Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov
A HERO OF OUR TIME:
Once, not long ago, I happened to spend two weeks at a Cossack station on our left flank. A battalion of infantry was stationed there, and in the evenings the officers would meet at each other's places in turn and play cards. On one occasion, being tired of boston and having thrown the cards under the table, we sat on a very long time at Major C's. The conversation was unusually absorbing. We were arguing whether the Moslem's creed, that a man's fate is written in the heavens, found many subscribers among us Christians. We all spoke of various unusual instances for and against.
"Gentlemen, all this proves nothing," said the old major: "Surely none of you has witnessed these strange happenings with which you support your opinions?"
"No, of course we haven't," many said, "but we heard of them from reliable people. .
"All this is nonsense," someone said, "Where are these reliable people who have seen the scroll in which the hour of our death is appointed? And if there really is a predestination, then why have we been given free will, reason? Why should we account for what we do?"
At this point an officer who had been sitting in a corner of the room got up and, walking slowly up to the table, cast a calm and triumphant glance around at everyone. He was a Serb by birth, which was obvious from his name.
Lieutenant Vulich's appearance corresponded completely with his character. The tall figure and the swarthy color of his face, the black hair, the black penetrating eyes, the large but straight nose, a characteristic of his nation, the sad, cold smile, which was always wandering over his lips—— all this combined, as it were, to give him the appearance of a singular person, incapable of sharing his thoughts and passions with those whom fate had given him as comrades.
He was brave, spoke little but bitingly; entrusted his spiritual and family secrets to no one; almost never drank any wine, and never ran after the young Cossack women——whose charm is difficult to imagine without seeing them. However, it was said that the colonel's wife was not indifferent to his expressive eyes; but he would get really angry when this was hinted at.
There was only one passion which he did not conceal, passion for cards. He would forget everything behind a green baize table; he usually lost, and continual bad luck only intensified his obstinacy. People said that one night, during an expedition, he was keeping bank on a transom and having excellent luck. Suddenly shots were fired. The alarm was sounded and everyone jumped up and rushed to arms. "Place your bet," cried Vulich, without getting up, to one of the keenest punters. ‘The seven will come up," replied the other as he ran out. In spite of the general confusion, Vulich completed the deal; the card came up.
There was already a fierce exchange of fire going on by the time he appeared on the line. Vulich paid no attention to the bullets or the Chechen sabers; he was trying to find his lucky punter.
"The seven came up," he shouted when he saw him at last in a line of skirmishers who were beginning to force the enemy out of the wood, and, going nearer, he took out his purse and pocketbook and handed them over to the fortunate man in spite of objections that the payment was out of place. Having fulfilled his unpleasant duty, he rushed forward, carrying the soldiers along behind him, and shot it out with the Chechens in the coolest possible way to the very end of the affair.
When Lieutenant Vulich walked up to the table, everybody stopped talking, expecting something original of him.
"Gentlemen," he said (his voice was calm although the pitch was lower than usual),
‘Gentlemen, what's the point of empty argument? You want proof: I suggest an experiment on myself as to whether a man dispose of his life of his own free will or whether the fatal moment is laid down in advance for each of us. . .Who'll take me up?"
"Not I, not I," was heard on all sides. "There's a queer fellow for you. What an idea'"
"I'll take a bet with you," I said in jest.
"What are your terms?"
"I maintain that there is no predestination." I said, dropping two hundred rubles on the table, all that I had in my pocket.
"Done," replied Vulich in a sharp voice. "Major, you will be the judge. Here are a hundred and fifty rubles: you owe me another fifty-—will you do me the kindness of adding them to these."
"Very well," said the major, "but I really don't understand what it's all about. How will you decide the argument?"
Silent, Vulich went out to the major's bedroom; we followed him. He walked up to a wall with weapons hanging on it and, at random, took one of the various caliber pistols off its nail. We still did not understand him, but when he cocked it and poured powder into the touch—pan, several people could not help crying out and taking hold of him by the arms.
"What do you want to do? Listen, it's madness!" they shouted at him. "
"Gentlemen," he said slowly, freeing his arms, "who will pay back the two hundred rubles for me?"
They all stopped talking and walked away.
Vulich went into the next room and sat down at the table. We all followed him. He motioned to us to sit down around it. We obeyed him in silence. In that moment he acquired a mysterious power over us. I looked him steadily in the eye; he met my searching glance with a calm and fixed look, and his pale lips smiled. Nevertheless, in spite of his coolness, it seemed to me that I had read the stamp of death on his pale face. I have noticed——and many old campaigners have confirmed my observation——that there is often some sort of strange imprint of inevitable fate on the face of a man who must die within a few hours, which is difficult for experienced eyes to mistake.
"You are about to die," I told him. He turned around toward me quickly, but replied slowly and calmly:
"Perhaps, perhaps not. . . ."
Then he turned to the major and asked if the pistol was loaded. The major, disconcerted, did not exactly remember.
"That's enough, Vulich," someone cried, "it must be loaded, if it was hanging at the head of the bed. What a curious brand of humor!"
"It's a silly joke," another joined in.
"I'll bet you fifty rubles to five the pistol isn't loaded!" cried a third.
This long ceremony was boring me.
"Listen," I said, "either shoot yourself, or else put the pistol back where it came from, and let's go to bed."
"Of course," many of them exclaimed, "let's go to bed."
"Gentlemen, I beg you not to move from where you are," said Vulich, putting the muzzle of the pistol to his forehead. Everyone seemed to turn to stone.
"Mister Pechorin," he continued, "turn up a card."
As I remember it now, I threw up the ace of hearts from the table; everyone stopped breathing. All eyes reflected fear and a kind of indefinable curiosity as they turned from the pistol to the ace of hearts, which quivered in the air and glided slowly down. At the very moment it touched the table, Vulich pulled the trigger. . .a misfire!
"Thank God!" exclaimed many, "it wasn't loaded.
"Let's just see," said Vulich. He cocked it again, took aim at a cap which was hanging over a window; a shot rang out and the room filled with smoke. When it cleared, they took down the cap. It was pierced in the very center, and the bullet had lodged itself deep in the wall.
No one could utter a word for three minutes. Absolutely calm, Vulich poured my rubles into his purse.
People were talking about why the pistol did not shoot the first time. Some asserted that the priming pan must have been fouled, others were whispering that the powder was damp the first time and that Vulich had put in fresh afterward; but I confirmed that the latter hypothesis was unjust, for I had not taken my eyes from the pistol the whole time.
"You're a lucky gambler," I said to Vulich.
"For the first time in my life," he replied, smiling with self-satisfaction. "It's better than faro or bank!"
"But then it's rather more dangerous."
"What's that? Have you come to believe in predestination?"
"I believe in it. But now I don't understand why I thought you had to die soon."
That very man who, a short while before, had quite calmly taken aim at his own forehead, was now troubled and suddenly flared up.
"That's enough," he said, and rose to his feet; "our bet's been settled, and now your remarks strike me as being out of place. . ." He picked up his cap and walked out. I thought this odd——and not without reason.
Soon afterward everyone went off home, chatting variously about Vulich's whims and probably unanimous in calling me an egotist because I had taken up a bet with a man who wanted to commit suicide——as if he could not find a suitable opportunity without me.
I returned home through the deserted alleyways of the station. The moon, full and red like the glow of a fire, had begun to appear from behind a serrated skyline of houses; stars were shining calmly on the dark—blue vault, and it amused me to recall that at one time there were extremely wise people who thought that the heavenly luminaries took part in our trivial quarrels over a small plot of land or some fictitious rights. And what of it? These lamps, which, according to them, were lit solely to illuminate their own battles and triumphs, still burn with their former luster, whereas their passions and aspirations have long since been extinguished, together with them, like a fire lit at the edge, of a wood by a careless stranger. But at least that conviction that the whole sky with its innumerable inhabitants looked on them with a mute though immutable concern gave them some power of will! . . But we, their pitiful descendants who wander over the earth without convictions or pride, without pleasure or fear——apart from the involuntary terror which grips one's heart at the thought of the inescapable end——we are no longer capable of great sacrifices for the good of mankind nor even for our very own happiness, for we realize its impossibility, and so we move indifferently from doubt to doubt——just as our ancestors rushed from one delusion to another——having neither hopes nor even that vague but intense delight which the spirit gains in any struggle with people or with fate, as they did.
Many other such thoughts arose in my mind. I gave them free rein for I do not like to stop on any single abstract thought; what does it lead to? In my early youth I was a dreamer; I loved to linger over the somber and the optimistic forms which arose in turn in my restless imagination. But what did it leave me with? Only a weariness like that which follows a night—long struggle with ghosts, and confused recollections full of regrets. In this vain battle I exhausted both the heat of my spirit and the constancy of my will, which is essential to real life. I entered on this life having already lived it in my thoughts, and I became bored and disgusted, like one who reads a poor imitation of a book he has known for a long time.
The incident that evening had made quite a deep impression on me and had frayed my nerves. I do not know for certain now whether I believed in predestination or not, but I believed in it firmly that evening. The evidence was striking, and although I had been laughing at our ancestors and their obliging astrology, I had slipped unconsciously into their tracks; but I stopped myself in time on that dangerous road, and holding the principle of dismissing nothing completely and believing blindly in nothing, I cast out metaphysics and began to come down to earth. This precaution was very relevant for I almost fell down, having bumped into something fat and soft and obviously inanimate. I bent down— the moon was shining straight on the road——and what did I see? In front of me lay a pig slashed in half by a saber. . . .I hardly had time to take a good look at it before I heard the noise of footsteps: two Cossacks were running out of an alleyway; one came up to me and asked if I had seen a drunken Cossack chasing a pig. I told him I had not met the Cossack, and pointed to the unfortunate victim of his rabid high spirits
"What a ruffian," said the second Cossack. "He gets drunk on unfermented wine and goes off to chop up everything he finds. Let's get after him, Yeremyeich. We must tie him up, or else. .
They went off, and I continued on my way with great caution and happily reached my quarters at last.
I was living with an old Cossack sergeant whom I liked for his kind disposition and particularly for his pretty daughter, Nastya.
As usual she was waiting for me at the gate wrapped up in a fur coat; the moon was shining on her pretty lips which had turned bluish from the night cold. She smiled when she saw me, but I was not in the mood for her. "Good night, Nastya," I said as I went past. She wanted to say something in reply, but only sighed.
I closed the door of my room behind me, lit a candle, and threw myself onto the bed, but this time sleep kept me waiting longer than usual. The east was already beginning to grow pale by the time I fell asleep, but I was obviously fated not to sleep well that night. ~t four o'clock in the morning two fists banged on my window. I jumped up: what was the matter?
"Get up, get dressed!" several voices shouted to me. I dressed hurriedly and went out. "Do you know what's happened?" three officers said to me in one voice as they came in for me; they were as white as death.
"Vulich has been killed."
I was stunned.
"Yes, killed," they continued. "Let's get there quickly."
"You'll find out on the way."
We set off. They told me everything that had happened1 with an admixture of various comments about the strange fate which had saved him from inevitable death half an hour before he died. Vulich was walking alone along a dark street; the drunken Cossack who had slashed the pig ran up and might perhaps have gone past without noticing him if Vulich had not stopped suddenly and said, "Whom are you looking for, old chap?
"You," answered the Cossack, striking him with the saber and cutting him through from the shoulder almost to the heart. The two Cossacks who had met me and were following the murderer rushed up and lifted the injured man, but he was already at his last gasp and said only three words: "He was right!" Only I understood the dark import of these words: they referred to me. Involuntarily I had told the poor fellow of his fate; my instinct had not deceived me; I had read the signs of near death on his changed face accurately.
The murderer had shut himself up in an empty hovel on the outskirts of the station: we were going there. A crowd of women were running, weeping, in the same direction; now and then a Cossack who had been left behind would jump onto the road, hurriedly belting on his dagger, and outstrip us at a run. The confusion was frightful.
