"Baska, beloved of my heart! You may come now, for without you it is as if without bread; and if I do not wither away before you are here, I shall kiss your rosy face off. I am not stingy in sending men and experienced officers; but give priority in all to Pan Snitko, and admit him to our society, for he is _bene natus_ (well-born), an inheritor of land, and an officer. As to Mellehovich, he is a good soldier, but G.o.d knows who he is. He could not become an officer in any squadron but the Tartar, for it would be easier elsewhere for any man to fling low birth at him. I embrace you with all my strength; I kiss your hands and feet.
I have built a fortalice with one hundred circular openings. We have immense chimneys. For you and me there are several rooms in a house apart. There is an odor of rosin everywhere, and such legions of crickets that when they begin to chirp in the evening the dogs start up from sleep. If we had a little pea-straw, they might be got rid of quickly; perhaps you will have some placed in the wagons. There was no gla.s.s to be had, so we put membrane in the windows; but Pan Byaloglovski has a glazier in his command among the dragoons. You can get gla.s.s in Kamenyets from the Armenians; but, for G.o.d's sake! let it be handled with care to avoid breaking. I have had your room fitted with rugs, and it has a respectable look. I have had the robbers whom we caught in the ravines hanged, nineteen of them; and before you come, the number will reach half three-score. Pan Snitko will tell you how we live. I commend you to G.o.d and the Most Holy Lady, my dear soul."
Basia, after reading the letter, gave it to Zagloba, who, when he had glanced over it, began at once to show more consideration to Pan Snitko,--not so great, however, that the other should not feel that he was speaking to a most renowned warrior and a great personage, who admitted him to confidence only through kindness. Moreover, Pan Snitko was a good-natured soldier, joyous and most accurate in service, for his life had pa.s.sed in the ranks. He honored Volodyovski greatly, and in view of Zagloba's fame he felt small, and had no thought of exalting himself.
Mellehovich was not present at the reading of the letter, for when he had delivered it, he went out at once, as if to look after his men, but really from fear that they might command him to go to the servants'
Zagloba, however, had time to examine him; and having the words of Pan Michael fresh in his head, he said to Snitko, "We are glad to see you.
I pray you. Pan Snitko, I know the escutcheon Hidden Moon,--a worthy escutcheon. But this Tartar, what is his name?"
"But this Mellehovich looks somehow like a wolf. Michael writes that he is a man of uncertain origin, which is a wonder, for all our Tartars are n.o.bles, though Mohammedans. In Lithuania I saw whole villages inhabited by them. There people call them Lipki; but those here are known as Cheremis. They have long served the Commonwealth faithfully in return for their bread; but during the time of the peasant incursion many of them went over to Hmelnitski, and now I hear that they are beginning to communicate with the horde. That Mellehovich looks like a wolf. Has Pan Volodyovski known him long?"
"Since the last expedition," said Pan Snitko, putting his feet under the table, "when we were acting with Pan Sobieski against Doroshenko and the horde; they went through the Ukraine."
"Since the last expedition! I could not take part in that, for Sobieski confided other functions to me, though later on he was lonely without me. But your escutcheon is the Hidden Moon! From what place is Mellehovich?"
"He says that he is a Lithuanian Tartar; but it is a wonder to me that none of the Lithuanian Tartars knew him before, though he serves in their squadron. From this come stories of his uncertain origin, which his lofty manners have not been able to prevent. But he is a good soldier, though sullen. At Bratslav and Kalnik he rendered great service, for which the hetman made him captain, though he was the youngest man in the squadron. The Tartars love him greatly, but he has no consideration among us, and why? Because he is very sullen, and, as you say, has the look of a wolf."
"If he is a great soldier and has shed blood," said Basia, "it is proper to admit him to our society, which my husband in his letter does not forbid." Here she turned to Pan Snitko: "Does your grace permit it?"
"I am the servant of my benefactress," said Snitko.
