E-text prepared by John Young Le Bourgeois
(Mrs. Helen de Smirnoff Moukhanoff.)
A Biographical Sketch.
by Michael Moukhanoff
In attempting this biographical sketch of Nelka I am using the memories of 45 years together and also a great number of letters as material. Her Aunt, Miss Susan Blow, had the habit of keeping Nelka's letters over the years. There are some as early as when Nelka was only five years old and then up to the year 1916, the year her aunt died. These letters reflect very vividly the personality, the ideas, the aspirations, the disappointments and the hopes of a person over a period of a long life. They paint a very real picture of her personality and for this reason I am using quotations from these letters very extensively.
Nelka de Smirnoff was born on August 19, 1878 in Paris, France.
Her father was Theodor Smirnoff, of the Russian nobility. Her grandmother had tartar blood in her veins and was born Princess Tischinina. Nelka's father was a brilliant man, finishing the Imperial Alexander Lyceum at the head of his class. A versatile linguist, he joined the Russian diplomatic service and occupied several diplomatic posts in various countries, but died young, when Nelka was only four years old, and was buried in Berlin. Nelka therefore hardly knew him, though she remembered him and throughout her life had a great veneration for him and loyalty for his memory.
Nelka's mother was Nellie Blow, the daughter of Henry T. Blow of St. Louis, Missouri. The Blow family, of old southern aristocratic stock, moved from Virginia to St. Louis in 1830. Henry T. Blow was then about fifteen years old and had several brothers and sisters. He was a successful business man who became very wealthy and was also a prominent public and political figure, both in St. Louis and nationally. He was a friend of both Abraham Lincoln and of President Grant and received appointments from them. He was minister to Venezuela and later Ambassador to Brazil. He was active in politics from 1850 on. Though his brothers were southern democrats, Henry Blow took a stand against slavery and upheld the free-soil movement. During the Civil War he was the only one of the family to take the side of the Union and spent much of his time getting his brothers out of prison camps. For a time he was state senator and for two terms was Congressman in Washington. He also served as one of the three Commissioners for the District of Columbia.
He was married to Minerva Grimsley and had ten children. His daughter Nellie Blow, while in Brazil with her father, met Theodor Smirnoff who was then secretary at the Russian Embassy there. She married him in Carondolet, part of St. Louis, where the family lived, in 1872. They had three children, a boy and a girl, who died in infancy in St. Petersburg, Russia, and another girl, Nelka, who was born in 1878 and was therefore the only living child.
Henry T. Blow's oldest daughter (and Nelka's aunt) Miss Susan Blow was a prominent figure in the American educational movement, writing and lecturing on education, and the one who introduced the Froebel kindergarten system in the United States. The youngest daughter, Martha, married Herbert Wadsworth of Geneseo, N.Y. She was a very talented musician and painter and later became a very known horsewoman.
After Nelka's father died in Europe, her mother returned to America and it was the first time that Nelka came here. As a daughter of a Russian, Nelka was also a Russian subject and remained a Russian that way to the end. After the Russian Revolution, having no allegiance to the Soviet Government, she became what is known as "stateless," a position which in later years she liked, for she always said that she belonged to the World, not just one country.
But as a child her mother wanted to bring her up as a Russian even though in many ways this was difficult, for there were no relatives and few connections left in Russia, her mother did not speak the language and all ties and connections were in America.
Because of this conflict of attachments, Nelka's mother and she traveled many times back and forth between Europe and America. Her mother gave her a very complete and broad education both in America and in Europe. In Europe she attended a very exclusive and rather advanced school in Brussels. Because of this Nelka spoke not only perfect French and English, but German as well.
When she was ten years old she went to a school in Washington. She then already showed interest and love for animals which later became a dominant feature in her life.
Writing to her aunt Susie from Washington 1888:
"At Uncle Charles Drake the boys have a little pet squirrel; it don't bite them but it bites strangers if you give it a chance to. They have some little guinea pigs that are very cute."
She also at that age showed intellectual interests:
"I read very much now whenever I get a chance to. I think it is splendid and always amusing. I can play lots of little duets on the piano with Mama. I love it."
Her stay in the school in Brussels was very profitable for her studies and development and also showed in her letters how much interest she took in everything.
"I know what you mean about my getting older. You think that at every different age I would be content to be that age if I did not get any older. So I was. When I was ten I thought it would be dreadful to be eleven, but when I was eleven I was quite satisfied if I did not have to be twelve, and so on. But ever since I have been fourteen I have thought it was awful and have never become reconciled to it."
"I was first in grammar, literature and physics. Do you know the 'Melee' of Victor Hugo? I have just read it and I like it so much. I would like to see some persons who have lived and who live. It makes me crazy to see people vegetate."
"We went to Waterloo. We went by carriage all the way, first through the Bois de la Cambre and then on through the most perfect woods imaginable. We went to a sort of little mound in the middle of the battlefield with a huge lion on top as the emblem of victory. One thing, although of no importance, I like so much, that was three little birds nests one in the lion's mouth and one in each ear. Wasn't it nice? We then went to the museum at the foot of the hill. I got a photograph of Napoleon and one of Wellington. I have such a contempt for Napoleon and I just take pleasure in comparing it with the frank, open face of the Duke of Wellington."
Already at that age she was seeking answers to moral questions and showed her philosophical mind:
"'Une injustice qu'on voit et qu'on tait: on la commet soi meme.' (An injustice one sees and keeps quiet about: one commits it oneself.) I wish more persons could or would recognize that truth."
As a child Nelka did not speak Russian, because there was no one around using this language. After her school in Brussels, her mother took her to Russia to St. Petersburg. She was then seventeen.
St. Petersburg 1895.
"For the last few days I have been most blissfully absorbed in Taine's 'Ideal dans l'Art.' I never knew it was in a separate volume. It is splendid. Of course you know 'Character' of Smiles. I don't care for it much, so sermony. I am going to the Hermitage tomorrow just to see the Dutch and Flemish schools."
The same year her mother took her to Paris and entered her to attend lectures at the College de France while living at the Convent of the Assumption.
"I have just come back from the College de France. I enjoyed the lecture very much; it was on Stendhal. You will be perhaps surprised to learn that my educational career has taken a sudden turn. I am going into the Convent of the Assumption next week. Now don't be horrified. The Assumption is an exception to all the convents; besides the regular studies they have professors from the Sorbonne, Lycee Henry IV and other colleges to come in and give lectures on foreign literature, history, art, etc. Besides this unheard of privilege they have an atelier for drawing with Ducet to correct, and living models, men, women and children. Of course Mama never imagined such a thing possible in a convent, the general idea of convents not going beyond wax flowers. Here are the privileges I will have:
1) Clock-like life and no time lost. 2) No risk of disagreeable associations as they are most particular who they take. 3) I will see Mama almost every day.
"I shall have to go to bed at eight! Just fancy that!!! But then I have an astonishing capacity for sleeping and eating just now."
While in Paris, in addition to the general subjects and the lectures at the Sorbonne, Nelka also studied music, in particular the violin, and at a time was quite proficient in it, though she did not keep it up, as she did with painting, which she continued for a number of years.
Nelka's mother tried to bring her up in the Russian spirit with a great veneration for the memory of her father. Nelka grew up with a burning nationalistic feeling for Russia and a veneration for the Russian Emperor. Her mother kept up relations with such Russians as she knew or who were with the Russian Embassy when in Washington. And later, when she grew up, Nelka continually kept up with her Russian friends.
I think characteristic of Nelka was her highly emotional expressions of loyalty and devotion, an emotion which dominated all of her life and all of her actions. Anything she did or undertook was primarily motivated by emotion or feeling rather than reason, but once decided upon was carried out with determination and a great deal of will power.
But because the difference of national attachments and the resulting conflict there was always a tearing apart and a division, a duality of attachments both to Russia and to America, and this seems to have been an emotional disturbance which lasted with her for a great many years.
Her first, overwhelming emotional feeling was a patriotic nationalistic devotion to Russia and a mystic devotion to the Emperor and the Russian Orthodox Church. Then her next emotional feelings embraced the devotion and loyalty for her family and her kin.
But in Russia she had no relatives and all her family was in America. Because of that there seemed always a conflict of emotions, attachments and loyalties which dominated as a disturbance throughout her life, at least through the first half of it. This conflict of feelings was upsetting and painful and she suffered a great deal from the frustrations that these emotions often brought about.
The Russian education of feelings for Russia which her mother tried to install in her succeeded, for throughout life Nelka remained a faithful Russian in all of her feelings and while having so many ties in America, and being herself half American, she was constantly in conflict with the 'American way of life.'
From her early childhood Nelka had a tremendous love and devotion not only to her mother but also to her two aunts, Miss Blow and Mrs. Wadsworth. When in America she and her mother would stay either in Ashantee with the Wadsworths or in Cazenovia where Miss Blow had her home.
Early in life she was seeking and trying to think things out. She was never satisfied, never ready to accept something but always tried to analyze it through her own thinking. At the age of twenty she wrote in 1898:
"I have absolutely no facility for expression; that is what is the matter. I see persons so clever, so talented, and genuine in their line and with absolutely distorted points of view. How aggravating. I feel that in due time I may get to see something clearly (at least thus far, if I do not see things clearly, I have not been pleased to see any other way), and I am craving a means of giving out. You will say I need the persistence to educate myself in the technique of some mode of rendering my impressions. I suppose it is so. That is what I have always meant with this desire to 'exhaust' myself. I need to work. I need to give out or I shall have such a mental indigestion that I shall no longer be able to form a single thought. As it is, so many things are fleeting through me in incompleteness, in mere suggestion and so simultaneously at that, that I am bewildered. O, for complete cessation of consciousness, since this consciousness is but that of an amalgamation quantity of incomprehensible suggestions, or else, for a vent for some of this shapeless, immature acquisition, so that something at least can complete itself."
