Taras Bulba/Chapter XI

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XI

 

At the time when the above-described incidents took place, there were, as yet, in the frontier settlements, no custom-house officials and guards,—those terrible menaces to enterprising people,—therefore, any one could bring across anything he liked. If any one made any search or inspection, he did it chiefly for his own pleasure, especially if there happened to be in the wagon objects attractive to the eye, and if his own hand possessed a certain weight and power. But the bricks found no admirers, and they entered the principal gate of the city unmolested. Bulba, in his narrow cage, could only hear the noise, the shouts of the drivers, and nothing more. Yankel, bouncing away on his short, dust-covered trotter, turned, after taking several circuitous bends, into a dark, narrow street bearing the name of "The Muddy" and also of "the Jews' Street," because, as a matter of fact, Jews from nearly every quarter of Warsaw were to be found there. This street greatly resembled a back-yard turned wrongside out. The sun, apparently, never shone in there. The totally black wooden houses, with innumerable poles projecting from the windows, still further increased the gloom. Rarely did the brick wall gleam red among them; for it also, in many places, had turned quite black. Here and there, high up, a bit of stuccoed wall lighted by the sun, shone with a whiteness intolerable to the eye. Everything there was extremely harsh; pipes, rags, shells, broken and discarded tubs. Every one flung into the street whatever was useless to him, thus affording the passer-by an opportunity to regale all his senses with the rubbish. A man on horseback could almost touch with his hand the poles thrown across the street from one house to another, upon which hung Jewish stockings, short trousers, and smoked geese. Sometimes the rather pretty face of a Jewess, adorned with blackened pearls, peeped out of an ancient window. A mob of Jew urchins, with torn and dirty garments and curly hair, screamed and rolled about in the mud. A red-haired Jew, with freckles all over his face, which made him look like a sparrow's egg, was gazing out of a window; he instantly accosted Yankel in his unintelligible jargon, and Yankel immediately drove into the court-yard. Another Jew, who was coming along the street, halted and entered into conversation, and when Bulba, at last, emerged from beneath the bricks, he beheld these three Jews talking with great heat.

Yankel turned to him, and said that everything would be done; that his Ostap was in the city jail, and that, although it would be difficult to persuade the jailer, yet he hoped to arrange a meeting.

Bulba entered the room with the three Jews.

The Jews again began to talk among themselves, in their incomprehensible language. Taras took a good look at each of them. Something seemed to have affected him deeply; on his rough and stolid countenance a consuming flame of hope flashed up, of hope such as sometimes visits a man in the lowest depths of despair; his aged heart began to beat violently, as though he were a youth.

"Hearken, Jews!" said he, and there was a ring of triumph in his words. "You can do anything in the world, even to extracting things from the bottom of the sea; and it has long since passed into a proverb that a Jew will steal from himself, if he takes a fancy to steal. Set my Ostap at liberty! Give him a chance to escape from their diabolical hands. I have promised this man five thousand ducats,—I add another five thousand; all that I have in the way of precious cups, buried gold, my houses, all, even to my last garment, I will sell; and I will enter into a contract with you for my whole life, to share with you, half and half, all the booty I may win in war."

"O, it can't be done, dear noble lord, it's impossible!" "No, it can't be done!" chimed in another Jew.

The three Jews exchanged glances.

"We might try," said the third, with a timid glance at the other two. "Perhaps God will favour us."

All three Jews began to talk in German. Strain his ears as he might, Bulba could make nothing of it: he only caught the word "Mardokhai" often repeated, nothing more.

"Listen, noble lord," said Yankel. "We must consult with a man such as there never was before in all the world…! as wise as Solomon he is; and if he will do nothing, then no one in the world can do anything. Sit here: this is the key; admit no one!" Thereupon the Jews went out into the street.

Taras locked the door, and gazed from the tiny window upon the dirty Jewish prospect. The three Jews halted in the middle of the street, and began to talk with a good deal of warmth: a fourth soon joined them, and, finally, a fifth. Again he heard repeated, "Mardokhai, Mardokhai!" The Jews kept glancing incessantly towards one side of the street; at last, at the end of it, from behind a dirty house, there emerged a foot in a Jewish shoe, and there was a brief glimpse of the fluttering skirts of a half-kaftan.—"Ah! Mardokhai, Mardokhai!" exclaimed the Jews with one voice. A gaunt Jew, somewhat shorter than Yankel, but even more wrinkled, and with a huge upper lip, approached the impatient group; and all the Jews made haste, even interrupting one another, to talk to him. During the recital, Mardokhai cast several glances towards the little window, and Taras divined that the conversation concerned him.

