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I was returning home by the fields. It was midsummer; the hay harvest was over, and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of flowersred, white and pink scented tufty clover; milk-white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centres and pleasant spicy smell; yellow honey-scented rape blossoms; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip-shaped; creeping vetch; yellow, red and pink scabious; plantains with faintly-scented neatly-arranged purple, slightly pink-tinged blossoms; cornflowers, bright blue in the sunshine and while still young, but growing paler and redder towards evening or when growing old; and delicate quickly-withering almond-scented dodder flowers. I gathered a large nosegay of these different flowers, and was going home, when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson kind, which in our neighbourhood they call "Tartar," and carefully avoid when mowingor, if they do happen to cut it down, throw out from among the grass for fear of pricking their hands. Thinking to pick this thistle and put it in the centre of my nosegay, I climbed down into the ditch, and, after driving away a velvety humble-bee that had penetrated deep into one of the flowers and had there fallen sweetly asleep, I set to work to pluck the flower. But this proved a very difficult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every sideeven through the handkerchief I wrapped round my handbut it was so tough that I hadto struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibres one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed, and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Moreover, owing to its coarseness and stiffness, it did not seem in place among the delicate blossoms of my nosegay. I felt sorry to have vainly destroyed a flower that looked beautiful in its proper place, and I threw it away.
"But what energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life!" thought I to myself, recollecting the effort it had cost me to pluck the flower. The way home led across black-earth fields that had just been ploughed up. I ascended the dusty path. The ploughed field belonged to a landed proprietor, and was so large that on both sides and before me to the top of the hill nothing was visible but evenly furrowed and moist earth. The land was well tilled, and nowhere was there a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen; it was all black. "Ah, what a destructive creature is man.... How many different plant-lives he destroys to support his own existence!" thought I, involuntarily looking round for some living thing in this lifeless black field. In front of me, to the right of the road, I saw some kind of little clump, and drawing nearer I found it was the same kind of thistle as that which I had vainly plucked and thrown away. This "Tartar" plant had three branches. One was broken, and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm. Each of the other two bore a flower, once red but now blackened. One stalk was broken and half of it hung down with a soiled flower at its tip. The other, though also soiled with black mud, still stood erect. Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant, but it had risen again and that was why, though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels had been drawn out, an arm torn off, and one of its eyes plucked out; and yet it stood firm and did not surrender to man, who had destroyed all its brothers around it....
"What energy!" I thought. "Man has conquered everything, and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won't submit." And I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago, which I had partly seen myself, partly heard of from eye-witnesses, and in part imagined.
The episode, as it has taken shape in my memory and imagination, was as follows.
* * *
This happened towards the end of 1851.
On a cold November evening Hadji Murád rode into Makhket, a hostile Chechen aoul, that was filled with the scented smoke of burning kizyák, and that lay some fifteen miles from Russian territory. The strained chant of the muezzin had just ceased, and through the clear mountain air, impregnated with kizyák smoke, above the lowing of the cattle and the bleating of the sheep that were dispersing among the sáklyas (which were crowded together like the cells of a honeycomb), could be clearly heard the guttural voices of disputing men, and sounds of women's and children's voices rising from near the fountain below.
This Hadji Murád was Shamil's naïb, famous for his exploits, who used never to ride out without his banner, and was always accompanied by some dozens of murids, who caracoled and showed off before him. Now, with one murid only, wrapped in hood and búrka, from under which protruded a rifle, he rode, a fugitive, trying to attract as little attention as possible, and peering with his quick black eyes into the faces of those he met on his way.
When he entered the aoul, Hadji Murád did not ride up the road leading to the open square, but turned to the left into a narrow side street; and on reaching the second sáklya, which was cut into the hillside, he stopped and looked round. There was no one on the veranda in front; but on the roof of the sáklya itself, behind the freshly-plastered clay chimney, lay a man covered with a sheepskin. Hadji Murád touched him with the handle of his leather-plaited whip, and clicked his tongue. An old man rose from under the sheepskin. He had on a greasy old beshmét and a nightcap. His moist red eyelids had no lashes, and he blinked to get them unstuck. Hadji Murád, repeating the customary "Selaam aleikum!" uncovered his face. "Aleikum, selaam!" said the old man, recognizing Hadji Murád and smiling with his toothless mouth; and rising up on his thin legs, he began thrusting his feet into the wooden-heeled slippers that stood by the chimney. Then he leisurely slipped his arms into the sleeves of his crumpled sheepskin, and going to the ladder that leant against the roof, he descended backwards. While he dressed, and as he climbed down, he kept shaking his head on its thin, shrivelled sunburnt neck, and mumbling something with his toothless mouth. As soon as he reached the ground he hospitably seized Hadji Muráad's bridle and right stirrup; but the strong, active murid who accompanied Hadji Murád had quickly dismounted and, motioning the old man aside, took his place. Hadji Murád also dismounted and, walking with a slight limp, entered under the veranda. A boy of fifteen, coming quickly out of the door, met him and wonderingly fixed his sparkling eyes, black as ripe sloes, on the new arrivals.
