Taras Bulba/Chapter II

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II

 

All three horsemen rode on in silence. Old Taras was thinking of the distant past; before him passed his youth, his years—his vanished years, over which the kazák always weeps, wishing that his life might be all youth. He wondered whom of his former comrades he should meet in the Syech. He reckoned up how many were already dead, how many were still alive. Tears formed slowly in his eyes, and his grey head drooped dejectedly.

His sons were occupied with other thoughts. But we must speak more at length of his sons. They had been sent at the age of twelve years to the academy at Kiev, because all honourable officials of that epoch considered it indispensable to give their children an education, even if it were utterly forgotten afterwards. Like all who entered the free academy, they were then wild, having been reared in unrestricted freedom; and there, for the first time, they were generally smoothed down a bit, and acquired a certain something common to them all, which caused them to bear a sort of universal resemblance to one another.

The elder, Ostap, began his career by running away in the course of the first year. He was brought back, terribly flogged, and set down again to his books. Four times did he bury his primer in the earth; and four times, after bestowing upon him an inhuman thrashing, did they buy him a new one. But he would have repeated his performance for the fifth time, doubtless, had not his father given him a solemn assurance that he would keep him at service in the monastery for twenty years, and had he not sworn to start with, that he should never behold Zaporozhe so long as he lived, unless he learned all the sciences in the academy. The odd point about it was, that he who said this was that same Taras Bulba who condemned all learning, and counselled his boys, as we have seen, not to trouble themselves about it at all. From that moment, Ostap began to sit over his tiresome books with extraordinary assiduity, and before long he stood on a level with the best. The style of education in that age was widely at variance with the manner of life: these scholastic, grammatical and theological subtleties never were used and never were met with in real life. Those who studied them—even the most scholastic of the lot—could never put their knowledge to any practical use whatsoever. The most learned men of those days were even more ignorant than the rest, because they were entirely removed from all experience. Moreover, the republican constitution of the academy, the appalling multitude of young, stalwart, healthy fellows,—all these factors combined, were bound to arouse in them an activity quite outside the limits of their studies. Sometimes the poor fare, sometimes the frequent punishments of fasting, sometimes the numerous requirements which arise in fresh, strong, healthy young men, combined to arouse in them that spirit of enterprise which afterwards received further development in Zaporozhe. The hungry bursary[1] ran about the streets of Kiev, and forced every one to be on his guard. The huckstresses who sat in the bazaar always covered their patties, their greasy cracknels, and their squash-seeds[2] with their hands, like eagles protecting their young, if they but caught a glimpse of a passing student. The monitor who was bound by his official duty to control his comrades who were intrusted to his care, had such frightfully wide pockets to his full trousers, that he could stow away the entire contents of a slothful huckstress's stall. These students constituted an entirely separate world by themselves: they were not admitted to the highest circles, composed of Polish and Russian nobles. Even the Voevod, Adam Kisel, in spite of the patronage he bestowed upon the academy, did not introduce them into society, and gave orders that they were to be ruled as strictly as possible. This command was entirely superfluous, for neither the Rector nor the monk-professors spared the rod or the whip; and the lictors sometimes, by their orders, whipped their monitors so severely that the latter rubbed their trousers for weeks afterwards. This was a mere nothing to many of them, and seemed only a little stronger than good vodka with pepper; others, at last, grew thoroughly tired of such constant thrashings, and ran away to Zaporozhe, if they could find the road, and if they were not caught on the way. Ostap Bulba, although he began to study logic and even theology with much zeal, did not escape the merciless rod. Naturally, all this was bound in some degree to embitter his character, and impart to it that firmness which distinguishes the kazáks. Ostap was always regarded as one of the best students.

He rarely led the others into audacious enterprises, such as robbing other people's gardens or orchards; but, on the other hand, he was always among the first to join the standard of an adventurous student, and never, under any circumstances whatsoever, did he betray his comrades; neither whips nor rods could make him do it. He bore himself sternly towards all temptations except those of war and wild carouses: at any rate, he almost never thought of anything else. He was frank with his equals. He was kind-hearted in the only way that kindness of heart could exist in such a character and at such an epoch. He was sincerely touched by his poor mother's tears; and this one thing only troubled him and caused him to hang his head thoughtfully.

