GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers, New York by arrangement with GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1916 BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
* * * * *
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED
BY HIS FRIEND THE AUTHOR
* * * * *
I. SPRING IN THE TRAIN
II. THE SCHOOL-HOUSE
III. THE INVISIBLE BATTLE
V. FIRST MOVE TO THE ENEMY
VI. THE RETREAT
VII. ONE NIGHT
I. THE LOVERS
II. MARIE IVANOVNA
III. THE FOREST
V. THE DOOR CLOSES BEHIND THEM
* * * * *
SPRING IN THE TRAIN
His was the first figure to catch my eye that evening in Petrograd; he stood under the dusky lamp in the vast gloomy Warsaw station, with exactly the expression that I was afterwards to know so well, impressed not only upon his face but also upon the awkwardness of his arms that hung stiffly at his side, upon the baggy looseness of his trousers at the knees, the unfastened straps of his long black military boots. His face, with its mild blue eyes, straggly fair moustache, expressed anxiety and pride, timidity and happiness, apprehension and confidence. He was in that first moment of my sight of him as helpless, as unpractical, and as anxious to please as any lost dog in the world—and he was also as proud as Lucifer. I knew him at once for an Englishman; his Russian uniform only accented the cathedral-town, small public-school atmosphere of his appearance. He was exactly what I had expected. He was not, however, alone, and that surprised me. By his side stood a girl, obviously Russian, wearing her Sister's uniform with excitement and eager anticipation, her eyes turning restlessly from one part of the platform to another, listening with an impatient smile to the remarks of her companion.
From where I stood I could hear his clumsy, hesitating Russian and her swift, preoccupied replies. I came up to them.
"Mr. Trenchard?" I asked.
He blushed, stammered, held out his hand, missed mine, blushed the more, laughed nervously.
"I'm glad ... I knew ... I hope...."
I could feel that the girl's eyes were upon me with all the excited interest of one who is expecting that every moment of her new wonderful experience will be of a stupendous, even immortal quality.
"I am Sister Marie Ivanovna, and you are, of course, Mr. Durward," she said. "They are all waiting for you—expecting you—you're late, you know!" She laughed and moved forward as though she would accompany me to the group by the train. We went to the train together.
"I should tell you," she said quickly and suddenly with nervousness, "that we are engaged, Mr. Trenchard and I—only last night. We have been working at the same hospital.... I don't know any one," she continued in the same intimate, confiding whisper. "I would be frightened terribly if I were not so excited. Ah! there's Anna Mihailovna.... I know her, of course. It was through, her aunt—the one who's on Princess Soboleff's train—that I had the chance of going with you. Oh! I'm so happy that I had the chance—if I hadn't had it...."
We were soon engulfed now. I drew a deep breath and surrendered myself. The tall, energetic figure of Anna Mihailovna, the lady to whose practical business gifts and unlimited capacity for compelling her friends to surrender their last bow and button in her service we owed the existence of our Red Cross unit, was to be seen like a splendid flag waving its followers on to glory and devotion. We were devoted, all of us. Even I, whose second departure to the war this was, had after the feeblest resistance surrendered myself to the drama of the occasion. I should have been no gentleman had I done otherwise.
After the waters had closed above my head for, perhaps, five minutes of strangled, half-protesting, half-willing surrender I was suddenly compelled, by what agency I know not, to struggle to the surface, to look around me, and then quite instantly to forget my immersion. The figure of Trenchard, standing exactly as I had left him, his hands uneasily at his sides, a half-anxious, half-confident smile on his lips, his eyes staring straight in front of him, absolutely compelled my attention. I had forgotten him, we had all forgotten him, his own lady had forgotten him. I withdrew from the struggling, noisy group and stepped back to his side. It was then that, as I now most clearly remember, I was conscious of something else, was aware that there was a strange faint blue light in the dark clumsy station, a faint throbbing glow, that, like the reflection of blue water on a sunlit ceiling, hovered and hung above the ugly shabbiness of the engines and trucks, the rails with scattered pieces of paper here and there, the iron arms that supported the vast glass roof, the hideous funnel that hung with its gaping mouth above the water-tank. The faint blue light was the spring evening—the spring evening that, encouraged by God knows what brave illusion, had penetrated even these desperate fastnesses. A little breeze accompanied it and the dirty pieces of paper blew to and fro; then suddenly a shaft of light quivered upon the blackness, quivered and spread like a golden fan, then flooded the huge cave with trembling ripples of light. There was even, I dare swear, at this safe distance, a smell of flowers in the air.
"It's a most lovely ..." Trenchard said, smiling at me, "spring here ... I find...."
I was compelled by some unexpected sense of fatherly duty to be practical.
"You've got your things?" I said. "You've found your seat?"
"Well, I didn't know ..." he stammered.
"Where are they?" I asked him.
He was not quite sure where they were. He stood, waving his hands, whilst the golden sunlight rippled over his face. I was suddenly irritated.
"But please," I said, "there isn't much time. Four of us men have a compartment together. Just show me where your things are and then I'll introduce you." He seemed reluctant to move, as though the spot that he had chosen was the only safe one in the whole station; but I forced him forward, found his bags, had them placed in their carriage, then turned to introduce him to his companions.
Anna Mihailovna had said to me: "This detachment will be older than the last. Doctor Nikitin—he'll take that other doctor's place, the one who had typhus—and Andrey Vassilievitch—you've known him for years. He talks a great deal but he's sympathetic and such a good business man. He'll be useful. Then there's an Englishman; I don't know much about him, except that he's been working for three months at the English Hospital. He's not a correspondent, never written a line in his life. I only saw him for a moment, but he seemed sympathetic...."
Anna Mihailovna, as is well known to all of us, finds every one sympathetic simply because she has so much to do and so many people to see that she has no time to go deeply into things. If you have no time for judging character you must have some good common rule to go by. I had known little Andrey Vassilievitch for some years and had found him tiresome. Finally, I did not care about the possibility of an Englishman. Perhaps I had wished (through pride) to remain the only Englishman in our "Otriad." I had made friends with them all, I was at home with them. Another Englishman might transplant me in their affections. Russians transfer, with the greatest ease, their emotions from one place to another; or he might be a failure and so damage my country's reputation. Some such vain and stupid prejudice I had. I know that I looked upon our new additions with disfavour.
There, at any rate, Dr. Nikitin and little Andrey Vassilievitch were, and a strange contrast they made. Nikitin's size would have compelled attention anywhere, even in Russia, which is, of course, a country of big men. It was not only that he was tall and broad; the carriage of his head, the deep blackness of his beard, his eyebrows, his eyes, the sure independence with which he held himself, as though he were indifferent to the whole world (and that I know that he was), must anywhere have made him remarked and remembered. He looked now immensely fine in his uniform, which admirably suited him. He stood, without his greatcoat, his hand on his sword, his eyes half-closed as though he were almost asleep, and a faint half-smile on his face as though he were amused at his thoughts. I remember that my first impression of him was that he was so completely beneath the domination of some idea or remembrance that, at that moment, no human being could touch him. When I took Trenchard up to him I was so conscious of his remoteness that I was embarrassed and apologetic.
And if I was aware of Nikitin's remoteness I was equally conscious of Andrey Vassilievitch's proximity. He was a little man of a round plump figure; he wore a little imperial and sharp, inquisitive moustaches; his hair was light brown and he was immensely proud of it. In Petrograd he was always very smartly dressed. He bought his clothes in London and his plump hands had a movement familiar to all his friends, a flicker of his hands to his coat, his waistcoat, his trousers, to brush off some imaginary speck of dust. It was obvious now that he had given very much thought to his uniform. It fitted him perfectly, his epaulettes glittered, his boots shone, his sword was magnificent, but he looked, in spite of all his efforts, exactly what he was, a rich successful merchant; never was there any one less military. He had dressed up, one might suppose, for some fancy-dress ball.
I could see at once that he was ill at ease, anxious as ever to please every one, to like every one, to be liked in return, but unable, because of some thought that troubled him, to give his whole attention to this business of pleasing.
He greeted me with a warmth that was really genuine although he bestowed it upon his merest acquaintances. His great dream in life was a universal popularity—that every one should love him. At any rate at that time I thought that to be his dream—I know now that there was something else.
"But Ivan Petrovitch!... This is delightful! Here we all are! What pleasure! Thank God, we're all here, no delays, nothing unfortunate. An Englishman?... Indeed, I am very glad! Your friend speaks Russian? Not very much, but enough?... You know Vladimir Stepanovitch? Dr. Nikitin ... my friend Meester Durward. Also Meester?... ah, I beg your pardon, Tronsart. Two Englishmen in our Otriad ... the alliance, yes, delightful!"
Nikitin slowly opened his eyes, shook hands with me and with Trenchard, said that he was glad to see us and was silent again. Trenchard stammered and blushed, said something in very bad Russian, then glanced anxiously, with an eager light in his mild blue eyes, in the direction of the excited crowd that chattered and stirred about the train. There was something, in that look of his, that both touched and irritated me. "What does he come for?" I thought to myself. "With his bad Russian and his English prejudices. Of course he'll be lonely and then he'll be in every one's way."
