Chapter 3. The Little Fort
The little fort of Bélogorsk lay about forty versts from Orenburg. From this town the road followed along by the rugged banks of the R. Yaïk. The river was not yet frozen, and its lead-coloured waves looked almost black contrasted with its banks white with snow. Before me stretched the Kirghiz Steppes. I was lost in thought, and my reverie was tinged with melancholy. Garrison life did not offer me much attraction. I tried to imagine what my future chief, Commandant Mironoff, would be like. I saw in my mind's eye a strict, morose old man, with no ideas beyond the service, and prepared to put me under arrest for the smallest trifle.
Twilight was coming on; we were driving rather quickly.
"Is it far from here to the fort?" I asked the driver.
"Why, you can see it from here," replied he.
I began looking all round, expecting to see high bastions, a wall, and a ditch. I saw nothing but a little village, surrounded by a wooden palisade. On one side three or four haystacks, half covered with snow; on another a tumble-down windmill, whose sails, made of coarse limetree bark, hung idly down.
"But where is the fort?" I asked, in surprise.
"There it is yonder, to be sure," rejoined the driver, pointing out to me the village which we had just reached.
I noticed near the gateway an old iron cannon. The streets were narrow and crooked, nearly all the _izbás_ were thatched. I ordered him to take me to the Commandant, and almost directly my _kibitka_ stopped before a wooden house, built on a knoll near the church, which was also in wood.
No one came to meet me. From the steps I entered the ante-room. An old pensioner, seated on a table, was busy sewing a blue patch on the elbow of a green uniform. I begged him to announce me.
"Come in, my little father," he said to me; "we are all at home."
I went into a room, very clean, but furnished in a very homely manner. In one corner there stood a dresser with crockery on it. Against the wall hung, framed and glazed, an officer's commission. Around this were arranged some bark pictures, representing the "Taking of Kustrin" and of "Otchakóf," "The Choice of the Betrothed," and the "Burial of the Cat by the Mice." Near the window sat an old woman wrapped in a shawl, her head tied up in a handkerchief. She was busy winding thread, which a little, old, one-eyed man in an officer's uniform was holding on his outstretched hands.
"What do you want, my little father?" she said to me, continuing her employment.
I answered that I had been ordered to join the service here, and that, therefore, I had hastened to report myself to the Commandant. With these words I turned towards the little, old, one-eyed man, whom I had taken for the Commandant. But the good lady interrupted the speech with which I had prepared myself.
"Iván Kouzmitch is not at home," said she. "He is gone to see Father Garassim. But it's all the same, I am his wife. Be so good as to love us and take us into favour. Sit down, my little father."
She called a servant, and bid her tell the "_ouriadnik_" to come. The little, old man was looking curiously at me with his one eye.
"Might I presume to ask you," said he to me, "in what regiment you have deigned to serve?"
I satisfied his curiosity.
"And might I ask you," continued he, "why you have condescended to exchange from the Guard into our garrison?"
I replied that it was by order of the authorities.
"Probably for conduct unbecoming an officer of the Guard?" rejoined my indefatigable questioner.
"Will you be good enough to stop talking nonsense?" the wife of the Commandant now said to him. "You can see very well that this young man is tired with his journey. He has something else to do than to answer your questions. Hold your hands better. And you, my little father," she continued, turning to me, "do not bemoan yourself too much because you have been shoved into our little hole of a place; you are not the first, and you will not be the last. One may suffer, but one gets accustomed to it. For instance, Chvabrine, Alexey Iványtch, was transferred to us four years ago on account of a murder. Heaven knows what ill-luck befel him. It happened one day he went out of the town with a lieutenant, and they had taken swords, and they set to pinking one another, and Alexey Iványtch killed the lieutenant, and before a couple of witnesses. Well, well, there's no heading ill-luck!"
At this moment the "_ouriadnik_," a young and handsome Cossack, came in.
"Maximitch," the Commandant's wife said to him, "find a quarter for this officer, and a clean one."
