A Hero of Our Time Part 33

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"Doctor, these gentlemen have forgotten, in their hurry, no doubt, to put a bullet in my pistol. I beg you to load it afresh--and properly!"

"Impossible!" cried the captain, "impossible! I loaded both pistols.

Perhaps the bullet has rolled out of yours... That is not my fault! And you have no right to load again... No right at all. It is altogether against the rules, I shall not allow it"...

"Very well!" I said to the captain. "If so, then you and I shall fight on the same terms"...

He came to a dead stop.

Grushnitski stood with his head sunk on his breast, embarra.s.sed and gloomy.

"Let them be!" he said at length to the captain, who was going to pull my pistol out of the doctor's hands. "You know yourself that they are right."

In vain the captain made various signs to him. Grushnitski would not even look.

Meanwhile the doctor had loaded the pistol and handed it to me. On seeing that, the captain spat and stamped his foot.

"You are a fool, then, my friend," he said: "a common fool!... You trusted to me before, so you should obey me in everything now... But serve you right! Die like a fly!"...

He turned away, muttering as he went:

"But all the same it is absolutely against the rules."

"Grushnitski!" I said. "There is still time: recant your slander, and I will forgive you everything. You have not succeeded in making a fool of me; my self-esteem is satisfied. Remember--we were once friends"...

His face flamed, his eyes flashed.

"Fire!" he answered. "I despise myself and I hate you. If you do not kill me I will lie in wait for you some night and cut your throat. There is not room on the earth for both of us"...

I fired.

When the smoke had cleared away, Grushnitski was not to be seen on the ledge. Only a slender column of dust was still eddying at the edge of the precipice.

There was a simultaneous cry from the rest.

"Finita la commedia!" I said to the doctor.

He made no answer, and turned away with horror.

I shrugged my shoulders and bowed to Grushnitski's seconds.

CHAPTER XXI

AS I descended by the path, I observed Grushnitski's bloodstained corpse between the clefts of the rocks. Involuntarily, I closed my eyes.

Untying my horse, I set off home at a walking pace. A stone lay upon my heart. To my eyes the sun seemed dim, its beams were powerless to warm me.

I did not ride up to the village, but turned to the right, along the gorge. The sight of a man would have been painful to me: I wanted to be alone. Throwing down the bridle and letting my head fall on my breast, I rode for a long time, and at length found myself in a spot with which I was wholly unfamiliar. I turned my horse back and began to search for the road. The sun had already set by the time I had ridden up to Kislovodsk--myself and my horse both utterly spent!

My servant told me that Werner had called, and he handed me two notes: one from Werner, the other... from Vera.

I opened the first; its contents were as follows:

"Everything has been arranged as well as could be; the mutilated body has been brought in; and the bullet extracted from the breast. Everybody is convinced that the cause of death was an unfortunate accident; only the Commandant, who was doubtless aware of your quarrel, shook his head, but he said nothing. There are no proofs at all against you, and you may sleep in peace... if you can.... Farewell!"...

For a long time I could not make up my mind to open the second note...

What could it be that she was writing to me?... My soul was agitated by a painful foreboding.

Here it is, that letter, each word of which is indelibly engraved upon my memory:

"I am writing to you in the full a.s.surance that we shall never see each other again. A few years ago on parting with you I thought the same.

However, it has been Heaven's will to try me a second time: I have not been able to endure the trial, my frail heart has again submitted to the well-known voice... You will not despise me for that--will you? This letter will be at once a farewell and a confession: I am obliged to tell you everything that has been treasured up in my heart since it began to love you. I will not accuse you--you have acted towards me as any other man would have acted; you have loved me as a chattel, as a source of joys, disquietudes and griefs, interchanging one with the other, without which life would be dull and monotonous. I have understood all that from the first... But you were unhappy, and I have sacrificed myself, hoping that, some time, you would appreciate my sacrifice, that some time you would understand my deep tenderness, unfettered by any conditions. A long time has elapsed since then: I have fathomed all the secrets of your soul... and I have convinced myself that my hope was vain. It has been a bitter blow to me! But my love has been grafted with my soul; it has grown dark, but has not been extinguished.

"We are parting for ever; yet you may be sure that I shall never love another. Upon you my soul has exhausted all its treasures, its tears, its hopes. She who has once loved you cannot look without a certain disdain upon other men, not because you have been better than they, oh, no! but in your nature there is something peculiar--belonging to you alone, something proud and mysterious; in your voice, whatever the words spoken, there is an invincible power. No one can so constantly wish to be loved, in no one is wickedness ever so attractive, no one's glance promises so much bliss, no one can better make use of his advantages, and no one can be so truly unhappy as you, because no one endeavours so earnestly to convince himself of the contrary.