Mardokhai waved his hands, listened, interrupted, spat frequently to one side, and, pulling up the skirts of his half-kaftan, thrust his hand into his pocket and drew out some jingling object, showing his very dirty trousers in the operation. Finally, all the Jews set up such a shout, that the Jew who was standing on guard was forced to make a signal for silence, and Taras began to fear for his own safety; but when he remembered that Jews cannot consult anywhere except in the street, and that the demon himself cannot understand their language, he regained his composure.

Two minutes later the Jews all entered the room together. Mardokhai approached Taras, tapped him on the shoulder, and said: "When we wish to act, then things will be as they should." Taras looked at this Solomon such as the world had never known, and conceived some hope: in fact, his face might well inspire some confidence: his upper lip was simply an object of horror; its thickness had doubtless been increased by adventitious circumstances. The beard of this Solomon consisted of only about fifteen hairs, and they were all on the left side. Solomon's face bore so many scars of battle, received for his audacity, that he had, no doubt, lost count of them long before, and grown accustomed to regarding them as birthmarks.

Mardokhai departed, accompanied by his comrades, who were filled with admiration for his wisdom. Bulba was left alone. He was in a strange, unaccustomed situation; for the first time in his life, he felt uneasy. His soul was in a state of fever. He was no longer the man he had been, unbending, immovable, strong as an oak; he was faint-hearted now; now he was weak. He trembled at every sound, at every new Jewish figure which showed itself at the end of the street. In this condition he spent the whole day; he neither ate nor drank, and his eye never, for a single moment, quitted the tiny window which looked out on the street. Finally, late at night, Mardokhai and Yankel made their appearance. Taras's heart died within him.

"What news? Are you successful?" he asked, with the restiveness of a wild horse.

But before the Jews had recovered breath to answer, Taras perceived that Mardokhai no longer had his last lock, which, although very greasy, had fallen in rings from beneath his felt cap. It was evident that he wished to say something, but he began by uttering such nonsense that Taras understood nothing of it. And Yankel himself put his hand very often to his mouth, as though suffering from a cold.

"O, dear noble sir!" said Yankel, "it is utterly impossible now! God is my witness, it is impossible! Such vile people, that one can only spit on their heads in disgust! And Mardokhai here will tell you the same. Mardokhai has done what no man in the world ever did, but it was not God's will that it should be so. Three thousand of the troops are stationed here, and to-morrow all the men are to be executed."

Taras looked the Jew straight in the eye, but no longer with impatience or anger.

"But if the noble lord wishes to see him, then it must be very early in the morning, before sunrise. The sentinels have agreed, and one jailer has promised. But may they have no happiness in the world, woe is me! What greedy people! Even among us there are none such: I had to give fifty ducats to each one, and to the jailer…"

"Good. Take me to him!" exclaimed Taras with decision, and all the firmness returned to his spirit. He agreed to Yankel's proposal that he should disguise himself as a foreign count, just arrived from Germany, for which purpose the prudent Jew had already provided a costume. It was already night. The master of the house, the above-mentioned red-haired Jew with freckles, drew forth a thin mattress covered with some sort of rug, and spread it on the bench for Bulba. Yankel lay down upon the floor, on a similar mattress. The red-haired Jew drank a small cup of liquor infusion, threw off his half-kaftan, and betook himself,—looking, in his shoes and stockings, a good deal like a chicken,—with his Jewess, to something resembling a cupboard. Two other Jews lay down on the floor beside the cupboard, like a couple of family dogs. But Taras did not sleep: he sat motionless, drumming lightly on the table with his fingers. He kept his pipe in his mouth, and puffed out smoke which made the Jew sneeze, in a state of semi-waking, and wrap up his nose in his coverlet. Scarcely was the sky tinged with the first faint gleams of dawn, when he pushed Yankel with his foot: "Rise, Jew, and give me your Count's dress!"

