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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Cossacks - Chapter 5
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The Cossacks - Chapter 5 Post by :Truman Category :Long Stories Author :Leo Tolstoy Date :December 2010 Read :2327

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The Cossacks - Chapter 5

It was one of those wonderful evenings that occur only in the
Caucasus. The sun had sunk behind the mountains but it was still
light. The evening glow had spread over a third of the sky, and
against its brilliancy the dull white immensity of the mountains
was sharply defined. The air was rarefied, motionless, and full of
sound. The shadow of the mountains reached for several miles over
the steppe. The steppe, the opposite side of the river, and the
roads, were all deserted. If very occasionally mounted men
appeared, the Cossacks in the cordon and the Chechens in their
aouls (villages) watched them with surprised curiosity and tried
to guess who those questionable men could be. At nightfall people
from fear of one another flock to their dwellings, and only birds
and beasts fearless of man prowl in those deserted spaces. Talking
merrily, the women who have been tying up the vines hurry away
from the gardens before sunset. The vineyards, like all the
surrounding district, are deserted, but the villages become very
animated at that time of the evening. From all sides, walking,
riding, or driving in their creaking carts, people move towards
the village. Girls with their smocks tucked up and twigs in their
hands run chatting merrily to the village gates to meet the cattle
that are crowding together in a cloud of dust and mosquitoes which
they bring with them from the steppe. The well-fed cows and
buffaloes disperse at a run all over the streets and Cossack women
in coloured beshmets go to and fro among them. You can hear their
merry laughter and shrieks mingling with the lowing of the cattle.
There an armed and mounted Cossack, on leave from the cordon,
rides up to a hut and, leaning towards the window, knocks. In
answer to the knock the handsome head of a young woman appears at
the window and you can hear caressing, laughing voices. There a
tattered Nogay labourer, with prominent cheekbones, brings a load
of reeds from the steppes, turns his creaking cart into the
Cossack captain's broad and clean courtyard, and lifts the yoke
off the oxen that stand tossing their heads while he and his
master shout to one another in Tartar. Past a puddle that reaches
nearly across the street, a barefooted Cossack woman with a bundle
of firewood on her back makes her laborious way by clinging to the
fences, holding her smock high and exposing her white legs. A
Cossack returning from shooting calls out in jest: 'Lift it
higher, shameless thing!' and points his gun at her. The woman
lets down her smock and drops the wood. An old Cossack, returning
home from fishing with his trousers tucked up and his hairy grey
chest uncovered, has a net across his shoulder containing silvery
fish that are still struggling; and to take a short cut climbs
over his neighbour's broken fence and gives a tug to his coat
which has caught on the fence. There a woman is dragging a dry
branch along and from round the corner comes the sound of an axe.
Cossack children, spinning their tops wherever there is a smooth
place in the street, are shrieking; women are climbing over fences
to avoid going round. From every chimney rises the odorous kisyak
smoke. From every homestead comes the sound of increased bustle,
precursor to the stillness of night.

Granny Ulitka, the wife of the Cossack cornet who is also teacher
in the regimental school, goes out to the gates of her yard like
the other women, and waits for the cattle which her daughter
Maryanka is driving along the street. Before she has had time
fully to open the wattle gate in the fence, an enormous buffalo
cow surrounded by mosquitoes rushes up bellowing and squeezes in.
Several well-fed cows slowly follow her, their large eyes gazing
with recognition at their mistress as they swish their sides with
their tails. The beautiful and shapely Maryanka enters at the gate
and throwing away her switch quickly slams the gate to and rushes
with all the speed of her nimble feet to separate and drive the
cattle into their sheds. 'Take off your slippers, you devil's
wench!' shouts her mother, 'you've worn them into holes!' Maryanka
is not at all offended at being called a 'devil's wench', but
accepting it as a term of endearment cheerfully goes on with her
task. Her face is covered with a kerchief tied round her head. She
is wearing a pink smock and a green beshmet. She disappears inside
the lean-to shed in the yard, following the big fat cattle; and
from the shed comes her voice as she speaks gently and
persuasively to the buffalo: 'Won't she stand still? What a
creature! Come now, come old dear!' Soon the girl and the old
woman pass from the shed to the dairy carrying two large pots of
milk, the day's yield. From the dairy chimney rises a thin cloud
of kisyak smoke: the milk is being used to make into clotted
cream. The girl makes up the fire while her mother goes to the
gate. Twilight has fallen on the village. The air is full of the
smell of vegetables, cattle, and scented kisyak smoke. From the
gates and along the streets Cossack women come running, carrying
lighted rags. From the yards one hears the snorting and quiet
chewing of the cattle eased of their milk, while in the street
only the voices of women and children sound as they call to one
another. It is rare on a week-day to hear the drunken voice of a
man.

