February 1837, outside St Petersburg
The bullet had no will, only a purpose, and it could not fulfill it alone. There was an eye that sighted along the barrel of the gun (if the bullet could see, it would see the same dark silhouette framed and reflected in the polished smooth bore), a finger that tightened on the trigger, a flint poised above the pan, and a trail of black powder from the pan to the chamber. Above all, there was a man who held the gun, who felt like a god wielding, for the moment, awesome power. Awesome, but not supreme.
The bullet felt no exhilaration (but the man did) as the trigger broke, as the flint fell toward the striker, as the sparks fell to the pan, as the powder caught and flared and burned its way into the chamber, just behind the bullet.
The bullet felt no disappointment as the trace of moisture in the powder slowed its combustion just enough so that the bullet was already moving before the last of the powder flashed into incandescent gas.
The bullet felt nothing at all as it fell to the ice moving just fast enough to bounce a few times, then roll and come to rest inches in front of the boot of the dark man it was meant to kill. It felt no apprehension as the dark man fired back; it felt no guilt as its erstwhile owner collapsed into the snow, his blood a scarlet stain that no one saw because a second later it melted through the crust and hid itself from sharply slanting sunlight.
The survivor, oddly, felt nothing for the longest second of his life; then something like pain, as life with which he made his farewell returned like blood to thawing hand, and with it all the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Of the two men, the survivor was by far the better read. His name was Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin; he was thirty-seven years old; he spoke six languages; he was Russia's greatest poet; and he wanted to go home. That was the other surprise (a smaller one,
to be sure, than the sheer astonishment of finding himself alive): he did not want to go to to a tavern or a gaming house where at this hour, barely past sunrise, games of hazard would still be going strong amid cups of wine constantly refilled, and other kinds of revels would be just beginning. He did not want to celebrate with old friends or newly-minted acquaintances, with long-time mistresses or starry-eyed girls with whom his dark deep hooded eyes, brooding hawklike face dark even in the dead of winter, and quick sardonic wit had irresistible success. He did not have a clever quatrain or a sophisticated sonnet ready to commemorate the occasion. He just wanted to go home to his wife.
July 1838, Via Sistina, Rome
"I can never go home again," said Pushkin.
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol nodded with understanding. "I have heard... Letters, traveling acquaintances stopping by... Your wife, running to D'Anthes' deathbed, crying in public at his funeral..."
"I opened my door," Pushkin said. "Natasha ran to me. She was frightened. I thought she was frightened for my safety. She searched my face, and then I watched as her own face -- melted and recast itself into a mold I'd never seen before, a mask of -- hatred, and anger, and -- of disappointment. She threw on a coat and started pulling on her boots. I don't know why I felt I had to apologize. I muttered something about
having better luck while he was the better shot. 'He was the better man,' my wife shouted, slamming the door. Later in the day, friends came. The Tsar was heard to mutter something that amounted to 'Will no one rid me of this tiresome blackamoor?' And here I am, a blackamoor who no longer has a home. Warsaw, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris -- all places are the same to me now. Rome, too; perhaps a better place than most, since you are here."
"If there exists a country in the world in which suffering, sorrow, death and one's own impotence are forgotten, that place is Rome: what would become of me elsewhere?" said Gogol, waving his arms as always when making a pronouncement, hyperbole attending his speech as subtlety his writing. "Italy is mine! No one can take it away from me. I was born here. Russia, St. Petersburg, snow, scoundrels, teaching the theatre: that was all a dream. I woke up anew in my homeland."
Pushkin turned to look about the room, its window facing west catching
at last the rays of setting sun.
Gogol's squalid, airless chamber belied his praise. The smallest gap between the shutters let in a shaft of light that, having sparked the plentiful dust suspended in the air into a faerie incandescence, struck the papers on Gogol's desk like a frozen thunderbolt. Unlike the rest of the room, hidden in murk, the half-completed page shone with reflected light as Gogol's words upon it, in cramped Cyrillic hand, shone with his brilliance:
*** With that P. donned his spectacles, and once more started to rummage
in the cupboard, and to smother his guest with dust as he untied
successive packages of papers--so much so that his victim burst out
sneezing. Finally he extracted a much-scribbled document in which the
names of the deceased slaves lay as close-packed as a cloud of midges,
for there were a hundred and twenty of them in all. C. grinned with
joy at the sight of the multitude. Stuffing the list into his pocket,
he remarked that, to complete the transaction, it would be necessary to
return to the town. ***
"Dead Souls," Gogol said. "You gave me the idea to write it, back in St
Petersburg, but it has since then taken a life of its own. I see the
characters, speak to them, they answer back; it is like THE INSPECTOR
all over again, but I'm afraid no one will ever read it. I don't know
if it will get past the censors; it was a close run for THE INSPECTOR,
and it hardly even mentions souls -- slaves, that is. Sometimes --
" Gogol stood motionless, his sad wet eyes looking at Pushkin, arms at
his sides as when he told the bare unembroidered truth -- "Sometimes I
despair. And I have no wish to return. It is not possible for beautiful
souls to live in Russia, only pigs can keep their heads above water
there," he said, raising his hands. "But, mostly, I am happy. In Rome,
my soul is luminous. I am working and I try with all my strength to bring
my book speedily towards its end. Life, life, a little bit more life!"
"A little bit more life," Pushkin said slowly. "What words can be more
fitting for my own device?"