We arrived there at last to see a crowd around the hovel whose doors and shutters were bolted from inside. Officers and Cossacks were talking heatedly among themselves; women were wailing, chanting, and lamenting. I caught sight of a significant face among them——that of an old woman——which reflected an insane despair. She was sitting on a thick log, resting her elbows on her knees and supporting her head with her hands: it was the murderer's mother. Her lips moved from time to time: was it a prayer or a curse that they whispered?
Meanwhile some way had to be found to capture the offender. However, no one dared to be the first to rush in.
I went up to the window and took a look through a chink in the shutter: pale, he was lying on the floor holding a pistol in his right hand; a blood—bespattered saber lay near him. His expressive eyes were rotating with fright; now and again he shuddered and clasped his head, as if recalling vaguely what had happened during the night. I did not see any great determination in that troubled look and told the major that there was no point in his not having the door broken down and rushing in some Cossacks, for it was better to do that now, rather than later when he had collected himself completely.
At that moment an old captain of Cossacks went up to the door and called him by his name: the man shouted back.
"You have sinned, brother Yefimich," said the Cossack captain, "so there's nothing for it. Give yourself up."
"I won't surrender," replied the Cossack.
"Have some fear of God! You're not a damned Chechen, but an honest Christian, aren't you? It can't be helped if your sin's muddled your head. You can't escape your fate."
"I won't give myself up'" cried the Cossack threateningly, and one could hear the click as he cocked the gun.
"Hey, Auntie," said the Cossack captain to the old woman, "talk to your son——perhaps he'll listen to you. All this is only angering God. And look, these gentlemen here have been waiting here for two hours already."
The old woman looked at him fixedly and shook her head.
"Vasilly Petrovich," said the captain of the Cossacks, walking up to the major, "he won't surrender——I know him; and if the door's broken down, he'll get a lot of our men. Wouldn't it be better for you to have him shot? There's a wide chink in the shutter."
At that moment a strange thought entered my mind. Like Vulich, I had the idea of testing fate.
"Wait," I told the major. "I'll get him alive." Bidding the captain of Cossacks to hold him in conversation and placing three Cossacks by the door, ready to break it down and rush to my aid at a given signal, I walked around the hut and approached by a side window. My heart was beating fiercely.
"Oh, you heathen," cried the Cossack captain, "what, are you laughing at us? Do you think we won't get you?" He started to bang on the door with all his might. I put my eye to the chink and followed the Cossack's movements but he was not expecting an attack from that side, and suddenly I tore the shutter open and dived headlong through the window. shot rang out just above my ear, and the bullet tore off an epaulette. But the smoke which filled the room kept my adversary from finding the saber which was lying near him. grabbed him by the arms; the Cossacks broke in and in less than three minutes the culprit was tied up and taken away under escort. The crowd broke up and the officer congratulated me—and, really,-- not for nothing.
How could one not become a fatalist after all this? But who knows if he is really convinced of something or not?
How frequently we take a sensory deception, or a miscalculation, for a conviction. I prefer to doubt everything. This frame of mind does not hamper a resolute disposition; on the contrary, as far as I am concerned, I always go forward more bravely when I do not know what is waiting for me. Why, nothing worse than death ever happens——and one cannot escape death!
Returning to the fort, I told Maxim everything that had happened to me and that I had seen, wishing to learn his opinion about predestination. At first he did not understand this word, but I explained it to him as best I could and then he said with a significant shake of his head:
"Yes, sir, of course! This is quite a difficult point! · . .But then, these Asiatic flintlocks often misfire if they're badly greased or if you don't press your finger quite hard enough. I don't like Circassian rifles either, I must say: they're not right somehow for the likes of us; they've got small butts——before you know where you are you've burned your nose off. . . but then I have the highest respect for their swords!"
Then, having pondered a little, he added:
"Yes, I feel sorry for the poor chap. . . The devil must have got into him for him to talk to a drunkard at night! . . .But then it's clear that it was decreed thus at his birth!.
I could not get anything more out of him; he does not care for metaphysical debates at all.
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