“The White Guard”, Chapter III – Weekly Reads
It is time for your next dose of “The White Guard”, which unfolds at a festive dinner arranged in honour of the visit of Aleksey’s comrades, Fedor and Leonid, who came to visit the family of Turbins. The topic of the discussion you may ask… Find out in Chapter III.
Enjoy the read!
In the downstairs apartment at No. 13, which belonged to Vasily Lisovich, engineer and householder, absolute silence reigned at that hour of the night, a silence only occasionally dis-turbed by a mouse in the dining- room. Busily and insistently the mouse gnawed and gnawed away at an old rind of cheese, cursing the meanness of the engineer’s wife, Wanda Mikhailovna. The object of this abuse, the bony and jealous Wanda, was sound asleep in the dark bedroom of their damp, chilly apartment. Lisovich himself was still awake and ensconced in his study, a draped, book-lined, over-furnished and consequently extremely cosy little room. The standard lamp, in the shape of an Egyptian queen and shaded in green flowered material, lit the room with a gentle mysterious glow; there was something mysterious, too, about the engineer himself in his deep leather armchair. The mystery and ambiguity of those uncertain times was expressed above all in the fact that the man in the armchair was not Vasily Lisovich at all, but Vasilisa… He, of course, called himself Lisovich, many of the people he met called him Vasily, but only to his face. Behind his back no one ever called him anything but Vasilisa. This had come about because since January 1918, when the strangest things began happening in the City, the owner of No. 13 altered his distinctive signature, and from a vague fear of committing himself to some document that might be held against him in the future, instead of a bold ‘V. Lisovich’ he began signing his name on questionnaires, forms, certificates, orders and ration cards as ‘Vas. Lis.’
On January 18th 1918, with a sugar ration card signed by Vasily Lisovich, instead of sugar Nikolka had received a terrible blow on his back from a stone on the Kreshchatik and had spat blood for two days. (A shell had burst right over the heads of some brave people standing in line for sugar.) When he reached home, clutching the wall and turning green, Nikolka had managed to smile so as not to alarm Elena. Then he had spat out a bowlful of blood and when Elena shrieked: ‘God – what’s happened to you?’ he replied: ‘It’s Vasilisa’s sugar, damn him!’ After that he turned white and collapsed. Nikolka was out of bed again two days later, but Vasily Lisovich had ceased to exist. At first only the people living at No. 13, then soon the whole City began calling him Vasilisa, until the only person who introduced him as Lisovich was the bearer of that girl’s name himself.
After making sure that the street was quiet at last, with not even the occasional creak of sleigh-runners to be heard, and listening attentively to the whistling sound coming from his wife in the bedroom, Vasilisa went out into the lobby. There he carefully checked the locks, bolt, chain and door-handle and returned to his study, where he produced four shiny safety-pins from a drawer of his massive desk. He tiptoed away somewhere into the darkness and returned with a rug and a towel. Again he stopped and listened, even putting his finger to his lips. He pulled off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and took down from a shelf a pot of glue, a length of wallpaper neatly rolled into a tube, and a pair of scissors. Then he sidled up to the window and, shielded by his hand, looked out into the street. With the aid of the safety-pins he hung the towel over the top half of the left-hand window and the rug over the right-hand window, arranging them with care lest there should be any cracks. Taking a chair he climbed up on it and fumbled for something above the topmost shelf of books, ran the point of a little knife vertically down the wallpaper, then sideways at a right angle; next he inserted the blade under the cut to reveal a small, neat hiding-place the size of two bricks, made by himself during the previous night. He removed the cover – a thin rectangle of zinc – climbed down, glanced fearfully at the windows and patted the towel. From the depths of a lower drawer, which opened with a tinkling double turn of the key, there came to light a package carefully wrapped in newspaper, sealed and tied crisscross with string. This Vasilisa immured in his secret cache and replaced the cover. For a long while he stood on the red cloth of the chair-cover and cut out pieces of wallpaper until they exactly fitted the pattern. Smeared with glue, they covered the gap perfectly: half a spray of flowers matching its other half, square matching square. When the engineer climbed down from his chair, he was positive that there was not a sign of his secret hiding-place in the wall. Vasilisa rubbed his hands with exultation, crumpled up the scraps of wallpaper and burned them in the little stove, then pounded up the ashes and hid the glue.
