- A Complete Novelette
- Harold Lamb
- Author of “The Making of the Morning Star,” “The Witch of Aleppo,” etc.
MY BROTHERS, it was a bad night when the order first came to me. True, in the North all nights are bad, with the mists from the swamps and the breath of the sea that is not warm but cold—cold as the wounds of a dead man.
But that night the bells were ringing all over St. Petersburg. They clashed and muttered as if imps were dancing on the bell-ropes, and a fog came up the river and rolled across the bridges.
I had a lantern tied to my sash—such a fog it was—when I made the rounds of the sentry boxes by the great cathedral. Although Easter was at hand snow still lay along the fronts of the stone houses.
Ekh, you, my brothers, turn loose your horses in the tall grass at such a season. You have not visited the cities of the Muscovites, the Moskyas we Cossacks call them, where the houses are built up out of stones, and the roads between the houses are called streets—streets covered with hewn logs. So it was that night of the year 1788 after the Christ. And so it is now, for all I know.
The order came in this fashion. I was standing at one of the sentry posts listening to the bells, thinking that all this ringing was like a summons, when the little bells of a troika drew nearer in the fog, and a three-span sleigh came to a halt beside me.
“Is that the sotnik, Ivak? —— burn you! You are hard to find as a pig’s bristle.”
Lifting the lantern, I made out an under-ensign of the Preobrazhensky regiment, with his dark-green coat and red facings and brass buttons. He had few hairs in his beard.
“Are you Ivak, the sotnik, senior under-officer of the squadron of Don Cossacks quartered at the palace?” he asked again.
It was true that I was next in command to our ataman, our colonel who left matters pretty much to me, as he was always riding escort to the Empress. Her majesty liked fine, tall fellows who filled their uniforms and could sit a horse. She sent for us, out of the steppe fifteen hundredaway, to see what we were like. We Cossacks of the Don are not bad looking chaps, and we can ride better than any one else in the world. Until my father’s time we had always been our own masters, and we came to St. Petersburg to see what the Empress was like.
“At command!” I replied.
“Well then, listen.” He looked at me keenly. “An order has been issued by her Majesty. Some minister or other—I forget his name—sent me out after you at this hour. How would you like, Ivak, to go back to your steppe? To the Black Sea?”
Now God could have sent nothing to warm my heart more than this. We Don Cossacks were all homesick, really sick. Now and then it had been permitted that we go out after wolves. But what are wolves? A stag is better. Aye, we had no hunting for a whole Winter; all we did was to stand in the wooden boxes they made for their sentries, instead of riding a cordon as a man should.
The ensign must have seen how much this pleased me, because he went on less cautiously:
“You are detached from service with the squadron, and you alone will go of the Don ruffians. After sunrise report to one of the English officers, Lieutenant Edwards, quartered in the Admiralty street. He is going with you.”
“Am I under his orders?”
At this the ensign was silent a moment. Some men never talk openly, and only a fool will share his blanket with that kind.
“Nay,” he said after a while, “you are on a mission for the Empress herself. Accompany Lieutenant Edwards and act with him so far as your orders permit. You are to escort a foreigner to the Black Sea. Arrange for supplies, for post horses and choose a route. You know the country down there, of course, and her Majesty is pleased to remember your services against the Kuban Tatars.”
“Good! Who is this foreigner?” I asked. “The Englishman?”
“What a dolt you are! Don’t you know a soldier never asks questions! A lashing would teach you Cossacks a thing or two.”
He pulled at his clipped mustache and told me that the man who would be in my charge was a high officer.
“Pardon,” I said again, “but in our service a man is a dolt if he doesn’t get his orders clear in his head. Who is the high officer?”
The Preobrazhensky manling screwed up his eyes and spat. Well for him he did not spit on my boots! My rank was equal to his, but then the Muscovites held themselves above us Cossacks.
“You were hatched out of the same egg as Satan! Call him Pavel. That’s enough. And don’t blab about your mission to the tavern wenches, either, Ivak.”
Evidently he thought, my brothers, that we men of the steppe talked about military affairs to womenfolk, every night, like the Muscovite officers at court. When we talk to the girls our words are otherwise.
He leaned over the side of the sleigh to whisper:
“Report to the Englishman, Edwards. But come to me—I am the ensign Strelsky of the Guards—for a final word before setting out. Don’t fail!”
Wrapping his furs around him, he shouted an oath at the driver and whirled away. But my ears have listened for quail moving in thickets and wild pigs rooting by the rivers at night. I heard him mutter something that sounded like:
“Pavel—Edwards—Ivak—good riddance all three.”
I wondered what final word he was saving for our setting forth—what word he could not speak to me now. And I wondered who Pavel might be, and why the order had come to me direct from the officers of the Empress, who was now monarch of all the Cossacks, instead of through our colonel, in the ordinary way.
AS MATTERS turned out, I did not see the ataman again, because my officer was having a fine carouse in the Winter Palace that night, and I said farewell to my brothers of the squadron a little before cock-crow. The essaul who assumed my duties, because he was envious of the order from the Empress and my departure for our steppe, said dark things:
“As God lives, Ivak, evil will come of this. It is a secret mission and when you dismount at the end you will step into a dungeon, like as not.”
“Or they will tie your scalp-lock with a riband like a Prussian pigtail,” said another.
“It may chance that Pavel will be a woman,” put in the other essaul, “and then, Ivak, you will be in worse trouble than a calf tied to a cart-tail.”
I buckled my bag and saddled the Kabarda stallion that I had brought up into Muscovy. Then I took my lance from the rack, for we had been equipped with lances having long streamers, like the Polish hussars, and said farewell to the kunaks, my brothers.
“At least,” I told them, “I will not be standing in an open coffin—” for that is how we called the sentry boxes—“saluting Moskya officers and picking my teeth. Nay, in another month I will be dancing with your girls in the Dnieper villages.”
They were sorry to see old Ivak go, and so they cursed my beard until I was in saddle, then all came forward to press my hand and bid me go with God, as is our custom. Truly, though we had jested, their words and mine came close to the mark. For the journey that began that day was a race and not a journey at all. We raced with Death.
Aye, it followed close upon the heels of one of our company. And the end of the road was a strange place—where not even an order of the Empress bids a Don sotnik go. And here, my brothers, is the tale of the journey and the man who made it.
THE quarters of the Englishman, Lieutenant Edwards, were in a fine brick house with a courtyard near the river. Even at sunrise many officers were being carried home from the festivities in sedan chairs and sleighs by their servants, heydukes dressed like Turks or Poles or Tatars, in turbans and pelisses with silver frogs, though why the high commanders of St. Petersburg should dress their servants like their enemies I do not know. Nor why the most trusted officers of the Empress Catherine the Great should be chosen from among Prussians, who were as stiff as lance-poles, or French, who wore white wigs. But that is how it was.
I found the Englishman in the courtyard, in high boots and a fine blue coat. He had been at the festivity, but he was not drunk, because he was looking to the saddling of a big roan. The horse was dancing and quivering, and the grooms kept their distance from its heels.
Lieutenant Edwards took the reins, gaining the saddle in the same instant. As I live, there was a fiend in that roan. It circled and reared, and the officer’s three-cornered hat flew off into the mud. Then he lost his whip, and the roan started to bolt.
The Englishman could ride a bit, and he pulled the beast up short. But the roan knew what to do next; it wheeled against the fence and the man had to slip a foot from stirrup to save his leg from being crushed against a post. At once the fiend with four legs reared, and Lieutenant Edwards followed his hat, rolling over in the muck almost under the nose of my Kabarda.
Now few things are as pleasing to a Cossack as a bit of tricky riding. I was smiling, and the officer thought I was laughing at him, which was not so. But a man does not feel proud when he has tumbled out of a saddle.
“Climb down, you pig of a Moskya,” he said in good Russian, “and my men will give you a whipping.”
“Health to your Honor,” said I, and dis mounted, for his rank was higher than mine and it would have been insolence to address the officer from saddle. I, also, could speak the language of the Muscovites well—the speech of the Moskyas, which is not quite the same as our Cossack tongue. “The sotnik, Ivak, reports to you by order.”
He looked me over, frowning. Perhaps he had never before seen a Cossack. His cheeks were clean shaven and his eyes were clear. Probably he was not more than half my age, and certainly he lacked half a head of my height.
Perhaps my svitza, my long coat, was ragged at the bottom; but if the Englishman had eyes for such things, he would have seen that my sash was a fine Turkish shawl and the red morocco in my boots was good stuff. He called to his servants to bring him his hat and whip and they did so, keeping out of the way of the roan, which was ranging the courtyard, snorting.
The Englishman’s chin was set and his nostrils quivered and it seemed to me that he meant to use the whip on me himself, which would have been an evil thing for both of us. Evidently he had a quick temper and was not exactly a coward.
“If your Honor permits,” I spoke up, “I will ride the roan for a bit and bring him to hand.”
“Five rix-dollars that you don’t!”
The Englishman laughed as if he thought I were jesting, but he watched while I walked over to the roan. The horse tossed its head and wheeled off. A second time and a third I approached him, talking under my breath.
Presently I had the rein, and the roan laid back its ears, but as I kept on talking without trying to gain the saddle, it fell to watching the grooms. Then I jumped into the saddle without laying hand on the horse. It reared and then kicked out, feeling the grip of my knees. Once I lashed it with the heavy Cossack whip, and all the infernal in it was loosed.
The grooms scattered as we plunged here and there. Beyond keeping it away from the wall, there was little about the task to trouble a Cossack, since the muddy footing soon tired the roan. Many a time have my folk lassoed the wild horse on the steppe and ridden them into the villages.
“Bravo!” cried the Englishman, after I had made the circuit of the place three times. “Well done!”
He himself held the rein while I dismounted, which was needless. And he had forgotten all about the whipping. The English are a strange folk, not unlike us, with a black temper and the stubbornness of an ox and a way of laughing readily. He ordered one of his men to fetch the rix-dollars for me—a thing I had not expected. A Muscovite officer would have forgotten the bet but not the punishment.
When he ordered brandy he did not for get a stoop for me. He asked who had sent me. and then who had issued the order. I drew myself up and said—
“The Empress.” This announcement made the Englishman thoughtful and, after he had seen that the roan was rubbed down, he looked around.
“Where are your men, sotnik?”
“Your Honor sees that I am alone.”
At this his quick temper struck spark again, and he demanded with many oaths how he could journey to the Black Sea with Pavel, with an escort of only one man.
“True,” I assured him, nodding, for it was unwonted. “Yet that man is Ivak, the galliard, the jighit, the outrider. I can lead you across the whole of the steppe by starlight; or you can bind up my eyes and arms, and I will race you to the camp on the Dnieper.”
This was a good boast, because my Kabarda stallion would have picked its way unguided to the Cossack villages. But the Englishman was not in the mood for more wagers.
“You can’t lead the way for Pavel,” he growled.
And I wondered all the more who Pavel might be, and why he was not to be led. It was clear to me that many things had not been explained. My people have a saying that where there is much smoke in the air a fire is sure to be. I began to think about the fire that made all this smoke.
“Pavel will never reach St. Petersburg.” The Englishman laughed as if that were a jest. “He is beyond the sea and the ice is in the Gulf still. Pavel wrote that he would be here, but no vessel has put in to the harbor. By the time the ice is gone many things will have happened, and Pavel will be wiser. Better for him if he never comes!”
Ekh! My head sank lower when I heard this. My spirit was burning to be astir and flying toward the warm sun of the steppe.
“Pardon, your Honor,” I said. “But this Pavel is a high officer and among these Muscovites the imperial one himself can not do more things than a high officer.”
“But Pavel is not a Russian. He is—” the Englishman frowned and tossed away a glove that was a little soiled with mud—“a pirate.”
NOW on our great rivers, the Volga and the Dnieper, we had many pirates, who took a toll from the merchants. They tossed the merchants overboard and made themselves gifts of the merchants’ money boxes and goods. That is how they took toll. So I knew what the Englishman meant, since I had happened in among the pirate bands a few times when they were off on a frolic. Ai-a, things warmed up then! Heads were bashed in, and boxes broken open.
“On your faces, dogs!”
And the hedgehogs, the boatmen, threw themselves down.
“Kindle up on all sides, brothers! Sarin na kitchka! Let thedrink river water.”
And, splash, a pot-bellied fox-fur would go and drink himself to death!
So, if Pavel were a pirate, I thought that we would escort him to be hanged on a steel hook. For that is how the pirates are dealt with. Surely, then, he would 'not come to St. Petersburg.
I waited in the courtyard of the Englishman’s house until restlessness came on me, and he let me exercise the roan. Every day then I rode out to speak a word to the Don Cossacks and let them see what a fine horse was in my charge. And everywhere I asked for news of Pavel, the great pirate and found that no one had heard of him; until one day, when, in spite of the mists, I had taken the river-road, down among the tribesmen of the sea who wore little caps and huge boots and had their red jerkins spotted with tar.
They laughed at me and pointed at another rider, who had stopped to watch them cutting at timbers. I asked him about Pavel and he smiled.
“Stuppai!” he cried. “Forward!”
