Myshlaevsky, Karas, and Shervinsky show up at the Turbins’ house. Myshlaevsky has shaved his moustache and is wearing a student’s coat and cap. Shervinsky is dressed in an immaculate black coat and bow tie. However, not only appearance but also relationships among them have significantly changed since the beginning of the war.
Find out more in Chapter XIV below. Enjoy the read!
That evening all the habitues of No. 13 began to converge on the house of their own accord. None of them had been cut off or driven away.
‘It’s him’, echoed the cry in Anyuta’s breast, and her heart fluttered like Lariosik’s bird. There had come a cautious tap at the little snow-covered window of the Turbins’ kitchen. Anyuta pressed her face to the window to make out the face. It was him, but without his moustache… Him… With both hands Anyuta smoothed down her black hair, opened the door into the porch, then from the porch into the snow-covered yard and Myshlaevsky was standing unbelievably close to her. A student’s overcoat with a beaver collar and a student’s peaked cap… his moustache was gone… but there was no mistaking his eyes, even in the half-darkness of the porch. The right one flecked with green sparks, like a Urals gemstone, and the left one dark and languorous… And he seemed to be shorter.
With a trembling hand Anyuta unfastened the latch, then the courtyard vanished and the patch of light from the open kitchen door vanished too, because Myshlaevsky’s coat had enveloped Anyuta and a very familiar voice whispered:
‘Hallo, Anyutochka… You’ll catch cold… Is there anyone in the kitchen, Anyuta?”
‘No one’, answered Anyuta, not knowing what she was saying, and also whispering for some reason. ‘How sweet his lips have become…’ she thought blissfully and whispered: ‘Viktor Viktororich… let me go… Elena…’
‘What’s Elena to do with it’, whispered the voice reproachfully, a voice smelling of eau-de-cologne and tobacco. ‘What’s the matter with you, Anyutochka…’
‘Let me go, I’ll scream, honestly I will’, said Anyuta passionately as she embraced Myshlaevsky round the neck. ‘Something terrible’s happened – Alexei Vasilievich’s wounded…’
The boa-constrictor instantly released her. ‘What – wounded? And Nikolka?’
‘Nikolka’s safe and well, but Alexei Vasilievich has been wounded.’ The strip of light from the kitchen, then through more doors…
In the dining-room Elena burst into tears when she saw Myshlaevsky and said:
‘Vitka, you’re alive… Thank God… But we’re not so lucky…’ She sobbed and pointed to the door of Alexei’s room. ‘His temperature’s forty… badly wounded…’
‘Holy Mother’, said Myshlaevsky, pushing his cap to the back of his head. ‘How did he get caught?’
He turned to the figure at the table bending over a bottle and some shining metal boxes.
‘Are you a doctor, may I ask?’
‘No, unfortunately’, answered a sad, muffled voice. ‘Allow me to introduce myself: Larion Surzhansky.’
The drawing-room. The door into the lobby was shut and the portiere drawn to prevent the noise and the sound of voices from reaching Alexei. Three men had just left his bedroom and driven away – one with a pointed beard and gold pince-nez, another clean shaven, young, and finally one who was gray and old and wise, wearing a heavy fur coat and a tall fur hat, a professor, Alexei’s old teacher. Elena had seen them out, her face stony. She had pretended that Alexei had typhus, and now he had it.
‘Apart from the wound – typhus…’
The column of mercury showed forty and… ‘Julia’… A feverish flush, silence, and in the silence mutterings about a staircase and a telephone bell ringing…
‘Good day, sir’, Myshlaevsky whispered maliciously in Ukrainian, straddling his legs wide. Red-faced, Shervinsky avoided his look.
