THE whistle of the gale, the dance of the snow, the sting of the icy crystals in our faces! Cold snow whirled into every crease and fold of our covering. Here and there it collected into small drifts until dispersed by a strong gust of wind. The move ment of a cramped leg caused icy currents of air to filter through our warm clothing, leaving us shivering. The horse floundered knee- deep in the snow, its tail and mane tossed sideways by the wind. Ahead of us the trail lay trackless.
My aching eyes closed, and for a moment—a minute or an hour— I drifted into sleep until a cold shiver jerked me awake again. I could feel Nina Aleksandrovna cuddling up against me to keep warm.
"What's the time?" she whispered.
"I don't know."
"Is it three o'clock? Perhaps?"
She sat up. "Are we on the right road?" she asked. "Piotr, are we on the right road?"
She pulled the fur collar from her face so that he could hear better what she said. He was tramping in the snow beside the sleigh to ease the load. He put his bearded face up dose to Nina Aleks androvna's. "What did you say, barenya?"
"Are we on the right road?" she asked anxiously. "The others, the soldiers, where are they? Can you see them? Piotr, are we lost?"
"Don't worry, Barenya Nina Aleksandrovna, we're not lost. We'll meet them soon. Trust me! I know the road well."
He spoke as a father to a frightened child. He gripped the sleigh, his hand buried in a snowy mitt. The snow covered his bushy beard and small icicles surrounded his nose and mouth.
"Piotr, I'm cold! Let me get out and walk," I begged.
Piotr drew rein and the horse stopped willingly. Its steaming sides heaved. I stumbled out into the snow.
After cramped immobility, movement was a relief. The blood surged back into my stiff limbs. But the drag of the drifting snow soon tired me. My eagerness to exercise vanished and I stumbled on almost exhausted, hanging onto the sleigh with a cramplike grasp.
Nina Aleksandrovna too wanted to get out and walk. Unused to any greater exercise than dancing, she floundered valiantly for two or three minutes. Soon her pretty face became deeply flushed and the ringlets of her dark hair, escaping from under her cap, clung to her moist forehead. She almost fell, but Piotr, broad-chested and strong leaped to her rescue and lifted her back into the sleigh.
In the cutting wind we could no longer tuck ourselves in airtight under the robes. The snow clinging to our boots and skirts melted. We cuddled up close to keep warm, but our wet clothes stiffened and clung to our bodies like icy sheets.
Again we forced ourselves to get out of the sleigh. For a while we floundered in the snow to feel once more the blood coursing through our veins, then stumbled back into the sleigh again. Each effort drained from us a bit more energy and warmth until we were almost insensible with cold and fatigue. Gently Piotr urged us on. And the snow whirled around the sleigh, rose into a white cloud, and swept on beyond in wild turbulence.
We went on like this for hours, endless hours, and we ceased to think, to feel, to wonder, or to worry.
Piotr's frozen beard touching my cheek startled me.
"The soldiers!" he whispered hoarsely. "Look!"
Ghostlike figures were moving up alongside us, blurred silhouettes bent forward against the driving gale. The faint creaking of leather, the hushed swish of feet plodding in the snow mingled with the gusting wind. We stared fascinated at the bayonetted rifles weighing down the shoulders of the weary men. Their packs looked like humps on their backs. Behind them came sleighs like ours, drawn by lathered horses, their tails and manes blowing in the wind. Again Piotr leaned over and whispered into our ears:
"Aleksandr Dmitrievich is coming up behind us. We'll soon be in the village."
It was high noon when I awoke on the floor of a peasant's house, pressed against the wall with Gleb's warm body protecting mine. Many other people lay packed on the floor beside us, men of the machine-gun school, Nina Aleksandrovna and her husband. The large Russian hearth loomed beside us, sending out gorgeous heat laden with the humidity that evaporated from our breaths and our wet clothes. The frost flowers on the tiny windowpanes were melting, adding still more vapor to the air.
I turned, met Gleb's kiss, and then caught sight of my boots crowded around the hearth in a motley company of leather boots, fur boots, and large clumsy white canvas boots. I wondered how my boots got to be there. I could not remember either taking them off or putting them away. Under the blankets my legs felt as if swathed in warm wet compresses. My wet skirts clung to them and I dared not move for fear of letting in a chilly draft of air.
