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Рыбаков, Анатолий - Рыбаков - The bronze bird

Проза и поэзия >> Русская современная проза >> См. также >> Рыбаков, Анатолий
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Anatoly Rybakov. The bronze bird





     OCR: http://home.freeuk.com/russica2



     Part I. FUGITIVES

     Part II. PURSUIT





     Part I

     Chapter I


     Genka and Slava were sitting on the bank of the Utcha.

     Genka, his red hair sticking out in all directions, his pants rolled up above his knees and the sleeves of his striped singlet above his elbows, was eyeing the tiny boat station with a disdainful expression on his face.

     "Call this a station!" he said, dangling his feet in the water. "They stuck a life belt on a hen-coop and think they've got a station!"

     Slava was silent. His pale face, with its slight, rosy tan, looked thoughtful. Chewing a blade of grass in a melancholy way, he was reflecting on a distressing thing that had happened in the camp.

     Why did it have to happen just when he, Slava, had been left in charge? True, it was a duty he shared with Genka, but Genka never gave a hang for anything. Here he was dangling his feet in the water without a care in the world.

     That indeed was exactly what he was doing.

     "A station!" he commented. "Three broken-down tubs! I can't stand show-offs! And there's nothing to show off about! They should simply have written: 'boats for hire,' or 'landing.' That would have been modest and to the point. But 'station'!"

     "I'm sure I don't know what we're going to say to Kolya," Slava sighed.

     "What's there to say? We're not to blame. And if he starts lecturing I'm going to tell him straight, 'Look, Kolya, you've got to be objective. Nobody's to blame. Besides, life's full of things you can never foresee.'" And with a philosophical air he added, "Yes, life would not be worth while living without them."

     "What are you talking about?"

     "Things you can't foresee."

     "You've got no sense of responsibility," Slava said, scanning the road leading from the railway station.

     "'Sense,' 'responsibility'!" Genka said with a contemptuous wave of his hand. "Beautiful words.... Everyone answers for himself. Back in Moscow I said we shouldn't take any Young Pioneers to camp with us. I warned them, didn't I? But nobody listened."

     "It's no use talking to you," Slava replied indifferently.

     For some time they sat in silence, Genka dangling his feet in the water and Slava chewing his blade of grass.

     It was baking hot in the July sun. A grasshopper was chirping tirelessly in the grass. The river, narrow and deep and hidden in the shadow of the shrubbery overhanging its banks, wound its way through fields, hugged the foot of the hills, carefully skirted round the villages and disappeared in the forest, hushed, dark and cool.

     The wind brought the sounds of a rural street from a village nestling at the foot of a mountain in the distance. The village looked like a haphazard heap of iron, plank and thatched roofs lying amidst the greenery of orchards. Near the stream, by the ferry, the bank was criss-crossed by a dense network of footpaths.

     Slava kept his eyes on the road. The Moscow train had probably arrived and Kolya Sevastyanov and Misha Polyakov would be here any minute. Slava sighed.

     "Sighing?" Genka smirked. "Those ohs and ahs! How many times have I told you...."

     "There they are!" Slava rose, shading his eyes with his hand.

     Genka stopped dangling his feet and climbed to the top of the bank.

     "Where? Hm. It's them all right. Misha's in front. Behind him.... No, it's not Kolya. Some chap or other. It's Korovin! 'Pon my word, it's Korovin, remember the chap who was a waif? And he's got a sack on his shoulders."

     "Books, probably."

     The boys gazed intently at the small figures moving up the narrow path across the fields. And although they were still far away, Genka spoke in a whisper:

     "Only bear in mind, Slava, I'll do all the talking. Don't interfere or you'll spoil everything. I'll pull it off, don't you worry. Especially as Kolya hasn't come. What's Misha? I know how to handle him even if he is the assistant leader."

     For all his bravado, Genka felt decidedly uncomfortable. There was an unpleasant talk ahead.

     Chapter 2

     Misha and Korovin put the sacks down on the ground.

     "Why are you here?" Misha demanded.

     He was in a dark blue cap and a leather jerkin, which he wore even in summer, believing that it made him look like a real Komsomol activist.

