In a short time the whole of the south-east of Poland became a prey to terror. Everywhere the news had spread, “The Zaporoghians! the Zaporoghians are coming!” All those who could save themselves by flight, used to run away in those times, so disordered, so astonishingly careless, when no fortresses, no castles were built, but when men set up some temporary thatched dwelling, thinking it useless to lose either money or labour on what was doomed to be destroyed in the next Tartar invasion! The alarm was general: one changed his oxen and his plough for a horse and a gun, and repaired to the regiments; another hid himself, driving away his cattle and carrying off everything possible. Now and then were to be found some who encountered the strangers with armed hands, but always with a bad result; the greater part hurriedly took flight. Every one knew how hard it was to contend with the Zaporoghians, warriors hardened in warfare, and who, even in their self-willed licence, kept a pre-concerted order in battle. The mounted Cossacks rode without encumbering or over-exerting the horses; the infantry steadily followed the waggons, and the whole army moved only during the night, taking rest by day in open places, uninhabited tracts and forests, of which there were then plenty. Spies were sent in advance to gather information and to reconnoitre. And oftentimes the Zaporoghians appeared where they were the least expected; then the only thing was to bid farewell to life; the hamlets became the prey of flames; the cattle and horses, which could not be carried off by the Cossacks, were slaughtered on the spot. They seemed rather to be carousing than carrying on a campaign. But the hair would stand on end at the relation of the terrible feats of cruelty of those half-savage times which were everywhere accomplished by the Zaporoghians. Children were put to the sword; women’s breasts cut away; the skin torn from the leg as far as the knee of those who were left free—such was the terrible payment of the Cossacks for past debts.
The abbot of a monastery, hearing of their approach, sent two monks to them to say they had no right to act thus, as the Zaporoghians and Poland were at peace; that they were infringing their duty towards the king, and at the same time violating the law of nations.
“Tell the reverend father from me and from all the Zaporoghians,” answered the Koschevoï, “that he has nothing to fear; the Cossacks are as yet only just lighting their pipes.”
And soon after, the majestic abbey was enshrouded in devastating flames, and its gigantic Gothic windows looked with severe aspect through the occasionally disunited waves of the conflagration. Crowds of flying monks, Jews and women, soon found those towns where there was any hope to find any protection in the number of the garrison and in the thickness of the walls. At times the government sent help; but these few detachments, coming too late, either could no longer find the Cossacks or took fright, turned back at the first encounter and fled away on their swift horses. It happened, however, that some of the king’s captains, who had been victorious in previous battles, resolved to unite their strength and put a stop to the progress of the Zaporoghians. It was on such occasions that our young Cossacks were put to the trial: they were strangers to pillage, careless about booty, or about fighting a weak foe; but they were inflamed with the desire of exhibiting their prowess before their older comrades—of fighting hand to hand with the brisk and boastful Pole, who came dashing upon his fiery steed, the flowing sleeves of his cloak flying behind him in the wind. The school was amusing to them. They had already taken a great many horse-trappings, costly swords and guns. One month ago they were but half-fledged nestlings; their nature was now quite changed; they were grown men; even their features, which till then had the meekness of youth, now bore a menacing and strongly marked expression.
Old Tarass was delighted to see both his sons always among the foremost. Ostap seemed to have been born to tread the path of war, and to accomplish difficult feats of arms. Never losing his presence of mind—on no occasion alarmed; but with a coolness quite unnatural in a young man of twenty-two, he understood at the first glance the whole of the danger and the position of things, and on the spot found the means of avoiding difficulty, but avoided it only to be the more sure of surmounting it. His movements were now stamped with the certainty of experience, and the propensities of the future captain might unerringly be traced in him. His body breathed forth strength—his knightly qualities already made him like the mighty lion.
“Oh! that fellow will make in time a good colonel!” said old Tarass; “by Heavens, he will be a good colonel, and such a one, that he will excel his father!”
