The Cossacks, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter 15

‘Well, what was I saying?’ he continued, trying to remember. ‘Yes, that’s the sort of man I am. I am a hunter. There is no hunter to equal me in the whole army. I will find and show you any animal and any bird, and what and where. I know it all! I have dogs, and two guns, and nets, and a screen and a hawk. I have everything, thank the Lord! If you are not bragging but are a real sportsman, I’ll show you everything. Do you know what a man I am? When I have found a track — I know the animal. I know where he will lie down and where he’ll drink or wallow. I make myself a perch and sit there all night watching. What’s the good of staying at home? One only gets into mischief, gets drunk. And here women come and chatter, and boys shout at me — enough to drive one mad. It’s a different matter when you go out at nightfall, choose yourself a place, press down the reeds and sit there and stay waiting, like a jolly fellow. One knows everything that goes on in the woods. One looks up at the sky: the stars move, you look at them and find out from them how the time goes. One looks round — the wood is rustling; one goes on waiting, now there comes a crackling — a boar comes to rub himself; one listens to hear the young eaglets screech and then the cocks give voice in the village, or the geese. When you hear the geese you know it is not yet midnight. And I know all about it! Or when a gun is fired somewhere far away, thoughts come to me. One thinks, who is that firing? Is it another Cossack like myself who has been watching for some animal? And has he killed it? Or only wounded it so that now the poor thing goes through the reeds smearing them with its blood all for nothing? I don’t like that! Oh, how I dislike it! Why injure a beast? You fool, you fool! Or one thinks, “Maybe an abrek has killed some silly little Cossack.” All this passes through one’s mind. And once as I sat watching by the river I saw a cradle floating down. It was sound except for one corner which was broken off. Thoughts did come that time! I thought some of your soldiers, the devils, must have got into a Tartar village and seized the Chechen women, and one of the devils has killed the little one: taken it by its legs, and hit its head against a wall. Don’t they do such things? Ah! Men have no souls! And thoughts came to me that filled me with pity. I thought: they’ve thrown away the cradle and driven the wife out, and her brave has taken his gun and come across to our side to rob us. One watches and thinks. And when one hears a litter breaking through the thicket, something begins to knock inside one. Dear one, come this way! “They’ll scent me,” one thinks; and one sits and does not stir while one’s heart goes dun! dun! dun! and simply lifts you. Once this spring a fine litter came near me, I saw something black. “In the name of the Father and of the Son,” and I was just about to fire when she grunts to her pigs: “Danger, children,” she says, “there’s a man here,” and off they all ran, breaking through the bushes. And she had been so close I could almost have bitten her.’

‘How could a sow tell her brood that a man was there?’ asked Olenin.

‘What do you think? You think the beast’s a fool? No, he is wiser than a man though you do call him a pig! He knows everything. Take this for instance. A man will pass along your track and not notice it; but a pig as soon as it gets onto your track turns and runs at once: that shows there is wisdom in him, since he scents your smell and you don’t. And there is this to be said too: you wish to kill it and it wishes to go about the woods alive. You have one law and it has another. It is a pig, but it is no worse than you — it too is God’s creature. Ah, dear! Man is foolish, foolish, foolish!’ The old man repeated this several times and then, letting his head drop, he sat thinking.

Olenin also became thoughtful, and descending from the porch with his hands behind his back began pacing up and down the yard.

Eroshka, rousing himself, raised his head and began gazing intently at the moths circling round the flickering flame of the candle and burning themselves in it.

‘Fool, fool!’ he said. ‘Where are you flying to? Fool, fool!’ He rose and with his thick fingers began to drive away the moths.

‘You’ll burn, little fool! Fly this way, there’s plenty of room.’ He spoke tenderly, trying to catch them delicately by their wings with his thick ringers and then letting them fly again. ‘You are killing yourself and I am sorry for you!’

He sat a long time chattering and sipping out of the bottle. Olenin paced up and down the yard. Suddenly he was struck by the sound of whispering outside the gate. Involuntarily holding his breath, he heard a woman’s laughter, a man’s voice, and the sound of a kiss. Intentionally rustling the grass under his feet he crossed to the opposite side of the yard, but after a while the wattle fence creaked. A Cossack in a dark Circassian coat and a white sheepskin cap passed along the other side of the fence (it was Luke), and a tall woman with a white kerchief on her head went past Olenin. ‘You and I have nothing to do with one another’ was what Maryanka’s firm step gave him to understand. He followed her with his eyes to the porch of the hut, and he even saw her through the window take off her kerchief and sit down. And suddenly a feeling of lonely depression and some vague longings and hopes, and envy of someone or other, overcame the young man’s soul.

The last lights had been put out in the huts. The last sounds had died away in the village. The wattle fences and the cattle gleaming white in the yards, the roofs of the houses and the stately poplars, all seemed to be sleeping the labourers’ healthy peaceful sleep. Only the incessant ringing voices of frogs from the damp distance reached the young man. In the east the stars were growing fewer and fewer and seemed to be melting in the increasing light, but overhead they were denser and deeper than before. The old man was dozing with his head on his hand. A cock crowed in the yard opposite, but Olenin still paced up and down thinking of something. The sound of a song sung by several voices reached him and he stepped up to the fence and listened. The voices of several young Cossacks carolled a merry song, and one voice was distinguishable among them all by its firm strength.

‘Do you know who is singing there?’ said the old man, rousing himself. ‘It is the Brave, Lukashka. He has killed a Chechen and now he rejoices. And what is there to rejoice at? . . . The fool, the fool!’

‘And have you ever killed people?’ asked Olenin.

‘You devil!’ shouted the old man. ‘What are you asking? One must not talk so. It is a serious thing to destroy a human being . . . Ah, a very serious thing! Good-bye, my dear fellow. I’ve eaten my fill and am drunk,’ he said rising. ‘Shall I come to-morrow to go shooting?’

‘Yes, come!’

‘Mind, get up early; if you oversleep you will be fined!’

‘Never fear, I’ll be up before you,’ answered Olenin.

The old man left. The song ceased, but one could hear footsteps and merry talk. A little later the singing broke out again but farther away, and Eroshka’s loud voice chimed in with the other. ‘What people, what a life!’ thought Olenin with a sigh as he returned alone to his hut.

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