“The White Guard”, Chapter X – Weekly Reads
On the 14th of December, Nai-Turs’s unit was positioned on the Southern Highway leading into the city. At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the Reds under Kozyr-Leshko began their attack.
Find out more about how the battle unfolds in Chapter X below. Enjoy the read!
For three days a confused series of moves and counter-moves, some made in the heat of battle, others connected with the arrival of dispatch-riders and the squealing of field-telephones, had kept Colonel Nai-Turs’ unit on the move among the snowdrifts and roadblocks around the City in a circuit that extended from Red Tavern to Serebryanka in the south and to Post-Volynsk in the south-west. By the evening of December 14th the unit was back in the City at a deserted barracks, half of whose window-panes were smashed in.
The unit commanded by Colonel Nai-Turs was a strange one. Everyone who saw it was surprised to find it so well equipped with the footgear – felt boots – so essential to winter campaigning. At its formation three days before the unit numbered a hundred and fifty cadets and three second lieutenants.
In early December an officer had reported to Major-General Blokhin, commander of the 1st Infantry Detachment. The officer was a cavalryman of medium height, dark, clean-shaven with a gloomy expression, wearing the shoulder-straps of a colonel of hussars, who had introduced himself as Colonel Nai-Turs, formerly squadron commander of No. 2 Squadron of the former Regiment of Belgrade Hussars. Nai-Turs’ sad eyes had a look in them which had the effect of making anyone who met this limping colonel, with his grubby St George’s Cross ribbon sewn to a worn enlisted-man’s greatcoat, pay absolute attention to whatever the colonel had to say. After only a short conversation with Nai-Turs, Major-General Blokhin entrusted him with the formation of the Detachment’s second infantry company, with orders that the task was to be completed by December 13th. Astoundingly, the job of mustering and organising the company was finished by December 10th, and on that date Colonel Nai-Turs, by nature a man of few words, reported briefly to Major-General Blokhin, distracted on all sides by the insistent buzz of telephones from headquarters, that he, Nai-Turs, and his cadets were now ready for combat, but only on the essential condition that his entire squad were issued with fur caps and felt boots for a hundred and fifty men, without which he, Nai-Turs, considered military action as totally unfeasible. When the laconic colonel had made his report, General Blokhin gladly signed him a requisition order to the supply section but warned Nai- Turs that with this piece of paper he was unlikely to obtain the equipment he wanted in less than a week’s time, because both headquarters and the supply section were hotbeds of inefficiency, red tape and disorganisation.
Colonel Nai-Turs took the piece of paper and, with his habitual twitch of the left half of his clipped moustache, marched out of General Blokhin’s office without turning his head to left or right (he could not turn it, because as the result of a wound his neck was rigid and whenever he needed to look sideways he was obliged to turn his whole body). At the Detachment’s quarters on Lvov Street Nai-Turs collected ten cadets (armed, for some reason) and a couple of two-wheeled carts, and set off with them to the supply section.
At the supply section, housed in a most elegant villa on Kudry-avskaya Boulevard, in a comfortable office adorned with a map of Russia and a portrait of the ex-Empress Alexandra left over from the days of the wartime Red Cross, Colonel Nai-Turs was received by Lieutenant-General Makushin, a short unnaturally flushed little man dressed in a gray tunic, a clean shirt peeping over its high collar, which gave him an extraordinary resemblance to Milyutin, Alexander II’s war minister.
Flinging down a telephone receiver, the general enquired in a childish voice that sounded like a toy whistle:
‘Well, colonel, what can I do for you?’
‘Unit about to go into action’, replied Nai-Turs laconically. ‘Please issue felt boots and fur hats for two hundred men immediately.’
‘H’mm’, said the general, pursing his lips and crumpling Nai’s requisition order in his hand. ‘Can’t issue them today I’m afraid, colonel. Today we’re taking an inventory of stores issued to all units. Come back again in about three days time. And in any case I can’t issue a quantity like two hundred.’
He placed the requisition order at the top of a pile under a paperweight in the shape of a naked woman.
‘I said felt boots’, Nai-Turs rejoined in a monotone, squinting down at the toes of his boots.
‘What?’ the general asked in perplexity, staring at the colonel with amazement.
