Taras Bulba/Chapter XII

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Traces of Taras made themselves apparent. A hundred and twenty thousand kazáks descended upon the border-marches of the Ukraina. This was not a small division or detachment which had sallied forth for plunder, or in pursuit of the Tatárs. No: the whole nation had risen, for the measure of the people's patience was full to overflowing; they had risen to avenge the mockery of their rights, the dishonourable humiliation of their characters, the insults to the Faith of their ancestors and their sacred customs, the dishonouring of their Church, the dissolute excesses of the foreign nobles, the Union, the disgraceful domination of Jewdom on Christian soil, and all that had excited and doubled the stern hatred, which the kazáks had cherished for ages. Hetman Ostranitza, young but strong in spirit, led the entire innumerable kazák forces. By his side could be seen his very aged and experienced friend and counsellor, Gunya. Eight colonels led regiments of twelve thousand each. Two Yesauls-general and a Chief Bearer of the Hetman's mace of office, rode behind the Hetman. A Cornet-general carried the principal standard; many other standards and banners floated afar; the assistants of the Hetman's mace-bearer bore the Hetman's staff. There were also many other officials of the regiment, of the transport-wagons, and of the general army, and regimental scribes, and with them detachments of foot-soldiers and of cavalry. There were almost as many free kazáks and volunteers as there were registered kazáks. The kazáks had risen up everywhere, in Chigirin, from Pereyaslav, from Baturin, from Glukhov, from the regions of the lower Dnyeper, from the whole of its upper course and from the islands. Innumerable horses, and countless camps of carts stretched across the plain. And among all these kazáks, among all those eight regiments, one regiment was the flower of them all, and it was led by Taras Bulba. Everything contributed to give him weight over the others: his advanced years, his experience and skill in directing his troops, and his hatred of the foe, which surpassed that of all the rest. His grey head dreamed of nothing but fire and the halter, and his utterances in the councils of war breathed nothing short of annihilation.

It is not worth while to describe all the battles in which the kazáks distinguished themselves, or the gradual course of the campaign. All that is set down in the Chronicles of old. Every one knows what an army raised on Russian soil for the Faith is like. There is no power stronger than faith. It is menacing and invincible as a rock not made by human hands, amid the stormy, ever-changing sea. From the very heart of the depths of the sea it lifts its impregnable walls to heaven, all built of a single, compact stone. It is visible from every side, and looks the waves straight in the eye as they roll past. And woe to the vessel which is dashed against it! The rigging flies into splinters, everything in it sinks and is crushed into dust, and the startled air reverberates with the cries of the drowning.

The pages of the Chronicles contain a minute description of how the Polish garrisons fled from the liberated towns; how the unscrupulous Jewish revenue-farmers were hung; how weak was the royal Hetman, Nikolai Pototzky, with his numerous army against this invincible force; how, broken, pursued, he drowned the best part of his army in a small stream; how the fierce kazák regiments besieged him in the small town of Polon; and, how, driven to extremities, the Polish Hetman promised, under oath, full satisfaction for everything, in the name of his King and the government officials, and the restitution of all their former rights and privileges. But the kazáks were not the men to be tricked by all that: they already knew full well the value of a Polish oath. And Pototzky would never more have pranced on his six-thousand ducat race-horse of the Kabarda, attracting the glances of distinguished ladies, and the envy of the nobility; he would never more have cut a figure in the Diet, giving luxurious feasts to Senators,—if the Russian priests who were in the little town had not saved him. When all the clergy in their brilliant gold vestments, with the Bishop himself, cross in hand and episcopal mitre on head, went out to meet the kazáks, bearing the holy pictures and the cross, all the kazáks bowed their heads, and doffed their caps. No one lower than the King himself would they have respected at such an hour; but their boldness subsided before the Church of Christ, and they paid respect to their priesthood. The Hetman and the Colonels agreed to release Pototzky, after having exacted from him a solemn oath to leave all the Christian churches at liberty, to lay aside the ancient enmity, and to do no injury to the kazák army. One colonel alone would not agree to such a peace. That one was Taras. He tore a handful of hair from his head, and cried:

"Eh, Hetman and Colonels! Commit no such womanish deed! Trust not the Lyakhs! The dogs will betray you!"

