Nikolka’s company deploys on a crossroads. There is no sign of the troops they were to reinforce. The enemy is nowhere to be seen. There is shooting from all directions…
Find out more in Chapter XI below. Enjoy the read!
Obedient to the voice on the telephone, Corporal Nikolka Turbin led his twenty-eight cadets across the City by the route laid down in his order, which ended at a completely deserted crossroads. Although it was lifeless, it was extremely noisy. All around-in the sky, echoing from roofs and walls – came the chatter of machine-gun fire.
Obviously the enemy was supposed to be here because it was the final point on their route indicated by the voice on the telephone. But so far there was no enemy to be seen and Nikolka was slightly put out – what should he do next? His cadets, a little pale but as brave as their commander, lay down in a firing line on the snowy street and Ivashin the machine-gunner squatted down behind his machine-gun at the kerb of the sidewalk. Raising their heads, the cadets peered dutifully ahead, wondering what exactly was supposed to happen.
Their leader was thinking so hard that his face grew pinched and turned slightly pale. He was worried, firstly, by the complete absence at the crossroads of what the voice on the telephone had led him to expect. Nikolka was supposed to have found here a company of the 3rd Detachment, which he was to ‘reinforce’. Of the company there was not a trace. Secondly, Nikolka was worried by the fact that now and again the rattle of machine-gun fire could be heard not only ahead of him but also to his left and even, he noticed uneasily, slightly to his rear. Thirdly, he was afraid of showing fear and he constantly asked himself: ‘Am I afraid?’ ‘No I’m not’, replied a brave voice in his head, and Nikolka felt so proud that he was turning out to be quite brave that he went even paler. His pride led him on to the thought that if he were killed he would be buried to the strains of a military band. It would be a simple but moving funeral: the open white silk-lined coffin would move slowly through the streets and in the coffin would lie Corporal Turbin, with a noble expression on his wax-like features. It was a pity that they didn’t give medals any longer, because then he would have worn the ribbon and cross of the St George’s Cross around his neck. Old women would be standing at the cemetery gates. ‘Who are they burying, my dear?’ ‘Young Corporal Turbin.’ ‘Ah, the poor, handsome lad…’ And the music. It is good to die in battle, they say. He hoped he would feel no pain. Thoughts of military funerals, bands and medal ribbons proved a slight distraction from the uncomfortable business of waiting for an enemy who obviously had no intention of obeying the voice on the telephone and had no intention of appearing.
‘We shall wait here’, Nikolka said to his cadets, trying to make his voice sound more confident, although without much success because the whole situation was somehow vaguely wrong, and stupidly so. Where was the other company? Where was the enemy? Wasn’t it odd that sounds of firing should be coming from behind them?
So Nikolka and his little force waited. Suddenly, from the street that crossed theirs at the intersection, which led from Brest-Litovsk Street, came a burst of fire, and a detachment of gray-clad figures poured down the street at a furious pace. They were heading straight for Nikolka’s cadets and were carrying rifles.
‘Surrounded?’ flashed through Nikolka’s mind, as he tried wildly to think what order he was supposed to give; but a moment later he caught sight of the gold-braided shoulder-straps on several of the running men and realised that they were friendly.
Tall, well-built, sweating with exertion, the group of cadets from the Constantine Military Academy halted, turned around, dropped on one knee and fired two volleys down the street from whence they had come. Then they jumped up and ran across the intersection past Nikolka’s detachment, throwing away their rifles as they went. On the way they tore off their shoulder-straps, cart ridge pouches and belts and threw them down on the wheel-rutted snow. As he drew level with Nikolka, one gray-coated, heavily- built cadet turned his head towards Nikolka’s detachment and shouted, gasping for breath:
‘Come on, run for it! Every man for himself!’
Uncertain and confused, Nikolka’s cadets began to stand up. Nikolka was completely stupefied, but a moment later he pulled himself together, thinking in a flash: ‘This is the moment to be a hero.’ He shouted in his piercing voice:
‘Don’t dare to stand up! Obey my orders!’ At the same time he was wondering numbly: ‘What are they doing?’
Once over the intersection and rid of their weapons, the fleeing cadets – twenty of them – scattered down Fonarny Street, some of them taking hasty refuge behind the first big gateway. The great iron gates shut with a hideous crash and the sound of their boots could be heard ringing under the arch leading into the courtyard. A second bunch disappeared through the next gateway. The remaining five, quickening their pace, ran off down Fonarny Street and vanished into the distance.
Finally the last runaway appeared at the crossroads, wearing faded gold shoulder-straps. Nikolka’s keen eyes recognised him at a glance as the commanding officer of the second squad of the ist Detachment, Colonel Nai- Turs.
‘Colonel!’ Nikolka called out to him, puzzled and at the same time relieved. ‘Your cadets are running away in a panic’
Then the most amazing thing happened. Nai-Turs ran across the trampled snow of the intersection. The skirts of his greatcoat were looped back on both sides, like the uniform of the French infantry; his battered cap had fallen back on the nape of his neck and was only held on by the chinstrap. In his right hand was a revolver, whose open holster flapped against his hip. Unshaven for several days, his bristly face looked grim and his eyes were set in a squint. He was now close enough for Nikolka to make out the zig-zag braid of a hussar regiment on his shoulder-straps. Nai- Turs ran right up to Nikolka and with a sweeping movement of his free left hand he tore off from Nikolka’s shoulders first the left and then the right shoulder-strap. Most of the threads tore free, although the right strap pulled a lump of the greatcoat material with it. Nikolka felt such a pull that he was instantly aware of the remarkable strength of Nai-Turs’ hands. The force of the movement made Nikolka lose his balance and he sat down on something that gave way beneath him with a shriek: it was Ivashin the machine-gunner. Confusion broke out and all that Nikolka could see were the astonished faces of the cadets milling around above him. Nikolka was only saved from going out of his mind at that moment by the violence and urgency of Nai-Turs’ behaviour. Turning to face the disorganised squad he roared an order in a strange, cracked voice. Nikolka had an irrational feeling that a voice like that must be audible for miles, if not over the whole City.