     "Just like that." Genka felt the sacks. "Books?"


     "Where's Kolya?"

     "He won't be coming. He's been called up. He's going to the Navy."

     "I see," Genka drawled. "Who are they sending instead?"

     Misha did not reply at once. He took off his cap and smoothed his black hair.

     "Who are they sending?" Genka asked again.

     Misha did not reply at once because he had been appointed leader of the troop and did not know how to break this news to his friends in a way that would preclude their thinking he was putting on airs and make them immediately accept him as their leader. It was not easy to give orders to fellows you shared the same desk with. On the way Misha had thought of a phrase or two which he hoped would help him out of the difficulty. Diffidently, with exaggerated nonchalance, he said:

     "For the time being I've been put in charge."

     He had placed great hopes on the phrase "for the time being." Indeed, who should temporarily substitute for a leader if not the second in command?

     But the unassuming and shy "for the time being" did not make the impression he thought it would.

     "You?" Genka said, goggling his eyes. "But what weight will we carry in the village? Everybody, even the old folk, had a high opinion of Kolya."

     That forced Misha to draw upon the second of his prepared rescue phrases.

     "I turned down the appointment, but the District Committee confirmed it." Feeling the authority that the mention of the District Committee gave him, he asked sternly, "Why did you leave the camp?"

     "We left Zina Kruglova in charge," Genka put in hastily.

     That, Misha told himself, was the fruit of a little sternness.

     Slava, meanwhile, an apologetic tone in his voice, said:

     "You see, Misha...."

     But Genka cut him short:

     "How are you, Korovin? Have you come to pay us a visit?"

     "No, I'm here on business," Korovin replied, inhaling noisily through his nose. Thick-set, stocky, he looked fat and clumsy in his labour commune uniform. Beads of sweat shone on his face and he kept brushing the flies away with his hand.

     "You've certainly put on weight at the commune," Genka noted.

     "The food's pretty good," Korovin said in his artless way.

     "What brings you here?"

     Misha explained that the children's home where Korovin lived was being converted into a labour commune and that it was taking over the local manor and estate for the purpose. They were expecting the headmaster tomorrow. Korovin had been sent on ahead to make inquiries.

     Out of modesty, Misha did not tell his friends that properly speaking this had been his idea. He had met Korovin in the street on the previous day and had learned from him that the children's home was looking for a place near Moscow in which to establish a labour commune. Misha said he knew of a place that he thought would be suitable. Their camp, he said, was in the former estate of Karagayevo. True, it was in Ryazan Gubernia, but that was not far from Moscow. The estate was untenanted. Nobody was living in the huge manor-house. Altogether it was a wonderful place, in fact the best that could be found for a commune. That same day Korovin had passed the information on to the headmaster, who told him to go with Misha, promising to follow on the next day.

     That was how Korovin really came to be here, but Misha did not tell his friends the whole story so that they would not think he was boasting. All he told them was that there would be a labour commune here.

     "Boy!" Genka whistled. "I can just see the countess letting them in!"

     "Who's that?" Korovin asked with a questioning look at Misha.

     "The estate," Genka explained, sawing the air with his hands> "belonged to a landlord, a certain Count Karagayev. He beat it after the Revolution, taking everything with him, except the house, of course. There's only an old woman, a relative of the count's or a hanger-on, living in the place. We call her the countess. She's looking after the manor and won't let anybody in. And that goes for you, too."

     Korovin again inhaled through his nose, but with a shade of injury this time:

     "How d'you mean she won't let us in? The estate belongs to the government."

     "Exactly," Misha hastily interposed. "The countess has a safeguard for the house only because it's a historical monument. Either Tsaritsa Elizabeth or Catherine II once stayed in it. And the countess thrusts that safeguard into everybody's noses. But judge for yourself, if all the houses the tsars and tsaritsas stayed in are to remain empty, then where are the people going to live?" And considering the question settled, he said, "Come on, chaps! Korovin and I've been hauling these sacks all the way from the station. You carry them now."

     Genka quickly lifted one of them. But Slava made no move.

     "You see, Misha," he said, "yesterday Igor and Seva...."

