by GODFREY BLUNDEN
THE women were scrubbing the floor of the cabin with hot water and birch leaves. The air was aromatic with steam and the smell of birch and resin. The pinewood floor and the newly trimmed log walls were white and the brown knots shone. The women scrubbed the walls and the tables and the chairs, talking and laughing as they worked. Colonel Kuperin came in and looked at the floor and then went out. As he went out he smacked old Masha on the backside where she was bending. Masha pretended to be enraged. But all the other women laughed.
When the cabin was fresh and clean the women went to the kitchen, where they began to prepare the food that had come in large cases from Archangel. They were excited when they saw the food: there were butter, cheese, sugar, tea, potatoes, pork fat, pickled cucumbers, herrings, caviar, and other delicacies. It was a long time since they had seen such food. Katya, who came from Leningrad, said it was a scandal to have so much food for foreigners, but Ludmilla said Katya did not have enough education to understand how important it was. Everybody said Ludmilla was right. Old Masha said they were Germans, but Ludmilla, who knew more about these things, said they were English.
The women made large dishes of salad; they put on a big borscht; and they laid out the herrings and the butter and the cheese. The soldier Mitka brought in the vodka. Some of the vodka was Moskva Vodka in light-green bottles, but most of it came in cans that had been used to bring gasoline out to the airstrip. There were new glasses too, and plates and cutlery, all packed in straw. All from the Intourist hotel at Archangel. That rascal Mitka kept idling about the kitchen door until old Masha told him to be off, but Mitka just grinned. Varna told him to bring more wood for the stove and Mitka worked hard and soon the cabin was as warm as a bakery. Colonel Kuperin came in again to see how the food was, sampling the pork fat and the herring.
Old Masha pretended to be angry with him for disturbing her beautiful dishes, but all the time anyone could see she was melting for the young Colonel. And it was true Colonel Kuperin was handsome, tall and straight, and dark, and proud; and the uniform of the Red Air Force became him, showing off the broad muscular shoulders and the narrow hips, the easy confident carriage. The appearance of Colonel Kuperin had awakened old, almost forgotten memories in Masha, memories of the former people; she had begun to feel for him, in his pride and his solitariness, as though he were her own son; and under the spell of this feeling the evening before, as on many previous evenings, she had spent an hour polishing his boots.
Now Colonel Kuperin looked at all the women sternly and then he bent down behind old Masha and whispered something in her ear. He gave her a big noisy kiss on the cheek, and pinched her, and walked out quickly. Old Masha became dreadfully angry and made as though to chase him away, and then when all the women were laughing she put her old skirt to her eyes and wept two big tears. Varna called her a fool and soon they were all talking and laughing once more.
The sun was beginning to show and soon the foreigners would be coming. Old Masha said she could remember great parties like this when she was a little girl in St. Petersburg; but Ludmilla told her it was different now because it was for the Soviets. Later Captain Seduk came in to examine the arrangements, and Ludmilla went with him to view the room where the table was set for the banquet. Captain Seduk was the political officer of the regiment and a very serious man of the Party. He was not popular with the women. They were all silent when he was about, except Ludmilla. Ludmilla helped Captain Seduk hang the big portrait at the end of the room behind the chair where Colonel Kuperin, the regimental commander, would sit.
Everything was now ready and Captain Seduk went across to the men’s huts to inspect the four pilots who had been chosen to banquet with the foreigners. In the huts the four who were to sit at the table were polishing their medals. Kolya, who did not belong to this regiment, but who had been brought over especially for the occasion, was strutting about like a fighting cock. For almost an hour he had been posing in front of a fragment of mirror, putting his cap this way and that, arranging the quiff of chestnut hair to come out from under the peak of the cap, combing it with a short piece of comb, looking at the mirror sternly and then smiling, turning his smile this way and that, showing his big stainless steel teeth. Ivan, Nikolai, and Alexi caught the spirit of the thing and all four were dancing and cavorting about the hut when Captain Seduk came in. Then they became like statues and gave Captain Seduk a tremendous salute.
