“The White Guard”, Chapter XII – Weekly Reads
Aleksei’s temperature rises to 40.2 degrees. He becomes delirious and at times repeats the female name – Julia. The doctor comes and administers morphine. Will Aleksei survive?
Find out in the Chapter XII below. Enjoy the read!
In Alexei’s small bedroom dark-colored blinds had been pulled down on the two windows that gave on to the glazed verandah. Twilight filled the room. Elena’s golden-red hair seemed a source of light, echoed by another white blur on the pillow – Alexei’s face and neck. The wire from the plug snaked its way to a chair, where the pink-shaded lamp shone and turned day into night. Alexei signed to Elena to shut the door.
‘Warn Anyuta not to talk about me…’
‘I know, I know… Try not to talk too much, Alyosha.’ ‘Yes… I’m only whispering… God, if I lose my arm!’
‘Now, Alyosha, lie still and be quiet… Shall we keep that woman’s overcoat here for a while?’
‘Yes, Nikolka mustn’t try and take it back to her. Otherwise something might happen to him… in the street. D’you hear? Whatever happens, for God’s sake don’t let him go out anywhere.’
‘God bless her’, Elena said with sincere tenderness. ‘And they say there are no more good people in this world…’
A faint color rose in the wounded man’s cheeks. He stared up at the low white ceiling then turned his gaze on Elena and said with a frown:
‘Oh yes – and who, may I ask, is that block-head who has just appeared?’ Elena leaned forwards into the beam of pink light and shrugged.
‘Well, this creature appeared at the front door no more than a couple of minutes before you arrived. He’s Sergei’s nephew from Zhitomir. You’ve heard about him – Illarion Surzhansky… Well, this is the famous Lariosik, as he’s known in the family.’
‘Well, he came to us with a letter. There’s been some drama. He’d only just started to tell me about it when she brought you here.’
‘He seems to have some sort of bird, for God’s sake.’
Laughing, but with a look of horror in her eyes, Elena leaned towards the bed:
‘The bird’s nothing! He’s asking to live here. I really don’t know what to do.’
‘Well, yes… Just be quiet and lie still, please Alyosha. His mother has written begging us to have him. She simply worships him. I’ve never seen such a clumsy idiot as this Lariosik in my life. The first thing he did when he got here was to smash all our china. The blue dinner service. Now there are only two plates of it left.’
‘I see. I don’t know what to suggest…’
For a long time they whispered in the pink-shadowed room. The distant voices of Nikolka and the unexpected visitor could be heard through closed doors. Elena wrung her hands, begging Alexei to talk less. From the dining- room came a tinkling sound as Anyuta angrily swept up the remains of the blue dinner service. Finally they came to a whispered decision. In view of the uncertainty of life in the City from now on and the likelihood of rooms being requisitioned, and because they had no money and Lariosik’s mother would be paying for him, they would let him stay, but on condition that he observed the rules of behaviour of the Turbin household. The bird would be put on probation. If it proved unbearable having the bird in the house, they would demand its removal and its owner could stay. As for the smashed dinner service, since Elena could naturally not bring herself to complain about it, and to complain would in any case be insufferably vulgar and rude, they agreed to consign it to tacit oblivion. Lariosik could sleep in the library, where they would put in a bed with a sprung mattress and a table.
Elena went into the dining-room. Lariosik was standing in a mournful pose, hanging his head and staring at the place on the sideboard where a pile of twelve plates had once stood. His cloudy blue eyes expressed utter remorse. Nikolka, with his mouth open and a look of intense curiosity, stood facing Lariosik and listening to him.
‘There is no leather in Zhitomir’, Lariosik was saying perplexedly. ‘Simply none to be had at all, you see. At least of the kind of leather I’m used to wearing. I sent round to all the shoemakers, offering them as much money as they liked, but it was no good. So I had to…’
As he caught sight of Elena Lariosik turned pale, shifted from foot to foot and for some reason staring down at the emerald-green fringe of her dressing-gown, he said:
‘Elena Vasilievna, I’m going straight out to the shops to hunt around, and you shall have a new dinner service today. I don’t know what to say. How can I apologise to you? I should be shot for ruining your china. I’m so terribly clumsy’, he added to Nikolka. ‘I shall go out to the shops at once’, he went on, turning back to Elena.
‘Please don’t try and go to any shops. You couldn’t anyway, because they’re all shut. Don’t you know what’s happening here in the City?’
