ONBOARD THE BRITISH MILITARY TRAIN
The train that the Government had put at the disposal of General Knox was one of the former Court trains. The very compartment in which I travelled was full of associations, for it had often been mine when I accompanied the Empress or her daughters on some of their shorter journeys (for lono-er ones they used their own luxurious private train). Though the carriages had been for some months the headquarters of a Bolshevik Commander-in-Chief, they had, wonderfully enough, not suffered much by his stay in it. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the gentleman in question had had to quit it somewhat precipitately on account of adverse circumstances. He had, wisely, taken away all the useful trifles on which he could lay hands, for clocks and thermo- meters, as well as every copper bolt and screw, were missing. It was said that he had been very loth to part with the armchairs in the saloon carriage, but had perforce to leave them as they could not be coaxed through the narrow doors and he had no time to lose.
After a whole year in Siberian houses the warm clean cars, the leather-covered seats, soft carpets, electric light, and actually all the usual civilised washing appliances seemed to me the height of luxury. I believed I was dreaming when for the first time I entered the brightly lit dining-car, which served as a messroom for General Knox and his staff. The latter consisted mainly of young officers, many of whom had a fair knowledge of Russian and were interested in the country. There was also an old Canadian colonel, who was a frequent guest and who looked a little doubtfully at me at the beginning, but who afterwards became quite sociable.
I felt extremely shy at first in my unusual surroundings - one woman, and a foreigner into the bargain, in the mess of a military train, but the friendliness and sympathy shown by all the staff soon put me at my ease. Some fifteen to twenty people sat down daily at the little tables in the dining-car. I was usually placed at the General's table, the third seat at which was occupied in turn by one or other of the officers at the General's special invitation. The tables were occupied by khaki-clad figures, and the rest of the party stood up until the General had taken his seat. Through all their easy-going manner military decorum was maintained. Bliss, the General's orderly, acted as major-domo and directed white-coated waiters who moved about noiselessly. Everything was English: the menus, the service, even the labels on the pickle jars and jam pots. I quite forgot I was in Siberia. Here were tall men and short men, some fair, some dark, but all typically British and wearing the well-groomed look so peculiar to their nation which struck me as in such contrast to all the people with whom I had been in contact during recent months, where the outer man had been forgotten in the general struggle for existence. Directing the proceedings were the burly, good-natured Colonel Rodzianko, the Russian liaison officer, his great voice booming over the hubbub of conversation and his language sometimes "highly coloured"; and the real A.D.C., kind, cheerful Victor Cazalet, who always looked after everyone and saw to everything. Here were Captain Steveni, slim and wirty, who spoke Russian as well as I did; Major Cameron, who seemed always deep in serious business conversation with some man whom he could only waylay at meal-times; Commander Wolfe Murray, of H. M. S. Kent, then at Vladivostock, who had just received the St. George's Cross from Admiral Kolchak for conspicuous bravery, but who could not wear the Order, as Kolchak's Government had not been officially recognised by England. General Dietrichs, the commander-in-chief of Kolchak's forces, came to dine several times while the train was still at Omsk, and so did some French and Czech officers. A stir was caused when, occasionally, the mess had a lady visitor. This was generally someone who had come on a business matter, and whom General Knox hospitably invited, knowing what a treat a good meal was to people even in these improved times.
General Dietrichs told me that the Tsarevich's small spaniel, Joy, was with him at Omsk. The dog had been his small master's constant companion, and had been taken both to Tobolsk and to Ekaterinburg. At Tobolsk the Tsarevich had often been highly amused at the dog's contempt of the Kommissars' orders, for whenever Joy espied me passing the house he would manage to slip through the gates and greet me boisterously. The poor little beast had been found by the Czechs when they took Ekaterinburg, wandering about half famished in the courtyard of the Ipatieff house. He seemed to be always looking for his master, and this had made him so sad and dejected that he would scarcely touch his food even when he was lovingly cared for. I went to see Joy, and he, evidently connecting me in his dog's brain with his masters, imagined that my coming announced theirs. Never did I see an animal in such ecstasy.