Basia vanished through the door; and Zagloba, drawing a deep breath, asked Pan Snitko, "Well, and how does the colonel's wife please you?"
The old soldier, instead of an answer, put his fists to his eyes, and bending in the chair, repeated, "Ai! ai! ai!" Then he stared, covered his mouth with his broad palm, and was silent, as if ashamed of his own
"Sweet cakes, isn't she?" asked Zagloba.
Meanwhile "sweet cakes" appeared in the door, conducting Mellehovich, who was as frightened as a wild bird, and saying to him, "From my husband's letter and from Pan Snitko we have heard so much of your manful deeds that we are glad to know you more intimately. We ask you to our society, and the table will be laid presently."
"I pray you to come nearer," said Zagloba.
The sullen but handsome face of the young Tartar did not brighten altogether, but it was evident that he was thankful for the good reception, and because he was not commanded to remain in the servants'
quarters. Basia endeavored of purpose to be kind to him, for with a woman's heart she guessed easily that he was suspicious and proud, that the chagrin which beyond doubt he had to bear often by reason of his uncertain descent pained him acutely. Not making, therefore, between him and Snitko any difference save that enjoined by Snitko's riper age, she inquired of the young captain touching those services owing to which he had received promotion at Kalnik. Zagloba, divining Basia's wish, spoke to him also frequently enough; and he, though at first rather distant in bearing, gave fitting answers, and his manners not only did not betray a vulgar man, but were even astonis.h.i.+ng through a certain courtliness.
"That cannot be peasant blood, for not such would the spirit be,"
thought Zagloba to himself. Then he inquired aloud, "In what parts does your father live?"
"In Lithuania," replied Mellehovich, blus.h.i.+ng.
"Lithuania is a large country. That is the same as if you had said in the Commonwealth."
"It is not in the Commonwealth now, for those regions have fallen away.
My father has an estate near Smolensk."
"I had considerable possessions there too, which came to me from childless relatives; but I chose to leave them and side with the Commonwealth."
"I act in the same way," said Mellehovich.
"You act honorably," put in Basia.
But Snitko, listening to the conversation, shrugged his shoulders slightly, as if to say, "G.o.d knows who you are, and whence you came."
Zagloba, noticing this, turned again to Mellehovich, "Do you confess Christ, or do you live,--and I speak without offence,--live in vileness?"
"I have received the Christian faith, for which reason I had to leave my father."
"If you have left him for that reason, the Lord G.o.d will not leave you; and the first proof of His kindness is that you can drink wine, which you could not do if you had remained in error."
Snitko smiled; but questions touching his person and descent were clearly not to the taste of Mellehovich, for he grew reserved again.
Zagloba, however, paid little attention to this, especially since the young Tartar did not please him much, for at times he reminded him, not by his face, it is true, but by his movements and glance, of Bogun, the famed Cossack leader.
Meanwhile dinner was served. The rest of the day was occupied in final preparations for the road. They started at daybreak, or rather when it was still night, so as to arrive at Hreptyoff in one day.
Nearly twenty wagons were collected, for Basia had determined to supply the larders of Hreptyoff bountifully; and behind the wagons followed camels and horses heavily laden, bending under the weight of meal and dried meat; behind the caravan moved a number of tens of oxen of the steppe and a flock of sheep. The march was opened by Mellehovich with his Tartars; the dragoons rode near a covered carriage in which sat Basia with Pan Zagloba. She wished greatly to ride a trained palfrey; but the old n.o.ble begged her not to do so, at least during the beginning and end of the journey.
"If you were to sit quietly," said he, "I should not object; but you would begin right away to make your horse prance and show himself, and that is not proper to the dignity of the commander's wife."
Basia was happy and joyous as a bird. From the time of her marriage she had two great desires in life: one was to give Michael a son; the other to live with the little knight, even for one year, at some stanitsa near the Wilderness, and there, on the edge of the desert, to lead a soldier's life, to pa.s.s through war and adventures, to take part in expeditions, to see with her own eyes those steppes, to pa.s.s through those dangers of which she had heard so much from her youngest years.
She dreamed of this when still a girl; and behold, those dreams were now to become reality, and moreover, at the side of a man whom she loved and who was the most famous partisan in the Commonwealth, of whom it was said that he could dig an enemy from under the earth.
Hence the young woman felt wings on her shoulders, and such a great joy in her breast that at moments the desire seized her to shout and jump; but the thought of decorum restrained her, for she had promised herself to be dignified and to win intense love from the soldiers. She confided these thoughts to Zagloba, who smiled approvingly and said,--
"You will be an eye in his head, and a great wonder, that is certain. A woman in a stanitsa is a marvel."
"And in need I will give them an example."
"Of daring. I fear only one thing,--that beyond Hreptyoff there will be other commands in Mohiloff and Rashkoff, on to Yampol, and that we shall not see Tartars even for medicine."
"And I fear only this,--of course not for myself, but for you,--that we shall see them too often. Do you think that the chambuls are bound strictly to come through Rashkoff and Mohiloff? They can come directly from the East, from the steppes, or by the Moldavian side of the Dniester, and enter the boundaries of the Commonwealth wherever they wish, even in the hills beyond Hreptyoff, unless it is reported widely that I am living in Hreptyoff; then they will keep aside, for they know me of old."
"But don't they know Michael, or won't they avoid him?"
"They will avoid him unless they come with great power, which may happen. But he will go to look for them himself."
"I am sure of that. But is it a real desert in Hreptyoff? The place is not so far away!"
"It could not be more real. That region was never thickly settled, even in time of my youth. I went from farm to farm, from village to village, from town to town. I knew everything, was everywhere. I remember when Ushytsa was what is called a fortified town. Pan Konyetspolski, the father, made me starosta there; but after that came the invasion of the ruffians, and all went to ruin. When we went there for Princess Helena, it was a desert; and after that chambuls pa.s.sed through it twenty times. Pan Sobieski has s.n.a.t.c.hed it again from the Cossacks and the Tartars, as a morsel from the mouth of a dog. There are only a few people there now, but robbers are living in the ravines."
Here Zagloba began to look at the neighborhood and nod his head, remembering old times. "My G.o.d!" said he, "when we were going for Helena, it seemed to me that old age was behind my girdle; and now I think that I was young then, for nearly twenty-four years have pa.s.sed.
Michael was a milksop at that time, and had not many more hairs on his lip than I have on my fist. And this region stands in my memory as if the time were yesterday. Only these groves and pine woods have grown in places deserted by tillers of the land."
In fact, just beyond Kitaigrod they entered dense pine woods with which at that time the region was covered for the greater part. Here and there, however, especially around Studyenitsa, were open fields; and then they saw the Dniester and a country stretching forward from that side of the river to the heights, touching the horizon on the Moldavian side. Deep ravines, the abodes of wild beasts and wild men, intercepted their road; these ravines were at times narrow and precipitous, at times wider, with sides gently sloping and covered with thick brush.
Mellehovich's Tartars sank into them carefully; and when the rear of the convoy was on the lofty brink, the van was already, as it were, under the earth. It came frequently to Basia and Zagloba to leave the carriage; for though Pan Michael had cleared the road in some sort, these pa.s.sages were dangerous. At the bottom of the ravine springs were flowing, or swift rivulets were rus.h.i.+ng, which in spring were swollen with water from the snow of the steppes. Though the sun still warmed the pine woods and steppes powerfully, a harsh cold was hidden in those stone gorges, and seized travellers on a sudden. Pine-trees covered the rocky sides and towered on the banks, gloomy and dark, as if desiring to screen that sunken interior from the golden rays of the sun; but in places the edges were broken, trees thrown in wild disorder upon one another, branches twisted and broken into heaps, entirely dried or covered with red leaves and spines.