‘Of course I know!’ exclaimed Lariosik. ‘After all, I came here on a hospital train, as you know from the telegram.’
‘What telegram?’ asked Elena. ‘We’ve had no telegram.’
‘What?’ Lariosik opened his wide mouth. ‘You never got it? Aha! Now I realise’, he turned to Nikolka, ‘why you were so amazed to see me… But how… Mama sent a telegram of sixty-three words.’
‘Phew, sixty-three words!’ Nikolka said in astonishment. ‘What a pity. Telegrams are very slow in getting through these days. Or to be more accurate, they’re not getting through at all.’
‘What’s to happen then?’ Lariosik said in a pained voice. ‘Will you let me stay with you?’ He looked around helplessly, and it was at once obvious from his expression that he liked it very much at the Turbins’ and did not want to go away.
‘It’s all arranged’, replied Elena and nodded graciously. ‘We have agreed. Stay here and make yourself as comfortable as you can. But you can see what a misfortune…’
Lariosik looked more upset than ever. His eyes became clouded with tears.
‘Elena Vasilievna!’ he said with emotion, ‘I’ll do everything I can to help.
I can go without sleep for three or four days on end if necessary.’ ‘Thank you.’
‘And now,’ Lariosik said to Nikolka, ‘could you please lend me a pair of scissors?’
Nikolka, so amazed and fascinated that he was still as dishevelled as when he had woken up, ran out and came back with the scissors. Lariosik started to unbutton his tunic, then blinked and said to Nikolka:
‘Excuse me, I think I’d better go into your room for a minute, if you don’t mind…’
In Nikolka’s room Lariosik took off his tunic, revealing an extremely dirty shirt. Then armed with the scissors he ripped open the glossy black lining of the tunic and pulled out of it a thick greenish-yellow wad of money. This he bore solemnly into the dining-room and laid on the table in front of Elena, saying:
‘There, Elena Vasilievna, allow me to present you with the money for my keep.’
‘But why are you in such a hurry?’ Elena asked, blushing. ‘You could have paid later…’
Lariosik protested hotly:
‘No, no, Elena Vasilievna, please take it now. At difficult times like this money is always extremely necessary, I understand that very well!’ He unwrapped the package, from which a woman’s picture fell out as he did so. Lariosik swiftly picked it up and with a sigh thrust it into his pocket. ‘In any case it will be safer with you. What do I want it for? I shall only need to buy a few cigarettes and some canary seed for the bird…’
For a moment Elena forgot about Alexei’s wound and she was so favourably impressed by Lariosik’s sensible and timely action that a gleam of cheerfulness came into her eyes.
‘Maybe he’s not such a booby as I thought he was at first’, she thought. ‘He’s polite and conscientious, even if he is a bit eccentric. It’s an awful shame about the dinner service, though.’
‘What a type’, thought Nikolka. Lariosik’s miraculous appearance had driven the gloomy thoughts from his mind.
‘There’s eight thousand roubles here’, said Lariosik, pushing the packet across the table, which from the color of the money looked like scrambled eggs with chopped chives. ‘If there’s not enough we’ll count it again and I’ll write home for some more.’
‘No, no, that doesn’t matter, later will do’, replied Elena. ‘I’m going to tell Anyuta right away to heat the water so you can have a bath. But tell me – how did you come here? I don’t understand how you managed to get through.’ Elena began to roll the money into a bundle and stuff it into the huge pocket of her dressing-gown.
Lariosik’s eyes filled with horror at the memory.
‘It was a nightmare!’ he exclaimed, clasping his hands like a Catholic at prayer. ‘It took me nine days… no, sorry, was it ten? Just a moment… Sunday, yes, Monday… No, it took me eleven days travelling here from Zhitomir!’
‘Eleven days!’ cried Nikolka. ‘You see?’ he said reproachfully, for some reason, to Elena.
‘Yes, eleven days. When I left the train belonged to the Hetman’s government, but on the way it was taken over by Petlyura’s men. One day we stopped at a station – what’s it called now? Oh dear, I’ve forgotten… anyway, it doesn’t matter… and there if you please, they wanted to shoot me. These troops of Petlyura’s appeared, wearing pigtails…’
‘Blue ones?’ Nikolka asked with curiosity.