Out in the black and deserted street a gray, ragged, wolf-like creature slid noiselessly down from the branches of an acacia, where he had been sitting for half an hour, suffering badly from the cold but avidly watching Lisovich at work through a tell-tale gap above the upper edge of the towel. It had been the oddness of a green towel being draped over the window which had attracted the snooper’s attention. Dodging behind snowdrifts, the figure disappeared up the street, whence it loped through a maze of side-streets until the storm, the dark and the snow swallowed it up and obliterated all its traces.
Night. Vasilisa in his armchair. In the green shadows he looks exactly like the Taras Bulba. Long, bushy, drooping moustaches: he’s no Vasilisa – he’s a man, dammit! After another gentle tinkle of keys in his desk drawer, there lay on the red cloth several wads of oblong bills like green stage-money, with a legend in Ukrainian:
State Bank Certificate
Circulates at Parity with Credit Notes
Pictured on one side of the bill was a Ukrainian peasant with drooping moustaches and armed with a spade, and a peasant woman with a sickle. On the reverse in an oval frame were the reddish-brown faces of the same two peasants magnified in size, the man complete with typical long moustaches. Above it all was the warning inscription:
The Penalty for Forgery is Imprisonment
and beneath it the firm signature:
Director of the State Bank: Lebid-Yurchik.
Mounted on his horse, a bronze Alexander II, his face framed in a ragged lather of metal sideburns, glanced angrily at Lebid-Yurchik’s work of art and smirked at the Egyptian queen disguised as a lampstand. From the wall one of Vasilisa’s ancestors, a civil servant painted in oils with the Order of St Stanislav around his neck, stared down in horror at the banknotes. The spines of Goncharov and Dostoyevsky glowed gently in the green light, whilst nearby the green and black volumes of Brockhaus and Ephron’s encyclopedia stood drawn up in mighty ranks like Horse Guards on parade. A world of comfort and security.
The five-per-cent state bonds were safely hidden in the secret cache under the wallpaper, along with fifteen Tsarist 1000-rouble bills, nine 500- rouble bills, twenty-five silver spoons, a gold watch and chain, three cigar- cases (presents ‘To our Esteemed Colleague’, although Vasilisa did not smoke), fifty gold 10-rouble pieces, a pair of salt-cellars, a six-person canteen of silver cutlery and a silver lea-strainer. The second cache was a large one, outside in the woodshed-two paces straight forward from the doorway, one pace to the left, then one pace on from the chalk-mark on one of the planks of the wall. Everything was packed in tin boxes that had once held Einem’s Biscuits, wrapped in oilcloth with tarred seams, then buried five feet deep.
The third cache was in the loft, a hollow in the plaster under a beam six feet north-east of the chimney-stack. In this were a pair of sugar-tongs, one hundred and eighty-three gold 10-rouble pieces and state bonds to a nominal value of twenty-five thousand roubles.
Lebid-Yurchik was for current expenses.
Vasilisa glanced around, as he always did when counting money, licked his finger and started to flick through the wad of stage money. Suddenly he went pale.
‘Forgeries’, he growled angrily, shaking his head. ‘Disgraceful!’
Vasilisa’s blue eyes glowered morosely. In the third bundle of ten bills there was one forgery, in the fourth – two, in the sixth -two, in the ninth three bills in succession were unmistakeably of the kind for which Lebid-Yurchik threatened to imprison him. A hundred and thirteen bills in all and, if you please, eight of them with obvious signs of being forged. The peasant had a sort of gloomy look instead of being cheerful, they lacked the proper quotation marks and colon, and the paper was better than Lebid’s. Vasilisa held one up to the light and an obvious forgery of Lebid’s signature shone through from the other side.
‘One of these will do for the cab fare tomorrow’, said Vasilisa aloud to himself. ‘And I’ve got to go down to the market, anyway. They don’t look too hard at them there.’
He carefully put the forged notes aside, to be given to the cab-
driver and used in the market, then locked the wad in the drawer with a tinkle of keys. He shuddered. Footsteps were heard along the ceiling overhead, laughter and muffled voices broke the deathly silence. Vasilisa said to Alexander II:
‘You see – no peace…’
There was silence again upstairs. Vasilisa yawned, stroked his wispy moustache, took down the rug and the towel from the windows and switched on the light in the sitting-room, where a large phonograph horn shone dully. Ten minutes later the apartment was in complete darkness. Vasilisa was asleep beside his wife in their damp bedroom that smelled of mice, mildew and a peevish sleeping couple. In his dream Lebid-Yurchik came riding up on a horse and a gang of thieves with skeleton keys discovered his secret hiding- place. The jack of hearts climbed up on a chair, spat at Vasilisa’s moustache and fired at him point-blank. In a cold sweat Vasilisa leaped up with a shriek and the first thing that he heard was the mouse family hard at work in the dining-room on a packet of rusks; then laughter and the gentle sound of a guitar came through the ceiling and the carpets… Suddenly from the floor above a voice of unusual strength and passion struck up, and the guitar swung into a march.
