THE events of the story which is now presented to the reader are so touching and terrible in their importance for the chief and heroic actor who took part in them, and the issue of the affair was so unique, that anything similar could scarcely have occurred in another country than Russia.
It forms in part a court anecdote, in part a historic event that characterizes fairly well the manners and the very strange tendencies of the uneventful period comprised in the third decade this nineteenth century.
There is no invention in the following story.
DURING the winter of 1839, just before the Festival of the Epiphany, there was a great thaw in Petersburg. The weather was so warm, that it was almost like spring: the snow melted during the day, water dripped from the roofs, the ice on the rivers became blue, and open water appeared in many places. On the Neva, just in front of the Winter Palace, there was a large open space. A warm but very high wind blew from the west, the water was driven in from the gulf, and the signal guns were fired.
The guard at the Palace at that time was a company of the Ismailovsky regiment, commanded by a very brilliant well educated officer named Nikolai Ivanovich Miller, a young man of the very best society (who subsequently rose to the rank of general and became the director of the Lycium). He was a man of the so-called "humane tendencies," which had long since been noticed in him, and somewhat impaired his chances in the service, in the eyes of his superiors.
Miller was really an exact and trustworthy officer; the duty of the guard at the Palace was without any danger; the time was most uneventful and tranquil; the Palace sentries were only required to stand accurately at their posts. Nevertheless, just when Captain Miller was in command, a most extraordinary and very alarming event took place, which is probably scarcely remembered even by the few of his contemporaries who are now ending their days upon earth.
AT first everything went well with the guard. The sentries were placed, the men were all at their posts and all was in the most perfect order. The Emperor Nikolai Pavlovich was well, he had been for a drive in the evening returned home, and had gone to bed. The Palace slept, too. The night was most quiet. There was tranquillity in the guard-room. Captain Miller had pinned his white pocket handkerchief to the back of the officer's chair, with its traditionally greasy morocco high back and had settled down to while away the time by reading.
Captain Miller had always been a passionate reader, and therefore was never dull; he read and did not notice how the night passed away. When suddenly at about three o'clock he was alarmed by a terrible anxiety. The sergeant on duty, pale and trembling with fear, stood before him, and stammered hurriedly:
"A calamity, your honour, a calamity!"
"What has happened?"
"A terrible misfortune has occurred."
Captain Miller jumped up in indescribable agitation and with difficulty was able to ascertain what really was the nature of the "calamity" and the "terrible misfortune."
THE case was as follows: the sentry, a private of the Ismailovsky regiment named Postnikov, who was standing on guard at the outer door of the Palace, now called the "Jordan" entrance heard that a man was drowning in the open spaces which had appeared in the ice just opposite the Palace, and was calling for help in his despair.
Private Postnikov, a domestic serf of some great family, was a very nervous and sensitive man. For a long time he listened to the distant cries and groans of the drowning man, and they seemed to benumb him with horror. He looked on all sides, but on the whole visible expanse of the quays and the Neva, as if on purpose, not a living soul could he see.
There was nobody who could give help to the drowning man, and he was sure to sink . . .
All this time the man struggled long and terribly.
It seemed as if there was but one thing left for him—to sink to the bottom without further struggle, but no! His cries of exhaustion were now broken and ceased, then were heard again, always nearer and nearer to the Palace quay. It was evident that the man had not lost his direction, but was making straight for the lights of the street lamps, but doubtless he would perish because just in his path, he would fall into the "Jordan" (a hole made in the ice of the river for the consecration of the water on the 6th of January.) There he would be drawn under the ice and it would be the end. Again he was quiet, but a minute later he began to splash through the water, and moan: "Save me, save me!" He was now so near that the splashing of the water could actually be heard as he waded along.
Private Postnikov began to realize that it would be quite easy to save this man. It was only necessary to run on to the ice, as the drowning man was sure to be there, throw him a rope, or stretch a pole or a gun towards him, and he would be saved. He was so near that he could take hold of it with his hand and save himself. But Postnikov remembered his service and his oath; he knew he was the sentry, and that the sentry dare not leave his sentry-box on any pretext or for any reason whatever.
On the other hand, Postnikov's heart was not at all submissive; it gnawed, it throbbed, it sank. He would have been glad to tear it out and throw it at his feet—he had become so uneasy at the sound of these groans and sobs. It was terrible to hear another man perishing and not to stretch out a hand to save him, when really it was quite possible to do so, because the sentry-box would not run away, and no other harm could happen. "Shall I run down? Will anybody see it? Oh, Lord, if it could only end! He's groaning again!"
