Captain Ribnikov


On the very day when the awful disaster to the Russian fleet at Tsushima was nearing its end, and the first vague and alarming reports of that bloody triumph of the Japanese were being circulated over Europe, Staff-Captain Ribnikov, who lived in an obscure alley in the Pieski quarter, received the following telegram from Irkutsk: Send lists immediately watch patient pay debts.

Staff-Captain Ribnikov immediately informed his landlady that he was called away from Petersburg on business for a day or two, and told her not to worry about his absence. Then he dressed himself, left the house, and never returned to it again.

Only five days had passed when the landlady was summoned to the police station to give evidence about her missing lodger. She was a tall woman of forty-five, the honest widow of an ecclesiastical official, and in a simple and straightforward manner she told all that she knew of him. Her lodger was a quiet, poor, simple man, a moderate eater, and polite. He neither drank nor smoked, rarely went out of the house, and had no visitors. She could say nothing more, in spite of all her respectful terror of the inspector of gendarmerie, who moved his luxurious moustaches in a terrifying way and had a fine stock of abuse on hand.

During this five days’ interval Staff-Captain Ribnikov ran or drove over the whole of Petersburg. Everywhere, in the streets, restaurants, theatres, tramcars, the railway stations, this dark lame little officer appeared. He was strangely talkative, untidy, not particularly sober, dressed in an infantry uniform, with an allover red collar⁠—a perfect type of the rat attached to military hospitals, or the commissariat, or the War Office. He also appeared more than once at the Staff Office, the Committee for the Care of the Wounded, at police stations, at the office of the Military Governor, at the Cossack headquarters, and at dozens of other offices, irritating the officials by his senseless grumbling and complaints, by his abject begging, his typical infantry rudeness, and his noisy patriotism. Already everyone knew by heart that he had served in the Army Transport, had been wounded in the head at Liao-Yang, and touched in the leg in the retreat from Mukden. “Why the devil hasn’t he received a gratuity before now! Why haven’t they given him his daily money and his travelling expenses! And his last two months pay! He is absolutely ready to give his last drop of blood⁠—damn it all⁠—for the Czar, the throne, and the country, and he will return to the Far East the moment his leg has healed. But the cursed leg won’t heal⁠—a hundred devils take it. Imagine only⁠—gangrene! Look yourself⁠—” and he put his wounded leg on a chair, and was already eagerly pulling up his trouser; but he was stopped every time by a squeamish and compassionate shyness. His bustling and nervous familiarity, his startled, frightened look, which bordered strangely on impertinence, his stupidity, his persistent and frivolous curiosity taxed to the utmost the patience of men occupied in important and terribly responsible scribbling.

In vain it was explained to him in the kindest possible way that he had come to the wrong place; that he ought to apply at such and such a place; that he must produce certain papers; that they will let him know the result. He understood nothing, absolutely nothing. But it was impossible to be very angry with him; he was so helpless, so easily scared and simple, and if anyone lost patience and interrupted him, he only smiled and showed his gums with a foolish look, bowed hastily again and again, and rubbed his hands in confusion. Or he would suddenly say in a hoarse, ingratiating tone:

“Couldn’t you give me one small smoke? I’m dying to smoke. And I haven’t a cent to buy them. ‘Blessed are the poor.⁠ ⁠… Poverty’s no crime,’ as they say⁠—but sheer indecency.”

With that he disarmed the most disagreeable and dour officials. He was given a cigarette, and allowed to sit by the extreme corner of the table. Unwillingly, and of course in an offhand way, they would answer his importunate questions about what was happening at the war. But there was something very affecting and childishly sincere in the sickly curiosity with which this unfortunate, grubby, impoverished wounded officer of the line followed the war. Quite simply, out of mere humanity, they wanted to reassure, to inform, and encourage him; and therefore they spoke to him more frankly than to the rest.

His interest in everything which concerned Russo-Japanese events was so deep that while they were making some complicated inquiry for him he would wander from room to room, and table to table, and the moment he caught a couple of words about the war he would approach and listen with his habitual strained and silly smile.

When he finally went away, as well as a sense of relief he would leave a vague, heavy and disquieting regret behind him. Often well-groomed, dandified staff-officers referred to him with dignified acerbity:

“And that’s a Russian officer! Look at that type. Well, it’s pretty plain why we’re losing battle after battle. Stupid, dull, without the least sense of his own dignity⁠—poor old Russia!”

During these busy days Captain Ribnikov took a room in a dirty little hotel near the railway station.

Though he had with him a Reserve officer’s proper passport, for some reason he found it necessary to declare that his papers were at present in the Military Governor’s office. Into the hotel he took his things, a holdall containing a rug and pillow, a travelling bag, and a cheap, new box, with some underclothing and a complete outfit of mufti.

Subsequently, the servants gave evidence that he used to come to the hotel late and as if a little the worse for drink, but always regularly gave the door porter twopence for a tip. He never used to sleep more than three or four hours, sometimes without undressing. He used to get up early and pace the room for hours. In the afternoon he would go off.

From time to time he sent telegrams to Irkutsk from various post offices, and all the telegrams expressed a deep concern for someone wounded and seriously ill, probably a person very dear to the captain’s heart.

It was with this same curious busy, uncouth man that Vladimir Ivanovich Schavinsky, a journalist on a large Petersburg paper, once met.


Just before he went off to the races, Schavinsky dropped into the dingy little restaurant called “The Glory of Petrograd,” where the reporters used to gather at two in the afternoon to exchange thoughts and information. The company was rough and ready, gay, cynical, omniscient, and hungry enough; and Schavinsky, who was to some degree an aristocrat of the newspaper world, naturally did not belong to it. His bright and amusing Sunday articles, which were not too deep, had a considerable success with the public. He made a great deal of money, dressed well, and had plenty of friends. But he was welcome at “The Glory of Petrograd” as well, on account of his free sharp tongue and the affable generosity with which he lent his fellow-writers half sovereigns. On this day the reporters had promised to procure a race-card for him, with mysterious annotations from the stable.

Vassily, the porter, took off Schavinsky’s overcoat, with a friendly and respectful smile.

“If you please, Vladimir Ivanovitch, company’s all there. In the big saloon, where Prokhov waits.”

And Prokhov, stout, close-cropped, and red-moustached, also gave him a kindly and familiar smile, as usual not looking straight into the eyes of a respectable customer, but over his head.

“A long time since you’ve honoured us, Vladimir Ivanovich! This way, please. Everybody’s here.”

As usual his fellow-writers sat round the long table hurriedly dipping their pens in the single inkpot and scribbling quickly on long slips of paper. At the same time, without interrupting their labours, they managed to swallow pies, fried sausages and mashed potatoes, vodka and beer, to smoke and exchange the latest news of the town and newspaper gossip that cannot be printed. Someone was sleeping like a log on the sofa with his face in a handkerchief. The air in the saloon was blue, thick and streaked with tobacco smoke.

As he greeted the reporters, Schavinsky noticed the captain, in his ordinary army uniform, among them. He was sitting with his legs apart, resting his hands and chin upon the hilt of a large sword. Schavinsky was not surprised at seeing him, as he had learned not to be surprised at anything in the reporting world. He had often seen lost for weeks in that reckless noisy company⁠—landowners from the provinces, jewellers, musicians, dancing-masters, actors, circus proprietors, fishmongers, café-chantant managers, gamblers from the clubs, and other members of the most unexpected professions.

When the officer’s turn came, he rose, straightened his shoulders, stuck out his elbows, and introduced himself in the proper hoarse, drink-sodden voice of an officer of the line:

“H’m!⁠ ⁠… Captain Ribnikov.⁠ ⁠… Pleased to meet you.⁠ ⁠… You’re a writer too?⁠ ⁠… Delighted.⁠ ⁠… I respect the writing fraternity. The press is the sixth great power. Eh, what?”

With that he grinned, clicked his heels together, shook Schavinsky’s hand violently, bowing all the while in a particularly funny way, bending and straightening his body quickly.

“Where have I seen him before?” the uneasy thought flashed across Schavinsky’s mind. “He’s wonderfully like someone. Who can it be?”

Here in the saloon were all the celebrities of the Petersburg reporting world. The Three Musketeers⁠—Kodlubtzov, Riazhkin, and Popov⁠—were never seen except in company. Even their names were so easily pronounced together that they made an iambic tetrameter. This did not prevent them from eternally quarrelling, and from inventing stories of incredible extortion, criminal forgery, slander, and blackmail about each other. There was present also Sergey Kondrashov, whose unrestrained voluptuousness had gained him the name of “A Pathological Case, not a man.” There was also a man whose name had been effaced by time, like one side of a worn coin, to whom remained only the general nickname “Matanya,” by which all Petersburg knew him. Concerning the dour-looking Svischov, who wrote paragraphs “In the police courts,” they said jokingly: “Svischov is an awful blackmailer⁠—never takes less than three roubles.” The man asleep on the sofa was the long-haired poet Piestrukhin, who supported his fragile, drunken existence by writing lyrics in honour of the imperial birthdays and the twelve Church holidays. There were others besides of no less celebrity, experts in municipal affairs, fires, inquests, in the opening and closing of public gardens.