One of the Cossack wives, a tall, masculine old woman, approaches
Granny Ulitka from the homestead opposite and asks her for a
light. In her hand she holds a rag.

'Have you cleared up. Granny?'

'The girl is lighting the fire. Is it fire you want?' says Granny
Ulitka, proud of being able to oblige her neighbour.

Both women enter the hut, and coarse hands unused to dealing with
small articles tremblingly lift the lid of a matchbox, which is a
rarity in the Caucasus. The masculine-looking new-comer sits down
on the doorstep with the evident intention of having a chat.

'And is your man at the school. Mother?' she asked.

'He's always teaching the youngsters. Mother. But he writes that
he'll come home for the holidays,' said the cornet's wife.

'Yes, he's a clever man, one sees; it all comes useful.'

'Of course it does.'

'And my Lukashka is at the cordon; they won't let him come home,'
said the visitor, though the cornet's wife had known all this long
ago. She wanted to talk about her Lukashka whom she had lately
fitted out for service in the Cossack regiment, and whom she
wished to marry to the cornet's daughter, Maryanka.

'So he's at the cordon?'

'He is. Mother. He's not been home since last holidays. The other
day I sent him some shirts by Fomushkin. He says he's all right,
and that his superiors are satisfied. He says they are looking out
for abreks again. Lukashka is quite happy, he says.'

'Ah well, thank God,' said the cornet's wife.' "Snatcher" is
certainly the only word for him.' Lukashka was surnamed 'the
Snatcher' because of his bravery in snatching a boy from a watery
grave, and the cornet's wife alluded to this, wishing in her turn
to say something agreeable to Lukashka's mother.

'I thank God, Mother, that he's a good son! He's a fine fellow,
everyone praises him,' says Lukashka's mother. 'All I wish is to
get him married; then I could die in peace.'

'Well, aren't there plenty of young women in the village?'
answered the cornet's wife slyly as she carefully replaced the lid
of the matchbox with her horny hands.

'Plenty, Mother, plenty,' remarked Lukashka's mother, shaking her
head. 'There's your girl now, your Maryanka--that's the sort of
girl! You'd have to search through the whole place to find such
another!' The cornet's wife knows what Lukashka's mother is after,
but though she believes him to be a good Cossack she hangs back:
first because she is a cornet's wife and rich, while Lukashka is
the son of a simple Cossack and fatherless, secondly because she
does not want to part with her daughter yet, but chiefly because
propriety demands it.

'Well, when Maryanka grows up she'll be marriageable too,' she
answers soberly and modestly.

'I'll send the matchmakers to you--I'll send them! Only let me get
the vineyard done and then we'll come and make our bows to you,'
says Lukashka's mother. 'And we'll make our bows to Elias Vasilich
too.'

'Elias, indeed!' says the cornet's wife proudly. 'It's to me you
must speak! All in its own good time.'

Lukashka's mother sees by the stern face of the cornet's wife that
it is not the time to say anything more just now, so she lights
her rag with the match and says, rising: 'Don't refuse us, think
of my words. I'll go, it is time to light the fire.'

As she crosses the road swinging the burning rag, she meets
Maryanka, who bows.

'Ah, she's a regular queen, a splendid worker, that girl!' she
thinks, looking at the beautiful maiden. 'What need for her to
grow any more? It's time she was married and to a good home;
married to Lukashka!'

But Granny Ulitka had her own cares and she remained sitting on
the threshold thinking hard about something, till the girl called
her.

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