The Daughter of the Commandant, by Aleksandr Pushkin

Chapter 11

The Rebel Camp.

I left the General and made haste to return home.

Savéliitch greeted me with his usual remonstrances —

“What pleasure can you find, sir, in fighting with these drunken robbers? Is it the business of a ’boyár?’ The stars are not always propitious, and you will only get killed for naught. Now if you were making war with Turks or Swedes! But I’m ashamed even to talk of these fellows with whom you are fighting.”

I interrupted his speech.

“How much money have I in all?”

“Quite enough,” replied he, with a complacent and satisfied air. “It was all very well for the rascals to hunt everywhere, but I over-reached them.”

Thus saying he drew from his pocket a long knitted purse, all full of silver pieces.

“Very well, Savéliitch,” said I. “Give me half what you have there, and keep the rest for yourself. I am about to start for Fort Bélogorsk.”

“Oh! my father, Petr’ Andréjïtch,” cried my good follower, in a tremulous voice; “do you not fear God? How do you mean to travel now that all the roads be blocked by the robbers? At least, take pity on your parents if you have none on yourself. Where do you wish to go? Wherefore? Wait a bit, the troops will come and take all the robbers. Then you can go to the four winds.”

My resolution was fixed.

“It is too late to reflect,” I said to the old man. “I must go; it is impossible for me not to go. Do not make yourself wretched, Savéliitch. God is good; we shall perhaps meet again. Mind you be not ashamed to spend my money; do not be a miser. Buy all you have need of, even if you pay three times the value of things. I make you a present of the money if in three days’ time I be not back.”

“What’s that you’re saying, sir?” broke in Savéliitch; “that I shall consent to let you go alone? Why, don’t dream of asking me to do so. If you have resolved to go I will e’en go along with you, were it on foot; but I will not forsake you. That I should stay snugly behind a stone wall! Why, I should be mad! Do as you please, sir, but I do not leave you.”

I well knew it was not possible to contradict Savéliitch, and I allowed him to make ready for our departure.

In half-an-hour I was in the saddle on my horse, and Savéliitch on a thin and lame “garron,” which a townsman had given him for nothing, having no longer anything wherewith to feed it. We gained the town gates; the sentries let us pass, and at last we were out of Orenburg.

Night was beginning to fall. The road I had to follow passed before the little village of Berd, held by Pugatchéf. This road was deep in snow, and nearly hidden; but across the steppe were to be seen tracks of horses each day renewed.

I was trotting. Savéliitch could hardly keep up with me, and cried to me every minute —

“Not so fast, sir, in heaven’s name not so fast! My confounded ‘garron’ cannot catch up your long-legged devil. Why are you in such a hurry? Are we bound to a feast? Rather have we our necks under the axe. Petr’ Andréjïtch! Oh! my father, Petr’ Andréjïtch! Oh, Lord! this ‘boyár’s’ child will die, and all for nothing!”

We soon saw twinkling the fires of Berd. We were approaching the deep ravines which served as natural fortifications to the little settlement. Savéliitch, though keeping up to me tolerably well, did not give over his lamentable supplications. I was hoping to pass safely by this unfriendly place, when all at once I made out in the dark five peasants, armed with big sticks.

It was an advance guard of Pugatchéf’s camp. They shouted to us —

“Who goes there?”

Not knowing the pass-word, I wanted to pass them without reply, but in the same moment they surrounded me, and one of them seized my horse by the bridle. I drew my sword, and struck the peasant on the head. His high cap saved his life; still, he staggered, and let go the bridle. The others were frightened, and jumped aside. Taking advantage of their scare, I put spurs to my horse, and dashed off at full gallop.

The fast increasing darkness of the night might have saved me from any more difficulties, when, looking back, I discovered that Savéliitch was no longer with me. The poor old man with his lame horse had not been able to shake off the robbers. What was I to do?

After waiting a few minutes and becoming certain he had been stopped, I turned my horse’s head to go to his help. As I approached the ravine I heard from afar confused shouts, and the voice of my Savéliitch. Quickening my pace, I soon came up with the peasants of the advance guard who had stopped me a few minutes previously. They had surrounded Savéliitch, and had obliged the poor old man to get off his horse, and were making ready to bind him.

The sight of me filled them with joy. They rushed upon me with shouts, and in a moment I was off my horse. One of them, who appeared to be the leader, told me they were going to take me before the Tzar.

“And our father,” added he, “will decide whether you are to be hung at once or if we are to wait for God’s sunshine!”

I offered no resistance. Savéliitch followed my example, and the sentries led us away in triumph.

