HIS LIFE AT LAST WAS IN MY HANDS

We were stationed at the little village of Z. The life of an officer
in the army is well known. Drill and the riding school in the morning;
dinner with the colonel or at the Jewish restaurant; and in the evening
punch and cards.

At Z. nobody kept open house, and there was no girl that anyone could
think of marrying. We used to meet at each other’s rooms, where we
never saw anything but one another’s uniforms. There was only one man
among us who did not belong to the regiment. He was about thirty-five,
and, of course, we looked upon him as an old fellow. He had the
advantage of experience, and his habitual gloom, stern features, and
his sharp tongue gave him great influence over his juniors. He was
surrounded by a certain mystery. His looks were Russian, but his name
was foreign. He had served in the Hussars, and with credit. No one
knew what had induced him to retire and settle in this out of the way
little village, where he lived in mingled poverty and extravagance. He
always went on foot, and wore a shabby black coat. But he was always
ready to receive any of our officers; and though his dinners, cooked by
a retired soldier, never consisted of more than two or three dishes,
champagne flowed at them like water. His income, or how he got it, no
one knew, and no one ventured to ask. He had a few books on military
subjects and a few novels, which he willingly lent and never asked to
have returned. But, on the other hand, he never returned the books he
himself borrowed.

His principal recreation was pistol-shooting. The walls of his room
were riddled with bullets-a perfect honeycomb. A rich collection of
pistols was the only thing luxurious in his modestly furnished villa.
His skill as a shot was quite prodigious. If he had undertaken to
shoot a pear off some one’s cap not a man in our regiment would have
hesitated to act as target. Our conversation often turned on duelling;
Silvio, so I will call him, never joined in it. When asked if he had
ever fought, he answered curtly, “Yes.” But he gave no particulars, and
it was evident that he disliked such questions. We concluded that the
memory of some unhappy victim of his terrible skill preyed heavily upon
his conscience. None of us could ever have suspected him of cowardice.
There are men whose look alone is enough to repel such a suspicion.

An unexpected incident fairly astonished us. One afternoon about ten
officers were dining with Silvio. They drank as usual, that is to say,
a great deal. After dinner we asked our host to make a pool. For a long
time he refused on the ground that he seldom played. At last he ordered
cards to be brought in. With half a hundred gold pieces on the table we
sat round him, and the game began. It was Silvio’s habit not to speak
when playing. He never disputed or explained. If an adversary made a
mistake Silvio without a word chalked it down against him. Knowing his
way we always let him have it.

But among us on this occasion was an officer who had but lately joined.
While playing he absent-mindedly scored a point too much. Silvio took
the chalk and corrected the score in his own fashion. The officer,
supposing him to have made a mistake, began to explain. Silvio went
on dealing in silence. The officer, losing patience, took the brush
and rubbed out what he thought was wrong. Silvio took the chalk and
recorrected it. The officer, heated with wine and play, and irritated
by the laughter of the company, thought himself aggrieved, and, in a
fit of passion, seized a brass candlestick and threw it at Silvio, who
only just managed to avoid the missile. Great was our confusion. Silvio
got up, white with rage, and said, with sparkling eyes–

“Sir! have the goodness to withdraw, and you may thank God that this
has happened in my own house.”

We could have no doubt as to the consequences, and we already looked
upon our new comrade as a dead man. He withdrew saying that he was
ready to give satisfaction for his offence in any way desired.

The game went on for a few minutes; but feeling that our host was upset
we gradually left off playing and dispersed, each to his own quarters.
At the riding school next day we were already asking one another
whether the young lieutenant was still alive, when he appeared among
us. We asked him the same question, and were told that he had not yet
heard from Silvio. We were astonished. We went to Silvio’s and found
him in the court-yard popping bullet after bullet into an ace which he
had gummed to the gate. He received us as usual, but made no allusion
to what had happened on the previous evening.

Three days passed and the lieutenant was still alive. “Can it be
possible,” we asked one another in astonishment, “that Silvio will not
fight?”

