The Captain's Daughter

by Alexsander Pushkin

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Chapter VI - Pougatcheff

Before I proceed to write a description of the strange events of which I was a witness, I must say a few words concerning the condition of the government of Orenburg towards the end of the year 1773.

This rich and extensive government was inhabited by horde? of half-savage people, who had only recently acknowledged the sovereignty of the Russian Czars. Their continual revolts, their disinclination to a civilized life and an existence regulated by laws, their fickleness and cruelty, demanded on the part of the government a constant vigilance in order to keep them in subjection. Fortresses had been erected in convenient places, and were garrisoned for the most part by Cossacks, who had formerly held possession of the shores of the Yaik. But these Yaikian Cossacks, whose duty it was to preserve peace and to watch over the security of this district, had themselves for some time past become very troublesome and dangerous to the government. In the year 1772 an insurrection broke out in their principal city. The causes of it were the severe measures taken by General Traubenberg to bring the army into a state of obedience. The result was the barbarous murder of Traubenberg, the selection of new leaders, and finally the suppression of the revolt by grapeshot and cruel punishments.

This happened a little while before my arrival at the fortress of Bailogorsk. All was now quiet, or at least appeared so; but the authorities believed too easily in the pretended repentance of the cunning rebels, who nursed their hatred in secret and only waited for a favourable opportunity to recommence the struggle.

I now return to my narrative.

One evening (it was in the beginning of October in the year. 1773) I was sitting indoors alone, listening to the moaning of the autumn wind, and gazing out of the window at the clouds, as they sailed rapidly over the face of the moon. A message was brought to me to wait upon the Commandant. I immediately repaired to his quarters. I there found Shvabrin, Ivan Ignatitch, and the Cossack orderly. Neither Vassilissa Egorovna nor Maria Ivanova was in the room. The Commandant greeted me with a pre-occupied air. He closed the door, made us all sit-down except the orderly, who remained standing near the door, drew a paper out of his pocket, and said to us:—

"Gentlemen, we have here important news! Hear what the general writes."

Then he put on his spectacles and read as follows:

"To the Commandant of the Fortress of Bailogorsk, Captain Mironoff. (Confidential.)

"I hereby inform you that the fugitive and schismatic Don Cossack, Emelian Pougatcheff, after having been guilty of the unpardonable insolence of assuming the name of the deceased Emperor Peter III.,[1] has collected a band of evil-disposed persons, has excited disturbances in the settlements along the banks of the Yaik, and has already taken and destroyed several fortresses, pillaging and murdering on every side. Therefore, on the receipt of this letter, you, Captain, will at once take the necessary measures to repel the above-mentioned villain and impostor, and, if possible, to completely annihilate him, if he should turn his arms against the fortress entrusted to your care."

"Take the necessary measures," said the Commandant, taking off his spectacles and folding up the letter; "you see that it is very easy to say that. The villain is evidently strong in numbers, whereas we have but 130 men altogether, not counting the Cossacks, upon whom we can place very little dependence—without intending any reproach to you, Maximitch." The orderly smiled. "Still, there is no help for it, but to do the best we can, gentlemen. Let us be on our guard and establish night patrols; in case of attack, shut the gates and assemble the soldiers. You, Maximitch, keep a strict eye on your Cossacks. See that the cannon be examined and thoroughly cleaned. Above all things, keep what I have said a secret, so that nobody in the fortress may know anything before the time."

After giving these orders, Ivan Kouzmitch dismissed us. I walked away with Shvabrin, reflecting upon what we had heard.

"How do you think that this will end?" I asked him.

"God knows," he replied; "we shall see. I do not see anything to be alarmed about at present. If, however——"

Then he began to reflect and to whistle abstractedly a French air.

In spite of all our precautions, the news of the appearance of Pougatcheff soon spread through the fortress. Although Ivan Kouzmitch entertained the greatest respect for his wife, he would not for anything in the world have confided to her a secret entrusted to him in connection with the service. After having received the general's letter, he contrived in a tolerably dexterous manner to get Vassilissa Egorovna out of the way, telling her that Father Gerasim had received some extraordinary news from Orenburg, which he kept a great secret. Vassilissa Egorovna immediately wished to go and pay a visit to the pope's wife and, by the advice of Ivan Kouzmitch, she took Masha with her, lest she should feel dull by herself.

Ivan Kouzmitch, being thus left sole master of the situation, immediately sent for us, having locked Palashka in the pantry, so that she might not be able to overhear what we had to say.

