To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Chapter 7-2

2020 has been a rough year, but I'm not going to end it (or at least, not end my Christmas to New Years time off work) without completing Chapter 7 and starting some good habits for the new year.  

Terespol. July 16th, 1915. “Would you like a chance to get away from it all for a time?” Sister Gorka asked.

It had been a sorely trying day in the wards. Natalie had hoped that Doctor Kalyagin’s determination to put her under extra scrutiny would fall away after a few days. Despite their clash of wills over Lieutenant Ovechkin’s last days, she was not normally lax in her adherence to procedures. Surely after a few days he would tire of this extra oversight and things would return to normal.

But she had not accounted for the conjunction of the new doctor’s pride and his passion for his work. If anything, his determination not to trust her, and to make this lack of trust obvious to all, had grown over the following days, and as they had received a gradually increasing number of patients over the last few days this had resulted in Kalyagin demanding that she take him through the wards and show him the initials on every treatment protocol. He had even questioned the orderlies and the housekeeping sisters, demanding to know if they had seen anyone (here he looked significantly at Natalie) providing treatment that was contrary to the protocol.

It was with relief that Natalie and Sister Gorka had finished their twelve hour shift, leaving Sister Travkin to oversee the wards until morning.

“What did you have in mind?” Natalie asked, in response to Sister Gorka’s question.

“I’ve secured a motorcar in order to go into Brest-Litovsk and do a bit of shopping,” Sister Gorka explained. “But it’s a strange city. I’d like to have someone to come with me, aside from the driver. Would you come?”

“Shopping?” The word was from another time. Natalie had not had the opportunity to enter a shop since joining the field hospital back during the winter. And yet just across the river in Brest-Litovsk there was a bustling city with shops and tea houses and people out of uniform. Until this moment it had not occurred to her to visit, and yet now the idea became suddenly and desperately attractive to her.

“Lieutenant Serafin told me where there is a shop with photographic supplies,” Sister Gorka explained, in an apologetic tone as Natalie’s private thoughts raced. “I wanted to replenish my supply of chemicals. Who knows when I shall have another chance? And I’m sure there must be other good shops as well. I thought it might be a nice change. Please come.”

“Yes! Yes, I’d love to,” Natalie replied. “Of course I’ll come.”

The motorcar was one of two assigned to the regimental staff, a twenty-five horsepower Crossley touring machine, all gleaming brass and black enamel. The vehicle had begun its life in Britain, been imported to the Russian Empire by a Warsaw business magnate with a fancy for the newest products of industrial ingenuity, and then requisitioned by the army and sent to the regiment as the Germans approached Warsaw. Russia itself had produced, in total, less than a thousand cars before the war’s outbreak, and with the German navy slowing imports to a trickle it was essential that no precious imported technology be lost. But right now, while the regiment was settled into the fortifications around Terespol and Brest-Litovsk, the regimental vehicles could be lent out at times for the use of officers or those they chose to grant favors to. As the nurses settled onto the heavily padded leather back seat, Natalie wondered if the car, like the recommendation of the photography shop, was courtesy of Lieutenant Serafin. Was it, perhaps, a sign of admiration for Sister Gorka, or just a favor done by one hobbyist to another?

The driver wove between pedestrians and carts, working his horn frequently, over the mile of cobbled road and then the old bridge over the Bug River which led into the city gates of Brest and the old fort. While Terespol was a product of the age of artillery, a fort of embankments and trenches, designed to be as impregnable to explosions as the earth itself, the old fort and city wall were products of an earlier age: towers and crenelations of red brick. These would do little to stop modern high explosive shells, and the old fort was now merely a marker at the entrance to the city. Beyond it, they reached the close-packed buildings and milling crowds of the old city.

They pulled up in front of a two-story building in the shopping district with the name MAGID painted in large letters over the shop windows on the lower floor. Although the shops, or at least the building, were all apparently under the ownership of Magid, the windows each displayed different merchandise. The first shop contained stationary and books, the second cameras, telescopes, and binoculars, the third women’s clothing and other necessities. Sister Gorka immediately led the way into the shop with cameras, and after gazing longingly for a moment at a gleaming wood and brass plate camera displayed on a tripod, she answered the question of the elderly man behind the counter by listing off the chemicals she required. These apparently were not simple choices, and as Sister Gorka and the shopman settled into discussing powdered developing solutions and stop baths.

The shop was small, and the floorspace was much taken up with tripods which Natalie did not want to accidentally jostle by wandering about too much. Against one wall there was a shelf holding cameras of various sizes. The larger ones had bodies made of wood and large glassy eyes that looked back at her, offering distorted reflections of her face in their rounded front lenses. The smallest could have fit into a coat pocket -- flat metal cases which opened to extend neatly folded bellows coated in black cloth, and a glinting lens smaller than a fingernail. Against the other wall was a space evidently used as a portrait studio, with a chair sitting on a patterned carpet and a large tripod standing ready. On the screen sectioning off this area hung portrait prints, many of them of soldiers in uniform, singly or in small groups, young men with the solemn expression of the self conscious portrait subject, standing straight in their uniform jackets and resting their hands on sword hilts or rifles.

