Kirdzhali by Alexander Pushkin

KIRDJALI was by birth a Bulgarian. Kirdjali, in the Turkish language, signifies a knight-errant, a bold fellow. His real name I do not know.

Kirdjali with his acts of brigandage brought terror upon the whole of Moldavia. In order to give some idea of him, I will relate one of his exploits. One night he and the Arnout Mikhaelaki fell together upon a Bulgarian village. They set it on fire at both ends, and began to go from hut to hut. Kirdjali dispatched the inmates, and Mikhaelaki carried off the booty. Both cried: “Kirdjali! Kirdjali!” The whole village took to flight.

When Alexander Ipsilanti[1] proclaimed the revolt and began to collect his army, Kirdjali brought to him some of his old companions. The real object of the revolt was but ill understood by them, but war presented an opportunity for getting rich at the expense of the Turks, and perhaps of the Moldavians, and that was object enough in their eyes.

Alexander Ipsilanti was personally brave, but he did not possess the qualities necessary for the role which he had assumed with such ardour and such a want of caution. He did not know how to manage the people over whom he was obliged to exercise control. They had neither respect for him nor confidence in him. After the unfortunate battle, in which perished the flower of Greek youth, Iordaki Olimbioti persuaded him to retire, and he himself took his place. Ipsilanti escaped to the borders of Austria, and thence sent his curses to the people whom he termed traitors, cowards and scoundrels. These cowards and scoundrels for the most part perished within the walls of the monastery of Seko, or on the banks of the Pnith, desperately defending themselves against an enemy ten times their number.

Kirdjali found himself in the detachment of George Kantakuzin, of whom might be repeated the same that has been said of Ipsilanti. On the eve of the battle near Skoulana, Kantakuzin asked permission of the Russian authorities to enter our lines. The detachment remained without a leader, but Kirdjali, Saphianos, Kantagoni, and others stood in no need whatever of a leader.

The battle near Skoulana does not seem to have been described by anybody in all its affecting reality. Imagine seven hundred men—Arnouts, Albanians, Greeks, Bulgarians and rabble of every kind—with no idea of military art, retreating in sight of fifteen thousand Turkish cavalry. This detachment hugged the bank of the Pruth, and placed in front of themselves two small cannons, found at Jassy, in the courtyard of the Governor, and from which salutes used to be fired on occasions of rejoicing. The Turks would have been glad to make use of their cartridges, but they dared not without the permission of the Russian authorities: the shots would infallibly have flown over to our shore. The commander of our lines (now deceased), although he had served forty years in the army, had never in his life heard the whistle of a bullet, but Heaven ordained that he should hear it then. Several of them whizzed past his ears. The old man became terribly angry, and abused the major of the Okhotsky infantry regiment, who happened to be in advance of the lines. The major, not knowing what to do, ran towards the river, beyond which some of the mounted insurgents were caracoling about, and threatened them with his finger. The insurgents, seeing this, turned round and galloped off, with the whole Turkish detachment after them. The major, who had threatened them with his finger, was called Khortcheffsky. I do not know what became of him.

The next day, however, the Turks attacked the Hetairists. Not daring to use bullets or cannon-balls, they resolved, contrary to their usual custom, to employ cold steel. The battle was a fiercely-contested one. Yataghans[2] were freely used. On the side of the Turks were seen lances, which had never been employed by them till then; these lances were Russian: Nekrassovists fought in their ranks. The Hetairists, by permission of our Emperor, were allowed to cross the Pruth and take refuge within our lines. They began to cross over. Kantagoni and Saphianos remained last upon the Turkish bank. Kirdjali, wounded the evening before, was already lying within our lines. Saphianos was killed. Kantagoni, a very stout man, was wounded in the stomach by a lance. With one hand he raised his sword, with the other he seized the hostile lance, thrust it further into himself, and in that manner was able to reach his murderer with his sword, when both fell together.

