Chapter 7. The Assault
All the night I could not sleep, and I did not even take off my clothes. I had meant in the early morning to gain the gate of the fort, by which Marya Ivánofna was to leave, to bid her a last good-bye. I felt that a complete change had come over me. The agitation of my mind seemed less hard to bear than the dark melancholy in which I had been previously plunged. Blended with the sorrow of parting, I felt within me vague, but sweet, hopes, an eager expectation of coming dangers, and a feeling of noble ambition.
The night passed quickly. I was going out, when my door opened and the corporal came in to tell me that our Cossacks had left the fort during the night, taking away with them by force Joulaï, and that around our ramparts unknown people were galloping. The thought that Marya Ivánofna had not been able to get away terrified me to death. I hastily gave some orders to the corporal, and I ran to the Commandant's house.
Day was breaking. I was hurrying down the street when I heard myself called by someone. I stopped.
"Where are you going, if I may presume to ask you?" said Iwán Ignatiitch, catching me up. "Iván Kouzmitch is on the ramparts, and has sent me to seek you. The '_pugatch_' has come."
"Is Marya Ivánofna gone?" I asked, with an inward trembling.
"She hasn't had time," rejoined Iwán Ignatiitch. "The road to Orenburg is blocked, the fort surrounded, and it's a bad look-out, Petr' Andréjïtch."
We went to the ramparts, a little natural height, and fortified by a palisade. We found the garrison here under arms. The cannon had been dragged hither the preceding evening. The Commandant was walking up and down before his little party; the approach of danger had given the old warrior wonderful activity. Out on the steppe, and not very far from the fort, could be seen about twenty horsemen, who appeared to be Cossacks; but amongst them were some Bashkirs, easily distinguished by their high caps and their quivers. The Commandant passed down the ranks of the little army, saying to the soldiers--
"Now, children, let us do well to-day for our mother, the Empress, and let us show all the world that we are brave men, and true to our oaths."
The soldiers by loud shouts expressed their goodwill and assent. Chvabrine remained near me, attentively watching the enemy. The people whom we could see on the steppe, noticing doubtless some stir in the fort, gathered into parties, and consulted together. The Commandant ordered Iwán Ignatiitch to point the cannon at them, and himself applied the match. The ball passed whistling over their heads without doing them any harm. The horsemen at once dispersed at a gallop, and the steppe was deserted.
At this moment Vassilissa Igorofna appeared on the ramparts, followed by Marya, who had not wished to leave her.
"Well," said the Commandant's wife, "how goes the battle? Where is the enemy?"
"The enemy is not far," replied Iván Kouzmitch; "but if God wills all will be well. And you, Masha, are you afraid?"
"No, papa," replied Marya, "I am more frightened alone in the house."
She glanced at me, trying to smile. I squeezed the hilt of my sword, remembering that I had received it the eve from her hand, as if for her defence. My heart burnt within my breast; I felt as if I were her knight; I thirsted to prove to her that I was worthy of her trust, and I impatiently expected the decisive moment.
All at once, coming from a height about eight versts from the fort, appeared fresh parties of horsemen, and soon the whole steppe became covered with people, armed with arrows and lances. Amongst them, dressed in a red caftan, sword in hand, might be seen a man mounted on a white horse, a conspicuous figure. This was Pugatchéf himself.
He stopped, and they closed round him, and soon afterwards, probably by his orders, four men came out of the crowd, and approached our ramparts at full gallop. We recognized in them some of our traitors. One of them waved a sheet of paper above his head; another bore on the point of his pike the head of Joulaï, which he cast to us over the palisade. The head of the poor Kalmuck rolled to the feet of the Commandant.
The traitors shouted to us--
"Don't fire. Come out to receive the Tzar; the Tzar is here."
"Children, fire!" cried the Commandant for all answer.
The soldiers fired a volley. The Cossack who had the letter quivered and fell from his horse; the others fled at full speed. I glanced at Marya Ivánofna. Spellbound with horror at the sight of Joulaï's head, stunned by the noise of the volley, she seemed unconscious. The Commandant called the corporal, and bid him go and take the paper from the fallen Cossack. The corporal went out into the open, and came back leading by its bridle the dead man's horse. He gave the letter to the Commandant.
Iván Kouzmitch read it in a low voice, and tore it into bits. We now saw that the rebels were making ready to attack. Soon the bullets whistled about our ears, and some arrows came quivering around us in the earth and in the posts of the palisade.
"Vassilissa Igorofna," said the Commandant, "this is not a place for women. Take away Masha; you see very well that the girl is more dead than alive."
Vassilissa Igorofna, whom the sound of the bullets had somewhat subdued, glanced towards the steppe, where a great stir was visible in the crowd, and said to her husband--
"Iván Kouzmitch, life and death are in God's hands; bless Masha. Masha, go to your father."
Pale and trembling, Marya approached Iván Kouzmitch and dropped on her knees, bending before him with reverence.
The old Commandant made the sign of the cross three times over her, then raised her up, kissed her, and said to her, in a voice husky with emotion--
"Well, Masha, may you be happy. Pray to God, and He will not forsake you. If an honest man come forward, may God grant you both love and wisdom. Live together as we have lived, my wife and I. And now farewell, Masha. Vassilissa Igorofna, take her away quickly."
Marya threw herself upon his neck and began sobbing.
"Kiss me, too," said the Commandant's wife, weeping. "Good-bye, my Iván Kouzmitch. Forgive me if I have ever vexed you."
"Good-bye, good-bye, little mother," said the Commandant, embracing his old companion. "There, now, enough; go away home, and if you have time put Masha on a '_sarafan_.'"
The Commandant's wife went away with her daughter. I followed Marya with my eyes; she turned round and made me a last sign.
Iván Kouzmitch came back to us, and turned his whole attention to the enemy. The rebels gathered round their leader, and all at once dismounted hastily.
"Be ready," the Commandant said to us, "the assault is about to begin."
At the same moment resounded wild war cries. The rebels were racing down on the fort. Our cannon was loaded with grape. The Commandant allowed them to approach within a very short distance, and again applied a match to the touch-hole. The grape struck in the midst of the crowd, and dispersed it in every direction. The leader alone remained to the fore, brandishing his sword; he appeared to be exhorting them hotly. The yells which had ceased for a moment were redoubled anew.
"Now, children," cried the Commandant, "open the door, beat the drum, and forward! Follow me for a sally!"
The Commandant, Iwán Ignatiitch, and I found ourselves in a moment beyond the parapet. But the garrison, afraid, had not stirred.
"What are you doing, my children?" shouted Iván Kouzmitch. "If we must die, let us die; it is our duty."
At this moment the rebels fell upon us and forced the entrance of the citadel. The drum ceased, the garrison threw down its arms. I had been thrown down, but I got up and passed helter-skelter with the crowd into the fort. I saw the Commandant wounded in the head, and hard pressed by a little band of robbers clamouring for the keys. I was running to help him, when several strong Cossacks seized me, and bound me with their "_kúchaks_," shouting--
"Wait a bit, you will see what will become of you traitors to the Tzar!"
We were dragged along the streets. The inhabitants came out of their houses, offering bread and salt. The bells were rung. All at once shouts announced that the Tzar was in the square waiting to receive the oaths of the prisoners. All the crowd diverged in that direction, and our keepers dragged us thither.
Pugatchéf was seated in an armchair on the threshold of the Commandant's house. He wore an elegant Cossack caftan, embroidered down the seams. A high cap of marten sable, ornamented with gold tassels, came closely down over his flashing eyes. His face did not seem unknown to me. The Cossack chiefs surrounded him. Father Garasim, pale and trembling, was standing, cross in hand, at the foot of the steps, and seemed to be silently praying for the victims brought before him. In the square a gallows was being hastily erected. When we came near, some Bashkirs drove back the crowd, and we were presented to Pugatchéf.
The bells ceased clanging, and the deepest silence reigned again.
"Where is the Commandant?" asked the usurper. Our "_ouriadnik_" came forward and pointed out Iván Kouzmitch. Pugatchéf looked fiercely upon the old man and said to him, "How was it you dared to oppose me, your rightful Emperor?"
The Commandant, enfeebled by his wound, collected his remaining strength, and replied, in a resolute tone--
"You are not my Emperor; you are a usurper and a robber!"
