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Russian Romance (Pushkin)/The Captain's Daughter/Chapter III

CHAPTER III.

THE FORTRESS.

The fortress of Byĕlogorsk was situated at a distance of forty versts from Orenburg. The road led along the steep banks of the Yaïk. The river was not yet frozen over, and its leaden-coloured waves contrasted gloomily with the monotonous snow-covered shores. Beyond them stretched out the Khirghis Steppe. I was lost in reflections, which were mostly of a sad nature. A garrison life offered little enough attraction to me; I endeavoured to picture to myself the person of Captain Mironoff, my future chief, and I conceived him to be a strict, morose old man, without an idea beyond his duties, and who would be ready to put me under arrest, on bread and water, for every trifling offence. It was now getting dark; we were driving pretty fast. "Is the fortress far off?" I asked the yemstchick. "Not far," answered he; "there it is." I looked in all directions, expecting to view proud bastions, towers, and a ditch, but I could only see a small village, encircled by a wooden palisade. On one side stood three or four haystacks, partly covered with snow, upon the other was a sorry windmill, with bass fans which were in repose. "But where is the fortress?" I asked, in astonishment.

"Here it is," said the yemstchick, pointing at the village which we were about to enter. I observed at the gates an old bronze gun; the streets were narrow and crooked; the huts were low, and the greater number were thatched. I gave orders to drive to the commandant's residence, and in a few minutes the kibitka, stopped in front of a small wooden house, which stood upon high ground near the church, also built of wood.

Nobody came to meet me. I walked through the hall, and let myself into the ante-room. An old invalid, seated on a table, was fitting a blue patch to the elbow of a green uniform. I desired him to announce me.

"Come in, sir," said the invalid; "our people are at home."

I entered an old-fashioned and clean little room. In a corner stood a cupboard which contained crockery. An officer's commission, framed and glazed, hung on the wall; close to it were some coarse engravings, representing the taking of Kystrin and Otchakoff, "The Choice of a Bride," and "The Burial of the Cat." At the window sat an old woman in a warm jacket; her head bound up with a kerchief. She was winding a skein of thread, which was being held by a one-eyed old man, in an officer's uniform.

"What is it you want, sir?" she asked, continuing her occupation.

I replied that I had come to enter the service, and had hastened to report myself to the captain, as in duty bound, and was about to address myself to the one-eyed man, whom I took for the commandant; but the old lady anticipated the speech I had prepared.

"Ivan Kouzmitch[1] is not at home," she said; "he is gone to Father Gherassim. But it does not matter, sir; I am his wife. I beg you to love and be gracious to us.[2] Sit down, my little father."

She called a maidservant, and told her to send the orderly. The little old man with the solitary eye kept looking at me with curiosity.

"Dare I ask," said he, "in what regiment you have served?"

I satisfied his curiosity.

"And dare I ask," he continued, "why you have left the Guards for this garrison?"

I replied that such was the will of my superiors.

"Probably in consequence of your conduct not being creditable to an officer in the Guards?" continued the indefatigable questioner.

"Leave off talking nonsense," said the captain's wife to him; "thou seest that the young man is fatigued after his journey; he has other things to think about. . . . Hold thy hands out straighter. . . . And thou, my little father," continued she, turning to me; "don't fret at being banished to our wilderness. Thou art not the first, nor wilt thou be the last. One learns to love what one has to endure.[3] It is now five years since Shvabrine, Aleksey Ivanovitch[4] Shvabrine was sent here for manslaughter. Goodness knows what possessed him; he went, thou seest, into the country with a sub-lieutenant; they both took up their swords, and began to poke at each other, until Aleksey Ivanovitch run the sub-lieutenant through, and that in the presence of witnesses! What's to be done! Sin has not found its master."[3]

At that moment, the orderly, a young good-looking Cossack, came into the room.

"Maksymitch!"[5] said the captain's wife; "show this officer to his billet, and see that all is clean."

"I obey, Vassilissa Yegorovna,"[6] answered the orderly. "Would it not do to place his honour with Ivan Polejaeff?"

"Nonsense, Maksymitch," said she; "Polejaeff has no room to spare; besides, he is my koum, and does not forget that we are his superiors. Conduct the officer. . . . What is your and your father's name, sir?"

"Piotr Andrevitch."

"Take Piotr Andrevitch to Semion Koúzoff. The rascal has let his horse loose into my vegetable garden. Well, Maksymitch, is everything in order?"

"All's correct, God be praised," answered the Cossack, quietly; "only Corporal Próhoroff has had a fight with Oustynya Pezoulin in the bath house about a pail of hot water."

"Ivan Ignatitch!"[7] said the captain's wife, to the one-eyed little man; "find out which one of them is right, and who is wrong, and mind that thou punishest them both. Very well, Maksymitch, God be with thee. Piotr Andrevitch, Maksymitch will show you to your billet."

I took my leave. The orderly led me to a hut, situated on the upper part of the river's bank, at the very limits of the fortress. One half the hut was occupied by the family of Semion Koúzoff, the other half was given up to me. It consisted of one room, which was tolerably clean, and divided in two by a partition. Savelitch began to put things in order. I looked out of the narrow window. Before me lay a dreary steppe; on one side stood a few huts; some hens were wandering about the streets. In the porch was an old woman with a pail, calling her pigs, who responded with friendly grunts. And this was the place in which I was doomed to spend my youth! I felt sadly depressed. I left the window and laid myself down to sleep supperless, notwithstanding Savelitch's entreaties, who repeated mournfully—

"Good God! he will not eat! What will my mistress say, if the child gets ill?"