Was this just a disturbance of youth, of any youth, not completely empty-headed, frivolous or superficial, or was this the result of a distinct inheritance of two very different and opposing personalities, of so different nationalities and with an addition of even tartar blood? I don't know. The fact remains that she was constantly emotionally disturbed and constantly seeking the answers of life, that so many have done and so few have found.
In the same year, not long before her mother died, she wrote from Narragansett Pier 1898:
"I am very much puzzled still on individuality, that is, on its everlasting existence. I do not see at all how it can be, but I am waiting. Perhaps I can see soon. I have been trying to get a definition for art and for beauty. I have nothing that satisfies me yet. Art and beauty: I do not connect them at all in my mind. Art is based on significance first and this does not depend on beauty. Beauty is much more difficult to define than art. We have somehow got the idea that only the beautiful pleases. Can beautiful be applied to whatever pleases? I don't think so. Beauty is truthfulness of what? Of the original intention I suppose. Is beautiful something or is it not? Anyway I detach it from that which pleases. If beauty is something distinct that which pleases is not always beautiful. Is beauty independent of taste? It is so hard to think out. However, I never think anything without knowing it, and I know very few things, needless to say."
"It is terrible to be twenty! But I proved myself still young in being able to shed a tear over my departed teens. Mama and all of our little Russian colony drank my health wishing me each in turn to find myself each year one year younger, till I had to stop them less they eclipse me altogether. I think my nineteenth was the fullest year I have ever had—crammed."
When she was twenty, Nelka went with her mother to Narragansett Bay for the summer. Here a very tragic event took place which left an imprint on Nelka, if not for life, then certainly for many years. One afternoon, while sitting and talking with her mother, the latter suddenly collapsed and died instantly. Nelka was there all alone with her. The blow was terrible. For a very long time, being highly emotional, she could not get over this tragic end of a person with whom she had always been so close and so intimate. She went into deep mourning and remained in a state of frozen sorrow. Writing to her aunt Susie she expressed so vividly the tragic feeling of complete sorrow which gripped her:
St. Louis 1898.
"No one could offer more generously what unfortunately I feel that I may never have. Don't misunderstand me, dear Poodie, but my 'home' was forever lost when Mama left me and I can never find it except with her. I am Mama's own and my 'home' such as you mean it can only exist in memory and anticipation."
"I am thankful to God that I am left on earth with such aunts as you and Pats. Not many in my situation are so blessed. I shall always feel alone. But perhaps I have had more of Mama than many have in twice the time."
It is true that by circumstances she had always lived very much together with her mother, who as a widow had nothing but her. Even when Nelka was in school, her mother lived in the same city and saw her constantly, and their closeness was very complete.
Again she writes:
"In all events I have had more in life than I deserve, more than one should dare hope for."
"I was sorry to disappoint you yesterday, but I cried all the afternoon."
A year later—Washington 1899.
"Try as I will I do not see how I can ever take up any interest again. I have so little desire to go on with anything and I am so satisfied with what I have had."
"I went to church this morning and I was surprised to realize how heathenish and unchristian the sermon sounded to me. It was painful to feel that I did not believe one word of what a Christian minister said. What a network man seems to have made of the simplest things, wherein to be everlastingly confounded. Might one just look up and reach out overhead, instead of looking around one and trying to grope at one's level. Truths made intangible by the impenetrable meshes of faulty creeds and imperfect reasoning."
"Please do not worry about me. I told you that I was peaceful and content, which I am. I want nothing which I cannot get and my mind is reposeful. I do not care to understand anything. That I have got to accept whatever may come is manifest and the wherefore has ceased to trouble me, if it ever did. In the instances that have thus far come up in my life, what I should do has always been palpable enough and has required more determination or will. My inclination is to do as little as I can to maintain my peace of conscience. While I have no feeling of lassitude, I also feel no incentive, and while without this one need not fail utterly, one will not probably accomplish much."
"I don't believe there are many happy lives. Mama gave me more happiness in the given number of years than I shall ever have again, though doubtless, if I live long enough, I shall have some more happy moments. This is to be supposed. But all this matters so very, very little."
"I don't think that out of what is anything better is going to be."
"The external situation in general is not bad and as far as I can see, the trouble lies in the natures of the individuals and is more or less beyond remedy. The tragedy arriving from trying to unite in action and purpose where in mind and heart and soul there is no union, no mutual illumination, no mutual comprehension of the point of view, will be everlasting. 'Constater et accepter' and the sooner to 'constater' correctly, the sooner futile struggle ends."
"Goodnight. I neither weep nor laugh and I am glad to go to bed; might be a good deal worse off, if I had no bed."
"I have lots of things to talk to you about but I don't know where to begin. I want to say one thing that I think, which is that I think it is very difficult to judge practically when a too analytical definition of a condition or state is substituted for the ordinary and worldly vernacular. I think one must often fall into error from too great an attempt of metaphysical accuracy (precision), for whatever the thing in essence, the reaction thereof upon the multitude is made more forcible and more lucid to the mind by the term applied to it at large. For instance a crank is not a person of peculiar fancies."
"Great griefs are beyond all expression, but the stillness of agonizing moments is worse. Why, oh, why anything?"
"I cannot feel anything. That makes variety but it is being alone in interests, the feeling unchanged, the purposes conceived and striven for singly that makes the struggle seem hard and the achievement futile."
A girl of twenty or twenty-one, she was always questioning, always, seeking, always disturbed.
Ashantee, December 1899.
"You see I am making use of the divine right of the individual which you are ever proclaiming and you must not mistake this for unniecelike freedom of speech. I can only live and learn and perhaps learn to see how often I am mistaken. I am still in that pitiful state of youthful consciousness and have with it the confidence to act upon what I think. And to me almost every general rule becomes transformed under the allowances one must make for the modifications of the issue at hand. I think that often all that is most vital in life may be lost be adhering to formulated precepts and I think that every occasion calls for special and particular consideration for its solution."
After staying a while in America, after her mother's death, Nelka decided to go to Europe in order to change her ideas and get away from memories. This was a wise move and gave her a great deal of comfort, and helped build up her morale. She first went to Paris where she once again went to the Convent of the Assumption and took up the study of painting in earnest at the Julien studios. From Paris she also went to visit her friends the Count Moltke and his wife in Denmark and then later went for four months to Bulgaria where she stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Bakhmeteff, my uncle who was Russian ambassador in Sofia and Madame Bahkmeteff who was Nelka's godmother. These two years in Europe were a very happy, steadying and pleasant time for Nelka and she regained a hold of herself. Especially she loved Paris as she always did. She told me once that when in Paris at the time she was so exhilarated that she felt like walking on air. But her observations of life and its questions continued as always, something that never left her. She wrote a great deal to her aunt Susie and there are many interesting observations made during that period.
"I don't believe there is any use trying to understand things until an issue comes up and I believe that anyone who has heretofore responded to the flagrant necessities and requirements of life will be able to solve and meet more readily, more justly and more normally any problem which may arise. More is there to be learned and more balance and judgment gained in attending to one's most minute duties than in hours of mental anticipation of possible events and questions, conjured up in necessary incompleteness. What beauty there is here! The intellectual and emotional stimulus would make a cow tingle, and yet not some people I know."
"I am disgusted with the ending of the century with two wars, it is a disgrace. I think the whole world is very horrible anyhow and I don't believe in worldly goods and possessions, or countries, or governments and I don't see why everyone by inhabiting tropical climes couldn't dispense with clothes and even the lazy could find food where the vegetation is luxuriant. I think it is artificial to live in a place where one's own skin is not sufficient protection against the weather. I think the whole organization of everything is abominable and I don't believe it is a necessary stage of development. Most ordinary lives are the quintessence of artificiality and the grossest waste of time. I am more than ever against the 'me' in myself. It is the source of all evil."
"I have read some illuminating bits and I think I will finish by finally building myself a scant but solid creed for I have cast all preconceived notions from me, rooted out all expressions of habit and influence, and cleared, though perhaps still warped dwelling of my former tentative suppositions will contain henceforth but the jewels of certain convictions, or remain empty evermore!"
"The stimulating effect of this place is wonderful. I don't know what it is, but it is just life to everything in one. I have absolute peace of mind and I have no mental worries or torments. Nothing seems complicated, nothing seems involved and everything that I can help is satisfactory. I want to lose myself in my work and I have every advantage for doing so. Paris is wonderful, I never so appreciated it before."
"I am so busy, I have my whole week planned ahead for almost every second. You see I am at the studio every morning including Saturday and have several lessons a week in the afternoon. New Years I dined at the La Beaumes. There was just the immediate family and we were twenty-three at table." (These were part of a French branch of the relatives of Nelka on her mother's side.)
"I can understand people with no sentiment, but I will not tolerate people who scoff at it."
"I am so glad to have the Russian church here. I go every Sunday."
