…’Tell us a story, colonel,’ we said at last to Nikolai Ilyitch.
The colonel smiled, puffed out a coil of tobacco smoke between his moustaches, passed his hand over his grey hair, looked at us and considered. We all had the greatest liking and respect for Nikolai Ilyitch, for his good-heartedness, common sense, and kindly indulgence to us young fellows. He was a tall, broad-shouldered, stoutly-built man; his dark face, ‘one of the splendid Russian faces,’ [Footnote: Lermontov in the Treasurer’s Wife.—AUTHOR’S NOTE.] straight-forward, clever glance, gentle smile, manly and mellow voice—everything about him pleased and attracted one.
‘All right, listen then,’ he began.
It happened in 1813, before Dantzig. I was then in the E—— regiment of cuirassiers, and had just, I recollect, been promoted to be a cornet. It is an exhilarating occupation—fighting; and marching too is good enough in its way, but it is fearfully slow in a besieging army. There one sits the whole blessed day within some sort of entrenchment, under a tent, on mud or straw, playing cards from morning till night. Perhaps, from simple boredom, one goes out to watch the bombs and redhot bullets flying.
At first the French kept us amused with sorties, but they quickly subsided. We soon got sick of foraging expeditions too; we were overcome, in fact, by such deadly dulness that we were ready to howl for sheer ennui. I was not more than nineteen then; I was a healthy young fellow, fresh as a daisy, thought of nothing but getting all the fun I could out of the French… and in other ways too… you understand what I mean… and this is what happened. Having nothing to do, I fell to gambling. All of a sudden, after dreadful losses, my luck turned, and towards morning (we used to play at night) I had won an immense amount. Exhausted and sleepy, I came out into the fresh air, and sat down on a mound. It was a splendid, calm morning; the long lines of our fortifications were lost in the mist; I gazed till I was weary, and then began to doze where I was sitting.
A discreet cough waked me: I opened my eyes, and saw standing before me a Jew, a man of forty, wearing a long-skirted grey wrapper, slippers, and a black smoking-cap. This Jew, whose name was Girshel, was continually hanging about our camp, offering his services as an agent, getting us wine, provisions, and other such trifles. He was a thinnish, red-haired, little man, marked with smallpox; he blinked incessantly with his diminutive little eyes, which were reddish too; he had a long crooked nose, and was always coughing.
He began fidgeting about me, bowing obsequiously.
‘Well, what do you want?’ I asked him at last.
‘Oh, I only—I’ve only come, sir, to know if I can’t be of use to your honour in some way…’
‘I don’t want you; you can go.’
‘At your honour’s service, as you desire…. I thought there might be, sir, something….’
‘You bother me; go along, I tell you.’
‘Certainly, sir, certainly. But your honour must permit me to congratulate you on your success….’
‘Why, how did you know?’
‘Oh, I know, to be sure I do…. An immense sum… immense….Oh! how immense….’
Girshel spread out his fingers and wagged his head.
‘But what’s the use of talking,’ I said peevishly; ‘what the devil’s the good of money here?’
‘Oh! don’t say that, your honour; ay, ay, don’t say so. Money’s a capital thing; always of use; you can get anything for money, your honour; anything! anything! Only say the word to the agent, he’ll get you anything, your honour, anything! anything!’
‘Don’t tell lies, Jew.’
‘Ay! ay!’ repeated Girshel, shaking his side-locks. ‘Your honour doesn’t believe me…. Ay… ay….’ The Jew closed his eyes and slowly wagged his head to right and to left…. ‘Oh, I know what his honour the officer would like…. I know,… to be sure I do!’
The Jew assumed an exceedingly knowing leer.
The Jew glanced round timorously, then bent over to me.
‘Such a lovely creature, your honour, lovely!…’ Girshel again closed his eyes and shot out his lips.
‘Your honour, you’ve only to say the word… you shall see for yourself… whatever I say now, you’ll hear… but you won’t believe… better tell me to show you… that’s the thing, that’s the thing!’
I did not speak; I gazed at the Jew.
‘Well, all right then; well then, very good; so I’ll show you then….’
Thereupon Girshel laughed and slapped me lightly on the shoulder, but skipped back at once as though he had been scalded.
‘But, your honour, how about a trifle in advance?’
‘But you ‘re taking me in, and will show me some scarecrow?’
