“The White Guard”, Chapter XV – Weekly Reads

Dear readers!

One evening there was a knock at the door of Turbins. Three rough men entered, waving two pistols, in possession of an order to search the apartment. What were they looking for?

Find out in Chapter XV below. Enjoy the read!



It was evening, almost eleven o’clock. Because of events the street, never very busy, was empty and deserted rather earlier than usual.

There was a thin fall of snow, the flakes floating evenly and steadily past the window, and the branches of the acacia tree, which in summer gave shade to the Turbins’ window, bent lower and lower under their coating of snow.

The snowfall had begun at lunchtime and from then on the day had turned into a dull, lowering evening full of ill-omen. The electric current was reduced to half strength, and Wanda served brains for supper. Brains are a horrible form of food anyway, and when cooked by Wanda they were disgusting. Before the brains there was soup, which Wanda had cooked with vegetable oil, and Vasilisa had risen from table in a bad temper with the unpleasant feeling of having eaten nothing at all. That evening he had innumerable things to do, all of them difficult and unpleasant. The dining- room table had been turned upside down and a bundle of Lebid-Yurchik’s money was lying on the floor.

‘You’re a fool’, Vasilisa said to his wife. Wanda turned on him and she answered:

‘I’ve always known you were a despicable beast, but lately you’ve been outdoing yourself.’

Vasilisa felt an agonising desire to fetch her a swinging blow across the face that would knock her over and make her hit her head on the edge of the sideboard. And then again and again until that damned, bony creature shut up and admitted she was beaten. He, Vasilisa, was worn out, he worked like a slave, and he felt he had a right to demand that she obey him at home. Vasilisa gritted his teeth and restrained himself. Attacking Wanda was a rather more dangerous undertaking than one might think.

‘Just do as I say’, said Vasilisa through clenched teeth. ‘Don’t you see – they may move the sideboard and what then? But they’d never think of looking under the table. Everybody in town does it.’

Wanda gave in to him and they set to work together, pinning banknotes to the underside of the table with thumb-tacks. Soon the whole underside of the table was covered with a multicolored pattern like a well-designed silk carpet.

Grunting, his face covered in sweat, Vasilisa stood up and glanced over the expanse of paper money.

‘It’s going to be so inconvenient’, said Wanda. ‘Every time I want some money I shall have to turn the dining-room table over.’

‘So what, it won’t kill you’, replied Vasilisa hoarsely. ‘Better to have to turn the table over than lose everything. Have you heard what’s going on in the City? They’re worse than the Bolsheviks.

They’re searching houses indiscriminately, looking for officers who fought against them.’

At eleven o’clock Wanda carried the samovar from the kitchen into the dining-room and put out the lights everywhere else in the apartment. She produced a bag of stale bread and a lump of green cheese from the sideboard. The single lamp hanging over the table from one socket of a triple chandelier shed a dim reddish light from its semi-incandescent filament.

Vasilisa chewed a piece of bread roll and green cheese, which was so unpleasant that it made his eyes water as if he had a raging toothache. At every bite fine crumbs of the sickening stuff spattered his jacket and his tie. Uneasy, though not knowing quite why, Vasilisa glared at Wanda as she chewed.

‘I’m amazed how easily they get away with it’, said Wanda, glancing upwards towards the Turbins. ‘I was certain that one of them had been killed. But no, they’re all back, and now the apartment is full of officers again…’

At any other time Wanda’s remarks would not have made the slightest impression on Vasilisa, but now, when he was tortured by fear and unease, he found them intolerably spiteful.

‘I’m surprised at you’, he replied, glancing away to avoid the irritation of looking at her, ‘you know perfectly well that really they were doing the right thing. Somebody had to defend the City against those (Vasilisa lowered his voice) swine… Besides you’re wrong if you think they got off lightly… I think he’s been…’

Wanda looked thoughtful and nodded.

‘Yes, I thought so too when I went up there… You’re right, he’s been wounded…’

‘Well, then, it’s nothing to be pleased about – got away with it, indeed…’

Wanda licked her lips.

‘I’m not pleased, I only say they seem to have “got away with it” because what I want to know is, when Petlyura’s men come to you – which God forbid – and ask you, as chairman of the house committee, who are the people upstairs – what are you going to say? Were they in the Hetman’s army, or what?’

