And Quiet Flows the Don (1928)
Passionate and proud, Grigory Melekhov is at first attracted by the Communists' promises of social justice, but is repelled by their violent methods and finds himself embroiled in the Cossack campaign against them.
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Not with the plough is our dear, glorious earth furrowed,
Our earth is furrowed with the hoofs of horses;
And our dear, glorious earth is sown with the heads of cossacks:
Our gentle Don is adorned with youthful widows:
Out gentle father Don is blossomed with orphans;
The waves of the gentle Don are rich with fathers' and mothers' tears.
"O thou, our father, gentle Don!
Oh why dost thou, gentle Don, flow so troubledly?"
"Ah, how should I, the gentle Don, not flow troubledly?
From my depths, the depths of the Don, the cold springs beat;
Amid me, the gentle Don, the white fish leap."
– Old Cossack Songs
The Melekhov farm was at the very end of the village. The gate of the cattle-yard opened northward towards the Don. A steep, fifty-foot slope between chalky, mossgrown banks, and there was the shore. A pearly drift of mussel-shells, a grey, broken edging of wave-kissed shingle, and then-the steel-blue, rippling surface of the Don, seething in the wind. To the east, beyond the willow-wattle fences of threshing-floors-the Hetman's highway, grizzled wormwood scrub, the hardy greyish-brown, hoof-trodden plantain, a cross standing at the fork of the road, and then the steppe, enveloped in a shifting haze. To the south, a chalky ridge of hills. To the west, the street, crossing the square and running towards the leas.
The Cossack Prokofy Melekhov returned to the village during the last war but one with Turkey. He brought back a wife—a little woman wrapped from head to foot in a shawl. She kept her face covered, and rarely revealed her wild, yearning eyes. The silken shawl bore the scent of strange, aromatic perfumes; its rainbow-hued patterns aroused the envy of the Cossack women. The captive Turkish woman kept aloof from Prokofy’s relations, and before long old Melekhov gave his son his portion. All his life the old man refused to set foot inside his son’s house; he never got over the disgrace.
Prokofy speedily made shift for himself; carpenters built him a house, he himself fenced in the cattle-yard, and in the early autumn he took his bowed foreign wife to her new home. He walked with her through the village, behind the cart laden with their worldly goods. Everybody, from the oldest to the youngest, rushed into the street. The men laughed discreetly into their beards, the women passed vociferous remarks to one another, a swarm of unwashed Cossack children shouted catcalls after Prokofy. But, with overcoat unbuttoned, he walked slowly along, as though following a freshly-ploughed furrow, squeezing his wife’s fragile wrist in his own enormous, black palm, and holding his head with its straw-white mat of curls high in defiance. Only the wens below his cheek-bones swelled and quivered, and the sweat stood out between his stony brows.
Thenceforth he was rarely seen in the village, and never even attended the Cossack gatherings. He lived a secluded life in his solitary house by the Don. Strange stories were told of him in the village. The boys who pastured the calves beyond the meadow-road declared that of an evening, as the light was dying, they had seen Prokofy carrying his wife in his arms right as far as the Tatar burial mound. He would set her down, with her back to an ancient, weather-beaten, porous rock, on the crest of the mound, sit down at her side, and they would gaze fixedly across the steppe. They would gaze until the sunset had faded, and then Prokofy would wrap his wife in his sheepskin and carry her back home. The village was lost in conjecture, seeking an explanation for such astonishing behaviour. The women gossiped so much that they had not even time to search each other’s heads for lice. Rumour was rife about Prokofy’s wife also; some declared that she was of entrancing beauty; others maintained the contrary. The matter was settled when one of the most venturesome of the women, the soldier’s wife Mavra, ran along to Prokofy’s house on the pretext of getting some leaven; Prokofy went down into the cellar for the leaven, and Mavra had time to discover that Prokofy’s Turkish conquest was a perfect fright.
A few minutes later Mavra, her face flushed and her kerchief awry, was entertaining a crowd of women in a by-lane:
“And what could he have seen in her, my dears? If she’d only been a woman now, but a creature like her! Our girls are far better covered! Why, you could pull her apart like a wasp. And those great big black eyes, she flashes them like Satan, God forgive me. She must be near her time, God’s truth.”
