The Daughter of the Commandant, by Aleksandr Pushkin

Chapter 10

The Siege.

As we approached Orenburg we saw a crowd of convicts with cropped heads, and faces disfigured by the pincers of the executioner.61

They were working on the fortifications of the place under the pensioners of the garrison. Some were taking away in wheelbarrows the rubbish which filled the ditch; others were hollowing out the earth with spades. Masons were bringing bricks and repairing the walls.

The sentries stopped us at the gates to demand our passports.

When the Sergeant learnt that we came from Fort Bélogorsk he took us direct to the General.

I found him in his garden. He was examining the apple-trees which the breath of autumn had already deprived of their leaves, and, with the help of an old gardener, he was enveloping them in straw. His face expressed calm, good-humour and health.

He seemed very pleased to see me, and began to question me on the terrible events which I had witnessed. I related them.

The old man heard me with attention, and, while listening, cut the dead branches.

“Poor Mironoff!” said he, when I had done my sad story; “’tis a pity! he was a goot officer! And Matame Mironoff, she was a goot lady and first-rate at pickled mushrooms. And what became of Masha, the Captain’s daughter?”

I replied that she had stayed in the fort, at the pope’s house.

“Aïe! aïe! aïe!” said the General. “That’s bad! very bad; it is quite impossible to count on the discipline of robbers.”

I drew his attention to the fact that Fort Bélogorsk was not very far away, and that probably his excellency would not delay dispatching a detachment of troops to deliver the poor inhabitants.

The General shook his head with an air of indecision —

“We shall see! we shall see!” said he, “we have plenty of time to talk about it. I beg you will come and take tea with me. This evening there will be a council of war; you can give us exact information about that rascal Pugatchéf and his army. Now in the meantime go and rest.”

I went away to the lodging that had been assigned me, and where Savéliitch was already installed. There I impatiently awaited the hour fixed.

The reader may well believe I was anxious not to miss this council of war, which was to have so great an influence on my life. I went at the appointed hour to the General’s, where I found one of the civil officials of Orenburg, the head of the Customs, if I recollect right, a little old man, fat and red-faced, dressed in a coat of watered silk.

He began questioning me on the fate of Iván Kouzmitch, whom he called his gossip, and he often interrupted me by many questions and sententious remarks, which if they did not show a man versed in the conduct of war, yet showed that he was possessed of natural wit, and of intelligence. During this time the other guests had assembled. When all were seated, and each one had been offered a cup of tea, the General explained lengthily and minutely what was the affair in hand.

“Now, gentlemen, we must decide how we mean to act against the rebels. Shall it be offensively or defensively? Each way has its disadvantages and its advantages. Offensive warfare offers more hope of the enemy being speedily crushed; but a defensive war is surer and less dangerous. Consequently we will collect the votes according to the proper order, that is to say, begin first consulting the juniors in respect of rank. Now, Mr. Ensign,” continued he, addressing me, “be so good as to give us your opinion.”

I rose, and after having depicted in a few words Pugatchéf and his band, I declared that the usurper was not in a state to resist disciplined troops. My opinion was received by the civil officials with visible discontent.

They saw in it the headstrong impertinence of youth.

A murmur arose, and I distinctly heard said, half-aloud, the words, “Beardless boy.” The General turned towards me, and smilingly said —

“Mr. Ensign, the early votes in a council of war are generally for offensive measures. Now we will proceed. Mr. College Counsellor, tell us your opinion?”

The little old man in the watered silk coat made haste to swallow his third cup of tea, which he had mixed with a good help of rum.

“I think, your excellency,” said he, “we must neither act on the defensive nor yet on the offensive.”

“How so, Mr. Counsellor?” replied the General, astounded. “There is nothing else open to us in tactics — one must act either on the defensive or the offensive.”

“Your excellency, endeavour to suborn.”

“Eh! eh! your opinion is very judicious; the act of corruption is one admitted by the rules of war, and we will profit by your counsel. We might offer for the rascal’s head seventy or even a hundred roubles, and take them from the secret funds.”