‘Ay, ay, what a thing to say!’ the Jew pronounced with unusual warmth, waving his hands about. ‘How can you! Why… if so, your honour, you order me to be given five hundred… four hundred and fifty lashes,’ he added hurriedly….’ You give orders—’
At that moment one of my comrades lifted the edge of his tent and called me by name. I got up hurriedly and flung the Jew a gold coin.
‘This evening, this evening,’ he muttered after me.
I must confess, my friends, I looked forward to the evening with some impatience. That very day the French made a sortie; our regiment marched to the attack. The evening came on; we sat round the fires… the soldiers cooked porridge. My comrades talked. I lay on my cloak, drank tea, and listened to my comrades’ stories. They suggested a game of cards—I refused to take part in it. I felt excited. Gradually the officers dispersed to their tents; the fires began to die down; the soldiers too dispersed, or went to sleep on the spot; everything was still. I did not get up. My orderly squatted on his heels before the fire, and was beginning to nod. I sent him away. Soon the whole camp was hushed. The sentries were relieved. I still lay there, as it were waiting for something. The stars peeped out. The night came on. A long while I watched the dying flame…. The last fire went out. ‘The damned Jew was taking me in,’ I thought angrily, and was just going to get up.
‘Your honour,’… a trembling voice whispered close to my ear.
I looked round: Girshel. He was very pale, he stammered, and whispered something.
‘Let’s go to your tent, sir.’ I got up and followed him. The Jew shrank into himself, and stepped warily over the short, damp grass. I observed on one side a motionless, muffled-up figure. The Jew beckoned to her—she went up to him. He whispered to her, turned to me, nodded his head several times, and we all three went into the tent. Ridiculous to relate, I was breathless.
‘You see, your honour,’ the Jew whispered with an effort, ‘you see. She’s a little frightened at the moment, she’s frightened; but I’ve told her his honour the officer’s a good man, a splendid man…. Don’t be frightened, don’t be frightened,’ he went on—’don’t be frightened….’
The muffled-up figure did not stir. I was myself in a state of dreadful confusion, and didn’t know what to say. Girshel too was fidgeting restlessly, and gesticulating in a strange way….
‘Any way,’ I said to him, ‘you get out….’ Unwillingly, as it seemed, Girshel obeyed.
I went up to the muffled-up figure, and gently took the dark hood off her head. There was a conflagration in Dantzig: by the faint, reddish, flickering glow of the distant fire I saw the pale face of a young Jewess. Her beauty astounded me. I stood facing her, and gazed at her in silence. She did not raise her eyes. A slight rustle made me look round. Girshel was cautiously poking his head in under the edge of the tent. I waved my hand at him angrily,… he vanished.
‘What’s your name?’ I said at last.
‘Sara,’ she answered, and for one instant I caught in the darkness the gleam of the whites of her large, long-shaped eyes and little, even, flashing teeth.
I snatched up two leather cushions, flung them on the ground, and asked her to sit down. She slipped off her shawl, and sat down. She was wearing a short Cossack jacket, open in front, with round, chased silver buttons, and full sleeves. Her thick black hair was coiled twice round her little head. I sat down beside her and took her dark, slender hand. She resisted a little, but seemed afraid to look at me, and there was a catch in her breath. I admired her Oriental profile, and timidly pressed her cold, shaking fingers.
‘Do you know Russian?’
‘Yes… a little.’
‘And do you like Russians?’
‘Yes, I like them.’
‘Then, you like me too?’
‘Yes, I like you.’
I tried to put my arm round her, but she moved away quickly….
‘No, no, please, sir, please…’
‘Oh, all right; look at me, any way.’
She let her black, piercing eyes rest upon me, and at once turned away with a smile, and blushed.
I kissed her hand ardently. She peeped at me from under her eyelids and softly laughed.
‘What is it?’
She hid her face in her sleeve and laughed more than before.
Girshel showed himself at the entrance of the tent and shook his finger at her. She ceased laughing.
‘Go away!’ I whispered to him through my teeth; ‘you make me sick!’
Girshel did not go away.
I took a handful of gold pieces out of my trunk, stuffed them in his hand and pushed him out.
‘Your honour, me too….’ she said.
I dropped several gold coins on her lap; she pounced on them like a cat.
‘Well, now I must have a kiss.’
