“The White Guard”, Chapter XX – Weekly Reads
We have now reached the closure of what was a dramatic tale of the Turbin family and an example of the cruel and devastating effects of the war.
Please find the last Chapter XX below. Enjoy the read!
Great was the year and terrible the year of Our Lord 1918, but the year 1919 was even more terrible.
On the night of February 2nd to the 3rd, at the snow-covered approach to the Chain Bridge across the Dnieper two men were dragging a man in a torn black overcoat, his face bruised and bloodstained. A cossack sergeant was running alongside them and hitting the man over the head with a ramrod. His head jerked at each blow, but the bloodstained man was past crying out and only groaned. The ramrod cut hard and viciously into the tattered coat and each time the man responded with a hoarse cry.
‘Ah, you dirty Yid!’ the sergeant roared in fury. ‘We’re going to see you shot! I’ll teach you to skulk in the dark corners. I’ll show you! What were you doing behind those piles of timber? Spy!…’
But the bloodstained man did not reply to the cossack sergeant. Then the sergeant ran ahead, and the two men jumped aside to escape the flailing rod with its heavy, glittering brass tip. Without calculating the force of his blow the sergeant brought down the ramrod like a thunderbolt on to the man’s head. Something cracked inside it and the man in black did not even groan. Thrusting up his arm, head lolling, he slumped from his knees to one side and with a wide sweep of his other arm he flung it out as though he wanted to scoop up more of the trampled and dung-stained snow. His fingers curled hook-wise and clawed at the dirty snow. Then the figure lying in the dark puddle twitched convulsively a few times and lay still.
An electric lamp hissed above the prone body, the anxious shadows of the two pig-tailed haidamaks fluttered around him, and above the lamp was a black sky and blinking stars.
As the man slumped to the ground, the star that was the planet Mars suddenly exploded in the frozen firmament above the City, scattered fire and gave a deafening burst.
After the star the distant spaces across the Dnieper, the distance leading to Moscow, echoed to a long, low boom. And immediately a second star plopped in the sky, though lower, just above the snow-covered roofs.
At that moment the Blue Division of the haidamaks marched over the bridge, into the City, through the City and out of it for ever.
Behind the Blue Division, the frost-bitten horses of Kozyr-Leshko’s cavalry regiment crossed the bridge at a wolfish lope followed by a rumbling, bouncing field-kitchen… then it all disappeared as if it had never been. All that remained was the stiffening corpse of a Jew on the approach to the bridge, some trampled hay and horse-dung.
And the corpse was the only evidence that Petlyura was not a myth but had really existed… But why had he existed? Nobody can say. Will anybody redeem the blood that he shed?
No. No one.
The snow would just melt, the green Ukrainian grass would grow again and weave its carpet over the earth… The gorgeous sunrises would come again… The air would shimmer with heat above the fields and no more traces of blood would remain. Blood is cheap on those red fields and no one would redeem it.
That evening they had stoked up the Dutch stove until it glowed, and it was still giving out heat late into the night. The scribbled inscriptions had been cleaned from the tiles depicting Peter the Great as ‘The Shipwright of Saardam’, and only one had been left:
‘Lena… I’ve bought tickets for Aid…’
The house on St Alexei’s Hill, covered with snow like a White general’s fur hat, slept on in a long, warm sleep that dozed away behind the blinds, stirred in the shadows.
Outside, there flourished the freezing, all-conquering night, as it glided soundlessly over the earth. The stars glittered, contracting and broadening again, and especially high in the sky was Mars – red, five-pointed.
Many were the dreams dreamed in the warm rooms of the house.
Alexei slept in his bedroom, and a dream hovered over him like a blurred picture. The hallway of the school swayed in front of him and the Emperor Alexander I had come down from his picture to burn the list of names of the Mortar Regiment in the stove… Julia Reiss passed in front of him and laughed, other shadows leaped out at him shouting ‘Kill him!’
Soundlessly they fired their rifles at him and Alexei tried to run away from them, but his feet stuck to the sidewalk of Malo-Provalnaya Street and Alexei died in his dream. He awoke with a groan, heard Myshlaevsky snoring from the drawing-room, the quiet whistle of breathing from Karas and Lariosik in the library. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, remembered where he was, then smiled weakly and stretched out for his watch.
It was three o’clock.
‘They must have gone by now… Petlyura… Won’t see him again.’ And he went to sleep again.
The night flowed on. Morning was already not far away and the house slept, buried under its shaggy cap of snow. The tormented Vasilisa lay asleep between cold sheets, warming them with his skinny body, and he dreamed a stupid, topsy-turvy dream.He dreamed that there had been no revolution, the whole thing was pure nonsense. In his dream a dubious, insecure kind of happiness hovered over Vasilisa. It was summer and Vasilisa had just bought a garden. Instantly, fruit and vegetables sprang out of the ground. The beds were covered with gay little tendrils and bulbous green cucumbers were peeping through them. Vasilisa stood there in a pair of canvas trousers looking at the cheerful face of the rising sun, and scratching his stomach…
Then Vasilisa dreamed of the stolen globe-shaped clock. He wanted to feel regret at the loss of the clock, but the sun shone so sweetly that he could summon up no regret.
It was at this happy moment that a crowd of chubby pink piglets invaded the garden and began to root up the beds with their little round snouts. The earth flew up in fountains. Vasilisa picked up a stick and started to chase the piglets away, but there turned out to be something frightening about these pigs – they had sharp fangs. They began to jump and snap at Vasilisa, leaping three feet into the air as they did so because they had springs inside them. Vasilisa moaned in his sleep. A large black fence-post fell on the pigs, they vanished into the earth and Vasilisa woke up to see his damp, dark bedroom floating in front of him.
The night flowed on. The dream passed on over the City, flapping like a vague, white night-bird, flew past the cross held aloft by St Vladimir, crossed the Dnieper, into the thickest black of the night. It sped along the iron track to Darnitsa station and stopped above it. There, on track No. 3, stood an armored train. Its sides were fully armored right down to the wheels with gray steel plates. The locomotive rose up like a black, multi-faceted mass of metal, red- hot cinders dropping out of its belly on to the rails, so that from the side it looked as if the womb of the locomotive was stuffed with glowing coals. As it hissed gently and malevolently, something was oozing through a chink in its side armor, while its blunt snout glowered silently toward the forest that lay between it and the Dnieper. On the last flat-car the bluish-black muzzle of a heavy caliber gun, gagged with a muzzle-cover, pointed straight towards the City eight miles away.
The station was gripped in cold and darkness, pierced only by the light from dim, flickering yellow lamps. Although it was almost dawn there was constant movement and activity on its platforms. Three windows shone brightly in the low, single-storey yellow hut that housed the telegraph, and the ceaseless chatter of three morse-keys could be heard through the panes. Regardless of the burning frost men ran up and down the platform, figures in knee-length sheepskin jerkins, army greatcoats and black reefer jackets. On the next track alongside the armored train and stretching out far behind it, stood the heated cars of a troop-train, a constant unsleeping bustle as men called out, doors opened and slammed shut again.
Beside the armored train, level with the locomotive and the steel sides of the first armored car, there marched up and down like a pendulum a man in a long greatcoat, torn felt boots and a sharp-pointed hood. He cradled his rifle in his arms as tenderly as an exhausted mother holding her baby, and beside him, under the meager light of a station lamp, there marched over the snow the silent foreshortened black shadow of the man and his bayonet. The man was very tired and suffering from the savage, inhuman cold. In vain he thrust the wooden fingers of his cold, blue hands into his ragged sleeves to seek refuge and warmth. From the ragged, frozen black mouth of his cowl, fringed with white hoar frost, his eyes stared out from under frost-laden eyelashes. The eyes were blue, heavy with sleeplessness and pain.
The man strode methodically up and down, swinging his bayonet, with only one thought in his mind: when would his hour of freezing torture be up? Then he could escape from the hideous cold into the heavenly warmth of the heated cars with their glowing stoves, where he could crawl into a crowded kennel-like compartment, collapse on to a narrow cot, cover himself up and stretch out. The man and his shadow marched from the fiery glow of the armored belly as far as the dark wall of the first armored car, to the point where stood the black inscription: ‘The Proletarian’
Now growing, now hunching itself to the shape of a monster, but never losing its sharp point, the shadow dug into the snow with its black bayonet. The bluish rays of the lamp shone feebly down behind the man. Like two blue moons, giving out no heat and trying to the eyes, two lamps burned, one at each end of the platform. The man looked around for any source of heat, but there was none; having lost all hope of warming his toes, he could do nothing but wriggle them. He stared fixedly up at the stars. The easiest star to see was Mars, shining in the sky ahead of them, above the City. As he looked at it, the gaze from his eyes travelled millions of miles and stared unblinkingly at the livid, reddish light from the star. It contracted and expanded, clearly alive, and it was five-pointed. Occasionally, as he grew more and more tired, the man dropped his rifle-butt on to the snow, stopped, dozed off for a moment, but the black wall of the armored train did not depart from that sleep, nor did the sounds coming from the station But he began to hear new sounds. A vast sky opened out above him in his sleep, red, glittering, and spangled with countless red-pointed stars. The man’s soul was at once filled with happiness. A strange unknown man in chain-mail appeared on horseback and floated up to the man. The black armored train was just about to dissolve in the man’s dream, and in its place rose up a village deep in snow – the village of Maliye Chugry. He, the man, was standing on the outskirts of Chugry, and a neighbor of his was coming toward him.