‘No, red… yes, red ones… and they shouted: “Get out! We’re going to shoot you on the spot!” They had decided I was an officer, hiding in a hospital train. And the only reason I had been able to get on that train was because Mama knew Doctor Kuritsky.’
‘Kuritsky?’ Nikolka exclaimed meaningfully. ‘I see… our Ukrainian nationalist friend. We know him.’
‘Yes, that’s him… it was he who brought the train to us at Zhitomir… God! I started to pray, believe me. I thought this was the end. And d’you know what? The bird saved me. I wasn’t an officer, I said, I was an ornithologist, and I showed him the bird. I’m a bird-breeder, I said… Well, one of them punched me on the back of the neck and said “All right, bird-man, you can go to hell for all I care!” The insolence! As a gentleman I ought to have killed him, but I could hardly… you understand…’
‘Elena’, came a weak voice from Alexei’s bedroom. Elena swung round and ran out without waiting to hear the rest of the story.
On December 15th, according to the calendar, the sun sets at half past three in the afternoon, so by three o’clock twilight began to settle on the apartment. But at that hour the hands on Elena’s face were showing the most depressed and hopeless time on the human clock-face – half past five. The hands of the clock were formed by two sad folds at the corners of her mouth which were drawn down towards her chin, whilst in her eyes, depression and resolution had begun their struggle against disaster.
Nikolka’s face showed a jagged, wavering twenty to one, because Nikolka’s head was full of chaos and confusion evoked by the significant enigmatic words: Malo-Provalnaya…’, words spoken by the dying man in the fighting at the crossroads yesterday, words which somehow had to be deciphered no later than the next few days. The chaos and difficulties had also been evoked by the puzzling and interesting figure of Lariosik falling from the sky into the Turbins’ life and by the fact that a monstrous, grand event had befallen them: Petlyura had captured the city. Petlyura, of all people – and the City, of all places. And what would happen in it now was incomprehensible and inconceivable even to the most intelligent of human minds. One thing was quite clear – yesterday saw the most appalling catastrophe: all our forces were thoroughly beaten, caught with their pants down. Their blood shrieks to heaven – that is one thing. Those criminals, the generals, and the swine at headquarters deserve to be killed – that is another. But as well as sickening horror, a burning interest grew in Nikolka’s mind – what, after all, is going to happen? How are seven hundred thousand people going to live in a City in the power of an enigmatic personality with such a terrible, ugly name – Petlyura? Who is he? Why is he here? Hell, though, all that takes second place for the moment in comparison with the most important thing, Alexei’s bloody wound… horrible, horrible business. Nothing is known for sure of course, but in all probability Myshlaevsky and Karas can be counted as dead too.
On the slippery, greasy kitchen table Nikolka was crushing ice with a broad-bladed hatchet. The lumps of ice either split with a crunch or slithered out from under the hatchet and jumped all over the kitchen, whilst Nikolka’s fingers grew numb. Nearby was an ice-bag with a silvery cap.
‘Malo… Provalnaya…’ Nikolka mouthed silently, and across his mind’s eye passed the images of Nai-Turs, of the red-haired janitor, and of Myshlaevsky. And just as the image of Myshlaevsky, in his slashed greatcoat, had entered Nikolka’s thoughts, the clock on the face of Anyuta, busy at the stove with her sad, confused dreams, pointed ever more clearly to twenty to five – the hour of sorrow and depression. Were his different-colored eyes still alive and safe? Would she hear his broad stride again, the clinking sound of his spurs?
‘Bring the ice’, said Elena, opening the door into the kitchen.
‘Right away’, said Nikolka hurriedly, screwing up the cap, and running out.
‘Anyuta, my dear’, said Elena. ‘Make sure you don’t say a word to anyone about Alexei Vasilievich being wounded. If they find out, God forbid, that he was fighting against them, there’ll be trouble.’
‘I understand, Elena Vasilievna. Of course I won’t tell anyone!’ Anyuta looked at Elena with wide, anxious eyes. ‘Mother of God, the things that are happening in town. I was walking down the street today and there were two dead men without boots… and blood, blood everywhere! People were standing around and looking… Someone said the two dead men were officers. They were just lying there, no hats on their heads or anything… I felt my legs go all weak and I just ran away, nearly dropped my basket…’
Anyuta hunched her shoulders as though from cold as she remembered something else, and immediately a frying-pan slid sideways out of her hands on to the floor…
‘Quiet, please, for God’s sake’, said Elena, wringing her hands.
