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."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Chapter 1, Part 5

He was in the prime of life, of medium height, with broad shoulders, almost gigantic build of body, and striking features. He had an enormous head, a complexion dried, quite sunburned, eyes black and somewhat aslant like those of a Tartar; and over his thin lips hung a moustache that ended at the tips in two broad bunches. His powerful face indicated courage and pride. There was in it something both attractive and repulsive--the dignity of a hetman with Tartar cunning, kindness and wildness.

After he had sat awhile on the saddle, he rose and beyond all expectation went to look at the bodies instead of returning thanks.

"Simpleton!" muttered the lieutenant.

Meanwhile the stranger examined each face carefully, nodding his head like a man who as seen everything; after which he returned slowly to the lieutenant, slapping himself at his sides and seeking involuntarily his belt, behind which he wished evidently to place his hand.

This dignity in a man just rescued from the halter did not please the young lieutenant, so he said in irony:

"One might say that you are looking for acquaintances among those robbers, or that you a saying a prayer for their souls."

The stranger replied with gravity:

"You are both right and wrong, sir. You are right, for I was looking for acquaintances; and you are wrong, for they are not robbers, but servants of a certain nobleman, my neighbor."

"Then it is evident that you do not drink out of the same well with that neighbor."

A strange smile passed over the thin lips of the stranger.

"And in that you are wrong," he muttered through his teeth.

A moment later he added audibly:

"But pardon, sir, for not having first given thanks for the auxilium and effective succor which freed me from such sudden death. Your lordship's courage has redeemed my carelessness, for I separated from my men; but my gratitude is equal to your good will."

Having said this, he stretched out his hand to the lieutenant.

But the haughty young man did not stir from his place, and was in no hurry to give his hand; instead, he said:

"I should like to know first if I have to do with a nobleman; for though I have no doubt you are one, it does not befit me to accept the thanks of a nameless person."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Chapter 1, Part 4

"Pour gorzalka into his mouth," said the lieutenant; "undo his belt."

"Are we to spend the night here?"

"Yes. Unsaddle the horses and make a good fire."

The soldiers jumped to work. Some began to rouse and rub the prostrate man; several went to get reeds to burn; others spread camel and bear skins on the ground for the night.

The lieutenant, troubling himself no more about the suffocated stranger, unbound his belt and stretched himself out on a burka by the fire. He was still a very young man, lean, dark complexioned, exceedingly handsome, with a thin face and a prominent aquiline nose. In his eyes were visible fierce fancy and tenacity, but his face had an honest look. His rather thick moustache and a beard, evidently unshaven for a long time, gave him a seriousness beyond his years.

Meanwhile two attendants were preparing the evening meal. Dressed quarters of mutton were places on the fire, a number of bustards and partridges were taken from the packs, and one wild goat, which an attendant began to skin without delay. The fire blazed up, casting out upon the steppe an enormous ruddy circle of light. The suffocated man slowly began to come to his senses. For some time he cast his bloodshot eyes around on the strangers, examining their faces; then he tried to stand up. The soldier who had previously talked with the lieutenant raised him under the arms; another put in his hand a halberd, upon which the stranger leaned with all his force. His face was still red, his veins swollen. At last, with a suppressed voice, he coughed out his first word:


He was given gorzalka, which he drank and drank, and it apparently did him well, for when he finally removed the flask from his lips, he asked in a clear voice:

"In whose hands am I?"

The lieutenant got up and approached him.

"In the hands of those who saved your lordship."

"So it was not you gentlemen who caught me with the lariat?"

"Honorable sir, our weapon is the sabre, not the lariat. Your lordship wrongs good soldiers with such a suspicion. You were seized by ruffians pretending to be Tartars, which, if you are interested, you can take a look at, for they lie over there like slaughtered sheep." Saying this, he pointed to several dark bodies lying below the height.

The stranger responded to this:

"If you will allow me to rest then."

They brought him a felt-covered saddle, on which he sat and sunk into in silence.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Chapter 1, Part 3

The horsemen gathered in a group on the height; a few of them dismounted and examined something with care.

Meanwhile a powerful and commanding voice was heard in the darkness:

"Hey, there! Strike a fire!"

In a moment sparks sprang out, and soon a blaze flashed up from the dry reeds and pitch-pine which wayfarers through the Wild Lands always carried with them.

A staff for a hanging-lamp was immediately driven into the earth, and the glare from above illuminated clearly a number of men bending over a figure laying motionless on the ground.

These men were soldiers dressed in red court uniforms and wolf-skin caps. Of these, one who sat on a valiant steed appeared to be the leader. Dismounting, he approached the prostrate figure and inquired:

"Well, Sergeant Major, is he alive or dead?"

"He lives, Lieutenant, but there is a rattling in his throat; the lariat choked him."

"Who is he?"

"He is not a Tartar; some man of distinction."

"Then we should praise God."

The lieutenant looked carefully at the prostrate man.

"He appears to be a hetman."

"His horse is of splendid Tartar breed; the Khan has no better," said the sergeant major. "See, they're holding him there."

