Traces of Tarass were soon found. A hundred and twenty thousand Cossacks made their appearance on the frontiers of Ukraine. It was no longer a small marauding party come in search of booty, or a detachment in pursuit of Tartars. Not so: it was the whole of the nation which had risen at once, because its patience was at an end. It had risen to avenge the derision of its rights, the shameful humiliation of its customs, the insults inflicted upon the creed of its fathers, and upon the holy rites, the disgrace of its church, the licentiousness of foreign lords, the Union,1 the shameful dominion of Jews in a Christian country, and all that had so long consolidated and ripened the stern hatred of the Cossacks. The young but spirited hetman, Astranitza, was the leader of the whole Cossack army. He was accompanied by his old and experienced comrade and councillor Ploonia. Eight colonels led regiments, each twelve thousand strong. Two general essaools and the general boonchook2 bearer followed the hetman. The general banner bearer escorted the great banner; many more banners and standards floated in the distance behind; the lieutenants of the boonchook bearer escorted the boonchooks. There were many other officials, leaders of waggons, lieutenants of regiments, and secretaries, and with them infantry and cavalry regiments; moreover, the number of volunteers was nearly as great as that of the registered Cossacks. From every side had the Cossacks risen, from all the towns of Little Russia, from the western as well as from the eastern part of the Dnieper, and from all its islands. Horses and waggons without number crossed the plains. And among all these Cossacks, among all these eight regiments, one regiment was the choicest—this regiment was led by Tarass Boolba. Everything gave him precedence over the others—his old age, his experience, his skill in leading his troops, and his inveterate hatred of the foe. Even the Cossacks thought his unsparing cruelty and ferocity too excessive. His gray head adjudged nothing but fire and gallows, and nothing but destruction did he advise in the councils of war.
It would he useless to relate all the battles where the Cossacks gained distinction, or the gradual progress of the war; all this has found its place in the pages of our annals. It is well known what, in Russia, a war begun for the Faith signifies. No power is stronger than that of the Faith. Unconquerable and terrible, it is like the rock in the midst of a stormy ever-changing sea. Formed of one single massive stone, it raises to the sky its indestructible walls from the very centre of the bottom of the sea. From every point it may be seen looking full on the passing waves. And woe to the ship that is cast upon it! Its fragile masts will fly to splinters, all those upon it are crushed and precipitated into the depths of the ocean, and far away the air resounds with the shrieks of its drowning sailors!
The annals minutely record how the Polish garrisons fled from the towns liberated by the Cossacks; how the rapacious Jew farmers were hanged; how weak the opposition was of the Polish hetman, Nicholas Potozki, with his numerous army against the unconquerable forces of the Cossacks; how, after being defeated and pursued, he let the best part of his army perish in a small stream; how he was surrounded by the dreaded Cossack regiments in the small borough of Polonnoie; and how, brought to extremity, he took his oath to the complete redress of all grievances, and the surrender of all former rights and privileges, in the name of the king and of the ministers of state. But the Cossacks were not men to be deceived, they knew what the oath of a Pole is worth; and never again would Potozki have ridden on his costly steed, attracting the looks of illustrious ladies, and making himself the envy of the nobility—never again would he have set the Sseim in an uproar, and have given rich feasts to the senators—had not the Russian clergy of the borough interposed on his behalf. As the priests came forward in the brilliant cassocks of cloth of gold, bearing crosses and holy images, and as the bishop himself appeared in front of them in his pontifical mitre, holding a crucifix in his hand, all the Cossacks bowed their heads and took off their caps. Nobody, no, not even the king would they have spared at that moment, but they dared not oppose the dignitaries of the Christian church, so they obeyed the summons of the clergy. The hetman and the colonels consented to let Potozki go free, having made him promise upon oath that freedom should be granted to all the Christian churches, that the old enmity should be brought to an end, and that no offence should be offered to the Cossack army. One colonel alone did not give his assent to such a peace as this. Tarass was that one. He tore a lock of hair from his head and cried aloud:—
“Eh! hetman and colonels! Do not do such a woman’s act! Do not give credence to the Poles. The cursed dogs will betray you!”
