"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, May 10, 2013

Book Excerpt: The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy, Part 2

You can read Part 1 of Book Excerpt: The Cossacks by Leo Tolstoy here. Excerpts taken from etext from Wikisource Library through Classic Literature By Great Authors ; translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude.
Olenin, the novel's central character, is contrasted with a young Cossack who couldn’t be more different, a youth named Lukashka with the nickname, “the snatcher” because of his hunting skills.  While Olenin is introduced in the city setting, Lukashka is quite distinctly introduced with the wilderness as background. 

The male population of the village spend their time on military expeditions and in the cordon--or 'at their posts', as the Cossacks say. Towards evening, that same Lukashka the Snatcher, about whom the old women had been talking, was standing on a watch-tower of the Nizhni-Prototsk post situated on the very banks of the Terek. Leaning on the railing of the tower and screwing up his eyes, he looked now far into the distance beyond the Terek, now down at his fellow Cossacks, and occasionally he addressed the latter. The sun was already approaching the snowy range that gleamed white above the fleecy clouds. The clouds undulating at the base of the mountains grew darker and darker. The clearness of evening was noticeable in the air. A sense of freshness came from the woods, though round the post it was still hot. The voices of the talking Cossacks vibrated more sonorously than before. The moving mass of the Terek's rapid brown waters contrasted more vividly with its motionless banks. The waters were beginning to subside and here and there the wet sands gleamed drab on the banks and in the shallows. The other side of the river, just opposite the cordon, was deserted; only an immense waste of low-growing reeds stretched far away to the very foot of the mountains. On the low bank, a little to one side, could be seen the flat-roofed clay houses and the funnel-shaped chimneys of a Chechen village. The sharp eyes of the Cossack who stood on the watch-tower followed, through the evening smoke of the pro-Russian village, the tiny moving figures of the Chechen women visible in the distance in their red and blue garments.  [Chpt 6]

Yes, that’s the same Chechen people who have been in the news here in the United States lately.  The Cossacks and the Chechens are neighboring people with the Terek River dividing them, but they are at war with each other, a sort of feud of cultures.  They are on guard against each other, and it seems like the goal of the men of both is to prove their manhood through soldierly exploits.  Lukashka is now old enough to participate, and he’s a natural at it. 

Lukashka, who stood on the watch-tower, was a tall handsome lad about twenty years old and very like his mother. His face and whole build, in spite of the angularity of youth, indicated great strength, both physical and moral. Though he had only lately joined the Cossacks at the front, it was evident from the expression of his face and the calm assurance of his attitude that he had already acquired the somewhat proud and warlike bearing peculiar to Cossacks and to men generally who continually carry arms, and that he felt he was a Cossack and fully knew his own value. His ample Circassian coat was torn in some places, his cap was on the back of his head Chechen fashion, and his leggings had slipped below his knees. His clothing was not rich, but he wore it with that peculiar Cossack foppishness which consists in imitating the Chechen brave. Everything on a real brave is ample, ragged, and neglected, only his weapons are costly. But these ragged clothes and these weapons are belted and worn with a certain air and matched in a certain manner, neither of which can be acquired by everybody and which at once strike the eye of a Cossack or a hillsman. Lukashka had this resemblance to a brave. With his hands folded under his sword, and his eyes nearly closed, he kept looking at the distant Tartar village. Taken separately his features were not beautiful, but anyone who saw his stately carriage and his dark-browed intelligent face would involuntarily say, 'What a fine fellow!'  [Chpt 6]

In almost complete contrast to the Olenin scene with his friends, we get a scene with Lukashka and his friends, but instead of the Moscow scene where the dialogue is over a lame philosophic conversation on whether love exists, Lukashka’s scene is very much different.  Here it is at length; it’s worth reading the whole thing. 

Nazarka, with a live pheasant under his arm, forced his way through the brambles and emerged on the footpath.

'Oh!' said Lukashka, breaking off in his song, 'where did you get that cock pheasant? I suppose it was in my trap?'

Nazarka was of the same age as Lukashka and had also only been at the front since the previous spring.

He was plain, thin and puny, with a shrill voice that rang in one's ears. They were neighbours and comrades. Lukashka was sitting on the grass crosslegged like a Tartar, adjusting his nets.

'I don't know whose it was--yours, I expect.'

'Was it beyond the pit by the plane tree? Then it is mine! I set the nets last night.'