All was over. The Turks remained victorious. Moldavia was swept clear of insurrectionary bands. About six hundred Arnouts were dispersed throughout Bessarabia; and though not knowing how to support themselves, they were yet grateful to Russia for her protection. They led an idle life, but not a licentious one. They could always be seen in the coffee-houses of half Turkish Bessarabia, with long pipes in their mouths, sipping coffee grounds out of small cups. Their figured jackets and red pointed slippers were already beginning to wear out, but their tufted skullcaps were still worn on the side of the head, and yataghans and pistols still protruded from under their broad sashes. Nobody complained of them. It was impossible to imagine that these poor, peaceably-disposed men were the notorious insurgents of Moldavia, the companions of the ferocious Kirdjali, and that he himself was among them.

The Pasha in command at Jassy became informed of this, and in virtue of treaty stipulations, requested the Russian authorities to deliver up the brigand.

The police instituted a search. They discovered that Kirdjali was really in Kishineff. They captured him in the house of a fugitive monk in the evening, when he was having supper, sitting in the dark with seven companions.

Kirdjali was placed under arrest. He did not try to conceal the truth; he acknowledged that he was Kirdjali.

“But,” he added, “since I crossed the Pruth, I have not touched a hair of other people’s property, nor imposed upon even a gipsy. To the Turks, to the Moldavians and to the Wallachians I am undoubtedly a brigand, but to the Russians I am a guest. When Saphianos, having fired off all his cartridges, came over into these lines, collecting from the wounded, for the last discharge, buttons, nails, watch-chains and the knobs of yataghans, I gave him twenty beshliks, and was left without money. God knows that I, Kirdjali, lived by alms. Why then do the Russians now deliver me into the hands of my enemies?”

After that, Kirdjali was silent, and tranquilly awaited the decision that was to determine his fate. He did not wait long. The authorities, not being bound to look upon brigands from their romantic side, and being convinced of the justice of the demand, ordered Kirdjali to be sent to Jassy.

A man of heart and intellect, at that time a young and unknown official, but now occupying an important post, vividly described to me his departure.

At the gate of the prison stood a karoutsa. . . . Perhaps you do not know what a karoutsa is. It is a low, wicker vehicle, to which, not very long since, used generally to be yoked six or eight sorry jades. A Moldavian, with a moustache and a sheepskin cap, sitting astride one of them, incessantly shouted and cracked his whip, and his wretched animals ran on at a fairly sharp trot. If one of them began to slacken its pace, he unharnessed it with terrible oaths and left it upon the road, little caring what might be its fate. On the return journey he was sure to find it in the same place, quietly grazing upon the green steppe. It not unfrequently happened that a traveller, starting from one station with eight horses, arrived at the next with a pair only. It used to be so about fifteen years ago. Nowadays in Russianized Bessarabia they have adopted Russian harness and Russian telegas.

Such a karoutsa stood at the gate of the prison in the year 1821, towards the end of the month of September. Jewesses in loose sleeves and slippers down at heel, Arnouts in their ragged and picturesque attire, well-proportioned Moldavian women with black-eyed children in their arms, surrounded the karoutsa. The men preserved silence, the women were eagerly expecting something.

The gate opened, and several police officers stepped out into the street; behind them came two soldiers leading the fettered Kirdjali.

He seemed about thirty years of age. The features of his swarthy face were regular and harsh. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and seemed endowed with unusual physical strength. A variegated turban covered the side of his head, and a broad sash encircled his slender waist. A dolman of thick; dark-blue cloth, the broad folds of his shiit falling below the knee, and handsome slippers composed the remainder of his costume. His look was proud and calm. . . .

