ON the outskirts of the town Gleb had found quarters for us. The house was modest in size, unpainted, smooth and gray from the effects of wind and sun. But its porch and I and window frames were richly carved in elaborate peasant
At the back, stables and barns circled a roomy yard. Here also was the banya, the bathhouse, without which no Russian peasant's is complete, a low building of solid logs, divided into two compart ments.
Gleb gave me a vivid description of the procedure: "These wooden buckets are filled with hot water, and first they scrub themselves clean. See, with these hard brushes. Then they wash their clothes, The peasant never takes his clothes off between baths, from one week to the next. He goes into the steam bath—it's suffocatingly hot there. White clouds of steam from the water thrown on those red- hot stones in the corner over there hang under the ceiling. He stays there till sweat pours from him, and he emerges as clean as a new born babe. Somebody throws a bucket of cold water over him, or he runs out and rolls in the snow." He threw back his head and laughed heartily. "Who dares insinuate the Russian peasant isn't clean? What do you say, Lisa? Shall we ask them to heat it for us?"
We were given two rooms, a small apartment, and to me it seemed the height of luxury. One room, small and dark, had a narrow bed in it, a mere skeleton compared to anything I was used to thinking of as a bed.
Gleb noticed my hesitancy.
"Don't you think our apartment looks cozy?" he asked.
"Of course I do, and we can make it beautiful!" The view from the window was a striking panorama of land and water. "But the bed in there—let's make a bed on the floor in here instead."
"Why? Isn't the bed in there all right?"
I told him I had had enough of hard narrow beds. So I was going to create one with hay, wide and soft. Just wait and see!
The peasant sitting by the window in the kitchen gave Gleb per mission to take from the barn all the hay we wanted. He and his wife came to the door to watch our preparations, standing there silently side by side.
Soon I had a large bulky mattress fashioned out of two blankets held together with safety pins and stuffed with fragrant hay. White sheets on top and then blankets covered the bed; two pillowcases were filled with soft clothing. The result was magnificent. Gleb led our hosts gently away from the door, wished them good night, and closed the door softly behind them.
In the middle of the night I awoke with a start. "Gleb, some thing is crawling on me and biting me!"
"Shush, Lisa, go to sleep."
"But I can't!"
A candle stood on the floor by the bed. I lit it and watched veritable armies of flat brown bedbugs crawling over the white sheets.
"Gleb—bedbugs! Hundreds of them!"
He sat up and looked at me disapprovingly.
"The wife of a soldier who wants to be with him at the front does not bother about such trifles!" With this he turned over and was soon breathing evenly again.
I dared not complain any more, but I could not bring myself to ignore the unpleasant invaders. In a tin can half filled with water I began drowning the bedbugs, one by one. As the sun rose, my flickering candle spluttered and went out, and I fell asleep too tired even to wonder if any of the crawling creatures had escaped my avenging hand.
When Sergei heard about my dreadful experience, he shouted with laughter.
"Didn't you know, Luisa Oskarovna, that bedbugs love the smell of fresh hay?" he teased. I couldn't help laughing too. Although my long acquaintance with bedbugs had only just begun, I never again complained. From that day on, with a never lacking supply of insect powder, I waged battle silently and desperately. In the more doubtful quarters we later came to occupy I always pulled the bed well out from the wall and placed its four legs in large tin cans filled with water.
We left the ornate house the next day and found lodgings in a small white-painted frame house perched high on the cliff above the river. Gleb was able to procure two army cots, a few boards knocked together and resting on two trestles. With them came mattresses and pillows made of rough burlap and filled with fresh straw. It did not take me long to become reconciled to their lack of downy softness, mainly because, being new, they had not yet been discovered by any bloodthirsty bugs.
