THE green-shaded lamp threw a soft light over books and blotting paper as I sat with my Russian teacher at the desk in my tiny room in the Danish nurses' barracks. Through the thin walls came voices, some high-pitched with the softly slurred Danish accent mingled with deeper masculine tones. All struggled with the same perplexing task of teaching and learning Russian.
A soft tongue of a thousand nuances, the Russian language lends itself equally well to high forms of poetry and to abusive utterances. Its syntax baffled me, vastly different from any of the other languages I had studied. Its lack of articles puzzled me. I was amazed to find that when I wanted to say, "I have a chair," I had to say in Russian, "By me chair." And there were the many long words full of sh and shch sounds, and the pronunciation was very hard.
I tried again: "Oo menya jest stol."
"No, can't you hear? The l should be hard— stoll —not soft."
"God, you have no ear!" He threw up his hands in despair.
Gleb Nikolayevich was by no means a patient teacher, though an utterly painstaking one. He would not let me off until I had mastered the evil word to his satisfaction. Once I realized this, my aptitude for mimicry came to my aid and, surprisingly, I eventually acquired the "ear."
The hours we spent together in the evenings soon were extended to my official hours of free time after lunch. We went for long walks in the winter-bound beech forests that surrounded the camp. The officers were allowed outside the camp. There they felt free. There they were simply invalids under the bond of their word of
honor to their neutral hosts. And the relationship between hosts and bonded was one of mutual trust.
Gleb's two best friends also became my friends. We called Konstantin Pavlovich Trebinsky "Ptichka," meaning "little bird," because he looked like one with his pinched face, hawk nose, and slightly bulging eyes. The name did not offend him; on the contrary, it flattered and pleased him.
Stanislav Stanislavovich Vronsky was Gleb's roommate. He was Polish by birth. His pleasant, somewhat coarse face expressed an abundance of goodwill. The war had robbed him of his right leg, and he named his artificial leg Marie. He accused her of fickleness, a disinclination to obey orders. He left her for the most part standing at attention by his cot, while he gaily hopped around on his crutches.
On my day off the four of us undertook excursions on rented bicycles to various places of interest in the neighborhood. Vronsky usually led the way, his crutches lashed to the crossbar, his one leg pedaling at double speed, always tactfully refraining from glancing back at Gleb and me as we lagged a bit behind.
We visited Helsingar, the Elsinore made famous in Shakespeare's Hamlet, not far from the camp. A charming town even in winter, full of stately trees, parks, old houses, and quaint streets, it sprawled along the narrowest part of the sound linking the Baltic with the Kattegat, the arm of the North Sea that separates Denmark from Sweden . Under the elms that stood guard around Hamlet's empty sarcophagus, as if insisting upon the reality of the character supposed to be entombed there, we spent hours. Here, with his hand clasping mine, he spoke to me of his literary aspirations and ideas, thoughts never before expressed—Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tolstoi. And at these moments of close confidence, I felt the shy, uncertain groping for love and trust, his need for an anchor.
Together we explored the famous fortress Kronborg with its green copper roof, erected in 1425 at the edge of the sound and serving as a bastion during periods of war between the two close neighbors. High up on the bulwarks, with the fresh sea air upon our faces, we sat close together on the old canon and gazed across the water to Sweden, my land with its low contour outlined in the hazy distance. I looked up at him and there was a smile of deep understanding on the boyish face. Desperately I wanted to talk with him of the war, to penetrate the things that touched him and his life most deeply, to share his pain and make it mine. Love is sometimes guilty of monumental indiscretions. But the hard look that on these occasions came into his eyes, the curt severity that immediately put its stamp on his whole attitude, warned me not to trespass. I thought on these occasions that he felt no love, that he would not let me in. There was nothing for me, nothing but the slight limp, the dark-brown stain of blood on his torn and war-worn greatcoat.
Strange moods possessed him, moods of teasing mockery or of perverse bitterness. To hell with what's to happen next! This atti tude sometimes alternated with an overly sensitive and prideful withdrawal at the least suggestion of sympathy or affection. This constant swinging between emotional extremes I found very difficult to under stand, to gauge, and to parry.
Zinaida Andreyevna realized my difficulties.