Presently the people began to move and I got up and sat by the hearth to dry out my skirts. Everybody was buoyed by the rest and in a cheerful mood. Some of the men took turns shaving in front of a tiny pocket mirror suspended from a nail by the window. Long exhausting marches, sleeping fully dressed on the floor or on the ground were commonplace experiences to these men, and they knew how to make the best of it.
A fair young man, one of Gleb's fellow instructors at the school, came up to talk to him. His name was Dmitri Grigorievich, and not even a march through a wild snowstorm or sleep on the floor could blur the freshness of his face or his dapper appearance. While the two of them were talking, his eyes fell on my wet skirts.
"Luisa Oskarovna, you should wear breeches and not skirts! Haven't you got any?" he inquired. And then he turned to Gleb: "Gleb Nikolayevich, I've got a spare pair. May I give them to your wife?"
Gleb nodded his hearty thanks. He held up a blanket to shield
me from view while I made the change. Dry clothes, what luxury! The breeches fitted perfectly. What a relief to get rid of those wet clinging skirts!
In the other room food was on the table, opened soup cans, bully beef, big loaves of crusty bread, bowls of sour cream and cottage cheese. At one end a huge samovar stood singing softly, cups and glasses beside it. Nina Aleksandrovna and her husband were already there having their breakfast.
Aleksandr Dmitrievich was Nina Aleksandrovna's second husband. She had loved her first handsome husband with an almost frantic passion. When he was killed in action half a year ago, she had thrown herself screaming in a paroxysm of grief upon his open coffin. A month later she had married Aleksandr Dmitrievich. He was a heavily built man and his square clean-shaven chin gave to his pleasantly homely features a look of power and determination. His eyes 1 were gray, penetrating, and honest, and he nurtured for his dainty doll-like wife an adoration implicit in every word and action. Gleb regarded his chief with unreserved esteem.
Outside the late February sun was past zenith but its slanting rays still touched upon the great mass of new-fallen snow and made it sparkle. The weathered houses stood well apart along the wide village street and cast blue shadows upon the white snowdrifts that half buried them. Fine scattered ice crystals floated through the crisp clear air like minuscule glittering diamonds. It was very cold.
At this moment the village was seething with life. Officers and orderlies hurried to and fro. Horses were being harnessed and j sleighs mounted with machine guns and loaded with supplies and I ammunition. A single light gun mounted on its carriage rolled rattling down the village street. The troops consisted of units that, after the collapse of the front, still remained loyal, and foremost among these was the First Archangel Reserves. Suddenly, relayed from house to house, the order came to form ranks, and company j after company fell in line and began marching down the street. Sleigh after sleigh pulled out from the yards and followed the troops I in a long line.
Shivering in the cold, small groups of villagers assembled at the corners of their houses, anxiously watching the activities of the troops. Some protested bitterly when their hay was requisitioned and their horses were taken from their stables to supply the needs of the mili tary, but their protests were ignored. When the last sleigh pulled away it left the village impoverished and unprotected.
Aleksandr Dmitrievich had arranged for his wife to go up front with him. I was assigned to a sleigh driven by a clerk of the machine-gun school. When Gleb tucked me in, I asked why I could not go in his sleigh.
"No, Lisa, I'm in charge of a machine gun. Remember, darling, our safety depends on discipline. We're all under orders—no ques tions asked. A long road lies ahead." He pressed my hand to soften his stern warning.
My companion was a young man with round . formless body. His uniform was several sizes too large and hung from his shoulders awkwardly. Did he know, I wondered, how to fire the gun stuck into his sagging belt? To ride with strong solicit ous Piotr, whose presence assured security and protection, was one thing. But this juvenile!
Late in the evening I was preparing our bed on the floor of the dingy room when Gleb came in looking tired and annoyed,
"Look here, Lisa, your horse is still outside not unharnessed, not fed."
"But wasn't the clerk supposed to ..."
Gleb took me out into the stable. It was full of horses steamy pungent odor of fresh manure. Beside each horse its hi was laid neatly in a pile ready for immediate use. The sounds the animals' rhythmic hungry chewing mingled pleasantly with men's soft remarks as they worked around their charges.
"From now on, Lisa, I must hold you responsible for this Gleb said. "No matter how tired you are, you must first look after the horse, see that it's unharnessed and fed. This is the way to undo the duga." And with a deft twist he loosened the archlike device fitted over the shoulders of the horse.
Soon we had the tall black animal thoroughly rubbed down straw and fed. Piotr was in the stable. "I'll water him for you for a while," he offered with a broad smile. Piotr never left the horses except to eat; he slept with them.