‘There’s only one thing to be done – turn them out of the apartment’, said Vasilisa as he muffled himself up in the sheets. ‘This is outrageous. There’s no peace day or night.’
‘The guards’ cadets Are marching along -Swinging along, Singing a
‘Still, in case anything happened… Times are bad enough. If you kick
them out you never know who you’ll get instead – they are at least officers and if anything happened, they would defend us… Shoo!’ Vasilisa shouted at the furiously active mouse.
The sound of a guitar…
Four lights burning in the dining-room chandelier. Pennants of blue smoke. The french windows on to the verandah completely shut out by cream-colored blinds. Fresh bunches of hot-house flowers against the whiteness of the tablecloth, three bottles of vodka and several narrow bottles of German white wine. Long-stemmed glasses, apples in glittering cut-crystal vases, slices of lemon, crumbs everywhere, tea…
On the armchair a crumpled sheet of the humorous magazine Peep-show. Heads muzzy, the mood swinging at one moment towards the heights of unreasoning joy, at the next towards the trough of despondency. Singing, pointless jokes which seemed irresistibly funny, guitar chords, Myshlaevsky laughing drunkenly. Elena had not had time to collect herself since Talberg’s departure… white wine does not remove the pain altogether, only blunts it. Elena sat in an armchair at the head of the table. Opposite her at the other end was Myshlaevsky, shaggy and pale in a bathrobe, his face blotchy with vodka and insane fatigue. His eyes were red-ringed from cold, the horror he had been through, vodka and fury. Down one of the long sides of the table sat Alexei and Nikolka, on the other Leonid Shervinsky, one-time First Lieutenant in His Majesty’s Own Regiment of Lancers and now an aide on the staff of Prince Belorukov, and alongside him Second Lieutenant Fyodor Stepanov, an artilleryman, still known by his high school nickname of ‘Karas’- the carp. Short, stocky and really looking very like a carp, Karas had bumped into Shervinsky at the Turbins’ front door about twenty minutes after Talberg had left. Both had brought some bottles with them. In Shervinsky’s package were four bottles of white wine, while Karas had two bottles of vodka. Beside that Shervinsky was loaded with an enormous bouquet, swathed in three layers of paper – roses for Elena, of course. Karas gave him his news on the doorstep: he was back in artillery uniform. He had lost patience with studying at the university, which was pointless now anyway; everybody had to go and fight, and if Petlyura ever got into the City time spent at the university would be worse than useless. It was everyone’s duty to volunteer and the mortar regiment needed trained gunnery officers. The commanding officer was Colonel Malyshev, the regiment was a fine one – all his friends from the university were in it. Karas was in despair because Myshlaevsky had gone off to join that crazy infantry detachment. All that death-or-glory stuff was idiotic, and now where the hell was he? Maybe even killed at his post somewhere outside the City…
But Myshlaevsky was here – upstairs! At her mirror, with its frame of silver foliage, in the half-light of the bedroom the lovely Elena hastily powdered her face and emerged to accept her roses. Hurrah! They were all here. Karas’ golden crossed cannon on his crumpled shoulder-straps and carefully pressed blue breeches. A shameless spark of joy flashed in Shervinsky’s little eyes at the news of Talberg’s departure. The little hussar immediately felt himself in excellent voice and the pink-lit sitting-room was filled with a positive hurricane of gorgeous sound as Shervinsky sang an epithalamion to the god Hymen – how he sang! Shervinsky’s voice was surely unique. Of course he was still an officer at present, there was this stupid war, the Bolsheviks, and Petlyura, and one had one’s duty to do, but afterwards when everything was back to normal he would leave the army, in spite of all his influential connections in Petersburg – and they all knew what sort of connections those were (knowing laughter) – and… he would go on the stage. He would sing at La Scala and at the Bolshoi in Moscow – as soon as they started hanging Bolsheviks from the lamp-posts in the square outside the theatre. Once at Zhmerinka, Countess Lendrikov had fallen in love with him because when he had sung the Epithalamion, instead of C he had hit E and held it for five bars. As he said ‘five’, Shervinsky lowered his head slightly and looked around in an embarrassed way, as though someone else had told the story instead of him.