The Soviet pilots Ivan, Nikolai, and Alexi were in great awe of Captain Seduk because he conducted the wall newspaper and knew almost everything. They were very serious with him, but this Kolya who came from another regiment grinned at Captain Seduk and looked knowing, as though he and Captain Seduk were accomplices. But Captain Seduk looked at Kolya with an expression of utter coldness and Kolya froze. After this, Captain Seduk went to the small frame hangar where the aircraft were sheltered from the snow. The hangar was a couple of hundred meters from the huts, and the snow was packed up around it so that it was indistinguishable from the glittering white landscape now touched with the blue and purple shadows of the arctic morning. In the hangar two mechanics were tuning up an engine. On the frozen lake which they used for a runway a small white plane was taxiing in. Captain Seduk waited for the pilot and told him the plane must be put out of sight in the hangar. The pilot saluted — then, looking at the sky, said all the airplanes would be grounded anyhow. Captain Seduk noticed that it was warmer, but he knew nothing about flying. He walked back to the cabin and found that the foreigners were already there.
THERE were four foreigners. They were taking off their coats and caps and mittens and overshoes in the small hallway and they were going to the stove and laying their hands and feet on the white tiles. Accompanying the foreigners were two from Moscow in the uniforms of colonels of the Red Army. As the foreigners and the two from Moscow entered the banquet room the four Soviet pilots, Kolya, Ivan, Nikolai, and Alexi, and Colonel Kuperin, the regimental commander, snapped stiffly to attention and, as one man, cried, “Welcome!” Captain Seduk, watching the two from Moscow in the uniforms of Red Army colonels, was satisfied with the effect, but the foreigners were startled.
Everybody was shaking hands with everybody else, smiling broadly and pumping hands vigorously. The women, peering from the kitchen doorway, passed word back that one of the foreigners spoke the language, but so funnily they were paralyzed with laughter. It was the old one with the pink face, white hair, and drooping silver mustache. Masha, looking over Varna’s shoulder, was suddenly overwhelmed with recollection. It is a Baron! Yes, it is certainly a Baron. There is a Baron with white hair. She had almost forgotten the word and the kind of face that suggested the word. She saw that the Baron wore a brown uniform like the Magyars. Ludmilla said he was not a Magyar but an English. Ludmilla said he was the interpreter of the English Army. His duty, she said, was to govern the expression of the other foreigners. But naturally he was the Angleski En-kay-vay-day. Certainly all interpreters were of one En-kay-vay-day or another.
Masha was skeptical, as always, of Ludmilla’s explanations, and muttered that the other three foreigners were in the blue-gray German uniform. One of them had the pale-blue eyes and the big red mustache of the Prussian cavalry. But Ludmilla said sharply that they too were English. She said the blue-gray uniforms were the uniforms of the Air Force of the English King, and that these three were aviators like our Soviet aviators, only the English airplanes were inferior and these three had come from England to spy out the secrets of our great Soviet airplanes.
Old Masha thought the English aviators looked very young and that the war must be going very badly with the English for them to have such children flying airplanes. They looked like fresh-faced infants beside her handsome Colonel Kuperin, whose childhood had been spent between two great famines, who had survived the collectivizations and the other hazards that were unmentionable, whose face was acne-pitted and whose complexion was like beaten pewter. Even the foreigner with the red handlebar mustache, who appeared to be their commander, was very young; and beside him there was another, a pale thin one with pimples, no more than a child, whom Masha could have sworn was a German, no matter what Ludmilla said about his being English, because Masha had seen many such coming as students into Russia from Germany before the Hitlerite treachery. But the third foreign aviator Masha did not know about. He had black shining hair, white skin, a thin-lipped mouth that grinned, dark-blue eyes with black eyelashes, and a way of looking straight at you even though you were beneath notice, and although Masha saw at once that he was of a kind that, without discipline, could be as wild as any Russian, she yet did not know about him, because never in her life before had she seen an Irishman.
Colonel Kuperin was introducing Ivan, Nikolai, Alexi, and that Kolya while the English Baroninterpreter (that was the name the woman had for him now) in his funny old-fashioned speech was translating for everyone. The English aviatorcommander with the big red mustache was trying to talk with Colonel Kuperin, but he had only a few words of Russian and Colonel Kuperin would laugh heartily every time the foreigner used a Russian word. Katya, who had taken the foreigners’ coats, said that she had never seen anything so rich as the furs with which they were lined. Old Masha tiptoed out to peep at the foreigners’ coats and came back saying that it was nothing, she could remember in St. Petersburg — Ludmilla said they had been capitalists too.
