The Shot
Alexander Pushkin
translated by
Nikita Zuev and Brander Matthews

We were stationed in a small, homely town of ***. Well-known is the life of an army officer. In the morning, drills and the riding school; dinner with the commander or at a Judaic restaurant; and endless punch and cards in the evening. In ***, there were no brothels, not a single maiden worth making your bride. We used to meet in each other’s rooms, where, except for our uniforms, dullness and emptiness prospered.

  A single civilian had the privilege to be in our close circle. He was about thirty-five years of age, and therefore we looked upon him as an old Wiseman. His experience gave him an unaccountable advantage over us, and his habitual taciturnity, stern disposition, and caustic, devilish tongue produced a deep impression upon our young minds. To add to it all, alluring mystery surrounded his existence; he had the appearance of a Russian, although his name was foreign. He had formerly served in the Hussars and, even more strangely, had done so happily. Nobody knew the cause that induced him to retire from the service and settle in this hamlet of beggars, where he lived poorly and, at the same time, expensively. He always went on foot, and constantly wore a shabby black overcoat, and the officers of our regiment were always saved a seat at his table. In truth, his dinners were unremarkable. They never consisted of more than two or three dishes prepared by a retired soldier, but the champagne flowed like water in a wild river. Nobody knew the extent of his wealth or what his income was, and nobody dared to question him about them. He had a collection of books consisting chiefly of works on military matters and a few novels. He would enthusiastically lend them out and never asked for their swift return; on the other hand, he never returned to the owner the books that were lent to him. His principal amusement was the art of the pistol. The walls of his room were riddled with bullets, full of holes and chinks, akin to a healthy honeycomb. A rich collection of pistols was the only luxury in the humble cottage where he lived. The skill which he had acquired with his favourite weapon was simply incredible; and if he had offered to shoot a pear off somebody’s forage cap, no man in our regiment would have hesitated to place the object upon his head.

  Our conversation often turned to duels. Silvio—so shall I name him—never joined in it. When asked if he had ever fought, he dryly replied that he had, though no particulars were ever discussed, and it was evident that such questions made him uncomfortable. We speculated that he had upon his conscience the memory of some unfortunate victim of his deadly pursuits. Moreover, it never entered into the head of any of us to suspect him of anything like timidness. There are persons whose mere aura is sufficient to repel such a suspicion. But an unexpected incident occurred, which astounded us all.

  One day, about ten of our officers dined at Silvio’s. They drank, as usual, that is to say, a healthily absurd amount. After dinner, we asked our host to hold the bank for a game at faro. For a long time, he refused, for he seldom played, but at last, he ordered cards to be brought, placed half a hundred chervonets[1] upon the table, and began dealing. The officers sat around him, and the game was afoot. It was customary for Silvio to be silent during play, avoiding disputes or explanations for his actions. If the punter made a mistake in calculating, he immediately paid him the difference or noted down the surplus. We were acquainted with this habit of his and allowed him to have his own way, but among us on this occasion was an officer who had been a fresh transfer to our regiment. During the course of the game, this officer absently scored one point too many, as it always happens with those who join a new play group. Silvio took the chalk and noted down the correct account as he always did. Thinking that our host had made a mistake, the officer began to enter into deliberations. Silvio continued dealing in silence. The officer, losing patience, took the brush and rubbed out what he considered was a wrong account of the game. Silvio took the chalk and corrected the score again. The officer, whose blood was stoked with wine, the game, and the laughter of his comrades, considered himself grossly insulted. In his youthful outrage, he seized a brass candlestick from the table and hurled it at Silvio, who barely succeeded in avoiding the missile. We felt a wave of embarrassment wash over us. Silvio rose, white with rage and flaming eyes, saying: —

  “Gracious sir, find the decency to leave, and thank God that this has happened here in my abode and not elsewhere.”

