I MEET THE CZAR
Weeks slipped by---weeks full of interest to me to whom everything was new. Every day there were a few wounded but not many, for both sides were sitting quietly waiting, waiting and filling up their regiments with reserves and their ammunition-dump with shells. New regiments. were moved in every two weeks, but we stayed, working with each regiment of our division as it came out of reserve.
They would come stealing in at night---a long line of men in columns of fours, down the dark road through the forest. No talking was allowed and there wasn't a sound except their feet crunching the hard frozen snow, the occasional dank of a tin cup against an intrenching tool, subdued coughs, or a low word of command from an officer.
There were long waits in the frosty air as they filed through the communication-trench by squads to the fire-trench to take up the positions of their tired comrades at the loopholes. The men who, were released would come out through the communication-trenches in little groups, line up on the road beside the new regiment, and soon another regiment would have formed under the shelter of the pine-trees---bound for the billets a few miles to the rear. Off they would go silently till a mile or so back from the trenches. Then they would start one of their wonderful marching songs. I can hear them now as I write---the fine majestic swing, with the plaintiveness of the East in it, ringing out on the hard, cold air.
One day Colonel Kalpaschnecoff came in with the news that the Emperor Nicholas was to visit our corps.
"There will be a big review of our troops who, are in reserve," he said. "It will be worth seeing. The Emperor will stay at the staff for several days. You must come to the staff dinner and meet him."
The day before I was to ride back to the staff, Michael, my orderly, asked me if I cared to take a bath before I started. I had been bathing in a tin-basin not much larger than a soup plate. Michael had always insisted upon helping me but he would shake his head and indicate his disapproval at such methods of ablution.
"That way no good, Meester," he would say in his pigeon English, as I balanced on one foot in the tiny basin, splashing the water about the dug-out. "Russian bath better."
"I know it's no good, Mike," I would reply, "but it's the best the country seems to afford."
"Meester, go with me to Russian bath, yes?" he persisted, when I asked him to get the hot water on this particular afternoon.
"Russian bath!" I exclaimed in astonishment. "How can I run up to Petrograd and be back to-morrow, Mike? What are you talking about?"
"Have Russian bath here---about one-half verst."
"Why didn't you tell me that before?"
"I think Meester like American way better."
We started off, Mike leading the way, carrying soap, towels and clean clothes. Finally we came to two big dug-outs.
'Steam was pouring from their crude chimneys and leaked out through the chinks of the doors, rising in clouds in the cold air. The door of one of the dug-outs suddenly opened and a gust of steam swirled out, from which emerged three figures clad in their birthday garments---big, husky Siberians with not a stitch on them. Steam rose from their wet, shining skin, which was almost the color of a fresh-boiled lobster. They rushed off into the deep snow, capering about in the drifts while I stood gazing at them in astonishment.
One dived into a snow-bank and kicked and rolled about while the others pelted each other with snow. I thought I had wandered into a madhouse. After romping about for several minutes, they dashed back with loud cries into the dug-out.
"Russian soldier takes bath," laconically remarked Mike.
"If you think I'm going to bathe in a snowdrift, Mike, you're very much mistaken," I said.
"Oh, no; only soldier does that. Siberian soldier very strong. No get sick."
We approached the other dug-out. Over the door a crude sign read "Offetsersky Bonyah"---"Officers' Bath." We went down the steps and opened the door. It led into a room with a steaming atmosphere. The temperature was about 90° Fahrenheit. A large stove of rough masonry with a huge fire-box in which logs were burning, filled one end of the room. Several soldiers were piling on more wood.
Another door opened into a smaller room which was not so steamy nor hot. There were benches around and pegs in the wall to hang the side clothes on. This was the dressing-room. Great drops of moisture dripped from the ceiling and walls on to the floor, which was made of close-laid saplings hewn square.
We stripped and Mike opened the door which led into the bath-room proper. I stepped in. The room was frightfully hot. The other end of the great stove projected through the wall. Above the fire-box was an opening like an oven which was filled with stones. Beside the oven, placed so as to catch some of the heat, was a steaming kettle of water. At one end of the room I could see dimly through the vapor a series of step-like benches in tiers reaching almost to the ceiling. On the walls hung dippers and bundles of birch twigs tied together. A barrel of cold water completed the equipment.
