Chapter 13

Submitted by Reddebrek on January 22, 2015

“I CAN do without everything,” Comrade Zvereva would say, in a voice full of unction, “except flowers. Don’t laugh at me,” she would add, “I have such a sad life!” The blue files were piling up on her little worktable between a vase full of azaleas, the telephone wired by direct line to the Special Commission, and a portrait of Rosa Luxemburg in the dark oval of an Empire frame: gold fillet and bows. Sometimes, friendly and familiar, she would telephone the director of the former imperial greenhouses: “You haven’t forgotten all about me, Jacobsen? Yes, yes , my dear friend, send me some flowers tomorrow.” Jacobsen, slack-faced, crippled with rheumatism, took his cane and headed for the desolate greenhouses. Only a small section was still kept up, and this with gret difficulty: in winter he had to deprive himself of fire at night out of love for a few rare plants. In the damp warmth of a gallery defended with unsung heroism, he found the only man remaining at his post, silent Gavril, agile for his seventy years, who had created many masterpieces in his long life as a horticulturist; Gavril, who knew all the varieties of roses, whether they came from Bulgaria, Italy, California, Japan, or the indies, and who had invented some of his own. “Gavril Petrovich, that woman, you know who, is asking for more flowers.” The two men considered each other for a moment with sadness. They alone had survived the disaster of the most beautiful greenhouses in the Empire, in Europe – perhaps in the world!- visited in 18 – by the Crown Prince of Japan, who was amazed to find an extremely rare family of chrysanthemums there… They no longer, even in the summer, crossed the threshold of the closed galleries, exposed to murderous winter, containing Indonesian ferns, Brazilian lianas, thin palm trees from Ceylon, dead and still in the polar cold and still standing, tragic to look at like the corpses of children. “Very well, I’ll go over again,” muttered Gavril. “What must be, must be. Poor us.” – “Poor us.” At that moment Jacobsen noticed among the little red pots some tiny buds of a tender feathery green, growing around a yellow grain. “What! You were able to save them, Gavril!” Gavril’s gnarled hand caressed the little pot lovingly. – “It wasn’t easy, Iakov Iakovich, but look how well they’re coming along.” Heads bent, they contemplated tiny buds together. But the harsh breath of the outside world brought them up short. “Iakov Iakovich, our fish are dying…” Jacobsen expected as much. “it’s not possible!” – “They’re dying of hunger, Iakov Iakovich. They closed down the German’s shop; seems he was speculating. The aquariums in his window are full of little dead angels. It breaks my heart! Yesterday I climbed every flight of stairs in the Commissariat of Public Education. I waited four hours to get in to see the member of the collegium himself. I told him like that, right to his face `You’ve got to feed my fish. You nationalised them, you’ve got to feed them. I’m an old proletarian myself, understand? I’m telling you my scarlares are dying already; my pantodons…` He showed me the door, Iakov Iakovich, that’s what things have come to.”
Jacobsen proposed:
“What if you spoke to that woman about the fish, Gavril Petrovich?”
Old Gavril trudged through the streets for a full hour bearing four pots of nearly white hortensias which he carried on a plank suspend across his chest by a thick strap around his neck. People watched intrigued as the silk-paper-covered flowers went by. They brought back memories of galas, weddings, saints’ days, other times. Where did the come from? For what happy people?
When Gavril arrived, Comrade Zvereva was in fact happy. A note from headquarters informed her of the arrest of two of the wanted suspects from File No. 42: X, first name Danil, discovered at Professor lytaev’s with papers which were probably fake. “The Professor!” What a master stroke for her first big political investigation. What long faces some of her colleagues would pull when they saw her handling this case. She could hear those hypocrites congratulating her in advance, and she answered them, full of austere detachment: “For me, you see, there are neither big cases nor little ones; there is only the service of the Party.” That would shut their mouths, all those neophytes who think they’re so great just because they’re examining magistrates of the Commission. She would make her report to the President that very evening: “I got the case moving, as you requested…”
Gavril found her in an excellent mood. Evidence of a sumptuous luncheon – Gruyere cheese, salami, real tea- arrested the old horticulturalist’s eye. So they were true, eh, stories they told about special rations set aside for those people. After all, they are masters.
