“The White Guard”, Chapter XVIII – Weekly Reads
Aleksei is dying. On hearing this dire news from the doctor, Elena goes into her room, lights the lamp in front of the icon, and gets on her knees. Will her praying help or be in vain?
Find out in Chapter XVIII below. Enjoy the read!
Alexei Turbin began dying on the morning of December 22nd. The day was a dull white and overcast, and full of the advent of Christmas. This was particularly noticeable in the shine on the parquet floor in the drawing-room, polished by the joint efforts of Anyuta, Nikolka and Lariosik, who had spent the whole of the day before silently rubbing back and forth. There was an equally Christmassy look about the silver holders of the ikon lamps, polished by Anyuta’s hands. And finally there was a smell of pine-needles and a bright display of greenery in the corner by the piano, where the music of Faust was propped up, as though forgotten for ever, above the open keys.
At about mid-day Elena came out of Alexei’s room with slightly unsteady steps and passed silently through the dining-room where Karas, Myshlaevsky and Lariosik were sitting in complete silence. Not one of them moved as she passed by, afraid to look into her face. Elena closed the door of her room behind her and the heavy portiere fell back motionless into place.
Myshlaevsky shifted in his seat.
‘Well,’ he said in a hoarse whisper, ‘the mortar regiment commander did his best, but he didn’t manage to arrange for Alyosha to get away…’
Karas and Lariosik had nothing to add to this. Lariosik blinked, mauve shadows spreading across his cheeks.
‘Ah, hell’, said Myshlaevsky. He stood up and tiptoed, swaying, to the door, then stopped irresolutely, turned round and winked toward Elena’s door. ‘Look, fellows, keep an eye on her… or she may…’
After a moment’s hesitation he went out into the library, where his footsteps died away. A little later there came the sound of his voice and strange grieving noises from Nikolka’s room.
‘Poor Nikolka is crying’, Lariosik whispered in a despairing voice, then sighed, tiptoed to the door of Elena’s room and bent over to the keyhole, but he could not see anything. He looked round helplessly at Karas and began making silent, questioning gestures. Karas walked over to the door, looked embarrassed, then plucked up courage and tapped on the door several times with his fingernail and said softly:
‘Elena Vasilievna, Elena…’
‘Don’t worry about me’, came Elena’s muffled voice through the door. ‘Don’t come in.’
The tense expression on the two men’s faces relaxed, and they both went back to their places, in chairs beside the Dutch stove, and sat down in silence.
In Alexei Turbin’s room there was nothing more for his friends and kin to do. The three men in the room made it crowded enough. One was the bear-like man with gold-rimmed spectacles; the other was young, clean-shaven and with a bearing more like a guards officer than a doctor, whilst the third was the gray-haired professor. His skill had revealed to him and to the Turbin family the joyless news when he had first called on December 16th. He had realised that Alexei had typhus and had said so at the time. Immediately the bullet wound near the left armpit seemed to become of secondary importance. An hour ago he had come out to Elena in the drawing-room and there, in answer to her urgent question, a question spoken not only with her tongue but with her dry eyes, her quivering lip and her disarranged hair, he had said that there was little hope, and had added, looking Elena straight in the eyes, with the gaze of a man of very great experience and therefore of very great compassion – ‘very little’. Everybody, including Elena, knew that this meant that there was no hope at all and, therefore, that Alexei was dying. After Elena had gone into her brother’s room and had stood for a long time looking at his face, and from this she too understood perfectly that there really was no hope. Even without the skill and experience of that good, gray-haired old man it was obvious that Doctor Alexei Turbin was dying.
He lay there, still giving off a feverish heat, but a fever that was already wavering and unstable, and which was on the point of declining. His face had already begun to take on an odd waxy tinge, his nose had changed and grown thinner, and in particular there was a suggestion of hopelessness about the bridge of his nose, which now seemed unnaturally prominent. Elena’s legs turned cold and she felt overcome with a moment of dull despair in the reeking, camphor-laden air of the bedroom, but the feeling quickly passed.
Something had settled in Alexei’s chest like a stone and he whistled as he breathed, drawing in through bared teeth a sticky, thin stream of air that barely penetrated to his lungs. He had long ago lost consciousness and neither saw nor understood what was going on around him. Elena stood and looked. The professor took her by the arm and whispered:
‘Go now, Elena Vasilievna, we’ll do all there is to do.’
Elena obeyed and went out. But the professor did not do anything more. He took off his white coat, wiped his hands with some damp balls of cotton wool and looked again into Alexei’s face. The bluish shadow around the folds of his mouth and nose was growing deeper.
‘Hopeless’, the professor said very quietly into the ear of the clean- shaven man. ‘Stay with him, please, Doctor Brodovich.’
‘Camphor?’ asked Doctor Brodovich in a whisper. ‘Yes, yes.’
‘A full syringe?’
‘No.’ The professor looked out of the window and thought a moment. ‘No, just three grams at a time. And often.’ He thought again, then added: ‘Telephone me in case of a termination’ – the professor whispered very cautiously so that even through the haze of delirium Alexei should not hear him, – ‘I’ll be at the hospital. Otherwise I’ll come back here straight after my lecture.’
Year after year, for as long as the Turbins could remember, the ikon lamps had been lit at dusk on December 24th, and in the evening they had lit the warm, twinkling candles on the Christmas tree in the drawing- room. But now that insidious bullet-wound and the rattle of typhus had put everything out of joint, had hastened the lighting of the ikon lamp. As she closed her bedroom door behind her, Elena went over to her bedside table, took from it a box of matches, climbed up on a chair and lit the wick in the lamp hanging on chains in front of the old ikon in its heavy metal covering. When the flame burned up brightly the halo above the dark face of the Virgin changed to gold and her eyes shone with a look of welcome. The face, inclined to one side, looked at Elena. In the two square panes of the window was a silent, white December day, and the flickering tongue of flame helped to create a sense of the approaching festival. Elena got down from the chair, took the shawl from her shoulders and dropped onto her knees. She rolled back a corner of the carpet to reveal an open space of gleaming parquet and she silently bowed down until her forehead touched the floor.
