Taras Bulba/Chapter IV

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IV

 

But on the following day, Taras Bulba had a conference with the new Koshevói as to the best way of inciting the kazáks to some enterprise. The Koshevói was a wily and sagacious kazák, knew the Zaporozhtzi through and through, and said, at first: "Oaths cannot be violated; it's downright impossible." But, after a pause, he added: "No matter, it can be managed. We won't violate them, but let's devise something. Let the men assemble, not at my summons, but simply of their own accord. You know how to contrive it; and I'll hasten to the square instantly, with the chiefs, as though we knew nothing about it."

Not an hour had elapsed after their conversation when the kettle-drums thundered. Instantly the drunken and foolish kazáks made their appearance. A million kazák caps poured into the square. A murmur arose, "Why? What? Why was the assembly beaten?" No one answered. At last. In one quarter and another, it began to be rumoured about, "Behold, the kazák strength is being vainly wasted: there is no war! Behold, our leaders have become altogether fat and sleepy; their eyes swim in fat! Yes, plainly, there is no justice in the world!" The other kazáks first listened, and then began to say to themselves, "Ah, that's the truth; there's no justice in the world! " Their leaders seemed surprised at these utterances. At last the Koshevói stepped forward: "Permit me, noble kazáks, to address you."

"Speak out!"

"Touching the matter in question, noble sirs, probably no one knows better than yourselves, that many Zaporozhtzi have run in debt to the Jews in the dram-shops, and to that sort of folks, so that now not even a devil would give them credit. Again, touching the matter in question, there are many young fellows who have no idea of what war is like, although, as you are aware, noble sirs, without war a young man cannot exist. How make a Zaporozhetz out of him if he has never slain a Mussulman?"

"He speaks well," said Bulba to himself.

"Think not, however, noble sirs, that I speak thus with a view of disturbing the peace: God forbid! I merely mention the fact. Moreover, the church we have for our God is too disgraceful for words: just consider for how many years the Syech has existed, by the mercy of God, but to this day it not only doesn't look like a church outside, but even the holy pictures have no adornments; no one has so much as thought of making them a garment:[1] they have received only that which some other kazáks have bequeathed them in their wills; and moreover those gifts have been meagre, because those men had drunk up nearly all they had during their lifetime. I'm making you this speech, therefore, not with the object of stirring you up to a war with the Mussulmans: we have promised the Sultan peace, and it would be a great sin in us, for we swore it according to our law."

"What's he mixing things up like that for?" said Bulba to himself.

"So you see, noble sirs, that war cannot be begun; knightly honour does not permit it. But according to my poor opinion, this is what I think: let's send out a few young men in boats; let them ravage the coasts of Anatolia a bit. What say you, noble sirs?"

"Lead on, take us all!" shouted the crowd on all sides. "We're ready to lay down our heads for our Faith."

The Koshevói was alarmed. He did not wish, by any manner of means, to stir up all Zaporozhe; a breach of the peace appeared to him improper on the present occasion. "Permit me, noble sirs, to address you further."

"Enough!" yelled the kazáks. "You can say nothing better."

"If so it must be, then so be it. I am the slave of your will. Everybody knows, and the Scriptures also tell us, that the voice of the people is the voice of God. It is impossible to devise anything better than the whole nation has devised. But here's the difficulty: you know, noble sirs, that the Sultan will not permit the diversion which delights our young men to go unpunished. And we ought to be well prepared at such a time, and our forces ought to be fresh, and then we need fear no one. But during their absence the Tatárs may make an attack; those Turkish dogs don't show themselves, and they daren't come while the master is at home, but they snap at his heels from behind, and bite painfully, to boot. And, if it comes to that, to speak the truth, we have not boats enough on hand, nor powder ready in sufficient quantity, for all to go. But I am glad and ready, if you like: I am the slave of your will."

The wily Atamán stopped speaking. The various groups began to discuss the matter, and the atamáns of the different barracks to take counsel together: fortunately, few of these were drunk, so they decided to heed the counsels of reason.

