Konstantin Simonov

The Lieutenant

For three long months continues the bombardment.
The bloodstained Malakhov withstands it still.
The hoarse-voiced drum drives on the British redcoats.
Once more they throw themselves against the hill!

But by the far Pacific on Kamchatka
The fortress slumbers on in peace profound.
The lame lieutenant, garrison commander,
Pulls on his gloves and goes his daily round.

A grey old soldier, lazily saluting,
Shades with his sleeve his eyes against the sun;
The skinny goat belonging to the fortress
Is tethered with a rope beside the gun.

No news, no letters, no response to pleading -
They have forgotten, seven seas away,
That here upon the farthest point of Russia,
A company of men is in their pay.

But as he strained his eyes against the sunlight,
Far to the south across the sea, perhaps,
It seemed to the lieutenant they were coming -
There in the mist - he saw the shape of ships!

He seized the glass. Across the silent water,
Now green, now white with agitated foam,
In line ahead, the British ships were moving,
Advancing steadily towards his home.

What can have brought them here from far off Albion?
What do they want? A distant booming sound -
And suddenly, the sea below the bastion
Rose boiling with the impact of the round.

All afternoon, the guns fired on at random
And threatened soon to set the town aflame.
Then bearing a demand for their surrender,
Beneath a flag of truce, an envoy came.

The old lieutenant, feeling that his lameness
Might make the credit of his country fall,
Received the envoy haughtily and seated
Upon a bench beside the fortress wall.

What was there to defend? The rusty cannons,
Two dirty streets all overgrown with weeds,
The slant-roofed huts that served to house the soldiers,
A useless bit of land that no one needs!

But something told him he would not surrender.
He felt a chunk of earth beneath his hand.
He would not yield this place up to the sailor;
Perhaps forgotten, it was still his land!

The tattered weather-beaten flags still fluttered
Above the roof and up against the tree.
"Go tell your queen I shall not sign your paper!"
He answered the attacker from the sea.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The British, beaten off, had long departed,
The roofs repaired that stood beside the waves,
Some time had passed since all the dead were buried
And pinewood crosses placed upon their graves

And then, delayed a year upon the voyage,
St Petersburg despatches came at length.
The orders were to take decisive measures:
The garrison must be brought up to strength.

A captain, fit to lead the force in battle,
Was posted there, where now he was to serve.
The old lieutenant's service was rewarded -
He was retired and placed on the reserve!

The poor old soldier walked about the fortress...
He knew the ship was ready to depart -
But in his mind, the cold official paper,
The useless bit of land that claimed his heart!