"I don't have a minute to spare. This is what I wanted and the life though very full is easy and tranquil. The free reality of thought is delightful and wonderful. I do not include freedom of expression. I wonder how much I fool myself? It is not an intolerance which wishes to promote self but which is limited and dead to a variation of its own species because it lacks the consciousness of its own incompleteness. A man who does not wish to dominate and emphasize his will upon his surroundings, including people, is not a whole man. My Russian is getting on. I will be very glad when I have mastered the language, then I am going to begin Italian."
As a child Nelka did not speak Russian and only started studying it when grown up. When she later went to Russia she still was very weak in the language and only gradually picked it up with practice, but eventually knew it very well.
"How madly busy all the little people are, bussing over the planet, and for what? How nice it is to go to sleep. I am going to bed. P.S. I think it is an intellectual crime to wear long skirts in the streets."
"One must be earnest or else laugh at everything and end in despair. I am so satisfied with my present condition that I think it would be foolish to upset it all after so short a time. I am just beginning to feel the peaceful reaction of it all and I dread the idea of getting roused again before having fully got hold of myself. The total change I felt necessary proved a salvation and that complete absence of all reminders of the past year is the only thing wherein I can get quiet. I do not want to go over what I have felt. Suffice it to say that I want to stay just as I am until after next winter when I will feel like going back to America without regret. I do not feel equal to any more emotions."
"I do not understand the 'variety of perfection.' I think it is impossible and therefore absurd to try to preface for this life, well up on our own inheritance, as you say. There has been too much practical research and study and not enough character building, the result: total lack of balance and maniacs. Anything better that would admit of more possibility of collectedness of peaceful contemplation of the possibility of perfecting the least act with the whole of oneself. The least act is worth it. How does one live now? Scattered over the universe, over the time. There are no whole people except a few who keep their entirety within the arbitrary limitations of prejudice and habitual notions of which they are possessed. The other: they are fragments, cranks and nonentities. One more thing, I do not think that a nation can be judged by its great men. Great men belong to humanity, to the century, to anything but not to their country. I think intelligence and capacity is never local, and it is the average and the habit of life that determines the country."
"I do not think that anything is likely to happen to me except perhaps softening of the brain and that would happen anywhere. I have seen no one to whom it is likely that I will lose my heart, so I am quite safe."
"I do find everything so funny, and people so funny, not individuals, but as a whole, by funny I mean queer. The senseless mode of existence, the superfluous education: these artificial restrictions. It is especially the artificiality of so many things. Who is going to do away with it all? I don't understand anything and I know there is no use trying to build up an understanding on rules."
That summer Nelka went for a month's visit to Denmark to her friends Count and Countess Moltke.
Glorupvej, Denmark 1900.
"We were still two days on the steamer getting to Bremen and then we changed trains and boats about fifteen times in 24 hours getting here. But once here it is beyond all words in delight. The place is perfectly beautiful. I cannot describe it to you. It is so quiet, so far away from everything. Beautiful forests that we drive through, deer all over, swans, fountains and all so old. I lead a most regular of lives. Everyone is exact to the minute, for meals and everything. I feel that it is a very great opportunity I am having to be here in Denmark and see all this new country. It is so interesting and I enjoy it so much. It was very sweet of Louisette to ask me."
Glorupvej, Denmark 1900.
"What you write in answer to my saying that I like 'whole soulness': it is precisely the whole soulness which is not a conscious conquest that I like. I appreciate the merit of the last but it is not that which attracts me, which also reminds me that I want to tell you that I have come to the firm, clear and definite conclusion that a person that loves is not necessarily loving, nor a person that gives necessarily generous. A loving person may never love and a generous person may never give, and the practice of either quality does not indicate an impulse. One can conceive, accept and appropriate the idea of generosity, lovingness, etc., etc., and act it, but that is not the thing. I hate all effort which has for its aim the creation of self, the conscious creation. I like the self to become through slavery to the best natural impulses and through sacrifice brought in one's affections. Seeing that we do depend on each other, it seems to me admissible that the surrender of self, which continues to be with me the highest of everything, should allow of a direct object as its means. I used to have a holy respect of the majority. Now, when I see how many imbeciles go to make up that majority I am no longer afraid to throw over any precept that has filtered into my head, and if ever there was a revolutionist in thought, it is I. Foolish beliefs and hobbies have become adorned with so much that appeals to the sense of the beautiful that one clings even to that, but then that is another element which can envelop rational things as well. Of course all cannot help but be well, but then I am sure that the present condition is quite off the track and I have no respect for anything but pain, joy and sacrifice which are the only realities. Life makes standards and standards don't make life."
"I can tolerate wrong and weakness and everything else but that search for self and above all that pompous blowing of a horn before such empty things, such big sounding ambitions, that mock glory, that swelling in noble pride upon such fictitious hallucinations, that poor mesquin grandness. It is exasperating. I hate ambition to achieve. However, I suppose I am very foolish. I am a mass of vanity and self-seeking in my own way, but it is a great pleasure to cry down. I get roused sometimes on things that are not my business and I have felt very much inclined to express my opinion about some thing, but I suppose I had better not."
"My life I think is molded on circumstance and on the best of my instinct and judgment which may be faulty but which in every special instance seems the safest to me. To remind oneself constantly that one's life is made up of days prevents one from taking most things 'au tragique' and makes existence passable enough."
"Life is so short. The only peace is in remembering how short life is. I work so hard at my painting. My efforts alone deserve some results, but it is slow in forthcoming. This week however there is an improvement. I get up before seven every day and go to bed at nine and drink eight glasses of milk a day. I hope you are pleased. Some emotion, more extremeness, some craziness, some feeling, really I think it is necessary. I do not see any satisfaction in anything but intense feeling. Intense feeling which may come even in the quietest of lives and which does not depend upon external events. It is astonishing how easy it is to be tolerant of people's personalities, however unsympathetic to one, and how very easy also to be intolerant of their point of view."
"There is nothing so disastrous as to be fooled by the appreciation where it is not deserved. How I wish I could do any one thing well."
"I hope it is a satisfaction to you to know how well pleased I am here and that I am absolutely content. I think I will indulge myself and get a jewel with your Xmas present. 'The Perfect One' loves to deck out in gems! I have been reading an essay on Tolstoi and I am took with an attack of asceticism, unequaled by any heretofore. This, following my last sentence, is charmingly typical of my character, is it not? There is one girl here who really might be very nice. She is eyed as being somewhat emancipated by the household I think, but I think it is only Youthful freshness of a first departure and inexperience in calculating the impression she makes on the style of her audience."
At the end of the same year Nelka went for four months to Sofia, Bulgaria where she stayed with the Russian Minister Mr. Bakhmeteff, my uncle and Madame Bakhmeteff who was an American and Nelka's godmother.
She enjoyed very much that stay in Bulgaria and had a very interesting and pleasant time and great success. From Sofia she wrote a number of letters which reflect both the interest of her stay there as well as the continued constant searching so typical of her youth, and perhaps of her whole life.
"How can I tell you how I feel at being here. It is an entirely new world. So interesting and so beautiful! No one could be lovelier to me than Madame Bakhmeteff. She comes in to my room every two minutes and asks me if I have anything under the sun and seems so pleased to have me here. It is really delightful. I have a sitting room next to my bedroom all to myself, filled with every book that I have been longing to get hold of. Everything is so picturesque. I was delighted with Denmark but how different this is. There is something I respond to in that orderly, cold atmosphere, but I think there is more that I respond to in the Orient. How much more simple and less complicated the life is here. I was almost stopped at the Hungarian and Servian frontier because I had no passport. By the merest chance I had a very old one in my bag which was absolutely invalid but which, added to my absolute refusal to leave the train, got me by the three frontiers in the end. I called a Turk and a Servian who were in the same compartment to my rescue and for an hour or more carried on a heated discussion in every language. I am going to ride every day much to my delight. The diplomatic corps have to depend almost entirely on each other and it is very interesting being thrown with people of so many different nationalities. I have been living so fully it seems to me for the last three or four years and still always a crescendo. I don't know why I always write so much about myself—egotistical youth—but how I realize my youth. Even while youth itself makes my head whirl, I stand back within myself and say almost sadly—it is youth. It is sad in a way because I know that the reaction of great interest upon me is youth, and not the interest."
"You speak of danger; I don't see where danger is. The worst evil is prejudice. Without prejudice and without too much drive for worldly attainments, I don't see much danger. I am satisfied as far as I myself am concerned. Every moment is exciting and the regret or irritation I feel against many existing conditions is not wholly disagreeable. This is youth, and when I am older I will jog along at a slower rate. I am not like you, or like almost anyone I know, but I admire and respect those most whom I resemble the least. I am one mass of contradictions to myself, perhaps, supremely self-centered."
"The freedom I have, good or bad, does not depend on the external conditions of one's life. I have enough sense of what is practical to keep in certain lines. No conditions on earth would hamper me mentally and I want to get life-proof through living."
"How I hate business! More and more I am beginning to think less and less of what one accomplishes materially in this life. What does it matter? I think it is less help to be able to help those about one a little materially and be more or less a nonentity as an individual than to be able to mean something as a person with a heart and comprehension. There are some beautiful things in this life that everything organized tries to make hideous and monstrous and I would always say 'gather ye roses while ye may.' I think that every one has almost a right to some happiness and a certain indulgence and the 'droit de temperament,' means something and need not always be selfish. If you do not think this, then there is only the other extreme of austere abnegation of self for any cause however trivial. Nature is the only guide and I don't believe Nature is bad. Of course the curse of freedom will allow one for a long time to distort and vilely modify natural instincts, but at least one can fly from the too palpable artificial. Dear Poodie, don't sigh. I only let off steam in words—that is safe. I am still a slave to this disgusting civilization and always your very devoted 'Perfect One', that is to be, or might have been, Nelka."
