“Well, son, turn round! let me see thy back! What a queer figure thou art! What priest’s cassocks have you got on? And do all of you at the College dress like that?” These were the words with which old Boolba greeted his two sons, who, after completing their education at Kieff, had just returned to their father’s house.
His sons had just dismounted from their horses. They were two strong lads, who still looked from beneath their brows as young collegians are apt to do. Their manly healthy features were covered with the first down of hair, unacquainted as yet with the razor. Such a greeting on the part of the father, put them to great confusion, and they stood motionless, with their eyes bent down on the ground.
“Stay, stay a bit; give me leisure to look at you,” he went on, turning them round; “what long coats! what coats, indeed! Never in the world were such coats! Here, let one of you just try to run! We shall soon see if he does not fall, and get his legs entangled in his skirts.”
“Don’t laugh at us, father, don’t laugh,” said at last the elder son.
“Look at the haughty fellow! and why should I not laugh?”
“For this reason: that though thou art my father, if thou goest on laughing, by Heavens, I’ll give thee a thrashing.”
“Ah, wretch of a son! thrash thy father!” exclaimed Tarass Boolba, falling back a few steps in astonishment.
“It matters not that thou art my father. I pay regard to nobody, and will permit nobody to insult me.”
“And how are we to fight? with our fists?”
“In whatever manner it may chance.”
“Well, with fists be it!” said Tarass Boolba, tucking up his sleeves; “I will see what kind of a man thou art at fisticuffs!” And father and son, instead of embracing after a long separation, began to give one another blows on the ribs, on the loins, and on the chest, now falling back and taking aim, and now stepping forward again.
“Only see, good people! the old man has gone mad! he has decidedly lost his senses!” Thus spoke the good mother, a thin, pale-faced woman, who stood at the threshold, and had not even had time to embrace her cherished sons.
“The children are but just come home; for more than a year we have not seen them, and what has he got into his head that he should fight with them?”
“He fights pretty well,” said Boolba, stopping. “Very well, indeed!” continued he, taking breath; “so that I’d better not have tried it. A good Cossack will he make! Well, son! good day! let me embrace thee!” And father and son began kissing one another. “Well, my son, as thou didst strike me, so strike every one—give quarter to none! And nevertheless, thy dress is very funny! What cord is that hanging about thy loins? And thou, sluggard!” said he, turning to his younger son, “why dost thou remain there with thy hands hanging idle? why, son of a dog that thou art, why dost thou not give me a beating?”
“What hast thou hit upon now!” said the mother, embracing her younger son; “how couldst thou get into thy brain that a son should beat his father? And is this the proper time, too? The child is yet young; he has undergone such a long journey, and is quite tired” (the child was twenty years old, and seven feet high); “he ought to take a meal and some rest; and thou wishest to make him fight!”
“Ah, I have it! thou art a pet!” said Boolba; “do not, my son, give heed to what thy mother is saying; she is but a woman, and what can she know? As for thy coddling—the open field and a swift horse—these must be thy coddling! And look at this sabre—this is to be thy mother! It is all nonsense that they have been putting into your heads at the college: books, grammars, and philosophy, yes, the whole lot of them—I spit upon them all.” Here Boolba used words such as are not to be met with in books. “I had better send you, not later than next week, to the Zaporoghian Ssiecha. There you will have something to learn! that will be a good school for you; there you will get brains!”
“And are they not to remain at home more than a week?” mournfully asked the old mother, with tears in her eyes. “Poor souls, they will have no time even to rest a little, no time to get acquainted with their father’s roof; and I shall not have time to have a good look at them!”
“Have done, old woman! no howling! A Cossack is not made to spend his life with women. Hadst thou the power, thou wouldst put both of them under thy petticoat, and sit upon them as a hen does upon her eggs. Go, go, and have everything in the house put upon the table. We do not want pastry, honey-cakes, poppyseed cakes, and all those sweet nonsenses. Bring us a whole roasted sheep, give us a buck, let us have some mead1 that is twenty years old, and above all things, plenty of brandy; and let it not be the brandy with raisins and various spices, but plain, clean, corn brandy, that hisses and simmers.”
Boolba conducted his sons into the parlour, from which hastily rushed two pretty maid servants, with red necklaces, who were putting the rooms in order. They might have been scared by the arrival of the young masters, who never let any woman pass by quietly; or, perhaps, they did it only in accordance with the custom of all women, which is to shriek aloud, and run away with the utmost speed at the sight of a man; and then afterwards stand and gaze at him, covering their faces with their sleeves, as if vastly ashamed. The great room was arranged according to the taste of those times, of which there are nowhere such vivid pictures to be found as in songs and popular legends;—these, too, are no longer, as of yore, sung in Ukraine by blind, long-bearded old men, who used to sing them in the hearing of assembled crowds, and with the accompaniment of the soft music of the bandora2
The furniture was also in the taste of those warlike, sturdy times, when the Union3 began to provoke struggles and battles in Ukraine. The walls were all neatly plastered with coloured clay. Upon them hung sabres, scourges, nets for catching birds and for fishing, guns, a powder-horn of exquisite workmanship, a golden snaffle-bit, and horse-shackles with silver plates. The windows were small, with dim, round panes, such as are now found only in old churches, and through which one could only see by lifting the moveable glass. The windows and doors were surrounded with stripes of red paint. In the corners there stood, upon shelves, an array of jugs, bottles, and flagons of green and blue glass, chased silver cups, and gilded dram-cups of Venetian, Turkish, and Circassian workmanship. They had come into Boolba’s hands by various means, he being the third or fourth possessor of them, an occurrence very usual in those warlike days. Wooden benches ran all round the room; an immense table stood in the front corner, under the holy images; a large stove, which had many projecting and receding corners, was covered with variegated, varnished tiles. All this was familiar to our two youths, who had every year come home for the vacations. They had always until now come home on foot, because they had no horses, for collegians are not permitted to ride on horseback. The long tufts on the crown of their heads were the only mark of manhood allowed them, and even these, every Cossack wearing arms had the right to pull. It was not till the conclusion of their studies that Boolba had sent them a pair of young horses, which he had selected for them out of his herd.
Boolba, to celebrate the arrival of his sons, had sent invitations to all the centurions and all the officers of his regiment; and as soon as he saw two of them coming with his old comrade the essaool4 Dmitro Tovkach, he introduced his sons to them, saying, “Look at them, are they not pretty lads? I shall send them soon to the Ssiecha!” The guests congratulated both Boolba and the two youths, saying that that was a capital thing, and that there was no better school for young men than the Zaporoghian Ssiecha.
“Well, gentlemen brothers, sit down to table, every one where he pleases. Now, sons, before anything else, let’s take some brandy!” so spoke Boolba. “God’s blessing be upon us! May God give you health, my sons; to thee, Ostap, and to thee, Andrew! May he ever grant you success in war! that you may get the better of all misbelievers, Tartars, and Turks, or Poles—if Poles attempt anything against our faith. Well, give me your cup; is the brandy good? And what is the Latin for brandy? Well, son, the Romans were only so many fools; they did not even know so much as that there’s brandy in the world. How do you call the fellow that wrote Latin verses? I am no great scholar, so I do not know his name; but let me see, wasn’t it Horace?”
“Just see my father!” thought the elder son, Ostap, to himself; “he knows all about it, and yet feigns ignorance, the old dog!”
“I think the Abbot didn’t so much as let you smell brandy,”5 continued Tarass Boolba. “Now, own, sons, they famously thrashed your back, and whatever else a Cossack possesses, with fresh birch rods? or, perhaps, as you grew cleverer, you were flogged with scourges? and I should think not only on Saturdays, but on Wednesdays and Thursdays6 too, you got your allowance.”