Mike told me to sit on the bench. Then he dipped out a ladleful of water and threw it on the hot stones in the oven. With a loud hiss, a great volume of steam flooded the room, and I thought I would suffocate. He repeated the process and I thought I would parboil. Another attack and I felt that I was quite done and ready to serve! To my anguished mind he appeared as an imp of Satan, skipping about in the rolling clouds of vapor as he dodged back to avoid the first outpouring of the scalding stuff-at least his skin resembled that of an imp, a fine scarlet.
By this time I was sizzling. Every bit of moisture in my body seemed to be pouring out of my skin in droplets. I felt like a turkey being "basted."
Mike approached me with a basin of hot water and doused me with it. He made me lie full length on one of the planks while he soaped me and scrubbed me with a scrubbing brush. Then he poured more hot water on me, and seizing two, of the bundles of birch switches proceeded to lay them on, one in each hand, beating a tattoo up and down my scalded back, stopping only to throw more water on the hot stones when the temperature of the room threatened to fall below 220°!
Then he seized a bucket, plunged it in the barrel of icy water and let me have it. As I gasped and sputtered and writhed on the plank, he appropriately announced: "All finish!"
I reeled out of that chamber of horrors to the comparatively earthly temperature of the cooling room.
When I reached our dressing station, Nicholi rose as I entered the door and shaking my hand said politely: "I congratulate you!" I thanked him, stating that I too was glad to have survived the ordeal, but I afterward found out that such congratulations are customary in Russia and I can quite appreciate the origin of this ancient and sensible rite. Russian baths are like olives, however, and I soon became accustomed---or hardened---to them.
The next morning I rode my little Siberian pony back to the base near the staff. The Emperor's private train was to arrive at two o'clock at the station of Ceslivano, which was twenty miles away.
At twelve-thirty, General Pleschcoff went through the village in the Benz limousine-bound for the station to meet him. He was followed by an escort of a squadron of Cossack cavalry.
This motor, incidentally, formerly belonged to Prince Eitel Frederich of Germany, son of the Kaiser. It was captured during the Germans' second attack on Warsaw by the soldiers of our First Siberian Army Corps. Our troop had broken through the German line in a counter-attack and some Cossacks attached to the corps got through to a considerable depth and nearly captured the Prince! His car had become stalled in the mud and he was forced to flee on horseback, abandoning the motor, which the Cossacks took and, with their ponies, hauled back to our lines.
It was a luxurious Benz limousine, upholstered in gray. When captured it contained a cut-glass vase filled with flowers, a lunch hamper with complete equipment of dishes, knives, forks and so forth, with the imperial crest engraved on them, and some bottles of wine, cigars and cigarettes, the latter bearing the Prince's initials and the Hohenzollern crest on them. On the door of the limousine was the imperial coat-of-arms in enamel. Some German officers were taken at the same time and they freely admitted that it was indeed the Prince's car. General Pleschcoff now used it as a staff car an d I had many enjoyable rides in it.
Fig. 8. Abandoned car of Prince Eitel Friedrich of Germany, being hauled out of the mud by Cossacks who captured it. Note the informal attire.
Fig. 9. Mid-day during winter on the Northern front. The sun never rises any higher at this time of year. It is dark at 3:30 P.M. and not light until 10 A.M. The latitude here is about 53°.
Along the road leading to the station, at intervals of every hundred feet, soldiers were posted, and a platoon of cavalry was on guard at every cross-road. The snow covering the twenty miles of road had been scraped and shoveled into a fairly flat surface, and small pine trees had been cut and planted in the snow-drifts every twenty or thirty feet on both sides, forming an avenue which relieved the otherwise bleak and uninviting landscape.
These preparations had been going on for several days in anticipation of the visit of the Emperor.
We remained in the village, and at four-thirty o'clock a number of motor cars could be heard purring down the road. The sentries stood stiffly at attention as the car of the German prince but now bearing the Czar of all the Russias passed through the dusky street of the little village. We could not see him because it was nearly dark but we stood at attention in front of our cabin until he had passed.
A number of other staff motors passed, crowded with officers, and in front and in the rear of the motors the Cossack squadron rode at a brisk trot, the steam rising from their ponies in the frosty air.
That night the Emperor had dinner with General Pleschcoff privately and immediately after-word he retired to rest from his journey.
At the review the next day, an entire division, twenty-five thousand men, was drawn up in a large hollow square in the snow-covered field. At one end four regimental bands were massed. Our little organization, with its 180 orderlies, was lined up in one corner of the field.