  None of us entertained the slightest doubt as to what would happen next and had already considered our new comrade as good as dead. The officer withdrew, saying he was ready to answer for his offence in whatever way the banker liked. The game went on for a few minutes longer, but feeling that our host was no longer in the mood, we withdrew one after the other and left to our respective quarters after discussing the imminent vacancy in our regiment that was to follow.

  The next day, at the riding arena, we were already asking each other if the poor lieutenant was still alive when he himself appeared among us. We posed the conundrum to him, and he replied that he had not yet heard from Silvio. Astonished, we went to Silvio’s house and found him in the courtyard, shooting bullet after bullet into an ace pasted upon the gate. He received us as usual; no words were exchanged regarding the incident that had occurred last night. Three days passed, and the lieutenant breathed still. We asked each other, amazed: “Can it be possible that Silvio is avoiding the duel?”

  In fact, Silvio did not engage. He was satisfied with a very lame explanation, reconciling with the assailant.

  His reputation plummeted among the striplings. The want of courage is the last thing to be pardoned by young men, who usually look upon bravery as the chief of all human virtues and the excuse for every possible fault. But, little by little, the incident vanished from our minds, and Silvio regained his former influence.

  I alone could not approach him on the old footing. Being endowed by nature with a romantic imagination, I had become attached more than all the others to the now seemingly fictitious persona. A man whose life was an enigma and who seemed to me the hero of some mysterious drama. He was fond of me; at least, with me alone he would drop his customary sarcastic tone and converse on different subjects in a simple and unusually agreeable manner. But after this wretched evening, the thought that his honour had been tarnished and that the stain had been allowed to remain upon it as a consequence of his own inaction was ever present in my mind and prevented me from treating him as before. Even looking at him filled me with second-hand shame. Silvio was too intelligent and experienced not to observe this and guess the cause. This seemed to vex him; at least I observed once or twice a desire on his part to enter into an explanation with me, but I avoided such opportunities, and Silvio gave up the attempt. From that time forward, I saw him only in the presence of my comrades, and our confidential conversations came to an end.

  Those living in a capital, with minds so often occupied by matters of business and pleasure, find foreign the numerous sensations so familiar to the townsfolk of villages and small towns—for instance, the tedious wait for a post day. On Tuesdays and Fridays, our regimental bureau used to be filled with officers: some expecting money, some letters, and others newspapers. The sacred packages were usually opened on the spot, news was communicated freely and openly, and the bureau would become akin to an animated painting. Silvio used to have his letters addressed to our regiment, and he was generally there to receive them.

  One day he received a letter, the seal of which he broke with a look of great impatience. As he read the contents, his eyes ignited with a youthful spark. The officers, each occupied with their letters, had failed to notice anything of note.

  “Gentlemen,” said Silvio, “circumstances demand my immediate departure; I leave tonight. I hope that you will not refuse to dine with me for the last time. I shall expect you, too,” he added, turning toward me. “I shall expect you without fail.”

  With these words, he hastily departed, and we, after agreeing to meet at Silvio’s, dispersed to our various quarters.

  I arrived at his house at the appointed time and found nearly the whole regiment there. All his belongings were already packed; nothing remained but the bare, bullet-riddled walls. We sat down. Our host was in an excellent humour, and his gayety quickly infected the rest. Corks popped every moment; glasses foamed incessantly, and, with the utmost warmth, we wished our departing friend a pleasant journey and every kindness imaginable. When we rose from the table, it was already late in the evening. After the officers had collected their hats and made their farewells, Silvio took me by the hand and detained me just at the moment when I was preparing to depart.

  “I want to speak to you,” he said in a low voice.

  I complied and stayed behind.

  With the guests gone, we two were left alone. Sitting opposite each other, we silently lit our pipes. Silvio seemed greatly troubled; not a trace remained of his former convulsive cheer. The intense pallor of his face, his sparkling eyes, and the thick smoke issuing from his mouth gave him a devilish appearance. Several minutes elapsed, and then Silvio broke the silence.

