The Secret Door

JULY, 1921


LATE at night I stood outside the Tauride Palace in Petrograd, which had become the centre of the revolution. No one was admitted through the great gates without a pass. I sought a place about midway between the gates, and, when no one was looking, scrambled up, dropped over the railings, and ran through the bushes straight to the main porch. Here I soon met folk I knew — comrades of student days, revolutionists. What a spectacle within the palace, lately so still and dignified! Tired soldiers lay sleeping in heaps in every hall and corridor. The vaulted lobby, whence the Duma members had flitted silently, was packed almost to the roof with all manner of truck, baggage, arms, and ammunition. All night long, and the next, I labored with the revolutionists to turn the Tauride Palace into a revolutionary arsenal.

Thus began the revolution. And after? Everyone knows now how the hopes of freedom were blighted. Truly had Russia’s foe, Germany, who dispatched the ‘ proletarian ' dictator Lenin and his satellites to Russia, discovered the Achilles’ heel of the Russian revolution. Everyone now knows how the flowers of the revolution withered under the blast of the class war, and how Russia was replunged into starvation and serfdom. I will not dwell on those things. My story relates to the time when they were already cruel realities.


My reminiscences of the first year of Bolshevist administration are jumbled into a kaleidoscopic panorama of impressions gained while journeying from city to city, sometimes crouched in the corner of crowded box-cars, sometimes traveling in comfort, sometimes riding on the steps, and sometimes on the roofs or buffers. I was nominally in the service of the British Foreign Office; but the Anglo-Russian Commission (of which I was a member) having quit Russia, I attached myself to the American Y.M.C.A., doing relief work. A year after the revolution I found myself in the Eastern city of Samara, training a detachment of Boy Scouts. As the snows of winter melted, and the spring sunshine shed joy and cheerfulness around, I held my parades, and together with my American colleagues organized outings and sports.

Then one day, when in Moscow, I was handed an unexpected telegram — ‘urgent’ — from the British Foreign Office. ‘You are wanted at once in London,’ it ran. I set out for Archangel without delay. Thence by steamer and destroyer and tug to the Norwegian frontier; and so, round the North Cape to Bergen, with, finally, a zig-zag course across the North Sea, dodging submarines, to Scotland.

At Aberdeen the Control Officer had received orders to pass me through by the first train to London. At King’s Cross a car was waiting; and knowing neither my destination nor the cause of my recall, I was driven to a building in a side street in the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. ‘This way,’ said the chauffeur, leaving the car. The chauffeur had a face like a mask. We entered the building, and the elevator whisked us to the top floor, above which additional superstructures had been built for war emergency offices.

I had always associated rabbit-warrens with subterranean abodes; but here in this building I discovered a maze of rabbit-burrow-like passages, corridors, nooks, and alcoves, piled higgledypiggledy on the roof. Leaving the elevator, my guide led me up one flight of steps so narrow that a corpulent man would have stuck tight, then down a similar flight on the other side, under wooden archways so low that we had to stoop, round unexpected corners, and again up a flight of steps which brought us out on the roof. Crossing a short iron bridge, we entered another maze, until, just as I was beginning to feel dizzy, I was shown into a tiny room about ten feet square, where sat an officer in the uniform of a British colonel. The impassive chauffeur announced me and withdrew.

‘Good-afternoon, Mr. Dukes,’said the colonel, rising and greeting me with a warm hand-shake. ‘ I am glad to see you. You doubtless wonder that no explanation has been given you as to why you should return to England. Well, I have to inform you, confidentially, that it has been proposed to offer you a somewhat responsible post in the Secret Intelligence Service.'

I gasped. ‘ But,’I stammered, ‘ I have never— May I ask what it implies?’

‘Certainly,’ he replied. ‘We have reason to believe that Russia will not long continue to be open to foreigners. We wish someone to remain there, to keep us informed of the march of events.'

‘But,’I put in, ‘my present work? It is important, and if I drop it —'

‘We foresaw that objection,’replied the colonel, ‘and I must tell you that under war regulations we have the right to requisition your services if need be. You have been attached to the Foreign Office. This office also works in conjunction with the Foreign Office, which has been consulted on this question. Of course,’he added, bitingly, ‘if the risk or danger alarms you — ’

I forget what I said, but he did not continue.

‘Very well,’he proceeded, ‘consider the matter and return at four-thirty tomorrow. If you have no valid reasons for not accepting this post, we will consider you as in our service and I will tell you further details.’

