Approaching Orenbourg, we saw a crowd of convicts, with shaved heads and faces disfigured by the pincers of the public executioner. At that time red-hot irons were applied to tear out the nostrils of the condemned. They were working at the fortifications of the place under the supervision of the garrison pensioners. Some carried away in wheel-barrows the rubbish that filled the ditch, others threw up the earth, while masons were examining and repairing the walls. The sentry stopped us at the gate and asked for our passports. When the sergeant heard that we were from Belogorsk he took me at once to the General, who was in his garden. I found him examining the apple trees, which autumnal winds had already despoiled of their leaves; assisted by an old gardener, he covered them carefully with straw. His face expressed calmness, good humor and health. He seemed very glad to see me, and questioned me about the terrible events I had witnessed. The old man heard me attentively, and whilst listening, cut off the dead branches.
“Poor Mironoff!” said he, when I had finished my story; “it is a pity; he was a brave officer; and Madame Mironoff a kind lady, an expert in pickling mushrooms. What has become of Marie, the Captain’s daughter?”
“She is in the fortress, at the house of the Greek priest.”
“Aye! aye! aye!” exclaimed the General. “That’s bad, very bad; for it is impossible to depend upon the discipline of brigands.”
I observed that the fortress of Belogorsk was not far off, and that probably his Excellency would send a detachment of troops to deliver the poor inhabitants.
The General shook his head, doubtfully. “We shall see! we shall see! there is plenty of time to talk about it; come, I beg you, to take tea with me. Tonight there will be a council of war; you can give us some precise information regarding this Pougatcheff and his army. Meantime, go and rest.”
I went to my allotted quarters, where I found Saveliitch already installed. I awaited impatiently the hour indicated, and the reader may believe that I did not fail to be present at this council, which was to influence my whole life. I found at the General’s a custom-house officer, the Director, as well as I can remember a little old man, red-faced and fat, wearing a robe of black watered silk. He questioned me about the fate of the Captain Mironoff, whom he called his chum, and often interrupted me by sententious remarks, which, if they did not prove him to be a man well versed in war, showed his natural intelligence and shrewdness. During this time other guests arrived. When all had taken their places, and to each had been offered a cup of tea, the General carefully stated the questions to be considered.
“Now, gentlemen,” said he, “we must decide what action is to be taken against the rebels. Shall we act offensively, or defensively? Each of these ways has its advantages and disadvantages. Offensive war presents more hope of a rapid extermination of the enemy, but defensive war is safer and offers fewer dangers. Let us then take the vote in legal order; that is, consult first the youngest in rank. Ensign,” continued he, addressing me, “deign to give your opinion.”
I rose, and in a few words depicted Pougatcheff and his army. I affirmed that the usurper was not in a condition to resist disciplined forces. My opinion was received by the civil service employes with visible discontent. They saw nothing in it but the levity of a young man. A murmur arose, and I heard distinctly the word “hare-brained” murmured in a low voice. The General turned to me smiling, and said:
“Ensign, the first votes (the youngest) in war councils, are for offensive measures. Now let us continue to collect the votes. The College Director will give us his opinion.”
The little old man in black silk, a College Director, as well as a customs officer, swallowed his third cup of tea, well dashed with a strong dose of rum, and hastened to speak:
“Your Excellency,” said he, “I think that we ought to act neither offensively nor defensively.”
“What’s that, sir?” said the General, stupefied; “military tactics present no other means; we must act either offensively or defensively.”
“Your Excellency, act subornatively.”
“Eh! eh! Your opinion is judicious,” said the General; “subornative acts — that is to say, indirect acts — are also admitted by the science of tactics, and we will profit by your counsel. We might offer for the rascal’s head seventy or even a hundred roubles, to be taken out of the secret funds.”
“And then,” interrupted the man in silk, “may I be a Kirghis ram, instead of a College Director, if the thieves do not bring their chief to you, chained hand and foot.”
“We can think about it,” said the General. “But let us, in any case, take some military measures. Gentlemen, give your votes in legal order.”
All the opinions were contrary to mine. All agreed, that it was better to stay behind a strong stone wall, protected by cannon, than to tempt fortune in the open field. Finally, when all the opinions were known, the General shook the ashes from his pipe and pronounced the following discourse:
“Gentlemen, I am of the Ensign’s opinion, for it is according to the science of military tactics, which always prefers offensive movements to defensive.” He stopped and stuffed the tobacco into his pipe. I glanced exultingly at the civil service employes, who, with discontented looks, were whispering to each other.
