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The White Guard

Mikhail Bulgakov


  Translated from the Russian by MICHAEL GLENNY

  with an epilogue by Viktor Nekrasov

  Copyright © 1971 by McGraw-Hill Book Company.

  Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number: 70-140252 08844

  Printed in Great Britain


  To Lyubov Yevgenievna Belozerskaya

  A light snow was falling, which suddenly changed to thick, heavy flakes. The wind began to howl; it was a snowstorm. Within a moment the dark sky had merged with the ocean of snow. Everything disappeared.

  'Looks bad, sir,' shouted the coachman. 'A blizzard!'

  Pushkin The Captain's Daughter

  ... and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books according to their works ....

  Revelation, XX, 12.


  Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second. Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds' star, eventide Venus; and Mars - quivering, red.

  But in days of blood as in days of peace the years fly like an arrow and the thick frost of a hoary white December, season of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, joy and glittering snow, overtook the young Turbins unawares. For the reigning head of the family, their adored mother, was no longer with them.

  A year after her daughter Elena Turbin had married Captain Sergei Talberg, and in the week in which her eldest son Alexei Turbin returned from years of grim and disastrous campaigning to the Ukraine, to the City of Kiev and home, the white coffin with the body of their mother was carried away down the slope of St Alexei's Hill towards the Embankment, to the little church of the St Nicholas the Good.

  Their mother's funeral had been in May, the cherry and acacia blossom brushing against the narrow lancet windows of the church. His cope glittering and flashing in the golden sunlight, their parish priest Father Alexander had stumbled from grief and embarrassment while the deacon, his face and neck mauve, vested in beaten gold down to the tips of his squeaky boots, gloomily intoned the words of the funeral service for the mother who was leaving her children.

  Alexei, Elena, Talberg, Anyuta the maid who had grown up in the Turbins' house, and young Nikolka, stunned by the death, a lock of hair falling over his right eyebrow, stood at the foot of the ancient brown ikon of St Nicholas. Set deep on either side of his long bird-like nose, Nikolka's blue eyes had a wounded, defeated look. Occasionally he raised them towards the ikon screen, to the vaulted apse above the altar where that glum and enigmatic old man, God, towered above them and winked. Why had he inflicted such a wrong on them? Wasn't it unjust? Why did their mother have to be taken away, just when they had all been reunited, just when life seemed to be growing more tolerable?

  As he flew away through the crack that had opened up in the sky, God vouchsafed no answer, leaving Nikolka in doubt whether the things that happened in life were always necessary and always for the best.

  The service over, they walked out on to the ringing flagstones of the porch and escorted their mother across the vast City to the cemetery, to where their father had long lain under a black marble cross. And there they buried their mother . . .


  For many years before her death, in the house at No. 13 St Alexei's Hill, little Elena, Alexei the eldest and baby Nikolka had grown up in the warmth of the tiled stove that burned in the dining-room. How often they had followed the story of Peter the Great in Holland, 'The Shipwright of Saardam', portrayed on its glowing hot Dutch tiles; how often the clock had played its gavotte; and always towards the end of December there had been a smell of pine-needles and candles burning on evergreen branches. In answer to the gavotte played by the bronze clock in their mother's bedroom - now Elena's - the black clock on the wall had struck its steeple chimes. Their father had bought both clocks long ago, in the days when women had worn funny leg-of-mutton sleeves. Those sleeves had gone, time had slipped by like a flash, their father the professor had died, and they had all grown, but the clock remained the same and went on chiming. They had all grown used to the idea that if by some miracle that clock ever fell off the wall, it would be as sad as if a beloved voice had died and nothing could ever be hung there in its place. But clocks are fortunately quite immortal, as immortal as the Shipwright of Saardam, and however bad the times might be, the tiled Dutch stove, like a rock of wisdom, was always there to radiate life and warmth.

