PRINCE Usatov, the former president of the Southeast Railway, put two motions to a voice vote. General Kasparov’s motion demanded that the Administration create a special section for hostages entirely separate from the quarters for common-law prisoners. Privy Councillor Von Eck was only asking permission for the hostages to close their rooms themselves during the day in order to prevent theft. The Privy Councillor’s “opportunistic moderatism” annoyed the intransigents. A bald jurist had just maintained that the exceptional situation of the hostages allowed them to demand to be treated as prisoners of war…. Having reached this point, the speaker had interrupted himself and stammered that “none of this would make any difference anyway.”
A murmur of disapproval arose.
“We got the mattresses, didn’t we?” triumphantly shouted the financier, Bobrikin, known as the Fat One, although six months of detention had made him resemble a great bat bewildered by the daylight. Professor Lytaev voted for the moderate motion, which caused his neighbours to jeer at the incurable liberalism of the university.
Ever since the night when he was dragged out of his cell at midnight, doubtless to be executed, only to end up, by accident or indulgence, in the hostages’ quarter, he had been feeling rather good, all things considered. His wife’s letters arrived every day, along with packs of cigarettes. Thanks to a former pickpocket who had stayed on in the prison as a watchman and who had a warm spot for intellectuals, the Professor had fixed up a corner for himself in Room 3, almost directly under the high, grilled window, which hadn’t been washed since the abdication of the Czar. The top of a packing case was his writing desk. Back against the wall, legs stretched out on the straw mattress, writing desk on his knees, he would stare up at the top of the window, at the rough diamond of a broken pane through which the white sky was revealed, and forget the room behind him with its petty passions and great fears. Since no hostages had been executed for some time, a few optimists were arguing that the terror had been ended following secret negotiations which, according to rumour, had been undertaken with the International Red Cross. The pessimists merely shrugged. One of these nights, in their opinion, a nasty surprise could be expected. “These bandits don’t give a damn for the Red Cross; and they’re much too crazy to stop halfway. I wouldn’t bet very much on our heads,” said General Kasparov, who had his own reasons to be worried. He trembled whenever the newspapers admitted the disastrous situation at the front, for he knew (having himself ordered a massacre of prisoners not too long ago, before embarking on the special train reserved for the flight of the General Staff) that defeated men are merciless. The principal preoccupation of the room remained the division of sugar and herring. Prince Usatov, the elected dean, presided over these quarrels with the fair-mindedness of an old nobleman accustomed to deciding questions of honour. Thanks to him, the ship owner Nesterov (of the firm Nesterov and bosch, known in the harbours of the New World and Old), who refused to touch dried fish, received an extra lump of sugar every other day plus three extra spoonful’s of sour cabbage soup each day.
A crow flew slowly across the broad shred of white sky which Lytaev was contemplating, tracing a curve which vanished as it was made; but this line, non-existent yet real, was enough to start the old men thinking. The bird’s flight; that’s the fact; the curve is only its law as conceived by my mind. Lytaev reached under his pillow and pulled out some odd-shaped scraps of paper which had been carefully smoothed down and were spotted with grease. Having sharpened his stub of a pencil with razor blade, a precious object loaned to him by Prince Usatov, he resumed his writing. He took lots of disconnected notes: it was his way of unravelling his thoughts. He sent them to Marie.
“Never, perhaps, have I lived in such total serenity. There is great happiness in being detached from everything and understanding everything. The happiness I feel is immense, bitter, painful, and calm. Life appeared suddenly before me stripped of everything that encumbered it: habits, conventions, duties, worries, superfluous relations. We end up abandoning our souls almost entirely to these things. Do you remember that story by Kipling we read together at Vevey: `The Miracle of Purun Bhagat`? it’s the tale of an old Westernised Hindu who retires high up in the mountains in order to finish out his life there with the earth, plants, tame animals – eternal reality. I’m an occidental. I have no wish to remove myself from men or from action: these too belong to eternity. I wish only to overcome my own impotence and to finally understand the curve described in the sky by the hurricane which is carrying us all along with it.