‘Mm’yes. Five bars. Well, let’s have supper.’
And now the room was hung with wispy pennants of smoke…
‘Where are these Senegalese troops? Come on, Shervinsky, you’re at headquarters: tell us why they aren’t here. Lena, my dear, drink some more wine, do. Everything will be all right. He was right to go. He’ll make his way to the Don and come back here with Denikin’s army.’
‘They’re coming,’ said Shervinsky in his twinkling voice, ‘reinforcements are coming. I have some important news for you: today on the Kreshchatik I myself saw the Serbian billeting-officers and the day after tomorrow, in a couple of days’ time at the latest, two Serbian regiments will arrive in the City.’
‘Listen, are you sure?’ Shervinsky went red in the face.
‘Well, really. If I say I saw them myself, I consider that question somewhat out of place.’
‘That’s all very well, but what good are two regiments?’
‘Kindly allow me to finish what I was saying. The prince himself was telling me today that troop-ships are already unloading in the port of Odessa: Greek troops and two divisions of Senegalese have arrived. We only have to hold out on our own for a week – and then we can spit on the Germans.’
‘Well, if all that’s true it won’t be long before we catch Petlyura and hang him! String him up!’
‘I’d like to shoot him with my own hands.’
‘And strangle him too. Your health, gentlemen.’
Another drink. By now minds were getting fogged. Having drunk three glasses Nikolka ran to his room for a handkerchief, and as he passed through the lobby (people act naturally when there’s no one watching them) he collapsed against the hat-stand. There hung Shervinsky’s curved sabre with its shiny gold hilt. Present from a Persian prince. Damascus blade. Except that no prince had given it to him and the blade was not from Damascus, butit was still a very fine and expensive one. A grim Mauser in a strap-hung holster, beside it the blued-steel muzzle of Karas’ Steyr automatic. As Nikolka stumbled against the cold wood of the holster and fingered the murderous barrel of the Mauser he almost burst into tears with excitement. He suddenly felt an urge to go out and fight, now, this minute, out on the snow-covered fields outside the City. He felt embarrassed and ashamed that here at home there was vodka to drink and warmth, while out there his fellow cadets were freezing in the dark, the snow and the blizzard.
They must be crazy at headquarters – the detachments were not ready, the students not trained, no sign of the Senegalese yet and they were probably as black as a pair of boots… Christ, that meant they’d freeze to death – after all, they were used to a hot climate, weren’t they?
‘As for your Hetman,’ Alexei Turbin was shouting, ‘I’d string him up the first of all! He’s done nothing but insult us for the past six months. Who was it who forbade us to form a loyalist Russian army in the Ukraine? The Hetman. And now that things have gone from bad to worse, they’ve started to form a Russian army after all. The enemy’s practically in sight and now – now! – we have to rake up troops, form detachments, headquarters, – and in conditions of total disorder! Christ, what lunacy!’
‘You’re spreading panic’, Karas said coolly. Turbin lost his temper.
‘Me? Spreading panic? You are simply shutting your eyes to the facts. I’m no panic-monger. I just want to get something off my chest. Panic? Don’t worry. I’ve already decided to go and enrol in that Mortar Regiment of yours tomorrow, and if your Malyshev won’t have me as a doctor I shall enlist in the ranks. I’m fed up with the whole damn business! It’s not panic…’ A piece of cucumber stuck in his throat, he began to cough furiously and to choke, and Nikolka started thumping him on the back.
‘Well done!’ Karas chimed in, beating the table. ‘In the ranks hell – we’ll fix you to be the regimental doctor.’
‘Tomorrow we’ll all go along together,’ mumbled the drunken Myshlaevsky, ‘all of us together. The whole of our class from the Alexander I High School. Hurrah!’
‘He’s a swine,’ Turbin went on with hatred in his voice, ‘why, he can’t even speak Ukrainian properly himself! Hell – the day before yesterday I asked that bastard Kuritsky a question. Since last November, it seems, he’s forgotten how to speak Russian. Changed his name, too, to make it sound Ukrainian… Well, so I asked him-what’s the Ukrainian for “cat”? “Kit” he said. All right, I said, so what’s the Ukrainian for “kit”? That finished him.