Said lanky, shock-headed, pimply Matanya: “They’ll bring you the card immediately, Vladimir Ivanovich. Meanwhile, I commend our brave captain to your attention. He has just returned from the Far East, where, I may say, he made mincemeat of the yellow-faced, squinting, wily enemy.⁠ ⁠… Now, General, fire away!”

The officer cleared his throat and spat sideways on the floor.

“Swine!” thought Schavinsky, frowning.

“My dear chap, the Russian soldier’s not to be sneezed at!” Ribnikov bawled hoarsely, rattling his sword. “ ‘Epic heroes!’ as the immortal Suvorov said. Eh, what? In a word,⁠ ⁠… but I tell you frankly, our commanders in the East are absolutely worthless! You know the proverb: ‘Like master, like man.’ Eh, what? They thieve, play cards, have mistresses⁠ ⁠… and everyone knows, where the devil can’t manage himself he sends a woman.”

“You were talking about plans, General,” Matanya reminded him.

“Ah! Plans! Merci!⁠ ⁠… My head.⁠ ⁠… I’ve been on the booze all day.” Ribnikov threw a quick, sharp glance at Schavinsky. “Yes, I was just saying.⁠ ⁠… They ordered a certain colonel of the general staff to make a reconnaissance, and he takes with him a squadron of Cossacks⁠—daredevils. Hell take ’em!⁠ ⁠… Eh, what? He sets off with an interpreter. Arrives at a village, ‘What’s the name?’ The interpreter says nothing. ‘At him, boys!’ The Cossacks instantly use their whips. The interpreter says: ‘Butundu!’ And ‘Butundu’ is Chinese for ‘I don’t understand.’ Ha-ha! He’s opened his mouth⁠—the son of a bitch! The colonel writes down ‘village, Butundu.’ They go further to another village. ‘What’s the name?’ ‘Butundu.’ ‘What! Butundu again?’ ‘Butundu.’ Again the colonel enters it ‘village, Butundu.’ So he entered ten villages under the name of ‘Butundu,’ and turned into one of Chekhov’s types⁠—‘Though you are Ivanov the seventh,’ says he, ‘you’re a fool all the same.’ ”

“Oh, you know Chekhov?” asked Schavinsky.

“Who? Chekhov? old Anton? You bet⁠—damn him.⁠ ⁠… We’re friends⁠—we’re often drunk together.⁠ ⁠… ‘Though you are the seventh,’ says he, ‘you’re a fool all the same.’ ”

“Did you meet him in the East?” asked Schavinsky quickly.

“Yes, exactly, in the East, Chekhov and I, old man.⁠ ⁠… ‘Though you are the seventh⁠—’ ”

While he spoke Schavinsky observed him closely. Everything in him agreed with the conventional army type: his voice, manner, shabby uniform, his coarse and threadbare speech. Schavinsky had had the chance of observing hundreds of such debauched captains. They had the same grin, the same “Hell take ’em,” twisted their moustaches to the left and right with the same bravado; they hunched their shoulders, stuck out their elbows, rested picturesquely on their sword and clanked imaginary spurs. But there was something individual about him as well, something different, as it were, locked away, which Schavinsky had never seen, neither could he define it⁠—some intense, inner, nervous force. The impression he had was this: Schavinsky would not have been at all surprised if this croaking and drunken soldier of fortune had suddenly begun to talk of subtle and intellectual matters, with ease and illumination, elegantly; neither would he have been surprised at some mad, sudden, frenzied, even bloody prank on the captain’s part.

What struck Schavinsky chiefly in the captain’s looks was the different impression he made full face and in profile. Side face, he was a common Russian, faintly Kalmuck, with a small, protruding forehead under a pointed skull, a formless Russian nose, shaped like a plum, thin stiff black moustache and sparse beard, the grizzled hair cropped close, with a complexion burnt to a dark yellow by the sun.⁠ ⁠… But when he turned full face Schavinsky was immediately reminded of someone. There was something extraordinarily familiar about him, but this “something” was impossible to grasp. He felt it in those narrow coffee-coloured bright eagle eyes, slit sideways; in the alarming curve of the black eyebrows, which sprang upwards from the bridge of the nose; in the healthy dryness of the skin strained over the huge cheekbones; and, above all, in the general expression of the face⁠—malicious, sneering, intelligent, perhaps even haughty, but not human, like a wild beast rather, or, more truly, a face belonging to a creature of another planet.

“It’s as if I’d seen him in a dream!” the thought flashed through Schavinsky’s brain. While he looked at the face attentively he unconsciously screwed up his eyes, and bent his head sideways.

Ribnikov immediately turned round to him and began to giggle loudly and nervously.

“Why are you admiring me, Mr. Author. Interested? I!” He raised his voice and thumped his chest with a curious pride. “I am Captain Ribnikov. Rib-ni-kov! An orthodox Russian warrior who slaughters the enemy, without number. That’s a Russian soldier’s song. Eh, what?”

Kodlubtzov, running his pen over the paper, said carelessly, without looking at Ribnikov, “and without number, surrenders.”

Ribnikov threw a quick glance at Kodlubtzov, and Schavinsky noticed that strange yellow green fires flashed in his little brown eyes. But this lasted only an instant. The captain giggled, shrugged, and noisily smacked his thighs.

“You can’t do anything; it’s the will of the Lord. As the fable says, Set a thief to catch a thief. Eh, what?”

He suddenly turned to Schavinsky, tapped him lightly on the knee, and with his lips uttered a hopeless sound: “Phwit! We do everything on the off-chance⁠—higgledy-piggledy⁠—anyhow! We can’t adapt ourselves to the terrain; the shells never fit the guns; men in the firing line get nothing to eat for four days. And the Japanese⁠—damn them⁠—work like machines. Yellow monkeys⁠—and civilisation is on their side. Damn them! Eh, what?”

“So you think they may win?” Schavinsky asked.

Again Ribnikov’s lips twitched. Schavinsky had already managed to notice this habit of his. All through the conversation, especially when the captain asked a question and guardedly waited the answer, or nervously turned to face a fixed glance from someone, his lips would twitch suddenly, first on one side then on the other, and he would make strange grimaces, like convulsive, malignant smiles. At the same time he would hastily lick his dry, cracked lips with the tip of his tongue⁠—thin bluish lips like a monkey’s or a goat’s.

“Who knows?” said the captain. “God only.⁠ ⁠… You can’t set foot on your own doorstep without God’s help, as the proverb goes. Eh, what? The campaign isn’t over yet. Everything’s still to come. The Russian’s used to victory. Remember Poltava and the unforgettable Suvorov⁠ ⁠… and Sebastopol!⁠ ⁠… and how we cleared out Napoleon, the greatest captain in the world, in 1812. Great is the God of Russia. What?”

As he began to talk the corners of his lips twitched into strange smiles, malignant, sneering, inhuman, and an ominous yellow gleam played in his eyes, beneath the black frowning eyebrows.

At that moment they brought Schavinsky coffee.

“Wouldn’t you like a glass of cognac?” he asked the captain.

Ribnikov again tapped him lightly on the knee. “No thanks, old man. I’ve drunk a frightful lot today, damn it. My noddle’s fairly splitting. Damn it all, I’ve been pegging since the early morning. ‘Russia’s joy’s in the bottle!’ Eh, what?” he cried suddenly, with an air of bravado and an unexpectedly drunken note in his voice.

“He’s shamming,” Schavinsky instantly thought. But for some reason he did not want to leave off, and he went on treating the captain.

“What do you say to beer⁠ ⁠… red wine?”

“No thanks. I’m drunk already without that. Gran’ merci.

“Have some soda?”

The captain cheered up.

“Yes, yes, please. Soda, certainly. I could do with a glass.”

They brought a siphon. Ribnikov drank a glass in large greedy gulps. Even his hands began to tremble with eagerness. He poured himself out another immediately. At once it could be seen that he had been suffering a long torment of thirst.

“He’s shamming,” Schavinsky thought again. “What an amazing man! Excited and tired, but not the least bit drunk.”

“It’s hot⁠—damn it,” Ribnikov said hoarsely. “But I think, gentlemen, I’m interfering with your business.”

“No, it’s all right. We’re used to it,” said Riazhkin shortly.

“Haven’t you any fresh news of the war?” Ribnikov asked. “A-ah, gentlemen,” he suddenly cried and banged his sword. “What a lot of interesting copy I could give you about the war! If you like, I’ll dictate, you need only write. You need only write. Just call it: Reminiscences of Captain Ribnikov, returned from the Front. No, don’t imagine⁠—I’ll do it for nothing, free, gratis. What do you say to that, my dear authors?”

