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,

an excerpt from Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol

posted Aug 2, 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

Years passed while Colonel Baklanov was slowly transformed from a national legend to a local curiosity. Vassily Ivanevich galloped off to join his regiment, and the Count and Countess took Natalia to St. Petersburg for another season to distract her. Although the Countess was certain one of Natalia’s suitors would propose, she and they were disappointed. Away from the District Natalia was as blind as Colonel Baklanov at Prince Ivan’s ball. This season her coldness repulsed the young men, and Prince S***, recovered from his wound, felt an icy hand on his shoulder when he asked her to dance.

No one thought that unusual, because everyone in the capital felt chills of fear that year. From the West came reports of new outrages by the French marauders, and from the South came frightening stories of Turks streaming into Bessarabia. During the long ride home, the Count brooded over the coming wars, while the Countess was inconsolable without a son in law. Natalia, however, brightened with every stage of their journey, until she looked as young when they arrived home as she had six years earlier.

More eyes than ever looked to the hero of Austerlitz for hope that terrible year. Again Baklanov disappointed them, regarding the new terrors as blindly as he did the onlookers. Gradually their admiration turned to resentment and then to outrage. How could a man anointed as his country’s savior shrink from his duty at a time of national crisis?

At the muster of the militia, a new colonel appeared. To wild applause Colonel Vassily Ivanevich galloped in with a commission to raise a regiment of cavalry. In four years with the guards, he had distinguished himself in the Caucasus, returning with a saber slice across his cheek and the swagger of invincibility. Landowners’ sons clamored for commissions, and shopkeepers’ sons begged their fathers for horses to join the great adventure. Hearing once more the drum roll of battle, pensioned post captains presented themselves for service. So keen was the competition that two ancients fought a duel for command of a company. The District was spared the loss of these patriots when their pistols both misfired.

After a week of hard training, the new Colonel drilled his regiment before the cheering populace in the Governor’s meadow. At one side stood Colonel Baklanov, his Cross flashing in the afternoon sun and Hetman Yakov resting on his pony behind him. As the regiment wheeled and trotted across the field, nearly all the new cavalrymen kept their seats, and only a few lost their white plumed shakos. All the onlookers applauded, except Colonel Baklanov. He did not move, not even when a squad careened so close they splattered him with mud. They would have run over him, except something spooked their horses at the last moment. With a sneer worthy of his rank and prospects, the new Colonel barely glanced at his rival.

When the maneuvers were completed, Vassily Ivanevich removed his shako and waved to the crowd, his anxious eyes searching for one face. Natalia was sitting in her father’s landau, parked beside Prince Ivan’s carriage. The Colonel trotted over. Cold as Athena, Natalia stood up and presented him with the banner of St. Vladimir. He waited for the blush and the smile that would signal his triumph. As unseeing as Baklanov, she stared through him.

He held the banner out to his standard bearer, and still she looked through him. Angrily the Colonel wheeled his charger and galloped to the head of his regiment. As trumpets sounded and drums rolled, he drew his saber and pointed toward the sun. With a cheer from the onlookers, they trotted from the field leaving everyone except Natalia and Dmitri Baklanov longing for battle.

Again the vast silence of war. Every merchant and traveler was questioned for hours, but no one knew anything. Hetman Yakov said it would take a year riding at the speed of the wind to ever reach the Turks, and then they would burst howling out of the earth like devils. Father Nikolai climbed the tower every morning and evening. All he saw was an orange line under the clouds to the South, as if the world had tilted off its axis and the sunset had shifted, or a faraway steppe was on fire. Some days he smelled fire and other days blood. He feared the worst when several of the cavaliers’ mothers reported that their candles had blown out on their sons’ name days. This time no one hoarded champagne for a victory celebration, and mothers passed the winter making candles for the dead.

Then a miracle occurred. Vassily Ivanevich emerged from a spring shower with nearly all his regiment behind him. In place of the white plumed boys of their last parade, they were gray-eyed veterans holding their lances like Cossacks and riding like men who never left the saddle. No one looked at their eyes, however, or commented on their horsemanship. Everyone was looking at their Colonel. Staring straight ahead, he looked over the crowd with the curving smile and unfeeling eyes of Caesar at a triumph. His tunic was open and his chin raised, so all could see the Cross of St. George flashing on his chest.

