The Fate of House 6/1

 

From Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

 

16

 

Seryozha Shaposhnikov pointed to a book that was lying on top of a brick, beside a haversack.

 

'Have you read that?' he asked Katya Vengrova.

 

'l was looking through it again.'

 

 'Do you like it?'

 

'I prefer Dickens.'

 

'Dickens!' said Seryozha in a tone of mockery and condescension.

 

'What about La Chartreuse de Parme?  Do you like that?' asked Katya.

 

'Not much,' replied Seryozha after a moment's thought. Then he added: 'I'm going with the infantry today to clean out the Germans from the shack next door'.

 

Katya  looked  at him. Understanding  the meaning of  this look, Seryozha went on: 'Yes, I've been ordered to by Grekov .'

 

'What about Chentsov and the rest of the mortar team. Are they going?'

 

'No. Just me.'

 

They fell silent for a moment.

 

'Is he after you, then?' asked Seryozha. She nodded her head.

 

'How do you feel about it?'

 

'You know very well,' she said, thinking of the tribe of Asra who die in silence when they love.

 

'I'm afraid they'll get me today,' said Seryozha.

 

'Why are you being sent with the infantry  anyway?  You're a mortar man.'

 

'Why's Grekov keeping you here, for that matter? Your wireless set's been smashed to pieces. You should have been sent back to the regiment ages ago. You should have been sent to the left bank. You're just hanging around doing nothing.'

 

'At least we see each other every day.'

 

Seryozha gave a wave of the hand and walked away.

 

Katya looked round and saw Bunchuk looking down from above and laughing. Seryozha must have seen him too. That was why he'd left so abruptly.

 

The Germans kept the building under artillery fire until evening. Three men were slightly wounded and a partition wall collapsed, blocking the exit from the cellar. They dug out the exit- only for it to be choked with rubble again after another shell smashed into the wall. They dug their way through a second time.

 

Antsiferov peered into the dust-filled darkness and asked: 'Hey! Comrade radio-operator! Are you still with us?'

 

'Yes,' answered Katya, sneezing and spitting out red dust.

 

'Bless you!' said Antsiferov.

 

When it got dark, the Germans sent up flares and opened up with their machine-guns. A plane flew over several times, dropping incendiary bombs.  No one in the building slept. Grekov himself manned a machine-gun; the infantry sallied out twice to repel advancing Germans, swearing for all they were worth and shielding their faces with spades.

 

It was as though the Germans had foreseen the impending attack on the nearby building they had just occupied.

 

When the firing died down, Katya could hear the Germans calling out to one another. She could even hear their laughter. Their pronunciation was very different from that of her German teachers.

 

She noticed that the cat had crawled off its pile of rags. Its back legs were quite motionless; it was dragging itself along on its fore-paws, trying desperately to reach Katya. Then it came to a stop; its jaw opened and closed several times ... Katya tried to raise one of its eyelids. 'So it's dead,' she thought in disgust. Then she realized that the cat must have thought of her when he realized he was about to die; that he had crawled towards her when he was half-paralysed ... She put the body in a hole and covered it over with bits of brick.

 

The cellar was suddenly lit up by a flare. It was as though there were no longer any air, as though she were breathing some blood-coloured liquid that flowed out of the ceiling, oozing out of each little brick.

 

Maybe the Germans would appear any moment out of the far corners of the cellar. They would come up to her, seize her and drag her away. Or maybe they were cleaning up the first floor right now-- the rattle of their tommy-guns sounded closer than ever. Maybe they were about to appear through the hole in the ceiling.

 

To calm herself down, she tried to picture the list of tenants on the door of her house: 'Tikhimirov- 1 ring; Dzyga- 2 rings; Cheremushkin- 3 rings; Feinberg- 4 rings; Vengrova- 5 rings; Andryushenko- 6 rings; Pegov – I long ring.' She tried to imagine the Feinbergs' big saucepan standing on the kerosene stove with its plywood cover, Anastasya's washing tub with its cover made of sacking, the Tikhimirovs' chipped enamel basin hanging from its piece of string ... Now she would make her bed; where the springs were particularly sharp, she would spread out an old torn coat, a scrap of quilt and her mother's brown shawl.

 

Then her thoughts turned to house 6/I. Now the Germans were so close, now they were actually tunnelling their way through the ground, she no longer felt upset by the soldiers' foul language. She didn't even feel frightened by the way Grekov looked at her; previously not only her cheeks had blushed, but even her neck and shoulders. Yes, she certainly had heard some obscenities during her months in the army. There had been one particularly unpleasant conversation with a bald lieutenant-colonel who had flashed his metal fillings at her as he had explained what she must do if she wanted to stay on the left bank, at the signals centre ...She remembered a mournful little song the girls used to sing under their breath:

 

Under a fine autumn moon
The commander took her to bed.
He kissed her till it was dawn
And now she belongs to the men.

 

The first time she had seen Seryozha he had been reading poetry; she had thought to herself, 'What an idiot!' Then he had disappeared for two days. She had kept wondering if he had been killed, but had been too embarrassed to ask. Then he had suddenly reappeared during the night; she'd heard him tell Grekov how he'd left Headquarters without permission.

 

'Quite right,' said Grekov. 'Otherwise you wouldn't have rejoined us until the next world.'

 

After that he had walked straight past her without even a glance. She had felt first upset and then angry; once again she had thought, 'What an idiot!'

 

Soon afterwards she'd heard a discussion about who was likely to be the first man to sleep with her. Someone had said: 'Grekov--that's a certainty!'

 

'No, that's not for sure,' someone else had said. 'But I can tell you who's at the bottom of the list-young Seryozha. The younger a girl is, the more she needs someone with experience.'

 

Then she noticed that the other men had stopped joking and flirting with her. Grekov made it very clear that he didn't like anyone else making a play for her. And once Zubarev called out: 'Hey! Mrs. House-manager!'

 

Grekov was in no hurry, but he was very sure of himself. She could feel this all too clearly. After her wireless set had been smashed, he had ordered her to make her home in one of the far corners of the cellar. And yesterday he'd said: 'I've never met a girl like you before. If I'd met you before the war, I'd have made you my wife.'

 

She'd wanted to reply that he'd have had to ask her view on the matter first. But she'd been too frightened to say anything at all.

 

He hadn't done anything wrong. He hadn't even said anything coarse or brazen. But she was frightened.

 

Later on in the day he'd said sadly: 'The Germans are about to launch their offensive. Probably not one of us will be left alive. This building lies right in their path.'

 

He had then given her a long, thoughtful look- a look that Katya found more frightening than what he'd said about the German offensive- and added: 'I'll come round some time.'

 

The link between this remark and what he'd said before was by no means obvious, but Katya understood it.

 

He was very different from any of the officers she'd seen round Kotluban. He never threatened people or shouted at them, but they obeyed him. He just sat there, smoking and chatting away like one of the soldiers. And yet his authority was immense.

