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

CHAPTER VI.

POUGATCHEFF.[1]

Before entering on the account of the singular events to which I was a witness, I must say a few words with respect to the condition of the Government of Orenburg, at the close of the year 1773.

This vast and rich government was peopled by a large number of half-savage tribes, who had but recently acknowledged the supremacy of the Russian emperors. Their continual uprisings, their freedom from laws and a state of civilization, their levity and cruelty, necessitated constant watchfulness on the part of the government, in order to keep them in subjection. Fortresses were erected in suitable places, where Cossacks, who were the original possessors of the shores of the Yaïk, were permanently located. But the Cossacks of the Yaïk, whose duty it was to ensure the peace and safety of this territory, had for some time past become turbulent and dangerous subjects of the crown. In 1772 a tumult took place in their chief town. The cause of it originated in the severe measures adopted by Major-general Traubenberg to bring the troops into due submission. The result was, the barbarous murder of Traubenberg, a self-constituted change in the leadership, and finally, the suppression of the revolt by means of grape-shot and the infliction of cruel punishment.

This had happened shortly before my arrival at the fortress of Byĕlogorsk. Everything now was quiet, or appeared to be so. The authorities had too easily believed in the feigned repentance of the wily rebels, who were secretly nursing their hatred, and were only awaiting a fitting opportunity for the renewal of disorders.

I return to my narrative.

 

Sitting alone one evening (this was in the beginning of October, 1773), I was listening to the whistling of the autumn wind, and looking through the window, watched the clouds which were passing rapidly across the moon. The commandant sent for me; I instantly obeyed. I found Shvabrine, Ivan Ignatitch, and the Cossack orderly, assembled at his house. Neither Vassilissa Yegorovna nor Maria Ivanovna were in the room. The commandant saluted me in a disturbed manner. He closed the door, bid us all be seated, with the exception of the orderly, who remained standing, drew a paper from his pocket, and said, "Gentlemen, news of importance! Listen to what the general writes." Here he put on his spectacles, and read as follows:

 

"To the Commandant of the Fortress of Byelogorsk,

"Captain Mironoff.

"Confidential.

"I herewith inform you that Emilian Pougatcheff, a Cossack of the Don, and a sectarian, has escaped from arrest, and having with unpardonable temerity assumed the name of the late Emperor Peter III., has gathered around him a band of wretches, has incited to sedition, in the villages on the shores of the Yaïk, and has already taken and destroyed several fortresses, pillaging and massacring everywhere. You are therefore, captain, herewith commanded to adopt immediately, upon the receipt of this, the necessary measures for repelling the above-named wretch and pretender; and you are, if possible, to annihilate him entirely should he attempt to attack the fortress entrusted to your charge."

 

"To take the necessary measures!" said the commandant, removing his spectacles, and folding the paper. "It is very easy to say so. The rascal seems to be formidable, and we can only muster one hundred and thirty men, all told, without including the Cossacks, on whom we can scarcely rely; no offence meant, Maksymitch" (the orderly smiled). "However, let us be ready, gentlemen. Be on the alert, establish sentry posts and night rounds; in the event of an attack, shut the gates and assemble the soldiers. Thou, Maksymitch, must watch thy Cossacks closely. Let the gun be examined and properly cleaned. And above all things, let this be kept secret, so that no person in the fortress shall know anything about it before the time."

Having given these directions, Ivan Kouzmitch dismissed us. Shvabrine and I went away together, discussing what we had just heard.

"How dost thou think this will end?" I asked.

"God knows," he answered; "we shall see. I see nothing alarming in all this as yet. But in case . . ."

Here he became thoughtful, absently whistling a French tune.

Notwithstanding all our precautions, the news of Pougatcheff's appearance had spread in the fortress. Although Ivan Kouzmitch entertained the greatest respect for his wife, nothing on earth would have induced him to confide to her a service report of a confidential nature. Upon receiving the general's letter, he very cleverly disposed of Vassilissa Yegorovna, by telling her that Father Gherassim had received astounding news from Orenburg, which he mysteriously kept to himself. Vassilissa Yegorovna immediately decided upon paying a visit to the priest's wife, and acting upon the advice of Ivan Kouzmitch, she took Masha with her, so that she might not feel dull if left alone.

Ivan Kouzmitch left to himself, immediately sent for us, having locked Paláshka up in the lumber-room to prevent her from eavesdropping.