"I really ought not to talk because I don't give myself the trouble to put my thoughts on general things in order and in every comment I always have the desire to embrace everything. I follow my own thoughts but love the immediate point and my brain is not in the proper condition to command its own vagaries."
"What a delightful and full summer I have had. I can only reiterate that I am satisfied. I have had so much. Given my nature and my life, more than anyone I know. I may be mistaken in everything but I never doubt my application when I am about to act. Perhaps I will some day, but I don't think so. I have learned a certain 'science de la vie,' meaning this time the artificial, irrational life that is practiced and that I despise. Apart from this I have my own notion of real life and that is my own luxury. When I write so it sounds so big and so out of place for a girl, I always regret saying anything. If what I think means anything it will be shown in my life and so far my life is only a selfish, soft existence, so perhaps that is all I mean. I don't know that I love many things with conviction, but I know I have a contempt with conviction for many things."
"I have stopped looking at life as written with a big L. Regarding it only as an indefinite term of years is much less appalling; it does not lessen the joys and does lessen the sorrows and disappointments. The method now is to catch every minute and stretch it for all it is worth."
"You say I am not adaptive. It is difficult to s'entendre on what that means. Many sides I am, to my detriment. Too many sides for it seems to me I can fit into almost any opening with equal interest. And I find very few environments wholly uncongenial. I am not conscious of exacting in my nature any particular strain or line but what irritates and antagonizes me in any environment is the presumption on the part of the creator of that environment that theirs is the only world-view. I suppose the really strongest thing in me is an instinctive spirit of contradiction, for I always rise spontaneously against anything and everything that is proclaimed to me as being so. This is perhaps rather sweeping but it is more or less so. People influence me never by what they tell me but by the general impression they make on me and that I see them make on other people. I believe what I just wrote is nonsense. I only mean to say that I am only intolerant of intolerance. I think the ordinary rules of good behavior demand a certain amount of tolerance and with that any milieu is possible. I am sure of a few things but these few things are very firmly fixed in my mind. Nothing surprises me."
"I know there is a certain fundamental something in me that will make me apply the same reasoning to everything and I am never worried about any question. In fact I don't know what it is to have a question in mind—that which might be one is simply left out. I cannot say I know myself of course, but I know more of myself than anyone else does and I am certainly more severe. I do not recognize a good thing in me. I believe I am level headed and more or less reasonable, but that is not my merit. Any sanity of judgment I have comes from Mama. Whatever good there may be is due entirely to her. I am not afraid of anything. I am ready for anything. The truth is the only thing worth caring about. Not the great universal truths that one can search and cherish while living in a mass of lies but just the truthfulness of one's life and everyday actions. Try to call things what they are and it is a perfect realm of ever increasing delight, for everything around us is lies from beginning to end. But in general everything is lies and the ambitions are all false and the education is no better than the shoes that are put on Chinese female feet to stunt and deform them. What a sweet and perfect simile. How did I happen to fall on it?"
"I am thinking seriously of working just about twice as much as I did last winter. If one would do anything the least in art one must give oneself to it 24 hours and live these 24 hours double. There is no art but good art and what is not best is not art at all. I hate pretense. It only exists among people who know nothing. I know nothing in any line but I would rather remain a nullity studying with serious intentions than profit of or repose upon some meaningless accidental achievement. Of all traits presumption is the most insufferable. Oh, how one is anxious to put one's finger in pies one is completely incapable of understanding."
After her stay in Bulgaria, Nelka return to Paris to finish her studies before returning to America.
"Oh how stimulating this place is and how much study and achievement there is. What a lecture I heard. It was more helpful to me than anything I can remember for a long while. And what a book I have got! A complete resignation without losing energy on one's work at hand that is what one may strive for. Energy and conviction and elan are not usually resigned to all obstacles and resignation is often lassitude. I feel resignation so necessary and at the same time I have such infinite faith in the power of 'il faut' (one must). The worst thing I am afraid of is to become tired in the way I mean. I think it is more hopeless than disgust and disillusion."
"Where can I read something holding your point of view which would be more within my range of understanding than Hegel? I can't understand free will as independent of our physical being and I don't see how will can be something different from a kind of complicated reflex. I am afraid there is no help for it. I will have to inform myself somehow. Anyway my head always seems clearer over here. I wish I could be so in America. You would not believe how waked up I can get. I believe it is in the air. There is something both stimulating and relaxing in the moral atmosphere that I feel only here."
After her stay in Paris and Bulgaria, Nelka returned to America and stayed either with her aunt Miss Blow or with her aunt Mrs. Wadsworth: in the summer in Cazenovia or Ashantee, in winter in Washington where her Aunt Martha had a large house which had just been built and occupied for the first time in 1900. Her aunt kept up a very active social life and while Nelka stayed through all this social activity she never liked it. She kept in close contact with the varied European embassies and especially the Russian embassy, where she enjoyed the influence of the European atmosphere.
Ashantee, November 1901.
"I do not want to complicate the interpretations of my condition and I want above all things to cease dwelling so selfishly upon it. There is no need of looking for unaccountable voids, longings and the like. I have been unhappy and shattered ever since Mama died. My own nature gives me much to contend with and I want to get away from it all. I am unfit for anything but concentration, and I am not made for the world I live in. If I am not married by the time I am twenty-seven, I am determined to go into a convent or our Red Cross. I may change my mind many times but this is my last word for the present. I have a contempt, when not pity, for the lives of most of the people I see around me and mine is among the most selfish and aimless. I do not wish to read or think or study. And as for 'consciously living for a true world view,' I want to run away from every form of consciousness."
"You speak in your letter of forming an unconscious totality of feeling and tendency out of their necessarily limited experiences, and of not living independently of the deposit of human struggle and thump. Certainly one should perhaps profit by the last but I cannot imagine acquiring anything: conviction, principle, or any attitude of mind except by simple experience. I think we may experience in an ordinary life all that is necessary to build a sufficient and adequate world view. And what I read means nothing to me except where I can compare it with my own experience or consider it in relation to my own experience. I do not think that I can have a proper world view until I am old enough to have had time to experience life and I don't want to go ahead of my experience in reading."
Ashantee, November 1901.
"Kitty and I have just come in from a long disagreeable day in Rochester where we are having clothes made. It is extremely painful to me, but all this kind of thing just pushes me more in the opposite direction and makes me firmer in my fast maturing resolution. I am exceedingly blue. In fact, it is only occasionally that I am not so, and, as in the light of the world I have an unusual amount of things to make me the contrary, it must mean surely that I am not of the world and I wish, wish, wish that I were out of it."
Ashantee, December 1901.
"I am going to try and be reasonable and as mildly satisfactory as I may be and avoid extremes and keep hold of myself, as the only possible justification of my points of view and ideas, for no one will agree with them, and one cannot claim any merit in these, when the result offered is not better than anyone else."
"I will never be influenced by anyone until I see someone who masters intelligently, calmly and practically situations as they occur. I have a great deal in myself to fight and the powerful helping influence has been Mama and the warnings I have had from witnessing things that went wrong. I think the more one lives and the more one thinks, the simpler things get. The greatest of all dangers seems to me to fool oneself. Really this seems to me to be the only hopeless plight and there comes to a certain fascination in trying to say things plainly to oneself. Nothing is as strong as plain truth about a thing, and the moment one shirks it one is lost."
One can see that back in America she was again distressed, discontented and uncertain. She had lost the tranquility and the assurance which she had while in Europe. It seems to me that for some reason or other this feeling of unsatisfaction was always much greater in America than in Europe and here she was always disturbed.
A heavy test to her feelings of loyalty for Russia came with the advent of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904. America was in those days very pro-Japanese and Nelka suffered in her feelings while living in Washington. Finally, in a feeling of exasperation, she left Washington in 1904 and returned to Paris. Here she studied at the French Red Cross to qualify as a nurse. She also resumed her painting studies. For medical practice she worked at a children's dispensary.
"The trip is such a complicated one (back to Paris) with such indefinite changes and waits that I feel sure it would not be right to go alone despite my mature years, and so there is nothing to do."
(She was 25 years old.)
"I have painted a portrait of myself, grinning from ear to ear, which you probably would not like, but it is the best I think I have done. It was for the Salon with Julien's great approval but it was refused with eight thousand other masterpieces. It is a fearful blow to me but salutary for my soul no doubt and this being my holy week I am going to try to benefit from the disappointment and chagrin. I must go and study now. I am doing 5 hours a day of concentrated study."
"I am having an attack of 'anti.' I am getting to feel further and further away. I like Denmark. I am very much interested in the country, the people, the language. I think the difference between countries, the national characteristics so curious. This is such a beautiful place. It grows upon me more and more. The park is lovely with deer, hares and pheasants all around."
"I go to the dispensaire every morning. I have got so much into it that I cannot get out. I enjoy it so much that I only remember once in a great while that I am be doing a little good in it as well. This war makes me feel terribly unhappy for many reasons, I cannot explain. I have an unreasoning longing to be in Russia and doing something. It seems such a useless ridiculous war and so much loss. I cannot understand the way people view things. The loss of life and suffering just make me sick. I see no dignity or sense in anything but quiet and peace. The more importance one attaches to a question, the more pitiful and absurd it seems. What matters externally?"