  The stove; the furniture covered in old red velvet; the beds with their shiny brass knobs; the worn carpets and tapestries, some plain red, some patterned, one with a picture of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, another showing Louis XIV reclining beside a silken lake in paradise; the Turkish carpets with their gorgeous oriental curlicues which had danced in front of little Nikolka's eyes when he was once delirious from scarlet fever; the bronze lamp and its shade; the finest bookshelves in the world full of books that smelled mysteriously of old chocolate with their Natasha Rostovs and their Captain's Daughters, gilded cups, silver, portraits, drapes: all seven of those crammed, dusty rooms in which the young Turbins had been raised; all this, at a time of great hardship, was bequeathed to the children by their mother who as she lay gasping, her strength failing, had clutched the hand of the weeping Elena and said:

  'Go on living . . . and be kind to one another . . .'


  Hut how, how were they to go on living? Alexei Turbin, the eldest and a doctor, was twenty-eight, Elena twenty-four. Her husband Captain Talberg was thirty-one, and Nikolka seventeen and a half. Their life had been darkened at its very dawning. Cold winds had long been blowing without cease from the north and the longer they persisted the worse they grew. The eldest Turbin had returned to his native city after the first blast had shaken the hills above the Dnieper. Now, they thought, it will stop and we can start living the kind of life they wrote about in those chocolate-smelling books. But the opposite happened and life only grew more and more terrible. The snow-storm from the north howled and howled, and now they themselves could sense a dull, subterranean rumbling, the groaning of an anguished land in travail. As 1918 drew to an end the threat of danger drew rapidly nearer.

  # The time was coming when the walls would fall away, the terrified falcon fly away from the Tsar's white sleeve, the light in the bronze lamp would go out and the Captain's Daughter would be burned in the stove. And though the mother said to her children 'Go on living', their lot would be to suffer and die.

  One day at twilight, soon after their mother's funeral, Alexei Turbin called on Father Alexander and said:

  'It has been a terrible blow for us, Father Alexander. Grief like ours is even harder to bear when times are so bad . .. The worst is, you see, that I'd only just come home from the war and we were looking forward to straightening things out and leading a reasonable life, but now . . .'

  He stopped and as he sat at the table in the half light he stared thoughtfully into the distance. Branches of the churchyard trees overshadowed the priest's little house. It was as if just out there, beyond the walls of his cramped, book-lined study was the edge of a tangled, mysterious, springtime forest. From outside came the muffled evening hum of the City and the smell of lilac.

  'What can we do?' muttered the priest awkwardly. (He always felt embarrassed when he had to talk to people.) 'It is the will of God.'

  'Perhaps all this will come to an end one day? Will things be any better, then, I wonder?' asked Turbin of no one in particular.

  The priest shifted in his armchair.

  'Yes, say what you like, times are bad, very bad', he mumbled. 'But one mustn't lose heart . . .'

  Then drawing
it out of the black sleeve of his cassock he suddenly laid his white hand on a pile of books, and opened the topmost one at the place marked by a bright embroidered ribbon.

  'We must never lose heart', he said in his embarrassed yet somehow profoundly convincing voice. 'Faintness of heart is a great sin . . . Although I must say that I see great trials to come. Yes, indeed, great trials', he said with growing certainty. 'I have been spending much of the time with my books lately, you know. All concerned with my subject of course, mostly books on theology . . .'

  He raised the book so that the last rays of the sun fell on the open page and read aloud:

  'And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.'


  White with hoar-frost, December sped towards its end. The glitter of Christmas could already be felt in the snowbound streets. The year 1918 would soon be over.

  Number 13 was a curious building. On the street the Turbins' apartment was on the second floor, but so steep was the hill behind the house that their back door opened directly on to the sloping yard, where the house was brushed and overhung by the branches of the trees growing in the little garden that clung to the hillside. The back-gardens filled up with snow, and the hill turned white until it became one gigantic sugar-loaf. The house acquired a covering like a White general's winter fur cap; on the lower floor (on the street side it was the first floor, whilst at the back, under the Turbins' verandah, it was the basement) the disagreeable Vasily Lisovich-an engineer, a coward and a bourgeois - lit his flickering little yellow lamps, whilst upstairs the Turbins' windows shone brightly and cheerfully.

