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It was one of those strangely beautiful evenings in late summer that descend upon earth from the majestic azure vaults of heaven. The sun had set, but the light was still distinct, and the air pure and clear. There was a heavy dew, and the dust which had slowly risen formed long gauze-like strips of cloud against the sky. The atmosphere was sultry and yet fresh. Sounds floated hither and thither, as if borne on rapid wings.
Sanine, hatless, and wearing his blue shirt that at the shoulders was slightly faded, sauntered along the dusty road and turned down the little grass-grown side-street leading to Ivanoff's lodging.
At the window, making cigarettes, sat Ivanoff, broad-shouldered and sedate, with his long, straw-coloured hair carefully brushed back. Humid airs floated towards him from the garden where grass and foliage gained new lustre in the evening dew. The strong odour of tobacco was an inducement to sneeze.
"Good evening," said Sanine, leaning on the windowsill. "Good evening."
"To-day I have been challenged to fight a duel," said Sanine.
"What fun!" replied Ivanoff carelessly. "With whom, and why?"
"With Sarudine. I turned him out of the house, and he considers himself insulted."
"Oho! Then you'll have to meet him," said Ivanoff. "I'll be your second, and you shall shoot his nose off."
"Why? The nose is a noble part of one's physiognomy. I am not going to fight," rejoined Sanine, laughing.
"A good thing, too. Duelling is quite unnecessary."
"My sister Lida doesn't think so," said Sanine.
"Because she's a goose," replied Ivanoff. "What a lot of tomfoolery people choose to believe, don't they?"
So saying, he finished making the last cigarette, which he lighted, putting the others in his leather cigarette-case.
Then he blew away the tobacco left on the window-sill, and, vaulting over it, joined Sanine.
"What shall we do this evening?" he asked.
"Let us go and see Soloveitchik," suggested Sanine.
"I don't like him. He is such a worm."
Sanine shrugged his shoulders.
"Not worse than others. Come along."
"All right," said Ivanoff, who always agreed to anything that Sanine proposed. So they both went along the street together.
Soloveitchik, however, was not at home. The door was shut, and the courtyard dreary and deserted. Only Sultan rattled his chain and barked at these strangers who had invaded his yard. "What a ghastly place!" exclaimed Ivanoff. "Let us go to the boulevard."
They turned back, shutting the gate after them. Sultan barked two or three times and then sat in front of his kennel, sadly gazing at the desolate yard, the silent mill and the little white footpaths across the dusty turf.
In the public garden the band was playing, as usual, and there was a pleasant breeze on the boulevard, where promenaders abounded. Lit up by bright feminine toilettes, the dark throng moved now in the direction of the shady gardens, and now towards the main entrance of massive stone.
On entering the garden arm-in-arm, Sanine and Ivanoff instantly encountered Soloveitchik who was walking pensively along, his hands behind his back, and his eyes on the ground.
"We have just been to your place," said Sanine.
Soloveitchik blushed and smiled, as he timidly replied:
"Oh! I beg your pardon! I am so sorry, but I never thought that you were coming, or else I would have stayed at home. I am just out for a little walk." His wistful eyes shone.
"Come along with us," said Sanine, kindly, as he took hold of his arm.
Soloveitchik, apparently delighted, accepted the proffered arm, thrust his cap on the back of his head, and walked along as if, instead of Sanine's arm, it was something precious that he was holding. His mouth seemed to reach from ear to ear.
Purple-faced, and with distended cheeks, the members of the regimental band flung out their deafening, brazen notes upon the air, stimulated in their efforts by a smartly-dressed bandmaster who looked like a pert little sparrow, and who zealously flourished his baton. Grouped round the band-stand were clerks, shopmen, schoolboys in Hessian boots, and little girls wearing brightly-coloured handkerchiefs round their heads. In the main walks and side-walks, as if engaged in an endless quadrille, there moved a vivacious throng, composed of officers, students, and ladies.
They soon met Dubova, Schafroff, and Yourii Svarogitsch, and exchanged smiles as they passed. Then, after they had strolled through the entire garden, they again met, Sina Karsavina being now one of the party, looking charmingly graceful in her light summer dress.
"Why are you walking by yourselves, like that?" if asked Dubova.
"Come; and join us."
"Let us go down one of the side-walks," suggested Schafroff. "Here, it's so terribly crowded."
Laughing and chatting, the young people accordingly turned aside into a more shady, quieter avenue. As they reached the end of it and were about to turn, Sarudine, Tanaroff and Volochine suddenly came round the corner. Sanine saw at once that Sarudine had not expected to meet him here, and that he was considerably disconcerted. His handsome face grew dark, and he drew himself up to his full height. Tanaroff laughed contemptuously.
"That little jackanapes is still here," said Ivanoff, as be stared at Volochine. The latter had not noticed them, being so much interested in Sina, who walked first, that he turned round in passing to look at her.
"So he is!" said Sanine, laughing.
