Tarass Boolba and his sons had remained already more than a week at the Ssiecha. Ostap and Andrew had not yet much profited by warlike exercises. The Zaporoghians did not like spending their time in the mimicry of war; the education and martial accomplishments of the young were acquired by experience alone, during the raging of battles which, for the same reason, were almost incessant. The Cossacks found it dull work to employ their leisure in learning discipline, and if they ever studied anything it was shooting at a target, and sometimes pursuing on horseback the wild animals of the steppes; the whole remaining time was given up to carousing—the proof of a widely diffused freedom. The whole Ssiecha presented a strange scene; it was like an unceasing festival, a banquet which had begun noisily and forgotten to end. Some Zaporoghians were occupied in different handicrafts; others had shops and busied themselves with trade; but the greater part feasted from morning till night, as long as the possibility of feasting jingled in their pockets, and as long as the conquered booty had not found its way into the hands of the tradesmen and the proprietors of brandy-shops. This universal festival had something seductive about it; it was not an assembly of men who had been driven to drunkenness by grief; it was nothing but the maddest expression of mirth. Every one who had found his way thither, forgot and at once cast off everything which had till then occupied his mind. He seemed to drive away all his past life, and to give himself up, soul and body, with the fanaticism of a new convert, to freedom and to comradeship, with men who, like himself, had no relations, nor home, nor family, and to whom nothing was left but the canopy of Heaven, and the unintermittent festival of their hearts. This gave rise to that mad gaiety, which could never have found any other source. The tales and narratives which might be heard among the groups lazily reclining upon the ground, were often so droll and breathed such lively animation, that one must needs have had the immoveable features of a Zaporoghian to have kept an indifferent countenance and never so much as curled the lip; and this, indeed, is one of the most striking features which distinguish the Southern Russian from the rest of the Russians. The mirth was provoked by wine, was attended by noise, but yet there were none of those disfigured outlines of a caricatured gaiety, which one finds in the dirty brandy shop. It was the friendly circle of schoolfellows. The only difference consisted in this, that instead of poring over books, and listening to the stupid lessons of professors, these schoolfellows made invasions, mounted on about five thousand horses; that instead of the field in which they had formerly played at ball, they now had, unguarded and uncared for, boundaries beyond which might be seen the swift head of the Tartar, and the Turk haughtily glancing from beneath his green turban. The difference was this, that instead of the forced will which had brought them together at school, they had, of their own free choice, left their fathers and mothers and fled from the parental roof. Here were to be found those who had already felt the halter dangling about their necks, and who, instead of pale-faced death, had found life, and life in its utmost gaiety. Here were those who followed the noble principle of never retaining a farthing about them. Here were those, who, thanks to the Jews, tenants of Polish lords, could always have their pockets turned inside out without the fear of losing anything. Here were all the collegians, who had not had the patience to endure the college rods, and who, of all their school learning, had not retained so much as the alphabet. But besides these, here were to be found some who knew who Horace was, who Cicero, and what the Roman Republic. Here were many who afterwards acquired distinction as officers in the army of the King of Poland. Here were many experienced volunteers who felt the noble conviction that it was quite the same thing where and why the war took place so that wars were made, and that no man of noble feelings could remain without fighting. Many more were here who had come into the Ssiecha for no other purpose, but that they might say afterwards that they had been there, and that they were hardened warriors. But what, indeed, were the characters that could not be found here? Those who liked warfare, who liked gilded cups, who liked rich stuffs, or gold and silver coins, could at all times find employment here. Those only who worshipped womankind could find nothing to suit their taste; for no woman was allowed so much as to show her face even in the suburb of the Ssiecha.
During their abode in the Ssiecha, Ostap and Andrew were much astonished at seeing that crowds of people came, without so much as any one asking whence they came, or what were their names. They came thither as if they were returning to their own homes which they had but recently quitted. The new-comer only went to the Koschevoï Ataman,1 who addressed him in these terms:—
“Good day! dost thou believe in Christ?
