A Hero of Our Time Part 5

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CHAPTER VI

"AS things fell out, however," continued Maksim Maksimych, "I was right, you see. The presents produced only half an effect. She became more gracious more trustful--but that was all. Pechorin accordingly determined upon a last expedient. One morning he ordered his horse to be saddled, dressed himself as a Circa.s.sian, armed himself, and went into her room.

"'Bela,' he said. 'You know how I love you. I decided to carry you off, thinking that when you grew to know me you would give me your love.

I was mistaken. Farewell! Remain absolute mistress of all I possess.

Return to your father if you like--you are free. I have acted wrongfully towards you, and I must punish myself. Farewell! I am going.

Whither?--How should I know? Perchance I shall not have long to court the bullet or the sabre-stroke. Then remember me and forgive.'

"He turned away, and stretched out his hand to her in farewell. She did not take his hand, but remained silent. But I, standing there behind the door, was able through a c.h.i.n.k to observe her countenance, and I felt sorry for her--such a deathly pallor shrouded that charming little face!

Hearing no answer, Pechorin took a few steps towards the door. He was trembling, and--shall I tell you?--I think that he was in a state to perform in very fact what he had been saying in jest! He was just that sort of man, Heaven knows!

"He had scarcely touched the door, however, when Bela sprang to her feet, burst out sobbing, and threw herself on his neck! Would you believe it? I, standing there behind the door, fell to weeping too, that is to say, you know, not exactly weeping--but just--well, something foolis.h.!.+"

The staff-captain became silent.

"Yes, I confess," he said after a while, tugging at his moustache, "I felt hurt that not one woman had ever loved me like that."

"Was their happiness lasting?" I asked.

"Yes, she admitted that, from the day she had first cast eyes on Pechorin, she had often dreamed of him, and that no other man had ever produced such an impression upon her. Yes, they were happy!"

"How tiresome!" I exclaimed, involuntarily.

In point of fact, I had been expecting a tragic ending--when, lo! he must needs disappoint my hopes in such an unexpected manner!...

"Is it possible, though," I continued, "that her father did not guess that she was with you in the fortress?"

"Well, you must know, he seems to have had his suspicions. After a few days, we learned that the old man had been murdered. This is how it happened."...

My attention was aroused anew.

"I must tell you that Kazb.i.+.c.h imagined that the horse had been stolen by Azamat with his father's consent; at any rate, that is what I suppose.

So, one day, Kazb.i.+.c.h went and waited by the roadside, about three versts beyond the village. The old man was returning from one of his futile searches for his daughter; his retainers were lagging behind. It was dusk. Deep in thought, he was riding at a walking pace when, suddenly, Kazb.i.+.c.h darted out like a cat from behind a bush, sprang up behind him on the horse, flung him to the ground with a thrust of his dagger, seized the bridle and was off. A few of the retainers saw the whole affair from the hill; they dashed off in pursuit of Kazb.i.+.c.h, but failed to overtake him."

"He requited himself for the loss of his horse, and took his revenge at the same time," I said, with a view to evoking my companion's opinion.

"Of course, from their point of view," said the staff-captain, "he was perfectly right."

I was involuntarily struck by the apt.i.tude which the Russian displays for accommodating himself to the customs of the people in whose midst he happens to be living. I know not whether this mental quality is deserving of censure or commendation, but it proves the incredible pliancy of his mind and the presence of that clear common sense which pardons evil wherever it sees that evil is inevitable or impossible of annihilation.

CHAPTER VII

IN the meantime we had finished our tea. The horses, which had been put to long before, were freezing in the snow. In the west the moon was growing pale, and was just on the point of plunging into the black clouds which were hanging over the distant summits like the shreds of a torn curtain. We went out of the hut. Contrary to my fellow-traveller's prediction, the weather had cleared up, and there was a promise of a calm morning. The dancing choirs of the stars were interwoven in wondrous patterns on the distant horizon, and, one after another, they flickered out as the wan resplendence of the east suffused the dark, lilac vault of heaven, gradually illumining the steep mountain slopes, covered with the virgin snows. To right and left loomed grim and mysterious chasms, and ma.s.ses of mist, eddying and coiling like snakes, were creeping thither along the furrows of the neighbouring cliffs, as though sentient and fearful of the approach of day.

