In No Man's Land
Gleb required several days to recover from his deep exhaustion. His patrol had traversed dense forests, bogs. They had slept in wet clothes through the chilly nights of the burned-out summer. They had ambushed enemy their tightly knit group had successfully penetrated some behind enemy lines. Gleb had required all his tenacity and determination to keep up with his hardier companions. The long years spent in the German prison camps had drained from his system the resilience needed for prolonged exertion. But the lives of them had depended upon the stamina and the grit of each, and alone had prevented him from reaching the breaking point.
We returned to Vonga, this time for less than a week. The British were leaving and Gleb's duties as liaison officer were ending, the last evening the British officers invited us to their mess in next village for a farewell supper.
The night was dull and a fine drizzle fell as we walked across the stubbled fields separating the two villages. Darkness came earlier now, and with it a warning of the impending fall. The northern summer with its magic white nights and its accelerated growth of leaf, flower, and seed had passed by all too quickly and a presentiment of dissolution, a disquietude about future events filtered into our mood.
In the bright warmth of the mess hall a chorus of gay voices greeted us. The joyous prospect of the departure for home, mixed with good drinks, put everybody in high spirits. Gleb's friends started to ply him with questions about his plans, half seriously, half jokingly trying to persuade him to leave Russia with them.
The colonel, a pleasant man named Hargraves, turned to me smilingly. "I hope you and Kirilin have given serious consideration to the opportunity you have of leaving with us. Your husband should not hesitate. He doesn't need to worry about the future, his place among us is assured."
What a wonderful prospect—security and Gleb's military proficiency recognized! "But," I told him, "General Miller has decided to stay in Archangel , and under these circumstances Gleb will not leave."
The colonel gave me a long thoughtful look. "It's unsafe to remain here," he said quietly.
Supper was announced. A festive table had been laid. Three lighted candles reflected the subdued highlights of coarse army cutlery and chipped chinaware. Gleb leaned forward and blew out one of the candles, and then stood rigid, his cheeks flushed, contrite apology in his eyes.
"Three candles are lighted only around a coffin," he said softly. The gay murmur of voices hushed. Someone removed the extinct candle and a draft of chilly air ran through the warm room.
McFee's gay voice broke the awkward silence. "Aye, you superstitious Russian!" he exclaimed, swatting Gleb on the shoulder. "Three on a match, three candles, eh, Kirilin?"
Gleb smiled. "And yet," he mused, "perhaps . . ."
But the laughter and the din of voices drowned out his words. He shrugged, grasped the mug by his plate, raised it high, and started to sing a refrain of the student drinking song:
"Pour out the wine, comrade, God only knows what will happen to us in the future!"
His young voice rang warm and fearless and the others joined in the refrain. No one knew the words, but the roar of their chorus filled the room.
The next day a letter arrived from Zinaida Andreyevna. "At last we also have come to Archangel ," she wrote. "My husband is on General Miller's staff and I am going to organize a hospital of my own here. I wish you were here to help me. I am so anxious to see you. I have so many greetings to you from your mother and all your friends. I hope we shall see each other very soon."
How I longed to sec her and hear all the news about Mother and Tante Jessy! I could hardly wait to get home to tell Gleb. Minutes later I perched on the arm of his chair. A thought flashed through my mind. Did he think we could possibly get two weeks' leave and go to Archangel ? We had both been working hard these last months and he in particular needed a rest. Afterward, full of restored energy, we would return here for the winter.
I hoped silently, fervently that if we could go, something would happen to prevent us from coming back to Pinega. The prospect of the cold weather, the deep snow, the hardships of winter warfare in this godforsaken relentless wilderness disturbed me. Yet even so, Pinega's terrible isolation and odd beauty held a mysterious fascination, and this was also part of the reason for Gleb's wish to stay here. This was Russia ! I knew it to be true.
Gleb sat silent. If we could get leave, perhaps the British would allow us to travel with them when they pulled out. Why not try? We would soon be back here again, rested and fresh.
I waited for him to speak, hoping that his lingering fatigue might weigh in favor of my proposal. For many minutes he sat silent. I thought he had not heard what I said.
