Journey to the Front
The steamer was crowded with people. Peasants returning from a trip to the city squatted on their bundles, shrinking into the corners in their effort to occupy as small a space as possible. Their long hair was trimmed in an even bob around their leathery necks and from their low seats they sent furtive glances at their fel low passengers. There were also many soldiers in Russian and Allied uniforms, and the expressions on their faces suggested relief at returning to the restraining influence of military discipline after a few days of tumultuous leave. Some smartly turned-out British officers held themselves aloof, their short sticks tucked under their arms, while harassed canteen officials hurried to and fro, worried about late deliveries and unexpected shortages.
It was difficult to find a place to sit. I finally discovered a narrow corner to squeeze into and deposited my roll of blankets there.
It was long past midnight when we finally arrived at Ust' Pinega. In peacetime only an insignificant village, this was now a divisional point at the confluence of the Dvina and Pinega rivers, an important depot of reserve troops and supplies, serving both the main front in the south and the northeastern front of Pinega.
Upon disembarking I wandered in the unfamiliar clearing near the dock in search of the Military Control Post. The slopes toward the river were dotted with military tents gleaming white in the light of the full moon. At last I spotted the tent I was looking for. I raised the flap and found two British soldiers reclining on their s leeping bags, hardly distinguishable in the hazy obscurity of cigarette smoke and a dimly burning oil lamp.
I gave the sergeant my identification papers and asked when the boat for Pinega was expected to leave.
"Oh, sometime tomorrow—or the day after," he answered.
And could they suggest a place to stay?
The sergeant shrugged. "Don't know, lady, I'm sure. Perhaps in the village—if you can find your way there." The village, he said, was beyond the encampment some distance from the river. Meanwhile I was granted permission to leave most of my baggage in their tent, where I figured it would be comparatively safe.
The trail along the river, which I hoped would lead me to the village, was sandy and soft underfoot, and the moon illuminated my path. As I walked I heard voices, educated English voices. Relying on the respect commanded by my Red Cross uniform, I accosted the late wanderers. Did they know by any chance where I could stay until the boat for Pinega was due to leave?
The two stopped in their tracks and eyed me quizzically. One was in the uniform of a naval officer; the other was in pajamas, which somewhat dismayed me, with a trench coat flung loosely over his shoulders. Perhaps, as the day had been very hot, he had been taking a moonlight dip in the river.
The naval officer smiled at me. "Of course, madam, please con sider my cabin yours for the rest of the night. Our hospital ship is moored not far from here." Had I felt the slightest hesitation about accepting the offer, it vanished completely at the mention of the hospital ship.
The ship, which proved to be the Mesopotamia , looked like a large clumsy shadow upon the moonlit water as it rode at anchor offshore. A long gangplank extended across pontoons from the riverbank to the ship. We crossed a covered deck that accommodated about a dozen men sleeping on high cots to a cabin at its far end. The mahogany wainscoting of the cabin and the wide berth across the wall opposite the door gave me an impression of comfort and space, almost elegance.
It was late, nearly 2:00 A.M. I stood for a moment, waiting for my newfound benefactors to leave. But they lingered.
"Sit down and make yourself at home." The first mate's voice was distinctly impatient. "Here!" and he produced from his pocket a bottle of whisky and set it down heavily on the spindly table. "Have a drink."
I declined. The two men mixed themselves stiff drinks in tooth brush glasses. The time passed interminably while they drank, and the conversation lagged. I watched the whisky bottle getting emptier and emptier. At last the naval officer, flushed and a bit unsteady, left the cabin, leaving me alone with the man in pajamas.
He sat down beside me on the bed. A brief awkward silence followed. Suddenly he leaned toward me, his flushed face dose to mine.
"I love you," he whispered hoarsely, and the smell of whisky came full in my face.
Only then the meaning of the whole thing struck me—the offer of the cabin, the whisky, the departure of one of the men.
Slowly I drew back. His bloodshot eyes met mine, and I saw his expression change. He sat bolt upright on the edge of the bed.
"I—beg—your—par-don!" The words came slowly, with empha sis on each syllable. Then he rose, stood briefly at attention, and was gone.
The tension suddenly relieved, I still felt doubtful. Should I stay? Could I find another bed? I was so tired! I locked the cabin door, took off my dress, and lay down on top of the bed.
The rattling of the door awakened me. I stumbled out of bed, still half asleep, and grabbed the handle of the shaking door. Outside a voice roared:
"Who the hell'sh in my cabin? Open up, you damned fool!"
