“The White Guard”, Chapter XVII – Weekly Reads
With great difficulty, Nikolka manages to learn Nai-Tur’s address and arrives thereafter, bringing Nai-Tur’s mother and sister sad news.
Find out more in Chapter XVII below. Enjoy the read!
Throughout the last few days, since events had rained down on his family like stones, Nikolka had been preoccupied with a solemn obligation, an act bound up with the last words of his commanding officer, who had died stretched out on the snow. Nikolka succeeded in discharging that obligation, but to do so he had had to spend the whole of the day before the parade running around the city and calling on no less than nine addresses. Several times during this hectic chase Nikolka had lost his presence of mind, had given up in despair, then started again, until eventually he succeeded.
In a little house on Litovskaya Street at the very edge of town he found another cadet who had served in the second company of their detachment and from him he learned the first name, patronymic and address of Colonel Nai- Turs.
As he tried to cross St Sophia’s Square, Nikolka struggled against swirling waves of people. It was impossible to get across the square. Frozen, Nikolka then lost a good half-hour as he tried to struggle free of the grip of the crowd and return to his starting point – St Michael’s Monastery. From there Nikolka tried, by making a wide detour along Kostelnaya Street, to work his way round to the lower end of the Kreshchatik, and from there to get through to Malo-Provalnaya Street by devious backstreets. This too proved impossible. Like everywhere else, Kostelnaya Street was blocked by troops moving uphill towards the parade. Then Nikolka made an even bigger and more curving sweep away from the center until he found himself completely alone on St Vladimir’s Hill. There, along the terraces and avenues of the park, Nikolka trudged on between walls of white snow. His way took him past the open space around St Vladimir’s statue, where there was much less snow, and from where he could see, in the sea of snow on the hills opposite, the Imperial Gardens. Further away to the left, stretching towards Chernigov, lay the endless plains in their deep winter sleep divided from him by the river Dnieper – white and majestic between its frozen banks.
It was peaceful and utterly calm, but Nikolka had no time for calm. Fighting his way through the snow he made his way down from terrace after terrace, surprised by the occasional tracks in the snow which meant that someone beside himself had been wandering about the park in the depths of winter.
Finally, at the end of an avenue, Nikolka sighed with relief as he saw that there were no troops at this end of the Kreshchatik, and he made straight for the long-sought goal: No. 21 Malo-Provalnaya Street. This was the address that Nikolka had taken so much trouble to find and although he had not written it down, that address was deeply etched into his brain.
Nikolka felt both excited and shy. ‘Who should I ask for? I don’t know anything about them…’ He rang the bell of a side door at the far end of a terraced garden. For a long time there was no answer, but at last came the slap of footsteps and the door opened a little to the extent of a short chain. A woman’s face with a pince-nez peered out and asked brusquely from the darkness of the lobby:
‘What d’you want?’
‘Could you tell me, please – does the Nai-Turs family live here?’
The woman’s face became even grimmer and more unwelcoming, and the lenses of her pince-nez glittered.
‘There’s no one here called Turs’, said the woman in a low voice. Blushing, Nikolka felt miserable and embarrassed.
‘This is Apartment 5, isn’t it?’
‘Well, yes, it is’, the woman replied suspiciously and reluctantly. ‘Tell me what you want.’
‘I was told that the Nai-Turs family lived here…’
The face thrust itself out a little further and glanced rapidly around the garden in an attempt to see whether there was anyone else standing behind Nikolka… Nikolka found himself staring at a fat female double chin.
‘So what d’you want? Tell me…’
With a sigh Nikolka glanced around and said:
‘I’ve come about Felix Felixovich… I have news.’
The expression on the face changed abruptly. The woman blinked and said:
‘Who are you?’ ‘A student.’
‘Wait there.’ The door slammed and footsteps died away.