"Thank you, Piotr! Will you help the barenya to horse in the morning? And don't forget, Lisa, always sleigh with hay before starting out. This is important!"
When we got back to the house, many were gathered at the table eating with hungry energy. Others, to whom sleep was more important, had already occupied the choicest places on the floor, curled up in their blankets. In a far corner the clerk was snoring loudly.
Early the next morning I was out in the stable. Piotr showed me how to fasten the shafts to the ends of the springy duga with a kick of the foot to hold them out from the sides of the horse, thus allowing it to move within them freely. My early training with horses served me well, and it did not take me long to become an expert in harnessing horses in the Russian way. I was elated with the chance to fulfill my part, however small, in the general operation, to cease being a piece of baggage.
Slowly the long train of sleighs headed by the column of marching soldiers wound its way across the bleak white northern landscape like a huge black serpent. Its immediate destination was Onega, a lumbering town at the southern tip of the White Sea . Gleb had told me that, if we got past this critical point, our chances of reaching the Murman Railroad before that front collapsed would be good. And secretly I envisioned the security of the Finnish border, only twenty versts west of the railroad.
On roads tracked only in winter across bottom-frozen swamps our long cavalcade traveled past scattered scrubby spruces eking out a lean existence in the peaty soil of this harsh environment. Occasionally we passed through virgin coniferous forests where the clangor of the moving column and the creaking noises of the metal-shod runners reechoed under the vaults of the tall trees. Small villages lay scattered along the route. Furtive glances and stony silence greeted our appearance. The inhabitants knew only too well the depredations of the military that left hardship and woe in their wake. Red or White, the difference was nominal. The former took without paying, the latter paid with worthless paper money.
Meanwhile, on information gathered by the forward reconnaissance party, the need for haste became urgent and the daily marches were increased in length. The lassitude and boredom of the endless hours of cramped sitting in the sleighs dulled all sensation. The clerk beside me, with his incredible capacity for sleep, blissfully dozed away his weariness and tedium, and I envied him. Time and again I gathered the slackened reins from his inert hands until finally I refused to let him drive any more. He did not mind.
The stops for rest provided little more than a chance to case cramped muscles while others were brought painfully into action in I lie care of the tired horse. Then on and on without rest until darkness long since had descended upon the landscape before we reached u village where at last we sought shelter and rest and something to cat. Never before had I known such torment—not of exhaustion, for that dulls sensation, but the simple tiredness of an aching body kept forcibly in action beyond its actual capacity. Up before daybreak, out into the stables to harness the horses, hitch them to the sleighs, and then the hard relentless order to move on,
A commotion at the front of the line momentarily lifted the lethargy of monotony. The long train of sleighs came to halt. An emergency? But no orders came to man the rifles propped up in the front corners of the sleigh, no permission was given to get out to stretch stiff limbs. Three shots rang out unexpectedly crisply staccato in the cold air. And then the sleigh in front moved ahead and our black horse followed without urging. Presently we came to a well-trampled place beside the road and a splash of red blood on the snow. Aghast I stared at the booted foot of a soldier sticking awkwardly up out of the snow.
The next day we passed a soldier sitting in the snow resting against his pack, wearily following the passing sleighs with a guilty look in his eyes. Nobody spoke to him, nobody picked him up. More and more often this happened. Soon deserters littered the roadsides. At every village men disappeared in the forlorn hope that their desertion would induce leniency from the Reds at the ultimate moment of surrender.
Four days out of Archangel and darkness had already fallen. Since daybreak we had traveled over forty versts. A broad river and twinkling lights emerged through the mists outlining the shadowy contours of factories and sawmills along the frozen banks and the streets beyond. We crossed a wide bridge and drove into the town.
Onega! The critical point! The advance party brought back the good news that all was peaceful. And now the tantalizing prospect of a good rest lay ahead. It had been a gamble, a calculated risk to try to reach this place before the Reds. So far we had been travel ing in a southwesterly direction; the next part of the journey would take us slightly north of west. Would we be able to reach the railroad safely?
I tumbled out of the sleigh stiff and numb. To walk erect was exquisite relief. I began to unharness the horse, and suddenly, tired and irritable as I was, I found myself shaking with annoyance at the clerk's lack of assistance. He had disappeared.