  “Perhaps we shall never see each other again,” said he; “before we part, I should like to have an explanation with you. You may have observed that I care very little for the opinion of other people, but I like you, and I feel that it would be painful for me to leave you with a wrong impression upon your mind.”

  He paused and began to knock the ashes out of his pipe. I sat gazing silently at the ground.

  “You thought it strange,” he continued, “that I did not demand satisfaction from that drunken idiot R***. You will admit, however, that having the choice of weapons, his life was in my hands, while my own was in no great danger. I could ascribe my forbearance to generosity alone, but I will not tell a lie. If I could have chastised R*** without the least risk of my own life, I should never have pardoned him.”           

  I looked at Silvio with bewilderment. Such a confession gave pause. Silvio continued:—

  “Just so: I have no right to expose myself to death. Six winters ago, I received a slap in the face, and my enemy still lives.”

  My curiosity was incredibly excited and peaked beyond any measure I had previously experienced.

  “Did you not fight with him?” I asked. “Circumstances must have separated you.”

  “We fought,” replied Silvio, “and here is a souvenir of our duel.”

  Silvio rose and took from a cardboard box a red cap with a gold tassel and embroidery (what the French call a bonnet de police[2]); he put it on—a bullet had passed through it about an inch above the forehead.

  “You know,” continued Silvio, “that I served in ***, the Hussar regiment. My nature is well known to you: I am accustomed to being first, winning. From my youth, this has been a passion of mine. In our time, dissoluteness was the fashion, and I was the most outrageous man in the army. We used to boast of our drunkenness; I beat in a drinking bout the famous Bourtsoff, of whom Denis Davidoff has sung. Duels in our regiment were an every-minute affair, and in all of them, I was either second or principal. My comrades adored me, while the regimental commanders, who were constantly being changed, looked upon me as a necessary evil.

  “I calmly (and simultaneously boisterously) enjoyed my reputation when a young man belonging to a wealthy and distinguished family—I will not mention which—joined our ranks. Never in my life have I met with such a fortunate fellow! Imagine to yourself youth, wit, beauty, unbounded cheer, the most reckless bravery, a famous name, untold wealth—imagine all this, and you can form some idea of the effect that he would surely produce among us. My supremacy was shaken. Dazzled by my reputation, he began to seek my friendship, but I received him coldly, and without the slightest regret, he held aloof from me. I conceived a hatred for him. His success in the regiment and in the company of the fairer sex brought me to the verge of desperation. I began to seek a quarrel with him; to my epigrams, he replied with epigrams which always seemed to me more spontaneous and more cutting than mine, and which were decidedly more amusing, for he joked while I fumed. At last, at a ball given by a Polish land master, seeing him the object of the attention of all the ladies, and especially of the mistress of the house, with whom I was upon very good terms, I whispered some grossly insulting remark in his ear. He flamed up and gave me a slap in the face. We grasped our swords; the ladies fainted; we were separated, and that same night we set out to duel.

  “The dawn was just breaking. I was standing at the appointed place with my three seconds. With inexplicable impatience, I awaited my opponent. The spring sun rose, and it was already growing hot. I saw him coming in the distance. He was walking on foot, accompanied by one second. We advanced to meet him. He approached, holding his cap filled with chereshnia[3]. The seconds measured twelve paces for us. I had to fire first, but my agitation was so great that I could not depend upon the steadiness of my hand; and in order to give myself time to find calmness, I ceded to him the first shot. My adversary would not agree to this. It was decided that we should cast lots. The first number fell to him, the constant favourite of fortune that he was. He took aim, and his bullet went through my cap. It was now my turn. His life, at last, was in my hands; I looked at him eagerly, endeavouring to detect if only the faintest shadow of uneasiness. But he stood in front of my pistol, picking out the ripest chereshni from his cap and spitting out the pits, which flew almost as far as my feet. His indifference annoyed me beyond measure. ‘What is the use,’ thought I, ‘of depriving him of life, when he attaches no value to it?’ A malicious thought flashed through my mind. I lowered my pistol.

