“The White Guard”, Chapter XIX – Weekly Reads
We are approaching the end of the novel. By 2 February, Aleksei, who had recovered enough to receive patients, was standing looking out the window. He could again hear gunfire in the distance. Has a new life commenced? Can it really be?
Find out in Chapter XIX below. Enjoy the read!
Petlyura. His days in the City numbered forty-seven. Frozen, icy and dusted with snow, January 1919 flew over the heads of the Turbins, and February came, wrapped in a blizzard.
On February 2nd a black figure with a shorn head covered by a black skull cap began to walk about the Turbins’ apartment. It was Alexei, risen again. He was greatly changed. On his face two deep furrows had etched themselves, apparently for ever, into the corners of his mouth, there was a wax-like colour to his skin, his eyes were sunk in shadow and were permanently unsmiling and grim.
In the Turbins’ drawing-room, just as he had done forty-seven days ago, he leaned against the window-pane and listened, and, as before, when all that could be seen were twinkling lights and snow, like an opera-set, there came the distant boom of gunfire. Frowning hard, Alexei leaned with all his weight on a stick and looked out at the street. He noticed that the days had grown magically longer, and there was more light, despite the fact that there was a blizzard outside, swirling with millions of snowflakes.
Harsh, clear and cheerless, his thoughts flowed on beneath the silk skullcap. His head felt light and empty, like some strange, unfamiliar box sitting on his shoulders, and the thoughts seemed to enter his mind from outside and in a sequence chosen by them. Alexei was glad to be alone by the window and stared out:
‘Petlyura… Tonight, at the latest, he will be thrown out and there will be no more Petlyura. Did he ever even exist, though? Or did I dream it all? No way of telling. Lariosik is really very nice. He fits into the family very well – in fact we need him. I must thank him for the way he helped to nurse me… What about Shervinsky? Oh, God knows… That’s the trouble with women. Elena’s bound to get tied up with him, it’s inevitable… What is it about him that makes him so attractive to women? Is it his voice? He has a splendid voice, but after all one can listen to someone’s voice without marrying him, can’t one? But that’s not really important. What is important, though? Ah yes, it was Shervinsky himself who was saying that they had red stars in their caps… I suppose that means trouble again in the City? Bound to be… Well, tonight it must be. Their wagon-trains are already moving through the streets… Nevertheless, I’ll go, I’ll go in daytime… And take it to her… I’m a murderer. No, I fired in battle, in self-defense. Or I wounded the man. Who does she live with? Where is her husband? And Malyshev. Where is he now? Swallowed up by the ground. And Maxim, the old school janitor… and what’s become of the Alexander I High School?’
As his thoughts flowed on they were interrupted by the doorbell. There was no one in the apartment besides Anyuta, they had all gone into town in the attempt to finish all they had to do while it was still light.
‘If it’s a patient, show him in, Anyuta.’
‘Very well, Alexei Vasilievich.’
A man followed Anyuta up the staircase, took off his mohair overcoat and went into the drawing-room.
‘Please come in here’, said Alexei.
A thin, yellowish young man in a gray tunic rose from his chair. His eyes were clouded and staring. In his white coat, Alexei stood aside and ushered the man into the consulting-room.
‘Sit down, please. What can I do for you?’
‘I have syphilis’, said the visitor in a husky voice, staring steadily and gloomily at Alexei.
‘Have you already had treatment?’
‘Yes, but the treatment was bad and ineffective. It didn’t help much.’
‘Who sent you to me?’
‘The vicar of St Nicholas’ Church, Father Alexander.’
‘You mean you know him?’
‘I have been saying confession to him, and what the saintly old man has had to say to me has brought me great relief, explained the visitor, staring out at the sky. ‘I didn’t need treatment. Or so I thought. I should have patiently borne this trial visited upon me by God for my terrible sin, but the father persuaded me that my reasoning was false. And I have obeyed him.’
Alexei gazed intently into the patient’s pupils and began by testing his reflexes. But the pupils of the owner of the mohair coat seemed to be normal, except that they were filled with a profound, black sadness.