Pugatchéf frowned and waved his white handkerchief. Several Cossacks immediately seized the old Commandant and dragged him away to the gallows. Astride on the crossbeam, sat the disfigured Bashkir who had been cross-examined on the preceding evening; he held a rope in his hand, and I saw the next moment poor Iván Kouzmitch swinging in the air. Then Iwán Ignatiitch was brought before Pugatchéf.
"Swear fidelity," Pugatchéf said to him, "to the Emperor, Petr' Fédorovitch!"
"You are not our Emperor!" replied the lieutenant, repeating his Commandant's words; "you are a robber, my uncle, and a usurper."
Pugatchéf again gave the handkerchief signal, and good Iwán Ignatiitch swung beside his old chief. It was my turn. Boldly I looked on Pugatchéf and made ready to echo the answer of my outspoken comrades.
Then, to my inexpressible surprise, I saw among the rebels Chvabrine, who had found time to cut his hair short and to put on a Cossack caftan. He approached Pugatchéf, and whispered a few words in his ear.
"Hang him!" said Pugatchéf, without deigning to throw me a look. The rope was passed about my neck. I began saying a prayer in a low voice, offering up to God a sincere repentance for all my sins, imploring Him to save all those who were dear to my heart. I was already at the foot of the gallows.
"Fear nothing! Fear nothing!" the assassins said to me, perhaps to give me courage, when all at once a shout was heard--
"Stop, accursed ones!"
The executioners stayed their hand. I looked up. Savéliitch lay prostrate at the feet of Pugatchéf.
"Oh! my own father!" my poor follower was saying. "What need have you of the death of this noble child? Let him go free, and you will get a good ransom; but for an example and to frighten the rest, let them hang me, an old man!"
Pugatchéf gave a signal; I was immediately unbound.
"Our father shows you mercy," they said to me. At this moment I cannot say that I was much overjoyed at my deliverance, but I cannot say either that I regretted it, for my feelings were too upset. I was again brought before the usurper and forced to kneel at his feet. Pugatchéf held out to me his muscular hand. "Kiss his hand! kiss his hand!" was shouted around me. But rather would I have preferred the most cruel torture to such an abasement.
"My father, Petr' Andréjïtch," whispered Savéliitch to me, and nudged me with his elbow, "don't be obstinate. What does it matter? Spit and kiss the hand of the rob--, kiss his hand!"
I did not stir. Pugatchéf withdrew his hand and said, smiling--
"Apparently his lordship is quite idiotic with joy; raise him."
I was helped up and left free. The infamous drama drew to a close.
The villagers began to swear fidelity. One after another they came near, kissed the cross, and saluted the usurper. Then it came to the turn of the soldiers of the garrison. The tailor of the company, armed with his big blunt scissors, cut off their queues. They shook their heads and touched their lips to Pugatchéf's hand; the latter told them they were pardoned and enrolled amongst his troops.
All this lasted about three hours. At last Pugatchéf rose from his armchair and went down the steps, followed by his chiefs. There was brought for him a white horse, richly caparisoned. Two Cossacks held his arms and helped him into the saddle.
He announced to Father Garasim that he would dine at his house. At this moment arose a woman's heartrending shrieks. Some robbers were dragging to the steps Vassilissa Igorofna, with dishevelled hair and half-dressed. One of them had already appropriated her cloak; the others were carrying off the mattresses, boxes, linen, tea sets, and all manner of things.
"Oh, my fathers!" cried the poor old woman. "Let me alone, I pray you; my fathers, my fathers, bring me to Iván Kouzmitch." All of a sudden she perceived the gallows and recognized her husband. "Villains!" she exclaimed, beside herself; "what have you done? Oh, my light, my Iván Kouzmitch! Bold soldier heart, neither Prussian bayonets nor Turkish bullets ever harmed you; and you have died before a vile runaway felon."
"Silence the old witch," said Pugatchéf.
A young Cossack struck her with his sword on the head, and she fell dead at the foot of the steps. Pugatchéf went away, all the people crowding in his train.
[Footnote 52: Pugatch means bugbear.]
[Footnote 53: Sarafan, dress robe. It is a Russian custom to bury the dead in their best clothes.]
[Footnote 54: Girdles worn by Russian peasants.]
[Footnote 55: Peter III.]