THE PROFESSOR OF MATHEMATICS
Early the next morning, Colonel Kalpaschnecoff, Metia and I started out to visit the advanced dressing stations in the trenches.
We rode little Siberian ponies with Cossack saddles. At first, my saddle---a wooden frame with a high back over which a pillow about two inches thick had been strapped---felt rather uncomfortable, but I soon became accustomed to it.
Our road led through a great expanse of fields, bare and desolate except for a few carrion crows ---big fellows with gray wings and neck and black bodies, which walked stiffly about, their feathers fluffed out against the cold.
We clattered through a little village, the hoofs of our ponies rattling on the frozen ground. There were a few soldiers moving about in the chill morning air, and soldiers' faces peered out at us from the windows of the houses. Then we entered the great dark pine forest through which the road ran some few miles.
"This was the hunting preserve of a very wealthy Polish count," explained the Colonel, pulling his horse up beside mine. "The staff of the regiment and our main dressing station are in the big house in which he lived, which is only a mile from the trenches. It is fairly well screened by the forest but the Germans know its position exactly and they know we are using it, but they have never shelled it. I have an idea that they intend to advance soon and wish to keep the house intact to use themselves. Probably some old German general has his eye on it and is saving it for his own use."'
After several miles of forest, we came to a zemlanka or dug-out town. Here was billeted a regiment in reserve. The trees were thinned and sufficient were left to screen the "village" from hostile aeroplanes. Little could be seen above ground except mounds of earth partly concealed by pine boughs, and chimneys of mud and stones from which smoke ascended.
It was hard to realize that in that underground community there were living 4,500 men.
"We have not sufficient villages to provide billets for our troops along the Russia front," the Colonel remarked, "but our men are able to take care of themselves in the way you see. We just turn them loose in a forest like this, and with picks and shovels and axes they build themselves very comfortable dug-outs in a couple of days."
We dismounted, tied our horses to a tree, and went into one of the earth houses. We had to descend some five or six steps cut in the earth and then entered a door made of saplings nailed together. It was rather dark inside but warm.
As we entered a loud voice called sharply: "Smeerna!" --- "Attention!" --- and twenty men stood erect in the narrow aisle between the bunks on either side.
"Volna!"---"At ease !"---ordered the Colonel, and the men relaxed. The Colonel explained that we wished to see their quarters, and they smilingly made way for us.
The Russian soldier always carries with him a roll of rye straw, about two inches thick, six feet long and two and a half wide, held together at the edges by cord woven into the straw. This produces a dry, comfortable pallet which, when unrolled, can be easily dried, or burned when soiled and a new one made, for each man makes his own.
These pallets were thrown on the bunks, which were made of saplings covered with pine boughs. The dug-out was heated by a stove cleverly constructed of brick and mud. As it was below the surface of the ground, the walls were of earth but the roof was of closely laid poles covered by a layer of pine boughs and then a thick layer of earth.
After inspecting the dug-out, we remounted and rode on, coming finally to a large clearing in the center of which stood the great house where the regimental staff was quartered.
As we dismounted, a battery nearby let go four shots in rapid succession, followed by the whiz of the shells as they sped away toward the German lines a mile distant.
I had heard only faint artillery fire that morning---just a distant muttering far to the north---and the sudden sharp bark of the battery at dose quarters---they were concealed in the woods barely a hundred yards away---startled me and brought home the fact rather suddenly that I was getting near the front.
We first called on the commander of the regiment, a short, bearded man, who was seated at a table in a large room partly dismantled but containing a fine grand piano and several large pieces of old furniture which had apparently proven too heavy to cart off in a hurry.
Colonel Starik greeted me cordially and said he was glad I was to work in his regiment.
We then visited our main dressing station located in what had been the lodge of the gamekeeper,
The student who was to work with me was a little chap, thin, wearing thick spectacles. He had a large generous smile.
He did not speak English but requested Colonel Kalpaschnecoff to ask me to look at a German who had been wounded in "No Man's Land" two nights before and who had been found early that morning by a Russian patrol lying half-dead from exposure and brought in.
We entered a little room and as I opened the door my nostrils were assailed by an odor I knew only too well---the unmistakable sign of that dread condition known as gangrenous emphysema.
The wounded German was a fine-looking man of about thirty-six. His great brown eyes looked into mine with the expression of a hunted animal. He was pallid and weak.
I examined the wound. A rifle bullet had entered the thigh near the hip joint and emerged in the groin. The limb was badly discolored and swollen---the purplish area extending up into the abdominal wall. When pressed on, the tissues gave forth a crackling sound caused by minute accumulations of gas produced by the deadly bacillus.
I turned to the student and he, seeing my expression, led me from the room. I told him, through Metia, that the condition had extended too high in the abdomen for amputation. All we could do was to incise the tissues with long free incisions, drain off the horrid brown discharge and gas, and apply a moist dressing of hydrogen peroxide, which was the treatment then in use in France.
"There isn't a chance for him, however," I told Metia, "and you had better talk to him and find out where he lived, who he is, and whether we can do anything for him. He looks very refined---too intelligent for a private."
Metia spoke German well and questioned the German.