"Run to the mosque and call your father," ordered the old man, as he hurried forward to open the thin, creaking door into the sáklya for Hadji Murád.
As Hadji Murád entered the outer door, a light spare middle-aged woman in a yellow smock, red beshmét, and wide blue trousers came through an inner door carrying cushions.
"May thy coming bring happiness!" said she, and, bending nearly double, began arranging the cushions along the front wall for the guest to sit on.
"May thy sons live!" answered Hadji Murád, taking off his búrka, his rifle and his sword and handing them to the old man, who carefully hung the rifle and sword on a nail beside the weapons of the master of the house, which were suspended between two large basins that glittered against the clean clay-plastered and carefully whitewashed wall.
Hadji Murád adjusted the pistol at his back, came up to the cushions and, wrapping his Circassian coat closer round him, sat down. The old man squatted on his bare heels beside him, closed his eyes, and lifted his hands, palms upwards. Hadji Murád did the same; then, after repeating a prayer, they both stroked their faces, passing theft hands downwards till the palms joined at the end of their beards.
"Ne habar?" asked Hadji Murád, addressing the old man. (That is, "Is there anything new?")
"Habar yok" ("nothing new"), replied the old man, looking with his lifeless red eyes not at Hadji Murád's face but at his breast. "I live at the apiary, and have only to-day come to see my son.... He knows."
Hadji Murád, understanding that the old man did not wish to say what he knew and what Hadji Murád wanted to know, slightly nodded his head and asked no more questions.
"There is no good news," said the old man. "The only news is that the hares keep discussing how to drive away the eagles; and the eagles tear first one and then another of them. The other day the Russian dogs burnt the hay in the Mitchit aoul.... May their faces be torn!" added he, hoarsely and angrily.
Hadji Murád's murid entered the room, his strong legs striding softly over the earthen floor. Retaining only his dagger and pistol, he took off his búrka, rifle and sword as Hadji Murád had done, and hung them up on the same nails with his leader's weapons.
"Who is he?" asked the old man, pointing to the newcomer.
"My murid. Eldár is his name," said Hadji Murád.
"That is well," said the old man, and motioned Eldár to a place on a piece of felt beside Hadji Murád. Eldár sat down, crossing his legs, and fixing his fine ram-like eyes on the old man, who, having now started talking, was telling how their brave fellows had caught two Russian soldiers the week before, and had killed one and sent the other to Shamil in Vedéno.
Hadji Murád heard him absently, looking at the door and listening to the sounds outside. On the veranda steps were heard, the door creaked, and Sado, the master of the house, came in. He was a man of about forty, with a small beard, long nose, and eyes as black, though not as glittering, as those of his fifteen-year-old son who had run to call him home, and who now entered with his father and sat down by the door. The master of the house took off his wooden slippers at the door, and pushing his old and much-worn cap onto the back of his head (which had remained unshaved so long that it was beginning to be overgrown with black hair), at once squatted down in front of Hadji Murád.
He too lifted his hands, palms upwards, as the old man had done, repeated a prayer, and then stroked his face downwards. Only after that did he begin to speak. He told how an order had come from Shamil to seize Hadji Murád, alive or dead; that Shamil's envoys had left only the day before; that the people were afraid to disobey Shamil's orders; and that therefore it was necessary to be careful.
"In my house," said Sado, "no one shall injure my kunák while I live; but how will it be in the open fields? ... We must think it over."
Hadji Murád listened with attention and nodded approvingly. When Sado had finished he said,
"Very well. Now we must send a man with a letter to the Russians. My murid will go, but he will need a guide."
"I will send brother Bata," said Sado. "Go and call Bata," he added, turning to his son.
The boy instantly bounded to his nimble feet as if he were on springs, and swinging his arms, rapidly left the sáklya. Some ten minutes later he returned with a sinewy, short-legged Chechen, burnt almost black by the sun, wearing a worn and tattered yellow Circassian coat with frayed sleeves, and crumpled black leggings.