"I feel old and addled. I am still dispensing with rage and interest. I was given a number of girls to give an illustration lesson in bandaging this morning. We have had a number of interesting cases lately. I shall be sorry to leave them."
(She was 26 years old, working at the French dispensary.)
"I have always before undertaken too much and accomplished less. I do not think it is what one studies but the way one studies anything which amounts to anything. As I have often said before, I have more faith in what I think in spite of myself, in the preferences that I discover in myself, than in those things which I consciously investigate. About the affections, I don't know. The affections I have seem stable enough to me and I feel an ultimate capacity for a larger order."
After completing her Red Cross studies in Paris and receiving a diploma which granted her the status of an apprentice nurse, Nelka made arrangements to go to Russia. This was not an easy undertaking. Nelka had few connections in Russia; her knowledge of the language was limited, her knowledge as a nurse likewise limited, and it took a great deal of determination to carry her plan through.
The war at the moment was coming to an end with the defeat of Russia and a revolutionary movement was afoot. The front thousands of miles away made transportation of the wounded lengthy and difficult, and, long after the hostilities had come to an end, a steady stream of wounded continued to arrive in the capital.
It was a trying and difficult time for Nelka. She was deeply upset by the tragic events of the lost war and the grumblings of the revolution.
She got in touch with some friends in Russia to help make necessary arrangements. A friend of her mother's, Mr. Pletnioff, made all preliminary arrangements to have her accepted in the Kaufman community of sisters under the leadership of Baroness Ixkull, a very cultivated and capable person.
Also the Bakhmeteffs were at that time in St. Petersburg and they too helped make arrangements. Despite the fact that Nelka was then 26 years old, she did not feel that she should travel alone and was trying to find someone who was going to Russia from Paris. A friend who was to go had to put off her trip and so recommended Nelka to a friend of hers, a Madame Sivers, with whom she went and with whom later she became quite a friend.
When she arrived she went at first to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Bakhmeteff.
Early in 1905 she wrote from St. Petersburg, upon her arrival:
"Yesterday already I saw Madame Hitrovo, Veta, Rurik and Veta's son" (my grandmother, my mother and my uncle).
This was the first time that I saw Nelka. The Bakhmeteffs gave a luncheon at the Hotel de France where they were staying to meet Nelka. As it was a family affair with no outsiders, my mother took me along. I was then about seven years old. A child of seven is not generally impressed by a grown up person, but Nelka made a tremendous impression on me when I first saw her: an impression which never left me throughout life. From that day on she meant something to me, and that something grew and grew in my feelings for her with time and years.
The Russian Red Cross had a number of sister "Communities" who were managed by ladies of the Russian society. The one Nelka joined was the Kaufman community under the able management of Baroness Ixkull.
Nelka wrote from St. Petersburg in 1905:
"Baroness Ixkull seems an awfully clever, energetic and altogether charming person. I think although the Bakhmeteffs highly approve, they are afraid she is just on the edge of being a little 'advanced,' which to such arch conservatives as they, seems all wrong. The extremes are very great. You see Pletnioff is somewhat liberal, but nothing in the sense that the word is used abroad and Mr. Bakhmeteff is for the strictest adherence to middle age regime. Between the two I must find the just milieu. Anyway everyone is in a certain sense conservative just now. For the moment I can only tell you of my delight at being here. I suppose the Constitution had to come but surely autocracy is the only ideal Government and I am sorry that the nation was not equal to it."
Here we see this very distinct adherence to the principles of the Russian government of the autocratic regime, the adherence to which seemed only natural and acceptable to Nelka in her idea of a patriotic Russian.
St. Petersburg 1905.
"Tomorrow it will be one week that I am in the hospital and I am getting quite accustomed to it. It is certainly a very complete change of habits in every way, but the essentials are all right. Over and above everything is the joy of at last being able to do, if only a little, for the poor soldiers who have suffered so much and who are so good and patient. I shall never cease to regret that I did not get here at the beginning of the war. This is a perfectly beautiful hospital, quite large and everything perfect. The soldiers are so well provided for that I should think that some of them would almost hate to leave; but oh, Poodie, it is so terrible to see them, many so young, without arms or legs and one whose head was almost blown off, so grateful to have a new glass eye put in him the other day. Soon they are going to make him a nose. On Thursday there was the opening of a new ward and the service and benediction were very impressive. The Queen of Greece came and I was presented to her."
"There are four sisters in a room but the rooms are large with two big windows and they are very nice. Sister Belskaya speaks every language and has helped me a great deal. I am managing to get on somehow with Russian but the other night when I had a conversation with a Sister Swetlova on subjects that were not absolutely elementary it was awfully funny. While the ward is being settled, 5 of us are being sent to the big city hospital where all the sisters have been for a time to learn all kinds of things, but it is to be, I think, only for a few days. O, Poodie, I cannot describe it to you. The hospital itself is all right enough, but the poor people! There are 3,000 there. We are in the surgical section for women. It is very various and valuable experience as you learn everything in a short while, but I would not care to prolong it."
During the summer of 1906 Nelka went with some of the wounded to Finland where the convalescents were sent to recuperate in the country. She was then in her second year working with the wounded and was hoping to be able to return to America before too long.
Politics were very much of importance at that time in Russia which had just emerged from an attempted revolution and certain political changes had taken place. A new parliamentary system had been formed but did not last and was breaking up. Nelka wrote in 1906 from Finland:
"I cannot say what a feeling of relief and thankfulness I had when the Duma (Parliament) was dispersed. I cannot see that any solution is anywhere in view. No one seems to have the least assurance of what will happen. I feel so stirred up I really almost wish I was a man and could enter into the question and do something."
"Poodie, Poodie, do you realize that I am almost an old lady of 28. It seems so funny for that is really honorable—60 is young beside it. I wish you could see the sky here. Such sunsets I have never seen—every day different and the colors on the lake unimaginable. I simply go flying to the roof, I don't know how many times and look and look and look."
"But believe me liberalism abroad is quite different from here and there is so much bad in it here. I don't think there is much hope for Russia. I don't believe we have that in the character to maintain a nation."
"What a terrible thing the attempt to kill Stolypin. The people here really are out of their minds. The ones that think that these murders are for an 'idea.' O, Poodie, I have learned so much since I have been here."
"One sister, Sister Pavlova, is very nice—an aristocrat of correct views and a great satisfaction. She was two years at the War in a contagious hospital."
"I have the apothecary now and put up ten or fifteen prescriptions a day. I find it quite agitating for a novice and am simply calculating and recalculating over and over again. I am also in charge now of the operating room and surgical dressings, and do massage and night duty as before. This is just while we are here. When we go back to Petersburg I will have the ward duty alone as before."
"I am on night duty after a very strenuous day—assisted the doctor with the instruments and material for 25 dressings, put up eight prescriptions myself, dressed the wounds of five Finns, spent some time in the ward, went over the soldier's money accounts, did an hour massage, slept one hour and tomorrow morning I am going to take the temperatures at 6 A.M., at seven put up a bottle of digitalis, at eight get into clean clothes, prepare the surgical dressing room for two dressings, give the instruments and material, and at half past eight or quarter to nine start with two soldiers for Petersburg—one who is to be operated and the other who has been so ill for a week that they think it best to take him back as quickly as possible. Neither of them can sit up. Don't you think that is an undertaking? I am going to take the train back immediately after delivering them at the hospital and hope to get back by 5 or 6 o'clock and have a grand rest up for Monday."
"Is life so full of resource or is the resource all in one's imagination and state of mind. It seems to me there is so much, so much, and yet the most sometimes seems just to suffer being 'suffered out' by the effect of certain moral efforts."
"This whole life is something so complete and so different and I feel now so much at home in it. Had I been different I might not have needed what this experience has given me, but as it is, you will find a great deal more of me and have a great deal more of me than before I left. I know myself too well and know too well the unstableness of my moral interior to say that I may not need again some time."
St. Petersburg 1906.
"I often wonder now, since this life here in the hospital is so different from everything which has opened such new vistas, if there are an indefinite number of experiences which each would offer new points of view. For there it would seem that one must abstain from any general conclusions upon the things of the world, owing to one's limited experience. I am awfully glad to be thrown in this association with the soldiers. This is quite a revelation. They are in comparison with other people just like charts for little children to read, as compared with some hazy book. Then there are all degrees of awakening. It is most interesting. I sometimes think that human beings are as different from each other as things of a different species."
St. Petersburg 1906.
"I told her (Baroness Ixkull) that I thought of leaving in August, if possible. She is so urgent about my staying altogether in the community that it makes it very hard to leave. At last I seem to have found something where I am thought to be very useful and I have fitting qualities, but alas so far from Poodie and Pats that it is not possible. At least it is a thing I know I am prepared for now and that is always open to me as a vent for energy, an occasion for helping and regulator of the nervous system. If there is war again I think nothing will hold me, but otherwise I am going to try to make my character a possible one so that it will be a more peaceful member of the family with you and Pats."
"No matter what I do later this year will have a lasting benefit. I don't know what it is. I never seem to get enough of life. I know the feeling that satisfies for I have had it a few times. Perhaps it is youth, perhaps it is egotism, but anyway it is something that makes one wish one had five lives to live at once. I am laboring through a very interesting book on the Evolution of matter which demands a great deal of concentration of a brain as uninformed in matters of science as mine. I refuse to think and accept things in 'terms' which when it gets to the point of the disassociation of atoms becomes difficult not to do. I wish I had a really active brain that would give me the results I want without requiring such an immense amount of will which I can't command."