He rang a bell. A young lady appeared and escorted me out, threading her way with what seemed to me marvelous dexterity through the maze of passages.

Burning with curiosity, and fascinated already by the mystery of this elevated labyrinth, I ventured a query to my young female guide. ‘What sort of establishment is this?’ I said.

I detected a twinkle in her eye. She shrugged her shoulders and, without replying, pressed the button for the elevator. ‘Good-afternoon,’ was all she said as I passed in.

Next day I found the colonel in a fair-sized apartment, with easy chairs, and walls hidden by bookcases. He seemed to take it for granted that I had nothing to say.

‘I will tell you briefly what we desire,’he said. ‘Then you may make any comments you wish, and I will take you up to interview — a — the Chief. Briefly, we want you to return to Soviet Russia and to send reports on the situation there. We wish to be accurately informed as to the attitude of every section of the community, the degree of support enjoyed by the Bolshevist government, the development and modification of its policy, what possibility there may be for an alteration of régime or for a counter-revolution, and what part Germany is playing. As to the means whereby you gain access to the country, under what cover you will live there, and how you will send out reports, we shall leave it to you, being best informed as to conditions, to make suggestions.’

He expounded his views on Russia, asking for my corroboration or correction, and also mentioned the names of a few English people I might come into contact with there. ‘I will see if—a —the Chief is ready,’ he said, finally, rising. ‘I will be back in a moment.’

The apartment appeared to be an office, but there were no papers on the desk. I rose and stared at the books on the bookshelves. My attention was arrested by an edition of Thackeray’s works in a decorative binding of what looked like green morocco. I used at one time to dabble in bookbinding, and am always interested in an artistically bound book. I took down Henry Esmond from the shelf. To my bewilderment the cover did not open, until, passing my finger accidentally along what I thought was the edge of the pages, the front cover suddenly flew open of itself, disclosing a box. In my astonishment I almost dropped the volume, and a sheet of paper slipped out and fell to the floor. I picked it up hastily and glanced at it. It was headed Kriegsministerium, Berlin, had the German Imperial arms imprinted on it, and was covered with minute handwriting in German. I had barely slipped it back into the box and replaced the volume on the shelf, when the colonel returned.

‘A — the — a — Chief is not in,’ he said, ‘but you may see him to-morrow. You are interested in books?’ he added, seeing me looking at the shelves. ‘ I collect them. That is an interesting old volume on Cardinal Richelieu, if you care to look at it. I picked it up in Charing Cross Road for a shilling.’

The volume mentioned was immediately above Henry Esmond. I took it down warily, expecting something uncommon to occur; but it was only a musty old volume in French, with torn leaves and soiled pages. I pretended to be interested.

‘There is not much else there worth looking at, I think,’ said the colonel casually. ‘Well, good-bye. Come in to-morrow.’

I returned again next day, after thinking overnight how I should get back to Russia — and deciding on nothing. My mind seemed to be a complete blank on the subject in hand, and I was entirely absorbed in the mysteries of the roof-labyrinth.

Again I was shown into the colonel’s sitting-room. My eyes fell instinctively on the bookshelf. The colonel was in a genial mood. ‘I see you like my collection,’ he said. ‘That, by the way, is a fine edition of Thackeray.’ I felt my heart leap. ‘It is the most luxurious binding I have ever yet found. Would you not like to look at it?’

I looked at the colonel very hard, but his face was a mask. My immediate conclusion was that he wished to initiate me into the secrets of the Department. I rose quickly and took down Henry Esmond, which was in exactly the same place as it had been the day before. To my utter confusion it opened quite naturally, and I found in my hands nothing more than an edition de luxe, printed on India paper and profusely illustrated! I stared, bewildered, at the shelf. There was no other Henry Esmond. Immediately over the vacant space stood the life of Cardinal Richelieu as it had stood yesterday. I replaced the volume, and, trying not to look disconcerted, turned to the colonel. His expression was quite impassive, even bored.

‘It is a beautiful edition,’ he repeated as if wearily. ‘Now, if you are ready, we will go and see — a — the Chief.’

Feeling very foolish, I stuttered assent and followed. As we proceeded through the maze of stairways and unexpected passages, which seemed to me like a miniature House of Usher, I caught glimpses of tree-tops, of the Embankment Gardens, the Thames, the Tower Bridge, and Westminster. From the suddenness with which the angle of view changed, I concluded that in reality we were simply gyrating in one very limited space; and when suddenly we entered a spacious study, — the sanctum of '— a — the Chief,’ — I had an irresistible feeling that we had moved only a few yards, and that this study was immediately above the colonel’s office.

