YEGOR, lying on his belly crosswise on the big bed, considered Danil, straddling a chair in front of him. Yegor was wearing a blue blouse belted at the waist by a silk chord and a pair of long sailor’s trousers. He was beating time on a pillow with his feet, which were clad in simple red leather Turkish slippers. His head appeared enormous. Nose sniffing for a fight. Wide, fresh mouth, high forehead topped by blond tufts. A soft drunkenness, which wasn’t drunkenness but rather an inner instability pregnant with storms about to break, stagnated in his eyes, in the sharp curve of his mouth, in the quick pulse of the veins in his neck.
Danil, seeing his expression harden into that of a high-powered gambler about to stake his bet, sensed an obscure danger approaching. He had come to ask this bandit for arms, munitions, money for the Green partisans hiding out in the forests.
“Your Greens,” Yegor said heavily at last, “are too green. Understand?”
Golden candelabra standing on the piano threw the saffron light of twelve candles into the room. Open tins yawned up from the deal table. There was black bread, bits of dried fish spread out on crumpled newspaper, cigarette boxes full of butts, and little crystal glasses decorated with vine-leaf tracings. Discarded cigarette butts studded the floor on every side. Rifles were stacked against the back of a brocade armchair over which a long black silk stocking lay like a serpent. An enamel washbasin full of toilet water was standing on the white marble mantelpiece. The windows, boarded up on the outside and hung with Bokhara rugs on the inside, gave no clue as to whether it was day or night. Seen from without, the big dead house must seem abandoned. The red seals of the Special Commission covered the doors. The only way in was through deserted, disreputable back courts or a secret opening in the wall of the neighbouring house.
“No,” said Danil. “You…”
Yegor stared into space. His feet beat the pillow more rapidly. He was groping for an idea as, in a fight, he would have groped for something to throw – a glass, an inkpot, a knife. In a different voice, he called: “Shura!”
Shura entered. Noiselessly she appeared at the foot of the bed, a woman wearing a long silk Turkoman dress with wide red-and-blue stripes.
“Take off my shoes and socks. Quick.”
he continued to tap his foot nervously against the rug which covered the bed while she removed his slippers and silk stockings in heavy silence. A bare foot, red, with flat toenails, buried itself in the pillow. Yegor withdrew behind his eyes. Danil felt vaguely chilly.
“Anything else?” asked Shura, who seemed to be unaware of the presence of another man three feet away. She had a thickset face, broad through the cheeks; eyes which slanted toward her temples; thick painted lips whose crimson suggested a scream crushed against that mouth; black hair plastered down on both sides of her forehead; bare arms. She was from Asia.
He swallowed the liquor in one gulp.
Seated on the side of the bed, the woman at last turned a soft glance on Danil. Yegor seized her knee in a grip like a pincers. “Do you see,” he said to Danil, “how I hold this knee? I felt like grabbing you by the neck that way. You would have removed my slippers, you would have poured me a drink, and if I had s[it in your face you would have wiped it off without a word. Some of them even smile when I do it to them. Enough! Remember that Yegor is in a good mood tonight. You picked a good time to come and tell him lies to his face. I know what your Greens are worth. To hell with them and you too. Now, let’s drink. Pour, Shura. Not those glasses…”
A little crystal glass shattered somewhere across the floor. Shura filled some tea glasses with cognac. In profile, a tall bizarrely striped form, a bare arm, smooth and tawny, a low Chinese forehead under jet-black braids. “You drink too!” Yegor told her. She drank slowly with one elbow lifted the way teamsters drink in cabarets. An ambiguous half smile creased her face. Danil saw warm golden sparks in her pupils. Perhaps it was only the reflection of the candles. Yegor resumed his monologue.
“What were you Greens doing when I was taking the Palace? I may well have been the first man in there, rifle butt forward. You can still see the mark of my rifle on the wall panelling. I shot Paul I in effigy. You can still see the holes in his white breeches. That’s where I aim. You don’t like that?”
“It’s all the same to me.”
“Ah, very well. I took Pavlograd; me, do you understand?”
The dull anger building up inside him vanished instantly, carried away by a sort of fond merriment.
“What’s your name? Danil? Listen, Danil, I set fire to Pavlograd prison. That was a pleasure… Hey, Shura, do you remember back in December, the way we worked in the square at night? That was another good time.”