The lieutenant took a look and his face brightened. Two soldiers held a splendid steed indeed, who, moving his ears and distending his nostrils, pushed forward his head and looked with frightened eyes at his master.

"The horse will be ours, Lieutenant?" put in, with an inquiring tone, the sergeant major.

"Ah, you unbeliever, would you deprive a Christian of his horse in the steppe?"

"It's booty, after all...."

Further conversation was interrupted by the stronger breathing from the suffocated man.

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.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chapter 1, Part 1

The year 1647 was that strange year in which various signs in the heavens and on earth announced misfortunes of some kind and unusual events.
Contemporary chroniclers relate that beginning with the spring myriads of locusts swarmed from the Wild Lands, destroying grain and grass; this was a harbinger of Tartar raids. In the summer there was a great eclipse of the sun, and soon after a comet appeared in the sky. In Warsaw, grave-mounds were seen over the city, and a fiery cross was seen in the clouds; therefore, fasts were held and alms given, for some men declared that a plague would come over the land and destroy the human race. Finally, a winter so mild set in that the oldest inhabitants could not remember one like it. In the southern provinces ice did not confine the rivers, which, swollen by the morning melting of snows, left their courses and flooded the banks. Rainfalls were frequent. The steppe was drenched and became an immense slough. The sun was so warm in the south that--wonder of wonders!--in the province of Braclaw and in the Wild Lands a green fleece covered the steppes and plains in the middle of December. The swarms in the beehives began to buzz and bustle; cattle were bellowing in the fields. Since such an order of things appeared altogether unnatural, all men in Rus who were waiting or looking for unusual events turned their excited minds and eyes especially to the Wild Lands, from which danger might easier show itself than anywhere else.

At that time there was nothing unusual in the Wild Lands--no struggles there, nor encounters, beyond those of ordinary occurrence and known only to the eagles, hawks, ravens, and beasts of the plain.

For such were the Wild Lands at that period. The last traces of settled life ended on the way to the south, at no great distance beyond Chigirin on the side of the Dnieper, and on the side of the Dniester not far from Uman; then forward to the bays and sea there was nothing but steppe after steppe, hemmed in by the two rivers as if by a frame. At the bend of the Dnieper in the lower country beyond the Cataracts, Cossack life was seething, but in the open plains no man dwelt; only along the shores were nestled here and there little fields, like islands in the sea. The land belonged de nomine to the Commonwealth, but it was an empty land, in which the Commonwealth permitted the Tartars to graze their herds; but since the Cossacks prevented this frequently, the field of pasture was a field of battle, too.

How many struggles were fought in that region, how many people had laid down their lives there, no man had counted, no man remembered. Eagles, falcons, and ravens alone saw these; and whoever heard from a distance the sound of wings and the call of ravens, whoever beheld the whirl of birds circling over one place, knew that corpses or unburied bones were lying beneath. Men were hunted in the grass as if they were wolves or wild goats. All who wished, engaged in this hunt. Fugitives form the law defended themselves in the wild steppes. The armed herdsman guarded his flock, the warrior sought adventure, the robber plunder, the Cossack a Tartar, the Tartar a Cossack. It happened that whole bands guarded herds from troops of robbers. The steppe was both empty and filled, quiet and terrible, peaceable and full of ambushes; wild by reason of its wild plains, but wild, too, from the wild spirit of men.

At times a great war filled it. Then there flowed over it, like waves, Tartar chambuls, Cossack regiments, Polish or Wallachian companies. In the nighttime the neighing of horses answered the howling of wolves, the voices of drums and brazen trumpets flew on to the island of Ovid and the sea, and along the black trail of Kutchman there seemed an inundation of men. The boundaries of the Commonwealth were guarded from Kamenyets to the Dnieper by outposts and stanitsas; and when the roads were about to swarm with people, it was known especially by the countless flocks of birds which, frightened by the Tartars, flew onward to the north. But the Tartar, if he slipped out form the Black Forest or crossed the Dnieper from the Wallachian side, came by the southern provinces together with the birds.

That winter, however, the birds did not come with their uproar to the Commonwealth. It was stiller on the steppe than usual. At the moment when our narrative begins the sun was just setting, and its reddish rays threw light on a land entirely empty. On the northern rim of the Wild Lands, along the Omelnik to its mouth, the sharpest eye could not discover a living soul, nor even a movement in the dark, dry, and withered steppe grass. The sun showed but half its shield from behind the horizon. The heavens became obscured, and then the steppe grew darker and darker by degrees. Near the left bank, on a small height resembling more a grave-mound than a hill, were the mere remnants of a walled outpost which once upon a time had been built by Teodoryk Buczacki and then torn down by raids. A long shadow stretched from this ruin. In the distance gleamed the waters of the widespread Omelnik, which in that place turned toward the Dnieper. But the lights went out each moment in the heavens and on the earth. From the sky were heard the cries of storks in their flight to the sea; with this exception, the stillness was unbroken by a sound.