Andrew gave himself up to the bewitching music of bullets and swords. He understood not what it is to consider, or to calculate, or to measure the strength on one side and on the other. In battle he saw but a frantic luxury and delight; he found something festive in those moments when his brain was on fire—when everything glimmered confusedly before his eyes—when heads flew about—when horses fell with a crash on the ground, and he himself went galloping amidst the whistling of bullets and the clashing of swords, striking on every side and never feeling the strokes which he received. And old Tarass more than once was amazed at seeing Andrew, induced only by his own vehemence, rush on such deeds as no cool-minded and reflective man would have ever undertaken, and achieve solely by the madness of the attack, which could not but astonish the oldest warriors. Old Tarass wondered at Andrew and said, “This one, too, is a good warrior—may the fiend not take him! Not such a one as Ostap; but still a good—yes, a very good warrior.”
It was decided that the army should push its march straight to the city of Doobno, where, as the rumour went, there was much money and many rich inhabitants. The march was accomplished in a day and a half, and the Zaporoghians appeared under the walls of the town. The citizens resolved to defend it to the last, and preferred dying in the squares and in the streets before their houses to letting the foe enter their city. A high earthen rampart surrounded it; where the rampart was lower there projected a stone wall, or a house converted into a battery, or at least a strong wooden palisade. The garrison was strong, and felt the importance of its duty. The Zaporoghians at first rushed at the ramparts, but were stopped by murderous volleys of grape-shot. The burghers and citizens of the town seemed also not to wish to remain idle, and stood in crowds on the town wall. Their looks expressed the desperation of resistance. Even women took part in the contest; and stones, casks, and pots flew down on the Zaporoghians; pitch and sacks of sand blinded their eyes.
The Zaporoghians did not like fighting against fortresses; sieges were not their business. The Koschevoï gave orders for a retreat, and said, “Never mind, gentlemen brothers, let us withdraw; but may I be rather a cursed Tartar, and not a Christian, if we allow any one to escape from the town. Let them, the dogs, perish Dy hunger!”
The army after retreating surrounded the town, and, having nothing to do, began to lay waste the country around; setting fire to the neighbouring hamlets and corn-ricks; driving herds of horses into the unreaped corn-fields, where, as if on purpose, stood the full waving ears, the produce of an abundant crop which this year had brought to all labourers. The besieged watched with horror the destruction of their means of subsistence. The Zaporoghians, in the mean time, drew up their waggons into two files all round the town, and, after dividing their encampment into koorens, as in the Ssiecha, played at leap-frog, at pitch and toss, and looked with killing coolness at the town. Bonfires were lighted at night; the cooks of each kooren boiled buckwheat in enormous copper kettles; sleepless sentinels stood all night long by the bonfires.
The Zaporoghians, however, soon began to grow weary of inactivity, principally from the tediousness of sobriety unconnected with any exertion. The Koschevoï found it even necessary to double the proportion of brandy—a practice sometimes used with the Cossacks when they were not engaged in any difficult enterprise. The young Cossacks, especially the sons of Tarass Boolba, were displeased with this mode of life. Andrew evidently was overpowered by its dulness.
“Stupid boy,” said Tarass to him, “the Cossack who knows how to wait, becomes an Ataman.1 He is not a good warrior who merely does not lose his presence of mind in danger; but he is a good warrior who does not become dull even in inactivity, and who, notwithstanding all impediments, will end by attaining his aim.”
But fiery youth is no match to an old man. Both have different natures, and both look with different eyes at the same thing.
While the siege was going on, the regiment of Tarass came to join the besiegers. The Essaool Tovkach brought it; two more essaools, the secretary, and the other officials of the regiment, also came with it; the whole of this reinforcement numbered more than four thousand Cossacks. Many of them were volunteers who had come of their own accord without being summoned, as soon as they had heard of the impending business. The essaools had been intrusted by the wife of Tarass to bring her blessing to her sons, and to forward to each of them a cypress image brought from one of the monasteries of Kieff. The two brothers hung the holy images round their necks, and involuntarily gave way to their fancy at this remembrance of their old mother. What omen did this blessing bring them? Was it a blessing for vanquishing the foe, and a pledge of their gay return to their native country with booty and glory, which should be the subject of eternal songs for the players of the bandoora? or was it…. But unknown is the future! and it stands before man like the autumn fog which rises over marshes: birds are flying in it upwards and downwards, flapping their wings and seeing not one another —the dove without seeing the hawk, the hawk without seeing the dove—and every one without knowing how near he may be to death.
