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

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CHAPTER VII.

THE ASSAULT.

I did not sleep that night, nor indeed did I take off my clothes. It had been my intention to proceed at daylight to the gate of the fortress, at which Maria Ivanovna was to leave, and there bid her a last farewell. I felt that a great change had come over me; the agitation of my soul was far less painful to me than that depression, which I had so recently experienced. An undefined but sweet sensation, the impatient expectation of danger and a noble ambition, were all mingled with my sorrow at parting. The night passed away imperceptibly. I was already about to leave the house, when my door was opened, and a corporal appeared, who reported that our Cossacks had fled during the night, carrying away Youlaï by force, and that strange people were seen riding around the fortress. The idea that Maria Ivanovna would not have time to leave, filled me with dread; I hurriedly gave the corporal some directions and hastened to the commandant's house.

It was already dawn. I was rapidly going down the street when I heard my name called out. I stopped.

"Where are you going to?" asked Ivan Ignatitch, overtaking me; "Ivan Kouzmitch is on the ramparts, and has sent me for you. Pougatch[1] is come."

"Is Maria Ivanovna gone?" I asked, with heartfelt trepidation.

"She has not had time," answered Ivan Ignatitch; "the road to Orenburg is cut off; the fortress is surrounded. It is a bad business, Piotr Andrevitch!"

We mounted the rampart, an eminence of natural formation, and defended by a palisade. All the inhabitants of the fortress had already assembled there. The garrison stood under arms. The gun had been removed thither the previous day. The commandant was pacing in front of his small force. The approach of danger seemed to inspire the old warrior with extraordinary bravery. About twenty horsemen were scattered over the steppe within a short distance of the fortress. They appeared to be Cossacks, but there were also some Bashkirs among them, who were easily distinguished by their fur caps and quivers. The commandant walked round the lines exhorting the soldiers: "Come, boys, let us stand up for our mother empress to-day, and let us prove to the world that we are a brave and loyal people!"

The soldiers demonstrated their zeal by loud shouts. Shvabrine stood beside me, watching the enemy closely. On becoming aware of the movement in the fortress, the men we had seen on the steppe assembled in a cluster, and consulted with each other. The commandant ordered Ivan Ignatitch to lay the gun at the enemy, and himself applied the match. The ball whistled and flew past them without occasioning any harm. The horsemen separated and galloped out of sight, clearing the steppe.

At that moment, Vassilissa Yegorovna appeared on the rampart, accompanied by Masha, who was unwilling to quit her side.

"Well," asked the commandant's wife, "how does the battle progress? Where is the enemy?"

"The enemy is not far off," answered Ivan Kouzmitch; "please God all will be well. What, Masha, art thou afraid?"

"No, papa," replied Maria Ivanovna; "I feel more frightened sitting at home."

She looked at me and made an effort to smile. I involuntarily grasped the hilt of my sword, remembering that I had received it from her own hands the night before, as if for the protection of the one I loved best. My heart burned within me; I fancied myself her chosen knight. I longed to prove that I was worthy of her trust, and impatiently awaited the decisive moment.

Fresh troops of horsemen now appeared from behind an eminence half a verst off, and soon the steppe became covered with people armed with spears and cross-bows. Amongst them was a man in a red caftan, riding a white horse, and holding a drawn sword; it was Pougatcheff himself. He halted, and was at once surrounded, when four men, evidently carrying out his instruction, rode up to the fortress at full speed. We recognized our deserters. One held a sheet of paper high above his cap; another had Youlaï's head stuck on his lance, which he threw at us over the palisade. The head of the poor Kalmuck had rolled to the commandant's feet. The traitors shouted:

"Do not fire! surrender to the emperor! The emperor is here!"

"I shall teach you!" cried Ivan Kouzmitch. "Boys, fire!"

Our soldiers fired. The Cossack who held the letter reeled and fell off his horse; the rest galloped back. I looked at Maria Ivanovna. Horrified at the sight of Youlaï's gory head, deafened by the discharge, she looked lifeless.

The commandant summoned a corporal, and ordered him to take the paper from the dead Cossack's hand. The corporal went and returned leading the horse of the fallen man by the bridle. He handed the letter to the commandant; Ivan Kouzmitch tore it to pieces after having silently read it. The rebels, however, were evidently preparing for action. Bullets soon began to hiss past our ears, and several arrows struck into the ground and the palisade near us.

