THE CAPTAIN'S DAUGHTER
THE SIEGE OF THE TOWN
He pitched his camp upon the hills and meadow
And, eagle-like, he gazed upon the city;
He had a mound made beyond the camp
Concealing fire, which at night he brought to city walls.
As we approached Orenburg we saw a crowd of convicts with shaven heads and faces disfigured by the branding iron. They were working at the fortifications under the supervision of garrison soldiers. Some were wheeling away barrels full of rubbish with which the moat had been filled, others were digging; on the ramparts masons were carrying bricks, mending the town wall. At the gates we were stopped by the sentries who asked for our passports. As soon as the sergeant heard that I came from the Belogorsky fortress he took me straight to the General's house.
I found the General in the garden. He was examining the apple-trees already bared by the breath of autumn and, with the help of an old gardener, was carefully wrapping them up in warm straw. His face wore a look of serenity, health, and good nature. He was pleased to see me and began questioning me about the terrible happenings I had witnessed. I told him everything. The old man listened to me attentively as he pruned the trees.
'Poor Mironov!' he said, when I finished my sad story. 'I am sorry for him, he was a fine soldier; and Madam Mironov was an excellent woman and so good at pickling mushrooms! And what has become of Masha, the Captain's daughter?'
I answered that she remained at the fortress, in the charge ot the priest's wife.
'Aie, aie, aie!' the General remarked, 'that's bad, very bad. There is certainly no relying on the brigands' discipline. What will become of the poor girl?'
I answered that the Belogorsky fortress was not far and that probably his Excellency would not delay in sending troops to deliver its poor inhabitants. The General shook his head doubtfully. 'We shall see, we shall see,' he said. 'There will be time enough to talk of this. Please come and have a cup of tea with me; I am having a council of war to-day. You can give us exact information about the rascal Pugatchov and his troops. And, meanwhile, go and have a rest!'
I went to the quarters allotted to me, where Savelyitch was already setting things to rights, and awaited impatiently for the appointed hour. The reader may well imagine that I did not fail to appear at the council which was of such importance to my future. At the appointed time I was at the General's.
I found there one of the town officials, the Chief of the Customs, if I remember rightly, a stout, rosy-cheeked old man in a brocade coat. He asked me about the fate of Ivan Kuzmitch with whom he was connected, and often interrupted me with fresh questions and critical remarks which proved, if not his skill in the art of war, at any rate his natural quickness and intelligence. Meanwhile other guests arrived. When all had sat down and cups of tea had been handed round, the General explained at great length and very clearly the nature of the business.
'Now, gentlemen, we must decide how we are to act against the rebels; must we take the offensive or the defensive? Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages. The offensive offers more hope of exterminating the enemy in the shortest time; the defensive is safer and more reliable. . . . And so let us take votes in the proper manner; that is, beginning with the youngest in rank. Ensign!' he continued, addressing himself to me, 'please give us your opinion.'
I got up and began by saying a few words about Pugatchov and his gang; I said positively that the impostor had no means of resisting regular troops.
My opinion was received by the the officials with obvious disfavour. They saw in it the defiance and rashness of youth. There was a murmur, and I clearly heard the word 'greenhorn' uttered by someone in an undertone.
The General turned to me and said, with a smile: 'Ensign, the first votes in councils of war are generally in favour of the offensive; this is as it should be. Now let us go on collecting votes. Mr. Collegiate Councillor! tell us your opinion.'
The little old man in the brocade coat hastily finished his third cup of tea, considerably diluted with rum, and said in answer to the General:
'I think, your Excellency, we need not take either the offensive or the defensive.'
'How so, sir?' the General retorted in surprise. 'No other tactics are possible; one must either take the offensive or be on the defensive. . . .'
'Your Excellency, take the way of bribery.'
'Ha! ha! ha! Your suggestion is very reasonable. Bribery is permitted by military tactics and we will follow your advice. We can offer seventy roubles ... or, perhaps, a hundred for the rascal's head ... to be paid from the secret sum.'