His younger brother, Andríi, had rather livelier and more developed feelings. He studied more willingly, and without that effort with which strong, heavy characters generally apply themselves. He was more inventive than his brother, and frequently appeared as the leader of decidedly dangerous expeditions, and sometimes, thanks to the ingenious turn of his mind, he contrived to escape all punishment, while his brother Ostap, abandoning all concern, stripped off his coat, and lay down upon the floor without a thought of begging for mercy. He, also, was seething with the thirst for action; but, at the same time, his soul was accessible to other sentiments. The demand for love flamed ardently within him; when he had attained his eighteenth year woman began to present herself more frequently in his burning dreams: while listening to philosophical discussions he beheld her each moment, rosy, black-eyed, tender; before him flitted constantly her gleaming, elastic bosom, her soft, beautiful bare arms; the very gown which clung about her virginal yet vigorous limbs exhaled, in his visions, a certain inexpressible sensuousness. He carefully concealed from his comrades this impulse of his passionate young soul, because, in that age, it was considered shameful and dishonourable for a kazák to think of love and a wife before he had tasted battle. On the whole, during the concluding years of his course, he served more rarely as the leader of a gang; but he roamed about more frequently alone in the remote corners of Kiev, buried in cherry-orchards, among low-roofed little houses, which peeped forth alluringly along the street. Sometimes he betook himself to the street of the aristocrats, in the old Kiev of to-day, where dwelt little Russian and Polish nobles, and where the houses were built in somewhat fanciful style. Once as he was thus lounging along, a huge, old-fashioned carriage, belonging to some Polish nobleman, almost drove over him; and the coachman, with very terrible moustaches, who sat on the box, gave him a decidedly sharp cut with his whip. The young student boiled with rage; with reckless daring, he seized a hind-wheel with his powerful hand, and brought the carriage to a halt. But the coachman, fearing a reckoning, lashed his horses; they leaped forward, and Andríi although, fortunately, he succeeded in freeing his hand, was flung full-length on the ground, with his face flat in the mud. The most resonant and melodious of laughs rang out from overhead. He raised his eyes and saw, standing at a window, a beauty such as he had never beheld before in all his life, black-eyed and white as the snow illumined by the dawning flush of the sun. She was laughing heartily, and her laughter lent sparkling force to her dazzling loveliness. He was taken aback; he gazed at her in utter confusion, abstractedly wiping the mud from his face, by which means it became still further smeared. Who could this beauty be? He tried to find out from the servants who, in rich liveries, stood beside the gate in a crowd, surrounding a young bandura player; but the servants raised a laugh when they saw his besmeared face, and deigned him no reply. At last he learned that she was the daughter of the Voevod of Kovno, who had come hither for a time. The following night, with the daring characteristic of the student alone, he crept through the hedge into the garden, and climbed a tree which spread its branches over the very roof of the house. From the tree he crawled upon the roof, and made his way through the chimney straight into the bedroom of the beauty, who, at the moment, was seated before a candle, engaged in removing the costly earrings from her ears. The beautiful Pole was so alarmed on suddenly beholding a strange man before her, that she could not utter a single word; but when she perceived that the student stood before her with downcast eyes, not daring to move a hand through timidity, when she recognised in him the one who had fallen headlong in the street before her, laughter again overpowered her.