We crossed the ravine to enter the settlement. All the peasants’ houses were lit up. All around arose shouts and noise. I met a crowd of people in the street, but no one paid any attention to us, or recognized in me an officer of Orenburg. We were taken to a “izbá,” built in the angle of two streets. Near the door were several barrels of wine and two cannons.

“Here is the palace!” said one of the peasants; “we will go and announce you.”

He entered the “izbá.” I glanced at Savéliitch; the old man was making the sign of the cross, and muttering prayers. We waited a long time. At last the peasant reappeared, and said to me —

“Come, our father has given orders that the officer be brought in.”

I entered the “izbá,” or the palace, as the peasant called it. It was lighted by two tallow candles, and the walls were hung with gold paper. All the rest of the furniture, the benches, the table, the little washstand jug hung to a cord, the towel on a nail, the oven fork standing up in a corner, the wooden shelf laden with earthen pots, all was just as in any other “izbá. Pugatchéf sat beneath the holy pictures in a red caftan and high cap, his hand on his thigh. Around him stood several of his principal chiefs, with a forced expression of submission and respect. It was easy to see that the news of the arrival of an officer from Orenburg had aroused a great curiosity among the rebels, and that they were prepared to receive me in pomp. Pugatchéf recognized me at the first glance. His feigned gravity disappeared at once.

“Ah! it is your lordship,” said he, with liveliness. “How are you? What in heaven’s name brings you here?”

I replied that I had started on a journey on my own business, and that his people had stopped me.

“And on what business?” asked he.

I knew not what to say. Pugatchéf, thinking I did not want to explain myself before witnesses, made a sign to his comrades to go away. All obeyed except two, who did not offer to stir.

“Speak boldly before these,” said Pugatchéf; “hide nothing from them.”

I threw a side glance upon these two confederates of the usurper. One of them, a little old man, meagre and bent, with a scanty grey beard, had nothing remarkable about him, except a broad blue ribbon worn cross-ways over his caftan of thick grey cloth. But I shall never forget his companion. He was tall, powerfully built, and appeared to be about forty-five. A thick red beard, piercing grey eyes, a nose without nostrils, and marks of the hot iron on his forehead and on his cheeks, gave to his broad face, seamed with small-pox, a strange and indefinable expression. He wore a red shirt, a Kirghiz dress, and wide Cossack trousers. The first, as I afterwards learnt, was the deserter, Corporal Béloborodoff. The other, Athanasius Sokoloff, nicknamed Khlopúsha,63 was a criminal condemned to the mines of Siberia, whence he had escaped three times. In spite of the feelings which then agitated me, this company wherein I was thus unexpectedly thrown greatly impressed me. But Pugatchéf soon recalled me to myself by his question.

“Speak! On what business did you leave Orenburg?”

A strange idea occurred to me. It seemed to me that Providence, in bringing me a second time before Pugatchéf, opened to me a way of executing my project. I resolved to seize the opportunity, and, without considering any longer what course I should pursue, I replied to Pugatchéf —

“I was going to Fort Bélogorsk, to deliver there an orphan who is being oppressed.”

Pugatchéf’s eyes flashed.

“Who among my people would dare to harm an orphan?” cried he. “Were he ever so brazen-faced, he should never escape my vengeance! Speak, who is the guilty one?”

“Chvabrine,” replied I; “he keeps in durance the same young girl whom you saw with the priest’s wife, and he wants to force her to become his wife.”

“I’ll give him a lesson, Master Chvabrine!” cried Pugatchéf, with a fierce air. “He shall learn what it is to do as he pleases under me, and to oppress my people. I’ll hang him.”

“Bid me speak a word,” broke in Khlopúsha, in a hoarse voice. “You were too hasty in giving Chvabrine command of the fort, and now you are too hasty in hanging him. You have already offended the Cossacks by giving them a gentleman as leader — do not, therefore, now affront the gentlemen by executing them on the first accusation.”

“They need neither be overwhelmed with favours nor be pitied,” the little old man with the blue ribbon now said, in his turn. “There would be no harm in hanging Chvabrine, neither would there be any harm in cross-examining this officer. Why has he deigned to pay us a visit? If he do not recognize you as Tzar, he needs not to ask justice of you; if, on the other hand, he do recognize you, wherefore, then, has he stayed in Orenburg until now, in the midst of your enemies. Will you order that he be tried by fire?64 It would appear that his lordship is sent to us by the Generals in Orenburg.”

The logic of the old rascal appeared plausible even to me. An involuntary shudder thrilled through me as I remembered in whose hands I was.

Pugatchéf saw my disquiet.