In a moment he had dressed himself; he blackened his moustache and eyebrows, put on his head a small, dark cap, and not even the kazáks who knew him best would have recognised him. To all appearance, he was not more than five and thirty. A healthy colour played in his cheeks, and even his scars imparted to him an air of authority. The gold-embroidered costume was extremely well suited to him.

The streets were still asleep. Not a single mercantile person had yet shown himself in the city, basket on arm. Yankel and Bulba went to a building which had the appearance of a crouching stork. It was low, wide, huge and black; and on one side a tall, slender tower projected, like a stork's neck, above which stuck out a bit of roof. This building served for a variety of purposes: it was a barrack, a jail, and even the criminal court. Our travellers entered the gate, and found themselves in a vast room, or covered courtyard. About a thousand men were sleeping there. Straight before them was a small door in front of which sat two sentries playing at some game which consisted in one striking the palm of the other's hand with two fingers. They paid scant heed to the newcomers, and merely turned their heads when Yankel said, "'Tis we, noble sirs; do you hear? 'Tis we…"

"Go in!" said one of them, opening the door with one hand, and holding out the other to his comrade, to receive his blows.

They entered a low, dark corridor, which led them to a room of the same description, with small windows overhead. "Who goes there?" shouted several voices, and Taras beheld a number of warriors in full armour. "We have been ordered to admit no one."

"'Tis we!" cried Yankel; "we, by heaven, most illustrious sirs!" But no one would listen to them. Fortunately, at that moment a fat man came along, who, from all the signs, appeared to be the commanding officer, for he cursed more loudly than all the rest.

"Noble sir, 'tis we! You know us, and the sir Count will thank you."

"Admit them, a hundred devils and the devil's mother! And admit no one else. And no one is to take off his sword, and no one is to quarrel on the floor, like dogs…"

The conclusion of the eloquent order our travellers did not hear. "'Tis we, 'tis I, 'tis your friends!" Yankel said to every one they met.

"Well, can we enter now?" he inquired of one of the guards, when, at last, they reached the end of the corridor.

"Yes, but I don't know whether you are to be admitted to the prison itself. Yan is not here now: another man is standing guard in his place," replied the sentinel. "Aï, aï!" cried the Jew softly: "this is bad, my dear sir!"

"Lead on!" said Taras firmly. The Jew obeyed.

At the door of the underground cells, which ran to a peak at the top, stood a heyduke,[1] with a three-storied moustache. The upper story ran back, the second straight forward, and the third downward, which made him greatly resemble a cat.

The Jew shrank into nothing, and sidled up to him almost sideways: "Your High Excellency! High and Illustrious lord!"

"Are you speaking to me, Jew?"

"To you, illustrious lord."

"Hm,—but I'm merely a heyduke," said the merry-eyed man with the three-storied moustache.

"And I thought it was the Voevod himself, God is my witness, I did! Aï, aï, aï!" Thereupon the Jew wagged his head and spread out his fingers. "Aï, what an imposing aspect! A colonel, as God is my witness, a regular colonel! Another finger's breadth and he'd be a colonel. The noble lord ought to mount a stallion, one as fleet as a fly, and drill the regiments!"

The heyduke arranged the lower story of his moustache, and his eyes grew very merry.

"What a warlike people!" went on the Jew. "Ah, woe is me, what a fine race! All cords and metal disks… they shine like the sun; and the pretty girls, whenever they behold warriors—Aï, aï!" Again the Jew wagged his head.

The heyduke twirled his upper moustache, and uttered a sound which somewhat resembled the neigh of a horse.

"I pray the noble lord to do us a service!" exclaimed the Jew: "Here's a prince who has come hither from a foreign land to get a look at the kazáks. He has never, in all his life, seen what sort of men the kazáks are."

The appearance of foreign counts and barons was sufficiently common in Poland: they were often drawn by curiosity to view this half-Asiatic corner of Europe. They regarded Moscow and the Ukraina as situated in Asia. So the heyduke bowed low, and thought fit to put in a few words of his own.

"I do not know, Your Excellency," said he, "why you should desire to see them. They are dogs, not men; and their Faith is such as no one respects."

"You lie, you son of the Devil!" said Bulba. "You're a dog, yourself! How dare you say that our Faith is not respected? It's your heretical faith which is not respected."

