They heard the shrill pitch of its whistle cut through the particles of the spring sky, and the chuffing puffs of its furnace from miles away. A solitary light occupied the top of its monstrous round face, giving it the appearance of a vast, pitiless iron cyclops rolling meter by meter further into the motherland.
As it traversed the pastoral fields of western Russia, belching its dense, creamy plumes into the pure blue sky, the mysterious train continued to hold the peasants under its sinister spell. Nobody knew exactly from whence this lengthy demon—some had estimated the locomotive plus its railway cars and rolling stock reached over two hundred metres—had come, and by what route it had entered their country. Some said it had been sent from Germany to wreck the Gosduma, while others swore it had meandered through Sweden and Finland like a stealthy snake and was full of dangerous men intent on toppling Kerensky. One thing was certain however: its passengers were coming to claim Russia as their prize, and the souls of her people as additional spoils.
This foreign train did not obey any signals or follow instructions as it careered through the troubled terrain of a burning Russia. It continued past the battles, the gunfire and the screams with its cold, mechanical indifference. The vast plains strewn with the dirty corpses of men in rigor mortis with their eyes staring into the infinite space of death meant nothing to the fiery iron behemoth. Likewise, the corpses swinging by the necks from trees and telephone poles, with deceptive serenity in their faces, made no effect on its progress.
Major Konstantin sat astride his steed and watched the train approach in the distance through his field glasses. He saw the machine emerge from a tunnel that cut through a hill, and he heard the sound of its frightful whistle from a distance of two kilometres. So, this was the troublesome train I have been ordered to stop, he thought to himself wearily. He was an officer serving the Provisional Government, which was being pulled from post to post and struggling to keep the country together with revolutionaries springing out of ditches and from under bridges like rats to ambush his comrades. Towns were being looted, and the virus of dissent was coursing through the army with alarming rapidity. Mutiny, desertion and maintaining public order in the streets of Petrograd were more important issues in his opinion than halting ghostly trains.
He turned to his mounted subordinates, Levchenko and Koralov.
“So, what do you think of this noisy intruder that our superiors are getting so worked up about? Are they over-reacting about a mere vehicle moving through our land, and getting worked over a mere trifle when the unity of our country is being torn apart?”
Major Konstantin often tested his soldiers with questions intended to measure the calibre of their judgement. Gut instinct was the essence he judged men most highly by in the field, even though it was not a soldierly prerequisite listed in the training manuals of the military academy he had attended. He’d been guided by enough of it in the revolution of 1905 to recognize examples of it that served the most valuable utility of survival.
“It probably does not concern us sir. I’d say it’s just a specially chartered train for the royal family. They are probably moving their treasures out of the country, and perhaps their family and entourage, to safety while the rest of us perish in the coming chaos. I’d say that this train is on its way to collect such cargo.” Sergei Levchenko gripped his reins to steady his horse, and he patted its mane with a gloved hand as he continued. “They are probably having their art and their gold sent for safe-keeping to palaces in Austria or Zurich, where their relatives will hoard them, and prepare mansions for the Romanovs. As we all know, there’s no ‘loyalty with royalty’. The elite look out for the elite, who could care less for the fate of the peasant or vassal.”
Konstantin decided to let Levchenko’s treasonous remarks pass without rebuke, for they were living in turbulent times and the Tsar’s conduct over the past couple of years had significantly eroded his own respect for the man he had once sworn military oaths to serve. He sympathized with Levchenko’s view; the Tsar had acted like a man whose recklessness had set fire to his home and whose weakness and indecision has allowed it to burn. Now that house, Russia, was burning with a destructive intensity which nothing could extinguish.
“And is that why it doesn’t stop at any stations, even when ordered to do so?” Konstantin asked.
“I think that’s a reasonable assumption sir, since royalty is obedient to no one.”
“Do you agree Koralov?” Konstantin sent the question to the lean, swarthy Cossack to Levchenko’s left sitting astride a muscular horse. His cheekbones were angular, and his eyes alert. His moustache and eyebrows were neatly trimmed, and he wore the sturdy hat of his regiment. He looked upon the world with a mystical, penetrating suspicion and was grudgingly admired by his comrades for possessing a ‘sixth sense’ where danger was concerned.
This intuition, this sightless recognition of the ominous had alerted patrols to potential ambushes many times and sensed the minute muzzles of distant sniper rifles poking through the ferns on so many occasions. Although his second sight had saved many, it had not earned him the gratitude of all. He was feared and distrusted by some of the god-fearing soldiers, who were uncomfortable with his mysterious pagan aura. Some said he communicated with spirits and could read minds. Many gave him a wide berth in the barracks and mess-halls.
“If you want my honest opinion sir, this train will bring death, misery and destruction on a huge scale into the country and should be turned around at all costs.”
“I thought that would be your view Corporal Koralov”, said Konstantin. “Tell me, what is this view based on? Is your impression based on rational knowledge or something supernatural?”
Levchenko rolled his eyes derisively and wanted to let out a sigh of disgust, however he knew better than to reveal his contempt for the question. Not only would this be an insubordinate and disrespectful action in front of his commanding officer, but the major would also not stand for any mockery of Koralov, whose powers as a battlefield seer he actually respected. Such nonsense the major believes, thought Levchenko. At that moment, Koralov glanced at him with his intense, penetrating eyes and Levchenko was momentarily unnerved by the idea that his Cossack comrade had intercepted his thought. Koralov then addressed his commander:
“When this train approaches, they say all the birds in the vicinity take flight the moment its whistle sounds and never return. Crops die and wheat fails in the fields that surround the tracks this locomotive of darkness rolls over.”
Konstantin ignored the curling lip of Levchenko forming into a sneer. While he valued Levchenko’s practical qualities as a soldier, he regarded him as a bucolic, simple-minded animal unable to grasp the potential of gut instinct, or of the paranormal.
“I have also heard of men whose wives have miscarried as the train passed their villages, and villages whose wells have become poisoned by its passing”, said Koralov surveying the fertile steppe that lay in front of them. As he glimpsed the billowing smoke of the train in the distance, he knew that the fecundity of the fields was in peril. He had not tried to explain the terrible visions he had experienced the previous night, while lying awake in his tent. He had seen Russians herded like beasts into cages, whipped, degraded and starved to death. Bloated bodies filled the rivers, and walking skeletons haunted the streets. He had slept, and through sleep came the dreadful montage worse than his lifetime’s nightmares combined. First, the face of the train was hurtling towards him and in the dream the headlight was now a monstrous, glowing Eye of Providence, and the whistle emitted a resounding scream that seemed to encapsulate the voices of millions. The eye’s glow became brighter until it filled his vision with a white wall of light which lasted only a second before it was replaced by a vast mural showing giant men with goatish features, depraved expressions and demented smiles looking down on the mass of helpless people as though they were insects they were going to squash.
Levchenko expelled a dismissive sound. “Wives indeed! I think the tales of old wives are working on Corporal Koralov’s imagination.”
Koralov did not respond. He was lower in rank, and a Cossack.
“Well, we’ll find out soon enough who the passengers of this infernal convoy are and whether they are up to no good”, said the major. “Sergeant”, he addressed Levchenko in the tone of command. “Prepare to stop the train.”
Levchenko nodded, disappointed in his commanding officer’s judgement. He seized his horse’s reins and cantered forward about fifty yards until he was alongside the row of infantry that had been stationed by the railway embankment for the past two hours. With their flat-peaked caps casting shadow over their weather-hardened faces, and grimy blankets slung over their shoulders, they looked like military vagabonds destined for a lifetime of hardship. Now they were obliged to earn their meagre keep for the new administration, for the train was approaching, growing larger and larger with each puff and each new jet of smog spewed into the sky. Its eye glowed, and the sight made Koralov shudder. He was certain that the devil’s emissaries were approaching.
Levchenko bellowed: “Shoulder arms!” The foot-soldiers shouldered their rifles.
Levchenko then instructed them to form two lines, with one kneeling and the other standing, so that a double fusillade could be fired at the train from the side should its driver disobey his command to stop. To further compel the vehicle’s compliance, a 12-pounder gun procured from the artillery positioned close to the embankment had its muzzle pointed in the direction of the oncoming train, with two surly-faced gunners ready to load and fire it.
The face of the train continued to grow in front of them, and the moving geyser’s foamy column in the sky correspondingly increased in size, while the clack-clack sound of its driving wheels in motion became more pronounced. It was now about three hundred metres down the track, and the glossy black metallic sheen of the locomotive’s boiler and cab glinted in the sunlight, while its piston rods turned frenzied revolutions like giant steel limbs. Major Konstantin had seen a few trains in his life but decided that none looked more intimidating than this one.
The deafening whistle made all of the men start, and Koralov wince. When the Cossack heard the sound, he saw for a brief second a vision of the goatish, sneering tyrants from his dream again. This time they were looking down on the country while seated on vast golden thrones high up in the sky like the corrupted gods of a prostitute pantheon. Shadowy silhouettes loitered behind them, whispering into their ears. These gods were eating caviar and watching masses of people starving so badly that they were eating their own flesh.
“Major! We must not let this train reach Petrograd. It must be stopped or destroyed!”
“Let’s not be hasty Corporal Koralov. We don’t know who or what’s on board”, said Konstantin, feeling it was prudent to be cautious. However, he shared the Cossack’s misgivings about this particular engine. This conscientious and loyal soldier has a special gift, he told himself. He deserves more respect from his fellow men, but how did he know the train was destined for Petrograd?