Hadji Murád greeted the newcomer, and at once, and again without wasting a single word, asked,
"Canst thou conduct my murid to the Russians?"
"I can," gaily replied Bata. "I can certainly do it. There is not another Chechen who would pass as I can. Another might agree to go, and might promise anything, but would do nothing; but I can do it!"
"All right," said Hadji Murád. "Thou wilt receive three for thy trouble," and he held up three fingers.
Bata nodded to show that he understood, and added that it was not money he prized, but that he was ready to serve Hadji Murád for the honour alone. Every one in the mountains knew Hadji Murád, and how he slew the Russian swine.
"Very well.... a rope should be long, but a speech short," said Hadji Murád.
"Well, then, I'll hold my tongue," said Bata.
"Where the river Argun bends by the cliff," said Hadji Murád, "there are two stacks in a glade in the forestthou knowest?"
"There my four horsemen are waiting for me," said Hadji Murád.
"Aye," answered Bata, nodding.
"Ask for Khan Mahomá. He knows what to do and what to say. Canst thou lead him to the Russian commander, Prince Vorontsóv?"
"I'll take him there."
"Take him, and bring him back again. Canst thou?"
"Take him there, and return to the wood. I shall be there too."
"I will do it all," said Bata, rising, and putting his hands on his heart he went out.
Hadji Murád turned to his host when Bata had gone.
"A man must also be sent to Chekhi," he began, and took hold of one of the cartridge pouches of his Circassian coat, but immediately let his hand drop and became silent on seeing two women enter the sáklya.
One was Sado's wifethe thin middle-aged woman who had arranged the cushions for Hadji Murád. The other was quite a young girl, wearing red trousers and a green beshmét; a necklace of silver coins covered the whole front of her dress, and at the end of the not long but thick plait of hard black hair that hung between her thin shoulder-blades a silver rouble was suspended. Her eyes, as sloe black as those of her father and brother, sparkled brightly in her young face, which tried to be stern. She did not look at the visitors, but evidently felt their presence.
Sado's wife brought in a low round table, on which stood tea, pancakes in butter, cheese, churek (that is, thinly rolled out bread), and honey. The girl carried a basin, a ewer, and a towel.
Sado and Hadji Murád kept silent as long as the women, with their coin ornaments tinkling, moved softly about in their red soft-soled slippers, setting out before the visitors the things they had brought Eldár sat motionless as a statue, his ram-like eyes fixed on his crossed legs, all the time the women were in the sáklya. Only after they had gone, and their soft footsteps could no longer be heard behind the door, did he give a sigh of relief.
Hadji Murád having pulled out a bullet that plugged one of the bullet-pouches of his Circassian coat, and having taken out a rolled-up note that lay beneath it, held it out, saying,
"To be handed to my son."
"Where must the answer be sent?"
"To thee, and thou must forward it to me."
"It shall be done," said Sado, and placed the note in a cartridge-pocket of his own coat. Then he took up the metal ewer and moved the basin towards Hadji Murád.
Hadji Murád turned up the sleeves of his beshmét on his white muscular arms, and held out his hands under the clear cold water which Sado poured from the ewer. Having wiped them on a clean unbleached towel, Hadji Murád turned to the table. Eldár did the same. While the visitors ate, Sado sat opposite, and thanked them several times for their visit. The boy sat by the door, never taking his sparkling eyes off Hadji Murád's face, and smiled as if in confirmation of his father's words.
Though Hadji Murád had eaten nothing for more than twenty-four hours, he ate only a little bread and cheese; then, drawing out a small knife from under his dagger, he spread some honey on a piece of bread.
"Our honey is good," said the old man, evidently pleased to see Hadji Murád eating his honey. "This year, above all other years, it is plentiful and good."
"I thank thee," said Hadji Murád, and turned from the table. Eldár would have liked to go on eating, but he followed his leader's example, and, having moved away from the table, handed Hadji Murád the ewer and basin.
Sado knew that he was risking his life by receiving Hadji Murád in his house, as, after his quarrel with Shamil, the latter had issued a proclamation to all the inhabitants of Chechnya forbidding them to receive Hadji Murád on pain of death. He knew that the inhabitants of the aoul might at any moment become aware of Hadji Murád's presence in his house, and might demand his surrender; but this not only did not frighten Sado, but even gave him pleasure. He considered it his duty to protect his guest though it should cost him his life, and he was proud and pleased with himself because he was doing his duty.
"Whilst thou art in my house and my head is on my shoulders no one shall harm thee," he repeated to Hadji Murád.