A number of men set out at once for the opposite shore of the Dnyeper, to the treasury of the Army, where, in an inaccessible hiding-place, under water and among the reeds, lay concealed the army-chest, and a part of the arms captured from the enemy. Others hastened to inspect the boats, and prepare them for service. In a twinkling the whole shore was thronged with men. Carpenters appeared, axes in hand. Old, weatherbeaten, broad-shouldered, strong-legged Zaporozhtzi, with black or silvered moustaches, rolled up their trousers, stood knee-deep in the water, and dragged the boats from the shore with stout ropes; others brought thither seasoned lumber, ready for immediate use, and timber of all sorts. Here the boats were freshly planked, turned bottom upwards, calked and tarred; there other skiffs were bound together, side by side, in kazák fashion, with long strands of reeds, that the swell of the waves on the sea might not sink them. Further on, all along the shores, they built fires, and heated tar in copper kettles, to coat the boats. The old and experienced instructed the young. The blows and shouts of the workers rose over all the countryside; the bank, alive with men, shook and swayed about.

About this time a large ferry-boat began to approach the shore. The mass of men standing in it began to wave their arms from a long distance away. They were kazáks in torn, ragged svitkas. Their disordered garments (many had nothing but their shirt and a short pipe in their mouth) showed that they had escaped from some disaster, or had caroused to such an extent that they had drunk up all they had had on their bodies. A very short, broad-shouldered kazák of about fifty stepped out from their midst, and stood in front. He shouted and waved his hand more vigorously than any of the others; but his words could not be heard for the shouts and hammering of the workmen.

"Whence come you?" asked the Koshevói, when the boat had touched shore. All the workers paused in their labours, and, with axes and chisels uplifted, looked on expectantly.

"From a misfortune!" shouted the kazák.

"From what?"

"Permit me, noble Zaporozhtzi, to address you."

"Speak!"

"Or would you prefer to assemble the Council?"

"Speak, we are all here."

The men all pressed together in a close mass.

"And have you heard nothing of what has been going on in the Hetman's dominions?"

"What is it?" inquired one of the barrack atamáns.

"Eh! What? Evidently, a Tatár has plastered up your ears, that you might hear nothing."

"Tell us: what is going on there?"

"That is going on the like of which no man born or christened ever yet has seen."

"Tell us what it is, you son of a dog," shouted one of the crowd, apparently losing patience.

"Things have come to such a pass that our holy churches are no longer ours."

"How not ours?"

"They are leased to the Jews now. If the Jew is not first paid, there can be no service."

"What nonsense is this you're telling us?"

"And if the thrice-accursed dog of a Jew does not make a sign with his unclean hand over the holy paskha,[2] it cannot be blessed."

"He lies, brother nobles! It cannot be that an unclean Jew puts his mark upon the holy paskha."

"Listen! I have not yet told all. Roman Catholic priests are driving about all over the Ukraina, in carts. The harm lies not in the carts, but that not horses but Orthodox[3] Christians are harnessed to them. Listen! Even that is not all. They say that the Jewesses are making themselves petticoats out of our priests' vestments. Such are the deeds that are taking place in the Ukraina, noble sirs! And you sit here revelling in Zaporozhe; and, evidently, a Tatár has so scared you that you have no eyes, no ears, no anything, and you hear nothing that is going on in the world."

"Stop, stop!" broke in the Koshevói, who, up to that moment had stood with his eyes fixed upon the earth like all Zaporozhtzi who, on important occasions never yielded to their first impulse but kept silence, and meanwhile collected privately all the menacing power of their indignation. "Stop! I, also, have a word to say. What have you been doing the while? When the Devil was thus mauling your priest,—what were you doing yourselves? Had you no swords? How did you come to permit such lawlessness?"

"Eh! How did we come to permit such lawlessness? You ought to have tried to stop it, when there were fifty thousand of the Lyakhs[4] alone; yet, and 'tis a shame not to be concealed, that there were also dogs among our men who have already accepted their Faith."

"But your Hetman and your colonels,—what did they do?"

"God preserve any one from such deeds as our colonels performed!"

"How so?"

"This way: Our Hetman, roasted in a brazen ox, now lies in Warsaw; and the heads and hands of our colonels are being carried round to all the Fairs, as a spectacle for the people. That's what our colonels did."