 

She'd never really talked to Seryozha. Sometimes she thought he was in love with her- but as powerless as she herself before the man they admired and were terrified by. She knew he was weak and inexperienced, but she kept wanting to ask for his protection, to say: 'Come and sit by me.' And then there were times when she wanted to comfort him herself. Talking to him was very strange- it often seemed as though there were no war, no house 6/I at all. Seryozha appeared to understand this and tried to adopt a coarse, soldierly manner. Once he even swore in her presence.

 

Now she felt that there was some terrible link between her own confused thoughts and feelings and the fact that Seryozha had been ordered to join the storming-party. Listening to the tommy-gun fire, she imagined Seryozha lying across a mound of red brick, his lifeless head and unkempt hair drooping. She felt a heart-rending sense of pity for him. Everything merged together: the many-coloured flares, her memories of her mother, her simultaneous fear and admiration of Grekov-- this man who, from a few isolated ruins, was about to launch an assault on the iron-clad German divisions.

 

She felt ready to sacrifice everything in the world- if only she could see Seryozha again alive.

'But what if I have to choose between him and Mama?' she thought suddenly.

 

Then she heard footsteps; her fingers tensed against the bricks.

 

The shooting died down; there was a sudden silence. Her back, her shoulders, her legs all began to itch. She wanted to scratch them but was afraid of making a noise.

 

People had kept asking Batrakov why he was always scratching himself. He'd always answered: 'It's just nerves.' And then yesterday he'd said: 'I've just found eleven lice!' Kolomeitsev had made fun of him:

 

'Batrakov's been attacked by nerve-lice!'

 

She had been killed. Soldiers were dragging her corpse to a pit and saying: 'Poor girl! She's covered in lice!'

 

But perhaps it really was just her nerves? Then she saw a man coming towards her out of the darkness - and not just someone she had conjured up out of the strange noises and the flickering light.

 

'Who is it?' she asked.

 

'Don't be afraid,' said the darkness. 'It's me.'

 

 

17

 

'The attack's been put off till tomorrow. Today it's the Germans' turn. By the way, I wanted to tell you, I've never read La Chartreuse de Parme.'

 

Katya didn't answer.

 

Seryozha tried to make her out in the darkness; as though in answer to his wish, her face was suddenly lit up by a shell-burst. A second later it was dark again; as though by unspoken agreement they waited for another shell-burst, another flash of light. Seryozha took her by the hand and squeezed her fingers; it was the first time he had held a girl's hand.

 

The dirty, lice-ridden girl sat there without saying a word. Seryozha could see her white neck in the darkness.

 

Another flare went up and their heads drew together. He put his arms round her and she closed her eyes. They'd both of them heard the same saying at school: if you kiss with your eyes open, you're not in love.

 

'This is the real thing, isn't it?' asked Seryozha

.

She pressed her hands against his temples and turned his head towards her.

 

'This is for all our lives,' he said slowly.

 

'How strange,' she said. 'I'm afraid somebody may come by. Until now I was only too delighted to see any of them: Lyakhov, Kolomeitsev, Zubarev ...'

 

'Grekov,' added Seryozha.

 

 'No,' she said firmly.

 

He kissed her on the neck and undid the metal button on her tunic. He pressed his lips to her thin collar-bone, but didn't touch her breasts. She stroked his wiry unwashed hair as though he were a little boy; she knew that all this was right and inevitable.

 

He looked at the luminous dial of his watch.

 

'Who's leading you tomorrow?' she asked. 'Grekov?'

 

 'Why ask now? Who needs a leader anyway?'

 

He embraced her again. He felt a sudden cold in his fingers and chest, a sudden resolute excitement. She was half lying on her coat; she seemed to be hardly breathing. He felt the coarse, dusty material of her tunic and skirt, then the rough fur of her boots. He sensed the warmth of her body. She tried to sit up, but he began kissing her again. Another flash of light lit up Katya's cap- now lying on some bricks- and her face- suddenly unfamiliar, as though he'd never seen it before. Then it became dark again, very dark...

 

'Katya!'

 

'What is it?'

 

'Nothing. I just wanted to hear your voice. Why don't you look at me?'

 

He lit a match.

 

'Don't! Don't! Put it out!'

 

Once again she wondered who she loved most- him or her mother. 'Forgive me,' she said.

 

Failing to understand her, Seryozha said: 'It's all right. Don't be afraid. This is for life- if we live.'

 

'No, I was just thinking of my mother.'

 

'My mother's dead. I've only just realized-- she was deported because of my father.'

 

They went to sleep in each other's arms. During the night the house-manager came and looked at them. Shaposhnikov had his head on the girl's shoulder and his arm round her back; it looked as though he were afraid of losing her. Their sleep was so quiet and so still they might have been dead.

At dawn Lyakhov looked in and shouted:

 

'Hey, Shaposhnikov! Vengrova! The house-manager wants you. At the double!'

 

In the cold, misty half-light Grekov's face looked severe and implacable. He was leaning against the wall, his tousled hair hanging over his low forehead. They stood in front of him, shifting from foot to foot, unaware they were still holding hands. Grekov flared his broad nostrils and said: 'Very well, Shaposhnikov, I'm sending you back to Regimental  Headquarters.'

 

Seryozha could feel Katya's fingers trembling; he squeezed them.

 

She in turn felt his fingers trembling. He swallowed; his tongue and palate were quite dry.

The earth and the clouded sky were enveloped in silence. The soldiers lying in a huddle on their greatcoats seemed wide awake, hardly breathing, waiting. Everything was so familiar, so splendid. Seryozha thought to himself: 'We're being expelled from Paradise. He's separating us like two serfs.' He gave Grekov a look of mingled hatred and entreaty.

 

Grekov narrowed  his  eyes as he looked  Katya  full in the  face.

 

Seryozha felt there was something quite horrible about this look, something insolent and merciless.

'That's all,' said Grekov. 'And the radio-operator can go with you. There's no need for her to hang around here with nothing to do. You can show her the way to HQ.'

 

He smiled.

 

'And after that you'll have to find your own ways. Here, take this. I can't stand paperwork so I've just written one for the two of you. All right?'

 

Seryozha suddenly realized that never in all his life had he seen eyes that were so sad and so intelligent, so splendid, yet so human.

 

 

18

 

In the end, Regimental Commissar Pivovarov never visited house 6/1.

 

Radio contact had been broken off. No one knew if this was because the wireless set was out of action or because the high-handed Grekov was fed up with being ordered about by his superiors.

Chentsov, a Party member, had provided them with some informa­tion about the encircled house. He said that 'the house-manager' was corrupting the minds of his soldiers with the most appalling heresies. He didn't, however, deny either Grekov's courage or his fighting abilities.

