WE had a small enough room in an ordinary flat, its walls were covered with bookshelves and its furnishings looked very modest, but it was paradise to me. Still a cripple, for about a week I did little more than browse among the books. One evening Esther found me reading Mommsen’s Roman History, and she smiled.
‘I was afraid you had forgotten all your German.’
‘Not quite,’ but I shut the book almost guiltily. ‘All the same, this is a waste of time. I must start looking for a job — and at once.’
‘Your health is so badly undermined that manual labor is out of the question. Get your mind back — it’s the richest part of you. Return to the University. Liebchen, you must do it. Students get rations, you know. When will you go?’
‘This morning,’ I stammered.
I was afraid. My mind seemed a blunt and rusty blade. For more than three years I had neither read nor thought, and I wished I had not committed myself to an adventure as futile as it would be painful. None the less I reached the University, and at last came to a brief halt at the Chancery door. There a kindly old man welcomed me in a manner which somehow allayed my fear.
‘I joined the College in 1916,’ I mumbled.
He found my name in a ledger, and smiled.
‘Well, you needn’t have kept away all these years. We’ve carried on — in spite of everything. There are two alternatives for you. Either you come in and run the usual course for about three years, or else you could start with Mediæval History at once. The second alternative has this much against it—you’ll have to pass a stiff preliminary examination before any professor accepts you for the seminar work.’
I almost replied, ‘Of course, I must choose the easier way,’ when I remembered Esther and her strange faith in me. It was so extraordinary and flaming, and I felt that my own effort, whatever the outcome, should not be cheapened by anything even remotely suggesting a compromise. So I said, ‘Do I have to ask for an interview with the professor?’
‘Dr. Dobiash is in College now.’ He bent his gray head over the desk and wrote out a chit. When I was at the very door, he said quietly, ‘Best of luck to you.’
In a big study behind the cloisters, Dr. Dobiash — thin, grave, but kindly — talked Life rather than History. Within a few minutes my dread had gone.
‘Now I should like you to come in about three weeks.’ She bent her small, neat head over a notebook. ‘You can get all the books you want in the College Library. I should also like you to read this,’ she handed me a heavy German book, Eucken’s Weltanschauung im Mittelalter. ‘I want to see how your mind can handle a “heavy” book. The rest please use to refresh your general knowledge.’
She saw me out with an encouraging smile, but I went home with bitter ashes in my heart.
The three weeks began.
I worked among an avalanche of notes, and those grew more and more crabbed, illegible, and disjointed as each day slipped by. They were all written on blank temperature charts brought by Esther from her hospital. The muddle grew apace. Dynasties, battles, peace treaties, a maddening chaplet of dates and names, economic conditions, the shaping of boundaries, treaties again, racial developments — Roman, Frank, Barbarian, Arab, Norman. My mind, as I thought, was being rapidly filled with all kinds of historical lumber, none of which, I felt certain, would pass the examiner’s scrutiny, let alone win her approval.
The day came. Once at the University gate, Esther stopped and held out her hand. She would wait in the cloisters, she said. I nodded my head feebly. Somehow I found my way to a door at the end of the great courtyard.
‘How punctual you are! And what about some tea before we begin?’ invited Dr. Dobiash.
More than two hours later I limped towards the bench and Esther. She never asked a single question. She got up and spoke briskly: ‘Liebchen, never mind! You’ve made the effort. They’ll let you try again, sometime in the autumn, perhaps.’
‘But I’ve passed!’ I whispered.
‘We are running short of everything,’ was a familiar cry. ‘ It’s famine, famine everywhere. . . . Have you seen? Have you heard?’
‘No bread will be given out tins week,’ roared the manager of the local food store. ‘Here is dried fish — if you like.’
‘Students’ rations to be cut down by half from next week onwards,’ the notice on the Chancery door read.
‘We shall all be dead in the winter. Man must eat to be alive. Last night I saw . . .’
‘They are giving nothing but potatoes,’ said the prefect at our seminar. ‘It’s miles away, and only ten pounds per head, but I suggest you all go and fetch some.’
