In approaching Orenburg, we saw a crowd of convicts, with shaven heads, and with faces disfigured by the hangman's pincers. They were at work on the fortifications, under the direction of the soldiers of the garrison. Some were carrying away in wheel-barrows the earth and refuse which filled the moat, others with shovels were digging up the ground; on the rampart the masons were carrying stones and repairing the walls. The sentinels stopped us at the gate and demanded our passports. As soon as the sergeant heard that I came from Bailogorsk, he took me straight to the General's house.
I found him in the garden. He was inspecting the apple-trees, which the autumn winds had stripped of their leaves, and, with the help of an old gardener, was carefully covering them with straw. His face expressed tranquillity, health, and good-nature. He was much pleased to see me, and began questioning me about the terrible events of which I had been an eye-witness. I related everything to him. The old man listened to me with attention, and continued the meantime to lop off the dry twigs.
"Poor Mironoff!" said he, when I had finished my sad story; "I feel very sorry for him, he was a good officer; and Madame Mironoff was a good woman,—how clever she was at pickling mushrooms! And what has become of Masha, the Captain's daughter?"
I replied that she was still at the fortress in the hands of the pope and his wife.
"That is bad, very bad. Nobody can place any dependence upon the discipline of robbers. What will become of the poor girl?"
I replied that the fortress of Bailogorsk was not far off and that, without doubt, his Excellency would not delay in sending thither a detachment of soldiers to deliver the poor inhabitants.
The General shook his head dubiously.
"We shall see, we shall see," said he, "we have plenty of time to talk about that. Do me the pleasure of taking a cup of tea with me: a council of war is to be held at my house this evening. You may be able to give us some trustworthy information concerning this rascal Pougatcheff and his army. And now go and rest yourself for a little while."
I went to the quarter assigned to me, where Savelitch had already installed himself, and where I awaited with impatience the appointed time. The reader will easily imagine that I did not fail to make my appearance at the council which was to have such an influence upon my fate At the appointed hour I repaired to the General's house.
I found with him one of the civil officials of the town, the director of the custom-house, if I remember rightly, a stout, red-faced old man in a silk coat. He began to question me about the fate of Ivan Kouzmitch, whom he called his gossip, and frequently interrupted my discourse with additional questions and moral observations, which, if they did not prove him to be a man well versed in military matters, showed at least that he possessed sagacity and common sense. In the meantime the other persons who had been invited to the council had assembled. When they were all seated, and a cup of tea had been handed round to each, the General entered into a clear and detailed account of the business in question.
"And now, gentlemen," continued he, "we must decide in what way we are to act against the rebels: offensively or defensively? Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages. Offensive warfare holds out a greater prospect of a quicker extermination of the enemy; defensive action is safer and less dangerous.... Therefore let us commence by putting the question to the vote in legal order, that is, beginning with the youngest in rank. Ensign," continued he, turning to me, "will you please favour us with your opinion?"
I rose, and after having described, in a few words, Pougatcheff and his followers, I expressed my firm opinion that the usurper was not in a position to withstand disciplined troops.
My opinion was received by the civil officials with evident dissatisfaction. They saw in it only the rashness and temerity of a young man. There arose a murmur, and I distinctly heard the word "greenhorn" pronounced in a whisper. The General turned to me and said with a smile:
"Ensign, the first voices in councils of war are generally in favour of adopting offensive measures. We will now continue and hear what others have to say. Mr. Counsellor of the College, tell us your opinion."
The little old man in the silk coat hastily swallowed his third cup of tea, into which he had poured some rum, and then replied:
"I think, your Excellency, that we ought to act neither offensively nor defensively."
"How, Sir Counsellor?" replied the astonished General. "Tactics present no other methods of action; offensive action or defensive...."
"Your Excellency, act diplomatically."
"Ah! your idea is a very sensible one. Diplomatic action is allowed by the laws of tactics, and we will profit by your advice. We might offer for the head of the rascal ... seventy or even a hundred roubles ... out of the secret funds...."
"And then," interrupted the Director of the Customs, "may I become a Kirghis ram, and not a College Counsellor, if these robbers do not deliver up to us their leader, bound hand and foot."
"We will think about it, and speak of it again," replied: the General. "But, in any case, we must take military precautions. Gentlemen, give your votes in regular order."
The opinions of all were contrary to mine. All the civil officials expatiated upon the untrustworthiness of the troops, the uncertainty of success, the necessity of being cautious, and the like. All agreed' that it was more prudent to remain behind the stone walls of the fortress under the protection of the cannon, than to try the fortune of arms in the open field. At length the General, having heard all their opinions, shook the ashes from his pipe and spoke as follows:
"Gentlemen, I must declare to you that, for my part, I am entirely of the same opinion as the ensign; because this opinion is founded upon sound rules of tactics, which nearly always give the preference to offensive action rather than to defensive."
Then he paused and began to fill his pipe. My vanity triumphed. I cast a proud glance at the civil officials, who were whispering among themselves with looks of displeasure and uneasiness.
"But, gentlemen," continued the General, heaving a deep sigh, and emitting at the same time a thick cloud of tobacco smoke, "I dare not take upon myself such a great responsibility, when it is a question of the safety of the provinces confided to me by Her Imperial Majesty, my Most Gracious Sovereign. Therefore it is that I fall in with the views of the majority, who have decided that it is safer and more prudent to await the siege inside the town, and to repel the attack of the enemy by the use of artillery and—if possible—by sallies."
The officials in their turn now glanced at me ironically. The council separated. I could not but deplore the weakness of this estimable soldier, who, contrary to his own conviction, resolved to follow the advice of ignorant and inexperienced persons.
Some days after this memorable council we heard that Pougatcheff, faithful to his promise, was marching on Orenburg. From the lofty walls of the town I observed the army of the rebels. It seemed to me that their numbers had increased since the last assault, of which I had been a witness. They had with them also some pieces of artillery which had been taken by Pougatcheff from the small fortresses that had been conquered by him. Remembering the decision of the council, I foresaw a long incarceration within the walls of Orenburg, and I was almost ready to weep with vexation.
I do not intend to describe the siege of Orenburg, which belongs to history and not to family memoirs. I will merely observe that this siege, through want of caution on the part of the local authorities, was a disastrous one for the inhabitants, who had to endure hunger and every possible privation. It can easily be imagined that life in Orenburg was almost unbearable. All awaited in melancholy anxiety the decision of fate; all complained of the famine, which was really terrible. The inhabitants became accustomed to the cannon-balls falling upon their houses; even Pougatcheff's assaults no longer produced any excitement. I was dying of ennui. Time wore on. I received no letters from Bailogorsk. All the roads were cut off. Separation from Marla Ivanovna became insupportable to me. Uncertainty with respect to her fate tortured me. My only diversion consisted in making excursions outside the city. Thanks to the kindness of Pougatcheff, I had a good horse, with which I shared my scanty allowance of food, and upon whose back I used to ride out daily beyond the walls and open fire upon Pougatcheff's partisans. In these skirmishes the advantage was generally on the side of the rebels, who had plenty to eat and drink, and possessed good horses. Our miserable cavalry were unable to cope with them. Sometimes our famished infantry made a sally; but the depth of the snow prevented their operations being successful against the flying cavalry of the enemy. The artillery thundered in vain from the summit of the ramparts, and had it been in the field, it could not have advanced on account of our emaciated horses. Such was our style of warfare! And this was what the civil officials of Orenburg called prudence and foresight!
One day, when we had succeeded in dispersing and driving off a tolerably large body of the enemy, I came up with a Cossack who had remained behind his companions, and I was just about to strike him with my Turkish sabre, when he suddenly took off his cap and cried out:
"Good day, Peter Andreitch; how do you do?"
I looked at him and recognized our orderly. I cannot say how delighted I was to see him.
"Good day, Maximitch," said I to him. "How long is it since you left Bailogorsk?"
"Not long, Peter Andreitch; I only returned from there yesterday. I have a letter for you."
"Where is it?" cried I, perfectly beside myself with excitement.
"I have it here," replied Maximitch, placing his hand upon his bosom. "I promised Palasha that I would give it to you somehow."
