At the time when the events which are now described took place, there were no custom officers or horse patrols on the frontiers—so that men of enterprising spirit had nothing to dread, and every one could bring with him what he chose. Even if anybody happened to search the travellers, or to inspect their luggage, he did so chiefly for his own pleasure, particularly when some part of the luggage had attractions for his eyes, and when his own arm was strong and heavy.
But the sight of bricks had attractions for none, and they passed without impediment through the great town-gate. Boolba in his narrow place of concealment could hear nothing but the noise and shouts of the coachmen. Yankel, bumping up and down on his diminutive dust-covered steed, after many turnings, went at last into a dark narrow lane, which was called the Dirty or Jewish street, because in fact it was inhabited by all the Jews of Warsaw. This lane was very much like a back yard turned inside out. The sun never seemed to come there. Wooden houses, quite black from age, with a number of poles sticking out of the windows, made the lane look still darker. At rare intervals, red brick walls might be observed here and there, but even they in many places had turned quite black. Still more rarely did a portion of some high plastered wall glimmer in the sun with a white gleam intolerable to the eyes. Everything here bore the most striking appearance—chimneys, rags, scales, broken tubs. Every one threw into the street whatever was of no use to him, and the passers-by had every opportunity of finding employment for all their senses in the midst of this rubbish. The rider on his horse could often almost reach with his hand the poles which stuck across the street from one house to the other, and on which hung Jewish stockings, short trowsers, or a smoked goose. At times might be seen at some decayed window the face of a pretty Jewess, her head adorned with discoloured false pearls; a crowd of curly-headed Jewish boys, dirty and ragged, screamed and rolled in the mud. A redhaired Jew, with a face all covered with freckles, which made it resemble a sparrow’s egg, looked out of a window, and began at once to talk with Yankel in his unintelligible gibberish, and Yankel presently drove into a yard. Another Jew going along the street, stopped and also entered into the conversation, and when Boolba at last crawled from under the bricks, he saw three Jews who were talking with great vehemence.
Yankel addressed him, saying that everything should be done, that his Ostap was now lying in prison, and that, though it would be difficult to prevail upon the sentries, yet he hoped to obtain an interview for him.
Boolba entered the room together with the three Jews. They began again to speak in their unintelligible language. Tarass looked by turns at each of them. He seemed to labour under some strong excitement; his hard indifferent features seemed to light up with some unusual flame of hope, of that hope which sometimes enters the heart of him who is reduced to the lowest degree of despair. His old heart beat high, like that of a young man.
“Hear me, Jews!” said he, and his voice had something enthusiastic in it, “you can do everything, you can find anything, be it from under the bottom of the sea; and even the proverb has long ago told us that a Jew can steal his own self, if he only chooses to steal. Set me my Ostap free! give him the opportunity of escaping from the hands of these incarnate devils. Here is the man to whom I have promised twelve thousand ducats—twelve thousand more do I give now; I will give you all the costly cups, all the gold that I have hidden underground, my own house, my coat from my back—all do I give unto you; and I will make a covenant with you for all my life long that you shall have half of whatever I acquire in war!”
“Oh! impossible, my dear lord! ’tis impossible!” said Yankel, with a sigh.
“No, no, it is impossible!” said the other Jews.
The three Jews looked at each other.
“Let us, nevertheless, try it,” said the third, timorously peering into the faces of the others; “may be Heaven will help us.”
The three Jews again began talking in the Jewish tongue. Boolba in vain endeavoured to catch the meaning of their speech, he could only hear the word “Mardokhaï” often repeated, but could make out nothing more.
“Hear me, my lord!” said Yankel; “we must have the advice of a man the like of whom has never yet been in the world. Oh! oh! he is as wise as Solomon; and if he can do nothing, nobody on earth can. Stay here! there’s the key, and let none enter.”
The Jews went out into the street.
