An Unbidden Meeting
The narrow hall was stuffy, permeated with the odors of cheap cooking and unwashed clothes. The door closed like the lid of a coffin upon the stairway, cold as a cellar. Impenetrable darkness. Heavy draperies parted, letting in a strip of dim light, and a hand beckoned me into the presence. Somebody had told me that the lady was good at telling fortunes.
Why this unseemly haste to have done with the present, this irres istible longing to delve into the future? The encounter with the (tall, fair young man had been a summer's dream. His kisses made me fling myself again into his arms; it had been heaven. The warm days, flowers, walks in the evenings under the gnarled old trees of the parks around Stockholm, where for ages past young people had met to make love. And the summer had opened visions of wedded bliss. But he had not meant it to become a reality.
The brusque awakening had been a shock. Why did he reject this beautiful thing? The idea of being undesirable was new and a ppalling, and left me with a feeling of utter emptiness. Now the days seemed to join together to form a never ending tunnel. Tearful and outraged, I fought the finality that I could neither imagine nor a dmit.
My zest for work disappeared. I found it boring, excruciatingly bo ring, every minute of it a burden. I hated the uniform. The registry sent me to work in homes to look after convalescents who need ed companionship and indulgence but not expert nursing care. T hey sent me to look after spoiled children of rich people, who needed a nanny but not a skilled nurse. Vehemently I rebelled against the demands placed upon me by people who were not ill, but whose pocketbooks allowed them to hire well-trained servants. This, certainly, was no part of the vocation I had imagined and worked so hard to achieve.
My record suffered from these repeated misplacements. I tried— No, I did not try, for it was impossible to submit with grace to things like these. I asked to be moved, to be placed somewhere else where the work would be challenging, as it had been in the emergency department of the great city hospital. This seemed to me a reasonable request. The superintendent looked at me with sublime patience. This, she told me, was my duty. But in the end my rebellious determination proved to be stronger than her authority.
Now here I was, full of impatience and discontent, in this cluttered, unpleasant room. The obese fortune-teller turned her pale face upon me. A pack of worn, soiled cards adorned with mystifying green figures lay beside her pudgy hand. On a small stand between us a crystal ball stared balefully like a giant fish eye into the ceiling. Why had I come? How foolish, how utterly stupid!
I let her talk. And all I remember from the session was some thing about remarkable gray eyes and a man, tall and fair. And that, of course, could never be. I came out angry with myself. Cir cumstances combine to create logical consequences whereof future events are shaped. Had the woman said so, I wouldn't have believed her.
The war was still going on with all its miseries and horrors and somewhere, surely, there must be a place for me. At this time an exchange of invalided prisoners of war had begun through the International Red Cross. These men now useless for combat were evacuated from enemy prison camps and taken to a neutral land for the exchange, a head for a head. Camps had been built and outfitted for this purpose in Denmark, one for Russian prisoners and another for German.
My thoughts raced to Agnete Brockenhuus-Schack, Tante Jessy's improbable daughter, known everywhere, who spoke with a voice raspy from smoking cigarettes and who moved with the assurance of a man. She had introduced me into Copenhagen's high society and now she was a Red Cross worker. She had not only the means and the time at her disposal, but a determination to do something useful with her life. Besides being a good organizer and administrator, she carried to the task good connections, and they were important. I wrote to her. "Yes, of course," came her answer, "we have a place for you. We need another nurse to take charge of one of the barracks of tubercular Russian soldiers at Horserod."
Russians! The old enmities imprinted into my mind by hearsay a nd history lessons were not so easily eradicated. Russia, the massive land in the east, always in search of outlets to the sea, of land and more land to satisfy its gluttonous cravings for its own purported secu rity, a ruthless giant dangerously dwarfing its smaller neighbors.
Nonetheless, soon after New Year I took the train south and on a lull wintry afternoon arrived at Horserod, the camp for Russian pr isoners of war.
Zinaida Andreyevna, the Russian nurse in charge of another barra cks of sixty sick soldiers, came into my office at Barracks 42. She was a stately woman with a Slavic face, rosy cheeks, high cheekbones, and a full red mouth. Her white veil was fastened under her chin. H er soft brown eyes suggested compassion and empathy. "But you must come!" Her voice was low, throaty, pleading as spoke in French, and each word was pronounced deliberately slowly. That evening the soldiers were giving a concert in c elebration of the Russian Christmas.
