The Captain's Daughter

by Alexsander Pushkin

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Chapter VII - The Assault

That night I neither slept nor undressed. It was my intention to proceed early in the morning to the gate of the fortress through which Maria Ivanovna would have to pass, so that I might take leave of her for the last time. I felt within myself a great change; the agitation of my soul was far less burdensome to me than the melancholy into which I had lately fallen. With the grief of separation there was mingled a vague, but sweet hope, an impatient expectation of danger, a feeling of noble ambition.

The night passed away imperceptibly. I was just about to leave the house when my door opened, and the corporal entered the room with the information that our Cossacks had quitted the fortress during the night, taking Youlai by force along with them, and that strange people were riding round the fortress. The thought that Maria Ivanovna would not be able to get away filled me with alarm. I hurriedly gave some orders to the corporal, and then hastened at once to the Commandant's quarters.

Day had already begun to dawn. I was hurrying along the street when I heard someone call out my name. I stopped.

"Where are you going?" said Ivan Ignatitch, overtaking me. "Ivan Kouzmitch is on the rampart, and he has sent me for you. Pougatch[1] has come."

"Has Maria Ivanovna left the fortress?" I asked, with a trembling heart.

"She was unable to do so," replied Ivan Ignatitch; "the road to Orenburg is cut off and the fortress is surrounded. It is a bad look-out, Peter Andreitch."

We made our way to the rampart, an elevation formed by nature and fortified by a palisade. The inhabitants of the fortress were already assembled there. The garrison stood drawn up under arms. The cannon had been dragged thither the day before. The Commandant was walking up and down in front of his little troop. The approach of danger had inspired the old warrior with unusual vigour. On the steppe, not very far from the fortress, about a score of men could be seen riding about on horseback. They seemed to be Cossacks, but among them were some Bashkirs, who were easily recognized by their hairy caps, and by their quivers.

The Commandant walked along the ranks of his little army, saying to the soldiers:

"Now, my children, let us stand firm to-day for our mother the Empress and let us show the whole world that we are brave people, and true to our oath."

The soldiers responded to his appeal with loud shouts. Shvabrin stood near me and attentively observed the enemy. The people riding about on the steppe, perceiving some movement in the fortress, gathered together in a group and began conversing among themselves. The Commandant ordered Ivan Ignatitch to point the cannon at them, and then applied the match to it with his own hand. The ball whistled over their heads, without doing any harm. The horsemen dispersed, galloping out of sight almost immediately, and the steppe was deserted.

At that moment Vassilissa Egorovna appeared upon the rampart, followed by Masha, who was unwilling to leave her.

"Well," said the Commandant's wife, "how goes the battle? Where is the enemy?"

"The enemy is not far off," replied Ivan Kouzmitch. "God grant that all may go well!... Well, Masha, do you feel afraid?"

"No, papa," replied Maria Ivanovna; "I feel more afraid being at home alone."

Then 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 hand the evening before—as if for the protection of my beloved. My heart throbbed. I imagined myself her champion. I longed to prove that I was worthy of her confidence, and waited impatiently for the decisive moment.

All of a sudden some fresh bodies of mounted men made their appearance from behind an elevation situated about half a mile from the fortress, and soon the steppe was covered with crowds of persons armed with lances and quivers. Among them, upon a white horse, was a man in a red caftan[2], holding a naked sword in his hand; this was Pougatcheff himself. He stopped his horse, and the others gathered round him, and, in obedience to his order as it seemed, four men detached themselves from the crowd and galloped at full speed towards the fortress. We recognized among them some of our traitors. One of them held a sheet of paper above his head, while another bore upon the top of his lance the head of Youlai, which he threw over the palisade among us. The head of the poor Calmuck fell at the feet of the Commandant.

The traitors cried out:

"Do not fire! Come out and pay homage to the Czar. The Czar is here!"

"Look out for yourselves!" cried Ivan Kouzmitch, "Ready, lads—fire!"

Our soldiers fired a volley. The Cossack who held the letter staggered and fell from his horse; the others galloped back. I turned and looked at Maria Ivanovna. Terror-stricken by the sight of the bloodstained head of Youlai, and stunned by the din of the discharge, she seemed perfectly paralyzed. The Commandant called the corporal and ordered him to fetch the paper from the hands of the fallen Cossack. The corporal went out into the plain, and returned leading by the bridle the horse of the dead man. He handed the letter to the Commandant. Ivan Kouzmitch read it to himself and then tore it into pieces. In the meantime we could see the rebels preparing for the attack. Soon the bullets began to whistle about our ears, and several arrows fell close to us, sticking in the ground and in the palisade.

