Pushkin by Pushkin: Cloud 3
The Nebulous Nemesis
Every Diana must have her Endymion, her man kissed by the moon. Natalya had young Georges D’Anthes. This tall fair-haired cavalry officer fitted the role perfectly. A stranger sojourning in Russian skies. French-German-Dutch. In the galaxy of glittering admirers, he paled, Endymion-like, into creamy, dreamy looks. His beauty was the male equivalent to Natty’s. It had the same untouchability. A prince to her princess.
But there was more to him than a white horse. D’Anthes had been legally adopted by Baron van Heeckeren, the Dutch Ambassador. Court whispers of the ‘polite sin’ were deafening, and his lightning marriage to Natalya’s sister was considered a ‘convenience’ (he still lived in the barracks). Even though Natty paid an unchaperoned visit to him one evening, I didn’t think her virtue was at stake. However, his batman was said to be standing outside the quarters ‘on guard’, and this conspicuous detail alerted the town gossips. Natty Pushkin was in occupancy, and all was well with D’Anthes’s manhood. She left after a short interval carrying a book. Not known to ever read this, indeed, was reason for suspicion. The ‘randyvous’ was common knowledge next day all over town.
What prompted her indiscretion? Maybe she thought that a liaison with a handsome foreigner more her age would discourage the Czar’s ambiguous attentions. Au contraire, the voyeur would have been salivating. I preferred to think that her ice could have been drawn to D’Anthes’s cream, but the ice-cream didn’t gel.
What happened next was a runaway horse.
The Jealous Husband
Although no Madame de Stael when it came to Court intrigues, Natty surprised me by playing to the gossip. St Petersburg cried out for a Czar crossed in love by a petty officer. She led the dance with D’Anthes at charity events, and disappeared off before the tombola. It was presumed with her brother-in-law. Bravo, here was the young woman who had tromped not only a Prominent Diplomat, but the Czar himself. What class! The husband didn’t come into it. Nobody thought of me. Yet it was I who took her home in a cab. Natty wasn’t happy, ‘If you worked harder we would have a carriage of our own’.
Carriages arrived to collect her. The Czar saw to that. In no time D’Anthes was also in favour. The three of them dined together. The wolf, the doe and the chevalier. I was at the foot of the table. I caressed the leg. Three against one. Not only was my pride at stake, but my very existence. I might as well not be there. When cigars were produced I dragged Natty away, spurning the carriage. And for the remaining months of my life I put on a very public performance as the Jealous Husband.
Put yourself in my place. I, Alexander Pushkin, had been superseded by the collective concupiscence of an army of courtiers, subalterns, salacious dignitaries, society pimps, amateur panderers, nosy prelates, fencing masters, police chiefs, factory owners, gamblers, absentee landlords, all manner of unbuttoned fops and leering lackeys. And this throng of lust laden badauds were multiplied a thousand-fold by their wives and poor relations, governesses and their flighty charges. Incarnating this rodomontade of unrequited passion was the Czar, a kinky, coincė figure with a bad blood condition, his melting-pot overflowing to concrete a block of cement that closed down all horizons.
It was like being trampled by a flock of geese. I wanted something more heroic: to stand up to a cavalry charge, a stampede of elephants or, at the very least, an Inquisition Panel in red robes and square hats with tassels and blood on their hands and feathers sticking out of their sleeves, waiting to be plucked.
Ignored out of existence, even my writings were not censored anymore. Why bother with a Silver Slipper on a slippery slope. I was a rum baba dipped in claret thrown to a mob who were baying for meat. And little Natty, who I loved in my fashion, gloried in the adoration, and didn’t notice the shift of the sacred font was at my expense.
The Prominent Diplomat came to see me. A podgy, fussy figure in a fur coat although it was the height of summer. Broken man meets broken man. I sensed he was worse off, not being able to do anything himself because of his position. He would have to depend on me, and I could see he was not impressed. He kept saying consider our honour. Our? What he really wanted was someone with an honourable reason to shoot his friend dead:
‘You must challenge the cad’.