When he said this he spurred his horse and we raced along the bank of the Nevski, scattering the dogs and the peasants who floundered in the mud. The yellow mist rolled along with us, driven by a giant of a wind from off the sea. The cloak of the rider who had cried “Forward” whipped out like a loose shroud. I saw two long pistols in his belt and they were good ones.
In the time it takes to kindle a fire I could no longer see him, but the hoofs of his horse smacked in the mud behind the roan. At the first cross street where log houses showed up in the fog, I pulled in the Kabarda and, sure enough, the hoofs of the other nag sounded close behind.
“Evil will come out of the sea,” I thought, shivering in the damp breath of the swamps and the harbor. “That is how it is—evil.”
And the other rider swept up, slowing to a trot as he neared me. I put one hand on my belt, near the hilt of the saber, and he smiled. He said nothing, and the skin of his face was white—drawn tight over the bones. His plain blue coat was weather worn and his buff boots caked with mud.
But his eyes—they were black as river stones—spoke to me as he passed, dripping water like a man who has forded a deep stream.
“Sau bul!” I cried, seeing that he meant no harm. “Health to you!”
He waved his hand without speaking and the mist swallowed him up.
After he had gone I took off my kalpack and crossed myself, muttering the names of the Father and Son. For this man had the look of the dead who rise up from the sea. And surely the bells of Petersburg had been tolling miraculously.
That night Lieutenant Edwards said to me:
“Pavel has come. He sailed across the gulf in an open boat, and when the ice was upon them he held a pistol to the head of the chief boatman. For two days they had no food, but he changed his priming and kept it dry and said, ‘Stuppai!’ ”
The thought came to me that I had met Pavel, the pirate, on the river-road, and surely he looked like a man who had drifted on the sea for a long time. I would rather have crossed the border on a bad horse; but the sea was his home and the steppe was mine.
Edwards was not pleased, and he said that Pavel knew only that one word of Russian. He said that Pavel was a rear-admiral.
“What is that?” I asked.
“A field marshal of ships—a hetman, you would call him. But all the same he is a pirate and a lawless fighter. The —— take him! Not long ago he rebelled against his king and became an American.”
I had not heard of that country and wondered where it was, in Russia or Poland. The officer laughed and said that it was a country of vagabonds, without money to pay for a ship-of-war or powder for soldiers. Instead of a king, it had a merchant for hetman, a merchant who grew tobacco.
I did not wonder then that Pavel had come to seek service in Russia where the officers wear diamonds and silver cording, and have fine women in their houses, yet it was strange that he should have a Russian name, and I asked the Englishman why this was so.
“Pavel means Paul. His name is John Paul Jones, and he was hatched out of the same egg as Satan.”
AS THE days passed I understood that they would not hang John Paul Jones in Petersburg. Instead he went every day to the court, and carriages drove up to his door sometimes two or three at a time. Always high officers were with him, and I grew very weary of saluting, for I was stationed at the door of his house. Every morning there was a heyduke with a letter from the empress and because heydukes like to lick up mead I learned many things.
The man from the sea was high in favor at court because he was to be sent down through the steppe to the far-off Black Sea, to take command of the Russian fleet and pound to pieces the fleet of the sultan who was at war with the empress.
John Paul had pounded the English ships, and burnt them; afterward he had been given a gold sword for bravery for other deeds by the hetman of the French; so the empress had called him and he had come. Time pressed, for he was needed by the Muscovites, who were expecting an attack by the ships of the Turks, down where Father Dneiper loses himself in the Black Sea.
This pleased me because it meant that we would soon show our heels to the accursed city of fogs and snow. Edwards gave orders to get together a half-dozen horses, with two Tatars to act as followers, and the necessary highway passes and order for post horses. He was to be John Paul’s aide-de-camp, and he told me to go to Strelsky for the passes.
I found the ensign of the Guards sitting in his quarters by a tile stove, with his fur greatcoat thrown open and a glass of brandy near his hand. When he saw me he told me to close the door; then he took a pinch of snuff and dusted it off his silk neck-cloth.
“You start at dawn to-morrow, Ivak. This order is for yamshiks—the pick of the post horses.”
He sharpened a quill pen and cleaned his teeth with it, while I drew a wooden splinter from the stove and lighted my pipe.
“You’re a golden fellow, Ivak. I warrant you’ve stolen Tatar horses from across the border. They tell me you can use a sword, too. Well, you’re lucky.”
“Allah birdui," I responded. “God gives.”
“Well, you’re no skirted choir singer, blast me if you are. I like your sort, Ivak. You have a head on you as well as a sword hand. Tch—tch!" He shook his head admiringly. “Have you got together enough men and horses for the journey? Sometimes your Father Dnieper—that cursedly treacherous river—is a stepfather? Eh? Pirates and roving Tatars swarm like bees around a clover patch.”
“We have a change of mounts and two Talmak Tatars for dragomen,” I answered. “How large will the escort of soldiers be?”
Strelsky looked over at a high lacquer screen that stood in one corner of the chamber, and wiped the brown dust again from his chin.
“No other escort goes with you, Ivak. Haste is imperative, and you must not spare the horses. A great number of followers would delay the march.”
I bent my head as if that were most true. Instead, I was wondering why not even a vedette of hussars accompanied us. John Paul was high in favor with her Majesty, and surely the empress would not let him ride forth without a retinue. But so it was.
Strelsky pushed the flagon of brandy toward me, and we looked at the bottom of the glasses several times, each busied with his own thoughts.
“You Cossack chaps like to go it, and warm up in the taverns on the road,” he said after a while. “How would you like a hundred rix-dollars to weight down your wallet—eh?”
Without getting up he opened the lid of a box on the table and motioned for me to take what was inside. It was a sack of silver coins of the kind Edwards had used to pay his bet. I put it in my belt and the ensign nodded.
“Harken, Ivak,” he went on in a lower voice, “we understand each other, I think. There is more to the order, about your journey, and it is secret. You serve the Empress?”
“We have taken her bread and salt.”
“And silver. Good! Well, John Paul must not reach the Black Sea.”
“How—not reach the Black Sea?”
For a long moment he stared at the painting on the screen, and I noticed the toes of a pair of boots showing underneath the screen.
“Do not our ships there wait for him to take command, aye, to show the gunners how to point the cannon, and the sailors how to guide the ships without running aground?” I asked.
“We have Muscovite commanders—better ones.”
Strelsky scowled, because more than once the Moskyas had lost their vessels because they could not manage the sails and because the rigging was stiff. On the other hand the Turks were good seamen, and they were helped by the corsairs from the Barbary Coast.
“John Paul is a hireling; he would betray us. Why do you bother your head about such things, Ivak? When you have spent the rix-dollars and come back to the Winter Palace, I swear that you will have the rank of colonel and be at the head of the Don regiment. Your ataman, your colonel is a bad one, a wine swiller. He will lose his baton.”
“Is the order about Paul Jones written and signed?” I asked, pretending to be pleased with all he said.
“Nay—deuce take you, Ivak! Are such things to be written on paper?”
I scratched my head, the way my children, the warriors, do when they are puzzled. Now we Cossacks weigh down a horse a bit, but because a buffalo is fat it does not mean he is a fool. Nay, the weasel is the greatest of all fools because blood lust crazes him and he thinks only of killing, and the weasel is thin and sharp enough. Strelsky made me think of a weasel. I began to smell so much smoke that the fire could not be far away.
Strelsky was a fool. He thought to please me by promising me the promotion to colonel in place of our ataman. As God lives I would have liked to be colonel and hold an ivory baton on my hip, but our officer was our little father. Why should he not drink when there was nothing else to do in this city that smelled of the sea?
“True,” I nodded again. “An order is an order. God keep and reward you, Ensign—I must look to the horses.”
Hs stared and said farewell doubtfully, and I went out, taking pains not to close the door tight. I walked down the hall, thumping my boots, and came back again, moving gently, like a cat.
Without asking permission I pushed open the door. The screen had been moved and a man in a very fine silver coat was standing by the table, yawning. On his breast was the badge of the Order of St. Anne, and some others. He had very tight pantaloons and polished Hessian boots, the kind that Edwards wore.
Strelsky was speaking, and once he called the other “mon prince.” When they saw me they looked angry, and the pockmarked face of the prince grew dark.
When I took my kalpack in hand and bowed several times to the girdle as if greatly confused by sight of such a great noble, he swore in a language I did not know.
“Pardon, Excellencies,” I muttered, “but I came back to ask again about the order. Is it the command of the Empress that Pavel—Paul Jones—is to be slain on the road to the Black Sea?”
Neither answered, and the full red lips of the prince—lips like a woman’s they were—drew together as if he were biting them. Strelsky began to curse, then he laughed.
“Can’t you see beyond your horse’s ears, sotnik? Haven’t you silver in your wallet? See to it that the river brigands or a band of Tatars seize the American and rub him out of the world. If this happens you will be colonel of the Don regiment; if not, you would better flee to the Turks, to keep from being flayed. Do you understand now, you dolt?”
But the prince seemed thoughtful, and it was clear that he was not a fool like Strelsky. Taking out a lace kerchief, scented like a woman’s hair, he waved it in the air and held it to his nose as if my sheepskins annoyed him. So it was difficult to get a good sight of his face again.
“If a word of this order passes beyond your lips, Ivak,” he warned in broken Russian, “you will wake up with a pistol ball in your brain.”
“Ekh!” I lifted the bag of silver and tossed it on the table. “Then I beg your Excellency to keep the money for me. A dead man can’t spend anything, even a copeck.”
The smoke had cleared away enough for me to know that the Empress had not issued the order, or the Moskyas would have been bolder with their words. Some one else had a quarrel with Paul Jones, and I thought of the English officers who loved him only as dogs love wolves, and whose ships he had burned, besides taking from their grasp a high command in the Russian service. Before his coming the Empress had listened to the advice of the English colonels of the sea when she wanted to make war with her ships.
Why did I return the money? Well, it weighed on my spirit. Better if I had kept it—much better. I saw the watery eyes of the prince blink as if something had come up out of the ground under his nose. And when I went out into the hall I heard the door close, tight this time.
AT John Paul’s lodging all was the two Tatars were snoring in the stable, the boxes of luggage were packed in the courtyard, and John Paul was writing a letter in his room up stairs. He was always writing letters, though none were ever delivered to him. He had no body servant in Russia, and so, the door being open and unguarded, I sat down on the sill to smoke my pipe and regret that the rix-dollars were no longer mine.
Presently to the door came two women, one old and bundled up and the other straight and young. She had a thin face, pale under the paint that the Moskya women use, and her hood was thrown back to show coils of black hair.
They wanted to ask the American for work to do—sewing. I told them to go to another door in the street because we had no need of sewing.
Then they began to argue and the younger one said they had had nothing to eat that day. Overhead, the American stirred and came down to see what was happening. The old one drew back, but the girl addressed him boldly in some kind of French, I think, and he shook his head.
The girl took his hand and put back her cloak and smiled, trying to slip past him into the house. But he would not permit it, giving her some money instead—I do not know how much. Then she jumped up on her toes and kissed him, and went away to where the crone was waiting. John Paul returned to his writing because I heard the scrape of his pen.
I was glad the women had gone because every minister of Petersburg had a regiment of spies and the foreign nobles had nearly as many, and it is an ill place where a man can be watched without knowing it. The great clocks of the towers had struck many times when wheels creaked up to the house and an equerry of the palace reported that a tarantass belonging to her Majesty had been brought for the American to use on his journey.
As Paul Jones was asleep by then, I went out to look at the tarantass, which was a long, narrow wagon with big wheels, leather bound. In front and rear were places for footmen to stand, holding on by straps. A sloping roof covered it like a house and within was room enough for two to sit or recline but not to stand. The windows were small and heavy shutters closed them.
Two pairs of matched bays were hitched up, one pair to the shaft, the other to the traces. I was very sleepy by then, and dozed a bit until John Paul woke me up.
“Stuppai, Ivak,” he cried with a smile. “Forward!”
I was angry that he should have found me asleep, when dawn was streaking the sky, and I cursed the Tatars a bit when I found that he had been to the stables and had the horses fed before waking me. We were ready by the time Edwards rode up, yawning, with his body servant and a led horse with double packs. All the servants of the palace had gone except the equerry and the two postilions. For a while we delayed while the two officers talked, and John Paul went up to the tarantass and glanced inside carelessly though he could have seen little in the faint light.
“Ivak,” Edwards called to me, “here’s a —— of a mess. The American will not ride in the carriage of the Empress. He wants to make the journey in a saddle. We can not send back her Majesty’s gift.”
“Health to your Honor,” I pointed out, “In that case we can throw the luggage in the wagon and use the packas spare mounts for the servant and Tatars. Then, perhaps Pavel—Paul Jones can sleep in it when we halt.”
In this way our progress would be swifter and I was glad when the American ordered the packs thrown into the tarantass, and we set out with three extra mounts, leaving the equerry standing at salute. Ekh, I was glad to ride for the last time through the muddy streets in the pale dawn and hear for the last time that clamoring, invisible ringing of the bells.
When the net is invisible the fish thinks the water is clear. That is how the fish is caught.