It was a low, dark chamber at the extreme top of the building. The colonel knocked, entered, and stood at attention. Nervous and confused, I followed, painfully conscious that at that moment I could not have expressed a sane opinion on any subject under the sun. From the threshold the room seemed bathed in semi-obscurity. The writingdesk was so placed, with the window behind it, that on entering everything appeared only in silhouette. It was some seconds before I could clearly distinguish things. A row of half a dozen extending telephones stood at the left of a big desk littered with papers. On a side table were numerous maps and designs, with models of aeroplanes, submarines, and mechanical devices, while a row of bottles of various colors and a distilling outfit with a rack of test-tubes bore witness to chemical experiments and operations. These evidences of scientific investigation served only to intensify an already overpowering atmosphere of strangeness and mystery.

But it was not these things that engaged my attention as I stood nervously waiting. It was not the bottles or the machinery that attracted my gaze. My eyes fixed themselves on the figure at the writing-table. In the capacious swing desk-chair, his shoulders hunched, with his head supported on one hand, busily writing, there sat in his shirtsleeves —

Alas, no! Pardon me, reader, I was forgetting! There are still things I may not divulge. There are things that must still remain shrouded in secrecy. And one of them is—who was the figure in the swing desk-chair in the darkened room at the top of the rooflabyrinth near Trafalgar Square on this August day in 1918. I may not describe him, or mention even one of his twentyodd names. Suffice it to say that, aweinspired as I was at this first encounter, I soon learned to regard ‘ the Chief’ with feelings of the deepest personal regard and admiration. He was a British officer and an English gentleman of the finest stamp, absolutely fearless and gifted with unlimited resources of subtle ingenuity, and I count it one of the greatest privileges of ray life to have been brought within the circle of his acquaintanceship.

In silhouette I saw myself motioned to a chair. The Chief wrote for a moment, then suddenly turned, with the unexpected remark, ‘So I understand you want to go back to Soviet Russia, do you?’ — as if it had been my own suggestion.

The conversation was brief and precise. The words Archangel, Stockholm, Riga, Helsingfors, recurred frequently, and the names were mentioned of English people in those places and in Petrograd. It was finally decided that I alone should determine how and by what route I should regain access to Russia and how I should dispatch reports.

‘Don’t go and get killed,’ said the Chief in conclusion, smiling. ‘You will put him through the ciphers,’he added to the colonel, ‘and take him to the laboratory to learn the inks and all that.’

We left the Chief and arrived by a single flight of steps at the door of the colonel’s room. The colonel laughed. ‘You will find your way about in course of time,’ he said; ‘let us go to the laboratory at once.’

And here I draw a veil over the rooflabyrinth. Three weeks later I set out for Russia, into the unknown.


I resolved to make my first attempt at entry from the north, and traveled up to Archangel on a troopship of American soldiers, most of whom hailed from Detroit. But I found the difficulties at Archangel to be much greater than I had anticipated. It was 600 miles to Petrograd, and most of this distance would have to be done on foot through unknown moorland and forest. The roads were closely watched, and before my plans were ready, autumn storms broke and made the moors and marshes impassable. But at Archangel, realizing that to return to Russia as an Englishman was impossible, I let my beard grow and assumed an appearance entirely Russian.

Failing in Archangel, I traveled down to Helsingfors, to try my luck from the direction of Finland. Helsingfors, the capital of Finland, is a busy little city bristling with life and intrigue. At the time of which I am writing it was a sort of dumping-ground for every variety of conceivable and inconceivable rumor, slander, and scandal, repudiated elsewhere, but swallowed by the gullible scandal-mongers — especially German and ancien-régime Russian — who found in this city a haven of rest. Helsingfors was one of the unhealthiest spots in Europe. Whenever mischance brought me there, I lay low, avoided society, and made it a rule to tell everybody the direct contrary of my real intentions, even in trivial matters.

In Helsingfors I was introduced, at the British consulate, to an agent of the American Secret Service who had recently escaped from Russia. This gentleman gave me a letter to a Russian officer in Viborg, by name Melnikoff. The little town of Viborg, being the nearest place of importance to the Russian frontier, was a hornet’s nest of Russian refugees, counter-revolutionary conspirators, German agents, and Bolshevist spies — worse, if anything, than Helsingfors.

