Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin stood silently at one of his favorite spots along the bank of the Neva, and though his eyes seemed to hold a deep focus on that frozen stream, his mind and the multitude of thoughts it contained flowed far away, rising over each other like the subtle waves of a grand and distant ever-blue sea. Today was January 26th, 1837 and he had much to ponder; much yet to put to rest. But this sight, soothing as it was, still could not put his heart to peace. The darkness, it seemed, a darkness so much deeper than the approaching dusk, was closing in around him. Part of him wanted so deeply to fall in that river right then, to leave behind the animal of his being along with the debts, worries, and dishonor he felt were attached to it. But alas, he thought, his body would shatter before the ice and his verse in the grand epic of time was not yet finished. So maintaining his silence, he began to walk along the bank, pacing ever so slowly.
He admired the stones and bricks of the streets and buildings around him, thinking of how briefly they had truly resided, here, in Russia’s stage for the west, the glorious and still young St. Petersburg. These stones must have seen so many more winters than Petersburg had weathered, and more still than he himself. History belongs to the poets, he thought, yet perhaps it lies in better hands with the stones. Lifeless as they were, they were still titans of old, and fated to remain long after the last of human flesh had rotted and returned to dirt. If only they too could weep out black words of ink with a quill. If only they too had eyes to see, and hearts to reflect that vision back again. But clearly, the muse does not mix words with rocks.
Yet as he began to really look at them, he began to think of the roads and lovely edifices as nothing but a labyrinth within a cage. Then again, perhaps he always felt within a cage. Be it the walls of the Imperial Lyceum, though they were full of friends and knowledge and that first muse that found him in the endless green. Or the walls of his exile, though they spanned across and beyond mountains and pastures and mountains again. Or the walls of Boldino, constructed of cholera and fear, yet still giving him that bliss of solitude; a freedom in the open air, where he could blossom anew in the cold autumn air and let wisdom and pain flow from his feather for hours upon hours. Or the walls around his very verse, the rigid edge of the Tsar, that hindered the freedom which he so desperately desired to capture, free as the sea, but instead trapped in a canal of stone and ice like the Neva beside him. Even his rhymes themselves were trapped in his very own meter. But none was worse than the prison of his brothers. And they too dreamt of freedom, only to be hopelessly and wordlessly be trapped in the walls of frozen Siberia. Oh, Pushchin! Oh, Küchelbecker! Your heavy fetters will fall off; your prisons crumble- bolt and ward. Freedom will greet you by the door and brothers will give you back your sword!
But his latest prison, the prison of the court, was perhaps the most confining of all. Though the Tsar favored him, maybe not quite as much as Natalya’s blushing glance, his current position was a heavy chain around his very neck. Yet there at the Tsar’s feet, he had access to collections of such sweet history. The words of his fathers. The story of his grandfather and the oh so mighty Peter who saved him.
At this point he had reached the bustling Nevsky Prospect and though the sun had set in that distant west and the cold air of January wriggled it’s cold fingers down his overcoat to his spine, his eyes remained focused and the thousand memories of the past continued to assail him. Peter, that bronze giant, was the focus of his musings. He once watched the Neva, as Pushkin now did. He must have been there, but instead upon a deserted, wave-swept shore he stood – in his mind great thoughts grew and gazed afar. The northern river. And it was he who sought to capture that flow trapped in the stones and ice there now, just as it was he who brought that vital African blood to Pushkin’s still beating heart. Strange, he thought, how that distant outsider lived a transplanted life in the Imperial court. And though he came from so far away, where the swirling sand and blood choked the weak, he was within the circle of Great Peter himself. He was even trained by the very best in the ways of war to command the red army, brimming with true Russian blood, truly red to their very bones, until death or glory lay them down.
Of those who passed him on his slow walk home, many knew his face and words, but they could tell that Alexander Sergeyevich was in no state of being for passing greetings and sideways glances. They looked on forward as he did, reflecting in the cold of the air, and though they too let their minds flow into distant seas, none could become as deep and virulent and vast as his. Still walking slower than he usually did, he tried not to think of home, though it was the center of his current pain, and the destination he could not help but to approach. He knew she would be there, waiting for him. He knew she would look up at him, sitting on the bear rug, letting her eyes glisten with the fire at her side. And as the gentle tears of crystal slid from her eyes, she would stoke that still burning flame within him, and tomorrow wouldn’t matter. Words wouldn’t matter, for it would be so cruel to trap the sweet truth of her beauty within these little coffins of words. He would put his hand to her gentle chin, shake off the cold of the evening, and let himself sleep like a bear in autumn, awaiting the sun of perhaps one last spring.
But as he drew nearer, the warmth of that apartment pulled him faster. He wanted to see his children, standing in order, waiting to greet him and eat supper. He wanted to see that smolder in her eyes, even if they had burned just as bright in the eyes of so many others. Even that slime d’Anthes. For rumors aside, titles aside, and honor aside, he knew she was truly his, in this life and the next.