FOR a time that day I watched John Paul, to see how he would bear himself. Ekh, he was at home in the saddle, that chap, and he forced the pace faster than the Englishman, Edwards, wanted to press on. Because it was the season of the rasputitsa, the flood during the spring thaw, the roads were no better than fords across the treacherous swamps. The carriage would slip from the crown of the road and sink into the mire up to the hubs.
After John Paul had dismounted once and put logs under the wheels, to force the carriage back to the road, I made the postilions change places with the Tatars. I was angry because we had to drag along the tarantass, but if I had known what evil was stored up for us within it, I would have unhitched the horses and left it like a stranded ship in the great pools of the flooded country.
If it had not been for John Paul we should not have reached the first of the zamoras—the post stations along the highroad to Moscow—that night. The sun had gone down behind a cloud bank when we drew up at the inn and a score of slouching rogues came out to stare at us. They showed their teeth but nothing more when I elbowed them aside and shouted to the pig of a tavern keeper to make ready a leg of mutton and brandy spirits and bread for their excellencies, the officers, who had chosen to quarter themselves in the carriage after looking once at the inn.
They sat on the shaft and ate the dinner when it was brought, but I went to the stables before eating to make certain that the Tatars had watered the horses and given them oats. I found all as it should be, the beasts bedded down and the Tatars not yet drunk on chirkhir, and I was turning away to seek out my dinner when one of them touched my knee.
“Horses!” he said, and after a moment, “Nine riders on the road, Ivak Khan.”
Now Tatars have ears like weasels, and it was quite a while before I heard the hoof beats coming nearer. The Tatar who had spoken peered up at me and pulled his forefinger across his throat, then touched the hilt of my saber. He meant that men were around who would cut my throat and warned me to be on guard.
Just as he did so a screaming began in front of the inn, a shrill screaming that was horrible to hear. I took off my kalpack and crossed myself, for it sounded like a woman vampire calling from the forest, but the cries were coming from the wagon.
“Aid—aid! Who will hear the prayer of a Christian maid?”
John Paul and the Englishman were on their feet, staring at the tarantass in astonishment, because all the day that wagon had given out no cries and now there was either a woman or a vampire inside it.
A body of horsemen came clattering up to the fire, and the leader dismounted and strode over to the wagon. He was an ensign of the Guards with a long mustache and a long saber and a red face. The six troopers with him kept lo their saddles and worked their horses around so as to hem us in.
“Let us see what is boiling in this pot!” growled the ensign, jerking open the doors.
He began to haul at something and presently pulled out—for he was a strong man—a girl who was bound with belts at the wrists and ankles. She was slender, with tangled dark hair, and she wore a silk cloak lined with hare’s fur.
All the time the ensign was unbuckling the straps she leaned on his shoulder and wept, chattering like a squirrel. Servants of the American, she said, had overtaken her in the street of Petersburg and had gagged her. Then she had been carried to John Paul’s house and placed in the wagon. She said—and this was quite true—that she had had nothing to eat all day, and had been shaken up and down like wheat at threshing.
The ensign, whose name was Borol, asked her if she was not Anna Mikhalovna, and she assented eagerly. Then he frowned and turned to Edwards, explaining how complaint had been made that morning at the quarters of the Guard by this girl’s mother. An order had been issued that he should follow the American, find the girl and request John Paul to return to Petersburg.
When Borol pointed at the American, John Paul spoke one word to Edwards who turned to the ensign—
“Salute the rear-admiral.”
Borol chewed his mustache and clicked his lips; then drew his heels together and saluted sullenly. It was plainly to be seen that John Paul was not in such high favor now. He took Edwards arm and the two paced up and down while the aide-de-camp explained about the accusation and the order to return.
Meanwhile Borol made a great show of warming Anna Mikhalovna at the fire and ordering brandy for her to drink, and I went closer to stare at her. She was the girl who had called at John Paul’s door the evening before with the old crone.
Ekh, the whole thing was clear in my mind, all at once. The girl had not been in the tarantass when it was first driven up from the palace. Some time before dawn she had been placed in it, bound, most likely. Then his enemies in Petersburg had spread a story that the American had carried off the girl, and now he would be recalled to explain the matter to a court of men who hated him. It meant that he would be kept waiting at the Muscovite palace in stead of joining his command, even if nothing worse happened.
In my mind was the picture of the foreign prince with the Hessian boots, and I wondered how much the English had to do with the plot. They had no love for John Paul, and made no secret of it.
The story of Anna Mikhalovna could not be true. Why had she kept quiet in the wagon all day, only to cry out like a bugle when the troopers came up? And as for John Paul’s servants carrying her off—he had no servants. Besides, she had tried to enter his house last evening, and when she had been turned away this new plot had been made against him.
Probably his enemies had counted on a scene in his courtyard when we started off; but he had chosen a horse instead of the carriage and the girl had not been seen, because no one had looked inside when the packs were thrust through the door.
It was a plot that men who spend their lives at court would hatch—a small and skilful plot, the kind that ties up a man as with silk cords. What could John Paul do but go back? He belonged to the world of the court, and according, to his code it would be necessary to clear his name before he could accept his new mission.
Edwards looked like a man who has come to a fork in the road, puzzled, yet a little pleased. But John Paul had grown pale and his eyes were dark as coals.
Just a few words he said to the ensign, Borol—Edwards interpreting—but they were like sword pricks. The American had seen through the plot, and the wish of his enemies to disgrace him.
“I came to Russia in an open shallop, through ice on the sea, because the Empress summoned me, and when I offered my sword to her, Count Besborodko, the minister of state, was instructed to do everything possible to make the situation of the Chevalier Paul Jones pleasant and to furnish him with all possible occasions on which he might display his skill and valor. Besborodko—”the American handed back the order which was signed by the minister—“has misunderstood his instructions. He has taken pains to afford me the chance of displaying the talents of a lawyer, not a soldier.”
Edwards smiled as he translated, and I thought that John Paul was a man who would not be led by others. But his pride was hurt and his muscular face was drawn. He had a hard path to follow in Russia, because he did not know the ways of the great Russian lords who looked on all soldiers as slaves.
Borol shrugged and said it was none of his affair—such a disgraceful matter it was, carrying off a young girl. He was a graf of Hessia—whatever that might be—and the mission touched upon his honor—whatever that was. And he pushed up the ends of his mustache, clanking his scabbard as he did so.
NOW I had been seeking for some word to say, because I would rather have lost my scalp lock than return to Petersburg. Something about the graf reminded me of the prince in the silver coat: They were like as two caps, and if neither was an Englishman, then the English at the palace might not have hatched the plot. I smacked my thigh and whispered in Edward’s ear.
“Your Honor’s pardon, but that girl is the one who tried to get into John Paul’s lodging last evening. An old crone was with her, and the American gave them money to go away. Somebody must have given them more money—the pretty sparrows!”
This surprized the Englishman, and he looked as if he did not know which fork of the road to take.
“The deuce!” He took snuff and added carelessly to Borol. “This Anna Mikhalovna—I think I’ve seen her. A friend of Besborodko’s perhaps?”
“Not at all, Lieutenant. She’s a farmer’s daughter—lodged with a priest near the cathedral last night.”
“Ah.” Edwards glanced at the silk cloak. “Then she couldn’t have come begging at the rear-admiral’s quarters late in the evening.”
I stepped forward.
“She was there, only dressed differently.”
Borol shook his head impatiently and ordered some of his men to escort Anna to the inn. Edwards needed no more words to show whether I had told the truth.
“Ensign,” he remarked, “this is not a flash in the pan—it is —— serious. The American entered the Russian service on the Empress’ pledge that he would have a free hand and sole command of the Black Sea Fleet. He is a Chevalier of France and a friend of Lafayette. Who stirred up this hornets’ nest at his heels?”
Now those who had sent Borol had picked a man with a good sword arm but a sluggish brain. He chewed his mustache and barked out:
“—— take it! You English have cooked up the whole thing.”
Edwards started as if he had been touched with a whip.
“What a knowing fellow, egad!” he drawled. “Upon my word, Count Borol, you must know us better than we know ourselves. Deuced quaint, I swear, to fancy that because we do not count Admiral Jones among our friends we would think up a foul plot and bait it with a farmer’s daughter. Unfortunate, very—that it should be necessary to prove to you by example that the English strike in the open.”
And his eyes glittered, just like the time when he had caught me smiling at him. Quite happy, he was, because the ensign had given him offense. A strange folk!
“I thought—” Borol was beginning to be sorry he had talked so much, but he was in for it now.
“Indeed! It may be necessary for you to think twice. A man of your high intuition, Count Borol, must realize that by accusing the English officers of Petersburg of a blackguardly intrigue, you cast some slight aspersion upon me.” He bowed, very elegant. “Of course you will give satisfaction at once, and as the challenged party, the choice of weapons is yours. Do you prefer swords or shall we say pistols? Necessity compels us to dispense with seconds.”
It was clear to me that the Englishman’s temper would brew trouble for us. If there was a duel, and some one was sliced, the enemies of Paul Jones would have good reason for calling him to account, since dueling was forbidden. To make matters worse, the American, when he learned what Edwards was about, insisted on meeting Borol himself. And, knowing of the plot against John Paul, I could see that Borol was well content; if he wounded the admiral, high influences in Petersburg would free him from blame; if John Paul cut him up the American would be made to suffer for it. A plan came into my head and I stepped forward.
“Borol,” I said, “God has given you a long arm but a short wit. A while ago you would not believe my word that the girl had come begging of the admiral. Now I say that you lie.”
And I added other plain words for the soldiers to hear, so that their leader’s ears began to burn.
“Dog of a Cossack!” Borol was beside himself with rage. “I’ll have you strung up by the thumbs and your hide cut up for whips.”
“Oho,” I thought, “when the cock crows loud he is in his own barnyard.”
Carefully this time I counted over the troopers and found there were seven with the ensign included. But my Tatars had heard nine horses, and if two others had come with the company they must be in hiding in the trees beyond the firelight—spies, without a doubt, or perhaps Strelsky, or even the prince of the silver coat.
“First,” I told Borol, “I will teach you a lesson if you are not afraid to challenge a man whose arm is as long as yours.”
“Draw your steel, you hedgehog!”
“Ivak!” Edwards turned on me angrily. “My affair with the ensign does not require the aid of a clown. Back to your place!”
“Pardon,” I pointed out, “but my quarrel with Borol takes precedence of your Honor’s affair. He made light of my word in the first place.”
The American and Edwards stood about as high as my chin, but they were bent on crossing steel with the ensign who was a giant. Edwards began to explain impatiently that, although Borol’s military rank was equal with mine, the man was a count, or some such thing.
“You do not know, Excellency,” I assured him, “that in my country the Cossacks hold me to a prince. Aye, my grandsire was hetman, having to his order ten thousand sabers. Is not that rank enough?”
Borol, who was foaming at the mouth, tossed his cloak to a trooper and began to roll up his right sleeve, crying that I might be emperor of a million pigs, but he would have satisfaction all the same.
“One moment,” I said. “You have challenged me and so I have choice of weapons. Is it not so, Lieutenant Edwards?”
He nodded, staring at me curiously. Borol grinned, knowing that a Cossack would chose sabers, which suited him very well.
“We will fight with pitchforks,” I said.
So amazed were they that the crackling of the fire could be heard in the silence, when I walked to the manure heap by the inn door and picked up two forks with iron prongs. My ears were pricked and I heard the stamp of a horse close by in the darkness, where some one watched, unseen. Eh, the trap was set and ready to be sprung if the American or those with him showed fight. I yearned to take on Borol with sabers and teach him a thing or two, for among the Don Cossacks few were a match for me with the blades.
But it was not to be. I cleaned the iron prongs in the earth and held out the two forks to Borol, offering him choice of weapons. How his eyes stuck out!
“With those things!” he sneered. “A gentlemen is not a dog of a farmer.”
“True, my little Count,” I nodded. “A Cossack would think it disgraceful to draw steel on such a man as you. Choose!”
He glared at the prongs, at me and at Edwards, who was beginning to be amused. Then he stepped back with an oath, and felt in his saddle holster for a firearm.
“Take them!” he shouted to his men. “Draw pistols!”
For the second time Borol had made a mistake. His men obeyed, it is true, but when they had their weapons resting on their hips, with muzzles in the air, Edwards had caught up a double-barreled horse pistol from his saddle bags and the American had in hand the two light, silver mounted French pistols that he carried in his belt.
It was clear even to Borol that we would not be taken alive, by force; but before he could give an order to the troopers to fire, a voice came out of the darkness behind the fire—
And they did so, taking with them the woman, lest we question her, but leaving the tarantass—which I regretted. The trap had been sprung, but the panthers were not caught. Aye, from that hour we were hunted like beasts, we who were men.
Then the American showed that he had had men to his command before now. I had seen that he could ride and face an adversary; now it was clear he thought of those under him. Through Edwards he reminded me that I had had no dinner and bade me to the inn to seek what I could find and to return to talk with them.
WHEN I wiped my hands on the tavern dog and came forth again, the two officers were casting dice on a saddle cloth, laughing like boys, though there was gray in the hair of John Paul. After I saluted, Edwards asked me to sit with them and light my pipe, and they put away the dice.