The twenty-five year old warrior had achieved success beyond ambition, yet it only increased his frustration. Beneath his shako his yellow eyes searched the cheering nobility and pensioned officers, looking for the one pair of eyes that could soothe him. Women and girls flushed as his eyes swept over them; brides schemed how to retract their vows; mothers dreamed of the perfect wedding. Yet Natalia, the blessed, beautiful, perfect, arrogant Natalia was nowhere to be seen. Applause, the Governor’s soft handshake, crystal glasses of champagne quaffed and shattered in the marble fireplace, nothing could touch his anguish. If Prince Ivan had not recognized the signs of an Ivanov rage and led him aside, Vassily would have challenged a merchant to a duel for not applauding long enough after a toast to the Tsar.

“It is more difficult to conquer a woman than the Turk,” the Prince said. “You cannot engage her at once. They enjoy strategy and always think they are superior to it. So you must lure her into a position where she thinks she is completely secure, and when she least expects it, attack.”

Vassily waved for more champagne. Strategy was not his strength.

“You must listen to me,” the Prince said, gripping his arm. “I will hold a ball to celebrate your victory. Count C *** and his family will have to attend or risk offending me. Then, if you have prepared yourself well, you can strike.”

Whether it was the Count’s plan or the alcohol that quieted him, I do not know.  Vassily put his one eyed-major in charge of the troop and galloped off beside the Prince’s carriage to the estate.

Countess C *** gasped when she opened the invitation.

“What is it, Mother?” Natalia Antonova asked, looking up from her novel.

“Prince Ivan has invited us to a ball to celebrate his son’s victory.”

“How boring,” Natalia said and returned to her reading.

Despairing that her daughter would ever be interested in anything besides printed pages, the Countess looked frantically at her husband.

“Of course we must attend,” Count C *** said. “Every noble and officer in the District will be there.”

“Every officer?” Natalia repeated, closing the novel.

“Every single one,” her father said, smiling.

“Then of course we must go,” she said, feeling for the first time the comfort of protocol.

Her mother rang the bell for tea an hour early.

“We must begin working on your dress,” she explained.

The strategy was delightfully transparent, but it was Natalia who was employing it. 

Carriages and cuirassiers lined the long drive when Natalia arrived with her parents at Prince Ivan’s victory fête. A corporal opened the door of the carriage, and a sergeant with an enormous mustache bowed low as he helped her down. As they ascended the steps to the mansion, two privates swung open the huge doors to reveal a hall lit brightly as moonlight by hundreds of candles. Sabers in hand, eight cavalrymen stood on each side of the hall to salute each noble guest. Natalia felt she was entering a sorcerer’s cave with a hidden waterfall rushing at the end. Then the Prince’s major domo announced their arrival, and they stepped into the cavernous ballroom. At the sound of Count C***’s name, everyone turned to look at Natalia, and the waterfall stopped.

Natalia froze. Why were they all staring at her? Had she forgotten something? A silhouette was approaching among the candelabra. She did not see the Prince turn to call his son forward, did not hear the ingratiating presentation to her mother, did not see the District’s newest hero nod to her father. All Natalia saw were Vassily Ivanevich’s curved yellow eyes. When he bowed to kiss her hand, she shivered at the touch of his lips.

“The honor of a dance?” he repeated, still holding her hand.

Natalia recoiled, looking for somewhere to escape. The next guest coming towards them to greet the Prince blocked her view of the saber-lined hall. She could not see his face.

“I’m not well this evening,” she began.

“A tragedy,” said Dmitri Baklanov behind her.

Flushing, she turned to face him. Reaching for her, he touched the Prince’s son, who took his hand and gripped it tightly. Through the blur of candles and uniforms, Dmitri realized that the Prince and his son were trying to separate him from something more precious than life. Vassily released his hand.

“Now we are equals,” Vassily exclaimed, raising his chin to accentuate his Cross.