“What is the use of talking about what is past?” answered Ostap; “what is past can never come back.”
“Let any one try it now,” said Andrew; “let any one touch us now! If a Tartar were to come within our reach, now, we would soon let him know what sort of a thing a Cossack’s sabre is.”
“Well said, son, well said indeed! If things stand so, I will go with you! By Heavens, I’ll do it! What the devil have I to wait here for? Am I then to turn sower or farmer, or to pasture sheep or swine, and make love to my wife? Let them all perish! I am a Cossack, and will not be anything else but a Cossack! There is no war? Well, what then? I’ll go with you just to have a look at the Zaporoghians! By Heavens, I will!” and old Boolba grew warmer and warmer in his speech, and at last, becoming quite fierce, rose from the table, drew himself up to his full height and stamped with his foot. “Why should it be put off? Let us ride there to-morrow! Of what use would it be for us to wait? What is this house to us? Of what use is all this furniture? Of what use this crockery?” and with these words he began knocking about and dashing on the ground jugs and dishes.
His poor old wife, seated on a bench, mournfully watched these proceedings of her husband, to which she was accustomed. She dared not interfere, but could not restrain her tears at hearing a decision so awful to her; she looked at her sons, from whom she was threatened to part so soon, and none could describe the extent of the silent intensity of sorrow which seemed to quiver in her eyes and in her convulsively compressed lips.
Boolba was stubborn to an excess. His was one of those characters, which could only take their rise in the gloomy fifteenth century, in a semi-nomad corner of Europe, at a time when the whole of primitive Southern Russia was left by its sovereign princes a prey to the fire and sword of the unconquerable Mogul invaders; when the natives of that country grew daring, after having lost hearth and roof; when they settled upon the sites of their former dwellings, within view of their terrible neighbours and of incessant danger, and learned to forget that there was any such thing in the world as fear; when after having remained dormant for centuries, the Slavonic spirit was inflamed with the love of war. Then it was that the Cossacks broke forth, that powerful sinew of Russian nature, and then the banks of all the rivers and the valleys and rich pasturages were covered with Cossacks. Nobody could number them, and rightly did their bold comrades give answer to the Sultan, who inquired their number, “Who can tell it? all the steppe over; for every mound there is a Cossack!” In truth it was an extraordinary outburst of Russian strength; calamity struck it out of the breast of the Russian people, just as steel strikes fire out of flint. Ancient principalities had disappeared; small towns, with prickers and huntsmen, were no more; petty sovereigns exchanging their possessions had had their time. Instead of these, there arose formidable hamlets, villages and communities bound together by common danger from, and common hatred to, the foes of the Cross. History makes us acquainted how it was that their incessant struggles, and restless life, prevented Europe from falling a prey to the irresistible flood of Tartar invaders, and from being overthrown by them. The Polish kings, who had superseded the Russian princes in the possession of their wide expanse of land, although far from these their possessions, and without the means of enforcing their rule over them, understood the mission of the Cossacks and the advantages derivable from their warlike, lawless mode of life. They gave encouragement to their pursuits, nay, they even flattered them. It was under their remote sway, that Hetmans, chosen from among the Cossacks themselves, transformed hamlets and communities into regiments and regular military circuits. There was no regular standing army; not a soldier was to be seen; but in case of war or any general movement, every one, before eight days were over, appeared on horseback armed from head to foot, but receiving only a ducat from the king, and thus in a fortnight was gathered such a militia as no regular enlistments could ever have produced. The campaign once over, the warrior returned to his fields and pastures, or to the ferries over the Dnieper, betook himself to fishing, trading and brewing beer, and he became once more a free Cossack. Well might foreign writers of this period express their astonishment at the manifold accomplishments of a Cossack. No trade, no business, was unknown to him; he knew how to distil brandy out of corn, how to mend a carriage, how to grind powder; he was acquainted with blacksmith’s as well as with locksmith’s work; and besides all this he knew how to plunge into the vortex of the most riotous life, to drink and to carouse—as none but a Russian can. Besides the registered Cossacks, who were by duty bound to come forth in case of war, there were, at every period of great emergency, whole troops of mounted volunteers. The essaools had nothing to do but to go through the squares and market-places of every city and village, and there, mounting on some carriage, cry aloud: “Ho! you brewers and coopers! enough of brewing your beer, lolling on your ovens, and feeding flies with the fat of your bodies! Come and seek the glory and honour of knights! And you, ploughmen, sowers, shepherds, loiterers, have done with going behind the plough and daubing your yellow boots with mud, with running after girls and destroying your knightly strength. The time is come to win a Cossack’s glory!”
