Bela

From ‘A Hero of Our Time’ by Mikhail Lermontov
1839
Translated by Martin Parker

( Photo by la falta )

I was traveling along the military road back from Tiflis. The only luggage in the little cart was one small suitcase half full of travel notes about Georgia…

Behind my carriage came another pulled by four oxen with no visible effort, though the vehicle was piled high with baggage. This rather surprised me. In the wake of the carriage walked its owner, puffing at a small silver-inlaid Kabardian pipe. He was wearing an officer’s coat without epaulets and a shaggy Circassian cap. He looked about fifty, his tan face showed a long relationship with the Caucasian sun, and his prematurely gray mustache did not match his firm step and vigorous appearance. I went up to him and bowed. He silently returned my greeting, blowing out an enormous cloud of smoke…

“You must have had a whole lot of adventures?” I asked, with burning curiosity.

“Aye, many indeed…”

“Like to add a little rum?” I asked. “I have some white rum from Tiflis, it’ll warm you up in this cold.”

“No, thanks, I don’t drink.”

“How come?”

“Well . . . swore off the stuff. Once when I was still a second lieutenant we went on a brief spree, you know how it is, and that very night there was an alert. So we showed up before the ranks a little bit high, and there was hell to pay when old Yermolov found out. Lord preserve me from seeing a man as furious as he was. We escaped being court-martialed by a whisker. That’s the way it is: sometimes you spend a whole year without seeing anyone, and if you get drunk you’ve had it.”

On hearing this I nearly lost hope.

“Take even the Circassians,” he went on, “as soon as they drink their fill of booza at a wedding or a funeral the knife fight begins. Once I barely managed to escape alive although I was the guest of a neutral prince.”

“How did it happen?”

“Well,” he filled and lit his pipe, took a long pull on it, and began the story,

“you see, I was stationed at the time at a fort beyond the Terek with a company–that was nearly five years back. Once in the fall a supply convoy came up, and with it an officer, a young man of about twenty-five. He reported to me in full dress uniform and announced that he had been ordered to join me at the fort. He was so slim and white, and so fashionably dressed up that I could tell at once that he was a newcomer to the Caucasus. ‘You must’ve been transferred here from Russia?’ I asked him. ‘Yes, sir,’ he replied. I took his hand and said: ‘Glad to have you here, very glad. It’ll be a bit dull for you . . . but we’ll get along real good, I’m sure, us two. Just call me Maksim Maksimich, if you like, and, another thing–please don’t bother wearing full dress uniform. Just come around in your service cap.’ He was shown his quarters and he settled down in the fort.”

“What was his name?” I asked Maksim Maksimich.

“Grigoriy Aleksandrovich Pechorin. A fine man he was, I assure you, though a bit odd. For instance, he would spend days on end hunting in rain or cold–everybody else would be chilled and exhausted, but not he. Yet sometimes a mere draft in his room would be enough for him to declare he had caught cold–a banging shutter might make him jump and turn pale, yet I myself saw him go at a wild boar single-handed. Sometimes you couldn’t get a word out of him for hours on end, but when he occasionally did start telling stories you’d split your sides laughing . . . Yes, sir, a most odd sort of young man he was, and, apparently, rich too, judging by the load of expensive trinkets he had.”

“How long was he with you?” I asked.

“Just about a year. But it was a year I won’t forget. He caused me plenty of trouble, God forgive him!–though that’s not what I remember about him. But after all, there are people who, when they are born, the big book of life has it already written down that all sorts of amazing things will happen to them!”

“Amazing things?” I exclaimed eagerly as I poured him some more tea.

“I’ll tell you the story. Some four miles from the fort there lives a loyal prince. His son, a boy of about fifteen, got into the habit of riding over to see us. Not a day passed that he didn’t come for one reason or another. Grigoriy Aleksandrovich and I really spoiled him. What a daredevil he was, good at everything: he could pick up a cap from the ground at full gallop, and he was a crack shot. But there was one bad thing about him: he had a terrible weakness for money. Once for a joke Pechorin promised him a gold coin if he stole the best goat from his father’s herd, and what do you think? The very next night he dragged the animal in by the horns. Sometimes, if we just tried teasing him, he would flare up and reach for his dagger. ‘You’ll come to a bad end, Azamat,’ I would tell him. ‘Yaman [Bad!] –You won’t keep your skull on your shoulders!’

“Once the old prince himself came over to invite us to a wedding. He was giving away his elder daughter and since we were kunaks [blood brothers] there was no way to say no, of course, Tatar or not. So we went. A pack of barking dogs met us in the village. On seeing us the women hid themselves–the faces we did catch a glimpse of were far from pretty. ‘I had a much better opinion of Circassian women,’ Grigoriy Aleksandrovich said to me. ‘You wait a while,’ I replied, smiling. I had something up my sleeve.

“There was quite a crowd assembled in the prince’s house. It’s the custom among those Asiatics, you know, to invite to their weddings everyone they happen to meet. We were welcomed with all the honors due to us and shown to the best room. Before going in, though, I took care to remember where they put our horses–just in case, you know.”

“How do they celebrate weddings?” I asked the captain.

“Oh, in the usual way. First the mullah reads them something from the Koran, then presents are given to the newlyweds and all their relatives. They eat, and drink booza, until finally the horsemanship display begins, and there is always some kind of filthy clown dressed in rags riding a mangy lame nag playing the fool to amuse the company. Later, when it grows dark, what we would call a ball begins in the best room. Some miserable old man strums away on a three-stringed . . . can’t remember what they call it . . . something like our balalaika. The girls and young men line up in two rows facing each other, clap their hands and sing. Then one of the girls and a man step into the center and begin to chant verses to each other, improvising as they go, while the rest pick up the refrain. Pechorin and I occupied the place of honor, and as we sat there the host’s younger daughter, a girl of sixteen or so, came up to him and sang to him . . . what should I call it . . . a sort of compliment.”

