A Prisoner in the Caucasus By Count Leo N. Tolstoy

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryLeo Tolstoy – A Prisoner in the Caucasus – contents
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Chapter I

A Russian of rank was serving as an officer in the army of the Caucasus. His name was Zhilin.

There came to him one day a letter from his home. His aged mother wrote him: “I am now getting along in years, and before I die I should like to see my beloved son. Come and bid me farewell, lay me in the ground, and then with my blessing return again to your service. And I have been finding a bride for you, and she is intelligent and handsome and has property. If you like, you can marry and settle down together.”

Zhilin cogitated, “It is very true: the old lady has been growing feeble; maybe I shall not have a chance to see her again. Let us go, and if the bride is pretty—then I might marry.”

He went to his colonel, got his leave of absence, took his farewell of his comrades, gave the soldiers of his command nine gallons[95] of vodka as a farewell treat, and made his arrangements to depart.

There was war at that time in the Caucasus. The roads were not open for travel either by day or night. If any of the Russians rode or walked outside of the fortress, the Tatars were likely either to kill him or carry him off to the mountains. And it was arranged that twice a week an escort of soldiers should go from fortress to fortress. In front and behind marched the soldiers, and the travellers rode in the middle.

It was now summer-time. At sunrise the baggage-train was made up behind the fortification; the guard of soldiery marched ahead, and the procession moved along the road.

Zhilin was on horseback, and his effects were on a cart that formed part of the train.

They had twenty-five versts[96] to travel. The train marched slowly; sometimes the soldiers halted; sometimes a wagon-wheel came off, or a horse balked, and all had to stop and wait.

The sun was already past the zenith, but the train had only gone half way, so great were the dust and heat. The sun was baking hot, and nowhere was there shelter. A bald steppe; not a tree or a shrub on the road.

Zhilin rode on ahead, occasionally stopping and waiting till the train caught up with him. He would listen, and hear the signal on the horn to halt again. And Zhilin thought, “Would I better go on alone without the soldiers? I have a good horse under me; if I fall in with the Tatars, I can escape. Or shall I wait?”

He kept stopping and pondering. And just then another officer, also on horseback, rode up to him; his name was Kostuilin, and he had a musket.

He said, “Zhilin, let us ride on ahead together. I am so hungry that I cannot stand it any longer, and the heat too,—you could wring my shirt out!” Kostuilin was a heavy, stout, ruddy man, and the sweat was dripping from him.

Zhilin reflected, and said, “And your musket is loaded?”

“It is.”

“All right, let us go. Only one condition: not to separate.”

And they started on up the road. They rode along the steppe, talking and looking on each side. There was a wide sweep of view. As soon as the steppe came to an end, the road went into a pass between two mountains.

And Zhilin said, “I must ride up on that mountain, and reconnoitre, otherwise you see they might come down from the mountain and surprise us.”

But Kostuilin said, “What is there to reconnoitre? Let us go ahead.”

Zhilin did not heed him.

“No,” says he, “you wait for me here below. I’ll just glance around.”

And he spurred his horse up the mountain to the left.

The horse that Zhilin rode was a hunter; he had bought him out of a drove of colts, paying a hundred rubles for him, and he had himself trained him. He bore him up the steep slope as on wings. He had hardly reached the summit when before him less than seven hundred feet distant mounted Tatars were standing,—thirty men.

He saw them, and started to turn back, but the Tatars had caught sight of him; they set out in pursuit of him, unstrapping their weapons as they gallop. Zhilin dashes down the precipice with all the speed of his horse, and cries to Kostuilin, “Fire your gun!” and to his horse he says, though not aloud, “Little mother, carry me safely, don’t stumble; if you trip, I am lost. If we get back to the gun, we won’t fall into their hands.”

But Kostuilin, instead of waiting for him, as soon as he saw the Tatars, galloped on with all his might toward the fortress. With his whip he belabored his horse, first on one side, then on the other; all that could be seen through the dust, was the horse switching her tail.