Soon it was time for everyone to sit at the table. Colonel Kuperin took his place beneath the big portrait. The foreign aviator-commander sat at his right and the old Baron-interpreter sat at his left. The two from Moscow in the uniforms of Red Army colonels sat together next to the Baron.
The four Soviet pilots then took their places with the two English pilots, the young pimply-faced one, and the one with black curly hair and blue eyes, sitting between them. Captain Seduk sat at the end of the table.
Colonel Kuperin made a speech of welcome and proposed a toast, the toast. All drank the toast with great solemnity, standing, draining their glasses, and then applauding with their hands. Old Masha, peering from the kitchen, was aloof with pride when her favorite matle his speech, he looking so handsome, with so much style, standing there very straight in his uniform, very serious, as proud as a stallion. Then the old Baron-interpreter with the pink face and the silver hair got up and made a speech in Russian, such a funny speech, full of all kinds of politenesses and the forms of long ago, as only Masha, of all those there, remembered, Ludmilla, looking at the foreigners while the old Baroninterpreter was speaking, saw the two foreign aviators, the very young pimply one and the one with black hair and blue eyes, look at each other and suppress, each of them, a grin. Ludmilla was startled. Surely there was mockery in their faces? Could it be that they were laughing at the Baroninterpreter? Was there a conclave here? Ludmilla thought that what she had seen should be reported. She looked at the two from Moscow to see if they had seen what she had seen, but they had not.
AT LAST the Baron was finished and he raised his glass to toast the Red Army and the Red Air Force and once more they all rose, solemnly drinking the neat vodka. Then Captain Seduk made a speech and all the women withdrew into the kitchen because they knew what Captain Seduk was going to say and they had to be ready to bring in the borscht. Captain Seduk gave the toast of the Foreign Leader, very gravely, with knowledge, and they all drank again.
After that the commander of the foreign aviators, the Englishman with the red handlebar mustache, got up and made a speech, a very short speech, speaking in English, in his queer clipped way, without style or affectation, but looking all the time at Colonel Kuperin as though he were talking only to him. The foreign commander spoke earnestly and as he spoke the old Baron-interpreter became more and more embarrassed, began shifting in his chair and making little motions of discouragement in the direction of the one with the red mustache.
Then the foreign aviator-commander asked the old Baron to translate the speech into Russian. But it was evident, that the Baron did not want to do this. While they were talking together in English, Ludmilla noticed that the two from Moscow (in the too-well-cut uniforms of Red Army colonels to be merely Red Army colonels, as everybody there, except the foreigners of course, had seen at once) had their heads together, and in a moment of brilliant illumination Ludmilla knew that one of those from Moscow knew what the foreign aviatorcommander had said in his speech, that this one from Moscow could understand the English language, and that this understanding was being kept secret from the English, and Ludmilla was suddenly full of wonderment and pride for the wisdom and subtlety of the Soviet cadres.
The old Baron-interpreter began to translate the foreign aviator-commander’s speech. He spoke with great politeness. He said that the English aviator-commander, whose name was Commanderof-the-Wing Watkins, was a very great hero in his own country, having shot down German planes even before the Soviets had entered the war. He had come to Russia with his comrades, who were also fighting pilots, to show the Russians how to fly the Hurricane. The Hurricane was their name for the fighting plane they had flown when they had defeated the Heinkels during the Battle of Britain. Now England had given thousands of these Hurricanes to Russia and had sent her best pilots over here to show the Russians how to fly them. But, of course, the Russian pilots had known very well how to assemble and fly the Hurricane without instruction, so that Commander-of-theWing Watkins had not even seen a Hurricane at close range since coming to Russia. Commanderof-the-Wing Watkins had only feelings of friendliness and comradeliness for the intrepid Russian aviators. It was only this matter of tactics. Commander-of-the-Wing Watkins had tried ever since he had been in Russia to meet with and discuss aerial tactics with someone in a responsible position in the Red Air Force, but he had not met anyone except functionaries who, though courteous and accommodating, did not understand the technical aspects of flying. Now, however, on the occasion of this banquet celebrating his return to England, he felt the opportunity had occurred for full discussion. Here in their own mess hall, in the presence of their commander, himself a distinguished pilot, he believed, they could get down to facts about aerial tactics.
The old Baron spoke like this for some time, his face a little pinker than it had been, his silvery mustache shaking as he spoke, and then he brought it out. The foreign aviator-commander was afraid that, as soon as the days became a little longer, the Heinkels would come over from Uleåborg and bomb the Allied ships as they lay alongside the wharves of Murmansk and the Red Air Force would not be able to prevent the Heinkels from destroying all these valuable ships. The ships, said Commanderof-the-Wing Watkins, had come all the way from England and America, had cost much money and sacrifice to build, had braved many hazards to get here, submarines and Dornier bombers, and were full of tanks and guns for the Red Army. It would be a great pity to have all this honest effort sabotaged merely through lack of experience in air tactics. He had watched the German reconnaissance plane fly over Murmansk at the same hour every day photographing the progress of the building of the port, the arrival and departure of ships, and he had observed the failure of the Soviet pilots to prevent this, merely because they relied too much upon individual pursuit, did not maintain constant patrol with high cover, and through lack of vigilance —
Old Masha felt her heart turn over. Watching her Colonel Kuperin, his face now as expressionless as metal, she felt she must cry out. Even Ludmilla felt a rising sickness of recollection: it was like one of those Party meetings in 1937 or 1938. But now, here before everyone, at this time, a denunciation! Only a foreigner could be so uncultured. The four Soviet pilots, Ivan, Nikolai, Alexi, and that Kolya, were rigid, as though frozen, their eyes narrowed and their gaze fixed on their political officer, Captain Seduk. Captain Seduk was looking at the two from Moscow in the Lubianka-cut uniforms of colonels; and the two from Moscow, without moving their heads, were gazing sidelong at each other.
Then Captain Seduk saw the two from Moscow adopt expressions of unconcern, and as the old Baron ended his translation, one of those from Moscow, not the younger one who understood English, but the other, nodded and smiled at Commander-ofthe-Wing Watkins. Then Captain Seduk adopted an expression of unconcern and came near to smiling, and so everybody else was unconcerned and the relaxation was sudden and complete. Everybody began smiling and nodding at the foreign aviator-commander, smiling and lifting their eyebrows, treating him warmly in order to put him at his ease. Kolya jumped up from his seat and went around to the foreign aviator-commander and shook his hand strongly, poured vodka into his glass and made him drink a toast.
Wing Commander Watkins, R.A.F., was delighted with the effect of his speech, and his big red handlebar mustache wobbled a little with emotion.
AT this moment the women began bringing in the hot food, moving around the table, glancing sideways at the foreigners as they leaned close to them, then looking away shyly, avoiding the curious eyes of the foreigners, especially the bold eyes of the one with curly black hair, this one having some small phrases in Russian which he whispered to them, shocking Ludmilla because the phrases proved this foreigner had been with some n’kulturna devoshka, but provoking in the other women fits of suppressed laughter, sending them whispering and giggling together to the kitchen.
Everybody at the table began toasting everybody else, his neighbor on the left, his neighbor on the right, the guest opposite, all the guests one after the other. They showed the foreigners how to drink after the Russian fashion, after tossing off the vodka to breathe on their fingertips, to pretend to rub their stomachs with the breath-dampened fingertips curled, and then to swallow small cubes of pork fat or herring. Animated conversations were held, none understanding the foreigners and only the old Baron-interpreter understanding them. But the aviators were soon conversing together with their hands held palms open, re-enacting aerial maneuvers. Wing Commander Watkins, now somewhat elated, still very earnest, was talking to Colonel Kuperin, trying to explain to Colonel Kuperin a system of patrolling the air. But Colonel Kuperin laughed and called for a song, and this was the signal for Kolya to come forward and to sing the new Moskva Moskva song.
Kolya had a strong young voice which made the pinewood walls ring. Everyone applauded and then Kolya sang the Song of the Sacred War. These were the two numbers Kolya had always to sing. Next Colonel Kuperin called on Ludmilla, and with Kolya accompanying her on his accordion, she sang an approved Ukrainian song. Everybody cheered Ludmilla, the young foreigner with the curly black hair whistling shrilly, so that Ludmilla blushed deeply and retired to the kitchen.
Then Colonel Kuperin called on the bold young foreigner for a song and the young one, whose black hair was now wildly awry, got up and sang a song. They all listened carefully to the song, and although it sounded soft and sweet like a German song they nevertheless applauded. Varna said she had heard the old Baron-interpreter say that this young one with black hair was an Irish and that therefore his song must be an Irish song. But Ludmilla said that was impossible because any educated person knew that the Irish had deviated from the English King and were neutral in this war and that, therefore, every Irishman was a double-dealer and would not be allowed in the Air Force of the English King. And then Ludmilla paused, remembering the way this young one had mocked the English Army interpreter. Could it be that the English did not understand ... a spy in their midst . . . The responsibility of such thoughts was an uncomfortable burden for Ludmilla.
Old Masha, who had never heard of Ireland, thought the young aviator looked very handsome, but not so handsome as her Colonel Kuperin, nor did he have so many Orders on his breast, but only a tiny ribbon with purple crosswise stripes. Old Masha looked happily at the banquet scene, observed that the two from Moscow in the uniforms of colonels were eating steadily as men who are used to long heavy meals eat, noted that almost all the vodka in the light-green bottles was gone, went to the table, smiling, collected the bottles, took them back to the kitchen and refilled them with the gray vodka from the gasoline cans. None of the guests seemed to notice the color or smell of the new vodka.
Colonel Kuperin rose from the table and this was the signal for Kolya to come forward and dance. Ivan took the accordion while Kolya danced madly, spinning around, squatting on his heels, kicking his legs out, leaping in the air. Ivan was so moved by Kolya’s dancing that he passed the accordion over to Nikolai and began dancing too. He began at the other end of the room independently of Kolya and they both came together in a marvellous way, pairing their feet madly and triumphantly. Alexi began clapping his hands to the music and soon everybody was clapping. Then Kolya leaped onto the table and danced there among the glasses and bottles, squatting on his heels and shooting out his lithe legs. Ivan went on dancing and when he stood out Alexi leaped in.
All the time Captain Seduk was seeing that the foreigners’ glasses were filled. The two from Moscow had finished eating and were listening to the old Baron-interpreter, who was explaining that the insignia on his brown tunic was that of his old regiment , the 12th Huzzars, which didn’t mean anything nowadays with all this reorganization going on, but it had been a rattling good regiment in its day — Mafking, the Northwest Frontier, Mons, Mespot, and so on; Baku too, that was where he had learned his Russian, he had always been good with languages, Hindustani, Arabic, but picking up Russian so quickly had got him a job with Wrangel that was the funny thing, so he had made a study of it, and now, in this show, when all he could expect at his age was a desk at Whitehall, here he was attached to these young flying chaps, very nice boys, the new generation you know, frightfully keen, but impulsive, rather regrettable that gaffe by the Wing-co, but how was the Wing-co to know that in Russia tactics are something decided upon in Moscow, always have been, more so now probably, man would be under suspicion if he questioned it, but they wouldn’t believe me, you know, when I told them, thought they could make some impression on this Kuperin chap . . .
The two from Moscow in the uniforms of Red Army colonels listened attentively to the old Baroninterpreter, who wasn’t a baron at all, whose name was Major Jobson, who, before the war, had lived on his pension in the house of a son-in-law in Hammersmith. Looking across the room now at Colonel Kuperin the English interpreter, Major Jobson, saw that Wing Commander Watkins and his two pilots, young Calthorpe and Mathers, were still trying to make an impression on the Russian officer. Mathers had his arm on Colonel Kuperin’s shoulder and was talking and talking, with Watkins putting in a word only here and there, and Major Jobson thought it very funny that the three R.A.F. officers should have reached that stage of drunkenness which makes people think they speak a universal language, because Major Jobson could see that, despite Ins constant smiling and his saying “Yes” and “Good,” Colonel Kuperin could not understand a word they were saying. But everybody was drunk now and they were embracing and slapping each other on the back and laughing and trying to imitate Kolya.
THEN the young foreigner with the wild black hair, the Irish, began this game. Old Masha saw it all from the doorway of the kitchen. It was a test of strengh which he played very cunningly, beating first Ivan, then Nikolai and Alexi. The game was played by two men standing facing one another like boxers, the left toe of one man touching the left toe of the other, their right feet placed half a pace back. Standing like that they locked their left hands, palm to palm, in a firm grip, and the test was to exert cunning pressure, or to withdraw pressure, without unclasping hands or without moving the feet. The first man to lose his balance lost the game. Major Jobson, who explained the game to the Russians, said it was called Indian wrestling and was a very old game among soldiers. The young Irish was very good at the game despite his shortness and his youth. The young Irish was flushed but he was still very steady in playing this game. He bettered everybody who played against him. And then he challenged Colonel Kuperin.
This was foolish of the young Irish, Masha told the other women, because Colonel Kuperin was a head taller than the young foreigner and much stronger. They stood toe to toe with hands clasped, both smiling, then suddenly began swaying backwards and forwards, their gripped hands pistoning in swift bursts of strength. Old Masha watched the tournament with pride and triumph in her eyes. Her favorite would soon overpower the young foreign aviator and everybody would laugh at him. Then, even as she was thinking this, Colonel Kuperin suddenly moved a foot to regain his balance and the test was over.
Colonel Kuperin embraced the wild young Irish and called for vodka and they toasted each other in long full glasses of the gray spirit, the young foreigner standing to attention, swaying a little, swaggering, the light in his blue eyes dancing. All at once Masha was afraid of the drinking, afraid that her favorite, like these others, was drunk — full of pride and dignity, but also a little drunk. Masha was sure of it when she heard Colonel Kuperin challenge the young Irish.
Now everybody in the room stood watching them. The women, old Masha, Ludmilla, Varna and Katya watching from the kitchen doorway, the Soviet pilots Ivan, Nikolai, and Alexi, that Kolya standing above everybody on the lable with the young foreign aviator with the pimply face whom they called Calthorpe, Major Jobson, Wing Commander Watkins, and Captain Seduk and the two from Moscow, all were now watching the two men facing one another, toe to toe. The young Irish had taken off his blue jacket and you could see now that although he was short in stature he had a broad chest and shoulders. Colonel Kuperin stood head and shoulders above him, correct and military in his tight tunic, straight-backed, smiling, unruffled, his long arms and his large hands held loosely. He looked gaily around the room and old Masha fancied that he looked and smiled at her and she melted again with admiration of his grace and style. The two from the NKVD in uniforms of Red Army colonels stood close to the contestants, looking closely at the positions they had taken up, like the judges of an athletic competition, like judges. They were not smiling.
With a slight shrug of his shoulders that was an expression of disdain, contempt, aloofness, imperceptible to all there except, perhaps, old Masha, Colonel Kuperin lightly took the hand of Mathers. For a moment they did not appear to move and then those watching saw the veins knotting in the young foreigner’s neck and his face become red. Suddenly the gripped hands swung downward and the two men were crouching opposite one another. They rose slowly, each looking into the other’s eyes, like big cats. The room was suddenly hushed. Masha could see the biceps filling out the sleeve of Colonel Kuperin’s tunic, saw the swelling of his shoulders under the cloth, and she was sure his strength would overcome the cunning of the young foreigner. They stayed like that for several seconds, and for Masha the suspense was unbearable. Their clasped hands made brief lightning-like pistonings and then relapsed into tense immobility. Suddenly Colonel Kuperin seemed to tower over Mathers, as by some magical aggregation of height, and old Masha was sure it was all over with the wild young Irish. It was a game that should be forbidden, Masha thought; only the uncultured would play such a game. But the wild young one with the black hair was firm and, just as it seemed that he would be crushed, his hand moved and Colonel Kuperin, swaying to restore his balance, lightly moved his foot, and the contest was over.
WHEN everybody saw how easily it was over, they all began laughing. The two from Moscow were guffawing loudly. Captain Seduk saw they were laughing loudly but he himself did not laugh. Old Masha was glad to have it end so simply. But when she saw the expression in Colonel Kuperin’s face she was full of apprehension. Colonel Kuperin was laughing too, but his eyes were mere slits, so that it seemed as if he had suddenly become a Siberski, and you could not guess what he was feeling. As Masha watched, he embraced Mathers, the wild young Irish who had beaten him, and he called for vodka, toasted the young foreigner, then filled the glasses again. Then Masha was afraid and went away from the doorway. She knew that something must happen.
As she stood thus in the kitchen, with the noise of the banquet behind her, she saw the soldier Mitka who had brought up the wood for the stove. The soldier Mitka was lying on the floor of the kitchen under the table and Masha saw that he had been drinking the vodka from the cans. Masha was suddenly furious, because it was just like a peasant to do that while her Colonel was entertaining foreign guests. In her sudden, inexplicable anger she took a faggot of wood and beat Mitka again and again. But the soldier Mitka was insensible and snored mere loudly, and Masha suddenly felt old and weak and helpless and, dropping the faggot of wood, uttered a long wail and went back to the banquet room.
Colonel Kuperin was magnificent. With great dash he was doing a thing which no one, not even the young Irish, could do. He took a vodka glass and with one blow he crushed it to pieces in his hands. As the glass splintered he shouted, “ Taran! ” Ivan, Nikolai, and Alexi would then shout, “ Taran!” after him. The very young foreign aviator, Pilot Officer Calthorpe, who had been very retiring until this moment, suddenly became excited and Iried to imitate Colonel Kuperin’s deft gesture; but the glass broke badly and cut his hand and young Calthorpe went pale while the Soviet pilots roared with laughter. Ludmilla, moved by the sight of the blood and his pale boyish face, went to him with a cloth and began to bandage the wound, tieing it up very well, until suddenly, agitated by the closeness of the foreigner, she ran out of the room.
Colonel Kuperin went on crushing glasses in his hands, draining the vodka from them and then crushing the glasses smartly between his large strong hands. And every time the Soviet pilots would shout, “Taran!” When Wing Commander Watkins asked what taran meant they all roared with laughter and then Alexi explained to Major Jobson that taran meant smash! like that, and it was what the Soviet pilots did to the enemy planes. Then Colonel Kuperin shouted that the intrepid Soviet pilots did not need ammunition to bring down the Fascist planes because the Soviet pilots rammed the enemy.
“Taran!” he shouted and all the Russians laughed.
Wing Commander Watkins said something quietly. One of those from Moscow, the one who understood English, who was at Watkins’s side, overheard him and insisted that Major Jobson translate the remark. Major Jobson, regretfully and with much politeness, said that Wing Commander Watkins had said it was a pity they didn’t ram the Fascist reconnaissance plane that was about to fly over Murmansk any minute from now.
The laughter and the noise had ceased on the instant the one from Moscow had spoken. It was as though they had all been waiting for it, the sound within the sound, the dissonance in the dynamo which only the engineer can hear, and now the power was switched off and the room was soundless and none moved.
Then Colonel Kuperin with a great shout accepted the challenge. He called to Ludmilla to bring his flying helmet and his boots. Ivan, Nikolai, and Alexi, who had been as still as statues, now looked at each other, began embracing each other, laughing, while Colonel Kuperin, erect, smiling, proud, had never seemed so confident, no longer the Siberski. But to Masha the scene was unbearable. - When Ludmilla came back Masha snatched the big boots and went to Colonel Kuperin and began scolding him in the language of infants, but he brushed her aside roughly, and took the boots, and Captain Seduk said, “Go away, Grandmother.” Masha could see that they had all had too much vodka.
But Colonel Kuperin, standing in his big coat, looking very big in his dog-fur stockings that reached up to his thighs and in his fur helmet, took yet another glass of vodka and, calling on everyone to find new glasses and fill them, raised his own glass, giving the toast, and they were all suddenly at attention, elbows out, silently tilting their glasses. Then Colonel Kuperin suddenly crushed his glass to pieces and cried, “Taran!” and they all went outside. But when the door was open it was so cold outside it was too much trouble to don overshoes and jackets, and only Mathers and Wing Commander Watkins, and Captain Seduk and Kolya went with Colonel Kuperin to the hangar. The others went back inside where it was warm and began drinking again and some went to sleep.
