The Shot by
From "Poushkin's Prose Tales." Translated by T. Keane.
We were stationed in the little town of N—. The life of an officer in
the army is well known. In the morning, drill and the riding-school;
dinner with the Colonel or at a Jewish restaurant; in the evening,
punch and cards. In N—- there was not one open house, not a single
marriageable girl. We used to meet in each other's rooms, where,
except our uniforms, we never saw anything.
One civilian only was admitted into our society. He was about
thirty-five years of age, and therefore we looked upon him as an old
fellow. His experience gave him great advantage over us, and his
habitual taciturnity, stern disposition, and caustic tongue produced a
deep impression upon our young minds. Some mystery surrounded his
existence; he had the appearance of a Russian, although his name was a
foreign one. He had formerly served in the Hussars, and with
distinction. Nobody knew the cause that had induced him to retire from
the service and settle in a wretched little village, where he lived
poorly and, at the same time, extravagantly. He always went on foot,
and constantly wore a shabby black overcoat, but the officers of our
regiment were ever welcome at his table. His dinners, it is true,
never consisted of more than two or three dishes, prepared by a retired
soldier, but the champagne flowed like water. Nobody knew what his
circumstances were, or what his income was, and nobody dared to
question him about them. He had a collection of books, consisting
chiefly of works on military matters and a few novels. He willingly
lent them to us to read, and never asked for them back; on the other
hand, he never returned to the owner the books that were lent to him.
His principal amusement was shooting with a pistol. The walls of his
room were riddled with bullets, and were as full of holes as a
honeycomb. A rich collection of pistols was the only luxury in the
humble cottage where he lived. The skill which he had acquired with
his favorite weapon was simply incredible: and if he had offered to
shoot a pear off somebody's forage-cap, not a man in our regiment would
have hesitated to place the object upon his head.
Our conversation often turned upon duels. Silvio—so I will call
him—never joined in it. When asked if he had ever fought, he dryly
replied that he had; but he entered into no particulars, and it was
evident that such questions were not to his liking. We came to the
conclusion that he had upon his conscience the memory of some unhappy
victim of his terrible skill. Moreover, it never entered into the head
of any of us to suspect him of anything like cowardice. There are
persons whose mere look is sufficient to repel such a suspicion. But
an unexpected incident occurred which astounded us all.
One day, about ten of our officers dined with Silvio. They drank as
usual, that is to say, a great deal. After dinner we asked our host to
hold the bank for a game at faro. For a long time he refused, for he
hardly ever played, but at last he ordered cards to be brought, placed
half a hundred ducats upon the table, and sat down to deal. We took
our places round him, and the play began. It was Silvio's custom to
preserve a complete silence when playing. He never disputed, and never
entered into explanations. If the punter made a mistake in
calculating, he immediately paid him the difference or noted down the
surplus. We were acquainted with this habit of his, and we always
allowed him to have his own way; but among us on this occasion was an
officer who had only recently been transferred to our regiment. During
the course of the game, this officer absently scored one point too
many. Silvio took the chalk and noted down the correct account
according to his usual custom. The officer, thinking that he had made a
mistake, began to enter into explanations. Silvio continued dealing in
silence. The officer, losing patience, took the brush and rubbed out
what he considered was wrong. Silvio took the chalk and corrected the
score again. The officer, heated with wine, play, and the laughter of
his comrades, considered himself grossly insulted, and in his rage he
seized a brass candlestick from the table, and hurled it at Silvio, who
barely succeeded in avoiding the missile. We were filled with
consternation. Silvio rose, white with rage, and with gleaming eyes,
"My dear sir, have the goodness to withdraw, and thank God that this
has happened in my house."
None of us entertained the slightest doubt as to what the result would
be, and we already looked upon our new comrade as a dead man. The
officer withdrew, saying that he was ready to answer for his offence in
whatever way the banker liked. The play went on for a few minutes
longer, but feeling that our host was no longer interested in the game,
we withdrew one after the other, and repaired to our respective
quarters, after having exchanged a few words upon the probability of
there soon being a vacancy in the regiment.
The next day, at the riding-school, we were already asking each other
if the poor lieutenant was still alive, when he himself appeared among
us. We put the same question to him, and he replied that he had not yet
heard from Silvio. This astonished us. We went to Silvio's house and
found him in the courtyard shooting bullet after bullet into an ace
pasted upon the gate. He received us as usual, but did not utter a
word about the event of the previous evening. Three days passed, and
the lieutenant was still alive. We asked each other in astonishment:
"Can it be possible that Silvio is not going to fight?"
Silvio did not fight. He was satisfied with a very lame explanation,
and became reconciled to his assailant.
This lowered him very much in the opinion of all our young fellows.
Want of courage is the last thing to be pardoned by young men, who
usually look upon bravery as the chief of all human virtues, and the
excuse for every possible fault. But, by degrees, everything became
forgotten, and Silvio regained his former influence.
I alone could not approach him on the old footing. Being endowed by
nature with a romantic imagination, I had become attached more than all
the others to the man whose life was an enigma, and who seemed to me
the hero of some mysterious drama. He was fond of me; at least, with
me alone did he drop his customary sarcastic tone, and converse on
different subjects in a simple and unusually agreeable manner. But
after this unlucky evening, the thought that his honor had been
tarnished, and that the stain had been allowed to remain upon it in
accordance with his own wish, was ever present in my mind, and
prevented me treating him as before. I was ashamed to look at him.
Silvio was too intelligent and experienced not to observe this and
guess the cause of it. This seemed to vex him; at least I observed
once or twice a desire on his part to enter into an explanation with
me, but I avoided such opportunities, and Silvio gave up the attempt.
From that time forward I saw him only in the presence of my comrades,
and our confidential conversations came to an end.
The inhabitants of the capital, with minds occupied by so many matters
of business and pleasure, have no idea of the many sensations so
familiar to the inhabitants of villages and small towns, as, for
instance, the awaiting the arrival of the post. On Tuesdays and
Fridays our regimental bureau used to be filled with officers: some
expecting money, some letters, and others newspapers. The packets were
usually opened on the spot, items of news were communicated from one to
another, and the bureau used to present a very animated picture.
Silvio used to have his letters addressed to our regiment, and he was
generally there to receive them.
One day he received a letter, the seal of which he broke with a look of
great impatience. As he read the contents, his eyes sparkled. The
officers, each occupied with his own letters, did not observe anything.
"Gentlemen," said Silvio, "circumstances demand my immediate departure;
I leave to-night. I hope that you will not refuse to dine with me for
the last time. I shall expect you, too," he added, turning towards me.
"I shall expect you without fail."
With these words he hastily departed, and we, after agreeing to meet at
Silvio's, dispersed to our various quarters.
I arrived at Silvio's house at the appointed time, and found nearly the
whole regiment there. All his things were already packed; nothing
remained but the bare, bullet-riddled walls. We sat down to table.
Our host was in an excellent humor, and his gayety was quickly
communicated to the rest. Corks popped every moment, glasses foamed
incessantly, and, with the utmost warmth, we wished our departing
friend a pleasant journey and every happiness. When we rose from the
table it was already late in the evening. After having wished
everybody good-bye, Silvio took me by the hand and detained me just at
the moment when I was preparing to depart.
"I want to speak to you," he said in a low voice.
I stopped behind.
The guests had departed, and we two were left alone. Sitting down
opposite each other, we silently lit our pipes. Silvio seemed greatly
troubled; not a trace remained of his former convulsive gayety. The
intense pallor of his face, his sparkling eyes, and the thick smoke
issuing from his mouth, gave him a truly diabolical appearance.
Several minutes elapsed, and then Silvio broke the silence.