The base hospital was quartered in a building adjacent to the cathedral. Never having been intended for a hospital, it lacked the traditional connecting corridors. The wards, the emergency room, and the operating room opened directly upon one another. In spite of the rows of low hospital cots filling every available space, the large and lofty wards looked half empty. The front was quiet and there were no patients, and the fresh clean smell of astringents lingered upon the air. Most of the nurses were fugitives from behind the Red lines, who concealed their destitution under ill-fitting surgical gowns tied around their waists with lengths of gauze bandages. Sadness and resignation imprinted upon his bony face, the chief surgeon wore his draped quaintly over his gaunt and stooped figure. But let an emergency occur, and he and his motley staff of nurses sprang into action, a highly coordinated body of efficiency and courage. My appointment as nurse in charge of the British wards conveniently solved the hospital's linguistic problems.
A week after I began work at the hospital, Gleb was ordered to a small village called Vonga, on the other side of the river. There he was to join a party of British officers to assist in the training and instruction of the Russian troops.
Isolated within a maze of wild lonesome forests, marshlands, and tundra, an uninterrupted battle line could not be held and defended.
With the ever present menace of mutiny among troops of wavering allegiance and with the river the only link with the rear, the situation at the Pinega front was at best precarious. Under these conditions the prospect of another parting swept away my happiness over our reunion, and fears for Gleb's safety assailed me anew. Premonitions beset me and the purpose of my being in Pinega was lost. All I asked was to remain dose to Gleb, for as long as we were together, shared dangers held no terror.
"Gleb, let me come with you!"
"But your work, your hospital, your patients! Without your work you have no legitimate reason for being here, Lisa."
"I know. And I've no intention of giving up my work. But Gleb, Vonga is just across the river. Let's keep this room, and you'll have a room over there also. And it'll be very simple for me to go over there whenever I'm off duty."
Gleb wouldn't hear of it. "Four versts across the island and two rivers to cross! How do you suppose you'll get to the hospital in time in the morning? Besides, it's dangerous for women to be so close to the front. A riot in the village next to Vonga a month ago took several lives. Lisa, it's impossible!"
The mention of the riot lost him the battle. I persuaded him to let us try the scheme with a solemn promise that should I not be able to make it to the hospital on time in the morning, I would stay in Pinega without demur. And with that I began packing some things together, ignoring the glint in his eyes, half pleased, half resigned, which he tried hard to hide.
Once again we were to inhabit a Russian peasant's home. It stood in a row of similar houses on the brow of the bank high above the eastern arm of the river. From the eight small windows of our room we looked out upon the two rivers encircling the island, Pinega in the distance, all against the backdrop of the strongly etched black line of the somber northern forest. It was like living in a watch- tower overlooking this land of witchery and kaleidoscopic color changes.
The room itself, on the top floor, reached by a creaking stairway at the side of the house, was charming in its simplicity and hominess. Chairs, bed, wall-fast bench beneath the windows, and the table in front of it were painted blood-red. The backs of the chairs and the ends of the bed were decorated with carved hearts. In one corner, dose up under the ceiling, an ancient icon shed faint glints of old gold from its madonna face.
The hearth, the mainstay of every rural Russian household, stood out from the north wall almost to the middle of the room. A monster of white-limed stone and mortar, it was a versatile utility without equal. Large log fires lit in the cavernous low oven transmitted to the massive stonework heat that lasted for hours. And after the dying embers and ashes had been removed, all the food could be prepared there and kept warm, huge bowls of borsch, delicious thick meat pies. In winter a specially constructed place on top of the hearth provided warm sleeping quarters for all the members of the family.
Although there was no need for heat now in the summer and all our cooking was done outside over campfires, the hearth played an important role in our lives. Every day, on Gleb's insistence, we practiced emergency drills and used it as a barricade. He figured that if a riot broke out, we would take cover behind its enormous solid bulk and thus be able to defend ourselves until help arrived or our ammunition ran out.
The back of the room opened on a hayloft, which was simply a layer of planks placed across the beams of the stable below where cows, horses, grunting pigs, and chickens lived. Empty until harvest- time, the loft ended abruptly a few feet from the wall, leaving an opening through which fodder was thrown down to the cattle. Here too the indoor lavoratory was located, a slit cut in the planks that emptied into a convenient corner of the stable.
