Our driver took Olga Fyedorovna’s exhortation to ‘step on it’ rather more to heart than might have seemed entirely wise given the conditions. My recollections of the journey from Marya Andreevna’s apartment to the Finlyandsky Station consist mostly of being flung from one side of the car to the other as we careened around yet another icy corner, together with an alarming glimpse of vast chunks of ice floating down the Neva River when we slithered precariously close to the edge of a bridge that we crossed over.
Still, somehow or other we made it in one piece. It was Olga Fyedorovna’s idea, she explained during the few calm moments of our journey, that the fugitive pair would probably try to catch the midnight train to Helsinki. It was their only option as far as she could see for getting out of Petrograd and beyond the clutches of Prince Yusupov. Thanks to our driver’s hair-raising efforts the clock above the station entrance read twelve minutes to midnight as we scrambled out of the car and hurried inside.
The station that we entered had the forlorn aspect of all such places in their dead hours, when the absence of the usual bustling crowds seems to strip them of a sense of purpose. There was just one train sitting waiting for departure, occasional puffs of smoke rising from the engine like wisps of breath in the frozen air. It was far too cold to linger over farewells, meaning the platform alongside was empty but for a solitary railway guard in a heavy greatcoat stomping steadily up and down. We made a hasty check of the carriages to ensure that our quarry was not already aboard and then formed ourselves up in the middle of the platform to await their arrival.
Olga Fyedorovna began the wait in all confidence, certain that there were no other means of escape for our missing Rasputin, but as the minutes ticked by and the slow trickle of arriving passengers singularly failed to include anyone remotely resembling the wanted couple her air of assurance began to crumble slightly. “They must be coming, they must be coming,” she began to mutter anxiously to herself, glancing up at a clock that now registered just seven minutes to midnight.
With an icy wind swirling beneath the iron canopy of the station I soon found I could stand the stationary vigil no longer and began to emulate the guard with a steady pacing to and fro. When I turned my face up towards the front of the train I was surprised to see the driver suddenly pop his head out over the side of the engine and peer anxiously down the platform before withdrawing it again. There was nothing particularly unlikely, I supposed, about the driver wanting to take a look around but there was something so unexpectedly apprehensive about his expression that I paused a moment to see if he would appear again.
Sure enough, a moment or two later he repeated the furtive gesture. My curiosity aroused, I set off up the platform in that direction. When the driver popped his head out a third time and saw me heading towards him he gave a startled gasp before turning away. By the time I drew alongside his cab he was making a frantic effort to appear busy, twiddling with levers and checking gauges, but it was no use. It took only the briefest of glances into the footplate to see what it was that he was trying to hide. Behind him, tucked away at the back of the engine, a man and a woman sat huddled together on a couple of suitcases.
We stared silently at one another for a moment.
It was the young woman, a pale oval face shining out between a heavy fur coat and matching hat, who finally acknowledged my gaze. “I expect you’ve come from Prince Yusupov, haven’t you?” she said sadly.
“In a way, yes,” I replied, my tone almost as regretful as hers.
With the greatest reluctance the fugitive couple rose from their makeshift seats and came forward. By the time they had begun climbing down from the engine Olga Fyedorovna and Michael had already wandered up to see what was happening, closely followed by the patrolling guard.
“Vanya! What do you think you’re doing?” exclaimed the guard to the driver as he watched the runaways letting themselves down onto the platform. “You know it’s against regulations to carry passengers on the footplate.”
“They just wanted to warm themselves by the fire,” protested the driver. “I don’t see what’s so wrong with that.”
“So why didn’t you tell me? Didn’t want to share the bribe money, eh?”
“Bribe money? What bribe money?” protested the driver weakly. “They’ve barely got a rouble between them.”
“Oh, so you expect me to believe you were doing this out of the goodness of your heart, were you Vanya?” The guard folded his arms and glared disbelievingly at his colleague.
