Taras Bulba/Chapter X

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"Well, I've had a long sleep!" said Taras, coming to his senses as if after a heavy, drunken slumber, and trying to distinguish the objects about him. A terrible weakness overpowered his limbs. The walls and corners of a strange room appeared dimly to his vision. At last he perceived Tovkach seated before him, apparently listening to his every breath.

"Yes," thought Tovkach, "you might have slept forever." But he said nothing, shook his finger and motioned Taras to keep quiet.

"But tell me, where am I now?" asked Taras, straining his mind, and endeavouring to recollect what had happened.

"Hold your tongue!" cried his companion roughly. "Why should you want to know? Don't you see that you're all hacked to pieces? Here I've been galloping with you for two weeks, without stopping to take breath; and all the while you've been burning up with fever, and jabbering nonsense. This is the first time you've slept quietly. Be silent, if you don't wish to do yourself an injury! "

But Taras still strove to collect his thoughts, and to recall what had taken place. "Well, but the Lyakhs must have surrounded me completely, and captured me? I hadn't a chance to fight myself free from the mob?"

"Hold your tongue! I tell you, you devil's brat!" shouted Tovkach angrily, as a nurse, driven beyond her patience, cries out at her naughty, fractious young charge. "What good will it do you to know how you got away? It's enough that you did get away. Some people were found who didn't betray you. That's enough for you to know! You and I must still gallop on together for many a night! Think you that you are accounted a common kazák? No, they have offered a reward of two thousand ducats for your head."

"And Ostap!" cried Taras suddenly, making a tremendous effort to rise; and then, all at once, he recollected that Ostap had been seized and bound before his very eyes, and that he was now in the hands of the Lyakhs. And grief overpowered his aged head. He tugged at his bandages, and tore them all from his wounds; he threw them far from him; he tried to say something aloud—and uttered something incoherent. Fever and delirium took possession of him afresh, and he chattered foolish speeches, devoid of rhyme or reason. Meanwhile his faithful comrade stood before him cursing and showering harsh, reproachful words upon him, without stint. Finally he seized him by the arms and legs, swaddled him like a baby, replaced all his bandages, rolled him up in an ox-hide, bound him with linden-bast, and fastening him with ropes to his saddle, dashed off with him again, at full speed, along the road.

"I'll get you there, even if not alive! I'll not abandon you for the Lyakhs to make mock at your kazák race, and rend your body in twain, and fling it into the water. Let the eagles claw your eyes from your brow, if so it must be; but let it be our own eagle of the steppe, and not a Polish eagle, not one which has flown hither from Polish soil. I'll bring you, though it be a corpse, to the Ukraina!"

Thus spoke his faithful comrade. He galloped on, without drawing breath, day and night, and brought him, insensible, into the Zaporozhian Syech itself. There he undertook to heal him, with unwearied care, with herbs and liniments. He sought out a skilful Jewess: she made Taras drink various potions for a whole month, and at last he began to improve. Whether it was owing to the medicine, or to his iron constitution gaining the upper hand, at any rate, in six weeks he was on his feet again; his wounds had closed, and only the scars of the sabre-cuts showed how seriously injured the old kazák had been. But he had become markedly sad and morose. Three deep wrinkles had engraved themselves upon his brow, and never more departed thence. Then he looked about him: all was new in the Syech; all his old comrades were dead. Not one was left of those who had defended the right, the Faith, and brotherhood. And as for those who had fared forth with the Koshevói in pursuit of the Tatárs, they, also, had died long since: all had laid down their heads: all had perished. One had lost his honourable head in battle, another had died for lack of bread and water, amid the salt marshes of the Crimea; another had disappeared in captivity, unable to endure the disgrace, and even their former Koshevói was long since dead, and so were all old comrades, and the seething kazák power was overgrown with grass. He heard only that there had been a feast, a noisy, strenuous feast. All the dishes had been smashed to bits: not a drop of liquor was left anywhere; the guests and servants had stolen all the valuable cups and platters,—and the master of the house stood sadly thinking that it would have been better had there been no feast. In vain did they try to cheer Taras, and to divert his mind; in vain did the long-bearded, grey-haired bandura-players, passing by in twos and threes, glorify his kazák deeds. He gazed grimly and indifferently at everything, and on his stolid face sorrow unquenchable stood forth; and he said softly, "My son, my Ostap!"