I had only just begun to dress on the following morning, when my door was opened, and in walked a young officer of middle stature with a dark and unmistakably plain, but lively face.

"Pardon me," said he, in French; "that I should come to make your acquaintance with so little ceremony. I heard yesterday of your arrival. The desire to see at last a new face, was so strong in me, that I could not hold out any longer. You will understand the feeling when you will have been here a little while."

I guessed that this was the officer who had been dismissed from the Guards for his share in the duel. We soon got acquainted. Shvabrine was a clever fellow. His conversation was witty and engaging. He gave me an amusing account of the commandant's family, his friends, and of the country to which fate had consigned me. I was laughing heartily, when the invalid, whom I had seen cleaning some uniform in the commandant's hall, came in with an invitation to dinner from Vassilissa Yegorovna. Shvabrine offered to accompany me.

As we approached the commandant's house, we saw on the small parade ground some twenty little old invalids with long pig-tails and cocked hats. They were standing in single file. In front of them was the commandant, a tall hale old man, in a night-cap and nankin dressing-gown. He approached upon perceiving us, addressed a few kind words to me, and resumed the drill. We proposed remaining to see the exercise, but he invited, us to go to Vassilissa Yegorovna, promising to follow shortly.

"Here," added he; "there is nothing for you to look at."

Vassilissa Yegorovna received us without any ceremony, but with warmth, and treated me as if she had known me for years. The invalid and Paláshka were laying the table.

"Why, what makes my Ivan Kouzmitch stay out so long to-day?" said the commandant's wife. "Paláshka, call your master to dinner. But where is Masha?"

Here a chubby and rosy-cheeked maiden of about eighteen, with light-brown hair smoothly brushed down behind her ears, which seemed to blush and tingle, came in. She did not impress me favourably at first. I had been prejudiced against her. Shvabrine had described Masha, the captain's daughter, as being a thorough simpleton. Maria Ivanovna [8]retired to a corner, and took up her needlework. The stchy[9] was served. Vassilissa Yegorovna not seeing her husband, again despatched Paláshka after him.

"Tell thy master the guests are waiting—the stchy will get cold—thank goodness the drills won't run away—he will have plenty of time to shriek himself hoarse."

The captain soon appeared accompanied by the one-eyed old man.

"What's the matter, my little father?" said his wife; "dinner has been served some time, and we cannot get thee to come."

"The fact is, Vassilissa Yegorovna," answered Ivan Kouzmitch, "I was on duty; I was instructing the little soldiers."

"Oh! nonsense," reiterated his wife; "thou only boastest when thou talkest of teaching soldiers; they are not suited for the service, nor dost thou know anything about it thyself. It would be better if thou would'st stay at home and say thy prayers. My esteemed guests, pray be seated."

We took our places. Vassilissa Yegorovna was not silent for an instant, and kept putting all manner of questions to me: who were my parents? were they alive? where did they live? what was their income? Upon learning that my father possessed three hundred peasants, "Is it possible!" she said; "well, there are rich people in the world! we possess only one soul,[10] the girl Paláshka, but, thank God, we manage to exist. We are beset but by one trouble: Masha is a marriageable girl, and what is her dower to be? a comb, a broom, and a few pence wherewith to pay for her bath. 'Twere well if some good man would take her with so much, otherwise she must remain an old maid."

I looked at Maria Ivanovna. She had blushed crimson, and tears were dropping on her plate. I felt for her and hastened to change the conversation.

"I have heard," I said, somewhat inopportunely, "it is apprehended that the Bashkirs purpose attacking your fortress."

"Who did'st thou hear that from, my little father?" asked Ivan Kouzmitch.

"I was told so at Orenburg," answered I.

"Nonsense!" said the commandant, "we have not heard anything about it for a long time. The Bashkirs have been intimidated, and the Khirghis have also learnt a lesson. Never fear, they will not touch us; and should they do so, I will punish them to such an extent as would compel them to keep still for the next ten years."

"And are you not afraid," I continued, addressing the captain's wife, "to remain in a fortress threatened by such dangers?"

"It is a matter of habit, my little father," said she "Twenty years ago we were transferred to this place from the regiment, and dear me, how frightened I used to be of those dd heathens! It was enough for me to see their fur caps and to hear their yells, and my heart seemed to stop beating! And now I do not even stir when I am told that those wretches are groping about the fortress."

"Vassilissa Yegorovna is a wonderfully brave lady," observed Shvabrine, seriously, with a consequential air. "Ivan Kouzmitch can bear witness to the fact."

"Yes, certainly," said Ivan Kouzmitch, "she is not one of the timid ones."

"And Maria Ivanovna," asked I, "is she as brave as you are?"

"Masha brave?" answered her mother. "No, Masha is a coward. She cannot even hear a gun fired without trembling all over. And when, two years ago, Ivan Kouzmitch took it into his head to fire our cannon on my name's day, my little dove almost died of fright. Since then we have ceased to fire the dddd cannon."

We rose from the table. The captain and his wife retired to enjoy their nap; I accompanied Shvabrine to his quarters, where I spent the remainder of the evening.

 
 
  1. John, the son of Cosmos.—Tr.
  2. A friendly mode of greeting.—Tr.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Russian proverbs.—Tr.
  4. Alexis, the son of John.—Tr.
  5. Son of Maximus.—Tr.
  6. Vassilissa, the daughter of Gregory.—Tr.
  7. John, the son of Ignatius.—Tr.
  8. Mary, the daughter of John.—Tr.
  9. Cabbage soup.—Tr.
  10. By the term soul was understood a serf.—Tr.