A PRISONER IN THE CAUCASUS
A true story
Translated by Angus Roxburgh
A certain gentleman, whose name was Zhilin, was serving in the Caucasus as an officer.
One day he received a letter from home. His aging mother wrote, ‘ I have grown old, and should like to see my beloved son before I die. Come and bid adieu to me, bury me, then return to your service, and may God be with you. I have found a bride for you who is both clever and pretty, and landed too. If you like her, perhaps you will marry and stay for good. ‘
Zhilin thought about it: to be sure, his mother was in poor health, and he might never see her again. Why not go? And if the bride was to his liking he could even marry.
He obtained leave of absence from his colonel, bade his comrades farewell and treated his men to four pailfuls of vodka as a parting gesture. Then he made ready for the road.
At that time there was a war on in the Caucasus and the roads were too dangerous to travel either by day or by night. If any of the Russians left the fortress he was in peril of being killed or taken off into to mountains by the Tatars. For this reason a body of footsoldiers escorted civilians in and out of the fortress twice a week.
It was summer. The wagons and their convoy were ready at first light and set out at once from the fortress. Zhilin rode on the horseback, with his baggage in one of the wagons.
There were twenty-five versts to go, and the wagon-train made slow progress: either the soldiers would halt for a rest, or somebody’s wagon wood lose a wheel, or a horse would pool up – and each time the whole convoy would have to stop and wait.
They had only recovered half the distance when the sun passed its highest point. It was hot and dusty, and there was nowhere to shelter from the scorching sun. All around was bare steppeland without a tree or bush in sight.
Zhilin rode out ahead, then stopped and waited for the wagons to catch up. Hearing the sound of a bugle – the signal of halt – he reflected, ‘Perhaps it would be better to ride on alone, without the soldiers? I have a fine horse under me: if I do come across any Tatars I’ll get away… Or should I?’ While he was considering this another officer, Kostylin, who was armed, rode up to him and said, ‘Let’s go on alone, Zhilin. I’m terribly hungry, and then there is the heat. I could positively wring this shirt out!’ And indeed, sweat was pouring from Kostylin, who was a corpulent fellow, and his face was bright red.
Zhilin thought for a moment and asked, ‘Is your gun loaded?’
‘Come on then. But let’s stick together.’
And so they rode on ahead, following the track across the steppe, chatting and keeping their eyes skinned. The prospect was clear for miles around.
Presently the steppe came to an end and the road ran through a pass in a ravine, and Zhilin said, ‘’We’ll have to nip up to the top and take a look; they could easily catch us unawares.’
‘What’s the point?’ Kostylin objected. ‘Let’s push on.’
Zhilin would not listen.
‘No,’ he said. ‘You wait here, and I’ll have a quick look round.’