Moreover, there was nothing terrible in Andríi's features; he was very handsome. The beauty was giddy, like all Poles; but her eyes, her wondrous, clear, piercing eyes, darted a glance—a glance as long as constancy. The student could not move a hand, but stood bound as in a sack, when the Voevod's daughter approached him boldly, placed upon his head her glittering diadem, hung her earrings on his lips, and flung over him a transparent muslin chemise, with gold-embroidered garlands. She tricked him out, and played a thousand foolish pranks, with the unconstraint of a child, which distinguishes the giddy Poles, and which threw the poor student into still greater agitation. He presented a ridiculous figure, as he stood staring fixedly, with wide-open mouth, into her dazzling eyes. At that moment, a knock at the door startled her. She ordered him to conceal himself under the bed, and, as soon as the disturbance was past, called her maid, a Tatár captive, and gave her orders to conduct him to the garden with caution, and thence send him away over the hedge. But this time our student did not pass the hedge so successfully. The watchman woke up, and caught him firmly by the leg; and the servants, assembling, beat him for a long time, even in the street, until his swift legs rescued him. After that it was very dangerous to pass the house, because the Voevod's servitors were numerous. He encountered her once more, in a Roman Catholic church. She saw him, and smiled very pleasantly, as at an old acquaintance. He saw her yet again, by chance; and shortly afterwards the Voevod of Kovno took his departure, and instead of the beautiful, black-eyed Pole, some fat face or other gazed from the window. That was what Andríi was thinking about when he hung his head, and dropped his eyes on his horse's mane.

In the meantime, the steppe had long since received them into its green embrace; and the tall grass, closing in around them, concealed them, so chat only their black kazák caps were visible among its spikes.

"Come, come, why are you so quiet, my lads?" said Bulba at last, waking from his own revery. "You're like monks. Come, send all thinking to the Devil on the spot! Take your pipes in your lips, and we'll smoke, and spur on our horses, and fly so swiftly that no bird can overtake us."

And the kazáks, bending low over their horses, disappeared in the grass. Their black caps were no longer visible; a wake of trodden grass alone showed a trace of their swift flight.

The sun had long since peered forth from the clear heavens and inundated the steppe with his vitalising, warming light. All that was dim and sleepy in the minds of the kazáks fled away in a twinkling; their hearts fluttered like birds. The further they penetrated into the steppe, the more beautiful did it become. At that time all the South, all that region which now constitutes New Russia, even to the Black Sea, was a green, virgin wilderness. No plough had ever passed over the immeasurable waves of wild growth; horses alone, hiding themselves in it as in a forest, trod it down. Nothing in Nature could be finer. The whole surface of the earth looked like a green-gold ocean, upon which were sprinkled millions of different flowers. Through the tall, slender stems of the grass peeped light-blue, dark-blue and lilac corn-flowers; the yellow broom thrust up its pyramidal head; the parasol-shaped white flowers of the yarrow dotted its surface. A wheat-ear, brought God knows whence, was filling out to ripening. About their slender roots ran partridges, with necks outstretched. The air was filled with the notes of a thousand different birds. In the sky, motionless, hung the hawks, with wings outspread, and eyes rivetted intently on the grass. The cries of a vast flock of wild ducks moving up on one side, were echoed from God knows what distant lake. From the grass a gull arose with measured sweep and bathed luxuriously in the blue waves of air; and now she has vanished on high, and appears only as a black dot! Now she has turned her wings, and shimmers in the sunlight. Devil take you, Steppe, how beautiful you are!…

Our travellers halted only a few minutes for dinner: their escort of ten kazáks sprang from their horses, unbound the wooden casks of brandy and the gourds which were used for drinking vessels. They ate only bread and lard, or dry wheaten cakes; they drank but one cup apiece, merely to strengthen them (for Taras Bulba never permitted intoxication on the road), and then continued their journey until evening.

In the evening the whole steppe completely changed its aspect. Its whole variegated expanse was bathed in the last bright glow of the sun; and it darkened gradually, so that the shadow could be seen as it flitted across it, and it became dark-green. The mist rose more densely; each flower, each blade of grass, emitted a fragrance as of amber, and an incense of perfume was wafted like smoke across the whole steppe. Wide streaks of rosy gold were flung athwart the dark-blue sky, as with a gigantic brush; here and there gleamed white tufts of light, and transparent clouds; and the coolest, most bewitching of little breezes barely rocked the tops of the grass-blades like sea waves, and only just caressed the cheek. All the music which had resounded throughout the day had died away, and given place to another. The striped marmots crept out of their holes, stood erect on their hind legs, and filled the steppe with their whistling. The whirr of the grasshoppers became more distinctly audible. Sometimes the cry of a swan was audible from some distant lake, and rang through the air like silver. The travellers halted in the middle of the plain, selected a spot for their night encampment, made a fire, hung over it a kettle in which they cooked their buckwheat groats; the steam rose and floated aslant in the air. Having supped, the kazáks lay down to sleep, after hobbling their horses, and turning them out to graze. They lay down on their cloth coats. The nocturnal stars gazed directly down upon them. They heard the countless myriads of insects which filled the grass; all their rasping, whistling, and whirring resounded clearly through the night, purified by the cool air, and lulled the drowsy ear. If one of them rose and stood for a while, the steppe presented itself to him spangled with the sparks of glow-worms. At times the night sky was illumined in spots by the glare of dry reeds which were burning along pools or river-bank; and a dark file of swans flying northward, was suddenly lighted up by the silvery-rose hued gleam, and then it seemed as though crimson kerchiefs were floating across the dark heavens.