“Well, it might be done,” came Matanya’s lazy voice from somewhere. “We’ll manage a little interview for you somehow. Tell me, Vladimir Ivanovich, do you know anything of the Fleet?”

“No, nothing.⁠ ⁠… Is there any news?”

“There’s an incredible story, Kondrashov heard from a friend on the Naval Staff. Hi! Pathological Case! Tell Schavinsky.”

The Pathological Case, a man with a black tragedy beard and a chewed-up face, spoke through his nose:

“I can’t guarantee it, Vladimir Ivanovich. But the source seems reliable. There’s a nasty rumour going about the Staff that the great part of our Fleet has surrendered without fighting⁠—that the sailors tied up the officers and ran up the white flag⁠—something like twenty ships.”

“That’s really terrible,” said Schavinsky in a quiet voice. “Perhaps it’s not true, yet? Still⁠—nowadays, the most impossible things are possible. By the way, do you know what’s happening in the naval ports⁠—in all the ships’ crews there’s a terrible underground ferment going on. The naval officers ashore are frightened to meet the men in their command.”

The conversation became general. This inquisitive, ubiquitous, cynical company was a sensitive receiver, unique of its kind, for every conceivable rumour and gossip of the town, which often reached the private saloon of “The Glory of Petrograd” quicker than the minister’s sanctum. Each one had his news. It was so interesting that even the Three Musketeers, who seemed to count nothing in the world sacred or important, began to talk with unusual fervour.

“There’s a rumour going about that the reserves in the rear of the army refuse to obey orders. The soldiers are shooting the officers with their own revolvers.”

“I heard that the general in command hanged fifty sisters of mercy. Well, of course, they were only dressed as sisters of mercy.”

Schavinsky glanced round at Ribnikov. Now the talkative captain was silent. With his eyes screwed and his chest pressed upon the hilt of his sword, he was intently watching each of the speakers in turn. Under the tight-stretched skin of his cheekbones the sinews strongly played, and his lips moved as if he were repeating every word to himself.

“My God, whom does he remind me of?” the journalist thought impatiently for the tenth time. This so tormented him that he tried to make use of an old familiar trick⁠ ⁠… to pretend to himself that he had completely forgotten the captain, and then suddenly to give him a quick glance. Usually that trick soon helped him to recall a name or a meeting-place, but now it was quite ineffective.

Under his stubborn look, Ribnikov turned round again, gave a deep sigh and shook his head sadly.

“Awful news! Do you believe it? What? Even if it is true we need not despair. You know what we Russians say: ‘Whom God defends the pigs can’t eat,’⁠—that’s to say, I mean that the pigs are the Japanese, of course.”

He held out stubbornly against Schavinsky’s steady look, and in his yellow animal eyes the journalist noticed a flame of implacable, inhuman hatred.

Piestrukhin, the poet asleep on the sofa, suddenly got up, smacked his lips, and stared at the officer with dazed eyes.

“Ah!⁠ ⁠… you’re still here, Jap mug,” he said drunkenly, hardly moving his mouth. “You just get out of it!”

And he collapsed on the sofa again, turning on to his other side.

“Japanese!” Schavinsky thought with anxious curiosity, “That’s what he’s like,” and drawled meaningly: “You are a jewel, Captain!”

“I?” the latter cried out. His eyes lost their fire, but his lips still twitched nervously. “I am Captain Ribnikov!” He banged himself on the chest again with curious pride. “My Russian heart bleeds. Allow me to shake your hand. My head was grazed at Liao-Yang, and I was wounded in the leg at Mukden. You don’t believe it? I’ll show you now.”

He put his foot on a chair and began to pull up his trousers.

“Don’t!⁠ ⁠… stop! we believe you,” Schavinsky said with a frown. Nevertheless, his habitual curiosity enabled him to steal a glance at Ribnikov’s leg and to notice that this infantry captain’s underclothing was of expensive spun silk.

A messenger came into the saloon with a letter for Matanya.

“That’s for you, Vladimir Ivanovich,” said Matanya, when he had torn the envelope. “The race-card from the stable. Put one on Zenith both ways for me. I’ll pay you on Tuesday.”

“Come to the races with me, Captain?” said Schavinsky.

“Where? To the races? With pleasure.” Ribnikov got up noisily, upsetting his chair. “Where the horses jump? Captain Ribnikov at your service. Into battle, on the march, to the devil’s dam! Ha, ha, ha! That’s me! Eh, what?”

When they were sitting in the cab, driving through Cabinetsky Street, Schavinsky slipped his arm through the officer’s, bent right down to his ear, and said, in a voice hardly audible:

“Don’t be afraid. I shan’t betray you. You’re as much Ribnikov as I am Vanderbilt. You’re an officer on the Japanese Staff. I think you’re a colonel at least, and now you’re a military agent in Russia.⁠ ⁠…”

Either Ribnikov did not hear the words for the noise of the wheels or he did not understand. Swaying gently from side to side, he spoke hoarsely with a fresh drunken enthusiasm:

“We’re fairly on the spree now! Damn it all, I adore it. I’m not Captain Ribnikov, a Russian soldier, if I don’t love Russian writers! A magnificent lot of fellows! They drink like fishes, and know all about life. ‘Russia’s joy is in the bottle.’ And I’ve been at it from the morning, old man!”


By business and disposition Schavinsky was a collector of human documents, of rare and strange manifestations of the human spirit. Often for weeks, sometimes for months together, he watched an interesting type, tracking him down with the persistence of a passionate sportsman or an eager detective. It would happen that the prize was found to be, as he called it, “a knight of the black star”⁠—a sharper, a notorious plagiarist, a pimp, a souteneur, a literary maniac, the terror of every editor, a plunging cashier or bank messenger, who spends public money in restaurants and gambling hells with the madness of a man rushing down the steep; but no less the objects of his sporting passion were the lions of the season⁠—pianists, singers, littérateurs, gamblers with amazing luck, jockeys, athletes, and cocottes coming into vogue. By hook or crook Schavinsky made their acquaintance and then, enveloping them in his spider’s toils, tenderly and gently secured his victim’s attention. Then he was ready for anything. He would sit for whole sleepless nights with vulgar, stupid people, whose mental equipment, like the Hottentots’, consisted of a dozen or two animal conceptions and clichés; he stood drinks and dinners to damnable fools and scoundrels, waiting patiently for the moment when in their drunkenness they would reveal the full flower of their villainy. He flattered them to the top of their bent, with his eyes open; gave them monstrous doses of flattery, firmly convinced that flattery is the key to open every lock; he lent them money generously, knowing well that he would never receive it back again. In justification of this precarious sport he could say that the inner psychological interest for him considerably surpassed the benefits he subsequently acquired as a realistic writer. It gave him a subtle and obscure delight to penetrate into the mysterious inaccessible chambers of the human soul, to observe the hidden springs of external acts, springs sometimes petty, sometimes shameful, more often ridiculous than affecting⁠—as it were, to hold in his hand for a while, a live, warm human heart and touch its very pulse. Often in this inquisitive pursuit it seemed to him that he was completely losing his own “ego,” so much did he begin to think and feel with another’s soul, even speaking in his language with his peculiar words until at last he even caught himself using another’s gesture and tone. But when he had saturated himself in a man he threw him aside. It is true that sometimes he had to pay long and heavily for a moment’s infatuation.

But no one for a long time had so deeply interested him, even to agitation, as this hoarse, tippling infantry captain. For a whole day Schavinsky did not let him go. As he sat by his side in the cab and watched him surreptitiously, Schavinsky resolved:

“No, I can’t be mistaken;⁠—this yellow, squinting face with the cheekbones, these eternal bobs and bows, and the incessant hand washing; above all this strained, nervous, uneasy familiarity.⁠ ⁠… But if it’s all true, and Captain Ribnikov is really a Japanese spy, then what extraordinary presence of mind the man must have to play with this magnificent audacity, this diabolically true caricature of a broken-down officer in broad daylight in a hostile capital. What awful sensations he must have, balanced every second of the day on the very edge of certain death!”

Here was something completely inexplicable to Schavinsky⁠—a fascinating, mad, cool audacity⁠—perhaps the very noblest kind of patriotic devotion. An acute curiosity, together with a reverent fear, drew the journalist’s mind more and more strongly towards the soul of this amazing captain.

But sometimes he pulled himself up mentally: “Suppose I’ve forced myself to believe in a ridiculous preconceived idea? Suppose I’ve just let myself be fooled by a disreputable captain in my inquisitive eagerness to read men’s souls? Surely there are any number of yellow Mongol faces in the Ural or among the Oremburg Cossacks.” Still more intently he looked into every motion and expression of the captain’s face, listened intently to every sound of his voice.