“You don’t remember what she sang by any chance?”

“Yes, I think it went something like this: ‘Our young horsemen are strong and their caftan robes are encrusted with silver, but the young Russian officer is even stronger still and his epaulets are of gold. He is like a poplar among the others, yet he shall neither grow nor bloom in our orchard.’ Pechorin rose, bowed to her, pressing his hand to his forehead and heart, and asked me to reply to her. Knowing their language well I translated his reply.

“When she walked away I whispered to him: ‘Well, what do you think of her?’

“‘Exquisite,’ replied he. ‘What is her name?’ ‘Her name is Bela,’ I replied.

“And indeed, she was beautiful: tall, slim, and her eyes as black as a gazelle’s looked right into your soul. Pechorin grew thoughtful and did not take his eyes off her, and she frequently stole a glance at him. But Pechorin was not the only one who admired the pretty princess: from a corner of the room another pair of eyes, fixed and flaming, stared at her. I looked closer and recognized somebody I knew, Kazbich. He was a man you couldn’t say was loyal, though there was nothing to show he was hostile towards us. There were a good many suspicions but he had never been caught at any tricks. Occasionally he brought sheep to us at the fort and sold them cheap, but he never bargained: you had to pay him what he asked–he would never cut a price even if his life depended on it. It was said of him that he’d ride out beyond the Kuban River with the bandits, and to tell the truth, he did look like a guerrilla: he was short, wiry and broad-shouldered. And nimble he was, as clever as the devil! The embroidered shirt he wore was always torn and patched, but his weapons were ornamented with silver. As for his horse, it was famous in all Kabarda, and indeed, you couldn’t think of a better horse. The horsemen all around had very good reason to be jealous, and time and again they tried to steal the animal, but never could. I can still see the horse as if he were before me now: as black as tar, with legs like taut violin strings and eyes no less beautiful than Bela’s. He was a strong animal too, could gallop thirty miles at a stretch, and as for training, he would follow his master like a dog and always came when he called him. Kazbich never bothered to tie up the animal. A regular bandit horse!

“That evening Kazbich was gloomier than I had ever seen him, and I noticed that he had a coat of mail under his shirt. ‘There must be a reason for the armor,’ thought I. ‘He is evidently plotting something.’

“It was stuffy indoors, so I stepped out into the fresh air. The night was settling on the hills and the mist was beginning to weave in and out among the gorges.

“It occurred to me to look into the shelter where our horses stood and see whether they were being fed, and besides, caution never hurt anything. After all, I had a fine horse and a good many Kabardians had cast fond glances at him and said: ‘Yakshi tkhe, chek yakshi!’ [Good horse, excellent!]

“I was picking my way along the fence when suddenly I heard voices. One of the speakers I recognized right away: it was that good-for-nothing Azamat, our host’s son. The other spoke more slowly and quietly. ‘I wonder what they’re up to,’ thought I. ‘I hope it’s not about my horse.’ I dropped down behind the fence and cocked my ears, trying not to miss a word. It was impossible to hear everything, for now and then the singing and the hum of voices from the hut drowned out the conversation I was so interested to hear.

“‘That’s a fine horse you have,’ Azamat was saying. ‘Were I the master of my house and the owner of a herd of three hundred mares, I’d give half of them for your horse, Kazbich!’

“‘So it’s Kazbich,’ I thought and remembered the coat of mail.

“‘You’re right,’ Kazbich replied after a momentary silence, ‘you won’t find another like him in all Kabarda. Once, beyond the Terek it was, I rode with the guerrillas to pick up some Russian horses. We were unlucky though, and had to scatter. Four Cossacks came after me–I could already hear the infidels shouting behind me, and ahead of me was a thicket. I bent low in the saddle, trusted myself to Allah and for the first time in my life insulted the horse by striking him. Like a bird he flew between the branches, the thorns tore my clothes, and the dry elm twigs lashed my face. The horse leapt over tree stumps and crashed through the brush. It would have been better for me to slip off him in some glade and take cover in the woods on foot, but I couldn’t bear to part with him, so I held on, and the Prophet rewarded me. Some bullets whistled past overhead! I could hear the Cossacks, now dismounted, running along on my trail . . . Suddenly a deep gully opened up in front–my horse hesitated for a moment, and then jumped. But on the other side his hind legs slipped off the sheer edge and he was left holding on by the forelegs. I dropped the reins and slipped into the gully. This saved the horse, who managed to pull himself up. The Cossacks saw all this, but none of them came down into the ravine to look for me–they probably gave me up for dead. Then I heard them going after my horse. My heart bled as I crawled through the thick grass of the gully until I was out of the woods. Now I saw some Cossacks riding out from the thicket into the open and my Karagyoz galloping straight at them. With a shout they made a dash for him. They chased him for a long time. One of them almost got a lasso around his neck once or twice–I trembled, turned away and began praying. Looking up a few moments later I saw my Karagyoz flying free as the wind, his tail streaming while the infidels trailed far behind in the plain on their exhausted horses. I swear by Allah this is the truth, the truest truth! I sat in my gully until far into the night. And what do you think happened, Azamat? Suddenly through the darkness I heard a horse running along the edge of the gully, snorting, neighing and stamping his hoofs–I recognized the voice of my Karagyoz, for it was he, my comrade! Since then we have never separated.’