‘Well, now’, said Alexei as he put down his little hammer. ‘You are obviously a religious man.’
‘Yes, I think about God night and day. He is my only refuge and comforter.’
‘That is very good, of course,’ said Alexei, without taking his gaze from the patient’s eyes, ‘and I respect your views, but this is ray advice to you: while you are undergoing treatment, give up thinking so hard about God. The fact is that in your case it is beginning to develop into an idee fixe. And in your condition that’s harmful. You need fresh air, exercise and sleep.’
‘I pray at night.’
‘No, you must change that. You must reduce the time you spend praying.
It will fatigue you, and you need rest.’
The patient lowered his eyes in obedience.
He stood naked in front of Alexei and submitted himself to examination. ‘Have you been taking cocaine?’
‘That too was one of the degrading sins in which I indulged. But I don’t do it any longer.’
‘God knows… he may turn out to be a fraud and a thief… malingering. I’ll have to make sure there are no fur coats missing from the lobby when he leaves.’
Alexei drew a question mark on the patient’s chest with the handle of his hammer. The white mark turned red.
‘Stop this obsession with religion. In fact, give up thinking about things that are painful or disturbing. Get dressed. From tomorrow I shall start you on a course of mercury injections, then after a week I shall give you the first transfusion.’
‘Very well, doctor.’
‘No cocaine. No alcohol. And no women, either…’
‘I have given up women and intoxicants. And I shun the company of evil men’, said the patient as he buttoned up his shirt. ‘The evil genius of my life, the forerunner of the Antichrist, has departed for the city of the devil.’
‘My dear fellow, stop it,’ Alexei groaned, ‘or you’ll end up in a psychiatric clinic. Who is this Antichrist you’re talking about?’
‘I’m talking about his precursor, Mikhail Semyonovich Shpolyansky, a man with the eyes of a snake and black sideburns. He has gone away to Moscow, to the kingdom of the Antichrist, to give the signal for a horde of fallen angels to descend on this City in punishment for the sins of its inhabitants. Just as once Sodom and Gomorrah…’
‘By fallen angels I suppose you mean Bolsheviks? Agreed. But I still insist you clear your mind of these thoughts… You’d better take bromide. A teaspoonful three times a day.’
‘He’s young. But he is as full of corruption as a thousand-year-old devil. He leads women into debauchery, young men to sin, and already the war- trumpets of the legions of evil are sounding and behind them is seen the countenance of Satan himself.’
‘Yes, that is the name the Evil One has taken. But his real name in Hebrew is Abaddonna, in Greek Apollyon, which means “the destroyer”.’
‘I’m telling you seriously that unless you stop this you, well… it’s developing into a mania with you…’
‘No, doctor, I’m quite normal. What is the fee, doctor, for your sacred work?’
‘Look, why do you keep using the word “sacred”? I see nothing particularly sacred in my work. I charge the same for a course of treatment as every other doctor. If you want me to treat you, leave a deposit.’
He unbuttoned his tunic.
‘Perhaps you’re short of money’, muttered Alexei, glancing at the threadbare knees of his patient’s trousers. ‘No, he’s no swindler… or burglar… but he may go out of his mind.’
‘No, doctor, I’ll raise the money. In your own way you ease the lot of mankind.’
‘And sometimes very successfully. Now please be sure and take exactly the prescribed amount of bromide.’
‘With respect, doctor, it is only above that we can obtain complete relief.’ With an inspired gesture the patient pointed up to the white ceiling. ‘Now we can all look forward to a time of trial such as we have never seen… And it will come very soon.’
‘Thanks for the warning. I have already experienced quite enough of a trial.’
‘There will be no escaping it, doctor. No escape’, muttered the patient, as he struggled into his mohair overcoat in the lobby. ‘For it is written: the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.’
