TRAPPED IN "BLACK RUSSIA"
BY RUTH PIERCE
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY The Riverside Press Cambridge 1918
COPYRIGHT, 1917, BY THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1918, BY RUTH PHINNEY PIERCE
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published February 1918
TRAPPED IN "BLACK RUSSIA"
I. JUNE-JULY, 1915 1 II. JULY-AUGUST, 1915 42 III. AUGUST-SEPTEMBER, 1915 66 IV. SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER, 1915 93 V. OCTOBER, 1915 122 VI. OCTOBER-NOVEMBER, 1915 130
June 30, 1915.
Dearest Mother and Dad:—
There is no reason why this letter should ever reach you if you consider that it's war-time and that I am in Russia. Still, the censor may be sleeping when it comes along, or I may find a way to slip it over the border under his very nose. I always have a blind faith that my words will reach you somehow.
I am in Russia—without Peter. Don't be frightened, dearests. I came with Marie, and we will go back to Bucharest together in a week. Only a week in Russia. Oh, if the top of my head could be lifted off and let out everything I want to tell you.
We had no difficulty in crossing the frontier. The little Roumanian train took us over a river, and all at once we were out of the make-believe country where the stage always seems set for opera-bouffe There were no more pretty Tziganes, with disheveled hair and dirty, bare breasts, to offer you baskets of roses and white lilies. There were no Turks in red fezes squatting in the dust, hunting among their rags for fleas, and there were no more slender peasants in tight white-wool trousers and beautiful embroidered shirts. Everything, just by crossing a river, had grown more serious and sober-colored and several sizes larger. Pale-blue uniforms gave place to dingy olive-brown ones.
A porter took care of our luggage. He was exactly what I expected. He wore a white smock with red and blue embroidery at the neck and wrists. His reddish beard was long and Tolstoyan. We followed him into the big, empty railway station, and there a soldier took away our passports and we were left waiting in the douane, behind locked and guarded doors, together with a crowd of bewildered Jews and Roumanians.
"It isn't much like the Roumanian frontier, is it?—where the dreamy-eyed official vises your passport without looking at it—he's so busy looking at you," Marie observed.
"No," I replied. "This is Russia. I am in Russia," kept going through my head, and I felt like Alice in Wonderland, trying to adjust myself to new perspectives.
"I hate getting back here," Marie went on. "It was too good to be in a country, if only for a little while, where they took things easily. If I'd stayed a little longer, I believe I could have laughed myself and felt in a personal relationship toward life again."
That's what I was glad to get away from. You get too personal if you stay in Roumania long. Roumania gets to mean Bucharest, and Bucharest the universe. As I sat waiting in the douane, I felt like puffing out and growing to make room for Russia inside me.
We waited hours.
"Can't you hurry our passports?" Marie asked an official. "We want to leave on this train."
The official raised his shoulders helplessly.
"Seichas," he replied.
"What does that mean?"
"Presently—immediately—never," Marie replied in exasperation.
The train we were to have taken for Kiev left without us, on tracks twice as wide as those of the Roumanian toy railroad. Only a courier with a diplomatic pouch got on.
"It's like that here, always," Marie said. "No system, no economy of time, or anything else." Suddenly she began to laugh. "Everything gets on my nerves as soon as I get into Russia."
We left late in the afternoon. The air in our compartment was hot and stale. When we opened the window, the wind blew in on our faces in parching gusts. But it was grateful after the smells of cabbage, soup, tobacco, and dirty Jews that we had been breathing for five hours in the douane.
We sat by the window, cracking dried sunflower seeds, and looking out at the steppes of Little Russia. The evening shadows were already lying in the hollows of the fields of ripening wheat, but the late sun still reddened the crests and the column of smoke from our engine. Frightened larks rose from the tall grain. We passed patches of dark woods, scattered thatched huts. Along a road came a man and a woman in peasant dress. The train seemed to slow up on purpose to let us have a glimpse of them through a thin, fine powder of golden dust, in their dark homespuns, with patches of red embroidery on the white sleeves and necks of their blouses. They carried a green box between them. Once we passed through a wood of pale-green birches with thin silver stems. It was a relief to see lines going up and down after the wide, level lines of the steppes.
And then it grew dark. A sense of sadness filled me, and I was glad when the conductor lighted the lamp and made up my berth. We lay down as we were, all dressed, and the train rushing and swinging along deadened my mind and feelings.
I was wakened by the conductor's twitching the covering back from the light. Our carriage had broken down and was going to be side-tracked.
Then began the most restless night I ever spent. We bumped along in a third-class carriage, and descended to wait for an hour or more on the platform of some little crossroad station. We sat on our bags till our spines cracked with fatigue. The men smoked one cigarette after another. As far as I could see stretched dark fields lighted dimly by thick stars, with a wind blowing out of the darkness into our faces. No one spoke. Down the tracks a round white headlight grew bigger and bigger. The noise of the approaching train filled the night. We scrambled into another third-class carriage and sat on some more hard, narrow seats for an hour or so.
At last the dawn came—a square of gray light through the train window. Almost every one had fallen asleep. How pallid and ugly they looked with their mouths open and their heads lolling forward!
At ten we changed for the last time before Kiev. The carriage was not divided up into compartments, but was open, with rows of seats and an aisle down the center, like our trains in America,—only there was an upper story of seats, too. I stretched out and went to sleep. When I woke the carriage was filled. Marie and I occupied one seat together.
Opposite us sat a fat, red-nosed man, with a fur cap, though it was summer. Between his legs was a huge, bulky bag. When the train stopped, he put a pinch of tea in his little blue enameled teapot, which he filled at the hot-water tank that is at every Russian station just for that purpose. He pulled out of his bag numberless newspaper packages and spread them out on the newspaper across his knees—big fat sausages and thin fried ones, a chunk of ham, a boiled chicken, dried pressed meat, a lump of melting butter, some huge cucumber pickles, and cheese. With a murderous-looking knife he cut thick slices from a big round loaf of bread that he held against his breast. He sweetened his tea with some sugar from another package, and sliced a lemon into it. When he had finished eating, he carefully rolled up the food again and put it away, and settled back in his chair. With great deliberation he took out of his vest pocket a little black box with bright flowers painted on the lid. He fingered it lovingly for a moment, then he took a pinch of snuff, closing his eyes in ecstasy and inhaling deeply. He did this three times and blew his nose vigorously. Then he put the box away, brushing off the gray grains of powder that had fallen down his vest front. All day long, every time the train stopped, he refilled his little blue enameled teapot and repeated the ceremony, even to the last grain of snuff.
Across the aisle sat two priests, unshaven and unshorn, in wide black hats, their long, greasy black hair falling over the shoulders of their dirty gray gowns. They spent the day in prayer and eating and drinking. They were evidently bound for Kiev on a holy pilgrimage to the Lavra.
In the seat above the old man who took snuff lay a young woman, propped on her elbow. Every time I looked at her she was laughing, pressing a pomegranate seed between her lips. Her hands were very thin and white. Her face was long and thin and framed by short, clipped hair. Every now and then a young officer came up to her and took her hand, and asked if she wanted anything. She answered him indifferently, but when he went back to his seat, her eyes followed him and rested on him with the long, narrow look of a watchful cat.
At noon and night we stopped at railway stations for our meals. After Bulgaria and Roumania it was bewildering to see the counters laden with hot and cold meats and vegetables and appetizing zakouskas, and thick ztchee soup, and steaming samovars for tea. Through the open windows came refreshing puffs of wind. At the restaurant tables sat officers, rich Jews, and traveling business men—nothing much in it all to suggest war. Always, on the station walls were bright-colored portraits, in heavy gilt frames, of the Czar and Czarina and the royal family. And always in the corners of the room were ikons with candles lighted before them at night. The train always started before people had finished eating. At supper, one of the priests almost got left and had to run for it, a piece of meat-pie in one hand, the other holding up his flapping gray gown.
After sunset, more and more officers and soldiers about. At stations, orderlies elbowing their way through the crowd to secure seats for their officers; officers shouting to their orderlies; officers alone or with their families, arriving with valises and bundles and pillows—enough equipment to meet any eventuality.
Another night to get through somehow, sitting bolt upright in a car thick with tobacco smoke and smelling of stale food and soldiers' boots.
