The fortress of Bailogorsk was situated about forty versts from Orenburg. The road to it led along the steep bank of the Yaik. The river was not yet frozen, and its leaden-coloured waves had a dark and melancholy aspect as they rose and fell between the dreary banks covered with the white snow. Beyond it stretched the Kirghis steppes. I sank into reflections, most of them of a gloomy nature. Garrison life had little attraction for me. I endeavoured to picture to myself Captain Mironoff, my future chief; and I imagined him to be a severe, ill-tempered old man, knowing nothing except what was connected with his duty, and ready to arrest me and put me on bread and water for the merest trifle.
In the meantime it began to grow dark, and we quickened our pace.
"Is it far to the fortress?" I inquired of our driver.
"Not far," he replied, "you can see it yonder."
I looked around on every side, expecting to see formidable bastions, towers, and ramparts, but I could see nothing except a small village surrounded by a wooden palisade. On one side stood three or four hayricks, half covered with snow; on the other a crooked looking windmill, with its bark sails hanging idly down.
"But where is the fortress?" I asked in astonishment.
"There it is," replied the driver, pointing to the village, and, as he spoke, we entered into it.
At the gate I saw an old cast-iron gun; the streets were narrow and crooked; the cottages small, and for the most part covered with thatch. I expressed a wish to be taken to the Commandant, and, in about a minute, the kibitka stopped in front of a small wooden house, built on an eminence, and situated near the church, which was likewise of wood.
Nobody came out to meet me. I made my way to the entrance and then proceeded to the ante-room. An old pensioner, seated at a table, was engaged in sewing a blue patch on the elbow of a green uniform coat. I ordered him to announce me.
"Go inside, little father," replied the pensioner; "our people are at home."
I entered into a very clean room, furnished in the old-fashioned style. In one corner stood a cupboard containing earthenware utensils; on the wall hung an officers diploma, framed and glazed, and around it were arranged a few rude wood engravings, representing the "Capture of Kustrin and Otchakoff," the "Choice of the Bride," and the "Burial of the Cat." At the window sat an old woman in a jerkin, and wearing a handkerchief round her head. She was unwinding thread which a one-eyed old man, dressed in an officer's uniform, held in his outstretched hands.
"What is your pleasure, little father?" she asked, continuing her occupation.
I replied that I had come to enter the service, and, in accordance with the regulations, to notify my arrival to the Captain in command. And with these words I turned towards the one-eyed old man, whom I supposed to be the Commandant; but the old lady interrupted me in the speech which I had so carefully prepared beforehand.
"Ivan Kouzmitch is not at home," said she; "he has gone to visit Father Gerasim. But it is all the same, I am his wife."
She summoned a maid-servant and told her to call an orderly officer. The little old man looked at me out of his one eye with much curiosity.
"May I ask," said he, "in what regiment you have deigned to serve?"
I satisfied his curiosity.
"And may I ask," he continued, "why you have exchanged the Guards for this garrison?"
I replied that such was the wish of the authorities.
"Probably for conduct unbecoming an officer of the Guards?" continued the indefatigable interrogator.
"A truce to your foolish chatter," said the Captain's wife to him; "you see that the young man is tired after his journey. He has something else to do than to listen to your nonsense." Then turning to me she added: "You are not the first, and you will not be the last. It is a hard life here, but you will soon get to like it. It is five years ago since Shvabrin Alexei Ivanitch was sent here to us for a murder. Heaven knows what it was that caused him to go wrong. You see, he went out of the town with a lieutenant; they had taken their swords with them, and they began to thrust at one another, and Alexei Ivanitch stabbed the lieutenant, and all before two witnesses! But what would you? Man is not master of sin."
At this moment the orderly officer, a young and well-built Cossack, entered the room.
"Maximitch," said the Captain's wife to him, "conduct this officer to his quarters, and see that everything is attended to."
"I obey, Vassilissa Egorovna," replied the orderly. "Is not his Excellency to lodge with Ivan Polejaeff?"
"What a booby you are, Maximitch!" said the Captain's wife. "Polejaeff's house is crowded already; besides, he is my gossip, and remembers that we are his superiors. Take the officer—what is your name, little father?"
"Take Peter Andreitch to Simon Kouzoff. The rascal allowed his horse to get in my kitchen-garden.... And is everything right, Maximitch?"
"Everything, thank God!" replied the Cossack; "only Corporal Prokhoroff has been having a squabble at the bath with Ustinia Pegoulina, on account of a can of hot water."
"Ivan Ignatitch," said the Captain's wife to the one-eyed old man, "decide between Prokhoroff and Ustinia as to who is right and who is wrong, and then punish both. Now, Maximitch, go, and God be with you. Peter Andreitch, Maximitch will conduct you to your quarters."
I bowed and took my departure. The orderly conducted me to a hut, situated on the steep bank of the river, at the extreme end of the fortress. One half of the hut was occupied by the family of Simon Kouzoff; the other was given up to me. It consisted of one room, of tolerable cleanliness, and was divided into two by a partition.
Savelitch began to set the room in order, and I looked out of the narrow window. Before me stretched a gloomy steppe. On one side stood a few huts, and two or three fowls were wandering about the street. An old woman, standing on a doorstep with a trough in her hands, was calling some pigs, which answered her with friendly grunts. And this was the place in which I was condemned to spend my youth! Grief took possession of me; I came, away from the window and lay down to sleep without eating any supper, in spite of the exhortations of Savelitch, who kept repeating in a tone of distress:
"Lord of heaven! he will eat nothing! What will my mistress say if the child falls ill?"—
The next morning I had scarcely begun to dress when the door opened, and a young officer, somewhat short in stature, with a swarthy and rather ill-looking countenance, though distinguished by extraordinary vivacity, entered the room.