The Zaporozhtzi assembled for an expedition by sea. Two hundred boats were launched on the Dnyeper, and Asia Minor saw the kazáks, with their shaven heads and long scalp-locks, devote her thriving shores to fire and sword; she saw the turbans of her Mahometan inhabitants strewn, like her innumerable flowers, over the blood-besprinkled fields, and floating along her banks. She beheld many tarry Zaporozhian trousers, and muscular hands with black hunting-whips. The Zaporozhtzi ate up and laid waste all their vineyard. In her mosques they left heaps of dung. They used rich Persian shawls for trouser-belts, and girded their dirty doublets with them. For a long time afterwards short Zaporozhian pipes were found in those regions. Then they sailed merrily homeward again. A ten-gun Turkish vessel pursued them and scattered their fragile skiffs like birds, with a volley from its guns. A third part of them sank in the depths of the sea; but the rest assembled again, and gained the mouth of the Dnyeper with twelve kegs full of sequins. But all this had no interest for Taras. He went off upon the fields and the steppe as though to hunt; but the charge remained unfired, in his gun, and, laying down the weapon, he sat sadly on the seashore. He sat there long, with drooping head, repeating continually, "My Ostap, my Ostap!" Before him spread the gleaming Black Sea; in the distant reeds the sea-gulls screamed. His grey moustache turned to silver, and the tears chased one another down his cheeks.

At last Taras could endure it no longer. "Whatever happens, I must go and find out what he is doing. Is he alive, or in the grave? or is he not yet in the grave? Know I will, cost what it may!" And within a week he was in the town of Uman, mounted, fully armed with spear, sword, a flat travelling-cask at his saddle-bow, his pot of oatmeal, his cartridges, cord to hobble his horse, and other accoutrements. He rode straight to a dirty, bedaubed little house, whose tiny windows were almost invisible, blackened as they were with some unknown dirt; the chimney was plugged with a rag; and the roof, which was full of holes, was covered with sparrows; a heap of all sorts of refuse lay before the very door. From the window peered the head of a Jewess, In a headdress with discoloured pearls.

"Is your husband at home?" asked Bulba, dismounting, and fastening his horse's bridle to an iron hook beside the door.

"Yes," said the Jewess, and hastened out immediately with a little trough of wheat for the horse, and a stoup of beer for the rider.

"Where's your Jew?"

"In the other room, at prayer," replied the Jewess, bowing and wishing Bulba good health, as he raised the drinking-cup to his lips.

"Remain here and feed and water my horse, and I'll go and speak with him alone. I have business with him."

This Jew was that Yankel, already known to us. He was there as a revenue-farmer and dram-shop keeper. He had gradually got all the neighbouring noblemen and gentry into his clutches, had slowly sucked away most of their money, had made his presence severely felt in that region. For a distance of three miles in every direction not a single cottage remained in a proper condition. All were falling in ruins; all had been drunk away, and rags and poverty alone remained; the whole neighbourhood was devastated as if after a fire or an epidemic. And if Yankel had lived there ten years, he would, probably, have depopulated the Voevod's entire domain.

Taras entered the room. The Jew was praying, wrapped in his dirty scarf, and was turning to spit for the last time, in accordance with the forms of his creed, when his eye suddenly alighted upon Taras standing behind him. And the very first thing of all, which struck the Jew full in the face, was the recollection of the two thousand ducats offered for his head; but he was ashamed of his avarice, and tried to stifle within him the eternal thought of gold, which twines like a worm about the soul of a Jew.