The door shook and creaked. Wide awake now, I held on to the shaking door with one hand while with the other I struggled into my dress. I flung open the door in the face of the cursing first mate. The beam of his flashlight struck my eyes. Enraged, I slapped it out of his hand and it flew clattering along the deck. Outside, I pushed the man back into the cabin and he fell on the disheveled bed, curses dribbling from his lips. I banged the door shut on the ugly sight.
The noise of the fracas awakened the sleeping men and one of them raised himself on his elbow. A burst of loud laughter followed me as I strode across the deck toward the gangplank.
The rest of the night I spent in the woods under the open sky. On a bushy bough above my head my white veil hung suspended as a warning of inviolable occupation. The voices of soldiers in the
distance occasionally disturbed my rest, but no one discovered my place of refuge. Soon neither fear for my safety nor the discomfort of my bed could keep me from sleep.
The next morning I went in search of the captain of the Mesopotamia. I discovered him striding up and down the bridge with the grace of a great cat. A red beard encircled his ruddy face. As he listened to my story, a smile began to play in his piercing blue eyes and spread to his wide mouth.
"And what would you propose I do with this man?"
I felt my temper reddening my cheeks.
"Madam, it's for you to say."
"No, Captain, it's for you to act!" And with these words I turned and walked off his bridge.
The small river boat for Pinega departed the next afternoon, earlier than expected. Laboriously it made its way out into the broad Dvina , pulling at the end of two taut hawsers a pair of barges, majestically broad-beamed and inert, loaded to their gunwales with artillery, men, and mules. We rounded the point and then headed into the nar rower Pinega.
In a quandary about where to put down my bedroll, I was glad when two Englishmen came to my assistance—one a British naval officer known as Cheerio, the other a lieutenant in charge of canteens. They ordered a cot set up for me in a secluded corner of the canvas- covered afterdeck. Chairs and tables were brought up, and during the two-day voyage this became a place of pleasant sociability, where passengers and ship's officers gathered.
I became absorbed watching the northern Russian landscape pass slowly in review. The somber virgin forest pushing right down to the steep riverbanks hung over the edges like scalloped green draperies. In some places erosion had created tall cliffs, some of red sandstone, others gleaming white, and their images were mirrored upside down in the black oily-smooth water. Here and there less spectacular vistas opened in the forest where collections of small gray houses snuggled in sheltered bends of the river. The farther inland our convoy penetrated, the greater the distances between these peopled nests.
The front between the Red and White lines was fluid and stretched along the river slightly beyond the town of Pinega. Each village on either side was protected by fortifications and garrisoned by an occupying detachment of Russian or Allied troops. Between the villages large areas, sometimes for distances of thirty to forty miles, were no man's land. And here Reds and Whites struggled for dominance, each conducting daring patrols with small mobile detachments of picked men far into each other's territory. Shielded from recon naissance planes by the dense forest, these patrols crept upon each other along hidden trails and in the quagmires of spongy swamps fought their desperate battles.
Sometimes Red patrols, penetrating to the river, staged surprise attacks upon the villages. On such occasions convoys plying the waterway were often ambushed and forced to run the gauntlet of enemy machine-gun fire pouring from the riverbanks. The transport preceding ours had been attacked in this way.
Another danger to navigation was the constantly shifting sandbars. The man in the bow with his long sounding rod called out the changing depth of the river in a singsong voice. On one occasion the ship actually ran aground.
"What a convenient opportunity for the enemy!" Cheerio remarked dryly as with a rolling sailor's gait he betook himself to the bridge. Every man was hastily ordered overboard and, thus lightened, the ship soon cleared the bar and was on its way.
On the evening of the second day the winding river brought us within sight of Pinega. High on top of the white cliff the low weather-beaten houses of the town surrounded like gnomes the golden-crowned cathedral. A sunset of rare beauty illuminated the scene, painting the high clouds in vivid hues of gold and orange, imperceptibly shading into carmines and ochers. And at the foot of the cliffs the river, divided, encompassed like two arms of molten gold a dark-green island.
Gleb and Sergei stood waiting for me at the dock. To celebrate my arrival, Sergei played the host. And that night a new and strangely charming Sergei revealed himself. Gone was the mocking insolence, and spontaneously the two men included me in their friendship with a warmth of welcome and affection I had never dreamed possible. The world seemed to me bright and beautiful as the dangers of the war and the risks we now shared appeared unreal and remote.
"This time," Gleb boasted, "I've found a room for you to live in, Lisa! And good news, I've just been named liaison officer to the British command. This means the possibility of a day's leave to morrow. So when you go to report at the hospital I'll go with you, and perhaps we can both get the day off before you start to work. Another day to ourselves! Would it please you, Lisa?" He took my hand in both of his and kissed it.
I was rapidly learning to discover the modest flowers blooming by the wayside and to pluck them, one by one.