Saturday, November 8, 2008

Chapter 1, Part 7

The newly arrived began to warm their hands over the fire, for the night was cool, though fine. There were about forty of them, sturdy men and well armed. They did not look at all like registered Cossacks, which astonished Skrzetuski not a little, especially since their number was so considerable. Everything seemed very suspicious to the lieutenant. If the Grand Hetman had sent Abdank to Kudak, he would have given him a guard of registered Cossacks; and in the second place, why should he order him to go by the steppe from Czehin, and not by water? The necessity of crossing all the rivers flowing through the Wild Lands to the Dnieper could only delay the journey. It appeared rather as if Abdank wanted to avoid Kudak.

In like manner, the personality of Abdank astonished the young lieutenant greatly. He noticed at once that the Cossacks, who were rather free in intercourse with their colonels, met him with unusual respect, as if he were a real hetman. He must be a man of a heavy hand, and what was the most surprising to Skrzetuski, who knew the Ukraine on both side of the Dnieper, he had heard nothing of a famous Abdank. Besides, there was in the countenance of the man something peculiar--a certain secret power which issued forth from his face like heat from a flame, a certain unbending will, declaring that this man withdraws before no man and no thing. The same kind of will was in the face of Prince Jeremi Wisniowiecki; but that which in the prince was an inborn gift of nature special to his lofty birth and his position might astonish one when found in a man of unknown name wandering in the wild steppe.

Skrzetuski deliberated long. It occurred to him that this might be some powerful outlaw who, hunted by justice, had taken refuge in the Wild Lands--or the leader of a robber band; but the latter was not probable. The dress and speech of the man showed something else. The lieutenant was quite at a loss what course to take; he kept simply on his guard. Meanwhile, Abdank ordered his horse.

"Lieutenant, it is time for him who has the road before him to go. Let me thank you again for your succor. God grant me to show you a service of equal valor!"

"I do not know whom I have saved, therefore I deserve no thanks."

"Your modesty, which equals your courage, is speaking now. Accept from me this ring."

The lieutenant frowned and took a step backward, measuring with his eyes Abdank, who then spoke on with almost paternal dignity in his voice and posture:

"But look, I offer you not the wealth of this ring, but its other virtues. When still in the years of youth, a captive among infidels, I received this from a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land. In the seal of it is dust from the grave of Christ. Such a gift might not be refused, even if it came from condemned hands. You are still a young man and a solider; and since even old age, which is near the grave, knows not what may strike it before the last hour, what of adolescence, which has before it a long life and must meet with many an adventure. This ring will preserve you from misfortune, and protect you when the day of judgment comes; and I tell you that that day is even now on the road through the Wild Lands."

A moment of silence followed; nothing was heard but the crackling of the fire and the snorting of the horses. From the distant reeds came the dismal howling of wolves. Suddenly Abdank repeated still again, as if to himself:

"The day of judgment is already on the road through the Wild Lands, and when it comes all God's world will be amazed."

The lieutenant took the ring mechanically, so much was he astonished at the words of this strange man. But the man was looking into the dark distance of the steppe. Then he turned and mounted his horse. His Cossacks were waiting at the foot of the height.

"Forward! forward! Good health to you, my soldier friend!" said he to the lieutenant. "The times are such at present that brother trusts not brother. This is why you know not whom you have saved, for I have not given you my name."

"You are not Abdank, then?"

"That is my escutcheon."

"And your name?"

"Bohdan Zenobi Chmielnicki."

When he had said this, he rode down from the height, and his Cossacks moved after him. Soon they were hidden in the mist and the night. When they had gone about half a furlong, the wind bore back from them the words of the Cossack song,

"O God, lead us forth, poor captives,
From heavy bonds,
From infidel faith,
To the bright dawn,
To quiet waters,
To a gladsome land,
To a Christian world.
Hear, O God, our prayers,--
The prayers of the hapless,
The prayers of poor captives."

The voices grew fainter by degrees, and then were lost in the wind sounding through the reeds.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Chapter 1, Part 6

"I see you have the mettle of a knight, sir--and speak justly. I should have begun my discourse and thanks with my name. I am Zenobi Abdank; my coat-of-arms is Abdank with a cross; a nobleman from the province of Kiev; a landholder, and a colonel of the Cossack regiment of Prince Dominik Zaslawski."

