Fred McGavran is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the Navy in Vietnam. He practiced law as a litigation partner with Frost Brown Todd LLC in Cincinnati, Ohio, defending psychiatric malpractice cases and litigating business cases. In June 2010 he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, where he serves as Assistant Chaplain at Episcopal Retirement Homes. The Ohio Arts Council awarded him a $10,000 Individual Achievement Award for “The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser”, a story that appeared in Issue 37 of Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award winning collection of short stories in December 2009. For more information, please visit his website,

The Lovers Meet
an excerpt from Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol

posted Jul 26, 2011

Read more of Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol:
The District of B*** | The Lovers Meet | Jealousy | Separation | The Battle | Moscow Burns, the French are Defeated, and the Lovers are Reunited

More weeks passed, and still the bells were silent. A peddler had heard of a great battle somewhere near Germany but not the outcome. Perhaps the Tsar was advancing into France faster than his messengers could ride back with news of his victory. Perhaps Alexander himself would appear to announce his triumph in person! Floors were scrubbed for the victory ball and cattle fattened for the feast. Still only the bells of St. Vladimir's were heard, sounding fainter as hope faded.

With the fall rains came a deepening sense of gloom. One morning Father Nikolai heard a sound like rain on the steppe and climbed the bell tower. In the dark sky to the West, whence all evil arises, he saw the souls of the dead soldiers marching through the lowering clouds. They had hideous wounds, and many were so exhausted that their comrades had to hold them up. Horrified, he scanned their faces, looking for Dmitri Baklanov’s regiment. The three sons of his principal bassist passed, then a platoon of peasants he had baptized and confirmed, rubbing the crosses he had hung around their necks. Several saw him and smiled bravely, and the bassist’s sons pantomimed messages to their parents. Tears kept him from seeing more. He could not speak for three days, and he trembled whenever he saw the parents of the dead.

That is how news of the Battle of Austerlitz came to the District of B***. Instead of celebrations, people planned funerals; instead of drinking vodka and champagne, they made candles for the dead. Shoulders heaving with grief, they stood in St. Vladimir’s, hot wax from their candles dripping over their left hands as they crossed themselves again and again with their right, while Father Nikolai sang masses for the dead. Even the harmony of the chants was broken. Crippled by his loss, the bassist had lost his voice, and the chorus was dissonant without him. The mourners walked out of the church disconsolate, because there was no body to bury, nothing to return to the cold Russian earth.

In St. Petersburg, however, a thousand versts from the battle, more experienced observers transformed defeat into one of our Great Russian Victories. Inspired by the finest champagne, our cognoscenti declared that the bravery of our soldiers had driven the desperate French upstart to the peace table, where our diplomats outmaneuvered him. Just look at the “regiment of the dead,” all shot down where they stood except for one valiant officer, rather than retreat or surrender! When the Three Emperors bowed and separated after the conference, Napoleon well understood that if our army had not been burdened with the Austrians, Alexander would have reached Paris before he did.

The Tsar returned as Caesar triumphant, every city welcoming him like a conqueror. Cheering themselves hoarse, people waited for hours to see their mounted Emperor gaze firmly over their heads at a heaven reserved for the Romanovs. After he trotted past with his generals, they stayed for more hours to see the sole survivor of the regiment of the dead, who had held the line with a double rank of corpses.

In memory of their sacrifice, the army left a gap the length of the regiment in the column. At the head of the ghosts walked Colonel Dmitri Sergeyevich Baklanov, followed by Hetman Yakov on his pony, carrying the red regimental banner. When men saw him they burst into cheers; when women saw him they wanted to bury his face in their bosoms to console him for his loss. Like the Tsar, however, he stared ahead unseeing.

By the time the Emperor returned to his capital, Natalia had matured into the cleverest, most beautiful, and most marriageable young woman in St. Petersburg. The Empire’s finest cosmetologists could not suppress her blush, and the most sophisticated tutors could not destroy her charm. An invitation to the Countess’ salon was priceless. She was at first delighted, then alarmed by the intensity of her daughter’s admirers. When she heard that young Prince S*** had been seriously wounded in a duel over Natalia without ever having met her, she decided to retire to the District to spare the young men bloodshed and her daughter too passionate a marriage.