At three o’clock that afternoon the hands on Lariosik’s face were pointing to the zenith of strength and high spirits – twelve o’clock. Both hands overlapped at noon, sticking together and pointing upwards like two sharp sword-blades. This had come about because after the catastrophe which had shattered Lariosik’s tender soul in Zhitomir, after his terrible eleven-day journey in a hospital train and after so many violent sensations, Lariosik liked it very much indeed at the Turbins’. He could not yet have told them why he liked it, because he had not so far properly explained it to himself.
The beautiful Elena seemed a person deserving of unusual respect and attention. And he liked Nikolka very much too. As a way of showing this, Lariosik chose the moment when Nikolka had stopped dashing in and out of Alexei’s room, and began to help him set up the folding steel bed in the library.
‘You have the sort of frank expression which makes people trust you’, Lariosik said politely and stared so hard at that frank expression that he did not notice that he had caused the complicated, creaking bed to snap shut and crush Nikolka’s arm between the two halves of the frame. The pain was so violent that Nikolka gave a yell which, although muffled, was so powerful that it brought Elena rushing into the room. Although Nikolka exerted all his strength to stop himself from howling, great tears burst spontaneously from his eyes. Elena and Lariosik both gripped the patent folding bed and tugged long and hard at it from opposite sides until they released Nikolka’s wrist, which had turned blue.
Lariosik almost burst into tears himself when the crushed arm came out limp and mottled.
‘Oh my God!’ he said, his already miserable face grimacing even harder, ‘What’s the matter with me? Everything I touch goes wrong! Does it hurt terribly? Please forgive me, for God’s sake…’
Without a word Nikolka rushed into the kitchen, where at his instructions Anyuta ran a stream of cold water from the tap over his wrist.
By the time the diabolical patent bed had been prised apart and straightened out and it was clear that Nikolka had suffered no great damage to his arm, Lariosik was once more overcome by a delightful sense of quiet joy at being surrounded by so many books. Besides his passion and love for birds, he also had a passion for books. Here, on open shelves that lined the room from floor to ceiling, was a treasure-house. In green and red gold-tooled bindings, in yellow dust-covers and black slip-cases, books stared out at Lariosik from all four walls. The bed had been long made up; beside it was a chair with a towel draped over its back, whilst on the seat, among the usual male accessories – soap-dish, cigarettes, matches and watch – there was propped up a mysterious photograph of a woman. All the while Lariosik stayed in the library, voyaging around the book-lined walls, squatting down on his haunches by the bottom rows, staring greedily at the bindings, undecided as to which to take out first, The Pickwick Papers or the bound volumes of the Russian Herald for 1871. The clock-hands on his face pointed to twelve o’clock.
But as twilight approached the mood in the Turbins’ apartment grew sadder and sadder, and as a result the clock did not strike twelve, the hands stood still and silent, like a glittering sword wrapped in a flag of mourning that stood at half-mast.
The cause of the air of mourning, the cause of the discord on the clock- faces of all the people in the dusty, slightly old-fashioned comfort of the Turbins’ apartment was a thin column of mercury. At three o’clock in Alexei’s bedroom it showed 39.6° Centigrade. Turning pale, Elena was just about to shake it but Alexei turned his head, looked up at her and said weakly but insistently: ‘Show it to me.’ Silently and reluctantly Elena showed him the thermometer.
Alexei looked at it and sighed deeply.
By five o’clock he was lying with a cold gray bag on his head, little lumps of ice melting and floating in the bag. His face had turned pink, his eyes glittered and looked very handsome.
‘Thirty-nine point six… good…’ he said, occasionally licking his dry, cracked lips. ‘Ye-es… May be all right… Though I won’t be able to practice… for a long time. If only I don’t lose my arm… without an arm I’m useless…’
‘Please don’t talk, Alyosha’, begged Elena, straightening the blanket around his shoulders… Alexei was silent, closing his eyes. From his wound in his left armpit, a dry prickly heat spread out over his whole body.
Occasionally he filled his chest with a deep breath, which gave his head a misty feeling, but his legs were turning unpleasantly cold. Towards evening, when the lamps were lit everywhere and the other three – Elena, Nikolka and Lariosik -slowly ate their supper in silence and anxiety, the column of mercury, expanding and bursting magically out of its silver globule crawled up to the 40.2 mark. Then Alexei’s alarm and depression began to melt away and dissipate. The depression, which had come to him like a gray lump that spread itself over the blanket, was now transformed into yellow strands which trailed out like seaweed in water. He forgot about his practice, forgot his anxiety about the future because everything was smothered by those yellow strands. The tearing pain in the left side of his chest grew numb and still. Fever gave way to cold. Now and again the burning flame in his chest was turned into an ice-cold knife twisting somewhere within his lung.