For a whole half hour, while this was going on, Private Postnikov's heart tormented him so much that he began to feel doubts of his own reason. He was a clever and conscientious soldier with a clear judgment, and he knew perfectly well, that for a sentry to leave his post was a crime that would have to be tried by court-martial, and he would afterwards have to run the gauntlet between two lines of cat-o'-nine-tails and then have penal servitude, or perhaps even be shot—but from the direction of the swollen river again there rose, always nearer and nearer, groans, mumblings and desperate struggles.
"I am drowning! Save me, I am drowning!"
Soon he would come to the Jordan cutting and then—the end.
Postnikov looked round once or twice on all sides. Not a soul was to be seen, only the lamps rattled, shook and flickered in the wind, and on the wind were borne broken cries, perhaps the last cries . . . .
There was another splash, a single sob and a gurgling in the water.
The sentry could bear it no longer, and left his post.
POSTNIKOV rushed to the steps, with his heart beating violently, ran on to the ice, then into the water that had risen above it. He soon saw where the drowning man was struggling for life and held out the stock of his gun to him. The drowning man caught hold of the butt-end and Postnikov holding on to the bayonet drew him to the bank.
Both the man who had been saved, and his rescuer were completely wet; the man who had been saved was in a state of great exhaustion, shivered and fell; his rescuer Private Postnikov could not make up his mind to abandon him on the ice, but led him to the quay, and began looking about for somebody to whom he could confide him. While all this was happening, a sledge in which an officer was sitting had appeared on the quay. He was an officer of the Palace Invalid corps, a company which existed then, but has since been abolished.
This gentleman who arrived at such an inopportune moment for Postnikov was evidently a man of a very heedless character, and besides a very muddled-headed and impudent person. He jumped out of his sledge and inquired:
"What man is this? Who are these people?"
"He was nearly drowned—he was sinking," began Postnikov.
"How was he drowning? Who was drowning? Was it you? Why is he here?"
But he only spluttered and panted, and Postnikov was no longer there; he had shouldered his gun and had gone back to his sentry-box. Possibly the officer understood what had happened, for he made no further inquiries, but at once took the man who had been rescued into his sledge and drove with him to the Admiralty Police station in the Morskaia Street.
Here the officer made a statement to the inspector, that the dripping man he had brought had nearly been drowned in one of the holes in the ice in front of the Palace, and that he, the officer, had saved him at the risk of his own life.
The man who had been saved was still quite wet, shivering and exhausted. From fright and owing to his terrible efforts he fell into a sort of unconsciousness, and it was quite indifferent to him who had saved him.
The sleepy police orderly bustled around him, while in the office a statement was drawn up from the officer's verbal deposition and, with the suspicion natural to members of the police, they were perplexed to understand how he had managed to come out of the water quite dry. The officer who was anxious to receive the life saving medal tried to explain this happy concurrence of circumstances, but his explanation was incoherent and improbable. They went to wake the police inspector, and sent to make inquiries.
Meantime in the Palace this occurrence was the cause of another rapid series of events.
IN the Palace guard-room all that had occurred since the officer took the half drowned man into his sledge was unknown. There the Ismailovsky officer and the soldiers only knew that Postnikov, a private of their regiment, had left his sentry-box, and had hurried to save a man and, this being a great breach of military duty, Private Postnikov would certainly be tried by court-martial and have to undergo a thrashing, and all his superior officers, beginning from the commander of the company, would have to face terrible unpleasantness, to avert which they would have nothing to say, nor would they be able to defend themselves.
The wet and shivering soldier Postnikov, was of course at once relieved from his post, and when he was brought to the guard-room frankly related to Captain Miller all that we already know, with all the details to the moment when the officer of the Invalid Corps put the half drowned man into his sledge, and ordered the coachman to drive to the Admiralty police station.
The danger grew greater and more unavoidable. It was certain the officer of the Invalid Corps would relate everything to the police inspector and the inspector would at once state all the facts to the chief of police, Kokoshkin, who in the morning would make his report to the Emperor, and then the trouble would begin.
There was no time for reflection; the advice of the superior officer must be obtained.
