“The White Guard”, Chapter IX – Weekly Reads
Bolbuton’s forces pursue the retreating cadets up to Reznikovskaya Street. There the cadets are met with reinforcements, including one of the four armoured vehicles under the Hetman’s control. And where are the other three you may ask?
Find out in Chapter IX below. Enjoy the read!
Having lost seven cossacks killed, nine wounded, and seven horses, Colonel Bolbotun had advanced a quarter of a mile from Pechorskaya Square, as far as Reznikovskaya Street, where he was halted again. It was here that the retreating detachment of cadets acquired some reinforcements, which included an armored car. Like a clumsy gray tortoise capped by a revolving turret it lumbered along Moskovskaya Street and with a noise like the rustling of dry leaves fired three rounds from its three-inch gun. Bolbotun immediately galloped up to take charge, the horses were led off down a side street, his regiment deployed on foot and took cover after pulling back a short way towards Pechorskaya Square and began a desultory exchange of fire. The armored tortoise blocked off Moskovskaya Street and fired an occasional shell, backed up by a thin rattle of rifle-fire from the intersection of Suvorovskaya Street. There in the snow lay the troops which had fallen back from Pechorsk under Bolbotun’s fire, along with their reinforcements, which had been called up like this:
‘First Detachment headquarters?’ ‘Yes.’
‘Send two companies of officers to Pechorsk.’
‘Right away…’ The squad that reached Pechorsk consisted of fourteen officers, four cadets, one student and one actor from the Studio Theater.
One undermanned detachment, alas, was not enough. Even when reinforced by an armored car, of which there should have been no less than four. And it can be stated with certainty that if the other three armored cars had shown up, Colonel Bolbotun would have been forced to evacuate Pechorsk. But they did not appear.
This happened because no less a person than the celebrated Lieutenant Mikhail Shpolyansky, who had been personally decorated with the St George’s Cross by Alexander Kerensky in May 1917, was appointed to command one of the four excellent vehicles which comprised the Hetman’s armored car troop.
Mikhail Shpolyansky was dark and clean-shaven, except for a pair of velvet sideburns, and he looked exactly like Eugene Onegin. Shpolyansky made himself known throughout the City as soon as he arrived there from St Petersburg. He made a reputation as an excellent reader of his own verse at the poetry club known as The Ashes, also as an excellent organiser of his fellow-poets and as chairman of the school of poetry known as The Magnetic Triolet. Not only was Mikhail Shpolyansky an unrivalled orator and could drive any sort of vehicle, civilian or military, but he also kept a ballerina from the Opera Theater and another lady whose name Shpolyansky, like the perfect gentleman that he was, revealed to no one. He also had a great deal of money, which he disbursed in generous loans to the members of The Magnetic Triolet. He drank white wine, played chemin-de-fer, bought a picture called l’enetian Girl Bathing; at night- time he lived on the Kreshchatik, in the mornings he lived in the Cafe Bilbocquet, in the afternoon in his comfortable room in the Hotel Continental, in the evening at The Ashes, whilst he devoted the small hours to a scholarly work on ‘The Intuitive in Gogol’.
The Hetman’s City perished three hours earlier than it should have done because on the evening of December 2nd 1918, in The Ashes club, Mikhail Shpolyansky announced the following to Stepanov, Sheiyer, Slonykh and Cheremshin (the leading lights of The Magnetic Triolet):
‘They’re all swine – the Hetman, and Petlyura too. But Petlyura’s worse, because he’s an anti-Semite as well. But that’s not the real trouble. The fact is I’m bored, because it’s so long since I threw any bombs.’
After dinner at The Ashes (paid for by Shpolyansky) all the members of The Magnetic Triolet plus a fifth man, slightly drunk and wearing a mohair overcoat, left with Shpolyansky, who was dressed in an expensive fur coat with a beaver collar, and a fur hat. Shpolyansky knew a little about his fifth companion – firstly, that he was syphilitic; secondly, that he wrote atheistic poetry which Shpolyansky with his better literary connections arranged to have published in one of the Moscow literary magazines; and thirdly that the man, whose name was Rusakov, was the son of a librarian.
The man with syphilis was weeping all over his mohair coat under the electric street lighting on the Kreshchatik and saying, as he buried his face in the beaver-fur lapels of Shpolyansky’s coat:
‘Shpolyansky, you are the strongest man in this whole city, which is rotting away just as I am. You’re such a good fellow that one can even forgive you for looking so disgustingly like Eugene Onegin! Listen Shpolyansky… it’s positively indecent to look like Onegin. Somehow you’re too healthy… But you lack that spark of ambition which could make you the really outstanding personality of our day… Here am I rotting to death, and proud of it… You’re too healthy, but you’re strong, strong as a steel spike, so you ought to thrust your way upwards to the top! Look, like this…’
And Rusakov showed him how to do it. Clasping the lamppost he started to wind his way up it, making himself as long and thin as a grass- snake. A bevy of prostitutes walked by dressed in green, red, black and white hats, pretty as dolls, and called out cheerfully:
‘Hey, had a couple too many? How about it, darling?’