‘Cadets! Listen and do as I tell you: rip off your shoulder-straps, your cap-badges and cartridge pouches and throw your rifles away! Go through the backyards from Fonarny Street towards Razezhaya Street and make your way to Podol! To Podol, you hear? Tear up your identity papers as you go, hide, disperse and tell anyone you meet on the way to do the same!’
Then, brandishing his revolver, Nai-Turs added in a voice like a cavalry trumpet:
‘Down Fonarny Street – don’t go any other way! Get away home and lie low! The fight’s over! On the double!’
For a few seconds the squad could not take it in, then the cadets’ faces turned absolutely white. In front of Nikolka, Ivashin ripped off his shoulder- straps, his cartridge pouches flew over the snow and his rifle crashed down against the kerbstone. Half a minute later the crossroads was littered with belts, cartridge pouches and someone’s torn cap, and the cadets were disappearing into the gateways that would lead through backyards into Razyezhaya Street.
With a flourish Nai-Turs thrust his revolver back into its holster, strode over to the machine-gun, squatted down behind it, swung its muzzle round in the direction from which he had come and adjusted the belt with his left hand. From his squatting position he turned, looked up at Nikolka and roared in fury:
‘Are you deaf? Run!’
Nikolka felt a strange wave of drunken ecstasy surge up from his stomach and for a moment his mouth went dry.
‘I don’t want to, colonel’, he replied in a blurred voice, squatted down, picked up the ammunition belt and began to feed it into the machine-gun.
Far away, from where the remnants of Nai-Turs’ squad had mine running, several mounted men pranced into view. Their horses seemed to be dancing beneath them as though playing some game, and the gray blades of their sabres could just be seen. Nai-Turs cocked the bolt, the machine-gun spat out a few rounds, stopped, spat again and then gave a long burst. Instantly bullets whined and ricocheted off the roofs of houses to right and left down the street. A few more mounted figures joined the first ones, but suddenly one of them was thrown sideways towards the window of a house, another’s horse reared on its hind legs to an astonishing height, almost to the level of the second-floor windows, and several more riders disappeared altogether. Then all the others vanished as though they had been swallowed up by the earth.
Nai-Turs dismantled the breech-block, and as he shook his fist at the sky his eyes blazed and he shouted:
‘Those swine at headquarters – run away and leave children to light… !’
He turned to Nikolka and cried in a voice that struck Nikolka like the sound of a muted cavalry trumpet:
‘Run for it, you stupid boy! Run for it, I say!’
He looked behind him to make sure that all the cadets had already disappeared, then peered down the road from the intersection to the distant street running parallel to Brest-Litovsk Street and shouted in pain and anger:
Nikolka followed his glance and saw that far away on Kadetskaya Street, among the bare snow-covered trees of the avenue, lines of gray-clad men had begun to materialise and were dropping to the ground. Then a sign above Nai-Turs and Nikolka’s heads on the corner house of Fonarny Street, reading:
Berta Yakovlevna Printz Dental Surgeon
swung with a clang and a window-pane shattered somewhere in the courtyard of the same house. Nikolka noticed some lumps of plaster bouncing and jumping on the sidewalk. Nikolka looked questioningly at Colonel Nai- Turs for an explanation of these lines of gray men and the fragments of plaster. Colonel Nai-Turs’ response was very strange. He hopped up on one leg, waved the other as though executing a waltz step, and an inappropriate grimace, like a dancer’s fixed smile, twisted his features. The next moment Colonel Nai-Turs was lying at Nikolka’s feet. A black fog settled on Nikolka’s brain. He squatted down and with a dry, tearless sob tried to lift the colonel by the shoulders. In doing so he noticed that blood was seeping through the colonel’s left sleeve and his eyes were staring up into the sky.
‘Corporal’, said Nai-Turs. As he spoke blood trickled from his mouth on to his chin and his voice came in droplets, thinning and weakening at each word. ‘Stop playing the hero, I’m dying Make for Malo-Provalnaya Street…’
Having said all that he wanted to say, his lower jaw began to shake. It twitched convulsively three times as though Nai-Turs was being strangled, then stopped, and the colonel suddenly became as heavy as a sack of flour.
‘Is this how people die?’ thought Nikolka. ‘It can’t be. He was alive only a moment ago. Dying in battle isn’t so terrible. I wonder why they haven’t hit me’
tattled and swung above his head a second time and somewhere another pane of glass broke. ‘Perhaps he’s just fainted?’ thought Nikolka stupidly and started to drag the colonel away. But he could not lift him. ‘Am I frightened?’ Nikolka asked himself, and knew that he was terrified. ‘Why? Why?’ Nikolka wondered and realised at once that he was frightened because he was alone and helpless and that if Colonel Nai-Turs had been on his feet at that moment there would have been nothing to fear… But Colonel Nai-Turs was completely motionless, was no longer issuing orders, was oblivious to the fact that a large red puddle was spreading alongside his sleeve, that broken and pulverised stucco was lying scattered in a crazy pattern along the nearby wall. Nikolka was frightened because he was utterly alone…. And loneliness drove Nikolka from the crossroads. He crawled away on his stomach, pulling himself along first with his hands, then with his right elbow as his left hand was grasping Nai-Turs’ revolver. Real fear overcame him when he was a mere two paces away from the street corner. If they hit me in the leg now, he thought, I won’t be able to crawl any further, Petlyura’s men will come riding up and hack me to bits with their sabres. How terrible to be lying helpless as they slash at you… I’ll fire at them, provided there’s any ammunition left in this revolver… Just another step away… pull myself, pull… again and Nikolka was around the corner and in Fonarny Street.