St. Petersburg 1906.
"My plans seem unable to take any definite shape for the moment. I cannot leave my soldiers that I have had from the beginning and it is uncertain yet when they will be in a condition to leave. I wish I were a few years younger. I want to do so much."
(She was then 28 years old.)
St. Petersburg 1906.
"It is now seven A.M. I am just finishing night service but I feel quite lively just because I know it is ending. Yesterday the 'sidelkas' (apprentices) received the cross. After they graduate they can take cases and be paid about $20 a month. This course is only one year. The sisters' course is two years but of course their work is always free."
In Russia all nursing was considered to be a vocation and as such could therefore not be paid. All sisters received their maintenance and clothing from the community but no pay.
St. Petersburg 1906.
"I have just received your letter telling me of Trenar's death." (Trenar was a borsoi dog which Nelka had and left in Cazenovia. This was before she had her poodle Tibi.) "Mrs. Lockman wrote me some time ago that he was very sick with distemper but had not written me since. Useless to say how I feel. Everyone does not feel the appeal of a dog's affection in the same degree, and with me it is as strong as anything I know. Trenar in his devotion was exceptional, and not to have been with him when he was sick—I simply can't think of it. I didn't do anything that I should have with him. It was wrong to leave him. I love dogs and Trenar was something very special. I didn't do what I should with him and in every way I am perfectly miserable about it, but it is useless of it—that is all. I know you feel sorry for the way I feel, but how I feel you can't know and it must seem out of place to you. Anyway I feel it and I reproach myself. I just wish I could have been with him. I will never forget his attachment—dear little Trenar."
St. Petersburg 1906.
"But I don't suppose you can conceive how I feel the autocracy, the Emperor. I don't care what I think; I feel autocracy and the Emperor simply not a human being to me. I read this and thought you would like it: 'Sow an act and you reap habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.'"
St. Petersburg 1906.
"For the last two weeks I have been all the time on duty with the operated cases. This last week I was on night duty every night except last night when I had to sleep to be on duty today. I am so tired of fussing with myself; it makes me so angry not to be a perfect machine. The things to do are all the same—the way to be is the same, and yet there is so much thinking, choosing, deciding, worrying. So few things matter, and so much should not have a moment's consideration. Nine tenths of all the shackling considerations should simply never rise to consciousness."
St. Petersburg 1906.
"On Xmas there was a big tree for all the soldiers who could walk and then there were a lot of little trees all arranged with presents for each room where the soldiers could not leave their beds. It was said in the morning that nothing would be done on Xmas—no dressings, nothing, and I never worked so hard! As there were no dressings in the operating room I had to do quite a number somehow or other in bed, and then it was my day to keep the ward in the afternoon."
St. Petersburg 1906.
"I am beginning to think that the 'esprit' of the sisters here, that is most of them, is far too liberal. I get perfectly outdone with the papers some of the sisters bring into the ward, and I quickly lay hands upon everyone I find. There is no stemming the tide but I shall do what I can wherever I am, for it is too stupid. The soldiers are too uneducated."
"You say in your letter that you understand that my father's country should be dear to me and yet you think that my mother's country might also mean something. What I feel, understand and see in America does not mean anything. I cannot feel as they do. What I care for most in the world is you and Pats—that does not need to be said. As a country, for ideas, general point of view, etc. etc., Russia and Russians are more sympathetic and comprehensible. It is so different. But that is as far as country goes. The real tie, as I said before, is you and Pats."
Finally after a stay of over two years in Russia, Nelka started back for America. But she took a round about way this time traveling first through Russia to the Crimea and from there by boat.
Written on the train between Kharkoff and Sebastopol 1907.
"I am on my way to the Crimea—and then continue by boat to Naples. I expect to get to Paris by the 12th or 15th and to sail at the end of the month. What a place Moscow is. O, it is so beautiful—so old and real Russia, so solid and so unforeign. It was fearfully cold but I was out all the time and only had my nose frozen once. I hate, loath and detest every foreign influence in Russia and every evidence that there is a world outside. The Kremlin is certainly thorough in itself and I love it. I am palpitating at the thought of seeing you so soon. It seems to me I am just living in gulps. I feel somehow that the privileges I have had ought to be put to something now. How will I even put my whole self into one thing? Everything has splendid possibilities but it is always the fearful alternative and its possibilities. Anyway I have stopped waiting. I know there is nothing to wait for. I can hardly believe that I have had this year—that I have been in Russia and that it is done. Baroness Ixkull tried to keep me to send me to the famine—but the famine will have to wait. I shall be so glad to get to Yalta. My head is so tired and I shall be able to clear up my thoughts—I can hardly write. My head is popping off and my hand is cold and the train shakes. Always your old Nelka."
(29 years old)
But back in America she once again was restless. Social life had no appeal for her. There was something much more genuine in Russia or even in Europe—something much more alive, much less artificial. Her aunt Martha Wadsworth tried to interest her in other things, take her mind off the brooding dissatisfaction which Nelka was showing.
In 1910 General Oliver, then Secretary of War, and a personal friend of Mrs. Wadsworth, decided to undertake a reconnaissance trip through New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, partly to do some surveying and mapping of the area and partly to test a compressed fodder for horses invented by Captain Shiverick, also a friend of Mrs. Wadsworth.
General Oliver invited Mrs. Wadsworth to take the trip with him and she in turn asked Nelka to come along.
This was a most unusual, interesting and difficult trip, especially for women. It lasted six weeks. The first three weeks General Oliver took part in the trip with a whole squadron of cavalry. Then he left and the rest of the three weeks only a small party continued through the Navajo Indian Reservation to the Rainbow Bridge in Utah. This party consisted of only two officers, several enlisted men, one Indian guide, Nelka and her aunt. All on horseback and pack mules carrying supplies. They covered unmapped territory over the most rough and difficult terrain, which often was dangerous. Even one horse was lost when it fell over a cliff and had to be shot because of injuries. They slept on the ground, froze during the cold nights while the heat of the day was always around a hundred, and on one occasion reached 139 degrees. A great many very interesting pictures were taken during this trip. Nelka always remained under the spell of this trip and the beauty of the untouched wilderness, but at the same time had some unpleasant impressions of the awesome country. Also it lasted longer than she had expected and she was anxious to get home. Only that year her aunt Martha had given Nelka a poodle puppy, Tibi, which Nelka left with her aunt Susie in Cazenovia. She was worried about the puppy all during her trip.
Incidentally, this Tibi played a very important, and sad role in the life of Nelka. The dog, because she was always with Nelka and because of this close relationship, developed a very high degree of understanding and companionship with Nelka. This mutual understanding resulted in a very deep attachment between Nelka and Tibi, and Nelka certainly developed a very unusual love for this Tibi, whom she always took with her back and forth between Europe and America and kept always with her—except on the occasions when she was obliged to leave her for short periods. I knew Tibi for she also had been left by Nelka with me and my mother in the country on one or two occasions when I took care of her.
Here are some of the impressions that Nelka gathered from this western trip and which she gave in her letters to her aunt Susie:
"The Navajo Mountains and the Natural Bridge were, to me, terrible. I can never give you a complete description of it, but, aside from the other difficulties and trials, it impressed one as the most godless place conceivable. I don't see how anyone can keep any religion in the canyon in which the bridge is—such a mass of turbulent, ruthless rock, all dark red—hopeless, shapeless chaos. It all looked just as if there had been a smash up yesterday. No beyond, no nothing, nothing alive, nothing dead, every step of the way almost impassable and the feeling that every minute more rock could come smashing down. On the way there Mr. Whiterill, our guide, fell over with his horse when it was impossible to keep balance. He got loose, the horse fell over backwards several times, broke its neck, slid down sheer rock and fell about 50 feet over a cliff, the sound was awful."
"Mr. Heidekooper and I went down to the bottom of the canyon and lay back on the rocks with our feet in a pool. I closed my eyes and tried to forget these crushing walls."
"There was a question of moving the sleeping blankets to get out of a scorpion patch, but we finally stayed where we were. I refused to mount my horse firmly and flatly until we got out of the worst part of the canyon, so I walked 12 miles when I had to pick every step on sharp stones. On the way back, Pat's horse went head over heels down another steep place but was not killed. Still a few miles further my horse slipped going over a huge mass of rock as smooth as an egg and about the same shape and everyone thought he was about to be hurled to instant death, when by a miracle he screwed around, got himself up and caught his footing again. My mental agony had been so great that I had not a bodily sensation. I took my blanket, rolled up in it and went to sleep by some trees under some branches and a log. We came over the rocks where one misstep would have sent the horses to the bottom. No place even to spread his four feet before the next step. My heart was in my mouth most of the time. I don't know what impression you might get from my letter. I have seen the most beautiful sunsets, but there are more essential elements than these to live in peace and the limits of what I can do now are very marked. I am wound up to the last degree. There are lovely Indians here."
Kianis Canyon 1910.
"We arrived here in the rain; the pack train with the lunch miles behind and a waste of thistles to sit on, but it cleared up soon after and everything got settled. There are two very nice dogs along—Kobis and Terry. Terry belongs to Mr. S. and has his ears cut to the roots. I need not insist upon what I feel for both the dog and the man."
Canion de Chelley, August 1910.
"This country is too wonderful for words. It is the place—the only way to live. I wish you could see it and I wish you loved it as I do. Won't you bring Tibi and the boys and stay here? Oh, Oh, there is nothing to say."