Myshlaevsky returned to the dining-room, followed by Nikolka, whose eyelids were puffy and red. They had just come from Alexei’s room. As Nikolka returned to the dining-room he said to his companions:
‘He’s dying…’ and took a deep breath.
‘Look,’ said Myshlaevsky, ‘hadn’t we better call a priest? Don’t you agree, Nikol? Otherwise he may die without confession…’
‘I shall have to tell Lena’, Nikolka replied anxiously. ‘I can’t do it without her. And something seems to be the matter with her now…’
‘What does the doctor say?’ asked Karas.
‘What is there to say? There’s no more to say’, said Myshlaevsky hoarsely.
For a long time they spoke in uneasy whispers, punctuated by the sighs of the pale, worried Lariosik. Again they consulted Doctor Brodovich, who came out into the lobby, lit a cigarette and whispered that the patient was in the terminal stage and that of course they could call a priest if they wanted to, he had no objection since the patient was in any case unconscious and it could do him no harm.
They whispered and whispered but could not decide whether it was yet time to send for the priest. They knocked on Elena’s door, and in a dull voice she replied:
‘Don’t come in yet… I’ll come out later…’
And they went away.
From her knees Elena looked up at the fretted halo above the dark face with its clear eyes and she stretched out her arms and said in a whisper:
‘Holy Mother of God, intercede for us. You have sent us too much sorrow. In one year you have destroyed this family. Why? You have taken our mother away from us, my husband has gone and will not come back, I know, I see that clearly now. And now you are taking away our eldest. Why? How will Nikolka and I survive, the two of us alone? Look and see what is happening all around… Mother of God, intercede for us and have mercy on us… Perhaps we are sinful people, but why should we be punished like this?’
She bowed down once more, fervently touching the floor with her forehead, crossed herself and stretching out her arms, prayed again:
‘You are our only hope, Immaculate Virgin, you alone. Pray to your Son, pray to the Lord God to perform a miracle…’
Elena’s whispering grew more passionate, she stumbled over the words, but her prayer flowed on like an unbroken stream. More and more often she bowed her forehead to the ground, shaking her head to throw back the lock of hair that escaped from its comb and fell over her eyes. Outside the square window-panes the daylight disappeared, the white falcon disappeared, the tinkling gavotte which the clock played as it struck three went unheard, as unheard as the coming of the One to whom Elena prayed through the intercession of the dark Virgin. He appeared beside the open grave, arisen, merciful and barefoot. Elena’s breast seemed to have grown broader, feverish patches had spread over her cheeks, her eyes were filled with light, brimming with unshed tears. She pressed her forehead and cheek to the floor, then, yearning with all her soul she stretched toward the ikon lamp, oblivious to the hard floor under her knees. The lamp flared up, the dark face within the fretted halo grew more and more alive and the eyes inspired Elena to ceaseless prayer. Outside there was complete silence, darkness was setting in with terrible speed and another momentary vision filled the room – the hard, glassy light of the sky, unfamiliar yellowish- red sandstone rocks, olive trees, the cold and the dark silence of centuries within the sanctuary of the temple.
‘Holy Mother, intercede for us’, Elena muttered fervently. ‘Pray to Him. He is there beside you. What would it cost you? Have mercy on us. Have mercy. Your day, the festival of the birth of your Son is approaching. If Alexei lives he will do good for others, and I will not cease to pray for forgiveness of our sins. Let Sergei not come back – take him away, if that is your will. But don’t punish Alexei with death… We are all guilty of this bloodshed, but do not punish us. Do not punish us. There He is, your Son…’
The lamp began to flicker and one ray from it stretched out like a beam towards Elena. At that moment her wild, imploring eyes discerned that the lips on the image surrounded by its golden coif had parted and that the eyes had a look so unearthly that terror and intoxicated joy wrenched at her heart, she sank to the ground and did not rise again.
Alarm and disquiet wafted through the apartment like a dry, parching wind. Someone was tiptoeing through the dining-room. Another person was tapping on the door, whispering: ‘Elena… Elena… Elena…’ Wiping the cold sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, tossing back her stray lock of hair, she stood up, looking up ahead of her blindly, like a savage. Without looking back to the lamp-lit corner, she walked to the door with a heart of steel. Without waiting for her permission the door burst open of its own accord and Nikolka was standing in the frame made by the portiere. Nikolka’s eyes bored into Elena with terror, and he seemed out of breath.
‘Elena… don’t worry… don’t be afraid… come here… it seems as though…’
Waxen, like a candle that has been crushed and kneaded in sweaty hands, his bony hands with their unclipped finger nails thrust above the blanket, lay Doctor Alexei Turbin, his sharp chin pointing upwards. His body was bathed in sticky sweat, and his wet, emaciated chest was poking through the gaps in his shirt. He lowered his head, dug his chin into his chest, unclenched his yellowing teeth and half opened his eyes. In a thin, hoarse and very weak voice he said:
‘The crisis, Brodovich. Well… am I going to live?… A-ha.’ Karas was holding the lamp in shaking hands, and it lit up the gray shadows and folds of the crumpled bedclothes.
With a slightly unsteady hand the clean-shaven doctor squeezed up a lump of flesh as he inserted the needle of a small hypodermic syringe into Alexei’s arm. The doctor’s forehead was beaded with small drops of sweat. He was excited and almost unnerved.
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