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A.J. Allen


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The Men

Captain Vladimir Pavelovich STEKLOV – C.O. Garrison, Berezovo

Colonel Konstantin Illyich IZOROV – Chief of Police

Father Arkady MALENYOV – Priest

Anatoli Mikhailovich POBEDNYEV – Mayor of Berezovo

Modest Andreyevich TOLKACH – Hospital Administrator

Dr. Vasili Semionovich TORTSOV – Medical Practitioner

Dimitri Borisovich SKYRALENKO – Prison Director

Vissarion Augustovich LEPISHINSKY – Vet & owner of the Livery Stables

Alexander Vissarionovich MASLOV – Librarian & Printer

Nikolai Alexeyevich DRESNYAKOV – Schoolteacher

Andrey Vladimirovich ROSHKOVSKY – Land Surveyor

Yuli Nikitavich BELINSKY – Builder

Gleb Yakovlevich PIROGOV – Carpenter

Fyodor Gregorivich SOBOLSKY – Proprietor, ‘Hotel New Century’

Sergei Levinovich KUPRIN – Revenue officer

Fyodor Fyodorovich IZMINSKY – Banker

Illya Moiseyevich KUIBYSHEV – Fur merchant

Pavel Stepanovich NADNIKOV – Grain merchant

Leonid Sergeivich KAVELIN – Timber merchant

Nikita Osipovich SHIMINSKI – General merchant

Ivan Tarpelovich KIBALSCHOV – General merchant

Serapion Alexeyevich PUSNYEN – General merchant

Pyotr Razinovich DELYANOV – Haberdasher

Kuzma Antonivich GVORDYEN – Baker

Yevgeni Yevgenivich SVORTSOV – Butcher

Irkaly Georgeyivich OVSEENKO – Carpenter

Isaac Davidovich AVERBUCH – Jewish carpenter

Lev Dubreivich POLEZHAYEV – Jewish tailor

Noi Nikolayevich PYATKONOV – ‘Goat’s Foot’, a Peasant

Semyon Konstantinovich LAVROV – Landlord of ‘The Black Eagle Inn’

Mikhail SHELGUNOV – Potboy

Innokenty Arseneyevich CHIRIKOV – Blacksmith

Anton Ivanovich CHEVANIN – Dr. Tortsov’s assistant

Abram Malachayivich USOV – Leader of the Jewish Bund

Yfem Borisovich BLONSKI – Corporal, Military Stores

Sergeant GREDNYEN – Commissariat Sergeant

JANINSKI – Prison warden

Pyotr Ivanovich ARKOV – Local prisoner

David Davidovich LANDEMANN – Jewish Bundist

Oleg KARSENEV – Leader, Berezovo Menshevik R.S.D.L.P.

FATIEV – Leader, Berezovo Bolshevik R.S.D.L.P.

The Women

Katya – Housemaid to Dr. TORTSOV

Anastasia Christianovna WRENSKAYA – Widow

Mariya – Housemaid to Madame WRENSKAYA

Yeliena TORTSOVA – Wife of Dr. TORTSOV

Tatyana KAVELINA – Wife of Leonid KAVELIN



Raisa IZMINSKAYA – Wife of Fyodor IZMINSKY

Matriona POBEDNYEVA – Mayoress

Lidiya PUSNYENA – Wife of Serapion PUSNYEN


Alexandra DRESNYAKOVA – Sister of Nikolai DRESNYAKOV

Tamara KARSENEVA – Wife of Oleg KARSENEV

Book One

A Small Town in Siberia

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Even at noon the sun was little more than a lemon coloured disc, peering bleakly through the grey leaden clouds. It gave no promise of warmth to the passengers in the prison convoy of troikas heading swiftly northwards through the forest that lined this section of the Great Tobolsk Highway.

In the second troika, the young man was struggling to stay awake. The hiss of the runners on the frozen ground, the glare of the snow, the gentle rocking motion of the sleigh and the incessant tintinnabulation of the harness that bound the ponies to the vehicle all conspired to mesmerise him, with the effect that he was finding it harder to hold logically consistent thoughts. Beside him, a guard sat with his chin resting on his chest; his grizzled head occasionally nodded in time to the motion of the carriage. He was fast asleep and the young man was able to study the features of his companion at length. There was not much to see. The soldier wore his dark brown fox fur hat pulled low over his forehead and the broad collar of his thick greatcoat stood up like wings, so that his profile was fragmented: a collage of fur, coarse cloth and pockmarked skin.

It was not, the young man decided, the face of an intelligent man. True, the lines around the eyes and mouth spoke eloquently of experience and deprivation. The Sibirsky regiment had been badly mauled in the war against the Japanese and had had to be almost entirely reformed. Any veteran of the old Sibirsky would know the meaning of suffering and endurance. Yet this man had learnt nothing from the experience. He still wore the uniform of the hated and discredited regime; he still upheld in word and deed the terrible despotism that ruled this vast wasteland with an iron grip. Ergo: he was not an intelligent man.

The young man smiled privately to himself, his dark, handsome Jewish features assuming a rare expression of self-mockery.

If I’m so smart , he thought, how come I’m the prisoner and he’s the guard? 

The soldier stirred in his sleep.

His young prisoner turned his attention once more to the silver birch trees that lay on either side of the road. The forest seemed endless. Soon, he told himself, the driver of the leading carriage would have to signal for a halt in order to rest and feed the teams, and this would allow his mind to clear. But even then, the penetrating cold and the unnatural stillness of the landscape, unbroken even by a bird’s cry, would sustain the feeling of isolation. Yes, the convoy would stop, but not yet; not until it was well clear of the forest. Instead they would halt somewhere out in the open, as they had done every day since they had boarded the troikas at Tiumen.

Magnanimously, the authorities had dispensed with the use of handcuffs or shackles during the journey. A meaningless gesture; a prisoner would still be confined by the very openness of the vast tracts of land through which he was passing, where a running figure could be easily spotted from a distance of half a verst. The young man knew that even if he made a bid as soon as they slowed, flinging aside the two heavy rugs that covered him from chest to feet, leaning forward in his seat, twisting his body to the right so that he would fall clear of the runners when he jumped… what would happen? His escort could alert the rest of his platoon with a single rifle shot and then they would shuffle into the semblance of a line under the sergeant’s instruction. He wondered how far he would be able to run in that time. Fifty metres? A hundred? Would they shout to him to stop? He doubted it. A single ragged fusillade, a crackle of shots spinning his body round like an ungainly puppet; like a drunk pirouetting in the snow. That would be his epitaph.

The young man shut his eyes tight, his features locked in a grimace as he tried to blot the image out of his mind. The authorities wanted him dead; they wanted all the condemned Soviet Deputies dead. Like a giant slavering beast, the autocracy hungered after their deaths. Fear rose within him, and it wore the face of Ter-Mkrchtiants, a fellow Petersburg Soviet deputy who had been tricked into accepting bail before the trial had started. Released from prison he had been seized, bound and led to summary execution on the ramparts of the Kronstadt fortress. They, the so-called forces of ‘law and order’, cared little for either when they had found their power threatened by the threat of armed insurrection in the capital.

Was this why, he wondered, the escort had been changed at Tobolsk? The friendly major and the company of sympathetic soldiers that had accompanied them had been replaced by this brutish sergeant and his troop of hard unsmiling men. Was the autocracy guaranteeing that the kid gloves of the officer corps would remain spotless? The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that their stated destination of Obdorskoye was a ruse. Who would know if they were all butchered en route in the snow? Who would ever find the bodies out here in this desolation? Who would even dare look for them?

The young man gritted his teeth, balling his hands into tight fists beneath the heavy rugs. Taking a series of deep breaths, he began to intone his daily catechism, unconsciously rocking his body backwards and forwards in time to the rhythm of his thoughts.

This is the tenth day of sleigh travel. The twelfth since we left Tiumen and the train. 

The seventeenth since we were taken to Nicolai Station. The twenty-fourth since I was moved from the transfer prison. It is eighty-five days since we were sentenced. One hundred and fourteen days since my speech in court. One hundred and thirty-three days since our trial began. Two hundred and ninety days since the arrest of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies on the third of December nineteen hundred and five. 

The numbers acted like blunt hooks, giving him something to hold onto as well as a record of his journey, and slowly he felt the panic begin to ebb away and his breath coming more easily. As the familiar faintness that threatened to overcome him in moments of high anxiety began to pass he opened his eyes and sighed, embarrassed at his weakness.

It is imperative that I keep alert,  he told himself. At least if I was in a cell, I could carve a notch on the wall to mark the passage of time. Here, there is nothing. 

He began looking around the vehicle in which he lay cocooned for something that offered the potential of a calendar, idly wondering whether such markings, made within the subjective confines of an objectively moving environment, had a deeper significance. The thought intrigued him: there was something there, if only he could concentrate and formulate the idea…

With a slight sense of surprise, he realised that he was staring at the long barrel of the guard’s rifle which lay secure within the soldier’s folded arms. His eyes followed the length of the weapon down to the floor of the troika and he saw that the soldier had stuck one booted foot through the loop of the rifle sling, lest his prisoner should try to disarm him as he slept. The broad, unpolished butt lay invitingly close to his own foot. Could he perhaps carve his calendar on that? Suppressing a chuckle, the young man wrapped his arms tighter around himself, taking pleasure from imagining the guard’s reaction upon waking.

In front of him, the driver cracked his whip across the broad backs of his team, urging them on to their destination. His orders had been clear. It was expected that this special convoy of prisoners would maintain a steady progress of fifty versts a day. The three plunging ponies, their nostrils pluming with vapour in the cold air, panted with the exertion of the long run.

Chapter One

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Sunday 28th January 1907

Berezovo, Northern Siberia

Katya closed the kitchen door behind her and stood on the top step, sniffing the chill night air. Her snout-like nose wrinkled as it caught the familiar smell of the distant riverbank to the east of the town that told her more snow was on its way.

Moving cautiously, she descended the short flight of steps that led down to the Tortsovs’ back yard, taking care to keep the earthenware jar of goat’s meat soup upright. As she reached the bottom step, the bell of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary began to toll for the evening service. The knowledge that Father Arkady would notice her absence still troubled her. Pulling her shawl snugly round her shoulders, she crossed herself and passed through the gate into the narrow lane that ran behind the houses. Cradled beneath the coarse shawl, the jar’s warmth and weight comforted her. It reminded her of her sister’s baby, and of the young soul lately made flesh that might even now be drawing its first shuddering breath in the room above Pirogov’s distant workshop.

Her annoyance with her mistress returned as she began feeling her way in the darkness along the rough fence that led to Menshikov Street. Madame Tortsova’s insistence that the priest would forgive her on this occasion – that she was on an ‘errand of mercy’ – had sounded hollow and unconvincing. The doctor’s wife knew what great store she placed in the priest’s blessing. Katya was, after all, the priest’s charge; Dr. Tortsov was only her employer. It had been Father Arkady who had picked her out of the snow bank after the fire. It was Father Arkady that had cared for her after her parents had been buried in the pauper’s yard; still clinging to each other like two charcoaled tree trunks struck simultaneously by lightning. The priest had taken her in and, even though she was neither as pretty nor as quick as the other girls of her age, he had fed and clothed her. And now she had grown, he had sent her to help Dr. Tortsov’s wife keep house. Katya had never once questioned the priest’s commandment, though her own sleeping quarters were cold and cheerless and the years had made the doctor short tempered and his childless wife shrewish. The housemaid knew that for as long as she lived in the attic room of the doctor’s house, she would neither starve nor want for shelter. But to her mind, Madame Tortsova had been wrong to order her to go straight to the Pirogovs’ and not to attend the evening service on her way. Her mistress would be punished, thought Katya as she reached the corner, along with the other sinners. They would all feel the Hand of God.

The fence had ended, falling away with the houses before the expanse of Menshikov Street. Still brooding on Madame Tortsova’s intransigence, she slowly advanced, stepping high over the frozen sleigh ruts that criss-crossed the iron-hard ground. Fear of tripping in the darkness and spilling the soup made her clumsy and hesitant but she reached the other side of the street without mishap. She felt her way along the edge of the icy boardwalk until she came to the steps in front of Leonid Kavelin’s house. The timber merchant was a wealthy man; his house was one of the few free-standing buildings in the town centre. Surrounded on all sides by roads, he had erected a high wooden fence to keep out the gaze of the vulgar and the curious.

Ahead Katya could make out the distant glow of the oil lamps that burned outside the hospital; tiny pin-pricks of light that would be shielded from the approaching blizzard by thick glass bulbs that had been brought all the way from Tobolsk. The sight cheered her and she walked with more confidence across the furrowed surface of Ostermann Street, ignoring the biting cold that snapped at her calves as she lifted the hem of her skirt to mount the steps on the opposite side.

The nearer she drew to the main intersection with Alexander III Boulevard, the more insistent the tolling of the church’s bell grew in her ears. She strove to ignore it and began chanting to herself the words ‘errand of mercy’ as she passed by the closed shutters of Kuzma Gvordyen’s bakery and confectionery shop. A picture was slowly forming in her imagination: an image of the wife of Gleb Pirogov, the carpenter, lying exhausted in her stall; weakened by what Father Arkady called the miracle of birth. Clutching the jar tighter to her bosom, she hurried on, the wooden soles of her crudely fashioned boots clattering over the uneven boards. From the kitchen she had overheard the doctor say that this would be the Pirogovs’ fifth birth in four years, their third child if it lived, and that Pirogov’s family would welcome the scraps of freshly cooked meat that Madame Tortsova had told her to stir into the broth. Katya wondered what the baby would look like. Would it seem as red, old and angry as her own brothers’ and sisters’ babies had been when they were born? Perhaps it would be different, more like the calm ivory baby in the books that Father Arkady had shown her. The thought thrilled her. Had not Joseph also been a carpenter? How wonderful that would be!  she thought. The Holy Father born again; here, in Berezovo!  And she, Katya, would be the first to bring him gifts.

Stopping by the light from a half shaded window she carefully lifted the lid of the jar, and peered down at the steaming viscous broth of yellow goat meat. Grey globules of fat began immediately to congeal and float to the surface. She debated whether to hook them out with her fingers and throw them into the road, but decided against doing so. Anton Ivanovich had told her that the fat was good for the chests of weak children; he would be upset if she wasted it. Unwilling to displease the doctor’s young assistant, she replaced the lid and moved quickly towards the step that led down to the junction with Alexei Street. From the eastern end of the broad thoroughfare the last clear notes of the church’s bell reproached her as she began to half run, half lope across the frozen sleigh tracks. The lid, clumsily set on the lip of the jar, shifted and some of the broth splashed onto her rough blouse scalding her. Pausing only to wipe off what she could, she continued her journey across the boulevard’s broad expanse. The Pirogovs lived close to Jew Alley, deep in the Quarter and only the thought of seeing Anton Ivanovich’s broad handsome face prevented her from feeling afraid. He would protect her from harm.

She had once tried to tell Father Arkady what she had felt for Anton Ivanovich but the priest had grown angry and reprimanded her. It was true, he told her, that Anton Ivanovich Chevanin would one day become a hero – as would all good men of science who dedicated their lives to the welfare of mankind – but it was wrong, very wrong of her to have such feelings of adoration for him. What Katya had seen in her employer’s assistant, the priest had explained, was but the outward manifestation of the gifts placed there by God the Father; gifts that could be found in varying degrees within every soul on earth. That she should respect Anton Ivanovich and care for him as a frequent guest at the Tortsovs’ household until he took a wife of his own was quite appropriate, but she must think of herself as a handmaiden of God the Father for there was no mortal man who would return her love as He could. Reminding her of the reason why she was as she was, of the terrible sins of her parents, Father Arkady had assured her that as she grew older she would realise that the emotions she was now experiencing were misplaced and sinful.

For once the priest’s counsel had fallen upon deaf ears. She had not understood; she had not wanted to understand. Like the lights now burning outside the gate to the hospital courtyard, a small flame had been lit in the loneliness of her heart. The more often Anton Ivanovich visited the doctor’s house, the stronger her feelings had grown. Whenever he saw her, he was always so respectful, so charming. Never once had he berated her when she was clumsy or slow. Just the way he called her name excited her. “Katya… ” he would drawl and immediately she would feel her face begin to glow. It was strange, almost magical. When Madame Tortsova summoned her, she made her name sound quick and ugly; like the yelp of a kicked dog. But her beloved (for so she secretly thought of him) had only to murmur it and she had to hide her face in her apron! And it was not only to her that he showed such kindness: he was like that with everybody. How else could she love him? That very afternoon, as she had taken the dishes out into the kitchen, she had overheard him offer to attend to the Pirogovs’ birth simply so that the doctor could go to his drama meeting. On a night like this too! That  was the sort of man her Anton Ivanovich was.

Before she had realised it, the horse and its rider were almost upon her. Katya froze, uncertain whether to rush forwards toward the far side of the boulevard or try to retreat to the safety of the steps she had left. With a tired curse, the horseman wrenched at his rein, pulling his mount away from the woman who had suddenly stepped out into their path. In the darkness the two startled figures peered at each other: the thickset young woman protectively clasping her precious burden; the rider, dressed in the uniform of the mounted gendarmerie, easing himself forward in his saddle.

Remembering her mission, Katya began to back away, but as she turned to go, the gendarme called out to her gruffly.

“Hey! You!”

Fearfully she turned back to face him.

“Which way is it to the uchastok ?”

Pulling nervously at her shawl, Katya stared at the worn leather scabbard that hung from the man’s left hip.

“Did you hear me, woman?” the gendarme growled again.

With a gentle dig of his spurs, he edged the horse nearer to her. The smell of the broth filled the horse’s nostrils and it turned its head away sharply.

“Answer me!” he demanded irritably. “Quickly, where is the uchastok ?”

Shifting the jar to her other arm, Katya flung out her free hand and pointed awkwardly towards the town’s police headquarters. The sudden movement startled the horse again, making the man swear angrily as he fought to control it. As if he had struck her, she flinched at his violent curses, and began backing away.

Wearily shaking his head, the gendarme watched her stumble away across the uneven street and wondered why, after three days on the road from Kandinskoye, he had to pick upon an idiot bitch to ask for directions. With an irritable kick he turned his horse and rode on slowly towards the two storey building at the far end of Alexei Street.

Three days in the saddle , he thought bitterly. Over one hundred and eighty versts, just because the swine of a sergeant was too sick to do his job properly. The bastard hadn’t been too sick to drink the bottle his cousin had sent him from Samarovo. Three days without proper food or rest. Sheltering in stinking yurts when the weather blew up. Sleeping alongside stinking Ostyaks. Just to deliver a stinking package to the stinking Chief of Police at Berezovo. “Why not wait until the postal sleigh comes through?” he had suggested. But no, that had not been good enough for the idle swine. And to be given such a broken winded nag as this to ride. Was ever a man so badly treated? If the son of a whore had obeyed orders in the first place and carried the package himself, he would have made damn sure to take the best horse in the village, the thief! He would have taken Sasha’s horse, or Pyotr’s.

Despite his fatigue, the gendarme grinned at the thought. No, not Pyotr’s! That brute had the blood of the Devil in him and would have dumped his precious sergeant on his precious arse before he had gone a single verst. 

As he drew nearer he could pick out the name ‘HOTEL NEW CENTURY’ painted above the drab entrance of the building opposite the police headquarters, illuminated by the lights shining from the windows of the hotel’s upper floor.

“Very grand,” he said under his breath. “A place fit for barines . A regular palace.”

As soon as he had dumped the damned package in the fat lap of the Chief of Police (who was, he was certain, another bastard like his sergeant) he would stable his mount, go over to the hotel and demand a bath. By the looks of the building it was a big enough place: it was bound to have a least one tub. It was unlikely, he reasoned, that anyone would be staying there; at least anybody important. Only fools like himself would be on the road during the blizzard season. A bath and a bottle, that was what was needed. After that, he would be fit for anything.

A movement in one of the upper windows caught his eye and he became aware of the silhouette of a figure watching him ride by. The warmth of the room behind the figure reached out to him, throwing into sharp relief his own feelings of cold and exhaustion. Hunching his shoulders, he urged his horse forward with a gentle dig of his spurs as the first snowflakes fluttered from the night sky onto its bedraggled mane.

* * *

Standing at the window of the lounge of the Hotel New Century, Andrey Roshkovsky, land surveyor of Berezovo, looked down at the rider in the street below, and wondered what could be so urgent as to persuade a soul to travel at such a time as this, when the weather clearly showed all the signs of getting ready for a blow. He watched the man dismount and lead his horse wearily towards the uchastok  opposite. Large snowflakes were already beginning to race past the window.

“Andrey Vladimirovich!”

Roshkovsky let the long red velvet curtains drop and turned to rejoin the group of men sitting comfortably around the fireside.

“Well?” Belinsky asked loudly. “Is there any sign of Colonel Izorov yet?”

Roshkovsky shook his head.

“If he doesn’t arrive soon,” he replied, “we may be stuck here for the night. The weather is set for a blow.”

“Then let it!” cried the builder, raising his empty glass. “For a while at least we shall be free of nagging wives and unpaying debtors. We might as well make the most of it. While we are snug in here, the world can go shit itself. At least we won’t starve, or die of thirst.”

Seated by the fire, the schoolteacher Dresnyakov lowered the fortnight-old copy of the Birzhevye Vedomosti  he had been reading and gave a snort of derision.

“Wherever you are, Yuli Nikitavich,” he remarked, “you shall never die of thirst. That must be the fourth glass you have downed since you arrived.”

“True, true,” admitted Belinsky cheerfully.

“It really is too bad of the colonel to keep us waiting like this,” said Dr. Tortsov testily. “I have a perfectly good supper waiting for me at home, as I am sure you all have…”

Across the chessboard, his opponent, Alexander Maslov, the town’s librarian, nodded in agreement.

“After all, his presence here is only a technical formality,” he muttered, peering at the doctor’s chessmen threatening his queen.

“I suggest,” continued the doctor, “that if Colonel Izorov hasn’t arrived in the next five minutes, we should begin without him.”

With the exception of Belinsky, this suggestion was endorsed with nods and murmurs from the other members of the town’s drama committee; their chairman Dresnyakov authorized the motion with a heartfelt, “Motion approved!” Grumbling, Belinsky abdicated his position by the fire and walked purposefully over to the small wall table, upon which sat a flask of vodka accompanied by a few decorated glasses. After pouring himself another drink (he would show them!), the builder returned to the group and stood behind the sofa upon which Roshkovsky was now reclining, his head cocked to one side as he watched the game in progress between the doctor and the librarian Maslov.

Raising his glass to his lips, Belinsky drank and looked sourly towards Dresnyakov’s long legs protruding from under the crumpled pages of the newspaper. Invisible as the schoolmaster’s face was, his features were well known to the Belinsky household. Whenever little Illya came home with his eyes puffy and red from the beatings he received at Dresnyakov’s hands, his father would take him out into the cluttered yard behind the house and listen to his tale of woe. Sometimes, if he deemed that the punishment had been justified, he would simply cuff the boy around the head and send him back into the house to sit with the women. But when he felt that the beatings had been unwarranted – the boy might be slow but there was no harm in him yet – he would take a stick of charcoal and, with a sigh and a sorrowful shake of his head, begin to draw a caricature of the schoolmaster on the end of a split plank or broken door panel. More often than not the tears were barely dry on the boy’s cheeks before he was laughing and clapping his hands.

“No, Dada! The ears!” the lad would cry. “Give him the ears next!”

Obediently smudging out his first modest portrayal, the builder would draw in its place a head with the enormous ears of a donkey.

“Now the nose!”

From the cartoon’s sunken cheeks would protrude an exaggerated proboscis, surpassing in its dimensions even that of the moneylender Goldstein. Once the caricature was completed, the boy would begin scrabbling amidst the debris that littered the yard in search

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of ammunition. Offcuts of timber, discarded remnants of rusting locks and bolts; all served his purpose. As his father looked on with approval, he would hurl them at the hated visage until his arm grew tired and his aim wild. Only then would he return happily to the hearth, to sit beside his father as the builder smoked his pipe in the dark low-ceilinged room that served both as living quarters and kitchen.

Belinsky treasured those moments most of all: feeling the soft skin of his son’s small hand clasped in his as they sat side by side beside the fire, staring into the witches in the flames. Wasn’t a son the finest house a man could build? Made of skin and bone, but built just the same; designed in his own image and raised from the earth with discipline, patience and understanding. It was not that he had no respect for people of learning: folk like Dresnyakov. On the contrary, he believed the schoolmaster to be a competent teacher and did not question his right to deal with his pupils as he saw fit. Nowadays, having a strong pair of hands was no longer enough. A young man also had to have a head upon his shoulders, a head full of facts and figures; in short, an education.

The builder’s meditations were punctuated by a sharp cry of despair from Maslov as Dr. Tortsov reached out to seize his queen. Sprawling back on the sofa, Roshkovsky chuckled approvingly as the discarded chess piece rattled into its box. Half turning, he looked up at Belinsky to see if he had shared his amusement at the librarian’s gaffe, but was rewarded with only a sullen stare. Shrugging, Roshkovsky turned back again to watch the doctor close in for the kill.

Moodily, Belinsky took another sip of vodka. Despite having often had dealings with Roshkovsky, sometimes for weeks at a time, he recognised the distance between them was too wide, the chasm too deep, for there to be even the pretence of friendship between them. It went far beyond the natural antagonism between trade and profession. If pressed, he would grudgingly concede that Roshkovsky knew his stuff and was a reliable land surveyor and a good draughtsman. Yet, as he liked to tell his drinking friends at the Black Cock, like so many so-called ‘educated’ men the land surveyor had little common sense and entertained the stupidest of ideas. He was a dreamer of dreams, who believed that his country’s problems could be solved merely by people being nice to each other and standing meekly by while everything was being torn up or turned upside down. In a word, Roshkovsky was a Liberal. With a sour expression, Belinsky drained his glass and was on the point of returning to the small wall table in order to pour himself another when the raised voices of the players signalled that their game of chess was over.

“Well done, Doctor!” Maslov was exclaiming effusively. “A nice piece of work.”

Dr. Tortsov muttered a few diplomatic words in response. The game had held little interest for him. His opponent’s moves had been unimaginative and his own had lacked finesse. Ordinarily he would have avoided playing Maslov precisely because his game was so dull and his demeanour so fawning but, faced on this occasion with the alternative of either playing or having to listen to the librarian’s conversation, he had chosen the least tiresome occupation. He was grateful when Roshkovsky, yawning, proposed that they should no longer wait for Colonel Izorov’s arrival.

“I agree,” said Dresnyakov, neatly folding his newspaper and gathering together his pile of handwritten notes. “Whatever is keeping the colonel, it must be more important than our deliberations.”

Remembering the weary rider he had watched from the window, Roshkovsky made room for Belinsky to join him on the sofa but the builder ignored him. Instead Belinsky crossed to the fireside and lowered himself into a chair opposite the schoolteacher, grumbling as he did so. “About time too. Let’s get on with it.”

“With your permission then, gentlemen,” continued Dresnyakov, “I shall begin by reading the minutes of our last meeting.”

From his vantage point beside the fire Belinsky studied the faces of the other men. To his eyes they were all the same. Men of letters; smooth men of polished words and endless committees. They would spend weeks and weeks agonising over who was going to be responsible for what and why, forgetting that it was only he – Yuli Nikitavich Belinsky – who could bring substance to the play. He would be the one who built the sets and painted the scenery; who made sure the doors opened properly and that the curtains didn’t collapse (as they had done two years ago when that blockhead Tachminov had been in charge). That is what this country needs , he thought. A few more practical men like myself who know how to get the best out of the materials that are to hand… Who know how to boot arses and don’t have to go grovelling to the Jews every time their money runs out. 

Having completed reading the minutes, Dresnyakov turned to the second item on the meticulously written agenda that lay upon his knee. Nodding to Maslov, he invited the librarian to present his report. Nervously adjusting his cravat, the small man sprang to his feet and, after acknowledging his colleagues with a series of bows, addressed the other members of the drama committee.

“As you may recall,” he began, “I ordered the scripts of the two sketches we are to produce, namely The Bear  and A Tragedian Despite Himself  by Anton Chekhov, from the General Book Distributors in Tobolsk. I am pleased to report that these have now arrived and are, at this very moment, awaiting the committee’s pleasure in my storeroom.”

This news was not unexpected and his announcement was greeted by wry expressions of congratulation. He had informed each of them individually of the scripts’ arrival several times since the Committee’s last meeting. Neither were the other members of the group tempted to ask what good the scripts were doing in the library storeroom when their rightful place was in the hands of those charged with their translation into the spoken performance. They knew the librarian too well. Alexander Maslov would cling onto the scripts until the very last moment, enjoying the frisson of power conveyed by their possession.

“I have also taken the liberty,” Maslov went on, “of extracting one or two articles from theatrical magazines in my possession concerning the special problems presented by a production of these works. I thought that, since it is the good doctor’s first excursion into the thespian art, they may be of some small service to him.”

Dr. Tortsov’s smile tightened as he watched Maslov delve into a pocket and produce a thick sheaf of papers. He steeled himself for yet another lecture from the town’s self-appointed dramaturge.

Catching his eye, Dresnyakov hastily intervened.

“Thank you, Alexander Vissarionovich. Now, may I ask…”

But Maslov was not to be stopped so easily.

“If you will just allow me to observe,” he continued, “the great dramatic theorist and director Stanislavsky says that Chekhov presents his characters from within, or rather…”

“Yes, thank you, Alexander Vissarionovich!” repeated Dresnyakov.

“Or rather,” persisted the librarian, “he allows us to see the inner  compulsions which activate his people, whilst letting the exterior  actions or…”


This time there was no mistaking the schoolmaster’s determination to uphold the authority of the Chair. So loud had his voice been that it sent the little man scurrying back to his seat, twitching apologetically as he looked around him.

“Really, gentlemen!” said Dresnyakov with mock severity. “If we are to get through our business we must learn to limit our contributions to the subject in hand, otherwise, we shall never be finished. Now, if we may proceed,” he continued, pointedly overlooking Maslov’s upraised hand. “I shall now call upon Andrey Vladimirovich to tell us of the progress he has made regarding acquiring the venue for the production.”

“Certainly, Nikolai Alexeyevich,” responded Roshkovsky easily.

Unlike the previous speaker, the land surveyor did not rise from his seat but contented himself with leaning forward and ticking off the points of his report on the fingers of one elegant hand as he dealt with them.

“I have spoken with Captain Steklov. Once again he has kindly allowed us the use of the barracks for our production. Incidentally,” he added, turning to Belinsky, “the captain told me that you could take the measurements for the stage area any time you like, but that he would be obliged if you could restrict the construction of the scenery itself until the Wednesday before the performance.”

“That’s damned tight,” growled the builder. “I might not be able to get it all done; not without cutting into day work.”

“Captain Steklov is happy to lend you a squad of men to help,” the land surveyor assured him. “And we could easily borrow a wagon to transport any finished pieces from your yard.”

“I hope that the captain has made a note of when the play is to take place,” said Dresnyakov. “It would be most unfortunate if it conflicted with a visit from the general or someone.”

“Don’t worry,” replied Roshkovsky. “I saw him ring the date on his calendar myself. Sunday the eleventh of February, for one night only. I have also spoken to Lev Polezhayev. He is prepared to alter any existing costumes, or even run up new ones, at a discount. Without seeing the scripts, I couldn’t give him an idea of what might be needed, but his rates are usually reasonable.”

There was a general buzz of agreement.

“Finally, I have calculated that, if we did not use more than a third of the total area for the stage this year, we should be able to seat between a hundred and fifty and two hundred people in some degree of comfort. As to where we get the seating from, I shall let the committee determine that.”

Notwithstanding the problem with locating the necessary chairs and benches, this last piece of news was greeted with approval.

“Two hundred people!” cried Maslov. “What a production!”

Normally taciturn, even Doctor Tortsov was moved to express his enthusiasm and it was some moments before their chairman was able to restore order once more. When at last he had done so, he thanked the land surveyor for his report and called upon the doctor to furnish them with the last piece of intelligence they required: namely the date upon which the roles would be cast.

“Wednesday evening, the thirty-first of January,” announced Dr. Tortsov crisply.

“Then I declare this meeting closed, gentlemen. Our next meeting will be next Wednesday evening.”

As the five men rose to stretch their legs, Belinsky asked, “Who is this Chekhov then?”

Ignoring Maslov’s snigger of disbelief, Dr. Tortsov provided the answer.

“He is, or rather was, a playwright from Yalta who also wrote some excellent short stories. He died only recently; about two or three years ago, I believe.”

“Huh! I knew it!” growled Belinsky. “A soft southerner. I suppose the plays will be full of all sorts of rubbish glorifying queers and terrorists and such like.”

“On the contrary,” the doctor corrected him genially, “one of Chekhov’s most admirable qualities, and the reason for his enduring popularity, is that he touches upon only the more conventional subjects. Isn’t that so, Nikolai Alexeyevich?”

“Certainly,” agreed the schoolmaster. “Besides, both Father Arkady and Colonel Izorov have fully endorsed the doctor’s choice. I, for one, would not countenance any production that could be considered difficult or offensive.”

“All the same, nothing good ever came out of Yalta. I’m not working on anything that risks being closed down by the police, and that’s flat.”

“Yuli Nikitavich does have a point,” Maslov broke in nervously. “After all, it doesn’t matter what the script says, it’s the interpretation that you put on it. Remember that actor last year, the one playing the English detective Sherlock Holmes at the Moscow Theatre? He appeared to make a joke about the futility of siege law. They gave him three months for that. Our own Chaliapin was fined for refusing to sing patriotic songs as an encore. He had to pay over a hundred roubles in fines. Then there were those two sisters…”

“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic, Alexander Vissarionovich!” scoffed Roshkovsky. “There won’t be any singing in the barracks. Besides, the sooner you let us have the scripts, the sooner our friend Yuli here can sleep soundly in his bed.”

As the wrangling threatened to grow more heated, Nikolai Dresnyakov retreated once more to the safety of his chair by the fire. There was not the least doubt in his mind that the director’s choice had been based upon sound reasoning since much of it has been supplied by himself. He began mentally computing the profit that could be expected to accrue from their efforts.

“Two hundred souls,” he mused. “Hmm… Eighty seats at one rouble each and a hundred and twenty bench seats at 40 copecks. No, let us say 70 benchers just to be on the safe side. How much will Polezhayev want for the costumes and alterations? No more than ten, surely? Twelve perhaps… no, ten roubles or the Jew can go hang himself. Then there’s Belinsky, of course. He will bump up his prices the moment work begins, complaining that his men are being kept from more profitable labour. Allow at least twenty roubles for him. Scripts, programmes, posters, advertisements and extras… another twelve. Now, if everybody brought their own chairs like last year… And we could persuade Fyodor Gregorivich to provide seating from the hotel for free in exchange for the sole licence to sell refreshments… And perhaps a full case… no, half a case of wine to the good captain for the use of the barracks… that would leave how much? Sixty roubles at the very least. Probably more, if we include standing tickets at ten copecks each. All in all, a very respectable profit for one night’s work.”

Rubbing the palms of his hand together with satisfaction, he turned his attention back to the four men standing arguing in the centre of the room. Despite the assurances of Dr. Tortsov and Roshkovsky, Belinsky – who quite possibly was by now a little drunk – had not been persuaded that ‘this Chekhov fellow’ was not a propagandist for revolution and criminal outrage.

“But that is ridiculous !” Roshkovsky was saying, waving his hands above his head. “How can  you be so prejudiced? Just because he was born in the South it doesn’t follow that he supports terrorism.”

“Andrey Vladimirovich is right!” Maslov broke in excitedly. “Do you think Colonel Izorov would have allowed us to proceed with this production if the plays were not  of the highest moral calibre?”

It was fortunate for Belinsky, who was no admirer of the colonel, that the unflattering retort already forming in his mind died before it reached his lips. For at that precise moment, the double doors that separated the lounge from the landing outside were thrown back with a crash, revealing the stocky figure of the Chief of Police himself standing in the doorway.

For a second or two there was an embarrassed silence, then Dresnyakov gave a mirthless chuckle.

“Welcome, Colonel. We were hoping that you would be able to attend our little meeting.”

Standing sandwiched between Roshkovsky and Belinsky, Maslov felt himself quail as Colonel Izorov took a few steps into the room and closed the doors softly behind him. The policeman seemed not to have heard Dresnyakov’s greeting or, if he had, he had chosen to ignore it. Instead, he was glaring accusingly at each of them in turn, as if committing their faces to memory. Involuntarily, the librarian gave a low groan of despair. The colonel looked as if, for two copecks, he would arrest them all. One never knew with Izorov. Almost certainly the Chief of Police must have heard him mention his name.

But there is nothing wrong with that, surely?  Maslov told himself. I said nothing wrong. It was all perfectly innocent. 

Unless… Unless Chekhov had  become a proscribed writer. The librarian’s head began to swim as the silence lengthened. He had no fewer than a dozen scripts sitting on his office desk at that very moment; more than sufficient to land him in trouble.

Perhaps he is not angry about the play at all , he thought. Maybe something else is bothering him. 

But this hope was dashed to the ground the moment the policeman spoke.

“This play… When do you intend to perform it?”

Dresnyakov, to whom the question had been addressed, glanced warily at the other men and then back at the colonel.

“Actually, the doctor is in charge of the production,” he replied, “but I think we had all agreed upon Sunday the eleventh of next month.”

The unsmiling features of the Chief of Police betrayed nothing as he digested this piece of intelligence.

“Impossible,” he said at last.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said impossible. The play is cancelled.”

Dresnyakov opened his mouth to speak but the policeman had already turned to go, leaving the other members of the committee to regard each other with dismay. Only Belinsky did not seem unduly surprised at this sudden reversal of their plans. Advancing once more towards the half empty flask on the small wall table, the builder laughed softly.

“Ha! Yalta! I told you.”

Chapter Two

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Monday 29th January 1907

Great Tobolsk Highway

It’s two days now since we left Tobolsk. Our escort consists of thirty soldiers under an NCO’s command. We left in huge troikas but after the second halt the number of horses pulling each sleigh was reduced from three to two. It was a marvellous morning, clear bright and frosty. Forest all around, still and white with frost against the clear sky. A fairy tale setting. The horses galloped at a mad pace – the usual Siberian rhythm.

As we were leaving the town (the prison is on the outskirts) a crowd of local exiles, forty or fifty persons, stood awaiting us… but we were driven away at great speed. The people here have already made up legends about us. Some say that five generals and two provincial governors are being taken into exile; other, that it is a count with his family; still others that we are members of the State Duma. And the woman in whose house we stopped last night asked the doctor:

“Are you ‘politicals’ too?”

“Yes, we’re ‘politicals’ too.”

“But then you’re surely the chiefs of all the ‘politicals’!”

Laying down his pen carefully upon the chipped edge of the saucer that served as an inkwell, Trotsky blew vigorously upon his fingers. The temperature in the room was barely above freezing point. The prison authorities in Petersburg had allowed them to keep only their overcoats, underclothes and footwear: all their other street clothes had been taken from them. In their place they had been issued with loose fitting grey prison uniforms that chafed the skin and did little to keep out the cold. Beneath these threadbare clothes his young body was gripped with spasms of uncontrollable shivering.

Wrapping his arms around himself, Trotsky thrust his fingers under his armpits, seeking the last vestiges of his body’s warmth as he read through what he had written. The cold made concentration difficult. He had lost nearly all sense of feeling in his toes. He considered whether or not he should remove his boots. His greatest anxiety was that during the night they would be stolen, either by one of the soldiers or by the man who owned the house in which they had been billeted. He knew that some of his fellow exiles thought him vain for wearing boots more suitable for strolling along the Nevsky Prospekt than for a sentence of enforced settlement within the Arctic Circle. Already his footwear had entered the vernacular of the journey. Someone had only to say, “As smart as Trotsky’s boots!” to raise a laugh. Their mockery didn’t bother him, but the boots undoubtedly were tight and his feet were now numb. He decided that he would take the boots off tonight and sleep with them under his pillow.

Re-reading his description of their passage through the forest, he nodded to himself. Natalya would appreciate that. She was always accusing him of only noticing what she called the ‘material dimensions of matter’. (“LD, a good socialist should be worldly enough to recognise both the value and the cost of such intangibles as nature and art.”)  Objectively, much of the landscape through which he had been transported had been beautiful, with the clean ridges of snow taking the shapes and textures of freshly whipped meringue. Lifting his eyes from the letter, he gazed at the patterns on the darkened glass of the window in front of him. Little beads of ice swirled and spread, like ferns pressed flat against the pane.

If Natalya was here instead of me, he thought, she would have drawn that. She would not have needed to write.

Truly there were other modes of expression that could be used. Alas, he was only skilled in the written word and, as poor as it was, it had to suffice.

Re-reading the end of his last paragraph he wondered if she would appreciate the truth of what the old crone had said, for surely they were the ‘chiefs of all the politicals’ now. One could not count Nicolai Lenin’s criminally manipulative leadership of the Moscow workers.

Now there, he thought, was a man who saw life in only one dimension if ever there was.

A muffled snore from one of the bodies asleep on the hard wooden floor made him turn his head and gaze down upon the figures around him. In the centre of the floor lay Dr. Feit. Seeing him there, Trotsky smiled. He had grown fond of the old man during the weeks since the trial had ended. Within hours of the commencement of their journey into exile, the doctor had assumed the role of leader with the tacit but unanimous approval of the group. Without friction or rancour, he had succeeded in organising the families who had chosen to follow their men into exile and had sat for hours during the seemingly endless train journey telling the children folk tales to keep them amused. All the ‘privileges’ they had wrung from their guards had been due to the doctor’s skill as a negotiator. Each meal they had eaten on the train he had cooked personally and had often managed to provide a choice of dishes. In return, the affection that the exiles felt for him was the greater for not being blind gratitude. They all recognised that, by becoming both master and servant, the doctor was merely reacting to the circumstances in which he found himself. This was his method of coping. There was nothing like the hardship and uncertainties of exile to bring out the true nature of a man and Dr. Feit was a good man.

“What a pathetic lot,” Trotsky muttered aloud.

As if in answer, another man murmured and turned uneasily in his sleep. Moving the oil lamp nearer to the piece of paper, Trotsky turned up its wick. Then, picking up his pen, he dipped the nib into the shallow pool of ink and wrote:

Tonight we are staying in a large clean room with papered walls, American cloth on the table, a painted floor, large windows, two lamps. All this is very pleasant after those other filthy places. But we have to sleep on the floor because there are nine of us in the room. They changed our escort in Tobolsk and the new escort turned out to be as rude and as mean as the Tiumeni one had been courteous and well disposed towards us. This is due to an absence of any officers. The soldiers feel responsible for everything that might go wrong, But I must add that after only two days they have thawed considerably and we are establishing excellent relations with them, which is far from being a mere detail on such a journey.

Laying down the pen again, he held his hands close to the bowl of the lamp, trying to coax some warmth back into his chilled fingers as he thought of what else he could tell Natalya. Whatever happened after they arrived in Obdorskoye, he knew it would be different from his first exile. Now he was unencumbered; then he had been shackled to his wife and had had to waste two years doing odd jobs to feed the babies.

No , he corrected himself, not wasted . He had found time to read and had even written his first articles for the Eastern Review  in Irkutsk. At the time how proud he had been of them! Now they seemed as amateur as the purple inked broadsheets he and Alexandra had produced for circulation amongst the bemused workers of Nikolayev and Odessa. As early as his days in Odessa at the St Paul Realschule, he had yearned to write. Even though old Krizhnovsky had marked him out from the first as an outstanding pupil in Russian, nobody had encouraged his gift for words. Pointing to his gift for mathematics, they had been assured that his future was secure. But what could he have become? An accountant? A professor? No – rather a thousand Obdorskoyes than that! He had taken the alternative. Rather than acceptable exile by his own academic talent to some dreary provincial academy, he had followed his heart and had become Pero  – ‘The Pen’ – using every nib now as a scalpel and now as a dagger to lay bare and skewer the rotten society in which he lived. Instead of a provincial accountant he had become internationally known as a revolutionary writer; for so the historical record would regard him.

Staring into the lamp, he thought of Alexandra, Grigory, Illya and Ziv. Sitting in this freezing and ill-smelling room he found himself a long way from that sunny nursery garden where the five of them used to meet to discuss politics and to plan subversion. Frowning he tried to recall the name of the old peasant who had let them use his hut as their ‘hideout’. What was he called? Shipansky? Shibilsky?

He had seen Ziv only eight or nine months previously, quite by chance in the House of Preliminary Detention. For half an hour they had shared the same exercise yard. Ziv, at least, had not changed: he was just as shy as ever. Whether it was because of that, or the different paths they had taken, Trotsky was not sure, but they had exchanged no more than a few minutes’ conversation. Yes, Ziv had seen Trotsky’s wife, Alexandra: she was looking old and worn out. Both of his daughters, Zina and Nina, were well. There was no news of their uncle Grigory. Illya was rumoured to be dead. That was all.

Shvigorsky, that was it. The gardener’s name had been Shvigorsky.

Trotsky removed the pince-nez from the bridge of his nose and, leaning back in his chair, rubbed his tired eyes. Remembering Ziv’s news brought back the memory of the last time he had seen Alexandra at the exile settlement at Verkholensk.

Escaping from Verkholensk had been easy.

No , he corrected himself. She had made it easy for him.

It had been autumn and security had been minimal. He had heard later that it had taken the local police two weeks to discover the dummy he had left in his bed. And he hadn’t been a Somebody then; just L.D. Bronstein, another snot-nosed student on the run. Even now he could remember the terrible excitement he had felt lying quaking beneath the bundles of hay in the peasant cart as it rolled slowly past the western gate of the settlement, expecting at any moment to hear the guards’ shouted order to halt. Discovery would have meant an extra three and a half years’ penal servitude. As it was, it had been a miracle that one of the cart’s wheels had not been smashed on the long road to Irkutsk.

At Irkutsk he had received more assistance, this time from sympathisers of the Social Revolutionaries. How the world had changed, he reflected. The Essers wouldn’t lift a finger to help him now. After Irkutsk, the three-day railway journey to Samara. From Samara the Party’s underground had moved him through the territory of one empire to another: from Vienna to Zurich, from Zurich to Paris, from Paris to London. What a journey it had seemed!

In Vienna he had had to knock up Victor Adler himself, in the middle of the night, to beg for a loan to continue his escape. Old Adler had been none too pleased at first, but in the end even he had agreed to help.

Young man, if ever you bring news of a revolution in Russia you may ring my bell, even at night!” 

He had remembered that…

But Obdorskoye was not Verkholensk; and now wasn’t autumn, it was winter. The forces of time, space and nature, the eternal allies of Father Tsar and Mother Russia, were combined against him. Obdorskoye was in the Arctic Circle and over fifteen hundred versts from the nearest railhead. In Obdorskoye, a single night would last six months. And he was no longer unknown. When he escaped his description would be permanently posted in every uchastok  from Petersburg to Vladivostok. Above all, he had no friends left.

Perhaps Deutsch was right after all , he thought glumly. Maybe we should have broken out of prison while we could. 

Replacing his p

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ince-nez, he forced himself to pick up the pen and resume his letter to Natalya Sedova.

Almost in every village since Tobolsk there have been political exiles, most of them ‘agrarians’ (peasants exiled for rioting) soldiers, workers and only a few intellectuals. Some are ‘administratives’, a few are settlers i.e. exiles condemned to settle there. Altogether we have not yet encountered really desperate poverty among the exiles. This is because life in these parts is extremely cheap: ‘politicals’ pay the peasants six roubles a month for board and lodging. For ten roubles a month you can live quite well. The further north you go, the more expensive it becomes and the more difficult it is to find work.

Yes , he thought, money will be a problem .

He reckoned that he had enough to pay his way south again, but who knew when that opportunity would arise? In the meantime the cost of living from day to day would chip away at his capital. One thing was certain: there would be no more journalism. Even if he could smuggle out a manuscript, no Russian publisher would dare to print it.

Ah well , he thought, a man has to recognise the consequences of his own actions .

It had been his choice, he told himself sternly, to take the first step along the road that had now led him to Obdorskoye and there was no use grieving over this. Instead, he must put a brave face on it and stir himself. Besides, who knew how many pairs of eyes would read his letter before it reached her? It was imperative that he showed them he hadn’t surrendered. At the same time his instincts were warning him to be careful. There was a real danger that the unseen eyes would interpret optimism as confidence in some pre-conceived plan for escape. In his next letter he would invite Natalya to join him and to bring the baby with her. It was essential that he appeared to be resigned to his fate. Cheerful but resigned: that was the way. He picked up his pen and began to write.

We have met some comrades who used to live in Obdorskoye. All of them had good things to say about the place. The village is large with more than one thousand inhabitants and twelve shops. The houses are built on the town model and good lodgings are easy to find. The countryside is mountainous and very beautiful, the climate very healthy. The workers among us will find jobs. It is possible to earn some money giving lessons. Life is quite expensive, it is true, but earnings are also higher. This incomparable place has just one drawback: it is almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world. One and a half thousand versts from the nearest railway, eight hundred versts from the nearest telegraph office. Mail arrives twice a week but when the roads are bad in spring and autumn it stops altogether for six weeks to two months. If a provisional government is formed in Petersburg today, the local policeman will still be king in Obdorsk for a long time. The fact that Obdorsk is so far from the Tobolsk Highway explains its relative liveliness, for it serves as an independent centre for an enormous area.

Reading the paragraph through, Trotsky winced. It was mostly lies but sufficiently credible to convince any prying eyes that he intended to stay put. At the same time it also served to reassure Natalya that she need not be anxious for his safety. He knew her too well to delude himself that she would ever entertain the notion of coming to join him in exile. She would remain safe in Finland, looking after their baby son, Lev. For himself, as bad as the situation was, it could be worse. He had had to endure enough prison before the trial; a period of rest at Obdorskoye after the rigours of the journey might not prove to be too bad. And, he reasoned, enforced exile was better than the alternative: the death cell at the Shlisselburg fortress. As for what life in Obdorskoye would be like, he knew no more than the others in the convoy. He had no choice but to wait until he reached his destination and see what the locals did.

For the sake of appearances he had pledged with the other Soviet Deputies not to attempt an escape en route. They all feared the immediate reprisals that might be taken on themselves and on their families. But this promise meant little to him. When he escaped he would do so alone; it was the only possible option that he would consider. Not that any chance had so far arisen. They had been locked in every night and counted several times during the day while they were on the road. At no time had there been an opportunity of gaining more than a six hour start and the telegraph was always within reach. The telegraph would outrun any man.

Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on the table and forced himself to concentrate on the unfinished letter before him. The words had grown cold on the page. Quickly reading through what he had already written, he tried to regain their flow. He read the last paragraph through once more then, dipping his nib into the saucer’s puddle of ink, he resumed his letter writing.

Exiles do not remain in one place very long. They wander incessantly all over the province. The regular steamships on the Ob River carry ‘politicals’ free of charge. The paying passengers have to crowd into corners while the ‘politicals’ take over the whole ship. This may surprise you, dear friend, but such is the firmly established tradition. Everyone is so used to it that our peasant sleigh drivers, hearing that we are going to Obdorsk, tell us, “Never mind, won’t be for long. You’ll be back again on the steam ship next spring.” But who knows under what conditions we of the Soviet will be placed in Obdorsk? For the time being instructions have been issued for us to be given the best sleighs and the best sleeping quarters en route.

He sat for a moment, stroking his pursed lips with the end of the pen. The conditions of travel had gradually worsened. If they continued to decline he could not hope to escape before the convoy reached Obdorskoye. Once they had arrived, he might have to wait three, maybe six months before the guards’ vigilance began to lapse. By then the brief Arctic summer would be over.

By Christmas, he promised himself. By Christmas he would be with Natalya and Baby Lev in Finland. Either in Finland or Geneva, unless events at home took a turn for the better. The Duma was due to be recalled and the prospect of an amnesty was being widely discussed. It was unlikely that the Kadets would support a call for the return of the Soviet’s deputies from exile, much less their release; but stranger things had happened. Until then he must work harder than he had ever worked before.

Pushing thoughts of Natalya and his baby son to the back of his mind, he bowed his head as he thought of the task before him. The Party was trapped between Nicolai’s ruthlessness and Julie Martov’s squeamishness. Of the three of them, only he had had the breadth of vision and the animus to nearly topple the throne. But, as Nicolai was so fond of saying, ‘nearly’ didn’t count. And with what could they have replaced the autocracy? The first order of business of a bourgeois reformist provisional government would be to find common cause with the military general staff and smash the Soviet that had brought it to power. The priority now was to acquire fresh data. He needed data even more than he needed money. It was essential that he should secure a constant flow of information from the outside world.

He began to write furiously.

Obdorsk. A minuscule point on the globe… perhaps we shall have to adapt our lives for years to Obdorsk conditions. Even my fatalistic mood does not guarantee complete peace of mind. I clench my teeth and yearn for electric street lamps, the noise of trams and the best thing in the world – the smell of fresh newsprint!

He signed the letter and carefully blotted the wet ink with his handkerchief. Folding the sheet of paper, he slid it carefully into the torn lining of his overcoat. At least Nicolai still allowed the Deputies to use the Iskra  couriers for their personal correspondence; that was something to be grateful for.

As quietly as he could, Trotsky rose from the chair and stood for a moment massaging away the stiffness in his legs. Then, steadying himself against the edge of the table, he wearily slipped off first one boot and then the other. All around him rose the heavy sounds of sleep. Turning, he extinguished the lamp. Darkness enveloped him as, clutching his boots in one hand, he began to step carefully over the huddled bodies of his comrades and made his way towards his allotted portion of the floor.

Chapter Three

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Tuesday 30th January 1907

Berezovo, Northern Siberia

By the flickering light of the four candle stumps that sat like squat toads on the wooden ledge above his washbasin, Colonel Konstantin Illyich Izorov, Chief of Police of the town of Berezovo, peered at his reflection in the bathroom mirror.

He saw the head and shoulders of a middle aged man stripped to his underclothes, the lower half of his face masked beneath a thick lather of soap. Above the mask a pair of grey eyes betrayed the anxiety of the last thirty-six hours. Dipping the blade of his razor into the basin, he shook off a few drops of water and raised it to his throat. He had worked at his office in the uchastok , compiling list after list of the arrangements that had to be made. It was now someone else’s turn to have sleepless nights. There would be no shortage of those before this business was through.

He began to shave with slow, deft strokes. Through the floorboards he could hear his wife entering the breakfast room beneath and begin cursing their sullen maid. The sound cheered him and he pulled a grotesque face at his reflection. Other than his wife’s pride, there was no reason why they should have a maidservant at all. Their only child, a son, had long since left them to serve in the force at Perm. Neither of them were particularly untidy nor irregular in their habits. His wife could cope perfectly well without a servant.

The blade flashed down into the basin again and swirled around in the soapy water as he washed away the tiny lengths of shorn hair. Smiling, he drew the blade carefully upwards across his jawline as he half listened to the morning ritual downstairs. As usual, nothing the girl did was satisfactory. Whether it was chopping the wood, laying the fire or carrying the dishes to the table, Madame Izorova found grounds for criticism. It would end as it always ended, with the girl sent back to the kitchen in tears and his wife laying the table and lighting the samovar herself. And for this privilege he paid almost one rouble a week!

Laying the razor on the ledge beside the candles, he stooped over the basin and began rinsing the remains of the soap from his face. He never felt washed in the morning unless he had shaved, although he himself had once had a fine beard when he had been on the beat in Tobolsk. He could not remember feeling dirty then. Almost certainly, when one was young and in the company of other men, such things did not matter so much. There had often been no hot water in the barracks so, he believed, he had probably been no cleaner or dirtier than the next man.

Straightening up, he regarded himself once more in the mirror, brushing away the droplets of water that remained in his moustache. There was much more to shaving than mere cleanliness and tidiness, he reflected. It was a daily accounting with life. So many people just splashed water on their faces, dragged their fingers through their hair and rushed off without having a good look at themselves and at what they had become. A few moments every morning regarding oneself in the mirror, he was certain, would vastly improve the behaviour of his fellow man. It would teach the magnificent humility; the coward resolution, and the potential malefactor caution. He thought sadly of his clerk Nikita Molodzovatov who had taken his own life the previous year, blowing his brains out in the fire tower and recalled that Nikita too had hardly ever shaved. What a pitiful waste that had been, as well as a crime against God and the Tsar. It had meant a lot of paperwork too.

Picking up the razor again, he began to carefully dry the blade. He had few illusions about the population of Berezovo, beardless or not. Once the fearful news leaked out, they would be like startled chickens in a coop hearing the wolf scrabble at the door. He had done as much as he could in the brief time since the rider had handed him the leather pouch bearing the Imperial seal, but nothing could stop them from panicking.

Through the floorboards he heard his wife calling up to him that his breakfast was ready. He carefully laid the razor back into its polished wooden box and smiled grimly at his reflection in the mirror. The whole town was on trial now, including himself.

* * *

Two hours later, Anatoli Mikhailovich Pobednyev sat in his mayoral parlour gnawing anxiously upon a misshapen thumbnail. Before him on his desk lay a single piece of headed notepaper, bearing the legend ‘From the Office of the Chief of Police, Berezovo’.

The note read:

From : Col. K.I. Izorov

To : His Excellency, the Mayor


Your Honour,

Please present yourself at my office at 9.30 a.m. this morning. I wish to discuss a matter of the utmost urgency. On no account discuss this letter with anyone. I will explain everything when we meet.

Yours, with respect, K.I. Izorov

P.S. Burn this letter now!

Picking up a small handbell – a clumsily fashioned replica in brass of the great bell at Petersburg – he summoned his secretary. As he waited for the man to arrive, the Mayor’s eyes darted to and fro over the carefully rounded letters of the policeman’s handwriting, seeking vainly to divine the purpose behind the peremptory summons. But when, at last, the secretary appeared he was none the wiser.

“Boris,” he demanded, “what is all this about?”

The secretary, a pale-faced sandy-haired fellow with a tall stooping body that in profile resembled a question mark, approached his desk warily.

“All what, your Excellency?”

The Mayor prodded Izorov’s letter disdainfully with a stubby forefinger.

“This note. What does it mean?”

The secretary shuffled a few steps closer.

“If I could just take a look,” he suggested, “I might be able to shed some light on the matter.”

The Mayor was on the point of passing the letter across to him when he remembered the colonel’s postscript. Irritably he snatched it up and laid it face down upon the desk and eyed the figure bending over him with suspicion.

“You mean you haven’t read it?”

“No, of course not, your Excellency!” his secretary replied. “It was marked ‘Personal’ and in the circumstances…”

Mayor Pobednyev dismissed this denial with a gesture of irritation, well aware that every piece of correspondence addressed to him, whether it was of a personal nature or not, had almost certainly been the subject of the closest scrutiny by his misshapen subordinate.

“Who brought it here and when did it arrive?”

“Colonel Izorov brought it here at about eight o’clock,” the man replied. “He left instructions that it was not to be opened by anyone except Your Excellency.”

“The colonel brought it here personally?” the Mayor repeated nervously.

“Yes, at eight o clock,” the secretary repeated. “Perhaps, Your Honour, the files of the allocation of the Cholera Relief Fund ought to be brought up to date? There may still be one or two irregularities…”

“Shut up!” Pobednyev snapped.

Picking up the note, the Mayor crumpled it in his fist and thrust it into the pocket of his morning coat. Then, pushing himself away from the desk, he stood up and walked over to the window that overlooked the length of Alexander III Boulevard. The distant prospect of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was still shrouded in darkness and even the corner of Alexei Street and Hospital Street, where two evenings before Dr. Tortsov’s maidservant had narrowly escaped being trampled by the gendarme’s horse, was invisible in the gloom. The only moving creature he could see was a well wrapped figure sweeping the snow from the front steps of the Hotel New Century.

The Mayor stared uneasily at the hotel’s weather-beaten wooden portico. It awoke uncomfortable memories of an occasion seven years before, when it had been called the ‘Hotel de Paris’. Fyodor Gregorivich had just taken over the management following the death of his uncle and, characteristically, the new proprietor’s first action had been to throw open the dining room for a lavish banquet to celebrate his inheritance. It had been a glittering occasion, as far as any occasion in Berezovo could be described as ‘glittering’. The engraved invitations were coveted even among the barines  and not just because the meal was free. To be able to display such an invitation in one’s home spoke volumes about the recipient’s standing in the town.

Many of the townsfolk who had not been invited to the banquet, and quite a few of those who had, predicted that the event would prove a costly mistake. The young owner was widely regarded, even by his own uncle, as a prodigal wastrel. The common wisdom in the town at that time had been that if Fyodor Gregorivich’s intention was to ingratiate himself with his new clientele (which, in truth, it was) then he had misjudged his fellow men. Once the evening was past, and the lucky few had rolled home to their beds, they would soon forget his generosity; whereas those who had been excluded from the dinner would for a long time bear a grudge against the new patron. Fortunately for Fyodor Gregorivich, these prophets of doom had underestimated the enduring power of their own envy and the dinner marked not the demise but the regeneration of the Hotel as a fashionable meeting place where even the most ordinary citizen could, for the price of a glass of tea or coffee, if not actually rub shoulders with his or her social superiors at least observe their public comings and goings.

It was not the memory of the banquet itself but of its aftermath that was now troubling the Mayor. Once the banquet proper had ended and the women packed off home in droshkis , Fyodor Gregorivich had been persuaded to remove his serviette from his arm and join his remaining guests at their tables. Many a toast had been drunk by the time poor Wrensky the revenue officer, who was later to die so mysteriously, had stood up and, swaying unsteadily, suggested that since the hotel had a new proprietor it was only fitting that it should receive a new name. They had pounded the tablecloths with their palms in agreement and a further succession of toasts had swiftly followed, each guest suggesting a suitable name. At the height of the contest, as each suggestion was becoming more absurd than the last – would anyone really want to stay at the Hotel Ukraine , for instance? Or at Obview ? – the Mayor had been seized suddenly with inspiration and, before he knew it, he was on his feet rapping his spoon on his table for silence.

“No, no, gentlemen!” he had declared, “There is only one name that is suitable.”

He had paused dramatically and lifted his glass.

“In the hope of better times, I give you the Hotel New Era!”

The Mayor’s toast had been greeted with acclaim. Everyone had seemed quite happy with the name and it was not until shortly afterwards, when he had risen from his chair and was making his way with some difficulty out of the dining room and along the corridor towards the downstairs lavatory, that the Mayor had become conscious of Colonel Izorov padding silently by his side. One glance at the angry expression on the policeman’s face had told him that something was wrong. Despite the amount of vodka, champagne and brandy he had already consumed, Pobednyev found himself rapidly growing sober.

“Well, Kostya,” he had greeted the Chief of Police amiably, “what a party, eh? By Christ, we shall suffer for this in the morning!”

“Not necessarily,” Izorov had replied ominously.

“I beg your pardon?”

“It all depends on whether or not you can persuade that drunken rabble in there to adopt another name for this pile of rubbish.”

“But Colonel,” he had foolishly protested, “what is wrong with the name Hotel New Era? It seems perfectly…”

It was unclear what had happened next. After all, there were no witnesses, no passers-by in the narrow ill lit corridor. Perhaps he had stumbled, as the policeman had told the others afterwards. All the Mayor could remember now was that suddenly the policeman was holding him up against the wall with his face only inches from his own.

“Listen, you drunken oaf!” Col. Izorov had snarled. “I don’t want any talk about a new era  in this town. Not while I am Chief of Police. The next thing you know people will want to change the names of the streets and call them after Nechayev and scum like that. Do you understand me?”

For a moment, the Mayor had thought that the colonel had been joking and had begun to laugh, but the sound died in his throat under the chilling threat of the iron grey eyes.

“Certainly, Konstantin Illyich,” he had spluttered, “of course! You are quite right! I meant something quite different entirely. I meant the… Hotel New Century!”

A grim smile of satisfaction had spread slowly across the policeman’s face as he slowly relaxed his grip. Raising his hand, he patted the Mayor’s cheek playfully, making Pobednyev flinch.

“That’s right, Your Honour. The Hotel New Century.”

And so it had been called and the affair had gone no further, but ever since, the Mayor had been wary of doing anything that risked antagonising the colonel’s sensibilities; political or otherwise. It was well within the Chief of Police’s power to submit a report to District Headquarters identifying him as an ‘unreliable’ public official that might trigger a governor’s inspection. The trouble was, he thought as he peered down into the dark street below, one could never be sure where one stood with Izorov.

Turning away from the window, he ordered his secretary to fetch his overcoat. The man obeyed with alacrity, reappearing almost instantly carrying a heavy dark woollen overcoat with fox fur around the collar. As he helped him on with the garment, the secretary asked: “Are you going out, Your Excellency?”


“If anyone should ask, when shall I say you will return?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“But if something happens,” the man persisted, “where can I reach you?”

“I can’t tell you!” repeated Pobednyev testily, pushing him to one side. “It’s a confidential matter, do you understand? Confidential!”

With as much dignity as he could muster, the Mayor strode from his parlour, leaving the council servant nervously tittering and executing little hopping steps in the fashion of a country dance upon the worn carpet.

It took the Mayor less than three minutes to descend from his parlour and hurry the short distance to the police headquarters, his body bent against the biting cold. As he climbed up onto the boardwalk and stood hesitating in front of the uchastok ’s iron studded door, he was joined by the director of the town’s prison, Dimitri Borisovich Skyralenko. The two men eyed each other warily.

“Good morning, Your Honour! Have you come to see Konstantin Illyich?”

The Mayor admitted that this was his purpose, adding casually as he reached for the door handle that he had received a note from the colonel summoning him to a meeting.

“You too, Anatoli Mikhailovich?” muttered Skyralenko, drawing closer to the Mayor. “What’s it all about?”

“I don’t know, but it must be important.”

“In the note… did… did he say anything about burning it?”

The Mayor nodded solemnly. The prison director let out a sigh of relief.

“Mine too. I received mine at home. I thought that I had done something wrong. It’s hard to tell sometimes. But it can’t be so bad if you have been summoned as well.”

“Safety in numbers, eh?” suggested Pobednyev doubtfully.

The small man shrugged and fell silent. For a moment the two of them stood uncertainly, like two schoolboys waiting outside the headmaster’s office. Then impulsively the Mayor grasped the door handle again and, giving it a savage twist, pushed it open and stepped across the threshold.

Immediately before them lay a neat outer office that served as the charge room, in the far corner of which stood a counter manned by a burly sergeant. Seeing them enter, the policeman got heavily to his feet.

“Is the colonel in?” asked Pobednyev gruffly.

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

The sergeant, who at one time had been a school friend of the Mayor’s son, beckoned both men forward conspiratorially.

“He’s talking to Captain Steklov,” he told them quietly.

“I see,” said Pobednyev, giving Skyralenko a meaningful glance. “Please tell the colonel that we await his pleasure.”

The sergeant acknowledged this request with a salute at the same time motioning the two men towards the warmth of a small pot-bellied stove. Coming out from behind his desk, he crossed over to the door marked ‘Col. K.I. Izorov’.

It was an understandable error on the sergeant’s part to tell the Mayor and the prison director that the captain and the colonel were talking to each other. In his opinion, nobody would wish to venture into what was commonly called ‘Izorov’s lair’, unless he either had been summoned for an interrogation or had some urgent information to impart. The truth was that, besides an initial cool exchange of greetings, the two men had not addressed a single word to each other as they sat waiting for Pobednyev and Skyralenko to arrive.

Whereas lesser men might have wilted under the strain of sitting in silence opposite the Chief of Police, Captain Steklov considered this lack of communication appropriate in the light of the difference in their circumstances. For his part, breeding and his uniform released him from any such commonplace pressures toward polite conversation. He had already spent ten months as commanding officer of the garrison at Berezovo and, although much of his time was occupied with his military duties, he was astute enough to have already formed his own impression as to how the Chief of Police regarded him. The colonel resented his youth, his money and his pedigree. He thought him weak, possibly even effete, because of the meticulous care he took over his grooming. In short, the policeman despised him.

This troubled Captain Steklov not a jot. Not regarding himself as a professional soldier – his uncle, the prince, had purchased his commission after the death of his own son in the Far East – it amused him to see such a big fish in such a small pond become so annoyed by the presence of someone he could not bully. All this theatricality, with armed guards posted at the door and secret summonses in sealed envelopes. It was all such nonsense. How he yearned for the real drama of Petersburg! The sound of a coach and four rattling over the cobbles; the bright lights of the restaurants; the excited babble of a first night crowd. Eight months remained of his tour of duty in this miserable backwater. In September, provided nobody threw a bomb at the Tsar (God forbid!) or the rioting broke out again, he would be due a month’s leave. Until then, he had no alternative but to put up with whatever poor company the townsfolk provided. As his family’s sole heir, and with the expectation of receiving a sizeable fortune, it was not too great a hardship to endure. In the meantime, it was a positive relief that he had not had to engage this boorish policeman in inconsequential chit-chat, like some aged duchess at a ball. He felt that even the magnificence of his promised inheritance would be insufficient compensation for such an ordeal.

There was a knock at the door and, glancing over his shoulder, Captain Steklov saw the head of the sergeant appear briefly around the door and give a nod to his superior. A moment later, His Excellency the Mayor Anatoli Mikhailovich Pobednyev and Prison Director Dimitri Borisovich Skyralenko were ushered into the office.

Captain Steklov remained where he was as Colonel Izorov rose to greet the new arrivals. As the Mayor and the prison director settled themselves on either side of him, he acknowledged their presence with a languid inclination of his head then turned his attention back to his host. The three men watched in silence as Colonel Izorov unlocked the top drawer of his desk and drew out several pieces of paper before sitting down himself. As if he had suddenly become oblivious to their presence, the Chief of Police stared down at these documents, occasionally turning over a page with a frown, as if he were reading them for the first time. They waited for him to speak.

The tension in the room grew as the silence lengthened. Pobednyev began to shift uneasily in

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his seat. Skyralenko coughed twice after which he removed his spectacles and began polishing them nervously on his sleeve. The passing seconds had become a minute and then a minute and a half. Even Captain Steklov, irritated by the deliberate delay, ceased his bored examination of his boots and waited impatiently for Izorov to begin. But the Chief of Police was not to be hurried. When at last he did speak, it was in a half whisper so low that his small audience leant forward as one man to catch his words.

“Gentlemen, we have been paid a terrible honour! We are asked to receive into our midst fifteen of the most desperate and vicious men to ever taint the soil of Holy Russia. I refer to the ringleaders of the St. Petersburg Insurrection.”

The dramatic effect of this announcement, so long in the formulation, did not disappoint Colonel Izorov. He watched as the faces of the two civilians registered in turn their shock, disbelief and then dismay. Skyralenko opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. The Mayor, once the momentary relief that his personal safety and liberty were not at risk had passed, struggled to grasp the enormity of what he had heard. Even the imperturbable features of Captain Steklov seemed to tauten as he waited for the next piece of news to burst like a shrapnel bomb over his head.

The Mayor spoke for them all.

“My God!”

“Exactly!” responded Izorov grimly.

“But why us?” complained Skyralenko. “We don’t have the facilities for these people. To begin with…”

“One thing at a time, Dimitri Borisovich,” Colonel Izorov interrupted him. “First let me explain the arrangements that have to be made, then I shall answer all your questions.”

The prison director regarded him doubtfully but gave a shrug of submission.

“Firstly,” continued the policeman, “I am glad to say that their stay here will be brief. They are expected to arrive on the afternoon of Sunday, the eleventh of February. They will depart two days later, on the morning of Tuesday the thirteenth.”

“Assuming the weather is favourable,” Captain Steklov murmured quietly.

“During their time here,” the colonel went on, turning to Skyralenko, “the prisoners will be billeted in the jail under your supervision, Dimitri Borisovich.”

“But I haven’t the room,” insisted Skyralenko. “You know how small the cells are.”

“I shall come to that,” Izorov assured him. “As I say, they will depart on Tuesday the thirteenth, by means of reindeer sleigh. The animals will be picked personally by yourself, Anatoli Mikhailovich. The cost will be met out of the Civic Fund.”

The Mayor blanched, but said nothing.

“Some of the prisoners have brought their wives and children with them. Escorting them is a company of thirty soldiers, under the command of a sergeant. During their stay, these guards will be billeted at the barracks. They will be your responsibility, Captain.”

Captain Steklov nodded curtly and watched as the man opposite him picked up one of the sheets of paper, looked at it for a few seconds then discarded it.

“While the prisoners are within this town,” Izorov continued evenly, “they will be treated in accordance with the law. In Petersburg, the situation is still very fluid. The instructions I have received are quite specific about this. The convoy is to be provided with the best reindeer. The prisoners are to be given some opportunity to exercise, and will receive the most wholesome food and the most secure lodgings we can provide. At the same time, they will be under constant police surveillance. So, our watchwords shall be courtesy and vigilance.

“Now,” he concluded, discarding the last of his notes, “I am certain that you have some questions. Fire away!”

Pobednyev rose slowly from his chair and, with one hand on the lapel of his jacket and the other tapping the policeman’s desk to emphasise his words, he addressed his two companions.

“Gentlemen, Konstantin Illyich is right when he says that we have been paid a terrible honour. But I believe that the citizens of Berezovo can rise to meet this threat, this challenge, just as our forefathers did over a hundred years ago when Prince Menshikov and Ostermann came amongst us. We must see to it that each one of us, and those under our command, give the colonel the full measure of our assistance so that he can discharge his onerous duty.”

“Hear hear,” responded Skyralenko dutifully.

“However,” continued the Mayor with a grave shake of his head, “having said that, it won’t be easy. I foresee many difficulties, especially with the purchase of these deer. We all know that the Ostyak traders are bandits. They are not like us Russians. Their first loyalty is to their pockets and not to the Tsar, God bless him. The prices they will demand for their deer will be exorbitant.”

Colonel Izorov smiled affably up at the Mayor from behind his desk.

“Are you suggesting that the Civic Funds are not able to bear the amount involved?” he asked silkily. “That is interesting.”

“It’s not just the money, Colonel,” blustered the Mayor, colouring slightly, “it is the time as well. First the deer have to be caught. Besides, you haven’t told us how many you will need or for how long.”

“The convoy will require eighty deer. Each deer should be able to cover at least fifty versts a day.”

“Eighty!” protested the Mayor, horrified by the expense. “But how long for? Where are they going to?”

“Their destination is a state secret,” Izorov said. “Only myself and the sergeant in charge of the convoy will know the prisoners’ final destination.”

“But Konstantin Illyich, be reasonable,” pleaded Pobednyev. “I must know. After all, someone will have to bring them back. At least you can tell me how long they will be away.”

Captain Steklov cleared his throat loudly.

“I think, Your Excellency,” he drawled, brushing an imaginary speck of dust from his immaculately creased trouser leg, “that what the colonel is implying is that if you know how long they are to be away, their direction of travel and that they have to do at least fifty versts a day, it would only be a matter of time, a few days at the most, before you could calculate the convoy’s destination. Am I not correct, Colonel?”

Izorov nodded, his face betraying the ghost of a smile.

“Ah, yes, of course,” the Mayor said hurriedly and sank back crestfallen into his seat.

“Anyway,” Izorov remarked, “if anyone should wonder, you must tell them that the reindeer will not be returning, just like the prisoners.”

“Oh really?” said Captain Steklov with a wry smile. “Are you going to shoot them dead in case they talk?”

Determined to press home his attack on the Mayor, Izorov ignored the young officer’s jibe.

“My orders are quite specific,” he repeated. “The civil authorities are responsible for the provision of eighty reindeer and forty sleighs to transport the convoy to the prisoners’ eventual place of settlement.”

“Forty sleighs!” exclaimed the Mayor, half rising out of his chair. “But there aren’t that many in the town! Where am I meant to get forty sleighs from?”

“That is your concern, not mine. My orders are quite clear,” the colonel insisted. “They come from the minister himself, empowering me to even declare a state of siege should I think it necessary.”

“Siege law, oh dear!” muttered Skyralenko, shaking his head unhappily.

“Quite so, siege law. And might I remind all of you,” Izorov went on, “what that means? The suspension of all civil authority and the summary detention and elimination of those unwilling to cooperate with those officers empowered by the Imperial Crown for the maintenance of law and order. But I am sure,” he concluded with a wintry smile, “that it won’t come to that. As for the sleighs, I believe that there is a proviso in the terms of the Cholera Relief Fund for the commissioning of vehicles in the event of an emergency. And this is an emergency.”

At the mention of the fund, the Mayor felt himself grow cold. Suspecting that his secretary had known all along, he promised himself that one day the wretch’s neck would be as twisted as his body.

“At least, Colonel,” he insisted, “you can give me some help with the deer. Grant me the authority to commandeer a couple of herds. Or even better, lend me a few men so that the Ostyaks know that we mean business.”

Izorov shook his head.

“I think, Your Excellency, that my men will have enough to do in the coming days without floundering around in the snow rounding up reindeer. No, it’s your responsibility.”

Leaning forward in his seat, he tapped the pile of papers that lay neatly stacked in front of him.

“One word of warning, though. Should some of the deer go lame and delay the convoy, perhaps giving one of the prisoners the opportunity to escape, then you will be held personally responsible. Therefore, I earnestly recommend you to be very careful that only the best animals are chosen. We don’t want any rubbish, do you understand?”

Mayor Pobednyev nodded unhappily.

Satisfied that the Mayor’s guns had been momentarily spiked, Colonel Izorov settled back comfortably in his chair.

“Do either of you have any questions?” he demanded of the other two men sitting opposite him. “Now is the time to ask them.”

Shuffling forward in his seat, Skyralenko cast an enquiring glance at the handsome captain beside him. With a vague sweep of his hand, Captain Steklov gave way.

“Well,” the gaoler began, “there are one or two points I am not quite certain of, Konstantin Illyich.”

“Go on.”

Skyralenko hesitated and moved forward again, until he was perching earnestly on the edge of his seat.

“As I said earlier,” he began again nervously, “there is the problem of accommodation, especially since you tell us they have brought their wives and children with them.”

“Only some of them have,” Izorov corrected him.

“Granted, only some of them,” Skyralenko conceded hastily. “However, I still have only six cells and half of those are already occupied, either with prisoners awaiting trial or serving their sentence. In my opinion…”

He paused again, glancing nervously at the colonel’s watchful expression as he tried to gauge his mood.

“Yes, in my opinion, these new prisoners will provide a hazard to the security of the prison. As you are aware, ‘politicals’ and ordinary criminals don’t mix. They are like oil and water. What with bringing women into the cells and the overcrowding, we must expect trouble. Remember also I have only six staff to help me. Not,” he added hastily, “that I am asking for more men. But couldn’t we put some of these people – say the women and children, at least – somewhere else?”

The colonel spread his hands open as if to say: look, I am a reasonable man.

“Where did you have in mind, Dimitri Borisovich?”

“Why not lodge them in the hotel? It is only for a couple of days and Fyodor Gregorivich has plenty of empty rooms at this time of year,” Skyralenko suggested hopefully. “A couple of armed guards on the landing would suffice to guarantee their security.”

Colonel Izorov’s eyes narrowed as he considered the prison director’s suggestion. When at last he gave his answer, there was less of the abruptness in his manner than he had shown towards the Mayor.

“No, Dimitri Borisovich, although I see your point. The hotel is not as safe as you think. It has too many exits and entrances; too many rooms to hide in. Nevertheless, knowing your prison would be overcrowded, I have already thought of an alternative. The new arrivals shall stay in the cells, as I have said. The prisoners you already have there will be evicted.”

“Evicted?” echoed the gaoler, puzzled.

“Yes. They will be given parole and told to get lost. Of course, as soon as the convoy has left, they will be ordered to report back to prison.”

There was a stunned silence. Pobednyev, still smarting from his treatment by the colonel, was the first to find his voice.

“You can’t do that, Colonel,” he protested loudly. “I doubt that even siege law gives you that authority to free convicted criminals already in gaol.”

“Rather the reverse, in fact,” said Captain Steklov.

“Quite!” agreed The Mayor, gathering steam. “You have some of the town’s biggest rogues in there. What of Ratapov, or the Gubernyn brothers? And that idiot Bambayev? What is Elizaveta Dresnyakova going to say when she hears that the man who waggled himself at her through her bedroom window is at liberty to do it again?”

“And what guarantee do we have that the prisoners will return to their cells when this convoy has gone?” Skyralenko wanted to know.

Again Izorov spread his hands out wide.

“Where else is there for them to go?” he countered. “With the weather as it is they wouldn’t survive one night out in the open. And if they try to hide in the town, I shall make things too hot for them. Five blows of the knout for every day overdue; the same for those that harbour them. That should make them think.”

But Skyralenko was not convinced.

“It is still a hell of a risk, Colonel,” he said. “I can’t accept the responsibility.”

“It is quite unacceptable!” declared Pobednyev hotly.

“Yes, it is a risk,” agreed Izorov. “I don’t like letting them go any more than you do. But is there an alternative? After all, the crimes they have committed pale into insignificance beside these swine from Petersburg. These so-called deputies of the people are guilty not of common assault or robbery or lewd behaviour, but of high treason. Let me remind you, gentlemen, they plotted to overthrow the Tsar himself, and came damn near succeeding.”

The silence that followed this timely reminder was broken by Captain Steklov.

“Apropos these people,” he wondered aloud, “might I ask the colonel what measures he intends to take to increase the security of the prison? As Skyralenko here has already told us, he has only six wardens under his command. Hardly sufficient, I suggest, for the task in hand.”

“I was coming to that,” replied Izorov. “As I see it, we are all understaffed, but I think I have found a way to impress upon our visitors the impossibility of their position if we all pull together. Immediately upon their arrival, these exiles should be marched into the prison yard, where they will be met by a reception committee. This should consist of the combined forces of the police, the prison warders and the full military garrison. Give or take one or two, that should number about fifty men in uniform, armed and drawn up in ranks. If any of them have any doubts about our preparedness, then that should change their minds.”

“A parade of strength,” muttered Skyralenko appreciatively. “That’s a good idea.”

“I agree,” said Mayor Pobednyev. “It’s an excellent idea. As Mayor, I think a parade of strength is exactly what this situation calls for. I assume you will require my presence there as the representative of the civil powers?”

“But of course,” the Chief of Police assured him. “And I thought, perhaps, if you wouldn’t mind that is, you could make a short speech…”

“Of welcome?” suggested Captain Steklov mischievously.

“No,” said Colonel Izorov with a pained expression, “not of welcome exactly.”

“No! Goodness gracious, not of welcome !” expostulated the Mayor. “But, since this is something of an historical occasion, however grim, I think that a short address might be in order. A few words, just to show them what sort of people we are, so that the new arrivals can see that we won’t tolerate any of their monkey tricks here.”

The colonel beamed benignly, pleased with the progress he had made.

The fat fool is growing quite boisterous , he thought. Just dangle the prospect of a grand parade with a speech at the end of it and he will do anything .

Turning his attention to the third man in the trio that sat opposite him, he asked Captain Steklov if he had any questions for him.

“Yes,” Steklov replied, “but if His Excellency and Dimitri Borisovich would allow me, I should prefer to discuss them with you in private. They involve operational matters and military security and so forth,” he explained apologetically to the two other men.

“Of course, of course,” Skyralenko and Pobednyev replied in chorus.

“In that case,” said Colonel Izorov, rising from his chair, “I shall not detain you gentlemen any longer. This is indeed an historic moment in the history of Berezovo and you have important work to do. I do not think that I exaggerate when I say that the safety not only of this town, but of Holy Russia herself lies in your hands. If we should fail, if one of these swine should somehow escape us, then I shudder to think of the consequences.”

The colonel’s face lengthened as he gave his final warning.

“My last word is this. I need not tell you of the dark forces that still threaten our country. Forces that have their agents everywhere, even here in Berezovo. If they should hear so much as a whisper of who is coming they will be bound to prepare a desperate plot to free them or, at the very least, to cause us the gravest embarrassment. So, we must be silent as the tomb until the day itself. I must ask you all to swear upon your honour not to breathe even a single word of this to anyone.”

In turn they shook the colonel’s hand. There was an awkward pause then, bracing himself, Pobednyev strode purposefully to the door. Pulling it open, he stepped to one side to allow Skyralenko to pass. When the prison director had gone, the Mayor saluted the two uniformed men clumsily and left, pulling the door shut behind him.

Captain Steklov stood up and stretched lazily. “Idiots!” he sneered. “It will be all over town by lunchtime.”

“How can I help you, Captain?” asked Colonel Izorov coolly.

Captain Steklov felt himself flush with embarrassment at the snub. What a boor the policeman was! With studied calm, he walked to the door, turned and, leaning against it, folded his arms.

“Perhaps, Colonel,” he demanded, “you could begin by explaining how the hell a convoy escorted by a military guard comes under the jurisdiction of the police?”

Amused by the directness of this frontal assault, Colonel Izorov opened his desk drawer, reached in and produced a tin of cigarettes and a box of matches. Only when he had lit the cigarette and loosened his collar did he deign to answer.

“Perhaps, Captain,” he replied, mimicking Steklov’s clipped tones, “I can answer you best by asking you a question. How long have you known about this convoy? For instance, do you know its exact destination? Or the exact composition of its escort?”

“I only know what you have told me,” admitted Steklov.

“Then you have answered your own question, have you not?” replied the colonel with a laugh. “You do not know more because the highest organs of the state have wished it thus. To be frank, it is felt in Petersburg that the army can no longer be trusted in affairs of this kind.”

Colouring at the insult, Captain Steklov pushed himself away from the door and took a step towards the older man and then hesitated. Col. Izorov had been careful to leave the drawer of his desk open far enough for the young man to see the butt of his service revolver resting upon a pile of unused charge forms. Feigning not to notice the young man check himself and hesitate, the policeman flicked the ash from his cigarette onto the floor.

“Let me give you an example,” he continued smoothly. “Because of the persistence of our country’s enemies, our resources, that is those of the police and of the gendarmerie, are stretched to the limit. We can call upon the special reserve of course, but more often than not they are more trouble than they are worth. So, when the time came for these insurrectionists to be transferred from their holding cells to the train that was to transport them part of the way here, a military escort was considered advisable. But,” he added, pointing the burning tip of his cigarette at the captain, “even then, it was thought more prudent not to use troops from the local garrison who might have included sympathisers. Instead they had to draft in men from outside the capital. That  is the way things stand in Petersburg, whether we like it or not.”

Despite his detestation of the policeman, Steklov did not doubt for one instant that what Izorov was saying was the truth.

“I must say, with no disrespect to you, Colonel,” he retorted, “I find it strange that the police should be more trusted than the army. After all, if I remember correctly, it was only the intervention of the army which prevented the country sliding into wholesale chaos. Why, during the preliminary enquiry into the causes of the Insurrection, your colleagues even stole the briefcase of the Chief Investigation Officer, General Ivanov. It was in all the newspapers.”

“Your naïveté does you no credit, Captain,” replied Izorov blithely. “If the army fought as well as it talked, we would still hold Port Arthur.”

He stood up, and dropping his half smoked cigarette onto the bare boards, ground it to shreds beneath his boot. Turning to face the young cavalry officer, he glared at him.

“Don’t think,” he said, for the first time letting anger creep into his voice, “that I am blind to the faults of some of my colleagues. I am not. Neither am I ignorant of what this will mean to the town.”

Coming out from behind his desk he took a few paces nearer to Steklov.

“How long have you been here, Captain?” he asked rhetorically. “Ten months? A year perhaps? I have been Chief in Berezovo now for ten  years! Ten years of cleaning up other people’s messes. It’s not the kind of job which attracts princes trying to place their pampered offspring. I have survived being punched, shot at, stabbed and bombed. So you will obey my instructions not because my rank is superior to yours but because my experience is superior to yours. The army may be the armour that the country puts on to protect itself against external threats, but it has no place in a situation like this. Whereas the police force is…”

Colonel Izorov hesitated, searching for the right word. At last it came to him.

“The police force is the very skeleton,” he declared, placing a broad powerful hand on his chest, “upon which the body of Russia relies. As for myself,” he added deprecatingly, “I have no illusions about my place in this world. I am one of the smaller bones. If I pride myself on any achievement, it is this: that in Berezovo it is not the severity of the punishment that deters people from breaking the law, but the inevitability of it. I know who the radicals are and who are the members of the Black Gangs and while I am Chief of Police here, there won’t be any riots or pogroms. The rule of law and the maintenance of order are the twin pillars upon which our so-called civilisation rests. Those are the two tasks the Tsar has entrusted to me. There is no talk of glory, or even of victory; just stemming the tide of filth and chaos is all I can hope for. Can you honestly say that you envy me my task?”

Captain Steklov said nothing.

With a sad shake of his head, Colonel Izorov turned away and walked back behind his desk. Motioning the young man to sit down, he picked up the tin of cigarettes again.

“Do you recall that young fool, in Tobolsk last year?” he remarked as he offered the tin to the soldier. “Your regiment, if I recall; a captain, same as you. Perhaps you knew him? He looked the other way and let a student escape from custody. He was reduced to the ranks for his pains and sent to a punishment battalion. Not very pleasant, and that was only for a lousy student. Can you imagine what they would do to someone who let one of these bastards escape?”

Sitting once more opposite him, Steklov eyed the colonel warily. Despite his outwardly calm composure, the colonel’s earlier vehemence had unnerved him. There was something feral about Izorov that told him that he would have readily gone beyond verbal assault if he felt it was necessary. Declining the proffered cigarette, he now attempted to regain some of the ground he had lost.

“I take your point, Colonel,” he replied, “but I too have my duty. Both to my Tsar and to my regiment. I must ask you, to which regiment does this escort you mentioned belong?”

“To your own. To the Sibirsky.”

“Then in law as well as practice, they come under my command. You may do with the prisoners what you will, but I insist that you recognise my responsibility for the troops.”

Colonel Izorov’s anger seemed to evaporate as rapidly as it had grown.

“Certainly,” he agreed pleasantly, “I did not intend otherwise. Now, let us get down to practicalities.”

Picking up one of the sheets of paper from the desk, he passed it across to the captain.

“These are my notes. Take them and read through them later. As you will see, you will need stabling for about eighty ponies for a period of three weeks to a month. If you don’t have room for all of them at the barracks, Lepishinsky at the Livery stables should be able to help you out. The convoy’s final destination is Obdorskoye, about five hundred versts from here. I’ve calculated that it should take them about a fortnight to get there and slightly less to get back.”

“So the Mayor will have his deer back after all?”

“Of course. How else are the troops to return?” replied the colonel with a shrug. “Only a fool would think otherwise. However important these prisoners are, they aren’t worth a company of soldiers freezing their balls off in the snow.”

“I’m relieved to hear you say that,” said Steklov drily.

“Another thing,” the colonel went on. “The escort will need two guides who know the way over the ice fields. Do you have two good men you can let them have?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Good. The billeting of the escort I leave to you. Is there anything else?”

A quick glance at the paper Izorov had given him reminded Steklov of the one remaining obstacle.

“Yes, just one question. It’s a minor detail really, but it could prove awkward. I have promised Dresnyakov’s drama committee the use of the barracks hall for the night these people arrive. What do you suggest I tell him?”

“I know all about that,” replied Izorov as he began gathering up the rest of his papers. “I have already cancelled the performance. The last thing I want to do is to hand the Reds a mass meeting as soon as they arrive.”

“Quite. But would it not be better merely to postpone the play?” suggested Steklov. “Say, just for a week? That way, it might not excite so much gossip in the town. After all, secrecy is vital.”

Izorov turned the idea over in his mind and gave a slow nod of consent. “Perhaps you are right. I shall leave that up to you.”

Folding the policeman’s notes, Captain Steklov put them into the pocket of his tunic then got to his feet. The discussion was over. But as he took his carefully polished peaked cap from the hook behind the door, he could not resist a parting shot.

“In that case, Colonel,” he announced with a faint smile, “I shall inform the drama committee that the postponement is due to regimental exercises.”

Colonel Izorov looked up sharply, but the young officer was already bowing and making his exit. With a grunt of dismissal, the Chief of Police let him leave. He felt contented with the way the meeting had gone. He had already known that he could rely on Skyralenko to do as he was told, but the alacrity with which the Mayor had surrendered his position once he had been given the opportunity to make one of his speeches had been impressive. And to cap it all, Steklov’s easily ruffled feathers had been smoothed.

It had been a good morning’s work. He had succeeded in doing what he had set out to do: to give them enough work to keep themselves out of mischief, enabling him to keep his hands free. Now all he had to do was watch and wait. Unless he was very much mistaken, it wouldn’t be long before the first signs of anarchy appeared in the town, like spring grass sprouting through the melting snow. And when they did, he would be ready to pull them out by the roots.

Chapter Four

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Wednesday 31st January 1907

Berezovo, Northern Siberia

At Number 14 Menshikov Street, the chimes of the ancient clock upon her mantelpiece striking the half hour had woken Anastasia Christianovna Wrenskaya to a room ill-prepared for guests. In the dull cheerless gloom of the late afternoon her salon, for so she regarded the faded drawing room, looked as welcoming as a crypt. A gaunt figure, her back unbent despite her great age, Berezovo’s oldest inhabitant sat picking irritably at the folds of the blanket that covered her knees as she waited for her maid to reappear. A lifetime of being waited upon had left her with an ingrained impatience with those in her service. She had neither the strength nor the inclination to go searching for the girl.

It was at times like this, with her guests due to arrive at any moment and nothing ready for them, that she missed the order and discipline that her first husband – the professor – had once provided. The professor would not have tolerat

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ed such dereliction for an instant. At the first sign of laziness or of insolence, he would have given the girl a good hiding. Then what screams and shouts would have come from the back of the house as he pressed home the attack! How they had bellowed! She had often wondered how such small creatures could make such a noise. There had been one chit of a girl who had sounded exactly like the siren at Pilsudsky’s steel mill. The Professor had laughed heartily when she had told him, but it was true. She could recall his voice now, and could remember the way his ticklish moustache would twitch angrily as his temper worsened. Then he would select his favourite stick and, gripping it firmly in his hand, stalk off towards the kitchens to do his duty as Master of the House. The Professor, quite properly, always spared her the burden of witnessing the offender’s punishment. (“It’s a degrading scene, my dear. Best not to look.”) She would sit there, in the same chair in which she now sat, its high-winged back half turned towards the window, and pretend to read as she listened to the commotion.

From her earliest recollections, Madame Wrenskaya had lived by the dictum that a father’s stinging palm and the policeman’s knout were but one and the same thing and that the Home and the Empire were inextricably linked. The problems facing both were essentially the same; they differed only in magnitude. Both demanded a sense of responsibility in their governance: a level headed acceptance of duty; an unobstructed and purposeful vision of the way ahead. And the two pillars upon which each edifice stood were the same, whether it was a Tsar’s palace or a modest household: the maintenance of order and the application of discipline. To be sure, there were other keystones without which neither estate could hope to prosper: loyalty; solvency; sobriety and, within reason, ambition. But it was those two pillars that between them provided the only sure foundation for public or private life. The erosion of either one would weaken the other.

Nothing had caused her to change her view. The lower orders were as unruly children; it was simply a matter of keeping them in their place and safe from harm. Just as the country had been ruined by weakness and vacillation among its ruling class, which had in turn given rise to the corrosive nonsense twaddle about ‘rights’, so a household would inevitably founder without a firm hand to control the excess appetites of its servants. For proof, one had only to mark the dramatic improvement in the behaviour of their housemaids following a beating. It was true that the girl might be red-faced and sullen for a day but it would be a long time before she was slow to obey her mistress’s commands or neglect her duties around the house. And woe betide her if she had misbehaved herself on a day when the Professor had visited his club in the evening, for then the thrashings were twice as severe.

Madame Wrenskaya’s bloodless lips twisted into a thin smile at the memory of the Professor’s heavy tread upon the stairs on those nights and the way his large frame had filled the darkness of her bedroom doorway.

“Vasili,” she would purr. “Dear, dear Vasili. I am afraid you will have to discipline Gaila. Yes, you must! She spilt berry sauce on our second best tablecloth tonight. The stain will never come out. No, Vasili, it must be tonight. I’m sure she did it deliberately.”

The bed would shift beneath his weight as he sat on its edge and her nostrils quiver as she caught, mixed with the aroma of cognac and cigars, the faint smell of the expensive oil with which he dressed his hair.

“She’s a bad girl. A wicked girl,” she would whisper insistently and feel the spectre place a moist kiss upon her warm forehead and the bed shift once again as he rose and left her to go in search of his instrument of punishment.

Her gnarled fingers clenched the blanket draped across her lap as she recalled with pleasure hearing him roar like a lion up the darkened stairwell to the attic, where his unsuspecting victim lay sleeping the sleep of the weary in her rickety trestle cot. And then his footsteps climbing upwards through the house in Moscow, echoing on the uncarpeted boards of the topmost landing until he had finally reached the crude stepladder that led to the servants’ quarters and to the warm smell of startled flesh. Then he was far above her and the door of the attic room was crashing open and she could hear the shouting and the pleading amid the noise of furniture being thrown aside and cheap ornaments breaking as he chased and closed upon his quarry. Often, when they were cornered, they would scream for their mothers; especially the young ones. Either their mother or their father (if they had one) or their God (if they had one). Sometimes, in the last seconds before the beating began, they even called out to her for help, but to no avail. Then came the sounds of descending blows, clearly audible despite the three floors in between. And, after the blows, the mysterious rhythmic creaking of the floorboards punctuated by the girl’s groans and their master’s rough curses; words such as he had never used with her in all the years of their marriage. And long, long after, having washed himself clean, the return of the Professor to her bed where she would allow him to stay until daybreak; listening to the sobbing in the darkness above her, as he slept in her arms; secure in the knowledge that order had been restored.

“Ah well,” sighed Madame Wrenskaya, wiping the last trace of tears from her eyes, “that was all long ago and best forgotten.”

The Professor had been dead for over forty years and she had lived on, to be married and widowed a second time and left stranded in this awful town. Ever since the death of the wretch Wrensky, her life had been plagued by one inefficient servant after another, as if the whole class had conspired with the Devil to take its revenge upon her.