Potato peelings were saved and used for making funny flat cakes. Queer herbs were infused in fond pretense of tea. Grass in public gardens was gathered for soups. Somebody argued that bark could be edible. I saw several tattered women stripping the bark off the old trees in the Roumiantzeff Square on the Quay. They said that all our earlier experiences of hunger would be as nothing compared with the coming scourge. . . .
Sometime in 1921 a third university was opened — for the sole purpose of language study. By that time the government policy of isolation had already veered in a different direction. There was a great deal of fiery talk about winning the whole world over to the tenets of Communism. The Third University was to have five branches English, French, German, Italian, and Slavonic. All the lectures were to be given in the language of the branch.
Masses of students were enrolled, and a few college professors were ‘ invited ‘ to take their share in the work. They were to receive a modest enough salary, but the greatest inducement was the green ration cards. The green ration cards were a hungry dog’s juicy bone in those days. I heard that there remained a vacancy on the lecturing staff; they had nobody for English mediæval history and literature. I made cautiously impersonal inquiries. The appointment would mean four hours’ lecturing every week. They had already fixed the time-table, and I discovered that the hours would not overlap with my seminar work. I heard that a professor whom I knew slightly had been called to an important post at the Third. I went to see him.
‘You may know your history, but can you teach? And do you know literature? Come again in a week, and I’ll put you through your paces.’
I went home and brushed everything aside for more than a week. I practically lived at the old Imperial Library. I read some Stubbs and Maitland, an unnecessary number of chronicles, Langland and Chaucer. I returned, and the fussy little man gave me about half an hour.
‘That will do. Now, I have talked to the Rector. We have decided that a herring might be better than no fish at all. You are not even a herring yet — you are a miserable little shrimp. All the same, we are going to take your degree for granted and make you a member of the faculty. But you will have to win your spurs by giving a public lecture to the University. Would a month be enough for you to get ready?’
‘Yes — yes.’ I swallowed hard, and he measured me with a fierce look.
‘You’ll be expected to speak for about an hour. Don’t make it too thin in substance and don’t finish on a wellpadded cushion — they’ll make mincemeat of you if you do that. Now what about your subject?’
‘Fourteenth century,’ I said rather gropingly. ‘ People like Rolle . . .’
The month was over all too soon. I knew it would be a University lecture, but I had not quite expected the hall to be so vast or so crowded. My courage was shredded long before I climbed the few steps to the desk. My sheaf of notes seemed astonishingly thin, and, even as the Rector was reciting something in Latin, I realized that I had forgotten half of my notes. Suddenly I knew that the hall was waiting. I cleared my throat. I was not even Daniel in the den of lions, but a limpet among whales.
There were gaps, and there were awkward pauses. The remaining notes seemed too sketchy, yet I must use them — I dared not trust to my memory. I finished, and I knew the depths of failure in their silence. At last the Rector rose and addressed the hall. I could not gauge their reaction. The students kept still, and the faculty were well-bred men. In my presence — very coldly, without any enthusiasm — they voted for me. The Rector shook hands with me. I must stand up and thank them. I did so, in a shaking, small voice. Presently the hall must have become empty the platform was an uninhabited island except for my sponsor and myself.
‘You could not have done it worse,’ he said.
‘Why didn’t they vote against me?’
‘Well, there is nobody else to do the work. Your delivery was ghastly, but you seem to know your subject. I suppose we could not have expected more.’
So began my brief academic career. It started in the summer and ended the following November. Throughout those months I received the green cards, but not a penny of my salary. When I left it was still unpaid.
One Sunday afternoon Esther ran into my room. ‘The Americans are here! They’ve taken a big house on the Morskaya. It is the American Relief Administration — they’ve already begun calling it ARA for short. They’ll want interpreters.’
‘What spare time have I got?’ I said moodily.
But the Americans were there, and the air rang with endless stories about the Amerikanzi, the salaries they paid, and the food they gave. The house on the Morskaya was supposed to have a canteen where they fed their half-starved personnel twice a day. There were legends about freely given woolen stockings, shoes, and blankets. Every queue discussed the American theme, and even at the Third I heard about tins of condensed milk and flitches of bacon.
