Before beginning the recital of the strange events of which I was witness, I ought to say a few words about the situation of affairs toward the end of the year 1773. The rich and vast province of Orenbourg was inhabited by a number of tribes, half civilized, who had just recognized the sovereignty of the Russian Czars. Their continual revolts, their impatience of law and civilized life, their inconstancy and cruelty, demanded on the part of the government a constant watchfulness to reduce them to obedience. Fortresses had been erected in favorable places, and Cossacks, the former possessors of the shores of the Iaik, in many places formed a part of the garrisons. But these very Cossacks, who should have guaranteed the peace and security of their districts, were restless and dangerous subjects of the empire. In 1772 a riot occurred in one of their chief towns. This riot was caused by the severity of the measures employed by General Traubenberg to bring the army to obedience. The only result of these measures was the barbarous murder of Traubenberg, a change of Imperial officers, and in the end, by force of grape and canister, the suppression of the riot.
This happened shortly before my arrival at the fortress of Belogorsk. Then all seemed quiet. But the authorities had too easily believed in the feigned repentance of the rebels, who nursed their hate in silence, and only awaited a propitious moment to recommence the struggle.
I return to my story. Once evening, it was in the month of October, 1773, I was alone in the house, listening to the whistling of the Autumn winds, and watching the clouds gliding rapidly before the moon. An order came from the Commandant, calling me to his presence. I went that instant. I found there Alexis, Ignatius and the Corporal of the Cossacks, but neither the wife nor daughter of the Commandant. My chief bade me good evening, had the door closed, and every one seated, except the Corporal who remained standing; then he drew a paper from his pocket and said to us:
“Gentlemen, important news! Listen to what the General writes.” He put on his spectacles and read:
“To the Commandant of the Fortress of Belogorsk, Captain Mironoff. Confidential. I hereby inform you that the deserter and turbulent Cossack of the Don, Imiliane Pougatcheff, after having been guilty of the unpardonable insolence of usurping the name of the deceased Emperor Peter III, has assembled a troop of brigands, disturbed the villages of the Iaik, and has even taken and destroyed several fortresses, at the same time committing everywhere robberies and assassinations. Therefore, upon the receipt of this, you will, Captain, bethink you of the measures to be taken to repulse the said robber and usurper; and if possible, in case he turn his arms against the fortress confided to your care, to completely exterminate him.”
“It is easy to talk,” said the Commandant, taking off his spectacles, and folding the paper; “but we must use every precaution. The rascal seems strong, and we have only 130 men, even adding the Cossacks, upon whom there is no dependence, be it said without reproach to thee, Maxim.” The Corporal of the Cossacks smiled. “Gentlemen, let us do our part; be vigilant, post sentries, establish night patrols; in case of an attack, shut the gates and call out the soldiers. Maxim, watch well your Cossacks. It is necessary to examine the cannon and clean it; and above all to keep the secret, that no one in the fortress should know any thing before the time.”
Having given his orders, Ivan Mironoff dismissed us. I went out with Alexis, speculating on what we had heard. “What do you think of it? How will this end?” I asked him.
“God knows,” he replied, “we shall see. At present there is no danger.” And he began, as if thinking, to hum a French air.
Notwithstanding our precautions the news of the apparition of Pougatcheff spread through the fortress. However great the respect of Ivan Mironoff for his wife, he would not reveal to her for anything in the world a military secret. When he had received the General’s letter he very adroitly rid himself of Basilia by telling her that the Greek priest had received from Orenbourg extraordinary news which he kept a great mystery. Thereupon Basilia desired to pay a visit to Accouline, the clergyman’s wife, and by Mironoff’s advice Marie went also. Master of the situation, Ivan Mironoff locked up the maid in the kitchen and assembled us.
Basilia came home without news, and learned that during her absence a council of war had been held, and that Polacca was imprisoned in the kitchen. She suspected that her husband had deceived her, and overwhelmed him with questions. He was prepared for the attack, and stoutly replied to his curious better-half:
“You see, my dear, the women about the country have been using straw to kindle their fires; now as that might be dangerous, I assembled my officers, and gave them orders to prevent these women lighting fires with anything but fagots and brushwood.”
“And why did you lock up Polacca in the kitchen till my return?” Ivan Mironoff had not foreseen that question, and muttered some incoherent words. Basilia saw at once her husband’s perfidy, but knowing that she could extract nothing from him at that moment, she ceased her questioning, and spoke of the pickled cucumbers which Accouline knew how to prepare in a superior fashion. That night Basilia never closed an eye, unable to imagine what it was that her husband knew that she could not share with him.