“I am delighted you think so,” Baklanov replied, furious at himself for not seeing what was happening until it was too late.

Vassily only sensed the insult, but Natalia understood it.

“I would be delighted to dance with you, Colonel Ivanevich,” she said to separate the cavalryman from the helpless Baklanov before a challenge was issued. Flushed with his victory, Vassily strutted onto the floor with Natalia on his arm.

Prince Ivan stood triumphant beside Count and Countess C ***. As proud as the Tsar on the morning of Austerlitz, he could not see what was to come.

Vassily’s fingers touched Natalia’s to begin the sarabande, and her arm turned to ice. While her partner pantomimed his passion, she followed like an automaton. The dancers met, saluted, turned and promenaded while the shifting silk and oozing candles nearly suffocated her. As isolated as if she had forgotten him, Dmitri Baklanov stood alone at the back of the room. Finally the dance was over, but Vassily Ivanevich would not release her hand. He signaled to the conductor, and the orchestra began a minuet.

Versailles and Whitehall had not seen such elegance as Vassily Ivanevich and his partner demonstrated that night. The short steps and slow turns prolonged her agony. At every circle of the floor her chest tightened as she passed the unseeing Baklanov. When the dance was finally finished and the ladies were fanning themselves and the gentlemen pulling their collars for air, she glanced at him again. Her partner felt her start; Dmitri was staring back at her through his spectacles. She turned to him, but Vassily would not release her hand. When she tried to break free, he signaled the conductor and called for a gavotte.

The servants threw open the windows, and the night air swept over the heated dancers. At each turn Vassily called “Faster!” spinning the dance around her like a web. Sabers jingled, young women laughed, and grandmothers along the wall covered their mouths at the spectacle. As the night swirled around her, Natalia saw only one face, which was watching only her. Exhausted dancers left the floor; a lieutenant knocked the heel off his boot and sat down hard; a girl lost her slipper. Finally just two dancers were left standing: Vassily dancing to overpower her, she to show she was still free. Suddenly the music stopped.

Furious, Vassily dropped her hand and stalked toward the orchestra. The dancers parted before him. Shivering with rage, he stopped. Dmitri Baklanov was standing beside the conductor with his hand on the baton.

“Champagne is served!” the major domo cried, and servants with silver trays of crystal glasses rushed onto the floor.

“A toast!” Prince Ivan called. “To Vassily Ivanevich, a true knight of St. George!”

“Vassily Ivanevich!” his officers roared.

With one motion, every glass except those of the two Knights of St. George was raised. Baklanov had taken a glass, but when he heard the toast he replaced it on the tray.

“You will not drink our wine, Sir?” Vassily Ivanevich hissed, trembling with rage.

“And now,” the Prince continued, “my son will tell us how he won his Cross from the hand of the Emperor himself!”

Excited girls and flushed young women surrounded the hero, separating him from Baklanov, while his officers posed in his reflected glory. Distracted by their adulation, Vassily drank one glass of champagne, then another, before beginning a story of charges and scimitars that would entertain generations of ten year olds. One face, however, the only face he really wanted to hear the story, was missing. Everyone who heard him that evening remembered his intensity for the rest of their lives.

Natalia, however, was still at the far end of the floor where he had left her. Swelling with pride at his son’s success, Prince Ivan did not see that their quarry had slipped from the net.

Only Dmitri Baklanov saw the lonely figure lingering outside the enchanted circle, exhausted by her struggle.

“Would you like to hear how I won my Cross?” he asked, finally approaching her.

She looked at him, then back at Vassily. Encircled by his admirers, the cavalryman was more distant than when he charged ahead of his regiment into a field of howling Janissaries.

“Yes,” she said.

Dmitri took her hand and led her onto the veranda, leaving Vassily Ivanevich to tell how he won a talisman that rendered him powerless over the only woman he desired.

Outside the night was sweet with spring. Baklanov looked at the stars, shook his head and let her fingers slip away.

“It was a night very much like this,” he began.