When the regimental scribe presented the agreement, and the Hetman set his powerful hand to it, Taras drew out his genuine Damascus blade, a rich Turkish sabre of the finest steel, broke it in twain like a reed, and flung the two fragments far away from him on either side, saying: "Farewell! As the two pieces of this sword will never reunite and form one sword again, so, we, comrades, shall never more behold one another in this world. Remember my parting words." (Here his voice rose higher and acquired a hitherto unknown power—and his prophetic utterances troubled them all.) "Before your death-hour you will remember me! Do you think that you have purchased peace and quiet? Do you think you are going to reign like Polish lords? You will reign like Polish lords, but after quite another fashion. They will flay the skin from your head, Hetman, they will stuff it with bran, and long will it be exhibited at all the fairs. And neither will you retain your heads, noble sirs! You will perish in damp dungeons, walled about with stone, if they do not boil you alive in kettles, as they boil sheep!

"And you, my men," he went on, turning to his followers, "which of you wants to die a proper death? not through sorrows and womanish longing, nor drunk under a hedge alongside of the dramshop; but an honourable kazák death, all in one bed, like bride and groom? Or, perhaps, you would like to go back home and turn infidels, and carry Polish Catholic priests on your backs?"

"We'll follow you, sir Colonel, we'll follow you!" shouted his whole regiment, and many others joined them.

"If you mean to follow me, then come on!" said Taras, pulling his cap further down on his brows; and throwing a menacing glance at the others, he walked to his horse, and shouted to his men: "Let no one reproach us with any insulting speeches! Now, hey there, my lads! we'll go and pay a visit to the Catholics!" Thereupon he lashed his horse, and there followed him a camp of a hundred carts, and with them many cavalry and foot-soldiers; and, turning, he threatened with his glance all who remained behind—and wrath was in his eye. The regiment marched off in full view of the whole army, and Taras continued long to turn and glower.

The Hetman and the colonels were disquieted; all grew thoughtful and remained long silent, as though oppressed by some heavy foreboding. Not in vain did Taras prophesy: all came to pass as he had foretold. A little while afterwards, after the treacherous attack at Kanev, the Hetman's head was mounted on a stake, together with the heads of many among his principal officers.

And what of Taras? Taras roamed all over Poland with his regiment, burned eighteen towns, and nearly forty churches, and reached Krakov. He slew many nobles of all degrees, and plundered the richest and finest castles. The kazáks opened and poured out on the ground the century-old mead and wine, carefully hoarded up in the noblemen's cellars; they cut and burned rich cloths, garments, and utensils, which they found in the storerooms. "Spare nothing," Taras kept repeating—only that. The kazáks spared not the black-browed gentlewoman, the brilliant, white-bosomed maidens: they could not save themselves, not even at the altar itself; Taras burned them together with the altar. Many were the snowy hands upraised to heaven from amid the fiery flames, accompanied by piteous shrieks, which would have moved the damp earth itself to pity, and caused the steppe-grass to bend low with compassion at their fate. But the ruthless kazáks paid no heed, and picking up the children in the streets upon their lances, they cast them, also, into the flames.

"This is in commemoration of Ostap, you devilish Lyakhs!" was all that Taras said. And such commemorations for Ostap he arranged in every village, until the Polish Government perceived that Taras's raids were more than ordinary expeditions for plunder; and that same Pototzky was given five regiments, and ordered to capture Taras, without fail.

Six days did the kazáks retreat along the country lanes, before the pursuit; their horses barely endured this excessive flight, but they saved the kazáks. But this time Pototzky was equal to the task intrusted to him ; unwearily he followed them, and reached the bank of the Dnyeper, where Taras had taken possession of a ruined and abandoned castle, for the purpose of resting.

On the very brink of the Dnyeper, it could be seen, with its shattered ramparts and the ruined remains of its walls. The summit of the cliff was strewn with rubbish and broken bricks, ready at any moment to detach themselves and fly to the bottom. The Royal Hetman, Pototzky, surrounded it on the two sides which faced the plain. Four days did the kazáks fight and struggle, defending themselves with bricks and stones. But their provisions and their strength became exhausted, and Taras resolved to cut his way through the ranks. And the kazáks would have cut their way out, and their swift steeds might again have served them faithfully, had not Taras halted suddenly in the very midst of their flight, and shouted: "Halt! my pipe has dropped with its tobacco: I won't let those devilish Lyakhs have my pipe!" And the old atamán bent down, and searched in the grass for his pipe full of tobacco, his inseparable companion on all his expeditions on sea and land and at home.