“All men’s miseries are reduced to naked simplicity here. We live the life of the poor. And I understand the poor, their direct vision of reality, their power to hate, their need to overturn the world. I have no hate, however, except, perhaps, in the end, for the things I love the most – I believe we are almost all of us without hate in this prison. I may be mistaken, for I don’t observe the others enough. I don’t have the time, would you believe it?
“They say the terror is going to end; I don’t think so. It is still a necessity. The storm must uproot the old trees, stir the ocean to its depths, wash clean the old stones, replenish the impoverished fields. The world will be new afterward. If the old oak whose heavy sap is barely able to circulate could think, it would call out for the lightning bolt and crumble with joy. Peter I was a great woodcutter. How many old oaks he cut down! Now greater woodcutters have come, we are in a class marked for the axe.
“What a dead thing we have made of history in our libraries! We looked for the explanation of the present in the past. It’s the present which explains the past. Real history will be written when men’s eyes are open.
“Many of those who are making the Revolution are madmen. Yet they will all serve, down to the last. And if there are some who know what they are doing, we can take our leave without regrets with our books and our dust-covered sciences (which have not been useless). Another science will be created Marie, I believe there are such men! There is too much order and method in this chaos. I think I can glimpse them. They exist or they are about to come into being, about to awaken to themselves. And I love them, even if they appear cruel, even if they are cruel, even if they kill me without seeing me.
“If only we are strong enough to prevail! You see that I have gone over to the side of those who tomorrow perhaps… The other side’s terror would be worse. It would uproot all the young shoots from this poor land. One side is defending their lives and life itself. The other, old privileges. The ones think of man. The others think only of their goods: not even about themselves; in here we have a former landowner whose only reason for wanting the White to win is to be indemnified for the confiscation of his stud farm.
“My spot is one of the best in our room, not far from the window. Through a broken pane I can see the sky. Betelgeuse was shining in the other night when we heard the cannon firing. What a miserable noise it was under those flickering white dots which are universes! I contemplated them with limitless detachment. After us, the stars will shine for other eyes, which will be better able to see them. Men are on the march, Marie. Whether it is by an absurd chance or by necessity that they must pass over our bodies, they are on the march.
“It is always the barbarians who renew the world. There is so much rubbish and hidden barbarism, sickness and lies in our culture! The barbarians who have come are the product of that culture. That’s why some of them are ugly and demented. They will be swept away like us, along with the old beliefs, the old images, the old poisons, money, and syphilis…”
There was no light in the evening. Lytaev had to stop. We are never able to share everything, especially when we want to reveal the best in us. Lytaev silenced the insurmountable fear he felt for death, and the fact that his desire to live was as great as that of a child who has just discovered death.
Yegor walked in circles around his cell, swaying from left to right, from right to left, half forgetting where he was. He was singing to himself. The Volga rolled her green waters through plains and forests, boats carrying hardy lads toward rich booty, Stenka’s head rolling under the block, Stenka’s head carried off on the waves…
The spy hole clanked open. A drooping moustache appeared:
“Silence. The rules forbid singing.”
Yegor felt his whole being rebound like a ball striking the ground and bouncing off in a new direction.
“Eat your own rules, stink-face, sewer rat, prison rat, moustache of my ass! I sing if I want to. You didn’t make the Revolution!”
