The Daughter of the Commandant, by Aleksandr Pushkin

Chapter 8

The Unexpected Visit.

The square remained empty. I stood in the same place, unable to collect my thoughts, disturbed by so many terrible events.

My uncertainty about Marya Ivánofna’s fate tormented me more than I can say. Where was she? What had become of her? Had she had time to hide herself? Was her place of refuge safe and sure? Full of these oppressive thoughts, I went to the Commandant’s house. All was empty. The chairs, the tables, the presses were burned, and the crockery in bits; the place was in dreadful disorder. I quickly ran up the little stair which led to Marya’s room, where I was about to enter for the first time in my life.

Her bed was topsy-turvy, the press open and ransacked. A lamp still burned before the “kivott56 equally empty; but a small looking-glass hanging between the door and window had not been taken away. What had become of the inmate of this simple maiden’s cell? A terrible apprehension crossed my mind. I thought of Marya in the hands of the robbers. My heart failed me; I burst into tears and murmured the name of my loved one. At this moment I heard a slight noise, and Polashka, very pale, came out from behind the press.

“Oh, Petr’ Andréjïtch,” said she, wringing her hands; “what a day, what horrors!”

“Marya Ivánofna,” cried I, impatiently, “where is Marya Ivánofna?”

“The young lady is alive,” replied Polashka; “she is hidden at Akoulina Pamphilovna’s.”

“In the pope’s house!” I exclaimed, affrighted. “Good God! Pugatchéf is there!”

I rushed out of the room, in two jumps I was in the street and running wildly towards the pope’s house. From within there resounded songs, shouts, and bursts of laughter; Pugatchéf was at the table with his companions. Polashka had followed me; I sent her secretly to call aside Akoulina Pamphilovna. The next minute the pope’s wife came out into the ante-room, an empty bottle in her hand.

“In heaven’s name where is Marya Ivánofna?” I asked, with indescribable agitation.

“She is in bed, the little dove,” replied the pope’s wife, “in my bed, behind the partition. Ah! Petr’ Andréjïtch, a misfortune very nearly happened. But, thank God, all has passed happily over. The villain had scarcely sat down to table before the poor darling began to moan. I nearly died of fright. He heard her.”

“‘Who is that moaning, old woman?’ said he.

“I saluted the robber down to the ground.

“‘My niece, Tzar; she has been ill and in bed for more than a week.’

“‘And your niece, is she young?’

“‘She is young, Tzar.’

“‘Let us see, old woman; show me your niece.’

“I felt my heart fail me; but what could I do?

“‘Very well, Tzar; but the girl is not strong enough to rise and come before your grace.’

“‘That’s nothing, old woman; I’ll go myself and see her.’

“And, would you believe it, the rascal actually went behind the partition. He drew aside the curtain, looked at her with his hawk’s eyes, and nothing more; God helped us. You may believe me when I say the father and I were already prepared to die the death of martyrs. Luckily the little dove did not recognize him. O, Lord God! what have we lived to see! Poor Iván Kouzmitch! who would have thought it! And Vassilissa Igorofna and Iwán Ignatiitch! Why him too? And you, how came it that you were spared? And what do you think of Chvabrine, of Alexy Iványtch? He has cut his hair short, and he is there having a spree with them. He is a sly fox, you’ll agree. And when I spoke of my sick niece, would you believe it, he looked at me as if he would like to run me through with his knife. Still, he did not betray us, and I’m thankful to him for that!”

At this moment up rose the vinous shouts of the guests and the voice of Father Garasim. The guests wanted more wine, and the pope was calling his wife.

“Go home, Petr’ Andréjïtch,” she said to me, in great agitation, “I have something else to do than chatter to you. Some ill will befall you if you come across any of them now. Good-bye, Petr’ Andréjïtch. What must be, must be; and it may be God will not forsake us.”

The pope’s wife went in; a little relieved, I returned to my quarters. Crossing the square I saw several Bashkirs crowding round the gallows in order to tear off the high boots of the hanged men. With difficulty I forbore showing my anger, which I knew would be wholly useless.

The robbers pervaded the fort, and were plundering the officers’ quarters, and the shouts of the rebels making merry were heard everywhere. I went home. Savéliitch met me on the threshold.