“Eh, eh! your lordship,” said he, winking, “it appears to me my field-marshal is right. What do you think of it?”

The banter of Pugatchéf in some measure restored me to myself.

I quietly replied that I was in his power, and that he could do with me as he listed.

“Very well,” said Pugatchéf; “now tell me in what state is your town?”

“Thank God,” replied I, “all is in good order.”

“In good order!” repeated Pugatchéf, “and the people are dying of hunger there.”

The usurper spoke truth; but, according to the duty imposed on me by my oath, I assured him it was a false report, and that Orenburg was amply victualled.

“You see,” cried the little old man, “that he is deceiving you. All the deserters are unanimous in declaring famine and plague are in Orenburg, that they are eating carrion there as a dish of honour. And his lordship assures us there is abundance of all. If you wish to hang Chvabrine, hang on the same gallows this lad, so that they need have naught wherewith to reproach each other.”

The words of the confounded old man seemed to have shaken Pugatchéf.

Happily, Khlopúsha began to contradict his companion.

“Hold your tongue, Naúmitch,” said he; “you only think of hanging and strangling. It certainly suits you well to play the hero. Already you have one foot in the grave, and you want to kill others. Have you not enough blood on your conscience?”

“But are you a saint yourself?” retorted Béloborodoff. “Wherefore, then, this pity?”

“Without doubt,” replied Khlopúsha, “I am also a sinner, and this hand” (he closed his bony fist, and turning back his sleeve displayed his hairy arm), “and this hand is guilty of having shed Christian blood. But I killed my enemy, and not my host, on the free highway and in the dark wood, but not in the house, and behind the stove with axe and club, neither with old women’s gossip.”

The old man averted his head, and muttered between his teeth —

“Branded!”

“What are you muttering there, old owl?” rejoined Khlopúsha. “I’ll brand you! Wait a bit, your turn will come. By heaven, I hope some day you may smell the hot pincers, and till then have a care that I do not tear out your ugly beard.”

“Gentlemen,” said Pugatchéf, with dignity, “stop quarrelling. It would not be a great misfortune if all the mangy curs of Orenburg dangled their legs beneath the same cross-bar, but it would be a pity if our good dogs took to biting each other.”

Khlopúsha and Béloborodoff said nothing, and exchanged black looks.

I felt it was necessary to change the subject of the interview, which might end in a very disagreeable manner for me. Turning toward Pugatchéf, I said to him, smiling —

“Ah! I had forgotten to thank you for your horse and ‘touloup.’ Had it not been for you, I should never have reached the town, for I should have died of cold on the journey.”

My stratagem succeeded. Pugatchéf became good-humoured.

“The beauty of a debt is the payment!” said he, with his usual wink. “Now, tell me the whole story. What have you to do with this young girl whom Chvabrine is persecuting? Has she not hooked your young affections, eh?”

“She is my betrothed,” I replied, as I observed the favourable change taking place in Pugatchéf, and seeing no risk in telling him the truth.

“Your betrothed!” cried Pugatchéf. “Why didn’t you tell me before? We will marry you, and have a fine junket at your wedding.” Then, turning to Béloborodoff, “Listen, field-marshal,” said he, “we are old friends, his lordship and me; let us sit down to supper. To-morrow we will see what is to be done with him; one’s brains are clearer in the morning than by night.”

I should willingly have refused the proposed honour, but I could not get out of it. Two young Cossack girls, children of the master of the “izbá,” laid the table with a white cloth, brought bread, fish, soup, and big jugs of wine and beer.

Thus for the second time I found myself at the table of Pugatchéf and his terrible companions. The orgy of which I became the involuntary witness went on till far into the night.

At last drunkenness overcame the guests; Pugatchéf fell asleep in his place, and his companions rose, making me a sign to leave him.

I went out with them. By the order of Khlopúsha the sentry took me to the lockup, where I found Savéliitch, and I was left alone with him under lock and key.

My retainer was so astounded by the turn affairs had taken that he did not address a single question to me. He lay down in the dark, and for a long while I heard him moan and lament. At last, however, he began to snore, and as for me, I gave myself up to thoughts which did not allow me to close my eyes for a moment all night.

On the morrow morning Pugatchéf sent someone to call me.

I went to his house. Before his door stood a “kibitka” with three Tartar horses. The crowd filled the street. Pugatchéf, whom I met in the ante-room, was dressed in a travelling suit, a pelisse and Kirghiz cap. His guests of yesterday evening surrounded him, and wore a submissive air, which contrasted strongly with what I had witnessed the previous evening.

Pugatchéf gaily bid me “good morning,” and ordered me to seat myself beside him in the “kibitka.” We took our places.

