Before beginning to relate those strange events to which I was witness, I must say a few words about the state of affairs in the district of Orenburg about the end of the year 1773. This rich and large province was peopled by a crowd of half-savage tribes, who had lately acknowledged the sovereignty of the Russian Tzars. Their perpetual revolts, their impatience of all rule and civilized life, their treachery and cruelty, obliged the authorities to keep a sharp watch upon them in order to reduce them to submission.
Forts had been placed at suitable points, and in most of them troops had been permanently established, composed of Cossacks, formerly possessors of the banks of the River Yaïk. But even these Cossacks, who should have been a guarantee for the peace and quiet of the country, had for some time shown a dangerous and unruly spirit towards the Imperial Government. In 1772 a riot took place in the principal settlement. This riot was occasioned by the severe measures taken by General Traubenberg, in order to quell the insubordination of the army. The only result was the barbarous murder of Traubenberg, the substitution of new chiefs, and at last the suppression of the revolt by volleys of grape and harsh penalties.
All this befell shortly before my coming to Fort Bélogorsk. Then all was, or seemed, quiet. But the authorities had too lightly lent faith to the pretended repentance of the rebels, who were silently brooding over their hatred, and only awaiting a favourable opportunity to reopen the struggle.
One evening (it was early in October, 1773) I was alone in my quarters, listening to the whistling of the autumn wind and watching the clouds passing rapidly over the moon. A message came from the Commandant that he wished to see me at once at his house. I found there Chvabrine, Iwán Ignatiitch, and the “ouriadnik” of the Cossacks. Neither the wife nor daughter of the Commandant was in the room. He greeted me in an absent manner. Then, closing the door, he made everybody sit down, except the “ouriadnik,” who remained standing, drew a letter from his pocket, and said to us —
“Gentlemen, important news. Listen to what the General writes.”
He put on his spectacles and read as follows:—
“To the Commandant of Fort Bélogorsk,
“Captain Mironoff, these. (Secret.)
“I hereby inform you that the fugitive and schismatic Don Cossack, Emelian Pugatchéf, after being guilty of the unpardonable insolence of usurping the name of our late Emperor, Peter III.,49 has assembled a gang of robbers, excited risings in villages on the Yaïk, and taken and oven destroyed several forts, while committing everywhere robberies and murders. In consequence, when you shall receive this, it will be your duty to take such measures as may be necessary against the aforesaid rascally usurper, and, if possible, crush him completely should he venture to attack the fort confided to your care.”
“Take such measures as may be necessary,” said the Commandant, taking off his spectacles and folding up the paper. “You know it is very easy to say that. The scoundrel seems in force, and we have but a hundred and thirty men, even counting the Cossacks, on whom we must not count too much, be it said, without any reproach to you, Maximitch.” The “ouriadnik” smiled. “Nevertheless, let us do our duty, gentlemen. Be ready, place sentries, let there be night patrols in case of attack, shut the gates, and turn out the troops. You, Maximitch, keep a sharp eye on the Cossacks; look to the cannon, and let it be well cleansed; and, above all, let everything be kept secret. Let no one in the fort know anything until the time comes.”
After thus giving his orders, Iván Kouzmitch dismissed us. I went out with Chvabrine, speculating upon what we had just heard.
“What do you think of it? How will it all end?” I asked him.
“God knows,” said he; “we shall see. As yet there is evidently nothing serious. If, however —”
Then he fell into a brown study while whistling absently a French air.
In spite of all our precautions the news of Pugatchéf’s appearance spread all over the fort. Whatever was the respect in which Iván Kouzmitch held his wife, he would not have revealed to her for the world a secret confided to him on military business.
After receiving the General’s letter he had rather cleverly got rid of Vassilissa Igorofna by telling her that Father Garasim had heard most extraordinary news from Orenburg, which he was keeping most profoundly dark.
Vassilissa Igorofna instantly had a great wish to go and see the Pope’s wife, and, by the advice of Iván Kouzmitch, she took Masha, lest she should be dull all alone.
Left master of the field, Iván Kouzmitch sent to fetch us at once, and took care to shut up Polashka in the kitchen so that she might not spy upon us.