He just frowned and said nothing. Now he doesn’t say good-morning any longer.’ Nikolka roared with laughter…
‘Mobilisation – huh’, Turbin continued bitterly. ‘A pity you couldn’t have seen what was going on in the police stations yesterday. All the black marketeers knew about the mobilisation three days before the decree was published. How d’you like that? And every one of them had a hernia or a patch on his lung, and any one of them who couldn’t fake lung trouble simply vanished as if he’d fallen through a hole in the ground. And that, my friends, is a very bad sign. If the word’s going round all the cafes even before mobilisation is officially announced and every shirker has a chance to dodge it, then things are really bad. Ah, the fool – if only he had allowed us to form units manned by Russian officers back in April, we could have taken Moscow by now. Don’t you see? Here in the City alone he could have had a volunteer army of fifty thousand men-and what an army! An elite, none but the very best, because all the officer-cadets, all the students and high school boys and all the officers – and there are thousands of them in the City – would have gladly joined up. Not only would we have chased Petlyura out of the Ukraine, but we would have reached Moscow by now and swatted Trotsky like a fly. Now would have been the time to attack Moscow – it seems they’re reduced to eating cats. And Hetman Skoropodsky, the son of a bitch, could have saved Russia.’
Turbin’s face was blotchy and the words flew out of his mouth in a thin spray of saliva. His eyes burned.
‘Hey, you shouldn’t be a doctor – you should be the Minister of Defense, and that’s a fact’, said Karas. He was smiling ironically, but Turbin’s speech had pleased him and excited him.
‘Alexei is indispensable at meetings, he’s a real orator’, said Nikolka. ‘Nikolka, I’ve told you twice already that you’re not funny’, his brother
replied. ‘Drink some wine instead of trying to be witty.’
‘But you must realise,’ said Karas, ‘that the Germans would never have allowed the formation of a loyalist army – they’re too afraid of it.’
‘Wrong!’ exclaimed Alexei sharply. ‘All that was needed was someone with a good head on his shoulders and we could have always come to terms with the Hetman. Then we should have made it clear to the Germans that we were no threat to them. That war is over, and we have lost it. Now we have something much worse on our hands, much worse than the war, worse than the Germans, worse than anything on earth – and that is Trotsky. We should have said to the Germans – you need wheat and sugar, don’t you? Right – take all you want and feed your troops. Occupy the Ukraine if you like, only help us. Let us form our army – it will be to your advantage, we’ll help you to keep order in the Ukraine and prevent these God-forsaken peasants of ours from catching the Moscow disease. If there were a Russian-manned army in the City now we would be insulated from Moscow by a wall of steel. And as for Petlyura… k-khh…’ Turbin drew his finger expressively across his throat and was seized by a furious coughing fit.
‘Stop!’ Shervinsky stood up. ‘Wait. I must speak in defense of the Hetman. I admit some mistakes were made, but the Hetman’s plan was fundamentally correct. He knows how to be diplomatic. First of all a Ukrainian state… then the Hetman would have done exactly as you say – a Russian-manned army and no nonsense. And to prove that I’m right…’ – Shervinsky gestured solemnly toward the window – ‘ the Imperial tricolor flag is already flying over Vladimirskaya Street.’
‘Well, yes, you may be right. It is rather late, but the Hetman is convinced that the mistake can be rectified.’
‘I sincerely hope to God that it can’, and Alexei Turbin crossed himself in the direction of the ikon of the Virgin in the corner of the room.
‘Now the plan was as follows,’ Shervinsky announced solemnly. ‘Once the war was over the Germans would have recovered, and turned to help us against the Bolsheviks. Then when Moscow was captured, the Hetman would have laid the allegiance of the Ukraine at the feet of His Majesty the Emperor Nicholas II.’
At this remark a deathly silence fell on the room. Nikolka turned white with agony.
‘But the Emperor is dead’, he whispered.
‘What d’you mean – Nicholas II?’ asked Alexei Turbin in astunned voice, and Myshlaevsky, swaying, squinted drunkenly into Shervinsky’s glass. Obviously Shervinsky had had one too many to keep his courage up.
Leaning her head on one hand, Elena stared in horror at him.
But Shervinsky was not particularly drunk. He raised his hand and said in a powerful voice:
‘Not so fast. Listen. But I beg you, gentlemen, to remain silent until I’ve finished what I have to say. I suppose you all know what happened when the Hetman’s suite was presented to Kaiser Wilhelm?’
‘We haven’t the slightest idea’, said Karas with interest.
‘Well, I know.’
‘Huh! He knows everything’, sneered Myshlaevsky.
‘Gentlemen! Let him speak.’
