The Secret City

Source: Hugh Walpole, The Secret City (London: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 61-64

Text: We had arrived. The cinema door blazed with light, and around it was gathered a group of soldiers and women and children, peering in at a soldiers’ band, which, placed on benches in a corner of the room, played away for its very life. Outside, around the door were large bills announcing “The Woman without a Soul, Drama in four parts,” and there were fine pictures of women falling over precipices, men shot in bedrooms, and parties in which all the guests shrank back in extreme horror from the heroine. We went inside and were overwhelmed by the band, so that we could not hear one another speak. The floor was covered with sunflower seeds, and there was a strong smell of soldiers’ boots and bad cigarettes and urine. We bought tickets from an old Jewess behind the pigeon-hole and then, pushing the curtain aside, stumbled into darkness. Here the smell was different, being, quite simply that of human flesh not very carefully washed. Although, as we stumbled to some seats at the back, we could feel that we were alone, it had the impression that multitudes of people pressed in upon us, and when the lights did go up we found that the little hall was indeed packed to its extremest limit.

No one could have denied that it was a cheerful scene. Soldiers, sailors, peasants, women, and children crowded together upon the narrow benches. There was a great consumption of sunflower seeds, and the narrow passage down the middle of the room was littered with fragments. Two stout and elaborate policemen leaned against the wall surveying the public with a friendly if superior air. There was a tremendous amount of noise. Mingled with the strains of the band beyond the curtain were cries and calls and loud roars of laughter. The soldiers embraced the girls, and the children, their fingers in their mouths, wandered from bench to bench, and a mangy dog begged wherever he thought that he saw a kindly face. All the faces were kindly – kindly, ignorant, and astoundingly young. As I felt that youth I felt also separation; I and my like could emphasise as we pleased the goodness, docility, mysticism even of these people, but we were walking in a country of darkness. I caught a laugh, the glance of some women, the voice of a young soldier – I felt behind us, watching us, the thick heavy figure of Rasputin. I smelt the eastern scent of the sunflower seeds, I looked back and glanced at the impenetrable superiority of the two policemen, and I laughed at myself for the knowledge that I thought I had, for the security upon which I thought that I rested, for the familiarity with which I had fancied I could approach my neighbours… I was not wise, I was not secure, I had no claim to familiarity…

The lights were down and we were shown pictures of Paris. Because the cinema was a little one and the prices small the films were faded and torn, so that the Opera and the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre and the Seine danced and wriggled and broke before our eyes. They looked strange enough to us and only accented our isolation and the odd semi-civilisation in which we were living. There were comments all around the room in exactly the spirit of children before a conjurer at a party… The smell grew steadily stronger and stronger… my head swam a little and I seemed to see Rasputin, swelling in his black robe, catching us all into its folds, sweeping us up into the starlight sky. We were under the flare of the light again. I caught Bohun’s happy eyes; he was talking eagerly to Vera Michailovna, not removing his eyes from her face. She had conquered him; I fancied as I looked at her that her thoughts were elsewhere.

There followed a Vaudeville entertainment. A woman and a man in peasants’ dress came and laughed raucously, without meaning, their eyes narrowly searching the depths of the house, then they stamped their feet and whirled around, struck one another, laughed again, and vanished.

The applause was half-hearted. Then there was a trainer of dogs, a black-eyed Tartar with four very miserable little fox-terriers, who shivered and trembled and jumped reluctantly through hoops. The audience liked this, and cried and shouted and threw paper pellets at the dogs. A stout perspiring Jew in a shabby evening suit came forward and begged for decorum. Then there appeared a stout little man in a top hat who wished to recite verses of, I gathered, a violent indecency. I was uncomfortable about Vera Michailovna, but I need not have been. The indecency was of no importance to her, and she was interested in the human tragedy of the performer. Tragedy it was. The man was hungry and dirty and not far from tears. He forgot his verses and glanced nervously into the wings as though he expected to be beaten publicly by the perspiring Jew.

He stammered; his mouth wobbled; he covered it with a dirty hand. He could not continue.

The audience was sympathetic. They listened in encouraging silence; then they clapped; then they shouted friendly words to him. You could feel throughout the room an intense desire that he should succeed. He responded a little to the encouragement, but could not remember his verses. He struggled, struggled, did a hurried little breakdown dance, bowed and vanished into the wings, to be beaten, I have no doubt, by the Jewish gentleman. We watched a little of the “Drama of the Woman without a Soul,” but the sense of being in a large vat filled with boiling human flesh into whose depths we were pressed ever more and more deeply was at last too much for us, and we stumbled our way into the open air. The black shadow of the barge, the jagged outline of the huddled buildings against the sky, the black tower at the end of the canal, all these swam in the crystal air.

Comment: Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) was a prolific British novelist, best known for Rogue Herries and its follow-up novels. He spent much of the First World War in Russia, working for for the Red Cross and then as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau, based in Petrograd. His novel The Secret City draws on these experiences. Ekateringofsky canal is in Petrograd/St Petersburg. Though there were British and American films made in 1915 called The Woman Without a Soul the film described is probably Walpole’s invention. Ellipses are in the original text.

Links: Copy on the Internet Archive

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