« Prev Chapter II Next »


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.

“Now, march!”

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.

« Prev Chapter II Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection