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.


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