‘How amazing, absolutely amazing, that I wasn’t hit. A sheer miracle. God must have worked a miracle’, thought Nikolka as he stood up. ‘Now I’ve actually seen a miracle. Notre Dame de Paris. Victor Hugo. I wonder what’s happened to Elena? And Alexei? Obviously the order to tear off our shoulder- straps means disaster.’
Nikolka jumped up, smothered from head to foot in snow, thrust the revolver into his greatcoat pocket and ran off down the street. Finding the first pair of gates on his right hand still open, Nikolka ran through the echoing gateway and found himself in a dim, squalid courtyard with sheds of red brick along its right-hand side and a pile of firewood on the left. Assuming that the back door leading to the adjoining courtyard was in the middle, he ran towards it across the slippery snow and bumped heavily into a man in a sheepskin jerkin. The man had a red beard and little eyes that were quite plainly dripping with hatred. Snub-nosed, with a sheepskin hat on his head, he was a caricature of the Emperor Nero. As though playfully the man clasped Nikolka in a hug with his left arm and with his right seized Nikolka’s left arm and started to twist it behind his back. For a few seconds Nikolka was completely dazed. ‘God, he’s caught me and he hates me… He’s one of Petlyura’s men…’
‘Ah, you swine!’ croaked the red-bearded man, breathing hard. ‘Where d’you think you’re going, eh?’ Then he suddenly howled: ‘Got you, cadet! Think we wouldn’t recognise you just because you’ve torn off your shoulder- straps? Now I’ve got you!’
Nikolka was seized with fury. He sat down backwards so hard that the half-belt at the back of his greatcoat snapped, rolled over and freed himself from red-beard’s grasp with a superhuman effort. For a second he lost sight of him as they were back to back, then he swung around and saw him. The man with the red beard was not only unarmed, he was not even a soldier, merely a janitor. A pall of rage like a red blanket floated across Nikolka’s eyes and immediately gave way to a sensation of complete self-confidence. Cold frosty air was sucked into Nikolka’s mouth as he bared his teeth like a wolf-cub. Determined to kill the beast if only the chamber were loaded, he wrenched the revolver out of his pocket. His voice, when he spoke, was so strange and terrible that he did not recognise it.
‘I’ll kill you, you bastard!’ Nikolka hissed as he fumbled with the Colt, realising as he did so that he had forgotten how to fire it. Seeing that Nikolka was armed the janitor fell to his knees in terror and despair and whined, changing miraculously from a Nero into a snake:
‘Ah, your honor! Oh sir…’
Nikolka would still have fired, but the revolver refused to work. ‘Hell! It’s unloaded!’ flashed through Nikolka’s mind. Shaking and covering his face with his hand the janitor fell back from his knees on to his haunches and let out a sickening howl that infuriated Nikolka. At a loss how to close that gaping maw framed in its copper-red beard, and desperate because the revolver would not fire, Nikolka leaped upon the janitor like a fighting cock and smashed the butt into the man’s teeth, running the risk of shooting himself as he did so. Nikolka’s fury instantly drained away. The janitor leaped to his feet and ran away out of the gateway through which Nikolka had come. Crazed with fear, the janitor could no longer howl, and just ran, stumbling and slipping on the icy ground. Once he looked round and Nikolka saw that half his beard was stained dark red. Then he vanished. Nikolka turned and ran past the sheds to the end of the yard where the back gate should have opened onto Razezhaya Street, but as he reached it he was overcome with despair. ‘Done for. I’m too late. Caught. God, even my revolver’s useless.’ In vain he shook the enormous padlocked bolt. There was nothing to be done. As soon as Nai- Turs’ cadets had escaped through the courtyard the red-bearded janitor had obviously locked the gate giving on to Razezhaya Street and now Nikolka was faced by a completely insurmountable obstacle -an iron wall, smooth and solid from bottom to top. Nikolka lurned around, glanced up at the lowering, overcast sky, and noticed a black fire-escape leading all the way up to the roof of the four-storey house. ‘Maybe I could climb up there?’ he wondered, and at that moment he had a sudden foolish recollection of a colored illustration in a book: Nat Pinkerton in a yellow jacket and a red mask climbing up just the same sort of fire-escape. ‘Maybe Nat Pinkerton can do that in America… but suppose I climb up – what then? I’ll sit up there on the roof and by that time the janitor will have called Petlyura’s troops. He’s bound to give me away. He won’t forgive me for knocking his teeth in.’
And’so it was. Through the open gateway into Fonarny Street Nikolka could hear the janitor’s desperate shouts for help: ‘In here! In here!’ – and the sound of horses’ hoofs. Nikolka realised that Petlyura’s cavalry must have penetrated the City by a surprise move from the flank, and by now they were as far as Fonarny Street. That’s why Nai-Turs had shouted his warning… There was no going back along Fonarny Street now.
