I was returning home by the fields. It was midsummer, the hay harvest was over and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of ﬂowers – red, white, and pink scented tufty clover; milk-white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell; yellow honey-scented rape blossoms; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip-shaped; creeping vetch; yellow, red, and pink scabious; faintly scented, neatly arranged purple plaintains with blossoms slightly tinged with pink; cornﬂowers, the newly opened blossoms bright blue in the sunshine but growing paler and redder towards evening or when growing old; and delicate almond-scented dodder ﬂowers that withered quickly. I gathered myself a large nosegay and was going home when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson variety, which in our neighborhood they call “Tartar” and carefully avoid when mowing – or, if they do happen to cut it down, throw out from among the grass for fear of pricking their hands. Thinking to pick this thistle and put it in the center of my nosegay, I climbed down into the ditch, and after driving away a velvety bumble-bee that had penetrated deep into one of the ﬂowers and had there fallen sweetly asleep, I set to work to pluck the ﬂower. But this proved a very diﬃcult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every side – even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand – but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly ﬁve minutes, breaking the ﬁbers one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed and the ﬂower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Moreover, owing to a coarseness and stiﬀness, it did not seem in place among the delicate blossoms of my nosegay. I threw it away feeling sorry to have vainly destroyed a ﬂower that looked beautiful in its proper place.
“But what energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life!” thought I, remembering the eﬀort it had cost me to pluck the ﬂower. The way home led across black-earth ﬁelds that had just been ploughed up. I ascended the dusty path. The ploughed ﬁeld belonged to a landed proprietor and was so large that on both sides and before me to the top of the hill nothing was visible but evenly furrowed and moist earth. The land was well tilled and nowhere was there a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen, it was all black. “Ah, what a destructive creature is man… . How many different plant-lives he destroys to support his own existence!” thought I, involuntarily looking around for some living thing in this lifeless black ﬁeld. In front of me to the right of the road I saw some kind of little clump, and drawing nearer I found it was the same kind of thistle as that which I had vainly plucked and thrown away. This “Tartar” plant had three branches. One was broken and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm. Each of the other two bore a ﬂower, once red but now blackened. One stalk was broken, and half of it hung down with a soiled ﬂower at its tip. The other, though also soiled with black mud, still stood erect. Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant but it had risen again, and that was why, though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels drawn out, an arm torn oﬀ, and one of its eyes plucked out. Yet it stood ﬁrm and did not surrender to man who had destroyed all its brothers around it… .
“What vitality!” I thought. “Man has conquered everything and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won’t submit.” And I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago, which I had partly seen myself, partly heard of from eye-witnesses, and in part imagined.
The episode, as it has taken shape in my memory and imagination, was as follows.
It happened towards the end of 1851.
On a cold November evening Hadji Murad rode into Makhmet, a hostile Chechen aoul1 that lay some ﬁfteen miles from Russian territory and was ﬁlled with the scented smoke of burning Kizyak2. The strained chant of the muezzin had just ceased, and though the clear mountain air, impregnated with kizyak smoke, above the lowing of the cattle and the bleating of the sheep that were dispersing among the saklyas3 (which were crowded together like the cells of honeycomb), could be clearly heard the guttural voices of disputing men, and sounds of women’s and children’s voices rising from near the fountain below.
This Hadji Murad was Shamil’s naib4, famous for his exploits, who used never to ride out without his banner and some dozens of murids5, who caracoled and showed off before him. Now wrapped in a hood and burka6, from under which protruded a riﬂe, he rode, a fugitive with one murid only, trying to attract as little attention as possible and peering with his quick black eyes into the faces of those he met on his way.
When he entered the aoul, instead of riding up the road leading to the open square, he turned to the left into a narrow side street, and on reaching the second saklya, which was cut into the hill side, he stopped and looked round. There was no one under the penthouse in front, but on the roof of the saklya itself, behind the freshly plastered clay chimney, lay a man covered with a sheepskin. Hadji Murad touched him with the handle of his leather-plaited whip and clicked his tongue, and an old man, wearing a greasy old beshmet7 and a nightcap, rose from under the sheepskin. His moist red eyelids had no lashes, and he blinked to get them unstuck. Hadji Murad, repeating the customary “Selaam aleikum!” uncovered his face. “aleikum, selaam!” said the old man, recognizing him, and smiling with his toothless mouth. And raising himself on his thin legs he began thrusting his feet into the wooden-heeled slippers that stood by the chimney. Then he leisurely slipped his arms into the sleeves of his crumpled sheepskin, and going to the ladder that leant against the roof he descended backwards, while he dressed and as he climbed down he kept shaking his head on its thin, shrivelled sunburnt neck and mumbling something with his toothless mouth. As soon as he reached the ground he hospitably seized Hadji Murad’s bridle and right stirrup; but the strong active murid had quickly dismounted and motioning the old man aside, took his place. Hadji Murad also dismounted, and walking with a slight limp, entered under the penthouse. A boy of ﬁfteen, coming quickly out of the door, met him and wonderingly ﬁxed his sparkling eyes, black as ripe sloes, on the new arrivals.