‘Give me those felt boots at once.’
‘What are you talking about?’ The general’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.
Nai-Turs turned to the door, opened it a little and shouted out into the passage:
‘Hey there, platoon!’
The general turned a grayish white, his glance swivelling from Nai-Turs’ face to the telephone receiver, from there to the ikon of the Virgin hanging in the corner, then back to the colonel’s face.
There was a clinking and shuffling in the passage, then several red- banded cadets’ forage caps of the Alexeyevsky Military Academy and some black bayonets appeared in the doorway. The general started to rise from his padded armchair.
‘I have never heard anything like it… this is mutiny…’
‘Please countersign the requisition order, sir’, said Nai. ‘We haven’t much time, we move off in an hour. The enemy is right outside the city.’
‘What on earth do you mean by…’
‘Come on, hurry up’, said Nai-Turs in a funereal voice.
Hunching his head between his shoulders, his eyes starting from his head, the general pulled the piece of paper from under the naked woman and with a shaking hand, spattering ink, scrawled in the corner: ‘Issue the above stores.’
Nai-Turs took the paper, tucked it into the cuff of his sleeve, turned to his cadets and gave the order:
‘Load up the felt boots. Look sharp.’
Clumping and rattling, the cadets began to file out. As Nai waited for them to leave, the general, purple in the face, said to him:
‘I shall immediately ring the commander-in-chief’s headquarters and raise the matter of having you court-martialled. This is unheard-of…’
‘Go ahead and try’, replied Nai-Turs, swallowing his saliva. ‘Just try. Just out of interest, go ahead and try.’ He put his hand on the revolver-butt peeping out of his unbuttoned holster. The general’s face turned blotchy and he was silent.
‘If you pick up that telephone, you silly old man,’ Nai suddenly said in a gentle voice, ‘I’ll give you a hole in your head from this Colt and that will be the end of you.’
The general sat back in his chair. The folds of his neck were still purple, but his face was gray. Nai-Turs turned around and went out.
For a few more minutes the general sat motionless in his armchair, then crossed himself towards the ikon, picked up the telephone receiver, raised it to his ear, heard the operator’s muffled yet intimate voice… suddenly he had a vision of the grim eyes of that laconic colonel of hussars, replaced the receiver and looked out of the window. He watched the cadets in the yard busily carrying gray bundles of felt boots out of the black doorway of the stores, where the quartermaster-sergeant could be seen holding a piece of paper and staring at it in utter amazement. Nai-Turs was standing with his legs astraddle beside a two-wheeled cart and gazing at it. Weakly the general picked up the morning paper from the table, unfolded it and read on the front page:
On the river Irpen clashes occurred with enemy patrols which were attempting to penetrate towards Svyatoshino…
He threw down the newspaper and said aloud: ‘Cursed be the day and the hour when I took on this…’ The door opened and the assistant chief of the supply section entered, a captain who looked like a tailless skunk. He stared meaningly at the folds of purpling flesh above the general’s collar and said:
‘Permission to report, sir.’
‘See here, Vladimir Fyodorich’, the general interrupted him, sighing and gazing about him in obvious distress, ‘I haven’t been feeling too good… a slight attack of… er… and I’m going home now. Will you please take over?’
‘Yes, sir,’ replied the skunk, staring curiously at the general. ‘But what am I to do? The Fourth Detachment and the engineers are asking for felt boots. Did you just give an order to issue two hundred pairs?’
‘Yes. Yes, I did,’ replied the general in his piercing voice. ‘Yes, I gave the order. I personally allowed it. Theirs is an exceptional case! They are just going into combat. Yes, I gave the order!’
A look of curiosity flashed in the skunk’s eyes. ‘Our total stock is only four hundred pairs…’
‘What can I do?’ squeaked the general. ‘Do you think I can produce them like rabbits out of a hat? Eh? Issue them to anybody who asks for them!’
Five minutes later General Makushin was taken home in a cab.
