I first met Petroff in the dark pine-woods of the Tayga. We were sitting around our campfire, my three companions and I—one German, two Frenchmen and one Chinese. The Tayga is a vast tract of virgin forest lying to the west of the great Manchurian plains, and in 1934 was still an El Dorado for game of all kinds. Our quarry on this occasion was wild boar, whose flesh we planned to take back to Harbin to feed three tiger cubs I had captured the previous year.
As we relaxed around the fire, waiting for the Chinese cook to prepare our meal, we sipped our drinks and talked about the day's happenings and our plans for the morrow. Suddenly the dogs gave a threatening growl, and three men staggered into the clearing. The tallest of them was clearly in a bad way. Blood clotted one trouser leg and he was limping, half supported on the shoulders of his companions. They spoke to us in Russian, a language I speak as fluently as my own. Quickly we made a space for them at the fire, and I examined the tall man's wound.
Petroff, his name was. That morning he had stumbled on a trip wire which fired a set gun and the charge had passed through his calf. Chinese hunters often used to set these traps for wild boar. The Russians carried no first-aid equipment, but I was able to give Petroff something to prevent blood poisoning and a bandage to dress the wound. It is possible that I saved his life.
The grateful Russians joined our camp and our party and stayed with us for several days. I found them to be affable fellows, reliable hunters and first-class shots. We trekked back the two days' ride to the city of Harbin together, where the Russians lived too. They worked, they told me, at the Soviet Embassy. We parted on the friendliest of terms.
June 26, 1966
At about this time there fell a bitter blow to all hunters in China. The import of readymade shells was forbidden by the government—and no Chinese firm could make them. Reloading old shells would have been practicable—except that suitable gunpowder was almost unobtainable. This undoubtedly ended the sport for the amateur and weekend hunters, but we old hands solved the problem by using Mary Pickfords.
Gunpowder does not explode; it merely burns very fast, and it is the enormous expansion of the gases that drives the shot down the barrel. In the absence of proper powder, another fast-burning substance will do as well. Such a substance is cinema film. I was running the German movie theater, and I thus had contacts in the cinema world throughout Manchuria. As soon as a set of reels had made the complete circuit of 50 theaters they were—for the price of a small bribe—sent to me.
I would wash the film in warm water and brush off the emulsion. When dry, the film was cut into strips a yard long, and 30 or 40 such lengths would be sandwiched between two hardwood boards and squeezed very tight in a vise, leaving half an inch of film showing above the wood. A plane or a coarse file used on the projecting edges of the film would produce very fine shavings or chips: Mary Pickford Smokeless. I used to load the cartridges with a pinch of precious black powder to get speedy ignition, and fill up with 38 to 40 grains of Mary Pickford, the usual wads, shot and end cap. The result was ammunition that would kill anything in the Tayga.
It was, however, a tedious process, this home manufacture, and took up much of the time I should have been spending on my business: and I had other matters to attend to, even apart from market research for the Saxon firm which employed me. Once, when home in Germany on leave, I was approached by the German government: Would I be prepared to do a little intelligence work in Manchuria, reporting on the movements of the Russians, who were constantly trying to infiltrate? I said yes, and in fact I have for most of my life been active in intelligence work against the Communists: first for the White Russians, then for the Germans and lately for the Americans. I learned recently that Moscow has put a sizable price on my head.
But in 1934 the Soviet counterespionage organization was not what it is today, and I thought it unlikely that my activities should have attracted the attention of the Russians. I continued my friendship with Petroff, and when my birthday came in August I was delighted to receive a present from him, in gratitude for my help in the Tayga. It was a shiny red box of factory-made Russian 12-gauge shells. The goose-shooting season was about to start on the Sungari River, and I was glad to have them. Because I normally load my own ammunition, distrusting mass production, I decided to open one of these Russian shells to see just what sort of performance I might expect.
I lifted off the lid of the box, folded back the greaseproof paper and pulled out one shell at random from the middle of the box. I removed the end wad and tipped the shot out onto the table. But instead of the 1 or 1‚⅛ ounces I expected, there were no more than a dozen pellets. What was anyone supposed to shoot with these, I wondered. I picked out the next layer of wadding and was surprised to find, instead of the powder I expected, a stick of yellowish substance of the same consistency as putty. I carefully removed it and found, underneath, perhaps 10 grains of black powder.
I supposed at first that Petroff wanted to make a fool of me the next time we went hunting together. I would take a careful shot at a duck or goose, and there would be a miserable phut from my gun, and the few pellets of shot would dribble into the water in front of me. Then I began to wonder.
I opened up the other 24 shells. All were loaded normally, although the balance between powder and shot was not, in my opinion, the most suitable for my own gun. A suspicion crossed my mind. I walked to a field not far from my house, taking with me the mysterious yellow substance. I also took some Chinese rockets, lashed the "putty" to a couple of them, hung the bundle on a tree, lit the fuse of the rocket and walked well away.
There was a huge detonation, and a rush of wind that blew my hat off. I returned to the tree to find that a large expanse of the bark had been scorched and blackened by the explosion. A number of the small branches had been snapped off. It was with some uneasiness that I thought of what might have happened to me had I fired that shell in my gun.
What should I do? To telephone Petroff—or his chief—at the Embassy and accuse them of trying to murder me would merely invite polite ignorance of the whole affair, and perhaps an apology for shoddy Russian manufacturing methods. Or I could sit tight and do nothing and stay away from Petroff.
