A Desperate Scheme
Hope, strangely indomitable, refused to die. Now there was nothing to look forward to but months and months of imprisonment, perhaps years. But that thought brought immense relief from the awful fear of a sudden end.
I got out of bed shakily and reached for my clothes. "I must go!"
"No, no," Else protested mildly, trying to force me back into bed. "Where do you want to go?"
"To the man, the strange man! Come with me, Else, show me where he lives!"
Realizing she could not stop me, she helped me to dress. Again and again I had to sit down to rest. My gray dress hung on my body. My leather coat, held loosely with Gleb's shoulder strap to my shrunken waist, seemed inordinately heavy, and my tightly laced boots left an inch of space all around my shins.
Else took my arm and slowly we descended the steep stairway to the street. Some of my strength returned as we began walking. We spoke little, but Else's steady arm comforted me. My purpose— to find that man—interrupted the riotous race of my thoughts. The hope that this man would be able to provide an answer to the shock ing riddle of Gleb's disappearance carried me through the streets.
It was the fifteenth of June, a beautiful summer evening. The setting sun broke into shafts of light slanting between the low houses, and the shadows obliterated the dust and the dirt on the angular streets. A whole month had elapsed since the day I had last seen Gleb.
"Where does he live, Else?" At our slow pace, the distance seemed endless.
"Not so far now. But you are getting tired. Let's sit down and rest for a while." We sat down together on the curb. I was clammy from weakness.
Presently, somewhere in the east end of Moscow , we arrived at a house of insignificant exterior. "Here we are!" Else said. The house was dark. Mounds of dust filled every corner of the dim winding stairs. Else knocked on a door. A woman with a morose expression admitted us to a dingy apartment and guided us to a narrow unaired parlor.
"Is Pavel Petrovich at home?" Else asked.
"Could we speak with him for a moment, please?"
As the woman left the room, she yelled, "Pavel Petrovich!" carelessly into the air.
A tufted drapery swayed and a man noiselessly appeared. Of slender build, he was below average height and his physical condition indicated that he was well fed. His features were sensuous, handsome. A shock of black hair overshadowed his white forehead, below which glistened a pair of shifty hazel eyes.
He smiled a courteous greeting to Else and bowed at me, mutely requesting an introduction. Else mentioned my name and he bowed again in acknowledgment. These perfect manners suddenly irritated me beyond endurance.
"Where is my husband?" I shot the question at him. Tears choked my throat and overflowed in deep-drawn uncontrollable sobs. "Have they killed him? Answer me, I must know!"
He lifted his hands as if to ward off my vehemence. "Madame must calm herself!" His oily voice was no doubt intended to convey sympathy. "All I know is that last night five hundred officers taken prisoner on the northern front were returned to Archangel for trial."
To Archangel ! For trial! Slowly the full meaning of their having been returned to the place where their alleged crimes had been committed began to penetrate my understanding. What kind of justice could they expect there? What chance was there that the terms of the surrender would be even recognized? The fate of the tsar and his family passed through my mind.
He had said trial. Then they were still alive, there might still be time! So long as we knew them to be alive . . . Gleb would write! He would contrive to send a message to me, telling me where he was. But . . . "Why were the interrogations discontinued? Why were they sent away?" I asked. "Does this mean that the authorities will ignore the terms of the surrender?"
The man shrugged. "The evacuation of these prisoners came as a total surprise," he said. "I can only say that I have, believe me, the greatest sympathy for you and your husband."
The sentence lost him all credibility. I did not want his sympathy. My thoughts leaped to Gleb and his fellows. How shocking it must have been when they were suddenly ordered to line up with their belongings! And then the lonesome dreary march through the darkened streets without being able to tell their loved ones what was happening. Then to be herded aboard boxcars, locked in like cattle...
Abruptly the man sidled up to me and his eyes had a liquid shine. There was in his manner an almost imperceptible insinuation that put me on my guard.
