A Wolf To Man
Some fifty miles from Petrograd, the line was blocked and the express delayed by a bonfire on which strikers had burned alive two inspectors, a station-master and a particularly unpopular ticket clerk. Charlotte had forgotten how, burned, the human body smelled like any other charred meat. Eventually an official announced to each compartment in turn that the Cheka had arrived, and would be executing the ringleaders for excessive zeal; as the train pulled away, five shots punctured the cold, bright air.
In a siding outside Omsk, where the train had been shunted so that troop trains could be rushed past it, Charlotte shared her last two tins of pâté de foie gras with the Dobrochelskys - who refused to allow her to give any to their children, as being too rich for their blood - and with two fresh-faced commissars with shiny new insignia, who wished to taste the counter-revolutionary delicacy, but were not prepared to abuse their authority by commandeering her hamper. They confirmed that the Whites were in retreat everywhere, but that the train was unlikely to be allowed to proceed all the way east into the war zone - both of these statements were greeted in the carriage with sullen resentment.
Some hours from Novonicolaevsk, she and the rest of the passengers were forced by drunken Whites with cocked revolvers to stand in the snow and sing the Tsarist anthem, while the raiders' horses breathed white steam and the raiders hanged the two young commissars from a water-tower at sunset. Charlotte found her new furs,and the vast sable muff she had inherited from a great aunt, protection alike against the cold and the drunken stares of the horsemen.
Every night, there was the calling of wolves.
'That was unpleasant, if salutary,' said Dobrochelsky, the elderly doctor with ivory-framed pince-nez, who had occupied the warm corner seat near the corridor with its back to the engine. His French accent was as unpleasant as his manner. 'A few more hangings in the years before the War, and we would not be in this mess now.'
'There is only one answer to scum,' said the clerkly looking man who sat next to Charlotte. 'Scum and conspirators.' He buffed the dirty nails of his left hand against the faded plush of the seats.
'Someone told me,' said Dobrochelsky, 'that Lenin is predicted explicitly in the Protocols.'
'He is,' said the clerk, 'of course, a Jew.'
'No,' said Dobrochelsky, 'Trotsky is the Jew. Lenin is some sort of Kalmuck. Another is a Georgian, of all things.'
'Like I said,' said the clerk, 'all of the beast peoples living among us, waiting to infect us with their rabies.'
'As a doctor,' said Dobrochelsky, 'I can tell you that the only cure for rabies is the hot iron.'
'Surely,' said the man in the corner by the window, 'the cure for rabies is a course of injections in the stomach.'
'Foreign nonsense,' said Dobrochelsky. 'Like I said,' he continued, 'unpleasant but salutary.'
'I wouldn't say so,' said Charlotte over the top of her copy of Women in Love. One thing about this damnawful journey is it gives one a chance to catch up on light modern fiction.
'Would you not?' said the small, quiet man in the window corner, next to Madame Dobrochelsky; he had introduced himself at an early stage in the journey so effusively, that Charlotte had made a point of forgetting his name entirely. Over his head, something in his luggage rustled and squeaked mysteriously.
'No,' said Charlotte, 'it seems to me that it is insane to say anything that might offend anyone, given that anyone might be listening.'
'But,' said Dobrochelsky, 'they just took the Red agents off the train and hanged them. We have nothing to fear, mademoiselle.'
'Well the last we heard, the Reds were in Novonicolaevsk. I don't think you should consider a few raiders stopping a train as all that significant in the scheme of things. And if I were - what's the man's name?'
'Dzershinsky' said the man by the window. Discreetly she took from one of the pockets in her muff the card he had been so diligent in handing out to everyone in the carriage, even to the Dobrochelsky children, and discovered that his name was Schmidt.
'Well,' said Charlotte, 'if I were him I would send a couple of expendable young men in uniform, just to be on the safe side, so that anyone important with uncompromising papers would be sure to be ignored, and get through.'
'Just so,' said Schmidt. 'Then you suspect our friend Dobrochelsky here?' His voice had that high tenor charm that Charlotte had always distrusted, in men.
'I suspect nobody,' said Charlotte. I'm not remotely interested. It is not my country, or my revolution, or my civil war.'
The gaslights flickered; though it was warm in the carriage, there was a draft from somewhere.
'What are you doing here, then,' said the clerk, 'if you are not one of the buzzards of the International?'
'I am going to Mongolia. I am going to visit my brother's grave and collect his papers for the Museum. And then I am going to go back to my own works in Paris.'
'Could not your father or your husband have gone?' said Madame Dobrochelsky, a plump woman who seemed considerably nicer than her husband.
'My father is dead, madame,' said Charlotte, 'and my mother. Dead these three years. Of the influenza. I have no husband; there was a young man and he fell on the field of battle.' Two statements, both of them true, if in the latter case entirely general, and how convenient and silencing an explanation.
'So you are alone in the world, alas,' said Dobrochelsky, 'now your brother is dead.'
'If one chooses to judge solitude by the number of one's relatives.'
Her eyes flickered across the carriage where three plump Dobrochelsky girls and two short-sighted Dobrochelsky boys were somehow squeezed in between their parents and on the floor at their feet. There was a moment of slightly hostile silence.
'Your brother?' said Schmidt. 'He fell in the war with the Chinese?'
'He was killed by some beast of prey.'
'They are all beasts out there,' said Madame Dobrochelsky. 'The Reds, the Chinese, even the White troops. They say that Ungarn von Sternberg keeps a pack of wolves specifically to feed prisoners to them.'
'Red propaganda,' said her husband. 'Ungarn is a gallant officer who keeps no wolves but rather a band of brave young men, many of them dead on the field of battle.'
'A band of drunkards, dope fiends and assassins,' said Schmidt. 'Whatever you may think of their bravery, it comes from a bottle or,' he sniffed ostentatiously, 'out of a twist of paper.'
When the train entered Novonicolaevsk a few hours later, there was a Red troop train at a siding and a Red flag flying from the roof of the small run-down station house, lit by an arc light. Soldiers in greatcoats with red stars on their caps and red triangles at their wrists, entered the carriage with a minimum of fuss, examined the papers that the travellers offered with eagerness and departed a few seconds later, dragging Dobrochelsky and the clerk with them.
The train stayed where it was for some time; Charlotte dozed in spite of the sobbing of Madame Dobrochelsky and her children. She was awakened by Schmidt, pushing past her to the door of the carriage.
'The man's a reactionary old fool,' he said, 'but probably harmless. We may hope that the Reds will see that'
'Don't go,' said Madame Dobrochelsky. 'Fyodor would not want a stranger to throw his life away. Too many have died, these last four years, hoping for the mercy of the Cheka.'
'Madame,' said Schmidt, 'I am trusting to the good sense of the men of the Cheka. You may not accept this, but I believe that the urge to progress is productive of good sense. I am prepared to stake my life on progress and kindness.'
Charlotte looked at this man with renewed interest; sometimes priggishness can impose itself on the universe like a creative urge.
He was gone for some time; Charlotte dozed again, assuming that if there were to be shots she would hear them. Some time later two men returned. Schmidt had a fresh red mark across his cheek as if he had been struck with a swagger stick; Charlotte noticed, though, that his clothes were still in elegant order and there was not even a scuff on his white kid gloves. Dobrochelsky had lost his cravat, his glasses and a couple of the more ostentatious rings from his fingers.
'They saw reason,' said Schmidt. 'Eventually. We have you to thank, it appears, mademoiselle.'
'Me?' said Charlotte, as the train juddered and started to move again. There was a volley of shots from behind the station. The clerkly man had not returned, nor now ever would.
'It would appear,' said Schmidt, 'that the head of the local Cheka is not the usual scum. We are all men of science in Novonicolaevsk, it appears, and of some limited compassion, and your name has not gone unnoticed. The train may proceed, even across the lines. So long, that is, as the Whites do not shell a flag of truce. As for our lost companion he was one of the Black Hundreds; we need not mourn.'
'Thank you,' Dobrochelsky slobbered over her hand, which she removed from his grasp, placing it inside her muff in order not to be unambiguously rude. 'Thank you for the power of your name.'
'Ah, yes.' said Charlotte. 'Well, hardly my name, is it? My father's and my brother's name, perhaps. I could be considered to have the loan of it.'
'But your brother,' said Dobrochelsky eagerly, 'is he not Matthews, who led the expedition into the Karoo before the war?'
'No. It was my uncle who led the expedition into the Karoo and then proceeded to get himself shot by the Germans for running arms to the Herero. It was my brother and his friend Grobel who got the expedition party, and its fossils, out.'
'Matthews is a famous name,' said Schmidt. 'Here in Russia we tend to be suspicious of your British Darwin and his disciples.'
'Nekulturny,' said Dobrochelsky.
'All this progress,' said Schmidt, 'and to be achieved only by blood and struggle. No room for co-operation; and there is still progress?'