     "Oh yes," Genka said, interrupting him and lowering the sack to the ground, "I was going to tell you, but Slava shot his mouth. You're always doing that, Slava. Well, you see, Misha," he faltered, "the thing is.... How to put it ...."

     "Stop beating about the bush," Misha said angrily. " 'You see,' 'you understand'!"

     "Hold your horses. It's like this. Igor and Seva have run away."

     "What! Where to?"

     "To fight the fascists."

     "What's all this nonsense!"

     "Here, read this yourself."

     Genka gave Misha a note. It was very short: "Good-bye, chaps, we've gone to fight the fascists. Igor. Seva."

     Misha read it a few times.

     "What utter nonsense!" he said, shrugging his shoulders. "When did this happen?"

     "Yesterday, I mean today," Genka began to explain. "Yesterday they went to bed the same time as everybody else, but when we woke up this morning, they were gone. We found this note. Last night I thought they were acting suspiciously when they suddenly began to polish their boots as though it were a holiday. It made me want to laugh."

     But Misha did not think it was a joke.

     "Have you looked for them?"

     "Everywhere. In the woods and in the village."

     "Fine deputies you are," Misha said with a deprecatory gesture of his hand, giving Genka and Slava a withering look.

     "What have we got to do with it?" Genka and Slava cried in unison.

     "Plenty! Nobody ran away before!"

     Genka pressed his hand to his breast.

     "I give you my word of honour."

     "You can keep your word of honour," Misha stopped him. "Let's go to the camp!"

     Genka and Slava shouldered the sacks and followed Misha.

     Chapter 3

     The path twisted and turned across fields.

     Genka chattered without stop, but when he spoke he had to wave his hands and so somehow, without anyone noticing it, the sack returned to Korovin's shoulders.

     "Even if you outwit the countess," Genka rambled on, "it won't be easy to organize a labour commune here and get things going. In fact, I'll say it's impossible. There's nothing in the estate, only the house. Not a thing else. No harrow, plough or cart. And don't think for a moment that the peasants got them. They were all pinched by the kulaks. I can swear to that! The kulaks they've got here have got all the others beat. You can't imagine what they're doing."

     "What?" Korovin asked.

     "You are a numskull! We came here to organize a Young Pioneer troop, but look at the odds against us. First, the kulaks. Second, religion. Third, lack of understanding by the parents: they're not letting the kids join. When we put on a show, we get a full house, but the minute we announce a meeting, they all scatter."

     "I know all about that," Korovin observed meaningfully.

     "Exactly," Genka went on. "And the village kids themselves.... They're steeped in superstition! Wood-goblins and devils are all they talk about. Try and organize them!"

     "So you're finding it difficult, what?"

     "That's not the half of it," Genka said in a mournful voice, but the next moment he added boastfully, "but we've done harder things. And we'll get this job done too. Here, we've brought them books," he tapped the sack Korovin was carrying for him, "we're giving shows and we're helping to stamp out illiteracy. You'll see, we'll organize the first Young Pioneer troop. Isn't that right, Misha?"

     Misha made no reply. He was thinking how unhappily his duties as troop leader were starting. Two Young Pioneers had disappeared on the very first day. Where could they have gone? They could not go far without money or food. They might get lost in the woods, drown in the river, or get run over by a train.

     Should he inform their parents? No, not for the time being anyway. Why worry them for nothing? The boys would be found sooner or later. Besides, their parents would raise the alarm throughout the whole of Moscow. And in the village, people were now probably saying that the Young Pioneers were running away, that children should not be allowed to join the troop. That was what Igor and Seva had done. They had undermined the troop's prestige, setting all its labours of the past month at naught!

     These gloomy thoughts were interrupted by Genka, who cried out:

     "There's the manor!"

     The boys stopped.

     A two-storeyed house surrounded by trees stood before them high on a hill. It seemed to have several roofs and many chimneys. A big, semicircular verandah with banisters resting on small, white, brick posts divided the house into two equal halves. Over the verandah there was a loft with windows on either side and a recess in the middle. A broad avenue led across the garden to the house. The first, smooth earthen stretch gave way to sloping stone steps that gradually formed a staircase running round the verandah on both sides.