On those nights their jolly band moved into a huge square bounded by a half-moon of buildings whose windows suggested blind eyes. The arch of Army Headquarters, surmounted by an invisible four-horse chariot, opened like a triumphal gate into a deeper darkness. The breeze blew up a snowy powder which suddenly began to sparkle, suspended within the limits of visibility, when the broad straight beam of a searchlight rose over the Winter Palace. This huge luminous sword cut uselessly through the polar sky. At the bottom of the square, the old Foreign Ministry building bent sharply toward Cantors’ Bridge like a cardboard stage setting. The gang proceeded to the foot of the tall granite column, erected in memory of a forgotten victory, in order to saw off the bronze grillwork. The copper was excellent! Fences were offering a good price for them. Yegor had also thought of stealing the Turkish cannon planted muzzle-down at the corners, but they weren’t offering enough for them. The lights were burning in the windows of the militia post a hundred yards away. A few good pals were inside. – Yegor yawned.
“Danil, you can go tell your people that Yegor says, “up your ass.” He’s with the Revolution, Yegor is. Not the commissars’ Revolution but his own, his very own, which still has some good days and fine nights ahead of it. Pour him another drink, Shura, and then to hell with him.
Danil left. Shura walked ahead, carrying a candlestick. Huge shadows danced noiselessly around them. The young woman drew the light close to her lips, whose irritating red was like a scream. The flame went out, the cold night blew in with a sudden glitter of starlight.
“What stars!” said Danil in spite of himself.
“What stars!” murmured distinctly the irritating lips which had just disappeared behind him.
Stormy chords banged out on a piano were exploding somewhere like an underground symphony.
Yegor paced the room, his hips rolling slightly, gesticulating. And, speaking aloud, he muttered, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…”
Yeah, I took Pavlograd. I set fire to the prison. A little orange cat was caught in the guardhouse. So we dashed up the smoke-filled stairs, Brik and I, and we pulled the poor animal out of the flames, yeah. And then I worked a whole morning behind the wall of a little station – but what station! What station? – shooting the officers who had surrendered the night before. How tired we were afterward! I swam across the Dnieper. They killed Brik. What was the name of that nice old mujik who fed me, dried me, dressed me, hid me? A funny name, a mare’s name… We crashed two locomotives together to block the right of way. That was at Matveevka, yes. What a magnificient thing that was, the crash of those two machines, the speed, the momentum, the power, the screaming boilers and that explosion – black, red, white! I jumped out of the cab just in time, yeah. The precise second! I felt the hot breath of the explosion on my back, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Suddenly he thought:
If they had hold of you now, you’d get a bullet in the back of the neck and it would be all over for you, Yegor.
He cried out in the middle of a lengthy yawn – the yawn of a caged beast.
“Shura, I’m bored…”
Half consciously he opened the piano. His head was ready to explode, it was full of things. How to say them? How to silence them? What to yell? What to smash? He struck the keyboard with both hands, seeking deep rumbling notes, unleashing wild chords, a raging battle, a fantastic storm mingled with inarticulate melodies, ecstacies, and sobs.
With the firm tread of a drunk he walked down the long dark corridor toward the women’s room – the “Bitches’ Barracks” – which was at the end. Whispers were audible through the half-open door.
“Didja hear that?” asked Dunya-the-Snake.
“That’s Yegor going off his rocker. I feel bad for him, poor Yegor, with those restless eyes. Oh, Manya, Manya, he feels the end coming, I tell you, and I feel sorry for him, really sorry…”
The three women were probably squatting, as they always did, on pillows around the little stove. Between the two young ones sat old Manya, wrinkled hands under the candle spreading out toward solitaire cards: Manya reeking of lod age with century – old lizard eyes and an obstinate will to live – eh, why go on living, old witch? Yegor would have wanted to grab his own life full of red strength in both hands and wring it out like a discarded rag and throw it in the face of… in whose face, for Christ’s sake?
Old Manya’s answer filtered out of the room along with a faint ruddy glow:
“Don’t worry about him, Katka. Men are all swine. Spit on them. And then, he’s got his Shura. Too bad for her. God bless her.”
Yegor smiled, relaxed, shoulder blades flat against the wall, body heavy.
“Manya,” interjected Dunya-the-Snake, “tell us about Nice.”
