THE RED CROSS GIRLS WITH THE RUSSIAN ARMY
The Red Cross Girls with the Russian Army
By MARGARET VANDERCOOK
Author of "The Ranch Girls Series," "Stories about Camp Fire Girls Series," etc.
The John C. Winston Company Philadelphia
Copyright, 1916, by THE JOHN C. WINSTON CO.
I. A PEASANT'S HUT IN RUSSIA 7
II. A FORMER ACQUAINTANCE 23
III. GENERAL ALEXIS 37
IV. AN ENCOUNTER 53
V. OUT OF THE PAST 67
VI. THE ARREST 80
VII. A RUSSIAN CHURCH 92
VIII. ANOTHER WARNING 104
IX. THE ATTACK 118
X. MILDRED'S OPPORTUNITY 134
XI. A RUSSIAN RETREAT 148
XII. PETROGRAD 158
XIII. THE NEXT STEP 174
XIV. MILDRED'S RETURN 191
XV. THE WINTER PALACE 206
XVI. THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS 217
XVII. THE DEPARTURE 236
XVIII. A POEM AND A CONVERSATION 247
XIX. THE REUNION 256
A Peasant's Hut in Russia
In the last volume of the Red Cross series the four American girls spent six months in tragic little Belgium. There, in an American hospital in Brussels, devoted to the care, not of wounded soldiers, but of ill Belgians, three of the girls lived and worked.
But Eugenia went alone to dwell in a house in the woods because the cry of the children in Belgium made the strongest appeal to her. The house was a lonely one, supposed to be haunted, yet in spite of this Eugenia moved in. There the money of the girl whom her friend had once believed "poor as a church mouse" fed and cared for her quickly acquired family.
In Eugenia's haunted house were other sojourners furnishing the mystery of this story and endangering her liberty, almost her life. They were a Belgian officer and his family whom the Red Cross girl kept in hiding. Somehow the officer had managed to return to his own country from the fighting line in Belgium. After securing the papers he desired from the enemy, by Eugenia's aid, he was enabled to return once more to King Albert and the Allied armies. Thus Eugenia was left alone to bear the brunt of the German displeasure after the discovery of her misdeeds. She was imprisoned in Brussels, and became dangerously ill. Finally, because she was an American, Eugenia was made to leave the country, rather than to suffer the punishment which would have been hers had she belonged to another nationality.
But the four American Red Cross girls also had the companionship of Dick Thornton during their stay in the once lovely capital of Belgium.
Dick had not recovered the use of his arm, but in spite of this had come to Brussels to help with the work of the American Relief society.
Here his once friendly relation with Barbara Meade no longer existed. Because of her change of attitude he apparently grew more attached to Nona Davis.
However, at the close of the story, when Barbara is taking Eugenia back to southern France, she and Dick unexpectedly meet aboard a fog-bound ship. And in the darkness the light finally shines when Dick and Barbara discover at last that their feeling for each other is stronger than friendship.
Later, near "the pool of truth" not far from the "Farmhouse with the Blue Front Door," Eugenia Peabody again meets Captain Henri Castaigne, the young French officer whom she had once nursed back to health. A short time afterwards he and Eugenia are married.
Later the three other American Red Cross girls decide to continue their nursing of the wounded soldiers of the Allied armies in far-off Russia.
One cold October afternoon three American girls were standing in the stone courtyard of a great Russian fortress near the border line of Poland.
Situated upon a cone-shaped hill, the fort itself had been built like the three sides of a square, with the yard as the center. Along the fourth side ran a cement wall with a single iron gate.
Evidently the three girls were engaged in Red Cross work, for they wore the familiar service uniforms. One of them had on a heavy coat and cap, but the other two must have just come out of doors for a few moments.
Indeed, their first words revealed this fact.
"I really don't feel that you should be starting upon this expedition alone, Nona," Mildred Thornton argued. She was a tall girl, with heavy, flaxen hair and quiet, steel-gray eyes. She was gazing anxiously about her, for Russia was a new and strange world to the three American Red Cross nurses, who had arrived at their present headquarters only a few weeks before.
Nearly a year had passed since the four friends separated in Belgium. Then Mildred and Nona Davis had remained at their posts to care for the homeless Belgian children, while Barbara Meade and Eugenia Peabody returned to southern France.
Now at the close of Mildred Thornton's speech to Nona, Barbara Meade frowned. She was poised on one foot as if expecting to flee at any moment.
"I quite agree with you, Mildred," she protested. "Nona's message was far too mysterious and vague to consider answering. We must not forget that we are now in a country and among a people whom we don't understand in the least. Besides, I promised both Dick and Eugenia that we would be more careful. How I wish one or the other of them were here to advise us!"
Shivering, Barbara, who was the youngest and smallest of the girls, slipped her arm through Mildred's.
A few yards before them sentries were marching slowly up and down, with their rifles resting on their shoulders, while a double row guarded a single wide gate. Every now and then a common soldier passed on his way to the performance of some special duty. Gray and colorless, the afternoon had a peculiar dampness as if the wind had blown across acres of melting snow.
Nevertheless in reply to her friends' objections Nona Davis shook her head.
"Yes, I realize you may both be right, and yet so urgent was my message that I feel compelled to do what was asked of me. But don't worry about me, I have the letter with the directions safe in my pocket. Good-by."
Then before either of the other girls could find time to argue the point a second time, the young southern girl had kissed each of them and turned away. Later they saw her give the password at the gate and the sentry allow her to pass out.
Before her lay a stretch of sparsely settled country divided by a wide and much traveled road. Several miles further along a wide river crossed the land, but near at hand there were only small farms and meagre clumps of pine woods.
After a few more words of disapproval, Barbara Meade shrugged her shoulders, and then she and Mildred re-entered the small curved doorway of the Russian fort. The left wing was being used as a hospital for the wounded, while the rest of the great fortification was crowded with officers and soldiers.
These men were being held in reserve to await the threatened invasion of the oncoming German hosts. Warsaw had fallen and one by one the ancient Russian fortifications once deemed invincible had given way before the German guns. But here at Grovno, under the command of the great General Alexis, the Russians were to make a final stand.
However, without thinking of anything save personal matters, Nona Davis first set out along the main traveled road. Now and then she was compelled to step aside to let a great ox cart go past; these carts were filled with provisions being brought into the fort. Occasionally a covered car rattled past loaded with munitions of war, or a heavy piece of artillery drawn on low trucks. But one would like to have seen a far greater quantity of supplies of all kinds being brought to the old fortress. It was an open secret that the supply of munitions was not what it should be, and yet Grovno was expected to withstand all attacks.
But the young American girl was not reflecting upon the uncertainties of war during her walk. Neither did she feel any nervousness because of the newness of her surroundings, for the country in the rear of the fortifications was chiefly inhabited by Russian women and children and a few old men.
Nona walked on quickly and with a speed and careless grace that covered the ground without apparent effort.
She was looking extremely well, but above all other things Nona Davis appeared supremely interested. For some reason, still unknown to her, she had been more stirred and excited by the coming into Russia than any country she had yet seen. She both admired and feared the Russian people, with their curious combination of poetry and stupidity, of dullness and passion. Before returning to her own land she meant to try and understand them better. For somewhere she had read that the future art of the world was to come forth from Russia. It is the Slavic temperament and not the Anglo-Saxon that best expresses itself in music and literature.
Nona's errand this afternoon was a curious and puzzling one, fraught with unnecessary mystery.
Four days before, a Russian boy about twelve years old had appeared at the gate of the fortress at Grovno, bearing a note addressed to Miss Nona Davis. Oddly enough, although the note was written in perfect English, it was not signed. In spite of this it requested that the American girl come to a small house about a mile and a half away to see a former friend.
But who the friend could be, not one of the three girls could imagine. Yet they scarcely talked of anything else. Nona had no acquaintances in Russia save the people she had met in connection with her work, and there was no one in her past whom she could possibly conceive of having come into Russia as a tourist at such a time.
Therefore it was Mildred Thornton's and Barbara Meade's opinion that Nona should pay not the slightest heed to such a communication. Anonymous letters lead to nothing but evil. But in spite of their objections, here at the first possible opportunity Nona was obeying the behest. Probably she could not have explained why, for she was too sensible not to appreciate that possible discomfort and even danger might lie ahead of her. Perhaps as much as anything she was actuated by a spirit of sheer adventure.
So it is little wonder that during her walk Nona's thoughts were now and then engaged with her own affairs. Yet after a little her attention wandered from the immediate future and she fell to recalling the history of the past years' experiences, her own and her three friends.