I could remember, readily enough, some of the loneliness of those first months of my own, when both war and the Russians had differed so from my expectations. This fellow looked just the figure for high romantic pictures. He had, doubtless, seen Russia in the colours of the pleasant superficial books of travel that have of late, in England, been so popular, books that see in the Russian a blessed sort of Idiot unable to read or write but vitally conscious of God, and in Russia a land of snow, ikons, mushrooms and pilgrims. Yes, he would be disappointed, unhappy, and tiresome. Upon myself would fall the chief burden of his trouble—I should have enough upon my shoulders without him.
The golden fan had vanished from the station walls. A dim pale glow, with sparkles as of gold dust shining here and there upon that grimy world, faltered and trembled before the rattle and roar that threatened it. Nevertheless, Spring was with us at our departure. As the bells rang, as the ladies of our Committee screamed and laughed, as Anna Mihailovna showered directions and advice upon us, as we crowded backwards into our compartment before the first jolt of the departing train, Spring was with us ... but of course we were all of us too busy to be aware of it.
Nikitin, I remember, reduced us very quickly, for all practical purposes, to a company of three. He lowered one of the upper beds, climbed into it, stretched himself out and lay in silence staring at the carriage-roof. His body was a shadow in the half-light, touched once and again by the gesture of the swinging lamp, that swept him out of darkness and back into it again. The remaining three of us did not during either that evening or the next day make much progress. At times there would of course be tea, and then the two Sisters who were in a compartment close at hand joined us.
Marie Ivanovna, Trenchard's lady, was quieter than she had been before. Her face, which now seemed younger than ever, wore a look of important seriousness as though she were conscious of the indecency of her earlier excitement. She spoke very little, but no one could be in her presence without feeling the force of her vitality like some hammer, silent but of immense power, beating relentlessly upon the atmosphere. Its effect was the stronger in that one realised how utterly at present she was unable to deal with it. Her very helplessness was half of her power—half of her danger too. She was most certainly not beautiful; her nose was too short, her mouth too large, her forehead, from which her black hair was brushed straight back, too high. Her complexion was pale and when she was confused, excited, or pleased, the colour came into her face in a faint flush that ebbed and flowed but never reached its full glow. Her hands were thin and pale. It was her eyes that made her so young; they were so large and round and credulous, scornful sometimes with the scorn of the very young for all the things in the world that they have not experienced—but young especially in all their urgent capacity for life, in their confidence of carrying through all the demands that the High Gods might make upon them. I knew as I looked at her that at present her eagerness for experience was stronger, by far, than her eagerness for any single human being. I wondered whether Trenchard knew that. He was, beyond discussion, most desperately in love; the love of a shy man who has for so many years wondered and dreamed and finds, when the reality comes to him, that it is more, far more, than he had expected. When she came in to us he sat very quietly by her side and talked, if he talked at all, to the other Sister, a stout comfortable woman with no illusions, no expectations, immense capacity and an intensely serious attitude to food and drink.
Trenchard let his eyes rest upon his lady's face whenever she was unaware, but I could see that he was desperately anxious not to offend her. His attitude to all women, even to Anna Petrovna, the motherly Sister, was that of a man who has always blundered in their company, who has been mocked, perhaps, for his mistakes. I could see, however, that his pride in his new possession, his pride and his happiness, carried with it an absolute assurance of his security. He had no doubts at all. He seemed, in this, even younger than she.
Through all that long Spring day we wandered on—wandering it seemed as the train picked its way through the fields under a sky of blue thin and fine like glass; through a world so quiet and still that birds and children sang and called as though to reassure themselves that they were not alone. Nothing of the war in all this. At the stations there were officers eating "Ztchee" soup and veal and drinking glasses of weak tea, there were endless mountains of hot meat pies; the ikons in the restaurants looked down with benignancy and indifference upon the food and the soldiers and beyond the station the light green trees blowing in the little wind; the choruses of the soldiers came from their trains as though it were the very voice of Spring itself. It sounded in the distance like—
Barinisha Barinisha—Pop. Barinisha—Pop. So—la, la—la ... Bar ... inisha la.
The bell rang, officers with meat pies in their hands came running across the platform. We swung on again through the green golden day.
Andrey Vassilievitch of course chattered to us all. It was his way, and after a very brief experience of it one trained oneself to regard it as an inevitable background, like the jerking and smoke of the train, the dust, the shrill Russian voices in the next compartment, the blowing of paper to and fro in the corridor. I very quickly discovered that he was intensely conscious of Nikitin, who scarcely throughout the day moved from his upper bunk. Andrey Vassilievitch handed him his tea, brought his meat pies and sandwiches from the station, and offered him newspapers. He did not, however, speak to him and I was aware that throughout that long day he was never once unconscious of him. His chatter, which was always the most irrepressible thing in the world, had, perhaps, to-day some direction behind it. For the first time in my long acquaintance with Andrey Vassilievitch he interested me. The little man was distressed by the heat and dirt; his fingers were always flickering about his clothes. He was intensely polite to every one, especially to Trenchard, paying him many compliments about England and the English. The English were the only "sportsmen" in the world. He had been once in London for a week; it had rained very much, but one afternoon it had been fine, and then what clothes he had seen! But the City! He had been down into the City and was lost in admiration; he had also been lost in practical earnest and had appealed to one of the splendid policemen as to the way to Holborn Viaduct, a name that he was quite unable to pronounce. This incident he told us several times. Meanwhile ... he hoped he might ask without offence ... what was our Navy doing? Why weren't our submarines as active as the German submarines? And in France ... how many soldiers had we now? He did hope that he was not offending.... He spoke rapidly and indistinctly and much of his conversation Trenchard did not understand; he made some rather stupid replies and Marie Ivanovna laughed.
She spoke English very well, with an accent that was charming. She had had, she said, an English nurse, and then an English governess.
Of course they asked me many questions about the future. Would we be close to the Front? How many versts? Would there be plenty of work, and would we really see things? We wanted to be useful, no use going if we were not to be useful. How many Sisters were there then already? Were they "sympathetic"? Was Molozov, the head of the Otriad, an agreeable man? Was he kind, or would he be angry about simply nothing? Who would bandage and who would feed the villagers and who would bathe the soldiers? Were the officers of the Ninth Army pleasant to us? Where? Who? When? The day slipped away, the colours were drawn from the sky, the fields, the hills, the stars came out in their myriads, thickly clustered in ropes, and lakes and coils of light; the air was scented with flowers. The second night passed.
The greater part of the next day was spent in H——, a snug town with a little park like a clean handkerchief, streets with coloured shops, neat and fresh-painted like toys from a toy-shop, little blue trains, statues of bewigged eighteenth-century kings and dukes, and a restaurant, painted Watteau-fashion with bright green groves, ladies in hoops and powder, and long-legged sheep. Here we wandered, five of us. Nikitin told us that he would meet us at the station that evening. He had his own business in the place. The little town was delivered over to the Russian army but seemed happy enough in its deliverance. I have never realised in any place more completely the spirit of bright cheerfulness, and the soldiers who thronged the little streets were as far from alarm and thunder as the painted sheep in the restaurant. Marie Ivanovna was as excited as though she had never been in a town before. She bought a number of things in the little expensive shops—eau-de-Cologne, sweets, an electric lamp, a wrist-watch, and some preserved fruit. Trenchard made her presents; she thanked him with a gratitude that made him so happy that he stumbled over his sword more than ever, blushing and pushing his cap back from his head. There are some who might have laughed at him, carrying her parcels, his face flushed, his legs knocking against one another, but it was here, at H——, that, for the first time, I positively began to like him. By the evening when we were assembled in the station again as I looked at him standing, waiting for directions, smiling, hot, untidy and awkward, I knew that I liked him very much indeed....
Our new train overflowed: with the greatest difficulty we secured a small wooden compartment with seats sharp and narrow and a smell of cabbage, bad tobacco, and dirty clothes. The floor was littered with sunflower seeds and the paper wrappings of cheap sweets. The air came in hot stale gusts down the corridor, met the yet closer air of our carriage, battled with it and retired defeated. We flung open the windows and a cloud of dust rose gaily to meet us. The whole of the Russian army seemed to be surging upon the platform; orderlies were searching for their masters, officers shouting for their orderlies, soldiers staggering along under bundles of clothes and rugs and pillows; here a group standing patiently, each man with his blue-painted kettle and on his face that expression of happy, half-amused, half-inquisitive, wholly amiable tolerance which reveals the Russian soldier's favourite attitude to the world. Two priests with wide dirty black hats, long hair, and soiled grey gowns slowly found their way through the crowd. A bunch of Austrian prisoners in their blue-grey uniform made a strange splash of colour in a corner of the platform, where, very contentedly, they were drinking their tea; some one in the invisible distance was playing the balalaika and every now and then some church bell in the town rang clearly and sharply above the tumult. The thin films of dust, yellow in the evening sun, hovered like golden smoke under the station roof. At last with a reluctant jerk and shiver the train was slowly persuaded to totter into the evening air; the evening scents were again around us, the balalaika, now upon the train, hummed behind us, as we pushed out upon her last night's journey.
The two Sisters had the seats by the windows; Nikitin curled up his great length in another corner and Andrey Vassilievitch settled himself with much grunting and many exclamations beside him. I and Trenchard sat stiffly on the other side.