'And then,' the Chief Customs Officer interrupted, 'may I be a Kirghis sheep and not a collegiate councillor, if those thieves do not surrender their leader to us, bound hand and foot!'
'We will think of it again and talk it over,' the General answered; 'but we must, in any case, take military measures. Gentlemen, please give your votes in the usual manner!'
All the opinions were opposed to mine. All the officials spoke of troops being unreliable and luck changeable, of caution and such like things. All thought it wiser to remain behind strong walls of stone defended by cannon than venture into the open field. At last, when the General had heard all the opinions, he shook the ashes out of his pipe and made the following speech:
'My dear sirs! I must tell you that for my part I entirely agree with the Ensign's opinion, for it is based upon all the rules of sound military tactics, according to which it is almost always preferable to take up the offensive rather than to remain on the defensive.'
At this point he stopped and began filling his pipe once more. My vanity was gratified. I proudly looked at the officials, who whispered to one another with an air of vexation and anxiety.
'But, my dear sirs,' he continued, letting out, together with a deep sigh, a big whiff of tobacco smoke, 'I dare not take upon myself so great a responsibility when the security of provinces entrusted to me by Her Imperial Majesty, our gracious sovereign, is at stake. And so I agree with the majority, which has decided that it is wiser and safer to remain within the city walls, repulsing the enemy's attacks by artillery and, if possible, by sallies.'
The officials, in their turn, looked mockingly at me. The council dispersed. I could not help regretting the weakness of the venerable soldier who decided against his own conviction to follow the opinion of ignorant and inexperienced men.
Several days after this famous council we learned that Pugatchov, true to his promise, was approaching Orenburg. From the top of the town wall I saw the rebels' army. It seemed to me their numbers had increased tenfold since the last attack which I witnessed. They now had artillery, brought by Pugatchov from the small fortresses he had taken. Recalling the council's decision, I foresaw a prolonged confinement within the town walls and nearly wept with vexation.
I will not describe the siege of Orenburg, which belongs to history, and is not a subject for family memoirs. I will only say that, owing to the carelessness of the local authorities, the siege was terrible for the inhabitants, who suffered from famine and from all sons of calamities. One may well imagine that life in Orenburg was simply unendurable. All were despondently waiting for their fate to be decided;
all complained of the prices, which were, indeed, exorbitant. The inhabitants had grown used to cannon-balls falling into their back-yards; even Pugatchov's assaults no longer excited general interest. I was dying of boredom. Time was passing. I received no letter from the Belogorsky fortress. All the roads were cut off. Separation from Marya Ivanovna was growing unbearable. Uncertainty about her fate tormented me. The sallies were my only distractions; thanks to Pugatchov I had a good horse with which I shared my scanty fare, and I rode it every day to exchange shots with Pugatchov's men. As a rule the advantage in these sallies was on the side of the villains, who were well fed, had plenty to drink, and rode good horses. The starving cavalry of the town could not get the better of them. Sometimes our hungry infantry also went afield, but the thick snow prevented it from acting successfully against the horsemen scattered all over the plain. Artillery thundered in vain from the top of the rampart, and in the field it stuck in the snow and could not move because the horses were too exhausted to pull it along. This is what our military operations were like! And this was what the Orenburg officials called being cautious and sensible.
One day when we succeeded in scattering and driving away a rather thick crowd, I overtook a Cossack who had lagged behind; I was on the point of striking him with my Turkish sword, when he suddenly took off his cap and cried:
'Good morning, Pyotr Andreyitch! How are you getting on?'
I looked at him and recognized our Cossack sergeant. I was overjoyed to see him.
'How do you do, Maximitch,' I said to him. 'Have you been in the Belogorsky lately?'
'Yes, sir,' I was there only yesterday; I have a letter for you, Pyotr Andreyitch.'
'Where is it?' I asked, flushing all over.
'Here,' said Maximitch, thrusting his hand m the breast of his coat. 'I promised Palasha I would manage somehow to give it to you.'