And these words fell like so many sparks upon dry wood. Ploughmen broke their ploughs, brewers and coopers destroyed their tubs and casks, mechanics and tradesmen sent handicraft and trade to the devil, broke the furniture in their houses, and every one, be he who he might, set off on horseback. In a word, here it was that the Russian character showed itself in its boldest and most striking outlines, and received its most powerful development.
Tarass Boolba was one of the old colonels, and a colonel of the old school too. In him seemed combined everything which makes a warrior, and his character was stamped by a stern uprightness. In those times the influence of Poland already began to be felt amongst the nobility of South Russia; many of the nobles began to adopt Polish fashions, to indulge in luxury, to keep a magnificent revenue, hawks, and huntsmen, to give banquets and entertainments. All this was displeasing to Tarass; he liked the simple manner of life of the Cossacks, and quarrelled with those of his comrades who inclined towards the Warsaw party, nicknaming them the servants of Polish lords. Ever unconquerable, he took it for granted that he was the rightful defender of orthodoxy. He went, of his own accord, into every village where the tenants complained of oppression or of additional taxes laid on the cottages, and constituting himself judge of these grievances, he made it a rule that the sword was to be used on three occasions, viz., when the Polish commissaries did not pay due respect to the Elders, and stood covered before them; when they insulted orthodoxy, and did not observe the faith of their forefathers; and lastly, when the foes were misbelievers or Turks, against whom, according to his notions, a Christian was in every case allowed to raise his sword.
Now Tarass pictured to himself, beforehand, the pleasure he should have in bringing his sons to the Ssiecha, and in saying, “Look at them, are not these fine fellows that I have brought you!” how he would introduce them to all his old comrades, hardened in so many combats; how he would behold their first deeds in war and in carousing, which was also accounted one of the great accomplishments of a knight. At first, he had thought of sending them by themselves; but, on seeing the freshness of their manly beauty, the height and strength of their frames, his warlike spirit kindled, and he resolved to go with them himself, although nothing but the stubbornness of his own will made it requisite. He was already busy giving orders, making choice of horses and trappings for his young sons, going into the stables and barns, and indicating; the servants who were to start on the morrow with him. He deputed his authority to the Essaool Tovkach, giving him strict orders to come with his regiment at his first summons, were he to send from the Ssiecha for it. He forgot nothing, though he was rather tipsy, and his head was not yet quite clear. He even gave orders to water the horses, and to put the best and largest grained wheat into their mangers. At last he returned, tired out with his work. “Well, children, let us go to sleep, and to-morrow we shall do what God wills. No beds! we don’t want beds; we will sleep in the yard.”
Night had scarcely crept over the sky, but Boolba always went to rest early. He lay down upon a carpet and rolled himself up in a sheepskin cloak, because the night was rather fresh, and because he always liked when at home to be warmly covered. He was soon snoring, and every one in the yard followed his example. All who were lying about in different corners of the yard set off snoring; first of all the watchman fell asleep, for he had got more tipsy than any one on the occasion of the young masters’ arrival. The poor mother alone could not sleep; she reclined on the pillow of her dear sons, who were lying side by side; she smoothed their young negligently intermingled curls, moistening them with tears. She was gazing at them, ay, gazing at them with all her soul; her whole being seemed absorbed in sight, and she could not cease gazing. With her own milk she had fed them—she had watched them grow—she had tended them—and now, she sees them near her only for a moment. “Sons, my own dear sons, what will happen to you? What is in store for you?” and tears ran down on the wrinkles which disfigured her once handsome face.