Once we stopped for an hour out in the fields. Marie and I opened our window and stuck our heads out of doors to breathe the cool air. Extra cars had been put on during the day, and we could see the long curve of the train behind us, with the red squares of the lighted windows. There was a movement of troops, and soldiers occupied every inch of space. We could hear them singing soldier songs in parts, with pronounced rhythm and unutterably sad cadences. Some one played their accompaniment on a balalaika. Back and forth under our train window a woman paced restlessly. Never shall I forget the soldiers' singing to the balalaika, and the woman with her white face in the darkness, and the millions of stars so very far away.
The second morning, about eight, we pulled into Kiev. Our train was so long that we had some distance to walk before reaching the station. As we approached, I saw a crowd of people being driven into baggage cars. I was so tired and confused by the journey that I didn't distinguish who they were at first. When I got close to them, I saw that they were thin-faced Jews in clothes too big for them. The men looked about them with quick, furtive movements, a bewildered, frightened look in their dark eyes. The women held their shawls over their faces, and pressed against their skirts were little children. A stale, dirty smell came from them all. I overcame my disgust and looked more closely. How white the faces were, with purple sockets for the eyes, and dried, cracked lips! No one seemed to have any personality. One pallid face was like another under the stamp of suffering. Gendarmes with whips kept them on the move, and struck the leader when there was any mix-up that halted the procession for a moment. The Jews seemed to shrink into themselves under the lash, sinking their heads between their thin, narrow shoulders, then pressed forward again with frantic haste.
I heard the clanking of iron, and into a separate baggage car I noticed the gendarmes were driving a group linked together with heavy iron chains. I was horrified! I had the persistent impression of passing through an experience already known—"Where have I seen this before?" went over and over in my mind, and I felt a dread that seemed the forewarning of some personal danger to myself. I was so very near such terrible and hopeless suffering. What kept me from stepping into that stream of whip-driven, helpless people?
"Who are they?" I asked Marie.
"They are Galician Jews whom the Government is transporting into Siberia."
"Because the Russians don't trust Jews. Whole villages and towns in Galicia are emptied and taken to Siberia by etapes—part of the way by marches, part in baggage cars."
"In this heat?" I exclaimed. "But hundreds must die!"
"Not hundreds—thousands," Marie replied.
"Does it do any good?"
"No. But this present Government is very reactionary and the persecution of the Jews is part of its programme. You know, it is always under the reactionary Government, which is pro-German, that the pogroms take place."
We had got into a droshky and were driving through city streets. Women from the country were bringing in milk. People seemed to be walking about freely enough.
The Jews with their bowed necks seemed far away—as though, after all, I had read about them in a book. Could I have elbowed them and smelt them only a few minutes ago?
I was in Russia. How sweet the morning air was! We were climbing a cobble-stoned hill. Institutska Oulitza. Here we are! And we stopped at the Tchedesky Pension.
Good-bye for now. Armfuls of love from
July 5, 1915.
Darlingest Mother and Dad:—
We have been in Kiev several days. Our passports have been handed in to the police station to be viseed and put in order for our return trip to Bucharest. They say a human being in Russia is made of body and passport.
Kiev is full of color. It is framed in green trees that hide the ugliness of modern buildings and seem to lift the gold and silver domes of the churches up into the air. And how many churches there are! Kiev is in truth a holy city. Late afternoon, when the sun shines through the dust of the day and envelops the city in golden powder; when the gold and silver domes of the churches float up over the tree-tops like unsubstantial, gleaming bubbles, and the bells fill the air with lovely, mellow sounds,—then I can truly say I have felt more deeply religious than ever before in my life. Yet, suddenly, I see the woman who climbs Institutska Oulitza every evening on her knees. She is dressed in black, and deeply veiled, and every evening she climbs the hill on her knees. At first I thought she was a cripple, but, on arriving at the top of the hill, she rose to her feet and walked away.
"What is she doing?" I asked Marie.
"Oh, a penance, probably, that the Church has imposed on her."
And then the churches and their domes grow almost hateful to me. I think of the Russian peasants with their foreheads in the dust, and the greasy, long-haired priests I see on the streets.
Yet I don't know—perhaps the priests don't really matter. After all, there must be something in the people's hearts—a belief—an idealism—a faith in God that keeps them loving Russia, dreaming for her, and able to dream again after they've seen their dreams trampled on. No, the priests and their autocracy don't matter. The people believe, and that's the important thing.
We went out yesterday afternoon to the Lavra—the stronghold of Black Russia. It is a monastery on the edge of the town, overlooking the Dnieper and flanked with battlemented walls to withstand the attacks of the infidels in olden times. From all over Russia and the Balkans pilgrims go there to visit the catacombs, where many church saints are buried, their bodies miraculously preserved under red and gold clothes—so the priests say.
The road leading to it passed the barracks, where we saw young recruits drilling. They were learning to walk, and their arms swung stiffly and self-consciously, and their legs bent at the knees and straightened again like the wooden legs of mechanical toys. As they marched, they sang wonderful Russian soldier songs. They appeared to be about twenty-three or twenty-four, as though they had got their growth, and were tall and broad-shouldered—not at all like the batch of Austrian prisoners we passed a few minutes later, and who looked like pathetic, bewildered children, beardless for the most part, and in uniforms too large for them. They shuffled along in a cloud of gray dust under a metallic sun. Some were slightly wounded in the head or arm, and were supported by their comrades. As I passed, I encountered certain eyes—frank, gray eyes that reminded me of Morris. The long, white, dusty road became tragic to me, with the prisoners in their worn blue uniforms, and those who were about to die, singing in the distance.
We met bullock-carts crawling into town, coming from distant villages, with fresh vegetables for the markets. The peasants walked by the oxen, prodding them with short sticks. There seem to be so many men here of military age, yet not in the army. It isn't like other countries, where every one but the Jews is in uniform. Russia has so many men. They say five million more could easily be raised if they had the officers and ammunition.
We reached a high plaster wall, with little booths built under its shadows, where pilgrims bought souvenirs of the Lavra—gaudy ikons, colored handkerchiefs and shawls, beads and baskets.
A group of pilgrims entered the gate in front of us, all from the same village, evidently, for the women's dresses resembled each other's in cut and embroidery, and a few of the younger women's were even dyed the same color, as often happens in wool of the same shearing. In spite of the heat, the men wore sheepskin coats and fur caps, and the women's skirts were thick with petticoats. Some of the women led children by the hand; others carried babies in their arms, poor little mites, with faces covered with sores, and eyes red and blinking as though they were going blind. They all bent and kissed the hand of the priest who sold candles under the covered arched gateway, and then they passed into the open square surrounded by the monastery walls. There was a sort of garden here; all the grass worn off by the countless pilgrims who had visited the shrine, but with trees in whose shade the peasants rested when their sins had been forgiven. Some lay curled up on the ground, fast asleep; others sat with their legs spread comfortably apart, eating bread and meat; and others drank thirstily from the well, or let the water run over their tired feet.
Facing us was the church with its gold domes blindingly bright against the blue sky. We followed the pilgrims and entered the chapel, where everything suddenly grew hushed and dark, with a strange odor—a mixture of thick, sweet incense and melting candle grease, and smelly, perspiring peasants.
The pilgrims bought candles and lighted them, and knelt on the flagging before the altar. Behind an elaborate railing the lustrous jewels and gold of the vessels and crucifixes glowed richly in the dim light. Priests in gorgeous vestments were going through some church ceremony. Their deep chanting filled the church. They knelt and rose, and finally, by a mechanical contrivance, something was raised in an inner shrine, and a priest took off a cloth of crimson and gold, and uncovered a wonderful gold cup encrusted with jewels. I leaned against a pillar, watching the kneeling peasants, and over their bent backs the mystery and richness of the altar glowing with jewels and only half disclosed by the tiny pointed candle flames flickering in the darkness. The Lavra is one of the two richest monasteries in Russia. Its wealth is fathomless. It has lent emperors treasure with which to fight the infidels, and on returning from holy wars the emperors have brought it back to the church increased a hundred fold by royal gifts of jewels and loot.
We went out into the blinding sunlight again, and down a long flight of cloister steps to the catacombs.
A priest was selling bottles of a white liquid.
"What is it?" Marie asked.
"Holy water," the priest replied. "It is not for your kind." But he took the kopecks of an old peasant woman. "Rub it on your joints and it will cure their stiffness," he said to her, with a cynical smile.