“But, gentlemen,” continued he, giving out with a sigh a long puff of smoke, “I dare not assume the responsibility. I go with the majority, which has decided that we await in this city the threatened siege, and repulse the enemy by the power of artillery, and if possible, by well-directed sorties.”
The council broke up. I could not but deplore the weakness of the worthy soldier, who, contrary to his own convictions, decided to follow the opinion of ignorant inexperience.
Some days after this famous council of war, Pougatcheff, true to his word, approached Orenbourg. From the top of the city walls I made a reconnaissance of the rebel army. It seemed to me that their number had increased ten-fold. They had more artillery, taken from the small forts captured by Pougatcheff. Remembering our council, I foresaw a long captivity behind the walls of Orenbourg, and I was ready to cry with chagrin. Far from me the intention of describing the siege of Orenbourg, which belongs to history and not to family memoirs. Suffice it to say, that this siege was disastrous to the inhabitants, who had to suffer hunger and privations of every kind. Life at Orenbourg became insupportable. The decision of fate was awaited with anguish. Food was scarce; bombshells fell upon the defenseless houses of citizens. The attacks of Pougatcheff made very little excitement. I was dying of ennui. I had promised Accoulina that I would correspond with her, but communication was cut off, and I could not send or receive a letter from Belogorsk. My only pastime consisted in military sorties. Thanks to Pougatcheff I had an excellent horse, and I shared my meager pittance with it. I went out every day beyond the ramparts to skirmish with Pougatcheff’s advance guards. The rebels had the best of it; they had plenty of food and were well mounted. Our poor cavalry were in no condition to oppose them. Sometimes our half-starved infantry went into the field; but the depth of the snow hindered them from acting successfully against the flying cavalry of the enemy. The artillery vainly thundered from the ramparts, and in the field it could not advance, because of the weakness of our attenuated horses. This was our way of making war; this is what the civil service employes of Orenbourg called prudence and foresight.
One day when we had routed and driven before us quite a large troop, I overtook a straggling Cossack; my Turkish sabre was uplifted to strike him when he doffed his cap and cried out: “Good day, Peter, how fares your health?”
I recognized our Corporal. I was delighted to see him.
“Good day, Maxim. How long since you left Belogorsk?”
“Not long, Peter. I came yesterday. I have a letter for you.”
“Where is it?” I cried, delighted.
“Here,” replied Maxim, putting his hand in his bosom. “I promised Polacca to try and give it to you.” He gave me a folded paper, and set off on a gallop. I read with agitation the following lines:
“By the will of God I am deprived of my parents, and except you, Peter, I know of no one who can protect me; Alexis commands in place of my late father. He so terrified Father Garasim that I was obliged to go and live at our house, where I am cruelly treated by Alexis. He will force me to become his wife. He says he saved my life by not betraying the trick of passing for the niece of Accoulina. I could rather die than be his wife. I have three days to accept his offer; after that I need expect no mercy from him. O, Peter! entreat your General to send us help, and if possible, come yourself. MARIE MIRONOFF.”
This letter nearly crazed me. I rushed back to the city, not sparing the spur to my poor horse. A thousand projects flashed through my mind to rescue her. Arrived in the city, I hurried to the General’s and ran into his room. He was walking up and down smoking his meerschaum. Seeing me he stopped, alarmed at my abrupt entrance.
“Your Excellency, I come to you, as to my own father; do not refuse me; the happiness of my life depends upon it.”
“But what is it?” said the General; “what can I do for you?”
“Your Excellency, permit me to take a battalion of soldiers and half a hundred Cossacks, to go and storm the fortress of Belogorsk.”
“Storm the fortress?” said the General.
“I answer for the success of the attack, only let me go.”
“No, young man,” said he; “at so great a distance the enemy would easily cut off all communication with the principal strategic point.”
I was frightened by his military wisdom, and hastened to interrupt him: “Captain Mironoff’s daughter has written me, begging for relief. Alexis threatens to compel her to be his wife!”
“Ah! Alexis, traitor! If he fall into my hands I shall try him in twenty-four hours, and he shall be shot on the glacis of the fortress! meantime patience.”
“Patience!” I cried; “in the interval Marie will be compelled to obey him.”
“Oh,” said the General, “that would not be a misfortune — it is better that she should become the wife of Alexis, who can protect her. When we shall have shot the traitor, then she will find a better husband.”
“I would rather die,” I said with fury, “than yield her to Alexis.”
“I understand it all now,” said the old man. “You are, no doubt, in love yourself with Marie Mironoff. That’s another thing. Poor boy! Still, I can not give you a battalion and fifty Cossacks. The thing is unreasonable.” I hung my head in despair. But I had a plan of my own.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12