Moving to the shop window, she looked at the brass telescope which stood on a wooden tripod. As she leaned forward to look through eyepiece, it offered her a highly magnified but upside down view of the shop sign across the street for Kalmanovich’s Grocery. She looked back to the counter, but Sister Gorka was still deep in consultation over chemicals and exposures.

“Do you mind if I step next door?” Natalie asked. Sister Gorka nodded and waved without interrupting the shopman, and Natalie stepped out into the street.

She peered in the window of the stationary shop: little boxes of paper and notebooks bound in cardstock or cloth or soft-looking leather. Just the sight of them made her want to write. But she had never had any ability as a diary or letter writer in her schoolgirl days, and it was hard to imagine keeping one of those beautiful books pristine in the chaotic world of the traveling field hospital. Nor would she have any desire to write down the experiences of each day. Those precious evening hours around the samovar with the other nurses and the housekeeping sisters were better spent forgetting the wards and the operating room than dwelling on them.

Turning away she walked past the photography shop again and stood looking into the window displaying clothing, gloves, handkerchiefs, and stockings. These too seemed like items from another world. How long had it been since she had worn clothes other than her nursing uniform? But these seemed like a train ticket to another world. Perhaps a pair of machine knitted stockings or a soft cotton petticoat to wear under her wool nursing uniform would elevate her world into something like normality. Or having a nice handkerchief in her apron pocket would be a talisman against daily the smells and sights of the hospital. The idea that there was some beautiful thing which she could buy that would make life better seemed powerful.

Down the street there was a rumble which gradually grew to a deafening clash as a cavalry regiment moved down the boulevard, with hundreds of iron-shod horses clattering over the cobblestones followed by the rumble of hay wagons. To escape the noise, and to better contemplate the escape promised by the products on display, Natalie went into the shop.

In glass display cases there were handkerchiefs, knitted stockings, hairpins, combs, and all manner of beautiful little accessories, while against one wall was a shelf holding bolts of cloth and a little platform where the customer could stand while being measured.

“Can I help you, madame?” asked the young woman behind the counter, dropping a curtsey.

It was a sort of formality which was almost as unfamiliar as the merchandise. The soldiers and officers were almost always respectful, but they tended to use the diminutive ‘sestritsa’. The woman behind the counter was probably her own age, though with the curly dark hair and features which marked her as clearly Jewish. Did that account for her deference?

Natalie was on the point of saying that she was only looking to pass the time, but then… Why not? It had been so long since she had occasion to spend money on a few simple pleasures, and how long might it be again?

“Yes. I want to get some summer things. Mine are all wool.”

“Of course! We have machine knitted cotton stockings, real imports from Britain. Also pre-made cotton petticoats. Or if you have time to be fitted, we can make petticoats, blouses, or skirts.”

Natalie ran her hands over the sturdy gray wool of her uniform skirt. Cotton would never stand up to what her skirts had been through over the last nine months, either in the wards or at the hands of the laundry unit and their boiling kettles. But to have cotton next to her skin… That would certainly be more pleasant on the long summer days in the wards.

“I’ll take three pairs of white cotton stockings. And for petticoats… If you take my measurements how long will it take to make three up?”

“A few days. No more. Are you stationed here in the city? We could deliver them to you when they’re done. If you could just step over here, I can take your measurements.”

The shopgirl guided her gently over to the little platform and conversation flowed smoothly as she took Natalie’s measurements down with a cloth tape. So enjoyable was the process that Natalie did not notice the growing commotion outside until the shopgirl stopped, listened for a moment, and then apologized, “I’m sorry, Madame. May I just check?”

She went to the shop door and peered through the glass. Natalie followed her. There was a small knot of soldiers standing in the street outside, four men in long Cossack coats, one of them an officer with his traditional whip in his hand, and they were shouting and waving at the old man from the photography shop while Sister Gorka stood by looking uncertain. The shopgirl turned nervously to Natalie.

“I’m sorry, that is my grandfather. I must see what is wrong.” She pushed the door open and Natalie followed her into the street.

The officer was shouting at the old shopkeeper. “I don’t want to hear any more of your lies, Jew. Take the shovel and clear the street or I can put a jump into your step.” He hefted the knout which all Cossack officers carried.

“Sirs, if you will just let me fetch my son,” said the shopkeeper. “My back was injured this spring. I am no use to you for shoveling.”