“Run to the mosque and call your father,” ordered the old man as he hurried forward to open the thin, creaking door into the saklya.
As Hadji Murad entered the outer door, a slight, spare, middle-aged woman in a yellow smock, red beshmet, and wide blue trousers came through an inner door carrying cushions.
“May thy coming bring happiness!” said she, and bending nearly double began arranging the cushions along the front wall for the guest to sit on.
“May thy sons live!” answered Hadji Murad, taking oﬀ his burka, his riﬂe, and his sword, and handing them to the old man who carefully hung the riﬂe and sword on a nail beside the weapons of the master of the house, which were suspended between two large basins that glittered against the clean clay-plastered and carefully whitewashed wall.
Hadji Murad adjusted the pistol at his back, came up to the cushions, and wrapping his Circassian coat closer round him, sat down. The old man squatted on his bare heels beside him, closed his eyes, and lifted his hands palms upwards. Hadji Murad did the same; then after repeating a prayer they both stroked their faces, passing their hands downwards till the palms joined at the end of their beards.
“Ne habar?” (“Is there anything new?”) asked Hadji Murad, addressing the old man.
“Habar yok8” (“Nothing new”), replied the old man, looking with his lifeless red eyes not at Hadji Murad’s face but at his breast. “I live at the apiary and have only today come to see my son… . He knows.”
Hadji Murad, understanding that the old man did not wish to say what he knew and what Hadji Murad wanted to know, slightly nodded his head and asked no more questions.
“There is no good news,” said the old man. “The only news is that the hares keep discussing how to drive away the eagles, and the eagles tear ﬁrst one and then another of them. The other day the Russian dogs burnt the hay in the Mitchit aoul… . May their faces be torn!” he added hoarsely and angrily.
Hadji Murad’s murid entered the room, his strong legs striding softly over the earthen ﬂoor. Retaining only his dagger and pistol, he took oﬀ his burka, riﬂe, and sword as Hadji Murad had done, and hung them up on the same nails as his leader’s weapons.
“Who is he?” asked the old man, pointing to the newcomer.
“My murid. Eldar is his name,” said Hadji Murad.
“That is well,” said the old man, and motioned Eldar to a place on a piece of felt beside Hadji Murad. Eldar sat down, crossing his legs and ﬁxing his ﬁne ram-like eyes on the old man who, having now started talking, was telling how their brave fellows had caught two Russian soldiers the week before and had killed one and sent the other to Shamil in Veden.
Hadji Murad heard him absently, looking at the door and listening to the sounds outside. Under the penthouse steps were heard, the door creaked, and Sado, the master of the house, came in. He was a man of about forty, with a small beard, long nose, and eyes as black, though not as glittering, as those of his ﬁfteen-year-old son who had run to call him home and who now entered with his father and sat down by the door. The master of the house took oﬀ his wooden slippers at the door, and pushing his old and much-worn cap to the back of his head (which had remained unshaved so long that it was beginning to be overgrown with black hair), at once squatted down in front of Hadji Murad.
He too lifted his palms upwards, as the old man had done, repeated a prayer, and then stroked his face downwards. Only after that did he begin to speak. He told how an order had come from Shamil to seize Hadji Murad alive or dead, that Shamil’s envoys had left only the day before, that the people were afraid to disobey Shamil’s orders, and that therefore it was necessary to be careful.
“In my house,” said Sado, “no one shall injure my kunak9 while I live, but how will it be in the open ﬁelds? … We must think it over.”
Hadji Murad listened with attention and nodded approvingly. When Sado had ﬁnished he said:
“Very well. Now we must send a man with a letter to the Russians. My murid will go but he will need a guide.”
“I will send brother Bata,” said Sado. “Go and call Bata,” he added, turning to his son.
The boy instantly bounded to his nimble feet as if he were on springs, and swinging his arms, rapidly left the saklya. Some ten minutes later he returned with a sinewy, short-legged Chechen, burnt almost black by the sun, wearing a worn and tattered yellow Circassian coat with frayed sleeves, and crumpled black leggings.