Vassilissa Yegorovna returned home without having been able to gather anything from the priest's wife, and learned that Ivan Kouzmitch had held a council of war during her absence, Paláshka being in the meanwhile locked up. Guessing that her husband had deceived her, she commenced to question him. But Ivan Kouzmitch was prepared for the attack. He never lost his presence of mind, and replied to the queries of his inquisitive helpmate courageously.

"You see, my little mother, our women here have taken to light their stoves with straw, and as an accident may easily result, in consequence, I have given strict orders that they shall henceforth be prohibited from doing so, and that they should light their stoves with faggots and brushwood."

"Then why didst thou lock up Paláshka?" asked the commandant's wife. "For what offence did the poor girl have to sit in the lumber-room until our return?"

Ivan Kouzmitch was not prepared for such a question. He got puzzled and muttered something incoherently. Persuaded of her husband's cunning, but knowing full well that she should learn nothing of him, Vassilissa Yegorovna ceased interrogating, and turned the conversation to salted cucumbers, which Akoulina Pamphylovna prepared in quite a peculiar manner. She could not sleep all night, unable to conceive what could possibly occupy her husband's mind, that she was not to know.

The next day, upon her return from mass, she saw Ivan Ignatitch busily engaged extracting from the gun the rags, pebbles, bits of wood, knuckle-bones, and all sorts of rubbish with which the children had crammed it.

"What can these warlike preparations mean?" mused the commandant's wife. "Can it be possible that the Khirghis are expected to attack? But is it likely that Ivan Kouzmitch conceals such trifles from me?" She called Ivan Ignatitch, determined to coax out of him the secret which so tormented her female curiosity.

Vassilissa Yegorovna made some remarks having reference to housekeeping, like a judge who prefaces his interrogatory by putting irrelevant questions in order to throw the accused off his guard. After a momentary silence, she sighed deeply and said, shaking her head—

"Good God! What news! What will come of it?"

"Well, my little mother!" answered Ivan Ignatitch, "God is merciful. We have a pretty good number of soldiers, plenty of powder, and I have cleaned out the gun. We may yet repulse Pougatcheff. If God does not forsake us, the pig will not eat us!"[2]

"And what is this Pougatcheff like?" asked the commandant's wife.

Here Ivan Ignatitch felt that he had betrayed himself, and stopped short. But it was too late. Vassilissa Yegorovna obliged him to confess everything, after having promised not to tell any one.

Vassilissa Yegorovna kept her word, and did not tell any one, except the priest's wife, and then she only did so because her cow was out grazing on the steppe, and might be carried off by the rascals.

Pougatcheff was soon in everybody's mouth. The rumours respecting him varied. The commandant despatched the orderly to the neighbouring villages and fortresses to gain all possible information about him. The orderly returned after a couple of days, and reported that he had seen, at a distance of about sixty versts from the fortress, a great many fires laid, and had heard from the Bashkirs that an innumerable host was advancing. He was not able, however, to affirm anything with certainty, for he was afraid to venture too far.

It was easy to notice the general excitement that prevailed among the Cossacks in the fortress; forming themselves into little groups in the streets, they conversed in an undertone, and dispersed at the sight of a dragoon or of one of the soldiers. Spies were set on them. Youlaï, a baptized Kalmuck, made to the commandant an important disclosure. "The orderly's report," Youlaï said, "was false. On his return the stealthy Cossack had declared to his comrades that he had been with the rebels, had been conducted before their leader, who had given him his hand to kiss, and had conversed with him for a long time." The commandant immediately made a prisoner of the Cossack, and appointed Youlaï in his place. This news was received by the Cossacks with evident dissatisfaction. They murmured aloud, and Ivan Ignatitch, who carried the commandant's orders into execution, heard them say with his own ears: "Thou shalt catch it by-and-by, thou garrison rat!" It was the intention of the commandant to have interrogated the prisoner that very day; but the orderly had made his escape from confinement, probably by the aid of some accomplices.

A fresh occurrence increased the commandant's uneasiness. A Bashkir, upon whom were found seditious papers, had been seized. The commandant again deemed it necessary to assemble his officers, and again sought to get rid of Vassilissa Yegorovna under some plausible pretext. But being a straightforward and truthful man, Ivan Kouzmitch could think of no other plan but that to which he had already had recourse.

