The Cossacks, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter 9

It was growing light. The Chechen’s body which was gently rocking in the shallow water was now clearly visible. Suddenly the reeds rustled not far from Luke and he heard steps and saw the feathery tops of the reeds moving. He set his gun at full cock and muttered: ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son,’ but when the cock clicked the sound of steps ceased.

‘Hallo, Cossacks! Don’t kill your Daddy!’ said a deep bass voice calmly; and moving the reeds apart Daddy Eroshka came up close to Luke.

‘I very nearly killed you, by God I did!’ said Lukashka.

‘What have you shot?’ asked the old man.

His sonorous voice resounded through the wood and downward along the river, suddenly dispelling the mysterious quiet of night around the Cossack. It was as if everything had suddenly become lighter and more distinct.

‘There now. Uncle, you have not seen anything, but I’ve killed a beast,’ said Lukashka, uncocking his gun and getting up with unnatural calmness.

The old man was staring intently at the white back, now clearly visible, against which the Terek rippled.

‘He was swimming with a log on his back. I spied him out! . . . Look there. There! He’s got blue trousers, and a gun I think. . . . Do you see?’ inquired Luke.

‘How can one help seeing?’ said the old man angrily, and a serious and stern expression appeared on his face. ‘You’ve killed a brave,’ he said, apparently with regret.

‘Well, I sat here and suddenly saw something dark on the other side. I spied him when he was still over there. It was as if a man had come there and fallen in. Strange! And a piece of driftwood, a good-sized piece, comes floating, not with the stream but across it; and what do I see but a head appearing from under it! Strange! I stretched out of the reeds but could see nothing; then I rose and he must have heard, the beast, and crept out into the shallow and looked about. “No, you don’t!” I said, as soon as he landed and looked round, “you won’t get away!” Oh, there was something choking me! I got my gun ready but did not stir, and looked out. He waited a little and then swam out again; and when he came into the moonlight I could see his whole back. “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” . . . and through the smoke I see him struggling. He moaned, or so it seemed to me. “Ah,” I thought, “the Lord be thanked, I’ve killed him!” And when he drifted onto the sand-bank I could see him distinctly: he tried to get up but couldn’t. He struggled a bit and then lay down. Everything could be seen. Look, he does not move — he must be dead! The Cossacks have gone back to the cordon in case there should be any more of them.’

‘And so you got him!’ said the old man. ‘He is far away now, my lad! . . . ’ And again he shook his head sadly.

Just then the sound reached them of breaking bushes and the loud voices of Cossacks approaching along the bank on horseback and on foot. ‘Are you bringing the skiff?’ shouted Lukashka.

‘You’re a trump, Luke! Lug it to the bank!’ shouted one of the Cossacks.

Without waiting for the skiff Lukashka began to undress, keeping an eye all the while on his prey.

‘Wait a bit, Nazarka is bringing the skiff,’ shouted the corporal.

‘You fool! Maybe he is alive and only pretending! Take your dagger with you!’ shouted another Cossack.

‘Get along,’ cried Luke, pulling off his trousers. He quickly undressed and, crossing himself, jumped, plunging with a splash into the river. Then with long strokes of his white arms, lifting his back high out of the water and breathing deeply, he swam across the current of the Terek towards the shallows. A crowd of Cossacks stood on the bank talking loudly. Three horsemen rode off to patrol. The skiff appeared round a bend. Lukashka stood up on the sandbank, leaned over the body, and gave it a couple of shakes.

‘Quite dead!’ he shouted in a shrill voice.

The Chechen had been shot in the head. He had on a pair of blue trousers, a shirt, and a Circassian coat, and a gun and dagger were tied to his back. Above all these a large branch was tied, and it was this which at first had misled Lukashka.

‘What a carp you’ve landed!’ cried one of the Cossacks who had assembled in a circle, as the body, lifted out of the skiff, was laid on the bank, pressing down the grass.

‘How yellow he is!’ said another.

‘Where have our fellows gone to search? I expect the rest of them are on the other bank. If this one had not been a scout he would not have swum that way. Why else should he swim alone?’ said a third.

‘Must have been a smart one to offer himself before the others; a regular brave!’ said Lukashka mockingly, shivering as he wrung out his clothes that had got wet on the bank.

‘His beard is dyed and cropped.’

‘And he has tied a bag with a coat in it to his back.’

‘That would make it easier for him to swim,’ said some one.

‘I say, Lukashka,’ said the corporal, who was holding the dagger and gun taken from the dead man. ‘Keep the dagger for yourself and the coat too; but I’ll give you three rubles for the gun. You see it has a hole in it,’ said he, blowing into the muzzle. ‘I want it just for a souvenir.’

Lukashka did not answer. Evidently this sort of begging vexed him but he knew it could not be avoided.

‘See, what a devil!’ said he, frowning and throwing down the Chechen’s coat. ‘If at least it were a good coat, but it’s a mere rag.’

‘It’ll do to fetch firewood in,’ said one of the Cossacks.

‘Mosev, I’ll go home,’ said Lukashka, evidently forgetting his vexation and wishing to get some advantage out of having to give a present to his superior.

‘All right, you may go!’

‘Take the body beyond the cordon, lads,’ said the corporal, still examining the gun, ‘and put a shelter over him from the sun. Perhaps they’ll send from the mountains to ransom it.’

‘It isn’t hot yet,’ said someone.

‘And supposing a jackal tears him? Would that be well?’ remarked another Cossack.

‘We’ll set a watch; if they should come to ransom him it won’t do for him to have been torn.’

‘Well, Lukashka, whatever you do you must stand a pail of vodka for the lads,’ said the corporal gaily.

‘Of course! That’s the custom,’ chimed in the Cossacks. ‘See what luck God has sent you! Without ever having seen anything of the kind before, you’ve killed a brave!’

‘Buy the dagger and coat and don’t be stingy, and I’ll let you have the trousers too,’ said Lukashka. ‘They’re too tight for me; he was a thin devil.’

One Cossack bought the coat for a ruble and another gave the price of two pails of vodka for the dagger.

‘Drink, lads! I’ll stand you a pail!’ said Luke. ‘I’ll bring it myself from the village.’

‘And cut up the trousers into kerchiefs for the girls!’ said Nazarka.

The Cossacks burst out laughing.

‘Have done laughing!’ said the corporal. ‘And take the body away. Why have you put the nasty thing by the hut?’

‘What are you standing there for? Haul him along, lads!’ shouted Lukashka in a commanding voice to the Cossacks, who reluctantly took hold of the body, obeying him as though he were their chief. After dragging the body along for a few steps the Cossacks let fall the legs, which dropped with a lifeless jerk, and stepping apart they then stood silent for a few moments. Nazarka came up and straightened the head, which was turned to one side so that the round wound above the temple and the whole of the dead man’s face were visible. ‘See what a mark he has made right in the brain,’ he said. ‘He won’t get lost. His owners will always know him!’ No one answered, and again the Angel of Silence flew over the Cossacks.

The sun had risen high and its diverging beams were lighting up the dewy grass. Near by, the Terek murmured in the awakened wood and, greeting the morning, the pheasants called to one another. The Cossacks stood still and silent around the dead man, gazing at him. The brown body, with nothing on but the wet blue trousers held by a girdle over the sunken stomach, was well shaped and handsome. The muscular arms lay stretched straight out by his sides; the blue, freshly shaven, round head with the clotted wound on one side of it was thrown back. The smooth tanned forehead contrasted sharply with the shaven part of the head. The open glassy eyes with lowered pupils stared upwards, seeming to gaze past everything. Under the red trimmed moustache the fine lips, drawn at the corners, seemed stiffened into a smile of good-natured subtle raillery. The fingers of the small hands covered with red hairs were bent inward, and the nails were dyed red.

Lukashka had not yet dressed. He was wet. His neck was redder and his eyes brighter than usual, his broad jaws twitched, and from his healthy body a hardly perceptible steam rose in the fresh morning air.

‘He too was a man!’ he muttered, evidently admiring the corpse.

‘Yes, if you had fallen into his hands you would have had short shrift,’ said one of the Cossacks.

The Angel of Silence had taken wing. The Cossacks began bustling about and talking. Two of them went to cut brushwood for a shelter, others strolled towards the cordon. Luke and Nazarka ran to get ready to go to the village.

Half an hour later they were both on their way homewards, talking incessantly and almost running through the dense woods which separated the Terek from the village.

‘Mind, don’t tell her I sent you, but just go and find out if her husband is at home,’ Luke was saying in his shrill voice.

‘And I’ll go round to Yamka too,’ said the devoted Nazarka. ‘We’ll have a spree, shall we?’

‘When should we have one if not to-day?’ replied Luke.

When they reached the village the two Cossacks drank, and lay down to sleep till evening.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tolstoy/leo/t65co/chapter9.html

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