THE OLD COUNT, whose hunting establishment had always been kept up on a large scale, had now handed it all over to his son's care, but on that day, the 15th of September, being in excellent spirits he prepared to join the expedition. Within an hour the whole party was before the porch. When Natasha and Petya said something to Nikolay he walked by them with a stern and serious air, betokening that he had no time to waste on trifles. He looked over everything to do with the hunt, sent a pack of hounds and huntsmen on ahead to cut off the wolf from behind, got on his chestnut Don horse, and whistling to the dogs of his leash, he set off across the threshing-floor to the field leading to the Otradnoe preserve. The old count's horse, a sorrel gelding, with a white mane and tail, called Viflyanka, was led by the count's groom; he was himself to drive straight in a light gig to the spot fixed for him to stand.
Fifty-four hounds were led out under the charge of six whippers-in and grooms. Of huntsmen, properly speaking, there were taking part in the hunt eight men besides the members of the family, and more than forty greyhounds ran behind them, so that with the hounds in leashes there were about a hundred and thirty dogs and twenty persons on horseback.
Every dog knew its master and its call. Every man in the hunt knew his task, his place, and the part assigned him. As soon as they had passed beyond the fence, they all moved without noise or talk, lengthening out along the road and the field to the Otradnoe forest.
The horses stepped over the field as over a soft carpet, splashing now and then into pools as they crossed the road. The foggy sky still seemed falling imperceptibly and regularly down on the earth; the air was still and warm, and there was no sound but now and then the whistle of a huntsman, the snort of a horse, the clack of a whip, or the whine of a dog who had dropped out of his place. When they had gone a verst, five more horsemen accompanied by dogs appeared out of the mist to meet the Rostovs. The foremost of them was a fresh, handsome old man with large, grey moustaches.
“Good-day, uncle,” said Nikolay as the old man rode up to him.
“All's well and march!…I was sure of it,” began the man addressed as uncle. He was not really the Rostovs' uncle, but a distant relative, who had a small property in their neighbourhood.
‘I was sure you couldn't resist, and a good thing you have come out. All's well and quick march.” (This was the uncle's favorite saying.) “You had better attack the preserve at once, for my Girtchilk brought me word that the Ilagins are out with their hounds at Korniky; they'll snatch the litter right under your noses.”
“That's where I'm going. Shall we join the packs?” asked Nikolay.
The hounds were joined into one pack, and the uncle and Nikolay rode on side by side.
Natasha, muffled up in a shawl which did not hide her eager face and shining eyes, galloped up to them, accompanied by Petya, who kept beside her, and Mihailo, the huntsman and groom, who had been told to look after her. Petya was laughing and switching and pulling his horse. Natasha sat her raven Arabtchick with grace and confidence and controlled him with an easy and steady hand.
The uncle looked with disapproval at Petya and Natasha. He did not like a mixture of frivolity with the serious business of the hunt.
“Good-day, uncle; we're coming to the hunt too!” shouted Petya.
“Good-day, good-day, and mind you don't ride down the dogs,” said the uncle sternly.
“Nikolenka, what a delightful dog Trunila is! he knew me,” said Natasha of her favourite dog.
“In the first place, Trunila's not a dog, but a wolf-hound,” thought Nikolay. He glanced at his sister trying to make her feel the distance that lay between them at that moment. Natasha understood it.
“Don't imagine we shall get in anybody's way, uncle,” said Natasha.
“We'll stay in our right place and not stir from it.”
“And you'll do well, little countess,” said the uncle. “Only don't fall off your horse,” he added, “or you'd never get on again—all's well, quick march!”
The Otradnoe preserve came into sight, an oasis of greenness, two hundred and fifty yards away. Rostov, settling finally with the uncle from what point to set the dogs on, pointed out to Natasha the place where she was to stand, a place where there was no chance of anything running out, and went round to close in from behind above the ravine.
“Now, nephew, you're on the track of an old wolf,” said the uncle; “mind he doesn't give you the slip.”
“That's as it happens,” answered Rostov. “Karay, hey!” he shouted, replying to the uncle's warning by this call to his dog. Karay was an old, misshapen, muddy-coloured hound, famous for attacking an old wolf unaided. All took their places.
The old count, who knew his son's ardour in the hunt, hurried to avoid being late, and the whippers-in had hardly reached the place when Count Ilya Andreitch, with a cheerful face, and flushed and quivering cheeks, drove up with his pair of raven horses, over the green field to the place left for him. Straightening his fur coat and putting on his hunting appurtenances, he mounted his sleek, well-fed, quiet, good-humoured Viflyanka, who was turning grey like himself. The horses with the gig were sent back. Count Ilya Andreitch, though he was at heart no sportsman, knew well all the rules of sport. He rode into the edge of the thicket of bushes, behind which he was standing, picked up the reins, settled himself at his ease in the saddle, and, feeling that he was ready, looked about him smiling.
Near him stood his valet, Semyon Tchekmar, a veteran horseman, though now heavy in the saddle. Tchekmar held on a leash three wolfhounds of a special breed, spirited hounds, though they too had grown fat like their master and his horse. Two other keen old dogs were lying beside them not in a leash. A hundred paces further in the edge of the copse stood another groom of the count's, Mitka, a reckless rider and passionate sportsman. The count had followed the old custom of drinking before hunting a silver goblet of spiced brandy; he had had a slight lunch and after that half a bottle of his favourite bordeaux.
Count Ilya Andreitch was rather flushed from the wine and the drive; his eyes, covered by moisture, were particularly bright, and sitting in the saddle wrapped up in his fur coat, he looked like a baby taken out for a drive.