"Oho, ho!" said the heyduke. "Well, I know who you are, my friend; you're one of those who are under my charge. So wait, I'll summon our men."

Taras perceived his indiscretion; but vexation and obstinacy prevented his devising a means of remedying it. Fortunately, Yankel managed to interpose at this moment:—"Most illustrious sir, how is it possible that the Count should be a kazák? And if he were a kazák, where could he have obtained such a dress, and such a count-like mien?"

"O, go talk to yourself!" And the heyduke had already opened his wide mouth to shout.

"Your Royal Highness, silence! Silence, for God's sake!" cried Yankel. "Silence! We will pay you for it in a way you have never dreamed of: we will give you two golden ducats."

"Oho! two ducats! I can't do anything with two ducats. I give my barber two ducats for shaving only the half of my beard. Give a hundred ducats, Jew." Here the heyduke twirled his upper moustache. "And if you don't give a hundred ducats, I'll give the alarm on the spot."

"And why so much? " said the Jew sadly, turning pale, and undoing his leather purse; but it was lucky that he had no more in his purse, and that the heyduke could not count above one hundred.

"Noble sir, noble sir, let us depart quickly! See the evil people yonder!" said Yankel, noticing that the heyduke was turning the money over in his hand, as though regretting that he had not demanded more.

"What do you mean, you devil of a heyduke?" said Bulba. "You've taken our money, and don't mean to show us the men? Yes, you must let us see them. Since you've taken the money, you have no right to refuse."

"Get out! Go to the devil! And if you don't, I'll give the alarm this very minute, and you'll—Take yourselves off, and be quick about it. That's all I have to say."

"Sir, noble sir, let us go! In God's name, let us go! Curse him! May he dream of such horrible things that he will have to spit in disgust!" cried poor Yankel.

Bulba turned slowly, with drooping head, and went back, followed by the reproaches of Yankel, who was devoured with grief at the thought of the wasted ducats.

"And why must you needs stir him up? Why didn't you let the dog go on cursing? That race can't help cursing. O, woe is me, what luck God does send to some folks! A hundred ducats merely for driving us off! And our brother—they'll tear off his earlocks, and they'll do something dreadful to his face, so that you can't bear to look at it, and no one will give him a hundred ducats. O, my God! Merciful God!"

But this failure made a much more profound impression upon Bulba, which was expressed by a devouring flame in his eyes.

"Come along!" he said suddenly, as though shaking himself; "Let's go to the square. I want to see how they will torture him."

"O, noble sir, why go? That won't do any good now."

"Come along!" said Bulba obstinately; and, sighing, the Jew followed him as a nurse follows a child.

The square on which the execution was to take place was not difficult to find: people were thronging thither from all directions. In that savage age, an execution constituted one of the most interesting of spectacles, not only for the populace, but also for the higher classes. A multitude of the most pious old women, a throng of young girls and women of the most cowardly sort, who would dream the whole night afterwards of bloody corpses, and who shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed no opportunity, nevertheless, to gratify their curiosity. "Ah, what torture!" many of them would exclaim hysterically, covering their eyes, and turning away; but they would stand their ground for quite a while, nevertheless. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched arms, would have liked to jump upon the heads of the populace to get a better view. Above the mass of small, narrow, commonplace heads, towered the large head of a butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging monosyllabic words with a gunsmith whom he called "Gossip" because he had once got drunk in the same dram-shop with him on a holiday. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the sort who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it, and merely pick at their noses.

In the foreground, close to the bearded city guards, stood a young noble, or one who appeared to be such, in warlike garb, who had donned literally everything he owned, so that nothing but a ragged shirt and his old shoes were left in his quarters. Two chains, one on top of the other, hung around his neck, with some ducats or other depending from them. He stood with his mistress Yusysya, and kept glancing round incessantly, to make sure that no one soiled her silken gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a single word.—"All these people, my dear Yusysya," he said, "whom you behold, have come hither to see the criminals executed; and that man yonder, my love, who holds an axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, and he will despatch them. And when he begins to break them on the wheel, and to torture them in other ways, the criminal will still be alive; but when he cuts off his head, then, my love, he will die at once. Before that he will cry out and move about, but just as soon as his head is cut off it will be impossible for him to cry out, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, he will no longer have any head." And Yusysya listened to it all with terror and curiosity.