The next day, returning from mass, she saw Ignatius cleaning the cannon, taking out rags, pebbles, bits of wood, and all sorts of rubbish which the small boys had stuffed there. “What means these warlike preparations?” thought the Commandant’s wife? “Is an attack from the Kirghis feared? Is it possible that Mironoff would hide from me so mere a trifle?” She called Ignatius, determined to know the secret that excited her woman’s curiosity. Basilia began by making some remarks about household matters, like a judge who begins his interrogation with questions foreign to the affair, in order to reassure the accused, and throw him off his guard. Then having paused a moment she sighed and shook her head, saying: “O God! what news! what news! What will become of us?”
“My dear lady,” said Ignatius, “the Lord is merciful; we have soldiers and plenty of powder; I have cleaned the cannon. We may repulse this Pougatcheff. If the Lord is with us, the wolf will eat no one here.”
“Who is Pougatcheff?” asked the Commandant’s wife.
Ignatius saw that he had gone too far, and he bit his tongue. But it was too late. Basilia constrained him to tell her all, having given her word to keep the secret. She kept her word, and indeed told no one except Accoulina, whose cow was still on the steppe and might be carried off by the brigands. Soon every one talked of Pougatcheff, the current reports being very different. The Commandant sent out the Corporal to pick up information about him in all the neighboring villages and little forts. The Corporal returned after an absence of two days, and declared that he had seen on the steppe, sixty versts from the fortress, a great many fires, and that he had heard the Bashkirs say that an innumerable force was advancing. He could not tell anything definitely, having been afraid to venture farther.
Great agitation was soon after this observed amongst the Cossacks of our garrison. They assembled in groups in the streets, speaking in a low tone amongst themselves, and dispersing as soon as they perceived a dragoon or other Russian soldier. Orders were given to watch them. Zoulac, a baptized Kalmouk, made a very grave revelation to the Commandant. According to the Kalmouk, the Cossack made a false report; for to his comrades the perfidious Corporal said that he had advanced to the rebel camp, had been presented to their rebel chief, had kissed his hand and conversed with him. The Commandant ordered the Corporal under arrest, and replaced him by the Kalmouk. This change was received by the Cossacks with visible discontent. They openly murmured and Ignatius, when executing the Commandant’s order, heard them say, with his own ears, “wait, garrison rat, wait!”
The Commandant decided to examine the Corporal that same day, but he had escaped, no doubt, by the aid of his brother Cossacks. Another event increased the Captain’s uneasiness. A Bashkir was seized bearing seditious letters. Upon this occasion, the Commandant decided to call at once a council, and in order to do so, wished to send away his wife under some specious pretext. But as Mironoff was the simplest and most truthful of men, he could think of no other device than that already employed.
“You see, Basilia,” said he, coughing several times, “Father Garasim has, it is said, been to the city —”
“Silence! silence!” interrupted his wife; “you are going to call another council and talk in my absence of Imiliane Pougatcheff, but this time you can not deceive me.”
The Captain stared; “Eh! well! my dear,” said he, “since you know all, stay; we may as well speak before you.”
“You cannot play the fox,” said his wife; “send for the officers.”
We assembled again. The Commandant read, before his wife, Pougatcheff’s proclamation, written by some half-educated Cossack. The brigand declared to us his intention of marching directly upon our fortress, inviting the Cossacks and soldiers to join him, and advising the chiefs not to resist, threatening, in that case, extremest torture. The proclamation was written in vulgar but energetic terms, and must have produced an impression upon simple-minded people.
“What a rascal!” exclaimed the Captain’s wife. “Just see what he proposes. To go out and meet him and lay our flags at his feet. Ah! the son of a dog! He does not know that we have been forty years in service, and that, thank God, we have seen all sorts of military life. Is it possible to find a Commandant cowardly enough to obey this robber?”
“It ought not to be,” replied the Captain, “but it is said that the villain has taken possession of several fortress.”
“It appears he is quite strong,” said Alexis.
“We shall instantly know his real force,” continued the Commandant; “Basilia, give me the key of the garret. Ignatius, bring the Bashkir here, and tell Zoulac to bring the rods.”
“Wait a little, my dear,” said the Commandant’s wife, leaving her seat; “let me take Marie out of the house, or else she will hear the screams and be frightened. And, to tell the truth, I am, myself, not very curious about such investigations. Until I see you again, adieu.”
Torture was then so rooted in the customs of justice, that the humane Ukase of Catherine II, who had ordered its abolition, remained long without effect. It was thought that the confession of the accused was indispensable to his condemnation, an idea not only unreasonable, but contrary to the most simple good sense in matters of jurisprudence; for if the denial of the accused is not accepted as proof of his innocence, the confession which is torn from him by torture ought to serve still less as proof of his guilt. Even now I sometimes hear old judges regret the abolition of this barbarous custom. But in the time of our story no one doubted the necessity of torture, neither the judges nor the accused themselves. For this reason the Captain’s order did not astonish any of us. Ignatius went for the Bashkir, and a few minutes later he was brought to the waiting-room. The Commandant ordered him into the council-room where we were.