I had, long ago, accustomed myself to sleep in any position on any occasion, however sudden it might be, and I fancied that I should now, in a moment, be asleep, although I had never, in my long travelling experience, known greater discomfort. I looked at the dim lamp, at the square patch beyond the windows, at Nikitin's long body, which seemed nevertheless so perfectly comfortable, and at Andrey Vassilievitch's short fat one, which was so obviously miserably uncomfortable; I smelt the cabbage, the dust, the sunflower seeds; first one bone then another ached, in the centre of my back there was an intolerable irritation; above all, there was in my brain some strange insistent compulsion, as though some one were forcing me to remember something that I had forgotten, or as though again some one were fore-warning me of some peril or complication. I had, very distinctly, that impression, so familiar to all of us, of passing through some experience already known: I had seen already the dim lamp, the square patch of evening sky, Nikitin, Andrey Vassilievitch.... I knew that in a moment Trenchard.... He did.... He touched my arm.
"Can you sleep?" he whispered.
"No," I answered.
"It's terribly hot, close—smell.... Are you going to sleep?"
"No," I whispered back again.
"Let us move into the corridor. It will be cooler there."
There seemed to me quite a new sound of determination and resolve in his voice. His nervousness had left him with the daylight. He led the way out of the carriage, turned down the little seats in the corridor, provided cigarettes.
"It isn't much better here, but we'll have the window open. It'll get better. This is really war, isn't it, being so uncomfortable as this? I feel as though things were really beginning."
"Well, we shall be there to-morrow night," I answered him. "I hope you're not going to be disappointed."
"Disappointed in what?" His voice was quite sharp as he spoke to me, "You don't know what I want."
"I suppose you're like the rest of us. You want to see what war really is. You want to do some good if you can. You want to be seriously occupied in it to prevent your thinking too much about it. Then, because you're English, you want to see what the Russians are really like. You're curious and sympathetic, inquisitive and, perhaps, a little sentimental about it.... Am I right?"
"No, not quite—there are other things. I'd like to tell you. Do you mind," he said suddenly looking up straight into my face with a confiding smile that was especially his own, "if I talk, if I tell you why I've come? I've no right, I don't know you—but I'm so happy to-night that I must talk—I'm so happy that I feel as though I shall never get through the night alive."
Of our conversation after this, or rather of his talk, excited, eager, intimate and shy, old and wise and very, very young, I remember now, I think, every word with especial vividness. After events were to fix it all in my brain with peculiar accuracy, but his narration had that night of itself its own individual quality. His was no ordinary personality, or, at any rate, the especial circumstances of the time drove it into no ordinary shape, and I believe that never before in all his days had he spoken freely and eagerly to any one. It was simply to-night his exultation and happiness that impelled him, perhaps also some sense of high adventure that his romantic character would, most inevitably, extract from our expedition and its purposes.
At any rate, I listened, saying a word now and then, whilst the hour grew dark, lit only by the stars, then trembled into a pale dawn overladen with grey dense clouds, which again broke, rolled away, before another shining, glittering morning. I remember that it was broad daylight when we, at last, left the corridor.
"I'm thirty-three," he said. "I don't feel it, of course; I seem to be now only just beginning life. I'm a very unpractical person and in that way, perhaps, I'm younger than my age."
I remember that I said something to him about his, most certainly, appearing younger.
"Most certainly I do. I'm just the same as when I went up to Cambridge and I was then as when I first went to Rugby. Nothing seems to have had any effect upon me—except, perhaps, these last two days. Do you know Glebeshire?" he asked me abruptly.
I said that I had spent one summer there with a reading party.
"Ah," he answered, smiling, "I can tell, by the way you say that, that you don't really know it at all. To us Glebeshire people it's impossible to speak of it so easily. There are Trenchards all over Glebeshire, you know, lots of them. In Polchester, our cathedral town, where I was born, there are at least four Trenchard families. Then in Truxe, at Garth, at Rasselas, at Clinton—but why should I bother you with all this? It's only to tell you that the Trenchards are simply Glebeshire for ever and ever. To a Trenchard, anywhere in the world, Glebeshire is hearth and home."
"I believe I've met," I said, "your Trenchards of Garth. George Trenchard.... She was a Faunder. They have a house in Westminster. There's a charming Miss Trenchard with whom I danced."
"Yes, those are the George Trenchards," he answered with eagerness and delight, as though I had formed a new link with him. "Fancy your knowing them! How small the world is! My father was a cousin, a first cousin, of George Trenchard's. The girl—you must mean Millie—is delightful. Katherine, the elder sister, is married now. She too is charming, but in a different, graver way."
He spoke of them all with a serious lingering pleasure, as though he were summoning them all into the dusty, stuffy corridor, carrying them with him into these strange countries and perilous adventures.
"They always laughed at me—Millie especially; I've stayed sometimes with them at Garth. But I didn't mean really to talk about them—I only wanted to show you how deeply Glebeshire matters to the Trenchards, and whatever happens, wherever a Trenchard goes, he always really takes Glebeshire with him. I was born in Polchester, as I said. My father had a little property there, but we always lived in a little round bow-windowed house in the Cathedral Close. I was simply brought up on the Cathedral. From my bedroom windows I looked on the whole of it. In our drawing-room you could hear the booming of the organ. I was always watching the canons crossing the cathedral green, counting the strokes of the cathedral bell, listening to the cawing of the cathedral rooks, smelling the cathedral smell of cold stone, wet umbrellas and dusty hassocks, looking up at the high tower and wondering whether anywhere in the world there was anything so grand and fine. My moral world, too, was built on the cathedral—on the cathedral 'don'ts' and 'musts,' on the cathedral hours and the cathedral prayers, and the cathedral ambitions and disappointments. My father's great passion was golf. He was not a religious man. But my mother believed in the cathedral with a passion that was almost a disease. She died looking at it. Her spirit is somewhere round it now, I do believe."
He paused, then went on:
"It was the cathedral that made me so unpractical, I suppose. I who am an only child—I believed implicitly in what I was told and it always was my mother who told me everything."
He was, I thought, the very simplest person to whom I had ever listened. The irritation that I had already felt on several occasions in his company again returned. "My father's great passion was golf" would surely in the mouth of another have had some tinge of irony.
In Trenchard's mild blue eyes irony was an incredible element. I could fancy what he would have to say to the very gentlest of cynics; some of the sympathy I had felt for him during the afternoon had left me.
"He's very little short of an idiot," I thought. "He's going to be dreadfully in the way."
"I was the only child, you see," he continued. "Of course I was a great deal to my mother and she to me. We were always together. I don't think that even when I was very young I believed all that she told me. She seemed to me always to take everything for granted. Heaven to me was so mysterious and she had such definite knowledge. I always liked things to be indefinite ... I do still." He laughed, paused for a moment, but was plainly now off on his fine white horse, charging the air, to be stopped by no mortal challenge. I had for a moment the thought that I would slip from my seat and leave him; I didn't believe that he would have noticed my absence; but the thought of that small stuffy carriage held me.
But he was conscious of me; like the Ancient Mariner he fixed upon my arm his hand and stared into my eyes:
"There were other things that puzzled me. There was, for instance, the chief doctor in our town. He was a large, fat, jolly red-faced man, clean-shaven, with white hair. He was considered the best doctor in the place—all the old maids went to him. He was immensely jolly, you could hear his laugh from one end of the street to the other. He was married, had a delightful little house, where his wife gave charming dinners. He was stupid and self-satisfied. Even at his own work he was stupid, reading nothing, careless and forgetful, thinking about golf and food only all his days. He was a snob too and would give up any one for the people at the Castle. Even when I was a small boy I somehow knew all this about him. My father thought the world of him and loved to play golf with him.... He was completely happy and successful and popular. Then there was another man, an old canon who taught me Latin before I went to Rugby, an old, untidy, dirty man, whose sermons were dull and his manners bad. He was a failure in life—and he was a failure to himself; dissatisfied with what he used to call his 'bundle of rotten twigs,' his life and habits and thoughts. But he thought that somewhere there was something he would find that would save him—somewhere, sometime ... not God merely—'like a key that will open all the doors in the house.' To me he was fascinating. He knew so much, he was so humble, so kind, so amusing. Nobody liked him, of course. They tried to turn him out of the place, gave him a little living at last, and he married his cook. Was she his key? She may have been ... I never saw him again. But I used to wonder. Why was the doctor so happy and the little canon so unhappy, the doctor so successful, the canon so unsuccessful? I decided that the great thing was to be satisfied with oneself. I determined that I would be satisfied with myself. Well, of course I never was—never have been. Something wouldn't let me alone. The key to the door, perhaps ... everything was shut up inside me, and at last I began to wonder whether there was anything there at all. When at nineteen I went to Cambridge I was very unhappy. Whilst I was there my mother died. I came back to the little bow-windowed house and lived with my father. I was quite alone in the world."
In spite of myself I had a little movement of impatience.
"How self-centred the man is! As though his case were at all peculiar! Wants shaking up and knocking about."
He seemed to know my thought.