When I called him he made one bound out of the carriage and tore down the platform towards me, jumping in the air and running about me in wide circles, when he did not cling to me with his forepaws, walking upright like a circus dog. General Dietrichs said that he had never given such a welcome to anyone before, and I attributed this solely to the fact that my clothes, which were the same that I had worn at Tobolsk, had still kept a familiar smell, for I had never specially petted him. When I left, Joy lay for a whole day near the door through which I had gone. He refused his food and relapsed again into his usual despondency.
What had little Joy seen on that terrible night of July 16? He had been with the Imperial Family to the last. Had he withessed the tragedy? His brain had evidently kept the memory of a great shock, and his heart was broken.
It was pathetic seeing this dumb friend, who brought back the memory of the Tsarevich so vividly. Little Joy was well cared for. He was taken to England by Colonel Rodzianko and spent his last years in the utmost canine comfort, but still never recovered his spirits.
After the train started we quickly settled down to a regular daily routine life which made the time pass very quickly. I was a guest of the mess and was heralded in to all meals with great pomp by the orderlies, discreetly retiring when we had had our coffee after luncheon and dinner. Between meals everyone was busy in his compartment. Mine had been fitted out by my hosts, who had generally supplied me with silk cushion, cunningly arranged lampshades, and the latest novels, nearly everyone having contributed something. One of these loans was to give us some unexpected amusement. A certain officer had provided me with a beautiful air mattress, which was to turn my slumbers into untold bliss. It had never been used before. On the very first night that it adorned my bunk I discovered that some experience was needed to tackle it. It had been blown out to its utmost capacity and the bed was about on a level with the bedside table. It was a gymnastic feat to stay on it for any length of time, for it was so elastic that I and all my bedclothes slid off it at every sudden jolt. After several such accidents and vain attempts to loosen the screws in order to let out some of the air, I gave up the idea of spending the night in comfort on my "elastic couch." Remembering some of my Siberian nights I resorted to the floor. As I had plenty of blankets and the train was well heated I comforted myself with the thought that I had known worse.
Next morning I delicately drew the orderly's attention to the fact that the mattress seemed rather hard. When he removed it for the day he assured me that I must have been disappointed by it because it was new. It would improve with time. During the second night, notwithstanding my valiant attempts, I again had to sleep on the floor, the only variation to the preceding night being the fact that finally the mattress lay on top of me! I had slipped off, as usual, when the train gave a lurch and the mattress bounced down, dragging pillows, bedclothes, and all the articles on the table in its wake. My politeness was no longer equal to the strain that was put on it. When the kind owner of the mattress asked me how I had enjoyed my night I had to admit dissatisfaction! General laughter met my tale of woe, and that evening the whole company came to inspect my sleeping arrangements. United efforts undid the screws, the mattress was reduced to normal proportions and proved to be really most comfortable.
I was teased for a long time by questions as to how many men were required to "inflate" my bed, and visions were conjured up of Tommies bursting with the strain on their lungs. It is needless to say that the brilliant result was achieved in a few minutes with bellows!
From the quarters of the staff came the constant tick, tick of typewriters and the monotonous sound of a voice dictating. I could not bear sitting alone doing nothing. Only constant hard work could keep me level, so I volunteered to help, and after this I had my own work in hours of copying pages of dry stuff, or in translating Red Cross reports from the Russian. This work came as a real godsend, and I really felt as proud as I had done in my schooldays when Major Cameron gave me a curt word of approval as he did to his subalterns.