Lukashka rose and examined the captured pheasant. After stroking the dark burnished head of the bird, which rolled its eyes and stretched out its neck in terror, Lukashka took the pheasant in his hands.

'We'll have it in a pilau tonight. You go and kill and pluck it.'

'And shall we eat it ourselves or give it to the corporal?'

'He has plenty!'

'I don't like killing them,' said Nazarka.

'Give it here!'

Lukashka drew a little knife from under his dagger and gave it a swift jerk. The bird fluttered, but before it could spread its wings the bleeding head bent and quivered.

'That's how one should do it!' said Lukashka, throwing down the pheasant. 'It will make a fat pilau.'

Nazarka shuddered as he looked at the bird.

'I say, Lukashka, that fiend will be sending us to the ambush again tonight,' he said, taking up the bird. (He was alluding to the corporal.) 'He has sent Fomushkin to get wine, and it ought to be his turn. He always puts it on us.'

Lukashka went whistling along the cordon.

'Take the string with you,' he shouted.

Nazirka obeyed.

'I'll give him a bit of my mind today, I really will,' continued Nazarka. 'Let's say we won't go; we're tired out and there's an end of it! No, really, you tell him, he'll listen to you. It's too bad!'

'Get along with you! What a thing to make a fuss about!' said Lukashka, evidently thinking of something else. 'What bosh! If he made us turn out of the village at night now, that would be annoying: there one can have some fun, but here what is there? It's all one whether we're in the cordon or in ambush. What a fellow you are!'

'And are you going to the village?'

'I'll go for the holidays.'

'Gurka says your Dunayka is carrying on with Fomushkin,' said Nazarka suddenly.

'Well, let her go to the devil,' said Lukashka, showing his regular white teeth, though he did not laugh. 'As if I couldn't find another!'

'Gurka says he went to her house. Her husband was out and there was Fomushkin sitting and eating pie. Gurka stopped awhile and then went away, and passing by the window he heard her say, "He's gone, the fiend.... Why don't you eat your pie, my own? You needn't go home for the night," she says. And Gurka under the window says to himself, "That's fine!"'

'You're making it up.'

'No, quite true, by Heaven!'

'Well, if she's found another let her go to the devil,' said Lukashka, after a pause. 'There's no lack of girls and I was sick of her anyway.'

'Well, see what a devil you are!' said Nazarka. 'You should make up to the cornet's girl, Maryanka. Why doesn't she walk out with any one?'

Lukashka frowned. 'What of Maryanka? They're all alike,' said he.

'Well, you just try... '

'What do you think? Are girls so scarce in the village?'

And Lukashka recommenced whistling, and went along the cordon pulling leaves and branches from the bushes as he went. Suddenly, catching sight of a smooth sapling, he drew the knife from the handle of his dagger and cut it down. 'What a ramrod it will make,' he said, swinging the sapling till it whistled through the air.

The Cossacks were sitting round a low Tartar table on the earthen floor of the clay-plastered outer room of the hut, when the question of whose turn it was to lie in ambush was raised. 'Who is to go tonight?' shouted one of the Cossacks through the open door to the corporal in the next room.

'Who is to go?' the corporal shouted back. 'Uncle Burlak has been and Fomushkin too,' said he, not quite confidently. 'You two had better go, you and Nazarka,' he went on, addressing Lukashka. 'And Ergushov must go too; surely he has slept it off?'

'You don't sleep it off yourself so why should he?' said Nazarka in a subdued voice.

The Cossacks laughed.

Ergushov was the Cossack who had been lying drunk and asleep near the hut. He had only that moment staggered into the room rubbing his eyes.

Lukashka had already risen and was getting his gun ready.

'Be quick and go! Finish your supper and go!' said the corporal; and without waiting for an expression of consent he shut the door, evidently not expecting the Cossack to obey. 'Of course,' thought he, 'if I hadn't been ordered to I wouldn't send anyone, but an officer might turn up at any moment. As it is, they say eight abreks have crossed over.'

'Well, I suppose I must go,' remarked Ergushov, 'it's the regulation. Can't be helped! The times are such. I say, we must go.'

Meanwhile Lukashka, holding a big piece of pheasant to his mouth with both hands and glancing now at Nazarka, now at Ergushov, seemed quite indifferent to what passed and only laughed at them both. Before the Cossacks were ready to go into ambush. Uncle Eroshka, who had been vainly waiting under the plane tree till night fell, entered the dark outer room.