“I do;” answered the new-comer.
“And dost thou believe in the Holy Trinity?”
“And dost thou go to church?”
“Make the sign of the cross!”
The new-comer made it.
“Well,” said the Koschevoï, “thou mayest go into whichever kooren thou pleasest.”
And thus the ceremony ended.
The whole population of the Ssiecha went to the same church, which they were ready to defend to the last drop of their blood; and yet the Cossacks would never attend to fasts and abstinence. The suburb was chiefly inhabited by Jews, Armenians, and Tartars, who, incited by the love of gain, dared to live and to have shops there, knowing that the Zaporoghians never bargained, but paid as much money as their hands took out of their pockets. But the fate of these greedy tradespeople was much to be pitied; they were like those who build their houses at the foot of Vesuvius: as soon as the Zaporoghians had no money left, the most desperate among them pillaged the shops, and carried away everything without payment.
The Ssiecha consisted of upwards of sixty koorens, which were very like so many independent republics, and still more like so many boarding-schools. No one provided any furniture or food for himself; the Koorennoï Ataman2 had charge of everything, and was called on this account “father.” He kept the money, the clothes, the furniture, the flour, the oats, and even the fuel; all money was deposited with him. It was no rare occurrence that one kooren quarrelled with another; on such occasions, fighting immediately ensued. The rival koorens rushed into the field, and fought till one of them got the upper hand, and then all ended in a general carouse.
Such was this Ssiecha, which had so many attractions for young men.
Ostap and Andrew plunged at once with the heedlessness of youth into this sea of pleasure, forgetting in no time their father’s roof, the college, and all that had till then occupied their thoughts, and they gave themselves entirely up to this new mode of life. Everything was strange to them; the loose habits of the Ssiecha, its unsophisticated laws and administration, which even then seemed to them too severe in such a self-willed community. If a Cossack had committed theft, were it but of the most insignificant rubbish, his fault was reputed to be a shame to the whole community; he was, as a dishonourable person, tied to a pillory, and beside him was placed a club, with which every one who passed by might give him a blow, until the criminal expired. An insolvent debtor was fastened to a cannon, and remained there till some of his comrades ransomed him and paid his debts. But the greatest impression made on Andrew was produced by the terrible penalty prescribed for murder. Before his eyes, a hole was dug in the ground, the murderer was put into it alive, and over him was placed the coffin containing the corpse of the man whom he had murdered; then both were covered with earth, and the hole was filled up. For a long time the dreadful ceremony of this punishment haunted Andrew, and he thought he saw again and again the man buried alive with the terrible coffin.
Both youths soon gained the best repute among the Cossacks. Often did they go together with some comrades of their kooren, sometimes with the whole kooren, and with other koorens too, to shoot in the steppes an innumerable quantity of wild birds, stags, and goats; or they resorted to the lakes, rivers, and arms of the Dnieper, assigned to every kooren by lot, to throw their fishing nets and bring to land a rich booty of fish, sufficient to feed the whole kooren. It was not as yet a trial of true Cossack life, but still they succeeded in distinguishing themselves from among other youths by their audacity and their dexterity in everything. They never missed their aim when shooting, and they swam across the Dnieper against the current, an exploit for which every new-comer was triumphantly admitted into the assemblies of the Cossacks.
But Tarass was preparing a new scene of action for them; he did not like this idle mode of life; he desired real activity for them. After ruminating for a while how to raise the Ssiecha on some daring enterprise, where one might find true knightly exploits to perform, he, at last, went one day to the Koschevoï, and said to him, abruptly:
“Koschevoï, it is high time for the Zaporoghians to take the air in the field.”
“There is nowhere to take it,” answered the Koschevoï, taking his pipe out of his mouth, and spitting-on one side.
“How so? Nowhere? There are the Turks; there are the Tartars!”
“We cannot go either against Turks or against Tartars,” answered the Koschevoï, coolly resuming his pipe.
“And why not?”
“So it is; we have promised peace to the Sultan.”