“Near her time?” the women marvelled.
“I wasn't born yesterday! I've reared three myself.”
“But what's her face like?”
“Her face? Yellow. No light in her eyes—doesn’t find life in a strange land to her fancy, I should say. And what’s more, girls, she wears. . . Prokofy’s trousers!”
“No!” the women drew in their breath together.
“I saw them myself; she wears trousers, only without stripes. It must be his everyday trousers she has. She wears a long shift, and underneath you can see the trousers stuffed into socks. When I saw them my blood ran cold.”
The whisper went round the village that Prokofy’s wife was a witch. Astakhov’s daughter in-law (the Astakhovs were Prokofy’s nearest neighbours) swore that on the second day of Trinity, before dawn, she had seen Prokofy’s wife, barefoot, her hair uncovered, milking the Astakhovs’ cow. Since then its udder had withered to the size of a child’s fist, the cow had lost its milk and died soon after.
That year there was an unusual dying-off of cattle. By the shallows of the Don fresh carcasses of cows and young bulls appeared on the sandy shore every day. Then the horses were affected. The droves grazing on the village pasturelands melted away. And through the lanes and streets of the village crept an evil rumour.
A small dark-skinned corporal was standing near the leading platoon. He was taking chocolate out of his map-case and unwrapping it. The corners of his rosy lips were smeared with chocolate. As he walked down the line his long mud-caked greatcoat dangled between his legs like a sheep’s tail. The Cossacks came down the left side of the street. Ivan Alexeyevich, the engine-man, was on the outside file in one of the ranks of the Second Troop. He was marching with his eyes fixed on the ground, trying to avoid the puddles. Someone called to him from the ranks of the infantry, and he turned his head and passed his eyes over the soldiers.
“Ivan Alexeyevich! Old friend. . . .”
A little soldier broke away from his platoon and came running awkwardly towards him, throwing his rifle back over his shoulder. But the sling slipped and the butt jangled against his mess tin.
“Don’t you know me? Forgotten me already?”
With difficulty Ivan Alexeyevich recognized the little soldier, whose mouth and chin were covered with a bristling, smoky-grey beard, as Knave.
“Where’s you sprung from?”
“I’m in this regiment, the 318th Chernoyarsk. I never expected to meet any of my old friends here.”
Still gripping Knave’s dirty little hand in his own bony fist, Ivan Alexeyevich smiled gladly and with emotion. Knave, hurrying to keep up with his long stride, began to trot, looking up into Ivan’s eyes, while the gaze of his own close-set embittered little eyes was unusually tender and moist.
“We’re going into an attack. . . .”
“And so are we.”
“Well, how are you getting on, Ivan Alexeyevich?”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“The same here. I haven’t been out of the trenches since 1914. Never had a home or family of my own, but I’ve got to fight for someone.”
“D’you remember Stockman? He was a good fellow, our Osip Davidovich! He’d tell us what it was all about. He was a man, if ever there was one. . . .”
“Do I remember him!” Knave cried, shaking his tiny fist and crinkling his little bristly face into a smile. “I remember him better than my own father. Never had much use for my father. You never heard how he got on, did you?”
“He’s in Siberia,” Ivan Alexeyevich sighed.
“What?” Knave asked, bobbing up and down beside his tall friend, and cocking his foxy ear.
“He’s in prison. For all I know he may be dead now.”
Knave walked along without speaking for a moment or two, now looking back to where his company was assembling, now gazing up at Ivan’s stern chin and the deep round dimple right under the lower lip.
“Good-bye!” he said, releasing his hand from Ivan’s. “I don’t suppose we’ll be seeing each other again.”
With his left hand the Cossack removed his cap, and bending down, he put his arm round Knave’s stringy shoulders. They kissed each other firmly, as though saying good-bye for ever, and Knave dropped back. His head suddenly sank on his breast, so that only the dark rosy tips of his ears emerged from his grey great-coat. He turned back, huddled up and stumbling over his feet.
Ivan Alexeyevich broke away from the rank, and called with a quiver in his voice:
“Hey, brother! Brother! You were bitter, weren’t you! D’you remember? You were a strong one ... eh?”
Knave turned his tear-stained face, and beat his fist on his bony breast through his open greatcoat and torn shirt.