Hadji Murad greeted the newcomer, and again without wasting a single word, immediately asked:
“Canst thou conduct my murid to the Russians?”
“I can,” gaily replied Bata. “I can certainly do it. There is not another Chechen who would pass as I can. Another might agree to go and might promise anything, but would do nothing; but I can do it!”
“All right,” said Hadji Murad. “Thou shalt receive three for thy trouble,” and he held up three ﬁngers.
Bata nodded to show that he understood, and added that it was not money he prized, but that he was ready to serve Hadji Murad for the honor alone. Every one in the mountains knew Hadji Murad, and how he slew the Russian swine.
“Very well… . A rope should be long but a speech short,” said Hadji Murad.
“Well then I’ll hold my tongue,” said Bata.
“Where the river Argun bends by the cliﬀ,” said Hadji Murad, “there are two stacks in a glade in the forest – thou knowest?”
“There my four horsemen are waiting for me,” said Hadji Murad.
“Aye,” answered Bata, nodding.
“Ask for Khan Mahoma. He knows what to do and what to say. Canst thou lead him to the Russian Commander, Prince Vorontsov?”
“Yes, I’ll take him.”
“Canst thou take him and bring him back again?”
“Then take him there and return to the wood. I shall be there too.”
“I will do it all,” said Bata, rising, and putting his hands on his heart he went out.
Hadji Murad turned to his host.
“A man must also be sent to Chekhi,” he began, and took hold of one of the cartridge pouches of his Circassian coat, but let his hand drop immediately and became silent on seeing two women enter the saklya.
One was Sado’s wife – the thin middle-aged woman who had arranged the cushions. The other was quite a young girl, wearing red trousers and a green beshmet. A necklace of silver coins covered the whole front of her dress, and at the end of the short but thick plait of hard black hair that hung between her thin shoulder-blades a silver ruble was suspended. Her eyes, as sloe-black as those of her father and brother, sparkled brightly in her young face which tried to be stern. She did not look at the visitors, but evidently felt their presence.
Sado’s wife brought in a low round table on which stood tea, pancakes in butter, cheese, churek (that is, thinly rolled out bread), and honey. The girl carried a basin, a ewer, and a towel.
Sado and Hadji Murad kept silent as long as the women, with their coin ornaments tinkling, moved softly about in their red soft-soled slippers, setting out before the visitors the things they had brought. Eldar sat motionless as a statue, his ram-like eyes ﬁxed on his crossed legs, all the time the women were in the saklya. Only after they had gone and their soft footsteps could no longer be heard behind the door, did he give a sigh of relief.
Hadji Murad having pulled out a bullet from one of the cartridge-pouches of his Circassian coat, and having taken out a rolled-up note that lay beneath it, held it out, saying:
“To be handed to my son.”
“Where must the answer be sent?”
“To thee; and thou must forward it to me.”
“It shall be done,” said Sado, and placed the note in the cartridge-pocket of his own coat. Then he took up the metal ewer and moved the basin towards Hadji Murad.
Hadji Murad turned up the sleeves of his beshmet on his white muscular arms, held out his hands under the clear cold water which Sado poured from the ewer, and having wiped them on a clean unbleached towel, turned to the table. Eldar did the same. While the visitors ate, Sado sat opposite and thanked them several times for their visit. The boy sat by the door never taking his sparkling eyes oﬀ Hadji Murad’s face, and smiled as if in conﬁrmation of his father’s words.
Though he had eaten nothing for more than twenty-four hours Hadji Murad ate only a little bread and cheese; then, drawing out a small knife from under his dagger, he spread some honey on a piece of bread.
“Our honey is good,” said the old man, evidently pleased to see Hadji Murad eating his honey. “This year, above all other years, it is plentiful and good.”
“I thank thee,” said Hadji Murad and turned from the table. Eldar would have liked to go on eating but he followed his leader’s example, and having moved away from the table, handed him the ewer and basin.
Sado knew that he was risking his life by receiving such a guest in his house, for after his quarrel with Shamil the latter had issued a proclamation to all the inhabitants of Chechnya forbidding them to receive Hadji Murad on pain of death. He knew that the inhabitants of the aoul might at any moment become aware of Hadji Murad’s presence in his house and might demand his surrender. But this not only did not frighten Sado, it even gave him pleasure with himself because he was doing his duty.
“Whilst thou are in my house and my head is on my shoulders no one shall harm thee,” he repeated to Hadji Murad.
Hadji Murad looked into his glittering eyes and understanding that this was true, said with some solemnity – “Mayst thou receive joy and life!”