  “‘You don’t seem to be ready for death just at present,’ I said to him: ‘you wish to have your breakfast; I do not wish to hinder you.’

  “‘Good sir, you are not hindering me in the least,’ replied he. ‘Have the goodness to fire, or just as you please—the shot remains yours; I shall always be ready at your service.’

  “I turned to the seconds, informing them that I had no intention of firing that day, and with that, the duel came to an end.

  “I resigned my commission and retired to this little place. Since then, not a day has passed that I have not thought of revenge. And now my hour has arrived.”

  Silvio took from his pocket the letter that he had received that morning and gave it to me to read. Some one (it seemed to be his business agent) wrote to him from Moscow, that a certain person was going to be married to a young and beautiful maiden.

  “You can guess,” said Silvio, “who the certain person is. I am going to Moscow. We shall see if he will look death in the face with as much indifference now, when he is on the eve of being married, as he did once with his chereshnyas!”

  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 had listened to him in silence; strange, conflicting feelings agitated me.

  The coachman entered and announced that his horses were ready. Silvio grasped my hand tightly, and we embraced each other. He seated himself in his telega[4], in which lay two trunks, one containing his pistols, the other his effects. We said good-by once more, and the horses galloped off.II

Several years passed, and family circumstances compelled me to settle in the poor little village of M***. Occupied with agricultural pursuits, I ceased not to sigh in secret for my former noisy and careless life. The most challenging thing of all was having to accustom myself to passing the spring and winter evenings in perfect solitude. Until the hour for dinner, I managed to pass away the time somehow or other, talking with the bailiff, riding about to inspect the work, or going on rounds, to look at the new buildings; but as soon as it began to get dark, I positively did not know what to do with myself. The few books that I had found in the cupboards and store-rooms I already knew by heart. All the stories that my housekeeper Kirilovna could remember I had heard over and over again. The songs of the peasant women made me depressed. I tried drinking spirits, but it made my head ache; moreover, I confess, I was afraid of becoming a drunkard from mere chagrin, that is to say, the saddest kind of drunkard, of which I had seen many examples in our district.        

  I had no near neighbours, except two or three topers, whose conversation consisted for the most part of hiccoughs and sighs. Solitude seemed a better option. At last I decided to go to bed as early as possible, and to dine as late as possible; in this way, I shortened the evening and lengthened out the day, and I found that the plan answered very well.

  Four versts from my house were a wealthy estate belonging to Countess B***, but no one lived there save the steward. The Countess had only visited her manor once, in the first year of her married life, and remained there no longer than a month. But in the second spring of my hermitical life, a report circulated that the Countess, with her husband, was coming to spend the summer there. The report turned out to be accurate, for they arrived at the beginning of June.

  The arrival of a wealthy neighbour is a momentous occasion in the lives of the country folk. The landed proprietors and the serfs of their households talk about it for two months beforehand and for three years afterwards. As for me, I must confess that the news of the arrival of a young and beautiful neighbour affected me strongly. I burned with impatience to see her, and the first Sunday after her arrival, I set out after dinner for the village, to pay my respects to the Countess and her husband, as their nearest neighbour and most humble servant.

  A lackey conducted me into the Count’s study and then went on to announce me. The spacious hall was furnished with every possible luxury. Around the walls were cases filled with books and surmounted by bronze busts; over the marble mantelpiece was a large mirror; on the floor was a green cloth covered with carpets. Unaccustomed to luxury in my own poor corner, and not having seen the wealth of other people for what seemed a long time, I awaited the appearance of the Count with some trepidation, as a suppliant from the provinces awaits the arrival of the minister. The door opened, and a handsome-looking man, of about thirty-two years of age, entered the room. The Count approached me with a frank and friendly air; I endeavoured to be self-possessed and began to introduce myself, but he anticipated me. We sat down. His conversation, which was easy and agreeable, soon dissipated my awkward bashfulness; and I was already beginning to recover my usual composure, when the Countess suddenly entered, and I became more awkward than ever. She was indeed beautiful. The Count presented me. I wished to appear at ease, but the more I tried to assume an air of unconstraint, the more awkward I felt. They, in order to give me time to recover myself and to become accustomed to my new acquaintances, began to talk to each other, treating me as a good neighbour, and without ceremony. Meanwhile, I walked about the room, examining the books and pictures. I am no judge of paintings, but one of them attracted my attention. It represented some view in Switzerland, but it was not the masterwork that struck me, but the circumstance that the canvas was shot through by two bullets, one planted just above the other.