"And I am Jan Skrzetuski, lieutenant of the cuirassier regiment of the Honorable Prince Jeremi Wisniowiecki."

"You serve under a famous warrior. Accept my thanks and hand."

The lieutenant hesitated no longer. It is true that armored officers looked down on men of the other regiments; but Jan was in the steppe, in the Wild Lands, where such things were less remembered. Besides, he had to do with a colonel. Of this he had visual proof, for when his soldiers brought Abdank the belt and sabre which were taken from his person in order to revive him, they brought at the same time a short staff with a bone shaft and ivory head, such as Cossack colonels were in the habit of using. Then too, the dress of Zenobi Abdank was rich, and his educated speech indicated a quick mind and worldliness.

So Skrzetuski invited him to supper. The odor of roasted meats began to go out from them just then, tickling the nostrils and the palate. The attendant brought the meats, and served them on a plate. The two men fell to eating; and when a good-sized goat-skin of Moldavian wine was brought, a lively conversation sprang up without delay.

"A safe return home to us!" said Skrzetuski.

"Then you are returning home? From where, sir, may I ask?" inquired Abdank.

"From a long distance, from the Crimea."

"What were you doing there? Did you go with a ransom?"

"No, Honorable Colonel, I went to the Khan himself."

Abdank turned an inquisitive ear.

"Ah, you entered into a fine company, sir! And what did you take to the Khan?"

"A letter from the Honorable Prince Jeremi Wisniowiecki."

"You were an envoy then! What did the Prince write to the Khan about?"

The lieutenant looked sharply at his companion.

"Dear Colonel," said he, "you have looked into the eyes of the ruffians who captured you with a lariat; that is your affair. But what the prince wrote to the Khan is neither your affair nor mine, but theirs."

"I wondered a moment ago," replied Abdank cunningly, "that his highness the prince should send such a young man to the Khan; but after your answer I am not surprised, for I see that though you are young in years, you are mature in experience and wit."

The lieutenant swallowed the flattering words smoothly, merely twisted his young moustache, and inquired:

"Now tell me, sir, what you are doing on the Omelnik, and how you come to be here alone?"

"I am not alone, I left my men on the road; and I am going to Kudak, to Grodzicki, who has been transferred to the command there, and to whom the Grand Hetman has sent me with letters."

"Why don't you go by boat, by water?"

"I am following an order from which I may not depart."

"Strange that the hetman issued such an order, when in the steppe you have fallen into straits that you would have surely avoided had you been going by water."

"Oh, the steppes are quiet at present; my acquaintance with them does not begin with today. What has met me is man's malice and invidia."

"And who attacked you in this fashion?"

"It's a long story. An evil neighbor, Lieutenant, who has destroyed my property, is driving me from my land, has killed my son, and besides, as you have seen, has made an attempt on my life where we sit."

"But do you not carry a sabre at your side?"

On the powerful face of Abdank there was a gleam of hatred, in his eyes a sullen glare. He answered slowly but with emphasis:

"I do; and as God is my witness, I shall not seek any other recourse against my foes from now on."

The lieutenant wished to say something, when suddenly the tramp of horses was heard in the steppe, or rather the hurried slapping of horses' feet on the softened grass. In a moment, also, the lieutenant's orderly, who was on guard, hurried up with news that men of some kind were approaching.

"Surely those are my men," said Abdank, "whom I left beyond the Tasmina River. Not suspecting betrayal, I promised to wait for them here."

Soon a crowd of mounted men formed a half-circle in front of the height. By the glitter of the fire appeared heads of horses, with open nostrils, puffing from exertion; and above them the faces of riders, who, bending forward, sheltered their eyes from the glare of the fire and gazed eagerly toward the light.

"Hey, men! Who are you?" inquired Abdank.

"Servants of God," answered voices from the darkness.

"Yes, those are my men," repeated Abdank, turning to the lieutenant.

"Over here! Over here!"

Some of them dismounted and drew near the fire.

"Ah, how we hurried, hurried, brother! But what's the matter?"

"There was an ambush. Chwedko, the traitor, learned of my coming to this place and laid in wait here with others. He must have arrived some time in advance. They caught me with a lariat."

"God save us! Who are these Poles about you?"

Saying this, they looked threateningly at Skrzetuski and his companions.

"These are good people," said Abdank. "Glory be to God, I am alive and well. In a moment we will push on our way."

"Glory be to God! We are ready."