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

CHAPTER X.

THE SIEGE.

As we approached Orenburg, we passed a crowd of convicts with shaven heads, and faces disfigured by the tongs of the executioner. They were at work on the fortifications, under an escort of garrison invalids. Some were employed carting away the rubbish which filled the ditch, others, with spades, digging the earth; on the ramparts were masons carrying bricks and repairing the walls. We were stopped by the sentries at the gate, who demanded our passports. Upon hearing that I had come from the fortress of Byĕlogorsk, the sergeant conducted me straight to the general's residence.

I found him in the garden. He was examining the apple-trees which had been ripped by the blasts of autumn, and, assisted by his gardener, was carefully enveloping them in straw. His countenance was serene, good-natured, and healthy. He was delighted to see me, and proceeded to make inquiries respecting the lamentable events of which I had been a witness. I related all to him. The old man listened with attention, removing meanwhile the dead branches.

"Poor Mironoff!" said he, when I had ended my sad recital; "what a pity! He was a good officer, and Madame Mironoff was a good lady, and so clever at salting mushrooms! And what about Masha, the captain's little daughter?"

I replied that she remained at the fortress in charge of the priest's wife.

"Ay, ay, ay!" observed the general, "that's bad, very bad. One cannot possibly rely on the discipline of the robbers. What will become of the poor girl?"

I replied that Byĕlogorsk, being at no great distance, his excellency would probably not delay in sending troops for the relief of its poor inhabitants.

The general shook his head, doubtfully; "We shall see, we shall see," said he. "We shall have time enough to talk it over. I beg you will do me the favour to come and take a cup of tea. I hold a council of war to-day. You will be able to give us correct information about the miscreant Pougatcheff and his army. In the meantime, go and rest."

I repaired to the rooms assigned to me, where I found Savelitch already engaged putting things in order, and I impatiently awaited the appointed time. The reader will easily understand that I did not fail to appear at the council which was to have such an influence on my future career. I proceeded to the general's, at the hour fixed. There I found one of the civil authorities of the town, if I remember aright, the Director of Customs, a stout, red-faced, little old man, in a watered silk caftan. He questioned me regarding the fate of Ivan Kouzmitch, whom he called his koum, and frequently interrupted me with extraneous questions, and moral reflections, which if they did not prove him to be a man versed in military matters, at least evinced his natural intellect and sagacity. The other members soon assembled. After having taken our places, and the tea having been handed round, the general laid before us very distinctly, and in detail, the state of affairs.

"Now, gentlemen," he continued, "we must decide our course of action towards the rebels: the defensive or the offensive? Both modes have their advantages and disadvantages. To act on the offensive offers greater chances for the speedy destruction of the enemy; to remain on the defensive is surer and safer. . . . . Therefore, let us put it to the vote in legal order, that is to say, beginning with the juniors. Ensign!" he continued, turning to me, "pray give us your opinion."

I rose, and after having in a few words described Pougatcheff and his band, confidently affirmed that the Pretender had no means of withstanding regular forces.

My opinion was received by the members with evident dissatisfaction. In their judgment it was the rash and impertinent notion of a young man. In the muttering which ensued, I distinctly overheard the word "greenhorn" pronounced in a whisper. The general turned to me, and said with a smile,

"Ensign! the first votes at councils of war are usually given in favour of offensive measures: that is the usual procedure. Let us now continue to collect other votes. Kallejsky Savetnik,[1] tell us your opinion."

The little old man in the watered silk caftan quickly emptied his third cup of tea, mixed with a fair proportion of rum, and replied:—

"My opinion, your excellency, is, that we must act neither defensively nor offensively."

"How is that, Kallejsky Savetnik?" reiterated the astonished general. "Military tactics offer no alternative; action must be either defensive or offensive . . . ."

"Your excellency! try subornation."

"Eh! Eh! your opinion is a very reasonable one. Subornation is allowable in military tactics, and we may take advantage of your advice. We shall be able to offer for the miscreant's head . . . . seventy, or even one hundred roubles, . . . . from the secret fund . . . ."