Nikolai Ivanovich Miller forthwith sent an alarming note to his immediate superior, the commander of his battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Svinin, in which he begged him to come to the guard room as soon as he could to take every possible measure to help him out of the terrible misfortune that had occurred.
It was already about three o'clock, and Kokoshkin had to present his report to the Emperor fairly early in the morning, so that but little time remained for reflection and action.
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL Svinin did not possess that compassion and tenderness of heart for which Nikolai Ivanovich Miller had always been distinguished. Svinin was not a heartless man, but first and foremost a martinet (a type that is now remembered with regret) Svinin was known for his severity and he even liked to boast of his exacting discipline. He had no taste for evil, and never tried to cause anybody useless suffering, but when a man had violated any of the duties of the service, Svinin was inexorable. In the present case he considered it out of place to enter into the consideration of the causes, that had guided the actions of the culprit, and held to the rule that every deviation from discipline was guilt. Therefore, in the company on guard all knew that Private Postnikov would have to suffer, what he deserved, for having left his post, and that Svinin would remain absolutely indifferent.
Such was the character by which the staff officer was known to his superiors, and also to his comrades, amongst whom there were men who did not sympathize with Svinin, because at that time "humaneness," and other similar delusions, had not entirely died out. Svinin was indifferent to whether he would be blamed or praised by the "humanitarians." To beg or entreat Svinin, or even to try to move him to pity was quite useless. To all this he was hardened with the well-tempered armour of the people of those times, who wanted to make their way in the world but even he, like Achilles, had a weak spot.
Svinin's career in the service had commenced well, and he of course greatly valued it and was very careful that on it, as on a full dress uniform, not a grain of dust should settle, and now this unfortunate action of one of the men of the battalion entrusted to him would certainly throw a shadow on the discipline of the whole company. Those on whom Svinin's well started and carefully maintained military career depended would not stop to inquire if the commander of the battalion was guilty or not guilty of what one of his men had done, while moved by the most honourable feelings of sympathy, and many would gladly have put a spoke in his wheel, so as to make way for their relations or to push forward some fine young fellow with high patronage. If the Emperor, who would certainly be angry, said to the commander of the regiment that he had feeble officers, that their men were undisciplined: who was the cause of it? Svinin. So it would be repeated that Svinin was feeble, and the reproach of feebleness would remain a stain on his reputation that could not be washed out. Then he would never be in any way remarkable among his contemporaries, and he would not leave his portrait in the gallery of historical personages, of the Russian Empire.
Although at that time but few cultivated the study of history, nevertheless they believed in it, and aspired, with special pleasure, to take part in its making.
AT about three o'clock in the morning, as soon as Svinin received Captain Miller's disquieting letter, he at once jumped out of bed, put on his uniform, and swayed by fear and anger arrived at the guard-room of the Winter Palace. Here he forthwith examined Private Postnikov, and assured himself that the extraordinary event had really taken place. Private Postnikov again frankly confirmed to the commander of his battalion all that had occurred while he was on guard duty, and what he (Postnikov) had already related to the commander of his company, Captain Miller. The soldier said, that he was guilty before God and the Emperor, and could not expect mercy; that he, standing on guard, hearing the groans of a man, who was drowning in the open places of the ice, had suffered long, had struggled long between his sense of military duty and his feelings of compassion, and at last he had yielded to temptation and not being able to stand the struggle, had left his sentry-box, jumped on the ice and had drawn the drowning man to the bank, and there to his misfortune he met an officer of the Palace Invalid Corps.
Lieutenant-Colonel Svinin was in despair; he gave himself the only possible satisfaction by wreaking his anger on Postnikov, whom he at once sent under arrest to the regimental prison, and then said some biting words to Miller, reproaching him with "humanitarianism," which was of no use at all in military service; but all this was of no avail, nor would it improve the matter. It was impossible to find any excuse, still less justification, for a sentry who had left his post, and there remained only one way of getting out of the difficulty—to conceal the whole affair from the Emperor. . . .
But was it possible to conceal such an occurrence?
It was evident that this appeared to be impossible, as the rescue of the drowning man was known, not only to the whole of the guard, but also to that hateful officer of the Invalid Corps, who by now had certainly had time to report the whole matter to General Kokoshkin.
Which way was he to turn? To whom could he address himself? From whom could he obtain help and protection?