Hadji Murád looked into his glittering eyes, and understanding that this was true, said with some solemnity,
"Mayest thou receive joy and life!"
Sado silently laid his hand on his heart as a sign of thanks for these kind words.
Having closed the shutters of the sáklya and laid some sticks in the fireplace, Sado, in an exceptionally bright and animated mood, left the room and went into that part of his sáklya where his family all lived. The women had not yet gone to sleep, and were talking about the dangerous visitors who were spending the night in their guest-chamber.
At the advanced fort Vozdvízhensk, situated some ten miles from the aoul in which Hadji Murád was spending the night, three soldiers and a non-commissioned officer left the fortifications and went beyond the Shahgirínsk Gate. The soldiers, dressed as Caucasian soldiers used to be in those days, wore sheepskin coals and caps, and boots that reached above their knees, and they carried their cloaks tightly rolled up and fastened across their shoulders. Shouldering arms, they first went some five hundred paces along the road, and then turned off it and went some twenty paces to the rightthe dead leaves rustling under their bootstill they reached the blackened trunk of a broken plane tree, just visible through the darkness. There they stopped. It was at this plane tree that an ambush party was usually placed.
The bright stars, that seemed to be running along the tree-tops while the soldiers were walking through the forest, now stood still, shining brightly between the bare branches of the trees.
"A good job it's dry," said the non-commissioned officer, Panóv, bringing down his long gun and bayonet with a clang from his shoulder, and placing it against the plane tree. The three soldiers did the same.
"Sure enough, I've lost it!" crossly muttered Panóv. "Must have left it behind, or I've dropped it on the way."
"What are you looking for?" asked one of the soldiers in a bright, cheerful voice.
"The bowl of my pipe. Where the devil has it got to?"
"Have you the stem?" asked the cheerful voice.
"Here's the stem."
"Then why not stick it straight into the ground?"
"Not worth bothering!"
"We'll manage that in a minute."
It was forbidden to smoke while in ambush, but this ambush hardly deserved the name. It was rather an outpost to prevent the mountaineers from bringing up a cannon unobserved and firing at the fort as they used to do. Panóv did not consider it necessary to forego the pleasure of smoking, and therefore accepted the cheerful soldier's offer. The latter took a knife from his pocket and dug with it a hole in the ground. Having smoothed this round, he adjusted the pipe-stem to it, then filled the hole with tobacco and pressed it down; and the pipe was ready. A sulphur match flared and for a moment lit up the broad-checked face of the soldier who lay on his stomach. The air whistled in the stem, and Panóv smelt the pleasant odor of burning tobacco.
"Fixed it up?" said he, rising to his feet.
"Why, of course!"
"What a smart chap you are, Avdéev! ... As wise as a judge! Now then, lad."
Avdéev rolled over on his side to make room for Panóv, letting smoke escape from his mouth.
Panóv lay down prone, and, after wiping the mouthpiece with his sleeve, began to inhale.
When they had their smoke the soldiers began to talk.
"They say the commander has had his fingers in the cash-box again," remarked one of them in a lazy voice. "He lost at cards, you see."
"He'll pay it back again," said Panóv.
"Of course he will! He's a good officer," assented Avdéev.
"Good! good!" gloomily repeated the man who had started the conversation. "In my opinion the company ought to speak to him. `If you've taken the money, tell us how much and when you'll repay it.'"
"That will be as the company decides," said Panóv, tearing himself away from the pipe.
"Of course. `The community is a strongman,' "assented Avdéev, quoting a proverb.
"There will be oats to buy and boots to get towards spring. The money will be wanted, and what if he's pocketed it?" insisted the dissatisfied one.
"I tell you it will be as the company wishes," repeated Panóv. "It's not the first time: he takes, and gives back."
In the Caucasus in those days each company chose men to manage its own commissariat. They received 6 roubles 50 kopeks a month per man from the treasury, and catered for the company. They planted cabbages, made hay, had their own carts, and prided themselves on their well-fed horses. The company's money was kept in a chest, of which the commander had the key; and it often happened that he borrowed from the chest. This had just happened again, and that was what the soldiers were talking about. The morose soldier, Nikítin, wished to demand an account from the commander, while Panóv and Avdéev considered it unnecessary.
After Panóv, Nikítin had a smoke; and then, spreading his cloak on the ground, sat down on it, leaning against the trunk of the plane tree. The soldiers were silent. Only far above their heads the crowns of the trees rustled in the wind. Suddenly, above this incessant low rustling, rose the howling whining weeping and chuckling of jackals.