The peasant, his wife, and their well-mannered and industrious children lived in the summer in the room below ours. We saw little of them. They worked from the early dawn through the late evening, brown-baked and antlike, wrestling from the soil the hard-earned supplies that were to last them and their animals through the long winter. They ignored the war; whether their land was occupied by Red or White troops was of little concern to them.
At five each morning, the wife, smiling a cheery good morning, brought in a singing samovar trailing a light stream of vapor and smoke. I had little time to spare. I brewed tea and put the teapot on top of the samovar, dropped a couple of eggs into the boiling water, and breakfast was soon ready. At seven it was time for me to leave.
"Can you manage, Lisa?" Gleb inquired anxiously when he saw from die window that the ferryman had not arrived at the dock yet.
I assured him I would be all right, that I was getting quite good at maneuvering the single oar in the stern of the rowboat. Halfway down the cliff I turned and saw Gleb at the window, watching me. I blew him a kiss and ran down to the landing. Poling the boat out into the stream, I began to push the oar furiously back and forth. But the current was fast, and in spite of all my maneuvering it carried me almost a quarter of a mile past the opposite landing. I left the boat where it was for somebody else to retrieve. At this hour the countryside was deserted and I had the road and the soft sands and the morning breezes all to myself.
On the return trip in the late afternoon the traffic was lively, winding columns of troops, clanking artillery, and trains of mule teams moving across to the forward positions. I got a ride on a rattling mule wagon, but this was of little advantage because much time was lost when the balky animals held up the ferry at the crossing below Vonga.
When at last I ran up the creaky stairs to our room, Gleb was already home waiting for me. Eagerly he told me his impressions of the day's events while I prepared supper. He liked to work with the British officers. He admired their nonchalant courage, their military competence, but most of all their sportsmanship. To Gleb the matter of trust was paramount, and he got on well with them.
For supper that evening we had porridge cooked over the fires the Russian soldiers had built in long trenches. It was one of those magic evenings when another brilliant sunset drenched the whole sky and the land in vivid golds and saffrons, and the thin bluish ringlets of smoke from the fires drifted into the color-burnished air.
After supper we wandered along the dusty village road skirting the high cliff above the river. Just a few houses beyond ours was the Russian officers' mess.
The captain in command of the company rose from the table where half a dozen officers sat with their glasses of clear tea and charmingly welcomed us.
"Milosti prosim!" There was a moment's confusion while they got us seated in the most comfortable chairs.
Gradually, inevitably, the conversation turned from workaday mat ters and the latest news from the White fronts of Denikin and Kol chak to prewar Russia, the Russia of beautiful women and wild parties, the Russia of the Cossacks and the Tatars and the patient muzhiks and the fantastic revolutionaries. Presently the men began to sing, the wistful stirring tunes never far from Russian lips, songs of wild exuberance and hopeless nostalgia. Why should these Russian songs, the deepest, most eloquent expressions of the Russian heart, always be so filled with sadness? Why should they carry such a penetrating sense of gloom, darkening all gaiety, all passion, all love and happiness?
"Child, do not reach for the roses in the spring, but hasten, h to gather the violets! When summer comes the violets are gone!"
"Coachman, don't urge your horses on! My beloved has left me and I've nowhere to go."
Gleb took up the well-known stanzas of a student drinking song and with eyes flashing and young voices laughing defiance at an evil destiny the others join in the rousing chorus:
"Pour out the wine, comrade, God only knows what will happen to us in the future!"
As the shadows began to lengthen, Gleb and I said good night to our friendly hosts and went out into the deepening twilight. Silently we walked home on the high road. In the west the sun was about to disappear like a glowing ball that sent a blushing shimmer to touch each fleecy cloud above the horizon.