A few days later, Esther and I sat down to a supper of a rye rusk apiece. Our breakfast had been the same, and the midday meal had consisted of a halved wobla. The next morning I went to see my professor. She suggested that I might look on any job I could get with the ARA as something like a cure. ‘It need not necessarily take the whole of your time. After all, a brain must have food.’ That afternoon I went to the Morskaya.
I found the place seething with men and women, all busy, hurrying, unconcerned. I edged my way to a counter, and a tall man asked me what I wanted. I very nearly blurted out, ‘Why, food, of course,’ but I managed to control myself and said I wondered whether they had any vacancies for interpreters. ‘Upstairs, first door on the right, ask for Mr. Saunders,’ and he was gone like lightning.
I found Mr. Saunders. The room was so warm that it made me feel dizzy. ‘ I’ve come to —’ I said, and he pressed the bell. A girl came. He spoke to her. I could not hear much. A minute later I found myself in the canteen. Almost unaware, I drank hot soup and ate white bread. Condensed cream, lavishly poured over the pudding, made me cry.
In the room upstairs they told me they wanted no interpreters in Petrograd. Their Moscow office, however, was badly understaffed. The question was shot at me like a bullet: When could I start?
‘Tonight, if I were free.’
I explained about the Third. Mr. Saunders telephoned, and soon a reedy, sandy-haired tovarisch came into the room from the other wing of the building. Speaking in execrable English, he said the Third people could be ‘ squared up in a jiff and no mistake.’ All those professors and people had to do what they were told. I was mobilized by the ARA, and that clinched the matter for everybody.
A paper was given me, and I signed it. They talked about salary, expenses, and an immediate food draft. In less than an hour I got home, a little boy behind me pushing a sleigh laden with sugar, flour, condensed milk, salt, cocoa, bacon, and corned beef. The thought brought comfort: whatever happened, Esther would not be hungry for some weeks. . . .
On reaching Moscow, I tramped towards the ARA headquarters. In a tidy office the officer in charge greeted me genially, but he looked perplexed. He was not sure if I should be needed, but even if they wanted me they could not house me anywhere in Moscow: conditions were far worse than in Petrograd and that was saying a lot. He was obviously puzzled, not knowing what to do with me. But at last he remembered that the committee room was unoccupied. It was very big, and there was a sofa of sorts in a corner.
I spent my first night in Moscow under layers of thick blankets, brought by an ARA orderly. None the less, I got up frozen to the marrow of my bones. A jug, half filled with water, had been left on the table. The water was ice.
But apparently they needed someone in Moscow, and I stayed on. The committee room gave me shelter for a few more nights, and then I got a room in a flat not far from the Headquarters. My task was mainly distribution of food, medicine, and clothes. Food was doled out in poorer districts, and its distribution required a certain amount of red tape. Supplies were limited. Yet, all the formalities notwithstanding, there were some cases of flagrant dishonesty, and some people managed to get much more than their share. By some mysterious means Amerikanskye sugar, bacon, and corned beef crept into the Moscow markets. Formalities were almost doubled, but no measure could prevent a certain trading in condensed milk and cocoa.
The city was a revelation. The first impression of that desolate station and forlorn streets was soon to be dispelled. If Petrograd was more or less a derelict churchyard, with her closed shops, her absence of traffic and markets, her charred ruins and nightly blackness, then Moscow was very much like a fair in full swing. I trudged along the Tverskaya Street and the Kuznetzky Bridge, silent and astonished, remarking the innumerable shops, stocked with food, tobacco, footwear, clothes, and even furniture. True, prices were prohibitive, except for foreigners and speculators, but things could be bought, and even my own slender exchequer occasionally permitted the purchase of a bun or a packet of German cigarettes. At night the streets were flooded with light, and wherever you went you heard scraps of foreign speech.
Yet, in spite of the glitter, the traffic, the laden shops, and the spectacular sights, Moscow was far grimmer than Petrograd had ever been, even in the very depths of her silent dereliction. Moscow was the centre of the Government. Armored cars slid up and down the streets. Heavily armed sentries paced to and fro in their appointed places. Moscow was indeed alive, but her life was fever, dread, and also fatigue. Moscow was like a blinded old woman placed in front of a picture and ordered to admire it volubly and endlessly.