 

Just when Pivovarov was about to make his way to house 6/1, Byerozkin, the commanding officer of the regiment, fell seriously ill. He was lying in his bunker; his face was burning and his eyes looked transparent and vacuous. The doctor who examined him was at a loss. He was used to dealing with shattered limbs and fractured skulls. And now here was someone who'd fallen ill all by himself.

'We need cupping-glasses,' he said. 'But where on earth can I find any?'

 

Pivovarov was about to inform Byerozkin's superiors when the telephone rang and  the  divisional  Commissar  summoned  him  to headquarters.

 

Pivovarov twice dropped flat on his face because of nearby shell­ bursts; he arrived somewhat out of breath. The divisional commissar was in conversation with a battalion commissar who had recently been sent across from the left bank. Pivovarov had heard of him before; he had given lectures to the units in the factories.

 

Pivovarov announced himself loudly: 'Pivovarov reporting!' Then he told him of Byerozkin's illness.

 

'Yes, that's a bit of a bastard,' said the divisional commissar. 'Well, you'll have to take command yourself, comrade Pivovarov.'

 

'What about the encircled house?'

 

'That matter's no longer in your hands. You wouldn't believe what a storm there's been over it. It's even reached Front Headquarters.'

 

He paused and held up a coded message.

 

'In fact, that's the very reason I called you. Comrade Krymov here has instructions from the Political Administration of the Front to get through to the encircled house, take over as commissar and establish Bolshevik order. If any problems arise, he is to take over from Grekov... Since this is in the sector covered by your regiment, you are to provide comrade Krymov with whatever help he needs to get through and remain in communication. Is that clear?'

 

'Certainly,' said Pivovarov. 'I'll see to it.'

 

Then in a conversational tone of voice, he asked Krymov: 'Comrade Battalion Commissar, have  you  dealt with  anything like  this before?'

 

'I have indeed,' smiled Krymov. 'In the summer of '41 I led two hundred men out of encirclement in the Ukraine. Believe me-- I know a thing or two about all this partisan nonsense.'

 

'Very well, comrade Krymov,' said the divisional commissar. 'Get on with it and keep in touch. A State within a State is something we can do without.'

 

'Yes," said Pivovarov, 'and there was also an unpleasant story about some girl who was sent as a radio-operator. Byerozkin was very worried when the transmitter went dead. Those lads are capable of anything-- believe me!'

 

'Very well. You can sort that one out when you get there. I wish you luck,' said the divisional commissar.

 

 

19

 

On a cold clear evening, the day after Grekov's dismissal of Shaposhnikov and Vengrova, Krymov, accompanied by a soldier with a tommy-gun, left Regimental HQ on his way to the notorious encircled house.

 

As soon as he set foot in the asphalt yard of the Tractor Factory, Krymov felt an extraordinarily acute sense of danger. At the same time he was conscious of an unaccustomed excitement and joy. The sudden message from Front Headquarters had confirmed his feeling that in Stalingrad everything was different, that the values and demands placed on people had changed. Krymov was no longer a cripple in a battalion of invalids; he was once again a Bolshevik, a fighting commissar. He wasn't in the least frightened by his difficult and dangerous task. It had been sweet indeed to read in the eyes of Pivovarov and the divisional commissar the same trust in his abilities that had once been displayed by all his comrades in the Party.

 

A dead soldier was lying on the ground between the remains of a mortar and some slabs of asphalt thrown up by a shell-burst. Now that Krymov  was  so  full  of  hope  and  exaltation,  he  found  this  sight strangely upsetting. He had seen plenty of corpses in his time and had usually felt quite indifferent. This soldier, so full of his death, was lying there like a bird, quite defenceless, his legs tucked under him as though … he were cold.

 

A political instructor in a grey mackintosh ran past, holding up a well-filled knapsack. Then a group of soldiers came past carrying some anti-tank shells on a tarpaulin, together with a few loaves of bread.

The corpse no longer needed bread or weapons; nor was he hoping for a letter from his faithful wife. His death had not made him strong- he was the weakest thing in the world, a dead sparrow that not even the moths and midges were afraid of.

 

Some soldiers were mounting their gun in a breach in the wall, arguing with the crew of a heavy machine-gun and cursing. From their gestures Krymov could more or less guess what they were saying.

 

'Do you realize how long our machine-gun's stood here? We were hard at it when you lot were still hanging about on the left bank!'

 

 'Well, you are a bunch of cheeky buggers!'

 

There was a loud whine, and a shell burst in a corner of the workshop. Shrapnel rattled across the walls. Krymov's guide looked round to see if he was still there. He waited a moment and said:

'Don't worry, comrade Commissar, this isn't yet the front line. We're still way back in the rear.'

It wasn't long before Krymov realized the truth of this; the space by the wall was indeed relatively quiet.

 

They had to run forward, drop flat on the ground, run forward and drop to the ground again. They twice jumped into trenches occupied by the infantry. They ran through burnt-out buildings, where instead of people there was only the whine of metal ... The soldier said comfortingly: 'At least there are no dive-bombers,' then added: 'Right, comrade Commissar, now we must make for that crater.'

Krymov slid down to the bottom of a bomb-crater and looked up: the blue sky was still over his head and his head was still on his shoulders. It was very strange; the only sign of other human beings was the singing and screaming death that came flying over his head from both sides. It was equally strange to feel so protected in this crater that had been dug out by the spade of death.

 

Before Krymov had got his breath back, the soldier said, 'Follow me!' and crawled down a dark passage leading from the bottom of the crater. Krymov squeezed in after him. Soon the passage widened, the ceiling became higher and they were in a tunnel.

 

They could still hear the storm raging on the earth's surface; the ceiling shook and there were repeated peals of thunder. In one place, full of lead piping and cables as thick as a man's arm, someone had written on the wall in red: 'Makhov's a donkey.' The soldier turned on his torch for a moment and whispered: 'Now the Germans are right above us.'

 

Soon they turned off  into another narrow  passage  and  began making their way towards a barely perceptible grey light. The light slowly grew brighter and clearer; at the same time the roar of explosions and the chatter of machine-guns became still more furious.

 

For  a  moment  Krymov  thought  he  was  about  to  mount  the scaffold. Then they reached the surface and the first thing he saw was human faces. They seemed divinely calm.

 

Krymov felt a sense of joy and relief. Even the raging war now seemed no more than a brief storm passing over the head of a young traveller who was full of vitality. He felt certain that he had reached an important turning-point, that his life would continue to change for the better. It was as though this still, clear daylight were a sign of his own future- once again he was to live fully, whole-heartedly, with all his will and intelligence, all his Bolshevik fervour.

 

This new sense of youth and confidence mingled with his regret for Yevgenia. Now, though, he no longer felt he had lost her forever. She would return to him - just as his strength and his former life had returned to him. He was on her trail.

 

A fire was burning in the middle of the floor. An old man, his cap pushed forward, was standing over it, frying potato-cakes on some tin-plating. He turned them over with the point of a bayonet and stacked them in a tin hat when they were done. Spotting the soldier who had accompanied Krymov, he asked: 'Is Seryozha with you?'