"Now I must explain the cause of my hurried departure; it will seem of little importance to you, because it concerns me alone.

"This morning my husband came in and told me about your quarrel with Grushnitski. Evidently I changed countenance greatly, because he looked me in the face long and intently. I almost fainted at the thought that you had to fight a duel to-day, and that I was the cause of it; it seemed to me that I should go mad... But now, when I am able to reason, I am sure that you remain alive: it is impossible that you should die, and I not with you--impossible! My husband walked about the room for a long time. I do not know what he said to me, I do not remember what I answered... Most likely I told him that I loved you... I only remember that, at the end of our conversation, he insulted me with a dreadful word and left the room. I heard him ordering the carriage... I have been sitting at the window three hours now, awaiting your return... But you are alive, you cannot have died!... The carriage is almost ready...

Good-bye, good-bye!... I have perished--but what matter? If I could be sure that you will always remember me--I no longer say love--no, only remember... Good-bye, they are coming!... I must hide this letter.

"You do not love Mary, do you? You will not marry her? Listen, you must offer me that sacrifice. I have lost everything in the world for you"...

Like a madman I sprang on the steps, jumped on my Circa.s.sian horse which was being led about the courtyard, and set off at full gallop along the road to Pyatigorsk. Unsparingly I urged on the jaded horse, which, snorting and all in a foam, carried me swiftly along the rocky road.

The sun had already disappeared behind a black cloud, which had been resting on the ridge of the western mountains; the gorge grew dark and damp. The Podk.u.mok, forcing its way over the rocks, roared with a hollow and monotonous sound. I galloped on, choking with impatience. The idea of not finding Vera in Pyatigorsk struck my heart like a hammer. For one minute, again to see her for one minute, to say farewell, to press her hand... I prayed, cursed, wept, laughed... No, nothing could express my anxiety, my despair!... Now that it seemed possible that I might be about to lose her for ever, Vera became dearer to me than aught in the world--dearer than life, honour, happiness! G.o.d knows what strange, what mad plans swarmed in my head... Meanwhile I still galloped, urging on my horse without pity. And, now, I began to notice that he was breathing more heavily; he had already stumbled once or twice on level ground...

I was five versts from Essentuki--a Cossack village where I could change horses.

All would have been saved had my horse been able to hold out for another ten minutes. But suddenly, in lifting himself out of a little gulley where the road emerges from the mountains at a sharp turn, he fell to the ground. I jumped down promptly, I tried to lift him up, I tugged at his bridle--in vain. A scarcely audible moan burst through his clenched teeth; in a few moments he expired. I was left on the steppe, alone; I had lost my last hope. I endeavoured to walk--my legs sank under me; exhausted by the anxieties of the day and by sleeplessness, I fell upon the wet gra.s.s and burst out crying like a child.

For a long time I lay motionless and wept bitterly, without attempting to restrain my tears and sobs. I thought my breast would burst. All my firmness, all my coolness, disappeared like smoke; my soul grew powerless, my reason silent, and, if anyone had seen me at that moment, he would have turned aside with contempt.

When the night-dew and the mountain breeze had cooled my burning brow, and my thoughts had resumed their usual course, I realized that to pursue my perished happiness would be unavailing and unreasonable.

What more did I want?--To see her?--Why? Was not all over between us? A single, bitter, farewell kiss would not have enriched my recollections, and, after it, parting would only have been more difficult for us.

Still, I am pleased that I can weep. Perhaps, however, the cause of that was my shattered nerves, a night pa.s.sed without sleep, two minutes opposite the muzzle of a pistol, and an empty stomach.

It is all for the best. That new suffering created within me a fortunate diversion--to speak in military style. To weep is healthy, and then, no doubt, if I had not ridden as I did and had not been obliged to walk fifteen versts on my way back, sleep would not have closed my eyes on that night either.

I returned to Kislovodsk at five o'clock in the morning, threw myself on my bed, and slept the sleep of Napoleon after Waterloo.

By the time I awoke it was dark outside. I sat by the open window, with my jacket unb.u.t.toned--and the mountain breeze cooled my breast, still troubled by the heavy sleep of weariness. In the distance beyond the river, through the tops of the thick lime trees which overshadowed it, lights were glancing in the fortress and the village. Close at hand all was calm. It was dark in Princess Ligovski's house.

The doctor entered; his brows were knit; contrary to custom, he did not offer me his hand.

"Where have you come from, doctor?"

A Hero of Our Time Part 33

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A Hero of Our Time Part 33 summary

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