A Hero of Our Time Chapter 3 THE FATALIST

I once happened to spend two weeks in a Cossack stanitsa1 on the left flank. An infantry battalion was stationed there. The officers gathered in one another’s quarters in turns, and played cards.

Once, we stayed up late at Major S—’s, having become bored with Boston2 and thrown the cards under the table. The conversation was, for once, entertaining. We were discussing the Muslim belief that apparently says the fate of a man is written in the sky; this also finds many believers among us Christians. Each of us was recounting various unusual occurrences, pro and contra.

“All this, gentlemen, doesn’t prove anything,” said the old major. “Indeed, none of you have borne witness to these strange occurrences with which you are shoring up your opinions.”

“None of us has, of course,” the men said, “but we have heard these things from trusted people . . .”

“All this is nonsense!” someone said. “Where are these trusted people, who have seen this list that tells us the appointed hour of our death? . . . And if there is definitely such thing as predestination—why were we given free will, and reason? Why should we atone for our actions?”

At this time, an officer who had been sitting in the corner of the room stood and walked slowly up to the table, throwing a cool glance at the company. He was a Serbian type, which was evident from his name.

The exterior of Lieutenant Vulich corresponded entirely with his character. His great height and the dark complexion of his face, his black hair, his black and penetrating eyes, a big but straight nose (characteristic of his nation), a sad and cold smile eternally roaming on his lips—all this seemed to coordinate itself in giving him the look of a special being, not able to share thoughts and passions with those whom fate had given him to be his comrades.

He was brave, spoke little but incisively; he did not entrust anyone with the secrets of his spirit or family. He hardly drank wine, never pursued young Cossack girls—the charms of whom it is difficult to imagine without seeing them. They used to say, however, that the wife of the colonel was not indifferent to his expressive eyes. But he became seriously angry when you hinted at this.

There was only one passion that he didn’t hide: a passion for gambling. At the green table he forgot everything, and usually lost. But constant losses only aggravated his stubborn nature. They say that once, during a night expedition, he was keeping bank on his pillow, and he was having terrific luck. Suddenly shots rang out, an alarm was raised, everyone jumped up and dashed to their guns.

“Stake the bank!” cried Vulich to one of the hottest betters, without getting up.

“Sevens,” replied the other, running off. Disregarding the general chaos, Vulich shuffled the double-deck of cards, and the card was dealt.

When he appeared on the front line, there was already a fierce gunfight in progress. Vulich didn’t bother himself about the bullets, or the Chechen sabers. He was looking for his lucky punter.

“Seven it is!” he cried, finding him at last in the line of skirmishers, which had started to force the enemy out of the forest. Walking closer, he pulled out his coin-purse and wallet and gave them both to the lucky man, not paying attention to objections about the inappropriateness of the payment. Having fulfilled this unpleasant debt, he threw himself forward, carrying the soldiers along and fired back and forth with the Chechens with a cold and calm head, until the end.

When Lieutenant Vulich walked up to the table, everyone fell silent, expecting some original trick from him.

“Gentlemen!” he said (his voice was calm, even though his tone was lower than usual). “Gentlemen! What is this empty argument? You want proof: I suggest you put this to the test yourselves. Perhaps there is a person who will exercise his will and put their life at our disposal, or is a fateful minute affixed to each of us beforehand . . . Who is game?”

“Not me, not me,” resounded from every side. “What a crank! The things that enter his head!”

“I’ll make a wager!” I said, joking.

“Which one?”

“I assert that predestination does not exist,” I said, pouring some two dozen gold pieces onto the table—everything that was in my pocket.

“I’ll take it,” replied Vulich in a muffled voice. “Major, you will be the judge; here are fifteen gold pieces, the remaining five you owe me, and please do me the kindness of adding them to this.”

“I will,” said the major, “only I don’t understand, really, what is happening, and how you will decide the matter?”

Vulich went into the major’s sleeping quarters without saying anything; we followed him. He walked up to a wall where some guns were hanging. At random he took down one of the variously calibered pistols from its nail; we still didn’t understand him but when he cocked the gun and poured gunpowder into the pan, many couldn’t help but cry out, and they grabbed his arms.

“What do you want to do? Listen, this is madness!” they screamed at him.