Vasilisa scowled.

‘I can say with absolute truth that he’s a doctor. After all, there’s no reason why I should know anything else about him. How could I?’

‘That’s the point. In your position you’re supposed to know.’

At that moment the door-bell rang. Vasilisa turned pale, and Wanda turned her scrawny neck.

His nose twitching, Vasilisa stood up and said:

‘D’you know what? Maybe I’d better run straight up to the Turbins and call them.’

Before Wanda had time to reply the bell rang again.

‘Oh my God’, said Vasilisa anxiously. ‘Nothing for it – I shall have to go.’ Terrified, Wanda followed him. They opened their front door into the communal hallway, which smelled of the cold. Wanda’s angular face, eyes wide with fear, peeped out. Above her head the electric bell gave another importunate ring.

For a moment the idea crossed Vasilisa’s mind of knocking on the Turbins’ glass door – someone would be bound to come down and things might not be so terrible. But he was afraid to do it. Suppose the intruders were to ask him: ‘Why did you knock? Afraid of something? Guilty conscience?’ Then came the hopeful thought, though a faint one, that it might not be a search-party but perhaps someone else…

‘Who’s there?’ Vasilisa asked weakly at the door.

Immediately a hoarse voice barked through the keyhole at the level of Vasilisa’s stomach and the bell over Wanda’s head rang again.

‘Open up’, rasped the keyhole in Ukrainian. ‘We’re from headquarters.

And don’t try running away, or we’ll shoot through the door.’ ‘Oh, God…’ sighed Wanda.

With lifeless hands Vasilisa slid open the bolt and then lifted the heavy latch, after fumbling with the chain for what seemed like hours.

‘Hurry up…’ said the keyhole harshly.

Vasilisa looked outside to see a patch of gray sky, an acacia branch, snowflakes. Three men entered, although to Vasilisa they seemed to be many more.

‘Kindly tell me why…’

‘Search’, said the first man in a wolfish voice, marching straight up to Vasilisa. The corridor revolved and Wanda’s face in the lighted doorway seemed to have been powdered with chalk.

‘In that case, if you don’t mind’, Vasilisa’s voice sounded pale and colorless, ‘please show me your warrant. I’m a peaceful citizen – I don’t know why you want to search my house. There’s nothing here’, said Vasilisa, painfully aware that his Ukrainian had suddenly deserted him.

‘Well, we’ve come to have a look’, said the first man.

Edging backwards as the men pushed their way in, Vasilisa felt he was seeing them in a dream. Everything about the first man struck Vasilisa as wolf-like. Narrow face, small deep-set eyes, gray skin, long straggling whiskers, unshaven cheeks furrowed by deep grooves, he had a curious shifty look and even here, in a confined space, he managed to convey the impression of walking with the inhuman, loping gait of a creature at home in snow and grassland. He spoke a horrible mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, a language familiar to those inhabitants of the City who know the riverside district of Podol, where in summertime the quayside is alive with groaning, rattling winches and where ragged men unload watermelons from barges… On the wolf’s head was a fur hat, a scrap of blue material with tinsel piping dangling loosely from one side.

The second man, a giant, almost touched the ceiling of Vasilisa’s lobby. His complexion was as ruddy as a jolly, rosy-cheeked peasant woman’s, and so young that there was no hair on his face. He wore a coarse sheepskin cap with moth-eaten earflaps, a gray overcoat, and his unnaturally small feet were clad in filthy, tattered rags.

The third man had a broken nose, one side of which was covered in a suppurating scab, and his upper lip was disfigured by a crudely stitched scar.

On his head was an officer’s old peaked cap with a red band and a pale mark where the badge had once been. He wore an old-fashioned double-breasted army tunic with brass buttons covered in verdigris, a pair of black trousers, and bast foot-cloths round his instep over a pair of thick gray army-issue socks. His face in the lamplight was compounded of two colors – a waxy yellow and a dull violet, whilst his eyes stared with a look of malice and self-pity.

‘We’ve come to have a look,’ the wolf repeated, ‘and here’s our warrant.’

With this he dived into his trouser pocket, pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and thrust it at Vasilisa. While one of his eyes kept Vasilisa in a state of palsied fear, his other eye, the left, made a cursory inspection of the furniture in the lobby.