Disguised now as a middle-class commercial traveler, I journeyed on to Viborg, took a room at the same hotel at which I had been told that Melnikoff stayed, looked him up, and presented my note of introduction. I found Melnikoff to be a Russian naval officer of the finest stamp, and intuitively conceived an immediate liking for him. His real name, I discovered, was not Melnikoff, but in those parts many people had a variety of names to suit different occasions. My meeting with him was providential, for it appeared that he had worked with Captain Crombie, late British Naval Attaché at Petrograd. In September, 1918, Captain Crombie was murdered by the Bolsheviki at the British Embassy, and it was the threads of his shattered organization that I hoped to pick up upon arrival in Petrograd.

Melnikoff was slim, dark, short, and muscular, with stubbly hair and blue eyes. He was deeply religious, and was imbued with an intense hatred of the Bolsheviki — not without reason, since both his father and his mother had been brutally shot by them, and he himself had escaped only by a miracle. ‘The searchers came at night,’ so he told the story to me. ‘I had some papers referring to the insurrection at Yaroslavl, which my mother kept for me. The searchers demanded access to my mother’s room. My father barred the way, saying she was dressing. A sailor tried to push past, and my father angrily struck him aside. Suddenly a shot rang out, and my father fell dead on the threshold of ray mother’s bedroom. I was in the kitchen when the Reds came, and through the kitchen door I fired and killed two of them. A volley of shots was directed at me. I was wounded in the hand, and only just escaped by the back stairway. Two weeks later my mother was executed on account of the discovery of my papers.’

Melnikoff had but one sole object left in life —to avenge his parents’ blood. This was all he lived for. So far as Russia was concerned, he was frankly a monarchist; so I avoided talking politics with him. But we were friends from the moment we met, and I had the peculiar feeling that somewhere, long, long ago, we had met before, although I knew this was not so.

Melnikoff was overjoyed to learn of my desire to return to Soviet Russia. He undertook not only to make the arrangements with the Finnish frontier patrols for me to be put across the frontier at night, secretly, but also to precede me to Petrograd and make arrangements there for me to find shelter. Melnikoff gave me two addresses in Petrograd where I might find him — one of a hospital where he had formerly lived, and the other of a small café that still existed in a private flat unknown to the Bolshevist authorities.

Perhaps it was a pardonable sin in Melnikoff that he was a toper. We spent three days together in Viborg making plans for Petrograd, while Melnikoff drank up all my whiskey except a small medicine-bottle full, which I hid away. When he had satisfied himself that my stock was really exhausted, he announced himself ready to start. It was a Friday, and we arranged that I should follow two days later, on Sunday night, the twenty-fourth of November. Melnikoff wrote out a password on a slip of paper. ‘ Give that to the Finnish patrols,’ he said, ‘at the third house, the wooden one with the white porch, on the left of the frontier bridge.’

At six o’clock he went into his room, returning in a few minutes so transformed that I hardly recognized him. He wore a sort of seaman’s cap that came right down over his eyes. He had dirtied his face, and this, added to the three-days-old hirsute stubble on his chin, gave him a truly demoniacal appearance. He wore a shabby coat and trousers of a dark color, and a muffler was tied closely round his neck. He looked a perfect apache as he stowed away a big Colt revolver inside his trousers.

‘ Good-bye,’ he said simply, extending his hand; then stopped and added, ‘let us observe the good old Russian custom and sit down for a minute together.’

According to a beautiful custom that used to be observed in Russia in the olden days, friends sit down at the moment of parting, and maintain complete silence for a few instants, while each wishes the others a safe journey and prosperity. Melnikoff and I sat down opposite each other. With what fervor I wished him success on the dangerous journey he was undertaking for me!

We rose. ‘Good-bye,’ said Melnikoff again. He turned, crossed himself, and passed out of the room. On the threshold he looked back. ‘Sunday evening,’ he added, ‘without fail.’

I saw Melnikoff only once more after that, for a brief moment in Petrograd, under dramatic circumstances. But that comes later in my story.


I rose early next day, but there was not much for me to do. As it was Saturday, the Jewish booths in the usually busy little market-place were shut, and only the Finnish ones were open. Most articles of the costume I had decided on were already procured; but I made one or two slight additions on this day, and on Sunday morning, when the Jewish booths opened. My outfit consisted of a Russian shirt, black-leather breeches, black knee-boots, a shabby tunic, and an old leather cap with a fur brim and a little tassel on top, of the style worn by the Finns in the district north of Petrograd. With my shaggy black beard, which by now was quite profuse, and long unkempt hair dangling over my ears, I was a sight, indeed, and in England or America should doubtless have been regarded as a thoroughly undesirable alien.