But she was indeed a link in that solid chain that held him here at the Tsar’s feet. And though she spent long days in the serenity of the country, she did not wish to return. For she was a natural socialite. A rose that had withstood so many springs to blossom here at last, in the eyes of the Tsar and all his boyars and cackling sheep. A rose promised to my garden, but enjoyed by nearly every passing glance. Oh Natasha! There is such little sense in it! You rejoice that male dogs are running after you, as after a little bitch, raising their tails like pokers and sniffing you in the arse! Is that really something to rejoice over?
But this anger is a frozen poison, he thought. Only a demon can live like this, refusing to praise a single thing and scorning his very heart of hearts.
He closed his eyes with a sigh and looked up to see the gateway to his apartment. He paced in, observing the snow in the courtyard and turning sharply at the entrance of the building. He unbuttoned his coat as he walked up the stairs and still managed to enter his home with a smile. Natalya was sitting right where he pictured her, beside the fire on the rug. She looked at him, as he knew she would and the thoughts within him quelled and shrank. He became calm as a stagnant pond in the forest, and with that stillness and ease, he enjoyed another night with his family, just like any other.
As the candles dwindled, he conceded and moved closer to his bed. He laid his head to the pillow and soon lost himself in the rapture of a good rest. In the final moments before he fell asleep, he again imagined walls around him, maze-like and grand, though they were not like the bricks he observed earlier, but rather the walls were made of books. Greek, French, English, German, and a thousand tongues beyond, all piled around him in perfect order, firm as any brick and mortar. These histories, verses, and the scriptures of prophets, created only one path to walk, and walk he did, it seemed, until the morning light.
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin opened his eyes the next day at a reasonable, somewhat early hour. Noticing Natalya wasn’t still sleeping beside him, he rose quickly and dressed, wordlessly, his breath silent and calm. He went to breakfast to see that he had received a letter from that wretched French slime, d’Anthes, just as he had assumed. Their fate was intertwined, it seemed. And only one course of action could rid him of that rat’s presence.
The message sounded quite impatient, clearly d’Anthes was eager as Alexander Sergeyevich himself. After all, they both had exchanged some harsh words not only between themselves, but also in the public eye. Not to mention how that slime had courted and married his sister-in-law, the lovely Ekaterina Gonchorova. But Pushkin, it seemed, was running short on friends. He had no second to discuss the duel’s arrangements. Anyone he could count on was either absent or downright opposed to him dueling. It was, after all, illegal in the eyes of the Tsar, especially for Pushkin, having his role in the court, and being such a prominent public figure. But none of that mattered to him. This was a matter of dignity, and Pushkin could not again delay it at this point. He thought to himself,that if need be, he could be just like Onegin, arriving late with a valet as his second.
With a message perhaps even more rushed than the one he had just received, Pushkin said that d’Anthes himself could choose Pushkin’s second. And with that, having finished breakfast, he put on his coat and left to the streets for some fresh air, hoping the winter chill could ease and clarify his disposition. Natalya didn’t say a word, but looked as he left with such tender pain in her eyes. She blamed herself for his current ordeal, and he didn’t work very hard to convince her otherwise. He followed the trail in the snow outside his courtyard and headed along the Moyka, to see the frozen bay, already falling back into a vortex of thoughts.
Soon he saw a familiar face on the cold street, none other than one of his fellow Junior Gentlemen of the Chamber. But the title was more fitting for a young man like this, Pushkin thought, with his youthful skin blushing amidst the snow. Unlike Pushkin, this young man probably considered it a grand honor to hold that title in the Tsar’s court... dancing with the lovely ladies, being presented as mere decoration, a spry little slice of nobility. At this point, Pushkin saw the title as yet another reminder of Natalya’s coquettish vigor. It was her beauty being flaunted, he just happened to be socially linked to her flowing curves.
Their conversation was brief and well mannered, but both junior gentlemen were clearly involved in personal matters. Pushkin didn’t mention the duel or ask him to be a second.
He continued on his way, pacing ever so slowly. The court was on his mind again. It had truly never been far off. He often told people about how when he was one year old, his nurse took him to the park. There they came across Tsar Paul and she failed to remove his little cap in time. The Tsar walked up, scolded her and removed the cap himself. It was funny, he thought, how his dealings with the court go all the way back to Tsar Paul.
Soon he had made his way to the summer garden, a name not so fitting at this time of year. He thought of the swans and how their feathers seemed captured now in the white snow all around him.
As he made his way around, he happened to see yet another familiar face, an old classmate from the Imperial Lyceum, Konstantin Danzas. Joy flooded his heart and the heat from, it seemed, was warm enough to heat the very snow around him. They embraced warmly and recounted old days. Before long, Pushkin brought up the duel and his need for a second. Danzas, as a lieutenant colonel, was quite aware of the illegality of duels, but being the friend he was, and a man of honor, accepted.
Pushkin’s walk back home seemed so much quicker than his trek here. Danzas set off the other way to begin conference with his counterpart, d’Archiac, and arrange the details of the duel.
