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By Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1982 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
All rights reserved.
Petrograd was burning. The wind from the city was filled with soot and cinders and the greasy odor of charring things. Dark, close clouds hung low in the sky, molten with the lurid reflection of the flames. At this distance it was impossible to know what buildings were being destroyed: perhaps the palaces along the Nevsky Prospekt, or the Fortress and Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on the far side of the Neva.
The Monastery of the Victory was not far from Konstantinovka, nearer to Krasnoye Selo than to Petrograd, situated a fair distance from the road on a wide, treeless stretch of ground where the Imperial Guard had held maneuvers. It was an ancient building, with thick walls and small, barred windows. This made it an ideal prison.
Some twenty Cossacks held the monastery, guarding twice that number of prisoners. It had been a heady pleasure at first, but more than a week had passed and the excitement was beginning to pall. Now, with the last chaos of October 24 fading, most of the men had turned to the mundane business of securing billets with the villagers of Konstantinovka, leaving only their three officers to tend the monastery and the men incarcerated there.
Most of the wine kept in the monastery cellar had been drunk, and so the remaining men regaled themselves with raw vodka which the villagers had provided. They had all the vast Pilgrims' Hall to themselves, though they did not stray far from the enormous hearth, for the stark winter chill permeated the place and the fire made little progress against it. Most of the tables and benches which had filled the Hall had been broken up to provide wood for the hearth, but a glance revealed that this was insufficient fuel for more than another two days, and so the vodka augmented the fire.
The youngest officer, an overgrown boy of seventeen, was Acting Captain Yuri Yureivich Garin. He was bored as well as drunk, and was trying to alleviate the first and deny the second with an impromptu display of Cossack dancing. He jumped into the air, determined to click the heels of his scuffed boots, and before he could try a second time, fell heavily to the floor.
"Ah, Comrade Garin," Acting Colonel Dmitri Mihialovich Rubashek chided the youngster, wagging his half-empty bottle instead of a finger. "That is not worthy of an officer. No. Not at all. You must let me, for I am older and more experienced, show you how ..." — he got unsteadily to his feet — "it is to be done."
Yuri Yureivich had not bothered to get up. He wedged his arm under his head and stared up, making a halfhearted salute before he remembered that he was now an officer and did not have to offer this courtesy to Rubashek. "You're in no condition ..." he warned, but the other man was already essaying a hopping turn on one leg.
The third man, well into his thirties and of a more somber disposition, put the mouth of his vodka bottle to his lips and tilted his head back, letting the clear, potent liquid run into him. He paid no attention to his companions. As Acting Colonel Dmitri Mihialovich stumbled and fell onto the feebly protesting Acting Captain Yuri Yureivich, this third man, Nikolai Ivanevich Rozoh, rose and made his way from the Pilgrims' Hall, muttering to the bottle he held tucked into the curve of his arm. His rank was now Acting Major, but he continued to think of himself as Corporal Rozoh.
The corridor he entered was poorly lit and dank, the thick stones clammy to the touch. Behind him he could hear the other two arguing noisily, and he muttered imprecations at them only he could hear.
"Who's there?" a desperate, cracked voice cried from behind one of the closed wooden doors of the cells that lined the hallway. "For the love of God!"
"Help! You must help!" another, weaker cry joined the first.
Acting Major Rozoh paid no attention to the pleas, nor to the others that echoed them from the other barred doors. He marched steadily down the passage toward the kitchen.
It was a large room, quite deserted, and all but one of the stoves was cold. Nikolai Ivanevich put his bottle down on the worn planking of the table and tried to marshal his thoughts. He was hungry, he was fully aware of that, and no one was left to make him a meal. It was as bad as being a Corporal still. He made his way around the kitchen, pulling open cupboards that revealed ominously few provisions. The significance of this discovery escaped him for the moment, though there was a small, sober part of his mind that became alarmed. Vaguely he recalled that he and his two fellow-officers had been mandated to provide for the prisoners. No one had told them how this was to be done. Corporal ... no, Acting Major Rozoh sighed. Insects had got into the flour, so it was not possible to make bread. Nothing was left of the salt pork that had been brought a week ago. There had been fish, but the last of it had turned bad. A little fruit was left, and there were perhaps ten pounds of potatoes in the bins, most of which had sprouted. The people of Konstantinovka had promised to keep the monastery in supplies, but now, with most of the soldiers billeted there, it was not likely that they would continue to bring food. Nikolai Ivanevich sat down on the edge of the nearest table and stared gloomily at the far wall. During the next hour he did little other than finish the vodka.
At sunset Acting Colonel Dmitri Mihialovich ambled uncertainly into the kitchen and blinked at Rozoh. "You here?"
"Yes." The vodka bottle lay in pieces at his feet, and he felt quite remote from his surroundings.
"Did you feed the prisoners?" He made erratic progress to where Nikolai Ivanevich was sitting.
"No. There's no food."
"Ah." He hoisted himself up onto the table beside the Acting Major. "No food. Pity."