Sado silently laid his hand on his heart in token of thanks for these kind words.
Having closed the shutters of the saklya and laid some sticks in the fireplace, Sado, in an exceptionally bright and animated mood, left the room and went into that part of his saklya where his family all lived. The women had not yet gone to sleep, and were talking about the dangerous visitors who were spending the night in their guest chambers.
At Vozvizhensk, the advanced fort situated some ten miles from the aoul in which Hadji Murad was spending the night, three soldiers and a non-commissioned oﬃcer left the fort and went beyond the Shahgirinsk Gate. The soldiers, dressed as Caucasian soldiers used to be in those days, wore sheepskin coats and caps, and boots that reached above their knees, and they carried their cloaks tightly rolled up and fastened across their shoulders. Shouldering arms, they ﬁrst went some ﬁve hundred paces along the road and then turned oﬀ it and went some twenty paces to the right – the dead leaves rustling under their boots – till they reached the blackened trunk of a broken plane tree just visible through the darkness. There they stopped. It was at this plane tree that an ambush party was usually placed.
The bright stars, that had seemed to be running along the tree tops while the soldiers were walking through the forest, now stood still, shining brightly between the bare branches of the trees.
“A good job it’s dry,” said the non-commissioned officer Panov, bringing down his long gun and bayonet with a clang from his shoulder and placing it against the plane tree.
The three soldiers did the same.
“Sure enough I’ve lost it!” muttered Panov crossly. “Must have left it behind or I’ve dropped it on the way.”
“What are you looking for?” asked one of the soldiers in a bright, cheerful voice.
“The bowl of my pipe. Where the devil has it got to?”
“Have you got the stem?” asked the cheerful voice.
“Here it is.”
“Then why not stick it straight into the ground?” “Not worth bothering!”
“We’ll manage that in a minute.”
Smoking in ambush was forbidden, but this ambush hardly deserved the name. It was rather an outpost to prevent the mountaineers from bringing up a cannon unobserved and ﬁring at the fort as they used to. Panov did not consider it necessary to forego the pleasure of smoking, and therefore accepted the cheerful soldier’s oﬀer. the latter took a knife from his pocket and made a small round hole in the ground. Having smoothed it, he adjusted the pipe stem to it, then ﬁlled the hole with tobacco and pressed it down, and the pipe was ready. A sulphur match ﬂared and for a moment lit up the broad-cheeked face of the soldier who lay on his stomach, the air whistled in the stem, and Panov smelt the pleasant odor of burning tobacco.
“Fixed ut up?” said he, rising to his feet.
“Why, of course!”
“What a smart chap you are, Avdeev! … As wise as a judge! Now then, lad.”
Avdeev rolled over on his side to make room for Panov, letting smoke escape from his mouth.
Panov lay down prone, and after wiping the mouthpiece with his sleeve, began to inhale.
When they had had their smoke the soldiers began to talk.
“They say the commander has had his ﬁngers in the cashbox again,” remarked one of them in a lazy voice. “He lost at cards, you see.”
“He’ll pay it back again,” said Panov.
“Of course he will! He’s a good oﬃcer,” assented Avdeev.
“Good! good!” gloomily repeated the man who had started the conversation. “In my opinion the company ought to speak to him. If you’ve taken the money, tell us how much and when you’ll repay it.’”
“That will be as the company decides,” said Panov, tearing himself away from the pipe.
“Of course. The community is a strong man,’” assented Avdeev, quoting a proverb.
“There will be oats to buy and boots to get towards spring. the money will be wanted, and what shall we do if he’s pocketed it?” insisted the dissatisﬁed one.
“I tell you it will be as the company wishes,” repeated Panov. “It’s not the ﬁrst time; he takes it and gives it back.”
In the Caucasus in those days each company chose men to manage its own commissariat. they received 6 rubles 50 kopeks a month per man from the treasury, and catered for the company. They planted cabbages, made hay, had their own carts, and prided themselves on their well-fed horses. The company’s money was kept in a chest of which the commander had the key, and it often happened that he borrowed from the chest. This had just happened again, and the soldiers were talking about it. The morose soldier, Nikitin, wished to demand an account from the commander, while Panov and Avdeev considered that unnecessary.
After Panov, Nikitin had a smoke, and then spreading his cloak on the ground sat down on it leaning against the trunk of the plane tree. The soldiers were silent. Far above their heads the crowns of the trees rustled in the wind and suddenly, above this incessant low rustling, rose the howling, whining, weeping and chuckling of jackals.
“Just listen to those accursed creatures – how they caterwaul!”