     "Like it?" Genka asked, clicking his tongue.

     "The important thing is what it's got," Korovin said, inhaling noisily.

     "Nothing," Genka assured him.

     Indeed, the estate looked neglected. The orchard was overgrowing with weeds, and the pond was covered with filthy-green slime. Every thing looked dead, lifeless, cheerless.

     It was only when the boys had penetrated deep into the orchard that the oppressive silence around them was broken by resounding young voices.

     There were white tents beyond a broken fence. That was the camp. The troop came running to meet Misha. Zina Kruglova was in front. She ran the fastest on her stubby legs.

     Chapter 4

     Properly speaking, this was not the whole troop but only a group of 15 of its eldest members. Nine were Komsomols. The others were due to be accepted as Komsomols in the autumn. But they called themselves a troop, and why not?

     Three tents stood beneath trees along the edge of a glade, in the middle of which was a tall flag-staff with a pennant fluttering on it. A fire was burning nearby. Over it was a charred stick supported by two tripods. The children on kitchen duty were busy cooking dinner. There was a strong smell of burnt milk.

     "Everything is in order," Zina said, speaking very quickly. "We've sent off the letter to the sailors of the Red Fleet and held an illiteracy-abolition class yesterday. Eight people turned up instead of twelve. I suppose they," Zina nodded in the direction of Genka and Slava, "have already told you about Igor and Seva."

     At the mention of Igor and Seva, everybody began to talk at once. Borya Baranov, nicknamed the Bleater, made himself heard above the din. In stature he was smaller than the others, but he was a fierce champion of justice. He thought that had it not been for him, falsehood and injustice would have reigned unchecked in the world. And he shouted the loudest of all:

     "They ran away because of Genka!"

     "That's a lie, you miserable Bleater!" Genka cried indignantly. But Misha ordered the Bleater to tell him what had happened. With his usual solemnity whenever he fought for justice, the Bleater began:

     "I'll tell you the whole truth. I've got no reason to add or invent anything."

     "Cut out the preliminaries," Misha hurried him; the Bleater's introduction could very well drag on for half an hour at least.

     "Well," the Bleater went on, "when we went to bed we had a talk. That was after the play Death to Fascism. Igor and Seva said that instead of staging plays we should fight the fascists so that they would not kill Communists. Genka began to deride them, saying, 'You go and fight the fascists and we'll see what happens.' Igor got mad and said, 'If we make up our minds, we'll go.' Then Genka said, 'Start making up your minds, start making up your minds!' That's how it was. And in the morning when Genka woke up, he said, 'What, you still here? I thought you had run away to fight the fascists.' After that the first thing that Genka asked them every morning was, 'How many fascists have you killed today?' He went on teasing them until in the end they ran away. That's what happened. I've got no call to lie. I never lie."

     "Genka, is that the truth?" Misha demanded.

     "It's true, it's true!" cried the children of Genka's section.

     "He's always teasing people," grumbled Filya Kitov, or Kit, (Kit-the Russian for whale.-Tr.) as he was called by his friends. He had a passion for food and was always chewing something.

     "Genka, is that the truth?" Misha repeated.

     Genka shrugged his shoulders.

     "What relation does that have? All right, so it's true. I teased them a little. You know why? So that they would put that silliness out of their heads. But like fools they ran away. They couldn't take a joke. Makes me laugh."

     "It makes you laugh, does it?" Misha shouted.

     Flaring up, he suddenly tore the cap off his head and threw it on the ground.

     All eyes were fixed on him.

     He remembered that he was now the leader of the troop and had to control himself. He picked the cap up and put it on.

     "All right. First we'll find them and then see who's to blame. Have your dinner quickly and we'll begin to look for them."

     Genka brightened up.

     "That's right. We'll find them in double-quick time. You'll see, Misha."

     At dinner Misha questioned the boys who had been on duty, but they swore they did not see anything. Yet Igor and Seva had taken with them all their belongings, even their mugs and spoons. And nobody had noticed it!

     They could have gone home. But before sending after them to Moscow, Misha decided to make a thorough search in the vicinity.