“No excuses. I didn’t ask for your son. I asked for this street to be shoveled now,” ordered the officer, giving the old man a shove with his whip.

The Cossacks were among the many peoples with their own status within the Russian empire. Hundreds of years ago they had been their own sovereign nation, and fought wars against the Tsars for control of the steppes north of the Black Sea. But for the last hundred years and more they had been a part of the Russian empire, a people with special exemptions from the Tsar’s taxes and their own military units commanded by their own officers. Cossack cavalry had formed a fearsome core of the Russian Imperial cavalry since the invasion of Napoleon, and Natalie had seen many of their soldiers in the hospital. But other Cossack units served a paramilitary function, enforcing order behind the lines in the way that only men who saw themselves as truly different from those they were acting against could. Such units had been deployed against rioters in the 1905 Revolution. And during the long retreat, they had been the most ruthless in making peasants leave their homes and burn supplies before the advancing German armies. Those whips were not just for show. Natalie had seen them snake out to cut across a peasant man or woman’s back.

“Officers, please,” called out the shopgirl who had led Natalie into the street. “Let me fetch my father. My grandfather is not a well man.”

The soldiers turned to face her, one of them giving a low whistle. “Maybe we should make this little piece do a bit of work for us!”

Natalie had been trying to understand what the source of the trouble was, but as two of the soldiers approached her shopgirl it seemed that time was up.

“What is happening here?” Natalie demanded, stepping in front of the girl and using the voice that she used when casualties were pouring in and she had to direct orderlies hither and yon over the tumult.

The soldiers stopped and looked back towards their officer. He stepped forward. “This Jew,” the Cossack officer explained, “is not following orders. He knows very well that all the city Jews owe street cleaning duty at need. The cavalry has just been through and, begging your pardon, Sestritsa, fouled the street. So I’ve ordered him to shovel it and he’s given me nothing but disrespect. It’s about time the old man had a lesson.”

For an instant Natalie hesitated. So far, they were respectful, and yet, unlike a surgeon, she did not hold a rank. If the respect for ‘sestritsa’ cracked, she had nothing. And yet, she could not leave these soldiers to terrify this family simply because they had been born Jews. The way the soldiers had approached her shopgirl was too clear a reminder of the dangers she herself faced as a woman surrounded by an army of men, should respect for her station ever break down.

“I do not have time for this foolishness,” Natalie announced, drawing herself up and determined to show no hesitation. “We must finish our errands and take the motorcar back to the regiment. And you are pulling aside these Jews while they are busy serving us. You must either wait until a suitable worker can be found or else go and find someone else.”

She and the officer looked into each other’s eyes, and Natalie was determined that despite the fact he was six inches taller than she, his uniform coat was festooned with the cartridge belts which Cossacks favored, and he carried a ceremonial whip, she would not be the one who broke.

“Are my orders clear?” she asked, after a moment, realizing as she said the words that she had no plan for what she would do if he defied her.

The Cossack officer shifted his feet. “Yes, Sestritsa. I’m sorry that these men took up your time. We’ll find someone else to clean the street.” He shifted the whip in his hands. “Come on, men. You’ve grabbed the wrong Jew. Let’s find someone loitering uselessly to clean this filth up.”

He turned away, and the soldiers followed him. Natalie’s legs felt as limp as string as she stepped back and leaned against the motorcar, where their driver had watched all these goings on impassively.

“Are you nearly done, Sister Gorka?” Natalie asked.

“Yes. He was just wrapping up my parcel when those soldiers barged in.”

The shopman bowed and thanked Natalie and hurried into the photography shop, promising that he would have the parcel out to them in a moment.

Natalie turned to the shopgirl from the ladies’ store. “What’s your name?”

“Anna Isaakova.” The look she was giving Natalie bordered on worshipful, and Natalie found it embarrassing to receive.

“Well, Anna, I hope that those soldiers will leave your family alone. Do you have all the measurements you require?”

“Yes, Madam.”

“Then let me give you my address for the petticoats, and perhaps you can package up the stockings for me now?”

Anna nodded mutely. Natalie wrote down the regiment and the field hospital number in Anna’s little notebook and paid her for the stockings, although the grateful shopgirl had tried to offer them for free. “No, you don’t need to give me the stockings, nor the petticoat neither. Send a bill for them when they arrive as is proper and I’ll pay. I don’t think it’s right for the army to abuse its power over civilians like that. And there will be plenty of hard times coming if the retreat begins again.”

Soon they were packed up in the motorcar, the driver brought the engine roaring life, and Anna and her grandfather were waving from the sidewalk as they pulled away.

“You were very impressive,” Sister Gorka said, in awe. “I do not think I could ever have done it.”

Natalie shrugged. “The way they were treating that old man made me angry. But I didn’t know what I would do if those Cossacks didn’t listen to me.”

“And yet you did it anyway.”

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