The crumpled sheet was folded into four, and was embossed: ‘Headquarters 1st Cossack Corps.’ Beneath that, written with indelible pencil in large sloping characters, was an order in Ukrainian:

You are instructed to carry out a search of the premises of citizen Vasily Lisovich, No. 13 St Alexei’s Hill. Resistance to this order is punishable by summary execution.

signed: Protsenko, Chief of Staff Miklun Adjutant

In the lower left-hand corner was the indecipherable impression of a blue rubber stamp.

The sprays of flowers on the lobby wallpaper swam slightly in front of Vasilisa’s eyes and he said as the wolf regained possession of the piece of paper:

‘Come in, please, but there’s nothing here…’

The wolf pulled a black, oil-smeared automatic out of his pocket and pointed it at Vasilisa. Wanda gave a muffled scream. A long, businesslike revolver, also gleaming with oil, appeared in the hand of the man with the disfigured face. Vasilisa’s knees weakened and he seemed to grow shorter. Suddenly the electric light flashed brightly on to full power.

‘Who’s here?’ asked the wolf in a hoarse voice.

‘No one’, Vasilisa replied through white lips. ‘Just me and my wife.’ ‘Come on, lads – let’s have a look. And quick’, grunted the wolf to his companions. ‘No time to waste.’

The giant picked up a heavy wooden chest and shook it like a box of matches, whilst the disfigured man darted towards the stove. Pocketing his revolver, he hammered with his fists on the wall, noisily flung open the stove door sending out a wave of tepid heat.

‘Any weapons?’ asked the wolf.

‘No, on my word of honor… why should I have a weapon…’ ‘No’, echoed Wanda’s shadow breathlessly.

‘Better say if you have. Ever seen a man shot?’ asked the wolf meaningfully.

‘Why should I have a gun?’

The green-shaded lamp was burning brightly in the study where Alexander II, indignant to the depth of his cast-iron soul, stared at the three intruders. In the green light of the study Vasilisa discovered for the first time in his life the dizzy feeling that comes before a fainting-fit. All three men began immediately to examine the wallpaper. In great heaps, as if they were toys, the giant flung down row upon row of books from the bookshelf, whilst six hands tapped their way all over the wallpaper. Tap, tap, tap… the wall echoed dully. Suddenly the box in the secret cache rang out: tonk. The wolf’s eyes shone with glee.

‘What did I say?’ he whispered noiselessly. The giant stamped a hole with his feet through the leather of the armchair and rose almost to the ceiling. There was a cracking sound as the giant’s fingers broke into the cache. He pulled out the tin box and threw the string-tied paper package down to the wolf. Vasilisa staggered and leaned against the wall. The wolf began to shake his head and shook it for a long time as he stared at the half-dead Vasilisa.

‘Well, well, well’, he said bitterly. ‘What’s all this? Nothing here, you said, but seems you’ve sealed up your money in the wall. You ought to be shot!’

‘Oh, no!’ cried Wanda.

Something odd happened to Vasilisa, and he suddenly burst into convulsive laughter. It was a terrible laugh because Vasilisa’s eyes were alive with fear and only his lips, nose and cheeks were laughing.

‘But I haven’t broken the law. There’s nothing there except some papers from the bank and a few little things… There’s not much money… I’ve earned it all… Anyway, all tsarist money is cancelled now…’

As Vasilisa spoke he stared at the wolf as though the sight of him gave him a morbid, unnatural pleasure.

‘You should be arrested’, said the wolf reprovingly as he shook the packet and dropped it into the bottomless pocket of his tattered greatcoat. ‘Come on, lads, see to the desk.’

From the desk drawers, opened by Vasilisa himself, there poured forth heaps of paper, seals, signets, postcards, pens, cigarette cases. The green carpet and the red cloth of the table-top were strewn with paper, sheets of paper fell rustling to the floor. The disfigured man overturned the wastepaper basket. In the drawing-room they tapped the walls superficially, almost reluctantly. The giant pulled back the carpet and stamped on the floor, purposely leaving a row of marks like burns in the wood. Now that the current had been increased for night-time, the electricity sputtered cheerfully on full power and the phonograph horn glittered brightly. Vasilisa followed the three men, stumbling and dragging his feet. A certain stunned calm came over Vasilisa and his thoughts seemed to flow more coherently. Then into the bedroom – instant chaos as clothes, sheets poured out of the mirror-fronted wardrobe and the mattress was turned upside down. The giant suddenly stopped, a shy grin broke out over his face and he looked down. From beneath the ravaged bed peeped Vasilisa’s new kid boots with lacquered toes. The giant laughed, glanced timidly at Vasilisa.