"Vassilissa Yegorovna," said the commandant, "this is no place for women; take Masha away; thou seest the girl is half dead!"

Vassilissa Yegorovna, who had become meek under fire, cast a look at the steppe, on which a great movement was noticeable; then turning to her husband, she said:

"Ivan Kouzmitch, life and death are in God's hands; bless Masha. Masha, come to thy father."

Masha, pale and trembling, approached Ivan Kouzmitch, knelt down before him, and bowed herself to the earth. The old commandant made the sign of the cross over her three times; he then raised and kissed her, saying, in an altered voice:

"Be happy, Masha. Pray to God. He will not abandon thee. If thou should'st find a good man, may God bless your attachment. Live together as thy mother and I have lived. Well, good-bye, Masha; Vassilissa Yegorovna, lead her away quickly."

Masha threw herself on his neck, weeping.

"Kiss me also," said the commandant's wife, bursting into tears; "good-bye, my own Ivan Kouzmitch. Forgive me if ever I have displeased thee in anything."

"Good-bye, good-bye, my little mother!" said the commandant, embracing his old companion. "That will do! Go home quickly, and if thou canst find time, dress Masha in a sarafan."[2]

The commandant's wife and daughter left. I watched the retreating Masha; she looked round and nodded to me. Ivan Kouzmitch now turned to us, and all his attention became concentrated on the enemy. The rebels gathered around their chief, and suddenly dismounted.

"Stand fast now," said the commandant, "they are about to attack——"

Dreadful shouts and shrieks followed; the rebels were running at the fortress. Our gun was loaded with grape. The commandant allowed them to approach, and fired again. The shot had taken effect in the midst of the crowd. The rebels divided, and fell back a little. Their leader alone remained in the front. He was waving his sword, and appeared to be encouraging his men with energy. The shouts and shrieks which had ceased for but a moment, were renewed.

"Now then, boys," said the commandant, "open the gates, beat the drum. Advance! follow me!"

The commandant, Ivan Ignatitch, and I were in an instant without the palisade; but the terrified garrison did not stir.

"Why do you stand there, boys?" shouted Ivan Kouzmitch. "If we are to die, let us die. Our duty requires it."

The rebels rushed at us, and invaded the fortress. The drum ceased. The garrison dropped its arms. I was knocked off my legs, but I rose to my feet again, and followed the rebels into the fortress. The commandant, who was wounded in the head, was surrounded by the wretches, who demanded the keys of him. I was about to rush to his succour, but was seized by a few lusty Cossacks, who bound my hands with their belts, saying:

"Stop a bit, you will catch it by-and-by, you traitors to the emperor!"

We were dragged into the streets. The inhabitants had come out of their houses, carrying bread and salt.[3] The bells began to peal. A loud voice in the crowd announced that the emperor was awaiting the prisoners in the square, prepared to receive their oaths of allegiance. The mob rushed to the square; we were also led thither.

Pougatcheff sat in an arm-chair in the porch of the commandant's house. He wore a handsome Cossack caftan,[4] richly braided. The high sable hat, from which hung a golden tassel, came down to his sparkling eyes. I fancied I knew his face. He was surrounded by Cossack chiefs. Near the porch, pale and trembling, cross in hand, as if silently interceding on behalf of the victims which were to be, stood Father Gherassim. A gibbet was being hurriedly erected in the square. At our approach the Bashkirs quickly dispersed the crowd, and we were led before Pougatcheff. The ringing of bells had ceased; deep silence reigned.

"Which is the commandant?" asked the Pretender.

Our orderly stepped to the front, from the crowd, and pointed to Ivan Kouzmitch. Pougatcheff looked sternly at the old man, and said:

"How didst thou dare to oppose me; me, thy emperor?"

The commandant, weakened by his wound, summoned his failing strength, and replied in a firm voice:

"Thou art not my emperor; thou art a robber and a usurper, that is what thou art!"

Pougatcheff frowned gloomily, and waved a white kerchief. Several Cossacks seized the old captain, and dragged him to the gibbet. Astride the cross beam, was the mutilated Bashkir, whom we had examined the previous day. He was holding the rope, and in another minute I saw poor Ivan Kouzmitch dangling in the air. Ivan Ignatitch was next led before Pougatcheff.

