“I remain, your submissive orphan,
I almost went mad when I read this letter. I rushed to the town, spurring without pity my poor horse. During the ride I turned over in my mind a thousand projects for rescuing the poor girl without being able to decide on any. Arrived in the town I went straight to the General’s, and I actually ran into his room. He was walking up and down, smoking his meerschaum pipe. Upon seeing me he stood still; my appearance doubtless struck him, for he questioned me with a kind of anxiety on the cause of my abrupt entry.
“Your excellency,” said I, “I come to you as I would to my poor father. Do not reject my request; the happiness of my whole life is in question.”
“What is all this, my father?” asked the astounded General. “What can I do for you? Speak.”
“Your excellency, allow me to take a battalion of soldiers and fifty Cossacks, and go and clear out Fort Belogorsk.”
The General stared, thinking, probably, that I was out of my senses; and he was not far wrong.
“How? What! what! Clear out Fort Belogorsk!” he said at last.
“I’ll answer for success!” I rejoined, hotly. “Only let me go.”
“No, young man,” he said, shaking his head; “it is so far away. The enemy would easily block all communication with the principal strategic point, which would quickly enable him to defeat you utterly and decisively. A blocked communication, do you see?”
* * * * *
I took fright when I saw he was getting involved in a military dissertation, and I made haste to interrupt him.
“The daughter of Captain Mironoff,” I said, “has just written me a letter asking for help. Chvabrine is obliging her to become his wife.”
“Indeed! Oh! this Chvabrine is a great rascal. If he falls into my hands I’ll have him tried in twenty-four hours, and we will shoot him on the glacis of the fort. But in the meantime we must have patience.”
“Have patience!” I cried, beside myself. “Between this and then he will ill-treat Marya.”
“Oh!” replied the General. “Still that would not be such a terrible misfortune for her. It would be better for her to be the wife of Chvabrine, who can now protect her. And when we shall have shot him, then, with heaven’s help, the betrothed will come together again. Pretty little widows do not long remain single; I mean to say a widow more easily finds a husband.”
“I’d rather die,” I cried, furiously, “than leave her to Chvabrine.”
“Ah! Bah!” said the old man, “I understand now. Probably you are in love with Marya Ivanofna. Then it is another thing. Poor boy! But still it is not possible for me to give you a battalion and fifty Cossacks. This expedition is unreasonable, and I cannot take it upon my own responsibility.”
I bowed my head; despair overwhelmed me. All at once an idea flashed across me, and what it was the reader will see in the next chapter, as the old novelists used to say.