His black suit fitted immaculately; an impeccable shirt and a bow tie; patent-leather boots on his feet. ‘Artiste of Kramsky’s Opera Studio.’ There was a new identity-card in his pocket to prove it. ‘Why aren’t you wearing epaulettes, sir? Myshlaevsky went on. ‘ “The imperial Russian flag is waving on Vladimirskaya Street… Two divisions of Senegalese in the port of Odessa and Serbian billeting officers… Go to the Ukraine, gentlemen, and raise your regiments”… Remember all that, Shervinsky? Why, you mother-…’
‘What’s the matter with you?’ asked Shervinsky. ‘It’s not my fault is it? What did I have to do with it? I was nearly shot myself. I was the last to leave headquarters, exactly at noon, when the enemy’s troops appeared in Pechorsk.’ ‘You’re a hero’, said Myshlaevsky, ‘but I hope that his excellency, the commander-in-chief managed to get away sooner. Just like his highness, the Hetman of the Ukraine… the son of a bitch… I trust that he is in safety. The country needs men like him. Yes – perhaps you can tell me exactly where they are?’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘I’ll tell you why.’ Myshlaevsky clenched his right fist and smashed it into the palm of his left hand. ‘If those excellencies and those highnesses fell into my hands I’d take one of them by the left leg and the other by the right, turn them upside down and bang their heads on the ground until I got sick of it. And the rest of your bunch of punks at headquarters ought to be drowned in the lavatory…’
Shervinsky turned purple.
‘See here – you be more careful what you’re saying, if you please’, he began. ‘Don’t forget that the Hetman abandoned his headquarters staff too. He took no more than two personal aides with him, all the rest of us were just left to our fate.’
‘Do you realise that at this moment a thousand of our men are cooped up as prisoners in the museum, hungry, guarded by machine-guns… And whenever they feel inclined, Petlyura’s men will simply squash them like so many bed-bugs. Did you know that Colonel Nai-Turs was killed? He was the only one who…’
‘Keep your distance!’ shouted Shervinsky, now genuinely angry. ‘What do you mean by that tone of voice? I’m as much a Russian officer as you are!’
‘Now, gentlemen, stop!’ Karas wedged himself between Myshlaevsky and Shervinsky. ‘This is a completely pointless conversation. He’s right, Viktor – you’re being too personal. Stop it, this is getting us nowhere…’
‘Quiet, quiet,’ Nikolka whispered miserably, ‘he’ll hear you…’ Embarrassed, Myshlaevsky changed his tune.
‘Don’t get upset, Mr Opera-singer. I get carried away… you know me.’ ‘Funny way you have…’
‘Gentlemen, please be quiet…’ Nikolka gave a warning look and tapped his foot on the floor. They all stopped and listened. Voices were coming from Vasilisa’s apartment below. They could just make out the sound of Vasilisa laughing cheerfully, though a shade hysterically. As if in reply, Wanda said something in a confident, ringing voice. Then they quietened down a little, the voices burbling on for a while.
‘How extraordinary’, said Nikolka thoughtfully. ‘Vasilisa has visitors. People to see him. And at a time like this. A real party too, by the sound of it.’
‘He’s weird all right, is your Vasilisa’, grunted Myshlaevsky.
It was around midnight that Alexei fell asleep after his injection, and Elena settled down in the armchair by his bedside. Meanwhile, a council of war was taking place in the drawing-room.
It was decided that they should all stay for the night. Firstly, it was pointless to try and go anywhere at night, even with papers that were in order. Secondly, it would be better for Elena if they stayed – they could help in case it was needed. And above all, at a time like this it was better not to be at home, but to be out visiting. An even more pressing reason was that there was no alternative; here at least they could play whist.
‘Do you play?’ Myshlaevsky asked Lariosik.
Lariosik blushed, looked embarrassed, and said hastily that he did play, but very, very badly… that he hoped they wouldn’t swear at him in the way his partner, the tax inspector, used to swear at him in Zhitomir… that he had been through a terrible crisis, but that here in Elena Vasilievna’s house he was regaining his spirits, that Elena Vasilievna was a quite exceptional person and that it was so warm and cosy here, especially the cream-colored blinds on all the windows, which made you feel insulated from the outside world… And as for that outside world – you had to agree it was filthy, bloody and senseless. ‘Do you write poetry, may I ask?’ Myshlaevsky asked, staring intently at Lariosik.