“Gentlemen!” he said slowly, freeing his hands. “Whom would it please to pay twenty gold pieces on my behalf?”

Everyone went quiet and stepped away.

Vulich walked into the other room and sat at the table. Everyone followed him. With a gesture, he invited us to sit down in a circle. Silently we obeyed him. At that moment he had acquired some kind of secret power over us. I looked him intently in the eye. With a calm and motionless gaze, he met my searching look, and his pale lips smiled. But, despite his composure, it seemed to me that I could read the stamp of death on his pale face. I had been making observations, and many old soldiers had confirmed my observations, that there is often some sort of strange imprint of inescapable fate on the face of a man who would die in a few hours’ time, so much so that to an experienced eye it is hard to mistake.

“You will die today!” I said to him.

He turned quickly to me, but answered slowly and calmly:

“Maybe yes, maybe no . . .” And then, addressing the major, he asked, “Is the pistol loaded?” The major in confusion couldn’t remember very well.

“Yes, it is, Vulich!” someone cried. “Of course it’s loaded if it’s hanging at the head of the bed—why play the fool?”

“A stupid joke!” another chimed in.

“I’ll wager fifty rubles to five that the pistol isn’t loaded!” a third cried out.

New bets were made.

I was becoming fed up with this long ceremony.

“Listen,” I said, “either shoot yourself or hang the pistol back in its former place and let’s all go to bed.”

“Of course,” many exclaimed, “let’s all go to bed.”

“Gentlemen, I ask you to not move from your places!” said Vulich, putting the muzzle of the pistol to his forehead. Everyone seemed to turn to stone.

“Mr. Pechorin,” he added, “take a card and throw it up.”

I took, as I remember it now, an ace of hearts from the table and threw it upward; everyone’s breathing stopped; all eyes, showing fear and a sort of ambiguous curiosity, ran between the pistol and the fateful ace, which quivered in the air and slowly fell. The moment it touched the table, Vulich pulled the trigger . . . a misfire!

“Thank God!” many cried out. “It wasn’t loaded!”

“But, let’s see . . .” said Vulich. He cocked the gun again and took aim at a military cap hanging above the window. A shot rang out—the smoke filled the room. When it dissipated, they took down the military cap: it was shot right through the middle, and the bullet was lodged deeply in the wall.

About three minutes passed, and no one could utter a word. Vulich poured my gold pieces into his purse.

There was talk about the fact that the pistol didn’t fire the first time; some maintained that the pan had probably been clogged, others were saying in whispers that the gunpowder was damp the first time and that Vulich had poured some fresh powder into it afterward. But I claimed that the latter suggestion was unfounded, because I hadn’t taken my eyes from the pistol once.

“You are lucky in gambling,” I said to Vulich.

“For the first time since I was born,” he replied, smiling with self-satisfaction. “This is better than faro3 and stuss.”4

“And a little more dangerous, too.”

“What’s this? Are you starting to believe in predestination?”

“I believe in it; but I don’t understand why I was so certain that you would die today . . .”

And the man, who had aimed so coolly at his own forehead not long ago, now suddenly blushed and became embarrassed.

“Enough now!” he said, standing up. “Our wager has been settled, and now your observations, I think, are inappropriate . . .” He took his hat and walked out. This seemed strange to me—and for good reason!

Soon everyone dispersed to their houses, variously talking about Vulich’s caprice and, probably, unanimously calling me an egoist since I had made a wager with a man who wanted to shoot himself. As if, without me, he wouldn’t have found a convenient occasion!

I was returning home along the empty lanes of the stanitsa; the moon, full and red, like the glow of a fire, was beginning to show itself from behind the jagged horizon of houses. The stars calmly shone in the dark-blue vault of the sky, and I was amused to remember that there were once very sage people who thought that heavenly bodies took part in our insignificant arguments over little tufts of earth or over various invented rights . . . ! And what happened? These lamps which were lit, in their opinion in order to illuminate their battles and victories, still burn with their original brilliance, while their own passions and hopes were extinguished long ago along with their very selves, like small fires lit at the edge of a wood by a careless wanderer! And then what force of will gave them the conviction that the whole sky, with its innumerable population, was watching them with constant concern, mute though it may have been! . . . And we, their pitiful descendants, wandering the earth without conviction or pride, without pleasure or fear, but with that involuntary dread that grips the heart at the thought of an inescapable end—we are no longer able to be great martyrs, not for the good of mankind, nor even for the sake of our own happiness, because we know it is impossible. And we shift indifferently from one doubt to another, just as our ancestors rushed from one delusion to the next, but without having, as they did, either hope or even that indeterminate but real pleasure that meets the soul in every struggle with people or fate . . .

