The smell of tar and fresh lumber filled the air, and instantly my mind went back to Horserod, with its smell of tar warming in the April sunshine, the scent of fresh lumber from the rows of barracks, the wooden walks built on stilts above the mud and creaking under the weight of passing men, resounding to their footfalls. But this was nothing like Horserod.
Murmansk, at the rear of the active front against the Bolsheviks, was warlike, heterogeneous under the intervention of the Allied Forces. It was the main reserve depot of men and supplies, serving the whole northern front. Across wide gaps of no man's land, the front stretched from the Finnish border to the Pechora River in the east, where attempts were repeatedly being made to reach the Ural mountain range to form an effective encircling movement with Kol chak's White armies in Siberia.
The gigantic task of constructing this icefree port some 150 miles within the Arctic Circle had been completed a few years ago. Having mushroomed too fast to carry an imprint of permanence, the town of Murmansk was raw. Everything except the harbor seemed to be improvised. Only the piers stretching their long arms far out into the deep river, beckoning to oceangoing ships, were built to last. And the entire port had the sweeping lines, the impression of im mense space that I later came to identify with Russia.
The spring thaw was just beginning. Lumbering mule-drawn wagons and rattling trucks made deep ruts in the slush and splashed mud on the black tar-paper walls of the barracks, which dried white.
Soldiers came and went, almost all of them in British uniforms. Hands opened and closed doors, leaving circles of greasy grime around the knobs. A group of Chinese laborers was working in the street, their unintelligible conversation and slanting eyes and long pigtails providing a touch of the Orient to the outlandish character of the place.
Beyond the waterfront, the settlement crept up a gently rising slope. Overlooking the river, the administrative barracks of the Allied Forces' headquarters, British, American, French, and Russian, crowded together, each within its compound crisscrossed by paths and sidewalks centered around its flagpole.
Immediately upon landing, Montrichard had gone to report at the French headquarters, and for a time we did not see him. With silent insistence Aleksandr Ivanovich attached himself to me, and under his protection I undertook my first steps upon Russian soil.
Our first duty was to report to the officer commanding the Russian Army. With an odd sense of awe I observed the flag with its simple design of white, blue, and red horizontal stripes flying atop its slender pole, the symbol of old Russia. And although my feelings were still too nebulous to allow me a sense of national pride and affection, this was the premise with which I now tried to adopt her as my own country.
After dealing with Aleksandr Ivanovich, the Russian commander, a tall man with impeccable manners, told me there was no place for women in Murmansk. Oh, yes, of course, he remembered Kirilin, who had passed through on his way to Archangel . As for me, regrettably, he could do nothing, except perhaps offer a cot in a corner of his office.
That night Aleksandr Ivanovich stayed with me on board the Russian steamer berthed in the harbor. For supper we drank tea and ate bully beef out of a can.
The next morning we called at the Embarkation Office in the wooden shack down by the quay. A young British naval officer of massive bulk occupied the chair behind the counter. His rosy, baby- like face protruded above a tight collar. He looked more like a landlubber clerk than a fresh-weather sailor.
"No ships for Archangel within the next three or four weeks," he said in that tone of finality so often adopted by civil servants in posi tions of importance. "That's to say, none for lady passengers." He leaned back comfortably in his chair.
In my naivete I ventured to suggest that a troopship might take on an army nurse going there on duty.
"Sorry, ma'am, hospital ships take nurses, not troopships. But you, sir, better look in now and again. I may be able to arrange your passage quite soon."
Fortunately, I had no difficulty obtaining an interview with Colonel Moss of the Royal Army Medical Corps. A short, dapper man of fair complexion, he looked like an Irishman. His manner was crisp, pleasantly so.
I presented my papers and asked him to help me. He looked them over with care. Finally, having turned over the last page, he said M if speaking to himself, "Of course, of course, the wife of a Russian officer fighting with us in Archangel . A graduate nurse. Of course." He picked up the receiver of the telephone at his elbow. "Put me through to the matron of the Braemer Castle , will you?" He turned to me. "I'm going to put you up on one of our hospital ships. I think you'll be comfortable there. The matron is a very fine woman, served with us all through the war. By the way, do you speak Russian?"
My affirmative answer pleased him. A young doctor on the Braemer Castle , it appeared, was studying scurvy. Would I, as a favor, act as his interpreter for a few hours every morning?
I was delighted. Suddenly my luck had changed and I was given lodging, board, and interesting work.
At the Braemer Castle , many willing hands took charge of me and my luggage. I hardly had time to say good-bye to Aleksandr Ivanovich, who promised he would be back with shipping news every day, before I was whisked up the gangplank into the presence of the beautifully starched and welcoming matron. She took me into a large stateroom and left me there.
The hospital ship represented that other world of civilized order and amenities. The luster of the brass and mahogany, the soft carpet gave me a sense of luxury. I felt like a lost pup having suddenly and mysteriously gained the lapdog's satin cushion.
I sent Gleb a wire about my good luck. It would please him. Being no longer homeless, I saw the path ahead smooth. My one remaining fear was that Gleb might have been sent to the front and that he would not be in Archangel when I arrived.