'I'm sure I don't know,' said Charlotte. 'My interests lie elsewhere.'
'But your brother,' said Schmidt. 'You know of his papers on mammalian evolution and the Life Force, surely?'
'As I said, my interests lie elsewhere.'
She had always found babble about the Life Force and its embodiment in Lamarckian evolution naïve and embarrassing, even from Tom. She turned up her fur collar decisively, shut her eyes and pretended to be asleep. Very soon it was no pretence. In the night, she dreamed that she heard the crying of sea birds.
Later - and she thought she was now awake - her brother came to her, raising his left arm in mock salute. He was wearing his captain's uniform, that smelled crisp and newly pressed, though still it had in it the bullet-holes that had almost cost him his arm. There was a gaping wound in the side of his neck. He was carrying a copy of his work on progress as a universal principle. He mouthed something to her, but when she gestured to her ear to indicate that he was too far away he smiled sadly and dissolved like a ripple in a stream. He was replaced by a woman she had never seen before, but who seemed familiar; when she smiled, her face rippled into a snarl.
Next morning, it was long past dawn when she was woken by the smell of coffee from Schmidt's portable stove and the weight of her muff, and the contents of its pockets, in her lap; they had come closer to the edge of the plain and the edge of the southern mountains beyond it. In the grey sky long streaks of cloud rushed westwards on the wind, but it seemed warmer than it had been earlier.
'The Reds were in Krasnoyarsk,' said Dobrochelsky. 'They seem to be everywhere. If there is one consolation for the death of the Tsar, it is that he has not seen this last incompetence of his supporters.'
She looked from the window; the train jolted as it mounted a bridge and soon they were crossing a great river.
'The Yenisei,' said Dobrochelsky.
'Look, Father,' said one of his sons, 'the ice is breaking up.'
In the centre of the channel there was clear water, with occasional floes in it. There were also what looked like rags of cloth and lumps of meat floating in it; and round them the water was not so clear. Sometimes the larger floes had legs and arms sticking out of them, which the ice was still preserving against rot as it travelled hopelessly towards the Arctic.
'Look away,' said Madame Dobrochelsky to her children.
'Last night I heard,' said Schmidt, 'that the partisans have been busy in the hills all winter, flushing out the last of Koichak's partridges. That group, last evening, must have been the very last of them. Meanwhile the pike will grow fat this spring...'
If I were very ruthless and wicked, thought Charlotte, and trying to get a man east, I would even disguise one lot of my own troops and hang two of my own men. And have my man at least slightly beaten. And do what I could to ingratiate myself with a possibly influentialforeigner, she added to herself, as Schmidt passed her a coffee.
It smelled of liquor.
'Please,' she said, 'I really would prefer one that did not have alcohol in it. I regard the claims for its medicinal value as hugely overstated in any case, and I am not ill.'
'As you wish,' said Schmidt, and poured her another cup. 'We have some way to go now before our next stop and we may find the journey wearing.'
'You know this country well, then,' she asked.
'I have hunted this country often, I and my sisters.'
'What did you hunt, in these barrens?'
'The usual thing, beasts of prey.'
'Wolves, then?' she asked.
'Among other things.'
'Where are your sisters now?' Madame Dobrochelsky asked, solicitous.
'Some await me in the East,' said Schmidt, 'and some are abroad in the West. Others fell in battle.'
'These are terrible times,' said Madame Dobrochelsky.
'All times are terrible,' said Schmidt, 'and all inevitable acts.'
Charlotte drank her coffee slowly, periodically glancing from the window at the spectacle of desolation and death below her; she had warned Tom, back when she had last seen him, that the middle of other people's wars was no place for the calm study of the past, and he had mocked her. He had said a woman could have no idea of what he had been through in France and how little he could now fear anything. She had refrained from mentioning that she had seen as many horrors in the hospital tents at Caporetto as he in the mud; boasting about such things is a boy's game. In a sense, she thought, he was right; it was not the malice of man that had killed him.
Charlotte continued to resist conversation; the Dobrochelskys were the sort of common bourgeois to whom she felt no positive ill will but whose company irritated her. She felt a certain obligation to wipe the perpetually runny noses of their children, but that was merely a public health measure in a cold, stuffy and crowded compartment, grown progressively full of an almost animal stench of inadequately washed bodies. In the meantime, she worked her way halfway through the Tauchnitz Gibbon she had grabbed as a supplement to the seedy Mr Lawrence in his small American edition.
The conversation around her ebbed and flowed; this was not her war and, even had it been so, the constant babble of Kolchak and his gold, of Michael Romanov, of this man Ungarn down in Mongolia with his Order of Military Buddhists and his pack of tame wolves, of whole squadrons of Death's Head Commandos and military amazons and spies who were masters of disguise, was the sort of thing she had grown tired of in Italy. There was always some man coming, on a horse, who would save things and make things right. They never came, or came too late; they were a superstition, in politics as in life.
Two days later they entered Irkutsk. This seemed to be no man's land and no one checked their papers, the station was empty even at midday, except for dirty snow on the platform where a roof had given way and old newspapers drifting back and forth in the breeze.
Oulen-Oude was another matter. There were gallows along the track as they passed into the town, and the sleeves of the corpses had Red insignia.
'Papers, mesdames et messieurs,' said the young officer who entered the carriage. 'Where are you all going?'
'My family and I are going on to Harbin,' said Dobrochelsky.
'And I and Mademoiselle Matthews, the young Englishwoman here,' said Schmidt officiously, 'are hoping to find a train that will take us down to Urga.'
'Ah,' said the lieutenant, 'that may be a problem.'
'But surely,' said Dobrochelsky, 'you at least hold everything east of here.'
'Of course,' said the lieutenant, 'but we are regrouping in Harbin, and we cannot afford to feed too many extra mouths.'
'We can support ourselves,' said Dobrochelsky. 'And I am a doctor.'
'Ah,' said the lieutenant, seizing him by the arm. 'General Kolchak and Michael Romanov have need of doctors. You are now a member of the Imperial Russian Army, sir, even though you have a funny Polish name.'
'But my wife?' said Dobrochelsky, 'My children?'
'They can wait for you in Harbin and if we lose, they will be whores for the Reds or for the Japanese.'
'The penalty for desertion and for disobedience,' said the lieutenant, the boredom of routine in his voice, 'is death.'
Dobrochelsky bent down, kissed his wife, kissed each of his five children, reached up to the rack for his medical bag and was gone. The lieutenant turned to Schmidt and Charlotte.
'You may have problems with your journey south.'
'But surely,' said Charlotte, 'the Reds are far from here and far from Urga. Indeed, they warned me so in Petrograd when they gave me my passport. You took Urga before the winter - and that was from the Chinese.'
'Ah, Mademoiselle Matthews,' said the lieutenant, 'would that it were as simple as that! You could describe the forces in Urga as our allies after a fashion, but no longer, I fear, as our troops.'
'Can I have a word,' said Schmidt, 'alone?'
He and the lieutenant went out into the corridor, and there was urgent whispering.
'I see, sir,' said the lieutenant as they returned. 'I had been warned of this, but I did not expect such good forgeries. Our people at this end are not that good. You must of course use your own judgement, sir. I will make a train available at once, sir.'
'Miss Matthews,' said Schmidt. 'The regular service may be somewhat delayed. Perhaps for some months... And I respect your desire for independence. You have made it abundantly clear that you do not wish to be beholden ... But if you will accept a ride, I can have you in Urga by the morning after tomorrow. Otherwise I fear you will have to spend some considerable time wiping the faces of these children.'
She gathered her bags from the seat that had been the clerk's, and he pulled down his cases. The young lieutenant tried to help her down from the carriage and looked suspicious when she drew back.
'It is all right, lieutenant. At ease,' said Schmidt, 'In England it is not only the women of the Reds that are touchy about their independence. Is that not so, mademoiselle?'
Charlotte said, 'Until I am thirty I have no vote. Without a vote, there is no point in my having a party allegiance, is there?'
'Just so, mademoiselle,' said Schmidt. 'In this world it is far better to keep your options open, and your mind.'
She reached into her hamper, dashed back to the carriage and handed the Dobrochelsky children her entire supply of Kendal Mint Cake. There was no point in letting this man think he had understood her every attitude, was there?
They took tea in the parlour of what had been the station-master's house and now seemed to be some mixture of telegraph office, officers' mess and low-class bordello. They offered Charlotte a hip-bath in an upper room and Schmidt the use of the officers' bathhouse. He insisted on privacy when he washed, she noticed, of a piece with his supercilious dandiacal ways. Her own bath was lukewarm but felt like luxury; this was the first time in days she had been wholly warm. She dressed slowly, continuing to wear her now shabby, but still serviceable, travelling costume, and then returned and drank further tea.