“I was ! I was hard ! But they’ve crushed me now. . . . They’ve driven the old horse to death!”
He shouted something else, but the Cossack squadron turned into a side-street, and Ivan lost sight of him.
“That was Knave, wasn’t it?” asked Prokhor Shamil who was marching behind.
“That was a man,” Ivan Alexeyevich replied heavily and his lips trembled as he tugged at his rifle sling.
They recognized Bunchuk on the extreme left, standing with a slight stoop, breathing heavily, not raising his eyes from the ground. At his side stood Lagutin, still fumbling with his drawers. The man next in line was changed almost beyond recognition, and had aged at least twenty years. Two more approached the pit and turned round. One of them was smiling challengingly and impudently, furiously cursing and threatening the silent crowd with his clenched dirty fist. The last of the eight had to be carried. He threw himself back, dragged his feet lifelessly over the ground, clung to the Cossack guards, then, shaking his tear-stained face, started up and bellowed:
“Let me go, brothers! Let me go, for the love of God! Brothers! Brothers! What are you doing! I won four crosses in the German war. I have children. God, I’m innocent. Oh, why are you doing this...?”
A tall Cossack thrust his knee into the man’s chest and drove him towards the pit. Only then did Podtyolkov recognize him, and his heart turned cold: it was one of the most fearless of his Red Guards, a man who had won all four classes of the Cross of St. George, a handsome, fair-haired young man. The Cossacks raised him upright; but he fell again and scrabbled at their feet, pressing his lips to their boots—to the boots which were kicking him in the face—and bellowing in an anguished, choking voice:
“Don’t kill me! Have mercy! I have three little children, one of them a girl ... my brothers, my friends!”
He embraced the tall Cossack’s knees, but the man tore himself away, leaped back, and gave him a swinging kick on the ear with his iron-shod heel. Blood poured from the other ear and ran down his white collar.
“Stand him up!” Spiridonov shouted furiously.
Somehow they raised him, set him up and ran back. In the opposite rank the firing party brought their rifles to the ready. The crowd groaned and froze into stillness. A woman wailed hysterically.
Bunchuk wanted once more and yet once more to look at the grey pall of the sky, at the mournful earth over which he had wandered twenty-nine years. He raised his eyes, and saw the close rank of Cossacks some fifteen paces away. He saw one man, tall, with screwed-up green eyes, a lovelock falling over his narrow white brow, his lips compressed, his body leaning forward, aiming straight at Bunchuk’s breast. Just before the volley rang out Bunchuk’s ears were pierced by a long drawn-out shriek. He turned his head: a young, freckled woman ran out of the crowd and fled towards the village, one arm clutching a baby to her breast, the other hand covering its eyes.
Two more days Grigory spent drinking in the villages lying around Karginskaya, passing an empty life in drunken carousals. The smell of vodka even saturated his saddle-cloth. Women and girls who had lost their virgin flower passed through his hands, sharing with him a brief hour of love. But each morning, satiated with the amorous fevers of the latest diversion, Grigory thought with sober indifference: “I’ve lived and experienced everything in my day. I’ve loved women and girls, I’ve ridden the steppe, I’ve rejoiced in fatherhood, I’ve killed men and faced death myself, and delighted in the blue sky. What new thing can life show me? Nothing! And I can die! It won’t be so terrible. I can play at war without risk, like a rich man gambling. My loss won’t be great.”
Childhood floated through his memory like a sunny day: starlings’ nests, his own bare feet in the hot dust, the Don, majestically still, reflecting its wooded banks, the boyish faces of his friends, the youthful figure of his mother. . . . Grigory covered his eyes with his hand. Old friends, old faces, forgotten voices, scraps of conversation, laughter. His memory turned to contemplation of the beloved steppe, and suddenly, blindingly, it opened its expanse before him. He saw the summer track across the steppe, a bullock-wagon with his father sitting on the cross-tree, the ploughed land and the golden brush of harvested grain, a black sprinkle of rooks on the road. As his mind wandered among memories of the irrevocable past, it stumbled on Aksinya. “My love, the love I shall never forget!” he thought, and contemptuously shifted away from the woman sleeping at his side. Sighing, he impatiently awaited the dawn, and hardly had the sun begun to tinge the east with hues of raspberry and gold when he jumped up, washed, and went to his horse.