"Look here, Vassilissa Yegorovna," said he, coughing several times; "I am told that Father Gherassim has received from the town——"

"Leave off telling stories, Ivan Kouzmitch," interrupted his wife. "Thou art probably about to assemble a council to talk in my absence about Emilian Pougatcheff; but I shall not be taken in this time."

Ivan Kouzmitch stared at her.

"Well, my little mother," said he; "since thou dost know all about it, thou mayst remain; we shall talk it over in thy presence."

"That's it, my little father," she answered; "it is not for thee to be so sly; now, send for the officers."

We again met. Ivan Kouzmitch read to us in his wife's presence Pougatcheff's proclamation, written probably by some illiterate Cossack. The scoundrel declared it to be his intention to march on our fortress without delay; he invited the Cossacks and the soldiers to join his band, and advised the commandant not to resist, under pain of death. The proclamation was coarsely worded, but in strong terms, and would undoubtedly have produced a mischievous influence on simple-minded people.

"There's a blackguard!" exclaimed the commandant's wife. "What will he be demanding next? Does he require us to go out to meet him and lay the colours at his feet? Oh, the son of a dog! He does not know that we have served for forty years, and that, thank God, we have seen something during that time! Is it possible that there are commandants who have yielded to the rascals?"

"It should not be possible," answered Ivan Kouzmitch; "and yet I understand that the wretch has taken possession of many fortresses."

"He must indeed be strong," remarked Shvabrine.

"We shall soon know his real strength," said the commandant. "Vassilissa Yegorovna, give me the key of the store-room. Ivan Ignatitch, send the Bashkir here, and order Youlaï to bring the lash."

"Wait a bit, Ivan Kouzmitch," said the commandant's wife, rising. "Let me take Masha out of the house, or she will get frightened on hearing shrieks. And truth to tell, I myself am not fond of such investigations. Good-bye to you."

The system of torture was so deeply rooted in the administration of justice in the olden time, that the humane ukase which abolished it, remained disregarded for a considerable time. The prisoner's confession was considered indispensable, to establish his conviction, which is not only a false idea, but one also literally opposed to common sense in a judicial point of view; for if denial on the part of the culprit is not admissible as proof of his innocence, still less should his confession be accepted as evidence of guilt. Even at the present time do I occasionally hear old judges regret the abolition of that barbarous custom. But in those days no one doubted the absolute necessity for it; neither the judges nor yet the accused themselves. The commandant's orders, therefore, did not astonish or disquiet any of us. Ivan Ignatitch went for the Bashkir, who was locked up in the store-room, and in a few moments the prisoner was brought into the hall. The commandant directed that he should be conducted to his presence.

The Bashkir had some difficulty in stepping over the threshold (his feet were in stocks), and taking off his cap, he stood at the door. Looking up at him, I started. Never shall I forget that man. He appeared to be over seventy. He had no nose nor ears. His head was shaven; a few gray hairs on his chin replaced a beard; he was short, thin, and bent; but his narrow eyes sparkled like fire.

"Ah! ha!" said the commandant, having by these dreadful indications recognized one of the rebels who had been punished in 1741, "I see thou art an old wolf, who hast already been taken in our traps. It is not the first time thou playest the rebel, or thy head would not be so well shaven. Come nearer; speak; who sent thee?"

The old Bashkir remained silent and looked at the commandant with a vacant stare.

"Why dost thou not speak?" continued Ivan Kouzmitch. "Dost thou not understand Russian? Youlaï, ask him in your language, who sent him into our fortress?"

Youlaï repeated the question in Tartar. But the Bashkir looked at him with the same expression, not saying a word in reply.

"Yakshee!"[3] said the commandant. "I shall make thee speak. Take off his fool's striped dressing-gown and pink his back. Youlaï, see that it is properly done."

Two invalids proceeded to strip the Bashkir. The unhappy man's face assumed an expression of anxiety. He looked about him like a poor little animal just caught by children. But when one of the invalids seized his hands, and putting them round his neck, lifted the old man on to his shoulders, and Youlaï took the lash and raised it then the Bashkir groaned in a feeble supplicating tone, and, shaking his head, he opened his mouth, where, instead of his tongue, he moved a short stump.

When I call to mind that this has happened in my life-time, and that I have lived to see the mild reign of the Emperor Alexander, I cannot but marvel at the rapid strides civilization has made, and at the diffusion of humane measures. Young man! should these pages fall into your hands, bear in mind that the best and most lasting reforms are those which emanate from the amelioration of morals without violent commotions.

We were all painfully overcome.

