Poltáva - extract from my translation


Execution scene, from Second Canto, pages 216-7

        Colourful helmets; gleaming lances; drums beating; guardsmen galloping; battalions forming; crowds seething; hearts thumping; a road thronged with people, rippling like the tail of a snake…  In the middle of a field stood the scaffold of death.  On it the executioner strutted jauntily, eager for the arrival of his victim, now lifting the great axe playfully in his white hands, now trading jokes with the cheerful rabble.  There was a jumbled hubbub of voices – women shrieking, people quarrelling, laughing, complaining.  Suddenly a shout rang out, and everything fell quiet.  Only the sound of horses’ hooves could be heard in the awesome silence.  The hetman, encircled by guards, attended by councillors, was cantering up on his raven-black mount. 

        From another side, on the Kiev road, a waggon was trundling.  A stir ran through the crowd, and all eyes turned towards it.  In the waggon sat Kochubéy, conscious of his innocence, at peace now with heaven and the world, fortified by his potent faith; and with him Iskra, calm and unconcerned, like a lamb for the slaughter, obedient to its fate.  The waggon stopped.  The thunderous voices of a choir intoned a solemn prayer.  The smoke of incense rose from the censers.  The crowd prayed silently that the souls of the condemned might have repose; and those who were to die prayed for their enemies.  Then the two men stepped forward and climbed the scaffold.  Kochubéy crossed himself and lay down upon the block.  The multitude stood silent, as though in a sepulchre.  The axe flashed as it fell, and the head bounced away.  The whole field gasped.  The second head rolled after the first, blinking.  The grass was reddened with blood – and the executioner, taking inner pleasure in his mischief, seized them both by the forelock and shook them with outstretched hand over the crowd.

        The execution was over.  Nonchalantly people dispersed and wandered homewards, chattering now about their everyday chores.  Gradually the field emptied.  Then across the busy thoroughfare ran two women, exhausted and covered with dust.  It seemed that they were hurrying in terror to the place of execution.  ‘Too late,’ someone said to them and pointed to the field, where a scaffold was being dismantled, a black-robed priest was praying, and two cossacks were lifting an oaken coffin onto a cart…