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Final Confession of Georges d'Anthes
As night fell on the quiet commune of Soultz-Haut-Rhin, a priest was completing his evening prayer. Having blown out the candles that were still burning from the evening Mass, he prepared to lock the church for the night and leave when suddenly, he heard a distinct knock on the door. This startled him as he was not expecting any visitors at this time. Although there was a widow, who would come regularly to light a candle for her late husband, she was in church during the evening Mass and had no reason to come back now. Therefore, having no idea who could be knocking, he walked up to the church door cautiously, and opened it.
A coach had stopped just outside the church. Next to it stood a relatively young man who quite boldly stated:
“Father, my master would like to make a confession.”
“Now?” the priest asked in reply.
“Yes, certainly,” the youth said “and as quickly as possible!”
“Son, do you not know what hour of night it is? It is ten of the clock – can he not wait till morning?”
The priest turned around and was about to re-enter the church building and shut the door behind him when the youth shouted:
“He is dying! The doctor told us he has but a few hours left to live. Today will be his final confession.”
At this the priest stopped, and without turning, quietly but firmly commanded:
“Help him come in to come in.”
Several minutes later a frail old man was brought in, in a wheelchair. His hair was grey and virtually every inch of his skin was white. His lips had a blue tinge to them and his veins that ran across his jaw were very prominent. His eyes seemed very thoughtful and showed both joy and grief. It seemed that his spirit was happy to leave his body behind. But clearly something was still there on his mind, troubling him.
The confession began.
The old man started a monologue. He confessed having eaten meat during fasting times, being absent from Sunday Mass for no reason, having been idle in the past and other offences that the priest heard at confessions on a daily basis.
After listening to the old man, the priest began to ask him questions (something he often did particularly with older people) in order to make sure he remembered as much as possible and did not leave anything out.
“Did you ever disobey the eighth commandment?” he asked.
“Thou shall not steal?”
“I have never stolen anything from anyone.”
“And what about the,” the priest hesitated “the seventh and sixth commandments?”
“Thou shall not commit adultery and thou shall not murder?”
“I have broken both and neither.”
“Please could you be more specific?”
The old man hesitated, “Very well. I have killed but I have never murdered. As for adultery, that depends upon what one defines by adultery.”
The priest opened his mouth as if to give a clear definition of the word ‘adultery’ but was interrupted as the old man continued.
“It was years ago. I was a vivacious young man – strong, courageous and full of life and energy. I fell deeply in love with a young Russian woman named Natalia who, regretfully, was already married. The matter was not as simple as it may seem – a young man indecently loving a married woman. She was married and had given her heart to a man who was not in the slightest worthy of her. To society, he was a Russian poet who had become rather popular. To her, he was a beloved husband. To me, he was disgraceful, physically ape-like being who had received the woman I loved despite the fact that she deserved much more than him. Everyone knew Natalia should not have been his from the day of their wedding when his ring fell to the floor. Earlier, he had trouble marrying as no father in his right mind would give his daughter permission to marry him.
I could stand their marriage no longer therefore I started courting her. The moment her husband found out he challenged me to a duel. Duelling was something he had mastered. Before challenging me, he had successfully fought more than twenty men. Of course I could not back down and I do not know what would have happened if some of his acquaintances had not persuaded him to postpone the duel. I came to realise that I should let Natalia be and proposed marriage to her sister. When she accepted my suit, Natalia’s husband cancelled the duel permanently.
I was now married but without
Natalia I could not be content. Understandably – as she was my sister-in-law – we could speak on a regular basis. Unfortunately rumours were spread regarding our relationship – people said that the only reason I married her sister is to keep Natalia respectable.
Soon, however, we had a misunderstanding at a ball. I suppose I should have behaved more appropriately but soon, my adoptive father received a letter from her husband full of outrageous insults. This could only lead to a duel. Natalia’s husband knew this and perhaps even wrote the letter in order to provoke a challenge. Due to a variety of circumstances, my adoptive father was in unable to fight and therefore I had to do this.
It was on a cold winter afternoon that we faced each other in St Petersburg, both holding our pistols as if they were lifelines. We turned around and walked apart. As we did so I felt that by destroying the life of another I would not make my own more joyful. I had little time for thought however, for a second I recalled the words from the letter written by my opponent. A new feeling of loathing rushed through my veins. Ferociously I turned around to face him and, having put everything apart from vengeance from my mind, pointed my pistol directly at him and pulled the trigger.
The ‘crack’ from the shot remained in my ears for a while. I can remember my opponent gasping and grabbing hold of his hip which was being flooded with blood. He fell to the ground wriggling like an earthworm. Some people rushed to his aid but he raised his hand as a sign of refusal to their assistance and weakly said:
“The duel is not over.”
He stood up unaided and pointed his pistol at me. A shot rang out and a moment later I felt the pain coming from my right arm.
I was wounded very lightly; however; I soon received a letter from him telling me that he ‘forgives me my wrongdoing before dying’. I never wanted his forgiveness because I do not consider myself to be indebted to him in any way and do not regret what I have done for a moment.
As for Natalia, she died having never forgiven me. She loved her husband and never loved me.
I imagine that when I am gone – and that will happen soon. I will be remembered for nothing apart from shooting some Russian poet. My successful military career, my triumphs in politics, everything that I have achieved in my life will be forgotten. Everything apart from me killing Alexander Sergeivitch Pushkin will be forgotten. I will be remembered as ‘Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d'Anthès, the murderer of a great man’. Even one of my children has refused to speak to me ever since she found out.”
The old man was sitting forward in his wheelchair, his fists clenched in excitement and agitation.
“I,” the priest began, “I forgive you.”
The old man said nothing in reply but sat back in his wheelchair and looked no more peaceful than before. The youth who accompanied the old man on his arrival entered the church and took him out.
Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Anthès went to bed that night but could not fall asleep. He tried to think: if he was sentenced to die what would his last request be? For a moment he could see the face of Natalia – the woman who was never his. She seemed to smile at him and say: ‘I forgive you’. His last and deepest wish had come true. He smiled weakly and closed his eyes for the final time.