On Sunday an officer friend of Melnikoff’s came to make sure that I was ready. I knew him by the Christian name and patronymic of Ivan Sergeievitch. He was a pleasant fellow, kind and considerate. Like many other refugees from Russia, he had no financial resources, and was trying to make a living for himself, his wife, and his children by smuggling Finnish money and butter into Petrograd, where both were sold at a high premium. Thus he was on good terms with the Finnish patrols, who also practised this trade and whose friendship he cultivated.

‘Have you any passport yet, Pavel Pavlovitch?’ Ivan Sergeievitch asked me.

‘No,’ I replied; ‘Melnikoff said the patrols would furnish me with one.’

‘ Yes, that is best,’ he said; ‘ they have the Bolshevist stamps. But we also collect the passports of all refugees from Petrograd, for they often come in handy. And if anything happens, remember you are a “speculator.” ’

All are stigmatized by the Bolsheviki as speculators who indulge in the private sale or purchase of foodstuffs or clothing. They suffer severely, but it is better to be a speculator than a spy.

When darkness fell, Ivan Sergeievitch accompanied me to the station and part of the way in the train, though we sat separately, so that it should not be seen that I was traveling with one who was known to be a Russian officer.

‘And remember, Pavel Pavlovitch,’ said Ivan Sergeievitch, ‘to go to my flat whenever you are in need. There is an old housekeeper there, who will admit you if you say I sent you. But do not let the house porter see you, — he is a Bolshevik, — and be careful the house committee do not know, for they will ask who is visiting the house.’

I was grateful for this offer, which turned out to be very valuable.

We boarded the train at Viborg and sat at opposite ends of the compartment, pretending not to know each other. When Ivan Sergeievitch got out at his destination, he cast one glance at me, but we made no sign of recognition. I sat huddled up gloomily in my corner, obsessed with the inevitable feeling that everybody was watching me. The very walls and seats seemed possessed of eyes. That man over there, did he not look at me — twice? And that woman, spying constantly (I thought) out of the corner of her eye! They would let me get as far as the frontier; then they would send word over to the Reds that I was coming. I shivered, and was ready to curse myself for my fool adventure. But there was no turning back! ‘Forsan et hœc olim meminisse juvabit,’ wrote Virgil. (I used to write that on my Latin books at school — I hated Latin.) ‘ Perhaps some day it will amuse you to remember these things.’ Cold comfort, though, in a scrape, and with your neck in a noose. Yet these escapades are amusing — afterward.

At last the train stopped at Rajajoki, the last station on the Finnish side of the frontier. It was a pitch-dark night, with no moon. It was still half a mile to the frontier. I made my way along the rails in the direction of Russia, and down to the wooden bridge over the little frontier river Sestro. Great hostility still existed between Finland and Soviet Russia. Skirmishes frequently occurred, and the frontier was guarded jealously by both sides. I looked curiously across at the gloomy buildings and the dull twinkling lights on the other bank. That was my Promised Land over there, but it was flowing, not with milk and honey, but with blood. The Finnish sentry stood at his post at the bar of the frontier bridge; and twenty paces away, on the other side, was the Red sentry. I left the bridge on my right, and turned to look for the house of the Finnish patrols to whom I had been directed.

Finding the iittic wooden villa with the while porch, I knocked timidly. The door opened, and I handed in the slip of paper on which Melnikoff had written the password. The Finn who opened the door examined the paper by the light of a greasy oil lamp, then held the lamp to my face, peered closely at me, and finally signaled to me to enter.

‘ Come in,’ he said. ‘ We were expecting you. How are you feeling?’

I did not tell him how I was really feeling, but replied cheerily that I was feeling splendid.

‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘You are lucky in having a dark night for it. A week ago one of our fellows was shot as we put him over the river. His body fell into the water and we have not yet fished it out.’

This, I suppose, was the Finnish way of cheering me up.

‘Has anyone been over since?’ I queried, affect ing a tone of indifference.

‘Only Melnikoff.’


The Finn shrugged his shoulders.

‘We put him across all right — a dalshe ne znayu [what happened to him after that, I don’t know].’