But at length he spoke: "Perhaps you're right, but I hate to ask for it." He looked at me as if begging indulgence. There was another prolonged pause before he said slowly, "But—I think we'll ask for leave!"
Without difficulty the Russian command granted us two weeks' leave. But the British ruling—no women aboard troopships— threatened to dash our hopes of going with them. On the basis of my service in care of their sick and wounded, we appealed the ruling. Nobody could tell when the next opportunity might come. It was now or never.
The morning dawned when the British were to leave. Gleb, who by this time was as keen to get away as I was, told me to wait at the hospital while he took our baggage to the dock. He could not believe that Collins, McLeod, and McFee would desert him at the last moment. The British were to leave at eleven. The clock struck ten, and still there was no word from Gleb. Too late, too late! The words kept ringing in my ears, and with each minute that ticked away, hope faded.
"You're wanted at the entrance!"
I rushed out. A British orderly handed me a note. It read: "In recognition of your services to the British Army, General Langford herewith grants permission for Sister Louise Kirilina to travel with the British Headquarters to the village of Ludovaya ."
As we stood on the dock waiting for orders to embark, my feelings of relief mingled strangely with regret. Would we return to this crisply chaste land where Gleb and I had experienced some of our most enchanting days of deepening intimacy? Indelibly imprinted on my memory was the room in Vonga with its red hearts, the sunsets over the twin rivers seen from its windows, a fantastic landscape of shifting colors. Unforgettable the soldiers' mellow chanting in the evenings, the changing emotions tearing at the heart, the luster of blossoming friendships in a life almost too stark and demanding. Would we come back?
Sergei was there at the dock, and he smiled as he held my hand in his warm left-handed grasp. "So you made it, Luisa Oskarovna!" There was no trace of censure in his voice, but I knew what he meant.
"Perhaps we'll be back." But Sergei knew better and he shook his head.
We went aboard and the boat cast off. With its railings crowded with Tommies singing, whistling, shouting, it drifted slowly on the current into the river. The engines started up. The last we saw of Pinega was Sergei, the bearded Muscovite, standing erect and strong, with the upside-down reflection of Pinega's white cliffs and its white cathedral, fatalistic and aloof in its brooding isolation, at his feet.
By nightfall the transport made fast at Ludovaya, where we were to disembark. The possibility of a surprise Bolshevik attack required every move to be hushed and hurried. Along the protracted spy-infested front line the departure of the British could scarcely have remained a secret.
Gleb was traveling in the capacity of a courier. The night was moonless and he was set on continuing down the line under the cover of darkness. We hurried into the village in search of the elder. We found him asleep and Gleb mercilessly aroused him. The old gentleman's annoyance at being thus rudely disturbed became awed subservience when he realized Gleb's authority.
"A horse and a cart at once, please!" Gleb demanded curtly.
"Where do I find them, your honor?" His watery eyes peering abjectly from under bushy brows.
"Find them, little dove, at once!"
"Yes, your honor, at once. But it will be hard to persuade anyone to drive so far in the dark, very difficult, your honor."
"How far is it to the next village?"
"More than twenty versts. Very dangerous to travel at night," the old man insisted.
"Quick, be off with you, Grandad, I'm in a hurry!"
The old man shuffled to the door.
"I said hurry up!" Gleb shouted after him.
A short while later wheels crunched on the gravel outside. The old man appeared at the door.
"A muzhik and a telega at your service!" He bowed. A relieved look came into his eyes as Gleb pressed a few coins into his wrinkled hand.
We got into the basket-like vehicle. Made of slabs joined together by pliant roots, it was filled with fragrant hay and rested without springs upon the low axles. We covered up with blankets, for the night was chilly. The muzhik, his jovial round face fringed with a shaggy beard, rode sideways upon his lean pony, his sheep skin coat falling like a mantle over its rump.
"Get going!" Gleb urged him impatiently. Kicking the horse into an unwilling trot, the rider bounced upon his rough-gaited steed and our carriage rattled down the village lane. Heavy rains had fallen and promise of more rain hung in the air. The roads were soft and muddy, full of water-filled ruts. Heedless of the rider's kicks, the horse soon slowed to a walk.