Catching a fleeting glimpse of a lanky figure passing the open doorway, she called out sharply:


A young woman appeared, anxiously wiping her hands on a grey rag cloth.

“Yes Ma’am?”

“There you are at last! Where have you been? I have been calling for you.”

The maid shrugged. She had heard nothing.

“I was in the kitchen, Ma’am, plucking a chicken for tonight’s supper.”

“Stealing the silver, more likely,” snapped the old woman. “Never mind the chicken. My guests will be arriving soon. Light the fire and fetch a chair from the dining room for Madame Tortsova. Go on! Hurry!”

No sooner had the maid turned to go than Madame Wrenskaya called her back.

“Have you lit the samovar yet?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Good! And are the glasses clean this time? Last week, the Mayor’s wife found grease on the rim of hers. I dare say that she is used to that in her own home, but in this house cleanliness is next to godliness. Do you understand?”

“Yes Ma’am,” replied the girl, her downcast eyes half hidden behind straggling locks of her hair.

“Now run along, and next time come when I call you!”

Exhausted by the confrontation, Madame Wrenskaya sat back in her chair. She really was too weary to play hostess that afternoon, she told herself. Still, there it was; it had to be done. Just because one had become old and tired did not mean that one had an excuse to let standards slip. Too many people had done that. She had watched them let themselves go: resign their position in the world; pass their responsibilities onto younger people less capable and less willing to perform their duties.

At least I have been spared that , she thought. I have no children to disappoint me. 

After two miscarriages, she had not tried again, although the doctors had advised her to. As for the few possessions she had left, she had already decided she would leave what little money she had to the Church when the time came. She had no other living relatives, unless one counted the Professor’s nephews and nieces.

Where are they now?  she wondered. They had to be in their seventies, at least: if they still lived. They would have little need of any bequest she might make. And even if they had, it was neither her fault nor her concern. People should make provision for their old age, as she had done, and not hang around expecting handouts from older relations who had had more foresight.

No, her mind was made up. All the contents of the house would be taken to Tobolsk and sold. Her lawyers had already received their instructions. She did not intend to give the grubby citizens of Berezovo the pleasure of picking over her bits and pieces. As for the house, it would be sold and the proceeds spent on constructing a new bell-tower for the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She could trust Father Arkady. He understood her motives. She was assuring her place in Heaven not with money – that was too vulgar an idea, if not blasphemous – but with an act of charity that guaranteed the material upkeep of the true religion and the glorification of God. It was a last rebuke against a modern Church tradition that had allowed renegade priests to openly lead processions of godless mobs through the streets of the capital to insult the Tsar. So much Madame Wrenskaya was prepared to acknowledge publicly. In private, she enjoyed the privilege of old age to judge a character by the behaviour of his or her forebears and consequently held the opinion that Tsar Nicholas had too much of his grandfather about him and that he fully deserved the derision of guttersnipes.

She had seen the old Emperor once at the theatre in St. Petersburg, openly sharing the Imperial box with Princess Yekaterina Dolgorukova, while the poor Tsarina Maria lay ill at the Winter Palace. How old had the Princess been then? Seventeen years old? Eighteen, at a pinch? Old enough to know what a man nearing fifty wanted in exchange for his company, especially if he was Autocrat of All the Russias. To his eternal disgrace he had married her barely a month after the Tsarina’s death, even after he had fathered several bastards by her. Only a man as weak as that could allow himself to be defeated by the English and the French, who were bigger enemies to each other than they were to Russia. Only a man as stupid as he had been could have done what he had done next.

She had said at the time that the great emancipation was the worst thing that had ever happened to the country. It was tantamount to a shepherd abandoning his flock to roam, believing in the tenderness of wolves. To remove the protection of ownership from what were little more than children; to rewrite the God-given order of society so that those least qualified to cope with liberty had it thrust upon them; and then to give them land as well… Not even Napoleon had been able to deliver such a blow! Inevitably, merely owning land was not enough: they wanted the best  land. In the flames of their former masters’ property, the scum had drunkenly toasted their new found freedom to starve. And since that day there had been no peace in the countryside. From all over the Empire, news had come of massacres in villages and on estates as the situation got out of hand. In the cities murderous assassins stalked the streets hunting down the men born to command, finally destroying – oh, Divine justice! – the Tsar himself with their infernal bombs. For a time, during the reign of his son, the lower orders had been held in check and the Jews and the liberals kept in their place. But now, it was as it had been before, and the lawlessness and the misery of her poor country had increased tenfold since the accession of the weakling Nicholas.

Madame Wrenskaya comforted herself with the knowledge that she would be spared the final collapse. She would die that summer, or what passed for summer in this dismal town. The Professor had told her so the previous night as she had sobbed out her loneliness to him. This coming summer, he had promised her, at home; peacefully and without pain. And in her gratitude, she had sinned; she had asked him to tell her what Heaven was like. As she had listened, she had recognised, dimly at first and then with increasing clarity, not the shining Kingdom that Father Arkady spoke of but her own grandfather’s estate near Voronezh where she had spent the summers of her childhood. She now wondered whether the vision had been a genuine visitation or merely a dream, and shook her head in sadness. Either way, she was resolved to bear out the last tedious months with a minimum of fuss. She had one important thing left to do, after which she could leave everything in order.

But before then , she told herself, I have guests to greet and tea to drink .

Looking about her, she realised that Mariya had followed her instructions to the letter. A fire now burned brightly in the black-leaded grate, and close by her stood one of the hard chairs from the dining room. She could not recall the girl bringing it into the room. Perhaps she had fallen asleep. It was possible.

Stiff from sitting in one position for too long, she tried to turn her body in order to see the face of the clock on the mantelpiece. The Holy Father had been merciful: she had not been afflicted as her grandfather had been. Even though her body was no longer obedient to her mind’s commands she still had all her five senses; plus one or two more, as her mother had often claimed. Defeated by the effort of moving, and longing for a sip of tea to relieve her parched throat, she sank back into the tall chair’s cushions. But no sooner had she settled than she heard the sound of a knock at the front door. Gripping the arms of the chair, she leant forward again and listened to the maid’s felt slippers as they slapped along the hallway. Who would be the first to arrive?

It was Yeliena Mihailovna Tortsova.

For the first time that day, the old woman smiled with genuine pleasure as the doctor’s wife entered and crossed the room to greet her. Yeliena Tortsova was one of the few women in Berezovo of whom Anastasia Christianovna thought of with anything like affection or, a greater compliment, approval. In other circumstances, had it not been for the difference in age and rank, she liked to believe they would have been close friends.

Certainly her young visitor was presentable. Her face was finely featured with a delicately rounded nose and dark brown, thoughtful eyes that went well with her dark auburn hair. Perhaps her mouth was a touch too small, but her teeth were still good even though she was nearly thirty-five. Moreover, she had kept her neat figure, which was complemented by her good dress sense. Of middling height, she carried herself well, taking care to remain at the same time sociable yet slightly distant from the other women of her class. She had none of the famed tragic beauty of Madame Roshkovskaya, for example, yet of her supreme asset, her hands, she took scrupulous care. How Anastasia Christianovna envied her hands! Many years ago, her own hands had been as white and as delicate as Yeliena’s: fluttering like startled doves in expression; pure and chaste in repose. It occurred to her now that such unmarked hands were the compensation for an uneventful life.

Madame Wrenskaya gave Yeliena’s forearm an extra squeeze of welcome as the doctor’s wife bent to kiss her wizened cheek. Motioning her to be seated, the old woman watched as her guest gratefully took the solitary dining room chair beside her, preferring its hard support to the slack cushions of the faded sofa.

Her back will cause her great discomfort in later years , thought Madame Wrenskaya sympathetically. Far more pain than she can imagine now. 

Clearing her throat (where was that girl with the tea?) she asked:

“How is the good doctor? Keeping well, I hope?”

“He is quite well, thank you, Anastasia Christianovna, but I am afraid he is currently out of town. I am expecting his return tomorrow. There has been an outbreak of fever at Belogoriya and he suspects there may be typhus.”

“Oh dear, I am sorry,” said Madame Wrenskaya, crossing herself hurriedly. “And this is such wretched weather to be away from home in. May the Holy Father protect him.”


“And how is young Chevanin? I presume he is looking after the hospital while the doctor is away?”

“Yes,” replied Madame Tortsova, adding with a mischievous smile, “Secretly, I think he is rather glad. It gives him the opportunity to lock horns with Director Tolkach.”

“Ugh!” said her hostess with a shudder. “I declare Modest Tolkach to be the biggest rogue this town has ever seen and that is saying much. I cannot tell you, my dear Yeliena, how much that loathsome little man annoys me. I simply detest him. And to think he was little more than a wretched corporal before he came here. It’s true, a corporal! You cannot tell me that it was his experience or his personality that got him that position. And,” she went on before her guest could answer, “I suppose you have heard what people are saying about his late wife’s death? It’s a scandal!”

Yeliena lowered her eyes. What Madame Wrenskaya had said was nothing less than the truth. Tolkach was common, brutal and unscrupulous enough to do anything and the doctor’s wife resented the unfairness of Life that allowed him to enjoy seniority over her own Vasili. Nevertheless, she did not dare to say so openly. Madame Wrenskaya cared not a fig for anyone and was quite capable of repeating her words elsewhere, to the detriment of herself and her husband. Often she wished Vasili would stand up to the hospital’s administrator as openly as Chevanin did. But the same dogged persistence that drove the older man to tend to the sick and the dying, rich and poor alike, seemed to leave little room in his character to fight on his own behalf.

“It’s not very pleasant,” she admitted lamely.

She had spoken too softly. The old woman had not heard. There was an awkward pause.

“Chevanin. How old is he now?” asked Madame Wrenskaya abruptly.

More taken back by the question than the old woman’s peremptory manner, Yeliena had to think before she answered.

“Anton Ivanovich? Oh, I suppose he must be twenty-three or twenty-four years old. Why do you ask?”

“I just wondered,” replied Madame Wrenskaya. “My dear, you must excuse me if I appear to be an inquisitive old woman, but do you know if he has expressed interest in any of the young ladies in the town?”

The thought struck the doctor’s wife as being so novel that the drab drawing room was brightened by her laughter.

“I do not recall him doing so, at least not to me. I suspect that he is in no hurry to settle down to married life. Besides, I am afraid that on the salary that my husband pays him, he could hardly afford to support a household just yet.”

“But no doubt,” the old woman persisted, “he has attracted the attention of one or two mothers with an eye to a good match. After all, Vasili Semionovich is no longer a young man. He will be thinking of retiring in the next few years and the boy will be the natural successor to his practice. It wouldn’t do for the town’s doctor to be unmarried. It wouldn’t do at all.”

Yeliena frowned, discomforted by this overt speculation on her husband’s retirement.

“I am certain,” she said carefully, “that when the time comes, Anastasia Christianovna, Anton Ivanovich will find himself the proper wife. It’s early days yet.”

Noting the old woman’s doubtful expression and fearing that it masked a criticism of her own household where Chevanin was a frequent visitor, she added: “Until then, I am sure that the doctor and I can look after him while he is finding his feet. He wants for nothing.”

“That is what concerns me,” observed Madame Wrenskaya cryptically.

The door opened and the two women fell silent as the housemaid entered carrying a tray bearing three lit oil lamps. They watched as she moved around the room, carefully placing one of the lamps beside the samovar whence she would serve them their tea, a second on a small table at the far corner of the room so that its light illuminated the pen and ink drawing of the Professor in academic robes and the third on a larger table beside the sofa. When she had gone, Madame Wrensky gripped the worn arms of her chair and leant conspiratorially towards the woman beside her.

“Yeliena, I am glad that you arrived before the others, because I want you to help me with a little problem.”

At once, Madame Tortsova turned solicitously to face her, concern puckering her brow.

“You are not feeling unwell I hope, Anastasia Christianovna?”

“No, no my dear,” the old woman rasped testily, “but thank you for asking. My problem is a question of logic. One that needs a sharper mind, and a younger pair of legs, than mine to find its solution.”

Leaning further over the arm of her chair, she brought one shaking crooked finger to her quivering lips to signify the need for silence. Together they listened to the distant rattle of crockery from the rear of the house as Mariya loaded the tea trolley with glasses and saucers. Only when she was satisfied that they could not be overheard did her hostess speak again.

“Can you tell me,” she asked, speaking slowly and deliberately, “why the wife of our idiot Mayor bought ten arshins  of material from Delyanov’s haberdashery store this morning?”

Yeliena stared anxiously into the depths of the old woman’s unblinking pale blue eyes. Had Anastasia Christianovna finally become simple? She decided not. Her hostess’s remarks about Anton Ivanovich had been much too acute to have sprung from a wandering or disordered mind. She had no option but to take her question at its face value.

“To have a dress made up?”

The old woman nodded her head impatiently, tutting at her friend’s slowness.

“Tchah! Well of course it’s for a dress, my dear,” she snapped. “But why ? And why now? She has already more than enough clothes, paid for out of the taxes her husband has filched. We all know that. More than enough dresses for her sort, anyway. Why does she want a new one? And why buy the cloth from Delyanov’s when she usually waits until she goes to the stores in Tobolsk in the spring while she is visiting her sister?”

“Perhaps she just felt like a new dress?” Yeliena hazarded. “As you say, they have more than enough money.”

Her voice trailed away as she realised that her gaze had dropped from Madame Wrenskaya’s lined face to the worn and old-fashioned black dress that she wore in ostentatious mourning for her unlamented second husband.

“No,” decided Madame Wrenskaya, sitting back in her chair. “Nowadays, only a very rich woman buys dress material for no reason at all. A woman who is merely well off has to justify the expenditure to herself, if not her husband. She says it is for this play’s first night or for so and so’s ball. A woman of Matriona Pobednyev’s station needs at least two or more reasons why she should pay the exorbitant prices Delyanov charges before parting with her money. No, it is no idle whim. Of that I am certain.”

“But is it important?” wondered the doctor’s wife.

“It may not be. But,” Madame Wrenskaya replied with a hint of a smile, “if you forgive an old woman her stupidity, it does seem curious that the Mayor’s wife should be in such a hurry to spend over thirty-five roubles on ten arshins  of navy blue barathea at the end of January when Easter is over two months away.”

Yeliena repressed the urge to laugh. It was very unlikely that Anastasia Christianovna had ever considered herself to be a stupid woman, young or old.

“So you think there is a purpose behind her extravagance?” she asked. “What do you think it might be?”

Before her hostess could reply, the maid Mariya appeared again, pushing a wooden trolley in front of her. From where she sat Yeliena could spy glasses and saucers, cutlery, a jug of cream, a saucer of sliced lemons, a stack of small tea plates and two larger ones. These latter bore a selection of almond cakes and Madame Wrenskaya’s favourite spiced biscuits.

“It seems obvious to me, my dear,” said Madame Wrenskaya. “Either she is planning to make a journey somewhere or she is preparing to meet someone here.”

“But she would not travel at this time of year, not if she had any sense,” suggested Yeliena.

“Exactly my thoughts,” the old woman agreed warmly. “Which means that someone is coming here to Berezovo. And since Matriona Pobednyev can be of no earthly interest to anyone, we must assume that whoever this mysterious personage is, the purpose of his visit must concern the Mayor himself and probably in some official capacity. Beyond that I am quite puzzled.”

“Who could it be?” asked Yeliena. “Maybe a government inspector or somebody from the district office.”

“Or the Governor General himself?” suggested Madame Wrenskaya. “Either way, you might be able to help me to find out. That is, if it wouldn’t be too tedious for you?”

“Of course not! But how, exactly?”

“I believe the Mayor’s wife still goes to Polezhayev’s daughter to have her dresses made. I recommended the girl to her myself,” admitted Madame Wrenskaya, adding doubtfully, “though I must say that Matriona Pobednyeva’s figure appears to have defeated even her skill with the needle. However, should you happen to be passing, or if the doctor is treating a patient nearby, you might ask young Mischa to call on me. I’m sure I can find one or two repairs for her to do.”

Catching sight of the sly glint in the old woman’s eyes, Madame Tortsova chuckled aloud.

“Anastasia Christianovna, of course I shall. But isn’t Madame Pobednyeva expected here this afternoon?” she asked. “Why don’t you ask her yourself? Or, if you like, I can.”

“Gracious, no!” Madame Wrenskaya said with some asperity. “That would be most improper!”

There came the sound of a knock at the front door. Motioning jerkily behind her, Madame Wrenskaya leant forward and allowed Yeliena to plump up the flattened cushions behind her. Settling back comfortably into her chair, she thanked the younger woman.

“That is better. Now, let us talk about something more pleasant. I understand the doctor is to direct the forthcoming dramatic production. You must tell me all about it.”

* * *

In the small hallway Mariya waited patiently while Madame Kavelina and Madame Kuibysheva divested themselves of their heavy walking cloaks. The cloaks were almost identical saving one important distinction: Madame Kuibysheva’s was thickly trimmed with sable, and Madame Kavelina’s was not. In that telling detail lay the difference between the first and second most profitable trading houses in Berezovo. Madame Kavelina did not let her companion’s ostentatious display of wealth rankle her. She was still feeling buoyed by an event that had occurred less than half an hour before, and she even condescended to smile at the bedraggled maid as her cloak was taken from her.

Earlier that afternoon her good friend Irena Kuibysheva had called upon her at home with an invitation to share her carriage so that she need not make her way on foot to Madame Wrenskaya’s. As unnecessary as this gesture was – all three women lived in the same street – Madame Kavelina had accepted her kind offer and was on the point of leaving when her husband Leonid had returned home early with news of an unexpected windfall. The sale of some stock in which the wood merchant had been speculating had been more lucrative than expected, and he was in the mood for celebration. He insisted that his wife and her friend should stay at home at least long enough to share a glass of wine with him in celebration. As she had taken pains to explain to Madame Kuibysheva, Kavelin never drank during the day as a rule but, just this once, she felt that they should indulge him. The three of them had settled themselves in her tastefully furnished reception room; so much brighter than the mausoleum she was about to enter. Making himself comfortable in his favourite chair Leonid had lit his cigar, Madame Kuibysheva having already asked if she might smoke a cigarette with her wine, and related to them a humorous encounter he had had with Madame Wrenskaya earlier that week. Entering the general store, he had discovered its proprietor, Pavel Stepanovich Nadnikov, recounting an ancestor’s exploits in the war in the Crimea to an audience of customers, one of whom was Madame Wrenskaya. Just as Pavel Stepanovich had reached the climax of his story, the old woman had interrupted him.

“I recall once dining with Menshikov,” she had declared baldly. “He was a very bitter man, very bitter, but a soldier none the less. A gentleman of the old school.”

“How interesting!” Leonid had cried, quick as a flash. “And was Tsar Peter there as well?”

Madame Kuibysheva had clapped her hands with delight when she heard the joke. To deliberately confuse the recently deceased general with the 18th century statesman sharing the same name that had been exiled to Berezovo in 1727 was a pearl of wit. It nicely exaggerated the decrepitude of Wrensky’s widow to whom they were accustomed to defer and whom the social etiquette of their position demanded they should visit at least once a month.

The story had surprised Tatyana Kavelina on two counts: that it was a new story from her husband, and it was mercifully brief. Most of her husband’s anecdotes were usually long winded and inane,

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and greatly lengthened by embellishment at each retelling. She was pleased that, for once, he had actually said something witty and she had every reason to hope that his bon mot  would gain a wider circulation. However much her young friend gave herself airs and graces, Irena Kuibysheva was not above enjoying and retelling good gossip; better to announce a secret from the steps of the Church of the Nativity than trust her to keep silent. If Tatyana Kavelina had one reservation about her husband’s telling of the story, it was that he had perhaps taken too much pleasure from their guest’s reaction. Men, she felt, were such children, displaying their toys for the admiration of those they sought to impress. However, this anxiety had been relegated to the back of her mind. Since her sudden arrival in their midst as the new wife of Illya Kuibyshev, Berezovo’s richest merchant, Irena had become a close friend; too close a friend for her to have any worries on that  score. It was the certainty that her husband’s witticism would be repeated in all the best houses in Berezovo that gave her the sense of buoyant self-satisfaction, which she did little to disguise as she swept in the wake of her young friend into Madame Wrenskaya’s gloomy salon.

Acknowledging their greetings with a stiff formal nod of her head, Madame Wrenskaya watched as the two women took their places.

Here they come , the old lady thought, the town tart and her drab .

Her keen eyes did not miss Madame Kuibysheva’s gloved finger as it glided surreptitiously across the worn upholstery checking for dust. Hurriedly she turned her head. To think that she should be so insulted in her own house! Only the presence of Yeliena by her side prevented her from rebuking the young woman for her insolence. For two copecks, she told herself, she would have sent the new arrivals packing. After all, what was Kuibysheva but Trade: the wife of a jumped up pelt merchant? In the old days, the mere idea of inviting such a woman would have been inconceivable. Even Wrensky had understood that. He might do as he wished, she had told him, but as long as she lived she would never entertain such people in her house. She could see him now, standing in front of the hearth in that familiar posture of small town importance as he tried to persuade her.

“But my dear woman,” she could hear him saying (how that phrase had grated!), “you talk to them when you go shopping, and when you attend functions. And they regularly invite you into their houses and such like. Why can’t you reciprocate, out of sheer politeness if nothing else? Unless you don’t like them, of course.”

“Don’t be so ridiculous!” she would retort. “It’s not a question of liking them or disliking them. They invite me for who I am, not for myself alone. I am the wife of the most senior government official in Berezovo. I attend those ‘at homes’ because I am obliged to, not because I choose to. It is my duty and I accepted it when I agreed to marry you and brought you my fortune. But what are they? Merely the wives of sellers of rabbits’ fur and kindling. I am under no obligation whatsoever to invite them into my home, or even mix with them socially. If I should wish to do so out of personal friendship then I would, but I don’t. To me, they shall always be little more than peasants who have made good.”

She had been careful not to add the words ‘just like you’, not that it had been necessary. Her second husband had been under no illusion of her opinion of him. Now, as she watched Mariya pass between her guests with the plate of almond cakes, she thought of the satisfaction his ghost must be gaining from the scene being played out in her salon. Times had indeed changed.

The knowledge that her party was still incomplete – that Madame Pobednyeva had still to arrive – filled her with gloom. The Mayor’s fat wife was more awful than the two women on the sofa opposite put together. For her own purposes, Anastasia Christianovna knew that she had no choice but to grant the wretched woman a special dispensation from her displeasure. Although Madame Pobednyeva would remain unaware of it, she travelled under the protection of circumstance. Until her hostess was more certain of her facts, she would enjoy a certain degree of immunity. But if her suspicions were proved correct, if the Governor General was expected, then the dogs of war would be loosed. That august official was a distant relative on her mother’s side of the family. He would have no choice but to listen to his own kin, especially when she had so much to tell him about the rottenness of this outpost of his province? About what had happened to the money for the cholera sanatorium? About Tolkach and the fate of his poor wife? About the banker Izminsky and his schemes with Kuprin, who had all too easily succeeded her second husband as revenue officer. She had it all written down. All that she asked was that the Heavenly Father would grant her the strength during the few precious months she had left to bring down the whole cancerous edifice.

The figure of Mariya appeared before her, offering her a replenished glass of tea. Automatically she accepted it and found that so powerful was the emotion that coursed through her, her hand was shaking uncontrollably. Gratefully she allowed Yeliena to take it from her.

She at least will be safe , she thought.

True, Tortsov was only a country doctor, not a man of the calibre of some of the Professor’s acquaintances, amongst whom were numbered several now hailed as pioneers in Russian medicine. But he was a professional man nonetheless, with the distinction of having a practice geographically only slightly smaller than France. A man who knew his duty and, with the help of only one assistant, Chevanin, did it as best he could.

Her anger began slowly to ebb away, to be replaced by a feeling of melancholy. At the back of her mind was the knowledge that soon, perhaps very soon, Yeliena Mihailovna would need her and she was afraid that somehow she would fail her friend. It would happen through a lack of percipience, or through being too busy with this Pobednyev business, or simply because she was a frail old woman. Too old, too frail, too near the brink of the grave to be of any use to those still rooted firmly in the mess of life.

From far away she heard her name being called out. Bewildered, she looked at each of her guests in turn, unsure as to whom had spoken her name.

“Back with us, dear?” asked Tatyana Kavelina shrilly. “That’s good. We were just telling Yeliena Mihailovna here that we are looking forward to the drama committee’s next production.”

Madame Wrenskaya scowled at the timber merchant’s wife. Why was she shouting at her? she wondered. Did the woman believe her to be an idiot?

“So refreshing after the theatre in Tiumen,” continued Madame Kavelina loudly, dabbing at her lips daintily with her napkin. “I do hope it won’t be anything too shocking. I hear that Colonel Izorov has already banned it once. Still, it’s so brave of the doctor to try to bring culture to the masses, that’s what I say.”

“You are mistaken, I think,” replied Yeliena. “The play has not been banned or even cancelled. It has merely been postponed. It will still be performed, only a week later than originally planned.”

Tatyana Kavelina cast an amused glance at her companion.

“How intriguing,” she said. “Is there any particular reason for this change? Or is it just a clever ploy to build up a feeling of suspense before opening night?”

“I am afraid I don’t know,” admitted the doctor’s wife. “You will have to ask Captain Steklov about that. It seems there was some confusion over booking the barracks hall for the production.”

“Confusion?” echoed Irena Kuibysheva doubtfully. “Surely not on Captain Steklov’s part. I have always found him a most methodical gentleman.”

Madame Wrenskaya cleared her throat noisily. It had been common knowledge that during the previous summer, Madame Kuibysheva had paid more than a passing interest in the manoeuvres of the garrison. Only the captain’s background and his sense of self-preservation had prevented the affair from becoming ugly.

“I must say,” murmured Tatyana Kavelina, “and please, Yeliena Mihailovna, I mean no disrespect, but I do feel that a more business-like approach is needed to arrange these things.”

“I agree,” chimed in Irena Kuibysheva. “It’s not that one doubts the doctor’s abilities – far from it – but surely he should be too busy tending to the sick to spare more than a few hours a week to the organisation of such an enterprise?”

“I can assure you,” replied Yeliena, colouring, “that if for one moment my husband thought that his directing the play would jeopardise the health of a single patient, he would not have allowed himself to be persuaded to accept the post.”

“Quite right!” broke in Madame Wrenskaya, glaring at the two women on the sofa. “In any case,” she added haughtily, “who else would be more suitable for the job? Surely neither of your  husbands?”

If the rebuke was intended to chasten her friend’s critics, it was unsuccessful. Throwing back her head, Tatyana Kavelina gave a screech of laughter.

“Heavenly Father, no! Leonid Sergeivich is far too busy a man to waste his time with amateur dramaticals!”

With a visible shudder, Madame Wrenskaya beckoned her maid who was standing against the far wall, almost invisible in the gloom.

“Mariya,” she commanded in a loud quavering voice, “You may offer my guests a second glass of tea.”

Chapter Five

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Great Tobolsk Highway

The highway had narrowed as it left behind the larger settlements, forcing the drivers to reduce their teams from three to two and making the troikas unwieldy to drive. Trotsky moodily surveyed the passing landscape. Except for a line of trees in the distance, as faint as a hush of breath in the winter’s air, the whole world seemed cold, white and empty. At first, the continuous bumping and swaying of the sleigh had been merely uncomfortable. Now, as the versts disappeared in a blur beneath the hissing runners, Trotsky felt his body ache with hunger and fatigue.

Sitting beside him on the wooden passenger seat, his new guard sat puffing contentedly on his pipe, his rifle cradled between his knees. In front them the driver urged his team forward, occasionally flicking his whip across the broad hindquarters of the inside mare. Even now the news of the convoy’s approach was racing ahead of them. How? That was the mystery. If pressed on the matter, the drivers only shrugged and said that the wind carried messages. What was evident was that before the convoy had started out from Tiumeni, the news of their journey had already been a day or two old on the road. In all probability, when they arrived at that night’s destination, there would be yet another band of exiles and local people gathered to greet them, the men holding clumsily fashioned red banners of welcome; the women shyly bearing trays of freshly baked bread and cakes.

Another headache for the sergeant , thought Trotsky.

Since their journey had begun, the relationship between the prisoners and the majority of their guards had become more cordial. Only a small faction of the soldiers, led by an ugly looking corporal, took pleasure in sticking rigidly to the letter of their orders. Several times the senior NCO had remonstrated with them, but upon each occasion their leader, whose sympathy with the Black Hundreds was openly acknowledged, only laughed and threatened to report the sergeant for negligence of duty on their return to barracks.

Caught between the corporal’s increasing belligerence and the sergeant’s unwillingness to assert his authority, Dr. Feit had done his best to protect their group but it was clear to the exiles that some sort of explosion was likely. Already it had become daily practice for the faction to break ranks as they drew near to a village and rush ahead in order to ‘clear the way’ for the convoy. ‘Clearing the way’ in their terms meant driving whoever was waiting to greet them – man, woman or child – into the nearest ditch at bayonet point; using their rifle butts and boots whenever they felt it necessary. As the feeling of crisis grew, Trotsky had taken care to board only the sleighs in the charge of those troops he knew to be loyal to the sergeant’s command. The guard beside him now, for example – a Ukrainian in his late thirties – had seen too much of service life to be swayed by the growing hostility within the escort.

* * *

Still watching the passing snowdrifts, Trotsky’s interest quickened as the desultory conversation that the driver and the soldier had been conducting for the past half hour came round to the problem posed by the faction.

“That corporal,” said the driver over his shoulder.

“Who?” asked the guard

“You know, the bastard.”

“Corporal Krill?”

“Yeah. Krill,” said the driver thoughtfully. “He’s a bit free with the rifle butt, isn’t he?”

Trotsky heard the guard grunt noncommittally.

“You know what?” the driver continued, “I only caught him thumping Matya here this morning as I was coming to get her harnessed up. The bastard said she had trod on his toe. I told him. I said, ‘If you’re not careful, it’ll be your head next time.’ I’ll teach him to hit my team. How does he expect her to pull a load for fifty versts a day if he keeps fucking hitting her with his fucking rifle? See how he’d like it.”

“Which one’s Matya?” asked the soldier.

In answer, the driver flicked his whip first over one pony and then over the other.

“This one’s Matya and that’s Olga,” he explained. “I call her Olga because she reminds me of my wife. The minute I saw her ears I said, ‘Uh oh! Hello Olga!’ Nasty temper, she has.”

Turning away from the scenery, Trotsky sat up and eased his aching limbs.

“She seems well behaved to me,” he observed.

“That’s because she’s stuck her in between the traces with me sitting over her with a bloody great whip, isn’t it? But get her on her own, pulling a trap for instance, and she can be the very devil.”

“Perhaps,” suggested Trotsky, “if she wasn’t always stuck between the traces with a whip hanging over her, she would be in a better frame of mind.”

The driver laughed scornfully at the idea.

“You might know about all sorts of things, friend, but I know ponies,” he retorted. “And don’t think I don’t know what you are getting at, because I do. Just because I’m a driver doesn’t mean I’m bloody stupid. After all,” he added meaningfully, “I’m coming back, aren’t I? Eh? So don’t waste your politics on me.”

Leaning over the side of the sleigh, he spat forcefully into the roadway.

“I’ll tell you this much, though. This one here,” he offered, pointing with his whip towards the inside pony, “could be bedded down in the Imperial stables every night and still not be fucking satisfied. She’s just like my old woman, she is, just like her. That’s why I call her Olga. All mouth and arse, she is, just like this one.”

He flicked the disfavoured animal again with the tip of his whip.

“Whereas this one,” he went on, pointing to the other pony, “little Matya here, she’s a beauty. Aren’t you, darling?” he called out loudly to the pony. “Reminds me of a girl I know. Works in an inn. Gorgeous bit of tail she is; lovely disposition. She’ll do anything for you. In fact, I’ve got a good mind to give her one tonight, see if I don’t.”

“Oh? Does she live near here, then?” asked Trotsky.



“Christ, no! She’s on the road to Pokrovakoya. Works at the Golden Plough. No, son, I meant the pony.”

Marking Trotsky’s expression of disgust and disbelief, the guard gave a short bark of laughter.

“Only way to keep them happy,” the driver continued blithely. “Same as women. My old man told me the day I got married. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘there’s only one way to keep them happy and that’s pregnant and barefoot. It’s the only way.’ Of course, like a fool I didn’t listen. Now, every time I go home I have to put up with her nagging.”

Hunching his shoulders in the imitation of a scold, he mimicked a shrill female voice.

“‘Where have you been this time? What have you brought back for me? How are we going to eat?’”

Straightening up, he slewed his body sideways on the driving board so that he could face both his passengers.

“Mind you,” he admitted cheerfully, “he was a right bastard when he was at home, my old man. Used to belt our mum regular; never mind us kids. Still, I suppose she liked it. She stayed with him long enough, even when he was too drunk to work. That’s women for you, the same all over.”

Sighing, he transferred the reins to one hand and, reaching under his seat, pulled out a large stoneware flask. Knocking off the cork that dangled by a knotted cord, he balanced the flask expertly on his forearm and raised it to his lips. When he had drunk off several mouthfuls, he passed to the guard, who took it in both hands.

“What are the Ukrainian women like then?” the driver asked, watching as the soldier drank.

“Much the same, I suppose,” replied the guard, nodding his thanks. “They tend to be a bit taller and darker looking where I come from. More like Tartars.”

He offered the fiery liquor to Trotsky. Trotsky refused and turned away, demonstrably extending his refusal to include joining in their conversation. The guard took another swig and passed the flask back to its owner.

“I had a Polish girl once,” the driver reminisced. “Had the body of a couch. Know what I mean?”

The soldier nodded solemnly.

“A man could just fall into her arms and do nothing,” the driver sighed. “Just lie there and still be perfectly happy. Lena, her name was. Lovely girl. She had a cunt like velvet.”

Gathering up the stone bottle again, he drank deeply. Then, pulling it away from his lips, he clasped the bottle to his chest, threw his head back and roared. The sound came out of his body like a wordless cry, a primitive howl of longing.

Trotsky shuddered and slumped lower in his wooden seat, huddling under the heavy reindeer skins that covered his upper torso. The crudity of expression, the gross appetite of the man, repelled him. He was reminded of the tales he had been told as a child on the farm at Yanovka of the demonic creature, the Bear that Walked Like a Man, who would trap the unwary and the drunk and devour them in the forests of the night.

The man bellowed again, a full-throated cry that ended with a savage laugh as he lashed the startled ponies to greater speeds. The sleigh began to buck alarmingly. Glancing furtively at the guard, Trotsky hoped that he might take it upon himself to control the wild beast that sat in front of them. But the guard merely grinned back at him and gave a knowing wink. Gradually, the speed slackened off. The driver took another swig of vodka and passed the flask around again. This time Trotsky did not refuse, but drank with a gesture of desperate resignation, taking furtive care first to wipe the top of the flask.

“Course,” observed the driver, “you people you believe in free love, don’t you, poet?”

Trotsky winced but said nothing.

Reaching over and retrieving the bottle, the driver repeated his question.

“If you mean me,” Trotsky replied, “I am not a poet. I am a journalist.”

“Well, you look like a poet to me,” replied the man gruffly. “But what about it, eh? I bet you get plenty of spare, what with all those students and red whores. You don’t believe in marriage for a start, do you?”

“It’s a well-documented fact,” replied Trotsky. “All upsurges in revolutionary struggles correspond with the breakdown of conventional sexual mores. One need not take the evidence of recent events here in Russia but also all over Europe in 1848, and before that in France in 1789. As the masses grow more and more aware of the false and exploitative nature of orthodox morality, they shrug off the chains of sexual repression and reach out for liberation.”

“Just as I said: free love,” interrupted the driver and belched loudly. “Mind you, you’re right about the Frenchies. Always hot for it, they are. Still, from what I’ve heard, some of your boys are a bit handy that way too.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Trotsky.

The man seems deaf to any thoughts other than of smut , he thought sourly. He was surely a member of the degenerate peasantry.

“Well, you know,” persisted the driver, “all those meetings in the woods and so on. You can’t tell me you spend your whole time making speeches and passing the hat around. I heard as how a troop of Cossack came across about a hundred and fifty of them one Sunday, all at it like dogs. Outside Moscow it was, up in the Sparrow Hills.”

“Even though I wasn’t there,” said Trotsky stiffly, “I can tell you quite categorically that that is a lie. My comrades are too busy and too disciplined and respectful of each other to… to be doing what you are implying. “

Rocking backwards on his seat, the driver crowed with laughter.

“At it like knives, they were!” he insisted. “Men and women, women and women; men and men. Disgusting, it was. The way I heard it, the Cossack didn’t dare go near them lest they upset the horses!”

“Oh, what rubbish!” snorted Trotsky.

The man was irritating beyond belief; his inconsequential chattering was boring into his head. Trapped here, in a sledge under armed guard crossing this barren wasteland and he had to put up with the filthy outpourings of an illiterate drunk as he headed towards exile. It was one circle of Hell, he reflected, that Dante had never dreamt of.

Seeing his disgruntled expression, the driver ceased his mockery.

“Still,” he said, “whatever you say, I hope you got your ration when you were free, because there will be fuck all where you are going.”

Taking another swig from the bottle, he nodded at the train of sleighs that followed in their wake.

“See, some of the others, the older ones, they’ve been a bit smarter. They’ve brought their own with them, so to speak. A young lad like you… well…”

He sucked in his teeth and shook his head with regret. Tucking the bottle between his feet, he turned back to face the team and shook out the reins. From over his hunched shoulder, his voice carried his dour forecasts.

“Won’t be long before you’re pulling your rag and looking twice at reindeer. Or getting a dose from the Ostyaks.”

“What are Ostyaks?” Trotsky asked.

But the garrulous mood had finally left his tormentor; evaporated with the vodka fumes.

Removing his pipe from his mouth and clearing his throat, the guard, who until now been an amused spectator, provided the answer to his question. “The Ostyaks are the local natives. They live mainly to the south of Obdorskoye. They survive by fishing the Ob. Good trappers too, I hear. Then there are the Zyrians. They tend to keep clear of the settlements but sometimes you might see them working as drivers or porters and such like. They do a bit of trapping too, when they are sober; which is hardly ever. And then there are the Yakuts. Travelling folk, they are, but you probably won’t see any of them. They tend to stay well out to the east. Brilliant blacksmiths, though. They can shoe a horse faster than you can shit. All the same, I wouldn’t go near any of them if I were you; Ostyaks, Zyrians or Yakuts. Poxed to the gills, they are, and dangerous with it.”

“Dangerous? How?”

“Well, it’s the drink, mainly. I mean, you’ve got to drink up there, you’ll find that out. But they get desperate on it. They’ll do anything to get a bottle. They’ll kill you for your boots if you gave them a chance. Especially yours.”

Trotsky smiled as his feet moved guiltily beneath the thick horsehair rug.

“Whassat?” snarled the driver suddenly as he sent the whip lashing out across the straining backs of the team.

“I was just telling our young friend here to watch out for the Ostyak women.”

“Pah! Ostyaks!” sniffed the driver disdainfully. “No better than animals, most of them. Not fit for the likes of you, poet.”

“I’m not a poet,” repeated Trotsky.

Ignoring him, the driver reached down again and grasped the neck of the stone bottle. This time, as he drank, two small rivulets of vodka flowed down either side of his bearded lower jaw and he quickly wiped the long furry arm of his sleeve across his mouth before the liquor had time to freeze.

“Don’t want to get mixed up with them,” he warned. “Knew a bloke once, an exile he was just like you, who had one right out in the middle of the Taiga. There were both drunk, see, and afterwards, of course, he was tired and she was tired so they both fell fast asleep, like you do. And when they woke up, they found they were both frozen together. Honest to God, it’s true! Frozen like a fucking fish in a pond, it was. Anyway, who should come along but her husband. Well, of course, at first he was none too pleased, though God knows he would probably have sold her for a couple of bottles, like all Ostyaks. In the end, the exile promises the husband something… gold or something, I forget. So he does the decent thing.”

“Which was?” asked Trotsky.

“He builds a fire and boils up some water from the snow. And when the water was good and scolding hot, he pours it all over the exile’s balls and what-not until it melted the ice.”

Trotsky winced.

“That was good of him.”

“Yeah, well,” admitted the driver reluctantly. “Some of them aren’t all bad, I suppose.”

“Sometimes,” broke in the soldier, “when our boys get taken short on patrol and have to have a piss, they get frostbite. We always pour vodka on it. Works every time.”

“Oh yes,” agreed the driver, “I’ve done that too. But you would never get an Ostyak to do that. Waste of good booze, that would be. Specially,” he added with a crooked grin, “on someone who’s just been poking your wife.”

The soldier laughed and even Trotsky found himself smiling at the driver’s words.

“I suppose you see quite a lot of funny sights in your line,” said the driver as he passed the bottle to the guard. “Were you out East?”

“Yes and glad to be back, I can tell you,” the guard replied.

“What are they like then? The Eastern women. I mean, are they different or what?”

Grinning, the soldier drank deeply.

“Lovely things, they are,” he said with a smack of his lips. “Their men are undersized; can’t be compared to real men. But the women are beautiful. White and plump… you know?”

“Well then,” prompted the driver. “Did our fellows… you know… take up with the Chinese girls?”

“No,” the soldier told him regretfully. “Not allowed to, see? First, they take the Chinese women away, then they let the troops in. Still, some of our crowd caught a Chink girl in a maize field and had a go. And one of them left his cap there.”

He took another swig and passed the bottle to Trotsky.

“So the Chinky headman,” he continued, “brings the cap along and shows it to our officer. He lines up the whole camp and asks: ‘Whose cap?’”

Putting his pipe back in his mouth, he puffed thoughtfully on it.

“What happened, then?” asked the driver

The pipe had gone out. Only after he had rummaged in his coat pocket and found his matches did he continue.

“Nobody makes a sound. Better to lose your cap than get into that sort of trouble, see? In the end it all came to nothing. But the Chinese women are lovely.”

Still puffing on his pipe, the soldier fell silent, his gaze far away as he thought over the incident.

Trotsky held the stone bottle upright on his lap and stared sourly out of the sleigh. The forest was closer now and he could make out the first few trees that stood out from the main body of the forest, as if they had taken a few steps forward to meet them. Without bothering to wipe the top of the bottle, he lifted it and drank. The stone bottle felt appreciably lighter than it had done before. Suddenly, he realized that he was a little drunk. He grunted in surprise to himself, as if the possibility had not previously occurred to him, and, out of a mixture of bravado and self-pity, took another slug of the noxious spirit. He was twenty-six years old, he thought, and on his way to the Arctic Circle guarded by an armed rapist and a pony molester.

A loud belch escaped his lips, and he looked accusingly at the bottle. With an effort, he leaned forward and nudged the driver’s back. Without turning his head, the driver took the bottle and stowed it under the driving board. There it stayed as he wrestled with the reins, slowing the team of horses down as they entered the forest.

The passing trees blurred Trotsky’s vision, making him feel slightly sick. He tried closing his eyes but that only made it worse, so he sat up straighter in the high backed seat and contented himself with staring up at the narrow corridor of the dull leaden sky framed by the tree tops. His clothing seemed to restrict him; he felt hot and flushed. A terrible fear – that he would vomit up the vodka in front of the guard and driver, that they would laugh at him – filled him with horror. Everyb

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ody in the train of sleighs trailing behind them would know. Blinking rapidly, he tried to concentrate, loosening the lapels of his thick greatcoat and opening the collar of his prison blouse, allowing the freezing air to refresh him. But the feeling, while it did not increase, still remained.

It was partly due to the alcohol, he reasoned, and partly due to his own organism’s revulsion and disgust at the decadent characters of his two companions in the sleigh. The idea of rape, especially ‘official’ rape, had always scared him, making him feel uncomfortable with his own sex. It was, if not the ultimate weapon of the Autocracy, then its ultimate blasphemy: the arrogant flouting of power over its helpless victims. Inbuilt into the brutal code of conduct of the armed forces and the Cossacks was their belief that those who were against them forfeited any humane consideration. And since sex, as much as money, and physical force were a part of human relationships – tools that could be used to apply pressure – then it too formed part of the armoury of oppression; just as much as the noose and the knout. The violation of the body was the ultimate physical sacrilege and it could be applied to either gender. The male member could become in turn a skin-covered lever, a crowbar, a bludgeon.

In his mind’s eye he could see the group of soldiers running through the field, closing in on the young Chinese girl and dragging her down; tearing the clothes off her twisting body. Pinning her arms and legs to the ground and gagging her mouth so that her terrified screams could no longer soar in jagged lines above the waving ears of corn up to the deep blue skies. Gagging her tear-stained mouth with perhaps a hastily snatched off military cap…

There was no difference between those soldiers (which had, he did not doubt, included his own guard), who represented all that the bourgeoisie thought decent and upright in Russia, and those swine whose repeated nocturnal assaults had driven poor Liebovich to pour kerosene onto his bed in the jail at Odessa then fling himself upon it with a lighted match. Or had forced that strangely named sailor, one of the Kronstadt mutineers (what was his name? Arnold? Yes, Arnold), to hang himself in the Kruze Prison. No man who had lain awake at night in a prison cell, listening to the blows and coarse laughter of the night visitors in the adjoining cell next door and the victim’s hoarse shouts for help in his agony, could ever be untouched by the stories of rape that followed a visit of the Cossacks or the Black Hundred gangs. No man could, unless he had become a beast himself, and he, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, had not yet become that.

Slowly, he closed his eyes.

So few women fought back, he thought miserably.

It was understandable, of course. Physically weaker; subject to millennia of repression and conditioning; forever divorced from the control of the means of production and prey to opportunists within their own ranks. They needed a leader.

Perhaps I should write something , he thought.

Why shouldn’t he? The book on Freemasonry was already finished – he had been about to correct the final draft when the news had come from Petersburg – and the manuscript of his book on Rent he had worked on in prison was safe with his lawyer. It might be over a year before he could get free from Obdorskoye. At least he should start making some notes. Nothing too theoretical; something along the lines of a primer perhaps, with a selection of brief biographies of famous women revolutionaries, starting with Mariya Vetrova who had burned herself to death in her cell in the Peter and Paul fortress in ’97.

Ah, but there… there lay the problem. After centuries of beatings and subjugation, to rouse women to action would be difficult enough; but then to make them see the necessity of accepting the new discipline that the struggle demanded called for a very special approach. Once mobilised, the great constituency of women must inevitably change the values and practice of party discourse, and multiply the already numerous points of disagreement. True, the majority of women could be expected to shy away from Nicolai’s dictatorial precepts, which would be no bad thing. The bolshiviki  would remain menschiviki  forever. But once Nicolai had been defeated, what then? Trying to whip the women into line would be like trying to cap a volcano.

His eyes still closed, Trotsky frowned. Without needing to ask, he knew how his senior comrades felt on the matter: women would spoil things. Women had the inner need endlessly to debate and re-examine past decisions and to hesitate and defer to one another until there was an overwhelming consensus for action. The trouble was, there were too few women like that young Dutch girl, Rosa, who had visited him in the prison before the trial.

Now there was an old head on young shoulders , he thought approvingly.

The fact remained that women, who often represented half of the work force, did not have a loud enough voice in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Where was the vigour and resilience that had been shown by the women in the Moscow textile factories? And so many of the women that were party members seemed distracted: the younger ones by what they could do to the world; the older women by what the world had done to them. Hardly the stuff that heroines were made of. Inspired by the historical example of Vera Figner, too many activists who could have joined the RSDLP had turned to the Social Revolutionaries and the gun. Women like Anna Smirnoff, who had been stripped naked and flogged in the street, the December snowflakes settling lightly on each welt raised by the sergeant’s knout. Women like Maria Spiridonova who had witnessed Luchenovsky, Governor of Tamboff, mounted on his fine black charger like Ivan Redhand, applauding the sight of the Cossack troop attacking her village.

Maria Spiridonova had seen his nod of approval as the soldiers had dragged the younger women (only schoolgirls, some of them) out into the roadways and raped them in front of him. Maria Spiridonova had watched it all and had never forgotten. Her spirit had burnt like a slow fuse, allowing her to calmly plan her revenge. To obtain the shabby workingman’s clothes for her disguise, and from somewhere else (she never said where) a revolver with five bullets. To stalk the governor’s party for days, waiting for her moment to come at the railway station just as he was boarding the ten o’clock morning train to Moscow. Surrounded by fawning local dignitaries and placemen, he had paid no attention to the scruffily dressed young figure making its way along the edge of the platform. With the crowds and the noisy approach of the incoming train, it was doubtful he even realised what was happening. Then the pistol was bucking in Maria’s fist, shaking her arm so that she had to drop the bundle which she had used to mask it and use both hands to fire the third and fourth shots into his side and back. She had deliberately saved the last bullet for herself, but, like an amateur, she had allowed her weapon to be knocked from her hand before she could raise the smoking barrel to her temple. She had fallen under the flurry of blows and punches that winded her and bloodied her nose and in falling, her cap had been torn from her head to reveal her long brown hair.

“It’s only a girl!” the crowd of scared, frock-coated gentlemen had cried angrily. “Just a girl!”

The sight of her beautiful hair had infuriated them. They grabbed it, tore it out by handfuls, used it to drag her to the station waiting room where she was placed in the custody of the governor’s military escort that had suddenly materialised; too late to save the man whose life they had been charged to protect, but in time to make the best job of what they had left. Barring the door and closing the shutters of the waiting room windows, they exacted their revenge on the governor’s assassin.

They began the interrogation of Maria Spiridonova by stripping her of her disguise. In the semi-darkness the naked pinkness of the voluptuous body that emerged from the rags had silenced them. Here was no ordinary pug-faced terrorist, but a young woman of quite outstanding physical beauty. The burly uniformed men circled her, pulling her hands away from those parts of her body she sought to protect. When she persisted, they tied her hands behind her back and began turning her round; pushing her first this way and that, to show off her best points. Almost by the way, they continued to question her; keeping up the charade of legitimate investigation as their excitement mounted. Twisting and turning to face each of them she stumbled and fell, was dragged up again by her hair (such fine hair, they kept saying, the hair of a real lady) then forced once more onto her knees.

Someone slapped her once, and then again. This slapping seemed to break a spell: she could be touched. At first squeezing, then pinching and finally clawing, their rough hands left welts on her breasts, thighs and buttocks. From the floor she was lifted like a doll and placed on the waiting room table, where she was bound securely by thick artillery belts. Someone produced a flask of vodka. The onlookers passed round cigars and began to smoke.

The hands returned, pinching, squeezing, making her squirm. Still she refused to talk. They began slapping her again, then punching her. Loosening the belts, they threw her onto the floor and kicked her from one side of the room to the other. Then she was put back on the table again. Their calloused hands and roughened nails raked her breasts. Eventually tiring of their sport, her interrogators stepped back and allowed the others in the room to try their skill. When they began burning her nipples with their half smoked cigars, she fainted. Buckets of cold water were collected from the tap on the station platform. They revived her and began again.

* * *

The interrogation took the rest of the morning and all the afternoon. That evening, she was carried onto the last train to Moscow, accompanied by an officer and two guards. The officer made sure that they had a compartment to themselves. During the night, they raped her repeatedly; the officer went first. Gagged and bound, she went beyond life, into that limbo which is not death, yet is not of this world; the land of the tortured.

She was still alive when they reached Moscow the following morning. So horrific were her injuries that when she was taken to the prison, she was immediately put into solitary confinement in the hospital wing. After a few months she was sent to Yakutsk. There was no trial but, because her case had attracted the interest of the international press, she was kept alive, although once more in solitary confinement. More months had passed until an inquisitive American journalist became intrigued by her disappearance. He was able to bribe her gaolers and secure a brief interview.

First appearing in the American newspapers, his horrified account of her story travelled back, via London, Paris, Berlin to St. Petersburg. Despite the public outcry, the security services stood firm: Maria Spiridonova was a Russian citizen. It was an internal matter which, in due course, might or might not be investigated. She remained in jail, the symptoms of the syphilis that she had contracted during her rapes visibly deteriorating her health. The journalist had described her appearance as that of a careworn woman in her mid-sixties. She was twenty-three years old.

And there were others like her; women of unquestionable bravery and principle who, goaded beyond endurance by the repeated injustices, the endless repression, the corruption and the massacres, had calmly and deliberately risen from their piano practice or had put down their needlepoint, or taken off their artist’s smocks, joined the Essers and steeped their arms in blood so that the iniquities of the tyrant would not go unavenged. But, as the cult of assassination grew, the evidence of the effectiveness of the propaganda of the deed became more questionable. Individual terrorism, the main platform of the Essers, had become counter-revolutionary. One state functionary was replaced by another and his guard doubled. It negated the important role of the organised proletariat, the fountainhead of real power, and the necessity of discipline that was essential if things were genuinely to change.

Yet, the attraction of the deed – the cathartic effect of the bomb blast and the crack of the pistol shot – could not be denied. How uncomfortable it made the honest law-abiding bourgeois gentlemen on the St. Petersburg Express, peering over the tops of their morning newspapers at the pale-faced young woman sitting in the corner seat. They looked at her stern features, her sober dress, her air of quiet certainty and wondered… Who is she? What is her journey? A respectable governess travelling to the capital to take up a new position? The granddaughter of a retired general perhaps, returning to her studies at the conservatoire? Or a latter day Spiridonova nervous in her travelling clothes, gripping the large reticule containing the kitchen knife or heavy pistol that will soon bring the inglorious career of another minister to a sudden end?

Trotsky felt a blow on his left arm. Annoyed by the interruption to his thoughts, he opened his eyes and looked blearily at his guard. The soldier was offering him the stone bottle again. The very thought of the noxious liquor made his stomach turn. Pulling a face, Trotsky feebly pushed the bottle away and settled his head against the hard wooden arm of the seat, gathering up the travelling skins that had slipped down his chest. With a shrug, the soldier took another draught then passed the bottle back to the driver.

Trotsky’s lips curled in disgust as he closed his eyes again. Disgust at his travelling companions, at the taste of the alcohol on his tongue and, most of all, disgust with himself. How could he even think himself capable of writing a book that would address the female case? Behind his closed eyes, the figure of Vera Zasulich arose and admonished him. He had even forgotten Vera Zasulich! The young woman who had put a bullet in General Trepoff and then surrendered without a struggle, determined as he, Trotsky, had been, to face her accusers in open court. She had been the greatest of them all, the paragon of revolutionary virtue. But how desperately disappointing it had been to meet her face to face. Vera still believed in a gentleman’s revolution, where the untutored masses would rise and subside obediently, forgetting how the real waves of the sea smash and drag, unless channelled and dammed. He wondered where she was now.

Opening his eyes again, Trotsky peered out into the deepening gloom of the forest. The warm flush of the alcohol had passed, to be replaced by a chill deep in his bones that made him wrap his overcoat tighter around himself. His body ached from the journey of the sleigh, his head ached from the foul liquor, he was desperately tired, and his stomach craved food. How much longer could it be, he wondered, before they reached their destination? A week? A fortnight? Perhaps even a month? He had heard that there would be one further break in the journey: a few days’ rest at the place called Berezovo, but beyond that lay the unknown.

Maybe the driver was right. Somewhere on the road ahead lay his extinction; first political, then moral and finally physical. He smiled bitterly at the thought of how his first wife, Alexandra, would laugh when she heard the news of his death.

Chapter Six

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Thursday 1st February 1907

Berezovo, Northern Siberia

On the afternoon of the day following Madame Wrenskaya’s ‘at home’, Yeliena Tortsova sat sewing in the comfortable drawing room of her house at Number 8, Ostermann Street. She resented the tedium of her task, but Katya’s needlework could not be trusted and her husband could not afford to pay for the services of Lev Polezhayev or his daughter every time a hem needed catching or a button replacing. Money, or the lack of it, was preying on her mind. Her anxiety had been exacerbated by the knowledge that this was one of the few subjects that Vasili stubbornly refused to discuss with her, despite the high probability that she would outlive him.

Nature dictated that a man was destined for a short life of activity and accumulation, whereas a woman had to endure a longer existence of subservience and expenditure. In her own case, this natural discrepancy was further widened by the difference between their ages: soon it would be the doctor’s fifty-sixth birthday, while she was only thirty-five. And, as if these two factors were not enough, her husband’s profession demanded that he should encounter danger and risk infection more often than men half his age. Who else in Berezovo travelled such vast distances, alone, in the depths of winter, visiting the breeding grounds of disease? Madame Wrenskaya’s observation the previous day about the need to prepare for her husband’s succession had robbed Yeliena of several hours’ sleep. No reasonable woman, given her health, could expect to die before such a husband.

Yeliena sighed. The problem vexed her. She knew from experience that any attempt to discover exactly what her financial position would be in the event of the doctor’s passing was fruitless. However logical her argument Vasili would dismiss her fears as being groundless, even hysterical. Quite simply, it was a man’s duty to provide for his wife’s welfare: to question his competence to do so was to insult his essence. To date, the best she had managed to wring from him was a vague and ill-tempered promise that she would be ‘taken care of’. There was a small mortgage on the house; she knew that much. Besides that, and the normal accounts of day-to-day living, she knew of no outstanding debts. But regarding any speculative investments her husband might have made or the existence of any monies that might accrue from an insurance policy held in his name, or even the value of his pension (should he be awarded one), she was completely ignorant.

Pausing in her needlework, she straightened her back, her tired eyes blinking in the pale amber light cast by the lamp on the table beside her. She would ask him, when the time was right. A man did not want to be pestered about money the moment he had returned from a long and arduous journey.

Bowing her head once more, she resumed her sewing, plunging the needle through the worn fabric of the petticoat she was mending as she rehearsed the points of her argument. In one corner of the room, beside the bookshelves sagging under the weight of the bound volumes of medical journals and the doctor’s beloved Turgenev, a black tortoise stove radiated its life-giving heat and in the small iron hearth two logs, neatly sawn at the mill behind Kavelin’s yard, crackled and hissed on their bed of precious Ural coals. Above the hearth, in the centre of a narrow ledge of darkly varnished wood that served as a mantelpiece, the ticking of a black ormolu clock paused, gathering itself up before striking the hour of four o’ clock.

The sound of its chimes brought Yeliena’s head up again. Her frown of concern gave her face the appearance of what a stranger could be forgiven for mistaking as irritation. Just as the fourth hour struck, she heard the click of the latch on the back door and Katya’s heavy footsteps as she entered the kitchen. Before the next hour struck, night would reclaim its kingdom, held in brief abeyance for the eight hours and forty-seven minutes that, for the want of a better word, the inhabitants of Berezovo called day. A month, two months from now, the boredom of these brief days and long nights would be a dreary memory; their barrenness forgotten with the promise of the approaching thaw. But, until then, there was little for her or any other woman in Berezovo to do except tend her family, keep her home and entertain herself.

And some stoop to mischief , reflected Yeliena as her thoughts turned from her own situation to the behaviour of Irena Kuibysheva.

When she had first heard the rumours (where else but across the counter at Pavel Nadnikov’s general store?) she had dismissed them as gossip, but having watched the two women sitting side by side at Anastasia Christianovna’s the previous day she had become convinced that the shop girl had been telling the truth. While Illya Kuibyshev was away in Tobolsk ostensibly negotiating a new contract for furs with government officials – although no one in the town doubted that he also kept a woman there, if not two; he could afford it – his young wife had been seen drinking hot chocolate in the public dining room of the Hotel New Century with Leonid Kavelin, the husband of her closest friend Tatyana Kavelina. There was, as yet, no tangible evidence of conspiracy but Yeliena’s instincts told her that there was no smoke without fire. There had been something behind Irena Kuibysheva’s eyes, a sense of sly pleasure and legerdemain, that betrayed her manner for what it was: a performance designed to hoodwink her close audience. She wondered now whether Madame Wrenskaya had also sensed this aura of deception.

Tatyana Kavelina had little cause to complain of her situation, she reckoned. Leonid Kavelin was not a very interesting man and, as his wife, Tatyana already had everything the material world could offer: wealth, position, children… three children: a daughter she kept close to her at home and two boys, boarding at the seminary outside Tiumeni. Having mourned the death of her own son, she was at a loss to understand how any mother – however unnatural – could allow her children to be delivered into the hands of strangers for her own personal convenience.

Yet, despite her disapproval, Yeliena could not help but feel sorry for Tatyana Kavelina for the ordeal that assuredly lay before her. Once, a long time ago now, she had found herself in a similar position. She too had once suffered from the same sickening mixture of shame and misery when a lover had been lured away from her. The memory of those wretched days would not allow her to enjoy Tatyana Kavelina’s misfortune or to dismiss her grief as a scrap of no importance. She could remember how the sickening desire for retribution had clawed like a cat inside her stomach and had almost overpowered her, until she thought that she would either go mad or die from the misery. But her rage had been impotent; her fantasies of cruel revenge febrile daydreams. She had survived, as her parents had told her she would, but less gay and less trusting. Deep within her, she still bore the scars and had come to terms with the consequences. For the next man who had courted her, and whose offer of marriage she had ultimately accepted, had been as different from her first beaux as could possibly be. It was inconceivable that Doctor Tortsov would look at another woman, simply because he did not care enough to. The great love in his life was, and would always be, his work.

This was not to say that Vasili did not love her in his own way, or that their marriage had been joyless. Yeliena was certain that if she suddenly took ill and died, Vasili would genuinely mourn her; but he would not pine away. She doubted if he would even blame himself for having failed to save her. Instead, he would tell himself that he had treated her just as he would have treated others: to the best of his ability. After a short time of sadness he would go on as before, battling against his ancient enemy. If, however, the situation was reversed and something happened to him – a major misfortune that would render his continuance of his medical practice impossible, a bad fall perhaps or an apoplexy – then whatever she could do would not be sufficient to keep him alive. Within a six-month period, her husband would have fretted and fidgeted his way into the graveyard beside the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While other men worked to live, the doctor lived for his work. The irony of her fate was not lost on her. She had been granted her most devout wish: she had a completely faithful husband. She had no cause to fear that another woman might succeed in winning his heart where she had failed. In this she was more fortunate even than the richest man in town, Illya Tarpelovich Kuibyshev, whose own wife sought solace during his absences by defiling her marriage vows.

Just thinking about the younger woman filled Yeliena with anger. It was not as if Irena Kuibysheva was even constant to her lovers. Two years ago it had been the young merchant Dobrovolsky. More recently, the previous summer, Captain Steklov, who was barely more than a boy himself. Now she had grown tired of chasing her young cavalry officer, it was to be Kavelin’s turn. A weak, vain man with a tiresome wife, there was little chance that he would rebuff her. Already, Yeliena knew how the affair would end. Tatyana Kavelina would be heartbroken, Illya Kuibyshev would return and Kavelin would join the growing band of men whose reputation Irena Kuibysheva had polluted. For, if one thing was certain under heaven, it was that Irena Kuibysheva would never leave the man who had so unwisely taken her as his wife and in whose marriage bed she doubtless took good care to give as much pleasure as she stole from others. She was bezobrazie , a disgrace.

As if sewing the final stitch in the adulteress’s shroud, Yeliena plunged the needle through the petticoat for the last time, made a knot and, with a sharp tug, snapped the thread. Pinning the needle into the lid of her cane work basket, she held up the garment and cast a critical eye over the mended hem. The stitches were neat enough and the hem level. With a sigh, she folded the petticoat and draped it over the arm of her armchair. Standing up, she stretched her arms, feeling the stiffness in her back. There was a quiet knock at the door and as she turned, Katya entered the room carrying a plate of sweet cakes.

“Are those for the doctor, Katya?”

“Yes, mum.”

“You may leave them on the table and set an extra place. Anton Ivanovich will be joining us shortly. I shall take the doctor a glass of tea myself.”

The girl hesitated for a few seconds, as if confused by the complexity of her new instructions, and then obeyed. Taking the plate from her, Yeliena placed it on the small circular tea table and began drawing off a glass of tea from the samovar.

“Oh, and bring another lamp, will you?” she added. “This room seems so sad this afternoon.”

“Yes mum.”

Carrying the glass of tea, Yeliena walked slowly out into the hall and began climbing the dimly lit staircase. When she had reached the larger of the two bedrooms that occupied the first floor of the house, Yeliena stood in the doorway for a moment, listening to the shallow whisper of her husband’s breathing. Silently, she lowered the glass of tea onto the polished cabinet that stood beside the doctor’s bed, setting it down beside his gold-rimmed spectacles, his fob watch and chain and a small ornate bedside lamp. She debated whether to light the lamp and decided against it. She would let him have a few more minutes’ sleep before she woke him. Instead she quietly walked past him and stood at the foot of the bed, looking out through the window at the large house across the street. The familiar feeling of sadness and dread descended upon her, as if somehow she had come not to rouse Vasili but to say goodbye.

Turning, she looked down at the sleeping figure on the bed. She saw a man in his fifty-fifth year, of middling height with a lined, careworn face, oval in shape and pale in complexion. Except for his shoes, he lay fully clothed beneath the thick top blanket; his head thrown back in exhaustion. His grey hair was greasy and lank after days of wearing the fur cap made for him by a grateful hunter. Noticing that his hair needed cutting, she made a mental note also to trim the silver streaked beard that sprang from his chin. On either side of the bridge of his nose, wine-coloured indentations showed where his spectacles had bruised his flesh. Below, his lips sagged downwards as he slept, revealing a row of uneven tobacco stained teeth. Tiny white flecks of spittle lay in the corner of his slack mouth. There was little else to see: the stiff wings of his collar poking over an untidy cravat; the dark sombre blue of his waistcoat against the creased white cloth of his shirt. She had never seen him completely naked, nor was she curious to do so. She knew the slender shoulders and the scrawny arms to be strong enough to lift a man unaided or to hold down a woman in labour. She dimly remembered the hard sharpness of his elbows and his knees, the weight of his body when he had last come to her for loving.

She moved nearer. Second by second, the room was growing perceptibly darker and she watched as his face gradually became an indistinguishable blur against his pillow. It was time to wake him yet, in the act of reaching out to touch him, she stayed her hand; savouring the last seconds of uncomplicated peace.

If only I could tell him how I have felt , she thought to herself. Now, while he is still sleeping,

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so that he might wake with some understanding. 

She knew how it would be. Once he was awake, the spell would be broken. All her carefully rehearsed phrases, her questions and observations would be brushed aside as he once more took command of the household. If only she could tell him just one thing… But she couldn’t. He had returned and life would be better and at the same time worse until the next time he went away.

Her hand descended the last few inches and came to rest on his shoulder. She shook him gently and stood watching as his head lolled once and his mouth snapped shut like a trap.

“Vasili,” she whispered softly. “Wake up now.”

He woke, blinking several times as if surprised to find himself in bed, before narrowing his eyes and peering up at her.

“What time is it?” he asked thickly.

She told him. It was half past four.

“So late? I must get up.”

Tugging back the blanket, Dr. Tortsov swung his legs off the bed and pointed unsteadily towards his shoes, which stood neatly together beside the wall. Obediently Yeliena stooped and picked them up, saying as she did so:

“I’ve brought you up some tea. It will be getting cold.”

Stepping into the shoes, he grunted his thanks.

“Why didn’t you wake me before?” he complained.

“You looked so tired, I hadn’t the heart. There is no hurry.”

“Pass me my spectacles, would you?”

As she handed them to him she heard a loud knocking downstairs and, a moment later, the sound of Katya hurrying along the hall to answer the front door.

“Who’s that?” muttered the doctor testily. “I’ve no time to see anyone now. You shouldn’t have let me sleep for so long. I promised Nina Roshkovsky that I would look in on her before her supper.”

“It’s only Anton Ivanovich,” she assured him. “You told me to invite him to take tea with us so that you could talk to him about the epidemic.”

“Did I?” he asked doubtfully. “I don’t remember.”

“Well you did,” she assured him, adding with mock defiance, “and I don’t care what you say, you needed the rest. It won’t help anybody if you wear yourself out.”

“I suppose you are right. I had quite forgotten about Chevanin.”

In the darkness, his hand felt for hers and, finding it, gave it a squeeze of apology.

“Be a dear, go down and look after him. Tell him I’ll be down in a minute.”

Leaning down, Yeliena planted a quick kiss on her husband’s cheek before moving away from the bed, leaving him staring thoughtfully down at his dangling shoe laces.

“But I still have to go out later,” he murmured.

Standing in the doorway, Yeliena opened her mouth to protest, but said nothing. There seemed little point in her arguing.

* * *

Yeliena found Chevanin in the sitting room, warming himself by the fire. As she crossed the room to greet him, the young man drew himself up and gave a small bow.

“Good afternoon, Yeliena Mihailovna! Katya tells me that Vasili Semionovich has already returned. I hope I have not been keeping him waiting?”

“No, Anton Ivanovich,” she assured him. “He has been resting. He will join us shortly. Please, be seated.”

Settling himself in one of the two chairs that stood on either side of the hearth, Chevanin cast a wry glance around the comfortably furnished room.

“I must say, I envy you Yeliena Mihailovna,” he announced.

“Oh? Why is that?” she asked as she drew a glass of tea from the samovar and passed it to him.

“Well, among other things, because your house is always so warm and welcoming. My rooms by the hospital are perpetually cold and damp. Old Nidovsky, Pavel Nadnikov’s uncle, is in charge of the boiler, but he seems to spend most of his time wrapped around a bottle. So the tenants must freeze to death before he can stir himself to throw some more sticks on the fire. That’s why I am always so grateful for your invitations to tea, otherwise who knows? The doctor should have to start all over again, training another numbskull like myself.”

Yeliena smiled. She knew how wildly her husband’s protégé’s talk swung between self-deprecation and overconfidence. When he had first been sent to assist the doctor, she had been uncertain as to whether he would prove to be of any use at all. His bluff manner had irritated her, based as it had been on little practical experience. But Vasili had been right in his prophecy: a few Siberian winters had steadied the young man and he had become a reliable and innovative addition to the practice; a junior partner in all but name.

“Take this morning, for instance,” Chevanin continued, between sips of tea. “When I awoke, it was so cold that I had to chip an inch of ice off the panes of my bedroom window.”

“But this is February,” she protested gently. “You must expect that.”

“From the inside of my window?” Chevanin asked innocently.

Yeliena laughed out loud. Dear Anton Ivanovich!  she thought. In so many ways he is still just an overgrown boy. His sense of fun has not yet been ground out of him. 

Seeing his mischievous grin, Yeliena was reminded again of the conversation she had had with Madame Wrenskaya the day before. She shrugged inwardly. It seemed inevitable that Chevanin would soon find himself engaged to one of the eligible young ladies of the town: Shiminski’s daughter, or even Kuprin’s girl. Perhaps it would happen during the coming summer; if not, then certainly the following one. And then he would become a stranger to their house. Marriage would make him grow up. To her surprise, the thought saddened her.

“Have you heard what our glorious hospital administrator did today?” Chevanin asked.

But whatever he was about to say was lost, for no sooner had the words left his mouth than the doctor walked briskly into the room.

Automatically, Yeliena rose from the couch and began to draw off another glass of tea from the samovar. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that Chevanin had risen also and was standing stiffly to attention in front of the fire.

“Chevanin,” said her husband gruffly.

“Doctor,” responded his assistant, stepping quickly to one side in order to allow his employer to reach the warmth of the fire. But the older man wanted to talk and, indicating that Chevanin should resume his seat, he lowered himself into his favourite chair and began at once to fire questions at him concerning what had happened in the town during his short absence.

Seeing the two men sitting there on either side of the hearth – Vasili leaning back with his legs comfortably outstretched, Chevanin sitting forward on the edge of his seat like a nervous student undergoing an examination of his dissertation – Yeliena had the uncanny feeling of time giving a sharp jolt. One moment she had been enjoying a warm and amusing conversation with a good friend; for how else could she think of Anton Ivanovich? The next, as if by magic, she had been excluded from the circle and relegated to being a mere glass bearer. First a glass for her husband, then a second glass for Anton Ivanovich, followed by the first offering of the plate of cakes…

“Do try the pastries, Anton Ivanovich. They are fresh from Gvordyen’s today… A macaroon, dear? They’re your favourite.”

Holding the plate out to them, Yeliena observed how neither of the two men took more than a moment’s notice of her, so intent were they upon discussion of their cases. Just a sideways glance and a nod of thanks from Anton Ivanovich, a quizzical inspection of the plate over the top of his spectacles from her husband. Nothing could be allowed to stem the flow of words. Typhus at Belogoriya and Tsingalensk. Was that certain? Yes, it was certain. In some of the villages, as many as one in three had already died.

“Tea and typhus,” thought Yeliena bitterly as she carried the cake plate to the tea tray. “Nothing has changed. I could have given them anything and they would have taken it. ‘Here, dearest Vasili, take this dead toad. It was caught last year on the banks of the Sosva river and has been pickled in brine. Anton Ivanovich, do try one of these dainty horse’s hooves. I know that you would die rather than complain in my husband’s company. Or perhaps you would prefer one of my breasts? You would like them, they are very sweet…’”

The shock of this outrageous notion made Yeliena blush furiously. Taken aback by the sudden thought that had sprung unbidden to her mind she quickly turned away, covering her embarrassment. In her haste, the plate tilted in her hand so that the cakes came dangerously close to being tipped onto the floor. She realised that the two men had stopped talking and were watching her. Trembling, she wondered if she had actually spoken her thought aloud. Without thinking, she stammered an apology.

“I… I’m sorry!”

“Are you unwell, my dear?” asked Dr. Tortsov.

“Yes, I am quite well, thank you,” she replied with great effort, “I… I just felt a little faint, that is all. Forgive me. Please go on with what you were saying.”

Somehow, she managed to put the plate down next to the samovar. Picking up her own glass of tea, she took a deep breath and walked as steadily as she could back to her place on the sofa that was drawn up to form the third side of the square around the fire. Concerned, the doctor waited until she was seated. Once he was assured that her condition would not provide any further interruptions, he resumed outlining his plan to his assistant.

“What we must do is wait a week and see whether the outbreak dies down. If it doesn’t, then I shall begin taking steps towards declaring a quarantine zone of around the town.”

“Is that possible? I mean, can you do that?” asked Chevanin with a frown.

“Oh yes,” replied the doctor confidently. “The same thing happened four years ago. All it means is that nobody is allowed into town from the infected areas. People who are merely passing through are refused entry or, in extreme cases, put up in whichever building I designate as the interim sanatorium. It has to be somewhere that can be sterilised and disinfected afterwards.”

Chevanin nodded thoughtfully.

“I see. And does everyone cooperate? I mean, there must be loopholes that allow people out and the disease in.”

“Fortunately, with the river frozen and the hunters sleeping out in their yurts there is little travelling done at this time of year. If it was later, say in May or June, then I grant you there would be more of a problem. But Colonel Izorov was very helpful last time in enforcing the exclusion order and even if the town council gets up on its hind legs, you can usually rely on the police to do as they are bid. Once I have convinced the colonel of the seriousness of the situation, Berezovo will be sealed as tight as a drum; within a day or two at the latest.”

Listening to her husband sketch out the precautions that would have to be taken, Yeliena thought of what quarantine would mean to the citizens of the town. She could recall the last quarantine. It had been in August and the long days of enforced isolation had made the townsfolk restless; she remembered there had been a suicide. At the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Father Arkady had held three services a day. The captain of the garrison, a fair-haired young man everyone had nicknamed ‘the German’, had ordered his company to parade twice a day down the main streets in full uniform. There had even been one or two impromptu band concerts by the tradesmen in the town which had met with some success until Colonel Izorov had banned them for playing unpatriotic airs. Despite these distractions, tempers in the town had frayed as the supply of food began to run short and the feeling of captivity had grown. Robbed of the summer’s quickening of life, the people had become frantic.

Being so close to the eye of the storm, Yeliena had escaped the worst effects of the crisis, although on several occasions townspeople had accosted her in the street, either to berate her husband or to plead with her to persuade him to lift the order. Like the other women, she had walked to the fish market every morning and queued for food, determined that they should see that she was no better off than they were. But in the evening, she did not have to bear the brunt of a workless husband’s frustrations, or comfort a hungry child while fretting over the latest wild rumour. Instead, she had sat quietly, as the colonel and her husband had talked over the day’s affairs (much as Vasili and Chevanin were doing now), stifling her urge to cry out. The ordeal had lasted twenty-seven days. On the twenty-eighth, the epidemic having abated, the order of quarantine was lifted. Two months later, a letter of commendation signed by the Governor General himself had been delivered to their home. Characteristically, her husband had written in his reply that while he was honoured by the General’s letter, he would have preferred an assistant; a calculated piece of bravado which yielded not a rebuke but the arrival, the following summer, of a young Anton Ivanovich Chevanin. Now it seemed that the wheel of sickness had turned full circle and that the town was to be made to once more undergo the same trial. She wondered what atrocities might be committed due to the strain of isolation, deprivation of vital supplies and the threat of death.

“Until we know one way or another, it’s best to say nothing,” the doctor was saying. “All the same, keep a sharp look out for any signs of it on your rounds. Incidentally, have you been to the hospital today?”

“Yes,” replied Chevanin. “I looked in on my way over.”


“Nothing to report there. Yesterday, two peasants were admitted suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. I examined them myself. It wasn’t typhus.”

“What was it?”

“Our old friend ‘fishbelly’,” Chevanin told him, pulling a face.

The doctor stood up and began to pace agitatedly up and down.

“They had better be isolated, just in case,” he muttered adding quickly, “though I am sure your diagnosis is correct. Damn it! Why in God’s name won’t they learn? Anybody with an ounce of sense in his head knows that you shouldn’t half dry fish if you are putting it in store for the winter. But every year it’s the same. Some drunken fool falls ill and dies because months ago his wife – probably drunk herself – hadn’t dried the fish properly. How many times do I have to tell them? Half drying means semi-decay and when you rough salt the fish, you aren’t destroying the bacteria but preserving them. And what is the result? Ready-made poison!”

“Vasili, please calm down,” urged Yeliena.

But the doctor would not be calmed.

“I tell them over and over again,” he declared angrily. “Mix a little bit of sulphur with the salt. That way, it breaks down the bacteria. But do they listen? Of course not! So here we are, on the verge of a typhus epidemic in the town and the hospital beds are full of people with stomach ache!”

With an expression of disgust, he reached out for a small brass handbell which hung from a hook below the mantelpiece and rang it briskly. Katya appeared, wiping her large red hands on her apron.

“You may clear away the tea things and lay the table for supper,” he ordered.

“Yes sir.”

Turning to Chevanin, he enquired grumpily if he was free to eat with them. Unsure how he should reply after the doctor’s ill-tempered outburst, his assistant hesitated, glancing at Yeliena, but the doctor had already assumed his assent, for he instructed Katya to lay an extra place for him at the table.

“What are we having tonight, anyway?” he demanded of Yeliena.

“Fish,” she replied quietly.

There was a moment’s silence. Chevanin laughed.

“Then so be it!” declared Dr. Tortsov. “Fish it is and God help us all!”

Throwing himself back into his chair, he watched Katya clumsily clear away the remains of their tea. He appeared irritated at her presence.

“Poor Katya!” Yeliena chided him gently when the maid had left the room. “She will be worrying for days now that you don’t like the way she cooks fish, or that she might poison Anton Ivanovich. Then she would have nothing left to live for, but to throw herself in the Ob.”

“Good heavens!” exclaimed the doctor with a laugh. “What an absurd idea! I most certainly hope that she does not try to do that. Since it is frozen solid, she would only succeed in bouncing across to the other bank in a very undignified manner.”

“She might bounce even if it wasn’t frozen,” suggested Chevanin.

The doctor laughed again, his humour restored.

Smiling at Anton Ivanovich’s jibe, Yeliena watched as her husband offered his assistant a cigarette from a box beside his chair. Katya’s calf-like devotion embarrassed the young man and she had spoken to the girl more than once about her mooning around him, but to little effect. Neither of the men had realised that her comment about suicide had only been half in jest. She suspected that if ever Katya believed that her own death would somehow save Chevanin’s life, then she would not hesitate for an instant. To her simple and uncomplicated mind, it would be the natural thing to do for the one you loved.

Men don’t want women to die for them , she thought, they are far more demanding than that. Men want women to live for them and for what they believe in. Poor Anton Ivanovich! The woman who will attract him will not be plain, meek and humble but wilful, determined and above all pretty. She will be as brilliant as a diamond and probably just as hard .

“By the way, Lienochka,” said her husband casually, “on my journey back to town, I gave some thought to the question of the forthcoming theatrical extravaganza.”

“That is a coincidence,” she replied. “Only yesterday I was asked about your plans. I do hope that it won’t be too much for you, with all this sickness?”

“Too much?” her husband snorted. “Ridiculous! I am quite capable of performing my duties as a medical practitioner and at the same time putting on a show. The problem is, there is only one female role in the first play and none in the second. So I shall require the services of only one woman in the entire production. An unenviable task, I am sure you will agree, to have to choose just one from all the women who will be clamouring for the role.”

“Clamouring?” echoed Yeliena doubtfully.

“Why yes! These plays are not the usual stale farces but works of wit and elegance by one of Russia’s best modern playwrights. I anticipate no shortage of volunteers for the part. That is why I have already come to a decision on the matter. I want you to play the role.”

“Me?” cried Yeliena in surprise. “Vasili, you cannot be serious!”

“Oh, but I am.”

“I… I could never do it,” she protested with a laugh. “I refuse to do it.”

“But Lienochka, the role is perfect for you. The woman even has your name: Yeliena.”

“No! The very idea appals me! What would people say?”

“Does it matter?” he asked with a shrug. “Whoever I choose, I shall be criticised for not choosing someone else.”

“I’m sorry, Vasili,” said Yeliena, smiling, “but the suggestion is preposterous. I am sure it was well meant but no, thank you.”

“Think about it for a moment before you decide,” the doctor insisted.

“I have already decided,” she replied. “I can’t act. I would be terrible. I would be so scared that I would forget all my words.”

“But I could rehearse you, my dear. And it’s a very short play, no longer than half an hour. And for some of that time you are not even onstage.”

“No, Vasili,” she repeated firmly. “I don’t want  the part. I have no intention of making a fool of myself in front of my friends just because you are directing the play.”

They paused, aware that what had begun as an idea was turning into an argument in front of their guest. Chevanin, shifting uneasily in his chair, was staring fixedly at the carpet. But if Yeliena believed that the vehemence of her words or the awkwardness of the moment had buried the matter, then she was mistaken. With a wink in Chevanin’s direction, her husband returned to the attack.

“Everybody thinks you would be excellent,” he cajoled her. “Why, I was talking to Maslov and he agreed. In fact, it was he who originally put the idea into my head. Apparently, ‘Yeliena’ is one of the author’s favourite names. Think of ‘Uncle Vanya’ for instance and…”

“Maslov?” snapped Yeliena. “Since when have you started taking advice from the town’s bookworm?”

She turned beseechingly to Chevanin.

“Anton Ivanovich, I implore you! Please tell my husband the truth. That I could not play the part even if I wanted to.”

“Chevanin, don’t you dare say a word,” ordered the doctor. “Yeliena, let’s have no more arguments. You are the perfect choice. After all, you have a fine singing voice.”

“Is it an operetta now?”

“No, but…”

“Well, then. Whether I can sing or not is really neither here nor there, is it?”

“Ah, but there you are mistaken, my dear,” said the doctor. “What I was about to say, before you interrupted me, is that the most important part of an actor’s skill is the ability to project his or her voice. Your voice is so pure, so profound, that even when you are speaking softly, you can be easily understood from far away.”

“Clearly not!” exclaimed Yeliena.

Misunderstanding her reference, the doctor persisted in his argument.

“No, it is true. When you speak I can hear you from the top of the house.”

“Are you suggesting that I shout?” Yeliena accused him, getting angrily to her feet. “Oh, this really is too much!”

“No, I think what Vasili Semionovich means,” intervened Chevanin hastily, also rising to his feet, “is this: you know how the bell of the Church of the Nativity can be heard even at the other end of the town? This is not because it is particularly loud, but because it is well made. It has a clean, clear timbre.”

Looking up, the doctor nodded his encouragement and gestured to Chevanin to continue.

“Your voice is like that bell, Yeliena Mihailovna,” the assistant went on smoothly. “Even if you whispered the words would be quite distinct, whereas, in comparison, most people would sound as if they were mumbling. It’s a gift, of course. A great gift.”

“A gift!” echoed the doctor triumphantly. “Chevanin has hit the nail on the head. Your voice is as clear as a bell.”

Pointedly ignoring her husband, Yeliena resumed her place on the sofa and gave Chevanin a fleeting smile.

“Thank you for the compliment, Anton Ivanovich, and so gallantly put too. But it won’t alter my decision. How could I look the town in the face after making a fool of myself onstage? Besides,” she added, “you know very well what people would say. They would say that I was only given the part because the doctor was directing the proceedings.”

“Let them say what they like,” broke in the doctor. “Let them accuse me of nepotism, I don’t care. There are plenty in this town who are only where they are today because of who their children married. Take Pobednyev, for instance. No, you shall have the part simply because you are the only person who can do it justice.”

Yeliena pounded her fist against the cushions of the sofa in frustration.

“But think, Vasili! What would people say? The wife of the town’s doctor appearing like a painted woman on the stage? It would be a scandal.”

“Would you prefer me to give the part to someone like Irena Kuibysheva then?” demanded the doctor. “I imagine that she would love to play ‘Yeliena’.”

In despair, Yeliena turned once again to the doctor’s assistant.

“Anton Ivanovich, would you be so cruel as to force your wife to undergo such a humiliation?”

Chevanin shrugged unhappily. “How can I answer you, Yeliena Mihailovna?” he replied. “I am not married and I am not directing a play. However, if my wife was as gay and as talented as you, then I would consider it a crime not to give her the opportunity to take the part, if she so wished. Moreover, given the circumstances as they are, with the town threatened by an outbreak of typhus fever, it could be argued that by doing so, she might make the doctor’s position more, rather than less, popular.”

“Lienochka!” said the doctor sharply. “I forbid you to take any notice of what Chevanin says. My assistant has too much of the creeping Jesuit about him for his own good. The reason I want you to accept the part is simply that, after reading the play, I honestly believe that you are the best candidate.”

But the damage had already been done. Yeliena knew that Anton Ivanovich had spoken the bare truth. He had reminded her of her duty: to support her husband in his work and all that he chose to do. She felt the spirit of resistance, already fragile before Chevanin had spoken, now begin to ebb away, leaving her uncertain whether to laugh or cry, so ridiculous she found the notion of herself acting in a play.

“What kind of creature did you have in mind for me?” she asked, staring wretchedly down at her lap.

“No creature at all,” said her husband quickly, “but an attractive and intelligent woman just like yourself. Her name is Yeliena Ivanovna Popova. A landowner’s widow with dimples, just like you.”

Yeliena sniffed disconsolately and said nothing.

“I mean the dimples, my dear, of course. Obviously, you are not a widow yet!” said the doctor, adding with a chuckle, “nor shall be for a long time to come, I hope.”

Slowly Yeliena raised her eyes to meet his.

“That remains to be seen,” she said darkly.

Chapter Seven

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Saturday 3rd February 1907

Berezovo, Northern Siberia

Madame Pobednyev lay on her back, her shift still rucked up across her plump shoulders, and smiled to herself. Accounts had been settled; she had paid for her new outdoor suit.

A cold draught from under the bedroom door made her shiver. Reaching down, she drew up the blankets that had been kicked to the bottom of the bed during their lovemaking and covered herself. Her husband’s embraces had been, as usual, urgent and clumsy and she marvelled how he could still be excited by her perfunctory responses. The very predictability of his advances bored her. Lying beside him, she recalled Madame Kavelin’s description of how Leonid, her husband, made love. (“It is like he’s climbing a mountain. One hand here, one knee there. The next hand here…”) It was the same with her poor Tolly, except that the pig kept his trousers and boots on. Perhaps it was the same with all husbands. She could ask Irena Kuibysheva…

The invisible weight beside her began to snore softly as a cold trail of semen starting to trickle down the inside of her right thigh. Quickly reaching beneath the blankets, she wiped it off with her hand. Bringing her wet fingers up to her nose, she sniffed them and then with great deliberation smeared the seed across the back of her husband’s shirt. He gave a sleepy grunt of protest.

Father Arkady could say what he liked about giving and sharing, she thought, it was all lies. There was only one law: the law of supply and demand; all the rest was for fools and virgins. Yes, Irena Kuibysheva would know; about Kavelin anyway. One thing was certain, that young lady did not have to put up with any nonsense just to prepare her own husband for a dressmaker’s bill. If anything, it would be the other way round. Illya Kuibyshev, Leonid Kavelin, Pavel Nadnikov; they were all the same. Big men in a small town who thought they owned everybody. Hard men while they were flaccid but oh so pliable when they were hard. They didn’t own Matriona Fiodorovna Pobednyeva, that much was definite.

Pulling the bedclothes up to her chin, she wriggled further down into the bed. Although she could not admit it to anyone – they were, after all, bloodthirsty terrorists and traitors – the whole business of the convoy’s arrival was very exciting. Doubly so because she had been sworn to secrecy and knew that she was the only woman in the whole town who was aware of what was approaching up the Great Tobolsk Highway. How she was longing to see the faces of the other councillors’ wives when the time came to meet the convoy!

She had already sketched out in her mind an exact order of events. Captain Steklov’s troops would be drawn up on either side of Alexei Street in their best parade dress uniforms. Behind them, the townspeople would be jostling and craning their necks to see what they could. The prisoners would be marched in chains down the centre of the boulevard, guarded by Colonel Izorov’s men until they reached the dais that would be erected in front of the town hall, upon which would be sitting the elite of Berezovo. Kuibyshev, Kavelin, Nadnikov, Izminsky; they would all have their seat, but pride of place in the centre of the raised dais would be given to His Excellency Mayor Anatoli Mikhailovich Pobednyev, her Tolly, and herself. Once the miserable prisoners had been assembled before them Tolly would rise and, resplendent in his dress uniform, the mayoral Sash of Berezovo carefully visible between the fur edges of his coat, deliver his speech. Following that, the prisoners would be marched away to their cells and he would lead her into the Hote

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l New Century for the official banquet. She would be the only woman on the dais; Tolly had promised her that. It would be nothing less than a personal triumph.

She grinned to herself in the darkness, recalling how he had first discovered Colonel Izorov’s little conspiracy. She had woken in the middle of the night to find her husband’s side of the bed empty. At first she had thought little of it and had tried to get back to sleep but when he had not returned after twenty minutes she had become concerned and, grumbling, had risen from their bed and had gone to look for him. She found him downstairs and… The sight that had greeted her eyes still made her giggle. There he had been, dressed only in his night shirt and wearing his best hat, striking dignified attitudes in front of the living room mirror. She had thought that she would die from laughing, her sides had hurt so much! But listening to his sheepish explanation, she had realised that their hour had come. The name of Pobednyev would be forever linked in the annals of Berezovo with the reception of the exiles. They might even have a street named after them, who knew?

Bundling her husband back into their bed, she had bargained her silence for her place on the dais. Now her mind was racing and she grew restless as she went over the many decisions that still had to be made. So much depended upon the maintaining the element of surprise. The tailor Polezhayev had already asked several pointed questions about her purchase. He was no fool; he could smell business a hundred versts away. And then there were the finer points of protocol to be considered, especially with the seating arrangements on the dais. Did Dr. Tortsov have precedence over the school teacher Nikolai Dresnyakov? And Father Arkady: should he be to the right of the Mayor, next to Colonel Izorov, or to the Mayor’s left beside the revenue officer? And then there was the matter of the mayoral address. She couldn’t leave that to Tolly, otherwise they would be stuck there all day and catch their deaths from cold. There were so many arrangements she had to attend to, starting with that evening’s dinner for the hospital administrator. Tolly had insisted that they gave the maid the night off and the meal wouldn’t cook itself.

Drawing her arm back, she dug her elbow into her husband’s ribs. He grunted again in protest and rolled away from her. About to give him another dig, she stopped herself. Stealthily, she let her fingers measure the distance across the crumpled bed sheet between his body and hers. If her reckoning was correct, Tolly was now laying precariously close to the edge of the bed; the slightest movement would precipitate him over into the narrow gap between the edge of the bed and the wall. Suppressing another giggle, she felt for the small of his back. Holding her breath, she drew her hand back and then gave her husband a tremendous shove. She was rewarded with the sound of his startled cry and a muffled thud as his body hit the floorboards.

That will teach him to wear his boots in bed , she thought.

The Mayor had been held in the grip of a pleasurable, if disturbing, dream. It was a dream so vivid that even the manner of his rude awakening, when it came, seemed unremarkable; a natural continuance of what he was experiencing.

Like a bird he was flying over the town. It was late spring or perhaps early summer, for he could feel the heat of the sun on his back and see the nodding heads of the green rushes that grew from the rich black soil along the riverbank. To his left, Berezovo spread out below him; most clearly the long straight bar of Alexei Street with the three golden cupolas of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary shining dully at one end, and at the other, the window panes of the town hall winking in the sunlight. Banking effortlessly, he circled the rooftops, swooping down Hospital Street and soaring over the market square where he could make out diminutive figures pointing up at him in alarm and wonder. He knew that they were shouting at him but his ears heard nothing except the sound of the gentle insistent rush of the wind that fanned his face and ruffled his hair. He exulted in his ability to fly, and felt sorry for the earthbound creatures below him.

He allowed himself to drift lower, hardly having to move his arms at all to correct his altitude. As he glided over the scattered upturned faces, he was able to identify one or two of them. There were the merchants Shiminski and Nadnikov and, standing near them, the taller figure of the blacksmith Chirikov, one hand on his hip, the other shading his eyes from the glare of the sun as he stared impassively up at him. He saw Nadnikov half-heartedly raise one hand to wave to him and watched as Shiminski pulled it down and begin remonstrating with him. Other figures joined them and soon a small crowd of people had gathered, each arguing and gesticulating to each other. They were angry with him, because he was able to fly and they could not. Unable to stop even if he had wanted to, Pobednyev retraced the path of his flight down Alexei Street. As he passed the upper storey of the Hotel New Century, he caught a glimpse of a naked young woman watching him from a window of one of the rooms. Her face seemed familiar, but he could not recall her name; she had let down her hair and her nakedness confused him. Could it be Irena Kuibysheva? He hoped so. He waved shyly as he flew past her, but she did not respond. Someone unseen was calling to her from inside the room and she turned away and vanished from view.

Saddened, he turned north and flew over Menshikov Street and Ostermann Street, passing so close to his own house that he could see the grain on the roof timbers. The bell of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary began to toll ominously and out of the corner of his eye he could see that the crowd in the market square had grown in size until it could be numbered in hundreds. Slowly at first and then faster and faster it began to follow him, its countless feet raising clouds of dust as it surged this way and that, trying to anticipate his next change of direction. A few, not watching where they were going, were stumbling and falling and were being trampled underfoot by the rest of the crowd. He worried that they might be badly hurt and he would be blamed.

Although he knew that the crowd could not catch him as long as he flew at this altitude, something was preventing him from flying back over their heads. He was being forced always to move away from them. Relentlessly they drove him away from the town, towards the river. Looking beyond the river, he saw the distant line of trees in the wood and sensed that if he could reach them he would be safe. He could sit in a treetop and wait for them to tire and abandon their pursuit. He flew faster, skimming over the brown waters of the Ob, racing for the cover of the trees.

The shouting had died down behind him. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw that the crowd had stopped at the riverbank. Since they were no longer pursuing him, he began to slacken his speed. Deep within himself he felt a twinge of foreboding. Something was wrong: the citizens of the town had not been stopped by the waters of the river; rather, they were standing along its bank as if waiting for something to happen. Uneasy now, he turned his gaze back to the oncoming trees as he skimmed across the uncultivated belt of marshland. Too late, he spotted the line of hunters waiting patiently for him to fly into their sights. As if by some prearranged signal, he saw them raise their guns as one and fire. Noiseless puffs of smoke mushroomed from their barrels. Desperate, he twisted away, trying to climb out of range as fast as he could. The first bullets began to spiral past him, humming like angry bees. He twisted his body this way and that, trying to evade them, but there were too many. He felt one smash into his ribs and was surprised to find that its impact had not hurt him. Still he flew on, beginning to enjoy himself once more. Then a second bullet hit him squarely in the small of his back and suddenly his arms had lost their strength, sending his body crashing to the ground.

Lying pinned between the bed frame and the wall, he was still uncertain as to whether he was still dreaming or he had died in his sleep and gone to the Kingdom of Eternal Night. Either was possible. Wherever he was, it was certainly very dark.

He began to struggle feebly, his temples breaking out in a cold sweat as he found that he could not move. It seemed that his body was trapped in some terrible vice. Hanging head downwards, his naked hindquarters were exposed in a way that made him defenceless. By careful experimentation, he found that he could move his head a few degrees to the left or right but, in doing so, he made the mistake of inhaling some of the dust that lay in thick balls under the iron bedstead. Unable to raise either of his arms which were pinned to his side to brush the dust away, he sneezed violently five or six times, each sneeze forcing his body deeper into the gap. From somewhere above him he heard the rasp of a match being struck. He went cold with fear. What was going to happen to him next?

The darkness became perceptibly lighter; someone had lit a candle. Instinctively he began to relax as the memory of the afternoon’s lovemaking flooded back to him.

“Masha?” he called hopefully.

Holding the candle high over the bed, Matriona Pobednyeva studied the two large dimpled buttocks that were all that were visible of her husband.

“So,” she observed drily, “it speaks.”

“Matriona, help me up will you?”

Lowering the candle onto the bedside table, she stooped and she picked up her discarded clothes.

“So why should I?” she demanded as she began to dress.

“For God’s sake, help me. I can’t breathe.”

“How do I know that you don’t have a woman down there?”

“Masha, I’m warning you!”

She grinned at the quivering cheeks as he struggled vainly to extricate himself.

“Perhaps I would prefer to dine with Modest Andreyevich alone. We could talk about all sorts of things. Like how he murdered his wife, for instance. Poor woman!”