Vassilissa Egorovna returned home, without having succeeded in getting anything out of the pope's wife, and she learned that, during her absence, a council of war had been held in Ivan Kouzmitch's house, and that Palashka had been under lock and key. She suspected that she had been duped by her husband, and she began to assail him with questions. But Ivan Kouzmitch was prepared for the attack. He was not in the least perturbed, and boldly made answer to his inquisitive consort:

"Hark you, mother dear, our women hereabouts have taken a notion into their heads to heat their ovens with straw, and as some misfortune might be the outcome of it, I gave strict orders that the women should not heat their ovens with straw, but should burn brushwood and branches of trees instead."

"But why did you lock up Palashka, then?" asked his wife. "Why was the poor girl compelled to sit in the kitchen till we returned?"

Ivan Kouzmitch was not prepared for such a question; he became confused, and stammered out something very incoherent. Vassilissa Egorovna perceived her husband's perfidy, but, knowing that she would get nothing out of him just then, she abstained from asking any further questions and turned the conversation to the subject of the pickled; cucumbers, which Akoulina Pamphilovna knew how to prepare in such an excellent manner. But all that night Vassilissa Egorovna could not sleep a wink, nor could she understand what it was that was in her husband's head that; she was not permitted to know.

The next day, as she was returning home from mass, she saw Ivan Ignatitch, who was busily engaged in clearing the cannon of pieces of rag, small stones, bits of bone, and rubbish of every sort, which had been deposited there by the little boys of the place.

"What mean these warlike preparations?" thought the Commandant's wife. "Can it be that they fear an attack on the part of the Kirghises? But is it possible that Ivan Kouzmitch could conceal such a trifle from me?"

She called Ivan Ignatitch to her with the firm determination of learning from him the secret which tormented her woman's curiosity.

Vassillissa Egorovna began by making a few observations to him about household matters, like a judge who commences an examination with questions foreign to the matter in hand, in order to lull the suspicions of the person accused. Then, after a silence of a few moments, she heaved a deep sigh, and said, shaking her head:

"Oh, Lord God! What news! What will be the end of all this?"

"Well, well, mother!" replied Ivan Ignatitch; "God is merciful; we have soldiers enough, plenty of powder, and I have cleaned the cannon. Perhaps we shall be able to offer a successful resistance to this Pougatcheff; if God will only not abandon us, we shall be safe enough here."

"And what sort of a man is this Pougatcheff?" asked the Commandant's wife.

Then Ivan Ignatitch perceived that he had said more ban he ought to have done, and he bit his tongue. But it was now too late. Vassilissa Egorovna compelled him to inform her of everything, having given him her word that she would not mention the matter to anybody.

Vassilissa Egorovna kept her promise and said not a word to anybody, except to the pope's wife, and to her only because her cow was still feeding upon the steppe, and might be captured by the brigands.

Soon everybody was talking about Pougatcheff. The reports concerning him varied very much. The Commandant sent his orderly to glean as much information as possible about him in all the neighbouring villages and fortresses. The orderly returned after an absence of two days, and reported that, at about sixty versts from the fortress, he had seen a large number of fires upon the steppe, and that he had heard from the Bashkirs that an immense force was advancing. He could not say anything more positive, because he had feared to venture further.

An unusual agitation now began to be observed among the Cossacks of the fortress; in all the streets they congregated in small groups, quietly conversing among themselves, and dispersing whenever they caught sight of a dragoon or any other soldier belonging to the garrison. They were closely watched by spies. Youlai, a converted Calmuck, made an important communication to the commandant. The orderly's report, according to Youlai, was a false one; on his return the treacherous Cossack announced to his companions that he had been among the rebels, and had been presented to their leader, who had given him his hand and had conversed with him for a long time. The Commandant immediately placed the orderly under arrest, and appointed Youlai in his place. This change was the cause of manifest dissatisfaction among the Cossacks. They murmured loudly, and Ivan Ignatitch, who executed the Commandant's instructions, with his own ears heard them say:

"Just wait a little while, you garrison rat!"

The Commandant had intended interrogating the prisoner that very same day, but the orderly had made his escape, no doubt with the assistance of his partisans.

A fresh event served to increase the Commandant's uneasiness. A Bashkir, carrying seditious letters, was seized. On this occasion the Commandant again decided upon assembling his officers, and therefore he wished once more to get Vassilissa Egorovna out of the way under some plausible pretext. But as Ivan Kouzmitch was a most upright and sincere man, he could find no other method than that employed on the previous occasion.

"Listen, Vassilissa Egorovna," he said to her, coughing to conceal his embarrassment: "they say that Father Gerasim has received——"

"That's enough, Ivan Kouzmitch," said his wife, interrupting him: "you wish to assemble a council of war to talk about Emelian Pougatcheff without my being present; but you shall not deceive me this time."

Ivan Kouzmitch opened his eyes.

"Well, little mother," he said, "if you know everything, you may remain; we shall speak in your presence."

"Very well, my little father," replied she; "you should not try to be so cunning; send for the officers."

We assembled again. Ivan Kouzmitch, in the presence of his wife, read to us Pougatcheff's proclamation, drawn up probably by some half-educated Cossack. The robber announced therein his intention of immediately marching upon our fortress; he invited the Cossacks and soldiers to join him, and advised the superior officers not to offer any resistance, threatening them with death in the event of their doing so. The proclamation was couched in coarse but vigorous language, and could not but produce a powerful impression upon the minds of simple people.

"What a rascal!" exclaimed the Commandant's wife; "that he should propose such a thing to us. To go out to meet him and lay our flags at his feet! Ah! the son of a dog! He does not know then that we have been forty years in the service, and that, thanks to God, we have seen a good deal during that time. Is it possible that there are commandants who would be cowardly enough to yield to a robber like him?"

"There ought not to be," replied Ivan Kouzmitch; "but it is reported that the scoundrel has already taken several fortresses."

"He seems to have great power," observed Shvabrin.

"We shall soon find out the real extent of his power," said the Commandant. "Vassilissa Egorovna, give me the key of the loft. Ivan Ignatitch, bring hither the Bashkir, and tell Youlai to fetch a whip."

"Wait a moment, Ivan Kouzmitch," said his wife, rising from her seat. "Let me take Masha somewhere out of the house; otherwise she will hear the cries and will feel frightened. And I myself, to tell the truth, am no lover of inquisitions. So good-bye for the present."

Torture, in former times, was so rooted in our judicial proceedings, that the benevolent ukase[2] ordering its abolition remained for a long time a dead letter. It was thought that the confession of the criminal was indispensable for his full conviction—an idea not only unreasonable, but even contrary to common sense from a jurisprudential point of view; for if the denial of the accused person be not accepted as proof of his innocence, the confession that has been wrung from him ought still less to be accepted as a proof of his guilt. Even in our days I sometimes hear old judges regretting the abolition of the barbarous custom. But in those days nobody had any doubt about the necessity of torture, neither the judges nor even the accused persons themselves. Therefore it was that the Commandant's order did not astonish or alarm any of us. Ivan Ignatitch went to fetch the Bashkir, who was confined in the loft, under lock and key, and a few minutes afterwards he was led prisoner into the ante-room. The Commandant ordered the captive to be brought before him.—

The Bashkir stepped with difficulty across the threshold (for his feet were in fetters) and, taking off his high cap, remained standing near the door. I glanced at him and shuddered. Never shall I forget that man. He appeared to be about seventy years of age, and had neither nose nor ears. His head was shaved, and instead of a beard he had a few grey hairs upon his chin; he was of short stature, thin and bent; but his small eyes still flashed fire.

"Ah, ah!" said the Commandant, recognizing by these dreadful marks one of the rebels punished in the year 1741, "I see you are an old wolf; you have already been caught in our traps. It is not the first time that you have rebelled, since your head is planed so smoothly. Come nearer; speak, who sent you here?"

The old Bashkir remained silent and gazed at the Commandant with an air of complete stolidity.

"Why do you not answer?" continued Ivan Kouzmitch. "Don't you understand Russian? Youlai, ask him in your language, who sent him to our fortress."

Youlai repeated the Commandant's question in the Tartar language. But the Bashkir looked at him with the same expression and answered not a word.

"By heaven!" exclaimed the Commandant, "you shall answer me. My lads! take off that ridiculous striped gown of his, and tickle his back. Youlai, see that it is carried out properly."

Two soldiers began to undress the Bashkir. The face of the unhappy man assumed an expression of uneasiness. He looked round on every side, like a poor little animal f that has been captured by children. But when one of the soldiers seized his hands to twine them round his neck, and raised the old man upon his shoulders, and Youlai grasped the whip and began to flourish it round his head, then the Bashkir uttered a feeble groan, and, raising his head, opened his mouth, in which, instead of a tongue, moved a short stump.

When I reflect that this happened during my lifetime, and that I now live under the mild government of the Emperor Alexander, I cannot but feel astonished at the rapid progress of civilization, and the diffusion of humane ideas. Young man! if these lines of mine should fall into your hands, remember that those changes which proceed from an amelioration of manners and customs are much better and more lasting than those which are the outcome of acts of violence.

We were all horror-stricken.

"Well," said the Commandant, "it is evident that we shall get nothing out of him. Youlai, lead the Bashkir back to the loft; and let us, gentlemen, have a little further talk about the matter."