Once home, Pushkin’s old smile returned to him and he found the enthusiasm to take care of some important business. In the midst of a new edition of The Contemporary, Pushkin needed to send a letter to the translator of some Barry Cornwall pieces. He happened to have a copy of History in Tales, translated by the same woman. He became quite engrossed in it, recounting his love for history, especially like this, simple, yet imaginative. History belongs to the poets, he thought... only they can capture what hides behind the eyes.
This energy was with him as he wrote the letter. He kept it simple; generous; unpremeditated; and let his mood rise like the sun on this cold day.
By three o’clock Danzas had returned with the arrangements of the duel. It would be quite the gamble indeed, having ten yards apart at the minimum distance as opposed to the usual fifteen. But Pushkin never turned down a good gamble, and he wanted nothing more than to end this whole ordeal. He accepted the conditions and sent Danzas to Kurakin’s emporium of martial objects to collect the Lepage dueling pistols he preferred.
At half past four Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin found himself on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg near Chyornaya Rechka. On the way over he couldn’t help but fall back into his thoughts. He began to see this event as yet another gamble in his life. But this was no mere game of cards. The aftermath of the duel would most likely get him banished or arrested, he thought... but through that he may at last be able to embrace the solitude and peace of the countryside, for at least a year or two. But just as before, it seems, the mistress of luck would scorn him for his gambles.
He looked d’Anthes in the eyes with a wordless disdain. They marked the lines in the snow, inspected their pistols, and took their starting places.
Pushkin repeated to himself. I’m doing this for honor. I’m doing this for her. She was a gamble and now here I am, trying to gamble my way out of this city and out of this shame.
The sun was beginning to nestle itself on the distant horizon. Amidst the snow and reflecting light he held an intent gaze on his adversary standing before him.
The two duelists began their paces toward each other, and D’Anthes, that slime, took the first shot. Pushkin saw the angle of the gun as the smoke exploded towards him. A clean shot, he thought, as the bullet sunk into his gut and shattered his sacrum. He fell to the ground, dropping his pistol. His blood trickled out, turning the snow red as raspberries in the summertime. But somewhere inside him he still found the strength to ask for his second pistol.
Practically immobilized with pain and shock he still raised the pistol with a steady hand. With a deep exhale, he fired, and d’Anthes fell to the ground before him.
His head began to spin as he was rushed home. It seems it will be my next turn, he thought, I hear dear Delvig calling me; the comrade of my lively youth, the comrade of my gloomy youth, the comrade of my youthful songs, of feast and pure meditation, the genius who has gone forever, calls me to join this throng of shades.
They arrived at the complex and carried him through the courtyard, hurriedly bursting through the side door and into his home.
Fear rippled from Natalya’s eyes and she collapsed as she saw her husband, bloodied and already fading. They brought him to lie on the divan in his study, where just a few hours before he had been composing his letter.
The hours and candle wax dripped away as his pain increased.
Pushkin’s closest friends - Zhukovsky, Pyotr, Vera Vyazemsky, Turgenev - all heard of what had happened and gathered to see him. At least one was there as he laid in his study and fought the pain. News had spread quickly and before long a crowd had gathered outside his apartment.
The doctors, it seemed, could not mend his wounds, but he found a semblance of peace when the Tsar granted him forgiveness and assured him that his wife and children would be taken care of should his condition worsen.
In the early hours of the morning Pushkin asked to see his children. Hurriedly he said goodbye to them, trying to remain conscious. Everyone who saw him left the room weeping as he passed on his last words to them.
Vladimir Dahl, a friend originally trained as doctor, arrived midday and gave Pushkin some opium to sooth the pain at last.
Of all the things and people in the world, nothing other than Natalya was on his mind it seemed. Oh how he would miss her most of all. He tried to assure her that it wasn’t her fault and whenever she was there, he held his pain inside, strong as he could, hoping she wouldn’t know how he suffered.
In the midday hours of Thursday January 29th, 1837 he asked for one of his favorite dishes, stewed cloudberries and asked that Natalya would feed them to him. She kneeled beside him and slowly fed him. When he couldn’t eat any more, she pressed her cheek to his and with a few tears, he asked her to leave.
Dahl was to remain by his side until the final moments. Pushkin began having trouble breathing and as he laid there in the study, looking out the window and admiring his vast book collection, he began to feel reminded of those walls of books he saw two nights before. But he didn’t need to walk that solitary path this time. Rather, he realized he could climb up and over them.
“Come on, let’s go.” He said. “Lift me up, let’s go, higher. Come on, let’s go! I was dreaming that you and I were climbing up these books and shelves, high up, and my head began to spin. Come on, please, let’s go—and together!”
Pushkin fell deeper and deeper into that dream and by the time he reached the tip of the walls, seeing the free sky and flowing sea, he called to it, and with one last breath, he fell to it, and there in peace, his soul flowed away in an ever-blue stream, never to be frozen, or contained again by the coils of life. Pushkin stopped breathing and Russia’s collective heart quivered and wrenched in pain.