The Cossacks, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter 1

All is quiet in Moscow. The squeak of wheels is seldom heard in the snow-covered street. There are no lights left in the windows and the street lamps have been extinguished. Only the sound of bells, borne over the city from the church towers, suggests the approach of morning. The streets are deserted. At rare intervals a night-cabman’s sledge kneads up the snow and sand in the street as the driver makes his way to another corner where he falls asleep while waiting for a fare. An old woman passes by on her way to church, where a few wax candles burn with a red light reflected on the gilt mountings of the icons. Workmen are already getting up after the long winter night and going to their work — but for the gentlefolk it is still evening.

From a window in Chevalier’s Restaurant a light — illegal at that hour — is still to be seen through a chink in the shutter. At the entrance a carriage, a sledge, and a cabman’s sledge, stand close together with their backs to the curbstone. A three-horse sledge from the post-station is there also. A yard-porter muffled up and pinched with cold is sheltering behind the corner of the house.

‘And what’s the good of all this jawing?’ thinks the footman who sits in the hall weary and haggard. ‘This always happens when I’m on duty.’ From the adjoining room are heard the voices of three young men, sitting there at a table on which are wine and the remains of supper. One, a rather plain, thin, neat little man, sits looking with tired kindly eyes at his friend, who is about to start on a journey. Another, a tall man, lies on a sofa beside a table on which are empty bottles, and plays with his watch-key. A third, wearing a short, fur-lined coat, is pacing up and down the room stopping now and then to crack an almond between his strong, rather thick, but well-tended fingers. He keeps smiling at something and his face and eyes are all aglow. He speaks warmly and gesticulates, but evidently does not find the words he wants and those that occur to him seem to him inadequate to express what has risen to his heart.

‘Now I can speak out fully,’ said the traveller. ‘I don’t want to defend myself, but I should like you at least to understand me as I understand myself, and not look at the matter superficially. You say I have treated her badly,’ he continued, addressing the man with the kindly eyes who was watching him.

‘Yes, you are to blame,’ said the latter, and his look seemed to express still more kindliness and weariness.

‘I know why you say that,’ rejoined the one who was leaving. ‘To be loved is in your opinion as great a happiness as to love, and if a man obtains it, it is enough for his whole life.’

‘Yes, quite enough, my dear fellow, more than enough!’ confirmed the plain little man, opening and shutting his eyes.

‘But why shouldn’t the man love too?’ said the traveller thoughtfully, looking at his friend with something like pity. ‘Why shouldn’t one love? Because love doesn’t come . . . No, to be beloved is a misfortune. It is a misfortune to feel guilty because you do not give something you cannot give. O my God!’ he added, with a gesture of his arm. ‘If it all happened reasonably, and not all topsy-turvy — not in our way but in a way of its own! Why, it’s as if I had stolen that love! You think so too, don’t deny it. You must think so. But will you believe it, of all the horrid and stupid things I have found time to do in my life — and there are many — this is one I do not and cannot repent of. Neither at the beginning nor afterwards did I lie to myself or to her. It seemed to me that I had at last fallen in love, but then I saw that it was an involuntary falsehood, and that that was not the way to love, and I could not go on, but she did. Am I to blame that I couldn’t? What was I to do?’

‘Well, it’s ended now!’ said his friend, lighting a cigar to master his sleepiness. ‘The fact is that you have not yet loved and do not know what love is.’

The man in the fur-lined coat was going to speak again, and put his hands to his head, but could not express what he wanted to say.

‘Never loved! . . . Yes, quite true, I never have! But after all, I have within me a desire to love, and nothing could be stronger than that desire! But then, again, does such love exist? There always remains something incomplete. Ah well! What’s the use of talking? I’ve made an awful mess of life! But anyhow it’s all over now; you are quite right. And I feel that I am beginning a new life.’

‘Which you will again make a mess of,’ said the man who lay on the sofa playing with his watch-key. But the traveller did not listen to him.

‘I am sad and yet glad to go,’ he continued. ‘Why I am sad I don’t know.’

And the traveller went on talking about himself, without noticing that this did not interest the others as much as it did him. A man is never such an egotist as at moments of spiritual ecstasy. At such times it seems to him that there is nothing on earth more splendid and interesting than himself.

‘Dmitri Andreich! The coachman won’t wait any longer!’ said a young serf, entering the room in a sheepskin coat, with a scarf tied round his head. ‘The horses have been standing since twelve, and it’s now four o’clock!’

Dmitri Andreich looked at his serf, Vanyusha. The scarf round Vanyusha’s head, his felt boots and sleepy face, seemed to be calling his master to a new life of labour, hardship, and activity.

‘True enough! Good-bye!’ said he, feeling for the unfastened hook and eye on his coat.

In spite of advice to mollify the coachman by another tip, he put on his cap and stood in the middle of the room. The friends kissed once, then again, and after a pause, a third time. The man in the fur-lined coat approached the table and emptied a champagne glass, then took the plain little man’s hand and blushed.

‘Ah well, I will speak out all the same . . . I must and will be frank with you because I am fond of you . . . Of course you love her — I always thought so — don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ answered his friend, smiling still more gently.

‘And perhaps . . . ’

‘Please sir, I have orders to put out the candles,’ said the sleepy attendant, who had been listening to the last part of the conversation and wondering why gentlefolk always talk about one and the same thing. ‘To whom shall I make out the bill? To you, sir?’ he added, knowing whom to address and turning to the tall man.

‘To me,’ replied the tall man. ‘How much?’

‘Twenty-six rubles.’

The tall man considered for a moment, but said nothing and put the bill in his pocket.

The other two continued their talk.

‘Good-bye, you are a capital fellow!’ said the short plain man with the mild eyes. Tears filled the eyes of both. They stepped into the porch.

‘Oh, by the by,’ said the traveller, turning with a blush to the tall man, ‘will you settle Chevalier’s bill and write and let me know?’

‘All right, all right!’ said the tall man, pulling on his gloves. ‘How I envy you!’ he added quite unexpectedly when they were out in the porch.

The traveller got into his sledge, wrapped his coat about him, and said: ‘Well then, come along!’ He even moved a little to make room in the sledge for the man who said he envied him — his voice trembled.

‘Good-bye, Mitya! I hope that with God’s help you . . . ’ said the tall one. But his wish was that the other would go away quickly, and so he could not finish the sentence.

They were silent a moment. Then someone again said, ‘Good-bye,’ and a voice cried, ‘Ready,’ and the coachman touched up the horses.

‘Hy, Elisar!’ One of the friends called out, and the other coachman and the sledge-drivers began moving, clicking their tongues and pulling at the reins. Then the stiffened carriage-wheels rolled squeaking over the frozen snow.

‘A fine fellow, that Olenin!’ said one of the friends. ‘But what an idea to go to the Caucasus — as a cadet, too! I wouldn’t do it for anything. . . . Are you dining at the club to-morrow?’

‘Yes.’

They separated.

The traveller felt warm, his fur coat seemed too hot. He sat on the bottom of the sledge and unfastened his coat, and the three shaggy post-horses dragged themselves out of one dark street into another, past houses he had never before seen. It seemed to Olenin that only travellers starting on a long journey went through those streets. All was dark and silent and dull around him, but his soul was full of memories, love, regrets, and a pleasant tearful feeling.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04