 

'There's an officer present,' said the soldier sternly.

 

'How old are you, Dad?' Krymov asked.

 

'Sixty,' said the old man. 'I was transferred from the workers' militia.'

 

He turned to the soldier again. 'Is Seryozha with you?'

 

'No, he's not in our regiment. He must have ended up with our neighbours.

 

'That's bad,' said the old man. 'God knows what will become of him there.'

 

Krymov greeted various people and looked round the different parts of the cellar with their half-dismantled wooden partitions. In one place there was a field-gun pointing out through a loophole cut in the wall.

 

'It's like a man-of-war,' said Krymov.

 

'Yes, except there's not much water,' said the gunner.

 

Further on, in niches and gaps in the wall, were the mortars. Their long-tailed bombs lay on the floor beside them. There was also an accordion lying on a tarpaulin.

 

'So house 6/1 is still holding out!' said Krymov, his voice ringing. 'It hasn't yielded to the Fascists. All over the world, millions of people are watching you and rejoicing.'

 

No one answered.

 

Old Polyakov walked up to him and held out the tin hat full of potato-cakes.

 

'Has anyone written about Polyakov's potato-cakes yet?' asked one soldier.

 

'Very funny,' said Polyakov. 'But our Seryozha's been thrown out.'

 

'Have they opened the Second Front yet?' asked another soldier.

 

'Have you heard anything?'

 

'No,' said Krymov. 'Not yet.'

 

'Once the heavy artillery on the left bank opened up on us,' said a soldier with his jacket unbuttoned. 'Kolomeitsev was knocked off his feet. When he got up he said: "Well, lads, there's the Second Front for you!"'

 

'Don't talk such rubbish,' said a young man with dark hair. 'We wouldn't be here at all if it wasn't for the artillery. The Germans would have eaten us up long ago.'

 

'Where's your commander?' asked Krymov. 'There he is- over there, right in the front line.'

 

Grekov was lying on top of a huge heap of bricks, looking at something through a pair of binoculars. When Krymov called out his name he turned his head very slowly, put his fingers to his lips and returned to his binoculars. After a few moments his shoulders started shaking; he was laughing. He crawled back down, smiled and said:

 

'It's worse than chess.'

 

Then he noticed the green bars and commissar's star on Krymov's tunic.

 

'Welcome to our hut, comrade Commissar! I'm Grekov, the house-manager. Did you come by the passage we just dug?'

 

Everything about him- the look in his eyes, his quick movements, his wide, flattened nostrils- was somehow insolent and provocative.

 

'Never mind,' thought Krymov. 'I'll show you.'

 

He started to question him. Grekov answered slowly and absent­ mindedly, yawning and looking around  as though  these  questions were distracting him from something of genuine importance. 'Would you like to be relieved?' asked Krymov.

 

'Don't bother,' said Grekov. 'But we could do with some cigarettes. And of course we need mortar-bombs, hand-grenades and­ if you can spare it- some vodka and something to eat. You could drop it from a kukuruznik.'* As he spoke, Grekov counted the items off on his fingers.

 

'So you're not intending to quit?' said Krymov. In spite of his mounting anger at Grekov' s insolence, he couldn't help but admire the man's ugly face.

 

For a brief moment both men were silent. Krymov managed, with difficulty, to overcome a sudden feeling that morally he was inferior to the men in the encircled building.

 

'Are you logging your operations?'

 

'I've got no paper,' answered Grekov. 'There's nothing to write on, no time, and there wouldn't be any point anyway.'

 

'At present you're under the command of the CO of the 76th Infantry Regiment,' said Krymov.

 

'Correct, comrade Battalion Commissar,' replied Grekov mockingly. 'But when the Germans cut off this entire sector, when I gathered men and weapons together in this building, when I repelled  thirty enemy attacks and set eight tanks on fire, then I wasn't under anyone's command.'

 

'Do you know the precise number of soldiers under your command as of this morning? Do you keep a check?'

 

'A lot of use that would be. I don't write reports and I don't receive rations from any quartermaster. We've been living on rotten potatoes and foul water.'

 

'Are there any women in the building?'

 

'Tell me, comrade Commissar, is this an interrogation?'

 

 'Have any men under your command been taken prisoner?'

 

'No.'

 

'Well, where is that radio-operator of yours?'

 

Grekov bit his lip, and his eyebrows came together in a frown. 'The girl turned out to be a German spy. She tried to recruit me. First I raped her, then I had her shot.'

 

He drew himself up to his full height and asked sarcastically: 'Is that the kind of answer you want from me? It's beginning to seem as though I'll end up in a penal battalion. Is that right, Sir?'

 

Krymov looked at him for a moment in silence.

 

'Grekov, you're going too far. You've lost all sense of proportion. I've been in command of a surrounded unit myself. I was interrogated afterwards too.'

 

After another pause, he said very deliberately:

 

'My orders were that, if necessary, I should demote you and take command myself. Why force me along that path?'

 

Grekov thought for a moment, cocked his head and said: 'It's gone quiet. The Germans are calming down.’

 

 

20

 

'Good,' said Krymov. 'There are still a few questions to be settled. We can talk in private.'

 

'Why?' asked Grekov. 'My men and I fight together. We can settle whatever needs settling together.'

 

Although Grekov's audacity made Krymov furious, he had to admire it. He didn't want Grekov to think of him as just a bureaucrat. He wanted to tell him about his life before the war, about how his unit had been encircled in the Ukraine. But that would be an admission of weakness. And he was here to show his strength. He wasn't an official in the Political Section, but the commissar of a fighting unit.

'And don't worry,' he said to himself, 'the commissar knows what he's doing.'

 

Now that things were quiet, the men were stretching out on the floor or sitting down on heaps of bricks.

 

'Well, I don't think the Germans will cause any more trouble today,' said Grekov. He turned to Krymov. 'Why don't we have something to eat, comrade Commissar?'

 

Krymov sat down next to him.

 

'As I look at you all,' he said, 'I keep thinking of the old saying: "Russians always beat Prussians".'

 

'Precisely,' agreed a quiet, lazy voice.

 

This 'precisely', with its condescending irony towards such hack­neyed formulae, caused a ripple of mirth. These men knew at least as much as Krymov about the strength of the Russians; they themselves were the expression of that strength. But they also knew that if the Prussians had now reached the Volga, it certainly wasn't because the Russians always beat them.

 

Krymov was feeling confused. He felt uncomfortable when political instructors praised Russian generals of past centuries. The way these generals were constantly mentioned in articles in Red Star grated on his revolutionary spirit. He couldn't see the point of introducing the Suvorov medal, the Kutuzov medal and the Bogdan Khmelnitsky medal. The Revolution was the Revolution; the only banner its army needed was the Red Flag. So why had he himself given way to this kind of thinking- just when he was once again breathing the air of Lenin's Revolution? That mocking 'precisely' had been very wounding.