‘Zhilin?’ said the man’s brain, silently his lips motionless. At once a grim voice struck him in the chest with the words:
‘Sentry… your post… keep moving… freeze to death.’
With a superhuman effort the man gripped his rifle again, placed it on his arm, and began marching again with tottering steps.
Up and down. Up and down. The sky that he had seen in his sleep disappeared, the whole frozen world was again clothed in the silky, dark-blue night sky, pierced by the sinister black shape of a gun-barrel. The reddish star in the sky shone, twinkling, and in response to the rays of the blue, moon-like station lamp a star on the man’s chest occasionally flashed. The star was small and also five- pointed.
The urgent spirit of the night flew on and on above the Dnieper. It flew over the deserted riverside wharves and descended on Podol, the Lower City. There, all the lights had long been put out. Everyone was asleep. Only in a three-storey stone building on Volynskaya Street, in a room in the house of a librarian, like a room in a cheap hotel, the blue-eyed Rusakov sat beside a lamp with a green glass shade. In front of him lay a heavy book bound in yellow leather. His gaze travelled slowly and solemnly along the lines.
And I saw the dead small and great stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
…And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
As he read the shattering book his mind became like a shining sword, piercing the darkness.
Illness and suffering now seemed to him unimportant, unreal. The sickness had fallen away, like a scab from a withered, fallen branch in awood. He saw the fathomless blue mist of the centuries, the endless procession of millenia. He felt no fear, only the wisdom of obedience and reverence. Peace had entered his soul and in that state of peace he read on to the words:
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
The dim mist parted and revealed Lieutenant Shervinsky to Elena. His slightly protuberant eyes smiled cheerfully.
‘I am a demon,’ he said, clicking his heels, ‘and Talberg is never coming back. I shall sing to you…’
He took from his pocket a huge tinsel star and pinned it on to the left side of his chest. The mists of sleep swirled around him, and his face looked bright and doll-like among the clouds of vapor. In a piercing voice, quite unlike his waking voice, he sang: ‘We shall live, we shall live!’
‘Then will come death, and we shall die’, Nikolka chimed in as he joined them.
He was holding a guitar, but his neck was covered in blood and on his forehead was the wreath worn by the dead. Elena at once thought he had died, burst into bitter sobs and woke up in the night screaming:
For a long time, sobbing, she listened to the muttering of the night. And the night flew on.
Later Petka Shcheglov, the little boy next door, dreamed a dream too. Petka was very young, so he was not interested in the Bolsheviks, in Petlyura, or in any sort of demon. His dream was as simple and joyful as the sun.
Petka dreamed he was walking through a large green meadow, and in it lay a glittering, diamond ball, bigger than Petka himself. When grown-ups dream and have to run, their feet stick to the ground, they moan and groan as they try to pull their feet free of the quagmire. But children’s feet are free as air. Petka ran to the diamond ball, and nearly choking with happy laughter, he clasped it in his arms. The ball sprinkled Petka with glittering droplets. And that was all there was of Petka’s dream. He laughed aloud with pleasure in his sleep. And the cricket behind the stove chirped gaily back at him. Petka began dreaming more sweet, happy dreams, while the cricket sang its song somewhere in a crack, in the white corner behind the bucket, enlivening the night for the Shcheglov family.
The night flowed on. During its second half the whole arc of the sky, the curtain that God had drawn across the world, was covered with stars. It was as if a midnight mass was being celebrated in the measureless height beyond that blue altar-screen. The candles were lit on the altar and they threw patterns of crosses, squares and clusters on to the screen. Above the bank of the Dnieper the midnight cross of St Vladimir thrust itself above the sinful, bloodstained, snowbound earth toward the grim, black sky. From far away it looked as if the cross-piece had vanished, had merged with the upright, turning the cross into a sharp and menacing sword.
But the sword is not fearful. Everything passes away – suffering, pain, blood, hunger and pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will still remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the earth. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes toward the stars? Why?
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