"Vassilissa Egorovna!" said the Commandant; "women have no business here. Take Masha away; you see that the girl is more dead than alive."

Vassilissa Egorovna, tamed by the bullets, cast a glance at the steppe, where a great commotion was observable, and then turned round to her husband and said to him:

"Ivan Kouzmitch, life and death are in the hands of God; bless Masha. Masha, come near to your father."

Masha, pale and trembling, approached Ivan Kouzmitch, knelt down before him, and bowed herself to the ground. The old Commandant made the sign of the cross over her three times, then raised her up, and kissing her, said in a voice of deep emotion:

"Well, Masha, be happy. Pray to God; He will never forsake you. If you find a good man, may God give you love and counsel. Live together as your mother and I have lived. And now, farewell, Masha. Vassilissa Egorovna, take her away quickly."

Masha threw her arms round his neck and sobbed aloud.

"Let us kiss each other also," said the Commandant's wife, weeping. "Farewell, my Ivan Kouzmitch. Forgive me if I have ever vexed you in any way!"

"Farewell, farewell, little mother!" said the Commandant, embracing the partner of his joys and sorrows for so many years. "Come now, that is enough! Make haste home; and if you can manage it, put a sarafan[3] on Masha."

The Commandant's wife walked away along with her daughter. I followed Maria Ivanovna with my eyes; she turned round and nodded her head to me.

Ivan Kouzmitch then returned to us, and bestowed all his attention upon the enemy. The rebels gathered round their leader and suddenly dismounted from their horses.

"Stand firm now," said the Commandant, "the assault is going to begin."

At that moment frightful yells and cries rose in the air; the rebels dashed forward towards the fortress. Our cannon was loaded with grape-shot.

The Commandant allowed them to come very close, and then suddenly fired again. The grape fell into the very midst of the crowd. The rebels recoiled and then dispersed on every side. Their leader alone remained facing us. He heaved his sword and seemed to be vehemently exhorting his followers to return to the attack. The shrieks and yells, which had ceased for a minute, were immediately renewed.

"Now, lads!" said the Commandant; "open the gate, beat the drum, and let us make a sally. Forward, and follow me!"

The Commandant, Ivan Ignatitch, and I were outside the wall of the fortress in a twinkling; but the timid garrison did not move.

"Why do you hold back, my children?" cried Ivan Kouzmitch. "If we are to die, let us die doing our duty!"

At that moment the rebels rushed upon us and forced an entrance into the fortress. The drum ceased to beat; the garrison flung down their arms. I was thrown to the ground, but I rose up and entered the fortress along with the rebels. The Commandant, wounded in the head, was surrounded by a crowd of the robbers, who demanded of him the keys. I was about to rush to his assistance, but several powerful Cossacks seized hold of me and bound me with their sashes, exclaiming:

"Just wait a little while and see what you will get, you traitors to the Czar!"

They dragged us through the streets; the inhabitants came out of their houses with bread and salt;[4] the bells began to ring. Suddenly among the crowd a cry was raised that the Czar was in the square waiting for the prisoners to take their oath of allegiance to him. The throng pressed towards the market-place, and our captors dragged us thither also.

Pougatcheff was seated in an armchair on the steps of the Commandant's house. He was attired in an elegant Cossack caftan, ornamented with lace. A tall cap of sable, with gold tassels, came right down to his flashing eyes. His face seemed familiar to me. He was surrounded by the Cossack chiefs. Father Gerasim, pale and trembling, stood upon the steps with a cross in his hands, and seemed to be silently imploring mercy for the victims brought forward. In the square a gallows was being hastily erected. As we approached, the Bashkirs drove back the crowd, and we were brought before Pougatcheff. The bells had ceased ringing, and a deep silence reigned around.

"Which is the Commandant?" asked the pretender.

Our orderly stepped forward out of the crowd and pointed to Ivan Kouzmitch.

Pougatcheff regarded the old man with a menacing look, and said to him:

"How dared you oppose me—your emperor?"

The Commandant, weakened by his wound, summoned ill his remaining strength and replied in a firm voice:

"You are not my emperor; you are a robber and a pretender, that is what you are!"