All this flashed through his mind before he found himself, he knew not how, on top of the pile of firewood alongside a lean-to built against the wall of the neighbouring house. The ice-covered logs wobbled under his tread as Nikolka scrambled, fell down, tore his breeches, finally reached the top of the wall, looked over it and saw exactly the same kind of courtyard as the one he was in. It was so alike that he even expected to see another red-bearded janitor leap out at him in a sheepskin jerkin. But none did. Feeling a terrible wrench in the region of his stomach and kidneys, Nikolka dropped to the ground and at that very moment his revolver jerked in his hand and fired a deafening shot. After a moment’s amazement Nikolka said to himself: ‘Of course, the safety catch was on and the shock of my fall released it. I’m in luck.’
Hell. The gate on to Razezhaya Street was shut here too, and locked. That meant climbing over the wall again, but alas there was no convenient pile of firewood in this courtyard. He climbed on to a heap of broken bricks and, like a fly on a wall, started clambering up by sticking the toes of his boots into cracks so small that under normal circumstances a kopeck piece would not have fitted into them. With torn nails and bleeding fingers he clawed his way up the wall. As he lay atop it on his stomach he heard the janitor’s voice and the deafening crack of a rifle-shot from the first courtyard. In this, the third courtyard, he caught a glimpse of a woman’s face distorted with fear, which for a moment stared at him from a second-floor window and then immediately disappeared. Dropping down from the wall he chose a better spot to fall, landing in a snowdrift, but even so the shock jolted his spine and a searing pain shot through his skull. With his head buzzing and spots dancing before his eyes Nikolka picked himself up and made for the gate.
Oh joy! Although the gate was locked it presented no problem, being made of wrought iron open-work.
Like a fireman Nikolka climbed up to the top, slid over, dropped down and found himself on Razezhaya Street. It was utterly deserted. ‘Fifteen seconds’ rest to get my breath back, no more, otherwise my heart will crack up’, thought Nikolka, gulping down air into his burning lungs. ‘Oh yes… my papers…’ From his tunic pocket Nikolka pulled out a handful of grubby certificates and identity documents and tore them up, scattering the shreds like snowflakes. Behind him, from the direction of the crossroads where he had left Nai-Turs, he heard a burst of machine-gun fire, echoed by more machine-guns and rifle volleys from ahead, from the heart of the City. This is it. fighting in the City centre. The City’s captured. Disaster. Still panting, Nikolka brushed the snow from his clothes with both hands. Should he throw away the revolver? Nai-Turs’ revolver? No, never. He might well succeed in slipping through. After all, Petlyura’s men couldn’t be everywhere at once.
Taking a deep breath, and aware that his legs were noticeably weaker and less able to obey him, Nikolka ran along the deserted Razezhaya Street and safely reached the next intersection, from which two streets branched off – Lubochitskaya Street leading to Podol and Lvovskaya Street which forked away to the right and to the centre of the City. Here he noticed a pool of blood alongside the kerbstone, an overturned cart, two abandoned rifles and a blue student’s peaked cap. Nikolka threw away his own army-issue fur hat and put on the student’s cap. It turned out to be too small and gave him the look of an untidy, raffish civilian – a high-school expellee with a limp. Nikolka peered cautiously around the corner and up Lvovskaya Street. At the far end of it he could just make out a scattering of mounted troops with blue badges on their fur hats. Petlyura. Some sort of a scuffle was in progress there, and stray shots were whistling through the air, so he turned and made off down Lubochitskaya Street. Here he saw his first sign of normal human life. A woman was running along the opposite sidewalk, her black feathered hat fallen to one side, holding a gray bag from which protruded an anguished rooster loudly squawking ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’, or as it seemed to Nikolka ‘pet-a-luu-ra’! Some carrots were falling out of a hole in the basket on the woman’s left arm. She was weeping and moaning as she staggered along, hugging the wall. A well-dressed man rushed out of a doorway, crossed himself feverishly and shouted:
‘Jesus Christ! Volodya, Volodya! Petlyura’s coming!’
At the end of Lubochitskaya Street there were signs of more life as people scurried to and fro and disappeared indoors. Crazed with fear, a man in a black overcoat hammered at a gateway, thrust his stick between the bars and broke it with a violent crack.
Meanwhile time was flying by and twilight had already come. As Nikolka turned off Lubochitskaya Street and down Volsky Hill the electric street lamp on the corner was turned on and began to burn with a very faint hiss. The shutters clanged down on a shop-front, instantly hiding piles of gaily-colored cartons of soap powder. Turning the corner, a cabman overturned his sleigh into a snowdrift and lashed furiously at his miserable horse. Nikolka dashed past a four-storey apartment block with three walk-up entrances, in all three of which the doors were being constantly slammed as residents hustled inside. One of them, in a sealskin fur collar, ran out in front of Nikolka and yelled at the janitor:
‘Ivan! Have you gone crazy? Shut the doors! Shut the front doors, man!’
One of the huge doors slammed shut and a piercing woman’s voice could be heard on the darkened staircase shrieking:
‘Petlyura! Petlyura’s coming!’
The farther Nikolka ran towards the haven of Podol, as Nai-Turs had told him to, the greater became the bustle and confusion on the street, although there was less of a sense of fear and not everyone was going the same way as Nikolka. Some were even heading in the opposite direction.