Surrounded by distraught suitors, the Countess took her daughter to the Winter Palace to request Alexander’s permission to return to B***. The Tsar had commanded General Kutuzov to nominate his bravest soldier for Russia’s highest honor that same day. When the Countess and Natalia entered the throne room, uniforms lit with decorations brighter than Theodosia’s jewelry glittered among silks rarer than those that had once dazzled the Great Kahn. Suddenly the Emperor entered, and the throng was hushed, as if one of the angels on the ceiling had come to life and was hovering just above them. As he strode through the polished hall, the glittering assembly parted magically before him, like wheat in a strong summer wind. Everyone turned to follow his progress, and as he ascended the dais to the throne, the applause was thunderous.

As the courtiers edged each other for better positions, the Countess looked back over the long hall. Behind the officers at the far end of the room, she saw a man dressed like a Cossack.

“Look, Natalia, isn’t that Hetman Yakov?” she whispered.

Natalia wasn’t looking at Hetman Yakov. She was staring in wonder at a young Colonel in front of the Cossack. In the silence before the Tsar spoke, the Countess heard her daughter breathing deeply.

“Count Kutuzov,” Alexander intoned.

The General knelt before the throne.

“Who is the bravest of all our Russians?”

The General stood and extended his arm to Baklanov.

A chamberlain touched the Colonel’s arm to lead him forward, and he knelt beside the General. The General turned to a chamberlain for the decoration, but Alexander raised his hand and stood up. The court gasped in disbelief as the Tsar himself descended his dais to drape the Cross of St. George around Dmitri Sergeyevich Baklanov’s neck. The white Cross reflected the onlookers’ admiration and ambition, and the dark green and gold ribbon accentuated the hero’s melancholy expression. Natalia wept.

“Isn’t that Mitya Baklanov?” the Countess exclaimed.

Natalia’s throat was too tight to speak.

When the chamberlain touched Baklanov’s arm to stand, he walked forward into the curtain behind the throne instead of withdrawing backwards.

“What’s happened to his glasses?” gasped Natalia.

Prince Kutuzov prevented a disaster by remarking that so noble a soldier could only advance, even in the face of his Emperor. A chamberlain caught him and led the bravest man in Russia back to Hetman Yakov.

“Little Mitya Baklanov?” the astonished Countess repeated.

“He grew up, mother,” Natalia said impatiently. “He was at the muster. How could you forget?”

She stared at him so intently that she could have seen into heaven, if only he had noticed her.

It was the longest morning of Natalia’s life, until they were finally presented to the Tsar. Alexander stared at Natalia so long that the room became silent.

“How can I allow the most beautiful ornament of my empire to depart?” he asked.

For a second the Countess thought he would refuse them permission to go, and for another eternity Natalia thought Baklanov would get away before she could speak to him. Seeing their surprise and dismay, Alexander smiled.

“B*** must produce the most beautiful women in my Empire as well as the bravest men,” he said. “Poor St. Petersburg. You have my permission to depart.”

As they withdrew, Natalia saw Baklanov and the Cossack standing by themselves at the back of the chamber.

“Hurry, Mother,” she whispered.

Seeing only her hero, she led the Countess through the Tsar’s most brilliant officers to the open space around Dmitri Baklanov. Suddenly she touched something cold as a winter night. She tried to go around it, but she touched another and then another invisible column of ice. Waving frantically she caught Hetman Yakov’s eye, and he whispered to his Colonel. Baklanov said something like a command in a low voice and Natalia felt the frozen air part before her. As she stepped forward, the breath of the ghosts of Austerlitz touched her cheeks. The Cossack pulled the Colonel’s sleeve, and Baklanov bowed stiffly. The courtiers saw only his decoration, but she saw only his distant eyes.

Natalia could not speak. She reached behind her for her mother’s arm.

