The Baby in the Basket
HEAVENS, how cold it is! The wind lashes my face and deprives me of breath. The pavement, covered with a thick layer of ice on which sand is no longer strewn, offers an elusive, slippery foothold. On crossing the road, the snow caves in and sticks to my legs like cold compresses. When I get back home my hands are as stiff as wood, and I am not even able to take off my cloak myself.
And yet I must go out. I must go, for instance, and see my little nephews, who have been confined indoors more than a week through lack of botiki. We ourselves have made some for them out of felt shoes, paper, and rubber, and they are very glad to be free again.
I have arrangements to make also for my departure. To shorten my voyage I should like very much to pass through Sweden and Norway, but such a journey is full of difficulties: the transportation agencies do not accept Russian money; departures from Christiania are very rare and irregular; in the Scandinavian countries the rouble is not legal tender; all the places on the steamers to New York are engaged long in advance. As for Finland, one never knows whether there will be a train across at the desired time.
It will be much better to go by way of Japan. I go to the Information Bureau and inquire whether there is still a place left on the Trans-Siberian on the fourteenth.
‘ On the fourteenth of June?' asks the clerk.
It is now November!!
A great number of my compatriots cannot understand my desire to go back via Tokyo. There is talk of Japanese intervention, and much misunderstanding. People imagine that the Japanese are coming as conquerors, taking advantage of the anarchy of the country. This apprehension is not shared by that part of the enlightened classes which is well informed as to the situation; but the masses are distrustful — 1903 is still too recent.
In any case, I must leave Russia as soon as possible. I had a baby girl in the month of October, and can find nothing with which to feed and clothe her. It is impossible to get a drop of fresh or condensed milk, and the druggists have not had any foods for newborn children for months past.
I apply to a clandestine commission agent for a ticket, as tickets are sold sub rosa by a few monopolists. He promises me a reply on the eve of each departure of the Trans-Siberian, but is unable to guarantee me anything for about three months.
In spite of this, I make all arrangements for traveling with my little baby. I decide to carry her in a basket, and start on my quest.
What sort of basket shall I use?
This difficulty is soon solved — there are no baskets in Petrograd.
Finally, after an interminable hunt, a florist offers to order me one from some blind basket-weavers. It will be a flower-basket!
But we come to other difficulties.
I must have a fur to protect the child from the cold. In a big store I find a collection of rabbit-skins, the last remaining. I sew them on a piece of pink crêpe which I discover in the bottom of an old trunk; my wrap is made!
I shall need alcohol to heat the child’s food. There is no liquid alcohol, so I shall have to use the dry.
The principal thing is still lacking — rice. Where shall I be able to get any? Without, false shame I go to three different houses, where the parents of children generously give me all their reserves of rice. Altogether I collect about two pounds. Still, I am not easy. Will my baby-girl have the strength to bear the fatigue of the railway journey on rice-water only?
There is still the baptism before we leave. In normal times it would have been a source of pleasure to me to gather my friends together at this ceremony. Now, however, invitations are not to be thought of: each day one expects that the Bolsheviki will recommence firing, on one pretext or another, and no one is anxious to go out unnecessarily. Household events have to be limited to the most intimate circles. Each family has too many preoccupations to take any interest in the doings of others. How many must there be at this moment who are passing through a crisis! The government offices and the banks have decided to quit all work as a sign of protest against the Bolshevik government, and it is very probable that this action will cause the strikers to lose their posts. How many unfortunates will then suddenly pass from relative ease to misery!
The baptism will take place at home. We go to the neighboring church to invite the priest. He will come on Sunday, at one o’clock in the afternoon, with his deacon and his diashok (acolyte who reads the prayers and sings the psalms). The drawing-room is prepared to receive them. In one corner a table is set, covered with a white cloth, in the middle of which is placed a big golden ikon, together with a vessel of holy water, a sprinkler, and tapers. In the middle of the room, on another table, are placed the baptismal fonts. The diashok arrives first, all dressed in black, with the Parish Register under his arm. In it he inscribes the Christian and surnames of the child, its father, its mother, its godfather, its godmother. Then come the priest and the deacon, arrayed in their sumptuous chasubles. They undo their chignons and let their long fair hair fall round their shoulders.
