I stood in the vacant square, unable to collect my thoughts, disturbed by so many terrible emotions. Uncertainty about Marie’s fate tortured me. Where is she? Is she concealed? Is her retreat safe? I went to the Commandant’s house. It was in frightful disorder; the chairs, tables, presses had been burned up and the dishes were in fragments. I rushed up the little stairs leading to Marie’s room, which I entered for the first time in my life. A lamp still burned before the shrine which had enclosed the sacred objects revered by all true believers. The clothes-press was empty, the bed broke up. The robbers had not taken the little mirror hanging between the door and the window. What had become of the mistress of this simple, virginal abode? A terrible thought flashed through my mind. Marie in hands of the brigands! My heart was torn, and I cried aloud: “Marie! Marie!” I heard a rustle. Polacca, quite pale, came from her hiding-place behind the clothes-press.
“Ah! Peter,” said she, clasping her hands, “what a day! what horrors!”
“Marie?” I asked impatiently, “Marie — where is she?”
“The young lady is alive,” said the maid, “concealed at Accoulina’s, at the house of the Greek priest.”
“Great God!” I cried, with terror, “Pougatcheff is there!”
I rushed out of the room, made a bound into the street and ran wildly to the priest’s house. It was ringing with songs, shouts and laughter. Pougatcheff was at table there with his men. Polacca had followed me; I sent her in to call out Accoulina secretly. Accoulina came into the waiting-room, an empty bottle in her hand.
“In the name of heaven, where is Marie?” I asked with agitation.
“The little dove is lying on my bed behind the partition. Oh! Peter, what danger we have just escaped! The rascal had scarcely seated himself at table than the poor thing moaned. I thought I should die of fright. He heard her. ‘Who is moaning in your room, old woman?’ ‘My niece, Czar.’ ‘Let me see your niece, old woman.’ I saluted him humbly; ‘My niece, Czar, has not strength to come before your grace.’ ‘Then I will go and see her.’ And will you believe it, he drew the curtains and looked at our dove, with his hawk’s eyes! The child did not recognize him. Poor Ivan Mironoff! Basilia! Why was Ignatius taken, and you spared? What do you think of Alexis? He has cut his hair and now hobnobs with them in there. When I spoke of my sick niece he looked at me as if he would run me through with his knife. But he said nothing, and we must be thankful for that.”
The drunken shouts of the guests, and the voice of Father Garasim now resounded together; the brigands wanted more wine, and Accoulina was needed. “Go back to your house, Peter,” said she, “woe to you, if you fall into his hands!”
She went to serve her guests; I, somewhat quieted, returned to my room. Crossing the square, I saw some Bashkirs stealing the boots from the bodies of the dead. I restrained my useless anger. The brigands had been through the fortress and had pillaged the officers’ houses.
I reached my lodging. Saveliitch met me at the threshold. “Thank God!” he cried. “Ah! master, the rascals have taken everything; but what matter, since they did not take your life. Did you not recognize their chief, master?”
“No, I did not; who is he?”
“What, my dear boy, have you forgotten the drunkard who cheated you out of the touloup the day of the snow-drift — a hare-skin touloup? — the rascal burst all the seams putting it on.”
My eyes were opened. The resemblance between the guide and Pougatcheff was striking. I now understood the pardon accorded me. I recalled with gratitude the lucky incident. A youth’s touloup given to a vagabond had saved my neck; and this drunkard, capturing fortress, had shaken the very empire.
“Will you not deign to eat something?” said Saveliitch, true to his instincts; “there is nothing in the house, it is true, but I will find something and prepare it for you.”
Left alone, I began to reflect that not to leave the fortress, now subject to the brigand, or to join his troops, would be unworthy of an officer. Duty required me to go and present myself where I could still be useful to my country. But love counseled me, with no less force, to stay near Marie, to be her protector and champion. Although I foresaw a near and inevitable change in the march of events, still I could not, without trembling, contemplate the danger of her position.
My reflections were interrupted by the entrance of a Cossack, who came to announce that the “great Czar” called me to his presence. “Where is he?” I asked, preparing to obey. “In the commandant’s house,” replied the Cossack. “After dinner the Czar went to the vapor baths. It must be confessed that all his ways are imperial! He can do more than others; at dinner he deigned to eat two roast milk-pigs; afterward at the bath he endured the highest degree of heat; even the attendant could not stand it; he handed the brush to another and was restored to consciousness only by the application of cold water. It is said that in the bath, the marks of the true Czar were plainly seen on his breast — a picture of his own face and a double-headed eagle.”