Half a minute later came the click of heels from behind the door, which opened to let Nikolka in. A light from the drawing-room fell into the lobby and Nikolka was able to make out the edge of a soft upholstered armchair and then the woman in the pince-nez. Nikolka took off his cap, at which another woman appeared, short, thin, with traces of a faded beauty in her face. From several slight, indefinable features about her – her forehead, the color of her hair – Nikolka realised that this was Nai-Turs’ mother, and he was suddenly appalled – how could he tell her… The women stared at him with a steady, bright gaze which embarrassed Nikolka even more. Another woman appeared, young and with the same family resemblance.
‘Well, say what you have to say’, said the mother firmly.
Nikolka crumpled his cap in his hands, turned to look at the older woman and stammered: ‘I… I…’
The mother gave Nikolka a look that was black and, so it seemed to him, full of hatred, and suddenly she cried out in a voice so piercing that it resounded from the glass doorway behind Nikolka:
‘Felix has been killed!’
She clenched her fists, shook them in front of Nikolka’s face and shouted:
‘He’s been killed… Do you hear, Irina? Felix has been killed!’ Nikolka’s eyes clouded with fear and he thought despairingly: ‘My God… and I haven’t even said a word!’ Instantly the fat woman slammed the door behind Nikolka. Then she rushed to the thin, older woman, took her by the shoulders and whispered hurriedly:
‘Maria Frantsevna my dear, calm yourself…’ She leaned towards Nikolka and asked: ‘Perhaps he isn’t dead after all? Oh, lord… You tell us – is he…?’
Nikolka could say nothing but look helplessly ahead of him towards the edge of the armchair.
‘Hush, Maria Frantsevna, hush my dear… For heaven’s sake -They’ll hear next door… it’s the will of God…’ stammered the fat woman.
Nai-Turs’ mother collapsed backwards, screaming: ‘Four years! Four years I’ve been waiting for him… waiting…’ The younger woman rushed past Nikolka towards her mother and caught her. Nikolka should have helped them, but quite unexpectedly he burst into violent, uncontrollable sobbing and could not stop.
The blinds were drawn on all the windows, the drawing-room was in semi-darkness and complete silence; there was a nauseating smell of medicine.
Finally the young woman broke the silence: she was Nai-Turs’ sister. She turned away from the window and walked over to Nikolka, who rose from his chair still clutching the cap which he could not bring himself to relinquish in this appalling situation. The sister mechanically patted her black curls, grimaced and asked:
‘How did he die?’
‘He died,’ Nikolka replied in his very best voice, ‘he died, you know, like a hero… A real hero… He saw to it that all the cadets were in safety and then, at the very last moment, he himself,’ -Nikolka wept as he told the story – ‘he himself gave them covering fire. I was nearly killed with him. We were caught by machine-gun fire’ – Nikolka wept and talked at the same time – ‘we… there were only us two left, and he tried to make me run for it and swore at me and fired the machine-gun… There was cavalry coming at us from every direction, because we had been caught in a trap. Literally from every direction.’
‘And then he was wounded?’
‘No,’ Nikolka answered firmly and began wiping his eyes, nose and mouth with a dirty handkerchief, ‘no, he was killed. I felt him myself. He was hit in the head and in the chest.’
It had grown still darker. There was not a sound from the next room; Maria Frantsevna was silent. In the drawing-room three people stood whispering in a tight group: Nai’s sister Irina; the fat woman with the pince- nez, Lydia Pavlovna, who Nikolka discovered was the owner of the apartment; and Nikolka himself.
‘I haven’t any money on me’, whispered Nikolka. ‘If necessary I can run and get some right away, then we can go.’
‘I’ll give you the money now,’ said Lydia Pavlovna, ‘the money’s not important. The important thing is that you succeed. Irina, don’t say a word to her about where and how… I really don’t know quite what to do…’
‘I’ll go with him,’ Irina whispered, ‘and we’ll manage it somehow. You said he was in the barracks and that we have to get permission to see his body.’
