Always on Detachment by Boris Pilniak



Alexander Alexandrovitch Agrenev, engineer, spent all day in the quarry, laying and exploding dynamite. In the village below was a factory, its chimneys belching smoke; and creaking wagonettes sped backwards and forwards from the parapet. Above on the cliff stood huge sappy pines. All day the sky was grey and cloudy, and the smoke from the chimneys spread like a low pall over the earth. The dynamite exploded with a great detonation and expulsion of smoke.

The autumn darkness, with its sharp, acid, sweet tang, was already falling as Agrenev proceeded homeward with the head-miner, Eduardovich Bitska, a Lithuanian, and the lights from the engine- house shone brightly in the distance.

The engineer's quarters lay in a forest-clearing on the further side of the valley; the cement structures of its small buildings stood out in monotonous uniformity; the blue light of its torches flared and hissed, throwing back dark shadows from the trunks and branches of the pine-trees, which laced, interlaced, and glided dusky and intangible between the tall straight stems, finally melting amidst the foliage.

His skin jacket was sticking to Agrenev's back, as, no doubt,
Bitska's was also.

"My missus will soon be home," Bitska said cheerfully—he had recently been married. He spoke in broken Russian, with a foreign accent.

In Agrenev's house it was dark. The warm glow from the torches outside fell on the window-ledges and illuminated them, but inside the only light was that visible through the crevices of his wife's tightly closed door: his beloved wife—so aloof—so strange. The rain had started, and its drip on the roof was like the sound of water- falls: he changed, washed, took up a newspaper. The maid entered and announced that tea was ready.

His wife—tall, slim, beautiful, and strange—was standing by the window, her back to him, a book in her hand; a tumbler was on the window-sill close beside her. She did not turn round as he entered, merely murmuring: "Have some tea."

The electric light gave a brilliant glow. The freshly varnished woodwork smelt of polish. She did not say another word, but returned to her book, her delicate fingers turning over the leaves as, standing with bent head, she read.

"Are you going out this evening, Anna?" he asked.

"Eh? No, I am staying in."

"Is there anyone coming?"

"Eh? No, nobody. Are you going out?"

"I am not sure. I am going to-morrow on Detachment duty for a week."

"Eh? Oh yes, on Detachment."

Always the same! No interest in him; indifferent, absorbed in other things. How he longed to stay and talk to her, on and on, of everything; of the utter impossibility of life without love or sympathy, of the intensity of his own love, and the melancholy of his evenings. But he was silent.

"Is Asya asleep?" he inquired at last.

"Yes, she is asleep."

A nickel tea-pot and a solitary tumbler stood on the table with its white cloth falling in straight folds. The ticking of the clock sounded monotonously.

"She does not deceive, nor betray, nor leave me," he thought; "but she is strange, strange—and a mother!"


At last the earth was cloaked in darkness, the torches hung like gleaming balls of fire, the pattering of the rain echoed dismally, and above it, drowning all other sounds, was the dreary roar of the factory.

He sauntered through the straight-cut avenues of the park towards his club, but near the school turned aside and went in to see Nina. They had known each other from childhood, attending the same school, Nina his faithful comrade and devoted slave—and ever since he had remained for her the one and only man, for she was of those who love but once. Since then she had been flung about Russia, striven to retain her honour, vainly tilting against the windmills of poverty and temptation—had failed, been broken, and now had crept back that she might live near him.

He walked through the school's dark corridors and knocked.

"Come in."

Alone, in a grey dress, plain-featured, her cheek red where it had rested against the palm of her hand, she sat beside a little table in the bare, simple room, a book on her lap. With a pang, Agrenev noted her sunken eyes. But at sight of him they brightened instantly, and she rose from her seat, putting the book aside.

"You darling? Welcome! Is it raining?"

"Greeting! Nina. I have just come in for a moment."

"Take off your coat," she urged. "You will have some tea?" Her eyes and outstretched hands both said: "Thank you, thank you." "How are you doing?" she asked him anxiously.

"I am bored. I can do nothing. I am utterly bored."

She placed the tea-urn on the table in her tiny kitchen, laid some pots of jam by her copy-book, seated him in the solitary armchair, and bustled round, all smiles, her cheeks flushing—the spot where she had rested her hand all the long evening still showing red,—all- loving, all-surrendering, yet undesired.

"You musn't wait on me like this, Nina," Agrenev protested;"… Sit down and let us talk."

Their hands touched caressingly, and she sat down beside him.

