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."

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