I could not sleep during the night, and did not even undress. I intended to be at the fortress gates at day-dawn to see Marie set out, and bid her a last adieu. I was completely changed. Excitement was less painful than my former melancholy, for with the grief of separation there mingled vague but secret hope, impatient expectation of danger, and a high ambition. Night passed quickly. I was on the point of going out, when my door opened, and the Corporal entered, saying that our Cossacks had deserted the fortress during the night, forcing with them Zoulac, the Christian Kalmouk, and that all around our ramparts, unknown people were riding. The idea that Marie had not been able to get off, froze me with terror. I gave, in haste, a few instructions to the Corporal, and ran to the Commandant’s.
Day was breaking. I was going down the street swiftly when I heard my name called. I stopped.
“Where are you going, dare I ask?” said Ignatius, catching up with me; “the Captain is on the rampart and sends me for you. Pougatcheff is here.”
“Is Marie gone?” I said, shuddering.
“She was not ready in time; communication with Orenbourg is cut off; the fortress is surrounded. Peter, this is bad work.”
We went to the rampart — a small height formed by nature and fortified by a palisade. The garrison was there under arms. The cannon had been dragged there the evening before. The Commandant was walking up and down before his little troop — the approach of danger had restored to the old warrior extraordinary vigor. On the steppe, not far from the fortress, there were some twenty horsemen, who looked like Cossacks; but amongst them were a few Bashkirs, easily recognized by their caps and quivers. The Commandant passed before the ranks of his small army and said to the soldiers: “Come, boys, let us fight today for our mother the Empress, and show the world that we are brave men and faithful to our oath.”
The soldiers, with loud shouts, testified their good will. Alexis was standing by me examining the enemy. The people on the steppe, seeing, no doubt, some movement in our fort, collected in groups and spoke amongst themselves. The Commandant ordered Ignatius to point the cannon upon them, he himself applying the light. The ball whistled over their heads without doing them any harm. The horsemen dispersed at once, setting off on a gallop, and the steppe became deserted. At this moment Basilia appeared on the rampart, followed by Marie, who would not leave her.
“Well,” said the Captain’s wife, “how is the battle going? Where is the enemy?”
“The enemy is not far off,” replied Ivan, “but if God wills it, all will be well; and thou, Marie, art thou afraid?”
“No, papa,” said Marie, “I am more afraid by myself in the house.” She glanced at me, and tried to smile. I pressed my sword, remembering that I had received it from her on the preceding eve, as if for her defense. My heart was on fire. I fancied myself her knight, and longed to prove myself worthy of her trust. I awaited the decisive moment impatiently.
Suddenly coming from behind a hill, eight versts from the fortress, appeared new groups of horsemen, and soon the whole steppe was covered by men armed with lances and arrows. Amongst them, wearing a scarlet cafetan, sword in hand, could be distinguished a man mounted on a white horse. This was Pougatcheff himself. He halted, was surrounded by his followers, and very soon, probably by his orders, four men left the crowd and galloped to our ramparts. We recognized among them our traitors. One of them raised a sheet of paper above his cap and another carried on the point of his lance Zoulac’s head, which he threw to us over the palisade. The poor Kalmouk’s head rolled at the feet of the Commandant.
The traitors shouted to us: “Do not fire, come out and receive the Czar. The Czar is here.”
“Fire!” shouted the Captain as sole reply.
The soldiers discharged their pieces. The Cossack who held the letter, tottered and fell from his horse; the others fled. I glanced at Marie. Petrified by horror at the sight of the Kalmouk’s head, dizzy from the noise of the discharge, she seemed lifeless. The Commandant ordered the Corporal to take the letter from the hand of the dead Cossack. Ignatius sallied out and returned, leading by the bridle the man’s horse. He gave the letter to Ivan, who read it in a low voice and tore it up. Meantime the rebels were preparing for an attack. Very soon balls whistled about our ears, and arrows fell around us, buried deep in the ground.
“Basilia,” said the Captain, “women have nothing to do here; take away Marie; you see the child is more dead than alive.” Basilia, whom the sound of the balls had rendered more yielding, glanced at the steppe where much movement was visible, and said: “Ivan, life and death are from God; bless Marie; come, child, to thy father.”
Pale and trembling, Marie came and knelt, bending low before him. The old Commandant made three times the sign of the cross over her, then raising, kissed her, and said in a broken voice: “Oh! my dear Marie! pray to God, he will never abandon thee. If an honest man seek thee, may God give you both love and goodness. Live together as we have lived; my wife and I. Adieu! my dear Marie! Basilia, take her away quickly.”
Marie put her arms around his neck and sobbed. The Captain’s wife, in tears, said: “Embrace us also; adieu, Ivan; if ever I have crossed you, forgive me.”
“Adieu! adieu! my dear,” said the Commandant, kissing his old companion. “Come! enough! go to the house, and if you have time dress Marie in her best; let her wear a sarafan, embroidered in gold, as is our custom for burial.”
Ivan Mironoff returned to us, and fixed all his attention upon the enemy. The rebels collected around their chief and suddenly began to advance. “Be firm, boys,” said the Commandant, “the assault begins.” At that instant savage war-cries were heard. The rebels were approaching the fortress with their accustomed fleetness. Our cannon was charged with grape and canister. The Commandant let them come within short range, and again put a light to his piece. The shot struck in the midst of the force, which scattered in every direction. Only their chief remained in advance, and he, waving his sabre, seemed to be rallying them. Their piercing shouts, which had ceased an instant, redoubled again. “Now, children,” ordered the Captain, “open the gate, beat the drum, and advance! Follow me, for a sortie!”