  “A good shot that!” said I, turning to the Count.

  “Yes,” replied he, “a very remarkable shot…. Do you shoot well?” he continued.

  “Tolerably,” replied I, rejoicing that the conversation had turned at last upon a subject that was familiar to me. “At thirty paces, I can manage to hit a card without fail,—I mean, of course, with a pistol that I am used to.”

  “Really?” said the Countess, with a look of the most significant interest. “And you, my dear, could you hit a card at thirty paces?”

  “Some day,” replied the Count, “we will try. In my time, I did not shoot badly, but it is now four years since I touched a pistol.”

  “Oh!” I observed, “in that case, I don’t mind laying a wager that Your Excellency will not hit the card at twenty paces; the pistol demands practice every day. I know that from experience. In our regiment, I was reckoned one of the best shots. It once happened that I did not touch a pistol for a whole month, as I had sent mine to be mended; and would you believe it, Your Excellency, the first time I began to shoot again, I missed a bottle four times in succession at twenty paces. Our captain, a witty and amusing fellow, happened to be standing by, and he said to me: ‘It is evident, my friend, that your hand will not lift itself against the bottle.’ No, Your Excellency, you must not neglect to practice, or your hand will soon lose its cunning. The best shot that I ever met used to shoot at least three times every day before dinner. It was as much his custom to do this as it was to drink his daily glass of brandy.”

  The Count and Countess seemed pleased that I had begun to talk.

  “And what sort of a shot was he?” asked the Count.

  “Well, it was this way with him, Your Excellency: if he saw a fly settle on the wall—you smile, Countess, but, before Heaven I swear, it is the truth—if he saw a fly, he would call out: ‘Kouzka[5], my pistol!’ Kouzka would bring him a loaded pistol—bang! and the fly would be crushed against the wall.”

  “Wonderful!” said the Count. “And what was his name?”

  “Silvio, Your Excellency.”

  “Silvio!” exclaimed the Count, starting up. “Did you know Silvio?”

  “How could I help knowing him, Your Excellency: we were intimate friends; he was received in our regiment like a brother officer, but it is now five years since I had any tidings of him. Then Your Excellency also knew him?”

  “Oh, yes, I knew him very well. Did he ever tell you of one very strange incident in his life?”

  “Does Your Excellency refer to the slap in the face that he received from some blackguard at a ball?”

  “Did he tell you the name of this blackguard?”

  “No, Your Excellency, he never mentioned his name…. Ah! Your Excellency!” I continued, guessing the truth: “pardon me … I did not know … could it really have been you?”

  “Yes, twas’ I,” replied the Count, with a look of extraordinary agitation; “and that bullet-pierced picture is a memento of our last meeting.”

  “Ah, my dear,” said the Countess, “for Heaven’s sake, do not speak about that; it would be too terrible for me to listen to.”

  “No,” replied the Count: “I will relate everything. He knows how I insulted his friend, and it is only right that he should know how Silvio took revenge.”

  The Count pushed a chair toward me, and with the liveliest interest, I listened to the following story:—           

  “Five years ago, I got married. The first month—the honeymoon—I spent here, in this village. To this house, I am indebted for the happiest moments of my life, as well as for one of its most painful recollections.