‘Yes, I do’, Lariosik said modestly, blushing.
‘I see… Sorry I interrupted you… Senseless, you were saying. Please go on.’
‘Yes, senseless, and our wounded souls look for peace somewhere like here, behind cream-colored blinds…’
‘Well, as for peace, I don’t know what things are like in Zhitomir, but I don’t think you’ll find it here, in the City… Better give your throat a good wetting with vodka before we start, or you’ll feel very dry. May we have some candles? Excellent. In that case someone will have to stand down. Playing five-handed, with one dummy, is no good…’
‘Nikolka plays like a dummy, anyway’, put in Karas.
‘What? What a libel! Who lost hands down last time? You revoked.’
‘The right place to live is behind cream-colored blinds. I don’t know why, but everyone seems to laugh at poets…’
‘God forbid… Why did you take my question amiss? I’ve nothing against poets. I admit I don’t read poetry but…’
‘And you’ve never read any other books either except for the artillery manual and the first fifteen pages of Roman law… the war broke out on page sixteen and he gave it up…’
‘Nonsense, don’t listen to him… What is your name and patronymic – Larion Ivanovich?’
Lariosik explained that he was called Larion Larionovich, but he found the company so congenial, which wasn’t so much company as a friendly family and he would like it very much if they simply called him ‘Larion’ without his patronymic… Provided, of course, no one had any objections.
‘Seems a decent fellow…’ the usually reserved Karas whispered to Shervinsky.
‘Good… let’s get down to the game, then… He’s lying, of course. If you really want to know, I’ve read War and Peace. Now there’s a book for you. Read it right through – and enjoyed it. Why? Because it wasn’t written by any old scribbler but by an artillery officer. Have you drawn a ten? Right, you’re my partner… Karas partners Shervinsky… Out you go, Nikolka.’ ‘Only don’t swear at me please’, begged Lariosik in a nervous voice. ‘What’s the matter with you? We’re not cannibals, you know – we won’t eat you! I can see the tax inspectors in Zhitomir must be a terrible breed. They seem to have frightened the life out of you… We play a very strict game here.’
‘So you’ve no need to worry’, said Shervinsky as he sat down.
‘Two spades… Ye . es… now there was a writer for you, Lieutenant Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy of the artillery… Pity he left the army… pass… he’d have made general… Instead of retiring to his estate, where anyone might turn to novel-writing out of boredom… nothing to do in those long winter evenings. Easy enough in the country. No ace…’
‘Three diamonds’, said Lariosik shyly. ‘Pass’, answered Karas.
‘What’s all this about being a bad player? You play very well. You deserve to be congratulated, not sworn at. Well then, if you call three diamonds, I’ll say four spades. I wouldn’t mind going to my estate myself at the moment…’
‘Four diamonds’, Nikolka prompted Lariosik, glancing at his cards. ‘Four? Pass.’
In the flickering light of the candle, amid the cigarette smoke, Lariosik nervously bought more cards. Like spent cartridges flicking out of a rifle Myshlaevsky dealt the players a card apiece.
‘A low spade’, he announced, adding encouragingly to Lariosik: ‘Well done!’
The cards flew out of Myshlaevsky’s hands as noiselessly as maple leaves, Shervinsky threw down neatly, Karas harder and more clumsily. Sighing, Lariosik put down his cards as gently as if each one was an identity card.
‘Aha,’ said Karas, ‘so that’s your game – king-on-queen.’
Myshlaevsky suddenly turned purple, flung his cards on the table and swivelling round to stare furiously at Lariosik, he roared:
‘Why the hell did you have to trump my queen? Eh, Larion?!’ ‘Good, Ha, ha, ha!’ Karas gloated. ‘Our trick I believe!’
A terrible noise broke out over the green table and the candle-flames stuttered. Waving his arms, Nikolka tried to calm the others down and rushed to shut the door and close the portiere.