     It struck Misha that the manor was the most probable place where the boys could have hidden themselves. He decided to go there with Korovin and send the rest of the troop to scour the woods.

     "Comb the woods," he said. "Genka and his section-from the direction of the village, Slava's section-from the river, and Zina's-from the park. Form a chain and keep calling out to each other. Be back by seven o'clock."

     Genka, Slava and Zina lined up their sections and marched them at the double to the areas assigned to them.

     Misha and Korovin went to the manor.

     Only Kit stayed behind in camp. He was always ready to take somebody's turn at kitchen duty. Licking his lips, he began to cook supper.

     Chapter 5

     To avoid meeting the "countess," Misha chose not the central walk but took Korovin along one of the side avenues.

     "First let's find out if she's in," he said.

     "How will you know that?"

     "You'll see," Misha replied mysteriously.

     Reaching the central walk through the shrubbery, the boys stopped and drew aside the branches of a tree.

     The old house was directly in front of them. The plastering had peeled off here and there, baring strips of splintered lath and pieces of tow. The broken windows were carelessly boarded up with plywood cut with an ordinary saw, which left the edges uneven. Some of the windows simply had planks of various thickness and size nailed to them.

     "She's at home," Misha whispered in a disappointed tone of voice.

     In reply to Korovin's inquiring glance, he indicated the loft with his eyes.

     In the recess was a big bronze bird with outspread wings, an exceedingly long neck and a great hooked beak. With sharp claws it clung to a thick bough. The huge, round eyes with long, almost human-like eyebrows, gave the bird a strange, terrifying expression.

     "See that?"

     "Yes," Korovin whispered, overwhelmed by the sinister-looking bronze statue.

     "It's an eagle."

     "I don't think so," Korovin shook his head doubtfully. "I've seen eagles on the Volga."

     "You get different kinds of eagles," Misha whispered. "On the Volga they're one kind, here another. But that's not the point. Look closely. See the shutters behind the bird? They're open, aren't they?"


     "Well, whenever they're open, it means the countess is at home. She closes them when she goes to town. Understand? Remember this is a secret which I don't want anyone else to know."

     "It's all the same to me," Korovin replied indifferently, "because we're going to take that house over anyway. It's got room for at least two hundred kids, while here she's occupying it all by herself. Is that just?"

     "Of course, not," Misha agreed. "I hope you take the estate soon. Here's what! Let's look for Igor and Seva in the sheds. They're probably hiding there and laughing up their sleeves at us."

     Keeping to the shrubbery, the boys skirted round the house, went up to the back wall of the stables and clambered into them through a small broken window.

     There was a musty smell of rotting logs and boards and old manure. The partitions between the stalls had been taken down and there were holes in the ground where the supporting beams lay. The boys drew back in fright as a flock of sparrows rose suddenly and flew out of the stables on swishing wings. Stepping carefully across the broken floor, Misha and Korovin made their way through the stables to a shed.

     It was darker there. There were no windows and although the gates had been taken off their hinges they had been leaned snugly into the gate frame without leaving any chink through which light could penetrate. It smelled of mice, fusty hay and stale flour-dust.

     Misha seized hold of a rafter, pulled himself up and climbed into the hayloft. Then he helped his lumbering friend up. The decayed rafters bent beneath their weight. There were bumble-bee nests all over the underside of the roof. The blue sky could be seen through the slits.

     The friends looked round the hayloft, then climbed into the next shed through the dormer. But there was no trace of the fugitives. As a matter of fact, only Misha was looking for them. Korovin was more concerned with the strength of the beams. He was smacking his lips to show his disappointment at finding everything so old and in disrepair. The boys returned by the same route, intending to look into the machine-shed, where formerly agricultural machines had been kept. It stood apart from the other sheds and to get to it the boys had to run across a piece of ground in full view of the house.

     Misha was about to slip out of the shed when suddenly he jumped back, nearly knocking over Korovin, who was standing behind him. Korovin wanted to see what had alarmed his friend, but Misha grabbed him by his arm and nodded in the direction of the house.

