My reflections during the journey were not very agreeable. According to the value of money at that time my loss was of some importance. I could not but admit to myself that my conduct at the inn at Simbirsk had been very silly, and I felt guilty toward Saveliitch. The old man was seated on the front of the vehicle in dull silence; from time to time turning his head and coughing a cough of ill humor. I had firmly resolved to make friends with him, but I did not know which way to begin. At last I said to him, “Come, come Saveliitch, let us put an end to this; I know I was wrong; I was a fool yesterday, and offended you without cause, but I promise to listen to you in future. Come, do not be angry, let us make friends!”
“Ah! My dear Peter,” said he with a sigh, “I am angry with myself. It’s I who was wrong in every thing. How could I have left you alone at the inn? How could it have been avoided? The devil had a hand in it! I wanted to go and see the deacon’s wife, who is my god-mother, and as the proverb says: ‘I left the house and fell into the prison.’”
What a misfortune! what a misfortune! How can I appear before the eyes of my masters? What will they say, when they shall hear that their child is a drunkard and a gambler. To console dear old Saveliitch, I gave him my word, that for the future I would not dispose of single kopeck without his consent. Little by little he became calm, which did not, however, prevent him from grumbling out, now and then shaking his head: “A hundred roubles! It is easy to talk!”
I drew near the place of my destination. Around me extended a desert, sad and wild, broken be little hills and deep ravines, all covered with snow. The sun was setting.
My kibitka followed the narrow road, or rather trace, left by peasants’ sledges. Suddenly my coachman, looking at a certain point and addressing me, “My lord,” said he, taking off his cap, “do you not command us to retrace our steps?”
“The weather is uncertain. There is some wind ahead; do you see it drive the snow on the surface?”
“And do you not see what is over yonder?” pointing with his whip to the east.
“I see nothing more than the white steppes and the clear sky.”
“There! there! that little cloud!”
I saw indeed upon the horizon a little white cloud that I had at first taken for a distant hill. My coachman explained to me that this little cloud foretold a chasse-neige — a snowdrift. I had heard of the drifting snows of this region, and I know that at times, storms swallowed up whole caravans. Saveliitch agreed with the coachman, and advised our return.
But to me the wind did not seem very strong. I hoped to arrive in time for the next relay of horses. I gave orders, therefore, to redouble our speed. The coachman put his horses to the gallop, and kept his eyes to the east.
The wind blew harder and harder. The little cloud soon became a great white mass, rising heavily, growing, extending, and finally invading the whole sky. A fine snow began to fall, which suddenly changed to immense flakes. The wind whistled and howled. It was a chasse-neige — a snowdrift.
In an instant the somber sky was confounded with the sea of snow which the wind raised up from the earth. Every thing was indistinguishable.
“Woe, to us! my lord,” cried the coachman, “it is a whirlwind of snow!”
I put my head out of the kibitka — darkness and storm. The wind blew with an expression so ferocious that it seemed a living creature.
The snow fell in large flakes upon us, covering us. The horses went at a walking pace, but very soon stood still.
“Why do you not go on?” I said to the coachman.
“Go where?” he replied, as he got down from the kibitka. “God knows where we are now! There is no road; all is darkness.”
I began to scold him. Saveliitch took up his defense:
“Why did you not listen to him,” said he, angrily; “you could have returned, taken some tea and slept till morning; the storm would have been over, and we could then have set out. Why this haste? as if you were going to your wedding?”
Saveliitch was right. What was to be done? The snow continued to fall; it was heaped up around the kibitka; the horses stood motionless, now and then shivering. The coachman walked around them adjusting their harness, as if he had nothing else to do.
I strained my eyes in every direction, hoping to see signs of a dwelling, or of a road, but I could only see the whirling of the snow-drift. All at once I thought I saw some thing black. “Halloo! coachman,” I cried out, “what is that black thing yonder?”
The coachman looked attentively where I indicated. “God knows, my lord,” he replied, re-mounting to his seat; “it is not a kibitka, nor a tree; it seems to be moving. It must be a wolf or a man!”
I ordered him to go in the direction of the unknown object which was coming toward us. In two minutes we were on a line with it, and I recognized a man.
“Halloo! good man!” shouted my coachman; “tell us, do you know the road?”
“This is the road,” replied the man. “I am on solid ground, but what the devil is the good of that.”
“Listen, my good peasant,” said I; “do you know this country? Can you lead us to a shelter for the night?”