I must withdraw, for the mother has no right to be present at this sacrament. I hide behind a curtain. The godmother takes the child in her arms. As the godfather has found it physically impossible to come from Moscow, his place is taken by my little four-yearold nephew, who plays his part with the greatest gravity. Each one holds in his hand a lighted taper. After the prayers and the chants, the cortège, preceded by the priest, marches three times around the baptismal font. The baby is given to the officiating priest, who plunges it three times into the previously blessed water; then, in the midst of prayers, he anoints it with holy oils and cuts off a lock of its hair. My little girl is given back to me, and I hasten to warm her in blankets while the ceremony is terminating. According to tradition, we should invite everyone present to celebrate the baptism by a banquet. The actual circumstances lend themselves so little, however, to such festivity, that the priests hasten to take leave of us and return to their church.
A few days later, I receive a call on the telephone, telling me to be ready to leave on the morrow. The basket ordered by the florist is not yet finished. One of my cousins offers me that of her little girl’s doll. It is so tiny, however, that I can barely squeeze in my onemonth-old baby.
I leave in the midst of the elections. Men and women are being given voting cards. The struggle is principally one between the Bolsheviki and the Cadets (Constitutional Democrats). The former, being in power, take advantage of the fact to indulge in extravagant propaganda. They have affixed immense placards to the street cars, on which are inscribed in large letters: —
VOTE FOR BREAD, LAND, PEACE
The action of the Cadets is necessarily more discreet, and cannot be engaged in actively in the laboring quarters. Nevertheless, they will have a majority in the Assembly, and this will bring about its dissolution by Lenine.
At home I witness veritable electoral meetings: the cook, the chambermaid, the washerwoman, and the janitress exchange views as to the merits of the different parties.
Here I am, back again at last on the Trans-Siberian. I had been so impatient for this moment to arrive, and now I do not know whether I am pleased or not. My arrival in Porto Rico is still too distant, and dependent on too many circumstances, for me to be able to feel the gladness of homecoming, and I have too many present cares to feel keenly the sorrows of parting.
My baby girl is sound asleep in her basket, rocked by the motion of the train. I take advantage of her slumbers to settle down as comfortably as possible in the lower berth, which has been given up to me by my traveling companion.
On the windows of the compartments I notice labels stuck on the outside bearing the words ‘American Mission.’ I go along the coach and find many of the passengers, like myself, trying to locate the whereabouts of this mission. Not being able to find it, we finally conclude that we are simply in the coach which brought it to Petrograd. Shortly afterwards we learn that such is, in fact, the case, and that these labels have purposely not been removed, in order that they may serve as a protection for us.
The other coaches have been invaded by the Bolsheviki at every station. At each stop, to save us this annoyance, our conductor goes out on the platform and shouts at the top of his voice, —
‘Don’t come in here. Respect the American Mission! ’
This admonition serves its purpose as far as Viatka; but there the soldiers insist on entering our coach, shouting, —
‘Where is this American Mission? Show it to us.’
The conductor has an inspiration born of desperation. He runs into a compartment occupied by two negresses — dancers from the Olympia — on their way back to the United States, drags them out on the platform, and presents them to the crowd. Overcome with fright, they protest loudly in English. Their color and their exclamations have a galvanizing effect on our assailants. They withdraw — convinced!
At Perm, the attack is more serious. Just as we are leaving, the international coach is seriously threatened. The soldiers throw stones at the windows, try to climb in through the doors, and insult us: —
‘Since you resist, you dirty bourgeois, we’ll make you all get out, and we’ll go on instead of you.’
We barricade ourselves in. There is a moment of panic. Several of my traveling companions start to make their preparations for an evacuation.
At this critical moment, there is a sudden silence. A man’s voice is raised. It is a soldier who conjures his comrades to let us depart in peace. After a lengthy harangue, he finally carries the day.
We are off again!
Our progress, alas, grows slower and slower. Stop follows stop. Now our engine is taken away, leaving us out in the wilderness until we know not when; again, we are obliged to make way for slow-moving local trains.
Typhus breaks out in the coach behind ours, in which I had nearly booked a place. As soon as we arrive at the station of Irkutsk, it is uncoupled and abandoned, with everyone in it.
We have no more water. At every station I have to get out and run to the buffet for some, so as to be able to make my baby’s food. I do so in terror, as I run a grave risk of leaving her to continue the journey alone, since there are no more stops of fixed duration, nor any departure signal. I do not know how it is that I did not miss the train several times a day.