"Hear those accursed creatureshow they caterwaul!"
"They're laughing at you because your mug's all on one side," remarked the high voice of another soldier, a Ukrainian.
All was silent again: only the wind swayed the branches, now revealing and now hiding the stars.
"I say, Panóv," suddenly asked the cheerful Avdéev, "do you ever feel dull?"
"Dull, why?" replied Panóv reluctantly.
"Well, I do feel dull ... so dull sometimes that I don't know what I might not be ready to do to myself."
"There now!" was all Panóv replied.
"That time when I drank all the money, it was from dulness. It took hold of me ... took hold of me till I thinks to myself, `I'll just get blind drunk!'"
"But sometimes drinking makes it still worse."
"Yes, that's happened to me too. But what is one to do with oneself?"
"But what makes you feel so dull?"
"What, me? ... Why, it's the longing for home."
"Is yours a wealthy home, then?"
"No, we weren't wealthy, but things went properlywe lived well." And Avdéev began to relate what he had already many times told to Panov.
"You see, I went as a soldier of my own free will, instead of my brother," he said. "He has children. They were five in family, and I had only just married. Mother began begging me to go. So I thought, `Well, maybe they will remember what I've done.' So I went to our proprietor ... he was a good master, and he said, `You're a fine fellow, go!' So I went instead of my brother."
"Well, that was right," said Panóv.
"And yet, will you believe me, Panóv, if I now feel so dull, it's chiefly because of that? `Why did you go instead of your brother?' I say. `He's now living like a king over there, while I have to suffer here;' and the more I think the worse I feel.... Seems it's just a piece of ill-luck!"
Avdéev was silent.
"Perhaps we'd better have another smoke," said he after a pause.
"Well then, fix it up!"
But the soldiers were not to have their smoke. Hardly had Avdéev risen to fix the pipe-stem in its place when above the rustling of the trees they heard footsteps along the road. Panóv took his gun, and pushed Nikítin with his foot.
Nikítin rose and picked up his cloak.
The third soldier, Bondarénko, rose also, and said,
"And I have just dreamt such a dream, mates...."
"Sh!" said Avdéev, and the soldiers held their breath, listening. The footsteps of men not shod in hard boots were heard approaching. Clearer and clearer through the darkness was heard a rustling of the fallen leaves and dry twigs. Then came the peculiar guttural tones of Chechen voices. The soldiers now not only heard, but saw two shadows passing through a clear space between the trees. One shadow was taller than the other. When these shadows had come in line with the soldiers, Panóv, gun in hand, stepped out on to the road, followed by his comrades.
"Who goes there?" cried he.
"Me, friendly Chechen," said the shorter one. This was Bata. "Gun, yok! ... sword, yok!" said he, pointing to himself. "Prince, want!"
The taller one stood silent beside his comrade. He, too, was unarmed.
"He means he's a scout, and wants the colonel," explained Panóv to his comrades.
"Prince Vorontsóv... much want! Big business!" said Bata.
"All right, all right! We'll take you to him," said Panóv. "I say, you'd better take them," said he to Avdéev, "you and Bondarénko; and when you've given them up to the officer on duty come back again. Mind," he added, "be careful to make them keep in front of you!"
"And what of this?" said Avdéev, moving his gun and bayonet as though stabbing someone. "I'd just give a dig, and let the steam out of him!"
"What will he be worth when you've stuck him?" remarked Bondarénko.
When the steps of the two soldiers conducting the scouts could no longer be heard, Panóv and Nikítin returned to their post.
"What the devil brings them here at night?" said Nikítin.
"Seems it's necessary," said Panóv. "But it's getting chilly," he added, and, unrolling his cloak, he put it on and sat down by the tree.
About two hours later Avdeev and Bondarénko returned.
"Well, have you handed them over?"
"Yes. They're not yet asleep at the colonel'sthey were taken straight in to him. And do you know, mates, those shaven-headed lads are fine?" continued Avdéev. "Yes, really? What a talk I had with them!"
"Of course you'd talk," remarked Nikítin disapprovingly.
"Really, they're just like Russians. One of them is married. `Molly,' says I, `bar?' `Bar,' he says. Bondarenko, didn't I say `bar?' Many `bar?' `A couple,' says he. A couple! Such a good talk we had! Such nice fellows!"
"Nice, indeed!" said Nikítin. "If you met him alone he'd soon let the guts out of you."
"It will be getting light before long," said Panóv.
"Yes, the stars are beginning to go out," said Avdéev, sitting down and making himself comfortable.
And the soldiers were again silent.