Eroshka, The Old Cossack
It was quite true that Olenin had been walking about the yard when Maryanka entered the gate, and had heard her say, "That devil, our lodger, is walking about." He had spent that evening with Daddy Eroshka in the porch of his new lodging. He had had a table, a samovar, wine, and a candle brought out, and over a cup of tea and a cigar he listened to the tales the old man told seated on the threshold at his feet. Though the air was still, the candle dripped and flickered: now lighting up the post of the porch, now the table and crockery, now the dropped white head of the old man. Moths circled round the flame and, shedding the dust of their wings, fluttered on the table and in the glasses, flew into the candle flame, and disappeared in the black space beyond. Olenin and Eroshka had emptied five bottles of chikhir. Eroshka filled the glasses every time, offering one to Olenin, drinking his health, and talking untiringly. He told of Cossack life in the old days of his father, "The Broad," who alone had carried oh his back a boar's carcass weighing three hundred weight, and drank two pails of chikhir at one sitting. He told of his own days and his chum Girchik, with whom during the plague he used to smuggle felt croaks across the Terek. He told how one morning he had killed two deer, and about his "little soul" who used to run to him at the cordon at night. He told all this so eloquently and picturesquely that Olenin did not notice how time passed.
"Ah yes, my dear fellow, you did not know me in my golden days; then I'd have shown you things. Today it's Eroshka licks the jug, but then Eroshka was famous in the whole regiment. Whose was the finest horse? Who had a Gurda sword? To whom should one go to get a drink? With whom go on the spree? Who should be sent to the mountains to kill Ahmet Khan? Why, always Eroshka! Whom did the girls love? Always Eroshka had to answer for it. Because I was a real brave: a drinker, a thief (I used to seize herds of horses in the mountains), a singer; I was a master of every art! There are no Cossacks like that nowadays. It's disgusting to look at them. When they're that high (Eroshka held his hand three feet from the ground) they put on idiotic boots and keep looking at them - that's all the pleasure they know. Or they'll drink themselves foolish, not like men but all wrong. And who was I? I was Eroshka, the thief; they knew me not only in this village but up in the mountains. Tartar princes, my kunaks, used to come to see me! I used to be everybody's kunak. I he was a Tartar - with a Tartar; an Armenian - with an Armenian; a soldier - with a soldier - with a soldier; an officer - with an officer! I didn't care as long as he was a drinker. He says you should cleanse yourself from intercourse with the world, not drink with soldiers, not eat with a Tartar."
"Who says all that?" asked Olenin.
"Why, our teacher! But listen to a Mullah or a Tartar Cadi. He says, "You unbelieving Giaours, why do you eat pig?" That shows that everyone has his own law. But I think it's all one. God has made everything for the joy of man. There is no sin in any of it. Take example from an animal. It lives in the Tartar's reeds or in ours. Wherever it happens to go, there is its home! Whatever God gives it that it eats! But our people say we have to lick red-hot plates in hell for that. And I think it's all a fraud," he added after a pause.
"What is a fraud?" asked Olenin.
"Why, what the preachers say. We had an army captain in Chervlena who was my kunak: a fine fellow just like me. He was killed in Chechnya. Well, he used to say that the preachers invent all that out of their own heads. When you die the grass will grow on your grave and that's all!" The old man laughed. "He was a desperate fellow."
And how old are you?" asked Olenin.
"The Lord only knows! I must be about seventy. When a Tsaritsa reigned in Russia I was no longer very small. So you can reckon it out. I must be seventy."
"Yes you must, but you are still a fine fellow."
"Well, thank Heaven I am healthy, quite healthy, except that a woman, a witch, has harmed me..."
"Oh, just harmed me."
"And so when you die the grass will grow? Repeated Olenin.
Eroshka evidently did not wish to express his thought clearly. He was silent for a while. "And what did you think? Drink!" he shouted suddenly, smiling and handing Olenin some wine.
"Well, what was I saying?" he continued, trying to remember. "Yes, that's the sort of man I am. I am a hunter. There is no hunter to equal me in the whole army... I will find and show you any animal and any bird, and what and where. I know it all! I have dogs, and two guns, and nets, and a screen and hawk. I have everything, thank the Lord! If you are not bragging but are a real sportsman, I'll show you everything. Do you know what a man I am? When I have found a track - I know the animal. I know where he will lie down and where he'll drink or wallow. I make myself a perch and sit there all night watching. What's the good of staying at home? One only get into mischief gets drunk. And here women come and chatter, and boys shout at me - enough to drive one mad. It's a different matter when you go out at nightfall, choose yourself a place, press down the reeds, and sit there and stay waiting, like a jolly fellow. One knows everything that goes on in the woods. One looks up at the sky: the stars move, you look at them and find out from them how the time goes. One looks round - the wood is rustling; one goes on waiting, now there comes a crackling - a boar comes to rub himself; one listens to hear the young eaglets screech and then the cocks give voice in the village, or the geese. When you hear the geese you know it is not yet midnight. And I know all about it! Or when a gun is fired somewhere far away, thoughts come to me. One thinks, "Who is that animal?
And has he killed it? Or only wounded it so that now the poor thing goes through the reeds smearing them with its blood all for nothing? I don't like that! Oh, how I dislike it! Why injure a beast? You fool, you fool!" or one thinks, "Maybe an abrek has killed some silly little Cossack." All this passes through one's mind. And once as I sat watching by the river I saw a cradle floating down. It was sound except for one corner, which was broken off. Thoughts did come that time! I thought some of your soldiers, the devils, must have got into a Tartar village and seized the Chechen women, and one of the devils has killed the little one: taken it by its legs and hit its head against a wall. Don't they do such things? Sh! Men have no souls! And thoughts came to me that filled me with pity. I thought: "They've thrown away the cradle and driven the wife out, and her brave has taken his gun and come across to our side to rub us." One watched and thinks. And then hears a litter breaking through the thicket, something begins to knock inside one. Dear one comes this way! "They'll scent me," one thinks; and one sits and does not stir this spring a fine litter came near me, I saw something black. "In the name of the Father and of the Son, and I was just about to fire when she grunts to her pigs, "Danger, children, she says, there's a man here, and off they all ran, breaking through the bushes. And she had been so close I could almost have bitten her."
"How could a sow tell her brood that a man was there?" asked Olenin.
"What do you think? You think the beast's a fool? No, he is wiser than a man, though you do call him a pig! He knows everything. Take this, for instance: A man will pass along your track and not notice it; but a pig as soon as it gets onto your track turns and runs at once: that shows there is wisdom in him, since he scents your smell and you don't. And there is this to be said too: You wish to kill it and it wishes to go about the woods alive. You have one law and it has another. It is a pig, but it is no worse than you - it too is God's creature. Ah, dear! Man is foolish, foolish, foolish!" The old man repeated this several times and then, letting his head drop, he sat thinking.
Olenin also became thoughtful, and, descending from the porch with his hands behind his back, began pacing up and down the yard. Eroshka, rousing himself, raised his head and began gazing intently at he moths circling round the flickering flame of the candle and burning themselves in it.
"Fool, fool!" he said. "Where are you flying to? Fool, fool!" He spoke tenderly, trying to catch them delicately by their wings with his thick fingers and then letting them fly again. "You are killing yourself and I am sorry for you!"
He sat a long time chattering and sipping out of the bottle. Olenin paced up and down the yard. Suddenly he was struck by the sound of whispering outside the gate. Involuntarily holding his breath, he heard a woman's laughter, a man's voice, and the sound of a kiss. Intentionally rustling the grass under his feet, he crossed to the opposite side of the yard, but after a while the wattle sheepskin cap passed along the other side of the fence (it was Luke), and a tall woman with a white kerchief on her head went past Olenin. "You and I have nothing to do with one another" was what Maryanka's firm step gave him to understand. He followed her with his eyes to the porch of the hut, and he even saw her through the window take off her kerchief and sit down. And suddenly a feeling of lonely depression and some vague longings and hopes, and envy of someone or other, overcame the young man's soul.
The last lights had been put out in the huts. The last sounds had died away in the village. The wattle fences and the cattle gleaming white in the yards, the roofs of the houses and the stately poplars, all seemed to be sleeping the laborers' healthy peaceful sleep. Only the incessant ringing voices of frogs from the damp distance reached the young man. In the east the stars were growing fewer and fewer and seemed to be melting in the increasing light, but overhead they were denser and deeper than before. The old man was dozing with his head on his hand. A cock crowed in the yard opposite, but Olenin still paced up and down thinking of something. The sound of a song sung by several voices reached him and he stepped up to the fence and listened. The voices of several young Cossacks caroled a merry song, and one voice was distinguishable among them all by its firm strength.
"Do you know who is singing there? said the old man, rousing himself. "It is the Brave, Lukashka. He has killed a Chechen and now he rejoices. And what is there to rejoice at?... The fool, the fool!"
"And have you ever killed people? Asked Olenin.
"You devil!" shouted the old man. "What are you asking? One must not talk so. It is a serious thing to destroy a human being... Ah, a very serious thing! Good-bye, my dear fellow. I've eaten my fill and am drunk," he said, rising. "Shall I come tomorrow to go shooting?"
"Mind, get up early; if you oversleep you will be fined!"
"Never fear, I'll be up before you," answered Olenin.
The old man left. The song ceased, but one could hear footsteps and merry talk. A little later the singing broke out again but farther away, and Eroshka's loud voice chimed in with the other. "What people, what a life!" Thought Olenin with a sigh as he returned alone to his hut.
