Thursday, June 26, 2008

Chapter 1, Part 2

Night came down upon the Wild Lands, and with it the hour of ghosts. Cossacks on guard in the outposts related in those days that the shadows of men who had fallen in sudden death and in sin used to rise up at night and carry on dances in which they were hindered neither by the cross nor the Church. Also, when the wicks which showed the time of night began to burn out, prayers for the dead were offered throughout the outposts. It was said, too, that the shadows of mounted men coursing through the wasteland barred the road to wayfarers, whining and begging them for a sign of the holy cross. Among these ghosts, vampires also were met with, who pursued people with howls. A trained ear might distinguish at a distance the howls of a vampire from those of a wolf. Whole legions of shadows were also seen, which sometimes came so near the outposts that the sentries sounded the alarm. This was generally the harbinger of a great war. The meeting of a single ghost foreboded no good, either; but it was not always necessarily of evil omen, for frequently a living man would appear before travellers and vanish like a shadow, and therefore might easily and often be taken for a ghost.

Night came quickly on the Omelnik, so it was not unusual that a man or a ghost made an appearance at the side of the deserted stanitsa. The moon coming out form behind the Dnieper whitened the wasteland, the tops of the thistles, and the distance of the steppe. Immediately there appeared lower down on the plain some other beings of the night. The flitting clouds hid the light of the moon from moment to moment; consequently those figures flashed up in the darkness in one instant and in the next they were blurred. At times they disappeared altogether and seemed to melt in the shadows. Pushing on toward the height on which the first rider was standing, they stole up quietly, carefully, slowly, halting at intervals.

There was something awe-exciting in their movements, as there was in all that steppe which was so calm in appearance. The wind at times blew from the Dnieper, causing a mournful rustle among the dried thistles, which bent and trembled as in fear. At last the figures vanished in the shadows of the ruins. In the uncertain light of that hour nothing could be seen save the single horseman on the height.

But the rustle arrested his attention. Approaching the edge of the mound, he began to look carefully into the steppe. At that moment the wind stopped, the rustling ceased, and there was perfect silence.

Suddenly a piercing whistle was heard; confused voices began to shout stridently, "Allah! Allah! Jesus Christ! Help! Kill!" The report of muskets echoed; red flashes rent the darkness. The tramp of horses mingled with the clash of steel. Some new horsemen rose as if from under the ground of the steppe. You would have said that a storm had sprung up suddenly in that silent, ominous land. Human moans replaced the horrible shouting; finally all was quiet: the fighting was over.

Apparently a typical scene had been played out in the Wild Lands.

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