When this happened, Alexei shook his head, threw off the ice-bag and crawled deeper under the blankets. The pain in his wound altered from a dull ache to a spasm of such intensity that the wounded man began involuntarily to complain, in a weak, dry voice. When the knife went away and was replaced by the flame, the fever flooded back again through his body and through the whole of the little cavity under the bedclothes and the patient asked for a drink. The faces of Nikolka, then of Elena and then of Lariosik appeared through the mist, bent over him and listened. The eyes of all three looked terribly alike, frowning and angry. The hands on Nikolka’s face dropped at once and stayed – like Elena’s – at half past six. Every minute Nikolka went out into the dining- room – somehow that evening the lights all seemed to be flickering and dim – and looked at the clock. Tonkhh… tonkhh… the clock creaked on with an angry, warning sound as its hands pointed at nine, then at a quarter past, then half past nine…
‘Oh lord’, sighed Nikolka, wandering like a sleepy fly from the dining- room, through the lobby into the drawing-room, where he pushed aside the net curtain and stared through the french window into the street… ‘Let’s hope the doctor hasn’t lost his nerve and isn’t afraid to come…’ he thought. The street, steep and crooked, was emptier than it had ever been recently, but it also looked somehow less menacing. The occasional cabman’s sleigh creaked past. But they were very few and far between… Nikolka realised that he would probably have to go out and fetch the doctor, and wondered how to persuade Elena to let him go.
‘If he doesn’t come by half past ten,’ said Elena, ‘I will go myself with Larion Larionovich and you stay and keep an eye on Alyosha… No, don’t argue… Don’t you see, you look too like an officer cadet… We’ll give Lariosik Alyosha’s civilian clothes, and they won’t touch him if he’s with a woman…’
Lariosik assured them that he was prepared to take the risk and go alone, and went off to change into civilian clothes.
The knife had gone altogether, but the fever had returned, made worse by the onset of typhus, and in his fever Alexei kept seeing the vague, mysterious figure of a man in gray.
‘I suppose you know he’s turned a somersault? Is he gray?’ Alexei suddenly announced sternly and clearly, staring hard at Elena. ‘Nasty… All birds, of course, are the same. You should put him in the larder, make them sit down in the warm and they’ll soon recover.’
‘What are you talking about, Alyosha?’ asked Elena in fright noticing as she bent over him how she could feel the heat from Alexei’s face on her own face. ‘Bird? What bird?’
In the black civilian suit Larosik looked hunched and broader than usual. He was frightened, his eyes swivelling in misery. Swaying, on tiptoe, he crept out of the bedroom across the lobby into the dining-room, through the library into Nikolka’s room. There, his arms swinging purposefully, he strode up to the birdcage on the desk and threw a black cloth over it. But it was unnecessary – the bird had long since fallen asleep in one corner, curled up into a feathery ball and was silent, oblivious to all the alarms and anxiety round about. Lariosik firmly shut the door into the library, then the door from the library into the dining-room.
‘Nasty business… very nasty’, said Alexei uneasily, as he stared at the corner of the room. ‘I shouldn’t have shot him… Listen…’ He began to pull his unwounded arm from under the bedclothes. ‘The best thing to do is to invite him here and explain, ask him why he was fooling about like that. I’ll take all the blame, of course… It’s no good though… all over now, all so stupid…’
‘Yes, yes’, said Nikolka unhappily, and Elena hung her head. Alexei started to get excited, tried to sit up, but a sharp pain pulled him down and he groaned, then said irritably:
‘Get him out of here!’
‘Shall I put the bird in the kitchen? I’ve covered it with a cloth, and it’s not making any noise’, Lariosik whispered anxiously to Elena.
Elena waved him away: ‘No, that’s not it, don’t worry…’ Nikolka strode purposefully out into the dining-room. His hair dishevelled, he glanced at the clock face: the hands were pointing to around ten o’clock. Worried, Anyuta came into the dining-room.
‘How is Alexei Vasilievich?’ she asked.
‘He’s delirious’, Nikolka replied with a deep sigh.