“Old raven,” said he, “there is more in your noodle than comes out your mouth. The rear-admiral would like to ride back to Tsarkoe-seloe and clear his name before the Empress. Knowing a little of the Russian court, I advise him to ride as far from it as his horse will carry him; a victory or two will do more for his cause than a dozen petitions, which might get no farther than the servants of the minister of state. What is your word?”
They were quick of wit, those two, and they saw how old Ivak had uncovered a fine snare, all the more deadly because it was sprung by a silken cord.
“If your Honor pleases,” I responded after thought, “what is in your heart toward the American? Good or ill?”
“The deuce!” Edwards frowned. “Would I have come as his aide if not honestly? Pirate he may have been, but that chapter is written. Take care what you say, Cossack!”
“Lieutenant,” I made answer, “we be three men, and the road before us is fifteen hundred versts. Wolves track us, and they be two-legged wolves. If we do not speak openly together now, how shall we make a plan? Without a plan, how shall we arrive at the end of the road?”
He glanced at me, and the flush left his keen young face.
“As bad as that? I wondered why an escort was denied us, on one pretext or another.” He stooped to draw a coal from the fire, for his long clay pipe. “Hhm. Would these two-legged wolves shed the blood of our officer?”
“Ha! The stakes are high, then. But I do not think the Empress would stoop to plotting.”
That was a knotty question, and I shook my head. Later I had reason to curse my stupidity, that I did not tell them about the prince of the silver coat. Yet it did not come into my mind that Edwards might know him. Besides, I was not sure of John Paul’s loyalty. My orders were only to guide him to Kherson, our headquarters on the Black Sea.
Edwards explained to the American what I had said and when he had finished I made bold to offer advice.
“By your Honor’s leave, what authorization has the admiral to take command when he arrives at Kherson?”
They told me there was a letter signed by Catherine herself, that he should take over the fleet at Kherson. That was good though it might have been better.
“Then,” I said slowly, “if I were John Paul I should ride to the utmost, not sparing the horses, until he sets foot on his flagship.”
It surprized them that a Cossack should know what a flagship was, but we fellows of the borderland have taken oars in hand and gone out in skiffs against the fleet of the Turks and we have smelled powder mixed with salt water.
“But this plot with the wretched girl has failed,” Edwards pointed out. “His enemies are behind him, and the road is clear ahead.”
“His enemies, Lieutenant, are powerful, and Muscovite spies are whelped even in the forests of Muscovy. Avoid the cities, and use spur and whip. If you will trust me I can lead you safe to Kherson.”
“Even odds, for a hundred rubles, I beat you into Kherson.”
“Done!” I nodded.
They gave me leave to depart and I went to the stables where the straw was cleaner than the inn beds. I was not asleep when one of the Tatars touched me, and I began to listen, for he did nothing more than to hiss warningly. The hoof beats of a horse sounded faintly from the highway, and soon disappeared to the south without pausing at the inn.
The only Russian who would pass a tavern after dark would be carrying an urgent dispatch. Moreover, he had not halted for a change of mounts at this post station, and surely there was a reason for that. I swore at my oversight in not placing sentries on the high road, and then I remembered that we had no men to post as sentries.
A raft upon the river is made of many logs fastened together; so long as the logs hold together the raft is safe. If they drift apart there is no longer a raft.
HAVE you, my brothers, ever slain a bear with a dirk? If you know how to go about it, the task is easy. In winter, go to a berlog—a winter sleeping place of a bear, down under the snow, where a round air hole shows, rimmed with yellow. Thrust a long stick into the hollow under the breathing hole until the bear springs up, whuff—throwing the snow all about him. Then step in and stab with the knife before his eyes grow fully accustomed to the light.
If you are a little slow, the bear will go back to sleep again with a full belly.
So it was with us. Before we had grown suspicious our enemies had their way with us; but now that we had our eyes open it was otherwise. Before long we left the swamps and the mud, and passed by the last of the Muscovite water-towns, Novgorod, on the bank of a small river in flood.
Like a flash the oaks and the pine forest closed around us as we pounded south toward Moscow. Probably when Strelsky made out our permit for post horses he never thought we would go far enough to claim the yamshiks, the picked horses that his paper allowed us.
But at each zamora I combed over the nags for the best ones, keeping only the Kabarda of mine that ran loose beside us for three days until I gave it into the keeping of an honest Armenian who would bring the horse to Kherson by slow stages. For we were covering then nearly a hundred versts, which Edwards said was eighty English miles, a day.
The postilions of the carriage complained, and finally became useless. So we were not sorry to leave them at one of the huts. The two Tatars did their work more to my liking and the postilions may have been in the plot against us. Even the tarantass proved itself a friend now, because John Paul and Edwards took turn about sleeping in it, as well as they could for the jolts. Hai, they could not sleep as well as I in the saddle, but they made no protest and we made no stop.
Several times we heard the wolf packs howling and once the wolves were at our heels for ten verst posts. We had to burn much powder and my horse was slashed by their teeth when we pulled up at the next post station. Still, we saw nothing of the two-legged wolf that had passed us in the first night. I scanned each rider we turned out of the narrow way between the trees, without coming upon one who might have been a Muscovite spy.
The officers cared little for the rider that was ahead of us, and looked on our ride as a new game.
“Stuppai, Ivak!” Paul Jones would shout.
And forward we went, Edwards jesting with me that I would taste his dust into Kherson and lose a half-year’s pay thereby. Only when we sighted the domes and spires of Moscow in its great plain did we halt, for six hours, so that the American might dine with the governor of the city.
On the sixth day out we had to halt for three hours to repair a wheel of the carriage. In the stables of the post station I asked for news of a rider from Petersburg, who was bearing dispatches a few hours ahead of us, knowing that any man who wished to make the utmost speed along the highway would claim that he carried dispatches. The men of the zamora told me that an officer had passed south at sunrise, which was twelve hours before. Dried mud was still on his boots and his permit had read from Peters burg to Kherson. Thinking of Borol, I asked if he spoke with a German accent and looked to be about my size.
They said it was not so. The officer had cursed them in good Russian for delaying him. So, after all, we had no real reason to suspect that a spy had gone ahead.
But when a man hunts wolves he does not lie down under a tree to doze because no wolves are in sight. I pushed the horses that night, keeping awake to do so, and promising the Tatars half a flask of corn brandy to stir them up a bit. We put a hundred and twenty versts behind us, from sunset to sunset, and changed horses six times, and it was my two officers who were stirred up finally.
Edwards, who was suffering from saddle sores, cursed my beard and my soul and my father’s grave and other things, yet I took no offense, knowing that weariness had gripped him and there was no meaning in the curses.
“—— take you, Ivak,” he promised, “I will give orders to slow down to a hand pace. You are rubbing the bones out of my buttocks.”
“I hope your Honor is well,” I replied, knowing how to handle him. “Because if not, I will have to wait for you in Kherson, to spend the hundred rubles.”
“Blast you, Ivak—sink you for a lying rogue!”
And he leaped from the tarantass and ran to a horse, jumping into saddle and plying whip and spur until I was tasting his dust—as his beast was fresher.
“I’ll lead you into Kherson even if your Tatars have to carry me on a door.”
And his words were near to the truth, as will be seen presently. Meanwhile, however much we pressed the horses we did not gain sight of the officer who was ahead of us. If we rode like the wind, he went like a witch on a broomstick on All-Hallow’s Eve—or like a man with his neck in a noose.
We came out on the vast level that lies south of Moscow, where the sun was warm on the dense foliage of the trees. In the black soil the wheat stood high and rippled under the breath of the wind like a great pool of water. Dust hung behind us like a giant’s plume, and the moujiks we met stood aside and doffed their wool caps, bowing as low as their sashes, astonished at the pace of our horses. Eh, it was good to be under a clear sky again!
Before long we knew that the rider ahead of us had sighted us, although we had not set eye on him.
At a zamora we were told that all the horses were out. Never before this had such a thing happened! Not a nag in the stables!
Edwards was for waiting until fresh beasts could be rounded up, but John Paul said we would press forward on the best animals to the next station. We did so, but here also the keepers of the station bowed and prayed forgiveness because all the horses were out.
I said nothing, riding instead in a circle about the hut and stables, while the two officers made use of the delay in eating dinner. Aye, there were few tracks leading away from the zamora along the highway, but a round dozen traces went from the stable yard into the fields, and they were fresh tracks.
Calling my Tatars, I sent them off to follow the tracks for a few versts and bring back what they found. Then I spurred my tired nag into the group of Moskyas who were watching with covert interest. I pulled out a pistol and cocked it, then primed the pan.
“What are you doing, Uncle?” asked the one who had said there were no horses. “And why did you send the Tatars away?”
“God keep you, brother,” I made answer, “or the devil will get you. I sent the Tatars for a priest.”
“Why a priest?” He made shift to laugh and invite me down for a nuggin of mead. “Eh, what would a Cossack do with a priest?”
“Several things. Nay, I would have the last rites administered to you by the batko, the little father, so when your soul stands in the company of the holy angels you will not smell rank of a bribe.”
This I said, knowing that his palm had been crossed with silver by the rider who raced us to Kherson, and that was why the horses were missing.
"But, worthy sotnik—noble, handsome Captain—there is no priest in the village.”
There were half a dozen of the Moskyas, with knives and clubs, but when they looked at the pistol they all began to praise me and say that they were my slaves.
“Then tell me where you have hidden the horses, if there is no priest.”
They exchanged glances uneasily, and I added a word, for I did not know if the Tatars were on the right trail and time pressed.
“You will have a gift—” I looked at the first speaker—“worth many times the ruble the officer gave you, if the horses are brought back.”
His eyes began to glisten with greed and he made great show of bravado and after a moment another spoke up, saying that the horses had been put out to pasture only half a verst away. I waited, keeping them under the muzzle of the pistol, until the Tatars galloped back with a score of horses, many of them good and not all, judging by the looks of them, from the post station.
Then the Moskyas jumped to harness a team to the tarantass and I picked out five ponies with Arab blood just as my officers came out. When I was changing my saddle the chief keeper came up and asked for his gift.
Before we were out of hearing that keeper shouted after us that the ensign who had come before us had said we were chiefs of the pirates from the Dnieper, and that we would steal all the horses.
I told this to Edwards and he looked thoughtful.
“Why are you so eager to reach Kherson in haste, Uncle Ivak?” he asked after a while.
“I had an order to take John Paul there, alive.”
“True, but you press on like a horse that scents water.”
So, seeing there was a new doubt in his mind, I sat back in the saddle and told him the truth.
For ages the Cossacks had fought the Turks and all the Moslems who came over the black water. Only a generation ago had the Russians built a fleet strong enough to meet the armada of the Turks and to navigate these new men-of-war they had to engage foreign officers. Many great ships with masts as tall as pines were in this fleet, which was stationed near Kherson, in the narrow gulf called the Liman, or Port, at the mouth of Father Dnieper. This Liman was near to the great river Danube also and the Crimea.
But as yet our fleet had not fired a shot at the Turks, who were mustering up their vessels-of-war and blocking it in, as dogs circle around the lair of a tiger.
Aye, the Russian ships had been built hastily of green timber, which was rotting so fast there was danger of the heavy guns falling through the bottoms. And in all the crews were barely one full company—two hundred men—that knew how to work the sails and make the ships go forward against the wind. They did not go forward at all, but sat in one place with anchors down, except the smaller craft, the galleys and double shallops, that ranged the coast and far back up the Dnieper.
These were commanded mainly by Greeks and Genoese and made prizes of many merchant craft, honest Armenians, and some French and English. These prizes were taken back to the Liman for examination, and they never sailed forth again. Perhaps they were kept to help the fleet, perhaps they were burned. Who knows?
The galleys of the flotilla, as the lighter squadron was called, even raided Cossack villages for supplies and carried off girls.
To all these misdeeds the commander of the Black Sea fleet could have put an end, if he willed. But he gave no orders, and his chief aide, a Greek by the name of Alexiano, plundered and snatched where he willed.
That was bad for my people, but worse was in store for us. The Turks were growing bolder and very soon they would strike at our fleet. How could our ships, that were unable to sail, beat off the Turks? Nay, the battle would be a disaster.
And that would cripple the army which was acting in concert with the fleet. Protected by the Turkish ships-of-war, the Moslem army could advance on Kherson and the Crimea and march up the Dnieper, rolling over the villages of my people.
That was why I was eager to bring John Paul to Kherson to take command. If he were a leader of men—which remained to be seen—he might make an end of chaos and win the battle upon the sea.
“How do you know so much, old raven?” Edwards asked.
I told him that many Cossacks had volunteered to serve with the fleet and some had returned in anger to their people.
“A pretty mess, if you have told the truth.” Edwards shook his head. “Egad, Iyak, surely there are skilled officers in the fleet—Grève and Ten Broek.”
“True, Lieutenant, but they are navigating officers upon the ships with three rows of guns. The Russians and Greeks command, and the crews are a hard lot—fishermen, criminals and soldiers, not at all easy to lead.”
“Then Paul Jones is the chap to take them in hand, I warrant.”