 

'Well, comrades, you don't need anyone to teach you about fighting. You can give lessons in that to anyone in the world. But why do you think our superior officers have considered it necessary to send me to you? What have I come here for?'

 

'Was it for a bowl of soup?' asked a voice, quietly and without malice.

 

This timid suggestion was greeted by a peal of laughter. Krymov looked at Grekov; he was laughing as much as anyone.

 

'Comrades!' said Krymov, red with anger. 'Let's be serious for a moment. I've been sent to you, comrades, by the Party.'

 

What was all this? Was it just a passing mood? A mutiny? Perhaps the reluctance of these men to listen to their commissar came from their sense of their own strength, of their own experience? Perhaps there was nothing subversive in all this merriment? Perhaps it sprang from the general sense of equality that was such a feature of Stalingrad.

 

Previously, Krymov had been delighted by this sense of equality. Why did it now make him so angry? Why did he want to suppress it?

 

If he had failed to make contact with these men, it was certainly not because they felt crushed, because they were in any way bewildered or frightened. These were men who knew their own strength. How was it that this very consciousness had weakened their bond with Krymov, giving rise only to mutual alienation and hostility?

 

'There's one thing I've been wanting to ask someone from the Party for ages,' said the old man who had been frying the potato-cakes. 'I've heard people say that under Communism everyone will receive according to his needs. But won't everyone just end up getting drunk? Especially if they receive according to their needs from the moment they get up.'

 

Turning to the old man, Krymov saw a look of genuine concern on his face. Grekov, though, was laughing. His eyes were laughing. His flared nostrils were laughing.

 

A sapper, a dirty, bloodstained bandage round his head, asked: 'And what about the kolkhozes, comrade Commissar?  Couldn't we have them liquidated after the war?'

 

'Yes,' said Grekov. 'How about a lecture on that?'

 

'I'm not here to give lectures,' said Krymov. 'I'm a fighting commissar. I've come here to sort out certain unacceptable partisan attitudes that have taken root in this building.'

 

'Very good,' said Grekov. 'But who's going to sort out the Germans?'

 

'Don't you worry about that. We'll find someone. And I haven't come here, as I heard someone suggest, for a bowl of soup. I'm here to give you a taste of Bolshevism.'

 

'Good,' said Grekov. 'Let's have a taste of it.'

 

Half-joking, but also half-serious, Krymov continued: 'And if necessary, comrade Grekov, we'll eat you too.'

 

He now felt calm and sure of himself. Any doubts he had felt about the correct course of action had passed. Grekov had to be relieved of his command. It was clear that he was an alien and hostile element. None of the heroism displayed in this building could alter that. Krymov knew he could deal with him.

 

When it was dark, Krymov went up to him again. 'Grekov, I want to talk seriously. What do you want?'

 

'Freedom. That's what I'm fighting for.'

 

'We all want freedom.'

 

'Tell us another! You just want to sort out the Germans.'

 

'That's enough, comrade Grekov!' barked Krymov. 'You'd do better to explain why you allow your soldiers to give expression to such naive and erroneous political judgements. With your authority you could put a stop to that as quickly as any commissar. But I get the impression your men say their bit and then look at you for approval. Take the man who asked about kolkhozes. What made you support him? Let me be quite frank ... If you're willing, we can sort this out together. But if you're not willing, it could end badly for you.'

 

'Why make such a fuss about the kolkhozes? It's true. People don't like them. You know that as well as I do.'

 

'So you think you can change the course of history, do you?'

 

'And you think you can put everything back just as it was before?'

 

'What do you mean- everything?'

 

'Just that. Everything. The general coercion.'

 

Grekov spoke very slowly, almost reluctantly, and with heavy irony. He suddenly sat up straight and said: 'Enough of all this, comrade Commissar! I was only teasing you. I'm as loyal a Soviet citizen as you are. I resent your mistrust.'

 

'All right, Grekov. But let's talk seriously then. We must stamp out the evil, anti-Soviet spirit that's taken hold here. You gave birth to it-  you must help me destroy it. You'll still get your chance for glory.'

 

'I feel like going to bed. You need some rest too. Wait till you see what things are like in the morning.'

 

'Fine. We'll continue tomorrow. I'm in no hurry. I'm not going anywhere.'

 

'We'll find some way of coming to an agreement,' said Grekov with a laugh.

 

'No,' thought Krymov, 'this is no time for homeopathy. I must work with a surgeon's knife. You need more than words to straighten out a political cripple.'

 

'There's something good in your eyes,' said Grekov unexpectedly. 'But you've suffered a lot.'

 

Krymov raised his hands in surprise but didn't reply. Taking this as a sign of agreement, Grekov went on: 'I've suffered too. But that's nothing. Just something personal. Not something for your report.'

 

That night, while he was asleep, Krymov was hit in the head by a stray bullet. The bullet tore the skin and grazed his skull. The wound wasn't dangerous, but he felt very dizzy and was unable to stand upright. He kept wanting to be sick.

 

At Grekov's orders, a stretcher was improvised and Krymov was carried out of the building just before dawn. His head was throbbing and spinning and there was a constant hammering at his temples. Grekov went with him as far as the mouth of the underground passage.

 

'You've had bad luck, comrade commissar.'

 

A sudden thought flashed through Krymov's head. Maybe it was Grekov who had shot him?

Towards evening his headache got worse and he began to vomit. He was kept at the divisional first-aid post for two days and then taken to the left bank and transferred to the Army hospital.

 

 

21

 

Commissar Pivovarov made his way into the narrow bunkers that made up the first-aid post. The wounded were lying side by side on the floor. Krymov wasn't there- he had been taken the previous night to the left bank.

 

'Strange he should have got wounded so quickly!' thought Pivovarov. 'He must be unlucky- or perhaps very lucky indeed!'

 

Pivovarov had also come to the first-aid post to see if it was worth transferring Byerozkin there. On his return to Regimental HQ- after nearly being killed on the way by a splinter from a German mortar­ bomb- he told Glushkov, Byerozkin's orderly, that the conditions in the first-aid post were appalling. Everywhere you looked, there were heaps of bloodstained gauze, bandages and cotton wool - it was frightening. 

 

‘Yes, comrade commissar, said Glushkov. ‘He’s certainly better off in his own bunker.’

 

'No question,' said Pivovarov. 'And they don't even discriminate between a regimental commander and an ordinary soldier. They're all lying on the floor together.'  

                                                                               

Glushkov, whose rank only entitled him to a place on the floor, said sympathetically: 'No, that's no good at all.'

 

'Has he said anything?'

 

'No,' said Glushkov. 'He hasn't even looked at the letter from his wife. It's just lying there beside him.'

 

'He won't even look at a letter from his wife?' said Pivovarov. 'He really must be in a bad way.'