"You must think me self-centred! I was. For thirteen whole years I thought of nothing but myself, my miserable self, all shut up in that little town. I talked to no one. I did not even read—I used to sit in the dark of the cathedral nave and listen to the organ. I'd walk in the orchards and the woods. I would wonder, wonder, wonder about people and I grew more and more frightened of talking, of meeting people, of little local dinner-parties. It was as though I were on one side of the river and they were all on the other. I would think sometimes how splendid it would be if I could cross—but I couldn't cross. Every year it became more impossible!"
"You wanted some one to take you out of yourself," I said, and then shuddered at my own banality. But he took me very seriously.
"I did. Of course," he answered. "But who would bother? They all thought me impossible. The girls all laughed at me—my own cousins. Sometimes people tried to help me. They never went far enough. They gave me up too soon."
"He evidently thinks he was worth a lot of trouble," I thought irritably. But suddenly he laughed.
"That same doctor one day spoke of me, not knowing that I was near him; or perhaps he knew and thought it would be good for me. 'Oh, Trenchard,' he said. 'He ought to be in a nunnery ... and he'd be quite safe, too. He'd never cause a scandal!' They thought of me as something not quite human. My father was very old now. Just before he died, he said: 'I'd like to have had a son!' He never noticed me at his bedside when he died. I was a great disappointment to him."
"Well," I said at last to break a long pause that followed his last words, "what did you think about all that time you were alone?"
"I used to think always about two things," he said very solemnly. "One was love. I used to think how splendid it would be if only there would be some one to whom I could dedicate my devotion. I didn't care if I got much in return or no, but they must be willing to have it ready for me to devote myself altogether. I used to watch the ladies in our town and select them, one after another. Of course they never knew and they would only have laughed had they known. But I felt quite desperate sometimes. I had so much in me to give to some one and the years were all slipping by and it became, every day, more difficult. There was a girl ... something seemed to begin between us. She was the daughter of one of the canons, dark-haired, and she used to wear a lilac-coloured dress. She was very kind; once when we were walking through the town I began to talk to her. I believe she understood, because she was very, very young—only about eighteen—and hadn't begun to laugh at me yet. She had a dimple in one cheek, very charming—but some man from London came to stay at the Castle and she was engaged to him. Then there were Katherine and Millie Trenchard, of whom we were talking. Katherine never laughed at me; she was serious and helped her mother about all the household things and the village where they lived. Afterwards she ran away with a young man and was married in London—very strange because she was so serious. There was a great deal of talk about it at the time. Millie too was charming. She laughed at me, of course, but she laughed at every one. At any rate she was only cousinly to me; she would not have cared for my devotion."
As he spoke I had a picture in my mind of poor Trenchard searching the countryside for some one to whom he might be devoted, tongue-tied, clumsy, stumbling and stuttering, a village Don Quixote with a stammer and without a Dulcinea.
"They must have been difficult years," I said, and again cursed myself for my banality.
"They were," he answered very gravely, "Very difficult."
"And your other thoughts?" I asked him.
"They were about death," he replied. "I had, from my very earliest years, a great terror of death. You might think that my life was not so pleasant that I should mind, very greatly, leaving it. But I was always thinking—hoping that I should live to be very old, even though I lost all my limbs and faculties. I believed that there was life of some sort after death, but just as I would hesitate outside a house a quarter of an hour from terror of meeting new faces so I felt about another life—I couldn't bear all the introductions and the clumsy mistakes that I should be sure to make. But it was more personal than that. I had a horrible old uncle who died when I was a boy. He was a very ugly old man, bent and whitened and gnarled, a face and hands twisted with rheumatism. I used to call him Quilp to myself. He always wore, I remember, an old-fashioned dress. Velvet knee-breeches, a white stock, black shoes with buckles. I remember that his hands were damp and hair grew in bushes out of his ears. Well, I saw him once or twice and he filled me with terror like a figure out of the tapestry up at the Castle. Then he died.
"Our house was small and badly shaped, full of dark corners, and after his death he seemed to me to haunt the place. He figured Death to me and until I was quite old, until I went to Rugby, I fancied that he was sitting in a dark corner, on a chair, waiting, with his hands on his lap, until the time came for him to take me. Sometimes I would fancy that I heard him moving from one room to another, bringing his chair with him. Then I began to have a dream, a dream that frequently recurred all the time that I was growing up. It was a dream about a huge dark house in a huge dark forest. It was early morning, the light just glimmering between the thick damp trees. A large party of people gathered together in a high empty room prepared for an expedition. I was one of them and I was filled with sharp agonising terror. Sometimes in my dream I drank to give myself courage and the glass clattered against my lips. Sometimes I talked with one of the company; the room was very dark and I could see no faces. Then we would start trooping out into the bitterly cold morning air. There would be many horses and dogs. We would lead off into the forest and soon (it always happened) I would find myself alone—alone with the dripping trees high around me and the light that seemed to grow no lighter and the intense cold. Then suddenly it would be that I was the hunted, not the hunter. It was Death whom we were hunting—Death, for me my uncle—and I would fancy him waiting in the darkness, watching me, smiling, hearing his hunters draw off the scent, knowing that they would not find him, but that he had found me. Then my knees would fail me, I would sink down in a sweat of terror, and—wake!... Brrr!... I can see it now!"
He shook himself, turning round to me as though he were suddenly ashamed of himself, with a laugh half-shy, half-retrospective.
"We all have our dreams," he continued. "But this came too often—again and again. The question of death became my constant preoccupation as I grew to think I would never see it, nor hear men speak of it, nor—"
"And you have come," I could not but interrupt him, "here, to the very fortress—Why, man!—"
"I know," he answered, smiling at me. "It must seem to you ridiculous. But I am a different person now—very different. Now I am ready, eager for anything. Death can be nothing to me now, or if that is too bold, at least I may say that I am prepared to meet him—anywhere—at any time. I want to meet him—I want to show—"
"We have all," I said, "in our hearts, perhaps, come like that—come to prove that our secret picture of ourselves, that picture so different from our friends' opinion of us, is really the true one. We can fancy them saying afterwards: 'Well, I never knew that so-and-so had so much in him!' We always knew."
"No, you see," Trenchard said eagerly, "there can be only one person now about whose opinion I care. If she thinks well of me—"
"You are very much in love," I said, and loosed, as I had expected, the torrents of his happiness upon me.
"I was in Polchester when the war broke out. The town received it rather as though a first-class company had come from London to act in the Assembly Rooms for a fortnight. It was dramatic and picturesque and pleasantly patriotic. They see it otherwise now, I fancy. I seemed at once to think of Russia. For one thing I wanted desperately to help, and I thought that in England they would only laugh at me as they had always done. I am short-sighted. I knew that I should never be a soldier. I fancied that in Russia they would not say: 'Oh, John Trenchard of Polchester.... He's no good!' before they'd seen whether I could do anything. Then of course I had read about the country—Tolstoi and Turgeniev, and a little Dostoevsky and even Gorki and Tchekov. I went quite suddenly, making up my mind one evening. I seemed to begin to be a new man out of England. The journey delighted me.... I was in Moscow before I knew. I was there three months trying to learn Russian. Then I came to Petrograd and through the English Embassy found a place in one of the hospitals, where I worked as a sanitar for three months. I did not leave England until November, so that I have been in Russia now just six months. It was in this hospital that I met Miss Krassovsky—Marie Ivanovna. From the first moment I loved her, of course. And she liked me. She was the first woman, since my mother, who had really liked me. She quickly saw my devotion and she laughed a little, but she was always kind. I could talk to her and she liked to listen. She had—she has, great ideals, great hopes and ambitions. We worked together there and then, afterwards, in those beautiful spring evenings in Petrograd when the canals shone all night and the houses were purple, we walked.... The night before last night I begged her to marry me ... and she accepted. She said that we would go together to the war, that I should be her knight and she my lady and that we would care for the wounds of the whole world. Ah! what a night that was—shall I ever forget it? After she had left me, I walked all night and sang.... I was mad.... I am mad now. That she should love me! She, so beautiful, so pure, so wonderful. I at whom women have always laughed. Ah! God forgive me, my heart will break—"
As he spoke the heavy grey clouds of the first dawn were parting and a faint very liquid blue, almost white and very cold, hovered above dim shapeless trees and fields. I flung open the corridor window and a sound of running water and the first notes of some sleepy bird met me.
"And her family?" I said. "Who are they, and will they not mind her marrying an Englishman?"
"She has only a mother," he answered. "I fancy that Marie has always had her own way."
"Yes," I thought to myself. "I also fancy that that is so." A sense of almost fatherly protection had developed in myself towards him. How could he, who knew nothing at all of women, hope to manage that self-willed, eager, independent girl? Why, why, why had she engaged herself to him? I fancied that very possibly there were qualities in him—his very childishness and helplessness—which, if they only irritated an Englishman, would attract a Russian. Lame dogs find a warm home in Russia. But did she know anything about him? Would she not, in a week, be irritated by his incapacity? And he—he—bless his innocence!—was so confident as though he had been married to her for years!
