I glanced at Marya Ivanofna. 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 Ivan 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. “Ivan Kouzmitch knows something of that.”
“Oh! yes, indeed,” said Ivan Kouzmitch, “she’s no coward.”
“And Marya Ivanofna,” 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 Ivan 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.
Several weeks passed, during which my life in Fort Belogorsk became not merely endurable, but even pleasant. I was received like one of the family in the household of the Commandant. The husband and wife were excellent people. Ivan Kouzmitch, who had been a child of the regiment, had become an officer, and was a simple, uneducated man, but good and true. His wife led him completely, which, by the way, very well suited his natural laziness.
It was Vassilissa Igorofna who directed all military business as she did that of her household, and commanded in the little fort as she did in her house. Marya Ivanofna soon ceased being shy, and we became better acquainted. I found her a warm-hearted and sensible girl. By degrees I became attached to this honest family, even to Iwan Ignatiitch, the one-eyed lieutenant, whom Chvabrine accused of secret intrigue with Vassilissa Igorofna, an accusation which had not even a shadow of probability. But that did not matter to Chvabrine.