During the night of December 13th to the 14th the moribund barracks on Brest-Litovsk Street came to life. In the vast, dirty barrack-rooms the lights came on again, after some cadets had spent most of the day stringing wires from the barracks and connecting them up to the streetlamps. A hundred and fifty rifles stood neatly piled in threes, whilst the cadets slept sprawled fully dressed on dirty cots. At a rickety wooden table, strewn with crusts of bread, mess-tins with the remains of congealed stew, cartridge pouches and ammunition clips, sat Nai-Turs unfolding a large colored plan of the City. A small kitchen oil lamp threw a blob of light on to the maze-like map, on which the Dnieper was shown like a huge, branching, blue tree.
By about two o’clock in the morning sleep began to overtake Nai-Turs.
His nose twitched, and occasionally his head nodded towards the map as though he wanted to study some detail more closely.
Finally he called out in a low voice: ‘Cadet!’
‘Yes, sir’, came the reply from the doorway, and with a rustle of felt boots a cadet approached the table.
‘I’m going to turn in now’, said Nai. ‘If a signal comes through by telephone, waken Lieutenant Zharov and depending on its contents he will decide whether to waken me or not.’
There were no telephone messages and headquarters did not disturb Nai- Turs’ detachment that night. At dawn a squad armed with three machine-guns and three two-wheeled carts set out along the road leading out of the City, past rows of dead, shuttered suburban houses…
Nai-Turs deployed his unit around the Polytechnic School, where he waited until later in the morning when a cadet arrived on a two-wheeler and handed him a pencilled signal from headquarters: ‘Guard the Southern Highway at Polytechnic and engage the enemy on sight.’
Nai-Turs had his first view of the enemy at three o’clock in the afternoon when far away to the left a large force of cavalry appeared, advancing across an abandoned, snow-covered army training-ground. This was Colonel Kozyr-Leshko, who in accordance with Colonel Toropets’ plan was attempting to penetrate to the center of the City along the Southern Highway. In reality Kozyr-Leshko, who had met no resistance of any kind until reaching the approaches to the Polytechnic, was not so much attacking as making a victorious entry into the City, knowing full well that his regiment was being followed by another squadron of Colonel Gosnenko’s cossacks, by two regiments of the Blue Division, a regiment of South Ukrainian riflemen and six batteries of guns. As the leading horsemen began trotting across the training-ground, shrapnel shells, like a flock of cranes, began bursting in the heavy, snow-laden sky. The scattered riders closed up into a single ribbon-like file and then, as the main body came in sight, the regiment spread itself across the whole width of the highway and bore down on Nai-Turs’ position. A rattle of rifle-bolts ran along the lines of cadets, Nai pulled out a whistle, blew a piercing blast and shouted: ‘At cavalry ahead! Rapid… fire!’
Sparks flickered along the gray ranks as the cadets loosed off their first volley at Kozyr. Three times after that the enemy batteries sent a salvo of shrapnel raining down against the walls of the Polytechnic and three times more, with an answering rattle of musketry Nai-Turs’ detachment fired back. The distant black lines of horsemen broke up, melted away and vanished from the highway.
It was then that something odd seemed to happen to Nai-Turs. No one in the detachment had ever seen him frightened, but at that moment the cadets had the impression that Nai either saw, heard or sensed something in the distance… in short, Nai gave the order to withdraw toward the City. One platoon remained behind to give covering fire to the other platoons as they pulled out, then withdrew in turn when the main body was safely ensconced in a new position. Like this they leap-frogged back for two miles, throwing themselves down and making the broad highway echo with rifle-fire at regular intervals until they reached the intersection where Brest-Litovsk Street crossed the highway, the place where they had spent the previous night. The crossroads were quite dead, not a soul was to be seen on the streets.
