“The White Guard”, Chapter XIII – Weekly Reads
Being chased by Petlura`s men, Aleksei has been wounded. He feared that it was the end, but a mysterious woman reaches out and pulls him into a narrow alleyway, leading him up a stairwell and into her apartment. Who is this saviour?
Find out more in Chapter XIII below. Enjoy the read!
The last time that Alexei had heard the sound of a bell ringing was when he had been running out of the back door of Madame Anjou’s sensually perfumed boutique. The door bell rang. Someone had just come to the door of the shop, possibly someone like Alexei himself, a straggler from the Mortar Regiment, but equally possibly an enemy in pursuit. In any case, there was no question of going back into the shop, which would have been a totally superfluous piece of heroics.
A slippery flight of steps took Alexei down into the yard. There he could quite plainly hear the sound of rifle-fire very close by, somewhere on the broad street which sloped down to the Kresh-chatik, possibly even as close as the museum. It was now obvious that he had wasted too much time musing sadly in the twilit shop and that Malyshev had been quite right in advising him to hurry. His heart-beat quickened with anxiety.
Looking round, Alexei saw that the long and endlessly tall yellow box- like building which housed Madame Anjou’s boutique extended backwards into an enormous courtyard and that this courtyard stretched as far as a low wall dividing it from the adjoining property, the head office of the railroad. Glancing around through narrowed eyes Alexei set off across the open space straight towards the wall. There was a gate in it, which to his great surprise was unlocked, and he passed through it into the grim courtyard of the empty railroad building, whose blind, ugly little windows heightened the sense of desolation. Passing through the building under an echoing archway, Alexei emerged from the asphalted passageway on to the street. It was exactly four o’clock in the afternoon by the old clock on the tower of the house opposite, and just starting to get dark. The street was completely deserted. Nagged by an uncomfortable presentiment Alexei again looked grimly around and turned, not uphill but down towards the Golden Gates which loomed up, covered in snow, in the middle of the wet, slushy square. A solitary pedestrian ran towards Alexei with a frightened look and vanished.
An empty street always looks depressing, but here the feeling was augmented by an uncomfortable sense of foreboding somewhere in the pit of Alexei’s stomach. Scowling in order to overcome his indecision – he had to go in some direction, he couldn’t fly home through the air – he turned up his coat collar and set off.
He soon realised part of the reason for his unease – the gunfire had suddenly stopped. It had been booming away almost without cease for the past two weeks, and now there was silence in the surrounding sky. Yet in town, in fact right ahead of him down on the Kreshchatik, he could plainly hear bursts of rifle-fire. Alexei should have turned sharp left at the Golden Gates along a side-street, and then by keeping close to the back of St Sophia’s Cathedral, he could have slipped home through a network of alleyways. If Alexei had done this, life would have turned out quite differently, but he did not do it. There is a kind of power which sometimes makes us turn and look over a mountain precipice, which draws us to experience the chill of fear and to the edge of the abyss. It was the same instinct which now made Alexei head towards the museum. He simply had to see, even if from a distance, just what was going on there; and instead of turning away Alexei took ten unnecessary steps and walked into Vladimirskaya Street. At this point an inner voice of alarm prompted him and he distinctly heard Malyshev’s voice whispering ‘Run!’ Alexei looked to his right, towards the distant museum. He managed to catch a glimpse of part of the museum’s white wall, the towering dome and a few small black figures scuttling into the distance… and that was all.
Coming straight toward him up the slope of Proreznaya Street from the Kreshchatik, veiled in a distant frosty haze, a herd of little gray men in soldiers’ greatcoats was advancing, strung out across the whole width of the street. They were not far away – thirty paces at the most. It was instantly obvious that they had been on the move for a long time and were showing signs of exhaustion. Not his eyes, but some irrational movement of his heart told Alexei that these were Petlyura’s troops.
‘Caught’, Malyshev’s voice said clearly from the pit of his stomach.