So we distributed cotton wool and corned beef, saw tragedies every day, lived our own small-scale lives in what then seemed undreamt-of luxury; but famine with its host of familiars — plague, typhus, and worse — danced its own measure at no great distance from Moscow. In fact, often enough the grim steps echoed down the closed-in alleys off the boulevards, and forgotten people died a slow and lonely death before the kindly hands of rescuers could be stretched out to save them.
I had been with the ARA no more than a month when I found myself switched off in a different direction. The ARA was not alone in the relief field; several other bodies had come both from the United States and from England, and the British Relief Mission was among them. Dr. Farrar came with it, and he found that he could not do much without an interpreter. The ARA lent, me to him. With Dr. Farrar work became interesting. Typhus and plague were then raging in the famine areas. Dr. Farrar started studying conditions in outlying hospitals, and I followed him on those excursions.
Was it a fortnight or three weeks? One morning Dr. Farrar had a headache. Two days later he was dead. The ARA suggested I had better return to Petrograd, but I could not get my permit for several weeks. I filled in the gap by doing odd secretarial jobs at the British Trade Mission.
When the permit came, I went back to Petrograd. After Moscow it seemed a paradise. None the less the twin monsters, famine and typhus, were very much there. I got back in January 1922, returned to my own college for the seminar studies, and also worked for the ARA on the Morskaya Street. One morning I got up with a headache. I went to the ARA, and they sent me home. Our flat was not too far away. Somehow I managed to get home, hoist myself up the stairs, open the door, and tumble into bed.
A louse must have bitten me somewhere. They suggested to Esther that she should send me off to one of the typhus hospitals. Had she agreed, I might not have come out. People died like flies in those hospitals. There were not enough doctors, and the supply of medicines was negligible.
For three weeks I was unconscious. When this was over, I wondered whether my body was made of spun glass; at the least movement the glass seemed to break with an exquisite pain.
I recovered — and in time to wind up my year at the University.
What a littered year! The finals began in June, and I passed them, but I can’t remember much about them. Then I settled down to Kolpino and to my thesis, when my cough, which had never left me since my illness, began keeping everybody awake at night. Esther remembered that a good German doctor saw people at a hospital where she had worked. I went there early one morning. After about twenty minutes he put down his stethoscope and said kindly, 4 Would you like me to send you to the Health Commission?’
‘Is anything the matter?’
4 Well, they might find you eligible for something like a year in some sanatorium in the Crimea — I don’t think another winter here would do you much good. The South might put it right.’
‘Put what right?’
‘Your left lung is not all it should be.’
A fortnight later a brief chit from the Health Commission summoned me to go there the next morning. After preliminary examinations they received me in a large sunny room. They said I had tuberculosis in the left lung, and they thought they would have a year’s vacancy in a sanatorium not far from Alupka in the Crimea. The chairman added, ‘In such case you would be expected to go at the end of August.’
‘My degree,’ I faltered, and he smiled not unkindly.
4 A degree would not be of much use to a corpse. But we are not forcing you to go. Take a week over it and let us know, will you?’
Still I could not decide. Even with my thesis finished, I should have hard work to keep abreast of the seminar studies. There would be little privacy at the sanatorium. I had heard enough about conditions there: oranges and sun and plenty of milk . . . but I wanted books and a room to myself. At last Esther put an end to all my hesitation.
‘Either you leave for the Crimea or I apply for a nursing job in the country. Imagine what next winter will be like! And you coughed blood the other day.’
I duly applied for the vacancy at the sanatorium. But that same day I returned to find a visitor, a girl from the Third, who rushed towards me with the day’s great news: —
‘They have started issuing foreign passports. I hope to get to Berlin in the autumn. Isn’t it a miracle?’
‘Is it?’ I asked almost indifferently.
But that night I took out a letter I had received some time before from an aunt in Italy and read the postscript: ‘ Veux-tu venir ici chez moi?'