“Thank heaven!” cried he, upon seeing me, “I thought the villains had again laid hold on you. Oh! my father, Petr’ Andréjïtch, would you believe it, the robbers have taken everything from us: clothes, linen, crockery and goods; they have left nothing. But what does it matter? Thank God that they have at least left you your life! But oh! my master, did you recognize their ‘atamán?’"57

“No, I did not recognize him. Who is he?”

“What, my little father, you have already forgotten the drunkard who did you out of your ‘touloup’ the day of the snowstorm, a hareskin ‘touloup,’ brand new. And he, the rascal, who split all the seams putting it on.”

I was dumbfounded. The likeness of Pugatchéf to my guide was indeed striking. I ended by feeling certain that he and Pugatchéf were one and the same man, and I then understood why he had shown me mercy. I was filled with astonishment at the extraordinary connection of events. A boy’s “touloup,” given to a vagabond, saved my neck from the hangman, and a drunken frequenter of pothouses besieged forts and shook the Empire.

“Will you not eat something?” asked Savéliitch, faithful to his old habits. “There is nothing in the house, it is true; but I shall look about everywhere, and I will get something ready for you.”

Left alone, I began to reflect. What could I do? To stay in the fort, which was now in the hands of the robber, or to join his band were courses alike unworthy of an officer. Duty prompted me to go where I could still be useful to my country in the critical circumstances in which it was now situated.

But my love urged me no less strongly to stay by Marya Ivánofna, to be her protector and her champion. Although I foresaw a new and inevitable change in the state of things, yet I could not help trembling as I thought of the dangers of her situation.

My reflections were broken by the arrival of a Cossack, who came running to tell me that the great Tzar summoned me to his presence.

“Where is he?” I asked, hastening to obey.

“In the Commandant’s house,” replied the Cossack. “After dinner our father went to the bath; now he is resting. Ah, sir! you can see he is a person of importance — he deigned at dinner to eat two roast sucking-pigs; and then he went into the upper part of the vapour-bath, where it was so hot that Tarass Kurotchkin himself could not stand it; he passed the broom to Bikbaieff, and only recovered by dint of cold water. You must agree; his manners are very majestic, and in the bath, they say, he showed his marks of Tzar — on one of his breasts a double-headed eagle as large as a pétak,58 and on the other his own face.”

I did not think it worth while to contradict the Cossack, and I followed him into the Commandant’s house, trying to imagine beforehand my interview with Pugatchéf, and to guess how it would end.

The reader will easily believe me when I say that I did not feel wholly reassured.

It was getting dark when I reached the house of the Commandant.

The gallows, with its victims, stood out black and terrible; the body of the Commandant’s poor wife still lay beneath the porch, close by two Cossacks, who were on guard.

He who had brought me went in to announce my arrival. He came back almost directly, and ushered me into the room where, the previous evening, I had bidden good-bye to Marya Ivánofna.

I saw a strange scene before me. At a table covered with a cloth and laden with bottles and glasses was seated Pugatchéf, surrounded by ten Cossack chiefs, in high caps and coloured shirts, heated by wine, with flushed faces and sparkling eyes. I did not see among them the new confederates lately sworn in, the traitor Chvabrine and the “ouriadnik.”

“Ah, ah! so it is you, your lordship,” said Pugatchéf, upon seeing me. “You are welcome. All honour to you, and a place at our feast.”

The guests made room. I sat down in silence at the end of the table.

My neighbour, a tall and slender young Cossack, with a handsome face, poured me out a bumper of brandy, which I did not touch. I was busy noting the company.

Pugatchéf was seated in the place of honour, his elbows on the table, and resting his black beard on his broad fist. His features, regular and agreeable, wore no fierce expression. He often addressed a man of about fifty years old, calling him sometimes Count, sometimes Timofeitsh, sometimes Uncle.

Each man considered himself as good as his fellow, and none showed any particular deference to their chief. They were talking of the morning’s assault, of the success of the revolt, and of their forthcoming operations.

Each man bragged of his prowess, proclaimed his opinions, and freely contradicted Pugatchéf. And it was decided to march upon Orenburg, a bold move, which was nearly crowned with success. The departure was fixed for the day following.

