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Fall of giants, p.19
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       Fall of Giants, p.19

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
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Chapter 19

  CHAPTER NINETEEN - July to October 1916

  Kovel was a railway junction in the part of Russia that had once been in Poland, near the old border with Austria Hungary. The Russian army assembled twenty miles east of the city, on the banks of the river Stokhod. The entire area was a swamp, hundreds of square miles of bog interlaced with footpaths. Grigori found a patch of drier ground and ordered his platoon to make camp. They had no tents: Major Azov had sold them all three months ago to a dressmaking factory in Pinsk. He said the men did not need tents in the summer, and by winter they would all be dead.

  By some miracle, Grigori was still alive. He was a sergeant and his friend Isaak a corporal. Those few left of the 1914 intake were now mostly NCOs, noncommissioned officers. Grigori's battalion had been decimated, transferred, reinforced, and decimated again. They had been sent everywhere but home.

  Grigori had killed many men in the last two years, with rifle, bayonet, or hand grenade, most of them close enough for him to see them die. Some of his comrades had nightmares about it, particularly the better-educated ones, but not Grigori. He had been born into the brutality of a peasant village and had survived as an orphan on the streets of St. Petersburg: violence did not give him bad dreams.

  What had shocked him was the stupidity, callousness, and corruption of the officers. Living and fighting alongside the ruling class had made him a revolutionary.

  He had to stay alive. There was no one else to take care of Katerina.

  He wrote to her regularly, and received occasional letters, penned in a neat schoolgirl hand with many mistakes and crossings-out. He had kept every one, tied in a neat bundle in his kit bag, and when a long period went by with no letter he reread the old ones.

  In the first she had told him she had given birth to a boy, Vladimir, now eighteen months old-Lev's son. Grigori longed to see him. He vividly remembered his brother as a baby. Did Vladimir have Lev's irresistible gummy smile? he wondered. But he must have teeth by now, and be walking, and speaking his first words. Grigori wanted the child to learn to say "Uncle Grishka. "

  He often thought about the night Katerina had come to his bed. In his daydreams he sometimes changed the course of events so that, instead of throwing her out, he took her in his arms, kissed her generous mouth, and made love to her. But in real life he knew that her heart belonged to his brother.

  Grigori had heard nothing from Lev, who had been gone more than two years. He feared that some catastrophe had befallen him in America. Lev's weaknesses often got him into scrapes, although somehow he seemed always to slip out of trouble. The problem stemmed from the way he had been brought up, living from hand to mouth with no proper discipline and only Grigori as a poor substitute for a parent. Grigori wished he had done better, but he had been only a boy himself.

  The upshot was that Katerina had no one to look after her and her baby except Grigori. He was fiercely determined to keep himself alive, despite the chaotic inefficiency of the Russian army, so that he could one day return home to Katerina and Vladimir.

  The commander in the zone was General Brusilov, a professional soldier-unlike so many of the generals who were courtiers. Under Brusilov's orders the Russians had made gains in June, driving the Austrians back in confusion. Grigori and his men fought hard when the orders made some kind of sense. Otherwise they devoted their energies to staying out of the line of fire. Grigori had become good at that, and in consequence had won the loyalty of his platoon.

  In July the Russian advance had slowed, dragged back as always by lack of supplies. But now the Guard Army had arrived as reinforcements. The Guards were an elite group, the tallest and fittest of Russian soldiers. Unlike the rest of the army they had fine uniforms-dark green with gold braid-and new boots. But they had a poor commander, General Bezobrazov, another courtier. Grigori felt that Bezobrazov would not take Kovel, no matter how tall the guards were.

  It was Major Azov who brought the orders at dawn. He was a tall, heavy man in a tight uniform, and as usual his eyes were red this early in the morning. With him was Lieutenant Kirillov. The lieutenant summoned the sergeants and Azov told them to ford the river and follow the footpaths through the swamp toward the west. The Austrians were emplaced in the swamp, though not entrenched: the ground was too soggy for trenches.

  Grigori could see a disaster in the making. The Austrians would be lying in wait, behind cover, in positions they had been able to choose with care. The Russians would be concentrated on the pathways and would not be able to move quickly on the boggy ground. They would be massacred.