"General Svenyets will be angry." The very thought was chastening. "We have to give them something. We'll be flogged."
"Where's Yuri?" Nikolai Ivanevich asked.
Dmitri Mihialovich wagged his hand in the direction of the corridor. "Asleep. The boy can't drink." He ruined this condemnation with a loud belch. "Spawn of the devil, we've got to give the prisoners something, or ..."
"... we'll be flogged," Nikolai Ivanevich finished for him.
The two men said nothing. Dmitri Mihialovich swung his legs back and forth, occasionally setting his heels against a table leg and humming unidentifiable scraps of melody.
"Well, perhaps one of us should ride into Konstantinovka and remind the villagers that there are still men here," Dmitri Mihialovich said more than ten minutes later.
"There's just the two horses left, and one of them is lame," Nikolai reminded him.
"Damn!" He scowled, and then his expression lightened. "It might be possible to put sufficient provisions for tonight on one horse. You'd have to go back in the morning, but tonight would be taken care of. Those prisoners are supposed to eat. So are we."
The "you'd have to go back in the morning" was not lost on Nikolai. He looked hard at his companion. "You're in no condition to ride."
"I'm a Cossack!" Dmitri announced with sudden belligerence. "I can ride anything at any time. Drunk or sober. Summer or winter. Naked or clothed." His outburst faded. "You're no better off than I am."
Several more minutes passed; then Nikolai sighed and stood up, hardly swaying at all. The kitchen was almost totally dark, and he had to grope his way to the one warm stove. He rummaged blindly in the woodbox for a bit of kindling, and finally pulled out a long, dry stick, which he thrust into the dying coals of the stove. At last the stick caught fire, and Nikolai withdrew it, shielding the flame with his hand. He made his way to the nearest of the hanging kerosene lamps and lifted the smoke-dulled glass chimney to light the wick, which was poorly trimmed and sputtered often.
"Splendid," Dmitri said as he lay back on the table, his knees up, his hands laced behind his head. "What time is it?"
"Between six and seven, I should guess," Nikolai answered, attempting to adjust the flame. He shook the lamp gently and heard the fuel slosh in the tin reservoir. "We'll need more kerosene tomorrow night."
"Ask the villagers. They're not issuing fuel at headquarters for another four days, they said. Most of the materials are being shunted off to Petrograd, in any case." He yawned. "It will be colder tonight. Do you think we should break up the benches in the sanctuary?"
"We'll have to." Nikolai sighed. He had had a religious upbringing, and though he had long since turned from the practice of his faith, the vestiges of superstition and respect had not deserted him.
"Get Yuri to do it. He's younger than either of us." Dmitri braced one heel against his raised knee. "Build up the fire, will you? It's turning damned cold."
"There isn't any wood left in the box," Nikolai told him, thinking that it was typical of their fortunes that these tasks should fall to them.
"Well, then have some chopped. Get out one or two of the prisoners to do it, if you don't want to," Dmitri suggested.
"I wouldn't want to be around one of them if he had an ax in his hand," Nikolai remarked, dismissing the idea. "Besides, headquarters requisitioned most of the logs. We'd have to cut down one of the trees, and they're too far away."
Dmitri hummed again for a while as Nikolai busied himself with smashing two footstools into pieces sufficiently small for the stove. The fitful lamplight grew less effective as the night deepened until it was augmented by the faint glow from the tinderbox of the stove.
"It's warming up," Nikolai said when he was satisfied with the fire he had built.
"Wouldn't want it to get any colder," Dmitri said as he rolled onto his side. "This time of year ... Poor turds in the cells. They're oppressors of the people and enemies of the revolution and reactionary criminals, but it's too bad they have to freeze to death."
"Or starve," Nikolai added. He looked around for more usable wood and considered the low bench where the monks had sat to hull peas or peel potatoes. He picked it up and brought it down against the massive cutting table. The bench broke apart and one length of wood very nearly hit Dmitri Mihialovich as it flew across the kitchen.
"By Saint Vladimir! ..." Dmitri swore as he quickly rolled off the table. "Watch what you're doing, Nikolai Ivanevich."
Nikolai did not respond. He worked steadily at breaking up the planking, oblivious of the sections of wood sailing around the room. Only when he was through did he give a pleased grunt and speak to his fellow-officer. "Keep out of range, if you don't want to help."
"Oh-ho, so that's how it is," Dmitri said as he crawled out from under the table. "Thinking to scare me into cooperating with you, is that it?" He got to his feet. "Maybe I should take the horse and go into Konstantinovka to get food."
"It's dark now," Nikolai reminded him. "And the horse couldn't make it, being lame." He made his way around the kitchen, picking up the broken sections of wood and stacking them beside the warm stove.
"One of them's sound. A couple of bagfuls of bread would be something. A roast doesn't take up much room, and isn't too heavy. If I rode the horse, I could carry a meal for us." He was warming to the idea, now that hunger was vying with drink for his attention.
"And the prisoners?" Nikolai asked, with a touch of pity for the men in the cells.