“They’re laughing at you because your mouth’s all on one side,” remarked the high voice of the third soldier, an Ukrainian.
All was silent again, except for the wind that swayed the branches, now revealing and now hiding the stars.
“I say, Panov,” suddenly asked the cheerful Avdeev, “do you ever feel dull?”
“Dull, why?” replied Panov reluctantly.
“Well, I do… . I feel so dull sometimes that I don’t know what I might not be ready to do to myself.”
“There now!” was all Panov replied.
“That time when I drank all the money it was from dullness. It took hold of me … took hold of me till I thought to myself, I’ll just get blind drunk!’”
“But sometimes drinking makes it still worse.”
“Yes, that’s happened to me too. But what is a man to do with himself?”
“But what makes you feel so dull?”
“What, me? … Why, it’s the longing for home.” “Is yours a wealthy home then?”
“No; we weren’t wealthy, but things went properly – we lived well.” And Avdeev began to relate what he had already told Panov many times.
“You see, I went as a soldier of my own free will, instead of my brother,” he said. “He has children. They were ﬁve in family and I had only just married. Mother began begging me to go. So I thought, Well, maybe they will remember what I’ve done.’ So I went to our proprietor … he was a good master and he said, You’re a ﬁne fellow, go!’ So I went instead of my brother.”
“Well, that was right,” said Panov.
“And yet, will you believe me, Panov, it’s chieﬂy because of that that I feel so dull now? Why did you go instead of your brother?’ I say to myself. He’s living like a king now over there, while you have to suﬀer here;’ and the more I think of it the worse I feel… . It seems just a piece of ill-luck!”
Avdeev was silent.
“Perhaps we’d better have another smoke,” said he after a pause.
“Well then, ﬁx it up!”
But the soldiers were not to have their smoke. Hardly had Avdeev risen to ﬁx the pipe stem in its place when above the rustling of the trees they heard footsteps along the road. Panov took his gun and pushed Nikitin with his foot.
Nikitin rose and picked up his cloak.
The third soldier, Bondarenko, rose also, and said:
“And I have dreamt such a dream, mates… . “
“Sh!” said Avdeev, and the soldiers held their breath, listening. The footsteps of men in soft-soled boots were heard approaching. The fallen leaves and dry twigs could be heard rustling clearer and clearer through the darkness. Then came the peculiar guttural tones of Chechen voices. The soldiers could now not only hear men approaching, but could see two shadows passing through a clear space between the trees; one shadow taller than the other. When these shadows had come in line with the soldiers, Panov, gun in hand, stepped out on to the road, followed by his comrades.
“Who goes there?” cried he.
“Me, friendly Chechen,” said the shorter one. This was Bata. “Gun, yok! … sword, yok!” said he, pointing to himself. “Prince, want!”
The taller one stood silent beside his comrade. He too was unarmed.
“He means he’s a scout, and wants the Colonel,” explained Panov to his comrades.
“Prince Vorontsov … much want! Big business!” said Bata.
“All right, all right! We’ll take you to him,” said Panov. “I say, you’d better take them,” said he to Avdeev, “you and Bondarenko; and when you’ve given them up to the oﬃcer on duty come back again. Mind,” he added, “be careful to make them keep in front of you!”
“And what of this?” said Avdeev, moving his gun and bayonet as though stabbing someone. “I’s just give a dig, and let the steam out of him!”
“What’ll he be worth when you’ve stuck him?” remarked Bondarenko.
When the steps of the two soldiers conducting the scouts could no longer be heard, Panov and Nikitin returned to their post.
“What the devil brings them here at night?” said Nikitin.
“Seems it’s necessary,” said panov. “But it’s getting chilly,” he added, and unrolling his cloak he put it on and sat down by the tree.
About two hours later Avdeev and Bondarenko returned.
“Well, have you handed them over?”
“Yes. They weren’t yet asleep at the Colonel’s – they were taken straight in to him. And do you know, mates, those shaven-headed lads are ﬁne!” continued Avdeev. “Yes, really. What a talk I had with them!”
“Of course you’d talk,” remarked Nikitin disapprovingly.
“Really they’re just like Russians. One of them is married. Molly,’ says I, bar?’ Bar,’ he says. Bondarenko, didn’t I say bar’? Many bar?’ A couple,’ says he. A couple! Such a good talk we had! Such nice fellows!”
“Nice, indeed!” said Nikitin. “If you met him alone he’d soon let the guts out of you.”
“It will be getting light before long.” said panov.
“Yes, the stars are beginning to go out,” said Avdeev, sitting down and making himself comfortable.
And the soldiers were silent again.