  One evening Alexei and Nikolka went out into the yard for some firewood.

  'Hm, damn little firewood left. Look, they've been pinching it again.'

  A cone of bluish light burst out from Nikolka's pocket flashlight, and they could see clearly where the planking of the woodshed had been wrenched away and clumsily pushed back into place from the outside.

  'I'd shoot the swine if I caught them, by God I would. Why don't we keep watch out here tonight? I know it's that shoemaker's

  family from Number 11. And they've got much more firewood than we have, damn them!'

  'Oh, to hell with them . . . Come on, let's go.'

  The rusty lock creaked, a pile of logs tumbled down towards the two brothers and they lugged them away. By nine that evening the tiles of Saardam were too hot to touch.

  The gleaming surface of that remarkable stove bore a number of historic inscriptions and drawings, painted on at various times during the past year by Nikolka and full of the deepest significance:

  If people tell you the Allies are coming to help us out of this mess, don't believe them. The Allies are swine.

  He's a pro-Bolshevik!

  A drawing of a head of Momus, written underneath it:

  Trooper Leonid Yurievich.

  News is bad and rumours humming - People say the Reds are coming!

  A painting of a face with long drooping moustaches, a fur hat with a blue tassel. Underneath:

  Down with Petlyura!

  Written by Elena and the Turbins' beloved childhood friends - Myshlaevsky, Karas and Shervinsky - in paint, ink and cherry-juice were the following gems:

  Elena loves us all,

  the thin, the fat and the tall.

  Lena dear, have booked tickets for Aida Box No. 8, right.

  On the twelfth day of May 1918 I fell in love.

  You are fat and ugly.

  After a remark like that I shall shoot myself.

  (followed by an extremely realistic drawing of an automatic)

  Long live Russia!

  Long live the Monarchy!

  June. Barcarolle.

  All Russia will recall the day of glorious Borodino.

  Then printed in capitals, in Nikolka's hand:

  1 hereby forbid the scribbling of nonsense on this stove. Any comrade found guilty of doing so will be shot and deprived of civil rights, signed: Abraham Goldblatt,

  Ladies, Gentlemen's and Women's Tailor.

  Commissar, Podol District Committee.

  30th January 1918.

  The patterned tiles were luxuriously hot, the black clock going tonk-tank, tonk-tank, as it had done for thirty years. The elder Turbin, clean-shaven and fair-haired, grown older and more sombre since October 25th 1917, wearing an army officer's tunic with huge bellows pockets, blue breeches and soft new slippers, in his favourite attitude - in an upright armchair. At his feet on a stool Nikolka with his forelock, his legs stretched out almost as far as the sideboard - the dining-room was not big - and shod in his buckled boots. Gently and softly Nikolka strummed at his beloved guitar, vaguely . . . everything was still so confused. The City was full of unease, of vague foreboding . . .

  On his shoulders Nikolka wore sergeant's shoulder-straps to which were sewn the white stripes of an officer cadet, and on his left sleeve a sharp-pointed tricolor chevron. (Infantry, No. 1

  Detachment, 3rd Squad. Formed four days ago in view of impending events.)

  Yet despite these events, all was well inside the Turbins' home:

  it was warm and comfortable and the cream-colored blinds were drawn - so warm that the two brothers felt pleasantly languorous.

  The elder dropped his book and stretched.

  'Come on, play "The Survey Squad".' Thrum-ta-ta-tum, thrum-ta-ta-tum . . .

  'Who look the smartest? Who move the fastest? The Cadets of the Engineers!'

  Alexei began to hum the tune. His eyes were grim, but there was a sparkle in them and his blood quickened. But not too loud, gentlemen, not too loud . . .