I realized that I had never answered her. Stamps were at a premium, and moreover there had not been anything to say.
From several unofficial sources I gathered the information which I needed. Such a lot had to be done before a foreign passport could be issued that my heart quailed at the idea.
The first stage meant going to the Smolny, the Petrograd offshoot of the Central Executive Council in Moscow. There I must ask for the preliminary application form — not for the passport itself, but for permission to apply for the passport. This application would go to the Cheka. The Cheka alone would decide whether I was eligible for the passport.
The application was sent early in June. We waited. We went on waiting till the middle of August. I was supposed to be leaving for the Crimea on the nineteenth, and I burned my bridges by telling the Health Commission that I had changed my mind. We waited and waited.
The Smolny people sat there in their awful and distant glory. They had received the application, but if I wanted to know the answer I must visit the Smolny. It lay roughly about four miles from my home. Twice a week I trudged there, always starting in the early morning, a book under my arm.
One week followed another, until I felt it would be better to keep away from the Smolny. But it was August, the college was closed, my thesis nearly finished, and desultory reading seemed barren of all profit. I let a week go by. Then I decided to go again, but I had started late, and the lists of those granted permits were already out when I got into the dismal room. A group of men and women stood scanning the names, and from the doorway I heard someone’s peevish voice: —
‘I can’t read this one, Pavel. Something foreign, isn’t it? Al — Alme — never mind, it’s not ours. And now I have dropped my spectacles. Let’s find them and go home. Oh goodness, will our names ever be out?’ Someone, but surely not myself, crossed the room and received the permit for the application.
Upstairs a man clerk, quiet, timid, but friendly, offered me a chair by the desk. Patiently and at great length he explained the further procedure. I grasped that an application for a foreign passport had to be accompanied by all my personal documents, four photographs, and a set of fingerprints. I must also get two ‘responsible citizens’ of some recognized public position to be my guarantors. They would have to sign various documents to vouch for my political impeccability. More signatures, more photographs, more everything else. . . .
The gathering of that documentary harvest took about a week. At last, armed with a bulky dossier, I returned to the Smolny. In Room 89 a second application form was handed to me. I took a rusty pen and wrote along the dotted line that I wished to leave for Italy on six months’ sick leave.
‘How long do I have to wait now?’ — and for the scowl the clerk gave me I might have inquired about an earthquake or a murder.
‘Am I an almighty commissar to answer such questions? The papers are now going to Moscow, and we have nothing more to do with them.’
An Englishman who had come to Petrograd to work at a shipping office offered his services as postman, and my letters to Italy now went through Finland and Denmark. I wrote asking my aunt whether she could arrange an Italian visa. Wisely enough, she left the question unanswered in her own letter, but my friends at the British Mission in Moscow soon wrote to say that a visa was awaiting me at the Italian Legation.
Yet a visa was useless without a passport, and the Kremlin remained silent. Again I started dreary journeys to the Smolny, but the wheels of the Foreign Commissariat ground very slowly. The tired, impatient clerks kept telling me they had nothing to report. Finally a clerk suggested that if I really wished to speed things up in Moscow I might go there myself and see if something might not be done on the spot.
The very next day I was fortunate to get a ticket for the night express to Moscow. I laid siege to the office of the Assistant Foreign Commissar, armed with an introduction from the Head of the British Trade Mission. That letter proved to be the trump card, which got me past clerks and secretaries into the inner sanctuary.
I was ushered into a small, modestly furnished room. Behind the desk a little bearded man got up with a surprising bow. A chair was pushed forward. I handed the letter to the Assistant Commissar. He read it slowly once, twice. He leaned forward and gave me a peculiar, searching look.
‘You are not a British subject?’ he asked in passably good English.
‘Then why this? ‘ He tapped the letter with a well-shaped, well-manicured forefinger.
‘Well, I am known there. My mother was British before her marriage. We’ve always had links with the British. Also I worked at the Trade Mission last winter.’
‘I see.’ He studied the letter again. ‘You worked there! What exactly was your work?’
‘I — just typed — odds and ends of things. I can’t really remember.’
‘Wouldn’t you like to go back there later on?’
