The Heirs by Boris Pilniak

TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY

F. O'DEMPSEY

I

Legend says that from the Sokolovaya Mountain—called the Mountain of Falcons, came Stenka Razin. It is written in books that from thence came also Emelian Pugachev.

The Sokolovaya Mountain towers high above the Volga and the plains, making a dark, precipitous descent to the pirate river below.

Across the Volga lies an ancient town. By the Glebychev Ravine, close to the old Cathedral guarded by one of Pugachev's guns, stands a mansion with a facade of ochre-coloured-columns. In olden days, when it was the residence of the princely Rastorovs' balls were held there, but decay had set in during the last twenty years, and Kseniya Davydovna—the mistress—old, ill, a spinster, was drawing to the end of her days.

She died in October, 1917, and now the tumbling, plundered house was occupied by—the heirs.

They had been scattered over the face of Russia, had spent their lives in Petersburg, Moscow and Paris; for twenty years the house had stood vacant and moribund. Then the Revolution came! The instinctive fury of the masses burst forth—and the remnants of the Rastorov family gathered in their old nest—to be hidden from the Revolution and famine.

Snow-storms—galloping snowy chargers—howled over the Steppe, the
Volga, and the town. Elemental, all-devastating, as in the days of
Stenka Razin—thundered the Revolution.

The rooms in the ancient mansion were damp, dark and chilly. The old cathedral could be seen from the window, and down below lay the Volga, seven miles wide, wrapt in a dazzling sheet of snow, its steamers moored to their wharves.

The family lived as a community at first, but their communism was nominal, for each barricaded and entrenched himself in his own room, with his own pot and samovar. They lived tedious, mean, malignant, worthless lives, execrating existence and the Revolution; they lived utterly apart from the turmoil that now replaced the placid even flow of the old regime: they were outside current events, and their thoughts for ever turned back to the past, awaiting its return.

General Kirill Lvovich awoke at seven o'clock. Everything was crowded closely together in the room, which was bedroom, drawing-room and dining-room combined. The blue dusk of morning was visible through the heavy blinds of the low window. The general put on his tasselled Bukhara dressing-gown and went outside, then returned coughing hoarsely.

"Anna," he snarled, "ask your kinsfolk which of them left the place in such a state. Don't they know we have no servants? It is your turn to set the samovar to-day. Are there no cigarette boxes?" he walked about the room, his hands behind his back, diamond rings glittering on his fingers.

"And it is your turn to go for the rations," retorted Anna Andreevna.

"That will do, I know it. There are four families living in the house and they cannot organise themselves so as to go in turn for the rations. Give me a sheet of paper and some ink."

The general sat down at the table and wrote out a notice:

  "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have no servants;
  We must see to things ourselves. We can't
   all perch like eagles, therefore,
   I beg you to be more careful.
               Kirill L. Lezhner."

Kirill Lvovich was not one of the heirs, it was his wife who came of the Rastorov family, and he had merely accompanied her to the ancestral mansion. Lvovich took his notice and hung it on the lavatory door. Then again he paced the floor, his jewels sparkling brilliantly.

"Why the devil do Sergius and his family occupy three rooms, and we only one?" he grumbled. "I shall leave this den. They don't behave like relatives! Are there no cigarettes?"

Anna Andreevna, a quiet, weary, feeble woman, replied tonelessly: "You know there are none. But I will look for some butt-ends in a moment. Lina sometimes throws away the unused cigarette wraps."

"What bourgeois they are—throwing away fag-ends and keeping servants!" her husband complained.

The dark twining corridor was strewn with rubbish, for no one had the will or wish to keep it neat. Anna Andreevna rummaged by the stove of Sergius Andreevich, Lina's husband, looking among the papers and sweepings. She peered into the stove and discovered that Leontyevna, the maid—a one-eyed Cyclop—had filled it with birch-wood, whereas it had been agreed that the rotting timber from the summer-house should be used as fuel first.

After enjoying a cigarette of his "own" tobacco, the general went out to the courtyard for firewood, returning with a bundle of sticks from the summer-house. The samovar was now ready and he sat down to his tea, leisurely drinking glass after glass, while Anna Andreevna heated her stove in the corridor.

A dim, wintry dawn was gradually breaking. The family of Sergius—the former head of a ministerial department—could be heard rousing themselves behind the wall.

"You have had sufficient albumen; take hydrates now," rose Lina's voice, calling to her children.

"Potatoes?"

"Yes."

"And fat?"

"You have had enough fat."

The general smiled craftily, then muttered grumpily:

"That is not eating, that is scientific alimentation." He cut himself a piece of bacon, ate it with some white bread, and drank more tea with sweet root and candied melon.

Gradually the occupants of the house roused themselves and half- dressed, sleepy—carrying their towels, empty samovars, and tooth brushes—they began to pass along the corridor in front of the general's open door.

Kirill Lvovich eyed them maliciously as he sat drinking his tea and inwardly cursed them all.