The driver tried to brazen out the situation for a minute or two before finally digging into his pocket. “Alright, alright! But all they gave me was this watch and I don’t see how I’m supposed to split that,” he complained. “What do you want me to do? Smash it in half so you can have a share?”
“It’s the principle of the thing that upsets me,” argued the guard with a sorrowful shake of his head. “And after I shared with you that half bottle of vodka I found in an empty carriage on the Moscow run…”
Seeing that this dispute still had some little way yet to run, the rest of us moved a short way down the platform where the young couple finally set down their suitcases and stood to face us. Marya Andreevna glared defiantly at us but our missing Rasputin stood with hunched shoulders, gazing rather shame-facedly at his boots. Despite his stance it wasn’t hard to see why he’d been such a hit with the ladies of Petrograd. He was a tall, well-built young bloke of about twenty-five whose glossy dark hair and thick beard framed a warm handsome face characterised by soulful brown eyes.
“You know why we’re here, don’t you?” began Olga Fyedorovna. Rasputin nodded without looking up. “They’re expecting you at the Yusupov Palace. Why didn’t you answer the summons?”
“Why should he answer the summons?” broke in Marya Andreevna indignantly. “No man in his right mind would allow himself to be ordered around by that perfumed Prince!”
“You certainly shouldn’t be here,” Olga Fyedorovna told Rasputin, ignoring Marya Andreevna’s outburst. “You know you’re not allowed to leave Petrograd without the authority of Secretary Pokrovksy.”
“Screw Secretary Pokrovksy,” muttered Marya Andreevna and she slipped her arm inside Rasputin’s as though that way she might anchor him to the platform in the event of anyone trying to drag him away. Rasputin continued to gaze silently at the floor.
“You made an agreement with Secretary Pokrovsky,” Olga Fyedorovna gently reminded him.
“I know, I know!” exclaimed Rasputin, finally looking up. “And I had every intention of keeping to it when I made it. It didn’t seem like such a bad deal then. Swap a cold, miserable death in the trenches for a slightly warmer one here in Petrograd. And maybe have a little fun in the meantime.” He paused and glanced shyly at the woman standing beside him. “But then I met Marya Andreevna. And everything changed.”
The sound of laughter drifting down from the direction of the engine suggested that the driver and the guard had made up their differences. I glanced up at the station clock. It was now just four minutes to midnight.
“Nothing has changed,” insisted Olga Fyedorovna briskly. “You signed a pact for the good of your country and now you have your duty to perform.”
“Duty! How can you call that duty?” demanded Marya Andreevna. “Duty is supposed to be noble and honourable, is it not? What honour can there be in getting your own countrymen to play at being drunks and spies in order to distract the people from the mistakes of the government? And then having them killed for the privilege?”
“I don’t dictate government policy,” replied Olga Fyedorovna, attempting to brush the question away with a sharp gesture. “I’m just trying to do my job.”
“And what kind of a job is it that asks you to go rounding up men to be sent off to such an ignoble death?” declared Marya Andreevna, defiantly pulling her Rasputin even closer to her side.
“It’s the kind of job that keeps me fed and warm when there are plenty of others left to starve right now,” retorted Olga Fyedorovna irritably. “This is wartime – we all have to do things we don’t like every now and then.”
“But what purpose can it possibly serve?” demanded Marya Andreevna. “You don’t really believe this crazy scheme of Secretary Pokrovsky’s will make any difference to the war effort, do you?”
Olga Fyedorovna seemed either unable or unwilling to answer this question so Marya Andreevna turned her pleading eyes towards Michael and me. “What about you? You don’t want to stand by and watch a man sent needlessly to his death, do you?”
We both shuffled uncomfortably. Michael spread his arms in an apologetic gesture. “Look, I…” he began before words failed him. I looked up again at the clock. It was now three minutes to twelve and the guard had begun to walk back down the platform, checking the carriage doors.
Rasputin gave a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry my sweet Maryoshka,” he said, trying to gently untangle her arm from his own, “but they’re right. I have to go with them.”