THE low sun was shining brilliantly on the frozen lake, casting long blue shadows behind the snow banks, but to the north there was nothing but a vast blackness. Colonel Kuperin saw it, and Kolya saw it, and then the two foreign aviators saw it. Mathers turned quickly to Colonel Kuperin and began talking, but Colonel Kuperin could not understand him and kept nodding his head, and when Mathers began pointing to the black sky Colonel Kuperin smiled. He called for his aircraft and the mechanics pushed it out of the hangar and the two foreign aviators saw it.
“A wooden job,” said Wing Commander Watkins, “I knew they had them.”
Colonel Kuperin was about to climb into the cockpit when Flight Lieutenant Mathers, the Irishman who had beaten him at the Indian game, took him by the shoulder and began talking to him. Colonel Kuperin was smiling, but his smile was very austere and withdrawn, and in all his pride he suddenly seemed very solitary, and Flight Lieutenant Mathers felt that whatever he said, even if he could make himself understood, would have no effect on what was about to happen. This feeling added urgency to Mathers’s words.
“Listen, Colonel, we know you can fly. We know you can get this photo-reccy thing. You don’t have to show us. We take it all back. Understand ? Panamyisch ? ”
Colonel Kuperin smiled remotely.
“See that, over there,” Mathers said. “That’s a blizzard coming up. Over there, see. Don’t go up now! There won’t be any Jerry coming over today anyhow, so you don’t have to go up.”
Mathers was shouting. He turned to Wing Commander Watkins.
“Listen, Watkins, you started this thing, can’t you speak a word of this bloody language? Can’t you stop this drunken bastard from flying? Isn’t there someone about here to ground him?”
Watkins said nothing.
Mathers turned to Captain Seduk, but Captain Seduk, who knew nothing about flying, but only how to obey the slightest whim of his superiors, especially when they were of high rank and from Moscow, ignored the drunken foreigner, looked only at Colonel Kuperin. It was nothing, he said. When Kolya heard Captain Seduk say it was nothing he laughed and slapped Mathers on the back and repeated that it was nothing.
Then Colonel Kuperin, no longer smiling, roughly knocked away Mathers’s arm and went to his airplane.
The engine was suddenly, overwhelmingly accelerated, the small white aircraft jerked forward, becoming air-borne as the undercarriage was withdrawn from the ice. The slipstream threw up a blast of snow particles from the drifts banked up on the far side of the lake and the aircraft shot up into an almost vertical climb, in a few seconds it was a white speck against the great black wall of the blizzard.
The two officers of the Royal Air Force stood there looking at the small plane, saw it stall-turn and come speeding back towards them. When it was above them Colonel Kuperin threw it into a tight reverse loop and then executed a slow barrel roll that for expert, professional eyes was full of beauty.
“My God, Watkins,” said Flight Lieutenant Mathers, “wouldn’t you like to be doing that again!”
“Definitely a flying type,” said Watkins.
The words were inadequate to express the sudden understanding which came into their minds, dissolving in the red-mustached Watkins an innate feeling of distaste, and in Mathers, the Irishman, awakening a sense of comradeship.
“Imagine,” said Mathers, “that he had me fooled with all those phony gongs. And shooting that awful line.”
But Wing Commander Watkins said nothing, being unable to say what he knew, which he knew better than Mathers, because he was an exemplary officer and, like Colonel Kuperin, a commander of combat: that Colonel Kuperin, far up there in his tiny white plane, had a happiness which he could not achieve on the impure and frustrating earth.
As they stood there they felt the first snowflakes brush around their legs. Then the sky closed in, the contours of the earth were lost, and the last they saw of the little plane, it was falling gracefully like an autumn leaf, its movement merging into the soft rush and flutter of the blizzard. Captain Seduk and Kolya had gone.
“I suppose he’ll find a landing place at some other lake,” Mathers said.
“Some other lake!” Watkins shouted, now voluble, full of anger. “You know there’s no other lake. He’s going into the drink. Into the Barents Sea. This blizzard is all over the Kola peninsula. There isn’t another place he could go in time.”
“He must know that.”
“He knew it.”
“Then he’s had it,” Mathers said.
To the soft whirling blizzard which now encompassed them Watkins said: “I think he’d had it.”
They turned back to the cabin. Suddenly it was intensely cold and the cold made them a little sick. But inside the cabin it was warm and quiet and they found now glasses. In the kitchen there were a drunken peasant and an old Russian woman weeping into her skirt.