"I obey, Vassilissa Igorofna," replied the "_ouriadnik_." "Ought not his excellency to go to Iwán Poléjaïeff?"
"You are doting, Maximitch," retorted the Commandant's wife; "Poléjaïeff has already little enough room; and, besides, he is my gossip; and then he does not forget that we are his superiors. Take the gentleman--What is your name, my little father?"
"Take Petr' Andréjïtch to Séméon Kouzoff's. The rascal let his horse get into my kitchen garden. Is everything in order, Maximitch?"
"Thank heaven! all is quiet," replied the Cossack. "Only Corporal Prokoroff has been fighting in the bathhouse with the woman Oustinia Pegoulina for a pail of hot water."
"Iwán Ignatiitch," said the Commandant's wife to the little one-eyed man, "you must decide between Prokoroff and Oustinia which is to blame, and punish both of them; and you, Maximitch, go, in heaven's name! Petr' Andréjïtch, Maximitch will take you to your lodging."
I took leave. The "_ouriadnik"_ led me to an _izbá_, which stood on the steep bank of the river, quite at the far end of the little fort. Half the _izbá_ was occupied by the family of Séméon Kouzoff, the other half was given over to me. This half consisted of a tolerably clean room, divided into two by a partition.
Savéliitch began to unpack, and I looked out of the narrow window. I saw stretching out before me a bare and dull steppe; on one side there stood some huts. Some fowls were wandering down the street. An old woman, standing on a doorstep, holding in her hand a trough, was calling to some pigs, the pigs replying by amicable grunts.
And it was in such a country as this I was condemned to pass my youth!
Overcome by bitter grief, I left the window, and went to bed supperless, in spite of Savéliitch's remonstrances, who continued to repeat, in a miserable tone--
"Oh, good heavens! he does not deign to eat anything. What would my mistress say if the child should fall ill?"
On the morrow, I had scarcely begun to dress before the door of my room opened, and a young officer came in. He was undersized, but, in spite of irregular features, his bronzed face had a remarkably gay and lively expression.
"I beg your pardon," said he to me in French, "for coming thus unceremoniously to make your acquaintance. I heard of your arrival yesterday, and the wish to see at last a human being took such possession of me that I could not resist any longer. You will understand that when you have been here some time!"
I easily guessed that this was the officer sent away from the Guard in consequence of the duel.
We made acquaintance. Chvabrine was very witty. His conversation was lively and interesting. He described to me, with, much raciness and gaiety, the Commandant's family, the society of the fort, and, in short, all the country where my fate had led me.
I was laughing heartily when the same pensioner whom I had seen patching his uniform in the Commandant's ante-room, came in with an invitation to dinner for me from Vassilissa Igorofna.
Chvabrine said he should accompany me.
As we drew near the Commandant's house we saw in the square about twenty little old pensioners, with long pigtails and three-cornered hats. They were drawn up in line. Before them stood the Commandant, a tall, old man, still hale, in a dressing-gown and a cotton nightcap.
As soon as he perceived us he came up, said a few pleasant words to me, and went back to the drill. We were going to stop and see the manoeuvres, but he begged us to go at once to Vassilissa Igorofna's, promising to follow us directly. "Here," said he, "there's really nothing to see."
Vassilissa Igorofna received us with simplicity and kindness, and treated me as if she had known me a long time. The pensioner and Palashka were laying the cloth.
"What possesses my Iván Kouzmitch to-day to drill his troops so long?" remarked the Commandant's wife. "Palashka, go and fetch him for dinner. And what can have become of Masha?"
Hardly had she said the name than a young girl of sixteen came into the room. She had a fresh, round face, and her hair was smoothly put back behind her ears, which were red with shyness and modesty. She did not please me very much at first sight; I looked at her with prejudice. Chvabrine had described Marya, the Commandant's daughter, to me as being rather silly. She went and sat down in a corner, and began to sew. Still the "_chtchi_" had been brought in. Vassilissa Igorofna, not seeing her husband come back, sent Palashka for the second time to call him.
