The Russian by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
The little dinner-party of grizzled men strayed from the dining-room and across the hall into the vast library, arguing mightily.
"The great war didn't do it. World democracy was on the way. The war held it back."
It was the United States Senator, garrulous and incisive, who issued that statement. The Judge, the host, wasted not a moment in contradicting. "You're mad, Joe," he threw at him with a hand on the shoulder of the man who was still to him that promising youngster, little Joe Burden of The School. "Held back democracy! The war! Quite mad, my son."
The guest of the evening, a Russian General who had just finished five strenuous years in the Cabinet of the Slav Republic, dropped back a step to watch, with amused eyes, strolling through the doorway, the two splendid old boys, the Judge's arm around the Senator's shoulders, fighting, sputtering, arguing with each other as they had fought and argued forty odd years up to date.
Two minutes more and the party of six had settled into deep chairs, into a mammoth davenport, before a blazing fire of spruce and birch. Cigars, liqueurs, coffee, the things men love after dinner, were there; one had the vaguest impression of two vanishing Japanese persons who might or might not have brought trays and touched the fire and placed tiny tables at each right hand; an atmosphere of completeness was present, one did not notice how. One settled with a sigh of satisfaction into comfort, and chose a cigar. One laughed to hear the Judge pound away at the Senator.
"It's all a game." Dr. Rutherford turned to the Russian. "They're devoted old friends, not violent enemies, General. The Senator stirs up the Judge by taking impossible positions and defending them savagely. The Judge invariably falls into the trap. Then a battle. Their battles are the joy of the Century Club. The Senator doesn't believe for an instant that the war held back democracy."
At that the Senator whirled. "I don't? But I do.--Don't smoke that cigar, Rutherford, on your life. Peter will have these atrocities. Here--Kaki, bring the doctor the other box.--That's better.--I don't believe what I said? Now listen. How could the fact that the world was turned into a military camp, officers commanding, privates obeying, rank, rank, rank everywhere throughout mankind, how could that fail to hinder democracy, which is in its essence the leveling of ranks? Tell me that!"
The doctor grinned at the Russian. "What about it, General? What do you think?"
The General answered slowly, with a small accent but in the wonderfully good English of an educated Russian. "I do not agree with the Sena-torr," he stated, and five heads turned to listen. There was a quality of large personality in the burr of the voice, in the poise and soldierly bearing, in the very silence of the man, which made his slow words of importance. "I believe indeed that the Sena-torr is partly--shall I say speaking for argument?"
The Senator laughed.
"The great war, in which all of us here had the honor to bear arms--that death grapple of tyranny against freedom--it did not hold back the cause of humanity, of democracy, that war. Else thousands upon thousands of good lives were given in vain."
There was a hushed moment. Each of the men, men now from fifty to sixty years old, had been a young soldier in that Homeric struggle. Each was caught back at the words of the Russian to a vision of terrible places, of thundering of great guns, of young, generous blood flowing like water. The deep, assured tones of the Russian spoke into the solemn pause.
"There is an episode of the war which I remember. It goes to show, so far as one incident may, where every hour was crowded with drama, how forces worked together for democracy. It is the story of a common man of my country who was a private in the army of your country, and who was lifted by an American gentleman to hope and opportunity, and, as God willed it, to honor. My old friend the Judge can tell that episode better than I. My active part in it was small. If you like"--the dark foreign eyes flashed about the group--"if you like I should much enjoy hearing my old friend review that little story of democracy."
There was a murmur of approval. One man spoke, a fighting parson he had been. "It argues democracy in itself, General, that a Russian aristocrat, the brother of a Duke, should remember so well the adventures of a common soldier."
The smouldering eyes of the Slav turned to the speaker and regarded him gravely. "I remember those adventures well," he answered.
The Judge, flung back in a corner of the davenport, his knees crossed and rings from his cigar ascending, stared at the ceiling, "Come along, Peter. You're due to entertain us," the Senator adjured him, and the Judge, staring upwards, began.
"This is the year 1947. It was in 1917 that the United States went into war--thirty years ago. The fifth of June, 1917, was set, as you remember, for the registration of all men in the country over twenty-one and under thirty-one for the draft. I was twenty-three, living in this house with my father and mother, both dead before the war ended. Being outside of the city, the polling place where I was due to register was three miles off, at Hiawatha. I registered in the morning; the polls were open from seven A.M. to nine P.M. My mother drove me over, and the road was being mended, and, as happened in those days in the country, half a mile of it was almost impassable. There were no adjustable lift-roads invented then. We got through the ruts and stonework, but it was hard going, and we came home by a detour through the city rather than pass again that beastly half mile. That night was dark and stormy, with rain at intervals, and as we sat in this room, reading, the three of us--" The Judge paused and gazed a moment at the faces in the lamplight, at the chairs where his guests sat. It was as if he called back to their old environment for a moment the two familiar figures which had belonged here, which had gone out of his life. "We sat in this room, the three of us," he repeated, "and the butler came in.