"Gleb Nikolayevich needs very careful handling," she explained as we were talking in her room. "All these men live on a volcano of nerves, resulting partly from the suffering of their bodies, partly from the war, the risks, the imprisonment. They are hypersensitive. Too much pain, mental and physical, becomes unbearable. So they hide their thoughts and feelings under various pretexts. And this relieves them."
She sat for a while without moving, her hands resting in her lap.
"Gleb Nikolayevich's story is unusual. He's probably told you that his home is in Tsarskoe Selo. His father, a general and a lawyer, was a fine man. Gleb and his two brothers, Vladimir and Boris, were educated in the Corps des Pages. Most of our grand dukes received their education there. Gleb's class was the last one to graduate before the war. Their graduation was hastened because of the war, so that these young officers, few older than nineteen, could be posted to the regiments of the Imperial Guards at once. These were our best troops, reliable, skilled, and by tradition the most courageous. They were immediately assigned to the forward positions in Galicia and Poland . 'First to attack, last to retreat' was their motto. And among these troops, at the very beginning of the war, we suffered our most grievous losses."
She smoothed her apron with her hand. Her voice was full of emotion. "What horrible waste that was!" she continued. "The cream of Russia 's manhood sacrificed rashly in a mad flurry of premature advances. The result was inevitable—overextended lines, poor support, followed by a disastrous retreat. While their regiments on the same battlefield covered the retreat, Vladimir was killed and Gleb seriously wounded and taken prisoner. And this was the beginning of the great Russian disaster."
She paused. When she took up her story once again, her voice was infinitely sad.
"Communications with the front were poor. Finally word came to Tsarskoe Selo that both Vladimir and Gleb had been killed in battle. The blow was too much for their mother. She threw herself out of the window and died on the way to the hospital. Two years later, Boris was killed in battle too."
Again she paused, but her tale was not yet finished.
"My husband was at the same prisoner-of-war camp as Gleb. He saw how badly he was wounded, how his hip had been shattered by shrapnel, the bones splintered. For a long time he was not expected to pull through. And the suffering—who can tell the extent of it? His recovery was very slow, it took years, and they dared not tell him about his mother and brothers. He was told here only a short time before you came."
For a long time we both sat very still and silent.
All the Russians in the camp, men and women, officers and soldiers, followed with intense interest and apprehension the portentous events that were currently taking place in their homeland. Vladimir Hitch Ulyanov, who called himself Lenin now, had emerged from obscurity to direct events since the October uprising when the Bolsheviks came to power. Lenin's political skill and daring were uncanny. He knew how to turn every event, every circumstance to his own advantage. During his years of exile he had prepared himself well for the critical historical moment that he knew was coming. The century- long oppression to which the lower classes of the Russian people had been subjected was the source from which the great revolution aries like Lenin drew personal strength. In February 1917, while Lenin was in Switzerland , his great moment finally arrived. His train rolled across Germany to Petrograd and he became the head of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Even in a place like Horserod, far removed from the epicenter of the Russian earthquake, its repercussions were keenly felt. With every dispatch of fresh news the nervous tensions between officers and soldiers increased. The February events, now that the new regime had become firmly established, had a profound effect upon the political climate in the camp. There were explosive outbreaks of hostility and insubordination.
The officers reacted strongly. Their committee, which heretofore had been responsible for the maintenance of order within the barbed-wire enclosure, emphatically rejected any departure from accepted military discipline. This, they considered, would be unseemly so long as they remained the guests of their neutral hosts. But, as further news came through, the situation gradually worsened. Like a treacherous undercurrent that could be neither damned nor ignored, subversion seeped in and spread into one barracks after another in the soldiers' camp. Small groups sitting together on the beds held surreptitious meetings to discuss the situation. The atmosphere in the formerly peaceful camp became reticent, divided, oppressive. The Danish administration kept strictly aloof. The maintenance of out ward discipline and order was their business. With authoritative discretion they avoided all meddling in the camp's inner political affairs.
And then, early one afternoon, a seething, grumbling mob of soldiers assembled outside the officers' committee room. Quite obviously many of them considered this demonstration an act of excessive daring. It was to them too abrupt a breech of ingrained discipline. And they hesitated. But bold agitators arose in their midst and with their strident eloquence soon cast timidity and hesitancy to the winds. The soldiers demanded the immediate dissolution of the officers' committee and the surrender of all authority. The Revolution had caught fire in the Horserod camp.