It was very cold standing there in the open with the wind whirling clouds of powdery snow about. After about fifteen minutes, the staff motors drove up, the great band struck up the Russian national anthem and twenty-five thousand voices took up its majestic strain.
The Emperor advanced into the middle of the square, followed by General Pleschcoff and a large body of officers. Every soldier stood at attention, and when the reviewing party had reached the center the band stopped and the Emperor spoke some words to the soldiers and then started down the long line of men, stopping at every company to shake hands with the officers.
As the Emperor passed down the line, the heads of the soldiers turned as though drawn toward him by a magnet, the Russian custom requiring every soldier to look the reviewing officer in the eye every moment. When the reviewing officer stands still and the troops pass by him the same rule is followed, so that when they get directly opposite him every head is turned sharply over the shoulder and snaps back like clockwork to a front gaze just as they pass him.
As the Emperor passed our corner I saw that he was dressed in the ordinary field uniform with the insignia of a colonel on his shoulder-straps. He wore the plain brown overcoat such as we all had on and a regular gray Persian-lambskin winter cap. He came up to Colonel Kalpaschnecoff, saluted, shook hands, and addressed a few friendly words to him in Russian, and passed on to where I stood with my hand to my cap in salute.
"Our new American doctor, Your Imperial Highness!" said General Pleschcoff.
"American doctor!" repeated the Emperor in perfect English, a kindly smile lighting up his face. "And you have come over here all the way from America to help our wounded?" he asked.
"Yes, Your Imperial Highness," I answered, in English.
"That is very fine, very good of you. We are very much in need of doctors," and he passed on.
He was a medium-sized man, erect and soldierly in bearing. His skin was a peculiar dusky red. He had large dark eyes---the kindest eyes I have ever seen.
He had a brown moustache and a neatly trimmed brown beard. There were a few streaks of gray in his beard and hair, and lines of care were beginning to show around his eyes and brow.
He passed completely around the square. A group of priests clad in brilliant cloaks of gold and silver cloth, their long locks flowing in the wind, contrasted conspicuously with the dun-colored uniforms of a choir of soldiers. A long religious ceremony followed, during which every one, including the Emperor, stood bareheaded in the cold---and it was perhaps five degrees below zero.
At times we all had to kneel in the snow while the priests chanted and the soldier choir sang the responses, their wonderful Russian voices sounding clear in the sparkling air.
It was a most impressive ceremony, the occasional far-off rumble of artillery adding to the effect.
In the great room at the staff that night, a throng of officers in uniforms glittering with decorations were gathered in groups, gaily chatting, when the door opened and the Emperor entered. A sudden hush fell on the noisy place and every man faced the door.
The Emperor went from group to group with General Pleschcoff, greeting each man cordially.
When he came to me, a friendly smile lit up his countenance.
"How do you like it here in the Russian army? Isn't the life too rough for you?" he asked. "We are a very simple people at best and our climate in winter is most trying, but I hope you are comfortable."
I told him that everything had been done to make me happy and that I was enjoying the life and the work very much. I noticed that the brick red dusky coloration of his face, which I had thought in the afternoon might be due to the cold air of the reviewing field, still remained. He had a trick of nervously stroking back his moustache and then passing his hand to the side of his neck where the fingers would gently rub the skin. This was repeated on many occasions, particularly when he was absorbed in thought. He impressed me as an unassuming kind of man who would rather be in some secluded spot with his children than in the turmoil and ceremony of court life, and I think of him now, out there in the little Siberian town where he is in exile, not as a disappointed and unhappy man but rather as being content in the bosom of his family unburdened of the cares of state.
At dinner, conversation flowed freely around the board without the least restraint, despite the fact that the ruler of the destinies of two hundred million people was seated there.
When we left the staff that night, Kalpaschnecoff remarked: "We all love the Emperor. Unfortunately he is surrounded in Petrograd by a crowd of men in which there is much pro-German influence. If he only had the strength of character that the Grand Duke Nicholas has, things would be better in Russia. When the Grand Duke was Commander-in-Chief, he was feared and at the same time loved by the army because he was always fair in his treatment of the soldiers even though he was a strict disciplinarian. Our Emperor detests strife. He tries to smooth everything over. Instead of kicking out the German propagandists he is willing to endure them although he knows full well that they are the undoing of the nation."
The Colonel's views were, of course, fully sustained by the events which followed.
Chapter Eleven: Over the German lines.