£Gavril, you’re my best friend in the world. But your hortensias are simply marvellous! And how is Jacobsen?”
That bitch would never think of offering him a cup of tea, though she might be able to guess he would be thirsty in such hot weather! And for months he had drunk nothing but slops of an ersatz tea made of carrot scrapings. Poor us. Gavril sighed. The countless wrinkles of his face seemed begrimed with damp earth. His eyes shone out of it like the dark elytra of tiny coleoptera.
“I have a big, big favour to ask you, Comrade Zvereva, and for Iakov Iakovich, too…”
(…You have to know how to say no. We’re not sentimentalists. Duty first. Say no politely but irrevocably. Don’t go thinking that I’m easily moved just because I’m a woman.) Comrade Zvereva’s winning smile melted slowly into an expression of austere distance.
“Go on, my friend.”
Gavril felt a sudden chill. He felt like grabbing his cap off the chair where he had thrown it and beating it without saying another word; but it was a matter of life or death for his scarlares and his pantodons.
“Well, my fish are dying…”
A warm smile illuminated that woman’s glance.
“Really? Your fish? And what can I do about it, Gavril. My good fellow?”
The seeds, the flour, the earth, the worms that were needed existedin the German’s shop, which was closed. The German was in flight or in jail. The shop under seals. All that stuff was going bad. And the fish were dying. Zvereva, delighted, noted the details; the address, the department. “Well, I’m going to save those fish of yours. This very day the German’s store will be opened for you, Gavril, my good fellow… I’ll get on the telephone this instant, you’ll see!”
She loved to insist on imperative orders or requests over the telephone. There are, you see, people who are born organisers: those who know how to make others listen to them, to handle the levers of authority, to give precise instructions. There are also other types, anarchic and romantic temperaments, whom, all things considered, the Party needs only for a time.
Gavril walked home with a high heart. Trucks bristling with shimmering blades jolted along huge bouquets of black torsos with with glowing heads. Hands waving their berets on the points of bayonets: dark tulips borne by straight stems of heavenly blue. Hair flying, mouths clamouring, eyes flashing quick bright glances. A chorus of powerful voices mingled with the motors’ roar:
“We will unfurl
Labour’s red flag
Across the world!”
Gavril realised that these men were returning from a victory. For the first time, his joy was in unison with theirs. He crossed himself, for it was in front of the Kazan Cathedral. “Let itlive, let it live afte all, our starving Republic… when the war is over, the greenhouse will come back to life. Maybe we’ll see it Iakov Iakovich…”
Kirk lived in Room 218, Frumkin in 311, Arkadi and Ryzhik way upstairs. The President of the Executive occupied the best suite on the second floor. A nest of cables ran through a hole in the wall next to his door. Kirk seemed out of place among these more or less interchangeable men. Kirk loved only revolution, energy, and, secretly, outlaws. He had come to know them on the highways of America when, himself a tramp, he had bummed his way across the States from north to south and from south to north, following the seasons, spending winter in Florida, spring in Manhattan, and the summer on the shores of the Great Lakes. You slept at a buddy’s, in the woods, in gardens, in barns, in jail (some of them aren’t bad). The loggers’ strikes, in those days with one-eyed Big Bill. That was nice work! He still bore their scar, over his right eyebrow, which was thick and brown, split in half by a pink line. His big round eyes took easy possession of things, jostled people, and forced their reserves with careless, good-natured ease. “What will they do with me after they drain me dry?” he asked, propping both booted feet on a chair.
His wide mouth split into the constrained smile of a man who has made a bad deal and knows it.