Sarudine thought that this laughter was meant for him, and he winced, as if struck by a whip. Flushed with anger, and impelled as by some irresistible force, he left his companions, and rapidly approached Sanine.
"What is it?" said the latter, suddenly becoming serious, while his eyes were fixed on the little riding-whip in Sarudine's trembling hand.
"You fool!" he thought to himself, as much in pity as in anger.
"I should like a word with you," began Sarudine, hoarsely. "Did you receive my challenge?"
"Yes," replied Sanine, intently watching every movement of the officer's hands.
"And you have decided to refuse ... er ... to act as any decent man is bound to act under the circumstances?" asked Sarudine. His voice was muffled, though loud in tone. To himself it seemed a strange one, as uncanny as the cold handle of the whip in his moist fingers. But he had not the strength to turn aside from the path that lay before him. Suddenly in the garden there seemed to be no air whatever. All the others stood still, perplexed, and expectant.
"Oh! what the deuce--" began Ivanoff, endeavouring to interpose.
"Of course I refuse," said Sanine in a strangely calm voice, looking the other straight in the eyes.
Sarudine breathed hard, as if he were lifting a heavy weight.
"Once more I ask you--do you refuse?" His voice had a hard, metallic ring.
Soloveitchik turned very pale. "Oh, dear! Oh! dear! He's going to hit him!" he thought.
"What ... what is the matter?" he stammered, as he endeavoured to protect Sanine.
Scarcely noticing him, Sarudine roughly pushed him aside. He saw nothing else in front of him but Sanine's cold, calm eyes.
"I have already told you so," said Sanine, in the same tone.
To Sarudine everything seemed whirling round. He heard behind him hasty footsteps, and the startled cry of a woman. With a sense of despair such as one who falls headlong into a chasm might feel, he clumsily and threateningly flourished the whip.
At that same moment Sanine, using all his strength, struck him full in the face with his clenched fist.
"Good!" exclaimed Ivanoff involuntarily.
Sarudine's head hung limply on one side. Something hot that stabbed his brain and eyes like sharp needles flooded his mouth and nose.
"Ah!" he groaned, and sank helplessly forward on his hands, dropping the whip, while his cap fell off. He saw nothing, he heard nothing, being only conscious of the horrible disgrace, and of a dull burning pain in his eye.
"Oh! God!" screamed Sina Karsavina, holding her head with both hands, and shutting her eyes tightly.
Horrified and disgusted at the sight of Sarudine crouching there on all fours, Yourii, followed by Schafroff, rushed at Sanine. Volochine, losing his pince-nez as he Stumbled over a bush, ran away as fast as he could across the damp grass, so that his spotless trousers instantly became black up to the knees.
Tanaroff ground his teeth with fury, and also dashed forward, but Ivanoff caught him by the shoulders and pulled him back. "That's all right!" said Sanine scornfully. "Let him come." He stood with legs apart, breathing hard, and big drops of sweat were on his brow.
Sarudine slowly staggered to his feet. Faint, incoherent words escaped from his quivering, swollen lips, vague words of menace that to Sanine sounded singularly ridiculous. The whole left side of Sarudine's face had instantly became swollen. His eye was no longer visible; blood was flowing from his nose and mouth, his lips twitched, and his whole body shook as if in the grip of a fever. Of the smart, handsome officer nothing remained. That awful blow had robbed him of all that was human; it had left only something piteous, terrifying, disfigured. He made no attempt to go away nor to defend himself. His teeth rattled, and, while he spat blood, he mechanically brushed the sand from his knees. Then, reeling forward, he fell down again.
"Oh! how horrible! How horrible!" exclaimed Sina Karsavina, hurrying away from the spot.
"Come along!" said Sanine to Ivanoff, looking upwards to avoid so revolting a sight.
"Come along, Soloveitchik."
But Soloveitchik did not stir. Wide-eyed he stared at Sarudine, at the blood, and the dirty sand on the snow-white tunic, trembling all the while, as his lips moved feebly.
Ivanoff angrily pulled him along, but Soloveitchik shook him off with surprising vehemence, and he then clung to the trunk of a tree, as if he wished to resist being dragged away by main force.
"Oh! why, why, did you do that?" he whimpered.
"What a blackguardly thing to do!" shouted Yourii in Sanine's face.
"Yes, blackguardly!" rejoined Sanine, with a scornful smile. "Would it have been better, do you suppose, to have let him hit me?"
Then, with a careless gesture, he walked rapidly along the avenue. Ivanoff looked at Yourii in disdain, lit a cigarette, and slowly followed Sanine. Even his broad back and smooth hair told one plainly how little such a scene as this affected him.
"How stupid and brutal man can be!" he murmured to himself.
Sanine glanced round once, and then walked faster.
"Just like brutes," said Yourii, as he went away. He looked back, and the garden which he had always thought beautiful, and dim, and mysterious, seemed now, after what had happened, to have been shut off from the rest of the world, a sombre, dreary place.
Schafroff breathed hard, and looked nervously over his spectacles in all directions, as if he thought that at any moment, something equally dreadful might again occur.
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