Three fat priests sat at the entrance of the catacombs, selling different-sized candles. The very poor peasants, who came barefooted, could only afford the very thin tapers, while the rich villagers, with heavy, well-made boots and much embroidery on their clothes, bought candles as thick as a man's thumb, and sometimes two or three at a time, which they held lighted between their fingers.
A short, fat priest, his face dripping with perspiration, led us through the catacombs. He would wipe the sweat out of his eyes with the sleeve of his dirty gown, and point to the saints' tombs with the big iron key he carried. I was pressed close to him by the crowd of peasants behind. The smell of his greasy body and the powder of dandruff from his long hair on the shoulders of his gown, the malicious way he looked at me as though to say, "You and I know that what I'm saying is rot, but it must be said to them"—it was indescribably disgusting.
We wound through narrow, dungeon-like passages with the cold, damp smell of an unused cellar. Now and then, through barred windows in the stone walls, I caught glimpses of tall forms lying in a row, covered with dingy red and gold cloths.
"Here lie nine brothers who lived for twenty years in this cell. Their only food was bread and water three times a week. As you see, they had no room to stand upright in, and were always pressed close to each other."
The peasants peered through the bars wonderingly.
We passed a body stretched out on a stone ledge.
"This holy saint cured the blind," the priest continued in a sing-song voice. "He lived in a cell too small to lie down in. For twenty-two years he never opened his mouth. His body, like the bodies of all the holy saints in these catacombs, is preserved without a sign of decay under this cloth." A peasant woman lifted her little boy up to kiss the edge of the dirty red pall. The pale flame of her candle flickered and the melted wax dripped on to the cloth. The woman wiped it off quickly, and glanced in a frightened way at the priest. But he turned away indifferently and went on.
We saw the bust of a man buried to his arm-pits in the floor. I would have stumbled over him, but the priest caught my arm.
"This is a holy saint, who, for twenty-five years, stood as you see him, buried in the earth to above his waist. He never spoke and only ate bread and water twice a week."
I looked at the peasants. Their faces were scared and white. A few hung back with a morbid curiosity.
"Come, come," the priest called impatiently. "Keep together. Some get lost here and never get out again."
I had heard of three pretty peasant girls who had mysteriously disappeared in the catacombs.
"Ouf!" The priest unlocked an iron door and we came squinting out into the daylight again. He held the door open and mopped his face as we filed past him, snuffing our candles. The pilgrims kept theirs.
Outside, some of the peasants clustered about the priest and asked him questions. As I glanced back over my shoulder, I saw the circle of round, inquiring faces with their look of unbounded confidence.
We went around back of the monastery to an open plateau overlooking the Dnieper. The river curved like a blue ribbon, and we could see the three pontoon bridges for "military reasons." On the low bank opposite were the soldiers' white tents laid out in regular squares. A ferry-boat was carrying some soldiers across the river. The sun flashed on the sentries' bayonets along the bank.
I heard the whine of a hand-organ. An armless beggar was turning the crank of an organ with his bare feet. The plateau was fairly alive with beggars, hopping about in the dust like fleas. Some were armless; others legless. They swung along at our heels on long, muscular arms, with leather on the palms of their hands, or dragged distorted, paralyzed bodies that tried to stand upright by our sides.
In the white, hot sunlight squatted an old man with a white, pointed beard so long that it lay out on the dust in front of him. In his arms he held a book done up in red cloth. He was blind. If you put a coin in a tin cup he wore round his neck, he would undo his book and open it, and by divine inspiration read the holy words of the page in front of him.
A row of seven blind women lined the exit. They began to whine as we approached, and stretched out their hands gropingly. The eyes of one woman had completely disappeared as though they had been knotted up and pulled back into her head. Another's bulged like a dead fish's, with that dull, bluish look in them. Another's lids were closed and crusted with sores, flies continuously creeping over them, but apparently she was indifferent. The seven blind women sat in rags and filth. Shall I ever forget them in the burning sunlight, with their terrible eyes and greedy fingers and the whine of their voices merging into the tune of the hand-organ?
When we left the monastery, a group of wounded soldiers were just entering. With them was a woman in a man's uniform. Her hair was curly and short, and her chin pointed. Her feet looked ridiculously small in the heavy, high, soldier's boots, and in spite of a strut her knees knocked together in an unmistakably feminine manner. But the men treated her quite as one of themselves. One soldier, who had had his leg cut off up to the thigh, supported himself by her shoulder. I have seen several women soldiers in Kiev, and they say there are many in the Russian army.
It is strange, seeing these things without Peter. I expect to go back to Bucharest with Marie and Janchu within a week. There Peter will meet us. I wish he were here now.
So much love, my dearests, every day and every night from
July 20, 1915.
Darlingest Mother and Dad:—
Before dawn this morning I was wakened by a shuffling noise from the street. It was not soldiers marching. There was no rhythm to it. Marie and I went to the window and looked out.
Behind the dark points of the poplars, in the convent garden across the street, the sky was growing light. The birds were beginning to sing. The air was sweet and cool after the night. And down the hill was passing a stream of people, guarded on either side by soldiers with bayonets. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes to look more closely, for there was something ominous in the snail's pace of the procession.
They were Jews, waxen-faced, their thin bodies bent with fatigue. Some had taken their shoes off, and limped along barefooted over the cobble-stones. Others would have fallen if their comrades had not held them up. Once or twice a man lurched out of the procession as though he was drunk or had suddenly gone blind, and a soldier cuffed him back into line again. Some of the women carried babies wrapped in their shawls. There were older children dragging at the women's skirts. The men carried bundles knotted up in their clothes. They stumbled and pitched along, as if they had no control over their skinny bodies; as if after another step they would all suddenly collapse and fall down on their faces like a crowd of scarecrows with a strong wind behind them. Some had their eyes closed; others stared ahead with their faces like dirty gray masks, with huge bony noses and sunken eyes. The procession showed no sign of coming to an end. It crawled on and on, and a stench rose from it that poisoned the morning air. The sound of the shuffling feet seemed to fill the universe.
"Where are they going?"—I whispered to Marie.
"To the Detention Camp here. They come from Galicia, and Kiev is one of the stopping-places on their way to Siberia."
"Do they walk all the way here?"
"Usually. Let's shut the window and keep out the smell."
I went back to bed. I felt so safe, with Janchu sleeping in his crib in the corner. The creeping, submissive procession seemed a dream. It was incredible to think of only the wall of a house separating our security from those hundreds of fainting, persecuted Jews!
We are still here—waiting for our passports to be returned. Of course no mail from you has been forwarded to me here, as Peter is hourly expecting me back. I am cut off from all I love most in the world. The Russian frontier takes on a new significance once you're inside it. I hope you don't forget me. Sometimes you seem millions of miles away—and then I look in my heart and find you there. I love you.
July 25, 1915.
The Tchedesky Pension is full of Poles—refugees from Poland and the wooded Russian provinces.
Pan Tchedesky himself was formerly an enormously wealthy landowner near Kiev. He loves to tell how he drove through town behind six white horses. Gambling ruined him, and to pay his debts he sold one acre after another to the Jews, who cut down the timber and ruined the land. Of course, where there are no trees the rainfall is scarce. The crops dried up, and finally Pan Tchedesky and his wife and children were forced into the city. There remained enough of his former property to start a pension. The rooms are full of the remains of his splendor—heavy gilt mirrors, thick, flowered carpets, a Louis XVI set in the drawing-room, upholstered in faded blue brocade.
Pan Tchedesky is a memorial of his own life; a relic suggesting an earlier opulence. He is big-framed, but his flesh is shrunken, as though the wind of conceit were oozing out of him day by day. His cheeks and stomach hang flabbily. His blond mustache is getting thin and discloses his full, sensual lips. His hands are thick and soft, always stained with nicotine. He lives in constant terror of his wife, and all the pockets of his coats are burned full of holes from his hiding his cigarettes in them when he thinks he hears his wife coming. I have never seen her, but she is the invisible force that keeps the pension running, and controls her husband by her knowledge of his past failures.
"My wife is an executive woman—very executive," he says, shaking his head sorrowfully.
The bills are made out by her. Occasionally he intercepts the maid carrying her back the money, and extracts enough to pay a small per cent of his I O U's, which allows him to continue gambling with his guests. His moist, soft fingers tremble as he holds the cards, and he infuriates every one by his erratic bidding.
A guest slams his hand down on the table and calls Tchedesky a name.