‘There’s a smart pair of boots’, he said in a high-pitched voice. ‘I wonder if they fit me?’

Vasilisa had no time to think of a reply before the giant bent down and tenderly picked up the boots. Vasilisa shuddered.

‘They’re kid’, he said vaguely.

As the wolf turned on him, bitter anger flashed in his squinting eyes: ‘Quiet, you bastard’, he said grimly. ‘Shut up!’ he said again, suddenly

losing his temper. ‘You ought to thank us for not shooting you as a thief and a bandit for hoarding that fortune of yours. So you be quiet.’ His eyes glistened with menace as he advanced on the deathly pale Vasilisa. ‘You’ve been sitting here, making your pile, feeding your ugly mug till you’re as pink as a pig – and now you can see what people like us have to wear on their feet. See? His feet are frost-bitten and wrapped in rags, he rotted in the trenches for you while you were sitting at home and playing the phonograph. Ah, you mother-f…’ In his eyes flashed an urge to punch Vasilisa in the ear, and he swung his arm. Wanda screamed: ‘No…’ The wolf did not quite dare to punch the respectable Vasilisa and only poked him in the chest with his fist. Chalk- white> Vasilisa staggered, feeling a stab of pain and anguish in his chest at the blow from that bony fist.

‘That’s revolution for you’, he thought in his pink, neat head. ‘Fine state of affairs. We should have strung them all up, and now it’s too late…’

‘Put those boots on, Vasilko’, the wolf said in a kindly voice to the giant, who sat down on the springy mattress and pulled off his foot-cloths. The boots would not fit over his thick gray socks.

‘Give the cossack a pair of thin socks’, the wolf said sternly, turning to Wanda, who at once squatted down to pull out the bottom drawer of the chest- of-drawers and took out a pair of socks. The giant threw away his thick gray socks showing feet with red toes and black corns, and pulled on the new pair. The boots went on with difficulty and the laces on the left boot broke with a snap. Delighted, grinning like a child, the giant tied the frayed ends and stood up. And immediately it was as if something snapped in the tense relationship between those five ill-assorted people. They began to act more naturally. With a glance at the giant’s boots the disfigured man suddenly reached out and deftly snatched Vasilisa’s trousers that were hanging on a hook alongside the washstand. The wolf simply gave Vasilisa another suspicious glance – would he say anything? – but Vasilisa and Wanda said nothing; their faces were both the same shade of unrelieved white, their eyes wide and round. The bedroom began to look like a corner of a ready-made clothing store. The man with the disfigured face stood there in nothing but his torn, striped underpants and examined the trousers in the light.

‘Nice bit of serge, this…’ he said in a nasal whine, sat down in a blue armchair and began to pull them on. The wolf exchanged his dirty tunic for Vasilisa’s grey jacket, and said as he handed some papers back to Vasilisa: ‘Here take these, mister, you may need them.’ He picked up a globe-shaped glass clock from the table, its face adorned with broad Roman figures, and as the wolf pulled on his greatcoat the clock could be heard ticking underneath it.

‘Useful thing, a clock. Being without a clock’s like being without hands’, the wolf said to broken-nose, his attitude to Vasilisa noticeably relenting. ‘I like to be able to see what time it is at night.’

Then all three moved off, back through the drawing-room to the study. Together Vasilisa and Wanda followed after them. In the study the wolf, squinting hard, looked thoughtful and said to Vasilisa:

‘Better give us a receipt, Mister…’ (His forehead creased like an accordion as he wrestled with some obviously disturbing thought.)

‘What?’ whispered Vasilisa.

‘Receipt, saying you gave us these things’, the wolf explained, staring at the floor.

Vasilisa’s expression changed, his cheeks turned pink.

‘But how can I… What…’ (He wanted to shout ‘What! you mean to say I have to give you a receipt as well!’ but quite different words came out.) ‘Why do you need a receipt?’