“That was never proved!” came the muffled reply.

“Everybody knows that he killed her, Tolly. And you invite him into our house and expect me to be polite to him.”

“She was very ill, even before she went into the hospital,” insisted the voice. “She had the best available treatment. A private room, everything.”

“Yes!” Matriona Pobednyeva said grimly, nodding at the wriggling bottom. “Just so that he could poison her in peace, you mean.”

“Masha, please!” her husband groaned in despair. “All the blood is rushing to my head.”

Madame Pobednyev fastened the last of her buttons on the high necked blouse and smoothed down the front of her creased skirt. With a last look round to see if she had forgotten anything, she bent stiffly at the waist and, grasping the foot of the iron bedstead, pulled the whole bed six inches towards her. It wasn’t much but it was sufficient to allow Pobednyev to struggle to his feet and shuffle unsteadily out of the narrow defile in which he had been trapped. As he emerged at the end of the bed, his movements hampered by the voluminous folds of his trousers that concertinaed around his ankles, she shook her head despairingly.

“Look at it. My husband the Mayor!” she jeered. “If only the council could see you now.”

Hastily, he bent down and pulled up his trousers in an attempt to salvage some shred of dignity.

“Now look here, Matriona,” he began angrily.

“No!” she interrupted him, advancing on him as she waved an accusing finger at him. “You look here! Because of all your high jinks, I’m all behind with the preparations for dinner. Though why I should be expected to feed that monster is beyond me. So don’t waste your time dreaming up any more of your fine speeches. I want you downstairs as soon as you’re dressed and ready to meet the Beast. Until then, I won’t feel safe from him.”

Turning to go, she glanced meaningfully down at his unbuttoned fly and added, “Or from you.”

Anatoli Mikhailovich stared glumly at her retreating back. As soon as she had closed the door behind her, he made an obscene gesture at the wall and sat down heavily on the side of the bed.

What a tongue that woman has , he thought. It would serve her right if Tolkach does poison her .

All the same, it was useful to be reminded that a cloud of suspicion still hung over the Hospital Administrator. And his dear wife wasn’t the only person to nurture a secret desire for civic recognition. Ever since Kostya Izorov had informed him about the convoy, he had felt that the time had come to put a long nurtured plan into operation. A plan that was in every sense of the word monumental. And Modest Tolkach was just the man to help him.

Chapter Eight

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Friday 2 February 1907

Great Tobolsk Highway

2 February, evening. Demyanskoye.

Despite the fact that the red banner which greeted us at Yurovskoye yesterday was seized by the troops, this morning, as we were leaving the village, there was a new one stuck on a long pole into a snowdrift. This time nobody touched it; the soldiers had only just settled into their sleighs and no one felt like getting out again. And so we paraded past it. Further on, a few hundred yards from the village, where the road dips down to the river, we saw an inscription in huge letters on the snowy slope: ‘Long Live the Revolution!’ My driver, a fellow of eighteen or so, burst out laughing when Leon he read the inscription. “Do you know what that means – long live the revolution?” I asked him. “No, I don’t,” he said after a moment’s thought, “all I know is that people keep shouting these words, ‘Long Live the Revolution!’” But you could tell by his face that he knew more than he was prepared to say. Altogether the local peasants, especially the young ones, are extremely well disposed towards the ‘politicals’.

We arrived at Demyanskoye, the large village where we are stopping for the night, at 1:00 p.m. A large crowd of exiles came to meet us (there are more than sixty here). This caused great confusion among some of our escort. The corporal at once gathered his faithful around him in case of need. Luckily there was no trouble. It was obvious that they had been waiting for us here for a long time and with a good deal of nervous tension. A special commission to organize our reception had been appointed. A magnificent dinner and comfortable quarters were prepared in the local “commune”. But we were not allowed to go there, and had to stop in a peasant house; the dinner was brought here. Meeting the politicals is extremely difficult; they were able to get in to see us only for a few minutes at a time, in twos and threes, carrying various parts of the dinner. Apart from that we took turns to visit the local shop, accompanied by soldiers, and on the way were able to exchange a few words with comrades who waited in the street all day long.

“Tell her about the woman,” said Sverchkov, who had been reading over Trotsky’s shoulder what he was writing.

“She won’t want to read about that.”

“Yes she will. People like reading about themselves, or people like themselves.”

Trotsky turned and, smiling up at Sverchkov, acknowledged with a nod of his head the truth of what his comrade had said. They had shared the same privations at the Peter-Paul Fortress and at the House of Preliminary Detention and he had become used to finding Sverchkov at his side. It was, he knew, personal admiration masquerading as comradeship, and slightly embarrassing. At the same time, it felt odd to have one’s steps dogged by another man who was willing to fetch and run errands, instead of waiting to arrest him.

My own little Flemish , he thought fondly.

“Shall I get you some tea?” suggested Sverchkov.

“Thank you Dimitri, that would be very kind. And I will see what words I can conjure up to describe our situation.”

Folding the piece of notepaper on his knee Trotsky resumed his letter to Natalya.

One of the women exiles, dressed up as a peasant woman, came to sell us milk; she played her part very well, but the owner of the house must have given her away to the soldiers and they immediately forced her to leave. The corporal was on duty at the time, worse luck. I remember how our little colony at Ust-Kut (on the Lena) used to prepare for the passage of every new lot of exiles: we tried to cook shchi , make pelmeni , in short we did exactly what the people at Demyanskoye did for us today. The passage of a large batch of exiles is a tremendous event for every little colony along the route, all of whose members are impatient for news from home.

Realising his mistake, Trotsky stopped writing. He had been with Alexandra at Ust-Kut, not Natalya. He considered the problem. He had only one piece of paper and he had written sufficient to merit the letter. If he crossed out the offending line she would only wonder what the bit was he had said. It would be better to leave it be; she would understand that his use of ‘our’ and ‘we’ had meant no disrespect to her. Alexandra Sokolovskaya and Natalya Sedova , he thought contentedly. They could not be more different. 

The last memory he had of his wife Alexandra was of her sitting in the living area of their two small rooms in Verkholensk, cradling their four month old daughter Nina on her lap. In the room above, a mound of straw lay artfully arranged on his bed covered by the stained blanket that lent it the contours of a sleeping body. Alexandra had refused to look at him as he stood before her, making his clumsy speech of justification. All her passion had long been spent.

“Just get out,” she had told him. “Just go.”

The tears had been in his eyes, and not hers, as he had blundered out through their doorway and ran to the cart at the back of the merchant’s shop. He had had no illusions. With Zina two years old and Nina still at her breast, she would be open to any pressure that the authorities might care to apply. Eventually the police court had awarded Alexandra Lvovna Sokolovskaya a further four years of exile for not reporting his escape. This, added to the original sentence of four years and then all those months in jail prior to their trial, accounted for nearly ten years of her life, and still she had not betrayed him or their comrades. Ten years, because she had trusted him and followed his lead. Undoubtedly Alexandra would smile at the news if he perished in Obdorskoye.

Well, let her , he thought with an inner shrug. I am partly the man she made me .

That summer, long ago in Shvigorsky’s market garden, it had been Alexandra that had brought him to Marxism, not the other way around. The five of them – Alexandra, her brothers Grigori and Illya, their friend Ziv and himself – would sit in the orchard on the hot dusty days and have interminable political discussions; he lying back and gazing at her body under half-closed eyelids as he listened to her brothers expound their latest theories. They had, indeed, all been poets then. He had read his verses aloud to them, hoping to impress her. If she was aware how much he had hungered for her, she had not shown it. Later she had told him that she had been unaware of his feelings, but he had never believed her.

It wasn’t just because of the heavy swell of her breasts under her plain summer blouse, or the fact that she was eight years older than him, but something else. Resting his back against the wall of the peasant cottage in which he was now billeted, Trotsky recalled now that she had had not just a maturity but also a world view and an active commitment to something alive and active that he had envied. Alexandra would listen half contemptuously to their endless circular arguments with a knowing smile, as if distant and untouchable, and this had irked him greatly. Soon a pattern of their behaviour emerged. When challenged, she would give a sound Marxist response which would cause him, prompted by an involuntary reflex he could neither understand nor resist, immediately to jump up and deride her views. Her reaction was always the same: an uncaring shrug and her retirement from what she clearly saw as an unprofitable conversation.

He had been so arrogant that for eighteen months, he had refused to embrace her views. There had been times, more times than could be counted, when she had almost believed he was ready but then he had slipped away, mocking ‘her’ Marx and her credulity. Apart from these advances and retreats, they had regarded each other mostly from a distance; he looking at her rounded voluptuous figure; she at the young man struggling to leave his childhood and family behind like an insect ripping itself from the larva, its skin still moist from the gum. She had waited patiently and, finally, without any trumpets or drama, it had happened.

He’d woken one morning – he was now sleeping every night on the floor of Shvigorsky’s hut with some of the other ‘runaways’ – with the inner certainty that the Marxist position of how permanent and sustainable change could come about was the only one that made sense. Lying there beside his sleeping friends, he felt both shocked and gladdened by this sudden revelation. True, there was still so much that he did not understand, but that did not trouble him. What mattered was that he had found himself in a new world, transformed. He knew that while the other groups debated, it was the Marxists that were organising; not losing an hour, even a minute, in constructing their revolution. That is what he and his friends should be doing, instead of sitting round talking endlessly about things that they knew little about. Words without deeds was death.

Ashamed now of the wasteful discussions in which he had revelled only the previous day, he made the decision to avoid the others and to spend the day by himself thinking things through. But so strong had been the impulse to share his good news that he had felt that he would burst if he didn’t tell someone.

“So you are a Marxist now, are you?” Shvigorsky had said, leaning on his spade.

The old man shook his head sadly.

“How many times have I seen this? A piece of skirt comes through the door and political principles fly out the window.”

He had protested hotly, as the wizened gardener, still laughing quietly to himself, had taken him gently but firmly by the arm and led him back to his friends who were sitting outside the hut, smoking cigarettes and watching the sunset. They too had all laughed when he told them his news. All except Alexandra who stood up and began walking away. She had fallen for this before and would not stay to hear her political views mocked. She believed that a woman’s views had a right to be considered as seriously as a man’s. This time he did not jeer at her, but followed her meekly through the orchard, ignoring her repeated requests to be left alone. Finally, she stopped and turned to face him, the evening light bathing her face, the scent of warm fruit all around them.

“Alexandra,” he had pleaded, “honestly, I want to learn. I want to understand.”

She had shown her reluctance. Why should she believe that he was not teasing her as he had so many times before?

He had persisted, following her deeper into the orchard. Could he borrow some of her books? If he wrote out his thoughts on what he read, would she read them? He felt lost, he had said, catching up with her and taking her hand in his, noting how under the spreading boughs the dappled shadows of light played against her neck and cheek. Would she show him the way forward? Could she forgive him for all the stupid things he had said in the past? Above all, would she be his teacher?

She had been the first. He fancied that he could still recall the warm perfume of her body; the pale smoothness of her shoulders that gleamed in the evening light; her gasping breath as he entered her; the delicious tingling pain as her fingernails, claws now, raked his bowed back. And then the final unburdening, the little death that marked the end of his long childhood. There in the orchard, lying next to her in the long grass heavy with the evening dew, with the sweat rapidly cooling on his body, he had taken his first breath as a man, and had smiled to himself, because Shvigorsky had been wrong after all. With Lev Davidovich Bronstein, politics came first; everything else followed after.

That was the year that he had come to bloom. He had learnt so many things; mostly about himself. Once he had assumed the leadership of the Nikolayev group he found that he had less time to think about the importance of individuals and had to devote more time to the overall struggle. Alexandra still gave herself to him – they often worked late at the shed that housed the hectograph press – but it was unclear to him even then whether she was giving herself to him as a person or, on a more primitive level, to the leader of their pack. And, as the reputation of the cell spread (even reaching the ears of the founders of Iskra  far beyond the Empire’s western frontiers) he discovered that there was a type of woman who was attracted by the scent of leadership, however slight, in much the same way that a dog came to a whistle.

That Alexandra knew of these infidelities he had long stopped doubting, although at the time he had been able to convince himself that she had been fooled by his excuses.

Sex, politics and betrayal , he thought now as he waited for Dimitri Sverchkov to return. They go together like a sleigh and ponies .

The most serious row he had ever had with Ziv, who he had suspected was himself half in love with Alexandra, had been not about theoretical points of doctrine but the danger posed by his infidelity. His promiscuity was irresponsible, Ziv had argued; a threat not only to himself but all who were connected with the South Russia Workers’ Union, as the group now called itself, as distinct from the moribund Union of Southern Russian Workers. What if Alexandra, stung by his unfaithfulness, informed the police that the shadowy master figure responsible for the purple inked leaflets and broadsheets that daily flooded the local factories was none other than the truant student L.D. Bronstein? What would he do then?

He had dismissed the idea, confident that, whatever Alexandra might do, she would not sink to becoming an informer. But Ziv had persisted. If not Alexandra, what about her brothers? Had not Lev noticed a certain coolness had sprung up between them all? Either Illya or Grigori might be goaded by the thought of their sister’s betrayal into sending the police an anonymous note, and he would never know.

This possibility had struck him as being more likely, and he had thought deeply about the matter after he had made his peace with Ziv. Alexandra would never betray him, he told himself, because in him she saw something that that she herself lacked: an inner fire that could not be doused by threat of punishment. But her brothers…

Not for the first time did it occur to Trotsky that the process of creation had been markedly unequal to the allotment of personal courage. True, Alexandra had rejected the bourgeois concept of marriage and had now become the mistress of a young and increasingly effective agitator, but that was as far as she would go out of step with the world. Whereas for him, it was only the first stage. He felt a nameless ambition growing within him. He knew not where it was leading him; only that it would not permit him to ignore such a block to its progress.

The more the thought about it, the more he cursed himself for his stupidity. As a consequence of his own indiscretions Alexandra’s brothers, Illya and Grigory, had become a potential threat. He became convinced that his betrayal was inevitable, unless he acted swiftly. But what should he do? He could not risk promoting them within the Union in compensation for his treatment of their sister. Nothing was more easily recognised than the payments of personal debts with political plums, and they were already founder members of the Union and Grigori a cell leader. Neither could he drum them from the fledgling organisation without running the risk that they might rally the other founder members and succeed, in turn, driving him out into the political wilderness where he would be suspected by comrades and the police alike. There seemed to be no alternative but to foreswear his liaisons and hope that, in time, the brothers would forgive him. In the meantime, he would have to keep a watchful eye on both of them. He became silent in their company; so much so that they began to be concerned about his health. As fate would have it, their first betrayal had not come from Alexandra’s brothers, but indirectly from the rat Shrentzel.

Shrentzel! The very memory of his name made him grimace. With hindsight he had realised that it had been foolish to suspect Grigory or Illya. They had spent so much time together that he could have accounted for their movements at mo

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st times of the day or night. Besides, in such young faces, the merest dissembling would have pronounced their guilt. But a little rat like Shrentzel, what was he? More importantly, who  was he? Merely a courier, scuttling between one of their cells and their headquarters; and of course, the local Okhrana contact.

How amateur it had all been! When he thought of the cells, each containing at least twenty people, he felt ashamed. They were far too large; too much like bunches of swollen ripe berries shouting out to the authorities, “Pick us! Pick us!” If he had to start all over again, he would make each cell a quarter of the size, with a maximum strength of six members. Yet, given the time, and the place, and as poor in resources as they were, the South Russia Workers Union had been the only centre of organised revolutionary activity for thousands of versts  and had claimed several successes, filling factories with revolutionary propaganda and pillorying local capitalists in its broadsheets. Until then the O had stayed its hand, perhaps incredulous that this agitation had come from such a bunch of idealistic pups.

Thinking now about the Shrentzel affair, Trotsky admitted that Nicolai had been correct: revolution followed laws of its own as much as did physics or chemistry. The organisation of illegal activities necessarily required clandestine conspiracy. Just as logically, it followed that once a conspiracy had been formed, the opposition would seek to infiltrate this conspiracy and so the problem of identification of traitors would inevitably arise.

Once Shrentzel had been identified without doubt as being a police spy he was given only the most innocuous of material to deliver while the five leaders of the union debated what to do with him. After several unhappy and protracted discussions they had narrowed their choices down to four options. They could obtain a photograph of Shrentzel and publish it anonymously, branding him as a police spy, thus ensuring that he found no further work or support in the area. They could send him on the most important run of all, taking what he thought was secret material downriver on the night packet to Odessa, during which he would be beaten up and thrown overboard; ostensibly the hapless victim of a drunken brawl. They could use him to play a double game with the O and feed them back false information which would eventually alert the secret police that their informer had been blown. And, of course, they could put him on trial and execute him. What they could not do was to ignore the threat that he posed.

It had become the greatest test of his leadership of the union and, like all leaders before him, he had discovered that he had to find the answer alone. For two days and nights he had turned the problem over in his mind, rejecting one solution as too ineffectual, another as too drastic. After all, they were communists, not gangsters. On the third day, he had sent messages to Ziv, Alexandra, Illya and Grigori telling them to meet at the rooms of Mukhin, an old comrade they could trust. Shrentzel would also be summoned there, under the pretext of receiving another parcel of pamphlets, and his problem resolved. More than that, he would not tell them; only to Mukhin did he reveal his true intentions.

It had been Mukhin who had suggested that they should disguise the meeting as a party, so that if they received an unwelcome visit from the police, the tables should bear adequate witness of their peaceful intentions. Consequently wine had been purchased, cakes baked and fruit brought in from Shvigorsky’s orchard. By the time Shrentzel arrived, at about six in the evening, accompanied by the carpenter Nesterenko, there was a genuine party in progress. The alcohol had excited the anxieties of the founder members of the union, making them artificially jovial and loud. Even Alexandra was cheerful, though, like the others, she was ignorant of his plan. Although Shrentzel had undoubtedly already betrayed them, the danger posed by her brothers had still felt genuine. It was necessary that an example should be set on how he might deal with traitors in the future, and for that lesson to be learned, surprise was essential. Alexandra had to content herself with having wrung from him a promise that no blood would be spilt while they were in Mukhin’s apartment. Further than that he would not go.

The capacity to use, and to react to, surprise is a hallmark of tactical ability. The arrival of Nesterenko accompanying Shrentzel had been a surprise, but it was easy to turn his presence to their advantage. The red-headed young carpenter had brought his balalaika and was easily persuaded to perform some of his own compositions with the unsuspecting Shrentzel joining in the chorus. Nesterenko had a good voice and for nearly an hour he had entertained them with his music. Just as he had finished his most popular song, a ballad dedicated to Marx himself (“Lo, a great Prophet comes”), Mukhin hammered for silence and demanded that Lev Davidovich now entertain them with a story. Ziv, Grigori, Illya and Alexandra had all jokingly applauded the suggestion, believing that their leader had perhaps changed his mind, unwilling to take action in such convivial company. But as soon as he had begun, it became evident that Trotsky had resolved to bring the matter to a head.

At first, he had been deliberately vague: “Once, not very far from Nikolayev, there had been a group of socialists…” and so on. But as the theme of treachery was introduced and coincidence began to pile upon coincidence, he had watched Shrentzel’s features at first flush red then blanch as he realised that the party he had been enjoying so much had taken a sinister turn. At one point, Shrentzel tried to rise from his chair, pleading that the wine and the closeness of the room had made him feel sick, but the heavy palms of Mukhin pressed him back into his seat. As he developed his story and watched the frightened man squirm and look about him in vain for help, Trotsky discovered with a thrill that not only was he terrifying the man, but also that he was getting satisfaction from doing so.

Forcing himself to keep his voice level, he had continued the macabre show, telling how the leader of the socialists had confronted the traitor after inviting him to a bogus party, had taken a revolver from his pocket and shot him through the mouth in order that he could not betray more comrades. In front of the horrified gaze of Ziv, Alexandra, Illya, Grigori and Nesterenko, he had suited his action to his word, reaching inside the rough working man’s jacket that he had worn throughout the party (even though Shrentzel was right, it was unbearably hot in the room) and producing a revolver. Weighing it in the palm of his hand, he regarded it thoughtfully, affecting not to notice as Shrentzel began to blubber and plead for his life; preferring instead to wait until the spy was silent before he began the next phase of his destruction.

Breaking the revolver, so that its empty magazine was visible to his cowering victim, he began to explain what fate lay in store for those who betrayed the union. It was, he explained, merely a matter of mathematical probability. If the spy had betrayed the whole organisation, how many of them would have escaped punishment? Possibly one, maybe two; probably none. That, he reminded him, was why they had all sworn – Shrentzel included – to die if necessary in order to protect their comrades. However, because Shrentzel had not been too great an inconvenience – he had in fact helped them mislead the O. several times without suspicion – he was to be allowed a safe passage out of the town on the condition that he told them everything that he had done. To ensure that he should not make the error of mistaking magnanimity for weakness, every time he hesitated in his confession, the magazine, loaded with one round, would be spun and the gun fired into the back of his head.

At this point Trotsky had reached into the depths of his torn coat pocket and produced the bullet which he passed it to Mukhin, along with the revolver ordering the old man to load the gun and spin the magazine. As Mukhin was doing so, Trotsky had reasoned with Shrentzel that the odds that were being offered him to survive were far more favourable than would be offered to them, or to any union agitator, in the event of their capture. He then calmly and politely asked the traitor to commence his confession.

By this time Shrentzel was in such a state, alternately weeping and wailing, that no sense could be made of what he said. So, with a theatrical sigh of regret, Trotsky had taken the revolver back from Mukhin and without any visible hesitation, raised it to the nape of Shrentzel’s neck and pulled the trigger.

Alas, it had been Nesterenko, regular officer in the Okhrana, who had been sent underground by Peterhof to rid the region of its nest of revolutionary pests, and not Shrentzel. Years later, during his last summer of exile together, he had told Alexandra why he had done what he had done. She had despised him for his confession in the same way she had come to despise him for so many things. How could he have been so stupid as to ever suspect her brothers of betrayal when the real traitor had been in the room all along, entertaining them with his stupid songs? Confession, he recognised, was the coward’s way out; like telling Mukhin to switch the bullet for an empty cartridge. Yet, for all that, and in just the same way, it had proved effective. It had been the last confession he had ever made to her; the last, he promised himself, that he would make to any woman, and he had made it knowing that it would drive her even further away from him.

So much the better , he told himself now. At that point he had already decided to leave, to go west and rejoin the living world, and that she would not be coming with him.

Marriage to Alexandra had been an economic and practical convenience to both of them, he reasoned. The two and a half years they had spent together as man and wife had served their purpose. It had certainly saved Alexandra, for without him and their daughters to live for, he doubted that she would have survived exile. And he had not been a bad husband: he had never beaten her, nor had she ever been hungrier than he had been. In fact, with his work, first as a book keeper (it had not been his fault that he had been sacked for mistaking ‘poods’ for ‘pounds’) and then as a literary critic, they had lived better than most exiles. He had not taken to drink, as some of the others had done, nor let their desperate situation drive him to thoughts of death; neither had he given up the struggle. On the contrary, it was she who had sunk into torpor, seeing his relentless persistence as another example of what she called his “arrogance”. Increasingly she had blamed him for their sufferings and the fate of her family, for Grigori, Illya and Mariya had all been arrested in the round-up of the Nikolayev cells. She could never forgive him for their sentences, no matter how much he reasoned with her. As for their daughters, it was better that the two girls grew up safe in the steadfast love of one parent than in the sullen company of two.

The truth was, by that time he had become sick of his wife, and sick of himself for remaining with her. Sick of Alexandra’s moody silences that had once been mistaken for mysterious aloofness. Sick of her slack stretched breasts that had lost their shape after the feeding of the two children. She had let herself go; she had let the sentence of four years’ temporary exile break her spirit; that was what had been so unexpected. Certainly, they had shared some hard times at Verkholensk, but he had been able to read; brushing the cockroaches from the pages of Kapital  and discovering the French authors, like Maupassant and Flaubert. Moreover, he had established himself as a published writer, and had once more attracted the attention of the party abroad. He had gone on, gone forward, had taken up the challenge; while she had just given up. He could have forgiven her sudden ageing, could even have helped her if she had let him. But to give up, just like that? He had despised her for it, all the more so because it had been she who had once appeared so strong, so certain.

It had been from her lips, he had challenged her, that he had learned to respect the names of Plekhanov, Axelrod and Zasulich. Especially Vera Zasulich, for she was fighting two struggles: as a revolutionary and as a woman. What was the function of such heroes if not to be emulated and even to be surpassed in courageous actions? Perhaps there was even now some senior pupil at the Nikolayev Realschule who was sitting in the classroom, ostensibly paying attention to her lessons while all the time her breast burned with the fire kindled by the union’s struggle? Alexandra who had so often accused him of arrogance, was, he argued, more arrogant than he was, for her attitude was despondence in the face of defeat. Just because they had been arrested and exiled did not mean that the cause was lost, nor that the struggle was over. They had created something in the Union that should never be forgotten.

But Alexandra would not be persuaded of that view and in the end, he had left her, hiding beneath the straw with a fellow escapee, a lady translator of Marx, for several hours as the peasant’s cart took them further and further away from their place of exile. It had been a fairly safe risk, a probability he had calculated of eight to one in favour of success.

After Alexandra there had been no one else until he had reached Paris and, that first time, on entering the small bar off the Rue Cavertin he had only caught a few glimpses of the beautiful stranger, laughing amongst a group of students. A small band of her friends had clubbed together and made up a party to celebrate her birthday. He had arrived just as they were seeing her off and she had passed by quite near him, surrounded by the chattering crowd. One or two of the older men sitting at the small tables that lined the wall of the bar raised their glasses to her, toasting her youth and beauty, and she was gaily returning their salutes; emptying her glass of wine and handing it to one of her waiters.

Just as she reached the door, a large bear of a man had appeared beside her and was greeted with good natured cheers by the students. Blinking, the newcomer smiled sheepishly, his bearded face blushing at the applause of the crowd. From behind his back he clumsily produced an elegantly wrapped bunch of flowers which he offered her. Delighted, she accepted them and rewarded him with a kiss, standing on tiptoe so that she might reach his cheek. This brought more cheers and laughter as the group swung out into the street, surrounding the slight figure of the girl in whose wake ambled the smitten giant.

The passage of the young woman, from the rear part of the bar where a table stood littered with bottles to the bar’s entrance, took less than two minutes. As she was swept past, she seemed not to have noticed him, standing tired and bedraggled at the bar. And why should she have done? Wearing the same clothes in which he had travelled all the way from Zurich, clutching the battered travelling case in the bottom of which, on onion-skin paper, was typed the latest intelligence from the Swiss comrades, he looked nondescript. But his eyes had followed her, taking in the neat black dress beneath her black coat with its lapis lazuli brooch; her young aristocratic features, and her bright eyes flashing out beneath the short veil that draped from the hat adorning her simply coiffured hair. Just as she disappeared through the door, she had glanced backwards in the manner of a woman checking to see that she had left nothing behind, and catching Trotsky’s admiring gaze had smiled straight at him. He had half raised his hand in salute, but by then she had gone, leaving him foolishly waving to no one.

To cover his embarrassment, he had haltingly ordered a biere  and, following his memorised instructions and in an accent that made the barman wince, had asked for the whereabouts of a man called Jaques. The barman gave a brief shrug and shake of his head and had moved off to tend to other customers. As the people at the tables around him returned to their conversations he was left to sip his drink and ponder his next move.

He was alone in a capital city, one of the imperial cornerstones of Europe with no more than a few sous in his pocket. His accent, if not his clothes, proclaimed him to be a foreigner. The evening was drawing on and it was more than possible that he had come to the wrong bar. He had no knowledge of the city, no comrades to call upon for assistance and a cache of confidential papers in his luggage.

He was beginning to feel uneasy when a second glass appeared alongside his on the bar counter. Looking up, he saw a pale faced young man had joined him at the bar. Introducing himself as Paul – although Trotsky though that he might have misheard as the man spoke Russian tinged with a thick Polish accent – he motioned to Trotsky to drink up his biere  and said quietly that he would take him to the mysterious Jaques.

“Who was that young woman?” asked Trotsky, nodding towards the door. “The one who just left.”

“Oh, her?” replied the Pole with a chuckle. “That  was Natalya Sedova.”

Chapter Nine

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Saturday 3rd February 1907

Berezovo, Northern Siberia

The Mayor’s wife was not alone in her belief that Modest Andreyevich Tolkach, the administrator of Berezovo’s public hospital, was capable of committing – had indeed committed – murder. It was an opinion shared by most of the people of the town despite there being no evidence to support the charge. On the contrary, on the night of his wife’s death by poisoning, Tolkach had been sitting in the dining room of the Hotel New Century, toasting Nikolai Alexeyevich Dresnyakov’s health upon the occasion of the schoolmaster’s name day. Besides Tolkach the guests had included Father Arkady, the librarian Maslov and many others who had stopped at the schoolteacher’s table to pay their respects. At the hurried inquest that had followed the discovery of the wretched woman’s body, they had all vouched that Tolkach had never left the table. Yet, long after Madame Tolkachaya’s corpse had been consigned to the shabby plot beyond the northern boundary of the churchyard, the rumours persisted. People began to whisper that Colonel Izorov was unconvinced; that the circumstantial evidence was too  strong. It was assumed (erroneously) that Tolkach was a medical man and was therefore used to handling dangerous drugs; poisons that could not be traced at an ordinary post-mortem examination. It was well known that the husband and wife had been known to quarrel in public. Had there been another woman? And hadn’t there been bruises on the body? Signs of a struggle, no doubt!

The rumours grew as the gossips’ imaginations, fuelled by half-remembered accounts of similar cases, were allowed to run free. Some whispered that, as with Bluebeard, the deceased woman had not been his first or even his second wife, and that all the former Mesdames Tolkachayas had died in mysterious circumstances, and that was why he had moved to Berezovo. Or that the dead woman had not been his wife at all, but the daughter of a wealthy and powerful Tobolsk family, whom he had seduced and made his mistress and that the reason he had come to Berezovo had been to escape her father’s vengeance. That Madame Tolkachaya had been fabulously rich and had refused to give him more than a meagre allowance. It was even suggested – the most unlikely of all rumours – that having poisoned his wife, Tolkach had been able to bribe Dr. Tortsov to look the other way.

Tolkach had carried on with his daily duties as best he could as the clouds of suspicion gathered over his head. The Chief of Police summoned him to a private interview once, and then a second time. Throughout it all, the hospital administrator maintained a polite and sociable exterior, demonstrating as best he could by his demeanour his innocence of the crime of uxoricide. The most serious charge that could be levelled against him was one of extreme contributory negligence: a charge to which he had already admitted his guilt.

“If only the store cupboard had not been left unlocked,” he told Colonel Izorov sorrowfully. “She seemed so much better in herself… a tragic accident… tragic…”

The colonel had been sceptical but, in the end, he was allowed to go free. After all, who were his accusers and where was their proof? As a hospital administrator facing criminal charges arising from the death of a patient, Tolkach had the right to call for expert lawyers retained by the ministry to conduct his defence; even to ask for a committee of inquiry with full rights of summoning witnesses to the provincial capital. Those gentlemen would make short work of hearsay and conjecture. The case could take years to come to court and there was no guarantee of success: everyone knew how these public officials stuck together and closed ranks.

Inevitably, when the case was closed, some said that Modest Tolkach had had a lucky escape from the gallows. He did not see it that way. Modest Tolkach did not hold with luck, at least not as a boon from a divine providence. Luck, he believed, was made and not given. If pressed on the point he would concede that such things as ‘fortuitous chance meetings’ and ‘golden opportunities’ did exist, although he would maintain that taking pains to be in the right place at the right time more often had a lot to do with influencing a successful outcome to events. But ask him about luck and he would frown and shake his head. In his mind, the concept was too similar in nature to its exact opposite – a predetermined existence – to be an acceptable belief for a modern man, especially one who burned to be a man of note. In either case, there seemed little point in trying to progress in life if one’s efforts were dictated by supernatural forces. Luck was a crutch used by lesser beings to explain away their failures; like God or a belief in the malevolence of the state.

This was not a personal philosophy designed to endear him to his fellow citizens, many of whom regarded him as a stranger who had somehow succeeded in outwitting the whole town and was now laughing at their stupidity. Berezovo’s hospital administrator did not mind: he would willingly exchange popularity for influence any day of the week.

From an early age, Modest Tolkach had realised that the crib into which he had been born would bring him neither noble title nor easy preferment. Determined that if he could not be counted amongst the ranks of great men – the personages he regarded as men of note – then his best policy was to enter the service of those who were. As soon as he could, he had left his humble birthplace and enlisted as a drummer boy in the Sibirsky, remaining with the regiment for nearly fifteen happy years. Although never rising above the rank of corporal, the drummer boy had been content to serve what he saw, even then, to be his apprenticeship; bribing his way into a safe billet within the commissariat and then leaving it only to become the colonel’s batman. Alone amongst his contemporaries who had joined the colours at that Fair day, he had never seen a shot fired in anger nor endured a day’s sickness or punishment. When eventually the colonel retired from the regiment and had been appointed Head of the Provincial Health Service, Tolkach had promptly obtained his own papers and followed his superior officer as his secretary into the more turbulent and uncertain waters of civilian life.

It had taken almost a year of bullying and cajoling to establish his authority within the provincial headquarters. Twelve months of carefully sifting the documents that daily landed upon his desk so that his master could be protected from the more revealing details of his fiefdom. In all this time, he never once lost sight of where his direction lay. Men of position and power were to be cultivated; favours granted; influence widened; horizons extended. He gained access to the offices of other functionaries like himself; secretaries and assistant secretaries who advised their masters and who drew up the final drafts of important documents. Amongst them he discovered the same spirit of free enterprise that he had known in his days at the army commissariat. Effortlessly, he had kept himself afloat in this bureaucratic demi-monde for a further six years, jealously protecting his master’s interests from his desk in the ante chamber; acting both as guardian and adviser. In return, he had been rewarded with a standard of living far beyond the expectations of his lowly birthright, enabling him to acquire a lease on a modest house in the suburbs, a respectable pony and trap and finally (a mixed blessing, this, he was later to realise) a wife.

Such expenses, even the last, were easily met. Manufacturers of medical supplies submitting tenders for provincial contracts were not unwilling to provide a small commission to guarantee their acceptance. Builders of local and regional hospitals and those concerned with their maintenance were not slow to attach attractive inducements to their estimates. Doctors paid their licence fees. Medical colleges wishing a favourable quinquennial report contributed an unofficial capitation fee. Insurance schemes made ‘presentations’. Even those independently minded citizens who, tiring of the delay in official action, banded together in a spirit of self-help to defray the cost of such works were made to understand that centres of medical excellence must be regularly inspected by a recognised official of the ministry, and that concomitant with such a duty arose the inflated expense of his visit.

Knowing that corruption is tolerated only for as long as the money is generously spread around, Tolkach took care that his master received a reasonable share of each donation and that he acknowledged that he was doing so. A lesser man might have taken all and fallen, but the ex-corporal was scrupulous and too circumspect for such a temptation. As a result, when the day came for his superior once again to retire from his post on a government pension, Tolkach had been ready. Anticipating that the colonel’s successor would bring his own man with him, he had had himself appointed as the new hospital administrator for the district of Berezovo.

The choice of a backwater such as Berezovo had not been made at random. By systematically misleading the previous hospital administrator about the size of his budget, he had seen to it that the district had been underfunded for years while a large reserve fund had been created in the accounts, which he was now able to bring to life. His appointment as the district’s new hospital administrator by the Provincial Medical Board had been robustly advocated by the informal network of secretaries and assistant secretaries whose support he had canvassed through generous lunches, cunningly laced with passing reminders of dealings that would cause them nothing but misfortune if ever they should come to the attention of the Imperial Medical Inspectorate. At the same time, he had persuaded the board to grant him a degree of autonomy that was to become the envy of other districts, arguing that in view of the vast distances involved and the single medical practitioner available (one Dr. V.I. Tortsov) the administration for the area should henceforth be centred at Berezovo, and that as the hospital administrator he should have full authority to initiate whatever works he deemed necessary. The board, befuddled and bedazzled by such machinations, capitulated to his demands making only two provisos: that the cost of maintaining a medical practice in Berezovo would henceforth be met by the hospital and not by the board; secondly, that the district accounts were to be submitted annually to Tobolsk. Beyond that, he was his own master. He could go to Berezovo, or to the Devil, if he wished.

Within a month of the colonel’s retirement, Tolkach had sold the lease on his house and had taken the broad road north. But, although Modest Tolkach now found himself at last in a position where all things were possible, and where the prizes for which he had laboured so hard for so long were now within his reach, his wife had not appreciated this victory. A pale, taciturn woman, Madame Tolkachaya up this point had appeared to be in every sense a ‘lesser being’. Tolkach regarded her as uncomplaining, unassertive and without a single visible achievement to her credit. So she had appeared while they had lived in Tobolsk, and so he expected her to be in Berezovo. It was a misjudgement that was to prove fatal.

While she had lived in the city, Madame Tolkachaya had been content to remain subservient to her husband’s wishes. However, the prospect of spending the rest of her life in such inhospitable surroundings as those in which she now found herself filled her with dismay. She began to become more outspoken: criticising first the guests that had come to quiz the new arrivals, then her neighbours, and finally Tolkach himself. When he had beaten h

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er she had merely become morose and had refused to leave the house, spending her days staring out of the window, scowling at passersby. As he began spinning his new web over the town, she saw for the first time what kind of man her husband was.

Prior to the arrival of the new hospital administrator, Berezovo’s hospital had consisted of two large and airy public wards: the ground floor housed the male patients, the upper floor being reserved for the female patients. With the increased budget, Tolkach was able to close down the upper ward and convert it into four private sick rooms, moving the female patients downstairs and erecting wooden partitions in the lower wards so that the rules of decency could be observed. Inevitably, such alterations meant that a few of the patients had had to be sent home but, as he pointed out to Dr. Tortsov, the terminally ill felt more comfortable within the bosom of their families rather than to lie neglected in a distant hospital. Once the wards on the upper floor had been redecorated, they were reserved for those of the townspeople who were prepared to pay a little extra for their comfort and privacy. Meanwhile, the cubicles in the general ward on the ground floor were still available to the ordinary people and those sustained by the charity of the Church; though at a slightly increased expense, since the cost of the renovations had to be met.

So much was common knowledge amongst the townsfolk, and more than sufficient to make the newcomer unpopular amongst the poorer citizenry. Only Tolkach’s wife knew that when he had put out the work to tender, he had taken care to be overheard by the less favoured competitor, Tachmanov, to the effect that the price he was looking for was around 800 roubles. It was no surprise, therefore, that this was the exact amount submitted on the builder’s estimate of works. The other competing builder, Belinsky, having a better head for business, had submitted an estimate for only 600 roubles, in addition to which he added a further 75 roubles as a mute ‘contribution to hospital funds’. It was Belinsky who was awarded the contract, but it had been Tachmanov’s estimate that had been forwarded with the annual accounts to Tobolsk.

Madame Tolkachaya watched and despaired as her husband happily pocketed not only the 75 roubles but also the extra two hundred, at the same time diminishing the size of the hospital he was charged to administer. Suspecting that the future held nothing for her except disgrace, ruin and, in all probability, imprisonment, she attempted to run away and was brought back. Tolkach beat her again, but it was no use. She began to starve herself and to pray for her release. When it did not come, she attempted to take her life by cutting her wrists with her husband’s razor and had been saved only by Tolkach’s prompt action and the skill of Dr. Tortsov. Carried unconscious from her home, she had been taken to one of the upper rooms in the hospital where she lay for three days, refusing to either eat or drink. No form of protection was overlooked to ensure her safety. By day, her arms were kept by her side in thick restraining straps, to prevent her tearing off the bandages; by night, a nurse was hired to watch over her as she slept. When, on the fourth day, she still refused to take any sustenance, Tolkach ordered the doctor to feed her by force.

For five days she had endured this enforced feeding before relenting. She called weakly for her husband, whom she had previously refused to see. Only Tolkach would know what she had said in their last conversation. How she had begged him for a divorce and was told that such a thing was out of the question; a woman did not leave a man of Tolkach’s stature. How she had threatened that if he would not give her her freedom, she would expose him for the swindler he was or die in the attempt. He in turn had promised her that if she did not change her mind, that she either would never leave the hospital or, if she did leave, it would be under an order of confinement to the Provincial Mental Asylum at Tiumen.

Later one of the orderlies remembered hearing the sound of a blow and Tolkach’s raised voice. Another orderly recalled how the administrator had seemed dazed and preoccupied as he gave the order to remove the straps and dismiss the evening nurse. His wife was to be left alone, the door of her room was to remain locked at all times. No one was to excite her with conversation. She was to remain in solitary confinement in order to allow her to rest and her mind to heal. Later, as he was leaving for Dresnyakov’s party at the hotel, he told one of the orderlies to check to see if his wife was asleep. On being informed that she was standing in the corner of her room weeping copiously, he had shrugged and had left the hospital. Later that night Madame Tolkachaya had taken her own life.

At the inquest, nobody could remember how the store cupboard in the room had come to be unlocked; nor could Dr. Tortsov be certain as to how much carbolic acid she had swallowed. The contusions on her upper arms were consistent with the pressure caused by the restraining straps. Besides these and the burns around her lips, there were no other external injuries or signs of violence. The deceased had left no note.

Such, then, was the true history of how Tolkach’s wife met her end, and the origin of the sinister reputation that the hospital and its administrator had gained amongst the townsfolk. Technically innocent, he was shunned wherever he went. People felt uncomfortable meeting his gaze. Amongst the business class, his new profit-making schemes found no takers. Indeed, he was being judged as vaguely financially unsound; which was perhaps the unkindest cut of all.

As the months passed, Modest Tolkach became used to evenings empty of callers; the nervousness of the bank teller as he counted out his money; the way conversation faltered when he entered a shop. The hospital administrator had bided his time. He knew small towns; he had been brought up in one. Soon there would be another scandal and the tragic circumstances of his wife’s suicide would be forgotten. All he had to do was to keep his head and wait. He knew that one day the call would come; an awkwardly phrased invitation to have a drink at the hotel, perhaps, or a letter inviting him to a social event in aid of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. All the same, he had been surprised to receive without preamble the engraved card requesting his company for dinner at the Pobednyevs’ that evening. Turning the matter over in his mind, he had reached no useful conclusion as to what service the Mayor believed he could offer. When the time for him to leave his house, he noted that the Mayor had not sent his sleigh to fetch him. With a characteristic shrug of his shoulders he told himself that it was still early days. Neither had the desultory conversation during the meal itself yielded any clues. As the sole guest, trapped between the disapproving mien of Madame Pobednyeva and the gross eating habits of her husband, the Mayor, Tolkach waited patiently for the uncomfortable meal to finish.

At last the Mayor pushed back his chair, gave a satisfied belch and motioned his guest to follow him into what he was fond of calling his ‘private study’. Thankful to escape his hostess’s basilisk stare, Tolkach did as he was bid and found himself in a small room cluttered with furniture. Waving him towards a chair, Pobednyev began rummaging in the bottom drawer of a dilapidated roll-top desk that occupied one corner of the room. Having removed a handful of documents, which he rid himself of by the simple expedient of dropping them to the floor, the Mayor drew out a half-empty bottle of brandy and an unopened box of cigars which he produced from behind his back for Tolkach’s inspection in a manner that reminded his guest of a parlour conjuror.

“Here you are, Modest Andreyevich!” he wheezed, thrusting the bottle into his hand. “This will help us wash down my wife’s glotkas .”

As the Mayor turned his back again and began searching for some glasses, Tolkach inspected the label on the bottle and saw that it was an inferior marque.

A growl of triumph signalled that his host had been successful in his search. Tolkach watched in silence as the Mayor poured two generous measures of the amber liquid. Taking the glass proffered to him, the hospital administrator held it up level with his eyes and waited until the Mayor had done likewise. Together they saluted each other and drained their glasses with a single swallow. A second glass was poured and the box of cigars offered, which he declined. Taking a cigar for himself, Mayor Pobednyev closed the box and put it on the floor beneath his feet. He pierced the cigar and then, patting the pockets of his ample waistcoat, extracted a slim box of phosphor matches.

“Well now, my friend,” he said, sucking noisily on the end of his lit cigar, “at last we can talk. Tell me, how is life treating you nowadays?”

“I can’t complain,” replied Tolkach with a shrug.

The two men eyed each other shrewdly.

“But,” he continued, “I was just thinking how fortunate you are, Anatoli Mikhailovich, to have a wife who understands good food. The meal was excellent.”

“Perhaps I am too fortunate,” observed his host with a chuckle. “Matriona is always telling me that I eat too much.”

Spreading his hands, the Mayor framed the girth of his belly.

“All the men in my family have had good appetites. Why, my father used to eat twice as much as I do and he lived until he was well over seventy.”

“It must be especially difficult not to eat well,” sympathised Tolkach, “when you have such nourishing meals put in front of you. After all, a man must keep his strength up. The number of people I see finishing up in the hospital, just because they haven’t taken enough care of themselves and kept themselves properly fed… It’s appalling.”

“That’s just my point,” agreed the Mayor. “Yet my wife insists on giving me portions that would starve a bird. And in the middle of winter too, just when a man needs something extra to keep him going.”

Leaning forward, he lowered his voice confidentially.

“Between you and me, Modest Andreyeivich, she says that it is unseemly that the Mayor should be so well fed. She says that it encourages envy amongst the poor. What do you make of that, eh?”

Tolkach scratched his ear and smiled apologetically.

“If you forgive me for saying so, Anatoli Mikhailovich, and I mean no disrespect to Matriona Fiodorovna, but she is quite wrong; about as wrong as she could be. If nobody else, it is for the Mayor to set an example to the other citizens of the town. He shouldn’t starve himself like a monk living off scraps. I can assure you that you look the picture of health to me, and a fine advertisement for Berezovo. If only others took as good care of themselves as you do, my job would be a lot easier.”

Mayor Pobednyev nodded happily and, raising his glass to his guest, swallowed the remainder of his brandy. Motioning to Tolkach to do likewise, he stood up and began refilling the empty glasses.

“But you understand what I mean about envy, don’t you? Why,” he confided in tones of disbelief as he handed Tolkach his drink, “even some of the town council look at me with green eyes, I’m sure of it.”

Saluting his host, Tolkach raised his glass to his lips and took a sip.

“Professional envy is a funny thing, Anatoli Mikhailovich,” he responded thoughtfully. “Even in my humble capacity as a hospital administrator I am attacked, not for failing but for being too successful. Why, I have halved the number of patients in the hospital and more than doubled the revenue, yet no one seems to appreciate the improvements I have made. But do I let it worry me? Of course not! Let them plot and scheme, I say! As long as I do my job correctly, they will have no grounds for complaint.”

“Hear, hear!” rumbled the Mayor.

“Now, take yourself, for instance,” continued Tolkach smoothly. “What right has anyone to criticise you after all you have done for the town? Who do they think they are? Let’s take this question of diet, for example. Would they rather that you were as thin as a broom and living only on black bread and water? No man would last long as Mayor like that.”

“He wouldn’t?”

“Of course not! People trust officials who are well fed and handsomely built, like yourself. They prefer their Mayor to be a man of the world, a man who knows what’s what. And do you know why?”

Intrigued, Mayor Pobednyev shook his head.

“It’s because when they are in trouble , when they need to ask a favour , they want to deal with a man who they feel comfortable with. They don’t want some skeleton who looks as if he grubs along on five copecks a day. Those kinds of people are the very devil to deal with, I can assure you. They pride themselves on doing everything by the book, right down to the last detail. They never make jokes, or laugh like you or I do. I don’t even think they know how to.”

His eyes fixed on his host’s face, Tolkach paused to take another sip of his brandy.

“Now civic affairs, matters that arise between men, Anatoli Mikhailovich,” he went on, “these are delicate things. Tact is called for. A sense of discretion. A willingness to compromise. Sometimes following the rules too rigidly can actually stop you from solving a problem. I’m sure you agree with me.”

“Certainly, Modest Andreyevich,” the Mayor said solemnly. “I agree with every word you say. A man in my position must be firm, but fair. He must be prepared, if necessary and when all else fails, to bend the rules a little for the common good.”

Tolkach held up his hands in warning.

“But not break them!” he insisted.

“Good grief, I should think not!” exclaimed the Mayor warmly. “That would never do. No, not break them but just… you know… bend them. For the common good.”


“Otherwise,” continued the Mayor, warming to his theme, “how would man progress? If he stuck to the rules all the time, there would be no inventions or anything. The trick is,” he added, narrowing his eyes as he took another pull at his cigar, “to have both order and progress.”

“Order and progress,” repeated Tolkach. “Those are the most important things.”

They raised their glasses to each other and drained them.

“I’m glad we have had this opportunity to talk, Modest Andreyeivich,” said the Mayor as he poured them both another drink and then placed the bottle between them. “An intelligent man like yourself shouldn’t shut himself up in his office all day. You should try to get out more. Mix with the right people.”

“Since the death of my wife,” began Tolkach falteringly, “somehow…”

He let the rest of the sentence trail away into silence, conveying the impression that the subject was still too painful for him to discuss freely.

“Oh yes, a sad loss,” Pobednyev responded softly. “Forgive me if I spoke too soon. But life must go on, you know. There is still so much good that you can do here.”

At the mention of his wife, Tolkach had lowered his head in an attitude of sorrow. Now he slowly raised it, all his instincts alert to the turn the conversation had taken.

“How do you mean exactly?”

“Well, for instance,” mused the Mayor, “I see no reason why a man of your calibre shouldn’t be thinking of a seat on the town council.”

“The town council?”

His host nodded meaningfully. Tolkach considered the suggestion.

“I don’t know if the other councillors would think me worthy of the post.”

“They would if they knew you had my support. My personal  support.”

“I have often felt,” admitted Tolkach, “that I could make a useful contribution to the welfare of the town, if ever I had the honour of being called to serve in some capacity.”

“Naturally,” said the Mayor silkily, “besides fulfilling your duties as hospital administrator and town councillor – assuming that you were elected, of course – you would be called upon, from time to time, to deal with matters of a confidential nature. Matters concerning the security of the town, for example.”

“I trust my record as a loyal soldier of his Imperial Majesty the Tsar speaks for itself.”

“Say no more, Modest Andreyeivich!” cried Pobednyev. “The very idea that anyone could doubt your trustworthiness is ridiculous. I’m sure that nobody, not even your enemies, could find the slightest reason to impugn your reputation as a public servant, no matter how hard they tried.”

“My enemies?” queried Tolkach with a tight smile.

The Mayor waved his half smoked cigar dismissively.

“It’s the kind of cross we in public life have to bear,” he explained. “As I said earlier, less talented people always tend to become envious when someone they know suddenly achieves promotion or advancement. They try to dig up all sorts of unsavoury episodes in his past, just so as to embarrass him. In some cases it can seriously compromise a man, and even lead to a police investigation.”

“A police investigation?” echoed Tolkach.

“Yes,” continued Pobednyev casually. “That is why someone as clever as you must take the additional precaution of cultivating powerful friends. As you yourself said earlier, even the post of hospital administrator attracts covetous glances.”

“In the event of my being asked to serve upon the council,” said Tolkach slowly, “I would naturally show my gratitude to you in any way you should think fit.”

“Why, thank you, Modest Andreyeivich.”

“I mean if there was anything particular  you had in mind, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Well now, let me see.”

There was a moment’s silence as the Mayor appeared to give the matter some thought.

“There was one thing,” he said finally, gesturing to his guest to refill their glasses.

“Please, tell me,” urged Tolkach as he leaned forward to take the bottle.

“It was something my wife said the other night.”

Tolkach poured the Mayor his drink and watched as Pobednyev settled back easily in his chair.

“She’s a remarkable woman, my wife,” mused his host. “The other night she turned to me and said: ‘You know, Anatoli Mikhailovich, the trouble with Berezovo is that it has no civic pride.’ Just like that. Straight out of the blue. Now what do you make of that?”

“Remarkable!” agreed Tolkach. “No civic pride, eh?”

“That’s what she said. Matriona Fiodorovna feels that the town needs something to act as a focal point, to make us all proud of being Beresovites. And by God, I think she’s right.”

“What do you mean? Something like a new Town Hall?”

“No, not quite,” replied the Mayor, adding with a sigh as he took another sip of his brandy, “Although, God knows, we need one. The roof leaks every spring and it’s as cold as a witch’s tit for most of the year. But still, we don’t complain. No, I think what she meant is something out in the street. Something that the public can point to and say ‘This  is a symbol of Berezovo’.”

“You mean, like a well?”

“We already have a well,” the Mayor reminded him.

Tolkach hazarded another guess.

“A fountain, then?”

The Mayor grinned and playfully wagged a finger at him.

“I can tell you were brought up in the city! A fountain would be a good idea in Moscow or Petersburg, but up here it would be frozen for half of the year and stink for the other half. Besides, there would always be the cost of maintaining it. No, I was thinking of something more artistic.”

Slowly the light began to dawn in Tolkach’s face.

“A portrait?”

“Out in the street?” the Mayor corrected him patiently.

“Of course,” Tolkach exclaimed with a snap of his fingers. “Now I have it! A statue.”

“Exactly!” confirmed Pobednyev. “Only it would be more of a monument, really. ‘The Berezovo Monument’. Erected by public subscription as a token of celebration.”

“Celebrating what exactly, Anatoli Mikhailovich?”

“The town’s history…. Great events…” the Mayor replied vaguely, “that sort of thing. What do you think?”

“I can see that it is an excellent idea,” answered Tolkach at once. “With the state of the country as it is, everybody is rather down at the mouth at the moment. It would be good for the town’s morale. But what kind of monument would it be?”

“Oh, that can be settled later,” said Mayor Pobednyev airily. “The question is, would you be prepared to sound out one or two of our prominent citizens on the notion? But,” he added, holding up a finger of warning, “whatever you do, you mustn’t mention that you had the idea from me. I know some of those rascals! They would think nothing of depriving the people of their monument if they thought it would annoy me. I would rather resign my office than let that happen.”

“Leave it to me, Anatoli Mikhailovich,” Tolkach assured him. “I won’t breathe a word of your involvement in the project. But people will want to know who the statue… the monument is of. What shall I tell them?”

“Who do you think it should be of?” asked Mayor Pobednyev genially.

“His Imperial Majesty the Tsar?” suggested Tolkach, remembering the Mayor’s earlier reference to his military service.

Mayor Pobednyev hurriedly shook his head, disturbed by the suggestion.

“And give the exiles something to daub red paint over in the dead of night? No, that would be most unwise.”

Tolkach tried again.

“How about one of Menshikov or of Ostermann? They were citizens of Berezovo, if only for a short time.”

“For exactly the same reason!” said the Mayor, shaking his head. “How would it look if we started erecting monuments to people who were sent into exile by one of the Tsar’s ancestors? Kostya Izorov, for one, would be none too pleased.”

Tolkach was baffled.

“Of course. It was foolish of me to suggest it. But who then?”

Getting slowly to his feet, the Mayor picked up the bottle and drained the last few drops of brandy into Tolkach’s glass. Leaning forward, he placed a hand paternally on the hospital administrator’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Councillor,” he advised him. “Given time, I’m confident someone will occur to you.”

Chapter Ten

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“Paris is not so bad,” Paul admitted as he escorted Trotsky through the unfamiliar cobbled streets. “There are worse cities. But without Natalya Sedova, even Paris would lose some of its glamour. She, above all things, makes exile bearable.”

Trotsky noted the tone of affectionate protection.

“And the big fellow? Is he her lover?”

His companion laughed, a mirthless sound that sounded like cracking wood.

“Daniel? Her lover? No, they share the same birthday, that’s all. Natalya studies at the University and one of her professors presented her with some theatre tickets as a present. So, she has shared them with Daniel.”

They walked for ten minutes, talking intermittently. Noting how Paul either ignored or deflected his questions, Trotsky realised that the French comrades had chosen the venue for their rendezvous carefully so that it was not near their base. When they finally reached their destination, he was not surprised to see that it was a nondescript terraced house in a back street. The door was opened almost immediately and they were escorted to a sitting room at the rear of the house.

A solidly built woman in her mid-fifties was sitting waiting for them. Nursing a large sewing basket upon her knee she scrutinised the newcomer attentively through her rimless spectacles. Her thick square jaw and grey hair, tightly dressed in a bun, gave her a severe appearance.

As Paul and the woman exchanged a few words Trotsky took in his new surroundings. It was a low ceilinged room with one window at the far end, across which two brown curtains were securely drawn. A small fire made of cheap coal and scavenged bits of box wood was smoking cheerlessly in the hearth. The second man who had opened the outer door to them was standing in the doorway blocking his exit. Beside the chair upon which the woman was sitting stood a large table covered by a heavy woollen blanket upon which Paul had placed his travelling case. From the few inches of wood revealed by the hem of the blanket, Trotsky felt that it was a good piece of furniture, probably a relic of more prosperous times. Somehow its fine quality diminished rather raised the standard of the room. The overall impression was one of drab, soul-grinding, petit-bourgeois domesticity.

His nervousness at the prolonged silence began to give way to a feeling of anti-climax. Somewhere further along the dark hallway he heard a door open and the swish of skirts. He thought again of the beautiful stranger he had glimpsed in the bar earlier that evening. Natalya had been her name; Natalya Sedova, his beautiful stranger. The aroma of a meat stew reached his nostrils and his stomach responded with a growl of hunger. He shifted his weight wearily from one foot to another.

“Take off your overcoat,” the woman said.

He began to shrug off the heavy travelling coat and was helped by unseen hands behind him.

“Now your jacket.”

Again he was helped and his jacket disappeared.

Relieved of the warmth of his jacket and coat, he moved instinctively towards the fire.

“Stay where you are,” the woman warned.

Looking at her in surprise, he saw that one of her hands had dipped quickly into the sewing box and although he could not see the gun, he heard the click as she released the safety catch.

“Where is the key to the case?”

Carefully he patted his left trouser pocket, and the woman jerked her head towards the table. Slowly he took the small key from his pocket and passed it to the man called Paul. Unsmiling, the Pole took it from him and began opening the battered suitcase. Trotsky watched as first the bottle he had been carrying as a personal present for ‘Jaques’ and then the worn clothes that had served as ballast for the case were removed and laid carefully upon the blanket. Reaching into a jacket pocket, Paul produced a closed clasp knife which he carefully opened, revealing a blade about four or five inches long that glinted dully in the lamplight.

“Turn around,” she ordered. “Face the wall. Keep your arms by your sides.”

Assuming a nonchalance that he did not feel, Trotsky did as he was ordered, and gazed fixedly at the stained wallpaper. A faded pattern of roses was just discernible beneath the grime. Out of the corner of his right eye, he could see the doorway. It was empty; the man who had let them in had gone, taking with him the coat and jacket he had been lent in Zurich. From behind him came the sound of the knife cutting as Paul began working at the fabric of the suitcase. Trotsky waited patiently, savouring the smells of cooking that were filling the room. Closing his eyes, he longed for sleep.

“Stand up straight!”

He felt the woman’s eyes upon his back, taking in his uncut hair, his ill-mended and dusty shoes. He recognised her now: she was the Cerberus of the party; no one whose credentials did not satisfy her would be allowed access to the centre. And where was the centre? Somewhere else in the city, that seemed probable; not here, in this hole. He began to wonder what would happen if he had been a police agent in disguise. Certainly he would not have been permitted to leave the house alive; these people did not play children’s games with empty guns. There was little doubt in his mind that Paul’s knife was as capable of slitting throats as it was of slitting case linings. As if the Pole had read his thoughts, he heard the sound of the blade stop and the rustle of paper as the documents were removed. There was a pause, and then he was told to turn round.

On the table, the clothes remained undisturbed. Beside them, the case gaped open, shreds of its lining draped over the sides like lolling tongues. Taking the bottle of Ticino with him, Paul left the room, patting Trotsky’s arm absentmindedly as he did so. Wearily, Trotsky turned to follow him but the woman stopped him.

“Stay here, Comrade. In a moment Pavel will bring you a glass of wine and something to eat.”

He watched as, with a sigh, she closed the lid of the sewing box and placed it carefully on the table beside her chair. Then, stiffly, she rose and stood for a moment, looking at him as if preoccupied with some inner thoughts. She seemed to reach some decision, for she took a pace forward and held, out her hand.

“Bienevenue, Pero. Je suis Jaques.”

Smiling at last, he had shaken her hand, relieved that his long journey was over. He noticed the dry strength of her grasp and the way that her eyes lost none of their shrewdness as she examined his face closely. He was later to realise that he had only passed through the first of many tests; success in all of which was imperative if he was to be given access to the headquarters of the party abroad.

The house to which Paul had led him appeared to be some form of private boarding establishment, for there were numbers on each of the six bedrooms. However, during that first stay in Paris he had seen no other guests; a fact that had puzzled him until he had ove

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rheard the doorman inform a caller that they had illness in the house. Each day was the same. He spent most of the morning and afternoon either reading or resting in his room. In the evening, he would join Jaques in her sitting room and allow himself to be subjected to hours of questioning. Occasionally he would be allowed to go out, but always in the company of Paul.

One evening, in the hope of once more catching sight of his beautiful stranger, Trotsky had persuaded the Pole to allow him to revisit the bar in the Rue Cavertin. Natalya had not appeared and Trotsky and Paul had spent the evening talking with the other émigrés .

As the talk grew louder and the air in the bar turned beer stale and blue with cheap tobacco smoke, Trotsky found that their pessimism upset him, and he felt that he was drifting back and was once more amongst talkers and not doers. The exiles of Ust-Kut and Verkholensk, he told himself, had had more life in them than these uprooted creatures. It was as if he had climbed to the lip of the volcano and heard from its depths not fiery rhetoric, but the endless echo of ineffectual chatter. He became in turn suspicious, abrasive and, finally, rude. Even the prospect that Natalya might at any moment enter the bar did nothing to soothe his spirits. On the contrary, he could not have borne it if she had appeared while he was feeling in such a foul mood. He was relieved when Paul suggested that they return to Jaques, and he had used the kilometre back to the safe house to walk off some of his frustration.

Reaching the house, they found Jaques waiting up for them. Trotsky had gone straight to his room (first storey back) that he shared with Paul and was sitting on the rough camp bed when he heard his hostess’s voice calling his name. Wearily, he rose and went downstairs, expecting to have to answer more questions about the South Russia Union and how it had collapsed. One look at the stern expression on Jaques’ face put him on his guard.

She did not mince her words.

“Paul tells me that you behaved in a very uncomradely way tonight. He says that, like a fool, you argued with everyone. You talked instead of listened.”

Trotsky looked quickly at Paul, who was standing beside her chair. If he was expecting the Pole to look embarrassed, he was to be disappointed. In truth, the Pole looked very satisfied with himself and did not display any shame at his exposure as informant.

“Well, do you have an explanation?” Jaques demanded. “I suppose you realise that you have endangered everybody here. You have drawn attention to yourself and therefore to this house. What made you behave so stupidly? Was it the drink? Was that it?”

For the first time he had lost his temper with Jaques, piqued by the unfairness of her assumption that the fault lay with him. She had no right to reprimand him, he told her, when comrades were being tortured and killed at home in the struggle. What did those derelicts in the bar know about conditions in Russia? Had she  heard the rubbish they were talking? Had she even been out of the house recently? For months he had been living like a hunted animal, shunted from one hiding place to another, harboured by brave workers who risked discovery and torture just so as he could get to Paris; to the great party abroad which would help build the revolution. And what did he find? A bunch of squabbling relics, Narodovolets  most of them, who were twenty, no, thirty years behind the times. Well, he was fed up of running. He wanted to work, to continue the fight, not sink into the slough like the ones in the bar. “Words without deeds was death” and so on. It had been quite an outburst.

After Jaques had ordered him to go to bed he lay awake for an hour, fretting in case he had overstepped the mark. But in the morning, he had been provided with new luggage, a change of travelling clothes and an address in London. He was to catch the noon boat train from the Gare du Nord. The person he was to contact in London was situated at 30, Holford Square, Pentonville: a Dr. Jacob Richter. He was to bear greetings from his cousin Jaques and to tell him that the wine was excellent. He was also to give her warmest greetings to Frau Richter. En fin , his wish had been granted. He was on his way.

* * *

The two railway journeys and the boat crossing had taken over ten hours. It was a wearisome journey, and he had deliberately disobeyed his instructions by spending some of the English money he had been given in Paris on the small luxury of two glasses of rum on the boat. Once in London, having been warned not to loiter in the echoing cavern of the railway terminus, a favourite pick-up point of the British secret police, he lost no time in hailing a horse drawn cab on the street. Carefully enunciating the address of his destination to the sullen cab driver, he climbed into the creaking hansom and had sat back, determined to enjoy the luxury of being driven through the city.

Just as in Paris, he felt unsettled by the sheer size of the city’s buildings. Everything was so colossal, so alien, compared to home. Even Odessa was not as big as this city. It was as if he had been transported into a future, where the very stones proclaimed the monumental confidence of the ruling class. Steadily, the traffic became more congested until they broke out into the maelstrom of a square, one side of which was dominated by a tall stone column. At the base of the pillar he had glimpsed the outline of a pair of carved lions and had smirked at this imperial conceit, for huddled against the old bronze flanks of the lions lay the unmistakeable figures of sleeping humanity. As the cab continued to traverse one side of the square, he saw more figures, clustered around the base of the column like the unburied fallen of some battlefield massacre. This scene of desolation disappeared as the carriage swung left behind tall buildings and began making its way up a narrow side street. Gradually he became aware of the sound of a great tumult, as if the invisible battle had been carried by its own momentum into another sector of the city. Excited cries and shouts, quite unintelligible to his ears, were growing in volume, mixed with the neighing of horses and the rumbling of carts. The cab slowed down to a walking pace and then, blocked by an obstruction ahead, stopped altogether. Peering through the cab’s small side window he saw that they had reached a night market, but a market of such dimension and dynamism that it beggared anything that even Petersburg could have boasted.

Muttering, the driver climbed down from his seat and strode off into the crowd, leaving Trotsky to take in the scene around him. Stacked boxes of fruit and vegetables were arranged in serried ranks, starting at thigh height out on the narrow pavements to almost ceiling height inside the wholesalers’ warehouses. Everywhere, there was light: yellow light from the tall street lamps; white light from new electric lamps inside some of the premises; blue light from the naphtha flares and red light from the coals of the braziers of the street traders. It was as if night had been turned into day, there not being enough hours of natural daylight to turn a respectable profit. To the left and to the right of him he saw mountains of food, standing untended less than half a verst from the square full of hungry tramps. Under the glare of the lights he noted that many of the fruits and vegetables seemed to lose their distinctive colouring, so that the subtle differences in hue were lost between cabbages and lettuces, marrows and celery.

The driver returned, bearing a covered tray which he hastily stowed on the top of the cab. He was just in the time, for the obstruction in front of them had been removed and angry voices could be heard from behind them urging him to be on his way. The cabbie cracked his whip and Trotsky watched as, in all its tonnage, the quantity of produce was slowly paraded for his inspection. Bulky sacks of peat brown potatoes sat next to trays of imported figs. Quinces and damsons piled high in their trays shared the pavement with smooth-skinned tomatoes and craggy artichokes. Intermittently, broad wooden drays appeared upon which men stood loading boxes of apples and pears while their massive draught horses resting between their shafts, munching steadily at their nosebags, spasmodically stamping their iron shod hooves against the cobblestones. And everywhere there were workers: small dark pugnacious looking men, emerging from the bright mouths of the warehouses, with boxes of walnuts and filberts balanced three high on their cloth-capped heads, or stooped under the weight of hessian sacks of turnips and beets. No sooner had one load been carried away than it was promptly loaded into by the merchants’ waiting carts and wagons.

The cab continued its careful journey towards the periphery of the market. Down the side streets Trotsky glimpsed a greater structure, towering above the maze of street, like a glass and steel cathedral. This covered inner market seemed to form the centre of the area, for the trade became noticeably brisker around its precincts. The open doorways of the wholesalers’ warehouses were interspersed with the solid brick exteriors of bars, from which was coming a cacophony of music and laughter. Behind their steamed up windows, the carters sat at their ease, awash with beer and cheap meat pies, their rest time glimpsed in the fraction of a closing door.

As it forged its way along the crowded thoroughfare, the cab was overtaken by jaunty youths, whistling to keep out the cold as they wheeled trolleys loaded with trays of grapes or black bullaces, and silent older men, pushing barrows with mounds of carrots, beans and sprouts. Trotsky watched as a shawled and raddled prostitute, standing inconveniently at a corner, was shoved aside by the bustling columns of men; some stripped to their waistcoats and mufflers despite the chill of the night air. In the gutters, urchins fought over spillages or munched hungrily on discarded stalks. Yelping pitifully, a dog with three legs was limping painfully beside the cab, using its bulk as a cover.

With a click of his tongue, the cabbie urged his horse onwards. Gradually the light and smell of the market fell away, the noise fading last of all until it was only a buzzing in his ears. Overcome by it all, Trotsky closed the window, and sat back against the cracked leather upholstery, content to let the cabbie take him where he would. How small Odessa had seemed after Paris, and now London was bigger still!

He shook his head violently and told himself that he must clear his mind and attend to the situation at hand, and not allow himself to be overawed by the sights of the city like a country bumpkin. He had messages to deliver and important people to meet. He wondered what sort of person this Dr. Richter was and whether he knew the writer Lenin. The author of The Development of Capitalism in Russia  and What is to be done  obviously boasted a first class mind; but how much of that was dedicated to scholarly theorising and how much to impassioned struggle? A sudden doubt overcame him: had he travelled nearly five thousand versts only to find yet another group of emigres cursed with the Russian sickness? Was this Lenin also prone to dogged despair punctuated by futile declarations?

The cab was moving more quickly now through the silent streets, the sounds of the jangling harness and the horse’s hooves on the metalled surface of the roads echoing eerily against the walls of the houses that rose steeply on either side. At last it slowed to a stop and the driver’s double tap on the roof of the carriage signalled that the cab had reached its destination.

Alighting, Trotsky found that they had arrived in a dimly lit square, devoid of any traffic. He took some coins from his pocket and offered them to the man. Reaching down the cab’s driver grasped his hand, held his open palm under the light of the coach lamp and shook his head. The money was insufficient to pay the fare. Withdrawing his hand Trotsky dug into his overcoat pocket and produced more coins, although he knew them to be of a lesser value. The driver shook his head again purposefully. Nodding in agreement, Trotsky dropped the coins back into his pocket and then held up both hands, palm outwards in the international signal for, “Wait!”

This, he felt, was an awkward situation. The amount he had spent on the two glasses of rum on the boat crossing had left him short of money for the fare. Wasn’t that embezzlement? Moreover, his instructions about his arrival had been clear. He was to alight from the cab before reaching the address and allow the cab to leave the vicinity. Once he was sure that the coast was clear he would go to the door numbered 30 and give the agreed signal by knocking. This, he recognised, was not now possible; instead, he would have to rouse Dr. Richter and ask him for money to pay the cabdriver. It would mean a risk to security and, what was worse, great personal embarrassment. It risked becoming a repetition of the farcical scene he had played with Victor Adler; the reports of which had preceded his journey to Paris.

He looked briefly around the square, but it appeared empty of loiterers and he could see no evidence of surveillance behind the shut faced curtained windows. Opening the door of the cab he reached in and picked up his luggage. Placing the suitcase deliberately on the pavement in full view of the driver he mimed his intentions. The driver solemnly nodded his approval. Turning quickly Trotsky hurried to the door of number 30 and gave the triple knock Jaques had taught him. He waited. There was no response. He tried again: one… two-three. Plek-hanov. From somewhere inside the house, on the first floor he heard a faint movement and seconds later saw an upstairs curtain twitch. A white moon of a face appeared briefly, then it was gone. Another minute passed and he debated whether he should knock again. He decided against it. To knock the first time was to follow orders; to knock the second time was to confirm his bona fides . To give the signal the third time would be to compromise his credibility as a man who could not be flustered.

He had been told that the landlady, a Mrs Yeo, lived on the ground floor of the premises. Looking first one way and then the other down the street, he leant forward and placed his ear against the panel of the door. New sounds were coming from within the house: soft footfalls descending the stairs; the hiss and pop of a gas lamp as light dawned in the hallway and then the sound of someone hurrying towards the door. Straightening up, he waited as the unseen person reached up and, with a grating sound of metal against metal, stealthily drew back the bolt. Cautiously the door was opened a few inches and a pudgy faced woman, her shabby nightgown caught protectively at the throat by her hand, stared out at him.

“Yes?” she demanded, her voice thick with suspicion. “What you want?”

Her crude use of English came as a surprise to him. Keeping his voice to a whisper he replied in Russian.

“I am Pero. I have come to see Doctor Richter. Are you Frau Richter?”

She looked at him and frowned.

“Why do you want to see the doctor?”

Confident that he had arrived at the correct address, he nodded.

“Jaques sent me. I don’t have enough fare for the cab. I am very sorry, comrade. Can you help me?”

Looking out into the square, she took in the waiting cab and the suitcase on the pavement beside it.

“Wait here,” she ordered.

Once she had paid off the cab the woman let him into the house, immediately closing the door and bolting it after him. Dowsing the gas, which exploded with another pop, she held a finger up against his lips. Then, taking him by the hand, she led him along the dark hallway past the bottom of the staircase to the back of the house. Opening a door, she pushed him through and followed after him.

At first he could see nothing, but as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness he could make out the faint outline of a window high up in the opposite wall. The room smelt of rotting vegetables and stale bread. He listened as the woman fumbled for matches, swore and then struck one. Within a few seconds she had lit another gas lamp and he could see that she had brought him into a small dingy kitchen.

This time when she spoke it was in Russian.

“Do you have your papers?”

He produced the forged passport he had used since leaving Verkholensk.

“Trotsky,” she read aloud. “Is that you?”

“No, it’s a cover name. I borrowed it from one of the warders at my last prison.”

She nodded thoughtfully.

“And who did you say you were?”


“And who sent you?”

“Your cousin Jaques.”

“And did you have a message for my husband?”

Trotsky hesitated.

“It depends who your husband is, Madame,” he replied cautiously.

The woman nodded again, this time with approval.

“Quite right. I am the wife of Dr. Jacob Richter.”

“Then I do have a message for you. Jaques said to tell the doctor that the wine was excellent. And to you, Frau Richter, she sends her warmest greetings.”

“Her warmest greetings? Schon !” snorted the woman with a mocking smile. “Jaques seems to have mellowed towards us since we last met. Are you sure she said ‘warmest’ greetings’?”

“She might have said affectionate,” he admitted, “I cannot remember. I have been travelling for a long time.”

Frau Richter frowned.

“Next time be more careful with your memory. It could be important.”

“Yes, Frau Richter.”

Suddenly she smiled, and clapped him on the arm.

“You have done well, Pero. Welcome! My name is Nadezhda Krupskaya. I shall get dressed and then start getting you something to eat. Come upstairs and meet Lenin. He will be surprised to see you. We were not expecting you to arrive for another two weeks.”

Chapter Eleven

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Sunday 4th February 1907

Berezovo, Northern Siberia

Gleb Pirogov shifted his feet and stretched his aching legs as the last echoes of the Trisagion faded away. A flash of silver, visible through the Holy Door and reflecting the blaze of candlelight surrounding the throne, told him that the service was nearing its end. The acolytes were bringing the Cross down to the iconostasis for the final veneration. Some of the congregation began to move slowly forward, their eyes fixed on Father Arkady as he appeared in front of the decorated screen with the three young boys. The worshippers waited patiently, knowing that two of his regular acolytes had fallen sick, having caught severe chills during the Epiphany service on the frozen riverbank.

Father Arkady looks tired , thought Pirogov as the priest whispered hurried instructions to his new helpers, handing one the thurible, positioning the hands of the other around the broad cross piece of the crucifix so that the boy could support its weight more easily. Pirogov offered up a short prayer for Father Arkady’s welfare as he watched him beckon the burly figure that had positioned itself at the forefront of the congregation. Respectfully, His Excellency the Mayor advanced and slowly lowered himself to his knees in front of the proffered cross. Raising his open palms towards the distant altar, Mayor Pobednyev inclined his head and kissed the foot of the crucifix. He felt the priest’s hand rest lightly on the crown of his head as his bass tones rumbled a blessing. As the third acolyte, cloth in hand, quickly wiped the spot where his lips had touched the silvered wood, the Mayor rose and retreated, allowing Colonel Izorov to take his place. From the darkened patina of the fresco high on the wall behind the throne, the luminescent eyes of the Christus glared down over the top of the screen, taking in the uniformed man kneeling below and the shuffling throng behind him.

Unlike in its estranged sister in the West, there were no pews or chairs in the main body of this House. The worshippers of Berezovo were able to move about freely, resting if they felt weary during the long services on the wooden ledge that lined the alcoves along the side walls. The ledge was symbolic of the incumbent’s compassion, as was his forbearance for those who, in the winter months, chose not to endure the long vigils on Saturday nights, and preferred to take the Eucharist the following day. Not that Father Arkady was in any way lax: he still stuck rigidly to using the ninth century Church Slavonic and frowned upon those who knelt during the reading of the Sunday services. Now, as Colonel Izorov rose, making way for another man to approach the Cross, the priest looked up and began counting the expectant faces watching through the pungent haze of candlelight and incense. The boy holding the Cross was already weakening, he noted. He would not last another quarter of an hour.

Pirogov stood alone at the back of the church. A skilled carpenter and joiner, he would receive his blessing before that of a labourer or peasant, but until that time came he was content to wait his turn. Eventually the procession of those who had been blessed began making its way past him towards the outer door. The Pobednyevs first, bowing importantly to a few select friends, followed by an unsmiling Colonel Izorov and his wife. Next came Captain Steklov, escorting, in her husband’s absence, a bored looking Madame Kuibysheva. Close behind them came the Nadnikovs and the Kavelins: the gentlemen leading the way, their wives following. Impassively, Pirogov noted Nadnikov’s look of approval at the polished boots and glittering spurs of the young Captain in front of him, while Kavelin eyed Madame Kuibysheva’s twitching bustle with a smirk.

There was a pause, then, already deep in conversation, the ‘Two Thieves’ emerged from the crowd: Izminsky, the manager of the town’s only bank and Kuprin, the revenue officer. Eyes that may have been fixed hungrily, or otherwise, upon Madame Kuibysheva’s shapely figure were now averted lest, by accidentally catching the attention of either of the two men, forgotten accounts were brought to mind. Pirogov did likewise. In the next few days he would have to apply for the loan of a paltry sum, five roubles, to cover the doctor’s bill and buy some new linen for the new babe. He had no wish to spoil his chances by appearing insolent.

The man who walked behind the ‘Two Thieves’ walked alone. Suffering from the after effects of heavy food and cheap brandy, Modest Tolkach studiously ignored the stony glances of the women as he hastened to reach the fresh air outside. It had been unfortunate that the Cross should have fallen from the boy’s hands just as he had bent to kiss it. It did not necessarily mean that he was damned, although, after his supper with Anatoli Pobednyev the previous night, he felt that nothing would surprise him. Things would be different when he was on the council. The fat imbecile couldn’t stay Mayor forever.

Ignoring the hospital administrator, Pirogov moved forward and then stopped as he caught sight of Dr. Tortsov leading his wife away from the screen, with his assistant Chevanin dutifully in tow.

The carpenter stood his ground; he had his pride. He owed the doctor money, he reminded himself; that was all. In any case, Tortsov was all right. If you couldn’t pay immediately, he didn’t kick up a fuss. But the debt was already a week old.

With a sinking feeling in his stomach, he watched as the doctor, seeing him, muttered a few words to his assistant, who looked in his direction and nodded. It had not occurred to him before that perhaps Chevanin, as the physician who had actually delivered the baby, would be collecting the payment. He sensed that the younger man would be far less inclined to extend his credit than his employer. He braced himself for the inevitable as the Tortsovs drew level with him and then passed him by. Chevanin hung back and greeted him.

“Good morning Gleb Pirogov.”

“Good morning, Sir.”

“The doctor would like to speak to you when you leave. A quick word, that is all.”

Pirogov nodded in acknowledgement, and Chevanin moved on. The carpenter watched morosely, inwardly cursing his luck, as Nikolai Alexeyevich Dresnyakov and Alexandra Alexeyevna Dresnyakova emerged from the thinning crowd. Brother and sister, they differed only in height and hairstyles. Pirogov moved forward again, pushing his way through the outer fringes of the congregation. But for the order for the ten sleighs, he would have already paid Tortsov’s bill. Instead, every copeck of his working capital had gone to Kavelin’s timber yard for materials and he had had to turn away smaller jobs in order to finish the work on time. Now he would definitely have to go to Izminsky. Such was life.

In front of the screen, Father Arkady had changed the acolytes around. The boy who had let the crucifix slip was now swinging the incense burner; the boy with the cloth was now holding the Cross. Impatient to leave, the remaining worshippers had formed the semblance of a queue. Prison director Skyralenko, the tunic of his Imperial Penal Service uniform worn shiny at the elbows, was quickly being followed by the lesser merchants: Shiminski, Kubalchov and Pusnyan and their wives.

There was another pause while Madame Roshkovskaya was gently lowered to her knees. Those at the back craned their necks and, seeing the reason for this new delay, started talking quietly amongst themselves. For Nina Roshkovskaya, they were prepared to wait. Even Pirogov, standing next to Irkaly Ovseenko who already smelled strongly of drink, nodded in agreement with his fellow craftsman’s tut of sympathy. There was something fundamentally wrong with a world which afflicted a harrowing condition upon such a beautiful woman. To many in the town, divided by class, rank and political beliefs, Roshkovsky’s wife provided the sole unifying link: the admiration they felt, as they watched her daily battle with the disease that was slowly crippling her, went far beyond the limits of cheap sentiment. There was a quality to her suffering that was universal and yet, at the same time, peculiarly Russian.

The darker the night, the brighter the stars.
The deeper the pain, the closer to God.

Madame Roshkovskaya could not be measured by the standards of ordinary people. Her beauty was not the same as Madame Kuibysheva’s. For all her wealth, the fur merchant’s young wife looked tawdry beside the invalid’s finely chiselled aristocratic features. Nina Roshkovskaya’s obstinate determination to live every day as if her illness was a minor inconvenience spoke of a bravery beyond that of the most decorated soldier in the garrison. Knowing that Dr. Tortsov could do nothing for her, she was still able to greet him as a valued friend. With the exception of the doctor and her husband, no one had ever heard her complain of the pain she was in, though it was obvious to all. She had not even turned to Father Arkady: her presence at the service spoke not of any deeply held beliefs but of her unshakeable determination to attend the church whenever she wished. She had what those strange people, the English, called ‘grit’.

Father Arkady’s hand rested longer than usual upon the lace that covered her elegant coiffure and for an instant an expression of profound sorrow could be detected beneath the priest’s heavily bearded features. Spreading her arms like a wild goose in flight, Madame Roshkovskaya allowed herself to be helped to her feet by her husband, assisted by Fyodor Gregorivich, the proprietor of the Hotel New Century. Slowly, the huddled trio, Roshkovsky half supporting, half cradling her in her arms, took the first steps in the laborious journey to the door. Unable to help and unable to watch, some of the waiting men turned their heads away while others fixed their gaze keenly on her eyes, willing her on, baring their teeth with the effort as they tried to pour the strength of their muscles into hers. Aware of the feelings in the hearts of their menfolk, the women looked on sombrely.

The queue moved forward again as, in rapid succession, Maslov, Belinsky and Delyanov all knelt before the priest. Standing on tiptoe, Pirogov peered over the shoulder of the man in front of him and saw that there were at least another dozen people before his turn would come. A flicker of hope began to burn within him. Perhaps Dr. Tortsov would already have gone. But when, at last, he had received Father Arkady’s benediction and had reached the outer door of the church, he found that Fyodor Gregorivich, still supporting the land-surveyor’s wife, was blocking the way out to the street and that the doctor, standing in the centre of a small group of people, was deep in conversation with Andrei Roshkovsky. Seeing Pirogov hesitate as he approached, the owner of the Hotel New Era edged to one side to let him through, but the carpenter shook his head and pointing silently at the doctor, indicating that he had cause to speak with him. Without pausing in what he was saying, Dr. Tortsov turned and acknowledged him with a nod then carried on with this conversation. Pirogov waited, tur

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ning the worn brim of his hat nervously in his hands.

“Remember now,” the doctor was saying, “seven o’ clock this evening at the hotel for casting. I don’t think it should take long this year. Now, are you sure that you would not prefer to take my sleigh home, Nina Vassileyevna?”

“It’s very kind of you, Doctor,” replied Madame Roshkovskaya, “but Fyodor Gregorivich has kindly offered us seats in his. Besides, you have just as far to go as we have and the town would not forgive me if you caught a chill on my account.”

The doctor laughed.

“I’m too busy to catch a chill at the moment. Besides,” he added, jerking his head towards the carpenter, “I have to attend to Pirogov here, or rather his wife. You have heard of his good fortune, I suppose?”

Hearing his name mentioned, Pirogov took a step forward, smiling sheepishly.

“Good fortune, Gleb Yakovlevich?” asked Madame Roshkovskaya. “Why? What has happened to you?”

“I have a son, Madame,” he admitted. “A fine boy.”

The land surveyor’s wife leant forward on her two sticks, her eyes widening with delight.

“A son! How marvellous! When was he born?”

“A week ago today, Madame.”

“A Sunday child. He will be lucky.”

Twisting her body with some effort, Madame Roshkovskaya turned to face her husband.

“Andrei, haven’t we some blankets in the upstairs cupboard that are not being used? Perhaps Madame Pirogova could make better use of them than we can, if Gleb Yakovlevich would allow us to lend them to her?”

For a few seconds, the carpenter felt too moved to reply.

“Thank you, Madame,” he said gruffly. “I’m sure she could find them useful for the babe. Just for a few months, until the warmer weather comes, you understand.”

“Then that’s settled,” said Madame Roshkovskaya lightly. “You may call for them any time you like. But remember to tell Mariya Nikoleyevna that they will need to be aired before she uses them.”

With a tired smile, she took her leave of them, the roughly dressed peasants that had begun to stream past the group hanging back so that her supporters could safely negotiate the ice-covered steps down to the street.

Pirogov shook his head in admiration. Madame Pirogova!  he thought proudly. Mariya Nikoleyevna, if you please! That will buck the old girl up. 

Undeniably, there was something about Madame Roshkovskaya that made the heart feel full again. It was more than lending blankets and remembering people’s names, though both went a long way towards explaining it. The nearest he could get to the secret of her mystery was ‘breeding’ and that was close enough for him. Happier now, he turned back to face the doctor, who was busy fastening the top button of his fur collared coat. Warmed by Madame Roshkovskaya’s unexpected generosity, he decided that perhaps five roubles could be found after all. It wasn’t the end of the world.

“Well then,” announced the doctor as he pulled on a thick pair of gloves, “since we have my sleigh after all, let us go to your house and see this famous baby of yours. He must be wondering where his father has got to.”

Hunching their shoulders against the cold, the two men walked towards the line of waiting sleighs.

* * *

The Pirogovs lived on the opposite side of town in the heart of the artisan quarter: the warren of grim streets that ran between the rear of the hospital and the great Tobolsk Highway. Their house was one of a half dozen modest properties owned by Nadnikov the grain merchant. The family’s accommodation consisted of two small, dank rooms on the upper storey, the whole of the ground floor being given over to a single large room which served as the carpenter’s workshop and store house. It was a far cry from Ostermann Street. Here, the poorer inhabitants of Berezovo huddled together for warmth and profit. Christian carpenter lived cheek by jowl with Jewish tailor, and sub-let rooms, if he had them, to atheistic exiles. It was said amongst the political exiles (of which Berezovo boasted a colony of around 200 souls) that so striking was the difference between this southern section of the town and its wealthier northern counterpart that it was virtually impossible, on seeing one, to suppose that the other existed, unless, of course, you were a Marxist; the joke being that one usually had to be a Marxist to find oneself in the situation to begin with.

In his own way, Gleb Pirogov was himself having difficulty bridging the gap between the two worlds as he climbed self-consciously onto the driving board of the doctor’s sleigh. Unaccustomed to being driven home from church, he sat staring straight ahead throughout the journey, one hand tightly holding onto the edge of the plank so as to steady himself as the thick-coated ponies bent their heads to their task.

Sensing his passenger’s unease, Doctor Tortsov asked genially:

“How is your wife? Is she taking the tonic that Dr. Chevanin left her?”

“She is quite well, thank you Doctor,” Pirogov replied. “As well as can be expected, anyhow.”

“I expect that she is tired, though.”

“Yes, she is tired. But I make sure she has her two spoons full, just as you ordered.”

“Good. I am sorry that I was not there to deliver the boy myself. There’s a lot of sickness about at the moment. I understand from my assistant that the delivery went well. Your wife is a healthy woman, so I wasn’t worried. I see no reason why she should not bear you more sons.”

“God willing,” responded Pirogov hastily and crossed himself.

“Did my assistant remember to leave his bill with you?”

“No, Doctor,” admitted Pirogov, adding quickly, “But, if you can see your way to waiting for another ten days, or at least a week, then I can have the money ready for you.”

The doctor frowned and looked sideways at him sharply.

“I see. Well, naturally, you will have to settle your affairs with Dr. Chevanin, but I dare say he’ll wait a day or so. After all, none of us are millionaires, are we?”

“No sir,” replied Pirogov humbly.

The two men fell silent as the doctor wrestled with the reins, pulling the ponies’ heads round to the right so that the sleigh turned off the broader street they had been travelling on and began to move down the narrow side street that would lead them to Pirogov’s house.

“As a matter of fact,” the doctor announced suddenly, “I might be able to do you a service in the meantime. The drama committee needs some chairs for one of the plays we are producing. If the price is right, I might be able to persuade them to commission them from you.”

“What kind of chairs do they want?”

“Nothing too heavy, but they must be suitable for a well-appointed sitting room. The trouble is, they also have to be easily breakable.”

“Breakable?” echoed Pirogov doubtfully.

“Yes. One of the characters in the play loses his temper, you see, and starts breaking them, one by one. It’s quite funny, actually.”

“You mean, like trick chairs?”

“Yes. Exactly so. Do you think you could make such a thing?” enquired Dr. Tortsov, pulling abruptly on the reins.

They had arrived. Pirogov considered his strange request as he helped the doctor down from his seat and held open the wicket gate through which customers gained entrance to his premises. As they crossed the snow-covered yard, the greasy smell of overcooked stew wafted from the house to meet them and the doctor surreptitiously took a deep breath before ducking his head beneath the weather stained lintel of the workshop doorway.

“When would you want them by?” asked Pirogov as he pulled the door to behind them, plunging the room into near darkness.

“We shall need them by next Sunday. That would give us time to rehearse and make any necessary changes.”

“Well I don’t know,” Pirogov said, rubbing his chin. “How many did you say you wanted?”

“Three for the play and possibly another one for the rehearsals. Four in all.”

Dr. Tortsov stood still and listened to the sound of fingers fumbling for matches, and a few seconds later a small blue flame flared in the carpenter’s hands. Pirogov lit a lamp and, quickly extinguishing the match, hung the lamp from a rusty nail that protruded from a beam in the ceiling.

“Believe me, Doctor,” he said with genuine regret, “at any other time, I would be happy to oblige. But you can see how it is. I am so busy at the moment, I just don’t have the time to make such things.”

Looking around him, Dr. Tortsov could see exactly how it was. Neatly stacked piles of fresh timber, reaching almost to the ceiling, took up one half of the workshop floor. The rest of the space was filled with an assortment of strangely shaped pieces of carved wood, some of which had already been varnished.

“What on earth are you making, exactly?” he asked the carpenter.

“Please don’t ask me!” Pirogov begged him. “I can’t tell you.”

“But surely you know?”

“Of course I know! But the Mayor told me not to tell anybody.”

“The Mayor?” queried Dr. Tortsov as he looked more closely at the finished pieces of wood. One or two of them looked familiar, but for the moment he could not see what they were meant to be.

“Yes,” the carpenter confided. “‘Pirogov,’ he said, ‘you must do this job for me but on no account are you to tell anyone about it. Not even your wife. It’s a state secret. A matter of the gravest concern.’ Those were his exact words.”

Bending down, Dr. Tortsov picked up one of the small pieces of fashioned timber and turned it over in his hands.

“What is it? An ark?” he joked.

But the carpenter refused to be drawn.

“But surely you can tell me, Gleb Yakovlevich?” Dr. Tortsov persisted. “After all, I am your doctor. It would be like telling a priest.”

Pirogov shook his head and shrugged helplessly.

“Come on Gleb,” the doctor coaxed him. “Surely it’s a matter of trust. After all, I trust you to pay Chevanin’s bill in a week’s time, don’t I? Why can’t you trust me? It’s only fair.”

Thrusting his hands into his pockets, Pirogov kicked miserably at a pile of wood shavings on the floor.

“They’re sleighs,” he admitted finally.

“Sleighs! Of course!” exclaimed the doctor as the curiously shaped pieces of wood fell into place in his mind. “I should have guessed. But why so many of them? There must be enough wood here to make a dozen sleighs.”

“Ten,” Pirogov corrected him.

“Now why would the Mayor want you to make ten sleighs, and in secret too?” the doctor wondered aloud. “Is he going into the carrier business? No, that would be impossible, unless he is going to build another livery stables as well. And where would he get the ponies from at this time of year?”

“He isn’t using ponies,” the carpenter informed him sullenly. “He’s using deer.”

“Reindeer? In town?” retorted the doctor. “Gleb Yakovlevich, you must be joking. The Mayor might be an idiot, but even he wouldn’t dream of using reindeer to pull town cabs.”

Pirogov hawked and spat onto the fine carpet of sawdust beneath his boots.

“It’s not cabs he’s after. What he’s asked for is ten reindeer sleighs, each capable of carrying four or five adults, or enough supplies to support them over a long distance.”

“And who is paying for all this, do you know?”

“Ah, well, that’s just it, isn’t it?” the carpenter complained. “That’s just the problem. The Mayor promised me that the town council would pay and I was to go ahead and start work right away. Only he wasn’t able to give me any advancement on them, so I have had to use all my own money just to buy the materials from Kavelin. But,” he added meaningfully, “Kavelin, who is on the council, didn’t know anything about this at all. So one way or another, I’ve been put right in the midden. What’s more, I’m not the only one either.”

“How do you mean?” asked the doctor.

“Well,” replied Pirogov confidentially, “they haven’t told me to my face but I know for a fact that Ovseenko and Averbuch have also taken orders for sleighs from the Mayor. So that’s put the price of timber right up.”

“Yes, I suppose it has,” said Dr. Tortsov

“Exactly,” continued Pirogov, relieved at last at having got the problem off his chest. “Everything I have is in that timber. All my savings and nothing to guarantee payment, except the Mayor’s word. That’s why I don’t have the money on hand to pay your bill.”

Doctor Tortsov had been standing in the middle of the workshop looking at the piece of sawn wood in his hand. Now, with a distracted air, he turned to face the carpenter.

“What? Oh, the bill. Well, we’ll let that ride for the moment. It’s not important. Pay Chevanin when you can.”

He appeared to have come to some decision for, placing the piece of timber back onto the pile, he walked quickly towards the door.

“Goodbye, Pirogov.”

“Wait, Doctor!” called out the carpenter, hurrying after him. “Aren’t you going to look at my wife and the baby?”

“Your wife? Good God, man, she’s as strong as a horse!” the physician told him brusquely as he opened the door. “Why? She hasn’t been bleeding or complaining of any pain, has she?”

“No, but…”

“Well then, there’s nothing to worry about. Keep the baby warm and dry and well fed. And don’t forget to collect those blankets from the Roshkovskys.”

Stepping out into the snow, Dr. Tortsov hurried towards his sleigh. When he reached it, he turned and called back to the carpenter.

“And remember to tell your wife to air the blankets, like Nina Vassileyevna said. And don’t worry about the money. Goodbye Pirogov!”

Gleb Pirogov raised his hand in a gesture of farewell, but the doctor was already whipping his pony. Upstairs, the carpenter’s newborn son, woken by the doctor’s raised voice, began to cry.

At the Kuibyshev’s grand residence in Menshikov Street, Irena Kuibysheva and Tatyana Kavelina were lunching a deux  on salmon and strawberries. It was, they agreed, very pleasant to be without their husbands for a spell. Tatyana confided that her Leonid was quite content to stay at home and pore over his order book, he was so tremendously busy. But what, she asked, about M. Kuibyshev? Where was he?

“Oh, Illya?” said Irena with a laugh as she picked up the small gold hand bell that lay beside her plate. “God knows where he is! Paris? Moscow? Baku? Wherever he is, I am sure that he is enjoying himself.”

Tatyana sat back contentedly in her seat. “But surely you must worry about him being away all the time,” she enquired as the maid appeared in answer to the bell’s summons and began clearing away their dishes. “You hear of so many bad things happening nowadays on the road. And there seems nowhere that is safe anymore, either in the cities or the countryside.”

“Illya tells me that things aren’t so bad as they were a couple of years ago but, yes, I do worry sometimes,” Irena admitted. “Although I know that he can look after himself perfectly well. He’s much stronger than he looks.”

She paused and then added happily, “The funny thing is, he says that all he does when he is away is worry about me!”

“About you? But why?”

“Am I feeling bored?” declared Irena, mimicking her husband’s deep tones. “Are the servants behaving themselves and showing me respect? Are people in the town being nice to me? Am I feeling lonely? Do I have enough money to spend?”

Tatyana felt flattered by her hostess’s decision to share this intimate revelation with her.

“Illya sounds like the perfect husband,” she exclaimed. “You are so very lucky.”

“But your Leonid is a good man too,” said Irena earnestly, “and you have the advantage that he is with you at home.”

“Oh yes, Lyonya is a dear, bless him, but all he thinks about is himself and his wretched stock levels. Do you know what he said to me when I told him that you and I were having lunch together?”

Leaning forward, Irena shook her head and smiled impishly.