In a low voice he said, "Why don't you appeal for help to the Swedish Red Cross?" He drew from his pocket a paper. "I have prepared a report on the Bolshevik terror. It must reach the outside world as soon as possible. It's a call for international intervention in the name of mercy to prevent further atrocities, to save the lives of your husband and of the thousands of other people who are languishing in Bolshevik prisons. Madame, you have no idea how many of these atrocities I have witnessed directly and indirectly." He injected a note of well-controlled emotion into his next words: "Would you not help, Luisa Oskarovna? You who are in contact with members of the Swedish Red Cross, would you not implore them to carry this important document across the border? They could do it safely. I count on you and I trust you."
In a flash I knew his secret. Anastasia Denisovna had warned me. As certainly as if he had said so, I knew that I was dealing with a Cheka agent provocateur. The thought that Gleb and I had been at the mercy of this man horrified me. He knew all about Gleb and me, where I lived, with whom I associated. What had Gleb, goaded by his anxiety for me, told him? Could he have jeopardized his own case or that of his comrades? What had I written in my notes to Gleb? But my certainty of the man's true identity restored my poise. I looked straight into his shifty eyes and told him that the Swedish Red Cross would never have anything to do with a project of this kind.
"Good-bye, Pavel Petrovich." And with newfound strength I left the room with Else following down the dark stairs and out into the dusty street. Once outside I shook violently, but the air was pure and we drew deep breaths.
Else took me directly to Mrs. Linder. She would not hear of my staying alone in my room that night. She and Else gave me supper and bedded me down on one of their own beds on the floor of their large sheet-partitioned room. They listened while I talked of my hopes and fears, my nerve-racking speculations on the fate of Gleb and his comrades. Tears never ceased to trickle down my cheeks, never stopped choking my voice. And my sleep that night was haunted by nightmares.
The next morning, after I returned to my room, Olga Stepanovna and Zinaida Vasilievna arrived. I was glad to see them, but they knew little more than I did. Apparently the Cheka agent had told me the truth about the prisoners' having been sent north; Olga's brother-in-law had confirmed it. The girls had been in contact with several of the other desperate wives. All were tormented by the same fears, premonitions, and misgivings, the same exasperating uncertainty.
Some people they knew had seen the party of prisoners being marched to the Nikolayevsky Station. The guards had not allowed anyone near the prisoners so they had not been able to speak to them. They had followed and they had seen them being locked into the boxcars, and the train had moved out of the station.
Olga left to see her brother-in-law and to gather more news. Still weak and shaky from the illness, I lay down and rested for a while. Else came with some food that Mrs. Linder thoughtfully had prepared for me. I ate it gratefully while Else sat beside me, and her presence was extraordinarily comforting.
In the early afternoon Olga Stepanovna breezed into my room. "Now, Luisa, you are not to worry, it won't help!" she said in her usual gruff way. "Now listen! The prisoners have just left Vologda , destination the concentration camp at Kholmogory. I have the number of the train—wait!" She rummaged in her purse and produced a piece of crumpled paper: "Here it is. Take it. You can have a telegram waiting for him at Kholmogory—just address it to that train number."
Kholmogory was a town on the river Dvina some distance from Archangel . The detailed accuracy of Olga's information never ceased to amaze me. I thanked her, but she had no time for that.
"Now you wire as I told you!" She pointed her finger at me. "We'll keep in touch with all the other wives. Someone is bound to get news from the men sooner or later. I'll be back tomorrow." She pushed open the door and with long strides walked down the passage to the stairs.
The possibility of getting in touch with Gleb was encouraging. A few doors down the Myasnitskaya, in a drab telegraph office rank with stale makhorka smoke, strewn with cigarette butts and the empty shells of chewed sunflower seeds, I wrote my message to Gleb. The fervent hope that it would eventually reach him to ease his mind banished from thought any speculation on the near insurmountable obstacles that lay in the way for the safe delivery of that naive message.
Days passed, days of harrowing suspense, days of hope lost and hope recovered. I was exhausted with thinking—thinking of what might already have happened to him and of what the future had in store. I waited for word that never came.
