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THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY
THE SECRET DOOR
BY SIR PAUL DUKES
Late at night I stood outside the Tauride Palace in Petrograd, which had become the centre of the revolution. No one was admitted through the great gates without a pass. I sought a place about midway between the gates, and, when no one was looking, scrambled up, dropped over the railings, and ran through the bushes straight to the main porch. Here I soon met folk I knew — comrades of student days, revolutionists. What a spectacle within the palace, lately so still and dignified! Tired soldiers lay sleeping in heaps in every hall and corridor. The vaulted lobby, whence the Duma members had flitted silently, was packed almost to the roof with all manner of truck, baggage, arms, and ammunition. All night long, and the next, I labored with the revolutionists to turn the Tauride Palace into a revolutionary arsenal.
Thus began the revolution. And after? Everyone knows now how the hopes of freedom were blighted. Truly had Russia's foe, Germany, who dispatched the 'proletarian' dictator Lenin and his satellites to Russia, discovered the Achilles' heel of the Russian revolution. Everyone now knows how the flowers of the revolution withered under the blast of the class war, and how Russia was replunged into starvation and serfdom. I will not dwell Vol. its—No. 1
on these things. My story relates to the time when they were already cruel realities.
My reminiscences of the first year of Bolshevist administration are jumbled into a kaleidoscopic panorama of impressions gained while journeying from city to city, sometimes crouched in the comer of crowded box-cars, sometimes traveling in comfort, sometimes riding on the steps, and sometimes on the roofs or buffers. I was nominally in the service of the British Foreign Office; but the Anglo-Russian Commission (of which I was a member) having quit Russia, I attached myself to the American Y.M.C.A., doing relief work. A year after the revolution I found myself in the Eastern city of Samara, training a detachment of Boy Scouts. As the snows of winter melted, and the spring sunshine shed joy and cheerfulness around, I held my parades, and together with my American colleagues organized outings and sports.
Then one day, when in Moscow, I was handed an unexpected telegram — 'urgent' — from the British Foreign Office. 'You are wanted at once in London,' it ran. I set out for Archangel without delay. Thence by steamer and destroyer and tug to the Norwegian frontier; and so, round the North Cape to Bergen, with, finally, a zig-zag course across the North Sea, dodging submarines, to Scotland.
At Aberdeen the Control Officer had received orders to pass me through by the first train to London. At King's Cross a car was waiting; and knowing neither my destination nor the cause of my recall, I was driven to a building in a side street in the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. 'This way,'said the chauffeur, leaving the car. The chauffeur had a face like a mask. We entered the building, and the elevator whisked us to the top floor, above which additional superstructures had been built for war emergency offices.
I had always associated rabbit-warrens with subterranean abodes; but here in this building I discovered a maze of rabbit-burrow-like passages, corridors, nooks, and alcoves, piled higgledypiggledy on the roof. Leaving the elevator, my guide led me up one flight of steps so narrow that a corpulent man would have stuck tight, then down a similar flight on the other side, under wooden archways so low that we had to stoop, round unexpected corners, and again up a flight of steps which brought us out on the roof. Crossing a short iron bridge, we entered another maze, until, just as I was beginning to feel dizzy, I was shown into a tiny room about ten feet square, where sat an officer in the uniform of a British colonel, i The impassive chauffeur announced me and withdrew.
'Good-afternoon, Mr. Dukes,' said the colonel, rising and greeting me with a warm hand-shake. 'I am glad to see you. You doubtless wonder that no explanation has been given you as to why you should return to England. Well, I have to inform you, confidentially, that it has been proposed to offer you a somewhat responsible post in the Secret Intelligence Service.'
I gasped. 'But,'I stammered,'I have never — May I ask what it implies?'
'Certainly,' he replied. 'We have reason to believe that Russia will not long continue to be open to foreigners. We wish someone to remain there, to keep us informed of the march of events.'
'But,' I put in, 'my present work? It is important, and if I drop it —'
'We foresaw that objection,' replied the colonel,'and I must tell you that under war regulations we have the right to requisition your services if need be. You have been attached to the Foreign Office. This office also works in conjunction with the Foreign Office, which has been consulted on this question. Of course,' he added, bitingly, 'if the risk or danger alarms you —'
I forget what I said, but he did not continue.
'Very well,' he proceeded, 'consider the matter and return at four-thirty tomorrow. If you have no valid reasons for not accepting this post, we will consider you as in our service and I will tell you further details.'
He rang a bell. A young lady appeared and escorted me out, threading her way with what seemed to me marvelous dexterity through the maze of
Burning with curiosity, and fascinated already by the mystery of this elevated labyrinth, I ventured a query to my young female guide. 'What sort of establishment is this?' I said.