“No, what did he say?”

“He said, ‘Now don’t you spend the whole time gossiping about men like you women always like to do. Her husband and I have our reputations to consider’.”

Irena threw back her head and laughed in delight.

“Ha! Men, they have no idea, do they?” she crowed. “We are far more likely to be gossiping about our women friends. Which reminds me, you have not seen my new boudoir yet, have you?”

“Your boodwah?”

“Yes, Illya promised me a room of my own when he came back from Paris last year. He said that a boudoir was the thing to have.” She paused and added knowingly, “I never asked him who had given him that idea. Would you like to see it?”

“Yes please,” agreed Tatyana quickly. “That would be lovely.”

After giving instructions to her maid to bring them a small pot of drinking chocolate, Irena led the way out of the dining room and up the staircase that led to the upper floor.

She really hasn’t a clue , thought Irena as she climbed the stairs, not the faintest suspicion. I can tell Leonid to stop worrying. We can still go on meeting at the library. What a boring little woman she is. No wonder he is so interested in me. 

Following behind her, Tatyana marvelled at the silk wall hangings that decorated the staircase. She could recall only having been invited to the house once before, on the occasion of a small reception attended by the other councillors and their wives to celebrate her husband’s election to the town council. She could still recall vividly her astonishment at the unexpected opulence of the decorations. That had been before Illya Kuibyshev had scandalised the town by bringing his young bride back with him from one of his trips. From what she had so far been able to see, the décor and furnishings on the ground floor had taken on a more modern style, their French refinements mixing uneasily with the older Central Asian trappings.

Reaching the landing, Tatyana was momentarily alarmed by the sight of a tiger’s head staring glassily at her, its long flattened skin spread out invitingly at her feet for her to tread on. In the corner, a profusion of peacock feathers stood lolling in a pair of highly decorated Chinese vases supported on ebony stools. Fixed to the wall two curved scimitars, engraved with blessings and threats, clashed silently above a circular Persian shield embossed and damascened in gold and silver and scrolled with tendril ornamentation. Alongside the shield hung a scene, painted in oils and exquisitely framed in wood covered with thin gold leaf, showing a group of roseate youths bathing naked beside a rocky shore line. Disregarding their androgynous beauty, Irena swept past them with Tatyana following wide-eyed in her wake. Reaching a door at the end of the corridor, she opened it and stepped back to allow her luncheon guest to enter.

The dimensions and the splendour of the new scene that met her eyes were so different from the rest of the house that it made Tatyana gasp in shock. Irena’s boudoir was a suite of rooms occupying a quarter of the upper floor. She saw that they were standing in the sitting room; through a half-open door she could see through into the bedroom beyond. Decorated and furnished in shades of pale and dark pinks with its richly painted cream woodwork picked out with gold motifs, the two rooms reminded her strongly of one of Gvordnyen’s more elaborate wedding cakes; a confection that transformed her feeling for the house from the darker semi-barbaric decor of the lower floor.

“Irena, it’s lovely,” she exclaimed breathlessly. “What a beautiful room!”

“Do you genuinely like it?”

“Yes, it’s really lovely,” Tatyana repeated. “You are so lucky.”

“Lucky? Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Irena, turning away and sitting down on a chaise longue. “Illya calls it my cage and it feels like that sometimes.”

“Doesn’t he like it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t let him in here,” she replied in a firmer tone. “This is my room. That was a pre-condition of our marriage.”

“Well, I wish I had a cage like this,” Tatyana told her wistfully. “It’s really lovely. Oh, I would have such parties!”

Irena smiled up at her and patted the cushion of the chaise longue invitingly.

“That is the difference between us,” she said as Tatyana sat down beside her. “You have so many good friends here whereas I…”

Irena faltered, as if the truth of her existence was too tragic to contemplate, and then seized Tatyana’s hand impulsively.

“You know, you are the first person that I have invited to see this room. Nobody else has seen it. Nobody!”


“No,” Irena admitted, reluctantly letting go of her hand. “They would just be jealous and it would make me more unpopular than I am.”

Embarrassed by her candour, Tatyana patted her clumsily on her forearm.

“You are not unpopular,” she lied. “Not really…”

“Yes I am,” Irena told her with a deep sigh. “Nobody likes me much, nobody important, except you of course. Take Olga Nadnikova for instance. Why doesn’t she like me? Is it just because I am younger and prettier than she is?”

Surprised by her question, Tatyana turned her head away.

She doesn’t know?  she thought. Olga had made plans to marry off her daughter Katerina ever since the day Illya Kuibyshev established himself in the town. Making her share cabs to the church and going on picnics with him during the summer months even when she was a child, encouraging her to be alone with him. And Irena doesn’t know? Impossible! How could she not know? 

“I am sure that she would like you if she got to know you better,” she murmured.

“I do hope so. I really don’t want to create enemies in the town. It would be so difficult for Illya.”

There was an awkward pause.

So that is how it is , thought Tatyana. She does know, but she wants to fight her corner nevertheless. She wants me to feel that we are friends so that I will recommend her to Olga and the others. She’s lonely and an outsider and knows that Olga has cause to hate her and that none of the wives trust her now after the business with young Dobrovolsky and Captain Steklov. She believes that I am a pushover and thinks that I will be her key to the town’s women. That explains her invitation to lunch, the showing off of her famous boodwah and her buttering up my Lyonya. If she can’t win me over, she wants at least to get the men to protect her. 

She saw that Irena was looking at her expectantly, awaiting her response. Unsure of what to say Tatyana rose from the chaise longue and crossed the room to the pair of tall windows, noting the way her shoes sank into the deep pile of the carpet. Moving aside the curtains of intricately webbed Belgian lace, she saw that Irena’s boudoir enjoyed an uninterrupted view of the river bank and the distant snow clad hills.

I shouldn’t feel sorry for her , she reasoned to herself, because I know that it could endanger my standing with my friends, but I do. In her position I would be trying to do very much the same thing. But Olga will never want to be her friend, not in a thousand years, and Lidiya and the others will go along with Olga. And once they get their knives into you, you are done for in this town. 

Recognising that the length of the silence between them had become uncomfortable, she turned back to face her hostess.

“May I see your bedroom? It looks lovely,” she asked, gesturing towards the half open door.


Irena escorted her into the next room. Walking over to the dressing table, Tatyana looked longingly at the collections of small pots and bottles on its lacquered surface. Picking up a bottle of perfume, she held it up to the light.

“This looks lovely,” she said admiringly. “What’s it called?”

Apres l’Ondee . It’s made by Guerlain,” said Irena. “Illya brought it back from Paris last year. Would you like to try some?”

“Oh, yes please!”

Reaching down, Irena opened a small drawer in the dressing table and took out a small, neatly-pressed handkerchief trimmed with pink lace. Carefully sprinkling a few drops across the linen, she passed it to Tatyana.

Gingerly Tatyana held it to her nose and took a deep sniff.

“Mmm… it’s lovely,” she said doubtfully. “What’s in it?”

“The scent of orange blossom and violets with a little something extra. It’s meant to smell of a garden in spring after a shower,” explained Irena.

“It smells of no garden I have ever been in. I don’t think my Leonid would like it.”

“Perhaps it’s a French garden,” said Irena thoughtfully. “They are probably nicer than Russian gardens.”

“Has Illya taken you there yet?”

“Where? To France?”

Tatyana nodded.

“No, not yet, but one day I will go,” said Irena emphatically. “I know I will.”

Yes , thought Tatyana, Paris. That is where you belong. 

Chapter Twelve

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Over the next ten months Trotsky had got to know Nadezhda Krupskaya well, and in all that time he never saw her say or do anything that contradicted the first impression he had gathered of her in the kitchen of the lodgings at Holford Square.

If Nicolai Lenin was the strategist who was trying to stamp his image on the Party or, as his critics would have it, reanimate the Party’s corpus as his own creature like the fictional Victor Frankenstein, then his wife was the personal assistant he had chosen for his experiment. It was Nadezhda who encoded the messages from Iskra , oversaw the Party’s safe houses, arranged rendezvous and arranged for fall back procedures. It was Nadezhda who instructed the couriers, dictated their signs and countersigns and furnished them with false papers, detailed maps and amounts of currency in ten European currencies. She took charge of opening up access channels across distant frontiers, arranging the movement of persons, money and information in the most advanced amateur clandestine network the continent had ever seen. When one conduit was discovered by the authorities, she was prepared for the eventuality and had another open within seventy-two hours. It seemed that whenever a cell was penetrated and exposed by the Okhrana’s agent provocateurs she was able to bypass it, deftly operating the network like some gigantic switching machine. Another pogrom at Lodz… a successful strike in Toulon… the lines are down in Moscow… the text of Kautsky’s speech the previous day at Stuttgart. At any hour of the day or night she might receive reports from one of a hundred cities in Europe and would have them decoded, collated and memorised by the next morning’s eleven o’clock board meeting.

Above all, she was scrupulous on matters of security. The air in the small bedsitting room she shared with Nicolai shared smelled perpetually of burning papers. And although he spent days being debriefed by Nicolai on the structure, membership, development and beliefs of the now defunct South Russia Workers Union, it was to Nadezhda that he had had to account for its betrayal and collapse.

He had grown to admire and envy her. She had found peace through order and dedication. Although her clothes were sober to the point of drabness, she was always been neat. Perhaps it was something to do with her age, he wondered, or the years with Nicolai. At the same time there was nothing about her appearance that attracted him physically. She was plain, and if truth were told, quite shapeless; unless one could call ‘dumpy’ a shape. He would to try to imagine her and Nicolai in bed together, but no mental image resolved itself in his mind. One moment he could picture them both sitting up in bed – he, in a worn flannel nightshirt buttoned up to the neck, drafting an article for the paper; she next to him, shawled, her hair still tied in a bun, peering through her spectacles at the message she was encoding. They would work in silence, broken only by an occasional tut or sigh from Nicolai as he scratched out a word or phrase, until, at a pre-arranged point, the striking of a distant church clock perhaps, they would collect up their papers and put them in a neat stack: hers on one side of the bed, his on the other. The gas light would be extinguished, then… nothing. They would immediately fall asleep, lying at attention, sacrificing valuable hours so that their physical and mental strength could be replenished. The idea of perhaps a good night kiss or even an embrace was totally alien to them, he was sure. As for making love, what an atrocious squandering of energy that would be!

Nadezhda had given him the address of a house a few streets away and he had moved in the following day. Grumbling, his new landlord, who lived on the ground floor with his wife and three children, had escorted him up to the first floor, where Jules Martov was waiting to greet him. Happy to get back to his supper and pausing only to take a fortnight’s rent off the newcomer, the landlord had left Martov to show him around. There were five rooms, the smallest of which was vacant and was now his. Next to his bedroom was Martov’s room. Its occupant shyly held the door open for his inspection but Trotsky had only a few seconds to take in the unmade bed littered w

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ith papers and books before he heard the sound of a woman’s voice, rising in complaint, call out from the upper landing.

“Jules? You didn’t tell me that we had a new tenant?”

Turning in the doorway, Trotsky looked up to see a middle aged woman descending the stairs. She was dressed in a grey skirt and blouse and wore her hair long and undressed. A brown woollen jacket, showing distinct signs of wear, was carelessly draped around her shoulders. Drooping from her lip, a hand rolled cigarette rained a fine shower of ash onto the worn landing carpet as she spoke again.

“Come into our spacious drawing room and let me have a look at you,” she demanded, adding, “Our landlord keeps this landing in perpetual darkness as a memorial to his proletarian origins.”

Turning, she led the way to a third door which opened into a much larger room. Sparsely furnished, it contained a rickety table, one leg of which was supported by two books. Four chairs were arranged around the table upon which lay scattered piles of newspapers, bottles of ink, some empty cups and a couple of ashtrays brimming with dead cigarette butts and spent matches. In a corner stood a small black stove and, jutting out of the wall next to it, a stone sink. A single dull brass tap dripped monotonously onto a stack of unwashed plates and cups, while on the stove’s single plate, two small, battered, cheap tin saucepans, also unwashed, vied for space. Crossing the room, the woman wrestled for a moment with the sash of the window above the sink, making its panes, opaque with the dirt of years, rattle in their loose frames so that minute flakes of paint dropped onto the cutlery and crockery piled in the sink below. With a last desperate effort, she flung the window up and taking the cigarette butt from her lip, tossed it into the unseen yard below. Smiling with satisfaction, she turned back to the two men, and patted her unkempt hair in a theatrical fashion.

“This,” she declared gazing around her, “is what we choose to call the common room, for the simple reason that it is very, very common.”

She paused, allowing the observation to sink in and then, with a vague fluttering motion of her hands, invited him to take a place at the table.

“Please sit down, Mr…?”

She hesitated, deliberately waiting for him to introduce himself properly.

“Trotsky. Leon Trotsky. And you, Madame?”

“Me?” said the woman, gathering up the papers from the table as she spoke, “I am Vera Ivanova Zasulich and very hungry, in that order. Jules, why is this place in such a mess? When will you men learn to tidy up?”

“Vera,” said Martov quietly, “this is ‘Pero’.”

She stared at Trotsky blankly.

“You? You  are Pero?”

She seemed to find the idea absurd, for she clapped her hands together and laughed.

“But you are so young, even younger than little Martov here. How old are you?”


Her brow darkened in mock anger.

“How dare you be so young and yet write so well? Who taught you? I have read some of your reviews and articles. They flow like a river, while I have to sweat and struggle over every word, every sentence… How dare  you be so talented and still so young!”

Warming to her, Trotsky responded with a shrug and a shy smile.

“Jules! Run and fetch some meat from the butcher on the corner,” she commanded Martov. “Then call in at the public house for a pail of beer on the way back. You’ll find some money on my bedside table. Tonight, we shall celebrate the arrival of our comrade, the Young Eagle!”

Snatching up the remaining papers that lay strewn over the table, she dumped them unceremoniously on one of the seats. Then, pausing only to untie a small bag of tobacco which she wore fixed to a belt around her waist, she sat down heavily and beamed across at him.

“So, Pero,” she exclaimed, nodding him to take the other chair, “you have come at last.”

Leaning forward, she offered him her tobacco. Taking the pouch, he began to roll a cigarette.

“Now, tell me about Russia,” she said.

Tired as he was, he had talked far into the early hours of the following morning, answering her questions between mouthfuls of a mutton casserole that Martov had prepared. He could tell at once that much of what he had to tell disappointed her, for she craved news of a different Russia to his; a Russia of bustling streets and rapturous theatre audiences, of music and literature and tumultuous mass meetings, and above all, of St. Petersburg. The nearest he had to offer her was his account of the Butyrka transfer prison in Moscow. But as soon as he had begun to describe the long journey that had led him from exile to London, she had visibly brightened. The name of Kler, the Iskra  courier in Samara who had helped him get out of the country, meant nothing to her but the merest mention of Adler, the leader of the Austrian Social Democrats, sent her into paroxysms of delight.

“Dear Victor! How is he? Still working too hard, I suppose? And how is Max and his beautiful wife, Katya? Oh, she is such a darling! Almost a daughter to Victor instead of a daughter-in-law. Did you meet her? Yes? She’s Russian, of course. A curious marriage when you come to think of it, Russian and Austrian. Our peoples are so different. But that means nothing to good socialists, eh, Jules? And what about Adler’s old assistant, Austerlitz? Did you meet him? My God, never have I heard a man shout so much! He has a voice that was made for a parade ground! But I am being unkind. I heard him try to whisper once. It was like a foghorn across the Neva! Old Fritz would die for Victor Adler; there is no doubt of it. But what a voice! And after Vienna? Where did you go then? Zurich? Then you must have seen Axelrod! Tell me, that butter business he runs, is it true that he is nearly bankrupt?”

They talked until the early hours and the voice of Vera Zasulich remained with him until his head finally touched his pillow. Awaking the next morning, he considered his situation afresh. Of one thing he was certain: any residual guilt he felt about abandoning Alexandra and the children had dwindled to nothing over the miles and the weeks he had travelled. Personal ties and old private loyalties had to be put aside in favour of the greater purpose of the movement. Everyone he had met in the underground had long ago made their own sacrifice to the cause; he could no longer regard his loss as being of any more account than theirs. Besides, how else would he have got as far? Not by waiting patiently for his sentence to end in the mire of Verkholensk, that was certain.

Look where I am now , he reasoned. Living in the very same house as two of the joint editors of  Iskra, not to mention the production manager, and hailed as the Young Eagle by no less a person than Vera Zasulich. 

Sitting up in bed, he had hugged himself with pleasure. The Young Eagle! What a title! Perhaps he could suggest it as new nom-de-plume. Not that Pero (The Pen) was that bad. Certainly he had earned it. But the Young Eagle…

A discreet tap on the door cut short his self-congratulation. The bearded and bespectacled face of Jules Martov appeared. Would he care to take lunch with Lenin, Zasulich and himself at Holford Square?

Enthusiastically Trotsky accepted the invitation. Rising from his bed, he began to dress hurriedly. Outside, chill October winds blew down drab streets, but deep in his heart there was an inextinguishable glow that told him that it was great to be alive. He felt tremendously fortunate, almost as if he had been chosen by the Fates.

Chapter Thirteen

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Sunday 4th February 1907

Berezovo, Northern Siberia

Until his visit to Pirogov’s workshop that morning, Doctor Tortsov had had every reason to believe that the day promised to be pleasant, even satisfactory. A late breakfast; church; lunch with Yeliena and young Chevanin; a rest in the afternoon (he was still feeling the fatigue from his tour of the outer villages) and then, in the evening, a gentle stroll round to the Hotel New Century for the casting session for the plays. Of these events, he was looking forward to the last with most pleasure.

When Dresnyakov, in his capacity as chairman of the drama committee, had first tentatively raised the possibility of his directing the committee’s next production, he had hesitated. He had, as Yeliena had said, so much else to occupy his time. But lying awake that night he had turned the matter over in his mind like a dog worrying a bone; first toying with the idea, then allowing himself the luxury of devouring it. Why shouldn’t he accept the invitation? The committee would be unlikely to ask him again if he turned them down. Chevanin had shown that he had the makings of a general physician – for which he held himself principally responsible – and the young man was now competent enough to handle the ordinary cases. In addition, Dresnyakov had assured him that the committee members would give him every practical assistance, without getting in his way. In fact, it would be entirely ‘his show’.

The following morning, he had sent Dresnyakov a note informing him that he would be prepared to accept the role of director on two conditions. Firstly, that the entertainments should be two small one-act plays, separated by a musical interlude, so that as many people as possible would be able to participate. Secondly, that they would both be comic pieces. There was to be no mention of sickness, disease or social distress. The plays were to celebrate life and dispense that most indispensable of tonics: laughter. These conditions had been accepted by the committee and, so far, all was proceeding smoothly. The scripts had arrived, the scenery had been commissioned and the barracks hall had been booked. Of the dramatis personae, one of the principal roles had already been cast and he had every reason to expect the remainder would be determined that evening.

Such is the unstable nature of life that it abhors efforts to celebrate its virtues and finds devious ways to frustrate those who attempt to do so. First there had been the reports of the epidemic. Then there had been that sudden and unexplained setback with the date of the performance. Here no serious damage had been done. In fact, the doctor felt that this was all to his advantage, since it gave him an extra week to rehearse his actors. Now there was this matter of the Mayor’s sleighs.

The more he thought of those sinister stacks of wood in Pirogov’s workshop, the more troubled he became. A chilling explanation for the Mayor’s commission was growing in his mind which, if his suspicions were correct, placed not just his production but the population of Berezovo at risk. On leaving Pirogov’s workshop he had been determined to call upon the Mayor at once and demand an interview, but the journey back across town had cooled him down and returned some of his reason to him. He needed to collect more evidence, he told himself, before he could confront the Mayor. Instead of resting, he must go out a second time to speak to the other two carpenters whose names Pirogov had given him. The necessity of this extra visit filled him with such unreasoning anger that he shook his fist at the windows of the Mayor’s large house as he drove slowly past on his way to his own, more modest dwelling in Ostermann Street.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, and the world holds as self-evident, that medicine is an inward-looking profession obsessed with its own tribalism and convinced of its own sagacity. This latter deficiency is understandable. If patients consistently come expecting answers and invest their trust in one’s judgement, after a time even the most level-headed physician will be drawn to believe two things: that their patients know nothing and that their own judgement is infallible. Regrettably, this worldview can extend to include those closest to them.

As he was later to admit ruefully to himself, Dr. Tortsov might have saved himself a great deal of trouble and embarrassment if he had shared his anxiety over the Mayor’s mysterious order with his wife and his assistant and sought their counsel. Instead, at that day’s luncheon he shared nothing but his ill temper, rebuking them both in turn, and Katya for good measure. Flinging his napkin down he stalked out of the dining room as soon as the meal had finished, paying little attention to his wife, who fled upstairs, and leaving Anton Ivanovich Chevanin still seated at the table staring pale-faced at his plate. It should be recorded in the doctor’s defence that almost immediately he had felt ashamed of his loss of control. As a consequence, and because he believed that little, if anything, had ever been achieved by anger alone, Dr. Tortsov chose to walk the not inconsiderable distance back to the neighbourhood that he had visited that morning and where, two streets south of Pirogov’s workshop, Ovseenko’s premises were to be found.

* * *

Although it was not yet two o’clock in the afternoon, Ovseenko was already three quarters drunk and his wife had to hurriedly rouse him from his stupor, one moment scolding him in loud whispers for bringing disgrace to their household, the next plaintively offering their guest a glass of tea. Brushing her offer aside, the doctor waited with ill-concealed impatience while his host struggled to his feet and came forward to greet him. As soon as he was certain that the man could stand unaided, the doctor led him into his back yard where he hoped that the chill air might restore the craftsman to a state of partial, if resentful, sobriety.

Once outside, Dr. Tortsov wasted no time with the usual polite formalities.

“Ovseenko, has the Mayor placed an order for several sleighs with you?”

“Who wants to know?” slurred Ovseenko.

“Just answer me. Yes or no?”

“He may have,” replied the carpenter, swaying slightly. “What is it to you?”

“How many?”

Ovseenko opened his mouth to reply than shut it again. His thick lips twisted into a crafty smile.

“Are you trying to get me into trouble, Doctor? I’m not supposed to tell anybody about this.”

Gripping his arm, Dr. Tortsov began to shake it roughly.

“Just tell me how many. It’s very important.”

“Here, let go!” cried Ovseenko in alarm, trying to pull his arm away.

The two men struggled for an instant, then the carpenter stumbled and fell back against the wall of his house. Still holding him, the doctor came closer until his face was only a few inches from Ovseenko’s.

“How many, Ovseenko?” he repeated menacingly.

“Twelve!” shouted Ovseenko. “All right? Now get off of me!”

The two men separated, breathing heavily.

“Show me them,” demanded the doctor.

Grumbling, Ovseenko led the way round to his workshop. Unlocking two large doors, he pulled them wide open. Pushing past him, Dr. Tortsov saw that two completed sleighs had already been hoisted to the ceiling, to make extra room on the workshop floor. The running boards and seats of a third were lying untidily in a corner. He heard Ovseenko hurriedly closing the doors behind him.

“It’s supposed to be a secret,” he was complaining. “Nobody else is meant to know. The Mayor told me himself.”

“Yes,” said Dr. Tortsov flatly.

“How did you find out, then?” asked Ovseenko suspiciously. “Have you been spying on me?”

“Don’t be so absurd.”

“Only, the Mayor said that if anybody asked any questions about them,” Ovseenko went on, “I was to tell him and he would get old Izorov to sort them out.”

Turning round to face him, the doctor gave him a long, cool look.

“Colonel Izorov knows about this? Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” replied Ovseenko with more confidence. “It stands to reason, considering what they are for.”

Dr. Tortsov took a step towards the carpenter, who began backing away uncertainly.

“And what exactly are they for?”

“Now, now, Doctor! Don’t start all that again.”

Seeing the doctor take another step towards him, Ovseenko raised his fists in warning. Thrusting his own hands deep into the pockets of his overcoat, the doctor looked resignedly down at the floor.

“All right, Ovseenko,” he replied. “Have it your own way. I only hope you live long enough to spend the money. Assuming, that is, the Mayor will ever get round to paying you.”

With a sad shake of his head, he turned to go, but the carpenter quickly barred his way.

“What are you talking about?” he demanded. “Are you threatening me again?”

Dr. Tortsov regarded him sadly.

“No, Irkaly Gregorivich,” he replied. “You are threatening yourself, and perhaps every man, woman and child in this town. Just as surely as if you were holding a pistol to their heads.”

“What are you talking about? Tell me!” slurred Ovseenko.

“Do you remember the last serious outbreak of the typhus four years ago? When I had to declare the town in quarantine?”

“Yes. It was awful. So what?”

“Well, it’s beginning again.”

There was no urgency in the doctor’s voice, just a weary sense of defeat that immediately convinced the carpenter that he was telling him the truth. Dropping his fists, he swore softly to himself.

“For most of last week,” Dr. Tortsov informed him, “I have done little else but tour the villages, seeing what can be done to stop a new outbreak. But it’s got out of hand already. I’m afraid that I may have to seal the town off again.”

“Holy Father!” breathed Ovseenko, crossing himself.

“Do you remember how bad it was for business, Irkaly? Quarantine was an unpopular but necessary precaution, but we were all in it together. Do you remember the Mayor saying that?”

“Yeah, I remember,” confirmed Ovseenko. “What is going on?”

“Well, perhaps this time they have decided to forestall my decision,” suggested the doctor. “I am only guessing, of course, but is seems to me that the Mayor is planning a fleet of sleighs to guarantee that at least some people can avoid the risk of danger.”

“Who?” asked the carpenter.

“Who do you think? It won’t be you or me. The town council with their families and friends, I expect.”

“But if what you say is true, Doctor,” objected Ovseenko, “they are going to need a damned sight more than twelve sleighs, aren’t they?”

“Oh yes,” Dr. Tortsov agreed grimly. “That is why they have ordered another ten sleighs off Gleb Pirogov and who knows how many from Averbuch.”

“You’re joking!”

“Go and see for yourself!” the doctor urged him. “I was at Pirogov’s shop not more than three hours ago and it was packed to the roof with timber, just like yours. And for exactly the same purpose.”

“And all bought from Kavelin, I’ll bet,” said Ovseenko sourly. “Why, the swines! The money they are paying us is going straight back into their own pockets.”

The doctor stared sourly up at the pair of sleighs that hung in the shadows above their heads.

“Isn’t that always the way?” he murmured.

Following his gaze, the carpenter swore again.

“Honestly, Doctor,” he insisted. “I didn’t know anything about this at all. His Excellency told me that they were to bring a party of politicians up here on a tour of the province. Really important people, he said. Maybe even the Governor General himself.”

“The Governor General? Here? In February?” retorted the doctor scornfully. “Did he really say that?”

“Well, I don’t know now…” Ovseenko admitted. “You’ve got me all confused. Maybe he didn’t actually mention the Governor by name, but he definitely said that they were very important people. Real barines , you know? That’s what all the secrecy is about.”

“And he said that Colonel Izorov knew all about this?”

“Definitely,” replied Ovseenko with an emphatic nod. “But what shall I do now? If I don’t finish the job, I’ll be ruined. They’ll never give me any more work.”

“Ovseenko, you must do what you think is right. But let me tell you this. From what I have seen of this epidemic, if ever it reaches Berezovo, the consequences will be too horrible to imagine. I’ve been in villages where more than three fifths of the population are either dead or dying. Think of it, no organisation and three fifths of the town dead.”

Walking to the door, he opened it, letting the cold air cool his heated brow.

“Now I am going to visit Isaac Averbuch,” he announced. “And, if my theory is correct, he too will be busy building sleighs. Only they won’t be sleighs, but death carts.”

With these terrible parting words, Dr. Tortsov left the carpenter staring wretchedly at the piles of sawn timber that surrounded him and struck off in the direction of the Jewish Quarter.

Tramping over the hard packed snow, he turned over in his mind what he had learnt from his visit. It seemed incredible to him that Kostya Izorov would condone a scheme that could only lead to panic and mayhem. Far more likely that Pobednyev had used the colonel’s name to frighten the man into silence. That was a dangerous game, but then the Mayor was playing for high stakes. The minute he posted the quarantine notice, the price of all goods in the shops would soar and there would be the constant threat of disorder and lawlessness. Ovseenko had been right about one thing: ten sleighs were not enough to carry away all the wealthier families and their possessions. Even twenty-two sleighs would hardly be sufficient to reach destinations such as Tiumen and Tobolsk that lay over a fortnight’s travel away.

Smiling grimly to himself, the doctor wondered whether the Mayor had considered where they were to sleep en route, if all the villages had become infected. It was possible that Pobednyev was counting on the isolation of the settlements to the east to provide them with safe shelter. Certainly ponies would be useless in such terrain, which was why the Mayor had commissioned the heavier type of sleighs pulled by reindeer.

If escape was what the Mayor and his cronies on the town council were planning, then perhaps he should let him proceed and good riddance to bad rubbish. It would serve them all right if they froze to death on the snowfields or were murdered by the Yakuts. He slowed his place, in two minds as to whether his call on Averbuch was now necessary. It was unlikely that Pobednyev would give town council money to a Jew. But although he felt confident now that his deductions were correct, he decided to press on in the fervent hope that Pirogov had been misinformed and that Averbuch was not also building sleighs.

Averbuch had an order for eighteen deer sleighs. The Jew listened politely to the doctor’s impassioned arguments then shrugged his shoulders. Business was business. He had his whole family to think of first, before he considered what the good doctor called the ‘wider implications’. Besides, where was the proof that the doctor’s fears were justified? As far as he was concerned the touring sleighs were just what they appeared to be. Of course, the good doctor was right: to risk bringing disorder into the town was foolhardy. But what could he do? He had no control over the Mayor. If he did not supply what His Excellency wanted, someone else would. The doctor should go to his town council if he had a complaint. If he had grounds, Krasinsky would be happy to support him. He still had the piece of paper bearing the Mayor’s signature that gave the specifications for the job: an echt  contract. He hoped the doctor understood that it was not that he did not trust the gentlemen on the town council; it was just that it was best to take certain precautions when dealing with them.

When the pointlessness of continuing their conversation had become clear to both of them, Dr. Tortsov allowed himself to be conducted to the door. As they stood on the threshold of the carpenter’s shop, he asked Averbuch whether he also was unable to supply the four trick chairs he needed for the performance of The Bear . Staring gloomily out at the passersby – the lanes of the Quarter were busy in odd contrast to the deserted Sabbath streets of the northern side of town – the doctor heard Averbuch chuckle.

“Now that is what I call unreasonable. You expect a good joiner to make furniture that collapses in front of the whole town! Do you want to ruin him?”

“No, you don’t understand. They are meant to collapse. It’s a coup de theatre .”

“How would I ever sell another chair when people think that every time they sat on it they are going to land on their tochis ?” retorted Averbuch happily. “Good luck to you, Doctor.”

With a muttered farewell, Doctor Tortsov set off on the long journey home, inwardly cursing Averbuch.

It doesn’t do to lose your temper with these people , he reminded himself. Letting them see you were beaten only makes their victory sweeter. 

He now regretted wasting so much time with the carpenter; he should have known that he would not get any satisfaction from the rascal. As he passed them by, he noticed people conversing in shop doorways stop talking and nudge each other. He quickened his pace. It was getting late and the narrow lanes and alley ways of the Quarter were no place for a professional man to be after nightfall. Looking up at the darkening skyline above the ill-kempt rooftops, he began to wish that he had brought a stout stick.

Chapter Fourteen

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For the first six weeks, Trotsky spent his time shuttling between the communal rooms he shared with Vera Zasulich and Jules Martov in Sidmouth Street and Nicolai Lenin and Nadezhda Krupskaya’s living quarters at Holford Square; two households both alike in dinginess, but differing greatly in temperament and purpose.

Vera and Jules preferred the bohemian life, full of midnight visitors and diversions. For weeks their rooms would remain unswept, littered with piles of dirty laundry and overflowing ashtrays. In the midst of this confusion, and miraculously to Trotsky’s mind, they were still able to produce articles for Iskra  and other publications: Jules dashing off fluently brilliant critiques of the latest developments in Russia while Vera, as she admitted, agonised over every paragraph she wrote. Not for them the hours toiling over tables of statistics; they preferred the clash and clamour of ideas and were regular habitués of the scruffy public houses where gathered London’s small colony of Russian exiles of all political hues. In comparison, life at Holford Square was orderly and uneventful to the point of monotony. On most mornings, Nicolai would pick up his battered briefcase full of manuscript paper and walk to the Reading Room of the British Museum, where he would use the extensive reference library to research his latest work. Returning to their rooms, he would eat the frugal meal that Nadezhda had prepared for him; after which, leaving his wife to clear away the dishes, he would read the deciphered messages she had received that day in preparation for the next Iskra  editorial conference.

At first Trotsky thought that the difference between the two households lay only in their daily routines, which he characterised as order versus chaos. He knew which was the more conducive to his ambition of becoming a regular contributor to the paper. After a month of late nights, hurried deadlines and the continuing squalor of their rooms, he envied the order and discipline of Holford Square and had often to lock his door to stem the stream of interruptions from Jules, Vera and their visitors before he could settle down to write. Yet he saw little point in living like a monk and willingly joined in the pair’s nocturnal forays, hurrying after them as they walked briskly from one meeting place to another through the unfamiliar maze of narrow streets and alleys.

As the weeks passed and his surroundings became less alien, he began to detect that deeper fissures separated the two camps. Of these, the most obvious was that Vera came from an older and more distant generation than Nicolai and Jules. More significantly, Nicolai and Jules acted . They initiated policy discussions and strived to chart the party’s course. Vera and the older editors, on the other hand, seemed only capable of reacting  to events as they arose. And there was something else, something in Vera that separated her from the other editors. A homesickness; a nostalgia for the sights, smells and sounds of the land she had been forced to flee more than twenty years before.

As a Russian socialist heroine, her credentials were faultless. Trotsky had read and re-read the correspondence she had conducted with Karl Marx. Not only had she written regularly to the Great Prophet, she had even argued with him! He was mistaken, she had written, to assume that the Russian situation was a ‘special case’; that it could not develop into a socialist state as would the othe

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r, more industrialised nations of Europe. Neither of them had given way. Refusing to hand them over to Edouard Bernstein, who had been named as Marx’s literary executor, and whom she did not trust, Vera had kept the letters partly because of their historical importance and partly, she had told him with a sad smile and a shrug, for sentimental reasons.

And there it was, as the English say, ‘in a nutshell’. Vera Zasulich was a sentimental socialist, and Nicolai Lenin and Jules Martov were revolutionary socialists. If Nadezhda Krupskaya was the Keeper of the Codes then, in his mind’s eye, Vera Zasulich had become the Keeper of the Scrapbook, hoarding anecdotes, memoirs and ephemera relating to the Movement’s history over the past three decades. She was the archivist par excellence  and like all archivists she was rooted in the past. The Party’s future lay in the hands of the younger men like Jules and Nicolai.

Between Jules and Nicolai, Trotsky sensed there lay another, more significant chasm. In hindsight he realised that this was the difference that would later come to tear the Party asunder but at this point, as a new spectator witnessing the evolving conflict of personality traits and policy differences between the two men, he could not yet define its nature. The one thing he knew instinctively was that Jules Martov was invariably kind to people, and Nicolai Lenin was only kind when he felt it would benefit his position. As Trotsky was later to admit to himself, lying in the hospital bed in Berezovo, it was possible to like Jules but not to admire him, and to admire Nicolai but not to like him.

Of the two, Trotsky recognised, Nicolai had proved the more influential; especially on his own writing style. Under Nicolai’s mentorship he had turned out article after article for Iskra  without rejection. This was not to say his first drafts were accepted uncritically. Nicolai did not hesitate to point out those passages where his analysis was woolly or his style too florid, and to let him know that Georgi Plekhanov, the editor in chief, shared his opinion. By adopting a more disciplined prose style (although still too flamboyant for Nicolai’s taste), he had become a better writer and had seen his contributions gradually gain a prominence on Iskra ’s pages second only to Nicolai’s dry theoretical expositions and Martov’s biting political commentaries.

Yet, despite the help that Nicolai had generously provided, the charge of unkindness stuck. Trotsky had witnessed Nicolai’s caustic wit on more than one occasion, and knew well he used rudeness and sarcasm to demean those comrades who disagreed with him. In the same situation Jules would smile and shake his head, acknowledging that it was inevitable in a democratic party that friends would hold different opinions. But not Nicolai Lenin.

Nicolai had a personal compulsion not just to be right but to be recognised as being right, and to stand in judgement on those who disagreed with him. His London alias – Dr. Richter – revealed more than it hid. Nicolai also believed that personal relationships of any sort were of secondary importance to the work of the Revolution. Long standing friendships were of no account. As for romantic love – pah! At best, such liaisons were a distraction; more often, an impediment to effective revolutionary action.

And there was the other thing. Nicolai and Nadezhda not only worked more hours than Jules and Vera in the service of the revolution, they were more cunning. Through self-discipline, self-sacrifice and unremitting hard work the couple had not only conquered the shiftless patterns of émigré life, they had also established control of the Party’s intelligence network at Holford Square. It was not to be wondered that Nicolai so often carried the initiative at the Iskra  editorial meetings, as he always possessed advance news of developments in Russia and elsewhere from the messages that Nadezhda had decoded the night before. Once or twice Trotsky even suspected the older man of holding back intelligence from Party activists so that he could make a prediction that would be borne out a few days later by the outcome of events, but he could never prove this. Yet perversely it was Nicolai whom he strove to impress and in whose high opinion he sought to be held, knowing all the while how tenuous that position would prove.

If Vera had sensed that her ‘Young Eagle’ was gently pulling away from her and tactfully distancing himself from her orbit, she had not appeared to mind. Her heart was large; too large, Nicolai had hinted more than once, for the work that lay before them. She and Trotsky had remained friends and it was to her that Trotsky had turned when he had, inevitably, over-reached himself.

It had been his own fault; nobody else could be blamed. Subject to Nicolai’s persistent flow of critical praise and not wishing to appear inadequate to his mentor, he had foolishly agreed to give a public lecture in Whitechapel and had compounded his error by exaggerating his experience in public speaking. He now confessed to Vera that he had never spoken in public before. Once years ago, she learned, he had tried to impress Alexandra by haranguing his group of friends in Shivorgsky’s market garden but it had been a wretched performance; a complete fiasco. He had crept away and wept and had sworn never to attempt such a thing again. And now this engagement in Whitechapel! A public lecture in front of comrades outlining the current situation in Russia and arguing Iskra ’s position that the struggle called for the creation of a new type of Party, radically different from anything that had gone before. He was dreading it, but what could he do? Patting his arm, she had told him not to worry. She would find a way to help him get over his nerves.

On the day of the lecture he had spent the morning in his room working on his speech. On one side of his desk lay a single sheet, containing a neatly enumerated list of topics that Nicolai had suggested he should address, broken down into headings and sub headings. In front of him, a sheaf of pages, already stained and curling at the edges from his moist palms, was covered with short paragraphs that he had written, scored out and then rewritten. Discarded balls of crumpled paper littered the floor of his room.

It was hopeless, he told himself.

Resigning himself to humiliation, he persevered, working and shaping the words until at last he felt that, if nothing else, he could recite them without faltering. He was writing the final sentence when he heard the sound of a church clock chiming one o’clock and, almost simultaneously, a knock on his bedroom door. Vera appeared. Without speaking, she motioned him to follow and to bring his speech with him. Taking his hand, she led him ceremoniously down the few short steps to the common room.

To his surprise he saw that the room had been tidied and the linoleum covering the floor had been scrubbed clean. Gone was the rickety table and in its place stood Vera’s own personal flat-topped writing desk, over which was draped a freshly laundered and pressed tablecloth. Seeing the table was set with only one place, he started to protest, but, still unspeaking, she pointed to the empty seat waiting for him. As he took his place she crossed over to the small stove in the corner upon which the contents of an array of pots and pans bubbled and sizzled, and began to serve him his lunch. She sat opposite him, watching as he spooned up the borscht and looked genuinely pleased when he told her it was delicious. She thanked him for the compliment, adding in an almost offhand way that his opinion mattered, not only about her cooking but also on other things. His speech, for instance. Could she read it? Unwillingly he pushed his notes across the table to her. Taking away his bowl she replaced it with a plate full of katushki,  prepared, she told him, the way Plekhanov himself liked.

While he devoured the fish balls and wiped up the rich sauce with a rough-cut slice of bread, she read the dozen or so pages he had given her, nodding once or twice. For dessert she had prepared a cold cherry kissel,  and only when this too had been consumed had she given her verdict on what she had read. His speech, she declared, was good: an intelligent and coherent analysis of the contemporary state of Russian affairs and a persuasive argument for a reorganised Party structure. There was no doubt in her mind that he would be an outstanding success. His timid spirits began to rise, bolstered by the meal and her praise.

After they had cleared away the table, Vera sprang her second surprise, announcing that they had a busy afternoon ahead of them. Their first port of call would be the new shops in Oxford Street. Brushing aside his reservations – he still needed to review his notes – she insisted on his accompanying her and within the hour, they had joined the hundreds of pedestrians that thronged the pavement of the busy thoroughfare. Some of the shop windows were already dressed for the coming celebration of Christmas, a fact that scandalised Vera since December had barely started. The purpose of their visit was revealed only when she again took him by the hand and led him inside an emporium specialising in men’s clothing.

The young gentleman, she told the floorwalker in her heavily accented English, required a new shirt and collar: one that was ready to wear. Despite his glaring looks as an assistant fussed over him with a measuring tape, Trotsky had allowed his benefactor to have her way. After his choice was selected, wrapped and paid for, Vera once more took charge and led him circuitously towards the whirlpool of Piccadilly Circus. With the aid of a burly policeman, a gap was found in the flow of cabs and trader’s vehicles, and they hurriedly crossed, diving once more into the security of the relatively quiet side streets. Vera’s step did not falter as she led him briskly past the rows of public houses, in the doorways of which garishly painted, sad-faced prostitutes watched their approach with sharp predatory eyes. Momentarily uneasy, he was relieved when they stopped in front of not a brothel, but the brightly painted facade of a Palais de Varieties  where Vera bought two tickets from the box office and, pushing him in front of her, directed him towards the upstairs auditorium.

From his seat in the first row of the balcony, he saw at once that the narrow frontage of the theatre had been deceptive. The interior was more than twice, if not three times, the width; its walls and balconies were covered in red plush material and opulently decorated with mirrors and gilded woodwork. Despite it being only a matinee, the house was more than half full. Here and there he could make out the tanned necks and faces of soldiers back from the Cape, their khaki uniforms contrasting with the sober navy blue tunics of the sailors on shore leave. On either side of Vera and himself sat parties of jolly women chattering animatedly, paying little attention to the troupe of hefty chorus girls that were performing on stage.

Consulting her programme, Vera expressed her satisfaction: they had arrived just in time. The next act was a monologue by a popular performer: he should pay strict attention to it. When he had told her that he doubted his English was good enough to follow more than one tenth of the recitation, she had snorted. The words were nothing, she said, he already had those. It was the tone that mattered.

And she had been right. As soon as the portly figure onstage had begun to declaim, the audience fell silent, listening with respect to the ringing tones that carried to the furthermost reaches of the house. It was evident that some of them, such as the lady sitting to his immediate left, knew the words almost by heart, for she mouthed them to herself as if she was giving a response in a church, and she joined in the enthusiastic applause that swept like wave after wave from all parts of the theatre at the conclusion of the piece.

With a wan smile, he turned to Vera, who gave his arm an answering squeeze of encouragement. More dancers followed and after them a shrill chanteuse waving flags, and after her a troupe of moustachioed acrobats-cum-jugglers, dressed in spangled tights. Just as he was becoming restless, Vera brought his attention to the act that was to close the first half of the bill. After that, she promised him, they would leave the English to their enjoyment. But first he must study the comedian.

The small pit orchestra struck up a jaunty tune and the curtains opened to reveal a painted backdrop depicting what Trotsky supposed was meant to represent a London street scene, though it looked nothing like the Pentonville he knew. From the wings a man strolled nonchalantly to the centre of the stage. Dressed as a beggar, he looked an improbable sight with his battered bowler hat and the flapping soles of his kipper-mouth boots. The audience greeted him with joyous derision and the orchestra played on, but he affected not to notice either. Instead, rummaging in his pockets, he produced with an ostentatious flourish the stub of a cigar which he proceeded to light by the simple expedient of striking a match against the ragged seat of his pants. The match flared, the audience laughed. He had yet to speak a word, yet he already had the theatre in the palm of his hand.

Leaning forward in his seat Trotsky watched, fascinated, as the comic began to work the house. Like the monologist that had appeared earlier, most of the man’s patter remained incomprehensible to him, yet the cleverness that drove the crowd to respond lay not in the words he used, but in the pauses in between the lines. Gradually a pattern emerged: the man was working in pulses of three. Time after time his dry, almost laconic delivery brought forth at first titters, then guffaws and finally gales of laughter, until a single word or gesture had Trotsky’s neighbour weeping almost uncontrollably. When, with a last careless backward kick of his heels, he disappeared into the wings, the applause was thunderous and Trotsky found himself on his feet along with the rest of the audience, clapping furiously.

The house lights went up and the applause died. As good as her word, Vera led him out of the theatre. Clutching his now almost forgotten speech and the brown paper parcel which contained his new shirt and collar, he chatted excitedly to her as they made their way back through the narrow streets towards the Circus. It was barely four o’ clock yet already the sun’s light was fading in the wintry sky. Shivering, they walked up Shaftesbury Avenue until a vacant cab hove into view. Vera hailed it. It was time they were making their way to Whitechapel.

As they headed eastwards, they discussed the two acts that had impressed him. At last he fell silent.

“A copeck for your thoughts,” said Vera.

He shrugged and smiled sadly.

“Watching them reminded me of someone I knew a long time ago,” he told her.


“Just a woman.”

“Never say just  a woman, Lev. It’s unkind. Anyway, you should be thinking of more serious things. Who was she?”

“Giuseppina Uget,” he replied with a sigh. “She was a coloratura soprano who used to sing in the Italian opera at Odessa.”

Vera gave a low whistle.

“Opera, eh? Is that what made you join the movement?”

“Don’t mock me,” he warned her. “She was my first love.”

Unbidden, the memory of Natalya Sedova, the beautiful stranger, formed in his mind.

He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts.

“My God, it gets worse,” Vera was teasing him. “And how old were you when this Venus came into your life?”

“Only a schoolboy. I used to scrimp and save to be able to see her on stage. The costumes, the lights... you know…”

“A frustrated actor as well as a writer. It hardly seems fair.”

He laughed guiltily.

“An actor, no. Frustrated, maybe.”

“And now? If someone handed you a play to read, could you do it?”

“I suppose so. But,” he added, picking up the speech which lay on his lap, “to hold an audience like that I would need a better script than this.”

“Stuff and nonsense!” Vera assured him. “Your own script is just fine. You know all the facts. All you have to do is to remember to speak up and not to gabble. Give people time to digest what you have said, otherwise they won’t be able to follow you and that’s when they stop listening. Above all, don’t care about yourself so much.”

“But I do care!” he protested.

“Then you’re a fool,” she said, laughing. “At the beginning, the secret of public speaking is not to worry about whether they like you or not, but to change as many of their minds as you can. If you start worrying about what sort of figure you are cutting, it will only get in your way. Sing it if you like, or recite it like poetry; we won’t care, much less the audience. If they don’t agree with you, too bad! They are hardly likely to start throwing things, now are they? The worse you can expect is a ripple of indifferent applause. Anyway,” she added with a sniff, “come the time, you won’t care much either way. Since it looks as if we shall arrive at least an hour before the meeting is due to start, we shall have time for a few drinks.”

“Good idea! I need at least two brandies before I go in.”

“You’ll have beer and like it,” she admonished him. “Brandy is for heroes.”

Whether it had been the alcohol that had strengthened his confidence, or the cool luxury of the new shirt against his back, or the sudden rush of gratification at the response produced by his flashes of humour, he could not say, but the evening had been a success. It was true that the audience that had listened attentively to him in the seedy room above the public house in Plumbers Road probably had had more to drink and less to eat than he had… And certainly a new face amongst them was as welcome as a window thrown open to the summer breeze… But when all was said and done, it was an indisputable fact that his lecture was a success. Even the unexpected sight of Nicolai at the back of the room clutching a bundle of the latest issue of Iskra  had not thrown him. Nicolai’s presence was indeed unexpected as he rarely ventured so far eastwards, preferring the more mannered population around Bloomsbury, but his journey was not wasted. Helped by his oratory, Iskra  was in demand and Trotsky had the great satisfaction at the end of the evening of knowing that all but four of the copies had been sold. As he, Vera and Nicolai left the crowded downstairs bar and made their way back towards Aldgate, Trotsky was elated. As he explained airily, oratory was a gift; either one had it or one hadn’t.

Whatever his private views, Nicolai had apparently shared his newfound confidence for the following morning he had suggested to Vera and Jules that their Young Eagle should immediately be sent abroad on a short lecture tour of other groups of RSDLP supporters. Originally Nicolai had himself intended to speak at the meetings, but there was still so much to be done in London that he could not afford to be absent. Let Vera’s Young Eagle try his wings. Despite Trotsky’s own misgivings, the editors had agreed.

Standing over his protégé as he unhappily packed and repacked his battered travelling case, Nicolai had told Trotsky that he owed it to himself, to Iskra , and above all to Vera Zasulich who had helped him to unlock his talent for oratory, to go. After all, Nicolai had enquired, their political viewpoints were identical, weren’t they? The editorial board of Iskra  believed he could be trusted to present the correct analysis to the paper’s wavering supporters, and bring in more recruits from the ranks of the uncommitted.

Naturally, Nicolai had added, there would be other duties he would be asked to perform; duties that were part and parcel of the work of any revolutionary movement. He would be expected to act as a courier extraordinaire and to interview and report back on the activities of the local Iskra  cells and their methods of circulation. He was also to meet and assess the capacities of various individuals in whom Nicolai was interested, and upon his return report his impressions privately to him. A fresh age demanded a fresh eye: a thorough and objective observer who could detect hidden strengths and weaknesses in an organisation. It was an important assignment.

Although his tour had only consisted of three stops at Bruxelles, Liege and Paris, by the time he had arrived again at the bar in the nineteenth arrondissement one week later to meet his contact, Trotsky had felt exhausted. Nothing had changed; the same morose-looking man was serving behind the bar. Seeing him enter, the bartender drew him a half litre of blonde biere  and, without speaking, pushed it across the marble counter. Experience had taught Trotsky caution and he had left the biere  untouched as he casually surveyed the faces of the clientele. Only when he was satisfied that the drink was not the signal that would spring a trap for the gendarmes did he slowly reach for it.

As he raised the biere  to his mouth, a hand fell lightly onto his shoulder. He froze, the glass still inches from his lips.

“Hello,” she had said, “are you looking for Denis?”

For a second, hearing a woman’s voice had taken him by surprise. Slowly lowering the glass, he turned to face his contact. The dark eyes of Natalya Sedova, the beautiful stranger, regarded him watchfully.

“No,” he told her. “I am waiting for my cousin Jaques.”

“Jaques is walking in the park.”

The parole completed, she relaxed and gave him a smile.

“Welcome back. Finish your drink and then come with me.”

He was expecting her to take him back to Jaques’ safe house, but instead she led him south, to a five storey building in the artist’s quarter. Stealing glances at her as they walked side by side, he found that she seemed at the same time more and less striking than the first time he had seen her. She was noticeably shorter than he remembered and possessed a fuller figure, but her face bore more character in its expression, and a smooth untroubled brow. He did not doubt for a moment that she was the most beautiful and the most elegant young woman he had ever met.

Walking beside him, she was telling him that he was to take a room on the third floor. It was only a small room, but it still cost fifteen francs a month. He was not to worry about the concierge; she would be squared. The old woman would probably believe that they were lovers. Fifteen francs! she had exclaimed. It was criminal but that was the price one paid if one wanted to keep one’s presence in this city a secret.

Turning a corner, they stopped in front of a tall town house. Following her into the cool darkness of its entrance hall, he asked shyly, “And where do you live, Natalya Sedova?”

She looked up at him in surprise.

“How do know my name?”

“I know everything,” he intoned solemnly.

“Then you’ll know where I live.”

“That I might have forgotten.”

“Well then,” she said, looping her arm easily around his as they emerged from the darkness and walked slowly across the inner courtyard in full view of the concierge’s open window. “I shall have to remind you. I live on the top floor of this building, in the studio. You see, we shall be neighbours.”

Damn!  he thought as he closed the door of his room behind him. Love, if this was  love, would be a colossal inconvenience.

Far below, he could hear Natalya explaining his presence to the lady concierge.

Even if it was not love, he reasoned, but merely infatuation, he would find it difficult to concentrate on his work with the knowledge that she was only two floors above him. He considered how he might postpone his return to London for a few days. He was sure that Vera and Jules would not mind, but Nicolai? He imagined Nicolai’s cruel smile and Nadezhda’s disapproving frown when they deciphered his message. No, Nicolai would not like it, and he would use it against him.

Perhaps this was a test…

Momentarily, his face darkened with suspicion as he recalled that he had once mentioned in passing Natalya’s name to Vera. Had she shared this confidence with Nicolai? The question nagged at him. Who had decided to send Natalya Sedova to meet him in the bar, and not Paul the Pole? Jaques or Nicolai? He thought it unlikely that Nicolai would trust a young Sorbonne student with such a task, but if she was really…

He became aware that he could no longer hear Natalya’s voice. Money had changed hands; the concierge had been quietened. He stiffened as the sound of the outer door closing echoed up the shadowy spiral stairwell. Moving quickly across the room, he silently opened his door. Instead of returning to her art lectures as she had said she intended, Natalya Sedova was now climbing the six flights of stairs towards him. Closing his door he stood for a moment, motionless, his ears alert as he listened to her footsteps grow nearer.

He shouldn’t care, he told himself, he had important work to do.

He saw that his suitcase was still standing by the door where he had dropped it. Bending down he picked it up and threw it onto his bed. Wetting his lips, he began whistling an old folksong he had learnt from his mother as she worked in their farmhouse kitchen.

Yonder stands a mountain high…” 

He opened the suitcase and started to unpack his clothes.

Had the boots stopped? Was she listening to him?

No, the elegant ankle boots had not stopped, had not even hesitated, but were still climbing purposefully towards his landing. Straightening up, his felt heart beating in his chest like a long-forgotten gong. He let his whistling die on his lips and, holding a crumpled shirt in his hands, turned to face the door.

Chapter Fifteen

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Sunday 4th February 1907

Berezovo, Northern Siberia

At a quarter to seven that evening Berezovo’s town librarian, Alexander Vissarionovich Maslov, was sitting in the mezzanine lounge of the Hotel New Century. Stacked beside him on the cushions of the sofa stood a pile of play scripts, their virgin pages still wrapped in the thick sheets of yellow paper in which they had arrived ten days before. Filled with a sense of quiet anticipation, he laid a limp hand protectively over the pile as he watched people enter the room. Three of the drama committee had already arrived: the schoolmaster Nikolai Dresnyakov, the land surveyor Andrey Roshkovsky and himself. It only remained for Dr. Tortsov and Yuli Belinsky to appear and they could call the meeting to order.

The librarian did not regard Belinsky’s presence at the meeting was necessary, or even desirable. The builder was, in Maslov’s opinion, more of a rude mechanic than a bona fide committee member; to accord him equal status with Nikolai Dresnyakov was dangerous. And whatever tyro directors such as Dr. Tortsov might believe to the contrary, Nikolai Dresnyakov had command over the play as a whole. It was the school master’s job to mobilise the forces of the production, to devolve responsibilities to the other members of the drama committee and to co-opt people to help them.

That, Maslov regarded, was the crucial difference. Both he and Roshkovsky, as secretary and treasurer respectively, were full committee members, while Dr. Tortsov and Belinsky had been co-opted so that the drama committee could retain control of the production. It was not strictly necessary to inform the two co-opted members of matters that lay outside their spheres of responsibility. Yet Nikolai Dresnyakov – ever the democrat – insisted on striving for a consensus and upholding the principle of collective decision-making, even going on occasion to the lengths for taking votes. Knowing full well that democracy was a fine idea in theory but unworkable in practice, Maslov was not unduly perturbed. In a situation where the committee was split, Roshkovsky and Belinsky cancelled each other out and the chairman would always trust his secretary’s judgement rather than that of an inexperience director.

Taking a sip of his soda water, Maslov cast an expert eye around the hotel lounge as it began to fill with people. The one evening when the committee’s proceedings were thrown open to the public, casting night had become something of an event in the town’s sparse social calendar. Already he had recognised several faces that had appeared on previous occasions, most of whom could be dismissed as not being serious candidates for a role. It was a fairly safe rule that the people who arrived early never stepped forward; they had only come to watch and to mock those who allowed themselves to be coerced into taking a part.

Maslov wondered idly who Tortsov had in mind for the sole female character. He found it curious how, when it came to the fairer sex, the lure of the stage drew the most unlikely volunteers. Plain, homespun wives like Lidiya Pusnyena, standing there in the corner with her husband, longed to see themselves as beautiful heroines while Irene Kuibysheva, w

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ho at that moment was entering on the arm of Leonid Kavelin (Kavelin’s other arm being securely anchored by his wife Tatyana) shrank from that glare of public notoriety in which they basked for the remainder on the year. The coquette refused to dissemble; the dormouse longed to declaim. Nature was indeed turned upside down.

Some things did not change. Colonel Izorov was unlikely to put in an appearance. At least, he was not expected to appear: one never knew with Izorov. Neither would either of the Two Thieves, Fyodor Izminsky and Sergei Kuprin. Such proceedings did not attract the interest of serious men of business, much to the annoyance of their wives, who would have to rely upon a second-hand account of the casting from Madame Nadnikova at the general store. At the opposite end of the social scale, omitting the peasantry (one always omitted the peasantry) a few of the lesser tradesmen were already present. There was Kuzma Gvordyen, the baker, talking to the butcher Svortsov, while their wives were trying to attract the attention of M. Delyanov. But the haberdasher was cutting them and going to where the money was; talking with easy deferential gestures to Mesdames Nadnikova and Kavelina, the latter turning a blind eye to the continued subtle assault Madame Kuibysheva was making upon her husband.

From his seat on the sofa, Maslov could see all this and more. Nikolai Dresnyakov, now deep in conversation with Pavel Nadnikov, might be the chairman but it was he, Alexander Maslov, who was the magister ludorum , the master of the games. It was he who was the official spokesman of the drama committee. Roshkovsky might be the treasurer, but it was he, Alexander Maslov, with whom the suppliers had to deal. It was on his library’s small printing press that the playbills were designed and printed. It was he who could determine even the choice of play, merely by saying that one script was temporarily unavailable or had been withdrawn by the censor, and that another play might be more suitable instead. For as long as Nikolai Dresnyakov held the post of chairman (and he showed no desire to relinquish it) then it would be the Secretary who held the power. Maslov was confident that, in the end, even Dr. Tortsov would come to recognise this fact. It was therefore with a large degree of personal satisfaction that he now surveyed the chattering company that had come to witness the birth of what was, de facto  if not de juro , another Alexei Maslov production.

The librarian’s sense of well-being was short-lived. As he took another sip of his soda water, he saw over the rim of his glass Belinsky pushing his way through the group by the door, and hailing Fyodor Gregorivich who was that instant passing with a tray of chilled flasks of vodka. Quickly gathering up his scripts, Maslov rose from his seat with the intention of plunging into the safety of the crowd. But it was too late.

“Oi, Maslov!” hollered Belinsky, making directly for him. “What a turn out, eh?”

“Hello Yuli Nikitavich,” he greeted the builder. “Yes, it does seem as if the production has acquired a certain interest in the town.”

Looking around him, Belinsky nodded vigorously in all directions. It became obvious to Maslov standing beside him that the glass of vodka he now held in his hand was not the first he had imbibed that evening. He winced as the builder nudged him heavily in the ribs.

“Here, where’s our famous director then? Do you think he’s got cold feet?”

“I’m sure that the doctor will appear presently,” he assured the builder. “Excuse me…”

He tried to move away, but Belinsky stretched out an arm and effortlessly pulled him back.

“Hold hard a minute. Don’t rush off.”

Intimidated by the builder’s strength, Maslov disengaged his arm as gently as he could.

“What do you want?” he asked uneasily.

“I need to speak to him soon,” Belinsky breathed over him tipsily. “About the scenery, see? I mean, I’ve got to have designs for the sets, haven’t I? After all, I’m a builder, not a bloody artist.”

“No, quite,” agreed Maslov, taking a pace backwards.

“So get on to it, will you?”

“You’ll have to speak to the doctor about that, not me. Excuse me.”

Belinsky’s arm reached out to detain him, but this time the librarian was more adroit and was able to evade his grasp. Pushing his way through the crowd towards the door, he heard Belinsky’s voice boom out above the hubbub of conversation.

“Remember Maslov, I want those drawings!”

It’s all like a bad dream , Maslov told himself.

Standing together in the centre of the lounge, Irena Kuibysheva and Leonid Kavelin watched his flight with amusement.

“The little man is being hounded,” she murmured.

As the librarian drew closer, she called out to him.

“Good evening, Alexander Vissarionovich!”

Turning to see who had hailed him, Maslov caught sight of them and changed his direction, making his way over to where they were standing.

Irena held out an elegant hand for him to clasp. Clutching the play scripts in one hand and still flustered by Belinsky’s boisterousness, the librarian did what, in the cool light of day, he would later recall with a shiver of embarrassment. He took the proffered hand and, with a small bow, pressed it lightly to his lips. Irena’s cry of delight tinkled across the room. Standing a few feet away, Tatyana Kavelina quickly turned her head, took in the scene and then returned to her conversation with the haberdasher M. Delyanov.

“Good evening, Irena Alexandrovna,” said the librarian hurriedly. “Good evening, Leonid Sergeivich.”

“Good heavens, Alexander Vissarionovich, how kulturny  you are tonight!” cooed Irena. “We were just saying that we hope the play this year shall be as exhilarating as those in the past.”

“I think I can offer you an excellent production,” he replied, conscious of the poor figure he was cutting and of Kavelin’s expression of annoyance.

“I hear that it is a work by Chekhov, is that correct?”

“Two plays, actually.”

“Two? That is ambitious,” she exclaimed. “And who do you think should be in them this year? Do you have any ideas?”

“Dr. Tortsov is the director this year,” Maslov informed her. “It’s really up to him to decide. But,” he added, bowing again to the man who was standing beside her, “if I could perhaps persuade Leonid Sergeivich here…? There seem to be a preponderance of male parts on offer.”

“Did you hear that, Leonid Sergeivich?” asked Irena brightly, turning to her escort. “A preponderance of male parts! That certainly bears thinking about, wouldn’t you say?”

Seeing the twinkle of amusement in her eye, Kavelin gave an embarrassed cough.

“I’m afraid that Dr. Tortsov shall have to look elsewhere,” he replied. “I’m far too busy to spend time acting.”

But Irena would not let him off the hook so easily.

“Nonsense!” she teased him. “I know you men of business. It’s not work that stops you. You’re just too shy to act.”

Turning back to Maslov, she sighed longingly.

“I’m sure that if the right part came along, I could not refuse it. As long as it was big enough, of course. And I had a strong man to support me.”

Kavelin coughed again and gave her a sharp glance of warning.

“I regret there is only one part for a lady this year,” Maslov informed them. “That is of a rich widow.”

Seemingly oblivious of the warm exchange of glances going on above his head, the small librarian looked round agitatedly.

“If you will excuse me, I really must see if I can find Dr. Tortsov. He will be able to answer all your questions.”

With another bow, he excused himself and plunged back into the crowd. Smiling, Irena watched him go.

“How would you like me if I was a rich widow, Leonid?” she asked.

“No better than I like you now,” muttered Kavelin.

His gaze was also turned outwards to encompass the crowd that surrounded him, nervously seeking to catch sight of his wife who had, it seemed, disappeared with her haberdasher.

Madame Kuibysheva laughed softly.

“Surely you aren’t jealous of little Maslov?”

“That worm? Good God, no! It’s just that I consider it unnecessary of you to permit him to kiss your hand like that. Damn it, Irena…”

“Hush,” breathed Irena. “Now don’t make a scene, I beg you. As you say, he is pathetic. All the same…”

She began to giggle. Exasperated, he turned back to face her.

“Perhaps you should take a leaf out of his book,” she suggested. “Such gestures make a woman feel appreciated. A kiss like that is so… so French.”

Kavelin was about to reply when, over her shoulder, he glimpsed his wife moving through the crowd in their direction. He raised a hand in acknowledgement.

“Allow me to fetch you a glass of water, Irena Alexandrovna,” he said loudly.

Turning to see who he was looking at, Irena gave Tatyana a radiant smile.

“Thank you, Leonid Sergeiovich. I would be most grateful. For some reason, my throat has become quite dry.”

The lounge was becoming overcrowded as more people arrived to witness the casting ceremony and to take advantage of the drama committee’s hospitality. To avoid the crush, some of the assembly were spilling out onto the small landing outside the lounge. Worming his way through the press of bodies, Maslov was growing anxious about the delay in the proceedings. It was now half past seven and there was still no sign of the doctor. Furthermore, Fyodor Gregorivich was carrying in yet another tray of flasks. At this rate that the committee would be bankrupt before the plays were cast.

Well, he told himself, nobody could blame him. He had drunk nothing but soda water and he was quite willing to pay for that out of his own pocket should it prove necessary.

Unable to see over the heads of the people around him, Maslov stood on a chair and searched in vain for the other members of the committee. Nikolai Dresnyakov, pipe in hand, was talking earnestly with a group of parents over by the hearth while, by the far windows, Belinsky and Roshkovsky were having what appeared to be a row. Of Dr. Tortsov, there was no sign.

The sound of loud voices coming up the staircase that led from the hotel’s vestibule made him jump down from his vantage point and hurry out onto the landing. But instead of the doctor, he saw that the new arrivals were the Mayor and his wife, accompanied by a cheerful Modest Tolkach.

“And here is Alexander Vissarionovich!” Mayor Pobednyev boomed as the trio reached the top of the stairs. “Good man!”

Catching sight of the crowd within, he exclaimed, “What is this? A party? Are you celebrating even before the play has been produced?”

Maslov greeted them, bestowing a bobbing bow on each in turn.

“Good evening, Your Excellency, Madame Pobednyeva, Modest Andreyivich! I’m afraid that we are running a trifle behind schedule. Dr. Tortsov has still to arrive. Meanwhile,” he added, gesturing towards the lounge, “Fyodor Gregorivich has provided refreshments, although at the moment I am not sure who is paying for them. I fear that the committee’s funds are almost non-existent at the moment.”

“Don’t you worry, Alexander Vissarionovich,” advised the Mayor, slapping him on the back. “You can tell everyone that I am covering the cost of the drinks.”

Madame Pobednyeva began to protest, but her husband quietened her.

“After all, it’s in a worthy cause,” he went on. “I would like to be thought of as, among other things, a patron of the arts.”

“You are very generous,” Maslov said gratefully.

“Don’t mention it. Just make sure that you tell Nikolai Alexeyevich, so there’s no confusion, eh?”

“Certainly, Your Excellency.”

With a magnanimous wave of his hand, the Mayor led his grim-faced wife and a watchful Modest Tolkach into the lounge. Their appearance together took sufficient numbers of people by surprise for there to be a noticeable dip in the level of noise, but the moment soon passed. Besides the occasional nudge of an elbow or upraised eyebrow, the company the Mayor chose to keep was not openly remarked upon. As the Pobednyevs progressed through the crowd with the hospital administrator in tow, only the slight tightening of smiles amongst the wives of the men they greeted indicated that, for Modest Tolkach, the road back to public esteem promised to be a long and difficult one.

Still standing out on the landing, Maslov was on the point of abandoning his watch and advising Nikolai Dresnyakov to open the meeting without further delay when the sound of heavy footsteps made him turn and he spied the top of the doctor’s grey head as he climbed the stairs.

Clutching the top of the banister rail and almost dancing with anxiety, he exclaimed: “Doctor, where have you been? The meeting should have started half an hour ago.”

Stooping with fatigue, the doctor did not reply, until he had joined the librarian on the top step.

“Good evening, Maslov,” he said. “I apologise for being so late. I have been wasting my time trying to locate our worthless Mayor. He isn’t at his house. They thought he was at the hospital. So I went there but, no…”

As he paused for breath, Maslov said quickly, “But he’s here! You’ve been keeping him waiting along with everyone else.”

“Here,” echoed the doctor incredulously. “The Mayor’s here?”

“Yes! Come on!”

Leading him by the arm, Maslov pushed his way into the crowd, crying out, “Make way for the director! Make way, please!”

Ironic cheers greeted the doctor’s arrival.

“About time too!” shouted Belinsky from the back of the room. “Get a move on!”

Standing on a chair, Nikolai Dresnyakov called for silence.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Before I call the meeting to order, I wish to say a few words.”

The schoolteacher ignored the chorus of groans that arose on every side of him as if they were no more than gusts of wind in the bulrushes on the riverbank.

“A few words of welcome, first,” he continued imperturbably. “A warm welcome to you all, and thank you for coming tonight, and also to Dr. Tortsov here, who has agreed to be our director in this year’s production. I’m sure that you will all join me in expressing our confidence in his powers to entertain us and in thanking him for taking up such an arduous position.”

By the time he had finished speaking, Dresnyakov found that Maslov was at his side, tugging at the hem of his frock coat. While the crowd dutifully applauded his little speech, he leant down and allowed the librarian to whisper in his ear.

When the clapping had stopped, he straightened up and continued, “On behalf of the committee, I would also like to thank His Excellency the Mayor, who has so kindly agreed to meet the cost of all the… ah… liquid refreshments we have consumed tonight.”

The applause that greeted this news was markedly more vigorous than that which had preceded it.

“I now call upon Vasili Semionovich,” concluded Dresnyakov, “to read us the list of roles that are to be cast.”

With a nod to the doctor, the school teacher stepped down from his chair. Removing a hurriedly written batch of notes from his jacket pocket, Dr. Tortsov settled his spectacles on his nose and faced the crowd.

“Thank you, Nikolai Alexeyevich,” he began. “Your Honour, councillors, ladies and gentlemen, I must first apologise for keeping you waiting for so long. It was unavoidable and I regret it. Secondly, although I believe one or two of you already know, I wish to announce the title, date and location of the production – or should I say productions? For this year, there are two of them; two one act plays. They are The Bear  and A Tragedian in Spite of Himself . Two comic sketches by one of our finest modern writers, Anton Chekhov.”

“Hear hear!” cried Maslov, bring an immediate response of a hoarse raspberry from the back of the crowd. Belinsky grinned drunkenly at those around him.

Undeterred, the doctor pressed on.

“There will be one performance only of each piece, separated by a musical interlude. The plays will be performed on Sunday, the eighteenth of February at the barracks, by kind permission of Captain Steklov.”

Lowering his notes, he addressed the crowd directly.

“We now move to the main business of the evening, namely the casting of the roles. I shall follow the usual procedure of first asking for volunteers and then, if I fail, Nikolai Alexeyevich here will press unwilling volunteers into service.”

Dr. Tortsov waited until the crowd’s nervous laughter had subsided before dropping his bombshell.

“However, I shall depart from tradition in one instance. As I have said, there are two plays. They have a total of five speaking parts and five walk-on parts. Only one of these is a female role. Not wishing to cause dissent, I have therefore taken the precaution of already casting this part.”

He paused again and then, raising his voice above the expectant buzz, he announced:

“My wife, Yeliena Mihailovna, has graciously agreed to play the part of…”

The rest of his words were lost in the outbreak of outraged comment. Maslov glanced first at the drama committee’s chairman, trying to gauge his reaction, and was rewarded by a look of amusement as Dresnyakov puffed contentedly on his pipe. The land surveyor Roshkovsky, who had come to stand beside the librarian during the doctor’s opening remarks, said admiringly, “Well, he’s a cool one, I must say.”

“Did you know about this?” whispered Maslov.

“No,” the land surveyor admitted, “but it’s a good idea.”

“Oh? Why?”

“Don’t you see? A little controversy like this can’t fail to help our box office.”

The noise showed little sign of abating. Calmly removing his pipe from his mouth, Nikolai Dresnyakov called for order. As the crowd fell quiet again, the Mayor thrust himself forward to the front, bringing Tolkach with him.

“Personally,” he remarked loudly,” I think that the doctor has made an excellent choice.”

“I agree!” a female voice out from the middle of the crowd. The cry was taken up.

“The following roles, therefore, remain unfilled,” continued the doctor. “First, the speaking parts…”

Again the crowd fell silent, hushing those who still were murmuring their dissent.

“Gregory Stepanivich Smirnov, better known as ‘The Bear’. Luka, an aged footman. Ivan Ivanivich Tolkachov, a professional gentleman; and his friend, Alexey Alexeyevich Murashkin. The remaining five non-speaking parts include a gardener, a coachman, a workman, a secretary and a maid. Now,” he said, regarding the crowd with a wintry smile,” do I have any brave volunteers? First of all, for the speaking parts?”

Despite much good natured nudging and winking, no hand was raised.

“Remember,” threatened the doctor, “if nobody comes forward, Nikolai Alexeyevich here will pick who he chooses.”

The silence was broken by a familiar voice.

“I should like to volunteer our good friend Modest Tolkach for the role of ‘The Bear’,” cried Pobednyev, adding, with a leer, “because when we are in his clutches, we are quite defenceless. So now it is our opportunity to get our own back!”

Although the Mayor’s heavy pun was intended as a reference to the town’s hospital over which his protégé had sovereign control, it had precisely the opposite effect to that which its author intended. His words were widely interpreted by the assembled company as a reference in the worst possible taste to the fate of the late Madame Tolkacha. For the first time, the crowded room was shocked into a complete silence.

Taken aback by his sudden proposal, the hospital administrator stared open-mouthed at his ‘patron’. Other than vague hints throughout the afternoon that it might help his candidacy for the council if he was to court popularity more assiduously, Modest Tolkach had received no warning of the Mayor’s intentions. The realisation began to dawn upon him that Pobednyev had engineered his presence there that evening specifically to thrust him clumsily into the public gaze. As the silence lengthened, he prayed that the ground beneath his feet would open up and swallow him whole. When no such salvation offered itself, he seemed to lose his wits. Turning on his heel, he lowered his head and tried to charge through the crowd towards the exit.

“I second the Mayor!” bellowed Belinsky tipsily from the back of the room.

Uncertain, Dr. Tortsov looked quickly at Dresnyakov, who shrugged helplessly.

“Accepted,” noted the doctor grimly, and pencilled the name ‘Tolkach’ against the role of ‘Gregory Stepanivich Smirnov’.

With an outburst of angry protest from some of the crowd, the hospital administrator’s progress towards the door was checked. As he was being pushed back into the centre of the room, it became clear that a few of the wives were preparing to leave the proceedings in protest.

Maslov turned to Roshkovsky. “Is that controversial enough for you?”

The land surveyor gave a rueful smile.

“Once is genius. Twice could be a disaster,” he agreed.

Facing the truculent crowd, Dr. Tortsov licked his lips nervously.

“Anyone else?”

Noting the hostile expressions on the faces of the people closest to him, he appealed to Pobednyev to step forward.

“Come on, Your Excellency. What about you?”

But the Mayor, his arm held in the vice-like grip of his wife, quickly shook his head.

Catching sight of the baker Gvordyen, Dr. Tortsov cried out desperately, “Kuzma Antonovich? What about you? Didn’t you have a part last year?”

The baker gave a mirthless laugh.

“Once was enough, thank you. Let someone else have a go.”

Looking around him, Gvordyen caught sight of the portly figure of Skyralenko, surreptitiously helping himself to another glass of vodka from a tray. Waiting until the prison director had lifted the drink to his lips, the baker said, “But I will nominate Dimitri Borisovich Skyralenko for the part of the aged footman.”

With a roar of approval, Belinsky, who was standing close by, gave the prison director a congratulatory slap on the back, causing him to swallow the drink at a single gulp. People around them started to laugh.

“Any objections, Dimitri Borisovich?” enquired the doctor.

His eyes streaming and incapable of speech, Skyralenko began to choke noisily.

“Well done,” said the doctor, adding, “that’s a nasty cough you have there. You should take care of it.”

He dutifully wrote down Skyralenko’s name opposite the word ‘Luka’. There was a second small ripple of laughter from the back of the room.

“If there are no more volunteers, then I shall have to ask that Nikolai Alexeyevich does his duty.”

There were no more volunteers. Stepping onto his chair once more, the schoolteacher glanced across at the group of people clustered around the door who were still determining whether or not to leave in protest at the proceedings, and then looked down with mock severity at the rest of the crowd.

“Very well, ladies and gentlemen. The next person who either moves, laughs or speaks, be it man or woman, will be given the part of Alexey Alexeyevich Murashkin.”

Immediately the room became still. It was an old game; one that they all had played as children and which, in the intervening years, had lost none of its power. As the seconds ticked by, the silence broken only by Skyralenko’s continuing gasps, bodies began to shake with suppressed laughter. A full minute passed. The tension rose. Fuelled by the vodka, tears began to trickle from the corners of eyes.

“Come on, friends!” Maslov coaxed them. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“Thank you, Alexander Vissarionovich,” Dresnyakov said quietly. “You will do nicely.”

Stunned at his own blunder, Maslov gaped at his chairman. Surrounded by relieved, laughing faces, he began to protest. “No, wait a minute, Nikolai Alexeyevich… No I can’t…”

Each appeal was greeted with renewed laughter and cries of, “Don’t worry Maslov. There’s nothing to be afraid of! ”

“But I… I am a committee member! It isn’t fair on the others.”

“Sorry, Alexander Vissarionovich,” said the doctor as he wrote the librarian’s name down against the part. “I can’t help you now. Besides,” he added with a hint of gentle malice, “your experience of the theatre will be invaluable to the production, I am sure.”

Good humour having been restored, the casting continued more smoothly. Svortsov the butcher, spurred on by his wife, fell for the part of Tolkachov. Knowing that the crowd would not be caught twice by the same trick, the doctor concentrated next on filling the non-speaking roles, which, after a great deal of good natured joking and persuasion by Dresnyakov, was duly accomplished.

As the meeting drew to a close, Dr. Tortsov congratulated himself. Despite an unfortunate beginning, the roles had been successfully cast. Gathering up his notes, the doctor kept an eye on the Mayor. When he saw that his party was showing signs of departure, he took his leave of Dresnyakov and began pushing his way through the crowd towards them. He caught up with the Mayor just as he was about to descend the stairs.

“Anatoli Mikhailovich! I must speak with you urgently.”

Mayor Pobednyev smiled knowingly.

“Oh no, you can’t catch me like that, Doctor! I wasn’t born yesterday.”

“It has nothing to do with the play,” Dr. Tortsov insisted. “It’s an official matter and very serious.”

“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

“No. I must speak with you now.”

“Very well then,” the Mayor sighed. “Why don’t you come home with us for a night cap? We can talk about it on the way.”

The doctor shook his head.

“No, Your Excellency. I must speak with you now and alone. It’s a matter best settled between men.”

Caught off guard by his tone, Mayor Pobednyev hesitated. To his ears, the doctor’s words sounded like nothing so much as the prelude to a duel. His attention was momentarily distracted by the appearance of Fyodor Gregorivich, carrying yet another tray of vodka up the stairs for the hangers-on in the lounge. Indicating to the doctor that he should wait, he beckoned the hotel proprietor to his side.

“Fyodor Gregorivich, the meeting is over now. There is no need to serve more drinks. You can take those back,” he added, “and send your bill to my chamber in the morning. Incidentally, have you a room I can use for a few minutes? I have some private official business to take care of and I don’t want to be disturbed.”

“Private official business?” repeated the proprietor in bafflement.

With a shrug, he nodded towards the upper storey.

“All the rooms are free, your Excellency, but there’s no heating.”

The Mayor thanked him. Casting a look of annoyance at the doctor, who had moved closer to him to ensure that he did not escape, he quickly made arrangements for Modest Tolkach to escort his wife home, adding further to Madame Pobednyeva’s displeasure.

“Come on then,” he grunted as he led the way up the wooden stairs that led to the guests’ accommodation. “Couldn’t you have called earlier, Doctor? This is damned inconvenient.”

“I did call at your house before coming here, but you had already left.”

“Yes. We had promised to collect Modest Andreyevich and bring him here. He’s a good man, is Tolkach. It’s a pity that you don’t get on with him better.”

Unwilling to be drawn from his purpose, the doctor held his peace.

Reaching the second landing, the two men stood looking down the darkness of the unlit corridor.

“Well?” asked Pobednyev briskly.

“I would prefer to talk in one of the rooms,” insisted the doctor. “It’s more private.”

The Mayor gestured towards the nearest door.

“Will this do?”

Still keeping his eyes on the Mayor, Dr. Tortsov nodded and taking a few steps forward, tried the handle of the door. It opened. He stood to one side, in order that the Mayor might pass, but Pobednyev warily motioned him to enter first. Without a word, the doctor walked in. The Mayor followed him, stopping just inside the threshold. The air inside the room was markedly colder than out on the hallway.

“It’s freezing in here,” the Mayor said, shivering. “You don’t mind if we leave the door open, do you?”

“As you wish.”

Unsettled by the doctor’s strange manner, Mayor Pobednyev rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a long thin leather case.

“Would you like a cigar?” he offered hopefully.

“No, thank you.”

Standing by the far wall, Doctor Tortsov waited for the figure dimly outlined in the doorway to light his cigar before he began to speak. As he talked, his voice unconsciously took on a tone unfamiliar to the Mayor; a tone which few people had heard twice in their lives. It was the voice he used when he had to tell an apparently well man or woman who had come to him complaining of a sudden stomach ache, or a blurring of vision or of a persistent backache, that they had something from which they were unlikely to recover. He spoke slowly, using simple words; his manner deliberately grave because sometimes people laughed in disbelief, as Madame Roshkovskaya had done. He spoke clearly, because sometimes people’s minds distorted the words. Later, Mayor Pobednyev would recall the experience as being like listening to the voice of a prosecuting angel.

“Anatoli Mikhailovich, you are the mayor of this town. You are, in civil terms, the Father of Berezovo. Spir

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itually, we have Father Arkady to guide us. Militarily we have Captain Steklov and for our protection we have Colonel Izorov. But you, you are the mayor. So it is to you that I, as the town’s physician, address my question. And it is from you that I expect an honest and direct answer. For what purpose have you secretly ordered forty sleighs to be built?”

Tortsov watched the red eye of the cigar glow angrily as the Mayor considered his question.

“Who told you this? I know nothing about any sleighs. You are mistaken.”

“No, your Excellency, I am not mistaken. It’s all true.”

“I demand to know who told you,” repeated Pobednyev.

“At the beginning of last week,” the doctor continued evenly, “you placed orders with Gleb Pirogov for ten sleighs, with Irkaly Ovseenko for twelve sleighs and with Averbuch for eighteen. Why?”

“The Jew was cheaper,” replied Pobednyev with a shrug, “but I had to give some business to our people.”

The doctor could not resist smiling at this answer.

“You misunderstand me, but no matter. Let me ask you another question. Why is it so important that they finish their work by the fourteenth of this month? What do you have planned?”

There was another silence while Pobednyev considered how best to reply. From the floor below came the sound of the last of the crowd taking their leave.

“Doctor,” he said finally, “I respect your position as a medical man, but, as you say, I am the civic father of Berezovo. If what you say is true… and I am not saying it is… then it is for a purpose that is so sensitive, so confidential that even if I wished, I could not tell you.”

From the darkness of the room he heard a snort of disgust.

“How many times have I heard that, Anatoli Mikhailovich?” the invisible voice asked accusingly. “How many times have things been hushed up in the name of delicacy or confidentiality, just to protect the ineptitude or plain criminality of public servants?”

“How dare  you insult me?” the Mayor flared angrily. “I am the Mayor ! What are you accusing me of?”

For the first time, Doctor Tortsov began to have doubts about his cause. If he had not seen the sleighs with his own eyes, he told himself, the Mayor’s outrage would have struck him as being the protest of an innocent man.

“Since you haven’t spoken plainly to me,” he countered, “I see no reason why I should speak plainly to you. However, I shall. I am accusing you of seriously compromising my capacity to declare this town under quarantine.”

“Quarantine?” repeated the Mayor in astonishment. “What quarantine? Nobody has mentioned anything to me about quarantine.”

“If you had read the reports I sent you,” retorted Dr. Tortsov, “or taken the least interest in what is going on in the surrounding villages, you would know that we are being threatened by the worst epidemic of typhus for four years.”

“Typhus?” repeated the Mayor in horror.

He tried to remember if the council secretary had mentioned anything about typhus. Since the whole business with Izorov had blown up, he had had little time for the day-to-day reports that landed on his desk. Surely he could not have forgotten being told something as important as this?

“It’s news to me,” he declared truthfully. “How soon will you need to isolate the town?”

The doctor hesitated. Pobednyev really was very convincing. He decided to try one last bluff.

“If the epidemic doesn’t abate, in a week. In ten days’ time at the latest. But I promise you, if I don’t get an honest answer from you tonight, I will post the order tomorrow. Now, what are you intending to do with those sleighs?”

Pobednyev took the cigar from his mouth and picked a shred of tobacco leaf from his tongue as he considered his options. Whatever Tortsov did, the prisoners would arrive. But it was one thing to prepare for their arrival; it was quite another to give a civic reception for a crowd of verminous Reds who had just travelled through an infected area. And if quarantine was declared they would have to stay in the town as well, for who knew how long? Suddenly, in the darkness of the hotel room, he had a terrible vision: his statue at the crossroads of Hospital and Alexei Streets, and on the plinth beneath it, carved deep in the stone, the single word: ‘Plaguebringer’.

“Vasili Semionovich,” he said candidly, “Now I understand your concern, but you must believe me when I tell you that you are utterly and completely mistaken if you suspect that the sleighs have anything to do with this matter of a quarantine. I can say no more. Anything else you wish to know… If my word is not good enough for you… you should ask Colonel Izorov. You must  trust me. But if you don’t, well… Since you know of their existence, though God knows how, I can tell you that they are being built on the colonel’s orders, and not mine. I merely relayed the message.”

He took another puff of his cigar and gave the doctor time to digest what he had said. When he spoke again, it was in a more conciliatory way.

“You see, Doctor, just as you have your duty towards your patients, so I have towards Kostya Izorov. He trusts me and it isn’t for me to betray that trust. Indeed,” he added with a shake of his head, “given the special circumstances, I dare not. Take my advice. Don’t involve yourself in this matter.”

The Mayor paused again, and it seemed to Dr. Tortsov as if he was about to say something further. But then, as if he had thought better of it, he turned away from the doorway and began walking back across the landing.

Dr. Tortsov felt the anger rising within him. All the day’s wasted journeys, culminating in the Mayor’s stubborn refusal to take him into his confidence, drove him to a last furious outburst of impotent energy. Stumbling after Mayor Pobednyev in the darkness, he walked full tilt into the edge of the iron bedstead, violently scraping his right shin. With a small cry of pain, he began to hop after the Mayor. By the time he had reached the top of the stairs, Mayor Pobednyev was already descending the lower flight of steps that led to the landing outside the lounge.

“Wait, Anatoli Mikhailovich!” he called out.

But the Mayor continued downwards and had already reached the landing of the mezzanine floor.

“Damn you, Pobednyev!” he swore as Pobednyev disappeared from view. “You won’t get away with this!”

Clutching the banister rail for support, Dr. Tortsov began to hobble after him as quickly as he was able, still calling out imprecations at the top of his voice.

“Your Excellency, I warn you! Come back here!”

“Goodnight, Tortsov.” The Mayor’s smooth voice floated up to him as he reached the vestibule and gathered up his hat and coat.

Leaning over the banisters, the doctor shouted hoarsely down the stair well.

“I won’t let you do it, whatever it is! I’ll stop you!”

But the Mayor had already gone. Exhausted by his emotion, and by the events of the day, Dr. Tortsov slowly limped down the staircase. Reaching the last step, he sat down and cradled his head miserably in his hands.

The day had turned into a nightmare. All he had wanted to do, he told himself, was to heal the sick and direct a play. Was that too much to ask of Heaven? It seemed so. He had succeeded only in catching a cold, making a fool of himself in front of the Mayor and nearly breaking his own leg.

Hearing a discreet cough, he looked up. Fyodor Gregorivich was standing in front of him, smiling sympathetically. In his arms he carried the doctor’s hat and coat.

“Time to go home, Doctor.”

Resigned to his defeat, Dr. Tortsov got to his feet and allowed the proprietor to help him on with his coat.

Fyodor Gregorivich is right , he thought. It is time to go. No doubt tomorrow will bring its own crop of humiliations. 

Fyodor Gregorivich watched Dr. Tortsov follow the Mayor out into the night and shook his head sadly. There was something about the artistic temperament, he decided, that made people go a little mad. Picking up a tray, he went into the lounge to see if there were any more glasses for the kitchen staff to wash.

Book Two

The Rising Storm

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Chapter One

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Monday 5th February 1907


It was still dark on the morning after the casting of the actors when Anton Chevanin locked his door and carefully felt his way down the iron fire escape that was attached to the side of the decrepit building where he boarded. Once he had reached the ground he patted the pockets of his overcoat and, having satisfied himself that he had not forgotten the keys to the surgery, set off for work. In the summer months it took him no more than ten or fifteen minutes to walk from his rooms in Tower Street to the corner of Hospital Street and Skinners Street where the Doctor had his surgery. This morning, because of the heavy fall of snow during the night, he had allowed himself half an hour to complete the journey.

Out of habit, he glanced up at the tall fire tower which gave the street its name, and saw that the sentry’s lamp was still lit. Preoccupied with his own thoughts, he ignored the soldier’s cheery wave as he trudged towards the hospital at the far end of the street. He had made a fool of himself at the Tortsovs’ and he knew it. Worse: his sense of honour would not allow him to forget that he had insulted the woman for whom he cared so much. At that moment he would have given all he possessed to relive that hour he had spent with Madame Tortsova and repair the damage to his self-esteem. Life had never looked bleaker.

Although he knew that he should not blame his employer, he still felt that the situation had in part been the Doctor’s fault. Pirogov’s wife was as strong as a horse and the birth – which he had personally attended – had been without complications. There had been no cause for the Doctor to visit her on a Sunday, unless it was to check up on him. If Dr. Tortsov had not rushed off after the church service to see her, none of what had subsequently occurred would have happened. But the Doctor had gone to Pirogov’s workshop, and Chevanin had escorted Madame Yeliena Tortsova home and there was nothing to be done about it.

It was not uncommon for the Tortsovs to invite him to join them at their midday meal. Over the course of a year Chevanin shared his employer’s table often enough for him to be able to count upon it supplementing his frugal diet. The offer of a free meal and an afternoon’s good conversation in warm and comfortable surroundings was not to be refused. Besides the small salary that he received from the Doctor, he had only an allowance of some 300 roubles per annum that had been settled upon him after his graduation from the medical school by a distant uncle in Tiumen. As generous as this sum was, it only amounted to six roubles a week; barely enough to cover the rent to Nidovsky and a change of bed linen. In the beginning he had felt uncomfortable about accepting these invitations, but he had allowed himself to be persuaded by the Doctor’s insistence that, in time, he would be in a position to return their hospitality. Nor did the invitations cease when Dr. Tortsov was absent from Berezovo, attending to his far flung practice. On the contrary, on those occasions Chevanin became almost a fixture at No. 8 Ostermann Street, helping Madame Tortsova to while away the dreary Sabbath afternoons.

It was these invitations that Chevanin treasured most. In her husband’s absence, Yeliena Mihailovna could occasionally reveal glimpses of a happier and gayer side of her nature than the world normally saw. Conscious that it was his ability to amuse her that contributed to his enjoyment of these Sunday afternoons, Chevanin took pains to memorise the jokes, scandals and odd snatches of conversation that he sometimes overheard in the surgery waiting room and around the town. If he was able, he mimicked the speakers; his repertoire extending from Colonel Izorov’s ominous growl as he enquired after the health of a malingering subordinate to Nidovsky’s shifty evasiveness when confronted with a list of complaints from his tenants. Then Yeliena Mihailovna would laugh and for a few seconds the mask would slip revealing behind her staid exterior another, younger and more attractive, woman. Celebrating his power to effect this transformation, Chevanin had, in his innocence, never once considered that his behaviour could be regarded as harmful.

Not every visit was given over to high spirited jocosity. Sometimes they just sat quietly reading; he by the hearth, she on the sofa, enjoying the tranquillity of each other’s company. And, with the exception that Yeliena Mihailovna had not been reading but completing a long letter to her sister that would go with the post sleigh on the following Tuesday, so it had been while they had waited for Doctor Tortsov to return from his visit to Gleb Pirogov. In his seat beside the fire, Anton had perused an article on epidemic control that the Doctor had left out for him. Although he did not doubt the author’s expertise, he found the paper unhelpful on how to deal with the specific circumstances that now governed Berezovo. This was not unusual: too many journal articles addressed the treatment of diseases from an urban perspective and provided little or no practical guidance on the control of disease in outlying rural areas or within poorly served populations. The root problem was that the majority of factors that influenced health – ignorance, poverty, bad housing conditions, poor diet and education, unemployment and the tyranny of distance – were not within the power of medical men to remedy nor the editorial scope of their journals.

Casting the paper aside, he let his attention wander and his eyes had finally come to rest on the most decorative feature in the room, the person of his hostess Yeliena Mihailovna, who was occupied with writing her letter to her sister. He recognised that, as a doctor, the epidemic represented some personal danger to himself but he gave no thought as to his own death. He was, at that moment, wondering how the woman opposite him might react on hearing the news that he was stricken. Would she come to his bedside? It was possible.

He regarded her more closely. There was something in the look of concentration on her face, her absorption in her task, that made her seem passionless yet wholly admirable. He noted with pleasure the way that the lamplight by which she wrote cast gentle shadows against her cheek and the lashes that hid her downcast eyes, and illuminated the shapeliness of her neck beneath the luxuriant bun of her hair. Her pale complexion entranced him, its pallor continuing down the delicate curve of her jawline to melt against the starched whiteness of her ruffed collar. The only visible hint of colour upon her face was to be found upon her roseate lips with their slight upcurve, contoured by the faint lines that had become enigmatically engraved about her mouth. He felt himself becoming captivated by her lips and tried to imagine them in their private moments, first in anger and then whispering words of love. As he gazed at them he saw her smile tighten and then deepen. Looking up he realised with a shock that he had been discovered. She was now watching him  and had been for he did not know how long.

He stammered an apology for his rudeness. He had been dreaming, he said. He had not meant to stare.

Furious with himself, he had pretended to continue his study of the journal article, fearing at any moment her quiet suggestion that he should take his leave. What explanation would she give to her husband on his return to explain his departure? Perhaps it would be better for him to take the initiative and invent some excuse for leaving? That would be the proper thing to do… Yet still he had sat in his chair, unable either to fight or flee until, with a sigh, she had laid aside her pen and asked:

“Tell me, Anton Ivanovich, what do you do with yourself after you have finished a day’s work?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, my husband cannot keep you working every hour of the day and night. What do you do? How do you entertain yourself?”

Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Chevanin wondered what she meant. Surely she could not be asking him to tell her everything  he did?

“Usually, after I’ve finished accompanying the Doctor on his rounds, I return to the surgery and prepare things for the following day. Then I go home and read for a few hours and then go to sleep.”

“What do you read?”

She sounded genuinely interested. He groped for an answer. At that precise moment he could not recall the title of the last book he had read, or indeed of any book.

“Medical books mostly,” he lied. “I find they come in use if there is an emergency and Vasili Semionovich is not there.”

“I see,” Yeliena replied slowly. “And what about the times when you are not reading? Do you go out and visit friends?”

Chevanin shifted awkwardly in his chair. He had not previously let his social relationships (such as they were) intermingle with his professional life. Was this now proving to be a mistake?

“Sometimes. It depends on which day of the week it is. If it is a Friday or a Saturday, then I might arrange to meet a few friends at the Hotel New Century. Other times I might visit them in their rooms.”

“And these friends,” she persisted, “are they young men of your age, or older? Or are they young ladies, perhaps?”

“One or two of the fellows have lady friends,” he admitted, “and sometimes they, the ladies, bring their friends. But mostly it’s just fellows of my age.”

Apparently satisfied with the answers she had received, Madame Tortsova picked up her pen and resumed her letter.

Chevanin gazed unseeing at the pages before him as he turned the exchange over in his mind. Had it been intended as a rebuke, or had the Doctor and Yeliena Mihailovna been speculating on the nature of his private life? In the absence of any visible proof to the contrary, had the Doctor assumed he was friendless, or worse, abnormal? Was the reason behind Madame Tortsova’s questions that the Doctor suspected him of being a pervert? The thought appalled him.

“Yeliena Mihailovna,” he asked, “might I enquire why you ask?”

Looking up, the Doctor’s wife smiled disarmingly.

“It’s not important, Anton Ivanovich. Do not let it worry you. It was just something that Madame Wrenskaya said to me when I saw her last.”

Chevanin grimaced.

“Please,” he urged her, “tell me what it was.”

“She thinks that it is high time you were considering settling down.”

The full import of the remark did not immediately dawn upon him.

“But I am settled, as much as I can be. As much as my circumstances permit. I have my room, my work…”

“I rather think,” interrupted Yeliena gently, “she meant you ought to be considering the question of marriage.”

“Marriage?” he exclaimed in surprise. “But how could I afford that, even if…”

“Even if what, Anton Ivanovich?”

“Even if there was someone for whom I held a special regard,” he finished lamely.

“By which,” said Yeliena, laying aside her notepaper, “I take it that at the moment there is no one to whom you have a special attachment?”

He could only answer with a pathetic shake of his head.

“I see. Well, we shall have to remedy that, won’t we?” Yeliena told him in a business-like manner. “Now, tell me, what kind of young woman appeals to you?”