And, indeed, she was to be pitied, as were nil the women of those warlike times. For one moment only had she enjoyed love, which wits during the first impulse merely of youth and passion; and then her stern lover had quitted her for his sabre, for his comrades, and for carousing. During the whole course of the year, she saw her husband but for two or three days, and then years passed away without hearing anything about him. And, even when she happened to see him, and live with him, what a life was hers; she received nothing from him but insults, and often even blows. The caresses bestowed upon her were nothing but charity, she saw it. Strange was her existence among that mob of heartless warriors, whose features bore the bronzed colouring peculiar to the Zaporoghians. She had seen her youth glide away without enjoyment, and her beautiful fresh cheeks fade without kisses and shrivel into wrinkles before due time. All her love, all her feelings, all that is tender and passionate in a woman, all was concentrated for her in one feeling—that of a mother. And like a bird of the steppe, she feverishly, passionately, and tearfully hovered over her children. Her sons, her dear sons, are to be taken away from her; to be taken where she may never see them again. Who knows? may be in the first battle a Tartar will cut off their heads, and she will not even know where to find their corpses; perhaps those corpses, for each morsel of which, for each drop of whose blood she would give everything in the world, those very corpses may be thrown aside, and the wild birds of prey may tear them to pieces. Sobbing, she looked in their eyes, which sleep already began to close, and she thought— “Who knows but that Boolba, on awaking, may put off the departure for some two or three days; may be he resolved to start so soon, merely from having drunk too much.”
The moon had long ago risen in the heavens, and from their height shone down on the yard, covered with sleeping Cossacks, on the thick sallows, and on the high grass which had overgrown the palisade surrounding the yard. Still the mother remained sitting beside her dear sons, never taking her eyes off them for a moment, and never caring for sleep. The horses, feeling the approach of the dawn, lay down and ceased to feed; the upper leaves of the sallows began to move, and, by degrees, the murmuring current descended to the branches beneath. The mother remained sitting till dawn. She felt no weariness, and inwardly wished that the night might last still longer. Already the sonorous neighing of the foals was heard from the steppe; red streaks brightly illumined the sky. All at once Boolba awoke and sprang to his feet; he was perfectly aware of the orders he had given on the preceding day….
“Up lads, away with sleep! it is time, it is time. Give the horses their drink. Where is the old woman (so he usually called his wife)? Quick, old woman! prepare our meal—we have a long journey before us!”
The poor old woman, deprived of her last hopes, went mournfully to the house. While tearfully she was preparing everything for breakfast, Boolba issued his orders: he bustled about in the stable and himself chose the best equipment for his sons. The collegians were suddenly metamorphosed: instead of their dirty boots and shabby dresses, they appeared in red boots with silver heels; their trousers, of a tremendous width with thousands of folds, were tightly girded with a gilded belt; long leather thongs, with tassels and different requisites for the pipe, hung from their belts. Their cossackins,7 of a fiery red cloth, were girded by brilliantly-coloured sashes, in which were stuck pistols of Turkish embossed workmanship, and sabres were dangling about their heels. Their faces, not yet sunburnt, seemed to have grown still more handsome and still fairer. Their young dark mustachios gave still more brilliancy to the healthy, robust bloom of their youth; their black sheepskin caps, with the crowns of cloth of gold, became them excellently. Poor mother! when she saw them she could not utter a word, and tears rushed into her eyes.
“Now, sons, all is ready, don’t waste time,” said Boolba at last. “Now, we must all, like Christians, sit down before the journey.”8
Every one sat down, including even the servants, who had respectfully stood at the door.