Svinin wanted to gallop off to the Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich and relate to him, quite frankly, all that had happened. Manœuvres of this nature were then customary. The Grand Duke, who had a hot temper, would be angry and storm, but his humour and habits were such, that the greater the harshness he showed at first, even when he grievously insulted the offender, the sooner he would forgive him and himself take up his defence. Similar cases were not infrequent, and they were even sometimes sought after. Words do not hurt; and Svinin was very anxious to bring the matter to a favourable conclusion; but was it possible at night to obtain entrance to the palace and disturb the Grand Duke? To wait for morning and appear before Michael Pavlovich, after Kokoshkin had made his report to the Emperor, would be too late.
While Svinin was agitated by these difficulties he became more subtle, and his mind began to see another issue, which till then had been hidden as in a mist.
AMONG other well-known military tactics there is the following: at the moment when the greatest danger is threatened from the walls of a beleagured fortress, not to retire, but to advance straight under its walls. Svinin decided not to do any of the things that had at first occurred to him, but to go straight to Kokoshkin.
Many terrible things were related at that time in Petersburg about the chief of police Kokoshkin, and many absurd things too, but among others it was affirmed that he possessed such wonderful resource and tact, that with the assistance of this tact he was not only able to make a mountain out of a molehill but that he was able as easily to make a molehill out of a mountain.
Kokoshkin was really very stern and very terrible, and inspired great fear in all who came in contact with him, but he sometimes showed mercy to the gay young scamps among the officers, and such young scamps were not few in those days, and they had often found in him a merciful and zealous protector. In a word, he was able to do much, and knew how to do it, if he only chose. Both Svinin and Captain Miller knew this side of his character. Miller therefore encouraged his superior officer to risk going to Kokoshkin, and trust to the general's magnanimity and resource and tact, which would probably suggest to him the means of getting out of this unpleasant situation, without incurring the anger of the Emperor, which Kokoshkin, to his honour be it said, always made great efforts to avoid.
Svinin put on his overcoat, looked up to heaven, murmured several times, "Good Lord! Good Lord!" and drove off to Kokoshkin.
It was already past four o'clock in the morning.
THE chief of police Kokoshkin was aroused, and the arrival of Svinin, who had come on important business, that could not be postponed, was reported to him.
The general got up at once and, with an overcoat wrapped round him, wiping his forehead, yawning and stretching himself, came out to receive Svinin. Kokoshkin listened with great attention, but quite calmly, to all Svinin had to relate. During all these explanations and requests for indulgence he only said:
"The soldier left his sentry-box, and saved a man?"
"Yes, sir," answered Svinin.
"And the sentry-box?"
"Remained empty during that time."
"H'm! I knew that it remained empty. I'm very pleased that nobody stole it."
Hearing this Svinin felt certain that the general knew all about the case, and that he had already decided in what manner he would place the facts before the Emperor in his morning's report, and also that he would not alter this decision. Otherwise such an event as a soldier of the Palace Guard having left his post would without doubt have caused greater alarm to the energetic chief of police.
But Kokoshkin did not know anything about it. The police inspector to whom the officer of the Invalid Corps had conveyed the man saved from drowning did not consider it a matter of great importance. In his sight it was not at all a subject that required him to awaken the weary chief of police in the middle of the night, and besides the whole event appeared to the inspector somewhat suspicious, because the officer of the Invalids' was quite dry, which certainly could not have been the case if he had saved a man from drowning at the risk of his own life. The inspector looked upon the officer as an ambitious liar, who wanted to obtain another medal for his breast, and therefore detained him while the clerk on duty was taking down his statement, and tried to arrive at the truth by asking about all sorts of minute details.
It was disagreeable for the inspector that such an event should have occurred in his district, and that the man had been saved, not by a policeman but by an officer of the Palace Guard.
Kokoshkin's calmness could be explained very simply: first, by his terrible fatigue, after a day of anxiety and hard work, and by his having assisted in the night at the extinguishing of two fires, and secondly because the act of the sentry Postnikov did not concern him, as Chief of Police, at all.
Nevertheless, Kokoshkin at once gave the necessary instructions.
He sent to the Inspector of the Admiralty Quarter and ordered him to come at once and bring the officer of the Invalid Corps and the man who had been saved with him, and asked Svinin to remain in the small waiting room adjoining his office. Then Kokoshkin went into his study, without closing the door, sat down at the table, and began to sign various papers, but he soon rested his head on his hand and fell asleep in his arm-chair at the table.