It would have been pleasant to be warm, had not Schmidt persisted in pestering her with conversation about her brother's theories.
The lieutenant interrupted them, 'Your train is ready, sir. I can lend you a driver and a stoker; but I can spare you no troops.'
Outside there came clangour and a noise of confusion. They finished their over-strong tea and the sandwiches, stuffed overfull of unidentified sausage, that someone had produced from somewhere in honour of Charlotte. A couple of soldiers carried their bags out on to the platform and up into the one heavily armoured carriage of a train whose engine was shielded with what looked Iike sections of a battleship's plates, and which pulled behind it a passenger carriage and a goods car. This last had a ramp down at the back and, as Charlotte watched, they drove a black car on board with acetylene lamps and broad running-boards. Schmidt observed her interest.
'It is a present from Kolchak to his misguided lieutenant, mademoiselle. The sugar for the pill of good counsel, you might say.'
'What advice might that be?' Charlotte asked.
'Baron Roman Theodorovich Ungarn von Sternberg,' said Schmidt, 'is one of the bravest soldiers in the whole of Russia, but he failed his strategy classes at the Academy. He believes himself to be the chosen of Buddha, mademoiselle, chosen to lead the Mongols to victory against revolution and modernity. We need his troops, but we do not need his crusade. Nor will we send him further supplies until he starts taking orders again.'
'Earlier on I thought that you were on another side altogether.'
'Ah well, mademoiselle, what use would an agent be if every passing stranger could discern his intentions and his allegiance?'
'Not much,' said Charlotte, privately sure that this man was no more to be trusted now than he had been earlier.
'I have some letters to write before we depart,' he said, and produced some paper on which he scribbled. From the mysterious box that had twittered all the way from Petrograd, he produced two pigeons.
'Old ways are the best?' said Charlotte.
'Ah, yes: on the plains of Mongolia you will find the old ways are essential.' And Schmidt flung his pigeons from the window out into the pale sky of late afternoon.
The train rattled to a start. Charlotte reflected that the armoured trains she had seen further west at least looked as if someone had known what they were doing with the extra metal, and the bolts. These Whites hardly seemed to have a skill between them. Except for Schmidt.
'What are you reading?' Charlotte showed him. 'Ah,' Schmidt said. 'Two Romes fell, one stands. A fourth there will not be. Do you know that saying in the West, mademoiselle?'
'Does it stand? With the Reds in the heart of holy Russia and your white paladins turning to strange gods, does it stand? Still?'
'The true city stands in our hearts, mademoiselle,' said Schmidt, with such conviction that she was suddenly sure that there was something to which the slightly portentous dandy was loyal, whatever it might be.
As the evening wore on the countryside around them turned to high, jagged hills and then to plain - the flattest plain she had ever seen, and this after crossing Russia by train. Every so often they would pass clumps of larch; every so often the landscape of snow dotted with grass clumps would be varied by the open water of swamps. As night fell the wind rose slightly, blowing a flurry of loose snow briefly into the air; ducks rose against it from the water. Later, as she watched, the open water flickered with fire.
'The swamps produce gas,' Schmidt said. 'They call it a feu follet, a will-o'-the-wisp, but it is only methane combusting spontaneously. We must avoid superstition, mademoiselle.'
'I have always done so. I have never seen a thing for which there was not a rational explanation.'
'I have instructed the driver to stop in a while,' said Schmidt. 'You may wish to use one of the empty compartmnts to sleep for the night. I have no chaperone for you, after all. Superstition is one thing, but appearances are all.'
'Thank you,' said Charlotte. 'How nice to know that someone considers such things still.'
Ahead there was a distant light. The train slowed as it neared it. A tall man in black monk's robes stood by the track, swinging a lantern. Pistols, cutlasses and hatchets glinted like dark fruit slung from the bandoliers that crossed and recrossed his robes. Squatting beside him on the ground was a younger monk whose robes were the more expected shade of ochre. Some way back from the line a horse grazed.
'Mademoiselle,' said Schmidt, 'I have private business with these men, you will appreciate?'
'I am not interested,' said Charlotte, 'in the secrets of boys' games. I have made this perfectly clear. None of this is my game or my war.'
'That is as may be,' said the tall monk, swinging himself up as he opened the door, his French accurate but slow. He was a European, Charlotte noted. 'We have all thought this at one time: I once thought it myself. Yet here I am, mademoiselle: Tuskegoun Lama, at the beck and call of the birds of the air and the beasts of the forest, in their tasks.'
Charlotte descended on the side of the carriage, opposite the hurried and heated conversation that followed in a language she did not know, and let herself into another compartment. She wetted a sponge from the water bottle she had filled at Oulen-Oude, cleaned her-self as best she could and stretched herself across the upholstery, covering herself with her fur coat and placing her hat and her muff under her head.
After a while the shouting ceased, to be replaced by a slow regular chanting that sounded vaguely religious. The avoidance of superstition, Charlotte reflected even as it lulled her, has only lasted a very few hours indeed.
Nurses were never entirely safe, even in dormitory tents, and Charlotte had developed the habit of sleeping lightly. When someone tried the handle of her compartment door Charlotte, who was sleeping on her left side facing the wall opposite, shifted her head from its supports and slipped her right hand into her muff. When lantern light played close on her face, accompanied by the smell of rancid butter, she kept her eyes shut tight but unsquinting, and breathed regularly, waiting for her chance to move.
Hands pushed her on to her back and started to tighten about her throat. She swung her right hand round, disengaged her small Derringer from its pocket in the muff, jammed the Derringer hard against the chest of her assailant - right under against the breast-bone - and pulled the trigger. The edge of the muff and the cotton robe largely muffled the sharp crack, but the compartment was filled with the smell of blood, shit, powder and the scorching of cotton and fur.
When she looked down, in the light of the lantern that still swung from the luggage rail where it had been hung, she saw the young monk's robe, tattered around the wound her dumdum bullet had made. Above the wound the monk had small breasts, and the face, under the shaved scalp black with the shadow of new hair, was her own. The teeth were not hers though, and they sharpened as she watched; the face became less hers, less anyone's, as it became death's.
There was a flurry of movement in the corridor and Schmidt rushed through the door; she flicked the remaining chamber of her Derringer under the hammer and held it steady, pointing it at him.
'How unfortunate, mademoiselle,' he said. 'You appear not to be dead.'
'Sit down. Is there anyone else on the train?'
'The last time I looked we had a driver and a stoker. Trains tend to find them useful.'
'Ah,' said Schmidt. 'The good lama delivered my sister here, not entirely as he would have wished, and then - what is the phrase? - vanished into the night as silently as he had come. I did warn my sister here, but she would have it so. Shifting is not the making of death masks, she always said.'
'Your sister,' she noted. 'I see.'
'You are supposed to be gibbering with fear at this point. Look how the features, which were for a while your not especially regular good looks, have changed into something altogether other. Look how the bones are shifting in their sockets. Consider, mademoiselle, that you are alone with me and the corpse of something you don't understand, on a train heading into the heart of the Mongolian plain to a rendezvous with your brother's dirty little secrets and a mad tyrant who kills as a point of principle. Damn it all woman, does your hand never shake? Do you think you can outstare me?'
'No, it doesn't,' said Charlotte. 'Yes, I can, Herr Schmidt. Once one sets aside superstition there is no limit to what one can do, I find, as it becomes necessary.'
Schmidt sat there and smouldered. He turned his face away and as the lantern guttered. his profile seemed to lengthen with the shadows and to change. Without shifting her gaze, she reached her left hand into another pocket of the muff.
'What big teeth you have, Herr Schmidt,' said Charlotte. As he turned his face changed into something other, something closer to the corpse's on the floor. He lunged, and she flicked open the razor, raking him across the forehead just above the bridge of what was still just about a nose. With her right hand she brought the barrel of her gun down against Schmidt's left temple. As he staggered back, she hit him a second time. He sat down, breathing hard through the longer teeth and extended jaws and bleeding from the slash and the other cuts, dazed but still conscious. She palmed the razor shut, placed it in a coat pocket and pulled from his belt the large revolver he had not even thought it worth drawing against her, placing it on the seat beside her. It was probably too heavy for her to fire one-handed and she dared not let go of her own gun, in case this one was not loaded.
She shifted her own revolver back to cover him.
'What am I to do with you, Herr Schmidt?'
He sat quietly, and his jaw seemed to move slowly back to its original length. 'You will understand,' he said after some time, 'that one cannot conveniently both talk and tear.'
'Is that a proverb?' said Charlotte. 'It sounds like a proverb. Do your people have proverbs?'
'Good God,' said Schmidt. 'Are you even human?'