One of the officials, a red-faced old man in a threadbare uniform, three buttons of which were dangling down, with a pair of pewter spectacles pinching the purple knob that served him for a nose, unrolled a paper and, in a snuffling tone, began to read in the Moldavian tongue. From time to time he glanced haughtily at the fettered Kirdjali, to whom apparently the paper referred. Kirdjali listened to him attentively. The official finished his reading, folded up the paper and shouted sternly at the people, ordering them to give way and the karoutsa to be driven up. Then Kirdjali turned to him and said a few words to him in Moldavian; his voice trembled, his countenance changed, he burst into tears and fell at the feet of the police official, clanking his fetters. The police official, terrified, started back; the soldiers were about to raise Kirdjali, but he rose up himself, gathered up his chains, stepped into the karoutsa and cried: “Drive on!” A gendarme took a seat beside him, the Moldavian cracked his whip, and the karoutsa rolled away.

“What did Kirdjali say to you?” asked the young official of the police officer.

“He asked me,” replied the police officer, smiling, “to look after his wife and child, who lived not far from Kilia, in a Bulgarian village: he is afraid that they may suffer through him. The mob is so stupid!”

The young official’s story affected me deeply. I was sorry for poor Kirdjali. For a long time I knew nothing of his fate. Some years later I met the young official. We began to talk about the past.

“What about your friend Kirdjali?” I asked. “Do you know what became of him?”

“To be sure I do,” replied he, and he related to me the following.

Kirdjali, having been taken to Jassy, was brought before the Pasha, who condemned him to be impaled. The execution was deferred till some holiday. In the meantime he was confined in jail.

The prisoner was guarded by seven Turks (common people, and in their hearts as much brigands as Kirdjali himself); they respected him and, like all Orientals, listened with avidity to his strange stories.

Between the guards and the prisoner an intimate acquaintance sprang up. One day Kirdjali said to them: “Brothers! my hour is near. Nobody can escape his fate. I shall soon take leave of you. I should like to leave you something in remembrance of me.”

The Turks pricked up their ears.

“Brothers,” continued Kirdjali, “three years ago, when I was engaged in plundering along with the late Mikhaelaki, we buried on the steppes, not from Jassy, a kettle filled with money, evidently, neither I nor he will make use of the hoard. Be it so; take it for yourselves and divide it in a friendly manner.”

The Turks almost took leave of their senses. The question was, how were they to find the blessed spot? They thought and thought and finally resolved that Kirdjali himself should conduct them to the place.

Night came on. The Turks removed the irons from the feet of the prisoner, tied his hands with a rope, and, leaving the town, set out with him for the steppe.

Kirdjali led them, keeping on in one direction from one mound to another. They walked on for a long time. At last Kirdjali stopped near a broad stone, measured twelve paces towards the south, stamped and said: “Here.”

The Turks began to make their arrangements. Four of them took out their yataghans and commenced digging the earth. Three remained on guard. Kirdjali sat down upon the stone and watched them at their work.

“Well, how much longer are you going to be?” he asked; “haven’t you come to it?”

“Not yet,” replied the Turks, and they worked away with such ardour, that the perspiration rolled from them like hail.

Kirdjali began to show signs of impatience.

“What people!” he exclaimed: “they do not even know how to dig decently. I should have finished the whole business in a couple of minutes. Children! untie my hands and give me a yataghan.”

The Turks reflected and began to take counsel together. “What harm would there be?” reasoned they. “Let us untie his hands and give him a yataghan. He is only one, we are seven.”

And the Turks untied his hands and gave him a yataghan.

At last Kirdjali was free and armed. What must he have felt at that moment! . . . He began digging quickly, the guard helping him. . . . Suddenly he plunged his yataghan into one of them, and, leaving the blade in his breast, he snatched from his belt a couple of pistols.

The remaining six, seeing Kirdjali armed with two pistols, ran off.

Kirdjali is now carrying on the profession of brigand near Jassy. Not long ago he wrote to the Governor, demanding from him five thousand levs,[3] and threatening, in the event of the money not being paid, to set fire to Jassy and to reach the Governor himself. The five thousand levs were handed over to him!

Such is Kirdjali!

  1. The chief of the Hetairists (Philiké Hetairia), whose object was the liberation of Greece from the Turkish yoke.
  2. Long Turkish daggers.
  3. A lev is worth about ten-pence.

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