“You could hear the man patting the smooth neck of the horse and whispering to him all kinds of pet names.

“‘Had I a herd of a thousand mares,’ said Azamat, ‘I would give it to you for your Karagyoz.’

“‘Iok, No, I wouldn’t take it,’ replied Kazbich indifferently.

“‘Listen, Kazbich,’ Azamat coaxed him. ‘You are a good man and a brave warrior; my father fears the Russians and doesn’t let me go into the mountains. Give me your horse and I’ll do anything you want, I’ll steal for you my father’s best musket or sword, whatever you wish–and his saber is a real Gurda. Lay the blade against your hand and it will cut deep into the flesh. Mail like yours won’t stop it.’

“Kazbich was silent.

“‘When I first saw your horse,’ Azamat went on, ‘prancing under you, his nostrils open wide and sparks flying under his hoofs, something strange happened in my soul, and I lost interest in everything. I have nothing but contempt now for my father’s best horses, I’m ashamed to be seen riding them, and I have been sick at heart. In my misery I’ve spent days on end sitting on a hill, thinking of nothing but your fleet-footed Karagyoz with his proud stride and sleek back as straight as an arrow, his blazing eyes looking into mine as if he wanted to speak to me. I’ll die, Kazbich, if you will not sell him to me,’ said Azamat in a trembling voice.

“I thought I heard him sob; and I must tell you that Azamat was a most stubborn lad and even when he was younger nothing could ever make him cry.

“In reply to his tears I heard something like a laugh.

“‘Listen!’ said Azamat, his voice firm now. ‘You see I am ready to do anything. I could steal my sister for you if you want. How she can dance and sing! And her gold embroidery is something wonderful! The Turkish Padishah himself never had a wife like her. If you want her, wait for me tomorrow night in the gorge where the stream flows. I’ll go by with her on the way to the next village–and she’ll be yours. Isn’t Bela worth your steed?’

“For a long, long time Kazbich was silent. At last instead of replying, he began softly singing an old song:

‘Many fair maids in this village of mine,
Their eyes are dark pools where the stars seem to shine.
Sweet flits the time making love to a maid,
Sweeter’s the freedom of any young blade.
Wives by the dozen are purchased with gold,
But a spirited steed is worth riches untold;
Swift o’er the plains like a whirlwind he flies,
Never betrays you, and never tells lies.’

“In vain Azamat pleaded with him; he tried tears, flattery, and profanity, until finally Kazbich lost patience with him: ‘Get away with you, boy! Are you crazy? You could never ride my horse! He’d throw you after the first three paces and you’d smash your head against a rock.’

“‘Me?’ Azamat screamed in a fury, and his child’s dagger rang against the coat of mail. A strong arm flung him back and he fell against the corral fence so violently that it shook. ‘Now the fun will begin,’ thought I and dashed into the stable, bridled our horses and led them to the yard at the back. Two minutes later a terrific uproar broke out in the hut. This is what happened: Azamat ran into the hut in a torn shirt shouting that Kazbich had tried to kill him. Everybody rushed out and went for their rifles–and the fun was on! There was screaming and shouting and shots were fired, but Kazbich was already on his horse spinning around like a demon in the midst of the crowd swinging away with his saber. ‘It’d be big trouble to get mixed up in this,’ said I to Grigoriy Aleksandrovich as I caught him by the arm. ‘Hadn’t we better scram as fast as we can?’

“‘Let’s wait a bit and see how it ends.’

“‘It’s sure to end badly–that’s what always happens with these Asiatics, as soon as they have enough drink they go slashing each other.’ We got on our horses and rode home.

“What happened to Kazbich?” I asked impatiently.

“What can happen to these people?” replied the captain, finishing his glass of tea. “He got away, of course.”

“Not even wounded, was he?” I asked.

“The Lord only knows. They’re tough, the bandits! I have seen some of them in engagements; a man may be cut to ribbons with bayonets and still he will continue brandishing his saber.” After a brief silence the captain went on, stamping his foot: “There is one thing I’ll never forgive myself for. When we got back to the fort, the devil prompted me to tell Pechorin what I had overheard behind the fence. He laughed–the fox–though; he was already cooking up a scheme.”

“What was it? I’d like to hear it.”

“I suppose I’ll have to tell you. Since I’ve begun telling the story, I might as well finish.

“Some four days later, Azamat rode up to the fort. As usual, he went in to see Grigoriy Aleksandrovich, who always had some tidbits for him. I was there too. The talk turned to horses, and Pechorin began to praise Kazbich’s horse; as spirited and graceful as a chamois the steed was, and, as Pechorin put it, there simply was no other horse like it in all the world.

“The Tatar boy’s eyes lit up, but Pechorin pretended not to notice it; I tried to change the subject, but at once he brought it back to Kazbich’s horse. This happened each time Azamat came. About three weeks later I noticed that Azamat was growing pale and wasting away as they do from love in novels. What was it all about?

“You see, I got the whole story later. Pechorin egged him on to a point where the lad was simply desperate. Finally he put it point-blank: ‘I can see, Azamat, that you want that horse very badly. Yet you have as little chance of getting it as of seeing the back of your own head. Now tell me what would you give if someone were to present it to you?’

“‘Anything he asks,’ replied Azamat.

“‘In that case I’ll get the horse for you, but on one condition . . . Swear you will carry it out?’

“‘I swear . . . And you must swear too!’

“‘Good! I swear you’ll get the horse, only you have to give me your sister Bela in exchange. Karagyoz will be the bride money [kalim]! I hope the bargain suits you.’

“Azamar was silent.

“‘You don’t want to? As you wish. I thought you were a man, but I see you’re still a child: you’re too young to ride in the saddle.’

“Azamat flared up. ‘What about my father?’ he asked.

“‘Doesn’t he ever go away anywhere?’

“‘That’s true, he does . . . .’

“‘So you agree?’

“‘I agree,’ whispered Azamat, pale as death itself. ‘When?’

“‘The next time Kazbich comes here; he has promised to bring a dozen sheep. The rest is my affair. You take care of your end of the bargain, Azamar!’

“So they arranged the whole business, and I must say it was a rotten business indeed. Later I said so to Pechorin, but he only replied that the primitive Circassian girl ought to be happy to have such a fine husband as himself, for, after all, everybody would regard him as her husband, and that Kazbich was a bandit who should be punished anyway. Judge for yourself, what could I say against this? But at the time I knew nothing about the conspiracy. So one day Kazbich came asking whether we wanted sheep and honey, and I told him to bring some the day after. ‘Azamat,’ Grigoriy Aleksandrovich said to the lad, ‘tomorrow Karagyoz will be in my hands. If Bela is not here tonight you will not see the horse . . .’

“‘Good!’ said Azamat and galloped back to his village. In the evening Grigoriy Aleksandrovich armed himself and rode out of the fort. How they managed everything, I don’t know–but at night they both returned and the sentry saw a woman lying across Azamat’s saddle with hands and feet tied and head wrapped in a veil.”

“And the horse?” I asked the captain.

“Just a moment. Early the next morning Kazbich came, driving along the dozen sheep he wanted to sell. Tying his horse to a fence, he came to see me and I regaled him with tea, for, scoundrel though he was, he nevertheless was a kunak of mine.

“We began to chat about this and that. Suddenly I saw Kazbich jump–his face twisted and he dashed for the window, but it unfortunately opened to the backyard. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked.

“‘My horse . . . horse!’ he said, shaking all over.

“And true enough I heard the beat of hoofs. ‘Some Cossack must have arrived.’

“‘No! Urus yaman, yaman, [A bad, bad Russian!]’ he cried and dashed out like a wild panther. In two strides he was in the courtyard; at the gates of the fort a sentry barred his way with a musket, but he leaped over the weapon and began running down the road. In the distance a cloud of dust whirled–it was Azamat urging on the spirited Karagyoz. Kazbich drew his pistol from its canvas bag and fired as he ran. For a minute he stood motionless until he was certain he had missed. Then he screamed, dashed the gun to pieces against the stones, and rolled on the ground crying like a baby . . . People from the fort gathered around him–but he did not see anyone, and after standing about for a while talking it over they all went back. I had the money for the sheep placed next to him, but he did not touch it; he only lay there face down like a corpse. Would you believe it, he lay like that the rest of the day and all through the night? Only the next morning he returned to the fort to ask whether anyone could tell him who the thief was. A sentry who had seen Azamat untie the horse and gallop off did not think it necessary to conceal the fact. When Kazbich heard the name his eyes flashed and he set out for the village where Azamat’s father lived.’

“What did the father do?”

“The whole trouble was that Kazbich didn’t find him. He had gone off somewhere for six days or so. If he hadn’t done that, could Azamat have carried off his sister?

“The father returned to find both daughter and son gone. The lad was a smart one–he knew very well that his head wouldn’t be worth anything if he got caught. So he has been missing ever since. Most likely he joined some guerrilla band and perhaps ended his mad career on the Russian side of the Terek, or maybe the Kuban. And that’s no more than he deserved!

“I must admit that it wasn’t easy for me either. As soon as I learned that the Circassian girl was in Pechorin’s quarters, I put on my epaulets and strapped on my sword and went to see him.

“He was lying on the bed in the front room, one hand under his head and the other holding a pipe that had gone out. The door leading to the next room was locked, and there was no key in the lock; all this I noticed at once. I coughed and stamped my heels on the threshold, but he pretended not to hear.

“‘Ensign! Attention!’ I said as severely as I could. ‘Don’t you realize that I’ve come to see you?’

“‘Ah, how do you do, Maksim Maksimich. Have a pipe,’ he replied without getting up.

“‘I beg your pardon! I am no Maksim Maksimich: I am captain to you!’

“‘Oh, it’s all the same. Would you care to have some tea? If you only knew what a load I’ve got on my mind!’

“‘I know everything,’ I replied, walking up to the bed.

“‘That’s all the better, then. I am in no mood to go over it again.’

“‘Ensign, you have committed an offense for which I too may have to answer . . .’

“‘Well, why not? Have we not always shared everything equally?’

“‘This is no time to joke. Will you surrender your sword?’

“‘Mitka, my sword!’

“Mitka brought the sword. Having thus done my duty, I sat down on the bed and said: ‘Listen here, Grigoriy Aleksandrovich, you’d best admit that it’s wrong.’

“‘What’s wrong?’

“‘That you kidnapped Bela. What a crook that Azamat is! Come now, admit it,’ I said to him.

“‘Why should I? She happens to please me.’

“Now what could I say to that? I didn’t know what to do. Nevertheless after a moment’s silence I told him he would have to give the girl back if her father insisted.

“‘I don’t see why I should!’

“‘But what if he finds out that she is here?’

“‘How will he?’

“Again I was in a blind alley.

“‘Listen, Maksim Maksimich,’ said Pechorin, rising, ‘you’re a good soul–if we give the girl to that barbarian he’ll either kill her or sell her. What has been done cannot be undone, and it won’t do to spoil things by being overzealous. You keep my sword, but leave her with me . . .’

“‘Supposing you let me see her,’ said I.

“‘She’s behind that door; I myself have been trying in vain to see her. She sits there in a corner all huddled up in her shawl and will neither speak nor look at you; she’s as timid as a gazelle. I hired the innkeeper’s wife who speaks Tatar to look after her and get her accustomed to the idea that she’s mine–for she will never belong to anyone but myself,’ he added, striking the table with his fist.

“I agreed to this too . . . What would you have had me do? There are some people who always get their own way.”

“”What happened in the end?” I asked Maksim Maksimich. “Did he actually win her over or did she pine away in captivity, longing for her native village?”

“Now why should she have longed for her native village? She could see the very same mountains from the fort as she had seen from the village, and that’s all these barbarians want. Moreover, Grigoriy Aleksandrovich gave her some present every day. At first she proudly tossed the gifts aside without a word, whereupon they became the property of the innkeeper’s wife and stimulated her eloquence. Ah, gifts! What wouldn’t a woman do for a little colored cloth! But I’m getting off the subject . . . Pechorin tried long and hard to win her. In the meantime he learned to speak Tatar and she began to understand our language. Little by little she learned to look at him, at first sideways, but she was always melancholy and I too couldn’t help feeling sad when I heard her from the next room singing her native songs in a low voice. I’ll never forget a scene I once witnessed while passing the window: Bela was seated on a couch, her head bowed, and Grigoriy Aleksandrovich stood before her. ‘Listen, baby,’ he was saying, ‘don’t you realize that sooner or later you must be mine–why then do you torment me so? Or perhaps you love some Chechen? If you do, I’ll let you go home at once.’ She shuddered barely perceptibly and shook her head. ‘Or,’ he went on, ‘am I altogether hateful to you?’ She sighed. ‘Perhaps your faith forbids your loving me?’ She grew pale but did not say a word. ‘Believe me, there is only one Allah for all people, and if he permits me to love you why should he forbid you to return my love?’ She looked him straight in the face as if struck by this new thought: her eyes betrayed suspicion and sought reassurance. And what eyes she had! They shone like two coals.

“‘Listen to me, sweet, kind Bela!’ Pechorin continued. ‘You can see how I love you. I am ready to do anything to cheer you: I want you to be happy, and if you keep on grieving, I will die. Tell me, you will be more cheerful?’ She thought for a moment, her black eyes searching his face, then smiled tenderly and nodded in agreement. He took her hand and began to persuade her to kiss him. But she resisted weakly and repeated over and over again: ‘Please, please, no, no.’ He became persistent; she trembled and began to sob. ‘I am your captive, your slave,’ she said, ‘and of course you can force me.’ And again there were tears.

“Pechorin struck his forehead with his fist and ran into the next room. I went in to him: he was gloomily pacing up and down with arms folded. ‘What now, old man?’ I asked him. ‘A she-devil, that’s what she is!’ he replied. ‘But I give you my word that she will be mine!’ I shook my head. ‘But you want to bet?’ he said. ‘Give me a week.’ ‘Done!’ We shook on it and separated.

“The next day he sent off a messenger to Kizlyar to make some purchases, and there was no end to the array of various kinds of Persian cloth that was brought back.

“‘What do you think, Maksim Maksimich,’ he said as he showed me the gifts, ‘will an Asiatic beauty be able to resist a bunch of stuff like this?’ ‘You don’t know these Circassian girls,’ I replied. ‘They’re nothing like Georgian or Transcaucasian Tatar women–nothing like them. They have their own rules of conduct. Different upbringing, you know.’ Grigoriy Aleksandrovich smiled and began whistling a march.

“It turned out that I was right: the gifts did only half the trick; she became more friendly and confiding–but nothing more. So he decided to play his last card. One morning he ordered his horse saddled, dressed in Circassian fashion, armed himself, and went in to her. ‘Bela,’ he said, ‘you know how I love you. I decided to carry you off believing that when you came to know me you would love me too. But I made a mistake. So, farewell, I leave you the mistress of everything I have, and if you want to, you can return to your father–you are free, I have wronged you and must be punished. Farewell, I will ride away: where, I don’t know. Perhaps it will not be long before I am cut down by a bullet or a saber blow; when that happens, remember me and try to forgive me.’ He turned away and extended his hand to her in parting. She didn’t take the hand, nor did she say a word. Standing behind the door I saw her through the crack, and I was sorry for her–such a deathly white had spread over her pretty little face. Hearing no reply, Pechorin took several steps towards the door. He was trembling, and do you know, I quite believe he was capable of actually doing what he threatened. The Lord knows that’s the kind of man he was. But barely had he touched the door when she sprang up, sobbing, and threw her arms around his neck. Believe me, I also wept standing there behind the door, that is, I didn’t exactly weep, but–well, never mind, it was just silliness.’

The captain fell silent.

“I might as well confess,” he said after a while, tugging at his mustache, “I was annoyed because no woman had ever loved me like that.”

“How long did their happiness last?” I asked.

“Well, she admitted that Pechorin had often appeared in her dreams since the day she first saw him and that no other man had ever made such an impression on her. Yes, they were happy!”

“How boring!” I exclaimed involuntarily. Indeed, I was expecting a tragic end and it was a disappointment to see my hopes collapse so suddenly. “Don’t tell me the father didn’t guess she was with you in the fort?”