I detected a twinkle in her eye. She shrugged her shoulders and, without replying, pressed the button for the elevator. 'Good-afternoon,' was all she said as I passed in.
Next day I found the colonel in a fair-sized apartment, with easy chairs, and walls hidden by bookcases. He seemed to take it for granted that I had nothing to say.
'I will tell you briefly what we desire,' he said. 'Then you may make any comments you wish, and I will take you up to interview — a — the Chief. Briefly, we want you to return to Soviet Russia and to send reports on the situation there. We wish to be accurately informed as to the attitude of every section of the community, the degree of support enjoyed by the Bolshevist government, the development and modification of its policy, what possibility there may be for an alteration of regime or for a counter-revolution, and what part Germany is playing. As to the means whereby you gain access to the country, under what cover you will live there, and how you will send out reports, we shall leave it to you, being best informed as to conditions, to make suggestions.'
He expounded his views on Russia, asking for my corroboration or correction, and also mentioned the names of a few English people I might come into contact with there. 'I will see if — a — the Chief is ready,' he said, finally, rising. 'I will be back in a moment.'
The apartment appeared to be an office, but there were no papers on the desk. I rose and stared at the books on the bookshelves. My attention was arrested by an edition of Thackeray's works in a decorative binding of what looked like green morocco. I used at one time to dabble in bookbinding, and am always interested in an artistically bound book. I took down Henry Esmond from the shelf. To my bewilderment the cover did not open, until, passing my finger accidentally along what I thought was the edge of the pages, the front cover suddenly flew open of itself, disclosing a box. In my astonishment I almost dropped the volume, and a sheet of paper slipped out and fell to the floor. I picked it up hastily and glanced at it. It was headed Kriegsministerium, Berlin, had the German Imperial arms imprinted on it, and was covered with minute handwriting
in German. I had barely slipped it back into the box and replaced the volume on the shelf, when the colonel returned.
'A — the — a — Chief is not in,' he said,'but you may see him to-morrow. You are interested in books?' he added, seeing me looking at the shelves. 'I collect them. That is an interesting old volume on Cardinal Richelieu, if you care to look at it. I picked it up in Charing Cross Road for a shilling.'
The volume mentioned was immediately above Henry Esmond. I took it down warily, expecting something uncommon to occur; but it was only a musty old volume in French, with torn leaves and soiled pages. I pretended to be interested.
'There is not much else there worth looking at, I think,' said the colonel casually. 'Well, good-bye. Come in to-morrow.'
I returned again next day, after thinking overnight how I should get back to Russia — and deciding on nothing. My mind seemed to be a complete blank on the subject in hand, and I was entirely absorbed in the mysteries of the roof-labyrinth.
Again I was shown into the colonel's sitting-room. My eyes fell instinctively on the bookshelf. The colonel was in a genial mood. 'I see you like my collection,' he said. 'That, by the way, is a fine edition of Thackeray.' I felt my heart leap. 'It is the most luxurious binding I have ever yet found. Would you not like to look at it?'
I looked at the colonel very hard, but his face was a mask. My immediate conclusion was that he wished to initiate me into the secrets of the Department. I rose quickly and took down Henry Esmond, which was in exactly the same place as it had been the day before. To my utter confusion it opened quite naturally, and I found in my hands nothing more than an edition de luxe, printed on India.paper and profusely illustrated! I stared, bewildered, at the shelf. There was no other Henry Esmond. Immediately over the vacant space stood the life of Cardinal Richelieu as it had stood yesterday. I replaced the volume, and, trying not to look disconcerted, turned to the colonel. His expression was quite impassive, even bored.
'It is a beautiful edition,' he repeated as if wearily. 'Now, if you are ready, we will go and see — a — the Chief.'
Feeling very foolish, I stuttered assent and followed. As we proceeded through the maze of stairways and unexpected passages, which seemed to me like a miniature House of Usher, I caught glimpses of tree-tops, of the Embankment Gardens, the Thames, the Tower Bridge, and Westminster. From the suddenness with which the angle of view changed, I concluded that in reality we were simply gyrating in one very limited space; and when suddenly we entered a spacious study, — the sanctum of '— a — the Chief,' — I had an irresistible feeling that we had moved only a few yards, and that this study was immediately above the colonel's office.