Gleb found me in the stable. He took my arm, smoothed away my anger. We crossed the courtyard, leaning on each other. The house was bright, warm, clean, roomy. Its welcome chased away at least a part of our exhaustion. Incredible luxury, the married couples were given beds to sleep in. A generous supper was laid out on the table. Obviously the people who lived here were neither poor nor unsympathetic to the Whites. The warm food, the friendly atmosphere quickly erased the lines of fatigue furrowing many faces, and soothed frayed tempers. And gradually the conversation around the table became colored with renewed confidence. Tonight the possibility of reaching our goal safely seemed assured.
A shouted command: "To the sleighs!" The order reechoed from house to house until it died out in the distance.
Shocked silence and immobility. Then of one accord everybody sprang from the table. In frantic haste our half-unpacked belongings were collected and we rushed out to the stables. Curt orders flashed across the heavy moist air. The horses stamped as they were pulled from their half-eaten bundles of hay and reharnessed to the sleighs.
Gleb gripped my arm hard as he put me in the sleigh with the clerk.
"Down the street!" he commanded the boy holding the reins in trembling hands. I grasped his arm before he was gone. "Don't get lost!" I begged stupidly, clinging to him. He tore himself away.
Awkwardly the clerk whipped the tired horse into a lumbering trot. Sleighs dashed out of the yards ahead of us to fall into line. I looked back and saw Gleb jump into the sleigh with the mounted machine gun. Thank God, he was only two sleighs behind us.
Down the street! I gazed at our two loaded rifles and wondered how soon we would have to use them. Would I know how to use mine, how to cock it, how to aim it?
At the end of the street a group of officers stood at attention, letting the sleighs pass in review before them. Suddenly a burst of machine-gun fire came in angry spurts from the river below. The crackle of fire continued, but the officers remained motionless, as if they had heard nothing. I wondered who of our men were down there on the river en gaging the enemy. Later I was told that Musmann had been one of them, and neither he nor any of the men who had been with him returned to fill the places in the column they had left empty.
The lighted outskirts of the town gradually blended into the darkened countryside. Expecting momentarily another burst of machine-gun fire, we crouched deep down in the sleigh. Around my heart suspense tightened like an iron band. The tall forest closed in around us and the evergreens, heavily weighted with large pads of snow, looked like hooded ghosts keeping eerie vigil alongside the road. How many hostile eyes followed us concealed in the deep recesses? A blank moon, approaching the last quarter, slid from one sharply silhouetted treetop to the other.
A gunshot cracked jarringly on our taut nerves. A shout sent us grasping for our rifles. Tense, ready at the next command to fire into the shadows at the enemy we could not see, we waited. There followed only a heavy silence, irregularly broken by the creaking of the runners and the soft sound of reins slapping loosely against the horses' flanks. An irrational fear of the recoil of the rifle should I have to fire it suddenly flooded my consciousness. But the continued silence, aching, throbbing, almost unendurable in its persistence, gradually drowned out this fear.
There were no further interruptions and the journey resumed its monotonous pace. My companion fell heavily across the butt of his rifle, fast asleep. His even breathing kept pace with the soft creaking sound of the horse's harness. I put the safety catch on my rifle and, resting the barrel on the front end of the sleigh, took the reins from the boy's hands.
Interminably the night wore on. The effort to stay awake became agonizing. Imperceptibly sleep crept upon me and within minutes it was invariably followed by a painful start back into consciousness. As I hovered between sleep and wakefulness, my head began to swim. Rocks by the wayside, trees and shadows took on strange shapes; they vanished, then abruptly loomed up again in another place. Eventually, with that useless inert form beside me, I found myself sobbing from loneliness. Why could he not keep awake? I wanted to shake him, to shout at him, hit him, claw at him until he sat up to share with me that awful vigil in the night. But finally derision at his weakness, pity, a wave of nausea left me indifferent.
Up front a horse fell in its tracks. It lay there in the deep snow. The sight of its glassy eyes and stiffening legs shocked my thoughts into lucidity. Somebody lost his horse! What if I should lose mine? And, as if to emphasize its weariness, my horse stumbled. It stumbled again. And now, clearly awake, I gathered the reins and, applying the best of my driving skill, I strove to support the poor beast's faltering gait. We passed another horse lying dead in the snow.
It must have been between three and four o'clock in the morning. I noticed a flickering light playing on the horse's ears and the snow became tinted with a bright reddish glow. Where did it come from? I looked back and saw a sea of fire coloring the entire southeastern horizon like a brilliant sunrise. Flames leaped high into the somber sky, like avid tongues. Onega was on fire, the whole town was burning!