I myself feed on bread and butter during the sixteen days’ journey. A restaurant car is, indeed, attached to our train, but getting to it is too dangerous: the platforms from one coach to another are covered with ice and have no railings. The waiters themselves do not dare to leave it. At one station an intrepid passenger tries his luck. He slips and disappears under the train, whence we hear his shouts of terror. He is soon fished out, and, once back in safety, swears that he would rather fast the rest of his life than make the attempt again.
The slowness of our progress becomes so tiring that all the passengers agree to club together to give the driver a good tip, with a view to persuading him to speed up his pace. We hope also that our generosity will encourage him to allow himself to be stopped less easily by the Bolsheviki; but, in spite of this effort, we do not notice any great change in his mode of procedure.
More excitement! At one of our numerous halts my traveling companion descends to buy something at the buffet. There she finds some succulent little pies. She has been so long without such a treat that she rather lingers over them; and when she returns, finds the train under way. She tries to jump on the footboard, but misses and stays hanging to the door, dragged along in its wake. Luckily the shouts of an American, who also had missed the train, succeed in attracting the attention of the driver, who, recognizing in the late-comer one of his most generous clients, decides to pull up so as not to lose his biggest daily tip.
The further we advance, the more I am impressed with the dreary sadness of Siberia. We are crossing an immense sea of snow. To the right, to the left, in front of us, and behind us, is nothing but snow, more snow, and still more snow. The sky is livid. The mountains, the valleys, the trees, the villages, everything is hidden beneath a white counterpane. Not a sound, not a cry, not a bird, not a living thing! Everything is so uniformly white beneath those sombre clouds, that at moments it is hard to realize the fact that one is in motion. The cold is horrible. Nothing can give any idea of the desolation. This is indeed the Kingdom of Death. It seems as if we shall never emerge from it.
At Pogranishnaya we are visited by custom-house officers. They search every nook and corner of our compartment, and finally discover a sleeping bunk crammed with opium. The owner of this contraband is not to be found! All the passengers crowd around the officers and ask to see the opium. The conductor cries out indignantly, —
‘Robbing the customs — cheating the nation! The confiscation of the stuff is not enough; the guilty parties ought to be hanged!’
Then, turning to me, he adds in a whisper, —
‘If the fool had only given me a little tip, I would have got everything he wanted through without any trouble! That’s the result of greed! ’
The voyage is so desperately monotonous that I decide not to go on to Vladivostok, but to stop at Kharbin: from there an express will take me across Corea to Fusan, whence I shall be able to take a boat for Yokohama.
More difficulties! I learn that from Kharbin on, the new Russian money (that is to say, notes of 20, 40, 250, and 1000 roubles) is not accepted. As all my wordly goods are in notes of 1000 roubles, I try to get rid of them. The conductor offers to give me change, in return for a little commission of three hundred roubles per thousand. I thank him! After two days’ efforts, I manage to get 250-rouble notes from one of the trainmen in the restaurant car. Even these are too large, so I distribute them among those of the passengers who take their meals in the station buffets. They use them to make payment, and bring me back the change.
Residents of Kharbin urged me not to leave the railroad station, but to pass the nights there while waiting for the express. I can use the telephone to find out whether there are any vacant rooms in any of the principal hotels; but they tell me it is no good counting on obtaining anything. They advise me most especially to beware of the Chinese, who, under pretext of taking strangers to a hotel, lead them to the docks, where they rob them.
But shall we ever get to Kharbin? At the Manchuria station we have grave doubts. We are told that the whole train is to be sent back to Petrograd, with all its passengers. We are halted there for several hours, feeling as if a sword were hanging over outheads. With what relief we at last recommence our journey! We can hardly believe our good fortune when we come in sight of the station of Kharbin. The journey from Petrograd to Vladivostok should have taken ten days — already it has lasted sixteen. Nearly everyone hastens to leave the Trans-Siberian, which continues its journey with only two passengers.
This is not the moment to lose my head. I have to call up all my sangfroid. While fastening up my handbaggage, I make my plans.
The train stops. I call a porter — a Chinaman — and tell him to take me to the ladies’ waiting-room. I do not know whether he has understood me, but he nods his head, picks up my baggage, and dashes off. I have hard work to follow him, carrying the basket in which my little girl is asleep.
Hardly have I crossed the threshold of the waiting-room, when I draw back. The floor is covered with women and children, lying helter-skelter beside bundles tied up in big colored kerchiefs containing all their poor belongings. The atmosphere is fearful. Apart from that, the room is already crowded to overflowing.
Wherever shall I set down my baby?