There were only two Communists of the Serdobsky Regiment among the prisoners; the remainder, with the exception of Ivan, were Russians from the Yelanskaya District, tall, sturdy lads who had joined the Communist Party when the Soviet troops arrived in the area, and had served as militiamen, or chairmen of village Revolutionary Committees, and had fled to Ust-Khoperskaya to join the Red Army when the revolt broke out. In peacetime almost all of them had been craftsmen: carpenters, coopers, masons, bakers, shoemakers, and tailors. Not one of them seemed to be more than thirty-five, and the youngest was about twenty. Stalwart, handsome, with great hands gnarled by physical labour, they looked very different from the hunchbacked old Cossacks of the convoy.
“Will they try us? What do you think?” one of the Yelanskaya Communists walking at Ivan’s side whispered.
“Not very likely. . . .”
“They’ll kill us?”
“I expect so.”
“But they don’t shoot their prisoners. The Cossacks said so. Don’t you remember?”
Ivan Alexeyevich was silent, but a spark of hope was kindled within him. “That’s true,” he thought. “They won’t dare shoot us. Their slogan was ‘Down with the Commune, with pillaging and shooting.’ They’ve not gone further than imprisoning, so the rumour goes. A whipping, and then prison. Well, that’s nothing to be frightened of. We’ll stay in prison until winter and then as soon as the Don freezes over, our fellows will drive out the Whites and set us free.”
The hope flared up like a spark, and it faded like a spark. “No, they’ll kill us. They’re as savage as devils. Good-bye, life! Ah, we didn’t take the right road! We ought to have fought them and had no pity on them. We shouldn’t have spared them, but cut them down to the roots.” He clenched his fists and shrugged his shoulders in impotent frenzy, and the next moment he stumbled, sent almost to the ground by a blow on the head from behind.
“What are you clenching your fists for, you swine?” the sergeant in charge of the convoy thundered at him, riding at him with his horse. He struck Ivan with his whip, raising a weal right across his face from the temple to the chin.
“Who are you knocking about? Hit me, Dad! He’s wounded, what are you hitting him for?” one of the Yelanskaya men asked with an entreating smile and a quiver in his voice. He stepped out of the crowd and stood squarely in front of Ivan.
“There’ll be enough for you too! Beat ‘em up, Cossacks! Beat the Communists!” the sergeant roared.
His whiplash came down so hard on the man’s thin shirt that the shreds of material shrivelled like leaves in a fire, and the dark blood poured from the cut, soaking the shirt. Panting with anger, the sergeant drove the prisoners on with his horse and began to ply his whip ruthlessly.
Again the lash descended on Ivan. Livid fires burned in his eyes, the earth swayed under his feet, and the green forest on the opposite bank of the river seemed to rock. He seized the stirrup and attempted to drag the sergeant out of his saddle, but a blow with the flat of a sword sent him headlong to the ground. Dry choking dust filled his mouth, and the scorching blood poured out of his nose and ears.
Driving them into a herd as though they were sheep, the escort beat them long and cruelly. Lying on the ground, Ivan, as though in a dream, heard shouts, the hollow tramp of feet around him, the frenzied snorting of the horses. A clot of warm horse’s froth fell on his bare head, and from somewhere, very close, right above him, came a terrible, spasmodic sobbing and a shout:
“Swine! God damn you! Beating defenceless men! You. . . .”
A horse trod on Ivan’s wounded leg, and the blunt points of the shoes pressed into the flesh of his calf, there was a rapid thud of blows above him. A moment later a wet, heavy body, smelling of sweat and the salty scent of blood, crumpled at his side, and Ivan heard the blood gurgling from the man’s throat like liquid out of a bottle.
When the Cossacks had finished beating them up, they drove them down to the river and made them wash their wounds. Standing knee-deep in the water, Ivan washed the burning cuts and bruises, and, cupping his hands, eagerly drank the water, afraid he would not have time to quench the thirst that rasped his throat.
As they approached the first village, a Cossack overtook them, riding his horse, spring-sleek and glossy with sweat, at a fast trot. He rode on into the village and hardly had the prisoners passed the first yard when a crowd, armed with forks, hoes, stakes, and crowbars, poured towards them. As soon as they saw the Cossacks and women, Ivan and the others realized that this was to be the manner of their death.