  In addition, they were low on bullets.

  Grigori said: "Your Highness, we need an issue of ammunition. "

  Azov moved fast for a fat man. Without warning he punched Grigori in the mouth. Burning pain flared in Grigori's lips and he fell back. "That will keep you quiet for a while," Azov said. "You'll get ammunition when your officers say you need it. " He turned to the others. "Form up in lines and advance when you hear the signal. "

  Grigori got to his feet, tasting blood. Touching his face gingerly, he found he had lost a front tooth. He cursed his carelessness. In an absentminded moment he had stood too close to an officer. He should have known better: they lashed out at the slightest provocation. He was lucky Azov had not been holding a rifle, or it would have been the butt that struck Grigori in the face.

  He called his platoon together and got them in a ragged line. He planned to hold back and let others get ahead, but to his disappointment, Azov sent his company off early, and Grigori's platoon was among the leaders.

  He would have to think of something else.

  He waded into the river and the thirty-five men of his platoon followed. The water was cold but the weather was sunny and warm, so the men did not much mind getting wet. Grigori moved slowly, and his men did the same, staying behind him, waiting to see what he would do.

  The Stokhod was broad and shallow, and they reached the far side without getting wet above their thighs. They had already been overtaken by keener men, Grigori saw with satisfaction.

  Once on the narrow path through the swamp Grigori's platoon had to go at the same pace as everyone else, and he could not carry out his plan of falling behind. He began to worry. He did not want his men to be part of this crowd when the Austrians opened fire.

  After they had gone a mile or so the path narrowed again and the pace slowed as the men ahead squeezed into single file. Grigori saw an opportunity. As if impatient with the delay, he moved off the path into the watery mud. The rest of his men quickly followed suit. The platoon behind moved up and closed the gap.

  The water was up to Grigori's chest, and the mud was glutinous. Walking through the bog was very slow, and-as Grigori had anticipated-his platoon fell behind.

  Lieutenant Kirillov saw what was happening and shouted angrily: "You men there! Get back on the path!"

  Grigori called back: "Yes, Excellency. " But he led his men farther away, as if searching for firmer ground.

  The lieutenant cursed and gave up.

  Grigori was scanning the terrain ahead as carefully as any of the officers, though for a different purpose. They were looking for the Austrian army; he was looking for a place to hide.

  He kept moving forward while letting hundreds of troops overtake him. The Guards are so proud of themselves, he thought; let them do the fighting.

  Around midmorning he heard the first shots from up ahead. The vanguard had engaged the enemy. It was time to take refuge.

  Grigori came to a slight rise where the ground was drier. The rest of Major Azov's company was now out of sight far ahead. At the top of the rise Grigori shouted: "Take cover! Enemy emplacement ahead to the left!"

  There was no enemy emplacement, and his men knew that, but they got down on the ground, behind bushes and trees, and aimed their rifles across the downside of the slope. Grigori shot one exploratory round into a clump of vegetation five hundred yards away, just i
n case he had unluckily picked a spot where there really were some Austrians; but no fire was returned.

  They were safe, Grigori thought with satisfaction, as long as they stayed here. As the day wore on, one of two things would happen. Most likely, in a few hours' time Russian soldiers would come stumbling back through the swamp carrying their wounded, chased by the enemy-in which case Grigori's platoon would join the retreat. Alternatively, toward nightfall Grigori would conclude that the Russians had won the battle, and take his group forward to join the victory celebrations.

  Meanwhile the only problem was forcing the men to maintain the pretense of engagement with an Austrian emplacement. It was boring to lie on the ground hour after hour staring ahead as if raking the landscape for enemy troops. The men tended to start eating and drinking, smoking, playing cards, or taking naps, which spoiled the illusion.

  But before they had time to get comfortable Lieutenant Kirillov appeared a couple of hundred yards to Grigori's right on the far side of a pond. Grigori groaned: this could ruin everything. "What are you men doing?" Kirillov shouted.

  "Keep down, Excellency!" Grigori shouted back.