"I could bring enough to give them all a little something," Dmitri said, dismissing the matter. "There's a good amount of vodka left, and we might as well distribute it to them — help to keep out the cold and make them forget their troubles." He came over to the stove and rubbed his hands over it.
"They're hungry," Nikolai reminded him.
"So are we." His manner turned surly. "That's the army for you, never paying any attention to its enlisted men."
"We're officers now," Nikolai pointed out, but his sarcasm was lost on Dmitri.
"They should pay attention to officers. But instead, they send the rest of the men off to bunk in the village with food and women and drink and festivities. We're left here in the dark with a handful of stinking aristocrats, and what good is that to us? We could go into Konstantinovka ourselves. The prisoners aren't going anywhere. The walls here are thirty inches thick, the windows are barred and the doors are a foot thick and stapled and hinged with heavy iron. As long as we make sure the bars are in place, we could leave them here, and come back in the morning." He waved his hand in a vague way. "What do you say, Comrade? Do we go into Konstantinovka?"
Nikolai did not respond to this heartiness. "We'd be shot if it were ever found out."
"Who's to tell them?" Dmitri said, punching Nikolai in the shoulder with rough good-fellowship. "You? Me? Yuri Yureivich? The prisoners? They'll all be dead in a week."
"The General is at Krasnoye Selo. He might send a messenger here, or come himself," Nikolai said darkly, recalling just such an unpleasant occasion when Petrograd was still St. Petersburg and the Czar had held court there at the Winter Palace.
"Not with the city in flames. He won't budge from Krasnoye Selo until that whole place is calm again. If he does anything else, he might become the next target for one of the revolutionary committees, and that would not suit him at all." Dmitri was bitterly amused at his own assessment of the current predicament, "Come on. Let's go get the horses. We can leave the lame one here for Yuri Yureivich, if he wants to make use of it. It's not far to Konstantinovka. We'll ride double and —"
Nikolai interrupted him. "Acting Colonel Rubashek," he said to Dmitri with great formality, "if you wish to ride to Konstantinovka tonight, there's nothing I can do to stop you. I intend to remain here, with the prisoners. Those were my orders and until they are countermanded, I will obey them." He folded his arms and stared at the other man impassively.
"Ach!" Dmitri stamped his foot and glared at Nikolai. "Very well. You and the boy can remain here. I will ride into Konstantinovka and in the morning, I will bring provisions and another horse. Then we can butcher the lame one for meat, if you like." He stamped toward the corridor on which the cells were located. "Why do we bother to feed them, when they're going to be shot? What does it matter? Why don't we leave them alone?" He had no answer for his questions, and Nikolai was adding more wood to the stove. Dmitri stood at the limits of the lanternlight and pointed at Nikolai. "Acting Major Rozoh, if you ever report this to the General or to anyone else, I will deny your accusation and tell them that you sought to protect these enemies of the people from their just punishments. And that will be the end of you, Nikolai Mihialovich."
"I will say nothing," Nikolai assured him, and continued to stoke the tinderbox as Dmitri left the kitchen. A few minutes later he heard the heavy side door open, and then close with the resounding solidity of foot-thick planks. Nikolai sighed once and began to break up another bench.
The kitchen was tolerably warm when Acting Captain Yuri Yureivich Garin stumbled into it. His young face was mottled and his eyes red-rimmed and blurry. "Where's supper?" he asked, slurring the words, as he blinked at Nikolai.
"There isn't any."
"But I'm hungry," the young man protested, then lurched suddenly against the nearest table. "Got to eat. Tell Rubashek."
"Rubashek's gone," Nikolai told him. He was gathering up what little was left and slicing the few vegetables into a pot.
"Gone where?" Yuri asked, but without any genuine interest.
"Into Konstantinovka. He'll be back in the morning, with food." Privately he doubted this, but it was not his place to say more. Fifteen years of army life had taught him a degree of prudence. He added more water to the vegetables in the pot and reached for a wooden spoon to stir the mess with.
"Damn," the youth said listlessly. He dropped down, cross-legged, near the warm stove. "What have you there?"
"Vegetables. That and the vodka are all that's left." He went on with the very simple cooking, paying little heed to Yuri. In half an hour the young man was asleep, and Nikolai went in search of the wooden bowls in which the prisoners were given their meals. When he had found them and the large tin spoons the monks had used, he put five of them on the largest tray and ladled out small portions of the steaming, tasteless stew.
The first round of serving went uneventfully. Acting Major Rozoh asked the questions he was required to ask, and received, as always, stony silence from the men in the little, cold cells. The next ten were much the same as the first five. Count Piotyr Pavlovich, in the twenty-third cell, threw the bowl at Nikolai and cursed him roundly. Former Major Viktor Sergeivich, in cell thirty-five, was shaking with ague, his white mustaches wet and drooping, his face gray but for the two hectic fever spots in his sunken cheeks. Seeing him, Nikolai suppressed the urge to pray for the old man.
Excerpted from Tempting Fate by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Copyright © 1982 Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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