“But is he not an unbeliever? Well, do not the Scriptures order us to combat all unbelievers?”
“We have no right to do it; had we not sworn by our faith, well, maybe we might have done it; but now, no, we cannot.”
“Why can we not? Why dost thou say we have no right? Here have I two sons, both of them young men. Neither the one nor the other have ever seen war, and thou sayest, ‘we have no right;’ and thou sayest, ‘the Zaporoghians cannot go to war.'”
“So it must be.”
“So then, the Cossack’s strength must run to seed? So men must end their lives like so many dogs, without having been of any use to their country, or to Christendom? What do we live for, then? What the devil is the use of our life; tell me that? Thou art a sensible man; there was some reason for electing thee Koschevoï; tell me, what do we live for?”
The Koschevoï left the question unanswered. He was a stubborn Cossack; he remained silent for a while, and then said, “Nevertheless, there can be no war.”
“So there will be no war?” once more asked Tarass.
“So it is of no use to think of it?”
“It is of no use.”
“Well, wait a little, thou—devil’s fist!” said Boolba to himself. “I’ll teach thee to know me!” And he resolved on the spot to take his revenge of the Koschevoï.
After having talked first with one and then another, he made up a drinking party, and a number of tipsy Cossacks rushed to the public square; here, tied to a pole, were the kettle-drums, which were used for summoning the rada3 but not finding the sticks, which were in charge of an official called doobish, they caught up logs of wood, and began beating the drums with them. The first who appeared on hearing the sound of the drums was the doobish, a tall one-eyed man, whose only eye was still very sleepy.
“Who dares to beat the drum?” cried he.
“Be silent; take thy sticks, and beat the drum when thou art ordered to do so,” answered the tipsy elders.
The doobish complied at once, and took out the sticks, which he had brought in his pocket, being well acquainted with the usual end of such occurrences. The kettle-drums resounded, and soon dark crowds of Zaporoghians were seen swarming like bees into the square. All assembled in a circle, and after the third beating of the drum, came at last the chiefs: the Koschevoï with the mace, token of his dignity; the judge, with the seal of the Ssiecha; the secretary, with his inkstand, and the essaool with the staff. The Koschevoï, and the other dignitaries, took off their caps, and bowed on every side to the Cossacks, who stood haughtily holding their arms a-kimbo.
“What means this assembly? What do you wish, gentlemen?” said the Koschevoï.
Clamours and scolding words put a stop to his speech.
“Lay down thy mace, lay it down directly, devil’s son!—we do not want thee any more!” shrieked some Cossacks from the crowd. Some of the sober koorens seemed to resist, but tipsy and sober koorens came to blows. The shouts and noise became general.
The Koschevoï tried to speak, but knowing that the infuriated self-willed crowd might perhaps beat him to death for it, and that such was almost always the end of such riots, he bowed very low, laid down the mace, and disappeared among the people.
“Do you order, gentlemen, that we too lay down the tokens of our rank?” said the judge, the secretary, and the essaool, ready to resign the seal, the inkstand, and the staff.
“Not you; you may remain; we only wanted to drive away the Koschevoï, because he is an old woman, and we need a man for a Koschevoï!”
“Whom will you choose for your Koschevoï?” asked the dignitaries.
“Choose Kookoobenko!” cried one side.
“We will not have Kookoobenko!” cried the other. “‘Tis early for him; his mother’s milk is yet wet upon his lips!”
“Let Shilo be the Ataman,” cried some. “Shilo must be Koschevoï!”
“Away with Shilo!” shouted the angry crowd.
“Is he a Cossack, to have thieved like a Tartar, the dog’s son I To the devil with the drunkard Shilo!”
“Let us choose Borodaty—Borodaty!”
“We will not have Borodaty; a curse upon Borodaty!”
“Shout for Kirdiaga,” whispered Tarass Boolba.
“Kirdiaga, Kirdiaga,” shouted the crowd. “Borodaty! Borodaty!”—”Kirdiaga! Kirdiaga!”
