Death by Boris Pilniak
TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY
It seemed as though the golden days of "St. Martin's" summer had come
The sun shone without warmth in the vast blue expanse of sky, across
which swept the gabbling cranes on their annual flight southward. A
hoar-frost lay in the shadow of the houses. The air was crisp and
sapphire, the cold invigorating, a brooding stillness wrapped the
The vine-wreathed columns on the terrace, the maple avenue and the
ground beneath, all glowed under a purple pall of fallen leaves. The
lake shone blue and smooth as a mirror, reflecting in its shining
surface the white landing-stage and its boat, the swans and the
statues. The fruit was already plucked in the garden and the leaves
were falling. What a foolish wanton waste this stripping of the trees
after summer seemed!
In days such as these, the mind grows at once alert and calm. It
dwells peacefully on the past and the future. The individual feels
impelled by a kind of langour just to walk over the fallen leaves, to
look in the gardens for unnoticed, forgotten apples, and to listen to
the cries of the cranes flying south.
Ippolyte Ippolytovich was a hundred years old less three months and
some days. He had been a student in the Moscow University with
Lermontov, and they had been drawn together in friendship through
their mutual admiration of Byron. In the "sixties,"—he was then
close to his fiftieth birthday—he constantly conferred with the
Emperor Alexander on liberative reforms, and pored over Pisarev's
writings in his own home.
It was only by the huge, skeleton frame over which stretched the
parchment skin, that it could be seen he had once been a tall, big,
broad-shouldered man; his large face was covered with yellowish-white
hair that crept from the nose, the cheek-bones, the forehead and the
ears, while the skull was completely bald; the eyes were white and
discoloured; the hands and legs shrunken, and seemed as though
emaciated by nature's own design.
There was a smell of wax in his room, and that peculiar fusty odour
that pervades every old nobleman's home. It was a large, bare
apartment containing only a massive mahogany writing-table, covered
with a faded green cloth and bestrewn with a quantity of old-
fashioned ornaments; there was also an armchair and a sofa.
The moulded ceiling, the greenish-white marbled walls, the dragon
fire-place, the inlaid flooring of speckled birch, the window panes,
rounded at the tops, curtainless and with frequent intersecting of
their framework, all, had become tarnished and lustreless, covered
over with all the colours of the rainbow. Through the windows
streamed the mellow golden rays of the autumn sun, resting on the
table, a part of the sofa, and on the floor.
For many years the old man had ceased to sleep at night so as to sit
up by day. It might truly be said that he slept almost the entire
twenty-four hours, and also that he sat up during the whole of that
time! He was always slumbering, lying with half-open, discoloured
eyes on a large sofa tapestried in pig-skin of English make, and
covered with a bear-skin rug. He lay there day and night, his right
arm flung back behind his head. Whenever, by day or night, he was
called by his name—Ippolyte Ippolytovich, he would remain silent a
moment collecting his wits, then answer:
He had no thoughts. All that took place round him, all that he had
gone through in life, was meaningless to him now. It was all
outlived, and he had nothing to think about. Neither had he any
feelings, for all his organs of receptivity had grown dulled.
At night mice could be heard; while through the empty, columned hall
out of which his room opened, rats scurried, flopping about and
tumbling down from the armchairs and tables. But the old man did not
Vasilisa Vasena came every morning at seven o'clock; she was a
country-woman of about thirty seven, strong, healthy, red-faced,
reminiscent of a July day in her floridness and vigorous health.
She used to say quietly: "Good morning to you, Ippolyte
And he would give a base "Eh?" in a voice like a worn-out gramophone
Vasena promptly began washing him with a sponge, then fed him with
manna-gruel. The old man sat bent up on the sofa, his hands resting
on his knees. He ate slowly from a spoon. They were silent, his eyes
gazing inwardly, seeing nothing. Sunbeams stole in through the window
and glistened on his yellowish hair.
"Your good son, Ilya Ippolytovich, has come," Vasena said.
Ippolyte Ippolytovich had married at about the age of forty; of his
three sons only Ilya was living. The old man called his son to
memory, pictured him in his mind, but felt neither joy nor interest—
Dimly, somewhere far away in the dark recesses of his memory, lurked
a glimmering, wavering image of his son; at first he saw him as an
infant, then as a boy, finally a youth. He recollected that now
already he too was almost an old man. It came to him that once, long
ago, this image was necessary and very dear to him, that afterwards
he had lost sight of it, and that now it had become meaningless to
Dully, through inertia, the old man inquired: "He has come, you say?"
"Yes, came in the night, alone. He is resting now."
"Eh? He has come to have a look at me before I die."
Vasena promptly answered: "Lord! you are not so young as to…."
They were silent. The old man lay back on the sofa and slept.
"Ippolyte Ippolytovich, you must take your walk!"
It was a "St. Martin's Summer." Over the scattered blood-red vine
leaves on the terrace, which was deluged in mellow autumnal sunshine,
the bent-up old man walked, leaning heavily on a bamboo cane, and
supported by the sturdy Vasena. He had a skull-cap pulled down low
over his forehead, and wore a long, black overcoat.
Sometimes the old man relapsed into a state of coma, lasting several
hours. Then life seemed to have ebbed from him entirely. A clay-like
pallor over-spread his face, he had the lips and open, glassy eyes of
a corpse, and he scarcely breathed. Then they sent post-haste for the
doctor, who sprinkled him with camphor, gave him oxygen and produced
artificial respiration. The old man slowly came to, rolling his eyes.
"Another minute and it would have been death," the doctor would say
in a deep, grave voice.
When the old man had at length recovered, Vasena used to say to him:
"Lord! We were so frightened, we were so frightened! … We thought
you were quite gone. Yes, we did. For you know, you are not so young
Ippolyte Ippolytovich was silent and indifferent, only at moments,
half-closing and screwing up his eyes, and straightening out his
lips, he laughed:
"He-he! He-he!" Then added, slyly: "I am dying, you say? He-he! He-
Ilya Ippolytovich walked through the empty rooms of the dying house.
How dusty and mouldy it seemed! The sun came through the tarnished
window-panes and the specks of dust looked golden in its radiant
light. He entered the room where he had passed his childhood. Dust
lay everywhere, on the window-sills, on the floor, and on the
furniture. Here and there fresh boot-prints were visible. A thin
portmanteau—not belonging to the house and pasted over with many
labels—lay on a table. A hard, icy stillness pervaded the entire
Ilya Ippolytovich was stout like his father, but he still walked
erect. His hair was already thinning and growing grey over the
temples, but his face was clean-shaven, like a youth's. His lips were
wrinkled and he had large, grey, weary eyes.
He felt gloomy and unhappy, because his father's days were numbered;
and he brooded miserably over the awkwardness of approaching death,
wondering how one should behave towards a man who was definitely
doomed. To and fro, from corner to corner, he walked, with restless,
He met his father on the terrace.
"Hallo, father!" he said briskly, with an intentional show of
The old man looked at him blindly, not recognising his son at first.
But afterwards he smiled, went up the steps, and gave his cheek to be
kissed. It smelt of wax.
"Eh?" said the old man.
Ilya kissed him, laughed hilariously, and slapped him lightly on the
shoulder: "It is a long time since we met, father. How are you?"
His father looked at him from beneath his cap, gave a feeble smile,
then said after a pause: "Eh?"
Vasena answered for him: "You may well ask how he is doing, Ilya
Ippolytovich! Why, we are fearing the worst every day."
Ilya threw her a reproachful glance and said loudly: "It is nonsense,
father! You have still a hundred years to live! You are tired, let us
sit down here and have a talk together."
They sat down on the marble steps of the terrace. Silence. No words
came to Ilya. Try as he might, he could not think what to say.
"Well, I am still painting pictures," he tried at last; "I am
preparing to go abroad."
The old man did not hear him; he looked at his son without seeing or
understanding, plunged in his own reflections.
"You have come to look at me? You think I shall die soon?" he asked
Ilya Ippolytovich grew very pale and muttered confusedly: "What are
you saying, father? What do you mean?"
But his father no longer heard. He had fallen back in his chair, his
eyes half-closed and glassy, his face utterly expressionless. He was
The sun was shining, the sky was blue; in the limpid spaces above the
earth there was a flood of crystal light.
Ilya Ippolytovich strolled through the park and thought of his
father. The old man had lived a full, rich, and magnificent life. It
had possessed so much that was good, bright and necessary. Now—
death! Nothing would remain. Nothing! And this nothing was terrible
to Ilya Ippolytovitch.
Does not living man recognize life, the world, the sun, all that is
around and within him, through himself? he reflected. A man dies, and
the world dies for him. Thenceforward he feels and recognises
nothing. Nothing! Then what is the use of living, developing,
working, when in the end there will be—nothing?… Was there no
great wisdom in his father's hundred years? Nor in his fatherhood?
A crane was crying somewhere overhead. The sound came from a scarcely
visible dark arrow in the cloudless sky, which flew south. Red,
frost-covered leaves were rustling underfoot. Ilya's face was pale,
the wrinkles round his lips made him seem tired and feeble. He had
spent his whole life alone, in the solitude of a cold studio, living
arduously among pictures, for the sake of pictures. To what end?
Ippolyte Ippolytovich sat in the large, bare dining-room eating
chicken cutlets and broth. A napkin was tied round his neck as if he
were a child. Vasena fed him from a tea-spoon, and afterwards led him
into his study. The old man lay down on a sofa, put his hand behind
his head and fell asleep, his eyes half-open.
Ilya went to him in the study. He again made a pretence of being
cheerful, but his tired eyes betrayed grief, and behind his clean-
shaven face, his grey English coat, and yellow boots, somehow one
felt there was a great shaken and puzzled soul suffering, yet seeking
to conceal its anguish.
He sat down at his father's feet.
For a long time the old man searched his face with his eyes, then in
a scraping, worn-out piping voice, said: "Eh?"
"It is so long since we met, father, I am longing to have a chat with
you! Somehow I have no one dearer to me than you! Absolutely no one!
How are you, sir?"
The old man gazed before him with bleary eyes. He did not seem to
have heard. But suddenly screwing up his eyes, straightening out his
lips and opening his empty jaws, he laughed:
"He-he! he-he!" he laughed, and said jovially: "I am dying soon. He-
However, Ilya no longer felt as embarrassed as on that first occasion
on the terrace. In a hasty undertone, almost under his breath, he
"But aren't you afraid?"
"Don't you believe in God?"
They were silent for a long time after that. Then the old man raised
himself on his elbows with a sly grin.
"You see," he said, "when a man is worn out … sleep is the best
thing for him … that is so with dying … one wants to die….
Understand? When a man is worn out…."
He was silent for a moment, then grinned and repeated:
"He-he! He-he! Understand?"
Ilya gave his father a long look, standing there motionless, with
wide-open eyes, feeling a thrill of utter horror.
But the old man was already slumbering.
Day faded. The blue autumnal twilight spread over the earth and
peeped in through the windows. A purple mist filled the room with
vague, spectral shadows. Outside was a white frost. A silvery moon
triumphantly rode the clear cold over-arching sky.
Ippolyte Ippolytovich lay upon his sofa. He felt nothing. The space
occupied by his body resembled only a great, dark, hollow bin in
which there was—nothing! Close by, a rat flopped across the floor,
but the old man did not hear. A teasing autumnal fly settled on his
eyebrow, he did not wink. From the withered toes to the withered
legs, to the hips, stomach, chest, and heart, passed a faint,
agreeable, scarcely noticeable numbness.
It was evening now and the room was dark; the mist gathered thick and
threatening through the windows. Outside in the crisp, frosty
moonlight, it was bright. The old man's face—all over-grown with
white hair—and his bald skull, had a death-like look.
Vasena entered in her calm yet vigorous manner. Her broad hips and
deep bosom were only loosely covered by a red jacket.
"Ippolyte Ippolytovich, it is time for your meal," she called in a
matter of fact tone.
But he did not reply, nor utter his usual "Eh?"
They sent at once for the doctor, who felt his pulse, pressed a glass
to his lips, then said in a low, solemn tone:
"He is dead."
Vasena, standing by the door, and somewhat resembling a wild animal,
"Well he wasn't so young as to…. Haven't we all got to die! What is
it to him now? He and his had everything in their day! Dear Lord,
they had everything!"
Low, downy cloudlets drifted over the sky in the early hours of the
morning. Dark, lowering masses followed in their wake. The snow fell
in large, cold, soft, feather-like flakes.
St. Martin's Summer was past, to be succeeded by the advent of
another earthly joy—the first white covering of snow, when it is so
delicious to follow the fresh footprints of the beasts, a rifle in