'Well, lads,' his loud bass resounded through the low-roofed room drowning all the other voices, 'I'm going with you. You'll watch for Chechens and I for boars!'  [Chpt 7]

That scene just oozes with masculinity: the hunting and killing of the pheasant, Lukashka not concerned if his girlfriend leaves him (he’ll find another), cutting a tree down with his knife, male rivalry and banter, getting drunk, going on ambush, guns, and so on.  A couple of notes that may clarify.  Abreks are a type of Chechen and Maryanka is a girl Lukashka has had his eye on and who his family has been trying to arrange a marriage for him.  The ultimate accomplishment of the Cossack warrior is to kill an invading Chechen, and Lukashka does just that while ambush that night. 

The greater part of the night was past. The black cloud that had moved westward revealed the clear starry sky from under its torn edge, and the golden upturned crescent of the moon shone above the mountains with a reddish light. The cold began to be penetrating. Nazarka awoke, spoke a little, and fell asleep again. Lukashka feeling bored got up, drew the knife from his dagger-handle and began to fashion his stick into a ramrod. His head was full of the Chechens who lived over there in the mountains, and of how their brave lads came across and were not afraid of the Cossacks, and might even now be crossing the river at some other spot. He thrust himself out of his hiding-place and looked along the river but could see nothing. And as he continued looking out at intervals upon the river and at the opposite bank, now dimly distinguishable from the water in the faint moonlight, he no longer thought about the Chechens but only of when it would be time to wake his comrades, and of going home to the village. In the village he imagined Dunayka, his 'little soul', as the Cossacks call a man's mistress, and thought of her with vexation. Silvery mists, a sign of coming morning, glittered white above the water, and not far from him young eagles were whistling and flapping their wings. At last the crowing of a cock reached him from the distant village, followed by the long-sustained note of another, which was again answered by yet other voices.

'Time to wake them,' thought Lukashka, who had finished his ramrod and felt his eyes growing heavy. Turning to his comrades he managed to make out which pair of legs belonged to whom, when it suddenly seemed to him that he heard something splash on the other side of the Terek. He turned again towards the horizon beyond the hills, where day was breaking under the upturned crescent, glanced at the outline of the opposite bank, at the Terek, and at the now distinctly visible driftwood upon it. For one instant it seemed to him that he was moving and that the Terek with the drifting wood remained stationary. Again he peered out. One large black log with a branch particularly attracted his attention. The tree was floating in a strange way right down the middle of the stream, neither rocking nor whirling. It even appeared not to be floating altogether with the current, but to be crossing it in the direction of the shallows. Lukashka stretching out his neck watched it intently. The tree floated to the shallows, stopped, and shifted in a peculiar manner. Lukashka thought he saw an arm stretched out from beneath the tree. 'Supposing I killed an abrek all by myself!' he thought, and seized his gun with a swift, unhurried movement, putting up his gun-rest, placing the gun upon it, and holding it noiselessly in position. Cocking the trigger, with bated breath he took aim, still peering out intently. 'I won't wake them,' he thought. But his heart began beating so fast that he remained motionless, listening. Suddenly the trunk gave a plunge and again began to float across the stream towards our bank. 'Only not to miss ...' thought he, and now by the faint light of the moon he caught a glimpse of a Tartar's head in front of the floating wood. He aimed straight at the head which appeared to be quite near--just at the end of his rifle's barrel. He glanced cross. 'Right enough it is an abrek! he thought joyfully, and suddenly rising to his knees he again took aim. Having found the sight, barely visible at the end of the long gun, he said: 'In the name of the Father and of the Son,' in the Cossack way learnt in his childhood, and pulled the trigger. A flash of lightning lit up for an instant the reeds and the water, and the sharp, abrupt report of the shot was carried across the river, changing into a prolonged roll somewhere in the far distance. The piece of driftwood now floated not across, but with the current, rocking and whirling.  [Chpt 8]

The shot hits its mark and the kill is confirmed in the subsequent chapter as the young soldiers find the body.  Lukashka becomes a young hero to his village.  The Cossack/Chechen feud, which culminates in a major battle at the end of the story, has the feel of a Cowboys and Indians dime novel, or at least a Russian version of it.  The young Tolstoy was fond of reading the novels of the backwoods frontier of the 19th century American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. 
I leave you with three images of first the Terek River and second two of the Caucasus Mountains and wilderness, so you can get a feel of the terrain. 


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