Ribnikov did not miss a single soldier who gave him a salute as he passed. He put his hand to the peak of his cap with a peculiarly prolonged and exaggerated care. Whenever they drove past a church he invariably raised his hat and crossed himself punctiliously with a broad sweep of his arm, and as he did it he gave an almost imperceptible side-glance to his companion⁠—is he noticing or not?

Once Schavinsky could hold out no longer, and said: “But you’re pious, though, Captain.”

Ribnikov threw out his hands, hunched his shoulders up funnily, and said in his hoarse voice: “Can’t be helped, old man. I’ve got the habit of it at the Front. The man who fights learns to pray, you know. It’s a splendid Russian proverb. You learn to say your prayers out there, whether you like it or not. You go into the firing line. The bullets are whirring, terribly⁠—shrapnel, bombs⁠ ⁠… those cursed Japanese shells.⁠ ⁠… But it can’t be helped⁠—duty, your oath, and off you go! And you say to yourself: ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy Will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.⁠ ⁠…’ ”

And he said the whole prayer to the end, carefully shaping out each sound.

“Spy!” Schavinsky decided.

But he would not leave his suspicion halfway. For hours on end he went on watching and goading the captain. In a private room of a restaurant at dinner he bent right over the table and looked into Ribnikov’s very pupils.

“Listen, Captain. No one can hear us now.⁠ ⁠… What’s the strongest oath I can give you that no one will ever hear of our conversation?⁠ ⁠… I’m convinced, absolutely and beyond all doubt, that you’re a Japanese.”

Ribnikov banged himself on the chest again.

“I am Capt⁠—”

“No, no. Let’s have done with these tricks. You can’t hide your face, however clever you are. The line of your cheekbones, the cut of your eyes, your peculiar head, the colour of your skin, the stiff, straggling growth on your face⁠—everything points beyond all shadow of doubt to you belonging to the yellow race. But you’re safe. I shan’t tell on you, whatever offers they make me, however they threaten me for silence. I shan’t do you any harm, if it’s only because I’m full of admiration for your amazing courage. I say more⁠—I’m full of reverence, terror if you like. I’m a writer⁠—that’s a man of fancy and imagination. I can’t even imagine how it’s possible for a man to make up his mind to it: to come thousands of miles from your country to a city full of enemies that hate you, risking your life every second⁠—you’ll be hanged without a trial if you’re caught, I suppose you know? And then to go walking about in an officer’s uniform, to enter every possible kind of company, and hold the most dangerous conversations. The least mistake, one slip will ruin you in a second. Half an hour ago you used the word ‘holograph’ instead of ‘manuscript.’ A trifle, but very characteristic. An army captain would never use this word of a modern manuscript, but only of an archive or a very solemn document. He wouldn’t even say ‘manuscript,’ but just a ‘book’⁠—but these are trifles. But the one thing I don’t understand is the incessant strain of the mind and will, the diabolical waste of spiritual strength. To forget to think in Japanese, to forget your name utterly, to identify yourself completely with another’s personality⁠—no, this is surely greater than any heroism they told us of in school. My dear man, don’t try to play with me. I swear I’m not your enemy.”

He said all this quite sincerely, for his whole being was stirred to flame by the heroic picture of his imagination. But the captain would not let himself be flattered. He listened to him, and stared with eyes slightly closed at his glass, which he quietly moved over the tablecloth, and the corners of his blue lips twisted nervously. And in his face Schavinsky recognised the same hidden mockery, the same deep, stubborn, implacable hatred, the peculiar hatred that a European can perhaps never understand, felt by a wise, cultured, civilised beast, made man, for a being of another species.

“Keep your kindness in your pocket,” replied Ribnikov carelessly. “Let it go to hell. They teased me in the regiment too with being a Jap. Chuck it! I’m Captain Ribnikov. You know there’s a Russian proverb, ‘The face of a beast with the soul of a man.’ I’ll just tell you there was once a case in our regiment⁠—”

“What was your regiment?” Schavinsky asked suddenly.

But the captain seemed not to have heard. He began to tell the old, threadbare dirty stories that are told in camp, on manoeuvres, and in barracks, and in spite of himself Schavinsky began to feel insulted. Once during the evening as they sat in the cab Schavinsky put his arm round his waist, and drew him close and said in a low voice:

“Captain⁠ ⁠… no, Colonel, at least, or you would never have been given such a serious mission. Let’s say Colonel, then. I do homage to your daring, that is to the boundless courage of the Japanese nation. Sometimes when I read or think of individual cases of your diabolical bravery and contempt of death, I tremble with ecstasy. What immortal beauty, what divine courage there is, for instance, in the action of the captain of the shattered warship who answered the call to surrender by quietly lighting a cigarette, and went to the bottom with a cigarette in his lips! What titanic strength, what thrilling contempt for the enemy! And the naval cadets on the fireships who went to certain death, delighted as though they were going to a ball! And do you remember how a lieutenant, all by himself, towed a torpedo in a boat at night to make an end of the mole at Port Arthur? The searchlights were turned on and all there remained of the lieutenant and his boat was a bloody stain on the concrete wall. But the next day all the midshipmen and lieutenants of the Japanese Fleet overwhelmed Admiral Togo with applications, offering to repeat the exploit. What amazing heroes! But still more magnificent is Togo’s order that the officers under him should not so madly risk their lives, which belong to their country and not to them. It’s damnably beautiful, though!”

“What’s this street we’re in?” interrupted Ribnikov, yawning. “After the dugouts in Manchuria I’ve completely lost my sense of direction in the street. When we were in Kharbin.⁠ ⁠…”

But the ecstatic Schavinsky went on, without listening to him.

“Do you remember the case of an officer who was taken prisoner and battered his head to pieces on a stone? But the most wonderful thing is the signatures of the Samurai. Of course, you’ve never heard of it, Captain Ribnikov?” Schavinsky asked with sarcastic emphasis. “It’s understood, you haven’t heard of it.⁠ ⁠… You see General Nogi asked for volunteers to march in the leading column in a night attack on the Port Arthur forts. Nearly the whole brigade offered themselves for this honourable death. Since there were too many and they pressed in front of each other for the opportunity of death, they had to make application in writing, and some of them, according to an old custom, cut off the first finger of their left hand and fixed it to their signature for a seal of blood. That’s what the Samurai did!”

“Samurai,” Ribnikov dully repeated. There was a noise in his throat as if something had snapped and spread. Schavinsky gave a quick glance to his profile. An expression such as he had never seen in the captain’s face before suddenly played about his mouth and on his chin, which trembled once; and his eyes began to shine with the warm, tremulous light which gleams through sudden, brimming tears. But he pulled himself together instantly, shut his eyes for a second, and turned a naive and stupid face to Schavinsky, and suddenly uttered a long, filthy, Russian oath.

“Captain, Captain, what’s the matter with you?” Schavinsky cried, almost in fright.

“That’s all newspaper lies,” Ribnikov said unconcernedly. “Our Russian Tommy is not a bit behind. There’s a difference, of course. They fight for their life, however, independence⁠—and what have we mixed ourselves up in it for? Nobody knows! The devil alone knows why. ‘There was no sorrow till the devil pumped it up,’ as we say in Russian. What! Ha, ha, ha!”

On the racecourse the sport distracted Schavinsky’s attention a little, and he could not observe the captain all the while. But in the intervals between the events, he saw him every now and then in one or another of the stands, upstairs or downstairs, in the buffet or by the parimutuel. That day the word Tsushima was on everybody’s lips⁠—backers, jockeys, bookmakers, even the mysterious, ragged beings that are inevitable on every racecourse. The word was used to jeer at a beaten horse, by men who were annoyed at losing, with indifferent laughter and with bitterness. Here and there it was uttered with passion. Schavinsky saw from a distance how the captain in his easy, confident way picked a quarrel with one man, shook hands with others, and tapped others on the shoulder. His small, limping figure appeared and disappeared everywhere.

From the races they drove to a restaurant, and from there to Schavinsky’s house. The journalist was rather ashamed of his role of voluntary detective; but he felt it was out of his power to throw it up, though he had already begun to feel tired, and his head ached with the strain of this stealthy struggle with another man’s soul. Convinced that flattery had been of no avail, he now tried to draw the captain to frankness, by teasing and rousing his feelings of patriotism.