Ostap had long since resumed his occupations, and was going to his kooren; but Andrew, without being able to account for it, felt a heaviness at his heart. The Cossacks had already finished their supper; evening had long closed in, and a beautiful July night had encircled the earth in its embrace. Still, Andrew did not return to his kooren—did not go to sleep—but stood gazing at the picture before him. Numberless stars glimmered with a bright translucent twinkling over the skies. The field was covered with carts, placed without order, from which hung tar-pots all dripping with tar; the carts were loaded with all the booty and provisions taken from the enemy. Near the carts, beneath the carts, and at a great distance from the carts, might be seen Zaporoghians sleeping on the grass in different picturesque attitudes; one had laid his head on a corn sack, another on his cap, a third had simply chosen the ribs of his comrade for his pillow. Almost every one wore, suspended to his belt, a sabre, a matchlock and a short pipe with brass plates, wires for cleaning it, and a steel for kindling fire. The massive bullocks were reclining with their feet under their bodies; and the great white spots which they formed looked at a distance like so many grey stones thrown about the acclivities of the field. From every spot in the grass the noisy snoring of the sleeping army had begun to rise, and it was answered from the field by the sonorous neighing of the horses, indignant at having their feet tied.
A magnificent and terrific sight was now added to the beauty of the summer night. It was the blaze of the conflagration of the neighbouring country. At one place the flames went slowly and majestically along the sky; at another, meeting with something combustible in their progress, they whirled suddenly round, hissed and flew up to the very stars, and their fiery tongues disappeared in the most distant clouds. Here a burnt cloister, blackened by the fire, stood like a hard-featured Carthusian monk, showing its stern gloomy outlines at every blaze; next to it a garden was burning. It seemed as if one might hear how the trees hissed wrapt in smoke; and as the fire happened to catch some new place its phosphoric violet light shone suddenly on the ripe bunches of plums, or threw a brilliant golden hue on the yellow pears; and in the midst of all this was to be seen, dangling from the wall of the building or from the bough of a tree, the corpse of some poor Jew or monk, doomed, like the building itself, to become the prey of the flames. Over the conflagration, hovering far away, were to be seen birds looking like so many dark diminutive crosses on a fiery field. The city seemed to be slumbering; its spires, its roofs, its palisades and its walls were sometimes illuminated by the reflection of the distant conflagration.
Andrew walked round the Cossacks’ encampment. The bonfires at which the sentries were sitting were going out, and the sentries had fallen asleep; having, it would seem, too much indulged their Cossack appetites. Andrew marvelled at such carelessness, and thought it lucky that no strong forces of the enemy were at hand, and that there was nothing to fear. At last, he went to one of the carts, climbed into it and lay down on his back, bending his arms backwards and putting them under his head. He could not yet sleep, and remained a long time looking at the sky. It appeared all open to him; the air was pure and transparent; the compact mass of stars forming the milky way seemed to be all overflowing with light. At times, Andrew felt a sort of oblivion, and slumber, like a light fog, hid for a minute the sky from his sight; but the next moment it cleared away, and again he saw the heavens.
At this time, it seemed to him that a strange human face had passed before him. Thinking that it was nothing but an illusion of sleep, which would disappear, he opened his eyes wider, and saw that really an emaciated dried-up face bent over him and looked straight into his eyes. Long and coal-black locks of hair, uncombed and dishevelled, stole from beneath a veil thrown over the head. The strange brightness of the eyes, and the deathlike swarthiness of the strongly marked features, would almost have led to the supposition that it was a phantom. Andrew convulsively seized a matchlock and exclaimed, “Who art thou? If thou be an evil spirit—disappear; if thou be a human creature, thy joke is out of place. I’ll kill thee at once!”
The figure answered only by putting its finger to its lips, and seemed to be imploring silence. Andrew let go his hold, and began to look attentively at it. The long hair, the neck, and brown half-naked bosom showed it to be a woman, but she was not a native of the country; her face was sunburnt, and bespoke suffering; her wide cheekbones stuck out over her shrunken cheeks; her narrow eyes were cut obliquely, with the outer corner raised. The more Andrew looked at her features, the more he found in them something which he knew. At last he could not refrain from asking, “Tell me, who art thou? It seems to me that I know thee, or have seen thee somewhere.”