The Cyclop, Leontyevna, Sergius Andreevich's servant, tramped in heavily with her man's boots from the Labour Exchange; her solitary eye peered searchingly into Anna Andreevna's stove.

"I'll see she's not deceiving us over the firewood," she shouted aggressively: "Oh, what a store she's got!"

"But you have used the birch-wood," the general hit back from his room.

The Cyclop flew into a rage and slapped her thighs. One of the periodic scenes ensued.

"What?" Leontyevna cried, "I am not trusted, I am being spied on!
Lina Fedorovna, I am going to complain to the Exchange."

Lina Fedorovna joined in from behind her door.

"She isn't trusted, she is being spied on," she echoed, "there must be spies in this house! And they call themselves intellectual people!"

"But you took the birch-wood!" protested Lvovich.

"And they call themselves intellectual!" screamed Lina.

The general came out into the passage and said severely:

"It is not for us to judge, Lina Fedorovna. We are not the heirs here. But it seems strange to me that Sergius should occupy three rooms, and Anna only one—yes, very strange indeed."

The quarrel became more violent. Satisfied, the general put on his overcoat and went out to take his place in the ration queue. Lina ran to her husband; he went to get an explanation of the scene, but Lvovich was not to be found, however; he remonstrated with his sister, Anna Andreevna.

"This spying is impossible, it must stop," he insisted.

"But, can't you understand, it all began with searching for the butt- end of a cigarette?" Anna pleaded in deep distress.

Lina had gone upstairs and was telling the whole story to Ekaterina. Anna appealed to her younger brother, Constantine, a Lyceum student, but he told her he was busy, immediately sitting down at his desk to write. Soon after, however, he rose and went to Sergius.

"Busy?" he asked.

"What? Yes, I am busy."

"Have a smoke."

They began to smoke an inferior brand of tobacco known as "Kepsten."
They were silent.

"Will you have a game of chess?" Constantine asked after a while.

"Yes…But no, I think not," Sergius replied.

"Just one game?"

"Just one? Well, only one!"

They sat down and played chess. Constantine was dressed in a rumpled
Lyceum uniform; he wore rings on his fingers, like the general and
Sergius, and an antique gold chain hung round his neck.

Being in constant dread of requisitioners and robbers they had divided all the jewellery between them, and wore it for safety.

The brothers played one game, then a second, a fourth, a sixth— smoking and quarrelling, disagreeing over the moves and trying to re- arrange them. The general returned from the ration queue in the market and came along the passage. He peeped in at the two players through the open door, and after some hesitation decided to enter.

"Greenhorns, you don't know how to play!" he said.

"What do you mean? Don't know how to play?"

"Now, now, don't fly into a rage. If I am wrong—excuse an old man … I sent Kirka for the newspaper, I gave him a twenty copeck piece for a tip."

"I am not in a rage!"

"Very well, then that's all right. But throw over your chess. Let us play a game of chance."

They sat down and played it for the entire day, only interrupting the game to go to their rooms for dinner.

Whenever Sergius had to pay a fine he would say:

"Anyhow, Kirill Lvovich, you have an objectionable manner."

"Now, now, greenhorn!" the general would reply.

They had not a penny between them. Katerina Andreevna had been appointed guardian of their possessions. The men refused to recognise her authority and called it merely a "femocracy." Only Sergius still had some capital, the proceeds of an estate he had sold before the Revolution. Therefore he could well afford to keep a servant.

Upstairs with Katerina were two girls who had thrown up their careers on principle—the one her college studies, the other her Conservatoire courses. They kept up a desultory conversation while helping to clean potatoes. Presently Anna and Lina joined them, and they all went down to the storeroom and began rummaging through their grandparents' old wardrobes. They turned over a variety of crinolines, farthingales, bustles and wigs, laying on one side the articles of silver, bronze and porcelain—for the Tartars were coming after dinner. The storeroom smelt of rats. Packed along its walls were boxes, coffers, trunks, and a huge pair of rusty scales.

They all gathered together on the arrival of the Tartars, who greeted them with handshakes. The general snorted. One of the Tartars, an old man wearing new goloshes over felt boots, spoke to Katerina:

"How d'ye do, Barina?"

The general leisurely swung one leg over the other, and said stiffly:

"Be good enough to state your price."

The two Tartars looked over the old-fashioned articles, criticised them, none too well, and fixed the most ridiculous prices. The general burst out laughing and tried to be witty. Katerina grew angrier and angrier, until at last she could no longer contain herself:

"Kirill Lvovich," she shouted, "you are impossible!" "Very well," came the infuriated reply; "I am not one of the heirs, I can go!"

They calmed him, however, and then began bargaining with the Tartars, who slung the old-fashioned articles carelessly over their arms— laces worked by serfs, antique, hand made candle-sticks, a field- glass and an acetylene lamp.