The Finn was a lean, cadaverouslooking fellow. He led me into a tiny eating-room, where three more Finns sat round a smoky oil lamp. The window was closely curtained and the room wars intolerably stuffy. The table was covered with a filthy cloth, on which a few broken lumps of black bread, some fish, and a samovar were placed. All four men were shabbily dressed and very rough in appearance. They spoke Russian well, but conversed in Finnish among themselves. One of them said something to the cadaverous man and appeared to be remonstrating with him for telling me of the accident that had happened to their colleague a week before. The cadaverous Finn answered him with some heat.

‘Melnikoff is a chuckle-headed scatterbrain,’ persisted the cadaverous man, who appeared to be the leader of the party. ‘We told him not to be such a fool as to go into Petrograd again. The Redskins are searching for him everywhere in Petrograd, and every detail of his appearance is known. But he would go. I suppose he loves to have his neck in a noose. With you, I suppose, it is different. Melnikoff says you are somebody important — but that’s none of our business. But the Redskins don’t like the English. If I were you, I would n’t go for anything. But it’s your affair, of course.’

We sat down to the loaves and fishes. The samovar was boiling, and while we swilled copious supplies of weak tea out of dirty glasses, the Finns retailed the latest news from Petrograd. The cost of bread, they said, had risen to about eight hundred or a thousand times its former price. People hacked dead horses to pieces in the streets. All the warm clothing had been taken and given to the Red Army. The Tchrezvichaika (the Extraordinary Commission) was arresting and shooting workmen as well as the educated people. Zinovieff threatened to exterminate all the bourgeoisie if any further attempt were made to molest the Soviet government. When the Jewish Commissar Uritzky was murdered, Zinoviev shot over five hundred of the bourgeoisie at a stroke, — nobles, professors, officers, journalists, teachers, men and women, — and a list was published of another five hundred who would be shot at the next attempt on a commissar’s life.

I listened patiently, regarding the bulk of these stories as the product of Finnish imagination. ‘You will be held up frequently to be examined,’ the cadaverous man warned me; ‘and do not carry parcels — they will be taken from you in the street.’

After supper, we sat down to discuss the plans of crossing. The cadaverous Finn took a pencil and paper and drew a rough sketch of the frontier.

‘We will put you over in a boat at the same place as Melnikoff,’ he said. ‘Here is the river, with woods on either bank. Here, about a mile up, is an open meadow on the Russian side. It is now eleven o’clock. About three we will go out quietly and follow the road that skirts the river on this side, till we get opposite the meadow. That is where you will cross.’

‘Why at the open spot?’ I queried, surprised. ‘Shall I not be seen there most easily of all? Why not put me across into the woods?’

‘Because the woods are patrolled, and the outposts change their place every night. We cannot follow their movements. Several people have tried to cross into the woods. A few succeeded, but most were either caught or had to fight their way back. But this meadow is a most unlikely place for anyone to cross, so the Redskins don’t watch it. Besides, being open, we can see if there is anyone on the other side. We will put you across just here,’ he said, indicating a narrow place in the stream at the middle of the meadow. ‘At these narrows the water runs faster, making a noise, so we are less likely to be heard. When you get over, run up the slope slightly to the left. There is a path that leads up to the road. Be careful of this cottage, though,’ he added, making a cross on the paper at the extreme northern end of the meadow. ‘The Red patrol lives in that cottage, but at three o’clock they will probably be asleep.’

There remained only the preparation of ‘documents of identification,’ which should serve as passport in Soviet Russia. Melnikoff had told me I might safely leave this matter to the Finns, who kept themselves well informed of the kind of papers it was best to carry, to allay the suspicions of Red Guards and Bolshevist police officials. We rose and passed into another of the three tiny rooms that the villa contained. It was a sort of office, with paper, ink, pens, and a typewriter on the table.

‘What name do you want to have?’ asked the cadaverous man.

‘Oh, any,’ I replied. ‘Better, perhaps, let it have a slightly non-Russian smack. My accent — ’

The cadaverous man thought for a moment. ‘Afirenko, Joseph Ilitch,’ he suggested; ‘that smacks of Ukrainia.’

I agreed. One of the men sat down to the typewriter and, carefully choosing a certain sort of paper, began to write. The cadaverous man went to a small cupboard, unlocked it, and took out a boxful of rubber stamps of various sizes and shapes, with black handles.

‘Soviet seals,’ he said, laughing at my amazement. ‘ We keep ourselves up to date, you see. Some of them were stolen, some we made ourselves, and this one — ’ he pressed it on a sheet of paper, leaving the imprint ‘ Commissar of the Frontier Station Bielo’ostrof’ — ‘we bought from over the river for a bottle of vodka.’ Bielo’ostrof was the Russian frontier village just across the stream.