“Two years ago, in Kieff.”
“Two years ago—in Kieff!” repeated Andrew, endeavouring to bring to mind all that his memory had retained of his collegian’s life. He took once more an attentive survey of her, and suddenly exclaimed aloud, “Thou art the Tartar! the servant of that lady! of the voevoda’s daughter!”
“Hush!” said the Tartar, imploringly, folding her hands, shuddering in all her frame, and at the same time turning her head to see that no one had been awakened by the shriek of Andrew.
“Tell me—tell me—why—wherefore art thou here?” said Andrew in a whisper almost choked, and interrupted at every moment by his internal agitation; “where is the lady? is she alive?”
“She is now in the town.”
“In the town?” exclaimed he, again almost shrieking aloud, and he felt that all his blood rushed at once to his heart. “Why is she in the town?”
“Because the lord, her father, is there; it is now more than a year that he has been voevoda2 in Doobno.”
“Well—is she married? Speak! how strange thou art! Say—what is she now?”
“She has not eaten for two days.”
“How is that?”
“For a long time not one of the citizens has had a piece of bread; it is long since they were all eating earth.”
Andrew remained speechless.
“The lady saw thee among the Zaporoghians from the town wall. She said to me, ‘Go, tell the knight that if he recollects me he will come to me; and if not, that he will give thee a morsel of bread for my old mother, for I cannot see my mother die before my eyes. Let me rather die first and she afterwards. Entreat him—embrace his knees and his feet. He, too, may have an old mother, for her sake he must give a bit of bread.'”
Many and different were the feelings that awakened and stirred in the young Cossack’s breast.
“But how art thou here? How didst thou come?”
“By a subterranean passage.”
“Is there any subterranean passage, then?”
“Thou wilt not betray me, knight?”
“No; I swear by the holy cross!”
“Behind the ravine, after crossing the rivulet, where there are some reeds growing.”
“And it leads straight into the city?”
“Straight into the cloister of the city.”
“Let us go! let us go directly!”
“But, in the name of Christ and of his holy mother, a loaf of bread?”
“Thou shalt have it. Stay here by this cart, or rather lie down in it; nobody will see thee—all are sleeping. I’ll be back directly.”
And he went to the waggons where the provisions of his kooren were kept. His heart beat high. All the past which had been hidden, stifled by his present Cossack life and by the hardships of warfare, rose once more to the surface, drowning in return all the present. Again he saw emerging before him, as if from the depths of some ocean cavern, the form of the glorious lady; again his memory brought back the recollection of her fine arms, of her eyes, of her smiling lips, of her thick dark chestnut hair (whose locks hung curling over her bosom), and of all those elastic limbs which so well harmonised with her maidenly figure. No; these recollections were never extinguished in his breast; they had, only for a time, given place to other mighty impressions. But often—often had they disturbed the young Cossack’s slumber, and often did he long lie sleepless on his bed without knowing how to explain the cause of his sleeplessness.
He went on, and his heart beat higher and higher, and his young knees shook at the mere thought of seeing her again. When he reached the waggons he had entirely forgotten why he had come, and, raising his hand to his brow, remained some time trying to recollect what he had to do. At last he shuddered, and felt terror-stricken: the thought flashed across his mind that she might be dying from hunger. He rushed to one of the waggons, and took some great rye loaves under his arm; but then he thought that this food, which suits the unspoiled taste of the strong Zaporoghians, would be too coarse and unsuited to her tender person. He remembered that, the day before, the Koschevoï had scolded the cooks for taking the whole of the buckwheat flour to make salamata3 , when the quantity would have been quite sufficient for more than three days. Certain of finding enough salamata left in the coppers, Andrew took the travelling kettle of his father and went with it to the cook of his kooren, who was sleeping beside two enormous cauldrons, under which the ashes were not yet extinguished. Looking into the cauldrons, he was astonished to find both of them empty. It ought to have required more than human exertions to eat up all their contents; the more so as their kooren was not so numerous as the others. He peeped into the kettles of the other koorens—there was nowhere anything left. Involuntarily he recollected the saying that Zaporoghians are like children:—Is there but little food? they will eat it; is there much? they will still leave nothing. What was to be done? There was yet somewhere, he thought, in the waggons of his father’s regiment a sack of white bread, which the Cossacks had found while pillaging the cloister kitchen. Andrew went straight to his father’s waggon: the sack was not there! Ostap had taken it to rest his head upon, and, stretched on the ground, he made the whole field resound with his snoring. Andrew with one hand seized the sack and pulled it away with a jerk, so that Ostap’s head fell on the ground, and he himself started up in his sleep, and sitting with his eyes shut, shouted, “Hold! hold! the devil of a Pole! catch his horse! catch it!”