  Isaak fired his rifle into the air, and Grigori ducked. Kirillov ducked too, then retreated back the way he had come.

  Isaak chuckled. "Works every time. "

  Grigori was not so sure. Kirillov had looked annoyed, not pleased, as if he knew he was being fooled but could not decide what to do about it.

  Grigori listened to the boom and clatter and roar of battle up ahead. He thought it was about a mile away, and not moving in any direction.

  The sun rose higher and dried his wet clothing. He began to feel hungry, and gnawed on a piece of hardtack from his ration tin, avoiding the sore place where Azov had knocked out his tooth.

  After the mist had burned off he saw German planes flying low about a mile ahead. Judging by the sound, they were machine-gunning the troops on the ground. The Guards, crowded onto narrow paths or wading through mud, must have made dreadfully easy targets. Grigori was doubly glad he had made sure he and his men were not there.

  Around the middle of the afternoon the sound of battle seemed to come nearer. The Russians were being pushed back. He got ready to order his men to join the fleeing forces-but not yet. He did not want to be conspicuous. Retreating slowly was almost as important as advancing slowly.

  He saw a few scattered men away to his left and right, splashing through the swamp back toward the river, some evidently wounded. The retreat had begun, but the army was not yet in full flight.

  From somewhere nearby he heard a neigh. A horse meant an officer. Grigori immediately fired at imaginary Austrians. His men followed suit, and there was a rattle of scattered fire. Then he looked around and saw Major Azov on a big gray hunter splashing through the mud. Azov was shouting at a group of retreating soldiers, telling them to return to the fray. They argued with him until he drew his pistol, a Nagant revolver-just like Lev's, Grigori thought irrelevantly-and pointed it at them, whereupon they turned around and reluctantly headed back the way they had come.

  Azov holstered the gun and trotted up to Grigori's position. "What are you fools doing here?" he said.

  Grigori remained lying on the ground but rolled over and reloaded his rifle, pushing his last five-round clip into place, making a show of haste. "Enemy emplacement in that clump of trees ahead, Your Highness," he said. "You'd better dismount, sir, they can see you. "

  Azov remained on his horse. "So what are you doing-hiding from them?"

  "His Excellency Lieutenant Kirillov told us to take them out. I've sent a patrol to come at them from the side while we give covering fire. "

  Azov was not completely stupid. "They don't seem to be shooting back. "

  "We've got them pinned down. "

  He shook his head. "They've retreated-if they were ever there in the first place. "

  "I don't think so, Your Highness. They were blazing away at us a moment ago. "

  "There's no one there. " Azov raised his voice. "Cease fire! You men, cease fire. "

  Grigori's platoon stopped shooting and looked at the major.

  "On my signal, charge!" he said. He drew his pistol.

  Grigori was not sure what to do. The battle had clearly been the disaster he had forecast. Having avoided it all day he did not want to risk lives when it was clearly over. But direct conflict with officers was dangerous.

  At that moment, a group of soldiers broke through the vegetation in the place Grigori had been pretending was an enemy emplacement. Grigori stared in surprise. However, they were not Austrians, he saw as soon as he could make out their uniforms; they were retreating Russians.

  But Azov did not change his mind. "Those men are cowardly deserters!" he screeched. "Charge them!" And he fired his pistol at the approaching Russians.

  The men of the platoon were bewildered. Officers often threatened to shoot troops who seemed reluctant to go into battle, but Grigori's men had never before been ordered to attack their own side. They looked to him for guidance.

  Azov aimed his pistol at Grigori. "Charge!" he screamed. "Shoot those traitors!"

  Grigori made a decision. "Right, men!" he called. He scrambled to his feet. Turning his back to the approaching Russians, he looked to left and right and hefted his rifle. "You heard what the major said!" He swung his rifle, as if turning, then pointed it at Azov.

  If he was going to shoot at his own side, he would kill an officer rather than a soldier.

  Azov stared at him for a frozen moment, and in that second Grigori pulled the trigger.

  His first shot hit Azov's horse, and it stumbled. That saved Grigori's life, for Azov fired at him, but the horse's sudden movement caused the shot to go wide. Automatically, Grigori worked the bolt of his rifle and fired again.