 

He picked up the letter, weighed it in his hand, held it in front of Byerozkin's face and said sternly: 'Ivan Leontyevich, this is a letter from your spouse.'

 

He paused for a moment, then said in a very different tone: 'Vanya! Look! It's from your wife! Don't you understand? Hey, Vanya?'

 

Byerozkin didn't understand. His face was flushed, and his eyes were bright and empty.

 

All day long the war knocked obstinately at the door of the bunker. Almost all the telephones had gone dead during the night; Byerozkin's, however, was still working and people were constantly ringing him-- Divisional  HQ, Army  HQ, his battalion  commanders Podchufarov and Dyrkin, and his neighbour,  the commander  of one of Gurov’s regiments.

 

People were constantly coming and going, the door squeaked, and the tarpaulin-- hung over the entrance by Glushkov-- flapped in wind. There had been a general sense of anxiety and anticipation since early that morning. In spite of- or perhaps because of- the intermittent artillery fire, the infrequent  and carelessly inaccurate air-raids,'' everyone  felt  certain  that  the  German  offensive  was  about  to unleashed.  This certainty was  equally  tormenting  to  Chuykov, to Pivovarov, to the men in house  6/1, and to the commander  of the infantry platoon  who, to celebrate his birthday, had been drinking vodka all day beside the chimney of the Stalingrad Tractor Factory.

 

Whenever anyone in  the  bunker  said  anything  interesting amusing, everyone immediately glanced at Byerozkin- could he really not hear them?

 

Company commander Khrenov, in a voice hoarse from the cold, was telling  Pivovarov  about an  incident  just  before  dawn.  He'd climbed up from the cellar where his command-post was situated, sat down on a stone and listened to see if the Germans were up to any tricks yet. Suddenly he'd heard a harsh, angry voice in the sky: 'You sod, why didn't you give us any lights?'

 

Khrenov had felt first amazed, then terrified. How could someone up in the sky know his name?* Then he had looked up and seen a kukuruznik gliding by with the engine switched off. The pilot was dropping provisions to house 6/1 and was annoyed there hadn't been any markers.

 

Everyone looked round to see if Byerozkin had smiled; only Glushkov imagined he could see a flicker of life in his glassy eyes. At lunchtime the bunker emptied. Byerozkin still lay there, his long­ awaited letter beside him. Glushkov sighed. Pivovarov and the new chief of staff had gone out for lunch. They were tucking in to some first-class borshch and drinking their hundred grams of vodka. Glushkov himself had already been offered some of the borshch. But as the boss, the commander of the regiment, wasn't eating, all he had had was a few drops of water ...

 

Glushkov tore open the envelope, went up to Byerozkin's bunk and, very slowly, in a quiet, clear voice, began reading:

 

'Hello, my Vanya, hello my dearest, hello my beloved ...'

 

Glushkov frowned, but he didn't stop reading. This tender, sad, kind letter from Byerozkin's wife had already been read by the censors. Now it was being read out loud to the unconscious Byerozkin, the only man in the world truly able to read it.

 

Glushkov wasn't so very surprised when Byerozkin turned his head, stretched out his hand and said: 'Give it to me.'

 

The lines of handwriting trembled between his large fingers. 'Vanya, it's very beautiful  here, Vanya, I miss you very much. Lyuba keeps asking where Papa's gone. We're living on the shore of a lake, the house is very warm, the landlady's got a cow, there's lots of milk, and then there's the money you sent us. When I go out in the morning, there are yellow and red maple-leaves all over the cold water, there's already snow on the ground and that makes the water even bluer, and the sky's pure blue and the yellow and red of the leaves are incredibly bright. And Lyuba keeps asking me: "Why are you crying?" Vanya, Vanya, my darling, thank you for everything, for everything, thank you for all your kindness. How can I explain why I'm crying? I'm crying because I'm alive, crying from grief that Slava's dead and I'm still alive, crying from happiness that you're alive. I cry when I think of my mother and sister, I cry because of the morning light, I cry because everything round about is so beautiful and because there's so much sadness everywhere, in everyone's life and in my own. Vanya, Vanya, my dearest, my beloved ...'

 

And his head began to spin, everything became blurred, his fingers trembled, the letter  itself  trembled.  Even the white-hot  air was trembling

.

'Glushkov,' said Byerozkin, 'you must get me back in shape today.’ (That was a phrase Tamara didn't like.) 'Tell me, is the boiler still working?'

 

'The boiler's fine. But how do you think you're going to get better in one day? You've got a fever. Forty degrees- just like vodka. You can't expect that to vanish in a moment.'

 

An empty petrol-drum was rolled  into the bunker  with  a rumble. It was then half-filled - by means of a teapot and a bucket- with steaming-hot river water. Glushkov helped Byerozkin undress and walked him up to the drum.

 

'The water's very hot, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel,'  he said, touching the side of the drum very gingerly with his hand. 'You'll be stewed alive. I called the comrade commissar, but he's at a meeting with the divisional commander. We should wait for him to come back.'

 

'What for?'

 

'If anything happens to you, I'll shoot myself. And if I don't have the guts, comrade Pivovarov will do it for me.'

 

 'Give me a hand.'

 

'Please, let me at least call the chief of staff.'

 

'Come on now!' Byerozkin's voice was hoarse, he was naked and he could barely stand upright; nevertheless, Glushkov immediately stopped arguing.

 

As  he  got  into  the  water,  Byerozkin  winced  and  let  out  a groan.  Glushkov  paced  round  the  drum,  groaning  in  sympathetic anxiety.

 

'Just like a maternity home,' he thought suddenly.

 

Byerozkin lost consciousness for a while. His fever and the general anxiety of war blurred together into a mist. His heart seemed to stop and he could no longer even feel the scalding hot water. Then he came to and said to Glushkov: 'You must mop the floor.'

 

Glushkov  took  no  notice  of  the water  spilling  over  the  edge. Byerozkin's crimson face had gone suddenly white, his mouth had fallen open, and huge drops of sweat- to Glushkov they looked almost blue - had appeared on his dose-shaven head. He began to lose consciousness again. But when Glushkov tried to drag him out of the water, he said very clearly: 'No, I'm not ready yet.'

He was racked by a fit of coughing. As soon as it was over, without even waiting to get his breath back, he said: 'Pour in some more water!'

 

At last he got out. Looking at him, Glushkov felt even more despondent. He rubbed Byerozkin dry, helped him back into bed, and covered him over with a blanket and some greatcoats. He then began piling on everything he could find- jackets, trousers, tarpaulins ...

 

By the time Pivovarov returned everything had been tidied up - though the bunker still felt hot and damp like a bath-house. Byerozkin was sleeping peacefully. Pivovarov stood over his bed for a moment and looked at him.

 

'He has got a splendid face,' he thought. 'I'm sure he never wrote denunciations.'