‘Go back? Well, no, I don’t think so. I’ve got my University work. It’s history.’
‘Tell me — did you ever have to type anything about the Ukraine — or the economic conditions here — or the Far East, for example?’
I blinked. I swallowed hard. Then I laughed.
‘I am sorry, Comrade Assistant Commissar, but I am afraid you are under the impression that I was someone’s confidential secretary there. I was nothing of the sort — only a very ordinary and incompetent typist — and that for no longer than a few weeks.’
‘Quite’ — he smiled again as though my reply had been a reassuring one, and studied the letter for a third time. ‘I see that you want to go to Italy for six months’ sick leave. Well, there is no reason why you shouldn’t go. We are always ready to do anything for our British friends.’ He folded away the letter and added, speaking with an emphasis it would have been impossible to misunderstand, ‘If, on your return, you find that your college work is not —er — remunerative enough — you will remember to come back and see me here, you understand? Foreign languages are a far more important asset than you seem to realize.’
‘It is most kind of you, Comrade Assistant Commissar,’ I replied, my face wooden.
He pressed the button, and the secretary came in.
‘Citizen Almedingen’s papers,’ he said curtly. ‘Ah, you have brought them. Nothing has been done so far? Have a foreign passport made out at once.’
He rose and shook hands with me. In less than half an hour I left the great building, the foreign passport in my hands.
The same night I traveled back to Petrograd. According to the instructions received in Moscow, I handed my passport to the local Cheka headquarters for ‘a final inquiry,’ and then I went to book my berth for Stettin. I was not quite certain about the date of my departure. I had a vague idea that it would be ten days or a fortnight. But at the shipping office the Norwegian clerk handed me the ticket and smiled: ‘Leaving on the twenty-fourth!’
Three days only! They were crowded. I went to the University. I heard from the clerk at the Chancery that my thesis would be safe. ‘They have given you a degree at the Third. Probably the faculty felt that they could not go on having an un-degreed member in their ranks.’
Those three days fled like arrows. I knew that, in spite of the six months’ sick leave, I should never come back again. A host of friends at college and elsewhere had to be seen. A crowd of apparently trivial things demanded to be done. My packing was, necessarily, a sketchy affair, since too much luggage would have aroused suspicion. The nights seemed endless; excitement made sleep nearly impossible. I had to take refuge in trivial things — for there was Esther.
We had been close friends for little more than two years, yet we were bound together by links which could not be sundered. I owed my very sanity to her, and I could leave her nothing except a little money, the old fur coat, and a few odds and ends. I was leaving her - to what? She promised again and again to get out as soon as she had got me off her hands. She talked about her sister in Sweden.
But even in 1925 her letters still reached me from Russia. They were very brief. She had never talked much about herself, and in her correspondence I found the same dearth of personal details. I knew she could not be candid because of very rigid censorship, but I wrote time and again, begging her for a crumb of news. Towards the end of 1925, when she had not written for some months, I had a letter from a college friend, who mentioned Esther and added that her position was ‘desperate.’ Apparently, because of her muddled national status (she was born in old Kurland, now Latvia), she had not been able to go anywhere. I wrote again and again, but there was no reply. Owing to my virtual escape, the official channels of possible information were closed to me. Unofficially I continued trying to trace her for several years, and every fresh inquiry ended in a cul-de-sac. She had left the house on the Moyka: nobody knew more than that.
‘I’ll be all right,’ she kept saying to me during those three days. ‘There is no question about it — it is your duty to go. You nearly died last winter — if you but knew it. You just must not worry about me.’ All the same, I worried, and, had it not been for her own iron reserve, I suppose I should have gone to pieces during those last days.
All too soon, the moment arrived. I walked by Esther’s side down the English Quay and across the Nicholas Bridge. We came to the pier. The wind had dropped, and the September evening was warm. There were about, two hundred of us going off. We all huddled on the quay, sitting on our luggage and trying not to worry too much about our passports.
The few friends who had come to see me off left, and I was not sorry to see them go. Every minute, as I knew well, might be the last one. There were a million things I wanted to say to Esther, and none could be said. We just sat and shivered, because the night, was getting colder, and she talked about everything under the sun — except herself.
