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Authors: Anton Chekhov

The Duel

BOOK: The Duel
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IN 1891





    P. CM.
  eISBN: 978-1-61219-070-9
  PG3456.D8S53 2011



It was eight o’clock in the morning—the time when officers, civil servants and visitors would habitually swim in the sea after a hot, airless night and then proceed to the pavilion for coffee or tea. Ivan Andreich Laevsky, a young man around twenty-eight years of age, a lanky blond, wearing a Ministry of Finance service cap and shoes, on his way for a swim, encountered many acquaintances along the shore and among them his friend the military doctor, Samoylenko.

With a big, closely cropped head, sans neck, and red, large-nosed, with bushy black eyebrows and gray side-whiskers, fat, bloated, yes and with a hoarse military basso on top of it all, this Samoylenko left the unpleasant impression of being a Bourbon and a braggadocio on every new arrival, however, two or three days would pass after the first acquaintanceship and his face would begin to seem
unusually kind, sweet and even attractive. Overlooking his somewhat boorish tone and awkwardness, one could see this was a peace-loving man, infinitely kind, good-natured and accountable. He spoke informally with everyone in town, loaned money to all, provided medical treatment to all, played matchmaker, arbitrator, hosted picnics where he roasted kebabs and prepared very tasty ukha from gray mullet; he was constantly petitioning and inquiring on behalf of someone and always found something to cheer. According to popular opinion, he was without sin and harbored only two weaknesses: first, he was embarrassed by his own kindness and attempted to mask it behind a steely stare and an artificial boorishness; and second, he loved for medical assistants and soldiers to call him “Your Excellency,” although he was merely a Councilor of State.

“Answer, Alexander Davidich, one question for me,” began Laevsky, when the both of them, he and Samoylenko, had entered the water way up to their shoulders. “Let’s say that you’ve fallen in love with a woman and your path has converged with hers; you’ve lived with her, let’s say, for more than two years and then, as these things happen, you’ve fallen out of love and have begun to feel that she’s become a stranger to you. What would you do in this case?”

“Very simple.
Little mother, go to wherever the four winds take you
, and that would be the last word.”

“That’s easy for you to say! But what if she has nowhere to go? She’s a solitary woman, no family, doesn’t have even a half-kopeck, she doesn’t know how to work …”

“What? Either stick a lump sum of five hundred
between her teeth or twenty-five a month—and that’s that. Very simple.”

“Let’s suppose that you have both the five hundred and the twenty-five per month, the woman I speak of is intelligent and proud. Could you really resolve yourself to offer her money? And what form would that take?”

Samoylenko wanted to say something in reply but at that moment a large wave overtook them both, then broke on the shore and loudly rolled back over little pebbles. The friends came onto shore and began to dress.

“Of course it’s odd living with a woman if you don’t love her,” Samoylenko said, shaking sand from his boot. “But you must, Vanya, reason this through humanely. If it were me, I wouldn’t let her see that I’d fallen out of love, instead I’d live with her until my very death.”

He was suddenly ashamed of his words, reconsidered and said:

“When it comes to me, I’m fine with the broads not being a part of anything. Let the woodland devil have them all!”

The friends dressed and proceed to the pavilion. Here Samoylenko was his own man, and plates had even been set aside for his personal use. Every morning he was served a tray with a cup of coffee, a tall cut glass of ice water and a tumbler of cognac. He drank the cognac first, then the hot coffee, then the ice water, and this must have been and surely was very tasty, because after the beverages his eyes would become buttery, he would smooth his side-whiskers with both hands and say, looking out to sea:

“What a remarkably magnificent view!”

After a long night wasted on joyless, useless thoughts that interrupted sleep and seemed to amplify the airlessness and gloom of the night, Laevsky felt broken and inert. Neither the swim nor the coffee had made things better.

“Shall we, Alexander Davidich, continue our conversation?” he said. “I won’t hide anything from you and will tell you candidly, as a friend: my relationship with Nadezhda
Fyodorovna is bad … very bad! Forgive me for inducting you into my arcana, but I must talk about this.”

Samoylenko, sensing where the conversation was going, lowered his eyes and drummed his fingers on the table.

“I’ve lived with her for two years and have fallen out of love with her …” continued Laevsky. “Rather, to be more accurate, I’ve come to understand that there was no love there to begin with … These past two years have been—deception.”

When he spoke Laevsky had a habit of carefully inspecting the pink palms of his hands, biting his nails or kneading his cuffs with his fingers. And he was doing just that now.

“I know perfectly well that you can’t help me,” he said, “but I’m telling you because for this good-for-nothing brother and superfluous man, salvation lies in conversation. I must recap all the steps that I’ve taken, I must find an explanation and a justification for my ridiculous life in the theories of others, in literary types, in that, for instance, we
noblemen are degenerating, and so on … And last night, for instance, I comforted myself by thinking repeatedly: Oh, how right Tolstoy was, how unmercifully right! And this made me feel better. In point of fact, brother, he truly is a great writer! Regardless of what anyone says.”