Behind the closed spy hole, Moustache-face stood for a while, nonplussed. Seventeen years of loyal service in this jail through three revolutions, marked only by overcrowding, unheard-of relaxations in discipline, and a merry-go-round of people coming and going that could drive a man crazy, had adapted him to the silences of the galleries, and to the rules which, maintained by every successive administration, were as permanent and immutable as the succession of the seasons. Yet there were times in his life when he had trembled, heart in his throat, to see men returning to the prison as masters, whom he remembered well, having escorted them to the exercise yard behind the pimps. And so he hesitated a moment, torn between his sense of discipline and a vague apprehension. At that instant the new Commissar of the House of Detention, Comrade Ryzhik, emerged from the courtyard, followed by the quartermaster. (The previous Commissar, caught selling food on the black market, now occupied a cell on the fifth floor; the guys on fatigue duty spat in the boiled water they gave him to drink.) Moustache-face greeted Ryzhik in the regulation attitude of a guard before the warden. Ryzhik, whose cheeks were covered with a dirty-looking stubble of beard, frowned. Where had they dug up this old animal, trained in the prison service to jump through hoops of paper like a circus dog? Although the days back in 1914 when Ryzhik occupied cell 30 on the fourth floor were far away, he thought he remembered that ruddy face with its tarred moustache.
“One of our best men,” whispered the quartermaster. “An old timer: the only one who really knows his job. Never steals.”
“… Comrade Commissar, there’s a sailor here who is creating a disturbance.”
“What’s he doing?”
Ryzhik shrugged his shoulders. “Well, then, let him sing.” He stared at Moustache-face with a kind of hatred. “Hand out grenades to all reliable men right away. (Not to this one, naturally.) /have them carry them on their belts. When I give the signal, `clean out` the counterrevolutionaries’ rooms and cells. Give each man his own assignment. Also `clean out` the rooms of hostages in Category One.”
“And the common criminals?” inquired the quartermaster. Ryzhik reflected; his instructions were silent on this point. After all, bandits only prey on property owners.
“Turn them loose, at the last moment.”
At a corner in the corridor they ran into the person Ryzhik wanted at all costs to avoid meeting. A gang of men in undershirts with trousers dragging over unlaced shoes were running toward the showers. One man loomed, dark, erect, terrifying. Close up he was no longer terrifying, just ordinary. Such is the power of concreteness that ten paces are enough to strip a man in appearance of the mystery surrounding him. How he had lost weight, aged in a few days: skin browned, mouth stretched at the corners, nose hooked, eyes like dark embers!
“How’s it going?”
“So-so. Nothing. Do you think we’ll hold on?”
“It’ll be hard…”
Even in the days when Ryzhik was pushing flatcars weighing several tons around railroad yards in Siberia, the load he felt in the small of his back at the end of the day was no heavier than at this moment. A weight of ice pressing down body and soul. Already there was nothing more to say to each other. Ryzhik heard his own voice with a kind of astonishment, as if someone else, inside of him, had spoken in his place. This someone was now lying carelessly:
“Your case hasn’t been decided yet. There are too many problems already, as you must know.
“Would you like to see that… your woman? I can arrange that for you. Good. In an hour, brother. Farewell.”
In Russian they say “sorry” for “farewell.” There is deep wisdom in the word.
Arkadi lit a cigarette with trembling hands. He knew this slight but perceptible tremor in his hand well, having observed it on many occasions. He smiled, nonetheless, into the void. And so the little blond soldier accompanying him also smiled, his whole round face illuminated by two greenish drops of water.
Ryzhik locked the door of the director’s office. Leather armchairs, dirty blotter. The Constitution of the Soviet Republic, the Regulations of the House of Detention. Ryzhik felt horribly alone, caught in a trap. No air. The dark panes of glass cabinet returned his ugly image. Shame at having nerves like an intellectual made him feel even hotter. He pounced at the telephone. Replace me immediately! I’m not made for this kind of work. Send anybody, but relieve me, you understand, within the hour! – That’s what he would shout at them. The sugary voice of a well-bred young lady informed him that Comrade Osipov had left for the front. No one was left at the Special Commission except Comrade Zvereva, on duty… At the office of the President, a heavy masculine voice indicated that Comrade President was in conversation with the capitol by direct wire and would not be free in the near future. Kirk was at the Special Defence Council meeting which was taking place on Trotsky’s train. Ryzhik finally got hold of Kondrati.