Edwards laughed and explained that once, I suppose when the American was still a pirate, he had commanded a great ship that was manned by the refuse of the French coast and a few Yankees. I did not know what Yankees were, but Edwards said they were people without a king, who chewed tobacco and fought like fiends.
Paul Jones had commanded the Bon Homme Richard—so the lieutenant named his ship—and had fought, with such a crew, until he overmastered an English ship, although his own vessel sank.
I do not know how true this was, but in the next days John Paul, who had discovered that I knew much of affairs in the Black Sea, questioned me through Edwards very patiently and by the way he returned to the same things again, I knew that he remembered all that was said, and it warmed my spirit like corn brandy, because he seemed to know much about ships and the ways of the sea.
Aye, we went forward joyfully. Were we not in the steppe at last, only two days’ ride from Kherson? The tall grass was all around us, high as our horses’ shoulders, with the yellow broom and the blue corn flowers making it gleam like a banner. Quail ran before us, and the scent of clover and hay made the air sweet.
We sang and lashed at our horses, being perhaps intoxicated by long lack of sleep, a thing that makes the blood burn in the brain. We had come nine hundred miles in nine days, and we no longer thought of the plotters at Petersburg:—Aye, we were like blind fools.
One of the Tatars wakened me from a doze by thrusting his stirrup against my foot.
“Ivak Khan! Ivak Khan! Vultures have gathered together in a flock.”
He did not mean that vultures were in the air. I saw at once what he had seen, and cried out to halt the tarantass and turn back.
We had come to the summit of a high knoll and less than a verst ahead of us, down under the knoll, men were sitting with horses picketed near at hand; I counted twenty and seven and the Tatar—who had eyes like a goshawk—said that they were armed, some having muskets. Their coats were of different colors.
They did not look like a detachment of Russian soldiers nor Cossacks, who would have chosen the knoll for a halting place. Even as the tarantass was being turned a man stepped out of a growth of tall hemp, a pistol shot away, between us and the waiting band. He shouted and the men by the horses stood up.
I took time to study the lay of the land before riding back after the carriage. It was ill luck that I had been asleep when we breasted the knoll or I should have gone ahead to look over before the carriage and the officers came upon the skyline. But it was good luck that the knoll should be where it was.
The highway here followed the left bank of the wide Dnieper, which was about two versts away. To reach the knoll we had passed through a network of gullies, where an arm of the river had stretched across the trail into the steppe. We had forded this water and pushed through great patches of rushes as high as the head of a mounted man.
From the summit of the hill where I was the ford and the rushes could not be seen, because clumps of willows hid them. Where the estuary joined Father Dnieper a great raft of logs was floating lazily down the river.
My Tatars were already galloping the tarantass down toward the inlet and I soon saw that they would be hidden by the trees before the riders, who had been waiting by the highway, could come up to the summit of the hill. The man who had been on watch was standing still, because I had kept to my place. If I had rushed away with the carriage he would have run up, no doubt. Skulkers are bold when backs are turned.
After observing all these things I wheeled my horse and clapped in the spurs, overtaking the carriage at the river and bidding it halt.
“What the —— are you about, Ivak? What has happened?”
Edwards who was dozing in the carriage had been wakened by the jolting.
“Bandits or foemen have happened,” I explained quickly. “We can not gain the last zamora ahead of them. Our beasts are tired and theirs are fresh. What is your will?”
“That we make a stand, Ivak. Tsob-tsob, Tsoboe! Hustle! Better to make a stand and greet them with bullets than rush into these infernal gullies that lead nowhere but out into your cursed steppe.”
“And what does the admiral say?”
Edwards spoke to John Paul quickly and the American cast a glance around, apparently not in the least disturbed.
“He says to go down this inlet to the river. We might slip past the stand-and-deliver chaps along the river.”
Now there was truth in Edwards’ choice, to stand and face our pursuers, and there was more wisdom in John Paul’s advice to take to the riverbank, but I had a better plan. Pulling Edwards out of the tarantass and calling to the Tatars who were riding the horses attached to it, I jerked the heads of the leaders to the right and lashed the beasts until they started off, dragging the carriage into the rushes toward the steppe. Meanwhile Edwards had climbed into my saddle and the Tatars and I each took a stirrup—the servant being the third rider. Then we waded into the water and began to trot off, around a bend toward the river. The bottom was hard here and we raised little mud, while the track of the carriage going in the other direction was clear as a cattle path.
All this had taken not two minutes and we were well out of sight when we heard the horses of the band splash into the ford. Although the two officers had left behind valuable baggage and clothing they had not bickered for a second. For a moment I wondered if my suspicions were false—the band might have been vagabonds or deserters who would have left us alone for a little silver.
I thought to myself:
“When a plan is made and a path chosen, only a fool loiters to think of other paths. The outlaws will divide at the ford, some going after the wagon, some coming this way. It is better to deal with a dozen than with them all.”
We pushed on around many turns, and finally went up to the edge of the rushes where the cover was still good and the footing firmer. Here we made better speed, the mounted men bending low, so their hats could not be seen. As we crossed the bare spaces, or climbed over rocks, our ears were pricked for musket shots, but none came.
Soon we began to splash through water again, even where trees stood, because Father Dnieper was in flood. Aye, we should not have known where the land ended, except that the raft came into view drifting past, just at the edge of the trees and brush where the current was not as swift as in midstream.
The burlaks, the watermen on the raft, were singing, sitting in the sun and smoking. The raft itself was made of fine long oak trunks bound together with ropes, about twenty logs in width and four tiers in length.
“To the left,” I whispered, and the officers swung off through the trees, finding there a dry ridge of earth down which we ran, coming out again a little in advance of the raft.
“If we could get our hands on that raft,” I explained to Edwards, “we could cross the Dneiper, at need, and land on the other side. See, it has three sweep oars. Our pursuers could not swim their horses across and boats are few along here.”
“But the rogues would see us on the raft.”
“Aye, if God wills. But they would hit upon us before long on the shore, and they have muskets.”
Edwards spoke to the American who glanced at me keenly and nodded. He was no waster of time. The Englishman rode out a bit from the trees to where he could speak with the burlaks without shouting. They stopped their song and took their pipes out of their lips to stare the better.
“Hola, little brothers! How much will you take for the raft?”
They stared all the more, until one with a beard shaded his eyes and, after looking over the officers, made answer:
“Health to you, serene great lords. This is fine oak, and we are taking it to the shipyard at Kherson to sell the timber to the shipwrights.”
“Sell it to us.”
The stupid Moskya took several puffs at his pipe and shook his head.
“Pardon noble lord, but it is for the shipyard. Such fine oak——”
The skin prickled up my back with impatience, for any second we might be sighted by the riders behind. Edwards was growing red with rage when John Paul exchanged a word with him, and he sang another tune.
“How much are the logs worth, little brother?”
“We will be paid two hundred and forty copecks for them, Excellency.”
“We will see that it is made into ships,” Edwards promised, “and give you five hundred.”
The burlaks looked at one another. They had broad, sunburned faces and moved clumsily, like cattle.
“That is too much,” said the one with the yellow beard after a while. “God knows, Excellency, no one would pay more than two hundred and forty——”
“Plague take ye! Then two hundred and forty it is. Draw in closer and we’ll come aboard.”
AFTER many delays and much laboring at the raft which was unwieldy in the slow current we climbed upon it and pushed off from shore far enough to be out of good musket shot but still hidden somewhat by the trees. There was a log lean-to on the raft and into this I made the officers go with the servant and ordered the Tatars to off-saddle the horses, while I slid out of my long Cossack coat and placed it with my cap out of sight, the burlaks grunting like cows at our antics.
By degrees I had them steer and row the raft out into midstream, where we were in full sight from the bank but so distant that a watcher would not notice anything unusual about the raft. Although I scanned the shore and the Tatars watched the reeds and the flight of birds for suspicious movements, nothing more was seen of the bandits. And it was clear that they might have contented themselves with the plunder of the tarantass, yet I was uneasy, for a hidden foeman is like a snake unseen in the path.
AT NIGHTFALL we ate what food was in the saddle bags, the burlaks sharing their fish 'and barley cakes with us, being only too pleased to have real coins in their belts instead of kicks and promises which they would probably have been given at Kherson. They kept at the sweeps because the current was powerful here and other craft were about. One raft, smaller than ours, kept us company, the men on it sitting by bright fires and ticking up vodka until my throttle ached.
One of them was a giant with a hawk’s beak of a nose who sang like an angel out of paradise. They hitched their raft up to ours, to let our burlaks do the steering for them, and prepared to make a white night of it. Ekh, but it was a night, with the moon rising into a clear sky and the smell of the scorched steppe grass heavy in the wind!
The two officers listened to the singing, and once John Paul struck up a chant and all the burlaks kept silence until he had finished. I leaned my back against the hut and thought that presently we could land and take to horse again. But Edwards and his servants were very weary, sleeping like dogs, and we had only three horses, which were also weary.
So I listened to the wailing of an owl on shore, and the wash of the waves against the logs. We were in my country at last, and within a few hours I could round up a fine company of galliards, real fellows, and first rate horses and escort my admiral into Kherson.
I was musing so when one of our burlaks gave a cry. A splash sounded, and I saw that the other one, at the sweeps, had fallen into the water. While I looked the one who had cried out turned around on his feet and sat down. He grunted softly and all at once bumped down on the logs.
The moon was behind the clouds just then and the flickering fires on the raft behind us made the blackness over the water as if a veil had been drawn around us. When the flames rose, the two rafts were visible and the three men who sang and danced about the fire, but the surface of Father Dnieper was all the darker.
My ears strained to catch the sounds of the night. Once more the owl wailed, and my Tatars snored, and the big burlak chanted with a full throat:
“Over little Father Dnieper the cocks will crow;
“Row down little Father Dnieper in the dawn.”
Ekh ma! A moment ago the two rivermen had been standing at the steering sweeps; now they were gone. Every one else was asleep on our raft. Were they fools to sleep so? Nay, when one has climbed out of the saddle the first time in ten days for more than an hour or so, drowsiness is like a plague.
I started to crawl toward the burlak who lay still on the logs and just then—thuckk—came a long knife, burying its point deep into the timbers of the lean-to where my head had been. I dropped prone and grunted as the riverman had done. And out of the water a lance length from my eyes a head reared up.
A man swam silently to the raft, looked around and thrust an arm over the logs to pull himself up. For the third time the owl hooted softly, yet it was this man who uttered the call. The next moment one of my pistols roared in his beard and he fell back like a stricken water fowl.
Now the night teemed with sound, although the song of the big burlak had ceased. Oars rattled in rowlocks and a long skiff entered the circle of firelight. My two Tatars and the last of the rivermen scrambled to their feet. The oars, were weighed in the skiff and musket barrels gleamed. I had drawn my saber, and when another swimmer came to the edge of the raft, I cut down at his head and needed not to look at him again, knowing well by the feel of the impact when a man’s skull has been opened up.
Red fire flashed from the skiff, and a half-dozen muskets roared. One of the horses reared and screamed, and one of the Tatars leaped up and staggered to the edge of the raft, to throw himself into the water, having his death wound. The last burlak began to feel of his belly and presently groaned and fell on his knees.
Smoke eddied over the raft as John Paul and the Englishman ran out with drawn weapons. The servant must have skulked in the hut, and this did him no good. Because, led by the singer, the three rivermen on the raft that was tied to ours leaped over the gap and pressed on us with cutlasses that must have been hidden somewhere between the logs of their raft. And the skiff, bumping against our logs, disgorged a dozen foemen.
“Sarin na kitchka!”
The cry of the Dneiper pirates went up, and my last Tatar began to howl his death song, drawing a knife as he did so. One of the men from the skiff thrust a pistol close to his head and ended his life.
So we stood in the eddying smoke, three against fifteen.
THE surprize had been cleverly planned. Men who knew that we were upon the raft had put out from shore in the great skiff, and two or three had taken to the water, swimming with throwing knives in their girdles. Probably they were Greeks, who are skilful at casting dirks. They had accounted for our two chaps at the sweeps, and the noise made by the oars of the skiff had been drowned by the loud song of the burlak with the hawk’s nose.
Our foes had uttered the cry of the river pirates, yet I knew that no Dnieper pirates would think it worth while to tackle a timber raft. They sought us out and struck without thought of giving quarter. And they paid a heavy price for their boldness.
The big burlak from the other raft made straight toward John Paul with his great, curly head lowered and the muscles standing out on his bare right arm. But he found me in his path. Hisbanged against my saber, and I saw that he held a dirk in his left hand.
At the third pass I twisted his blade aside and chopped short at his skull. He dodged like a Tatar and came at me with the dirk, his teeth gleaming. T-phew—what a fellow! He dropped to the logs with his throat sliced half through. The American’s rapier had made a pass over my shoulder, when my guard was down, and well for me that John Paul was quick of hand.
I think they were Greeks, but the fellow who rushed at me with a pike from the skiff wore a regimental coat of some kind. Backing away, to take stand against the lean-to, I glimpsed Edwards standing alone on the raft, his rapier flashing in and out, one arm in the air behind his head. The Moskya with the pike swerved toward the Englishman, and so gave me a chance to cut him down.
“Bless you for that, Uncle Ivak! The deuce! How things are warming up!”