"Perhaps we shall never see each other again," said he; "before we
part, I should like to have an explanation with you. You may have
observed that I care very little for the opinion of other people, but I
like you, and I feel that it would be painful to me to leave you with a
wrong impression upon your mind."
He paused, and began to knock the ashes out of his pipe. I sat gazing
silently at the ground.
"You thought it strange," he continued, "that I did not demand
satisfaction from that drunken idiot R—-. You will admit, however,
that having the choice of weapons, his life was in my hands, while my
own was in no great danger. I could ascribe my forbearance to
generosity alone, but I will not tell a lie. If I could have chastised
R—- without the least risk to my own life, I should never have
I looked at Silvio with astonishment. Such a confession completely
astounded me. Silvio continued:
"Exactly so: I have no right to expose myself to death. Six years ago
I received a slap in the face, and my enemy still lives."
My curiosity was greatly excited.
"Did you not fight with him?" I asked. "Circumstances probably
"I did fight with him," replied Silvio; "and here is a souvenir of our
Silvio rose and took from a cardboard box a red cap with a gold tassel
and embroidery (what the French call a bonnet de police); he put it
on—a bullet had passed through it about an inch above the forehead.
"You know," continued Silvio, "that I served in one of the Hussar
regiments. My character is well known to you: I am accustomed to
taking the lead. From my youth this has been my passion. In our time
dissoluteness was the fashion, and I was the most outrageous man in the
army. We used to boast of our drunkenness; I beat in a drinking bout
the famous Bourtsoff [Footnote: A cavalry officer, notorious for his
drunken escapades], of whom Denis Davidoff [Footnote: A military poet
who flourished in the reign of Alexander I] has sung. Duels in our
regiment were constantly taking place, and in all of them I was either
second or principal. My comrades adored me, while the regimental
commanders, who were constantly being changed, looked upon me as a
"I was calmly enjoying my reputation, when a young man belonging to a
wealthy and distinguished family—I will not mention his name—joined
our regiment. Never in my life have I met with such a fortunate
fellow! Imagine to yourself youth, wit, beauty, unbounded gayety, the
most reckless bravery, a famous name, untold wealth—imagine all these,
and you can form some idea of the effect that he would be sure to
produce among us. My supremacy was shaken. Dazzled by my reputation,
he began to seek my friendship, but I received him coldly, and without
the least regret he held aloof from me. I took a hatred to him. His
success in the regiment and in the society of ladies brought me to the
verge of despair. I began to seek a quarrel with him; to my epigrams
he replied with epigrams which always seemed to me more spontaneous and
more cutting than mine, and which were decidedly more amusing, for he
joked while I fumed. At last, at a ball given by a Polish landed
proprietor, seeing him the object of the attention of all the ladies,
and especially of the mistress of the house, with whom I was upon very
good terms, I whispered some grossly insulting remark in his ear. He
flamed up and gave me a slap in the face. We grasped our swords; the
ladies fainted; we were separated; and that same night we set out to
"The dawn was just breaking. I was standing at the appointed place
with my three seconds. With inexplicable impatience I awaited my
opponent. The spring sun rose, and it was already growing hot. I saw
him coming in the distance. He was walking on foot, accompanied by one
second. We advanced to meet him. He approached, holding his cap
filled with black cherries. The seconds measured twelve paces for us.
I had to fire first, but my agitation was so great, that I could not
depend upon the steadiness of my hand; and in order to give myself time
to become calm, I ceded to him the first shot. My adversary would not
agree to this. It was decided that we should cast lots. The first
number fell to him, the constant favorite of fortune. He took aim, and
his bullet went through my cap. It was now my turn. His life at last
was in my hands; I looked at him eagerly, endeavoring to detect if only
the faintest shadow of uneasiness. But he stood in front of my pistol,
picking out the ripest cherries from his cap and spitting out the
stones, which flew almost as far as my feet. His indifference annoyed
me beyond measure. 'What is the use,' thought I, 'of depriving him of
life, when he attaches no value whatever to it?' A malicious thought
flashed through my mind. I lowered my pistol.