The refrain of the drinking song kept ringing in my ears, repeating itself again and again, and made my heart ache with sudden appre hension. Nearer to home a bugle sounded taps. And then through the evening stillness came a chorus of men's voices, strangely muted and mellow. It was the Russian soldiers chanting their evening prayers, the notes melting together like droplets in a mist.
"Our Father, which art in heaven..."
Beautiful! We stood there listening until the chanting ceased. I pressed Gleb's arm closer to me. Then we climbed the creaking stairs to our room and gently closed the door behind us.
The summer wore on toward September. Rumors began to circ ulate that the Allies were preparing to leave the northern fronts. The news took us by surprise. We could not believe it. Yet appar ently it was true. The renowned British Field Marshal Henry Rawlinson had already arrived in Archangel to carry out the evacuation.
How could this have come about? It seemed incomprehensible. Just a few months ago Gleb and I had stood in the window on the Troitsky Prospekt and watched the debarkation of reinforcements for the British Expeditionary Forces. They had come marching up from the quay through the town with flashes of white stars on blue dia monds on their shoulders, bagpipes skirling and drumsticks forcefully whirling. The white stars had seemed emblematic of crusaders come to the deliverance of Russia , and the success of the counter revolutionary forces had seemed very close at hand, almost certain. But now, with their task far from accomplished, the Allies were departing, leaving the White Russian forces to their own devices.
"The British Labour party has demanded the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Russia ," Gleb told me, shrugging his shoulders.
"Then far better if they'd never come at all!"
Characteristically, momentous events like these always found Gleb with a reserve of strength. He simply redeployed his defenses.
"And the others, the Americans and the French?"
"One leaves, they all go. Probably a few foreign volunteers may remain."
This politics was incomprehensible. So long as it had not kept us apart, I had not thought of it much. But suddenly it posed a threat to us. And those undefinable premonitions? Was this the beginning of an end?
"From the military point of view, we've got three alternatives," Gleb said. "Either we abandon the northern fronts and transfer our men and equipment to other fronts, or we give up Archangel and concentrate our forces on the Murman front, or we continue to be supplied and supported from overseas and fight to the bitter end. The decision rests with General Miller and his staff."
"What would you do?"
Gleb smiled. "Our opinion is seldom asked. We only obey orders." He paused for a moment. "It seems to me we're far too weak to hold these extended fronts through the wilderness and at the same time make any significant gains. Our troops are so unre liable." He sighed. It was a shameful confession. It was a bitter truth. Suppose there were a mutiny at Pinega, on the Kotlas front, at Onega, a breakthrough on any front! There was only the Arctic Ocean at our backs.
"I'm thinking, Lisa, that the wisest thing would be to give up Archangel and establish a strong front along the Murman railroad. Sergei is of the same opinion. But that also involves great risks— a tight corner with far-extended supply lines."
What about Kolchak? What about the need for the Pinega front to penetrate eastward for the linkup with the Siberian White armies? Gleb thought it more important, indeed more feasible, to take Petro grad from the north than from Estonia in the south.
"But I'm partial. I'm thinking of Marie and Tsarskoe Selo, and how I'd like to be there when it falls into our hands, our capital. You understand what it would mean to our cause to recapture Petro grad ?" He hadn't needed to say it—his feelings were eloquently reflected in his eyes and in the clutching of his hands.
"The decision will be known very soon, and whatever it is, I'll stay with our army. That one thing is inevitable, you understand that, Lisa?" He looked at me searchingly. "But you can leave with the Allies. You're absolutely free to go. Never, never forget that! It might perhaps be better for both of us if you left. Lisa, do you wish to go?"
Had it not been for an almost imperceptible inflection in his voice, I might have had greater difficulty separating the kernel from the chaff when making this momentous decision. As it was, I recognized immediately not only Gleb's innermost wish, but the imminent divi sion of the road ahead. And, as once before, I did not feel the slightest doubt about which choice to make.
"I've only one wish, to stay with you. You know that—you know that." My voice was high and shrill in my eagerness to convince him I had never uttered a greater truth.