‘Ah, you ought to be shot like a dog, you… you blood sucker. I know what you’re thinking, I know. If your people were in power you’d squash us like insects. I can see there’s no good to be had outof you. Boys, put him up against the wall. I’ll give you such a thrashing…’

Working himself up until he was shaking with fury, he pushed Vasilisa against the wall and clutched him by the throat, at which Vasilisa instantly turned red.

‘Oh!’ shrieked Wanda in horror, tugging at the wolf’s arm. ‘Stop it!

Mercy, for God’s sake! Vasya, do as he says and write it!’

The wolf released the engineer’s throat, and with a crack one half of his collar burst away from the stud as though on a spring. Vasilisa did not remember how he came to be sitting in his chair. With shaking hands he tore a sheet from a note-pad, dipped his pen into the ink. In the silence the crystal globe could be heard ticking in the wolf’s pocket.

‘What shall I write?’ Vasilisa asked in a weak, cracked voice. The wolf began to think, his eyes blinking.

‘Write… “By order of headquarters of the cossack division… I surrendered… articles… articles… to the sergeant as follows”

‘As follows…’ croaked Vasilisa, and was silent.

‘Then say what they are… “In the course of search. I have no claims.” Then sign…’

Here Vasilisa gathered the last remnants of the breath in his body and turning his glance away from the wolf, he asked:

‘Who shall I say I gave them to?’

The wolf looked suspiciously at Vasilisa, but he restrained his displeasure and only sighed.

‘Write: Sergeant Nemolyak…’ He thought for a moment, glancing at his companions. ‘… Sergeant Kirpaty and Hetman Uragan.’

Staring muzzily at the paper, Vasilisa wrote to the wolf’s dictation. Having written it, instead of his proper signature he wrote ‘Vasilis’ and handed the paper to the wolf, who took it and stared at it.

Just then the glass door at the top of the staircase slammed, footsteps were heard and Myshlaevsky’s voice rang out.

The wolf scowled, his companions shuffled uneasily. The wolf turned red in the face and hissed: ‘Quiet!’ He pulled the automatic out of his pocket and pointed it at Vasilisa, who gave a martyred smile. From the corridor came more footsteps, muffled talk. Then there was the sound of the bolt being drawn, the latch, the chain -and the door was locked again. Footsteps again, men laughing. After that the glass door slammed, the sound of steps receding upstairs and all was quiet. The disfigured man went out into the lobby, leaned his head against the door and listened. When he returned he exchanged meaning glances with the wolf and all three jostled their way out into the lobby. There the giant wriggled his fingers inside his boots, which were rather tight.

‘They’ll be cold.’

And he put on Vasilisa’s rubber overshoes.

The wolf turned to Vasilisa and said shiftily in a low voice:

‘See here, mister… Don’t you tell anyone we’ve been here. If you inform on us, our boys will beat you up. Don’t go out of the house till tomorrow, or you’ll be in trouble…’

‘Sorry’, whined the man with the shattered nose.

The rosy-cheeked giant said nothing, but only looked shyly at Vasilisa, then delightedly at his gleaming overshoes. As they walked quickly out of Vasilisa’s door and along the passage to the front door, for some reason they tiptoed, jostling each other as they went. The door was noisily unlocked, there was a glimpse of dark sky and with cold hands Vasilisa closed the bolts. His head swam, and for a moment he thought he was dreaming. His heart almost stopped, then started beating faster and faster. In the lobby Wanda was sobbing. She collapsed on to a chest, knocking her head against the wall, and big tears poured down her face.

‘God, what’s happened to us? God, oh God, Vasya… in broad daylight.

What are we to do?’

Shaking like a leaf, Vasilisa stood in front of her, his face contorted. ‘Vasya,’ screamed Wanda, ‘do you know – they weren’t soldiers, they weren’t from any headquarters! They were just hoodlums!’

‘I know, I realised that’, Vasilisa mumbled, spreading his hands in despair.

‘Lord!’ Wanda exclaimed. ‘You must go this minute, report them at once and try and catch them! Mother of God! All our things! Everything! If only there was somebody who…’ She shuddered and slid from the chest to the floor, covering her face with her hands. Her hair was dishevelled, her blouse unbuttoned at the back.

‘But where do we report them?’ asked Vasilisa.

‘To headquarters, for God’s sake, to the police! Make a formal complaint. Quickly. What’s the matter?’