Ensign Baklanov and his Cossack had been sent out foraging. The terrified Austrian peasants had long since fled, and all they found were empty barns and fields. Even the grass was eaten down to the earth. War, he was learning, was more about hunger and theft than glory. After a long, hot, frustrating day, Dmitri was ready to return to the regiment, when Hetman Yakov suddenly turned his pony and galloped toward a cluster of hovels. Thinking he had seen the enemy, Baklanov drew his saber and charged after him.

When they reached the village, the Cossack dismounted and disappeared into the largest hut. Over the door was a painting of an unknown foreign vice: a bearded man with a foaming mug. Expecting to find Yakov dueling with Bonapartists, Baklanov kicked open the door and nearly stabbed the old Cossack.

“The drink of the saints!” the Hetman cried, handing him a huge mug. “What men leave their wives and country for!”

Baklanov sniffed and sipped. Not bitter like our Russian beer, but smooth, fresh, invigorating, able to restore strength and enthusiasm after a long day in the saddle. Smiling, he tilted back the mug and drank.

“Come on,” he said.  “We have to get back.”

“Why hurry, your honor?” the Cossack laughed, taking both mugs to the spigot. “I think our host may have left something else for us.”

One more can’t hurt, the Ensign thought. The day’s already wasted. Taking the fresh mug, he followed the Cossack into the back room. It was empty.

“Come on,” he repeated. “Time to go.”

The Cossack sniffed like a hunting dog, then knelt and tore up the floor boards.

“I knew it!” he cried. “No innkeeper leaves without preparing his homecoming dinner!”

A string of sausages appeared, then a loaf of bread.

“We should take it back with us,” Baklanov argued with himself.

“It would only make them hungrier than they are now,” Hetman Yakov replied. “But it’s just enough for us.”

So while the Cossack built the fire, the Ensign had another beer. Then another with dinner. Then one more before riding back to the regiment. They lurched outside and looked up at the brilliant stars. The constellations whirled so fast they made Baklanov dizzy. He took off his glasses to rub his eyes, and when he put them back on, the stars were swirling through the fields like a thousand campfires.

“My God!” he exclaimed.

Heaven and earth were joined at last, and he and the Cossack were the only witnesses.

“We may as well stay here, your honor,” Hetman Yakov said. “The whole French army is camped between us and our regiment.”

His officer did not hear him. Lying back on the wooden step, he watched the galaxies turn around him. He could even hear music, the music of the spheres, and far away voices in strange foreign tongues while angels hovered overhead. His last thought was of what people in B*** would say, when he told them he had witnessed a miracle.

A limping giant awakened them.

Whump! WHUMP! went the giant, shaking the steps. Whump! WHUMP!

Still amongst the stars, Baklanov heard far away shouting and horses shrieking.

Whump! WHUMP!

“Wake up, your honor!” Yakov cried. “The horses!”

Too late! Rearing in terror, the horses snapped their tethers and galloped away. Bugles sounded and drums rolled, but still the giant lurched forward.

Whump! WHUMP!

Eyes throbbing, stomach churning, Baklanov stumbled to his feet.

“They’re gone!” Yakov shouted, spreading his arms in horror.

Baklanov took a deep breath and doubled over. Whump! WHUMP! stomped the giant, breaking open hell’s caverns to spew out clouds of brimstone.

“It’s the battle!” the Cossack cried, and the volleys echoed back Whump! WHUMP!.

Baklanov looked up at the field, where tight packed ranks in blue and white curved in and out of the smoke. His chest turned to hot wax; the battle had started and he was cut off from his regiment! Whump! Little yellow jets flashed out of the smoke. WHUMP! The blue and white ranks replied, rimmed with orange flames. Then a trumpet sang and the blue and white disappeared into the smoke.

“Come on!” Baklanov cried, drawing his sword and running toward the inferno. Whump! WHUMP! The volleys greeted him.

“Your honor!” the Cossack called and ran after him.