‘After the Kaiser had graciously spoken to the Hetman and his suite he said: “I shall now leave you, gentlemen; discussion of the future will be conducted with…” The drapes parted and into the hall came Tsar Nicholas II. “Go back to the Ukraine, gentlemen,” he said, “and raise your regiments. When the moment comes I shall place myself in person at the head of the army and lead it on to the heart of Russia-to Moscow.” With these words he broke down and wept.’
Shervinsky beamed round at the whole company, tossed down a glass of wine in one gulp and grimaced. Ten eyes stared at him and silence reigned until he had sat down and eaten a slice of ham.
‘See here… that’s all a myth’, said Alexei Turbin, frowning painfully.
‘I’ve heard that story before.’
‘They were all murdered,’ said Myshlaevsky, ‘the Tsar, the Tsarina and the heir.’
Shervinsky glanced sideways towards the stove, took a deep breath and declared:
‘You’re making a mistake if you believe that. The news of His Imperial Majesty’s death…’
‘Is slightly exaggerated’, said Myshlaevsky in a drunken attempt at wit. Elena shivered indignantly and boomed out of the haze at him.
‘You should be ashamed at yourself, Viktor – you, an officer.’ Myshlaevsky sank back into the mist.
‘… was purposely invented by the Bolsheviks’, Shervinsky went on. ‘The Emperor succeeded in escaping with the aid of his faithful tutor… er, sorry, of the Tsarevich’s tutor, Monsieur Gilliard and several officers, who conveyed him to er, to Asia. From there they reached Singapore and thence by sea to Europe. Now the Emperor is the guest of Kaiser Wilhelm.’
‘But wasn’t the Kaiser thrown out too?’ Karas enquired.
‘They are both in Denmark, with Her Majesty the Empress-Dowager Maria Fyodorovna, who is a Danish princess by birth. If you don’t believe me, I may tell you that I was personally told this news by the Hetman himself.’
Nikolka groaned inwardly, his soul racked with doubt and confusion. He wanted to believe it.
‘Then if it’s true,’ he suddenly burst out, jumping to his feet and wiping the sweat from his brow, ‘I propose a toast: to the health of His Imperial Majesty!’ His glass flashed, the cut-crystal arrows on its side piercing the German white wine. Spurs clinked against chair-legs. Swaying, Myshlaevsky stood up and clutched the table. Elena stood up. Her crescent braid of golden hair had unwound itself and her hair hung down beside her temples.
‘I don’t care – even if he is dead’, she cried, hoarse with misery. ‘What does it matter now? I’ll drink to him.’
‘He can never, never be forgiven for his abdication at Dno Station. Never. But we have learned by bitter experience now, and we know that only the monarchy can save Russia. Therefore if the Tsar is dead – long live the Tsar!’ shouted Alexei and raised his glass.
‘Hurrah! Hur-rah! Hur-ra-ah!’ The threefold cry roared across the dining-room.
Downstairs Vasilisa leaped up in a cold sweat. Suddenly weakened, he gave a piercing shriek and woke up his wife Wanda.
‘My God, oh my God… ‘ Wanda mumbled, clutching his nightshirt. ‘What the hell’s going on? At three o’clock in the morning!’ the weeping
Vasilisa shrieked at the black ceiling. ‘This time I really am going to lodge a complaint!’
Wanda groaned. Suddenly they both went rigid. Quite clearly, seeping down through the ceiling, came a thick, greasy wave of sound, dominated by a powerful baritone resonant as a bell:
‘… God Save His Majesty, Tsar of all Russia…’
Vasilisa’s heart stopped and even his feet broke out into a cold sweat.
Feeling as if his tongue had turned to felt, he burbled:
‘No… it can’t be… they’re insane… They’ll get us into such trouble that we’ll never come out of it alive. The old anthem is illegal now! Christ, what are they doing? They can be heard out on the street, for God’s sake!’
Wanda had already slumped back like a stone and had fallen asleep again, but Vasilisa could not bring himself to lie down until the last chord had faded away upstairs amid a confused babble of shouts.
‘Russia acknowledges only one Orthodox faith and one Tsar!’ shouted Myshlaevsky, swaying.
‘Week ago… at the theater… went to see Paul the First’, Myshlaevsky mumbled thickly, ‘and when the actor said those words I couldn’t keep quiet and I shouted out “Right!” – and d’you know what? Everyone clapped. All except some swine in the upper circle who yelled “Idiot!” ‘
‘Damned Yids’, growled Karas, now almost equally drunk.