 

For some reason, he had been troubled all day long by the memory of how- five years before- he had helped unmask Shmelyev, a friend and fellow-student of his, as an enemy of the people. All kinds of rubbish came into one's head during this sinister lull in the fighting. He could see Shmelyev's sad, pitiful look as his friend's denunciation was read out at the meeting.

 

About twelve o'clock, Chuykov himself telephoned, passing over the head of the divisional commander. He was very worried about Byerozkin's regiment- according to the latest intelligence reports the Germans had amassed a particularly heavy concentration of tanks and infantry opposite the Tractor Factory.

 

'Well, how are things?' he asked impatiently. 'And who's in command? Batyuk said the commanding officer had pneumonia or something. He wanted to have him taken across to the left bank.'

 

'I'm in command,' answered a hoarse voice. 'Lieutenant-Colonel Byerozkin. I did have something of a cold, but I'm all right now.'

 

'Yes, you do sound a bit hoarse,' said Chuykov almost gloatingly. 'Well, the Germans will give you some hot milk. They've got it all ready, they won't be long.'

 

'Yes, comrade,' said Byerozkin. 'I understand you.'

 

'Very good,' said Chuykov. 'But if you ever think of retreating, remember I can make you an egg-flip at least as good as the Germans' hot milk.'

 

 

22

 

Old Polyakov arranged for Klimov, the scout, to take him at night to Regimental HQ; he wanted to find out how things were with Seryozha.

 

'That's a splendid idea, old man,' said Grekov. 'You can have a bit of a rest and then come back and tell us how things are in the rear.'

 

'You mean with Katya?' asked Polyakov, guessing why Grekov had been so quick to agree.

 

'They left HQ long ago,' said Klimov. 'The commander had them both sent to the left bank. By now they've probably already visited the registry office in Akhtuba.'

 

'Do you want to cancel our trip then?' asked Polyakov pointedly. Grekov looked at him sharply, but all he said was: 'Very well, then. Be off with you!'

 

'Very well,' thought Polyakov.

 

They set off down the narrow passage about four in the morning. Polyakov kept bumping his head against the supports and cursing Seryozha. He felt a little angry and embarrassed at the strength of his affection for the boy.

 

After a while the passage widened and they sat down for a rest. Klimov said jokingly:

 

'What, haven't you got a present for them?'

 

'To hell with the damned boy!' said Polyakov. 'I should have taken a brick so I could give him a good knock on the head!'

 

'I see!' said Klimov. 'That's why you wanted to come with me. That's why you're ready to swim the Volga to see him. Or is it Katya you want to see? Are you dying of jealousy?'

 

'Come on,' said Polyakov. 'Let's get going!'

 

Soon they came up to the surface and had to walk through no man's land. It was utterly silent.

'Perhaps the war's come to an end?' thought Polyakov. He could picture his own home with an extraordinary vividness: there was a plate of borshch on the table and his wife was gutting a fish he had caught. He even began to feel quite warm ...

 

That night General Paulus gave orders for the attack on the Tractor Factory.

 

Two infantry divisions were to advance through the breach opened by bombers, artillery and tanks . . . Since midnight, cigarettes had been glowing in the soldiers' cupped hands.

 

The first Junkers flew over the factory an hour and a half before dawn. The ensuing bombardment was quite without respite; any gap in the unbroken wall of noise was immediately filled by the whistle of bombs tearing towards the earth with all their iron strength. The continuous roar was enough to shatter your skull or your backbone.

 

It began to get light, but not over the factory . . . It was as though the earth itself were belching out black dust, smoke, thunder, lightning ...

 

The brunt of the attack was borne by Byerozkin's regiment and house 6II. All over that sector half-deafened men leapt drunkenly to their feet, dimly realizing that this time the Germans really had gone berserk.

 

Caught in no man's land, Klimov and Polyakov rushed towards some large craters made by one-ton bombs at the end of September. Some soldiers from Podchufarov's battalion had escaped from their caved-in trenches and were running in the same direction.

 

The Russian and German trenches were so close together that part of the bombardment fell on the German assault-troops waiting in the front line.

 

To Polyakov it was as though a fierce wind from downstream was sweeping up the Volga. Several times he was knocked off his feet; he fell to the ground no longer knowing what world he lived in, whether he was old or young, what was up and what was down. But Klimov dragged him along and finally they slid to the bottom of a huge crater. Here the darkness was threefold: the darkness of night, the darkness of dust and smoke, the darkness of a deep pit.

 

They lay there beside one another; the same soft light, the same prayer for life filled both their heads. It was the same light, the same touching hope that glows in all heads and all hearts- in those of birds and animals as well as in those of human beings.

 

Klimov couldn't stop swearing at Seryozha, still somehow thinking this was all his fault. Deep down, though, he felt he was praying."

 

This explosion of violence seemed too extreme to continue for long. But there was no let-up; as time went by, the black cloud only thickened, linking the earth and the sky still more closely.

 

Klimov found the roughened hand of the old man and squeezed it; its  answering  warmth  gave  him  a  brief  moment  of  comfort. An explosion  nearby threw  a shower of earth, stone and brick  into the crater; Polyakov was hit in the back by fragments of brick. It was even worse  when  great chunks of  earth  began  peeling off  the walls… There they were, cowering in a pit. They would never again see light of day. Soon the Germans up above would cover them over with earth then level the edges of the tomb.

 

U'sually Klimov preferred to go on reconnaissance missions alone; he would  hurry  off  into the darkness like an experienced swimmer striking  out  into  the  open  sea. Now,  though,  he  was glad  to have  Polyakov beside him.

 

Time no longer flowed evenly. It had gone insane, tearing forward like a shock-wave, then  suddenly  congealing, turning  back on itself like the horns of a ram.

 

Finally, though, the men in the pit raised their heads. The dust and  smoke had been carried away by the wind and they could see a dim light. The earth quietened; the continual roar separated out into series of distinct explosions. They felt a numb exhaustion –as though every feeling except anguish had been crushed out of their souls.

 

As Klimov staggered to his feet, he saw a German soldier lying beside him. Battered, covered in dust, he looked as though he had chewed up by the war from the peak of his cap to the toes of his boots.

Klimov had no fear of Germans; he had an unshakeable confidence in his own strength, his own miraculous ability to pull a trigger, throw a grenade, strike a blow with a knife or a rifle-butt a second earlier his opponent.  Now, though, he didn't know what to do. He was amazed at the thought that, blinded and deafened as he was, he been comforted by the presence of this German, had mistaken his hand for Polyakov's. Klimov and the German looked at one another. Each had been crushed by the same terrible force, and each was helpless to struggle against it.

 

They looked at one another in silence, two inhabitants of the war. The perfect, faultless, automatic reflex they both possessed - the instinct to kill- failed to function.

 

Polyakov, a little further away, was also gazing at the stubble­ covered face of the German. He didn't say anything either- though he usually found it difficult to keep his mouth shut.