"'You don't seem to be ready for death just at present,' I said to him:
'you wish to have your breakfast; I do not wish to hinder you.'
"'You are not hindering me in the least,' replied he. 'Have the
goodness to fire, or just as you please—the shot remains yours; I
shall always be ready at your service.'
"I turned to the seconds, informing them that I had no intention of
firing that day, and with that the duel came to an end.
"I resigned my commission and retired to this little place. Since then
not a day has passed that I have not thought of revenge. And now my
hour has arrived."
Silvio took from his pocket the letter that he had received that
morning, and gave it to me to read. Some one (it seemed to be his
business agent) wrote to him from Moscow, that a CERTAIN PERSON was
going to be married to a young and beautiful girl.
"You can guess," said Silvio, "who the certain person is. I am going
to Moscow. We shall see if he will look death in the face with as much
indifference now, when he is on the eve of being married, as he did
once with his cherries!"
With these words, Silvio rose, threw his cap upon the floor, and began
pacing up and down the room like a tiger in his cage. I had listened
to him in silence; strange conflicting feelings agitated me.
The servant entered and announced that the horses were ready. Silvio
grasped my hand tightly, and we embraced each other. He seated himself
in his telega, in which lay two trunks, one containing his pistols, the
other his effects. We said good-bye once more, and the horses galloped
Several years passed, and family circumstances compelled me to settle
in the poor little village of M—-. Occupied with agricultural
pursuits, I ceased not to sigh in secret for my former noisy and
careless life. The most difficult thing of all was having to accustom
myself to passing the spring and winter evenings in perfect solitude.
Until the hour for dinner I managed to pass away the time somehow or
other, talking with the bailiff, riding about to inspect the work, or
going round to look at the new buildings; but as soon as it began to
get dark, I positively did not know what to do with myself. The few
books that I had found in the cupboards and storerooms I already knew
by heart. All the stories that my housekeeper Kirilovna could remember
I had heard over and over again. The songs of the peasant women made me
feel depressed. I tried drinking spirits, but it made my head ache;
and moreover, I confess I was afraid of becoming a drunkard from mere
chagrin, that is to say, the saddest kind of drunkard, of which I had
seen many examples in our district.
I had no near neighbors, except two or three topers, whose conversation
consisted for the most part of hiccups and sighs. Solitude was
preferable to their society. At last I decided to go to bed as early
as possible, and to dine as late as possible; in this way I shortened
the evening and lengthened out the day, and I found that the plan
answered very well.
Four versts from my house was a rich estate belonging to the Countess
B—-; but nobody lived there except the steward. The Countess had only
visited her estate once, in the first year of her married life, and
then she had remained there no longer than a month. But in the second
spring of my hermitical life a report was circulated that the Countess,
with her husband, was coming to spend the summer on her estate. The
report turned out to be true, for they arrived at the beginning of June.
The arrival of a rich neighbor is an important event in the lives of
country people. The landed proprietors and the people of their
households talk about it for two months beforehand and for three years
afterwards. As for me, I must confess that the news of the arrival of
a young and beautiful neighbor affected me strongly. I burned with
impatience to see her, and the first Sunday after her arrival I set out
after dinner for the village of A—-, to pay my respects to the
Countess and her husband, as their nearest neighbor and most humble
servant. A lackey conducted me into the Count's study, and then went
to announce me. The spacious apartment was furnished with every
possible luxury. Around the walls were cases filled with books and
surmounted by bronze busts; over the marble mantelpiece was a large
mirror; on the floor was a green cloth covered with carpets.