‘No, please, please,’ she faltered in a frightened and beseeching voice.
‘What are you frightened of?’
She looked timidly at me, put her head a little on one side and clasped her hands. I let her alone.
‘If you like… here,’ she said after a brief silence, and she raised her hand to my lips. With no great eagerness, I kissed it. Sara laughed again.
My blood was boiling. I was annoyed with myself and did not know what to do. Really, I thought at last, what a fool I am.
I turned to her again.
‘Sara, listen, I’m in love with you.’
‘You know? And you’re not angry? And do you like me too?’
Sara shook her head.
‘No, answer me properly.’
‘Well, show yourself,’ she said.
I bent down to her. Sara laid her hands on my shoulders, began scrutinising my face, frowned, smiled…. I could not contain myself, and gave her a rapid kiss on her cheek. She jumped up and in one bound was at the entrance of the tent.
‘Come, what a shy thing you are!’
She did not speak and did not stir.
‘Come here to me….’
‘No, sir, good-bye. Another time.’
Girshel again thrust in his curly head, and said a couple of words to her; she bent down and glided away, like a snake.
I ran out of the tent in pursuit of her, but could not get another glimpse of her nor of Girshel.
The whole night long I could not sleep a wink.
The next night we were sitting in the tent of our captain; I was playing, but with no great zest. My orderly came in.
‘Some one’s asking for you, your honour.’
‘Who is it?’
‘Can it be Girshel?’ I wondered. I waited till the end of the rubber, got up and went out. Yes, it was so; I saw Girshel.
‘Well,’ he questioned me with an ingratiating smile, ‘your honour, are you satisfied?’
‘Ah, you———!’ (Here the colonel glanced round. ‘No ladies present, I believe…. Well, never mind, any way.’) ‘Ah, bless you!’ I responded, ‘so you’re making fun of me, are you?’
‘How so, indeed! What a question!’
‘Ay, ay, your honour, you ‘re too bad,’ Girshel said reproachfully, but never ceasing smiling. ‘The girl is young and modest…. You frightened her, indeed, you did.’
‘Queer sort of modesty! why did she take money, then?’
‘Why, what then? If one’s given money, why not take it, sir?’
‘I say, Girshel, let her come again, and I ’11 let you off… only, please, don’t show your stupid phiz inside my tent, and leave us in peace; do you hear?’
Girshel’s eyes sparkled.
‘What do you say? You like her?’
‘She’s a lovely creature! there’s not another such anywhere. And have you something for me now?’
‘Yes, here, only listen; fair play is better than gold. Bring her and then go to the devil. I’ll escort her home myself.’
‘Oh, no, sir, no, that’s impossible, sir,’ the Jew rejoined hurriedly. ‘Ay, ay, that’s impossible. I’ll walk about near the tent, your honour, if you like; I’ll… I’ll go away, your honour, if you like, a little…. I’m ready to do your honour a service…. I’ll move away… to be sure, I will.’
‘Well, mind you do…. And bring her, do you hear?’
‘Eh, but she’s a beauty, your honour, eh? your honour, a beauty, eh?’
Girshel bent down and peeped into my eyes.
‘Well, then, give me another gold piece.’
I threw him a coin; we parted.
The day passed at last. The night came on. I had been sitting for a long while alone in my tent. It was dark outside. It struck two in the town. I was beginning to curse the Jew…. Suddenly Sara came in, alone. I jumped up took her in my arms… put my lips to her face…. It was cold as ice. I could scarcely distinguish her features…. I made her sit down, knelt down before her, took her hands, touched her waist…. She did not speak, did not stir, and suddenly she broke into loud, convulsive sobbing. I tried in vain to soothe her, to persuade her…. She wept in torrents…. I caressed her, wiped her tears; as before, she did not resist, made no answer to my questions and wept—wept, like a waterfall. I felt a pang at my heart; I got up and went out of the tent.
Girshel seemed to pop up out of the earth before me.
‘Girshel,’ I said to him, ‘here’s the money I promised you. Take Sara away.’
The Jew at once rushed up to her. She left off weeping, and clutched hold of him.
‘Good-bye, Sara,’I said to her. ‘God bless you, good-bye. We’ll see each other again some other time.’
Girshel was silent and bowed humbly. Sara bent down, took my hand and pressed it to her lips; I turned away….