It was a low, dark chamber at the extreme top of the building. The colonel knocked, entered, and stood at attention. Nervous and confused, I followed, painfully conscious that at that moment I could not have expressed a sane opinion on any subject under the sun. From the threshold the room seemed bathed in semi-obscurity. The writingdesk was so placed, with the window behind it, that on entering everything appeared only in silhouette. It was some seconds before I could clearly distinguish things. A row of half a dozen extending telephones stood at the left of a big desk littered with papers. On a side table were numerous maps and designs, with models of aeroplanes, submarines, and mechanical devices, while
a row of bottles of various colors and a distilling outfit with a rack of test-tubes bore witness to chemical experiments and operations. These evidences of scientific investigation served only to intensify an already overpowering atmosphere of strangeness and mystery.
But it was not these things that engaged my attention as I stood nervously waiting. It was not the bottles or the machinery that attracted my gaze. My eyes fixed themselves on the figure at the writing-table. In the capacious swing desk-chair, his shoulders hunched, with his head supported on one hand, busily writing, there sat in his shirtsleeves —
Alas, no! Pardon me, reader, I was forgetting! There are still things I may not divulge. There are things that must still remain shrouded in secrecy. And one of them is — who was the figure in the swing desk-chair in the darkened room at the top of the rooflabyrinth near Trafalgar Square on this August day in 1918. I may not describe him, or mention even one of his twentyodd names. Suffice it to say that, aweinspired as I was at this first encounter, I soon learned to regard' the Chief with feelings of the deepest personal regard and admiration. He was a British officer and an English gentleman of the finest stamp, absolutely fearless and gifted with unlimited resources of subtle ingenuity, and I count it one of the greatest privileges of my life to have been brought within the circle of his acquaintanceship.
In silhouette I saw myself motioned to a chair. The Chief wrote for a moment, then suddenly turned, with the unexpected remark, 'So I understand you want to go back to Soviet Russia, do you?' — as if it had been my own suggestion.
The conversation was brief and precise. The words Archangel, Stockholm, Riga, Helsingfors, recurred frequently, and the names were mentioned of English people in those places and in Petrograd. It was finally decided that I alone should determine how and by what route I should regain access to Russia and how I should dispatch reports.
'Don't go and get killed,' said the Chief in conclusion, smiling. 'You will put him through the ciphers,' he added to the colonel, 'and take him to the laboratory to learn the inks and all that.'
We left the Chief and arrived by a single flight of steps at the door of the colonel's room. The colonel laughed. 'You will find your way about in course of time,' he said; 'let us go to the laboratory at once.'
And here I draw a veil over the rooflabyrinth. Three weeks later I set out for Russia, into the unknown.
I resolved to make my first attempt at entry from the north, and traveled up to Archangel on a troopship of American soldiers, most of whom hailed from Detroit. But I found the difficulties at Archangel to be much greater than I had anticipated. It was 600 miles to Petrograd, and most of this distance would have to be done on foot through unknown moorland and forest. The roads were closely watched, and before my plans were ready, autumn storms broke and made the moors and marshes impassable. But at Archangel, realizing that to return to Russia as an Englishman was impossible, I let my beard grow and assumed an appearance entirely Russian.
Failing in Archangel, I traveled down to Helsingfors, to try my luck from the direction of Finland. Helsingfors, the capital of Finland, is a busy little city bristling with life and intrigue. At the time of which I am writing it was a sort of dumping-ground for every variety of conceivable and inconceivable rumor,
slander, and scandal, repudiated elsewhere, but swallowed by the gullible scandal-mongers — especially German and ancien-regime Russian — who found in this city a haven of rest. Helsingfors was one of the unhealthiest spots in Europe. Whenever mischance brought me there, I lay low, avoided society, and made it a rule to tell everybody the direct contrary of my real intentions, even in trivial matters.
In Helsingfors I was introduced, at the British consulate, to an agent of the American Secret Service who had recently escaped from Russia. This gentleman gave me a letter to a Russian officer in Viborg, by name Melnikoff. The little town of Viborg, being the nearest place of importance to the Russian frontier, was a hornet's nest of Russian refugees, counter-revolutionary conspirators, German agents, and Bolshevist spies — worse, if anything, than Helsingfors.
Disguised now as a middle-class commercial traveler, I journeyed on to Viborg, took a room at the same hotel at which I had been told that Melnikoff stayed, looked him up, and presented my note of introduction. I found Melnikoff to be a Russian naval officer of the finest stamp, and intuitively conceived an immediate liking for him. His real name, I discovered, was not Melnikoff, but in those parts many people had a variety of names to suit different occasions. My meeting with him was providential, for it appeared that he had worked with Captain Crombie, late British Naval Attache at Petrograd. In September, 1918, Captain Crombie was murdered by the Bolsheviki at the British Embassy, and it was the threads of his shattered organization that I hoped to pick up upon arrival in Petrograd.
Melnikoff was slim, dark, short, and muscular, with stubbly hair and blue eyes.- He was deeply religious, and was