IN those days there were neither municipal telegraphs nor telephones, and in order to transmit the commands of the chiefs the "forty thousand couriers" of whom Gogol has left a lasting memory in his comedy had to ride post haste in all directions.
This of course was not so quickly done as by telegraph or telephone, but lent considerable animation to the town and proved that the authorities were indefatigably vigilant.
Before the breathless inspector, the life-saving officer, and the man rescued from drowning had time to come from the Admiralty police station the nervous and energetic General Kokoshkin had had time to have a snooze and refresh himself. This was seen in the expression of his face, and by the revival of his mental faculties.
Kokoshkin ordered all who had arrived to come to his study and with them Svinin too.
"The official report?" the General demanded of the Inspector.
The latter silently handed a folded paper to the General and then whispered in a low voice:
"I must beg permission to communicate a few words to your Excellency in private."
Kokoshkin went towards the bay-window followed by the Inspector.
"What is it?"
The Inspector's indistinct whispers could be heard, and the General's loud interjections.
"H'm, yes! Well, what then? . . . . It is possible. . . . . They take care to come out dry. . . . . Anything more?"
The General came out of the bay-window, sat down at his desk, and began to read. He read the report in silence without showing any signs of uneasiness or suspicion, and then turning to the man who had been saved, asked in a loud voice:
"How comes it, my friend, that you got into the open places before the Palace?"
"So! You were drunk?"
"Excuse me, I was not drunk, but only tipsy."
"Why did you get into the water?"
"I wanted to cut across the ice, lost my way, and got into the water."
"That means it was dark before your eyes."
"It was dark; it was dark all round, your Excellency."
"And you were not able to notice who pulled you out?"
"Pardon me, I could not notice anything. I think it was he"—he pointed to the officer and added: "I could not distinguish anything. I was so scared."
"That's what it comes to. You were loafing about when you ought to have been asleep. Now look at him well and remember who was your benefactor. An honourable man risked his life to save you."
"I shall never forget it."
"Your name, sir?"
The officer mentioned his name.
"Do you hear?"
"I hear, your Excellency."
"You are Orthodox?"
"I am Orthodox, your Excellency."
"In your prayers for health, remember this man's name."
"I will write it down, your Excellency."
"Pray to God for him, and go away. You are no longer wanted."
He bowed to the ground and cleared off immeasurably pleased that he was released.
Svinin stood there, and could not understand how by God's grace things were taking such a turn.
KOKOSHKIN turned to the officer of the Invalid Corps.
"You saved this man, at the risk of your own life?"
"Yes, your Excellency."
"There were no witnesses to this occurrence, and owing to the late hour there could not have been any?"
"Yes, your Excellency, it was dark, and on the quay there was nobody except the sentry."
"There is no need to mention the sentry; the sentry has to stand at his post and has no right to occupy himself with anything else. I believe what is written in this report. Was it not taken down from your words?"
These words Kokoshkin pronounced with special emphasis, as if he were threatening or shouting.
The officer did not falter, but with staring eyes and expanded chest, standing at attention, answered:
"From my words and quite correctly, your Excellency."
"Your action deserves a reward."
The officer bowed gratefully.
"There is nothing to thank for," continued Kokoshkin. "I shall report your self-sacrificing act to His Majesty the Emperor, and your breast may be decorated with a medal even to-day. Now you may go home, have a warm drink, and don't leave the house, as perhaps you may be wanted."
The officer of the Invalid Corps beamed all over, bowed and retired.
Kokoshkin looking after him said:
"It is possible that the Emperor may wish to see him."
"I understand," answered the Inspector, with apprehension.
"I do not require you any more."
The Inspector left the room, closed the door, and in accordance with his religious habit crossed himself.
The officer of the Invalids' was waiting for the Inspector below, and they went away together much better friends than when they had come.
Only Svinin remained in the study of the Chief of Police. Kokoshkin looked at him long and attentively, and then asked:
"You have not been to the Grand Duke?"
At that time when the Grand Duke was mentioned everybody knew that it referred to the Grand Duke Michael.
"I came straight to you," answered Svinin.
"Who was the officer on guard?"
Kokoshkin again looked at Svinin and said:
"I think you told me something different before."
Svinin did not understand to what this could refer, and remained silent, and Kokoshkin added:
"Well, it's all the same; good night."
The audience was over.