"The duel?" Gogol whispered.
Pushkin nodded. "Not only the duel. What I will tell you, you will be
the first to hear." He paused. Gogol waited silently. "There is much
I told no one," Pushkin continued. "There's much I do not understand."
Gogol shrugged. "There's very little in life of which I can claim
comprehension. Tell me if you wish; I will not judge."
Pushkin inhaled deeply. "The night before the duel I went to the
Kazan Cathedral. I thought a prayer there might help me as it helped our
soldiers before they faced Napoleon's horde." Gogol nodded, recalling the
oft-repeated tale. Pushkin continued: "There was a beggar on the steps,
a ragged, mad, old Gypsy woman. She seized my coat; I felt her shiver and
reached for a kopeck in my pocket. She took it and looked into my eyes.
'I see your fate,' she said, and sang: 'Muscina, zhenscina, svinets,
Ot nih pridet tebe konets."
"Bozhe moi," exclaimed Gogol. "My God! 'Man, woman, lead/Of them you
will be dead?!' To hear this before a duel -- you must have..."
"I felt no fear," Pushkin interrupted. "Fear is for those who have
doubts. I knew I would die, there was no reason to worry; even the little
hope I had that caused my heart to flutter now and then when I considered
D'Anthes' reputation -- even that was gone. Fear is a colt by Doubt
out of Hope, and neither had been present in my stable by the morning."
Pushkin's words came quickly, as if untold the memories fermented to a
pressure such as no champagne cork ever held back. In giving memories
voice he also gave them leave:
"The sleigh ride to the river, the seconds' words, the pacing off --
these I do not remember; but I will never forget the black, malevolent
eye of D'Anthes' pistol erupt in fire. Yet nothing struck me. I raised
my pistol and fired at once. For a moment I thought I missed too;
then D'Anthes sank slowly to his knees."
Pushkin paused to regain his breath.
"The homeward journey took me along Nevsky Prospekt, past the same
cathedral. The mad beggarwoman was gone; the morning light suffused the
cupola, sparking off the gilded dome, and, though undoubtedly alive,
I could not rid me of the thought that the prophesy was true, and so
Gogol crossed himself, a quick Ukrainian gesture rather than the broad,
slow Russian one. When he spoke, his learned St Petersburg accent
acquired softer G's and deeper O's as, in his agitation, reverted to
the speech of his youth:
"A miracle! A miracle!" he sang, seizing Pushkin's arm. "Oh, to
think that such a poet as you could have his life extinguished by a --
buffoon! O, my friend, my teacher -- " At that his words failed him,
as spoken words had often done before. A look came to his eyes Gogol's
friends all knew quite well, as words his tongue refused to shape began
their orderly march onto the pages only he could see. It could be a
letter, or a novel -- whatever he was writing, Pushkin would see in
due course. Pushkin returned to the window. Beneath him, cobbled Via
Sistina ran between old peeling houses to the green expanse that hid
Villa Borghese from prying eyes, from all reports obscuring much that
would not stand the light of day. He saw a movement.
"Perhaps I worry too much," Pushkin said, "But I thought I saw a man,
on the ship to Civitavecchia..."
A shot rang out; with a thud, a ball buried itself in the ceiling
crossbeam. Gogol gasped.
"D'Anthes had many friends," Pushkin said, "and a rich stepfather. It
seems I must keep moving."
"You weren't in danger just now," Gogol said jokingly. "There is no
Pushkin sighed. "It's still about Natasha."
"We better pack, then," Gogol said.
"We?" Pushkin asked. "Why should you leave? You love it here. It's me
they are after."
Gogol shrugged; then picked up the page beneath the one Pushkin just read,
and handed it to Pushkin:
*** "To the town?" repeated P. "But why? How could I leave the house,
seeing that every one of my servants is either a thief or a rogue? Day
by day they pilfer things, until soon I shall have not a single coat to
hang on my back."
"Then you possess acquaintances in the town?"
"Acquaintances? No. Every acquaintance whom I ever possessed has either
left me or is dead. But stop a moment. I DO know the banker. Even in
my old age he has once or twice come to visit me, for he and I used to
be schoolfellows. Yes, him I do know. Shall I write him a letter?"
"By all means."
"Yes, him I know well, for we were friends together at school." ***
"I... think I see. But what of your novel?"
Gogol picked up the next sheet, handing it too, to Pushkin: "With you,"
he said, "I am... a better writer. INSPECTOR, SOULS -- both sprung from
your ideas. Please, Pushkin. Let me come with you."
*** Over P.'s wooden features there had gleamed a ray of warmth--a
ray which expressed, if not feeling, at all events feeling's pale
reflection. Just such a phenomenon may be witnessed when, for a brief
moment, a drowning man makes a last re-appearance on the surface of a
river, and there rises from the crowd lining the banks a cry of hope
that even yet the exhausted hands may clutch the rope which has been
thrown him--may clutch it before the surface of the unstable element
shall have resumed for ever its calm, dread vacuity. But the hope is
short-lived, and the hands disappear. Even so did P.'s face, after its
momentary manifestation of feeling, become meaner and more insensible
than ever. ***
"Very well," Pushkin said. "On to Geneva, then."
"Geneva it is," Gogol answered happily. "Uh -- what's in Geneva?"
"Villa Diodato," Pushkin answered.