"What is it, my dear?" She stroked his hand and its touch warmed her!
"What is it?"

At times indignation overcame her at the thought of life; she wrung her hands, spoke with hatred, and her eyes darkened in anger. At times she fell on her knees in tears and supplication; but with Alexander Alexandrovitch she was always tender, with the tenderness of unrequited love.

"What is it, darling?"

"I am bored, Nina. She … Anna … does not love me; she does not leave me, nor deceive me, but neither does she love me. I know you love …"

At home four walls … Coldness … The miner, Bitska, making jokes all day in the rain … the fuse to be lighted in the quarry, the slow igniting to be watched. Thirty years had been lived … five- tenths of his life … a half … ten-twentieths. It was like a blank cartridge … no kindness … a life without feeling … all blank …

The lamp seemed to go out and something warm lay over his eyes. The palm of a hand. Nina's words were calm at first; then they grew frantic.

"Leave her, leave her, darling! Come to me, to me who wants you! What if she doesn't love you? I do, I love you …"

He was silent.

"You say nothing? I will give you all; you shall have everything! Come to me, to me who will give to you so gladly! She is as dead; she needs nothing! Do you hear? You have me … I will take all the suffering on myself …"

* * * * * * *

The lamp streamed forth clearly again. A little grey clod of humanity fell on to the maiden's narrow bed.

It was so intensely dark that the blackness seemed to close in on one like a great wall, and it was difficult to see two paces ahead. Close to the barracks some men were bawling to the music of a mouth-organ. Under cover of the gloom someone whistled between his fingers, babbling insolence and nonsense. The torches glowed through the tangled network of branches and leaves like globes of fire.

Agrenev walked along, carrying a lantern, by the light of which he mechanically picked his steps; close to his heels, Nina hurried through the darkness and puddles. On every side there was the rustling of pines, hundreds of them, their immense stems towering upwards into obscurity. Although invisible, their presence could be felt. The place was wild and dreary, odours of earth, moss, and pine- sap mingled together in an overpowering perfume; it was the heart of a vast primeval forest. Agrenev murmured as if to himself:

"No, Nina, I do not love you. I want nothing from you…. Anna … her father ordered her to marry me…. Ancient blood…. Anna told me she would never love…. Asya is growing up under her influence…. I love my little daughter … yet she is strange too … she looks at me with vacant eyes … my daughter! I stole her mother out of a void! I go home and lie down alone … or I go to Anna and she receives me with compressed lips. I do not want a daughter from you, Nina … Why should I? To-morrow will … be the same as yesterday."

By the door of his house in the engineer's quarters, he remembered
Nina, and all at once became solicitous:

"You will catch cold, my dear. It will be terrible for you getting back …"

He stood before her a moment silently; then stretched out his hand:

"Well, the best of luck, my dear!"

A band of youths strolled by. One of them flashed a lantern-light on the doorway.

"Aha! Sky-larking with the engineers! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

They began chattering among themselves and sang in chorus a ribald doggerel:

     "Once upon a time a wench
     Appeared before a judge's bench.."


Before he went to bed Agrenev laid out cards to play Patience, ate a cold supper, stood a long time staring at the light from under Anna's door, then knocked.

"Come in."

He entered for a moment, and found her sitting at a table with a book, which she laid down upon an open copybook diary. When, when is he to know what is written there?

He spoke curtly:

"I go to Moscow the first thing to-morrow on Detachment. Here is some money for the housekeeping."

"Thanks. When do you return?"

"In a week—that is, Friday next week. Is there anything you need?"

"No thanks." She rose, came close and kissed him on the cheek near his lips. "A safe journey. Goodbye. Do not waken Asya."

And she turned away, sat down at the table, and took up her book again.

In the early hours of the morning a horse was yoked, and Agrenev drove with Bitska over the main road to the station. It was wet. The sombre figures of workmen were dimly seen through the rain and darkness, hastening to the factory. The staff drove round in a motor as the shrill sound of the factory horn split the silence.

Bitska in a bowler-hat, red-faced, with thin whiskers such as are worn by the Letts, looked gravely round:

"You have not slept, Robert Edouardovitch?" asked Agrenev.

"No, I have not, and I am not in a good humour either." The man was silent a moment, then burst out; "Now I am forty years, and my vife she is eighteen. I am in vants of an earnest housekeeper. But my vife, she is always jesting and dragging me by the—how do you call it—the beard! And laughing and larking…." His little narrow eyes wrinkled up into a wry smile: "Ah, the larking vench!"