ABOUT one o'clock the officer of the Invalids, was really sent for by Kokoshkin, who informed him most amiably the Emperor was very much pleased that among the officers of the Invalids' Corps of his palace there were to be found such vigilant and self-sacrificing men, and had honoured him with the medal for saving life. Then Kokoshkin decorated the hero with his own hands, and the officer went away to swagger about town with the medal on his breast.
This affair could therefore be considered as quite finished, but Lieutenant-Colonel Svinin felt it was not concluded and regarded himself as called upon to put the dots on the "i's."
He had been so much alarmed that he was ill for three days, and on the fourth drove to the Peter House, had a service of thanksgiving said for him before the icon of the Saviour, and returning home reassured in his soul, sent to ask Captain Miller to come to him.
"Well, thank God, Nikolai Ivanovich," he said to Miller," the storm that was hanging over us has entirely passed away, and our unfortunate affair with the sentry has been quite settled. I think we can now breathe freely. All this we owe without doubt first to the mercy of God, and secondly to General Kokoshkin. Let people say he is not kind and heartless, but I am full of gratitude for his magnanimity and respect for his resourcefulness and tact. In what a masterly way he took advantage of that vainglorious Invalid swindler, who, in truth, for his impudence ought to have received not a medal but a good thrashing in the stable. There was nothing else for him to do; he had to take advantage of this to save many, and Kokoshkin manœuvred the whole affair so cleverly that nobody had the slightest unpleasantness; on the contrary, all are very happy and contented. Between ourselves, I can tell you, I have been informed by a reliable person that Kokoshkin is very satisfied with me. He was pleased I had not gone anywhere else, but came straight to him, and that I did not argue with this swindler, who received a medal. In a word, nobody has suffered, and all has been done with so much tact that there can be no fear for the future; but there is one thing wanting on our side. We must follow Kokoshkin's example and finish the affair with tact on our side, so as to guarantee ourselves from any future occurrences. There is still one person whose position is not regulated. I speak of Private Postnikov. He is still lying in prison under arrest, no doubt troubled with the thoughts of what will be done to him. We must put an end to his torments."
"Yes, it is time," said Miller, delighted.
"Well, certainly, and you are the best man to do it. Please go at once to the barracks call your company together, lead Private Postnikov out of prison, and let him be punished with two hundred lashes before the whole company."
MILLER was astonished, and made an attempt to persuade Svinin to complete the general happiness by showing mercy to Private Postnikov, and to pardon him as he had already suffered so much while lying in prison awaiting his fate, but Svinin only got angry and did not allow Miller to continue.
"No," he broke in, "none of that! I have only just talked to you about tact and you at once are tactless! None of that!"
Svinin changed his tone to a dryer, more official one, and added sternly:
"And as in this affair you too are not quite in the right, but really much to blame because your softness of heart is quite unsuitable for a military man, and this deficiency of your character is reflected in your subordinates, therefore you are to be present personally at the execution of my orders and to see that the flogging is done seriously—as severely as possible. For this purpose have the goodness to give orders that the young soldiers who have just arrived from the army shall do the whipping, because our old soldiers are all infected with the liberalism of the guards. They won't whip a comrade properly, but would only frighten the fleas away from his back. I myself will look in to see that they have done the guilty man properly."
To evade in any way instructions given by a superior officer was of course impossible, and kind-hearted Captain Miller was obliged to execute with exactitude the orders received from the commander of his battalion.
The company was drawn up in the court-yard of the Ismailovsky barracks; the rods were fetched in sufficient quantities from the stores, and Private Postnikov was brought out of his prison and "done properly" at the hands of the zealous comrades, who had just arrived from the army. These men, who had not as yet been tainted by the liberalism of the guards, put all the dots on the i's to the full, as ordered by the commander of the battalion. Then Postnikov, having received his punishment, was lifted up on the overcoat on which he had been whipped and carried to the hospital of the regiment.
THE commander of the battalion, Svinin, as soon as he heard that the punishment had been inflicted, went at once to visit Postnikov in the hospital in a most fatherly way, and to satisfy himself by a personal examination that his orders had been properly executed. Heartsore and nervous, Postnikov had been "done properly." Svinin was satisfied and ordered that Postnikov should receive, on his behalf, a pound of sugar and a quarter of a pound of tea with which to regale himself while he was recovering. Postnikov from his bed heard this order about tea and said:
"I am very contented your honour. Thank you for your fatherly kindness."