At the very top of the hill leading down to Podol, there stepped out of the doorway of a gray stone building a solemn-looking young cadet wearing an army greatcoat and white shoulder-straps embroidered with a gold badge. The cadet had a snub nose the size of a button. Glancing boldly around him, he gripped the sling of a huge rifle slung across his back. Passers-by scurried by glancing up in terror at this armed cadet, and hurried on. As he stepped down on to the sidewalk the cadet stopped, cocked an ear to listen to the firing with the knowing look as of a trained military man, stuck his nose in the air and was about to stride off. Nikolka swerved aside sharply, planted himself across the sidewalk, pressed close to the cadet and said in a whisper:
‘Get rid of that rifle and hide at once.’
The little cadet shuddered with fright and took a step back, but then took a more threatening grip on his rifle. With the ease born of experience Nikolka gently but firmly edged the boy backward, pushed him into a doorway and went on urgently:
‘Hide, I tell you. I’m a cadet-officer. It’s all up. Petlyura’s taken the City.’ ‘What d’you mean – how can he have taken the City?’ asked the cadet.
His mouth hung open, showing a gap where a tooth was missing on the left side of his lower jaw.
‘That’s how’, Nikolka answered, with a sweep of his arm in the direction of the Upper City, adding: ‘D’you hear? Petlyura’s cavalry are in the streets up there. I only just got away. Run home, hide that rifle and warn everybody.’
Dumbstruck, the cadet froze to the spot. There Nikolka left him, having no time to waste on people who were so dense.
In Podol there was less alarm, but considerable bustle and activity. Passers-by quickened their pace, often turning their heads to listen, whilst cooks and servant girls were frequently to be seen running indoors, hastily wrapping themselves in shawls. An unbroken drumming of machine-gun fire could now be heard coming from the Upper City, but on that twilit December 14th there was no more artillery fire to be heard from near or far.
Nikolka had a long way to go. As he crossed through Podol the twilight deepened and enveloped the frostbound streets. Swirling in the pools of light from the street-lamps, a heavy fall of snow began to muffle the sound of anxious, hurrying footsteps. Occasional lights twinkled through the fine network of snowflakes, a few shops and stores were still gaily lit, though many were closed and shuttered. The snowfall grew thicker. As Nikolka reached the bottom of his own street, the steep St Alexei’s Hill, and started to climb up it, he noticed an incongruous scene outside the the doorway of No. 7: two little boys in gray knitted sweaters and woolen caps had just ridden down the hill on a sled. One of them, short and round as a rubber ball, covered with snow, was sitting on the sled and laughing. The other, who was older, thinner and serious-looking, was unravelling a knot in the rope. A youth was standing in the doorway and picking his nose. The noise of rifle fire grew more audible, breaking out from several directions at once.
‘Vaska, did you see how I fell off and hit my bottom on the kerb!’ shouted the youngest.
‘Look at them, playing so peacefully’, Nikolka thought with amazement.
He turned to the youth and asked the youth in an amiable voice: ‘Tell me, please, what’s all the shooting going on up there?’
The young man removed his finger from his nose, thought for a moment and said in a nasal whine:
‘It’s our people, beating the hell out of the White officers.’
Nikolka scowled at him and instinctively fingered the revolver in his pocket. The older of the two boys chimed in angrily:
‘They’re getting even with the White officers. Serve ’em right. There’s only eight hundred of them, the fools. Petlyura’s got a million men.’
He turned and started to pull the sled away.
At the sound of Nikolka opening the front gate the cream-colored blind flew up in the dining-room window. The old clock ticked away, tonk-tank, tonk-tank…
‘Has Alexei come back?’ Nikolka asked Elena. ‘No’, she replied, and burst into tears.
The whole apartment was in darkness, except for a lamp in the kitchen where Anyuta, leaning her elbows on the table, sat and wept for Alexei Turbin. In Elena’s bedroom logs flamed in the stove, light from the flames leaping behind the grate and dancing on the floor. Her eyes red from crying about Alexei, Elena sat on a stool, resting her cheek on her bunched fist, with Nikolka sprawling at her feet across the fiery red pattern cast on the floor.
Who was this Colonel Bolbotun? Earlier that day at the Shcheglovs some had been saying that he was none other than the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich. In the half darkness and the glow from the fire the mood was one of despair. What was the use of crying over Alexei? Crying did no good. He had obviously been killed – that was clear. The enemy took no prisoners. Since he had not come back it meant that he had been caught, along with his regiment, and he had been killed. The horror of it was that Petlyura, so it was said, commanded a force of eight hundred thousand picked men. We were fooled, sent to face certain death…
Where had that terrible army sprung from? Conjured up out of the freezing mist, the bitter air and the twilight… it was so sinister, mysterious…
Elena stood up and stretched out her arm.
‘Curse the Germans. Curse them. If God does not punish them, then he is not a God of justice. They must surely be made to answer for this – they must. They are going to suffer as we have suffered. They will suffer, they will…’
She repeated the word ‘will’ like an imprecation. Her face and neck were flushed, her unseeing eyes were suffused with black hatred. Her shrieks reduced Nikolka to misery and despair.
‘Mightn’t he still be alive?’ he asked gently. ‘After all he is a doctor… Even if he had been caught they may not have killed him but only taken him prisoner.’
‘They will eat cats, they will kill each other just as we have done,’ said Elena in a loud voice, wagging a threatening finger at the stove.
