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Rasplata — Vladimir Semenov
Chapter 01b

"You may be quite sure, my dear Sir, that there will be absolutely no danger at Port Arthur, so long as the Viceroy remains there. At the very first indication of unpleasantness in that respect, he will be off. You could then always leave the place with him. Besides, it you were to give up your business there in times like these, surely you would suffer great losses ? This argument convinced G--. As it was, he had already begun to shake off, in our company, that feeling of panic, of which, to a certain extent, he also had become a victim in that train of fugitives.

The express moved off to the southward. We took G-- with us into the restaurant-car for some tea, and listened eagerly to all his news. And what were we to hear? On the evening of February 8 the Japanese destroyers had attacked our squadron, without having previously sent us a declaration of war. Our ships were lying at anchor in the outer roads, without nets, and showing usual lights. It had ended comparatively well for us. It might have been much worse.

" And next morning I saw them where they had been stranded just below the lighthouse, the Retvisan, the Tsesarevitch, the Pallada-our squadron ! The Russian squadron! Oh, gentlemen--"
G-- was silent, and put his hand to his forehead. I looked into his eyes and saw that his grief was genuine. He was a foreigner by birth, but had become one with us and the squardon, so that his feelings were no longer merely those of a tradesman. Formerly, with mild sarcasm, we used to call him "old friend." Now this term was taken seriously.
What damage was done to the ships?

I don't know exactly. The Retvisan was hit forward, the Tsesarevitch aft ; she nearly had her propellers smashed. And with all that, there is no dock which can take them in-not a single dock! The Pallada's case is not so bad. She has a big hole, but is being repaired in dock. But how is such a thing possible ? They say that money had to be saved. Very well ; but then they should not always have reported that I everything was in first rate order.' Now, of course, they will build docks, money being no object. But it is too late. Oh, our squadron ! "

" A man who is going to be beheaded need not lament the loss of his hair," I said an old fellow-traveller in a surly tone of voice. " It is too late now for lamentations. We'll get out of this mess somehow. We'll undertake something or other- "
"We shall know how to die," came in the clear voice of a young subaltern of artillery at the next table.
" That is our speciality," morosely replied an old captain, who was sitting at the same table but it is a pity to do it without any object."
" What else happened at Port Arthur?"

" What else? On the 9th they came, fired for forty minutes ' and went away. What exactly happened I don't know. Whether they intentionally fired into the town, or whether we only got their lovers,' I never enquired. Every soul who could bolted. It was said that if the fortress had been ready for war, it might have gone hard with them, but with us--"

The speaker broke off short, looked round nervously, and would not finish his sentence at any price.
" When you get to Port Arthur you will find out for yourself," he whispered in my ear. You have got acquaintances there."
That picture of general panic had burst upon us too suddenly. Its depressing effect wore off, the further south our train took us. There was unusual animation at the Stations, not to say restlessness, but it was orderly, without any symptoms of a scare.

All passengers got to share the general feeling which prevailed along our route. The Colonel literally became twenty years younger. He forgot all his sufferings, and no longer took any interest in the weather, or even in phenacetin. The official in charge of the train was for ever proving to every one, though no one had contradicted him, that his superiors had no right to forbid his going to the front. He wanted to join one of the batteries of the East Siberian Division, in which he had served his time as a volunteer. There were quite enough people to take charge of military trains. He had to take his place as officer of the Reserve. " All my people are at the front," he cried. "They won't bring any disgrace on their corps.,, He seemed to pity us for not having the honour of knowing his battery.

" The first blow miscarried. That is very important," came from one of our companions in a bass voice. " We did not keep a look-out, but now the whole of Russia is at our back." Then he continued in a sarcastic tone: " Even if we have to retire beyond Lake Baikal, to clothe ourselves in the skins of wild animals, and to live on horrible Mongolian food, we will not lay aside our arms while a single enemy remains on our soil-nay, on the continent of Asia."

In the afternoon of February 12 we reached Tashitchao. The train stopped here a short time. The station was full of life and animation. A number of artillerymen rushed into the restaurant-car and hurriedly ate a few mouthfuls of anything they could lay their hands on, Whilst they ate, they told their tale in short sentences.

" We are going to Liaoyan-from there to the Yalu. They say the enemy has already been seen near lmkau. They are supposed to have landed. We have been shunted. The frontier troops did not wait for the train. They marched off. They consisted of a horse battery and two sotnias. We have a company of rifles with us."

No one ventured to ask what these two batteries, two sotnias and a rifle company could do if the Japanese had really landed at Imkau. It was clear they were doing what they could. That was enough. When we reached Hai-Tchau during the night we were called to arms." At this place the line passes close to the seashore, not more than 2 or 3 miles off. From the beach reports had come in that many lights had been seen out at sea. One of the nearest outposts had seen parties of men, and half a sotnia of Cossacks, on guard at the station, had gone there. We could hear rifle fire. Perhaps they were Chunchuses, perhaps Japanese. It was a convenient Place to destroy the line. Telegrams flew LIP and down the line. The 9th Regiment might arrive any moment.