"Look here!" I said, moved by a sudden impulse. "Will you mind if, sometimes, I tell you things? I've been to the war before. It's a strange life, unlike anything you've ever known—and Russians too are strange—especially at first. You won't take it badly, if—"
He touched my arm with his hand while his whole face was lighted with his smile. "Why, my dear fellow, I shall be proud. No one has ever thought me worth the bother. I want to be—to be—at my best here. Practical, you know—like others. I don't want her to think me—"
"No, exactly," I said hurriedly, "I understand." Gold was creeping into the sky. A lark rose, triumphant. A pool amongst the reeds blazed like a brazen shield. The Spring day had flung back her doors. I saw that suddenly fatigue had leapt upon my friend. He tottered on his little seat, then his face, grey in the light, fell forward. I caught him in my arms, half carried, half led him into our little carriage, arranged him in the empty corner, and left him, fast, utterly fast, asleep.
The greater part of the next day was spent by us in the little town of S——, a comfortable place very slightly disturbed by the fact that it had been already the scene of four battles; there was just this effect, as it seemed to me, that the affairs of the day were carried on with a kind of somnolent indifference.... "You may order your veal," the waiter seemed to say, "but whether you will get it or no is entirely in the hands of God. It is, therefore, of no avail that I should hurry or that you should show temper should the veal not appear. At any moment your desire for veal and my ability to bring it you may have ceased for ever."
For the rest the town billowed with trees of the youngest green; also birds of the tenderest age, if one may judge by their happiness at the spring weather. There were many old men in white smocks and white trousers and women in brightly-coloured kerchiefs. But, except for the young birds, it was a silent place.
I had much business to carry through and saw the rest of our company only at luncheon time; it was after luncheon that I had a little conversation with Marie Ivanovna. She chose me quite deliberately from the others, moved our chairs to the quieter end of the little balcony where we were, planted her elbows on the table and stared into my face with her large round credulous eyes. (I find on looking back, that I have already used exactly those adjectives. That may stand: I mean that, emphatically, and beyond every other impression she made, her gaze declared that she was ready to believe anything that she were told, and the more in the telling the better.)
She spoke, as always, with that sense of restrained, sharply disciplined excitement, as though her eager vitality were some splendid if ferocious animal struggling at its chain.
"You talked to John—Mr. Trenchard—last night," she said.
"Yes," I said, smiling into her eyes.
"I know—all night—he told me. He's splendid, isn't he? Splendid!"
"I like him very much," I answered.
"Ah! you must! you must! You must all like him! You don't know—his thoughts, his ideals—they are wonderful. He's like some knight of the Middle Ages.... Ah, but you'll think that silly, Mr. Durward. You're a practical Englishman. I hate practical Englishmen."
"Thank you," I said, laughing.
"No, but I do. You sneer at everything beautiful. Here in Russia we're more simple. And John's very like a Russian in many ways. Don't you think he is?"
"I haven't known him long enough—" I began.
"Ah, you don't like him! I see you don't.... No, it's no use your saying anything. He isn't English enough for you, that's what it is. You think him unpractical, unworldly. Well, so he is. Do you think I'd ever be engaged to an ordinary Englishman? I'd die of ennui in a week. Oh! yes, I would. But you like John, really, don't you?"
"I tell you that I do," I answered, "but really, after only two days—"
"Ah! that's so English! So cautious! How I hate your caution! Why can't you say at once that you haven't made up your mind about him—because that's the truth, isn't it? I wish he would not sit there, looking at me, and not talking to the others. He ought to talk to them, but he's afraid that they'll laugh at his Russian. It's not very good, his Russian, is it? I can't help laughing myself sometimes!"
Her English was extremely good. Sometimes she used a word in its wrong sense; she had one or two charming little phrases of her own: "What a purpose to?" instead of: "Why?" and sometimes a double negative. She rolled her r's more than is our habit.
I said, looking straight into her eyes:
"It's a tremendous thing to him, his having you. I can see that although I've known him so short a time. He's a very lucky man and—and—if his luck were to go, I think that he'd simply die. There! That isn't a very English thing to have said, is it?"
"Why did you say it?" she cried sharply. "You don't trust me. You think—"
"I think nothing," I answered. "Only he's not like ordinary men. He's so much younger than his age."
She gave me then the strangest look. The light seemed suddenly to die out of her face; her eyes sought mine as though for help. There were tears in them.
"Oh! I do want to be good to him!" she whispered. Then got up abruptly and joined the others.
Late in the afternoon an automobile arrived and carried off most of our party. I was compelled to remain for several hours, and intended to drive, looking forward indeed to the long quiet silence of the spring evening. Moved by some sudden impulse I suggested to Trenchard that he should wait and drive with me: "The car will be very crowded," I said, "and I think too that you'd like to see some of the country properly. It's a lovely evening—only thirty versts.... Will you wait and come with me?"
He agreed at once; he had been, all day, very quiet, watching, with that rather clumsy expression of his, the expression of a dog who had been taught by his master some tricks which he had half-forgotten and would presently be expected to remember.
When I made my suggestion he flung one look at Marie Ivanovna. She was busied over some piece of luggage, and half-turned her head, smiling at him:
"Ah, do go, John—yes? We will be so cr-rowded.... It will be very nice for you driving."
I fancied that I heard him sigh. He tried to help the ladies with their luggage, handed them the wrong parcels, dropped delicate packages, apologised, blushed, was very hot, collected dust from I know not where.... Once I heard a sharp, angry voice: "John! Oh!..." I could not believe that it was Marie Ivanovna. Of course she was hot and tired and had slept, last night, but little. The car, watched by an inquisitive but strangely apathetic crowd of peasants, snorted its way down the little streets, the green trees blowing and the starlings chattering. In a moment the starlings and our two selves seemed to have the whole dead little town to ourselves.
I saw quite clearly that he was unhappy; he could never disguise his feelings; as he waited for the trap to appear he had the same lost and abandoned appearance that he had on my first vision of him at the Petrograd station. The soldier who was to drive us smiled as he saw me.
"Only thirty versts, your honour ... or, thank God, even less. It will take us no time." He was a large clumsy creature, like an eager overgrown puppy; he was one of the four or five Nikolais in our Otriad, and he is to be noticed in this history because he attached himself from the very beginning to Trenchard with that faithful and utterly unquestioning devotion of which the Russian soldier is so frequently capable. He must, I think, have seen something helpless and unhappy in Trenchard's appearance on this evening. Sancho to our Don Quixote he was from that first moment.
"Yes, he's an English gentleman," I said when he had listened for a moment to Trenchard's Russian.
"Like yourself," said Nikolai.
"Yes, Nikolai. You must look after him. He'll be strange here at first."
"Slushaiu (I hear)."
That was all he said. He got up on to his seat, his broad back was bent over his horses.
"Well, and how have things been, Nikolai, busy?"
"Nikak nyet—not at all. Very quiet."
"Nothing at all, Barin, for two weeks now."
"Have you liked that?"
"Tak totchno. Certainly yes."
"No, but have you?"
"Tak totchno, Barin."
Then he turned and gave, for one swift instant, a glance at Trenchard, who was, very clumsily, climbing into the carriage. Nikolai looked at him gravely. His round, red face was quite expressionless as he turned back and began to abjure his horses in that half-affectionate, half-abusive and wholly human whispering exclamation that Russians use to their animals. We started.
I have mentioned in these pages that I had already spent three months with our Otriad at the Front. I cannot now define exactly what it was that made this drive on this first evening something utterly distinct and apart from all that I had experienced during that earlier period. It is true that, before, I had been for almost two months in one place and had seen nothing at all of actual warfare, except the feeding and bandaging of the wounded. But I had imagined then, nevertheless, that I was truly "in the thick of things," as indeed, in comparison with my Moscow or Petrograd life, I was. We had not now driven through the quiet evening air for ten minutes before I knew, with assured certainty, that a new phase of life was, on this day, opening before me; the dark hedges, the thin fine dust on the roads, the deep purple colour of the air, beat at my heart, as though they themselves were helping with quiet insistency to draw me into the drama. And yet nothing could have been more peaceful than was that lovely evening. The dark plum-colour in the evening sky soaked like wine into the hills, the fields, the thatched cottages, the streams and the little woods.
The faint saffron that lingered below the crests and peaks of rosy cloud showed between the stems of the silver birches like the friendly smile of a happy day. The only human beings to be seen were the peasants driving home their cows; far on the horizon the Carpathian mountains were purple in the dusk, the snow on their highest ridges faintly silver. There was not a sound in the world except the ring of our horses' hoofs upon the road. And yet this sinister excitement hammered, from somewhere, at me as I had never felt it before. It was as though the lovely evening were a painted scene lowered to hide some atrocity.
"This is scarcely what you expected a conquered country to look like, is it?" I said to Trenchard.
He looked about him, then said, hesitating: "No ... that is ... I don't know what I expected."
A curved moon, dull gold like buried treasure, rose slowly above the hill; one white star flickered and the scents of the little gardens that lined the road grew thicker in the air as the day faded.
I was conscious of some restraint with Trenchard: "He's probably wishing," I thought, "that he'd not been so expansive last night. He doesn't trust me."
Once he said abruptly:
"They'll give me ... won't they ... work to do? It would be terrible if there wasn't work. I'm not so ... so stupid at bandaging. I learnt a lot in the hospital and although I'm clumsy with my hands generally I'm not so clumsy about that—"
"Why of course," I answered. "When there's work they'll be only too delighted. But there won't always be work. You must be prepared for that. Sometimes our Division is in reserve and then we're in reserve too. Sometimes for so much as a fortnight. When I was out here before I was in one place for more than two months. You must just take everything as it comes."