"'If you please, sir, there's a young man here who wants to register,' he said.
"'Wants to register!' my father threw at him. 'What do you mean?'
"We all went outside, and there we found not one, but five boys, Russians. There was a munitions plant a mile back of us and the lads worked there, and had wakened to the necessity of registering at the last moment, being new in the country and with little English. They had directions to go to the same polling place as mint, Hiawatha, but had gotten lost, and, seeing our lights, brought up here. Hiawatha, as I said, is three miles away. It was eight-thirty and the polls closed at nine. We brought the youngsters inside, and I dashed to the garage for the car and piled the delighted lads into it and drove them across.
"At least I tried to. But when we came to the bad half mile the car rebelled at going the bit twice in a day, and the motor stalled. There we were--eight-forty-five P.M.--polls due to close at nine--a year's imprisonment for five well-meaning boys for neglecting to register. I was in despair. Then suddenly one of the boys saw a small red light ahead, the tail light of an automobile. We ran along and found a big car standing in front of a house. As we got there, out from the car stepped a woman with a lantern, and as the light swung upward I saw that she was tall and fair and young and very lovely. She stopped as the six of us loomed out of the darkness. I knew that a professor from the University in town had taken this house for the summer, but I don't know the people or their name. It was no time to be shy. I gave my name and stated the case.
"The girl looked at me. 'I've seen you,' she said. 'I know you are Mr. McLane. I'll drive you across. One moment, till I tell my mother.'
"She was in the house and out again without wasting a second, and as she flashed into the car I heard a gasp, and I turned and saw in the glare of the headlights as they sprang on one of my Russians, a gigantic youngster of six feet four or so, standing with his cap off and his head bent, as he might have stood before a shrine, staring at the spot where the girl had disappeared into the car. Then the engine purred and my squad tumbled in.
"We made the polls on the tap of nine. Afterwards we drove back to my car and among us, with the lantern, we got the motor running again, the girl helping efficiently. The big fellow, when we told her good-night, astonished me by dropping on his knees and kissing the edge of her skirt. But I put it down to Slavic temperament and took it casually. I've learned since what Russian depth of feeling means--and tenacity of purpose. There was one more incident. When I finally drove the lads up to their village the big chap, who spoke rather good English when he spoke at all, which was seldom, invited me to have some beer. I was tired and wanted to get home, so I didn't. Then the young giant excavated in his pocket and brought out a dollar bill.
"'You get beer tomorrow.' And when I laughed and shoved it back he flushed. 'Excuse--Mr. Sir,' he said. 'I make mistake.' Suddenly he drew himself up--about to the treetops, it looked, for he was a huge, a magnificent lad. He tossed out his arm to me. 'Some day,' he stated dramatically, 'I do two things. Some day I give Mr. Sir somethings more than dollar--and he will take. And--some day I marry--Miss Angel!'
"You may believe I was staggered. But I simply stuck out my fist and shook his and said: 'Good. No reason on earth why a fellow with the right stuff shouldn't get anywhere. It's a free country.' And the giant drew his black brows together and remarked slowly: 'All countries--world--is to be free. War will sweep up kings--and other--rubbish. I--shall be--a man.'
"Besides his impressive build, the boy had--had--" the Judge glanced at the Russian General, whose eyes glowed at the fire. "The boy had a remarkable face. It was cut like a granite hill, in sweeping masses. All strength. His eyes were coals. I went home thoughtful, and the Russian boy's intense face was in my mind for days, and I told myself many times that he not only would be, but already was, a man.
"Events quickstepped after that. I got to France within the year, and, as you remember, work was ready. It was perhaps eighteen months after that registration day, June fifth, which we keep so rightly now as one of our sacred days, that one morning I was in a fight. Our artillery had demoralized the enemy at a point and sent them running. There was one machine gun left working in the Hun trenches--doing a lot of damage. Suddenly it jammed. I was commanding my company, and I saw the chance, but also I saw a horrid mess of barbed wire. So I just ran forward a bit and up to the wire and started clipping, while that machine gun stayed jammed. Out of the corner of an eye I could see men rushing towards it in the German trench, and I knew I had only a moment before they got it firing again. Then, as I leaped far forward to reach a bit of entanglement, my foot slipped in a puddle and as I sprawled I saw our uniform and a dead American boy's face under me, and I fell headlong in his blood over him and into a bunch of wire. And couldn't get up. The wire held like the devil. I got more tied up at every pull. And my clippers had fallen from my hand and landed out of reach.
"'It's good night for me,' I thought, and was aware of a sharp regret. To be killed because of a nasty bit of wire! I had wanted to do a lot of things yet. With that something leaped, and I saw clippers flashing close by. A big man was cutting me loose, dragging me out, setting me on my feet. Then the roar of an exploding shell; the man fell--fell into the wire from which he had just saved me. There was no time to consider that; somehow I was back and leading my men--and then we had the trenches.
