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The mist had partly lifted, showing the wet reed thatches, and was
now turning into dew that moistened the road and the grass beside
the fence. Smoke rose everywhere in clouds from the chimneys. The
people were going out of the village, some to their work, some to
the river, and some to the cordon. The hunters walked together
along the damp, grass-grown path. The dogs, wagging their tails
and looking at their masters, ran on both sides of them. Myriads
of gnats hovered in the air and pursued the hunters, covering
their backs, eyes, and hands. The air was fragrant with the grass
and with the dampness of the forest. Olenin continually looked
round at the ox-cart in which Maryanka sat urging on the oxen with
a long switch.
It was calm. The sounds from the village, audible at first, now no
longer reached the sportsmen. Only the brambles cracked as the
dogs ran under them, and now and then birds called to one another.
Olenin knew that danger lurked in the forest, that abreks always
hid in such places. But he knew too that in the forest, for a man
on foot, a gun is a great protection. Not that he was afraid, but
he felt that another in his place might be; and looking into the
damp misty forest and listening to the rare and faint sounds with
strained attention, he changed his hold on his gun and experienced
a pleasant feeling that was new to him. Daddy Eroshka went in
front, stopping and carefully scanning every puddle where an
animal had left a double track, and pointing it out to Olenin. He
hardly spoke at all and only occasionally made remarks in a
whisper. The track they were following had once been made by
wagons, but the grass had long overgrown it. The elm and plane-
tree forest on both sides of them was so dense and overgrown with
creepers that it was impossible to see anything through it. Nearly
every tree was enveloped from top to bottom with wild grape vines,
and dark bramble bushes covered the ground thickly. Every little
glade was overgrown with blackberry bushes and grey feathery
reeds. In places, large hoof-prints and small funnel-shaped
pheasant-trails led from the path into the thicket. The vigour of
the growth of this forest, untrampled by cattle, struck Olenin at
every turn, for he had never seen anything like it. This forest,
the danger, the old man and his mysterious whispering, Maryanka
with her virile upright bearing, and the mountains--all this
seemed to him like a dream.
'A pheasant has settled,' whispered the old man, looking round and
pulling his cap over his face--'Cover your mug! A pheasant!' he
waved his arm angrily at Olenin and pushed forward almost on all
fours. 'He don't like a man's mug.'
Olenin was still behind him when the old man stopped and began
examining a tree. A cock-pheasant on the tree clucked at the dog
that was barking at it, and Olenin saw the pheasant; but at that
moment a report, as of a cannon, came from Eroshka's enormous gun,
the bird fluttered up and, losing some feathers, fell to the
ground. Coming up to the old man Olenin disturbed another, and
raising his gun he aimed and fired. The pheasant flew swiftly up
and then, catching at the branches as he fell, dropped like a
stone to the ground.
'Good man!' the old man (who could not hit a flying bird) shouted,
Having picked up the pheasants they went on. Olenin, excited by
the exercise and the praise, kept addressing remarks to the old
'Stop! Come this way,' the old man interrupted. 'I noticed the
track of deer here yesterday.'
After they had turned into the thicket and gone some three hundred
paces they scrambled through into a glade overgrown with reeds and
partly under water. Olenin failed to keep up with the old huntsman
and presently Daddy Eroshka, some twenty paces in front, stooped
down, nodding and beckoning with his arm. On coming up with him
Olenin saw a man's footprint to which the old man was pointing.
'Yes, well?' said Olenin, trying to speak as calmly as he could.
'A man's footstep!'
Involuntarily a thought of Cooper's Pathfinder and of abreks
flashed through Olenin's mind, but noticing the mysterious manner
with which the old man moved on, he hesitated to question him and
remained in doubt whether this mysteriousness was caused by fear
of danger or by the sport.
'No, it's my own footprint,' the old man said quietly, and pointed
to some grass under which the track of an animal was just
The old man went on; and Olenin kept up with him.
Descending to lower ground some twenty paces farther on they came
upon a spreading pear-tree, under which, on the black earth, lay
the fresh dung of some animal.
The spot, all covered over with wild vines, was like a cosy
arbour, dark and cool.
'He's been here this morning,' said the old man with a sigh; 'the
lair is still damp, quite fresh.'
Suddenly they heard a terrible crash in the forest some ten paces
from where they stood. They both started and seized their guns,
but they could see nothing and only heard the branches breaking.
The rhythmical rapid thud of galloping was heard for a moment and
then changed into a hollow rumble which resounded farther and
farther off, re-echoing in wider and wider circles through the
forest. Olenin felt as though something had snapped in his heart.
He peered carefully but vainly into the green thicket and then
turned to the old man. Daddy Eroshka with his gun pressed to his
breast stood motionless; his cap was thrust backwards, his eyes
gleamed with an unwonted glow, and his open mouth, with its worn
yellow teeth, seemed to have stiffened in that position.
'A homed stag!' he muttered, and throwing down his gun in despair
he began pulling at his grey beard, 'Here it stood. We should have
come round by the path.... Fool! fool!' and he gave his beard an
angry tug. Fool! Pig!' he repeated, pulling painfully at his own
beard. Through the forest something seemed to fly away in the
mist, and ever farther and farther off was heard the sound of the
flight of the stag.
It was already dusk when, hungry, tired, but full of vigour,
Olenin returned with the old man. Dinner was ready. He ate and
drank with the old man till he felt warm and merry. Olenin then
went out into the porch. Again, to the west, the mountains rose
before his eyes. Again the old man told his endless stories of
hunting, of abreks, of sweethearts, and of all that free and
reckless life. Again the fair Maryanka went in and out and across
the yard, her beautiful powerful form outlined by her smock.
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