The sound of gunfire was very far away and Shpolyansky really did look like Onegin in the lamp-lit snow.
‘Go to bed’, he said to the syphilitic acrobat, turning his head away slightly so that the man should not cough over him. ‘Go on.’ He gave the mohair coat a push with the tips of his fingers. As his black fur gloves touched the coat, the other man’s eyes were quite glassy. The two men parted. Shpolyansky called a cab, told the driver: ‘Malo-Provalnaya’, and drove away, as mohair staggered home to Podol.
That night in Podol, in his room in the librarian’s apartment, the owner of the mohair coat stood naked to the waist in front of a mirror, holding a lighted candle in his hand. Diabolical fear flickered in his eyes, his hands were shaking, and as he talked his lips quivered like a child’s.
‘Oh my God, my God, my God… It’s horrible… That evening! I’m so unhappy. Sheyer was there with me too, yet he’s all right, he didn’t catch this infection because he’s a lucky man. Maybe I should go and kill that girl who gave it to me. But what’s the point? Can anybody tell me – what would be the point? Oh Lord, Lord… I’m twenty-four and I might have… Another fifteen years’ time, perhaps less, and the pupils of my eyes will have changed colour, my legs will have rotted, then the lapse into mad idiotic babbling and then – I shall be a rotten, sodden corpse.’
The thin naked torso was reflected in the dusty mirror, the candle guttered in his upraised hand and there was a faint blotchy rush on his chest. Tears poured uncontrollably down the sick man’s cheeks, and his body shook and twitched.
‘I ought to shoot myself. But I haven’t the strength – why should I lie to you, oh my God? Why should I lie to my own reflection?’
From the drawer of a small, delicate, ladies’ writing-desk he took out a thin book printed on horrible gray paper. On the cover was printed in red letters:
I. RUSAKOV Moscow, 1918.
The wretched man opened the book at page thirteen and read the familiar lines:
Heaven’s above – They say.
And there in heaven, Deep in a vaporous Ravine,
Like a shaggy old bear Licking his paws,
Lurks the daddy of us all – God.
Time to shoot the hairy old Contrary old
In his lair:
When the shooting starts Use my words as bullets, Crimson with hate.
‘A-a-a-ah’, moaned the syphilitic creature, grinding his teeth in pain. ‘Oh, God’, he muttered in unbearable agony.
Suddenly, his face contorting, he spat on the page of verse and threw the book to the floor, then knelt down, and crossing himself rapidly with trembling fingers, bowing until his cold forehead touched the dusty parquet floor, he began to pray, raising his eyes to the black, joyless window:
‘Oh Lord, forgive me and have mercy on me for having written those foul words. But why art Thou so cruel? Why? I know Thou hast punished me – oh how terribly Thou hast punished me! Look at my skin. I swear to Thee by all that is holy, all that is dear to me in this world, by the memory of my dead mother – I have been punished enough. I believe in Thee! I believe with all my soul, my body, with every fibre of my brain. I believe and I seek refuge only in Thee, for there is no one in the whole world who can help me. I have no one to turn to save Thee. Forgive me, and grant that I be healed! Forgive me for denying Thee: if there were no God I should now be no more than a lousy dog, a creature without hope. But I am a man and my only strength is in Thee and I may turn to Thee in prayer in my hour of need. And I believe Thou wilt hear my prayer, Thou wilt pardon me and cure me. Cure me, oh Lord, forget about the filth I have written in a moment of insanity, when I was drunk on brandy and drugged with cocaine. Do not let me rot, and I swear I shall become a man again. Fortify me, save me from cocaine, save me from weakness of spirit and save me from Mikhail Shpolyansky!’
The candle flickered out as the room grew cold and dawn drew near.
The rash spread over the sick man’s skin, but his soul was much relieved.
Mikhail Shpolyansky spent the rest of the night on Malo-Provalnaya Street, in a large room with a low ceiling and an old portrait from which, slightly dulled by a patina of time, shone a pair of the epaulettes worn in the 1840’s. Coatless, wearing nothing but a white lawn shirt and a handsome black vest with a deeply cut front, Shpolyansky was seated on a narrow little footstool and talking to a woman with a pale, matte complexion:
‘Julia, I have finally made up my mind. I’m going to join the Hetman’s armored-car troop.’
Her body still vibrating with Shpolyansky’s passionate love-making, wrapping herself in a fluffy gray shawl, the woman replied:
‘I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you’re doing and I never have.’
Shpolyansky lifted a brandy glass from the little table in front of his stool, sniffed the aromatic cognac, gulped it down and said:
‘Don’t bother to try.’