"Tell the master that the visitors are waiting, and the soup is getting cold. Thank heaven, the drill will not run away. He will have plenty of time to shout as much as he likes."
The Commandant soon appeared, accompanied by the little old one-eyed man.
"What does all this mean, my little father?" said his wife to him. "Dinner has been ready a long time, and we cannot make you come."
"But don't you see, Vassilissa Igorofna," replied Iván Kouzmitch, "I was very busy drilling my little soldiers."
"Nonsense," replied she, "that's only a boast; they are past service, and you don't know much about it. You should have stayed at home, and said your prayers; that would have been much better for you. My dear guests, pray sit down to table."
We took our places. Vassilissa Igorofna never ceased talking for a moment, and overwhelmed me with questions. Who were my parents, were they alive, where did they live, and what was their income? When she learnt that my father had three hundred serfs--
"Well!" she exclaimed, "there are rich people in this world! And as to us, my little father, we have as to souls only the servant girl, Palashka. Well, thank heaven, we get along little by little. We have only one care on our minds--Masha, a girl who must be married. And what dowry has she got? A comb and two-pence to pay for a bath twice a year. If only she could light on some honest man! If not she must remain an old maid!"
I glanced at Marya Ivánofna. She had become quite red, and tears were rolling down, even into her plate. I was sorry for her, and I hastened to change the conversation.
"I have heard," I exclaimed (very much to the point), "that the Bashkirs intend to attack your fort."
"Who told you that, my little father?" replied Iván Kouzmitch.
"I heard it said at Orenburg," replied I.
"That's all rubbish," said the Commandant. "We have not heard a word of it for ever so long. The Bashkir people have been thoroughly awed, and the Kirghiz, too, have had some good lessons. They won't dare to attack us, and if they venture to do so I'll give them such a fright that they won't stir for ten years at least."
"And you are not afraid," I continued, addressing the Commandant's wife, "to stay in a fort liable to such dangers?"
"It's all a question of custom, my little father," answered she. "It's twenty years ago now since we were transferred from the regiment here. You would never believe how frightened I used to be of those confounded Pagans. If ever I chanced to see their hairy caps, or hear their howls, believe me, my little father, I nearly died of it. And now I am so accustomed to it that I should not budge an inch if I was told that the rascals were prowling all around the fort."
"Vassilissa Igorofna is a very brave lady," remarked Chvabrine, gravely. "Iván Kouzmitch knows something of that."
"Oh! yes, indeed," said Iván Kouzmitch, "she's no coward."
"And Marya Ivánofna," I asked her mother, "is she as bold as you?"
"Masha!" replied the lady; "no, Masha is a coward. Till now she has never been able to hear a gun fired without trembling all over. It is two years ago now since Iván Kouzmitch took it into his head to fire his cannon on my birthday; she was so frightened, the poor little dove, she nearly ran away into the other world. Since that day we have never fired that confounded cannon any more."
We got up from table; the Commandant and his wife went to take their siesta, and I went to Chvabrine's quarters, where we passed the evening together.
[Footnote 28: One _verstá_ or verst (pronounced viorst) equal to 1,165 yards English.]
[Footnote 29: Peasant cottages.]
[Footnote 30: _Loubotchnyia, i.e._, coarse illuminated engravings.]
[Footnote 31: Taken by Count Münich.]
[Footnote 32: John, son of Kouzma.]
[Footnote 33: Formula of affable politeness.]
[Footnote 34: Subaltern officer of Cossacks.]
[Footnote 35: Alexis, son of John.]
[Footnote 36: Basila, daughter of Gregory.]
[Footnote 37: John, son of Ignatius.]
[Footnote 38: The fashion of talking French was introduced under Peter the Great.]
[Footnote 39: Diminutive of _Marya_, Mary.]
[Footnote 40: Russian soup, made of meat and vegetables.]
[Footnote 41: In Russia serfs are spoken of as souls.]
[Footnote 42: Ivánofna, pronounced Ivánna.]