Gleb sighed. In his eyes a smile dawned and spread like a sunrise across his whole face.
"Yes, Lisa, I know."
One evening a few days later I returned to Vonga slightly delayed after a heavy day at the hospital. Gleb was not at home. This was unusual. Ordinarily he was resting on the bed when I arrived home. The wound in his hip sometimes bothered him, it swelled and ached from too much exertion. I wandered about the room for a while, feeling a bit uneasy. Then my eyes fell upon a note lying on the table.
"Darling," it read, "go back to Pinega and stay there until I return. Keep in dose contact with Sergei, he'll look after you, and don't ask any questions. Please don't worry. Gleb."
Now what had happened? Don't worry, he said. How could I help worrying? Where was he? My head swam. Preparations for an attack? A patrol behind the lines? That was it! He had often spoken of these daring patrols far behind the enemy lines, recon naissance, feeling out enemy positions. I could never share the thrill of excitement that made Gleb's eyes shine when he spoke of them. What if something happened to him? Would they bring him back? Oh, God, let him be wounded and not dead!
The next morning I got up tired from sleeplessness and stumbled down the cliff to the river. This time I did not look back, for there was no one standing at the window waving, watching me with loving concern. The beauty of the rivers, the tang of the crisp morning air as I walked across the island were wasted on me. At the hospital I performed my duties mechanically, absentmindedly.
After supper I went in search of Sergei. Blithely disregarding Gleb's admonitions not to ask any questions, I begged him to tell me where Gleb was. Sergei was attached to the Russian headquarters, so he should know. But he shook his head.
"Come for a walk, Luisa Oskarovna. Let's walk along the cliffs and look out over the rivers." He took my arm. "Now look at it! It's beautiful, isn't it? Especially like this in the evening, with all the colors of the sunset. I often come here."
With my heart heavy and troubled, I walked along with him a bit unwillingly, seeing nothing.
"Where is he, Sergei? Tell me! If I knew, I wouldn't worry."
"I cannot tell you." His voice was soft and very sincere.
"But Sergei, that's cruel!"
"War is cruel, Luisa Oskarovna."
Sergei's soft sympathetic voice momentarily soothed the pain of my uncertainty. Had he urged me to be courageous, I would have screamed and run away from him.
"Is it decided yet what they are going to do when the Allies leave?" This was a safe question. What did it really matter? What did anything matter except Gleb's safety?
"We're staying in Archangel ." There was no need for him to say he disapproved; the tone of his voice, the expression on his face told me only too plainly, but for some reason I persisted:
"You don't approve?"
Sergei shrugged. Perhaps, then, he had already reached his own decision. But at the moment my anxiety about Gleb crowded out all thought of the significance of military maneuvers.
The days passed. Had Gleb only hinted at the kind of mission he was being sent on, I could have borne the uncertainty better. Military secrecy meant nothing to me. The necessity of it entirely escaped me, or, perhaps more truthfully, I refused to acknowledge it. It appeared to me an exasperating means of tormenting people who, after all, had a right to know what was happening to their loved ones.
I walked past the British headquarters, then suddenly turned about and went in.
"Captain White, my husband has been gone four days and I know nothing. Please tell me where he is."
"Kirilin is safe. Don't worry about him."
Was he with Major Collins and Captain McLeod? I asked. If I knew this, I would have a better idea of what was involved. Captain White rose from his chair and took my hand. His smile was warm and understanding. "I want you to take my word, Kirilin is well. And if anything should happen to him, I promise, we'll let you know at once."
So Gleb was working in close contact with the British—whatever consolation that was! But it did give me some relief, some confidence. I had the highest opinion of their officers' skill and courage. And they were dependable. They would never abandon a comrade. Come to think of it, the three men Gleb had worked with at Vonga had disappeared at the same time as he.