Two days later Mikhail Shpolyansky was transformed. Instead of a top hat he now wore an officer’s forage cap, instead of his civilian greatcoat a short combat jerkin with crumpled field-service shoulder straps, gauntlets on his hands and gaiters on his legs. He was covered from head to foot in engine oil (even his face) and, for some reason, in soot. On December 9th two of the armored cars went into action with remarkable success. They rumbled about fifteen miles out along the highway and no sooner had they loosed off a few of their three-inch shells and fired a few bursts from their machine-guns than Petlyura’s advance troops broke and ran. The successful armored-car detachment commander, a pink-faced enthusiast called Ensign Strashkevich, swore to Shpolyansky that if all four cars were sent into action at once they could defend the whole City unaided. This conversation took place on the evening of the ninth, and at twilight on the eleventh Shpolyansky, who was officer of the day, gathered Shchur and Kopylov and their crews -two gunlayers, two drivers and a mechanic – around him and said:
‘You must realise that the chief question is: are we doing right to stand by this Hetman? In his hands this armored-car troop is nothing but an expensive and dangerous toy, which he is using to impose a regime of the blackest reaction. Who knows, maybe this clash between Petlyura and the Hetman is historically inevitable and that out of it will emerge a third historic force which may be fated to win.’
His listeners greatly admired Shpolyansky for the same quality that his fellow-poets admired him at The Ashes – his exceptional eloquence.
‘What is this third force?’ asked Kopylov, puffing at a cheroot.
Shchur, a stocky, intelligent man with fair hair, gave a knowing wink and nodded towards the north-east. The men went on talking for a little longer and then dispersed. On the evening of December 12th Shpolyansky held another talk with the same tight little group behind the vehicle sheds. What was said then will never be known, but it is common knowledge that on the thirteenth, when Shchur, Kopylov and the snub-nosed Petrukhin were on duty, Mikhail Shpolyansky appeared at the sheds carrying a package wrapped in paper. Shchur, who was mounting guard, let him pass into the vehicle compound, lit by the feeble red glow from a lantern. With a somewhat insolent wink at the package, Kopylov asked:
‘Uh-huh’, replied Shpolyansky.
A small, flickering lantern was lit in the shed and Shpolyansky and a mechanic busied themselves with preparing the armored cars for tomorrow’s action. The cause was a piece of paper in the possession of Captain Pleshko, the troop commander: ‘… dispatch all four vehicles on mission to Pechorsk district at 0800 hours, December 14th.’
The joint efforts of Shpolyansky and the mechanic to prepare the armored cars for action produced somewhat strange results, By the morning of the fourteenth, three vehicles which on the day before had been in perfect running order (the fourth was already in action, commanded by Strashkevich) were immobilised as completely as though stricken with paralysis. No one could understand what was wrong with them. Some kind of dirt was lodged in the carburettor jets, and however hard they tried to blow them through with tyre-pumps, nothing did any good. That morning they labored hopelessly by lantern-light to fix them. Looking pale, Captain Pleshko glanced around him like a hunted wolf and demanded the mechanic. It was then that the affair turned to disaster. The mechanic had disappeared. It transpired that against all rules and regulations troop headquarters had no record of his address. A rumor started that the mechanic had suddenly fallen sick with typhus. This was at eight a.m.; at eight thirty Captain Pleshko received a second blow. Ensign Shpolyansky, after finishing the maintenance work on the vehicles at four o’clock that morning, had set off for Pechorsk on a motor-cycle driven by Shchur and had not come back. Shchur had returned alone to tell a sad tale. They had driven as far as Telichka, where Shchur had tried in vain to dissuade Ensign Shpolyansky from doing anything rash. Shpolyansky, notorious throughout the troop for his exceptional bravery, had left Shchur, and taking a carbine and a hand-grenade had set off alone in the darkness to reconnoitre the area around the railroad tracks. Shchur heard shots, and was convinced that an enemy patrol, which had pushed forward as far as Telichka, had found Shpolyansky and had inevitably shot him in an unequal fight. Shchur had waited two hours for Shpolyansky, even though the ensign had ordered him to wait no longer than an hour before returning to troop headquarters, in order not to expose himself and his government-issue motor-cycle to excessive risk.
On hearing Shchur’s story, Captain Pleshko turned even paler. The field- telephones from the headquarters of the Hetman and General Kartuzov were ringing ceaselessly with urgent demands for the armored cars to go into action. At nine o’clock the keen, pink-faced young Ensign Strashkevich reported back from duty and some of the color in his cheeks transferred itself to the face of the troop commander. Strashkevich drove his car off to Pechorsk where, as has been described, it successfully blocked Suvorovskaya Street against the advancing Bolbotun.
By ten o’clock Pleshko was looking paler than ever. Two of his gunlayers, two drivers and one machine-gunner had vanished without trace. Every effort to get the three armored cars moving proved fruitless. Shchur, who had been ordered out on a mission by Captain Pleshko, never returned. Needless to say his motorcycle disappeared with him. The voices on the field- telephones grew threatening. The brighter grew the morning, the stranger the things that happened at the armored-car troop: two gunners, Duvan and Maltsev. also vanished, together with a couple more machine-gunners. The vehicles themselves took on a forlorn, abandoned look as they stood there like three useless juggernauts, surrounded by a litter of spanners, jacks and buckets.
By noon the troop commander, Captain Pleshko himself, had disappeared too.
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