At last I manage to get a chair in the buffet. I place the child on it, begging the woman in charge to look after her during my absence, so that I may go and make the necessary declaration and get my trunk, which had been registered up to Vladivostok. I also wish to inquire by telephone whether any hotel accommodation is available.
The good lady refuses.
‘And what if you do not come back?’ she asks.
I look at her in astonishment.
‘It would n’t be the first time such a thing happened — that’s how children are abandoned.’
An old peasant-woman standing nearby breaks in, —
‘Can’t you see that she is not one of that sort?’
The nature of her outrageous suspicions then dawns upon me. To reassure her, I point out that I am leaving all my baggage there, besides. This seems to convince her, and she consents to look after my little girl.
My declaration is made, but there is no porter anywhere to go and get my trunk and take it to the cloak-room. I myself go and search everywhere in the baggage-car, by the light of a lantern lent me by a conductor. At last I find it! My entreaties persuade a trainman from the restaurant-car to come to my assistance. Both of us are making useless efforts to extract my trunk from the pile under which it is buried, when a well-groomed gentleman standing on the platform notices our plight and takes pity on us. Very courteously he joins his efforts to ours, and after some minutes’ work, our labors are crowned by success.
Since all the hotels to which I have telephoned are crammed, I have to go back to the waiting-room.
My little girl has disappeared!
In dismay, I seek for her everywhere, but all to no avail. I am on the brink of despair, when one of the women asks me if I have lost anything.
‘I do not see my little girl whom I left here in a basket.'
‘I haven’t seen any little girl, but the woman in charge, before going away, stuck a basket on top of that cupboard at the end of the room.’
I rush to the cupboard, climb upon a chair and find my baby sleeping quietly and unmoved, upon her improvised pedestal.
The long weary hours puss slowly by. I sit there in forced immobility, my baby in my lap.
Toward midnight the door opens to give access to a boyish soldier. He throws his coat down on the ground and stretches himself out upon it almost at my feet.
There is a murmur of disapproval.
‘You know quite well that men are not allowed to come in here, my boy,’ says a voice.
The soldier starts to laugh.
‘ I am a woman, like you. I belong to the Battalion of Death.’
There is a babel of remarks.
‘Of course, I saw at once that he looked like a girl.’
‘Poor little girl — she would have done better to stay at home.’
‘No, no; it’s not a woman’s work.’
Everybody is silent again, so as not to disturb the slumbers of the other sleepers.
I look curiously at the round face of the woman-soldier, her gray eyes, her curved nose, her little mouth. Indeed, she looks just like a little village lad of some fourteen or fifteen years.
She is the first to speak, and to ask me in a low voice, —
‘Is that a baby you have there?’
I nod assent.
‘You look tired. Won’t you give it to me? I will rock it if it cries.’
‘Thank you, but it is you who must be tired,’I reply, thinking of all the hardships she must have been through. ‘When did you enlist?’
‘Oh, as soon as the call was made.’
‘My brother was killed by the Germans.’
‘And they let you go at home?’
‘I was no longer at home. I was working in town. I dare say they made fun of me in the village, but what do I care?’
‘You must have found life in the army very hard.'
‘At first, yes; but as I have never been spoiled, I soon grew accustomed to it. I like this life.'
I should have liked to continue the conversation, but numerous ‘ Sh’s’ call us to silence.
The little soldier is not long in falling asleep. As for me, I sit impatiently, waiting for daylight.
At last the longed-for sun rises. My companions yawn and stretch themselves and go, one by one, to the little wash-basin. Then two tables appear, as if by magic: everyone brings tea, water, bread, or sugar, and all share a common repast. I see that the days of waiting have united everybody. I await the end of the meal to go and make a few indispensable purchases and to see if there is no way of continuing my journey.
In the buffet most of the passengers are still sleeping. A few are impatiently waiting for the coffee which is not yet ready. In the other rooms, queues are already formed in front of the ticketoffices.
A number of Chinese soldiers pass by. They have just occupied the town. The third-class waiting-room also is full of Asiatics, who, squatting on the ground, chatter, sleep, and eat.
I take a sled. The driver does not understand a word of Russian. Fortunately I call to mind conversations heard on the Trans-Siberian regarding the plan of the town, and point out the way by gestures.
How sad Kharbin looks! One only just catches a glimpse of the houses — lost at the end of gardens. At eight o’clock in the morning the town is still asleep. The streets are deserted. The temperature is seventy-five below zero. The cold seems to stifle all life and all movement — and I can understand it. I have hardly been out for ten minutes, and I already feel numbed through and through. Even one’s brain works more slowly.