"And," interrupted the Director of Customs, "may I, in that case, be a Khirghis ram, and not a Kallejskij Savetnik, if those robbers do not deliver up to us their leader, bound hand and foot?"

"We must reflect and talk it over," answered the general; "in any case, however, we must adopt military measures. Gentlemen, give your votes in legal order."

Every opinion was opposed to mine. All the officials urged the little reliance to be placed in the troops, the uncertainty of success, and the necessity for prudence, and the like. All concurred in its being more reasonable to remain under cover of guns inside strong stone walls, than to try the fortune of war on the open field. Having heard every opinion to the end, the general shook the ashes from his pipe, and pronounced the following speech:—

"Gentlemen! I must declare to you, that so far as I am concerned, I am quite of the ensign's opinion; for that opinion is founded on all the rules of wholesome tactics, which invariably give the preference to offensive over defensive action."

Here he stopped, and proceeded to fill his pipe. I felt triumphant in my vanity. I looked proudly at the officials, who whispered to each other, and looked displeased and anxious.

"But, gentlemen," he continued, emitting a thick cloud of tobacco smoke with a deep sigh, "I dare not take upon myself so great a responsibility, considering that the safety of the province intrusted to me by her imperial majesty, my gracious sovereign, is at stake. I therefore cede to the majority, which has decided that it is more prudent and safer to await the siege within the city walls, and to repel the attacks of the enemy by the force of artillery, and (if it be possible) to discomfit them also by sorties."

It was now the turn of the officials to look ironically at me. The council ended, I could not help lamenting the weakness of the worthy warrior, who, in spite of his own convictions, allowed himself to be influenced by the opinions of ignorant and inexperienced men.

A few days after this remarkable council had been held, we received intelligence that Pougatcheff, true to his word, was approaching Orenburg. I espied the rebel army from the city walls. Its number seemed to have increased tenfold since the last assault, which I had witnessed. The enemy also had the pieces of artillery, which Pougatcheff had captured from the small fortresses he had subdued. Bearing in mind the decision of the council, I foresaw a long confinement within the walls of Orenburg, and almost cried with vexation.

I shall not describe the siege of Orenburg, which belongs to history, and not to notes of a private nature. I shall briefly observe that this siege, owing to the imprudence of the local authorities, became fatal to the inhabitants, who suffered hunger and every misery imaginable. It will be readily understood that life at Orenburg became most unbearable. Everybody sorrowfully awaited the decision of his destiny; lamentations were universal by reason of the dearth, which was really terrible. The people were beginning to get accustomed to the shells, which flew into their court-yards; even the assaults of Pougatcheff ceased to attract general attention. I felt bored to death. Time sped on, I received no letter from the fortress of Byĕlogorsk. All the roads were cut off. My separation from Maria Ivanovna was becoming unendurable. My only recreation consisted in warlike sallies. Thanks to Pougatcheff, I had a good horse with which I shared my scant portion of food, and on which I rode out daily to exchange a few shots with Pougatcheff's archers. The advantage in these encounters remained generally with the wretches who were tipsy, well fed, and well mounted. Our miserable cavalry could not withstand them. Our famished infantry would occasionally go out, but the deep snow impeded their movements, and rendered their evolutions against the scattered horsemen ineffectual. The artillery on the ramparts thundered in vain, and when on the field, it was unable to advance, owing to the extenuated condition of the horses. This was our mode of action. And this was what the Orenburg officials termed prudence and sound judgment.

Having upon one occasion succeeded in dispersing a goodly mass of the enemy, I rode up to a Cossack who had remained behind, and was about to cut him down with my Turkish sabre, when he suddenly took off his cap, and shouted,

"Good-day, Piotr Andrevitch; how do you do?"

I looked at him, and recognized our orderly. I felt unspeakably rejoiced to see him.

"Good-day, Maksymitch," said I; "how long is it since thou hast left Byĕlogorsk?"

"Not long, Piotr Andrevitch, I returned only yesterday. I have a letter for you."

"Where is it?" I exclaimed, agitated.

"I have it here," replied Maksymitch, putting his hand in his bosom. "I promised Paláshka that I should let you have it somehow."