For five or six days, my friends, I kept thinking of my Jewess. Girshel did not make his appearance, and no one had seen him in the camp. I slept rather badly at nights; I was continually haunted by wet, black eyes, and long eyelashes; my lips could not forget the touch of her cheek, smooth and fresh as a downy plum. I was sent out with a foraging party to a village some distance away. While my soldiers were ransacking the houses, I remained in the street, and did not dismount from my horse. Suddenly some one caught hold of my foot….
‘Mercy on us, Sara!’
She was pale and excited.
‘Your honour… help us, save us, your soldiers are insulting us…. Your honour….’
She recognised me and flushed red.
‘Why, do you live here?’
Sara pointed to a little, old house. I set spurs to my horse and galloped up. In the yard of the little house an ugly and tattered Jewess was trying to tear out of the hands of my long sergeant, Siliavka, three hens and a duck. He was holding his booty above his head, laughing; the hens clucked and the duck quacked…. Two other cuirassiers were loading their horses with hay, straw, and sacks of flour. Inside the house I heard shouts and oaths in Little-Russian…. I called to my men and told them to leave the Jews alone, not to take anything from them. The soldiers obeyed, the sergeant got on his grey mare, Proserpina, or, as he called her, ‘Prozherpila,’ and rode after me into the street.
‘Well,’ I said to Sara, ‘are you pleased with me?’
She looked at me with a smile.
‘What has become of you all this time?’
She dropped her eyes.
‘I will come to you to-morrow.’
‘In the evening?’
‘No, sir, in the morning.’
‘Mind you do, don’t deceive me.’
‘No… no, I won’t.’
I looked greedily at her. By daylight she seemed to me handsomer than ever. I remember I was particularly struck by the even, amber tint of her face and the bluish lights in her black hair…. I bent down from my horse and warmly pressed her little hand.
‘Good-bye, Sara… mind you come.’
She went home; I told the sergeant to follow me with the party, and galloped off.
The next day I got up very early, dressed, and went out of the tent. It was a glorious morning; the sun had just risen and every blade of grass was sparkling in the dew and the crimson glow. I clambered on to a high breastwork, and sat down on the edge of an embrasure. Below me a stout, cast-iron cannon stuck out its black muzzle towards the open country. I looked carelessly about me… and all at once caught sight of a bent figure in a grey wrapper, a hundred paces from me. I recognised Girshel. He stood without moving for a long while in one place, then suddenly ran a little on one side, looked hurriedly and furtively round… uttered a cry, squatted down, cautiously craned his neck and began looking round again and listening. I could see all his actions very clearly. He put his hand into his bosom, took out a scrap of paper and a pencil, and began writing or drawing something. Girshel continually stopped, started like a hare, attentively scrutinised everything around him, and seemed to be sketching our camp. More than once he hid his scrap of paper, half closed his eyes, sniffed at the air, and again set to work. At last, the Jew squatted down on the grass, took off his slipper, and stuffed the paper in it; but he had not time to regain his legs, when suddenly, ten steps from him, there appeared from behind the slope of an earthwork the whiskered countenance of the sergeant Siliavka, and gradually the whole of his long clumsy figure rose up from the ground. The Jew stood with his back to him. Siliavka went quickly up to him and laid his heavy paw on his shoulder. Girshel seemed to shrink into himself. He shook like a leaf and uttered a feeble cry, like a hare’s. Siliavka addressed him threateningly, and seized him by the collar. I could not hear their conversation, but from the despairing gestures of the Jew, and his supplicating appearance, I began to guess what it was. The Jew twice flung himself at the sergeant’s feet, put his hand in his pocket, pulled out a torn check handkerchief, untied a knot, and took out gold coins…. Siliavka took his offering with great dignity, but did not leave off dragging the Jew by the collar. Girshel made a sudden bound and rushed away; the sergeant sped after him in pursuit. The Jew ran exceedingly well; his legs, clad in blue stockings, flashed by, really very rapidly; but Siliavka after a short run caught the crouching Jew, made him stand up, and carried him in his arms straight to the camp. I got up and went to meet him.
‘Ah! your honour!’ bawled Siliavka,—’it’s a spy I’m bringing you—a spy!…’ The sturdy Little-Russian was streaming with perspiration. ‘Stop that wriggling, devilish Jew—now then… you wretch! you’d better look out, I’ll throttle you!’