Here Nai-Turs selected three cadets and gave them their orders:
‘Run back to Polevaya Street and find out where our units are and what’s become of them. If you come across any carts, two-wheelers or other means of transportation retreating in a disorganised fashion, seize them. In case of resistance threaten the use of firearms, and if that doesn’t work, use them…’
As the cadets ran off and disappeared, the detachment suddenly came under fire from ahead. At first it was wild and sporadic, mostly hitting the roofs and walls of houses, but then it grew heavier and one cadet collapsed face down into the snow and colored it red with blood. Then with a groan another cadet fell away from the machine-gun he was manning. Nai’s ranks scattered and began a steady rapid fire at the dark bunches of enemy troops which now seemed to be rising out of the ground in front of them as if by magic. The wounded cadets were lifted up, white bandages unwound. Nai’s cheekbones stood out like two swellings. He kept turning his body more and more often in order to keep a watch out on his flanks, and by now his expression betrayed his anxiety and impatience for the return of his three messengers. Finally they arrived, panting like foxhounds. Nai looked up sharply and his face darkened. The first cadet ran up to him, stood to attention and reported, gasping:
‘Sir, there are none of our units to be found at Shulyavka – or anywhere else, either.’ He paused for breath. ‘We could hear machine-gun fire to our rear and just now enemy cavalry was sighted, apparently about to march into the City…’
The rest of what the cadet had to say was drowned by a deafening shriek from Nai’s whistle.
The three two-wheeled carts galloped noisily off down Brest-Litovsk Street, then turned down Fonarnaya Street, bouncing along over the rutted snow and carrying with them the two wounded cadets, fifteen cadets unscathed and armed, and all three of the detachment’s machine-guns. This was as big a load as they could carry. Then Nai-Turs faced his ranks and in a clipped, hoarse voice issued them with orders they had never expected to hear…
In the shabby but warmly heated building of the former barracks on Lvov Street the third company of the ist Infantry Detachment, consisting of twenty-eight cadets, was growing restless. The interesting fact about this uneasy party was that the person in charge of it was none other than Nikolka Turbin. The company commander, Staff Captain Bezrukov and two ensigns, his platoon commanders, had left for headquarters that morning and had not come back. Nikolka, who as a corporal was now the senior ranker in the company, wandered around the barrack rooms, now and again walking up to the telephone and looking at it.
So it went on until three in the afternoon, by which time the cadets were growing demoralised from a mixture of nerves and boredom. At three o’clock the field-telephone squealed:
‘Is that Number 3 Company?’ ‘Yes.’
‘Put the company commander on the line.’ ‘Who’s speaking?’ ‘Headquarters.’
‘The company commander isn’t back yet.’ ‘Who’s that speaking?’ ‘Corporal Turbin.’ ‘Are you the senior rank?’ ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Get your squad out on to the street and into action right away.’ So Nikolka mustered his twenty-eight men and led them out along the street.
Until two o’clock that afternoon Alexei Turbin slept the sleep of the dead. He woke up as though someone had thrown water over him, glanced at the little clock on his bedside chair, saw that it was ten minutes to two, got up and began stumbling about the room. Alexei pulled on his felt boots, fumbled in his pockets, in his haste forgetting first one thing and then another – matches, cigarette case, handkerchief, automatic pistol and two magazines, – buttoned his greatcoat, then remembered something else, but hesitated – it seemed shameful and cowardly, but he did it nonetheless: out of his desk drawer he took his civilian doctor’s identity card. He turned it around in his hands, decided to take it with him, but just at that moment Elena called him and he forgot it, leaving it lying on the desk.
‘Listen, Elena’, said Alexei, nervously tightening and buckling his belt. An uncomfortable premonition had taken hold of him and he was tormented by the thought that apart from Anyuta, Elena would be alone in their big, empty apartment. ‘There’s nothing for it – I must go. Let’s hope nothing happens to me. The mortar regiment is unlikely to operate outside the City limits and I will probably be in some safe place. Pray God to protect Nikolka. I heard this morning that the situation was a little more serious, but I’m sure we will beat off Petlyura. Goodbye, my dear…’
Alone in the empty sitting-room Elena walked from the piano, where the open music of Faust had still not been tidied away, towards the doorway of Alexei’s study. The parquet floor creaked beneath her feet and she felt very unhappy.
At the corner of his own street and Vladimirskaya Street Alexei Turbin hailed a cab. The driver agreed to take him, but puffing gloomily, named a monstrous price and it was obvious that he would settle for no less. Grinding his teeth, Alexei Turbin climbed into the sled and set off towards the museum. There was frost in the air.
Alexei was extremely worried. As he drove, he caught the sound of machine-gun fire that seemed to be coming from the direction of the Polytechnic Institute and moving in the direction of the railroad station. Alexei wondered what it might mean (he had slept through Bolbotun’s afternoon incursion into the City) and he turned his head from side to side to stare at the passing sidewalks. There were plenty of people about, although there was an air of unease and confusion.