All was calm in heaven and on earth, calm as within the heart of a man at the moment of morning prayer; only at intervals a cool wind rushed in from the east, lifting the horses' manes which were covered with h.o.a.r-frost. We started off. The five lean jades dragged our wagons with difficulty along the tortuous road up Mount Gut. We ourselves walked behind, placing stones under the wheels whenever the horses were spent.

The road seemed to lead into the sky, for, so far as the eye could discern, it still mounted up and up, until finally it was lost in the cloud which, since early evening, had been resting on the summit of Mount Gut, like a kite awaiting its prey. The snow crunched under our feet. The atmosphere grew so rarefied that to breathe was painful; ever and anon the blood rushed to my head, but withal a certain rapturous sensation was diffused throughout my veins and I felt a species of delight at being so high up above the world. A childish feeling, I admit, but, when we retire from the conventions of society and draw close to nature, we involuntarily become as children: each attribute acquired by experience falls away from the soul, which becomes anew such as it was once and will surely be again. He whose lot it has been, as mine has been, to wander over the desolate mountains, long, long to observe their fantastic shapes, greedily to gulp down the life-giving air diffused through their ravines--he, of course, will understand my desire to communicate, to narrate, to sketch those magic pictures.

Well, at length we reached the summit of Mount Gut and, halting, looked around us. Upon the mountain a grey cloud was hanging, and its cold breath threatened the approach of a storm; but in the east everything was so clear and golden that we--that is, the staff-captain and I--forgot all about the cloud... Yes, the staff-captain too; in simple hearts the feeling for the beauty and grandeur of nature is a hundred-fold stronger and more vivid than in us, ecstatic composers of narratives in words and on paper.

"You have grown accustomed, I suppose, to these magnificent pictures!" I said.

"Yes, sir, you can even grow accustomed to the whistling of a bullet, that is to say, accustomed to concealing the involuntary thumping of your heart."

"I have heard, on the contrary, that many an old warrior actually finds that music agreeable."

"Of course, if it comes to that, it is agreeable; but only just because the heart beats more violently. Look!" he added, pointing towards the east. "What a country!"

And, indeed, such a panorama I can hardly hope to see elsewhere. Beneath us lay the Koishaur Valley, intersected by the Aragva and another stream as if by two silver threads; a bluish mist was gliding along the valley, fleeing into the neighbouring defiles from the warm rays of the morning.

To right and left the mountain crests, towering higher and higher, intersected each other and stretched out, covered with snows and thickets; in the distance were the same mountains, which now, however, had the appearance of two cliffs, one like to the other. And all these snows were burning in the crimson glow so merrily and so brightly that it seemed as though one could live in such a place for ever. The sun was scarcely visible behind the dark-blue mountain, which only a practised eye could distinguish from a thunder-cloud; but above the sun was a blood-red streak to which my companion directed particular attention.

"I told you," he exclaimed, "that there would be dirty weather to-day!

We must make haste, or perhaps it will catch us on Mount Krestov.--Get on!" he shouted to the drivers.

Chains were put under the wheels in place of drags, so that they should not slide, the drivers took the horses by the reins, and the descent began. On the right was a cliff, on the left a precipice, so deep that an entire village of Ossetes at the bottom looked like a swallow's nest.

I shuddered, as the thought occurred to me that often in the depth of night, on that very road, where two wagons could not pa.s.s, a courier drives some ten times a year without climbing down from his rickety vehicle. One of our drivers was a Russian peasant from Yaroslavl, the other, an Ossete. The latter took out the leaders in good time and led the shaft-horse by the reins, using every possible precaution--but our heedless compatriot did not even climb down from his box! When I remarked to him that he might put himself out a bit, at least in the interests of my portmanteau, for which I had not the slightest desire to clamber down into the abyss, he answered:

"Eh, master, with the help of Heaven we shall arrive as safe and sound as the others; it's not our first time, you know."

And he was right. We might just as easily have failed to arrive at all; but arrive we did, for all that. And if people would only reason a little more they would be convinced that life is not worth taking such a deal of trouble about.

Perhaps, however, you would like to know the conclusion of the story of Bela? In the first place, this is not a novel, but a collection of travelling-notes, and, consequently, I cannot make the staff-captain tell the story sooner than he actually proceeded to tell it. Therefore, you must wait a bit, or, if you like, turn over a few pages. Though I do not advise you to do the latter, because the crossing of Mount Krestov (or, as the erudite Gamba calls it, le mont St. Christophe [15]) is worthy of your curiosity.