'I suppose, from you, that is a compliment. But what could be more human than to labour in my profession? No, you didn't ask, did you? A thousand miles or so in the opposite seat, and you didn't ask. I am a folklorist, Herr Schmidt; I collect proverbs. And folk-tales, though I rarely meet them socially. But what are we to do, Herr Schmidt? I prefer only to kill in direct self-defence.'
'I shall have to kill you, you know,' said Schmidt.
'Undoubtedly,' she said, 'but to do that you will have to be alive.'
'Do you really suppose that you can kill two people with successive shots from a toy gun?'
'Are you confident that I cannot? And I might reach your own gun. Besides,' she added, 'you have a body to dispose of. One which you cannot afford to leave lying around. And one which you would wish, presumably, to honour.'
'You are right of course, damn you. You will think that losing many sisters to the cause of progress would make the later losses easier, but it is not so.'
They paused, watching each other warily.
'There is the car; it does have a tank full of fuel, and more on board,' he said. 'And there will be opportunities to kill you in Urga.
'I would rather not be killed,' she said. 'But I would like to know more.'
'That, mademoiselle, is why you need to be killed.'
'Like my brother.'
'Like your brother,' he agreed. 'Though he, unlike you, was not the best sort of prey.'
He pulled the communication cord and the train drew to a halt.
'Trust me,' he said. 'This will be too good a hunt for me to cheat now.'
She covered him with the gun, and made him carry her luggage - a man with full hands is not equipped to lunge, which is perhaps why women invented gallantry in the first place. She pulled her coat on to her shoulders and then hefted the muff by its inner strap with her left hand. They descended from the carriage and walked to the back of the train, their shoes squelching in the. soft snow. The driver and stoker looked , back at them from the engine; Schmidt gestured them back to their post. He put her bags down, thoughtfully avoiding a large puddle, and unbolted the ramp of the goods van.
She watched him warily as he put her bags on the front seat; then he walked down the ramp and she got into the car. It started first time, and she drove it quickly off and away from the train, bouncing it off the tracksand across to the vestigial road that ran alongside it. Schmidt made no hostile move.
'Au revoir,' he shouted. 'Keep the sunrise on your left and Urga will be straight ahead. You can't miss it. Just follow the corpses, Miss Matthews:'
Charlotte wasted no breath; she needed to get to Urga as soon as she could. Here she was, racing a train full of werewolves across Mongolia; he was right, she should be more nervous. A throat cleared in the back seat of the car, and the lama with the bandoliers sat up, clanking
'My Lord or Lady Goro ...,' he started in English, as diffident as a man armed to the teeth can ever be.
'I am not a Lord' she said, 'and I regard Goros as an entirely spurious legend.'
'But I have seen them,' said Tuskegoun Lama, 'skull faces and all. They took me to Agharta and made me their liege man for ever.'
'Oh, for heaven's sake, it is bad enough having to deal- with werewolves, let alone with the theosophical maunderings of some penny-ha'penny Renfield.'
'Oh,' he said, 'you're the real one. Thank my Lord Buddha for that; I was feeling quite guilty, even though they explained it was necessary. But they are servants of the Wheel as are we all, and they do not command my prayers.'
'What are you doing in this car?' she asked.
'It's all very well,' he said, in an accent that sounded more like Birmingham than the mystic East, 'being expected to ferry demons across the heart of Mongolia, but a fellow needs to sleep once in a while. And my horse was lame. I find that, if you're going to be a legend of sudden appearances and departures, righting wrongs when you're supposed to be hundreds of miles away, being good at hopping freight trains is a useful skill.'
'Oh, is that what you do?'
'They think I'm a Kalmuck. Russians don't like Kalmucks much, so they never talk to me to find out. And Mongolians and Chinese don't care anyway. You're who you say you are, out here. Not like at home. But you've got to stop people taking liberties, haven't you? I mean, following the Lord Buddha fair enough, but that shouldn't mean you let people walk all over you. They conquered the world. once round here, but the Chinese, they were taking liberties, weren't they?'
'So you decided to play Robin Hood?'
'Well, it's what you do when there's wicked barons, isn't it?'
'What's this got to do with the Goros?'
'When I came out East,' he said, 'it was rumours of Agharta made me jump ship. I mean underground kingdom, loads of treasure, stands to reason. I wasn't looking for enlightenment in those days, was I? And a couple of times they helped me, the Messengers, looking human mostly, but sometimes you can see something about the eyes even before the jaws do it. But I knew about the King of the World and His Messengers, so when they turned on me, I knelt to them.'
'You dear silly man, I don't think you know what you're playing with.'
She drove on in silence, keeping her foot on the accelerator; looking back, the train was not even in sight yet. In the headlights' gleam the railway and the road were parallel lines stretching on to doom.
'I am not on good terms with your masters,' she said. 'Will you need to do anything about that?'
'Not my business to do that; he said. 'I may ferry them across the plains to do what mortal reason indicates is no good; but as for myself, right's right and wrong's wrong, isn't it? I mean, for a Demon Lord the path to enlightenment might be through all sorts of things you or I wouldn't be allowed to do, see what I mean? Tuskegoun Lama told me so.'
'I thought you were Tuskegoun Lama.'
'Well I am now, most of the time. But he was our master and you don't let legends die, not when you're winning. So I and his other disciples, we took his place when he died of the influenza, didn't we? Able Seaman Satchell, miss; First Class. By the way, miss,' he said. 'You don't half pong.'
'Oh,' she said, 'sorry. The front of my jacket and skirt are soaked in blood; one of your Lords Goros' blood, I fear.'
'Why don't you stop and change your clothes? You can't turn up in Urga smelling like that. They're all Buddhists there, and they consider blood tactless. Except for the Baron, and he goes to the other extreme, doesn't he?'
'I would stop and change except that I can't trust you, can I?'
'Miss,' he said. 'We are both English, after all. Ask me anything you like and I'll prove it to you.
'Sing Burlington Bertie and I'll trust you.'
So he did; somehow the thought of Vesta Tilley was reassuring.
Some miles later, he told her to turn off the road down a track that led to a small stone but and a raised mound. He led her inside the hut, where there was a well; he pulled up water for her. In spite of the cold outside the water from the well was almost boiling; she was not even going to ask.
He left the but and she stripped off her bloody clothes and washed herself in the water; the fur was only slightly stained, but her skirt and jacket and blouse were irredeemably soaked. She changed into her riding breeches and jacket and put on her last blouse. Informality might not be her best protection here, but it would have to do. She bundled up the soiled clothes and took them outside.
'I would like to bury these,' she said.
'Not here,' he said, 'not near the mound.'
'This is the tomb of Lord Boltis Van. Four years ago, the Whites came upon three Reds at the well-head and strangled them where they stood. Ever since, a demon of death by violence has stalked the land. Boltis Van lies here, far from Uliassutai, as a guardian, if even throttling weakens him I dare not let the place be polluted with the life blood of a Goro.'
Sometimes there is no point in explaining the foolishness of superstition to someone.
She let him drive back to the road, and then along it with the dawn at their left, and slept in the back seat. When she awoke, it was almost evening, and he was gone. There was a note: 'Train passed one hour ago; hid car among larches; bandit to kill and my Master's summons to obey. Clothes buried. Sorry to leave you. S.' She drove on.
In the distance, where the road and track headed, there were lights against the dark plain and the stars, and after an hour or so it became clear that ahead there was a city. Beside the road there was something that glimmered in her headlights, endless piles of bones in the snow; there had been a Chinese army in Urga once, and now it lay here beside the road, stripped by buzzards and by wolves.
With a shout, horsemen converged on her from the sides of the road, leaping the bones; she pulled to a halt and put her hands in the air. One of the horsemen dismounted, climbed on the running board and held a revolver to her head.
'I wish,' she said in aloud and commanding voice, 'to see General Roman Theodorovich Ungarn von Sternberg.'
'It might be easier with you,' said the officer commanding them, standing beside the road. He kicked a skull to pieces under his feet as he walked towards her; the man whose revolver was at her temple looked to him for approval.
'It might be easier if I told my man to fire,' he continued.
'I wish to see General Roman Theodorovich Ungarn von Sternberg.'
'As you wish, Miss Matthews,' said the young captain, his monocle making his left eye a white blur in her headlights, 'as you wish.'
Urga was a city of amorphous shapes, in which most of the buildings were either tents, or looked like them; arc lights blazed prodigally, throwing the, shadows of men and temples into each other's beams. The whole city stank of disinfectant. The gun still at her temple, the horsemen still surrounding her, Charlotte drove the car after the captain through the dark and empty streets; she knew it was only the curfew, but it was as silent as a city of the dead.
The young officer pulled up his horse and his man pressed the revolver harder against Charlotte's temple; she braked the car and he went sprawling off her running-board on to the hard paving of the street. He jumped up with his revolver in both hands and his officer quirted him across the eyes so that he dropped the gun as he covered them with his hands. His companions brought up his horse, in the silence of resentment, and they rode away, clattering on the stones, leaving Charlotte alone with their officer.
