The fortress of Belogorsk is situated forty versts from Orenbourg. The route from this city is along the high banks of the river Iaik. The stream was not yet frozen, and its lead-colored waters took a black tint between banks whitened by the snow. Before me lay the Kirghis steppes. I fell into a moody train of thought, for to me garrison life offered few attractions. I tried to picture my future chief, Captain Mironoff. I imagined a severe, morose old man, knowing nothing outside of the service, ready to arrest me for the least slip. Dusk was falling; we were advancing rapidly.
“How far is it from here to the fortress?” said I to the coachman.
“You can see it now,” he answered.
I looked on all sides, expecting to see high bastions, a wall, and a ditch. I saw nothing but a little village surrounded by a wooden palisade. On one side stood some hay-stacks half covered with snow; on the other a wind-mill, leaning to one side; the wings of the mill, made of the heavy bark of the linden tree, hung idle.
“Where is the fortress?” I asked, astonished.
“There it is,” said the coachman, pointing to the village which we had just entered. I saw near the gate an old iron cannon. The streets were narrow and winding, and nearly all the huts were thatched with straw. I ordered the coachman to drive to the Commandant’s, and almost immediately my kibitka stopped before a wooden house built on an eminence near the church, which was also of wood. From the front door I entered the waiting-room. An old pensioner, seated on a table, was sewing a blue piece on the elbow of a green uniform. I told him to announce me.
“Enter, my good sir,” said he, “our people are at home.”
I entered a very neat room, furnished in the fashion of other days. On one side stood a cabinet containing the silver. Against the wall hung the diploma of an officer, with colored engravings arranged around its frame; notably, the “Choice of the Betrothed,” the “Taking of Kurstrin,” and the “Burial of the Cat by the Mice.” Near the window sat an old woman in a mantilla, her head wrapped in a handkerchief. She was winding a skein of thread held on the separated hands of a little old man, blind of one eye, who was dressed like an officer.
“What do you desire, my dear sir?” said the woman to me, without interrupting her occupation. I told her that I had come to enter the service, and that, according to rule, I hastened to present myself to the captain. In saying this, I turned to the one-eyed old man, whom I took for the commandant. The good lady interrupted the speech which I had prepared in advance:
“Ivan Mironoff is not at home; he is gone to visit Father Garasim; but it is all the same; I am his wife. Deign to love us and have us in favor! Take a seat, my dear sir.” She ordered a servant to send her the Corporal. The little old man gazed at me curiously, with his only eye.
“May I dare to ask,” said he, “in what regiment you have deigned to serve?”
I satisfied him on that point.
“And may I dare to ask why you changed from the Guards to our garrison?”
I replied that it was by the orders of authority.
“Probably for actions little becoming an officer of the Guards?” resumed the persistent questioner.
“Will you stop your stupidities?” said the Captain’s wife to him. “You see the young man is fatigued by the journey; he has something else to do besides answering you. Hold your hands better! And you my dear sir,” continued she, turning to me, “do not be too much afflicted that you are thrust into our little town; you are not the first, and will not be the last. Now, there is Alexis Chabrine, who has been transferred to us for a term of four years for murder. God knows what provocation he had. He and a lieutenant went outside the city with their swords, and before two witnesses Alexis killed the lieutenant. Ah! misfortune has no master.”
Just then the Corporal entered, a young and handsome Cossack. “Maxim,” said the Captain’s wife, “give this officer a clean lodging.”
“I obey, Basilia,” replied the Cossack; “shall I lodge him with Ivan Pologoff?”
“You are doting, Maxim, he has too little space now; besides, he is my child’s godfather; and, moreover, he never forgets that we are his chiefs. What is your name, my dear sir?”
“Then conduct Peter Grineff to the quarters of Simeon Kieff. That rascal let his horse into my vegetable garden. Is all right, Maxim?”
“Thank God, all is quiet, except that Corporal Kourzoff quarreled with the woman Augustina about a pail of warm water.”
“Ignatius,” said the Captain’s wife to the one-eyed man, “judge between the two — decide which one is guilty, and punish both. Go, Maxim, God be with you. Peter Grineff, Maxim will conduct you to your lodgings.”
I took my leave; the Corporal led me to a cabin placed on the high bank near the river’s edge, at the end of the fortress. Half of the cabin was occupied by the family of Simeon Kieff, the other was given up to me. My half of the cabin was a large apartment divided by a partition. Saveliitch began at once to install us, whilst I looked out of the narrow window. Before me stretched the bleak and barren steppe; nearer rose some cabins; at the threshold of one stood a woman with a bowl in her hand calling the pigs to feed; no other objects met my sight, save a few chickens scratching for stray kernels of corn in the street. And this was the country to which I was condemned to pass my youth! I turned from the window, seized by bitter sadness, and went to bed without supper, notwithstanding the supplications of Saveliitch, who with anguish cried aloud: “Oh! he will not deign to eat! O Lord! what will my mistress say, if the child should fall ill!”