It was the end of my third day in camp and I was tired. Every thing took a little getting accustomed to and I was still confused by mass of strange impressions. It had been a long day among the human wrecks that had been entrusted to my care. Most of were only boys, curiously naive. Some of them would never tin see their homeland, their health gone, their strength under lined or destroyed by tuberculosis.
Zinaida Andreyevna looked at me and smiled. "You must not re fuse," she said quietly. "They like us to join in their fun." She extended her hand to me, and I took it. This was the beginni ng of an alliance and a friendship many times interrupted by events but never broken. They called her a sister of mercy, and that's what was. She was here now not only to mend bodies but to try to era se, or at least to help these men to bear, the deep agonies caused by war and revolution.
A few minutes later we entered together the barracks where the concert was being held. A strong smell of fresh lumber and tar paper assailed my nostrils the first moment I set foot within the barbed enclosure. When reveille sounded at six every morning from the Danish administration buildings, I awoke to it in my small room in the Danish nurses' residence. It mixed with the odors of food in the dining hall and with the strong disinfectant the orderlies used to wash the floors of Barracks 42. And from that time on, whenever encountered, it never failed to bring back to my mind vivid pictures of Horserod.
Rows of stools filled the center of the hall. A few lanterns hung from the beams in the ceiling and provided the illumination. The place was hazy with tobacco smoke that made it difficult to discern the faces and figures of the men in scattered groups in the dim light. Here and there the starched white veils of the nurses produced bright spots that relieved the monotony of the dark scene.
After a slight delay the concert began. The program included music and singing, the recital of poetry, a short play. How naively amateurish these soldiers were in their clumsy masculinity! With irresistible enthusiasm they abandoned themselves to their various roles. And the appreciative audience applauded, laughed, and shouted at the tops of their voices: "Bis! Bis!"
I could not understand a word. But what I heard seemed to me enchanting, like cadences of music composed mostly of sch sounds, rising and falling. And as the performance warmed up and drifted into the rousing rhythms of Russian and gipsy folk songs accompanied on balalaikas twanged at incredible speed, when the per formers flung themselves with acrobatic verve into their Rousskaia, then these men, these half invalids, were no longer amateurs. They had become perfectionists in an art for the art's own sake, betraying the beat of the Russian heart.
My attention was suddenly diverted from the performance. From the row of stools behind us the steady stare of a pair of gray eyes met mine. The young man, his face somewhat drawn as if from recent illness, continued to stare, not the least abashed at having been caught.
Zinaida Andreyevna laughed heartily at some joke I could not understand, and I laughed with her. I drew her attention to the man be hind us. She turned and nodded with a smile. The ghost of a smile flitted across the young man's face.
The performance on the stage ended and we stood up and joined in the boisterous applause. The man behind us left his seat and stood leaning against the wall. Tall and lanky, slightly stooped, he wore his officer's cap at a rakish angle. A white Maltese cross gleamed on his left breast pocket. He acknowledged Zinaida Andre yevna's friendly greeting with a salute, a curious mixture of respect and nonchalance.
A few days later, on the eve of the Russian New Year, a dance was held in the Russian officers' mess. The roomy lounge was set with armchairs and bridge tables that gave the place a homelike atmosphere. The dining hall was cleared for dancing.
Zinaida Andreyevna and I were late, and when we arrived the dance was already in full swing. A few couples were on the floor, Danish nurses and their friends. By tacit consent the Russian nurses did not dance, because some of them mourned men lost in the war a nd all of them felt that the political situation in their homeland did not warrant any merrymaking. In their becoming uniforms they became the centers of several groups of officers engaged in serious discussion.
A gathering of friends immediately surrounded Zinaida Andreevna.
"Your small hand, please, Zinaida Andreyevna, so glad you came!" and she surrendered her hand to each one to be kissed. "And how did your walk turn out today, Aleksandr Mikhailovich?" sh e inquired in her husky voice. The officer's adventures, always re lated upon his return from his daily walk, had become topics of humored derision among his friends.