No wonder Barbara was often lonely and homesick for Dick Thornton.
She had become engaged to him on the fog-bound trip she had made with him in getting Eugenia safely out of Belgium. Remembering Eugenia's escape, Nona said a short prayer of thankfulness. After her hiding of the Belgian officer and his family from the German authorities, she would never have been allowed to leave Belgium unpunished had she not been an American woman. Remembering the fate of the English girl who had committed the same crime, Nona appreciated how much they had to be thankful for.
And now Eugenia was married to Captain Castaigne, the young French officer. Curious that among the four of them who had come from the United States to do Red Cross work among the Allies, Eugenia should be the first to marry! She, a New England old maid, disapproving of matrimony and, above all, of international marriages!
Yet the wedding had taken place in the previous spring at the little French "Farmhouse with the Blue Front Door," where the four girls had spent the most cheerful months since their arrival in Europe for the war nursing.
Only once had Nona and Mildred deserted their posts in Belgium, where they had continued Eugenia's work of caring for the homeless Belgian children. Then they had gone to attend her wedding, but had returned to Belgium as soon as possible.
But Eugenia and Captain Castaigne had taken scarcely more time for their own honeymoon.
Soon after the ceremony Captain Castaigne had gone to rejoin his regiment and three days after Eugenia had become a member of the staff of a French hospital near her husband's line of trenches.
So it turned out that Barbara Meade was left at the Chateau d'Amelie, as Madame Castaigne's friend and companion. Dick Thornton boarded in the village near by, so that he and Barbara had a number of happy months together.
But Dick had finally decided that he must return to America and had urged Barbara and his sister Mildred to return with him. Of course, Nona had been invited to accompany them, but no special pressure had been brought upon her.
However, Mildred did not feel that her Red Cross work in Europe was finished, while Barbara refused to desert her friends.
But Barbara had another reason for her decision: she desired Dick to be alone when he confessed their engagement to his mother and father. Barbara had little fear of Judge Thornton's disapproval, but felt reasonably convinced that Mrs. Thornton would be both disappointed and aggrieved. Certainly she had never hesitated to announce that she expected her son Dick to make a brilliant match. How could she then be satisfied with a western girl of no wealth or distinction?
It happened that Dick Thornton also had a private reason for finally agreeing to Barbara's wish. His experiences in the past two years had given him a new point of view toward life. No longer was he willing to be known only as his father's son and to continue being supported by him. Before Dick married he intended making a position for himself, so as to be able to take care of his own wife.
Nona also recalled that she was really responsible for their coming into Russia. It had seemed to her that they must make their Red Cross work complete by nursing in the largest of the Allied countries.
However, Nona had now to cease her reflections, for she had come to a place in the road where she had been told to turn aside.
To make sure the girl opened her note and re-read it for probably the tenth time. Yes, here were the three pine trees, green shadows against the autumn sky, and here also was the narrow path that began alongside of them.
After another fifteen minutes' walk Nona discovered that she was approaching a hut of the poorest character. It was built of logs, with mud roughly filling up a number of cracks.
Already Nona was learning to understand that the Russian poor are perhaps the poorest people in the world. This hut was not so poverty-stricken as many others she had seen; at least, there were two windows and a front door.
Outside a hungry dog prowled about, showing not the slightest interest in the newcomer. Yet Nona was vaguely frightened. She stopped for a moment to reflect. Should she go in or not? The place looked ugly and depressing and she could see no signs of human beings.
Yet perhaps there was illness inside the house and she had been sent for to give aid. If that were true she must not hesitate.
As Nona lifted her hand to knock at the door, suddenly it occurred to her as curious that the note she had received had been written upon extremely fine paper and in a handwriting which revealed breeding and education. Yet this peasant's hut suggested neither the one nor the other.
But Nona was more mystified than fearful since her Red Cross uniform was her protection, and these were not days when one dared think of oneself.
She knocked quietly but firmly on the wooden door.
The next moment the heavy bar was slipped aside. Then Nona saw a woman of about thirty-five, dressed in the costume of a Russian peasant, standing with both hands outstretched toward her.
"My dear," she began in perfect English, "this is better fortune than I dreamed, to find you once again, and in Russia, of all countries!"
A Former Acquaintance
"But," Nona began, and then hesitated, feeling extraordinarily puzzled. The face of the woman before her was oddly familiar, although she could not at the instant recall where or when she had known her.
Yet she remembered the deep blue-gray eyes with their perfectly penciled dark brows and lashes, even the rather sad expression of them. However, she must be mistaken, since she could have no acquaintance in Russia!
However, she allowed herself to be quietly led inside the hut, where the door was immediately closed behind her. Then the girl followed the woman inside a bare chamber, furnished with only a few chairs and a rough table. In an upper corner hung an ikon, the Russian image of the Christ. The face of the Christ was painted in brilliant colors set inside a brass square and this square enclosed in a dark wooden frame.
The ikon is to the Russian who is a Greek Catholic what the crucifix is to the Roman Catholic. No orthodox Russian home is ever without one.
But after the first glance, Nona Davis gave no further consideration to her surroundings. Before her companion could speak the second time she had suddenly recognized her.
"Why, Lady Dorian, what has brought you to Russia? You are the last person I expected to see! Since our meeting on board the 'Philadelphia' and your stay at the Sacred Heart Hospital I have so often wondered what had become of you, and if you were well and happy. You promised to write me."
"Then you have not forgotten me?" Before saying anything more the older woman found a chair for her guest and another for herself.
"No, I have not written you, but I have thought of you many times and have followed your history more closely than you dream," she returned quietly, yet with evident earnestness. "I have been well and I suppose as happy as most people. How can any human being be anything but wretched during this tragic war? If only we might have peace!"
Lady Dorian's face became white and drawn and Nona felt that she had aged a great deal since their first meeting, and indeed since the months they had spent as fellow workers for the British soldiers at the Sacred Heart Hospital. Nevertheless she still felt strangely attracted toward her companion, although mingled with the attraction was a new and uncomfortable feeling of distrust.
Lady Dorian had come to the hospital cleared of the charge made against her on board the "Philadelphia" of being a spy. Yet she had never given any explanation of her history. Then had followed her surprising meeting with the British officer, Colonel Dalton, and their betrayal of a former acquaintanceship. Although the older woman had promised to explain their connection later, she had only said that they had once known each other rather intimately in London. But as they were friends no longer, she preferred not speaking of him again.
All this passed swiftly through Nona's mind while the older woman was speaking. But the girl devoutly hoped that her face did not betray her thoughts. For here was the most surprising situation of all! Lady Dorian had seemed to be a woman of wealth at the beginning of their acquaintance and certainly had given a large sum of money to the Sacred Heart Hospital. Now to find her dressed as a peasant and living in a peasant's hut in Russia!
Her skirt was of some cheap black material and her bodice of velveteen, laced with black cords over a white cotton waist. She also wore a Russian peasant's apron of brighter colors.
Yet Nona recognized the older woman's beauty and distinction in spite of her costume, even while her present circumstances and her eccentricities antagonized her visitor.
The woman was sitting with her level brows drawn together looking closely at the younger girl.
"I am sorry you don't seem to feel your former faith in me, Nona," she began unexpectedly. "Not that I blame you, for I do not know myself whether it is wise for me to have intruded into your life again. I would not have done so if there had not been a reason more important than you can appreciate."
For a moment the girl's attention had been wandering, engaged by the oddness of her surroundings, but now she tried to conceal her growing discomfort. Lady Dorian was appearing more mysterious than ever! If she desired to renew their acquaintance because they had formerly liked each other, that was a sufficient reason for her summons. It was scarcely worth while to try to produce other motives.
But Lady Dorian had gotten up and now stood facing her.
"What I am going to tell you is extraordinary, Nona, although life is too full of strange happenings to make us wonder at anything. In the first place, will you please cease to call me Lady Dorian, for that is not my name. Nor is it remarkable for you to discover me living in Russia, because I am a Russian by birth. I have not always made my home in my own country, but that makes no difference, since my love and sympathy have always been with my own people. Here I am only known as 'Sonya.' But I do not wish to speak of myself, but of you. I have a strong reason for my interest in you, Nona, for although you may find it hard to believe, I once knew your mother."
"Knew my mother?" The young American girl scarcely understood what was being said. She was so many thousands of miles both in fact and in thought from her own home and her own history. She could not believe that her companion was telling the truth. In any case she was merely mistaking her for some one else.
So Nona shook her head gravely. "I am sorry, but I don't think that possible," she explained. "My mother was a southern woman, who lived very quietly in an old-fashioned city. I can't see how your lives could ever have touched."