Silvio did not fight. He accepted a flimsy apology, and became
reconciled to the man who had insulted him. This lowered him greatly
in the opinion of the young men, who, placing bravery above all the
other human virtues and regarding it as an excuse for every imaginable
vice, were ready to overlook anything sooner than a lack of courage.
However, little by little, all was forgotten, and Silvio regained his
former influence. I alone could not renew my friendship with him.
Being naturally romantic I had surpassed the rest in my attachment
to the man whose life was an enigma, and who seemed to me a hero of
some mysterious story. He liked me, and with me alone did he drop his
sarcastic tone and converse simply and most agreeably on many subjects.
But after this unlucky evening the thought that his honour was
tarnished, and that it remained so by his own choice, never left me;
and this prevented any renewal of our former intimacy. I was ashamed to
look at him. Silvio was too sharp and experienced not to notice this
and guess the reason. It seemed to vex him, for I observed that once or
twice he hinted at an explanation; but I wanted none, and Silvio gave
me up. Thenceforth I only met him in the presence of other friends, and
our confidential talks were at an end.

The busy occupants of the capital have no idea of the emotions so
frequently experienced by residents in the country and in country
towns; as, for instance, in awaiting the arrival of the post. On
Tuesdays and Fridays the bureau of the regimental staff was crammed
with officers. Some were expecting money, others letters or newspapers.
The letters were mostly opened on the spot, and the news freely
interchanged, the office meanwhile presenting a most lively appearance.

Silvio’s letters used to be addressed to our regiment, and he usually
called for them himself. On one occasion, a letter having been handed
to him, I saw him break the seal and, with a look of great impatience,
read the contents. His eyes sparkled. The other officers, each engaged
with his own letters, did not notice anything.

“Gentlemen,” said Silvio, “circumstances demand my immediate departure.
I leave tonight, and I hope you will not refuse to dine with me for the
last time. I shall expect you, too,” he added, “turning towards me,
without fail.” With these words he hurriedly left, and we agreed to
meet at Silvio’s.

I went to Silvio’s at the appointed time and found nearly the whole
regiment with him. His things were already packed. Nothing remained
but the bare shot-marked walls. We sat down to table. The host was in
excellent spirits, and his liveliness communicated itself to the rest
of the company. Corks popped every moment. Bottles fizzed and tumblers
foamed incessantly, and we, with much warmth, wished our departing
friend a pleasant journey and every happiness. The evening was far
advanced when we rose from table. During the search for hats, Silvio
wished everybody goodbye. Then, taking me by the hand, as I was on the
point of leaving, he said in a low voice:

“I want to speak to you.”

I stopped behind.

The guests had gone and we were left alone.

Sitting down opposite one another we lighted our pipes. Silvio was much
agitated, no traces of his former gaiety remained. Deadly pale, with
sparkling eyes, and a thick smoke issuing from his mouth, he looked
like a demon. Several minutes passed before he broke silence.

“Perhaps we shall never meet again,” he said. “Before saying goodbye I
want to have a few words with you. You may have remarked that I care
little for the opinion of others. But I like you, and should be sorry
to leave you under a wrong impression.”

He paused, and began refilling his pipe. I looked down and was silent.

“You thought it odd,” he continued, “that I did not require
satisfaction from that drunken maniac. You will grant, however, that
being entitled to the choice of weapons I had his life more or less in
my hands. I might attribute my tolerance to generosity, but I will not
deceive you; if I could have chastised him without the least risk to
myself, without the slightest danger to my own life, then I would on no
account have forgiven him.”

[Illustration: “HERE IS A MEMENTO OF OUR DUEL.”]

I looked at Silvio with surprise. Such a confession completely upset
me. Silvio continued:

“Precisely so, I had no right to endanger my life. Six years ago I
received a slap in the face and my enemy still lives.”

My curiosity was greatly excited.

“Did you not fight him?” I inquired. “Circumstances probably separated
you?”

“I did fight him,” replied Silvio, “and here is a memento of our duel.”

He rose and took from a cardboard box a red cap with a gold tassel and
gold braid.