"I want to work," he said. "I must."
Once again only he spoke:
"That little fat man who travelled with us...."
"Andrey Vassilievitch," I said.
"Yes.... He interests me. You knew him before?"
"Yes. I've known him slightly for some years."
"What has he come for? He's frightened out of his life."
"Yes, he himself told me. He says that he's very nervous but that he must do everything that every one else does—for a certain reason. He got very excited when he talked to me and asked me whether I thought it would all be very terrible."
"He is a nervous fussy little man. Russians are not cowards, but Andrey Vassilievitch lost his wife last year. He was very devoted to her—very. He is miserable without her, they say. Perhaps he has come to the war to forget her."
I was surprised at Trenchard's interest; I had thought him so wrapt in his own especial affair that nothing outside it could occupy him. But he continued:
"He knew the tall doctor—Nikitin—before, didn't he?"
"Yes.... Nikitin knew his wife."
"Oh, I see.... Nikitin seems to despise him—I think he despises all of us."
"Oh no. That's only his manner. Many Russians look as though they were despising their neighbours when, as a matter of fact, they're really despising themselves. They're very fond of despising themselves: their contempt allows them to do what they want to."
"I don't think Nikitin despises himself. He looks too happy—at least, happy is not the word. Perhaps triumphant is what I mean."
"Ah, if you begin speculating about Russian expression you're lost. They express so much in their faces that you think you know all their deepest feelings. But they're not their deep feelings that you see. Only their quick transient emotions that change every moment." I fancied, just at that time, that I had studied the Russian character very intently and it was perhaps agreeable to me to air my knowledge before an Englishman who had come to Russia for the first time so recently.
But Trenchard did not seem to be greatly impressed by my cleverness. He spoke no more. We drove then in silence whilst the moon, rising high, caught colour into its dim outline, like a scimitar unsheathed; the trees and hedges grew, with every moment, darker. We left the valley through which we had been driving, slowly climbing the hill, and here, on the top of the rising ground, we had our first glimpse of the outposts of the war. A cottage had been posted on the highest point of the hill; now all that remained of it was a sheet of iron, crumpled like paper, propped in the centre by a black and solitary post, trailing thence on the ground amongst tumbled bricks and refuse. This sheet of iron was silver in the moonlight and stood out with its solitary black support against the night sky, which was now breaking into a million stars. Behind it stretched a flat plain that reached to the horizon.
"There," I said to Trenchard, "there's your first glimpse of actual warfare. What do you say to every house in your village at home like that? It's ghastly enough if you see it as I have done, still smoking, with the looking-glasses and flower-pots and pictures lying about."
But Trenchard said nothing.
We started across the plain and at once, as with "Childe Roland":
For mark! no sooner was I fairly found Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two, Than, pausing to throw backward a last view O'er the safe road, 'twas gone! grey plain all round: Nothing but plain to the horizon's bound. I might go on; nought else remained to do.
Our "safe road" was a rough and stony track; far in front of us on the rising hill that bounded the horizon a red light watched us like an angry eye. There were cornfields that stirred and whispered, but no hedges, no trees, and not a house to be seen.
Nikolai turned and said: "A very strong battle here, Your Honour, only three weeks back."
By the side of the road stood a little cluster of wooden crosses and behind them were two large holes filled now with water upon which the moon was shining. In these holes the frogs were making a tremendous noise.
"That was shell," I said to Trenchard, pointing. The frogs drowned my voice; there was something of a melancholy triumph in their cry and their voices seemed to be caught up and echoed by thousands upon thousands of other frogs inhabiting the plain.
We came then upon a trench; the ridge of it stretched like a black cord straight across the cornfield and here for a moment the road seemed lost.
I got out. "Here, Trenchard. You must come and look at this. Your first Austrian trench. You may find treasure."
We walked along in single file for some time and then suddenly I lost him: the trench, just where we were, divided into two. I waited thinking that in a moment he would appear. There was nothing very thrilling about my trench; it was an old one and all that remained now of any life was the blackened ground where there had been cooking, the brown soiled cartridge-cases, and many empty tin cans. And then as I waited, leaning forward with my elbows on the earthwork, the frogs the only sound in the world, I was conscious that some one was watching me. In front of me I could see the red light flickering and turning a little as it seemed—behind me nothing but the starlight. I turned, looked back, and for my very life could not hold myself from calling out:
I waited, then called more loudly: "Trenchard! Trenchard!" I laughed at myself, leant again on the trench and puffed at my cigarette. Then once more I was absolutely assured that some one watched me.
I called again: "Who's there?"
Then quite suddenly and to my own absurd relief Trenchard appeared, stumbling forward over some roughness in the ground almost into my arms:
"I say, it's beastly here," he cried. "Let's go on—the frogs...."
He had caught my hand.
"Well," I said, "what did you find?"
"Nothing—only ... I don't know.... It's as though some one were watching me. It's getting late, isn't it? The frogs...." he said again—"I hate them. They seem to be triumphing."
We climbed into the trap and drove on in silence.
I was half asleep when at last we left the plain and dropped down into the valley beyond. I was surprised to discover on looking at my watch that it was only eleven o'clock; we had been, it seemed to me, hours crossing that plain. "It's a silly thing," I said to Trenchard, "but it would take quite a lot to get me to drive back over that again." He nodded his head. We drove over a bridge, up a little hill and were in the rough moonlit square of O——, our destination. Almost immediately we were climbing the dark rickety stairs of our dwelling. There were lights, shouts of welcome, Molozov our chief, sisters, doctors, students, the room almost filled with a table covered with food—cold meat, boiled eggs, sausage, jam, sweets, and of course a huge samovar. I can only say that never once, during my earlier experience with the Otriad, had I been so rejoiced to see lights and friendly faces. I looked round for Trenchard. He had already discovered Marie Ivanovna and was standing with her at the window.
I learned at breakfast the next morning that we were at once to move to a house outside the village. The fantastic illusions that my drive of the evening before had bred in me now in the clear light of morning entirely deserted me. Moreover fantasy had slender opportunity of encouragement in the presence of Molozov.
Molozov, I would wish to say once and for all, was the heart and soul of our enterprise. Without him the whole organisation so admirably supported by the energetic ladies and gentlemen in Petrograd, would have tumbled instantly into a thousand pieces. In Molozov they had discovered exactly the man for their purpose; a large land-owner, a member of one of the best Russian families, he had, since the beginning of the war, given himself up to the adventure with the whole of his energy, with the whole of that great capacity for organisation that the management of his estates had already taught him. He was in appearance, short, squarely built, inclined, although he was only thirty-two or three, to be stout; he wore a dark black moustache and his hair was already grey. He was a Russian of the purest blood and yet possessed all the qualities that the absolute Russian is supposed to lack. He was punctual to the moment, sharply accurate in all his affairs, a shrewd psychologist but never a great talker and, above all, a consummate diplomatist. As I watched him dealing with the widely opposed temperaments and dispositions of all our company, soothing one, scolding another, listening attentively, cutting complaints short, comforting, commanding, soliciting, I marvelled at the good fortune of that Petrograd committee. In spite of his kind heart—and he was one of the kindest-hearted men I have ever met—he could be quite ruthless in dismissal or rebuke when occasion arrived. He had a great gift of the Russian irony and he could be also, like all Russians, a child at an instant's call, if something pleased him or if he simply felt that the times were good and the sun was shining. I only once, in a moment that I shall have, later on, to describe, saw him depressed and out of heart. He was always a most courteous gentleman.
I drove now with him in a trap at the head of the Oboz, as our long train, with our tents, provisions, boxes and beds, was called. We were a fine company now and my heart was proud as I looked back up the shining road and saw the long winding procession of carts and "sanitars" and remembered how tiny an affair we had been in the beginning.
"Well," said Molozov, "and what of your Englishman?"
"Oh, I like him," I said rather hurriedly. "He'll do."
"I'm glad you think so—very glad. I was not sure last night.... He doesn't speak Russian very well, does he? He was tired last night. I'm very glad that he should come, of course, but it's unpleasant ... this engagement ... the Sister told me. It's a little difficult for all of us."
"They were engaged the evening before they left."
"I know ... nothing to do about it, but it would have been better otherwise. And Andrey Vassilievitch! Whatever put it into Anna Mihailovna's head to send him! He's a tiresome little man—I've known him earlier in Petrograd! He's on my nerves already with his chatter. No, it's too bad. What can he do with us?"
"He has a very good business head," I said. "And he's not really a bad little man. And he's very anxious to do everything."
"Ah, I know those people who are 'anxious to do everything.'... Don't I know? Don't you remember Sister Anna Maria? anxious to do everything, anything—and then, when it came to it, not even the simplest bandage.... Nikitin's a good man," he added, "one of the best doctors in Petrograd. We've no doctors of our own now, you know—except of course Alexei Petrovitch. The others are all from the Division—"
"Ah, Semyonov!" I said. "How is he?"
