The Cossacks, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter 16

Daddy Eroshka was a superannuated and solitary Cossack: twenty years ago his wife had gone over to the Orthodox Church and run away from him and married a Russian sergeant-major, and he had no children. He was not bragging when he spoke of himself as having been the boldest dare-devil in the village when he was young. Everybody in the regiment knew of his old-time prowess. The death of more than one Russian, as well as Chechen, lay on his conscience. He used to go plundering in the mountains, and robbed the Russians too; and he had twice been in prison. The greater part of his life was spent in the forests, hunting. There he lived for days on a crust of bread and drank nothing but water. But on the other hand, when he was in the village he made merry from morning to night. After leaving Olenin he slept for a couple of hours and awoke before it was light. He lay on his bed thinking of the man he had become acquainted with the evening before. Olenin’s ‘simplicity’ (simplicity in the sense of not grudging him a drink) pleased him very much, and so did Olenin himself. He wondered why the Russians were all ‘simple’ and so rich, and why they were educated, and yet knew nothing. He pondered on these questions and also considered what he might get out of Olenin.

Daddy Eroshka’s hut was of a good size and not old, but the absence of a woman was very noticeable in it. Contrary to the usual cleanliness of the Cossacks, the whole of this hut was filthy and exceedingly untidy. A blood-stained coat had been thrown on the table, half a dough-cake lay beside a plucked and mangled crow with which to feed the hawk. Sandals of raw hide, a gun, a dagger, a little bag, wet clothes, and sundry rags lay scattered on the benches. In a comer stood a tub with stinking water, in which another pair of sandals were being steeped, and near by was a gun and a hunting-screen. On the floor a net had been thrown down and several dead pheasants lay there, while a hen tied by its leg was walking about near the table pecking among the dirt. In the unheated oven stood a broken pot with some kind of milky liquid. On the top of the oven a falcon was screeching and trying to break the cord by which it was tied, and a moulting hawk sat quietly on the edge of the oven, looking askance at the hen and occasionally bowing its head to right and left. Daddy Eroshka himself, in his shirt, lay on his back on a short bed rigged up between the wall and the oven, with his strong legs raised and his feet on the oven. He was picking with his thick fingers at the scratches left on his hands by the hawk, which he was accustomed to carry without wearing gloves. The whole room, especially near the old man, was filled with that strong but not unpleasant mixture of smells that he always carried about with him.

‘Uyde-ma, Daddy?’ (Is Daddy in?) came through the window in a sharp voice, which he at once recognized as Lukashka’s.

‘Uyde, Uyde, Uyde. I am in!’ shouted the old man. ‘Come in, neighbour Mark, Luke Mark. Come to see Daddy? On your way to the cordon?’

At the sound of his master’s shout the hawk flapped his wings and pulled at his cord.

The old man was fond of Lukashka, who was the only man he excepted from his general contempt for the younger generation of Cossacks. Besides that, Lukashka and his mother, as near neighbours, often gave the old man wine, clotted cream, and other home produce which Eroshka did not possess. Daddy Eroshka, who all his life had allowed himself to get carried away, always explained his infatuations from a practical point of view. ‘Well, why not?’ he used to say to himself. ‘I’ll give them some fresh meat, or a bird, and they won’t forget Daddy: they’ll sometimes bring a cake or a piece of pie.’

‘Good morning. Mark! I am glad to see you,’ shouted the old man cheerfully, and quickly putting down his bare feet he jumped off his bed and walked a step or two along the creaking floor, looked down at his out-turned toes, and suddenly, amused by the appearance of his feet, smiled, stamped with his bare heel on the ground, stamped again, and then performed a funny dance-step. ‘That’s clever, eh?’ he asked, his small eyes glistening. Lukashka smiled faintly. ‘Going back to the cordon?’ asked the old man.

‘I have brought the chikhir I promised you when we were at the cordon.’

‘May Christ save you!’ said the old man, and he took up the extremely wide trousers that were lying on the floor, and his beshmet, put them on, fastened a strap round his waist, poured some water from an earthenware pot over his hands, wiped them on the old trousers, smoothed his beard with a bit of comb, and stopped in front of Lukashka. ‘Ready,’ he said.

Lukashka fetched a cup, wiped it and filled it with wine, and then handed it to the old man.

‘Your health! To the Father and the Son!’ said the old man, accepting the wine with solemnity. ‘May you have what you desire, may you always be a hero, and obtain a cross.’

Lukashka also drank a little after repeating a prayer, and then put the wine on the table. The old man rose and brought out some dried fish which he laid on the threshold, where he beat it with a stick to make it tender; then, having put it with his horny hands on a blue plate (his only one), he placed it on the table.

‘I have all I want. I have victuals, thank God!’ he said proudly. ‘Well, and what of Mosev?’ he added.

Lukashka, evidently wishing to know the old man’s opinion, told him how the officer had taken the gun from him.

‘Never mind the gun,’ said the old man. ‘If you don’t give the gun you will get no reward.’

‘But they say. Daddy, it’s little reward a fellow gets when he is not yet a mounted Cossack; and the gun is a fine one, a Crimean, worth eighty rubles.’

‘Eh, let it go! I had a dispute like that with an officer, he wanted my horse. “Give it me and you’ll be made a cornet,” says he. I wouldn’t, and I got nothing!’

‘Yes, Daddy, but you see I have to buy a horse; and they say you can’t get one the other side of the river under fifty rubles, and mother has not yet sold our wine.’

‘Eh, we didn’t bother,’ said the old man; ‘when Daddy Eroshka was your age he already stole herds of horses from the Nogay folk and drove them across the Terek. Sometimes we’d give a fine horse for a quart of vodka or a cloak.’

‘Why so cheap?’ asked Lukashka.

‘You’re a fool, a fool, Mark,’ said the old man contemptuously. ‘Why, that’s what one steals for, so as not to be stingy! As for you, I suppose you haven’t so much as seen how one drives off a herd of horses? Why don’t you speak?’

‘What’s one to say. Daddy?’ replied Lukashka. ‘It seems we are not the same sort of men as you were.’

‘You’re a fool. Mark, a fool! “Not the same sort of men!”’ retorted the old man, mimicking the Cossack lad. ‘I was not that sort of Cossack at your age.’

‘How’s that?’ asked Lukashka.

The old man shook his head contemptuously.

‘Daddy Eroshka was simple; he did not grudge anything! That’s why I was kunak with all Chechnya. A kunak would come to visit me and I’d make him drunk with vodka and make him happy and put him to sleep with me, and when I went to see him I’d take him a present — a dagger! That’s the way it is done, and not as you do nowadays: the only amusement lads have now is to crack seeds and spit out the shells!’ the old man finished contemptuously, imitating the present-day Cossacks cracking seeds and spitting out the shells.

‘Yes, I know,’ said Lukashka; ‘that’s so!’

‘If you wish to be a fellow of the right sort, be a brave and not a peasant! Because even a peasant can buy a horse — pay the money and take the horse.’

They were silent for a while.

‘Well, of course it’s dull both in the village and the cordon, Daddy: but there’s nowhere one can go for a bit of sport. All our fellows are so timid. Take Nazarka. The other day when we went to the Tartar village, Girey Khan asked us to come to Nogay to take some horses, but no one went, and how was I to go alone?’

‘And what of Daddy? Do you think I am quite dried up? . . . No, I’m not dried up. Let me have a horse and I’ll be off to Nogay at once.’

‘What’s the good of talking nonsense!’ said Luke. ‘You’d better tell me what to do about Girey Khan. He says, “Only bring horses to the Terek, and then even if you bring a whole stud I’ll find a place for them.” You see he’s also a shaven-headed Tartar — how’s one to believe him?’

‘You may trust Girey Khan, all his kin were good people. His father too was a faithful kunak. But listen to Daddy and I won’t teach you wrong: make him take an oath, then it will be all right. And if you go with him, have your pistol ready all the same, especially when it comes to dividing up the horses. I was nearly killed that way once by a Chechen. I wanted ten rubles from him for a horse. Trusting is all right, but don’t go to sleep without a gun.’ Lukashka listened attentively to the old man.

‘I say. Daddy, have you any stone-break grass?’ he asked after a pause.

‘No, I haven’t any, but I’ll teach you how to get it. You’re a good lad and won’t forget the old man. . . . Shall I tell you?’

‘Tell me, Daddy.’

‘You know a tortoise? She’s a devil, the tortoise is!’

‘Of course I know!’

‘Find her nest and fence it round so that she can’t get in. Well, she’ll come, go round it, and then will go off to find the stone-break grass and will bring some along and destroy the fence. Anyhow next morning come in good time, and where the fence is broken there you’ll find the stone-break grass lying. Take it wherever you like. No lock and no bar will be able to stop you.’

‘Have you tried it yourself. Daddy?’

‘As for trying, I have not tried it, but I was told of it by good people. I used only one charm: that was to repeat the Pilgrim rhyme when mounting my horse; and no one ever killed me!’

‘What is the Pilgrim rhyme. Daddy?’

‘What, don’t you know it? Oh, what people! You’re right to ask Daddy. Well, listen, and repeat after me:

‘Hail! Ye, living in Sion, This is your King, Our steeds we shall sit on, Sophonius is weeping. Zacharias is speaking, Father Pilgrim, Mankind ever loving.’

‘Kind ever loving,’ the old man repeated. ‘Do you know it now? Try it.’

Lukashka laughed.

‘Come, Daddy, was it that that hindered their killing you? Maybe it just happened so!’

‘You’ve grown too clever! You learn it all, and say it. It will do you no harm. Well, suppose you have sung “Pilgrim”, it’s all right,’ and the old man himself began laughing. ‘But just one thing, Luke, don’t you go to Nogay!’

‘Why?’

‘Times have changed. You are not the same men. You’ve become rubbishy Cossacks! And see how many Russians have come down on us! You’d get to prison. Really, give it up! Just as if you could! Now Girchik and I, we used . . . ’

And the old man was about to begin one of his endless tales, but Lukashka glanced at the window and interrupted him.

‘It is quite light. Daddy. It’s time to be off. Look us up some day.’

‘May Christ save you! I’ll go to the officer; I promised to take him out shooting. He seems a good fellow.’

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