In this fortress fine we live;
Bread and water is our fare.
And when ferocious foes
Come to oar table bare,
To a real feast we treat them.
Load the cannon and then beat them.
Soldiers' Song.

Old-fashioned people, sir.
Von Vizin.

THE Belogorsky fortress was twenty-five miles from Orenburg. The road ran along the steep bank of the Yaik. The river was not yet frozen and its leaden waves looked dark and mournful between the monotonous banks covered with white snow. Beyond it the Kirghis Steppes stretched into the distance. I was absorbed in reflections, for the most part of a melancholy nature. Life in the fortress did not attract me. I tried to picture Captain Mironov, my future chief, and thought of him as a stem, bad-tempered old man who cared for nothing but discipline and was ready to put me under arrest on a diet of bread and water for the least little trifle. Meanwhile it was growing dusk. We were driving rather fast.

' Is it far to the fortress ?' I asked the driver.

' No, not far,' he answered;' it's over there, you can see it.' I looked from side to side, expecting to see menacing battlements, towers, and a moat, but saw nothing except a village surrounded by a log fence. On one side of it stood three or four haystacks, half-covered with snow, on another a tumbledown windmill with wings of bark that hung idle.

'But where is the fortress?' I asked in surprise.

'Why here,' answered the driver, pointing to the village, and as he spoke we drove into it.

At the gate I saw an old cannon made of cast iron; the Streets were narrow and crooked, the cottages small and, for the most part, with thatched roofs. I told the driver to take me to the Commandant's, and in another minute the chaise stopped before a wooden house built upon rising ground close to a church, also made of wood.

No one came out to meet me. I walked into the entry and opened the door into the next room. An old soldier was sitting on the table, sewing a blue patch on the sleeve of a green uniform. I asked him to announce me.

'Come in, my dear,' he said, 'our people are at home.'

I stepped into a clean little room, furnished in the old-fashioned style. In the comer stood a cupboard full of crockery; an officer's diploma in a frame under glass hung on the wall; coloured prints, representing 'The Taking of Otchakoff and Kustrin', 'The Choosing of a Bride', and 'The Cat's Funeral', made bright patches on each side of it. An elderly lady, dressed in a Russian jacket and with a kerchief on her head, was sitting by the window. She was winding yam which a one-eyed old man in an officer's uniform held for her on his outstretched hands.

'What is your pleasure, sir?' she asked me, going on with her work.

I answered that I had come to serve in the army, and thought it my duty to present myself to the Captain, and with these words I turned to the one-eyed old man whom I took to be the Commandant, but the lady of the house interrupted the speech I had prepared.

'Ivan Kuzmitch is not at home,' she answered; 'he has gone to see Father Gerasim; but it makes no difference, sir; I am his wife. You are very welcome. Please sit down.'

She called the maid and asked her to call the sergeant. The old man kept looking at me inquisitively with his single eye.

'May I be so bold as to ask in what regiment you have been serving?'

I satisfied his curiosity.

'And may I ask,' he continued, 'why you have been transferred from the Guards to the garrison ?'

I answered that such was the decision of my superiors.

'I presume it was for behaviour unseemly in an officer of the Guards?' the persistent old man went on.

'That 's enough nonsense,' the Captain's lady interrupted him. 'You see the young man is tired after the journey; he doesn't want to listen to you. . . . Hold your hands straight.'

'And don't you worry, my dear, that you have been banished to these wdds,' she went on, addressing herself to me. 'You are not the first nor the last. You will like it better when you are used to it. Shvabrin, Alexey Ivanitch, was transferred to us five years ago for killing a man. Heaven only knows what possessed him, but, would you believe it, he went out of town with a certain lieutenant and they both took swords and started prodding each other— and Alexey Ivanitch did for the lieutenant, and before two witnesses, too! There it is—one never knows what one may do.'

At that moment the sergeant, a young and well-built Cossack, came into the room.

'Maximitch!' the Captain's lady said to him, 'find a lodging for this gentleman and mind it is clean.'

'Yes, Vasilissa Yegorovna,' the Cossack answered. 'Shall I get rooms for his honour at Ivan Polezhaev's ?'

'Certainly not, Maximitch,' said the lady. 'Polezhaev is crowded as it is; besides, he is a friend and always remembers that we are his superiors. Take the gentleman . . . what is your name, sir?'

'Pyotr Andreyitch.'

'Take Pyotr Andreyitch to Semyon Kuzov's. He let his horse into my kitchen-garden, the rascal. Well, Maximitch, is everything in order?'

'All is well, thank God,' the Cossack answered; 'only Corporal Prohorov had a fight in the bath-house with Ustinya Negulina about a bucket of hot water.'

' Ivan Ignatyitch!' said the Captain's lady to the one-eyed old man, 'will you see into it and find out whether Ustinya or Prohorov is to blame. And punish them both! Well, Maximitch, you can go now. Pyotr Andreyitch, Maximitch will take you to your lodging.'

I took leave of her. The Cossack brought me to a cottage that stood on the high bank of the river at the very edge of the village. Half of the cottage was occupied by Semyon Kuzov's family, the other was allotted to me. It consisted of uiii. lairly clean room partitioned into two. Savelyitch began unpacking; I looked out of the narrow window. The melancholy steppe stretched before me. On one side I could see a few cottages; several hens strutted about the street. An old woman stood on the steps with a trough, calling to pigs that answered her with friendly grunting. And this was the place where I was doomed to spend my youth! I suddenly felt wretched; I left the window and went to bed without any supper in spite of Savelyitch's entreaties. He kept repeating in distress:

'Merciful heavens; he won't eat! What will my mistress say if the child is taken ill ?'

Next morning I had just begun to dress when the door opened and a young officer, short, swarthy, with a plain but extremely lively face, walked in.

'Excuse me,' he said to me in French, 'for coming without ceremony to make your acquaintance. Yesterday I heard of your arrival: I could not resist the desire to see at last a human face. You will understand this when you have lived here for a time.'

I guessed that this was the officer who had been dismissed from the Guards on account of a duel. We made friends at once. Shvabrin was very intelligent. His conversation was witty and entertaining. He described to me in a most amusing way the Commandant's family, their friends, and the place to which fate had brought him. I was screaming with laughter when the old soldier, whom I had seen mending a uniform at the Commandant's, came in and gave me Vasilissa Yegorovna's invitation to dine with them. Shvabrin said he would go with me.

As we approached the Commandant's house we saw in the square some twenty old garrison soldiers in three-cornered hats and with long plaits of hair at the back. They were standing at attention. The Commandant, a tall, vigorous old man, wearing a night-cap and a cotton dressing-gown, stood facing them. When he saw us, he came up, said a few kind words to me, and went on drilling his men. We stopped to look on, but he asked us to go to his house, promising to come soon after.

'There's nothing here worth looking at,' he added. Vasilissa Yegorovna gave us a kind and homely welcome, treating me as though she had known me all my life. The old pensioner and the maid Palasha were laying the table.

'My Ivan Kuzmitch is late with his drilling to-day,' she said. 'Palasha, call your master to dinner. And where is Masha?'

At that moment a girl of eighteen, with a rosy round face, came in; her fair hair was smoothly combed behind her ears which at that moment were burning with shyness. I did not particularly like her at the first glance. I was prejudiced against her: Shvabrin had described Masha, the Captain's daughter, as quite stupid. Marya Ivanovna sat down in a corner and began sewing. Meanwhile cabbage soup was served. Not seeing her husband, Vasilissa Yegorovna sent Palasha a second time to call him.

'Tell your master that our guests are waiting and the soup will get cold; there is always time for drilling, thank heaven; he can shout to his heart's content later on.'

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

'What has come over you, my dear?' his wife said to him. 'Dinner has been served ages ago, and you wouldn't come.'

' But I was busy drilling soldiers, Vasilissa Yegorovna, let roe tell you.'

'Come, come,' his wife retorted, 'all this drilling is mere pretence—your soldiers don't learn anything and you are no good at it either. You had much better sit at home and say your prayers. Dear guests, come to the table.'

We sat down to dinner. Vasilissa Yegorovna was never silent for a minute and bombarded me with questions: who were my parents, were they living, where did they live, how big was their estate. When she heard that my father had three hundred serfs she said: 'Just fancy! to think of there being rich people in the world! And we, my dear, have only one maid, Palasha, but we are comfortable enough, thank heaven. The only trouble is Masha ought to be getting married, and all she has by way of dowry is a comb and a broom and a brass farthing. If the right man turns up, all well and good, but, if not, she will die an old maid.'

I glanced at Marya Ivanovna; she flushed crimson and tears dropped into her plate. I felt sorry for her and hastened to change the conversation.

'I have heard,' I said, rather inappropriately, 'that the Bashkirs propose to attack your fortress.'

'From whom have you heard it, my good sir?' Ivan Kuzmitch asked.

'I was told it at Orenburg,' I answered.

'Don't you believe it!' said the Commandant, 'we have not heard anything of it for years. The Bashkirs have been scared and the Kirghis, too, have had their lesson. No fear, they won't attack us; and if they do I will give them such a fright that they will keep quiet for another ten years.'

'And you are not afraid,' I continued, turning to Vasilissa Yegorovna, 'to remain in a fortress subject to such dangers?'

'It's habit, my dear,' she answered. 'Twenty years ago when we were transferred here from the regiment I cannot tell you how I dreaded those accursed infidels! As soon as I saw their lynx caps and heard their squealing, my heart stood still, would you believe it! And now I have grown so used to it that I don't stir when they tell us the villains are prowling round the fortress.'

'Vasilissa Yegorovna is a most courageous lady,' Shvabrin remarked, pompously. 'Ivan Kuzmitch can bear witness to it.'

'Yes; she is not of the timid sort, let me tell you!' Ivan Kuzmitch assented.

'And Marya Ivanovna? Is she as brave as you are?' I asked.

'Is Masha brave?' her mother answered. 'No, Masha is a coward. She can't bear even now to hear a rifle-shot; it makes her all of a tremble. And when, two years ago, Ivan Kuzmitch took it into his head to fire our cannon on my name-day, she nearly died of fright, poor dear. Since then we haven't fired the cursed cannon any more.'

We got up from the table. The Captain and his wife went to lie down, and I went to Shvabrin's and spent the rest of the day with him.

Back | Next | Contents