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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.
249 pages with a reading time of ~4 hours (62297 words), and first published in 1863. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2010.
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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. A yard-porter muffled up and pinched with cold is sheltering behind the corner of the house.
[Footnote 1: In those pre-rail days travellers usually relied on vehicles hired at the posting-stations.]
‘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.
‘Now I can speak out fully,’ said the traveller. ‘I don’t want to defend myself, but I should like you at least to understand me as I understand myself, and not look at the matter superficially. You say I have treated her badly,’ he continued, addressing the man with the kindly eyes who was watching him.
‘Yes, you are to blame,’ said the latter, and his look seemed to express still more kindliness and weariness.
‘I know why you say that,’ rejoined the one who was leaving. ‘To be loved is in your opinion as great a happiness as to love, and if a man obtains it, it is enough for his whole life.’
‘Yes, quite enough, my dear fellow, more than enough!’ confirmed the plain little man, opening and shutting his eyes.
‘But why shouldn’t the man love too?’ said the traveller thoughtfully, looking at his friend with something like pity. ‘Why shouldn’t one love? Because love doesn’t come … No, to be beloved is a misfortune. It is a misfortune to feel guilty because you do not give something you cannot give. O my God!’ he added, with a gesture of his arm. ‘If it all happened reasonably, and not all topsy-turvy–not in our way but in a way of its own! Why, it’s as if I had stolen that love! You think so too, don’t deny it. You must think so. But will you believe it, of all the horrid and stupid things I have found time to do in my life–and there are many–this is one I do not and cannot repent of. Neither at the beginning nor afterwards did I lie to myself or to her. It seemed to me that I had at last fallen in love, but then I saw that it was an involuntary falsehood, and that that was not the way to love, and I could not go on, but she did. Am I to blame that I couldn’t? What was I to do?’
‘Well, it’s ended now!’ said his friend, lighting a cigar to master his sleepiness. ‘The fact is that you have not yet loved and do not know what love is.’
The man in the fur-lined coat was going to speak again, and put his hands to his head, but could not express what he wanted to say.
‘Never loved! … Yes, quite true, I never have! But after all, I have within me a desire to love, and nothing could be stronger than that desire! But then, again, does such love exist? There always remains something incomplete. Ah well! What’s the use of talking? I’ve made an awful mess of life! But anyhow it’s all over now; you are quite right. And I feel that I am beginning a new life.’
‘Which you will again make a mess of,’ said the man who lay on the sofa playing with his watch-key. But the traveller did not listen to him.
‘I am sad and yet glad to go,’ he continued. ‘Why I am sad I don’t know.’