Paul Dukes.

Red dusk and the morrow; adventures and investigations in red Russia online

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My time in Helsingfors was occupied mostly with
endeavours to obtain official assurances that any cour-
iers I dispatched from Russia would not be seized
or shot by the Finns, and that reasonable assistance
should be given them in crossing the frontier in either
direction. The Finnish Foreign and War Offices
were willing enough to cooperate, but appeared to
have but little sway over their own frontier authori-
ties. The last word belonged to the new Commandant
at Terijoki, a man of German origin, who defied the
Government whenever instructions ran counter to his
open German sympathies. Being in league with
German Intelligence organizations in Russia, he was
naturally disinclined to do anything that would assist
the Allies, and it was only when his insubordination
passed all limits and he was at last dismissed by the
Finnish Government, that facilities could be granted


which made the operation of a secret courier service
across the frontier in any degree feasible.

The story of intrigue and counter-intrigue amongst
Finns, Germans, Russians, Bolsheviks, and the Allies
at this time, both in the Finnish capital and along the
Russian frontier, would be a fascinating one in itself,
but that is not my province. On the occasion of my
brief visits to Finland my prime object was not to
become involved, and this was the main reason why,
depressing though the prospect of returning to Petro-
grad was under existing circumstances, I nevertheless
cut short my stay in Finland and prepared to return
the moment I learned positively that the German
frontier commandant was to be removed.

Earnestly as I had striven to remain incognito, my
unavoidable participation in the negotiations for arrang-
ing a courier-service had drawn me into unfortunate
prominence. The German Commandant, still at his
post, appeared to regard me as his very particular
foe, and learning of 1113' intention to return to Russia
by sea he issued orders that the strictest watch should
be kept on the coast and any sledge or persons issuing
on to the ice be fired upon. Thus, although I had a
Government permit to cross the frontier, the smuggler
who was to carry me positively refused to venture on
the journey, while all patrols had orders to afford
me no facilities whatsoever.

But I evaded the Commandant, and very simply.
At the other extremity of the Russo-Finnish frontier,
close to Lake Ladoga, there is a small village named
Rautta, lying four or five miles from the frontier
line. This place had formerly also been a rallying
point for smugglers and refugees, but in view of its


remoteness and the difficulties of forest travel it was
very inaccessible in mid-winter from the Russian
side. At the Commandant's headquarters it was
never suspected that I would attempt to start from
this remote spot. But protesting, much to the Com-
mandant's delight, that I would return and compel
him to submit to Government orders, I travelled by a
very circuitous route to the village of Rautta, where
I was completely unknown, and where I relied on finding
some peasant or other who would conduct me to the
border. Once arriving at the frontier I was content
to be left to my own resources.

Luck was with me. It was in the later stages of
the tedious journey that I was accosted in the train
by a young Finnish lieutenant bound for the same
place. Russians being in ill-favour in Finland, I
always travelled as an Englishman in that country,
whatever I may have looked like. At this time I did
not look so bad, attired in an old green overcoat I
had bought at Helsingfors. Noticing that I was
reading an English paper, the lieutenant addressed me
in English with some trifling request, and we fell into
conversation. I was able to do him a slight service
through a note I gave him to an acquaintance in
Helsingfors, and when I further presented him with
all my newspapers and a couple of English books
for which I had no further use, he was more than
delighted. Finding him so well-disposed I asked him
what he was going to do at Rautta, to which he
replied that he was about to take up his duties as chief
of the garrison of the village, numbering some fifteen
or twenty men. At this I whipped out my Finnish
Government permit without further ado and appealed


to the lieutenant to afford me, as the document said,
"every assistance in crossing the Russian frontier."

He was not a little nonplussed at this unexpected
request. But realizing that a pass such as mine could
only have been issued by the Finnish Ministry of War
on business of first-class importance he agreed to do
what he could. I soon saw that he was much con-
cerned to do his utmost. Within a couple of hours
after our arrival at Rautta I was assured not only
of a safe conduct by night to the frontier, but also
of a guide, who was instructed to take me to a certain
Russian village about twenty miles beyond.