“Still, I’m sorry for these poor Japs,” he said with ironical pity. “When all is said, Japan has exhausted all her national genius in this war. In my opinion she’s like a feeble little man who lifts a half dozen hundredweight on his shoulders, either in ecstasy or intoxication, or out of mere bravado, and strains his insides, and is already beginning to die a lingering death. You see Russia’s an entirely different country. She’s a Colossus. To her the Manchurian defeats are just the same as cupping a full-blooded man. You’ll see how she will recover and begin to blossom when the war is over. But Japan will wither and die. She’s strained herself. Don’t tell me they have civilisation, universal education, European technique: at the end of it all, a Japanese is an Asiatic, half-man, half-monkey. Even in type he approaches a Bushman, a Touareg, or a Blackfellow. You have only to look at his facial angle. It all comes to this, they’re just Japs! It wasn’t your civilisation or your political youth that conquered us at all, but simply a fit of madness. Do you know what a seizure is, a fit of frenzy? A feeble woman tears chains to pieces and tosses strong men about like straws. The next day she hasn’t even the power to lift her hand. It’s the same with Japan. Believe me, after the heroic fit will follow impotence and decay; but certainly before that she will pass through a stage of national swagger, outrageous militarism and insane Chauvinism.”

“Really?” cried Ribnikov in stupid rapture. “You can’t get away from the truth. Shake hands, Mr. Author. You can always tell a clever man at once.”

He laughed hoarsely, spat about, tapped Schavinsky’s knee, and shook his hand, and Schavinsky suddenly felt ashamed of himself and the tricks of his stealthy searching into human souls.

“What if I’m mistaken and this Ribnikov is only the truest type of the drunken infantryman. No, it’s impossible. But if it is possible, then what a fool I’m making of myself, my God!”

At his house he showed the captain his library, his rare engravings, a collection of old china, and a couple of small Siberian dogs. His wife, who played small parts in musical comedy, was out of town. Ribnikov examined everything with a polite, uninterested curiosity, in which his host caught something like boredom, and even cold contempt. Ribnikov casually opened a magazine and read some lines aloud.

“He’s made a blunder now,” Schavinsky thought, when he heard his extraordinary correct and wooden reading, each separate letter pronounced with exaggerated precision like the head boy in a French class showing off. Evidently Ribnikov noticed it himself, for he soon shut the book and asked:

“But you’re a writer yourself?”

“Yes.⁠ ⁠… I do a bit.”

“What newspapers do you write for?”

Schavinsky named them. It was the sixth time he had been asked the question that day.

“Oh, yes, yes, yes. I forgot, I’ve asked you before. D’you know what, Mr. Author?”

“What is it?”

“Let us do this. You write and I’ll dictate. That is, I won’t dictate⁠ ⁠… oh, no, I shall never dare.” Ribnikov rubbed his hands and bowed hurriedly. “You’ll compose it yourself, of course. I’ll only give you some thoughts and⁠—what shall I call them⁠—reminiscences of the war? Oh, what a lot of interesting copy I have!⁠ ⁠…”

Schavinsky sat sideways on the table and glanced at the captain, cunningly screwing up one eye.

“Of course, I shall give your name?”

“Why, you may. I’ve no objection. Put it like this: ‘This information was supplied to me by Captain Ribnikov who has just returned from the Front.’ ”

“Very well. Why do you want this?”


“Having your name in it. Do you want it for future evidence that you inspired the Russian newspapers? What a clever fellow, I am, eh?”

But the captain avoided a direct answer, as usual.

“But perhaps you haven’t time? You are engaged in other work. Well, let the reminiscences go to hell! You won’t be able to tell the whole story. As they say: ‘There’s a difference between living a life and crossing a field.’ Eh, what? Ha, ha, ha!”

An interesting fancy came into Schavinsky’s head. In his study stood a big, white table of unpainted ash. On the clean virgin surface of this table all Schavinsky’s friends used to leave their autographs in the shape of aphorisms, verses, drawings, and even notes of music. He said to Ribnikov: “See, here is my autograph-book, Captain. Won’t you write me something in memory of our pleasant meeting, and our acquaintance which”⁠—Schavinsky bowed politely⁠—“I venture to hope will not be short-lived?”

“With pleasure,” Ribnikov readily agreed. “Something from Pushkin or Gogol?”

“No⁠ ⁠… far better something of your own.”

“Of my own? Splendid.”

He took the pen and dipped it, thought and prepared to write, but Schavinsky suddenly stopped him.

“We’d better do this. Here’s a piece of a paper. There are drawing-pins in the box at the corner. Please write something particularly interesting and then cover it with the paper and fasten the corners with the drawing-pins. I give you my word of honour as an author, that for two months I won’t put a finger on the paper and won’t look at what you’ve written. Is that all right? Well, write then. I’ll go out of the room so as not to hinder you.”

After five minutes Ribnikov shouted to him: “Please come in.”

“Ready?” Schavinsky asked, entering.

Ribnikov drew himself up, put his hand to his forehead in salute and shouted like a soldier: “Very good, sir.”

“Thanks. Now we’ll go to the ‘Buff,’ or somewhere else,” Schavinsky said. “There we’ll think what we’ll do next. I shan’t let you out of my sight today, Captain.”

“With the greatest pleasure,” Ribnikov said in a hoarse bass, clicking his heels. He lifted up his shoulders and gave a military twist to his moustaches on either side.

But Schavinsky, against his own will, did not keep his word. At the last moment before leaving his house the journalist remembered that he had left his cigarette-case in the study and went back for it, leaving Ribnikov in the hall. The piece of white paper, carefully fastened with drawing-pins, aroused his curiosity. He could not resist the temptation; he turned back stealthily and after lifting a corner of the paper quickly read the words written in a thin, distinct and extraordinary elegant hand:

“Though you are Ivanov the seventh, you’re a fool all the same.”


Long after midnight they were coming out of a suburban café chantant accompanied by the well-known musical comedy actor Zhenin-Lirsky, the young assistant Crown-Prosecutor Sashka Strahlmann, who was famous all over Petersburg for his incomparable skill in telling amusing stories about the topic of the day, and Karyukov, the merchant’s son, a patron of the arts.

It was neither bright nor dark. It was a warm, white, transparent night, with soft chatoyant colours and water like mother-of-pearl in the calm canals, which plainly reflected the grey stone of the quay and the motionless foliage of the trees. The sky was pale as though tired and sleepless, and there were sleepy clouds in the sky, long, thin and woolly like clews of ravelled cotton-wool.

“Where shall we go, now?” said Schavinsky, stopping at the gate of the gardens. “Field-Marshal Oyama! Give us your enlightened opinion.”

All five lingered on the pavement for a while, caught by a moment of the usual early morning indecision, when the physical fatigue of the reveller struggles with the irresistible and irritating yearning after new and piquant sensations. From the garden continually came patrons, laughing, whistling, noisily shuffling their feet over the dry, white cobblestones. Walking hurriedly, boldly rustling the silk of their petticoats emerged the artistes wearing huge hats, with diamonds trembling in their ears, escorted by dashing gentlemen, smartly dressed, with flowers in their buttonholes. With the porters’ respectful assistance these ladies fluttered into carriages and panting automobiles, freely arranging their dresses round their legs, and flew away holding the brims of their hats in their hands. The chorus-girls and the filles du jardin of the higher class drove off alone or two together in ordinary cabs with a man beside them. The ordinary women of the street appeared everywhere at once, going round the wooden fence, following close on the men who left on foot, giving special attention to the drunken. They ran beside the men for a long while, offering themselves in a whisper with impudent submissiveness, naming that which was their profession with blunt, coarse, terrible words. In the bright, white twilight of May, their faces seemed like coarse masks, blue from the white of their complexions, red with crimson colour, and one’s eyes were struck with the blackness, the thickness and the extraordinary curve of their eyebrows. These naively bright colours made the yellow of their wrinkled temples appear all the more pitiable, their thin, scraggy necks, and flabby, feeble chins. A couple of mounted policemen, obscenely swearing, rode them down now and then with their horses’ mouths afoam. The girls screamed, ran away, and clutched at the sleeves of the passersby. Near the railing of the canal was gathered a group of about twenty men⁠—it was the usual early morning scandal. A short, beardless boy of an officer was dead-drunk and making a fuss, looking as though he wanted to draw his sword; a policeman was assuring him of something in a convincing falsetto with his hand on his heart.

A sharp, suspicious-looking type, drunk, in a cap with a ragged peak, spoke in a sugary, obsequious voice: “Spit on ’em, yer honour. They ain’t worth looking at. Give me one in the jaw, if you like. Allow me to kiss yer ’and.”

A thin, stern gentleman at the back, whose thick, black whiskers could alone be seen, because his bowler was tilted over his face, drawled in a low, indistinct voice: “What do you stand about talking for? Pitch him into the water and have done with it!”

“But really, Major Fukushima,” said the actor, “we must put a decent finish to the day of our pleasant acquaintance. Let’s go off with the little ladies. Where shall it be, Sashka?”

“Bertha?” Strahlmann asked in reply.

Ribnikov giggled and rubbed his hands in joyful agitation.

“Women? ‘Even a Jew hanged himself for company’s sake,’ as the Russian proverb says. Where the world goes there go we. Eh, what? ‘If we’re going, let’s go,’ as the parrot said. What? Ha, ha, ha!”