Then Zinaida Vasilievna received a postcard from her husband: "We are all safe at Kholmogory. Do not worry."
The message was shared by all of us and it seemed the sun had arisen upon a new day. Of course Gleb had sent a message to me also, only it had gone astray. It could have been lost in a hundred possible ways. That this one got through was a miracle. And it was wonderfully reassuring, for it constituted direct proof that our husbands were still alive.
From then on I ceased looking for messages from Gleb. Lying awake at night, wrestling with thoughts and fears, I reached a decision. I would go to Archangel , to Kholmogory. That was the only place for me to be, close to him, while he served his time in prison, however long that might be. Reunion was now a beautiful dream far off in the future. I envisioned years and years with him inside and me outside helping and supporting him, making life in captivity as bearable as possible. We were still young, and what had to be could also be endured!
Nina Aleksandrovna was still in Archangel and she would probably be able to help me find a place to stay. We would go to Kholmogory, it was not so far away, and perhaps I could stay there. What did time or anything else matter so long as Gleb was alive and I was near him? And I began my preparations for the long and hazardous journey.
Two weeks passed before I was ready to leave. Olga Stepanovna's brother-in-law provided me with a pass as an employee of the Commissariat of Communications on a special mission to Archangel . Planning what to take with me was the most difficult task. On this trip I would be thrown completely on my own, with few, if any, friends to consult and to help me. I would have to find my own way under entirely unknown, probably hostile conditions, in constant danger of arrest. It might take months for me to get myself toler ably well established, perhaps the whole coming winter in a climate of which I had, after all, only scant experience.
My clothing had to be warm and light, one change of underwear. Most important of all, I must take with me enough food for Gleb and myself to last for the first difficult weeks, at least. It must be nonperishable and highly nutritious. So I baked quantities of rusks made of eggs, milk, butter, and good flour bought on the black market. Together with canned foods added sparingly, they would make nourishing and palatable meals. Thus, I figured, the baggage would be light and easy to handle, for I would have to carry and protect it all by myself.
My friends said little, but they looked upon my decision with silent misgivings. They realized far better than I the risks involved in such a journey into the unknown. Mrs. Linder did not say much, she understood my need to act. She and Else got their papers for the continuation of their journey before I was ready to leave. When I came to say good-bye, she put a package of concentrated foods into my hand.
"Take this, my dear. I'll have no need for them. God bless you!" I realized that she did not think she would ever see me again.
The Grigorievs shook their heads. "Wouldn't it be better if you stayed here?" Nikolai Leonidovich hesitantly suggested. "Your hus band will no d-doubt t-try to contact you here as soon as he can."
Mr. Hellman advised, "Stay where you are! The order to send them away originated here at the center. What they will do with th em is decided here. You should try to find out who is responsible for these prisoners and get to see him. You would find out more, perhaps be able to—"
"I know, I know," I interrupted, "but it would take so long, mid in the meantime Gleb might be killed!"
As the time for my departure approached, my friends' disapproval of my plans was not the reason why the preparations for the journey suddenly became oddly onerous. A curious embarrassing reluctance to carry out my intention possessed me, and I could not shake it. The very idea of the journey began to weigh on my mind like a heavy burden. Some part of me insisted that the whole project was utter foolishness. I began to imagine dreadful scenes—being robbed on the train, seizure and arrest, failure to reach my destination, failure to find Gleb, the damning revelation of my connections with counter- revolutionary activities. All this inspired me with a paralyzing presentiment, a cowardly conviction of the futility of my mission.
Olga Stepanovna came to say good-bye. "Wish you would give up," she said. We sat on my narrow bed, the only seat in the room. My baggage, packed and ready, stood piled in the corner by the door.
