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Olenin was a youth who had never completed his university course, never served anywhere (having only a nominal post in some government office or other), who had squandered half his fortune and had reached the age of twenty-four without having done anything or even chosen a career. He was what in Moscow society is termed un jeune homme. But he did find a career – he took a post as a Cadet in the army, and ended up assigned to Transcaucasia. This is the place – here among the Tatars, the Chechens, and the Old Believers – this is the place where Olenin will find love in the arms of a beautiful Cossack girl – a young woman who is promised to a Cossack warrior.
All is quiet in Moscow. The squeak of wheels is seldom heard in the snow–covered street. There are no lights left in the windows and the street lamps have been extinguished. Only the sound of bells, borne over the city from the church towers, suggests the approach of morning. The streets are deserted. At rare intervals a night–cabman’s sledge kneads up the snow and sand in the street as the driver makes his way to another corner where he falls asleep while waiting for a fare. An old woman passes by on her way to church, where a few wax candles burn with a red light reflected on the gilt mountings of the icons. Workmen are already getting up after the long winter night and going to their work—but for the gentlefolk it is still evening.
From a window in Chevalier’s Restaurant a light—illegal at that hour—is still to be seen through a chink in the shutter. At the entrance a carriage, a sledge, and a cabman’s sledge, stand close together with their backs to the curbstone. A three–horse sledge from the post–station is there also.
In those pre–rail days travellers usually relied on vehicles hired at the posting–stations. A yard–porter muffled up and pinched with cold is sheltering behind the corner of the house.
‘And what’s the good of all this jawing?’ thinks the footman who sits in the hall weary and haggard. ‘This always happens when I’m on duty.’ From the adjoining room are heard the voices of three young men, sitting there at a table on which are wine and the remains of supper. One, a rather plain, thin, neat little man, sits looking with tired kindly eyes at his friend, who is about to start on a journey. Another, a tall man, lies on a sofa beside a table on which are empty bottles, and plays with his watch–key. A third, wearing a short, fur–lined coat, is pacing up and down the room stopping now and then to crack an almond between his strong, rather thick, but well–tended fingers. He keeps smiling at something and his face and eyes are all aglow. He speaks warmly and gesticulates, but evidently does not find the words he wants and those that occur to him seem to him inadequate to express what has risen to his heart.