A Hero of Our Time May 11

Yesterday I arrived in Pyatigorsk and hired quarters at the edge of town, at the highest point, at the foot of Mount Mashuk. When a storm arrives, the clouds will come right down to my roof. Today, at five o’clock in the morning, when I opened the window, my room filled with the scent of the flowers, which grow inside the modest palisade. The blooming branches of a cherry tree look at me through my window, and the wind strews my writing desk with white petals. The view in three directions is marvelous. To the west the five-headed Beshtau is shining blue, like “the last storm-cloud of a dissipating storm.”1 To the north rises Mashuk, like a shaggy Persian hat, covering one whole part of the horizon. Looking eastward is more cheering: below, a clean and new little town is flashing its colors, curative springs are babbling, the many-tongued crowd is babbling; in the distance an amphitheater of blue and cloudy hills towers over the town; and farther still, a silver chain of snowy peaks extends along the horizon’s edge, beginning with Kazbek and ending with the two-headed Elbrus . . . What joy to live in such country! A kind of joyful feeling has spread to all my veins. The air is clean and fresh, like the kiss of a baby; the sun is bright, the sky blue—what more could one wish? What place do passions, desires, and regrets have here? . . . But it’s time now. I am going to Elizabeth’s Spring: it is said that the whole spa community gathers there in the morning.

I went down into the middle of the town and walked the boulevard, where I met several doleful groups going slowly up the hill. One could immediately guess by the worn, out-of-fashion frock coats of the husbands and by the refined apparel of the wives and daughters, that mostly these groups were the households of a landowner from the Steppe. It was obvious that the spa’s young men had already been found and counted because they looked at me with a tender curiosity. My Petersburg-cut frock coat led them to an initial illusion, but as soon as they recognized the army epaulets they turned away with indignation.

The wives of the local authorities, the “mistresses of the waters,” so to speak, were more gracious. They have lorgnettes, they pay less attention to uniform, and they are accustomed in the Caucasus to meeting ardent hearts beneath numbered buttons and educated minds under white military caps. These ladies are very charming and remain so for a long time! Every year their admirers are relieved by new ones, and this is perhaps the secret of their inexhaustible graciousness. Climbing the narrow path to the Elizabeth Spring, I overtook a crowd of men, civilian and military, which, as I later learned, comprised a particular class of people among those hoping to benefit from the action of the waters. They drink (but not the waters); they promenade little; they flirt but only in passing; they gamble; and they complain of boredom. They are dandies: they adopt academic poses as they lower their wickered glasses into the well of sulfurous water. The civilians among them wear light-blue neckcloths, and the military turn out the frills of their collars. They profess deep disdain toward provincial houses and long for the aristocratic drawing rooms of the capital where they wouldn’t be admitted.

Finally, the well . . . In the little square next to it there is a small house with a red roof built over baths, and beyond that is a gallery where people promenade during rainstorms. A few injured officers sat on a bench, their crutches tucked up—pale, sad. A few ladies were walking to and fro with quick steps around the square, awaiting the effects of the water. There were two or three lovely little faces among them. Under the alley of vines obscuring the slope of Mount Mashuk, I could see the occasional flashings of a colorful hat, which must have belonged to persons who loved company in their solitude, since there was always a military cap, or one of those ugly round hats next to it. In a pavilion called the Aeolian Harp, which was built above a steep rock-face, the lovers of views hung about and directed a telescope at Mount Elbrus. Among them were two tutors with their pupils, come to be cured of scrofula.

I stopped, out of breath, on the edge of the hill and, leaning on the corner of a little house, I started to examine the picturesque environs, when suddenly I heard a familiar voice behind me:

“Pechorin! Have you been here long?”

I turn around: Grushnitsky! We embraced. I had met him on active service. He had been wounded by a bullet in the leg and had come to the waters a week before me.

Grushnitsky is a cadet. After just a year in service, he wears a heavy soldier’s greatcoat—a particular kind of dandyism. He has the St. George’s Cross for soldiers. He is well-built, has black hair and a dark complexion. He looks as though he is twenty-five years old, but he is barely twenty-one. He throws his head back when he talks and he twists his mustache with his left hand all the time, while the right hand leans on his crutch. His speech is quick and fanciful: he is one of those people who have a flamboyant phrase ready for any situation, who aren’t touched by the simply beautiful, and who grandly drape themselves with extraordinary feelings, sublime passions and exceptional suffering. They delight in producing an effect. They are madly fancied by romantic provincial girls. Toward old age, they become either peaceful landowners, or drunks—and sometimes both. There are often many good attributes to their souls, but not a half-kopeck piece of poetry. Grushnitsky’s passion was to declaim: he bespattered you with words as soon as the conversation left the arena of usual understanding; I could never argue with him. He doesn’t answer objections, he doesn’t listen to you. As soon as you stop, he begins a long tirade, which seemingly has some sort of connection to what you have just said, but which in fact is only a continuation of his own speech.

He is fairly sharp: his epigrams are often amusing, but they are never well-aimed or wicked. He will never slay a person with one word. He doesn’t know people and their weak strings because he has been occupied with himself alone for his whole life. His goal is to be the hero of a novel. He has so often tried to convince people that he is not of this world but is doomed to some sort of secret torture, that he has almost convinced himself of it. This is why he so proudly wears his heavy soldier’s greatcoat. I have seen through him, and for this he doesn’t like me, even though on the exterior we have the most friendly of relationships. Grushnitsky has a reputation for being an excellent brave. I have seen him in action. He waves his saber, cries out, and throws himself forward, with screwed up eyes. This is something other than Russian courage!

I don’t like him either: I feel that one day we shall bump into each other on a narrow road and it will end badly for one of us.

His arrival in the Caucasus was the consequence of just such romantic fanaticism. I am sure that on the eve of his departure from his father’s village he was telling some pretty neighborhood girl with a gloomy look that he was going not just to serve in the army but that he was in search of death, because . . . and then he, probably, covered his eyes with his hands and continued: “No, you mustn’t know this! Your pure soul will shudder! And why would I? What am I to you? Do you understand me?” and so on.

He himself has told me that what induced him to join the K—regiment will remain an eternal secret between him and the heavens.

However, during those moments when he drops his tragic mantle, Grushnitsky is rather charming and amusing. I am curious to see him with women: here, I think, he will apply himself!

We greeted each other like old friends. I started to question him about the way of life at the spa and about its noteworthy personages.

“We lead a fairly prosaic life,” he said, exhaling. “Those who drink water in the morning are sluggish, like all ill people, and those who drink wine in the evenings are intolerable, like all healthy people. There is female company but they don’t provide much consolation: they play whist,2 dress badly, and speak terrible French. This year, only Princess Ligovsky is here with her daughter, but I haven’t met them yet. My soldier’s greatcoat is like the stamp of an outcast. The sympathy it arouses is as oppressive as alms.”

At that moment two ladies walked past us toward the well: one was older, the other young and well-proportioned. I didn’t catch sight of their faces under their hats, but they were dressed according to the strict rules of the best taste: nothing extraneous. The second lady wore a high-necked dress in gris de perles, with a light silk fichu3 twisted around her lithe neck. Little boots du couleur puce were tightened at her ankle, and her lean little foot was so sweet that even those uninitiated into the secrets of beauty would unfailingly have exclaimed “ah!”—even if only in surprise. Her light but noble gait contained something virginal about it that escaped definition, but it was decipherable to the gaze. When she walked past us, an indescribable aroma wafted from her, the kind that emanates sometimes from the letter of a beloved lady.

“That is Princess Ligovsky,” said Grushnitsky, “and with her is her daughter, Mary, as she is called in the English manner. They have been here only three days.”

“But you already know her name?”

“Yes, I heard it accidentally,” he replied, blushing. “I admit that I don’t want to be introduced. This proud nobility looks at us army-men like savages. And what is it to them whether there is a mind underneath this numbered military cap and a heart beneath this heavy greatcoat?”

“The poor greatcoat!” I said, bursting into laughter, “and who is the gentleman who is walking up to them and so courteously offering them a glass?”

“Oh! That is the Muscovite dandy Rayevich! He is a gambler: it is immediately obvious from the enormous gold chain, which coils around his light blue waistcoat. And what of the heavy walking stick—just like Robinson Crusoe! Yes, and his beard for that matter, and hair are à la moujik.”4

“You are embittered against the whole human race.”

“And for good reason . . .”

“Oh! Is that right?”

At that moment the ladies had walked away from the well and came up level with us. Grushnitsky managed to strike a dramatic pose with the help of his crutch and responded to me loudly in French:

“Mon cher, je haïs les hommes pour ne pas mépriser, car autrement la vie serait une farce trop dégoutante.”5

The pretty princess turned around and gifted the orator with a long and curious gaze. The expression of this gaze was very ambiguous but not mocking, for which I applauded her from my innermost soul.