The Bashkir crossed the threshold with difficulty, for his feet were shackled. He took off his high Cossack cap and stood near the door. I looked at him and shuddered, involuntarily. Never shall I forget that man; he seemed at least seventy years of age, and had neither nose nor ears. His head was shaved; a few sparse gray hairs took the place of beard. He was small of stature, thin and bent; but his Tartar eyes still sparkled.
“Eh! eh!” said the Commandant, who recognized by these terrible signs one of the rebels punished in 1741. “You are an old wolf, I see; you have already been caught in our snares. This is not your first offense, for your head is so well planed off.”
The old Bashkir was silent, and looked at the Commandant with an air of complete imbecility.
“Well! why are you silent?” continued the Captain; “do you not understand Russian? Zoulac, ask him, in your tongue, who sent him into our fortress.”
The Kalmouk repeated in the Tartar language the Captain’s question. But the Bashkir looked at him with the same expression and without answering a word.
“I will make you answer,” exclaimed the Captain, with a Tartar oath. “Come, take off his striped dressing-gown, his fool’s garment, and scourge him well.”
Two pensioners commenced to remove the clothing from the shoulders of the old man. Then, sore distress was vividly depicted on the face of the unfortunate man. He looked on all sides, like a poor little animal caught by children. But when one of the pensioners seized his hands to turn them around his neck and lift up the old man on his shoulders; when Zoulac took the rods and raised his hand to strike, then the Bashkir uttered a low, but penetrating moan, and raising his head, opened his mouth, where, in place of a tongue, moved a short stump!
We were still debating, when Basilia rushed breathlessly into the room with a terrified air. “What has happened to you?” asked the Commandant, surprised.
“Misfortune! misfortune!” replied she. “A fort was taken this morning; Father Garasim’s boy has just returned. He saw how it was captured. The Commandant and all the officers are hanged, all the soldiers made prisoners, and the rebels are coming here.”
This unexpected news made a deep impression on me, for I knew the Commandant of that fortress. Two months ago, the young man, traveling with his bride coming from Orenbourg, had paid a visit to Captain Mironoff. The fort he commanded was only twenty-five versts from ours, so that from hour to hour we might expect an attack from Pougatcheff.
My imagination pictured the fate of Marie, and I trembled for her.
“Listen, Captain Mironoff,” said I to the Commandant, “our duty is to defend the fortress to our last breath; that is understood, but the safety of the women must be thought of; send them to a more distant fortress — to Orenbourg, if the route be still open.”
Mironoff turned to his wife. “You see my dear! indeed it would be well to send you somewhere farther off until we shall have defeated the rebels.”
“What nonsense!” replied she. “Where is the fortress that balls have not reached? In what respect is our fortress unsafe? Thank God, we have lived here twenty and one years. We have seen Bashkirs and Kirghis; Pougatcheff can not be worse than they.”
“My dear, stay if you will, since your faith is so great in our fortress. But what shall we do with Marie? It will be all well if we can keep off the robber, or if help reach us in time. If the fortress, however, be taken —”
Basilia could only stammer a few words, and was silent, choked by her feelings.
“No, Basilia,” continued the Commandant, who remarked that his words made a deep impression on his wife, perhaps for the first time in his life, “it is not advisable that Marie stay here. Let us send her to Orenbourg, to her god-mother’s. That is a well-manned fortress, with stone walls and plenty of cannon. I would advise you to go there yourself; think what might happen to you were your fortress to be taken by assault.”
“Well! well! let us send Marie away,” said the Captain’s wife, “but do not dream of asking me to go, for I will do nothing of the kind. It is not becoming, in my old age, to separate myself from thee and seek a solitary grave in a strange place. We have lived together; let us die together.”
“You are right,” said the Commandant. “Go, and equip Marie; there is no time to lose; tomorrow, at the dawn of day, she shall set out; she must have a convoy, though indeed there is no one to spare. Where is she?”
“She is at Accoulina’s,” said his wife. “She fainted upon hearing that the fortress had been taken.”
Basilia went to prepare for her daughter’s departure. The discussion still continued at the Commandant’s, but I took no further part in it. Marie reappeared at supper with eyes red from tears. We supped in silence and rose from the table sooner than usual. Having bade the family good night, each one sought his room. I forgot my sword, on purpose, and went back for it; I anticipated finding Marie alone. In truth she met me at the door and gave me my sword.
“Adieu, Peter,” she said, weeping, “they send me to Orenbourg. Be happy. Perhaps God will permit us to meet again; if not —”
She burst into tears. I folded her in my arms.
“Adieu, my angel!” I said, “adieu my cherished, my beloved; what ever happens, be sure that my last thought, my last prayer, will be for thee.” Leaning of my breast, Marie wept. I kissed her and rushed out.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59