“My disposition is well known to you. I have been accustomed to be
first in everything. Prom my youth this has been my passion. In my
time dissipation was the fashion, and I was the most dissipated man
in the army. We used to boast of our drunkenness. I beat at drinking
the celebrated Burtsoff, of whom Davidoff has sung in his poems. Duels
in our regiment were of daily occurrence. I took part in all of them,
either as second or as principal. My comrades adored me, while the
commanders of the regiment, who were constantly being changed, looked
upon me as an incurable evil.

“I was calmly, or rather boisterously, enjoying my reputation when
a certain young man joined our regiment. He was rich, and came of
a distinguished family–I will not name him. Never in my life did
I meet with so brilliant, so fortunate a fellow!–young, clever,
handsome, with the wildest spirits, the most reckless bravery, bearing
a celebrated name, possessing funds of which he did not know the
amount, but which were inexhaustible. You may imagine the effect he
was sure to produce among us. My leadership was shaken. Dazzled by
my reputation he began by seeking my friendship. But I received him
coldly; at which, without the least sign of regret, he kept aloof from
me.

[Illustration: “WE CLUTCHED OUR SWORDS.”]

“I took a dislike to him. His success in the regiment and in the
society of women brought me to despair. I tried to pick a quarrel with
him. To my epigrams he replied with epigrams which always seemed to me
more pointed and more piercing than my own, and which were certainly
much livelier; for while he joked I was raving.

“Finally, at a ball at the house of a Polish landed proprietor, seeing
him receive marked attention from all the ladies, and especially from
the lady of the house, who had formerly been on very friendly terms
with me, I whispered some low insult in his ear. He flew into a passion
and gave me a slap on the cheek. We clutched our swords, the ladies
fainted, we were separated, and the same night we drove out to fight.

“It was nearly daybreak. I was standing at the appointed spot with my
three seconds. How impatiently I awaited my opponent! The spring sun
had risen and it was growing hot. At last I saw him in the distance. He
was on foot, accompanied by only one second. We advanced to meet him.
He approached, holding in his hand his regimental cap filled full of
black cherries.

“The seconds measured twelve paces. It was for me to fire first. But
my excitement was so great that I could not depend upon the certainty
of my hand, and, in order to give myself time to get calm, I ceded the
first shot to my adversary. He would not accept it, and we decided to
cast lots.

“The number fell to him; constant favourite of fortune that he was! He
aimed and put a bullet through my cap.

“It was now my turn. His life at last was in my hands. I looked at him
eagerly, trying to detect if only some faint shadow of uneasiness. But
he stood beneath my pistol picking out ripe cherries from his cap and
spitting out the stones, some of which fell near me. His indifference
enraged me. ‘What is the use,’ thought I, ‘of depriving him of life,
when he sets no value upon it.’ As this savage thought flitted through
my brain I lowered the pistol.

“‘You don’t seem to be ready for death,’ I said, ‘you are eating your
breakfast, and I don’t want to interfere with you.’

“‘You don’t interfere with me in the least,’ he replied. ‘Be good
enough to fire; or don’t fire if you prefer it; the shot remains with
you, and I shall be at your service at any moment.’

“I turned to the seconds, informing them that I had no intention of
firing that day, and with this the duel ended. I resigned my commission
and retired to this little place. Since then not a single day has
passed that I have not thought of my revenge; and now the hour has
arrived.”

Silvio took from his pocket the letter he had received that morning,
and handed it to me to read. Someone (it seemed to be his business
agent) wrote to him from Moscow, that a certain individual was soon to
be married to a young and beautiful girl.

“You guess,” said Silvio, “who the certain individual is. I am starting
for Moscow. Me shall see whether he will be as indifferent now as he
was some time ago, when in presence of death he ate cherries!”

With these words Silvio rose, threw his cap upon the floor, and began
pacing up and down the room like a tiger in his cage. I remained
silent. Strange contending feelings agitated me.

The servant entered and announced that the horses were ready. Silvio
grasped my hand tightly. He got into the _telega_, in which lay two
trunks–one containing his pistols, the other some personal effects. We
wished good-bye a second time, and the horses galloped off.

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