The whole throng became violently agitated. At first silence reigned all along the shore, like that which precedes a fierce tempest; and then, suddenly, voices were raised, and all the shore broke into utterance:

"What! Jews hold the Christian churches on lease! Roman-Catholic priests have harnessed and beaten Orthodox Christians! What! Such torture has been permitted on Russian soil by accursed unbelievers! And they have done such things to the colonels and the Hetman? Nay, this shall not be, it shall not be!" Words of this sort flew from all quarters. The Zaporozhtzi were in an uproar, and felt their power. This was not the excitement of a giddy-headed folk. All who were thus agitated were strong, firm characters, which were not easily heated, but once rendered red-hot preserved the inward heat long and obstinately. "Hang all Jews!" rang through the crowd. "They shall not make petticoats for their Jewesses from priests' vestments! They shall not place their tokens on the holy paskha! Drown them all, the heathens, in the Dnyeper!" These words, uttered by some one in the throng, flashed like lightning through all minds, and the crowd flung themselves upon the suburb with the intention of cutting the throats of all the Jews.

The poor sons of Israel, losing all presence of mind, and not being courageous, in any case, hid themselves in empty brandy-casks, in ovens, and even crawled under the skirts of their Jewesses; but the kazáks routed them out, wherever they were.

"Most illustrious lords!" shrieked one Jew, tall and thin as a stick, thrusting his sorry visage, distorted with terror, from among a group of his comrades, "most illustrious lords! suffer us to say a word, only one word. We will reveal to you what you never yet have heard, a thing more important than I can say,—very important!"

"Well, say it!" said Bulba, who always liked to hear what an accused man had to say.

"Illustrious lords!" exclaimed the Jew, "such lords never were seen before, never, by God! Such good, kind, brave men there never were in the world before!" His voice died away, quivering with terror. "How was it possible that we should think any evil of the Zaporozhtzi? Those men are not of us at all, those who take leases in the Ukraina. God is my witness—they are not of us! They are not Jews at all. The Devil only knows what they are; they are only fit to spit upon, and cast aside. Behold, they will tell you the same thing! Is it not true, Shloma? or you, Shmul?"

"By God, it is true!" replied Shloma and Shmul, from among the crowd, both pale as clay under their ragged caps.

"We never yet," pursued the long Jew, "have had any secret intercourse with your enemies, and with Roman Catholics we will have nothing to do; may they dream of the Devil! We are like blood brothers to the Zaporozhtzi…"

"What! Do you mean to say that the Zaporozhtzi are brothers to you!" exclaimed one among the throng. "Don't wait; accursed Jews! Into the Dnyeper with them, noble sirs! Drown all unbelievers!"

These words served as the signal. They seized the Jews by the arms, and began to hurl them into the waves. Piteous cries resounded on all sides; but the grim Zaporozhtzi only laughed, when they saw the Jewish legs, encased in shoes and stockings flourishing in the air. The poor orator who had called down destruction on himself, wriggled out of his kaftan, by which they had seized him, and in his scant, parti-coloured under-waistcoat, clasped Bulba's legs and begged, in a piteous voice: "Great lord! most gracious sir! I used to know your brother, the late Dorosha. He was a warrior who was an ornament to knighthood. I gave him eight hundred sequins when he was forced to ransom himself from the Turks."

"You knew my brother?" asked Taras.

"God is my witness that I did. He was a magnificent nobleman."

"And what is your name?"

"Yankel."

"Good," said Taras; and then, after reflecting, he turned to the kazáks and spoke as follows:

"There will always be plenty of time to hang the Jew, if it proves necessary; but give him to me for to-day."

So saying, Taras led him to his wagon, beside which stood his kazáks. "Now, crawl under the cart; lie there, and don't move.—And as for you, my good men, don't you surrender the Jew."

Thereupon he returned to the square, for the whole crowd had, long before, collected there. All had, at once, abandoned the shore and the preparation of the boats; for a land-journey now lay before them, not a sea-voyage, and they needed horses and carts, not ships and kazák gulls. Now all, both young and old, wanted to go on the expedition; and it was decided, with the advice of the chiefs, the atamáns of the barracks, the Koshevói, and the will of the whole Zaporozhian army, to march straight to Poland, to avenge all the injury and disgrace to the Faith and to kazák renown, to seize booty from the cities, to start conflagrations in the villages and crops, and to spread their fame far abroad over the steppe. All immediately girded and armed themselves. The Koshevói grew two feet—and more—taller. He was no longer the timid executor of the frivolous wishes of a free people; he was the untrammelled master, he was a despot who understood only how to command. All the headstrong and uproarious knights stood in orderly ranks, with respectfully bowed heads, not venturing to lift their eyes when the Koshevói issued his orders; he gave them quietly, without shouting, without haste, but with pauses, like an old man deeply learned in kazák affairs, and putting into execution, not for the first time, a wisely-matured enterprise.