  His second shot missed. Grigori swore. He was in real danger now. But so was the major.

  Azov was struggling with his horse and unable to aim his weapon. Grigori followed his jerky movements with the sight of his rifle, fired a third time, and shot Azov in the chest. He stared as the major slowly fell off his horse. He felt a jolt of grim satisfaction as the heavy body plunged into a muddy puddle.

  The horse walked away unsteadily, then suddenly sat down on its hindquarters like a dog.

  Grigori went up to Azov. The major lay on his back in the mud, looking up, unmoving but still alive, bleeding from the right side of his chest. Grigori looked around. The retreating soldiers were still too far away to see clearly what was going on. His own men were completely trustworthy: he had saved their lives many times. He put the barrel of his rifle against Azov's forehead. "This is for all the good Russians you've killed, you murdering dog," he said. He grimaced, baring his teeth. "And for my front tooth," he added, and he pulled the trigger.

  The major went limp and stopped breathing.

  Grigori looked at his men. "The major has unfortunately been killed by enemy fire," he said. "Retreat!"

  They cheered and began to run.

  Grigori went up to the horse. It tried to rise, but Grigori could see it had a broken leg. He put his rifle to its ear and fired his last round. The horse fell sideways and lay still.

  Grigori felt more pity for the horse than for Major Azov.

  He ran after his retreating men.

  {II}

  After the Brusilov Offensive slowed to a halt, Grigori was redeployed to the capital, now renamed Petrograd because "St. Petersburg" sounded too German. Battle-hardened troops were required to protect the tsar's family and his ministers from the angry citizens, it seemed. The remains of the battalion were merged with the elite First Machine Gun Regiment, and Grigori moved into their barracks in Samsonievsky Prospekt in the Vyborg District, a working-class neighborhood of factories and slums. The First Machine Guns were well fed and housed, in an attempt to keep them contented enough to defend the hated regime.

  He was happy to be back, and yet
the prospect of seeing Katerina filled him with apprehension. He longed to look at her, hear her voice, and hold her baby, his nephew. But his lust for her made him anxious. She was his wife, but that was a technicality. The reality was that she had chosen Lev, and her baby was Lev's child. Grigori had no right to love her.

  He even toyed with the idea of not telling her he was back. In a city of more than two million people there was a good chance they would never meet by accident. But he would have found that too hard to bear.

  On his first day back he was not allowed out of the barracks. He felt frustrated at not being able to go to Katerina. Instead, that evening he and Isaak made contact with other Bolsheviks at the barracks. Grigori agreed to start a discussion group.

  Next morning his platoon became part of a squad assigned to guard the home of Prince Andrei, his former overlord, during a banquet. The prince lived in a pink-and-yellow palace on the English Embankment overlooking the Neva River. At midday the soldiers lined up on the steps. Low rain clouds darkened the city, but light shone from every window of the house. Behind the glass, framed by velvet curtains like a play at the theater, footmen and maids in clean uniforms hurried by, carrying bottles of wine, platters of delicacies, and silver trays piled with fruit. There was a small orchestra in the hall, and the strains of a symphony could be heard outside. The big shiny cars drew up at the foot of the steps, footmen hurried to open the car doors, and the guests emerged, the men in their black coats and tall hats, the women swathed in furs. A small crowd gathered on the other side of the street to watch.

  It was a familiar scene, but there was a difference. Every time someone got out of a car the crowd booed and jeered. In the old days, the police would have broken up the mob with their nightsticks in a minute. Now there were no police, and the guests walked as quickly as they could up the steps between the two lines of soldiers and darted in through the grand doorway, clearly nervous of staying long in the open.

  Grigori thought the bystanders were quite right to jeer at the nobility who had made such a mess of the war. If trouble broke out, he would be inclined to take the side of the crowd. He certainly did not intend to shoot at them, and he guessed many of the soldiers felt the same.

  How could noblemen throw lavish parties at a time like this? Half Russia was starving and even the soldiers at the front were on short rations. Men like Andrei deserved to be murdered in their beds. If I see him, Grigori thought, I'm going to have to restrain myself from shooting him the way I shot Major Azov.