"We are more than twenty here, anyway," said the station-master's son, a boy of fourteen, with a Winchester rifle on his shoulder. " We'll go into the blockhouse. There we can hold out an hour or two, until the soldiers come.

There was no lack of zeal and self-confidence. All we saw and heard made a fine, encouraging impression. Kwantung greeted us next morning with a violent snowstorm. At Nangalin station G- left us. He was in hopes of reaching Port Arthur quicker by an ordinary passenger train. We of the express were tied to our luggage, and had to go via DaIny. This did not prove to be at all a simple matter. Owing to the sudden outbreak of war, the time-tables had been altered. The needs of the fortress and garrison had to be considered first. We reached DaIny all right at the appointed time ; but instead of a stoppage of quarter of an hour, we were delayed four hours. Cabs there were none. Walking in this snowstorm was impossible. Moreover, we were expecting every minute to get permission to continue our journey to Port Arthur. Our companion, the big, warmhearted man, had disappeared the moment we had arrived. Presumably he went to collect some news from his friends. Colonel L-- and I sat down in an empty railway carriage and entertained one another with our lamentations over this tiresome delay.

The station looked utterly deserted in the snowstorm. Not a sign of that life, that fresh, healthy activity, we had found in the north. The faces of the employees who passed only expressed helplessness and anxiety; often one could detect the dread of coming disaster in them. We tried to stop some of them and to question them. Their replies were always vague, and they quickly moved on again.

" They are pretending to be busy when there is nothing to do," a civilian said as he was passing.
The Colonel got ill once more, swallowed phenacetin and bromide, and abused Providence.
Towards noon the dull booming of single shots reached our ears, above the howling of the storm. 11 What is that?" I asked the conductor of the train, who happened to be passing.
" Why, don't you know? The dead from the Fenissei are being buried. "
We know nothing."
"The Yenissei ran on a mine she had laid out herself, and went down; the Boyarin also--"
I jumped up horrified.
"What? The Boyarin? What is the matter with her?
"I am on my way to join her- I am her second-in-command. Why don't you speak?"

"Speak! Speak! The devil take you!" roared the Colonel. "Why, we are quite out of the world here."

"But, gentlemen, for heaven's sake, I can't-it is forbidden, " wailed the conductor, and ran off.

Another hour passed in painful suspense. At last the whistle sounded and the train moved off. just at the last moment our missing travelling companion jumped in. He threw his snow-covered fur coat into a corner, shut the door, and dropped heavily on a seat.

"It's all over."
What? With whom is it all over?
"With us," he said fiercely, jerking out his words, "I know this sort of thing. In 1900 we had the same spectacle. Then also everything came as a surprise. We may as well throw down our cards. The Tsesarevitch, Retvisan, Pallada are hors de combat by torpedo attack. The Askold and Novik badly damaged by gun fire. The Variag and Koreets, they say, were destroyed at Chemulpo. The supply ships with ammunition have been captured at sea. The Yenissei and Boyarin are sunk by their own fault ; the Gromoboy, Rossia, Rurik, and Bogatyr are 1,000 miles off at Vladivostok. The fortress is only being pre-pared for war after war has broken out. On the 9th only three batteries were able to fire. The forts were still laid up for winter, the garrison in barracks in the town. The recoil cylinders of the guns on Electric Rock were only filled at ten in the morning, after the hostile squadron had already been reported by the look-out ship. There you are ! It's all over!"

He really never finished his sentences, but only jerked out fragmentary words. Many violent expressions of his impotent rage I have left out. But we, who happened to represent Army and Navy, listened attentively, and greedily took in every word of his, caring nothing for his violence. We felt somehow, without being quite clear about it ourselves, that he did not mean us generally, but some particular persons. Years of service had inoculated our flesh and blood with the sense of discipline. Without this we should certainly have joined in the denunciations of this strong, energetic man, who was flinging out his accusations so fiercely. And yet, strange to say, the more clearly our friend depicted our helplessness (as we afterwards found, he was right in the main), the more we felt an astonishing calmness coming over us, the more that torturing feeling, caused by ignorance and longdrawn-out tension, left us.
I looked at the Colonel. He was leaning back on the cushioned seat, his hands buried in his coat pockets, and had a look which would not have made it advisable for any one to offer him some phenacetin.

" We have been betrayed. Perhaps-at least we must assume this-not intentionally and knowingly, but we have been betrayed all the same," our companion ended, and drew a deep breath.

" If this is so, it can't be helped," cried the Colonel "but after all this is a, not very important, beginning. Behind us stands Russia. We are only the vanguard. We are nothing, but we shall do our duty."