Until this instant Nona had remained seated with her former friend standing before her.
She did not realize how much she showed her resentment at this use of her mother's name. Now she made an effort to rise from her chair.
"I am very happy to have seen you again," she protested in the formal manner which Barbara Meade sometimes admired and at other times resented.
But her companion was not influenced and indeed paid no attention to the younger girl's hauteur. She merely put a restraining hand on her shoulder, adding,
"It is not worth while for us to argue that point until you hear what I have to say. The fact is, I know more of your mother, Nona, than you do yourself. For one thing, your mother was also a Russian. She was older than I, but we were together at one time in the United States. She went to visit in New Orleans and there met your father and married. I knew she had a daughter by your name, but curiously when I first met you on board the steamer your name conveyed nothing to me. Perhaps the last thing I expected was to find the daughter of your father, General Robert Davis, serving as a Red Cross nurse. He was a conservative of the old school, and I supposed would never have allowed you to leave home. But after we came together again and I met you for the second time at the Sacred Heart Hospital, I began to think of what association I had with your name. Soon I remembered and then I endeavored to discover your history. There was a chance that the name had no connection with the girl I sought. But it was simple enough to make the discovery."
"Simple enough to make the discovery!" Stupidly Nona Davis repeated the words aloud, because they puzzled her. Then it occurred to her that the woman before her was so associated with mysteries that a family problem must be comparatively simple. Doubtless she had been able to discover more of Nona's mother's history than she herself had ever found out.
But Nona was by no means pleased with the thought of an association between her own people and Lady Dorian, who had just frankly confessed that this name had been an assumed one.
Nor did she wish to go into the subject of her family connection with so uncomfortable a stranger. First she wished to have time to think the situation over and to try to make it clearer to her own mind. Then she wished to discuss it with Mildred and Barbara.
The girl glanced at the old-fashioned watch belonging to her father, which she always wore. In the back it held her mother's picture, but not for worlds would she have revealed this fact at the moment.
Curious that she should feel this extreme distrust of her companion, when she had been her ardent defender in their earlier acquaintance! But then she had never expected to be drawn into any intimacy with her.
Besides, Russia was an incomprehensible country. The class distinctions which had so impressed her in England were as nothing to the differences in rank here.
Russia, in truth, seemed a land of princes and paupers! To a girl of Nona Davis' ideas and training, to find herself associated with the lower orders of Russian society was distinctly disagreeable. She had lived so long on the tradition of family that social position seemed of first importance.
Now her former acquaintance was living in a peasant's house and was dressed like a peasant woman. Some strange change must have taken place in her life to reduce her to such a position, when previously she had given the impression of wealth and distinction.
Nona got up hurriedly, drawing her coat about her. Later perhaps she might be willing to hear what the other woman wished to confide, but not today.
Yet Nona felt that she did not wish to look into her companion's eyes. She must try not to think of her any longer as Lady Dorian, though "Sonya" was an exquisite Russian name, it certainly gave no clue to her identity.
However, she could not fail to see that the other woman's expression revealed surprise and sorrow at her attitude, but was without resentment. It was as if she had grown accustomed to distrust and coldness.
"I am sorry you don't wish me to speak of your mother, Nona. It is true I can give you no explanation of the change in my surroundings, but the present need not affect the past. I know that your father has kept your mother's story a secret from you. Yet there is nothing in it of which you may not be proud, that is, if you have the nature which I have hoped to find in you."
Embarrassed and yet determined not to listen any further, Nona continued obstinately walking toward the door, with Sonya quietly following her.
"Will you wait a moment, please?" the older woman asked. "I have two friends here in the house with me, whom I would like you to meet. When you talk me over with Mildred and Barbara to find out their opinion of me and of what I have tried to tell you, you can explain to them that I am not alone. I realize that I have always been a mystifying acquaintance and I'm sorry, but it is not possible to tell you my history at present. Some day I may be able to explain."
Sonya's tone was half grave and half gay. Moreover, her blue eyes with their curiously dark brows and lashes watched the younger girl with an almost wistful affection.
The situation was more than puzzling. Yet, although she grew more anxious each minute to be away, Nona could only agree to her companion's request.
For a moment she was left alone in the crude, bare room. It was cheerless and cold and she grew even more uncomfortable. Surely, Russia was the strangest land in the world. How could her history as a young American girl have any connection with it? Why had she so insisted upon continuing her Red Cross nursing in Russia, when without her urging the other Red Cross girls would have been content to remain where they were?
The next moment a very old woman and a man came into the room with Sonya. There was no doubting they were both peasants. With them it was not merely a matter of rough clothes. They were both heavily built, with stupid, sad faces and they mumbled something in broken English when they were introduced to Nona, eyeing her with suspicion. It was only when their gaze rested upon Sonya that their faces changed. Then it was as though a light had shone through darkness.
Sonya introduced them by name, some queer Russian name which Nona could not grasp.
However, she was trying her best to find something civil to say in return, which they might be able to understand, when an unexpected noise interrupted them.
Some one had unceremoniously opened the door in the hall and was walking toward them.
For an instant Nona thought she saw a shade of anxiety cross the faces of her three companions, but the next instant it was gone.
Nona could scarcely swallow a gasp of surprised admiration when, soon after, the door opened.
A young Russian soldier entered the room. He wore the uniform of a Cossack: the high boots, the fur cap and tunic.
To Nona Davis' American eyes the young man seemed a typical Russian of the better classes. He was extremely handsome, more than six feet tall, with dark hair and eyes and a colorless skin.
He appeared surprised at Nona's presence, but explained that he was stationed at the Russian fort where a number of wounded were being cared for. He remembered having seen Nona and her two friends. They were the only American nurses in the vicinity, so it was not strange to have noticed them.
Michael Orlaff was the soldier's name. Sonya spoke it with distinctness, but gave him no title. Yet evidently they knew each other very well.
A moment later and Nona finally got away. She was late and nervous about returning to the fortifications alone. Yet as she hurried on she was thinking over the afternoon until her head ached with the mystery of it. Perhaps it might be wise if she could avoid meeting this particular group of people again.
All that day Mildred Thornton had scarcely left the bedside of her patient.
For the Russian boy was dying, and as there was no hope for him, Mildred could only do her best to make him as comfortable as possible.
Now he seemed half asleep, so with her hands folded in her lap the girl sat near him trying to rest, although unable to keep her mind as quiet as her hands.
How strange her surroundings! Since her arrival in Europe as a Red Cross nurse she had lived and worked in two other countries and certainly had passed through remarkable experiences, yet none of them were to be compared with these few weeks of nursing in Russia. One might have been transferred to another planet instead of another land.
As an ordinary American tourist, Mildred had been familiar with Europe for several years, having spent three summers abroad traveling with her parents. But this was her first vision of the East, for Russia is eastern, however she may count herself otherwise.
The American girl now lifted her eyes from the figure of the dying boy and let them wander down the length of the room which sheltered them.
An immense place, it held rows on rows of other cot beds with white-clad nurses passing about among them. When they spoke or when the patients spoke Mildred could rarely guess what was being said, as she knew so few words of Russian. Yet she had little difficulty with her nursing, for the ways of the ill are universal and she had already seen so much suffering.
Now the hospital room was in half shadow, but it was never light nor aired as the American nurse felt it should be.
The hospital quarters were only a portion of the fortress, a great room, like a barracks which had been hastily turned into a refuge for the wounded.
The long stone chamber boasted only four small windows hardly larger than portholes and some distance from the ground. These opened with difficulty and were protected by heavy iron bars. But then in Russia in many private houses no window is ever voluntarily opened from autumn until Easter, as the cold is so intense and the arrangements for heating so crude.
Today Mildred wondered if the heavy, sick-laden air was giving her extraordinary fancies. She kept seeing dream pictures. For as she stared about the cold chamber of sorrow she beheld with greater distinctness the image of her own rooms at home.
This was the hour when the maid came to light her yellow-shaded electric candles; then she would put a fresh log on the fire and stir it to brightness, not because the added warmth was needed in their big steam-heated house, but because of the cheerfulness. Then would follow her mother's invitation to drink a cup of tea with her and Dick in the library, or would she prefer having it served in her own room?
With this thought the girl's eyes clouded for a moment. Doubtless Dick and her mother would be having tea together this afternoon and Dick would in all probability be trying to explain why his sister was not with him. During her work in France and Belgium her mother and father had been more than kind, but with this suggestion of coming into Russia to continue her nursing both her parents had protested.
It is true that they had not actually demanded her presence at home, for she would not have disobeyed a command. But undoubtedly they had urged her homecoming.
