A Hero of Our Time Part 32

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"Take your places!" repeated Ivan Ignatevich, in a squeaky voice.

"Excuse me!" I said. "One further condition. As we are going to fight to the death, we are bound to do everything possible in order that the affair may remain a secret, and that our seconds may incur no responsibility. Do you agree?"...

"Quite."

"Well, then, this is my idea. Do you see that narrow ledge on the top of the perpendicular cliff on the right? It must be thirty fathoms, if not more, from there to the bottom; and, down below, there are sharp rocks.

Each of us will stand right at the extremity of the ledge--in such manner even a slight wound will be mortal: that ought to be in accordance with your desire, as you yourselves have fixed upon six paces. Whichever of us is wounded will be certain to fall down and be dashed to pieces; the doctor will extract the bullet, and, then, it will be possible very easily to account for that sudden death by saying it was the result of a fall. Let us cast lots to decide who shall fire first. In conclusion, I declare that I will not fight on any other terms."

"Be it so!" said the captain after an expressive glance at Grushnitski, who nodded his head in token of a.s.sent. Every moment he was changing countenance. I had placed him in an embarra.s.sing position. Had the duel been fought upon the usual conditions, he could have aimed at my leg, wounded me slightly, and in such wise gratified his vengeance without overburdening his conscience. But now he was obliged to fire in the air, or to make himself an a.s.sa.s.sin, or, finally, to abandon his base plan and to expose himself to equal danger with me. I should not have liked to be in his place at that moment. He took the captain aside and said something to him with great warmth. His lips were blue, and I saw them trembling; but the captain turned away from him with a contemptuous smile.

"You are a fool," he said to Grushnitski rather loudly. "You can't understand a thing!... Let us be off, then, gentlemen!"

The precipice was approached by a narrow path between bushes, and fragments of rock formed the precarious steps of that natural staircase.

Clinging to the bushes we proceeded to clamber up. Grushnitski went in front, his seconds behind him, and then the doctor and I.

"I am surprised at you," said the doctor, pressing my hand vigorously.

"Let me feel your pulse!... Oho! Feveris.h.!.+... But nothing noticeable on your countenance... only your eyes are gleaming more brightly than usual."

Suddenly small stones rolled noisily right under our feet. What was it?

Grushnitski had stumbled; the branch to which he was clinging had broken off, and he would have rolled down on his back if his seconds had not held him up.

"Take care!" I cried. "Do not fall prematurely: that is a bad sign.

Remember Julius Caesar!"

CHAPTER XX

AND now we had climbed to the summit of the projecting cliff. The ledge was covered with fine sand, as if on purpose for a duel. All around, like an innumerable herd, crowded the mountains, their summits lost to view in the golden mist of the morning; and towards the south rose the white ma.s.s of Elbruz, closing the chain of icy peaks, among which fibrous clouds, which had rushed in from the east, were already roaming.

I walked to the extremity of the ledge and gazed down. My head nearly swam. At the foot of the precipice all seemed dark and cold as in a tomb; the moss-grown jags of the rocks, hurled down by storm and time, were awaiting their prey.

The ledge on which we were to fight formed an almost regular triangle.

Six paces were measured from the projecting corner, and it was decided that whichever had first to meet the fire of his opponent should stand in the very corner with his back to the precipice; if he was not killed the adversaries would change places.

I determined to relinquish every advantage to Grushnitski; I wanted to test him. A spark of magnanimity might awake in his soul--and then all would have been settled for the best. But his vanity and weakness of character had perforce to triumph!... I wished to give myself the full right to refrain from sparing him if destiny were to favour me. Who would not have concluded such an agreement with his conscience?

"Cast the lot, doctor!" said the captain.

The doctor drew a silver coin from his pocket and held it up.

"Tail!" cried Grushnitski hurriedly, like a man suddenly aroused by a friendly nudge.

"Head," I said.

The coin spun in the air and fell, jingling. We all rushed towards it.

"You are lucky," I said to Grushnitski. "You are to fire first! But remember that if you do not kill me I shall not miss--I give you my word of honour."

He flushed up; he was ashamed to kill an unarmed man. I looked at him fixedly; for a moment it seemed to me that he would throw himself at my feet, imploring forgiveness; but how to confess so base a plot?... One expedient only was left to him--to fire in the air! I was convinced that he would fire in the air! One consideration alone might prevent him doing so--the thought that I would demand a second duel.

"Now is the time!" the doctor whispered to me, plucking me by the sleeve. "If you do not tell them now that we know their intentions, all is lost. Look, he is loading already... If you will not say anything, I will"...

"On no account, doctor!" I answered, holding him back by the arm. "You will spoil everything. You have given me your word not to interfere...

What does it matter to you? Perhaps I wish to be killed"...

He looked at me in astonishment.

"Oh, that is another thing!... Only do not complain of me in the other world"...

Meanwhile the captain had loaded his pistols and given one to Grushnitski, after whispering something to him with a smile; the other he gave to me.

I placed myself in the corner of the ledge, planting my left foot firmly against the rock and bending slightly forward, so that, in case of a slight wound, I might not fall over backwards.

Grushnitski placed himself opposite me and, at a given signal, began to raise his pistol. His knees shook. He aimed right at my forehead...

Unutterable fury began to seethe within my breast.

Suddenly he dropped the muzzle of the pistol and, pale as a sheet, turned to his second.

"I cannot," he said in a hollow voice.

"Coward!" answered the captain.

A shot rang out. The bullet grazed my knee. Involuntarily I took a few paces forward in order to get away from the edge as quickly as possible.

"Well, my dear Grushnitski, it is a pity that you have missed!" said the captain. "Now it is your turn, take your stand! Embrace me first: we shall not see each other again!"

They embraced; the captain could scarcely refrain from laughing.

"Do not be afraid," he added, glancing cunningly at Grushnitski; "everything in this world is nonsense... Nature is a fool, fate a turkeyhen, and life a copeck!" [31]

After that tragic phrase, uttered with becoming gravity, he went back to his place. Ivan Ignatevich, with tears, also embraced Grushnitski, and there the latter remained alone, facing me. Ever since then, I have been trying to explain to myself what sort of feeling it was that was boiling within my breast at that moment: it was the vexation of injured vanity, and contempt, and wrath engendered at the thought that the man now looking at me with such confidence, such quiet insolence, had, two minutes before, been about to kill me like a dog, without exposing himself to the least danger, because had I been wounded a little more severely in the leg I should inevitably have fallen over the cliff.

For a few moments I looked him fixedly in the face, trying to discern thereon even a slight trace of repentance. But it seemed to me that he was restraining a smile.

"I should advise you to say a prayer before you die," I said.

"Do not worry about my soul any more than your own. One thing I beg of you: be quick about firing."

"And you do not recant your slander? You do not beg my forgiveness?...

Bethink you well: has your conscience nothing to say to you?"

"Mr. Pechorin!" exclaimed the captain of dragoons. "Allow me to point out that you are not here to preach... Let us lose no time, in case anyone should ride through the gorge and we should be seen."

"Very well. Doctor, come here!"

The doctor came up to me. Poor doctor! He was paler than Grushnitski had been ten minutes before.

The words which followed I purposely p.r.o.nounced with a pause between each--loudly and distinctly, as the sentence of death is p.r.o.nounced:

A Hero of Our Time Part 32

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A Hero of Our Time Part 32 summary

You're reading A Hero of Our Time Part 32. This novel has been translated by Updating. Author: Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov already has 256 views.

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