“No, please don’t…” murmured Marya Andreevna, a single large tear rolling down her cheek.
Rasputin turned to face her with a sad smile. “We’ve had our precious time together my darling,” he said softly. “That’s more than most.”
Olga Fyedorovna, Michael and I were all busy looking anywhere but at the tragic couple when the embarrassed silence was broken by the shrill blast of a whistle. “Last call for passengers for the midnight express to Helsinki!” cried out the guard, striding purposefully back up the platform. “All aboard now please!”
There followed a long, painful silence. Michael suddenly turned to Olga Fyedorovna. “Why not let them get on the train?” he said.
Olga Fyedorovna looked up at him sharply. “Oh, don’t you start with your conscience again,” she complained.
“You have a conscience too Olga Fyedorovna, I can see that perfectly well,” said Michael. “You don’t want to send this man off to die any more than I do.”
“I tell you, I have a job to do,” muttered Olga Fyedorovna but her tone was already lacking in conviction.
“Oh go on, let them go,” I urged, with a sense of relief at finally throwing my weight, for what it was worth, behind the desperate couple. “Don’t make him go back to the Yusupov Palace. Nobody deserves that.”
The guard strolled past us, continuing to call out, “All aboard now!” But he seemed perfectly aware that nobody else was coming and you could sense he was merely watching the seconds tick down until he could signal the off.
Rasputin and Marya Andreevna were staring at us with beseeching eyes, neither of them daring to speak.
“I tell you, it’s not as simple as that,” Olga Fyedorovna began, trying one last time to absolve herself of responsibility. “Supposing Secretary Pokrovsky cancels your survey in retaliation for our failure to carry out his orders?”
“Then he cancels our survey,” returned Michael stoutly. “We’ll deal with that when it happens. Won’t we Natasha?”
“Absolutely,” I agreed.
“Last call for Helsinki!” the guard’s voice drifted down the platform to us. Everyone was gazing at Olga Fyedorovna.
“Don’t you people know there’s a war on?” she protested irritably. “Hundreds of men are dying every day. Do you expect me to save them all?”
“No. Just this one,” replied Michael softly.
There was a moment of almost overwhelming silence.
“Oh, alright then, let them get on the damn train!” Olga Fyedorovna finally exclaimed.
“Oh thank-you! God bless you!” cried Marya Andreevna.
“But you can be the one to explain this to Secretary Pokrovsky,” Olga Fyedorovna added, glaring fiercely at Michael.
“You don’t know how much this means…” began Rasputin but he was interrupted by a long shrill blast from the guard’s whistle which was answered almost immediately by a sharp toot from the engine.
“Oh my Lord, it’s leaving!” cried Marya Andreevna as a hiss of steam signalled the train’s departure.
Michael hurriedly yanked open the nearest carriage door whilst the fugitive couple hastily grabbed their luggage. As the engine chugged and the wheels began to turn we somehow bundled both them and their luggage aboard. With the train slowly drawing away the carriage door flapped alarmingly for a moment before Michael managed to swing it shut behind them. A second or two later the window was pulled down and two joyful faces were thrust out.
“Thank-you, oh thank-you!” yelled Rasputin and Marya Andreevna, waving frantically as the train began to gather speed.
“You had better lose yourselves pretty damn quick!” shouted Olga Fyedorovna sternly as Michael and I waved merrily back at them. “I don’t want to hear a single word so much as whispered about the pair of you in Petrograd ever again!”
The three of us stood and watched as the train continued to pick up speed. Before we knew it the engine, the carriages and the ecstatic faces of Rasputin and Marya Andreevna had all been swallowed up by the blackness beyond the station lights.
We remained motionless until long after all sight and sound of the train had gone and the platform was enveloped by a profound silence. Then Olga Fyedorovna turned with a weary sigh. “We had better get back to the Yusupov Palace I suppose,” she said with the utmost reluctance. “I’ll let you two do the talking once we get there.”
To be continued…