Schavinsky had introduced him to the young men, and they had all had supper in the café chantant, listened to the Romanian singers, drinking champagne and liqueurs. At one time they found it amusing to call Ribnikov by the names of different Japanese generals, particularly because the captain’s good nature was evidently unlimited. Schavinsky it was who began this rude, familiar game. True he felt at times that he was behaving in an ugly, perhaps even treacherous, way to Ribnikov, but he calmed his conscience by the fact that he had not breathed a word of his suspicions, which never entered his friends’ heads at all.

At the beginning of the evening he was watching Ribnikov. The captain was noisier and more talkative than anybody: he was incessantly drinking healths, jumping up, sitting down, pouring the wine over the tablecloth, lighting his cigarette the wrong end. Nevertheless, Schavinsky noticed that he was drinking very little.

Ribnikov had to sit next the journalist again in the cab. Schavinsky was almost sober. He was generally distinguished for a hard head in a spree, but it was light and noisy now, as though the foam of the champagne was bubbling in it. He gave the captain a side-glance. In the uncertain, drowsy light of the white night Ribnikov’s face wore a dark, earthy complexion. All the hollows were sharp and black, the little wrinkles on his forehead and the lines round his nose and mouth were deepened. The captain himself sat with a weary stoop, his hands tucked into the sleeves of his uniform, breathing heavily through his open mouth. Altogether it gave him a worn, suffering look. Schavinsky could even smell his breath, and thought that gamblers after several nights at cards have just the same stale, sour breath as men tired out with insomnia or the strain of long brain work. A wave of kindly emotion and pity welled up in Schavinsky’s heart. The captain suddenly appeared to him very small, utterly worn out, affecting and pitiable. He embraced Ribnikov, drew him close, and said affably: “Very well, Captain, I surrender. I can’t do anything with you, and I apologise if I’ve given you some uncomfortable minutes. Give me your hand.”

He unfastened the rose he wore in his coat which a girl in the garden had made him buy, and fixed it in the buttonhole of the captain’s greatcoat.

“This is my peace-offering, Captain. We won’t tease each other any more.”

The cab drew up at a two-storied stone house standing apart in a pleasant approach. All the windows were shuttered. The others had gone in advance and were waiting for them. A square grille, a handsbreadth wide, set in the heavy door, was opened from inside, and a pair of cold, searching grey eyes appeared in it for a few seconds. Then the door was opened.

This establishment was something between an expensive brothel and a luxurious club. There was an elegant entrance, a stuffed bear in the hall, carpets, silk curtains and lustre-chandeliers, and lackeys in evening dress and white gloves. Men came here to finish the night after the restaurants were shut. Cards were played, expensive wines kept, and there was always a generous supply of fresh, pretty women who were often changed.

They had to go up to the first floor, where was a wide landing adorned by palms in tubs and separated from the stairs by a balustrade. Schavinsky went upstairs arm-in-arm with Ribnikov. Though he had promised himself that he would not tease him any more, he could not restrain himself: “Let’s mount the scaffold, Captain!”

“I’m not afraid,” said he lazily. “I walk up to death every day of my life.”

Ribnikov waved his hand feebly and smiled with constraint. The smile made his face suddenly weary, grey and old.

Schavinsky gave him a look of silent surprise. He was ashamed of his importunity. But Ribnikov passed it off immediately.

“Yes, to death.⁠ ⁠… A soldier’s always ready for it. There’s nothing to be done. Death is the trifling inconvenience attached to our profession.”

Schavinsky and Karyukov the art-patron were assiduous guests and honoured habitués of the house. They were greeted with pleasant smiles and low bows.

A big, warm cabinet was given them, in red and gold with a thick, bright green carpet on the floor, with sconces in the corners and on the table. They were brought champagne, fruit and bonbons. Women came⁠—three at first, then two more⁠—then they were passing in and out continually. Without exception they were pretty, well provided with bare, white arms, neck, bosom, in bright, expensive, glittering dresses. Some wore ballet skirts; one was in a schoolgirl’s brown uniform, another in tight riding-breeches and a jockey’s cap. A stout elderly lady in black also came, rather like a landlady or a housekeeper. Her appearance was decent; her face flabby and yellow. She laughed continually the pleasant laugh of an elderly woman, coughed continually and smoked incessantly. She behaved to Schavinsky, the actor, and the art-patron with the unconstrained coquetterie of a lady old enough to be their mother, flicking their hands with her handkerchief, and she called Strahlmann, who was evidently her favourite, Sashka.

“General Kuroki, let’s drink to the success of the grand Manchurian army. You’ll be getting mildewy, sitting in your corner,” said Karyukov.

Schavinsky interrupted him with a yawn: “Steady, gentlemen. I think you ought to be bored with it by now. You’re just abusing the captain’s good nature.”

“I’m not offended,” replied Ribnikov. “Gentlemen! Let us drink the health of our charming ladies.”

“Sing us something, Lirsky!” Schavinsky asked.

The actor cheerfully sat down to the piano and began a gipsy song. It was more recitation than singing. He never moved the cigar from his lips, stared at the ceiling, with a parade of swinging to and fro on his chair. The women joined in, loud and out of tune. Each one tried to race the others with the words. Then Sashka Strahlmann gave an admirable imitation of a gramophone, impersonated an Italian opera, and mimicked animals. Karyukov danced a fandango and called for bottle after bottle.

He was the first to disappear from the room, with a red-haired Polish girl. After him followed Strahlmann and the actor. Only Schavinsky remained, with a swarthy, white-toothed Hungarian girl on his knees, and Ribnikov, by the side of a tall blonde in a blue satin blouse, cut square and open halfway down her breast.

“Well, Captain, let’s say goodbye for a little while,” said Schavinsky, getting up and stretching himself. “It’s late⁠—we’d better say early. Come and have breakfast with me at one o’clock, Captain. Put the wine down to Karyukov, Madame. If he loves sacred art, then he can pay for the honour of having supper with its priests. Mes compliments!

The blonde put her bare arm round the captain’s neck and kissed him, and said simply: “Let us go too, darling. It really is late.”


She had a little gay room with a bright blue paper, a pale blue hanging lamp. On the toilet-table stood a round mirror in a frame of light blue satin. There were two oleographs on one wall, Girls Bathing and The Royal Bridegroom, on the other a hanging, with a wide brass bed alongside.

The woman undressed, and with a sense of pleasant relief passed her hands over her body, where her chemise had been folded under her corset. Then she turned the lamp down and sat on the bed, and began calmly to unlace her boots.

Ribnikov sat by the table with his elbows apart and his head resting in his hands. He could not tear his eyes from her big, handsome legs and plump calves, which her black, transparent stockings so closely fitted.

“Why don’t you undress, officer?” the woman asked. “Tell me, darling, why do they call you Japanese General?”

Ribnikov gave a laugh, with his eyes still fixed upon her legs.

“Oh, it’s just nonsense. Only a joke. Do you know the verses:

‘It hardly can be called a sin,
If something’s funny and you grin!⁠ ⁠…’ ”

“Will you stand me some champagne, darling.⁠ ⁠… Since you’re so stingy, oranges will do. Are you going soon or staying the night?”

“Staying the night. Come to me.”

She lay down with him, hastily threw her cigarette over on to the floor and wriggled beneath the blanket.

“Do you like to be next to the wall?” she asked. “Do if you want to. O-oh, how cold your legs are! You know I love army men. What’s your name?”

“Mine?” He coughed and answered in an uncertain tone: “I am Captain Ribnikov. Vassily Alexandrovich Ribnikov!”

“Ah, Vasya! I have a friend called Vasya, a little chap from the Lycée. Oh, what a darling he is!”

She began to sing, pretending to shiver under the bedclothes, laughing and half-closing her eyes:

“ ‘Vasya, Vasya, Vasinke,
It’s a tale you’re telling me.’

“You are like a Japanese, you know, by Jove. Do you know who? The Mikado. We take in the Niva and there’s a picture of him there. It’s late now⁠—else I’d get it to show you. You’re as like as two peas.”

“I’m very glad,” said Ribnikov, quietly kissing her smooth, round shoulder.

“Perhaps you’re really a Japanese? They say you’ve been at the war. Is it true? O-oh, darling, I’m afraid of being tickled⁠—Is it dreadful at the war?”

“Dreadful⁠ ⁠… no, not particularly.⁠ ⁠… Don’t let’s talk about it,” he said wearily. “What’s your name?”

“Clotilde.⁠ ⁠… No, I’ll tell you a secret. My name’s Nastya. They only called me Clotilde here because my name’s so ugly. Nastya, Nastasya⁠—sounds like a cook.”

“Nastya,” he repeated musingly, and cautiously kissed her breast. “No, it’s a nice name. Na⁠—stya,” he repeated slowly.

