Hadji Murad, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter V

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, two companies carrying axes and commanded by Poltoratsky marched six miles beyond the Shagirinsk Gate, and having thrown out a line of sharpshooters set to work to fell trees as soon as the day broke. Towards eight o’clock the mist which had mingled with the perfumed smoke of the hissing and crackling damp green branches on the bonfires began to rise and the wood-fellers — who till then had not seen five paces off but had only heard one another — began to see both the bonfires and the road through the forest, blocked with falled trees. The sun now appeared like a bright spot in the fog and now again was hidden.

In the glade, some way from the road, Poltoratsky, his subaltern Tikhonov, two officers of the Third Company, and Baron Freze, an ex-officer of the Guards and a fellow student of Poltoratsky at the Cadet College, who had been reduced to the ranks for fighting a duel, were sitting on drums. Bits of paper that had contained food, cigarette stumps, and empty bottles, lat scattered around them. The officers had had some vodka and were now eating, and drinking porter. A drummer was uncorking their third bottle.

Poltoratsky, although he had not had enough sleep, was in that peculiar state of elation and kindly careless gaiety which he always felt when he found himself among his soldiers and with his comrades where there was a possibility of danger.

The officers were carrying on an animated conversation, the subject of which was the latest news: the death of General Sletpsov. None of them saw in this death that most important moment of a life, its termination and return to the source when it sprang — they saw in it only the valour of a gallant officer who rushed at the mountaineers sword in hand and hacked them desperately.

Though all of them — and especially those who had been in action — knew and could not help knowing that in those days in the Caucasus, and in fact anywhere and at any time, such hand-to- hand hacking as is always imagined and described never occurs (or if hacking with swords and bayonets ever does occur, it is only those who are running away that get hacked), that fiction of hand- to-hand fighting endowed them with the calm pride and cheerfulness with which they say on the drums — some with a jaunty air, others on the contrary in a very modest pose, and drank and joked without troubling about death, which might overtake them at any moment as it had overtaken Sleptsov. And in the midst of their talk, as if to confirm their expectations, they heard to the left of the road the pleasant stirring sound of a rifle shot; and a bullet, merrily whistling somewhere in the misty air, flew past and crashed into a tree.

“Hullo!” exclaimed Poltoratsky in a merry voice; “Why that’s at our line. . . . There now, Kostya,” and he turned to Freze, “now’s your chance. Go back to the company. I will lead the whole company to support the cordon and we’ll arrange a battle that will be simply delightful . . . and then we’ll make a report.”

Freze jumped to his feet and went at a quick pace towards the smoke-enveloped spot where he had left his company.

Poltoratsky’s little Kabarda dapple-bay was brought to him, and he mounted and drew up his company and led it in the direction whence the shots were fired. The outposts stood on the skirts of the forest in front of the bare descending slope of a ravine. The wind was blowing in the direction of the forest, and not only was it possible to see the slope of the ravine, but the opposite side of it was also distinctly visible. When Poltoratsky rode up to the line the sun came out from behind the mist, and on the other side of the ravine, by the outskirts of a young forest, a few horsemen could be seen at a distance of a quarter of a mile. These were the Chechens who had pursued Hadji Murad and wanted to see him meet the Russians. One of them fired at the line. Several soldiers fired back. The Chechens retreated and the firing ceased.

But when Poltoratsky and his company came up he nevertheles gave orders to fire, and scarcely had the word been passed than along the whole line of sharpshooters the incessant, merry, stirring rattle of our rifles began, acompanied by pretty dissolving cloudlets of smoke. The soldiers, pleased to have some distraction, hastened to load and fired shot after shot. The Chechens evidently caught the feeling of excitement, and leaping forward one after another fired a few shots at our men. One of these shots wounded a soldier. It was the same Avdeev who had lain in ambush the night before.

When his comrades approached him he was lying prone, holding his wounded stomach with both hands, and rocking himself with a rhythmic motion moaned softly. He belonged to Poltoratsky’s company, and Poltoratsky, seeing a group of soldiers collected, rode up to them.

“What is it, lad? Been hit?” said Poltoratsky. “Where?”

Avdeev did not answer.

“I was just going to load, your honor, when I heard a click,” said a soldier who had been with Avdeef; “and I look and see he’s dropped his gun.”

“Tut, tut, tut!” Poltoratsky clicked his tongue. “Does it hurt much, Avdeev?”

“It doesn’t hurt but it stops me walking. A dropu of vodka now, your honor!”

Some vodka (or rather the spirit drunk by the soldiers in the Caucasus) was found, and Panov, severely frowning, brought Avdeev a can-lid full. Avdeev tried to drink it but immediately handed back the lid.

“My soul truns against it,” he said. “Drink it yourself.”

Panov drank up the spirit.

Avdeev raised himself but sank back at once. They spread out a cloak and laid him on it.

“Your honor, the colonel is coming,” said the sergeant-major to Poltoratsky.

“All right. then will you see to him?” said Poltoratsky, and flourishing his whip he rode at a fast trot to meet Vorontsov.

Vorontsov was riding his thoroughbred English chestnut gelding, and was accompanied by the adjutant, a Cossack, and a Chechen interpreter.