Her father longed for her because of the rare affection between them and the fact that he dreaded the conditions and experiences that might await her and her friends in Russia. For these same reasons her mother also desired her return, yet Mildred knew that there was another motive actuating her mother. She might be unconscious of the fact, but if her daughter should reappear in New York society at the present time, because of her war experiences she would become an object of unusual interest and attention.
At this instant the smile that appeared at the corners of the girl's mouth banished the tired expression it had previously worn. One big thing her war experiences had done for Mildred Thornton, it had given her a new sense of values. Now she knew the things that counted. She had learned to smile at her own failure as a society girl, even to understand and forgive her mother's chagrin at the fact.
Yet Mildred was influenced in a measure to continue her work in Europe by these trivial points of view.
Should she return home and re-enter society as her mother wished, sooner or later she must prove a second disappointment. For she had no social gifts; she could never learn to talk as her friends did. If questions were asked of her she could only reply with facts, not because she was lacking in sympathy or imagination, but because she had not the grace of words. So with neither beauty nor charm, how could she ever even hope to gratify her mother by securing the distinguished husband she so desired for her?
But since there was a place in the world for bees as well as butterflies, Mildred never meant to allow herself to grow unhappy again. She had a real talent for nursing; her work had received only praise. So here in Europe, where there seemed to be the greatest need of her services, she meant to remain as long as possible. This, in spite of the alluring picture of home which would thrust itself before her consciousness.
At this instant the boy on the bed moved and sighed and at the same instant the American girl forgot herself. He had opened his eyes and Mildred could see that he had become dimly conscious of his own condition and his surroundings.
But this boy could never have been more than dimly conscious of most things in his short life, he was so stupid and could neither read nor write; indeed, he had a vocabulary of but a few hundred words. Peter had been a laborer on the estates of a Polish nobleman when the call came to arms. And so often in the past week while she had been caring for him Mildred had been reminded of some farm animal by the way the boy endured pain, he had been so dumb and uncomplaining.
Even now he made no attempt to speak, but as she leaned over and took his hand Mildred realized that the boy could live but a few moments longer.
After a little tender smoothing of his cover the girl turned away. The Russian peasant is always a devout Catholic, so Mildred realized that he would wish a priest with him at the end.
She had walked only a few feet from the young soldier's bedside when an unaccustomed atmosphere of excitement in the ward arrested her attention.
It would not be necessary for her to summon a priest; some one must have anticipated her desire. For the priest was even now approaching. However, he was a familiar figure, passing hourly among the wounded and their attendants; his presence would cause no excitement.
The next instant Mildred understood the priest was not alone. He was accompanied by one of the most famous men in all Europe.
Although she had never seen him until this instant, Mildred Thornton had not a moment's doubt of the man's identity. This was the Commander of the fortress at Grovno, General Dmitri Alexis, at the present hour the bulwark of many Russian hopes.
For the past few weeks the Germans had been driving the Russians farther and farther back beyond the boundaries of Poland and near the heart of Russia. Here at Grovno the Russian army was expected to make a victorious stand. The faith of the Russian people was centered in General Dmitri Alexis.
Unlike most Russian officers, he had always been devoted to the interests of the common people, although a son of one of Russia's noble families. But he was known to be a shy, quiet man with little to say for himself, who had risen to his present rank by sheer ability.
To Mildred's eyes he seemed almost an old man; in fact, he must have been about fifty. His hair was iron gray, but unlike most Russians his eyes were a dark blue. As he wore no beard, the lines about his mouth were so stern as to be almost forbidding.
Mildred knew that he was an intimate personal friend of the Czar and realized just to what extent he must feel the weight of his present responsibilities.
Therefore she was the more surprised at his appearance in the hospital ward.
Except for a courtly inclination of his head the great man paid no attention to the greetings that were offered him by the nurses and doctors. Walking down the center of the room he had eyes only for the wounded men who lined the two walls. Then his sternness relaxed and his smile became a curious compound of pity and regret.
Mildred found herself staring without regard to good manners or breeding. Why should this man create such an atmosphere of trust and respect? She had seen other great generals in the armies of the Allies before today, but never one who had made such an impression.
General Alexis and the priest paused by the bedside of the Russian boy who was Mildred's patient.
There the great man's face softened until it became almost womanish in its sympathy. Slowly and reverently the dying boy attempted to raise his general's hand to his lips.
General Alexis said a few words in Russian which the young soldier understood, but Mildred could not. For he attempted to shake his head, to whisper a denial, then smiling dropped his arms down by his sides.
Mildred made no effort to move forward to assist him, for she did not feel that she had a place in the little group at this moment. She merely watched and waited, trying to see clearly through the mist in her eyes.
The boy's broad chest, strong once as a young giant's, but now with a scarcely beating heart beneath it, quivered with what seemed a final emotion. The same instant General Alexis leaned down and pinned against the white cotton of his rough shirt the iron cross of all the Russias. Afterwards he kissed him as simply as a woman might have done.
That was all! So natural and so quiet it was, Mildred Thornton herself was hardly aware of the significance of the little scene she had just witnessed.
Here in a country where the gulf between the rich and the poor, the humble and the great was well nigh impassable, a single act of courage had bridged it.
What act of valor Peter had performed Mildred never knew. She only knew that it had called from his duties one of the greatest men in Europe, that he might by his presence and with his own hands show homage to the humblest of soldiers.
When the simple ceremony was over the boy lay quite still, scarcely noticing that his general knelt down beside his bed. For his eyes were almost closing.
Neither did Mildred dare move or speak.
Against the walls the other nurses and doctors stood quiet as wooden figures, while the wounded were hushed to unaccustomed silences.
Then the Russian priest began to intone in words which the American girl could not understand, but in a voice the most wonderful she had ever heard. His tones were those of an organ deep and beautiful, of great volume but without noise.
Ceasing, he lifted an ikon before the young soldier's dimming eyes, and pronounced what must have been a benediction.
The next moment the great stillness had entered the hospital chamber and the Russian boy with the iron cross above his heart lay in his final sleep.
All at once Mildred Thornton felt extraordinarily weary. Backward and forward she could see the big room rise and recede as though it had been an immense wave. The dim light was turning to darkness, when instinctively reaching out her hand touched the back of a chair. With this she steadied herself for the moment. Until now she had not known how tired she was from her vigil, nor how she had been moved by the scene she had just witnessed. After a little she would go to her own room and perhaps Nona or Barbara would be there. But she must wait until General Alexis and the priest had gone away.
The next moment she realized that the great man had risen and was approaching toward her.
Mildred looked wholly unlike a Russian woman. Her heavy flaxen hair, simply braided and twisted about her head, showed a few strands underneath her nurse's cap. Her face was almost colorless, yet her pallor was unlike the Russian, which is of a strange olive tone. Now and then in her nurse's costume Mildred Thornton became almost beautiful, through her air of strength and refinement and the unusual sweetness of her expression.
The eyes that were turned toward General Alexis were a clear blue-gray, but there were deep circles under them, and the girl swayed a little in spite of her effort to stand perfectly still.
For several seconds the great man regarded her in silence. Then he stretched forth his hand.
"You are an American Red Cross nurse, I believe. May I have the honor of shaking your hand. I have been told that three young American women are here at our fortress at Grovno helping to care for our wounded. You have traveled many miles for a noble cause. In the name of my Emperor and his people may I thank you."
The little speech was made in perfect English and with such simplicity that Mildred did not feel awed or surprised.
However, she was not certain how she replied or if she replied at all. She only felt her cold fingers held in a hand like steel and the next moment the great general had gone out of the room.
Immediately after Mildred found herself surrounded by a group of Russian nurses. The Russians are amazing linguists and several of the nurses could speak English. Evidently they were overwhelmed by the honor the American girl had just had bestowed upon her. It had almost overshadowed for the time the greater glory of the young soldier.
An American Red Cross nurse had been individually thanked by one of the greatest commanders in Europe for her service and the services of her friends to his soldiers and his country.
But there was another personal side to the situation which the Russian hospital staff appeared to find more amazing.
General Dmitri Alexis was supposed never to speak to a woman. He was an old bachelor and was said to greatly despise the frivolities of Russian society women.
Incredible as it may seem, there is gossip even inside a great fortress in time of war.
But Mildred's Russian companions had neither time nor opportunity to reveal much to her at present. As soon as it was possible she begged that she might be allowed to go to her own room. Although she shared it with Nona and Barbara, neither one of them was there at the time.