"I get up at 5 and see the sunrise and generally take the things in before everything gets astir. We have breakfast at 6, 6:30 and start our marches at 7. It was so cold one night I got up at 4:30 and made up the camp fire. My face is dark brick and painful but I think I had too much cold cream fry and I have stopped. The heat of the sun is great. Wednesday we crossed the 'Painted Desert' which was even more beautiful than the canion and camped at a kind of oasis on a little lake and were able to have a swim—though the desert was full of rattle snakes and the lake full of lizards."
"I walked off and got lost almost 4 hours. They had the whole troop out looking for me, and the trumpeters blowing for over an hour. There was no moon and I had decided to spend the night where I was by a cactus, when I saw a light in the dim distance and finally Captain McCoy found me. It gave me a vivid sense of how misleading the flatness of the desert can be. When Captain McCoy found me he could not see me ten feet away and I think it was chiefly the white dog he had with him that found me. I had had to take off both shoes and stockings about two hours before as the mud was so heavy I could not raise my feet and it was raining part of the time. Every place where the Indians live in their natural mud huts it is clean and inoffensive. As soon as there is a sign of a real house, or what you call civilization, there is dirt, smells, refuse heaps and flies—and of all the sights in my life, bar none, the washstand in Mr. Hubble's store, with wet newspaper, stagnant slop jar, dirty tooth brush, filthy basin, sloppy soap—all humming with flies—is the worst I have ever seen and the most stomach turning. There is some freak from Boston in a checkered suit and goggles who walks around with some ideas for Indian betterment. I think they have reached the highest pitch in the fact that they do not scalp him! I had coffee, oatmeal and bacon all out of one bowl. I drink water that looks like bean soup and never use a fork and a spoon at the same meal. Sand and cinders or charcoal flavor everything, and I have fished olives out of the sand where they had fallen and eaten them with perfect satisfaction. Materially this certainly is the way to live. Spiritually some shifting might improve it."
Back from the trip and into civilization, Nelka again was restless and discontented with her surroundings. Again she longed for Europe and especially Russia.
Her little dog Tibi became of primary importance in Nelka's life. Despite her love for animals, Nelka admits that up to that time she had no special attachment or deep affection for dogs. Dogs were just something you had around you; they were part of everyday life, but that was about all. But with Tibi, Nelka's affection for her grew and grew, and they became unusually attached to each other. Like all dogs who are constantly with a person, they develop a great maturity and intelligence. Tibi did just that. She was a very highly developed animal, as I remember her well.
The winter of 1910-1911 Nelka spent again with her aunt Martha in Washington. Her aunt had a large house and was in the social whirl of the capital. Dinners, balls, the White House, the Embassies—but all this meant little to Nelka and she felt the futility of all that activity, its artificiality and uselessness. Irritated and longing for a change she once again returned to Russia, and once again went back to the Kaufman community.
Her feeling for dogs and animals in general was becoming more and more pronounced—thanks in part to her close association with Tibi. In one of her letters to her aunt Susie written in 1911, she writes:
St. Petersburg 1911.
"I do not love humanity in the mass. I don't admire it. I feel sorry for the unenlightened and suffering but I think there are only a few in the world who 'vindicate,' as Uncle Herbert says, their right to exist. If there was for one moment in my heart what I feel for dogs, cats, horses and animals in general, I would be a real sister of charity. It is a perfectly distinct expansion and impulse and a real longing to help and joy in it that I do not feel in the face of suffering humanity. You can explain it any way. If all these crippled numberless that I have seen all these days had been maimed dogs, I don't know what I would have done. There is something in human nature that is so contemptible and poor that I can't feel the same way."
St. Petersburg 1911.
"How can you keep your faith in humanity? I think it is all so weak and not beautiful, and life as it goes somehow such an outrageous fizzle. Why are there such beautiful things, conceptions, possibilities only to be ruined by fatal microbes this human nature puts into it? Life only in yearning; Death to crown realization; peace only in oblivion. What for? And even the power of renounciation has to be fought for."
She was working at that time in the Kaufman community but was to go to Montenegro for a hospital reorganization. This did not come about. She wrote:
St. Petersburg 1911.
"I am undergoing the greatest disappointment at this moment. I was to be sent to Montenegro to establish a Red Cross sisterhood and overhaul the hospital, and to be given five sisters to take with me I as the head—so interesting—and in the part of the world which has always attracted me to the utmost, ever since I was in Sofia. And after it was all arranged and I was simply reveling in every detail, Baroness Ixkull decided that it was simply impossible to take Tibi."
St. Petersburg 1911.
"One doesn't love anything any more, religion, country, art. The only thing is to have one's interest outside of oneself—and to be very busy. I can hardly believe, at least I wonder, at myself being able to do so many things I dislike—getting up every day so early, no walks with Tibi, sleeping between five and six hours, often only four, and yet I enjoy everything—ice cream is a festival, a moment to sew a treat, and bed heaven."
"But oh, all these sick people—so depressing and gives one such an impression of superfluity of the human species. Everything, everything so beautiful except humanity—and not only man himself—dirty and unenchanting—but the instrument of hideousness all around."
Again Nelka was showing the restlessness because of the attachments to the two sides of the ocean—Russia and America—and the impossibility to satisfy entirely one or the other, or both. From Russia she wrote:
St. Petersburg 1911.
"I wish I could be in America and eliminate from my personal horizon the people and things which make me boil over in spite of myself. Dear Poodie, I wish you could really know what I feel and mean. I think if in recent years you had been in contact with the peace and simplicity of Europe in general, you would see what makes me shrivel with most Americans, because I am not above and beyond it as you are. America may stand for freedom, but it has an unimancipated soul and there is a perpetual affectation, a caution, a suspicion, a lack of independence that does simply petrify life and crush feeling. You may say it is a small world, I don't know, but it is everywhere I meet."
St. Petersburg 1911.
"I have at last decided that my life must remain unsettled, undecided; it is too late to settle it except by sheer will, and that is too stupid. Real ties exist in different centers—one must obey both; it is utterly indifferent to me what external aspect my life takes, because it is also too late."
(She was then 32 years old)
St. Petersburg 1911.
"I hope to be in America at intervals and often. You and Pats are more to me than anything else and I have the greatest love for Poodihaven (Cazenovia), but I cannot associate with outsiders sufficiently to fill my life. I want to beat them all and I don't want to hear them talk."
At this time, I think, she was going through a very difficult period of uncertainty in her life, which is reflected in her letters written at that time:
"If I did not care for Americans and if I did not have a great deal of sentiment and associations, ties and memories in America, it would be so easy to leave it alone and not think about it. But I know I am both. I know how strongly attached I am to both sides and I only deplore the difference among people in the world. But when I think of even those others that I care for, I know that we are strangers. My heart does not beat with any puritanical sentiment—so there. If I am attracted to some puritanical offspring—some representative of the progressing (?) new world, it is like being in love with a marble statue."
"I don't know why I write all this, but how impossible life is. I think it really is a most devilish arrangement. No peace except in utter renounciation. And must one struggle through a peppery sequence of years just to know this?"
"Baroness Ixkull is going to give me perfectly new sisters to train and I am going to make them march like pokers, copy every record each time they make a spot and count all the linen every two weeks. As they will not have been in any other ward, they cannot make any comparisons or complain."
"I know, Poodie, that you would like some things here very much—the simplicity of everything and the independence of people. I think it is only possible with a recognized aristocracy when people do not have to explain themselves and are established. I have met a few such nice people, of course to hardly know them, but one feels one knows them at once because there is a recognition of being of one world and one knows beforehand that one shares the same feelings towards most things. For instance, they may not know me personally but the fact that Papa was in the service, was Gentillomme de la Chambre (Court title), was educated at the Lycee, defines a type, defines in a certain manner his daughter, if only externally. Then knowing that Mama was American, the whole thing is clear in a natural way. My wanting to be here is understood—my attachment to America is understood."
St. Petersburg 1911.
"My life here is so full in one sense that it seems much more than a few months since I was in America. Life seems very, very short in comparison with the wide conception of possibilities which gives the zest to youth. Everything seems so partial and the total is so hard to realize. To keep tranquility with the increase of perception and understanding means renounciation as far as I can see. It must be a great privilege to work and pursue one's greatest convictions—to act what one feels sure of—this is in many ways adjustment to circumstances. Please God that there may be some good in it."
"The spirit is everything—nothing else matters. I can never leave the ward on their hands (new sisters) and I mean every day from 8 until 9 at night and often part of the night, if it is very serious. I am very well, sleep little, eat little and am flourishing."
So after this additional stage in Russia at the Community, Nelka returned once again to America, but not for very long. Early in 1912 she was again getting ready to go back to Europe. Writing from Ashantee in 1912 she said:
"I know it is unrest—I know it all—yet the true picture is that of going thousands of miles to where I am not needed, and leaving my two best friends. I long for the work and can't wait. Between now and it, just think what bumps and jolts and frights and moans. Oh, what is it all about?"
Nelka spent that winter with her aunt Martha in Washington. It had been a winter entirely filled with social activities—balls, dinners, the White House, the Embassies—and Nelka could not stand it any longer and was seeking some contrast. She certainly achieved the contrast all right, for as soon as she returned to Russia she was sent to the outskirts of the Oural Mountains. In that region a famine had been quite severe and the Government sent out feeding stations and Red Cross units to take care of the stricken people. Sisters were established in different villages, sometimes entirely isolated, where they issued provisions and gave medical care to the peasants. Nelka spent a whole winter in one of these villages, living in a one-room hut with a peasant family and sleeping on a wooden bench. What a contrast after the social life of Washington!