Unaccustomed to luxury in my own poor corner, and not having seen the
wealth of other people for a long time, I awaited the appearance of the
Count with some little trepidation, as a suppliant from the provinces
awaits the arrival of the minister. The door opened, and a
handsome-looking man, of about thirty-two years of age, entered the
room. The Count approached me with a frank and friendly air; I
endeavored to be self-possessed and began to introduce myself, but he
anticipated me. We sat down. His conversation, which was easy and
agreeable, soon dissipated my awkward bashfulness; and I was already
beginning to recover my usual composure, when the Countess suddenly
entered, and I became more confused than ever. She was indeed
beautiful. The Count presented me. I wished to appear at ease, but
the more I tried to assume an air of unconstraint, the more awkward I
felt. They, in order to give me time to recover myself and to become
accustomed to my new acquaintances, began to talk to each other,
treating me as a good neighbor, and without ceremony. Meanwhile, I
walked about the room, examining the books and pictures. I am no judge
of pictures, but one of them attracted my attention. It represented
some view in Switzerland, but it was not the painting that struck me,
but the circumstance that the canvas was shot through by two bullets,
one planted just above the other.
"A good shot that!" said I, turning to the Count.
"Yes," replied he, "a very remarkable shot. . . . Do you shoot well?"
"Tolerably," replied I, rejoicing that the conversation had turned at
last upon a subject that was familiar to me. "At thirty paces I can
manage to hit a card without fail,—I mean, of course, with a pistol
that I am used to."
"Really?" said the Countess, with a look of the greatest interest.
"And you, my dear, could you hit a card at thirty paces?"
"Some day," replied the Count, "we will try. In my time I did not
shoot badly, but it is now four years since I touched a pistol."
"Oh!" I observed, "in that case, I don't mind laying a wager that Your
Excellency will not hit the card at twenty paces; the pistol demands
practice every day. I know that from experience. In our regiment I
was reckoned one of the best shots. It once happened that I did not
touch a pistol for a whole month, as I had sent mine to be mended; and
would you believe it, Your Excellency, the first time I began to shoot
again, I missed a bottle four times in succession at twenty paces. Our
captain, a witty and amusing fellow, happened to be standing by, and he
said to me: 'It is evident, my friend, that your hand will not lift
itself against the bottle.' No, Your Excellency, you must not neglect
to practise, or your hand will soon lose its cunning. The best shot
that I ever met used to shoot at least three times every day before
dinner. It was as much his custom to do this as it was to drink his
daily glass of brandy."
The Count and Countess seemed pleased that I had begun to talk.
"And what sort of a shot was he?" asked the Count.
"Well, it was this way with him, Your Excellency: if he saw a fly
settle on the wall—you smile, Countess, but, before Heaven, it is the
truth—if he saw a fly, he would call out: 'Kouzka, my pistol!' Kouzka
would bring him a loaded pistol—bang! and the fly would be crushed
against the wall."
"Wonderful!" said the Count. "And what was his name?"
"Silvio, Your Excellency."
"Silvio!" exclaimed the Count, starting up. "Did you know Silvio?"
"How could I help knowing him, Your Excellency: we were intimate
friends; he was received in our regiment like a brother officer, but it
is now five years since I had any tidings of him. Then Your Excellency
also knew him?"
"Oh, yes, I knew him very well. Did he ever tell you of one very
strange incident in his life?"
"Does Your Excellency refer to the slap in the face that he received
from some blackguard at a ball?"
"Did he tell you the name of this blackguard?"
"No, Your Excellency, he never mentioned his name, . . . Ah! Your
Excellency!" I continued, guessing the truth: "pardon me . . . I did
not know . . . could it really have been you?"
"Yes, I myself," replied the Count, with a look of extraordinary
agitation; "and that bullet-pierced picture is a memento of our last
"Ah, my dear," said the Countess, "for Heaven's sake, do not speak
about that; it would be too terrible for me to listen to."
"No," replied the Count: "I will relate everything. He knows how I
insulted his friend, and it is only right that he should know how
Silvio revenged himself."