"And how are you, Konstantin Grigorievich? May I introduce to Mademoiselle Flach, a friend of Countess Schack. She's a nurs ing sister in the soldiers' camp."
Among the officers was Zinaida Andreyevna's husband in his general's uniform. Noticeably shorter than his wife, he was many years her senior. A well-trimmed pointed beard outlined a fretful in partial contradiction to the expression of sad resignation in his eyes. Though they were seemingly so badly matched, the look of affection that passed between these two was unmis takable. Rumors circulated that at one time during the war, General Kliuev had betrayed his trust. Whether it was true or untrue, the look of proud sadness that occasionally came into Zinaida Andreyevna's eyes as she glanced at her husband suggested that the bitter edge of the accusation had not escaped her. But the knowledge only bound her with unfaltering loyalty still closer to him.
Apart from that one glance, her graciousness and sympathy encompassed all of these men equally, some of them hobbling on crutches, some with empty sleeves, others with that vague shell- shocked look on their faces, and some, too, showing encouraging signs of returning strength and mending bodies. They were all her children. Before a future so uncertain, they were like chips cast upon the stormy seas, all equally in need of her compassion and love.
Colonel Trebinsky bowed over my hand. As one of the official hosts, he displayed a most gallant, most elegant demeanor. Of slight build with a wasplike waist, he sported a well-groomed moustache over a somewhat sensuous mouth. His hooked nose was too large; his brown eyes, often with a surprised look, were pleading. His tunic was of faultless fit; his breeches, forming two half balloons, clung tightly to each slender knee. Konstantin Pavlovich was complaisance personified. I could have imagined him as a master of ceremonies, as a maitre d'hotel, but never as a soldier in the grime of battle.
"Ah, mademoiselle, permettez-moi de vous souhaiter la bienvenue dans notre petite compagnie! Would you care to dance, sisteritsa? In that case, let me introduce some of our best dancers to you."
"Make sure that they speak either French or English," I reminded him, laughing as he hastened away to carry out his errand.
He returned accompanied by a tall officer who dragged his left leg slightly as he walked; it was hardly a limp.
"May I—Lieutenant Kirilin—Mademoiselle Flach. Gleb Nikolayevich, our new sisteritsa. You must speak French with her."
A faint smile played around the lieutenant's sensitive mouth as he acknowledged the introduction. The white Maltese cross on his breast pocket shone. Those steel-blue—no, gray—eyes glittered. A slightly mocking expression spread over his face and settled in his eyes, a look of frank mischief.
"We've met before," he said in a low voice after Trebinsky left. "Does it matter? Do they need to know? Will you dance?"
The faint mockery, the insinuation of conspiracy, the nonchalance of his manner—was it all a piece of insufferable arrogance? No, I didn't think so. Then was it just a pose? A shield? Had life taught him bitterness too early? All these Russians were immersed in personal histories of such tragedy that no outsider could measure it.
We danced a swinging waltz. Despite the slight limp, he danced well. The rhythm of the balalaikas was seductive. If his behavior had aroused in my mind any annoyance or suspicions, now suddenly I was inclined to forgive the mockery of his smile, the impudence in his eyes, and to fall in with his game that we were old friends who had met before.
"You dance well," he said.
I let the remark pass. From the wings Trebinsky was watching us—with approval, I thought.
The white Maltese cross aroused my curiosity.
"My military school," he explained. "Corps des Pages Imperial."
The pride in his voice could not be missed, but apart from that, the information did not convey much to me. And we danced.
Suddenly: "Why don't you wear a kosynka, a veil, like the other nurses?" His tone was challenging, the question impertinent. "The contraption you're wearing on your head, tied under your chin like that, looks perfectly ridiculous!"
How dared he make fun of the cap I wore so proudly, the badge of my school of nursing? Under their smooth surface, these Russians certainly were a tactless and cloddish lot. My explanation that Swedish Red Cross nurses never wore veils did not seem to interest him.
Our conversation slipped into less controversial channels. No need for the dapper Trebinsky to go in search of other partners for me. Lieutenant Kirilin must have overcome his dislike of my cap, and I forgot everything that was not entirely pleasant and agreeable.