Vasilisa, who had been shuffling his feet, suddenly rushed for the door.

He ran to the Turbins’ glass door and hammered on it noisily.

Everybody except Shervinsky and Elena crowded into Vasilisa’s apartment. Lariosik, looking pale, stayed in the doorway. Legs planted wide, Myshlaevsky inspected the foot-cloths and other rags abandoned by the unknown visitors and said to Vasilisa:

‘Well, you won’t see your things again, I’m afraid. They weren’t soldiers, just burglars. You can thank God you’re still alive. To tell you the truth I’m amazed they let you off so lightly.’

‘God – the things they did to us!’ said Wanda. ‘They threatened to kill me.’

‘Thank the Lord they didn’t carry out their threat. First time I’ve ever seen anything like it.’

‘Neat piece of work’, Karas added quietly.

‘What do we do now?’ asked Vasilisa miserably. ‘Go and complain? But where to? For God’s sake advise me, Viktor Viktoro-vich.’

Myshlaevsky grunted thoughtfully.

‘I advise you not to complain to anyone’, he said. ‘Firstly, they’ll never catch them.’ He crooked his middle finger. ‘Secondly…’

‘Don’t you remember, Vasya, they said you’d be killed if you made a complaint.’

‘That’s nonsense’, Myshlaevsky frowned. ‘No one’s going to kill you, but as I say, they’ll never be caught, no one will even try and catch them, and secondly…’ He crooked his second finger, ‘you’ll have to describe what they stole, and that means admitting that you were hoarding tsarist money… No, if you make a complaint to their headquarters or to anywhere else they will almost certainly have you searched again.’

‘Yes, very likely’, said Nikolka the specialist.

Shattered, soaking with the water thrown over him when he fainted, Vasilisa hung his head. Wanda quietly burst into tears and leaned against the wall. They all felt sorry for them. Lariosik sighed deeply in the doorway and turned up his lacklustre eyes.

‘We each have our grief to bear’, he murmured. ‘What weapons did they have?’ asked Nikolka.

‘My God, two of them had revolvers. Did the third man have anything, Vasya?’

‘Two of them had revolvers’, Vasilisa confirmed weakly.

‘Did you notice what type they were?’ Nikolka pressed him in a business-like voice.

‘I don’t really know,’ Vasilisa replied with a sigh, ‘I don’t know the various types. One was big and black, the other one was smaller, with a lanyard fixed to a ring on the butt.’

‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Wanda, ‘one of them had a lanyard on it.’

Nikolka frowned and cocked his head to one side like a bird as he looked at Vasilisa. He shuffled awkwardly for a moment, then with an uneasy movement he slipped unobtrusively out of the door, followed by Lariosik. Upstairs, Lariosik had not even reached the dining-room when the sound of breaking glass and a howl came from Nikolka’s room. Lariosik hastened after him. The light shone brightly in Nikolka’s room, a stream of cold air was coming through the open upper pane and there was a gaping hole in the lower casement which Nikolka had made with his knees as he had jumped down from the window-ledge in despair. There was a wild look in his eyes.

‘It can’t be!’ cried Lariosik, clasping his hands together. ‘Pure witchcraft!’

Nikolka rushed out of the room, through the library, through the kitchen and past the horrified Anyuta, who shouted: ‘Nikol, Nikol, where are you going without a hat? Oh Lord, don’t say something else has happened?’ Then he was out of the porch and into the yard. Crossing herself, Anyuta shut the door in the porch, then ran back into the kitchen and pressed her face to the window, but Nikolka was already out of sight.

He turned sharp left, ran to the corner of the house and stopped in front of the snowdrift blocking the way into the gap between the houses. The snowdrift was completely untouched. ‘I don’t understand’, Nikolka muttered in despair, and bravely plunged into the drift. He felt he was suffocating. For a long time he waded, almost swam in snow, snorting, until he had finally broken through the barrier and cleared the snow away from the space between the two walls. He looked up and saw, far above, where the light fell from the fateful window of his room, that there was the row of black spikes and their broad, sharp-pointed shadows, but no sign of the tin box.

In a last hope that maybe the cord had broken Nikolka fell on his knees and fumbled around among the rubble of broken bricks. No box.