Here is a descriptive letter written from Kalakshinovka, District of Samara, in 1912:
"I am in a desert of snow, in quiet and peace, and feeding three villages. I lie on my bed which consists of two wooden benches side by side—one a little higher than the other. Only thing is that it is almost inaccessible. Even with the snow it is more roily and bumpy than the worst sea ever dreamed of being, and all one can do is to lie with one's eyes closed on some straw in the kind of low sleigh that bumps along hour after hour over these steppes. I first went to Sapieva, a tartar village in the District of Bougulma. Now I am settled and hope to stay here. I was busy last night late giving out provisions and weighing flour and today I have been trying to straighten out grievances and see that all receive justly—sometimes very complicated. Some brother of the official writer of the village, quarreled with the son of a poor woman when that woman's cow came too near his premises, and he made his son beat her off. My position in the matter is whatever the pro's and con's—how dare anyone hurt a poor famished cow and I am settling it on that line."
"I don't know what I would not do to feed all the poor cows and horses and sheep that are left. A number of friends in Petersburg gave me some money to distribute—a little over a hundred dollars. I gave about 50 in Sapieva and the rest I am going to use to save the animals. Aside from my pity for them, it will be terrible for the peasants not to have a horse to work in the fields as soon as the warm weather comes. Where will they be next year? I can help at least two or three families. One poor woman when I bought some feed for her horse and cow simply fell on her knees on the ground. Poodie, really how far people live from each other and how little one can dream of this life if one has not been in it. Perhaps other people understand things more or realize more, but with all I have seen and heard and read, that is simply being born to something entirely unknown—besides all the feelings one experiences oneself in being thus shut off from everything. I have at last attained my own bowl and spoon. I drink coffee and eat a piece of black bread in the morning. At 12 a bowl of buckwheat or some kind of grain with a wooden spoon—a glass of tea and at night a glass of cocoa and black bread, or as a treat a dish of sour milk. I cook and iron and do everything myself, but it is very simple."
"This is part of 'Little Russia' and is much cleaner than 'Great Russia.' I brought with me a few fleas from Great Russia and have the greatest sympathy for Tibi for the time she was exposed to flea companionship. How they bite and jump."
"The Tartars were so clean—the very poorest and none of the disorder that one sees in Great Russia. There is something absolutely distinctive about the Tartars and one feels a certain civilization and settledness that is different from all the other villages I have seen. Did I tell you how we all slept in a row with the old tartar and his wife and child?"
"Though I was doing my best to master the tartar tongue, I can converse more readily here. The Little Russian dialect is very different from Russian but one can get a long. The Red Cross will probably be stationed here throughout the famine—until the 'New Bread,' that is about the end of July—but Baroness Ixkull promised to replace me as soon as she could get another sister. I hope to get back to America in July."
"A peasant walked in today and brought me a present—an apple about the size of a plum. I wanted to keep it until Easter but we consulted and decided it would dry up, so I ate it. It is getting late—8 o'clock and the candle is burning low."
"The days have fallen into a routine. I distribute provisions, go to see the peasants and they come to see me—sew, mend, scrape mud off of boots and at last have a little time to write a few letters. In about a week I hope to go to Alekseievka, a village about 9 miles off, which is quite a center. There is a fair there every week and I shall buy some sugar and a little white flour and perhaps if it can be found, a piece of ham. I am getting awfully hungry. People will never get anywhere while taste is undeveloped and perception so dull and imagination so weak. I don't think all people can be taught to understand, but I do believe that the eye can be trained and the imagination led into paths which will make them revolt from ugliness, and that is a tremendous step towards salvation. It seems to me that 'conditional immortality' is the only possible and plausible doctrine. So much of humanity, whatever it looks like or however cannily it has devised to exist, has not begun, and why have such a respect for numbers? I should like to weed out acquaintances just as I attack occasionally the linen closet—with fire, and have a chance to breathe. It is all the unborn who sit around and choke the atmosphere."
"All the horror of the famine is being realized right now. I will not write you about it for it is too terrible and heartbreaking—it is the horses, camels, cows and sheep—worst of all the horses. I will never forget yesterday as long as I live. I cried all day, I could not sleep all night. It is simply horrible. I have never so much realized the problem of existence as here. Everything is so foreign and so striking, one is simply faced by the question of how to live and to what end. What I feel more strongly than anything is that the product of the best education and civilization should be good and zealous—more near the saint—than that the masses should read or write. I have faith enough that all will attain in the end if the type that leads is worthwhile, but the type that leads is not."
"I have a whole little house now. The owner comes and cleans up; I bolt my door and I have a place to keep provisions for almost 900 people. The whole thing is just as interesting as it can be. I went not long ago to a village of Bashkirs to verify scorbutous and typhoid—about 15 miles from here; it is strange how entirely different they are. The Tartars seem the most settled and grown up and independent, and the Little Russians have more traditions. The Great Russians are more individual and less distinctive. You can't imagine the nice feeling of riding right out over the steppes, no fuss, no get up, with a purpose. The feeling that at the same time with the wild freedom of it that one is accomplishing something and working. I can't wait to see you. When I get my Tibi and start again across the seas, I shall be even glad to see that awful Liberty lady!"
"Your letter enclosing Pata's and the picture of Lutie was the reward of a walk of six to seven miles with a ton of mud on each boot, a night on the floor and a return at dawn on a rickety horse horseback. Everything is flourishing here, plenty of occasion for meditation and consideration. I enjoy tremendously the peasants' bath house. One can climb higher and higher and lie on shelves in different stages of heat. I got so steamed up I wanted at one moment to open the door and just fly out into the field without a stitch. When I look out on the plains here and then think of New York and the subway, my brain simply stops. This is about as small and poor a village as exists, yet there is a teacher and all the younger generation read and write, and the Tartars are really wise owls. I have no more desire to go to Persia. I am afraid that country is done for. I think Arizona is as safe as anywhere if they don't irrigate. Still those mission teachers are a pest. There is something fundamentally wrong with everything I know!"
Hardly had this episode of the famine finished, that the Red Cross sent units to Belgorod in the Ukrania where there was a great concentration of pilgrims for the canonization of St. Josephat. The Government once again set up feeding stations and hospital units to take care of the sick and aged and all emergencies arising from the concentration of many thousands of pilgrims. Once again Nelka was there and it was of great interest to her.
During all of these absences Nelka kept her little dog Tibi either with us in the country or with friends in Kasan, the Krapotkins. She went to pick up Tibi in Kasan from where she wrote in 1913.
"I caught some horrible microbe just before I arrived and had a terrible grippy cold which kept me in the house and in bed—but it is over now. I feel rejuvenated 15 years and full of energy. I almost believe it is climatic. The feeling is so different. Isn't it awful about the priest being hung in Adrianople? I don't see how the whole of Europe doesn't stand together to drive the Turks out of Christian countries."
(This was written just before the start of the Balkan war.)
Nelka returned to St. Petersburg and made preparations to leave for the Balkans. The Russian Red Cross was sending out units to the Bulgarian Army. After returning from Kasan, Nelka stayed for a while at my mother's place in the country. This was a time when I was preparing for my entry examinations to the Lycee and she wrote about that to her aunt, who was interested in everything pertaining to education.
Writing from Poustinka (our country estate) in 1913:
"I am very much hopped up and stirred up and feel very full of life. I had a very pleasant short stay in Kasan. Enjoyed seeing people very much—so much youth I have not seen for ages—young people, young officers, young marriages, and then such delightful old people. The young officers were just simply waiting for mobilization. About war, everything is most uncertain. Half the people say it will be immediately, the other half that it will be avoided—no one can tell anything. I am going to Adrianople Tuesday. Baroness Ixkull is there with a large division and I think that just now there will be more to do than ever. I go first to Sofia."
"Yesterday I went with Veta (my mother) and Max to town. We came back in the evening and after dinner I had a most delicious sleep on the sofa by the fire—Max waking me up every few minutes."
"This afternoon I had a fine nap and then gave Max an English dictation. He is preparing for his examinations for the Lycee. Really it seems a great deal. Besides all the usual subjects, he has to take Grammar and Composition in Russian, Latin, German, French, and English. Ancient History, European History and Russian History separately, besides Religion. An awful lot, and all the other things. None of the languages are optional and in two years he has to be examined in the literature of each."
"He is such a nice boy, 15 years, so boyish and yet so developed and such a lot of casual culture, just from association with cultured people—and yet a real country boy, loving the affairs of the estate and everything to do with the place, and full of fun and mischief. I am all for education at home until the final years for boys, and altogether for girls—I think it is more developing."
After this stay with us, she left for Sofia and the war.
"General Tirtoff sent me a 'laisser passee' and a certificate so that I can't be taken prisoner, and I expect to arrive to where we have the tents in 2 or 3 days. General Tirtoff, under whose orders I am, proposed yesterday to send me as head of a hospital which is now stationed in Servia, but which has to be sent to Duratzo where there has been a big battle. It will be a tremendous lot of transportation and, though very interesting, I don't know if I should like it as much as a small field hospital like Adrianople. Any way it all depends on what happens at Adrianople."
"I have just come from the Queen. She was ill and could not receive me before. She was very, very nice—much nicer than I expected and better looking than her pictures. It is now 3 A.M., and I am to get up at six."