‘Well, that can be arranged…’
The fat woman then tiptoed into the next-door room, and her voice could be heard whispering persuasively:
‘Now lie still, Maria Frantsevna, for God’s sake… They’re going now and they’ll find out everything. The cadet says that he’s lying in the barracks.’
‘On planks?’ asked the penetrating and, to Nikolka, hate-filled voice. ‘No, of course not my dear, in the chapel, in the chapel…’
‘He may still be lying at that crossroads, with the dogs gnawing at him.’ ‘What nonsense, Maria Frantsevna… you lie down quietly my dear, I beg of you…’
‘Mama simply hasn’t been normal these last three days…’ whispered Nai’s sister, pushing back the same unruly curl and staring past Nikolka. ‘But then, nothing is normal any longer…’
‘I’m going with them’, rang out the voice from the next room. The sister turned round with a start and ran.
‘Mama, mama, you’re not coming. You’re not coming. The cadet will refuse to help us if you come. He may be arrested. Lie there, I beg you, mama…’
‘Ah Irina, Irina, Irina,’ came the voice, ‘he’s dead, they’ve killed him and what can you do now? What’s to become of you, Irina? And what am I to do now that Felix is dead? Dead… lying in the snow… Do you think…’ There was the sound of sobbing, the bed creaked and Lydia Pavlovna’s voice said:
‘Calm yourself and be brave, Maria Frantsevna…’
‘Oh God, oh God’, said the young woman as she ran through the drawing-room. In horror and despair Nikolka thought dimly: ‘Whatever will happen if we can’t find him?’
By that terrible doorway, where despite the frost they could already smell the dreadful, suffocating stench, Nikolka stopped and said:
‘Perhaps you’d better sit down here. There’s such a smell in there that it may make you sick.’
Irina looked at the green door, then at Nikolka and said: ‘No, I’m coming with you.’
Nikolka pulled at the handle of the heavy door and they went in. At first it was dark. Then they began to make out endless rows of empty coat-hooks. A dim lamp hung overhead.
Nikolka turned round anxiously to his companion, but she was walking beside him apparently unperturbed; only her face was pale and her brows were drawn together in a frown. She frowned in a way that reminded Nikolka of Nai-Turs, although the resemblance was fleeting – Nai-Turs had iron features, a plain and manly face, whilst his sister was a beautiful girl, with a beauty that was not so much Russian as somehow foreign. An astounding, remarkable girl.
The smell, which Nikolka feared so much, was everywhere. The floors, the wall, the wooden coat-hooks all smelled of it. The stench was so awful that it was almost visible. It seemed as if the walls were greasy and sticky, and the coat-hooks sticky, the floors greasy and the air thick and saturated, reeking of decaying flesh. He very soon got used to the smell itself, but he felt it safer not to look too hard at the surroundings and not to think too much. The chief thing was to stop oneself from thinking, or nausea would quickly follow. A student in an overcoat hurried past and disappeared. Over to the left, behind the row of coat-hooks, a door creaked open and a man came out, wearing boots. Nikolka looked at him and quickly looked away again to avoid seeing the man’s jacket. Like the coat-hooks his jacket glistened, and the man’s hands were glistening too.
‘What do you want?’ asked the man sternly.
‘We have come,’ said Nikolka, ‘to see the man in charge… We have to find the body of a man who has been killed. Would he be here?’
‘What man?’ the man asked, staring suspiciously. ‘He was killed here in the City, three days ago.’
‘Aha, I suppose he was a cadet or an officer… and the haidamaks caught him. Who is he?’
Nikolka was afraid to admit that Nai-Turs had been an officer, so he said:
‘Well yes, he was killed too…’
‘He was an officer serving under the Hetman’, said Irina as she approached the man. ‘His name is Nai-Turs.’
The man, who obviously could not have cared who Nai-Turs was, glanced side-ways at Irina, coughed, spat on the floor and replied:
‘I don’t really know what to do. It’s past working hours now, and there’s nobody here. All the other janitors have gone. It will be difficult to find him, very difficult. All the bodies have been transferred down to the cellars. It’s difficult, very difficult…’
Irina Nai-Turs unfastened her handbag, took out some money and handed it to the janitor. Nikolka turned away, afraid that the man might be honest and protest against this. But the janitor did not protest.
‘Thanks, miss’, he said, and at once grew livelier and more businesslike. ‘We might be able to find him. Only we shall need permission. We can do it if the professor allows it.’
‘Where’s the professor?’ asked Nikolka.
‘He’s here, only he’s busy. I don’t know whether I ought to announce you or not…’
‘Please, please inform the professor at once,’ begged Nikolka, ‘I shall be able to recognise the body at once…’
‘All right’, said the janitor and led them away. They went up some stairs to a corridor, where the smell was even more overpowering. Then they went down the corridor and turned left; the smell grew fainter and the corridor lighter as it passed under a glass roof. Here the doors to right and left were painted white. At one of them the janitor stopped, knocked, then took off his cap and entered. It was quiet in the corridor, and a diffused light came through the glass ceiling. Twilight was gradually beginning to set in. At last the janitor came out again and said:
Nikolka went in, followed by Irina Nai-Turs. Nikolka took off his cap, noticing the gleaming black blinds drawn down over the windows and a beam of painfully bright light falling on to a desk, behind which was a black beard, a crumpled, exhausted face, and a hooked nose. Then he glanced nervously around the walls at the line of shiny, glass-fronted cabinets containing rows of monstrous things in bottles, brown and yellow, like hideous Chinese faces. Further away stood a tall man, priest-like in a leather apron and black rubber gloves, who was bending over a long table. There like guns, glittering with polished brass and reflecting mirrors in the light of a low green-shaded lamp, stood a row of microscopes.
‘What do you want?’ asked the professor.
From his weary face and beard Nikolka realised that this was the professor, and the priest-like figure presumably his assistant.
He stared at the patch of bright light that streamed from the shiny, strangely contorted lamp, and at the other things: at the nicotine-stained fingers and at the repulsive object lying in front of the professor – a human neck and lower jaw stripped down to the veins and tendons, stuck with dozens of gleaming surgical needles and forceps.
‘Are you relatives?’ asked the professor. He had a dull, husky voice which went with his exhausted face and his beard. He looked up and frowned at Irina Nai-Turs, at her fur coat and boots.
‘I am his sister’, she said, trying not to look at the thing lying on the professor’s desk.
‘There, you see how difficult it is, Sergei Nikolaevich. And this isn’t the first case… Yes, the body may still be here. Have they all been transferred to the general mortuary?’
‘It’s possible’, said the tall man, throwing aside an instrument. ‘Fyodor!’ shouted the professor.
‘No, wait here. You mustn’t go in there… I’ll go…’ said Nikolka timidly.
‘I shouldn’t go, miss, if I were you’, the janitor agreed. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘you can wait here.’
Nikolka took the man aside, gave him some more money and asked him to find a clean stool for the lady to sit on. Reeking of cheap home-grown tobacco, the janitor produced a stool from a corner where there stood a green- shaded standard lamp and several skeletons.
‘Not a medical man, are you, sir? Medical gentlemen soon get used to it.’ He opened the big door and clicked the light switch. A globe-shaped lamp shone brightly under the glass ceiling. The room exuded a heavy stench. White zinc tables stood in rows. They were empty and somewhere water was dripping noisily into a basin. The stone floor gave a hollow echo under their feet. Suffering horribly from the smell, which must have been hanging there for at least a hundred years, Nikolka walked along trying not to think. The janitor led him through the door at the far end and into a dark corridor, where the janitor lit a small lamp and walked on a little further. The janitor slid back a heavy bolt, opened an iron door and unlocked another door. Nikolka broke out in a cold sweat. In the corner of the vast black room stood several huge metal drums filled to overflowing with lumps and scraps of human flesh, strips of skin, fingers and pieces of broken bone. Nikolka turned away, gulping down his saliva, and the janitor said to him:
‘Take a sniff, sir.’