“To Fort Bélogorsk!” said Pugatchéf to the robust Tartar driver, who standing guided the team. My heart beat violently.

The horses dashed forward, the little bell tinkled, the “kibitka,” bounded across the snow.

“Stop! stop!” cried a voice which I knew but too well; and I saw Savéliitch running towards us. Pugatchéf bid the man stop.

“Oh! my father, Petr’ Andréjïtch,” cried my follower, “don’t forsake me in my old age among the rob —”

“Aha! old owl!” said Pugatchéf, “so God again brings us together. Here, seat yourself in front.”

“Thanks, Tzar, thanks my own father,” replied Savéliitch, taking his seat. “May God give you a hundred years of life for having reassured a poor old man. I shall pray God all my life for you, and I’ll never talk about the hareskin ‘touloup.’”

This hareskin “touloup” might end at last by making Pugatchéf seriously angry. But the usurper either did not hear or pretended not to hear this ill-judged remark. The horses again galloped.

The people stopped in the street, and each one saluted us, bowing low. Pugatchéf bent his head right and left.

In a moment we were out of the village and were taking our course over a well-marked road. What I felt may be easily imagined. In a few hours I should see again her whom I had thought lost to me for ever. I imagined to myself the moment of our reunion, but I also thought of the man in whose hands lay my destiny, and whom a strange concourse of events bound to me by a mysterious link.

I recalled the rough cruelty and bloody habits of him who was disposed to prove the defender of my love. Pugatchéf did not know she was the daughter of Captain Mironoff; Chvabrine, driven to bay, was capable of telling him all, and Pugatchéf might learn the truth in other ways. Then, what would become of Marya? At this thought a shudder ran through my body, and my hair seemed to stand on end.

All at once Pugatchéf broke upon my reflections.

“What does your lordship,” said he, “deign to think about?”

“How can you expect me to be thinking?” replied I. “I am an officer and a gentleman; but yesterday I was waging war with you, and now I am travelling with you in the same carriage, and the whole happiness of my life depends on you.”

“What,” said Pugatchéf, “are you afraid?”

I made reply that having already received my life at his hands, I trusted not merely in his good nature but in his help.

“And you are right —‘fore God, you are right,” resumed the usurper; “you saw that my merry men looked askance at you. Even today the little old man wanted to prove indubitably to me that you were a spy, and should be put to the torture and hung. But I would not agree,” added he, lowering his voice, lest Savéliitch and the Tartar should hear him, “because I bore in mind your glass of wine and your ‘touloup.’ You see clearly that I am not bloodthirsty, as your comrades would make out.”

Remembering the taking of Fort Bélogorsk, I did not think wise to contradict him, and I said nothing.

“What do they say of me in Orenburg?” asked Pugatchéf, after a short silence.

“Well, it is said that you are not easy to get the better of. You will agree we have had our hands full with you.”

The face of the usurper expressed the satisfaction of self-love.

“Yes,” said he, with a glorious air, “I am a great warrior. Do they know in Orenburg of the battle of Jouzeïff?65 Forty Generals were killed, four armies made prisoners. Do you think the King of Prussia is about my strength?”

This boasting of the robber rather amused me.

“What do you think yourself?” I said to him. “Could you beat Frederick?”

“Fédor Fédorovitch,66 eh! why not? I can beat your Generals, and your Generals have beaten him. Until now my arms have been victorious. Wait a bit — only wait a bit — you’ll see something when I shall march on Moscow?”

“And you are thinking of marching on Moscow?”

The usurper appeared to reflect. Then he said, half-aloud —

“God knows my way is straight. I have little freedom of action. My fellows don’t obey me — they are marauders. I have to keep a sharp look out — at the first reverse they would save their necks with my head.”

“Well,” I said to Pugatchéf, “would it not be better to forsake them yourself, ere it be too late, and throw yourself on the mercy of the Tzarina?”

Pugatchéf smiled bitterly.

“No,” said he, “the day of repentance is past and gone; they will not give me grace. I must go on as I have begun. Who knows? It may be. Grischka Otrépieff certainly became Tzar at Moscow.”

“But do you know his end? He was cast out of a window, he was massacred, burnt, and his ashes blown abroad at the cannon’s mouth, to the four winds of heaven.”

The Tartar began to hum a plaintive song; Savéliitch, fast asleep, oscillated from one side to the other. Our “kibitka” was passing quickly over the wintry road. All at once I saw a little village I knew well, with a palisade and a belfry, on the rugged bank of the Yaïk. A quarter of an hour afterwards we were entering Fort Bélogorsk.

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