“Let’s say good-bye to one another, Comrades!” one of the Communists exclaimed.
After that first beating all that happened seemed to be incidents in a nightmarish dream. Twenty versts they were driven through village after village, greeted at each by crowds of tormentors. The old men, women, and elder children beat them, spat in their blood-stained and swollen faces, threw stones and clods of hard earth, cast dust and ashes into their eyes. The women were especially brutal, resorting to the most cruel and ingenious tortures. Towards the end the twenty-five men were almost unrecognizable as human beings, so monstrously disfigured were their bodies and faces, so covered were they with caking blue-black blood mingled with mud.
The mowers returned from the steppe next day. Pantelei decided to start carting in the hay after dinner. Dunya drove the bullocks down to the Don for water, and Ilyinichna and Natalya swiftly laid the table.
Darya came last to the table and sat down at the end. llyinichna set a small plate of cabbage soup before her, put a spoon and a piece of bread before her, and, as usual, poured the soup for the others into the one large, common bowl.
Pantelei stared at his wife in surprise, indicated Darya’s plate with his eyes, and asked:
“What’s all that? Why have you poured out her soup separate? Isn’t she any longer of our faith?”
“What ever do you want? Get on with your food!”
The old man gave Darya a humorous look and smiled. “Aha! I understand! Since she’s been given a medal she doesn’t want to eat out of the common dish. What’s the matter, Darya? Turning up your nose at supping out of the one bowl with us?”
“No, I’m not turning up my nose. I mustn’t,” Darya answered huskily.
“And why not?”
“My throat hurts.”
“Well, and what of it?”
“I went to Vyeshenskaya to see the doctor, and he said I was to eat out of a separate dish.”
“I had a sore throat once, but I didn’t keep away from everybody else, and, glory be, I didn’t give it to anybody else. So what sort of chill have you got?”
Darya turned pale, wiped her lips with her hand, and laid down her spoon. Angered by her husband’s tactlessness, Ilyinichna shouted at him:
“What are you plaguing the woman for? We get no peace from you even at the table! He sticks like a bur, and there’s no getting away from him!”
“But what’s all the fuss about?” Pantelei barked irritably. “For all I care, you can do what you like!”
In his annoyance he poured a spoonful of hot soup into his throat, burned himself, and, spitting out the soup all over his beard, roared madly:
“You don’t know how to serve up food properly, curse the lot of you! Who ever serves up soup straight from the fire?”
“If you were to talk less at the table the soup wouldn’t burn you,” Ilyinichna consoled him.
Dunya almost burst into laughter as she watched her father, his face a vivid purple, pick the cabbage and pieces of potato out of his beard. But everybody else was so straight-faced that she refrained and turned her eyes away, for fear of laughing at an awkward moment.
Pantelei spat furiously, went into the yard, took the axe and an oar, and limped off to the Don. As he went he called to Mishatka, who was playing close to the summer kitchen:
“Tell your granny I’ve rowed across the river to cut down brushwood. Do you hear, my dear?”
In the woods beyond the Don a quiet, gracious autumn had settled. The dry leaves were falling with a rustle from the poplars. The bushes of thorn seemed wrapped in flame, and among their scanty leaves the crimson berries glowed like little tongues of fire. The bitter, all-conquering scent of rotting oak bark filled the forest. Bilberries, dense and clinging, entangled the ground; and under the network of their creeping branches the ripe, smoky blue clusters of berries hid artfully from the sun. In the shade the dead grass was still beaded with dew and a spider’s web glittered silver with its beads. Only the methodical tapping of the woodpecker and the twittering of the missel-thrushes disturbed the silence.
The stern silent beauty of the forest had a soothing effect on Pantelei. As he stepped quietly among the bushes, his feet scraping the damp coverlet of the fallen leaves, he thought to himself: “That’s life, that is! A little while ago they were alive, and today they’re being laid out for the grave. What a Cossack’s been struck down. And it seems only the other day that he came and visited us, and stood down by the river when we fished out Darya. Ah, Christonya. So there was an enemy bullet waiting for you, too! And Anikushka—! What a cheery sort he was! He loved drinking and laughing, and now he’s just a corpse. Pantelei remembered Dunya’s description and, with unexpected clarity calling to mind Anikushka’s smiling, whiskerless, emasculated face, he simply could not imagine him lifeless, with shattered head. “I did wrong to anger God with my boasting about Grigory, he reproached himself, as he recalled his talk with Beskhlebnov. “Mebbe Grigory himself is lying somewhere now, pecked to bits by bullets. God forbid it! Who will take care of us old folk then?”
A brown woodcock starting up from under a bush made Pantelei fall back in alarm. He aimlessly watched the little bird’s slanting, impetuous flight, then went on. By a small forest pool he took a fancy to some clumps of brushwood and set to work to cut them down. As he worked he tried not to think of anything. In one year death had struck down so many dear ones and friends that at the very thought he was oppressed, and all the world faded and seemed to be enveloped in a film of black.
“Now I must cut down that bush! It’s good brushwood, that! Just right for making wattle fencing,” he talked aloud to himself, in order to distract himself his gloomy thoughts.
When he had worked long enough, he took off his jacket, sat down on the pile of chopped brushwood, and, avidly drawing in the pungent scent of faded leaves, gazed long at the distant horizon merged into an azure haze, and at the autumn-gilded copses gleaming in their last beauty. Not far off stood a maple sapling. It had a beauty that cannot be described, all gleaming under the cold autumnal sun, and its spreading branches, burdened with purple foliage, were unfolded like the wings of some legendary bird about to soar up from the earth. Pantelei sat for a long time admiring it, then he happened to glance down at the pool and in the still, clear water saw the dark backs of great carp floating so close to the surface that he could see their fins and their flicking purple tails. There were about eight of them. Occasionally they disappeared under the green shields of water-lilies, then swam out again into clear water, darting at the wet, drowning leaves fallen from a willow. The dry autumn had made the pool shallow, and it would not take a great deal of effort to catch those carp. After a little search Pantelei found a sack without a bottom to it, left beside a neighbouring pond. He returned to the pool, slipped off his trousers, and, groaning and shivering with the cold, waded through the water with the sack, pressing its lower edge against the bottom of the pool. Now and then he thrust his hand inside, feeling sure a powerful fish would be splashing and bubbling in it. His labours were crowned with success: he managed to catch three carps, each weighing a good ten pounds. But he could not continue his fishing any longer, for the cold had given him cramp in his lame leg. Satisfied with his catch, he wiped his legs dry, dressed, and again set to work to cut down brushwood in order to get warm. All the same, he had done a good day’s work. It wasn’t everybody’s luck to catch three fish nearly thirty pounds in weight like that! The fishing had distracted his thoughts, and driven away his gloomy mood. With the intention of returning later to catch the remaining fish, he carefully hid the sack, looking about him anxiously, to make sure no one had seen him as he tipped out the fat, golden, almost pig-like carp on to the bank. Then he strung the fish on a switch, lifted his bundle of brushwood, and unhurriedly made his way to the river.
With a satisfied smile he told Ilyinichna of his fisherman’s luck and once more admired the ruddy copper hue of the carp. But Ilyinichna was not ready to share his raptures. She had been to look at the dead men and had come back tear-stained and sorrowful.
“Are you going to see Anikushka?” she asked.
“No, I shan’t. Haven’t I ever seen dead men before? I’ve seen enough to last my lifetime.”
“You ought to go. Other folk’ll think it strange; they’ll say you didn’t even call to pay your last respects.”
“Oh, leave me alone, for Christ’s sake! He wasn’t godfather to my children, and there’s no reason why I should pay my last respects,” the old man snapped back furiously.
Nor did he go to the funeral; he rowed across the river early in the morning and spent all day in the forest. While he was in the forest he heard the bell tolling and felt impelled to take off his cap and cross himself. But then he grew annoyed with the priest: was there any sense in ringing the bell so long? He could have tolled the bell and had done with it; but it went on ringing for a whole hour. And what good came of all that ringing? It only wrenched people’s hearts and made them think of death more than they need. And as it was, in the autumn everything reminded you of death: the falling leaves, and the geese flying and crying through the azure sky, and the drooping withered grass.
All the way to the village of Abinskaya Grigory remembered only one thing: one pitch-dark night he was awakened by the sharp, penetrating cold. Wagons were moving several abreast along the road. Judging by the voices, by the incessant, muffled clatter of the wheels, the train of wagons was enormous. The wagon in which he was riding was somewhere in the middle. The horses were moving at a walking pace. Prokhor clicked his tongue and occasionally called hoarsely: “Gidi-yup!” and waved his knout. Grigory heard the fine whistle of the leather knout, felt the horses pull more strongly on the traces, making the single-trees rattle, and the wagon rolled along more swiftly, sometimes knocking the end of the centre-pole against the back of the britzka in front.
With an effort Grigory pulled the ends of the sheepskin around himself and turned over on his back. Across the black sky the wind was driving massive, rolling clouds southward. Very rarely a single star flared for a moment like a yellow spark through a tiny gap in the clouds, then the impenetrable darkness once more enveloped the steppe, the wind whistled mournfully in the telegraph wires, and a fine, beady rain sprinkled down.
A column of cavalry was moving along the righthand side of the road. Grigory caught the long-familiar rhythmic jingle of tightly braced Cossack equipment, the muffled and rhythmical squelch of innumerable hoofs in the mud. No less than two squadrons had passed but the squelch of hoofs still sounded: a regiment must be riding by at the side of the road. Suddenly, in front, the valiant voice of a solo singer flew up like a bird over the silent steppe:
O, down by the river, brothers, down by
On the glorious steppe, the boundless steppe of
Saratov. . . .
Many hundreds of voices took up the ancient Cossack song, and high above all danced a tenor accompaniment of astonishing power and beauty. Covering the basses as they died away, the ringing tenor still fluttered somewhere in the darkness, clutching at the heart. But the soloist was already beginning the next verse:
There the Cossacks lived and spent their lives
as men of freedom,
All the Don, the Creben, and the Yaik
Cossacks. . . .
Inside Grigory something seemed to snap. A sudden spasm of tears shook his body; his throat tightened with sorrow. Choking back his tears, he waited hungrily for the solo singer to begin and, when he did, soundlessly whispered after him words he had known since childhood:
And their ataman was Yermak, son of Tihzofei,
While their captain was Astashka,
son of Lavrenty. . . .
The moment the solo singer struck up the first words of the song the Cossacks travelling in the wagons ceased talking, the drivers stopped urging on their horses, and the whole train of thousands of wagons moved along in a profound and sensitive silence. Only the clatter of the wheels and the squelch of hoofs kneading the mud could be heard as the soloist, carefully enunciating the syllables, sang the first words of each verse. An ancient song which had outlived the ages lived and ruled over the sombre steppe. In artless, simple words it told of the Cossacks’ free ancestors who at one time had fearlessly shattered the tsarist troops, who had sailed the Don and the Volga in their light pirate craft, pillaging the tsarist ships, “squeezing” the merchants, the nobles, and the governors; the Cossacks who had humbled distant Siberia. And now the descendants of these free Cossacks, shamefully retreating after being defeated in an inglorious war against the people of Russia, listened to the mighty song in a gloomy silence.
The regiment passed on. Overtaking the wagons, the singers rode far ahead of the refugees. But for long afterwards the wagons rolled on in an enchanted silence, and no talk came from them, nor shout at the weary horses. But out of the darkness the song floated back from afar and spread broadly, like the Don in flood:
. . . A single thought was in all their minds:
The summer will pass, the warmth of summer,
And winter will come, brothers, the winter cold.
How and where, brothers, shall we spend that
To move on to the Yaik is a long, long march,
And if we roam the Volga, all will think us
If on to Kazan city we go, there stands the tsar;
The terrible tsar, Ivan Vasilyevich. . . .
Now the singers were no longer to be heard, but the solo voice still rang out, swelling and dying, then rising again. All listened to it in the same tense and moody silence.
And again after a little while, under the mound, right by the shrine, in the shaggy shelter of the old wormwood a female bustard laid nine speckled, smokey-blue eggs and sat on them, warming them with her body, protecting them with her glossy wings.(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
References to this work on external resources.
Wikipedia in English
Passionate and proud, Grigory Melekhov is at first attracted by the Communists' promises of social justice, but is repelled by their violent methods and finds himself embroiled in the Cossack campaign against them.
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