A thickening haze enveloped them all… Tonk-tank… tonk-tank… they had passed the point when there was any longer any sense in drinking more vodka, even wine; the only remaining stage was stupor or nausea. In the narrow little lavatory, where the lamp jerked and danced from the ceiling as though bewitched, everything went blurred and spun round and round. Pale and miserable, Myshlaevsky retched violently. Alexei Turbin, drunk himself, looking terrible with a twitching nerve on his cheek, his hair plastered damply over his forehead, supported Myshlaevsky.
Finally Myshlaevsky leaned back from the bowl with a groan, tried painfully to focus his eyes and clung to Alexei’s arms like a limp sack.
‘Ni-kolka!’ Someone’s voice boomed out through the fog and black spots, and it took Alexei several seconds to realise that the voice was his own. ‘Nikolka!’ he repeated. A white lavatory wall swung open and turned green. ‘God, how sickening, how disgusting. I swear I’ll never mix vodka and wine again. Nikol…’
‘Ah-ah’, Myshlaevsky groaned hoarsely and sat down on the floor.
A black crack widened and through it appeared Nikolka’s head and chevron.
‘Nikol… help me to get him up. There, pick him up like this, under his
‘Poor fellow’, muttered Nikolka shaking his head sympathetically and straining himself to pick up his friend. The half-lifeless body slithered around, twitching legs slid in every direction and the lolling head hung like a puppet’s on a string. Tonk-tank went the clock, as it fell off the wall and jumped back into place again. Bunches of flowers danced a jig in the vase. Elena’s face was flushed with red patches and a lock of hair dangled over her right eyebrow.
‘That’s right. Now put him to bed.’
‘At least wrap him in a bathrobe. He’s indecent like that with me around. You damned fools – you can’t hold your drink. Viktor! Viktor! What’s the matter with you? Vik…’
‘Shut up, Elena. You’re no help. Listen, Nikolka, in my study… there’s a medicine bottle… it says “Liquor ammonii”, you can tell because the corner of the label’s torn off… anyway, you can’t mistake the smell of sal ammoniac.’
‘Yes, right away…’
‘You, a doctor – you ought to be ashamed of yourself, Alexei…’ ‘All right, I know…’
‘What? Has his pulse stopped?’ ‘No, he’s just passed out.’
Violent reek of ammonia. Karas and Elena held Myshlaevsky’s mouth open. Nikolka supported him while Alexei twice poured white cloudy liquid into his mouth.
‘Aah… ugh… urkhh…’
‘God almighty. Can’t be helped, though. Only way to do it…’
On his forehead lay a wet cloth dripping water, below it the swivelling, bloodshot whites of his eyes under half-closed lids, bluish shadows around the sharpened nose. For an anxious quarter of an hour, bumping each other with their elbows, they strove with the vanquished officer until he opened his eyes and croaked:
‘Aah… let me go…’
‘Right. That’s better. He can stay and sleep here.’
Lights went on in all the rooms and beds were quickly made up. ‘Leonid, you’d better sleep in here, next to Nikolka’s room.’ ‘Very well.’
Copper-red in the face but cheerful, Shervinsky clicked his spurs and, bowing, showed the parting in his hair. Elena’s white hands fluttered over the pillows as she arranged them on the divan.
‘Please don’t bother… I can make up the bed myself.’ ‘Nonsense. Stop tugging at that pillow – I don’t need your help.’
‘Please let me kiss your hand …’ ‘What for?’
‘Gratitude for all your trouble.’
‘I can manage without hand-kissing for the moment… Nikolka, you’re sleeping in your own bed. Well, how is he?’
‘He’s all right, sleeping it off.’ Two camp beds were made up in the room leading to Nikolka’s, behind two back-to-back bookcases. In Professor Turbin’s family the room was known as the library.
As the lights went out in the library, in Nikolka’s room and in the dining-room, a dark red streak of light crawled out of Elena’s bedroom and into the dining-room through a narrow crack in the door. The light pained her, so she had draped her bedside lamp with a dark red theater-cloak. Once Elena used to drive to an evening at the theater in that cloak, once when her arms, her furs and her lips had smelled of perfume, her face had been delicately powdered – and when under the hood of her cloak Elena had looked like Liza in The Queen of Spades. But in the past year the cloak had turned threadbare with uncanny rapidity, the folds grown creased and stained and the ribbons shabby. Still looking like Liza in The Queen of Spades, auburn-haired Elena now sat on the turned-down edge of her bed in a neglige, her hands folded in her lap. Her bare feet were buried deep in the fur of a well-worn old bearskin rug. Her brief intoxication had gone completely, and now deep sadness enveloped her like a black cloak. From the next room, muffled by the bookshelf that had been placed across the closed door, came the faint whistle of Nikolka’s breathing and Shervinsky’s bold, confident snore. Dead silence from Mysh-Iaevsky and Karas in the library. Alone, with the light shining on her nightgown and on the two black, blank windows, Elena talked to herself without constraint, sometimes half-aloud, sometimes whispering with lips that scarcely moved.