After seeing after his duties, Tchekmar, with his thin face and sunken cheeks, looked towards his master, with whom he had lived on the best of terms for thirty years. Perceiving that he was in a genial humour, he anticipated a pleasant chat. A third person rode circumspectly—he had no doubt been cautioned—out of the wood, and stood still behind the count. This personage was a grey-bearded old man, wearing a woman's gown and a high, peaked cap. It was the buffoon, Nastasya Ivanovna.
“Well, Nastasya Ivanovna,” whispered the count, winking at him, “you only scare off the game, and Danilo will give it you.”
“I wasn't born yesterday,” said Nastasya Ivanovna.
“Sh!” hissed the count, and he turned to Semyon. “Have you seen Natalya Ilyinitchna?” he asked Semyon. “Where is she?”
“Her honour's with Pyotr Ilyitch, behind the high grass at Zharvry,” answered Semyon, smiling. “Though she is a lady, she has a great love for the chase.”
“And you wonder at her riding, Semyon,…eh?” said the count, “for a man even it wouldn't be amiss!”
“Who wouldn't wonder! So daring, so smart!”
“And where's Nikolasha? Above the Lyadovsky upland, eh?” the count asked still in a whisper.
“Yes, sir. His honour knows where he had best stand. He knows the ins and outs of hunting, so that Danilo and I are sometimes quite astonished at him,” said Semyon, who knew how to please his master.
“He's a good, clever sportsman, eh? And what do you say to his riding, eh?”
“A perfect picture he is! How he drove the fox out of the Zavarzinsky thicket the other day. He galloped down from the ravine, it was a sight—the horse worth a thousand roubles, and the rider beyond all price. Yes, you would have to look a long while to find his match!”
“To look a long while…” repeated the count, obviously regretting that Semyon's praises had come to so speedy a termination. “A long while,” he repeated, turning back the skirt of his coat and looking for his snuff-box.
“The other day they were coming out from Mass in all their glory, Mihail Sidoritch…” Semyon stopped short, hearing distinctly in the still air the rush of the hounds, with no more than two or three dogs giving tongue. With his head on one side, he listened, shaking a warning finger at his master. “They're on the scent of the litter…” he whispered; “they have gone straight toward Lyadovsky upland.”
The count, with a smile still lingering on his face, looked straight before him along the path, and did not take a pinch from the snuff-box he held in his hand. The hounds' cry was followed by the bass note of the hunting cry for a wolf sounded on Danilo's horn. The pack joined the first three dogs, and the voices of the hounds could be heard in full cry with the peculiar note which serves to betoken that they are after a wolf. The whippers-in were not now hallooing, but urging on the hounds with cries of “Loo! loo! loo!” and above all the voices rose the voice of Danilo, passing from a deep note to piercing shrillness. Danilo's voice seemed to fill the whole forest, to pierce beyond it, and echo far away in the open country.
After listening for a few seconds in silence, the count and his groom felt certain that the hounds had divided into two packs: one, the larger, was going off into the distance, in particularly hot cry; the other part of the pack was moving along the forest past the count, and it was with this pack that Danilo's voice was heard urging the dogs on. The sounds from both packs melted into unison and broke apart again, but both were getting further away. Semyon sighed and stooped down to straighten the leash, in which a young dog had caught his leg. The count too sighed, and noticing the snuff-box in his hand, he opened it and took a pinch.
“Back!” cried Semyon to the dog, which had poked out beyond the bushes. The count started, and dropped the snuff-box. Nastasya Ivanovna got off his horse and began picking it up.
The count and Semyon watched him. All of a sudden, as so often happens, the sound of the hunt was in an instant close at hand, as though the baying dogs and Danilo's cries were just upon them.
The count looked round, and on the right he saw Mitka, who was staring at the count with eyes starting out of his head. Lifting his cap, he pointed in front to the other side.
“Look out!” he shouted in a voice that showed the words had long been fretting him to be uttered. And letting go the dogs, he galloped towards the count.
The count and Semyon galloped out of the bushes, and on their left they saw a wolf. With a soft, rolling gait it moved at a slow amble further to their left into the very thicket in which they had been standing. The angry dogs whined, and pulling themselves free from the leash, flew by the horses' hoofs after the wolf.
The wolf paused in his flight; awkwardly, like a man with a quinsy, he turned his heavy-browed head towards the dogs, and still with the same soft, rolling gait gave one bound and a second, and, waving its tail, disappeared into the bushes. At the same instant, with a cry like a wail, there sprang desperately out of the thicket opposite one hound, then a second and a third, and all the pack flew across the open ground towards the very spot where the wolf had vanished. The bushes were parted behind the dogs, and Danilo's brown horse, dark with sweat, emerged from them. On its long back Danilo sat perched up and swaying forward. He had no cap on his grey hair, that fluttered in disorder above his red, perspiring face.
“Loo! loo! loo!…” he was shouting. When he caught sight of the count, there was a flash like lightning in his eyes.
“B—!” he shouted, using a brutally coarse term of abuse and menacing the count with his lifted whip. “Let the wolf slip!…sportsmen indeed!” And as though scorning to waste more words on the confused and frightened count, he lashed the moist and heavy sides of his brown gelding with all the fury that had been ready for the count, and flew off after the dogs. The count stood like a man who has been thrashed, looking about him and trying to smile and call for Semyon to sympathise with his plight. But Semyon was not there; he had galloped round to cut the wolf off from the forest. The greyhounds, too, were running to and fro on both sides. But the wolf got off into the bushes, and not one of the party succeeded in coming across him.