They had stopped outside a not especially distinguished building between two temples. Charlotte dropped her muff on the floor of the car, descended and, raising her hands in the air, followed him through the door, across a paved hall and into a room where a small man sat at a large table. He had a sabre scar that crossed his forehead and disappeared into his straggling long blond hair; his moustaches trailed on to his shoulders. Schmidt sat at one end of the table; his face looked hardly scratched. The young officer showed her in, saluted his general with a black-gloved hand and promptly left, clicking his heels as he went.
'I am Raman Theodorovich Ungarn von Sternberg, Mademoiselle Matthews,' he said. 'Would you care to explain what you were doing with my car?'
'I was crossing Mongolia with Captain Schmidt here,' said Charlotte. 'I don't wish to criticize a doubtless gallant officer, who has been under a lot of strain. None the less, he is a man and I am a woman, and I have my honour to defend, and I had to take steps...'
'Schmidt, you scoundrel,' Ungarn shouted. 'Guards, take this man and throw him in a cell.'
Two of the guards who lined the wall walked over and seized Schmidt by the arms, kicking his chair from under him.
'Besides,' Charlotte said, 'are you sure he is Kolchak's man? In Oulen-Oude they seemed sure, but you know how slack they are in Oulen-Oude. In Novonicolaevsk the Cheka were as prepared to dance to his tune as Kolchak's men were later.'
'Charlotte Matthews,' said Schmidt, in tones that werealmost admiration, 'you are a demon from Hell. This is a better hunt than I had hoped.'
'Take him away,' said Ungarn, his scar blazing on his forehead. 'I do not want to look at his traitor's face any longer. And fetch this lady a chair and some tea; she is swooning as we watch.'
He fussed around gallantly; strange how the really dangerous ones are always the most gushing. Charlotte did not approve of gambling, but her brother had once made her play his system at Monte Carlo. The dizziness that came over her now was the exhilaration of a successful spin of the wheel.
'Rien ne va plus, Herr Schmidt,' she said as they led him away.
'Mademoiselle Matthews,' said Ungarn, 'you are the sister of the scholar who was killed west of here, I presume.'
'Yes,' she said. 'I have come to take his papers back to London, and to find out why he was killed.'
'Why he was killed, I can tell you,' said Ungarn. She waited.
'It was as it ever is: the law of the strong and the weak,' Ungarn said. 'A scholar cannot fight a beast of prey. Nor should he presume to. It was the law of Karma; destiny, mademoiselle, is the beast of prey before whom we are all weak. You are, I trust, noble enough not to need words of comfort.'
This was not, Charlotte decided, the moment for a lecture on the virtues of the intellectual middle classes. 'You are too kind,' she said.
'Do you think so?' he said, inconsequentially. 'I sometimes worry about that. Destiny demands more of me than kindness.'
'Shakespeare says something about being cruel to be kind,' she murmured.
'Ah yes, Gamlet, the closet scene. How often Shakespeare understands the deepest human motives, mademoiselle. I entreat you to believe that I would rather be a monk than a lord of war - yet the world grows full of degenerates, ever breeding more degenerates for souls to be trapped by. If virtue is to be rewarded with ever higher forms, we must destroy degeneracy wherever we find it. I am the Sword of Karma, mademoiselle.'
'By the way,' he said. 'You heard of your brother's death when you were where?'
'In Paris,' she said. 'I heard in Paris.'
'Yet your brother died near Uliassutai and the Chinese dynamited the telegraph line from Uliassutai to Irkutsk last November. How did you know he was dead, mademoiselle? How did you know so quickly if you are not an agent of the Reds? Answer quickly, mademoiselle; I burn agents of the International.'
'He was my twin,' said Charlotte. 'When he was wounded on the Somme, I collapsed a thousand miles away. When he died in Uliassutai, I felt teeth in my throat in Paris. I have cast aside superstition but beyond superstition, Baron, some things are none the less true.'
'That is true,' said Ungarn. 'But you will be watched none the less.'
The young officer who had brought her to Ungarn returned to the room. With him was the guard who had led Schmidt away, nursing a left wrist whose hand hung limp; his right hand was over his mouth from which blood gushed, as well as from his nose.
'Sir,' the young officer said, 'I thought it best to disturb you.'
'Yes, Visoloffsky,' said Ungarn. 'What is it?'
'This idiot,' said Visoloffsky, striking the guard across the face again, 'has allowed Schmidt to escape. Schmidt struck the gun from his hand, and disappeared into the shadows beyond the city.' The officer's white dress gloves were stained with fresh blood.
'Ah, you should not be so harsh, Visoloffsky. Come, my man, sit down and tell me about it and we will consider what is to be done.'
The young guard sat down apprehensively at the table, a chair along from Charlotte.
Ungarn turned to his orderly. 'Give the young man some tea. Teapot, I say.'
The orderly took two steps to one side which brought him behind the young soldier, placed his hands around his neck and throttled him. Charlotte saw the whites of his eyes go red from where she sat. The orderly drew the corpse to its feet without changing his grip, and then dragged it from the room.
'Magnificent,' said Visoloffsky. 'You have a treasure there, sir.'
'You think so?' said Ungarn.
'Indeed so. Not a sound did I hear, even in this room. When Commandant Sepailoff made such a show of strangling his mistress last week, he took her to the next room to do it, and only then boasted of the silence of his method. Your man is a treasure, sir, and you are a connoisseur.'
'Mademoiselle Matthews,' said Ungarn, 'you will pardon our manners here. But this is a military front and a certain roughness is in order. You will wish to see the man Grobel, your brother's companion?'
'Yes indeed,' said Charlotte, clenching the nails of her left hand into her palm under the table.
'I thought there might be inquiries,' said Ungarn, 'and he claims not to be Jewish at all; so I deferred his death until I had a chance to interrogate him properly. I am a civilized man, after all.'
Contradiction in terms, Charlotte thought to herself.
'We will all go and see him,' said Ungarn. 'I prefer to leave scum in their cells, where someone is responsible for good order. Do not expect too much, mademoiselle; he is quite mad.'
He walked over to the desk behind him and lifted a telephone. 'Operator, get me the Living Buddha,' he barked into it. 'We may as well involve the spiritual arm,' he added in explanation.
Visoloffsky offered Charlotte his arm. 'It is not very far to the jail,' he said. 'And it is only one in the morning.
'Mademoiselle is weary from the journey,' said Ungarn.
'Do none of you ever sleep?' Charlotte said.
'I have some cocaine in my car, if you desire it, mademoiselle,' said Ungarn. 'I find it restorative, when sniffed. Or you could take it in a beverage.'
At this point, his connection was made.
'My Lord,' Ungarn said, and broke off to listen. 'Certainly, my Lord,' he eventually continued. 'There will be a reckoning for this incivility, my Lord. At once, my Lord.'
'It would appear,' he looked round at them in explanation, 'that negative influences are at work. My Lord Buddha has experienced something of a domestic crisis.'
Visoloffsky led her to the car outside, helping her in with a solicitude clearly intended to demonstrate to her just how firm his grip could be; another had been driven up into which Ungarn climbed with his orderly and a couple of other guards.
'My Lord Buddha's palace,' Ungarn ordered. Charlotte waited until the other car had moved off, and then followed it through the maze of silent streets, the car occasionally veering to left and right where the paving stones had sunk. Eventually they drew up outside a temple; it was larger and cleaner than most, and stank of incense as well as disinfectant. Ungarn led them through the great copper doors; inside were two great prayer wheels that, even as they entered, were slowing to a halt. A monk lay beside each, their faces drawn back from the teeth and their bodies twisted. Ungarn dashed to each of the wheels in turn, starting their movement again, crouching and springing from the knees with fierce energy.
'Guards,' he said, and two of his men stepped forward. 'You will keep these wheels turning. Better your unworthiness should touch them than the prayers of seven centuries should cease. 0 Lord,' he looked beyond the hall in which they stood, 'the sin is of these monks for failing their duty; let the pollution fall on them.' He kicked one of the corpses.
As they walked through the halls of the temple they found corpse after corpse, many still holding their food bowls. In the heart of the temple there sat an old man, with a jewelled headpiece, cradling the corpse of a young girl. Another girl sat beside him in a green cheongsam, her tears carving tracks in the white rice-powder of her face, and a guard stood by them, his pike moving in a slow, warning semicircle.
'How is it with you, my Lord?' said Ungarn.
'As you see,' said the old man, looking past the Baron into the shadows. He was, Charlotte realized, quite blind.
'What is it that they ate?' said Ungarn.
'Their evening gruel,' said the old man.
Boots clattered behind them into the hall. There entered several guards and a fat man whose skull was malformed, sunken into a dent as though something small and heavy had ridden there; he saluted.