“All will be revealed soon”, he told Koralov as he looked at Levchenko, who had urged his horse onto the tracks and was now sitting astride it in the direct path of the oncoming locomotive. He withdrew and raised his sabre, pointing it in the direction of the train with the hope that the driver in his cab would not fail to recognize such an unambiguous order to apply the brakes. To reinforce the message, two soldiers held a large wooden sign next to the track with STOP painted in large white letters. However, it became clear that the driver was not willing to take his cue because the train rolled on, until it was less than a hundred metres from Levchenko.
The horse whinnied and snorted and its rider, not wishing to become a gruesome casualty of the major’s pig-headed orders, pulled the reins and the horse trotted off the tracks to the safety of the embankment’s side.
“Fire a warning shot!”, shouted Levchenko to the men manning the cannon. One second later the report of the gun was followed by a squirt of smoke from its muzzle. The cannon fired at a forty-five degree angle to the approaching train, and the solid projectile whizzed over the locomotive cab, just missing it, and continued its destructive trajectory into the fields beyond. Suddenly the sharp screeching of the brakes occurred, and the train started to slow down, with its massive momentum taking it meter by meter until it edged to a stop some thirty meters beyond Levchenko and the infantry.
There, stationary in front of them, was the great iron brute that had stirred so many rumours throughout the land: the mysterious, baleful trespassing machine that had put so much consternation in the heart of the Provisional Government. Maybe there are some spies, or smugglers, or even military deserters on board, thought Konstantin. He was determined to get all of the answers out of this secretive train that had caused him to have a week’s leave cancelled. When Koralov saw the hissing steam from the boiler dissipating around the tracks, he shuddered. The acrid smell of the smoke filled their nostrils, and Koralov believed they were inhaling the breath of Moloch because the malefic presence was so tangible to him. They have come, he told himself. They have come. This thing carries a cargo of cruelty these men will not comprehend until it makes them scream so loud it will be heard for centuries.
Konstantin and Koralov rode forward to the embankment, where the major commanded the troops to surround the train and keep aiming their rifles at the windows and doors of the compartments. Levchenko was ordered to the driver’s cab to locate the operator. When Levchenko was parallel with the small window of the driver cab, he called up to the two middle-aged men in the cab who had grizzled, soot-blackened faces. They did not answer, and Levchenko demanded to know where the train was from and pointed the tip of his sabre at them to encourage their speech.
“Wir sprechen kein Russisch”, said one of the men.
“The driver answered me in German sir”, Levchenko called to the major, who was scrutinizing the red cargo wagons behind the passenger carriages. On the sides of the wagons a foreign language was printed.
“What does it say?” the major asked Koralov pointing to the yellow Roman alphabet running horizontally along the bottom panel of one of the massive crates.
Koralov looked at the writing. The limited English he had once learned from the priest of the Orthodox Church who had once taught in his village was not required to decipher the script, for his intuition told him that it was trading name of a banking house in Sweden.
“What the devil are they sending into Russia?” asked the major, and he turned his horse around and rode down to meet Levchenko by the main passenger carriage. Koralov followed. They all looked up at the windows of the carriage, which had an exterior of glossy varnished oak, and saw several faces peering down at them from behind the windows. One of the faces was of an attractive woman with jet black hair pulled back into a bun looking down at them all with a disapproving gaze. Suddenly a moustachioed man in a mustard-coloured uniform and wearing a Pickelhaube helmet appeared at the door of the carriage above the Russians.
“Who is aboard this train and where is it going?” asked the major in a stentorian voice.
“Wir sind eine Handelsdelegation aus der Schweiz”, said the man betraying apprehension in his foreign tongue.
“Something about a trade delegation”, said Levchenko giving a crude translation.
Konstantin ordered the soldiers to keep their rifles shouldered, and for Levchenko and Koralov to dismount and follow him up the small ladder under the door to board the train. They met no resistance from the guard, who obeyed their instruction to surrender his weapon but was unable to satisfy Levchenko’s demand for identity papers. The three of them passed through the first door into the train compartment.
