roland usually worked the midnight shift, but as usual on christmas eve and new years eve, he obligingly arranged to work the desk so that the regular clerks could take off. the quiet of christmas eve was similar to what he was used to on the graveyard shift, and he enjoyed the bustle of new years as a welcome change of pace.
in a couple of hours nolan, who resided in the hotel, would head uptown to spend christmas eve and christmas day with his wife and daughters. he was not exactly excited about it, but he did not really mind it all that much either. after all, it was only once a year.
this year he found he was even looking forward to it a little bit. i must be getting soft, he thought.
he just hoped there would not be too many priests on hand. maybe none! no, that was too much to hope for. but the married daughters would be dropping in with their husbands and children, so he could talk to them and mostly avoid the priests .
nolan heard somebody approaching behind him. he looked over his shoulder.
miss charlton sat down in the chair nearest nolan. "merry christmas, mister nolan."
"merry christmas to you, miss charlton." nolan took a cigar out of his breast pocket and began to light it. not that the smoke would drive miss charlton away. he just needed it.
"i do hope," miss charlton announced, "that we do not have any unpleasantness this christmas eve like we did last."
had there been any unpleasantness last year? she might be remembering something at christmas thirty years ago. "i hope so too, miss charlton," he replied.
"it seems to me that every year there is a little less christmas spirit than the year before."
"that may well be," nolan agreed.
"at least it is snowing, so we shall have a white christmas at any rate."
where was wolverington ? where was farmer brown when nolan needed him? what was worse, listening to miss charlton, or to the priests?
nolan decided to finish his cigar, and if he were not rescued by then, make his excuses and head uptown early. mr bernstein the hotel manager had told him he could leave at any time. he would make the excuse to miss charlton that the snow was getting heavy - not that it would really have any effect on the subway he would take.
"where is lord wolverington tonight?," he asked miss charlton, just to be saying something. "is he indisposed?"
"indisposed? no, he got a head start on the holiday season and he is passed out, dead drunk. deader and drunker than any sailor he ever picked up on tenth avenue." miss charlton had obviously been enjoying some early christmas cheer herself.
nolan just nodded. then he heard another voice behind him. a lilting, accented voice.
"good evening, miss charlton. and good evening to you, sir. and as you say - merry christmas."
here was help indeed! it was one of the two young men from what nolan thought of as the "continental set" who occupied a couple of suites on the eighth floor. the russian one, one of two fine young fellows who had helped nolan out in the past.
a russian, but who had assured nolan in the most emphatic terms - not that nolan really cared - that he had no love for uncle joe stalin or the gang who ruled russia now.
serge - that was his name - took a seat on a couch facing the door and slightly angled away from miss charlton and nolan. he took a cigarette case out of his breast pocket.
"i was just telling mr nolan," miss charlton began, " that the christmas spirit seems to fade away a little every year."
serge finished lighting his cigarette. "ah, but everything fades away in america, does it not? americans do not live in the past." he exhaled some smoke and looked out at the snow. "in my country - in most countries - the past is more alive. and recalled more easily."
"you do not say so," miss charlton replied a little uncertainly.
"yes. this snow, it reminds me of another christmas eve i spent, it must have been five years ago. in some ways it seems yesterday, in others - five thousand lifetimes ago."
"oh. do go on." miss charlton, who knew when a man wanted to tell a story, replied in her most ladylike manner.
nolan did not know where serge was going with this, but it beat listening to miss charlton. he leaned back in his chair.
as the snow continued to fall outside, serge told his tale.
the war was over. in some ways, and according to the newspapers. universal peace had been proclaimed, and a new age of harmony which would last forever had begun.
but the erstwhile mountain bandit koba and his cronies still had a few loose ends to tie up.
including some very humble loose ends indeed, like myself.
i was in vladivostok, trying to get a boat to - to anywhere, really. preferably hawaii or san francisco, but anywhere occupied by the americans or even the british - or anywhere not directly controlled by koba - though one can never get completely out of his reach -
- "excuse me," miss charlton interrupted, "but who is this koba person? some sort of russian al capone?"
"he is the personage referred to by the new york times and the london times as marshal stalin."
"oh. please go on." -
it was christmas eve. and very cold. a dry snow was falling, and blowing in drifts in the streets.
i was seated at the bar of the little hotel whose hospitality i was enjoying. it was the cheapest hotel i could i could find, just close enough to the docks that i might seize an opportunity to board a suddenly available boat, yet not so close as to be constantly patrolled and searched by the police - by the various police including the military police.
i was the only person at the bar. the proprietor of the hotel, who also tended the bar when the mood suited him, was not present.
i did not care to stay in my room, on the third floor, which might have been very slightly warmer, as i felt trapped in it.
i should mention that it was not only on my account that i was fearful.
for i was carrying the star of the volga - one of the surviving jewels of the imperial family, which had been entrusted to me by the crown princess tatiana, who was herself somewhere in vladivostok or at least in the maritime province, though her exact whereabouts were deliberately withheld from myself.
this, of course, was an elementary precaution so that i would be unable to reveal her location to koba's agents even under the most extreme torture.
the star of the volga itself i had wrapped in a handkerchief in my side pants pocket.