Daddy Eroshka was superannuated and solitary Cossack: twenty years ago his wife had gone over to the Orthodox Church and run away from him and married a Russian sergeant major, and he had no children. He was not bragging when he spoke of himself as having been the boldest daredevil in the village when he was young. Everybody in the regiment knew of his old-time prowess. The death of more than one Russian, as well as Chechen, lay on his conscience. He used to go plundering in the mountains, and robbed the Russian too; and he had twice been in prison. The greater part of his life was spent in the forests, hunting. There he lived for days on a crust of bread and drank nothing but water. But, on the other hand, when he was in the village he made merry from morning to night. After leaving Olenin he slept for a couple of hours and awoke before it was light. He lay on his bed thinking of the man he had become acquainted with the evening before. Olenin's "simplicity" (simplicity in the sense of not grudging him a drink) pleased him very much, and so did Olenin himself. He wondered why the Russians were all "simple" and so rich, and why they were educated, and yet knew nothing. He pondered on these questions and also considered what he might get out of Olenin.
Daddy Eroshka's hut was of a good size and not old, but the absence of a woman was very noticeable in it. Contrary to the usual cleanliness of the Cossacks, the whole of this hut was filthy and exceedingly untidy. A bloodstained coat had been thrown on the table; half a doughcake lay beside a plucked and mangled crow with which to feed the hawk. Sandals of rawhide, a gun, a dagger, a little bag, wet clothes, and sundry rags lay scattered on the benches. In a corner stood a tub with stinking water, in which another pair of sandals were being steeped, and near by was a gun and hunting screen. On the floor a net had been thrown down and several dead pheasants lay there, while a hen tied by its leg was walking about near the table pecking among the dirt. In the unheated oven stood a broken pot with some kind of milky liquid. On the top of the oven a falcon was screeching and trying to break the cord by which it was tied, and a molting hawk sat quietly on the edge of the oven, looking askance at the hen and occasionally bowing its head to right and left. Daddy Eroshka himself, in his shirt, lay on his thick fingers at the scratches left on his hands by the hawk, which he was accustomed to carry without wearing gloves. The whole room, especially near the old man, was filled with that strong but not unpleasant mixture of smells that he always carried about with him.
"Uyde-ma, Daddy?" ("Is Daddy in?") Came through the window a sharp voice, which he at once recognized as Lukashka's.
"Uyde, Uyde, Uyde. I am in!" shout the hawk flapped his wings and pulled at his cord.
The old man was fond of Lukashka, who was the only man he excepted from his general contempt for the younger generation of Cossacks. Besides that, Lukashka and his mother, as near neighbors, often gave the old man wine, clotted cream, and other home produce, which Eroshka did not possess. Daddy Eroshka, who all his life had allowed himself to get carried away, always explained his infatuations from a practical point of view. "Well, why not?" he used to say to himself. "I'll give them some fresh meat, or a bird, and they won't forget Daddy: they'll sometimes bring a cake or a piece of pie."
"Good morning. Mark! I am glad to see you," shouted the old man cheerfully, and, quickly putting down his bare feet, he jumped off his bed and walked a step or two along the creaking floor, looked down at his out-turned toes, and suddenly, amused by the appearance of his feet, smiled, stamped with his bare heel on the ground, stamped again, and then performed a funny dance step. "That's clever, eh?" he asked, his small eyes glistening. Lukashka smiled faintly. "Going back to the cordon?" asked the old man.
"I have brought the chikhir I promised you when we were at the cordon."
"May Christ save you!" said old man, and he took up the extremely wide trousers that were lying on the floor, and his beshmet, put them on, fastened a strap round his waist, poured some water from an earthenware pot over his hands, wiped them on the old trousers, smoothed his beard with a bit of comb, and stopped in front of Lukashka. "Ready," he said.
Lukashka fetched a cup, wiped it and filled it with wine, and then handed it to the old man.
"Your health! To the Father and the Son!" said the old man, accepting the wine with solemnity. "May you have what you desire, may you always be a hero, and obtain a cross."
Lukashka also drank a little after repeating a prayer, and then put the wine on the table. The old man rose and brought out some dried fish, which he laid on the threshold, where he beat it with a stick to make it tender; then, having put it with his horny hands on a blue plate (his only one), he placed it on the table.
"I have all I want. I have victuals, thank God!" he said proudly. "Well, and what of Mosev?" he added.
Lukushka, evidently wishing to know the old man's opinion, told him how the officer had taken the gun from him. "Never mind the gun," said the old man. "If you don't give the gun you will get no reward."
"But they say, Daddy, it's little reward a fellow gets when he is not yet a mounted Cossack; and the gun is a fine one, a Crimean, worth eighty rubles."
