I left the General and hastened to my quarters. Saveliitch received me with his usual remonstrance: “What pleasure, my lord, is there in fighting these drunken brigands? If they were Turks or Swedes, all right; but these sons of dogs —”
I interrupted him: “How much money have I in all?”
“You have plenty,” said he with a satisfied air. “I knew how to whisk it out of sight of the rogues.” He drew from his pocket a long knitted purse full of silver coin.
“Saveliitch, give me half of what you have there, and keep the rest for yourself. I am off for the fortress of Belogorsk.”
“Oh, Peter!” said the old serf, “do you not fear God? The roads are cut off. Have pity on your parents; wait a little; our troops will come and disperse the brigands, and then you can go to the four quarters of the world.”
“It is too late to reflect. I must go. Do not grieve, Saveliitch; I make you a present of that money. Buy what you need. If I do not return in three days —”
“My dear,” said the old man, “I will go with you, were it on foot. If you go, I must first lose my senses before I will stay crouching behind stone walls.”
There was never any use disputing with the old man. In half an hour I was in the saddle, Saveliitch on an old, half-starved, limping rosinante, which a citizen, not having fodder, had given for nothing to the serf. We reached the city gates; the sentinels let us pass, and we were finally out of Orenbourg. Night was falling. My road lay before the town of Berd, the headquarters of Pougatcheff. This road was blocked up and hidden by snow; but across the steppe were traces of horses, renewed from day to day, apparently, and clearly visible. I was going at a gallop, Saveliitch could scarcely keep up and shouted, “Not so fast! My nag can not follow yours.” Very soon we saw the lights of Berd. We were approaching deep ravines, which served as natural fortifications to the town. Saveliitch, without however being left behind, never ceased his lamentations. I was in hopes of passing safely the enemy’s place, when I saw through the darkness five peasants armed with big sticks — Pougatcheff’s extreme outpost.
“Qui vive! Who goes there?”
Not knowing the watchword, I was for going on without answering. But one of them seized my horse’s bridle. I drew my sabre and struck the peasant of the head. His cap saved his life; he staggered and fell; the others, frightened, let me pass. The darkness, which was deepening, might have saved me from further hindrance; when, looking back, I saw that Saveliitch was not with me. What was I to do? The poor old man, with his lame horse, could not escape from the rascals. I waited a minute; then, sure that they must have seized him, I turned my horse’s head to go and aid him. Approaching the ravine I heard voices, and recognized that of Saveliitch. Hastening my steps, was soon within sight of the peasants. They had dismounted the old man, and were about to garrote him. They rushed upon me; in an instant I was on foot. Their chief said I should be conducted to the Czar. I made no resistance. We crossed the ravine to enter the town, which was illuminated. The streets were crowded and noisy. We were taken to a hut on the corner of two streets. There were some barrels of wine and a cannon near the door. One of the peasants said: “Here is the palace; we will announce you.” I glanced at Saveliitch; he was making signs of the cross, and praying. We waited a long time. At last the peasant re-appeared and said: “The Czar orders the officers to his presence.”
The palace, as the peasant called it, was lighted by two tallow candles. The walls were hung with gold paper. But every thing else, the benches, the table, the basin hung up by a cord, the towel on a nail in the wall, the shelf laden with earthen vessels, were exactly the same as in any other cabin. Pougatcheff, wearing his scarlet cafetan and high Cossack cap, with his hand on his hip, sat beneath the sacred pictures common to every Russian abode. Around him stood several of his chiefs. I could see that the arrival of an officer from Orenbourg had awakened some curiosity, and that they had prepared to receive me with pomp. Pougatcheff recognized me at once, and his assumed gravity disappeared.
“Ah! it is your lordship! how are you? What brings you here?”
I replied that I was traveling about my private business, when his people arrested me.
“What business?” asked he. I did not know what to answer. Pougatcheff thinking that I would not speak before witnesses gave a sign to his comrades to leave. All obeyed except two. “Speak before these,” said he; “conceal nothing from them.”
I glanced at these intimates of the usurper. One was an old man frail and bent, remarkable for nothing but a blue riband crossed over his coarse gray cloth cafetan; but I shall never forget his companion. He was tall, of powerful build, and seemed about forty-five. A thick red beard, piercing gray eyes, a nose without nostrils, marks of the searing irons on his forehead and cheeks, gave to his broad face, pitted by small-pox a most fierce expression. He wore a red shirt, a Kirghis robe, and wide Cossack pantaloons. Although wholly preoccupied by my own feelings, yet this company deeply impressed me. Pougatcheff recalled me to myself quickly.
“What business brought you from Orenbourg?”
A bold idea suggested itself to my mind. It seemed to me that Providence, leading me a second time before this robber, gave me the means of accomplishing my work. I decided to seize the chance, and without reflecting on the step, I replied:
“I am on the way to the fortress of Belogorsk to liberate an oppressed orphan there.”
Pougatcheff’s eyes flashed. “Who dares to oppress an orphan? Were he seven feet high, he shall not escape my vengeance. Speak, who is the guilty one?”
“Alexis; he holds in slavery that same young girl whom you saw at Father Garasim’s, and wants to force her to marry him.”
“I shall give Alexis a lesson! I’ll teach him to oppress my subjects. I shall hang him.”
“Permit me a word,” said the man without nostrils. “You were too hasty giving the command to Alexis. You offended the Cossacks by giving them a noble as chief; do not offend the gentlemen by hanging one of them on the first accusation.”
