PREPARING TO GO TO THE FRONT
Through a war correspondent for an American newspaper who was stopping at the Astoria, a luncheon was arranged at which I was presented to Col. Kalpaschnecoff.
The Colonel proved to be a charming fellow. He had formerly been an attaché at the Russian Embassy in Washington, having left the diplomatic service at the outbreak of the war and been placed in command of the 21st Flying Column.
"You'll find things pretty rough at the front," he said, in perfect English, his keen brown eyes searching my face. "The work is up in the first line trenches and things get rather hot occasionally. My surgeon was killed a few weeks ago."
I told him I wanted to see some action and was willing to take a chance, but I was afraid that my ignorance of the Russian language would prevent my getting a commission.
"I think we can get around that all right," the Colonel replied. "I have three medical students who will act as your assistants. One of them speaks English. Get a letter from the Hussars Hospital and bring your medical college diploma and we will go to-morrow to the Russian Red Cross and get you a commission in the Army medical service.".
It sounded very easy and it looked as though at last my wish to get to the front was going to be realized.
Colonel Kalpaschnecoff was a whirlwind. His stay in Washington had evidently taught him American methods. He went to the Red Cross and walked through secretaries and clerks as though they were wet paper, literally brushing them, aside as they tried to stop us to inquire our business, and before they had recovered we were in the presence of the all-powerful, and the Colonel was telling him that I was the man he wanted for his surgeon and that no other would do.
The chief was a big burly fellow, who sat smoking a long fragrant Russian cigarette. He had a glass of tea at his elbow on the desk. He asked the Colonel a few questions as to my ability, experience and credentials, and Kalpaschnecoff showed him the excellent letter from the heads of the Tsarskoe-Selo Hospital, translated the heading of my diploma, and the trick was done.
When it came to filling out the necessary blanks, I was asked whether my middle name---"Cummings"---was my father's name. When I told them that it was my grandfather's they decided that I would have to change it. My father's name was Alva and they thereupon rechristened me "Malcolm Alvaovitch Grow"!
"You will receive the commission of a captain," I was informed, "but being a foreigner it is customary to raise the rank one degree and you will wear the uniform of a put-pulkovneck." The latter designation meant literally a lieutenant-colonel, which is the next rank above captain, there being no major in the Russian Army.
I expressed my surprise to the Colonel at the quickness with which he had carried off things.
"It's a trick I learned in America," he replied; "simply rush them off their feet. I told them you must have all your papers in three days as we leave for the front in five. Now you must get uniforms and equipment. Here is a list you will need. Get busy and I will call at the hotel in a couple of days and see how you are getting on."
I drove back to the hotel rather dazed by the rapidity with which my destiny was rushing on. Here I was, a peace-loving American doctor stepping into the boots of a man killed two weeks ago by a German shell, thousands of miles from home and friends, with a commission in an army of strange folks with whom I must remain through unknown perils until such time as I might be "relieved of duty at the pleasure of the Army Command or until the end of the war"---so read the paper which I had just signed.
But that was what I had come over for and I was determined to see it through.
Arriving at the Astoria, I found Dr. Egbert just back from Kiev, the American Red Cross having withdrawn all its units from Europe because of lack of funds to maintain them.
"You lucky dog!" was the greeting I got from the doctor, when I told him of my good fortune. "I came over hoping to have work right at the front and they gave me a Base Hospital in a city, while you step right into the real thing."
He told me he was going to remain in Petrograd a few weeks to settle up some business and then he was going back to America, which made me feel even more strongly the loneliness and isolation which were soon to be mine.
I had the tailor come to the hotel and I selected material for my uniform which he said he could have made up in three days.
Dr. Egbert and I went shopping and I purchased a huge curved sabre, as described on Kalpaschnecoff's list, several pairs of high black boots, and a funny Persian lamb cap, gray and high, the regulation winter cap for officers, worn cocked over the right ear. I also got a pair of nice jingly spurs.