‘D’Anthes is the crack shot of his regiment.’
‘The cad’ (he couldn’t bring himself to speak the name) ‘is a gentleman and would never stoop to shoot down a civilian in cold blood’.
‘D’Anthes is only half-French and, therefore, only half a gentleman.’
‘But he aspires to become a Russian General. A dead poet on his hand, wouldn’t do his prospects much good’.
‘Or being dead himself’, I said feebly.
The Prom Dip nodded solemnly. He was used to persuading people to deceive themselves. ‘One way or other, this duel, my friend, will reinstate you as a bona fide husband.’ It was the bona fide won me over. I was more amused than fooled into agreeing to become the sole defender of the Prom Dips honour.
The runaway horse was coming directly at me.
D’Anthes indiscretion with Natty was a point made publicly (‘I’m a lady’s man’), and privately to the Prom Dip (‘It’s my army career that matters. Sucks to you’). I had assumed, once his dual object was achieved, he’d leave it at that. And so his acceptance of my challenge took me aback. He was taking more risks with his future than absolutely necessary.
Our confrontation was comical. I, the offended party, was apologetic, and he was embittered (what am I doing, a skilled performer, pairing myself with a clodhopper in a dance of death. The dreamy creaminess had gone sour. I felt like putting my hand on his shoulder and saying ‘don’t take it so badly’. But the eyes dilated and narrowed with purposefulness, and I was their focus. It was personal. I was beside myself with joy.
This was not my first duel. I knew the conventions. A duel is a farce played out as a public spectacle. Gentleman participants observe the rules and break them at the last minute to save lives, if not face. Sometimes it leads to accidents and even death. But I have survived seven, and most against military types. This was different. My Endymion had been kissed by the dark side of the moon. He was an avenging angel. It confirmed that nothing had happened on that fateful visit. Natty had repulsed him and borrowed a book. He was jealous of me. I had by right what he didn’t get.
I roared with silent laughter. So here I was about to defend Natty’s honour, when it was unnecessary, in order to prop up D’Anthes’s amour propre. What had doubtlessly happened was what the Prom Dip must have secretly hoped for. It gave us something in common. We both had the honour of innocent parties to defend. His boy had been tempted, but hadn’t fallen. The evidence of the guard outside was just gossip. It was probably someone out for a cigarette. There was no plot to clear his manly way to the top. Inadvertently, the gossip did that for him. All I needed to do was to talk to him man to man (‘Women come and go but generals have statues erected to them’). But it was too late.
I was caught in a whirlwind. Events were tossing me all over the place. There weren’t any lulls to pause for thought. I was doing the running. I was my own loose horse.
Getting the duel off the ground proved difficult. My friends got together. None of them would agree to be my second. Everybody was ‘out of town’, or fighting a duel themselves the same day. Some became maudlin about ‘the sorry pass’ and ‘the waste of life’. Others suddenly turned against duels on principle, and not merely because they are illegal. I even tried a few people who wished me dead, but my eagerness put them off. Who wants to be party to a public suicide.
While I was rushing around buttonholing perspective seconds, Natty did not try to stop me. I was defending her honour, and she was willing to be impressed, even flattered. Not so her family. They were afraid of losing the goose who laid the golden eggs. It never occurred to them that I would bestride posterity, and my posthumous royalties would prove a more reliable source of income. Their concern was water off Natty’s back. It was her first act of disobedience. My wife was standing by me. Was the complicity while she was pregnant coming back in preparation for my death? I asked her straight-out what book D’Anthes gave her. It was the privately published poems of a fellow cavalry officer, Lermontov. Could Natty’s complaisance be inspired by his romanticisms, and she fancied her future as the eligible widow of a tragic hero?
Even Arthur McGuiness, a lowly official in the British embassy, turned me down. I eventually opted for a French dancing master. His name I forget, but he danced attendance admirably and served my purpose.
Net, Net, Net, Net
The duel itself is a blur. Was it in a snow storm? But I remember thinking that it should give me pleasure pointing a gun at such a healthy, handsome specimen of fashionable manhood, but it doesn’t. And the worst that could happen is both of us coming out of it alive. The whole thing would begin again. The cycle must be broken. Him or me, it didn’t matter. I want this over.
