I was returning home by the fields. It was midsummer, the hay harvest was over and they were just beginning to reap the rye. At that season of the year there is a delightful variety of flowers -- red, white, and pink scented tufty clover; milk-white ox-eye daisies with their bright yellow centers and pleasant spicy smell; yellow honey-scented rape blossoms; tall campanulas with white and lilac bells, tulip-shaped; creeping vetch; yellow, red, and pink scabious; faintly scented, neatly arranged purple plaintains with blossoms slightly tinged with pink; cornflowers, the newly opened blossoms bright blue in the sunshine but growing paler and redder towards evening or when growing old; and delicate almond-scented dodder flowers that withered quickly. I gathered myself a large nosegay and was going home when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a beautiful thistle plant of the crimson variety, which in our neighborhood they call "Tartar" and carefully avoid when mowing -- or, if they do happen to cut it down, throw out from among the grass for fear of pricking their hands. Thinking to pick this thistle and put it in the center of my nosegay, I climbed down into the ditch, and after driving away a velvety bumble-bee that had penetrated deep into one of the flowers and had there fallen sweetly asleep, I set to work to pluck the flower. But this proved a very difficult task. Not only did the stalk prick on every side -- even through the handkerchief I wrapped round my hand -- but it was so tough that I had to struggle with it for nearly five minutes, breaking the fibers one by one; and when I had at last plucked it, the stalk was all frayed and the flower itself no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Moreover, owing to a coarseness and stiffness, it did not seem in place among the delicate blossoms of my nosegay. I threw it away feeling sorry to have vainly destroyed a flower that looked beautiful in its proper place.
"But what energy and tenacity! With what determination it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life!" thought I, remembering the effort it had cost me to pluck the flower. The way home led across black-earth fields that had just been ploughed up. I ascended the dusty path. The ploughed field belonged to a landed proprietor and was so large that on both sides and before me to the top of the hill nothing was visible but evenly furrowed and moist earth. The land was well tilled and nowhere was there a blade of grass or any kind of plant to be seen, it was all black. "Ah, what a destructive creature is man. . . . How many different plant-lives he destroys to support his own existence!" thought I, involuntarily looking around for some living thing in this lifeless black field. In front of me to the right of the road I saw some kind of little clump, and drawing nearer I found it was the same kind of thistle as that which I had vainly plucked and thrown away. This "Tartar" plant had three branches. One was broken and stuck out like the stump of a mutilated arm. Each of the other two bore a flower, once red but now blackened. One stalk was broken, and half of it hung down with a soiled flower at its tip. The other, though also soiled with black mud, still stood erect. Evidently a cartwheel had passed over the plant but it had risen again, and that was why, though erect, it stood twisted to one side, as if a piece of its body had been torn from it, its bowels drawn out, an arm torn off, and one of its eyes plucked out. Yet it stood firm and did not surrender to man who had destroyed all its brothers around it. . . .
"What vitality!" I thought. "Man has conquered everything and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won't submit." And I remembered a Caucasian episode of years ago, which I had partly seen myself, partly heard of from eye-witnesses, and in part imagined.
The episode, as it has taken shape in my memory and imagination, was as follows.
* * * * * * *
It happened towards the end of 1851.
On a cold November evening Hadji Murad rode into Makhmet, a hostile Chechen aoul that lay some fifteen miles from Russian territory and was filled with the scented smoke of burning Kizyak. The strained chant of the muezzin had just ceased, and though the clear mountain air, impregnated with kizyak smoke, above the lowing of the cattle and the bleating of the sheep that were dispersing among the saklyas (which were crowded together like the cells of honeycomb), could be clearly heard the guttural voices of disputing men, and sounds of women's and children's voices rising from near the fountain below.
This Hadji Murad was Shamil's naib, famous for his exploits, who used never to ride out without his banner and some dozens of murids, who caracoled and showed off before him. Now wrapped in a hood and burka, from under which protruded a rifle, he rode, a fugitive with one murid only, trying to attract as little attention as possible and peering with his quick black eyes into the faces of those he met on his way.
When he entered the aoul, instead of riding up the road leading to the open square, he turned to the left into a narrow side street, and on reaching the second saklya, which was cut into the hill side, he stopped and looked round. There was no one under the penthouse in front, but on the roof of the saklya itself, behind the freshly plastered clay chimney, lay a man covered with a sheepskin. Hadji Murad touched him with the handle of his leather-plaited whip and clicked his tongue, and an old man, wearing a greasy old beshmet and a nightcap, rose from under the sheepskin. His moist red eyelids had no lashes, and he blinked to get them unstuck. Hadji Murad, repeating the customary "Selaam aleikum!" uncovered his face. "aleikum, selaam!" said the old man, recognizing him, and smiling with his toothless mouth. And raising himself on his thin legs he began thrusting his feet into the wooden-heeled slippers that stood by the chimney. Then he leisurely slipped his arms into the sleeves of his crumpled sheepskin, and going to the ladder that leant against the roof he descended backwards, while he dressed and as he climbed down he kept shaking his head on its thin, shrivelled sunburnt neck and mumbling something with his toothless mouth. As soon as he reached the ground he hospitably seized Hadji Murad's bridle and right stirrup; but the strong active murid had quickly dismounted and motioning the old man aside, took his place. Hadji Murad also dismounted, and walking with a slight limp, entered under the penthouse. A boy of fifteen, coming quickly out of the door, met him and wonderingly fixed his sparkling eyes, black as ripe sloes, on the new arrivals.
"Run to the mosque and call your father," ordered the old man as he hurried forward to open the thin, creaking door into the saklya.
As Hadji Murad entered the outer door, a slight, spare, middle-aged woman in a yellow smock, red beshmet, and wide blue trousers came through an inner door carrying cushions.
"May thy coming bring happiness!" said she, and bending nearly double began arranging the cushions along the front wall for the guest to sit on.
"May thy sons live!" answered Hadji Murad, taking off his burka, his rifle, and his sword, and handing them to the old man who carefully hung the rifle and sword on a nail beside the weapons of the master of the house, which were suspended between two large basins that glittered against the clean clay-plastered and carefully whitewashed wall.
Hadji Murad adjusted the pistol at his back, came up to the cushions, and wrapping his Circassian coat closer round him, sat down. The old man squatted on his bare heels beside him, closed his eyes, and lifted his hands palms upwards. Hadji Murad did the same; then after repeating a prayer they both stroked their faces, passing their hands downwards till the palms joined at the end of their beards.
"Ne habar?" ("Is there anything new?") asked Hadji Murad, addressing the old man.
"Habar yok" ("Nothing new"), replied the old man, looking with his lifeless red eyes not at Hadji Murad's face but at his breast. "I live at the apiary and have only today come to see my son. . . . He knows."
Hadji Murad, understanding that the old man did not wish to say what he knew and what Hadji Murad wanted to know, slightly nodded his head and asked no more questions.
"There is no good news," said the old man. "The only news is that the hares keep discussing how to drive away the eagles, and the eagles tear first one and then another of them. The other day the Russian dogs burnt the hay in the Mitchit aoul. . . . May their faces be torn!" he added hoarsely and angrily.
Hadji Murad's murid entered the room, his strong legs striding softly over the earthen floor. Retaining only his dagger and pistol, he took off his burka, rifle, and sword as Hadji Murad had done, and hung them up on the same nails as his leader's weapons.
"Who is he?" asked the old man, pointing to the newcomer.
"My murid. Eldar is his name," said Hadji Murad.
"That is well," said the old man, and motioned Eldar to a place on a piece of felt beside Hadji Murad. Eldar sat down, crossing his legs and fixing his fine ram-like eyes on the old man who, having now started talking, was telling how their brave fellows had caught two Russian soldiers the week before and had killed one and sent the other to Shamil in Veden.
Hadji Murad heard him absently, looking at the door and listening to the sounds outside. Under the penthouse steps were heard, the door creaked, and Sado, the master of the house, came in. He was a man of about forty, with a small beard, long nose, and eyes as black, though not as glittering, as those of his fifteen-year-old son who had run to call him home and who now entered with his father and sat down by the door. The master of the house took off his wooden slippers at the door, and pushing his old and much-worn cap to the back of his head (which had remained unshaved so long that it was beginning to be overgrown with black hair), at once squatted down in front of Hadji Murad.
He too lifted his palms upwards, as the old man had done, repeated a prayer, and then stroked his face downwards. Only after that did he begin to speak. He told how an order had come from Shamil to seize Hadji Murad alive or dead, that Shamil's envoys had left only the day before, that the people were afraid to disobey Shamil's orders, and that therefore it was necessary to be careful.
"In my house," said Sado, "no one shall injure my kunak while I live, but how will it be in the open fields? . . . We must think it over."
Hadji Murad listened with attention and nodded approvingly. When Sado had finished he said:
"Very well. Now we must send a man with a letter to the Russians. My murid will go but he will need a guide."
"I will send brother Bata," said Sado. "Go and call Bata," he added, turning to his son.
The boy instantly bounded to his nimble feet as if he were on springs, and swinging his arms, rapidly left the saklya. Some ten minutes later he returned with a sinewy, short-legged Chechen, burnt almost black by the sun, wearing a worn and tattered yellow Circassian coat with frayed sleeves, and crumpled black leggings.
Hadji Murad greeted the newcomer, and again without wasting a single word, immediately asked:
"Canst thou conduct my murid to the Russians?"
"I can," gaily replied Bata. "I can certainly do it. There is not another Chechen who would pass as I can. Another might agree to go and might promise anything, but would do nothing; but I can do it!"
"All right," said Hadji Murad. "Thou shalt receive three for thy trouble," and he held up three fingers.
Bata nodded to show that he understood, and added that it was not money he prized, but that he was ready to serve Hadji Murad for the honor alone. Every one in the mountains knew Hadji Murad, and how he slew the Russian swine.
"Very well. . . . A rope should be long but a speech short," said Hadji Murad.
"Well then I'll hold my tongue," said Bata.
"Where the river Argun bends by the cliff," said Hadji Murad, "there are two stacks in a glade in the forest -- thou knowest?"
"There my four horsemen are waiting for me," said Hadji Murad.
"Aye," answered Bata, nodding.
"Ask for Khan Mahoma. He knows what to do and what to say. Canst thou lead him to the Russian Commander, Prince Vorontsov?"
"Yes, I'll take him."
"Canst thou take him and bring him back again?"
"Then take him there and return to the wood. I shall be there too."
"I will do it all," said Bata, rising, and putting his hands on his heart he went out.
Hadji Murad turned to his host.
"A man must also be sent to Chekhi," he began, and took hold of one of the cartridge pouches of his Circassian coat, but let his hand drop immediately and became silent on seeing two women enter the saklya.
One was Sado's wife -- the thin middle-aged woman who had arranged the cushions. The other was quite a young girl, wearing red trousers and a green beshmet. A necklace of silver coins covered the whole front of her dress, and at the end of the short but thick plait of hard black hair that hung between her thin shoulder-blades a silver ruble was suspended. Her eyes, as sloe-black as those of her father and brother, sparkled brightly in her young face which tried to be stern. She did not look at the visitors, but evidently felt their presence.
Sado's wife brought in a low round table on which stood tea, pancakes in butter, cheese, churek (that is, thinly rolled out bread), and honey. The girl carried a basin, a ewer, and a towel.
Sado and Hadji Murad kept silent as long as the women, with their coin ornaments tinkling, moved softly about in their red soft-soled slippers, setting out before the visitors the things they had brought. Eldar sat motionless as a statue, his ram-like eyes fixed on his crossed legs, all the time the women were in the saklya. Only after they had gone and their soft footsteps could no longer be heard behind the door, did he give a sigh of relief.
Hadji Murad having pulled out a bullet from one of the cartridge-pouches of his Circassian coat, and having taken out a rolled-up note that lay beneath it, held it out, saying:
"To be handed to my son."
"Where must the answer be sent?"
"To thee; and thou must forward it to me."
"It shall be done," said Sado, and placed the note in the cartridge-pocket of his own coat. Then he took up the metal ewer and moved the basin towards Hadji Murad.
Hadji Murad turned up the sleeves of his beshmet on his white muscular arms, held out his hands under the clear cold water which Sado poured from the ewer, and having wiped them on a clean unbleached towel, turned to the table. Eldar did the same. While the visitors ate, Sado sat opposite and thanked them several times for their visit. The boy sat by the door never taking his sparkling eyes off Hadji Murad's face, and smiled as if in confirmation of his father's words.
Though he had eaten nothing for more than twenty-four hours Hadji Murad ate only a little bread and cheese; then, drawing out a small knife from under his dagger, he spread some honey on a piece of bread.
"Our honey is good," said the old man, evidently pleased to see Hadji Murad eating his honey. "This year, above all other years, it is plentiful and good."
"I thank thee," said Hadji Murad and turned from the table. Eldar would have liked to go on eating but he followed his leader's example, and having moved away from the table, handed him the ewer and basin.
Sado knew that he was risking his life by receiving such a guest in his house, for after his quarrel with Shamil the latter had issued a proclamation to all the inhabitants of Chechnya forbidding them to receive Hadji Murad on pain of death. He knew that the inhabitants of the aoul might at any moment become aware of Hadji Murad's presence in his house and might demand his surrender. But this not only did not frighten Sado, it even gave him pleasure with himself because he was doing his duty.
"Whilst thou are in my house and my head is on my shoulders no one shall harm thee," he repeated to Hadji Murad.
Hadji Murad looked into his glittering eyes and understanding that this was true, said with some solemnity --
"Mayst thou receive joy and life!"
Sado silently laid his hand on his heart in token of thanks for these kind words.
Having closed the shutters of the saklya and laid some sticks in the fireplace, Sado, in an exceptionally bright and animated mood, left the room and went into that part of his saklya where his family all lived. The women had not yet gone to sleep, and were talking about the dangerous visitors who were spending the night in their guest chambers.