Tchedesky's whitish, livid cheeks shake, and his lips open uncertainly. But he must be discreet. He does not dare offend his guests, for he wants to play with them again, and he must not let his wife know that he is gambling. So he begs pardon in a whisper.
There is a pretty maid in the pension called Antosha. She has light, frowzy hair, and a round, full figure. The other maids are jealous of her. When she dresses up to wait on the table at dinner at three o'clock, she wears a cheap pink silk waist and long gilt earrings, and two or three little rings with blue and red stones. Her wages are fifteen roubles a month. One day I saw Tchedesky kissing her on the neck. Very white and shaken, he came to me afterwards and begged me to say nothing about it to any one.
He has terrible scenes with his wife, who is hysterical and grows rigid. He stays up with her all night and uses it as an excuse to get a morphine injection for his own nervousness next day. He is quite courteous and frankly loves women and food and money. I feel as though, if I poked my finger into him, he would burst like a rotten potato.
There is the Morowski family from near Cracow. Pan Morowski's brother is in the Austrian Chamber of Deputies, but he and his family are Russian subjects. They have been here in Kiev for some months now. For seven days he and his eldest daughter remained while the Russians and Austrians fought for their farm. The rest of the family had been sent into Kiev, but these two had hoped that by staying they might preserve their farm from being plundered and burned. The Austrians had sacked their neighbors' houses. The Austrian officers' wives had followed in the wake of the army and had taken the linen from the closets, and the ball-gowns, and the silver—even the pictures off the walls.
Lovely weather it was. The girl said you would hardly realize there was war, sometimes. The gardener would go out and straighten the trampled flowers. The carts of wounded would pass regularly, stopping occasionally for water or tea. They would say the fighting had passed on. And then, suddenly, the crack and boom would approach again, shaking the house walls—the little uncurling puffs of smoke against the blue sky—the gray-blue uniformed Austrians hurrying past in retreat. No carts of wounded any more. There was too much hurry to bother about the wounded.
Russians in possession again, and Russian instead of Austrian officers quartered at their house. How much more polite the Russians were—so much more gallant and kind-hearted! They didn't treat you as though you were a servant—"Do this. Do that." They brought some of their wounded to the farm, and Miss Morowski helped nurse them.
But at last the father and daughter had been obliged to leave with the Russians. How furious the Russians had been—so depressed and discouraged when the order came to retreat. There had been no fighting round there for several days, and suddenly the news came that the whole army was retreating. Why? They said there was no ammunition. So the father and daughter left their property in the care of the gardener and his wife, who were too old to move. How terrible it had been to abandon this ground that so many Russians had died to win! No ammunition. Waste—mismanagement—graft.
Those in Petrograd should think more of their country and less of their own pockets. The unquestioning courage of the simple Russian soldiers! Every one ready to die—and yet nothing to back them up. It was disheartening.
"The Russians gave us a place in a cart, and we left in utter confusion—soldiers, motor-cars, cattle, wounded, with the Austrian cannon rumbling behind us."
"Were you frightened?" I asked. We were speaking French together.
"Not so frightened as sad. I was leaving my home. All my life I had spent there excepting for a few weeks in the winter when mother used to take us to Cracow for the balls. I hated to leave my beautiful party dresses hanging up in the closets. I know some Austrian woman will wear them. And I can't bear to think of our house burned! We have had such jolly times there, hunting and riding and visiting the neighbors. You don't know life on a Polish estate, do you? I can tell you there is nothing so charming in the world."
Pan Morowski is a handsome, full-blooded man, and plays bridge all day either in the pension drawing-room or at the club.
His wife is small and nervous, and you can see that her main object in life is to marry off her daughters well. She has three daughters, pretty, fresh girls, who are fond of reading, and perfectly willing to read only what their brothers permit them. Every day I run across one or two of them in the circulating library in the town, and always try to get them to take out a forbidden book. They are convinced that Bourget has sounded the depths of feminine psychology. "Isn't it mean!" they cry. "If only our brothers would let us read more of his wonderful books!"
Sometimes, in the evening, we sit out on the balcony, and the Morowski boys come in to talk to us.
"Aren't you ashamed to treat your sisters in this Oriental way?" I ask.
"The less they know till after they've married, the better for them. A young girl should be pure in every thought." And then they begin to make love to us.
There are two brothers who have taken refuge in the Tchedesky pension, with a collection of servants. Their house was burned under their eyes, and their property is now in the Austrians' hands. The eldest brother, Count S——, is very handsome and aristocratic, with a cherished gray mustache carefully twisted upward, and soft, brown eyes, which he uses with advantage. Evidently the Romantic poets influenced his youth, and he has found the melancholy Byronic traditions the most effective for his ends, since he continues the attitude.
"He is very sad," his brother whispers a dozen times a day. "Of course his experiences these past months have been frightful for one of his nature. I am not so sensitive. But he has always been this way. Sometimes I'm afraid. Our other brother died insane."
Count S—— affects to believe that the Germans can do anything.
"They are devils! What can we do against them?" he cries at dinner, combing his mustache with the little tortoise-shell comb he carries in his vest.
He never forgets his soda tablets after eating.
His younger brother is round and red-faced, with twinkly blue eyes. He limps, and follows his elder brother round like a faithful dog. The slightest thing amuses him. Indeed, he laughs at nothing at all. He kept the books on his brother's estates and he brought them with him in his flight. They are his pride and joy. Sometimes he brings them into the drawing-room after supper, with photographs of the property. There are pictures of boar hunts, and huntsmen on horseback, with wolf-hounds in the snow, and the tenants merry-making and the house and different sections of the property, and the horses and dogs and cattle. I look at them night after night. They love to live over again their life in telling me about it.
Among the servants with the S—— brothers is an old woman, a kindly, slack one, who rarely goes out, but observes the passing life from her windows. She wears a short, loose wrapper and petticoat, and scuffs about in list slippers.
Then there is a young girl with shy eyes and quiet, womanlike actions. We often see her peeking through a crack in the door when Janchu is naughty.
And then there is Sigmund, a sly, goody-goody child of six or seven, whom the old woman treats like a son, and whom the eldest S—— brother has adopted as his heir. He plays with Janchu. The brothers adore him and take him to Koupietsky Park, and watch him when he plays in the pension garden. We have heard that he is Count S——'s illegitimate child, and that the old woman is his mother. It seems quite probable when you think of the life on a big Polish estate—the loneliness, etc. These three people live together in one room. The samovar is always boiling and some one is always drinking tea there. The brothers share an adjoining room, but they are usually with those in there, who constitute all that remains of their former habits.
Pan A—— lives in the pension, too. I am told that he is typical of a certain kind of Pole. He is a turfman, with carefully brushed side-whiskers dyed coal-black, and hawk-like eyes. He wears check suits, and cravats with a little diamond horse-pin. His legs are bowed like a jockey's. He was the overseer of a big Polish estate and has made a fortune by cards and horses. His stable is famous. He has raced from Petrograd to London. Now, of course, his horses have been requisitioned, and he lives by his cards. Cards are a serious business to him. He will not play in a room where he is apt to be interrupted. Occasionally, his wife, a hard-faced woman with tight lips, comes to the pension, between the visits she makes to friends in the country. Pan A—— pays no attention to her except to treat her with an exaggerated politeness at table; and she, on her side, concentrates on the young men in the pension. After dinner he always hands her a cigarette first, out of his massive gold case, encrusted with arms and monograms and jewels.
"It's curious, is it not?" he says, handing me the case. "My friends have put on their arms and monograms and mounted the jewels as souvenirs."
Generally, he goes to the Cafe Francois with a tall blonde woman, the wife of an Austrian. Her husband and son are fighting in the Austrian army, but she came to Kiev with the Russian General who occupied her town. Now her protector is at the front, and she goes about with A——.
A—— is cynical. Women and horses and cards make up his life. In a conversation he feels his audience as if it were a new horse he is learning to ride. He goes as near the danger line as he dares. He has no breeding, and spends his money extravagantly.
K——, the last comer at the pension, is a journalist. He has no race or polish, and the rest rather despise him for having none of their landed traditions. He is lean and brown, with a razor-like jaw and a twisted, sardonic expression to his lips. His face is cruel. At Warsaw, where he was working, he was thrown into prison time after time on account of the radical, revolutionary character of his articles. He is well known for the strong, intellectual quality of his work. The reactionaries fear him. The slipshod Russian way of handling things gets on his nerves. His eyes get like steel when he talks about it. Russia's corruption and the German advance—ammunition willfully miscarried—guns sent to the front without ammunition, and ammunition sent that doesn't fit; and the soldiers obliged to fight with their naked fists!