Tarass shut the door, and looked through the window into the dirty Jewish lane. The three Jews stopped in the very middle of the street, and began talking with great vehemence. They were soon joined by a fourth, then by a fifth. Tarass heard them again repeat “Mardokhaï! Mardokhaï!” The Jews every moment looked towards one end of the street; at last there was seen emerging from a decayed house a foot in a Jewish slipper; then came fluttering the skirts of a coat. “Ah, Mardokhaï, Mardokhaï!” A thin Jew, a little shorter than Yankel, but with many more wrinkles on his face, with an enormous upper lip, came near the impatient group; and every one of the Jews hastened to give him information. During the narrative, Mardokhaï looked repeatedly up towards the small window, and Tarass guessed that they were speaking about him. Mardokhaï waved his hands in the most violent manner, listened to what others said, stopped them in their speech, frequently spat aside, and lifting up the skirts of his long coat, thrust his hand into his pocket, and produced from it some rubbish, in doing which he exposed to view his disgustingly dirty trowsers. At last, all the Jews got to screaming so loudly that the Jew who stood on the watch had to give them repeated signals to be quieter, and Tarass began to fear for his safety; but he was soon tranquillised by the thought that Jews can nowhere hold their discourse but in the open street, and that the Devil himself could not understand their gibberish.
About two minutes later all the Jews came up together into his room. Mardokhaï approached Tarass, gently slapped him on the shoulder, and said, “If we are willing to do a thing, well then, that thing shall be done as we wish it to be done.”
Tarass looked at the Solomon, the like of whom had never yet been in the world, and felt some hope. In fact, the appearance of the Jew was calculated to inspire confidence. His upper lip was of frightful dimensions, there could be no doubt that its thickness had been increased by particular reasons. The Solomon’s beard boasted no more than some fifteen hairs, and those were on the left side only. The Solomon’s features bore such numerous traces of blows received for his tricks, that he certainly had long ceased counting them, and had grown accustomed to take them for moles.
Mardokhaï left the room with his comrades, who were full of astonishment at his wisdom. Boolba remained alone, he felt a strange sensation, till then unknown to him; for the first time in his life he experienced anxiety. His heart beat feverishly—he was no more the Boolba of old, undaunted, steady, and strong as an oak; he had grown pusillanimous, he had grown weak. He shuddered at every noise, at the sight of every new Jewish figure, making its appearance at the end of the street. Thus did he feel all the day long, he neither ate nor drank, and not for one minute did he remove his eyes from the small window which looked into the street. At last at a late hour in the evening, came Mardokhaï and Yankel. Tarass felt his heart sink within him.
“What now? did you succeed?” asked he, with the impatience of a wild horse.
But even before the Jews had collected their senses to give him an answer, Tarass noticed that Mardokhaï had no longer his last temple-lock, which, though dirty, had yet before curled in ringlets from beneath his cap. It was to be seen that he had something to communicate, but he talked so incoherently that Tarass could not understand a word. Yankel, too, was every moment pressing his hand to his mouth, as if suffering from a bad cold.
“Oh? my dear lord,” said Yankel, “now it is impossible; by Heavens, impossible! The people there are so very bad, that one ought to spit upon their very heads. Here, I take Mardokhaï to witness: Mardokhaï did what no man has yet done in this world; but Heaven forbids it to be as we wish. There are three thousand soldiers Under arms, and to-morrow the execution is to take place.”
Tarass gazed steadfastly into the faces of the Jews; but no anger, no impatience was any—longer in his look.
“If my lord still wishes to see his son, the interview must take place to-morrow, early in the morning, before sunrise; the sentries have given their assent, and one of the officers has agreed to it. But may they know no happiness in the next world! Woe is me! what grasping people they are! there are none such, even among us! To every one of the sentries have I given fifty ducats, and to the officer”—
“Be it so; take me to him;” said Tarass, resolutely, and all his firmness at once returned to his heart. He assented to Yankel’s proposal of assuming the dress of a German count; the dress being already brought by the far-seeing Jew.
It was now night. The master of the house—the above-mentioned red-haired freckly-faced Jew —produced a thin mattress, covered with a mat, and stretched it for Boolba on a bench. Yankel lay on the floor on a similar mattress. The redhaired Jew drank a small cup of some infusion, took off his coat, and, after having presented in his stockings and slippers an appearance something like that of a chicken, went with his Jewess into a kind of closet. Two Jewish boys lay down on the floor near the closet, as if they had been puppies. But Tarass slept not; he remained motionless, drumming on the table with his fingers. He had his pipe in his mouth, and puffed away the smoke, which made the Jew sneeze in his slumbers, and bury his nose under his coverlet. Scarcely was the sky tinted by the first pale gleam of the morning dawn, when Tarass pushed Yankel with his foot.
“Up, Jew! give me thy count’s dress!”
He was dressed in no time; he blackened his mustachios and eyebrows, put a small dark-coloured cap on his head—and none of his most intimate Cossacks could have recognised him. To look at him, he seemed to be not more than thirty-five years old. The flush of health was on his cheeks, and even the scars on his face gave an expression of authority to his features. The dress, adorned with gold, became him greatly.
The city still slept. No trading chapman, basket in hand, had yet made his appearance in the town. Boolba and Yankel came to a building which bore great resemblance to a sitting heron. It was low, wide, bulky, black; and on one side rose, like a stork’s neck, a long narrow turret, beyond the top of which the roof projected. This building served many and various purposes. Here were the barracks, the prison, and even the criminal courts. Our travellers entered the gate, and found themselves in a large hall, or, rather, in a covered yard. There were nearly a thousand men sleeping here together. Straight on, was a low door, before which were sitting two sentries, who were playing at a game which consisted in one of them slapping the other with two fingers on the palm of the hand. The sentries paid no attention to the new-comers, and only turned their heads when Yankel said to them, “It’s we, your worships! you hear, it’s we!”
“Go!” said one of the sentries, opening the door with one hand, while he presented the other to receive the strokes of his comrade.
They stepped into a dark narrow passage, which brought them to another hall like the first, receiving its light from a small window in the roof. “Who goes there?” cried several voices at once; and Tarass beheld a great number of soldiers, armed cap-a-pie. “We cannot let any one pass.”
“It’s we!” cried Yank el; “by Heavens, your worships, it’s we!” But nobody would listen to him. Fortunately, at this moment, a fat man approached, who, by his appearance, seemed to be the chief, for he used the most abusive language to the others.
“My lord, it’s we; you already know all about us; and his lordship, the count, will thank you still more.”
“Let them go; and a hundred devils to the fiend’s mother! Let no one else pass, do not take off your swords, and do not, any of you, dare to roll on the floor like dogs.”
The continuation of the eloquent order was lost to our travellers. “It’s we; it’s I; we are yours!” said Yankel to every one whom he met.
“May we go in?” he asked, of one of the sentries, as they came at last to the end of the passage.
“Yes, you may; but I do not know if you are allowed to pass into the gaol. Jan is no longer on duty, there is another one there now,” answered the sentry.
“Ah! ah!” muttered the Jew; “this looks bad, my dear lord!”
“Go on,” said Tarass, in a stubborn voice. The Jew obeyed.
At the door of a dungeon stood a heyduke,1 with mustachios, separated into three different stories: the upper story went backwards, the middle one straight forwards, and the last downwards, which gave the heyduke very nearly the appearance of a cat.
The Jew bent his back as much as he could, and came near him, stealing along sideways. “Your lordship! my gracious lord!”
“Dost thou speak to me, Jew?”
“To you, gracious lord!”
“Ahem!—and I am nothing but a heyduke,” said the thrice-mustachioed face, with eyes glittering with delight.
“By Heavens! I took you for the Voevoda himself! really now, I did.” And the Jew began to shake his head and to stretch out his fingers. “Ah! what an air of importance! By Heavens! the air of a colonel, quite a colonel! A hair’s breadth more, and it would be a colonel’s. Your worship ought only to mount a horse as swift as a fly, and command regiments!”
The heyduke curled the nether story of his mustachios, and his eye assumed quite an expression of gaiety.
“What a set of men you military men are,” continued the Jew. “Oh dear me! what a good set of men. And the braidings and the facings—all these make them glitter like the sun! The girls, as soon as they behold a military man—ah! ah!” And the Jew again shook his head.
The heyduke curled his upper mustachios, and gave vent to a sound something like the neighing of a horse.
“Will my lord grant me a favour?” said the Jew. “Here is a prince, come from foreign lands, who wishes to look at the Cossacks. He has never yet, as long as he has lived, seen what kind of men these Cossacks are.”
The arrival of foreign counts and barons was no uncommon thing in Poland. They were frequently attracted, merely by curiosity, to see this almost half-Asiatic corner of Europe—Muscovy and Ukraine being then reputed to form part of Asia. So the heyduke, after making a respectful bow, thought fit to add some words of his own accord.
“I do not know, your grace, what you want to look at them for,” said he; “they are not men, but dogs. Their creed, even, is such a one that nobody respects it.”