Inside, the interior of the carriage was lavishly furnished in the style of a saloon with a long, plush couch covered in bright red velvet. Opposite the couch was a vast oak table with books, pens and files strewn across it. Thick black curtains embellished each side of the carriage, offering the occupants privacy whenever they desired it. Two standing men confronted Konstantin, Koralov and Levchenko as they entered. They wore high-class, three-piece suits cut from good cloth and looked at the soldiers warily. One was bearded, and well-built while the other was slightly built, with gaunt features, aquiline nose and gold-rimmed spectacles. Seated on the couch was a sallow-faced, balding man with a thick moustache and subtly trimmed remnant of a beard. He was smiling, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile. There was a piggy quality to his face, and his dark, deep-set eyes emitted conceit. He sneered at the Russian soldiers, and Konstantin recognized the look with dismay. He had seen such mannerisms only in the untouchables patronized by the all-powerful. It was an insider’s smile. And yet, this man, who clearly lorded it over all occupants of this train with a voiceless authority, including the two lackeys close to him, had a strangely hollow quality that Konstantin could not fathom. It was as if his very presence was an elaborate contrivance, as though his soul was one giant misty illusion created by master magicians. Where was Koralov’s renowned second-sight when he needed it, he thought irritably. He glanced at the Cossack corporal and was bewildered by the pale expression on the soldier’s face which appeared to be enforcing his silence.
Say something damn you, thought Konstantin. Give me some guidance. It was Levchenko who spoke first.
“We are soldiers of the Provisional Russian Army and have orders to stop this train. We demand to know your final destination and your business in Russia. If you do not satisfy us with your answers, we will have you arrested and this entire train searched from top to bottom.” Levchenko grasped the hilt of his sabre as he spoke, intending to show some power over the situation. Since it was clear that train was not carrying Romanov treasures as he had suspected, he felt that he now owed his commanding officer his loyalty and initiative in getting this infernal mystery solved.
There was a pause before the gaunt, bespectacled man spoke. Before speaking, he gave out a condescending chuckle which incensed Konstantin.
“Comrade! I think you’ll find our journey and safe passage is guaranteed by those in the highest possible authority.” With this he reached into the breast pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it over to Levchenko, who in turn gave it to Major Konstantin. Konstantin grabbed the paper and glared at the impudent man, and then at the reclining man whose serenity infuriated him. This balding dog acts as if he hasn’t a care in the world, thought Konstantin. And where had he seen that impish, bearded face before? In a faded, time-distant newspaper article about exiled revolutionaries long since discarded? Was the name Vladimir Ilyich? He couldn’t recall: the damned vodka had addled his brain.
“What the devil is the meaning of this!” he exclaimed on reading the note.
“Just as it says comrade”, spoke the entourage’s mouthpiece in an émigré Russian accent which had already aroused Levchenko’s suspicions.
Konstantin passed the note to Levchenko, who gasped when he saw the instruction from the prime minister himself stating that the train was carrying patriots with an important assignment, and that they should not be obstructed on their way to Petrograd under any circumstances.
“Major!” spluttered a gasping Koralov.
Levchenko and Konstantin turned to the Cossack, whose face was possessed by a pallor normally seen on corpses. Terror had prised his eyes wide open and pulled his lips apart. In addition, he was trembling. Koralov saw what ordinary mortals did not. The gift had been recognised and developed by the shaman in his childhood village. Sitting on either side of the bald man, and standing behind his couch, was a historic assembly of evil, brutality and sedition invisible to his colleagues. There was a Persian king of antiquity, his face smothered by a dense black beard holding a gold goblet with what looked like blood flowing from his lips. Next to him was a sneering man in a toga running his finger over the bloodied blade of a dagger. There were haughty, corpulent men in renaissance tunics, and black robed Venetians in gold masks leaning into the bald man’s ear with cupped hands whispering what could only have been intrigues. Standing between a pair of hawk-featured monarchs who were decked in jewels and breathing depravity was Vlad Tepes The Impaler seeking out weakness with his eyes. There were also sinister presences from the 17th century foppishly dressed in breeches and wide floppy hats, ready to thrust daggers into hearts with their dandy smiles and beady eyes maintaining the fatal deception. There was also a tall, dark-skinned despotic looking pharaoh grasping a staff with snakes entwined around it staring right into Koralov, who had recognised the bald man as the central character in his recent nightmare. Here was Russia’s tyrannical prodigy with his murderous mentors and criminal patrons of eternity ready to carry out his dreadful enterprise with their backing.
“They are demons! A brotherhood of serpents!”, cried Koralov frenziedly. “You can’t see them Major, but they are behind him.” Koralov pointed to the bald man with the goatee beard, who was grinning.
“Shoot them major. We must order the troops to open fire on the train!”
“You’ve lost your mind, shrieking like a hysterical woman!”, snapped Levchenko glaring at Koralov and gripping the hilt of his sword.
“Be quiet Levchenko!”, snapped the major, irritated by the smirking principal reclining on the couch. He concurred with the Cossack corporal’s view that there was something extremely dangerous about this individual, but the order made him powerless to act.
“There’s nothing I can do”, he told Koralov as he showed him the document. “God help us”, he muttered. Ten minutes later, the locomotive of darkness was moving again in the direction of Petrograd.