Nothing could be more truly proletarian than
Finnish administration in regions where neither
German nor ancien-regime Russian influence has
penetrated. It is the fundamentally democratic char-
acter of the Finnish people that has enabled them
since the time of which I speak to master in large
measure their would-be foreign counsellors and con-
trollers and build up a model constitution. The elder
of the village of Rautta, who was directed by my
friend the lieutenant to show me hospitality and
procure me a guide, was a rough peasant, literate and
intelligent, living with his wife in a single large room
in which I was entertained. His assistants were men
of the same type, while the guide was a young fellow
of about twenty, a native of the village, who had had
a good elementary education at Viborg. In the
hands of people of this sort I always felt myself secure.
Their crude common sense — the strongest defence
against nonsensical Red propaganda — made them as
a class trustier friends than a spoilt intelligentsia or
the scheming intrigants of the militarist caste.


My guide produced half a dozen pairs of skis, all
of which were too short, as I require a nine- or ten-foot
ski, but I took the longest pair. About eleven o'clock
our skis were strapped to a drovny sledge, and with a
kindly send-off by the elder and his wife, we drove
rapidly to a lonely hut, the last habitation on the
Finnish side of the frontier. The proprietor was roused
and regaled us with tea, while a scout, who chanced
to come in a few moments after our arrival, advised
my guide as to the latest known movements of Red
patrols. Our peasant host possessed no candles or
oil in this solitary abode, and we sat in the flickering
light of long burning twigs, specially cut to preserve
their shaky flare as long as possible.

About midnight we mounted the skis and set out
on our journey, striking off the track straight into the
forest. My companion was lightly clad, but I retained
my overcoat, which I should need badly later, while
round my waist I tied a little parcel containing a pair
of shoes I had bought for Maria in Helsingfors.

By the roundabout way we were going it would be
some twenty-five miles to the village that was our
destination. For four years I had not run on skis,
and though ski-running is like swimming in that once
you learn you never forget, yet you can get out of
practice. Moreover, the skis I had were too short,
and any ski-runner will tell you it is no joke to run
on short skis a zig-zag route across uneven forest
ground — and in the dark!

We started in an easterly direction, moving parallel
to the border-line. I soon more or less adapted my
steps to the narrow seven-foot ski and managed to keep
the guide's moderate pace. We stopped frequently to


listen for suspicious sounds, but all that greeted our
ears was the mystic and beautiful winter silence of
a snow-laden northern forest. The temperature was
twenty degrees below zero, with not a breath of
wind, and the pines and firs bearing their luxuriant
white burdens looked as if a magic fairy-wand had
lulled them into perpetual sleep. Some people might
have "seen things" in this dark forest domain, but
peering into the dim recesses of the woods I felt all
sound and motion discordant, and loved our halts
just to listen, listen, listen. My guide was taciturn,
if we spoke it was in whispers, we moved noiselessly
but for the gentle swish of our skis, which scarcely
broke the stillness, and the stars that danced above
the tree-tops smiled down upon us approvingly.

After travelling a little over an hour the Finn suddenly
halted, raising his hand. For some minutes we stood
motionless. Then, leaving his skis, he walked cau-
tiously back to me and pointing at a group of low
bushes a hundred yards away, visible through a narrow
aisle in the forest, he whispered: "You see those
farthest shrubs? They are in Russia. We are about
to cross the line, so follow me closely."

Moving into the thickets, we advanced slowly under
their cover until we were within a few yards of the
spot indicated. I then saw that before us there lay,
crosswise through the forest, a narrow clearance some
ten yards wide, resembling a long avenue. This was
the Russian borderline, and we stood at the extreme
edge of the Finnish forest. My guide motioned to
me to sidle up alongside him.

"It is to those bushes we must cross," he whispered
so low as to be scarcely audible. "The undergrowth


everywhere else is impassable. We will watch the
shrubbery a moment. The question is: is there any one
behind it? Look hard."

Weird phenomenon ! — but a moment ago it seemed
that motion in the forest was inconceivable. Yet
now, with nerves tense from anticipation, all the
trees and all the bushes seemed to stir and glide.
But oh! so slyly, so noiselessly, so imperceptibly!
Every shrub knew just when you were looking at it,
and as long as you stared straight, it kept still; but
the instant you shifted your gaze, a bough swung —
ever so little! — a trunk swayed, a bush shrank, a
thicket shivered, it was as if behind everything were
something, agitating, toying, to taunt you with de-
ceits !

But it was not really so. The forest was still with
a deathlike stillness. The dark trees like sentinels
stood marshalled in sombre array on either side of
the avenue. Around us, above, and below, all was
silence — the mystic, beautiful winter silence of the
sleeping northern forest.

Like a fish, my companion darted suddenly from
our hiding place, bending low, and in two strides had
crossed the open space and vanished in the shrubbery.
I followed, stealing one rapid glance up and down as
I crossed the line, to see nothing but two dark walls
of trees on either hand separated by the gray carpet
of snow. Another stride, and I, too, was in Russia,
buried in the thick shrubbery.

I found my guide sitting in the snow, adjusting
his ski-straps.

"If we come upon nobody in the next quarter-mile,"
he whispered, "we are all right till daybreak."


"But our ski-tracks?" I queried; "may they not be

"Nobody will follow the way we are going."

The next quarter-mile lay along a rough track skirt-
ing the Russian side of the frontier. Progress was
difficult because the undergrowth was thick and we
had to stoop beneath overhanging branches. Every
twenty paces or so we stopped to listen — but only to
the silence.

At last we came out on the borders of what seemed
like a great lake. My companion explained that it
was a morass and that we should ski straight across
it, due south, making the best speed we might. Travel-
ling now was like finding a level path after hard rocky
climbing. My guide sailed away at so round a pace
that although I used his tracks I could not keep up.
By the time I had crossed the open morass he had
already long disappeared in the woods. I noticed
that although he had said no one would follow us,
he did not like the open places.

Again we plunged into the forest. The ground
here began to undulate and progress in and out amongst
the short firs was wearisome. I began to get so tired
that I longed to stretch myself out at full length on
the snow. But we had to make our village by day-
break and my guide would not rest.

It was after we had crossed another great morass
and had been picking our way through pathless forest
for about four hours, that I saw by the frequency with
which my companion halted to consider the direction,
and the hesitation with which he chose our path, that
he had lost his way. When I asked him he frankly
admitted it, making no effort also to conceal his anx-


iety. There was nothing to do, however, but to keep
straight ahead, due south by the pole star.

The first streaks of dawn stole gently over the sky.
Coming out on to an open track, my guide thought he
recognized it, and we followed it in spite of the danger
of running into an early patrol. In a few moments
we struck off along a side track in an easterly direction.
We should soon reach our destination now, said the
Finn — about a mile more.

I moved so slowly that my companion repeatedly
got long distances ahead. We travelled a mile, but
still no sign of village or open country. At length
the Finn disappeared completely, and I struggled
forward along his tracks.

The gray dawn spread and brightened, and it was
quite light, though the sun had not yet risen, when
at last I drew near the outskirts of the forest. Sit-
ting on the bank of a small running stream sat my
guide, reproaching me when I joined him for my tardi-
ness. Across a large meadow outside the forest he
pointed to a group of cottages on the side of a hill
to the right.

"The Reds live there," he said. "They will be out
about eight o'clock. We have come over a mile too
far inland from Lake Ladoga: but follow my tracks
and we shall soon be there."

He rose and mounted his skis. I wondered how
he proposed to cross the stream. Taking a short
run, he prodded his sticks deftly into the near bank
as he quitted it, and lifting himself with all his force
over the brook, glided easily on to the snow on the far
side. Moving rapidly across the meadow, he disap-
peared in the distant bushes.


But in springing he dislodged a considerable portion
of the bank of snow, thus widening the intervening
space. I was bigger and weightier than he, and more
heavily clad, and my endeavour to imitate his per-
formance on short skis met with a disastrous end.
Failing to clear the brook, my skis, instead of sliding
on to the opposite snow, plunged into the bank, and I
found myself sprawling in the water! It was a marvel
that neither ski broke. I picked them up and throwing
them on to the level, prepared to scramble out of the

The ten minutes that ensued were amongst the
silliest in sensation and most helpless I ever experienced.
Nothing would seem easier than to clamber up a bank
not so high as one's shoulder. But every grab did
nothing but bring down an avalanche of snow on top
of me! There was no foothold, and it was only when
I had torn the deep snow right away that I was able
to drag myself out with the aid of neighbouring bushes.

