Three short days after the wedding I stood on the dreary I station platform, watching the red taillight of Gleb's train grow ing smaller and smaller until finally it disappeared in the darkness. And suddenly my heart contracted with the pain of losing him. A scream welled into my throat and stuck there like a cramp. A feeling of bitter animosity, almost hatred, overwhelmed me against relatives and friends, against all those who had been for or against my marriage to Gleb, who had held an opinion on it tacitly or ver bally, as if the fault were theirs that it was turning out this way. My own mother, her heart full of love and with no other desire than to make this moment easier for me, walking there beside me—even she irked me with her unuttered solicitude.
With a thousand finespun threads of family, home, and country, with all that was familiar and safe, these people held me fast against my desperate urge to go with Gleb. I wanted no protection, no safety. I wanted only to share all my life with him, whatever there was to share in that distant unimaginable northern region of Russia . I hated them because at this moment I had not been strong enough to break away. And the feeling of hate gave me a sense of relief.
I became a wife without the prerogatives of a married woman, a flower without petals, a lamp without oil. Indeed, might I not actually have married a condemned man on the eve of his execution? Yet I carried his name, my passport proclaimed me to be of his nationality, a Russian.
A long dreary month went by. I waited for Gleb to send for me. I could not work. The waiting absorbed me, it robbed me of faith, of confidence in myself, in Gleb, in the future. And then another month. Torn between intolerable irritation and anxiety, I waited. I waited as if in the whole world there were nothing else to do.
When the unbelievable happened, when the telegram came from Archangel, when the sudden burst of light broke through the dark clouds, it shocked me into a frenzy of activity.
Gleb wanted me. He wanted me to be with him, the words sang in my heart. The thought elated me. Once again the ground was firm under my feet. My position as wife became full of meaning, full of plans, full of future.
With trembling haste I tackled the preparations for the long jour ney north, to Gleb. Trunk after trunk I packed with things I thought I might need to establish my new home. Eagerly I secured the papers, tickets, visas, credentials that would transplant my whole life into the unknown soil of Russia, my husband's country.
Mother was silent. Each preparation was a labor of sorrow for her. Often tears dropped on her busy hands as she sewed for me and helped me to pack. I turned away not to see them. My whole world centered on Gleb, my tall fair warrior, and this extraordinary chance to go to him and be with him. The thought transcended and engulfed every other consideration. He, the husband, beckoned with all the magnetism of love. And there was no other will, no other desire, no other possibility but to travel to the end of the earth to join him.
On April Fool's Day of 1919 I found myself leaning out of the window of the train, waving away all that I was leaving behind, family, home, safety. I saw the scarlet band around the stationmaster's cap and then the white fluttering square of Mother 's handkerchief, an insistent white dot following the train as it picked up speed. It reached the end of the long platform and there for an instant it stayed poised motionless in the air, before the increasing distance finally obliterated it.
A sudden feeling of panic brought tears to my eyes. Where was I going? For what was I about to exchange all that I had known of home and family in a safe, peaceful land? Was I destined never to return? Was the fluttering handkerchief the last I would ever see of my mother?
And then my thoughts flew to my dead father and to the lost home of my childhood. Memories sprang forth—the sweet fragrance of a thousand white anemones crowding upon the carpet of dead needle- narrow leaves under the larches, the first skylark's loud song as it lifted on the wings of its own rapture over the fields waterlogged from the winter's snows, the strong feeling of partnership with nature.
Was I bent upon a fool's errand? No, no, following Gleb into war, wherever the road led, was natural and justified. Thousands of women before me had done the same thing, were doing so now. This was my wedding trip. Thus, on All Fool's Day, at the age of twenty- four, I came to a crossroad and took a left turn in an entirely new direction.
The journey through Sweden lasted a day and two nights. It led farther and farther northward through great forests intersected by great rivers. The train began to climb the slowly rising eastern slope of the ancient Scandinavian mountain range.
In a driving snowstorm the train swept up to Riksgransen, the lonely last outpost of the Swedish railway within the Arctic Circle. Gathering speed, it droned through the snow tunnel along the mountainside, and in a cloud of snow it dropped zigzagging down into Norway . With each lap the mountain walls rose higher and higher, darkened by the humidity fanned by the milder winds from the Atlantic Ocean. On the other side I gazed dizzily into the deep chasm of a Norwegian fjord; a short while later, the train slid smoothly into the immaculate railway station of Narvik.
The town is an important port of export for the lumber trade. Heavy wet snow was falling as I got off the train. Slush covered the streets. The modest hotel shone with cleanness. The wooden floors, innocent of wax, were scrubbed white. My room was plain. It was warm and smelled pleasantly of wood smoke.
The next day a small tug took me and my seven trunks to Lofoten, the rocky islands jutting out into the sea, famous for their scenic beauty. A gray swell heaved under the boat, reflecting the gray mist that swathed the islands and then lost itself into the overcast above.
We hove to at a small fishing village. Its houses clung precariously to the steep slope down to the water. A row of well-built boathouses on stilts provided them with a bulwark of safety.
The master of the tugboat, hard-fisted, crisp of speech, got his crew and two or three people who had come down to the landing place to unload my trunks. The coastal steamer was due within the hour.
Aboard ship I found myself in a small world of comfort and luxury. The stateroom was elegant and the table excellent. The beauty of this land and sea fascinated me. It filled every nautical mile with variations of mood and illumination of a magnificence I had never dreamed existed. Pierced by deep dark fjords, this coast of Norway shattered into innumerable islands, into steep cliffs topped with snow, rough pyramids of rock that plunged abruptly into the sea. When occasionally the sun's slanting rays penetrated the shredded gray clouds and the mists lifted, the effect of sudden illumination upon this landscape of mountains, sea, and snow was indescribably enchanting.
Slowly the ship steamed into the harbor of Troms0. There was a forest of mastheads along the quay. Squat, broad-beamed fishing boats rolled into port with their decks slippery with herring scales. Countless gulls wheeled overhead, sounding their petulant cries. In the center of the town the cathedral reached its spire high above the roofs of the neat and modest houses. A wall of snow-capped mountains sheltered them against the biting northerly winds.
A lively place bustling with activity, Tromso possessed the atmosphere of freshness and energy that belongs to places where people live in constant struggle with the elements. It was the gateway to the far Arctic, opening upon little-traveled latitudes. As we steamed out of the harbor, a cascade of silvery sunbeams broke through the fog and for a few minutes played upon the swell of the sea and the snowy mountainsides, exploding a profusion of stars.
Twice more we made port, at Hammerfest, the town that still today claims to be the most northerly in the world, and Honningsveg, a fishing village tucked into a sheltered spot at the south end of Nord Kapp. Then the ship plowed through the choppy, frigid Barents Sea, until in the gathering dusk of the early afternoon of another day it tied up at the makeshift quay at Varda.
Upon arrival we were told that the boat to Murmansk had just left. It would be at least a week before it returned.
Varde's unassuming hostelry housed and catered to the constant stream of travelers that passed to and from Russia. Few women journeyed in my direction. Most of them traveled the opposite way, out of Russia, away from the war zone, to seek safety in foreign lands. A group of refugee women and children was just being picked up by the coastal ship that had brought me here.
The table d'hote, this shrewd arrangement practiced by most Scandinavian out-of-the-way hostelries, placed me between two men, one Russian and the other French. We passed each other the salt, the pepper, the bread.
Aleksandr Ivanovich had arrived by steerage on the coastal steamer. His round head was dose-cropped; his face was sallow, with the high cheekbones of the Slav. One might have called him ugly had it not been for the luminous expression in his light-gray eyes. He gave the impression of being one of those old-style officers of the Russian army who, lacking enough food, equipment, and ammunition, became legendary during the First World War for their dogged, uncomplaining pursuit of the war until there was no front left to hold.
The fellow on my left, Count Claude de Montrichard, was in sharp contrast to Aleksandr Ivanovich. His urbane manners, the easy shrug of the shoulders immediately proclaimed his French origin. Handsomely turned out in sky-blue tunic and scarlet breeches and with a tiny black moustache adding to the dapper appearance, he looked exotic in these drab arctic surroundings. He had served with the French Air Force during the war, he said, and he was now traveling from Paris to Archangel as a diplomatic courier.
The three of us became constant companions. Together we explored Vard0, the small town perched upon the northwestern headland that forms a part of the Vardanger Fjord coast. There were no sidewalks. Low, dark, weathered houses lay scattered about on the bare tundra, wherever the wall of a cleft or a shallow ravine afforded some protection against the polar winds, all facing south in search of warmth and light. Silhouetted against the gray stormy sky high on the barren hills, frozen codfish hung to dry flapped in the wind, producing loud eerie clapping noises.
The town was blessed with a picture show. The dingy, smelly room had hard wooden seats and an out-of-tune upright piano. One evening a spotty, jumpy Charlie Chaplin film transported its audience into paroxysms of hilarity. The children in their fur-lined parkas shook with laughter, and drowned out the tinny music of the piano with their screams of delight.
When the audience burst forth from the cramped theater into the frosty night, the sky was ablaze with a magnificent display of the
aurora borealis. Huge iridescent curtains of light waved overhead, the glow reflected upon our upturned faces. A faint crackling sound seemed to come from the sparkling multicolored draperies, like static electricity crackling under a hand stroking lightly the back of a cat.
"The Murmansk boat just docked!"
The news caused a stir of excitement. The waiting was at an end. A throng of passengers inundated the hotel. Men in the uniforms of the Allied Forces mingled with the civilians. Some wore the bored expressions of those who had to pass through this confounded place yet another time. Others, their eyes fearful and questioning, gave evidence of uneasiness at their abrupt arrival into the frightening, free "outside" world.
A Russian woman with two small children could not get a room. An awful dread of the future gleamed in her eyes. I offered her my room, and the act put me in a heroic mood. Gleb had so often said I did not understand his and Russia 's troubles, but I would prove him wrong. That night I went to sleep on the floor of the hotel's palm-filled parlor. The doors did not close, so I placed my trunks in a protecting circle around me.
The next day we boarded the boat. I was sitting on the deck on one of my trunks, waiting to be assigned to a cabin, when a tall, lanky man pushed through the throng of people on the quay. Slowly and deliberately he made his way up the gangplank; I recognized the British consul, whom Montrichard and I had visited a few days before to make sure our papers were in order.
"Hello," he called. "Bad news!"
My heart gave a jolt, my thoughts raced to Gleb. "Nothing to do with me, I hope?"
"Orders just came through for this ship to go into Pechenga to take on British troops for Murmansk ," he said crisply. "Women are not allowed on board troopships."
I was the only woman aboard. I sat tense waiting for his next word:
"If anybody asks any questions, just say you didn't see me." A fleeting smile and he was gone.
Tears filled my eyes and I dived precipitately belowdecks.
The stench down there was staggering. Never had I dreamed air could be so befouled. An unholy mixture of odors of ancient limbers, drains, stale water, greasy cooking, lavatory, and seasickness made my stomach heave. I reached for the companionway and got up on deck before being sick.
After a frantic search I found Aleksandr Ivanovich and Montrichard in the smoking room aft, busily making themselves comfortable in the airy, half-circular place. Had they been below? I told them of the smell down there in the horrible cubbyholes they called cabins. I would be sick if I had to stay there. Had they seen the consul? What did he say? They laughed uproariously at my woebegone fact.
"Never mind, don't worry. Here," Montrichard said with a sweepi ng gesture of his hand. "We invite you to share this salon We'll look after you. See," he indicated the red plush the floor-fast table, "there you can make your bed, and of room here for both you and us and your baggage too."
His tone was frank and courteous, reassuring, with the ship common among travelers. Relieved, I accepted their invitation, and I was soon to learn in what good company I was, how lucky I was that they had come to Varda at the same time I did, and that the table d'hote arrangement had placed me between them.
A small icebreaker met the ship at the mouth of the Pechenga Fjord, and in its wake we steamed slowly through the opened channel, full of broken ice that scraped and bounced against the hull.
Some twenty miles farther on the isolated Finnmarken village of Pechenga was situated, and forty miles or so beyond it the borders of three countries, Russia , Norway, and Finland, met. A cold wintry sun shone bleakly upon the rolling hills of the snow-covered land scape.
As we approached our destination my anxiety increased. There the troops would board the ship. With dismay I thought of the possibility of being put ashore in this dismal place. How would I live? How would I ever be able to get out of here again to travel to Gleb across hundreds of miles of tundra and wilderness? Would I be permitted to board another ship if it chanced to call? What an ill-contrived ending to an enterprising journey! And in spite of my companions' assurance of protection, I was afraid.
About two miles off Pechenga the two ships made fast at the edge of the ice. Soon long trains of reindeer surrounded us, each animal tied to the preceding akja, the boatlike sledge used by the Lapps. At the head of the train the owner ran easily on long slender cross- country skies. Some of these trains consisted of as many as eight or ten reindeer sleds loaded with furs and other trade goods. Unhurriedly the caravans milled around the ships. Trading was a slow process; the men were chary, halting, like their harsh, abrupt speech.
Montrichard lent me his binoculars, and I saw the scattered tiny houses of the village nestled under the still deep cover of snow. Beyond them the glitter of gold broke from the onion domes of the famous Boris i Gleb Monastery, where holy men of the Orthodox faith hid away in Arctic isolation for prayer and penance. The place had an austere charm and beauty. Only once in a lifetime destiny might take the traveler to such a far place. My curiosity and the fascination of its utter remoteness aroused a desire to see more, to explore the deeper meaning of this land and the people that inhabited it. This was my first meeting with Russia .