“We are returning to B*** tomorrow,” the Countess began.

“Natalia Antonova?” Baklanov asked. “Is that you?”

“You remember me?”

“Of course I remember you. You wouldn’t speak to me at the Governor’s palace.”

Natalia was too embarrassed to reply.

“I thought it was because I threw a snowball at you once at Easter.”

The room suddenly warmed, and she saw again the scared little boy running to hide behind two women in black outside the church, as her father’s footmen started after him.

A chamberlain announced the Tsar’s withdrawal, and everyone bowed. Silence and awe followed him, as if all our nobility were children waiting for a splendid parent to depart for a ball and leave them to play by themselves. As soon as the gilded doors closed behind him, the court relaxed like the audience after a drama. Natalia’s suitors pressed forward, only to be blocked by Baklanov’s invisible soldiers. Even the Countess’ closest friends, coming to beg her to change her mind, were stopped by the icy pillars. To avoid a scene the Countess offered the Colonel a place in her carriage back to the District, then led her daughter away.

The whole city turned out to see the hero and the debutante depart. Ahead the crowd blocked the road, and behind Natalia’s suitors jostled with the Cossacks for a place in her retinue. At first Dmitri sat immobile across from the Countess and Natalia, staring unseeing ahead. The crowd could not endure such modesty. Cheering wildly they threw themselves in front of the horses and pulled open the door, begging their hero to walk out of the city as he had entered at the head of his invisible regiment.

“No,” he said. “I have had enough of heroism.”

“What did he say? What did he say?” they yelled at each other, pressing closer.

Valets and teamsters stuck their heads in the windows and pounded on the carriage’s shaking sides. Through the mob, Natalia saw the Cossacks lowering their lances.

“You must do something, Dmitri,” she cried. “There’s going to be a massacre!”

He had never heard a woman so intense. Quickly he climbed out of the carriage. As when an icon is held aloft for veneration, the rabble parted before his Cross and quieted. Someone handed him the regiment’s blood red banner, and everyone fell back.

For a moment the hero stared at the banner, like a signalman who has been handed the wrong flag. Then Hetman Yakov walked his pony through the crowd and stopped before his Colonel.

“May I help you with that, your honor?” he asked quietly, and Dmitri handed him the banner.

The Cossack turned into place behind him, and Dmitri Sergeyevich Baklanov, who had risen from subaltern to colonel in his first battle, walked out of the city followed by his Cossack, his flag and his phantom regiment. As he passed the crowd drew back as if a regiment of grenadier guards twenty abreast were marching behind him. Natalia’s heart beat so fast she nearly fainted; not in all the French novels or tales of the saints had she ever encountered such humility and grandeur. Spectators cheered and wept until their faces were red, and boys ran to ring the church bells.

The parade halted briefly before a shop with two hoops joined together over the door. A German in a leather apron ran out and pressed a small package into Colonel Baklanov’s hand. The procession resumed, and when they reached the gate, every bell in the city was pealing as if Constantinople had been retaken from the Turks or a saint had descended from heaven.

As soon as they were beyond the walls, Dmitri climbed into the carriage and anxiously unwrapped the package. It was a new pair of spectacles. Fingers trembling he put them on, and for the first time since Austerlitz he could see the delicacy of a leaf and the deep anxious eyes of a woman. He removed his Cross and placed it in his pocket.

“Natalia?” he asked, looking first at the maids, then the Countess, then her daughter.

She flushed so deeply he could see her color beneath the makeup.

“Natalia,” he repeated.

“You must have been miserable without your glasses,” she said.

“Oh, no. There’s so much that’s better left unseen.”

He looked out the window. Every living thing fascinated him. For the first hundred versts, he talked constantly with Natalia and the Countess about what they saw. Sometimes the Countess could divert him with a story about the court, but he always returned to the wonderful life around them. The second hundred versts, he and Natalia chattered about all the odd people they both knew in B*** and how strange that they had never spoken.

Countess Evgenia was still young enough to recognize what was happening. At the post houses and way stops in the evenings, she tried to warn her daughter about heroic young men without titles or estates.