“I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about the matter.”

“Well, you should have, Anton Ivanovich! You should have!”

The animated tone of her voice made him want to curl up with shame. Unheeding to his discomfort, Yeliena started to fire names at him.

“How about Nadnikov’s daughter, Vera Rafaelovna?”

He shook his head.

“Natalya Izminsky?”

Another shake and a frown.

“Katya Kuprin, perhaps?”

“Heavens, no!”

A look of mock desperation clouded Yeliena’s face.

“There must be some type of woman that appeals to you. How about Irena Kuibysheva? She’s popular with the gentlemen, I believe.”

The notion was so outre  that, despite his discomfort at the inquisition, Chevanin laughed out loud.

“Madame Kuibysheva? But she’s already married.”

“That does not appear to bother her over much.”

“Besides,” Chevanin added, “she is too old, and too fat.”

“Too old?” cried Yeliena indignantly. “I will have you know that Irena Kuibysheva is… well, a few years younger than myself. Do you consider me too old?”

“Oh no, Yeliena Mihailovna,” he replied hurriedly. “I did not mean that. Anyway, there is a world of difference between you and her. I never meant to imply anything to your detriment.”

Yeliena remained unconvinced.

“Hmm. There is a world of difference between us, and not all in my favour, I suspect.”

“But she is still too fat,” he insisted hopefully. “You must admit that.”

“She is, perhaps, a trifle obvious,” the doctor’s wife conceded uncharitably. “All the same, Kuibyshev does have a weak heart.”

“I’m not surprised,” muttered Chevanin.

It was a daring remark which he was pleased to see met with approval. Pursing her lips quickly as she fought to hide her smile, Yeliena said, “Should he die, she would be left with a substantial fortune. That would come in great use to you as a doctor.”

“I could never marry for money,” he protested.

“Don’t be so hasty, Anton Ivanovich,” she advised him. “People marry for all sorts of reasons. Some marry in order to escape from their family home; others to find one. Some marry out of a sense of duty or even pity; others out of an unreasonable expectation of eternal joy and happiness. Some even get wed in the same way that a gambler shakes the dice: hoping that it will change their luck. Marrying for money is one of the saner reasons. Don’t reject it out of hand.”

“No, never for money,” he repeated stubbornly. “I could only marry if I met somebody I loved.”

“Hah!” cried Yeliena mockingly. “And then what? You’ll find that you have to spend hours, days, even weeks apart, lancing boils and attending difficult labours in the middle of the night hundreds of versts away from your precious beloved.”

Unnerved by her reply, Chevanin shook his head.

“It takes a very special kind of woman to be a doctor’s wife today, Anton Ivanovich,” Yeliena continued. “You must find a woman who is uncomplaining, prepared to endure hardship and loneliness and, yes, even disappointment because she believes in you  and the importance of your work. A woman who accepts from the very beginning that she must take second place to the needs of her husband’s patients. Above all, you must find a woman you can trust.”

The seriousness of her tone and the emphasis she had placed upon those last words had moved Chevanin deeply. Drawing himself to the edge of his seat he replied with equal candour:

“Then, Lenochka, I could do no better than to search for another just as you.”

Yeliena gasped, momentarily taken aback by his uninvited familiarity. Quickly recovering herself, she rose and began gathering up her writing things.

Chevanin rose and mumbled his apology.

“I’m sorry, Madame Tortsova! What I said was impertinent, but I meant it as only the deepest compliment…”

“A compliment?” she replied with a sharp laugh. “Why yes, I suppose it could be considered as a sort of compliment. Just.”

Without a further word she swept from the room, leaving him to curse his stupidity.

Pacing up and down the sitting room, he had anxiously debated what he should do to try and rectify his situation. He had just come to the decision that the only honourable course was to leave the house when the sound of the front door being thrown back on its hinges told him it was already too late; Dr. Tortsov had returned. Unwilling to blunder past his employer in the hallway he gritted his teeth and prepared himself to face the punishment he felt he rightly deserved.

Madame Tortsova reappeared and the three of them trooped in silence into the dining room. It soon became abundantly clear that his employer had no interest whatsoever in what might have passed between his wife and his assistant in his absence. His visit to Pirogov’s seemed to have filled him with a consuming rage. As the meal progressed, the Doctor’s mood worsened, and he did not hesitate to give the full force of his tongue to anyone who looked as if they were about to engage him in conversation. The food was filthy, he exclaimed. How could Yeliena bring herself to offer such muck for human consumption? What did she do with the housekeeping money? His assistant ate like a pig. His maid smelt like one. Was there ever anyone so surrounded by such thieves and time wasters?

Torn between leaving the scene of his crime and staying in the forlorn hope that he could apologise to his hostess more fully, Chevanin had weathered the storm of abuse, gallantly deflecting as much as he could onto his own head in order that Madame Tortsova might be spared further insults. But if anything, his presence seemed to make matters worse. The Doctor had twice come close to ordering him from the house before the luncheon was finished. When the meal was over Yeliena had left them with as much dignity as she possessed, informing her husband in a manner clearly intended to include Chevanin that she was retiring upstairs for the remainder of the afternoon and did not wish to be disturbed. Given that the Doctor himself had to go out again to see Ovseenko and Averbuch, Chevanin felt he had little choice but also to take his leave. Descending the steps outside the Doctor’s house, he had grave doubts as to whether he would ever be received there again.

In the eighteen hours that had passed between Chevanin’s leaving the Tortsov household and his rounding the corner of the hospital on his way to work, those doubts had hardened into certainties. He had been rude, he told himself. Worse: he had been gauche . Although Yeliena Mihailovna had waived his apologies, the rebuke had remained in her eyes. However she had regarded him in the past, she must now think him a boor. There would be little reason to keep her from informing her husband of the fact that his assistant had addressed her in such terms of gross familiarity. At the very best he could expect not to be invited back into their house if there was the slightest risk that she might find herself alone with him. At the worst, his employer might tell him to pack his bags and send him home in disgrace or even take a horsewhip to him as Chevanin’s father had once done to an insolent groom. In the young man’s fearful imaginings, there seemed no doubt that he would – indeed, should  – suffer punishment at the hands of Madame Tortsova’s outraged husband for his discourtesy. Recalling how the Doctor had often damned the bestiality of the Ostyaks, he wondered how much worse he would consider his own assistant’s unbecoming conduct.

He had lain awake for most of the night haunted by Madame Tortsova’s words. She had spoken of trust and with his next breath he had, in all likelihood, destroyed her trust in him forever. At any moment he had expected to hear his employer’s fists hammering on his door and the Doctor’s voice angrily demanding that he should come out and face him. Now trudging wearily through the snow, he felt each step taking him nearer the inevitable confrontation. Hot with anxiety despite the coldness of the morning air, he made his unwilling way along Hospital Street. All around him there was movement. Shop doors were opening and people hurried past him on their way to the morning market in the Square. The town was coming alive but, in the depths of his despair, he felt alone.

Reaching the outer door of the surgery he pulled the keys out of his pocket, fumbling with them, his hands made clumsy by the bulk of his gloves. Against his better judgement he removed one glove and instantly the cold metal of the key bonded itself to his skin, so that he had to constantly move his fingers as he inserted the key into the keyhole. Quickly putting the glove back on, he tried to turn the key, but it would not move. Removing it, he breathed heavily on it and then tried again. The lock seemed frozen solid. Stamping his feet in an effort to keep his toes warm, he jerked the key rapidly in and out of the hole for about ten seconds then tried a third time. This time he felt the lock give slightly. Inserting the small spike that acted as a key-fob into the head of the key, he used it to add extra leverage to the lock’s cylinders. The lock gave with a rasping click and he pushed the door open with his shoulder and entered.

The surgery consisted of three modestly sized rooms, of which he was now standing in the waiting room. Beyond, connected by a door and a hatchway, lay the Doctor’s consulting room where Chevanin also had his desk and, beyo

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nd that, a small dispensary which also doubled as Dr. Tortsov’s private office. (It was to this third room which Chevanin was expected to remove himself when bashful patients refused to be examined in his presence.) These three rooms were the sole medical facility for the treatment of outpatients in the District of Berezovo. To ensure their efficient running the Doctor had drilled into his assistant a systematic procedure so well regulated that the young man was able to complete it almost without thought.

After unlocking the consulting room door and lighting a lamp, Anton Ivanovich’s first task was to clear out the ashes in the small stove that heated the surgery and lay a new fire. A network of pipes ran from behind the stove and warmed, in order of importance and heat, the consulting room, the dispensary and the waiting room; the last being by far the coldest of the three. It was an old joke amongst the Doctor’s patients that a visit to the surgery was never wasted: if you didn’t have something the matter with you when first you entered the waiting room then you would have by the time you saw the Doctor. Dr. Tortsov regarded such complaints as mere kibbitsching , claiming that if the waiting room was any warmer it would become a shelter for malingerers, a petri dish for germs and too crowded for deserving patients. Furthermore, if the flow of warmth were reversed to heat the waiting room first, the patients would be even worse off, having to be examined half naked in temperatures only marginally higher than the street outside.

Having tended the stove, Chevanin passed into the third room that served as an office-cum-dispensary. Moving an ancient armchair from one corner of the office to reveal a small green strong box embedded in the wall, he knelt down and fitted the last two mortice keys that remained unused on his key ring. From this crude safe, he extracted a bunch of keys and three ledgers, each of which bore a label in the Doctor’s neat hand: “Account Book”; “Medical Register” and “Dispensary Log”. Closing and locking the safe, he left the accounts book on top of the desk that identified this part of the room as the Doctor’s private office and took the other two books through to the dispensary area.

Despite the dispensary’s basic appurtenances its purpose would have been recognisable to a medical practitioner in any of the larger cities of western Europe. Around the room at waist height, and extending about an arm’s length into the room, ran an acid stained worktop upon which the drugs and medicines were prepared. Into this had been set a heavy stone sink with a single water tap. Leaving the logbook on one side, Chevanin used the keys from the safe to unlock the four glass-fronted cabinets that hung from the walls above the worktop. Having done this, he reached below the worktop and pulled out a large heavy-bottomed iron boiling pan.

As he filled the pan two thirds with water, his ears strained to catch the sound of the Doctor’s footsteps in the waiting room, for it was usually at this point in his preparations that the Doctor arrived at the surgery. Peering through the hatch that linked the dispensary with the consulting room (and which could in fact be said to extend right through to the waiting room if the hatch between the consulting room and the waiting room was open) he saw the hand of the surgery clock move stiffly to ten minutes to nine. He felt his heart miss a beat as he heard the sound of the outer door open and the clatter of footsteps on the bare boards of the waiting room floor. But instead of the customary jangle of keys as the Doctor let himself into the consulting room, he heard the creak of the bench and a hawking sound as his first patient of the day spat at (and missed) the wooden cuspidor that his employer had provided in a vain attempt to halt the spread of disease. Relieved, Chevanin continued his chores, carrying the pan, heavy now with water, into the consulting room and placing it on top of the stove. Slipping off his overcoat he donned a light cotton overall and, sitting down behind his desk, began to remove his boots.

It was not until he had laid out all the instruments that the Doctor might be likely to require for a routine morning’s clinic and had arranged the medical register, note pad and two sharpened pencils on his own desk that Chevanin admitted to himself that the Doctor was late. There seemed only one explanation for such an unheard-of occurrence and as each minute passed his sense of doom deepened. Vivid scenes of melodrama such as those depicted in the pages of the illustrated magazines in Maslov’s library now sprang horribly to life in his mind. A tearful Madame Tortsova on her knees in front of her husband, her hands clasped in supplication before her upturned face, protesting that she had done nothing that might have given his assistant encouragement in pressing his attentions. The Doctor casting her to one side and reaching for his sleigh whip and rushing headlong out into the street, determined to avenge the insult… Was there nothing that could be done to deflect her husband’s righteous anger?

The noise of the creaking bench in the waiting room provided an answer. Let his employer find him as he should be: quietly and methodically attending to the needs of his patients. More eloquently than any words he had, that might persuade the Doctor to show clemency. Hoping that his patient was suffering from something that would show his medical knowledge in a good light, he opened the door out into the waiting room and beamed expectantly.

A small boy of about eight years of age sat swinging his legs on the bench. Dressed from head to foot in an assortment of handed down clothes, he had the grave mien of a tattered clown. Beneath the crinkled brim of a shapeless felt hat, two bright eyes stared unblinking at Chevanin. The boy’s face – what was visible of it beneath the dirt – was of a sallow hue and boasted a button nose, up one nostril of which a grubby finger was vigorously exploring. Between the lapels of the working man’s jacket that hung from the boy’s slender shoulders a band of discoloured woollen cloth was visible, wrapped once around his neck and folded crosswise across his chest for warmth. A strap of dark leather tied around his waist held the ensemble together. From beneath the hem of the jacket peeped a pair of trouser legs, the cuffs of which ended a good three inches short of his boots. As the boy swung his legs backwards and forwards under the seat Anton Ivanovich could see dark weals on his lower shin where, since the boy had no stockings, the edges of his sturdy boots had chafed the skin.

The Doctor’s assistant had been on the point of inviting his visitor to enter the consulting room. Now, seeing who it was, he changed his mind. The boy was almost certainly verminous; it was best to keep him as far away as from the consulting room as possible.

“Hello, Osip,” he greeted him bluntly. “What do you want?”

Staring past him into the consulting room, the boy said nothing.

“Well, what do you want?” he repeated.

The boy shrugged and began picking at a closely bitten fingernail.

“Osip Noisevitch Pyatkonov, are you sick?”

Without looking up the boy shook his head.

“Is it your father then, or your mother? Has there been some kind of an accident?”

Looking quickly up, the boy began to nod vigorously but in answer to which question still remained unclear to Chevanin.

“If it is a serious accident,” explained Chevanin slowly, “then they must attend the hospital. I can do nothing for them here unless you tell me what it is.”

The boy stared up at him blankly. With a gesture of despair, Chevanin turned on his heel and walked back into the consulting room. At once, the boy stood up and began following him. Wheeling round, the young doctor shooed him away from the door.

“Osip!” he said in exasperation. “You must either tell me what the matter is or you must leave. Do you understand?”

The young boy stood his ground, his grubby chin thrust out stubbornly.

“Farver sent me,” he said at last. “He told me to get the Doctor. Not you, though.”

“Not me?”

“No. He says I’m to get the Old Man.”

“If you are referring to Dr. Tortsov,” said Chevanin, “then he has not arrived yet. And when he does get here, he will be too busy to be making calls for no reason. So your journey had been wasted. Go away.”

The boy’s lips began to tremble. His eyed grew brighter still as he fought back his tears of frustration and anxiety. Balling his hands into little fists, he said starkly, “Muvver’s been sick.”

“Too sick to attend surgery herself like everyone else, I suppose? There’s nothing I can do.”

All at once, the boy’s face puckered and he began to blubber.

“Alright, alright!” said Chevanin testily, as the child wiped an overlong sleeve across his brimming eyes. “Tell your father that I will pass the message on to the Doctor. One of us will visit your mother later today. And tell him to have his visitation fee ready.”

He began bundling the sobbing child towards the door.

“Mind, if this a false claim the fee is doubled. Do you understand?”

Dragging the sleeve once again across his face, the boy nodded tearfully.

“Now get out, before you infest the surgery with lice.”

He held the outer door open for the ragged child. When the boy had gone, Anton Ivanovich walked back into the empty consulting room and moved the deep pan of now-boiling water to the edge of the stove’s plate. The boy had been a disappointment. He had wanted to appear busy when his employer arrived and now he had nothing to do. The hands of the surgery clock showed that it was nearly twenty past nine. Surely the Doctor could not be much longer?

As if in answer to his thoughts, he heard the outer door open again and the sound of footsteps in the waiting room accompanied by a familiar jangling of keys. The door of the consulting room opened. With a heavy heart, Chevanin looked up to see Doctor Tortsov standing in the doorway.

“Good morning, Doctor,” he said nervously.

“Good morning, Chevanin.”

His employer began to take off his hat and gloves and Chevanin hurried to help him remove his overcoat, surprised, as always, at how so frail a man could wear such a heavy garment. Leaving him to hang the coat up, the Doctor muttered his thanks and strode over to the stove.

Now I’m for it!  thought the young man.

“Who do we have today?” the Doctor asked, warming his hands.

Nervously, his assistant crossed to his desk and, picking up the medical register in his trembling hands, scoured the appointment pages for that morning’s surgery.

“Madame Shiminski is due at ten o’clock with her sprained wrist,” he read out, “and you have told Vissarion Lepishinsky to come back today so that you could have another look at his neck.”

“Hmm. Well, we shall see. We shall see,” the Doctor said, half to himself. “I have to go out at eleven o’clock to speak to Colonel Izorov. So, if Lepishinsky calls in my absence you can deal with him. If all looks well, it’s just a matter of renewing the dressing and applying more of the Bohm’s ointment.”

Hearing the mention of the Chief of Police’s name, Chevanin turned cold with fear. Surely the Doctor was not thinking of making an official complaint? Even in his wildest imaginings he had never considered that his employer would exercise his legal right as a husband. It would mean his arrest; professional disgrace; possibly even the knout.

“Doctor, you mentioned Colonel Izorov… May I ask you if anything is wrong?”

Standing with his back to his assistant, Dr. Tortsov thought of the unsuccessful interview with the Mayor he had conducted the previous night at the Hotel New Century.

“I don’t know, Anton,” he answered slowly. “At the moment, I am completely in the dark. But I am concerned for the welfare of the town.”

It took Chevanin a few seconds to realise that the Doctor might be referring not to himself, but to the outbreak of typhus.

“Has the epidemic grown worse?” he asked hopefully.

Turning to face him Dr. Tortsov gave his assistant a puzzled look. If he had not known the boy better, he told himself, he would have been forgiven for thinking that he had sounded as if the outbreak was a blessing.

“No, but it could do,” he replied cryptically.

Their conversation was cut short by the sound of the latch on the outer door. Neither the Doctor nor his assistant referred to the matter again as they busied themselves attending to the first of their patients.

The morning’s surgery was uneventful. As case succeeded case, Chevanin methodically entered the treatment prescribed in the medical register, tending the dispensary under the Doctor’s supervision when it was necessary. To his great relief it was clear that Madame Tortsova had said nothing to her husband about his indiscretion. By the time the Doctor had pulled his watch from his waistcoat pocket and seen that the time was ten minutes to eleven o’clock, Chevanin felt enormous relief. He was the master of his own fate once more. Even Dr. Tortsov’s instruction to call upon him at home when he had completed the morning’s practice did not worry him. It was only as he was helping the Doctor on with his coat again that he remembered the small boy he had seen at the beginning of the day.

“I might be a little late,” he said. “I’ve promised that I would call in at Pyatkonov’s izba . Apparently, his wife has taken sick.”

“Goat’s Foot’s wife? It’s probably that dreadful stuff they drink,” snorted the Doctor as he reached for his hat. “Make sure that you get him to pay for a consultancy fee. That one is as sly as a fox.”

Chevanin confidently assured him that he had already told the boy to tell his father about the payment.

“Good,” said the Doctor. “And you had better chase up Pirogov’s bill as well. It’s best not to let these things slip for too long. Start as you mean to go on, that’s my advice. You will never get anywhere by not collecting your fees and Pirogov can afford it, whatever he says.”

With those parting words, the Doctor departed. Left alone in the surgery Chevanin brought his hands together with a loud clap. He had blown up the whole affair at the Tortsovs’ house out of all proportion, he told himself. After all, what had he done but paid Yeliena Mihailovna a clumsily phrased compliment? He had given himself a scare and that was the end of it. The worst she could think of him was that he had acted like a fool. Knowing that to be the truth, he could only agree. Nothing remained for him to do but to complete the surgery, do battle with Goat’s Foot and his wife and then he could take his place once again at the Doctor’s table as if nothing had ever happened. He felt as if an almighty weight had been lifted from his back. Life was suddenly worth living again.

Chapter Two

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Monday 5th February 1907


Unbeknownst to either the Doctor or his assistant, that morning’s market had been enlivened by the noise of bugle practice rising from behind the high walls of the barracks. Startled by the staccato fanfares, a draught pony had reversed the flat topped cart to which it was harnessed into a makeshift stall, spilling the stall’s stock of pinched root vegetables across the icy square. The sudden jolt had unbalanced the cart’s driver, who had been unloading the sacks of dried beans that he had been delivering to Nadnikov’s general store, causing him to fall from his cart. More seriously the cart had trapped the stallholder and run over his foot. As a result, and less than five minutes after Dr. Tortsov’s departure, the waiting room had become crowded with curious and sympathetic onlookers as the two men were brought to Chevanin to see what could be done for them.

Having listened to the accounts of what had happened, Chevanin determined that the stall holder was the more seriously injured party. White faced and moaning from the pain, the man was helped to the couch by his friends. Stepping back, they stood in a circle and waited, their rough fur hats twisting in their hands out of respect both for the status of the medical assistant and their comrade’s agony. Methodically, Chevanin set to work, instructing them to hold the man down as he began cutting the blood sodden boot from the mangled foot. The stall holder began to pant rapidly as the boot became looser, and then bellowed twice in pain as Chevanin drew away the severed leather shell.

Ordering the man to lie still, Chevanin viewed the foot with horror. Months ago, the stall holder had wrapped a piece of cloth around his feet to protect his toes from the cold. The folds of the rag were stuck together with sweat, dirt and now blood, and the man’s flesh, what he could see of it, was pale and filthy. He decided that he had no choice but to cut the foot cloth off also. Nodding to the men to hold him down again, he set to work. For a moment the stall holder lay motionless then, flinching as he felt the cold metal of the scissors graze the instep of his foot, he began to snort and bellow again. Unable to bear the sound one of his friends thrust his own hat into the man’s mouth, muffling his cries. Distressed by the pain he was causing the man Chevanin felt a wave of panic rise within him.

I don’t know I’m doing!  he thought. I’m not a surgeon. They are all expecting me to help this man and I don’t know what to do! 

A memory of Dr. Tortsov’s earliest advice swam into his mind. “Don’t lose your head. Relax and rely on your training. Do what you can, and what you can’t do leave to others.” Perspiring, he worked as fast as he could, cutting away the grimy cloth along what appeared to be the least damaged side of the foot and teasing it away from the bloody pulp underneath. Beneath his hands the man bucked and writhed with amazing strength, trying to pull his injured foot away, but two of the men held the leg steady and kept it pressed firmly onto the couch. Now, the cloth remained attached only to a wide flap of loose skin at the top of the foot. Anticipating the agony he would cause, Chevanin ordered the man to hold on to the sides of the couch. Then, gritting his teeth, he tore the remnants of the rag free from the foot with one brisk movement. Shaking violently, the man screamed and began banging his head frantically against the worn leather upholstery. With a sharp hissing intake of breath, the men tightened their grip on the injured man and peered into the wound.

There was a short pause while Chevanin disposed of the bloody rag. Turning away, he felt faint and feared that he was about to collapse. Only the knowledge that he would be judged more by his demeanour than his skill prevented him from flight. With his back to the group clustered around the examination couch, he took the moment of dropping the soiled cloth into the stove as an opportunity to collect his wits and to take two deep breaths.

You are a qualified physician , he reminded himself. You are in charge. The others are ignorant and know nothing of medical practice. 

Bracing himself, he turned back to face the group. On the couch the stall holder, with upward jerks of his head, was trying to sit up and look at his foot but there was a forest of arms in the way and too many hands holding him down. The man’s eyes widened in alarm as he saw Chevanin return holding a small sponge, steaming from the sterilising pan, clamped between the claws of a pair of forceps. As the first drops of scalding water fell into the open wound, the man mercifully fainted.

Chevanin’s young face frowned in concentration as he examined the crushed instep. The iron shod wheels of the cart had demolished the media longitudinal arch; blood was pumping spasmodically from the dorsalis pedis artery. Beneath the severed sinews of the tendons, embedded splinters of bone from the metatarsals and cuneiforms winked slyly in the glutinous pulp and he could see the exposed edge of the boat shaped navicular bone. Pressing a pad of cloth firmly against the artery, Chevanin began skilfully to bandage the foot. When he had finished tying off the bandage he pulled a rough blanket from the beneath the couch, and placed it gently under the damaged foot. Raising his eyes, he saw that the men were looking on despondently. He shook his head. There was nothing more he could do; the man was a case for the hospital.

Going to his desk, he wrote two notes: the first to Dr. Tortsov, care of Colonel Izorov at the uchastok ; the second to the admissions clerk at the hospital, printing it in large capitals so that the dvornik  could read it.

ln all probability , he told himself, with such a severe trauma the man will lose the foot. I have done the best anyone could do. Now he’s a job for the regimental surgeon. 

Thrusting the notes into the hand of the man nearest to him he despatched him on his errand. Pointing towards the stretcher that stood against the wall behind the consulting room door, he instructed the other men to lift the injured man onto it. As they obeyed, he went into the dispensary and began preparing a solution of laudanum to dull the man’s pain.

The men worked with a minimum of fuss. The foot was bad: they could see that. As gently as they could, they lifted the unconscious man up and slid the stretcher underneath him. Following Chevanin’s instructions delivered through the hatch in the wall, they took a second blanket and covered him with it, folding it neatly under his chin as if he were a sick child. The man groaned and began to regain consciousness. Working quicker now, they began to fasten the leather restraining straps over the blanket, leaving the one nearest the damaged foot unfastened. Bringing the laudanum through from the dispensary, Chevanin gently lifted the man’s head and poured it between his chattering teeth. The man’s eyes looked up at him and creased in gratitude. With a final nod of thanks, the men bent their backs and carried their unlucky friend out of the consulting room, the buckle at the foot of the stretcher jangling gaily as they passed the curious gaze of a small crowd that had gathered outside the surgery door.

Once they had gone, the dray driver stood up and, throwing away the handrolled cigarette he had been smoking, walked unaided into the consulting room, his left arm hanging uselessly by his side. Motioning the man to strip off his top clothes, Chevanin began to write up his notes. When the man was standing in his trousers and boots, Chevanin pointed towards the single chair that was reserved for the use of patients.

The carter was well built, with the broad chest and strong forearms of a man accustomed to controlling teams of ponies. He sat easily in the chair, his feet spread flat on the ground in the manner of a pugilist resting in his corner between rounds. Chevanin began to circle, his eyes taking in the man’s wide back and short stubby fingers. The man was as silent as a dumb beast; his thick bearded face turned towards the warmth of the stove in the corner of the room. He was content to let the younger man do his work. When Chevanin asked him to waggle his fingers of his left hand he did so uncomplainingly. When the Doctor’s assistant extended his own hand and told him to grip it, he obeyed; his rough, calloused palm easily enveloping Chevanin’s pale smooth fist. Only when Chevanin asked him to raise his arm above his head did the man hesitate and look at him thoughtfully. Then, slowly, he began lifting his arm and at once the pain showed in his eyes, making his nostrils flare and his head jerk to one side as if he were imitating one of his own horses.

Satisfied that he had located the injury, Chevanin motioned him to lower his arm and began probing the man’s shoulder, guided by the man’s grunts of pain. Once he was certain that his diagnosis was correct (a fractured left clavicle) he told the man to dress. By the time he had prepared a sling for the man and had taken his seventy-five copecks, the hands on the clock were pointing to a quarter to twelve. Knowing that it would take him at least another twenty minutes to close up, sweep the surgery and lock everything away, Chevanin decided that Goat’s Foot’s wife would have to wait. He would visit her after calling at Ostermann Street. If he were lucky, he might even have an opportunity to make a proper apology to Yeliena Mihailovna and so finally absolve himself of his offence.

But when he arrived at the Tortsovs’ house in Ostermann Street at almost half past twelve, one glance at the maid’s agitated features told him something was wrong. Red from crying, Katya’s eyes were more than usually distended, her cheeks the colour of uncooked pastry. Pushing past her, he made straight for the sitting room but it was empty. Through the ceiling he could hear the quick movements of footsteps and the heavy creak of furniture as drawers were pulled open and closed.

His earlier fears now returned with a rush. Yeliena Mihailovna had told her husband after all. No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he dismissed it. If his employer had been looking for him they could hardly have missed each other between Ostermann Street and the surgery. A host of other reasons to account for the atmosphere of crisis hanging in the air immediately sprang to mind. The Doctor had had a stroke. He had been arrested (with Colonel Izorov anything was possible). Yeliena Mihailovna had received bad news…

He turned to face the distraught maid who had followed him into the room. But, before he could speak, a particularly loud thump above their heads made both of them raise their eyes to the ceiling.

“Katya?” Madame Tortsova called down.

Guiltily, the maid ran out of the room and stood at the foot of the staircase.

“Yes, mum?” she called out.

“Who was that at the door just now?”

“Anton Ivanovich Chevanin, mum.”

“Is he still there?”

“Yes, mum.”

Anton Ivanovich started to move towards the door but with one outstretched palm Katya motioned silently for him to remain where he was.

“Tell Anton Ivanovich I cannot see him now. Give him my apologies, but I must not be disturbed.”

“But mum…”

“Do as you are told, Katya!”

Helplessly the maid turned to face him. Chevanin beckoned her to return to the sitting room and to close the door behind her. Once she had done so he took her trembling hands and led her over to the sofa.

“What on earth is the matter, Katya?” he whispered urgently. “What has happened here? Where is the Doctor?”

His questions only made the girl begin crying again. He had to offer her his handkerchief and wait until her tears had ceased before he could make sense of what she had to tell him.

“The Doctor’s gone to the hospital, sir, and Madam is upstairs packing her travelling case.”

“I know about the hospital,” he assured her, “but why is your mistress packing her case?”

“I don’t know!” wailed Katya.

She began to cry again. Chevanin squeezed her hand gently.

“Tell me everything that has happened.”

“I don’t know,” she repeated, shaking her head helplessly. “I went to the market to do the shopping this morning and when I came back they were shouting at each other. They were saying terrible things, sir,” she added, her eyes opening wide. “Terrible!”

“What time was this, exactly?”

“At about nine o clock,” the maid said with a sniff.

Just the time when I was waiting for him at the surgery , he thought.

“What sort of things did they say? Try to remember.”

“Just things ,” she told him. “The Doctor said that he did not have time to argue with her… with Madame… and that she was not to be so stupid and that he had genuinely  sick people to look after…”

“The Doctor called Madame Tortsova stupid?”

“Yes, Anton Ivanovich! And then she said that he was the stupid one if he expected her to be here when he returned and…”

Katya voice broke again as the tears returned.

Chevanin put a consoling arm around her and waited until her sobbing had stopped.

“And then,” she continued, “he said that he could not care less what she did as long as she didn’t bother him any more. Then the Doctor left and Madame started to cry and ran upstairs to her room. Then, about half an hour ago, the doctor sent a message to say that he wouldn’t be home for lunch and that he had gone to the hospital. I told Madame and she ordered me to fetch her travelling case down from the attic and started to pack her things.”

With fresh tears streaming from her eyes, Katya looked imploringly into Chevanin’s face.

“Oh Anton Ivanovich, it was awful!” she said, choking back her tears. “What could I do? I had to get her travelling case down from the top of the wardrobe. I had to!”

Removing his arm from around her shoulders, he clasped both her hands in his.

“Now think, Katya. Has this never happened before?”

“No, Anton Ivanovich,” she said firmly. “There have been a few tiffs every now and again, mainly about the Doctor and how hard he works. And about money, of course, but that’s all, honest!”

“So she has n

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ever threatened to leave him before?” he insisted.

“No sir, I swear!”

His mind racing, Chevanin debated what to do. If the row had been about him, then it was up to him to put it right. He would try and speak to Yeliena Mihailovna and tell her that if anyone should leave Berezovo then it should be him, and not her.

As he sat on the sofa beside Katya he had been unconsciously patting and stroking her hand as he sought an answer to the dilemma that he had created. Now, having reached a decision, he tried to pull his hands free but the maid clung onto them desperately.

“Let go of me, Katya.”

“What are you going to do, Anton Ivanovich?”

“I shall speak to Madame Tortsova myself. Now, let go!”

“But you mustn’t!” she cried in alarm, clinging ever more tightly to him. “She told me that nobody was to disturb her. Oh, please don’t! It’ll get me into such trouble!”

Pushing her away from him on the sofa, he struggled to his feet.

“Good God, Katya!” he snapped angrily. “What’s the matter with you?”

Straightening his cuffs, he looked down at the unhappy girl.

“Don’t be too  stupid, Katya,” he sneered. “What do you think she will do? Hand you your notice as she steps out of the door? Now get back to the kitchen and prepare some tea while I go and speak to your mistress.”

Turning to go, he raised one finger in warning.

“And Katya,” he said menacingly. “Not one word of this, do you understand? Not to Father Arkady, not to anyone. Is that clear?”

Rubbing her hand, the maid nodded resentfully.

Discarding his overcoat, Chevanin left the room and stood for a moment looking up the dark flight of stairs. Sounds of movement could still be heard above him as more doors and drawers were opened and shut. Swallowing deeply, he began to climb the stairs.

He had visited the upper storey of the Tortsovs’ household twice before. Once when the Doctor had allowed him to use his bedroom to change in before they had attended an official dinner at the Hotel New Century and upon a second and more memorable occasion, after he had fallen into the Ob during a summer boating excursion and had had to wait until dry clothes had been found for him to wear. Neither occasion had prepared him for the feelings of confusion and dread that he now felt as he stood listening at the top of the stairs. The sounds of movement had stopped. He found that he was holding his breath, as if he were waiting for some signal that he should proceed. When it came – a single footstep – he was galvanised into action. Taking a few quick steps across the landing, and wincing as he did so for the floorboards creaked infernally beneath his feet, he knocked on Madame Tortsova’s door three times in quick succession.

Immediately he cursed his haste: he had knocked too loudly. It had sounded abrupt, intrusive; as if he had a right to be there.

“Katya?” he heard Yeliena ask querulously.

Biting his lip, he hesitated for an instant then, grasping the door handle, he twisted it and opened the door slightly.

Stepping back so that the interior of the room was invisible to him, and vice versa, he called out.

“Madame Tortsova, it is I, Anton Ivanovich Chevanin. May I come in?”

The wooden door did not prevent him hearing her audible tut of annoyance.

“Wait a moment, Anton Ivanovich.”

The rustle of clothing suggested that he had disturbed her in the middle of changing her clothes, adding to his sense of awkwardness.

“You may come in now.”

Slowly pushing open the door, he shuffled inside, saying as he did so:

“I apologise, Madame Tortsova, for disregarding your wishes but I had to speak to you. Please forgive me.”

Yeliena Mihailovna was standing by her dressing table, examining an array of combs and hairpins. She did not look up.

“What is it, Anton Ivanovich?”

He glanced quickly around the room. It was similar to how he remembered the Doctor’s had been, only smaller. On the bed lay a heavy brown travelling case. Its lid had been closed hurriedly, trapping a small triangle of white cloth in its leather jaws.

“Katya told me that you were upset. Is there anything I can do?”

“No, thank you.”

She began picking the combs up one by one and dropping them into a large leather purse.

“Please, Yeliena Mihailovna,” he insisted. “Please let me help you, I beg of you. Tell me what is the matter.”

Picking up a small tortoise shell hairbrush, she turned to face him.

“There is nothing the matter, Anton Ivanovich,” she said calmly. “I am leaving Berezovo for a few weeks, that is all. Why I am leaving is a matter between Vasili Semionovich and myself. Between husband and wife, you understand?”

Pushing the door to, Chevanin sat on the edge of the bed.

“But you can’t,” he told her stubbornly. “Where will you go in the middle of February?”

“It’s all arranged. I am not disappearing into the blizzard, like a tragic heroine,” she said with a thin smile as she replaced the hairbrush. “Real life is not like that. No, I shall go and stay with my sister in Tobolsk for a few weeks.”

“But you won’t be able to take a sleigh along the Highway until tomorrow at the earliest,” he protested, “and when you do, you will have to travel for a fortnight through the plague villages and there are bands of marauding Yakuts along the Sosva. Please, I beg you, don’t go. Wait a few days at least.”

He watched as, picking up the hairbrush again, Yeliena began to draw its bristles repeatedly across the palm of her hand.

“No, I must get away,” she said, half to herself. “I must.”

“Yeliena Mihailovna, please, listen to me!” insisted Chevanin. “If this is all my fault, forgive me. It is I who should go, not you.”

She stood for a moment, as if hypnotised by the bristles bending against her outstretched palm.

“I beg your pardon, Anton Ivanovich?” she said vaguely. “What are you saying?”

“I was asking you if I am the cause of your distress. Am I to blame?”

She looked at him, as if seeing him there for the first time, then seemed to collect herself. Dropping the hairbrush into the leather purse she hurriedly continued the preparations for her departure.

“No, of course not,” she replied. “Why ever should you think that?”

“Because… because of how badly I behaved yesterday when the Doctor was at Pirogov’s. What I said…”

“Oh that? It was just a piece of foolishness. I have already forgotten about it, I promise you.”

Looking down at the floor, Chevanin felt a flood of misery wash over him. There seemed nothing left that he could do or offer that would prevent her from going.

“Please don’t go,” he begged her quietly. “If you go I shall have nobody. You and the Doctor are like a family to me. Like my mother and father. How can you go?”

Yeliena Mihailovna turned quickly to face him, an appalled expression on her face.

“Don’t ever say that!” she shouted angrily. “Don’t ever say that. Not even in jest.”

“But it’s true,” he said pathetically.

Laying the purse down on the dressing table, she came over to him and sat down beside him on the bed.

“Listen, Anton,” she said earnestly, “you are young. In many ways, you are still a boy. What happens between Vasili Semionovich and myself is not your fault. You must believe that.”

Reaching over, she took one of his hands and held it in hers.

“When two people who are married stop loving each other, it can only be a matter of time before they start hating each other. Now, I still love Vasili Semionovich enough to see that I must go before that happens.”

“But the Doctor will never hate you! Never!”

“The opposite of love is not hate, Anton,” she told him gently. “It’s indifference. Vasili has become indifferent to me, otherwise he could not have done what he has done. My departure will cause him some difficulty for a short while, but that is all. In time, even that will pass.”

“But how can you say that, Yeliena Mihailovna?” he protested. “Anyone can see how much he cares for you. If you go now, you will break his heart.”

Stopping himself just before he added “and mine”, Chevanin rose from the bed and began to pace up and down the room.

“I know you told me not to ask,” he went on, “but what has he done that could be so terrible that you feel you must leave town?”

Looking down at her hands, Madame Tortsov began fiddling with her wedding ring.

“Have you ever read The Bear ?” she asked quietly.

The Bear ?”

“Yes, the play that my husband decided I should act in. With your help, if I recall.”

Chevanin shook his head.

Returning to the bed, he sat down beside her and reached for her hand but she evaded him, keeping her fingers folded securely on her lap.

“What about the play?”

“It concerns a widow who is mourning for her husband,” she explained, a bitter smile playing across her lips. “Ironic, isn’t it? Here I am, mourning my husband’s love and he is still alive and directing the play. Well, anyway… This widow is beset by creditors and one of them, a bully called Smirnov, comes to dun her for her husband’s debts.”

She gave a deep sigh and for a moment they sat together in silence. Watching her in profile, Chevanin longed to lean over and take her in his arms. Instead he bowed his head and waited for her to continue.

“Eventually,” she went on wearily, “quelle surprise!  He becomes her suitor and the curtain falls on them locked in a passionate embrace. The script is quite specific on that: ‘a passionate embrace’. That means they kiss one another. It’s a silly play. It’s meant to show how – even with position, property and money of her own – a woman still needs a man to make her life complete. Perhaps it’s true. I don’t know.”

Suddenly she became more animated, her hands burrowing deeper within her lap as she rocked slightly to and fro on the edge of the bed.

“But never mind that. What matters is that my husband, my  husband, Anton Ivanovich, has cast me in the role as the woman and Modest Tolkach in the role of Smirnov. My husband, mark you, expects me to embrace and to kiss Modest Tolkach in front of the whole town. Tolkach! I ask you, is that the action of a man who still loves his wife?”

“Impossible!” exclaimed Chevanin.

“I’m glad you find it as incredible as I did.”

“But… are you sure?”

“Sure?” she snapped, rising from the bed. “Of course I’m sure!”

“And… this is why you are leaving?”

As quickly as her temper had flared up it now seemed to disappear, as if the effort of maintaining her anger had become too much for her. Standing up, she walked back to her dressing table and picked up the last comb.

“Oh, there are many, many other reasons,” she told him. “But this , this is the last straw. The straw that broke my back.”

“No, Yeliena Mihailovna!” exclaimed Chevanin. “You must not say that. You mustn’t go. There has to be another way to settle this. Vasili Semionovich would never have done this willingly.”

“Ah, but you forget, Anton. He doesn’t care for me any more. Or he wouldn’t have allowed this to happen.”

“No, there must be a reason,” insisted Chevanin. “He must have been forced into giving Tolkach the part somehow. I wasn’t there at the casting, so I don’t know, but I do know this much. You can’t just leave like this, at least not until you have found out the truth. Then you can go or stay as you wish.”

Returning to the bed, she leant down and cupped his cheek in one hand.

“Dear Anton Ivanovich!” she murmured sadly. “Always the crusader.”

Taking her hand, he held it tight.

“I am not a child, Yeliena Mihailovna,” he said quietly. “If you leave the Doctor now, you will have no choice but to stay at the hotel until you can find a sleigh willing to take you to Tobolsk. Within an hour, the whole town will know. Then all the Doctor will have to do is go and fetch you back, probably with the help of Father Arkady. You must think of your humiliation. You have nothing to lose by waiting until you find out the truth of the matter. Will you trust me? Will you let me help you?”

Unable to bear his burning gaze, she turned her head away.

“If you can prove that Vasili was somehow forced to give Tolkach the part, then I shall stay.”

Releasing her hand, he stood up. The impulse to do something, to give some sort of a sign of his true feelings, rose within him again. For a second time he resisted it. Walking to the door, he opened it then turned on his heel to face her.

“Unpack your bags, Madame Tortsova!” he declared in dramatic tones that brought a smile to the face of the Doctor’s wife. “I shall not fail you!”

* * *

Goat’s Foot’s izba  lay less than two hundred sazhenes  as the birds flew across the wilderness at the eastern end of Menshikov Street. But, because the ground was so treacherous with its deeply dug drainage ditches hidden by the snow, Chevanin did not attempt to take the direct route across the fields. Instead, keeping to the road, he turned right at the end of Menshikov Street and walked past the Town Hall and the livery stables. He had not eaten anything since rising that morning but he felt no hunger, only a cold fire within him as he thought of Tolkach locked in a passionate embrace with Yeliena Mihailovna.

She had been right. He had become a crusader, pledged to protect the sepulchre of her body from the sacrilege of the Beast. He shook his head in wonder. Try as he might, he could not imagine how the Doctor had allowed that man to take the role opposite his own wife. Pulling up the collar of his worn overcoat, he quickened his step. It was not inconceivable that the wily peasant he was on his way to visit would already know something about it. Goat’s Foot knew most of what happened in Berezovo; even better, it was said, than Colonel Izorov himself.

The road along which Chevanin now trudged was beginning to widen as it left the town and swung north east bringing the peasant’s shack into view. On the Imperial Map which hung in one corner of the town’s library, the route was marked as the continuation of ‘The Great Tobolsk Highway to the North’. Locally, it was known as the road to Obdorskoye.

Chapter Three

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Tuesday 6th February 1907


Noi Nikolayevich Pyatkonov, known to the world as Goat’s Foot, watched with satisfaction as the steaming stream of his urine arched and fell through the bottomless bucket at his feet. The bucket had been his own invention. For months it had hung, derelict, from the rafters of his gornitsa,  its bottom rusted away from years of neglect. The sight of it had irked his wife and she lost no opportunity to remark upon it whenever she had occasion to enter the outbuilding and interrupt his work there, calling him a collector of other people’s rubbish and a useless tinker. But Goat’s Foot had just smiled and kept digging the hole in the corner and when it was deep enough, even she had had to admit that a bottomless bucket could have a purpose. Scavenging a broken door from Belinsky’s yard by dead of night, he had placed it over the excavation and then had rough sawn a small hole into which he forced the bucket. By standing over it, it became a funnel through which he could relieve himself, no matter how drunk he was, without turning the floor of the gornitsa  into an evil smelling slurry. What more could anyone ask?

His wife had not praised her husband for his ingenuity – what woman ever did? – but at least she had stopped nagging about the bucket. Now she had a new complaint: the privy was unsafe; it would collapse beneath her.

Why should the board give way, he had shouted, except at the grotesque sight she presented to it? What more could she want besides warmth and privacy? If he hadn’t suspected that she would stay in there all day and neglect her duties around the home, he would have built her a seat so that she could sit there like a Tsarina on her throne, shitting on the heads of the People. No, there was the board, there was the bucket and there was an end to it.

It had taken him weeks to persuade her that she need never again leave their shack to go and squat out in the middle of the marshy field in full view of the road. In the end he had had to forcibly drag her, clucking and squawking like a startled hen, to the gornitsa  and stand over her until she had consented to try his new invention. But, even after this demonstration, she had persisted in her refusal to use it, fearing that one day the board would give way beneath her weight.

For three days the war between them had raged: she refusing to go near the bucket, he preventing her from using the field. She had become more and more irritable, while on his part, he had deliberately visited the gornitsa  so often that he feared his bowels would become shrivelled like dried fruit. On the third night, after dropping three extra cloves of garlic into her stew, he had witnessed her capitulation. Feigning sleep he had listened as she had crept from the bed and made for the outhouse. Despite the cold night air he had followed her, grinning to himself in the darkness as he listened to her grumbling voice heap curses upon his head, quickly followed by her cry of terror as she overbalanced and landed four square on top of the solid door panel. As he knew it would, the board had held and his victory was made complete shortly after by her groans of satisfaction as she found relief.

Thereafter she had used the bucket without complaint. To satisfy the honour of both parties a leather strap and chain, fashioned out of a discarded piece of bridle that their son Osip had found in the road, had been added for her to cling onto, and a candle was provided for nocturnal visits. Despite his assurances, he had been alarmed at hearing her lose her balance. The board had definitely creaked and he knew the hole to be deep. He had taken as his guide the military adage that in a year a man would shit his own height and weight, and had dug deep enough to cater for all three of them until the snows melted. He reckoned that in the event of a catastrophe, at least he would be able to pull his way out somehow. His wife, being shorter and broader, was at a disadvantage. As for Osip, like any boy, he would have to take his chances.

Ineffectually shaking his last few drops over the hole, Goat’s Foot hawked and spat against the rim of the bucket. Jagged rocks thundered and clashed together inside his head, reminders of the drinking session he had had with the courier the night before. Tucking himself away in the folds of his undershirt, he made his way out into the grey morning light. He scooped a handful of snow from the low roof and pressed it like a cloth against his face and neck. For once, his homespun remedy for a blistering hangover failed him and he was strongly tempted to return to the warmth of his rough cot. Only the thought of his wife and the courier being there drove him on. Wiping the last of the snow from his cheeks he set off along the road towards the town.

Like his shack, Goat’s Foot and his family stood close to and yet apart from the inhabitants of Berezovo. However much critics at home or abroad might fret over his class of peasantry (calling it in turn backward, drunken, shiftless, degenerate or oppressed) he paid little heed. Even with a hangover so fierce that it made him groan at every shaking step he took, he counted himself a lucky man, and in the currency of the world in which he lived, luck was more valuable than gold. Buried beneath his hearth in a small earthenware pot lay sixty-eight roubles; a smug testament that he was not lacking in either commodity.

Goat’s Foot was not philosophically opposed to the viewpoint of those people such as Modest Tolkach who rejected the concept of “luck”. On the contrary, the two men shared many beliefs in common. Where he differed from Tolkach was that the Hospital Administrator, from the very beginning, had seen his future fortune as being dependent upon the rank and achievements of others, whereas Goat’s Foot, with all his native cunning, could admit to no man being his master.

“Let others go to the moneylenders, or give their roubles to the Two Thieves” was his dictum. For himself, he would tend his desyatinas  in summer, hunt game in the winter and if luck should fleetingly cross his path, had he not the same right as any other man to exploit the situation? Like Tolkach, he was not without an aptitude for creating lucrative encounters. Tolkach’s strength lay in his ability to manipulate a bureaucratic system to his advantage: Goat’s Foot’s talent was more basic and, at times, more brutal. He could drink.

It might be said that any fool can drink, but not the way Goat’s Foot drank: beaker after beaker of fierce vodka that filled the head with its fumes, burnt the belly and turned the flames blue when you spat into the fire. Three beakers of that would settle most people, as it had done for Chevanin when he had called the day before. After the first cup, Dr. Tortsov’s assistant had become expansive; after the second argumentative; and after the third maudlin to the point of tears. While his expectation of not having to pay the sixty copecks visitation fee grew stronger with every sip, Goat’s Foot had exercised his other significant talent: he had listened. Similarly, when on the following night and long after the livery stables had closed, the carrier had stumbled half frozen into his shack at the height of the blizzard, it had never occurred to Goat’s Foot to refuse him shelter and hospitality as some in the town would have done. Instead he had poured beaker after beaker down the man’s throat, while Osip, roused still sleepy from his bed beside the fire, had stabled his horses in the gornitsa . For this simple action he had earned the carrier’s gratitude, his fifty copecks for the horse and his conversation.

The two men had sat contentedly in front of the fire, the smoke from their pipes mingling with that from the wet timber in the grate. When the boy had returned, it was with the news that one of the horses had cast a shoe. The carrier had grunted his acknowledgement: the shoe had been lost two versts short of Berezovo; he would be lucky if the horse was not lame in the morning.

And what was he carrying?

Fumbling in his leather pouch, the carrier had produced a crumpled manifesto of his cargo for Goat’s Foot to read but, feigning illiteracy, his host had declined. Returning the paper to its pouch, the man had scratched his head and let his host pour him another drink while he recited his load. A sack of mail from the sorting office in Tobolsk; two cases of soap for Nadnikov at the general store; sixteen blankets for the Barracks commissariat; three bolts of cloth for the haberdashers; flour (white, mind) for Gvordyen’s bakery…

And how had the journey gone?

It had been fine until he had met the blizzard, then it had taken him a whole day to cover twenty versts, sweating at each step in case he lost the road.

Why hadn’t he stopped at a yurt until the blow was over?

The carrier shook his head, watching as the level of alcohol in his beaker rose once more towards the brim. No, the typhus was bad all along the road and grew worse as it neared the town. If he had stopped even for one night he would have been dead in the morning, he declared, crossing himself and emptying his beaker again in one swallow.

The beaker was refilled. And was there news?

The man had belched, and wondered when the peasant’s woman would bring him the food he had been promised.

Yes, there was news, the courier admitted; there was always news. A party of high ranking exiles were on the road, guarded, it was said, by a whole battalion of Sibirsky. He himself had seen the “politicals” in the villages making red banners of welcome and baking biscuits for the prisoners. In some places, the rumour had changed: the exiles had become the Provincial Governor, but he considered this improbable. Even his Excellency would know better than to travel north in February and besides, it was unlikely that the condemned rioters and agitators would be baking biscuits for him. As Goat’s Foot filled his own cup, he had agreed that this prospect seemed remote.

But who exactly were these people?

The carrier had had a hard head and Goat’s Foot had lost count of the number of beakers they had drunk together. Now each cup seemed to be taking its individual revenge as he reached the town. Stooping down, he scraped up some more snow and thrust it into his mouth, cooling his swollen tongue and clearing his head. Unsteadily he continued on his way, one hand pressing against the end wall of the Town Hall for support as he rounded the corner into Alexei Street. His blood thinned by the alcohol, he felt the cold in the marrow of his bones. Still he kept going, fearing that if he stopped his legs would buckle and give way under him. Seeing the shaggy figure weaving its way down the centre of the road, people began to stop and watch. Blearily he glared at them, but kept his strength for reaching his destination. Suddenly he stopped in the middle of Alexei Street, ignoring the curses of a sleigh driver who had to rein his team in hard to avoid running him over.

Where was  his destination? he wondered.

He had intended to make the Doctor’s surgery his first port of call; the money he planned to extract from the Doctor’s assistant would pay for his purchases at the market. But what if old Tortsov himself was there? That would make his business very difficult indeed. Better to leave the matter until later on in the morning, he decided. He would go instead to the Black Cock and wait for Blonski. There, at least, he would get warm again.

Located at the western end of the Market Square, the Black Eagle Inn (Proprietor: S.K. Lavrov) faced one of the two entrances of the barracks, whence it drew most of its regular custom. Strictly speaking it was not an inn at all since Lavrov did not hold a licence to offer sleeping quarters to the weary traveller. Nevertheless its landlord, a surly dark haired veteran of the Sibirsky, was occasionally disposed to allow late drinkers to remain on the premises overnight and to leave them undisturbed if they slipped unconscious beneath the rough plank tables at which they had been drinking. On the morrow, in lieu of payment, he expected them to perform various menial chores such as sweeping the floor, putting down new sawdust or emptying the cold ashes from the fire in front of which they had warmed themselves the night before.

Such reciprocity was not extended to everyone. Bad payers were shown the door whatever the weather and soldiers from the barracks were never encouraged to stay beyond their permitted hours. Lavrov knew well that such delinquency would not go unnoticed by their commanding officer and could jeopardise his trade. It was one thing for Captain Steklov to spend the night entertaining a certain lady of high social position in the Hotel New Century; it was quite another to have half the garrison absent from their posts and unaccounted for.

“Let Captain Steklov stay as long as he likes at the hotel” was the landlord’s point of view. Certainly let him stay there rather than bring his money to the Black Cock, for nothing would empty the place faster than the sight of an epaulette. The Black Cock always had been and always would be a soldiers’ bar and if it grew a little rough sometimes, it was only to be expected. That Colonel Izorov knew of such an arrangement there was little doubt, but being a man of discretion, he had long ago chosen to look the other way, sharing the town’s generally low regard for what were popularly referred to as Lavrov’s “sleepers and sweepers”.

Although most of the townsfolk gave it a wide berth in the evenings, the Black Cock did not lack frequent civilian patronage. The establishment was convenient for the staff of the small municipal prison which stood adjacent to the barracks, and several of the policemen whose headquarters spanned the distance between the jailhouse and the Town Hall often dropped in as they came off duty. During the daytime, stall holders from the Market Square would come in for a glass of tea and a vodka, and it was a regular meeting place for those such as drivers or carriers whose work took them to the four corners of the town. In the days before he had made a killing on the town’s new building projects Belinsky had often drunk there, on the off chance of picking up repair work at the barracks or the prison. Now, with the exception of those occasions when he was chairing meetings of the local Black Hundreds, he usually preferred the bar at the Hotel New Century.

Lavrov bore the hotel’s management no grudge. Fyodor Gregorivich could have as many of the barines  as he liked and good luck to him. He would never have as many customers as crowded into the smoke filled front room of the Black Cock of an evening, winter or summer. They were Lavrov’s people: men who liked plain food and decent vodka at honest prices and were content t

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o spend an evening playing cards or chess or talking amongst themselves. God-fearing people: no Jews, no Ostyaks, no women, no Reds… And if, at the end of the evening, some of them were the worse for wear for drink (which, after all, was only a good man’s fault) then let them lie down and sleep it off, for tomorrow would bring its own troubles. The doors of the Black Cock were open to such good company.

Whether Goat’s Foot could be included in even the most generous interpretation of the phrase as “good company” was doubtful. What was beyond dispute, even to Lavrov’s eyes watching from behind the bar as the bedraggled peasant lurched through the open door, was that the man was badly in need of strong drink.

Uncorking a flask of vodka, he poured a measure into the glass he had just finished polishing and pushed it towards the wan-faced figure as he reached the bar. Gratefully Goat’s Foot drained the glass and motioned for another. Lavrov obliged.

“Semyon Konstantinovich. Prince amongst men,” the peasant saluted him. “What are you doing behind the bar so early? Where’s Mikhail?”

“Taken ill,” the proprietor informed him. “Someone put lamp oil in his tea.”


Lavrov nodded. Without his pot boy he would be hard pressed to clear the tables and tend the bar that evening. Eyeing the man in front of him, he said:

“I’ll need someone tonight, someone with a head on their shoulders. If you think of anyone, you might mention it.”

Goat’s Foot rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“What’s the pay and how long for?”

“Three hours. From seven to ten.”

“And the pay?”

“Same as usual,” Lavrov said with a shrug. “Ten copecks an hour and a hot meal.”

Goat’s Foot drew his breath in sharply and gave a doubtful shake of his head.

“And a bottle to go home with,” Lavrov added.

Goat’s Foot looked round at the small number of customers that already sat drinking at the tables. He was in luck. Two of them were men he wanted to do business with.

“And the drinks you’ve already had,” persisted the landlord.

“Throw in two glasses of tea and you need look no further,” Goat’s Foot replied with a smile. “I’ll be over talking to Blonski.”

“Is that tea with or without oil?” asked Lavrov asked sarcastically.

Swallowing the rest of his vodka, Goat’s Foot smiled amiably at Lavrov and then looked back at the two men with whom he wished to do business that morning. Shrewdly he chose to approach the blacksmith Chirikov first.

“Good morning, Innokenty Arseneyevich,” he said when he stood in front of the giant’s table.

The blacksmith, busy eating his breakfast, was as hospitable as a dog with a bone. Narrowing his eyes, he glared up at the intruder and instinctively Goat’s Foot stepped back a pace. He had once seen Chirikov snap a man’s back in two during a wrestling bout at the summer fair and, although it had been accidental, it had done nothing to diminish the popular myth that the blacksmith was a man of violent temper.

As engagingly as he could, Goat’s Foot told his tale as the man at the table attacked his food. When he had come to the part about how the carrier’s horse had lost a shoe, the wooden spoon carrying the grey fish stew momentarily paused in its flight to the blacksmith’s lips: the first sign that the man was listening to him at all. From under a low heavy brow, brooding eyes flicked over the peasant’s face as Goat’s Foot recounted how highly he had recommended Chirikov’s forge to the carrier.

“‘No use going to the regimental farrier,’ I said, ‘He’s a butcher. Go to Innokenty Chirikov. He’ll do the job right’.”

Chirikov’s eyes did not leave his face as he took a hunk of bread from the basket beside him and slowly tore it apart with his powerful fingers. With the minutest motion of his head the blacksmith acknowledged Goat’s Foot right to take his commission: six old nails, long enough to mend a hole on his roof. It was with a heartfelt sense of relief that the peasant backed slowly away, bowing as he left his presence, and turned his attention to the second person he had to speak to: Corporal Yfem Borisovich Blonski.

Despite the earliness of the hour, Blonski was already hunched over a half empty glass of beer. He returned Goat’s Foot’s greeting morosely.

“What is the matter, Yfem Borisovich?” the peasant enquired sympathetically. “You look really fed up.”

The soldier glared at him and spat expertly and with feeling into the battered shell casing that stood at the end of the table.

“Bastards. That’s what the matter is, old friend. I’m surrounded by bastards.”

As if in answer to his call, a movement behind the corporal’s back caught Goat’s Foot’s eye. Through the window he saw the barracks gates swing open and a troop of mounted cavalry emerge.

“Well, here’s something,” the peasant remarked. “Is the Regiment moving, or what?”

The jangling harnesses and the thud of hooves on the snow were now audible. Guiltily, the corporal looked over his shoulder and then pressed himself against the wall as the first pair of horsemen rode past the uncurtained window by which they sat.

“It’s the Captain,” he hissed. “He’s gone mad, I swear it. Ever since last Wednesday he’s had the whole company out on daily manoeuvres, covering the road from the South.”

“What? Even yesterday in the blizzard?” asked Goat’s Foot incredulously.

“I told you. He’s a lunatic,” the corporal said, peering cagily through the window. “The young ones are always the worse. Especially when they have an uncle who is a Prince.”

“Then why aren’t you out there with them?” Goat’s Foot enquired.

“That’s just it,” Blonski said, pointing an accusing finger at Goat’s Foot. “I was yesterday, and I nearly froze to death in my saddle for all the good it did me. But then, just as we were coming back into barracks for the last time, the platoon sergeant’s horse went shy and threw the bastard.”

“Is he the one with the red beard?”

“That’s him,” confirmed the corporal. “Anyway, so he goes sick and the Captain, bless his boots, has to find someone else to take his place, doesn’t he?”

Goat’s Foot settled himself more comfortably on the bench and looked at the corporal. His business had nothing to do with parades or sergeants but he was in no hurry.


“So he only chooses Grednyin, who’s above me in the Commissariat, to take his place. Seeing as how he’s a sergeant and all. Because,” added the corporal scornfully as he took another swig of beer, “it’s a terrible responsibility, taking a platoon down to the other end of town and back. It takes at least a sergeant, otherwise the poor lambs might get lost.”

“In the blow we had yesterday, I wouldn’t doubt it,” observed Goat’s Foot. “I didn’t step outside all day.”

Lavrov appeared with the glasses of tea. Passing one over to his friend, Goat’s Foot took the other.

“Go on,” he urged.

“So,” said Blonski with a shrug, “when Grednyin was ordered to take his place, I thought everything was sweet and tidy, didn’t I? Because they still need someone to look after the Commissariat while the Company is out fighting the snow. And sure enough, the sergeant gives me the keys and tells me I’m excused parade.”

Goat’s Foot was puzzled.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” said Blonski bitterly. “Except that the bastard orders me to count everything in the Commissariat and give him a complete inventory of all the equipment by tonight. And I mean everything.”

Leaning over the table, he glared malevolently at Goat’s Foot.

“Have you any idea,” he demanded, “how many boots, spurs, tins of polish – leather and metal – cap badges, buckles, buttons and belts and God know what else there is in there? That’s not to mention all the stuff for the horses: the blankets, bridles, stirrup straps and so on. It will take me until Easter to count them all.”

“But surely this Grednyin can’t be interested in how many tins of boot polish you’ve got?”

“Course he isn’t!” snorted Blonski scornfully. “He couldn’t care less. But it’s the same the whole world over. The General kicks the Colonel; the Colonel kicks the Captain; the Captain kicks the Sergeant and the Sergeant kicks me. It’s what’s called Military Law.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Course I am.”

The two men drank silently and considered the situation.

“I’m sorry to hear what you say, Yfem,” Goat’s Foot said, “because I’ve come to add to your problems.”

“Can’t do it,” the corporal replied promptly.

“Now don’t be hasty…”

“I’m sorry, Goat’s Foot, but whatever it is, I can’t spare it. Grednyin is bound to have checked some of the stuff before I do and if anything is missing he will have my back for it.”

“You don’t understand,” Goat’s Foot said with a pained expression. “I don’t want anything. I’ve just come to pass on some news, that’s all.”

“What news?” the corporal asked suspiciously.

“I was just about to tell you,” the peasant said plaintively as he took a sip from his tea. “I had a visitor last night. A carrier. He turned up too late for the livery stables so he spent the night at my place. He’s got some things for the barracks.”

“What sort of things?”

“I think he mentioned something about blankets.”

“Blankets, blankets,” the corporal repeated thoughtfully. “What sort of blankets? For men or horse?”

Goat’s Foot hesitated. It had not occurred to him that the blankets might be for horses.

“I don’t know, he didn’t say,” he admitted ruefully.

“Blankets,” Blonski muttered again to himself. His brow cleared.

“Holy Christ, we ordered them ten months ago,” he told Goat’s Foot. “Last spring sometime. Typical bloody Army. I remember now. I wrote the order out myself. Ten horse blankets for summer manoeuvres. Oh well, better late than never, I suppose. Where are they now?”

“Still with him, and he’s sleeping it off at my place. He’ll be along shortly.”

Glumly, he took another sip of tea. The hopes that had risen within him were now dashed. He had intended to offer the corporal a price for the old bed blankets that the new ones were replacing and resell them elsewhere. It seemed as if the major reason for his coming to town no longer existed. Nevertheless, there was still a glimmer of hope. He debated whether he could get back to his shack and intercept the carrier before he left. It was doubtful. The blankets were probably already on their way into town.

“Horse blankets, eh?” he said genially.

“That’s right.”

“Ten, you say?”

“Ten. Wrote the order myself.”

“Dear, dear. You see, there’s a slight problem. The carrier is bringing sixteen blankets.”

Blonski looked at him. A sly smile crept slowly across his face.

“Ah! Well now,” he said, “that’s different.”

Chapter Four

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Tuesday 6th February 1907


A half hour later, having sealed his contract with the corporal with another drink and a handshake, Goat’s Foot left the Black Cock and crossed the Market Square. His hangover much reduced, there was a new jauntiness to his step. He had every reason to be satisfied with their compact although the corporal had driven a hard bargain: a rouble each, cash on the nail and the half dozen unordered blankets to disappear quickly and forever. All the same, he foresaw no problems with the transaction. Nothing could be easier than to alter the carrier’s receipt from 16 to 10. A slip of the pen, a smudge of ink and it was done. Lepishinsky at the livery stables would give him two roubles eighty copecks, possibly even three roubles for each blanket. The peasant began chortling happily to himself. Ten, maybe twelve roubles profit, just for carrying them from the barracks to the stable! It would not be quite as easy as that, he told himself. First, the blankets would have to be dyed, so that they were not recognisable as regimental property. Still, ten roubles at least for a morning’s work was not at all bad.

Halfway across the square, he paused to inspect a pile of potatoes on one of the stalls. He shook his head discouragingly at the stall holder who had hopefully left the small group of men standing huddled around a glowing brazier. Moving on, he passed the well and went and stood by the window of the town’s library, which overlooked the eastern end of the market square. Behind its clouded pane of glass, Maslov had erected a board upon which was pinned an amateurishly drawn notice advertising the drama committee’s forthcoming production. In one corner of the poster, the librarian had pasted an engraving of the plays’ author that had been cut out from a magazine. To Goat’s Foot’s unlettered eye, the playbill meant nothing, although he thought that the slight man in the engraving did bear a resemblance to the merchant Shiminski. With a contemptuous sniff, he left the window and made his way out of the square in the direction of Hospital Street. By the time the bell of The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary had finished striking the hour of twelve, he had taken up his station in the doorway of the empty shop opposite Doctor Tortsov’s surgery.

He did not have long to wait. Soon a sleigh drew up outside the surgery door, the Doctor appeared at the door, and in less than a minute he had departed. Goat’s Foot kept his eyes fixed on the light in the consulting room window. When it was extinguished, he left the doorway and crossed the road. He let Chevanin close and lock the door and take his first step towards the hospital before he hurried up behind him.

“Good morning, Doctor!”

Startled by his appearance at his elbow, Chevanin curtly returned his greeting and continued walking.

“It’s lucky that I saw you, Doctor,” said Goat’s Foot, falling in step beside him. “I wanted to thank you once again for coming to see the wife and to make sure you got home safely, what with the blizzard and all.”

“It’s my duty,” Chevanin said haughtily. “Think nothing of it.”

Unabashed, the peasant warmed to his theme.

“We had a fine old talk, you and I, didn’t we? What with one thing and another.”

“Did we?”

“Mmm. I should say!”

“And,” Chevanin demanded, “did our conversation include the possibility of your paying your bill, by any chance?”

“My bill, Doctor?”

“Yes. The sixty copecks visitation fee. Don’t tell me that you’ve forgotten, because Doctor Tortsov hasn’t.”

Goat’s Foot stopped in his tracks and caught the young man by the arm.

“But sir,” he protested, “we’ve already paid our bill!”

“Oh? When?”

“Why, as you were going,” the peasant told him in injured tones. “Don’t you remember? You were a little unsteady, what with the drink and all, so I dropped the money into your gloves. I told you at the time it was there, and you just nodded.”

His expression did not waver under Chevanin’s scrutiny.

“All right, Pyatkonov,” the Doctor’s assistant said at last and resumed his journey along Hospital Street.

Still protesting, Goat’s Foot hurried along beside him.

“As God is my witness, sir! A poor man like myself can’t afford to make mistakes about things like that, especially not with a medical man like yourself. You understand?”

“Oh, I understand all too well,” replied Chevanin with some feeling.

“Only, you and I had a few drinks and I thought, ‘Well, I’d better pay up now rather than tomorrow, what with things being as they are…’”

“I said all right!” said the young doctor testily.

Trying to distance himself from the creature that was dogging his footsteps, Chevanin quickened his pace as he crossed the street in front of the hospital, but Goat’s Foot was ready for this and stuck to him like glue. Resigned to the peasant’s company the Doctor’s assistant turned abruptly to his right and began striking towards the intersection with Tower Street.

“I was also thinking about your problem with the play,” announced Goat’s Foot.

Chevanin’s face coloured slightly.

“My problem?” he echoed.

“Yes. I think I’ve got the solution. Just what the Doctor ordered, you might say.”

“And what is the solution?”

Goat’s Foot tapped the side of his nose.

“Ah, now, that’s another thing.”

The meaning of the gesture was not lost on Chevanin. Reaching the end of the street where he lived, he stopped and, digging his hand into his pocket, produced a fifty copeck coin. Goat’s Foot looked at the coin and frowned.

“Well, sir,” he said, “considering it involves the honour of a lady, the answer’s bound to cost a bit more than that, isn’t it? What with my wife still being tender and needing special foods and all.”

“How much more?”

The peasant rubbed his chin judiciously.

“Well now. It must be worth at least a rouble, I’d say.”

“A rouble!” exclaimed Chevanin.

Nevertheless, he dug his hand into his pocket again and produced a second fifty copeck piece.

“This had better be worth it,” warned Chevanin.

“It is,” Goat’s Foot promised him, holding out his palm.

Chevanin hesitated.

“What if it doesn’t work?”

“That’s the chance you’ve got to take,” the peasant informed him, adding confidently, “but it will.”

Reluctantly, Chevanin dropped the coins into his outstretched palm. As he pocketed them, Goat’s Foot grinned conspiratorially.

“First things first,” he said. “The Doctor didn’t want to give our friend the part at all, only the Mayor forced him to. The way I hear it, Pobednyev boxed him into a corner and he had no choice. But that’s by the way. The thing now is, what are we going to do about it?”

Edging nearer, the peasant lowered his voice.

“As I see it,” he went on, “there are two plays, right?”

Chevanin nodded disdainfully, his nostrils wrinkling at the peasant’s proximity.

“Well, what of it?” he demanded.

“Simply that you get your man Tolkach to act in the other play. From what I’ve heard, your librarian Maslov doesn’t want to do it at all. And Svortsov was pushed into it by his old woman, just because Kuzma Gvordyen did it last year. The Doctor tells Tolkach that the part he’s got now isn’t important enough for him. It doesn’t do him justice. See?”

“But how do I persuade Dr. Tortsov to move him to the other play? He’s in charge of the production, not me.”

“That’s easy,” Goat’s Foot told him. “You tell the Doctor that your man Tolkach is after his missus.”

The enormity of the idea made Chevanin gasp aloud.

“It’ll never work!” said Chevanin with a shake of his head, dazed by the peasant’s suggestion.

“Oh, it’ll work,” Goat’s Foot assured him, adding with a leer, “I’m sure the lady concerned will be ever so grateful.”

“But… but I couldn’t!”

“Yes you can, if you try,” advised the peasant. “Try really hard.”

Leaving the Doctor’s assistant, and with Chevanin’s two fifty copeck coins secure in his pocket, Goat’s Foot hummed happily to himself as he made his way southwards. As he had been standing on the corner of Tower Street talking with Chevanin, another idea had come to him; an inspiration of such dazzling brilliance that he wondered why it had not occurred to him before. He had debated whether he should not turn back, but instead had thought better of it. He would stick to his original schedule of calls.

One hen at a time, as the poacher said , he told himself.

He walked on, past Pirogov’s workshop where a baby’s hungry cries rose above the noise of weary sawing. A few minutes later, he turned to the left and, bracing himself, entered Jew Alley.

Ever since the township of Berezovo had been established, a part of the southernmost section had been specifically reserved for the Jews. Farthest from the river and nearest to the Highway, Berezovo’s Jewish Quarter lay hidden behind the shop fronts of the poorer merchants and shopkeepers. Disqualified from eligibility for municipal services but protected historically by an Imperial decree of the Empress Catherine, its inhabitants survived as best they could. The Quarter had its own markets, its own fire service, its own temples, even its own shadow council to administer the day-to-day affairs of the neighbourhood. Despite these liberties, disease, poverty and crime – the natural results of overcrowding and segregation – had long been a way of life for its population and its reputation was notorious throughout the adjoining town.

Over the centuries, time and custom had succeeded in blurring the exact boundaries of the Quarter. In some of the streets bordering its edge Jews and gentiles were uneasy neighbours. Strengthened by generations of fear, mistrust and loathing, the citizens of Berezovo had regularly addressed the source of this spillage and it was well within the bounds of living memory that the last pogrom had taken place, the gendarmerie of the day playing a particularly active role in putting one fifth of the Quarter’s population to the sword. That had been before Colonel Izorov’s time. Since his arrival, no further outrages had occurred, a fact that led to much speculation as to where the Chief of Police’s loyalties lay. It was rumoured that he was a Freemason; even that he was secretly a Jew himself. Ignoring the unspoken criticism of the older policemen under his command, the Colonel had kept a stern and watchful eye over events in the Quarter as it had risen once again from its ashes. The old, ordered town plan had long since vanished, a victim both of the arsonists’ torch and the speculative builder. Now ramshackle buildings clustered together in semi-distinct streets. Only Jew Alley remained as it had always been, the crooked spine around which the Quarter gathered to bicker, scheme and trade.

Goat’s Foot loathed the Jews, and he feared Jew Alley. On every street corner, greasy locked men stood watching him, muttering to each other in their own language as he passed, making him feel a stranger in his own land. High above the open sewer that ran down the centre of the Alley, shop signs jutted out bearing strange cabbalistic script. Some of them he knew by heart: “L.D. Polezhayev. Quality Tailor.”; “Isaac Averbuch. Fine Furniture Made To Order”; “Menachaim Goldstein. Money Lender To The Gentry.” Their insolence made him want to spew. He believed without question the truth behind the builder Belinsky’s maxim that the coldest part of Berezovo was not to be found in the north (which would be natural as it was nearer the top of the world), nor the east (where the damp from the riverbank could penetrate even the thickest wall) but here in the south, because here there was no love, only money. The Jews had made money their religion. Money above everything, except Jewish blood, and even then they were prepared to make exceptions. Hadn’t they sold their Messiah for thirty pieces of silver (silver mind, not even gold!)? The proof (if proof were needed) that Jews owed no loyalty to either Tsar or Motherland, only to each other, was there for all to see. Was not the very man he was on his way to visit the head of the Jewish Bund exiles in Berezovo, working and living safely in the midst of them, protected by his blood? Meanwhile, the poor misguided devils who had listened to him and his like were shivering and slowly starving in their yurts out in the snowfields beyond the town’s boundaries.

Goat’s Foot readily accepted what was preached in the back room of the Black Cock Inn was true: that there was a secret bond of brotherhood between the fat Jewish bankers and the ragged, wild eyed socialist agitators; a conspiracy dedicated to destroying the Empire. Yet what could one do? Even the builder Belinsky, for all his talk of ignoring the “Jew lover Izorov” and “taking a scourge to the vermin once and for all” had to do business with their tradespeople if they gave the cheapest prices.

Goat’s Foot walked steadily on, looking neither to the left nor to the right of him, clutching the two coins tightly in his pocket in case they clinked together. It did not do to advertise that he was carrying loose coins in Jew Alley. Two thirds of the way down the Alley, with hardly a break in his stride, he ducked into a shop which proclaimed itself as “Lotzmann’s High Class Bakery”. As he expected, Abram Usov was serving behind the counter. Goat’s Foot waited, scowling as a fat Jewess in front of him berated the young man in a thick, almost unintelligible accent for selling stale bread. Seeing him waiting, the exile brushed the woman’s complaints aside and eventually she left, still complaining loudly, with two flat loaves tucked inside her shawl.

“Is Lotzmann in?” the peasant asked gruffly.

“He’s out the back, lunching with his family.”

“Good. Can we talk?”

Usov wiped his hands on his apron and nodded towards the street door. Goat’s Foot quietly closed the door and slid the bolt home. Turning, he held up two fingers. Usov reached down beneath the counter and brought up first one and then a second bottle of the fiery wood vodka, placing them well apart on the top of the counter so that they did not chink and betray him to the keen ear of his employer.

Goat’s Foot looked at them hungrily and licked his lips, but the young man kept his hands firmly clasped around their necks.

“So? Talk.”

“Captain Steklov has been drilling his men since Monday, taking them to the Highway and back,” Goat’s Foot told him in a hoarse whisper. “I’ve seen it myself on the way here. Full dress uniform, loaded rifles, the lot.”

“I know,” said Usov. “A party of officials sent by the Governor is expected to pay us a ‘surprise’ inspection.”

The irony of the statement was not lost on either of the two men.

“Wrong,” Goat’s Foot told him softly.

Usov looked at him for a moment then silently passed one of the two bottles across the counter. It disappeared quickly into one of the peasant’s pockets. Goat’s Foot waited to see if the second bottle would follow. When it didn’t he said:

“Instead of officials, you can expect a party of your people. Does the title ‘Petersburg Soviet’ mean anything to you?”

Usov’s eyes widened behind his spectacles. The second bottle swiftly crossed the counter and disappeared.

“Are you certain? How good is this information?”

Goat’s Foot’s eyes darted greedily around the loaves that remained unsold on the shelves. He pointed to the largest and Usov took it from the shelf and began quietly to wrap it in a sheet of newspaper.

“I had a carrier sleep on my floor last night. He was bringing some stuff up for the barracks and Nadnikov’s store. He said that all along the Highway your people are getting ready to give them a big reception. Red flags, biscuits, cakes; the lot. The Soviet’s name was on all of the banners. And Steklov’s soldiers are too well armed for a welcoming committee.”

“Did he say when they were expected to get here?”

“Apparently they’re about four or five days behind him.”

Usov frowned.

“What was he taking to the barracks?”

“Only blankets. Nothing else as far as I know.”

Reluctantly, Usov passed him the wrapped loaf. Goat’s Foot squeezed it with his fingers.

“Here,” he said, raising his voice. “The old bitch was right. This bread is stale.”


“My news was fresh.”

“Well, it isn’t now, is it?” said Usov evenly.

With a look of disgust the peasant turned to leave. As he was reaching up to draw back the door bolt, Usov called out to him.

“Goat’s Foot! Did this carrier mention anyone else in the party?”

Shaking his head, Goat’s Foot drew back the door bolt.

“Are you certain?” Usov persisted, coming out from behind the counter. “He didn’t mention the name Trotsky, for instance?”

“Never heard of him,” Goat’s Foot said sourly as he stepped back out into the street.

Goat’s Foot didn’t breathe easily until he had left Jew Alley far behind him. It was not just the groups of alien figures that stared insolently at him as he passed by. There were other, hidden eyes. He prayed that Izorov’s informers would presume that he visited the bakery solely to buy the vodka that was manufactured clandestinely somewhere in the Quarter and was reputed to be the best to be had for over five hundred versts.

By the time he had reached the spot where he had left Chevanin, his good humour had returned. He refused to let Usov’s parsimony spoil his mood. It had still been a profitable morning. He had a rouble in his pocket, and the opportunity to find ten brothers for it from the barracks. He had gained two bottles of excellent liquor, simply by being first with a piece of news that, once the carrier started drinking again, would become common gossip by nightfall. There was a third bottle to come (albeit of inferior stock) after his stint at the Black Cock that evening, along with a hot meal and another thirty copecks. He had buried the Doctor’s bill, and he had a loaf of bread and sufficient nails with which to repair his leaking roof. All in all, it had been a very satisfactory day’s work.

Ripping a corner of the newspaper that wrapped the loaf, he tore off a piece of bread and stuffed it into his mouth. Despite its hardness, it still tasted good. The sesame seeds that dressed its crust reminded him how hungry he was. Looking up, he caught sight of the wooden fire tower tha

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t stood outlined against the overcast sky like a stubborn finger and remembered the idea that had come to him as he had talked with Dr. Tortsov’s assistant.

Well, why not?  he thought. After all, it’s my lucky day. 

The two bottles bumped encouragingly against his thighs as, still chewing the bread, he sauntered along the narrow side street, turning his new idea over in his mind. Its success, he recognised, depended almost entirely on the cooperation of the Hospital Administrator Modest Tolkach. In the distance, the bell of The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary began to toll for the souls of the dead. Reaching the front of the hospital, he walked up the steps, pulled open one of the wide wooden doors and went inside.

Chapter Five

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Wednesday 7th February 1907


Leaving the bank, Irena Kuibysheva made her way along the raised boardwalk towards the crossing point on Alexei Street. She held the sable collar of her cloak closed against the chill morning air as she mentally apportioned the hundred roubles she had withdrawn from her husband’s account. The payment, personally overseen with his customary formality by Fyodor Fyodorovich Izminsky, the bank’s owner and sole director, was the thirty-ninth in a series of fortnightly transactions of equal value. On a monthly allowance of two hundred roubles her husband Illya Kuibyshev, Berezovo’s wealthiest merchant, whose furs lined the cloaks of princes and lavishly draped the smooth shoulders of imperial mistresses, expected her to run the household, clothe herself, maintain their status within the town and entertain his guests in lavish style when he was in residence. Many of her fellow citizens would have been surprised at how frugally she chose to live in her husband’s absence in order to keep to this budget. Out of every hundred roubles she retained a minimum of fifteen roubles, folded within a silk pillowcase beneath her bed. These savings, which never appeared on the meticulous household accounts she showed her husband, had already grown to a useful sum which she privately thought of as her “travelling money”.

Irena winced as a gust of wintry air bit her cheek and felt grateful that the library, her next destination, was located on the same side of Alexei Street as the bank and therefore did not require her to risk a fall while crossing the town’s main thoroughfare. Despite her discomfort, and the knowledge that she was a quarter of an hour late for her assignation with the timber merchant Leonid Kavelin, she did not hurry. Her experience the previous year with the younger and irrepressibly impulsive Dobrolovsky had taught her the advantage of the cautious advance over the headlong rush. It would do them both good, she reasoned, to wait. And Maslov always made sure that the Private Reading Room was kept well heated and comfortable for his special customers. Thus it was more the promise of the librarian’s genial hospitality than the anticipation of her latest liaison with her new beau that made her eyes sparkle and her cheeks glow as she crossed the threshold of the town library and set the small bell above its door tinkling. In answer to this fairy summons Maslov promptly appeared, and greeted her with a courteous bow.

The library was divided into three sections. The Public area, where the two of them were now standing, was the largest space and lined with four sets of shelves bearing aged reference books and a selection of dog-eared catalogues. In the spaces between these shelves were mounted placards bearing neatly pinned issues of the most recent issues of approved newspapers, displayed in the English fashion for the benefit of the working man. Positioned at right angles to the outer entrance so as not to be exposed to the sudden draughts from the street, the librarian’s desk commanded a view of this public area.

Behind the desk, partitioned by the free standing set of bookshelves upon which the librarian kept books awaiting collection by subscribers to the town’s lending library (subscription: ten roubles per annum), lay the second area, grandly named ‘The Stacks’. Here crude shelves sagged under the weight of past copies of newspapers and journals and unused wrapping materials. At one end of the Stacks stood a locked rolltop desk, the drawers and pigeon holes of which stored the library’s account ledgers and documents relating to the proceedings of the Drama Committee. A strategically placed mirror high on the wall at the other end of this hidden area enabled Maslov to work unobserved at this desk and at the same time keep an eye on the Public area. Below the mirror a second door leading out into Well Street served as the library’s delivery entrance.

The third area of the library – the Private Reading Room – was situated on the far side of the Public Area. Reserved for the personal use of the library’s most prestigious subscribers, it was a small room, lined with bookshelves, heated by a small discreet stove and furnished with a circular baize-covered reading table around which were arranged four chairs upholstered in faded green damask. It was towards this room that the librarian now waved Irena, his neatly plucked eyebrows raised in silent mime as if to say, “Voila! Your lover awaits you within.” 

Unfastening the top button of her coat, Irena entered the room and immediately Kavelin rose to greet her. Unsmiling he snatched up her hand and, bowing slightly, raised it to his lips. The abrupt gesture irritated her, dissolving her feelings of mild relief that Leonid had, after all, waited for her. She felt disappointed by his too literal execution of the suggestion she had made at the casting session the previous Sunday that he should take up the French manner of greeting, and by his lack of initiative. Irena felt that he should at least have felt maddened enough by her late arrival to seize her in his arms and rain kisses upon her face so that she could protest at his dishonourable behaviour. Did she have to make all the running?

Pulling out one of the chairs, Kavelin motioned to her to sit beside him. Ignoring the invitation Irena took her place opposite him, noting as she did so the latest edition of the geographical magazine Vokrug sveta  that lay open on the table between them. On its pages she saw a map of an unfamiliar coastal region.

“That looks interesting,” she said. “What is it about?”

“Alaska,” he told her, adding with a sigh, “or what used to be called Russian America, forty years ago. The author says that they export over a hundred thousand seal skins a year now, mostly to London.”

“A hundred thousand skins! We should never have sold it to the Americans.”

Kavelin shrugged philosophically.

“We could never have held on to it. Sooner or later the greedy British would have taken it from us, like they have taken all of Canada. Better to sell it to the Americans so that they can form a buffer between us and the British. Let them fight over the spoils and leave us alone.”

“Still, a hundred thousand skins! It’s a fortune.”

“And there is also oil from the whaling,” agreed Kavelin, picking up the journal, “and the thousands of tons of blubber… They got all that for only seven million dollars.”

Leaning across the table, Irena laid one hand on his arm.

“Leonid,” she said evenly, “I didn’t come here to listen to you talk about money, or blubber.”

Kavelin glanced down at her gloved hand on the sleeve of his jacket and then regarded her thoughtfully.

“Just why did  you come here, Irena?”

He is annoyed by my lateness after all , she thought, and is waiting for me to apologise. 

She looked around the small room, for a moment regretting the necessity of leaving its cosy warmth so soon after her arrival. Removing her hand from his arm, she rose to leave.

“Not for an argument,” she replied lightly. “My intention was not to annoy you, or to interfere with your important study of whale blubber.”


“No, I thought you might be enough of a gentleman to escort me to the Hotel so that we could take a coffee together.”

“But we are so comfortable here,” he said with a small smile. “It is a pity that the librarian does not also provide a samovar for us.”

“A samovar? That will be the day!” said Irena, laughing. “Maslov would never let us drink anything so close to his precious volumes. Can you imagine what he would say if we even suggested it?”

“We would be barred for life,” agreed Kavelin and mimicked the librarian’s fussy habit of adjusting his pince-nez before delivering a homily. “Hot water and paper do not mix. That is why you should never read in the bath.”

Seeing that Irena was still standing, he held out his hand to her.

“I’m sorry for being so sharp with you. Please, Irena, sit down.”

Certain now that his good humour had returned, Irena stamped her foot in mock impatience.

“No! I really would like to go and have something to drink.”

“Very well!” said Kavelin, getting to his feet. “As always, your wish commands me.”

Retrieving his overcoat from the peg beside the door, he said casually, “Why don’t we ask Fyodor Gregorivich to serve us our refreshments in the mezzanine lounge? It would be far more comfortable than sitting on the hard seats in the public dining room, and we would not be exposed to so many prying eyes.”

“Oho!” cried Irena, as she helped him on with his coat. “I don’t think that would be a very good idea, do you? I know you men all too well. First of all, you get a woman up to the mezzanine floor and all by herself and then it is just a short trip upstairs to the bedrooms. Behave yourself, Leonid Sergeivich!”

Kavelin began to protest good naturedly, but she waved his words away.

“Just remember that what you call prying eyes,” she exclaimed theatrically, “are, in fact, the guardians of a woman’s honour!”

They were both laughing at this remark when the door leading to the Public Library area opened to reveal the disapproving countenance of Lidiya Pusnyena, wife of Serapion Pusnyen, general merchant of Berezovo.

“Good morning Leonid Sergeivich! Good morning Irena Alexandrovna! I suppose you know that your noise can be heard from the street. This is meant to be a quiet space.”

“Oh, good morning Lidiya Stepanovna,” Irena greeted her quickly. “I do apologise for being so cheerful but Leonid Sergeivich was just explaining to me the intricacies of the refining of whale blubber and it suddenly struck me as being all quite ridiculous!”

“And I can’t get her to understand how serious the Blubber Question is,” chipped in Kavelin.

Madame Pusnyena regarded them both suspiciously.

“Well, a little more consideration for other library users would be appreciated,” she chided them.

“Quite so,” agreed Kavelin.

There was a short pause as her remonstrance sank in. Buttoning his overcoat Kavelin inclined his head in a formal bow, and signalled their departure.

“We shall now both retire and leave you in sole possession of the room,” he announced. “Good day, Lidiya Stepanovna.”

As the door closed behind them Lidiya Pusnyena pursed her lips disapprovingly. It occurred to her that they appeared far, far too happy to have been innocently occupied.

* * *

In his small office on the ground floor of Berezovo’s jail house, Prison Director Dimitri Skyralenko’s head jerked up from the pages of the two-week-old newspaper he was reading. The shouting on the upper landing was growing louder. Above him Janinski’s threats and curses rose to a crescendo and were followed by the sound of a scuffle. Reluctantly he reached for his braided kepi and the lead weighted truncheon that hung beside it against the brown plaster wall. He regarded the use of violence with distaste but the thought that the fracas might be audible from Colonel Izorov’s office alarmed him more.

He left his office and made his way across the Reception area past the five cells on the ground floor. The occupants of the cells were invisible except for the row of hands that grasped the bars in the gratings of the thick cell doors. An angry shout came from the farthest cell.

“Get back to your beds!” he warned loudly, bringing his truncheon down against the panel of the nearest door.

Fearing injury, the hands withdrew.

Turning, he shouted up the steps.

“Get back to your cells, up there!”

Steeling himself for the forthcoming confrontation, he began to climb the steps, rattling his truncheon against the iron banisters as he went. Immediately the cries of the prisoners rose to greet him.

“Director! Director! Come quickly!”

“Your charges are being murdered in their cells!”


“Quiet!” he shouted up the stairs again. “Get back to your cells!”

A quick glance towards Janinski’s empty chair confirmed his suspicions; the knout that usually hung in pride of place below the cheaply framed portrait of the Tsar was missing. Turning the corner, he saw two prisoners were huddled on the floor against the wall at the far end of the landing, keeping the duty warder at bay with desperate jabs of their long handled mops. Standing between them and their cell, Janinski stood hunched over them, his body tensed to wield the thick knout in his hand the instant either prisoner dropped his guard.

Skyralenko saw that the other prisoners had been allowed to obey his orders. They now reached out to him from the doorways of their cells as he passed them, imploring him to intercede.

“Director, stop the brute!”

“Janinski means to kill them!”

“It was an accident!”

The warder turned his head and, seeing his commanding officer, immediately sprang to attention.

“Director on the landing!” he screamed. “Prisoners back to their cells! Faces to the wall! Hurry!”

Cautiously, the two men in the corner edged towards the nearest cell. Dropping their mops together, they rushed the doorway but they were too slow. Spinning round, Janinski caught both of them with a severe blow across their shoulder blades that left them writhing and gasping on the floor of their cell.

“Prisoners all present and correct, sir!” Janinski barked, saluting sharply.

Ignoring the salute, Skyralenko took in the scene of battle. A pail lay on its side in the middle of the landing. Looking down at his boots, he saw that he was standing in a pool of dirty water. He tapped first one boot and then the other against the stone floor, sending the water rippling and eddying around the soles of his feet.

“What is the meaning of all this, Janinski?” he asked quietly.

“Prisoner refused to obey your orders, Sir,” shouted Janinski, standing in front of him. “When I gave them the mops and buckets they became abusive and attacked me, Sir!”

The Prison Director’s neat moustache twitched in disbelief. It seemed unlikely that any prisoner familiar with Janinski’s brutish reputation would risk a beating by open defiance. Raising his truncheon, he pointed silently to one of the two prisoners Janinski had hit. He had crawled to his feet and now stood in the correct position dictated by the prison regulations in the event of a cell door being opened: facing the wall of his cell with his arms folded at the elbows behind his back, palms visible.

“Prisoner Arkov!” Janinski bellowed. “Face about!”

The old man turned around, his eyes unblinking as they returned Skyralenko’s embarrassed gaze. Skyralenko had known the man intimately a long time ago; until recently they had been good friends.

Skyralenko nodded towards him.

“Approach the door! Front and centre!”

The man moved slowly, because of the pain across his back.

“Tell him he can stand at ease,” Skyralenko muttered.

“You heard the Director!” Janinski shouted at the man. “Arms by your sides!”

Gratefully, Arkov obeyed.

“Why did you refuse to obey my orders?” asked Skyralenko.

“Well, Director…” the prisoner began.

Too late, the elderly man realised his mistake. Janinski’s fist crashed the side of his face.

“Take your cap off when you address the Prison Director!” screamed the warder.

The blow, when it had come, had been as much a surprise to Skyralenko as it had to the prisoner. Sickened, he watched as blood began to trickle from behind the old man’s ear.

“That’s enough, Janinski!” he said hoarsely.

In the silence that followed, a prisoner in one of the other cells muttered, “Bastard.”

Picking himself up from the floor a second time, the old man held his prison cap tightly against his chest. He opened his mouth but no words came. Tears of pain and humiliation sprang from his eyes and rolled down his swollen cheeks. At length the man regained control of himself and, fighting his sobs, began speaking between tightly clenched teeth.

“Director, I wish to report… that… I… protested to warder Janinski that… it is too cold… to wash our cells…”

Skyralenko swallowed, angry at the man for giving Janinski the excuse he wanted to strike him, then at himself for his cowardice at not ordering the warder from the landing.

“Go on.”

“The heating in the pipes has been turned off,” Arkov continued. He had regained some of his composure. “The water will freeze on the walls and we may all die from pneumonia.”

At the back of the cell Arkov’s cellmate, half turning his face from the wall, called out:

“The cell was only washed out a fortnight ago.”

“Silence, you swine!” Janinski shouted. “Speak only when you are spoken to.”

“Let him speak!” ordered Skyralenko sharply.

He told the second prisoner to turn round.

“Director, it is only two weeks since we last washed these cells,” the man appealed to him. “I remember because it was on my name day.”

A chorus of agreement now rose from the other cells on the landing. Feeling the warder stiffen at his side, he laid his truncheon warningly against Janinski’s arm.

“Quiet, all of you!” he called out.

The protests stopped abruptly. Leaving the doorway of the cell, Skyralenko walked back to where the pail lay. Bending, he slowly and deliberately picked it up and set it straight. Then, moving to where all the prisoners could hear him from their doors, he called for their attention.

“You will do as you are ordered,” he told them, adding before the chorus of protests could start again, “the heating will be restored so you will not freeze. And,” he continued, raising his voice, “it will remain on until I order otherwise. So do not give me cause to do so.”

There were a few ragged cheers. Several of the prisoners had left the walls and were now watching him from their doorways.

“It was my order that you should wash down your cells and clean this corridor, and you were foolish enough to disobey me,” he announced. “Nevertheless, because it is so cold, and because you have only recently cleaned them out, I shall be lenient.”

More prisoners began to crowd around the doors.

“More than that, I shall be generous,” Skyralenko declared.

Putting his hand into the pocket of his blue serge trousers, he pulled out some coins. After holding them up for all to see he handed them to the warder.

“Janinski,” he said loudly, “Go to Gvordyen’s bakery and buy some hot bread. Then make a can of tea for each cell. The bread and the tea are only to be distributed when each cell has been washed and the landing has been thoroughly swept.”

Dismissed, the warder slunk away angrily, the prisoners in their cells whistling and jeering at him as he passed.

“Mind the bread’s hot, Janinski!”

“Make ours a big can!”

“Don’t forget to turn the heating up on your way out!”

“Mind your step, Janinski! Those stairs can be a bastard when they’re wet.”

Returning to the end cell, Skyralenko stood beside Arkov. He let the prisoners celebrate their small victory until he had wrung a wry smile of approval from his former friend.

“All right,” he called out. “That’s enough. You sound like a bunch of novices in a nunnery whistling at the gardener’s boy!”

Crowding around the doors of their cells, the prisoners laughed.

“Collect your mops and buckets and get on with it. I want this place spotless, otherwise there’s no tea, no bread for anyone. You’ll have to eat my wife’s cooking!”

With a few more comments, the prisoners dispersed and fell to cleaning their cells. When he was satisfied that the work was going smoothly, he signalled to the prisoner Arkov to follow him and together they walked back towards the top of the stairs.

“Your head is bleeding,” Skyralenko informed him. “Come down to my office and I’ll give you something for it.”

Smiling grimly, the old man shook his head.

“No. No favouritism, eh? I should be helping the others.”

“Don’t be such a fool,” Skyralenko said, taking the man firmly by the elbow. But Arkov resisted, shaking his arm free.

“All right then… as Prison Director I order you to accompany me to my office.”

“Oh well, in that case,” Arkov replied, smiling, “I accept your kind invitation.”

After he had attended to the small gash behind the old man’s ear, staunching the flow of blood with a piece of cotton wadding, the two men sat chatting, Arkov accepting a cup of burnt coffee from the pot that sat on the stove and a cigarette. He inhaled the rough tobacco with an expression of ecstasy.

“Do you think, Dimitri Borisovich, that a millionaire with all his gold and fine wines could derive as much enjoyment from his finest cigar as does an honest prisoner from such a cigarette?” he asked with a sigh. “I doubt it.”

“An honest prisoner? Probably not,” agreed Skyralenko.

The sight of his former friend reduced to such circumstances distressed him. Guiltily he asked him:

“How is your back?”

“Oh that,” Arkov said, pulling a face. “I’ve had worse. Forget it.”

There was an awkward pause, then the old man stretched painfully.

“I must go back.”

“Stay a little longer,” Skyralenko urged him kindly. “Have another cigarette.”

“No… but thank you,” Arkov replied.

Expertly pinching off the burning end of the cigarette he tucked the remainder away inside a hole in the lining of his jacket.