Muttering, she screwed up her dry eyes reflectively. She could not understand her own thoughts. He had gone, and at a time like this. But then he was an extremely level-headed man and he had done the right thing by leaving… It was surely for the best.
‘But at a time like this…’
Elena whispered, and sighed deeply.
‘What sort of man is he?’ In her way she had loved him and even grown attached to him. Now in the solitude of this room, beside these black windows, so funereal, she suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of depression. Yet neither at this moment, nor for the whole eighteen months that she had lived with this man had there been in her heart of hearts that essential feeling without which no marriage can survive – not even such a brilliant match as theirs, between the beautiful, red-haired, golden Elena and a career officer of the general staff, a marriage with theater-cloaks, with perfume and spurs, unencumbered by children. Married to a sensible, careful Baltic German of the general staff. And yet -what was he really like? What was that vital ingredient, whose lack had created the emptiness in the depth of Elena’s soul? ‘I know, I know what it is’, said Elena to herself aloud. ‘There’s no respect. Do you realise, Sergei? I have never felt any respect for you’, she announced meaningfully to her cloak, raising an admonitory finger. She was immediately appalled at her loneliness, and longed for him to be there at that moment. He had gone. And her brothers had kissed him goodbye. Did they really have to do that? But for God’s sake, what am I saying? What else should they have done? Held back? Of course not. Well, maybe it was better that he shouldn’t be here at such a difficult time and he was better gone, but they couldn’t have refused to wish him Godspeed. Of course not. Let him go. The fact was that although they had gone through the motions of embracing him, in the depth of their hearts they hated him. God, yes-they did. All this time you’ve been lying to yourself and yet when you stop to think for a moment, it’s obvious – they hate him. Nikolka still has some remnants of kindness and generosity toward him, but Alexei… And yet that’s not quite true either. Alexei is kind at heart too, yet he somehow hates him more. Oh my God, what am I saying? Sergei, what am I saying about you? Suddenly
we’re cut off… He’s gone and here am I…
‘My husband,’ she said with a sigh, and began to unbutton her neglige, ‘my husband…’
Red and glowing, her cloak listened intently, then asked: ‘But what sort of a man is your husband?’
‘He’s a swine, and nothing more!’ said Alexei Turbin to himself, alone in his room across the lobby from Elena. He had divined what she was thinking and it infuriated him. ‘He’s a swine – and I’m a weakling. Kicking him out might have been going too far, but I should at least have turned my back on him. To hell with him. And it’s not because he left Elena at a time like this that he’s a swine, that has really very little to do with it – no, it’s because of something quite different. But what, exactly? It’s only too clear, of course. He’s a wax dummy without the slightest conception of decency! Whatever he says, he talks like a senseless fathead – and he’s a graduate of the military academy, who are supposed to be the elite of Russia…’
Silence in the apartment. The streak of light from Elena’s room was extinguished. She fell asleep and her thoughts faded away, but for a long time Alexei Turbin sat unhappily at the little writing desk in his little room. The vodka and the hock had violently disagreed with him. He sat looking with red-rimmed eyes at a page of the first book he happened to pick up and tried to read, his mind always flicking senselessly back to the same line: ‘Honor is to a Russian but a useless burden…’
It was almost morning when he undressed and fell asleep. He dreamed of a nasty little man in baggy check pants who said with a sneer:
‘Better not sit on a hedgehog if you’re naked! Holy Russia is a wooden country, poor and… dangerous, and to a Russian honor is nothing but a useless burden.’
‘Get out!’ shouted Turbin in his dream. ‘You filthy little rat – I’ll get you!’ In his dream Alexei sleepily fumbled in his desk drawer for an automatic, found it, tried to shoot the horrible little man, chased after him and the dream dissolved.
For a couple of hours he fell into a deep, black, dreamless sleep and when a pale delicate light began to dawn outside the windows of his room that opened on to the verandah, Alexei began to dream about the City.
Source: “The White Guard”, Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Michael Glenny, with an epilogue by Viktor Nekrasov, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Great Britain, 1971, 70-140252 08844