“This Princess Mary is very pretty,” I said to him. “She has such velvet eyes—yes, velvet. I advise you to appropriate this expression when speaking about her eyes. Her lower and upper eyelashes are so long that the rays of the sun don’t reflect in her pupils. I love eyes that have no reflection; they are so soft, it’s as though they stroke you . . . However, it seems that everything about her face is pretty . . . But now, are her teeth white? This is very important! A shame that she didn’t smile at your magnificent sentence.”

“You speak about pretty ladies as though they’re English horses,” said Grushnitsky with indignation.

“Mon cher,” I replied to him, attempting to imitate his tone, “je méprise les femmes pour ne pas les aimer, car autrement la vie serait un mélodrame trop ridicule.”6

I turned and walked in the other direction. For about half an hour I wandered along the grapevine alleys, along the limestone ledge, and among the shrubbery that hung between them. It was becoming hot, and I hurried back. Walking past the sulfurous spring, I stopped at the covered gallery to catch my breath in its shade, and this provided me with the occasion to witness a rather curious scene. The central characters were in this arrangement: the elder princess sat with the Muscovite dandy on a bench in the covered gallery, and both were engaged, it seemed, in a serious conversation. The young princess, probably having drunk her last glass, was strolling pensively by the well. Grushnitsky was standing at the well itself; and there was no one else in the little square.

I approached and hid in a corner of the gallery. At that moment Grushnitsky let his glass fall in the sand and then tried to bend down and pick it up—but his injured leg was in the way. Poor thing! How he was contriving, leaning on his crutch, making vain attempts. His expressive face really did convey suffering.

Princess Mary saw all of this better than I did.

Lighter than a little bird, she ran up to him, bent down, lifted the glass and gave it to him in a motion performed with indescribable charm. Then she blushed terribly, looked back at the gallery and, having reassured herself that her mama hadn’t seen anything, calmed down immediately. By the time Grushnitsky had opened his mouth to thank her, she was already far gone. After a minute she came out of the gallery with her mother and the dandy, but assumed an air of utter propriety and importance as she passed Grushnitsky. She didn’t even turn, didn’t even notice the ardent look with which he long accompanied her, while she descended the hill and was eventually obscured by the linden trees of the boulevard . . . But then, her hat flashed on the other side of the street; she was running into one of the best houses of Pyatigorsk. The elder princess walked in after her and exchanged bows with Rayevich at the threshold.

Only then did the poor ardent cadet notice my presence.

“Did you see that?” he said, squeezing my hand tightly. “She is simply an angel!”

“Why?” I asked with an appearance of the purest sincerity.

“Didn’t you see it?”

“No, I didn’t see it. She picked up your glass. If the sentry had been here, he would have done the same, and even more swiftly in hopes of a tip. However, it’s perfectly understandable that she was sorry for you. You were making such an awful grimace, when you stood on your wounded leg . . .”

“And you weren’t at all moved, looking at her, at the moment when her soul shined through her face?”


I was lying, but I wanted to infuriate him. I have a congenital desire to contradict; my whole life is merely a chain of sad and unsuccessful contradictions to heart and mind. When faced with enthusiasm, I am seized by a midwinter freeze, and I suppose that frequent dealings with sluggish phlegmatics would have made a passionate dreamer of me. I will also confess that a feeling, unpleasant yet familiar, lightly ran over my heart at that moment—and this feeling was envy. I say “envy” boldly because I have become accustomed to admitting to everything; and you will rarely find a young man who, upon meeting a pretty girl who has captured his idle attention and discovering that she has suddenly singled out another man, equally unknown to her—you will rarely find, I tell you, a young man (it goes without saying that he lives in le grande monde, and is used to indulging his vanity) who would not be struck unpleasantly by this.

Grushnitsky and I descended the hill in silence and walked down the boulevard, past the windows of the house in which our beauty had hidden herself. She was sitting in the window. Grushnitsky, holding me by the arm, threw her one of those cloudy, tender looks, which have so little effect on women. I directed my lorgnette toward her and noticed that she smiled at his look, and that she was not at all amused but vexed by my impertinent lorgnette. How indeed could a Caucasian soldier have dared to point his piece of glass at a princess from Moscow . . .