But when the army secretary presented the act of treaty, and the hetman put his sign-manual to it, Tarass took off his rich Turkish sabre, a fine blade of highly-tempered steel, broke it in two pieces like a reed, and throwing far away both fragments, one on each side, exclaimed, “Fare ye well, then! As these two fragments shall never meet and form one single blade any more, so shall we, comrades, never meet again in this world! Remember ye my parting words!” and his voice grew stronger, rose higher, assumed an unknown power, and all felt perplexed at the prophetic words. “You will remember me at the hour of your death! You think to have purchased quietness and peace; you think you may now play the lords. There is another lordship in store for you; hetman, thou shalt have the skin torn from thy head, thou shalt have it stuffed with groats, and long shall it be made a show in fairs! And you, gentlemen, neither will you keep your heads on your shoulders. In damp dungeons, behind stone walls will you perish, if you are not, like sheep, boiled alive in cauldrons.3 And you, children,” continued he, turning round to his Cossacks, “Which of you wishes to die a natural death—not on stoves and on women’s beds, not lying drunk under a hedge near the brandy-shop like carrion, but to die the honourable death of Cossacks, all of us on one bed, like bride and bridegroom? Or, may be you wish to return home to turn heretics and carry about Polish parsons on your backs?”
“We follow thee, our lord and colonel, we follow thee!” cried all who were in Tarass’s regiment, and many more went over to them.
“If so, then be it so,” said Tarass, and he pulled his cap over his brow, menacingly looked at those he left behind, settled himself in his saddle, and cried to his followers: “Let nobody offend us with insulting words. And now, children, let us go and pay our visit to the Papists!” and he slashed his horse. A train of a hundred waggons followed him, and numerous were the Cossacks, both on horseback and on foot, who went after him. Turning back his head, he looked with threatening and with anger at those who remained behind. None dared to stop him. In sight of the whole army, his regiment marched away, and many times did Tarass turn back and menace with his looks.
The hetman and the colonels stood perplexed; all were thoughtful, and long did they remain silent, oppressed by some gloomy foreboding. The words of Tarass did not pass away: everything happened as he had foretold. In a short time the hetman and the chief dignitaries fell victims to the treachery of the Poles, and their heads were stuck on pikes.
And what did Tarass in the mean time? Tarass crossed all Poland in every direction with his regiment, gave to the flames eighteen boroughs, nearly forty Popish churches, and had even come near Kracow. Many were the nobles whom he put to the sword; the richest and finest castles were plundered by him; his Cossacks found out and poured on the ground wines and meads which had been for centuries preserved in the cellars of the Polish lords; they chopped to pieces and burnt the rich stuffs, dresses, and furniture which they found in the storehouses. “No mercy!” repeated Tarass. And no mercy did the Cossacks show to the dark-eyebrowed ladies, to the white-bosomed pretty-faced girls, even at the altar could they find no safety; Tarass burned them with the altars. Many snow-white hands were seen raised to the sky from out of the midst of the flames, and many were the shrieks which would have made the ground tremble and the very grass bend down to the earth in compassion. But nothing softened the cruelty of the Cossacks, and, lifting on their spears the infants whom they found in the streets, they cast them also into the flames. “This is my revenge for Ostap, cursed Poles!” said Tarass, and he took his revenge in every borough: so that the Polish government saw at length that the exploits of Tarass were not merely the acts of a robber, and the same Potozki with five regiments was intrusted with the task of taking him.