He has sent me Chamberlin's "Genesis of the Fourteenth Century." We discuss it after dinner. It's interesting, though Chamberlin sets forth an idea he tries to prove at all costs. Read it, if you haven't already.
How terribly I miss you. Why do I write of Pan Tchedesky and the Morowskis when I only want to be telling you how I love you and miss you? But it is almost unbearable to write you a love-letter. So many miles are between us and so many months still separate us. Over a year more to be lived through. No. I must keep to decaying Polish gentlemen and exiled noblemen and trust you to know that every word in this letter is a love-word to you, telling you I hold you so close to me that you are one with me in everything I think or do.
July 27, 1915.
Darlingest Mother and Dad:—
It is very hot, and food is unappetizing. The drinking-water must be boiled, and inevitably we drink it lukewarm. It never has time to cool. There is fruit sold on the street, but we are warned against it on account of cholera. There is already cholera and typhus reported in the city. So we thick vegetable soup with sour cream, fried bread with chopped meat inside, cheese noodles with sour cream, etc., all Polish cooking. And we drink kvass.
"What do you think of Bulgaria, now?" Count S—— asks me gloomily, after dinner.
"I still think she will go with Russia," I reply. "In every Bulgarian house I've ever been in there is the picture of the Czar liberator. A Bulgarian regards a Russian as of his own blood. Bulgaria gave Russia her alphabet, and the languages are much the same: only the Russian is richer in words and expressions. Why, there is a Bulgarian, General Dimitrief, holding a high command in the Russian army. When I left Bulgaria there was no talk of her going with Germany. 'We will never go with Germany,' I've heard over and over."
"But there is a strong German party?"
"Yes, and they're being paid well. If England and the Entente only took the trouble to understand the Balkans. Germany has sent her ablest men to Sofia with unlimited credit. The English representatives offend by their snobbery."
"Do you think they'll go in at all?" S—— persists.
"Probably they'll be forced in, in the end. But the people don't want to abandon their neutrality. They're making money. They're recouping after the Balkan wars. Bulgaria has had nothing but wars and crises for the last five years."
"They say there are already German officers in the Bulgarian army."
"I don't believe it's so. The Bulgarians are very independent. If they went in I think they would command their own army."
"But this war is not conducted along Balkan war lines," K—— said amusedly.
"No," I agreed. "You know more about the situation now than I do. I can't even read a newspaper. All I know is the spirit of Bulgaria when I left."
"Isn't Bulgaria's Government autocratic enough to declare war without consulting the people?" K—— continued.
"Perhaps—unfortunately. The Bulgarians say, 'We have a wonderful constitution, if the Czar would only use it.'"
"The papers to-day already speak of Bulgaria's treason and ingratitude," K—— observed.
I was angry. "In Bulgaria, some think Russia doesn't want them to go in on the Entente side. They think Russia wants to make a Russian lake out of the Black Sea, and a Russian province out of Bulgaria. They say Russia is the obstacle to their having joined the Entente months ago."
"She will go with Germany," Count S—— insisted fatalistically. "Everything is going Germany's way."
"No—no—no!" I cried.
"Of course she will go where she sees her advantage," said K——.
"All she wants is to fight for Macedonia before the close of the war. Certainly, it isn't too much to ask if she allows the English and Russians to cross her territory to get at Turkey. The war will be shortened by months if she goes in with the Entente, and Turkey in Europe will be finished."
I know you'll laugh, Dad, and think my pretentions to a political opinion presumptuous. My hope is that I'll know more when I'm older!
Love to you all. Think of me, won't you? Don't let miles make any difference.
It is confirmed that Warsaw has fallen! Every one is very much depressed. What can stop the Germans? Some one speaks of the forts of Vilna and Grodno, which are supposed to be impregnable. But what about the forts on the Western front? What do forts amount to nowadays? The strongest walls are razed by the Germans' big guns!
"The Germans do just as they like—nothing can stop them. In the beginning the Kaiser said he would sleep at Warsaw," Count S—— says gloomily.
"And he said he would dine in Paris," some one else remarks.
It is funny how much pleasure Count S—— takes in every foot of land the Germans capture. When he talks about the war, he seems to take a perverse pleasure in accenting their inexhaustible munitions and men and the perfection of their whole military organization. "We have men, but we are children." At every German victory he shakes his head. "I told you so." "I've said from the first—" "There is no limit to what these cochons can do." He seems glad to see his prophecies come true; probably, because he has seen his own security destroyed, he feels the safety of the whole world shaken. A hundred times he has said: "There isn't a foot of ground that belongs to me any more. For a man of my age it is a terrible thing to see your life-work wiped out all of a sudden." Only a world destruction could come up to his expectations now.
After dinner, in the drawing-room, we spoke about the fall of Warsaw. What would the Germans do to the city? Some spoke of German frightfulness in Belgium. Pan K—— thinks Warsaw will be treated leniently, as Germany wishes to enlist the German sympathizers. Still, most of the Poles in the pension are horrorstricken. They see the Germans marching through the streets, and they see the flames and shuddering civilians. I can see the Germans' spiked helmets in the room.
"The English must start an offensive. England lets France and Russia bleed to death before she sheds her own blood." There is much talk of England's selfishness.
Something is wrong somewhere. Every one seems skeptical about the Duma.
I wish I could read the Russian newspapers.
I feel as though I were watching a fire—a neighbor's house burning down. I am excited and curious. Suddenly, I wonder how far the flames are going to spread, and I feel panicstricken. Good-night, dear ones. You in New England seem so far away from this European fire.
July 30, 1915.
Darlingest Mother and Dad:—
To-day I went to the Jewish detention camp with the wife of the French Consul here. She called for me in her limousine. As I think of it now, it was all so strange—the smooth-running car with two men on the box, and ourselves in immaculate white summer dresses. The heat was intense, but we were well protected. Through the windows we saw others sweating and choking in the dust of the hot streets.
"I'm afraid I've brought you here on a very hot morning," said Mme. C—— apologetically.
In spite of my curiosity I believe I felt a distaste of the detention camp on such a day. A crowd is always depressing, and doubly so in the heat. But we stopped at a door cut in a high board fence, and passed by the sentinel into the enclosure where the Jews were penned in awaiting the next stage of their journey.
Hundreds of faces turned toward us; hundreds of eyes watched our approach. There were old men with long, white, patriarchal beards flowing over their dirty black gowns; there were younger men with peaked black caps and long black beards; and there were women who had pushed back their black shawls for air, and who held sore-eyed, whining babies listlessly on their knees. Bits of old cloth stretched over poles afforded shade to some. Others tried to get out of the burning sun by huddling against the walls of the tenements that enclosed the yard on three sides. The ground was baked hard as iron and rubbed smooth by the shuffle of numberless feet.
As we approached, the Jews rose and bowed low. Then they settled back into their former immobility. Some stared at us vacantly; others lowered their eyelids and rubbed their hands together softly, with a terrible subservience. If we brushed close to one, he cringed like a dog who fears a kick. Yellow, parchment-like faces, all with the high-bridged, curving noses, and the black, animal-like eyes. I was as definitely separated from them as though tangible iron bars were between us. We seemed to be looking at each other across a great gulf. "They are human beings," I said to myself. "I am one with them." But their isolation was complete. I could not even begin to conceive the persecution and suffering of ages that separated us. "All people are born free and equal," indeed! I turned away.
"This camp is run on communistic principles," Mme. C—— was explaining. "The Jewish Ladies' Benevolent Society provides a certain amount of meat and vegetables and bread, which is cooked and served by the Jews themselves. Here is the kitchen." We spoke French among ourselves, which seemed to put us farther away from the dumb, watchful Jews behind us. "If it wasn't for us, they would starve. The Government allows them eight kopecks a day. But who could live on that? Besides, most of the Jews here pay the eight kopecks to the overseer to avoid his displeasure. He makes a good revenue out of the blood money."
Two rooms in one of the houses had been converted into a kitchen. A dozen or so Jewish women were paring and cutting up potatoes and cabbages and meat into huge soup-boilers. They were stripped to their shirts, and their bodies were drenched with sweat. They curtsied to us and went on preparing dinner.