“What’s happening here?” asked Vorontsov.

“Why, a skirmishing party attacked our advanced line,” Poltoratsky answered.

“Come, come — you arranged the whole thing yourself!”

“Oh no, Prince, not I,” said Poltoratsky with a smile; “they pushed forward of their own accord.”

“I hear a soldier has been wounded?”

“Yes, it’s a great pity. He’s a good soldier.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously, I believe . . . in the stomach.”

“And do you know where I am going?” vorontsov asked.

“I don’t.”

“Can’t you guess?”

“No.”

“Hadji Murad has surrendered and we are now going to meet him.”

“You don’t mean to say so?”

“His envoy came to me yesterday,” said Vorontsov, with difficulty repressing a smile of pleasure. “He will be waiting for me at the Shalin glade in a few minutes. Place sharpshooters as far as the glade, and then come and join me.”

“I understand,” said Poltoratsky, lifting his hand to his cap, and rode back to his company. He led the sharp shooters to the right himself, and ordered the seargeant-major to do the same on the left side.

The wounded Avdeev had meanwhile been taken back to the fort by some of the soldiers.

On his way back to rejoin vorontsov, Poltoratsky noticed behind him several horsemen who were overtaking him. In front on a white-maned horse rode a man of imposing appearance. He wore a turban and carried weapons with gold ornaments. This man was Hadji Murad. He approached Poltoratsky and said something to him in Tartar. Raising his eyebrows, Poltoratsky made a gesture with his arms to show that he did not understand, and smiled. Hadji Murad gave him smile for smile, and that smile struck Poltoratsky by its childlike kindliness. Poltoratsky had never expected to see the terrible mountain chief look like that. He had expected to see a morose, hard-featured man, and here was a vivacious person whose smile was so kindly that Poltoratsky felt as if he were an old acquaintance. He had only one peculiarity: his eyes, set wide apart, which gazed from under their black brows calmly, attentively, and penetratingly into the eyes of others.

Hadji Murad’s suit consisted of five men, among them was Khan Mahoma, who had been to see Prince Vorontsov that night. He was a rosy, round-faced fellow with black lashless eyes and a beaming expression, full of the joy of life. Then there was the Avar Khanefi, a thick-set, hairy man, whose eyebrows met. He was in charge of all Hadji Murad’s property and led a stud-bred horse which carried tightly packed saddle bags. Two men of the suite were particularly striking. The first was a Lesghian: a youth, broad-shouldered but with a waist as slim as a woman’s, beautiful ram-like eyes, and the beginnings of a brown beard. This was Eldar. The other, Gamzalo, was a Chechen with a short red beard and no eyebrows or eyelashes; he was blind in one eye and had a scar across his nose and face. Poltoratsky pointed out Vorontsov, who had just appeared on the road. Hadji Murad rode to meet him, and putting his right hand on his heart said something in Tartar and stopped. The Chechen interpreter translated.

“He says, ‘I surrender myself to the will of the Russian Tsar. I wish to serve him,’ he says. ‘I wished to so do long ago but Shamil would not let me.’”

Having heard what the interpreter said, Vorontsov stretched out his hand in its wash-leather glove to Hadji Murad. Hadji Murad looked at it hestitatingly for a moment and then pressed it firmly, again saying something and looking first at the interpreter and then at Vorontsov.

“He says he did not wish to surrender to any one but you, as you are the son of the Sirdar and he respects you much.”

Vorontsov nodded to express his thanks. Hadji Murad again said something, pointing to his suite.

“He says that these men, his henchmen, will serve the Russians as well as he.”

Vorontsov turned towards then and nodded to them too. The merry, black-eyed, lashless Chechen, Khan Mahoma, also nodded and said something which was probably amusing, for the hairy Avar drew his lips into a smile, showing his ivory-white teeth. But the red- haired Gamzalo’s one red eye just glanced at Vorontsov and then was again fixed on the ears of his horse.

When Vorontsov and Hadji Murad with their retinues rode back to the fort the soldiers released form the lines gathered in groups and made their own comments.

“What a lot of men that damned fellow has destroyed! And now see what a fuss they will make of him!”

“Naturally. He was Shamil’s right hand, and now — no fear!”

“Still there’s no denying it! he’s a fine fellow — a regular dzhigit!”

“And the red one! He squints at you like a beast!”

“Ugh! He must be a hound!”

They had all specially noticed the red one. Where the wood- felling was going on the soldiers nearest to the road ran out to look. Their officer shouted to them, but Vorontsov stopped him.

“Let them have a look at their old friend.”

“You know who that is?” he added, turning to the nearest soldier, and speaking the words slowly with his English accent.

“No, your Excellency.”

“Hadji Murad. . . . Heard of him?”

“How could we help it, your Excellency? We’ve beaten him many a time!”

“Yes, and we’ve had it hot from him too.”

“Yes, that’s true, your Excellency,” answered the soldier, pleased to be talking with his chief.

Hadji Murad understood that they were speaking about him, and smiled brightly with his eyes.

Vornotsov returned to the fort in a very cheerful mood.

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