Vassenka drove the horses so smartly that they reached the marsh too early, while it was still hot.
As they drew near this more important marsh, the chief aim of their expedition, Levin could not help considering how he could get rid of Vassenka and be free in his movements. Stepan Arkadyevitch evidently had the same desire, and on his face Levin saw the look of anxiety always present in a true sportsman when beginning shooting, together with a certain good-humored slyness peculiar to him.
“How shall we go? It’s a splendid marsh, I see, and there are hawks,” said Stepan Arkadyevitch, pointing to two great birds hovering over the reeds. “Where there are hawks, there is sure to be game.”
“Now, gentlemen,” said Levin, pulling up his boots and examining the lock of his gun with rather a gloomy expression, “do you see those reeds?” He pointed to an oasis of blackish green in the huge half-mown wet meadow that stretched along the right bank of the river. “The marsh begins here, straight in front of us, do you see—where it is greener? From here it runs to the right where the horses are; there are breeding places there, and grouse, and all round those reeds as far as that alder, and right up to the mill. Over there, do you see, where the pools are? That’s the best place. There I once shot seventeen snipe. We’ll separate with the dogs and go in different directions, and then meet over there at the mill.”
“Well, which shall go to left and which to right?” asked Stepan Arkadyevitch. “It’s wider to the right; you two go that way and I’ll take the left,” he said with apparent carelessness.
“Capital! we’ll make the bigger bag! Yes, come along, come along!” Vassenka exclaimed.
Levin could do nothing but agree, and they divided.
As soon as they entered the marsh, the two dogs began hunting about together and made towards the green, slime-covered pool. Levin knew Laska’s method, wary and indefinite; he knew the place too and expected a whole covey of snipe.
“Veslovsky, beside me, walk beside me!” he said in a faint voice to his companion splashing in the water behind him. Levin could not help feeling an interest in the direction his gun was pointed, after that casual shot near the Kolpensky marsh.
“Oh, I won’t get in your way, don’t trouble about me.”
But Levin could not help troubling, and recalled Kitty’s words at parting: “Mind you don’t shoot one another.” The dogs came nearer and nearer, passed each other, each pursuing its own scent. The expectation of snipe was so intense that to Levin the squelching sound of his own heel, as he drew it up out of the mire, seemed to be the call of a snipe, and he clutched and pressed the lock of his gun.
“Bang! bang!” sounded almost in his ear. Vassenka had fired at a flock of ducks which was hovering over the marsh and flying at that moment towards the sportsmen, far out of range. Before Levin had time to look round, there was the whir of one snipe, another, a third, and some eight more rose one after another.
Stepan Arkadyevitch hit one at the very moment when it was beginning its zigzag movements, and the snipe fell in a heap into the mud. Oblonsky aimed deliberately at another, still flying low in the reeds, and together with the report of the shot, that snipe too fell, and it could be seen fluttering out where the sedge had been cut, its unhurt wing showing white beneath.
Levin was not so lucky: he aimed at his first bird too low, and missed; he aimed at it again, just as it was rising, but at that instant another snipe flew up at his very feet, distracting him so that he missed again.
While they were loading their guns, another snipe rose, and Veslovsky, who had had time to load again, sent two charges of small-shot into the water. Stepan Arkadyevitch picked up his snipe, and with sparkling eyes looked at Levin.
“Well, now let us separate,” said Stepan Arkadyevitch, and limping on his left foot, holding his gun in readiness and whistling to his dog, he walked off in one direction. Levin and Veslovsky walked in the other.
It always happened with Levin that when his first shots were a failure he got hot and out of temper, and shot badly the whole day. So it was that day. The snipe showed themselves in numbers. They kept flying up from just under the dogs, from under the sportsmen’s legs, and Levin might have retrieved his ill luck. But the more he shot, the more he felt disgraced in the eyes of Veslovsky, who kept popping away merrily and indiscriminately, killing nothing, and not in the slightest abashed by his ill success. Levin, in feverish haste, could not restrain himself, got more and more out of temper, and ended by shooting almost without a hope of hitting. Laska, indeed, seemed to understand this. She began looking more languidly, and gazed back at the sportsmen, as it were, with perplexity or reproach in her eyes. Shots followed shots in rapid succession. The smoke of the powder hung about the sportsmen, while in the great roomy net of the game bag there were only three light little snipe. And of these one had been killed by Veslovsky alone, and one by both of them together. Meanwhile from the other side of the marsh came the sound of Stepan Arkadyevitch’s shots, not frequent, but, as Levin fancied, well-directed, for almost after each they heard “Krak, Krak, apporte!”