A blast of scorching heat puffed out from an open oven. Two women, with long wooden handles pulled out big round loaves of black bread and laid them on a shelf to cool.
The warm fragrance of cooking attracted some white-faced Jewish children. They edged into the kitchen and looked up at the food, their eyes impenetrable and glittering like mica. A woman cut up some bread and gave them each a piece, and they slunk outdoors again, sucking their bread.
"The food is scientifically proportioned to give the greatest possible nutriment," Mme. C—— said.
We went out. After the kitchen heat the air of the courtyard was cool.
"This is the laundry. A certain number of the Jews here wash and iron the others' clothes. They are kept as clean as possible."
The laundry was gray with steam. A dozen or so women were bending over wash tubs. Like the women in the kitchen, they were stripped to their shirts. The wet cloth stuck to their sweating bodies and outlined their ribs and the stretch of muscles as they scrubbed and wrung out the clothes. When the water became too black, some young boys threw it out of doors, and the women waited for the tubs to be filled again, their red parboiled hands resting on their hips, in the way of washerwomen the world over.
We crossed the mud before the wash-house, on planks, and went into a house across the courtyard.
"This is the tailoring establishment," Mme. C—— continued. "The tailors among them mend and cut over old clothes which we collect for them, so that every Jew may start on the next stage of his journey in perfectly clean and whole clothes. My husband and son complain that they will have to stay in bed, soon, I have taken so many of their suits of clothes.—And here are the shoemakers."
We looked into the adjoining room, where the cobblers sat cross-legged, sewing and patching and pegging shoes.
"It's very hard to find the leather. But it is so important. If you could see how they come here—their feet bleeding and swollen and their shoes in tatters. And many of them were rich bankers and professors in Galicia and Poland, used to their own automobiles like the rest of us. I think I would steal leather for them."
The workers were different from the waiting Jews in the courtyard. Perhaps it was work that gave them importance in their own eyes, and took away that dreadful degrading subserviency—degrading to us as much as to themselves. The whirring noise of the sewing-machines, the click of shears, the bent backs of the workers, and the big capable hands, formed by the accustomed work! The trade of every man could have been known by his hands! My heart was warm toward them.
"It's splendid, I think," I said to Mme. C——.
As though she guessed my thoughts, she replied, "They are grateful for being allowed to work."
"For being allowed to work." Those words damn much in the world. What hindrances we erect in the way of life!
And I looked out into the courtyard again, at the apathetic faces of the waiting Jews. Waiting for what? The white, dead faces, with the curved noses and hard, bright eyes, all turned toward us. Were they submissive or expectant, or simply hating us? They say the Galician Jews turn traitors and act as spies for the Austrians. But surely not these. What could these broken creatures do? How near death they seemed!
The courtyard burned like a furnace. The shade was shrinking from moment to moment. The heat rose in blinding waves. I was sickened. The courtyard smelled of dirt and waste and sickness. It was unreal—the whole thing unreal: those working at usual, necessary tasks as well as those furtive, watchful ones in the burning sunlight. Death was in them all.
I went out into the courtyard, walking slowly in the scorching heat. There was no shade or coolness anywhere. My attention was drawn to a pregnant woman who had evidently been sitting in a thin strip of shade by the fence; but now the sun was beating down on her bare head. She sat with her arms hanging along her sides, the palms of her hands turned upwards. A baby hardly a year old twisted fretfully on her lap, fumbling at her breast with a little red hand. But she looked steadily over the baby's round head, a curiously intent expression in her dark eyes, as though she were looking at something so far away that she must concentrate all herself on it so as not to lose it from view.
Near her a man leaned against the fence. He was red-headed, and his unkempt hair and ragged beard flamed in the sun. A rope tied round his waist kept up his loose trousers, and his shirt was open, disclosing a hairy chest. Where his skin showed, it was unexpectedly white. He kept plucking at his chest, smiling idiotically.
"Is he insane?" I asked Mme. C——.
"Yes. He's that woman's husband. He went out of his head on the road. They say he was raging that his wife was obliged to walk in her condition. Well, he's happier than she is, now."
Under a canopy made from an old blue skirt lay a sick boy. His face was like a death-mask already, the yellow skin stretched tightly over the bones of his face, and his mouth unnaturally wide, with parched, swollen lips. From his hollow eye-sockets his eyes looked out unwinking, as though his lids had been cut off. He held himself halfway between a reclining and an upright position. No normal person could hold himself that way for long, but the sick boy kept himself motionless with maniacal strength. The flies hung over him like a cloud of black cinders. One of his friends attempted to keep them away with a leafy branch which he had found, Heaven knows where! I could see no other sign of green in the place. As we passed, I noticed the branch sweep back and forth over the sick boy's face, touching the skin. And still the fixed stare continued, uninterrupted—that blind gaze straight out into emptiness.
At the farther end, an opening between two of the tenements led into a garden. This space, too, was crowded with waiting Jews.
"But where do they sleep?" I asked. "Is there room for all those people in the houses?"
"No," Mme. C—— replied; "not when so many come through as came this last time. But fortunately, these summer nights are fine; earlier, we had much rain, and you can picture the suffering. Then there was no shelter for them at all. They were simply herded into a pen, and many died from the exposure. Now, however, we have made conditions better for them."
There was more reality here in the garden, where there was a suggestion of growing grass and a thin leaf shade. The Jews lay on the ground as though trying to get some coolness out of the earth. Up and down the paths walked several spectacled men, who were brought up to me and introduced as Professor So-and-So, and Doctor So-and-So. They were constantly trying to get in touch with friends in Kiev or Moscow or Petrograd, or colleagues in medicine or other sciences, or relatives who could help them. They worked through the society. By the payment of certain amounts they could bribe the overseers to let them stay on in the Kiev detention camp, or even have the liberty of the city. One man, a rich banker from Lvov, had been officially "sick" for several months, but as his money had almost given out he was in danger of being sent on to Tomsk in the near future. He lived in the hospital, where he had better quarters and food. These professors and doctors, men of wide learning and reputation, who are recognized as leaders in their professions, and are constructive, valuable forces in society, were herded together with the others, and will be allowed to disappear into Siberia, where their minds and bodies will be wasted, their possible future activity to count as nothing.
A man in a soiled white coat came up, looked us over with little blinking pig eyes, and addressed a few words to Mme. C—— in Polish.
"That is the overseer," Professor A—— said to me in English. "He takes every kopeck away from us. But he is no worse than the rest. All along the way it is the same thing. One is bled to death." He shrugged indifferently. "We most of us could have gathered together a little money. But what will you? It was all so sudden. We had no time. Here we are, en tout cas. And after all, in the end—"
I might have been talking with the professors on the campus of their own university. They exerted themselves to be attentive and entertaining, as though they were our hosts.
One doctor said to me in French, "I have seen your wonderful country. It is amazing. I would like to see it again. I have been asked to lecture. Perhaps, after the war—"
He broke off abruptly. In a flash the end of his life came up to me. His work and ambitions, and then the cleavage in his career; the sharp division in his life; the preparation of years, and then, instead of fulfillment, an exile to a country where life was a struggle for the bare necessities of the body—food and shelter. I looked at his hands—thin and white and nervous. What hideous, despairing moments he must know!
I asked him a question. His eyes blazed suddenly.
"Do not speak of these things! They are not to be spoken of, much less to you." He looked as though he hated me. "I beg your pardon, I am nervous. You must excuse me." He went away hurriedly.
"Poor chap!" Professor A—— said. "It is hard for us all in this heat. And, yes, some of us have more imagination than others."
A man in uniform came into the garden. He walked to a tree in the center, and stood in the shade, a long sheet of paper in his hand. There was a stir among the Jews. Those lying down got up and approached him. The women, with their children, dragged themselves nearer. Every one stopped talking. The apathy and indifference gave place to a strained attention. There was a kind of dreadful anxiety on every face—a tightening of the muscles round the eyes and mouths, as though the same horrible fear fixed the same mark there. I have never seen a crowd where personality was so stamped out by a single overmastering emotion. The gendarme began to read in a sing-song voice.
"What is he saying?" I whispered.
"The names of those who are to leave this afternoon," Mme. C—— replied.
The garden was absolutely still except for the monotonous voice and the breathing of the crowd. Oh, yes, and the flies. It was not that I forgot the flies, only their buzzing was the ceaseless accompaniment to everything that happened in the camp.