“This country! Thank God, I have been over it on foot and in carriage, from one end to the other. But one can not help losing the road in this weather. It is better to stop here and wait till the hurricane ceases: then the sky will clear, and we can find the way by the stars.”
His coolness gave me courage. I had decided to trust myself to the mercy of God and pass the night on the steppe, when the traveler, seating himself on the bench which was the coachman’s seat, said to the driver:
“Thank God, a dwelling is near. Turn to the right and go on.”
“Why should I turn to the right?” said the coachman, sulkily, “where do you see a road?”
“Must I say to you these horses, as well as the harness, belong to another? then use the whip without respite.”
I thought my coachman’s view rational.
“Why do you believe,” said I to the new-comer, “that a dwelling is not far off?”
“The wind blows from that quarter,” said he, “and I have smelled smoke — proof that a dwelling is near.”
His sagacity, the delicacy of his sense of smell, filled me with admiration; I ordered my coachman to go wherever the other wished. The horses walked heavily through the deep snow. The kibitka advanced but slowly, now raised on a hillock, now descending into a hollow, swaying from side like a boat on a stormy sea.
Saveliitch, falling over on me every instant, moaned. I pulled down the hood of the kibitka, wrapped myself up in my pelisse, and fell asleep, rocked by the swaying of the vehicle, and lulled by the chant of the tempest.
The horses stopped. Saveliitch was holding my hand.
“Come out, my lord,” said he, “we have arrived.”
“Where have we arrived?” said I, rubbing my eyes.
“At the shelter. God has helped us; we have stumbled right upon the hedge of the dwelling. Come out, my lord, quick; come and warm yourself.”
I descended from the kibitka; the hurricane had not ceased, but it had moderated; sight was useless, it was so dark. The master of the house met us at the door, holding a lantern under the flaps of his long coat, the Cossack cafetan. He led us into a small, though no untidy room, lighted by a pine torch. In the centre hung a carabine and a high Cossack cap.
Our host, a Cossack from the river Iaik, was a peasant of some sixty years, still fresh and green.
Saveliitch brought in the case containing my tea-service; he asked for fire to make me a few cups of tea, of which I never had greater need. The host hastened to serve us.
“Where is our guide?” I asked of Saveliitch.
“Here, your lordship,” replied a voice from above. I raised my eyes to the loft, and saw a black beard and two sparkling black eyes.
“Well, are you cold?”
“How could I help being cold in this little cafetan full of holes. What’s the use of concealment? I had a touloup, but I left it yesterday in pledge with the liquor-seller; then the cold did not seem so great.”
At this moment our host entered with the portable furnace and boiler, the Russian Somovar. I offered our guide a cup of tea. Down he came at once. As he stood in the glare of the pine torch his appearance was remarkable. A man about forty years of age, medium height, slight but with broad shoulders. His black beard was turning grey; large, quick, restless eyes, gave him an expression full of cunning, and yet not at all disagreeable. He was dressed in wide Tartar pantaloons and an old jacket. His hair was cut evenly round.
I offered him a cup of tea. He tasted it and made a grimace.
“Do me the favor, my lord, to order me a glass of brandy; tea is not the Cossack’s drink.”
I willingly granted the request. The host took from the shelf of a closet a bottle and a glass, and going up to him, looking him full in the face, said:
“Ah! ah! here you are again in our district. Whence has God brought you?”
My guide winked in the most significant fashion and replied by the well-known proverb: “‘The sparrow was in the orchard eating flax-seed; the grandmother threw a stone at it, and missed.’ And you? how are all yours?”
“How are we?” said the host, and continuing in proverbs: “‘They began to ring the bell for Vespers, but the priest’s wife forbade it. The priest went visiting, and the devils are in the graveyard.’”
“Be silent, uncle,” said the vagabond.
“‘When there shall be rain, there will be mushrooms, and when there shall be mushrooms, there will be a basket to put them in. Put thy hatchet behind thy back, the forest guard is out walking.’”
“To your lordship’s health.” Taking the glass, he made the sign of the cross, and at one gulp swallowed his brandy. He then saluted me and remounted to his loft. I did not understand a word of this thief’s slang. It was only in the sequel that I learned that they spoke of the affairs of the army of the Iaik, which had just been reduced to obedience after the revolt of 1772. Saveliitch listened and glanced suspiciously from host to guide.
The species of inn where we were sheltered was in the very heart of the steppes, far from the road and every inhabited spot, and looked very much like a rendezvous of robbers. But to set off again on our journey was impossible. The disgust of Saveliitch amused not a little; however, he finally decided to mount upon the roof of the stove, the ordinary bed of the Russian peasant. The warm bricks of the hot-air chamber of the stove diffused a grateful heat, and soon the old man and the host, who had laid himself on the floor, were snoring. I stretched myself upon a bench, and slept like a dead. Awaking next morning quite late, I saw that the hurricane was over. The sun shone out, the snow extended in the distance like a sheet of dazzling white damask. The horses were already at the door, harnessed. I paid our host, who asked so small a pittance that even Saveliitch did not, as usual, haggle over the price. His suspicions of the evening before had entirely disappeared. I called the guide to thank him for the service he had done us, and told Saveliitch to give him half a rouble. Saveliitch frowned.
“Half a rouble,” said he; “What for? Because you yourself deigned to bring him to the inn? Your will be done, my lord, but we have not a rouble to spare. If we begin by giving drink money to every one we shall end by dying of hunger.”
It was useless to argue with him; my money, according to my promise, was entirely at his discretion. But it was very unpleasant not to be able to reward a man who had extricated me from danger, perhaps death.
“Well,” said I, coolly, “if you will not give him half a rouble, give one of my coats — he is too thinly clad; give him the hare-skin touloup.”
“Have mercy on me! My dear Peter,” said Saveliitch, “what does he want with your touloup? He will drink its price, the dog, at the first inn.”
“That, my good old man, is none of your business,” said the vagabond; “his lordship following the custom of royalty to vassals, gives me a coat from his own back, and your duty as serf is not to dispute, but to obey.”
“You have not the fear of God, brigand that you are,” said Saveliitch, angrily; “you see that the child has not yet attained to full reason, and there you are, glad to pillage him, thanks to his kind heart. You can not even wear the pelisse on your great, cursed shoulders.”
“Come,” said I, “do not play the logician; bring the touloup quickly.”
“Oh, Lord!” said the old man, moaning —“a touloup of hare-skin! Quite new — to give it to a drunkard in rags.”
It was brought, however, and the vagabond began to get into it. It was rather tight for me, and was much too small for him. He put it on, nevertheless, but with great difficulty, bursting all the seams. Saveliitch uttered something like a smothered howl, when he heard the threads crack. As for the vagabond, he was well pleased with my present. He re-conducted me to my kibitka, and said, with a profound bow: “Thanks, my lord, may god reward you. I shall never forget your goodness.”
He went his way — I set out on mine, paying no attention to the sullenness of Saveliitch. I soon forgot the hurricane and the guide, as well as the touloup of hare-skin.
Arrived at Orenbourg, I presented myself at once to the General. He was a tall man, bent by age, with long hair quite white. An old, worn-out uniform, recalled the soldier of the times of the Empress Anne, and his speech betrayed a strong German accent.
I gave him my father’s letter.
Reading my name, he glanced at me quickly. “Mein Gott,” said he, “it is so short a time since Andrew Grineff was your age, and now, see what a fine fellow of a son he has. Ah! time! time!” He opened the letter and began to run it over with a commentary of remarks.
“‘Sir, I hope your Excellency,’— What is this; what is the meaning of this ceremony? discipline, of course before all, but is this the way to write to an old friend? Hum —‘Field-marshal Munich — little Caroline — brother.’ Ah! then he remembers —‘Now to business. I send you my son; hold him with porcupine gloves.’
“What does that mean?” said he, “that must be a Russian proverb.”
“It means,” said I, with an air of innocence, “to treat a person mildly, to give one liberty.”
“Hum!” said he, reading, “‘and give him no liberty.’ No,” he continued, “your proverb does not mean liberty. Well, my son,” said he, having finished the letter, “every thing shall be done for you. You shall be an officer in the —— regiment, and not to lose time, go tomorrow to the fort of Belogorsk, where you will serve under Captain Mironoff, a brave and honest man. There you will see service and learn discipline. You have nothing to do here at Orenbourg, and amusements are dangerous to a young man. Today I invite you to dine with me.”
From bad to worse, thought I. What was the use of being a Sergeant in the Guards almost from my mother’s womb? To what has it led? To the regiment of — — and an abandoned fortress on the frontier of the steppes!
I dined at the General’s in company with his old Aid-decamp. Severe German economy reigned at table, and I think the fear of having an occasional guest the more had something to do with sending me to a distant garrison.
The next day I took my leave of the General and set out for Belogorsk.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59