This excited Levin still more. The snipe were floating continually in the air over the reeds. Their whirring wings close to the earth, and their harsh cries high in the air, could be heard on all sides; the snipe that had risen first and flown up into the air, settled again before the sportsmen. Instead of two hawks there were now dozens of them hovering with shrill cries over the marsh.
After walking through the larger half of the marsh, Levin and Veslovsky reached the place where the peasants’ mowing-grass was divided into long strips reaching to the reeds, marked off in one place by the trampled grass, in another by a path mown through it. Half of these strips had already been mown.
Though there was not so much hope of finding birds in the uncut part as the cut part, Levin had promised Stepan Arkadyevitch to meet him, and so he walked on with his companion through the cut and uncut patches.
“Hi, sportsmen!” shouted one of a group of peasants, sitting on an unharnessed cart; “come and have some lunch with us! Have a drop of wine!”
Levin looked round.
“Come along, it’s all right!” shouted a good-humored-looking bearded peasant with a red face, showing his white teeth in a grin, and holding up a greenish bottle that flashed in the sunlight.
“Qu’est-ce qu’ils disent?” asked Veslovsky.
“They invite you to have some vodka. Most likely they’ve been dividing the meadow into lots. I should have some,” said Levin, not without some guile, hoping Veslovsky would be tempted by the vodka, and would go away to them.
“Why do they offer it?”
“Oh, they’re merry-making. Really, you should join them. You would be interested.”
“Allons, c’est curieux.”
“You go, you go, you’ll find the way to the mill!” cried Levin, and looking round he perceived with satisfaction that Veslovsky, bent and stumbling with weariness, holding his gun out at arm’s length, was making his way out of the marsh towards the peasants.
“You come too!” the peasants shouted to Levin. “Never fear! You taste our cake!”
Levin felt a strong inclination to drink a little vodka and to eat some bread. He was exhausted, and felt it a great effort to drag his staggering legs out of the mire, and for a minute he hesitated. But Laska was setting. And immediately all his weariness vanished, and he walked lightly through the swamp towards the dog. A snipe flew up at his feet; he fired and killed it. Laska still pointed.—“Fetch it!” Another bird flew up close to the dog. Levin fired. But it was an unlucky day for him; he missed it, and when he went to look for the one he had shot, he could not find that either. He wandered all about the reeds, but Laska did not believe he had shot it, and when he sent her to find it, she pretended to hunt for it, but did not really. And in the absence of Vassenka, on whom Levin threw the blame of his failure, things went no better. There were plenty of snipe still, but Levin made one miss after another.
The slanting rays of the sun were still hot; his clothes, soaked through with perspiration, stuck to his body; his left boot full of water weighed heavily on his leg and squeaked at every step; the sweat ran in drops down his powder-grimed face, his mouth was full of the bitter taste, his nose of the smell of powder and stagnant water, his ears were ringing with the incessant whir of the snipe; he could not touch the stock of his gun, it was so hot; his heart beat with short, rapid throbs; his hands shook with excitement, and his weary legs stumbled and staggered over the hillocks and in the swamp, but still he walked on and still he shot. At last, after a disgraceful miss, he flung his gun and his hat on the ground.
“No, I must control myself,” he said to himself. Picking up his gun and his hat, he called Laska, and went out of the swamp. When he got on to dry ground he sat down, pulled off his boot and emptied it, then walked to the marsh, drank some stagnant-tasting water, moistened his burning hot gun, and washed his face and hands. Feeling refreshed, he went back to the spot where a snipe had settled, firmly resolved to keep cool.
He tried to be calm, but it was the same again. His finger pressed the cock before he had taken a good aim at the bird. It got worse and worse.
He had only five birds in his game-bag when he walked out of the marsh towards the alders where he was to rejoin Stepan Arkadyevitch.
Before he caught sight of Stepan Arkadyevitch he saw his dog. Krak darted out from behind the twisted root of an alder, black all over with the stinking mire of the marsh, and with the air of a conqueror sniffed at Laska. Behind Krak there came into view in the shade of the alder tree the shapely figure of Stepan Arkadyevitch. He came to meet him, red and perspiring, with unbuttoned neckband, still limping in the same way.
“Well? You have been popping away!” he said, smiling good-humoredly.
“How have you got on?” queried Levin. But there was no need to ask, for he had already seen the full game bag.
“Oh, pretty fair.”
He had fourteen birds.
“A splendid marsh! I’ve no doubt Veslovsky got in your way. It’s awkward too, shooting with one dog,” said Stepan Arkadyevitch, to soften his triumph.