At this point Nikolka suddenly had an idea. ‘Aha!’ he shouted, and crawled forward to the fence which closed off the gap to the street. Reaching the fence, he prodded it, several planks fell away and he found himself looking through a large hole on to the dark street. It was obvious what had happened. The men had ripped away the planks leading into the gap, had climbed in and – of course! – they had tried to get into Vasilisa’s apartment by way of his cellar, but the window was barred.

White and silent Nikolka went back into the kitchen. ‘Lord, you’re filthy – let me clean you up’, cried Anyuta.

‘Leave me alone, for God’s sake’, replied Nikolka and passed on into the apartment wiping his frozen hands on his trousers. ‘Larion, you may punch me on the jaw’, he said to Lariosik, who blinked, then stared and said:

‘Why, Nikolashka? There’s no need for despair.’ He began timidly to brush the snow from Nikolka’s back with his hands. ‘Apart from the fact that if Alyosha recovers – which pray God he does – he will never forgive me,’ Nikolka went on, ‘it means I’ve lost the Colt that belonged to Colonel Nai-Turs! I’d rather have been killed myself! It’s God’s punishment on me for sneering at Vasilisa. I feel bad enough about Vasilisa as it is, but it’s far worse for me now because those were the guns they used to rob him. Although anyone could rob him without a gun at all, he’s so feeble… What a man. God, it’s a terrible business. Come on, Larion, get some paper and we’ll mend the window.’

That night Nikolka, Myshlaevsky and Lariosik crawled into the gap with axe, hammer and nails to mend the fence. Nikolka himself frenziedly drove in the long, thick nails so far that their points stuck out on the far side. Later still they went out with candles on to the verandah, from where they climbed through the cold storeroom into the attic. There, above the apartment, they clambered everywhere, squeezing between the hot water pipes and trunks full of clothes, until they had cut a listening-hole in the ceiling.

When he heard about the expedition to the attic, Vasilisa showed the liveliest interest and joined them in crawling around among the beams, thoroughly approving of everything that Myshlaevsky was doing.

‘What a pity you didn’t warn us somehow. You should have sent Wanda Mikhailovna up to us by the back door’, said Nikolka, wax dripping from his candle.

‘That wouldn’t have done much good’, Myshlaevsky objected. ‘By the time they were in the apartment the game was up. You don’t believe they wouldn’t have put up a fight, do you? Of course they would – and how. You’d have had a bullet in your belly before there was time to reach us. And that would have been that. No – your best bet was never to have let them in by the front door at all.’

‘But they threatened to shoot through the door, Viktor Viktoro-vich’, said Vasilisa pathetically.

‘They would never have done that’, Myshlaevsky replied as he banged away with the hammer. ‘Not a chance of it. That would have brought the whole street down on their heads.’

Later still that night Karas found himself luxuriating like Louis XIV in the Lisovichs’ apartment. This was preceded by the following conversation:

‘Oh no, they won’t come back again tonight’, said Myshlaevsky.

‘No, no, no’, Wanda and Vasilisa replied in chorus on the staircase, ‘please – we beg you or Fyodor Nikolaevich to come down and spend the rest of the night with us – please! It won’t be any trouble to you. Wanda Mikhailovna will make tea for you, and we’ll make you up a comfortable bed. Please come tonight – and tomorrow too. We must have another man in the apartment.’

‘Otherwise I won’t sleep a wink’, added Wanda, wrapping herself in an angora shawl.

‘And there’s a drop or two of brandy in the house to keep the cold out’, said Vasilisa in an unexpectedly devil-may-care voice.

‘Go on, Karas’, said Myshlaevsky.

So Karas went and settled in comfortably. Brains and thin soup with vegetable oil were, as might be expected, no more than a symptom of the loathsome disease of meanness with which Vasilisa had infected his wife. In reality there were considerable treasures concealed in the depths of their apartment, treasures known only to Wanda. There appeared on the dining- room table a jar of pickled mushrooms, veal, cherry jam and a bottle of real, good Shustov’s brandy with a bell on the label. Karas called for a glass for Wanda Mikhailovna and poured some out for her.

‘Not a full glass!’ cried Wanda.

With a despairing gesture Vasilisa obeyed Karas and drank a glassful. ‘Don’t forget, Vasya – it’s not good for you’, said Wanda tenderly.