“There is no need to pardon nor pity,” said the man with the blue riband. “It would be no harm to hang Alexis, nor to question this gentleman. Why does he visit us? If he does not acknowledge you as Czar he has no justice to get at your hands; if he acknowledge you, why did he stay at Orenbourg with your enemies? Will you not order him to prison, and have a fire lighted there?”
The old rascal’s logic seemed plausible even to myself. I shuddered when I remembered into whose hands I had fallen. Pougatcheff saw my trouble.
“Eh! eh! your lordship,” said he, winking, “it seems my field-marshal is right. What do you think?”
The jesting tone of the chief restored my courage. I replied calmly that I was in his power.
“Well,” said Pougatcheff, “tell me now the condition of your city?”
“It is, thank God, in a good state.”
“A good condition,” repeated the brigand, “when the people are dying of hunger.”
The usurper was right, but according to the duty imposed by my oath, I affirmed that it was a false report, and that the fort was sufficiently provisioned.
“You see he deceives you,” interrupted the man with the riband. “All the deserters are unanimous in saying that famine and pestilence are at Orenbourg; that thistles are eaten as dainties there. If you wish to hang Alexis, hang on the same gibbet this young fellow, that they may be equal.”
These words seemed to shake the chief. Happily the other wretch opposed this view.
“Silence,” said this powerful fellow. “You think of nothing but hanging and strangling. It becomes you to play the hero. To look at you, no one knows where your soul is.”
“And which of the saints are you?” replied the old man.
“Generals,” said Pougatcheff, with dignity, “an end to your quarrels. It would be no great loss if all the mangy dogs from Orenbourg were dangling their legs under the same cross-beam; but it would be a misfortune if our own good dogs should bite each other.”
Feeling the necessity of changing the conversation, I turned to Pougatcheff with a smile, and said:
“Ah! I forgot to thank you for the horse and touloup. Without your aid I should not have reached the city. I would have died from cold on the journey.” My trick succeeded. Pougatcheff regained his good humor.
“The beauty of debt is the payment thereof,” said he, winking. “Tell me your story. What have you to do with the young girl that Alexis persecutes? Has she caught your heart, too?”
“She is my promised bride” said I, seeing no risk in speaking the truth.
“Your promised bride! Why did you not tell me sooner? We’ll marry you, and be at your wedding. Listen, Field-marshal,” said he. “We are old friends, his lordship and I. Lets us go to supper. Tomorrow we shall see what is to be done with him. Night brings wisdom, and the morning is better than the evening.”
I would gladly have excused myself from proposed honor, but it was impossible. Two Cossacks girls covered the table with a white cloth, and brought bread, soup made of fish, and pitchers of wine and beer. Thus, for the second time, I was at table with Pougatcheff and his terrible companions. The orgie lasted far into the night. Drunkenness at last triumphed. Pougatcheff fell asleep in his place, and his companions signed to me to leave him. I went out with them. The sentry locked me up in a dark hole, where I found Saveliitch. He was so surprised by all that he saw and heard, that he asked no questions. Lying in darkness, he soon fell asleep.
The next morning Pougatcheff sent for me. Before his door stood a kibitka, with three horses abreast. The street was crowded. Pougatcheff, whom I met in the entry of his hut, was dressed for a journey, in a pelisse and Kirghis cap. His guests of the previous night surrounded him, and wore a look of submission which contrasted strongly with what I had seen on the preceding evening. Pougatcheff bade me good-morning gaily, and ordered me to sit beside him in the kibitka. We took our places.
“To the fortress of Belogorsk,” said Pougatcheff to the robust Tartar, who, standing, drove his horses. My heart beat violently. The Tartar horses shot off, the bells tinkled, the kibitka flew over the snow.
“Stop! stop!” cried a voice I knew too well. “O Peter! do not abandon me in my old age, in the midst of the rob —”
“Ah, you old owl!” said Pougatcheff, “sit up there in front.”
“Thanks, Czar, may God give you a long life.”
The horses set off again. The people in the streets stopped and bowed low, as the usurper passed. Pougatcheff saluted right and left. In an instant we were out of the town, taking our way over a well-defined road. I was silent. Pougatcheff broke in upon my reverie. “Why so silent, my lord?” said he.
“I can not help thinking,” said I, “of the chain of events. I am an officer, noble, yesterday at war with you; today I ride in the same carriage with you, and all the happiness of my life depends on you.”
“Are you afraid?”
“You have already given me my life!”
“You say truly. You know how my fellows looked upon you; only today they wanted to try you as a spy. The old one wanted to torture and then hang you; but I would not, because I remembered your glass of wine and your touloup. I am not bloodthirsty, as your friends say.” I remembered the taking of our fortress, but I did not contradict him.
“What do they say of me at Orenbourg?”
“It is said there, that you will not be easily vanquished. It must be confessed that you have given us some work.”
“Yes; I am a great warrior. Do you think the King Prussia is as strong as I?”
“What do you think yourself? Can you beat Frederick?”
“Frederick the Great? Why not? Wait till I march to Moscow!”
“You really intend to march on Moscow?”
“God knows,” said he, reflecting; “my road is narrow — my boys do not obey — they are thieves — I must listen — keep my ears open; at the first reverse they would save their own necks by my head.”
“Would it not be better,” I said, “to abandon them now, before it is too late, and have recourse to the clemency of the Empress?”
He smiled bitterly. “No; the time is passed. I shall end as I began. Who knows?”
Our Tartar was humming a plaintive air; Saveliitch, sound asleep, swayed from side to side; our kibitka was gliding rapidly over the winter road. I saw in the distance a village well known to my eyes, with its palisade and church spire on the steep bank of the river Iaik. A quarter of an hour after we entered the fortress of Belogorsk.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59