Olga's voice was softer than usual and her manner less ebullient. Life for her and her husband at the military college was difficult True, they were together, they could come and go as they pleased, and their everyday needs, food and shelter, were being adequately provided for by the Red Army. But every move they made was watched, every word they uttered and every person they associated with were noted. She said they both felt that Boris Pavlovich's skill as senior training instructor for the Red cadets and Olga's as nursing assistant to the medical officer were being used in somewhat the same way as domestic animals are used, the draft power of oxen, the milk drawn from the udder of the cow. Boris Pavlovich, high-strung and nervous, was finding his position and his work under the uncouth Com munist commanders almost intolerable. Olga herself lived under the constant threat that, in spite of her efforts to ease her husband's tension, he would one day reach the end of his endurance.
She sat and talked of these things while her brown eyes rested quietly and sadly now on me, now on the opposite wall. Though little in life could really dismay her, today she was gravely concerned about their uncertain future. Gleb's optimistic ideas about life after prison came into my mind. With eager anticipation he had dreamed of the part he had thought himself willing to play in the new act of the Russian drama, for at last it would give him the chance to serve. Would he be better able than Kusnetsky, I wondered, to withstand the vicious political pressures of such a life?
The previous night I had had a strange dream so vivid I was still laboring under its influence, and I told her about it. I dreamed that Gleb and I were living in a small room on a top floor somewhere in Moscow. The doors to a balcony stood open and a light summer breeze gently rippled the sheer curtains. On the balcony was a long low object that had just been delivered to me as a gift. Thrown over it was a heavy silken cover the color of dead roses, edged with a rich tasseled fringe of dull gold. Gleb, just home from work, stood beside me. Consumed with curiosity, I was about to lift the corner of the cover when Gleb grasped me roughly by the arm and pushed me away.
"Don't touch that thing, Lisa!" he cried. "Can't you see, they have sent you a coffin!" And I awoke.
Olga said gravely, "You should not go, Luisa."
We sat for a long while, both deep in thought. Then she repeated with slow emphasis on every word, "You should not go, Luisa!" For a few minutes she remained sitting on the bed beside me, her slender hands folded in her lap. Then quickly she kissed me and left the room.
In the evening Mr. Hellman got me a rickety droshky to take me to the Nikolayevsky Station and we piled my. baggage into it. He said good-bye. Alone and with a heavy heart I rode down the same dusty, gently sloping street I had struggled up on foot that evening almost two months ago when I arrived in Moscow . The same stark uninviting buildings passed in review with their empty shop windows, the same gray-faced belligerent crowd jostled past along the side walks, the same streetcars with swarms of people clustered at their entrances clanged their strident bells, insisting on the right of way. The hoofs of the horse clopped dully against the worn wooden paving blocks.
I found my place on the train. It began to fill with passengers. In the next compartment a woman loudly protested her right to a certain corner; a baby cried. Feet scraped incessantly against the dirty floor. Against some inexplicable repulsion I was forcing myself in the direction of Archangel . A sudden fright seized me and I clutched at the seat to prevent myself from dashing off the train. Why this incomprehensible feeling of doom? Courage ought to be my strongest support as I stood on the threshold of the most daring enterprise of my life.
Outside a bell clanged, the first warning of impending departure. A man in my compartment rushed out and presently returned with his battered kettle full of boiling water. His woman companion, a stiff black kerchief hiding most of her plain face, immediately made tea and poured it into two tin cups. Between steaming gulps of the weak brew the two of them chewed chunks of black bread. Through the din of imminent departure the second bell sounded fl my ears.
Suddenly there were sounds of jostling outside in the passage. The next instant Olga Stepanovna stood in the open compartment. Her black nurse's veil fell over her widow's weeds and clung to her smooth forehead, leaving thin line of the white veil showing underneath. The oversized cross on the breast of her black apron glowed with the color of blood. Never had she appeared so handsome. Her darting brown eyes fastened upon me.
She grasped my baggage. "Quick, Luisa, come on! Nina Aleksan drovna just arrived from Archangel. She's at our place. They are all dead!"
I was conscious of a second's shocking relief as if from some unbearable pressure. Blankly I followed her out, mute and unseeing. There was not a second to spare. The third bell clanged, and simultaneously, with a series of puffs and hisses from the laboring engine, the train began to roll past us out of the station.