The next few seconds were effaced from Alexei’s life and he never knew what happened in them. He only became conscious of himself again when he was round the corner in Vladimirskaya Street, his head hunched between his shoulders, and running on legs which were carrying him as fast as they could go, away from the fatal corner of Proreznaya Street, by the French patisserie, La Marquise.
‘Come on, come on, come on, keep going… keep going…’ The blood in his temples beat time to his pace.
For a little while there was still no sound from behind. If only he could turn into a razor blade and slip into a crack in the wall. But inevitably the silence was broken:
‘Stop!’ A hoarse voice shouted at Alexei’s retreating back. ‘This is it’, from the pit of his stomach.
‘Stop!’ the voice repeated urgently.
Alexei Turbin looked around and even stopped for a second, because of a crazy, momentary thought that he might pretend to be a peaceful citizen. I’m just going about my business… leave me alone… His pursuer was about fifteen paces away and hurriedly unslinging his rifle. The moment the doctor turned around, amazement showed in the eyes of the pursuer and the doctor thought they were squinting, mongoloid eyes. A second figure dashed round the corner, tugging at his rifle-bolt. The astonishment on the first man’s face changed to an incomprehensible, savage joy.
‘Hey!’ he shouted, ‘Look, Petro – an officer!’ At that moment he looked exactly like a hunter who had spotted a hare on the path right in front of him.
‘What the hell? How do they know?’ The thought struck Alexei like a hammer-blow.
The second man’s rifle was suddenly reduced to a tiny black hole no bigger than a ten-kopeck piece. Alexei then felt himself turn and fly like an arrow up Vladimirskaya Street, desperate because his felt boots were slowing him down. Above and behind him came a whip-crack through the air – crack- thump…
‘Stop! Get him!’ Another crack. ‘Get that officer!’ The whole of Vladimirskaya Street echoed to the baying of the pack. Twice more the air was split by a high-pitched report.
A man only has to be chased with firearms for him to turn into a cunning wolf: in place of his weak, and in really desperate situations useless intellect, the wisdom of animal instinct will suddenly take over. Turning the corner of Malo-Provalnaya Street like a hunted wolf, Alexei caught a glimpse of the black rifle-muzzle behind him suddenly blotted out by a pale ring of fire. Putting on a spurt he swerved into Malo-Provalnaya Street, making a life-and-death choice for the second time in the course of the last five minutes.
Instinct told him that the men were chasing him hard and obstinately, that they wouldn’t stop and that once they had caught up with him they would inevitably kill him. They would kill him because he had turned and run, there was not a single identification paper in his pocket, there was a revolver, and he was wearing a gray coat. They would kill him because men in pursuit might miss once, might miss twice, but the third time they would hit him. Third time lucky. It was a law as old as mankind. That meant that with these heavy felt boots on his feet he had about another half minute, and then it would be over. Once he realised that it was irrevocable, a wave of fear passed right through his body, out of his feet and into the ground. But it was at once replaced, like icy water creeping up his legs, by a savage fury which he exhaled with his panting breath. Already he was glancing wolfishly about him as he ran. Two of the gray men, followed by a third, rushed around the corner of Vladimirskaya Street and all three rifles flashed in turn. Slowing down, gritting his teeth, Alexei fired three shots at them without aiming. He quickened his pace again, dimly noticing ahead of him a slight black shadow pressed up against the wall alongside a drainpipe, then he felt as though someone with wooden pincers was tugging at his side under his left armpit, which made him run jerkily in an odd, crooked, sideways fashion. Turning round again he carefully fired three shots, deliberately stopping himself when he had fired his sixth round:
‘Keep the last one for myself. Think of Elena and Nikolka. Done for. They’ll torture me, carve epaulettes on my shoulders with their knives. Keep the seventh one for myself.’
Limping sideways, he had an odd sensation: although he could feel the weight of the revolver in his right hand, it was his left arm which was somehow growing heavier. He had to stop. He was out of breath and he would never get away. Nevertheless Alexei somehow reached the turn of that most beautiful street in the world, disappeared round the corner and gained a brief respite. The prospect looked hopeless: that wrought-iron doorway was firmly shut, those huge double doors over there were bolted… He remembered a stupid old proverb: ‘Don’t give up, brother, till you hit bottom.’