“Oh, mother,” was all her daughter would reply, before tuning over and going to sleep.

Late one afternoon, while the others dozed, Natalia suddenly said: “Tell me how you won your Cross, Mitya.”

The hero of Austerlitz caught his breath as if he had been slapped. Very slowly he reached into his coat pocket, removed the Cross, bowed his head and draped it around his neck. Natalia stared at the center. As if imprisoned in the blue enamel, a black silhouette of St. George on his charger impaled a writhing dragon on his lance. Then Mitya removed his glasses, replaced them in their case and turned to the window. He did not speak another word that day. Natalia first blamed herself, then him for the awful silence. When they spoke again the next morning, it was about the unbearable inn and how far they still were from B***.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be home,” the Countess complained as the coach creaked through the ruts of a mud road.

To her amazement, Baklanov opened the door and climbed up into the driver’s seat. Nudging the coachman aside, he took the reins. With a cry he turned the horses out of the road and onto the plain. The footmen held on for their lives, and the Cossacks broke into a trot.

“What are you doing?” the Countess cried, but her voice was lost in the creaks and bumps.

The Colonel cracked the whip and the horses leapt ahead. Turning around, he waived to Hetman Yakov. With a wild cry he galloped ahead, sniffing the wind for the smell of home. The Cossacks roared, the carriage shook, and the Countess looked at Natalia in wordless terror. From the bell tower Father Nikolai saw a black funnel swaying across the horizon and rang the bells to warn of the storm. While her mother prayed for a quick and painless death, Natalia breathed in the wind and the coming storm, and hoped the ride would never be over.

They were home in an hour. Baklanov passed the reins to the terrified coachman, bowed to the Countess and Natalia, and set off for the District Town on foot. When the Count emerged from his storm cellar, he found the coachman jabbering about horses with wings, his wife disabled by a terrible headache and his daughter running through the house throwing open the windows to catch the last of the wind.

The Countess and Natalia did not see Baklanov again until the marshaling of the nobility. With every breath, in every prayer the Countess hoped her daughter would get over him and cursed herself for ever leaving St. Petersburg. Natalia spent long weeks in her room reading, only coming out when visitors were announced, always disappointed at who appeared. There was not even a note from the village. Once outside the church, she saw Hetman Yakov. All he could say was that the young master was developing the lands granted to him by the Tsar and had no time for anything else.

The Countess decided to end Natalia’s infatuation in the classic manner; she would find someone else for Baklanov to marry. For months she scanned the daughters of the District’s great. Knowing they were on parade, one beautiful young woman after another displayed her mastery of French, whist, and harpsichord to the only woman in memory who had gone to St. Petersburg twice and returned. Natalia watched in agony. After each performance, the Countess thanked the mother, rang a bell for tea and cakes and said she knew just the right man. Using diplomacy more sophisticated than Talleyrand’s she set the hearts and ambitions of mothers and daughters on the District’s newest landowner, the solitary hero of Austerlitz. When they saw the Colonel standing apart without his glasses at Prince Ivan’s ball after the marshaling of the nobility, the Countess’ diplomacy and hope failed in a moment. One brave girl, who tried to approach him hurried back saying he was so cold the air around him froze. Natalia trembled with relief.

Without his spectacles, he was as disoriented as at his investiture. Natalia could not look at him without feeling a longing so sad and so beautiful she was almost transfigured. When Vassily Ivanevich tried to distract her with his new subaltern’s uniform in a Guards cavalry regiment, she barely glanced at him. Following her eyes to Baklanov, he felt hatred like bubbling death well up within himself. Neither the maiden nor the young martinet could satisfy their passions, however, because the object of their passions was unaware of them. When the Count finally called for his coach, Natalia had not danced once, and her mother was convinced she would die an old maid. Vassily did not have such a long perspective.

“Would you even be moved by my death?” he called after her.

Natalia did not hear him. She was looking one last time across the empty dance floor, where Dmitri Baklanov stood surrounded by ghosts.

Read the next installment of Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol