I was traveling post from Tiflis. My cart's entire load consisted of one small valise, which was half filled with travel notes about Georgia. Of these, the greater part, fortunately for you, have been lost, and the valise containing my remaining possessions, fortunately for me, is intact.
The sun was already beginning to drop behind the snowy ridge when I rode into the Koyshaur Valley. The driver, an Ossetian, drove the horses tirelessly in order to make it up Koyshaur Mountain by nightfall, singing songs at the top of his voice. A glorious spot, this valley! On every side of the mountain are impregnable reddish cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clusters of plane trees, yellow precipices scoured by running water, and there, high up, a golden fringe of snows, while below, the Aragva, having embraced another nameless stream gushing noisily from a black, mist-filled gorge, has stretched out like a silver thread and shimmers like a snake with scales.
When we reached the foot of Koyshaur, we stopped at an inn. Here, crowded noisily around, were a score of Georgians and mountaineers; close by, a caravan of camels had halted for the night. I was obliged to hire oxen to drag my cart up this accursed mountain because it was already autumn and the roads were icy--and this mountain was nearly two versts long.
There was nothing to be done for it: I hired six oxen and several Ossetians. One of them hoisted my valise on his shoulders, the others began helping the oxen with their shouts--and nothing more.
Behind my cart, a team of four oxen was pulling another with the greatest ease, despite the fact that it was piled high, to the very top. This circumstance amazed me. Walking behind the cart was its owner, who was smoking a small Kabardian pipe set in silver. He was wearing an officer's overcoat without epaulets and a shaggy Circassian hat. He seemed to be about fifty; his swarthy complexion showed that he was long familiar with the Caucasian sun, and his prematurely gray whiskers were not in keeping with his firm step and robust countenance. I walked over to him and bowed in greeting; he returned my bow without speaking and released a huge puff of smoke.
"You and I are fellow travelers, it seems."
He again bowed, without speaking.
"You must be on your way to Stavropol."
"Exactly so...with government property."
"Tell me, please, why is it that four oxen are pulling your heavy cart easily, while six beasts can scarcely budge my empty one, even with the help of these Ossetians?"
He smiled slyly and gave me a significant look.
"You doubtless have not been in the Caucasus long."
"About a year," I replied.
He smiled a second time.
"But what is the matter?"
"What's the matter! Horrible brutes, these Asiatics! You think they're helping by shouting? The devil only knows what they're shouting! The oxen understand them; you could harness up a score of them and still, if they shouted in their way, the oxen would never budge. Horrible swindlers! But what can you expect from them?... They enjoy fleecing the travelers who pass through. The rogues have been spoiled! You'll see, they're going to get a tip from you as well. Oh, I know them, they can't fool me."
"Have you served here long?"
"Yes, I served here under Alexei Petrovich," [Ermolov] he replied, assuming a dignified air. "When he arrived at the frontier, I was a second lieutenant," he added, "and under him I received two promotions for actions against the mountaineers."
"And now you are...?"
"Now I'm counted with the Third Frontier Battalion. And you, may I be so bold as to ask?"
I told him.
At this the conversation ended, and we continued to walk in silence, side by side. At the mountain's summit we found snow. The sun set and night followed day without interval, as usually happens in the South; however, thanks to the reflection off the snow, we could easily distinguish the road, which was still going uphill, although no longer as steeply. I ordered my valise placed on the cart and the oxen exchanged for horses, and for the last time I looked back down on the valley--but a thick mist, which surged in waves from the gorges, had covered it completely, and not a single sound reached our hearing from there. The Ossetians had gathered volubly around me and were demanding tips; but the staff captain shouted at them so menacingly that they scattered instantly.
"You see, what a nation," he said. "They can't say 'bread' in Russian, but they've learned 'Officer, give me a tip!' To my mind, the Tatars are better than this; at least they don't drink."
It was another verst or so to the station. All around it was quiet, so quiet that from the buzzing of a gnat you could follow its flight. On the left lay a deep black gorge; and beyond it and in front of us dark blue mountain peaks, furrowed with creases and covered in layers of snow, were outlined against the pale skyline, which was still clinging to the sunset's last reflection. In the darkening sky, stars began to flicker, and oddly, they seemed much higher than in our North. On either side of the road jutted bare black rocks; here and there I caught glimpses of shrubs under the snow, but not a single dry leaf rustled, and it was cheering to hear, amid this lifeless dream of nature, the snorting of the weary post troika and the uneven tinkle of the little Russian bell.
"Tomorrow will be glorious weather," I said. The captain said not a word in reply but pointed to the tall mountain rising directly across from us.
"What is that?" I asked.
"Well and what of it?"
"Look at how it's smoking."
And indeed, Mount Gud was smoking; down its sides slid light streaks of clouds, and on its peak lay a black cloud, so black it looked like a blot on the dark sky.
We had already made out the post station, as well as the roofs of the huts surrounding it, and before us twinkled welcoming lights, while we smelled the damp, cold wind, heard the gorge's rumble, and felt the fine rain. Scarcely had I managed to throw my felt cloak on when the snow began coming down. I looked with awe at the captain.
"We're going to have to bed down here," he said with annoyance. "In a blizzard like this you aren't going to cross the mountains. What do you say? Have there been avalanches on the Mountain of the Cross?" he asked the driver.
"No, there haven't, sir," replied the Ossetian driver, "but there's a lot hanging, a lot."
For lack of a room at the station for those passing through, we were given lodging in a smoky hut. I invited my companion to have a glass of tea with me, for I had brought along an iron teakettle--my sole indulgence on my travels through the Caucasus.
One side of the hut was built into a cliff; three slippery, wet steps led to its door. Groping my way in, I bumped into a cow (the cowshed with these people takes the place of the servant's room). I didn't know where to turn: sheep were bleating here; a dog was growling there. Fortunately, a dim light glowed at one side and helped me to find another doorlike opening. Here a fairly entertaining picture was revealed: the large hut, whose roof rested on two smoke-blackened posts, was full of people. In the middle flickered a fire that had been laid on the bare earth, and the smoke, pushed back by the wind from the opening in the roof, was spread around in such a thick shroud that for a long time I could not get my bearings. By the fire sat two old women, numerous children, and one lean Georgian, all in rags. We had no choice, so we took shelter by the fire and lit our pipes, and soon the kettle began to hiss sociably.
"A pathetic lot!" I said to the captain, indicating our filthy hosts, who were looking at us silently, in a kind of stupor.
"A very stupid nation," he replied. "Would you believe it? They don't know how to do anything, they're incapable of any kind of education! At least our Kabardians or Chechens, brigands though they are, and paupers, are daring devils, whereas these haven't even a mind for weaponry. You won't see a proper dagger on a one of them. Ossetians for certain!"
"And were you in Chechnya very long?"
"Yes, I was stationed ten years at a fort there with my company, near Stone Ford. Do you know it?"
"I've heard tell."
"You know, friend, we got good and tired of these cutthroats; nowadays, thank heavens, it's quieted down, but it used to be, you'd go a hundred paces beyond the rampart, and some raggedy devil would be sitting somewhere keeping watch: a moment's heedlessness and watch out--it's either a lasso around your neck or a bullet in the back of the head. Brave lads they are!"
"You must have had your share of adventures," I said, prompted by curiosity.
"That I have!"
At this he began to finger his left mustache, hung his head, and became pensive. I had a terrible urge to drag some little tale out of him--a desire characteristic of all traveling, note-taking men. Meanwhile, the tea was brewed; I took two field cups out of my valise, poured one, and placed it in front of him. He took a sip and said, as if to himself, "Yes, that I have!" This exclamation gave me great hopes. I know, the old Caucasians, they love to talk, to tell a story; so rarely do they get the chance. A man might be stationed a good five years somewhere in the back of beyond with his company, and for five whole years no one would say how do you do (because a sergeant major says good day). But there was plenty to talk about: surrounded by a savage, curious nation, in danger every day, there can be marvelous incidents, and you can't help but regret that our people write down so little.
"Wouldn't you like a drop of rum?" I said to my companion. "I have white from Tiflis; it's cold now."
"No, sir, I thank you, but I don't drink."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, it is. I made myself an oath. Back when I was a second lieutenant, once, you know, we'd had a drop too much among ourselves, and that night they gave the alarm; so we went out on parade tipsy, and did we ever catch it when Alexei Petrovich found out: God forbid how angry he got! Nearly turned us over for trial. One thing's for certain, spend a whole year when you don't see a soul, and if you've got vodka there, too--you're a goner."
Hearing this, I almost lost hope.
"At least the Circassians, you see," he continued, "when they drink too much young wine at a wedding or a funeral, that's when the knives come out. Once I had a narrow escape, and I was the guest of a friendly prince."
"How did it happen?"
"Well"--he filled his pipe, drew on it, and began his tale--"you see, it was like this. I was stationed at the time in a fort beyond the Terek with my company--this is nearly five years hence. One day, in the autumn, a convoy arrived with supplies, and traveling with the convoy was an officer, a young man of about twenty-five. He reported to me in full uniform and announced he'd been ordered to remain with me at the fort. He was very thin and very fair, and he was wearing a uniform so new I guessed right away he was only recently with us in the Caucasus. 'I suppose,' I asked him, 'you were transferred here from Russia?' 'Precisely so, sir,' he answered. I clasped his hand and said, 'Very pleased to meet you, very pleased. You'll find it a little dull, but I think you and I can get along like friends. And please, just call me Maxim Maximich, and please--what's the point of this full uniform? Always wear your uniform cap when you come to see me, that will do.' He was taken to his quarters, and he got settled at the fort."
"What was his name?" I asked Maxim Maximich.
"His name...was Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. Splendid fellow he was, I'll be so bold as to assure you; only a little odd. For instance, in the rain and cold, an entire day hunting, you see, anyone would get chilled and tired--but he was just fine. But another time he'd be sitting in his room, there'd be a whiff of wind, and he'd assure me he was going to catch cold; a shutter would rattle and he'd tremble and turn pale; but as I'm a witness he went out for wild boar all alone; there'd be times you couldn't get a word out of him for hours on end, and other times he'd start telling stories so that your belly was like to burst from laughter. Yes indeed, he had great eccentricities, and he was probably a rich man. He had so many different precious trinkets!"
"Did he stay with you long?" I asked again.
"Oh, nearly a year. And that's a year I'll surely remember; he caused me a lot of trouble, but that's not what I'll remember him for! You see, there are, truly, people the likes of whom are fated to have all kinds of unusual things happen to them."
"Unusual?" I exclaimed with a look of curiosity as I poured him some more tea.
"Look, I'll tell you a story. About six versts from the fort lived this one friendly prince. His precious son, a boy of about fifteen, fell into the habit of riding over to see us. Every day he might come for one thing or another; and Grigory Alexandrovich and I certainly indulged him. What a daredevil he was, clever at anything: picking up a hat at a full gallop, firing a rifle. One thing about him wasn't so good: he had a terrible weakness for money. Once, for a joke, Grigory Alexandrovich swore he'd give him a gold piece if he'd steal the best goat from his father's herd. And what do you think? The next night he dragged it in by the horn. But sometimes, if we got a notion to tease him, his eyes would get all bloodshot and he'd put his hand right on his dagger. 'Hey, Azamat, it'll cost you your head,' I would tell him. 'It'll be yaman for your noggin!'
"One day the old prince himself came to invite us to a wedding. He was marrying off his oldest daughter, and I was his kunak, so you know we couldn't refuse him, even if he was a Tatar. We set out. At the village a lot of dogs met us with a loud howling. The women saw us and hid; those whose faces we did manage to see were no beauties. 'I had a much better opinion of Circassian women,' Grigory Alexandrovich told me. 'Just you wait,' I replied, chuckling. I had something of my own in mind.
Excerpted from A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. Copyright © 2004 by Mikhail Lermontov. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.