But, in the meantime, a band of Lyakhs suddenly dashed up and seized him by his mighty shoulders. He tried to struggle with all his limbs; but he failed to scatter the heydukes over the ground as he had been wont to do. "O, old age, old age!" he said: and the stalwart old kazák wept. But it was not his age that was to blame: nearly thirty men were hanging on his arms and legs.

"The raven is caught!" shouted the Lyakhs. "Now it is only necessary to think how we can best show him honour, the dog!" and they decided, with the permission of the Hetman, to burn him alive in the sight of every one. Near by stood a naked tree, whose crest had been blasted by lightning. They bound him with iron chains to the trunk of the tree, driving nails through his hands, and raising him as high as possible, that the old kazák might be everywhere visible; and they immediately began to build a pyre of faggots at the foot of the tree. But Taras did not look at the pyre, nor did he think of the fire with which they were preparing to burn him: he gazed anxiously, the great-hearted man, in the direction whence the kazáks were firing. From his lofty post of observation he could see everything, as in the palm of his hand.

"Take possession, my lads, take possession quickly," he shouted, "of the hillock behind the forest: they can't approach it!" But the wind did not carry his words to them. "They'll perish, perish for nothing!" he said, in despair, and glanced down to where the Dnyeper gleamed. Joy shone in his eyes. He descried the sterns of four boats peeping out from behind the bushes; and he gathered together all the strength of his voice, and shouted in a ringing tone: "To the shore, to the shore, my lads! descend the path on the left, under the cliff. There are boats on the strand; seize them all, that the foe may not catch you!"

This time the breeze blew from the other quarter, and all his words were audible to the kazáks. But for this counsel he received a blow on the head with the butt-end of an axe, which made everything dance before his eyes.

The kazáks rode down the cliff path at full speed; but the pursuers were at their heels. They looked: the path wound and twisted and made many curves aside. "Ah, comrades, luck's against us!" said they all, then halted for an instant, raised their whips—and their Tatár horses rose from the ground, clove air like serpents, flew over the precipice, and plunged straight into the Dnyeper. Two only failed to land in the river, and thundered from the height upon the stones, and perished there with their steeds, before they could even utter a cry. But the rest of the kazáks were already swimming with their horses and unfastening the boats. The Lyakhs halted on the brink of the precipice, astounded at this wonderful feat of the kazáks, and thinking: "Shall we leap down to them, or not?"

One young colonel, a lively, hot-blooded fellow, own brother to the beautiful Pole who had seduced poor Andríi, did not reflect long, but hurled himself and his horse after the kazáks, with all his might. He turned three somersaults in the air with his steed, and landed heavily on the jagged cliffs. The sharp stones tore him in pieces as he fell into the abyss; and his brains, mingled with blood, bespattered the shrubs which grew on the uneven walls of the precipice.

When Taras Bulba recovered from the blow, and glanced at the Dnyeper, the kazáks were already in the skiffs, and were rowing away. Bullets showered upon them from above, but did not reach them. And the old Atamán's eyes sparkled with joy.

"Farewell, comrades!" he shouted to them from above; "remember me, and come hither again next spring to make merry!—What if ye have captured me, ye devilish Lyakhs? Think ye that there is anything in the world which the kazák fears? Wait; the time will come when ye shall learn what the Orthodox Russian Faith is like! Already the peoples, far and near, are beginning to understand it. A Tzar shall arise from the Russian soil, and there shall not be a Power in the world which shall not submit itself to him!" But the fire had already risen above the faggots: it was lapping his feet, and the flames spread to the tree… But can any fire, flames or power be found on earth capable of overpowering Russian strength?

Not small is the river Dnyeper, and in it are many deep pools, dense reed-beds, shallows and little bays; its watery mirror gleams brightly, resounding with the ringing plaint of the swan, and the proud wild goose glides swiftly over it; and many are the woodcocks, tawny-throated grouse, and various other sorts of birds to be found among the reeds and along its shores. The kazáks floated swiftly on in the narrow, double-ruddered boats,—rowed stoutly, carefully shunning the reefs, cleaving the ranks of the birds, which rose on the wing—and talked of their Atamán.