‘Rumors, rumors… They said Bolbotun’s a grand duke-ridiculous. So’s the story of Petlyura having a million men. Even eight hundred thousand is an exaggeration. Lies, confusion. The hard times are really starting now. Looks like Talberg was doing the right thing after all by getting out in time… Flames dancing on the floor. Once everything was so peaceful and the world was full of wonderful places. There never was such a hideous monster as that red-bearded janitor. They all hate us, of course, but he’s like a mad dog. Tried to twist my arm behind my back.’
Outside, gunfire began again. Nikolka jumped up and ran to the window.
‘Did you hear that? Did you? And that? It could be the Germans. Or maybe the Allies come to help us at last? Who is it? Petlyura wouldn’t be shelling the City if he’s already taken it.’
Elena folded her arms across her chest and said:
‘It’s no good, Nik, I’m not letting you go. I beg you not to go out. Don’t be crazy.’
‘I only wanted to go as far as the little square in front of St Andrew’s church. I could look and listen from there. It overlooks the whole of Podol.’
‘All right, go. If you feel like leaving me alone at a moment like this, then go.’
Nikolka looked embarrassed.
‘Well, then I’ll just go out into the yard and listen.’ ‘And I’ll go with you.’
‘But Lena, suppose Alexei comes back while we’re both in the yard? We won’t hear the front door bell out there.’
‘No, we won’t. And it’ll be your fault.’
‘Very well, Lena, I give you my word of honor I won’t move a step outside the yard.’
‘Word of honor?’ ‘Word of honor.’
‘You won’t go past the gate? You won’t climb up the hill? You promise to stay in the yard?’
‘All right, go then.’
The City was swathed in the deep, deep snow of December 1918. Why were those unidentified guns firing at nine o’clock at night -and only for a quarter of an hour? The snow was melting on Nikolka’s collar, and he fought the temptation to climb up the snow- covered hillside. From the top he would be able to see not only Podol but part of the Upper City, the seminary, hundreds of rows of lights in big apartment houses, the hills of the city dotted with countless flickering lights. But no one should break his word of honor, or life becomes impossible. So Nikolka believed. At every distant menacing rumble he prayed: ‘Please, God…’
Then the gunfire stopped.
‘Those were our guns’, Nikolka thought miserably. As he walked back from the gate he glanced in at the Shcheglovs’ window. The white blind was rolled up and through the little window in their wing of the house he could see Maria Petrovna Shcheglov giving her little boy Peter his bath. Peter was sitting up naked in the tub and soundlessly crying because the soap was trickling into his eyes. Maria Petrovna squeezed out a sponge over Peter. There was some washing hanging on a line and Maria Petrovna’s bulky shadow passed back and forth behind, occasionally bending down. Nikolka suddenly felt how warm and secure the Shcheglovs were and how cold he was in his unbuttoned greatcoat.
Deep in the snow, some five miles beyond the outskirts of the City to the north, in an abandoned watchman’s hut completely buried in white snow sat a staff-captain. On the little table was a crust of bread, the case of a portable field-telephone and a small hurricane-lamp with a bulbous, sooty glass. The last embers were fading in the stove. The captain was a short man with a long sharp nose, and wearing a greatcoat with a large collar. With his left hand he squeezed and crumbled the crust of bread, whilst pressing the knob of the telephone with his right. But the telephone seemed to have died and gave no response.
For three miles around the captain there was nothing but darkness, blizzard and snowdrifts.
By the time another hour had passed the captain had abandoned the telephone. At about 9 p.m. he snorted and for some reason said aloud:
‘I’m going mad. Really the right thing would be to shoot myself.’ And as though in answer to him the telephone rang.
‘Is that Number 6 Battery?’ asked a distant voice. ‘Yes, yes’, the captain replied, wild with excitement.
The agitated, faraway voice, though muffled, sounded delighted:
‘Open fire at once on the target area…’ quacked the blurred voice down the line, ‘… with maximum fire-power…’ the voice broke off. ‘… I have the impression…’At this the voice was again cut off.
‘Yes, I’m listening’, the captain screamed into the receiver, grinding his teeth in despair. There was a long pause.
‘I can’t open fire’, the captain said into the mouthpiece, compelled to speak although well aware that he was talking into nothingness. ‘All the gun crews and my three lieutenants have deserted. I’m the only man left in the battery. Pass the message on to Post-Volynsk.’
The captain sat for another hour, then went out. The snowstorm was blowing with great violence. The four grim, terrible field-guns were already half buried in snow and icicles had already begun to festoon their muzzles and breech-mechanisms. In the cold of the screaming, whirling snowstorm the captain fumbled like a blind man. Working entirely by feel, it was a long time before he was able to remove the first breech-block. He was about to throw it into the well behind the watchman’s hut, but changed his mind and went into the hut. He went out three more times, until he had removed the four breech- blocks from all the guns and hidden them under a trap-door in the floor, where potatoes were stored. Then, having first put out the lamp, he went out into the darkness. He walked for about two hours, unseen and unseeing through the darkness until he reached the highway leading into the City, lit by a few faint sparse street lamps. Under the first of these lamps he was sabred to death by a party of pigtailed horsemen, who removed his boots and his watch.
The same voice came to life in the receiver of a telephone in a dug-out four miles to the west of the watchman’s hut.
‘Open fire at once on the target area. I have the impression that the enemy has passed between your position and ours and is making for the City.’
‘Can you hear me? Can you hear me?’ came the reply from the dugout. ‘Ask headquarters…’ He was cut off. Without listening, the voice quacked in reply:
‘Harassing fire on cavalry in the target area…’ The message stopped abruptly and finally.