The luckless Girshel was feebly prodding his elbows into Siliavka’s chest, and feebly kicking…. His eyes were rolling convulsively….
‘What’s the matter?’ I questioned Siliavka.
‘If your honour’ll be so good as to take the slipper off his right foot,—I can’t get at it.’ He was still holding the Jew in his arms.
I took off the slipper, took out of it a carefully folded piece of paper, unfolded it, and found an accurate map of our camp. On the margin were a number of notes written in a fine hand in the Jews’ language.
Meanwhile Siliavka had set Girshel on his legs. The Jew opened his eyes, saw me, and flung himself on his knees before me.
Without speaking, I showed him the paper.
‘It’s—-nothing, your honour. I was only….’ His voice broke.
‘Are you a spy?’
He did not understand me, muttered disconnected words, pressed my knees in terror….
‘Are you a spy?’
‘I!’ he cried faintly, and shook his head. ‘How could I? I never did; I’m not at all. It’s not possible; utterly impossible. I’m ready—I’ll—this minute—I’ve money to give… I’ll pay for it,’ he whispered, and closed his eyes.
The smoking-cap had slipped back on to his neck; his reddish hair was soaked with cold sweat, and hung in tails; his lips were blue, and working convulsively; his brows were contracted painfully; his face was drawn….
Soldiers came up round us. I had at first meant to give Girshel a good fright, and to tell Siliavka to hold his tongue, but now the affair had become public, and could not escape ‘the cognisance of the authorities.’
‘Take him to the general,’ I said to the sergeant.
‘Your honour, your honour!’ the Jew shrieked in a voice of despair. ‘I am not guilty… not guilty…. Tell him to let me go, tell him…’
‘His Excellency will decide about that,’ said Siliavka. ‘Come along.’
‘Your honour!’ the Jew shrieked after me—’tell him! have mercy!’
His shriek tortured me; I hastened my pace. Our general was a man of German extraction, honest and good-hearted, but strict in his adherence to military discipline. I went into the little house that had been hastily put up for him, and in a few words explained the reason of my visit. I knew the severity of the military regulations, and so I did not even pronounce the word ‘spy,’ but tried to put the whole affair before him as something quite trifling and not worth attention. But, unhappily for Girshel, the general put doing his duty higher than pity.
‘You, young man,’ he said to me in his broken Russian, ‘inexperienced are. You in military matters yet inexperienced are. The matter, of which you to me reported have, is important, very important…. And where is this man who taken was? this Jew? where is he?’
I went out and told them to bring in the Jew. They brought in the Jew. The wretched creature could scarcely stand up.
‘Yes,’ pronounced the general, turning to me; ‘and where’s the plan which on this man found was?’
I handed him the paper. The general opened it, turned away again, screwed up his eyes, frowned….
‘This is most as-ton-ish-ing…’ he said slowly. ‘Who arrested him?’
‘I, your Excellency!’ Siliavka jerked out sharply.
‘Ah! good! good!… Well, my good man, what do you say in your defence?’
‘Your… your… your Excellency,’ stammered Girshel, ‘I… indeed,… your Excellency… I’m not guilty… your Excellency; ask his honour the officer…. I’m an agent, your Excellency, an honest agent.’
‘He ought to be cross-examined,’ the general murmured in an undertone, wagging his head gravely. ‘Come, how do you explain this, my friend?’ ‘I’m not guilty, your Excellency, I’m not guilty.’
‘That is not probable, however. You were—how is it said in Russian?—taken on the fact, that is, in the very facts!’
‘Hear me, your Excellency; I am not guilty.’
‘You drew the plan? you are a spy of the enemy?’
‘It wasn’t me!’ Girshel shrieked suddenly; ‘not I, your Excellency!’
The general looked at Siliavka.
‘Why, he’s raving, your Excellency. His honour the officer here took the plan out of his slipper.’
The general looked at me. I was obliged to nod assent.
‘You are a spy from the enemy, my good man….’
‘Not I… not I…’ whispered the distracted Jew.
‘You have the enemy with similar information before provided? Confess….’
‘How could I?’
‘You will not deceive me, my good man. Are you a spy?’
The Jew closed his eyes, shook his head, and lifted the skirts of his gown.