I became absorbed in the work with the young doctor, and in his discussions and treatment of the anemic patients who came to him with their faces drawn from the pain and the weakening effects of their spongy bleeding gums and other affected membranes.
And so one day passed after the other. Aleksandr Ivanovich called every evening, but there was never good news about our chances for an early departure. In spite of the comfort and felicity of the situation, I began to grow restless.
More than a week later Aleksandr Ivanovich appeared early one afternoon to tell me that two large icebreakers were loading supplies in preparation for leaving for Archangel shortly. Exciting news, to be sure, but what good would it do me?
"I don't know anything for certain," he said, "but I'll be back again tonight. Get ready, Luisa Oskarovna!" At Horserod, when deciding on a patronymic according to Russian usage, I had chosen Father's second name instead of Sixten.
Alone, I did not want to entertain false hopes, but I felt myself trembling with anticipation and excitement. I packed my things, then walked around aimlessly with my heart beating in my throat.
About half an hour after Aleksandr Ivanovich left I had a surprise visit from Montrichard, accompanied by two French naval officers.
"I see you're very comfortable aboard this English ship," he said after introductions were over. "Have you made any arrangements for continuing your journey to Archangel ?"
My negative answer made him smile. "Bon, that's just why we came to see you this afternoon. Would you object to becoming a stowaway?"
"That's a bad joke, Count Claude," I said reprovingly. The proposition seemed too fantastic.
"No, no, madame, I'm quite serious. The Mikula is an icebreaker under the French flag, and these friends of mine are two of her officers. They invite you to make the trip to Archangel with them on two conditions: you must keep it a strict secret, and you must promise not to show yourself on deck until we give you leave. The Mikula is to carry British troops. Que dites-vous, madame?" he added triumphantly.
It was fantastic. A thousand questions: Could it really be done? How do you get smuggled on board a ship? What about an em barkation permit? Was there no risk?
He brushed aside my questions. "Will you do it?"
"Yes, of course!" I answered quickly.
"C'est entendu, dors!" said the tallest of the two French officers. "Can you be ready with your things tonight at eight? We'll be here then with the launch." But what about Aleksandr Ivanovich? I asked. "Don't worry, he's coming too," he assured me.
I could only say, "Thank you," I could hardly think. What incredible luck that I should have fallen in with two such traveling companions as Aleksandr Ivanovich and Montrichard!
Embarkation permit—now I didn't need one. But a landing permit for Archangel ? "Get one if you can," said one of the officers. They took their leave.
My first thought was to send another telegram to Gleb. I wrote: "April twenty-second." That was all; anything more would have given the secret away. He would surely understand and be there to meet me.
With my heart pounding I entered the Embarkation Office.
"What's on your mind today?" drawled the portly officer, leaning back in his chair.
Looking him straight in the eye, I asked for a landing permit for Archangel. The quizzical smile on his face faded.
"Just like that?" he asked, fiddling with a pencil.
"Just like that." I tried to smile.
There was a minute of silence.
"Let's see your passport," he demanded. In a matter-of-fact way he began filling out forms. He gave them to me. "Good luck!"
We shook hands across the counter.
"Thank you!" I flew out of his office.
The only thought that bothered me now was the matron. I could not say good-bye to her because of my promise of secrecy. I could only write to her later.
Just before dusk the Mikula launch made fast alongside the Braemer Castle. Quickly my trunks were transferred to it, no questions asked, no explanations offered.
The boat shot across the black surface of the water around piers and ships, and then out toward two large vessels riding at anchor on the broad river. Expertly I and my seven trunks were handed up
a rope ladder to the deck and I was ushered down into the officers' quarters. With the discreet courtesy characteristic of the French, a few sailors hovered around us. If once I thought that French sailors looked silly with their bright-red pompons atop their flat caps, I no longer thought so.
I was shown into a marvelously spacious and well-appointed state room, one of several opening upon a narrow white passageway. Later I was told it belonged to the second mate. To accommodate the special guest he had willingly doubled up with the first engineer. This turned out to be only one minor aspect of the courtesy and consideration I was to enjoy aboard the Mikula. Indeed, no stowaway before or after me ever crossed the seas in so royal a style as I was to do in the course of the coming exciting week.
The next day the British troops took possession of their forward quarters. Toward evening the deafening clangor of the ship weighing anchor filled our ears. At last we were on our way. I peered through the porthole and without regret watched the profusion of twinkling lights along the piers of Murmansk, their reflections trembling in the swell, gradually becoming obliterated in the distance.
Well out on the Tuloma River a fierce gale from the north plunged our ship into heavy seas, and soon the convoy was obliged to seek shelter in the lee of a small group of islands. Dimly, through the porthole, I could see the hulls of two other ships. Riding their anchors, they looked ghostly in the half-light. And the gale, deviated by the barrier of the islands, howled overhead.
One of these ships was the War Grange, a freighter with a cargo of airplanes. The other was the Svietagor. Originally a Russian icebreaker, now under British command, it was said to be the most powerful then in existence. Its flat bottom slanting upward, both fore and aft, indicated its capacity of breaking the ice going either forward or in reverse, a feat the Mikula could not perform.