I did exactly the opposite. That evening I called him and invited him and his two friends to join my party for the goose shooting on the Sungari River. In August every year enormous flocks of wildfowl gather on the Sungari. It is a launching pad, as it were, for their flight to southern China, where they spend the winter. It gives some of the most fabulous shooting in the whole of China. Petroff accepted.
As I expected, the geese were there by the thousands. As we sailed up the river in my motorboat, we saw skein after skein wheeling above us as in their own secret ways they prepared for their long journey. Although not a shot was fired until 10 a.m., by 3 in the afternoon the eight of us had accounted for more than a hundred geese—and there was still the evening flight to come.
I had arranged that Petroff should stand next to me on my right, not more than 50 yards away. Sure enough, shortly after 3, I heard him coming through the reeds. "How many did you get?" he asked. "Fifteen," I said. "What about you? You had a lot of shooting." "Yes," he told me. "I had 11, maybe 12. The greatest shooting I've ever had. The trouble is, I'm out of ammunition. I was wondering if you could lend us some. We'll pay you back in Harbin, of course."
"I'll pay you back now." I thought to myself. Aloud I said. "Of course, I've got half a belt here, Mary Pickfords, but I seem to be all right with those today." I dipped into my bag and pulled out the box he had given me a few weeks before. "Share these with Alexeyeff," I told him.
"No, no," he said hastily. "You should keep these. Let me have the Mary Pickfords."
"Nonsense, my dear fellow. If you're accustomed to Russian-made ammunition, you must stick to it." I put a dozen shells into his belt. He clutched the rest, still in their shiny red box, and squelched off through the dank mud at the side of the river. "Fill up Alexeyeff's belt too," I called after him.
As I expected, the best of the shoot really started soon afterward. Hardly a minute passed without seeing or hearing a flight of geese take to the air in front of us. It was not long before a flight headed straight for Petroff. He did not fire.
"Hey, Petroff," I called. "Didn't you see those?"
"Yes, but they were a shade too high for me. You spoil the shooting for the others if you take them too high," Petroff shouted back.
All the geese flew either too high or too fast for Petroff and Alexeyeff the rest of the afternoon. At dusk the rushes parted and Petroff approached me through the failing light. I motioned to a friend who was standing on the other side of me to move closer. The easiest way out of the Russian's embarrassing plight, I reflected grimly, would be if a stray shot were to topple me into the Sungari River. But they would not dare if there was a witness. All the same, I considered that the game had gone on long enough to be safe, and I offered to take back the new shells and to let Petroff have some Mary Pickfords, since he and Alexeyeff did not seem to have much luck with the Russian ammunition. The exchange was made, and Petroff went back to his position with a light step. He and Alexeyeff then contributed a few more geese to the bag, while I took good care to use up the remaining cartridges from the box Petroff had given me. Except for one.
We had a mile to walk back to where I had moored the boat, and we had the heavy burden of nearly 150 geese to carry along the riverside path. Halfway we stopped for a rest.
"And how did you get on," I asked Petroff, "with our famous Manchurian Mary Pickfords?"
"Amazing," he answered. "Really amazing. They were almost as good as proper shells. I killed one very high bird. Very high indeed."
"Almost as good? I can tell you, my friend, that your Russian shells cannot compare with my Mary Pickfords—or not when it comes to the pattern."
"Ah, the pattern. You know, these good Moscow shells will put 50 pellets into a 30-inch circle at 30 yards."
"From a choke barrel?" I asked.
"Yes," he bragged. "And I bet your Mary Pickfords won't do that."
"Well," I said. "It's a pity we can't prove it, because I've used all of your box. All I've left is a couple of.... Oh, no, we're in luck. Look, I've got one in my pocket." As I showed him the bright Russian shell he flinched. This was it, he must have been thinking. This must surely be the "special." Even in the half light I could see his face blanching. I produced a sheet of newspaper that had been used for wrapping my lunch and tore it in half.
"We'll put this against the tree here and give these shells a test," I suggested. I paced out 30 yards, loaded a Mary Pickford into my right barrel and fired into the center of the sheet. Then I set up the other paper. "You try this one, Petroff," I said, and handed him the last—and crucial—Russian shell.
"No, really, my dear friend," he stammered. "Would it not be better if you...?"
"I mean, a test like this should be done with the same gun."
"Nonsense, my dear friend. Yours is 12-gauge, 28-inch, improved cylinder, the same barrel as mine. If you're showing off your country's shells, the least you can do is to fire it yourself."
"Yes, come on, Petroff," agreed one of my own friends. "Let's see what Moscow can do. We want to get home." The seven of us ringed round the Russian, all except Alexeyeff, who had disappeared behind a tree with the usual excuse.
Petroff could see no way out without loss of face. Reluctantly he opened the breech of his gun and inserted the cartridge. He looked around for moral support, but Alexeyeff was still behind the tree. Slowly Petroff raised his gun to his shoulder, and I could see the sweat glistening on his brow. He slipped forward the safety catch at the second attempt and took aim.
The noise of the shot shattered the silence. Petroff let the gun drop from his grasp and sank to the ground on his knees. Alexeyeff appeared from behind the tree, ostentatiously buttoning his fly. I collected the newspaper, and the pattern was pretty good.
I never went hunting with Petroff again.