After a brief and fainthearted palaver, the officers' committee, to which Gleb and Trebinsky belonged, ingloriously capitulated. It was immediately replaced by the soldiers' soviet. An ambitious sergeant from Barracks 42, a keen student of self-promoting schemes, was chosen as chairman of this self-appointed body. And that night the soldiers' camp reverberated with boisterous celebrations of the new regime, of the quick victory won with such ease. Now freedom was theirs, and an intoxicating new power.
The officers' barracks were plunged into gloom. When the tsar had been deposed, the situation of these men had not appeared to be threatened. Almost all of them had recognized the necessity of a democratic revolution in Russia, and they had pledged it their support. But now, suddenly, storm clouds had overtaken them and threatened to unleash upon their heads unknown violence. Their first reaction was an overwhelming resentment against fate and heartbreaking disillusionment. They had endured the deadly dangers and the nerve-racking experiences of the war, they had wasted the best years of their young lives in enemy prison camps. Was all this in vain? Were they to return home to total upheaval and devastation? It was staggering. They couldn't believe it. Doomed by the epaulets on their shoulders, they belonged to the now outlawed ruling class, looked upon with indiscriminate hatred that was impervious to reason. Revenge, blood, executions—these were the new order of the day in Russia . The passionately longed-for, the endlessly anticipated day of homecoming had turned into an event of paralyzing disenchantment. They were caught in a hideous trap.
The effect of the shock varied with character and personality. A surprisingly small number of the officers started to cut their epaulets from their tunics. The next morning they went over to the soldiers' camp and attempted to exact from the hard new masters a promise of at least tolerable acceptance in return for their offer of fealty.
To another group the mere thought of returning home under these evil circumstances was intolerable. General Kliuev and Trebinsky were among these. They applied to the Danes for political asylum and it was granted. And they began the tedious, often humiliating business of trying to adjust to their new existence as refugees in a foreign land. Some of these, the luckier and more adaptable ones, were eventually able to blend successfully into the new life and environment, by means of talent and ambition to carve for themselves places of personal fulfillment. But many, frustrated and discouraged by their dependence upon charity, remained irrevocably torn from their roots, racked by nostalgia for a land they could neither return to nor forget.
Through Gleb's and my meetings ran an undercurrent of immense sadness, a sense of impending disaster that we could not shake and that affected every word uttered, every thought cherished and hidden. As the events pressed in upon us, I imagined that the cynical bravado that had so disturbed me had left him forever. But no, it was creeping back, poisoning his thoughts.
"Lisinka, listen, listen to me!" His voice was impatient, low, his lips taut. "In two days I'm leaving to go back home."
I stood speechless.
"Listen!" I did not realize it was his voice I heard. But his words formed into sentences, like building blocks, one laid upon the other. "Lisa, I must go back to Russia !" Now his voice was plead ing. "I have to see for myself what's going on there. I must know." The clipped sentences followed in rapid succession. "My father, my sister Marie, the only ones left of my family, are there alone. The thought is unbearable. You understand? Don't you, Lisa?" At long last he was talking to me of the things that concerned him most deeply. If I smiled, it was quite unconsciously.
"I can no longer bear to sit here in idle safety like a coward while they are perhaps in danger. You understand? I'm free to go." He put strong emphasis on every word, and I wondered dully, What was he trying to convince me of?
Now softly: "It's not only my family—what is left of them—it's Russia . This, perhaps, you cannot understand?" He hesitated, as if he had asked too much. "For better or for worse my destiny is tied with Russia. Lisa, I cannot stay away."
All my arguments against his leaving me lay shattered, like a card house collapsed by a puff of wind, unuttered. The shadow of this monster Russia, too distant and unreal to comprehend, demolished in that instant every claim upon him I might ever have insisted upon.
Two days later firm decisive footsteps resounded in the long corridor outside my door in the Danish nurses' barracks, steps indicating a slight limp. It was early morning, just after breakfast. Without knocking, Gleb entered. In his hand was his faded and worn peaked cap with the officer's badge. He had always worn it rakishly cocked over one ear.
"Lisa, I brought you this. It's the only thing of value I have." I was in his arms. A few moments later he was gone, and I stood with his cap in my hand. All the way down the long passageway his steps reechoed loudly. A door opened and slammed shut. And it was the end.