‘Hang him,’ the general pronounced expressively after a brief silence,’according to the law. Where is Mr. Fiodor Schliekelmann?’
They ran to fetch Schliekelmann, the general’s adjutant. Girshel began to turn greenish, his mouth fell open, his eyes seemed starting out of his head. The adjutant came in. The general gave him the requisite instructions. The secretary showed his sickly, pock-marked face for an instant. Two or three officers peeped into the room inquisitively.
‘Have pity, your Excellency,’ I said to the general in German as best I could; ‘let him off….’
‘You, young man,’ he answered me in Russian, ‘I was saying to you, are inexperienced, and therefore I beg you silent to be, and me no more to trouble.’
Girshel with a shriek dropped at the general’s feet.
‘Your Excellency, have mercy; I will never again, I will not, your Excellency; I have a wife… your Excellency, a daughter… have mercy….’
‘It’s no use!’
‘Truly, your Excellency, I am guilty… it’s the first time, your Excellency, the first time, believe me!’
‘You furnished no other documents?’
‘The first time, your Excellency,… my wife… my children… have mercy….’
‘But you are a spy.’
‘My wife… your Excellency… my children….’
The general felt a twinge, but there was no getting out of it.
‘According to the law, hang the Hebrew,’ he said constrainedly, with the air of a man forced to do violence to his heart, and sacrifice his better feelings to inexorable duty—’hang him! Fiodor Karlitch, I beg you to draw up a report of the occurrence….’
A horrible change suddenly came over Girshel. Instead of the ordinary timorous alarm peculiar to the Jewish nature, in his face was reflected the horrible agony that comes before death. He writhed like a wild beast trapped, his mouth stood open, there was a hoarse rattle in his throat, he positively leapt up and down, convulsively moving his elbows. He had on only one slipper; they had forgotten to put the other on again… his gown fell open… his cap had fallen off….
We all shuddered; the general stopped speaking.
‘Your Excellency,’ I began again, ‘pardon this wretched creature.’
‘Impossible! It is the law,’ the general replied abruptly, and not without emotion, ‘for a warning to others.’
‘For pity’s sake….’
‘Mr. Cornet, be so good as to return to your post,’ said the general, and he motioned me imperiously to the door.
I bowed and went out. But seeing that in reality I had no post anywhere, I remained at no great distance from the general’s house.
Two minutes later Girshel made his appearance, conducted by Siliavka and three soldiers. The poor Jew was in a state of stupefaction, and could hardly move his legs. Siliavka went by me to the camp, and soon returned with a rope in his hands. His coarse but not ill-natured face wore a look of strange, exasperated commiseration. At the sight of the rope the Jew flung up his arms, sat down, and burst into sobs. The soldiers stood silently about him, and stared grimly at the earth. I went up to Girshel, addressed him; he sobbed like a baby, and did not even look at me. With a hopeless gesture I went to my tent, flung myself on a rug, and closed my eyes….
Suddenly some one ran hastily and noisily into my tent. I raised my head and saw Sara; she looked beside herself. She rushed up to me, and clutched at my hands.
‘Come along, come along,’ she insisted breathlessly.
‘Where? what for? let us stop here.’
‘To father, to father, quick… save him… save him!’
‘To what father?’
‘My father; they are going to hang him….’
‘What! is Girshel…?’
‘My father… I ’11 tell you all about it later,’ she added, wringing her hands in despair: ‘only come… come….’
We ran out of the tent. In the open ground, on the way to a solitary birch-tree, we could see a group of soldiers…. Sara pointed to them without speaking….
‘Stop,’ I said to her suddenly: ‘where are we running to? The soldiers won’t obey me.’
Sara still pulled me after her…. I must confess, my head was going round.
‘But listen, Sara,’ I said to her; ‘what sense is there in running here? It would be better for me to go to the general again; let’s go together; who knows, we may persuade him.’
Sara suddenly stood still and gazed at me, as though she were crazy.
‘Understand me, Sara, for God’s sake. I can’t do anything for your father, but the general can. Let’s go to him.’
‘But meanwhile they’ll hang him,’ she moaned….
I looked round. The secretary was standing not far off.
‘Ivanov,’ I called to him; ‘run, please, over there to them, tell them to wait a little, say I’ve gone to petition the general.’
Ivanov ran off.
