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 Ivan 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 Ivan 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!”