As I got to know them better my travelling companions would often come and sit in my compartment when their work was done, and I heard many tales of wives and babies at home. I was shown many a photograph of pretty women in evening dress, or of some mite in the early stages of babyhood, with the pathetic comment that he or she must have changed much by now. The poor fellows scarcely dared to speak of the homes that some of them had not seen for many years. Numerous were the confidences I heard and the letters that were read to me, as the only woman of a mentality akin to their own that they had met for so long. When I left there was scarcely one who did not give me a letter or a small gift for his people to take back with me to England. I am glad to think that they, also, returned within the year. The men all changed for dinner, though of course they remained in regimentals as the train was on war footing. My change of toilet was limited to my feet, which I encased for the evening in my only pair of black silk stockings and tidy shoes, adding a white collar to my one and only black dress. I was in the care of one of the orderlies, a splendid, tall Royal Artilleryman, who "knew the ways of ladies." My stockings were always laid ready before dinner, most beautifully turned out. He even volunteered to iron the lawn collar and cuffs which did duty for evening- dress, and was very much upset when I did not allow him to bring me an early cup of tea! He also considered it his duty to see that all the doors of the other compartments were shut when I went to the bathroom! It contained no bath, but only a kind of douche which sometimes got out of order and played me, literally, a "dirty" trick. On one occasion, having undressed, I pulled the lever, and instantly a very flood of ice-cold water mixed with soot descended on me, instead of the warm shower I had expected. Nothing I could do would stop it! I retired into the farthest corner while my clothes were gradually drenched, but the downpour would not abate. In despair, I donned my soaking raiment and decided to make my exit. Fate was moody that day; the lock of the door had jammed! I pounded violently and heard the welcome voices of the orderlies outside telling me it was "all right." I did not think it was so, though the torrent had by now subsided into a persistent black drizzle. The orderlies rapidly mastered the lock, and I was marched down the corridor, wrapped in a borrowed bathing sheet, so as not to spoil the carpet! After this I left the douche severely alone!
When there was a long stoppage we all rushed out to stretch our legs and enjoy the bright sun, which was already giving considerable warmth and the illusion of approaching spring, though the thermometer still showed -30 R. (-35 F.) in the places where the sun's rays were not felt. There was a Bolshevik scare on the way, and we even had, I believe, a narrow escape. It appeared that a band of well-armed Reds was hiding in the forests about three or four miles from the main line. If they heard of the approach of the British military train they would certainly try to wreck it, and to take General Knox and his officers prisoners. The Red detachment was said to number some five or six thousand men, and the men of the Hampshire Regiment, acting as escort on board our train, were not numerous. It would have been distinctly unpleasant if it had come to a battle, but as there was some hope that the Bolsheviks did not know the exact schedule of the train it was decided that we were to try to slip past unnoticed. All the head-lights on the engine were put out, as well as all the lights in the carriages. We progressed for a couple of hours in the dark. There was little light inside the train and none without, for, luckily, there was no moon that night.
As usual, three of the officers and I met in General Knox's saloon car after dinner for a quiet game of bridge, "for love." Only two candles were lighted and the dark curtains were drawn carefully. The clicking of the General's typewriter could be heard issuing from his private compartment before he came to "cut in." None of the players seemed in the least perturbed, though orders had been given to have the men roused and the machine-guns got in readiness for a possible surprise. Except for the bad light and the service revolvers worn by my parthers, no one would have believed that there was anything unusual in the air. One man remarked casually that he only hoped that with our darkened head-lights we would not bump into some "tomfool" of a freight train on the line, especially as the signal lights on the points were usually unlighted from lack of kerosene! There was a general laugh, but nothing else was said. It was a typically British attitude. The adventure came to nothing after all, for at the next station, past midnight, the chief engineer came in, pale and wiping a perspiring brow,to announce that we had passed the danger zone.
The whole of the journey from Omsk to Vladivostock took fourteen days, on account of the stoppages necessitated by the General's tour of inspection. This enabled me to see a little more of the country than I should have done in simply passing through. From Omsk to Taiga, more than a day's journey, was an uninterrupted expanse of snow steppes, stretching right and left. Beyond Taiga begin the great forests to which that station owes its name. The train runs for about four days without a break through thick, nearly primeval undergrowth, among huge fir trees, their branches heavy with snow, without a single bird or living creature anywhere. It seemed to me the most melancholy country I had ever seen. There is no human habitation except on the outskirts of these forests, which explains how in olden days escaped convicts managed to live in them undetected for months in summer. During the hunting season the trappers go out to camp in the Taiga in pursuit of ermine, sable, and silver foxes. It is lucky for these men that the animals have to be trapped and not shot, so as not to damage the valuable skins, for already in winter the trappers could not get any ammunition. In consequence they hardly dared to go deep into the forests, and the wolves and bears became so bold that they were a real danger to the population. Besides evading wild beasts the trappers had to wage a constant and desperate war against the mosquitoes that swarmed in thick clouds. Their size and their persistence and boldness always made them a real plague, and now none of the appliances against them could be obtained any more. It is not to be wondered at that settlers could never be induced to stay long in the Taiga, which in the time of the Imperial Government was already a ground for complaint.