“I’ll save the other half until later,” he explained. “If I stay any longer, or you give me another cigarette, the others will think I’ve been singing. Then life really won’t be worth living.”

Skyralenko escorted him to the door. As the prisoner put his hand on the door handle, the Prison Director felt that he ought to say something more to his old friend. But what?

“Watch out for Janinski,” he said simply. “Be careful.”

The old man looked at him.

“You know,” Arkov told him, “he’d kill all of us if he could. Only you being here stops him.”

Skyralenko bowed his head; the man was speaking no more than the truth.

Arkov opened the door and was about to leave when, acting on a sudden impulse, Skyralenko pulled him back inside the office.

“No, Dimitri, I must go,” the prisoner began.

Skyralenko pushed him farther back into the room. When he had got him as far away from the door as possible, he held up his hand in warning.

“Listen!” he hissed. “How long have you been in here now?”

“Just under three weeks,” Arkov told him. “Why?”

“Sshh! That means,” the Director hesitated, mentally calculating the days before the man completed his sentence, “you still have another eight days to do. Just make sure you keep out of Janinski’s way until Sunday. Do you understand?”

“What?” Arkov wanted to know. “Is he being moved?

“I can’t say any more. I’ve said too much already. You’ll be safer then, that’s all.”

“We’ll see,” the old man said disbelievingly.

“Just don’t mention it to anyone else. Nobody at all.”

“If that’s what you want.”

“Promise me, Pyotr.”

Suddenly embarrassed by the prison director’s use of his familiar name, the old man pulled away.

“What good is a prisoner’s word to you?” he said bitterly.

Before he could stop himself, the words had left Skyralenko’s lips.

“After Sunday you shall be free.”

“Do not joke.”

“No! Listen to me,” confided the Prison Director. “That’s why we are cleaning out the cells. We have some big noise exiles staying for a few nights on the way north. They are to be billeted here, in the cells.”

“But what about us?” Arkov wanted to know.

The Prison Director hesitated, already regretting his indiscretion.

“You’re being set free on parole,” he said at last. “All of you have to report back here after they have moved on.”

“Ah! Free for a day,” Arkov said with a bitter smile. “That’s even worse.”

“Oh, Pyotr Ivanovich!” declared Skyralenko. “You shouldn’t be here.”

The old man smiled sadly at the Prison Director and shook his head.

“Where else should I be? You are a good man, Dimitri Borisovich, but your heart shall lead you into trouble, just like mine did.”

“We shall see,” Skyralenko replied and clasped his arm affectionately. Together the two men retraced their steps to the door.

“Good,” Skyralenko said loudly. “You had better return to your cell now.”

With a last nod of thanks, Prisoner Arkov left his office. Skyralenko let out a long drawn out sigh. He wondered why it was that doing what he knew to be the right thing was so often different from doing the wisest thing. Picking up his truncheon, he hung it back on the wall beside his kepi and walked out into the corridor. As he did so, there was a rattle of keys and the outer door of the prison house swung open. Janinski had returned.

“You were quick,” Skyralenko observed. “Did you get the bread as I ordered?”

“Yes Sir. I met the baker’s boy with a tray on his way to the general store and bought six loaves as you told me to,” he said, adding, “there’s no change, I’m afraid, Sir.”

“Very well. Distribute them as I ordered. One to each cell when the work is finished. Also one can of tea each. Make sure first they’ve done a thorough job, up and down. And don’t forget the stairs, and around the duty desk. Under the beds, everywhere.”

The warder saluted and made to go and then turned around to face him again.

“By the way, Sir,” he said, “I nearly forgot to report that Colonel Izorov is after you. Yelling blue murder, according to one of his men. He wants you in his office right away.”

“Did the man say what it was about?”

“Hard to say, Sir,” said Janinski impassively. “Probably wants a word about the shocking lack of discipline in here, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Cursing the warder under his under his breath, Skyralenko hurriedly retrieved his kepi from the office and quickly strode past the smirking warder out into the prison courtyard.

A small alleyway connected the prison house with the uchastok : the two buildings forming the longer sides of the alley, with the courtyard and a high wooden fence sealing either end. The fence was a tantalising link with the outside world over which small packets could be tossed and smuggled into the gaol. Over the years, a series of holes had appeared in the fence, bored at eye level either by relatives of the prisoners or the simply curious, allowing outsiders to watch the traffic between the two buildings whilst remaining invisible to those within the prison. The contraband, and the knowledge that someone they cared for could be watching over them, greatly bolstered the prisoners’ morale but the holes in the fence were a source of great distress and anxiety to Skyralenko. Guaranteed the anonymity by the barrier between them, certain citizens currently at liberty in the town were not above making personal and wounding comments at the top of their voices about him, his uniform and his prison, whenever he appeared in the alley. Consequently, he always hurried the short distance between the prison house and the rear entrance to the police headquarters. Skyralenko was dogged by the belief that one day, as he entered the alley, he would see the barrel of a pistol poke through the one of the holes. Given the temperament of some of his former prisoners and the treatment they received at the hands of his warders, this fear was not unreasonable. As if to confirm this, a ball of solidly packed snow now flew through the air and broke harmlessly on the lintel above the back door to the uchastok  just as the Prison Director was passing beneath.

With a gesture of equal parts fear and annoyance Skyralenko shrugged the snow from his shoulders and ducked quickly inside the police headquarters. His haste was well timed, for his assailant – the baker’s boy whom Janinski had forced, without payment, to part with six loaves and who could only expect a beating when he returned to his employer – was even now preparing another missile, this time using a piece of ice as a deadweight.

Chapter Six

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Wednesday 7th February 1
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Seated at the Charge desk, the police sergeant looked up as the Prison Director entered, and pointed meaningfully with the end of his pen towards the closed door of Colonel Izorov’s lair. Brushing the remainder of the snow from his tunic, Skyralenko approached the door, knocked deferentially and entered. Inside, the Colonel, Captain Steklov and His Excellency the Mayor Anatoli Pobednyev were standing around Colonel Izorov’s desk looking down at the large map of Berezovo that was spread out before them. Muttering his apologies, Skyralenko joined them.

“As I was saying,” drawled Captain Steklov, placing an elegant finger on the black square that represented the fire tower, “I shall have one sentry posted here at all times, who will alert my men as soon as the convoy is sighted.”

“How, exactly?” asked the Mayor.

“By firing a single rifle shot. Having received this signal, my troops will mount up and ride out to meet the convoy at this point here.”

His finger travelled quickly to a bend in the Highway about a verst to the south of the town.

“They will then escort the convoy into the town,” he went on, “turning into Alexander III Street and continuing until they reach the Town Hall. At that point I shall hand the prisoners over to the Colonel and then take their escort back with me to the barracks.”

“What about mounting patrols afterwards, while they are with us?” the Mayor wanted to know. “Especially along here,” he added, pointing to the pair of thin straggling parallel lines that described Jew Alley.

“As I understand it,” Steklov replied, “while they are within the boundaries of the town, the exiles are the responsibility of the Police.”

Colonel Izorov nodded confirmation.

“Naturally,” the Captain said with a ghost of a smile, “we shall give the Colonel every assistance, but I would hesitate before sending my men into the heart of the Quarter. For a start, the streets are too narrow and winding to use cavalry effectively and,” his smile widened, “my horses are rather particular about what they smell.”

“Captain Steklov is right,” agreed Colonel Izorov. “Leave me to look after the Jews and the Reds. As far as I know, it will be a complete surprise to all of them. By the time they have organised any trouble, these people will have gone.”

Turning to Skyralenko, he asked him to tell them what preparations had been made to accommodate the new arrivals.

Skyralenko coughed nervously, and smoothed down his moustache with a gesture much imitated by his prisoners.

“After the prisoners have arrived and have been accounted for, they will be brought to the prison and allocated their cells,” he announced. “Married prisoners with their families on the top floor, single unaccompanied men on the bottom floor. At this very moment, the building is being scrubbed down from top to bottom. Also the heating will be on full from today onwards, and will remain so for the length of their stay.”

“What about our own prisoners?” Colonel Izorov prompted him.

“Ah, yes. As we agreed, our own prisoners are to be released on the Sunday morning.”

Turning to the Mayor, he asked:

“Your Excellency, might I suggest that we do this during the church service, so as to attract as little attention in the town as possible?”

“Very well,” agreed the Mayor warmly. “A capital idea.”

“There is only one thing that I have yet to do and that is arrange their meals,” confessed the Prison Director. “I am afraid that the whole question of food presents a problem.”

“Why is that?” asked Colonel Izorov.

“Firstly there is the question of money. As they are state prisoners and not town prisoners, should I send the bill for the food to Tobolsk or Peterhof? Secondly, some of the food will have to be prepared in advance for when they arrive. Who will do that? Especially if only the four of us are meant to know about this business?”

The three men looked expectantly at Colonel Izorov.

“That’s a good point, Konstantin Illyich,” said Mayor Pobednyev. “And here’s another thing. With all the arrangements that are to be made for the civic reception, it is inevitable that very soon I shall have to inform the Town Council about this.”

“Impossible,” answered the Chief of Police brusquely.

“What do you have in mind, Colonel?” Captain Steklov baited him. “Hold the reception and only afterwards tell everybody why they came?”

“I see no alternative,” persisted the Mayor. “I must call an emergency meeting of the Council, in secret session. Otherwise there won’t be a reception at all.”

Gesturing them to be seated, Colonel Izorov began to roll up the map.

“Would that be such a bad thing?” he mused aloud.

“Konstantin Illyich!” exclaimed the Mayor, shaken by the prospect of his triumph being cancelled. “Besides the fact that we have already agreed to hold a reception, and I myself have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to make the necessary arrangements, it is our duty to the citizens of Berezovo to mark this historic occasion, however unsavoury it is. And we must impress upon these swine our undying loyalty to His Imperial Majesty the Tsar. Not have a reception? Pah!”

“It’s more than a matter of whether we hold the reception or not,” observed Skyralenko quietly. “There is also our legal responsibility concerning the freeing of the prisoners.”

“Temporary freeing,” Colonel Izorov corrected him.

“Yes, temporary freeing, of course,” said Skyralenko hastily. “But what happens if one of them commits a crime in the meantime? Would it not be better for the Town Council to at least be aware of this and give it their official approval?”

“What Skyralenko has said about his prisoners goes for everybody,” the young Captain joined in. “I have been puzzled about by what you, Colonel, intend to do if someone, anyone, actually commits a crime while they are here. You can’t put them in jail. You can’t spare the men to guard them. It occurs to me that your only alternative is to inform the Town Council and asked them to draw up a list of names of people prepared to become police auxiliaries for the duration.”

“My orders are quite definite,” said Colonel Izorov stubbornly. “This is a matter for total secrecy. No mention about swearing in special policemen; just that we have to keep our mouths shut as long as we can.”

“Your orders also said that forty sleighs were to be provided,” insisted Pobednyev. “Am I correct? But there’s no mention of who is meant to pay for them.”

“We have already discussed that,” said the Colonel.

“I know! And you said that the Town should cover the cost and I accepted that. But doesn’t that mean that at least Sergei Kuprin, as Revenue Officer, ought to know about this? After all, Leonid Kavelin already knows something’s up.”

“Where does Kavelin come into all this?” asked Captain Steklov.

Colonel Izorov, seeing his chance to return the Captain’s earlier fire, smiled.

“It’s quite simple if you think about it, Captain,” he explained. “Kavelin is a timber merchant, the sleighs are made of wood, and so on. Anyway, I wouldn’t be too concerned about Leonid Sergeivich Kavelin, if I were you. If the Mayor here chose to apply a little pressure, he would see the necessity of silence. He is not without certain unexplained patterns of behaviour of his own.”

The tacit threat of blackmail brought a pained expression to Mayor Pobednyev’s face.

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary, Colonel,” he murmured.

Colonel Izorov shrugged.

“Maybe, maybe not. However, I see that I am outnumbered, and Anatoli Mihailovich’s arguments are very persuasive,” he admitted. “The reception, the prisoners, the money… these are all things that the Council now should know about. But,” he added, “they will be informed on my terms. Is that acceptable to you?”

“That depends on the terms you have in mind, Colonel,” said Pobednyev guardedly.

“Firstly, that I shall tell them myself. Secondly, that the Council will meet in secret session to hear what I have to say. Thirdly, that they will sign a document to testify that they are in possession of highly secret information which they promise not to disclose or discuss with anyone else.”

The Mayor hesitated for a moment and then gave a cautious nod of agreement.

“These sound very reasonable conditions,” he agreed.

Inwardly, Pobednyev was relieved that the days of waiting were nearing an end. Mingled with his relief was a sense of surprise: he had not expected Kostya Izorov to capitulate so easily. Captain Steklov had assured him that it would take hard pounding to make him move his position an inch. Their only hope had been for them to work together, and launch a simultaneous attack on two different fronts. Yet barely had the battle begun than the Colonel had surrendered, and with some grace. It was typically contrary to their expectations.

Sitting beside him, Dimitri Skyralenko smiled contentedly, aware that the Mayor had that morning slung a noose, as yet still loose, around the Town Council’s collective neck. If anything went wrong with the arrangements, Colonel Izorov ran no risk of running short of people to blame.

“Good,” said Colonel Izorov as the conference began to break up. “Until I speak to the Council, I shall assume that only we four know what is happening next Sunday.”

“I’ve told my men that we are rehearsing for a surprise general inspection,” remarked Captain Steklov, walking over to where he had left his military greatcoat folded on a chair by the door. “They think the Provincial Governor is coming.”

Colonel Izorov nodded with approval and looked enquiringly at the other two men.

“I haven’t told anyone,” said Pobednyev quickly.

“Nor I,” said Skyralenko.

“And my spies amongst the exiles have not reported even the slightest ripple in the Quarter,” Colonel Izorov assured them. “So I think we still have the advantage, gentlemen. I will continue to monitor that situation but at the moment only we four know about the exiles’ arrival, and possibly a fifth, Leonid Kavelin.”

“And Dr. Tortsov, of course,” said Pobednyev.

The Colonel’s eyes narrowed in warning, but it was too late.

“What’s this?” demanded Captain Steklov. “Dr. Tortsov knows as well? How? Who told him?”

Pobednyev looked apologetically at the Chief of Police.

“There was a rumour that we were considering evacuating the town because of the typhoid epidemic in some of the outer villages,” explained Colonel Izorov smoothly. “The Doctor got to hear about it. Naturally, he was concerned. He went to the Mayor who, quite properly, referred him to me. I had to tell him the truth.”

The Captain glared at him.

“I don’t have to tell you, Colonel,” he said slowly, “that if I thought there was a risk of my men running into any organised opposition while performing their duties, I would not hesitate to order them to take the appropriate action.”

“Don’t worry,” Colonel Izorov promised him. “Tortsov won’t talk. He has enough on his mind as it is.”

“I’m relieved to hear it,” said Captain Steklov.

The Chief of Police’s assumption was entirely correct: the arrival of the convoy of exiles was indeed the last thing on Doctor Tortsov’s mind. So traumatised was he from the unexpected blow that had befallen him that morning that, rinsing his hands under the dispensary tap, the Doctor felt as if he had been struck by lightning. To have made a fool of himself in front of the Mayor and then Izorov had been bad enough, but to learn from young Anton that Modest Tolkach had manoeuvred himself into playing the part of Smirnov “the Bear” opposite Yeliena and had been boasting he would put horns on the Doctor’s head in front of the whole town was intolerable. And now this: to be told, to his face, that his wife had been so upset that she had been on the point of leaving him and had only been stopped by the persuasion of his own junior assistant. He would rather die than to experience further humiliations.

Dazed, he turned off the tap, forcing himself to think clearly. Who had suggested that Tolkach should play opposite Yeliena? Who? Of course… the Mayor! It was typical of a snake like Tolkach to have found a pander to do his dirty work for him.

He had been such a fool, he told himself. Yeliena had told him that she had not wanted to be in the play, but he had been too proud to listen. And now she was being pursued by Tolkach and he had been too busy, too blind, too stupid, to see it. All those nights spent sleeping in leaking yurts. How he had longed to return to their house in Ostermann Street. Now he hated it all: the house; the town; his wife; his whole damned life.

Blindly reaching up, he pulled down the small towel that hung from a nail above the sink and began to dry his hands, methodically rubbing each finger in turn until every drop of water had been removed.

All the nights he had been away from home…

He would kill Tolkach, he decided. He would kill him, with his bare hands. He would pin him down and squeeze his throat and listen as his heels drummed helplessly against the floor. He would keep squeezing as the bastard’s face changed colour and grew darker and his eyes bulged out of their sockets. He would squeeze until he heard his death rattle. He would murder Tolkach as surely as Madame Tolkacha had been murdered.

“Doctor, are you all right?” said the figure in the doorway.

Dimly hearing the voice above the roaring in his ears, Dr. Tortsov nodded automatically in response, wondering as he fought back his tears why God was being so cruel. Having already taken his son from him, would He now take his wife and deliver her into the hands of a monster like Tolkach, and as a consequence drive his servant to the gallows? Was that how the greatness of God was measured: by His cruelty? He knew how much the loss of little Sasha had meant to her. He recognised how sad and empty she must feel without the consolation of children. Why hadn’t he comforted her more? Let old wounds heal , he had told himself. The truth was that he had been too frightened, and too inadequate, to help her. He hadn’t that gift, not like Father Arkady. He had seen too much suffering; far, far too much. He had developed a shell, like a crab. He had never found the words, or the time, to comfort and cherish her. Now it was too late. Suddenly, just like that. Too late!

Momentarily stricken by grief and stress he bowed his head and felt the heat of his tears as they began trickling in hot runnels down his cheek. His body’s response surprised him. When was the last time he had cried? At hearing the news of his father’s death? He had not cried for his mother, and not even for little Sasha.

Yes , he told himself, I have lost Yeliena, but not suddenly .

Despite what they told each other he had always known that the difference in their ages would matter. And how long had Tolkach been waging his campaign of seduction? Whatever his opinion of the Hospital Director, he was no Tartar. He didn’t just ride in and grab a woman; he would wait and plot and scheme. It was probable that this situation had not arisen with the play at all but long before. If Yeliena had not somehow attracted Tolkach’s attention, if Tolkach’s persistence had been wholly unwelcome to her, then surely she would never have considered leaving their home? Surely she would have come to him and said, “Vasili, you must do something about this.”  But she hadn’t. Prompted by the last shreds of loyalty and decency in her, she had chosen to run away. Had she tried to escape from the inevitable because she knew that, if she stayed, she might succumb? All that time and she had said nothing to him. Nothing!


Dr. Tortsov opened his eyes and attempted a reassuring smile. The towel had become a tightly twisted coil in his hands. Unravelling it, he slowly rubbed it against his face, hiding his grief from Chevanin’s gaze.

If only he could stop crying…

“I’m all right, Anton,” he said through his tears. “What you’ve told me… it’s been a shock, that’s all.”

He pressed the towel more firmly to his face and let out a shuddering sigh. His household had become the subject of scandal and speculation. The whole town knew that his wife was being stolen from behind his back like a lump of meat. Chevanin had told him that he had even heard the affaire  being openly discussed in the waiting room.

Wiping his eyes, he placed the towel neatly beside the small hand basin and turned to face his assistant standing in the dispensary’s doorway. He walked over to Chevanin and put his hands on the young man’s shoulders.

“Look at me, Anton.”

Too embarrassed, the Doctor assumed, to witness his grief, his assistant refused to meet his gaze.

Dr. Tortsov shook him gently.

“Look at me,” he demanded softly.

Chevanin’s blue eyes, troubled and full of pain, found his.

“You’re a good boy, Anton Ivanovich. A good boy, for telling me this. It was a kindness, you see; no matter how much it has wounded me.”

“Doctor…” Chevanin began in a faltering voice, but the Doctor hushed him.

“Ssh! You know,” he continued, “I think of you almost as my son. If Sasha had lived, I would have wanted him to grow up to be a man much like you. Instead…”

He sighed and shook his head as he felt the words begin to slip away from him.

“And I am lucky to have you as my helper and as, I hope, my friend,” he finished haltingly.

He watched as, red faced and too full of his own emotions to speak, the young man swallowed and nodded.

“Good. Then as a friend, you will do this for me? You won’t tell anyone what you have just told me? Nobody, especially not Yeliena.”

Chevanin nodded again.

“Do you promise me that?” insisted Dr. Tortsov.

“I promise,” whispered Chevanin.

Drawing his young assistant towards him, Dr. Tortsov embraced him and planted a paternal kiss on both of his cheeks. Then, stepping back, he reached for his outer coat.

“What are you going to do?” asked Chevanin as he helped him on with his coat.

“I’m going to speak to Tolkach.”

“No! You mustn’t!” said Chevanin hurriedly.

“Don’t worry. I won’t do anything rash. A moment ago, I wanted to kill him,” he confided grimly. “I would have too if he had been here. But now, I will just tell him that I know what he is up to and warn him to keep away from Yeliena.”

“But what about your play?”

The doctor looked at him blankly.

“Oh, that? Well… I will just have to find someone else for her part.”

“But don’t you see? That won’t stop people talking,” argued Chevanin, stepping between the Doctor and the doorway to the empty waiting room. “On the contrary, it will only confirm the rumours. Yeliena Mihailovna has done nothing wrong. She shouldn’t be blamed. She dislikes Tolkach as much as you do.”

“Surely you aren’t suggesting that I let him play opposite her?”

“No, of course not! But if you start looking for a substitute female, people will start thinking that you don’t trust your wife. She’ll be no better thought of than Irena Kuibysheva, only she won’t have Kuibyshev’s money to protect her.”

The Doctor paused and then motioned Chevanin to follow him through to the consulting room. He could not understand his assistant’s thinking but one thing was clear. He had two problems to deal with: the first was Tolkach; the second Yeliena. Taking a tin of cigarettes from his desk drawer, he offered one to Chevanin.

“What do you suggest I should do?” he asked. “I can’t just ignore this.”

“Of course not!” repeated Chevanin. “But you must realise that Tolkach has gained some powerful friends. What’s more, he is a coward. If you go to him now and tell him to keep away from Yeliena Mihailovna and that he should resign his role as The Bear Smirnov, then he might very well do the first – almost certainly I would say – but there’s a good chance that, just to spite you, he won’t do the second. He has the Mayor’s backing, and he’ll know that the last thing you will want is to give fuel to gossips. So all he has to do is sit tight. And if you refuse to direct him, everyone will know why.”

“And if I don’t refuse?”

“Then it will look as if you approve of his behaviour and you won’t be able to keep him away from Yeliena.”

The Doctor drew deeply on his cigarette.

The horns of the dilemma , he thought, and the horns of the cuckold. 

“So what should I do?” he asked aloud.

Chevanin took a deep breath.

“A moment ago you paid me the greatest honour of calling me your friend,” he said. “Well, I have an idea, but I don’t know whether it will work.”

“Let’s hear it, anyway.”

“I spoke to Yevgeni Svortsov yesterday. I was buying some meat for my supper and the subject of the play came up. He’s beginning to have second thoughts. He really doesn’t want to take part in the second play.”


“Don’t you see?” explained Chevanin patiently. “If you let him off the hook, say because of ill health, you can offer the part of ‘Tolkachov’ to Modest Tolkach.”

“To Tolkach?”

“Yes! You tell him that, as Hospital Administrator, the role of Smirnov is beneath him. That you consider his talents would be wasted on such a small part and that you want him for the part of ‘Tolkachov’, the main character in the second play.”

“But there is nothing wrong with Svortsov,” Dr. Tortsov protested. “He’s as strong as an ox.”

“Yes,” agreed Chevanin,” and with just the same amount of talent for acting.”

Dr. Tortsov frowned as he thought through his assistant’s proposal.

“What if Tolkach refuses to change parts?”

“In that case,” replied Chevanin with a grin, “he would have to explain to you why he is refusing the better role. And why it is so important to him that he plays the ‘Bear’. You see, he has no choice. Either he does as you say, or he reveals himself as an adulterer who is trying to compromise another man’s wife.”

Dr. Tortsov rolled his eyes in disbelief.

“But he will already know,” he objected, “that I know about that after I have confronted him.”

“Then don’t confront him!” cried Chevanin. “That way, he will not be sure whether you know about his intentions or not. There is plenty of time after the play to settle accounts with him; all the time in the world. And don’t forget, you aren’t alone. Many other people want to see him get his come-uppance.”

The Doctor hesitated.

“You mean,” he said slowly, “that I am to say nothing  about this appalling situation?”

“Absolutely nothing,” Chevanin insisted. “Be a complete innocent. It’s the only way with someone as wicked as him. You must outmanoeuvre him.”

The notion seemed fantastic. To fight guilt with innocence and by doing so, defeat it. Was it possible? It certainly wasn’t honourable. Yet, much to the Doctor’s surprise, the more he thought about Chevanin’s unconventional suggestion, the more it appealed to him.

“I like your idea,” he said at last. “I like it very much. But who shall we get to play ‘Smirnov’?”

Chevanin blew out a long column of smoke.

“That’s simple,” he said coolly, “I’ll play ‘The Bear’. I’d be quite happy to.”

For the first time Dr. Tortsov smiled and shook his head.

“You? You are far too young, Anton Ivanovich. It’s a part for a much older man.”

“With a bit of stage make up, and some padding, I could do it,” Chevanin countered. “That way, at least you would know that Yeliena Mihailovna would feel safe with me acting opposite her. And it would give me the greatest pleasure of helping you frustrate Modest Tolkach’s plans.”

“I’m not sure,” the Doctor said doubtfully. “It’s a big part. When would you have time to learn all those lines?”

“We can rehearse them every day here in the surgery,” Chevanin reassured him with a smile, “until you are satisfied I am word perfect. And I can come to your house when you want to rehearse the pair of us together. Trust me, Vasili Semionovich, as a friend and colleague, this is the best way.”

Dr. Tortsov regarded him thoughtfully. Chevanin’s plan was feasible and had the merit of being preferable to murder. It would temporarily address one of his two problems and act as an effective prophylaxis against Tolkach’s ambitions. If there were to be changes to the cast it was better that they should be made at this point rather than later. As it was, they had less than ten days to rehearse. He was glad now that he had had the foresight to insist upon directing two short one-act plays rather than one longer play, knowing that if one was not ready it could be cancelled at the last moment. Chevanin had also been right to point out that there would be time after the plays were over to settle his score with the lecherous Hospital Administrator. What they were planning was only a strategy for prevention, not cure, but it was a start.

As for Yeliena, he thought with a sigh, he would have to speak to her, when he had found the words.

“Very well,” he said with a small nod of assent. “Agreed.”

Chapter Seven

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Thursday 8th February 1907

Great Tobolsk Highway

Ever since dawn the drivers had kept their eyes on the threatening sky. There was going to be the mother of all blows, they warned the sergeant. It was advisable to stay where they were and not be caught on the open road. But the sergeant had insisted the convoy should press on; they must keep to the schedule. Grim faced, they had whipped their ponies trying to make for the next small settlement. The attempt was folly, and they knew it. After less than two hours the blizzard had overtaken them with a ferocity that had shaken many of the Deputies and their guards.

Sitting in his customary position in the leading sleigh, Trotsky had felt overawed by the immensity of the storm’s power.

This is no flurry of snow along a city boulevard , he told himself. This is the mighty force that stops regiments in their tracks and destroys invading armies. 

What impressed him most, even more than the noise of the storm, which was considerable, was how uniformly white and featureless everything had become. There literally was no horizon; no landmark, far or near, that his eyes could take as a point of reference. They were driving through a blank space. Deafened by the howling wind that buffeted the sleigh, he wondered whether the driver knew where he was leading them and was astonished to realise how little it mattered to him. In the face of such elemental power, he had conceded, one direction was as good as another. They were, as the saying went, in the lap of the Gods and, he sensed, under their protection. He was not surprised therefore when the driver, either acting on instinct or foreknowledge, suddenly steered his team violently to the left and he saw the indistinct outline of two buildings appear out of the gloom.

The bad weather had forced the convoy of sleighs to leave the road and take shelter in an uninhabited izba . At the next settlement there would be hot food waiting for them and warmth and safety but that could be two versts away, or two hundred versts for all it mattered. It did not do to dwell on it. The weather had beaten them and further progress was impossible while the blizzard raged.

The prisoners had been allocated the upper floor of the izba , the area furthest from the single ground floor entrance. Shutting his eyes, Trotsky settled himself against the attic’s icy walls and wrapped his travelling rug tighter around him. The stale matted straw on the floor and the soiled rafters told him that chickens had once been kept there; to keep them safe, he presumed, from thieving foxes and passersby. Around him the other prisoners lay huddled together for warmth, the children lying sandwiched between their parents covered by mounds of whatever clothing they had been able to grab in the scramble to disembark from the sleighs. Below them the escort could be heard talking amongst themselves as they broke up pieces of wood and tried to get a fire going in the rough hearth. Every now and again the outer door would be flung open as another driver blundered in, having stabled his ponies in the adjoining gornitsa  to be greeted by a chorus of oaths. Each time the door would be hurriedly closed, cutting off the wind howl.

Lying next to him, Sverchkov moved his feet spasmodically, kicking Trotsky in the shin and then grunting an apology. Trotsky nodded into the darkness and sighed.

Another few hours of this,  he told himself, and we will surely die .

Opening his eyes again, he watched as Dr. Feit moved from group to group. His vision became blurred and he realised, quite dispassionately, that these were tears; he was literally crying from the effects of cold. Beside him he felt Sverchkov’s body, pressed close to his for warmth, begin to shiver. At some point in the last twenty-four hours his former cellmate had caught a chill which was threatening to develop into something more serious.

Sitting up, Trotsky removed the travelling

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rug and placed it across both their bodies. In a way, he welcomed the problem of Sverchkov’s health; the concern he felt for his comrade’s welfare helped take his mind off his own discomfort. Seeing Dr. Feit draw nearer to where they lay and fearing that he was going to pass them by, Trotsky beckoned him over. Stiffly the Doctor knelt down by his side in the manner of a priest hearing a dying man’s confession.

“Get us out of here,” Trotsky whispered hoarsely. “Dimitri is sick. A few more hours up here and he’s done for.”

Leaning across him, the Doctor placed his palm on Sverchkov’s brow and frowned.

“I’ll do what I can,” he promised.

“Try!” Trotsky urged him. “It’s colder here than it is outside.”

Smiling wearily, the Doctor stood up again.

“That’s just an illusion, Lev Davidovich.”

“Even illusions can be dangerous.”

“I’ll do what I can,” the Doctor repeated.

As he began to move away, Trotsky called out after him.

“Don’t speak to the corporal. Go straight to the sergeant.”

The Doctor ignored him, already kneeling down beside the next pair of prisoners huddled nearby. Immediately Trotsky felt ashamed of his outburst.

My advice was redundant,  he thought, Dr. Feit has already proved himself too good a negotiator to make such a mistake, whereas I look as if I am in danger of losing my grip. 

The Faction had grown. It now numbered around fourteen guards: all young and all recruited since the war in the East. They had not seen action and were all native Siberians. Although the majority still kept aloof from the quarrel, more and more often the sergeant’s orders were being questioned by the corporal who made no secret of his opinion that the sergeant was being too lenient, too deferential towards “these red swine”. As the conditions on the road had worsened, there had even been ominous talk of “shortening the journey”.

It’s all because they don’t have an officer commanding them , he reasoned as he burrowed deeper beneath the travelling rug. They are afraid of the responsibility; of what would happen if someone did try to escape. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to think. 

So far, besides the curses and a little rough handling, the prisoners had not yet suffered at the Faction’s hands. Its aggression was reserved for the bands of supporters, bearing cakes and small comforting gifts, that gathered to greet them at every stop they made. Even this far north the underground telegraph was still working its magic. At the start of their journey the welcoming committees had consisted only of the exiles based in the clusters of houses that formed the communities at which they had stopped. But now people were coming in groups from the outlying areas, even travelling several days to ensure that they caught sight of the Soviet’s deputies on their way north. As their numbers had increased, so had the Faction’s aggression. It seemed only a matter of time before the corporal’s gang of thugs fell upon the prisoners and their families.

They don’t even know how to think , reflected Trotsky morosely.

Hearing movement, he opened his eyes. Some of the families were rising from where they lay and beginning to gather together their belongings. It appeared that the Doctor had won: the sergeant was allowing them to descend to the warmer rooms below.

Turning over, he shook Sverchkov’s shoulder gently.

“Come on, we’re going downstairs.”

Sverchkov groaned. Throwing aside the travelling rug, Trotsky stood up.

“Come on, Dimitri, get up!” he urged him. “There’s a fire downstairs where we can get warm.”

Too weak to speak, Sverchkov nodded pathetically and, with Trotsky’s help, got unsteadily to his feet. He stood swaying as his friend draped the rug across his shoulders.

“You look all in,” Trotsky told him.

Taking Sverchkov by the arm he led him to the queue that was forming at the top of the ladder.

The ground floor of the izba  consisted of two rooms, one of which was now reserved for the exiled deputies and their families. After he had found room for Sverchkov by the small fire that had been lit in the middle of the earthen floor, Trotsky went in search of the Doctor. He found him in conversation with the sergeant and one of the drivers. Seeing him approach, Dr. Feit extended a hand and drew him into the group.

“Listen to this, Lev Davidovich. We believe that the next village is less than five versts away yet we may be stuck here for days!”

“Is there any food?” asked Trotsky.

The sergeant shook his head.

“Only oats for the horses.”

“If the worst comes to the worst,” suggested the driver, “we can always make them into a gruel. But it won’t come to that.”

“You don’t think so?” asked the Doctor.

“No. Just you wait and see,” the man told them confidently. “This will blow itself out in another hour or so. In the meantime we can boil up a pan of tea and there’s plenty of vodka to go round.”

Turning his head, the sergeant looked at the group of soldiers in the far corner of the room, laughing with the corporal as they passed a grimy bottle between them.

“No vodka,” he muttered. “Just tea.”

“Does that go for everyone?” asked the Doctor.

“Everyone,” replied the sergeant, adding quietly, “don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”

Reaching into the pocket of his overcoat, Trotsky pulled out a packet of cigarettes that had been presented to him by one of the exiles at the village where they had spent the previous night. Opening it, he offered it to the sergeant. The sergeant took a cigarette and nodded his thanks. The Doctor and the driver, both pipe smokers, declined. Selecting a cigarette for himself Trotsky waited while the sergeant struck a match and lit it for him, and began to relax.

It’s going to be all right , he thought.

The prospect of spending even an hour in the company of the corporal and his armed thugs, grown belligerent through the dangerous mix of boredom, close confinement and alcohol, had worried him. He did not envy the sergeant the task of disarming his men of their flasks.

Turning to Dr. Feit, he asked if there was anything he could do.

“Keep them quiet if you can,” he replied, jerking a thumb towards the room where the noise of the other prisoners had begun to rise. “I’m going to boil some water for tea. When it’s ready I’ll bring it through.”

“Tell them that if anyone wants to relieve themselves they must first come to me,” the sergeant told Trotsky. “One of my men will take them round to the gornitsa . I don’t want anyone wandering off, understand?”

“Understood,” replied Trotsky with a wry smile. “We don’t want to lose anyone, do we?”

The sergeant laughed and then frowned.

“Perish the thought,” he said.

Returning to the smaller of the two rooms Trotsky relayed the Doctor’s message. Squatting down beside Sverchkov, he felt his comrade’s brow. The skin felt hot and clammy to his touch. The fever had his friend in its grip; there was little he could do to help him.

A little boy began tugging at his coat sleeve. Concerned about Sverchkov, he ignored the child. The tugging became more insistent. Pulling his arm away irritably, Trotsky asked the child what he wanted.

“Is he going to die, Lev Davidovich?”

“Of course not. He’s just sick, that is all.”

Another child, a girl, joined them.

“Tell us a story, Lev Davidovich.”

“Not now.”

“Go on,” urged the boy. “Just one.”

“No. Lie down by the fire and try and get some sleep,” he suggested.

“We’re not tired,” declared the girl rebelliously.

He recognised her now as the boy’s sister. A few years older than her brother, she bore the look of determination that would brook no argument.

“I bet you don’t know any stories, that’s why,” she said accusingly. “Some writer!”

“Of course I know stories!” retorted Trotsky. “Plenty of them. Stories that would make your scalp turn to ice.”

“My scalp has already turned to ice, I’m so cold!” grumbled the boy.

“Then lie down by the fire.”

“Tell us a story first,” repeated the girl.

Clambering off his mother’s lap, another little boy ran to join them.

“We want a story!” he whined. “Why won’t you give us one?”

Trotsky let out a sigh of exasperation.

“Just sit down and wait. The Doctor will bring you some tea in a minute.”

But the girl, aware of her status of ringleader, was not to be fobbed off with promises of tea. Pushing the smaller children to one side, she planted herself in front of Trotsky.

“Look!” she said sternly. “You have plenty of stories, right?”


“And we don’t have any, right?”

“I suppose not.”

“Then it’s unfair of you to keep all the stories to yourself, isn’t it? After all, what benefit do you get from them? You ought to share them out! Give them to people who don’t have any.”

Some of the parents who had been listening to the exchange laughed. Undeterred, the girl stuck to her guns.

“Well, am I right or am I wrong?” she demanded.

Bewildered, Trotsky shook his head.

“I surrender, Professor. Your logic is faultless.”

“Then you will tell us a story?”

“Yes, yes. What would you like?”

“Something with wolves in it,” the first boy piped up eagerly.

“No, wolves are silly,” said the little girl, pinching her brother’s arm.

With a howl of pain, the boy ran away and hid behind Trotsky’s coat.

“Tell us a true story,” the girl demanded.

“Wolves are better,” came the muffled protest.

Seeing that it was time to restore order, Trotsky drew the little boy out from behind him and, sitting down on the floor, placed him on his knee.

“Now, now,” he chided them. “Quiet, both of you, otherwise there will be no story at all. The Professor here is quite right. True stories are the best. And maybe,” he added quickly, “I can remember one with a wolf in it.”

Satisfied, the girl sat down beside him and slipped her hand into his.

“Have you been a prisoner before?” she wanted to know.

“Oh yes, a long time ago.”

“Did you escape?”

“Of course.”

“Tell us about that , then.”

Trotsky smiled regretfully.

“I’m afraid I can’t. You see, I promised some people I wouldn’t. But I can tell you how I got caught. That’s quite a story. Will that do?”

“Maybe,” she replied, doubtfully.

The little boy wriggled on his lap to get more comfortable.

“Well then,” Trotsky began. “As I say, it all happened a long time ago. At the time, I was living at a place called Nikolayev, far to the south of here.”

“Was it warm there?” the boy asked dreamily.

His sister shushed him. The room had fallen quiet; the exiles that remained awake were listening to his tale.

“Yes, it was warm, in the summer anyway,” Trotsky recalled. “I and a few other students had decided to organise ourselves and form a Union. We had our own newspaper, which we printed on a secret press, and circulated throughout the area. To begin with, there were only a handful of us; maybe five or six, no more. We used to meet at the hut of an old gardener called Shvigorsky. He was a fine old man. You would have liked him.”

The little boy nodded thoughtfully.

“Soon,” Trotsky continued, “we became famous amongst the workers in factories of the town, and beyond. Hundreds of them wanted to join the Union, even from as far away as Odessa. But we were very careful because it was a secret organisation and we didn’t want the police to know our names. Every day, thousands of workers would read our newspaper and wonder who we were. Even the Okhrana, when they got to hear about us, refused to believe that this mighty organisation was led by just a few students in a gardener’s hut. But they watched us all the same. For the longest time they watched us and sent in their spies but still they could prove nothing against us. We were that careful.”

“So how did  you get caught?” asked the girl, with a puzzled frown.

“It was like this. It was getting near winter and lately the police had been asking far too many questions about us for our liking. So we, that is the leaders of the Union, decided that it was time to lie low for a while and to leave Nikolayev for a few weeks, to put them off our scent. It was all planned. I would go to one place, the rest of the students would go to other places.”

“What about poor old Shvigorsky?” asked one of the Deputies.

“Oh, he was all right,” Trotsky assured her. “A wealthy landowner called Sokanin had given him a job on his estate for the winter.”

“But what about your paper?” asked another Deputy.

“I’m coming to that. Of course the paper still continued to be distributed by our comrades but before we could leave, there were a hundred and one details that had to be taken care of so that things could run smoothly in our absence. Among them was securing the lines of distribution for our newspaper. What we used to do was print it, wrap it in bundles and take them to a series of special places where they would be hidden. Then someone else would collect them and smuggle them into the factories for the workers to read. It ran like clockwork.

“Then, one day, just before I was about to leave Nikolayev, one of our pick-up men, a carpenter called Nesterenko, insisted that he had to meet me at the hiding place in person.”

Trotsky acknowledged the muttered chorus of disapproval that arose from the older members of his audience with a rueful grin.

“I was so green,” he admitted, “I never suspected a thing. Off I went with my bundle of papers, the ink still wet on some of them.”

Trotsky paused and looked down at the rapt faces of the children sitting beside him.

“The meeting place was a cemetery, at midnight,” he continued. “I remember the moon was full and everywhere there was a perfect stillness over the deep snow. Beyond the cemetery wall the fields spread out like a frozen desert in the moonlight. Well, there I was, with the papers stuffed under my coat and there was Nesterenko, bang on time. Just as I was handing him the bundle, a figure detached itself from the cemetery wall and began stealing towards us, like a wolf.”

“Was it the O.?” breathed the girl.

He nodded solemnly.

“Yes. One of their policemen had been standing so still that, in the moonlight, I had mistaken him for one of the fence posts.”

“What did he do?” asked the boy fearfully.

“Nothing. He just walked past us without saying a word. But, as he passed Nesterenko, the policeman nudged him with his elbow. ‘Who was that?’ I asked Nesterenko. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied, as smooth as you like. At the time I didn’t suspect anything, but later I realised that he had just betrayed us.”

“What happened next?” asked the girl.

“Well, as I said, we – the union leaders – stayed away for a few weeks. But when we returned to Nikolayev, the Okhrana were waiting for us. On the 28th of January 1898 we were all arrested, along with over two hundred of our members. But still they couldn’t charge us.”

“Why not?” asked one of the Deputies.

“Because they couldn’t prove anything more than guilt by association. As soon as the arrests began, the press was dismantled and all the papers in the office burned. I was in jail for the best part of a year before they came up with any evidence against us.”

“Where were you?” asked the Deputy.

Trotsky saw the girl scowl at this interruption.

“First in Nikolayev, then two and a half months’ solitary at Kherson. That was the worst. Then Odessa and, after that, the Butyrsky transfer prison.”

“Butyrsky?” cried one of the deputies. “I know it. Awful place.”

“It was a palace compared to Kherson,” Trotsky told him gravely.

Beside him, the little girl was growing impatient. Tapping at his hand, she demanded a proper end to his story.

“What happened after they caught you?”

“After they put me in prison,” he said, resuming his tale, “they still had to find proof that I was writing the newspaper. It took them months, and it was under their noses all the time.”

“Where was it?”

“Remember I told you about the old man, Shvigorsky? The one who had got a job for the winter on the barine ’s estate? Well, after I had returned from my holiday, I didn’t go straight back to Nikolayev but instead I went to visit him at the place where he worked. With me I took a large brief case filled with manuscripts, drawings, letters and all sorts of stuff that the police said was illegal. It was meant to go in the next issue of the newspaper. I arrived late in the afternoon, when Shvigorsky’s boss was not around. The plan was that I would spend the night there and then go on to the newspaper office in Nikolayev the next morning. That night, Shvigorsky didn’t want the papers in the house overnight so I let him take the briefcase and bury it in a hole in the cabbage field near his hut. That was the night of the twenty seventh. At dawn the next morning, the O. pounced on us both, like hungry wolves.”

“Did they find it?”

“Nearly. Old Shvigorsky had just dug it up again and was bringing it to me when they rode up. Quick as a flash, he stuffs it down behind the water-barrel that stood by the door. The next minute, he’s hauled into the house and told at gunpoint to stand next to me while they search the place.”

Several of the Soviet deputies murmured their approval at the old gardener’s quick thinking. Wriggling with excitement, the boy urged Trotsky to continue the story.

“They looked in the roof, they looked in the cupboards, they even began digging up the floor. Nothing. All the time, their captain was growing angrier and angrier. At last, they gave up and sat down to wait, just in case anyone else in the Union turned up. When lunchtime came, they made the old woman who looked after the place cook them some food and bring them something to drink. Seeing as there were so many of them, Shvigorsky volunteered to help in the kitchen and, while he was alone, he whispered to the old woman where the briefcase was and that she should get rid of it as soon as possible. So, while we were all having our lunch and the secret police were getting tipsy, she popped out, grabbed the incriminating papers and buried them in the snow.”

Sensing someone standing behind him, Trotsky stopped and looked round. It was Dr. Feit. Accepting a tin mug of hot tea, he took a sip and went on with his story.

“After that, we were taken away. But, before we left, the Okhrana captain threatened that he would return. That’s why I suppose the old woman didn’t dare dig the case up again and try and burn it. What was already buried seemed best forgotten about.”

“So they never found the papers?” one of the wives asked.

“Later they did. Much later. While I was rotting in prison, the seasons were changing. In the spring the snows melted, revealing the brief case. Tall green grass grew, hiding it again. Then comes summer. A workman on the estate is told to cut the grass down. He takes his two boys with him. While he works, they are playing in the long grass. They find the briefcase and take it to him. ‘What is this, Dad? Is it valuable?’ The workman can’t read and, reckoning that it probably belongs to his master anyhow, he hands it in. The trouble is, the landowner Sokonin can  read. Terrified at what has landed in his lap, he rushes off to Nikolayev and hands it in at the police station. Nine months after arresting us, the O. finally gets its proof.”

Sitting back, Trotsky took another sip of his tea as his fellow prisoners broke into a babble of comment. Slipping from his knee, the boy regarded him seriously.

“There weren’t any wolves, were there?”

“No,” admitted Trotsky, “but the policeman in cemetery at midnight was very like a wolf.”


“Well, he had yellow eyes and walked silently in the snow,” Trotsky assured him.

Seemingly satisfied, the boy nodded his approval and ran back to his mother.

Still smiling, Trotsky sniffed the mug of tea that was warming his hands. Unless he was mistaken, a compromise had been reached in the other room. A strong taste of vodka was discernible, mixed in with the melted snow and the floating tea leaves.

“What happened next?” asked the little girl.

“What happened next?” he mused. “Well now, let me see. Nearly all of the Union members were let off with a caution. The leaders, that is Grigory, Ziv, Alexandra and myself, were sentenced to four years’ exile. And that was that.”

The girl remained by his side, holding his hand. The appearance of a woman in the story for the first time had reawakened her curiosity.

“Alexandra? Was she very beautiful?”

Trotsky thought for a while.

“Yes, very.”

“Were you sweethearts?”

“That’s enough now, Sophiya,” her mother called out from the other side of the room.

“No, I don’t mind,” Trotsky said slowly. “Yes, we were sweethearts. In fact, while we were in prison we got the warden to marry us because we wanted to spend our exile together.”

“It must have been a very romantic honeymoon, Lev Davidovich,” one of exiles remarked. “Why don’t you tell us about that?”

Gently shooing the girl away, Trotsky smiled at his comrade.

“I’m sure none of it would interest a man of your experience,” he said, “but all right. About six months after the trial, we were shipped off to our allotted places of exile. It was the first time that Alexandra and I had been together as actual man and wife.”

“Oh aye?”

“Well, as I say, we were shipped off and I mean literally shipped. All the prisoners were loaded onto rafts and floated down the River Lena. Every now and again, one of the rafts would put into the bank where a few prisoners would be taken off and left to fend for themselves. Only, the thing was, on our raft Alexandra and I found ourselves packed in with no less than one hundred and fifty Skaptsy…”

Trotsky paused. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the women grin broadly then cover her mouth and whisper to the woman beside her, who began to laugh. Then several of the men also began to chuckle. Looking expectantly at the Deputy, he realised that he had not understood the joke.

“Let me tell you,” he explained, “as keen as my appetite was to ‘get down to business’ and ‘celebrate’ our marriage, I did find it a little difficult in the company of a hundred and fifty shaven headed Christian eunuchs, forever chanting hosannas every hour of the day and night!”

There was more laughter.

“Needless to say,” he concluded modestly, “I persisted and at last matters reached a successful outcome.”

The laughter rose again and a few of the deputies clapped their hands in applause.

“At least he knew where she was at night,” someone called out.

“They say that a one eyed man is Tsar in the empire of the blind,” observed Dr. Feit jovially. “Well, in Lev Davidovich’s case…”

Trotsky smiled bashfully as someone began to slap his back in congratulation. One of the exiles who had been standing against the wall spat meaningfully on the hard earthen floor.

“Is that how you see yourself now, comrade?” he asked. “A Tsar among eunuchs?”

Trotsky looked up at him in surprise. Other men began quickly to get up from the floor as Dr. Feit stepped between the two men.

“Now, now!” he warned the Deputy. “Stop it. It was just a bit of fun, that’s all.”

Pushing Dr. Feit away, the man was still waiting for an answer. Certain that the Doctor would stop any violence before it started, Trotsky slowly got to his feet.

“No, Comrade,” he replied quietly. “But it is how I see the difference between me and you.”

The man charged, swinging a fist. One of the women screamed and the nearest Deputies scrambled out of the way. Ready for the attack Trotsky backed away, letting Dr. Feit catch the Deputy’s arm and pull it down to his side.

“Trotsky! Outside, now!” the Doctor shouted. “And you, Comrade, sit down where I can see you.”

With a nonchalance he did not feel, Trotsky shrugged and obediently left the room, walking through to where the soldiers were sitting, smoking their pipes around a small makeshift hearth.

“Any trouble in there?” enquired the sergeant.

Trotsky shook his head.

“No,” he lied, “I just came to ask if I could go out to the gornitsa .”

The sergeant kicked the boot of the soldier sitting next to him and ordered him to escort Trotsky outside. Trotsky noted with dismay that the sergeant had chosen one of the Faction to act as his escort. Grumbling loudly, the man picked his rifle off the floor and lumbered out after his prisoner.

Although the wind had abated, the snow was still falling heavily. Together, the two men trudged past the line of sleighs already covered by a deep layer of fine solid white crystals. Opening the door of the stable, the guard motioned Trotsky inside then ordered him to wait whilst he fumbled for a match. Seeing an old oil lamp lying on its side, Trotsky bent down and picked it up, noting as he did so how the guard’s rifle had not followed his movements.

So that is how it is , he thought. The mistakes are beginning already. 

Holding the lamp high for the soldier, he waited until it was lit before he walked deeper into the stable.

“Halt!” ordered the soldier. “That’s far enough. You can do it there.”

Setting down the lamp, Trotsky opened his coat and began unbuttoning the front of his trousers. Nearby, one of the ponies moved restlessly, disturbed by the presence of humans.

“What’s the matter now?” asked the soldier impatiently. “Can’t you find it?”

“In this weather?” Trotsky joked. “No, I’ve found it alright. It just won’t work.”

“Try whistling.”

“I can’t whistle.”

“Oh, one of those, eh?” sneered the guard. “Well then, in that case I’ll whistle for you. What would you like?”

Trotsky smiled to himself in the darkness.

“There’s one tune that always works. Never fails, in fact.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that, then?”

“‘God save the Tsar’. Whenever I hear that, I always piss myself laughing.”

“Is that right?” growled the guard.

Coming closer, he raised his rifle and, resting it on Trotsky’s shoulder, pressed its muzzle roughly against his cheek.

“How about I blow your fucking head off instead?” he whispered menacingly. “That way, we’ll get rid of all your shit as well.”

With his teeth bared in a rictus-like grin, his prisoner began to urinate against the stable wall.

“There you go!” encouraged the guard. “Soldier and peasant, working as one.”

Chapter Eight

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Thursday 8th February 1907

Great Tobolsk Highway

When they had returned to the izba  Trotsky, unwilling to return so soon to the scene of the recent confrontation, asked the sergeant’s permission to retrieve his notebook from the floor of the upper room.

Why do I always do this?  Trotsky asked himself as he climbed the ladder into the attic. It is always the same pattern. Driven by luck and my own opportunism, I find myself in an advantageous situation with people wanting to like me and depending on me for leadership. Then, inevitably, I make a mess of things and end up with nothing except a crowd of disappointed friends who have been hurt by my actions. Why is it, since I know the lesson so well, that I don’t learn from it? 

Sitting disconsolately on the musty matted straw on the floor he admitted to himself that it seemed, at that precise moment, that his life had been a catalogue of successive failures. First there was his own family: Momma, Poppa, Alexander and all the rest of them on the farm, where it had all started. Even as a child he had gone one step too far; carried a joke on for too long; had become overexcited and tiresome. How many people had that hurt? A half dozen perhaps, no more. Then there had been the Spentzers, where he had boarded during his stay at the Realschule… Yes, he could count them; after all, they were still “family”. There had been no need to steal the father’s books and sell them, yet he had done so. Then he had gone to another family, then onto Shvigorsky’s garden. The pattern repeated itself until finally he had become leader of the Union, only to be responsible for its collapse and the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of their supporters.

What came next? Ah yes , he thought sourly: my marriage. What a mess I made of that! A complete catastrophe. Poppa was against it from the start, and no wonder. A wife condemned to ten years’ exile with two children, one still a babe in arms and no financial support – was this a son’s achievement he could be proud of? And now I’ve left Natalya with Baby Lev. First tragedy and then farce. 

Again and again, he reflected, the cycle had repeated itself; the only difference was that as he had grown older, the damage he had inflicted had grown more grievous. The long climb to Iskra  and international recognition. What had that led to but his part i

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n the ruinous Second Congress, the whole Movement being riven from top to bottom into the “majority” and the “minority”? He felt sure that he could have stopped the split if he only had spoken up more effectively. Then Geneva, and after Geneva, the outbreak of the revolution in Petersburg, his taking over of the leadership of the Petersburg Soviet, leading inevitably to hundreds, possibly even thousands of arrests, and no one knew how many deaths and sentences of permanent exile? His final grandiloquent speech in court had nearly done for all of them. It was no wonder that some of the Deputies hated him.

He looked around the gloomy loft. From below he heard the sound of the soldiers’ voices rising in debate.

Are they talking about me? If the Faction took control of the escort guard, how many of the deputies would come to my assistance if I was attacked? 

He thought of his baby son. Was it possible that Lev would inherit his own character flaws? What a dreadful patrimony to pass on!

At least the boy has been given his mother’s family name. What sort of rootless childhood could I offer young Lev Sedov? He is better off being cared for by Natalya’s father. What example could I possibly set? I, who have never listened to my own father but have wilfully pursued my own desires, regardless of my parents’ distress and the consequence to others? If Baby Lev followed my example he would neither prosper nor find contentment. My daughters, Zina and Nina – they have been lucky to have Alexandra for a mother. And they are girls; sooner or later they will become someone else’s responsibility. But a son – that is different. With a boy one has to take more care. The strain of unreliability and my propensity for over-reaching and for calamitous folly – that should not be passed down the generations . If… when… I return to the world I will have to take up the more settled occupation of journalism; a trade that I can teach the boy… 

When he returned. If  he returned… Another thought came to him. Now that the Reaction had begun, the Revolution had become both too dangerous and too ephemeral…

The sudden sound of rising voices below made him start. Downstairs, people were shouting in alarm. Without thinking, he began walking towards the top of the ladder but a child’s startled scream amid the shouting made him stop.

The Faction!  he thought. The attack has begun. 

A fight had broken out in the room below. He stood for a moment, listening as the noises grew uglier and more frightening; uncertain as to what his next action should be. Then, cautiously, he edged towards the opening in the floor and looked down.

All was confusion. In one corner of the room, the corporal and a few of his cronies were punching and kicking somebody. A few of the Deputies were trying to pull them off; amongst these he spotted the Doctor, whose spectacles had been knocked off and hung comically from one ear. The Deputies’ efforts were being hampered by the sergeant and the other members of the guard, some of whom seemed undecided which side to take; first pushing the Deputies off then plucking ineffectively at the flailing arms of the troops, trying to stop their violence. The drivers of the sleighs were standing apart along the far wall, keeping their distance from the struggle. As he watched, he saw the sergeant step back from the melee and reach for his rifle. Instinctively, Trotsky ducked back and rolled away from the edge of the hole. A single shot rang out. Less than two feet away from where he lay a floorboard bucked and a fine shower of dust rained down from the roof above him. The sergeant had fired into the air. There were a few cries of alarm then a moment’s silence.

Not daring to breathe, Trotsky heard the sergeant order Dr. Feit back into the Deputies’ room and then tell the corporal to release his victim. The corporal started to argue, and stopped. There was a tense silence and the unmistakeable sound of another round being fed into the breech of what he fervently hoped was the sergeant’s rifle. The command was repeated. There was the sound of a scuffle, a body falling to the ground and then silence again. Very slowly, Trotsky raised his head and looked over the lip of the opening.

The sergeant and the corporal were standing in the middle of the room, facing each other. Between them on the floor was the Faction’s chosen victim. The sergeant’s rifle was pointing squarely at the corporal’s chest. With the slightest twitch of the muzzle, the sergeant motioned the other soldier to back away. White faced, the corporal obeyed. Still keeping his rifle trained on his opponent, the sergeant slowly knelt down on one knee and reached out to the old man lying at his feet. Grasping a handful of grey hair, he rose again, pulling his prisoner with him. As the man’s battered and bleeding face was slowly turned painfully upwards, Trotsky realised with surprise that he had never seen the old man before. Whoever he was, he wasn’t a member of the convoy.

Still holding the man by the hair, the sergeant told the other soldiers to sit down on the floor. They all obeyed, the corporal defiantly waiting until last. Swinging the muzzle of the rifle round, the sergeant dug it in the side of the man’s throat, at the same time letting go of his hair. In this fashion the stranger was propelled towards the wall furthest from the company.

“Passport!” snapped the sergeant.

Badly shaken by the mauling he had received, the old man was clumsy in his movements. It seemed an age before he could produce his tattered papers. Snatching them from him, the sergeant pressed him back against the wall and, holding the passport out at arms’ length, began to read aloud.

“Ziborov, Ivan Vasileyivich. Aged forty-six. Born: Pokrovokaya. Place of residence: Belogoryia. Occupation: farm machinist. Status:…”

He paused and bared his teeth in a savage grin.

“Status,” he repeated louder, “administrative exile!”

On the other side of the room, the corporal gave a short bark of laughter and nodded knowingly to his companions.

“Well well, Ivan Vasileyivich,” the sergeant told the intruder, “you’re in luck! We’ve got choice company for you.”

He prodded the man roughly with the rifle.

“What were you doing hiding in the stables?”

“I… I… was sheltering from the storm, your Excellency,” gasped the man. “I’ve been setting my traps in the woods. A little rabbit, you know? Then the weather closed in and I knew I would never make it home again, so…”

“And where is home?” interrupted the sergeant.

“Belogoryia,” replied the man hastily, pointing towards his passport. “It’s less than five versts from here. I thought that if I could just shelter here until the storm blows over, I…”

The man’s voice trailed away weakly.

“How long have you been here?”

“About four hours. I had just got settled in the straw when you arrived, your Excellency.”

“Why didn’t you declare yourself at once? Or were you spying on us? Because we hang spies, you know?”

“Oh no, your Excellency!” cried the man. “I swear I wasn’t spying! I was just too…”


The man nodded dumbly, his eyes fearful under his bloodied brow.

Sighing, the sergeant lowered his rifle, and tossed Ziborov back his passport. Trotsky saw the other soldiers on the opposite side of the room relax and start talking amongst themselves. The excitement was over. There would be no hanging.

Unsure what he should do next, the stranger remained where he was.

“Hey, Ivan Vasileyivich!” one of the soldiers called out to him. “What did you get? What was your sentence?”

The man shrugged and tucked his passport back inside his coat.

“Two and a half years for agrarian riot,” he said.

“Throw him back!” joked one of the drivers, jerking his thumb towards the door. “He’s not big enough for us!”

They all laughed, their new prisoner included.

“You’ll have to pay to talk to the ones in there,” warned a second driver, nodding towards the room where the Soviet Deputies sat.

The crisis past, Trotsky decided that it was time to go down. Cautiously, he grasped the top of the ladder and put his foot on the third rung.


Looking down, he saw that the sergeant had spun round and had raised his loaded rifle again. Only this time it was pointing straight at him.

“Come down slowly,” the sergeant ordered.

Carefully he obeyed.

As he emerged from the darkness, he heard one of the soldiers mutter:

“Christ, they’re coming out of the fucking woodwork now!”

“I had forgotten all about you,” the sergeant admitted when he had reached the ground. “You nearly got a bullet up the arse.”

Trotsky looked up at the spot where the sergeant’s warning shot had gone clean through the ceiling.

“I know,” he replied calmly.

“Take your father here through to your friends,” the sergeant ordered. “See if the Doctor can’t patch him up.”

Trotsky led the unfortunate Ziborov through to the next room. The other exiles greeted his own reappearance with silence. Then, seeing the injured man was with him, they quickly got to their feet and made a space for him. Leaving Ziborov with Dr. Feit, Trotsky went over to where Sverchkov lay sprawled near the fire. Kneeling down, beside him, he felt his comrade’s brow. It was warmer than before.

“Sverchkov has a fever,” he said aloud, to no one in particular.

Removing his own coat, he placed it under Sverchkov’s head.

“Here, Trotsky.”

Standing up, Trotsky turned slowly to find himself facing the Soviet Deputy who had challenged him.

“Get some water, will you? This comrade’s been cut.”

Nodding, Trotsky went back to the other room. It hadn’t been an apology – he hadn’t expected one – but at least the man was offering some sort of a truce. Returning with a mug of warmed water, he held it while the Deputy carefully bathed the man’s wrinkled face. Then the Doctor took over, examining his patient’s injuries with little grunts of satisfaction every now and again. It wasn’t too bad. No bones had been broken. A few cuts to the brow, cheeks and mouth: that had been the worst. Still shaken, Ziborov was given a cigarette and the remains of a cup of lukewarm vodka tea. A place was found for him by the fire.

When the newcomer had gathered his senses, the Doctor began to question him gently. Both men spoke in whispers, partly because it was difficult for Ziborov to speak at all and partly to prevent the guards from overhearing. The other exiles crowded round them, their ears straining to catch every word.

His name was Ziborov and he was based at Belogoryia: that much he had told the guards was true. A member of the local Menshivik exiles, like an idiot he had volunteered to walk out and meet the convoy. But then the blizzard had overtaken him and he had taken shelter in the barn where one of the guards had spotted him.

“We are sorry for your reception,” apologised one of the Deputies.

Ziborov waved his hand dismissively.

“Forget it! It was worth a little roughing up to get into the warm,” he replied. “I was freezing to death out there. Every moment I thought, ‘Shall I go in and show myself or shan’t I?’ You know how it is.”

“How far is Belogoryia?” asked Dr. Feit.

“Five versts from here. Maybe less. It’ll take you twenty minutes at the most, once this blow has stopped.”

The deputies looked at each other anxiously, each thinking the same thought. They were twenty minutes from safety. It seemed an eternity.

“Where are you being sent to?” asked Ziborov.

They told him.

“Obdorsk!” he said in surprise and would have whistled if his cut lips had let him. “That’s bad. None of us administrative ever get sent there. It’s only for you SPs.”

“SPs?” queried Trotsky.

Ssylno poselentsys ,” the newcomer explained. “Enforced exiles. Lifers.”

He looked curiously at the ring of faces surrounding him.

“Have any of you been this far north before?” he asked.

None of them had.

“That’s very bad,” he said gravely.

“What are the conditions like?” asked Dr. Feit. “Rates of allowances, work prospects, vegetation. We know nothing.”

Ziborov rubbed his bruised jaw gingerly.

“It all depends on where and who you are,” he replied. “In Tobolsk, for instance, ordinary admins like me get four roubles fifty copecks a month. Whereas up in Berezovo it’s four roubles eighty. But fellows like you only get four roubles twenty. Unless, of course, any of you are noblemen, or have a university education. Then it’s eleven roubles twenty-five a month.”

“What about a clothes allowance?” asked one of the wives. “And things for the children.”

“Twenty-five roubles for the winter,” Ziborov told her. “Paid every August. In May we get an extra month’s allowance for summer clothes. But…”

He hesitated apologetically.

“But what?” prompted the Doctor.

“You’re SPs. So there’s no allowance for you at all.”

On hearing this, a few of the Deputies began arguing amongst themselves. Signalling them to be silent, Dr. Feit urged Ziborov to continue.

“The land is different too, where you are going,” he went on. “This is taiga. Up there it’s tundra, all the way to the top of the world.”

“What’s the difference?” asked one of the Deputies’ wives.

“Every difference,” he told her. “On the taiga you get forests of pine, spruce, fir, larch and silver birch. Inside the forests there are swamps and places where animals can live. So there’s timber for the taking and plenty of hunting. Deer, ducks on the river, wild geese and so on. That’s not to mention the fishing from the Ob. What’s more, come April, all this snow disappears; right through to October most years. So you can grow short crops like potatoes and other foodstuffs. But once you get north of Berezovo, you enter the tundra. No forests, no hunting, nothing. Just bogs and snow, and more snow. And underneath the snow, the ground is permanently frozen. It’s harder than iron.”

“I’m sure something must grow there, Ivan Vasileyivich,” protested Dr. Feit.

“Oh sure!” the exile agreed cheerfully. “You won’t starve unless you have a mind to. Where there aren’t bogs you can grow a few crops, but only for about two months of the year. And there’s moss under the snow; that keeps the reindeer happy. Reindeer means that you have transport. And Obdorskoye is right on the Ob estuary, so there’s plenty of fishing through the ice. The others will show you how.”

“Others?” asked Trotsky. “What others?”

“The other SPs like you. There’s quite a colony up there. The government says that there are only about twelve thousand exiles in the whole country, but it’s really nearer sixty thousand. There are about two thousand in the Tobolsk region alone, and about a quarter of those are SPs.”

“Where, in particular?” asked Trotsky.

“All over the place,” said Ziborov vaguely, accepting another cigarette. “Scattered here and there. Besides in Tobolsk and Tiumen, there are groups at Tura, Sergut and Berezovo, and other places.”

“Once we get to Obdorskoye,” asked one of the married exiles, “what are the chances of any work that pays?”

Ziborov thought for a moment and shook his head.

“There’s plenty of work in the summer, when the fisheries are open. But until then, the estuary is frozen up. Normally in winter, you have to go to the nearest town. There are usually plenty of jobs for skilled workmen. But since you’re SPs, nobody will be too eager to employ you. Sorry, but that’s how it is.”

“And where’s the nearest town?” asked Dr. Feit slowly.

“Berezovo. But that’s nearly five hundred versts from where you will be.”

“What’s it like?”

“Berezovo? It’s all right. My brother lives there. He’s an ‘admin’ like me. It’s only four, five days’ travel from here, depending on the weather.”

“Is it easy for exiles to get about?” Trotsky asked him. “We know about the river boats, but what about on land?”

“Oh yes,” Ziborov assured him confidently, “as long as you have your passport and have got a good reason or written permission from someone. For instance, every autumn, around the end of September, each colony sends a representative to Tobolsk to purchase supplies for the winter. Matches, candles, pens; that sort of thing. Last year, some of the boys from Berezovo prepared a telegram for the Duma listing a whole load of demands. They sent it, too. Didn’t get them anywhere, though.”

“What sort of demands?” asked another Deputy.

“Mainly about allowances. You’ve got to realise, it’s less than easy to spin out the money up here. If you have to survive only on what the State allows you, it means a weekly diet of one twelfth of a pound of meat, half a pound of bread, one half stick of sugar and eight potatoes. That leaves you just about enough to rent a space on somebody’s workshop floor, unless you want to sleep with the Ostyaks.”

“And we have sixty copecks less than that!” exclaimed one of the deputies in disgust.

“What about the medical facilities?” asked Dr. Feit. “How many doctors are there?”

Ziborov laughed.

“Doctors?” he repeated incredulously. “There’s only the one. An old grouser called Tortsov. He lives in Berezovo. We only ever see him once a twelvemonth, and that’s if we are lucky. Still, you can’t blame him,” he added, “considering the size of his practice. Nearly as big as France, they reckon. There’s only one hospital too. That’s at Berezovo also.”

Dr. Feit was appalled.

“You’re not serious?” he said in shocked tones. “Just one man? From here to the Arctic Circle?”

“Well, there is another medical man,” Ziborov informed them, “but he is an exile so they won’t let him practise. They consider it a privilege which he has forfeited. So yes, just the one, and he covers the area south of here too. He’s a good fellow though, old Tortsov. Been here for years. Knows his business. Just as well really, considering the present epidemic.”

“What epidemic?”

It was Ziborov’s turn to look surprised.

“You mean you haven’t heard?”

Dr. Feit shook his head.

Glancing furtively at the women and children, Ziborov leant forward. Turning his face away from the others so that they could not read his lips, he silently mouthed the word “typhus”.

Trotsky watched the Doctor’s face blanch.

“Where?” he whispered back.

Ziborov shrugged and mouthed “everywhere”.

“How many dead so far?” asked Trotsky quietly.

Holding up one hand, Ziborov extended four fingers.

“That’s in Belogoryia alone and it’s only a small place,” he said. “It’s far worse up north. You’ll see that for yourself. If you’re going all the way to Obdorsk, you’ll be travelling through about the worst of it.”

“It is no wonder that we are travelling so fast,” mused Dr. Feit. “A minimum of fifty versts a day. They are trying to outrun the epidemic.”

The questions continued for another ten minutes, then the group broke up. Catching the Doctor’s eye, Trotsky beckoned him over to where Sverchkov lay. Squatting down beside him, the two men examined the feverish figure.

“You don’t think…?” Trotsky began fearfully.

“No!” the Doctor interrupted him. “It’s very unlikely. We’ve seen no sickness yet, whatever our friend might say. There is no way your friend could have come into contact with the infected population without the rest of us doing so as well.”

“Perhaps we have, and Sverchkov is just the first to fall sick?”

Dr. Feit stood up and ran a hand through his thinning hair.

“Granted he has the beginnings of a fever but he hasn’t reported headache, nausea, or diarrhoea, and there are no signs of rash.”

The two men looked steadily at each other.

“For God’s sake, Lev Davidovich,” Dr. Feit hissed, “don’t let’s have any of this talk. Can you imagine what they will do if they think we have become infected?”

Standing side by side they listened to the sound of rattling dice in the room next door and the occasional shouts of the drivers.

“They’ll cut us down like dogs,” muttered the Doctor, “men, women and children. We can’t risk that. Sverchkov’s got a bad chill, that’s all. And that’s official.”

Chapter Nine

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Thursday 9th February


Knowledge, reflected Dr. Tortsov as he ate his supper besides a silent Yeliena, did not bring happiness. Happiness was not a function of knowledge. What knowledge brought, in compensation, was power; in his case, the power to effect change and prevent disgrace.

It had come as a great surprise and a cause of deep unhappiness to him to have learned from his assistant that his wife had been on the point of leaving him because of the business of the casting of Modest Tolkach. It had been even more of a surprise to discover that the Hospital Administrator had carnal designs on his wife. Once he had recovered from his shock and dismay he had moved as swiftly as he could to scotch his superior’s plans. That very morning, accompanied by his assistant Anton Ivanovich Chevanin, he had had a meeting with their boss at the hospital during which his primary problem had been skilfully resolved. As young Chevanin had predicted, Tolkach had fallen for Anton Ivanovich’s ruse; he had agreed to accept the central role of Tolkachov in the second play, A Tragedian In Spite Of Himself . Now the Doctor was engaged upon what he regarded as the critically important and less straightforward task of repairing his marriage.

The atmosphere at No 8 Ostermann Street had become increasingly strained. He had first noticed it on the Tuesday morning when Yeliena had not appeared at the breakfast table. Katya had tremulously informed him that her mistress was feeling unwell and had asked not to be disturbed. The following morning Katya had reported that Yeliena was feeling a little better but was insisting on taking her breakfast in her room. He had since realised, with a sense of irritation, that on both occasions the maid had been covering for his wife.

Chevanin’s revelations in the clinic may have provided a compelling explanation for her melancholia but they cast no light on the strategy that would provide the most efficacious solution. The previous evening, sitting by himself after dinner, Dr. Tortsov had reasoned that Yeliena must have felt both shaken and frightened by the news that she would have to act opposite the man who had been pursuing her in her husband’s absence. Why else would she have contemplated such desperate measures? Not for one moment did he countenance the possibility that she had encouraged the Hospital Administrator’s attentions. She was, he was certain, completely innocent in the affair and her behaviour above reproach.

He also had recognised that, illogical as it was, Yeliena seemed to be blaming him for her predicament. During dinner she had sat not in her usual place opposite him but in the seat beside him, thereby avoiding the need to look him directly. Her face had looked drawn and haggard, the dark rings under her eyes bearing witness to her lack of sleep. When questioned she had given monosyllabic answers and had been unreceptive to his offer to prescribe a tonic to help her regain her joie de vivre.  More effective action was required.

The formulation of apologies did not come easily to the Doctor. As a medical man, he was untrained in either accepting the blame for errors of judgement or expressing regret for the unfortunate consequences of clinical mishaps and oversights. Despite the occasionally fatal consequences from his own misdiagnoses, he had maintained a strict adherence over the years to the code that the expression of regret and the voluntary acceptance of blame were damaging to the standing of his profession and therefore contrary to the interests of his patients. Nevertheless, he was genuinely sorry that the play was causing Yeliena so much distress and conceded that, in some small measure, he might have been unwittingly responsible for her unhappiness. A gentle expression of sympathy, presaged by an apology for having, inadvertently, put her in such an awkward position would, he felt, be the most appropriate solution. Women appreciated apologies as much as they liked receiving flowers.

Dr. Tortsov waited until Yeliena and he were alone after supper before he spoke to her. She had risen as soon as Katya had cleared away their dessert dishes and, pleading a headache, had asked to be excused but he had commanded her to stay and had guided her over to the settee. Sitting beside her, he reached over and took her hand in his.

“Lenochka,” he began, “it appears that I owe you an apology. I am sorry that you were so upset about being asked to act with Modest Tolkach.”

“The damage has been done,” she said tonelessly.

Dr. Tortsov looked down at the hand he was holding. It felt unfamiliar, cold and unresponsive.

“I have asked him, and he has agreed,” he went on, giving her fingers a squeeze of encouragement, “to change roles and play the central character in the second play. His part as the ‘Bear’ will be taken by Anton Ivanovich.”

Yeliena looked at him incredulously and laughed.

“That’s hardly an improvement,” she observed.

“Well, it is a solution,” he reasoned, adding, “you must understand that originally I never had any intention of casting Tolkach to play the ‘Bear’. Such a thing had never occurred to me. He was forced on me at the casting session.”

Yeliena frowned at him, her forehead creased in concentration.

“I must understand that, must I?”

“Well, yes…” he faltered, puzzled by her response.

“I see. So there is one rule for me and one rule for you!” she snapped.

“Lenochka, I don’t…” he began.

“It seems,” she interrupted, “that I  have to understand what you have said but you  don’t have to understand what I have said. Namely that I never wanted to be in your silly play in the first place, or have anything to do with it. I told you that quite clearly in this very room, yet you chose to ignore me.”

Withdrawing her hand, she stood up and crossed to the hearth. Bending down she picked up the poker and began prodding the fire, sending sparks flying upwards from the glowing half logs.

Dr. Tortsov frowned. Their conversation was not taking the path that he had expected.

“I didn’t think that you were serious,” he confessed.

“Obviously not!” she said hotly. “Obviously what I feel about this situation, or any other situation, is of no account to you. It doesn’t matter to you at all. You just don’t care.”

“That’s not fair, Yeliena,” he replied quietly. Remembering his assistant’s persuasive argument, he added, “I suppose that, as my wife, I naturally expected you to support me not only with my work but also with the play. It doesn’t seem that much to ask.”

“I’m not your property, Vasili, to do with as you wish. Serfdom has been abolished for over forty years.”

“Don’t be so ridiculous!” he muttered.

Slowly she straightened up and turned to face him, the poker held tight in her hand.

“Is that how I appear to you?” she demanded loudly. “I am ridiculous ?”

Dr. Tortsov regarded his wife uneasily from the settee. The tone of her voice had become uncharacteristically shrill. He blamed himself for not noticing it sooner. Was she becoming hysteric or could it be something far more serious? As a physician he was unfamiliar with the warning signs of the onset of pathological mania but he recognised that, in his present sedentary position, he would appear weak and vulnerable to her. Casually uncrossing his legs he arose from the settee and walked over to join Yeliena beside the hearth.

“No, I spoke in error,” he admitted gently as he reached down and disarmed her of the poker. “You are not at all ridiculous. It is quite reasonable for you to feel upset. But the situation has now been rectified and so you need have no further worries.”

Replacing the poker in the brass shell casing that served as its container by the fireside, he took his wife gently by the arm and guided her back to her place on the settee before seating himself in his armchair beside the hearth. It was clear to him that the prospect of having to perform onstage had disturbed his wife. Reluctantly he came to the conclusion that kind words and sympathy might not suffice and that he would be forced to address the cause of her unhappiness rather than its symptoms. If she continued to protest, he decided, rather than try and persuade her that she was being irrational, he might be forced to make alternative arrangements for the play night.

As if she had read his thoughts, Yeliena said, “I don’t want to play Yeliena.”

“Then I will cancel The Bear  and just put on the second play,” he conceded. “Would that content you?”

Yeliena shook her head impatiently.

“You can’t do that,” she told him. “The second play only lasts for about a quarter of an hour, twenty minutes at most. Nobody is going to pay two roubles for watch a play that brief.”

“Then I shall choose a different play to direct instead of The Bear ,” he said with a shrug.

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“You can’t do that either. Belinsky will have already started work on the scenery and will demand payment. And how would you choose the play, get it agreed, order the scripts and get a new cast? You don’t have the time.”

“Then I shall get someone else to play the part of Yeliena,” insisted the Doctor, becoming annoyed at being repeatedly contradicted. “I shall tell everybody that you are unwell.”

“That would complete our humiliation,” she retorted, brushing aside the alibi. “People will either say that you changed your mind because you realised that I would be an incapable actress or that I had refused and you had lost control of your wife. Congratulations, Vasili,” she added bitterly, “you have trapped us both.”

“‘Trapped’! Don’t be so melodramatic!” he scoffed. “How on earth are we trapped?”

“Of course we are trapped! We are both trapped!” said Yeliena urgently. “Look at us. Look at this house, and our marriage. We have been trapped for years! You own me and Modest Tolkach owns you.”

Angered by her outburst, Dr. Tortsov sprang to his feet.

“I won’t have you say that! I forbid it!” he warned her. “Why are you deliberately trying to vex me? Nobody owns me! I am a professional man, I am not a puppet. And though I may be responsible for you, I don’t own you.”

He began pacing backwards and forwards in front of her, agitated by their argument.

“This isn’t ‘The Doll’s House’, Yeliena,” he declared. “This is our home. We are not characters in a play. We are made of flesh and blood and we live in a real world where people have responsibilities and duties to one another. And, let me remind you, in a world where a lot of people are much worse off than we are. If you would come with me on my house calls and see how some of my patients live…”

“Oh God!” cried Yeliena, throwing herself back onto the cushions of the settee. “Spare me your patients! They are your excuse for everything!”

“What do you expect, Yeliena?” he protested. “You are the wife of a doctor . We have a position to uphold, as well as a duty to the town. You knew that when you married me.”

Yeliena looked at him bleakly and then looked away.

“Well, perhaps I shouldn’t have married you,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?” he asked, taken aback.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have married you,” she repeated. “You would have been happier. As it is, you don’t come near me, you don’t hold me, you don’t ask me about what sort of a day I have spent. We don’t talk about anything except about your work or things that you choose to talk about. We haven’t had one serious conversation in the whole of our marriage, not one; not even when Sasha died. I know nothing about you now. I don’t even know how much money we have, or whether we are over our heads in debt.”

Bewildered by how rapidly the terrain of their row had changed, Dr. Tortsov sensed that they were approaching a dangerous crossroads for which he was ill-prepared. A confusion of doubts assailed him. Had he miscalculated after all and an intimacy already existed between Modest Tolkach and his wife? Was that why she had refused to act with him, because their relationship would then become obvious to him? And why was Yeliena suddenly asking about his money and his investments? She had never done that before. This was territory that, on principle, he was determined to keep closed to her, at the very least for the next three months. Her challenge had taken him unawares, leaving him with limited room for manoeuvre. He felt that he needed more insight, if not into her ultimate objective, at least to be able to distinguish between safe and unsafe ground.

More importantly , he thought, is this row only an uncharacteristic fit of temper, a sudden volcanic explosion of female hysteria, or is it the opening cannonade of a carefully rehearsed battle plan? What does she really want? 

“Then why did you marry me?” he asked.

Yeliena rolled her eyes in exasperation.

“Why does any woman marry?” she cried. “Because I wanted security, Vasili! I wanted to be safe and to be cherished and to have nice things and to be cared for and not go hungry. I thought you were someone I could love and look up to and respect and that we would be happy and have children that I could hold and take care of. Why else would I marry you? Why did you marry me?”

“Because I loved you,” he replied automatically, “and still do.”

Yeliena shook her head in disbelief.

“How can you say that you still love me?” she asked.

“Because I do,” he told her earnestly. “And because I know that you made me complete. Without you I am not whole. There would be a gaping wound in my side which would leave me exposed to life’s cruelties and infections.”

Yeliena regarded him with a sad smile.

“So, in order to keep you whole, I have to stay chained to you in this cage?”

Dr. Tortsov shrugged.

“Well, you said you wanted security,” he replied.

He watched as the fight slowly went out of her, noticing with clinical interest how her body seemed to deflate in defeat. Where a moment before she had appeared powerfully enthroned on the settee, magisterial in her denunciation of her situation, she now sat with her shoulders bowed and her eyes downcast, staring at her hands cradled in her lap; an almost wretched figure slumped against the cushions.

“I am not happy, Vasili,” she told him mournfully. “I feel the bars nestle closer with age. You don’t love me anymore and I’m not sure how I feel about you. There seems to be little point in us going on together.”

Moving quickly, he went and sat down beside her on the settee.

“That’s not true,” he quietly insisted. “I do love you.”

“How can you?” she complained. “You don’t even know who I am anymore.”

“Yes I do,” he told her confidently, “and I love you very, very much. It pains me to see you so unhappy.”

“Can you blame me?” she asked with a sniff. “You don’t listen to me. You never listen to me.”

“Yes, I do,” he repeated, reaching for her hand. But Yeliena refused to be mollified.

“No you don’t!” she declared indignantly, pulling her hand away. “You preach about Duty and Responsibility. Where is your duty and responsibility to me? And you tell me that you love me and all the time you are planning to have me embrace your boss in the full view of the town. How could you do that if you cared for me?”

“I have already explained,” he replied patiently, “that that was no doing of mine.”

Edging closer to her, he reached out to put an arm around her. Yeliena flinched and moved further away from him on the cushions.

“No, it’s no good,” she told him unhappily. “You should have taken more care of me, Vasili.”

“What do you mean?” he said, concerned that their row might flare up again.

“I am not happy living like this.”

He nodded slowly as if in sympathy with her position.

“Then let me make amends,” he offered.

“If things don’t change,” she said, half to herself, “I feel that I will do something… something crazy that will hurt us both.”

Looking at her downcast profile Dr. Tortsov smiled reassuringly.

“There is nothing you could do,” he said confidently, “that would be so bad that it would stop me loving you.”

Yeliena slowly raised her eyes and looked at him enquiringly.

“Nothing?” she said doubtfully.

“Nothing,” he repeated. “My love for you is unconditional. I don’t care what the town thinks. You are the most precious thing in my life, even more than my work.”

For the first time that afternoon an expression of amusement flitted across Yeliena’s face.

“Ha!” she mocked him. “That’s  not true.”

“Yes it is,” he said.

Encouraged by her smile, he reached for her hand again.

“If you are concerned about our finances, don’t be,” he told her. “They are in good order.”

“But you won’t discuss them with me?”

“What is there to discuss?” he said in mock exasperation. “You are in charge of the household.”

“But what about your investments and savings?” she persisted. “And the money my father gave you? I don’t know anything about that money. What would happen to me if you died suddenly?”

“I have left adequate provision,” he promised her. “You would be taken care of.”

“I don’t even know where your will is or what it says.”

“There is plenty of time to discuss this.”

“Is there, Vasili? How do you know that? We are both getting older and if the epidemic comes here…”

Masking his determination not to be drawn on the subject of his finances, Dr. Tortsov resorted to flattery.

“To me you are still a young woman, Lienochka, you always will be.”

“Clearly too young to be trusted with important information such as how much money you have in the bank,” she said archly, withdrawing her hand once more, “and what investments you may have made.”

Dr. Tortsov hesitated and then tried another tack.

“Is it my age that is worrying you?” he asked her. “I may not be as physically active as I once was… I know that it has been a long time since we lay together, but that is not because I no longer desire you. I do desire you but, ever since our son died, you have pushed me away…”

Turning to face him, she glared at him reproachfully as if stung by his words.

“Stop it, Vasili!” she appealed to him. “Stop… please God, just… stop talking.”

Burying her face in her hands she began to weep, her body convulsing in deep shuddering sobs.

“I am so unhappy!” she groaned.

Dr. Tortsov regarded his wife with mixed emotions. He was relieved that she was at last experiencing some sort of emotional catharsis and he was touched by her evident unhappiness. At the same time, he remained concerned by the as yet unknown purpose of her outburst.

What is it that she wants?  he wondered. For all her complaints she has given me no concrete clue as to what the problem is or how I can make her happy again. 

Taking her in his arms he held her, rocking her gently to and fro on the cushion, kissing her hair and cheek occasionally until her tears were over.

“There, there,” he consoled her. “Do you want me to stop my practice? Is that it? Do you want me to retire?”

Still in his arms she sniffed and pulled a small handkerchief out from the cuff of her blouse.

“Would you do that for me?” she said, as she wiped her eyes.

“Probably,” he said with a smile. “It is not so rewarding as you seem to think.”

She appeared to consider his proposal for a moment and then shook her head doubtfully.

“No, I can’t ask that of you, it wouldn’t be fair,” she sniffed pathetically. “And anyhow, how would we live?”

“I could take my notes and work them up into a book,” he offered. “We’d have much more time together.”

“No, that won’t be necessary,” she said, adding quickly, “but if only we could move somewhere else…”

Seeing that her tiny scrap of linen was now quite sodden, he reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and retrieved his own larger handkerchief and passed it to her. She accepted it gratefully and, turning away from him, delicately blew her nose.

“Where to?” he said.

“Anywhere,” she sighed, turning back to face him with a weary smile, “just as long as it’s away from here. I hate this town. I am shrivelling up from the cold and the dark. My heart has become frostbitten. I need the sun and the warmth so badly. Oh Vasili, if only we could go to the south!”

Satisfied that, at last, they were reaching a practical conclusion to their discussions, Dr. Tortsov sat back on the settee, drawing his wife to him.

“Where to?” he murmured, kissing her on the brow. “The Crimea?”

“Oh yes!” she sighed again, “to Yalta!”

Gazing above her head Dr. Tortsov smiled with relief and approbation. The situation, which at one point had looked as if it had become unhinged and was careering dangerously out of control, had once more become manageable. The remedy, as was so often the case, lay in the judicious and timely application of money. Upset by the play and probably worried by the threatening epidemic, his wife needed a good rest and a holiday.

“I don’t know anybody there,” he began doubtfully and paused before adding, “but I suppose we could go and have a look.”

Yeliena sat up and looked at him hopefully.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“We could go there in the summer,” Dr. Tortsov told her with a smile. “We can afford that much. I could leave Anton Ivanovich in charge of the practice for two or three months. We could travel around the peninsula, perhaps even go as far west as Odessa.”

“Odessa!” exclaimed Yeliena with a small cry of delight. “Really?”

Impulsively she hugged him and gave him a quick kiss on the lips.

“Yes!” he confirmed with a laugh. “We could go to the opera there and take mass at St Panteleimon, and I could see if there was a city practice looking for a senior partner.”

Smiling now, Yeliena settled back down beside him and lay her head on his chest.

“Do they have a beach at Odessa?” she wondered aloud.

“Yes, they do. And a grand promenade.”

“Is it easy to walk to?”

“I believe that there are steps down to it,” he said quietly.

“I would love to see Odessa,” she sighed. Moving her head, she gazed up at him intently. “Oh Vasya, I do so hate feeling this way. I don’t mean to hurt you.”

Dr. Tortsov looked down at her and gently stroked her hair.

“And I don’t mean to hurt you and I have and I am so sorry,” he apologised. “You are my darling Lenochka. You are the most precious thing in my life.”

“We must take more care of each other,” she said with feeling.

“And of ourselves. We deserve to be happier. You  deserve to be happier.”

“Yes I do,” Yeliena agreed, “but, oh, this town!”

“Never mind the town, or the silly people in it. Go a little crazy if you must, I will stand by you. And remember in the summer we will fly south.”

Smiling happily, she nestled her cheek upon his chest.

“Like two white sparrows,” she said.

“And we shall sing magical songs as we fly,” Dr. Tortsov added, closing his eyes.

“Sparrows can’t sing.”

“Oh yes they can,” he said firmly, “at least white sparrows can. And they can fly as high as any other bird, even eagles.”

“How can we fly so high, Vasya,” she murmured, “when we have such small wings?”

Reopening his eyes, he looked down and regarded her seriously.

“Our wings may be small but they are mighty,” he said with fierce deliberation. “I do love you so, Lienochka, and I am sorry if I have disappointed you.”

“Yes, I know,” she said.

The two of them lay there for a while, holding each other close, their passions spent having reached a new level of misunderstanding.

Chapter Ten

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Friday 9th February


The Town Council was sitting in secret session in the Mayor’s parlour. Colonel Izorov had kept his word: he had told them everything.

As the echoes of the police chief’s iron shod heels receded down the corridor outside the council chamber, the five Councillors sat in stony silence, their eyes fixed upon the portly figure of His Excellency the Mayor. With the exception of Councillor Kuibyshev and the Mayor’s hunchbacked secretary (whom Izorov had ordered from the room before dropping his bombshell) they were all there: Pavel Nadnikov, grain merchant; Leonid Kavelin, timber merchant; Nikita Shiminski, general merchant; and the Two Thieves, the banker Fyodor Izminski and Sergei Kuprin, the town’s Revenue Officer. Collectively, the self-elected representatives of Trade, Capital and the Crown.

Mayor Pobednyev shifted uncomfortably in his seat under their gaze. Was it possible that they were going to attack him physically? He considered making an excuse and leaving the room, but could not think of a good enough reason. Downstairs, the door to the street slammed shut. Colonel Izorov had left the building.

Best to face them standing up , thought the Mayor, and started to lumber to his feet.

“Sit down, Anatoli Mihailovich,” commanded Kuprin. “You have some questions to answer.”

The Mayor resumed his seat and bowed his head as the storm cloud of angry demands rose and broke over him. How long had he known about this matter? Why had he kept the news of such a disaster from the Council? Did he think they were traitors? How much of the Town’s annual budget had he already squandered on these sleighs, reindeer and God knows what else? With what authority had he done this thing? What guarantee could they give the town that the criminals being released from custody would return willingly to the prison? What assurances were there that law abiding citizens of Berezovo weren’t about to be murdered in their beds by these swine, these insurrectionists and assassins from Petersburg? How would the town cope with the riots their presence was bound to cause? Above all, who was going to pay for the convoy while they were here? It was a scandal, an outrage, a bezobrazie ! He was guilty of criminal negligence, dereliction of duty, and bad faith to his friends. He was, in short, finished as Mayor of Berezovo.

“There was nothing else I could do,” he said quietly as they paused for breath. “Colonel Izorov swore me to secrecy, just like he has sworn you.”

“In God’s name, man,” Kuprin hissed. “That is no excuse to start pillaging the Council funds without consulting us first.”

“But I haven’t!” insisted Pobednyev. “I haven’t spent a single copeck yet. Ask Fyodor Fyodorovich here.”

Fyodor Izminsky gravely shook his head in disagreement.

“Maybe you haven’t drawn any cash, but you have still spent the money, Anatoli Mihailovich. You have committed the Council to paying out a small fortune. We are liable for the costs.”

“That’s not strictly true,” remarked Nadnikov silkily. “Anatoli Mihailovich has committed someone  to pay for all this, yes, but not us. I recall no discussion of such an item at our last meeting. Do you, gentlemen?”

“No,” agreed Kuprin, with a nasty smile. “No discussion at all. This appears to have been a completely irregular set of undertakings initiated without official agreement by a private individual, using the name of the Council without its authority. Possibly fraud.”

If his fellow councillors had expected their leader to capitulate without a struggle, they were to be disappointed. Pobednyev nodded thoughtfully and then got to his feet. Walking over to his desk he opened a drawer and pulled out first the mayoral sash of Berezovo and then a small box of cigars. Lifting the sash with an unconvincing sigh of regret, he let it slip from his fingers and fall in a heap onto the top of his desk for them all to see.

“So that is how it is, gentlemen, is it?” he asked. “If you wish for my resignation, you only have to ask for it. But first, consider: who is to replace me? Who is willing to take on the responsibility for a town which in the next forty-eight hours – possibly even less – will have thrust upon it fifteen of the most desperate, the most dangerous, the most bloodthirsty terrorists the Empire has ever seen? Who wishes to be Mayor when the Red Chicken is let loose and the streets run with blood? To whom shall the people turn when their shops and offices start going up in flames, perhaps even the very building in which we are now sitting?”

The five men stared at him and then at the silken coils of the Mayor’s official insignia that lay like a serpent on the desk between them.

“Only I, Anatoli Mihailovich Pobednyev, can guarantee these things will not happen,” he boasted. “Amongst you all, I am the only one that Kostya Izorov trusted enough to tell about the secret arrangements he has made.”

Unsure of whether he was bluffing or not, the other councillors looked at each other.

“Who will pick up this rag?” he taunted, gesturing carelessly to his official sash.

“What about the money, Tolly?” Nadnikov asked darkly.

“Ah yes, the money…” mused the Mayor, selecting a cigar from the box.

The five men watched impatiently as he went through the pantomime of cutting off its tip, finding his phosphor matches and finally lighting the cigar. Only when he was satisfied that the cigar was drawing properly did he condescend to reply to Nadnikov’s question.

“The way I see it, gentlemen, is this,” he said genially. “The genius of politics is to take what appears to be an unpromising situation – what some uninformed people might even regard as a crisis – and turn it into a success. If I no longer have your confidence as Mayor, then I shall step down and one of you can take responsibility for what will happen. If the Council will not meet the expenses I have been forced, I repeat, forced to incur in its name, then naturally I shall have to cover the cost of this affair out of my own pocket. In which case, it stops being a matter of civic responsibility and becomes simply a matter of private business.”

His face broke out into a wide smile.

“And,” he concluded, “when have you ever known me to invest in an unprofitable business?”

Clearing his throat, the banker Izminsky said:

“So you think this could be a profitable enterprise, Anatoli Mihailovich?”

Pobednyev’s smile broadened.

Strategically seated across the Council table from each other, the Revenue Officer Sergei Kuprin and the town’s sole banker Fyodor Izminsky, the Two Thieves, exchanged meaningful glances. In matters of finance they both regarded Anatoli Pobednyev as a conservative, even backward, fellow, who regarded something as money only if you could scratch a window pane with it. The Mayor did not recognise that the world had changed; wealth was no longer kept in a pot under the floorboards or even in the town’s bank overseen by Fyodor Izminsky, but flowed in and out on tides of paper and certificates of joint stock capital in Russian banks that had attracted such a level of foreign investment from French and German banks that the Tsar’s government could not allow them to fail. It had taken the three other directors of the Cholera Fund Trust – their two selves and the absent Kuibyshev – several weeks to persuade the Mayor to agree to invest part of the Funds, along with their own personal money, in speculation on the St Petersburg Bourse. Early news of their success had been tantalisingly positive but they were having to wait until Kuibyshev’s return to hear the full account. Now here the Mayor was, apparently taking an uncharacteristically hazardous risk and presenting a bullish demeanour. It was intriguing. Given that he had had the advantage of a fortnight’s preparation, what had Pobednyev thought of that had not yet occurred to them? As to his assertion that he could personally bear the cost of the convoy’s visitation, did he genuinely have sufficient liquidity to meet such an expense? Sergei Kuprin raised one bushy eyebrow in silent enquiry and received a barely perceptible nod from Izminsky.

“I’m sure I speak for all of us,” said Kuprin slowly, “when I say that there is no question in our minds that, given the extraordinary circumstances, Anatoli Mihailovich is the man we would most like to steer us through this crisis. I am sure we all have every confidence in his leadership at this moment.”

Izminsky nodded slowly in agreement.

“I think,” said Kavelin unctuously, “that we may have been a little hasty in our criticisms. It is quite understandable. We were all a little shocked by the Colonel’s sudden news. We should have known that His Excellency would have already thought of a plan that would resolve all our problems.”

With varying degrees of doubt, the others gave their assent to this expression of confidence. They watched as the Mayor languidly stretched out his hand and swept his badge of office back into the desk drawer.

“So, what is it?” asked Izminsky.

“What is what?”

“Your plan, Excellency. What is your plan?”

Mayor Pobednyev leaned forward, suddenly business-like, and regarded them all with a stern eye.

“It is simply this. As you know, we did not invite these people here. They have been sent to us. And although we are the only sizeable town hereabouts, we cannot be the only community in this position. These bastards have travelled all the way by train from St Petersburg, and by sleigh from Tiumen with changes of horses and so on, and we aren’t their final destination. Undoubtedly a budget exists for such an operation as big as this. Our task is to find it. Perhaps it is residing in the drawer of the Provincial Treasurer in Tobolsk, or locked in a safe in Peterhof. But rest assured, payment is guaranteed. In the meantime we have bills to meet. I suggest that Fyodor Fyodorovich here,” he said, pointing to Izminsky, “issues promissory notes from the Bank that will be met when the Council funds are reimbursed.”

Izminsky’s protest was forestalled by a peremptory wave of the Mayor’s hand.

“Be patient, Fyodor Fyodorovich, and let me finish,” he insisted. “I repeat, this ‘crisis’ could benefit us all. If you don’t believe me, ask Leonid Sergeivich here. He is already counting the profits from the sales of timber that were bought to make the sleighs.”

Sitting next to Kavelin, Nadnikov swung round and glared at him accusingly.

“They paid cash,” the timber merchant explained with a shrug.

“Don’t be so upset, Pavel Stepanovich,” the Mayor told Nadnikov. “Think instead of the quantity of food and grain that will be needed to equip a convoy of forty sleighs for a fortnight. Think, Nikita Osipovich,” he added, turning to Shiminski, “how many extra blankets and rugs they will need? And they will also be paid for in cash, no doubt. The commander of the escort will have enough money with him to cover such expenditure.”

If this news mollified Nadnikov, it did little to persuade Izminsky that the interests of the town’s bank were being protected.

“But, Anatoli Mihailovich, what about the Bank? Tobolsk and Peterhof could take months fighting it out between them. The Bank cannot be expected to issue notes without a firm date of settlement.”

“Quite, Fyodor Fyodorovich!” agreed Pobednyev. “But surely what is more important is that we look after the little people, like the carpenters Pirogov and Ovseenko, who have already invested a large proportion of their capital on this.”

Shiminski shrugged.

“What use is a promissory note to them?” he demanded.

“What use indeed?” agreed the Mayor. “They would probably prefer instead to discount it and have the cash roubles immediately, rather than wait all those months. Of course,” he added, turning to Izminsky, “it would be up to the Bank what rate it set for such a transaction.”

“It could be as high as, say, twenty percent,” suggested Kuprin.

“Exactly, Sergei Levinovich,” the Mayor agreed, with a nonchalant wave of his cigar, “or even twenty-five percent.”

“It’s still a long time to wait,” observed Izminsky grudgingly.

Leaning back in his chair, Pobednyev regarded him with amusement.

“There is an alternative solution,” he said slowly. “One that requires a slight adjustment to our thinking. We could always redistribute these costs. Spread them around, as it were.”

Pavel Nadnikov’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“How do you mean, Your Excellency?” he asked.

“Let me give you an example,” suggested Pobednyev. “Let us take this epidemic of typhus. Doctor Tortsov has told me, in no uncertain terms, that we should not consider evacuating the town, nor risk bringing the disease into Berezovo.”

“Quite right too,” rumbled Nadnikov.

“Yet the Provincial Medical Officer,” the Mayor went on, “would not think twice if Modest Tolkach put in a bill for sleighs, to act as ambulance wagons. In fact, he would expect to see some rise in expenditure to show that something is being done by the District Hospital, wouldn’t he?”

“He would,” confirmed Kuprin.

“Therefore, if we think that Peterhof or Tobolsk won’t pay up, we could transfer some of the costs of the sleighs, the deer and everything to Hospital accounts. Instead of claiming them from Tobolsk or Peterhof, we claim them from the Medical Board.”

“It would certainly be quicker,” agreed Izminsky. “But why would Tolkach do that? Personally, I don’t trust him.”

It was evident from the murmurs around the table that this was a judgement shared by the other Council members.

“I think you judge him too harshly,” replied Pobednyev suavely. “If he was approached in the right manner, he would be amenable. And this would be very much to our benefit.”

“We understand that, Anatoli Mihailovich, but is it that simple?” Kuprin wanted to know.

“Quite honestly, gentlemen, yes,” Pobednyev replied. “All we have to do today is to decide whether we should submit our bills to the Ministry of Internal Affairs or to the Provincial Medical Board. Or,” he added softly, “to both.”

“To both ?” cried Nadnikov in astonishment.

“Why not?”

“Because we would never get away with it!”

“Why not?” repeated Pobednyev. “Both offices are expecting bills. As Revenue Officer, Sergei Le

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vinovich, you would be able to gauge what was and what was not a justifiable expense.”

“I could,” admitted Kuprin thoughtfully, adding for Nadnikov’s benefit, “the two offices never talk to each other. Ever!”

“My God,” breathed Izminsky. “Both! Twice as much timber. Leonid Sergeivich! Twice as many blankets, Nikita Osipovich!”

“But what about Tolkach?” asked Kuprin.

“We needn’t tell him,” suggested the Mayor with a wink.

Throwing his head back, Kuprin roared with laughter.

“That’s a good one! ‘We don’t tell him!’ You’re priceless, Tolly! Absolutely priceless!”

Beside him, Izminsky began to titter, nervously at first and then, as the idea caught on with the other members of the Council, with more gusto.

“The best part is,” spluttered Leonid Kavelin, reaching into his pocket and pulling out an enormous handkerchief, “that if anything goes wrong… we can always say… that we knew nothing about the second invoice… that it was all… Tolkach’s idea!”

This possibility set him off hooting again, his fist hammering the Council table with delight at the notion.

Pobednyev looked on genially as his colleagues became helpless with paroxysms of laughter. When at last faces had been wiped and noses blown and Kavelin had been thumped on the back several times so that he could regain his breath, the Mayor continued:

“In the meantime, believe me when I say that nothing is more important than we provide a fitting welcome for our guests. A real show.”

“Guests? Pah!” snorted Shiminski cheerfully. “If I had my way, I would string the lot up.”

“And kill the golden goose?” admonished the Mayor. “No, Nikita Osipovich, that is not the way. Remember what Colonel Izorov told us. They are to be treated with ‘watchful courtesy’. After all, the Duma is to be recalled next month. For all we know, though they come here now as insurrectionists in chains, they may return as princes.”

“An amnesty certainly cannot be ruled out,” observed Kavelin, suddenly sober, “even for these swine. All in all, I agree with Anatoli Mihailovich. I think we have to welcome their arrival.”

“Welcome them?” barked Shiminski. “Are you serious?”

“Leonid Sergeivich is right,” said the Mayor. “In fact, I have arranged, with the Colonel’s consent, that we should receive them with a parade of strength. Nothing too expensive, of course,” he added hurriedly. “It will be a small but dignified affair. And then, after they are safely locked up, perhaps a celebratory meal at the Hotel, to mark what is, after all, an historic event. Paid for out of the Civic Funds, of course.”

Outside the door, the Mayor’s secretary crouched at the keyhole, one knuckle jammed tightly against his twisted mouth to prevent his mirth betraying his presence.

There is no doubt about it , he thought to himself. Sooner or later, the scum always rises to the top. 

Pressing his ear still closer to the door he was in time to catch the town’s Revenue Officer proposing his eldest son’s services as a photographer.

“There should be some kind of official record,” Kuprin was saying.

Chapter Eleven

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Friday 9th February


Several hours later, in the counting house of Goldstein the money lender, David Davidovich Landemann was trying to turn a deaf ear to his wife’s pleas as he made preparations for that night’s emergency meeting of the heads of the four groups of revolutionaries exiled to Berezovo.

“No, Hannah! We must tell them,” he insisted. “Just because they are not our people doesn’t mean that we should hide this news from them. Besides, it’s already too late. Chazowski will have been travelling for most of the day. We cannot cancel the meeting now.”

“Chazowski? That murderer!” his wife said, horrified that her husband would have dealings with the leader of the Social Revolutionary terrorists. “You should be at home with your family instead of meeting with thugs like him. Are you in the Cremola now?”

Shaking his head in despair, Landemann began fastening the inner shutters to the window frames.

“We cannot ignore the Essers, whatever we think of them,” he told her. “They are a fact of life.”

When the last shutter was closed and the upper bolt of the door in place, he reached up to the shelf above his high ledger desk and drew down a wooden bowl. Inside lay a dozen or so candle ends. He began distributing them in clusters of three around the room; his wife following him, nervously pulling at the shawl that covered her head and slender shoulders.

“Why, David?” she complained. “Why do you do this to your children? What happens if Goldstein returns and finds you all here?”

“He won’t.”

“What do you know?” she insisted. “Only maybe if you lose this job we shall all starve to death. Who else will give a job to such a fool?”

“Abram thinks that this is the safest place and he’s right,” he replied, refusing to look at her.

“And if my wonderful brother told you to go and jump in the Sosva, you would do it?” she jeered. “Some man I have for a husband! You should have married my brother, instead of me!”

David Landemann was about to reply when a sharp knock came at the outer door of the office.

“Don’t go,” implored Hannah.

He held up his hand, bidding her be silent. The two of them stood still listening as there was a second knock quickly followed by two more. Signalling to his wife to keep out of sight, Landemann walked through the outer office to the door that led to the street. Sliding back the bolt, he opened the door warily. Abram Usov, head of the small group of Jewish Bund exiles in Berezovo, entered quietly. Landemann closed the door behind him and pushed the bolt to.

Usov remained in the outer office, waiting until his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness.

“Is it safe?” he whispered.

“Yes,” Landemann told him. “We are nearly ready.”

Usov shivered, still chilled from the evening air.

“Good,” he declared. “I saw Fatiev earlier. He will arrive shortly.”

A sound of movement came from the darkness of the counting house.

“Who’s that?” he muttered. “I thought you said everybody should have left by now.”

“It’s only Hannah,” confessed Landemann. “We were just talking when you knocked.”

“What business has she being here? Send her home, David.”

“I can’t,” said Landemann apologetically. “She’s being difficult.”

“I don’t care. Send her home,” Usov insisted. “This is no place for her. It’s dangerous enough as it is. What do you think will happen if there’s a raid?”

“I’ll try,” Landemann promised.

Taking his brother-in-law by the arm, he steered him through the outer office to the counting house.

“Shalom, Abram.”

Reaching out in the darkness, Usov felt for his sister’s hands. Finding them, he pulled her to him and kissed her perfunctorily on the cheek.

“Shalom, Hannah. Now you must go. The others will be here soon.”

“I’m staying,” she whispered defiantly.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Your children are sitting at home in the dark. Your place is there, with them.”

“My place is here with David. Or have you forgotten why I followed him here?”

Releasing her, Usov turned away impatiently.

“Then it’s up to him to say whether you go or stay. Well, David?”

“Please, Hannah,” Landemann said, “don’t make a fuss. We can’t start until you have gone. Go home and wait for me there. This won’t take long and when it is finished I shall come straight back, I promise.”

“‘It won’t take long’,” she mimicked him. “Who are you trying to fool? You will still be arguing when the police break down the doors.”

“That’s enough,” her brother said angrily.

The sound of a single knock on the outer door silenced them. The knock was repeated and then twice more in quick succession. It was the agreed signal, but delivered too rapidly to be identical to the one they had arranged. For a second none of them moved. Then Landemann left them in the counting house and padded quietly across the outer office to open the outer door. As soon as he had done so, two shadowy figures pushed roughly past him.

“Shut the door,” a man’s voice said urgently. “There’s a patrol at the bottom of the Alley.”

“Troops?” asked Landemann nervously.

“No,” the man said. “Izorov’s men. One on horseback, two on foot. They are making their way down the street, trying all the doors.”

“We should move to the back of the shop,” his companion said calmly.

It was the voice of a woman. She spoke unhurriedly, as if their predicament was of little consequence.

Bolting the door, Landemann led them through to the counting house where they greeted Abram Usov and his sister.

“David, you stay here in the back,” said Usov, turning to his brother-in-law. “Hannah and I will be by the door.”

Taking his sister by the arm he guided her into the outer office, shutting the door behind them so that they would not be overheard.

“Abram, let go!” complained Hannah, trying to free herself from his grip. “Oh! You’re hurting me.”

“Sshh!” he warned her. “Now listen, little sister. The moment the patrol has passed, you are going straight out into the street and then home. This is no place for a woman, do you understand?”

Rising on tip toe, she tried again to pull away, but he held her fast.

“Do you understand?” he repeated menacingly, increasing the pressure on her arm.

She shook her head angrily.

“Let me go, you bully!” she whispered loudly. “Why can’t I stay? She’s here.”

“Shhh!” Usov warned her again. Together they moved closer to the outer door and stood listening as the sound of boots approached and stopped. A bright light shone under the door and one of the patrol tried the door handle. They heard a horse snort outside in the dark street and stomp its hooves. Apparently satisfied, the boots moved on and a moment later they heard the patrol repeat its inspection at the shop next door.

Relaxing his grip a fraction, Usov sighed.

“Tamara Karseneva is present as a representative of the RSDLP,” he said. “Both she and Oleg have taken the risk of coming here because they are responsible to their people. You, on the other hand, are responsible to no one but your children. Your place is at home with them.”

“What about David?” she whispered back angrily. “He’s their father.”

“The only reason David is here is because he has the keys. I will look after him. Now get out of here before that patrol decides to come back.”

Letting go of his sister’s arm he stepped back and smiled apologetically at her.

“I’m sorry, Hannah. I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he told her softly. “But you must go now. Go on.”

Rubbing her arm, Hannah moved reluctantly towards the door.

“All right,” she said. “Just don’t make me a widow.”

During their struggle, her shawl had fallen from her. Picking it up off the floor, she shook it then wrapped it tightly around her head and shoulders. At her signal that she was ready, Usov pulled the door open and stepped silently out into the street. The dim light from the patrol’s lamp was making its way northwards along the Alley. Beckoning his sister to join him, he pushed her in the opposite direction and stepped back into the office, pulling the door to until it was almost closed. Pressing his eye to the crack in the door, Usov watched her cross the Alley and move out of his range of vision. Instinct told him that there was someone else out there. He remained where he was; waiting for the spy to reveal himself. Sure enough, after a minute had passed, a figure detached itself from the shadows of a doorway further up the street: a darker darkness in the shape of a man. But instead of following his sister, he seemed to be making his way towards where Usov stood. With a frown, Usov reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his heavy iron bar. He waited for the figure to draw nearer, watching him move cautiously along the street, wherever possible still keeping to the cover of the shadows. Only when the man had nearly reached the door did Usov recognise him. Opening the door wider, he drew the newcomer in.

“Welcome, Fatiev,” he said quietly.

“Who was that?” demanded the leader of Berezovo’s bolshevicki exiles as he edged past him.

“Only my sister,” Usov said, with relief, closing the door.

Fatiev grunted.

“A man without blessings is a man without problems,” Usov told him. “Come on. The Karsenevas are already here with my brother-in-law, David Landemann. They are waiting in the counting house. Go through and join them. I will wait here until Chazowski arrives.”

“Don’t bother,” said Fatiev, “he’s not coming.”

“Why not?” asked Usov sliding the door bolt home.

“He has sent message that Izorov has posted a man outside his hut. He can’t move without tipping his hand.”

Usov swore softly.

“Already? What about the other Essers?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then we must hurry. Follow me.”

Silently, he led Fatiev through the office to the rear of the building where the two men and the woman were waiting for them. There was a chorus of hurried greetings as he closed the counting house door and, removing his outer coat, laid it down against the wide gap between the bottom of the door and the floorboards.

“Candles, David,” he ordered.

Landemann obeyed and soon the room was illuminated with little clusters of flame.

“If we are disturbed we can always say we are making Shabbat,” he joked nervously.

“That’ll be the day,” sneered Fatiev.

Usov waited until all the candles had been lit and his brother in law had taken his place beside him at the counting-table before calling the meeting to order.

“We may not have much time,” he announced. “Arkady Chazowski is already under house arrest, which means that the Social Revolutionaries are already being watched. It’s only a matter of time before Izorov turns his attention to us.”

He paused, looked at the circle of candlelit faces looking at him expectantly, and took a deep breath.

“We are going to have some visitors…” he began.

A half an hour later they were still talking, although each of them was aware that every minute increased their risk of discovery. The smoke from the candles was beginning to make David Landemann’s eyes water. Already most of the candles had burnt down into puddles of wax. He would have to make sure that he got in early the following morning to chip off the hardened wax from the ledges and the desk so that Old Goldstein did not discover his counting house had been used. As the flame of another candle spluttered and died, he felt his way towards the box of new candles that sat on top of the safe. Taking one, about the length of his hand, he broke it in two and walked back to the group by the table. As he began to trim the wick of the broken candles, he heard Oleg Karseneva, head of the Menshivik RSDLP exiles say:

“Don’t be so ridiculous, Fatiev! That idea is as dangerous as it is absurd.”

Fatiev smiled contemptuously. A gaunt, middling sized man of some twenty-seven years, his cheeks and nose and even his hair gave the impression that they had been permanently pinched by frost.

“The trouble with you, comrades,” he retorted, pointing a finger accusingly at the Karsenevas, “the trouble with all you Menshiviks is that you are still too much the gentlemen. You think that the Autocracy can be defeated by allying yourself to the Liberals, even the Kadets if necessary. Well, we don’t. We aren’t prepared to betray the revolutionary proletariat. We aren’t going to roll over on our backs and let the butchers tickle our stomachs with their bayonets!”

In the corner, Usov sighed heavily. Already their rooms might have been searched by the patrol, the alibis they had left with friends or neighbours discovered and exploded. At that very moment the barracks square might be ringing with the sound of shouted commands as detachments of mounted troops were being hurriedly dispatched to seal off the Quarter. He knew Izorov would not hesitate to call upon the support of the Sibirsky if it was necessary. Yet still these people talked as if they had no reason to hurry! Enmeshed in their fratricidal war the Karsenevas and Fatiev both refused to give way, and were reluctant to leave knowing that to leave first would mean to automatically concede the initiative to the opponent.

“When these people arrive,” Fatiev continued doggedly, “they should be met by a mass demonstration: as much against their own political opportunism as to reaffirm our determination never to cease the struggle for revolutionary socialism. A struggle they pay lip service to and that we, the majority, are prepared to die for.”

“That’s enough, Comrade,” snapped Tamara Karseneva. “They are exiles, just like us. They haven’t come all this way to be met by a hostile demonstration. And may I remind you that since Stockholm, it is we  who are the majority, and you  who are the menshiviki. Your proposal flies in the face of all your own rules of democratic centralism. The Conference decided to work towards reuniting our two wings, remember?”

“Rules!” snorted Fatiev.

His finger began stabbing the air once more.

“Even your political language smacks of bourgeois after-dinner games,” he mocked them. “What have ‘rules’ ever got you except the derision of the proletariat? There is only one way to fight the oppressive forces of Tsarist Autocracy, and it isn’t by selling the workers for the mythical status of Deputies in a Duma that Nicholas Romanov treats with clear contempt! It’s by creating and sustaining the correct conditions for armed struggle and forming the revolutionary vanguard of the militant working class, like we did in Moscow. Not by setting yourself up as an alternative government as these people did in Petersburg and then, when you get caught, say ‘Oh no, your Majesty, of course we weren’t opposing you! Armed Insurrection? Us ? Nothing was further from our minds!’. That’s not revolutionary socialism. That’s gutless hypocrisy!”

“That’s not what was said at the trial, and you know it!” flared Oleg Karseneva. “And anyway, it’s a damned sight better than leading the workers into a dead end and then staying away while they were massacred by the Semionovsky!”

“Listen, comrade!” Fatiev snarled. “My brother didn’t stay away. He was in one of the last fighting brigades in Presnia. He fought and died fighting, killed by Dubasov’s artillery. Guns that were sent from Petersburg. Guns that couldn’t have been spared if your beloved Soviet hadn’t made such a mess of it and delivered themselves into the hands of the police. And if it happened again, I wouldn’t hesitate to give my life also, the same as he did. So don’t talk to me about staying away. Nobody stayed away.”

“Except Lenin,” Landemann said quietly.

The leader of the Berezovo Bolshevicks turned on him, his face contorted with rage, and would have struck him if Usov hadn’t quickly stepped between them.

“Calm down, Fatiev,” he warned. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Ignoring him, Fatiev spoke over his shoulder to Landemann.

“Retract that statement,” he demanded.

“Never,” swore the Jew, his face white with passion. “Your precious Lenin set the Moscow workers up, urged them to form attack groups for street fighting but took damn good care not to be anywhere near the city when the fighting started. And everybody knows it!”

“That’s not true!” said Fatiev thickly.

He lunged again at Landemann, and again Usov blocked him.

“Shut up, David,” he ordered gruffly, “and Fatiev, you calm down. You’ll have the patrol here with all your shouting.”

Tamara Karseneva laughed quietly.

“Abram’s right, Fatiev,” she cooed. “Calm down. Let us all agree that Lenin just made a tactical decision not to be present. Personally speaking, as prepared as I am to give my life for the Struggle, like the majority of our Party, I do not see any profit in making sacrifices of our followers to prove a theoretical point.”

With a great effort, Fatiev transferred his gaze from Landemann to her. All the fight seemed to seep out of him. Unclenching his fists, he shook his head in despair.

“You still don’t understand, do you?” he muttered wearily. “If you don’t get the theory right, then you can never hope to succeed in practice. Lenin knows this. He knows that you can’t fight iron boots with felt slippers. He will never rest while the last vestiges of the Autocracy remain in Russia. And if that means unmasking the opportunists who seek to compromise in any way with the regime in the mistaken belief that Socialism can advance along a nice neat constitutional path without the necessary period of armed struggle, then…”

He fell silent, and looked down at his boots.

“In other words, you intend to split, split, and split again to get the Party you want,” said Oleg Karsenev bitterly.

“If that is what it takes, yes.”

“Why don’t you just leave the RSDLP and form another Party?” suggested Landemann from the corner.

Usov swung round to face him, irritated by the delay at reaching a decision.

“Keep out of this, David. It’s not our problem.”

“Abram’s right, David,” agreed Tamara Karseneva with a smile. “But don’t think we haven’t suggested it. The fact is, Fatiev here and all the militants know that if they secede from the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, they will be cutting themselves off from the majority of the committed workers and peasants. They will be like a bunch of castaways adrift on a raft, forced to watch each other dying of thirst and starvation. Finally, they would begin eating each other. And we all know who would be the last to go, don’t we Comrade?” she jeered at Fatiev. “Your beloved Lenin!”

“Better that than staying on a ship of fools.”

“Then you do admit that you have no legitimate place in the Party,” insisted Oleg Karsenev.

“Listen,” Usov interrupted them, “this isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Tamara shrugged apologetically.

“Abram Malachayivich is right. What we have to do is decide on how to deal with the situation in hand, not fight over our differences.”

“That just means you intend to try and fudge the issue as usual,” Fatiev accused her.

“No it doesn’t,” her husband said. “What it means is that you have to decide whether you are going to be a part of the official exile reception committee, or whether you will boycott it. It’s quite simple: either it’s one way or the other. In or out.”

“I shall have to discuss it in caucus with my comrades first.”

“Oh balls, Fatiev!” swore Tamara Karseneva angrily. “The decision has to be made now. You either welcome them or you don’t.”

“So much for democracy,” sneered Fatiev.

The four of them watched him as he began pacing backwards and forwards, thinking the problem through. At last he stopped.

“It all depends what you have in mind,” he announced.

“Speaking on behalf of the Bund,” Usov said, “we are prepared to provide any material comforts that we can to make their exile more bearable.”

“Tea and cakes!” Fatiev flung over his shoulder as he resumed his pacing.

Usov shrugged amiably.

“Of more use than hot air, wouldn’t you say?” he countered. “Besides, we think, though we can’t be sure yet, that Berezovo isn’t their final destination. Old Averbuch has been working on some sleighs that we believe will be used to take them on to the next part of their journey. Though where the poor bastards will finally end up is anybody’s guess.”

Fatiev frowned at this news.

“Sleighs? You mean, for ponies?”

“No. Deer. Which means either they are going across the snowfields or they are continuing north. One more thing: the carpenter has had his boys working night and day to get these sleighs ready. They’ve been told that the job has to be finished by Sunday at the latest.”

“Is that when your informant thinks they will arrive?” asked Fatiev.

Usov shrugged.

“Could be tomorrow, even.”

“Any idea where they will be housed while they are here?” asked Oleg Karseneva.

Fatiev stopped his pacing and looked guiltily at him.

“We have heard that Skyralenko has ordered the prison to be scrubbed down and the heating turned up.”

The others looked at him accusingly.

“We thought that it was a precaution against the risk of typhus,” he said defensively.

“The prison is the most likely place to house them,” said Tamara Karseneva thoughtfully, “although it would be terribly crowded. It’s either there, the barracks, the hospital or the Hotel New Century.”

“Izorov wouldn’t let them stay in the hotel,” argued her husband. “There are too many windows and doors to guard. As for the barracks, there would be precious little room there, once you have housed their escort as well. Plus, they would have access to weapons from the armoury. The hospital is a possibility though. Only two exits, front and side. Guards on each, relieved every four hours… It’s possible.”

“Yes, it’s possible,” agreed Usov, “but the prison is more secure and has the advantage of being close to both the barracks and the uchastok . Plus, it has the prison courtyard where they can be allowed to stretch their legs without any risk. For my money, that’s where they’ll be.”

“Do you know how many are coming?” Landemann asked his brother.

Usov shook his head and looked hopefully at the others.

“It’s hard to say,” Tamara Karseneva replied. “There has been no official report of the trial or the sentences. We understand that many of the Deputies of the Soviet were released due to lack of evidence. Of the remainder, according to our sources we could be expecting as many as thirty. It is certain that at least twelve have been selected for ‘special treatment’.”

“A minimum of twelve then,” Usov said. “We must assume that they will be heavily guarded, both on the road and while they’re here.”

“It’ll be difficult to get to them,” observed Landemann. “It’s not as if they are the usual new arrivals.”

“Do we have any ideas about how the Council plans to deal with them?” Oleg Karsenev asked suddenly.

Usov and Fatiev shook their heads.

“There was an emergency meeting this morning,” Tamara said, half apologetically. “I heard Nikita Shiminski’s daughter talking about it in the general store.”

Fatiev laughed at her husband’s look of surprise and, embarrassed by her admission, Tamara turned on him.

“Like you, Fatiev,” she said stiffly, “I thought it had something to do with the typhus epidemic. Otherwise I would have attributed more importance to it.”

“Who was there?” her husband asked.

“Shiminski, the Mayor, Izminsky, Nadnikov, Kuprin, Kavelin,” she recited, adding with a grimace, “and Colonel Izorov.”

Usov let out a long drawn out whistle.

“What? No Dr. Tortsov?” enquired Fatiev archly. “A bit odd to hold a meeting about an epidemic and not have a doctor there.”

Oleg Karsenev rose to his wife’s defence.

“If Tamara had known about this beforehand, she would have told you.”

“Me?” said Fatiev with a grating laugh. “She didn’t even tell you!”

“Listen,” broke in Usov, “the important thing is that the meeting took place. That means that the Council, the police and, presumably, the garrison have already made their plans and we haven’t made ours. Let us concentrate on that. So far we are fairly certain of four things.”

Holding up four fingers, he ticked off the points one by one.

“Firstly, that some of the defendants of the Petersburg trial will be passing through here on their way to their place of exile. Secondly, that if they don’t arrive tomorrow, then we can expect them on Sunday. Thirdly, that there will be at least twelve of them and that they will be heavily guarded. Lastly, that they will probably be situated at the prison, perhaps the hospital, for the duration of their stay. Now, the next question is: for how long?”

“They’ve come a long way,” said Fatiev. “Given that they’ve changed horses at every available stop and that they might – I say might  – be transferred onto these sleighs of Averbuch’s, then they need only stay one night.”

“But won’t their guards be as exhausted as they are by the journey?” argued Usov. “This is the last town on the Highway; the last chance for them to pick up supplies. Surely they will take the opportunity to rest up for a couple of days at least?”

“If Shiminski was at the meeting,” said Tamara Karseneva, “it’s possible that the supplies are all ready and waiting for them. All they need do is replace the escort with some of Steklov’s men and they could be on their way the next morning. Izorov won’t want to keep them hanging around the town any longer than is necessary.”

“No, Abram Usov is correct,” argued Fatiev. “Think of the drivers. You can change the teams but the drivers will probably need a rest for a day or so. Besides, Steklov won’t fancy letting go of some of his own troops and having to rely upon strangers still weary from their journey. He’ll want to be ready to meet any challenge we might present him with. That must be why he’s been parading them like peacocks f

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or the past week. He’s trying to provoke us.”

“It’s not provocation,” scoffed Usov. “It’s a rehearsal. He’s planning to meet them down the road and bring them into town under his command. We’ve been watching them: they always take the same route. They come up from the South, up Alexei Street then stop by the police headquarters. Then back down Alexei Street, down Well Lane, across Market Square and straight into the barracks.”

“Or the prison?” suggested Tamara Karseneva.

There was a moment’s silence. Her husband spoke for them all when he said:

“Damn it! And all the time we didn’t see it. We must be getting slow.”

“Well, we know now,” said Usov glumly.

“So that only leaves one question unanswered,” mused David Landemann, squinting through narrowed eyes at one of the candles that was about to expire. “You still don’t know who exactly is coming.”

“Does that matter?” asked Oleg Karseneva.

“Of course it does,” said Usov and Fatiev together.

“I don’t see why,” said the Menshivik leader. “They are exiles just like us. In fact, assuming they are SPs, they are worse off. They’ll still be freezing out in whatever God forsaken spot they are dumped in when we are safely back in our hometowns. If they are still alive, that is. So what does it matter who they are?”

“Ask Usov,” suggested Fatiev cryptically. “He knows.”

Surprised, Oleg Karsenev turned to the head of the Jewish Bund. “Abram?”

Usov massaged the flesh on the back of his hand.

“It matters,” he said.

“But why?”

“Because it dictates how we respond to them. That much, I am in agreement with Fatiev, though it pains me to say so.”

Fatiev gave the ghost of a smile.

“With one exception,” Usov continued, drawing himself up, “the Jewish Socialist Bund is prepared to extend every hospitality and comfort. That exception is the man who calls himself Leon Trotsky. If Trotsky is amongst their number, then we cannot support any general motion of welcome.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” muttered Tamara Karseneva.

“God has nothing to do with it,” snapped David Landemann.

“No, David, you’re wrong,” Usov corrected him. “God has everything to do with it. We remember that of all the voices that were raised against us at the Second Congress, both in Brussels and in London, it was Trotsky’s that was the loudest and the most insistent; much louder than Lenin’s. We came expecting to be greeted in the spirit of fraternity and instead we were vilified and shut out because we insisted on following our beliefs. Trotsky made it quite plain: even though the Bund represents by far the largest membership of politically active workers, our faith barred us from participation in the Socialist struggle. Of course, it is a baseless claim, and all the more unforgiveable when it comes from one of your own race. For that, for continuing to divide Jew from gentile even within the movement that preaches the Brotherhood of Man, we can never forgive him.”

Usov’s voice had sunk to a whisper. Conscious of their gaze, he roused himself.

“And we never shall!” he declared. “Never, not until he publicly recants. We have suffered in silence for five thousand years; that is long enough. To be told that even when the Socialist Millennium dawns we are condemned to remain outcasts… to suffer further… to be told ‘Get out! You’re not one of us’… That is too much!”

“Let us see you try and bridge that gap, Tamara,” said Fatiev slyly.

“As you well know, it’s the Bund that wanted to stay separate from us,” she said wearily. “They wanted to be the only representative body for working class Jews.”

“Abram, are you saying,” asked Oleg Karsenev, “that if Trotsky is amongst the convoy the Bund will refuse to hold a collection for them or supply the things you have promised?”

“No,” replied Usov evenly. “That we shall still do. They are as persecuted as we are. As you say, they are still exiles. But just don’t expect us to welcome him as our saviour.”

“I see,” replied Oleg Karsenev.

Turing to Fatiev, he asked:

“What about you, Comrade?”

“Our position is quite clear,” replied Fatiev firmly. “Ever since the split at the Second Congress, Trotsky has lost no opportunity to attack our leaders… Lenin, even Plekhanov, the founder of our Party. He is an opportunist who only seeks to make a name for himself at the expense of party unity and the revolutionary proletariat. If he is a sincere supporter of the working class struggle against the Autocracy, he would have spoken out in support of the Moscow workers and sent them material help. But, like Krustalyov, and all the rest of them, he was scheming to betray them all the time, in the hope of forcing a counterfeit compromise from the ruling class. Now that he has finally fallen foul of the authorities, we have no intention of extending our support to him. He deserves, and will get, nothing except our contempt. Nevertheless, he is only one among many and we do not wish our distrust of Trotsky to tarnish the others. If they have been misled by his oratory, then they are paying for it now and they should be punished no further. We will welcome them with open arms and show them that, though they are out of the stream of things, we shall not waver in carrying on the struggle on their behalf, strengthened by the example they set before us.”

“I see,” said Oleg Karsenev politely. “And what does that mean, exactly? I mean, in terms of action.”

“We shall hold a spontaneous demonstration and call upon the workers, peasants and exiles of Berezovo to march out of the town to greet them. Together, we shall bring the Deputies back to Berezovo, not as prisoners but in their true colours, as heroic victims of the revolutionary struggle!”

“You’re mad!” whispered Tamara Karseneva. “The Sibirsky will cut you down like dogs.”

“We are fully aware of the risks,” Fatiev replied calmly. “But if there is any violence, it won’t be us who starts it. Our people are too well disciplined to fall prey to the crude provocations that Steklov’s men might employ.”

“If there’s any provocation,” said Usov hotly, “it will be the sight of you marching down the middle of Alexei Street waving the bloody Red Flag. Fatiev, I warn you here and now, don’t come running into the Quarter when the fighting starts. Every door will be shut against you.”

Turning to the Karsenevas, he added firmly:

“On no account can the Bund have anything to do with such a senseless act that Fatiev proposes.”

“Then it’s just as well that we have never fooled ourselves that we could rely upon what is nothing more than a party of petit bourgeois shopkeepers!” said the Bolshevick leader. “There, at least, we can agree with Trotsky.”

“But, Fatiev, isn’t there a flaw in your argument?” asked Tamara Karseneva. “Consider: a few moments ago you said these people had betrayed the proletariat by their tactics within the Soviet. Now you are proposing to stage a demonstration which has every likelihood of ending in a bloodbath, on the pretext that you are greeting them as heroes? You can’t have it both ways. So make your mind up. Which is it to be?”

“There is no contradiction!” Fatiev told her triumphantly. “The purpose of our demonstration will be quite simply to continue the struggle against the armed might of the State. At the same time, we’ll be showing the Petersburg comrades, by our own example, that not only is the struggle continuing, but that even here we are able to mobilise support from amongst the peasantry for a militant campaign of action on their behalf. And after the demonstration, this campaign will be sustained with meetings and debates for the period that they are with us, in order to drive home to the workers and peasants of Berezovo the essentially oppressive nature of the society in which they live and to expose the fallacy of policies that promote peaceful coexistence or passive resistance, by confronting the forces of the tyrant Nicholas face to face. We have no illusions, Comrades! The prisoners that are soon to arrive are in the position they are in because, when it came to the sticking point, they refused to confront the forces of terror. We, in the vanguard of the revolutionary proletariat, we never deserted them. They deserted us.”

“Then you intend to turn Berezovo into a bloodbath?” demanded Oleg Karseneva. “A second Moscow?”

“That is not what I said. Don’t try and misquote me! What I said was that the rev…”

“Oh come on, Fatiev!” Tamara Karseneva snapped impatiently. “You’re not talking to a bunch of starry-eyed students now! Violent confrontation: yes or no?”

“I repeat,” Fatiev persisted stubbornly. “We shall hold a mass meeting…”

“A mass meeting?” she echoed and crowed with laughter. “How many of you are there? Ten? Twelve?”

“You’ve forgotten Chazowski, haven’t you?” Fatiev reminded her grimly. “Why do you think old Izorov has put a guard on his door and not on yours? It’s because he is not afraid of you or what this precious Quarter thinks. But with us, he knows he’s walking on a knife edge. He thinks that if the Socialist Revolutionaries are neutralised, he will be able to roll us up and to sleep safely at night. Well, with their help, we are going to prove him wrong.”

“You’re bluffing, Fatiev. The Essers will never support you,” said Oleg Karsenev. “They hate your guts.”

Fatiev grinned.

“That’s as may be,” he conceded. “We have our differences but they won’t want to miss an opportunity to strike a blow against the Izorovs and the Steklovs of this world, even if it means a temporary truce with us.”

“And with Chazowski under house arrest, they would come under your command?” asked Usov. “That should make them feel safe! Of course, you’ll be putting them in the front line?”

Fatiev didn’t answer. Glancing at her husband, Tamara Karseneva shook her head resignedly.

“As far as we are concerned,” Oleg Karsenev said, “we will side with you, Abram. We cannot condone the use of violence when innocent blood will be shed for no practical purpose.”

“In the revolutionary struggle,” declared Fatiev, “there are no innocents.”

“You’ll be on your own, Fatiev,” warned Usov.

“Then so be it!”

Chapter Twelve

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Saturday 10th February 1907


Chevanin awoke with the imprint of Yeliena’s kiss still burning on his lips. Hurriedly he squeezed his eyes shut, unwilling to lose the memory of her embrace; but she was gone. When he opened them again all he saw was the rectangular outline of his bedroom’s window, grey in the morning light. Bereft of her presence, he fought to recapture the dream of her warm body against his. She had seemed so real that his skin was still tingling from the memory of her caress. But, no, she had gone; what remained was the cooling heat of his own excitement.

Glancing around the room he took in the ice on the windows, the room’s shabby furniture and its bare, unswept floorboards. As an experiment, he exhaled vigorously and saw his breath turn at once to vapour.

I could never bring her here,  he thought.

The open pages of the script that lay on the floor by his bed caught his eye. Smiling, he retreated further under the bedclothes. There had been a moment earlier in the week, lying to Dr. Tortsov in the surgery, when he thought that events were all going to go catastrophically wrong; but they hadn’t. It had been just as well, he told himself, that he had insisted on accompanying his employer to see the Hospital Administrator. For most of the short interview, the Doctor had only stared murderously at Tolkach, while he, Anton Ivanovich, had done most of the talking. Goat’s Foot’s idea had been sound but it had been his own genius that had turned the opportunity into such a victory. Tolkach had been compliant; it had been simplicity itself to persuade him to accept the more prominent role. Securing the part of the Bear opposite Yeliena – that had been a brilliant manoeuvre; a skilful masterstroke.

“It’s probably the bravest thing I have ever done,” he said aloud.

Reaching out from beneath the bedclothes, he picked up the script from the floor. The night before he had read it… how many times? Three? Four? At least three, he recalled. He had read until the flickering light from the oil lamp had made his eyes weary and the words blur on the page. He was not word perfect yet, but he felt he knew his lines well enough to give a convincing rendition at the read through that morning.

Turning onto his back, he stretched, luxuriating in the knowledge that there was no surgery that morning. The memory of Yeliena Tortsova still vibrated like a finely tuned wire through his mind. She had persuaded the Doctor to loan him an extra blanket, saying that it was vital that her leading man did not catch his death of cold before the performance.

My leading man , he thought smugly.

He knew her now to be the first love of his years of manhood; the others had been mere girls. Without her, all the success in the world would count as nothing. And success would come, he was assured of it. He would be an excellent actor, he told himself. An excellent actor and a great doctor. Greater even than Dr. Tortsov, who probably had a larger practice in terms of area than any other medical practitioner in Russia, or Europe or, for that matter, the entire world excepting Africa. Young medical students would cut his photographic portrait out of popular magazines and paste it on the inside covers of their manuscript books; or mount it on the walls of their lodgings behind chipped wooden frames and inscribe below it the legend: “Dr. A. I. CHEVANIN. Father of 20th Century Russian Medicine.” Wealthy magnates, Ministers of State, even members of the Imperial Family itself, would send for him, begging him to attend midnight bedsides. In elegant ante rooms, physicians would stand in huddled groups, saying anxiously to each other: “Thank God he was at home. If anyone can pull her through, it’s Chevanin.” When he was old and in St. Petersburg, people would doff their hats to him as he was driven past in his Benz motor carriage and say to their children: “Look! There goes Dr. Chevanin, the Saviour of Tobolsk.”

In less time than it took to bat an eyelid, his imagination had taken a leap, passing through half a century, and he saw himself sitting in his spacious and well heated drawing room, smiling sadly at the memory of Yeliena Tortsov while his grandchildren played innocently around his feet upon the richly textured carpet. As he watched their aristocratic faces (he had done well!) it seemed to him that every great man had a secret circumstance upon which his greatness depended. What this circumstance was he found hard to describe, even to himself. It was more than genius or talent or hard work. Often it was an irritant that acted on the man, in the same way that a grain of sand became an oyster pearl. All he knew was that he would never tell of their love: not to his wife, his children, or his children’s children. Only when he died, and after a period of mourning, would his executors be instructed to place in the archives of the Imperial College the single clue he would leave. A letter sealed with blue wax perhaps; a golden locket containing a lock of her hair: a faded and creased playbill of a long forgotten comedy. It would be the final piece of the jigsaw, the human piece, that would enhance and not degrade his memory. Smirking up at the ceiling, he thought of how the academics and official biographers would tut-tut. The students would understand: once, long ago, he too had been young and had loved with a passion that only the young can know; in a world no doubt very different from their own.

In fifty years’ time he would be seventy-six; that, he reasoned, would be a good time to die. Things were changing faster and faster. Fifty years before, serfdom had been a way of life for millions; now its oppression had gone. Already there was talk of a railway line linking the Ob estuary to Archangel. Imagine! Even ten years ago such a project would have been inconceivable. It seemed that the new century had dawned as the era of the possible. Try as hard as he would, he could not imagine what kind of country Russia would be in 1957. Richer, more liberal and more advanced, certainly, but the inner Russia, the real Russia, that would remain unchanged; if it changed at all, it could only be for the better. It would be a country where professional merit earned its just rewards and his generation would be the first to benefit from it. And he, Anton Ivanovich Chevanin, would be the first amongst his generation.

But to achieve all that , he chided himself, I would have to start now. Perhaps it’s already too late! 

Suddenly he felt impatient to be up and doing. The bed, only a moment before a dreaming couch to while away the hours, had become a clinging trap. He felt stifled by the weight of the blankets and the stale smell of the sheets. Summoning up his energy, he threw back the bedclothes, sending the script sailing across the room. He was determined to make a new start.

Planting his feet on the bare floorboards, he stood up quickly. For a second or two his head swam and the room seemed to fade away.

Was this Love, he wondered, robbing him of his senses when he needed them most?

He shook his head violently trying to clear his dizziness.

“Oh dear! Chevanin the Poet!” he said aloud.

He had risen too quickly, that was all. The sudden movement had disturbed the canal fluid in the inner ear, exacerbated by an overexcited nervous system.

Ah! But what was the prime motive for such violent movement, such excitement,  he asked himself, if it was not Love? 

Pleased with his reasoning, he stretched again, pulled off his nightshirt and stood naked in the middle of the room, one hand vigorously scratching the sparse hairs on his chest.

“The perfect man,” he announced to the room, “has the mind of a scientist, and the heart of the artist.”

The chill of the room enveloped him. Shivering, he dragged the blanket from the bed and wrapped himself in it. Walking quickly over to the room’s single window, he lifted a corner of its ragged curtain and used it to wipe away the film of dust and grime. From what he saw as he peered out, he deduced that it was later than he had thought. Exhausted by their journey so far north, the sun’s beams shone weakly over the uneven roofs of the Jewish Quarter, almost lacking the strength to give colour to the drab buildings. All was grey and black, like a photographic plate that had been rejected as unworthy of tinting. Drawing back the curtain to let in more light, he hurried to the clothes that lay draped over his chair, then changed his mind. He would wear his Sunday suit to the reading and the newly laundered shirt that he had been saving for the Sunday service.

As he began to dress, he made some rapid calculations. By the position of the sun, it must be at least half past eight o’clock and the first read through of the play was due to commence promptly at ten o’ clock. To arrive at the schoolhouse late would be unforgiveable, yet to arrive too early would make him appear foolish. Feeling too enervated for breakfast, he decided to spend the time shaving instead. Laying the freshly ironed shirt out on his bed, he began to search for the tie that Yeliena had given him for his name day. He would wear it every time they rehearsed together. It would be his signal to her. But where was it?

Faintly, he heard the bell of Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary toll nine times. Swearing to himself, he abandoned his search for her tie. There were too many other things to do. He had to boil up the water so that he could shave; polish his boots and still allow himself a good twenty minutes to walk to the schoolroom without hurrying. Pulling on the trousers of his best suit, he began to fumble with the buttons. There was no time to lose.

When he reached the schoolhouse, Chevanin found that Alexander Maslov had arrived before him and was already busy feeding fuel into the single plate stove. Chevanin’s expression of disappointment mirrored that of the librarian.

“Good morning, Chevanin,” said Maslov, carrying an armful of sawn logs to the stove. “It really is too bad of Nikolai Dresnyakov not to have already heated this room for us. He knew very well that we would be using it for our first rehearsal. I don’t know what the Doctor will say when he finds it so cold.”

When the librarian straightened up, Chevanin saw that the logs he had been carrying had covered the front of his jacket with wood flakes. Reluctantly, he offered to help, but Maslov refused.

“No, thank you. Very kind of you, but it won’t be necessary. These things have to be done and as I took care to arrive in plenty of time, naturally I have to do it. Though why the Doctor did not take up my offer to let him have the library for his rehearsals eludes me. It’s far more comfortable than this place.”

Divesting himself of his worn overcoat, the Doctor’s assistant walked over to stand beside the stove and congratulated Maslov as he did so on the heat he had already conjured.

Mollified, Maslov began brushing himself down.

“You look very smart today,” he remarked, returning the compliment. “Is it somebody’s name day?”

“No, Alexander Vissarionovich. I just felt like dressing up.”

“Yes, but you should take care, you know,” Maslov said seriously. “It wouldn’t do to become known as a fop.”

“A fop?” Chevanin repeated, laughing. “I don’t think I will ever be that.”

“A good thing too. People want someone sensible and down to earth when they are ill,” warned the librarian, adding, “all the same, it’s quite proper for a gentleman to take pains over his appearance. So many young people nowadays dress as if their house had just burnt down.”

Maslov joined him by the stove as, high above them, the church bell tolled the hour. Pulling out a pocket watch, he consulted it and shook his head despondently.

“Ten o’clock. You would think that the Doctor would be in time for the first reading, wouldn’t you? As it is, he’s left himself precious little time to direct his plays. I calculate that we can only have nine rehearsals, including the dress rehearsal, before the curtain goes up and I don’t believe that he’s seen Belinsky yet about the scenery.”

“I’m sure the Doctor will manage,” replied Chevanin loyally.

“Yes, but is ‘managing’ enough? I do hope that you don’t intend to keep him long with whatever business it is you have with him. It’s essential that everything runs according to time. I have promised Nicolai Dresnyakov that I would return the keys to him before his luncheon and I have to close the library at one o’ clock.”

Chevanin looked at him blankly.

“What business?”

“Whatever business it is you are here to see him about,” said Maslov, picking off the last of the wood flakes off the sleeves of his jacket with fastidious care.

“But I am here about the play,” Chevanin explained. “I am playing the part of Smirnov, ‘The Bear’.”

“No, no, no!” exclaimed Maslov testily. “Modest Tolkach is playing the Bear.”

“I beg to correct you, Alexander Vissarionovich, but on Thursday the Doctor gave Modest Tolkach the role of Tolkachov. We all had quite a long talk about it and it was decided that the part of Smirnov was too small for Modest Alexeivich’s talents. So I am taking it over instead.”

“Tolkach is playing the lead ‘Tolkachov’ in the Tragedian ?” asked Maslov in disbelief.


“But… but… that’s impossible!” protested the librarian loudly. “What happened to Svortsov? I thought…”

“He changed his mind.”

“But Tolkach is nothing like Tolkachov! For a start, Tolkachov still has a wife – that’s the whole point of the play!”

“Perhaps it is what is meant by ‘dramatic licence’,” suggested Chevanin mischievously.

“My God!” cried Maslov, clutching his forehead. “But that means I will be playing opposite him.”

A gust of cold air swept the schoolroom as the outer door was opened and then rapidly closed again. A few seconds later the thick curtain that covered it was lifted to reveal the bundled figure of Dimitri Borisovich Skyralenko.

“Good morning, Chevanin! Good morning, Maslov!” he greeted them cheerfully. “It looks as if it’s getting set for a blow again.”

“Dimitri Borisovich, is what I hear true?” Maslov demanded.

“The weather?” asked Skyralenko vaguely, surprised by the librarian’s belligerent tone. “Oh yes, I should think so.”

“No, not the weather! Is it true what Chevanin has just told me? He says that Doctor Tortsov has given him the part of the ‘Bear’ instead of Modest Tolkach?”

“Oh, has he? Congratulations, Chevanin! Welcome to our merry band. I must say,” the gaoler added confidentially, “I much prefer the idea of acting with you rather than with Modest Tolkach. The man is an ogre!”

“That’s just what I was saying,” interrupted Maslov. “And now Chevanin tells me that Modest Alexeivich is to play opposite me instead!”

“O ho!” cried Skyralenko, clapping the unhappy librarian on the back. “Bad luck, Alexander Vissarionovich! But don’t worry, we won’t let him eat you!”

“That’s good of you,” observed Maslov. “But what I want to know is…”

But whatever it was the town’s librarian wanted to know the other two men were never to learn, for at that moment another icy blast announced the arrival of Doctor Tortsov and Madame Tortsova.

“Ah, heat!” the Doctor exclaimed, as he held up the door curtain for his wife to pass through. “Anton Ivanovich, make room for Yeliena Mihailovna, there’s a good fellow. Good morning Dimitri Borisovich! Good morning Alexander Vissarionovich! Ready for the fray?”

Maslov returned his greeting coldly.

“Doctor, what’s this I hear about Modest Tolkach being transferred to the part of Tolkachov? Is this true?”

Dr. Tortsov glanced quickly at Chevanin, who grimaced apologetically.

“Yes, well,” he answered evasively, “we thought that the part of the ‘Bear’ was too small for a man of Modest Alexeivich’s talents. He’s far happier playing the part of Tolkachov. It’s something he can get his teeth into.”

“I’m sure that he will play it perfectly,” agreed Madame Tortsova brightly. “The part of the ‘Bear’ really wasn’t suitable for him at all.”

“It’s all very irregular,” lamented Maslov. “All this chopping and changing at the last moment. It alters everything. I will have to change the advertisements and the printing on the playbill…”

“Come, come, Alexander Vissarionovich!” interrupted the Doctor briskly. “We haven’t even started yet. These are early days.”

But the librarian was not to be so easily placated.

“Vasili Semionovich!” he announced, drawing himself up in a pose of offended dignity, “As my director, it is only proper that you know I have very serious reservations about appearing on the same stage as that man. I may have to reconsider my position.”

“Oh really, Maslov!” Skyralenko chided him good naturedly. “What are you worried about? He won’t hurt you. You’re a man!”

Dr. Tortsov, Yeliena and Chevanin glanced knowingly at each other.

“Very well, Maslov,” responded the Doctor. “Since we are not reading your play until half past eleven, I will give you until then to reach your decision. In the meantime, I consider it only proper that I acquaint Modest Tolkach with your reluctance to act opposite him, so that he too might have the same opportunity to withdraw.”

The librarian looked at him aghast.

“No, Vasili Semionovich! There’s really no need to do that.”

“I’m afraid that you leave me with no alternative. It’s the only honourable way.”

“At least,” Maslov pleaded, “don’t speak to him until I have considered what is best for the production.”

Smiling grimly, Dr. Tortsov nodded his assent.

“Very well. Until then, would you mind leaving us to get on with reading The Bear ? We are already running a little late, I fancy.”

“If you like, I could stay,” offered Maslov. “In case you should need assistance with the stage directions and so on.”

“There’s no need, I assure you,” the Doctor replied.

Looking from one face to another, the librarian failed to detect any enthusiasm for his remaining. With as much dignity as he could muster, he took his leave.

As the outer door closed behind him, Dr. Tortsov let out a sigh of relief.

“Alexander Vissarionovich can be such an old woman at times.”

“That’s very unfair, Vasili,” his wife corrected him gently. “Old women don’t act like that at all. For example, Madame Wrenskaya would have slammed the door shut.”

“Or at least ordered her maid to do it,” joked Chevanin.

“Perhaps you’re right,” said the Doctor. “Enough of that. It’s time to get to work.”

Seating himself at Nicolai Dresnyakov’s desk, he signalled to the three players that they should take their places on the front bench. With great ceremony, he took his reading spectacles from his pocket and settled them comfortably on the bridge of his nose.

“Let us begin,” he intoned solemnly.

Opening his copy of the play

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script the Doctor began to read aloud.

The Bear , by Anton Chekhov. Characters: Elena Ivanovna Popova, a landowning little widow with dimples on her cheeks.”

Peering over the rim of his spectacles, he smiled at his wife.

“That’s you, my dear.”

“Yes, Vasili. I know.”

“Gregory Stepanovich Smirnov: a middle aged landowner. That’s you, Anton Ivanovich. Don’t worry about the padding. I have already made plans for that.”

“Thank you, Vasili Semionovich.”

Chevanin smiled warmly at Yeliena, who was sitting on the other side of the prison director.

I must find her tie , he thought. I should be wearing the tie she gave me .

“And Luka: Madame Popova’s faithful assistant,” continued the Doctor. “That’s you, Dimitri Borisovich. I don’t think we shall need any extra padding for you, eh?”

“If you say not, Doctor!” agreed Skyralenko cheerfully.

Leaning back in his chair, Dr. Tortsov peered benignly at the expectant faces of the three people in front of him.

“This morning,” he explained, “we shall just read the play through to get the sense of it. There will be nothing complicated to do. Please bear in mind that I would like to be finished with you and let you go before the cast of the second play arrive for their reading.”

Holding out his copy of the script at arm’s length in front of him, Skyralenko asked:

“Shall I start?”

“One moment,” said the Doctor. “I shall just set the scene.”

Clearing his throat, he began to read.

“A drawing room in Madame Popova’s house. Madame Popova is dressed in deep mourning and has her eyes fixed on a photograph. Luka,” he announced, pointing to Skyralenko, “is haranguing her. That’s your cue, Dimitri Borisovich.”

Taking out his fountain pen, Dr. Tortsov wrote the word “photograph” quickly in the margin of his copy of the script. As he did so, Chevanin stole a glance again at Madame Tortsova and their eyes met over Skyralenko’s bowed head. Oblivious to the silent communication that was passing between them, the Prison Director began to read in a loud declamatory style.

“It isn’t right, Madame… You’re simply killing yourself!”

Chapter Thirteen

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Saturday 10th February 1907


Standing at the window of his office, Colonel Izorov watched as on the opposite side of the street Madame Kuibysheva walked casually through the front doors of the Hotel New Century. He had seen Leonid Kavelin enter less than five minutes before and he was glad that, as yet, it was no business of his. Illya Kuibyshev had been gone the best part of two months. Too long, thought Izorov, to leave a wife like Irena Kuibysheva.

Thinking about the fur merchant, he found that he was mildly curious as to the reason for his prolonged absence. He had heard the rumours, of course: there were always rumours. Kuibyshev was prospecting for gold in Mongolia. Kuibyshev was in Paris, negotiating another Loan for the Imperial Treasury. Kuibyshev was behind the railway consortium that would link the Ob estuary to Archangel, in order that his furs would no longer have to go through Petersburg but could be sold direct to the hungry Western markets. Kuibyshev had been arrested in a police raid on a house of assignation. Kuibyshev had been assassinated by anarchists in Moscow. His wife had paid to have him kidnapped and murdered on the road…

Whatever the truth was, the Colonel reasoned, as long as nobody shot anybody within the town’s environs, he would be satisfied. It was, in every sense of the term, a domestic affair.

Turning from the window, he reached for his greatcoat and put it on. With the exception of killing each other, he did not mind how Kavelin and Kuibyshev settled their dispute. Like the exiles and the Quarter, the barines  had their own law. Providing nobody from outside their circle was involved, each of the groups could do as much as they pleased. And, in the light of the lucrative orders he had received for the wood to make the convoy’s sleighs, it was little wonder that the timber merchant believed that his luck would hold. Let him enjoy Fortune’s season. Besides, he reasoned, a fellow as sick with lust as he was no use to man nor beast. Best to let him get it out of his system.

Let Kavelin have his fun, the dog, and good luck to him!  he thought as he took his fur hat down from its peg. When Kuibyshev returns there will be a reckoning to pay. 

Buttoning up his overcoat, the Chief of Police left his lair and crossed the Charge room to the outer door of the uchastok . Opening it, he sniffed the chill morning air. A blow was coming, he was certain, and he wondered for a moment by how many hours it might delay the arrival of the convey. Turning up his collar, he watched a group of workmen that had gathered at the foot of the Town Hall steps. In the middle of them stood the Mayor’s secretary, gesticulating awkwardly as he tried to convey the dimensions and design of the official dais his master had ordered them to build. He appeared to be having some success for, as the Chief of Police looked on, two of the workmen started digging their heels into the packed snow on the ground, testing it for hardness. Others began striding off in different directions, calling out the number of paces.

Smothering a grin, Colonel Izorov turned away and walked slowly along the wooden sidewalk towards the corner of Well Street. When he had reached the corner, he stood looking towards the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and began mentally checking off the positions his men would be taking the following day. All streets to the south of Alexei Street that led to the Quarter would be sealed off and extra men would be posted at regular intervals along the main thoroughfare. Steklov’s troops would have to do the rest, he decided. Slowly turning, he let his eyes follow the wide road back to the Town Hall. He would have just enough men, if no one reported sick.

As his gaze fell upon the artistically dressed windows of Delyanov’s haberdashery emporium, a frown creased his brow. He dimly recalled his wife asking him the evening before to purchase something from the store. Now what had it been?

He remembered: a spool of thread. Burying his chin deeper into his collar, he descended the steps into the road and carefully began picking his way over the frozen ruts to the other side.

Delyanov’s was crowded and noisy. As the Colonel pushed open the door, a small bell rang faintly above his head. Seeing him enter, the shop’s owner pushed his way through the throng to greet him.

“Good afternoon, Colonel! This is an honour. How may we help you?”

“I need some thread,” Izorov said, undoing his greatcoat. “One of the button holes on my tunic has become worn and my wife suggested I came to you.”

Amidst the press of people, Delyanov examined the buttonhole closely. The large silver button on his uniform had worn away the stitching, making the hole an ugly gash.

“Yes Colonel, I think we can help you,” he assured him.

Turning, he called out above the heads around him to one of the women serving behind the glass topped counter.

“Mademoiselle Ordnitsova! Please attend to the Colonel at once. He requires a spool of Prussian Blue number nine.”

With an ingratiating bow, the haberdasher excused himself and disappeared once more into the crowd, cajoling those of his customers that would listen to be patient until his assistants had time to serve them.

Making his way to the counter Delyanov had indicated, Colonel Izorov waited while the young woman replaced a bolt of material that she had been cutting. She had her back to him, and while he waited, he admired her trim figure and her attractively dressed auburn hair. They were strangely familiar but he was quite unprepared to discover, on her turning round to face him, that ‘Mademoiselle Ordnitsova’ was none other than Tamara Karseneva, the wife of Oleg Karsenev, the leader of one of Berezovo’s two RSDLP exile factions.

“Good afternoon, Colonel,” she greeted him coolly. “Was that Prussian Blue number nine you wanted?”

“Well, you are full of surprises!” he chuckled. “‘Ordnitsova’? Is that another alias?”

She did not smile.

“Of sorts. It was my maiden name. I am sure that you have it written down somewhere on my file, if you care to look.”

“I’m sure I do,” he agreed, cheerfully. “Still, one learns something new every day.”

“So it seems. Now, how can I help you?”

“Do you often work here?” he asked, still intrigued by her presence in the shop.

“Most Saturdays. My permanent employer, Abelman, observes the Jewish Sabbath, so I have the day free.”

“After so much hard work I expect you look forward to the evening.”

“It makes for a long week, but I don’t complain. Delyanov pays well enough.”

Colonel Izorov nodded sympathetically. Of all the exiles, the woman in front of him was possibly the easiest to hold a normal conversation with. There was something within her that was missing from the others, even from her husband. When she spoke to him, it was as if they were equals whom capricious Fortune had placed on opposing sides. It was not a matter of braggadocio, more of an inner respect for herself that kept her civil and unflustered at all times. He did not doubt that she was a resourceful and intelligent woman, nor that, given the opportunity, she could be dangerous; far more dangerous than the sullen rioters and back room orators that made up the majority of the exiles under his jurisdiction.

“Well,” he said, “I hope that you get a good rest tomorrow. You have earned it.”

He had intended this remark to be an innocent pleasantry; a reference only to the crowded shop and the queue of clamouring customers. His voice had contained no trace of subtle meaning yet he saw that his words had, for some reason, struck home. He sensed the woman tense.

“On the contrary,” she said slowly, “I am expecting tomorrow to be even more difficult.”

Like a grazing beast sniffing the wind, Colonel Izorov raised his head and stared down into her unflinching eyes, noting how she was not distracted by the shoppers pressing around him. Somewhere near the back of the shop, he could hear Delyanov crying out: “Now ladies, please! One at a time!”

“Why should tomorrow prove such a difficult day?” he asked casually. “It’s meant to be a day of rest.”

“Oh, I shall rest,” she replied evenly. “I do not even intend to set foot outside the house.”

“And your husband? Will he too be resting?”

“Yes. Most probably. All our  friends will be resting.”

Her emphasis of the word “our” dissolved any doubts he might have had. For reasons best known to herself, the co-leader of the moderate wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was telling him that their group knew all about the expected arrival of the convoy on the following day, and that they did not plan to meet it with a demonstration. But why was she doing this? Whatever Ordnitsova/Karseneva was, she would never stoop to being an informer. Yet she had taken this opportunity, this chance encounter, to give him the excuse he needed for making wholesale preventative arrests. Her behaviour baffled him until he realised that she had recognised his predicament. How could he detain her people if the prison and the barracks were already full? He could neither spare the guards nor the time. She knew about the convoy and she knew about the prison.

“Then the Quarter will be very quiet,” he said guardedly.

“Yes,” she confirmed, “the Quarter will be quiet.”

Colonel Izorov became conscious of the pressure of people around him. Somewhere to his right, a customer began tapping a coin impatiently on the glass top of the counter, trying to attract attention. Tamara Karseneva glanced crossly at the woman and then returned her attention to the Chief of Police.

Colonel Izorov frowned, feeling that he was being too slow for her. What was she trying to say? If only he could formulate the right question she would be able to tell him.

“Excuse me Colonel, but as you can see we are extremely busy. What is it that you require the thread for, exactly?”

He pointed to the frayed button hole and she leant across the counter so that she could examine it more closely.

“Monsieur Delyanov said that I needed Prussian Blue number nine,” he said aloud, adding quietly, “why should there be any difficulty?”

Straightening up, she stepped away from the counter and appeared not have heard him. He watched, as bending down, she pulled out a tray from under the display case and placed it on the glass top for his inspection.

“There are others,” she remarked cryptically, as she indicated the tightly packed spools of thread.

Chazowski and the SRs , he thought. She doesn’t know about them. 

“They have been taken care of,” he said affably as he leant over the tray of multi-coloured reels.

Tamara Karseneva shook her head.

“Only one sort,” she corrected him. “There are others, very similar to it.”

Picking up two reels of cotton she held them in her hand for his inspection. Both were dark blue, but one was of a slightly darker hue than the other. Removing the lighter one, and placing it back on the tray, she held the other one up for his inspection.

“My employer is mistaken. You should be looking for a harder thread. May I suggest this one? It is called Imperial Blue. As you can see, people who are in a hurry might confuse it with the other one, but it’s quite different. That one,” she added, pointing dismissively to the spool she had discarded, “is Prussian number nine. It’s only suitable for light repairs such as I might need, or for dressmaking.”

“And the other one?” he prompted. “I suppose that it is more resilient?”

“Oh yes, without a doubt,” she assured him. “In fact, it positively thrives on wear and tear.”

Colonel Izorov held out his hand and she dropped the spool of Imperial Blue thread into his gloved palm.

“Then I shall take it,” he said with a smile. “How much is it, please?”

“Twelve copecks, Colonel.”

Producing a rouble note, he handed it to her.

“I am grateful for your help, Mademoiselle Ordnitsova. Please keep the change.”

She pushed the note back to him, as if it had scalded her.

“Oh no, Colonel!” she said sternly. “Make no mistake! I do not accept gratuities. That is against the policy of the house! This is strictly business. You must pay at the cash desk, like everybody else.”

“As you wish,” he said.

With a slight inclination of his head as a salute, he left the counter and forced his way across the crowded floor to the small cash desk in the corner of the shop.

A few minutes later, he emerged from Delyanov’s, his purchase still clasped securely in his hand. Looking at it thoughtfully, he began walking in the direction of The Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When he had reached the corner of the street by the bakery, he stood for a moment, turning Ordnitsova/Karseneva’s words over in his mind. How  she had known no longer mattered to him. She could have learned of the convoy in a dozen different ways: from the prison; from the carpenters, like Doctor Tortsov; from someone who worked in the kitchens at the Hotel New Century. What was important now was to destroy the threat she had hinted at. And if the SRs had been nullified and the Jewish Bund in the Quarter and the Karseneva faction of the Social Democrats were lying low, by simple deduction he now knew from which direction the threat was likely to come.

Catching sight of one of his men on the far side of the street, Izorov beckoned him to come over. When the man stood in front of him, he said:

“Go back to Headquarters and tell the sergeant to take two men and arrest Fatiev. I want him in front of my desk within the hour. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Colonel!”

The man saluted and turned to go but Colonel Izorov called him back.

“One more thing,” he added quietly, “tell the sergeant to bring him in bleeding. I want the bastard hurt .”

Colonel Izorov watched the man cross the road. When he saw him enter the uchastok  he turned and almost collided with Madame Pobednyev, who had come round the corner seconds before.

“I am so sorry, Madame Pobednyeva!” he apologised. “Please forgive me.”

“Oh, Colonel, you gave me quite a shock!” exclaimed the Mayor’s wife breathlessly. “I was just on my way to Delyanov’s to buy a pair of gloves for tomorrow.”

She nodded meaningfully in the direction of the Town Hall. Following her gaze, he saw that several piles of timber had already been brought to the bottom of the steps and were being laid out under the secretary’s direction.

“Isn’t it exciting, Colonel? I do hope you have enough men to guard us all.”

Colonel Izorov assured her that her husband and all the other councillors would be protected within a ring of steel.

“In fact,” he added, “I was just on my way down to the Highway to complete the arrangements for the town’s security, so if you would excuse me…”

But she detained him, moving closer and lowering her voice conspiratorially so that he had to stoop to hear her.

“Is that the way they are coming?” she asked, nodding towards the direction of the church.

“Yes,” he confided. “The moment they enter the town, they will have an armed guard of Captain Steklov’s finest men, who are under orders not to leave their side until they are safely in my hands.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” breathed Madame Pobednyeva. “I’m sure that the soldiers will look splendid. But don’t think you are the only one to be making preparations. I too have made my plans!”


“Yes! After going to Delyanov’s, I am paying a call to Fyodor Gregorivich at the Hotel, to make sure that he only serves tea and small wine at the reception. I know you men,” she added, wagging a finger at him playfully. “You start drinking early in the day, there will only be trouble, and you don’t want a riot on your hands, do you?”

To her surprise, the Chief of Police threw back his head and gave a loud bellow of laughter.

“No, Madame Pobednyev, that wouldn’t do at all! Tell Fyodor Gregorivich that you have my full support. Otherwise,” he joked, “the prison will be so full of Councillors that I shall be forced to put our visitors in the Town Hall!”

“Colonel, really!” cried Madame Pobednyeva, appalled by his suggestion. “Don’t make such jokes. That’s a terrible thing to say!”

Still laughing heartily, the policeman saluted her and took his leave. Uneasily, Madame Pobednyeva watched him go.

You never know with Kostya Izorov,  she thought to herself. You can never be quite sure whether he’s joking or not .

A snowflake settled on the sleeve of her coat, and then another. Telling herself not to be so foolish, she continued on her way.

For Matriona Pobednyeva the day had been one full of petty frustration, beginning with the discovery that the gloves she had ordered from Tiumen the previous September did not match her new winter outfit. Of the outfit itself, she had no complaint, although she had told the tailor Polezhayev she thought it too full at the back. But what use was her smart new outfit without the proper gloves? With her husband too occupied with putting the finishing flourishes to his speech, the house had become intolerable. She had called upon Irena Kuibysheva, in the hope that she might be able to advise her, only to be told by the maid that her mistress had been forced by a severe attack of migraine to retire to her bed. And now that she had finally reached Delyanov’s, it was starting to blow!

With a look of determination on her face, she pushed open the door of the haberdashers and began to force her way through the scrimmage of customers, moving through the crowd like a small ice breaker along the Ob at springtime, crying out as she went:

“Excuse me! Excuse me, please! Oh, do watch where you are going! Excuse me!”

At the back of the shop Delyanov, balancing precariously on the top rung of a wooden ladder, was busy searching through an ancient hat box full of veil gauze. Hearing her shrill cries, he too started calling out to the customers of the floor of the shop to let her pass.

“Make way please! Make way for the Mayor’s wife! Allow Madame Pobednyeva to come through.”

Thrusting the dusty hat box at one of his assistants, he gingerly climbed down the steps, pausing only to wipe his hands on a piece of discarded felt before he went to greet her.

“Good afternoon, Madame. What a day! As you can see, the whole world shops at Delyanov’s!”

“So it would appear,” replied Madame Pobednyev, wincing as a second person trod on her toes.

“How can we help you?”

Opening her black tasselled reticule, she drew out a small scrap of the material Polezhayev had returned to her.

“I need some gloves to match this. Can you find some for me?”

Holding up the scrap of cloth to the light, Delyanov regarded it doubtfully.

“I can try,” he said at last. “There are some boxes out in my stockroom that came up about a fortnight ago. There might be something in there.”

“Do try,” she urged him. “It’s so very important.”

With a bow, he disappeared behind that curtain that separated the front of the shop from the storeroom in the rear.

Seeing him depart, the noise in the shop grew louder. The customers began to jostle each other as they fought for the attention of the harassed assistants. In the crush, Madame Pobednyev felt a heel descend upon her toes and she let out an involuntary whoop of pain.

She tapped the shoulder of the woman beside her sharply.

“Do you mind?” she shouted. “You nearly broke my foot.”

Turning, the woman, a shawled harridan from the poorer section of the town, regarded her stonily and would have said something in reply if a young male assistant had not stopped in front of them and asked despairingly who required his service. Seeing her chance, the old woman elbowed Madame Pobednyev brutally aside.

“Two arshines of red flannel please. And the same in lining.”

Madame Pobednyev shuddered as the crowd pressed her closer to her neighbours. The woman smelt unpleasantly strong and her slack accent spoke of the back streets around Jew Alley.

“How red do you want it?” asked the assistant wearily. “Pink? Crimson?”

“Scarlet!” replied the woman. “And it must be strong enough to hang without tearing.”

Unaware of the revolutionary purpose for which the material was destined, the Mayor’s wife shook her head in disgust.

Scarlet curtains!  she said to herself. There’s common. 

Hearing the sound of the bell at the front of the shop she turned to see Tatyana Kavelina enter the shop accompanied Raisa Izminskaya. She waved her hand in greeting. The two women responded in kind but remained standing together uncertainly in the doorway.

“Oh, this shop is impossible!” exclaimed Raisa Izminskaya to her friend. “It’s always so crowded. I only want to buy some ribbon for a petticoat.”

“Who’s that for?” asked Tatyana Kavelina meaningfully. “Surely not Fyodor Fyodorovich?”

The banker’s wife smiled.

“Hope springs eternal,” she said.

Laughing, Tatyana Kavelina took her arm and pulled her gently back into the street.

“Let’s leave this crowd. We could be an hour here. I have some ribbon at home which I will send over to you.”

“No, don’t send it,” said her friend hastily, patting her hand. “Bring it over when you come to my house for English tea this afternoon.”

“Am I coming to tea?”

“Yes. Gvordyen has sent over a box of his new biscuits which he has baked especially for the reception tomorrow. We can try them, just you and I.”

“That would be wonderful,” said Tatyana. “It’s been such a long time since we have had a good opportunity to sit and talk.”

“Yes, far too long,” her friend agreed.

Chapter Fourteen

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Saturday 10th February 1907

Great Tobolsk Highway

The convoy had halted about half a verst from the village settlement, the name of which the exiles had yet to learn. This time, fed up with the trouble that his corporal had stirred up during the last three stops, the sergeant had elected to go on ahead with two of the guards. The sleighs were drawn up in two rows along the brow of a hill, their passengers quiet under the watchful eye of the remaining soldiers.

Sverchkov, still weakened by the after effects of his illness, sat beside Trotsky in the lead sleigh listening contentedly to his comrade’s description of how the scene reminded him of a copy of a painting he had once seen on his travels in Europe. About ten yards away their driver stood talking with the other drivers, their breaths intermingling in plumes of vapour in the cold afternoon air.

“The painter was a man called Breughel, a Dutchman, and the scene is very much the same,” Trotsky was telling him. “It shows a hunting party returning from a winter hunt, six or seven weary fellows but only a very meagre catch. A few birds, a rabbit or two; little more. I remember that they had dogs with them and the dogs’ tails were down between their legs so they were either very tired or hungry or both; clearly dispirited.”

“You can tell a lot by a dog’s tail,” agreed Sverchkov.

“Even though you couldn’t see much of their faces,” continued Trotsky, “the artist had the cunning to show that they were not returning in triumph but with meagre fare. Although I understand he was a bourgeois, Breughel understood the life of the peasant – how the line between survival and going under is so often finely drawn – and I believe generally preferred to spend his time painting them than richer patrons. Certainly this painting is a success, because it translates better than all the novels of Victor Hugo the endless struggle against poverty, the ceaseless challenge of having to survive off the land and fight nature for every scrap of food.”

“And the landowners,” added his companion.

“Well, the painting was painted some time in the sixteenth century,” observed Trotsky, “so you can be sure that they had been hunting on some nobleman’s land.”

“Sixteenth century? They didn’t have guns?”

Trotsky shook his head.

“No. I recall one or two of the hunters were carrying pikes, because I thought at the time how difficult they must have found killing their prey. But the thing that I remember most was that, just like us, they were poised on the brow of a very steep hill and were on the point of descending the other side. You could see their home town laid out tidily below them and it looked so cold. There were two or three small lakes of ice in the distance, with little figures walking about on them and skating and playing games of football. And from the hill which was quite high, you could see all the roofs of the buildings in the town covered in white snow. The branches of the trees were bare with no leaves because it was the depths of winter, and they had nothing in them except a few black birds. And in the sky there was one bird of prey hanging quite still in mid-flight, looking out for signs of the smallest field mouse, but there was not enough for even a bird to eat. And it made you feel the cold, and understand how tired and dispirited and chilled to the bone the hunters must be feeling going back home with such a poor catch. And how they might not have any money, or any wood or coals to burn in their hearths. It was magnificent.”

“This Breughel, he was Dutch, you say?” asked Sverchkov.

“Yes, I think so.”

“And the painting was meant to portray everyday life in the Low Countries?”

“I suppose so,” said Trotsky with a shrug.

“A high  hill,” said Sverchkov doubtfully, “in the Low  Countries. Really?”

Turning in his seat, Trotsky regarded his comrade through narrowed eyes.

“The picture was so true to life,” he said slowly, “I remember now, that it had a fire, with some women round it, piling on some faggots of wood as the hunters were walking past. Even the flames of the fire made you feel cold.”

“And all of this,” challenged Sverchkov, holding out his arms wide embrace to the view before them, “reminds you of that picture?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“Even though there are no  lakes and no  birds,” he persisted, “no  fire, and no  neat town. Just a few scattered buildings with, I grant you, snow on their roofs.”

“The scenery is still reminiscent of the poetry of the painting as I can recall it,” said Trotsky.

“Aha!” exclaimed Sverchkov. “‘The poetry of the painting.’ Ha!”

Struggling to his feet, he assumed the stance of a public prosecutor, pointing accusingly down at

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“What you are remembering, Comrade, is not the snow and the roofs and the lakes and the sky of the original but the small group of defeated hunters with their dogs. You are identifying us, this convoy with them, and that is defeatist, revisionist and dangerously bourgeois thinking,” he proclaimed triumphantly, adding, “unlike your hunters, the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers Deputies is not defeated!”

“It is just meeting in a new location?” suggested Trotsky.

The faint sound of a whistle come from the village below. Turning their heads, they saw the sergeant beckoning the convoy down from the hills with exaggerated gestures of his arms. Sitting back down again, Sverchkov regarded Trotsky fondly.

“Bourgeois element!”

“Philistine,” retorted Trotsky.

Refusing to be hurried, the drivers finished their discussion before tramping back to the waiting sleighs. Within a few minutes the brow of the hill was once more empty and the teams of ponies were picking a path carefully down the icy road way to the waiting crowd of villagers.

The sergeant had organised the villagers into a well-regulated welcoming reception, splitting them into groups on either side of the road to greet the two columns of sleighs as they came to a stop in the clearing that served the settlement as a communal square. Discarding their travelling rugs, the exiles and their families began the now familiar process of arrival and disembarkation, stretching their arms and legs to remove the stiffness from sitting for so long in the sleighs. The villagers waited patiently, many of the women and children carrying wooden trays of biscuits, bread, salt and beakers of goat’s milk. The men of the village were clustered around the sergeant, who was pointing out which prisoners would be billeted with them.

Together, Trotsky and Sverchkov walked to the nearest group of villagers. One of the mothers pushed forward her daughter, who bobbed a curtsey and offered them a plate of grey dumplings. Bowing over the plate Trotsky inspected the dumplings, noting the deep finger marks in the pastry and black flecks of dirt, and quickly took the least unappealing. He smiled his thanks to the child and to her mother, who regarded him impassively. There were none of the banners or written signs of salutation that they had seen in the other places they had rested for the night.

These are not Party members , he thought. They are real people. 

He was still holding the dumpling when a blow to his wrist knocked it out of his hand.

“Come on!” ordered the corporal. “You can’t always be eating. Time to bed you two fairies down for the night.”

Grabbing Trotsky by his upper arm, the corporal began marching him away from the crowd, accompanied by two of his cronies carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. Sverchkov started to protest and he was effortlessly gathered up by the two guards. The small group set off in the direction of an izba  at the far end of the village street.

“Where are you taking us?” demanded Trotsky.

“You’ll see,” said the corporal grimly, adding, “somewhere where you will feel right at home.”

Pigs. Trotsky could smell them before he could hear them, and he could hear them before he could see them. Shaking himself free of the guards, Sverchkov hurried to catch up with him.

“Well, this isn’t pleasant,” he said anxiously.

“Don’t worry,” Trotsky told him. “It’s just their idea of a joke.”

“I suppose you’re used to this,” said Sverchkov, his nose wrinkling as they drew nearer to the izba. 


“Didn’t you say you were brought up on a farm?”

“At Yanovka, yes. We grew wheat and reared cattle, horses and, of course, pigs; lots of pigs. My father tried Merino sheep but they didn’t take.”

They had arrived at the izba . Letting go of Trotsky’s arm, the Corporal stepped back in triumph. With a mocking bow he gestured towards the evil smelling izba , signalling them to enter.

“How big was the farm?” enquired Sverchkov, pointedly ignoring their escort.

Trotsky coolly looked the Corporal up and down.

“Oh, it was quite small,” he said nonchalantly. “Only about 650 acres. But it was home for my first nine years.”

Turning on his heel, he entered the izba . A rough flight of steps led to the upper storey which was bounded by a balustrade that allowed the inhabitants to oversee their herd below.

“It all sounds rather idyllic, unlike here,” Sverchkov said enviously, as he followed him up the steps.

“Happy childhoods are mostly based on myths propagated by tales of the privileged,” said Trotsky.

He walked over to the windows and, reaching up, opened their shutters.

“My childhood was not unpleasant,” he continued as he watched the corporal and the two guards return to the crowd around the sleighs, “but there were no luxuries that I can remember. Every copeck had to be watched. My father’s peasants used to lie face down in the dirt showing him their cracked bare feet in protest against the meagre wages he paid them. Although he was by no means a particularly cruel employer, I remember that.”

Sverchkov came to stand beside him at the open window, fanning his face with his hand in an attempt to dispel the strong smell of the pigs below.

“Things aren’t too bad, I suppose,” he said hopefully.

Below them one of the larger pigs shoved a smaller pig out of the way and began rooting in the corner of the sty.

“Did you see that one?” asked Sverchkov. “Pigs and men, eh? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. We should call that one ‘the Corporal’.”

“Ah well, we will just have to make the best of it,” advised Trotsky and then chuckled quietly.

“What’s so funny?” Sverchkov asked.

“I was just reminded of something Lenin said to me when we were in London,” he replied.

He had never become familiar with London and had disliked its rain, its squalor and the way the city sprawled in every direction. His personal lack of awareness of the relationship between different locations within the capital – what he had self-deprecatingly described to Jules and Vera as his “topographical cretinism” – had often caused him to become lost when he was out walking alone. Not that he was usually allowed to leave his lodgings unaccompanied; at least, not at the beginning. Then he had been grateful, and flattered, to have the illustrious company of Jules Martov, Vera Zasulich or Nicolai Lenin to show him the city. They had told him that it was to ensure that he didn’t get lost. Later they had admitted that they were worried in case he was picked up, or followed by one of the many Tsarist agents and their spies operating undercover in London. Later still he had realised that, equally suspicious of his own bona fide credentials, they were interested to see with whom he was making contact in the streets and pubs. After all, with a wife and two young daughters still under sentence of internal exile in Russia, this talented newcomer was vulnerable to pressure.

Nicolai had been particularly attentive, taking him for long walks through the administrative centre of the capital to show him the different seats of bourgeois power, all the while quizzing him on political theory.

This  is their Houses of Parliament,” Nicolai had scoffed as they stood together on the pavement outside the faux Gothic landmark. “They are very proud of this particular institution, and of their so-called democracy. Once every seven years the British male proletariat are allowed to decide which agents of the ruling class should be allowed to oppress them.”

“Can we Russians learn anything from this?” he had asked.

“Of course – yes!” Nicolai had insisted. “The bourgeoisie in Britain has mastered the art of hypocrisy and of fooling the people in a thousand ways, by passing off their hallowed parliamentarianism as ‘pure democracy’ and so on, while cunningly concealing the million threads which bind Parliament to the Stock Exchange, and to the capitalist class. What this teaches us is to reject completely the belief that a Parliament can ever act in the genuine interest of the working class. It has no useful role to play.”

“Not even as a stepping stone to establishing Socialism?”

“If you use parliamentary democracy as a stepping stone,” Nicolai had said firmly, “you will never, ever get to Socialism.”

He had later realised that, even at that early stage, by taking him in hand and giving him basic training in street craft and organisational strategy, Nicolai had been grooming him for the Second Congress, where the future shape of the RSDLP was to be decided. That is why Nicolai had built him up in the Party’s estimation, put him on the circuit of speakers and ensured that his articles were of sufficient quality to be published in Iskra . In return the Old Man had expected his personal loyalty and political support when the time came to move against Jules Martov.

The sight of the pigs wallowing in the mire below had reminded him the morning that Nicolai had taken him to the Reading Room at the British Museum. The night before he had sat up late listening to Jules, Vera and Nicolai arguing over the membership question. Jules and Vera were in favour of the RSDLP becoming a more open mass party with a broad membership, whereas Nicolai – ever the conspirator – wanted a narrower inner clique; an oligarchy that ruled through the outer party through diktat  and ukase.  In his innocence he had been shocked that such a fundamental divergence of opinion existed amongst these pillars of the movement.

Nicolai had promised him to show him the Reading Room where Karl Marx had worked on Capital  on the following day and they agreed that they should set off early. It had been most unfortunate that Nicolai’s understanding of “early” did not correspond with his own. He was still asleep in bed when Nicolai called on the house on Percy Circus that he shared with Jules and Vera. Impatient to make the most of the day, the older man would not wait for Trotsky to prepare and eat his breakfast. Instead he had hustled the young comrade out of the house and had taken him to a worker’s cafe abutting the Euston railway terminus where he had ordered food for them both. While they waited for their meal to arrive, Trotsky had asked Nicolai to explain the deep division between himself and Jules.

“Jules Martov is a good comrade but he is dangerously mistaken in the type of party that we need to have if we are to lead the revolutionary working class, defeat the Autocracy and its apparatus and pursue the correct socialist agenda. We can’t have a mass party of flâneurs  or part time members who can choose to support us one day and not the next, or who want to waste time in endless discussion trying to reach an unachievable consensus. Do you think that the Tsar’s armies or the Okhrana work like that? We won’t close their torture chambers using the politics of the debating chamber. And we can’t have members that face different ways like the splayed fingers of a hand – they have to be united and held closed tight, like a fist!”

Suiting his actions to his words, Lenin held up one tightly clenched hand threateningly between them. Trotsky looked at it doubtfully. Nicolai’s hand, he realised, made a surprisingly large fist for such a compact man.

“Jules Martov would have the party open to a multitude of people,” Nicolai went on, “who feel, for whatever personal reason – and many of them will be rank opportunists or Liberals – that they ought to be ‘involved’ in the Struggle. Whereas the need is not to build a mass party but for a small group of politically dedicated men and women wholeheartedly committed to the struggle and willing to accept, and dispense, iron Party discipline. The only way that the working class stands a chance of defeating the Autocracy is by being led by a Party that can distinguish between mere involvement and full-blooded, unthinking commitment.”

He paused as a waiter hurriedly placed two plates of food in front of them.

“It is like this English breakfast of eggs and bacon,” observed Nicolai happily, pointing with his knife at the meal on his plate. “The hen is involved but the pig is committed .”

“But Nicolai,” Trotsky had said quietly, “the pig is dead.”

“There can be no life outside the Party,” Nicolai had replied.

For a while they had eaten in silence.

“I understand the need for revolutionary discipline,” said Trotsky at last with a frown, “but many of the people who would want to join Jules’s version of the Party will still want to be involved, and they have some power and influence and, more importantly, money. We must be practical.”

Nicolai put down his knife and fork and, reaching inside his worn black overcoat, produced a small dog-eared green card and passed it across the table. Trotsky took the card and read the typed script upon it, and the name of its owner handwritten in faded ink.

“British Library… Readers Ticket… ‘Dr. J Richter’ Ticket number A72453.”

“Don’t lose it,” Nicolai told him.

Trotsky nodded obediently.

“But what has this to do with the question of Party membership?” he asked, putting the card in his jacket pocket.

Carefully wiping up a remaining smear of egg, Nicolai ate the last mouthful of his breakfast and dropped his cutlery with a clatter onto his plate.

“There is no better library than the British Library,” he said with a shrug. “There are fewer gaps in its collections than in any other library. It is a remarkable institution, and the Reference section is exceptional. Ask them any question, and in a minute they’ll tell you where to look to find the material that interests you.”


“The Library is organised along strict lines and access is severely limited,” he explained patiently. “They don’t let just anyone in. To get a ticket like that, you have to be vouched for. There are even collections within the Library that ordinary Readers cannot see without written permission. It is organised like an engine – an engine for the retrieval and creation of knowledge. It has to be that way.”

“But I don’t see…”

“The party we have to build must be an engine for Revolution. There can be no spare parts floating around. Everybody must be fully engaged all the time. Every part must be bent to the common purpose of driving the Revolution forward.”

Trotsky shook his head.

“But there are so many people who support us who would never be, could never be, revolutionists and yet share our goals and our principles,” he protested. “Good people… influential people… wealthy people, some of them. How do we regard them, if not as Party members?”

“As useful idiots?” Nicolai had suggested.

Was Nicolai thinking of me when he said that?  Trotsky now wondered.

Nicolai had taken him in, in both senses of the word. A vision of his own father shaking his head in disbelief at his naïveté rose and burst in his mind. He realised that, in all the time Nicolai and he had spent together, it had never occurred to him to ask himself, Why? Why is this man doing this for me?  How stupid he had been! There were so many fine lines, like the ones between innocence and self-delusion; between comrade and friend. He had allowed himself to think of Nicolai as a friend and mentor – no, more than that; almost as an elder brother, a more capable Alexander – when all the time Nicolai had seen him for what he was: another impressionable comrade for him to manipulate. Nicolai, a very shrewd judge of character, had known how to play on his personal weaknesses.

Standing beside him, Sverchkov stirred impatiently.

“Sorry, Lev, but I have to get out of here. This stink is overwhelming. Are you coming?”

“Not yet,” Trotsky replied slowly. “I’ve got some thinking to do. Leave me a couple of cigarettes, will you?”

When Sverchkov had gone he crossed the floor of the upper room and opened the shutters of a second small window. Resting his arms on its sill he looked out, his eyes unfocussed on the monotony of the snow covered landscape.

Hadn’t that business of the seventh seat been the first sign?  he thought.

He had only been in London four months when Nicolai had written to Georgiy Plekhanov in Geneva proposing that “Pero” should be co-opted onto Iskra ’s editorial board. Plekhanov had swiftly wrecked that plan and had never trusted Vera’s “young eagle” after that. Indeed, Jules Martov had later confided that Plekhanov had actively hated him from that day forward, believing him to be an ambitious arriviste , when in truth he had known nothing of Nicolai’s proposal. He had only become aware later how the Editorial Board was split: the old guard of Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zasulich, all of whom had been in exile for decades, repeatedly frustrating the plans of the younger members – Nicolai, Martov and Potresov – who had more recently come out of Russia. It was now obvious to him that if he had been co-opted, Nicolai would have assumed that he had at last the majority he craved. Instead, as an unhappy compromise, it was agreed that “Pero” could attend the editorial meetings in an advisory capacity only and, like the Membership question, the issue of the composition of Iskra ’s editorial board was deferred to the Second Congress of the Party.

By this point five years had passed since the RSDLP’s first Congress, and there was much dead wood to be cut away and questions to be settled. Whose definition of the Party membership would win: Nicolai’s or Jules Martov’s? What was the programme of the RSDLP to be? What was Iskra ’s role? How many people should be on Iskra ’s editorial board and who should they be? Everything had been riding on the Second Congress. To insist on the formation of a single revolutionary, conspiratorial party with Iskra  as its mouthpiece had been comprehensible, but worrying. Placing all that power in the hands of a small group of people felt unwise, but a child would have recognised that Iskra  was the least dysfunctional centre within the Party and that its contributors and supporters amongst the Congress delegates – the Iskraists as they called themselves – would accordingly decide all the main votes. Iskra  was the only part of the Movement that knew what was going on; none of the groups back home in Russia had that kind of overview. The problem was that on the vital Membership question the Iskraists themselves were almost evenly split between supporting Nicolai’s fist or Martov’s open palm.

With an impatient shake of the head, Trotsky stepped out away from the draught of the open window and leant against the wall, recalling as he did so how efficiently the Second Congress had reversed Marx’s dictum; it had begun as a farce and repeated itself as a tragedy. It had opened in Brussels – that cul de sac of grandiose impotence and windbaggery – only to be swiftly closed down by the police. Avoiding arrest, the delegates had crossed the English Channel and reconvened the Second Congress in London, where it had quickly degenerated into a political bloodbath. In the end he had parted with Nicolai and, along with the majority of the Congress, had come down on the side of Jules Martov. After many hours of acrimonious debate the membership issue, they believed, was settled by 28 votes to 23 in favour of the wider definition of mass open membership. This was democracy in action. But Nicolai had refused to accept the outcome of the vote. New strategies were formulated by his clique of amongst the Iskraists. The 28 votes had included two “Economists” – who opposed Iskra representing the Party abroad – and five representatives of the Jewish Bund. The revolutionary purpose of the Party would be strengthened, Nicolai’s clique now argued, by the exclusion of the Economists and their bread and butter issues. The Revolution was delayed, so their argument went, and not hastened by the amelioration of workers’ pay and conditions. A vote showed that there was no support for the Economists’ primitive positions, and so they were expelled.

But what was there to do about the Jewish Bund? The Bund represented the largest, the most long lasting and the best organised grouping of politically aware workers within the RSDLP membership. In the immediate aftermath of the vicious pogrom in Kishinev the personal sympathies of many of the Congress delegates had initially been with the Bund.

Arise and go now to the city of slaughter;
Into its courtyard wind thy way;
There with thine own hand touch, and with the eyes of thine head,
Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,
The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead.

There had never been the slightest possibility that the Bund’s membership would bow to Party discipline, nor put themselves out for anything that did not advance the cause of their own People. On the contrary, they had come to the Congress with their own agenda, wanting to split the Party into different groupings and to be the sole representative of Jewish workers. With tragic inevitability, the Bund had dug its own grave by being too disputatious, keeping the discussions going until three o’clock in the morning in the hope of wearing the goyim  out. Once it had become clear to them that there would be no room for a ‘Jewish Section’ within the Party, that Socialism meant full assimilation and much more besides, the Bund had no choice but to leave the Congress and stay out in the wilderness.

And that is how it is done,  reflected Trotsky. When the vote goes against you, you chip away at the opposition, exploiting the known fissures in its ranks and then call for a new vote. That is how a majority of 28 becomes a minority of 21, and is branded ‘menshiviki’. Democracy, once again, in action. Nicolai, as the leader of the new majority, takes over the Central Committee, Iskra becomes the Central organ of the party and its editorial board is reduced to three members: Nicolai, Plekhanov and Martov. 

He was certain that, in the final scene, Nicolai intended that only he would remain, supported by his own gang of Party diehards. It was Robespierre all over again.

Nicolai must have known that I could never go along with him,  he thought, not all the way. He must have done. Or did he think that I would follow meekly like a lamb? Was his opinion of me so low after those months together in London? Had he just thought, “Oh well, Trotsky isn’t with me, but it doesn’t matter. In the final analysis I can do without him. Meanwhile he too can be a ‘useful idiot’. ”

His mind filled with bitter thoughts, Trotsky walked slowly across the floor of the straw strewn loft and stared into the darkness of the rafters. For the first time, the realisation of the level of contempt that his mentor must have felt for him dawned upon him. It made him feel physically frail. Nicolai Lenin had taken him in, all right. Yet, for all his cleverness, in the end Nicolai hadn’t been able to dispense with Plekhanov and Martov. Dear, doddering Plekhanov had invited all his old comrades back onto the Central Committee and it was Nicolai who had eventually been driven out instead. Hah! So there it was. Iskra  and, by extension, the whole Party, controlled by Moderates dedicated to everything that Nicolai opposed. The Party torn apart, collapsing like a pack of cards, and it was all Nicolai’s fault.

Trotsky smiled up at the darkness above him, his mood lifting as he considered how this last reversal must have burned beneath Nicolai’s skin.

But I don’t feel sorry for him,  he told himself. Axelrod was correct, for once. Nicolai was guilty of rank Jacobinism. What was worse, he couldn’t see it. There is a part of his character, a core of monomania that prevents him from recognising what he had done that was so wrong. Perhaps it is his age. 

How old was Nicolai? Thirty-seven? Thirty-eight? He looked far older. Behind his back, it was Nicolai Lenin, not Georgiy Plekhanov, that everyone referred to as “the Old Man”. And he lived on his nerves. In the months before the Second Congress Nicolai had been as ill as a dog; his condition made worse because Nadhezda Krupskaya had panicked and called in a useless physician.

Perhaps he is scared of never seeing his life’s work amount to anything,  thought Trotsky. As if that mattered! 

And then there was Nicolai’s terrible rigidity in thought, word and deed. Even his recreational reading (such as it was) reflected it. Nicolai had no time for writers like de Maupassant or Flaubert; Knut Hamsun (but only Hunger ) and Maxim Gorky were his meat. Trotsky had even begun to suspect that he was impotent until Natalya had hinted otherwise. A lunge for power: that’s what it had been about; foolishly conceived but brilliantly executed. It was absurd to believe that you could defeat Autocracy with a party restricted only to those who slavishly agreed with you. It would be nothing more than a Counter-Autocracy. It was hard to tell which was worse for the People: the prospect of eternal defeat or the threat of victory on such terms. What horrific children would such a Party spawn?

Go down that road,  thought Trotsky, and you’re lost forever .

He gave a sigh of despair. Vera Zasulich had said that it would take a generation to repair the damage that had been done to the Party in the fortnight of the Second Congress. At the time he had dismissed her words as characteristically melodramatic, but now her estimate seemed correct. He wondered how much he had personally helped Nicolai in his machinations. He should have stood up to him sooner; that much was obvious. Whatever role he had played, he would not take the blame for what had happened to the Party. The Soviet’s arrest, maybe – he had been privy to Parvus’s article repudiating the foreign debts – but not the wrecking of the Russian Social Democratic Party. That had been all Nicolai’s doing, not his. Until his eyes had been opened at the Second Congress he had been loyal to Nicolai and Nicolai had repaid him by abusing his trust.

Now , he realised with surprise, I have a new loyalty – to Natalya and our son Lev. 

The sudden recognition as to how profoundly his feelings had altered shocked him and made his scalp crawl with anxiety. Shaking his head violently, he tried to clear his thoughts.

What is happening to me?  he asked himself. Here in this pig house, leaning on this balustrade, my loyalties are like a weathercock swinging with the change of wind. Is this the start of my political collapse? 

The failing sunlight had left the upper storey now in half darkness. He began feeling his way along the balustrade until he had reached the top step of the stairs. In the pen below him, one of the pigs defecated with a loud splattering noise. The stench was almost unbearable. Pinching his nose between his thumb and forefinger, Trotsky began carefully to descend the ramshackle flight of steps.

This is even worse than London,  he thought.

Chapter Fifteen

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Saturday 10th February 1907


Leonid Kavelin watched Irena Kuibysheva over the rim of his cup as she daintily licked the cream from her spoon. Coming to the dining room of the Hotel New Century had been her idea, as were the drinks they were now enjoying. In the latest in a series of moves and countermoves she had cleverly insisted that he order coffee for himself.

“But why?” he had asked. “I would far prefer tea.”

“Because,” she had said, leaning back in her seat, “I think I should like the taste of coffee on your tongue.”