The Captain, Ignatius and I were in an instant beyond the parapet. But the frightened garrison had not moved from the square. “What are you doing, my children?” shouted the Captain; “if we must die, let us die; the imperial service demands it!”
At this moment the rebels fell upon us, and forced the entrance to the citadel. The drum was silent; the garrison threw down their arms. I had been knocked down, but I rose and entered, pell-mell, with the crowds into the fortress. I saw the Commandant wounded on the head, and closed upon by a small troop of bandits, who demanded the keys. I was running to his aid when several powerful Cossacks seized me and bound me with their long sashes, crying out: “Wait there, traitor to the Czar, till we know what to do with you.”
We were dragged along the streets. The inhabitants came out of their houses offering bread and salt. The bells were rung. Suddenly, shouts announced that the Czar was on the square, awaiting to receive the oaths of the prisoners.
Pougatcheff was seated in an arm-chair on the steps of the Commandant’s house. He was robed in an elegant Cossack cafetan embroidered on the seams. A high cap of martin-skin, ornamented with gold tassels, covered his brow almost to his flashing eyes. His face seemed to me not unknown. Cossack chiefs surrounded him. Father Garasim, pale and trembling, stood, the cross in his hand, at the foot of the steps, and seemed to supplicate in silence for the victims brought before him.
On the square itself, a gallows was hastily erected. When we approached, the Bashkirs opened a passage through the crowd and presented us to Pougatcheff. The bells ceased; the deepest silence prevailed. “Which is the Commandant?” asked the usurper. Our Corporal came out of the crowd and pointed to Mironoff. Pougatcheff looked at the old man with a terrible expression, and said to him: “How did you dare to oppose me, your emperor?”
The Commandant, weakened by his wound, collected all his energy, and said, in a firm but faint voice: “You are not my emperor; you are a usurper and a brigand.”
Pougatcheff frowned and raised his white handkerchief. Immediately the old Captain was seized by Cossacks and dragged to the gibbet. Astride the cross-beam of the gallows, sat the mutilated Bashkirs who we had questioned; he held a rope in his hand, and I saw, an instant after, poor Ivan Mironoff suspended in the air. Then Ignatius was brought up before Pougatcheff.
“Take the oath to the emperor, Peter Fedorovitch.”
“You are not our emperor,” replied the Lieutenant, repeating his Captain’s words, “you are a brigand and a usurper.”
Pougatcheff again made a signal with his handkerchief, and the kind Ignatius hung beside his ancient chief. It was my turn. I looked boldly at Pougatcheff, preparing to repeat the words of my brave comrades, when to my inexpressible astonishment I saw Alexis amongst the rebels. He had had time to cut his hair round, and exchange his uniform for a Cossack cafetan. He approached Pougatcheff and whispered to him. “Let him be hung,” said Pougatcheff, not deigning to look at me. A rope was put around my neck. I uttered a prayer to God in a low voice, expressing sincere repentance for my sins, and imploring him to save all those dear to my heart. I was led beneath the gibbet. A shout was heard, “Stop! Stop!” The executioners paused. I looked. Saveliitch was kneeling at Pougatcheff’s feet. “O my lord and master,” said my dear old serf, “what do you want with that nobleman’s child? Set him free, you will get a good ransom for his life; but for an example, and to frighten the rest, command that I, an old man, shall be hung.”
Pougatcheff made a sign. They unbound me at once. “Our emperor pardons you,” they said. At the moment I did not know that my deliverance was a cause for joy or for sorrow. My mind was too confused. I was taken again before the usurper and made to kneel at his feet. Pougatcheff offered me his muscular hand. “Kiss his hand! Kiss his hand!” cried out all around me. But I would have preferred the most atrocious torture to a degradation so infamous. “My dear Peter,” whispered Saveliitch, who was standing behind me, “do not play the obstinate; what does it cost? Kiss the brigand’s hand.”
I did not move. Pougatcheff drew back his hand: “His lordship is stupefied with joy; raise him up,” said he. I was at liberty. Then I witnessed the continuation of the infamous comedy.
The inhabitants began to take the oath. They went one by one to kiss the cross and salute the usurper. After them came the garrison soldiers. The company’s tailor, armed with his great blunt-pointed shears, cut off their queues; they shook their heads and kissed the hand of Pougatcheff, who declared them pardoned and received into his troops. This lasted for nearly three hours. At last Pougatcheff rose from his arm-chair and went down the steps, followed by his chiefs. A white horse richly caparisoned was led to him; tow Cossacks helped him into the saddle. He signified to Father Garasim that he would dine with him. At this moment wild heart-rending shrieks from a woman filled the air. Basilia, without her mantle, her hair in disorder, was dragged out on the steps; one the brigands had on her mantle; the others were carrying away her chests, her linen, and other household goods. “O good men,” she cried, “let me go, take me to Ivan Mironoff.” Suddenly she saw the gibbet and recognized her husband. “Wretches,” she cried, “What have you done? O my light, Ivan! Brave soldier! no Prussian ball, nor Turkish sabre killed thee, but a vile condemned deserter.”
“Silence that old sorceress,” said Pougatcheff.
A young Cossack struck her with his sabre on the head. She fell dead at the foot of the steps. Pougatcheff rode off, all the people following.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53