But instead of lying down at once Mildred wrote a few lines to her mother. She knew that she would be greatly pleased by the attention that had just been paid her. Of course Mildred realized that the General's thanks were not bestowed upon her as an individual, but as a representative of the United States, whose sympathy and friendliness Russia so greatly appreciated.
Barbara had been writing a letter to Dick Thornton. She was seated on the side of her cot bed in a tiny room high up in a tower, with only one small window overlooking the courtyard below.
Although it was well into the twentieth century, this room was just such an one as might have concealed the hapless Amy Robsart in the days of Lord Leicester and Kenilworth Castle. But although Barbara had not to suffer the thought of a faithless lover, at the present moment she was feeling extremely sorry for herself.
Russia had no charms for her as it appeared to have for Mildred Thornton and Nona Davis. She disliked its bleakness, its barbarity and the strange, moody people it contained. Of course she realized that there was another side to Russian life, before the present war its society was one of the gayest in the world. But these days, when the Germans were driving the Russian army backward and even further backward behind their own frontiers, were days for work and silence, not social amusements. Moreover, Barbara knew that she could never expect to have any part in Russian social life when her mission lay among the wounded. So far she had met only other Red Cross nurses, a few physicians and the soldiers who required her care. But really Barbara was not so foolish as to resent these conditions; she was merely homesick and anxious to see Dick Thornton, and if not Dick, then Eugenia.
France had not seemed so far away from the United States and she had loved France and its brave, gay people. She had understood them and their life. Almost she had envied Eugenia her future possession of the old chateau and the little "Farmhouse with the Blue Front Door." But then Eugenia had seemed to find France as strange and uncongenial as Barbara now considered Russia.
Even after her marriage to Captain Castaigne, Eugenia had confessed to the younger girl how she dreaded her own inability to become a Frenchwoman. She still feared that she would never be equal to the things Captain Castaigne had a right to expect of her, once the war was over. Eugenia had merely cared too much to be willing to give him up, but was too wise to expect that her problems would end with marriage.
So with this thought Barbara Meade finally removed a tear from the end of her nose. It had trickled quite comfortably out of her eyes, but as her nose was somewhat retrousse, it had hesitated there.
After all, an American marriage was best for an American girl! Barbara tried to convince herself that she should be rejoicing instead of lamenting. Certainly Dick was the most agreeable and to be desired person in the entire world. But then there was another side to this! Had he not been, perhaps she would not at this moment be missing him so terribly and at all the moments. Letters were so infrequent! Mrs. Thornton might positively refuse to allow her son to marry so insignificant a person, and Dick forget all about her!
But in the midst of this last and most harrowing thought, fortunately Nona Davis came into the room.
She looked excited, but on catching sight of her friend's face her expression changed.
"Good heavens, Barbara!" she began. Then the next moment she walked over and tilted the other girl's chin with her hand.
"You are just homesick, aren't you, and longing for some one who shall be nameless? You frightened me at first; I feared you had heard dreadful news. Come, get your coat and have a walk with me. We have both nearly two hours of freedom and I've permission to go outside the fortifications."
The other girl shook her head and shivered.
"It is too cold, Nona dear, and besides, I'm afraid. I know the Russians are said to be holding the line of fortifications beyond us, but then the Germans may break through at any time. Goodness knows, I don't see what you and Mildred find so fascinating in Russia! I am afraid I am not brave enough to have come with you."
While Barbara was arguing Nona had taken her coat from its hook on the wall and was putting it about her friend.
"Yes, I know all that, but just the same you are coming for a walk. As long as you are here you must keep strong enough to do your work. But there, I can't scold half so well as Eugenia. I suppose if Dick belonged to me I should be as wretched as you are without him. You are a dear to have stuck by Mildred and me during this Russian work. But do come, I've something really interesting to tell you. Perhaps you may feel a tiny bit less lonely afterwards."
In the meantime Nona had put on her own coat and cap and the two girls started. They had to walk down a narrow stone corridor and then a long flight of winding stone steps to reach the courtyard below.
To the right the soldiers were drilling. One could hear the harsh clatter of their heavy boots and the crash of their rifles when they touched the frozen earth.
It had turned unexpectedly cold, and yet without a spoken word both girls stopped and stared about them as soon as they reached the outdoors.
Certainly the scene formed an extraordinary setting for two young American girls!
The sky was gray, and although it was only early autumn, there were occasional flurries of snow.
Behind them stood a long, low line of stone and iron fortifications with enormous guns mounted at intervals along the walls. At one end was an observation tower, where one could see miles on miles of trenches stretching in a kind of semicircle before the fortifications. Should the enemy destroy the trenches the Russian soldiers could then mass behind the fort and afterwards, if necessary, accomplish their retreat. For a small force could delay the enemy through the strength of their position and the use of their big guns.
Sheltered behind breastworks of earth, barbed wire entanglements and a natural protection of trees, the girls could barely discern the aerodrome. In this place were situated the machine shops for building and repairing aeroplanes, and also from here their flights and returns could be made.
Yet in spite of these signs of active warfare, the place was curiously silent. Barbara felt puzzled. Only the endless tramp, tramp of the soldiers at drill and an occasional guttural command. The noises from the inside of the fort never penetrated to the outside. But then these Russians were a quiet people.
Within a few moments the two girls showed their order to the sentry and were allowed to pass beyond the gate. They then started on their walk along the same road which Nona had traveled alone several days before. But actually this was the first chance the girls had for talking over Nona's experiences together. True, they shared the same bedroom, so that on her return Nona had given a brief report. But really they had been too tired at night to grasp the situation.
Now naturally Barbara thought her companion meant to talk of her recent experience. Neither one of them attempted conversation at the beginning of their walk, for the main road was as filled with supplies of every kind that were being hauled to the great fort, as it had been on the day of Nona's solitary excursion. But indeed this was a daily occurrence.
So, as soon as possible, the girls got away from the road into a lane that was lined with peasants' huts. This lay in an opposite direction from the path Nona had previously taken. She had no desire to meet her former acquaintance again until she had made up her mind as to her own attitude toward her.
Neither Barbara nor Mildred had so far been able to give her any definite advice.
Mildred really refused to consider that the older woman could have known Nona's mother years before in their own country. Her story was too incredible to be believed.
Barbara had not taken this same point of view. At the present moment she was going over the situation in retrospection. In the first place, it was absurd to think that any train of circumstances could be impossible in such a surprising world. The woman, whom they had once known as Lady Dorian and whom they now were to think of by another name, had evidently once been a woman of wealth and culture, no matter what her present condition of poverty. She seemed to have traveled everywhere and she may of course have met Nona Davis' family. There was actually no reason why she should not have known them, Barbara concluded in her sensible western fashion. Doubtless when Nona allowed the older woman to explain the situation it would not be half so mysterious as it now appeared. The really remarkable thing was, not that the other woman should be familiar with Nona's mother's history, but that her own daughter should be so in ignorance.
For her part she intended to advise Nona to listen to whatever their former friend wished to tell her. But just as Barbara opened her lips to offer this advice, her companion spoke.
"Barbara, you have been in such a study you haven't asked for the piece of news I have to give you. Do you remember almost quarreling with me because I did not wish to write a note to the English fellow we once knew when we were in Brussels, after you discovered him in prison there?"
Barbara nodded, her mind immediately distracted from her former train of thought.
"Lieutenant Hume? Why, do you know what has become of him?" she inquired.
In reply Nona took a letter out of her pocket.
"I had a note from him today. You see, after your lecture I continued writing him in prison every now and then during the year we spent in Belgium. Just occasionally he was allowed to send me a few lines in reply. Then a long time passed and I had almost forgotten him. Now he writes to say that by an extraordinary freak of fortune he has been returned home. It seems that he became very ill, so when the Germans decided to agree on an exchange of prisoners, he and our little blind Frenchman, Monsieur Bebe, were both sent back to their own lands. Lieutenant Hume does not say what is the matter with him. His letter isn't about himself. He is really tremendously anxious to hear news of us. He has just learned of Eugenia's marriage to Henri Castaigne, and he thinks we are pretty foolhardy to have offered our services for nursing in Russia."
Instinctively Barbara held her companion's arm in a closer grasp.
"Far be it from me to disagree with him!" she murmured.
For her attention had just been arrested by the noise of a horse's hoofs approaching. Both girls looked up to see a young Cossack soldier riding toward them. He sat his horse as though he were a part of it, his feet swinging in long stirrups and his hands barely touching the reins.
Both girls felt a stirring sense of admiration. But to their surprise, as the horse drew near the young soldier pulled up and slid quietly to the ground.
The next instant he came up toward Nona.