“Now, mother, bless thy children!” said Boolba. “Pray God that they may be brave in war, that they may ever preserve their knightly honour, that they may ever hold fast the faith of Christ. Otherwise, ’twere better they should die, better nothing remained of them in the world. Go to your mother, children; the prayer of a mother preserves one by sea and land.”
The tender mother embraced them, took two small holy images, and sobbing, hung them round their necks:—
“May the Holy Virgin—preserve you—don’t forget your mother, my sons—send me word about you.” She could say no more!
“Let us be gone now, children!” said Boolba. Saddled horses stood near the door of the house. Boolba sprang on his own, named “Devil,” who furiously bounded aside as he felt on his back the weight of his rider, who was very stout and heavy. When the mother saw that her sons had also mounted, she rushed to the younger, whose features wore a somewhat more tender expression; she caught his stirrup, clung to his saddle, and, a picture of utter despair, would not let him loose. Two strong Cossacks gently dragged her away and carried her into the room. But when she saw them cross the gateway, in spite of her age she flew through the yard with the swiftness of a wild goat, and, with incredible strength, stopped the horse and embraced one of her sons, with a mad, rapturous feverishness. Once more was she brought home.
Mournfully rode the young Cossacks, restraining their tears lest their father should be angry; but he, too, was agitated, although he endeavoured not to show it. The day was gray; the verdure was of a bright green; the birds seemed to sing discordantly. After having ridden for some time, they turned to look back: the farm seemed to have sunk into the earth; they could only see the two chimneys of their modest mansion and the tops of the surrounding trees—those trees, whose branches they used to climb like squirrels; but before them lay expanded the wide plain—that same plain, which might bring back to their minds the whole history of their lives, from the years when they rolled in its dew-covered grass, down to the years when they were reclining in it, awaiting some dark-browed girl, who timidly ran across it with her pretty little feet. Already—nothing is to be seen, but the pulley over the well, with the wheel tied to its top. Already the plain, across which they rode but just now, has covered all behind and looks like a hill. Farewell, childhood! Farewell, youthful sports! all of you, farewell!
- The meads of Little Russia, Lithuania, and Poland are renowned for their flavour, which, like that of some wines, increases with being kept. They are very strong and act especially on the legs, so that sometimes a glass of mead is sufficient to deprive the most experienced drinker of the use of his legs, although his head may remain perfectly clear. Some ascribe the fact of so many Poles suffering from gout to nothing more than the immoderate use of mead.
- A sort of guitar peculiar to Little Russia.
- Union, in the Russian acceptation of the term, means the mixed religion, uniting the rites of the Greek Church with the dogmas of Popery, which was enforced by Poland upon Little Russia and Lithuania, and which gave the Poles occasion to commit the most abominable cruelties on the adherents of the Greek Church, and roused the vengeance of the latter. A correct and most strictly true picture of those struggles is to be found in this tale.
- A rank in Russian irregular troops corresponding to that of captain or commander of a company.
- The above-mentioned college was placed under the orders of an abbot, and the professors and tutors in it were monks.
- Formerly Saturday was a dreaded day in Russian schools. Every pupil received on the evening of that day a severe flogging—the bad pupils as a punishment for their past misdeeds and laziness, the good ones as a foretaste of what awaited them in case of their altering their conduct. Some strange notion existed of accustoming the pupils to endure bodily pain, and of giving a periodical impulse to the circulation of their blood, and this had some connection with the barbarous system.
- A cossackin means a Cossack’s dress, which is a coat fastened by hooks down the middle of the breast, and fitting closely to the figure. It is furnished with skirts which never descend lower than the knee.
- This is a Russian custom still observed. Before a departure every one present sits down for a minute or two in silence; then all rise at once, making the sign of the cross, and invoking the protection of Heaven on the intended travellers.