  The procession of cars came to an end without incident, and the crowd got bored and drifted off. Grigori spent the afternoon looking hard at the faces of women passing by, eagerly hoping against the odds to see Katerina. By the time the guests began to leave it was getting dark and cold, and no one wanted to stand around on the street, so there was no more booing.

  After the party the soldiers were invited to the back door to eat such of the leftovers as had not been consumed by the household staff: scraps of meat and fish, cold vegetables, half-eaten bread rolls, apples and pears. The food was thrown on a trestle table and unpleasantly mixed up, slices of ham smeared with fish pate, fruit in gravy, bread dusted with cigar ash. But they had eaten worse in the trenches, and it was a long time since their breakfast of porridge and salt cod, so they tucked in hungrily.

  At no time did Grigori see the hated face of Prince Andrei. Perhaps it was just as well.

  When they had marched back to the barracks and handed in their weapons, they were given the evening off. Grigori was elated: it was his chance to visit Katerina. He went to the back door of the barracks kitchen and begged some bread and meat to take to her: a sergeant had his privileges. Then he shined his boots and went out.

  Vyborg, where the barracks stood, was in the northeast of the city, and Katerina lived diagonally opposite in the southwestern district of Narva, assuming she still had his old room near the Putilov works.

  He walked south along Samsonievsky Prospekt and over the Liteiny Bridge into the city center. Some of the swanky shops were still open, their windows bright with electric light, but many were closed. In the more mundane stores there was little for sale. A baker's window contained a single cake and a handwritten sign reading: "No bread until tomorrow. "

  The broad boulevard of Nevsky Prospekt reminded him of walking along here with his mother, on that fateful day in 1905 when he had seen her shot down by the tsar's soldiers. Now he was one of the tsar's soldiers. But he would not be shooting at women and children. If the tsar tried that now there would be trouble of a different kind.

  He saw ten or twelve thuggish young men in black coats and black caps carrying a portrait of Tsar Nicholas as a young man, his dark hair not yet receding, his gingery beard luxuriant. One of them shouted: "Long live the tsar!" and they all stopped, raised their caps, and cheered. Several passersby raised their hats.

  Grigori had encountered such bands before. They were called the Black Hundreds, part of the Union of the Russian People, a right-wing group that wanted to return to the golden age when the tsar was the unchallenged father of his people and Russia had no liberals, no socialists, and no Jews. Their newspapers were financed by the government and their pamphlets were printed in the basement of police headquarters, according to information the Bolsheviks got from their contacts in the police.

  Grigori walked past with a glance of contempt, but one of them accosted him. "Hey, you! Why is your hat on?"

  Grigori walked on without replying, but another member of the gang grabbed his arm. "What are you, a Jew?" the second man said. "Doff your cap!"

  Grigori said quietly: "Touch me again and I'll tear your fucking head off, you loudmouthed schoolboy. "

  The man backed off, then offered Grigori a pamphlet. "Read this, friend," he said. "It explains how the Jews are betraying you soldiers. "

  "Get out of my way, or I'll shove that stupid pamphlet all the way up your arse," said Grigori.

  The man looked to his comrades for support, but they had started beating up a middle-aged man in a fur hat. Grigori walked away.

  As he passed the doorway of a boarded-up shop, a woman spoke to him. "Hey, big boy," she said. "You can fuck me for a ruble. " Her words were standard prostitute's talk, but her voice surprised him: she sounded educated. He glanced her way. She was wearing a long coat, and when he looked at her she opened it to show that she had nothing on underneath, despite the cold. She was in her thirties, with big breasts and a round belly.

  Grigori felt a surge of desire. He had not been with a woman for years. The trench prostitutes were vile, dirty, and diseased. But this woman looked like someone he could embrace.

  She closed her coat. "Yes or no?"

  "I haven't got any money," Grigori said.

  "What's in that bag?" She nodded at the sack he was carrying.

  "A few scraps of food. "

  "I'll do you for a loaf of bread," the woman said. "My children are starving. "

  Grigori thought of those plump breasts. "Where?"