I did not think it necessary to contradict the Cossack, and I followed him to the Commandant’s, trying to fancy in advance my interview with Pougatcheff, and its result. The reader may imagine that I was not quite at ease. Night was falling as I reached the house. The gibbet with its victims still stood, black and terrible. The poor body of our good Basilia was lying under the steps, near which two Cossacks mounted guard. He who had brought me, entered to announce my arrival; he returned at once, and led me to the room where the evening before I had taken leave of Marie. At a table covered with a cloth, and laden with bottles and glasses, sat Pougatcheff, surrounded by some ten Cossack chiefs in colored caps and shirts, with flushed faces and sparkling eyes, the effect, no doubt, of the wine-cup.
I saw neither of our traitors, Alexis or the Corporal, amongst them.
“Ah! your lordship, it is you?” said their chief, on seeing me. “Be welcome! Honor and place at the table!”
The guests drew closer together. I took a place at the end of the table. My neighbor, a young Cossack of slender form and handsome face, poured out a bumper of brandy for me. I did not taste it. I was busy considering the assembly. Pougatcheff was seated in the place of honor, elbow on table, his heavy, black beard resting upon his muscular hand. His features, regular and handsome, had no ferocious expression. He often spoke to a man of some fifty years, calling him now Count, again Uncle. All treated each other as comrades, showing no very marked deference for their chief. They talked of the assault that morning; of the revolt, its success, and of their next operations. Each one boasted of his prowess, gave his opinions, and freely contradicted Pougatcheff. In this strange council of war, they resolved to march upon Orenbourg, a bold move, but justified by previous successes. The departure was fixed for the next day. Each one drank another bumper, and rising, took leave of Pougatcheff. I wished to follow them, but the brigand said: “Wait, I want to speak to you.”
Pougatcheff looked at me fixedly in silence for a few seconds, winking his left eye with the most cunning, mocking expression. At last he burst into a long peal of laughter, so hearty, that I, just from seeing him, began to laugh, without knowing why.
“Well, my lord,” said he, “confess that you were frightened, when my boys put the rope around your neck? The sky must have seemed to you then as big as a sheep-skin. And if not for your servant, you would have been swinging up there from the cross-beam; but at that very instant I recognized the old owl. Would you have thought that the man who led you to a shelter on the steppe was the great Czar himself?” Saying these words, he assumed a grave and mysterious air. “You have been very guilty,” continued he, “but I have pardoned you, for having done me a kindness, when I was obliged to hide from my enemies. I shall load you with favors, when I shall have regained my empire. Do you promise to serve me with zeal?”
The bandit’s question and impudence made me smile.
“Why do you laugh?” said he, frowning, “do you not believe that I am the great Czar? Answer frankly.”
I was troubled. I could not recognize a vagabond as the emperor; to call him an impostor to his face was to doom myself to death; and the sacrifice which I was ready to make under the gibbet that morning, before all the people, in the first flush of indignation, seemed now a useless bravado. Pougatcheff awaited my answer in fierce silence. At last (I still remember with satisfaction that duty triumphed over human weakness) I replied to Pougatcheff.
“I will tell you the truth and let you decide. Should I recognize you as the Czar, as you are a man of intelligence, you would see that I am lying.”
“Then who am I? in your opinion.”
“God knows, but whoever you are, you are playing a dangerous game.”
Pougatcheff gave me a sharp, quick glance. “You do not believe that I am the emperor, Peter III? Be it so. Have not bold men succeeded before me and obtained the crown? Think what you please about me, but stay with me. What matters it whom you serve? Success is right. Serve under me, and I will make you a field-marshal, a prince. What say you?”
“No,” said I. “I am a nobleman. I have taken an oath to her majesty, the Empress; I can not serve with you. If truly you wish me well, send me to Orenbourg.”
Pougatcheff reflected. “If I send you there, you will, at least, promise not to bear arms against me?”
“How can I promise that? If I am ordered to march against you, I must go. You are now a chief; you desire your subordinates to obey you. No, my life is in your hand; if you give me liberty, thanks; if you put me to death, may God judge you.”
My frankness pleased him. “Be it so,” said he, slapping me on the shoulders, “pardon or punish to the end. You can go the four quarters of the world, and do as you like. Come tomorrow, and bid me good-bye. Now go to bed — I require rest myself.”
I went out into the street. The night was clear and cold; the moon and stars shone out in all their brightness, lighting up the square and the gibbet. All was quiet and dark in the rest of the fortress. At the inn some lights were visible, and belated drinkers broke the stillness by their shouts. I glanced at Accoulina’s house; the doors and windows were closed, and all seemed perfectly quiet there. I went to my room, and found Saveliitch deploring my absence. I told him of my freedom. “Thanks to thee, O God!” said he, making the sign of the cross; “tomorrow we shall set out at daybreak. I have prepared something for you; eat and then sleep till morning, tranquil as if in the bosom of the Good Shepherd.”
I followed his advice, and after having supped, fell asleep on the bare floor, as fatigued in mind as in body.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12