Vassilissa Igorofna came home without having been able to worm anything out of the Pope’s wife; she learnt upon coming in that during her absence Iván Kouzmitch had held a council of war, and that Palashka had been locked up. She suspected that her husband had deceived her, and she immediately began overwhelming him with questions. But Iván Kouzmitch was ready for this onset; he did not care in the least, and he boldly answered his curious better-half —
“Look here, little mother, the country-women have taken it into their heads to light fires with straw, and as that might be the cause of a misfortune, I assembled my officers, and I ordered them to watch that the women do not make fires with straw, but rather with faggots and brambles.”
“And why were you obliged to shut up Polashka?” his wife asked him. “Why was the poor girl obliged to stay in the kitchen till we came back?”
Iván Kouzmitch was not prepared for such a question; he stammered some incoherent words.
Vassilissa Igorofna instantly understood that her husband had deceived her, but as she could not at that moment get anything out of him, she forebore questioning him, and spoke of some pickled cucumbers which Akoulina Pamphilovna knew how to prepare in a superlative manner. All night long Vassilissa Igorofna lay awake trying to think what her husband could have in his head that she was not permitted to know.
The morrow, on her return from mass, she saw Iwán Ignatiitch busy clearing the cannon of the rags, small stones, bits of wood, knuckle-bones, and all kinds of rubbish that the little boys had crammed it with.
“What can these warlike preparations mean?” thought the Commandant’s wife. “Can it be that they are afraid of an attack by the Kirghiz; but then is it likely that Iván Kouzmitch would hide from me such a trifle?”
She called Iwán Ignatiitch, determined to have out of him the secret which was provoking her feminine curiosity.
Vassilissa Igorofna began by making to him some remarks on household matters, like a judge who begins a cross-examination by questions irrelevant to the subject in hand, in order to reassure and lull the watchfulness of the accused. Then, after a few minutes’ silence, she gave a deep sigh, and said, shaking her head —
“Oh! good Lord! Just think what news! What will come of all this?”
“Eh! my little mother,” replied Iwán Ignatiitch; “the Lord is merciful. We have soldiers enough, and much, powder; I have cleared the cannon. Perhaps we may be able to defeat this Pugatchéf. If God do not forsake us, the wolf will eat none of us here.”
“And what manner of man is this Pugatchéf?” questioned the Commandant’s wife.
Iwán Ignatiitch saw plainly that he had said too much, and bit his tongue; but it was too late. Vassilissa Igorofna obliged him to tell her all, after giving her word that she would tell no one.
She kept her promise, and did not breathe a word indeed to anyone, save only to the Pope’s wife, and that for the very good reason that the good lady’s cow, being still out on the steppe, might be “lifted” by the robbers.
Soon everybody was talking of Pugatchéf. The rumours abroad about him were very diverse. The Commandant sent the “ouriadnik” on a mission to look well into all in the neighbouring village and little forts. The “ouriadnik” came back after an absence of two days, and reported that he had seen in the steppe, about sixty versts from the fort, many fires, and that he had heard the Bashkirs say that an innumerable force was approaching. He had nothing of a more detailed or accurate nature to relate, having been afraid of going too far.
We soon began to notice a certain stir among the Cossacks in the garrison. They gathered in all the streets in little groups, spoke among themselves in low voices, and dispersed directly they caught sight of a dragoon or any other Russian soldier. They were watched. Joulaï, a baptized Kalmuck, revealed to the Commandant something very serious. According to him the “ouriadnik” had made a false report. On his return the perfidious Cossack had told his comrades that he had advanced upon the rebels, and that he had been presented to their chief, and that this chief gave him his hand to kiss and had had a long interview with him. At once the Commandant put the “ouriadnik” in arrest, and declared Joulaï his substitute. This change was received by the Cossacks with manifest discontent. They grumbled aloud, and Iwán Ignatiitch, who executed the Commandant’s orders, heard them with his own ears say pretty clearly —
“Only wait a bit, you garrison rat!”
The Commandant had intended to cross-examine his prisoner that same day, but the “ouriadnik” had escaped, doubtless with the connivance of his accomplices.
Another thing occurred to augment the Commandant’s disquiet; a Bashkir was taken bearing seditious letters. Upon this occasion the Commandant decided upon assembling his officers anew, and in order to do that he wished again to get rid of his wife under some plausible pretext. But as Iván Kouzmitch was one of the most upright and sincere of men he could not think of any other way than that which he had already employed on a previous occasion.