'Commandant Sepailoff,' said Ungarn, 'have you any explanation for this desecration?'
'Strangling is only one of Sepailoff's hobbies,' Visoloffsky whispered to Charlotte. 'Strychnine is another.'
'I have no idea,' said Sepailoff, 'but a city that is full of rats is surely in need of rat poison. And if one rat takes the bait back to a lair of other rats ...' He shrugged.
'I had told you explicitly,' said Ungarn, 'that you could do what you liked with any Jews, any Reds, any liberals. You could even have touched enlisted men as long as you had cause, and officers, with my permission. But the monks of my Lord Buddha! That, Sepailoff, is another matter.... Guards!'
Sepailoff started to draw his revolver and Ungarn struck, quick as a cobra, with his bamboo cane. Visoloffsky had drawn his pistol and placed a bullet firmly between Sepailoff's eyes.
'Thank you, Visoloffsky,' said Ungarn. 'I would have preferred to deal with the man myself, but at least someone around here is showing vigour in the execution of their duties. Komu nijny eti tovarishi - what am I to do with such fellows? There has been too much slacking, too many pranks; it will cease. My Lord Buddha, you will accept my apologies for this inconvenience; I will of course provide you with new guards.'
'That will not be necessary,' said the old man. 'I have already summoned the servant I need.'
'I would wish, none the less,' said Ungarn, 'that you come with us at this time. We are going to see the madman Grobel.'
Charlotte noticed that Sepailoff's features had started to alter, like those of the creature on the train.
'Captain Visoloffsky,' she said. 'General Baron. What is happening to his face?'
'A trick of the light,' said Visoloffsky. 'Come on now, we are taking you to the man you have crossed the world to see.'
Ungarn glanced at the corpse. 'It is the relaxation of muscles in death, merely; it produces strange effects sometimes. I have seen this often. Come, my Lord Buddha.'
The old man rose from the steps, assisted by the girl and the pikeman. He paused to stare blindly into Charlotte's face as if his mind were memorizing her, even though he had no way of knowing she was there; he stank of drink.
'Bogdo Dhjebstung Damba Hutuktu Khan,' said Visoloffsky. 'The Living Buddha and the Lord of Mongolia.'
Ungarn dropped to his knees in front of the old man.
'My Lord,' he said.
'My Lord Ungarn,' said the old man, 'my sword and shield, how goes it with you in this life?'
'Well enough, though I have only one hundred and twenty-nine days left in it.'
'Still no change in the prophecies?' said the old man. 'I must try and persuade the Lords of Karma on this point.'
'One hundred and twenty-nine days is enough. Tomorrow, we march to Novonicolaevsk. And the Red scum will crumble as we charge.'
'Perhaps,' said the old man.
'I will build you an empire,' said Ungarn. 'Once I come to Novonicolaevsk.'
'Anyway, I thought it would amuse you, Lord, to hear us talk to the madman Grobel about the deaths of his companions. Mademoiselle Matthews here has come all the way from Paris to hear how her brother died and what, before he died, the rocks had told him.'
This time, Urga skimmed past Charlotte in a confusing blinking of lights and shadows. She concentrated on driving the car and following the car in front. Eventually they drew up at a building, the same sort of amorphous mass of stone as all those others that were not clearly temples; it stank even from the outside of sweat and urine and death, to the point where she realized it was clearly the jail. She picked up her muff and descended.
'Can you not leave that behind, mademoiselle,' said Visoloffsky. 'It is not cold inside.'
'I do not wish to touch anything,' said Charlotte. 'This whole city seems to drip with blood.'
'Let her retain it,' said Ungarn. 'I would not wish the lady inconvenienced in small things.'
The jail was a place of corridors and quiet. What guards there were stood at the corners of passages, silent and glaring, most of the doors stood open and the cells stank, over the harshness of disinfectant, of sweat and urine. The fact that the cells were empty did not reassure Charlotte, or indicate to her the likelihood here of an enlightened penal policy.
'It is quiet here,' said the Living Buddha. 'When the Chinese were here, this was such a lively place, full of the hum of busy souls.'
'I thought it best,' said Ungarn, 'to free those souls to pursue their destiny.'
'That is one way to look at things, my son,' said the old man, 'though I doubt that it is the Way.
'I know it right in my heart, my Lord,' said Ungarn. 'I know that it must be right to scythe the fields that the harvest may come.'
'Men may scythe,' said the old man, 'and men may sow, and men may water. Sometimes they may even reap. But it is not their will that ripens the corn.'
They neared the last cell on the corridor, and Charlotte heard a mumbling; a guard silently unlocked the door and the group filed into the cell. At its far end, lit from the window by the edge of an arc-light's beam, a man with grey hair slouched against the wall, the shattered left lens of his glasses glinting in the light. He continued to mutter, ignoring their presence entirely.
'Item: the mummy from the peat bog, with teeth not anthropoid. Item: the fossil from the upper Permian, with the clear impression of fur alongside dog-like bones. Item: the great crocodilian bones with the horned creature in the stomach cavity. Item: the fossil bone with the holes of a flute carved into it. Item: the seemingly anthropoid bones with the retracting leg-socket. I put it to you, gentlemen of the Academy, that the conclusions are inescapable.
'As I said,' said Ungarn, 'he is entirely mad, and useless to our purposes. Is there anything you wish to ask, mademoiselleT
'Herr Grobel,' Charlotte took a pace forwards. 'We met before the war, and then again three years ago, with my brother. I am Charlotte Matthews, Herr Grobel; and what has become of you?'
'We thought,' Grobel continued, 'we thought there was progress. We thought there was a pattern from the lowest to the highest. But there was hot blood when there was cold blood, and the cold blood won; the crawlers and the creepers beat the runners and the jumpers. We are only the tattered banner of the army that lost that war; and the side that won, the side that won went on to glory and doom. We are the sour after-taste of creation.'
'What did you and my brother discover, Herr Grobel?'
'It is not the items, Miss Matthews,' said Grobel, looking at her directly. The light showed a gaping wound on his forehead, glinting with the dark red of dried blood, the white of bone and the succulence of pus. 'It is not the items that are the evidence, it is the pattern. Your brother could not bear that pattern, and walked out into the the night when the beasts came.'
'Beasts?' said Ungarn.
'Beasts,' said Grobel, 'if you can call them beasts that came with flame and steel as well as teeth and claws.'
'Where are my brother's papers?' said Charlotte.
'Some he burned,' said Grobel. 'He said that it was not right that a generation that has known horror should know despair. Some they burned when they smashed our finds with great steel hammers.'
'What despair?' said Charlotte.
'We are not the golden harvest: we are the weeds among the stubble that will wither in a season.'
'You see mademoiselle, and my Lord Buddha,' said Ungarn, 'the results even on a man of science of the heresies of the Nazarene. Feeble-mindedness and contemptible weeping.'
'And we are only the weak vines and flowers,' Grobel went on. 'Growing up among us are the thistles and the thorns, the hardier growth.'
'Of course,' said Ungarn, 'I am glad to see a man of science who recognizes the truth. There will be an end to the unfit and those who would shelter them;: there will be a day of strength and wild horsemen trampling the Cross under their horses' hooves.'
'You fool,' said Grobel, pulling himself to his feet in time to be buffeted to the floor by a hail of blows from Ungarn's bamboo cane. Charlotte, dropping her muff,seized the Baron's right arm, held him back for a moment, and was pulled off him by two guards. Visoloffsky placed his foot firmly on the muff.
'You fool!' repeated Grobel. 'That is not what I meant at all.'
Ungarn held back a second, his bloody cane poised.
'You fool, what you do not understand is that there moves among us, silent as the shark in the ocean, a race of beings whose purposes are not ours, whatever the faces they wear. We are the stilettos of their vendettas; we are the pawns of their relaxation; we are their meat and their whore and their treasure. When we kill in battle, they are the general and the paymaster, they are the wolf, the maggot and the carrion crow. Whoever reigns, they rule.'
'I had thought that we were about to hear something of interest,' Ungarn said. 'And in the end the poor fool was only talking about the Jews.'
He turned to his orderly.
'Teapot, I say.'
'No,' Charlotte shouted. 'Lord Buddha, Bogdo Khan, how can you allow such things in your name?' she appealed.
'I cannot condemn what I cannot see,' said the blind old man, as his attendants led him from the room. 'And having renounced will, I cannot alter things as they are.'
The orderly knelt to Grobel like a nurse, his shoulders hiding his work from Charlotte's eyes and only revealing the young savant's death by the shrug of completion.
'Mademoiselle,' said Ungarn, 'that is twice that you have inconvenienced me. There will not be a third. I shall, the soothsayers tell me, die in a hundred and twenty-nine days, but I shall outlive you by as much.'
He turned to Visoloffsky.
'See to it,' he said.
'I don't suppose,' said Charlotte, 'that there is any point in asking to see the British Consul.'
'Heavens, no,' said Ungarn. 'He was one of the first men I had shot on entering Urga. My family have never liked the British, not since your sodomite King allowed my ancestor to die at the walls of Jerusalem.'
'Silly question, really,' said Charlotte, 'but I find it does no harm to pay at least lip service to the polite forms.'
'Typical conventional bourgeois hypocrisy,' said Ungarn. 'For a few moments I had confused you with an interesting mind.'
'You, sir, are a superstitious drug-crazed boor, a coward who needs servants to do his killing,' she said, hoping to make the end quick. 'Pray relieve me of your company.'
'My ancestors had servants and to spare,' said Upgarn. 'Riga was theirs, and the world. My servants were once many; three hundred brave fiends, and now they are few. My servants have been taken from me, but I still have some power. See to it, Visoloffsky.' He swept from the room, followed by his guards.
'You wish to pray, Mademoiselle Matthews?' said Visoloffsky as he drew his side-arm, a look of almost erotic triumph on his features.
'What big teeth you have, Herr Schmidt,' Charlotte said.
He flinched as if from a blow.
'It was the gloves - you forgot to change your gloves.' He still had his fingers on the trigger, but the look on his face was less certain or at least less defined.
'What you need to understand,' said Charlotte, 'is that I am not necessarily the enemy of your kind.'
Her putative executioner sat down on the floor next to her, attentive. 'The hunt continues, then.'
'I am making certain assumptions,' said Charlotte. 'And I trust you will delay any decision about killing me until I have run through them. And allow me the odd wrong guess.'
'Grobel and my brother found out a lot of the truth but they reacted with hysteria, not intelligence. If your people have always been here, there must have been a time when we were weak and few and you let us live, and there must have been a reason why you let us live. If there was once a third people something happened to them; I do not think that your people were their doom or you would not have let my people live. You are the creatures to whom many, many superstitions refer, but you are creatures in the presence of whom we must keep an open mind, and cast superstition aside.'
'Continue,' said her companion.
'I thought at first that you were an agent of the Cheka. The business at Novonicolaevsk was a nice piece of theatre but it had to have been arranged in advance; my presence was at sufficiently short notice that it is unlikely to have been improvised for my benefit. Killing me and replacing me with one of your own was the improvisation, so you had a mission. You serve masters beyond the Cheka and beyond Lenin, but they are as ruthless, as rational and as cold. Rational creatures might use the Baron, but would not serve him; yet you have a purpose here and it concerns him.'
She paused, and was not interrupted. 'The cause of progress has plenty of brutes and thugs to serve and to discredit it What progress needs most is a brute among its enemies so vile that people forget the crime's committed in progress's name. For a while I assumed that Ungarn was one of you, but his every word and deed stinks of man, if not of humanity. He is the scarecrow with which you hope to frighten Asia into revolution, and progress.'
'Much of this is true, Charlotte,' said her companion, drawing his sidearm once-again. 'And that is why you must die. We of progress admire cleverness, but not to the point of infatuation.'
There was a cough at the door. Bogdo Khan stood there with his attendants. Next to him there stood Tuskegoun Lama, with a drawn revolver levelled at the young man's head. 'That will not be necessary, young man,' said the Living Buddha. 'Do not treat my colleague's gun as a weapon, by the way. Treat it as a symbolic device for gaining your attention. To be on the safe side, it is a symbolic device that is loaded with silver bullets.'
'That is superstition, merely,' said Visoloffsky, or Schmidt.
'So much is,' said the Living Buddha. But as we see, superstition. is the sister of fact. I require that you depart from my city. I require that you leave Mademoiselle Matthews unharmed. I require that you tell us what you have been doing here. I am an old man and likely to die soon, but if those around me are to perish, I require to know, why.'
'That had nothing to do with me,' said Visoloffsky. 'You humans always jump to such simple-minded conclusions.'
His face shifted, not to the farm with the teeth and jaws but to something intermediate, dangerous and yet gentle.
'Tuskegoun,' he said.
The lama continued to cover him. 'I fear, my Lord Goro,' he said, 'that my loyalties come in order. My master, the real Tuskegoun, told me that when the message I should serve my Lord Buddha here, and none other. Sorry about that.'
'In any case,' said Charlotte, 'Visoloffsky, or whatever he is called, shot Sepailoff, who was one of them. Grobel said vendettas and games. How stupid of me to have missed that.'
'So,' said Bogdo Khan, 'you have your own wars. And what has been going on in my city and my kitchen is part of them.'
'Remember,' said the young man, 'I am not he whose face I wear. But he was not him either.'
'What do we call you?' Charlotte asked.
'The name of my people I may not speak. But my name is Watcher of the Flickering Lamp, in its short form. Ungarn is human, but most of his three hundred were not. When a star fell on Siberia there were those who thought it an omen, and flocked there to search for a tool.'
'It is,' said Charlotte, 'the basest of superstitions to believe that the falling of a meteorite or the passing of a comet means anything in the world.'
'Ah,' said Watcher, 'but it was not always so. Once a comet brought the fall of princes, princes that the world has not seen since; and there are those that were glad.'
'That was the Rome that fell,' said Charlotte, 'before there was Rome. The third people were the true city, were they not?'
'Just so,' said Watcher. 'The Callers of the Dark and the devotees of Chaos followed the man they met where the star fell, hoping to use him to call Darkness; I and my sisters have harried them from Vladivostok to Tannenburg. They killed our parents and their household; is this not justice?'
'Have you no brothers?' said the Living Buddha.
'There were no sons among my parents' litters,' Watcher said.
'This is all very well,' said Charlotte. 'And a scarecrow is always useful. But Ungarn marches in the morning, and you are assuming that he will lose.'
'I have set on the soothsayers to prophesy Ungarn's doom,' said Bogdo Khan. 'To tell the credulous and wicked man that his share in the common fate of humanity upon him is a work of virtue, because it means that he is made to acknowledge the workings of justice.'
'I have told the horsemen of the plains to ride with him as long as fate does so,' said Tuskegoun Lama. 'And then to turn on him, and to fulfil the prophecy.'
'The state prosecutor in Novonicolaevsk,' said Watcher, 'has an indictment drawn up. It will be a fair trial, and a humane execution.'
'And then the Reds will come to Urga,' said Bogdo Khan, 'and I will allow them to come.'
'Will that not mean your death?' said Charlotte. 'I mean, presumably there is no place for a Living Buddha in People's Republic.'
'I assume that they will kill me,' said Bogdo Khan. 'And throw down the temples and still the prayer wheels. And what of that? The world of power has its seasons, and the thing about seasons is that they change. I have no personal memory of them, but I know that I have lived many lives and will live many more. What matter if my next incarnation lives the life of a common herder or a clerk? In this incarnation I have been a lecher and a drunk, but I have -done what was necessary where a saint might not. The season will change, and the Living Buddha is eternal; you must take the long view.'
'You are really quite perceptive for a human,' said Watcher.
Everyone seemed to be busy congratulating themselves.
'This is all very well,' said Charlotte. 'But what if he wins?'
'The man is an anachronism,' said Watcher, 'and as we speak the last of the Darkcallers, and of Chaos, are being throttled or stabbed. My sisters are efficient in their work, Charlotte; you need have no fear of that.'
'I can think of one further thing,' she said, 'that will put the nails into his coffin. Ungarn is a drug fiend, is he not? How many of his followers are also?'
'Many,' said Tuskegoun Lama. 'All of his Great Russians and many of his Cossacks.'
'An inspiration,' said Bogdo Khan. 'There is a great store of the white powder in Ungarn's palace. You are right; it is best disposed of.'
'Without Dutch courage and twitching from their cravings,' said Charlotte, 'his men will be easy meat for the Bolsheviks.'
'It will be seen to,' said Tuskegoun.
Charlotte considered further. 'And the petrol, what about his stores of petrol?'
'I would like to leave you two young people together,' said the Living Buddha. 'Please refrain from further acts of violence; it would distress me to order the necessary level of penance. My men control this building for the moment; and a vehicle will be brought to you.'
He and Tuskegoun left the room; the two women looked at each other.
'A truce, then,' said Charlotte, 'until we are out of the jurisdiction of the priest-king and free of the madman.'
'A truce,' her companion agreed, 'but what then?'
'Well, I would like to know more of your people.'
'That is the trouble, is it not?' said Watcher.
'Not really; I am a scholar, not a gossip. I said I wanted to know, not that I wanted to tell the world. Grobel said my brother killed himself out of despair and I am sure that is right - despair at knowing no one would ever believe him if he told them.'
'We killed your brother, Charlotte.'
'You did not personally, yourself, nor even your sisters. And you people do what you need to. As I do. I myself killed your sister, when she tried to kill me. This cannot go on for ever.'
'That, Charlotte,' said Watcher, 'is the dearest hope of my sisters in progress.'
Tuskegoun came back into the room.
'There is a small problem,' he said. 'There is a guard over the tanks of fuel at the railway station almost as large as that on the magazine. I do not know how we are to get past them, or how we are to explode the fuel when we do. There are just too many to take by surprise, or kill in the dark, and it is but a few hours to dawn.'
'Well,' said Charlotte, 'as to the first, what could be more natural than that a general call on his troops?'
She looked at Watcher with anticipation.
'I am sorry,' she said, 'but I can't do facial hair on that scale at short notice; some of my sisters can, but I have to use false whiskers. And I don't have the right ones in stock.'
'Oh well,' said Charlotte.
'But I can call my sisters from their other work, if there is some purpose to be served.'
Charlotte picked up her muff from the floor, turned it inside out, pocketed her revolver and her razor as they fell to the floor and started unpicking the stitches around their pockets.
'It is at times such as these,' she said, 'that I always find the possession of high explosives so reassuring.'
She produced two grenades and three sticks of dynamite.
'You were carrying those all the time?' said Watcher.
'As I said, I can keep a secret.'
'And you shot my sister, with that much explosive in the vicinity?'
'Dead,' said Charlotte, 'is dead, and I prefer to have some choice in my going.'
'I could do Visoloffsky again,' said Watcher. 'They probably haven't found the body yet.'
Watcher took Charlotte's hand as they walked from the cell and along the silent corridors. They drove through the streets of Urga in a twilight that threatened perpetually to become dawn. As they drove, Watcher, called; it was not, when you listened to it carefully, nearly as much like wolfsong as it had first appeared. Gradually, at the corners of avenues, there started to be shadows with eyes, some on four legs but most on two, never quite coming to where they could be seen, and racing the car into what was left of the night.
Beside the railway tracks some hundred yards from the basic sheds that, served as a station, there were fuel tanks mounted on wagons. Around them, there was a picket fence with an armed guard at each corner. Watcher had reassumed Visoloffsky's face.
'Lieutenant,' she called out to the officer in charge, and descended from the car.
'Sir,' the man walked towards her.
'I am here to check that, all is well,' said Watcher. 'Fine, sir, but why have you brought civilians into a restricted zone, sir?'
'Security. You need not know. Have you seen anything peculiar?'
'No, sir. Will that be all, sir?' Behind him there was a sequence of sudden half-noises as Watcher's sisters flowed in from, and then back to, the shadows, leaving the corpses of the guards in their wake. It was like the Ballets Russes, Charlotte reflected.
'That will be all," said Watcher. The lieutenant turned to go, and Watcher shot him, expertly, in the base of the neck. Charlotte revved the engine and threw the sticks of dynamite, unlit, among the wagons, before pulling the pin from one of the grenades and throwing that also. She accelerated away, ducking from the blast that followed.
Suddenly, as they left the open railway-yard for the darkness of streets, another car pulled across the road in front of them.
'Does nobody obey my orders?' said Ungarn. 'Is everyone a traitor?'
Behind them the petrol wagons blazed, exploding one after another with a gulp and a roar. Through clouds of choking smoke, Ungarn's guards covered them with revolvers and rifles.
'The last of my three hundred died tonight,' said Ungarn, 'shot by their servants, or choked by their whores. And you, Visoloffsky, I have looked on what appeared to be your body. All changed into beasts as they grew cold. I do not pretend to understand, but intelligence is an overrated virtue. These men are not my three hundred but they will still shoot when I tell them to.'
'I wouldn't if I were you,' said Charlotte. 'I have a grenade here. You may kill us all, but I might kill you all the same. And if you die now, who will march on the Reds? Who will build your empire?'
Ungarn paused; as he did so, five sharp-faced women came from the shadows behind him, levelling their revolvers in turn. Their faces rippled and changed out of humanity in the light of the burning. When you cast aside prejudice, Charlotte reflected, they are really quite beautiful.
'This is all quite enough,' said Bogdo Khan, coming upon them all from another street, leaning on the shoulder of his last pikeman. 'My Lord Ungarn, are you still my sword and shield?'
'You know that I am, my Lord Buddha.'
'Then do as I say,' Bogdo Khan continued, 'and be silent for a moment. What is it that you see?'
'I see conspirators, and I see my hopes in flames,' Ungarn said. 'And I see women with the faces of beasts. And I see my duty.'
'These are illusions, my son. All, save duty.'
'Not another word,' said Bogdo Khan. 'You wish to restore the empire of Genghis? Then do it as he did, on horseback, or fail. There are no beasts here, only my servant Tuskegoun and seven women who are under my protection. Do you wish for my blessing, or for my curse?'
'My servants have been murdered,' said Ungarn, 'and I demand justice. I would like your blessing and I fear your curse, but I demand justice.'
'That you will have, I promise. When you enter Novonicolaevsk, you will have justice. Until then, these women are under my protection.'
'Very well,' said Ungarn, 'until Novonicolaevsk. As you wish, my Lord. Come, my men; it is almost dawn, and at dawn we ride. To Novonicolaevsk, and justice. Will your men ride with me?'
'If you do as I say,' said Bogdo Khan.
A light came into Ungarn's eyes. 'I will make such a speech to them; it will light a fire greater than that one over there. You will see. The fire lit. by Genghis has never ceased to burn deep in the bridled hearts of your people. All they needed was a leader, to drive them in holy war. A tautology of course; all war is holy. All is illusion, as you say; there is no good and no evil. No more than there is life or death. There is only action; there is only struggle.'
His car drove away, its motor echoing and dying away among the twilit smoky streets.
'The man is fated,' said Bogdo Khan. 'How fortunate it is that he will never enter Novonicolaevsk.'
'How can you be certain of that, even now?' said Charlotte.
'Because,' said Tuskegoun Lama, climbing out of the back seat, 'they have changed its name. It is now Novosibirsk; you have cast aside superstition, we all know that, but to a man like Ungarn even a confusion of names is the blow of doom.'
'Farewell,' said Bogdo Khan, 'I have a city to set in order, but I hope that you ladies will be able to resolve your differences. Tuskegoun, come.'
The monks and the guard moved away. Beside Charlotte, Watcher's face had changed back to features resembling the five women whose revolvers were now pointed at Charlotte. Watcher's jaw had not become so cruel, and where their eyes glowered with reflected flame, hers danced in the dawn.
Charlotte brought the hand with the grenade above the level of the car door, and then reached down and carefully placed it on the running-board. She reached into her pocket and removed revolver and razor; she shook the last bullet from its chamber, folded the razor, and put bullet, razor and revolver beside the grenade.
'There are legends,' she said. 'Legends of changelings, and of Thomas whom the Queen of a fair people taught always to speak truth. I have no family of my own now, and I claim the right to run with your pack and learn its singing, if I may, if a human can keep up with you. I can keep a secret, and I have proved that I have teeth.'
'But,' said Watcher, 'there is only one way I could bring you among my sisters.'
'I take it,' said Charlotte, 'that the hunt of which youspoke on the train is the hunt where throats are bared in turn; the hunt where both are predator and both prey; the hunt where there is no killing but the little death. That is the way you could choose to bring me among your people.'
'But alas, you would not find that congenial, surely. Most humans have prejudices in these matters.'
'When you have cast aside superstition,' said Charlotte, 'there is no end to the prejudices you can set aside. There is a people that moves among Man, subtle as the fish in the sea, whose purposes are not his. That is a saying with many meanings, you know, and we may choose between them. Your people are my people, and whither thou goest, I go. If not, then I am content, also.'
She reached up to the collar of her blouse and undid it. She bent her head over to the side, offering her throat to Watcher. Watcher undid the collar of her officer's jacket and did the same. Her sisters sheathed their revolvers and their teeth; two of them climbed into the back of the car and the other three disappeared back into the dark streets. The noise of burning guttered to silence.
'Now,' said Watcher, 'Ungarn will delay a little - he so loves to make speeches - and so we should leave now. I suggest that we drive east as long as there is fuel; we have sisters in Vladivostok.'
'Fine,' said Charlotte, 'but can any of you drive?'
'Of course,' said the sister on the left. They all changed seats and Charlotte cradled her head in the corner of Watcher's arms.
'Well, my dear,' she said, drowsily. 'Now that we have established the mating rituals, our next course of study should probably be lullabies.'
It was, the more you got used to it, ever less like the howling of wolves.
A people's court condemned Baron Roman Theodorovich Ungarn von Sternberg, bound and abandoned by the last of his men, and captured by a Bolshevik patrol. He was killed by a firing squad in Novosibirsk, on the one hundred and twenty-ninth day of the prophecy. None know where his body lies; that autumn was a busy season for gravediggers, and for wolves.