“Savelich? What happened? It’s bad news, isn’t it.” Masha’s voice wavers between fear and desperate hope, but she can already see on Savelich’s face that all is not well. He’s come straight to her, first thing in the morning, which can only mean bad news.
“The young master’s been arrested for espionage! And I haven’t a clue why, but he wouldn’t even explain himself at all at the trial.” Savelich paces, wringing his hands and fretting.
Masha’s face falls. “He didn’t…. Oh, oh no, he must have stayed silent to protect me, because I’m a cossack’s daughter! He was worried that if he explained himself, they would have suspected me, I’m sure that’s it. Nikolai… you sacrificed yourself to save me!”
The tears start welling up in Masha’s eyes, and she wants nothing more than to curl up and cry. But then, an idea strikes her; it’s a desperate plan, but a plan nonetheless, and she stands bolt upright.
“I know, I’ll go to St Petersburg!”
“What? Wait!--” Savelich calls after Masha, but she’s already striding determinedly away.
Anna the postmaster’s wife had gone to call on her friend the innkeeper’s wife, Madame Leven, and in the hall she passed a distraught young woman hurrying away. When she reaches her friend’s sitting room, Madame Leven’s face is grim, and she leans wearily against the sofa.
“Who was that girl just now?” Anna asks.
“Do you remember Grinyov’s son? That Nikolai?” Madame Leven replies sadly.
“Who went off with the army to the middle of nowhere?”
“The very same. It seems the poor boy has gotten himself mixed up in some terrible business and was arrested for treason. That was his fiancée, Masha, the daughter of the commandant at the fort where he served.
“What a sweet girl, she says it’s all a misunderstanding, and she could prove his innocence if she only had a chance to explain. That’s why she came here, to ask for my help, but of course there’s nothing I can do.”
Madame Leven worried her apron in her lap as Anna looked on sadly.
“She wants to beg the Tsarina in person for Nikolai’s pardon…. I know girls who work in the palace, and it’s just not possible. And even if she could go and do such a thing, Her Majesty would never pardon a traitor.”
Anna brought out a handkerchief to lend her friend, and was close to tears herself. “How tragic, to lose a first love so soon.”
Nikolai hadn’t been allowed any visitors, but they had at least given him paper and ink to write his last letters farewell. It’s a cold comfort, the smallest of small mercies, compared to the great mercy of his life at Pugachev’s hands, though his executioners called him a villain.
He didn’t have long to wait in prison before the guards came, leading him out into the yard. The outside air was fresh, and the sky was clear, but even the midday sun couldn’t thaw the winter’s chill.
They made him kneel, in a line of other traitors and spies. Nikolai closed his eyes. Masha, I love you, I’ll wait for you.
He tries not to listen as the men raise their guns, not wanting to know when the shots will come. He hardly hears the bang before he hears nothing at all.
He’s dressed all in white, now, his uniform as pristine as the new-fallen snow. He’s kneeling in the throne room, and the Tsarina is offering him a full pardon, on the condition that he marry Masha as soon as possible. Of course, he has to return to Masha, they were going to be married. Where is Masha? He has to find Masha…
He’s outside, in the square, and Pugachev is there. He’s bound in ropes, being led to the gallows for a public execution. The crowd jeers and jostles, but no one so much as bumps into Nikolai. They part for him without a glance, and he easily reaches his friend.
Only Pugachev looks him straight in the eyes.
“Nikolai, so that’s where you were. You look well,” he says warmly. “Don’t look like that, I’ll see you again soon.” There’s a grin on his face and a knowing glint in his eyes, before he’s shoved away by the guards.
“Keep moving!” one guard shouts, then scoffs. “Madman, there’s no one there.”
Pugachev, my friend… if only I could have saved you too….
Palashka and Savelich sit together in the servant’s hall. It’s not yet dark, but the winter snow-clouds have rolled in, dyeing the whole house as grim as their grief.
Palashka wrings her hands. “The poor girl’s been in a haze since the execution. She isn’t eating, or sleeping… she couldn’t even read his last letter. It slipped right through her fingers. It’s not good for her to stay here; I’m going to bring her home to Bergorsky.”
Savelich nods. “Nikolai wrote in his last letter to me that he wanted to be buried there as well. Right next to the young Miss’s parents.” Savelich says, making a valiant effort to keep his voice steady, to hold himself together.
“They hadn’t even had time to be properly married,” he sniffs, “but he thought of her family as his own… At least this way, they can be together again someday.”
Savelich hangs his head and weeps into his handkerchief. Palashka turns away, to give him some privacy, and to hide her own quiet tears. If only she knew where her Maximich rested, so she could be buried beside him too one day….
Masha kneels at the graves, home at last in Bergorsky. When did she arrive home? How long has she been away? She can’t say. With all the excitement (what excitement?), things have been a blur.
Whose graves are these? That’s right, they’re her parents’ graves, and one new one beside them, but her eyes can’t seem to focus on the name….
Masha, I’m here.
Her Nikolai is there, and she runs into his arms.
Masha, why did you leave St. Petersburg without me? I missed you.
“Why did I…? Why on earth would I do such a thing, I could never be happy without you! But the important thing is that you’re here now. We can finally be married!”
I love you, Masha. There’s nothing keeping us apart anymore.
Masha dances off with Nikolai, hand in hand and arm in arm. Her world narrowed to just the two of them, the only things that truly mattered. All the rest of her surroundings are as white as a canvas, a blank slate for their new life. They’re going to be married.
The sun sinks. The wind blows harder as snow swirls about her, but Masha doesn’t feel the cold anymore. Her Nikolai is here, and they can be together now. Forever, this time.
There are two new graves at Bergorsky.