“Shilo!”—”The devil take Shilo!”—”Kirdiaga!”
Each of the proposed candidates, on hearing his name shouted, instantly quitted the crowd, to leave no room for suspecting his personal influence in the election.
“Kirdiaga! Kirdiaga!” was heard above all.
Blows succeeded to words, and Kirdiaga’s party got the better.
“Go and fetch Kirdiaga!” was now the cry.
Some ten Cossacks directly stepped out of the crowd; many of them hardly stood upon their legs, such was the strength of the spirits they had swallowed; they went straight to Kirdiaga, to notify to him his election.
Kirdiaga, a clever old Cossack, had already been some time seated in his kooren, and looked as if quite unconscious of what had just taken place. “What do you want, gentlemen?” asked he.
“Go; thou art elected to be the Koschevoï.”
“Be merciful, gentlemen!” said Kirdiaga. “I am by no means worthy of such an honour; I have not sense enough for a rank like that; is there no one better than I to be found in the whole Ssiecha?”
“Go, when thou art told to go!” cried the Zaporoghians. Two of them took hold of his arms, and in vain did he endeavour to stay his feet. He was at last brought into the square, pushed from behind by blows and pokes, receiving such scoldings and admonitions as—”Don’t draw back, thou devil’s son!” “Take the honour, dog, when they give it to thee!”
In such a manner Kirdiaga was brought into the midst of the Cossack circle.
“Gentlemen!” cried those who had brought him, “are you willing to have this Cossack for your Koschevoï?”
“We are, all of us!” shouted the crowd; and the field resounded far and wide with the cry.
One of the elders took up the mace, and offered it to the newly-elected Koschevoï. Kirdiaga refused it, according to custom. The elder offered it a second time; Kirdiaga refused it again; and only after the third invitation, did he take up the mace. A clamour of approval arose from the crowd, and again far and wide the field resounded with the Cossacks’ shout. Now stepped out from the midst of the people four of the oldest Cossacks, with gray crown-locks, and gray mustachios (no very old folks were to be found in the Ssiecha, for no Zaporoghian ever died a natural death); each of them took a handful of earth, which recent rain had turned to mud, and put it upon Kirdiaga’s head. Down from his head ran the wet earth, which flowed over his mustachios and cheeks, and soiled all his face with mud. But Kirdiaga remained standing upright, and returned thanks to the Cossacks for the honour they had bestowed upon him.
So ended the clamorous election. It remains unknown whether others rejoiced in it as much as Boolba: first, for having taken his revenge on the late Koschevoï; and secondly, because Kirdiaga was his old comrade, who had been with him in the same campaigns, over sea and land, and had shared the same hardships and labours of warfare. The crowd dispersed immediately, in order to rejoice over the election; and a revel ensued such as Ostap and Andrew had not yet seen. The brandy-shops were ransacked; mead, brandy, and beer were carried off without any payment being made; the masters of the shops were glad to be suffered to escape untouched. The whole of the night passed in noise and songs, and the moon, rising in the sky, shone for a long time over the hands of musicians walking about the streets with bandooras, torbans, and round balalaikas,4 and over the group of the singers who were kept in the Ssiecha to chant in the church, and to sing the praises of the feats of the Zaporoghians.
At last, tipsiness and fatigue began to get the better of the strong heads; and now began to be seen here and there a Cossack rolling on the ground. Here, two comrades, embracing one another, have grown sentimental, and both roll down weeping. There, a whole crowd has lain down together. There is one, who after fidgetting very much about the most commodious manner of lying down, has stretched himself full length on a log. The last, whose head was somewhat stronger, remained still uttering incoherent sentences; but he, too, finished by submitting to the effects of brandy, and when he fell like the rest, the whole of the Ssiecha was asleep.
- Supreme chief of the Zaporoghian Ssiecha.
- The elective chief of the kooren, subordinate to the Koschevoï Ataman.
- General assembly or council.
- Different sorts of guitars, common in Little Russia.