The roofs of the houses were dotted with people. From the dormer windows peered very strange faces with beards and something resembling caps. Upon the balconies, beneath awnings, sat the aristocracy. The lovely little hands of a smiling young lady, gleaming like white sugar, clasped the railing. Illustrious nobles, all decidedly stout of figure, looked on with an air of importance. A servitor in brilliant garb, with backward-flowing sleeves, carried round divers beverages and viands. Sometimes a black-eyed rogue would take her cakes or fruit, and fling them among the crowd with her own noble little hand. The throng of hungry knights held up their caps to catch it; and some tall noble, in faded scarlet jacket and discoloured braid, thrusting his head above the throng, was the first to grasp it with the aid of his long arms, and kissed his booty, pressed it to his heart, and finally put it in his mouth. A hawk, suspended beneath the balcony in a gilded cage, was also a spectator; with beak inclined to one side, and one foot raised, he, also, watched the people attentively.—But suddenly a murmur ran through the crowd, and a rumour spread: "They're coming! they're coming! The kazáks!"

The kazáks walked with uncovered heads, and their long scalp-locks[2] floating. Their beards had grown. They walked neither timidly nor surlily, but with a certain haughtiness. Their garments of handsome cloth were threadbare and hung about them in tatters. They neither looked at nor saluted the populace. At the head of all walked Ostap.

What were old Taras's feelings when he beheld his Ostap! What was in his heart then! He gazed at him from among the crowd, and lost not a single one of his movements. The men had already approached the place of execution. Ostap halted. He was to be the first to quaff the bitter cup. He glanced at his comrades, raised his hand, and said in a loud voice: "God grant that none of the heretics who stand here may hear, impious wretches, how Christians suffer! Let none of us utter a single word!" Then he walked up to the scaffold.

"Well done, son! well done!" said Bulba softly, and bowed his grey head.

The executioner tore off Ostap's old rags; they fastened his arms and legs in stocks expressly prepared, and—we will not harrow the reader with a picture of the hellish tortures, which would make his hair rise upright on his head. They were the offspring of that coarse, wild age, when men still led the bloody life of warlike expeditions only, and hardened their souls within them, until no sense of humanity remained. In vain did some—a few who were exceptions in that age—oppose such terrible measures. In vain did the King and many knights, enlightened in mind and soul, demonstrate that such severity of punishment could only fan the flame of vengeance in the kazák nation. But the power of the King and the opinion of the wise were as nothing in comparison with the savage will of the magnates of the kingdom who, by their thoughtlessness and incomprehensible lack of all far-sighted policy, their childish self-love and petty pride, converted the Diet into a satire on government.

Ostap endured the tortures and torments like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan was audible; even when they began to break the bones in his arms and legs, when the horrible cracking could be heard by the most remote spectators amid the deathlike stillness of the throng, when even the young ladies turned aside their eyes, nothing even resembling a groan escaped his lips, nor did his face quiver. Taras stood in the crowd with bowed head; but at the same time, rasing his eyes proudly, he said with approbation: "Well done, son! Well done!" But when they took him to the last deadly tortures, it seemed as though his strength were on the point of failing. And he turned his eyes about him on all sides.

O God! All strangers, all unknown faces! If only some one of his near relatives were but present at his death! He would not have wished to hear the sobs and anguish of his feeble mother, or the unreasoning shrieks of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her white breast: he would have liked to see a strong man who could refresh him with a wise word, and cheer him at the end. And his strength failed him, and he cried aloud, in the weakness of his soul: "Father! Where are you? Do you hear it all?"

"I hear!" rang through the universal silence, and all that million of people shuddered in concert. A detachment of mounted soldiers hastened anxiously to scan the throng of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the horsemen arrived within a short distance of him he turned round in terror to look at Taras: but Taras was no longer beside him; every trace of him was lost.

  1. A heyduke is the lackey of a grandee, selected for his height and massive build, and dressed as a Hungarian, a Hussar or a Kazák. I. F. H.
  2. These long tufts of hair on the crown of a shaven head were a fashion borrowed by the Zaporozhtzi from the Poles. I. F. H.