He handed to me a folded paper, and instantly galloped away. I opened it, and read with trepidation the following lines:—

"It has pleased God to deprive me suddenly of my father and mother: I have no relations nor any protectors on earth. I have recourse to you, knowing that you have always been my well-wisher, and that you are prepared to assist everybody. I pray to God that this letter may reach you. Maksymitch has promised to deliver it to you. Paláshka has heard from Maksymitch that he often sees you at a distance in the sorties, and that you do not take the least care of yourself, and do not think of those who pray with tears for you. I was ill a long time; and when I got well, Aleksey Ivanovitch, who commands here instead of my late father, forced Father Gherassim to deliver me to him, threatening him with Pougatcheff's displeasure. I live in our own house a prisoner. Aleksey Ivanovitch wants to force me to marry him. He says he saved my life by keeping up Akoulina Pamphylovna's deception, who told the wretches that I was her neice. But I would rather die than become the wife of such a man as Aleksey Ivanovitch. He treats me very cruelly, and threatens, should I not change my mind and consent, to take me into the wretches' camp, where, he says, the fate of Elisaveta Harloff awaits me. I have begged of Aleksey Ivanovitch to give me time to think over it, and he has consented to wait three days longer; but if I do not marry him at the end of the three days, I am to expect no pity. My little father, Piotr Ardrevitch, you are my only protector; save me, poor girl. Entreat the general and all the chiefs to send help to us as soon as possible, and come yourself, if you can. I remain your devoted and poor orphan,

"Maria Mironoff."

I almost lost my senses on reading this letter. I rode off into the town, spurring my poor horse unmercifully. On the way I thought of one plan and then of another, for the liberation of the unhappy girl, without being able to come to any decision. Reaching the town, I went straight to the general's, and rushed into his room.

The general was pacing it to and fro, smoking his meerschaum pipe. He stopped on seeing me. He was probably startled at my appearance, for he asked, with concern, the object of my over-hasty visit.

"Your excellency," I said, "I come to you, as I would to my own father; for God's sake do not reject my supplication: my life-long happiness is at stake."

"What is it?" asked the old man, astonished. "What can I do for thee? Speak!"

"Your excellency! order me to take a battalion of troops and fifty Cossacks, and let me clear out the fortress of Byĕlogorsk."

The general looked fixedly at me, thinking probably that I had lost my reason (in which he was not entirely mistaken).

"What do you say? clear out the fortress of Byĕlogorsk?" said he, at last.

"I answer for success," I continued, with warmth; "only let me go."

"No, young man," said he, shaking his head; "at so great a distance the enemy might easily cut you off from communication with the chief strategical point, and obtain a complete victory over you. The intercepted communications . . . ."

I became alarmed when I perceived that he was about to enter into deliberations of a military character, and hastened to interrupt him.

"The daughter of Captain Mironoff," said I, "writes a letter to me; she asks for help; Shvabrine forces her to marry him."

"Indeed! Oh! that Shvabrine is a great rascal, and if he falls into my hands, I shall order him to be tried within twenty-four hours, and he will be shot on the rampart of the fortress! but, until then, we must have patience . . . ."

"Have patience!" I exclaimed, beside myself; "and in the meanwhile he will marry Maria Ivanovna!"

"Oh!" reiterated the general, "there is no great harm in that; it is better she should be Shvabrine's wife in the meanwhile; he will thus be able to protect her, and when he is shot, why, then, please God, we shall find a bridegroom for her. Pretty little widows do not long remain single; at least, what I mean to say is, that a young widow will sooner find a husband than would a young girl."

"I should sooner consent to die," I said, enraged, "than cede her to Shvabrine."

"Bah! bah! bah! Ha!" said the old man. "Now I understand; thou art evidently in love with Maria Ivanovna. Oh! that is another affair! Poor fellow; but for all that, I cannot possibly give thee a battalion of troops and fifty Cossacks. Such an expedition would be injudicious, and I cannot possibly take the responsibility upon myself."

I bowed. I was seized with despair. A sudden thought flashed in my mind. What it was my reader will learn in the following chapter, as old novel writers say.

 
 
  1. Conseiller de Collége. An employé of the sixth class.—Tr.