Henri Troyat: So many men killed, so many towns burned…for a telegram
From While the Earth Endures (1947)
Translated by David Hapgood
Namikai was silent. Akim cast about for another question to ask him. “Tell me, Namikai,” he resumed, “do you have any family?”
“Who doesn’t have a family, Your Nobility? Of course I have a family. I left them back there. I sent word, and everyone is satisfied.”
“Aren’t you in a hurry to get back to them?”
“Do we have a right to be in a hurry? Our job is to obey. The great Lord said to the Tsar, and the Tsar said to the generals, and the generals said to the officers, and the officers said to the Cossacks, ‘This and that has to be done. As long as it isn’t done, you can’t go home.’ So we have to work fast, so the Cossacks can say to the officers, and the officers to the generals, and the generals to the Tsar, and the Tsar to the good Lord, ‘It’s done. We’ve killed so many men and burned so many towns. Now everything is quiet. It’s time to go home.'”
“And you think peace will come soon? asked Akim.
“There won’t be any peace,” said Namikai.
“Then there will always be war?”
“There won’t be any war.”
“Then what will there be?”
“There will be a telegram,” said Namikai with knowing gravity.
While Akim was unwillingly answering their questions, a young officer arrived on horseback. His face was dripping with sweat and his eyes were wide with excitement. He shouted hoarsely.
“What did you say, Buratov?” asked the officer next to Akim.
Buratov jumped from his horse and stopped to enter the tent. The others were silent in anxious expectation. The young officer threw his helmet on the ground and said, “Gentlemen, peace has been signed.”
Akim felt a great weight settle on his shoulders. “What do you mean?” he exclaimed.
“Peace, my friends,” Buratov repeated as he sat down on a box. “I just read the official telegram.”
Akim lowered his eyes. He felt tired and unhappy, angry at someone and too weak to express his anger. There was a lugubrious silence in the tent. The young officers stared at their feet, unable to look each other in the eyes, as if they were at a death watch. Finally a voice asked carefully, “Are their conditions acceptable?”
“No conditions are acceptable,” said Buratov. “In signing the peace treaty, we’re admitting our defeat. We’re going home beaten.”
“That’s better than not going home at all,” murmured another.
“You’re not worth to be an officer!” Barked an old captain with gray mustaches. He blew his nose loudly.
“Here is a copy of the telegram,” said Buratov.
Akim strode slowly out of the tent. Suddenly he thought of Namikai – “There will be no peace. There will be no war. There will be a telegram.” Namikai was right. Why had he not lived to see the telegram arrive? So much blood spilled, so much heroism and sacrifice wasted…