     A tall, thin old woman in a black dress and a black shawl was standing at the top of the staircase. Her grey head was bowed, her face furrowed by long wrinkles, her sharp hooked nose bent like the beak of a bird. In the deathly stillness of the neglected estate there was something dismal and weird about this black, motionless figure.

     The boys stood as if rooted to the ground.

     Finally, the old woman turned, took a few slow steps as though she walked without bending her knees, and disappeared into the house.

     "See that?" Misha whispered.

     "I could almost feel my blood freezing," Korovin replied, breathing heavily.

     Chapter 6

     The whole troop was assembled when Misha and Korovin got back to camp. The search had been fruitless.

     Disappointed, anxious about their lost comrades, tired and worn out, they sat down to a cheerless supper. On top of everything, Kit announced that their food supply was running out and that he doubted if there was enough for the next day.

     "Don't judge by your own appetite," Genka remarked. "You can check for yourself," Kit said in a hurt tone of voice. "There's practically no butter left. Nor biscuits. Cereals...."

     "Don't worry," Misha said. "Genka and the Bleater will go to Moscow in the morning and bring back supplies."

     This time it was Genka who spoke in an injured tone: "Why should I do all the donkey work? You think I like dragging a sackload of provisions in this heat: Besides, the stuff's got to be begged from parents! Some mayn't be at home, others mayn't have prepared anything."

     "I'm sending you because you've got experience." "You can bet your boots I have," Genka said with a self-contented grin, stuffing porridge into his mouth. " 'Your Yura's putting on weight. He's got a wolf's appetite. Yesterday he chewed the tail off the landlord's sheep!' That's the kind of approach that makes them cough up. Oh, hell, if only we could have some rich patron! Say a confectionery."

     "I'd prefer a sausage factory," Kit sighed with visions of sausages sizzling on a frying-pan. He even screwed up his eyes at the thought.

     After supper everybody remained sitting round the fire. Those on kitchen duty were washing the dishes. Moving his lips, Kit was counting the packets of flour and slices of bread. There was a preoccupied look on his face as was always the case when before him there were edibles he could see and feel. Genka and the Bleater were getting the sacks ready for the provisions. To be more exact, the Bleater was doing the work and Genka was issuing instructions and at the same time examining his famous brief-case. Although badly battered, it was real and made of leather with numerous partitions and with shining, nickel-plated locks. Genka was very proud of it. He always took it with him when he went to Moscow for supplies because he thought it impressed the parents he went to see. To make that impression stronger, he would put it on the table while he spoke and keep clicking the locks with an important air.

     "Works like magic," he said. "If it weren't for this brief-case, the troop would have died of hunger long ago."

     On these expeditions to Moscow, Genka confined himself to swinging his brief-case, while his companion had to carry the sack.

     "Look here, Genka," Misha said, "say nothing to Igor's and Seva's parents, but try and find out diplomatically if they have been to Moscow."

     "I'll find out, don't worry."

     "Only be careful or you'll alarm the parents."

     "I told you not to worry, didn't I? I'll ask incidentally like."

     "How will you ask?"

     "I shan't even do that, but sort of say: your Igor was planning to come home."

     "What for?"

     "To go to the baths."

     "Who'll believe you?"

     "You think so? Then I'll say he was planning to come to Moscow for books."

     "That's better."

     "What if he should be in Moscow," Genka continued, "and his mother says that he's at home? I'll pretend I'm surprised and say that he must have got there before me. If she tells me he's playing in the yard, I'll thank her, of course, but I'll go out and give that Igor a punch he'll remember for a long time."

     "I wouldn't do that if I were you," Slava remarked.

     "No, of course not," Misha agreed, "but they'll have to be taught a lesson. I would have gone myself but," he gave Slava a withering look, "there's nobody I can trust to remain in charge here. So let Genka and the Bleater go."

     "I'll go," the Bleater suddenly declared, "but I'm warning you that if Genka makes me carry the sack while he goes about waving his brief-case, I'll chuck everything and come back. So there! I'm telling you straight."

     "When have I ever made you carry anything without helping you?" Genka demanded hotly.

     "That's always your game!" shouted everyone who had ever gone to town with Genka.


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