The travellers rode onward without any adventures. They came across no villages. There was nothing but the same boundless, undulating, wondrously beautiful steppe. At intervals the crests of forests loomed blue in the distance, on one hand, where they stretched along the banks of the Dnyeper. But once Taras pointed out to his sons a small black speck far away in the grass, saying, "Look, boys! yonder gallops a Tatár." The tiny moustached head fixed its eyes straight upon them, from the distance, sniffing the air like a greyhound, then disappeared, like a stag, on perceiving that the kazáks were thirty strong. "And now, my lads, try to overtake the Tatár! But don't try: you would never catch him to all eternity; his horse is swifter than my Devil." Nevertheless, Bulba took precautions, fearing there might be hidden ambushes here or there. They galloped to a small stream called the Tatarka, which emptied into the Dnyeper, rode their horses into the water, and swam down it a long time to conceal their trail; and then, climbing out on the shore, they continued on their way.

Three days later they were not far from the place which formed the goal of their journey. The air grew suddenly colder: they could feel the vicinity of the Dnyeper. And yonder it gleamed afar off, distinguishable as a dark streak against the horizon. It exhaled waves of cold air, and spread nearer, nearer, and finally embraced half the entire surface of the earth. This was the part of the Dnyeper where the river, hitherto confined by the rapids, at last forced its way freely, and roared like the sea, pouring forth at will where the islands, flung into its midst, pressed it further from the shores, and its waves spread broadly over the earth, encountering neither cliffs nor hills. The kazáks alighted from their horses, entered the ferry-boat, and after a sail of three hours' duration, arrived at the shore of the Island of Khortitza, where, at that time, was situated the Syech, which so often changed its location.

A throng of people on the shore were quarrelling with the ferrymen. The kazáks made ready their horses. Taras assumed a stately air, pulled his belt tighter, and drew his hand proudly over his moustache. His young sons also inspected themselves from head to foot, with some apprehension and an undefined feeling of satisfaction; then all set out together for the suburb, which was half a verst[3] from the Syech. On their arrival they were deafened by fifty blacksmiths' hammers beating upon twenty-five anvils sunk in the earth, and concealed with turf. Stalwart tanners sat on the street beneath their sloping roofs, scraping ox-hides with their strong hands; shopkeepers sat in their booths with piles of flints, steel and powder; an Armenian had hung out rich kerchiefs; a Tatár was turning mutton-collops on a spit; a Jew, with head thrust forward, was filtering corn-brandy from a cask. But the first man they met was a Zaporozhetz who was sleeping in the very middle of the road, with legs and arms outstretched. Taras Bulba could not refrain from halting to admire him.

"Eh, how splendidly developed he is! phew, what a magnificent figure!" he said, reining in his horse. The Zaporozhetz had stretched himself out in the road like a lion; his scalp-lock, thrown proudly behind him, extended over half an arshin of ground;[4] his trousers, of costly scarlet cloth, were spotted with tar, to show his utter disdain for them. Having admired him to his heart's content, Bulba passed on through the narrow street, which was crowded with mechanics pursuing their trades, and with men of all nationalities, who thronged this suburb of the Syech, which resembled a fair, and fed and clothed Syech that knew only how to revel and to discharge guns.