We were not admitted to the general’s presence. In vain I begged, persuaded, swore even, at last… in vain, poor Sara tore her hair and rushed at the sentinels; they would not let us pass.
Sara looked wildly round, clutched her head in both hands, and ran at breakneck pace towards the open country, to her father. I followed her. Every one stared at us, wondering.
We ran up to the soldiers. They were standing in a ring, and picture it, gentlemen! they were laughing, laughing at poor Girshel. I flew into a rage and shouted at them. The Jew saw us and fell on his daughter’s neck. Sara clung to him passionately.
The poor wretch imagined he was pardoned…. He was just beginning to thank me… I turned away.
‘Your honour,’ he shrieked and wrung his hands; ‘I’m not pardoned?’
I did not speak.
‘Your honour,’ he began muttering; ‘look, your honour, look… she, this girl, see—you know—she’s my daughter.’
‘I know,’ I answered, and turned away again.
‘Your honour,’ he shrieked, ‘I never went away from the tent! I wouldn’t for anything…’
He stopped, and closed his eyes for an instant…. ‘I wanted your money, your honour, I must own… but not for anything….’
I was silent. Girshel was loathsome to me, and she too, his accomplice….
‘But now, if you save me,’ the Jew articulated in a whisper, ‘I’ll command her… I… do you understand?… everything… I’ll go to every length….’
He was trembling like a leaf, and looking about him hurriedly. Sara silently and passionately embraced him.
The adjutant came up to us.
‘Cornet,’ he said to me; ‘his Excellency has given me orders to place you under arrest. And you…’ he motioned the soldiers to the Jew… ‘quickly.’
Siliavka went up to the Jew.
‘Fiodor Karlitch,’ I said to the adjutant (five soldiers had come with him); ‘tell them, at least, to take away that poor girl….’
‘Of course. Certainly.’
The unhappy girl was scarcely conscious. Girshel was muttering something to her in Yiddish….
The soldiers with difficulty freed Sara from her father’s arms, and carefully carried her twenty steps away. But all at once she broke from their arms and rushed towards Girshel…. Siliavka stopped her. Sara pushed him away; her face was covered with a faint flush, her eyes flashed, she stretched out her arms.
‘So may you be accursed,’ she screamed in German; ‘accursed, thrice accursed, you and all the hateful breed of you, with the curse of Dathan and Abiram, the curse of poverty and sterility and violent, shameful death! May the earth open under your feet, godless, pitiless, bloodthirsty dogs….’
Her head dropped back… she fell to the ground…. They lifted her up and carried her away.
The soldiers took Girshel under his arms. I saw then why it was they had been laughing at the Jew when I ran up from the camp with Sara. He was really ludicrous, in spite of all the horror of his position. The intense anguish of parting with life, his daughter, his family, showed itself in the Jew in such strange and grotesque gesticulations, shrieks, and wriggles that we all could not help smiling, though it was horrible—intensely horrible to us too. The poor wretch was half dead with terror….
‘Oy! oy! oy!’ he shrieked: ‘oy… wait! I’ve something to tell you… a lot to tell you. Mr. Under-sergeant, you know me. I’m an agent, an honest agent. Don’t hold me; wait a minute, a little minute, a tiny minute—wait! Let me go; I’m a poor Hebrew. Sara… where is Sara? Oh, I know, she’s at his honour the quarter-lieutenant’s.’ (God knows why he bestowed such an unheard-of grade upon me.) ‘Your honour the quarter-lieutenant, I’m not going away from the tent.’ (The soldiers were taking hold of Girshel… he uttered a deafening shriek, and wriggled out of their hands.) ‘Your Excellency, have pity on the unhappy father of a family. I’ll give you ten golden pieces, fifteen I’ll give, your Excellency!…’ (They dragged him to the birch-tree.) ‘Spare me! have mercy! your honour the quarter-lieutenant! your Excellency, the general and commander-in-chief!’
They put the noose on the Jew…. I shut my eyes and rushed away.
I remained for a fortnight under arrest. I was told that the widow of the luckless Girshel came to fetch away the clothes of the deceased. The general ordered a hundred roubles to be given to her. Sara I never saw again. I was wounded; I was taken to the hospital, and by the time I was well again, Dantzig had surrendered, and I joined my regiment on the banks of the Rhine.
Categories: English Literature