The next morning I had scarcely begun to dress, when a young officer entered my room. He was of small size, with irregular features, but his sun-burned face had remarkable vivacity. “Pardon me,” said he in French, “that I come so unceremoniously to make your acquaintance. I learned yesterday of your arrival, and the desire of seeing at last a human face so took possession of me that I could wait no longer. You will understand this when you shall have lived here some time!”
I easily guessed that he was the officer dismissed from the Guards for the affair of the duel — Alexis Chabrine. He was very intelligent; his conversation was sprightly and interesting. He described with impulse and gayety the Commandant’s family, society, and in general the whole country round. I was laughing heartily, when Ignatius, the same old pensioner whom I had seen mending his uniform in the Captain’s waiting-room, entered, and gave me an invitation to dinner from Basilia Mironoff, the Captain’s wife. Alexis declared that he would accompany me.
Approaching the Commandant’s house we saw on the square some twenty little old pensioners, with long queues and three-cornered hats. These old men were drawn up in line of battle. Before them stood the Commandant, a fresh and vigorous old man of high stature, in dressing-gown and cotton cap. As soon as he saw us, he approached, addressed me a few affable words, and then resumed his drill. We were going to stay to see the manoeuvering, but he begged us to go on immediately to the house, promising to join us at once; “for,” said he, “there is really nothing to be seen here.”
Basilia received us kindly, and with simplicity, treating me like an old acquaintance. The pensioner and the maid Polacca were laying the table-cloth.
“What is the matter with my dear Ivan Mironoff, today, that he is so long instructing his troops?” said the mistress. “Polacca, go and bring him to dinner. And where is my child, Marie?” Scarcely had she pronounced this name, than a young girl about sixteen entered the room; — a rosy, round-faced girl, wearing her hair in smooth bandeaux caught behind her ears, which were red with modesty and shyness. She did not please me very much at the first glance; I was prejudiced against her by Alexis, who had described the Captain’s daughter to me as a fool. Marie seated herself in a corner and began to sew. The soup was brought on the table. Basilia, not seeing her husband coming, sent the maid a second time to call him.
“Tell the master that his inspection can wait; the soup is cooling. Thank God! the drills need not be lost; there will be time enough yet to use his voice at his leisure.”
The captain soon appeared with his one-eyed officer.
“What’s this, my dear,” said Basilia; “the table has been served some time, and no one could make you come.”
“You see, Basilia, I was busy with the service, instructing my good soldiers.”
“Come, come, Ivan Mironoff, that’s boasting. The service does not suit them, and as for you, you know nothing about it. You should have stayed at home and prayed God, that suits you much better. My dear guests, to table.”
We took our places for dinner. Basilia was not silent a moment; she overwhelmed me with questions: Who were my parents? Were they living? Where did they reside? What was their fortune? When she learned that my father owned three hundred serfs, she exclaimed:
“You see there are some rich people in the world — and we, my dear sir, in point of souls, we possess only the maid Polacca. Yet, thank God, we live, somehow or other. We have but one care, that is Marie, a girl that must be married off. And what fortune has she? The price of two baths per annum. If only she could find a worthy husband. If not, there she is, eternally a maid.”
I glanced at Marie; she blushed, tears were dropping into her soup. I pitied her, and hastened to change the conversation. “I have heard that the Bashkirs intend to attack your fortress?”
“Who said so,” replied Ivan Mironoff.
“I heard it at Orenbourg.”
“All nonsense,” said Ivan, “we have not heard the least word about it; the Bashkirs are an intimidated people; and the Kirghis have also had some good lessons. They dare not attack us, and if they should even dream of it, I would give them so great a fright that they would not move again for ten years.”
“Do you not fear,” I continued, addressing Basilia, “to stay in a fortress exposed to these dangers?”
“A matter of habit, my dear,” she replied, “twenty years ago, when we were transferred here from the regiment, you could not believe how I feared the pagans. If I chanced to see their fur caps, if I heard their shouts, believe me, my heart was ready to faint; but now I am so used to this life, that if told that the brigands were prowling around us, I would not stir from the fortress.”
“Basilia is a very brave lady,” observed Alexis, gravely. “Ivan Mironoff knows some thing about it.”
“Oh, you see,” said Ivan, “she does not belong to the regiment of poltroons.”
“And Marie,” I asked of her mother “is she as bold as you?”
“Marie?” said the lady. “No! Marie is a coward. Up to the present she has not heard the report of a gun without trembling in every limb. Two years ago Ivan had a pleasant fancy to fire off his cannon on my birthday; the poor pigeon was so frightened that she almost went into the next world. Since that day the miserable cannon has not spoken.”
We rose from the table. The captain and his wife went to take their siesta. I went with Alexis to his room, where we passed the evening together.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59