After that, I gradually succeeded in training my thoughts away from my gnawing anxiety, at least while I was at the hospital, al though the hours on duty dragged, for there was so little to do. Most of the patients were ambulatory. Still, the few that required full
care gave me back some of the undiluted joys of nursing, of com petence and skill, of the ability to cope with emergencies. This at last helped to release the grip of abnormal self-absorption into which I had fallen.
Sergei came to see me almost every evening after supper. He sat down by the table where I was occupied with my eternal solitaire. He looked at me quizzically. Then, abruptly, he pushed all the cards together.
"No more cards for tonight, and that's an order. Come on, we're going to have a cup of tea at the club. And let's talk about things! Tell me, Luisa Oskarovna, what's your opinion on free love?"
He burst out laughing. I had an opinion, of course, but he had taken me by surprise. In vain I searched for the right words to express my thoughts in Russian. Again we laughed at his joking challenge and my confusion. His efforts to cheer me up were irresistible.
Great crises often foreshorten time and distill experience. And during this difficult period I gained a startling insight into an unusually versatile, uncommonly warm, and nobly self-confident character. Sergei was incomparable. He would juggle before me all kinds of farfetched topics until I was carried away by his sparkling wit. Or I would sit listening fascinated while he spoke of his cherished subjects, Russian literature, the arts, the history of Russia , learning about this land that he so aptly and vividly represented. A man of complete loyalty, like Gleb, he was modeled upon the best and the purest of the Russian character, in love with the beautiful, the gay, and the simplicities of heart, mellowed even in his most reckless and sarcastic moods by the inevitable Slavic melancholy.
When Gleb had been gone two weeks, it became evident that things were moving toward a decisive battle at the front. And one morning when the airplanes began zooming overhead at daybreak, we realized that the battle was joined. The objective, it was rumored, was to occupy a certain important point farther up the river. Then the big guns began to speak, distant booming noises, now louder, now dying away, and sometimes in the lulls the angry sputterings of machine guns. This went on all day and the suspense became a dull ache.
At the hospital we were all at our posts, waiting for the wounded to be brought in. I peered into the faces of the other nurses as we moved about silently; faces full of anxiety for the safety of loved ones, tense and expectant.
Toward evening the wounded began coming in, and for a while we became very busy. But the stream ended quickly, so quickly that we became uneasy. Had the great advance, the significant break* through petered out prematurely?
"Have you seen Lieutenant Kirilin?" I whispered to everyone who I thought might know. But the answer was always the same: "No, sisteritsa, I haven't seen him."
I went looking for Sergei, but I could not find him. The hospital was the only place where I could bear to be, when kept busy while I waited. I stayed at the hospital night.
The next few days crept by. All seemed to have returned to normal at the front, and still no word about Gleb.
"Where is he, Sergei?" I asked in desperation when he in the evening. "Why didn't he come back with the others? The battle's over, what has happened?"
But Sergei would not or could not tell me. The cards flew through my hands down upon the table. My anxiety was so absorbing that I could not even listen to Sergei. And when he left I was relieved.
The time was approaching for the evacuation of the British forces from the Pinega front, and still Gleb had not come home. Would he ever come back? I made up my mind that I would wait here in Pinega until I found out what had happened to him. And with that decision my anxiety slowly drained from me, and I waited passively, moving my hands with hardly a thought, dressing wounds, changing pillows, making beds.
The gray light of the northern dawn came through the windows and outlined them mistily. A sound intruded upon my dream. I woke with a start from a fitful sleep. I heard the click of the gate. I sat up in bed. Footsteps crunched upon the graveled path. I rushed to the window.
In an instant I was outside. He came toward me, dragging his feet in his big boots, grasping his rifle by the muzzle and dragging it along the pathway. His face was gray and drawn under a week-old beard; his eyes were red-rimmed. His uniform hung upon him stiff with caked mud.
"I'm back, Lisa, exhausted." His voice was dry, harsh with fatigue. In that moment all my anxieties of the past weeks were forgotten, all the burning questions, even the incredible joy of his safe return. For the love that had grown with the agonies of suspense craved only to prove itself in tender service.