“What is there nice about it? Malvina, Wanda, Zhenia, they’re nice names⁠—especially Irma.⁠ ⁠… Oh, darling,” and she pressed close to him. “You are a dear⁠ ⁠… so dark. I love dark men. You’re married, surely?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Oh, tell us another. Everyone here says he’s a bachelor. You’ve got six children for sure!”

It was dark in the room, for the windows were shuttered and the lamp hardly burned. Her face was quite close to his head, and showed fantastic and changing on the dim whiteness of the pillow. Already it was different from the simple, handsome, round grey-eyed, Russian face of before. It seemed to have grown thinner, and, strangely changing its expression every minute, seemed now tender, kind, mysterious. It reminded Ribnikov of someone infinitely familiar, long beloved, beautiful and fascinating.

“How beautiful you are!” he murmured. “I love you.⁠ ⁠… I love you.⁠ ⁠…”

He suddenly uttered an unintelligible word, completely foreign to the woman’s ear.

“What did you say?” she asked in surprise.

“Nothing.⁠ ⁠… Nothing.⁠ ⁠… Nothing at all.⁠ ⁠… My dear! Dear woman⁠ ⁠… you are a woman⁠ ⁠… I love you.⁠ ⁠…”

He kissed her arms, her neck, trembling with impatience, which it gave him wonderful delight to suppress. He was possessed by a tender and tempestuous passion for the well-fed, childless woman, for her big young body, so cared for and beautiful. His longing for woman had been till now suppressed by his austere, ascetic life, his constant weariness, by the intense exertion of his mind and will: now it devoured him suddenly with an intolerable, intoxicating flame.

“Your hands are cold,” she said, awkward and shy. In this man was something strange and alarming which she could in no way understand. “Cold hands and a warm heart.”

“Yes, yes, yes.⁠ ⁠… My heart,” he repeated it like a madman, “My heart is warm, my heart.⁠ ⁠…”

Long ago she had grown used to the outward rites and the shameful details of love; she performed them several times every day⁠—mechanically, indifferently, and often with silent disgust. Hundreds of men, from the aged and old, who put their teeth in a glass of water for the night, to youngsters whose voice was only beginning to break and was bass and soprano at once, civilians, army men, priests in mufti, baldheads and men overgrown with hair from head to foot like monkeys, excited and impotent, morphomaniacs who did not conceal their vice from her, beaux, cripples, rakes, who sometimes nauseated her, boys who cried for the bitterness of their first fall⁠—they all embraced her with shameful words, with long kisses, breathed into her face, moaned in the paroxysm of animal passion, which, she knew beforehand, would then and there be changed to unconcealed and insuperable disgust. Long ago all men’s faces had in her eyes lost every individual trait⁠—as though they had united into one lascivious, inevitable face, eternally bent over her, the face of a he-goat with stubbly, slobbering lips, clouded eyes, dimmed like frosted glass, distorted and disfigured by a voluptuous grimace, which sickened her because she never shared it.

Besides, they were all rude, exacting and devoid of the elements of shame. They were ludicrously ugly, as only the modern man can be in his underclothes. But this elderly little officer made a new, peculiar, attractive impression on her. His every movement was distinguished by a gentle, insinuating discretion. His kiss, his caress, and his touch were strangely gentle. At the same time he surrounded her imperceptibly with the nervous atmosphere of real and intense passion which even from a distance and against her will arouses a woman’s sensuality, makes her docile, and subject to the male’s desire. But her poor little mind had never passed beyond the round of everyday life in the house, and could not perceive this strange and agitating spell. She could only whisper shyly, happy and surprised, the usual trivial words: “What a nice man you are! You’re my sweet, aren’t you?”

She got up, put the lamp out, and lay beside him again. Through the chinks between the shutters and the wall showed thin threads of the whitening dawn, which filled the room with a misty blue half-light. Behind the partition, somewhere an alarm-clock hurriedly rang. Far away someone was singing sadly in the distance.

“When will you come again?” the woman asked.

“What?” Ribnikov asked sleepily, opening his eyes. “When am I coming? Soon⁠—tomorrow.⁠ ⁠…”

“I know all about that. Tell me the truth. When are you coming? I’ll be lonely without you.”

“M’m.⁠ ⁠… We will come and be alone.⁠ ⁠… We will write to them. They will stay in the mountains⁠ ⁠…” he murmured incoherently.

A heavy slumber enlocked his body; but, as always with men who have long deprived themselves of sleep, he could not sleep at once. No sooner was his consciousness overcast with the soft, dark, delightful cloud of oblivion than his body was shaken by a terrible inward shock. He moaned and shuddered, opened his eyes wide in wild terror, and straightway plunged into an irritating, transitory state between sleep and wakefulness, like a delirium crowded with threatening and confused visions.

The woman had no desire to sleep. She sat up in bed in her chemise, clasping her bended knees with her bare arms, and looked at Ribnikov with timid curiosity. In the bluish half-light his face grew sharper still and yellower, like the face of a dead man. His mouth stood open, but she could not hear his breathing. All over his face, especially about the eyes and mouth, was an expression of such utter weariness and profound human suffering as she had never seen in her life before. She gently passed her hand back over his stiff hair and forehead. The skin was cold and covered all over with clammy sweat. Ribnikov trembled at the touch, cried out in terror, and with a quick movement raised himself from the pillow.

“Ah! Who’s that, who?” he cried abruptly, wiping his face with his shirtsleeve.

“What’s the matter, darling?” the woman asked with sympathy. “You’re not well? Shall I get you some water?”

But Ribnikov had mastered himself, and lay down once more.

“Thanks. It’s all right now. I was dreaming.⁠ ⁠… Go to sleep, dear, do.”

“When do you want me to wake you, darling?” she asked.

“Wake.⁠ ⁠… In the morning.⁠ ⁠… The sun will rise early.⁠ ⁠… And the horsemen will come.⁠ ⁠… We will go in a boat.⁠ ⁠… And sail over the river.⁠ ⁠…” He was silent and lay quiet for some minutes. Suddenly his still, dead face was distorted with terrible pain. He turned on his back with a moan, and there came in a stream from his lips mysterious, wild-sounding words of a strange language.

The woman held her breath and listened, possessed by the superstitious terror which always comes from a sleeper’s delirium. His face was only a couple of inches from hers, and she could not tear her eyes away. He was silent for a while and then began to speak again, many words and unintelligible. Then he was silent again, as though listening attentively to someone’s speech. Suddenly the woman heard the only Japanese word she knew, from the newspapers, pronounced aloud with a firm, clear voice:


Her heart beat so violently that the velvet coverlet lifted again and again with the throbbing. She remembered how they had called Ribnikov by the names of Japanese generals in the red cabinet that day, and a far faint suspicion began to stir in the obscurity of her mind.

Someone lightly tapped on the door. She got up and opened.

“Clotilde dear, is that you?” a woman’s gentle whisper was heard. “Aren’t you asleep? Come in to me for a moment. Leonka’s with me, and he’s standing some apricot wine. Come on, dear!”

It was Sonya, the Karaim,1 Clotilde’s neighbour, bound to her by the cloying, hysterical affection which always pairs off the women in these establishments.

“All right. I’ll come now. Oh, I’ve something very interesting to tell you. Wait a second. I’ll dress.”

“Nonsense. Don’t. Who are you nervous about? Leonka? Come, just as you are!”

She began to put on her petticoat.

Ribnikov roused out of sleep.

“Where are you going to?” he asked drowsily.

“Only a minute.⁠ ⁠… Back immediately⁠ ⁠… I must⁠ ⁠…” she answered, hurriedly tying the tape round her waist. “You go to sleep. I’ll be back in a second.”

He had not heard her last words. A dark heavy sleep had instantly engulfed him.


Leonka was the idol of the whole establishment, beginning with Madame, and descending to the tiniest servant. In these places where boredom, indolence, and cheap literature produce feverishly romantic tastes, the extreme of adoration is lavished on thieves and detectives, because of their heroic lives, which are full of fascinating risks, dangers and adventures. Leonka used to appear in the most varied costumes, at times almost made up. Sometimes he kept a meaning and mysterious silence. Above all everyone remembered very well that he often proclaimed that the local police had an unbounded respect for him and fulfilled his orders blindly. In one case he had said three or four words in a mysterious jargon, and that was enough to send a few thieves who were behaving rowdily in the house crawling into the street. Besides there were times when he had a great deal of money. It is easy to understand that Henrietta, whom he called Genka and with whom he had an assiduous affair, was treated with a jealous respect.