"Eh, let it go! I had a dispute like that with an officer; he wanted my horse.
"Give it to me and you'll be made a cornet," says he. I wouldn't, and I got nothing!"
"Yes, Daddy, but you see I have to buy a horse; and they say you can't get one the other side of the river under fifty rubles, and mother has not yet sold our wine."
"Eh, we didn't bother," said the old man; "when Daddy Eroshka was your age he already stole herds of horses from the Nogay folk and drove them across the Terek. Sometimes we'd give a fine horse for a quart of vodka or a cloak."
Why so cheap?" asked Lukashka.
"You're a fool, a fool, Mark," said the old man contemptuously. "Why, that's what one steals for, so as not to be stingily! As for you, I suppose you haven't s much as seen how one drives off a herd of horses? Why don't you speak?"
"What's one to say, Daddy?" replied Lukashka. "It seems we are not the same sort of men as you were."
"You're a fool, Mark, a fool! Not the same sort of men!" retorted the old man, mimicking the Cossack lad. "I was not that sort of Cossack at your age."
"How's that?" asked Lukashka.
The old man shook his head contemptuously. "Daddy Eroshka was simple; he did not grudge anything! That's why I was kunak with all Chechnya. A kunak would come to visit me and I'd make him drunk with vodka and make him happy and put him to sleep with me, and when I went to see him happy and put him to sleep with me, and when I went to see him I'd take him a present - a dagger! That's the way it is done, and not as you do nowadays: the only amusement lads have now is to crack seeds and spit out the shells!" The old man finished contemptuously, imitating the present-day Cossacks cracking seeds and spitting out the shells.
"Yes, I know," said Lukashka; "that's so!"
"If you wish to be a fellow of the right sort, be a brave and not a peasant! Because even a peasant can buy a horse - pay the money and take the horse."
They were silent for a while.
"Well, of course it's dull both in the village and the cordon, Daddy: but there's nowhere one can go for a bit of sport. All our fellows are so timid. Take Nazarka. The other day when we went to the Tartar village, Girey Khan asked us to come to Nogay to take some horses, but no one went, and how was I go alone?"
"And what of Daddy? Do you think I am quite dried up?... No, I'm not dried up. Let me have a horse and I'll be off on Nogay at once."
"What's the good of talking nonsense!" said Luke. "You'd better tell me what to do about Girey Khan. He says, "Only bring horses to the Terek, and then even if you bring a whole stud I'll find a place for them." You see he's also a shaven-headed Tarsar - how's one to believe him?"
"You may trust Girey Khan, all his kin were good people. His father too was a faithful kunak. But listen to Daddy and I won't teach you wrong: make him take an oath, then it will be all right. And if you go with him, have your pistol ready all the same, especially when it comes to diving up the horses. I was nearly killed that way once by a Chechen. I wanted ten rubles from him for a horse. Trusting is all right, but don't go to sleep without a gun."
Lukashka listened attentively to the old man. "I say, Daddy, have you any stone-break grass?" he asked after a pause.
"No, I haven't any, but I'll teach you how to get it. You're a good lad and won't forget the old man... Shall I tell you?"
"Tell me, Daddy."
"You know a tortoise? She's a devil, the tortoise is!"
"Of course I know!"
"Find her nest and fence it round so that she can't get in. Well, she'll come, go round it, and then will go off the stone-break grass and will bring some along and destroy the fence. Anyhow, next morning come in good time, and where the fence is broken there you'll find the stone-break grass lying. Take it wherever you like. No lock and no bar will be able to stop you."
"Have you tried it yourself, Daddy?"
"As for trying, I have not tried it, but I was told of it by good people. I used only one charm: that was to repeat the Pilgrim rhyme when mounting my horse; and no one ever killed me!"
"What is the Pilgrim rhyme, Daddy?"
"What, don't you know it? Oh, what people! You're right to ask Daddy. Well, listen, and repeat after me:
"Hail! Ye, living in Sion,
This is your King,
Our steeds we shall sit on,
Sophonius is weeping;
Zacharias is speaking,
Manking ever loving."
"Kind ever loving," the old man repeated. "Do you know it now? Try it."
Lukashka laughed. "Come, Daddy, was it that that hindered their killing you? Maybe it just happened so!"
"You've grown too clever! You learn it all, and say it. It will do you no harm. Well, suppose you have sung Pilgrim' it's all right," and the old man himself began laughing. "But just one thing, Luke, don't you go to Nogay!"
"Times have changed. You are not the same men. You've become rubbish Cossacks! And see how many Russians have come down on us! You'd get to prison. Really, give it up! Just as if you could! Now Girchik and I, we used..."
"It is quite light, Daddy. It's time to be off. Look us up some day."
"May Christ save you! I'll go to the officer; I promised to take him out shooting. He seems a good fellow."