  'No need to run, girls, Life can be fun, girls -'

  The guitar strummed away in time to the marching feet of an engineer company - left, right, left, right! In his mind's eye Nikolka saw a school building, peeling classical columns, guns. Cadets crawling from window to window, firing. Machine-guns at the windows. A handful of soldiers was besieging the school, literally a handful. But it was no use. General Bogoroditzky had turned yellow and surrendered, surrendered with all his cadets. The shame of it . . .

  'No need to run, girls, Life can be fun, girls -The Survey Squad is here!'

  Nikolka's eyes clouded again. Heat-haze over the red-brown Ukrainian fields. Companies of cadets, white with powdery dust, marching along the dusty tracks. All over now. The shame . . . Hell.

  Elena pushed aside the drapes over the door, and her auburn head appeared in the dark gap. She glanced affectionately at her brothers but anxiously at the clock. With good reason; where on earth was Talberg? Their sister was worried. To hide it, she started to sing the tune with her brothers, but suddenly stopped and raised her finger.

  'Wait. Did you hear that?'

  On all seven strings the company came to a halt. All three listened. There was no mistaking the sound: gunfire. Low,

  muffled and distant. There it was again: boo-oo-om . . . Nikolka put down his guitar and jumped up, followed, groaning, by Alexei.

  In the lobby and drawing-room it was quite dark. Nikolka stumbled over a chair. Outside it was exactly like a stage-setting for The Night Before Christmas - snow and twinkling, shimmering lights. Nikolka peered through the window. Heat-haze and school house vanished as he strained his ears. Where was that sound? He shrugged his tabbed shoulders.

  'God knows. I get the impression it's coming from the Svyato-shino direction. Funny, though. It can't be as near as that.'

  Alexei was standing in the dark, but Elena was nearer to the window and her eyes were shadowed with fear. Why had Talberg still not come home? What did it mean? The elder brother sensed her anxiety and because of it he said nothing, although he very much wanted to speak his thoughts. There was not the slightest doubt that it was coming from Svyatoshino. The firing was no more than eight miles outside the City. What was going on?

p; Nikolka gripped the window-catch and pressed his other hand against the pane as if to break it open, and flattened his nose against the glass.

  Td like to go out there and find out what's going on . . .'

  'Maybe; but it's no place for you right now . . .' said Elena anxiously. Her husband should have been home at the latest - the very latest - at three o'clock that afternoon, and now it was ten.

  They went silently back into the dining-room. The guitar lay glumly silent. Nikolka went out to the kitchen and carried in the samovar, which hissed angrily and spat. The table was laid with cups that were pastel-colored inside and decorated outside with gilded caryatids. In their mother's day this had been the family's best tea-service for special occasions, but her children now used it for everyday. Despite the gunfire, the alarms and anxiety, the tablecloth was white and starched. This was thanks to Elena, who instinctively saw to such things, and to Anyuta who had grown up in the Turbin household. The hem of the tablecloth gleamed, andalthough it was December, in the tall, pillar-shaped matt glass vase stood a bunch of blue hortensias and two languorous roses to affirm the beauty and permanency of life - despite the fact that out there, on the roads leading into the City, lay the cunning enemy, poised to crush the beautiful snowbound City and grind the shattered remnants of peace and quiet into fragments beneath the heel of his boot. The flowers were a present from Elena's faithful admirer, Lieutenant Leonid Shervinsky of the Guards, a friend of the salesgirl at La Marquise, the famous confectioners, and a friend of the salesgirl at the florist's shop, Les Fleurs de Nice. In the shadow of the hortensias was a blue-patterned plate with a few slices of sausage, butter under a glass bell, lumps of sugar in the sugar-bowl and a long loaf of white bread. Everything one could want for a delicious supper if only the situation . . .

  The teapot was covered by a bright woolen tea-cosy in the shape of a rooster, while the gleaming side of the samovar reflected the three distorted faces of the Turbins, making Nikolka's cheeks look as round and puffed as the face of Momus scribbled on the stove.