Three officers and three cadets clambered out of the dugout with lanterns. The fourth officer and two cadets were already in the gun position, standing around a lantern which the storm was doing its best to put out. Five minutes later the guns began to jump and fire into the darkness. They filled the countryside for ten miles around with their terrible roar, which was heard at No. 13 St Alexei’s Hill… Please God…
Prancing through the snow, a troop of cavalry leaped out of the dark beyond the lamplight and killed all the cadets and four of the officers. The battery commander, who had stayed by the telephone in the dugout, shot himself in the mouth.
The battery commander’s last words were: ‘Those swine at headquarters.
It’s enough to make one turn Bolshevik.’
That night Nikolka lit the lamp hanging from the ceiling in his room in the corner of the apartment; then with a penknife he carved on the door a large cross and an irregular inscription:
‘Col. Turs. Dec. 14th. 1918. 2 p.m.’ He left out the ‘Nai’ from the colonel’s name for security, in case Petlyura’s men searched the apartment.
He did not want to sleep, in case he missed hearing the doorbell He knocked on the wall of Elena’s room and said:
‘Go to sleep – I’ll stay awake.’
After which he at once fell asleep as though dead, lying fully dressed on his bed. Elena did not sleep until dawn and stayed listening in case the bell should ring. But the bell did not ring and there was no sign of their elder brother Alexei.
A tired, exhausted man needs sleep, and by eleven o’clock next morning Nikolka was still asleep despite the discomforts of sleeping in tight boots, a belt that dug into his lower ribs, a throttling collar and a nightmare that crouched over him with its claws dug into his chest.
Nikolka had fallen asleep flat on his back with his head on one side. His face had turned purple and a whistling snore came from his throat… There was a whistling snowstorm and a kind of damned web that seemed to envelop him from all sides. The main thing was to break through this web but the accursed thing grew and grew until it had reached up to his very face. For all he knew it could envelop him so completely that he might never get out, and he would be stifled. Beyond the web were great white plains of the purest snow. He had to struggle through to that snow, and quickly, because someone’s voice had apparently just called out ‘Nikolka!’ Amazingly, some very lively kind of bird seemed to be caught in the net too, and was pecking and chirping to get out… Tik, tik, tikki, Tweet, Too-weet! ‘Hell’ He couldn’t see it, but it was twittering somewhere nearby. Someone else was bewailing their fate, and again came the other voice: ‘Nicky! Nikolka!’
‘Ugh!’ Nikolka grunted as he tore the web apart and sat up in one movement, dishevelled, shaken, his belt-buckle twisted round to one side. His fair hair stood on end as though someone had been tousling it for a long time.
‘Who? Who? Who is it?’ asked Nikolka in horror, utterly confused. ‘Who. Who, who, who, who’s it? Who’s it? Tweet, tweet!’ the web replied and the mournful voice, quivering with suppressed tears, said: ‘Yes, with her lover!’
Horrified, Nikolka backed against the wall and stared at the apparition. The apparition was wearing a brown tunic, riding-breeches of the same color and yellow-topped jockey’s boots. Its dull, sad eyes stared from the deepest of sockets set in an improbably large head with close-cropped hair. Undoubtedly the apparition was young, but the skin on its face was the grayish skin of an old man, and its teeth were crooked and yellow. The apparition was holding a large birdcage covered with a black cloth andan unsealed blue letter…
‘I must be still asleep’, Nikolka thought, with a gesture trying to brush the apparition aside like a spider’s web and knocking his fingers painfully against the wires of the cage. Immediately the bird in the cage screeched in fury, whistled and clattered.
‘Nikolka!’ cried Elena’s voice anxiously somewhere far, far away.
‘Jesus Christ’, thought Nikolka. ‘No, I’m awake all right, but I’ve gone mad, and I know why – combat fatigue. My God! And I’m seeing things too… and what’s happening to my fingers? Lord! Alexei’s not back yet… yes, now I remember… he’s not back… he’s been killed… Oh, God…’
‘With her lover on the same divan,’ said the apparition in a tragic voice, ‘where I once read poetry to her.’
The apparition turned towards the door, obviously to someone who was listening, then turned round again and bore down on Nikolka:
‘Yes, on the very same divan… They’re sitting there now and kissing each other… after I signed those IOU’s for seventy-five thousand roubles without thinking twice about it, like a gentleman, because I am and always shall be a gentleman. Let them kiss!’
‘Oh, Lord!’ thought Nikolka. His eyes stared and a shiver ran down his back.
‘I’m sorry’, said the apparition, gradually emerging from the shimmering fog of sleep and turning into a real live body. ‘Perhaps you may not quite understand. Look, this letter will explain it all. Like a gentleman, I won’t hide my shame from anyone.’
And with these words the stranger handed Nikolka the blue letter. Feeling he had gone quite insane, Nikolka took it and moving his lips, began to read the large sprawling, agitated handwriting. Undated, the letter on the thin sky-blue paper read thus:
‘Lena darling, I know how good-hearted you are and I am sending him to you because you’re one of the family. I did send a telegram, but he’ll tell you all about it himself, poor boy. Lariosik has had a most terrible blow and for a long time Iwas afraid he wouldn’t get over it. You know he married Milochka Rubtsova a year ago. Well, she has turned out to be a snake in the grass! Take him in I beg you, and look after him as only you can. I will send you a regular allowance for his keep. He has come to hate Zhitomir and I can quite understand why. I won’t write any more – I’m too upset. The hospital train is just leaving and he’ll tell you all about it himself. A big, big kiss for you and Seryozha.’
This was followed by an indecipherable signature.