"Pardon me," he said to me in French, "for coming without ceremony to make your acquaintance. I heard yesterday of your arrival, and the desire to see at last a fresh human face took such possession of me, that I could not wait any longer. You will understand this when you have lived here a little while."
I conjectured that this was the officer who had been dismissed from the Guards on account of the duel. We soon became acquainted. Shvabrin was by no means a fool. His conversation was witty and entertaining. With great liveliness he described to me the family of the Commandant, his society, and the place to which fate had conducted me. I was laughing with all my heart when the old soldier who had been mending his uniform in the Commandant's ante-chamber, came to me, and, in the name of Vassilissa Egorovna, invited me to dinner. Shvabrin declared that he would go with me.
On approaching the Commandant's house, we perceived on the square about twenty old soldiers, with long pig-tails and three-cornered hats. They were standing to the front. Before them stood the Commandant, a tall and sprightly old man, in a nightcap and flannel dressing-gown. Observing us, he came forward towards us, said a few kind words to me, and then went on again with the drilling of his men. We were going to stop to watch the evolutions, but he requested us to go to Vassilissa Egorovna, promising to join us in a little while. "Here," he added, "there is nothing for you to see."
Vassilissa Egorovna received us with unfeigned gladness and simplicity, and treated me as if she had known me all my life. The pensioner and Palashka spread the tablecloth.
"What is detaining my Ivan Kouzmitch so long to-day?" said the Commandant's wife. "Palashka, go and call your master to dinner.... But where is Masha?"
At that moment there entered the room a young girl of about eighteen years of age, with a round, rosy face, and light brown hair, brushed smoothly back behind her ears, which were tinged with a deep blush. She did not produce a very favourable impression upon me at the first glance. I regarded her with prejudiced eyes. Shvabrin had described Masha, the Captain's daughter, as a perfect idiot. Maria Ivanovna sat down in a corner and began to sew. Meanwhile, the cabbage-soup was brought in. Vassilissa Egorovna, not seeing her husband, sent Palashka after him a second time.
"Tell your master that the guests are waiting, and that the soup is getting cold. Thank Heaven, the drill will not run away! he will have plenty of time to shout himself hoarse."
The Captain soon made his appearance, accompanied by the little one-eyed old man.
"What is the meaning of this, little father?" said his wife to him; "the dinner has been ready a long time, and you would not come."
"Why, you see, Vassilissa Egorovna," said Ivan Kouzmitch, "I was occupied with my duties; I was teaching my little soldiers."
"Nonsense!" replied his wife; "it is all talk about your teaching the soldiers. The service does not suit them, and you yourself don't understand anything about it. It would be better for you to stay at home and pray to God. My dear guests, pray take your places at the table."
We sat down to dine. Vassilissa Egorovna was not silent for a single moment, and she overwhelmed me with questions. Who were my parents? Were they living? Where did they live? How much were they worth? On hearing that my father owned three hundred souls:
"Really now!" she exclaimed; "well, there are some rich people in the world! As for us, my little father, we have only our one servant-girl, Palashka; but, thank God, we manage to get along well enough! There is only one thing that we are troubled about. Masha is an eligible girl, but what has she got for a marriage portion? A clean comb, a hand-broom, and three copecks—Heaven have pity upon her!—to pay for a bath. If she can find a good man, all very well; if not, she will have to be an old maid."
I glanced at Maria Ivanovna; she was blushing all over, and tears were even falling into her plate. I began to feel pity for her, and I hastened to change the conversation.
"I have heard," said I, as appropriately as I could, "that the Bashkirs are assembling to make an attack upon your fortress."
"And from whom did you hear that, my little father?" asked Ivan Kouzmitch.
"They told me so in Orenburg," I replied.
"All nonsense!" said the Commandant; "we have heard nothing about them for a long time. The Bashkirs are a timid lot, and the Kirghises have learnt a lesson. Don't be alarmed, they will not attack us; but if they should venture to do so, we will teach them such a lesson that they will not make another move for the next ten years."
"And are you not afraid," continued I, turning to the Captain's wife, "to remain in a fortress exposed to so many dangers?"
"Habit, my little father," she replied. "It is twenty years ago since they transferred us from the regiment to this place, and you cannot imagine how these accursed heathens used to terrify me. If I caught a glimpse of their hairy caps now and then, or if I heard their yells, will you believe it, my father, my heart would leap almost into my mouth. But now I am so accustomed to it that I would not move out of my place if anyone came to tell me that the villains were prowling round the fortress."
"Vassilissa Egorovna is a very courageous lady," observed Shvabrin earnestly; "Ivan Kouzmitch can bear witness to that."
"Yes, I believe you," said Ivan Kouzmitch; "the wife is not one of the timid ones."
"And Maria Ivanovna," I asked, "is she as brave as you?"
"Masha brave?" replied her mother. "No, Masha is a coward. Up to the present time she has never been able to hear the report of a gun without trembling all over. Two years ago, when Ivan Kouzmitch took the idea into his head to fire off our cannon on my name-day, my little dove was so frightened that she nearly died through terror. Since then we have never fired off the accursed cannon."
We rose from the table. The Captain and his wife went to indulge in a nap, and I accompanied Shvabrin to his quarters, where I spent the whole evening.
 A verst is two-thirds of an English mile.
 A tributary of the Oural.
 Taken from the Turks in 1737 by the Russian troops under Count Münich.
 Ivan (John), son of Kouzma.
 Little father (batyushka). A familiar idiom peculiar to the Russian language.
 Diminutive of Maria or Mary.
 Mary, daughter of Ivan (i.e., Masha).
 The technical name for serfs.
 The Russians do not keep the actual day of their birth, but their name-day—that is, the day kept in honour of the saint after whom they are called.