Edwards was smiling, when a musket barked from the skiff and his left hand gripped his chest. Then I heard the roar of John Paul’s pistol and saw him draw back from the smoke cloud. He tossed the pistol at two men who rushed at him, and plucked out his rapier, they giving back before its point.
He took a step toward Edwards, and we both saw the Englishman fall prone. Then John Paul glanced up and down the raft, stepping aside from a ruffian and slashing the man across the cheek as he did so.
“Stuppai, Ivak!” he cried.
How was I to know what he meant by that word? He slashed the tether of a horse and caught up the rein, swinging him self up to the beast’s bare back as the horse obeyed the rein and sprang into the water.
I could not follow him. Men rushed at me from all sides, and caught my arms, after I had cut one open. Then something whistled in the air and all before my eyes was red. Nay, a ch&p does not know when he has been hit over the back of the skull. As if from far over the water, I heard Edwards shout:
“With the admiral, Ivak! To Kherson—or I’ll win—wager!”
Then a faint popping sounded, that must have been men shooting at John Paul. But the red before my eyes had turned to black and I heard nothing more for a space.
A Greek to his dagger, a Turk to his gold and a Cossack to his horse.
A LITTLE is my life owing to my heavy sheepskin kalpack and a little to the desire of the murderers to loot before casting the bodies overboard, but much to the escape of John Paul. The raft had drifted close to the left bank of the Dnieper just before the fight, and the American had only a distance of a musket shot to swim his horse.
When the shooting failed to bring him down, the skiff was manned in haste, too late to overtake him. The few men left on the raft began to strip the coats, boots and small gear from the fallen; after this they thrust knives into the bodies of our three rivermen, and the Tatars, and I saw them slay the servant because at that moment I began to see and hear again.
Knowing that presently they might remember me, and seek among the horses, I made shift to crawl a little, then a little more, and I crawled up the incline of logs that made the roof of the lean-to. The bandits were examining the garments they had plundered, by the glow of the fire on the other raft, and finding them poor enough, so that there was much grumbling and they did not think of me at the time. They had even snatched the clothing off their dead comrades, and were staring enviously at the Englishman’s fine coat and buff boots.
Edwards seemed to be breathing, and his eyes moved. I heard them say that since one of the travelers had escaped it would be best to refrain from killing the Englishman. If the American should cause pursuit to be made, Edwards could be held as a hostage. In the end they waited for the return of the skiff and I waited for strength to come back into my limbs.
Meanwhile the raft drifted idly, nearing the shore. The moon came out and the half-light forced me to keep my head down, relying on my ears to tell me what was happening below. From the talk of the robbers several things became clear.
They had a leader, who had gone off in the skiff. And they had attacked the raft with the purpose of wiping us out. The fight we had made angered them, and I heard debate of how much more money they should ask of the leader when he came back; a strange thing, which made me suspect that he was unknown to them, and had hired their services.
“We could have done better at one of the Cossack slobodas,” one remarked.
“Nay, we’ll lighten the purse of the officer before we let him go. The Cossacks have patrols out, along the river, —— take me if they haven’t. They bite, now, those dogs.”
I wondered what officer they meant, and I would have given a dozen horses to hear the name of the man who was paying them for this night’s work. By their talk, they were fugitive Moskya serfs, deserters from the army, Cherkessians and one or two Greeks. Edwards’ fix was a bad one, but I could do nothing to help, and he had bade me follow the admiral, if possible.
“Where is that coat of that ox of a sotnik?” demanded one suddenly, and my ears pricked up, I assure you.
Another said that I must have crawled into the water, like the Tatar, and they began to argue again until some one found my saber and they cursed me for the evil I had worked among them.
“Search the raft for the dog,” a voice suggested.
I heard boots cluttering over the logs and my skin began to itch as if a thousand ants were crawling over it. Then the sound of oars came over the water, followed by a low pitched hail.
The skiff had come near again, and the men on the raft were ordered to head in to shore and land everything from the raft. After that they were to hack loose the fastenings and set the logs adrift, loose in the current.
As the raft was worked in closer to the shore and the skiff, talk between the men of the band made it clear that John Paul had not been caught. He had reached the highway and headed south, with several in pursuit of him, one of the four being the leader of the band.
BY THE time the raft grounded, in a shallow cove, the moon was low. Most of the men busied themselves in carrying Edwards ashore and he cursed them heartily when they jerked him, so I knew that he could not be very badly hurt. One or two of them had poked about a bit for me, but had not thought to look on the top of the hut.
The nearest searcher went to untie the remaining horse—one had been slain by a bullet—and I heard him say:
“His Excellency will be well content with this affair of ours if we bag the American. If our officer fails to run him down, bless us, we’ll be flayed alive.”
The threat sounded somewhat familiar to me, but just then I was sliding down the incline of the log roof. My boots struck squarely on the back of the man who was edging the horse past the lean-to and he shot into the water so swiftly that I failed to grasp his saber. The horse reared, but being uncertain of the footing did not run.
“What are you about, Pietr?” voices demanded from the shore.
“It was the dog of a sotnik,” I responded, growling, and waiting for the flood of pain caused by the shock to ebb out of my skull, while I gripped the rein of the horse.
“Have you his coat—had he any money? Hola, Pietr! What——”
The one called Pietr began to bellow from the water into which he had fallen and I climbed to the back of the horse, then reined it around the hut. It jumped to the shore quickly enough, and by the time the robbers, who were scattered all around, had gripped their weapons we were trotting away through the trees. They ran after for a space and several pistols barked. The balls whistled wide through the branches overhead and stirred up the pony to a smart gallop.
No one gave chase because there was no other horse on the raft.
In this fashion did I win free of the Dneiper outlaws, though Edwards remained a prisoner in their hands.
IN THE black murk that comes before dawn I drew up at the first post station on the highway, not far to the south of where the raft had landed. Here I changed horses and wet my gullet with some vodka, taking likewise a saber from the keeper, who swore that no other riders had stopped at the zamora during the last half of the night. He said he thought horses had passed by, not far away, but had fancied them wild horses, out on the steppe.
This surprized me, until, as the nag settled down to a steady gallop, I remembered that John Paul was in a strange country, knowing no word of the language. How was he to explain matters to a clown of a zamora keeper, even if he had not been closely pressed?
Likewise the outlaws had not cared to delay to try to steal fresh mounts from the station. True, John Paul might have headed out into the steppe and avoided pursuit in the dark. I should have done so. But he did not know friend from foe, and doubtless chose to take his chances in a straightaway race along the road, aware that he was within a day’s ride of the Russian lines.
Behind me a line of red light spread along the horizon and a wind began to breathe over the plain. Birds chirped and the sea of grass changed from gray to red-and-gold, then to brown. It glittered with the dew as if decked out in jewels. My head pained me, but such a dawn warmed my veins more than the vodka. —— take it all, there’s no country like the steppe!
My head began to buzz all of a sudden and weakness came upon me so that I, Ivak the jighit, the outrider, the Tatar-chaser, the sotnik, gripped the saddle horn to keep from falling. Such a shame!
By and by the buzzing stopped and I looked around, seeing the sun peering over the horizon, and a black browed Cossack lass staring at me from the back of a cow. She was taking cattle to pasture and by a line of great stones shaped like skulls along the highway I knew that one of the villages of my people lay half a verst away. My horse, a big black Turani that knew a thing or two, had slowed to a walk and its ears were pricked back as if asking why in the fiend’s name I was rocking the saddle like a cradle.
The maid was round-eyed as if I were a ghost, out of one of the old burial mounds that lie on the steppe under those great stones. God knows what people sleep in those mounds, but it is quite true that of nights they rise up and slip about—ghosts sure enough. To mend my dignity I called to her smartly and bade her be off to the village to round up a band of the galliards, the bravest fellows and the jighits, and send them after my tracks.
“Aye, Uncle,” she responded, “but your scalp-lock is running blood——”
“Little sparrow,” I grunted, “what are a few drops of blood to a chap who rode from Petersburg in ten days? Nothing at all! I’ll fetch you a bag of candy from Kherson if you stir your legs. Hold! Did an officer ride past in a blue coat on a roan with one white foreleg?”
“Aye, Uncle. Two gentlemen, they were, riding a musket shot apart. One was a foreigner, the other a Russian with a wig and a red face, no taller than I am.”
She sped away toward the village, her white legs flashing under her tunic and I spurred up the Turani, cursing my broken head. By the girl’s words I recognized the officer who had been riding before us all the way. Now he was behind John Paul, and we knew what sort of cock he was. The leader of the outlaws, the officer who had bribed the zamora keeper and hired the pirates. That’s what!
We sped over the level trail like a hawk and presently two riders showed up, above the grass ahead. They pulled in when they heard the Turani and faced about.
Drawing their blades they took stand, stirrup to stirrup, closing the narrow way, and their horses were nearly blown. By their bearing they were outlaws of the band, and their jaws dropped when they saw my face. Afterward I remembered that they must have thought me dead, and when the big black rushed on them in the eye of the rising sun they believed a bloody specter had come up out of Father Dnieper to settle their hash.
I spurred on the Turani instead of pulling him in, and stood up in the saddle just as we came upon the two. By feinting a slash at one I made him throw up his saber to guard his head. Then, leaning down as the three ponies came together, I cut at the other’s neck, getting home over his blade. His mount reared and shelled him out of the saddle like a pea out of a pod.
His mate had raked my shoulder blades with a slash that was too late to cut deep. Twisting the big black around, I crowded the outlaw as he was turning. He warded desperately with his sticker, leaning back to do so when he should have spurred his nag clear.
The shoulder of the Turani struck his pony and the man lost his stirrups, falling to earth like a clown. Such riders! I had not a moment to lose, and so kept the black dancing around the outlaw.
“Speak up, you dog!” I cried at him. “Where is your officer and the American?”
“Only a little span ahead, noble sir! Truly, it is all our officer’s doing! He came to us with papers from the government, promising many things if we would rub out—Ai-a, spare a poor chap, noble lord!”
I hastened on, wasting no more time on the outlaw. And in no time at all I heard the music of steel kissing steel. Eh, a great fear came upon me that John Paul was being sliced by the leader of the dog company.
But when I rode up to them, only two men were to be seen where the trail dipped through a hollow. Two ponies were standing riderless, with heaving flanks and spraddled legs, foundered. And in a spot where the grass was short John Paul made play with his rapier, and his antagonist was Strelsky the ensign.
Swift hope flashed into Strelsky’s red face as I trotted up, until he saw out of the corner of his eye that Ivak had come instead of his two murderers. John Paul motioned me away with his free hand and I drew rein to watch.
Strelsky was the prettier sword of the two by odds. But the American had an arm like a wrestler and an eye like a wolf. He did not seem tired in the least. His brow was placid though his black eyes darted fire. Until I looked him over I had felt that it was folly to let him risk a stab when the Turani could have ridden Strelsky down.
By then the Russian knew that his men would not come up, and his face showed strain; moreover he kept trying to watch me, trusting in his greater skill to keep John Paul’s blade in play. So it happened that the point of the American’s rapier picked his cheek and drew blood. It angered the ensign and he began to attack, making many feints that pulled John Paul’s guard aside, but failing to get home. A second time his cheek was raked, a piece of flesh falling out.
Then Strelsky lunged fiercely at the throat and John Paul parried just in time, making a swiftthat caught the Russian’s blade under his. The American stiffened his wrist and Strelsky tried desperately to disengage, but suffered a deep cut over the eyes. Blood ran down into his eyes and he stood helpless.
John Paul stepped back and lowered his point, while the Russian cursed and gripped his sword, expecting to be spitted at once. His face was scarred for life, if he lived. This pleased me because Strelsky was not a fellow to love. He wore the uniform of the Empress, but he had given me an order that held treachery in it.
The American was a foreigner, yet, after the fight on the raft, my heart warmed to him. He could stand his ground and take blows, and he kept his hand up even though the Russians for some reason had schemed to take his life on the journey, though this he did not know as yet.
Some words he spoke to Strelsky, and the ensign answered slowly, clearing the blood out of his eyes as he did so. I caught the name Edwards and the words “the prince.” Whatever passed between them, it enlightened John Paul, because he sheathed his rapier and looked at Strelsky as if a snake had come up out of the ground. I think the ensign told much truth, being fearful of his life. Then Paul Jones pointed out over the steppe and said in French—
And Strelsky turned away, after dropping his sword. At the edge of the hollow he began to run and though I called a barbed word after him he did not halt again. It angered me to see him go free even in such a state. But from this time forward John Paul took advice from no man. Indeed, how was I to consult with him?
Why did I stand aside, to remain with him when Strelsky went off? An order had been given me and the order was to conduct John Paul safe into Kherson.
He looked me over and smiled approval, then said—
By signs I tried to make clear that the lieutenant was slightly wounded and in the hands of the outlaws. He seemed to understand, and thought for a while until there was a great pounding of hoofs and a dozen Cossack lads came up, reining in on top of us and staring at the admiral who looked them over with interest.
Eh, I was glad to see them. The sight of several kites hovering over the tall grass where Strelsky had disappeared did not displease me, either. He was something like a vulture himself.