“Another time. Those were different times, my girls, the good old days… But we manage to get along, don’t we? Do you know what Tata is doing? She can’t sleep with the commissars, not with a broken nose and a voice like an old worn-out shoe. But she found herself a racket. She undresses little kids. “Here, little boy, come here. I’ve got something interesting to show you….” – she takes the kid by the hand, all sweet and nice, and leads him into a hallway. Two slaps across his little face and Tata collects his coat, his hat, his gloves, a good day’s work.”
“That turns my stomach,” said Katka. “Poor little kids.”
“They’re gonna croak one way or another,” said Manya softly.
“And anyway,” ventured Dunya-the-Snake, “if they’re the kids of the bourgeois, too bad for them.”
“Shut up, you stupid little Agit-Prop. You know that big building they’re putting up over the canal? Well, a whole gang of kids is holed up there, with Olenka-the-Runaway as their chief. What do you say to that? Ah, now there’s a somebody for all her thirteen years. Looks like a little lamb; sweet, well-mannered and all that, but cunning. I’m sure she’s the one who killed that little boy by the Oats Market. You know what they thought up? They catch cats, they eat them, and sell the skins to the Chinese… They also work poor boxes in the churches and ration cards in the food lines….
“Tell us about Nice, sweet Manya, tell us about Nice,” begged Dunya.
Yegor moved away noiselessly, his head bowed.
It was very late when Stassik arrived. Icicles clung to his burgeoning beard. His old soldier’s coat was stiff with the cold. They sat across from each other leaning on their elbows and drank tea and cognac. Stassik brought the latest issues of the Tocsin published in a Ukrainian village during the passing of a singing army which moved in carts – a machine gun and an accordion in each cart – under black banners.
Yegor glanced at a headline:
RESOLUTIONS OF THE SPECIAL CONFERENCE OF THE CONFEDERATION..
More resolutions, more organisations, more conferences even under these midnight banners! Yegor drank, and this last swig of burning liquor seemed in a strange way to sober him at the same time as it made him entirely drunk.
“Put away your papers, Stassik,” he said. “I don’t want to see them. I’m not a believer. All I know about is one thing: the melting snows, the great spring waters, the flooding rivers carrying along granite-hard ice blocks, dead dogs, last year’s garbage, old pranks… it’s a flood, understand, and we’re all rolling down to the sea: ah! How beautiful it is to be carried along and to carry off everything before you! A block of ice, that’s what I am. I’ve got to crash into arches and bridges. I’ve got to hear the barge hulls resounding under my blows.”
“And afterward?” said Stassik.
“Afterward, I don’t give a fuck. Put away your pamphlets, Stassik, I don’t believe in them.”
He took another drink.
“I’m bored, Stassik. Do you believe?”
“In what do you say.”
Yegor’s head felt heavy, ready to fall. He was holding it up with both hands. Wouldn’t it fall anyway, roll across the floor, bounce up like a great soccer ball, and smack its brow against the black-and-white keyboard, there to unleash storms and perish? Stassik, sitting stiffly, black and white, black beard and white skin like the piano keys, was certainly not drunk. Stassik’s hands lay flat on the table, sharp and clear amid the general disorder. He answered with words as blunt as deeds.
“You’ve got a child’s brain in an athlete’s skull, Yegor. “Believe” is an old word, Yegor. I know. I know that man will be free on a free earth. I know that we will all be killed long before that. I know that we will be forgotten. I know that the future will be magnificent. I know it’s time to begin.”
“Yes, yes,” cried Yegor, “you’re right. I believe, too, Stassik.”
He burst out laughing.
“So long as we’re killed beforehand. Are you sure about that?”
“I’m sure of it,” Stassik answered gravely.
Yegor thought his forehead had hit the keyboard. A splendid storm thundered around him. He was smiling, ecstatic, into an immense certainty. Like the sun over the Baltic in July, bursting through the clouds and making waves of light ripple suddenly across the sea. Certainty. He was searching for something in this chaos, as he had been searching in his memory across this seascape: the near-forgotten name of a woman.
“Stassik, do you want some money for the organisation? Take.”
The money was in the drawer of the table. Tea had spilled over the stacks of banknotes, which were mingled with dirty postcards. Stassik began methodically to sort out the dry bills.