The twilight spread gently over the town, and through its dusky, star-spangled veil, loomed the old Cathedral—reminiscent of Stenka Razin; now and then came the chime of its deep-toned bells.

The Tartars at length succeeding in striking a bargain, rolled the goods up into neat little packs with their customary promptitude, paid out Kerensky notes from their bulging purses and left.

Then the heirs divided the proceeds. They were sitting in the drawing-room. Blinds covered the low windows; some portraits hung on the walls, a chandelier was shrouded in a muslin wrapper that had not been changed for years. A yellow oaken piano was covered with dust, and the furniture's velvet covering was tarnished and threadbare. The house struck cold.

The heirs were dressed fantastically; the general in a dressing-gown with gold embroideries and tassels; Sergius wore a black hooded coat; Lina a warm hare-skin jacket, and Katerina, the eldest—the moustached guardian—a man's thick overcoat, a petticoat and felt shoes. On all were jewels—rings, ear-rings, bracelets and necklaces.

Sergius remarked ungallantly:

"This is a trying time for us all, and I propose that we divide the proceeds among us according to the number of consumers."

"I am not one of the heirs," the general hastily interposed.

"I don't share your socialistic views." Constantine informed Sergius with a cold smile; "I think they should be divided according to the number of heirs."

A heated argument followed, above which rang the Cathedral bells. At last, with great difficulty, they came to an agreement. Then Katerina brought in the samovar. All fetched their own bread and sweet roots and drank the tea, thankful not to have to prepare it for themselves.

Suddenly—with unexpected sadness and, therefore, unusually well—the general began to speak:

"When I—a lieutenant-bridegroom—met our Aunt Kseniya for the first time, she was wearing that bustle that you sold just now. Ah, will things ever be the same again? If I were told the Bolshevik tyranny would endure for another year, I should shoot myself! For, good Lord, what I suffer! How my heart is wrung! And I am an old man…. Life is simply not worth living."

All burst into tears; the general wept as old men weep, the moustached Katerina cried in a sobbing bass. Neither could Anna Andreevna, nor the two girls who stood clasping each other in the corner, refrain from shedding tears, the girls for their youth and the sparkling joys of their maidenhood of which they had been deprived.

"I would shoot them all if I could!" Katerina declared.

Then Sergius' children, Kira and Lira, came in and Lina told them they might take some albumen. Kira put butter on his.

The moon rose…. The stars shone brilliantly. The snow was dead- white. The river Volga was deserted. It was dark and still by the old Cathedral. The frost was hard and crisp, crackling underfoot. The two young girls, Kseniya and Lena, with Sergius and the general, were returning to the mansion to fetch their handsleighs and toboggan down the slope to the river.

Constantine had gone into town, to a club of cocaine-eaters, to drug himself, utter vulgar platitudes, and kiss the hands of loose women. Leontyevna, the Cyclop maid from the Exchange, lay down on a bench in the kitchen to rest from the day's work, said her prayers, and fell into a sound sleep.

The general stood on the door-steps. Sergius drew up the sleighs, and they took their seats—three abreast—Kseniya, Elena and himself, and whirled along over the crackling snow, down to the ice-covered Volga. The sleighs flew wildly down the slope, and in this impetuous flight, in the sprinkling and crackling snow, and bitter, numbing frost, Kseniya dreamed of a wondrous bliss: she felt a desire to embrace the world! Life suddenly seemed so joyous.

The frost was harsh, cruel and penetrating. On regaining the house the general bristled up like a sparrow—he was frozen—and called out from the door-step:

"Sergius! There is a frost to-day that will certainly burst the water-pipes. We will have to place a guard for the night."

Perhaps Sergius, and even the old man, had had a glimpse of wonderful happiness in the sleigh's swift flight over the snow. The former called back:

"Never mind!"—and again whirled wildly down from the old Cathedral to the Volga, where the boats and steamers plied amid the deep-blue, massive ice-floes, so sparkling and luminous in their snowy raiment.

But the general had now worked himself up to a state of great excitement. He rushed indoors and roused everyone:

"I tell you, it will freeze and the pipes will burst unless you let the water run a little. There are 27 degrees of frost!"

"But the tap is in the kitchen and Leontyevna is sleeping there," objected Lina.

"Well, waken her!"

"Impossible!"

"Damn rot!" snarled the general and went into the kitchen and shook
Leontyevna, explaining to her about the pipes.

"I will go to the Exchange and complain! Not even letting one rest!…Stealing in to an undressed woman!…"

Lina jabbered her words after her like a parrot. Sergius ran in.

"Leave off, please," he begged. "It is I who am responsible. Let
Leontyevna sleep."

"Certainly, I am not one of the heirs," the general retorted smoothly.

The night and the frost swept over the Volga, the Steppe, and Saratov. The general was unable to sleep. Kseniya and Lena were crying in the attic. Constantine arrived home late, and noiselessly crept in to Leontyevna.

Bluish patches of moonlight fell in through the windows.

The water pipes froze in the night and burst.