“Thou liest! devil’s son!” exclaimed Boolba. “Thou art a dog thyself’! How darest thou say that no one respects our creed? It is your heretical creed that nobody respects!”
“Eh! my friend!” said the heyduke: “I see what thou art; thou art thyself one of those that I have under my charge. Wait a bit; I’ll just call my comrades.”
Tarass now saw his imprudence; but, stubborn and angry as he felt, he did not think about the manner of correcting it. Happily, Yank el interposed at this juncture.
“Most gracious lord! how is it possible that a count can be a Cossack? and were he a Cossack, how could he have procured such a dress, and have such a count’s appearance?”
“Have done with thy tales!” And already had the heyduke opened his wide mouth in order to give the alarm.
“Your kingly majesty, be silent! in God’s name be silent!” cried Yankel. “Be silent, and we will pay you as you have never yet thought of being paid: we will give you two golden ducats!”
“Hem! two ducats! Two ducats are nothing to me. I give as much as that to my barber for shaving only half my beard. A hundred ducats must thou give me, Jew!” and the heyduke curled his upper mustachios. “And if thou givest them not, I will call at once.”
“So much as that, indeed?” said the trembling Jew, sorrowfully, untying his leathern purse. He was fortunate in not having more in his purse, and in the heyduke not being able to count beyond a hundred.
“Come, my lord, let us be gone quickly. You see what a bad set of men they are here,” said Yankel, seeing the heyduke was turning the money over in his hand, as if regretting he had not asked more.
“How now? devil’s heyduke!” said Boolba. “Thou hast taken the money, and dost not think to let us in? Thou must do it now; if thou hast once received the money, thou canst no longer give us a refusal.”
“Begone, begone to the devil! or I will at once make thee known, and then, beware! Away with you, I tell you!”
“Come, my lord, in Heaven’s name come. Woe to them! May they have such dreams as shall make them spit!” urged poor Yankel.
Slowly, with drooping head, did Boolba turn back and retrace his steps, with Yankel worrying him with reproaches at the sorrowful recollection of the uselessly spent ducats.
“What need had you to answer them? Why not let the dog bark? They are people who cannot remain without scolding! Oh, woe is me! how lucky some men are! A hundred ducats, merely for driving us away! And look at us, we may have our temple-locks torn off, we may have our faces so disfigured that none will look at us, and nobody will give us a hundred ducats! Heavens! merciful Heavens!”
But the miscarriage of his design had a much greater influence on Boolba: a devouring flame streamed from his eyes.
“Come,” said he, suddenly, as if recollecting himself, “let us go to the execution; I will see how they torture him.”
“What is the use of going, my lord? we cannot help him.”
“Let us go,” said Boolba, stubbornly, and the Jew, like a nurse, reluctantly followed him.
The square, on which the execution was to take place could easily be found; crowds were flocking there from all parts. At that rude epoch an execution was one of the most attractive sights, not only for the rabble, but also for the highest classes of society. Many of the most pious old women, many of the most timid young girls and ladies, would never let an execution take place without indulging their curiosity, although they might afterwards, all night long, dream of nothing but bloody corpses, and shriek in their slumbers as loudly as a tipsy hussar. “Ah! what torments!” cried many in hysterics, hiding their eyes and turning away, but, nevertheless, remaining a long time. Some with mouth wide open and outstretched arms, would have jumped on the heads of the rest in order to have a better view. Amongst the crowd of small narrow ordinary heads, might be noticed the fat features of a butcher, who looked at all the proceedings with the air of a dilettante, and conversed in monosyllables with an armourer whom he called his kinsman, because he used to get tipsy with him on feast days at the same brandy-shop. Some vehemently debated the matter, some even betted, but the greater part was composed of those who stare at the world and at everything that happens in the world, picking their noses with their fingers. In the foreground, next to the mustachioed soldiers who formed the town guard, stood a young gentleman—or one who gave himself the airs of a gentleman—in a military dress; he had put on everything which he possessed, so as to leave at his lodgings nothing but a ragged shirt and a pair of worn-out boots. Two chains, one above the other, hung round his neck, supporting a locket. He stood next to his sweetheart, Youzyssa, and every moment turned round to see that nobody soiled her silk dress. He had explained to her absolutely everything, so that there was decidedly nothing more left to explain. “There, my soul, Youzyssa,” he said, “the people that you see here are come to look at the execution of the criminals. And there, my soul, the man whom you see holding a hatchet and other implements in his hand, is the executioner, and he will