From bad to worse, thought I. What was the use of being a Sergeant in the Guards almost from my mother’s womb? To what has it led? To the regiment of —–, and an abandoned fortress on the frontier of the steppes!
I dined at the General’s in company with his old Aid-de-camp. Severe German economy reigned at table, and I think the fear of having an occasional guest the more had something to do with sending me to a distant garrison.
The next day I took my leave of the General and set out for Belogorsk.
III. THE FORTRESS.
The fortress of Belogorsk is situated forty versts from Orenbourg. The route from this city is along the high banks of the river Iaik. The stream was not yet frozen, and its lead-colored waters took a black tint between banks whitened by the snow. Before me lay the Kirghis steppes. I fell into a moody train of thought, for to me garrison life offered few attractions. I tried to picture my future chief, Captain Mironoff. I imagined a severe, morose old man, knowing nothing outside of the service, ready to arrest me for the least slip. Dusk was falling; we were advancing rapidly.
“How far is it from here to the fortress?” said I to the coachman.
“You can see it now,” he answered.
I looked on all sides, expecting to see high bastions, a wall, and a ditch. I saw nothing but a little village surrounded by a wooden palisade. On one side stood some hay-stacks half covered with snow; on the other a wind-mill, leaning to one side; the wings of the mill, made of the heavy bark of the linden tree, hung idle.
“Where is the fortress?” I asked, astonished.
“There it is,” said the coachman, pointing to the village which we had just entered. I saw near the gate an old iron cannon. The streets were narrow and winding, and nearly all the huts were thatched with straw. I ordered the coachman to drive to the Commandant’s, and almost immediately my kibitka stopped before a wooden house built on an eminence near the church, which was also of wood. From the front door I entered the waiting-room. An old pensioner, seated on a table, was sewing a blue piece on the elbow of a green uniform. I told him to announce me.
“Enter, my good sir,” said he, “our people are at home.”
I entered a very neat room, furnished in the fashion of other days. On one side stood a cabinet containing the silver. Against the wall hung the diploma of an officer, with colored engravings arranged around its frame; notably, the “Choice of the Betrothed,” the “Taking of Kurstrin,” and the “Burial of the Cat by the Mice.” Near the window sat an old woman in a mantilla, her head wrapped in a handkerchief. She was winding a skein of thread held on the separated hands of a little old man, blind of one eye, who was dressed like an officer.
“What do you desire, my dear sir?” said the woman to me, without interrupting her occupation. I told her that I had come to enter the service, and that, according to rule, I hastened to present myself to the captain. In saying this, I turned to the one-eyed old man, whom I took for the commandant. The good lady interrupted the speech which I had prepared in advance: