Death by Boris Pilniak

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY

F. O'DEMPSEY

I

It seemed as though the golden days of "St. Martin's" summer had come to stay.

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 world.

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.

II

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:

"Eh?"

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 hear them.

III

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
Ippolytovich."

And he would give a base "Eh?" in a voice like a worn-out gramophone record.

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.

"Eh?"

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— felt nothing!

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 him.

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!"

"Eh?"

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.

IV

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 as to…."

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- he!"

V

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 place.

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, springy steps.

He met his father on the terrace.

"Hallo, father!" he said briskly, with an intentional show of carelessness.

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 suddenly.

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 asleep.

VI

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?

VII

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- he! he-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 asked:

"But aren't you afraid?"

"No! He-he!"

"Don't you believe in God?"

"No! He-he!"

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.

VIII

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, answered calmly:

"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!"

IX

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 hand.