…Where have I heard that before? Ah yes, of course, when I was talking politics with the priest. So he’s found a kindred spirit – remarkable… ‘Take my advice and don’t spend so much time reading the Book of Revelations. I repeat, it’s doing you harm. Goodbye. Tomorrow at six, please. Anyuta, show the patient out, please…’
‘Don’t refuse it… I wanted the person who saved my life to have something to remember me by… this bracelet belonged to my late mother…’
‘No, you mustn’t… What for?… I don’t want you to…’ replied Julia Reiss, warding off Alexei with a gesture. But he insisted and fastened the dark, heavy metal bracelet around her pale wrist. It made her look altogether more beautiful… even in the half-light he could see her blushing.
Unable to help himself, Alexei put his right arm around Julia’s neck, drew her to him and kissed her several times on the cheek. As he did so his walking-stick dropped from his weakened hand and it fell noisily against the legs of a chair.
‘Go…’ whispered Julia, ‘you must go now. Before it’s too late. Petlyura’s wagons are driving through the streets. Take care they don’t catch you.’
‘You are very dear to me’, whispered Alexei. ‘Please let me come and see you again.’
‘Yes, do come…’
‘Tell me, why are you alone and whose picture is that on the table? The dark man with sideburns.’
‘That’s my cousin’, replied Julia, lowering her eyes. ‘What is his name?’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘You saved me… I want to know.’
‘just because I saved you, does that give you the right to know? His name is Shpolyansky.’
‘Is he here?’
‘No, he’s left. Gone to Moscow. How inquisitive you are.’
Something stirred within Alexei and he stared for a long time at the black sideburns and black eyes. A gnawing, uncomfortable thought refused to leave him as he stared at the mouth and forehead of the chairman of the Magnetic Triolet club. But the thought was confused and indistinct… The forerunner. That wretched man in the mohair coat… What was it that was worrying him, nagging him? Still, who cares. To hell with him… As long as Alexei could come again to this strange, silent little house with its portrait of a man wearing epaulettes…
‘It’s time you were going.’
‘Nikolka? Is that you?’
The brothers met face to face on the lowest terrace of the mysterious garden behind Malo-Provalnaya Street. Nikolka seemed embarrassed, as though he had somehow been caught red-handed.
‘Alyosha! Yes, I’ve been to see the Nai-Turs family’, he explained, with a look as though he had been found climbing the fence after stealing apples.
‘Very right and proper. His mother is still alive, I hear.’
‘Yes. And his sister. You see, Alyosha… well, that’s how it is.’
Alexei gave Nikolka a sideways glance and did not ask any more questions.
The brothers walked half of the way home without saying a word. Then Alexei broke the silence:
‘Obviously fate, in the person of Petlyura, has brought both of us to Malo-Provalnaya Street. Well, I expect we’ll both be going back there again. And who knows what may come of it. Eh?’
Nikolka listened to this enigmatic remark with great interest and asked in his turn:
‘Have you been taking some news to somebody on Malo-Provalnaya too, Alyosha?’
‘M’hm’, answered Alexei. Turning up his coat collar, he buried his face in it and said no more until they reached home.
They were all at the Turbins’ for lunch on that historic day – Myshlaevsky, Karas and Shervinsky. It was their first meal together since Alexei had been lying in bed wounded. And everything was as before, except for one thing – there were no more brooding, full-blown roses on the table, because the florist’s shop no longer existed, its owner having vanished, probably to the same resting-place as Madame Anjou. There were no officers’ epaulettes on the shoulders of any of the men sitting at table, because their epaulettes too had faded away and melted in the snowstorm outside.
With mouths wide open, they were all listening to Shervinsky, even Anyuta, who had come from the kitchen and was leaning against the door.
‘What sort of stars?’ asked Myshlaevsky grimly.
‘Little five-pointed stars, like badges, in their caps’, said Shervinsky. ‘There were hordes of them, they say. In short, they’ll be here by midnight…’
‘How do you know that it will be exactly at midnight?’
But Shervinsky had no time to reply, as the door-bell rang and Vasilisa came into the apartment.