Many similar such thoughts passed through my mind, and I didn’t suppress them because I don’t like to dwell on any sort of abstract thought. Where would that lead me? . . . In my early youth I was a dreamer, I loved to cherish gloomy and iridescent images in turn, which my restless and thirsty imagination painted for me. But what did this leave me with? Only fatigue, like that which comes after a nocturnal battle with a specter, and dim recollections, filled with regret. In this pointless struggle I exhausted both the fire of my soul and the constancy of my will, both necessary for a real life. I then set about living this life, having survived it already in my thoughts, and I became bored and repulsed, like a man who is reading a stupid imitation of a book with which he has long been familiar.

The incidents of the evening had made a rather deep impression on me and agitated my nerves. I do not know whether now I do indeed believe in predestination or not, but I firmly believed in it that night. The proof was striking, and despite the fact that I had mocked our ancestors and their obliging astrology, I had fallen involuntarily into their trap but stopped myself from following this dangerous path just in time. And having the rule of never rejecting anything absolutely, and never believing in anything blindly, I threw out metaphysics and started to look beneath my feet. Such precaution was very apt. I nearly fell, stumbling on something fat and soft, but by all appearances, not living. I stooped—the moon was shining directly onto the road—and what was it? In front of me lay a swine, cleaved in half by a saber . . . I had barely managed to examine it when I heard the noise of footsteps. Two Cossacks were running from the alley; one walked up to me and asked if I had seen a drunk Cossack chasing a swine. I declared to them that I had not met said Cossack and pointed to the unfortunate victim of his frenzied bravery.

“What a scoundrel!” said the second Cossack. “When he drinks too much chikhir,5 then he’s off hacking to pieces everything that he sees. Let’s go after him, Yeremeich, we must tie him up, otherwise . . .”

They went off, and I continued on my path with great care and happily made it to my quarters at last.

I stayed with an old uryadnik,6 whom I loved for his good morals, and especially for his pretty daughter, Nastya.

She was waiting for me at the wicket gate as usual, wrapped in a fur coat. The moon lit up her lovely lips, which had turned a little blue from the cold of the night. Having recognized me, she smiled, but I wasn’t in the mood. “Good night, Nastya,” I said, walking past. She wanted to say something in reply but simply sighed.

I closed the door to my room behind me and lit the candle and fell onto my bed. But slumber made me wait for it longer than usual. The east was already paling when I fell asleep, but apparently it was written in the skies that I wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep. At four o’clock in the morning, two fists knocked on my window. I jumped up. “What is it?”

“Get up! Get dressed!” various voices cried to me. I quickly dressed and went out. “Do you know what has happened?” three officers asked me in unison, coming for me. They were as pale as death.


“Vulich has been killed.”

I turned to stone.

“Yes, killed,” they continued. “Let’s go, quickly.”

“Where to?!”

“You’ll find out on the way . . .”

We went off. They told me all that had happened, adding remarks about the strange predestination that had saved him from inevitable death half an hour before his death. Vulich had been walking alone along a dark street; the drunk Cossack who had cleaved the swine galloped at him and might have passed him by without noticing Vulich had the latter not stopped and said:

“Brother, whom are you looking for?”

“You!” replied the Cossack, striking him with his saber, slicing him from the shoulder almost to the heart . . . The two Cossacks I encountered, who had been tracking the murderer, had appeared just then; they picked up the wounded man, but he was already at his final breath, saying, “He was right!” I alone understood the dark meaning of these words. They referred to me. I had involuntarily predicted his poor fate. My instinct had not fooled me. I had correctly read the stamp of near demise in his altered face.

The murderer had locked himself in an empty hut at the end of the stanitsa. We went there. A mass of women were weeping while running in the same direction. From time to time a tardy Cossack galloped out onto the street, hurriedly fastening his dagger to his belt, and outstripping us at a gallop.