In the afternoon the troops invaded the ship, khaki-clad men with ruddy faces under enormous wolfskin hats, with clumsy white Shackleton boots on their feet and dry jokes on their lips. They stomped down belowdecks, and I marveled at their immunity to the stench.
Suddenly the door of our salon was flung open and a tall, boyish- looking British officer entered, obviously the commander of the troops.
"Hello," he said pleasantly and, sitting down on Aleksandr Ivano vich's bed, he pulled out his cigarettes and lit one. I shrank into the farthest corner of my couch in a forlorn attempt to remain unnoticed. Surely the dreaded moment had arrived.
"How long have you been here?" Montrichard spoke English with hardly a trace of an accent. He threw a glance of quiet encouragement in my direction.
"Oh, about two months. Rotten place—absolutely rotten, nothing to do. Bad spot for spies, though. A weak spot in the armor, so to speak, one has to be on the alert. However, nice to get back into circulation again. You going to Archangel , I s'ppose?"
Montrichard nodded. By this time the rattling of chains and shouts of command reached my unbelieving ears. A hope flickered ever so faintly.
"We're due at Murmansk tomorrow, I understand," Montrichard went on. "Have a cup of tea?"
Aleksandr Ivanovich caught up the empty teakettle, dived down into the galley for boiling water, and was back again in a moment. I threw a handful of tea leaves into the kettle, shook it, stirred it, then poured the dark-brown brew into three mugs and a glass.
"At this time of the year you'll have some difficulty reaching Archangel ," the officer warned. The mention of new difficulties made me almost forget the present threat of being left in Pechenga. But the young man still seemed to be unaware of my presence. Desperately I thought: When will this ship begin to move?
"The breakup, you mean?" I blessed Montrichard for keeping the conversation going.
"More than likely the last icebreaker—your last chance – will have left for Archangel by the time we dock tomorrow, the officer ex plained. "Overland the railway takes you only as far as Kem. The r est of the four hundred-odd miles must be traveled endless swamps. They're frozen hard in winter, but by April they are i mpassable, and the breakup lasts two months." He took a few puffs on his cigarette. "Going by sea is no better; icebreakers can't get through the narrow gorge of the White Sea when it's choked ice."
The young man took a sip of tea. The blue smoke of his cigarette dissipated in the air, leaving a smell of good tobacco.
And then, through the conversation, I heard the peremptory tinkle of the bell in the engine room. At last—at long last! The ship lurched, the hull ground against the ice. I was the only one who seemed to take any notice of what was happening. In a few mo ments the engines droned evenly, reassuringly. I felt marvelously relaxed.
Happy to have somebody to talk with, the young officer went on: "Just heard Shackleton got through overland, in the nick of time, one might say. The route goes through no man's land. They'd had a few scraps with the Bolos, it seems."
One difficulty safely overcome, others loomed ahead. Gleb must have had sublime confidence in my ability to conquer the unimaginable when he called me to come to Archangel.
"Well, cheerio, must get down to my men."
I had to ask the question: "Have you been below?"
"You don't mind the dreadful stench?"
"Hardly noticed." And he was gone.
I was abashed. Hard wars make hardened men. I was glad that Gleb was not there—he would have laughed at a soldier's wife complaining of a bad smell.
The blue-gray sea was like a looking glass as our ship steamed slowly into the wide mouth of the Tuloma River , breaking the gleaming surface. I had by this time acquired a strong feeling of affection for this Russian ship that pursued whatever useful service was demanded from her with dogged perseverance, carrying on board an indifferent crowd today, gone tomorrow. She slid over the magnetic pole with no other signs of the event than the dizzy dance of the compass in its box on the bridge. Through a haze of flattened motionless smoke I discerned in the distance an array of masts. It was Murmansk, the northernmost end of the Murman railway, Russia 's one icefree port bearing upon the Atlantic, where the whip lash current of the Gulf Stream warmed the Arctic waters.
Detaching itself slowly from the haze, a steamer forged toward us, black smoke belching from her funnels, a collar of white foam at her bow. As we met, flags dipped into the backwash in mutual salute. I saw the name Canada in large black lettering on her curved bow. Greetings roared from ship to ship. White handkerchiefs fluttered in the wind from crowded decks.
"There she goes!" The exclamation came from behind me.
"Who? What d'you mean?"
"The last icebreaker to Archangel."
There she goes! Couldn't she have waited just one more hour for us? What now? How long, for how many days and weeks, perhaps, would we have to wait for the next chance to continue the long journey? A chill wind curling the top of the water made me shudder.