He was a young man with a swarthy, freckled face, with black moustaches that pointed up to his very eyes. His chin was short, firm and broad; his eyes were dark, handsome and impudent. He was sitting on the sofa in his shirtsleeves, his waistcoat unbuttoned and his necktie loose. He was small but well proportioned. His broad chest and his muscles, so big that his shirt seemed ready to tear at the shoulder, were eloquent of his strength. Genka sat close to him with her feet on the sofa; Clotilde was opposite. Sipping his liqueur slowly with his red lips, in an artificially elegant voice he told his tale unconcernedly:

“They brought him to the station. His passport⁠—Korney Sapietov, resident in Kolpin or something of the kind. Of course the devil was drunk, absolutely. ‘Put him into a cold cell and sober him down.’ General rule. That very moment I happened to drop into the inspector’s office. I had a look. By Jove, an old friend: Sanka the Butcher⁠—triple murder and sacrilege. Instantly I gave the constable on duty a wink, and went out into the corridor as though nothing had happened. The constable came out to me. ‘What’s the matter, Leonti Spiridonovich?’ ‘Just send that gentleman round to the Detective Bureau for a minute.’ They brought him. Not a muscle in his face moved. I just looked him in the eyes and said”⁠—Leonka rapped his knuckles meaningly on the table⁠—“ ‘Is it a long time, Sanka, since you left Odessa and decided to honour us here?’ Of course he’s quite indifferent⁠—playing the fool. Not a word. Oh, he’s a bright one, too. ‘I haven’t any idea who Sanka the Butcher is. I am⁠ ⁠… so-and-so.’ So I come up to him, catch hold of him by the beard⁠—hey, presto⁠—the beard’s left in my hand. False!⁠ ⁠… ‘Will you own up now, you son of a bitch?’ ‘I haven’t any idea.’ Then I let fly straight at his nose⁠—once, twice⁠—a bloody mess. ‘Will you own up?’ ‘I haven’t any idea.’ ‘Ah, that’s your game, is it? I gave you a decent chance before. Now, you’ve got yourself to thank. Bring Arsenti the Flea here.’ We had a prisoner of that name. He hated Sanka to death. Of course, my dear, I knew how they stood. They brought the Flea. ‘Well, Flea, who’s this gentleman?’ The Flea laughs. ‘Why Sanka the Butcher, of course? How do you do, Sanichka? Have you been honouring us a long while? How did you get on in Odessa?’ Then the Butcher gave in. ‘All right, Leonti Spiridonovich. I give in. Nothing can get away from you. Give us a cigarette.’ Of course I gave him one. I never refuse them, out of charity. The servant of God was taken away. He just looked at the Flea, no more. I thought, well, the Flea will have to pay for that. The Butcher will do him in for sure.”

“Do him in?” Genka asked with servile confidence, in a terrified whisper.

“Absolutely. Do him in. That’s the kind of man he is!”

He sipped his glass complacently. Genka looked at him with fixed, frightened eyes, so intently that her mouth even opened and watered. She smacked her hands on her lips.

“My God, how awful! Just think, Clotilduchka! And you weren’t afraid, Leonya?”

“Well, am I to be frightened of every vagabond?”

The rapt attention of the woman excited him, and he began to invent a story that students had been making bombs somewhere on Vassiliev Island, and that the Government had instructed him to arrest the conspirators. Bombs there were⁠—it was proved afterwards⁠—twelve thousand of them. If they’d all exploded then not only the house they were in, but half Petersburg, perhaps, would have been blown to atoms.⁠ ⁠… Next came a thrilling story of Leonka’s extraordinary heroism, when he disguised himself as a student, entered the “devil’s workshop,” gave a sign to someone outside the window, and disarmed the villains in a second. He caught one of them by the sleeve at the very moment when he was going to explode a lot of bombs.

Genka groaned, was terror-stricken, slapped her legs, and continually turned to Clotilde with exclamations:

“Ah! what do you think of all that? Just think what scoundrels these students are, Clotilduchka! I never liked them.”

At last, stirred to her very depths by her lover, she hung on his neck and began to kiss him loudly.

“Leonichka, my darling! It’s terrible to listen to, even! And you aren’t frightened of anything!”

He complacently twisted his left moustache upwards, and let drop carelessly: “Why be afraid? You can only die once. That’s what I’m paid for.”

Clotilde was tormented all the while by jealous envy of her friend’s magnificent lover. She vaguely suspected that there was a great deal of lying in Leonka’s stories; while she now had something utterly extraordinary in her hands, such as no one had ever had before, something that would immediately take all the shine out of Leonka’s exploits. For some minutes she hesitated. A faint echo of the tender pity for Ribnikov still restrained her. But a hysterical yearning to shine took hold of her, and she said in a dull, quiet voice: “Do you know what I wanted to tell you, Leonya? I’ve got such a queer visitor today.”

“H’m. You think he’s a sharper?” he asked condescendingly. Genka was offended.

“A sharper, you say! That’s your story. Some drunken officer.”

“No, you mustn’t say that,” Leonka pompously interrupted. “It happens that sharpers get themselves up as officers. What was it you were going to say, Clotilde?”

Then she told the story of Ribnikov with every detail, displaying a petty and utterly feminine talent for observation: she told how they called him General Kuroki, his Japanese face, his strange tenderness and passion, his delirium, and finally now he said “Banzai!”

“You’re not lying?” Leonka said quickly. Keen points of fire lit in his eyes.

“I swear it’s true! May I be rooted to the ground if it’s a lie! You look through the keyhole, I’ll go in and open the shutter. He’s as like a Japanese as two peas.”

Leonka rose. Without haste, with a serious look, he put on his overcoat, carefully feeling his left inside pocket.

“Come on,” he said resolutely. “Who did he arrive with?”

Only Karyukov and Strahlmann remained of the all-night party. Karyukov could not be awakened, and Strahlmann muttered something indistinctly. He was still half drunk and his eyes were heavy and red.

“What officer? Blast him to hell! He came up to us when we were in the ‘Buff,’ but where he came from nobody knows.”

He began to dress immediately, snorting angrily. Leonka apologised and went out. He had already managed to get a glimpse of Ribnikov’s face through the keyhole, and though he had some doubts remaining, he was a good patriot, distinguished for impertinence and not devoid of imagination. He decided to act on his own responsibility. In a moment he was on the balcony whistling for help.


Ribnikov woke suddenly as though an imperative voice within him had said “Wake up.” An hour and a half of sleep had completely refreshed him. First of all he stared suspiciously at the door: it seemed to him that someone was watching him from there with a fixed stare. Then he looked round. The shutter was half open so that every little thing in the room could be seen. The woman was sitting by the table opposite the bed, silent and pale, regarding him with big, bright eyes.

“What’s happened?” Ribnikov asked in alarm. “Tell me, what’s been happening here?”

She did not answer, but her chin began to tremble and her teeth chattered.

A suspicious, cruel light came into the officer’s eyes. He bent his whole body from the bed with his ear to the door. The noise of many feet, of men evidently unused to moving cautiously, approached along the corridor, and suddenly was quiet before the door.

Ribnikov with a quick, soft movement leapt from the bed and twice turned the key. There was an instant knock at the door. With a cry the woman turned her face to the table and buried her head in her hands.

In a few seconds the captain was dressed. Again they knocked at the door. He had only his cap with him; he had left his sword and overcoat below. He was pale but perfectly calm. Even his hands did not tremble while he dressed himself, and all his movements were quite unhurried and adroit. Doing up the last button of his tunic, he went over to the woman, and suddenly squeezed her arm above the wrist with such terrible strength that her face purpled with the blood that rushed to her head.

“You!” he said quietly, in an angry whisper, without moving his jaws. “If you move or make a sound, I’ll kill you.⁠ ⁠…”

Again they knocked at the door, and a dull voice came: “Open the door, if you please.”

The captain now no longer limped. Quickly and silently he ran to the window, jumped on to the window-ledge with the soft spring of a cat, opened the shutters and with one sweep flung wide the window frames. Below him the paved yard showed white with scanty grass between the stones, and the branches of a few thin trees pointed upwards. He did not hesitate for a second; but at the very moment that he sat sideways on the iron frame of the windowsill, resting on it with his left hand, with one foot already hanging down, and prepared to leap with his whole body, the woman threw herself upon him with a piercing cry and caught him by the left arm. Tearing himself away, he made a false movement and suddenly, with a faint cry as though of surprise, fell in an awkward heap straight down on the stones.

Almost at the very second the old door fell flat into the room. First Leonka ran in, out of breath, showing his teeth; his eyes were aflame. After him came huge policemen, stamping and holding their swords in their left hands. When he saw the open window and the woman holding on the frame and screaming without pause, Leonka quickly understood what had happened. He was really a brave man, and without a thought or a word, as though he had already planned it, he took a running leap through the window.

He landed two steps away from Ribnikov, who lay motionless on his side. In spite of the drumming in his head, and the intense pain in his belly and his heels from the fall, he kept his head, and instantly threw himself heavily with the full weight of his body on the captain.

“A-ah. I’ve got you now,” he uttered hoarsely, crushing his victim in mad exasperation.

The captain did not resist. His eyes burned with an implacable hatred. But he was pale as death, and a pink froth stood in bubbles on his lips.

“Don’t crush me,” he whispered. “My leg’s broken.”