  "In the back room of the shop. "

  At least, Grigori thought, I won't be mad with sexual frustration when I meet Katerina. "All right. "

  She opened the door, led him in, and closed and bolted it. They walked through the empty shop and into another room. Grigori saw, in the dim illumination from the streetlight, that there was a mattress on the floor covered with a blanket.

  The woman turned to face him, letting her coat fall open again. He stared at the thatch of dark hair at her groin. She put out her hand. "The bread first, please, Sergeant. "

  He took a big loaf of black bread from his sack and gave it to her.

  "I'll be back in a moment," she said.

  She ran up a flight of stairs and opened a door. Grigori heard a child's voice. Then a man coughed, a hacking rasp from deep in his chest. There were muffled sounds of movement and low voices for a few moments. Then he heard the door again, and she came down the stairs
.

  She took off her coat, lay back on the mattress, and parted her legs. Grigori lay beside her and put his arms around her. She had an attractive, intelligent face lined with strain. She said: "Mm, you're so strong!"

  He stroked her soft skin, but all desire had left him. The entire scene was too pathetic: the empty shop, the sick husband, the hungry children, and the woman's false coquetry.

  She unbuttoned his trousers and grasped his limp penis. "Do you want me to suck it?"

  "No. " He sat upright and handed her the coat. "Put this back on. "

  In a frightened voice she said: "You can't have the bread back-it's already half-eaten. "

  He shook his head. "What happened to you?"

  She put her coat on and fastened the buttons. "Have you got any cigarettes?"

  He gave her a cigarette and took one himself.

  She blew out smoke. "We had a shoe shop-high quality at reasonable prices for the middle class. My husband is a good businessman and we lived well. " Her tone was bitter. "But no one in this town, apart from the nobility, has bought new shoes for two years. "

  "Couldn't you do something else?"

  "Yes. " Her eyes flashed anger. "We didn't just sit back and helplessly accept our fate. My husband found he could provide good boots for soldiers at half the price the army was paying. All the small factories that used to supply the shop were desperate for orders. He went to the War Industries Committee. "

  "What's that?"

  "You've been away for a while, haven't you, Sergeant? Nowadays, everything that works here is run by independent committees: the government is too incompetent to do anything. The War Industries Committee supplies the army-or it did, while Polivanov was war minister. "

  "What went wrong?"

  "We got the order, my husband put all his savings into paying the bootmakers, and then the tsar fired Polivanov. "

  "Why?"

  "Polivanov allowed workers' elected representatives on the committee, so the tsaritsa thought he must be a revolutionist. Anyway, the order was canceled-and we went bankrupt. "

  Grigori shook his head in disgust. "And I thought it was just the commanders at the front who were mad. "

  "We tried other things. My husband was willing to do any job, waiter or streetcar driver or road mender, but no one was hiring, and then with the worry and lack of food he fell ill. "

  "So now you do this. "

  "I'm not very good at it. But some men are kind, like you. Others. . . " She shuddered and looked away.

  Grigori finished his cigarette and got to his feet. "Good-bye. I won't ask your name. "

  She got up. "Because of you, my family is still alive. " There was a catch in her voice. "And I don't need to go on the street again until tomorrow. " She stood on tiptoe and kissed his lips lightly. "Thank you, Sergeant. "

  Grigori went out.

  It was getting colder. He hurried through the streets to the Narva district. As he got farther away from the shopkeeper's wife his libido returned, and he thought with regret of her soft body.

  It occurred to him that like him, Katerina had physical needs. Two years was a long time to go without romance, for a young woman-she was still only twenty-three. She had little reason to be faithful to either Lev or Grigori. A woman with a baby was enough to scare off many men, but on the other hand she was very alluring, or she had been two years ago. She might not be alone this evening. How dreadful that would be.

  He made his way to his old home by the railway line. Was it his imagination, or did the street appear shabbier than it had two years ago? In the interim nothing seemed to have been painted, repaired, or even cleaned. He noticed a queue outside the bakery on the corner, even though the shop was closed.