Once the pistols are loaded we briefly face one another. The stillness of D’Anthes is supernatural. He is struggling with himself. I feel sorry for him. There is a flicker of friendly feeling between us. I nod as though to say ‘I understand’. He shakes his head resolutely, ‘I owe it to you, Pushkin, to show as little mercy as possible. My career, my future in Russia, is being sacrificed too’. I nod again, and he empties his pistol into my stomach. A flash, a stab of pain and then numbness. My breakfast has become a public event.
Why he shot to kill is often asked?
Some say duels put him on his mettle as a moralist of honour. He took them seriously. This no one could have known. It was D’Anthes’s first. The sophisticated foreigner and military man in him demanded that a lesson in dueling was due to the wild, vainglorious Slavs. If so, I was to be his chalk and blackboard. He didn’t want to kill me personally. I was an irrelevance. This man wanted the culture of dueling to live. Others say he was a fool. He thought a dead poet would be less a danger to his ambitions than a live one.
But I knew as I lay dying that older and more primitive concerns were turning his head. He isn’t standing there with the weight of tradition forcing him to do the truly honourable thing. I’m not the altar on which he must officiate. I’m a rival that is getting in the way of his pride. He knows this and doesn’t like it. Deadly hate born of amour proper has done this.
I watch his confusion with some respect. And then a doubt comes into my head. The Prom Dip assurance was not a deliberate deception. It was something he didn’t know about his young friend. D’Anthes liked killing, and couldn’t resist the temptation.
The thought gives me the energy to fire skew, grazing D’Anthes, bringing down a passing bird. Something I could never do in normal circumstances. A family trait. We don’t like moving targets. But D’Anthes didn’t move.
The Long Good-by
The loose horse had to be shot. The race continued elsewhere. All was stillness around me. It was eerie. But it wasn’t quite the end. I lived long enough to make everyone feel awful, a paragon of stoicism, finalising my affairs with dispatch and dignity. Natty, busily useless at my bedside, was already dressed in black. She would be a dazzling success as my widow.
I lived long enough to secure a get well note from the Czar. And to give time to Lermontov, my presumptive poetic heir, to compose his elegy, “Revenge! the poet’s dead”. An open attack on the Czar.
My last request was for a bowl of cloudberries. Out of season, most unreasonable of me. Some preserves were found. I touched the brandied fruit and tasted the steppes of Russia, my childhood or someone else’s childhood in a literature as yet to be written.
I forgave D’Anthes with my final breath.
One of my old friends, Princess Ekaterina described the lying in state:
‘A crowd of all ages and backgrounds streamed by his bier without a break, wave on wave. Women, old men, schoolboys, peasants (some still in sheepskin coats from the fields) , down and outs in rags. All had come to pay homage to the bodily remains of the nation’s beloved poet. I was touched to see this plebeian tribute. While our gilded salons and perfumed boudoirs did not spare a thought, and danced on’.
I do believe my death changed things ever so slightly. An insecure Czar, a impetuous boy-poet, and popular unrest. Old Russia would never be the same. But was it ever? A man dying with a bowl of his favourite desert on his lap could be its epitaph.
Students rioted at my graveside.
A Happy Ending
Three years after my death Natty married a retired General. Like Tatyana in Eugene Onegin. She must have seen Tchaikovsky’s opera. I was moved. ‘Hero’ Lensky had been in my class at school. He was stolid, secure, undemanding. They lived into old age together, happily enough. Diana appeased by time and home comforts.
She even allowed my letters to be published although they didn’t always show her in a shining light. D’Anthes, stripped of his rank, ended up in Paris, the next Baron when the Prom Dip died. He had a distinguished career as a senator, and lived to a great age surrounded by grandchildren. When anyone asked him ‘what really happened’ he disappears into his fat.
So much for human sacrifice and its heroics. Everybody dies in vain.
Augustus Young 1992 Radio UCC (revised 2014)