  “One evening we went out together for a ride on horseback. My wife’s horse became restive; she grew frightened, gave the reins to me, and returned home on foot. I rode on before. In the courtyard, I saw a travelling carriage, and I was told that in my study sat waiting for me, a man, who would not give his name, but who merely said that he had business with me. I entered the room and saw in the darkness a stranger, covered with dust, and wearing a beard of several days. He was standing there, near the fireplace. I approached him, trying to remember his features.

  “‘You do not recognize me, Count?’ said he, in a quivering voice.

  “‘Silvio!’ I cried, and I confess that I felt as if my hair had suddenly stood on end.

  “‘Exactly,’ continued he. ‘There is a shot due to me, and I have come to discharge my pistol. Are you ready?’

  “His pistol protruded from a side pocket. I measured twelve paces and took my stand there in that corner, begging him to fire quickly, before my wife arrived. He hesitated and asked for a light. Candles were brought in. I closed the doors, gave orders that nobody was to enter, and again begged him to fire. He drew out his pistol and took aim…. I counted the seconds…. I thought of her…. A terrible minute passed! Silvio lowered his hand.

  “‘I regret,’ said he, ‘that the pistol is not loaded with cherry stones … the bullet is heavy. It seems to me that this is not a duel, but a murder. I am not accustomed to taking aim at unarmed men. Let us begin all over again; we will cast lots as to who shall fire first.’

  “My head went round … I think I raised some objection…. At last, we loaded another pistol and rolled up two pieces of paper. He placed these letters in his cap—the same through which I had once sent a bullet—and again, I drew the first number.

  “‘You are devilishly lucky, Count,’ said he, with a smile that I shall never forget.

  “I don’t know what was the matter with me, or how it was that he managed to make me do it … but I fired and hit that picture.

  The Count pointed with his finger to the perforated picture; his face glowed like fire; the Countess was whiter than her handkerchief, and I could not restrain an exclamation.

  “I fired,” continued the Count, “and, thank Heaven, missed my aim. Then Silvio … at that moment, he was the incarnation of my terror … Silvio raised his hand to take aim at me. Suddenly the door opens, Masha rushes into the room, and with a loud shriek, throws herself upon my neck. Her presence restored to me all my courage.

  “‘My dear,’ said I to her, ‘don’t you see that we are joking? How frightened you are! Go and drink a glass of water and then come back to us; I will introduce you to an old friend and comrade.’

  “Masha still doubted.

  “‘Tell me, is my husband speaking the truth?’ said she, turning to the terrible Silvio: ‘is it true that you are only joking?’

  “‘He is always joking, Countess,’ replied Silvio: ‘once he gave me a slap in the face in a joke; on another occasion, he sent a bullet through my cap in jest; and just now, when he fired at me and missed me, it was all in a joke. And now I feel inclined for a joke.’

  “With these words, he raised his pistol to take aim at me—right before her! Masha threw herself at his feet.

  “‘Rise, Masha; are you not ashamed!’ I cried in a rage: ‘and you, sir, will you cease to make fun of a poor woman? Will you fire or not?’

  “‘I will not,’ replied Silvio: ‘I am satisfied. I have seen your timidness, your alarm and grief all in one. I forced you to fire at me. That is sufficient. You will remember me. I leave you to your conscience.’

  “Then he turned to go, but pausing in the doorway, and looking at the picture that my shot had passed through, he fired at it almost without taking aim and disappeared. My wife had fainted away; the servants did not venture to stop him; the mere look of him filled them with dread. He went out upon the steps, called his coachman, and drove off before I could recover myself.”

  The Count was silent. In this way, I learned the end of the story, whose beginning had once made such a deep impression on me. The hero of it I never saw again. It is said that Silvio commanded a detachment of Hetairists during the revolt under Alexander Ipsilanti, and that he was killed in the battle of Skoulana.

[1] Chervonets is the traditional Russian name for large foreign, and domestic gold coins.

[2] A French police cap.

[3] Black, sweet cherries.

[4] An old wagon.

[5] A very common Russian name at the time.

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