The Cossacks, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter 40

The next day Olenin awoke earlier than usual, and immediately remembered what lay before him, and he joyfully recalled her kisses, the pressure of her hard hands, and her words, ‘What white hands you have!’ He jumped up and wished to go at once to his hosts’ hut to ask for their consent to his marriage with Maryanka. The sun had not yet risen, but it seemed that there was an unusual bustle in the street and side-street: people were moving about on foot and on horseback, and talking. He threw on his Circassian coat and hastened out into the porch. His hosts were not yet up. Five Cossacks were riding past and talking loudly together. In front rode Lukashka on his broad-backed Kabarda horse.

The Cossacks were all speaking and shouting so that it was impossible to make out exactly what they were saying.

‘Ride to the Upper Post,’ shouted one.

‘Saddle and catch us up, be quick,’ said another.

‘It’s nearer through the other gate!’

‘What are you talking about?’ cried Lukashka. ‘We must go through the middle gates, of course.’

‘So we must, it’s nearer that way,’ said one of the Cossacks who was covered with dust and rode a perspiring horse. Lukashka’s face was red and swollen after the drinking of the previous night and his cap was pushed to the back of his head. He was calling out with authority as though he were an officer.

‘What is the matter? Where are you going?’ asked Olenin, with difficulty attracting the Cossacks’ attention.

‘We are off to catch abreks. They’re hiding among the sand-drifts. We are just off, but there are not enough of us yet.’

And the Cossacks continued to shout, more and more of them joining as they rode down the street. It occurred to Olenin that it would not look well for him to stay behind; besides he thought he could soon come back. He dressed, loaded his gun with bullets, jumped onto his horse which Vanyusha had saddled more or less well, and overtook the Cossacks at the village gates. The Cossacks had dismounted, and filling a wooden bowl with chikhir from a little cask which they had brought with them, they passed the bowl round to one another and drank to the success of their expedition. Among them was a smartly dressed young cornet, who happened to be in the village and who took command of the group of nine Cossacks who had joined for the expedition. All these Cossacks were privates, and although the cornet assumed the airs of a commanding officer, they only obeyed Lukashka. Of Olenin they took no notice at all, and when they had all mounted and started, and Olenin rode up to the cornet and began asking him what was taking place, the cornet, who was usually quite friendly, treated him with marked condescension. It was with great difficulty that Olenin managed to find out from him what was happening. Scouts who had been sent out to search for abreks had come upon several hillsmen some six miles from the village. These abreks had taken shelter in pits and had fired at the scouts, declaring they would not surrender. A corporal who had been scouting with two Cossacks had remained to watch the abreks, and had sent one Cossack back to get help.

The sun was just rising. Three miles beyond the village the steppe spread out and nothing was visible except the dry, monotonous, sandy, dismal plain covered with the footmarks of cattle, and here and there with tufts of withered grass, with low reeds in the flats, and rare, little-trodden footpaths, and the camps of the nomad Nogay tribe just visible far away. The absence of shade and the austere aspect of the place were striking. The sun always rises and sets red in the steppe. When it is windy whole hills of sand are carried by the wind from place to place.

When it is calm, as it was that morning, the silence, uninterrupted by any movement or sound, is peculiarly striking. That morning in the steppe it was quiet and dull, though the sun had already risen. It all seemed specially soft and desolate. The air was hushed, the footfalls and the snorting of the horses were the only sounds to be heard, and even they quickly died away.

The men rode almost silently. A Cossack always carries his weapons so that they neither jingle nor rattle. Jingling weapons are a terrible disgrace to a Cossack. Two other Cossacks from the village caught the party up and exchanged a few words. Lukashka’s horse either stumbled or caught its foot in some grass, and became restive — which is a sign of bad luck among the Cossacks, and at such a time was of special importance. The others exchanged glances and turned away, trying not to notice what had happened. Lukaskha pulled at the reins, frowned sternly, set his teeth, and flourished his whip above his head. His good Kabarda horse, prancing from one foot to another not knowing with which to start, seemed to wish to fly upwards on wings. But Lukashka hit its well-fed sides with his whip once, then again, and a third time, and the horse, showing its teeth and spreading out its tail, snorted and reared and stepped on its hind legs a few paces away from the others.

‘Ah, a good steed that!’ said the cornet.

That he said steed instead of horse indicated special praise.

‘A lion of a horse,’ assented one of the others, an old Cossack.

The Cossacks rode forward silently, now at a footpace, then at a trot, and these changes were the only incidents that interrupted for a moment the stillness and solemnity of their movements.

Riding through the steppe for about six miles, they passed nothing but one Nogay tent, placed on a cart and moving slowly along at a distance of about a mile from them. A Nogay family was moving from one part of the steppe to another. Afterwards they met two tattered Nogay women with high cheekbones, who with baskets on their backs were gathering dung left by the cattle that wandered over the steppe. The cornet, who did not know their language well, tried to question them, but they did not understand him and, obviously frightened, looked at one another.

Lukashka rode up to them both, stopped his horse, and promptly uttered the usual greeting. The Nogay women were evidently relieved, and began speaking to him quite freely as to a brother.

‘Ay — ay, kop abrek!’ they said plaintively, pointing in the direction in which the Cossacks were going. Olenin understood that they were saying, ‘Many abreks.’

Never having seen an engagement of that kind, and having formed an idea of them only from Daddy Eroshka’s tales, Olenin wished not to be left behind by the Cossacks, but wanted to see it all. He admired the Cossacks, and was on the watch, looking and listening and making his own observations. Though he had brought his sword and a loaded gun with him, when he noticed that the Cossacks avoided him he decided to take no part in the action, as in his opinion his courage had already been sufficiently proved when he was with his detachment, and also because he was very happy.

Suddenly a shot was heard in the distance.

The cornet became excited, and began giving orders to the Cossacks as to how they should divide and from which side they should approach. But the Cossacks did not appear to pay any attention to these orders, listening only to what Lukashka said and looking to him alone. Lukashka’s face and figure were expressive of calm solemnity. He put his horse to a trot with which the others were unable to keep pace, and screwing up his eyes kept looking ahead.

‘There’s a man on horseback,’ he said, reining in his horse and keeping in line with the others.

Olenin looked intently, but could not see anything. The Cossacks soon distinguished two riders and quietly rode straight towards them.

‘Are those the abreks?’ asked Olenin.

The Cossacks did not answer his question, which appeared quite meaningless to them. The abreks would have been fools to venture across the river on horseback.

‘That’s friend Rodka waving to us, I do believe,’ said Lukashka, pointing to the two mounted men who were now clearly visible. ‘Look, he’s coming to us.’

A few minutes later it became plain that the two horsemen were the Cossack scouts. The corporal rode up to Lukashka.

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