And he really was contented, because while lying three days in prison he had expected something much worse. Two hundred lashes, according to the strict ideas of those days, was of very little consequence in comparison with the punishments that people suffered by order of the military courts; and that is the sort of punishment he would have had awarded him if, by good luck, all the bold and tactful evolutions, which are related above, had not taken place.
But the number of persons who were pleased at the events just described was not limited to these.
THE story of the exploit of Private Postnikov was secretly whispered in various circles of society in the capital, which in those days, when the public Press had no voice, lived in a world of endless gossip. In these verbal transmissions the name of the real hero, Private Postnikov, was lost, but instead of that the episode became embellished and received a very interesting and romantic character.
It was related that an extraordinary swimmer had swum from the side of the Peter and Paul Fortress, and had been fired at and wounded by one of the sentries stationed before the Winter Palace and an officer of the Invalid Guard, who was passing at the time, threw himself into the water and saved him from drowning, for which the one had received the merited reward, and the other the punishment he deserved. These absurd reports even reached the Conventual House, inhabited at that time by His Eminence, a high ecclesiastic, who was cautious but not indifferent to worldly matters, and who was benevolently disposed towards and a well-wisher of the pious Moscow family Svinin.
The story of the shot seemed improbable to the astute ecclesiastic. What nocturnal swimmer could it be? If he was an escaped prisoner, why was the sentry punished, for he had only done his duty in shooting at him, when he saw him swimming across the Neva from the fortress. If he was not a prisoner, but another mysterious man, who had to be saved from the waves of the Neva, how could the sentry know anything about him? And then again, it could not have happened as it was whispered in frivolous society. In society much is accepted in a light-hearted and frivolous manner, but those who live in monasteries and conventual houses look upon all this much more seriously and are quite conversant with the real things of this world.
ONCE when Svinin happened to be at His Eminence's to receive his blessing the distinguished dignitary began: "By the by, about that shot?" Svinin related the whole truth, in which there was nothing whatever "about that shot."
The high ecclesiastic listened to the real story in silence, gently touching his white rosary and never taking his eyes off the narrator. When Svinin had finished His Eminence quietly murmured in rippling speech:
"From all this one is obliged to conclude that in this matter the statements made were neither wholly nor on every occasion strictly true."
Svinin stammered and then answered with the excuse that it was not he but General Kokoshkin who had made the report.
His Eminence passed his rosary through his waxen fingers in silence, and then murmured:
"One must make a distinction between a lie and what is not wholly true."
Again the rosary, again silence, and at last a soft ripple of speech:
"A half truth is not a lie, but the less said about it the better."
Svinin was encouraged and said:
"That is certainly true. What troubles me most is that I had to inflict a punishment upon the soldier, who, although he had neglected his duty . . . ."
The rosary and a soft rippling interruption:
"The duties of service must never be neglected."
"Yes, but it was done by him through magnanimity, through sympathy after such a struggle, and with danger. He understood that in saving the life of another man he was destroying himself. This is a high, a holy feeling . . . ."
"Holiness is known to God; corporal punishment is not destruction for a common man, nor is it contrary to the customs of the nations, nor to the spirit of the Scriptures. The rod is easier borne by the coarse body than delicate suffering by the soul. In this case your justice has not suffered in the slightest degree."
"But he was deprived of the reward for saving one who was perishing."
"To save those who are perishing is not a merit, but rather a duty. He who could save but did not save is liable to the punishment of the laws; but he who saves does his duty."
A pause, the rosary, and soft rippling speech:
"For a warrior to suffer degradation and wounds for his action is perhaps much more profitable than marks of distinction. But what is most important is to be careful in this case, and never to mention anywhere or on any occasion what anybody said about it."
It was evident His Eminence was also satisfied.
IF I had the temerity of the happy chosen of Heaven, who through their great faith are enabled to penetrate into the secrets of the Will of God, then I would perhaps dare to permit myself the supposition that probably God Himself was satisfied with the conduct of Postnikov's humble soul, which He had created. But my faith is small; it does not permit my mind to penetrate so high. I am of the earth, earthy. I think of those mortals who love goodness, simply because it is goodness and do not expect any reward for it, wherever it may be. I think these true and faithful people will also be entirely satisfied with this holy impulse of love, and not less holy endurance of the humble hero of my true and artless story.