‘St… Stop…’ said a drunken voice.
‘What does this mean?’ asked Alexei Turbin angrily.
The driver pulled so hard on the reins that Alexei almost fell forward on to his knees. A man with a very red face stood swaying beside the cab’s shafts, holding the reins and making his way towards the passenger seats. A crumpled pair of lieutenant’s shoulder-straps glittered on a short, fur-collared greatcoat. From two feet away Alexei was nauseated by a powerful reek of moonshine vodka and onion. With his free hand the lieutenant was waving a rifle.
‘Turn… turn around’, said the red-faced drunk. ‘Ta… take on a passenger.’ For some reason the word ‘passenger’ struck the man as funny and he began to giggle.
‘What does this mean?’ Alexei repeated angrily. ‘Can’t you see who I am? I’m reporting for duty. Kindly let go of this cab! Drive on!’
‘No, don’t drive on…’ said red-face in a threatening voice.
Only then, blinking and peering, did he recognise the Medical Corps badges on Alexei’s shoulder straps. ‘Ah, doctor, we can travel together… let me get in…’
‘We’re not going the same way… Drive on!’ ‘Now see here…’
The cabman, head hunched between his shoulders, was about to crack his whip and move off, but thought better of it. Turning round, he glared at the drunk with a mixture of anger and fear. However, red-face let go the reins of his own accord. He had just noticed an empty cab, which was about to drive away but did not have time to do so before the drunken officer raised his rifle in Both hands and threatened the driver. The terrified cabman froze to the spot and red-face staggered over to him, swaying and hiccuping.
‘I knew I shouldn’t have taken you on, even for five hundred’, Alexei’s driver muttered angrily, lashing the rump of his ancient nag. ‘What’s in it for me if all I get’s a bullet in my back?’
Turbin sat glumly silent.
‘The swine… it’s louts like him who give the whole White cause a bad name’, he thought furiously.
The crossroads by the opera house was alive with activity. Right in the middle of the streetcar tracks stood a machine-gun, manned by two small, frozen cadets, one in a black civilian overcoat with ear-muffs, the other in a gray army greatcoat. Passers-by, clustered in heaps along the sidewalk like flies, stared curiously at the machine-gun. By the corner druggist, just in sight of the museum, Alexei paid off his cab.
‘Make it a bit more, your honor’, said the cab-driver, grimly insistent. ‘If I’d known what it was going to be like! Look what’s going on here.’ ‘Shut up. That’s all you’re getting.’
‘They’ve even dragged kids into it now…’ said a woman’s voice.
Only then did Alexei notice the crowd of armed men around the museum, swaying and growing thicker. Machine-guns could be vaguely seen on the sidewalk among the long-skirted greatcoats.
Just then came the furious drumming of a machine-gun from the Pechorsk direction.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ Alexei wondered confusedly as he quickened his pace to cross the intersection toward the museum.
‘Surely I’m not too late?… What a disgrace…. They might think I’ve run away…’
Officers, cadets, and a few soldiers were crowding and running excitedly around the gigantic portico of the museum and the broken gates at the side of the building which led on to the parade-ground in front of the Alexander I High School. The enormous glass panes of the main doors shuddered constantly and the doors groaned under the pressure of the milling horde of armed men. Exct ed, unkempt cadets were crowding into the side door of the circular white museum building, whose pediment was embellished with the words:
‘For the Edification of the Russian People’.
‘Oh God!’ exclaimed Alexei involuntarily. ‘The regiment has already left.’
The mortars grinned silently at Alexei, standing idle and abandoned in the same place as they had been the day before.
‘I don’t understand… what does this mean?’
Without knowing why, Alexei ran across the parade-ground to the mortars. They grew larger as he moved towards the line of grim, gaping muzzles. As he reached the first mortar at the end of the row, Alexei stopped and froze: its breech mechanism was missing. At a fast trot he cut back across the parade ground and jumped over the railings into the street. Here the mob was even thicker, many voices were shouting at once, bayonets were bobbing up and down above the heads of the crowd.
‘We must wait for orders from General Kartuzov!’ shouted a piercing, excited voice. A lieutenant crossed in front of Alexei, who noticed that he was carrying a saddle with dangling stirrups.
‘I’m supposed to hand this over to the Polish Legion.’ ‘Where is the Polish Legion?’
‘God only knows!’
‘Everybody into the museum! Into the museum!’
‘To the Don!’
The lieutenant suddenly stopped and threw his saddle down on to the sidewalk.
‘To hell with it! Who cares now, anyway – it’s all over’, he screamed furiously. ‘Christ, those bastards at headquarters.’
He turned aside, threatening someone with a raised fist.
‘Disaster… I see now… But how awful – our mortar regi-ment must have gone into action as infantry. Yes, of course. Presumably Petlyura attacked unexpectedly. There were no horses, so they were deployed as riflemen, without the mortars… Oh my God…. I must get back to Madame Anjou… Maybe I’ll be able to find out there…. Surely someone will have stayed behind ‘
Alexei forced his way out of the milling crowd and ran, oblivious to everything else, back to the opera house. A dry gust of wind was Mowing across the asphalted path around the opera house and Mapping the edge of a half-torn poster on the theatre wall beside a dim, unlit side entrance. Carmen. Carmen…
At last, Madame Anjou. The artillery badges were gone from the window, the only light was the dull, flickering reflection of something burning. Was the shop on fire? The door rattled as Alexei pushed, but did not open. He knocked urgently. Knocked again. A gray figure emerged indistinctly on the far side of the glass doorway, opened it and Alexei tumbled into the shop and glanced hurriedly at the unknown figure. The person was wearing a black student’s greatcoat, on his head was a moth-eaten civilian cap with ear-flaps, pulled down low over his forehead. The face was oddly familiar, but somehow altered and disfigured. The stove was roaring angrily, consuming sheets of some kind of paper. The entire floor was strewn with paper. Having let Alexei in, the figure left him without a word of explanation, walked away and squatted down on his haunches by the stove, which sent a livid red glow flickering over his face.
‘Malyshev? Yes, it’s Colonel Malyshev.’ Alexei at last recognised the man.
The colonel no longer had a moustache. Instead, there was a bluish, clean-shaven strip across his upper lip.
Spreading his arms wide, Malyshev gathered up sheets of paper from the floor and rammed them into the stove.
‘What’s happened? Is it all over?’ Alexei asked dully.
‘Yes’, was the colonel’s laconic reply. He jumped up, ran over to a desk, carefully looked it over, pulled out the drawers one by one and banged them shut, bent down again, picked up the last heap of documents from the floor and shoved them into the stove. Only then did he turn to Alexei Turbin and added in an ironically calm voice: ‘We’ve done our bit – and now that’s that!’ He reached into an inside pocket, hurriedly pulled out a wallet, checked the documents in it, tore up a few of them criss-cross and threw them on the fire. As he did so Alexei stared at him. He no longer bore any resemblance to Colonel Malyshev. The man facing Alexei was simply a rather fat student, an amateur actor with slightly puffy red lips.
‘Doctor – you’re not still wearing your shoulder-straps?’ Malyshev pointed at Alexei’s shoulders. ‘Take them off at once. What are you doing here? Where have you come from? Don’t you know what’s happened?’
‘I’m late, sir, I’m afraid…’ Alexei began.
Malyshev gave a cheerful smile. Then the smile suddenly vanished from his face, he shook his head anxiously and apologetically and said:
‘Oh God, of course – it’s my fault… I told you to report at this time….
Obviously you stayed at home all day and haven’t heard… Well, no time to go into all that. There’s only one thing for you to do now – remove your shoulder-straps, get out of here and hide.’
‘What’s happened? For God’s sake tell me what’s happened?’
‘What’s happened?’ Malyshev echoed his question with ironical jocularity. ‘What’s happened is that Petlyura’s in the City. He’s reached Pechorsk and may even be on the Kreshchatik now for all I know. The City’s taken.’ Suddenly Malyshev ground his teeth, squinted furiously and began unexpectedly to talk like the old Malyshev, not at all like an amateur actor. ‘Headquarters betrayed us. We should have given up and run this morning.