Nikolka closed his eyes and greedily inhaled a lungful of unbearably strong sal ammoniac from a bottle. Almost as though he were dreaming, screwing up his eyes, Nikolka heard Fyodor strike a match and smelled the delicious odour of a pipeful of home-grown shag. Fyodor fumbled for a long time with the lock of the elevator door, opened it and then he and Nikolka were standing on the platform. Fyodor pressed the button and the elevator creaked slowly downward. From below came an icy cold draft of air. The elevator stopped. They passed into the huge storeroom. Muzzily, Nikolka saw a sight that he had never seen before. Piled one upon another like logs of wood lay naked, emaciated human bodies. Despite the sal ammoniac, the stench of decay was intolerable. Rows of legs, some rigid, some slack, protruded in layers. Women’s heads lay with tangled and matted hair, their breasts slack, battered and bruised.
‘Right, now I’ll turn them over and you look’, said the janitor bending down. He grasped the corpse of a woman by the leg and the greasy body slithered to the floor with a thump. To Nikolka she seemed sticky and repulsive, yet at the same time horribly beautiful, like a witch. Her eyes were open and stared straight at Fyodor. With difficulty Nikolka tore his fascinated gaze from the scar which encircled her waist like a red ribbon, and looked away. His eyes clouded and his head began to spin at the thought that they might have to turn over every layer of that pile of sticky bodies.
‘That’s enough. Stop’, he said weakly to Fyodor and thrust the bottle of smelling salts into his pocket. ‘There he is. I’ve found him. On top. There, there.’
Moving carefully in order not to slip on the floor, Fyodor grasped Nai-Turs by the head and pulled hard. A flat-chested, broad-hipped woman was lying face down across Nai’s stomach. There was a cheap little comb in the hair at the back of her neck, glittering dully, like a fragment of glass. Without stopping what he was doing Fyodor deftly pulled it out, dropped it into the pocket of his apron and gripped Nai-Turs under the armpits. As it was pulled out of the pile his head lolled back, his sharp, unshaven chin pointed upwards and one arm slipped from the janitor’s grasp.
Fyodor did not toss Nai aside as he had tossed the woman, but carefully holding him under the armpits and bending the dangling body, turned him so that Nai’s legs swung round on the floor until the body directly faced Nikolka. He said:
‘Take a good look and see if it’s him or not. We don’t want any mistakes…’
Nikolka looked straight into Nai’s glassy, wide-open eyes which stared back at him senselessly. His left cheek was already tinged green with barely detectable decay and several large, dark patches of what was probably blood were congealed on his chest and stomach. ‘That’s him’, said Nikolka.
Still gripping him under the armpits Fyodor dragged Nai to the elevator and dropped him at Nikolka’s feet. The dead man’s arm was flung out wide and once again his chin pointed upwards. Fyodor entered the elevator, pushed the button and the cage moved upward.
That night in the chapel everything was done as Nikolka had wanted it, and his conscience was quite calm, though sad and austere. The light shone in the bare, gloomy anatomical theater attached to the chapel. The lid was placed on another coffin standing in the corner, containing an unknown man, so that this ugly unpleasant stranger should not disturb Nai’s rest. Lying in his coffin, Nai himself had taken on a distinctly more cheerful look.
Nai, washed by two well bribed and talkative janitors; Nai, clean, in a tunic without badges; Nai, with a wreath on his forehead and three candles at the head of the bier; and, best of all, Nai wearing the bright ribbon of the St George’s Cross which Nikolka himself had arranged under the shirt on the cold, clammy chest and looped through one buttonhole. Her head shaking, Nai’s old mother turned aside from the three candles to Nikolka and said to him:
‘My son. Thank you, my dear.’
At this Nikolka burst into tears and went out of the chapel into the snow. All around, above the courtyard of the anatomical theater, was the night, the snow, criss-crossed stars and the white Milky Way.
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