‘I thought Fyodor Nikolaevich had a king’, Lariosik murmured faintly. ‘How could you think that…’ Myshlaevsky tried not to shout, which gave his voice a hoarse rasp that made it sound even more terrifying: ‘… when you bought it yourself and handed it to me? Eh? That’s a hell of a way to play’ – Myshlaevsky looked round at them all – ‘isn’t it? He said he came here for peace and quiet, didn’t he? Well, trumping your partner’s trick is a funny way to look for a peaceful life, I must say! This is a game of skill, dammit! You have to use your head, you know, this isn’t like writing poetry!’
‘Wait. Perhaps Karas…’
‘Perhaps what? Perhaps nothing. I’m sorry if that’s the way they play in Zhitomir, but to me it’s sheer murder! Don’t get me wrong… Pushkin and Lomonosov wrote poetry, they wouldn’t have pulled a trick like that…’
‘Oh, shut up Viktor. Why lose your temper with him? It happens to everybody.’
‘I knew it,’ mumbled Lariosik, ‘I knew I’d be unlucky…’ ‘Ssh. Stop…’
There was instant, total silence. Far away, through many closed doors, a bell trembled in the kitchen. Pause. Then came the click of footsteps, doors were opened, and Anyuta came into the room. Elena passed quickly through the lobby. Myshlaevsky drummed on the green baize cloth and said:
‘A bit early, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it is’, said Nikolka, who regarded himself as the expert on house – searches.
‘Shall I open the door?’ Anyuta asked uneasily.
‘No, Anna Timofeyevna,’ replied Myshlaevsky, ‘wait a moment.’ He rose groaning from his chair. ‘Let me go to the door, don’t you bother ‘We’ll both go’, said Karas.
‘Right’, said Myshlaevsky, suddenly looking exactly as if he were standing in front of a platoon of troops. ‘I assume everything is all right in the bedroom… Doctor Turbin has typhus. Elena, you’re his sister… Karas – you pretend to be a doctor… no, a medical student. Go into the bedroom, make it look convincing. Fiddle about with a hypodermic or something… There are quite a lot of us… we should be all right…’
The bell rang again impatiently, Anyuta gave a start; they all looked anxious.
‘No hurry’, said Myshlaevsky as he took a small toy-like black revolver from his hip-pocket.
‘That’s too risky’, said Shervinsky, frowning. ‘I’m surprised at you. You of all people ought to be more careful. D’you mean to say you walked through the streets carrying it?’
‘Don’t worry,’ Myshlaevsky replied calmly and politely, ‘we’ll take care of it. Take it, Nikolka, and if necessary throw it out of a window or out of the back door. If it’s Petlyura’s men at the door, I’ll cough. Then throw it out – only throw it so that we can find it again afterwards. I’m fond of this little thing, it went with me all the way to Warsaw… Everyone ready?’
‘Ready’, said Nikolka grimly and proudly as he took the revolver.
‘Right.’ Myshlaevsky poked Shervinsky in the chest with his finger, and said: ‘You’re a singer, invited to give a recital.’ To Karas: ‘You’re a doctor, come to see Alexei.’ To Nikolka: ‘You’re the brother.’ To Lariosik: ‘You’re a student and you’re a lodger here. Got an identity card?’
‘I have a tsarist passport,’ said Lariosik turning pale, ‘and a student identity card from Kharkov University.’
‘Hide the tsarist one and show your student card.’
Lariosik clutched at the portiere, pushed it aside and went out.
‘The women don’t matter’, Myshlaevsky went on. ‘Right – has everybody got identity cards? Nothing suspicious in your pockets? Hey, Larion! Somebody ask him if he’s carrying a weapon.’
‘Larion!’ Nikolka called out from the dining-room. ‘Do you have a gun?’ ‘No, God forbid’, answered Larion from somewhere in the depths of the apartment.
Again there came a long, desperate, impatient ring at the doorbell.