On land a coward can show you his heels, but on a ship even Satan himself can not run away.
MY BROTHERS, have you ever called to you a borzoi, a wolfhound, keeping one hand behind your back the while? If the dog does not know you, he will not come. Not until he sees that the hand behind your back does not hold a stick.
Men are greater fools than dogs. They will go forward even when they see the stick that is going to beat their brains out. So it was with John Paul and so it was with me.
For days after the duel I lay on my back in a hut of my village, while my head mended, the American having gone on to Kherson with my mates. Soon they came straggling back, very angry, some drunk and others bloody. Most of them did not return at all, having been impressed by the Russians, John Paul knowing nothing of it.
They talked with me, and other fellows came who had served in the fleet, bringing with them a Tatarfrom over the border who brewed herbs that made a new man of me. The Russian surgeons are good for nothing but to cut off limbs, and of what use to a man is a leg that has been cut off?
The men who returned from Kherson said that John Paul had been given a banquet by the field marshal in command of the army, but did not appear content. He had asked after old Ivak, which gratified me. My Cossacks said in the taverns of Kherson it was rumored that the admiral would never hoist his flag on the big ship-of-war that was called the flagship. This vessel was commanded by a Greek, Alexiano, who held the rank of brigadier.
Alexiano, they said, was a loud talker and a quiet doer. He held great feasts and many served him, lording it up and down the mouth of the Dnieper and carrying off whatever merchandise struck their fancy. So the Cossacks had formed patrols, to check the raids of the seamen under Alexiano, and the Greek hung some of our boys for taking up arms against the Empress as he said.
The Turks, seeing the plundering and the lack of order in the fleet, were growing both covetous and bold. They had moved up the gulf to within two cannon shot of our fleet, which was unfit for battle. And rumors in the taverns said that John Paul meant to go out to the Vladimir, the flagship, and take command the next day, Alexiano notwithstanding.
The Greek would not kiss him on both cheeks you may be sure, because the coming of the American would mean the end of the secret pillaging and piracy of the men under Alexiano, in which pillaging he shared. My Cossacks said that John Paul had insisted on the punishment of the pirates who had attacked us, but no guard ship had gone up the Dnieper and no news of Edwards had come down.
“My children,” I boasted, “when this American hoists his flag on the Vladimir he will make Alexiano pull at a rope, and the whole fleet will be whipped into shape. He is well fitted to command.”
“Impossible, Uncle Ivak!” they said, several at once.
“Because the man at the head of the fleet has sworn that he will not yield place to the American.”
“Do you mean Alexiano, the pirate?”
“Not at all, Uncle. We mean the present commander, who is a Prussian prince and a very high officer.”
I pricked up my ears as they explained how the Empress had appointed one of her favorites, the Prince of Nassau-Siegen to command, not two years ago. Alexiano served only as chief of the Vladimir, but had charge of the fleet during the winter, while Nassau-Siegen was in Petersburg.
“Tell me,” I demanded, “has this princeling a pock-marked face and full lips and eyes like a fish?”
“It is he! You have seen him, Uncle Ivak.”
“Then saddle the best horse in the village. ”
I rose up and pulled on my boots and coat, taking tobacco and a pipe from the nearest man and a sword from him who had the likeliest weapon. They protested, saying that they had never done me any ill.
“Would you have your kunak, your comrade, the first jighit of the village ride to the fleet dressed like a Jew?”
Then they protested all the more, saying that Alexiano had heard of my deeds when I rubbed out half a dozen of the pirates, who were his men, on the Dnieper. He would string me up, they said, and they would not see their things again.
“Is this Prince Nassau-Siegen friendly with Alexiano?” I asked.
“As God lives, they are like two brothers! They share gold together, and they have not been parted since the Prussian rejoined the fleet, two days ago.”
“Is Nassau-Siegen a good leader, liked by all the men?”
“Nay, Ivak. You have been away too long, wooing the Russian maids! Nassau-Siegen is a courtier, and, save for Alexiano’s bands, the men of the fleet would not follow him if he had gold pieces sewn on his breeches. It is said that he pays gold to the Turks, to let the fleet sit in peace where it is. Meanwhile he crows like a cock, claiming honor for holding off the Turks.”
By the time I had mounted and left the village behind, the last of the smoke that had hidden the fire I smelled in Petersburg had cleared away. I saw all things as they were. I saw a fleet that was only timber and cloth, unfit for battle; I saw two renegades at the head of it, enriching them selves by plunder and paying a part of the plunder to the accursed Moslems, while the Empress thought they were playing the part of valiant men in the face of the foe.
And I thought that such men would never let the American take over the command from them.
I meant to reach him and warn him, and perhaps take him back to the Cossack villages. Who knows?
JUST a little I went out of my way to pass through the streets of Kherson, so winning my wager from Edwards, poor fellow. The horse was a good one and we left the shipyards behind us swiftly enough coming at last to the salt streaked shores of the gulf and the forest of masts that stood out on the gray water.
Among the soldiers and caravaneers of the alleys I asked for news of the American admiral, learning then that I was almost too late.
John Paul was on one of the jetties with another cavalier, making ready to put off in a barge to the Vladimir. I hurried along the waterfront, catching sight of the barge presently, and, giving my horse to the care of a Cossack who was fishing on the jetty, went out to greet my friend.
When he saw me his face lighted up and he said something to the other officer who stared at me curiously. There we stood, with so much that should be said between us, and only one word that we both under stood! I bowed several times, trying to think of some way to warn him. He ordered a valise to be carried into the barge and took farewell of the other officer, who was most polite.
My tongue burned in my throat, and I nearly tore my hair to think up some scheme. He stood with one foot on the log at the edge of the jetty and glanced at me inquiringly. How could I take an admiral by the arm and lead him to a tavern to talk? How could I make signs before the throng that his life was in danger?
John Paul spoke to the cavalier who turned to me indifferently.
“Cossack,” he said in bad Russian, “his Excellency is pleased to praise you and ask if you have a request to make. He says that he will grant it.”
“I would go with him on the ship.” I bowed to the girdle. “If it pleases your Honor.”
THE barge went out to a high ship with two rows of cannon and we climbed up the ladder to the deck, I carrying John Paul’s valise, and swaggering a bit, for the deck was cluttered with groups of men who stared at us and whispered. An under officer who wore a rapier stood by the ladder with a squad of sailors, also armed, and saluted. After that he went away quickly with his men and left the American alone. John Paul glanced up at a mast where Alexiano’s flag hung idly, there being no wind. Then he gave an order to the bargemen and they made fast to the foot of the ladder a light saick, a skiff having one pair of oars, that we had towed behind us from the jetty. After this they rowed away in the barge and John Paul walked slowly to the after deck.
It needed no sailor to tell me that his reception was lacking in respect; Alexiano who stood on the after deck, should have greeted him and his flag should have been hoisted instead of the Greek’s. As John Paul climbed the steps at the rump of the ship, Alexiano turned his back and said something amusing to a man who leaned on a small cannon. This man, in gray and gold was the prince, Nassau, and he had promised to flay me alive if John Paul reached Kherson.
Nassau picked up in his fingers a little round piece of glass and looked at me, then at the American, and laughed softly at the jest Alexiano had made. John Paul halted a few paces from the pair, his shoulders squared.
Calling to him the under officer with the rapier, he drew a letter from his coat and passed it to the Russian, who bowed and gave it to Nassau. The prince bowed and handed it back without reading it. Alexiano, a bull of a man with a fine curly beard, watched Nassau as a dog watches its master. And every man of the crew watched the three on the after deck. Still John Paul made pretense that nothing out of the usual was happening. He talked with Nassau in French and the prince, who had tried to buy the American’s death, was most polite. That is the way of the Muscovites and the Prussian nobles.
But Nassau found time to speak aside with the under officer who presently whispered to a Greek with a handkerchief bound over his hair. This chap, who had some rank on the ship, called to him two others who advanced on me with scowls.
“Hai, dog of a Cossack,” one grunted, "your saick waits for you. Get off the deck or we will pitch you overside!”
I grinned at him, seeing that he meant to provoke a fight, and his mate jostled me. When I reached for my sword the two drew knives and opened their mouths to shout. Instead, the under officer on the after-deck shouted—
“Form in ranks for inspection!”
John Paul had been watching us and he it was who gave the order in the first place. Nassau shrugged indifferently, though Alexiano grew red with rage and kept muttering under his breath. He grew angrier when it became clear that the men did not know how to form ranks. Like cows, they trampled here and there, looking all around, until the officers who came on deck began to curse.
Finally they were drawn up in strange fashion: The Greeks crowded in with the Greeks, and the Syrians and —— knows what else, besides scores of Moskya fishermen. On the other side of the ship under a Russian officer about a hundred of the true faith drew up, among them quite a few Cossacks, and I took stand behind them, up against the rampart of the ship. John Paul, accompanied by the under officer, who translated his orders and answered his questions, went down the front of each rank, looking every man in the face. Nor did he show any disapproval.
From the men he turned to the deck, where cannon balls were in heaps and ropes in a fine tangle. Everything he pulled toward him looking at it closely, the sails and the cannon especially. The mob on the deck saw that he knew what he was about, and fell to watching him instead of the officers on the rump of the ship, who had their heads together around Alexiano.
It was nearly dark when be ended the formation. Without taking any more notice of Nassau or Alexiano he nodded to me, and the interpreter bade me haul the skiff on deck, and select some Cossack carpenters for work. A half-dozen chaps stepped forward at once and hoisted the saick over the rampart of the Vladimir.
Then Paul Jones had some rags brought and these we wrapped around the middle of the oars as he bade us. A board was cut' for a rudder, and a broken pike staff fitted to it for a tiller, the rudder being rigged to the back end of the saick.
When this was done he ordered us to go and get supper, which was being brought up, the men crowding around the pots without order. One of the Cossacks nudged me while I was dipping out the gruel.
“Eh, Ivak, better slip over the side before dark, if you don’t want Greek steel between your ribs.”
I laughed at him and began to eat.
“It’s true,” he went on under his breath. “They have marked you down, Uncle.”
“And the admiral?” I asked. “What of him?”
“They say he is a foreigner who can not speak our tongue, and a pirate who would sell us as slaves to the Turks.”
“They say lies, little brother. Nassau would glean gold out of you and leave you for the Moslems to slit up.”
He looked around fearfully and began to scratch his head, saying that such words would earn me a lashing. Was not Nassau a great officer who kept the Turks away because they feared him? Rumors had been heard that the officers of the Vladimir were in league with Alexiano to refuse to serve under the American. Nassau had said that he was a coward who would not make war, save on merchantmen, and Alexiano said that Nassau had a commission to share the command of the fleet with John Paul.
Now John Paul had been promised sole command, I knew, and it is an evil thing when an army has two leaders. Two oxen hauling a cart go forward swifter than one, but two leaders can not make plans like one, and the end is disaster.
“Of the two, Nassau is the coward,” I made response, judging that a man who would pay to have another slain does not love danger himself, however boldly he may bear himself.
“Then let the American prove himself,” the Cossack grunted. “Each is in command at present and how do we know which to obey?”
“Before midnight,, little brother,” I promised, “one or the other will take the leadership! Watch!”
It was safe to prophesy, knowing how little the two loved each other. But I feared for John Paul, who did not know what Nassau had conspired against him, and who could not summon up Alexiano and the Greeks to his aid. Every word he spoke must be translated, and how was he to be sure that his words were not twisted? As long as I was alive Nassau would try by every means to do away with John Paul for fear that the plot against the American would be known.
Why did I not speak out? Nay, who would listen? And it is not by threats and tale bearing that a leader’s nature is made clear to all men. The crew of the Vladimir were restless because the Turkish fleet had drawn up to within striking distance, and no orders to make ready for battle had been issued. They grumbled at John Paul because he had made them stand long in ranks, but they became curious when the American, instead of going to the officers’ table, ate dinner with the men on deck. Then he ordered a double allowance of spirits issued, when the ship’s lanthorns were lighted.
While he sat among us a Cossack began one of our songs, and the American bade us all sing. It was sad, that song of our steppe, and he sat silent, chin on hand, seemingly thinking of nothing at all. Once I thought I saw his eyes glitter with tears, which was no shame in a man far from his own country.
But the men of the Vladimir all saw that John Paul cared nothing for what Alexiano and Nassau might be doing; and we soon perceived that the high officers had come on deck to see what John Paul was doing. Night had fallen and a thin mist hung over the water of the narrow gulf. Out at the mouth of the gulf gleamed the small lights of the Moslem fleet, off one of their forts, where they hemmed us in, since the mouth of the gulf, which was the only way to the sea, was narrow as a cannon shot.
Eh, it was a sad thing that happened on the Vladimir: Scores of men ranged against one, who did not understand them. Two plotters against a hero of other wars who did not know how to plot. And yet, no other man was like John Paul. The proof of it was that all eyes on the ship watched him, even when Nassau took to striding up and down the deck near us.
Meanwhile the under officer—he of the rapier—came and whispered in my ear.
“When you are challenged, pretend to be bringing supplies to the enemy. Ask for the countersign. The admiral wishes to learn it. And Christ receive your spirit!” he added under his breath.