“I believe he did suspect. A few days later, however, we heard that the old man had been killed. This is how it happened…”

My interest was again aroused.

“I should tell you that Kazbich had the idea that Azamat had stolen the horse with his father’s consent, at least, so I think. So he lay in ambush one day a couple of miles beyond the village when the old man was returning from a futile search for his daughter. The old man had left his cohorts lagging behind and was plunged deep in thought as he rode slowly down the road through the deepening twilight, when Kazbich suddenly sprang catlike from behind a bush, leapt behind him on the horse, cut him down with a blow of his dagger and grabbed the reins. Some of his men saw it all from a hill, but though they set out in pursuit they couldn’t overtake Kazbich.”

“So he compensated himself for the loss of his horse and took revenge as well,” I said in order to draw an opinion out of my companion.

“Of course he was absolutely right according to their rules,” said the captain.

I was struck by the ability of this Russian to reconcile himself to the customs of the peoples among whom he happens to live. I don’t know whether this mental quality is a virtue or a vice, but it does reveal a remarkable flexibility and that sober common sense which forgives evil wherever it feels it to be necessary, or impossible to eradicate…

“.. She was a fine girl, Bela was! I grew as fond of her in the end as if she were my own daughter, and she was fond of me too. I ought to tell you that I have no family. I haven’t heard about my father or mother for some twelve years now, and I didn’t think about getting a wife earlier–and now, you’ve got to admit, it would no longer be quite right. So I was happy to have found someone to spoil. She would sing to us or dance the Lezghinka . . . And how she danced! I’ve seen our provincial fine ladies and once some twenty years ago I was at the Nobles’ Club in Moscow, but none of them could hold a candle to her. Pechorin dressed her up like a doll, petted and fondled her, and she grew so lovely that it was amazing. The tan disappeared from her face and arms, and her cheeks grew rosy . . . How gay she was! How she used to tease me, the little vixen . . . May God forgive her!”

“What happened when you told her about her father’s death?”

“We kept it from her for a long time, until she became accustomed to her new position. And when she was told, she cried for a couple of days and then forgot about it.

“For about four months everything went splendidly. Pechorin, I must have already told you, had a passion for hunting. Some irresistible force used to draw him to the forest to stalk wild boar or goats, but now he scarcely ventured beyond the ramparts. Then I noticed he was growing restless again–he would pace up and down the room with his arms folded behind his back. One day without saying a word to anyone he took his gun and went out, and was gone all morning. That happened once, twice, and then more and more frequently. Things are going badly, I thought, something must have come between them!

“One morning when I dropped in to see them–I can visualize it now–I found Bela sitting on the bed wearing a black silk beshmet and looking so pale and sad that I was really alarmed.

“‘Where’s Pechorin?’ I asked.

“‘Hunting.’

“‘When did he leave? Today?’

“She did not reply, it seemed difficult for her to speak.

“‘No, yesterday,’ she finally said with a deep sigh.

“‘I hope nothing has happened to him.’

“‘All day yesterday I thought and thought,’ she said, her eyes full of tears, ‘and imagined all kinds of terrible things. First I thought a wild boar had injured him, then that the Chechen had carried him off to the mountains . . . And now I’m beginning to think that he doesn’t love me.’

“‘Truly, my dear, you couldn’t have imagined anything worse!’

“She broke into tears, and then proudly raised her head, dried her eyes, and continued: ‘If he doesn’t love me, what prevents him from sending me home? I am not forcing myself on him. And if this goes on I will leave myself! I am not his slave, I am a prince’s daughter!’

“I tried to reason with her. ‘Listen, Bela, he can’t sit here all the time like he’s tied to your apron strings. He’s a young man and likes to hunt. He’ll go and he’ll come back, but if you’re going to mope around he’ll only get tired of you quicker.’

“‘You’re right,’ she replied. ‘I’ll be happy.’ Laughing, she picked up her tambourine and began to sing and dance for me. But very soon she threw herself on the bed again and hid her face in her hands.

“What was I to do? You see, I’d never had dealings with women. I racked my brains for some way to comfort her but couldn’t think of anything. For a time we both were silent. A most unpleasant situation, I assure you!

“At length I said: ‘Would you like to go for a walk with me on the rampart? The weather’s fine.’ It was September, and the day was really wonderful, sunny but not too hot, the mountains as clearly visible as if laid out on a platter. We went out, and in silence walked up and down the ramparts of the fortress. After a while she sat down on the turf, and I sat next to her. It’s really funny to recall how I fussed over her like a nanny.

“Our fort was on a big hill, and the view from the parapet was excellent: on one side was a wide meadow crossed by gullies and ending in a forest that stretched all the way to the top of the mountain ridge, and here and there on this expanse you could see the smoke of villages and herds of grazing horses, while on the other side flowed a creek bordered by dense bushes that covered the flinty hills merging with the main chain of the Caucasus. We were sitting at a corner of a bastion and so we had a perfect view of either side. As I scanned the landscape, a man riding a gray horse emerged from the woods and came closer and closer, until he finally stopped on the far side of the creek two hundred yards or so from where we were and began spinning around on his horse like mad. What the hell was that?

“‘Your eyes are younger than mine, Bela, see if you can make out that horseman,’ said I. ‘I wonder whom he is trying to impress with that display.’

“She looked and cried out: ‘It’s Kazbich!’

“‘Ah, the bandit! Has he come to mock us?’ Now I could see it was Kazbich: the same dark face, and as ragged and dirty as ever. ‘That’s my father’s horse,’ Bela said, grabbing my arm; she trembled like a leaf and her eyes flashed. ‘Aha, my little one,’ thought I, ‘bandit blood talks in you too.’

“‘Come here,’ I called to a sentry, ‘take aim and knock that fellow off for me and you’ll get a ruble in silver.’ ‘Yes, Your Honor, only he doesn’t stay still . . .’ ‘Tell him to,’ said I, laughing. ‘Hey, there!’ shouted the sentry waving his arm, ‘wait a minute, will you, stop spinning like a top!’ Kazbich actually paused to listen, probably thinking we wanted to negotiate, the insolent beggar! My grenadier took aim . . . bang! . . . and missed, for as soon as the powder flashed in the pan, Kazbich gave a jab to the horse making it leap aside. He stood up in his stirrups, shouted something in his own language, shook his whip menacingly in the air–and in a flash was gone.

“‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself!’ I said to the sentry.

“‘Your Honor! He’s gone off to die,’ he replied. ‘Such a cussed crowd they are you can’t kill them with one shot.’

“A quarter of an hour later Pechorin returned from the chase. Bela ran to meet him and threw her arms around his neck, and not a single complaint, not a single reproach for his long absence did I hear . . . Even I had lost patience with him. ‘Look here,’ said I, ‘Kazbich was on the other side of the river just now and we fired at him; you could easily have run into him too. These mountaineers are revenging people, and do you think he doesn’t suspect you helped Azamat? I’ll bet he saw Bela here. And I happen to know that a year ago he was sure attracted by her–told me so himself, in fact. Had he had any hope of raising a substantial bride-price he surely would have asked for her in marriage . . .’ Pechorin was serious now. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘we have to be more careful . . . Bela, after today you mustn’t go out on the ramparts any more.’

“That evening I had a long talk with him; it made me sad that he had changed toward the poor girl, for besides being out hunting half the time, he began to treat her coldly, rarely showing her any affection. She began to waste away visibly, her face grew thin, and her eyes lost their glow. Whenever I asked her, ‘Why are you sighing, Bela? Are you sad?’ she would reply ‘No.’ ‘Do you want anything?’ ‘No!’ ‘Are you homesick for your family?’ ‘I have no family.’ For days on end you couldn’t get more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ out of her.

“I decided to have a talk with him about this. ‘Listen, Maksim Maksimich,’ he replied, ‘I have an unfortunate character. Whether it is my upbringing that made me like that or God who created me so, I don’t know. I know only that if I cause unhappiness to others I myself am no less unhappy. I realize this is poor consolation for them–but the fact remains that it’s so. In my early youth after leaving my parents, I plunged into all the pleasures money could buy, and naturally these pleasures grew distasteful to me. Then I went into high society, but soon enough grew tired of it; I fell in love with beautiful society women and was loved by them, but their love only aggravated my imagination and vanity while my heart remained desolate . . . I began to read and to study, but wearied of learning too. I saw that neither fame nor happiness depended on it in the slightest, for the happiest people were the most ignorant, and fame was a matter of luck, to achieve which you only had to be clever. And I grew bored . . . Soon I was transferred to the Caucasus–this was the happiest time of my life. I hoped that boredom would not survive under Chechen bullets–but it’s no use. In a month I had become so accustomed to their whine and the breath of death that, to tell the truth, the mosquitoes bothered me more, and life became more boring than ever because I had now lost practically my last hope. When I saw Bela in my quarters, when I held her on my lap and first kissed her raven locks, I foolishly thought she was an angel sent down to me by a compassionate Providence . . . Again I was mistaken: the love of a savage girl is little better than that of a well-born lady. The ignorance and simplicity of the one are as boring as the coquetry of the other. I still love her, if you want to know. I am grateful to her for a few rather blissful moments. I am ready to die for her even, but I am really bored with her . . . I don’t know whether I am a fool or a scoundrel, but the fact is that I am to be pitied as much, if not more than she. My soul has been warped by the world, my mind is restless, my heart insatiable–nothing satisfies me. I grow accustomed to sorrow as readily as to joy, and my life becomes emptier from day to day. Only one thing is left for me, and that is to travel. As soon as possible I’ll set out–not for Europe, God forbid–but for America, Arabia, India–and maybe I’ll die somewhere on the road! Ar least I’m sure that with the help of storms and bad roads this consolation won’t soon cease to be a last resort.’ He talked long in this vein and his words seared themselves in my memory for it was the first time I had heard such talk from a man of twenty-five, and, I hope to God, the last. Amazing! You probably were in the capital recently; perhaps you can tell me,” the captain went on, talking to me, “whether the young people there are all like that?”

I replied that there are many who speak in the same way, and that most likely some of them are speaking the truth; but that disillusionment, having begun like all vogues in the upper strata of society, had descended to the lower, which wear it out, and that nowadays those who are really the most bored try hard to conceal that misfortune as if it were a vice. The captain didn’t understand these subtleties, and he shook his head and smiled shyly. “It was the French, I suppose, who made boredom fashionable?”

“No, the English.”

“Ah, so that’s it!” he replied. “Of course, they’ve always been habitual drunks!”…

“One day Pechorin persuaded me to go hunting wild boar with him. I tried to resist, for what was a wild boar to me, but finally he did drag me with him. We set out early in the morning, taking five soldiers with us. Until ten o’clock we poked about the reeds and the woods without seeing a single animal. ‘What do you say to turning back?’ said I. ‘What’s the use of being stubborn? You can see for yourself it’s an unlucky day.’ But Pechorin didn’t want to return empty-handed in spite of the hear and fatigue . . . That’s how he was: if he set his mind on something, he had to get it–his mother must have spoiled him as a child . . . At last around noon we came upon the cussed boar–bang! . . . bang! . . . but no: the beast slipped into the reeds . . . yes, it was indeed our unlucky day. After a short rest we set out for home.

“We rode side by side, in silence, reins hanging loose, and had almost reached the fort, though we couldn’t yet see it for the brush, when a shot rang out. We looked at each other, and the same suspicion flashed through our minds. Galloping in the direction of the sound, we saw a group of soldiers huddled together on the rampart, pointing to the field where a horseman was scooting off into the distance at breakneck speed with something white across his saddle. Pechorin yelled not a bit worse than any Chechen, drew his pistol from its holster and dashed in pursuit, and I after him.

“Luckily, because of our poor hunting luck, our horses were quite fresh. They strained under the saddle, and with every moment we gained on our target. Finally I recognized Kazbich, though I couldn’t make out what he was holding in front of him. I drew up next to Pechorin and shouted to him: ‘It’s Kazbich!’ He looked at me, nodded and struck his horse with the stick.

“At last we were within gunshot range of Kazbich. Whether his horse was exhausted or whether it was worse than ours I don’t know, but he wasn’t able to get much speed out of the animal in spite of his efforts to urge it on. I am sure he was thinking of his Karagyoz then . . .

“I looked up and saw Pechorin aiming on the gallop. ‘Don’t shoot!’ I yelled. ‘Save the charge, we’ll catch up with him soon enough.’ But that’s youth for you: always foolhardy at the wrong time . . . The shot rang out and the bullet wounded the horse in a hind leg. The animal made another dozen leaps before it stumbled and fell on its knees. Kazbich sprang from the saddle, and now we saw he was holding a woman bound in a veil in his arms. It was Bela . . . poor Bela! He shouted something to us in his own language and raised his knife over her . . . There was no time to waste and I fired impulsively. I must have hit him in the shoulder, for his arm suddenly dropped. When the smoke blew away there was the wounded horse lying on the ground and Bela next to it, while Kazbich, who had thrown away his gun, was scrambling up a cliff through the bushes like a cat. I wanted to pick him off but my gun needed reloading now. We slipped out of the saddle and ran toward Bela. The poor girl lay motionless, blood streaming from her wound. The villain! Had he struck her in the heart, it all would have been over in a moment, but to stab her in the back in the foulest way! She was unconscious. We tore the veil into strips and bandaged the wound as tightly as we could. In vain did Pechorin kiss her cold lips–nothing could bring her back to consciousness.

“Pechorin mounted his horse and I raised her up from the ground, somehow managing to place her in front of him in the saddle. He put his arm around her and we started back. After several minutes of silence, Grigoriy Aleksandrovich spoke: ‘Listen, Maksim Maksimich, we’ll never get her home alive at this pace.’ ‘You’re right,’ I said, and we spurred the horses to full gallop. At the fort gates a crowd was awaiting us. We carried the wounded girl gently into Pechorin’s quarters and sent for the surgeon. Although he was drunk, he came at our summons, and after examining the wound said the girl could not live more than a day. But he was wrong . . .

“She recovered, then?” I asked the captain, hanging onto his arm, glad in spite of myself.

“No,” he replied, “the surgeon was wrong only in that she lived another two days.”

“But, tell me, how did Kazbich manage to kidnap her?”

“It was like this: disobeying Pechorin’s instructions, she had left the fort and gone to the river. It was very hot, you know, and she had sat down on a rock and dipped her feet into the water. Kazbich crept up, grabbed and gagged her, dragged her into the bushes, jumped on his horse and galloped off. She managed to scream, however, and the sentries gave the alarm, fired after him but missed, and that’s when we arrived on the scene.”

“Why did Kazbich want to carry her off?”

“My dear sir! These Circassians are notorious thieves. Their fingers itch for anything that lies unguarded. Whether they need it or not, they steal–they just can’t help themselves! Besides he had long had his eye on Bela.”

“And she died?”

“Yes, but she suffered a great deal, and we too suffered enough watching her. About ten o’clock at night she regained consciousness. We were sitting at her bedside. As soon as she opened her eyes, she asked for Pechorin. ‘I am here, beside you, my dzhanechka,’ (that is, “darling” in our language) he replied, taking her hand. ‘I will die,’ she said. We began to reassure her, saying that the surgeon had promised to cure her without fail, but she shook her head and turned to the wall. She didn’t want to die!

“During the night she grew delirious. Her head was on fire and every now and then she shook with fever. She was now talking incoherently about her father and brother. She wanted to go back to her mountains and home . . . Then she also talked about Pechorin, calling him all kinds of tender names or reproaching him for not loving his dzhanechka any more . . .

“Early the next morning we buried her beyond the fort, next to the spot on the river bank where she had sat that last time. The small grave is now surrounded by white acacia and elder bushes. I wanted to put up a cross, but that was a bit awkward, you know, for after all she was not a Christian . . .

 

( Photo by Abadona )

THE END.

4 thoughts on “Bela

  1. yasniger says:

    Great, just simply wonderful! I find your thoroughness quite remarkable

  2. yasniger says:

    Reblogged this on yasniger and commented:
    Sorry, but right now I just can’t have enough of OTRAZHENIE…… I found me a new drug

  3. deanabo says:

    I enjoyed this very much!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s