"Well," said the commandant, "I see we are not to expect anything from him; Youlaï, lead the Bashkir back to the store-room. And we, gentlemen, have still something to discuss."

We were beginning to consider our position, when Vassilissa Yegorovna rushed into the room breathless and agitated.

"What has happened?" asked the astonished commandant.

"My little father—a calamity," answered Vassilissa Yegorovna. "The fortress of Nijneōzero has been taken this morning. Father Gherassim's workman has just returned from there. He saw them take it. The commandant and all the officers have been hanged. All the soldiers are made prisoners. The wretches will be here before one has time to turn."

This unexpected intelligence impressed me forcibly. I was acquainted with the commandant of the fortress of Nijneōzero, a quiet unassuming young man; he had been with us two months previously on his way from Orenburg with his young wife, and had put up at the house of Ivan Kouzmitch. The fortress of Nijneōzero was twenty-five versts distant from us. We might expect Pougatcheff's attack hourly. I vividly pictured to myself the fate of Maria Ivanovna, and my heart sank within me.

"Listen, Ivan Kouzmitch," said I to the commandant, "it is our duty to defend the fortress to our last breath; nothing can be urged against this. But we must think of the safety of the women. Send them to Orenburg if the road is still free, or to a distant and safer fortress where the wretches have not yet had time to penetrate."

Turning to his wife, Ivan Kouzmitch said: "See here, my little mother, how would it do if you really went away, until we have settled with the rebels?"

"Oh, nonsense!" said the commandant's wife. "Where is the fortress that is assured against bullets? Why is not Byĕlogorsk safe? God be thanked, this is the twenty-second year that we are in it. We have seen Bashkirs and Khirghis; we may overcome Pougatcheff as well!"

"Well, my little mother," reiterated Ivan Kouzmitch, "thou mayest stay on, if thou puttest so much trust in our fortress. But what are we to do with Masha? It is well if we are victorious, or if we obtain relief in time; but if the wretches capture the fortress?"

"Well, in that case——"

Here Vassilissa Yegorovna became confused and stopped short, greatly agitated.

"No, Vassilissa Yegorovna," continued the commandant, noticing that, perhaps for the first time in his life, his words had taken effect, "it is not fit that Masha should remain here. Let us send her to Orenburg to her godmother; enough guns and troops there, besides its stone walls. And I would advise thee also to go with her; although thou art an old woman, thou knowest not what may befall thee if the fortress should be carried by assault."

"Well," said the commandant's wife, "be it so. We shall send Masha. As to myself, do not think of asking me any more, for I shall not go. Why should I leave thee in my old age, and seek a lonely grave in a distant soil. We have lived together, we must die together."

"There is some sense in that," said the commandant. "But let us not delay. Go and prepare Masha for the journey. She shall leave at daylight to-morrow, and we shall even give her an escort, though in truth we can ill afford to spare our men. But where is Masha?"

"With Akoulina Pamphylovna," answered his wife; "she fainted when she heard that Nijneōzero had been captured. I fear that she may get ill. Good God! that we should have come to this pass!"

Vassilissa Yegorovna went to prepare her daughter for her departure. The conference at the commandant's continued, but I no longer took a part in it, nor did I pay any further attention to it. Maria Ivanovna came to supper, looking pale, her face bearing traces of tears. We supped in silence, and rose from table earlier than usual; having bid each other good-night, we separated. But I had purposely forgotten my sword, and returned to fetch it; I had a presentiment that I should find Maria Ivanovna alone. Indeed, she met me at the door, and handed my sword to me.

"Good-bye, Piotr Andrevitch," said she, her eyes dim with tears; "I am sent away to Orenburg. May health and happiness attend you; perhaps, God willing, we may meet again, but if not——"

Here she broke into sobs. I embraced her.

"Good-bye, my angel," said I, "good-bye, my dear one. Happen what may to me, believe that my last thought, my last prayer, will be for thee!"

Masha wept on my breast. I kissed her passionately, and hurried out of the room.

 
 
  1. Emilian Pougatcheff, a Cossack of the Don, who had served during the Seven Years' War in the armies of Russia, Prussia, and Austria; returning to his own country, he incited a rebellion in 1773, assuming to be Peter III., who had been assassinated in 1762. Defeated on the banks of the Volga in 1774, and captured, he was beheaded at Moscow the following year.—Tr.
  2. Russian proverb.—Tr.
  3. Tartar for good.—Tr.