Bowing to right and left, with handshakes for all and a specially warm one for Karas, Vasilisa made straight for the piano, his boots squeaking. Smiling radiantly, Elena offered him her hand and with a jerky little bow Vasilisa kissed it. ‘God knows why, but Vasilisa is somehow much nicer since he had his money stolen,’ thought Nikolka, reflecting philosophically: ‘Perhaps money stops people from being nice. Nobody here has any money, for example, and they’re all nice.’
Vasilisa declined the offer of tea. No, thank you very much. Most kind. (Giggle) How cosy it is here, despite the terrible times.
(Giggle) No, really, thank you very much. Wanda Mikhailovna’s sister had arrived from the country, and he had to go right back home. He had only come to deliver a letter to Elena Vasilievna. He had just opened the letter-box at the front door and there it was. ‘Thought I should bring it up right away. Goodbye.’ With another little jerk, Vasilisa took his leave.
Elena took the letter into the bedroom.
‘A letter from abroad? Can it really be? Obviously there are such letters – you only have to touch the envelope to feel the difference. But how did it get here? No mail is being delivered. Even from Zhitomir to the City letters have to be sent by hand. How stupid and crazy everything is in this country. After all, people still travel by train – why not letters? Yet this one got here. Bad news can always be sure of getting through. Where’s it from? War… Warsaw. But the handwriting’s not Talberg’s. I don’t like the look of it.’
Although the bedroom lamp was shaded, Elena had an unpleasant impression as if someone had ripped off the colored silk shade and the unshaded light had struck her eyes. The expression on Elena’s face changed until it looked like the ancient face of the Virgin in the fretted silver ikon- cover. Her lips trembled, then her mouth twitched and set into folds of contempt. The sheet of gray deckle-edged paper and its torn envelope lay in the pool of light.
…I have only just heard that you have divorced your husband. The Ostroumovs saw Sergei at the embassy – he was leaving for Paris with the Hertz family; they say he’s going to marry Lydia Hertz. What strange things happen in all this muddle and chaos. I’m sorry you didn’t leave Russia, sorry for all of you left behind in the clutches of the muzhiks. The newspapers here are saying that Petlyura is advancing on the City…We all hope the Germans won’t let him…
A march tune which Nikolka was strumming next door thumped mechanically in Elena’s head, as it came through the walls and the door muffled with its tapestry portiere that showed a smiling Louis XIV, one arm thrust out and holding a long beribboned stick.
The door-handle clicked, there was a knock and Alexei entered. He glanced down at his sister’s face, his mouth twitched in the same way as hers had done and he asked:
Elena was too ashamed and embarrassed to reply at first, but after a moment she pulled herself together and pushed the sheet of paper towards Alexei:
‘From Olga… in Warsaw…’
Alexei stared at the letter, running his eyes along the lines until he had read it all, then read the opening words again:
My dear Lena, I don’t know whether this will reach you, but…
Various colors played over his face: against a background of ashen- yellow his cheek bones were tinged with pink and his eyes changed from blue to black.
‘How I would like,’ he ground out through clenched teeth, ‘to punch him in the teeth…’
‘Who?’ asked Elena, twitching her nose to keep back the gathering tears. ‘Myself, Alexei replied, deeply ashamed. ‘Myself, for having kissed him when he left.’
Elena burst into tears.
‘Do me a favor,’ Alexei went on, ‘and get rid of that thing.’ He jabbed his finger at the portrait on the table. Sobbing, Elena handed the portrait to her brother. Alexei immediately ripped the photograph of Sergei Talberg out of the frame and tore it into shreds. Elena moaned like a peasant woman, her shoulders heaving, and leaned her head against Alexei’s starched shirt-front.
With superstitious terror she glanced up at the brown image in the ikon, before which the lamp was still burning in its golden filigree holder.
‘Yes, I agreed… when I prayed to you… on this condition… don’t be angry with me, Mother of God, don’t be angry… thought the superstitious Elena. Alarmed, Alexei said:
‘Hush, my dear, hush… it wouldn’t do for the others to hear you.’
But no one in the drawing-room had heard her. Nikolka was thumping out a march tune, ‘The Double-Headed Eagle’, and the others were laughing.
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