“What will become of me when there are new uniforms for the whole army?”
Zvereva was admiring herself, something she always did. She never failed, when at home, to sit so that the big looking glass returned her slightest gestures bathed in silvered, mirrored purity. Hysterical, thought kirk. A whore’s temperament; and that snout, like an evil nun for a Maeterlinck play…
She answered: “You will serve the Party Kirk.”
(…Not for long, though. Semi-anarchist, not a real proletarian. A lumpen-proletarian rather, newcomer to the Party, ready to criticise everything, calling the leaders’ portraits “little holy pictures”, casting a chill over the table of the Executive by declaring the President’s last speech “horribly boring, and completely wrong as far as figures are concerned!” – She could easily see herself interrogating him one fine day, with him accused of having a hand in some stupid adventure of the third revolution…)
(…Orthodox, of course, to the tips of her nails. Flat on her belly before the President’s slippers; - but tomorrow, if Kondrati’s clique takes over, pfui, it’ll be “Comrade Kondrati this” and “Comrade Kondrati that” every time she opens her mouth. Where does she get her flowers? I’d bet she gets a special ration at the Executive with cocoa, hazelnuts, and condensed milk taken from my wounded….) “Some people,” said Kirk “make revolution like getting kicked in the ass. The garrison on the Obruchev front, hearing what happened at Fort Hill, arrests the Communists, debates for hours whether or not to shoot them, and locks them in a cellar, so as not to compromise themselves, while waiting for orders from the Whites. We take the hill. I telephone the sons of bitches: `Ten minutes to surrender, no conditions.` They pull the Communists right out of the bunker and stick their officers in. What shits!”
He spat a heavy glob at the blue carpet.
“By the way, Comrade Zvereva, the Committee has directed me to work with you on the Centre Right case.”
Zvereva took this blow without batting an eye. She knew you had to swallow many affronts before being able to inflict them in turn.
The arrest of the five Centre Right confederates accidentally brought about that of a stranger known only as Nikita, who refused to answer when interrogated. He was kept closely watched in a special cell at the Commission. He was obviously a man of exceptional endurance. Kirk observed him through the peephole, stretched out on the floor, eyes closed, with his arms behind his head. “He won’t talk.” But, sewn inside the collar of Danil’s tunic, they had found a scrap of paper covered with ciphers. Bobrov got it directly from Zvereva. Bobrov was a little man of about sixty, neat, meticulous, dressed exactly as if he continued to report to his office in the Ministry of the Interior every morning. He lived with a Lutheran matron and two ugly little girls supervised by a German nanny. The fall of the Empire and of two governments had changed none of his habits except the route of his morning walk, during which, in winter, he wore the same fur-lined coat and, in summer, the same black, silk-lined, lightweight overcoat and well-brushed, pearl-grey derby hat, perhaps the only one still to be seen in this city. Witty and apathetic, he occasionally smiled at himself along the way; his white sideburns, hanging down on both sides over a China silk necktie on which gleamed two tiny riding crops, in gold, gave him the air of an old roue in an operetta. He had long preserved this “Parisian” elegance, which he had picked up in Vienna around the high-class bordellos. For a little distraction, as a supremely disinterested spectator, he would read the first lines of wall posters along the way: MOBILISATIO OF WORKERS: OBLIGATORY REGISTRATION OF NON-WORKERS CALLED UPON TO EXECUTE PUBLIC WORKS; PEACE TO RELIGIONISTS! When a poor devil in an engineer’s cap walked next to him for a moment in the street murmuring: “Ruined civil servant, twenty-four years of irreproachable service, two sons killed at the front, four months in jail; I haven’t a stone to rest my head on, like the Son of Man!”