At that moment he rode up to us. Seen on horseback Alexei Petrovitch Semyonov appeared a large man; he was, in reality, of middle height but his back was broad, his whole figure thickly-set and muscular. He wore a thick square-cut beard of so fair a shade that it was almost white! His whole colour was pale and yet, in some way, expressive of immense health and vitality. His lips showed through his beard and moustache red and very thick. His every movement showed great self-possession and confidence. He had, indeed, far more personality than any other member of our Otriad.
Although he was an extremely capable doctor his main business in life seemed to be self-indulgence. He apparently did not know the meaning of the word "restraint." The serious questions in life to him were food, drink, women.
He believed in no woman's virtue and no man's sincerity. He hailed any one as a friend but if he considered some one a fool he said so immediately. He concealed his opinions from no one.
When he was at work his indulgence seemed for the moment to leave him. He was a surgeon of the first order and loved his profession. He was a man now of fifty, but had never married, preferring a long succession of mistresses—women who had loved him, at whom he had always laughed, to whom he had been kind in a careless fashion.... He always declared that no woman had ever touched his heart.
He had come to the war voluntarily, forsaking a very lucrative practice. This was always a puzzle to me. He had no romantic notions about the war, no altruistic compulsions, no high conceptions of his duty ... no one had worked more magnificently in the war than he. He could not be said to be popular amongst us; we were all of us perhaps a little afraid of him. He cared, so obviously, for none of us. But we admired his vitality, his courage, his independence. I myself was assured that he allowed us to see him only with the most casual superficiality.
As he rode up to me I wondered how he and Nikitin would fare. These were two personalities worthy of attention. Also, what would he think of Trenchard? His opinion of any one had great weight amongst us.
I had not seen him last night and he leant over his horse now and shook hands with me with a warm friendliness that surprised me. He laughed, joked, was evidently in excellent spirits. He rode on a little, then came back to us.
"I like your new Sister," he said. "She's charming."
"She's engaged," I answered, "to the new Englishman."
"Ah! the new Englishman!" He laughed. "Apologies, Ivan Andreievitch (myself), to your country ... but really ... what's he going to do with us?"
"He'll work," I said, surprised at the heat that I felt in Trenchard's defence. "He's a splendid fellow."
"I have no doubt"—again Semyonov laughed. "We all know your enthusiasms, Ivan Andreievitch, ... but an Englishman! Ye Bogu!..."
"Engaged to that girl!" I heard him repeat to himself as again he rode forward. Trenchard, little Andrey Vassilievitch, Semyonov, Nikitin ... yes, there was promise of much development here.
We had dropped down into the valley and, at a sudden turn, saw the school-house in front of us. It is before me now as I write with its long low whitewashed two-storied front, its dormer-windows, its roof faintly pink with a dark red bell-tower perched on the top. Behind it is a long green field stretching to where hills, faintly blue in the morning light, rose, with very gradual slopes against the sky. To the right I could see there was a garden hidden now by trees, on the left a fine old barn, its thatched roof deep brown, the props supporting it black with age. In front of the pillared porch there was a little square of white cobble-stones and in the middle of these an old grey sundial. The whole place was bathed in the absolute peace of the spring morning.
As we drove up a little old lady with two tiny children clinging to her skirts came to the porch. I could see, as we came up to her, that she was trembling with terror; she put up her hand to her white hair, clutched again desperately the two children, found at last her voice and hoped that we would be "indulgent."
Molozov assured her that she would suffer in no kind of way, that we must use her school for a week or so and that any loss or damage that she incurred would of course be made up to her. She was then, of a sudden, immensely fluent, explaining that her husband—"a most excellent husband to me in every way one might say"—had been dead fifteen years now, that her two sons were both fighting for the Austrians, that she looked after the school assisted by her daughter. These were her grandchildren.... Such a terrible year she, in all her long life, had never remembered. She....
The arrival of the rest of the Oboz silenced her. She remained, with wide-open staring eyes, her hand at her breast, watching, saying absent-mindedly to the children: "Now Katya.... Now Anna.... See what you're about!"
The school was spotlessly clean. In the schoolroom the rough benches were marked with names and crosses. On the whitewashed walls were coloured maps of Galicia and tables of the Austrian kings and queens; on the blackboard still an unfinished arithmetical sum and on the master's desk a pile of exercise books.
In a moment everything was changed; the sanitars had turned the schoolroom into a dormitory, another room was to be our dining-room, another a bedroom for the Sisters. In the high raftered kitchen our midday meal was already cooking; the little cobbled court was piled high with luggage. In the field beyond the house the sanitars had pitched their tents.
I walked out into the little garden—a charming place with yew hedges, a lichen-covered well and old thick apple-trees, and here I found an old man in a broad-brimmed straw hat tending the bees. The hives were open and he was working with a knife whilst the bees hung in a trembling hovering cloud about him. I spoke to him but he paid no attention to me at all. I watched him then spoke again; he straightened himself then looked at me for a moment with eyes full of scorn. Words of fury, of abuse perhaps, seemed to tremble on his lips, then shaking his head he turned his back upon me and continued his work. Behind us I could hear the soldiers breaking the garden-fence to make stakes for their tents.
Here we were for a fortnight and it was strange to me, in the days of stress and excitement that followed, to look back to that fortnight and remember that we had, so many of us, been restless and discontented at the quiet of it. Oddly enough, of all the many backgrounds that were, during the next months, to follow in procession behind me, there only remain to me with enduring vitality: this school-house at O——, the banks of the River Nestor which I had indeed good reason to remember, and finally the forest of S——. How strange a contrast, that school-house with its little garden and white cobbles and that forest which will, to the end of my life, ever haunt my dreams.
And yet, by its very contrast, how fitting a background to our Prologue this school-house made! I wonder whether Nikitin sees it still in his visions? Trenchard and Semyonov ... does it mean anything to them, where they now are? First of them all, Marie Ivanovna.... I see her still, bending over the well looking down, then suddenly flinging her head back, laughing as we stood behind her, the sunlight through the apple-trees flashing in her eyes.... That fortnight must be to many of us of how ironic, of how tragic a tranquillity!
So we settled down and did our best to become happily accustomed to one another. Our own immediate company numbered twenty or so—Molozov, two doctors, myself, Trenchard and Andrey Vassilievitch, the two new Sisters and the three former ones, five or six young Russians, gentlemen of ease and leisure who had had some "bandaging" practice at the Petrograd hospitals, and three very young medical students, directly attached to our two doctors. In addition to these there were the doctors, Sisters and students belonging to the army itself—the Sixty-Fifth Division of the Ninth Army. These sometimes lived with us and sometimes by themselves; they had at their head Colonel Oblonsky, a military doctor of much experience and wide knowledge. There were also the regular sanitars, some thirty or forty, men who were often by profession schoolmasters or small merchants, of a better class for the most part than the ordinary soldier.
It is not, of course, my intention to describe with any detail the individuals of this company. I have chosen already those of us who are especially concerned with my present history, but these others made a continually fluctuating and variable background, at first confusing and, to a stranger, almost terrifying. When the army doctors and Sisters dined with us we numbered from thirty to forty persons: sometimes also the officers of the Staff of the Sixty-Fifth came to our table. There were other occasions when every one was engaged on one business or another and only three or four of us were left at the central station or "Punkt," as it was called.
And, of all these persons, who now stands out? I can remember a Sister, short, plain, with red hair, who felt that she was treated with insufficient dignity, whose voice rising in complaint is with me now; I can see her small red-rimmed eyes watching for some insult and then the curl of her lip as she snatched her opportunity.... Or there was the jolly, fat Sister who had travelled with us, an admirable worker, but a woman, apparently, with no personal life at all, no excitements, dreads, angers, dejections. Upon her the war made no impression at all. She spoke sometimes to us of her husband and her children. She was not greedy, nor patriotic, neither vain nor humble, neither egoistic nor unselfish. She was simply reliable.
Or there was the tall gaunt Sister, intensely religious and serious. She was regarded by all of us as an excellent woman, but of course we did not like her.
One would say to another: "Sister K——, what an excellent worker!"
"Yes. How she works!"
When owing to the illness of her old mother she was compelled to return to Petrograd what relief we all felt! How gay was our supper the night of her departure! There was something very childish at the heart of all of us.
Of the young gentlemen from Petrograd I remember only three. The family name of one was Ivanoff, but he was always known to the Otriad as Goga, a pet diminutive of George. He was perhaps the youngest person whom I have ever known. He must have been eighteen years of age; he looked about eleven, with a round red face and wide-open eyes that expressed eternal astonishment. Like Mr. Toots', his mind was continually occupied with his tailor and he told me on several occasions that he hoped I should visit him in Petrograd because there in the house of his mother he had many splendid suits, shirts, ties, that it would give him pleasure to show me. In spite of this little weakness, he showed a most energetic character, willing to do anything for anybody, eager to please the whole world. I can hear his voice now:
"Yeh Bogu! Ivan Andreievitch!... Imagine my position! There was General Polinoff and the whole Staff.... What to do? Only three versts from the position too and already six o'clock...."
Or there was another serious gentleman, whose mind was continually occupied with Russia: "It may be difficult for you, Ivan Andreievitch, to see with our eyes, but for those of us who have Russia in our hearts ... what rest or peace can there be? I can assure you...."