I had had ample experience earlier in the year of the magical effect upon the rudimentary intelligence of Bolshevist authorities of official ‘documents,’ with prominent seals or stamps. Multitudinous stamped papers of any description were a great asset in traveling, but a big colored seal was a talisman that leveled all obstacles. The wording of the document, even the language in which it was written, was of secondary importance. A friend of mine once traveled from Petrograd to Moscow with no other passport than a receipted English tailor’s bill. This ‘document of identification’ had a big printed heading with the name of the tailor, some English postage-stamps attached, and a flourishing signature in red ink. He flaunted the document in the face of the officials, assuring them it was a diplomatic passport issued by the British Embassy!

This, however, was in the early days of Bolshevism. The Bolsheviki gradually removed illiterates from service, and in the course of time restrictions became very severe. But seals were as essential as ever.

When the Finn had finished writing, he pulled the paper out of the typewriter and handed it to me for perusal. In the top left-hand corner it had this heading:—

Extraordinary Commission of the Central Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Red Armymen’s Deputies.

Then followed the text: —


This is to certify that Joseph Ilitch Afirenko is in the service of the Extraordinary Commission of the Central Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Red Armymen’s Deputies, in the capacity of office clerk, as the accompanying signatures and seal attest.

‘In the service of the Extraordinary Commission?’ I gasped, taken aback by the amazing audacity of the thing.

‘ Why not ? ’ said the cadaverous man coolly; ‘what could be safer?’

I burst into laughter as I realized the grim humor of pretending to belong to the institution that employed all the paid hirelings of the Tsar’s secret police to suppress the last vestiges of the liberty of the revolution!

‘Now for the signatures and seal,’ said the Finn. ‘Tihonov and Friedmann used to sign these papers, though it does n’t mattermuch; it’s only the seal that counts.’

From some Soviet papers on the table he selected one with two signatures from which to copy. Choosing a suitable pen, he scrawled beneath the text of my passport, in an almost illegible slanting hand, ‘Tihonov.’ This was the signature of a proxy of the Extraordinary Commission. The paper must also be signed by a secretary, or his proxy. ‘Sign for your own secretary,’ said the Finn, laughing and pushing the paper to me. ‘Write upright this time, like this. Here is the original. Friedmann is the name.’

Glancing at the original, I made an irregular scrawl, resembling in some way the signature of the Bolshevist official.

‘Have you a photograph?’ asked the cadaverous man.

I gave him a photograph I had had taken at Viborg. Cutting it down small, he stuck it at the side of the paper. Then, taking a round rubber seal, he made two imprints over the photograph. The seal was a red one, with the same inscription inside the periphery that was printed at the head of the paper. The inner space of the seal consisted of the five-pointed Bolshevist star, with a mallet and a plough in the centre.

‘That is your certificate of service,’ said the Finn; ‘we will give you a second one of personal identification.’

Another paper was quickly printed off with the words, ‘The holder of this is the Soviet employee Joseph Ilitch Afirenko, aged 36 years.’ This paper was unnecessary in itself, but two ‘documents’ were always better than one.

It was now after midnight, and the leader of the Finnish patrol ordered us to lie down for a short rest. He threw himself on a couch in the eating-room. There were only two beds for the remaining four of us, and I lay down on one of them with one of the Finns. I tried to sleep, but could n’t. I thought of all sorts of things — of Russia in the past, of the life of adventure I had elected to lead for the present, of the morrow, of friends still in Petrograd who must not know of my return — if I got there. I was nervous, but the dejection that had overcome me in the train was gone. I saw the essential humor of my situation. The whole adventure was really one big exclamation mark. Forsan et hœc olim


The two hours of repose seemed interminable. I was afraid of three o’clock, and yet I wanted it to come quicker, to get it over. At last a shuffling noise approached from the neighboring room, and the cadaverous Finn prodded each of us with the butt end of his rifle. ‘Wake up,’ he whispered; ’we ’ll leave in a quarter of an hour. No noise. The people in the next cottage must n’t hear us.’

We were ready in a few minutes. My entire baggage was a small parcel that went into my pocket, containing a pair of socks, one or two handkerchiefs, and some dry biscuit. In my other pocket I had the medicine bottle of whiskey I had hidden from Melnikoff, and some bread.