During the next few days I watched the officers around the hotel rather closely. I had to learn just how to click my heels together when I saluted a superior or when I shook hands with an officer. The spurs produce a fine ringing sound which Dr. Egbert described as "singing with the feet." It was also necessary to learn not to salute when my hat was off---merely to bow and click my heels.
The hotel lobby was a very interesting and instructive place to sit at that period and I spent a great deal of time there. By observation I was soon able to familiarize myself with the insignia which went with the different ranks and the various branches of the service.
Several Americans dropped into my rooms for tea. Indicating my sheepskin coat hanging back of a curtain, one of them asked me if I were keeping a goat.
As a matter of fact, Kalpaschnecoff had told me that it was frequently from fifteen to twenty degrees below zero at the front in mid-winter and it was now the first of December.
It was certainly getting cold here in Petrograd. Furs were being worn by every one and the short period of daylight lasting only from 9 A. M. to 3:30 P. M. told that the bleak cold gray days of the long Russian winter were upon us.
My uniforms finally came and I rigged myself out and went down to dinner, sabre and all, it being necessary to wear the weapon in official Petrograd although it could be dispensed with, strangely enough, at the front. I was grateful for the latter regulation, as the sabre was constantly getting between my legs and banging about in a very uncomfortable manner, my entry into the crowded café being a real menace to myself and others because of its tripping-up proclivities.
After dinner I started out to call on some friends to say good-bye. They had given their address on a piece of paper, written in Russian. I thought I remembered how my friend had pronounced it before he wrote it down and I walked boldly up to a bearded isvoscheek in front of the hotel and said, "Kee-roosh, naya, ad-een-nat-set!" and seated myself in the cab.
He clucked to his horses and started off and we drove for about an hour. Then he stopped and asked me something in Russian, which, of course, I couldn't answer. I handed him the slip of paper but he shook his head and handed it back to me., He couldn't read! I shook my head to indicate that I too was unable to read and he started off again at a walk, turning on the box from time to time to look at his strange fare---a Russian lieutenant-colonel who couldn't read!
Finally he saw a large policeman and drove up to him, saying something in Russian and pointing to me with his whip. I handed the paper to the policeman, who glanced at it, said something to the cabman and then burst into loud guffaws in which the cabman joined, both apparently overcome with mirth at the thought of a Russian officer of my rank who couldn't even read; and when later on, as a result of the policeman's directions, the cabman finally landed me at my friends' house and I dismissed him, he was still grinning and chuckling to himself.
I never understood why the policeman hadn't arrested me as a suspicious character.
The next day, Dr. Egbert accompanied me to the great, gloomy Nicholiavsky station. The waiting-room was filled with a crowd of soldiers and officers with their families and friends seeing them off for the front.
Bearded, white-aproned nasielshicks, or porters, ran up, and hand-baggage was piled into their waiting arms. We procured a couple of these porters and were soon headed for our train, following the porters, who staggered along under their seemingly impossible loads.
At the train, we met Kalpaschnecoff. He had managed to secure a compartment for two on the crowded second-class coach. I had my little regulation officer's trunk, filled with my effects, and my folding cot and bedding roll with blankets and pillows, carried in and piled in our compartment.
Then I went out on the platform where my dear old friend Dr. Egbert was standing. To me he represented the last link with life in America.
"God bless you, boy!" he said, and there were tears in his eyes as he said it. There were tears in mine, too, and I suppose there were few on that platform whose eyes were dry, for it was a train running direct to the front and the passengers were all soldiers. How many of us would ever return?
As I stepped aboard, Dr. Egbert handed me a revolver in a soiled leather holster.
"Here, Grow," he said, "take this: it is a good gun. I have had it for a long time. It will not fail you. I want you to have it-from me."
I did not realize then what a friend that old thirty-eight was to prove, but it saved my life one blood-stained day on the Galician front---but more of that later on.
Chapter Five: Off to the Front