- Bobrov stopped, slowly opened his billfold and pulled out a wad of rubles, the price of a half-pound of bread, which he considered to be a Christian alms. He gave only to extremely clean beggars you could imagine coming from the former bourgeoisie. Under the dictatorship of the Proletariat, as under the ancient regime, secret directives kept him free of all cares. The furnishings and arrangement of his office, in a building next to the Commission, had remained nearly identical for twenty-five years; he had personally seen to it that nothing changed when they were removed from the quarters of the Political Police. They consisted of coloured cartons, pigeonholes, file cabinets, card indexes, dossiers, alphabetical records, charts, complicated number systems, thick annotated volumes, literary classics, Lives of the Saints, sheaves of newspapers, photograph albums. The Secret Codebook of the British Navy neighboured with Gogol’s Dead Souls. There were several useful editions of Lermontov’s great poem, The Demon. Bobrov deciphered the most carefully coded texts. He possessed the key to all the locks of the mind. He divined miraculously, reading “I. 81. V.” at the head of a cryptic rune that the key was to be found in Volume I of the 1873 edition of Lermontov’s Works, on page 81, in verse V of Mtsyri. He knew the favourite first names of terrorists, the false initials most frequently adopted by people whose names began with a K, the codes preferred by lovers, madmen, assassins, blackmailers, secret agents, great idealists, world organisers. They would bring him a postcard with the following lines, written under a view of Lake Constance (white sails, lake hotel, mountains): “Splendid weather, wish you were here, Linette”; he would translate: “Check received, sum insufficient, Agent 121!” – and it would be true, he could have demonstrated it by the yachts on the lake, the number of windows in the hotel, the indentations of the mountains, and those of the postage stamp. Under the ancient regime the chiefs of police used to introduce him into the residences of important ministers for highly special services; they would personally act as go-betweens with the procuress attached to the imperial family to reserve him skinny, depraved little girls, whom he would painfully deflower every month, on the twenty-fifth, from five to eight o’clock. Under the new regime, special couriers brought him envelopes sealed with five red stamps; Comrade Zvereva herself made sure that he received a food ration more opulent than that of the members of the Executive Committee and which could only be compared with that of the President. If the memory mechanism of his brain had not been reduced to a purely technical function, he might remember having deciphered the cryptograms of the illegal Central Committee. Their systems were not profoundly different.
It took him little time to penetrate the meaning of the following lone: 21.2 2.M.B.G. 4. H.O. 6.2.4. 60. 2. R. 11. A. 4. M. 9. 10? 4. 2. R. 9. S., which should be read: “Kaas, 8 Avenue of the English, reliable.” Moreover, he remained convinced that the encoder had made two mistakes. What he feared most in the subterfuge of others were irrational complications due to error. Before subsiding each day into an astounding imbecility which bordered on genius without ever attaining it, he had dreamed of writing a Treatise on Error, where stupidity and the multitude would be revealed as the only invincible enemies of the human mind.
Thanks to him, Kaas, who was strangely like him, was arrested. An unlucky businessman, the files of the former Political Police presented Kaas as a double agent. As soon as he was seated face-to-face with Zvereva – Kirk studied him from profile- his tremulous voice reeled off a prepared speech:
“Citizeness. The admirable vigilance of the Special Commission has convinced me of the justice of the great cause of the proletariat. I confess that I have conspired, but as a loyal adversary of the dictatorship and through a profound mistake. I no longer have any desire but to rectify it by lavishing the proofs of my repentance on you. I was to have occupied an eminent position in the government of the counterrevolution; I am ready to reveal to you all the threads of the conspiracy, beginning with the names of the thirty members of the League of Resurrection.”
The sickly creature was playing his last card with an intelligence sharpened by so much fear that he seemed on the point of collapse. He kept his hands beneath the edge of the table so that their trembling should not be seen. But his whole head was trembling.
“I know your organisation quite well. You are Kirk of the Public Health Commission, the Economic Council, the Metals Management, the Special Supply Commission of the Seventh Army…”
“Citizen,” said Zvereva, “that’s quite enough. The Commission will find ways to put your sincerity to the test.”