[Normally Thursday this week is when I'd put up the next installment, but it's Thanksgiving. I'm inclined to give myself the day off and post the final installment of this Natalie chapter next Monday. However, if there are people who are eager for the next installment and would have time to read it over the long weekend, I'm open to changing plans. Leave a comment if you want the next Natalie section on Thursday rather than a week from today.]
It was just after noon that the train pulled slowly into the Warsaw/Vienna Railway terminus. Passengers surged across the platform. Porters wheeled carts. Paper boys and food sellers called their wares in a babble of Russian, Polish, and German. The Warsaw/Vienna line was still the only standard gauge rail line in Russia, and the massive railway station on the Aleje Jerozolimskie was thus the gateway between Europe and the Russian east.
For reasons that were of interest only to railroad engineers, the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Europe were spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart, while those of the Russian Empire were an even five feet, like those in far away America. This difference of three and a half inches meant that trains which traveled the rest of Europe could penetrate no further into the Russia than Warsaw. Those intent on going beyond must abandon their European train here and take a tram or taxi to the Wileńska Station, whence they could board a broad gauge railway line for St. Petersburg, Kiev, or Moscow.
Thus it was that the railway platform confronting Natalie was one of the busiest in Russia, with the whole commerce between West and East surging across it. Men in tailored suits and women in silk dresses that could have looked equally at home in Paris brushed past peasants traveling in their best clothes, tunics and dresses made colorful with painstaking embroidery. A uniformed Cossack officer strode down the platform, a more plainly uniformed servant followed him with a cart of luggage. Their progress scattered a group of Jewish men with beards and side curls who had paused in the middle of the platform to talk.
As the steam cleared Natalie sat looking out the window at the people surging past. A round man in a fawn-colored suit and a bowler hat, who had entered the carriage at Grodzisk, opened the door, grabbed his suitcase, tipped his hat to her, and vanished into the crowd. A moment later a porter entered the compartment from the corridor. He pulled her own suitcase down from the luggage rack, and carried it down onto the platform. She followed him. A moment later and she was amidst the crowd on the platform and the porter was handing her suitcase to a boy wearing a hat that suggested some sort of uniform, though he hardly looked twelve years old and the rest of his clothes were of the non-descript grubbiness of street children in any city.
The boy loaded her suitcase onto a little cart and started off down the platform. “Follow! Please, follow!” he commanded in German so accented that it took Natalie a panicked moment to realize what language she was being addressed in.
Too much was happening too quickly. Through the window of the train the foreignness of the scene had looked slightly thrilling. Now it struck her with full force and terror that she was hundreds of miles from all that was familiar. Her chest felt tight and her face flushed as she hurried after the boy with her suitcase.