After Karas had explained authoritatively that brandy never harmed anyone and that mixed with milk it was even given to people suffering from anaemia, Vasilisa drank a second glass. His cheeks turned pink and his forehead broke out in sweat. Karas drank five glasses and was soon in excellent spirits. ‘Feed her up a bit and she wouldn’t be at all bad’, he thought as he looked at Wanda.

Then Karas praised the layout of the Lisovichs’ apartment and discussed the arrangements for signalling to the Turbins: one bell was installed in the kitchen, another in the lobby. At the slightest sign they were to ring upstairs. And if anyone had to go and open the front door it would be Myshlaevsky, who knew what to do in case of trouble.

Karas was loud in praise of the apartment: it was comfortable and well furnished. There was only one thing wrong – it was cold.

That night Vasilisa himself fetched logs and with his own hands lit the stove in the drawing-room. Having undressed, Karas lay down on a couch between two luxurious sheets and felt extremely well and comfortable. Vasilisa, in shirtsleeves and suspenders, came in, sat down in an armchair and said:

‘I can’t sleep, so do you mind if we sit and talk for a while?’

The stove was burning low. Calm at last, settled in his armchair, Vasilisa sighed and said:

‘That’s how it goes, Fyodor Nikolaevich. Everything I’ve earned in a lifetime of hard work has disappeared in one evening into the pockets of those scoundrels… by violence. Don’t think I rejected the revolution – oh no, I fully understand the historical reasons which caused it all.’

A crimson glow played over Vasilisa’s face and on the clasps of his suspenders. Feeling pleasantly languorous from the brandy, Karas was beginning to doze, whilst trying to keep his face in a look of polite attention.

‘But you must agree that here in Russia, this most backward country, the revolution has already degenerated into savagery and chaos… Look what has happened: in less than two years we have been deprived of any protection by the law, of the very minimal protection of our rights as human beings and citizens. The English have an expression…’

‘M’mm, yes, the English… They, of course…’ Karas mumbled, feeling that a soft wall was beginning to divide him from Vasilisa.

‘… but here – how can one say “my home is my castle” when even in your own apartment, behind seven locks, there’s no guarantee that a gang like that one which got in here today won’t come and take away not only your property but, who knows, your life as well!’

‘We’ll prevent it with our signalling system’, Karas replied rather vaguely in a sleepy voice.

‘But Fyodor Nikolaevich! There’s more to the problem than just a signalling system! No signalling system is going to stop the ruin and decay which have eaten into people’s souls. Our signalling system is a particular case, but let’s suppose it goes wrong?’

‘Then we’ll fix it’, answered Karas happily.

‘But you can’t build a whole way of life on a warning system and a few revolvers. That’s not the point. I’m talking in broader terms, generalising from a single instance, if you like. The fact is that the most important thing of all has disappeared -1 mean respect for property. And once that happens, it’s the end. We’re finished. I’m a convinced democrat by nature and I come from a poor background. My father was just a foreman on the railroad. Everything you can see here and everything those rogues stole from me today – all that was earned by my own efforts. And believe me I never defended the old regime, on the contrary, I can admit to you in secret I belonged to the Constitutional Democrat party, but now that I’ve seen with my own eyes what this revolution’s turning into, then I swear to you I am horribly convinced that there’s only one thing that can save us…’ From some point in the fuzzy cocoon in which Karas was wrapped came the whispered word: ‘…Autocracy. Yes, sir… the most ruthless dictatorship imaginable… it’s our only hope… Autocracy…

‘God, how he goes on’, Karas thought beatifically. ‘M’yes… autocracy – good idea. Aha… h’m m.’ he mumbled through the surrounding cotton wool.

‘Yes, mumble, mumble, mumble… habeas corpus, mumble mumble… Yes, mumble, mumble…’ The voice droned on through the wadding, ‘mumble, mumble they’re making a mistake if they think this state of affairs can last for long, mumble, mumble and they shout hurrah and sing “Long Live.” No sir! It will not be long lived, and it would be ridiculous to think…’

‘Long live Fort Ivangorod.’ Vasilisa’s voice was unexpectedly interrupted by the dead commandant of the fort in which Karas had served during the war.

‘And long live Ardagan and Kars!’ echoed Karas from the mists. From far away came the thin sound of Vasilisa’s polite laughter. ‘Long may he live!’ sang joyous voices in Karas’ head.


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