‘Oh my God’, whispered Anyuta. ‘Why doesn’t the doctor come?’
Nikolka looked at her and went back into the bedroom. He leaned close to Elena’s ear and began to whisper urgently:
‘I don’t care what you say, I’m going out for a doctor. It’s ten o’clock. The street is completely quiet.’
‘Let’s wait until half past ten’, whispered Elena in reply, nodding and twisting a handkerchief in her hands. ‘It wouldn’t be right to call in another doctor. I know our doctor will come.’
Soon after ten o’clock a great, clumsy heavy mortar moved into the crowded little bedroom. Alexei was in despair: how were they all to survive? And now there stood this mortar, filling the room from wall to wall, with one wheel pressing against the bed. Life would be impossible, because one would have to crawl between those thick spokes, then arch one’s back and squeeze through the other wheel, carrying all one’s luggage which seemed to be hanging from one’s left arm. It was pulling one’s arm down to the ground, cutting into one’s armpit with a rope. No one could move the mortar. The whole apartment was full of them, according to instructions, and Colonel Malyshev and Elena could only stare helplessly through the wheels, unable to do anything to remove the gun or at least to move a sick man into a more tolerable room that wasn’t crowded out with mortars. Thanks to that damned heavy, cold piece of ordnance the whole apartment had turned into a cheap hotel. The doorbell was ringing frequently… rrring… and people were coming to call. Colonel Malyshev flitted past, looking awkward, in a hat that was too big for him, wearing gold epaulettes, and carrying a heap of papers. Alexei shouted at him and Malyshev disappeared into the muzzle of the mortar and was replaced by Nikolka, bustling about and behaving with stupid obstinacy. Nikolka gave Alexei something to drink, but it was not a cold spiralling stream of water from a fountain but some disgusting lukewarm liquid that smelled of washing-up water.
‘Ugh… horrible… take it away’, mumbled Alexei.
Startled, Nikolka raised his eyebrows, but persisted obstinately and clumsily. Frequently Elena changed into the black, unfamiliar figure of Lariosik, Sergei’s nephew, and then as it turned back into Elena he felt her fingers somewhere near his forehead, which gave him little or no relief. Elena’s hands, usually warm and deft now felt as rough and as clumsy as rakes and did everything to make a peaceful man’s life miserable in this damned armorer’s yard he was lying in. Surely Elena was not responsible for this pole on which Alexei’s wounded body had been laid? Yet now she was sitting on it… what’s the matter with her?… sitting on the end of the pole and her weight was making it start to spin sickeningly round… How can a man live if a round pole is cutting into his body? No, no, they’re behaving intolerably! As loudly as he could, though it came out as a mere whisper, Alexei called out:
Julia, however, did not emerge from her old-fashioned room with its portrait of a man in gold epaulettes and the uniform of the 1840’s, and she did not hear the sick man’s cry. And that poor sick man would have been driven mad by the gray figures which began pacing about the room alongside his brother and sister, had there not also come a stout man in gold-rimmed spectacles, a man of skill and firm confidence. In honor of his appearance an extra light was brought into the bedroom – the light of a flickering wax candle in a heavy, old black candlestick. At one moment the light glimmered on the table, at the next it was moving around Alexei, above it the ugly, distorted shadow of Lariosik, looking like a bat with its wings cut off. The candle bent forward, dripping white wax. The little bedroom reeked with the heavy smells of iodine, surgical spirit and ether. On the table arose a chaos of glittering boxes, spirit lamps reflected in shining nickel-plate, and heaps of cotton wool, like snow at Christmas. With his warm hands the stout man gave Alexei a miraculous injection in his good arm, and in a few minutes the gray figures ceased to trouble him. The mortar was pushed out on to the verandah, after which its black muzzle, poking through the draped windows, no longer seemed menacing. He began to breathe more easily, because the huge wheel had been removed and he was no longer obliged to crawl through its spokes. The candle was put out and the angular coal-black shadow of Larion Surzhansky from Zhitomir disappeared from the wall, whilst Nikolka’s face became clearer to see and not so infuriatingly obstinate, perhaps because the hands on his clock, thanks to the hope inspired by the skill of the stout man in gold-rimmed spectacles, had moved apart and did not point so implacably and despairingly towards the point of his sharp chin. The time on Nikolka’s face had moved backwards from half past six to twenty to five, whilst the clock in the dining-room, although it did not tell the same time, although it insistently pushed its hands ever forward, was now doing so without any senile croaking and grumbling, but in the good old manner, marking the seconds with a clear, healthy baritone: tonk! And the chimes, coming from the tower of the beautiful toylike Louis Quatorze chateau, struck: bom! bom! Midnight, listen… midnight, listen… the chimes gave their warning note, then a sentry’s halberd began to strike the silvery hour. The sentries marched back and forth, guarding their tower, for without knowing it, man had made towers, alarm-bells and weapons for one purpose only – to guard the peace of his hearth and home. For this he goes to war, which if the truth be known, is the only cause for which anyone ought to fight.
Only when Alexei had reached a state of calm and peace did Julia, that selfish, sinful but seductive woman, agree to appear. And she appeared – her black-stockinged leg, the top of a black fur-trimmed boot flashed by on the narrow brick staircase, and the hasty sound of her footsteps and the rustle of her dress were accompanied by the gavotte played on tinkling little bells from where Louis Quatorze basked in a sky-blue garden on the banks of a lake, intoxicated by his glory and by the presence of charming, brightly-colored ladies.
At midnight Nikolka undertook a most important and very timely piece of work. First he took a dirty wet rag from the kitchen, and rubbed off the belly of the tiled Dutch stove the words:
Long live Russia! God Save the Tsar! Down with Petlyura!
Then, with the enthusiastic participation of Lariosik, a more important task was put in hand. Alyosha’s Browning automatic was neatly and soundlessly removed from the desk, together with two spare magazines and a box of ammunition for it. Nikolka checked the weapon and found that his elder brother had fired six of the seven rounds in the magazine.
‘Good for him…’ Nikolka murmured to himself.
There was not, of course, the slightest likelihood of Lariosik being a traitor. It was inconceivable that an educated man should be on Petlyura’s side at all, and in particular a gentleman who signed promissory notes for seventy- five thousand roubles and who sent sixty-three-word telegrams. The Colt automatic that had belonged to Nai-Turs and Alyosha’s Browning were thoroughly greased with engine oil and paraffin. Imitating Nikolka, Lariosik rolled up his shirtsleeves and helped to grease and pack the weapons into a long, deep cake tin. They worked in a hurry, for as every decent man who has taken part in a revolution knows very well – no matter who is in power – searches take place from 2.30 a.m. to 6.15 a.m. in winter and from midnight to 4 a.m. in summer. Even so the work was held up, thanks to Lariosik, who in examining the mechanism of the ten-round Colt-system automatic pushed the magazine into the butt the wrong way round, and the job of getting it out again took a great deal of effort and a considerable quantity of oil. Apart from that, there was a further unexpected hindrance: the tin, containing the revolvers, Nikolka’s and Alexei’s shoulder-straps, Nikolka’s chevrons and Alexei’s picture of the murdered Tsarevich, wrapped tightly inside with waterproof oilcloth and outside with long, sticky strips of electrical insulating tape – the tin was too big to go through the little upper pane, the only part of the window left unsealed in winter.
The box had to be really well hidden. Not everybody was as idiotic as Vasilisa. Nikolka had already worked out that morning how to hide the box. The wall of their house, No. 13, almost but not quite touched the wall of No. 11 next door, leaving a gap of only about two feet. Only three of the windows of No. 13 were in that wall – one on the corner, from Nikolka’s room, two from the library next to it which were quite useless (it was permanently dark) and lower down there was a dim little window covered by a grating which belonged to Vasilisa’s cellar, whilst the wall of the neighbouring No. 11 was completely blind and windowless. Imagine a perfect artificial canyon two feet wide, dark, and invisible from the street and even inaccessible from the back yard except to the occasional small boy. It was as a boy that Nikolka, once when playing cops and robbers, had squeezed into the gap between the houses, stumbling over piles of bricks, and he remembered exactly how there had been a double line of metal spikes in the wall of No. 13 stretching from ground level right up to the roof. Earlier, before No. 11 had been built, there had probably been a fire escape bolted to these spikes, which had later been removed, the spikes being left in place. That evening, as he thrust his hand out through the little upper window-pane, it did not take Nikolka two minutes of fumbling to find one of the spikes. The solution was plain, but the tin, tied up with a triple thickness of stout cord, with a loop at one end, was too large to go through the window.
‘Obviously we must open up the rest of the window’, said Nikolka, as he jumped down from the window-ledge.