perform the execution. And as long as he shall break the criminal upon the wheel and otherwise torture him, the criminal will still be alive; but as soon as he shall behead him, the criminal will be alive no longer. At first, my soul, he will cry out and move, but as soon as he shall be beheaded, he will no longer be able either to cry, or to eat, or to drink, because, my soul, he will no longer have his head, my soul.” And Youzyssa listened to all, with awe and curiosity. The roofs of the houses were crowded with people. Strange faces with mustachios, and with something like bonnets on their heads, looked out from dormer windows. On the balconies, under shades, were sitting the aristocracy. The pretty hand of some laughing dashing lady was leaning on the balustrade. Stout lords were looking very important. A lackey, richly attired, with sleeves thrown over his back, was carrying about refreshments. Often did some black-eyed lively damsel take in her white hand some dainties and fruits, and throw them among the people beneath. A crowd of hungry gentlemen lifted their caps to catch them, and some tall officer, with his head rising above his neighbours’, in a faded red coat and worn-out trimming, succeeded, thanks to his long arms, in catching the booty, kissed it, pressed it to his heart, and put it into his mouth. A falcon in a gilded cage, hanging under the balcony, was also one of the spectators; with head bent on one side and one leg raised, he, too, was engaged in looking at the people. On a sudden a rumour ran through the crowd, and on all sides voices were heard, “They are coming, the Cossacks are coming!”
Their heads, with long crown-locks, were bare, their beards were unshaven. They walked neither timorously nor sorrowfully, but with an air of haughty calmness; their dresses, made of fine cloth, were worn out and falling to rags; they did not look round, and did not bow to the people. In front of all came Ostap. What were the feelings of old Tarass as he saw his Ostap? What was passing in his heart? He looked at him from among the crowd, and watched his every movement. The Cossacks came near the scaffold. Ostap stopped. He was to be the first to drink the bitter cup. He looked at his comrades, raised his arm, and said, in a loud voice, “God grant that none of the heretics here present may hear, miscreants as they are, the sufferings of Christians! May none of us utter a single word!” and he mounted the scaffold.
“Well done, my son, well done!” slowly muttered Boolba, and cast down his gray head.
The executioner tore away from Ostap the old rags that covered him; he tied his hands and feet to stocks made on purpose—but why should the reader be distressed by a description, which would make his hair stand on end, of the hellish tortures? They were the creation of those hard cruel times when man knew no other life but the bloody life of warlike feats, which hardened his heart and drove from it every human feeling. In vain some men, the few exceptions of that epoch, opposed those dreadful measures. In vain did the king and several knights, enlightened both in mind and heart, remonstrate that this cruelty in punishment would but aggravate the revengefulness of the Cossacks. The royal power and the authority of wise counsels were not proof against the anarchy and the audacious self-will of the state magnates who, with their recklessness, their inconceivable want of foresight, their childish vanity, and their absurd ostentation, made the Sseim a mere satire on self-government.
Ostap bore the torments and the tortures like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan was heard; even when they began to break the bones in his hands and feet, when their dreadful crunching was heard amidst the dead silence of the crowd by the remotest spectators, when the ladies averted their eyes, even then nothing like a moan escaped his lips; no feature of his face moved. Tarass stood in the crowd, with bowed head, and from time to time, proudly raising his eyes, said approvingly, “Well done, son, well done!”
But when Ostap was brought to the last torments of death, his strength seemed to give way. He looked round. Gracious God! All unknown! all strangers’ faces! Had there been but one of his kin present! He wished not to listen to the wailings and the sorrow of a weak mother, or to the insane sobs of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her bosom; he wished to have looked now at a firm man, whose wise word might have brought him fresh strength and solace before death. And his strength failed him, and he cried in the agony of his heart, “Father, where art thou? couldst thou but hear me!”
“I hear!” resounded through the general stillness, and all the thousands of people shuddered at the voice. A party of cavalry-soldiers rushed to make search among the crowds of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the riders had ridden past him, he looked back in amazement to see Tarass, but Tarass was no longer near him, no trace of him was left!
- Heydukes (properly haydooks) formed a select body in the Polish army, and were recruited among the tallest and strongest men.