‘I brought the bird with me’, said the stranger, sighing. ‘A bird is man’s best friend. I know many people think they’re a nuisance to keep, but all I can say is that at least a bird never does anyone any harm.’
Nikolka very much liked that last sentence. Making no effort to understand it, he shyly scratched his forehead with the incomprehensible letter and slowly swung his legs down from the bed, thinking: ‘I can’t ask him his name… it would sound so rude… What an extraordinary thing to happen…’
‘Is it a canary?’ he asked.
‘It certainly is’, replied the stranger enthusiastically. ‘Actually it’s not a hen-canary as most of them are, but a real cock-canary. I have fifteen of them at home in Zhitomir. I took them to mother, so that she can look after them. I’m sure that beast would wring their necks. He hates birds. May I put him down on your desk for a moment?’
‘Please do’, Nikolka replied. ‘Are you from Zhitomir?’
‘Yes, I am’, answered the stranger. ‘And wasn’t it a coincidence – I arrived here at the same time as your brother.’
‘What d’you mean – what brother? Your brother arrived here as I did’, the stranger replied with astonishment.
‘But what brother?’ Nikolka exclaimed miserably. ‘What brother? From Zhitomir!’
‘Your elder brother…’
Elena’s voice came piercingly from the drawing-room: ‘Nikolka!
Nikolka! Illarion – please! Wake him up!’
‘Tweet, tweet, tweee-ee, tik, tik, tikki’, screeched the bird.
Nikolka dropped the blue letter and shot like a bullet through the library and dining-room into the drawing-room, where he stopped in horror, his arms spread wide.
Wearing another man’s black overcoat with a torn lining and a pair of strange black trousers Alexei Turbin lay motionless on the divan below the clock. His face was pale, with a bluish pallor, and his teeth were clenched. Elena was fussing around him, her dressing-gown untied and showing her black stockings and lace-trimmed underwear. She was tugging at her brother’s arms and at the buttons on his chest and shouting: ‘Nik! Nik!’
Within three minutes, a student’s cap crammed on to the back of his head and his grey overcoat flapping open, Nikolka was running up St Alexei’s Hill, panting hard and muttering: ‘What if he’s not at home? And this extraordinary creature in the jockey’s boots has to turn up at a moment like this! It’s out of the question to call on Dr Kuritsky after Alexei laughed at him for speaking Ukrainian…’
An hour later a bowl was standing on the dining-room floor, full of red- stained water, scraps of red bandage lay scattered among fragments of broken crockery which the stranger in the yellow-topped boots had knocked down from the sideboard while fetching a glass. Everybody walked back and forth on the broken pieces, crunching them underfoot. Still pale but no longer looking blue, Alexei still lay on his back, his head on a cushion. He had recovered consciousness and was trying to say something, but the doctor, a man with a pointed beard with rolled-up sleeves and a pince-nez said as he wiped his bloodstained hands: ‘Be quiet, doctor…’
Anyuta, the color of chalk and wide-eyed, and Elena, her red hair dishevelled, were lifting Alexei to take off his wet, bloodstained shirt with a torn sleeve.
‘Cut it off him, it’s ruined anyway’, said the bearded doctor.
They cut up Alexei’s shirt with scissors and took it off in shreds, baring his thin yellowish body and his left arm freshly bandaged up to the shoulder.
The ends of splints protruded above and below the bandaging. Nikolka knelt down carefully undoing Alexei’s buttons, and removed his trousers.
‘Undress him completely and straight into bed’, said the pointed beard in his bass voice. Anyuta poured water from a jug on to his hands and blobs of lather fell into the bowl as he washed. The stranger stood aside from the confusion and bustle, at one moment gazing unhappily at the broken plates, at the next blushing as he looked at the dishevelled Elena who had ceased to care that her dressing-gown was completely undone. The stranger’s eyes were wet with tears.
They all helped to carry Alexei from the dining-room into his bedroom, and in this the stranger took part: he linked his hands under Alexei’s knees and carried his legs.
In the drawing-room Elena offered the doctor money. He pushed it aside. ‘No really, for heaven’s sake,’ he said, ‘not from a colleague. But there’s a much more serious problem. The fact is, he ought to go into hospital…’
‘No,’ came Alexei’s weak voice, ‘impossible. Not into hosp…’
‘Be quiet, doctor. We shall manage quite well without you. Yes, of course, I understand the situation perfectly well… God knows what’s going on in the City at the moment…’ He nodded towards the window. ‘He’s probably right, I suppose, hospital’s out of the question at the moment… All right then, he’ll have to be treated at home. I’ll come again this evening.’
‘Is he in danger, doctor?’ asked Elena anxiously.
The doctor stared at the parquet floor as though a diagnosis were imprisoned in the bright yellow wood, grunted and replied, twisting his beard: ‘The bone is not fractured… H’m… major blood-vessels intact… the nerve too… But it’s bound to fester… strands of wool from the overcoat have entered the wound… Temperature…’ Having delivered himself of these cryptic scraps of thought, the doctor raised his voice and said confidently: ‘Complete rest… Morphia if he’s in pain. I will give him an injection this evening. Food – liquids, bouillon and so on… He mustn’t talk too much…’
‘Doctor, doctor, please – one thing: he begs you not to talk to anyone about this…’
The doctor glowered sidelong at Elena and muttered: ‘Yes, I understand… How did it happen?’
Elena only gave a restrained sigh and spread her hands.
‘All right’, growled the doctor and sidled, bear-like, out into the lobby.
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