Pugatchef awaited my reply in fierce silence. At last (and I yet recall that moment with satisfaction) the feeling of duty triumphed in me over human weakness, and I made reply to Pugatchef—
“Just listen, and I will tell you the whole truth. You shall be judge. Can I recognize in you a Tzar? You are a clever man; you would see directly that I was lying.”
“Who, then, am I, according to you?”
“God alone knows; but whoever you be, you are playing a dangerous game.”
Pugatchef cast at me a quick, keen glance.
“You do not then think that I am the Tzar Peter? Well, so let it be. Is there no chance of success for the bold? In former times did not Grischka Otrepieff reign? Think of me as you please, but do not leave me. What does it matter to you whether it be one or the other? He who is pope is father. Serve me faithfully, and I will make you a field-marshal and a prince. What do you say to this?”
“No,” I replied, firmly. “I am a gentleman. I have sworn fidelity to Her Majesty the Tzarina; I cannot serve you. If you really wish me well, send me back to Orenburg.”
“But if I send you away,” said he, “will you promise me at least not to bear arms against me?”
“How can you expect me to promise you that?” replied I. “You know yourself that that does not depend upon me. If I be ordered to march against you I must submit. You are a chief now—you wish your subordinates to obey you. How can I refuse to serve if I am wanted? My head is at your disposal; if you let me go free, I thank you; if you cause me to die, may God judge you. Howbeit, I have told you the truth.”
My outspoken candour pleased Pugatchef.
“E’en so let it be,” said he, clapping me on the shoulder; “either entirely punish or entirely pardon. Go to the four winds and do what seems good in your eyes, but come to-morrow and bid me good-bye; and now begone to bed—I am sleepy myself.”
I left Pugatchef, and went out into the street. The night was still and cold, the moon and stars, sparkling with all their brightness, lit up the square and the gallows. All was quiet and dark in the rest of the fort. Only in the tavern were lights still to be seen, and from within arose the shouts of the lingering revellers.
I threw a glance at the pope’s house. The doors and the shutters were closed; all seemed perfectly quiet there. I went home and found Saveliitch deploring my absence. The news of my regained liberty overwhelmed him with joy.
“Thanks be to Thee, O Lord!” said he, making the sign of the cross. “We will leave the fort to-morrow at break of day and we will go in God’s care. I have prepared something for you; eat, my father, and sleep till morning quietly, as though in the pocket of Christ!”
I took his advice, and, after having supped with a good appetite, I went to sleep on the bare boards, as weary in mind as in body.