The Count pushed a chair towards me, and with the liveliest interest I
listened to the following story:
"Five years ago I got married. The first month—the honeymoon—I spent
here, in this village. To this house I am indebted for the happiest
moments of my life, as well as for one of its most painful
"One evening we went out together for a ride on horseback. My wife's
horse became restive; she grew frightened, gave the reins to me, and
returned home on foot. I rode on before. In the courtyard I saw a
travelling carriage, and I was told that in my study sat waiting for me
a man, who would not give his name, but who merely said that he had
business with me. I entered the room and saw in the darkness a man,
covered with dust and wearing a beard of several days' growth. He was
standing there, near the fireplace. I approached him, trying to
remember his features.
"'You do not recognize me, Count?' said he, in a quivering voice.
"'Silvio!' I cried, and I confess that I felt as if my hair had
suddenly stood on end.
"'Exactly,' continued he. 'There is a shot due to me, and I have come
to discharge my pistol. Are you ready?'
"His pistol protruded from a side pocket. I measured twelve paces and
took my stand there in that corner, begging him to fire quickly, before
my wife arrived. He hesitated, and asked for a light. Candles were
brought in. I closed the doors, gave orders that nobody was to enter,
and again begged him to fire. He drew out his pistol and took aim. . .
. I counted the seconds. . . . I thought of her. . . . A terrible
minute passed! Silvio lowered his hand.
"'I regret,' said he, 'that the pistol is not loaded with cherry-stones
. . . the bullet is heavy. It seems to me that this is not a duel, but
a murder. I am not accustomed to taking aim at unarmed men. Let us
begin all over again; we will cast lots as to who shall fire first.'
"My head went round. . . . I think I raised some objection. . . . At
last we loaded another pistol, and rolled up two pieces of paper. He
placed these latter in his cap—the same through which I had once sent
a bullet—and again I drew the first number.
"'You are devilish lucky, Count,' said he, with a smile that I shall
"I don't know what was the matter with me, or how it was that he
managed to make me do it . . . but I fired and hit that picture."
The Count pointed with his finger to the perforated picture; his face
glowed like fire; the Countess was whiter than her own handkerchief;
and I could not restrain an exclamation.
"I fired," continued the Count, "and, thank Heaven, missed my aim.
Then Silvio . . . at that moment he was really terrible . . . Silvio
raised his hand to take aim at me. Suddenly the door opens, Masha
rushes into the room, and with a loud shriek throws herself upon my
neck. Her presence restored to me all my courage.
"'My dear,' said I to her, 'don't you see that we are joking? How
frightened you are! Go and drink a glass of water and then come back
to us; I will introduce you to an old friend and comrade.'
"Masha still doubted.
"'Tell me, is my husband speaking the truth?' said she, turning to the
terrible Silvio: 'is it true that you are only joking?'
"'He is always joking, Countess,' replied Silvio: 'once he gave me a
slap in the face in a joke; on another occasion he sent a bullet
through my cap in a joke; and just now, when he fired at me and missed
me, it was all in a joke. And now I feel inclined for a joke.'
"With these words he raised his pistol to take aim at me—right before
her! Masha threw herself at his feet.
"'Rise, Masha; are you not ashamed!' I cried in a rage: 'and you, sir,
will you cease to make fun of a poor woman? Will you fire or not?'
"'I will not,' replied Silvio: 'I am satisfied. I have seen your
confusion, your alarm. I forced you to fire at me. That is
sufficient. You will remember me. I leave you to your conscience.'
"Then he turned to go, but pausing in the doorway, and looking at the
picture that my shot had passed through, he fired at it almost without
taking aim, and disappeared. My wife had fainted away; the servants
did not venture to stop him, the mere look of him filled them with
terror. He went out upon the steps, called his coachman, and drove off
before I could recover myself."
The Count was silent. In this way I learned the end of the story,
whose beginning had once made such a deep impression upon me. The hero
of it I never saw again. It is said that Silvio commanded a detachment
of Hetairists during the revolt under Alexander Ipsilanti, and that he
was killed in the battle of Skoulana.