“Be silent! or thou art a dead man,” cried the terrified Andrew, raising the sack on his head. But Ostap did not proceed with his speech, for he was already asleep, and snored with such violence that his breath waved the grass on which he was tying.
Andrew looked warily round, to ascertain if the ravings of Ostap had awakened any of the Cossacks. In fact, a crown-tufted head was seen rising in the nearest kooren; but, after looking around, it soon dropped on the ground. After waiting some two or three minutes, Andrew departed with his sack; the Tartar woman was crouching in the waggon, hardly daring to breathe.
“Arise! let us begone! every one sleeps; do not be afraid! Canst thou take but one of these loaves, if I cannot carry them all?” Saying this, he lifted the sacks upon his back, drew another sack with millet from a cart on his way, took even in his hands those loaves which he had wished the Tartar to carry, and bending a little went boldly through the ranks of the sleeping Zaporoghians.
“Andrew!” said old Boolba, as Andrew was passing near him.
Andrew’s heart sank within him; he stopped trembling, and slowly uttered, “What?”
“There is a lass with thee! I’ll give thee a famous thrashing to-morrow! The lasses will bring thee to no good!” and thus saying he reclined his head upon his elbow, and began to scrutinize the veiled form of the Tartar.
Andrew stood riveted to the spot, without daring to lift his eyes upon his father; but at last he raised them and looked at old Boolba: he saw him already sleeping, with his head resting on the palm of his hand.
He made the sign of the cross. Fear quitted his heart still faster than it had overpowered it; and as he turned round to look at the Tartar, he saw her standing behind him like a dark granite statue all muffled in her veil, and the glare of the distant conflagration, brightening into a sudden flash, lighted only her eyes, dull as those of a corpse. He pulled her sleeve and both proceeded together, looking back at every step. Descending a declivity, they came at last to a ravine, at the bottom of winch there rolled heavily along a rivulet overgrown with sedge, whose banks were all uneven. The field on which the Zaporoghian encampment stood was now entirely hidden from them. At least, as Andrew looked back, he saw an eminence, as high as a man’s head, which rose behind him; on it were waving some blades of grass, over which the moon rose in the sky in the shape of a curved sickle of bright red gold. A light wind, which blew from the steppe, foreboded the approach of dawn; but nowhere was to be heard the distant crowing of the cock, for neither in the town nor in the surrounding country had a cock for a long time been left. They passed the rivulet on a log thrown across it; beyond it rose the opposite shore, which seemed to be higher than that which they had left, and had a steep ascent. The wall was here lower: yet the spot seemed a sure stronghold, for behind it rose the cloister wall. The steep hill was covered with long grass, and in the narrow ravine between it and the rivulet grew reeds nearly as tall as a man; on the summit of the hill might be seen the remains of a palisade, which formerly enclosed a kitchen garden; before it grew the large leaves of the butter burr, from behind which stuck out the goosefoot, wild prickly plants, and the sunflower, which reared its top above them. Here the Tartar took off her shoes and went barefoot, carefully lifting her dress, for the place was marshy and covered with water. Making their way through the reeds, they stopped before a heap of brushwood, which formed a fascine; they removed it and found a sort of arch made of earth, whose opening was not wider than the opening of a fireplace. The Tartar, bending her head, went in first; then followed Andrew, stooping as much as he could, to be able to carry his sacks. They were soon quite in the dark.
- A proverbial expression still used by Russians.
- Voevoda—governor of a city or province.
- A dish somewhat like starch, much used in Russia by the common people.