The Danish captain, a man of muscular build with a square, young-looking face, came into the office of Barracks 42 on his morning tour of inspection. His shock of white hair accentuated his smooth ruddy s kin. I liked his visits; he always had a pleasant word, a joke to tell. And his advice on any point of administration was sound and well considered. As he stood talking pleasantly across the table, he had a habit of slapping his boots with his riding crop.
"You're Hillevid Neergaard's daughter, aren't you?"
In these surroundings the question surprised me. Why had I not met him before in Copenhagen? He spoke with enthusiasm of my mother, how well he remembered her as one of the most charming girls, bright, witty, and they had danced. This surprised me still more, for he seemed too young to have been at the dancing age when my mother was.
"Do you play bridge?" When I said I did, he invited me to a party he was planning for the next evening.
"Any of the Russians you would like me to invite?"
I hesitated, then: "Yes, Kirilin."
"But he doesn't play bridge. Oh, never mind, at eight, then, tomorrow night, Barracks Four—you know, across the road from the camp." He saluted, and the soft dick of his spurs followed him out as he closed the door.
I decided not to wear a uniform. The soft pink crepe-de-Chine blouse went well with my purple tweed skirt. I dressed with care. It was past eight when I finally found Barracks 4, outside the barbed- wire enclosure. A soldier showed me to the captain's sitting room. A delicate scent of fine tobacco pleasantly suppressed the smell of tar paper and new lumber. The door opened on an animated babble of Danish voices.
The captain immediately disengaged himself and came toward me. "So glad you're here!" He introduced several people whom I had not met.
My roving glance quickly established the fact that Kirilin was not present. Well, what of it? The captain took me by surprise:
"Kirilin will be around later. Some camp business to attend to. Will you play bridge?"
My first thought was: How awful to be caught in the midst of a boring game of bridge when he comes! But the captain insisted.
I was not a good bridge player that night, I even had trouble counting the trumps. And as the evening wore on, hope dwindled. Interest in the game also dwindled, and at the end of the rubber I asked to be allowed to watch.
Finding an armchair in a dim corner, I sat down. Suddenly I heard footsteps. One, two, one, two—the corridor outside the cap tain's sitting room was a long one. Strange how mesmerizing loud rhythmic sounds can be! The steps stopped outside the door. Pause. A resolute tap.
There was a confusion of greetings. Kirilin knew most of the guests. He bowed over my hand, but did not kiss it.
"Sorry I couldn't come earlier. Certain duties in the officers' mess kept me late."
Why should he think it mattered to me? The captain had invited him, not I. It took me some time to relax sufficiently to become carried away, like the others, by the rising animation of the party.
Gleb Nikolayevich was in high spirits. His boyish face glowed, the blue-gray eyes shone. His rich voice rang with warmth and enthusiasm as he began telling of wild adventures. The other Russians in the room turned away from their cards, joined the group in the corner, laughed, listened, making their own contributions.
"Recite something, Gleb Nikolayevich—go on!" someone urged him.
Then he fell to reciting in French—for my benefit—beautiful is about l'amour, classics by the great French poets. Some I from the classroom and theater, but I had never fully understood them as I did now when I heard them spoken with the poetic pass ion of his voice. Then, abruptly, he switched to Russian for Pushk in's famous epic "Poltava."
It was like the wind in the pines, like a roaring torrent, like the rev erberating harmonies of an organ, the crash of a storm. The glo rification of victory, the defeat of the Swedes, the heroes of the le of Narva, disdain for the conquered, the rising passion, all empha sized by the rhythm—and I didn't understand a word! roar of applause broke out when Gleb Nikolayevich finished 1st back, cheeks flushed, eyes flashing, challenging, riveted on my face. My ears filled with the babble of voices. I leaned forward.
"Will you teach me Russian?" I asked in a small voice. Why should you want to learn Russian?" he countered sharply. It was as if no one but the two of us had been in the room. I searched in vain for a plausible reason.
"Very well." He bit off the words. "I will teach you Russian. The day after tomorrow at half past eight I shall come to your room for the first lesson."