We sometimes passed clearings along the line, with here and there charred tree stumps showing through the snow shroud. These were the traces of the great wood fires that are often started in summer by a spark from an engine falling on dry undergrowth, and which rage for weeks, destroying miles of forest. It is impossible to put them out, and the progress of the flames can only be arrested by some natural obstacle, a deep ravine, a river, or by a sudden changing of the wind, which causes the fire to die out slowly.
From Taiga our train took us to Tomsk, the greatest Siberian university town, which lies on a side branch off the main line. The majority of the officers accompanied the General to the barracks, while Mr. J., our only civilian, and I started on a voyage of discovery. In parenthesis I must note that the orderlies always seemed to bracket us two together as "specimens apart." Tomsk is at the usual five miles distance from the station - this is the case somehow all over Russia - but we found an isvozchik (cabman), who did not treat us with the haughty indifference meted out by most of his kind to their prospective customers, and who agreed to drive us round the town.
He assumed the role of a cicerone, and described the scenes he had withessed during the most acute period of the revolution, while he pointed out the chief landmarks. The town boasted a considerable number of stone edifices and was prettily situated with some hills at the background, and we were shown an imposing block of university buildings. We were told afterwards that many professors had fled and not returned, and that in consequence the number of male students had been greatly reduced, but that as a compensation a great many young Jewesses had availed themselves of the new law admitting women to the universities, and had graduated there.
The population looked with some curiosity at the foreigners, but in general showed neither friendliness nor hostility. The reason of the presence of the Allied forces was not quite clear to the mind of the common man, but the majority felt them to be a protection against the Bolsheviks and did not investigate the matter further. The British contingent's personal appearance was in their favour, for the Russian peasantry greatly admire a fine man, and are attracted by the look of physical strength. I overheard an amusing illustration of this on my walk, when I met two peasants who were discussing General Knox and his officers, who had just passed them. They were full of admiration. "Fine fellows," they said. And their General, that is a real man. How tall and strong he is; he could knock a man down like a feather! One immediately sees that he is a person of importance. Why has he come here?" "I do not know," replied the other; "but he is a person of importance most certainly, to judge by his looks, and a molodchina [fine fellow] as well as his men. I believe," he added, warming with enthusiasm as he spoke, "that they all would be able to knock one down." "But still, why have they come here?" persisted the other. "Who knows," replied his friend, with a vague gesture. "But perhaps they are all Generals. Let us cheer them when they return." Which they accordingly did, much to the astonishment of the General, who could not imagine the reason for their sudden burst of enthusiasm.
The sight of a special train caused a great stir at the stations through which we passed. Sentries had to be posted at the door of the General's carriage to avoid the intrusion of the curious, while there were frequent requests for a "lift" for a matter of some five hundred miles or so, which had to be met with refusal. The climax to popular curiosity came when the soldiers started games, which they usually did at some of the longer stops. In a few moments a crowd would collect, gathered apparently from nowhere, as there were generally only a few hovels to be seen near the station.
It was amusing for all of us to watch the tall, lithe Englishmen darting about, having cast off their coats in the ardour of an exciting football match. Any available object, down to an empty cocoa tin, served as a ball. The peasants gazed open-mouthed, and it was as keen a regret to them as to the players when the game had to be stopped at its most thrilling moment by the engine's whistle giving the signal for departure.
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Other books on Russian History from the Alexander Palace Association:
The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna by Sophie Buxhoeveden | Memories of the Russian Court by Anna Vyrubova | Thirteen Years at the Russian Court by Pierre Gilliard | Last Days at Tsarskoe Selo by Paul Beckendorff | St. Petersburg - Imperial City | Charles Cameron - Imperial Architect by Georges Loukomski | Tsarskoe Selo in 1910
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