In a faint voice, he told us that he was German professor of mathematics in a little college town in Germany, was married and had three children. He had been drafted as a private and was about to be made a sergeant when he was wounded.
"I was ordered by my commanding officer the other night," he said, "to crawl out between the lines and approach the Russian trenches as closely as possible, where I was to listen for a suspected digging party which he feared were running out a sap to lay a mine under our trenches.
"I crawled up close to the Russian barbed wire, and lay there listening. just after a rocket had flared up from your trenches, several shots were fired and I felt a sharp burning pain in my hip. I tried to move my leg but I couldn't.
"I was bleeding badly and lay a long time waiting for death. I don't know how long. Finally the pain became worse and by a frantic effort I managed to crawl a few yards back toward our lines. My leg dragged on the ground and I crawled with my arms alone, a few feet at a time. It began to grow light in the east. I was so cold, so tired, in so much agony, that when I came to a shell-hole I crawled into it and fainted away. I regained consciousness several times that day and the next night, then I knew nothing until I woke up here. Do you think I will get well? I want to write to my wife. Can a letter be sent from here ?"
All this Metia got from him by patient questioning, as he was too weak to talk much at a time.
Metia promised to write a letter at his dictation after he had been fixed up a little by the American doctor he had just seen.
He consented to the treatment I had suggested, so we got things ready, gave him some ether and operated.
He reacted fairly well and that evening was able to dictate a pathetic letter to his wife and little ones. He told them that he would be well soon and that while he would be in prison in Russia he did not mind that, as the Russians were good and kind to him. He would not be killed in battle anyway, and was sure to see them again after the war, which could not last much longer. He added that he felt sure of recovering because of the skill of an American surgeon who was attending him.
The poor fellow lived two days. We kept him fairly comfortable with morphine, but the infection was too virulent and he succumbed. They buried him in the little cemetery, under the dark pines, a Russian priest officiating. All the staff attended and we stood with heads bared, while the cold wind sighed through the branches of the trees. A cross of wood with his name and regiment inscribed on it was placed at his grave, where he sleeps in company with others who were once his foes. Metia wrote a second letter to the wife in the little town in Germany.
The kindness which the Russian officers showed to this German during his last few days is worth recording because it is typical of the conduct of the Russian military throughout this whole war---at least for all I was ever able to observe to the contrary. The colonel commanding the regiment came to see the wounded German twice a day to inquire if there was anything he wished, and many other officers would make similar visits every day.
But to return to my visit to the regimental staff. The operation had kept me busy all the afternoon and we did not have time that day to go to the trenches where the two advanced dressing stations were.
After dinner at the staff, an old artillery officer, a colonel, long in the service, sat down at the piano and played some wonderful music, while the rest of us sat about smoking.
Occasionally the windows would rattle and the old house vibrate as a battery nearby would send an evening message to the Germans, but the sound was more or less muffled by the thick walls.
It was difficult to realize that within a mile lay the trenches filled with men striving to kill each other while we sat there listening to the sweet music of Mendelssohn and Rubinstein.
Before retiring I walked out in front of the house. It was dark and still---not a breath of air stirring. Myriads of stars were sparkling coldly in the velvet pall of the heavens. Over the black tops of the pine forests, far away, toward the trenches, the sky. suddenly lighted up with a ghostly quivering white glare as a trench rocket split the darkness, flickered a moment, and was gone. Then came the crackle of rifle shots, faint and far off, and then silence again.
I stood listening and watching for more rockets but none appeared and I turned to go in when suddenly the air was filled with a horrid screeching sound. Nearer and nearer it came from the black sky overhead, over the pines, increasing in intensity as it approached and its pitch growing shriller. I instinctively crouched, my muscles tense, my teeth clenched, waiting I knew not for what. Whatever it was seemed to be about to land at my feet. Then came a red angry flash, followed by a terrific explosion, in the forest a hundred yards to my right, and a humming in the air like the sound a large nail used to make when I had thrown it as a child, and then the sound of falling fragments of earth and metal. A horse screamed over where the thing had burst.
Kalpaschnecoff had strolled calmly out to where I stood, his cigarette glowing in the darkness.
"The Boches are straffing our battery a bit," he said. "Here comes another!"
Sure enough I could hear the same screaming sound as the big shell described its trajectory, then another flash and roar in the trees and the humming of steel fragments in the air.
This time I did not mind it so much. With the Colonel by my side, it was not so lonely, and I had a warning of what was coming.
"Will our battery answer?" I asked.
"Not now; they are sitting down snugly in their bomb-proofs. What would be the use of their exposing themselves? You say you heard a horse scream? Likely they are bringing up ammunition and one of the cannon team was hit. They have cut him loose and driven off by this time, though, and the Germans won't catch another."
The Boches fired only those two shots. Evidently they had hoped to catch some one above ground or a supply column at work unloading shells, and the next morning we learned that the Colonel had been correct in his surmise---one of the lead horses of a caisson which was unloading shells had been hit by a fragment and died in a few moments, but the soldiers had hastily cut the traces and driven off before the second shell had landed.
Chapter Eight: In the Russian trenches.