"Examine yourselves,—inspect yourselves thoroughly, all of you," he said, "put your teams and your tar-boxes in order, test your weapons. Take not many garments with you: a shirt and a couple of pairs of trousers to each kazák, and a pot of dried oatmeal and ground millet apiece,— let no one take any more! There will be plenty of provisions, all that's needed, in the wagons. Let every kazák have two horses. And two hundred yoke of oxen must be taken, for we shall require them at the fords and marshy places. Maintain order, noble sirs, above all things. I know that there are some among you who, as soon as God sends greed, will immediately tear up nankin and rich velvets to make themselves foot-wrappers. Leave off such devilish habits; spurn every petticoat, and take only weapons, if you happen to come across good ones, and ducats or silver, noble sirs, for they are subject to capture, and useful in any case. And I'll tell you this beforehand, noble sirs: if any one gets drunk on this expedition, he will receive short shrift: I'll order him to be chained by the neck like a dog, to a transport, no matter who he may be, even were he the most heroic kazák in the whole army; he shall be shot on the spot like a dog, and flung out to be torn by the birds of prey, without burial, for a drunkard on the march deserves not Christian burial. Young men, obey the old men in all things! If a ball grazes you, or a sword cuts your head or any other part, pay no heed to such trifles. Mix a charge of powder in a cup of brandy, quaff heartily of it, and all will pass off—you will not even have any fever; and if the wound is not too large, put simple earth on it, mixing it first with spittle in your palm, and it will dry up the wound. And now, to work, to work, my lads; get into action, but without over-haste."

So spoke the Koshevói; and no sooner had he finished his speech than all the kazáks instantly set to work. All the Syech sobered up, and there was not a single drunken man to be found, any more than if there never had been such a thing among the kazáks. Some kazáks repaired the fellies of the wheels, others shifted the axles of the carts; some carried sacks of provisions to the transport wagons, while other wagons they loaded with arms; others, still, drove up the horses and oxen. On all sides resounded the trampling of horses' hoofs, test-shots from the guns, the clang of swords, the lowing of oxen, the screech of turning wagons, talking, shrill cries, and urging on of cattle;—and soon the kazák camp stretched far over the plain. And he who might have undertaken to run from its head to its tail would have had a long course. In the tiny wooden church the priest held a special service of prayer, and sprinkled every one with holy water; all kissed the cross. When the horde started and moved out of the Syech all the Zaporozhtzi turned their heads for a last look: "Farewell, our mother!" they said, almost in one breath. "May God preserve thee from all misfortune!"

As he passed through the suburb, Taras Bulba saw that his Jew, Yankel, had already erected a sort of stall with an awning, and was selling flints, screw-drivers, powder, and all sorts of military stores needed on the road, even rolls and loaves of bread. "What devils those Jews are!" said Taras to himself; and riding up to him, he said: "Fool, why are you sitting here? do you want to be shot like a sparrow?"

Yankel, in reply, came as near to him as possible, and making signs with both hands, as though desirous of imparting some secret, said: "Let the noble lord but keep silence, and say nothing to any one. Among the kazák wagons is a cart of mine; I am carrying all sorts of needful stores for the kazáks, and on the journey I will furnish every sort of provision at a lower price than any Jew ever sold before. 'Tis so, God is my witness—God is my witness, 'tis so!"

Taras Bulba shrugged his shoulders in amazement at the Jewish nature, and rode on to the horde.

  1. The golden or silver decoration, applied to the painted holy pictures, in the form of a garment which leaves the face, hands and feet of the Saint visible. It is a great favor—as well as a sign of zeal—to be permitted to furnish such decoration for the Holy Ikona. I. F. H.
  2. The special Easter dish, made chiefly of curds. I. F. H.
  3. The "Orthodox," or "Orthodox Christians," signifies members of the Greco-Russian, or Eastern Catholic, Church. I. F. H.
  4. Lyak is an abbreviated form of Polyakh, Pole. I. F. H.