Safely on shore I looked myself over despondently.
From the waist downward I was one solid mass of ice.
The flags of ice on my old green overcoat flapped heav-
ily against the ice-pillars encasing my top-boots.
^Yith considerable labour and difficulty I scraped soles
and skis sufficiently to make it possible to stand on
them, and once again crawled slowly forward.

I do not know how I managed to traverse the re-
maining three miles to the village whither my guide
had preceded me. It should have been the hardest
bit of all, for I was in the last stages of fatigue. Yet
it does not seem to have been so now. I think, to
tell the truth, I completely gave up the game, con-
vinced my black figure creeping up the white hillside


must inevitably attract attention, and I mechanically
trudged forward till I should hear a shot or a cry to
halt. Or, perhaps, even in this plight, and careless of
what befell me, I was fascinated by the glory of a
wondrous winter sunrise! I remember how the sun
peeped venturously over the horizon, throwing a magic
rose-coloured mantle upon the hills. First the summits
were touched, the pink flush crept gently down the
slopes, turning the shadows palest blue, and when at
last the sun climbed triumphant into the heaven,
the whole world laughed. And with it, I!

The cottages of the Reds were left far behind. I
had crossed more than one hill and valley, and passed
more than one peasant who eyed me oddly, before I
found myself at the bottom of the hill on whose crest
was perched the village I was seeking. I knew my
journey was over at last, because my guide's tracks
ceased at the top. He had dismounted to walk along
the rough roadway. But which cottage had he en-

I resolved to beg admission to one of the huts on
the outskirts of the village. They were all alike, low
wooden and mud buildings with protruding porch,
two tiny square windows in the half where the family
lived, but none in the other half, which formed the
barn or cattle-shed. The peasants are kindly folk,
I mused, or used to be, and there are few Bolsheviks
amongst them. So I approached the nearest cottage,
propped up my skis against the wall, timidly knocked
at the door, and entered.



The room in which I found myself was a spacious
one. On the right stood a big white stove, always the
most prominent object in a Russian peasant dwelling,
occupying nearly a quarter of the room. Beyond the
stove in the far corner was a bedstead on which an
old woman lay. The floor was strewn with several
rough straw mattresses. Two strapping boys, a
little lass of ten, and two girls of eighteen or nineteen
had just dressed, and one of the latter was doing her
hair in front of a piece of broken mirror.

In the other far corner stood a rectangular wooden
table, with an oil lamp hanging over it. The little
glass closet of ikons behind the table, in what is called
"beautiful corner" because it shelters the holy pic-
tures, showed the inmates to be Russians, though the
district is inhabited largely by men of Finnish race.
To the left of the door stood an empty wooden bed-
stead, with heaped-up bedcovers and sheepskin coats
as if someone had lately risen from it. All these things,
picturesque, though customary, I took in at a glance.
But I was interested to notice an old harmonium, an
unusual decoration in a village hut, the musical ac-
complishments of the peasant generally being limited
to the concertina, the guitar, the balalaika, and the
voice, in all of which, however, he is adept.

"Good morning," I said, apologetically. I turned



to the ikons and bowing, made the sign of the Cross.
"May I sit down just for a little moment? I am
very tired."

Everyone was silent, doubtless very suspicious.
The little girl stared at me with wide-open eyes. I
seated myself opposite the big white stove, wonder-
ing what I should do next.

In a few minutes there entered a rough peasant of
about fifty-five, with long hair streaked with gray,
and haggard, glistening eyes. There was a look of
austerity in his wrinkled face, though at the same
time it was not unkind, but he rarely smiled. He
nodded a curt good morning and set about his ablu-
tions, paying no further heed to me. The old woman
mentioned that I had come in to rest.

I explained. "I set out from the nearest station
early this morning with a companion," I said, "to ski
here. We are looking for milk. But we lost our way in
the woods. I tumbled into a stream. My companion
is somewhere in the village and I will go and look
for him later. But I would like to rest a little first
for I am very tired."