Samoylenko, having never read Tolstoy but spent each day preparing to read him, felt embarrassed and said:

“Yes, all writers write from the imagination, but he’s straight from nature …”

“My God,” sighed Laevsky, “the extent to which we have been crippled by civilization! I fell in love with a married woman and she with me … In the beginning we had kisses, and quiet evenings, and vows, and Spencer, and ideals, and mutual interests … What a lie! We ran, in essence, from her husband, but we lied to ourselves about running away from the emptiness of our own intellectual lives. Our future unfurled before us: in the beginning, in the Caucasus, while we acquainted ourselves with the place and the people, I would don the uniform of a civil servant and serve; only then would we get ourselves a clump of land in the vastness, would we toil by the sweat of our brows, plant a vineyard, a field and so on. If it had been you in my place, or that zoologist of yours, Von Koren, then it’s possible that you would have lived with Nadezhda Fyodorovna for thirty years and you would have left your offspring a valuable vineyard and three thousand acres of corn, but I felt bankrupt from day one. It’s unbearably hot in town, the ennui, it’s unpopulated, then you walk out into the fields, there are arachnids, scorpions and snakes creeping under
every bush and rock, and beyond the fields are mountains and desert. An alien people, an alien landscape, an impoverished culture—all of this, brother, isn’t as easy as walking down Nevsky in a fur coat with Nadezhda Fyodorovna on your arm, dreaming of warm climates. It’s not life that you’re fighting for here, its death that you’re fighting against, and what kind of a fighter am I? A pitiful neurotic, a soft-handed man … From the very first day, I understood that my vision of toil and a vineyard didn’t amount to a damn thing. When it comes to love, I’m obliged to tell you that living with a woman who has read Spencer and has followed you to the ends of the earth—it is just as uninteresting as being with some Anfisa or Akulina. There is that same smell of ironing, powders and medicines, the same hair-curlers every morning and the same lie that you tell yourself …”

“You can’t go without an iron in the household,” said Samoylenko, reddening from the fact that Laevsky was speaking with him so candidly about a lady with whom he was acquainted. “I’m noticing that you, Vanya, aren’t in high spirits today. Nadezhda Fyodorovna is a wonderful woman, educated, you’re—a man of superior intellect … Of course, you’re not married,” continued Samoylenko, glancing at the neighboring tables, “but see, that isn’t your fault, and what’s more … you must remain free from prejudice and stand on par with contemporary thought. Yes, personally, I believe in civil union … But, in my opinion, since your paths have already converged, then you must live together until death parts you.”

“Without love?”

“I’ll explain it to you right now,” said Samoylenko. “About eight years ago we had a little old envoy stationed here with us, a person of superior intellect. Here’s what he used to say: in family life, the most important thing—is patience. Do you hear me, Vanya? Not love, but patience. Love can’t endure for long. You’ve lived in love for about two years, but now, evidently, your family life has taken a step into that period when you, let’s say, so as to maintain equilibrium, must put forth all of your patience …”

“You believe your little old envoy, but his advice is meaningless to me. Your little old man could have been a hypocrite, he could have exercised patience and all the while looked at the unloved person, as he would at an object integral to his exercise, but I have not sunk so low yet. If I feel the urge to exercise patience, then I’ll buy myself a set of dumb-bells or a pummel-horse, but I’ll leave the person in peace.”

Samoylenko ordered white wine with ice. After they’d each drunk a glass, Laevsky suddenly asked:

“Tell me, please, what does a softening of the brain mean?”

“It’s, well, how can I explain it to you … It’s a disease where the brain begins to soften … as though it were dissolving.”

“Is it treatable?”

“Yes, if the disease doesn’t go unchecked. Cold showers, the fly … Well, something internal.”

“There … there, do you see what kind of a predicament
I’m in? I can’t live with her. It requires more strength than I have. While I’m with you, I can go ahead and philosophize, and smile, but at home my spirits totally plummet. I’ve reached the point where it’s so macabre, that if someone were to tell me, let’s say, that I’m obliged to live with her for even one more month, then I would probably shoot a bullet through my forehead. And at the same time, I can’t leave her. She’s solitary, she doesn’t know how to work, I don’t have any money and neither does she … Where would she go? Who would she turn to? I can’t figure this out … So, there you have it, tell me: what do I do?”

“Hmmm, yes …” mumbled Samoylenko, not knowing how to respond. “Does she love you?”

“Yes, she loves me to the extent that she, at her age and with her temperament, needs a man. It would be as difficult for her to part with me, as it would her powder or hair-curlers. To her, I’m a necessary component in the arrangement of her boudoir.”

BOOK: The Duel
10.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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