Across a fresh meadow, through pastures, through still smoking campfires they ran to reach the limping monster. His path was strewn with torn and dismembered men. Groaning, they held out their hands and babbled in foreign voices. The only reply was the roar of the guns, louder and louder. Smoke blinded Baklanov, gagging him with gunpowder, while aerial sprites zipped past in the resisting air. Then he stumbled over something and fell down hard, knocking off his glasses.

Frantically he felt the ground, but all he touched was the leg of the corpse that had tripped him. Exhausted, Dmitri stood up and staggered through the smoke, unable to see anything. Suddenly there was wild cheering, cries of “Vive la France! Vive l’Empereur!” And then an enormous silence.

Throat burning, he lurched through the smoke like a drowning man splashing for the shore. When the sulfurous cloud finally parted, the blue and white ranks were gone. In the center of the field were long rows of corpses, some still standing in the lines where they were shot. To the Ensign it was all a blur, except the color of their dark green uniforms.

“Our regiment,” Yakov gasped behind him.

Together they walked along the dead ranks until Baklanov saw a swirl of blood red cloth on the ground. Picking his way through the bodies, he lifted the regiment’s scarlet banner. Beside it lay his Colonel, staring impassively at the sky. Dmitri sat down and wept, covering his eyes with the torn silk. Far away bugles called to each other, but the Ensign only heard the whispers of the dead.

“Your honor,” the Cossack gripped his shoulder. “They’re coming!”

Silver glimmered across the field.

“What is it?” he asked.


Baklanov stood up and drew his sword.

“Your honor, they’ll see you!”

“I want them to see me.  Here. Hold this!”

He held out the banner. The Cossack took it and stood beside him. Across the field the silver smear curved toward them. Then it stopped, wavering in the haze like sunlight over water on a still day. Slowly the smear spread out and separated, and one brilliant blur raced forward.

“He’s coming,” the Cossack cried excitedly. “Can you see him?”

Like an underwater swimmer with his eyes open, Baklanov saw the sun glinting off the helmet and sword. Sword raised, he stepped forward, awaiting the saber’s blow.

“They’re ours!” the Cossack shouted. “It’s our cavalry!”

Instead of his death blow, Baklanov received the troop’s salute.

“And that is how my legend was born,” he said bitterly. “When they found me and Yakov with the banner and the corpses, they thought I was a hero.”

Here Dmitri showed that he was as much a novice with women as he was with war. He could not look at her. He had confided to her a secret that would make him a laughing stock among men, but still she sat enraptured, waiting for another magic word.

“I wasn’t a hero. I was a coward!”

Natalia gripped his arm. Dmitri Baklanov was about to discover that women regard confession far higher than bravery and a word of self-doubt more wonderful than all chivalry’s badges and banners.

“No, Mitya,” she said softly. “You’re not a coward. You’re the bravest man I’ve ever known!”

He turned to her, she took off his glasses and they kissed. When he tried to kiss her again, she pushed him away gently.

“We should go in,” she said.

Beyond the star-touched veranda, the moon was sinking behind the tall oaks that lined the park around the manor. Through the open windows, they saw the candles in the ballroom were burning down, and the wonderful illusion of the Ivanevich ball was about to sputter into darkness. Dmitri, however, could only think of her eyes and pray that if he could hold her hand for another moment, he would enter paradise.

Vassily Ivanevich met them at the door. As he had regaled the darkening hall with tales of charges and counter charges and wild gallops with the heads of Turks impaled on their lances, the crafty moon silhouetted the woman he hoped to charm beside another man. When their two shadows merged, jealousy choked him. Unable to speak, he shoved his way through his hearers and stood panting with rage before the two lovers.

How suddenly their happiness ended.

“My God, Sir!” he cried at Baklanov. “Will you defile her in my father’s house?”

Baklanov put on his glasses. Puffed up in righteous anger behind their Colonel, Vassily’s officers murmured like a pack of hounds about to bolt for the kill.

“Don’t hide behind a woman, you devil eyed . . .”

Baklanov slapped Ivanevich’s face so hard it silenced the hall.

“I will have satisfaction!” Dmitri said in a voice that chilled Natalia’s heart.

Enraged, Vassily lunged at his rival, but his officers held him back.