Then, in one miraculous moment, he saw her beside a black, moss- grown wall that almost hid a row of trees in the garden behind it. Half collapsing against the wall, she was stretching out her arms and like the heroine in a melodrama her huge, terror-stricken eyes shone as she screamed:
‘You – officer! Here! Here…’
His felt boots slipping, breathing in ragged, hot gulps, Alexei stumbled towards the rescuing arms and threw himself after them through the narrow gateway in the black wooden wall. Instantly everything changed. The woman pushed the gate to close the gap in the wall, the lock clicked shut. Alexei found her eyes close to his. In them he was vaguely conscious of determination, energy and blackness.
‘Follow me’, the woman whispered as she turned and ran along the narrow brick-paved path. Alexei ran very slowly after her. The walls of courtyards flashed past to his left, then the woman turned. To his right was what looked like a beautiful white terraced garden. Stopping at a low fence the woman passed through another gate, and Alexei followed her, panting. She slammed the gate shut. A shapely black-stockinged leg flashed before his eyes, there was a swish of her coat and she was climbing nimbly up a brick stairway. Alexei’s sharpened hearing could hear the sounds of his pursuers in the street which they had left behind. There… they had just turned the corner and were looking for him. ‘She might have saved me… might have…’ thought Alexei, ‘but I don’t think I shall make it… my heart.’ Suddenly he collapsed on to his left knee and his left hand at the very top of the steps. Everything started to revolve. The woman bent down and gripped Alexei under his right arm.
‘Just a little… a little bit further!’ she screamed. Fumbling wildly with her left hand she opened a third little wicket gate, pulled along the stumbling Alexei by his arm and began running again along a tiny narrow alleyway. ‘What a labyrinth… thank God for it, though’, Alexei thought hazily as he found himself in the white garden, but now at a much higher level and mercifully far away from Malo-Provalnaya Street. He felt the woman pulling him, felt that his left side and arm were very hot while the rest of his body was cold and his icy heart scarcely beating. ‘She might have saved me, but this is the end now… legs getting weaker…’ He dimly saw what looked like some lilac bushes under the snow, a door, a lantern hanging outside an old-fashioned porch covered in snow. There was the sound of a key. The woman was still there at his right side and was straining with the last of her strength to drag Alexei toward the lantern. Then after the sound of a second key, into the gloom of a place with an old, lived-in smell. Overhead a dim little light flared, the floor skidded sideways to the left under his feet… Some unfamiliar poison-green blobs with fiery edges flashed past his eyes, and in the darkness that followed he felt a great relief…
A row of tarnished brass knobs in the dim, flickering light. Something cold was running down his open shirt-front, enabling him to breathe more easily, but his left sleeve was full of a damp, ominous, lifeless warmth. ‘That’s it. I’m wounded.’ Alexei realised that he was lying on the floor, his head leaning painfully against something hard and uncomfortable. The brass knobs in front of him belonged to a trunk. The cold, so great that it took his breath away, was her throwing water over him.
‘For God’s sake,’ said a faint, husky voice over his head, ‘drink this. Are you breathing? What am I to do now?’
A glass clattered against his teeth and Alexei noisily gulped down some icy cold water. Now, very close, he could see her fair curls and her dark, dark eyes. Squatting on her haunches the woman put down the glass on the floor and gently putting her arm behind his neck she began to lift Alexei up.
‘How’s my heart?’ he wondered. ‘Seem to be coming round… maybe I haven’t lost too much blood… must fight.’ His heart was beating, but fast, unevenly and in sudden jerks and Alexei said weakly:
‘Cut my clothes off if necessary, but whatever you do put on a tourniquet at once…’
Her eyes widened as she strained to hear him, then as she understood she jumped up and ran to a closet, and pulled out heaps of material.
Biting his lip, Alexei thought: ‘At least there’s no bloodstain on the floor, with luck I may not have been bleeding too hard.’ With the woman’s help he wriggled out of his coat and sat up, trying to ignore the dizziness. She began to take off his tunic.
‘Scissors’, said Alexei.
He was short of breath and it was hard to talk. The woman disappeared, sweeping the floor with the silk hem of her dress, and wrenched off her hat and fur coat in the lobby. Then she came back and squatted down again. With the scissors she sliced clumsily and painfully into the sleeve, already wet and sticky with blood, ripped it open and freed Alexei’s arm. The shirt was quickly dealt with. The whole left sleeve and side was dark red and soaking. Blood started to drip on to the floor.
‘Don’t worry, cut away…’
The shirt fell away in tatters and Alexei, white-faced, naked and yellow to the waist, blood-stained, determined to live and not to faint a second time, clenched his teeth and prodded his left shoulder with his right hand.
‘Thank God… bone’s not broken. Tear off a square or a long strip.’
‘I have a bandage’, she said weakly, but happily. She disappeared, returned, tearing open the wrapping of a bandage and saying: ‘There’s no one else here… I’m alone…’
Again she sat down beside him. Alexei saw the wound. It was a small hole in the upper arm, near the inner surface at the point where the arm lies closest to the body. A thin stream of blood was seeping out of it.
‘Wound on the other side?’ he asked jerkily and laconically, instinctively conserving the breath of life.
‘Yes, there is’, she said with horror.
‘Tie the tourniquet above it… yes, there… right.’
There came a new, violent pain, green rings danced before his eyes.
Alexei bit his lower lip.
She pulled from one side, he helped from the other end with his teeth and his right hand, until the burningly painful knot encircled his arm above the wound. At once the bleeding stopped.
The woman moved him thus: he got to his knees and put his right arm round her shoulder while she helped him to stand up on his weak, trembling legs, and led him into the next room, supporting him with her whole body. Around him in the twilight he saw deep, dark shadows in a very low, old- fashioned room. When she had sat him down on something soft and dusty, she turned aside and turned up the light in a cerise-shaded lamp. He made out a velvet fringe, part of a double-breasted frock-coat and a yellowish-gold epaulette in a frame on the wall. Stretching out her arms to Alexei and breathing heavily from excitement and exertion, she said:
‘I have some brandy… Perhaps you should have some?… Brandy?’ He replied:
‘Yes, right away…’
And collapsed on to his right elbow.
The brandy seemed to help, at least Alexei began to feel he might not die and might survive the pain which was gnawing and cutting into his shoulder. Kneeling, the woman bandaged his wounded arm, then sidled down to his feet and pulled off his felt boots. This done she brought him a pillow and a long Japanese robe that smelled faintly of a sweet, long-faded perfume and was embroidered with exotic sprays of flowers.
‘Lie down’, she said.
Obediently he lay down, she spread the robe over him and then a blanket, and stood beside the narrow ottoman looking in to his face.
‘You… you’re a remarkable woman.’ After a silence: ‘I’ll lie down for a bit until I get my strength back, then I’ll get up and go home… Just put up with me for a little longer.’
Fear and despair came over him. ‘What’s happened to Elena? Oh God, and Nikolka. Why did Nikolka have to die? He’s dead, for sure…’
She pointed silently at a little window, covered by a ruched blind with pompoms. Far away he clearly heard the crack of rifle-fire.
‘They’ll kill you at once if you try and go now’, she said.
‘I wouldn’t like to drag you into it… They may come suddenly, they’ll see a revolver, blood… there in my greatcoat pocket…’ He licked his dry lips. He was feeling slightly light-headed from the loss of blood and the brandy. The woman’s face looked frightened, then thoughtful.
‘No,’ she said resolutely, ‘no, if they had been going to find you they would already be here by now. This place is such a labyrinth that no one could find our tracks. We crossed through three gardens. But all the same I must clear up at once…’
He heard the splash of water, rustle of material, the sound of things being rearranged in closets. She returned holding his Browning automatic by the butt with two fingers as though it werered hot and asked:
‘Is it loaded?’
Pulling out his sound arm from under the blanket, Alexei tested the safety catch and said:
‘It won’t harm you, but only hold it by the butt.’ She came back again and said in embarrassment:
‘Just in case they do come… I shall have to take off your breeches…
Then you can lie there and I’ll say you’re my husband and you’re sick…’
Frowning and grimacing Alexei began to unbutton his breeches. She walked firmly up to the ottoman and knelt down, then put her hands under the blanket and having pulled off his breeches by the footstraps, folded them up and took them away. In the short time that she was away he noticed that the apartment was divided into two rooms by an arch. The ceilings were so low that if a grown man had stood on tiptoe he could have touched the ceiling with his hand. In the far room beyond the arch it was dark, but the varnished side of an old piano gleamed, there was something else shining and what looked like a flowering cactus. Nearby the wall was dominated by the portrait of the man in gold epaulettes.
God, the place was so full of antiques, it was like a museum! The epaulettes in the portrait fascinated him. A tallow candle in a candlestick gave a gentle light. There had once been peace and now peace was dead. Those years could not be brought back. Behind him were two small, low windows and another at his side. What was this funny little house? She lived alone. Who was she? She had saved him… no peace… shooting out on the streets…
She came in, laden with a pile of firewood and dropped it noisily in the corner by the stove.
‘What are you doing? Why bother?’ he asked irritably.
‘I had to light the stove anyway’, she answered with a hint of a smile in her eyes. ‘I can manage…’
‘Come here’, Alexei asked her quietly. ‘Look, I haven’t thanked you for everything you’ve… done… And I don’t know how to…’ He stretched out his hand and took her fingers. As she obediently drew nearer he kissed her thin wrist twice. Her face softened as though a shadow of anxiety had been lifted from it and in that moment her eyes looked extraordinarily beautiful.
‘If it hadn’t been for you,’ Alexei went on, ‘I would certainly have been killed.’
‘Of course,’ she replied, ‘of course you would… After all you did kill one of them.’
‘I killed one of them?’ he asked, feeling a new weakness as his head began to spin.
‘M’hm.’ She nodded approvingly and looked at Alexei with a mixture of fear and curiosity. ‘Oh, it was terrible… they almost shot me too.’ She shuddered.
‘How did I kill him?’
‘Well, they leaped round the corner, you began shooting and the man in front fell down… Perhaps you just wounded him. Anyway you were brave… I thought I was going to faint. You were running, turned round and shot at them, then ran on again… What are you – a captain?’
‘What made you think I was an officer? Why did you shout “officer” at me?’
Her eyes shone.
‘I decided you must be an officer when I saw your badge in your fur cap.
Why did you have to take such a risk by wearing your badge?’
‘Badge? Oh my God, of course… I see now…’ He remembered the shop bell ringing… the dusty mirror… ‘I ripped off everything else – but had to go and forget my badge! I’m not an officer,’ he said, ‘I’m just an army doctor. My name is Alexei Vasilievich Turbin… Please tell me – what is your name?’
‘I am Julia Alexandrovna Reiss.’ ‘Why are you alone?’
Her answer was somehow strained and she looked away as she said: ‘My husband’s not here at the moment. He went away. And his mother too. I’m alone…’ After a pause she added: ‘It’s cold in here. Brrr… I’ll light the stove.’
As the logs burned up in the stove his head ached with growing violence. His wound had stopped hurting him, all the pain was concentrated in his head. It began in his left temple, then spread to the crown of his head and the back of his neck. Some little vein under his left eyebrow tautened and radiated waves of desperate pain in all directions. Julia Reiss knelt down at the stove and raked the fire with a poker. Alternately opening and closing his eyes in pain, Alexei watched her as she turned her head aside from the heat, screening it with her pale wrist. Her hair seemed to be an indefinite color which at one moment looked ash-blond shot with flame, at the next almost gold; but her eyebrows were as coal-black as her eyes. He could not decide whether that irregular profile with its aquiline nose was beautiful or not. The look in her eyes was a riddle. There was fear, anxiety and perhaps – sensuality… Yes, sensuality.
As she sat there lapped in a wave of heat she was miraculously attractive. She had saved his life.
For hours that night, when the heat of the stove had long since died down and burned instead in his head and arm, someone was twisting a red-hot nail into the top of his head and destroying his brain. ‘I’ve got a fever’, Alexei repeated drily and soundlessly, and tried to instil into his mind that he must get up in the morning and somehow make his way home. As the nail bored into his brain it finally drove out his thoughts of Elena, of Nikolka, of home and of Petlyura. Nothing mattered. Peturra… Peturra… He could only long for one thing – for the pain to stop.
Deep in the night Julia Reiss came in wearing soft fur-trimmed slippers, and sat beside him and again, his arm weakly hooked around her neck, he passed through the two small rooms. Before this she had gathered her strength and said to him:
‘Get up, if only you can. Don’t pay any attention to me. I’ll help you.
Then lie right down… Well, if you can’t…’ He replied:
‘No, I’ll go… only help me…’
She led him to the little door of that mysterious house and then helped him back. As he lay down, his teeth chattering from the cold, he felt some lessening and respite from his headache and said:
‘I swear I won’t forget what you’ve done. Go to bed…’
‘Be quiet, I’ll soothe your head’, she replied.
Then the dull, angry pain flowed out of his head, flowed away from his temples into her soft hands, through them and through her body into the floor, covered with a dusty, fluffy carpet, and there it expired. Instead of the pain a delicious even heat spread all over his body. His arm had gone numb and felt as heavy as cast-iron, so he did not move it but merely closed his eyes and gave himself up to the fever. How long he lay there he could not have said: perhaps five minutes, perhaps hours. But he felt that he could have lain like that, bathed in heat, for ever. Whenever he opened his eyes, gently so as not to alarm the woman sitting beside him, he saw the same picture: the little lamp burning weakly but steadily under its red shade giving out a peaceful light, and the woman’s unsleeping profile beside him. Her lips pouting like an unhappy child, she sat staring out of the window. Basking in the heat of fever, Alexei stirred and edged towards her…
‘Bend over me’, he said. His voice had become dry, weak and high- pitched. She turned to him, her eyes took on a frightened guarded look and the shadows around them deepened. Alexei put his right arm around her neck, pulled her to him and kissed her on the lips. It seemed to him that he was touching something sweet-tasting and cold. The woman was not surprised by what Alexei did, but only gazed more searchingly into his face. Then she said: ‘God, how hot you. are. What are we going to do? We ought to call a doctor, but how are we going to do it?’
‘No need’, Alexei replied gently. ‘I don’t need a doctor. Tomorrow I’ll get up and go home.’
‘I’m so afraid,’ she whispered, ‘that you’ll get worse. Then how can I help you? It’s not bleeding any more, is it?’ She touched his bandaged arm so lightly that he did not feel it.
‘Don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen to me. Lie down and sleep.’
‘I’m not going to leave you’, she answered, caressing his hand. ‘You have such a fever.’
He could not stop himself from embracing her again and drawing her to him. She did not resist. He drew her until she was leaning right over him. Then, as she lay down beside him he sensed through his own sickly heat the clear live warmth of her body.
‘Lie down and don’t move,’ she whispered, ‘and I’ll soothe your head.’
She stretched out alongside him and he felt the touch of her knees. She began to smooth back his hair from his temples. He felt such pleasure that he could only think of how to prevent himself from falling asleep.
But he did fall asleep, and slept long, peacefully and well. When he awoke he felt that he was floating in a boat on a river of warmth, that all his pain had gone, and that outside the night was turning gradually paler and paler. Not only the little house but the City and the whole world were full of silence. A glassy, limpid blue light was pouring through the gaps in the blinds. The woman, warm from his body, but with her face set in a look of unhappiness, was asleep beside him. And he went to sleep again.
In the morning, around nine o’clock, one of the rare cab-drivers took on two passengers on the deserted Malo-Provalnaya Street -a man in a black civilian overcoat, looking very pale, and a woman. Carefully supporting the man by the arm, the woman drove him to St Alexei’s Hill. There was no traffic on the hill, except for a cab outside No. 13 which had just brought a strange visitor with a trunk, a bundle and a cage.
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