Beyond the village the forest took over and tall trees edged the narrow road. Here darkness dosed in upon us, impenetrable, tangible like the vaulted walls of a cave. For fear of attracting the attention of the enemy we dared show no light. The coachman trusted the horse's instinct to find the road.
Gleb trusted neither the darkness nor the peasant. I could feel him fumbling for his revolver. He drew it from the holster. Our eyes ached from the intense effort to see in the darkness. The cart jolted in the ruts, the horse clopped through the mud, and the water in the puddles splashed high up on the animal's legs and belly, cold and wet.
Suddenly the horse stopped. "A bridge, your honor!" shouted the peasant over his shoulder. "Maybe it's down!"
"Shut up!" Gleb admonished him sternly, and in a whisper: "Get off and find out."
I felt Gleb's muscles tighten. What if the man had driven us into an ambush? For several minutes he was gone in the darkness. At last we heard the muted sound of footsteps, and then his shadowy form disengaged itself from the obscurity.
"It's not down," he hissed, and his small eyes twinkled like distant stars in his hirsute face.
"All right," Gleb whispered back. "Let's get going, quickly! Lead the horse across the bridge. How far still to go?"
"Ten versts, your honor."
We jolted across the battered bridge and then down on the road again, lurching, and there seemed no end to the journey. Blissfully I fell asleep against Gleb's shoulder. Gleb kept patient and vigilant watch.
Day was just about to break when we arrived at the next village. Here we had a short rest. Luck was with us, and we chanced upon people who received us with hearty hospitality. The suspicious eyes of self-appointed spies and opportunists could not penetrate past their tight family circle, and our hosts were full of friendliness and warm sympathy for the traveling White Army officer and his wife.
The buxom housewife, spotless in her ample dress covered with an abundance of gay embroidery and with ribbons floating from her tiny cap, pressed good food upon us, warm soup, deliciously crusted meat pie, cottage cheese, and sour cream. The bearded husband, hungry for political news, drew Gleb aside and plied him with questions. How long would the present situation last? What were the prospects? And we found it to be true, that wherever in these villages strewn along the valley of the Pinega River we came upon some traces of old-time affluence and stability in the midst of the prevailing mistrust and uncertainties, there loyal people lived with whom we were secure.
For a week we traveled by day and by night, changing horses and coachmen at each village. We depended directly for our food and safety on the inhabitants, a pure Russian breed. Although their political leanings often emerged, a certain political balance was evident. It derived less from any active political interest than from the temperament of a people living precariously by the grace of God, clinging to their land where hardships and the pressures of self- preservation continually shaped and reshaped their hearts and their destiny; and their behavior was natural and self-explanatory.
When we arrived at the last village before reaching Ust' Pinega, Gleb had a severe attack of asthma. Having had no previous experience with this frightening shortness of breath, I did not know how to deal with it. Heat? Should I apply heat? But the condition did not improve. Hour after agonizing hour he lay there, panting and wheezing. All I could do was sit beside him and hold his hand, watching his painfully heaving chest.
We might have hoped for some sympathy from our hosts in this extremity, but they were afraid. They withdrew silently casting dark glances in our direction. I did not know whether their fear concerned the illness or guilt at harboring a White Army officer. After a day and a half the attack finally subsided and we were able once again to be on our way.
At noon on a bright and sunny day we arrived at Ust' Pinega and the comparative security of the military encampment. The Military Control informed us that a passenger ship had left for Archangel less than an hour earlier.
We went outside, undecided about what to do. A large vessel was coming down the river at full speed, obviously with no intention of stopping. To our surprise, the sergeant of the Military Control came rushing out and signaled the ship. Would he be able to stop it? We saw it slow down, and then very carefully it sidled in toward the small dock. Then I recognized it. It was the Mesopotamia , the hospital ship of late unpleasant memory. On the bridge stood my sarcastic antagonist of yore, the redheaded skipper, critically ob serving the delicate docking maneuver.
The sergeant's request that he take us aboard for Archangel met with courteous agreement. As we met again, the captain expressed his sincere regret over the unfortunate incident involving one of his men and apologized to Gleb. The man had been duly disciplined, he said. During the trip down the river, which lasted until late evening, the captain showered us with special attentions and courtesies. The first mate remained conspicuously invisible.