“Tomorrow morning! By the river! With pistols!” he screamed. “Who will be my second?”

Vying for the honor, his officers crowded around him.

“Aleksey Nikolevich!” he cried, waving to his pockmarked major.

Then Vassily turned to Baklanov.

“And who will be yours?” he sneered.

His voice echoed through the vast hall. Who could second a man whose closest companions were ghosts? At first silence, then whispers, then the shuffling of feet as men and women moved aside. Vassily Ivanevich broke his rival’s stare to turn, but all he saw were the officers around him.

“Stand aside!” Count Anton C *** cried in a voice his daughter had never heard. “In the Empress’ Catherine’s time, a colonel taught his officers to know their betters!”

Natalia’s father shoved them aside like the master of the hunt wading through the pack. Startled, even Ivanevich stepped back. The Count joined his daughter and Dmitri and turned to face Vassily.

Monsieur!” he hissed at the yellow-eyed Colonel. “When you insult my daughter’s honor, you insult mine. I shall be Colonel Baklanov’s second!”

No novel had ever held such a moment for Natalia. In an evening she had learned her lover’s secret, heard him challenge a prince’s son to defend her honor, and then seen her father risk his own reputation to stand beside her lover. In a few short hours, when the blood-red dawn strained through the trees by the river, the charlatan romance would dissolve before the awful realities of jealousy, anger and death. Natalia would never open another novel.

“There will be no duel tomorrow, gentlemen,” cried a voice from the entrance hall.

 Everyone turned, and an officer with mud on his boots crossed the floor and stepped between the two colonels.

Vassily Ivanevich quivered with rage.

“No duel? Who are you to interfere?”

The officer bowed and handed envelopes to him and to Baklanov.

“Your orders from General de Tolly, gentlemen. Our country has been invaded. You are to leave for the army in the morning with your regiments.”

“This is an affair of honor!” Vassily protested.

“The Tsar has instructed the nobility and all officers that no Russian is to raise his hand against another until the enemy is expelled from our soil.”

Ivanevich shook with frustration and rage, but even his impetuosity could not overcome an imperial command.

“I shall meet you by the river the morning the war is over,” Baklanov said to the cavalryman. “Even the Tsar himself will not stop me.”

Taking Natalia’s arm, Dmitri led her past the seething Ivanevich. His officers recoiled as from a sudden sortie of the enemy. Mitya and Natalia slipped like ghosts through the silent spectators, followed by the Count and Countess. At the entrance Ivanevich’s cuirassiers saluted, and a sergeant called for the Count’s carriage. With Dmitri still holding her hand, the moments before the carriage turned into the driveway and drew up at the steps were the longest and most exquisite in Natalia’s life. Each heartbeat, each blink of his eyes, was stored in her memory forever. Too soon the carriage was before them, and a footman jumped down to open the door. Baklanov helped Natalia up the steps and released her hand.

“You have given me the finest moment of my life,” he said echoing her thoughts.

He felt as if his life’s blood were flowing out of him with the warmth of her fingers. Then he bowed to the Count and Countess.

“And your father has taught me the meaning of honor.”

“I would welcome you as a son,” Count Anton C*** said, voice quivering.

“As will I,” whispered the Countess.

“Until the war is over!” Dmitri cried and saluted them.

The postilion closed the door, and the coachman spoke to the horses.

Au revoir, mon fils,” the Count called from the window. “Courage!”

Dmitri Baklanov, who had just been welcomed into one of the first families in Russia, stood like a man forlorn as the carriage drove out of the long drive into the night.

If Hetman Yakov had not brought him his horse, he may have spent the entire campaign savoring the wonderful sense of loss at such a moment. He sent the old Cossack off to his village for his favorite weapons and spent the night in the District Town with his aunts. They made such a fuss over him that it was an hour before he could go to bed, and the sharp memory of Natalia kept him awake until just before dawn. In the early morning he kissed the old ladies goodbye and mounted his horse. With his Cossack beside him and a regiment of ghosts behind, he trotted over the bridge into the most ferocious campaign in Russia since the Tartars ravaged Muscovy.

Read the next installment of Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol