Hadji Murad, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter XXV

Hadji Murad was allowed to go riding in the neighborhood of the town provided that he went with a Cossack escort. There was only one troop of Cossacks altogether in Nukha; of these a dozen were detailed for staff duties and if, according to orders, escorts of ten men were sent out it meant that the remaining Cossacks had to do duty every other day. Because of this, after the first day when ten Cossacks were duly sent out, they decided to send only five men, at the same time requesting Hadji Murad not to take his whole party of nukers. However on 25 April all five of them accompanied Hadji Murad when he set off for his ride. As Hadji Murad was mounting, the commandant noticed that all five nukers were preparing to go and told Hadji Murad that he could not take then1 all, but Hadji Murad, appearing not to hear, spurred his horse, and the commandant did not insist. One of the Cossacks was a corporal, Nazarov, who had the St George’s Cross, a young, healthy, fresh-faced fellow with light-brown hair cut in a fringe. He was the oldest child of a poor family of Old Believers; he had grown up with no father and kept his old mother, three sisters and two brothers.

‘See he doesn’t go too far, Nazarov,’ shouted the commandant.

‘Very good, sir,’ replied Nazarov. Then, rising on his stirrups and steadying the rifle across his back, he set off at a trot on his big, trusty, long-muzzled chestnut stallion. The other four Cossacks followed him: Ferapontov, who was lean and lanky, the troop’s leading pilferer and fixer — he it was who had sold powder to Gamzalo; Ignatov, who was middle-aged and nearing the end of his service, a healthy peasant type who boasted how strong he was; Mishkin, just a weedy boy, too young for active service, of whom everyone made fun; and Petrakov, young and fair-haired, his mother’s only son, who was always amiable and cheerful.

It was misty first thing but by breakfast — time it was bright and fine with the sun shining on the freshly burst leaves, the young virginal grass, the shooting corn and the swift, rippling river on the left of the road.

Hadji Murad rode at a walk. The Cossacks and his nukers followed, keeping pace with him. Thus they rode out along the road behind the fort. On their way they met women carrying baskets on their heads, soldiers on wagons and creaking carts drawn by oxen. When they had gone a couple of miles Hadji Murad spurred his white Kabarda horse to a fast amble, and his nukers went into a quick trot. The Cossacks did the same.

‘Ay, that’s a good horse he’s got,’ said Ferapontov. ‘I’d have him off it, if he was still a hostile like he used to be.’

‘Yes, mate, 300 rubles they offered for that horse in Tiflis.’

‘But I’d beat him on mine,’ said Nazarov.

‘That’s what you think!’ said Ferapontov.

Hadji Murad continued to increase the pace.

‘Hi there, kunak, you mustn’t do that! Not so fast!’ shouted Nazarov, going after Hadji Murad. Hadji Murad looked back. He said nothing and went on without slackening pace.

‘Watch out, those devils are up to something,’ said Ignatov. ‘Look how they_re going!’

They rode like this towards the mountains for half a mile or so.

‘Not so fast, I’m telling you,’ Nazarov shouted again.

Hadji Murad did not answer or look back. He simply went faster and put his horse into a gallop.

‘Don’t think you’ll get away,’ shouted Nazarov, stung by this.

He gave his big chestnut stallion the whip and, standing on the stirrups and leaning forward, rode flat out after Hadji Murad.

The sky was so clear, the air so fresh, Nazarov felt so full of the joy of life as he flew along the road after Hadji Murad, merging into one with his powerful, trusty horse that the possibility of anything wrong or sad or terrible happening never even occurred to him. He was delighted that with every stride he was gaining on Hadji Murad and getting close to him. Hearing the hoofbeats of the Cossack’s big horse getting nearer Hadji Murad realized that he would very soon catch up with him and, seizing his pistol with his right hand, used his left to steady his excited Kabarda which could hear the beat of hoofs behind.

‘Not so fast, I say,’ shouted Nazarov, now almost level with Hadji Murad and reaching out to seize the bridle of his horse. But before he could catch hold of it a shot rang out.

‘What’s going on?’ cried Nazarov, grasping at his heart. ‘Get them, lads!’ he said as he swayed and fell forward over the saddle-bow.

But the mountaineers were quicker with their weapons than the Cossacks and fell on them with pistols firing and swords swinging Nazarov hung on the neck of his terrified horse which carried him in circles round his comrades. Ignatov’s horse fell and crushed his leg. Two of the mountaineers drew their swords and without dismounting hacked him across the head and arms. Petrakov dashed to his aid but before he could reach him was struck by two bullets, one in the back and one in the side, and he toppled from his horse like a sack.

Mishkin turned his horse back and galloped for the fort. Khanefi and Khan-Mahoma chased after him, but he had too good a start and the mountaineers could not overtake him.

Seeing they could not catch up with him Khanefi and Khan Mahoma returned to their companions. Gamzalo dispatched Ignatov with his dagger and pulled Nazarov down from his horse before slitting his throat too. Khan-Mahoma took off the dead men’s cartridge pouches. Khanefi was going to take Nazarov’s horse, but Hadji Murad shouted to him to leave it and set off down the road. His murids galloped after him, trying to drive off the horse of Petrakov which followed them. They were already in the rice-fields two or three miles from Nukha when the alarm was sounded by a gunshot from the tower.

Petrakov lay on his back with his stomach slit open, his young face turned to the sky, gasping like a fish as he lay dying.

‘Merciful heavens above, what have they done!’ cried the commander of the fort, clasping his head as he listened to Mishkin’s report and heard of Hadji Murad_s escape. ‘They’ve done for me! Letting him get away — the villains!’

A general alarm was raised. Every available Cossack was sent off in pursuit of the fugitives, and all the militia from the peaceable villages who could be mustered were called in as well. A thousand-ruble reward was offered to anyone bringing in Hadji Murad dead or alive. And two hours after Hadji Murad and his companions had ridden away from the Cossacks more than two hundred mounted men were galloping after the commissioner to seek out and capture the fugitives.

After traveling a few miles along the main road Hadji Murad pulled in his panting white horse, which was grey with sweat, and stopped. Off the road to the right were the houses and minaret of the village of Belardzhik, to the left were fields, on the far side of which was a river. Although the way to the mountains lay to the right Hadji Murad turned left in the opposite direction, reckoning that pursuers would be sure to head after him to the right. He meanwhile would make his way cross-country over the Alazan and pick up the highway again where no one expected him, take the road as far as the forest, then recrossing the river go on through the forest to the mountains. Having made this decision, he turned to the left. But it proved impossible to reach the river. The rice-field which they had to cross had just been flooded, as happened every spring, and it was now a quagmire in which the horses sank up to their fetlocks. Hadji Murad and his nukers turned right and left, expecting to find a drier part, but the field they had struck on was evenly flooded and sodden all over. The horses dragged their feet from the sticky mud with a sound like popping corks and every few paces stopped, panting heavily.

They struggled on like this for so long that when dusk fell they had still not reached the river. To the left was a small island with bushes in first leaf, and Hadji Murad decided to ride into the bushes and stay there till night, resting their exhausted horses.

When they were in the bushes Hadji Murad and his nukers dismounted, hobbled their horses and left them to graze. They themselves ate some of the bread and cheese they had brought with them. The new moon that had been shining sank behind the mountains and the night was dark. There was an unusual abundance of nightingales in Nukha; there were also two in these bushes. In the disturbance caused by Hadji Murad and his men as they rode into the bushes the nightingales fell silent, but as the human noises ceased the birds once more burst into song, calling and answering each other. Hadji Murad, straining his ears to the sounds of the night, listened involuntarily. The singing of the nightingales reminded him of the song of Hamzad which he had heard the previous night when he went to get the water. Any time now he could find himself in the same situation as Hamzad. It struck him that it would indeed end like that and his mood suddenly became serious! He spread out his cloak and said his prayers. He had scarcely finished when sounds were heard coming towards the bushes. It was the sound of a large number of horses’ feet trampling through the quagmire. The keen-eyed Khan-Mahoma ran to one edge of the bushes and in the darkness picked out the black shadows of men on foot and on horseback approaching the bushes. Khanefi saw another large group on the other side. It was Karganov, the district commandant, with his militia. We’ll fight them as Hamzad did, thought Hadji Murad.

After the alarm was sounded Karganov had set off in hot pursuit of Hadji Murad with a squadron of militia and Cossacks, but he could find no sign of him or his tracks anywhere. Karganov had given up hope and was on his way back when towards evening they came upon an old Tatar. Karganov asked the old man if he had seen six horsemen. The old Tatar said he had. He had seen six horsemen riding to and fro across the rice-field and then go into the bushes where he collected firewood. Taking the old man with him, Karganov had gone back along the road and, seeing the hobbled horses, knew for certain that Hadji Murad was there. So in the night he had the bushes surrounded and waited till morning to take Hadji Murad dead or alive.

Realizing that he was surrounded, Hadji Murad discovered an old ditch in the middle of the bushes where he decided to make his stand and fight as long as he had ammunition and strength to do so. He told his comrades and ordered them to raise a rampart along the ditch. His nukers at once began cutting off branches and digging earth with their daggers to make a bank. Hadji Murad joined in the work with them. As soon as it began to get light the commander of the militia squadron rode up close to the bushes and called out:

‘Hey there, Hadji Murad! Surrender! You’re outnumbered!’

By way of reply there was a puff of smoke from the ditch, the crack of a rifle and a bullet struck the horse of one of the militiamen, which shied and fell After this there was a rattle of fire from the rifles of the militia positioned on the edge of the bushes. Their bullets whistled and hummed, clipping the leaves and branches and landing in the rampart, but none of them hit the men behind. All they hit was Gamzalo’s horse which had strayed off. It was wounded in the head but did not fall; snapping its hobble, it crashed through the bushes to the other horses, nestling against them and spilling its blood on the young grass. Hadji Murad and his men only fired when one of the militiamen showed himself and they seldom missed. Three militiamen were wounded and their comrades not only hesitated to charge Hadji Murad and his men, but dropped farther and farther back, firing only random shots at long range.

This went on for over an hour. The sun had risen half-way up the trees and Hadji Murad was just considering whether to mount and attempt a break for the river when the shouts of a fresh large force of men were heard. This was Hadji-Aha of Mekhtuli and his men. There were about 200 of them. At one time Hadji-Aha had been a kunak of Hadji Murad and lived with him in the mountains, but he had then gone over to the Russians. With him was Akhmet-Khan, the son of Hadji Murad_s enemy. Hadji-Aha began as Karganov had done by calling on Hadji Murad to surrender, but as on the first occasion Hadji Murad replied with a shot.

‘Out swords and at them!’ cried Hadji-Aha, snatching his own from its sheath, and there was a sound of hundreds of voices as men charged shrieking into the bushes.

The militiamen got among the bushes, but several shots in succession came cracking from the rampart. Three or four men fell and the attackers halted. They now opened fire from the edge of the bushes too. They fired and, running from bush to bush, gradually edged towards the rampart. Some managed to get across, while others fell to the bullets of Hadji Murad and his men. Hadji Murad never missed; Gamzalo’s aim was no less sure and he gave a delighted yelp each time he saw his bullet strike home. Kurban sat by the edge of the ditch chanting ‘La ilaha illa allah ‘; he took his time in firing, but rarely got a hit. Meanwhile, Eldar was quivering all over in his impatience to rush the enemy with his dagger; he fired often and at random, continually looking round at Hadji Murad and showing himself above the rampart. The shaggy-haired Khanefi continued his role as servant even here. With rolled up sleeves he reloaded the guns as they were handed to him by Hadji Murad and Kurban, carefully ramming home the bullets in oiled rags with an iron ram-rod and priming the pans with dry powder from a horn. Khan-Mahoma did not keep to the ditch like the others, but kept running across to the horses to get them to a safer place, all the time shrieking and casually firing without resting his gun. He was the first to be wounded. He was struck by a bullet in the neck and collapsed backwards spitting blood and cursing. Hadji Murad was wounded next. A bullet went through his shoulder. He tore some wadding from his jacket to plug the wound and went on firing..

‘Let’s rush them with our swords,’ urged Eldar for the third time. He rose above the rampart ready to charge the enemy, but was instantly struck by a bullet. He staggered and fell backwards across Hadji Murad_s leg. Hadji Murad looked at him. His handsome sheep’s eyes stared earnestly up at him. His mouth, with its upper lip pouting like a child’s, quivered but did not open. Hadji Murad freed his leg and went on taking aim. Khanefi bent over Eldar’s dead body and quickly began taking the unused cartridges from his cherkeska. Meanwhile Kurban want on chanting, slowly loading and taking aim.

The enemy, whooping and screeching as they ran from bush to bush, were getting nearer and nearer. Hadji Murad was hit by another bullet in the left side. He lay down in the ditch and plugged the wound with another piece of wadding from his jacket. This wound in his side was mortal and he felt that he was dying. One after another images and memories flashed through his mind. Now he saw the mighty Abununtsal Khan clasping to his face his severed, hanging cheek and rush ing at his enemies with dagger drawn; he saw Vorontsov, old, feeble and pale with his sly, white face and heard his soft voice; he saw his son Yusuf, Sofiat his wife, and the pale face, red beard and screwed up eyes of his enemy Shamil.

And these memories running through his mind evoked no feelings in him, no pity, ill-will or desire of any kind. It all seemed so insignificant compared to what was now beginning and had already begun for him. But his powerful body meanwhile continued what it had started to do. Summoning the last remnants of his strength, he lifted himself above the rampart and fired his pistol at a man running towards him. He hit him and the man fell. Then he crawled completely out of the ditch and, with his dagger drawn and limping badly, went straight at the enemy. Several shots rang out. He staggered and fell. A number of militiamen rushed with a triumphant yell towards his fallen body. But what they supposed was a dead body suddenly stirred. First his bloodstained, shaven head, its papakha gone, then his body lifted; then, holding on to a tree, Hadji Murad pulled himself fully up. He looked so terrifying that the advancing men stopped dead. But suddenly he gave a shudder, staggered from the tree, and like a scythed thistle fell full length on his face and moved no more.

He did not move, but could still feel, and when Hadji-Aha, the first to reach him, struck him across the head with his great dagger, he felt he was being hit on the head with a hammer and failed to understand who was doing this and why. This was the last conscious link with his body. He felt no more, and the object that was trampled and slashed by his enemies had no longer any connection with him. Hadji-Alla put a foot on the body’s back, with two strokes hacked off its head and rolled it carefully away with his foot so as not to get blood on his boots. Blood gushed over the grass, scarlet from the neck arteries, black from the head.

Karganov, Hadji-Aha, Aklmlet-Khan and the militiamen gathered over the bodies of Hadji Murad and his men (Khanefi, Kurban and Gamzalo were bound) like hunters over a dead beast, standing among the bushes in the gunsmoke, gaily chatting and celebrating their victory.

The nightingales, which were silent while the shooting lasted, again burst into Song, first one near by, then others in the distance.

This was the death that was brought to my mind by the crushed thistle in the ploughed field.

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