"You will pardon me," he said, speaking English, although with a noticeable accent, "but it will not be wise for you to continue to walk any further along this road. It is growing late and there are stragglers coming in from several villages where a German raid is feared."
He had taken off his pointed Cossack cap of lamb's wool and held it in his hand as though he had been a young American meeting a group of friends upon an ordinary thoroughfare.
Barbara was struck by the incongruity of his appearance and his behavior. He looked like a half-civilized warrior of centuries ago, and yet his manner was the conventional one of today. However, it would not be wise to expect him to remain conventional under unusual conditions. Barbara could see that the young Russian officer was a son of the east, not the west. He had a peculiar Oriental pallor and long, slanting dark eyes, and his small black moustache scarcely concealed the thin red lines of his lips.
Nona was frowning at him in a puzzled fashion.
But the next instant she bowed with an expression of recognition.
"Thank you, we will do as you suggest. It is odd to see you so soon again after our unexpected meeting the other afternoon. Lieutenant Orlaff, this is my friend, Miss Meade."
Barbara inclined her head, too surprised to do more. But as the Russian officer continued to walk beside them with his horse following, she soon understood where he and Nona had met each other.
"Yes, she is an old friend, Sonya Valesky. I knew her years ago and then she went away into other countries."
The young Russian hesitated. Barbara and Nona were both watching his face closely, so that they could see the cloud of doubt, even of struggle, that swept over it.
"You are strangers in my country, but you have come here to help us in our need," he protested, almost as if he were thinking aloud.
"I would not have you doubt my friend. I cannot explain to you, and yet I wish to warn you. Do not be too intimate with Sonya Valesky. Russia is not like other countries in times of war or peace. She has many problems, tragedies of her own to overcome which the foreigner cannot understand. Forgive me if I should not have spoken."
Then before either girl could fully grasp what the young man's confused speech could mean, he had bowed, mounted his horse and ridden off.
Out of the Past
But circumstances afterwards made it impossible for Nona Davis to follow the young Russian officer's advice.
A week went by at the hospital without a decision on the girl's part and without another word from her former friend. Sonya Valesky she must remember was her Russian name. A beautiful name and somehow it seemed to fit the personality of the woman whom Nona at once admired and distrusted. For the name carried with it its own suggestion of beauty and of melancholy. What secret could Sonya Valesky be concealing that forced even her friends to warn others against her?
Of course there could be no answer in her own consciousness to this puzzle, yet Nona kept the problem at the back of her mind during the following week of strenuous work. Nursing inside the bleak fortress at Grovno was of a more difficult character than any work the three American Red Cross girls had yet undertaken. The surroundings were so uncomfortable, the nursing supplies so limited. Worse than anything else, an atmosphere of almost tragic suspense hung like a palpable cloud over every inmate of the fort.
Authentic news was difficult to obtain, yet refugees were constantly pouring in with stories of fresh German conquests in Poland. For it chanced that the months after the arrival of the three American girls in Russia were among the darkest in Russia's history during the great war. Military strategists might be able to understand why the Grand Duke Nicholas and his army were giving way before almost every furious German onslaught. They could explain that he was endeavoring to lead the enemy deeper and deeper into a foreign land, so as to cut them off from their base of supplies. Yet it was hard for the ordinary man and woman or the common soldier to conceive of anything except fresh danger and disaster in each defeat.
So day after day, night after night the business of strengthening the line of fortifications at Grovno went on. The work was done with the silence and the industry of some enormous horde of ants.
Shut off in the left wing of the fort with the ill and wounded soldiers, the Red Cross nurses had only occasional glimpses of the warlike preparations that were being made. Once when there was a review of the troops in the courtyard behind the fortifications Mildred Thornton summoned Nona and Barbara. She had already told them of her experience with the commanding officer of the fort, but she wished the other two girls to have a look at him. It was difficult to get a vivid impression of a personality from a bird's-eye view out of a small upper window. Yet the figure of General Alexis could never be anything but dominating. There was a hush of admiration from every man or woman inside the fortifications whenever their leader's name was mentioned. If he could not hold the German avalanche in check, then the world must weep for Russia. So Mildred became a kind of heroine among the nurses because she had received a few moments of the great man's praise and attention.
Finally, at the end of a week Nona Davis had a second letter from Sonya Valesky. It was sent by a messenger, as the other had been, and Nona was presented with it when she first went on duty on one Saturday morning.
This communication was not merely a note, however, for the envelope was sealed and had a bulky appearance. Yet Nona did not open it all that day or the morning of the next as she had a premonition that the letter was not an ordinary one. Either Madame Valesky was confiding her own history, or she was insisting upon proving to the American girl that she had at one time been a friend of her mother's. Really, it was this information that Nona both expected and feared. So as she had a particularly difficult case on hand she decided to wait for more leisure before trying to solve the mystery.
The opportunity came when she was allowed two hours rest on Sunday afternoon.
Nona was glad that both Mildred and Barbara were busy at the time, because she preferred to be alone. After her letter had been read and considered then she could decide on the degree of her confidences.
But after all, Barbara's prediction came true. The story that Sonya Valesky had to tell of her acquaintance with Nona's mother was not half so strange as the fact that the mother's history had been concealed from her daughter.
The story was unique but comparatively simple. The only curious fact was the accidental meeting between the Russian woman and the American girl. But then just such comings together of persons with a common bond of interest or affection is an hourly occurrence in the world. Behind such apparent accidents is some law of nature, a like calling unto like.
The older woman explained that she had known Nona's mother many years ago when they were both children in Russia, although she was a number of years younger. There was as little as possible of Sonya Valesky's own history in the letter. She stated without proof or comment that her father had once been Russian Ambassador to the United States. Here Anna Orlaff, Nona's mother, had made her a visit and had then gone away south to New Orleans and soon afterwards married. For many years the younger girl had not seen her friend again. She had received letters from her, however, and learned that her marriage was not a success.
Sonya Valesky did her best to explain the situation to Nona. But how was she to know how much or how little an American girl understands of life and conditions in Russia? Was Nona aware that there were many girls and young men, oftentimes members of noble families, who believed in a new and different Russia?
Had Nona ever read of a great writer named Tolstoi, who wrote and preached of the real brotherhood of man? He insisted that the words of Christ should be interpreted literally and desired that Russia, and indeed the world, should have no rich and poor, no Czar and slave, but that all men and all women were to be truly equal. Nona's mother had been a follower of Tolstoi's principles; therefore, her people had sent her away from her own country because they feared if she continued to live in Russia with these ideas she might be condemned to Siberia. So Anna Orlaff had gladly left her own country, believing that in the United States she would find the spirit of true equality.
Naturally her marriage had been a disappointment. At this point in Sonya Valesky's letter, Nona Davis began to have a faint appreciation of the situation. She remembered the narrow, conservative life of the old south and that her father had lived largely upon traditions of wealth and family, teaching her little else. What did it matter to him that there were no titles in America, no more slaves to do his bidding, when he continued to believe in the domination of one class over another.
Dimly at first, more vividly afterwards, Nona Davis could see the picture of the young Russian girl, a socialist and dreamer, married into such an environment. How disappointed and unhappy she must have been in the conservative old city of Charleston, South Carolina! No wonder people had never mentioned her name to her daughter, and that her father had been so silent! A Russian socialist was little less than a criminal.
Nona was seated in a hard wooden chair in a small, cell-like room many thousands of miles away from her own old home. Certainly something stronger than her own wish must have drawn her to Russia, for here she must learn to understand the story of her mother's life and to find her own place in it.
At this point in the narrative Nona let her letter fall idly in her lap. The girl's hands were clasped tightly together, for now her imagination could tell her more than any words of another's.
Her father had been devoted to her, but he had not been fair, neither had his friends nor her own. Why had they always led her to believe by their silences that there was something to be ashamed of in her mother's story? It was odd, of course, to be different from other people, but there was no sin in being a dreamer.
Nona could see the picture of her mother in the white muslin dress and the blue sash there in their old drawing room in Charleston. She had been only a girl of about her age when she remembered her.
But then what had become of her mother? Why had she gone away?
Again the girl picked up her letter, for the last few sheets must explain.
This portion was hardest of the story to understand, but Sonya Valesky had tried to make it clear.
Nona's father had insisted that his young wife give up her views of life. She was to read no books, write no letters, have nothing to do with any human being who thought as she did. Above all, she was to make him a written and sacred promise that she would never reveal her ideas of life to her daughter. This Nona's mother had refused to do and so had gone away, expecting to come back some day when her husband relented.
Within a year she had died. But here Sonya Valesky's letter ended, for she enclosed another written by Nona's mother to her friend.