He then gave me a folded paper and immediately galloped off. I opened it and, deeply agitated, read the following lines:
"It has pleased God to deprive me suddenly of both father and mother: I have now on earth neither a relation nor a protector. I therefore turn to you, because I know that you have always wished me well, and that you are ever ready to help others. I pray to God that this letter may reach you in some way! Maximitch has promised to give it to you. Palasha has also heard from Maximitch that he has frequently seen you from a distance in the sorties, and that you do not take the least care of yourself, not thinking about those who pray to God for you in tears. I was ill a long time, and, when I recovered, Alexei Ivanovitch, who commands here in place of my deceased father, compelled Father Gerasim to deliver me up to him, threatening him with Pougatcheff's anger if he refused. I live in our house which is guarded by a sentry. Alexei Ivanovitch wants to compel me to marry him. He says that he saved my life because he did not reveal the deception practised by Akoulina Pamphilovna, who told the rebels that I was her niece. But I would rather die than become the wife of such a man as Alexei Ivanovitch. He treats me very cruelly, and threatens that if I do not change my mind and agree to his proposal, he will conduct me to the rebels' camp, where I shall suffer the same fate as Elizabeth Kharloff. I have begged Alexei Ivanovitch to give me time to reflect. He has consented to give me three days longer, and if at the end of that time I do not agree to become his wife, he will show me no further mercy. Oh, Peter Andreitch! you are my only protector; save a poor helpless girl! Implore the General and all the commanders to send us help as soon as possible, and come yourself if you can.
"I remain your poor obedient orphan,
The reading of this letter almost drove me out of my mind. I galloped back to the town, spurring my poor horse without mercy. On the way I turned over in my I mind one plan and another for the rescue of the poor girl, but I could not come to any definite conclusion. On reaching the town I immediately repaired to the General's, and presented myself before him without the least delay.
He was walking up and down the room, smoking his meerschaum pipe. On seeing me he stopped. Probably; he was struck by my appearance, for he anxiously inquired the reason of my hasty visit.
"Your Excellency," said I to him, "I come to you as I would to my own father: for Heaven's sake, do not refuse my request; the happiness of my whole life depends upon it!"
"What is the matter?" asked the astonished old soldier. "What can I do for you? Speak!"
"Your Excellency, allow me to take a battalion of soldiers and a company of Cossacks to recapture the fortress of Bailogorsk."
The General looked at me earnestly, imagining, without doubt, that I had taken leave of my senses—and, for the matter of that, he was not very far out in his supposition.
"How?—what? Recapture the fortress of Bailogorsk?" said he at last.
"I will answer for the success of the undertaking," I replied with ardour; "only let me go."
"No, young man," said he, shaking his head. "At such a great distance the enemy would easily cut off your communication with the principal strategical point, and gain a complete victory over you. Communication being cut off...."
I became alarmed when I perceived that he was about to enter upon a military dissertation, and I hastened to interrupt him.
"The daughter of Captain Mironoff has written a letter to me," I said to him; "she asks for help: Shvabrin wants to compel her to become his wife."
"Indeed! Oh, this Shvabrin is a great rascal, and if he should fall into my hands I will order him to be tried within twenty-four hours, and we will have him shot on the parapet of the fortress. But in the meantime we must have patience."
"Have patience!" I cried, perfectly beside myself. "But in the meantime he will force Maria Ivanovna to become his wife!"
"Oh!" exclaimed the General. "But even that would be no great misfortune for her. It would be better for her to become the wife of Shvabrin, he would then take her under his protection; and when we have shot him we will soon find a sweetheart for her, please God. Pretty widows do not remain single long; I mean that a widow finds a husband much quicker than a spinster."
"I would rather die," said I in a passion, "than resign her to Shvabrin."
"Oh, oh!" said the old man, "now I understand. You are evidently in love with Maria Ivanovna, and that alters the case altogether. Poor fellow! But, for all that, I cannot give you a battalion of soldiers and fifty Cossacks. Such an expedition would be the height of folly, and I cannot take the responsibility of it upon myself."
I cast down my head; despair took possession of me. Suddenly a thought flashed through my mind: what it was, the reader will discover in the following chapter, as the old romance writers used to say.
 A Commandant's daughter, whom Pougatcheff outraged and then put to death.