  He still had his key. He entered the house.

  He felt fearful as he went up the stairs. He did not want to find her with a man. Now he wished he had sent word in advance, so that she could have arranged to be alone.

  He knocked on the door.

  "Who is it?"

  The sound of her voice nearly brought tears to his eyes. "A visitor," he said gruffly, and he opened the door.

  She was standing by the fireplace holding a pan. She dropped the pan, spilling milk, and her hands went to her mouth. She let out a small scream.

  "It's only me," said Grigori.

  On the floor beside her sat a little boy with a tin spoon in his hand. He appeared to have just stopped banging on an empty can. He stared at Grigori for a startled moment, then began to cry.

  Katerina picked him up. "Don't cry, Volodya," she said, rocking him. "No need to be afraid. " He quieted. Katerina said: "This is your daddy. "

  Grigori was not sure he wanted Vladimir to think he was his father, but this was not the moment to argue. He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. He put his arms around them, kissed the child, then kissed Katerina's forehead.

  He stood back and looked at them. She was no longer the fresh-faced kid he had rescued from the unwelcome attentions of Police Captain Pinsky. She was thinner and had a tired, strained look.

  Strangely, the child did not look much like Lev. There was no sign of Lev's good looks, nor his winning smile. If anything, Vladimir had the intense blue-eyed gaze that Grigori saw when he looked in a mirror.

  Grigori smiled. "He's beautiful. "

  Katerina said: "What happened to your ear?"

  Grigori touched what remained of his right ear. "I lost most of it at the battle of Tannenberg. "

  "And your tooth?"

  "I displeased an officer. But he's dead now, so I got the better of him in the end. "

  "You're not so handsome. "

  She had never said he was handsome before. "They're minor wounds. I'm lucky to be alive. "

  He looked around his old room. It was subtly different. On the mantelpiece over the fireplace, where Grigori and Lev had kept pipes, tobacco in a jar, matches, and spills, Katerina had put a pottery vase, a doll, and a color postcard of Mary Pickford. There was a curtain at the window. It was made of scraps, like a quilt, but Grigori had never had any curtain. He also noticed the smell, or lack of it, and realized the place used to have a thick atmosphere of tobacco smoke, boiling cabbage, and unwashed men. Now it smelled fresh.

  Katerina mopped up the spilled milk. "I've thrown away Volodya's supper," she said. "I don't know what I'll feed him. There's no milk in my breasts. "

  "Don't worry. " From his sack Grigori took a length of sausage, a cabbage, and a tin of jam. Katerina stared in disbelief. "From the barracks kitchen," he explained.

  She opened the jam and fed some to Vladimir on a spoon. He ate it and said: "More?"

  Katerina ate a spoonful herself, then gave the child more. "This is like a fairy tale," she said. "All this food! I won't have to sleep outside the bakery. "

  Grigori frowned. "What do you mean?"

  She swallowed more jam. "There's never enough bread. As soon as the bakery opens in the morning it's all sold. The only way to get bread is to queue up. And if you don't join the queue before midnight, they'll be sold out before you get to the head of the line. "

  "My God. " He hated the thought of her sleeping on the pavement. "What about Volodya?"

  "One of the other girls listens for him while I'm out. He sleeps all night now anyway. "

  No wonder the shopkeeper's wife had been willing to have sex with Grigori for a loaf. He had probably overpaid her. "How do you manage?"

  "I get twelve rubles a week at the factory. "

  He was puzzled. "But that's double what you were earning when I left!"

  "But the rent for this room used to be four rubles a week-now it's eight. That leaves me four rubles for everything else. And a sack of potatoes used to be one ruble, but now it's seven. "

  "Seven rubles for a sack of potatoes!" Grigori was appalled. "How do people live?"

  "Everyone is hungry. Children fall ill and die. Old people just fade away.
It gets worse every day, and no one does anything. "

  Grigori felt heartsick. While he was suffering in the army, he had consoled himself with the thought that Katerina and the baby were better off, with a warm place to sleep and enough money for food. He had been fooling himself. It filled him with rage to think of her leaving Vladimir here while she slept outside the bakery.