If Nona had needed proof of the truth of the other woman's statement she could find it here. The letter was yellow with age and very short. It merely asked that if Sonya Valesky should ever find it possible to know her daughter, Nona Davis, would she be her friend?
Then Sonya had also enclosed another proof, if proof were needed. This was a small picture of Nona's mother which was exactly like the one the girl had found concealed in the back of her father's watch. It was the same watch with the same picture that she now wore always inside her dress.
Then for nearly an hour the young American girl sat dreaming almost without a movement of her body.
Little by little she recalled stray memories in her life which made her mother's history appear not so impossible as she had at first conceived. Always she had thought of her as foreign. She had only believed her to be French because she spoke French so perfectly and had married in New Orleans. But then she herself was beginning to learn that educated Russians are among the most accomplished linguists in the world. What else was she to find out about this strange country before her work as a nurse was over? Could she ever feel so entirely an American again?
All at once Nona Davis jumped hastily to her feet. There were hundreds of questions she yearned to ask. Fortunately for her she was near the one person who might be able to answer them. Sonya Valesky had never said why she had not sought to find her friend's daughter until their accidental meeting on shipboard. Even then she had not recognized Nona's connection with the past. Was it because she was too engrossed in her own life and her own mysterious mission?
Although she was at this instant engaged in putting on her coat and cap to go to her, Nona again hesitated. How little the Russian woman had said of herself! What was she doing here near the Russian line of fortifications, living like a peasant with only two old peasants in attendance upon her? And why should the young Russian officer have warned her against his own friend?
"Michael Orlaff." Automatically Nona Davis repeated the name of her new acquaintance. "Orlaff." The name was the same as her mother's. Was there a chance that the young Russian lieutenant might be a possible connection?
However, the girl recognized that she was stupid to continue to ask herself questions. Moreover, she had now made up her mind that she must not distrust Sonya Valesky unless she had a more definite cause. Doubtless Sonya shared the same views of life that her mother had cherished! But in any case it was wonderful to have found a woman who had been her mother's friend and who might still be hers.
Nona had walked across her small room to the door, when she heard some one knocking.
A summons had been sent for her to return to her nursing, as the two hours of her recreation were over. How stupid she had been! Actually Nona had forgotten what had called her to Russia, even the war tragedy that was raging about her. Of course she could not leave the hospital! It might be several days or more before she could hope to receive permission to revisit Sonya.
Five days later Nona Davis went again to the little wooden house, where, to her surprise, she had previously discovered a former acquaintance.
But on this occasion Sonya Valesky did not open the door.
Instead it was opened by the old peasant man whom Nona had seen before.
Today he looked more wretched than stupid. His little black eyes were red rimmed, his sallow skin more wrinkled than ever.
When Nona inquired for Sonya he shook his head disconsolately and then motioned her toward the same room she had formerly entered.
There was now a cot in the room and on this cot lay the Russian woman.
At once Nona forgot herself and her desire to ask questions. She remembered only her profession, yes, and one other thing. She recalled the words that the old French peasant, Francois, had once spoken to her and to Barbara.
"Have you pity only for wounded soldiers? Do girls and women never care to help one another? This war has made wounds deeper than any bullets can create."
Immediately Nona had seen that Sonya Valesky was very ill. Now, no matter who she was, or what she had done, she must be restored to health. First and last Nona must put her own emotions aside, for the sake of her mission as a Red Cross nurse.
Yet what was she to do? Her services belonged to the soldiers in the Russian fortress.
As quietly and quickly as possible Nona gave her orders.
She could not be sure, but Sonya's appearance indicated that she was suffering from the terrible scourge of typhus.
This disease had been one of the most terrible results of the war. Because of a greater lack of sanitation and cleanliness the fever had been more widespread in Servia and in Russia than in any other countries.
Personally Nona had never nursed a case before, yet she had heard the disease discussed and believed she recognized the symptoms.
First she made a thorough examination of the little house. It was cleaner than most of the peasants' huts, so far Sonya must have prevailed, but still its conditions left much to be desired.
Without being able to speak more than a few words of their language, Nona yet managed to give her directions.
She was beginning to guess that the old peasant couple, who at first had seemed mysterious companions for the beautiful Russian woman, were probably old servants. If Sonya was a follower of Tolstoi as her mother had been, she must have refused to recognize any difference between them.
But this was not their feeling. The American girl could see that in spirit old Katja and Nika were the devoted slaves of the younger woman.
Sonya was not at first conscious of the seriousness of her illness.
She wore a dressing gown of some rough homespun, a curious shade of Russian blue, the color of her own eyes. Her hair, which had turned far whiter in the past year, was partly concealed under a small lace cap such as the Russian peasant woman often wears. Then, although she did not seem able to talk, she knew Nona and thanked her for coming and for the advice she was giving the two old people.
But when Nona had finished with her orders she came and sat down near Sonya.
"I have read your letter and I have not been able to answer it until now. It seems like a miracle that I should have found out about my own mother here in a strange land. But perhaps I was meant to take care of you. You must promise to do what I tell you. I must go away now, but I'll come back in a little while."
Nona was getting up when Sonya took hold of her skirt.
Her face was flushed and her dark blue eyes shining.
"You must not stay in this house, not for long at a time," she pleaded. "I cannot explain to you why not, but perhaps when I am strong again I can tell you enough to have you guess the rest. Now you must go."
Sonya took Nona's cool hands in her hot ones and held them close for a moment.
The next moment the American girl had gone.
At the hospital inside the fortress she explained the situation, at least so far as it could be explained. A Russian woman, who had once been her friend, lay seriously ill at one of the nearby huts. Would one of the hospital physicians come and see her? Also would it be possible for her to be spared from caring for the soldiers to look after her woman friend?
Certainly a Russian doctor would attend the case; moreover, after certain formalities Nona was allowed a leave of absence from the hospital demands.
Then began an experience for the young American girl that nothing in her past two or more years of nursing had equaled.
She was living and working in a new world, amid surroundings which she could not understand and of which she was afraid.
The little hut was crude and lonely. The two old peasants could speak no English, but went about their tasks day after day mute and dolorous. Sonya was too ill to recognize her nurse, and Nona could not allow Barbara or Mildred to come near her, since her patient's illness was of the most contagious nature.
Naturally Barbara and Mildred wholly disapproved of the risk Nona was running and she had not time nor strength to make them see her side of the situation. She had written them that Sonya Valesky had proved herself to have been an old friend of her mother's. For that reason and for several others she felt it her duty to care for her.
But strangest of all Nona's experiences were the fragments of conversation which she heard from the lips of her ill friend.
Sonya sometimes spoke of her girlhood and then again of her life in the United States and in England. Once or twice she even called the name of Captain Dalton. Nona supposed that she must be recalling her meeting with Captain Dalton at the Sacred Heart Hospital. Then she remembered that Sonya had spoken of knowing the English officer years before.
But although her patient betrayed many facts of her past life to her nurse, never once did Sonya explain why she was living in such an out-of-the-way place. Neither did she give any clue to the kind of work that must have engaged her time and energy. Surely Sonya Valesky must have been upon some secret mission in the days of their first meeting on board the "Philadelphia!" Even then she had papers in her possession which she would allow no one to see.
However, Sonya was too desperately ill to permit her nurse much opportunity for surmising. Nona would never have left her alone for a moment except that she knew it was her duty to keep up her own strength.
Every afternoon she went for a short walk. And because no one but the Russian physician was allowed to enter the house, now and then the young Russian lieutenant would join Nona along the road. This could only occur when he was able to get leave, yet Nona began to hope for his coming. She was so depressed and lonely.
Once she asked him if he had ever heard of a member of his family named "Anna Orlaff." Of course she gave no reason for her question. But it made no difference, because the young soldier could recall no such person.
In the course of one of their talks, however, he confided to Nona that he was a younger brother, but that his family were members of the Russian nobility.
Never once, however, did the young man betray any fact connected with Sonya Valesky's history. He explained that their families had long known each other and that he had always been fond of her, nothing more.
So for this reason as well as others Nona found herself attracted by the young Russian officer. He seemed very simple, much younger than an American of the same age. At this time Michael Orlaff must have been about twenty-three. But Nona was wise enough to discover that he was not so simple and direct as she had first believed him. A Russian does not readily betray either his deeper thoughts or his deeper feelings. The young Russian lieutenant would not even speak of the war nor his own part in it. Yet Nona guessed from her own observation and from certain unconscious information that he was one of the favorite younger officers of the Russian general in command of the Grovno fortifications.