"Hearken to me, Yankel!" said Taras to the Jew, who began to bow low before him, and he shut the door so that they might not be seen. "I saved your life: the Zaporozhtzi were ready to tear you in pieces, like a dog. Now it's your turn to do me a service."

The Jew's face contracted a bit.

"What service? If it's a service I can render, why not render it?"

"Don't give me any talk! Take me to Warsaw."

"To Warsaw? Why to Warsaw?" said the Jew, and his brows and shoulders rose in amazement.

"Don't answer back. Take me to Warsaw. I must see him once more, at any cost, and say at least one word to him."

"Say a word to whom?"

"To him—to Ostap—to my son."

"Has not the noble lord heard that already—"

"I know, I know all: they offer two thousand ducats for my head. They know its value, the fools! I'll give you five thousand. Here are two thousand on the spot" (Bulba poured out two thousand ducats from a leather bag), "and the rest you shall have when I return."

The Jew instantly seized a towel and concealed the ducats under it. "Aï, glorious money! Aï, good money!" he said, twirling one of the gold pieces in his hand, and testing it with his teeth. "I don't believe the man from whom the noble lord stole these fine gold pieces remained in the world an hour longer; he went straight to the river and drowned himself after the loss of such magnificent pieces.

"I wouldn't have asked you; I might, possibly, have found my own way to Warsaw, but some one might recognise me, and then the cursed Lyakhs would capture me, for I'm not clever at making up plausible stories; but that's just what you Jews are created for. You'd deceive the very Devil: you know all the tricks; that's why I have come to you! And, besides, I couldn't accomplish anything in Warsaw by myself. Harness up your cart instantly, and drive me to Warsaw."

"And does the noble lord think that I can take the mare so, out of hand, and harness her, and—'Get up, Dapple'? Does the noble lord think that I can take the noble lord just as he is, without hiding him?"

"Well, hide me, then, hide me any way you like: how would a powder-cask answer?"

"Aï, aï! and the noble lord thinks, perhaps, that he can be concealed in a powder-cask? Doesn't the noble lord know that every man thinks every cask contains corn-brandy?"

"Well, let 'em think it's brandy!"

"What! Let them think it's brandy?" said the Jew, grasping his earlocks with both hands, then throwing up his arms.

"Well, and why are you so frightened?"

"And doesn't the noble lord know that God has made brandy expressly for every one to taste? They're all gluttons and fond of dainties there: a Polish noble will run five versts after a cask; he'll bore a hole, and as soon as he sees that nothing runs out, he'll say, 'The Jew isn't carrying a powder-cask; there's certainly something wrong here! Seize the Jew, bind the Jew, take away all the Jew's money; put the Jew in prison!' Because everything that is evil is blamed on the Jew, and every one takes a Jew for a dog; and they think he's not a man, because he's a Jew."

"Then lay me in the wagon with a load of fish."

"It can't be done, noble sir, it can't be done: all over Poland the people are as hungry as dogs now. They'll steal the fish, and feel the noble lord."

"Then take me in any devil's way you like, only take me."

"Listen, listen, noble sir!" said the Jew, stripping up the cuffs of his sleeves, and approaching him with arms outstretched. "This is what we'll do.—They're building fortresses and castles everywhere: French engineers have come from Germany, and so a great deal of brick and stone is being carted over the highways. Let the noble lord lie down in the bottom of the wagon, and over him I will pile bricks. The noble lord is strong and well, apparently, so he will not mind if it is a little heavy; and I will make a hole in the bottom of the wagon, so that I can feed the noble lord."

"Do what you will, only take me!"

And in an hour, a wagon-load of bricks left Uman, drawn by two sorry nags. On one of them sat tall Yankel; and his long, curling earlocks fluttered from beneath his Jewish cap of felt, as, long as a verst-post planted by the roadside, he bounced about on the horse.