"The rest of that day was confusion, but we won a mile of earthworks, and at night I remembered the incident of the wire and the man who rescued me. By a miracle I found him in the field hospital. His head was bandaged, for the bit of shell had scraped his cheek and jaw, but his eyes were safe, and something in the glance out of them was familiar. Yet I didn't know him till he drew me over and whispered painfully, for it hurt him to talk:
"'Yester--day I did--give Mr. Sir somethings more than dollar. And he did--take it.'
"Then I know the big young Russian of registration day who had tried to tip me. Bless him! I got him transferred to my command and--" the Judge hesitated a bit and glanced at his distinguished guest. One surmised embarrassment in telling the story of the General's humble compatriot.
The General rose to his feet and stood before the fire facing the handful of men. "I can continue this anecdote from the point that is more easily than my friend the Judge," spoke the General. "I was in the confidence of that countryman of mine. I know. It was so that after he had been thus slightly useful to my friend the Judge, who was the Captain McLane at that time--"
The Judge broke in with a shout of deep laughter worthy of a boy of eighteen. "He 'slightly obliged me by saving my life." The American, threw that into the Russian's smooth sentences. "I put that fact before the jury."
The four men listening laughed also, but the Russian held up a hand and went on gravely: "It was quite simple, that episode, and the man's pleasure. I knew him well. But what followed was not ordinary. The Captain McLane saw to it that the soldier had his chance. He became an officer. He went alive through the war, and at the end the Captain McLane made it possible that he should be educated. His career was a gift from the Captain McLane--from my friend the Judge to that man, who is now--" the finished sentence halted a mere second--"who is now a responsible person of Russia.
"And it is the incident of that sort, it is that incident itself which I know, which leads me to combat--" he turned with a deep bow--"the position of the Sena-torr that the great war did not make for democracy. Gentlemen, my compatriot was a peasant, a person of ignorance, yet with a desire of fulfilling his possibilities. He had been born in social chains and tied to most sordid life, beyond hope, in old Russia. To try to shake free he had gone to America. But it was that caldron of fire, the war, which freed him, which fused his life and the life of the Captain McLane, so different in opportunity, and burned from them all trivialities and put them, stark-naked of advantages and of drawbacks artificial, side by side, as two lives merely. It made them--brothers. One gave and the other took as brothers without thought of false pride. They came from the furnace men. Both. Which is democracy--a chance for a tree to grow, for a flame to burn, for a river to flow; a chance for a man to become a man and not rest a vegetable anchored to the earth as--Oh, God!--for many centuries the Russian mujiks have rested. It is that which I understand by democracy. Freedom of development for everything which wants to develop. It was the earthquake of war which broke chains, loosened dams, cleared the land for young forests. It was war which made Russia a republic, which threw down the kingships, which joined common men and princes as comrades. God bless that liberating war! God grant that never in all centuries may this poor planet have another! God save democracy--humanity! Does the Sena-torr yet believe that the great war retarded democracy?" The Russian's brilliant, smouldering eyes swept about, inquiring.
There was a hush in the peaceful, firelit, lamp-lit room. And with that, as of one impulse, led by the Senator, the five men broke into handclapping. Tears stood in eyes, faces were twisted with emotion; each of these men had seen what the thing was--war; each knew what a price humanity had paid for freedom. Out of the stirring of emotion, out of the visions of trenches and charges and blood and agony and heroism and unselfishness and steadfastness, the fighting parson, he who had bent, under fire, many a day over dying men who waited his voice to help them across the border--the parson led the little company from the intense moment to commonplace.
"You haven't quite finished the story, General. The boy promised to do two things. He did the first; he gave the Judge 'something more than a dollar,' and the Judge took it--his life. But he said also he was going to marry--what did he call her?--Miss Angel. How about that?"
The Russian General, standing on the hearthrug, appeared to draw himself up suddenly with an access of dignity, and the Judge's boyish big laugh broke into the silence, "Tell them, Michael," said the Judge. "You've gone so far with the fairy story that they have a right to know the crowning glory of it. Tell them."
And suddenly the men sitting about noticed with one accord what, listening to the General's voice, they had not thought about--that the Russian was uncommonly tall--six feet four perhaps; that his face was carved in sweeping lines like a granite hillside, and that an old, long scar stretched from the vivid eyes to the mouth. The men stared, startled with a sudden simultaneous thought. The Judge, watching, smiled. Slowly the General put his hand into the breast pocket of his evening coat; slowly he drew out a case of dark leather, tooled wonderfully, set with stones. He opened the case and looked down; the strong face changed as if a breeze and sunshine passed over a mountain. He glanced up at the men waiting.
"I am no Duke's brother," he said, smiling, suddenly radiant. "That is a mistake of the likeness of a name, which all the world makes. I am born a mujik of Russia. But you, sir," and he turned to the parson, "you wish an answer of 'Miss Angel,' as the big peasant boy called that lovely spirit, so far above him in that night, so far above him still, and yet, God be thanked, so close today! Yes? Then this is my answer." He held out the miniature set with jewels.