‘Well, here goes’, said Myshlaevsky and made for the door. Karas disappeared into Alexei’s bedroom.
‘I’ll make it look as if someone’s playing patience’, said Sher-vinsky and blew out the candles.
There were three doors to pass through to get into the Turbins’ apartment. The first was from the lobby on to the staircase, the second was a glass door which marked off the limit of the Turbins’ property. Beyond the glass door and downstairs was a cold, dark hallway, on one side of which was the Lisovichs’ front door; at the end of the hallway was the third door giving on to the street.
Doors slammed, and Myshlaevsky could be heard downstairs shouting: ‘Who’s there?’
Behind him at the top of the stairs he sensed the shadowy figures of his friends, listening. Outside a muffled voice said imploringly:
‘How many more times do I have to ring? Does Mrs Talberg-Turbin live here? Telegram for her. Open up.’
‘This is an old trick’, Myshlaevsky thought to himself, and he began coughing hard. One of the figures on the staircase disappeared indoors. Cautiously Myshlaevsky opened the bolt, turned the key and opened the door, leaving the chain in position.
‘Give me the telegram’, he said, standing sideways to the door so that he was invisible to the person outside. A hand in a gray sleeve pushed itself through and handed him a little envelope. To his astonishment Myshlaevsky realised that it really was a telegram.
‘Sign please’, said the voice behind the door angrily.
With a quick glance Myshlaevsky saw that there was only one person standing outside.
‘Anyuta, Anyuta’, he shouted cheerfully, his bronchitis miraculously cured. ‘Give me a pencil.’
Instead of Anyuta, Karas ran down and handed him a pencil. On a scrap of paper torn from the flap of the envelope Myshlaevsky scribbled ‘Tur’, whispering to Karas:
‘Give me twenty-five…’
The door was slammed shut and locked.
In utter amazement Myshlaevsky and Karas climbed up the staircase. All the others had gathered in the lobby. Elena tore open the envelope and began mechanically reading aloud:
‘Lariosik suffered terrible misfortune stop. Operetta singer called Lipsky…’
‘My God!’ shouted Lariosik, scarlet in the face. ‘It’s the telegram from my mother!’
‘Sixty-three words’, groaned Nikolka. ‘Look, they’ve had to write all round the sides and on the back!’
‘Oh lord!’ Elena exclaimed. ‘What have I done? Lariosik, please forgive me for starting to read it out aloud. I’d completely forgotten about it…’
‘What’s it all about?’ asked Myshlaevsky.
‘His wife’s left him’, Nikolka whispered in his ear. ‘Terrible scandal…’
The apartment was suddenly invaded by a deafening noise of hammering on the glass door as if it had been hit by a landslide. Anyuta screamed. Elena turned pale, and started to collapse against the wall. The noise was so monstrous, so horrifying and absurd that even Myshlaevsky’s expression changed. Shervinsky, pale himself, caught Elena… A groan came from Alexei’s bedroom.
‘The door’, shrieked Elena.
Completely forgetting their strategic plan Myshlaevsky ran down the staircase, followed by Karas, Shervinsky and the mortally frightened Lariosik.
‘Sounds bad’, muttered Myshlaevsky.
A single black silhouette could be seen beyond the frosted-glass door.
The noise stopped.
‘Who’s there?’ roared Myshlaevsky in his parade-ground voice.
‘For God’s sake, open up. It’s me, Lisovich… Lisovich!’ screamed the black silhouette. ‘It’s me – Lisovich…’
Vasilisa was a terrible sight. His hair, with pink bald patches showing through, was wildly dishevelled. His necktie was pulled sideways and the tails of his jacket flapped like the doors of a broken closet. His eyes had the blurred, unfocused look of someone who has been poisoned. He reached the first step, then suddenly swayed and collapsed into Myshlaevsky’s arms. Myshlaevsky caught him, but he was off-balance. He sat back heavily on to the stairs and shouted hoarsely:
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