The countess received him ceremoniously, and maintained the conversation in frigid tones. The girls scarcely opened their lips, and the midshipmen sat apart, as silent as if they understood no word of what was passing.
“I am sorry, countess,” the commandant said, “that I was obliged to quarter these two English boys upon you, but every house in the town is full of sick and wounded; and as they were given over to me as officers, though they look to me more like ship-boys, I could not put them in prison with the twenty or thirty soldiers whom we captured at the victory on the heights above Inkerman.”
“It is my duty to receive them,” the countess said very coldly, “and it therefore matters little whether it is pleasant or otherwise. Fortunately one of them speaks a few words of French, and my daughters can therefore communicate with them. So you have twenty or thirty English prisoners in the jail? Where are all the rest; for, of course, in such a great victory, we must have taken, some thousands of prisoners?”
The count glanced angrily at her.
“They have, no doubt, been sent to Odessa and other places,” he said. “You do not doubt, countess, surely, that a great victory was gained by the soldiers of his Majesty?”
“Doubt,” the countess said, in a tone of slight surprise. “Have I not read the official bulletins describing the victory? Only we poor women, of course, are altogether ignorant of war, and cannot understand how it is that, when they are always beaten, these enemies of the Czar are still in front of Sebastopol.”
“It may be,” said the count, “that the Archdukes are only waiting until all the reinforcements arrive to drive them into the sea, or capture them to the last man.”
“No doubt it is that,” said the countess blandly, “but from the number of sick and wounded who arrive here, to say nothing of those taken to Odessa and the other towns among which, as you say, the prisoners are distributed, it is to be wished that the reinforcements may soon be up, so as to bring the fighting to an end.”
“The enemy are suffering much more than we are,” the governor said, “and before the spring comes we may find that there are none left to conquer. If the soldiers of the Czar, accustomed to the climate as they are, feel the cold, although they have warm barracks to sleep in, what must be the case with the enemy on the bleak heights? I hear that the English newspapers are full of accounts of the terrible sufferings of their troops. They are dying like sheep.”
“Poor creatures!” the countess said gravely. “They are our fellow-beings, you know, Count Smerskoff, although they are our enemies, and one cannot but feel some pity for them.”
“I feel no pity for the dogs,” the count said fiercely. “How dare they set foot on the soil of Holy Russia?”
“Hating them as you do,” the countess said, “it must be annoying for you indeed, count, to occupy even so exalted a position as that of governor of this town, instead of fighting against the English and French.”