Two pensioners began undressing the Bashkir. Great uneasiness then overspread the countenance of the unhappy man. He began looking all round like a poor little animal in the hands of children. But when one of the pensioners seized his hands in order to twine them round his neck, and, stooping, upraised the old man on his shoulders, when Joulai took the rods and lifted his hands to strike, then the Bashkir gave a long, deep moan, and, throwing back his head, opened his mouth, wherein, instead of a tongue, was moving a short stump.
We were all horrified.
“Well,” said the Commandant, “I see we can get nothing out of him. Joulai, take the Bashkir back to the barn; and as for us, gentlemen, we have still to deliberate.”
We were continuing to discuss our situation, when Vassilissa Igorofna burst into the room, breathless, and looking affrighted.
“What has happened to you?” asked the Commandant, surprised.
“Misery! misery!” replied Vassilissa Igorofna. “Fort Nijneosern was taken this morning. Father Garasim’s boy has just come back. He saw how it was taken. The Commandant and all the officers have been hanged, all the soldiers are prisoners. The rascals are coming here.”
This unexpected news made a great impression upon me. The Commandant of Fort Nijneosern, a gentle and quiet young man, was known to me. Two months previously he had passed on his way from Orenburg with his young wife, and he had stayed with Ivan Kouzmitch.
The Nijneosernaia was only twenty-five vorsts away from our fort. From hour to hour we might expect to be attacked by Pugatchef. The probable fate of Marya Ivanofna rose vividly before my imagination, and my heart failed me as I thought of it.
“Listen, Ivan Kouzmitch,” I said to the Commandant, “it is our duty to defend the fort to the last gasp, that is understood. But we must think of the women’s safety. Send them to Orenburg, if the road be still open, or to some fort further off and safer, which the rascals have not yet had time to reach.”
Ivan Kouzmitch turned to his wife.
“Look here, mother, really, had we not better send you away to some more distant place till the rebels be put down?”
“What nonsense!” replied his wife.
“Show me the fortress that bullets cannot reach. In what respect is Belogorskaia not safe? Thank heaven, we have now lived here more than twenty-one years. We have seen the Bashkirs and the Kirghiz; perhaps we may weary out Pugatchef here.”
“Well, little mother,” rejoined Ivan Kouzmitch, “stay if you like, since you reckon so much on our fort. But what are we to do with Masha? It is all right if we weary him out or if we be succoured. But if the robbers take the fort?”
But here Vassilissa Igorofna could only stammer and become silent, choked by emotion.