This was the man, who only an hour ago had been so ill and weak. Now there was that same fine ring in his voice, with which that subaltern had called out: " We shall know how to die."

I regained my former confidence. At Nangalin there was again a stoppage of several hours. The restaurant-car had, for some reason or other, been left behind at Dalny and we had to get our food in the refreshment room at the station. It was a small room, grandly labelled : " First and Second Class Waiting-room." Into this were crowded all the people who were travelling through Kwantung and either wanted to reach Port Arthur or the Manchurian plains. Here the talk was neither of our failures nor of our future prospects. The crash of the torpedoes, which had robbed our fleet of part of its strength, the minute guns over the graves of our sailors, who in an evil hour had met with so sad a death, had not penetrated to this place. While the storm was howling outside and piling up the snow on the new graves, within, in the close, smoky little room, corks were popping, and the talk was of Government contracts, of fortunes which could now be amassed with little outlay, or of gambling.

We ate quickly, and hurried back to our train.

Towards 11 P.M.. we arrived at Port Arthur. The Colonel was met by an officer of his new regiment. My other travelling companion found some colleagues, and I sat there quite alone. Both promised to send me the first cab they might meet, and I had to console myself with that.

I spent a horrible half-hour in a corner of the waitingroom, where I sat with my luggage. A company of Reservists who had not yet joined their corps were celebrating their last meeting here.

The petroleum lamps shone faintly through the tobacco smoke and the fumes of the kitchen. The floor was covered with dirt and melting snow which people had brought in from the street. This was mixed with puddles of spilt wine and beer, broken glass, fragments of bottles, and remains of food. Snatches of ribald songs mingled with the brawls of drunken men. In between, phrases were being shouted, which were meant to express high and noble sentiments; there was kissing and cursing. The company could not have been more mixed. Here were small landed proprietors, commercial travellers, coachmen; workmen's blouses alongside high, stiff collars, peasants' coats and peaked caps near fur-lined overcoats and good hats or even caps of cheap Chinese sable. Some wore long, flowing beards, others were clean-shaven, after the English fashion. I saw all this as in a bad dream, and tried in vain to picture to myself the feelings of all these future defenders of Port Arthur.

Who could tell? Perhaps what I took to be drunken shouts was in reality the outward expression of a warlike spirit thirsting for action. Anyhow, I greeted the Chinaman who came to report the arrival of my cab as a saviour.

My midnight wanderings in search of a lodging are of no interest. By next morning the storm had ceased. It was calm ; there was a clear, cloudless sky and bright sunshine. At ten o'clock, when I went out to report myself to my superiors, the streets had turned into impassable swamps. Most cab-drivers had been obliged to give up their calling, as they had been called out as Reservists. The few who were left cheated their fares quite openly, asking as much as ten shillings for a five minutes' drive. During these early days their appetites had not yet been forcibly appeased. At that time the impenetrable mud had brought them in ten pounds per day, and more. This, however, by the way. During the state of fever, which seized upon every one in those days, no one paid any attention to such trifles..

I had to jump from one dry spot to another, and walk round puddles, which had grown into small ponds. Horses and carriages whisking past bespattered me with mud. Amidst all these difficulties I tried to impress on my memory the whole picture, the mood of the town in general. At every turn I met vehicles marked with a small red flag.' Heavy artillery waggons were succeeded by the light two-wheeled carts of the riflemen. Horses, mules, donkeys, were dragging about the clumsy native carts. Military escorts were marching at their sides, with their great-coats buttoned up to the chin. Here donkeys were braying, Chinese and Korean drivers shouting at one another; there a coachman was making full use of the wealth of the Russian language. Cossack orderlies, almost standing up in their stirrups, were trotting about busily. Then again came troops with bands playing. From the port one could hear the rattling of the steam winches of steamers discharging cargo. Syrens and steam whistles shrieked. Tugs were puffing and panting in front of strings of heavy lighters. Gigantic cranes stretched upwards into the clear air, like the antennae of some monsters. The penetrating sound of hammering on iron, loud shouts, and the hiss of escaping steam made a wild concert. In the distance were dimly heard fragments of the " Dubinushka, "I and the drawling notes of a Chinese song, from men pulling at a weight. Over all this was the pure sky, the resplendent sun, whilst the buzzing of the many-tongued crowd spread everywhere. It was a motley picture-people differing in race, speech, and manners. Still, one felt that in this turmoil, in this feverish activity, there was no confusion, no aimlessness. Every one was carrying out his allotted task, and trying to do it well. The big machine " Mobilisation," of which in time of peace hardly the component parts were allowed to work, was now in full swing.
The bad impression of yesterday at Dalny, Nangalin, Port Arthur, the bitter talk of my travelling companions, gave way to pleasanter feelings. This mass of what had hitherto been utter strangers was now working for one common aim and object, and I felt happy at being one of them.
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