“What do you want from me, Ryzhik? Be brief.”
How to tell him that….
“Kondrati, I’m exhausted. I can’t stand up anymore. Send someone to replace me.”
“Exhausted? Are you out of your mind? Don’t you know what we’re up against? Stay at your post and leave us the fuck alone.” The wire went dead. Ryzhik was suddenly aware of the cold, of the lurid lighting, of a touch of rheumatism.
He walked several turns around the office, just like so many of the men pacing circles in their cells at that moment. He felt more closed in than they.
He unlocked the door and rang. Moustache-face appeared.
“What’s yoyr name?”
“Do you have any spirits Vlasov?”
“Who can live without liquor? Good grain spirits, sir, distilled on the sly by the peasants, not far from here in…”
“Fine. Bring it.”
The first glass, a tall beer glass, sent its crude warmth coursing through Ryzhik’s stiff limbs. The way the fire gets into your pores when you warm yourself in front of a brazier burning out on the snow at night. Moustache-face stood with his arms at his sides, smiling obsequiously. “It’s good for the soul,” he said, licking lips that had not drunk. What a prick! Thought Ryzhik. But aloud he said:
“Sit down and drink.”
Since there was only one glass, they took turns drinking.
Yegor entered the visitors’ room and found Shura. A nondescript soldier with grenades around his belt watched his every move without seeming to see him: such was the look of boredom on his inexpressive face. “I’ve brought you a saw,” whispered Shura. Her brilliant lips were close to the man’s lips that their breath mingled with these words. “Slide it into my sleeve.” The supple resistance of the flexible blade felt like a stiff fern on the underside of Yegor’s arm. Timochka, the soldier, saw quite clearly the Chinese-looking woman with cat’s eyes slipping something to her lover. And he spoke as if in a dream, softly, slowly:
“Take it, little brother, take it! For all the good it will do you… But you, Princess, you’re very kind.”
Yegor and Shura might have thought they were dreaming themselves to look at Timochka congealed in his boredom. His words passed through them, unreal.
“Bastard,” said Yegor, who believed only in the real.
“They know everything, Shura, those pigs. The bank job. The job at the Cooperative. Old Kalachnikov’s business. The anarchist deal. There was no point in arguing; it didn’t take ten minutes to settle my account…. Is it really you? It’s me. Up against the wall, my boy… That’s as much conversation as was possible. If I don’t find a way to skip, I’m done for. Once there was a man; now there isn’t. understand?”
The strange oval of her pale face looked up at him with intense pleading in the half-closed eyes.
“Don’t be angry, Yegor, I want to tell you something… something… Yegor, don’t be angry… I want them to put me against the wall with you, don’t be angry…”;
Yegor put his arm around her and the tension of his muscles communicated his inner agitation to her whole being. She saw the blood rush to his face, a drunken joy twist his broad smile, sending lightning flashes zigzagging across his eyes. Did he cry out? Or did it only seem to her that he cried out?
“Shura, my little golden-eyed cat! Are you mad? Don’t be stupid! Try to understand. They put a bullet through my head. Well, so what? life goes on, eh? People go on, eh? You go on eh? And the spring, do you think it will be any less beautiful? The thaw, the ice floes, the first green shoots, life-see?- and you, you!”
He shook his shaggy head; and dull fury boiled up in his skull, for he suffered rage at never being able to express himself (when lots of agitators with nothing to say are able to reel off phrases by the mile).
“Shura, my little golden-eyed cat, leave this place without looking back. Don’t forget me” – he spat violently- “no, forget me; it’s better that way, and I don’t give a dammn. Forget me. Live. Live, I tell you. Go to bed with the whole city. No, choose the strongest ones. No, let them choose you. Live. And don’t be afraid of anything. Of anything, do you hear? Like me. There’s nothing to be afraid of!”
Timochka waited for the last stroke of ten o’clock to sound before saying:
“Citizens, the visit is over.”