Late the next afternoon the convoy struck ice. Through the port hole I saw white ice floes floating here and there upon the black swell. Now and again a floe collided with the ship's hull and the crushed ice dissolved in the foamy wake.
During the night we encountered thick ice. The noise awakened me. I could feel the ship being slammed sideways as it settled into the broken ice, shuddering and shaking. The roar was deafening. How long could the hull withstand the enormous pressure of the elements? I asked myself. And in the midst of it, I fell asleep again.
When the cabin boy, red pompon atop his sailor's hat, brought my hot water in the morning and announced, "Le dejeuner est servi," I realized with a start that the Mikula's engines were silent.
"What's happening? Why are we stopped?"
"We're in the middle of the ice, madame. We'll soon be moving again," he assured me.
I dressed quickly and went into the wardroom. The chief engineer was having breakfast. He explained the situation.
"The Mikula is taking it easy, voyons, while the Svietagor crushes the ice around the War Grange. May be quite a problem to get that big hulk through the ice. But no, we haven't reached the wont yet. We're just at the mouth of the White Sea —we still have to negotiate the narrow gorge. And the ice looks thick, sapristi, but it does! Madame is allowed on deck today. They told you, didn't they? Quite a sight up there."
The engineer was right. Bright sunshine, not the kind of bleak illumination offered by the pale sun of Varda and Pechenga, but a strong white glow blazed upon a fantastic icescape. Shimmering ripples of warming air ascended from the surface of ice and snow, reflecting the intense heat of the sunshine and presaging the approach of spring. As if in a monster's building game, huge blocks of ice were pushed on top of one another, creating towers of sparkling bluish crystal twenty to forty feet high. Vast and dazzling, the ice fields encompassed the whole visible world, and the glare forced me to close my eyes.
At a short distance the War Grange lay immobilized as the Svieta gor broke the ice around the helpless ship. Black smoke poured from the icebreaker's funnels and raced its own shadow across the ice fields. The commander's crisp orders came distinctly through the cold air.
Finally the job was done and the engines of the Mikula resumed their droning murmur. With the two icebreakers abreast crushing open a wide channel, the War Grange followed awkwardly. I stood in the prow and watched as the Mikula, with a mighty effort, heaved itself out of the water and slid far up on a huge floe on its flat bottom. Under its weight black cracks zigzagged like bolts of lightning across the ice and the icebreaker crashed down into the opening channel.
With loud crunching noises, pushed and rocked by the ice, the ships repeated the maneuver over and over, laboriously forcing their way through the dazzling subpolar world of sun and ice.
Suddenly I sensed I was not alone. Turning, I saw one of the British officers standing dose behind me. Broad red braids adorned his cap and sleeves. His short swagger stick rested in the crotch of his arm.
"Marvelous, this, eh?" he said, gazing into the sun and gripping the railing as if intending to break it down. He eyed me up and down. "Didn't know there were any ladies aboard." A small mocking smile played upon his lips. "Where have you been hiding all this time?"
I told him I was the guest of the French officers. I owed him no further explanation.
"Oh?" The officer's eyebrows lifted. "Why don't you come and stay with us instead? You'd be far more comfortable, I'm sure."
When I related the incident to my friends in the wardroom, they chortled heartily. But the next time I encountered the officer his manner was distant and his tone irreproachable.
For three more days the convoy continued to crash through the ice. The going was very slow. Day and night the thick floes thundered against the hull. On the fourth day the convoy picked up a distress signal. A few hours later a small icebound ship out of Malyye Karmakuly on the Novaya Zemlya Islands, with supplies running short and children aboard, was freed and joined the convoy.
Late on the afternoon of the fifth day four ships with the disabled War Grange in tow entered the wide mouth of the North Dvina. Emerging from under a patchy cover of snow, low desolate shorelines etched in brown lined our path. As we slipped into the river, the ice became thinner and the two icebreakers were able to push it aside with greater ease.
This was Russia , this bare expressionless shore, the vast unknown. My heart filled with a kind of fearful anticipation, a feeling of powerful predestination. Would Gleb be there at the end of this fantastic journey to welcome me? His presence would redeem the bleak picture before me and make it appear less foreign, less enigmatic. He had said that I would never understand Russia , never fully realize her essence, and I had refused to believe him. He must be there to greet me, to put animation and beauty and warmth into
these first impressions, to explain to me the secret of this land and to make me love it.
The sun set and left behind an evening sky drenched in flamboyant orange hues that sent fiery reflections across the dusky ice and then lost itself in the outline of the low riverbanks, now turned purple. On the shore two lone pines lifted their dark gnarled silhouettes against the glowing sky.
The river narrowed and along the shores tiny houses came into view. Presently the banks increased in height, becoming steep cliffs. There was now more open water in the river, the current was stronger. Broken pieces of ice raced madly downstream on the rising spring flood.
The houses on the shore gathered closer to one another, and presently Archangel spread itself atop the cliffs along the eastern bank, a spectacle of white colonnades. In their midst, like a magnificent golden crown, the cathedral's four onion-shaped domes shone softly in the fading light of the sunset sky. Under its shadow the Mikula slowly edged alongside the quay.