i was cautiously sipping the wretched drink in front of me. for who knew when the proprietor would return? - perhaps he was celebrating christmas with a fat wife and some bedraggled children - when the door opened.
not suddenly but slowly - with the instinctive and unconscious slowness of the conspirator and the secret agent.
a man entered.
i recognized him instantly.
he had been a fellow passenger on the trans-siberian railway, embarking at ulan-ude. he had taken slight pains to alter his appearance - wearing shabbier clothes, shaving off a bushy mustache, but he was obvious enough. he had been one of the few westerners on the train.
we both observed the formalities of the situation. he enquired where the proprietor was, and i politely speculated that, as it was christmas, he might not be back soon, and so forth.
he replied that he would wait, and took a seat at one of the little tables against the back wall.
there was nothing to be gained by waiting. my only slender hope was that whoever was waiting outside had not yet completely taken up their positions.
i stepped outside. sure enough, i saw a couple of tall figures at the end of the street - soldiers, no less, with rifles sling on their backs.
there was a narrow street on my right. i turned down it. i knew there was a church at the end of it, which, when i had passed it before, showed every sign of abandonment.
the street was totally unlit. fine snow blew in my face.
i fingered the handkerchief in my pocket with the star of the volga in it. should i throw it into the darkness, so that at least my fellow passenger and the soldiers might not retrieve it? my own cause seemed lost.
suddenly a small figure sprung out at me from the darkness and clutched at my coat.
it was a boy about eleven years old, dressed in rags - little more than a collection of scarves wrapped around every part of his body except his face.
"a kopeck, sir," he cried. " just a kopeck for a cold christmas night!"
i recognized him immediately as st alexei, the boy saint of russia.
i thrust the handkerchief and the star of the volga into his hand. i could hear boots clattering on the pavement behind me as the boy scurried off, toward the dark church.
one of the soldiers grabbed me. the other chased the boy.
the soldier shouted at me in a dialect i could barely understand. i shrugged at him and said nothing.
the man from the train joined us. there was no pretense that he was not ordering the soldiers about, and he questioned the soldier.
"you gave that boy something?" he asked me.
"he was a beggar. i gave him a kopeck."
he smiled. "begging is not allowed, comrade, in the workers' republics. surely you know that."
i smiled back. "but it is christmas time."
"yes, yes, to be sure," he replied.
meanwhile a truck had appeared at the end of the street from behind the church. more soldiers with rifles emptied out of it, and surrounded the church.
at a signal from the man from the train, the soldier searched me. he took my wallet. i had no weapon, not even a knife. then he shoved me toward the church.
we entered the church. the soldier now had his rifle prodding my back.
the soldiers from the truck were entering and milling about in the church. some of them with electric torches were directing the others, getting them to search along the walls and in niches were statues stood.
they had not yet found the boy.
my two companions shoved me along, toward the altar. words passed between them, and the soldier addressed the man as "colonel".
a single very small candle was burning at the altar. it had not been visible from the outside.
the colonel pointed to the candle. "did you light this?" he asked me.
"sir," i replied. "i assume you have been watching me for some time. when would i have lit this candle? you can see from its size it can not have been burning long."
he just stared at me. he nodded at the soldier and they directed me back toward the front door of the church.
as we passed the statues along the wall. i noticed a small one that was newer and cleaner looking than the others.
it was a statue of st alexei. neither the colonel nor the soldier were looking at it, and it winked at me as we passed.
we were back outside in the cold air.
"now, citizen," the colonel smiled at me again. "we can truly begin."
suddenly the church blazed with light, blinding all within it and outside it.
in the confusion i made my escape.
"so what happened to the jewel - the star?"
while serge was telling his tale, two more listeners had entered, and stood a few paces behind nolan's chair.
nolan, who had not noticed them because he had fallen half asleep, turned his head.
one of them he recognized. it was the pesty little girl who used to come into the hotel and try to get into rooms by passing out religious pamphlets - protestant pamphets. he had not seen her for a while - a year ?- but she did not look any different.
her companion was a black girl, over a head taller, maybe a couple of years older.
nolan laughed. "you!" he addressed pippi. "go on, both of you. be on your way!"
"come on, pop," the black girl answered him. "it's christmas. have a little of the spirit."
pippi ignored nolan and addressed serge. "you're one of gwendolyn's friend's, are't you."
"i am indeed, miss."
"just tell gwendolyn pippi came by, and that i'm back - and, um, she knows where to find me. " she shot a glance at nolan. "and we'll be on our way."
serge stood up. "oh no, no, please come up to the apartment. i know gwendolyn will be delighted to see you. have some eggnog. and some chocolate cake - that i baked myself." to serge, the two girls looked no different from gwendolyn's classmates from miss churchill's school. to him, all americans were barbarians and peasants.
"thank you, sir." pippi looked over at nolan. he could tell she was barely restraining herself from sticking her tongue out at him. "this is my friend salome," pippi told serge. "we were - are - at school together."
"so what happened to the star?" salome, who had asked the question before, repeated it.
"oh," serge laughed, "that's another story. for another time."
"like next christmas."
"perhaps." serge smiled.
"and christmas," observed miss charlton, "comes but once a year."
nolan watched as serge, followed by the two girls, headed to the elevator.
he stood up. he might as well get going. but first, he would stop at the prince hal room and fortify himself with a rheingold.