Zhilin saw that his case was desperate. The gun was gone; nothing was to be done with a sabre alone. He turned his horse back toward the train; he thought he might escape that way.

But in front of him, he sees that six are galloping down the steep. His horse is good, but theirs are better; and besides, they have got the start of him. He started to wheel about, and was going to dash ahead again, but his horse had got momentum, and could not be held back; he flew straight down toward them.

He sees a red-bearded Tatar approaching him on a gray mare. He is gaining on him; he gnashes his teeth; he is getting his gun ready.

“Well,” thinks Zhilin, “I know you devils; if you should take me prisoner, you would put me in a hole, and flog me with a whip. I won’t give myself up alive.”

Now, Zhilin was not of great size, but he was an uhlan. He drew his sabre, spurred his horse straight at the red-bearded Tatar. He says to himself, “Either I will crush him with my horse, or I will hack him down with my sabre.”

Zhilin, however, did not reach the place on horseback; suddenly behind him, gun-shots were fired at the horse. The horse fell headlong, and pinned Zhilin’s leg to the ground.

He tried to arise; but already ill-smelling Tatars were sitting on him, and pinioning his hands behind his back.

He burst from them, knocking the Tatars over; but three others had dismounted from their horses, and began to beat him on the head with their gun-stocks.

His sight failed him, and he staggered.

The Tatars seized him, took from their saddles extra saddle-girths, bent his arms behind his back, fastened them with a Tatar knot, and lifted him up.

They took his sabre from him, pulled off his boots, made a thorough search of him, pulled out his money and his watch, tore his clothes all to pieces.

Zhilin glanced at his horse. The poor beast lay as he had fallen, on his side, and was kicking, vainly trying to rise. In his head was a hole, and from the hole the black blood was pouring; the dust for an arshin around was wet with it.

A Tatar went to the horse to remove the saddle. He was still kicking, so the man took out his dagger, and cut his throat. The throat gave a whistling sound, a trembling ran over the body, and all was over.

The Tatars took off the saddle and the other trappings. The one with the red beard mounted his horse, and the others lifted Zhilin behind him to keep him from falling; they fastened him with the reins to the Tatar’s belt, and thus they carried him off to the mountains.

Zhilin sat behind, swaying and bumping his face against the stinking Tatar’s back.

All that he could see before him was the healthy Tatar back, and the sinewy neck, and a smooth-shaven nape, showing blue beneath the cap.

Zhilin’s head ached; the blood trickled into his eyes. And it was impossible for him to get a more comfortable position on the horse, or wipe away the blood. His arms were so tightly bound that his collar-bones ached. They rode long from mountain to mountain; they forded a river; then they entered a highway, and rode along a valley. Zhilin tried to follow the route that they took him; but his eyes were glued together with blood, and it was impossible for him to turn round.

It began to grow dark; they crossed still another river, and began to climb a rocky mountain. There was an odor of smoke. The barking of dogs was heard.

They had reached an aul.[97]

The Tatars dismounted. The Tatar children came running up, and surrounded Zhilin, whistling and exulting. Finally they began to fling stones at him.

The Tatar drove away the children, lifted Zhilin from the horse, and called a servant.

A Nogáï, with prominent cheek-bones, came at the call. He wore only a shirt. The shirt was torn; his whole breast was bare. The Tatar said something to him. The servant brought a foot-stock. It consisted of two oaken blocks provided with iron rings, and in one of the rings was a clamp with a lock. They unfastened Zhilin’s arms, put on the stock, and took him to a barn, pushed him in, and shut the door.

Zhilin fell on the manure. As he lay there, he felt round in the darkness, and when he had found a place that was less foul, he stretched himself out.

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Chapter II > > >

Russian LiteratureChildren BooksRussian PoetryLeo Tolstoy – A Prisoner in the Caucasus – contents

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