Thanks to Pugatchef, I had a pretty good horse, with which I shared my scanty rations. Every day I passed beyond the ramparts, and I went and fired away against the scouts of Pugatchef. In these sort of skirmishes the rebels generally got the better of us, as they had plenty of food and were capitally mounted.
Our thin, starved cavalry was unable to stand against them. Sometimes our famished infantry took the field, but the depth of the snow prevented action with any success against the flying cavalry of the enemy. The artillery thundered vainly from the height of the ramparts, and in the field guns could not work because of the weakness of the worn-out horses. This is how we made war, and this is what the officials of Orenburg called prudence and foresight.
One day, when we had succeeded in dispersing and driving before us a rather numerous band, I came up with one of the hindmost Cossacks, and I was about to strike him with my Turkish sabre when he took off his cap and cried—
“Good day, Petr’ Andrejitch; how is your health?”
I recognized our “ouriadnik.” I cannot say how glad I was to see him.
“Good day, Maximitch,” said I, “is it long since you left Belogorsk?”
“No, not long, my little father, Petr’ Andrejitch; I only came back yesterday. I have a letter for you.”
“Where is it?” I cried, overjoyed.
“I have got it,” rejoined Maximitch, putting his hand into his breast. “I promised Palashka to give it to you.”
He handed me a folded paper, and immediately darted off at full gallop. I opened it and read with emotion the following lines—
“It has pleased God to deprive me at once of my father and my mother. I have no longer on earth either parents or protectors. I have recourse to you, because I know you have always wished me well, and also that you are ever ready to help those in need. I pray God this letter may reach you. Maximitch has promised me he will ensure it reaching you. Palashka has also heard Maximitch say that he often sees you from afar in the sorties, and that you do not take care of yourself, nor think of those who pray God for you with tears.
“I was long ill, and when at last I recovered, Alexey Ivanytch, who commands here in the room of my late father, forced Father Garasim to hand me over to him by threatening him with Pugatchef. I live under his guardianship in our house. Alexey Ivanytch tries to oblige me to marry him. He avers that he saved my life by not exposing Akoulina Pamphilovna’s stratagem when she spoke of me to the robbers as her niece, but it would be easier to me to die than to become the wife of a man like Chvabrine. He treats me with great cruelty, and threatens, if I do not change my mind, to bring me to the robber camp, where I should suffer the fate of Elizabeth Kharloff.
“I have begged Alexey Ivanytch to give me some time to think it over. He has given me three days; if at the end of that time I do not become his wife I need expect no more consideration at his hands. Oh! my father, Petr’ Andrejitch, you are my only stay. Defend me, a poor girl. Beg the General and all your superiors to send us help as soon as possible, and come yourself if you can.