“Do you know, Vassilissa Igorofna,” said he to her, while clearing his throat once or twice, “it is said that Father Garosim has received from the town —”
“Hold your tongue,” interrupted his wife; “you want again to call a council of war, and talk without me about Emelian Pugatchéf; but you will not deceive me this time.”
Iván Kouzmitch opened his eyes wide.
“Well, little mother,” said he, “if you know all, stay; there is nothing more to be done, we will talk before you.”
“Yes, you are quite right, my little father,” rejoined she; “it is of no use your trying to play the sly fox. Send for the officers.”
We again met. Iván Kouzmitch read to us, before his wife, Pugatchéf’s proclamation, drawn up by some illiterate Cossack. The robber proclaimed his intention of marching directly upon our fort, inviting the Cossacks and the soldiers to join him, and counselling the chiefs not to withstand him, threatening them, should they do so, with the utmost torture.
The proclamation was written in coarse but emphatic terms, and was likely to produce a great impression on the minds of simple people.
“What a rascal,” cried the Commandant’s wife. “Just look what he dares to propose to us! To go out to meet him and lay our colours at his feet! Oh! the son of a dog! He doesn’t then know that we have been forty years in the service, and that, thank heaven, we have had a taste of all sorts! Is it possible that there can have been commandants base and cowardly enough to obey this robber?”
“Such a thing should not be possible,” rejoined Iván Kouzmitch; “nevertheless, they say the scoundrel has already got possession of several forts.”
“It appears that he is in strength, indeed,” observed Chvabrine.
“We shall know directly the amount of his strength,” resumed the Commandant. “Vassilissa Igorofna, give me the key of the barn. Iván Ignatiitch, bring up the Bashkir and tell Joulaï to fetch the rods.”50
“Wait a bit, Iván Kouzmitch,” said the Commandant’s wife, rising; “let me take Masha out of the house. Without I do so she would hear the cries, and they would frighten her. And as for me, to tell the truth, I am not over curious about such matters. So hoping to see you again —”
Torture was then so rooted in the practice of justice that the beneficial ukase51 ordaining its abolition remained a long time of none effect. It was thought that the confession of the accused was indispensable to condemnation, an idea not merely unreasonable, but contrary to the dictates of the simplest good sense in legal matters, for, if the denial of the accused be not accepted as proof of his innocence, the extorted confession should still less serve as proof of his guilt. Yet even now I still hear old judges sometimes regret the abolition of this barbarous custom.
But in those days no one ever doubted of the necessity for torture, neither the judges nor the accused themselves. That is why the Commandant’s order did not arouse any surprise or emotion among us. Iwán Ignatiitch went off to seek the Bashkir, who was under lock and key in the Commandant’s barn, and a few minutes later he was brought into the ante-room. The Commandant ordered him to be brought before him.
The Bashkir crossed the sill with difficulty, owing to the wooden shackles he had on his feet. I glanced at him and involuntarily shuddered.
He lifted his high cap and remained near the door. I shall never forget that man; he seemed to be at least seventy years old, and he had neither nose nor ears. His head was shaven, and his beard consisted of a few grey hairs. He was little of stature, thin and bent; but his Tartar eyes still sparkled.
“Eh! eh!” said the Commandant, who recognized by these terrible marks one of the rebels punished in 1741, “you are an old wolf, by what I see. You have already been caught in our traps. ’Tis not the first time you have rebelled, since you have been so well cropped. Come near and tell me who sent you.”
The old Bashkir remained silent, and looked at the Commandant with a look of complete idiocy.
“Well, why don’t you speak?” continued Iván Kouzmitch. “Don’t you understand Russ? Joulaï, ask him in your language who sent him to our fort.”
Joulaï repeated Iván Kouzmitch’s question in the Tartar language. But the Bashkir looked at him with the same expression, and spoke never a word.
“Jachki!” the Commandant rapped out a Tartar oath, “I’ll make you speak. Here, Joulaï, strip him of his striped dressing-gown, his idiot’s dress, and stripe his shoulders. Now then, Joulaï, touch him up properly.”