"Swear allegiance," said Pougatcheff, "to the emperor Piotr Feodorovitch!"[5]

"Thou art not our emperor," replied Ivan Ignatitch, repeating his captain's words; "thou, uncle, art a robber and a usurper!"

Pougatcheff again waved the kerchief, and the kind-hearted sub-lieutenant was hanged by the side of his old chief.

My turn had come. I looked boldly at Pougatcheff, prepared to repeat the answer given by my brave comrades, when, to my indescribable astonishment, I saw amongst the rebel heads Shvabrine, with his hair evenly cut round, and wearing a Cossack caftan. He approached Pougatcheff, and whispered a few words to him.

"Let him be hanged!" said Pougatcheff, without looking at me.

A noose was thrown around my neck; I silently repeated a prayer, bringing sincere repentance for all my sins before God, and imploring the salvation of all dear to me. I was hurried to the gibbet.

"Do not fear—do not fear," repeated my executioners, perhaps really seeking to encourage me.

Suddenly I heard a cry; "Hold on, you cursed fellows!—hold on!"

The executioners paused. I looked back. Savelitch lay at Pougatcheff's feet.

"My father!" my poor servant was saying, "of what use can the death of that gentleman's child be to thee? Let him go; thou canst obtain a ransom for him; and, if thou dost want to make an example, and inspire fear, then let me, an old man, be hanged!"

Pougatcheff made a sign, my bonds were loosened, and I was set free.

"Our father pardons thee," was said to me.

I could not at that moment declare that I was overjoyed at my deliverance, though I did not regret it. My sensations were too confused. I was again conducted to the Pretender, and made to kneel before him. Pougatcheff extended his veined hand towards me.

"Kiss his hand—kiss his hand!" everybody repeated.

I should have preferred the most violent of deaths to such abject humiliation.

"My little father, Piotr Andrevitch," whispered Savelitch, who stood behind, nudging me, "do not be obstinate! What does it cost thee? Spit, and kiss the rob—— (tfu!) Kiss his hand!"

I did not move. Pougatcheff dropped his hand, saying, with a sneer—

"His lordship would appear to have become foolish through joy. Raise him."

I was raised, and let go. I looked on at the continuation of this horrible cruelty.

The inhabitants were being sworn in. They approached one by one, kissed the crucifix, and bowed before the Pretender. The soldiers of the garrison followed. The regimental tailor, armed with his blunt scissors, cut off their queues. They gave their heads a shake, kissed Pougatcheff's hand, who extended to them his pardon, and enlisted them in his army. This continued for three hours. At last Pougatcheff rose and left the porch, accompanied by his chiefs. A white horse, richly caparisoned, was led to him. Two Cossacks seized him under the arms and lifted him into the saddle. He informed Father Gherassim that he would dine with him. At that moment a woman's shriek was heard. Several of the scoundrels had dragged Vassilissa Yegorovna, dishevelled and almost stripped, into the porch. One of them had already managed to put on himself her dooshegreyka[6] Others were drawing after them feather-beds, boxes, the tea-service, linen, and all sorts of things.

"Oh, my little fathers!" cried the poor old woman, "have pity on me, my fathers; let me go to Ivan Kouzmitch." She looked at the gibbet, and recognized her husband. "Wretches!" she exclaimed, distracted, "what have you done to him? My light, my Ivan Kouzmitch, brave soldier's heart! The bayonets of the Prussians did not touch thee, neither did the Turkish bullets; thou hast not laid down thy life in an honourable fight—thou hast perished at the hands of an escaped convict——"

"Let the old witch be quieted!" said Pougatcheff.

A young Cossack struck her on the head with his sabre, and she fell dead on the house-steps. Pougatcheff rode away, the crowd rushing after him.

 
 
  1. Pougatch, s. a fright; a play upon the name of Pougatcheff.—Tr.
  2. The costume of female peasants, in which the girl might be disguised.—Tr.
  3. A peace offering.—Tr.
  4. A long coat, worn by the lower classes.—Tr.
  5. Peter, son of Feodor; Peter III. was son of Anna, daughter of Peter the Great, by Charles Frederick, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp. The name of Frederick does not exist in the Russian calender, and is substituted by Feodor (Theodore).—Tr.
  6. "Soul-warmer," a coat lined with fur, worn by females.—Tr.