Pougatcheff frowned savagely and waved his white handkerchief. Several Cossacks seized the old captain and dragged him towards the gallows. Astride upon the cross-beam could be seen the mutilated Bashkir whom we had examined the day before. He held in his hand a rope, and a minute afterwards I saw poor Ivan Kouzmitch suspended in the air. Then Ivan Ignatitch was brought before Pougatcheff.

"Take the oath of fealty," said Pougatcheff to him, "to the Emperor Peter Fedorovitch!"

"You are not our emperor," replied Ivan Ignatitch, repeating the words of his captain; "you, uncle, are a robber and a pretender!"

Pougatcheff again waved his handkerchief, and the good lieutenant was soon hanging near his old chief.

It was now my turn. I looked defiantly at Pougatcheff, prepared to repeat the answer of my brave comrades, when, to my inexpressible astonishment, I perceived, among the rebels, Shvabrin, his hair cut close, and wearing a Cossack kaftan. He stepped up to Pougatcheff and whispered a few words in his ear.

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

The rope was thrown round my neck. I began to repeat a prayer to myself, expressing sincere repentance for all my sins, and imploring God to save all those who were dear to me. I was led beneath the gibbet.

"Don't be afraid, don't be afraid," said my executioners, wishing sincerely, perhaps, to encourage me.

Suddenly I heard a cry:

"Stop, villains! hold!"

The executioners paused. I looked round. Savelitch was on his knees at the feet of Pougatcheff.

"Oh, my father!" said my poor servant, "why should you wish for the death of this noble child? Let him go you will get a good ransom for him; if you want to make an example of somebody for the sake of terrifying others order me to be hanged—an old man!"

Pougatcheff gave a sign, and I was immediately unbound and set at liberty.

"Our father pardons you," said the rebels who had charge of me.

I cannot say that at that moment I rejoiced at my deliverance, neither will I say that I was sorry for it. My feelings were too confused. I was again led before the usurper and compelled to kneel down in front of him. Pougatcheff stretched out to me his sinewy hand.

"Kiss his hand, kiss his hand!" exclaimed voices on every side of me.

But I would have preferred the most cruel punishment to such contemptible degradation.

"My little father, Peter Andreitch," whispered Savelitch standing behind me and nudging my elbow, "do not be obstinate. What will it cost you? Spit[5] and kiss the brig——pshaw! kiss his hand!"

I did not move. Pougatcheff withdrew his hand, saying with a smile:

"His lordship seems bewildered with joy. Lift him up!"

I was raised to my feet and released. I then stood by to observe the continuation of the terrible comedy.

The inhabitants began to take the oath of allegiance. They approached one after another, kissed the crucifix and then bowed to the usurper. Then came the turn of the soldiers of the garrison. The regimental barber, armed with his blunt scissors, cut off their hair. Then, after shaking their heads, they went and kissed the hand of Pougatcheff, who declared them pardoned, and then enrolled them among his followers.

All this lasted for about three hours. At length Pougatcheff rose up from his armchair and descended the steps, accompanied by his chiefs. A white horse, richly caparisoned, was led forward to him. Two Cossacks took hold of him under the arms and assisted him into the saddle. He informed Father Gerasim that he would dine with him. At that moment a woman's scream was heard. Some of the brigands were dragging Vassilissa Egorovna, with her hair dishevelled and her clothes half torn off her body, towards the steps. One of them had already arrayed himself in her gown. The others were carrying off beds, chests, tea-services, linen, and all kinds of furniture.

"My fathers!" cried the poor old woman, "have pity upon me and let me go. Kind fathers! take me to Ivan Kouzmitch."

Suddenly she caught sight of the gibbet and recognized her husband.

"Villains!" she cried, almost beside herself; "what have you done to him? My Ivan Kouzmitch! light of my life! brave soldier heart! Neither Prussian bayonets nor Turkish bullets have touched you; not in honourable fight have you yielded up your life; you received your death at the hand of a runaway galley-slave!"

"Make the old witch hold her tongue!" said Pougatcheff.

A young Cossack struck her on the head with his sabre, and she fell dead at the foot of the steps. Pougatcheff rode off; the crowd followed him.


[1] A pun on the name of the rebel chief. Literally, "a scarecrow."

[2] A kind of overcoat.

[3] A wide open robe without sleeves, beneath which is worn a full long-sleeved gown. It is usually made of velvet, richly embroidered, he embroidery varying according to the rank of the wearer. It is the custom among the Russians to bury the dead in their richest dress.

[4] The customary offering to a Russian emperor on entering a town. The act is indicative of submission.

[5] A sign of contempt among Russians and Orientals.


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