He wore pince-nez and with his long pear-shaped head, shaven to the skin, his white cheeks, protruding chin and long heavy white hands he resembled nothing so much as a large fish hanging on a nail at a fishmonger's. He worked always in a kind of cold desperate despair, his pince-nez slipping off his shiny nose, his mouth set grimly. "What is the use?" he seemed to say, "of helping these poor wounded soldiers when Russia is in such a desperate condition? Tell me that!"
Or there was a wild rough fellow from some town in Little Russia, a boy of the most primitive character, no manners at all and a heart of shining gold. Of life he had the very wildest notions. He loved women and would sing Southern Russian songs about them. He had a strain of fantasy that continually surprised one. He liked fairy tales. He would say to me: "There's a tale? Ivan Andreievitch, about a princess who lived on a lake of glass. There was a forest, you know, round the lake and all the trees were of gold. The pond was guarded by three dwarfs. I myself, Ivan Andreievitch, have seen a dwarf in Kiev no higher than your leg, and in our town they say there was once a whole family of dwarfs who lived in a house in the chief street in our town and sold potatoes.... I don't know.... People tell one such things. But for the rest of that tale, do you remember how it goes?"
He could ride any horse, carry any man, was never tired nor out of heart. He had the vaguest ideas about the war. "I knew a German once in our town," he told me. "I always hated him.... He was going to Petrograd to make his fortune. I hope he's dead." This fellow was called Petrov.
My chief interest during this fortnight was to watch the fortunes of Marie Ivanovna and Trenchard with their new companions. It was instantly apparent that Marie Ivanovna was a success. On the second day after our arrival at the school-house there were continual exclamations: "But how charming the new Sister! How sympathetic!... Have you talked to the new Sister?"
Even Sister K——, so serious and religious, approved. It was evident at once that Marie Ivanovna was, on her side, delighted with every one. I could see that at present she was assured that what she wanted from life would be granted to her. She gave herself, with complete confidence, to any one and every one, and, with that triumphing vitality that one felt in her from the first moment of meeting her, she carried all before her. In the hospital at Petrograd they had been, I gathered, "all serious and old," had treated her I fancy with some sternness. Here, at any rate, "serious and old" she would not find us. We welcomed, with joy, her youth, her enthusiasm, her happiness.
Semyonov, who never disguised nor restrained his feelings, was, from the first instant, strangely attracted to her. She, I could see, liked him very much, felt in him his strength and capacity and scorn of others. Molozov also yielded her his instant admiration. He always avoided any close personal relationship with any of us but I could see that he was delighted with her vitality and energy. She pleased the older Sisters by her frank and quite honest desire to be told things and the younger Sisters by her equally honest admiration of their gifts and qualities. She was honest and sincere, I do believe, in every word and thought and action. She had, in many ways, the naive purity, the unconsidered faith and confidence of a child still in the nursery. She amazed me sometimes by her ignorance; she delighted me frequently by her refreshing truth and straightforwardness. She felt a little, I think, that I did not yield her quite the extravagant admiration of the others. I was Trenchard's friend....
Yes, I was now Trenchard's friend. What had occurred since that night in the train, when I had felt, during the greater part of the time, nothing but irritation? Frankly, I do not know. It may be, partly, that he was given to me by the rest of the Otriad. He was spoken of now as "my" Englishman. And then, poor Trenchard!... How, during this fortnight, he was unhappy! It had begun with him as I had foreseen. In the first place he had been dismayed and silenced by the garrulity of his new companions. It had seemed to him that he had understood nothing of their conversation, that he was in the way, that finally he was more lonely than he had ever been in his life before. Then, however strongly he might to himself deny it, he had arrived in Russia with what Nikitin called "his romantic notions." He had read his Dostoevski and Turgenev; he had looked at those books of Russian impressions that deal in nothing but snow, ikons, and the sublime simplicity of the Russian peasant. He was a man whose circumstances had led him to believe profoundly in his own incapacity, unpopularity, ignorance. For a moment his love had given him a new confidence but now how was that same love deserting him? He had foreseen a glorious campaign, his lady and himself side by side, death and terror flying before him. He found himself leading a country life of perfect quiet and comfort, even as he might have led it in England, with a crowd of people, strangely unfamiliar to him, driving him, as he had been driven in the old days, into a host of awkwardnesses, confusions and foolishnesses. I could not forgive Marie Ivanovna for her disappointment in him, and yet I could understand how different he must have appeared to her during those last days in Petrograd, when alone with her and on fire with love, he had shown his true and bravest self to her. She was impatient, she had hoped that the others would see him as she had seen him. She watched them as they expressed their surprise that he was not the practical, fearless and unimaginative Englishman who was their typical figure. Whilst he found them far from the Karamazovs, the Raskolnikoffs, of his imagination, they in their turn could not create the "sportsman" and "man of affairs" whom they had expected.
To all of this Semyonov added, beyond question, his personal weight. He had from the first declared Trenchard "a ridiculous figure." Whilst the others were unfailingly kind, hospitable and even indulgent to Trenchard, Semyonov was openly satirical, making no attempt to hide his sarcastic irony. I do not know how much Trenchard's engagement to Marie Ivanovna had to do with this, but I know that "my Englishman" could not to his misfortune have had a more practical, more efficient figure against whom to be contrasted than Semyonov.
During these weeks I think that I hated Semyonov. There was, however, one silent observer of all this business upon whose personal interference I had not reckoned. This was Nikitin, who, at the end of our first week at the school-house, broke his silence in a conversation with me.
Nikitin, although he spoke as little as possible to any one, had already had his effect upon the Otriad. They felt behind his silence a personality that might indeed be equal to Semyonov's own. By little Andrey Vassilievitch they were always being assured: "Nikitin! A most remarkable man! You may believe me. I have known him for many years. A great friend of my poor wife's and mine...."
They did not appear to be great friends. Nikitin quite obviously avoided the little man whenever it was possible. But then he avoided us all.
Upon a lovely afternoon Nikitin and I were alone in the wild little garden, he lying full length on the grass, I reading a very ancient English newspaper, with my back against a tree.
He looked up at me with a swift penetrating glance, as though he were seeing me for the first time and would wish at once to weigh my character and abilities.
"Your Englishman," he said. "He's not happy, I'm afraid."
"No," I said, feeling the surprise of his question—it had become almost a tradition with me that he never spoke unless he were first spoken to. "He feels strange and a little lonely, perhaps ... it's natural enough!"
"Yes," repeated Nikitin, "it's natural enough. What did he come for?"
"Oh, he'll be all right," I said hastily, "in a day or two."
Nikitin lay on his back looking at the green, layer upon layer, light and dark, with golden fragments of broken light leaping in the breeze from branch to branch. "Why did he come? What did he expect to see? I know what he expected to see—romantic Russia, romantic war. He expected to find us, our hearts exploding with love, God's smile on our simple faces, God's simple faith in our souls.... He has been told by his cleverest writers that Russia is the last stronghold of God. And war? He thought that he would be plunged into a scene of smoke and flame, shrapnel, horror upon horror, danger upon danger. He finds instead a country house, meals long and large, no sounds of cannon, not even an aeroplane. Are we kind to him? Not at all.... We are not unkind but we simply have other things to think about, and because we are primitive people we do what we want to do, feel what we want to feel, and show quite frankly our feelings. He is not what we expected, so that we prefer to fill our minds with things that do not give us trouble. Later, like all Englishmen, he will dismiss us as savages, or, if he is of the intellectual kind, he will talk about our confusing subtleties and contradictions. But we are neither savages nor confusing. We have simply a skin less than you.... We are a very young people, a real and genuine Democracy, and we care for quite simple things, women, food, sleep, money, quite simply and without restraint. We show our eagerness, our disgust, our disappointment, our amusement simply as the mood moves us. In Moscow they eat all day and are not ashamed. Why should they be? In Kiev they think always about women and do not pretend otherwise ... and so on. We have, of course, no sense of time, nor method, nor system. If we were to think of these things we would be compelled to use restraint and that would bother us. We may lose the most important treasure in the world by not keeping an appointment ... on the other hand we have kept our freedom. We care for ideas for which you care nothing in England but we have a sure suspicion of all conclusions. We are pessimists, one and all. Life cannot be good. We ironically survey those who think that it can.... We give way always to life but when things are at their worst then we are relieved and even happy. Here at any rate we are on safe ground. We have much sentiment, but it may, at any moment, give way to some other emotion. We are therefore never to be relied upon, as friends, as enemies, as anything you please. Except this—that in the heart of every Russian there is a passionate love of goodness. We are tolerant to all evil, to all weakness because we ourselves are weak. We confess our weakness to any one because that permits us to indulge in it—but when we see in another goodness, strength, virtue, we worship it. You may bind us to you with bands of iron by your virtues—never, as all foreigners think, by your vices. In this, too, we are sentimentalists. We may not believe in God but we have an intense curiosity about Him—a curiosity that with many of us never leaves us alone, compels us to fill our lives, to fill our lives.... We love Russia.... But that is another thing.... Never forget too that behind every Russian's simplicity there is always his Ideal—his secret Ideal, perhaps, that he keeps like an ikon sacred in his heart. Yes, of every Russian, even of the worst of us, that is true. And it complicates our lives, delivers us to our enemies, defeats all our worldly aims, renders us helpless at the moment when we should be most strong. But it is good, before God, that it should be so...."