At last they left the suburb behind them, and perceived some scattered kuréns[5] covered with turf, or with felt, in Tatár fashion. Some were furnished with cannon. Nowhere were any fences visible, or any of those low-roofed houses with sloping porch-roofs supported on short wooden pillars, such as there were in the suburb. A small rampart and abatis totally unguarded, showed a terrible degree of recklessness. Stalwart Zaporozhtzi lying, pipe in mouth, in the very road, glanced at them with great indifference, but did not stir from their places. Taras threaded his way carefully among them, with his sons, saying, "Good morning, noble sirs." "Good day to you," answered the Zaporozhtzi. Picturesque groups of men were scattered all over the plain. It was evident, from their weather-beaten faces, that all were steeled in battle, and had undergone every sort of reverse.

And there it was, the Syech! There was the nest from which all those men, strong and proud as lions, had issued forth! There was the place whence poured forth liberty and kazáks, all over the Ukraina.

The travellers emerged into the great square, where the Council generally assembled. On a huge overturned cask sat a Zaporozhetz without his shirt; he was holding it in his hands, and slowly sewing up the holes. Again their way was barred by a regular crowd of musicians, in the middle of whom a young Zaporozhetz was dancing, with head thrown back and arms outstretched. He kept shouting: "Play faster, musicians! Begrudge not brandy to these Orthodox Christians, Foma!" And Foma, with his blackened eye, went on measuring out, without stint, a huge jugful, to every one who presented himself.

About the youthful Zaporozhetz four old men were moving their feet quite briskly, leaping like a whirlwind to one side, almost upon the heads of the musicians, then, suddenly retreating, they continued to dance in a squatting posture, and beat the hard-trodden earth rapidly and vigorously with their silver heels. The earth hummed dully all about the neighbourhood, and afar, through the air, resounded the hopák and the trepák, beaten out by the ringing heels of their boots.

But one shouted more vivaciously than all the rest, and flew after the others in the dance. His scalp-lock streamed in the wind, his powerful chest was all uncovered; his warm winter fur coat was hanging by the sleeves, and the perspiration poured from him like hail, as though from a bucket.

"Take off your jacket!" said Taras, at last: "Just see how he's steaming!"—"I can't!" shouted the kazák—"Why?"—"I can't: my character is such that whatever I take off I drink up"—and the young man had not had a cap for a long time past, nor a belt to his kaftan, nor an embroidered kerchief: all had travelled the fated road.

The throng increased: more men joined the dance; and it was impossible to observe without inward emotion, how it swept everything before it, that dance, the freest, the wildest the world has ever seen, which is called from its mighty originators, the Kazáchka.

"Eh, if it wasn't for my horse I'd strike out myself, that I would! " exclaimed Taras.

Meanwhile, there began to appear among the throng men who were respected for their prowess throughout the entire Syech,—old greyheads, who had been leaders more than once. Taras soon encountered a number of familiar faces. Ostap and Andríi heard nothing but greetings.—"Ah, so it's you, Pecheritza!—Good day, Kozolup!—Whence has God brought you, Taras?—How did you come here, Doloto?—Health to you, Kirdyaga!—Hail to you, Gustyi!—Who would ever have thought of seeing you, Remen?" And the heroes assembled from all the dissolute population of Eastern Russia, fell to kissing one another, and questions began to fly back and forth.—"But what has become of Kasyan?—Where is Borodavka? and Koloper? and Pidsytok?"—And, in reply, Taras learned that Borodavka had been hanged in Tolopan, that Koloper had been flayed alive near Kizikirmen, that Pidsytok's head had been salted down in a cask and sent to Tzargrad.[6] Old Bulba hung his head, and said thoughtfully, "They were good kazáks!"

  1. A student who receives a stipend for his support—a free student. Still called bursar in Scotland; at Cambridge University, sizar; at Oxford, servitor. I. F. H.
  2. Russians of the lower classes are extremely fond of chewing sunflower-seeds. Squash-seeds are more expensive,—and, so to speak,—more aristocratic. I. F. H.
  3. A verst is two-thirds of a mile. I. F. H.
  4. An arshin is twenty-eight inches. I. F. H.
  5. Enormous wooden sheds or barracks, each inhabited by a troop or kurén. I. F. H.
  6. The sole Russian word for Constantinople, as Petrograd has always been the genuine Russian form for (St.) Petersburg. I. F. H.