Inevitably, when the waiter had come to take their order he had ordered a coffee and she had ordered chocolate, forcing them both to wait while her cup was being prepared to Fyodor Gregorivich’s special recipe. Her ruse had momentarily annoyed him. He told himself that she could not expect him to sit nursing his small cup of Turkish bitterness while she lapped up the crème from the top of her drink but, as always, her gentle teasing had brought him round. His current trial did not worry him. He was confident that she shared his appreciation of their situation. Outwardly they were enjoying a brief encounter; inwardly they were competing for dominance: she for control of his heart, he for possession of her body. Neither of them, he was certain, entertained any illusions that the situation was otherwise, or pretended they had any permanent claim upon the other. Once their invisible match had been concluded they would move on.

Looking up, Irena caught his eye and grinned.

“Oh, Lyonya! Why are you looking so unhappy? You have got exactly what you asked for, and so have I.”

“I look unhappy,” he explained patiently, “because I now have to wait for you to finish a drink that is possibly three times as long as mine.”

“Well, I think that

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our drinks suit us both,” she said cheerfully. “Yours is hot, powerful and intense, like you, while mine is milky and leisurely and comforting.”

He smiled at her, amused by the mental image she was trying to imprint on his mind.

It is so true,  he thought. A man will chase a woman until she has caught him. 

Irena had been leading him a dance for the past four weeks. To some extent he had enjoyed the experience. Her tearful confessions of unhappiness and yearning for sympathetic company, her breathless sighs and flustered resistance to his advances had more recently given way to capricious embraces in ill lit passageways that had almost bewitched him. For all his worldly experience – and, by common consent, he was the shrewdest business man in Berezovo; even cannier than Irena’s rich husband – he had been delighted by her sly stratagems. The novel experience of being consistently outwitted had been entertaining but it was now time to bring matters to a head. Illya Kuibyshev was expected to return any day. If their affair was to be consummated, further delay should be avoided.

“How long are you going to take over that?” he asked her testily.

“Don’t be so impatient. Good boys have to wait,” she advised him, adding, “just for that I might have another cup.”

“In that case,” he said, beckoning to their waiter, “I shall order a proper drink.”

“Don’t!” she pleaded quickly.

He waved the waiter away.

“Don’t be such a Tartar,” she said with a moue . “You mustn’t rush me.”

Leonid Kavelin reached inside his jacket pocket and brought out a slim gold cigarette case.

If he could not drink, he reasoned, there was no reason why he could not smoke.

Without offering the case to Irena – it was unthinkable that she should smoke in a public room – he took out a cigarette and lit it using a match from the small embossed box thoughtfully placed beside the table’s ashtray.

“What will you say when Ivan Tarpelovich returns?” he asked casually.

Irena shrugged.

“I will tell him that I have missed him and that I have been incredibly bored.”

“You should have children. They would keep you occupied.”

Irena frowned.

“Children? Here in Berezovo?” she said. “Good God, no!”

“Or at least a pet,” Kavelin went on. “You should ask him to bring you back a pet.”

“A pet !” Irena exclaimed, laughing. “Really? Can you see me with a pet?”

“Yes, I can. A borzoi,” he said, adding cruelly, “you could pretend to be a proper lady.”

Irena looked at him, momentarily wounded by his words. Raising her half empty cup of chocolate to her lips she took a sip while she considered her response.

“A dog? Yech!” she said with distaste, setting her cup down. “I detest dogs. Great big stupid creatures, always following you around, slobbering all over you and ruining your clothes.”

“You wouldn’t want a dog?”

“No, decidedly not. A wolf, perhaps.”

“A wolf?”

“Yes! A whole pack of them, to hunt down predatory men like you.”

“Truly?” he asked with a wry smile.

“No not really,” she admitted. “A cat, perhaps.”

“Ah, a cat,” said Kavelin, nodding in agreement. “Yes, I would like to see that. Poor Ivan Tarpelovich, coming home to find two pussies in one house.”

“Oh, please don’t be crude,” she said quietly.

“You can’t really want a cat,” Kavelin continued. “It would be too independent. You wouldn’t be able to put it on a leash and parade it around the town.”

“Is that what I would want to do?” asked Irena.

“Yes, I believe so,” replied Kavelin. “In fact, I know so.”

“If you insist. Yes, possibly so. And I could because, you see, it would be a big cat. A tiger.”

“A tiger?”

“Yes,” she said, lowering her voice.

Leaning forward, she began smoothing out a wrinkle in the linen tablecloth with her hand. “And when Illya was away,” she continued in a confidential whisper, “at night I would lie naked with it in front of the fire, stroking its fur, feeling its taut muscles under its stripes and watching the firelight flickering over our resting bodies.”

“That is an extraordinary image,” Kavelin whispered in reply. “But aren’t you at all afraid that it might hurt you?”

“Oh no,” she told him, with a definite shake of her head. “Not the tiger I am imagining because I would ensure that it had been fully fed first before I lay down beside it. And once it had eaten I would give it peppermint lozenges to keep its breath sweet, so that it would come to associate peppermints with security and contentment.”

“And what, precisely, would you be feeding it on?” enquired Kavelin softly.

“Why, the population of Berezovo of course. Starting, I think, with its wives.”

Laughing, Kavelin sat back in his chair, freed from her spell by this alarming admission.

“You have it all worked out,” he said, stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray.

“Yes. All I have to find now is the tiger.”

“Well, I wish you luck.”

“Ah, luck,” sighed Irena. “You surprise me. Do you really believe in Madame Luck?”

“I believe I am fortunate to be here with you,” he said.

“Oh, Lyonya, Lyonya…” sighed Irena, feigning exasperation. “You have such a silver tongue. Whatever am I going to do with you?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t we go upstairs to the lounge and discuss it?” suggested Kavelin with a broad smile.

Irena pursed her lips as if deep in thought and then nodded her agreement.

“Oh, but I think we ought to go higher than the mezzanine, don’t you?” she suggested.

Sitting in his office Fyodor Gregorivich, proprietor of the Hotel New Century, admired the open canteen of cutlery on his desk. The chest contained the pride of the cutler’s art; the best that his money could buy. He recalled how his uncle had regarded its purchase as further evidence of his extravagant tastes and had damned his unfitness to take over the running of the hotel. It was true that its contents, being reserved for very special events (Easter, of course, and for politically significant wedding parties), were rarely used, yet he had never had cause to regret the expenditure. On such occasions its quality more than repaid the cost of its original price for this was the Number One canteen, the crème of the hotel’s cutlery; brought out only for the most expensive meals and his most favoured guests.

He selected a dessert fork from the canteen. Like its companions it wore a little felt hood to prevent its silver plating from becoming tarnished. Removing the hood, he held the fork up to the light from the gasolier, and turned it slowly in his hand, marvelling at the exquisite moulding of its tines. The presence of the canteen’s contents on the dining table signalled a prestigious occasion. The luncheon the following day would be such an event, albeit a singular one.

It was, he supposed, almost as important as the historic arrival of Prince Menshikov. As he understood it, the convoy of prominent exiles was en route to Obdorskoye, and not settling in Berezovo. It was therefore unlikely that anything of significance would be allowed to occur during their stay; even less likely that their visit would be recorded in the history books. Nevertheless, as fleeting as their celebrity was, he had determined that their passage should be properly marked; all the more so as it was the members of the Town Council, rather than the disgraced Soviet Petersburg Deputies, that would be sitting down to eat.

He replaced the small felt hood and laid the fork neatly to rest in the canteen. Picking up a knife, he weighed it in his hand.

When Mayor Pobednyev holds such a knife in his fist,  he told himself, he will know that he is in for a feast. 

He slid the knife back into its slot with a sigh of contentment. Tomorrow, it would lie with its brothers, on a crisp white table cloth; its polished blade, gleaming like a dress sword on parade, reflecting the glittering glasses and the candelabras. The whole dining room had been put at the disposal of the Mayor’s party: fourteen at the last count, but he was quite prepared for more. The canteen held two hundred and fifty-six pieces of cutlery and every single one meant money in his pocket. It would not fail him.

Closing the lid, he carried the heavy box back to the wall safe behind his desk and locked it away. There was still much to do. There was the bakery order from Gvordyen’s to look over and Madame Pobednyeva had not yet confirmed the final list of names of those attending the luncheon nor instructed him as to the seating plan. This last omission was causing him concern. It would be his responsibility to write out the name cards for the table and he wanted to avoid leaving it until the last minute. It would be a crime if the elegant place settings were marred by hasty calligraphy.

He left his office and crossed into the dining room, quickly casting his eyes over the occupied tables. It was the usual Saturday afternoon crowd. He noted with pleasure that Leonid Kavelin and Irena Kuibysheva had already left. Striding through the room, he spared a few perfunctory nods of acknowledgement and smiles to the few guests that saluted him. When he reached the vestibule, he leaned across the counter of the reception desk and peered at the keys that hung from a row of hooks. The key to Room Number 4 was missing.

More high jinks , he thought, and about time too! 

He looked quickly over his shoulder through the small window into the dining room door. Everything seemed in order. The two waiters were busy attending to their customers, none of whom had yet drunk enough to become bothersome. Still looking through the window, he began backing away towards the staircase. When his heel had bumped against the bottom step he turned and walked purposefully up the first flight of stairs that led to the mezzanine lounge.

Why,  he wondered, is it always Room Number 4? 

He did not mind. Irena Kuibysheva could have chosen any of the upper rooms without fear of discovery. It made no practical difference to him: the price her suitor paid for the convenience was the same and the revenue was welcome in the empty winter months. But the question intrigued him: why did she always choose the same room?

He stopped on the landing only long enough to put his head around the door of the lounge to see if anyone was inside. There was: Fyodor Izminsky was snoozing quietly in a chair beside the fire, a newspaper resting across his ample stomach. Assured that the banker did not need any additional comforts, Fyodor Gregorivich continued on his way up the flight of stairs that lead to the upper floor of the hotel.

Was it, he wondered, because the room faced the rear of the Hotel and therefore she did not risk anyone noticing the drawn curtains from the street? Or was it simply because it was near to the water closet? The young merchant Dobrovolsky (who had died on the taiga in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards), then the blond German garrison commander, followed by his successor Captain Steklov (who had made his excuses and left) and now Kavelin. Four different gentlemen and yet always the same room. It was a mystery.

Reaching the top stair, he stopped and removed his shoes. From there on, he would have to proceed more carefully. As silently as he could, he crossed the landing and began to make his way along the corridor in his stockinged feet. As he drew nearer, Fyodor Gregorivich began to suspect that, like Captain Steklov, Leonid Kavelin also might have experienced second thoughts. No sounds came from the end of the darkened passage. His brow puckered in irritation; could his instincts have been wrong? He himself had made up the fire in the room that very morning and aired the bed, making sure that they had clean towels, fresh sheets and pillowcases. What more could he have done? But just as he neared the end of the corridor, he heard a woman’s sharp cry, followed by a loud groan. He had not been mistaken after all.

He carefully eased open the door of Room Number 3 and slipped inside, taking care to keep his body still pressed close to the wall. The noises were becoming more regular now and he could distinctly hear the rhythmic creaking of the bedsprings, punctuated by the occasional groan. Padding silently to the open doors of the wardrobe cupboard, he climbed inside. In the wall, at about the level of his navel, was the small hole. Kneeling on the floor of the cupboard Fyodor Gregorivich put his eye to the hole and peered through to the next room.

Irena Kuibysheva lay on the bed, her dress and undershift pulled up around her stomach, her thighs wrapped tightly around Leonid Kavelin’s stocky body. Fyodor Gregorivich was gratified to see that the young lady had divested herself of nearly all her clothes. Her blouse and skirt were draped tidily across the back of a chair; a pool of lilac silk – presumably her drawers – lay on the floor beneath the bed; one stocking and her entire bodice were nowhere to be seen. For his part, her lover had only seen fit to remove his jacket, trousers and shoes. Below his flapping shirt tail, a pair of surprisingly skinny legs moved restlessly about as Leonid Kavelin tried to gain a better purchase against the bed. In this he was hampered by the thick cotton long pants that were rolled down as far as his knees. Kavelin’s attempts to rid himself of this encumbrance were becoming frantic as Madame Kuibysheva’s cries grew more urgent. Fyodor Gregorivich blinked in disbelief as he watched the timber merchant actually stop, withdraw, and pull one leg free of his long pants. Madame Kuibysheva’s groan of impatience at his retreat was premature, for no sooner had her lover succeeded in extricating himself from his underwear than he entered her once more, spreading her thighs wider. As his flanks pounded hers, and the sound of slapping flesh became louder, she began to emit a series of wordless piping cries in which the tones of distress and delight were intermingled.

Shuffling round on his knees, Fyodor Gregorivich fought the wall for a better view. But whatever position he took, his vision was obscured, mostly by Kavelin’s shoulder and back. Then the timber merchant moved slightly to one side and he was able to gaze upon the distorted features of Madame Kuibysheva as her hands alternately punched and clawed at the sheets or covered her face. From this new position he could also see Kavelin’s profile, and for a few seconds the hotel proprietor’s emotions switched from lustful excitement to concern. Kavelin’s face was almost purple; he appeared to be approaching the point of apoplexy.

“Please, God,” prayed Fyodor Gregorivich, “don’t let him die! Not here and not now.”

Fascinated and horrified in equal measure, he watched helplessly as the woman on the bed, supporting herself on her elbows, lifted her body and strained to meet the timber merchant’s furious thrusts.

“Yes, go on, damn it!” he heard her urge him, seemingly oblivious to her lover’s wretched state.

Like a man abandoning ship, or a suicide leaping from a bridge, Kavelin pitched forward, his hands clutching blindly at her pert, jiggling breasts. Wrapping her arms and legs around him, Irena Kuibysheva beat his back and sides with her fists.

“That’s it, Tiger!” she cooed. “That’s it… ooh yes!”

“Tiger?” mouthed Fyodor Gregorivich to himself.

Fighting the urge to laugh out loud, the hotel proprietor pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and stuffed it into his mouth while the cries and groans in the next room became more frenzied. He listened as they rose to a crescendo, broke and died.

Leonid Kavelin? A tiger?  he thought. Tige r Kavelin? 

Silent tears of laughter began to roll down his cheeks as he repeated the words to himself.

Chapter Sixteen

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Saturday 10th February 1907


Shaking the snow off the shoulders of his greatcoat, Colonel Izorov sat down behind his desk and unbuttoned his holster. The weather was worsening and he was concerned that the convoy could be delayed for days if the blizzard returned. As normal before an interrogation, the shutters of his office windows were closed. Outside, he could hear the faint hammering as the workmen strove to finish building the dais before nightfall.

It could just as well be a gallows,  he thought grimly. Perhaps it will be. Time will tell .

Drawing out his service pistol, he placed it on the desk, its muzzle pointing towards the huddled prisoner sitting opposite him. Then, with a sigh, he leant down and opened the bottom drawer of his desk. In it lay what appeared to be a bundle of rags. Lifting it carefully out of the drawer, he laid the bundle alongside the gun and kicked the drawer shut with his boot.

Fatiev said nothing, but the Colonel could feel his frightened eyes watching his every movement. Picking up his pistol again, he thumbed the catch at the base of the butt and removed the full magazine. After checking that the breech was empty, he began to clean the weapon.

Even without the monthly intelligence reports from the Okhrana office in Tobolsk, it would have been obvious to him that the Social Democrats were split. No party, however broadly based or lax in its recruitment criteria, could encompass the two poles represented by the Karseneva woman and the man sitting hunched in the chair opposite him. This was one of the many differences between them and the Social Revolutionaries he had encountered. The Social Democrats were mostly loudmouthed agitators and troublemakers, at odds with the world and with each other, whereas the Essers were just terrorist thugs. Glancing up again at Fatiev, Colonel Izorov noted with satisfaction that his sergeant had done his job well. Fatiev’s nose was broken, quite smashed, and the blood was already crusting around his trembling lips.

That is good,  he thought. It is hard to be a hero with your nose in bandages. Not the most magnificent figure to cut upon the field of battle. Not a sight to inspire confidence in one’s followers. 

He worked methodically, drawing back the oiling stick and carefully inserting it in the open barrel. His concentration appeared total, his eyes never leaving the mechanism in his hand, but when Fatiev made a movement to try to staunch a fresh flow of blood, he was prepared for him. One stern glance was sufficient to make his prisoner refold his arms on his chest.

When he had finished with the pistol, Izorov set it down and, picking up the magazine, began to empty the live rounds onto the desk, the squat bullets rolling and settling on the desk like the ill-formed beads of a broken necklace.

“Does it hurt?” he asked Fatiev.


“The nose. Does it hurt?”

“Of course,” Fatiev mumbled. “Your sergeant broke it.”

Colonel Izorov allowed a look of surprise to cross his face as he bent his head to the task of cleaning the clip. Carefully, he poured three drops of magazine oil from a small grey bottle onto the spring.

“Would you care to borrow a handkerchief, to stop the blood from spoiling your clothes?” he asked.

One of the lapels of Fatiev’s jacket had been torn in the struggle and the shirt he was wearing was completely open to the waist, all the buttons having been lost. The knees of his trousers were stained where he had fallen to the ground and had been half dragged along the street. Yet the prisoner seemed to see nothing strange in his suggestion and considered it carefully.

“Yes,” he said at last, adding after a few seconds’ hesitation, “please.”

Izorov tested the spring with his forefinger, and when he was satisfied it was functioning smoothly, he lay the magazine down beside the empty pistol. Picking up one of the bullets, he breathed on it, his breath dulling its brass casing.

Leaning forward, Fatiev stretched out his hand uncertainly towards the bundle of rags on the desk.

“Leave it alone,” Colonel Izorov told him sharply.

Returning his attention to his task, he began to polish the round with the same care he had used to clean the magazine. When he had finished, he placed it upright on the desk in front of him and picked up another. Then, as if something quite apart from Fatiev’s presence had reminded him, he reached into his pocket and brought out a spotless white handkerchief.

“Use this,” he suggested, tossing the handkerchief across the desk.

After that, he ignored the man in the chair until all the bullets stood polished in a line. Then, having reassembled the magazine, he picked them up and fed them back into it one by one, slapping the clip back into the butt of the pistol with the flat of his hand. Quite deliberately, he drew back the slide, compressing the inner spring until the first round presented itself to the empty firing chamber and the breach was closed. Then he gently lay the loaded pistol down, its muzzle pointing at the prisoner before him who had become still.

“Well?” Izorov asked amiably. “Do you have something to tell me?”

Forcing himself to take his gaze off the gun’s barrel, Fatiev replied shakily:

“I am sorry, Colonel? I don’t understand. I thought you wanted to speak to me.”

“You are not listening,” said Colonel Izorov. “I asked you if you had something to tell me.”

Fatiev opened his mouth to reply, but appeared to think better of it. Instead, he just shook his head and watched the policeman warily.

“Are you certain?” Colonel Izorov persisted. “Because I have to satisfy myself that there was no other way.”

Fatiev again shook his head slowly and did not reply. Berezovo’s Chief of Police looked at the bundle of rags on the desk and then back to his prisoner.

He tried for the last time.

“Just by admitting you know about them does not constitute a crime, Fatiev.”

“Know about who?”

With a gesture of regret, Colonel Izorov began to slowly unwrap the bundle. Fatiev’s eyes narrowed as he saw that it contained a second handgun. Smoothing the rags down on either side of it, Colonel Izorov picked up the gun and weighed it in his hands.

“Listen, boy,” he said, “I know what they told you. I know you believe that you won’t cooperate but everybody does, sooner or later. Maybe after an hour, or a day, or a week or a month; even sometimes a year. But everybody comes across, sooner or later. Everybody. But that doesn’t matter now. Do you understand? Today is different.”

Stretching out his arm, he levelled the gun at Fatiev’s chest, one eye closing as he squinted along his line of fire.

“Because today, you see,” he continued calmly, “I don’t have the time. So there won’t be any beatings, or solitary confinement, or any of that rubbish. That is why there is just you and me here, in this office, alone. Do you follow?”

Perplexed, Fatiev shook his head and watched with alarm as the Colonel’s finger tightened perceptibly around the trigger.

“Then let me make myself clear,” said Colonel Izorov. “If you don’t tell me what I want to know, in approximately two minutes’ time I am going to kill you.”

Still keeping the gun aimed at Fatiev’s chest, Colonel Izorov stood up and walked around to the front of the desk. He saw Fatiev swallow nervously. Slowly lowering himself until he was sitting comfortably on the desk’s edge, he watched the young man’s face grow paler as the full meaning of his words sank in.

“While we’re waiting,” Izorov said conversationally, “you might like to know about this gun. This is the 7.65 millimetre Parabellum repeating pistol, designed at the factory of Ludwig Lowe in Berlin by a very clever man called Georg Luger. Perhaps you have already seen one before? This model has been standard issue to the Swiss Army since around 1900. There is a later model which came out about three years ago with a heavier calibre round, used by the German Imperial Navy. That is the nine-millimetre Parabellum. The Germans prefer nine-millimetre ammunition as they consider the 7.65 too light for armed combat. But this is a 7.65 and I assure you, my young friend, that at this range it is quite adequate for my purpose.”

Without taking his eyes off Fatiev, the Chief of Police leant back and picked up his service pistol from the desk. He held it up in front of Fatiev’s bruised face.

“My gun, as you can see, is different. It was originally designed and patented in the United States of America about ten years ago, by another ingenious man called Mr John M. Browning. The Belgian Fabrique Nationale d’Armes is licensed to produce it in Europe and this is one of theirs. You can see their initials on the butt. ‘FN’. See?”

He thrust it nearer to Fatiev’s face so that he could inspect it more closely.

“Like the more recent Parabellum, it takes nine-millimetre ammunition, more than capable of killing you from quite a long way away. But, given the circumstances, it does not suit me to use it. So it shall remain in my holster. Cleaned and unfired.”

Suiting the action to the word, he slid the weapon back into its holster, pressing the holster button closed with a loud snap.

“Now there is only one gun,” he explained, indicating the gun in his hand. “This  one, the one I shall say you brought in with you. Of course, after he has dragged your body away, the sergeant will be severely reprimanded. He should have thoroughly searched you before bringing you in. Instead, in the middle of your interrogation, you produced this gun and tried to assassinate me but, alas, you were inexperienced and the gun became caught in your clothing. There was a struggle and you got shot. Twice. Once in the face, once in the body. Not that anyone will ask any questions, you understand? But I have always believed that the records should contain no discrepancies.”

He raised the gun slightly, then lowered it until it was resting on his lap.

“I am sorry,” he apologised. “I should have offered you a cigarette. That was rude of me. I am afraid that we have no more time left now.”

With deliberate slowness, he raised the pistol again, until the end of its barrel was less than two hands’ width from the prisoner’s right eye.

“The face first, I think.”

“No,” gasped Fatiev weakly.

“Yes,” Izorov contradicted him. “You have less than ten seconds to live.”

Fatiev’s legs began to shake uncontrollably, making the chair rock slightly.

“NO! Please… No!”

“You are going to die now.”

“God! No… please!…”

“Hush now.”

“Please… I’m sorry…”

“I know, I know.”

“Oh, please don’t… Please don’t…”

“Goodbye Fatiev!”

With a deafening roar that filled the room, Colonel Izorov leapt forward, bringing the fist of his free hand crashing down against the side of Fatiev’s head.

“Tell me!” he bellowed.

The chair toppled over sideways and with a scream, Fatiev fell to the floor. Izorov followed him down, hitting him repeatedly in the face with the butt of the pistol.

“Tell me!” he roared again.

This time Fatiev broke. For a split second he had glimpsed the nameless animal that had been let loose beneath the policeman’s skin: its lips drawn back, its hackles roused, its razor sharp teeth gleaming in its mouth. Izorov had gone, had become a beast: inhuman, untameable, longing to kill. It had been there in his last shout and it remained in his taut brow and staring eyes.

“Stop!” Fatiev screamed. “I… I… know about the convoy!”

Grasping a handful of his hair, the beast pulled Fatiev’s head back until his body was arched upon the floor. Laying the cold steel of the gun’s barrel against the side of his damaged nose, it whispered:

“I know you know, Fatiev! What I don’t know, and what you are going to tell me, is what you and your gang are planning to do about it.”

Fatiev made the mistake of hesitating for a fraction of a second. The gun jerked viciously in the beast’s hand and the young man screamed for a third time as fresh gobbets of blood began to fall from his damaged nose.

“Nothing! Just a demonstration… that’s all,” he blubbered. “Followed by a mass meeting in front of the prison. Please stop!”

Blinded by his tears and the pain, Fatiev felt the beast’s grip tighten on his hair and wondered where the gun had gone. A sudden heavy pressure at the hollow of his exposed throat provided the answer.

“Which groups?” snarled the beast. “Tell me or I will kill you.”

“Just my group and some of the Essers. Not many.”

The end of the muzzle continued to press against his throat, as if it were trying to bore through the skin. Fatiev realised that if he couldn’t swallow in the next few seconds, he would choke to death. Then, suddenly, it was gone and Colonel Izorov had let go of his hair and was straightening up, moving away.

“Get up now,” he heard him say quietly. “Here, take my hand.”

Automatically, Fatiev reached out and let the policeman help him to his feet and brush the worst of the dust from his clothes as he leant shaking against the desk.

“Ah Fatiev, Fatiev!” said Izorov sorrowfully. “Why do we do such terrible things to each other? It’s all over now. All fin

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Leaving him by the desk, Izorov bent down and picked up the fallen chair. Beckoning Fatiev to it, he gently but firmly pressed him down onto its seat.

Burying his face in his hands, Fatiev began to sob loudly.

Unmoved, the Chief of Police returned to his desk and began wrapping the rags around the pistol, murmuring the occasional word of comfort as he did so.

“There, there. That’s right, you have a good cry my young friend. It doesn’t matter. There’s just you and me here. Would you like something to drink?”

The young exile shook his head. All the same, when he had put the bundle of rags back in its drawer, Izorov went to the door of his office and spoke softly to the policeman outside. Within a few minutes the man had brought in two glasses of freshly made tea and put them on the desk.

When the policeman had gone, Colonel Izorov pulled open another drawer and produced a tin of cigarettes. Opening it, he placed it invitingly between the two cups.

“Have some tea,” he suggested, adding knowingly, “tears and blood parch the throat.”

His face still buried in his hands, Fatiev shook his head miserably.

“Go on,” the Colonel coaxed him. “Don’t worry, they aren’t poisoned. Look, I will drink whichever one you don’t choose.”

Getting up from his desk again, he picked up both cups and offered them to Fatiev.

“I make it a rule not to try to kill the same person twice the same day,” he joked.

Lowering his hands, Fatiev wiped the tears from his eyes with the sleeve of his torn jacket then pointed uncertainly to one of the two cups. Pressing it into his trembling hand, Izorov gently guided the cup to his lips. By accident, some of the scalding liquid spilt over the edge of the cup and fell onto Fatiev’s lap but he did not flinch. The policeman noted this with approval. It was a measure of a prisoner’s level of shock: in the face of great danger, such minor mishaps counted for nothing. Taking a cigarette, Izorov lit it and laid it on the edge of the desk for Fatiev to take. Taking another for himself, he lit it and returned to his seat behind his desk.

Now he waited, biding his time until Fatiev could bring himself around to looking him in the eye again. He knew that only then would his prisoner be ready to accept the final defeat: the one that really mattered. Until that moment came, he would be looking inward, nursing his pain and his humiliation. Then he would slowly begin to realise, first with surprise then anger and finally with self-disgust, how easily he had crumbled. He would turn the memory of those few seconds when he had smelt his own death over and over in his mind; telling himself that he should have done this , or moved like that  or said some other thing. He would be both prosecutor and defence, accuser and the accused, until finally he would realise that he would never know how it might have been if things had been different, until it happened again.

When Fatiev slowly lifted his brimming eyes and stared balefully up at him, Colonel Izorov was ready.

“We can have that smoke now,” he said, pointing casually to the cigarette that was burning the edge of his desk.

Leaning forward, Fatiev took the cigarette and dragged deeply on it.

“Where were we?” asked Izorov. “Let me see… Oh yes, I remember. You know all about tomorrow. And I know you know. And now,” he added with a sardonic smile, “you know that I know you know. What a game!”

“What happens now?” asked Fatiev.

Izorov shrugged.

“Now? That depends on you,” he replied amiably. “But first tell me, were you really serious? Did you honestly imagine that you could stand up against my men and Captain Steklov’s troops and God knows how many guards there are in the escort?”

“It would have been a gesture, nothing more,” Fatiev said defensively.

“Another fine, glorious, stupid gesture!” retorted Izorov. “Our history books are full of them. The Essers  would never have joined you, you know; it would have meant Chazowski’s neck. But never mind, the matter is closed. There will be no demonstration and no bloodshed, above that which has been spilt already. We shall let these people wash over us like a wave. And when they have gone, we shall remain; still living and still breathing.”

“And still prisoners,” Fatiev said dolefully.

“Don’t be so fatalistic! You are young. You have less than three years left here now, unless I submit a report about this nonsense. But I am here for life. Think about that!”

“Will you submit a report?”

“If you keep your people in check, then I see no reason why I should. But if you don’t, well…”

He left the remainder of the sentence unsaid, but his meaning was clear to his prisoner.

“I can’t answer for all of them,” said Fatiev sullenly. “They will want to make some sort of a show.”

Persuade  them. Show them the error of their ways.”

“But they will still want to meet the prisoners. It’s traditional.”

Colonel Izorov laughed drily.

“Isn’t it strange,” he observed, “how traditional you revolutionists become when it suits you? All the same, I am prepared to stretch a point. First I must have your assurance that there will be no demonstration in the town, of any sort.”

Reluctantly, Fatiev agreed.

“Good!” exclaimed Izorov. “In return I will allow the prisoners in the convoy out of their cells between the hours of ten o’ clock in the morning and four o’clock in the afternoon. They will be free to meet and talk to whomsoever they like, providing they stay within the prescribed zone.”

Fatiev sat forward in his chair, a look of concentration on his wounded face.

“Which zone is this?” he asked.

Standing up, Izorov crooked a finger at him, and signalled him to follow. Picking up a thick black pencil from the desk, he walked over to the town map that was pinned on the wall beside the door.

When Fatiev had joined him, Colonel Izorov began to draw in the prescribed zone with a series of broken lines.

“From the prison gates to the end of the Market Square. Up Well Lane. Then the length of Alexei Street, from the church to the Town Hall. That is the Zone. All other streets will be off limits to them.”

“Even Hospital Street?” asked Fatiev, his eyes fixed on the map.

“Even Hospital Street,” confirmed the Colonel. “There will be no entry to the Quarter. Everyone back in their cells by four o’ clock. The prison compound is also off limits to local exiles. Is that understood?”

Satisfied that he had memorised the zone and regaining some of his old confidence, Fatiev turned to face the policeman.

“What happens if they stray into the Quarter by accident?” he asked.

Colonel Izorov smiled coldly.

“There are no accidents, Fatiev. You know that.”

“You mean, that they would be shot as attempting to escape.”

Still smiling, Izorov did not reply.

“In that case, Colonel, I accept your conditions.”

With as much dignity as he could muster, the young man offered Izorov his hand in agreement. Ignoring it, the policeman instead clapped him on the shoulder and began steering him towards the door.

“You need some snow on that nose of yours,” he advised him cheerfully as he opened the door for him. “That will take some of the swelling out of it.”

Allowing himself to be propelled through the doorway, Fatiev found himself in the outer office. He sat down on the bench, suddenly too exhausted by what had happened to him to be intimidated by the glowering looks from the sergeant at the duty desk.

For the first time, it occurred to him that not only had he betrayed his Party’s plans, but that he, in turn, had been betrayed; Izorov had already known. Thinking about who he had talked to about the demonstration made no sense, unless it had been someone outside the Party. Someone like the sister of the Jew Usov; the woman who had run past him as he waited across the Alley from Goldman’s.

She must have been worried , he thought, that when the reaction came, it would be directed against the Quarter. 

That was reasonable. That made sense, because it showed that he had been right after all. You couldn’t trust any of them.

Getting slowly to his feet, he stared at the closed door to Izorov’s lair. There was still one question that remained unanswered. He had watched him load the Browning, but what about the Luger?

At the desk, the sergeant cleared his throat noisily.

“Piss off, Fatiev,” he advised, “before he changes his mind.”

In his office, Colonel Izorov finished joining up the last of the dashes on his sketch map. The Zone was now delineated by a continuous black line.

Standing back, he admired his handiwork.

He had not been wrong about Hospital Street, he told himself. It was far too near to the Quarter to be included within the zone. If the secret orders he had received the fortnight before had not expressly stated that the exiles should be allowed a certain freedom of movement, none of this would have been necessary. He would have locked them up for the duration of their stay and kept them in leg irons and the keys under his pillow. But that was Peterhof all over: why make things difficult when, with a bit more effort and imagination, you could make them impossible?

Scowling at the folly of his superiors, he went back to his desk and, taking out a clean sheet of paper, began to draft his report to the Okhrana headquarter in Tobolsk.

Conspiracy to riot , he thought contentedly to himself. Fatiev should get at least another two years for that. 

Chapter Seventeen

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Saturday 10th February 1907


At the same moment that Colonel Izorov was in the uchastok  assaulting the exiled revolutionist Fatiev, at the Hotel New Century Madame Pobednyeva was standing in the doorway of its proprietor’s office scowling in displeasure at one of the Hotel’s waiters.

“Proprietor is not here,” repeated the young man stubbornly. “You must come back later.”

“Well,” the Mayor’s wife demanded, “where is he? I have an appointment to see him.”

“I don’t know. Perhaps he is elsewhere in the hotel, or perhaps he has gone out.”

“But I have an appointment to see him,” she insisted, adding emphatically, “an important  appointment.”

The waiter nodded his head solemnly.

“Yes, but not here,” he repeated stubbornly.

“Then you must go and fetch him!” ordered Madame Pobednyeva. “I have to speak to him on an important matter on behalf of the Mayor. You will get into serious trouble if you don’t fetch him.”

“I can’t leave the dining room,” replied the waiter plaintively. “I work in the dining room only. I am not allowed upstairs or to leave the hotel. Those are the orders of the proprietor.”

“But can’t you see?” exclaimed the Mayor’s wife impatiently. “This is an exception.”

The waiter shook his head and smiled apologetically at her.

“No exception,” he said confidently. “Only proprietor can make an exception.”

“Then you must ask him!”

The waiter’s smile grew broader. He held his hands palms outward as if appealing to her to see reason.

“Proprietor not here.”

They were joined by the head waiter.

“Good afternoon, Madame Mayoress!” the older man greeted her smoothly. “What a pleasure to see you here.”

“Oh Sasha, I am so glad to see you!” responded Madame Pobednyeva. “I have been trying to explain to this fool here that I have an appointment to see Fyodor Gregorivich but he won’t listen.”

The head waiter held up one hand to interrupt her.

“One moment please, Madame.”

Turning to his subordinate, he regarded the young waiter sternly.

“Stepan, your customers are waiting and your tables are a disgrace! Return to the dining room at once and clean them up.”

Bristling, the younger man looked as if he was on the point of argument but the older waiter imperiously cut him short.

“We will speak more of this later!” he said loudly for Madame Pobednyeva’s benefit. “And remember what I told you before…”

Taking the younger man firmly by the arm he led him away towards the dining room.

“Don’t let the suka staraya  mess you up,” he added, lowering his voice. “There will be plenty of tips tomorrow and you will want to be in on it.”

“Fat blyad !” muttered Stepan.

“Absolutely!” agreed the head waiter.

Pausing only to propel his young subordinate through the dining room doors, he turned on his heel and made his way back to the proprietor’s office. Madame Pobednyeva was standing by the desk. In her hand she held a piece of paper.

“Thank you, Sasha,” she said loftily, adopting a tone she believed the head waiter would recognise as being appropriate for a lady of breeding addressing a favoured and trusted servant. “A most unfortunate young man. I have come to see Fyodor Gregorivich. I have an appointment. We are meant to be discussing the seating plan for tomorrow’s luncheon.”

The head waiter regarded her with a sad smile that expertly mixed understanding and sorrow.

“I regret, Madame, that Fyodor Gregorivich is not here at this precise moment.”

Madame Pobednyeva’s eyes narrowed.

“Now don’t you start!” she warned him in a coarser tone. “Do you know where the hell he is?”

The head waiter hesitated, recognising the impracticality of admitting that he did indeed have knowledge of where his boss was: namely that he was in a room on the upper floor of the hotel spying on the fornication of two the town’s most prominent citizens. On principle he always tried to avoid telling outright lies to the Hotel’s customers.

“No,” he said reluctantly, “but I am sure that he must have been delayed on only the most pressing business, otherwise he would never have kept you waiting.”

He paused again and then, moving nearer to the Mayor’s wife, continued in a lowered voice, “May I tell you something in confidence, Madame?”

“Of course, Sasha,” Madame Pobednyeva assured him.

“Well as you know,” explained the head waiter quietly, “tomorrow’s luncheon is a very important occasion and we, that is all the staff, feel tremendously honoured that the Mayor has chosen to host the event at our hotel.”

“Well? Go on.”

“There are certain… security procedures that have to be put in place when we have such an important political event. Some of these are so secret that not even I or Boris Gennadyevich, our head chef, know about them. It is quite possible that Fyodor Gregorivich has just now been called to an urgent meeting at the uchastok  with Colonel Izorov to discuss these very sensitive arrangements and, of course, is unable to…”

He left the sentence unfinished, allowing the Mayor’s wife to paint her own picture in her mind and to reach her own conclusions.

“You are quite right,” she agreed. “It would have to be something very secret to prevent Fyodor Gregorivich from being here to meet me.”

“Very secret,” agreed Sasha with a deferential bow, “and very, very sensitive.”

His expressions of grateful appreciation at the Mayoress’s understanding were cut short by her next pronouncement.

“I will wait here until he returns.”

“Alas, no,” said the head waiter quickly. “A thousand apologies but that would not be suitable. A lady like yourself being kept waiting in his office, like a common tradesman… Fyodor Gregorivich would never forgive me!”

In this he spoke no less than the truth. Privately Fyodor Gregorivich held the Mayor’s wife in the lowest regard, calling her the Great Elephant Cow of Berezovo  or, alternatively, The Stranded Whale.  He would not wish to have his afternoon of recreational voyeurism spoilt by the discovery that in his absence she had been left unattended in his office to snoop to her heart’s content.

Madame Pobednyeva looked around the office speculatively.

“I am sure that I would be quite comfortable sitting here at his desk. I wouldn’t be in the way.”

With a gliding motion the head waiter moved deliberately to a position between the desk and the Mayoress.

“No, Madame,” he insisted gently, “I am sure that Fyodor Gregorivich would much prefer that I make you comfortable in our Mezzanine Lounge and bring you a tray of tea, courtesy of the Hotel, of course. You can sit on one of the sofas there, so much more comfortable than the hard chairs here in this office, and enjoy looking at the latest fashion papers from Petersburg.”


“And I can also bring you a selection of the biscuits from Gvordyen’s that have been made to a new recipe especially to accompany the dessert at tomorrow’s luncheon.”

“Biscuits?” repeated Madame Pobednyeva, mollified by this new inducement.

“Yes! We would greatly appreciate your discerning opinion about them. We do not want anything to spoil such an important occasion.”

“Yes, it is an important occasion,” she agreed, “which is why I simply must speak to Fyodor Gregorivich this afternoon about the seating list.”

“Ah yes, the list. Yes, that is most critical,” the head waiter said sympathetically as he continued to steer her out of the office. “I will make sure that Fyodor Gregorivich comes to see you immediately he returns to us.”

The Mayoress allowed herself to be escorted upstairs to the mezzanine lounge which she found to be unoccupied except for one other person. Fyodor Izminsky sat snoring gently in a chair on the far side of the hearth. Having made Madame Pobednyeva comfortable on one of the three plush sofas the Lounge boasted, the head waiter skilfully withdrew, leaving her to contemplate the sleeping banker.

She was surprised to see that Izminsky had fallen asleep while reading a copy of the Birzhevye Vedomosti , pages of which lay draped across his chest and tumbled to the floor. She had not formerly regarded him as a natural supporter of the Kadets, nor as a reader of a popular rag. Opening her purse she took out a small notebook and pencil and jotted down the initials ‘FFI / BV’ as a reminder to herself to mention the detail to her husband. It was a trifle, but she knew from experience how such small facts could be deployed to great effect in the hurly burly of town politics. Replacing the notebook, she sat back against the cushions that Sasha had solicitously provided for her and waited for her tray of refreshments.

* * *

Sitting in the palatial drawing room of Fyodor Izminsky’s house, Tatyana Kavelina waited patiently for Madame Izminskaya to reappear. Looking around her at the costly furnishings she reminded herself that, despite all its grandeur, she did not envy her friend’s existence. They had known each other since schooldays, and she had been pleased to receive her invitation to take English tea with her that afternoon. Privately she considered Raisa to be the only genuine friend that she had in Berezovo, and as a young woman she had wept when she had first learned of her friend’s betrothal to Fyodor Fyodorovich Izminsky. The banker’s house, despite being one of the five buildings in the town that could truly be regarded as being “stone-built”, had always struck her as being more of a temple than a home. Yes, she admitted to herself, she did envy Raisa the tidiness of her surroundings – she knew that her own household must look almost slovenly in comparison – yet even the tidiness had been taken to an extreme degree, creating an atmosphere of hygienic repression rather than ordered comfort.

It was curious, she reflected, how deep the imprint unthinkingly made by men was upon the supposedly “female” domain of the home. Here, in the house of the town’s sole banker, one found oneself passing through an uncatalogued exhibition hall, whereas Irena Kuibysheva’s household reminded one strongly of an exotic department store-cum-bazaar, so festooned was it with semiprecious trinkets, expensive ornaments, statuettes, paintings and wall hangings; souvenirs of the fur merchant’s frequent travels abroad. In contrast the house of the grain merchant Pavel Nadnikov was almost bare; as if his wife, Olga, acquiescing to his inherent suspicion of anything that might provide a hiding place for vermin, had foresworn a life cluttered by ornaments and soft furnishings.

Although she would have struggled to put it into words Tatyana knew in her heart that such choices were made by wives, and not by their husbands. It was as if the women, afraid or unwilling to consult their menfolk, had done their best to try and interpret what they thought were their preferences and had, as a consequence, created homes which they themselves found unattractive and unfulfilling. The truth was that such unspoken deference was both absurd and uncalled for. Men – at least Russian men – did not seem to care a jot about such matters and showed little appreciation of the effort involved in making their surroundings agreeable. As Matriona Pobednyeva – a woman who Tatyana disliked as intensely as she loved Raisa Izminskaya – had more than once averred, only three things were of interest to Russian men: loose clothing, a tight pizda  and a warm place to shit; they took notice of little else. Tatyana supposed things must be different in countries such as France, where women of comparable standing might expect to enjoy a boudoir .

To have a room of one’s own and the licence and financial means to decorate and appoint it just how one liked – that was true emancipation. Not even Raisa enjoyed that privilege. Irena Kuibysheva was the only woman Tatyana knew of in Berezovo who could boast (but didn’t) of the possession of a boudoir . Tatyana doubted that Raisa had ever aspired to such a luxury. She was such a quiet mouse, almost bashful at times, who preferred companionable pleasures such as her visit today. Hearing her footstep in the hallway outside Tatyana sat little straighter in her chair, a smile of affection brightening her face. Only Raisa could marry a banker and yet still want to do her own sewing.

Her friend entered the room carrying in her arms a large flat paper parcel. Tatyana noted with approval the stamp of the Eliseyev Emporium on the outer wrapping and waited in pleasurable anticipation while Raisa carefully separated the inner layers of tissue paper and held up her new purchase for her friend’s inspection. Tatyana was not disappointed: the petticoat was beautiful. Long and slender, it rippled under the light from the nearby table lamp. A ghostly motif of embroidered flowers was picked out with tiny pearls a hand’s breadth above its hem. Stretching out her hand, Tatyana ran her fingers lightly along the length of its skirt. The cloth looked and felt unfamiliar to her.

“What material is this?” she asked.

“Silk moiré,” replied Raisa in hushed tones. “Isn’t it gorgeous?”

“Yes, it is lovely,” agreed Tatyana. “It’s beautiful. So what would you like to do with it?”

“I am thinking of adding a piece of ribbon about an inch above the hem,” said Raisa, folding up the petticoat and laying it carefully on its bed of tissue paper. “It needs a dash of colour.”

Sitting back in her chair, Tatyana nodded approvingly. Lifting the workbasket she had brought with her on to her lap, she rummaged inside and pulled out several spools of coloured ribbons. Without hesitation Raisa picked out a medium width sky blue silk ribbon.

“Could you help pin it for me, if I stood on a stool?”

“What, here?”

“Yes, why not?” Raisa asked casually. “No one will disturb us and it will be like old times.”

“Only this time I will try not to prick myself and bleed all over your new skirt,” remembered Tatyana.

“That would be nice.”

Raisa began to undress. At once embarrassed and flattered by the intimacy her friend was affording her, Tatyana turned her back and busied herself with putting away the unwanted ribbons, finding the box of dressmaker pins in the bottom of her materials bag, fetching a cushion upon which she could kneel. After all these years she did not feel that she would willingly step out of her clothes and show her legs with the same casualness that they had once shared while they had had to make their own clothes. Fixing a half dozen pins in the sleeve of her blouse, she listened to the susurrus of material behind her as Raisa removed her skirt and the petticoat she was wearing and dressed herself in the new garment. When she heard her friend’s soft grunt as she stepped up onto the stool, Tatyana turned back to face her. Smiling, Raisa held her right arm aloft mockingly, as if bearing a flaming torch.

“To Liberty!” they said in unison.

“Oh, I remember this now,” said Tatyana cheerfully as she knelt upon the cushion. “If we were all going to be equal how come I was always the one on my knees?”

“It is God’s will, my child,” replied Raisa, mimicking the sepulchral tones of Father Arkady. “You must be satisfied with your lot.”

Smiling, Tatyana unravelled the spool of blue ribbon into a manageable length. Picking up the hem of petticoat cloth, she measured a thumb’s width above its edge and laid the ribbon against the cloth. Plucking the first pin from her sleeve, she carefully inserted it into the top edge of the ribbon and got to work, falling into the once familiar rhythm of gathering, measuring and pinning. As she worked they talked, Raisa speaking softly down at her from her eminence, she mumbling replies of agreement or disagreement, her lips tightly clamped on more pins as she circled the stool on her knees. What did she think of the fuss everyone was making about the arrival of the insurrectionists? Did she know anything more about the spread of the typhus epidemic in the villages to the south of the town? Was it true what people were saying, that Leonid was buying extra wood for coffins? Had she heard that Dr. Tortsov had forbidden Hospital Administrator Tolkach from acting opposite his wife in the forthcoming play? Only when Tatyana had almost completed her circumnavigation of the petticoat and was once more kneeling before her did Raisa ask her the question that was uppermost on her mind.

“Tanya, are you and Lyonya happy?”

Frowning, Tatyana took the remaining pin from her mouth and placed it firmly in the final inch of ribbon.

“There!” she said, nodding in satisfaction as she checked the level of the ribbon for the last time. “Yes, quite happy thank you.”

“I don’t see how you can be,” murmured the voice above her head, “while he is busy betraying you with Irena.”

“Now you know that is not true,” said Tatyana, frowning down at the hem. “You have no evidence of that and Irena has been a good friend to me.”

Reaching into her work basket, Tatyana pulled out a pair of long bladed scissors and briskly snipped off the remaining length of ribbon that was trailing from the petticoat.

“No she hasn’t, and no, she isn’t,” insisted Raisa, as she stepped down from the stool. “Yes, she has taken you up and invited you to her house and lent you the occasional piece of jewellery and shared her perfume with you – both of which, incidentally, do not suit you – but she is not a true friend. What do you know about her? Has she ever confided in you?”

Picking up her workbasket, Tatyana held it defensively on her lap as she packed away her dressmaking materials.

“I know that she has had a difficult life and an unhappy one before she came to Berezovo,” she declared. “I know that she takes people as they are, without judging them. I know that she is a new friend who takes me as I am now, not one who always dredges up my past faults or failings. And I know that she is fun and interesting to be with. I am only sorry that you are so jealous of her.”

“Jealous?” exclaimed Raisa, raising her voice for the first time. “I could never be jealous of her. If anything I pity her, and I would feel deeply sorry for her if she wasn’t trying so very hard to make my best friend so very unhappy.”

“But I’m not unhappy!” insisted Tatyana shrilly.

Taking a seat next to her, Raisa clasped her hands together as if in prayer.

“Tanya, Irena Kuibysheva is like a scorpion,” she said slowly. “It is in her nature to sting you. She can’t help it, which is why, really, she should be pitied. But she won’t be.”

Tatyana glared at her.

“Do you sincerely believe anything like that could happen without my knowing?” she asked.

“But it may be happening right now, under your very nose!” cried Raisa, throwing her hands apart in exasperation. “All your friends know it.”

Tatyana shook her head, dismissing the possibility.

“All my friends?” she demanded. “Who exactly?”

“Myself, Lidiya, Olga – all your oldest friends. And no doubt many other people who know you in the town. People whose husbands do business with Leonid every day. Everyone in the town is talking about it.”

Tatyana shook her head again in disagreement.

“But you have no proof for these lies. Where is your evidence?”

“But Tanya, all their meetings… Do you really think that the Town does not see? Sharing a table at the Hotel New Century? All those brief encounters at the Library… As if Irena Kui

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bysheva ever reads a book! Or your Leonid, for that matter.”

Gathering up her work bag, Tatyana got to her feet.

“I think I had better be leaving,” she said coldly, “before one of us says or does something hurtful that we will later regret. Don’t bother to see me out.”

Raisa moved as if to rise but her friend’s sharp tone stopped her.

“No, Raisa, don’t get up or try and stop me going or I swear to God I will strike you…”

With this last word she left the room and less than a minute later Raisa heard the front door close behind her.

Curious to know the cause of her guest’s violent departure, Raisa’s maid appeared momentarily to ask whether she still required the tea to be served. Still sitting in her petticoat, Raisa waved her away. Despondently she began to remove the pins one by one, leaving the blue ribbon trailing unwanted onto the richly patterned rug. She knew her new and expensive petticoat to be irreparably damaged, but it did not matter. Its loss was a small price to pay in order to try to protect her dearest friend. Besides, she had an exact duplicate from Eliseyev’s in her bedroom press.

Chapter Eighteen

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Saturday 10th February 1907


In the mezzanine lounge of the Hotel New Century, Madame Pobednyeva picked impatiently at the fabric on the arm of her armchair. She had moved to the other side of the lounge partly because she could no longer endure the sound of Izminsky’s snoring and partly to obtain a better view of the staircase. Her previous seat on the sofa had afforded her no view of the activities of the hotel’s staff and its guests. Her new position, in the armchair beside the small occasional table upon which rested a leafy aspidistra, had the dual advantage of allowing her to spy on people ascending or descending the staircase or crossing the landing beyond the entrance to the lounge while remaining undiscovered herself. From here she could watch out for Fyodor Gregorivich.

She glanced at the crumbs on the small tea plate beside her empty tea glass. The biscuits had been disappointing; ‘Nothing to write home about’ as her mother would have said. She had found their flavour of almond paste overbearing and too dense for her taste. She recognised that, given the nearness of the luncheon, there was no longer anything that could be done to improve the recipe. Nevertheless, she would make a point of mentioning her dissatisfaction to Fyodor Gregorivich. For the first time since she had taken up her vigil she began to feel uneasy about the hotel’s missing proprietor. Regardless of one’s standing in the town, one could never be sure of the outcome of a summons from Kostya Izorov. Was Fyodor Gregorivich even now locked up in a small cell, or being brutally beaten?

The sound of a man’s voice from outside of the lounge broke into her thoughts. Leaning forward she peered expectantly around the side of the aspidistra but, instead of the proprietor’s prematurely shining pate rising as he came up the staircase from the lobby, she saw two pairs of feet descending the stairs that led to the rooms on the upper floor of the hotel. The first wore a man’s polished shoes and above them, smartly creased trousers; the second belonged to a young lady, the hem of a grey skirt demurely raised. Madame Pobednyeva shrank back into the cushion of her armchair, knowing the identity of their owners even before they revealed themselves. Seemingly unconcerned by the risk of discovery the couple paused on the landing outside the entrance to the mezzanine lounge and exchanged brief kisses. And then, her seduction concluded, Irena Kuibysheva continued sedately down the stairs to the hotel’s lobby while Leonid Kavelin, looking flushed but contented, turned and entered the lounge.

Walking over to the side table where there was a flask of water and a glass he poured himself a drink. Hardly daring to breathe Madame Pobednyeva watched as Kavelin looked round the room, spied the sleeping baker and smiled.

If he turns around any further , she told herself, he can hardly fail to see me and that would be extremely embarrassing .

She was trapped. She could hardly copy Izminsky’s example and feign sleep. It would be just too inelegant. To her relief she saw Kavelin consult his pocket watch and then drain his glass. Putting the glass gently back on the tray so as not to wake Izminsky, the timber merchant smoothed down the front of his waistcoat and followed in his mistress’s footsteps down the stairs to the lobby.

Madame Pobednyeva fanned her face in relief. It was now a confirmed fact: Leonid Kavelin and Irena Kuibysheva were adulterous lovers. This was news indeed, and far more significant than her discovery about the banker’s reading habits or the poor quality of almond biscuits. This needed no note to remind her of the details.

Quietly rising from her chair she crossed the lounge to the landing beyond. Stooping, she peered down the staircase. The hotel lobby was empty. Kavelin had either gone into the dining room or he had left the hotel.

It was only as she was removing her outdoor coat from its peg on the wall of the lobby that she recalled the original purpose of her visit to the hotel. Clutching the luncheon list, she cautiously opened the door of the dining room and peered inside. The room was almost deserted. At one table sat Sasha and the younger waiter, smoking cigarettes and folding napkins. From the doorway Madame Pobednyeva beckoned to Sasha and waved her list.

“Sasha!” she called out as the head waiter rose obediently from the table and came towards her. “I really can’t wait any longer. Please give this to Fyodor Gregorivich as soon as you see him. He will know what to do with it.”

With an apologetic bow the head waiter took the folded piece of notepaper from her and bade her a good afternoon. Professional courtesy prevented him from suggesting to her that she could speak to the hotel’s proprietor herself if she would but wait until his boss had changed the ensemened sheets in Room Number Four. As he confided to his protégé when he had returned to folding the napkins, tact and discretion were the hallmarks of their calling.

Tatyana Kavelina walked quickly along the raised boardwalk that bordered Menshikov Street. Her visit to Raisa had upset her greatly and she wanted nothing more than to get home, close her front door behind her and shut the world out. The gloom of the winter afternoon was fast fading into the darkness of evening, making figures and the outlines of the buildings indistinct in the ill lit street. A couple passed her, walking arm in arm, and greeted her by her name but Tatyana ignored them, averting her face as if she did not wish to see, or to be seen.

How could Raisa say such rude and hurtful things to me , she thought angrily, or even believe them to be true? Olga Nadnikova and Lidiya Pusnyena, yes, I can believe it of those frustrated old cats, but dear Raisa? Doesn’t she realise how unlikely the idea is that Irena would ever set her cap at Lyonya? The idea is more than ridiculous, it is absurd. 

All the same, thought the timber merchant’s wife, Raisa’s point had been well made. Leonid would quickly recognise that these rumours, as insulting as they were, would be as damaging to his commercial interests as they were to his personal reputation. There were plenty of people in the town who would be only too prepared to deny him their trade if he was believed to be an adulterer. She would have to speak with her husband, even if it meant a beating. The risk was negligible. In all probability he would stay his hand. She hoped that he may even join her in laughing at their foolishness. Even if he did hit her, it mattered very little. Poor Lyonya had no talent for cruelty and little skill in violence. He was not quite as tall as she was and, perhaps because of this, in all their married life he had only attacked her three times, mostly with slaps around her head and bruising punches to her arms and legs like a young boy in a school playground. On each occasion she suspected he had been ashamed of himself afterwards. She considered him, in many ways, as being only half a man, for which she was profoundly grateful. It made it all the more unlikely that he would have the courage to attempt to seduce such an attractive and sharp-witted woman such as her friend Irena.

Reaching the alleyway that ran along the northern side of their house, out of habit Tatyana looked up and saw the face of her daughter gazing at her from one of the upper windows. Instinctively she raised her hand. The young girl raised her hand in response, and in that instant a wave of misery and anxiety, so powerful that she almost cried out in anguish, washed over her. The thought that anyone could deliberately wish to destroy the child’s happiness made her falter. Collecting herself she gingerly descended from the boardwalk, crossed the alley and ascended the steps that led to the entrance to the grounds of their house that lay secure behind the high wooden fence.

When she reached the door she was surprised to see her daughter waiting for her, standing in the doorway.

“Hello Mama!”

“Where is Nadya?” she responded irritably as she swept past the child into the warmth of the hallway. “She is paid to open the door, not you.”

“Papa wants a bath and she has been busy boiling water in the copper.”

Tatyana frowned as she removed the pin from her hat and carefully laid the hat on the small console table in their hallway.

It was customary for her husband to take his weekly bath on Sunday mornings so that he could be clean for church and it struck her as strange that he should break his routine. Absentmindedly she patted her daughter fondly on the shoulder and made her way along to the hall towards the back of the house.

Her belief that homes were more influenced by their male owners than their female chatelaines was born out by her own house, which was a living monument for the utility and beauty of wood. She and her family lived in wooden panelled rooms, walked on finely sanded and stained wooden floorboards, ate, drank and slept on expensively fashioned wooden furniture behind decoratively carved and lacquered wooden doors. It was, said Raisa, borrowing an image from a French translation she had read of the satirical Irish novel Gulliver’s Travels , like living within a highly polished cigar box.

The kitchen, scullery and bathroom were situated at the rear of the house. As she entered the kitchen, her maid Nadya was occupied in sorting out a pile of laundry on the kitchen table. Tatyana’s sudden appearance took her by surprise and she stepped guiltily away from the table.

“Good evening Nadya.”

“Good evening Ma’am.”

“What is this?” asked Tatyana, pointing to the clothes.

“The master’s clothes, Ma’am. They need washing.”

Tatyana gave a puzzled smile.

“On a Saturday night? But how will they dry? We can’t put them out to dry on a Sunday.”

“No Ma’am.”

“Leave them with me. There’s nothing here that can’t wait until Monday.”

Nadya looked down at the pile of washing on the table and then back up at Tatyana. She appeared flustered by her instruction.

“Mr Kavelin did say to do them today…” she said and then fell silent.

“Where is my husband?”

“Taking his bath, Ma’am.”

“I see. Well, don’t worry about these. Leave them where they are, I’ll look after them. You get on with preparing the supper.”

Walking through the scullery, Tatyana tapped peremptorily on the door that led to the bath room.

There was a pause and then she heard her husband’s querulous voice.

“Yes? What is it?”

“Leonid, it’s Tanya,” she called out.

“Tanya! Back so soon?”

“Yes. What are you doing in there?”

“Having a bathe, of course. It will be a momentous day tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” she repeated.

“Yes. Big day what with the civic reception and everything. We may have to be ready early, so I thought I would bathe today.”

Pursing her lips, Tatyana nodded at the door panels as if in agreement.

“All right. I am going upstairs. Do you have your robe in there?”

“Yes thank you,” came the cheerful response.

Turning, she retraced her steps back to the kitchen. With one sweep of her arms she gathered up the pile of laundry from the kitchen table. Nadya opened her mouth as if to protest but her employer shook her head and held up a finger against her lips, commanding her silence. The maid nodded and, with a dismissive shrug, turned back to her task of peeling vegetables in the scullery sink.

Tatyana carried the bundle of soiled clothes up to the bedroom she shared with her husband and dropped them onto the large bed. She looked down at them for a moment and then, with a deep sigh, picked up the pair of Leonid’s trousers. As she began to fold them she heard a rattling sound come from one of the pockets. Reaching into his right hand pocket she retrieved a small box of safety matches decorated with the pompous monogram of the Hotel New Century. Tossing the matches aside she searched in the other trouser pocket and found they were empty. Holding up the legs of the trousers she pressed them to her face and breathed in. They smelt of him, of his sweat and his wood yard and the tobacco from his cigarettes. Shuffling the garment in her fingers she turned the trousers inside out, bent her head again and sniffed at the crotch. She could smell only stale urine, and the faint musky scent of his body odours.

Folding the trousers neatly she replaced them on the bed and rummaged in the pile of linen until she had found his long undergarments. Disentangling them for the other clothes she peered inside them and noted that there was fresh staining on the inside of the crotch. Without hesitation she picked them up and pressed them deliberately to her face. There was the unmistakable dull tang of sexual juices; a combination of her husband’s sperm and the body fluids of another person, a woman.

A cold feeling of dread and self-disgust gripped her. Flinging the garment away from her, she scrabbled through the remaining pile of garments until she had found his shirt. For a moment she hesitated and then, as if accepting a profane sacrament, she slowly raised the shirt to her face. The unmistakable scent of Apres l’Ondee  rose to meet her, filling her nostrils with its memory of orange blossom and violets.

Chapter Nineteen

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Sunday 11th February 1907


Janinski leant against the iron handrail at the top of the narrow staircase and watched as, with a desperate slowness, the two prisoners struggled to raise the heavy bureau up another step. It was a large piece of furniture and awkward to handle, being too wide and too heavy for one man to lift. He heard one of the prisoners cried out in pain as his hand was caught for a second time between a corner of the bureau and the wall.

“Get a move on!” the warder growled.

The two men redoubled their efforts. Their physical stamina had been weakened by their spell on their prison diet. By the time they had hauled the bureau up to the landing, they were spent. Sitting down on the top step, they mopped their brows and tried to regain their breath but their overseer would have none of it. Bringing his knout down onto the top of the bureau with a thump, Janinski jerked his thumb menacingly towards the bottom of the steps and, wearily, they climbed to their feet and went to fetch their next load.

Outside in the courtyard Prison Director Dimitri Skyralenko, wearing his dress uniform, slapped his hands and stamped his boots on the freshly fallen snow in an effort to keep warm. Not far from him a trio of prisoners, shackled together by leg irons, were doing their best to unload a small dining room table from the back of one of Lepishinsky’s delivery carts under the bored gaze of two warders armed with rifles. Far in the distance, the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s bell began to toll, summoning its congregation to the morning service.

“Hurry them up,” Skyralenko ordered to the guards impatiently. “They are taking too long.”

Unslinging their rifles, the warders began to prick the backs of the prisoners with the points of their bayonets.

“You heard the Director. Faster!”

With a last heave, the table came free from the tailgate of the cart. Hampered by their leg irons, and their frozen hands, the prisoners lost their grip. There was the sound of a crash followed by that of splintering wood. Skyralenko groaned aloud. Undismayed, the men began to drag the broken bits towards the warmth of the jailhouse.

When at last all the furniture had been distributed amongst the cells, the prisoners were told to collect their belongings and present themselves for the Director’s inspection. Lined up against the courtyard wall, they listened as Skyralenko read out their Order of Parole before dismissing them. A few, including the prisoner Arkov, did not hesitate to take him at his word, but the majority were disposed to remain where at least food and shelter were guaranteed.

“Where can we go, without any money?” one cried.

“Why is the Little Father casting us out?” asked another. “Haven’t we been model prisoners?”

“What right have strangers to usurp us?”

In the end, Skyralenko had to order the warders to drive them out of the prison: by boot and rifle butt if necessary. But as his sleigh took him up Alexei Street, towards the church, some of the more determined prisoners ran alongside, beseeching him with real tears in their eyes to show mercy. Exasperated, the Prison Director, his arms flailing like windmills, swore that if they were still visible on the street when he came out of the church, he would have them shot on sight. Dejectedly, the remainder of the newly liberated prisoners slunk away.

Entering the church, Skyralenko paused in the narthex, allowing his eyes to adjust themselves to the candlelight while he determined at what point the service had reached. He became aware of a figure breaking away from the main body of the congregation and moving towards him.

“Good morning, Dimitri Borisovich,” Colonel Izorov greeted him softly.

“Good morning, Konstantin Illyich.”

“Is everything prepared at the prison?”

“Yes, it is done.”

For a moment the two men stood side by side, listening to the indistinct sepulchral voice of the aged priest rising and falling.

“The text the good Father has chosen,” Colonel Izorov informed him in a whisper, “is from the book of Holy Revelations. It tells us we should be ready to meet the Anti-Christ and his agents and defeat them.”

“How fortuitous!” Skyralenko whispered back.

“One does what one can,” said the Colonel modestly.

On the left side of the church in the women’s section of the nave, Tatyana Kavelina knelt and made her prostration before the altar. Weary from a sleepless night and tormented by her discovery of her husband’s betrayal, she felt herself to be too full of anger to pray for God’s grace.

She should have killed him, she thought. She should have held his head down beneath the water in the bath and drowned him. She should have snatched up one of the kitchen knives and stabbed him, like that woman in the French revolution had done, knifing him repeatedly in the chest and neck, one stab wound for every year of their marriage, until his blood swirled red in the scummy water. She should have gone into the backyard and picked up the small wood hand axe and used that, raining blows on his head and arms while he cried out with pain and fear. She should have butchered the pig like he had butchered her heart.

As another woman came to kneel behind her, Tatyana buried her face in her hands and squeezed her eyes shut against her tears. She took a deep shuddering breath, and then another.

She must not cry in public, she told herself. Nobody else must know of her shame. These dreadful thoughts of anger were not good; they only felt good because they fed the illusion that she possessed the power and the authority to avenge her shame. She did not. These illusions came from the Devil and she must not listen to him, however seductive his voice. Instead she must collect herself, show respect for the Holy Father’s house and ask for His help and His guidance.

“Tatyana,” said the woman kneeling next to her, her voice low but distinct against the chanting of the congregation of women standing around them.

Quickly wiping the tears away from her eyes with her fingertips Tatyana lowered her hands and, turning to see who had spoken to her, saw that it was Lidiya Pusnyena, the wife of the general merchant Serapion Alexeyevich Pusnyen. Some ten years older than Tatyana and a close confidante of Olga Nadnikova, Lidiya Pusnyena, in her own reserved and distant way, had always shown her kindness and respect. Tatyana was surprised that she had chosen this moment to approach her.

“Glory to Jesus Christ,” Tatyana greeted her.

“Glory for ever,” responded the older woman automatically, adding, “how are you, Tatyana? You look troubled, my dear.”

Tatyana shook her head.

“No more troubled than anyone else, thank you. Please excuse me.”

Before Lidiya could reply Tatyana got up from her knees and began threading her way through the crowd of standing chanting women. When she felt that she had gone far enough she looked back to where she had been kneeling. Lidiya Pusnyena was no longer there. Craning her neck Tatyana searched for her over the heads of the other women in the congregation and saw that she was now standing near the centre of the nave, conversing earnestly with Olga Nadnikova and Raisa Izminskaya.

Tatyana felt her innards turn to water.

“It is not possible,” she muttered. “They know already? it is too soon!”

Almost simultaneously Olga Nadnikova glanced up and caught her looking at her. Before Tatyana had time to avert her eyes, Olga had raised her head and beckoned her to come and join her group. Tatyana responded with a dismissive shake of her head and, turning, began searching for another part of the church where she might hide from the gaze of the grain merchant’s wife.

She saw a group of fisherwomen standing by themselves in their customary place towards the back of the congregation beside the northern wall of the church. As she approached she caught the distinct smell of the freshwater Sosva herring – the town’s speciality – by which they earned their living, and of which she doubtless would partake at that day’s feasting at the Hotel New Century. If the bedraggled women recognised the identity of this well dressed intruder, they gave no sign. Fixing their eyes on the distant proceedings they knelt, stood, swayed and chanted in near unison as if they had taken on the shoaling coordination of the herring’s deep water cousins. Shielded by their broad backs and thighs she knelt amongst them and bowed her head.

Holy Father protect and save me , she prayed. My husband has betrayed me with Irena Kuibysheva and I have been foolish and blind. Because of my stupidity I have lost the respect and affection of my friends who will now, despite their show of sympathy, regard me with contempt and derision and abandon me. As I would in their place – you know that to be true. Holy Father, please help me! I know that I have not been as good a mother as you would wish, or as good a wife to Leonid, but please, I implore you on my knees, please do not abandon me! I have lost my husband, my standing in the town and any hope of happiness in this life and now I face the trials of disgrace and exclusion. Please give me a sign that I will have your protection and your guidance in this hour of my greatest need. 

She paused, undecided whether to throw herself further on God’s mercy with unreserved promises of doing His will. The urge was strong but she knew that, on her past record, He would not trust her to her word. She was also unsure whether she should demand punishment for Irena. Scripture was unclear on this. On the one hand His children were instructed to love their enemies and on the other the Creator jealously guarded his monopoly of the administration of vengeance. Her thoughts were still unresolved when she felt a hand being laid gently upon her shoulder. Looking up she wondered whether this might be the Sign for which she had prayed.

Raisa was standing beside her, looking mournfully towards the altar.

“Stand up, Tanya.”

Unwillingly Tatyana stood up, brushing the dust from her skirts.

“Olga wants to speak with you. I’m afraid that she has some distressing news.”

“Why must you continue to bother me?” complained Tatyana. “Can you not see that we are in church and I am at prayer?”

“I am sorry,” Raisa insisted, “but there is no time to lose. In the name of our love for you, you must listen to what she has to tell you.”

Tatyana resisted the urge to flee again. Instead, with an expression of infinite sadness, she clasped her friend by the arm and pulled her to her.

“I know everything now that I did not know yesterday,” she said, speaking quietly into her ear as the plainsong responses rose around them. “There is nothing further to be said, or done.”

She kissed Raisa on the cheek and then left her and made her way towards the queues of women that had formed in front of the rack of candles near the entrance at the rear of the church. The thought had arisen within her that she was being unreasonable asking for the Heavenly Father’s help while her own heart was still full of anger and injured pride. She would have to start her prayers all over again and approach her Maker in true humility – this time without interruption – if they were to have any effect.

As she neared the front of her queue she opened her small purse and selected a five copeck coin, and then after a pause, a ten copeck coin.

One for my prayer to the Heavenly father for his guidance , she thought to herself. One for my husband’s soul and one for my daughter’s happiness. 

Dropping the two coins into the wooden box fixed to the back of the rack she selected three candles. As she touched the wick of her first candle to the flame of one already alight she was surprised to see to other candles jostle for the flame. Olga Nadnikova and Lidiya Pusnyena had quietly joined her on either side. Behind them, her head bowed in embarrassment, stood Raisa.

“Glory to Jesus Christ, Tatyana.”

“Glory for ever.”

“We are sorry to disturb you while you are so deep in prayer,” began Olga.

“It is an unforgiveable intrusion, and not the action of a friend,” she replied.

“Yes, it is certainly an intrusion,” agreed Olga quietly, “but I think that it is forgivable, under the circumstances. It is certainly the action of a friend, and of a true friend.”

Tatyana lit the candle and shakily put it in its holder.

“I don’t see how it can be,” she said, presenting her second candle to the flame.

Reaching over, Olga took the third candle out of her hand and laid it on its side away from the flames.

“Tatyana, you must come with us right now if you want to save your marriage and your family.”

“Right now?” echoed Tatyana in surprise.

“Yes, right now. Time is of the essence and we can rejoin the service later. You must trust us.”

The grain merchant’s wife hesitated as if unsure whether to break a confidence.

“You have been praying for help and guidance, haven’t you?” she asked. “Well, we may be part of the answer. We will not abandon you, if you come now. We shall go to my house as it is the closest. Come.”

Overcome by the way that the older woman had so closely read her thoughts, Tatyana nodded meekly. Sliding the second candle into a vacant holder she stepped away from the bank of flames.

From his position on the right hand side of the nave, Colonel Izorov watched in puzzlement as Tatyana, white faced and with Olga on one side of her, Lidiya on the other and Raisa bringing up the rear, made her way towards the narthex door. The small procession of well-dressed women reminded him curiously of a party of guards escorting a prisoner to his execution. He wondered where they were going.

An hour later, Fyodor Gregorivich straightened a napkin and cast an approving eye down the length of the table that had been set in the centre of the dining room. The cutlery had never looked better; the glasses positively shone. Humming to himself, he embarked upon his last task: distributing the carefully written place cards. Setting the seating order was properly the responsibility of the host or hostess of the luncheon. However, since neither the Mayor or Mayoress had yet appeared, he accepted that the task had fallen to him.

Shifting through the fourteen place cards, he came to the name of Madame Irena Kuibysheva; the card appearing as om

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inously as a dark cloud on a sunny day. Frowning, he looked at the cards he had already laid on the table, and then back at the one in his hand. Until that point, everything had been going smoothly. Each husband had been placed opposite his wife in alternating series. Now, Irena Kuibysheva stuck out like a sore nose. He did not dare put her close to Madame Kavelina, or to Leonid Sergeivich for that matter, yet etiquette demanded that she, as the wife of the town’s wealthiest citizen, should be placed in an appropriately prestigious seat and next and opposite to someone who, for the purposes of the seating plan, could be regarded as either a dining companion or escort. Scratching his head, Fyodor Gregorivich walked back to the head of the table, and toyed with the idea of placing her alongside Father Arkady, who was sitting on the Mayor’s right hand (on the occasion of a religious festivity, the order was reversed). But he saw that this would put her diagonally opposite Madame Pobednyev and dismissed the idea. Hoping for inspiration, he looked at the far end of the table although, out of deference to her husband’s wealth and importance, he could not consider for a moment placing her in so lowly a position. That place would be taken by… Dimitri Skyralenko. Next to him would be the Kavelins – the Tiger would never dare complain. Then the Nadnikovs and the Shiminskis and next to Nikita Shiminski… Modest Tolkach.

Holding the Hospital Administrator’s card, Fyodor Gregorivich laughed out loud.

Of course!  he thought. Who else could be more suitable as a dining companion for Irena Kuibysheva than Modest Tolkach? The wife killer and the adulteress could compare notes on the sanctity of marriage. 

With a sense of satisfaction at having solved a knotty problem, he flipped Madame Kuibysheva’s card onto her new place setting. The rest of the table presented no difficulties. The Two Thieves, Izminsky and Kuprin, were as inseparable as brigands anyway and above them sat Father Arkady opposite Madame Pobednyeva, and then the Mayor. Standing back, he gave a nod of approval at his handiwork.

Hearing the jangle of sleigh bells, he glanced up at the dining room clock. It was approaching one o’ clock. Hurrying from the dining room, he locked its doors, ensuring that only the kitchen staff would have entrance before the luncheon was ready. The first of the Mayor’s guests – the Izminskys, ever eager to enjoy an opportunity for free food and drink – were bustling through the outer door. Bowing low, he helped them off with their coats and informed them that pre-luncheon refreshments were awaiting them in the mezzanine lounge.

At No. 8 Ostermann Street, the midday meal had begun with a breaking of a promise. Aware that the arrival of the Soviet Deputies could no longer remain secret, Dr. Tortsov had decided to take his wife and his assistant into his confidence. He gambled that since the convoy was expected that very day, there was little risk that the news would have time to leak out from their household and inflame Berezovo’s own colony of exiled malcontents. Even so, he took precautions, waiting until Katya had retreated to the kitchen before beckoning Yeliena and Chevanin to bow their heads as if in prayer and whispering to them the news. He was also circumspect in his description of the convoy and did not refer to them as the convicted leadership of the insurrectionist St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Delegates, which would have been proper, but only as ‘a special party of Politicals’. According to him, their significance lay chiefly in their having travelled through villages that had been heavily affected by the latest outbreak of infection. Between mouthfuls, the Doctor was now relating the tragic fate of the young merchant Dobrovolsky who had died two years before.

“He was of no age,” he said cheerfully. “But then typhus can strike young and old alike.”

Chevanin, only half listening to what the Doctor was saying, nodded. Opposite him, Yeliena picked delicately at the food on her plate.

“One of Baron Pol’s exploration team found him at the Ourvinsk yurts, but it was too late to do anything,” Dr. Tortsov continued. “He must have lain there for at least a fortnight, becoming gradually weaker day by day. Besides making him comfortable, the Ostyaks had done nothing much to help him. After all, if he hadn’t been found they stood to gain his sleigh, his clothes and whatever gold he had on him. You can be sure of one thing: he wasn’t travelling with empty pockets, which is how he was found.”

“That’s little short of murder, surely?” murmured Yeliena.

The Doctor considered the point as he chewed a tough piece of meat.

“How can one talk of murder, or of any crime?” he replied thoughtfully. “The taiga has its own laws. Always has had and always will. You could just as well say that it was suicide when you consider how foolish the young man had been. In the first place, to go out alone, then to leave the Highway in the middle of winter, on such a journey, with all the money that he would need to buy the furs.”

He shook his head regretfully.

“I’m sorry to say so, and may God receive his soul, but that young man died the death of a fool that he deserved.”

To cover the silence that followed the Doctor’s brutal verdict Chevanin asked whether Dobrovolsky had taken a pistol with him on his journey. Dr. Tortsov thought of the approaching convoy of prisoners and laughed.

“If typhus could be destroyed with bullets,” he replied, “the Tsar would be our greatest physician.”

“Vasili!” his wife scolded him. “That’s a dreadful thing to say!”

“I just meant,” explained Chevanin, “if he was armed, perhaps he could have forced the Ostyaks to take him to the nearest settlement.”

“What an absurd idea, Anton Ivanovich!” said the Doctor. “To begin with, he would quickly become unable to hold the gun steady, much less aim it and pull the trigger. Secondly, very few men, when it comes to it, would consider threatening to kill the only people who might deliver them from harm. Besides, I doubt if the Ostyaks would have been too impressed even if he had threatened them. They are a pretty fatalistic bunch. He would have had to have shot three or four of them to show them he meant business.”

“Can’t we find something more suitable to talk about at the table, please?” complained Yeliena with a shudder.

“You are quite right, Yeliena Mihailovna,” Chevanin apologised. “I am sorry to have brought up the subject.”

But Dr. Tortsov disagreed.

“Nonsense, Lenochka! You are just being squeamish,” he retorted good humouredly, waving a fork towards his assistant. “This young man has to learn the facts of life sometime, otherwise he could end up like poor Dobrovolsky.”

Turning to Chevanin, he asked:

“You haven’t been out on the taiga yet, have you, Anton?”

“If you recall, I did accompany you as far as Belogoryia last year,” Chevanin replied, “but, no, I haven’t been out in the wilds as such.”

“Then perhaps I shall take you with me in the spring. Perhaps we shall go north, to Obdorsk. It’s only five hundred versts away, tucked snugly inside the Polar Circle,” declared the Doctor, adding mischievously, “there’s no need to begin with anything strenuous.”

Seeing the appalled expression on Chevanin’s face, Yeliena sought to put his mind at rest.

“Pay no attention, Anton Ivanovich. My husband is only teasing you. He would no sooner invite you along with him on one of his journeys than he would invite me. He is too jealous of his freedom and of his unique status.”

She silenced her husband’s protests with a wave of her fork.

“They say that in the wilder parts,” she confided across the table, “some of the Ostyak shamans worship him as a deity, who appears every now and again to bestow his blessing and heal the sick.”

“Only a minor god, my dear,” protested the Doctor, joining in the joke.

“Is this true?” Chevanin asked.

“Oh yes,” Yeliena assured him gravely. “As soon as he arrives they all dress up in their animal skins, bang drums and young virgins are brought in his honour. Hundreds of them gather as soon as they see his sleigh, each dragging their daughters behind them, roped together like goats. The feasting goes on for days.”

Chevanin looked from one to the other, unsure whether they were jesting or not.

“And do you carry a gun when you go?” he asked the Doctor.

“Oh yes, most certainly,” replied the Doctor truthfully. “Once you have been pursued by a pack of wolves, your pistol never leaves your side.”

“I think Anton Ivanovich had better take one as well, don’t you dearest?” suggested Yeliena. “If only to protect him from the virgins.”

“He would need a cannon to protect himself from those devils,” said her husband with a knowing laugh.

Chevanin smiled weakly and resumed eating his meal. He felt embarrassed by their indelicate humour and excluded from what seemed like a companionable conspiracy.

“Speaking of cannons, when will we be able to rehearse at the barracks?” Yeliena asked her husband. “The performance is in a week’s time, remember.”

“Don’t worry, my dear. Captain Steklov said that we can move in as soon as the troops guarding these prisoners have left. Of course, the first day, Wednesday, is out of the question, because Belinsky should be putting up the scenery then. We wouldn’t be able to hear ourselves think with all that hammering and scraping.”

“So, Thursday at the earliest?” asked Chevanin.

Swallowing his last mouthful of food, the Doctor pushed his plate away from him and nodded.

“Plenty of time before then for you to learn your words. That is what you should be concentrating on now. As long as you know your lines, the movements should take care of themselves,” he declared optimistically.

“‘Speak up and don’t bump into the furniture,’” quoted Chevanin. “That is what Maslov told me.”

Dr. Tortsov shot him a look, as much as to say, “Oh him ! Don’t listen what he  has to say.”

“Vasili is right, Anton Ivanovich,” Madame Tortsova said. “We must concentrate on the script for the moment. Why don’t we have another rehearsal after lunch?”

“By all means,” the Doctor agreed. “The more often the better. But I am afraid, my dear, that you shall have to do so without me. I told Colonel Izorov that I would go over to Police Headquarters to take a look at the prisoners when they arrive. We cannot afford to take any risks.”

“Oh really, Vasili!” his wife exclaimed petulantly. “Must you go? It’s beginning to snow again and I’m sure that the Colonel will keep them well out of the way of the townspeople. Even if they are infected, they won’t be a threat to anyone, except to you if you go and inspect them.”

“I wish that was the case, Lenochka,” he replied. “But it is not. It appears that, for political reasons, they are to be allowed to have a certain freedom of movement outside the prison, so they really do have to be examined at the earliest opportunity. I shouldn’t be too long, not unless they’ve been delayed on the road.”

“Oh well, my dear, if you must go, you must,” Yeliena said with a sigh of resignation. “Anton Ivanovich, you and I shall just have to manage as best we can.”

Picking up the tiny hand bell that sat beside her plate, she rang it briskly, summoning Katya to clear away the plates.

Chapter Twenty

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Sunday 11th February 1907


Boarding their carriage, Tatyana sat in the far corner of its cushioned seat, determined to keep her distance from her husband. Olga Nadnikova had been correct: their urgent discussion had been completed in time for her to return to the service and leave the church beside Leonid. She was not on trial, Olga had insisted, but they had to know certain facts before they could determine the best course of action. Her examination – for that is what it had felt like – had taken the form of a series of probing questions.

Did she now believe them when they said that Irena Kuibysheva had designs upon her husband? 


Did she have proof of their betrayal? 

Yes, his soiled laundry.

Had she (Tatyana) challenged her husband about his betrayal? 


What had been his reaction? 

He had denied it completely and had said that she was imagining things.

“Men are such cowards!” sighed Lidiya. “They throw a rock through a window and then deny doing it even though the dirt is still on their hands.”

Did she recognise that her friends had tried to warn her on several occasions but that she had refused to listen to them, preferring to believe in the liar Irena Kuibysheva? 

Yes, she admitted, weeping now. She offered them her heartfelt apology and begged their forgiveness.

Did she know that Matriona Pobednyeva was telling the world that she had witnessed her husband Leonid and Irena Kuibysheva leaving one of the rooms on the upper floor of the Hotel New Century together? 


Was she prepared to work with her friends to try and repair the damage to her reputation and to her marriage and to have her revenge on her faithless friend? 


Lidiya and Raisa, moved almost to tears themselves at the sight of her wretchedness, had stood and embraced her, consoling her on her misfortune. Only Olga Nadnikova remained seated, waiting with impatience for the three women to resume their seats. They had a lot to accomplish, she reminded them. Paying back Irena Kuibysheva could not be done overnight. She was protected by her husband’s wealth and, by association, the political power of the Mayor’s office. It would take time to devise an appropriate punishment.

There was only one course left open to Tatyana. For the time being, she must take a leaf out of her husband’s book and act as if nothing had happened. It would be better if she could persuade her husband that she was feeling unwell and was unable to attend the Reception luncheon. Failing that, she must take pains not to let on to Irena Kuibysheva that she knew anything of her treachery.

Within ten minutes of returning home it had become clear that the first course of action was not open to her. Leonid had insisted that she accompany him to the luncheon; there could be no excuse for her absence that would not be an embarrassment to him. Thus it was that, sitting in stony silence, the Kavelins were now travelling together in their carriage the few hundred yards around the corner of Menshikov Street and up Alexei Street to the entrance of the Hotel New Century. The pony pulling their carriage shook its head, its hot breath steaming in the midday cold, as if to say, “Look how alive and animated I am compared to the two graven images I am pulling in my fine cab!”

Upon their arrival Leonid Kavelin stepped out of the carriage and with elaborate courtesy offered his hand to his wife to assist her. Ignoring him Tatyana left the carriage and, without waiting for him, hurried through the outer doors of the hotel and quickly crossed the vestibule to the foot of the staircase leading to the mezzanine floor.

For a brief moment the noise of loud conversation and the sound of laughter from the top of the stairs unnerved her. She felt like an untested actress about to take the stage before a seasoned and critical audience. Struggling to clear her head, she began to ascend the staircase. She was  an actress, she told herself, and she had only to remember her lines and keep her nerve and all would be fine. She had rehearsed what she intended to say to Irena, and the manner in which she would say it. All that mattered now was to keep her temper and to make sure that the pleasantries came out correctly.

Halfway up the stairs she heard the outer doors behind her open with a crash and Leonid calling after her. Willing herself not to look back, she kept walking up the stairs toward the lounge, and found that this new sense of resolve both excited and frightened her. As she reached the landing and heads were already turning to greet her, she once again heard Leonid’s hoarse command below her:

“Tanya, for God’s sake, wait for me.”

With a tight determined smile, Tatyana moved quickly into the crowd and began cordially greeting the other guests at the reception. Out of the corner of her left eye she could see that Irena had already arrived and was engaged in conversation with the Shiminskis and Matriona Pobednyeva. The presence of the mayor’s wife made her pause but she could see Olga Nadnikova and Raisa were moving slowly into position behind the Shiminskis and from the right hand side of the room Lidiya Pusnyena was cutting through the crowd to join her.

Without warning, a waiter bearing a tray of small glasses of wine stepped in front of her, blocking her way.

“Do you want some wine?” he said thickly. “It’s for free.”

She was raising her hand to wave him away when she felt a hand grip her arm tightly. Leonid had caught up with her.

“Tanya, for God’s sake!” he whispered.

Looking briefly at the crowd conversing loudly around them, she turned to face him and mouthed the words “Let go!” to him. She felt his fingers tighten further on her arm. Raising her eyebrows, she shook her head angrily in warning. Still he did not loosen his grip. Something in the situation reminded her of when she was a little girl being pestered by oafish boys at play. Without thinking, she lifted her foot and stamped on his toes as forcefully as she could. Her husband’s cry of surprise and pain rose above the hubbub, causing heads to turn and the noise level around them to begin to fall. As she turned back to resume her progress towards her target, Lidiya appeared by her side. Hidden by the crowd Tatyana felt her friend’s hand find hers and give it a surreptitious squeeze of encouragement.

The room grew quieter as more of the assembly became aware that something untoward was happening. Now that the moment for her performance was approaching Tatyana was alarmed to find that her resolution was beginning to drain away. She could feel the blood pounding in the ears and a gravelly fluttering feeling in her stomach and she realised that she was now leaning heavily on Lidiya’s arm, who was steering her towards the small group. She could see Irena waiting for her expectantly, dressed in a stylish peach coloured morning dress. By the time she had reached them the room had fallen silent.

“Tanya, sweetheart, how lovely to see you!” Irena said brightly. “Where is Lyonya? Is he here too?”

Tatyana was stunned by her greeting. The complete absence of guilt, or embarrassment, the fearless deficiency of contrition and lack of remorse, the total refusal in Irena’s manner to acknowledge her betrayal momentarily rendered her speechless. She felt the innocuous phrases she had rehearsed to herself slip away. The next moment she heard her husband’s voice beside her, tensely greeting first the Shiminskis then the Mayor’s wife and then Irena.

It was Matriona Pobednyeva’s mocking smile as she opened her mouth to reply to Leonid’s greeting that finally gave Tatyana the strength she needed. Raising a shaking arm, she pointed directly at Irena Kuibysheva.

“You… You…” she faltered and then paused.

Ashen white, Irena raised her chin an inch and looked deep into her eyes.

“You cow!” Tatyana spat out. “You said that you were my friend and all the time… You …”

Once again she felt Leonid grasp her arm but this time she shook him off.

“You keep away from my husband, you hear? You keep right away from him, you cow, or so help me God…”

Leonid began to pull her away.

“Tanya, control yourself!” he said fiercely.

“Leonid, I will not sit down to eat with this suka ! I will not! You have to choose. Either she leaves or I do.”

She was dimly aware of a woman nearby gasping with shock at her curse. The silence in the room had now become absolute. An expression of studied calm seemed to descend upon Leonid Kavelin’s face. Taking as step back, he adjusted one of his shirt cuffs and nodded in agreement.

“Then you had better go home, Tanya. You are unwell. I will make your apologies to our host the Mayor.”

For a moment Tatyana stared at him open mouthed and then felt her face begin to crumple, her features transforming themselves into a tragic mask. Holding one hand up to shield herself from the gaze of the assembly, she walked quickly from the lounge. Noisily clearing his throat Shiminski took a glass of wine from a tray beside him and passed it to Leonid Kavelin. Olga Nadnikova and Raisa melted away as Kavelin raised his glass and toasted the small group.

“My apologies,” he said. “My wife has been under an enormous strain.”

“We quite understand,” said Madame Shiminskiya sympathetically. “First the typhus and now these damn terrorists coming here. It’s enough to unnerve anyone.”

Raising his glass again, Kavelin saluted her in gratitude and drank deeply. All around him conversations were beginning to be resumed. He felt Irena and the Mayor’s wife silently leave his side. Draining his glass, he lowered it and looked calmly around him. Normality was returning; the moment of drama was over. Beckoning to the waiter, he watched as across the far side of the room Father Arkady, engaged in deep conversation with the Mayor, made an emphatic chopping gesture with one of his hands.

Unaware of the scene being played out in the hotel’s mezzanine lounge Dr. Tortsov left his dining table as soon as he had eaten his dessert, grateful for the excuse to escape the trial of having to drink Katya’s coffee. He had taken the girl in on sufferance and also out of sympathy for Father Arkady’s own special brand of humanitarianism. He did not regret doing so, though the girl was far from bright, nor particularly talented at housework. She was, he often said, in her own way quite dependable in as much as he could always rely upon her doing certain things badly, such as making coffee. Colonel Izorov’s sergeant, on the other hand, made excellent coffee. The Doctor had every reason to suppose that once he had reached the uchastok and was welcomed by the Chief of Police he could expect to be offered a splendid cup of his favourite infusion.

He was to be disappointed. The Colonel was not in his lair, but instead the guest of Captain Steklov at the barracks where, the police sergeant at the charge desk assured him, he would probably remain until the exiles reached the outskirts of the town. Of the convoy itself, there was still no news although they were expected hourly. They were awaiting a signal from their watchman in the fire tower. Perhaps the Mayor’s party at the Hotel knew something?

The Doctor debated what to do. He felt that he could not impose himself on Captain Steklov – he would need to be in his favour when it came to producing the play – and there was no point in returning to his house on Ostermann Street to await the arrival of the exiles. There seemed little choice but to do as the police sergeant had suggested and go to the Hotel New Century. Besides, Fyodor Gregorivich’s coffee might not be as good as Izorov’s, but it surpassed anything he could expect to receive at home.

His mind made up, the Doctor left the Police Headquarters and crossed the street to the Hotel. No sooner had he entered the vestibule than he was met by the agitated cries of the hotel’s proprietor.

“Doctor! What a blessing you have come!” Fyodor Gregorivich exclaimed, snatching the Doctor’s hat from his hand. “You have saved the day!”

“What? Steady on, Fyodor Gregorivich!” the Doctor said as the man tried to drag his overcoat from his back. “What’s the matter?”

“You must come quickly to the dining room!” the proprietor told him, still pulling at his coat. “As fast as you can, please.”

“What’s happened? Has there been an accident?”

“No accident. It wasn’t my fault,” Fyodor Gregorivich said confusingly. “I am ruined if you don’t come quickly. To think that such a thing should happen in this hotel!”

Succeeding at last in removing the Doctor’s overcoat, Fyodor Gregorivich bore it away with an expression of triumph towards the doors to the dining room, only to find when he reached them that its owner had not followed him. Flinging the Doctor’s coat and hat across the lobby desk as he passed, he scurried back to where Doctor Tortsov stood uncertainly.

“Please Doctor, come in and eat!” he begged him, wringing his hands anxiously.

“Eat? Good grief, Fyodor Gregorivich! I have only just finished my lunch.”

The hotel proprietor’s voice rose an octave as he became more agitated.

“They won’t start if you aren’t there,” he cried. “The Mayor, Father Arkady, everybody. The food is getting cold.”

“But I wasn’t expecting to eat,” the Doctor protested. “I have already dined. No, it’s out of the question. I shall wait here until they have finished. I only came out to find Colonel Izorov, and perhaps have a…”

Fyodor Gregorivich had been almost dancing with exasperation. The mention of the Colonel’s name brought him up short.

“Is the Colonel coming here as well?” he asked hopefully.

“I don’t believe so,” replied the Doctor carefully. “I have been told that he was lunching with Captain Steklov. If you return me my coat, I shall endeavour to find out.”

“No! Wait!” pleaded the hotel proprietor, backing away toward the dining room doors. “Please, wait there just for a moment, I beg you.”

And with that he was gone. Taken aback by the man’s eccentric behaviour, Dr. Tortsov stood staring at the gently swinging doors for a few seconds. Then, with a mystified shrug, he turned and walked up the stairs that led to the mezzanine floor.

It was the first time that the Doctor had returned to the hotel since his upsetting misunderstanding with the Mayor. Walking into the lounge, where six days before he had allowed himself to be duped into accepting Modest Tolkach for the part of “The Bear”, he regarded the room with dislike. On either side of the doorway stood tall wooden hat stands, from which hung the discarded outer clothing of the guests in the dining room. With his head cocked to one side, the Doctor slowly circled first one then the other, trying to discover the identities of their owners.

Buried beneath a brown homburg hat, he spied Skyralenko’s gold braided kepi. That was easy, he told himself. And that grey woollen cloaked trimmed with fox fur – hadn’t he seen Raisa Izminsky wear a coat similar to that? He suspected that Yeliena would be able to name the owner of each garment in the space of a few seconds (“Oh, and that’s Nadnikov’s old thing. Dreadful, isn’t it?”). He was just examining the sleeve of a familiar looking overcoat when a loud cry from the lobby reached his ears. Alarmed, he hurried back to the top of the stairs. Below him he saw Fyodor Gregorivich had returned to the vestibule. Beside him stood an angry looking Madame Pobednyeva.

“He’s gone! He was just here!” the hotel proprietor was wailing.

“What on earth is the matter with you today, Fyodor Gregorivich?” Dr. Tortsov called out from the top of the staircase. “Pull yourself together. Who’s gone?”

“Please, Doctor!” implored the hotel manager. “Come down and save me.”

“Matriona Fiodorovna, can you explain what this fellow is gibbering about?” Dr. Tortsov demanded. “Has he poisoned someone, or what?”

“He’s done something much worse than that, Doctor,” answered the Mayor’s wife as she ascended the staircase.

“Fyodor Gregorivich!” she commanded once she had joined the Doctor. “You may now serve the luncheon. The Doctor and I shall take our places presently. We shall discuss this… this…” She hesitated as if, for once in her life, her rich and colourful vocabulary had failed her. “…This debacle  when it is time to settle the bill. Assuming, that is, that you have the effrontery to present us with one!”

Miserably, the hotel proprietor hung his head and executed a sort of half bow to the two grim faced figures at the top of the stairs.

With a disdainful sniff, Madame Pobednyeva took the Doctor’s arm and led him back to the lounge. Only when she had closed the doors behind her did her stern demeanour give way.

“Oh Doctor!” she sobbed. “I’ve done something stupid, very stupid indeed.”

Chapter Twenty One

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Sunday 11th February 1907


In Dr. Tortsov’s sitting room Chevanin was also feeling that the afternoon had taken an unexpected turn. Perched awkwardly on the edge of his armchair he looked on with a fascination akin to that of a young field mouse confronted by a hunting snake. Opposite him the wife of his employer, the cause of his discomfort, lay reclining on the couch, her eyes half closed in thought as she watched the smoke from her cigarette curl slowly upwards. He took another sip of the brackish coffee and swall

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owed noisily as Yeliena brought the cigarette to her lips again and drew on it. Filling her mouth with smoke, she began to exhale a series of perfectly formed smoke rings. She repeated the performance, sucking in her cheeks and expertly expelling the smoke through the tight circle of her lips. As the last smoke ring hung in the air above her, she languidly lifted a forefinger and, with a deliberation that reminded him of a cat playing with string, broke it.

“I didn’t realise you smoked,” he said huskily. “If I had known I would have offered you a cigarette before.”

Yeliena made a face.

“Vasili doesn’t approve of women smoking. He says it weakens our lungs. So I never indulge while he is in the house.”

Tiring of her game, she sat up slowly, careful not to spill the long column of ash onto her dress. Chevanin passed her his ashtray and she ground out the remains of the cigarette. Returning it to him, she stood up and began smoothing down the creases in her blouse and skirt.

Chevanin followed her example, standing up and nervously extinguishing his cigarette. Her hands resting on her hips, Yeliena was regarding him with a slight smile. With a sudden pulse of excitement he sensed that the atmosphere in the room had become charged; as if there was lightning in the air and the whole house was holding its breath waiting for the accompanying clap of thunder. Chevanin tried to swallow and found that he couldn’t; his throat was too dry.

Without a doubt , he told himself, and incredible