It is a great comfort to learn that there is a train for Shangshun at two o’clock in the afternoon. There I shall be able to await comfortably the departure of the express for Fusan. At my request, the station-master issues me a permit to board the train at once, without waiting for the hour of its departure.
Where am I to find a porter! I run from one end of the station to the other, but not one will consent to lend me his services. Are they really so busy or don’t they understand me? — I do not know, but the result, so far as I am concerned, is the same.
One o’clock in the afternoon! My permit has been of no use to me — but so long as I don’t miss the train altogether! In despair I turn to a soldier and beg him to help me.
He loads all my baggage on his back, and off we go. The train is on a siding, and will not be brought to the platform. We have to climb over several freight-cars and locomotives which bar our way. The ground is slippery, and I cannot use my hands with my baby in my arms. I have never in my life performed such acrobatic feats. At times I am almost on the point of returning to the station, and it is only the vivid memory of the last night that forces me on.
At last we come to the train. The soldier helps me settle myself.
‘I don’t know how to thank you,’ I say, on taking leave of him.
‘There’s no need for thanks; I am very glad to have been of service to you at the moment of your leaving Russia. Leaving with a good impression, your memories of the Russian soldier will perhaps be a little better, and you will have more faith in him.’
Shangshun, Fusan, Shimonoseki! How far off they all seem now! My passage through those marvelous countries was so rapid that all that I have brought away from them are only fleeting but never-to-be-forgotten visions: visions vibrant with life and color; gay, sad, and tender — impressing themselves ineffaccably upon my memory, as if to soften my regret at being unable to let my eyes dwell longer upon them.
And yet my arrival at Shangshun was accompanied by fresh troubles. The only hotel in the place was full, and I came very near passing another sleepless night.
Seated in the hall, I found myself with other travelers from Kharbin. Among them I at once noticed a familiar face — an American who had been one of my traveling companions on the Trans-Siberian.
‘Just imagine,’ he says to me, ‘at Kharbin I lost three grips. A Chinaman came up to the train as if he were a porter. I handed over my baggage to him, when, without saying a word, he started to run. Seeing that he was leaving the station, I ran after him; but his legs were much better than mine and he disappeared in the darkness.’
During this conversation, I notice the manager making me mysterious signs. He had succeeded in providing accommodation for me by having a bed placed in one of the dining-rooms.
Crossing Corea, I see, in the sunshine, snow of dazzling whiteness, and men and women all in white. The women wear wide Turkish-looking trousers and blankets reaching from the head to the waist. They are hardy-looking, wellmade creatures. According to tradition, their costume comes from the time when, nearly all the men having been massacred by the enemy, the women dressed themselves in the costumes of their dead and set forth, themselves, to fight.
We arrive at Fusan just at dawn. I have just time to embark. The port, encircled by mountains, all but hides the town, rose-tinted by the rising sun.
The vessel passes quite close to Tsushima, not far from where the Russian fleet, commanded by Rojdestvensky, met with disaster in March, 1905. How many times I had pictured to myself the fatal hour in which thirtyeight of our warships were destroyed by Admiral Togo. For a few moments the radiant country seems to take on a note of tragedy.
On we go, — Shimonoseki, — from one end of Japan almost to the other, — and then, Yokohama.
After the privations of Russia, I enjoy the light, the soft climate, life itself, with an entirely new intensity. I think with vexation of the lost, spoiled years that those I have left behind are passing in Russia.
A Japanese boat, the Corea-Maru, takes me on to Honolulu, where we spend twenty-four hours. On our departure, a Hawaiian band comes and plays on the wharf, and young girls bring us garlands of roses, tulips, and pinks. It is a custom of the country, a sign of hospitality. The departure of every vessel is accompanied by music, the passengers on leaving being decorated with wreaths of flowers around their shoulders.
Another week, and the Golden Gate draws in sight. I have but little time in which to wonder at the marvels of San Francisco and of the southern states through which I pass, bound for New York.
On January 30 I am back in San Juan. My little girl, who is just three months old, has already passed eight weeks of her life traveling by land and sea. As for me, the memories of my travels are fraught with so much charm that, in spite of my joy at being back home, I dream fondly of setting out again some day, and revisiting at leisure the fairy-like countries which I passed through with such good fortune.