For six days did the Cossacks escape by bye-ways from the pursuit. Their horses could hardly bear the rapidity of their flight and save them from their pursuers, but Potozki this time proved worthy of his charge; unweariedly did he pursue them, and he overtook them at last on the banks of the Dniester, where Boolba had paused for rest in an abandoned ruined fortress. The dismantled walls of this fortress and its crumbling keep, stood on a steep cliff above the Dniester. Its platform, paved with stones and fragments of bricks, seemed to be ready at any moment to tumble down and roll into the river. Here it was that the hetman Potozki, encamping on the two sides which were adjacent to fields, surrounded the Cossacks. For four days did the Cossacks keep their stand, fighting and rolling down stones and bricks on the assailants. At last, their strength and their provisions were exhausted, and Tarass resolved to cut his way through the ranks of the enemy. Already had the Cossacks traversed the ranks, and they might perhaps once more have owed their escape to the swiftness of their horses, when on a sudden, in the very heat of their flight, Tarass stopped and cried out, “Stay, I have dropped my pipe, not even my pipe shall the cursed Poles have!” and the old Ataman stooped and began to seek in the grass for his pipe, his never-failing companion over sea and land, in his campaigns and in his home. Meanwhile a whole crowd rushed at once upon him and took him by his shoulders. He endeavoured to shake all his limbs, but no longer as of old did the heydukes fall down around him. “Eh, old age, old age!” said he, and the stout old Cossack began to weep. But his age was not the cause of it, strength had got the better of strength. Nearly thirty soldiers hung about his arms and legs. “The crow is caught,” shrieked the Poles, “let us find out the best mode of paying homage to the dog!” And with the hetman’s assent they decided on burning him alive, in sight of all. There stood near at hand a dry tree, whose top had been struck by lightning. Tarass was bound with iron chains to the trunk of this tree, his hands were nailed to it, and he was raised on high, in order that from everywhere around the Cossack might be seen. Beneath they made a pile of faggots. But Tarass paid no attention to the pile, he did not think about the fire that was to burn him, he looked, poor old fellow, to where the Cossacks were seen fighting; from the height to which he had been lifted he could distinctly see everything. “Lads,” cried he, “quick, reach the hill behind the wood, they will not overtake you there!” But the wind blew his words away. “They will perish, perish for nothing!” exclaimed he, in despair; and he gazed down on the Dniester, glittering below. Delight flashed in his eyes. He saw the prows of four boats, projecting out of the bushes, and gathering all the strength of his lungs, he shouted at the top of his voice, “To the shore, lads, to the shore! take the cliff path on your left. Near the shore are boats, take them all to prevent pursuit.” The wind this time blew from another quarter, and every word was heard by the Cossacks. But this advice cost Boolba a stroke on his head, which made everything swim before his eyes.
The Cossacks galloped at the utmost speed of their horses to the cliff path, the pursuers were close at hand; and behold, there lies the cliff path curling round in zig-zags. “Well, comrades, let us take our chance,” said they; then they stopped for a moment, lifted their whips, gave a whistle, and their Tartar horses, springing from the ground, stretched themselves like snakes in the air, flew over the abyss, and leaped straight into the Dniester. Only two riders missed the river, fell on the rocks and remained there for ever with their steeds, not having had even time to utter a shriek. And the Cossacks were already swimming with their horses and loosening the boats. The Poles stopped before the precipice, astounded at the unheard-of Cossack feat, and arguing whether they would jump or not? One young colonel, with hot boiling blood in his veins, the brother of the Polish beauty who had bewitched poor Andrew, did not remain long thinking, he leaped at once after the Cossacks. Thrice did he wheel round and round in the air with his horse, and fell upon the rocks. Tom to pieces by their sharp points, he disappeared in the abyss, and his brains, mingled with blood, splashed the bushes which grew on the uneven sides of the chasm.
When Tarass Boolba recovered from the blow, and looked on the Dniester, the Cossacks were already in the boats and rowing; bullets after bullets flew from above, but did not reach them. And the eyes of the old Ataman gleamed with joy.
“Fare ye well, comrades!” cried he to them; “Remember me and fail not to return here next spring and enjoy yourselves. How now, devil’s Poles? do you think there is anything in the world than can affright a Cossack? Wait a bit; the time is coming when you shall know what the Russian faith is! Already do nations far and near forebode it. There shall arise a Czar in Russia, and there shall be no power on earth that shall not yield to his power”—
Meanwhile the flames rose from the pile and scorched his feet, and spread over the tree—but here in the world such flames, such torments, power as can overcome the strength of a Russian?
No small river is the Dniester, many are its inlets, its thick grown reeds, its shallows, and its gulfs. Its mirror-like surface glitters, re-echoing the ringing screams of the swans which proudly swim on its stream. Many are the divers coloured birds that dwell in its reeds and on its banks.
The Cossacks sailed fast in their two-ruddered boats, the oars splashed with measured stroke; they warily avoided the shoals, scaring the birds, and talked of their Ataman.
- The introduction of Popish rites into the Greek Church.
- Boonchook is the name of a Turkish standard, consisting of a horse-tail nailed to a pole. The Cossacks also used them besides banners, which bore the image of the Saviour or the Virgin.
- All this is truly historical, and will be readily believed by any one in the least acquainted with the national character of the Poles.