 

Life was terrible. It was as though they could understand, as though they could read in one another's eyes, that the power which had ground them into the mud would continue- even after the war­ to oppress both conquered and conquerors.

 

As though coming to an unspoken agreement, they began to climb to the surface, all three of them easy targets, all three of them quite sure they were safe.

 

Polyakov slipped; the German, who was right beside him, didn't give him a hand. The old man tumbled down to the bottom, cursing the light of day but obstinately crawling back up towards it. Klimov and the German reached the surface. They both looked round- one to the East, one to the West- to see if any of their superiors had noticed them climbing quite peaceably out of the same pit. Then, without looking back, without a word of goodbye, they set off for their respective trenches, making their way through the newly-ploughed, still smoking, hills and valleys.

 

'The house has gone. It's been razed to the ground,' said Klimov in a frightened voice as Polyakov hurried after him. 'My brothers, have you all been killed?'

 

Then the artillery and machine-guns opened fire and the German infantry began to advance. This was to be the hardest day that Stalingrad had known.

 

'It's all because of that damned Seryozha!' muttered Polyakov. He was unable to understand what had happened, to grasp that there was now no one left in house 6/1. Klimov's cries and sobs merely irritated him.

 

 

23

 

During the initial air-attack, a bomb had fallen on top of the under­ ground pipeline that housed one of Byerozkin's battalion command­ posts; Byerozkin himself, Battalion Commander Dyrkin and the telephonist had been trapped. Finding himself in complete darkness, deafened and choking with dust, Byerozkin had thought he was no longer in the land of the living. Then, in a brief moment of silence, Dyrkin had sneezed and asked: 'Are you alive, comrade Lieutenant­ Colonel?'

 

'Yes,' Byerozkin had answered.

 

On hearing his commander's voice, Dyrkin had recovered his customary  good humour.

 

'Well then, everything's fine!' he said, hawking and spitting. In fact, things seemed far from fine. Dyrkin and the telephonist were up to their necks in rubble; it was impossible for them even to check whether they had any broken bones. An iron girder above them prevented them from straightening their backs; it was this girder, however, that had saved their lives. Dyrkin turned on his torch for a moment. What they saw was quite terrifying: there were large slabs of stone hanging right over their heads, together with twisted pieces of iron, slabs of buckled concrete covered in oil, and hacked-up cables. One more bomb and all this would crash down on top of them.

 

For a while they huddled in silence, listening to the furious force hammering at the workshops above. Even posthumously, these work­ shops continued to work for the defence, thought Byerozkin; it was difficult to destroy iron and reinforced concrete.

 

Then they examined the walls. There was clearly no way they could get out by themselves. The telephone was intact but silent; the line must have been cut.

 

It was also almost impossible to talk - they were coughing constantly and their voices were drowned by the roar of explosions.

 

Though it was less than twenty-four hours since he had been in delirium, Byerozkin now felt full of strength. In battle, his strength imposed itself on all his subordinates. Nevertheless, there was nothing essentially military or warlike about it; it was a simple, reasonable and very human strength. Few men were able to display strength of this kind in the inferno of battle; they were the true masters of the war.

 

The bombardment died down. It was replaced by an iron rumble. Byerozkin wiped his nose, coughed and said: 'Now the wolves are howling. Their tanks are attacking the Tractor Factory ...And we're right in their path.'

 

Perhaps because he couldn't imagine anything worse, Dyrkin began singing a song from a film. In a loud voice, he half-sang, half-coughed:

 

'What a beautiful life we lead, what a beautiful life! Things can never go wrong, never go wrong with such a wonderful chief.'

 

The telephonist thought Dyrkin had gone mad. All the same, coughing and spitting, he joined in:

'She'll grieve for me, she says she'll grieve for me all her life, But soon another man, another man, will make her his wife.'

 

Meanwhile, up in the workshop filled with dust, smoke and the roar of tanks, Glushkov was tearing the skin off his hands and fingers as he rooted up slabs of stone, iron and concrete. He was in a state of frenzy; only this allowed him to clear away heavy girders it would normally have taken ten men even to shift.

 

The rumble of tanks, the shell-bursts, the chatter of machine-guns grew still louder - and Byerozkin could see light again. It was a dust-laden, smoky light; but it was the light of day. Looking at it, Byerozkin thought: 'See, Tamara? You needn't have worried. I told you it wouldn't be anything terrible.' Then Glushkov embraced him with his powerful, muscular arms.

 

Gesturing around him, his voice choked with sobs, Dyrkin cried out: 'Comrade Lieutenant-Colonel, I'm in command of a dead bat­ talion. And Vanya's dead. Our Vanya's dead.'

 

He pointed to the corpse of the battalion commissar. lt was lying on its side in a dark crimson puddle of blood and machine-oil. The regimental command-post was relatively unscathed; there was just a dusting of earth on the bed and the table.

 

Pivovarov  leapt up, swearing happily,  as Byerozkin  came in.

 

Byerozkin immediately began questioning him.

 

'Are we still in touch with the battalions? What about the encircled house? How's Podchufarov? Dyrkin and I got caught in a mouse-trap.We couldn't see and we lost touch with everyone. I don't know who's dead and who's alive. Where are the Germans? Where are our men? I'm completely out of touch. We've just been singing songs. Quick, give me a report!'

 

Pivovarov began by telling him the number of casualties. Everyone in house 6/I, including the notorious Grekov, had perished. Only scout and one old militiaman had escaped.

 

But the regiment had withstood the German assault. The men still alive were still alive.

 

The telephone rang. From the signaller's face, they all realized it was Chuykov himself.

 

Byerozkin took the receiver. It was a good line; the men in the suddenly quiet bunker recognized Chuykov's low, serious voice. 'Byerozkin? The divisional commander's wounded. His second-in­ command and chief of staff are dead. I order you to take command yourself.'

 

Then, more slowly, and with emphasis:

 

'You held their attack. You commanded the regiment through hellish, unheard-of conditions. Thank you, my friend. I embrace you. And I wish you luck.'

 

In the workshops of the Tractor Factory the battle had only just begun. Those who were alive were still alive.

 

House 6/1 was now silent. Not one shot could be heard from the ruins.lt had evidently borne the brunt of the air-attack; the remaining walls had now collapsed and the stone mound had been flattened. The German tanks firing at Podchufarov's battalion were screened by the last remains of the building. What had once been a terrible danger to . the Germans was now a place of refuge.

From a distance the heaps of red brick seemed like chunks of raw, steaming flesh. Grey-green German soldiers were buzzing around the dead building.

 

'You must take command of the regiment," said Byerozkin to  Pivovarov. 'Until today, my superiors have never been satisfied with me. Then, after sitting around all day singing songs, I get Chuykov's thanks and the command of a division. Well, I won't let you off the hook now.'

 

But the Germans were pressing forward. This was no time for pleasantries.