Fortunately I had some reliable friends at headquarters and I found out the true state of affairs last night, so was able to disband the mortar regiment in time. This is no time for reflection, doctor-take off your badges!
‘ but over there, at the museum, they don’t know all this and they still think ‘
Malyshev’s face darkened.
‘None of my business’, he retorted bitterly. ‘Not my affair. Nothing concerns me any longer. I was there a short while ago and I shouted myself hoarse warning them and begging them to disperse. I can’t do any more. I’ve saved all my own men, and prevented them from being slaughtered. I saved them from a shameful end!’ Malyshev suddenly began shouting hysterically. Obviously his control over some powerful and heavily-suppressed emotion had snapped and he could no longer restrain himself. ‘Generals – huh!’ He clenched his fists and made threatening gestures. His face had turned purple.
Just then a machine-gun began to chatter at the end of the street and the bullets seemed to be hitting the large house next door.
Malyshev stopped short, and was silent.
‘This is it, doctor. Goodbye. Run for your life! Only not out on to the street. Go out there, by the back door, and then through the back yards. That way’s still safe. And hurry.’
Malyshev shook the appalled Alexei Turbin by the hand, turned sharply about and ran off through the dark opening behind a partition. The machine- gun outside stopped firing and the shop was silent except for the crackling of paper in the stove. Although he suddenly felt very lonely, and despite Malyshev’s urgent warnings, Alexei found himself walking slowly and with a curious languor towards the door. He rattled the handle, let fall the latch and returned to the stove. He acted slowly, his limbs oddly unwilling, his mind numb and muddled. The fire was dying down, the flames in the mouth of the stove sinking to a dull red glow and the shop suddenly grew much darker. In the graying, flickering shadows the shelves on the walls seemed to be gently moving up and down. As he stared around them Alexei noticed dully that Madame Anjou’s establishment still smelled of perfume. Faintly and softly, but it could still be smelled.
The thoughts in Alexei’s mind fused into a formless jumble and for some time he gazed completely senselessly towards the place where the newly-shaven colonel had disappeared. Then, helped by the silence, his tangled thinking began slowly to unravel. The most important strand emerged clearly: Petlyura was here. ‘Peturra, Peturra’, Alexei repeated softly to himself and smiled, not knowing why. He walked over to a mirror on the wall, dimmed by a film of dust like a sheet of fine taffeta.
The paper had all burned out and the last little red tongue of flame danced to and fro for a while, then expired at the bottom of the stove. It was now almost quite dark.
‘Petlyura, it’s crazy…. Fact is, this country’s completely ruined now’, muttered Alexei in the twilit shop. Then, coming to his senses: ‘Why am I standing around like this and dreaming? Suppose they start breaking into this place?’
He jumped into action, as Malyshev had done before leaving and began tearing off his shoulder-straps. The threads gave a little crackling sound as they ripped away and he was left holding two silver-braided rectangles from his tunic and two green ones from his greatcoat. Alexei looked at them, turned them over in his hands, was about to stuff them into his pocket as souvenirs but thought better of it as being too dangerous, and decided to burn them. There was no lack of combustible material, even though Malyshev had burned all the documents. Alexei scooped up a whole sheaf of silk clippings from the floor, pushed them into the stove and lit them. Once more weird shapes began flickering around the walls and the floor, and for a while longer Madame Anjou’s premises brightened fitfully. In the flames the silver rectangles curled, broke out in bubbles, scorched and then turned to ash…
The next most urgent problem now arose in Alexei’s mind -what should he do about the door? Should he leave the latch down, or should he open it? Suppose one of the volunteers, like Alexei himself, ran here and then found it shut and there was nowhere to shelter? He unfastened the latch. Then came another searing thought: his doctor’s identity card. He searched one pocket, then another – no trace of it. Hell, of course. He had left it at home. What a disgrace. Suppose he were stopped and caught. He was wearing a gray army greatcoat. If they questioned him and he said he was a doctor, how could he prove it? Damn his own carelessness.
‘Hurry’ whispered a voice inside him.
Without stopping to reflect any longer Alexei rushed to the back of the shop by the way Malyshev had gone, through a narrow door into a dim passage, and from there out by the back door into a yard.
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