.s.s at a princess from Moscow?...

CHAPTER II. 13th May.

THIS morning the doctor came to see me. His name is Werner, but he is a Russian. What is there surprising in that? I have known a man named Ivanov, who was a German.

Werner is a remarkable man, and that for many reasons. Like almost all medical men he is a sceptic and a materialist, but, at the same time, he is a genuine poet--a poet always in deeds and often in words, although he has never written two verses in his life. He has mastered all the living chords of the human heart, just as one learns the veins of a corpse, but he has never known how to avail himself of his knowledge. In like manner, it sometimes happens that an excellent anatomist does not know how to cure a fever. Werner usually made fun of his patients in private; but once I saw him weeping over a dying soldier... He was poor, and dreamed of millions, but he would not take a single step out of his way for the sake of money. He once told me that he would rather do a favour to an enemy than to a friend, because, in the latter case, it would mean selling his beneficence, whilst hatred only increases proportionately to the magnanimity of the adversary. He had a malicious tongue; and more than one good, simple soul has acquired the reputation of a vulgar fool through being labelled with one of his epigrams. His rivals, envious medical men of the watering-place, spread the report that he was in the habit of drawing caricatures of his patients. The patients were incensed, and almost all of them discarded him. His friends, that is to say all the genuinely well-bred people who were serving in the Caucasus, vainly endeavoured to restore his fallen credit.

His outward appearance was of the type which, at the first glance, creates an unpleasant impression, but which you get to like in course of time, when the eye learns to read in the irregular features the stamp of a tried and lofty soul. Instances have been known of women falling madly in love with men of that sort, and having no desire to exchange their ugliness for the beauty of the freshest and rosiest of Endymions.

We must give women their due: they possess an instinct for spiritual beauty, for which reason, possibly, men such as Werner love women so pa.s.sionately.

Werner was small and lean and as weak as a baby. One of his legs was shorter than the other, as was the case with Byron. In comparison with his body, his head seemed enormous. His hair was cropped close, and the unevennesses of his cranium, thus laid bare, would have struck a phrenologist by reason of the strange intertexture of contradictory propensities. His little, ever restless, black eyes seemed as if they were endeavouring to fathom your thoughts. Taste and neatness were to be observed in his dress. His small, lean, sinewy hands flaunted themselves in bright-yellow gloves. His frock-coat, cravat and waistcoat were invariably of black. The young men dubbed him Mephistopheles; he pretended to be angry at the nickname, but in reality it flattered his vanity. Werner and I soon understood each other and became friends, because I, for my part, am illadapted for friends.h.i.+p. Of two friends, one is always the slave of the other, although frequently neither acknowledges the fact to himself. Now, the slave I could not be; and to be the master would be a wearisome trouble, because, at the same time, deception would be required. Besides, I have servants and money!

Our friends.h.i.+p originated in the following circ.u.mstances. I met Werner at S----, in the midst of a numerous and noisy circle of young people. Towards the end of the evening the conversation took a philosophico-metaphysical turn. We discussed the subject of convictions, and each of us had some different conviction to declare.

"So far as I am concerned," said the doctor, "I am convinced of one thing only"...

"And that is--?" I asked, desirous of learning the opinion of a man who had been silent till then.

"Of the fact," he answered, "that sooner or later, one fine morning, I shall die."

"I am better off than you," I said. "In addition to that, I have a further conviction, namely, that, one very nasty evening, I had the misfortune to be born."

All the others considered that we were talking nonsense, but indeed not one of them said anything more sensible. From that moment we singled each other out amongst the crowd. We used frequently to meet and discuss abstract subjects in a very serious manner, until each observed that the other was throwing dust in his eyes. Then, looking significantly at each other--as, according to Cicero, the Roman augurs used to do--we would burst out laughing heartily and, having had our laugh, we would separate, well content with our evening.

I was lying on a couch, my eyes fixed upon the ceiling and my hands clasped behind my head, when Werner entered my room. He sat down in an easy chair, placed his cane in a corner, yawned, and announced that it was getting hot out of doors. I replied that the flies were bothering me--and we both fell silent.

"Observe, my dear doctor," I said, "that, but for fools, the world would be a very dull place. Look! Here are you and I, both sensible men!

We know beforehand that it is possible to dispute ad infinitum about everything--and so we do not dispute. Each of us knows almost all the other's secret thoughts: to us a single word is a whole history; we see the grain of every one of our feelings through a threefold husk. What is sad, we laugh at; what is laughable, we grieve at; but, to tell the truth, we are fairly indifferent, generally speaking, to everything except ourselves. Consequently, there can be no interchange of feelings and thoughts between us; each of us knows all he cares to know about the other, and that knowledge is all he wants. One expedient remains--to tell the news. So tell me some news."

Fatigued by this lengthy speech, I closed my eyes and yawned. The doctor answered after thinking awhile:

"There is an idea, all the same, in that nonsense of yours."

"Two," I replied.

"Tell me one, and I will tell you the other."

"Very well, begin!" I said, continuing to examine the ceiling and smiling inwardly.

"You are anxious for information about some of the new-comers here, and I can guess who it is, because they, for their part, have already been inquiring about you."

"Doctor! Decidedly it is impossible for us to hold a conversation! We read into each other's soul."

"Now the other idea?"...

"Here it is: I wanted to make you relate something, for the following reasons: firstly, listening is less fatiguing than talking; secondly, the listener cannot commit himself; thirdly, he can learn another's secret; fourthly, sensible people, such as you, prefer listeners to speakers. Now to business; what did Princess Ligovski tell you about me?"

"You are quite sure that it was Princess Ligovski... and not Princess Mary?"...

"Quite sure."

"Why?"

"Because Princess Mary inquired about Grushnitski."

"You are gifted with a fine imagination! Princess Mary said that she was convinced that the young man in the soldier's cloak had been reduced to the ranks on account of a duel"...

"I hope you left her cheris.h.i.+ng that pleasant delusion"...

"Of course"...

"A plot!" I exclaimed in rapture. "We will make it our business to see to the denouement of this little comedy. It is obvious that fate is taking care that I shall not be bored!"

A Hero of Our Time Part 18

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A Hero of Our Time Part 18 summary

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