My own turn with the Cheka official came somewhere between three and four in the morning. I was one of the very last to be called in. When my crudely mispronounced name rang from the doorway, we both jumped to our feet. Esther handed me the suitcase. She would have no further chance of seeing me. We had only a few seconds left. We could not kiss. We shook hands, and she said, ‘ Gott sei mit dir, Liebchen.’
I stood still, my hand clutching her cold fingers, but once again my name was called, and I hurried forward. Suitcase in hand, I entered the shed and faced the long low table, where five men and three women sat and watched me in silence. The table was littered with papers. They were all smoking, and the air was thick with the acrid smell of very strong tobacco. There were a few thick candles stuck into empty beer bottles. I came nearer the table, and the last act of the five years began with a simple enough question: —
‘Where are you going?’
‘By what route?’
‘By sea to Stettin — then overland through Austria to Rome.’
‘What address are you going to in Rome?’ I gave it to them.
They glanced at the papers before them, there followed a brief pause, and then the chairman shot another question : —
‘When are you going to resume your lectures at the University?’
‘On my return.’ Here I noticed that at one end of the table a woman was busily scribbling down my replies.
‘Are you going to engage in any political work in Italy?’
‘I am a scholar. My subject is history. I don’t meddle with politics.’
‘The British helped you get this passport in Moscow, didn’t they?’
‘They gave me a letter of introduction to the Assistant Foreign Commissar. He helped me get this passport without delay.’
‘ What made you go to the British for help?’
‘I had worked for them before. At the Commissariat they told me I might have to wait a year for a passport. My health is none too good, and I could not stand another winter here.’
‘Because of the economic conditions in this country?’
The question was asked quietly, but in spite of fatigue I saw the trap and tried to avoid it by replying, ‘Certainly not. Because of the state of my health.’
‘We see that the Health Commission had accepted you as a candidate for a year’s stay at a sanatorium in the Crimea. You were due to leave in August. What made you change your mind ? ‘
This was a question I had not expected. I dug my hands deep into the pockets of my coat and said that I thought the Italian climate would be more certain than the Crimean.
‘Why aren’t you going to England?’
‘Partly because of the climate. Also because my only relative lives in Rome.
‘She is a woman of title?’
‘She married a man of title.’
‘Do you share her political and social views?’
‘ I have not yet met her. I don’t know what her views are.’
‘You understand that you have promised loyalty to your own government?’
‘I am bound to — holding this passport,’ I said, remembering my secret decision to tear up the passport immediately on crossing the Italian frontier.
They stopped looking at me and began whispering among themselves. I imagined it was over. But the chairman picked up a scribbled sheet of paper. I heard him say, ‘Where are you going?’
‘By what route?’
We had got to the middle of that infernal questionnaire when I knew my head was beginning to swim. I could see a blur for the table, and the few candles became so many spots of swaying light. I wondered if they ever meant me to have my foreign passport. I thought vehemently, and an automaton’s mouth moved steadily enough.
‘ Partly because of the climate. . . .
‘She married a man of title. . . .
‘I have not yet met her. I don’t know what her views are. . . .’
At that moment something I could not account for whipped my more than shredded energy to a new life. My voice rang loudly enough when I replied for a third time, ‘I am a scholar. My subject is history. I don’t meddle with politics.’
They exchanged glances and whispered comments. A woman shrugged. The chairman said gruffly, ‘ That will do. Sign here for your passport.’
In about ten minutes they had examined the contents of my suitcase, had me searched for documents and foreign money, and then, swaying a little, I found myself groping up the gangway. An officer piloted me to the dining saloon. ‘Yes, it is all safe. All is behind you now. Good, is it not?’
I could only smile. Adequate words would not come for several years, and when they came they rang an unexpected note: they could express little else than very broken thanks for all those yesterdays, full of horror and of splendor also, now laid aside and yet still living; for an experience which came and left a truth graven on the consciousness. That truth, however, could not be told in my own words. Saint Paul’s must be borrowed for it: ‘For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.’