Slowly the meaning of the fire penetrated my dulled wits. Those good people, the clean spacious house where we had been so well received and where we were to have spent the night, the generously laid-out supper. . . . Who was responsible for this deed against the peaceful, friendly town? Was it an act of retribution by the Reds, to avenge the escape of the White fugitives? Or was it our side, the Whites, carrying out a scorched-earth policy? Either way, the fire of Onega burned itself deep into my memory of this retreat. Inex perience is the cradle of unreasoning optimism. Now events were forcing me to look upon this military maneuver in another light. Where, when would the ultimate encounter with the enemy take place? Under what circumstances? The hope of reaching safety across the border into Finland suddenly appeared unreasonable. Had Gleb ever thought that this retreat would end successfully? The look in his eyes when we separated just before leaving Archangel on this momentous journey had told me differently, but at the time I had been too eager for action to pay any attention. He had said then, "This, Lisa, is the beginning of the end."
Dawn broke when at last we reached the next village. The glow from Onega still illuminated the sky.
The retreat of what was left of the once-proud northern White army now became a headlong scramble to escape the hot pursuit of the Red forces. Hard on our heels, they poured like spilled water from one village to the other. On the narrow trampled road our column pressed forward, allowing men and horses only a few hours to eat and to rest at long intervals. The once smart Archangel Reserves, the example of loyalty and discipline, finally reached its total dissolution. Nobody marched on foot any longer. What was left of the rank and file rode in the sleighs with the officers. Hardship erased all differences of rank. Horses fell and were dragged to the side of the road. In the villages bitter threats and protests made the requisitioning of horses and supplies difficult. The people knew the Whites were defeated, and to cater to them either by force or out of commiseration was a risk no one could take. The black horse was hardly able to stand any longer and Gleb succeeded in exchanging it for another.
For three more days we forged ahead; the trail behind us was littered with the frozen carcasses of fallen horses. Our men tore down all the wires from the telegraph posts and they, too, lay trailing in the snow. To do away with superfluous baggage, rifles and ammunition were silently dropped through holes chopped in the ice to the bottom of the swamps and creeks. Occasionally the lone figure of an exhausted man sat huddled by the wayside, unable to move. And the fate he was destined to meet after the last sleigh passed him defied speculation.
On the fourth day we met an occasional small group of soldiers still wearing British uniforms with White Army insignia, going home.
"Where are the Reds?"
"At the railroad."
At last we knew where the meeting with the Reds was to take place. Fighting weariness, the column moved on. With tempers on edge and patience worn to shreds, hope still persisted. Perhaps there was still a chance we might reach the railroad before the Reds were able to amass a sufficient force to stop us. The men braced themselves for the last battle.
All that night the column pushed onward. No longer was I aware of the boy in the sleigh beside me. No longer did I care whether he was awake or asleep. I was entirely alone, the horse and I form ing a single link in a long chain of slowly, eternally advancing sleighs. My one sharp sensation was Gleb's presence behind me, though I could not see him. But he was there, and we must not become separated, lost to each other. That alone must never happen. Noth ing else mattered.
The next day and the following night the column pressed on without stop, without rest or sleep. At dawn we reached Sumskiy Posad, the last village before the railroad. Somehow I became aware that Gleb was no longer behind me. In a panic I tumbled out of the moving sleigh and began to walk against the flow of men and horses. The passing sleighs crowded me into the snow, but I was past caring, past exhaustion. Only one sensation motivated me, a frantic fear that he was lost somewhere far back. I must find him, dead or alive.
"Gleb! Gleb!" My cries were lost in the cold air as the impassive column moved by.
Innumerable sleighs passed me, but Gleb was in none of them. The last sleigh came by and he was not in that one either.
The road opened before me, empty. How far back before I found him? Oh, God, how far back? Then in the distance I saw a stumbling figure. I ran. It was Gleb, dragging himself toward me.
"My horse fell," he whispered hoarsely, his lips rough and dry. I brought his arm across my shoulders. "Lost my revolver in the snow. Couldn't find it. Found another." He could say no more.
Supporting each other, we walked slowly, stopping and resting often. Finally we arrived at a house. There they told us that the Red Army was in the next village. The long-expected meeting with the enemy was at hand.
"How long have they been there?"
Two days? Clearly this terrible retreat through the vast tracts around the south end of the White Sea had been doomed from the start. And we realized with appalling certainty that the premature fall of the Murman front had made our desperate effort to reach it in time a strategic impossibility. The agonies of the retreat had been suffered in vain.