  They sat at the table and Grigori sliced the sausage with his knife. "Some tea would be nice," he said.

  Katerina smiled. "I haven't had tea for a year. "

  "I'll bring some from the barracks. "

  Katerina ate the sausage. Grigori could see that she had to restrain herself from gobbling it. He picked up Vladimir and fed him more jam. The boy was still a bit young for sausage.

  An easy contentment crept over Grigori. While at the front he had daydreamed this scene: the little room, the table with food, the baby, Katerina. Now it had come true. "This should not be so hard to find," he said ruminatively.

  "What do you mean?"

  "You and I are fit and strong and we work hard. All I want is this: a room, something to eat, rest at the end of the day. It should be ours every day. "

  "We've been betrayed by German-supporters at the royal court," she said.

  "Really? How so?"

  "Well, you know the tsaritsa is a German. "

  "Yes. " The tsar's wife had been born Princess Alix of Hesse and Rhine in the German empire.

  "And Sturmer is obviously a German. "

  Grigori shrugged. Prime Minister Sturmer had been born in Russia, as far as Grigori knew. Many Russians had German names, and vice versa: inhabitants of the two countries had been crisscrossing the border for centuries.

  "And Rasputin is pro-German. "

  "Is he?" Grigori suspected the mad monk was mainly interested in mesmerizing women at court and gaining influence and power.

  "They're all in it together. Sturmer has been paid by the Germans to starve the peasantry. The tsar telephones his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm and tells him where our troops are going to be next. Rasputin wants us to surrender. And the tsaritsa and her lady-in-waiting Anna Vyrubova both sleep with Rasputin at the same time. "

  Grigori had heard most of these rumors. He did not believe the court was pro-German. They were just stupid and incompetent. But a lot of soldiers believed such stories, and to judge by Katerina some civilians did too. It was the task of the Bolsheviks to explain the true reasons why Russians were losing the war and starving to death.

  But not tonight. Vladimir yawned, so Grigori stood up and began to rock him, walking up and down, while Katerina talked. She told him about life at the factory, the other tenants in the house, and people he knew. Captain Pinsky was now a lieutenant with the secret police, ferreting out dangerous liberals and democrats. There were thousands of orphaned children on the streets, living by theft and prostitution or dying of starvation and cold. Konstantin, Grigori's closest friend at the Putilov works, was now a member of the Petrograd Bolshevik Committee. The Vyalov family were the only people getting richer: no matter how bad the shortages were, they could always sell you vodka, caviar, cigarettes, and chocolate. Grigori studied her wide mouth and full lips. It was a joy to watch her talk. She had a determined chin and bold blue eyes, yet to him she always looked vulnerable.

  Vladimir fell asleep, lulled by Grigori's rocking and Katerina's voice. Grigori carefully put him down in a bed Katerina had improvised in a corner. It was just a sack filled with rags and covered by a blanket, but he curled up on it comfortably and put his thumb in his mouth.

  A church clock struck nine, and Katerina said: "What time do you have to be back?"

  "At ten," Grigori said. "I'd better go. "

  "Not just yet. " She put her arms around his neck and kissed him.

  It was a sweet moment. Her lips on his were soft and mobile. He closed his eyes for a second and inhaled the scent of her skin. Then he pulled away. "This is wrong," he said.

  "Don't be stupid. "

  "You love Lev. "

  She looked him in the eye. "I was a peasant girl twenty years old and new to the city. I liked Lev's smart suits, his cigarettes and vodka, his openhandedness. He was charming and handsome and fun. But now I'm twenty-three and I have a child-and where is Lev?"

  Grigori shrugged. "We don't know. "

  "But you're here. " She stroked his cheek. He knew he should push her away, but he could not. "You pay the rent, and you bring food for my baby," she said. "Don't you think I see what a fool I was to love Lev instead of you? Don't you realize I know better now? Can't you understand that I've learned to love you?"

  Grigori stared at her, unable to believe what he had heard.

  Those blue eyes stared back at him candidly. "That's right," she said. "I love you. "

  He groaned, closed his eyes, took her in his arms, and surrendered.

 
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