“And then,” interrupted the head of the Customs, “I’m a Kirghiz instead of a College Counsellor if these robbers do not deliver up their atáman, chained hand and foot.”

“We will think of it, and talk of it again,” rejoined the General. “Still, in any case, we must also take military measures. Gentlemen, give your votes in proper order.”

Everyone’s opinion was contrary to mine. Those present vied with each other about the untrustworthiness of the troops, the uncertainty of success, the necessity of prudence, and so forth. All were of opinion that it was better to stay behind a strong wall, their safety assured by cannon, than to tempt the fortune of war in the open field.

At last, when all the opinions had been given, the General shook the ashes out of his pipe and made the following speech:—

“Gentlemen, I must tell you, for my part, I am entirely of the opinion of our friend the ensign, for this opinion is based on the precepts of good tactics, in which nearly always offensive movements are preferable to defensive ones.” Here he paused a moment and filled his pipe. My self-love was triumphant, and I cast a proud glance at the civil officials who were whispering among themselves, with an air of disquiet and discontent. “But, gentlemen,” resumed the General, with a sigh, and puffing out a cloud of smoke, “I dare not take upon myself such a great responsibility, when the safety is in question of the provinces entrusted to my care by Her Imperial Majesty, my gracious Sovereign. Therefore I see I am obliged to abide by the advice of the majority, which has ruled that prudence as well as reason declares that we should await in the town the siege which threatens us, and that we should defeat the attacks of the enemy by the force of artillery, and, if the possibility present itself, by well-directed sorties.”

It was now the turn of the officials to look mockingly at me. The council broke up. I could not help deploring the weakness of the honest soldier who, against his own judgment, had decided to abide by the counsel of ignorant and inexperienced people.

Several days after this memorable council of war, Pugatchéf, true to his word, approached Orenburg. From the top of the city wall I took note of the army of the rebels, and it seemed to me that their number had increased tenfold since the last assault I had witnessed. They had also artillery, which had been taken from the little forts which had fallen before Pugatchéf. As I recollected the decision of the council of war, I foresaw a long imprisonment within the walls of Orenburg, and I was ready to cry with vexation.

Far be from me any intention of describing the siege of Orenburg, which belongs to history, and not to a family memoir. In a few words, therefore, I shall say that in consequence of the bad arrangements of the authorities, the siege was disastrous for the inhabitants, who were forced to suffer hunger and privation of all kinds. Life at Orenburg was becoming unendurable; each one awaited in anxiety the fate that should befall him. All complained of the famine, which was, indeed, awful.

The inhabitants ended by becoming accustomed to the shells falling on their houses. Even the assaults of Pugatchéf no longer excited great disturbance. I was dying of ennui. The time passed but slowly. I could not get any letter from Bélogorsk, for all the roads were blocked, and the separation from Marya became unbearable. My only occupation consisted in my military rounds.

Thanks to Pugatchéf, I had a pretty good horse, with which I shared my scanty rations. Every day I passed beyond the ramparts, and I went and fired away against the scouts of Pugatchéf. In these sort of skirmishes the rebels generally got the better of us, as they had plenty of food and were capitally mounted.

Our thin, starved cavalry was unable to stand against them. Sometimes our famished infantry took the field, but the depth of the snow prevented action with any success against the flying cavalry of the enemy. The artillery thundered vainly from the height of the ramparts, and in the field guns could not work because of the weakness of the worn-out horses. This is how we made war, and this is what the officials of Orenburg called prudence and foresight.

One day, when we had succeeded in dispersing and driving before us a rather numerous band, I came up with one of the hindmost Cossacks, and I was about to strike him with my Turkish sabre when he took off his cap and cried —

“Good day, Petr’ Andréjïtch; how is your health?”

I recognized our “ouriadnik.” I cannot say how glad I was to see him.

“Good day, Maximitch,” said I, “is it long since you left Bélogorsk?”

“No, not long, my little father, Petr’ Andréjïtch; I only came back yesterday. I have a letter for you.”

“Where is it?” I cried, overjoyed.