The old peasant listened but did not seem interested.
He filled his mouth with water from a jug, bent over
an empty bucket, and letting the water trickle out of
his mouth into the cup of his hands, scrubbed his
face and neck. I suppose it was warmer this way.
When he had finished I asked if I might have some
milk to drink, and at a sign from the old man one of
the boys fetched me some in a big tin mug.

"It is hard to get milk nowadays," grunted the old
peasant, surlily, and went on with his work.

The boys slipped on their sheepskin coats and left


the cottage, while the girls removed the mattresses
and set the samovar. I rejoiced when I saw the old
woman preparing to light the stove. My legs grad-
ually thawed, forming pools of water on the floor, and
one of the boys, when he came in, helped me pull
my boots off. But this was a painful process, for
both my feet were partially frozen.

At last the samovar was boiling and I was invited
to table to have a mug of tea. It was not real tea
and tasted nothing like it, though the packet was
labelled "Tea." Black bread and salt herrings made
up the meal. I did not touch the herrings.

"We have not much bread," said the old man,
significantly, as he put a small piece in front of me.

While we were at table my companion of night
adventure came in, after having searched for me all
through the village. I wished to warn him to be
prudent in speech and repeat the same tale as I had
told, but he merely motioned reassuringly with his
hand. "You need fear nothing here," he said, smil-

It appeared that he knew my old muzhik well. Tak-
ing him aside, he whispered something in his ear.
What was he saying? The old man turned and looked
at me intensely with an interest he had not shown
before. His eyes glistened brightly, as if with un-
expected satisfaction. He returned to where I sat.

"Would you like some more milk?" he asked, kindly,
and fetched it for me himself.

I asked who played the harmonium. With amusing
modesty the old man let his eyes fall and said nothing.
But the little girl, pointing her finger at the peasant,
put in quickly that " Diedushka [grandpa] did."


"I like music," I said. "Will you please play
something afterwards?"

Ah? Why was everything different all at once —
suspicions evaporated, fears dissipated? I felt the
change intuitively. The Finn had somehow aroused
the crude old man's interest in me (had he told him
who I was?), but by my passing question I had touched
his tenderest spot — music!

So Uncle Egor (as I called him), producing an old
and much be-fingered volume of German hymn tunes
which he had picked up in a market at Petrograd,
seated himself nervously and with touching modesty
at the old harmonium. His thick, horny fingers,
with black fingernails, stumbled clumsily over the
keys, playing only the top notes coupled in octaves
with one finger of his left hand. He blew the pedals
as if he were beating time, and while he played his
face twitched and his breath caught. You could see
that in music he forgot everything else. The rotten
old harmonium was the possession he prized above all
else in the world — in fact, for him it was not of this world.
Crude old peasant as he was, he was a true Russian.

"Would you like me to play you something?" I
asked when he had finished.

Uncle Egor rose awkwardly from the harmonium,
smiling confusedly when I complimented him on his
achievement. I sat down and played him some of
his hymns and a few other simple tunes. When I
variegated the harmonies, he followed, fascinated.
He leant over the instrument, his eyes rooted on mine.
All the rough harshness had gone from his face and
the shadow of a faint smile flickered round his lips.
I saw in his eyes a great depth of blue.


"Sit down again, my little son," he said to me several
times later, "and play me more."

At mid-day I lay down on Uncle Egor's bed and fell
fast asleep. At three o'clock they roused me for
dinner, consisting of a large bowl of sour cabbage
soup, which we all ate with brown polished wooden
spoons, dipping in turn into the bowl. Uncle Egor
went to a corner of the room, produced from a sack a
huge loaf, and cutting off a big square chunk, placed
it before me.

"Eat as much bread as you like, my son," he said.

He told me all his woes — how he was branded as a
village "fist, bourgeois, and capitalist," because he had
possessed three horses and five cows; how four cows
and two horses had been "requisitioned"; and how
half his land had been taken by the Committee of

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Online LibraryPaul DukesRed dusk and the morrow; adventures and investigations in red Russia → online text (page 13 of 22)