One of the four Finns remained behind. The other three were to accompany me to the river. It was a raw and frosty November night, and pitch-dark. Nature was still as death. We issued silently from the house, the cadaverous man leading. One of the men followed behind, and all carried their rifles ready for use.

We walked stealthily along the road the Finn had pointed out to me on paper overnight, bending low where no trees sheltered us from the Russian bank. A few yards below, on the right, I heard the trickling of the river. We soon arrived at a ramshackle villa, standing on the river-bank, surrounded by trees and thickets. Here we stood stock-still for a moment, to listen for any unexpected sounds. The silence was absolute. But for the trickling of the river, there was not a rustle.

We descended to the water under cover of the tumble-down villa and the bushes. The stream was about twenty paces wide at this point. Along both banks there was an edging of ice. I looked across at the opposite side. It was open meadow, but the trees loomed darkly a hundred paces away on either hand and in the background. On the left I could just see the cottage of the Red patrol, against which the Finns had warned me.

The cadaverous man took up his station at a slight break in the thickets. A moment later he returned and announced that all was well. ‘Remember,’ he enjoined me once again, in an undertone, ‘run slightly to the left, but — keep an eye on that cottage.’

He made a sign to the other two, and from the bushes they dragged out a boat. Working noiselessly, they attached a long rope to the stern and laid a pole in it. Then they slid it down the bank into the water.

‘Get into the boat,’ whispered the leader, ‘and push yourself across with the pole. And good luck!’

I shook hands with my companions, pulled at my little bottle of whiskey, and got into the boat. I started pushing, but with the rope trailing behind, it was no easy task to punt the little bark straight across the running stream. I was sure I should be heard, and had in midstream the sort of feeling I should imagine a man has as he walks his last walk to the gallows. At length I was at the farther side, but it was quite impossible to hold the boat steady while I landed. In jumping ashore, I crashed through the thin layer of ice. I scrambled out and up the bank, and the boat was hastily pulled back to Finland behind me.

‘Run hard!’ I heard a low call from over the water behind me. D— it, the noise of my splash had reached the Red patrol! I was already running hard when I saw a light emerge from the cottage on the left. I forgot the injunctions as to direction, and simply bolted away from that lantern. Halfway across the sloping meadow I dropped and lay still. The light moved rapidly along the river bank. There was shouting, and then suddenly two shots; but there was no reply from the Finnish side. Then the light began to move slowly back toward the cottage of the Red patrol, and finally all was silent again.

I lay motionless for some time, then rose and proceeded cautiously. Having missed the right direction, I found that I had to negotiate another small stream that ran obliquely down the slope of the meadow. Being already wet, I did not suffer by wading through it. Then I reached some garden fences, over which I climbed,and found myself in the road.

Convincing myself that the road was deserted, I crossed it and came out on to the moors, where I found a halfbuilt house. Here I sat down to await the dawn — blessing the man who invented whiskey, for I was very cold. It began to snow, and, half-frozen, I got up to walk about and study the locality as well as I could in the dark. At the cross-roads near the station I discovered some soldiers sitting round a bivouac fire, so I retreated quickly to my half-built house and waited till it was light. Then I approached the station, with other passengers. At the gate a soldier was examining passports. I was not a little nervous when showing mine for the first time; but the examination was a very cursory one. The soldier seemed only to be assuring himself that the paper had a proper seal. He passed me through and I went to the ticket-office and demanded a ticket.

‘One first class to Petrograd,’ I said boldly.

‘There is no first class by this train, only second and third.’

‘No first? Then give me a second.’ I had asked the Finns what class I ought to travel, expecting them to say third. But they replied, first, of course, for it would be strange to see an employee of the Extraordinary Commission traveling other than first class. Third class was for workers and peasants.

The journey to Petrograd was about twenty-five miles, and, stopping at every station, the train took nearly two hours. As we approached the city, the coaches filled up, until people were standing in the aisles and on the platforms. There was a crush in the Finland station at which we arrived. The examination of papers was again merely cursory. I pushed out with the throng, and looking around me on the dirty rubbish-strewn station, I felt a curious mixture of relief and apprehension.

My life, I suddenly realized, had had an aim — it was to stand here on the threshold of the city that was my home, homeless, helpless, and friendless, one of the common crowd. That was it — one of the common crowd. I wanted, not the theories of theorists, or the doctrines of doctrinaires, but to see what the greatest social experiment the world has ever seen did for the common crowd. And, strangely buoyant, I stepped lightly out of the station into the familiar streets.