Two pensioners began undressing the Bashkir. Great uneasiness then overspread the countenance of the unhappy man. He began looking all round like a poor little animal in the hands of children. But when one of the pensioners seized his hands in order to twine them round his neck, and, stooping, upraised the old man on his shoulders, when Joulaï took the rods and lifted his hands to strike, then the Bashkir gave a long, deep moan, and, throwing back his head, opened his mouth, wherein, instead of a tongue, was moving a short stump.
We were all horrified.
“Well,” said the Commandant, “I see we can get nothing out of him. Joulaï, take the Bashkir back to the barn; and as for us, gentlemen, we have still to deliberate.”
We were continuing to discuss our situation, when Vassilissa Igorofna burst into the room, breathless, and looking affrighted.
“What has happened to you?” asked the Commandant, surprised.
“Misery! misery!” replied Vassilissa Igorofna. “Fort Nijnéosern was taken this morning. Father Garasim’s boy has just come back. He saw how it was taken. The Commandant and all the officers have been hanged, all the soldiers are prisoners. The rascals are coming here.”
This unexpected news made a great impression upon me. The Commandant of Fort Nijnéosern, a gentle and quiet young man, was known to me. Two months previously he had passed on his way from Orenburg with his young wife, and he had stayed with Iván Kouzmitch.
The Nijnéosernaia was only twenty-five versts away from our fort. From hour to hour we might expect to be attacked by Pugatchéf. The probable fate of Marya Ivánofna rose vividly before my imagination, and my heart failed me as I thought of it.
“Listen, Iván Kouzmitch,” I said to the Commandant, “it is our duty to defend the fort to the last gasp, that is understood. But we must think of the women’s safety. Send them to Orenburg, if the road be still open, or to some fort further off and safer, which the rascals have not yet had time to reach.”
Iván Kouzmitch turned to his wife.
“Look here, mother, really, had we not better send you away to some more distant place till the rebels be put down?”
“What nonsense!” replied his wife.
“Show me the fortress that bullets cannot reach. In what respect is Bélogorskaia not safe? Thank heaven, we have now lived here more than twenty-one years. We have seen the Bashkirs and the Kirghiz; perhaps we may weary out Pugatchéf here.”
“Well, little mother,” rejoined Iván Kouzmitch, “stay if you like, since you reckon so much on our fort. But what are we to do with Masha? It is all right if we weary him out or if we be succoured. But if the robbers take the fort?”
“Well, then —”
But here Vassilissa Igorofna could only stammer and become silent, choked by emotion.
“No, Vassilissa Igorofna,” resumed the Commandant, who remarked that his words had made a great impression on his wife, perhaps for the first time in her life; “it is not proper for Masha to stay here. Let us send her to Orenburg to her godmother. There are enough soldiers and cannons there, and the walls are stone. And I should even advise you to go away thither, for though you be old yet think on what will befall you if the fort be taken by assault.”
“Well! well!” said the wife, “we will send away Masha; but don’t ask me to go away, and don’t think to persuade me, for I will do no such thing. It will not suit me either in my old age to part from you and go to seek a lonely grave in a strange land. We have lived together; we will die together.”
“And you are right,” said the Commandant. “Let us see, there is no time to lose. Go and get Masha ready for her journey; tomorrow we will start her off at daybreak, and we will even give her an escort, though, to tell the truth, we have none too many people here. But where is she?”
“At Akoulina Pamphilovna’s,” answered his wife. “She turned sick when she heard of the taking of Nijnéosern; I dread lest she should fall ill. Oh! God in heaven! that we should have lived to see this!”
Vassilissa Igorofna went away to make ready for her daughter’s departure.
The council at the Commandant’s still continued, but I no longer took any part in it. Marya Ivánofna reappeared for supper, pale and her eyes red. We supped in silence, and we rose from table earlier than usual. Each of us returned to his quarters after bidding good-bye to the whole family. I purposely forgot my sword, and came back to fetch it. I felt I should find Marya alone; in fact, she met me in the porch, and handed me my sword.
“Good-bye, Petr’ Andréjïtch,” she said to me, crying; “they are sending me to Orenburg. Keep well and happy. Mayhap God will allow us to see one another again, if not —”
She began to sob. I pressed her in my arms.
“God be with you, my angel,” I said to her. “My darling, my loved one, whatever befall me, rest assured that my last thought and my last prayer will be for you.”
Masha still wept, sheltered on my breast. I kissed her passionately, and abruptly went out.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12