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The Duel and Other Stories

Excellent People
ONCE upon a time there lived in Moscow a man called Vladimir Semyonitch Liadovsky.
He took his degree at the university in the faculty of law and had a post on the board of
management of some railway; but if you had asked him what his work was, he would
look candidly and openly at you with his large bright eyes through his gold pincenez, and
would answer in a soft, velvety, lisping baritone:
"My work is literature."
After completing his course at the university, Vladimir Semyonitch had had a paragraph
of theatrical criticism accepted by a newspaper. From this paragraph he passed on to
reviewing, and a year later he had advanced to writing a weekly article on literary matters
for the same paper. But it does not follow from these facts that he was an amateur, that
his literary work was of an ephemeral, haphazard character. Whenever I saw his neat
spare figure, his high forehead and long mane of hair, when I listened to his speeches, it
always seemed to me that his writing, quite apart from what and how he wrote, was
something organically part of him, like the beating of his heart, and that his whole literary
programme must have been an integral part of his brain while he was a baby in his
mother's womb. Even in his walk, his gestures, his manner of shaking off the ash from his
cigarette, I could read this whole programme from A to Z, with all its claptrap, dulness,
and honourable sentiments. He was a literary man all over when with an inspired face he
laid a wreath on the coffin of some celebrity, or with a grave and solemn face collected
signatures for some address; his passion for making the acquaintance of distinguished
literary men, his faculty for finding talent even where it was absent, his perpetual
enthusiasm, his pulse that went at one hundred and twenty a minute, his ignorance of life,
the genuinely feminine flutter with which he threw himself into concerts and literary
evenings for the benefit of destitute students, the way in which he gravitated towards the
young--all this would have created for him the reputation of a writer even if he had not
written his articles.
He was one of those writers to whom phrases like, "We are but few," or "What would life
be without strife? Forward!" were pre-eminently becoming, though he never strove with
any one and never did go forward. It did not even sound mawkish when he fell to
discoursing of ideals. Every anniversary of the university, on St. Tatiana's Day, he got
drunk, chanted _Gaudeamus_ out of tune, and his beaming and perspiring countenance
seemed to say: "See, I'm drunk; I'm keeping it up!" But even that suited him.
Vladimir Semyonitch had genuine faith in his literary vocation and his whole
programme. He had no doubts, and was evidently very well pleased with himself. Only
one thing grieved him--the paper for which he worked had a limited circulation and was
not very influential. But Vladimir Semyonitch believed that sooner or later he would
succeed in getting on to a solid magazine where he would have scope and could display
himself--and what little distress he felt on this score was pale beside the brilliance of his
hopes.
 
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