We were yet considering our position, when Vassilissa Egorovna suddenly rushed into the room, panting for breath, and beside herself with excitement.

"What has happened to you?" asked the astonished Commandant.

"I have to inform you of a great misfortune!" replied Vassilissa Egorovna. "Nijniosern was taken this morning. Father Gerasim's servant has just returned from there. He saw how they took it. The Commandant and all the officers are hanged, and all the soldiers are taken prisoners. In a little while the villains will be here."

This unexpected intelligence produced a deep impression upon me. The Commandant of the fortress of Nijniosem, a quiet and modest young man, was an acquaintance of mine; two months before he had visited our fortress when on his way from Orenburg along with his young wife, and had stopped for a little while in the house of Ivan Kouzmitch. Nijniosern was about twenty-five versts from our fortress. We might therefore expect to be attacked by Pougatcheff at any moment. The fate in store for Maria Ivanovna presented itself vividly to my imagination, and my heart sank within me.

"Listen, Ivan Kouzmitch," said I to the Commandant; "our duty is to defend the fortress to the last gasp; there is no question about that. But we must think about the safety of the women. Send them on to Orenburg, if the road be still open, or to some safer and more distant fortress where these villains will not be able to make their way."

Ivan Kouzmitch turned round to his wife and said to her:

"Listen, mother; would it not be just as well if we sent you away to some place farther off until we have settled matters with these rebels?"

"What nonsense!" said the Commandant's wife. "Where is there a fortress that would be safe from bullets? Why is Bailogorsk not safe? Thank God, we have lived in it for two-and-twenty years! We have seen Bashkirs and Kirghises; perhaps we shall also escape the clutches of Pougatcheff."

"Well, mother," replied Ivan Kouzmitch, "stay if you like, if you have such confidence in our fortress. But what shall we do with Masha? All well and good if we offer a successful resistance, or can hold out till we obtain help; but what if the villains should take the fortress?"

"Why, then——"

But at this juncture Vassilissa Egorovna began to stammer and then remained silent, evidently agitated by deep emotion.

"No, Vassilissa Egorovna," continued the Commandant, observing that his words had produced an impression upon her, perhaps for the first time in his life, "Masha must not remain here. Let us send her to Orenburg, to her godmother; there are plenty of soldiers and cannon there, and the walls are of stone. And I would advise you to go there with her; for although you are an old woman, think what might happen to you if the fortress should be taken by storm."

"Very well," replied the Commandant's wife; "let it be so: we will send Masha away. As for me, you need not trouble yourself about asking me to go; I will remain here. Nothing shall make me part from you in my old age to go and seek a lonely grave in a strange country. Together we have lived, together we will die."

"Well, you are right," said the Commandant; "but let us not delay any longer. Go and get Masha ready for the journey. She must set out at daybreak to-morrow, and we shall let her have an escort, although we have not too many men in the fortress to be able to spare any of them. But where is Masha?"

"Along with Akoulina Pamphilovna," replied the Commandant's wife. "She fainted away when she heard of the capture of Nijniosern; I am afraid that she will be ill. Lord God of heaven, what have we lived to see!"

Vassilissa Egorovna went to prepare for her daughter's departure. The consultation with the Commandant was then continued; but I no longer took any part in it, nor did I listen to anything that was said. Maria Ivanovna appeared at supper, her face pale and her eyes red with weeping. We supped in silence, and rose from the table sooner than usual; then taking leave of the family, we all returned to our respective quarters. But I intentionally forgot my sword, and went back for it: I had a presentiment that I should find Maria alone. True enough I met her in the doorway, and she handed me my sword.

"Farewell, Peter Andreitch!" she said to me, with tears in her eyes; "they are going to send me to Orenburg. May you be well and happy. God may be pleased to ordain that we should see each other again; if not——"

Here she burst out sobbing. I clasped her in my arms.

"Farewell, my angel!" said I. "Farewell, my darling, my heart's desire! Whatever may happen to me, rest assured that my last thought and last prayer shall be for you."

Masha still continued to weep, resting her head upon my breast. I kissed her fervently, and hastily quitted the room.


[1] Husband of the Empress Catherine II. The latter, whom the Emperor had threatened to divorce, having won over to her side a considerable portion of the army, had compelled her unpopular consort to sign an act of abdication in 1762. Having been removed as a prisoner to Ropscha, it was shortly afterwards announced that He had died of colic, though the truth was, he had been strangled to death by Alexis Orloff, one of Catherine's numerous admirers.

[2] Torture was abolished in 1768 by an edict of Catherine II.


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