The Cossacks, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter 19

The mist had partly lifted, showing the wet reed thatches, and was now turning into dew that moistened the road and the grass beside the fence. Smoke rose everywhere in clouds from the chimneys. The people were going out of the village, some to their work, some to the river, and some to the cordon. The hunters walked together along the damp, grass-grown path. The dogs, wagging their tails and looking at their masters, ran on both sides of them. Myriads of gnats hovered in the air and pursued the hunters, covering their backs, eyes, and hands. The air was fragrant with the grass and with the dampness of the forest. Olenin continually looked round at the ox-cart in which Maryanka sat urging on the oxen with a long switch.

It was calm. The sounds from the village, audible at first, now no longer reached the sportsmen. Only the brambles cracked as the dogs ran under them, and now and then birds called to one another. Olenin knew that danger lurked in the forest, that abreks always hid in such places. But he knew too that in the forest, for a man on foot, a gun is a great protection. Not that he was afraid, but he felt that another in his place might be; and looking into the damp misty forest and listening to the rare and faint sounds with strained attention, he changed his hold on his gun and experienced a pleasant feeling that was new to him. Daddy Eroshka went in front, stopping and carefully scanning every puddle where an animal had left a double track, and pointing it out to Olenin. He hardly spoke at all and only occasionally made remarks in a whisper. The track they were following had once been made by wagons, but the grass had long overgrown it. The elm and plane-tree forest on both sides of them was so dense and overgrown with creepers that it was impossible to see anything through it. Nearly every tree was enveloped from top to bottom with wild grape vines, and dark bramble bushes covered the ground thickly. Every little glade was overgrown with blackberry bushes and grey feathery reeds. In places, large hoof-prints and small funnel-shaped pheasant-trails led from the path into the thicket. The vigour of the growth of this forest, untrampled by cattle, struck Olenin at every turn, for he had never seen anything like it. This forest, the danger, the old man and his mysterious whispering, Maryanka with her virile upright bearing, and the mountains — all this seemed to him like a dream.

‘A pheasant has settled,’ whispered the old man, looking round and pulling his cap over his face —‘Cover your mug! A pheasant!’ he waved his arm angrily at Olenin and pushed forward almost on all fours. ‘He don’t like a man’s mug.’

Olenin was still behind him when the old man stopped and began examining a tree. A cock-pheasant on the tree clucked at the dog that was barking at it, and Olenin saw the pheasant; but at that moment a report, as of a cannon, came from Eroshka’s enormous gun, the bird fluttered up and, losing some feathers, fell to the ground. Coming up to the old man Olenin disturbed another, and raising his gun he aimed and fired. The pheasant flew swiftly up and then, catching at the branches as he fell, dropped like a stone to the ground.

‘Good man!’ the old man (who could not hit a flying bird) shouted, laughing.

Having picked up the pheasants they went on. Olenin, excited by the exercise and the praise, kept addressing remarks to the old man.

‘Stop! Come this way,’ the old man interrupted. ‘I noticed the track of deer here yesterday.’

After they had turned into the thicket and gone some three hundred paces they scrambled through into a glade overgrown with reeds and partly under water. Olenin failed to keep up with the old huntsman and presently Daddy Eroshka, some twenty paces in front, stooped down, nodding and beckoning with his arm. On coming up with him Olenin saw a man’s footprint to which the old man was pointing.

‘D’you see?’

‘Yes, well?’ said Olenin, trying to speak as calmly as he could. ‘A man’s footstep!’

Involuntarily a thought of Cooper’s Pathfinder and of abreks flashed through Olenin’s mind, but noticing the mysterious manner with which the old man moved on, he hesitated to question him and remained in doubt whether this mysteriousness was caused by fear of danger or by the sport.

‘No, it’s my own footprint,’ the old man said quietly, and pointed to some grass under which the track of an animal was just perceptible.

The old man went on; and Olenin kept up with him.

Descending to lower ground some twenty paces farther on they came upon a spreading pear-tree, under which, on the black earth, lay the fresh dung of some animal.

The spot, all covered over with wild vines, was like a cosy arbour, dark and cool.

‘He’s been here this morning,’ said the old man with a sigh; ‘the lair is still damp, quite fresh.’

Suddenly they heard a terrible crash in the forest some ten paces from where they stood. They both started and seized their guns, but they could see nothing and only heard the branches breaking. The rhythmical rapid thud of galloping was heard for a moment and then changed into a hollow rumble which resounded farther and farther off, re-echoing in wider and wider circles through the forest. Olenin felt as though something had snapped in his heart. He peered carefully but vainly into the green thicket and then turned to the old man. Daddy Eroshka with his gun pressed to his breast stood motionless; his cap was thrust backwards, his eyes gleamed with an unwonted glow, and his open mouth, with its worn yellow teeth, seemed to have stiffened in that position.

‘A homed stag!’ he muttered, and throwing down his gun in despair he began pulling at his grey beard, ‘Here it stood. We should have come round by the path. . . . Fool! fool!’ and he gave his beard an angry tug. Fool! Pig!’ he repeated, pulling painfully at his own beard. Through the forest something seemed to fly away in the mist, and ever farther and farther off was heard the sound of the flight of the stag.

It was already dusk when, hungry, tired, but full of vigour, Olenin returned with the old man. Dinner was ready. He ate and drank with the old man till he felt warm and merry. Olenin then went out into the porch. Again, to the west, the mountains rose before his eyes. Again the old man told his endless stories of hunting, of abreks, of sweethearts, and of all that free and reckless life. Again the fair Maryanka went in and out and across the yard, her beautiful powerful form outlined by her smock.

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