He gave me a folded paper and galloped away. I opened it and read, with a tremor, the following lines:
It has pleased God to deprive me suddenly of both father and mother; I have no friends or relatives in this world. I appeal to you, knowing that you have always wished me well and that you are ready to help every one. I pray that this letter may reach you I Maximitch has promised to take it to you. Palasha has heard from Maximitch that he often sees you from a distance at the sallies and that you do not take any care of yourself or think of those who pray for you with tears. I have been ill for many weeks, and when I recovered, Alexey Ivanovitch, who is now commandant instead of my father, forced Father Gerasim to give roe up to him, threatening him with Pugatchov I I live in our house as a prisoner. Alexey Ivanovitch is forcing me to marry him. He says he saved my life because he did not betray Akulina Pamfilovna when she told the villains I was her niece. And I would rather die than marry a man like Alexey Ivanovitch. He treats me very cruelly and threatens that if I don't change my mind and marry him he will take me to the villains' camp and there the same same thing will happen to me as to Lizaveta Harlova.(A commandant's daughter whom Pugatchov took for a mistress and afterwards had shot.—TRANSLATOR'S NOTE.) I have asked Alexey Ivanovitch to give me time to think. He agreed to wait for three more days and if I don't marry him in three days' time he will have no pity on me. Dear Pyotr Andreyitch! You alone are my protector; help me in my distress. Persuade the General and all the commanders to make haste and send a relief party to us, and come yourself if you can. I remain yours obediently, A poor orphan,
I almost went out of my mind when I read this letter. I galloped back to the town, spurring my poor horse mercilessly. On the way I racked my brain for the means of saving the poor girl, but could think of nothing. When I reached the town I rode straight to the General's and rushed headlong into his house.
The General was walking up and down the room, smoking his pipe. He stopped when he saw me. He must have been struck by my appearance; he inquired with concern about the reason for my coming in such a hurry.
'Your Excellency,' I said to him. 'I appeal to you as to my own father; for God's sake don't refuse me, the happiness of my whole life is at stake.'
'What is it, my dear?' the old man asked in surprise. 'What can I do for you? Tell me.'
'Your Excellency, allow me to have a detachment of soldiers and fifty Cossacks and let me go and clear the Belogorsky fortress.'
The General looked at me attentively, probably thinking that I had gone out of my mind—he was not far wrong.
'How d'o you mean—to clear the Belogorsky fortress?' he brought out at last.
'I vouch for success,' I said eagerly, 'only let me go.'
'No, young man,' he said, shaking his head; 'at so great a distance the enemy will find it easy to cut off your communication with the main strategic point and to secure a complete victory over you. Once the communication has been cut off. . .. .'
I was afraid he would enter upon a military discussion and made haste to interrupt him.
'Captain Mironov's daughter,' I said to him, 'has sent me a letter; she begs for help; Shvabrin is forcing her to marry him.'
'Really ?' Oh, that Shvabrin is a great Schelm, and if he falls into my hands I will have him court-martialled within twenty-four hours and we will shoot him on the fortress wall! But meanwhile you must have patience. . . .'
'Have patience!' I cried, beside myself. 'But meanwhile he will marry Marya Ivanovna!'
' Oh, tha.t won't be so bad,' the General retorted;' it will be better for her to be Shvabrin's wife for the time being; he will be able to look after her at present, and afterwards, when we shoot him, she will find plenty of suitors, God willing. Charming widows don't remain old maids; I mean a young widow wil] find a husband sooner than a girl would.'
'I would rather die,' I cried in a rage, 'than give her up to Shvabrin!'
'Oh, I s;ee!' said the old man, 'now I understand. . . . You are evidently in love with Marya Ivanovna. Oh, that's another matter! Poor boy! But all the same, I cannot possibly gwe you a detachment of soldiers and fifty Cossacks.
Such an expedition would be unreasonable; I cannot take the responsibility for it.'
I bowed my head; I was in despair. Suddenly an idea flashed through my mind. The reader will learn from the following chapter what it was—as the old-fashioned novelists put it.