Having paid suitable tribute to Nikolka’s intelligence and ingenuity, Lariosik set about unsealing the main casement. This back-breaking work took at least half an hour, as the swollen frames refused to open. Finally they managed to open first one side and then the other, in the course of which the glass on Lariosik’s side shattered in a long, web-like crack.
‘Put the light out!’ Nikolka ordered.
The light went out, and a freezing blast of air lashed into the room. Nikolka eased himself half way out into the icy black space and hooked the loop round one of the spikes, from which the tin hung at the end of a two foot length of cord. Nothing was visible from the street, since the fireproof wall of No. 13 was built at an angle to the street. The very narrow gap between the two houses was covered by the large signboard belonging to a dressmaker’s workshop in No. 11. The tin could only be seen by someone actually climbing into the gap, which no one was likely to do before spring thanks to the huge piles of snow which had been shovelled out of the yard, forming an ideal fence in front of the house. The chief advantage of the hiding place, however, was that it could be checked without opening the main casement of the window: one only had to open the little pane at the top, push one’s hand through and feel for the cord, taut as a ‘cello string. Perfect.
The light was switched on again, and kneading the putty which Anyuta had left over from the fall, Nikolka sealed up the casement again. Even if by some miracle the tin were found, they would always be ready with the answer: ‘What? Whose box? What revolvers, Tsarevich…? Impossible! No idea. God only knows who put it out there! Somebody must have climbed up on the roof and hung it from there. Not many other people around here? Well, so what? We’re peaceful, law abiding folk, why should we want a picture of the Tsarevich…’
‘A perfect job, brilliantly done, I swear it’, said Lariosik. It could not have been better – easy to reach, yet outside the apartment.
It was three o’clock in the morning. Evidently no one would be coming tonight. Her eyelids heavy with exhaustion Elena tiptoed out into the dining- room. It was Nikolka’s turn to take over from her by Alexei’s bedside. He would keep watch from three till six, then Lariosik from six till nine.
They spoke in whispers.
‘So if anyone asks, he’s got typhus’, Elena whispered. ‘We must stick to that story, because Wanda has already been up from downstairs trying to find out what’s the matter with Alexei. I said it was suspected typhus. She probably didn’t believe me, because she gave me a very funny look… and she kept on asking questions -how were we, where had we all been, wasn’t one of us wounded. Not a word about his being wounded.’
‘No, of course not’, Nikolka gestured forcibly. ‘Vasilisa is the biggest coward in the world! If anything happened he’d babble to anybody that Alexei had been wounded if it meant saving his own skin.’
‘The swine!’ said Lariosik. ‘What a filthy thing to do.’
Alexei lay in a coma. After the injection his expression had become quite calm, his features looked sharper and finer. The soothing poison coursed through his bloodstream and kept vigil. The gray figures had ceased to act as though they belonged to his room, they departed about their affairs, the mortar had finally been removed altogether. Whenever strangers did appear they now behaved decently, fitting in with the people and things which belonged legitimately in the Turbins’ apartment. Once Colonel Malyshev appeared and sat down in an armchair, but he smiled as much as to say that all would be for the best. He no longer growled menacingly, no longer filled the room with heaps of paper. It was true he did burn some documents, but he refrained from touching Alexei’s framed diplomas and the picture of his mother, and he did his burning in the pleasant blue flame of a spirit lamp, which was reassuring because the lighting of the spirit lamp was usually followed by an injection. Madame Anjou’s telephone bell rang constantly.
‘Rrring…’ said Alexei, trying to pass on the sound of the telephone bell to the person sitting in the armchair, who was by turns Nikolka, then a stranger with mongoloid eyes (the drug kept Alexei from protesting at this intrusion), then the wretched Maxim, the school janitor, gray and trembling.
‘Rrring’, murmured the wounded man softly, as he tried to make a moving picture out of the writhing shadows, a difficult and agonising picture but one with an unusual, delightful but painful ending.
On marched the hours, round went the hands on the dining-room clock, and when the short one on the white clock-face pointed to five, he fell into a half-sleep. Alexei stirred occasionally, opening his narrowed eyes and mumbling indistinctly:
‘I’ll never make it… never get to the top of the stairs, I’m getting weaker, I’m going to fall… And she’s running so fast… boots, on the snow… You’ll leave a trail… wolves… Rrring, rrring…’
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