So a number of weeks passed, until now and then Nona Davis almost forgot the war and her original reasons for being in her present strange position. No one brought her papers; Barbara's and Mildred's letters contained little war news. The truth was possibly being concealed from them, or else there was no way of their discovering it.
So Nona was at least spared the anxiety of knowing that the victorious German hosts were drawing nearer and nearer the fortress of Grovno. Like stone houses built by children the other ancient Russian forts had fallen before his "Excellenz von Beseler," the victor of Antwerp, who was known as the German battering ram.
Even when Sonya opened her eyes, after weeks of an almost fatal illness, and asked for news of the war, Nona was unable to tell her.
Then as the days of Sonya's convalescence went by she would not let her talk of it. Always war is a more terrible thing to girls and women than it is to boys and men. But ever since their first acquaintance Nona had realized that the horror of it went deeper into Sonya's consciousness than any person she had yet seen. It must be the war that had aged her so in the past year.
So the Russian woman and the American girl spoke of everything else. Sonya told of her own life and of Nona's mother when they were little girls. They had both been allowed to go away to college. It was in school that they imbibed their revolutionary ideas. No wonder that their families never forgave them!
Sonya was dressed and sitting in her chair the day when the summons finally came for her arrest.
It was Nona Davis in her nurse's Red Cross costume who opened the door for the two men in uniform. They were not dressed like soldiers, and as she could not understand what they said, she did not dream of their errand.
But Sonya's peasant servants must have understood, for at the sight of the strangers they dropped on their knees and held out imploring hands.
Sonya herself finally made things clear. The men were two police officers who had been sent to bring her to Petrograd. She had been in hiding here near Grovno for several months and had hoped to escape their vigilance. Evidently Sonya had been arrested by the Russian authorities.
In spite of Nona's insistence that her patient was not well enough to be moved, Sonya agreed to go with them at once.
And only at the moment of parting did she bestow any confidence upon the younger girl.
Then she looked deep into Nona's golden brown eyes with her own strangely glowing blue ones, and whispered:
"I have done nothing of which I am ashamed, Nona, or I should never have asked for your friendship. It may be that I can make the Russian people understand, but I do not feel sure. This war has made men blinder than ever. I have only tried to be a follower of the 'Prince of Peace.'"
Then after she had walked away a few steps she came back again.
"Go back to your United States as soon as you can, Nona," she urged. "Russia is no place for you or your friends."
Because Nona Davis dared not trust herself to speak, Sonya afterwards went away without a word of faith or farewell from her.
A Russian Church
One afternoon, after Nona had been nursing her friend, Sonya Valesky, for some time, Mildred Thornton went alone into a little Russian church.
The church was situated behind the line of the fortifications at Grovno. Many years before it had been erected, and now it did not occur to the Russian officers that it stood in especial peril. Yet the church had the golden dome of all Russian churches, glittering like a ball of fire in the sun. Certainly it afforded an easy target for the enemy's guns, and more than this would aid German aeroplanists in making observations of the geography of the surrounding neighborhood. But since Grovno was deemed invincible, apparently no one considered the possibility of the other side to this question.
High cement walls guarded and mounted with cannon encircled the countryside for many miles, while running out from the fortress itself were numerous secret passages and cells, at present stored with ammunition.
On this afternoon of Mildred's visit to the church she stood outside for a few moments looking upward. At first she was merely admiring the beauty of the little church. The gold of the dome seemed to be the one appealing spot of color in all the surrounding landscape. Then she opened the bronze doors and stole quietly inside.
Always the church was left open for prayer, but today on entering Mildred Thornton found it empty.
A Russian church is unlike all others except the Greek, for it is filled with brilliant colors. Instead of images such as the Roman Catholics use, the Russians have paintings dealing with the life of Christ, almost obscuring the ceiling and the walls. There are no pews such as we find in our own churches, for the Russian remains standing during his ceremony and kneels upon the stone floor in time of prayer. So one finds only a few chairs scattered about for old persons and ill ones.
Mildred secured a stool and sat down in the shadow, gazing up toward the high altar.
She was an Episcopalian, therefore the Russian church and its services did not seem so unusual to her as they did to Barbara Meade. Really she had been deeply impressed by the few services she had seen. There was no organ and no music save the intoning of the voices of the priests, and the words of the service she could not understand. Nevertheless the Russians were a deeply religious people and perhaps their reverence had influenced the American girl.
This afternoon, although alone, Mildred felt strangely at peace. Indeed, her eyes were cast down and her hands clasped in prayer, when the noise of some one else entering the church disturbed her reverie.
To the girl's surprise the figure was that of a man whom the next instant she recognized as General Alexis. He had come into the church without a member of his staff, so that evidently he too desired to be alone for prayer.
What should she do? Mildred was too confused to decide immediately. Feeling herself an intruder, yet she did not wish to create a stir and draw attention to herself by hastily leaving.
General Alexis had evidently not seen her, too intent upon his own devotions. For he had at once approached the altar and knelt reverently before it.
Mildred kept silent, hardly conscious of her own absorption and forgetting her meditations in her interest in the kneeling soldier.
In these days of little faith, small wonder that it struck Mildred as inspiring to see this man of many burdens and responsibilities at the foot of the altar.
From a western window the afternoon sun shone down upon him, revealing the weary lines in the great soldier's face. He did not look stern or forbidding to Mildred this afternoon, only deeply careworn and depressed. However much his soldiers and the Russian people might trust in his power to bring them safely through an attack at Grovno, evidently there were hours when the distinguished general suffered like lesser people. Mildred Thornton understood enough of human nature to realize what General Alexis must at this moment be enduring. The fate of a people, of a nation, almost of half the world, in a measure rested in his hands. How inadequate any mortal must feel in the face of such a task!
By and by Mildred's eyes dropped their lids. She felt that she was seeing too deeply into the holy of holies of the man before her. This would not be just to any human being, unaware of her presence. If only she could get away without disturbing him! Doubtless on discovering her General Alexis would be angered, or at any rate annoyed, perhaps he might even consider her behavior as characteristic American intrusion.
Once Mildred started to her feet, but she did not try to move again, for at almost the same instant the Russian general rose from his knees.
His face had become a little less careworn than at the moment of his entrance; his blue eyes, which were remarkable with his other Russian coloring, were less sombre. Since he did not appear to observe her, Mildred was glad for this last glance at her companion.
Since their one meeting for some reason he had haunted her thoughts more than she could explain. This was partly due to the fact that he was so much talked of at the fortress and so idolized by his soldiers. He was said to be without fear, or any human weakness, but after today Mildred Thornton knew better than this.
Unconsciously the girl must have moved or made a sound of some kind at this instant, for General Alexis, who had almost reached the door, turned quickly around. At the same time his right hand grasped his pistol.
Was there a spy or an assassin lurking in his church to destroy him? There were many men of other lands who would gladly give their lives for his.
But General Alexis' hand dropped to his side again, as soon as it had touched the metal of his pistol. To his surprise he had discovered a pair of blue-gray eyes staring at him earnestly, with almost wistful sympathy.
General Alexis came back to where Mildred stood.
"You were here in church with me and I did not see you," he said as simply and naturally as an ordinary person, "I hope I did not disturb you."
"Disturb me!" Mildred stuttered a little in her surprise at his words. "Oh, I beg your pardon, it was I who should not have been here when you came. But I did not know, that is I did not dream you ever left the fort, while I like to steal in here during the hours I have for rest. I will not come again."
General Alexis shook his head. "I should be very sorry. Rather than that this should happen I would stay away during those hours. But is there not room enough here and peace enough for us both?"
Without replying Mildred inclined her head and began walking toward the door, General Alexis keeping beside her.
"If you are returning to the fortress and will permit me, I should like to go back with you?" he asked.
And again Mildred could only stammer a confused acquiescence.
In the little court before the Russian church General Alexis' guard of soldiers was awaiting him. However, at an inclination of his head they fell in at once, marching at a respectful distance behind their general and his companion.
"I remember our having a short conversation a few weeks ago," the Russian officer continued gravely, after they had gone on a few yards. Mildred had been vainly endeavoring to make up her mind whether she should be the one to speak. If so, what on earth should she say?
She was glad to be spared having to make up her mind.
"You were very kind," the girl returned. "I did not imagine you would know me again, but perhaps it is because I am an American."
Just as if he had been a young man and an everyday one, General Alexis smiled, and Mildred was no longer afraid of him.
"Oh, I may remember you, Miss Thornton, for other reasons. But to be truthful it is because you are an American that I am taking this opportunity to talk to you again."
This time the Russian officer hesitated.
"You will not mention what I am going to say to any persons except your two American friends," he added, not as a request, but as a command.