“I have got it,” rejoined Maximitch, putting his hand into his breast. “I promised Palashka to give it to you.”

He handed me a folded paper, and immediately darted off at full gallop. I opened it and read with emotion the following lines —

“It has pleased God to deprive me at once of my father and my mother. I have no longer on earth either parents or protectors. I have recourse to you, because I know you have always wished me well, and also that you are ever ready to help those in need. I pray God this letter may reach you. Maximitch has promised me he will ensure it reaching you. Palashka has also heard Maximitch say that he often sees you from afar in the sorties, and that you do not take care of yourself, nor think of those who pray God for you with tears.

“I was long ill, and when at last I recovered, Alexey Iványtch, who commands here in the room of my late father, forced Father Garasim to hand me over to him by threatening him with Pugatchéf. I live under his guardianship in our house. Alexey Iványtch tries to oblige me to marry him. He avers that he saved my life by not exposing Akoulina Pamphilovna’s stratagem when she spoke of me to the robbers as her niece, but it would be easier to me to die than to become the wife of a man like Chvabrine. He treats me with great cruelty, and threatens, if I do not change my mind, to bring me to the robber camp, where I should suffer the fate of Elizabeth Kharloff.62

“I have begged Alexey Iványtch to give me some time to think it over. He has given me three days; if at the end of that time I do not become his wife I need expect no more consideration at his hands. Oh! my father, Petr’ Andréjïtch, you are my only stay. Defend me, a poor girl. Beg the General and all your superiors to send us help as soon as possible, and come yourself if you can.

“I remain, your submissive orphan,

“MARYA MIRONOFF.”

I almost went mad when I read this letter. I rushed to the town, spurring without pity my poor horse. During the ride I turned over in my mind a thousand projects for rescuing the poor girl without being able to decide on any. Arrived in the town I went straight to the General’s, and I actually ran into his room. He was walking up and down, smoking his meerschaum pipe. Upon seeing me he stood still; my appearance doubtless struck him, for he questioned me with a kind of anxiety on the cause of my abrupt entry.

“Your excellency,” said I, “I come to you as I would to my poor father. Do not reject my request; the happiness of my whole life is in question.”

“What is all this, my father?” asked the astounded General. “What can I do for you? Speak.”

“Your excellency, allow me to take a battalion of soldiers and fifty Cossacks, and go and clear out Fort Bélogorsk.”

The General stared, thinking, probably, that I was out of my senses; and he was not far wrong.

“How? What! what! Clear out Fort Bélogorsk!” he said at last.

“I’ll answer for success!” I rejoined, hotly. “Only let me go.”

“No, young man,” he said, shaking his head; “it is so far away. The enemy would easily block all communication with the principal strategic point, which would quickly enable him to defeat you utterly and decisively. A blocked communication, do you see?”

* * * * *

I took fright when I saw he was getting involved in a military dissertation, and I made haste to interrupt him.

“The daughter of Captain Mironoff,” I said, “has just written me a letter asking for help. Chvabrine is obliging her to become his wife.”

“Indeed! Oh! this Chvabrine is a great rascal. If he falls into my hands I’ll have him tried in twenty-four hours, and we will shoot him on the glacis of the fort. But in the meantime we must have patience.”

“Have patience!” I cried, beside myself. “Between this and then he will ill-treat Marya.”

“Oh!” replied the General. “Still that would not be such a terrible misfortune for her. It would be better for her to be the wife of Chvabrine, who can now protect her. And when we shall have shot him, then, with heaven’s help, the betrothed will come together again. Pretty little widows do not long remain single; I mean to say a widow more easily finds a husband.”

“I’d rather die,” I cried, furiously, “than leave her to Chvabrine.”

“Ah! Bah!” said the old man, “I understand now. Probably you are in love with Marya Ivánofna. Then it is another thing. Poor boy! But still it is not possible for me to give you a battalion and fifty Cossacks. This expedition is unreasonable, and I cannot take it upon my own responsibility.”

I bowed my head; despair overwhelmed me. All at once an idea flashed across me, and what it was the reader will see in the next chapter, as the old novelists used to say.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24