The guests drank yet another bumper, rose from table, and took leave of Pugatchéf. I wished to follow them, but Pugatchéf said —

“Stay there, I wish to speak to you!”

We remained alone together, and for a few moments neither spoke.

Pugatchéf looked sharply at me, winking from time to time his left eye with an indefinable expression of slyness and mockery. At last he gave way to a long burst of laughter, and that with such unfeigned gaiety that I myself, regarding him, began to laugh without knowing why.

“Well, your lordship,” said he, “confess you were afraid when my fellows cast the rope about your neck. I warrant the sky seemed to you the size of a sheepskin. And you would certainly have swung beneath the cross-beam but for your old servant. I knew the old owl again directly. Well, would you ever have thought, sir, that the man who guided you to a lodging in the steppe was the great Tzar himself?” As he said these words he assumed a grave and mysterious air. “You are very guilty as regards me,” resumed he, “but I have pardoned you on account of your courage, and because you did me a good turn when I was obliged to hide from my enemies. But you shall see better things; I will load you with other favours when I shall have recovered my empire. Will you promise to serve me zealously?”

The robber’s question and his impudence appeared to be so absurd that I could not restrain a smile.

“Why do you laugh?” he asked, frowning. “Do you not believe me to be the great Tzar? Answer me frankly.”

I did not know what to do. I could not recognize a vagabond as Emperor; such conduct was to me unpardonably base. To call him an impostor to his face was to devote myself to death; and the sacrifice for which I was prepared on the gallows, before all the world, and in the first heat of my indignation, appeared to me a useless piece of bravado. I knew not what to say.

Pugatchéf awaited my reply in fierce silence. At last (and I yet recall that moment with satisfaction) the feeling of duty triumphed in me over human weakness, and I made reply to Pugatchéf —

“Just listen, and I will tell you the whole truth. You shall be judge. Can I recognize in you a Tzar? You are a clever man; you would see directly that I was lying.”

“Who, then, am I, according to you?”

“God alone knows; but whoever you be, you are playing a dangerous game.”

Pugatchéf cast at me a quick, keen glance.

“You do not then think that I am the Tzar Peter? Well, so let it be. Is there no chance of success for the bold? In former times did not Grischka Otrépieff59 reign? Think of me as you please, but do not leave me. What does it matter to you whether it be one or the other? He who is pope is father. Serve me faithfully, and I will make you a field-marshal and a prince. What do you say to this?”

“No,” I replied, firmly. “I am a gentleman. I have sworn fidelity to Her Majesty the Tzarina; I cannot serve you. If you really wish me well, send me back to Orenburg.”

Pugatchéf reflected.

“But if I send you away,” said he, “will you promise me at least not to bear arms against me?”

“How can you expect me to promise you that?” replied I. “You know yourself that that does not depend upon me. If I be ordered to march against you I must submit. You are a chief now — you wish your subordinates to obey you. How can I refuse to serve if I am wanted? My head is at your disposal; if you let me go free, I thank you; if you cause me to die, may God judge you. Howbeit, I have told you the truth.”

My outspoken candour pleased Pugatchéf.

“E’en so let it be,” said he, clapping me on the shoulder; “either entirely punish or entirely pardon. Go to the four winds and do what seems good in your eyes, but come tomorrow and bid me good-bye; and now begone to bed — I am sleepy myself.”

I left Pugatchéf, and went out into the street. The night was still and cold, the moon and stars, sparkling with all their brightness, lit up the square and the gallows. All was quiet and dark in the rest of the fort. Only in the tavern were lights still to be seen, and from within arose the shouts of the lingering revellers.

I threw a glance at the pope’s house. The doors and the shutters were closed; all seemed perfectly quiet there. I went home and found Savéliitch deploring my absence. The news of my regained liberty overwhelmed him with joy.

“Thanks be to Thee, O Lord!” said he, making the sign of the cross. “We will leave the fort tomorrow at break of day and we will go in God’s care. I have prepared something for you; eat, my father, and sleep till morning quietly, as though in the pocket of Christ!”

I took his advice, and, after having supped with a good appetite, I went to sleep on the bare boards, as weary in mind as in body.

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