Well, then, we descended Mount Gut into the Chertov Valley... There's a romantic designation for you! Already you have a vision of the evil spirit's nest amid the inaccessible cliffs--but you are out of your reckoning there. The name "Chertov" is derived from the word cherta (boundary-line) and not from chort (devil), because, at one time, the valley marked the boundary of Georgia. We found it choked with snow-drifts, which reminded us rather vividly of Saratov, Tambov, and other charming localities of our fatherland.

"Look, there is Krestov!" said the staffcaptain, when we had descended into the Chertov Valley, as he pointed out a hill covered with a shroud of snow. Upon the summit stood out the black outline of a stone cross, and past it led an all but imperceptible road which travellers use only when the side-road is obstructed with snow. Our drivers, declaring that no avalanches had yet fallen, spared the horses by conducting us round the mountain. At a turning we met four or five Ossetes, who offered us their services; and, catching hold of the wheels, proceeded, with a shout, to drag and hold up our cart. And, indeed, it is a dangerous road; on the right were ma.s.ses of snow hanging above us, and ready, it seemed, at the first squall of wind to break off and drop into the ravine; the narrow road was partly covered with snow, which, in many places, gave way under our feet and, in others, was converted into ice by the action of the sun by day and the frosts by night, so that the horses kept falling, and it was with difficulty that we ourselves made our way. On the left yawned a deep chasm, through which rolled a torrent, now hiding beneath a crust of ice, now leaping and foaming over the black rocks. In two hours we were barely able to double Mount Krestov--two versts in two hours! Meanwhile the clouds had descended, hail and snow fell; the wind, bursting into the ravines, howled and whistled like Nightingale the Robber. [16] Soon the stone cross was hidden in the mist, the billows of which, in ever denser and more compact ma.s.ses, rushed in from the east...

Concerning that stone cross, by the way, there exists the strange, but widespread, tradition that it had been set up by the Emperor Peter the First when travelling through the Caucasus. In the first place, however, the Emperor went no farther than Daghestan; and, in the second place, there is an inscription in large letters on the cross itself, to the effect that it had been erected by order of General Ermolov, and that too in the year 1824. Nevertheless, the tradition has taken such firm root, in spite of the inscription, that really you do not know what to believe; the more so, as it is not the custom to believe inscriptions.

To reach the station Kobi, we still had to descend about five versts, across ice-covered rocks and plashy snow. The horses were exhausted; we were freezing; the snowstorm droned with ever-increasing violence, exactly like the storms of our own northern land, only its wild melodies were sadder and more melancholy.

"O Exile," I thought, "thou art weeping for thy wide, free steppes!

There mayest thou unfold thy cold wings, but here thou art stifled and confined, like an eagle beating his wings, with a shriek, against the grating of his iron cage!"

"A bad look out," said the staff-captain. "Look! There's nothing to be seen all round but mist and snow. At any moment we may tumble into an abyss or stick fast in a cleft; and a little lower down, I dare say, the Baidara has risen so high that there is no getting across it. Oh, this Asia, I know it! Like people, like rivers! There's no trusting them at all!"

The drivers, shouting and cursing, belaboured the horses, which snorted, resisted obstinately, and refused to budge on any account, notwithstanding the eloquence of the whips.

"Your honour," one of the drivers said to me at length, "you see, we will never reach Kobi to-day. Won't you give orders to turn to the left while we can? There is something black yonder on the slope--probably huts. Travellers always stop there in bad weather, sir. They say," he added, pointing to the Ossetes, "that they will lead us there if you will give them a tip."

"I know that, my friend, I know that without your telling me," said the staff-captain. "Oh, these beasts! They are delighted to seize any pretext for extorting a tip!"

"You must confess, however," I said, "that we should be worse off without them."

"Just so, just so," he growled to himself. "I know them well--these guides! They scent out by instinct a chance of taking advantage of people. As if it was impossible to find the way without them!"

Accordingly we turned aside to the left, and, somehow or other, after a good deal of trouble, made our way to the wretched shelter, which consisted of two huts built of stone slabs and rubble, surrounded by a wall of the same material. Our ragged hosts received us with alacrity. I learned afterwards that the Government supplies them with money and food upon condition that they put up travellers who are overtaken by storm.

A Hero of Our Time Part 5

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A Hero of Our Time Part 5 summary

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