The reader may well believe I was anxious not to miss this council of war, which was to have so great an influence on my life. I went at the appointed hour to the General’s, where I found one of the civil officials of Orenburg, the head of the Customs, if I recollect right, a little old man, fat and red-faced, dressed in a coat of watered silk.
He began questioning me on the fate of Ivan Kouzmitch, whom he called his gossip, and he often interrupted me by many questions and sententious remarks, which if they did not show a man versed in the conduct of war, yet showed that he was possessed of natural wit, and of intelligence. During this time the other guests had assembled. When all were seated, and each one had been offered a cup of tea, the General explained lengthily and minutely what was the affair in hand.
“Now, gentlemen, we must decide how we mean to act against the rebels. Shall it be offensively or defensively? Each way has its disadvantages and its advantages. Offensive warfare offers more hope of the enemy being speedily crushed; but a defensive war is surer and less dangerous. Consequently we will collect the votes according to the proper order, that is to say, begin first consulting the juniors in respect of rank. Now, Mr. Ensign,” continued he, addressing me, “be so good as to give us your opinion.”
I rose, and after having depicted in a few words Pugatchef and his band, I declared that the usurper was not in a state to resist disciplined troops. My opinion was received by the civil officials with visible discontent.
They saw in it the headstrong impertinence of youth.
A murmur arose, and I distinctly heard said, half-aloud, the words, “Beardless boy.” The General turned towards me, and smilingly said—
“Mr. Ensign, the early votes in a council of Avar are generally for offensive measures. Now we will proceed. Mr. College Counsellor, tell us your opinion?”
The little old man in the watered silk coat made haste to swallow his third cup of tea, which he had mixed with a good help of rum.
“I think, your excellency,” said he, “we must neither act on the defensive nor yet on the offensive.”
“How so, Mr. Counsellor?” replied the General, astounded. “There is nothing else open to us in tactics—one must act either on the defensive or the offensive.”
“Your excellency, endeavour to suborn.”
“Eh! eh! your opinion is very judicious; the act of corruption is one admitted by the rules of war, and we will profit by your counsel. We might offer for the rascal’s head seventy or even a hundred roubles, and take them from the secret funds.”
“And then,” interrupted the head of the Customs, “I’m a Kirghiz instead of a College Counsellor if these robbers do not deliver up their ataman, chained hand and foot.”
“We will think of it, and talk of it again,” rejoined the General. “Still, in any case, we must also take military measures. Gentlemen, give your votes in proper order.”