“At command,” I replied promptly, not wishing him to see that the American’s instructions were a perfect riddle to me.
John Paul drew out his watch, looked at it, then at the sky, and the lights of the Turkish frigates. Then he spoke to Nassau, who turned as if a bee had stung him. Long afterward I learned that John Paul had said that they would set out on a reconnoiter of the enemy’s fleet!
Nassau, too surprized to be cautious, refused point blank when he learned that John Paul planned to go in among the enemy, but the American responded that neither Nassau nor Alexiano had any knowledge of the enemy’s vessels at close hand, and this was necessary if a battle was to be fought.
“What a notion!” exclaimed the prince in Russian. “We can send an officer.”
“I am going,” said John Paul quietly to the interpreter, “and if Nassau is not afraid he will come, too.”
By the light of the yellow lanthorn, Nassau’s pocked face grew sallow, and he bit his lips. "He was trapped, and there was no way out because the American shared the risk he ran. Then his face changed and he said he would go.
In that moment I knew Nassau was a coward, and all the more dangerous because of that. Some plan had come into his head, when he agreed to go. John Paul turned to me.
“Stuppai, Ivak,” he said. “Forward!”
How did he know that I would understand his meaning? Nay, he could not have known. But God gave me eyes of the mind to see the truth, and I lowered the saick with the help of my comrades, climbing down the ladder and taking the oars as soon as it was in the water.
Nassau swore—I could hear him—when he realized what sort of craft was waiting for him. But John Paul stood at the ladder top, and smiled, mockingly. An hour ago the American had been a man of honey; now he was a man of stone. The prince came down the ladder, and plumped down into the stern of the little skiff. John Paul made him climb over me to the prow where the Prussian sat, wedged like a fish between the sides of the boat. Then the admiral took the tiller and I the oars, so that the lights of the Vladimir began to grow smaller. We steered toward the fleet of the Turks which could not be seen because the light mist hung over the surface of the water—enough to obscure the stars.
The oars made no sound except a little drip, being wrapped with rags where they rubbed on the gunwale. I rowed on, watching the outline of John Paul’s head and the glitter of his eyes, until he held up one hand and I raised the oars. He stretched his head to one side and shut his eyes, listening like a horse in the steppe when a wild beast is rustling the grass near at hand.
Presently I, too, heard the rasping of oars, coming up behind us from where the Vladimir lay. The oars were being moved swiftly and, by the catch in his breath, I knew that Nassau had become aware of this other boat that was following us. Perhaps he had been listening for it, so quiet he was.
Motioning to me to row on, John Paul turned the tiller, sending the skiff to one side, out toward the main channel. The men in the boat behind could not hear us and we would have slipped away if Nassau had not called out clearly—
“To the left!”
As he spoke the words, John Paul swung the tiller sharp to the other side. The little skiff dodged like a flying-fish, and made a circle until we were speeding in the other direction. Several long strokes I took, then lifted the oars and we glided silently. Aye, we could hear the oars of the other boat pulling like mad for the place we had left.
John Paul leaned forward and whispered across my shoulder in French. I do not 'know what he said, but Nassau did not cry out again. We sat still until the boat from the Vladimir could be heard no longer. T-phew! We were trapped! Because now we heard other oars, coming from the Turkish side—some patrol boat making its rounds. If we went on we would run into the accursed Moslems; if we turned back, there was the Vladimir’s barge in waiting like a tiger.
Nassau must have ordered it to follow us. Perhaps he planned to go from the skiff into the barge and fire a volley at us, claiming afterward that a mistake had been made in the dark; perhaps he would start up a quarrel and throw us out for the fish or the Turks to find. I do not know.
But John Paul sat still, and I crossed myself, breathing a prayer to the Father and the Son. It happened that the boat from the Moslem fleet passed us by, the wash from it rocking our skiff, and went elsewhere, though for a long time I listened to the creak of its twelve pairs of oars and the American did likewise, for he often turned his head and bent down toward the water where the sound was clearest.
We rowed again and now Nassau began to protest in a low voice, without receiving an answer. By and by he stopped because the lights of the enemy’s craft showed ahead of us. Still we went on, John Paul turning the tiller this way and that, making the skiff wind in and out among the vessels. They were galleys and gun-boats for the most part and there were many of them.
Their masts stood up like a forest and by the time we had reached the last one in shore, the night had grown a little brighter. The mist had cleared and the stars shone down on us. I heard Tatars talking together in the waist of the last galley, and some one playing upon a fiddle. They had good eyes those Tatars because presently they hailed us, asking for vodka. Nassau repeated the words to John Paul, who went closer, until the sheer of the stern was nearly over us.
He tossed up a flask that he carried and some one caught it.
“Allah reward the giver! Are you going to the captain-pasha with an order?”
I could hear Nassau breathing heavily, but John Paul made not a sound. He waited patiently and God put into my head the words of his command spoken on the Vladimir:
“Ask for the countersign—the admiral wishes to learn it.”
“Nay,” I made response boldly in their tongue, “we are taking salt to the ship of the captain-pasha.”
“But do you know the countersign?”
So far I was following the right path; if I had said we were carrying dispatches they would have expected us to know the password. I began to grunt like a burlak.
“How could we know it? We came from the island.”
If I had asked for it they would have felt suspicion. It had not come into their heads that any but friends of the Turks would be here; yet a small stone may make a man stumble.
“The Turks might send bullets through you,” they said.
“The ——! Then tell us the countersign, so we will not have the bullets.”
They talked among themselves, and the vodka gurgled. My throat was beginning to dry up when one flung out careless—
“Stamboul!” I repeated, to make certain, and Paul Jones said one word, the one he always spoke—
I thought he meant to go back, but he steered forward and we went on, passing close under the ramparts of the great Turkish fort, so that we could see the dark patches which were embrasures for cannon. For the last time doubt of John Paul as sailed me, and I thought:
“May the dogs eat me! Does he mean to turn over Nassau to the Turks? Is this American playing a double game, after all?”
Nassau’s teeth were clicking together, but he dared not say a word for fear of being overheard by the sentries who were visible, when they moved, against the stars.
A great mass towered up, over us. This was the Turkish flagship, the one of seventy guns, and as we rounded its prow we saw many lights in the rump of it, and small craft clustered around the ladder. Officers were passing about on the deck, and all was stir and bustle.
“What boat is that? Give the countersign!” A voice hailed us at once.
“Stamboul!" responded John Paul without hesitation.
“What are you about?”
“We are Tatars from the galley,” I said, not daring to take time to think. “We came to look at the flagship and the officers.”
“May dogs litter on your graves! Don’t you skulkers know that all men who stray from their ships are to be shot? The dawn of the day after the morrow the whole fleet advances against the unbelievers.”
The sentries on the ship cursed us again, and perhaps they would have loosed muskets at us but refrained for fear of bringing out the officers who were shut up in the after cabins, debating together. We rowed away then and John Paul steered the skiff for quite a while to one side until the oars caught in seaweed and the gleam of phosphorescent salt was to be seen, flickering along the shore. That is what the Russians call it, but we Cossacks know that it is the spirits of the drowned running along the edge of the waves seeking a resting place.
No fort or house was near, and after John Paul has listened a little he made me change places with him. Then he began to speak to Nassau in a low voice.
The prince sprang to his feet and answered vehemently, laughing without any merriment at all. Then he peered at the American, who begun to take off his coat.
“Sotnik!” Nassau cried, at me. “This foreigner is mad—no doubt of it. After leading me through all the Turkish fleet he threatens me with a duel in a boat. Help me disarm him—seize him from behind.”
I caught my breath and stared at the two officers.
“Why should his Excellency, the admiral, wish to fight with your Honor?” I asked. “Nay, it is some jest.”
This I said to dig out the truth behind Nassau’s words, for the man was a skilled liar. Yet the natures of men appear unmasked in a moment of danger, and the prince was no longer the same officer who sat in Strelsky’s room not long ago. His nerves were quivering after the ride through the fleet of the enemy.
“The admiral swears that I have plotted against his honor; he accuses me of hiring men to waylay him. As God is holy, sotnik——”
Nassau stopped, all of a sudden remembering who I was, and what he had wanted me to do. Strelsky must have confessed the whole affair to John Paul, to shield himself a little; but Nassau believed of course that I had told John Paul of the plot.
“This mad American,” he went on while John Paul rolled up his right sleeve, “accuses me of holding Lieutenant Edwards prisoner. What do I know about that? He demands that the Englishman be given back to him. Aid me, Cossack, and a purse of a thousand rubles is yours—nay, ask what you will!”
When he heard me laugh he knew that I would not aid him. Once he glanced at the shore, as if thinking of flight; but the Turks were all around. The soft gleam of the shining salt crust looked like the teeth of a great mouth, open to swallow a man. Ekh, the skin crawled up and down my back!
A LITTLE breeze made the boat rock in the scum of seaweed, as if the hands of the dead were reaching up at us. John Paul kept his balance easily, his feet wide apart, the rapier poised in his hand. As I live, not a lance length separated the two, although Nassau had drawn back far into the prow. All at once the prince cursed fiercely and whipped out his blade, thrusting up from the hip like a flash.
He gave no word and no salute, and such was a coward’s stroke. Yet John Paul had good eyes and parried. The glow of the stars and the shimmering of the salt made the rapiers visible as they clashed and twisted and ground together, while Nassau panted.
Ekh! That was sword play! Steel in the dark; blade feeling blade; eye peering into eye; arm straining against arm! The blood boiled in my veins and I was young again. For Nassau was no mean swordsman; nay, a fine hand with the weapon had he, quick and wary and merciless. Neither could draw back. Twice the hilts clashed together, as if the rapiers had been sabers.
Once John Paul staggered and the skiff swayed. Nassau laughed grimly in triumph, until John Paul caught himself and warded a thrust at the throat, forcing the prince’s blade up—up, as if it had been an eagle’s feather. Eye glared into eye, while the blades were locked, and, suddenly, the American took a step forward.
A great cry came out of Nassau’s strained throat and he tumbled out of the skiff into the floating seaweed. I stood up in readiness to leap after him or not—judging him badly wounded—as John Paul should command. He gave no command, but after a moment reached down and caught at something beneath the tangle of seaweed. It was the arm of the prince that he hauled into the skiff and after it the body.
He let Nassau lie in the bottom of the boat and presently the injured man began to choke, writhing as if a hundred fiends were in him. He belched out salt water and soon—though it was hard to believe—I heard him whimpering and snuffling like a girl.
I have said that John Paul could be a man of stone. He made no move to staunch Nassau’s wound, but sat down in the stern and took the tiller, motioning for me to row back. He steered through the ships of the Turks and found the lights of the Vladimir again. Still he paid no heed to Nassau who lay between my legs, often bumped, of necessity, by the oar ends, and shivering, as I could feel.
Flares were lighted as we pulled up to the ladder. John Paul having donned his coat again, walked up to the deck and was greeted by many officers who stared at him curiously. But they stared more at Nassau who came up on my arm. His gray-and-gold coat was green with slime; his sword and hat were missing and his wig was somewhere back on the beach for the Turks to wonder at.
He was able to stand, and I saw no blood flowing at any place. Nay, it was long before I understood the truth. Nassau was not hurt. Not in the flesh, not by steel. But his spirit had suffered; something within him had given way that night. He walked to his cabin, speaking to no man.
So it happened that John Paul gave order to hoist his admiral’s flag, and though Alexiano grumbled, it was done as he commanded. Then he stood before the officers and spoke, and afterward I asked one of the Russians what he had said. He had told them that the Turkish fleet would advance within thirty hours, and that he would hold a council of the ships’ officers in the fleet.
Still Nassau issued no word and after a while it was clear even to Alexiano that John Paul was in command. He was given a large cabin, and, their nature being such, the Russians thronged into it with many compliments and questions on their tongues. Nay, John Paul sent out all except old Ivak. When we were alone and the door shut he sat down in a chair, his cheeks pallid and his eyes burning. With one arm he tried to draw off his coat, until I sprang to his aid and saw for the first time that he was wounded in the upper chest near the arm-pit. The blood had run down under the coat where it was hidden and had not yet soaked through his breeches.
Together we bound it up, after washing out the hole where Nassau’s weapon had entered. The bleeding was all outward and I saw that the American meant to conceal it, because when the bandage was in place he grinned at me and closed one eye—so!
AND that, my brothers, is how old Ivak brought an admiral to the Russian fleet. Aye, he was a man, that Pavel, as I like to name him. Deuce take it, he was my kunak, my comrade, a galliard.
What of the battle? Nay, that tale is told by others; how John Paul scattered the Turks and burned their ships and how ill the Russians rewarded him. Am I one to read what men have written in books? I brought a leader to men who lacked a leader and what honor had I thereby?
One gift was given me. Behold, my brothers, this Damascus dagger, with the gold inlay in the hilt and the writing in jewels. I have been told what that writing says:
Pavel to his friend, the Cossack Ivak.
Who would not be content with such a gift?
“Forward," copyright, 1924, by Harold Lamb.
Copyright, 1924, by The Ridgway Company in the United States and Great Britain. All rights reserved.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in 1924, before the cutoff of January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1962, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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