"How horrible this is!" Mme. C—— observed. "They all know it must come, but when it does, it is almost unbearable. It is truly a list of death. Many of them here cannot survive another stage of the journey in this heat. And yet they must be moved on to make place for those who are pressing on from behind. In this very crowd were five old men who were killed on the way here, by the soldiers, because they couldn't keep up with the procession. How could these civilians be expected to endure such hardships? They are townspeople, most of them having lived indoors all their lives, like you or me."
"Like you or me." No, no. It was unbelievable. I could not put myself in their place. I could not imagine such insecurity—that lives could be broken in the middle in this way.
"How useless it all seems!" I said.
"Useless. You think so?" Mme. C—— took me up. "Do you realize that whole Galician towns have been moved into Siberia this summer? Part of the way on foot, part in baggage cars, where they stifled to death in the heat and for lack of water and food. One carload wasn't listed, or was forgotten by some careless official, and when it was finally opened it was a carload of rotting flesh. The bodies were thrown into the river by the frightened official, but a soldier reported him and he was court-martialed. One crowd of several thousand was taken to Siberia. They reached Tomsk. Then the Government changed. What was the need to transport these Galician Jews? the new Minister argued: a useless expense to the Government: a waste of money and time. Let them go back to their homes. So the Jews were taken back over the same route, many more dying on the return journey, in the jails, and camps, and baggage cars, or by the roadsides. They found themselves once more back in their pillaged towns, with nothing to work with, and yet with their livelihood to be earned somehow. They began to dig and plant and take up the routine of their lives again. They began to look on themselves as human again. The grind of suffering and hopelessness began to let up and they had moments of hope. And then the reactionaries came into power with their systematic oppression of the Jews. Back to Siberia with them! This in midsummer heat. I saw them as they passed through Kiev for the third time, a few weeks ago. Never shall I forget them as I saw them last. The mark of the beast was on them. You couldn't call them living or suffering or martyrs any more. They were beyond the point where they prayed to die."
The gendarme had finished his list. The tension relaxed. Some of the Jews settled back into their former apathy; others gathered in excited groups, pulling their beards and scratching their heads; still others walked up and down the paths, restless, like so many caged animals.
A man and a woman with two children approached the gendarme deprecatingly. The man asked a question, indicating the woman and children. The gendarme shook his head. The man persisted. The gendarme refused again, and started to move away. The man detained him with a hand on his arm. Another man approached. He spread out both hands, his shoulders up to his ears. All three men spoke Polish in loud, excited voices.
"What are they saying?" I asked.
"The gendarme has just read the names of the woman and children who are to leave this afternoon. The father's name is not with theirs. Naturally, he wants to be with his wife and children to protect and care for them as best he can. If they are separated now, they can never find each other again in Siberia—if they live till they get there. The third man is alone. He is willing to give up his place to the father. But the gendarme refuses. 'His name is written. Yours is not. It is the order,' he says."
The gendarme now left the garden. The woman was sobbing in her husband's arms. He was patting her hair. The children hung at their mother's skirt, crying and sucking their fingers.
August 12, 1915.
Dearest Mother and Dad:—
They say there was no ammunition at the front. No shells for the soldiers. They had nothing to do but retreat. And now? They are still retreating, fighting with empty guns and clubs and even their naked hands. And still, trainloads of soldiers go out of Kiev every day without a gun in their hands. What a butchery! Can you imagine how horrible it is to see them march through the streets, swinging their arms and singing their stirring songs,—tall, able-bodied men,—while the beggars, cripples from the Russo-Japanese War, stand whining at the street corners.
There seems to be no doubt about the enemy within the gates. How can the soldiers give their lives so patiently and bravely for a Government whose villainy and corruption take no account of the significance of their sacrifices. The German influence is still strong. They say German money bribes the Ministers at home and the generals at the front.
There is great distrust of the Czarina and the Monk Rasputin. The latter was a serf in Siberia, and now has a malignant, hypnotic influence in the Russian Court. If he is refused anything, he falls on the floor in a fit and froths at the mouth until he gets what he wants. The Court ladies have to lick his dirty fingers clean, for he refuses to use a finger-bowl at table. Take this for what it's worth. At any rate, there is much talk now of the Germans working through this disreputable creature.
I asked a Russian if there could be a revolution.
There seems to be no hope. Russia, apparently, lacks the cooerdination and singleness of purpose necessary for one. And so many unseen influences are at work. There is no agreement among the people as to what they want. Each faction is secretly encouraged to war against the other in order to weaken each other and blur the reason and end in the people's minds. Besides, of course, nothing can be done as long as the army can be used to crush any demonstration against the Government. But if I were a Russian, all my hate would be directed against the traitors of my country, rather than at the Germans, who, after all, are political enemies. I would carry a gun against those who sell my country and make capital out of her suffering.
In every newspaper there are accounts of enormous graft by Ministers and companies under contract to the Government for military supplies. One case was translated to me the other day. Some men high up in the Government took over a contract for a certain number of cavalry saddles and bridles. They sold it to the Jews, making a tremendous rake-off. The Jews, to get any profit, were obliged to furnish poor material. At the trial, where some officers were testing them, the bridles broke in their hands like paper and the saddles split into ribbons.
Then there was a sugar factory in Kiev, whose owner wrote to the Minister of the Interior, I think it was, and offered his factory, only asking an estimate of the approximate amount of sugar the Government would need turned out each day. No answer was made. The owner wrote again. Still no answer. He went to Petrograd himself to find out why the Department paid no attention to his letters. The Minister informed him his letters had lacked the required war-tax stamps and had been turned over to the proper authorities, who would speedily proceed to fine him for his evasion of the law.
I went up to a military hospital to-day. I wonder how I can write you about it. The insignificance of personalities—whether any one lives or dies seems to have no importance. Just life seems to matter any more, and the forward movement of humanity—at least, you must believe the movement is forward in spite of the horror of mangled bodies and destroyed minds; otherwise, you would go mad, though you are outside of it all. How the proportions of things are twisted after going through a hospital. Things that counted before don't seem to count any more. You take refuge in generalities to get out of your mind a look you have seen in a soldier's eyes.
It was an improvised hospital,—some building or other turned into a place to receive the hundreds of wounded that are pouring into Kiev every day. It was a big room, with rows and rows of beds, and in every bed a man. One man was wounded in the back, and his breath whistled through the open hole like steam through an escape valve. His face was wound in white bandages. Others were there, dying from terrible stomach wounds. One man's head moved from side to side incessantly, as though he could never again find comfort on earth. Some moan. Others lay absolutely motionless, their faces terrible dead-white masks. Their bodies looked so long and thin under the sheets, with their toes turned up. It was indescribably terrifying to think that human beings could go through so much and continue to live. I was more frightened than ever before in my life. The smell of blood—the closeness of the hot sick-room—flies buzzing about. I saw brown varnish-like stains on some of the white bandages. The indifferent, business-like attitude of the nurses infuriated me. But, of course, they can't be any other way and deal with it all.
I can't write any more. But is there any excuse for this?
August 10, 1915.
Lately, our conversation at table has been suppressed by the appearance of a young woman whom the rest suspect of being a spy. She is dark, and never utters a word. All through dinner she keeps her eyes on her plate. I said something in French to her the other day, but, apparently, she did not understand. Across the table, the Morowski boys laughed at me. I suspect that they, too, had tried to speak to her, for she is pretty, and had been snubbed like me. I don't know how the idea of her being a spy got round. She may have been sent here to keep her eyes on the Polish refugees in the pension. Her room is in our corridor, and this morning Marie saw, through the open door, Panna Lolla and Janchu talking to her. It appears that Janchu had been inveigled in by bonbons, and Panna Lolla had gone in after him. Panna Lolla said the young woman was so lonely. She is a Pole and wants to leave Russia. She hates it here. But she has no passport. She showed Panna Lolla an old one that she wants to fix up for the police authorities. But she can't speak Russian, and is very frightened. She asked Panna Lolla if she knew any one who could write Russian. Marie forbade Panna Lolla to go near the woman again. It is just as well, for Panna Lolla likes excitement, and is capable of saying anything to keep it going.
Darlingest Mother and Dad:—
We were arrested four days ago—and you will wonder why I keep on writing. It relieves my nerves. Ever since the revision Marie and I have gone over and over the same reasoning, trying to get at why we were arrested. To write it all out may help the restlessness and anxiety and—yes—the panicky fear that rises in my throat like nausea. Life is so terribly insecure. I feel as though I had been stripped naked and turned out into the streets, with no person or place to go to.