The turmoil was terrible.

At long last we arrived. We watched: a crowd stood around the peasant house, the doors and shutters of which were locked from the inside. Officers and Cossacks talked heatedly among themselves. The women were wailing, condemning and reckoning. My eyes were cast on to an old woman among them, whose conspicuous face was expressing mad despair. She was sitting on a thick log, leaning her elbows on her knees, and supporting her head with her hands: it was the mother of the murderer. Her lips stirred from time to time. Were they whispering a curse or a prayer?

In the meantime, something needed to be resolved, and the criminal needed to be captured. No one, however, dared to cast himself forward. I walked up to the window and looked through a chink in the shutters. He lay on the floor, pale, holding a pistol in his right hand. His bloodied saber lay next to him. His expressive eyes were rolling around in a frightening way. Now and then he flinched and grabbed hold of his head, as if indistinctly remembering yesterday’s events. I didn’t read any significant resolution in this agitated gaze and said to the major that it was pointless of him not to order the Cossacks to break down the door and rush in because it would be better done now than later when he had completely come to his senses.

At this time, old Esaul walked up to the door and called him by name; the latter responded.

“You have sinned, brother Efimych,” said Esaul, “and there’s nothing to be done—give yourself up!”

“I will not give up!” answered the Cossack.

“Fear God. After all, you are not an accursed Chechen, but an honest Christian. And well, if your sin has led you astray, then there is nothing to be done—you won’t avoid your fate!”

“I will not give up!” the Cossack cried threateningly, and the cracking of his cocking-piece was audible.

“Hey, auntie,” said Esaul to the old woman, “talk to your boy, perhaps he will listen to you . . . All this will only anger God. Yes, and see here, these men have waited two hours already.”

The old woman looked at him intently and shook her head.

“Vasily Petrovich,” said Esaul, walking up to the major. “He won’t give himself up—I know him. But if we break down the door, then many of our people will be killed. Would it not be better to order him shot? There is a big chink in the shutters.”

At that minute a strange thought flashed through my head: like Vulich, I was thinking of testing fate.

“Wait,” I said to the major, “I will get him alive.”

Having ordered Esaul to engage him in conversation and placing three Cossacks at the door, ready to beat it down and rush to my aid at the given signal, I walked around the peasant house and approached the fateful window. My heart was pounding.

“Oh, you, accursed man!” cried Esaul. “What are you doing—mocking us, are you? Or do you think we won’t get the better of you?”

He started knocking on the door with all his might. Having put my eye to the chink in the shutter, I followed the movements of the Cossack, who wasn’t expecting an attack from this side. And suddenly I ripped off the shutter and flung myself headfirst through the window. A shot rang out just above my ear; the bullet tore my epaulet. But the smoke that had filled the room prevented my opponent from finding his saber, which was lying next to him. I grabbed him by the arm; the Cossacks burst in, and three minutes hadn’t passed before the criminal was tied up and led off under guard. The people walked off. The officers congratulated me—and for good reason!

After all this, how could one not become a fatalist? But who knows for sure if he is convinced of something or not? . . . And how often do we take a deception of feelings or a blunder of common sense for a conviction!

I love to doubt everything: this inclination of mind doesn’t hinder the decisiveness of a character—on the contrary, as far as I am concerned, I am always braver going forward when I don’t know what to expect. After all, nothing can happen that is worse than death—and you can’t avoid death!

Having returned to the fortress, I recounted to Maxim Maximych all that had happened to me and all that I had witnessed, and wanted to know his opinion on the count of predestination. At first he didn’t understand the word, but I explained it to him as best I could and then he said significantly, shaking his head:

“Yes, sir. Of course. Quite a wise old joke! . . . But those Asian cocking-pieces frequently misfire if they are badly greased or if you haven’t pressed hard enough with your finger. I admit I don’t much like Chechen rifles, either. They are somehow unbecoming to our brothers. The butt is small—look into them and you burn your nose! That said, their sabers demand respect, pure and simple!”

Then, having thought for a while, he added:

“Yes, I have pity for the wretch . . . The devil possessed him to talk to a drunk that night! But, clearly, it had been written for him in the sky at his birth . . . !”

I couldn’t get any more out of him; he doesn’t like metaphysical debates in general.