On the 24th of July, Captain Khlopof in epaulets and cap — a style of dress in which I had not seen him since my arrival in the Caucasus — entered the low door of my earth-hut.
“I’m just from the colonel’s,” he said in reply to my questioning look; “to-morrow our battalion is to move.”
“Where?” I asked.
“To N — . The troops have been ordered to muster at that place.”
“And probably some expedition will be made from there?”
“In what direction, think you?”
“I don’t think. I tell you all I know. Last night a Tatar from the general came galloping up, — brought orders for the battalion to march, taking two days’ rations. But whither, why, how long, isn’t for them to ask. Orders are to go — that’s enough.”
“Still, if they are going to take only two days’ rations, it’s likely the army will not stay longer.”
“That’s no argument at all.”
“And how is that?” I asked with astonishment.
“This is the way of it: When they went against Dargi they took a week’s rations, but they spent almost a month.”
“And can I go with you?” I asked, after a short silence.
“Yes, you can go; but my advice is — better not. Why run the risk?”
“No, allow me to disregard your advice. I have been spending a whole month here for this very purpose, — of having a chance to see action, — and you want me to let it have the go-by!”
“All right, come with us; only isn’t it true that it would be better for you to stay behind? You could wait for us here, you could go hunting. But as to us, — God knows what will become of us!… And that would be first-rate,” he said in such a convincing tone that it seemed to me at the first moment that it would actually be first-rate. Nevertheless, I said resolutely that I wouldn’t stay behind for any thing.
“And what have you to see there?” said the captain, still trying to dissuade me. “If you want to learn how battles are fought, read Mikhaïlovski Danilevski’s ‘Description of War,’ a charming book; there it’s all admirably described, — where every corps stands, and how battles are fought.”
“On the contrary, that does not interest me,” I replied.
“Well, now, how is this? It simply means that you want to see how men kill each other, doesn’t it?… Here in 1832 there was a man like yourself, not in the regular service, — a Spaniard, I think he was. He went on two expeditions with us,… in a blue mantle or something of the sort, and so the young fellow was killed. Here, bátiushka, one is not surprised at any thing.”
Ashamed as I was at the captain’s manifest disapprobation of my project, I did not attempt to argue him down.
“Well, he was brave, wasn’t he?”
“God knows as to that. He always used to ride at the front. Wherever there was firing, there he was.”
“So he must have been brave, then,” said I.
“No, that doesn’t signify bravery, — his putting himself where he wasn’t called.”
“What do you call bravery, then?”
“Bravery, bravery?” repeated the captain with the expression of a man to whom such a question presents itself for the first time. “A brave man is one who conducts himself as he ought,” said he after a brief consideration.
I remembered that Plato defined bravery as the knowledge of what one ought and what one ought not to fear; and in spite of the triteness and obscurity in the terminology of the captain’s definition, I thought that the fundamental conception of both was not so unlike as might at first sight appear, and that the captain’s definition was even more correct than the Greek philosopher’s, for the reason, that, if he could have expressed himself as Plato did, he would in all probability have said that that man is brave who fears only what he ought to fear and not what there is no need of fearing.
I was anxious to explain my thought to the captain.
“Yes,” I said, “it seems to me that in every peril there is an alternative, and the alternative adopted under the influence of, say, the sentiment of duty, is bravery, but the alternative adopted under the influence of a lower sentiment is cowardice; therefore it is impossible to call a man brave who risks his life out of vanity or curiosity or greediness, and, vice versa, the man who under the influence of the virtuous sentiment of family obligation, or simply from conviction, avoids peril, cannot be called a coward.”
The captain looked at me with a queer sort of expression while I was talking.
“Well, now, I don’t know how to reason this out with you,” said he, filling his pipe, “but we have with us a junker, and he likes to philosophize. You talk with him. He also writes poetry.”
I had only become intimate with the captain in the Caucasus, but I had known him before in Russia. His mother, Marya Ivanovna Khlopova, the owner of a small landed estate, lives about two versts from my home. Before I went to the Caucasus I visited her. The old lady was greatly delighted that I was going to see her Páshenka (thus she called the old gray-haired captain), and, like a living letter, could tell him about her circumstances and give him a little message. Having made me eat my fill of a glorious pie and roast chicken, Marya Ivanovna went to her sleeping-room and came back with a rather large black relic-bag, to which was attached some kind of silken ribbon.
“Here is this image of our Mother-Intercessor from the September festival,” she said, kissing the picture of the divine Mother attached to the cross, and putting it into my hand. “Please give it to him, bátiushka. You see, when he went to the Kaikaz, I had a Te Deum sung, and made a vow, that if he should be safe and sound, I would order this image of the divine Mother. And here it is seventeen years that the Mátushka and the saints have had him in their keeping; not once has he been wounded, and what battles he has been in, as it seems!… When Mikhailo, who was with him, told me about it, my hair actually stood on end. You see, all that I know about him I have to hear from others; he never writes me any thing about his doings, my dove, — he is afraid of frightening me.”
(I had already heard in the Caucasus, but not from the captain himself, that he had been severely wounded four times; and, as was to be expected, he had not written his mother about his wounds any more than about his campaigns.)
I promised faithfully to fulfil her commission.
“I know you will be fond of him, of my Páshenka,” the old lady continued, — “he is such a splendid fellow! Would you believe me, not a year goes by without his sending me money, and he also helps Annushka my daughter, and all from his wages alone. Truly I shall always thank God,” she concluded with tears in her eyes, “that he has given me such a child.”
“Does he write you often?” I asked.
“Rarely, bátiushka,— not more than once a year; and sometimes when he sends money he writes a little word, and sometimes he doesn’t. ‘If I don’t write you, mámenka,’ he says, ‘it means that I’m alive and well; but if any thing should happen, — which God forbid, — then they will write you for me.’”
When I gave the captain his mother’s gift (it was in my room), he asked me for some wrapping-paper, carefully tied it up, and put it away. I gave him many details of his mother’s life: the captain was silent. When I had finished, he went into a corner, and took a very long time in filling his pipe.
“Yes, she’s a fine old lady,” said he from the corner, in a rather choked voice: “God grant that we may meet again!”
Great love and grief were expressed in these simple words.
“Why do you serve here?” I asked.
“Have to serve,” he replied with decision. “And double pay means a good deal for our brother, who is a poor man.”
The captain lived economically; he did not play cards, he rarely drank to excess, and he smoked ordinary tobacco, which from some inexplicable reason he did not call by its usual name, but sambrotalicheski tabák. The captain had pleased me even before this. He had one of those simple, calm Russian faces, and looked you straight in the eye agreeably and easily. But after this conversation I felt a genuine respect for him.
At four o’clock on the morning of the next day, the captain came riding up to my door. He had on an old well-worn coat without epaulets, wide Lesghian trousers, a round white Circassian cap, with drooping lambskin dyed yellow, and an ugly-looking Asiatic sabre across his shoulder. The little white horse on which he rode came with head down, and mincing gait, and kept switching his slender tail. In spite of the fact that the good captain’s figure was neither very warlike nor very handsome, yet there was in it such an expression of good-will toward every one around him, that it inspired involuntary respect.
I did not keep him waiting a minute, but immediately mounted, and we rode off together from the gate of the fortress.
The battalion was already two hundred sazhens ahead of us, and had the appearance of some black, solid body in motion. It was possible to make out that it was infantry, only from the circumstance that while the bayonets appeared like long, dense needles, occasionally there came to the ear the sounds of a soldier’s song, the drum, and a charming tenor, the leader of the sixth company, — a song which I had more than once enjoyed at the fort.
The road ran through the midst of a deep, wide ravine, or balka as it is called in the Caucasian dialect, along the banks of a small river, which at this time was playing, that is, was having a freshet. Flocks of wild pigeons hovered around it, now settling on the rocky shore, now wheeling about in mid-air in swift circles and disappearing from sight.
The sun was not yet visible, but the summit of the balka on the right began to grow luminous. The gray and white colored crags, the greenish-yellow moss wet with dew, the clumps of different kinds of wild thorn, stood out extraordinarily distinct and rotund in the pellucid golden light of the sunrise.
On the other hand, the ravine, hidden in thick mist which rolled up like smoke in varying volumes, was damp, and dark, and gave the impression of an indistinguishable mixture of colors — pale lilac, almost purple, dark green, and white.