It was four o'clock, and we had just finished dinner. In an hour and a half we were leaving for Odessa. All our trunks and bags were packed, and our traveling suits brushed and pressed. Panna Lolla was crying at having to part from Janchu, and mending some stockings for him. He was asleep. Marie and I were sitting in our little salon, rejoicing that we should be in Bucharest in a few days where there was no war and we could speak French again. War—blood-tracks on the snow, and cholera and typhus camps under a burning sun. To shut it out for one instant and pretend that the world was the way it used to be. What a heaven Bucharest seemed!
And suddenly the door of our apartment opened. Six men came into the room, two in uniform, the other four in plain clothes. It never occurred to me that they had anything to do with me. I thought they had mistaken the door. I looked at Marie questioningly. There was something peculiar about her face.
The four plain-clothes men stood awkwardly about the door which they had closed softly behind them. The two men with white cord loops across the breast of their uniforms went over to the table on the right and put down their black leather portfolios. They seemed to make themselves at home, and it angered me.
"What are these people doing here?" I asked Marie sharply.
She addressed the officer in Polish, and he answered curtly.
"It's a revision," she replied.
"A revision," she repeated.
I remember that I consciously kept my body motionless, and said to myself, "There is nothing surprising in this. There is nothing surprising in this." Everything had gone dark before my eyes. My heart seemed to stop beating.
Marie laughed and the sound of her cracking, high-pitched laugh came to me from far off.
The officer said something to her, and she stopped abruptly as though some one had clapped a hand over her mouth.
"What did he say?" I managed to articulate. My own language seemed to have deserted me.
"He says it is a matter for tears, not laughter."
Her voice was sharp and anxious. I was relieved at the spite and vanity in his words. They made the situation more normal. I felt myself breathing again, and my stomach began to tremble uncontrollably.
I kept my eyes where they were, fighting for my self-control. So many terrifying thoughts were trying to penetrate my consciousness. I tried to shut out everything but my realization of what I was looking at. I kept my eyes glued on the officer's boots; shiny black boots they were, that fitted him without a crease, with spurs fastened to the heels. I shall never forget the stiff, red striped trouser-legs and those shiny black boots that didn't seem to belong on the body of a living man, but on the wooden form of some dummy.
Janchu began to cry from the bedroom, and Marie got up to go to him. Quickly a plain-clothes man with horn-rimmed spectacles slipped in between her and the door. The officer, who had now seated himself behind the table, raised his hand.
"Let no one leave the room," he said in German.
"But my baby is crying," Marie began.
"Let him cry!" And he busied himself pulling papers out of his portfolio.
Soon Janchu, seeing that no one paid any attention to him, toddled in and climbed into Marie's lap. He sat there sucking his fingers and looking out at the roomful of strange men.
An army officer entered and spoke to the head of the secret service. He wore a dazzling, gold-braided uniform, and preened himself before us, looking at us curiously over his shoulder. When he had gone, the head told us that we were to have a personal examination in the salon of the pension.
A secret-service man escorted each of us, and we walked down the corridor, past the squad of soldiers with their bayonets, and into the salon, where we were delivered into the hands of two women spies. They undressed us, and we waited while our clothes were passed out to the secret-service men outside. Panna Lolla tried to twist herself up in the window curtains. Marie and I grew hysterical at her modesty, looking at her big, knobby feet and her fiery face, with her top-knot of disheveled red hair. We were given our clothes again, and went back to our apartment.
The rooms were in confusion. All our trunks and bags were emptied, one end of the carpet rolled back, the mattresses torn from the beds. The secret-service men were down on their knees before piles of clothes, going over the seams, emptying the pockets, unfolding handkerchiefs, tapping the heels of shoes; every scrap of paper was passed over to the chief, who tucked it into his portfolio. I watched him, hating his square, stolid body that filled out his uniform smoothly. His eyes were long and watchful like a cat's, and his fair mustache was turned up at the ends, German fashion; in fact, there was something very German about his thick thighs and shaved head and official importance. As I have learned since, he is a German and the most hated man in Kiev for his pitiless persecution of all political offenders. They say he has sent more people to Siberia than any six of his predecessors. They also say every hand is against him, even to the spies' in his own force.
I trembled to spring at him and claw him and ruffle his composure some way. Instead, I sat quietly, my hands folded, and watched the spies ransacking our clothes. I began to feel a sharp anxiety as to what they would find. It was all so mysterious. What were they looking for? At one moment it was ridiculous, and I felt like laughing at the whole affair; and then the next, the silence in which the search was conducted, the apparent dead-seriousness of the spies' faces, the deliberation with which the chief turned the bits of paper over in his hands and scrutinized them and put them carefully away, struck me with a cold, sharp apprehension. I had the sensation of being on the very edge of a precipice. I felt as though the world were upside down and the most innocent thing could be turned against us. Every card and photograph I tried to catch a glimpse of before it went into the black portfolio. And suddenly I saw the letter about the Jewish detention camp, which I had forgotten all about. I saw the close lines of my writing, and it seemed as though the edge of the precipice crumbled and I went shooting down. A cold sweat broke out over me.
"But why are we arrested?" I heard Marie ask in German.
"Espionage," the chief answered shortly.
"But that is ridiculous. We're American citizens."
"Can we leave for Odessa to-night?"
Marie stopped her questions.
"What money have you? Come here while I count it," one of the spies said to me. He slipped me one hundred roubles on the sly, before turning the rest over to the chief. I held it openly in my hand, too dazed to know what to do with it, till he whispered to me to hide it. "You may want it, later," he said.
"Frau Pierce will go with us," the chief said, closing his portfolio; and I understood that the revision was finished. "Frau G—— can stay here under room-arrest, with her little boy."
He spoke to no one in particular, but addressed the room at large, his face impassive, and his voice without an intonation. The spies stood in the midst of the tumbled clothes, watching us silently, ominously. Janchu now crept up into Marie's lap again. As a matter of course, I went into the other room and changed into my traveling suit.
"May I take my toilet things?" I asked the chief.
"You'd better make a bundle of bedclothes," the spy who had given me the money whispered to me.
I rolled up two blankets and a pillow with his help.
"I'm ready," I said. "May I send a few telegrams?"
"Certainly, certainly." The chief's manner suddenly became extremely courteous.
I wrote one to our Ambassador in Petrograd, one to Mr. Vopicka in Bucharest, one to the State Department in Washington, and one to Peter. I wrote Peter that I was delayed a few days. I was afraid that he might come on and be arrested, too. My hand did not tremble, though it struck me as very queer to see the words traced out on the paper—almost magical. My imagination was racing, and I could see myself already being driven into one of those baggage cars bound for Tomsk.
"Keep your mind away from what is going to happen," I said to myself. "You will have time enough to think in prison. Things are as they are. You are going to walk out of this room, just the way you've done a hundred times. Are you different now from what you've always been? Keep your mind on things you know are real."
I tried to move accurately, as though a false move would disturb the balance of things so that I would walk out of the room on my hands like an acrobat.
Suddenly, the chief, who had been talking in a corner with the other man in uniform, wheeled about.
"Frau Pierce may stay here under room-arrest. Good-day."
He clicked his heels together and bowed slightly. His spies clustered about him, and they left the room.
All at once my bones seemed to crumble and my flesh dissolve. I fell into a chair. Marie and I looked at each other. We began to laugh. "We mustn't get hysterical," we said, and kept on laughing.
The room was so dark that we looked like two shadows. Panna Lolla had come after Janchu and taken him into Count S——'s room. We imagined the excited curiosity of the rest of the pension.
"I'll wager that woman was a spy, after all."
"But why—why should we have a revision?"
"Anyway, they couldn't have found much. We'll be set free in a few days," Marie said.
"They found my letter about the Jews," I replied.
"What letter? Oh, my dear, what did you say?"
"I forget. But everything I saw or heard, I think."
We began to laugh again.
"Will they send our telegrams?"—"Will Peter come on?"—"What shall we do for money?"
The room was pitch-dark except for the electric light from the street. We heard the creak and rattle of the empty commissariat wagons returning from the barracks. We fell silent, feeling suddenly very tired and lethargic.
"Where is Janchu? It's time for his supper," Marie said, without moving.
I started out of the room to call him, and fell across a dark figure sitting in front of the door. He grunted and pushed me back into the room.